If something is spoiled in my refrigerator, I smell it the moment I open up the door. I’ll stop everything to rummage through every vegetable and storage jar, searching for what stinks. Sometimes it is an exotic dish whose scent I don’t recognize, but often I discover a soggy cucumber or last week’s leftovers.
I have a sensitive spirit-nose also. When something in a conversation feels off, I want to stop everything and search out the issue with the focus of our old family Basset Hound. While that direct approach works fine for dogs and cleaning out the refrigerator, it was less helpful when working collaboratively in a process like giving away a farm in Mississippi.
Sometimes I catch scent of my own internal fears. Sometimes it is the scent of a building
storm, unseen yet already vibrating with the energy of lightning about to strike. Sometimes it is an assumption or accusation right in the middle of the room. Within the Mississippi Land Circle I discovered that how I respond matters. Lifting up evidence of the smelly mess right in the middle of the circle inevitably includes the stench of my own assumptions and offers little room for others to participate in their own timing and manner and thus disrupts our collaboration.
Participating in this process has honed my skills in two distinctly different ways of working with my spiritual sense of smell: prayer and shifting my reactions during difficult conversations.
Part of my prayer practice involves anointing land. In 2006, Alease Bess, director of Community Wholeness Venture, joined me on a pilgrimage to my family’s ancestral land in North Carolina. I wanted to take concrete steps to face the rancid slave-owning aspects of my ancestors and to offer what felt like meager gifts—prayer and anointing oils of rosemary, cajeput and black pepper—to energetically support transformation and healing. Standing on the land where my ancestors had once stood, I poured the oils into the dirt as Alease and I extended our hands in blessing. She sang of blood. I spoke of water.
I continued this practice by preparing essential oil blends for anointing the Mississippi dirt during every visit, offering this as prayerful support to the alchemical work of Spirit in releasing old rot and opening the doorway for transformation within the Mississippi Land Circle. As always, these blends were chosen intuitively—prayerfully asking for oils or vibrational essences that would offer the particular support needed, then slowly moving my hand over the bottles to see which ones seemed to “vibrate” in alignment with my question.
While this prayerful support came easily, I had to diligently practice shifting my response to actions or words in our circle that smelled “off” or dangerous to me. When I reacted, it was impossible for me to distinguish old inner patterns of distress from what was actually happening in our circle. While howling in response, I couldn’t remember what I knew was true about myself nor could I listen consciously to others.
Four years into the process, I caught a whiff of a problem in Harvest Time’s own backyard. Within our organization, there was a difference of opinion about the responsibilities and rights of the giver (us). Harvest Time got caught in a tangle of our own conflicting, informal “contracts” and almost participated in a unilateral ending of the partnership mid way through the process. While I could see these problems early on, I was not able to be in the conversations in ways that allowed me to stay outside of my emotional distress and to clearly share what I was seeing. Though legal and spiritual counsel clarified our deepest desire to stay, the impact of temporarily taking back of the gift was a hard blow.
As the process continued to unfold, I worked to shift my tendency to overreact during challenging conversations. While howling in response, I couldn’t remember what I knew was true about myself nor could I listen consciously to others.The empowerment model I’d learned through my training and work with Be Present, Inc. was the practice that supported my shift. Slowly, I came to learn what Lillie Allen and Margherita Vacchiano and others from Be Present, Inc. knew from the beginning of our process—embodying the level of transformation we sought right in the middle of the cultural stench of historical and present injustice around race, class, gender and power was going to require time. Lots more time than I wanted it to take. Yet each instance when I took that time I needed to check out my assumptions, speak what I smelled or saw, and to listen consciously to others our partnership strengthened.
In contrast with some of my conversations early in the process, recently Alease, Karen (both of CWV) and I took the time to have a conversation to address a misunderstanding. Each of us in turn spoke our sight on the issue. Each of us listened. Assumptions and misperceptions fell away. The cost of an hour one Sunday afternoon was a small price to pay for solid partnership as we move to transfer this farm. While our process together didn’t move with the focus of a Basset Hound following a scent, we have formed strong, transformative partnerships that are outside of the stench of our culture’s injustice.