Standing in the Gap

This post is an excerpt from Shelter in Place, S2: episode 5. Listen to the full story above.

Everywhere you look, there’s a lot of fear about where we are now and what’s ahead. So for the past month, I’ve been gathering stories from people who are facing fear with courage–often in surprising ways. They represent a wide range of politics, but they share one very important thing: in the face of fear and a nation divided, they’re working hard to create communities that can cross that division.

Jimmy Graham has spent his life thinking about how to keep other people safe. He’s a former Navy Seal and CIA bodyguard, and the founder and CEO of the Able Shepherd program, an elite self-defense program that equips people to handle guns safely in high-stress situations like being in a building with an active shooter. When I spoke with Jimmy, we mostly sidestepped the conversation about if we should be carrying guns, and instead talked about how to make using them safer. 

“75% of people will shoot the wrong person when they’re excited or scared,” Jimmy told me. “It doesn’t matter if they’re FBI, they’re police, if they’re military.”

So he created a training system that used the reality-based scenario training he’d learned from his time with the Seals, where they wore protective equipment and used real guns that had been converted to fire training ammunition.

“I absolutely support law enforcement, but if you’re a bad apple, we need to get rid of you and sing it from the rooftops.”

Jimmy Graham

“The best way to learn how to shoot people is to shoot people,” Jimmy said. “And you do it over and over, and you create neural pathways. A lot of times the person who does the right thing isn’t the bravest or the fastest or the smartest. It’s the one that’s most familiar with it.”

Jimmy says that this is just as true of law enforcement as it is of citizens. He does a lot of work with the police to get outdated training systems up to date. But he’s also troubled by the way bad cops have given a bad rap to the entire system. 

“I absolutely support law enforcement, but if you’re a bad apple, we need to get rid of you and sing it from the rooftops. We don’t protect criminals. You belong in jail. Period. It protects the guys that are out there doing it for the right reasons.”

Jimmy’s work isn’t just about guns. He helped launch the Stand in the Gap Initiative, which seeks to bring communities together by developing what Jimmy calls “a root cellar mentality.” If the power goes out or there’s a blizzard or a hurricane, communities are prepared with food, water, a radio for offline communication, and a pre-established network of neighbors or friends who are ready to be at each other’s homes in a matter of minutes.

I used to think that the root cellar mentality was a little extreme. But then a year ago PG&E shut off our power for four days to prevent wildfires. And then COVID-19 happened and suddenly the shelves in our grocery stores were empty. I was lucky to live in a place where community already existed. When the power went out, our neighbors who had a generator invited us to come over to charge our phones and computers. They fed us dinner. But my neighborhood is unusual; Jimmy is trying to build communities where that kind of connection becomes typical. 

“It’s a good way to live,” Jimmy said. “We just got comfortable. We needed each other before. Now we don’t because of Amazon and Walmart, right? And that’s cool, but we left a good way to live. That, I think, is the answer: take care of one another in communities. That’s the way we were designed to live anyways.”

This was an excerpt from Shelter in Place, season 2, episode 5: Standing in the Gap. Hear the full story here or visit shelterinplacepodcast.info to view the full transcript.

Facing the Mob

Listen to the full story from Shelter in Place above.

I didn’t think the day could get any worse. 

In the span of 24 hours, we’d said goodbye to the friends and the home we’d never wanted to leave. We’d driven over 500 miles and two state lines before we finally escaped the wildfire smoke. A stranger had yelled in my face about what a terrible mother I was. And the kids had degenerated from griping about their Zoom calls to clobbering each other in the back seat. It felt like we’d hit rock bottom in this Pandemic Odyssey.  

But as we drove through Utah and the skies began to clear, we felt some of the grip of what was behind us loosen. We remembered that there were still people and places to look forward to. 

I’d wanted to go to Zion National Park ever since I was a teenager, when I saw pictures of the red rock formations that looked like a painter’s dream. It was magic hour as we entered the park, and even the kids took a collective gasp when they looked out the window. I pulled out my phone to take a picture.

And that’s when I noticed the explosion of texts that had just come in. While we’d been driving, our first AirBNB guests had shown up and promptly thrown a party in our back yard complete with music so loud that it rattled the walls two houses over, and thick clouds of smoke from cigarettes and weed. No one was wearing masks or social distancing. By the time I got these messages, the party had been going for hours. 

As we drove through the park, I thumbed out responses as fast as I could. And then my three bars of reception turned to two, and then one, and then zero. All of my messages bounced back. I looked out the window and tried to breathe. We were driving through tunnels of red rock and some of the prettiest scenery I’d ever laid eyes on–but there was a lump in my throat and I felt like I might throw up. 

