Last night a few girlfriends came over and sat on the back patio and visited for a little while. We started talking about hard things. Things in the news. “You’re a little defensive,” one of my friends noted gently, with love. And it was true.
It is good to let down your guard with friends – and it is good when they help you see yourself more clearly.
This morning I offer the gentle voice of Mary Agee, Mindfulness Coordinator at University School of Nashville. She felt very strongly about sharing a life-changing book she read a while ago, Waking Up White, by Debby Irving…
Hi Mary! Thank you for spending some time in the Bacon Neighborhood today!
What’s it been like as the school year has ended at University School of Nashville – for you personally, and in general?
It has been strange and bittersweet in some important ways. The parade we had to celebrate our seniors was a beautiful combination of joy and heartbreak. To love on these students, some of whom we’ve seen around the halls of USN for 13 years, including some of my good friends on the faculty having a senior this year… at certain moments I was overcome with emotion, choking back tears behind my mask. Sometimes I just had to pull the mask down and yell congratulations because I don’t think they could hear me with all the noise makers and honking. Lots of laughter at my colleagues, some in costume and cars carrying families were all decorated, seniors looking proud, ready to leave the nest. Like I said, joyful and bittersweet. And in general, I feel exhausted in ways that don’t seem to make sense. Zoom exhaustion is totally a thing!
What are your plans for the summer? Is it possible to make plans for the summer?
My family has a dinner-time ritual, it changes each night but the basic format is 3 questions or categories. My 15-year-old daughter usually rolls her eyes and then asks if she can name one of the categories. Recently I asked, what is one thing you would like to do or get better at this summer? It was a stumper for all of us, we took our time and pondered and each came up with an interesting idea. It feels like a summer for small plans and staying close to the ground. We do have a trip planned to a rental house in a small town in Colorado later this month. We cancelled our flights and rented an SUV, thinking we will drive there without stopping. I’m still having trouble feeling fully committed to going, although I know it will be a wonderful opportunity to be together, to enjoy time as a family in nature, playing games and eating good meals.
My personal answer to the question above – I would like to finally take some of the pictures and stories from a trip I took 30 years ago, traveling by backpack through Southeast Asia for nine months, and turn them into a book or digital format to share with my family. I would like for my kids to learn about the amazing adventures I had and the things I learned on that trip. It was totally life-changing, as you can imagine.
True or False: I love all the extra time at home! (Explain)
I know that introverts the world over (who are in safe circumstances) have been rejoicing at the stay at home orders of the quarantine. I am by far the super-extrovert in my family! So I’m surprised to say I am loving all the extra time at home. I think being forced to stop running around has given me a sense of how unnecessary some of it is. And has allowed my nervous system to settle in a deeper way than it has in a long time. My husband has created a magnificent garden for us to enjoy (the hollyhocks have never been so successful!), and we are getting to some of the clutter clearing that is long overdue.
Always a bit daunting to see that there is still so much more, but progress nonetheless. I have stayed in contact with my closest friends through zoom or Facetime, done some social distance walking with my sister and a couple of others, and will definitely be happy when I can safely have more interactions away from home. I hope I will be more mindful with my choices going forward.
What are the best ways to be mindful in the Time of Corona? What are the challenges to mindfulness?
When the quarantine orders first came in, it felt strange and mysterious. I could almost feel the earth taking a deep breath. Being home more often and with fewer obligations on my plate, I have used the time to do longer meditation practices, more mindful movement. One of the best ways to be mindful has been to bring my full awareness to a task that I am doing. Washing my hands is a perfect example. When doing a simple task like this, it is easy to be on auto-pilot and thinking about the 10 other things I need to get done. When I bring my full awareness to noticing the water, the scent of the soap, the good feeling of massaging the lather around my fingers, then I can drop out of my busy mind and become present to what is happening right now. I can even use it as an opportunity to express my gratitude for having running water, having hands that do amazing things for me all day long and even seeing it as an act of caring for myself and for others in this time of the Coronavirus. In this way, I can transform the simple and tedious task of washing my hands into a moment of awakening, gratitude and connection. Neuroscience has shown that practicing gratitude increases your ability to be grateful; practicing noticing what is happening right now, with a kind and curious quality of attention, builds our muscle of being present.
The challenges – how easy it is to get swept up in watching too much news or following too much social media (both are intended to activate our amygdala or internal alarm system) and then feeling my anxiety and stress levels rise. If I can notice, name it, and remember to choose a simple practice that helps me ground and re-center, then I can navigate through the sine waves of my day with more ease.
How is your family doing?
Thank you for asking. I’ve been saying “pandemic-okay.” And feeling guilt about how easy we have it. And feeling deep gratitude for how well each of us is doing in our lives right now. We have all had moments of struggle and challenge in our lives, but in this moment, we are doing well and really enjoying our time together.
What has surprised you in the last two and a half months? (Has it only been two and a half months?)
