Holding Close with Open Arms

Toni officiating Sally and my wedding
Toni officiating Sally and my wedding
It was 26 years ago yesterday that my partner Sally and I had our wedding ceremony, officiated by our friend, fellow feminist activist and mentor Toni Carabillo. Toni read the vows Sally and I had written, but added her own poem at the end, “Holding Close with Open Arms”. At the time, I saw the verse as good advice for our budding partnership. 26 years later I see that same thought more broadly as a positive path forward for our entire human civilization.

The piece’s title, at least in the most concrete physical terms, presents a contradiction. How can you hold someone close without wrapping your arms around them to secure their proximity which is bound to constrain their ability to move? Metaphorically, that contradiction is a challenge to maintain a difficult equilibrium; to have intimacy and share love and support without limiting the liberty of your partner to grow and become that unique person they can continue to become.

Toni was the last perhaps of my “feminist aunts”, the activist women of my mother’s generation who took me under their wing as if I were part of some larger “family”, nurtured my sense of ethics and equality, and taught me how best to work and fight effectively for those principles. She was wizened, small cigar smoking, gravely voiced and a great strategist, thinker and writer, who always mentored and generally looked after me. Because of her style, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and the smoke-filled rooms (she loved and literally helped create), we often referred to her as the “Godmother of the women’s movement”, not in the sense of fairy godmother, but more in line with what the term “godfather” connotes. And given all that, this woman a quarter century my senior used to tease me by telling me I had “nice legs”, with that ever present twinkle in her eye.

My budding feminism, catalyzed by Toni and my other “feminist aunts”, inspired me to really come to grips with the human story in terms of an in-depth examination of our history. As I have written before, I was profoundly enlightened by reading Riane Eisler’s works, particularly The Chalice and the Blade, laying out the theory (that Eisler put forward in tandem with archeologist Marija Gimbutas) of the origins of the patriarchal “dominator” model of society and the profoundly alternative “partnership” model that continues to challenge it.

Eisler laid out the story of an evolutionary transition from domination to partnership reflected in historical transitions away from slavery and serfdom, a metaphorical holding of people in a tight and more constricting embrace. In essence, human society learning (or relearning if you accept Eisler and Gimbutas’ full premise) to “hold close with open arms”; to move toward greater human freedom (still tenuous today of course with totalitarianism, fundamentalism and perhaps even fetishized consumerism continuing to push back), and allow more the flowering of all of the full range of humanities talents.

Managing and even leveraging the tension between connection, relationship and liberty is at the heart of the pragmatic tools and strategies that make up the “power with” facilitative leadership that Eisler and others promote as an alternative to the hierarchical “command and control” institutional structures of more patriarchal thinking.

In an educational context, “holding close with open arms” can mean encouraging more connecting relationships of appreciation and respect between teachers and students while allowing those students to take greater responsibility for crafting their own educational path and participating in governance of their schools. It encourages increased individual agency within a heightened context of collaboration, leading to a more evolved sense of community.

As I have born witness to before, I have seen this work within the Unitarian-Universalist community of older youth. These young people do not depend on adult leadership to coalesce around because they have the agency and learned skills to anchor their community around their own shared leadership, with loving adults playing an important but secondary and supportive role in the background. UU older youth camps and conferences are generally organized, programmed, and led by the youth themselves, with adults available as mentors, advisors, and consultants as called on. I can state unequivocally that both my son Eric and my daughter Emma have profoundly benefitted developmentally from their participation in this community.

I also see this “holding close with open arms” model being practiced among a cadre of more enlightened managers at my workplace. Individuals with talent and maturity are hired to staff out the various work groups, with the expectation that these individuals will be given the liberty to execute their areas of responsibility effectively without the tight supervision of their managers, but with the encouragement and supporting resources from those same managers. I heard this approach once described by a business process “guru” at a conference as “turning the org chart upside down”.

Toni’s metaphor has even informed and inspired my own approach as a parent, and given me a pragmatic and simply stated principle to guide me in this role. Throughout my kids’ childhood and youth, I have tried to leverage the tension between “holding close” – building strong relationships with my kids and providing them a safe environment – with the “open arms” that encourage them to speak their minds and make their own choices wherever possible. And when conflicts arise and the temptation and path of least resistance is for me as the parent is to “lay down the law” and to say, “Just do it my way. Believe me, I know better than you!” I remember my principle and at least reconsider this approach.

I challenge each one of you reading this piece who wears the parent hat to call out (at least in your own mind) a simple statement or two encapsulating your own approach to effective parenting. If you find this a daunting exercise, your difficulty itself might tell you something about perhaps a need to reassess and rethink the effectiveness of your relationship with the young people that you steward. I have found in every context, an effective approach can usually be simply stated in two or three sentences. Try it… and please let me know how it goes.

FYI… here is the full text of Toni’s poem…

Love that holds close with open arms
Is love large enough
To leave each free
To grow, to learn, to do
As each, uniquely, must
With perfect trust
That makes no rigid rules
That then become the tools
Of mutual constraint

Love that holds close with open arms
Is love that’s there
To make both safe enough to dare
Some new frontier of being
That cherishes each advance
Confident of the chance
Of growing too

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