I dropped off my family at the campsite and kept driving. It took me another half hour before I found a place in range. I braced myself for an unpleasant conversation, but when I finally reached the guest, whose name was Aidan, he was nice. He said he didn’t know that smoking wasn’t allowed or that AirBNB’s updated COVID-19 prohibited parties. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. 

The next day, my phone started bleeping again. One of my neighbors sent a video; another wrote, “I think your guests are using your house to film porn.” 

I spent the next three hours on the phone with AirBNB, who told me they’d ask Aidan to leave immediately. I wouldn’t lose any money; he’d clearly broken house rules and violated AirBNB’s COVID-19 policy. But Aidan and his crew stayed anyway. A week later AirBNB deducted $300 from my account and paid it to Aidan for the last two cancelled nights of his stay–nights where, just to be clear, Aidan was very much still in my home. I called AirBNB again, and the rep admitted that they’d screwed up, but there was nothing they could do to get the money back from Aidan. When I asked her to flag his profile so other hosts didn’t have to go through this experience, she said they couldn’t do that either.

There’s a saying that’s attributed to Confucius: “if you seek revenge, you should dig two graves.” I hate knowing that Aidan is out there $300 richer, but I’m not seeking revenge. What bothers me most is that the system that was supposed to protect me failed me. If I’m feeling that way about a situation that in the grand scheme of things wasn’t that bad–no one was hurt or killed, our house was not destroyed–then I think it’s fair to give space to those in our country who have been failed by our systems repeatedly. But it raises the question of how to fight injustice without letting it poison us. I’m still learning how to hold our systems accountable without digging my own grave.

This was an excerpt from Shelter in Place, season 2, episode 4: Facing the Mob. Hear the full story here or visit shelterinplacepodcast.info to view the full transcript.

In the Boat

This is an excerpt from Shelter in Place season 2, episode 3. Listen to full story above.


In his essay, “The Blessing of Friends Who Weather the Storm With Us, Omid Safi writes “We learn a lot about the people who stay in our boat during the storm. Sometimes it’s exactly who you expect. Sometimes there are those whom we expect to be in our boat, and at the moment of deepest
crisis, they go missing.”

Going into this school year, there was one friend in particular who I was sure would be in my boat. Ruth lives just a few blocks away. Her kids are the same ages as our kids, and they’ve all gone to school together since they were toddlers. Ruth’s family is one of the few families in our neighborhood who share our faith. We’ve shared a lot of life, too. We’ve carpooled to school, dropped off dinner for each other weekly, shared countless meals, swapped keys to each other’s houses. We were each other’s emergency contacts. For years Ruth’s house had been the place my kids felt safest outside their own home.

But a couple of weeks before school started Ruth and I had coffee in her backyard, and she told me she’d formed a distance learning pod with another family from our school. They were going to hire a tutor, and the tutor wasn’t comfortable taking on any more kids.

I tried not to feel stung, but as I walked home from her house that day, I realized I’d taken it for granted that Ruth and I were in each other’s boat. Now I began to doubt not just that assumption, but our friendship.

A couple of days later, Ruth reached out again. She gave me the names of several parents she knew who might be interested in teaming up with me, but she also wanted to check in to make sure we were okay.

It was a watershed moment in our friendship, and it says a lot about what a good friend Ruth is that she invited that conversation. It wasn’t easy for either of us. For the first time we peeled back the layers of our friendship, revealing unspoken expectations. Ruth and I had been in each other’s lives daily for years. In the absence of family nearby, I’d thought of Ruth and her family as our substitute family. It had never occurred to me that with their own parents in the same state, Ruth and her family didn’t have the same expectations for us.

And that’s the thing about friendship. There are no written codes or contracts. Most of the time, we don’t even realize what we expect of our friends until a particular situation reveals it.

Safi says when you turn around and the friends you thought would be in your boat aren’t there, don’t assume the worst. He writes, “Maybe they were trying to survive in their own boat. It’s been said before, whenever
possible. Be kind. You never know what battles others are fighting.”

Ruth confessed her own weariness. She’s a frontline essential worker. Parenting during the pandemic had been hard. She’d often felt like she wanted to be there for me, but she was so exhausted that she didn’t have the energy.

“You do so much,” Ruth said. “Your tolerance for chaos is so high. Sometimes, I just don’t want to get swept up in the tornado.”

