“N” is for “Now What?”

 “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss” (Psalm 85:11)

Day 1:

On the morning of January 20, just moments after President Biden and Vice President Harris (I love writing that!) were sworn in, my cousin Craig 1 texted from the Mohave Desert: 

Have had two days of dark clouds and cold winds. This morning solid overcast with some rain-cold, but long overdue in this part of the Mojave. But I’m not kidding, in the last 10 minutes of the Mad Emperor’s reign the clouds broke and cleared! It got bright and warm and I was once again ‘taking data in the sunshine.’ ! This is my motto and goal for 2021. 

photo by Craig Himmelwright

*

Then came an email from my British friend Helen, who lives in Exeter, in England:

Just wanted to send out greetings and congratulations to you on this wonderful day for you, for your country, our country, democracy…and the world! Celebrate well!

I myself had just burst into tears of relief and gratitude when President Biden, in his inaugural address, said, with fervent sincerity, “My whole soul is in this!” Both because he vowed it, and because it reminded me that we once again have a president with that kind of a soul. 

Then Amanda Gorman both raised the bar and cleared it with her Inauguration poem, The Hill We Climb (all text in red italics, below, is from the poem:)

theguardian.com

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours  […]

*

Down the hatch tonight, my friend Susannah signed off that evening.

*

*

Day 2: 

The next morning,  Susannah texts: 

I had a giant screaming freak-out cry fest. I did not know all that was there. It all came out. A crazy freak-out. Him, being gone. I lost my mind. I cried so hard. 

I knew what she meant, as I’d been feeling something new, too, the day after the inauguration: the stirring and welling of the feeling (as distinct from just the “knowing” and the “coping”) of the full scale and scope of the horror of the past four years, with its cumulative trauma and associated “grie-lief” 2 now. A scale of grief and fear that I could only begin to fully feel now that the need for the constant coping-with was over, in a definitively-ritual way if not perhaps a final one. I felt it this morning as a particular flavor of anxiety that I have come to recognize signals “grief-under-pressure” for me: an agitated fatigue, some nausea, a tightness in my throat, big irritability, and an intensifying, discomfiting feeling of angry contempt for those who continue to hold DT in esteem. 

All day, the words The horror, the horror! (Kurtz’s last words, in Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness 3) kept running through my mind.

And I envied Susannah her cryfest, as I waited for whatever would let my own dam break, within. 

Meanwhile, the focus in news platforms, social media, and text chains among friends was beginning to turn  more fully to the question of holding Trump accountable for his crimes. 

Which is when I remembered an experience I had the night after the execution of Saddam Hussein, on December 30, 2006. 

The brutal Iraqi dictator was executed by hanging after being convicted of crimes against humanity following the earlier massacre of 148 Iraqi Shi’ites in retaliation for an assassination attempt against him. The Iraqi government’s official video of the execution ended with the moment the noose was placed around his neck, but a cell phone recording of the hanging released to the news media showed him surrounded by a crowd viciously jeering him as he fell through the trap door of the gallows.

It was a disturbing image, and I remember feeling disturbed both by the image and by my own vindictive glee. 

That night, I dreamed I was at the hanging, though I stood at a distance. Saddam Hussein wore a white thawb. Just as in the video, an angry, jeering crowd milled around the gallows, shouting insults and spitting.

Then the trapdoor opened and the noose snapped the dictator’s neck.

At which moment his mouth opened, releasing a spray of what looked like little black seeds of some kind. Some of the seeds fell on the ground, but most of the seeds fell directly into the opened mouths of the gleefully vengeful crowd that pressing in close. And I was given to understand that the seeds were “the seeds of evil,” and that this is what happens to evil when our desire for justice is contaminated by our desire for vengeance and violence: its seeds are directly received into that opening, and incubated by the vindictive stuff within us. By way of which, instead of the evil dying with the evildoer, it goes forth and multiplies. Had SH been executed in a dignified, neutral and private way (again, this was the understanding I was given), the evil he carried might have mostly died with him, the seeds still releasing, but landing on nothing that would give them life.   

It was a powerful dream at the time; one of those dreams that felt like a direct transmission of a teaching that I was urgently meant to receive. 