I think one thing we don’t stop to notice enough is how unbelievably positive and cooperative the overall response from people has been. It would have been beyond comprehension to think that this many humans would be willing to make such collective effort and sacrifice for the greater good- to stay at home, to work on the front lines, to listen to scientists and medical professionals. It is truly remarkable and gives me hope for our future.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to being with groups that I lead (mindfulness-based work) in person again, rather than through zoom. I am so grateful for how far the technology has come, and yet there is no replacement for real human interaction. We are mammals and our nervous systems need to be with each other 🙂 Can you imagine if this had happened when we were still in the dial-up internet era? Or even before the internet?
What are you dreading, if anything?
More spikes in Covid-19, especially since there are still inadequate testing and tracing methods and no vaccination. I think we are lucky in Nashville because of our strong healthcare presence, but there are so many who no longer or never had healthcare. How will they get tested or get the care they need? And what about other countries around the world who don’t have resources for testing or for caring for those who get it? Lots of uncertainty. That is when it is helpful to come back to the present and what I can control, rather than getting lost in rehearsing an uncertain future that might not ever happen.
Do you feel more hope or more despair right now?
My sweet mother (Jane Edwards Entrekin, aka Precious – her grandmother name) spent her junior and senior years of high school at The Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, and her headmistress shared powerful bits of wisdom that stayed with mom. My favorite is “Trust in the progress of life”. This feels so pertinent to our current time and gives me a sense that there is a bigger plan unfolding that we can’t really understand.
Another quote I ran across recently from Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) that really resonated for me: “Nobody knows enough to be pessimistic. Something good can happen that you don’t yet know about.”
I am really feeling a lot – hope and despair, joy and grief. I feel that there are old human systems collapsing (thank goodness, they need to!) and new ideas and systems arising. I am totally an optimist, although I have no illusions about it being simple, easy or magical. We have hard work to do, and it will require us to recognize that we are all interconnected. Isn’t that one of the things this virus has taught us? I was fascinated to read that John Donne wrote these familiar words when he was in a hospital dying from another epidemic (spotted fever) in 1623:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
What have you learned about yourself – or others – in the last few months?
About myself – I’m remembering how wonderful it is to pick fresh food and herbs straight from the garden for dinner, and I’m more of a home body than I realized!
About others – That we are capable of more than we realize. That we care about each other more than the news media tells us we do – stories of kindness don’t sell as many papers, or draw as many clicks, as a car crash or a violent incident. That our most basic impulse is toward kindness and support of our neighbor, of those suffering. We have especially seen that in Nashville as we suffered through the tornadoes, the pandemic and shutdown, the derecho storm (who had ever heard of this?) with massive power outages, and now through the peaceful expressions of the need for change.
What encourages you?
The young people. My 22-year-old son joined the peaceful rally organized by five Nashville teenage girls in cooperation with the Black Lives Matter local organization. That more than 20,000 people marched to show their support and that they stayed peaceful.
I am so interested to hear your perspective on Waking Up White, by Debby Irving. Thank you for sharing it at Bacon today…
When I grabbed this book from the USN library, I had no idea how much it would rock my world or open my eyes. Honestly, it took me awhile to start reading it. But once I did, I promptly bought my own copy so I could re-read it and take notes! I had been learning about race, white privilege and social justice for several years. Debby’s story and her writing style are very relatable to me, yet her story has the ability to reach a broad spectrum of readers. There is a gentleness and a presence that comes through in her writing that allowed me to look at so many difficult truths and come to a much deeper understanding of the systemic ways white power and privilege has defined, controlled and dominated the playing field in so many ways. Are you familiar with the GI Bill? It was a government program that offered a hand up to so many men of that generation, my own father included. Did you know that only four percent of the more than one million African American Veterans of WWII were awarded one? And redlining. Google it if you don’t know about it. The work Debby Irving has done on her own journey to hold herself gently accountable came through in her writing in a way that allowed me to hold myself gently as I read and learned about how intentional many of these systems were, and how some of them have been happening for generations. This is a time for those of us in positions of privilege to lean in, learn more and find ways to get involved in helping build a system in which social, racial and economic justice really exist for all, not just for a privileged few.
If you are feeling called to learn more, you aren’t alone. I read a tweet from National Book Award Winner Ibram X. Kendi that five of the Top 15 Titles recently on the New York Times list of best-selling non-fiction are about addressing racism and a week or two before there were none. I’ve also heard that many are out of stock, so you might have to opt for an audio download or wait for one that is on back order. Imagine the dilemma of book publishers! I hope people will support their local bookstore (Parnassus for us, of course) and have the patience to wait for a hard copy of the book so the writer and publisher can benefit.
My alma mater, Harpeth Hall, hosted Debby Irving in January of this year (was it really only five months ago, I’ve so lost my sense of time!). She had a wise clear voice, made me laugh, and moved me to tears. She invited us to have some interactive small group conversations as she reminded us that we will need to do this work ourselves and together, by leaning into one conversation at a time with respect and an open heart. Who would have guessed that we would have such a watershed moment around Racial Justice in the midst of this pandemic? These are tumultuous times and the optimist in me feels that we will not just weather this storm, but will come out of it wiser, stronger, and more united than ever.