Later she said she regretted that comment. She worried that it came off as overly harsh. But her words rang true. I don’t want to be the tornado family–I long for us not to be–but the amount of chaos and disorder in our life during this pandemic in particular has felt torrential. Part of that was circumstantial. Our family has dealt with a massive amount of change in 2020. We’re still dealing with it.

“Most of the time, we don’t even realize what we expect of our friends until a particular situation reveals it.”

Part of it was personality. Ruth had often told me that her central need in life is to preserve harmony in her environment. I like peace. I even long for it. But if given the choice in relationships, I’ll choose intimacy over ease every single time.

When I stepped away from the emotion of the situation, the feeling that Ruth wasn’t in my boat, I could see that what I was asking of Ruth was more than any of my friends could give me, especially in a time when we were all just trying to survive and keep our own boats afloat. No one is able to be in our boat all the time. Not substitute family. Not actual family. Not the best of friends. The trick is learning to appreciate who is in your boat–even if it’s not who you thought it would be, or if their shift is brief, because they’ve got to tend to their own crew. It’s learning to be in other people’s boats, too.

This is an excerpt from Shelter in Place’s season 2 episode 3: In the Boat. Read the full transcript here.

Finding Abundance in a Time of Scarcity

This is an excerpt from the episode above.

“It’s incredible how many crises we’re all living in the same time . . . I do hope that we come out of it better by rethinking how we do things like how we work, how we commute, how we live.”

Caroline Roux, PhD
Concordia University

I’ve been thinking a lot about how as terrible as 2020 has been, maybe it’s also a chance to reset. To get our priorities straight, to learn how to live better.

This isn’t just theoretical for me. In August, after months of white-knuckling pandemic life in the Bay Area with three small children and zero full-time jobs, our family launched into a very sudden, unanticipated pandemic Odyssey that took us across the country and called everything into question.

In the original Odyssey, there’s a moment when Odysseus and his men arrive on a land where the people there didn’t sleep so they could work two jobs: one shepherding sheep and one herding cattle. 

Being a working parent in this pandemic has felt a bit like that; if only we could do without sleep, we could work and be good parents–or, as the case may be, administrative assistants managing our kids’ Zoom schedules. We tried, but about the only thing we could say for our efforts was that our kids now knew how to search for Kung Fu Panda videos on YouTube, which they did whenever we weren’t hovering over them. We needed help, and there were no easy or obvious solutions. 

When our school district announced in that our kids wouldn’t be going back to school in-person, there was a lot of talk in our community about helping each other out. I spent hours on the phone with other parents, most of whom liked the idea of forming a distance learning co-op–but got stuck in the details. Our family had two school-aged kids, an added burden most one-kid families didn’t want to take on. Others were nervous about COVID exposure with our 3-year-old going back to preschool, a decision we’d made out of desperation because our house was small, and distance learning to the backdrop of shrieks and photo bombing was not a great combination. There were concerns about equity and behavioral issues and differences in parenting styles. 

We had weathered job loss and cancelled family visits and even watched our plans to take a sabbatical year slip away–all without losing hope. But the prospect of doing distance learning alone brought a creeping panic that was new. Our sense of abundance had dropped away. For the first time in the pandemic, we felt alone.

Caroline Roux and Kelly Goldsmith are some of the world’s leading experts on resource scarcity. Kelly describes their work this way: “I like to tell people I study what happens when everyday people don’t have access to everyday things.”

Like, say, when two working parents who used to send their kids to school are suddenly faced with the challenge of working and caring for their kids–and maybe even teaching them a little. But unlike the mythical men in the Odyssey, they can’t survive without sleep.

“It’s those people who have scarcity on their minds that are actually excellent at identifying and responding to these win-win opportunities when you help yourself by helping others.” 

Kelly Goldsmith, phd
Vanderbilt university

I first came across Caroline and Kelly’s research months ago, which illustrated that it’s possible to motivate people in times of scarcity to become more generous.

“That paper kind of starts off in a dark place, that scarcity increases selfishness,” Kelly said. “But then it comes back around to say, “look, it doesn’t always have to be that way.’ It’s those people who have scarcity on their minds that are actually excellent at identifying and responding to these win-win opportunities when you help yourself by helping others.” 

I wanted to see if they could help me to find my way back to a feeling of abundance–or if not abundance, at least well-tempered hope.

You can hear our conversation and the continuation of this pandemic Odyssey in episode 2: The Hidden Ship or read the transcript on our website.

Cyclops in Vegas

Listen to the full Shelter in Place episode above.
Illustration by A.J. Fitzpatrick

“These children were left alone,” I could hear the woman saying even though she had her back to me. Her voice was shrill and angry. “Your babies could have walked off. If you don’t cherish your children, then you should reconsider being a father.”