And so I find myself contemplating this dream again, in midst of the heavy, roiling hugeness of my grief and rage, and the wish for revenge for the scale and scope of chaos and suffering that DT is responsible for, and as I witness the disturbing intensity of my contempt for his unrepentant supporters. 

gardeningknowhow.com

The dream reminds me that, at the end of the day, what I grow and add to the world results directly from the kinds of seeds I choose to feed and water in my own heart. We carry many kinds of seeds, and what we do with them collectively sets the vector toward actions that serve justice, or that (disguised as a fervor for justice) only add more hate and vengeance to the world, through the impulse of revenge .

We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried

[…] 

it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.

*

God how I pray for softening in all of our hearts. As well as willingness for some thoughtful accounting. Susannah texts later today. 

*

Day 3

At a post-inauguration Zoom celebration of the local Indivisible group that I’ve been a member of since January of 2016, we began to consider what might be our priorities for action, going forward.  Toward the end of the conversation, one of us posed the question, “So now, how do we get people we know who still stand by their support for T. to see that they were lied to?!” . 

There was a collective silence, into which another among us responded that we simply wait for them to come around, in their own way and own time.

Which seemed to me like just the right answer, if for no other reason than that it is a kind response, at a time when we need more kindness than we need more confrontations. 

And I have found myself continuing to reflect on that question and answer since, from a psychological and emotional point of view. It’s an important question, as one of the emotional challenges that I face going forward (and is what I think the question  reflects) is what to do with my own impatience, frustration, alarm and (yes) contempt, since trying to take care of those feelings by “getting others to see the light” is likely to just be experienced as the judgement that it is, and so deepen the denial.

The thing is, the function of denial itself (like all psychological defenses, and we all have them and use them all the time to keep at a distance stuff that we feel unprepared to emotionally deal with), is to protect us from seeing and acknowledging something which we unconsciously (this is an important point) believe would be lethal to us in some way to see and to acknowledge. A psychological defense is an unconscious psychological solution to a psychological problem, meaning that when a defense is working perfectly, it makes invisible what it is defending us from experiencing. And since it is at root non-rational and unconscious, versus rational and conscious (we consciously rationalize our defenses all the time, but that’s all part of protecting the defenses themselves), rational arguments don’t influence our defenses, except to register as a threat to the defense itself. So for the person I am trying to make “see,” I am not solving a problem; for her/him, I am trying to solve a solution.

In effect, the denial is a solution which I am trying to take away…and that is only going to deepen the resistance. 

When I remember that, I try to imagine what it would mean, now, if all my hopes and sense of self-worth and safety and understanding of how life is and what justice is and who and what are responsible for the ills of the world in general and for my own confused and confusing pain in particular had been invested with someone who presented himself as my sympathizer and savior…and then, after years and years of investing ever more in that person, I suddenly realized that the very person who seemed to sympathize and champion me in my pain and rage actually had not given a damn about me and mine at all, and in fact had been being slowly and deliberately and maliciously using and poisoning me all this time, purely in order to further empower and enrich himself. And so to face also that as a result of having been entranced into collaborating and condoning, I now also shared responsibility for all the harm and suffering that has resulted.

When I imagine that, I start to get a sense of how high the stakes would be, now, for the unconscious to face the choice to see or to continue not-to-see.

Which suggests to me in turn that unless I am prepared to commit to actively, curiously, patiently and compassionately holding space for a conversation about this, I don’t have any business trying to pushing for one with the still-unconvinced, until I am.

And the truth is that although it feels like a big huge failure of empathy, I am not, right now, able to actually feel compassion for those entrenched in their defenses against “seeing,” and in their loyalty to T, despite the fact that I intellectually understand it, and understand that the denial itself is about pain.

But my own and others’ pain resulting from the abuses and neglect of the previous administration, and the cumulative, deep exhaustion I feel, is pretty much all I can hold right now…and even that is too much, actually, for any of us to hold alone, as we are collectively beginning to realize [for more on this topic, see “People are not okay:” the mental health impact of the Trump era ]

And as I sit with the realization that there is really nothing to do with these feelings-that-I-would-rather-not-have (especially the cold, judgmental contempt, which makes my ego really uncomfortable!) that would not add more pain to pain and darkness to darkness in the world, I begin to relax around it a little; this just is what it is

Into which incipient sense of acceptance and surrender arrives the sudden sense within of an opening, a spaciousness, like stumbling into a clearing in the midst of a dark and trackless wood. The dense and distressing darkness is still there, but there’s space in it now, with light.

That I can hold this space, for light.