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Thank you so much, Mary! I so appreciate your hopefulness and perspective. xoxo
What a fabulous interview. Mary, and her entire family are the best.
Thank you, Betsy! I love the sweet and long lasting connection between our families.
What a beautiful and thoughtful interview. Thank you, Mary and Jennifer both. What a wonderful start to the day.
So nice to hear from you Ophelia! Thanks for taking the time to read this. I really appreciate the warm and inviting space that Jennifer has created through Bacon On The Bookshelf. And this has been a wonderful opportunity for me to reflect on what has been whirling around in my mind lately. Best, Mary
Thank you, Mary, for your characteristically beautiful way of thinking. For me, one of the books that has most changed me is Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad. It led me to open my heart and look inside, and it showed me excruciating things about myself that I can’t unsee, can’t ignore anymore. Repairing the world begins with repairing our own hearts. It feels incredible to be honest with myself, finally.
Thanks for your kind words, Ann. So true, “excruciating” and “can’t unsee.” There is hard work to be done, and I am hopeful that there are many more people recognizing these “inconvenient” truths and starting their journey. As Richard Milner from Vanderbilt’s Department of Teaching and Learning says in the title of his book on understanding diversity and opportunity gaps (as opposed to “achievement gaps”), “Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There.” This fall I will join a group of USN faculty to explore Me and White Supremacy, using the 28 thought exercises laid out in the book for a yearlong conversation in the coming school year. I am proud to be part of that community and the hard work that has been going on behind the scenes and within classrooms for several years.
Mary, I loved hearing your thoughts. Thank you for sharing them with us.
So nice to hear from you, Emily! Thanks for your words of support.
What a great interview. Thanks to you both. I confess to knowing nothing about mindfulness, so perhaps that will be a reading project.
The Madeira School. Two central things Miss Madeira taught all her girls. “Function in disaster. Finish in style.”
Wonderful to hear from you, John. And I love that you know some of The Madeira School wisdom sayings from Miss Madeira. What is your connection? The other one I remember from my mom is “Remain calm in the center of your being.” Now that is what mindfulness is all about! Happy to share resources if would you like to learn more, maybe Jennifer can connect us by email. Best, Mary
Madeira School. YEARS ago I chaired the Board at Harpeth Hall. Sam McMurry had gotten me elected to a six-person trustee committee for NAIS, the National Association of Independent Schools. One of the other five was a charming woman, a DuPont I believe, who chaired Madeira’s board. We came to know her pretty well, standing squarely behind her and supporting her when Jean Harris, then head of Madeira, shot and killed her feckless lover, Doctor Arnold Tarnhower, the diet king. She went to prison, of course. But we all learned quite a bit about Madeira.
Thank you, Mary. Your gentleness & wisdom inspire me this morning. Your meditation class was a real touch point for me.
And Jennifer, thank you for giving voice to our current moment. We as white, privileged folks have a great deal of listening and learning to do.
Oh Hannah, so lovely to hear from you! Thank you. I loved having you in the mindful parenting class and hope you and your family are safe and healthy.
And yes, thanks to Jennifer for giving this important issue space. It takes courage for us to wade into these waters.
Mary has always been such a wise one! Like her mom, she has never shied from questioning and growth. This is such a great visit with her and challenges me to listen more. Thank you, Mary and Jennifer!
Thank you, Ann Marie! As I said to Betsy, I love our deep connections. Mom certainly modeled being a lifelong learner, and for that I am grateful.
So nice to hear from you. Love you, too! XO
Thank you, Jennifer. I always love hearing from (or just running into!) Mary. She is so kind and warm and wise, and, while she may not realize it, she has been an inspiration to me on my own mindfulness journey.
Carolyn, what an honor to hear that I have been an inspiration on your mindfulness journey! Thank you for taking the time to share. I hope to run into you soon : )
Mary — Reading this interview was almost a substitute for getting to visit with you. Thank you for sharing your honest and warm thoughts in this time of so much reflection.
Thank you, Carrington! I miss you and was talking about you just other day. I hope we see each other soon : )
Thank you Mary for such a lovely and thought provoking interview. I am so enjoying Jennifer your interviews On Bacon with such interesting folks!
Hi Cathy, nice to meet you and thanks for taking the time to read our thoughts. I totally agree that Jennifer is doing a wonderful job with these interviews. I was honored to be included : )
What a wonderful interview with one of the most thoughtful people I know.
How kind, thank you!
Love in the time of covid19. A perspective on mindfulness and how much we need that practice in order to understand and move with what is happening now. The ah ha moment of realizing that wearing a mask to keep others safe and marching for equality of life are rooted in mindfulness and love. Thanks Mary!