My husband Nate was silent, but I could see in his posture the twitchy defensiveness of an animal ready to fight or flee. I was close enough now to see the woman: short gray-white hair, breezy, loose clothing built for comfort, and a gold cross around her neck. As I stepped onto the curb, she spun around and pointed her finger at me.

“And you. If you’re the mother, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

I want to stop here and say that I don’t disagree with this angry stranger. My kids are 8, 6, and 3—not babies, but still too young to be left alone in public—even for the short time it took Nate to find me at REI, unlock the car parked by the entrance, and make it back to the table where the kids were sitting.

Our Pandemic Odyssey, the story of how and why we left the only place that feels like home, is a complicated one. But for now suffice it to say that the combined challenges of pandemic living with three small kids, wildfire season, distance learning, and the financial stress of startup living had reached a fever pitch. In less than two weeks we’d gone from swearing we would never leave Oakland to packing up our lives and cramming it into our Odyssey—that is, our minivan. 

“We live in a world

that continually primes us to be

the worst version of ourselves.”

Author Robert McKee said that “true character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

If he’s right, then my true character leaves something to be desired. Because when Nate threw his hands up and retreated inside Panera, abandoning me to this well-meaning grandma who was all too eager to let into me, all I saw was an angry cyclops ready to gobble us up. 

From political debates to the daily news, that ugly scene in Vegas looks a lot like our world right now. We live in a world that continually primes us to be the worst version of ourselves. We devour social media that paints our enemies in a negative light, and consume news that supports the beliefs we already have. As much as I’d like to believe that I would’ve acted more graciously with that woman if my life hadn’t felt so difficult, I’m afraid that Robert McKee is right about my character.

Listen to the full story on Shelter in Place Podcast here.

Coming Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart

Introducing Karma Compass’s newest partner, Shelter in Place, a podcast about coming together in a world that pulls us apart.

Yesterday my husband Nate and I spent the better part of the day in the Emergency Room. Our 3-year-old Mattéa had gotten into my father-in-law’s blood pressure medication, and so after a call to poison control, we headed to the hospital. 

Thankfully, Mattéa was fine. Actually, she was better than fine. As we walked out of the ER several hours later, she looked up at us and said, “that was fun!” We tried not to glare at her. Apparently our efforts to make her understand how serious the situation was had been a total failure. The ER doc had already warned us that the bill would be several thousand dollars. After a long day of taking turns wrestling our daughter down so she wouldn’t pull off the sticky pads that connected wires to her chest and index finger, we were exhausted. Neither of us had slept well for weeks, and for days, our interactions had become increasingly ragged and terse. This visit to the windowless underworld of the ER was just our latest stop on a pandemic Odyssey that we hadn’t gone looking for. I’ll say more about that in a minute.

But first, I have to say that maybe Mattéa has the right idea. Sure, she’d spent hours hooked up to monitors, and had to sit still and miss her nap. But she’d also made a bunch of new friends who all told her how great she was doing, people committed to making sure that she was okay. The Goldfish crackers and orange juice they gave her didn’t hurt either. For Mattéa, it was all one big adventure.

“Ultimately Shelter in Place isn’t just about where you find safety.

It’s about where you belong.”

It’s easy for me to lose sight of the adventure in my own life–to get shipwrecked by the hospital bills, the bedtime battles, the daily griefs and injustices in the newsreel that no longer surprise me. I forget that even in the hard times, there are all kinds of people–friends and strangers–who are willing and ready to make sure we’re okay, to help steer us in the right direction, to tell us that we’re doing great. I forget that even on the worst days, there’s an adventure to be found if I’m willing to look for it.

And that’s why I’m so excited to partner with Karma Compass, to come together in this effort to have authentic conversations that can make a difference.

That’s what season 2 of Shelter in Place is all about: embracing the adventure we didn’t want, but that we’re on anyway–an adventure that we’re not meant to do alone. It’s about finding people who will offer you safety, shelter, and encouragement when you’re lost and ready to give up. It’s about learning to ignore the siren calls of depression and despair and instead find our way home–even if that home looks a lot different than the one we left behind.

Think of it as a pandemic Odyssey, a long and winding journey that shows us what we’re made of, and beckons us toward hope even when the world feels hopeless. A story that doesn’t ignore the dead ends or detours, but instead celebrates our need to rely on others to help us stay on course. Because ultimately Shelter in Place isn’t just about where you find safety. It’s about where you belong.

Listen to the full Shelter in Place story above.