*

When day comes we step out of the shade
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

collage by Laney Urness

*

Notes:

  1. Craig Himmelwright is a veterinarian and wildlife biologist who works for a project that monitors and relocates  desert tortoises, so as to mitigate —to some degree at least— the effect of solar power facility development in the Mohave on the tortoises’ health and habitat)
  2. Thanks to my sister, Darcy, for that great neolism, “grielief”
  3. Heart of Darkness, written 1899, is a novel ultimately about European imperialism and racism, and about how the evil in the hearts of “all men” gets projected onto the “darkness” perceived elsewhere, in others. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now was based directly on Conrad’s novel.
An “old man” tortoise on Craig’s study Site (photo by Craig)

“M” is for “Mayhem, and Mystery.”

“The release of dark forces stirs beneficent forces and awakens in us mysterious dawns.” —M.C. Richards, Centering

Yesterday morning, I woke up into a feeling of powerful but inchoate anxiety.  

I feel it in my gut, I wrote in my journal, as my mind looked in vain for explanations in my immediate orbit. So that my entry simply ended with the question, Is this feeling about a “there” there, or is it just me?

Turns out that my husband, Rich, woke with the same feeling: a sense of restless dread. True, we were facing a day of errands with their inherent risks of virus exposure. But the feeling itself wasn’t that; it felt more premonitory…as the mayhem which ensued in Washington a few hours later seemed to validate that it had been. 

“Morning after coup attempt,” by Jan Lintz

And while yesterday’s assault on the Capitol was ultimately quelled, the ongoing assault on our Democracy which it represents continues, and we may well not have seen the end of the associated mayhem yet. 

In the evening, my friend Jan Lintz (a Eugene, Oregon painter and poet) texted: “at the end of this absurd day, I am finding solace in your poems, and also mine from 25 years ago,” followed by this poem of her own:

Night Flights

New moon
blackest of nights.
Not a shadow on pebbles
my toe stumbles over in darkness.
Not a glimmer on branches
of fragrant pine on either side
reach out
close in.
And so still.
Risqué owl’s wing
nearly kisses my cheek
takes my breath
I start!
How could she have known
I’d come out tonight?
How could I have known
eternity would cross my path
tonight
blackest of nights?
And so still.

Reading it, I received and responded to the haunting imagery and intimate mystery of the poem, in which the repeated line, “blackest of nights” had both a timeless and timely resonance, this night.

From a Peter Pauper Press card illustration by Kathleen Parr McKenna, 2012

***

“So what’s with all the owls?” I wondered early this morning, sitting down before dawn to re-receive Jan’s poem and to write awhile before I started in doomscrolling.

I’d been noticing how persistently owls had been showing up lately: on the covers of cards sent by friends (as above), in images from my painting group’s fresh weekly work…owls seemed to be everywhere. So I got out my copy of The Book of Symbols, a recent purchase which I’d barely dipped into, yet.

I opened it to find (to my surprise and not-surprise) that one of the three, attached place-marking ribbons had been pre-placed between pages 254 and 255 of this 808 page tome, at (uh-huh) “Owls.” 

I’d known owls to be associated spiritually and mythologically with death, with wisdom, and/or with war, respectively, but here’s what I found in the Symbols book entry, following the acknowledgment of all the associations above:

But as often, the powers of death are also the powers of transformation, and the owl is symbolically bound to the renewal of life that is mythically implicit in death. One of the strongest of these associations is in the rendering of the Great Goddess with owl features or companions […] . There are many such images in pottery, sculpture and other artifacts spanning several millennia […]

The depth of the owl’s wisdom includes not only the ability to bring what is dark into the light, but also the ability to live in the dark itself.” (p. 254)

“White Owls on a Pine Branch” (detail). Carl Tait and Lloyd Henson. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Reading that, I felt a silence descend in which I flailed awhile, feeling somehow more restless and confused by this knowledge, which seemed to bring with it a sense of urgency— with the impression that there was in fact an urgent message in the owls’ appearances, and that I needed to figure it out. “So what do I do with that?” I asked after awhile, the mind wanting some meaning, even as the heart felt the question as a wish to be in-formed with direction, not with narrative

More silence for awhile, in which I felt a kind of helpless despair. In which I simply sat, living the question… 

…into which silence a perception arrived as though a kind of mist: that to participate in the forces that bring forth light out darkness is the urgent necessity; one which in turn necessitates being fiercely engaged in the act of vigil (from the Latin “to stay awake” ), as an active and not a passive act. And that to do so in turn activates and participates in the forces which order energy and grounds it, creating a “stay against confusion” (as Robert Frost described the activity of poetry, which does the same).

