on living in the presence of the sacred

This morning one long era of my life ended moments before I crawled in my tiny car and headed 150 miles east northeast to the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation to meet a tribal elder and teacher. This desert is my healer, and my heart needed it this morning.

The closing of that era has pitched me headlong into the battles of any working person now in the U.S. on basic survival: health insurance, for just one thing, now has to be secured, and the premiums and out-of-pocket costs mean that I must contribute thousands of dollars every year, but not at present be able to afford to use any of the services—due to high copays and deductibles, all of which were jerryrigged by lobbyists, Congress, and the White House to serve the health insurance and medical industries and not human beings, especially not those of us who make a few dollars too many to qualify for subsidies. This is a grievous thing and it feels personal and evil, a deliberate gutting of those of us who have spent our whole lives doing the ‘right’ things—getting educated, getting trained, getting good at our skills, getting organized so that we can contribute in our remaining years—only to be written off as less than serfs in ten new ways every day anymore. I spent hours of last night trying to focus for this interview, but desperately worried about health care.

This is a moral issue, not an economic one. Of all the teachings of Jesus Christ, none made more sense to me as a child than that Jesus healed people for free whether they deserved it or not. For free. As a human being on an earth being destroyed on purpose every day, I believe that healing should be free, available to all, irregardless. Yet healing has been captured by uber-capitalists now, and it is sucking the soul out of our nation and our communities and our economies, too. With the profit motive as the only consideration, even capitalism is taking hits at its knees. And letting our fellow humans die and suffer because they can’t pay to play? That’s just immoral, a devastating blow to whatever good we might have been able to do together. Every day.

At dawn I began crossing the desert, slipping into the quiet spaces of healing—which assure me that, even if I die due to lack of health care soon, what really counts is how I meet my every day until then—and letting my terrible fears and craving for safety fall away. I wept to see these lands that tribal ancestors crossed on foot with no promise of safety ever, particularly in the days and decades of open genocide, when white settlers and governments were doing their best to wipe Native peoples off the land entirely. The killers failed. Spectacularly. And for this I have been grateful my whole adult life, but never more so than when I was offered the opportunity to begin learning of these sacred traditions, these oral traditions, these careful and kind and wise ways of being while here.

Today, wending my way toward a community where I have learned I will be welcomed, though, I heard my mother’s mother, laughing, say to me, “You were never going to be safe in this nation anyway,” and I remember her writhing and screaming in pain in the last months of her life due to the breast cancer that ate out her spine in slow motion, with me huddled on the front porch outside her bedroom window every afternoon after school, too often listening to preachers from my mother’s church come to exhort her to get saved so she wouldn’t go to hell (for the cuss words she would sometimes let fly and for getting the cancer in the first place). I remember how unsafe that all felt, and how unfair, and how, even though she and my Pappaw had health insurance, that the insurance companies dropped both of them immediately as soon as they got sick. I was only ten, but I remember hating the United States with a bitter passion for letting companies do that to hard working people, people who paid their taxes and didn’t take a dime not theirs and shared everything they had with everybody they could and basically taught me that if I didn’t do that, too, then I was not worthy of perdition—oh, how I detested this nation, with such a blistering fervor, too, that I vowed then never, ever to forget or let go of it. And I felt it all again today, to every last cell, as ever, when I’ve been in the presence of inequality and meanness, and I was weeping, demoralized and frustrated not to be able to do something that would turn the nose of this societal boat, and then suddenly I heard my grandmother laughing.

haney freeman

I could feel her strong, farm-woman’s hands on my arms, smell her skin, touch her apron and her gray, roiling hair, let myself be enfolded by her as I was so long ago. And, right through my tears, came a rainbow of laughter, bearing me up and promising that, even if I also must tread the path that she did, I will be given the words to say on the way through, the people to say those words to, the chances to help turn the nose of this boat just a smidgen more toward equality for all. This is my chance now to live up to my values. To stand forth every day for what I believe in. To not let the human hounds of war and austerity drive me to distraction or demoralized places from which I cannot speak or act. (Apologies here to actual hounds, who deserve not this analogy.)

And then it was as if wells of goodness opened up, and not one solitary thing changed in my situation or me, but I felt myself in the presence of something much vaster than I can describe. This is no excuse to buy the easy liberal gospel of prosperity (which serves mainly the prosperous and their comforts), no. It’s a call to double down on standing forth for everyone. But it’s also reassurance that I am nowhere near so alone as I may feel on these rocky and pain-studded roads now, for they are filled with tens, even hundreds of millions of people who are being belittled and attacked and beaten down on purpose by the economic and social structures and all those who can’t be bothered to do anything to change what presently is.

