Drought of the Heart

It was the 80’s. No internet. No cellphones.  A $5,000 credit card limit spelled FREEDOM!  I was suddenly armed with one, after graduate school, and ready to see the world . . . or at least the West. Riding through the Missouri farmland during an overripe summer on a new touring bicycle loaded with gear–thanks to my newly acquired credit– I wanted to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I was raised a small-town kid in the South.  My mom always talked about seeing the Pacific Ocean before her untimely death at 37. The idea haunted me.

I wanted to know the country and the people a bit more intimately. I was out of sync as usual. No one was doing this in the 80’s, riding bikes long distance. My generation seemed to be into glitter, clubs, and drugs. In 1976, 4100   people joined the Bikecentennial to ride across the country to celebrate the Bicentennial. Mostly, as I would years later, they camped in town squares and parks across America. I benefited from the goodwill those riders created. 

I paused in late August,1988, in front of a 100-year farm in Missouri and read a sign lamenting the loss of the farm due to the drought. My journeys always seem to fall during times of extremes; the drought sent waves of heat up through my feet as I pedaled. The asphalt appeared to undulate in the distance.

I met many people as I traveled across the country by bicycle. I never knew a lot about them. I did not know, for the most part, their religion or their politics. They likely didn’t know mine, or my sexual orientation. Frankly, they mostly wanted a story and I always came up with a good one. I loved regaling them with the tale about the time, in Oklahoma, trying to relieve myself on the side of the road in some bush, that a rattlesnake just slithered right between my legs.

The only person who asked me what I learned from my long ride was my therapist, who I credited with helping me get through graduate school. She wanted to know what I learned from that long time on a bike saddle.  Without hesitation, I said, “People are so kind.” I collected story after story, like charms on a bracelet, of simple acts of kindness. From drinking coffee offered out of a chipped blue cup in a desolate wind-swept Texas town from a poverty struck woman, to sleeping in a church basement offered in Kansas. The stories of kindness are endless. Did anything bad happen? Sure, there was a rattlesnake or two in the ditch; a gay club in San Diego was smoke bombed by some skinheads. Troubled souls and stuck people were aplenty in the 80’s too.  What is different now is: we are at a time where we must find a way to water our hearts with compassion again.  We really can’t wait. 

Deborah next to her bike in Oklahoma, 1988.

There is a neurological phenomenon called the “Negativity Bias”. We are hardwired this way. Humans had to survive danger to reach this modern age we live in. We had to look for and see the mountain lion hiding in the rocks ready to pounce, or the rattlesnake in the ditch ready to strike.  Neuropsychologists, such as Dr. Rick Hanson, note we have to intentionally notice at least 5 positive things to counter balance the negative thoughts. On my long bike ride, my experiences of kindness far out-paced reinforcement of this negativity bias. I didn’t know this neuroscience then, but now I understand that I was actually shielded by kind acts, from the physical and mental hardships: flat-tires, one tornado, and a semi that ran me and the bike into a ditch. I actually have to work harder to remember these negative experiences.

Sitting with my therapist all those years ago, I realized my world shifted while on that bike in the heat, wind, and rain. I remember, as I write, the gift of a rainbow while riding downhill out of the Rockies.  The world was not a small place or an evil place. It was wide and open and larger than my then young mind could have ever perceived, had I not explored it intimately.  I saw it as kind. I saw most people as kind. Those who were not, were the outliers, wounded and without awareness: I had been one of them. I was from a fundamentalist religious family, and steeped in that upbringing, until I understood I would not fit because of my growing awareness of who I was. I felt I had no home or family that would accept me. Then I found that I didn’t have to carry that with me across the country on a bike. I could just lay my burden down and keep on peddling forward. Most folks just care about how you treat them in the moment. If we cling to our perceptions and our innate bias, will we be kind? 

Dr. Marsha Linehan’s work in the area of distress tolerance suggests “contributing” is a way we can intentionally, mindfully, take our minds off our own duress and challenges during this time. I’m not talking about money. Sure, it’s good to give in that way if you can; however, I think of those who have sewn masks, given blood, food, and even just a kind word as “contributing” to others when we need kindness and connection so much more. 

In 1992, I toured some, after the Rodney King beating and riots, with a diverse spoken word musical group. We were all dreamers. We wanted change. I remember one of my pieces spoke of “seeing the sunset off the wing of a plane and wondering if we would all land together.” I still have that question in my mind. I hope for it in an even more divided America: that we will somehow land together.

A while back, I committed that I was going to have to contribute somehow every time I said something critical or negative online. It’s so easy to get caught in that and reinforce my own negativity bias. I haven’t been totally successful, but I am trying to remind myself that I won’t feel better when I enter the fray. I’ll likely feel more anger and stress when I do. I was raised with a lot of gospel music. One of the hymns that comes to mind is “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” Yes, I come from a religious tradition that rejects me, but I don’t totally reject it. I have formed my own dialectic there and it allows me to sing those hymns when I want to, very loud and off key. I also realize that religion and politics are easily polarized. 

We need to find where we intersect, find those ways back that allow us to find kindness and compassion for others and ourselves. I feel joy when I am kind. I feel joy when I spend more time focused on the kindness of others. This drought of the heart requires me to find the rain of kindness. Together we must create that cloud to seed.

About the Author

Woman with two hounds
Deborah Westervelt, a 2011 St. Louis Regional Art Commission CAT Institute graduate, a writer, and social justice advocate, has worked in community arts beginning in the 80’s with the St. Louis City Detention Center’s volunteer theatre workshop with Don Ellis. Later projects include co-Producing Peace Out!, a collaborative social justice and arts event that staged poems from around the world. In Tennessee, she worked to pioneer the first agency-based voter registration program. After serving a congressional internship, being awarded a Truman Scholarship, she was able to complete graduate studies at the Brown School of Social Work, Washington University. Missouri highlights include developing a statewide public defender alternative sentencing program funded through a public/private partnership well before such innovations as “drug courts.” Deborah served as past St. Louis Chapter Chair of the Missouri Coalition Against the Death Penalty and Missouri N.A.S.W. PACE. As a practicum instructor, she taught for both Washington and St. Louis Universities graduate schools of Social Work. Currently, semi-retired, Deborah enjoys Colorado life with Sue Westervelt, her partner and their two rescued hound dogs, Emmy Lou and June Carter.