And I received the understanding that we do this with the body; that it is a kind of waiting that requires and involves the whole body’s attention…and that to the extent I indulge either in constant doomscrolling (a neolism I love, if not the reasons-for) or distraction ,either one,  I abandon that responsibility. 

That that is what it looks like to embody the Great Goddess’ “ability to live in the dark itself.” And that it is a “living through,” versus an “enduring-of,” because it is in the dark that light is conceived.

At which I noticed that my mind was wanting to appropriate the experience again, and its information: to manufacture a narrative of meaning (the “because” was my clue to this). Saw how that, too, was a way to move away: from the body, where the place of vigil was. 

So, back to silence, in which the words “A time of wakeful dark” were the words that came, and with it a felt sense of how Jan’s reaching out, and her poem, and the imagery of owls, and the mayhem of the day, and W.S. Merwin’s poem, Here Together (which had also arrived at some point in the mix) all formed a charged matrix (1) of significance and direction, but not of the sort that the mind can grasp; a matrix in which I felt and feel these as all connected, somehow, in and through Mystery. 

A matrix, that is, in which these are all dynamically connected, versus causal, or opposed. 

I’d been reading (for more than a year now) M.C. Richards’ timeless (and recently re-issued, because so timeless and timely both) book, Centering: In Pottery, Poetry and the Person

In fact I’d originally planned for my “M is for___” post to be about M.C. and her writings, so her words have been reverberating in my mind as I write this post, having been reviewing my pages and pages of quotes, and finding them so especially orienting to this time, and day. 

“The ear of faith,” she writes, “is, I suggest, the ear of one who keeps faith with the agitation and the peace, and who, through the sacrament of his body, experiences their union.”  (p.117)

Which declaration is followed by a longer passage on the inextricability of the forces of organization from the forces of chaos:

The utmost disordering prepares the way for the birth of new forms, new awareness of new depths and interpenetrations. Destruction is desirable, not in the spirit of nihilism, but in the knowledge of the regenerative process. “Let them burn the library at Alexandria,” cried Artaud. “It is good that our excessive facilities be no longer available, that all forms fall into oblivion: a culture without space or time, limited only by the capacity of our own nerves, will reappear with all the more energy. It is right that from time to time cataclysms occur which compel us to return to nature, i.e. to rediscover life […]

[…] If you remember your genetics, you will recall that before the birth of a new cell, a disorganization (or what appears to our eyes as such) of cell structure occurs. The chromosomes go crazy, everything is unrecognizable; then, all of a sudden, something new; the body is intact and changed.(p. 117-118) 

***

***

So then

What shall we love? 

the voice asks, 

and answers 

All of it, all of it

Then

Will the world win? Or the word?  

I wonder, 

or the word does, 

sounding 

unworried.

So what do we do?

We keep loving, is what we do

[because] 

We color the atmosphere by our participation in it  (2) 

[because]

El amor que nos ama / no aparta de nosotros ni un instante / la mirada (3)

(poem by DH, 1/7/21)

: :

: :

Notes:

1. the word “matrix” originates in the Latin “mater” meaning “mother” or “womb.” Today the word generally refers to an arrangement of conditions in which something develops or forms, as distinct from a “sequence”, which is a kind of order in which actions, event or things follow each other in time and/or space.

2. Centering, p. 98

3. Line in Spanish is from the poem, “The Splendor of Being”  by Rosario Castellanos. Translation: “The love that loves us / does not for an instant turn from us / its gaze ”

And for a terrific post on M.C. Richards and Centering, see Maria Popovas’s Brainpickings post at https://www.brainpickings.org/2020/01/03/m-c-richards-centering/

“L” is for “Let America Be America Again”

(Langston Hughes – 1902-1967)

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

* * *

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used without permission)

For more on (and by) Langston Hughes, visit https://poets.org/poet/langston-hughes

“K” is for “Karma”

I had just pressed “publish” on my post “J” is for “Joy” when I learned that Donald Trump had tested positive for Covid19.

(image from the October 12 New Yorker Magazine)

I had a lot of feelings about that, one of which was regret: If I hadn’t already posted the piece on “Joy,” I thought, “J” could be about “Justice.” 