None of that is normal or a given; it’s all choices, and ordinary people choose every day whether they will feed such things or radically change their habits and possessions in favor of no longer deepening the evils. My grandmother’s deathbed was a grotesque, hellacious place of personal suffering, made worse by the judgmental actions and prayers of people who came to visit in order to push their own mean agendas, but from that space she also spoke fervently to me about not selling out, not falling for the lies in white people’s history books (or plain books), not ever, ever being on the side of the oppressors. She never got to be heard by anyone outside that space (because, of course, it was verboten to talk about any of that!), but she made sure I heard it and heard it well, even when (several times) it hurt my feelings something awful for her to say things about how white-skinned people act. (My skin is white as white can be, and she made sure I knew this by the time I was walking unaided.) She held forth on me back then because she wanted me not to get lazy and forget. I’ve spent a lot of time in spaces that had other reasons for me being quiet on such things, but this morning, crossing that wide empty desert? All the constraints fell away. Like shackles off feet that still remember how to dance and leap.

My job in this life is to make the verboten public, to stand forth for the vision I had at ten of how human beings are supposed to treat others (whether they were holy or not, cussing or praying or some unholy mix of the two). I have been fully released from all spaces in this society that wish to shape what I say about anything now, so, heck yes, it may be unsafe and unsteady, but it is also precisely where I need to be. And as the laughter of grandmother and granddaughter eased into simple smiles on this desert older than time, with me on my way to learn more about how to honor these spaces better? I understood—no, understand is not the right word—I sensed something vast and deep and impossible to grasp or put into words, and I knew myself to be among earth’s relations: all who have gone before. And the fears and frustrations and personal entanglements fell away, as the skies opened wide toward the east and its peoples. I don’t know enough to really be here, or to even do well, but that is no requirement of breathing. All I need do is remain open to what comes and to stand forth in that day. That’s all.

We walk in the presence of the sacred every step, trailing mysteries beyond the trappings of any singular faith or creed, doctrine or habits. Hallowed ground is where any being of any ilk has crossed, whether signs are left or not. I am making no case here for checking out of the pragmatic struggles that define our times: far from it. If we do not engage, who will? Or, on the other hand, if we leave those challenges to others, what is the point of our having been here? I am making the case for dwelling fully in what is, and standing forth for what can be, not just for me but for everyone. So that all can be fed and housed and healed and nurtured enough to make their own contributions while here and not assailed along the way for any reason, no matter how idiotic: this is the ground floor of my being, of the little girl who listened to preachers threatening hellfire and brimstone to a woman whose breast and spine were being eaten alive and clear through by a cancer that those men said their god had sent. The little girl paused with me in the space of the sacred today for long enough that her furies curled themselves around the promise of standing forth being enough (for it is all any of us can ever do). The little girl finally understands that she won’t ever get good answers for meanness, but if she eschews taking on its certainties while standing up for something kinder for all? Then that’s all she can do, and it is enough.

The remainder of my day has been filled with indescribable conversations with elders and teachers and beginning to learn to hear a language not my own but important for me to hear now. We wept and laughed and talked together, and I was at home and shall ever be. I am quiet of soul and sole tonight, body willing to bear whatever it must as a citizen of a presently benighted land, heart ready to take on whatever is ahead, spirit made light by being so well companioned. All that counts is that I do what I can.

Humanity is capable of far more than we have yet demonstrated. We are capable of unconditional love for all beings. We are capable of transforming every cell of our selves and our values and our systems in an instant. We are capable of evolving to meet any challenges without having constantly to kill every last thing graveyard dead out of pure de ol’ habit or spite. We can’t do this alone, no, but some of it by definition is lonely work, the work of the soul. Community, however, needs all its souls, even its most broken ones. My grandmother showed me exactly what even the most literally broken person can do: stand forth, no matter how assailed you may feel or even be: stand forth, for doing so partakes of the sacred in the everyday and lays down a trail for the child within your own soul. And the tribal peoples with whom I am now working are helping me to learn how better to do this while honoring and respecting my fellow beings. There is no redemption for those of us who still breathe, no, but we get to be while we are here. May the sacred find you, every moment of every day.



  1. Samantha

    I heard your story on the moth and just read this article. I’m a bit confused as you seem to be upset with the affordable care act because you make too much to qualify for a subsidy but are legally obligated to pay for insurance. I get your upset with the companies who profit but I’m surprised you’d throw the baby out with the bath water as millions of people now have coverage and aren’t going to be hit with bankruptcy if their appendix bursts or they get into a car accident. I’d hope you’d be a fan of the cause as you seem so spiritual and holistic in your thinking that you’d realize it’s not just about what we have to pay individually but how society is better off when all of our people are healthy. Maybe your advocating a nationalized system as you referenced Jesus gave care for free. I think this would be ideal and take the power away from these money grubbing companies but then really blame the politicians that stand in the way of a system that helps all its people versus putting blame on the current White House.

    1. Author

      Oh, Samantha, the ACA helped many people—yes, absolutely—but it also is designed so that tens of millions more are going to have to do without healthcare. It is especially hard for people who can’t get the subsidies and so wind up with plans that have to be paid for but deductibles too high to allow them to seek care. That is a terrible knife edge to exist on. So while I am grateful for anyone who is included, I also believe it is time for us to summon the courage and will to create affordable healthcare for ALL. Bar none. No exceptions. We have a sliver of a chance if we get involved politically and demand our representatives to represent us and not simply the profiteers. Thank you for your comment!

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