“However Trump tries to spin the whole thing for his own political/theatrical benefit,” I texted some friends the morning the news broke, “there’s such perfect justice in the FACT of it, in this moment. And I am definitely savoring the justice.”

A few minutes into savoring that justice, though, it occurred  to me that since “K” is for “Karma,” I could write about it under that heading instead. 

ramonllamba.com

At which point a curious thing happened: with that slight shift from the word “justice” to the word “karma” I felt a spontaneous softening inside, as a direct effect of the difference between what those two concepts connote, and so (in me, at least) evoke. 

What was the difference? When I was thinking about the “justice” of Trump getting COVID, I felt self-righteously triumphant, in a super cold-hearted way. But since the concept of “justice” itself necessarily (or at least conventionally) involves judgement (whether that judgement is thought to be human or divine)  the idea of “justice” itself seemed to justify my “right” to feel coldly, judgmentally triumphant about it “being done” to Trump. 

In western culture, infused as it is by the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity especially (which the Baha’í faith and Islam also share), “justice” itself is inextricable, connotatively, from the idea of “God’s judgment.” As a result, this gets projected onto karma, inflecting karma with a kind of moralism based in concepts of divine punishment and reward. 

But “karma” simply means “action”  or “energy,” and the principles involved (whether those are identified as spiritual or physical principles makes no difference, as the principles themselves are the same) describe what happens over time as a direct result of the behavioral patterns and maps created and maintained by our habitual reactions. “Karma” is merely descriptive of how things work; it is morally neutral.

As Joseph Goldstein explains it:

The law of karma refers to the law of cause and effect: that every volitional act brings about a certain result. If we act motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion, we are planting the seed of suffering; when our acts are motivated by generosity, love, or wisdom, then we are creating the karmic conditions for abundance and happiness. An analogy from the physical world illustrates this: if we plant an apple seed, the tree that grows will bear apples, not mangoes. And once the apple seed is planted, no amount of manipulation or beseeching or complaining will induce the tree to yield a mango. The only meaningful action that will produce a mango is to plant a mango seed. Karma is just such a law of nature, the law of cause and effect on the psychophysical plane.

 It’s the idea that “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” but without the scold-y finger-wagging. 

In fact, Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön emphasizes the (essentially compassionate) “learning” versus “punishment” opportunity inherent in the “what we keep sowing, we keep reaping” repetitions involved in the our karmic patterns. “The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart” she says.

***

All of which I’ve been reading about days later, in a selection of articles on the subject in the Buddhist magazine, Tricycle, as I’ve continued to reflect on my experience.

What I noticed in the moment itself was simply and directly that the instant I shifted to thinking in terms of “karma” (natural consequences) instead of “justice” (imposed punishment), all that self-righteous satisfaction I’d felt dissolved, and a spontaneous feeling of warmth arrived. It wasn’t sympathy I felt; more like  a kind of dispassionate empathy which, paradoxically, I could only experience in the absence of judgment: in the absence of the question of “good” or “bad.” 

Which in turn allowed me to be curious about my own ill-wishing impulses and energies instead—  a curiosity that was only available to me when I paused also from either defending or judging those ill-wishes and judgments.

Resulting next in the hidden-in-plain-sight realization that however much I may justify my judgement that Trump has “gotten what he deserves” in contracting COVID, the fact remains that my own self-righteous scorn itself has just directly increased, refreshed and maintained the amount and intensity and momentum  of “self-righteous scorn” in the world. It’s just more harmful karma creating more suffering. 

Which sounds depressing as I write it now, but which actually felt liberating, re-orienting, empowering , and immanently hope-full. 

Why? Because it reminds me that, to the extent that I attend to being mindful in each moment of my own emotions, of the stories that feed and justify them, and of my impulses to react (aware of myself judging instead of simply involved in the judgments) I have the choice and the power to either directly add more anger, resentment, fear and other pain to the world by how I act next, or … to not. And while to “not” may feel like compassion, it may not feel like anything; it’s not about switching out a “negative” emotion or attitude for one I think makes me a better person (since that, too, is self-centered and simply feeds more self-righteousness). Rather, it’s about consciously choosing to notice and to hold and to work with the energy of the pain, which itself directly reduces the amount of pain being dumped into the world by half, instead of doubling it by the contribution of my own angry, resentful, fearful wishes and judgments.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, “Only what happens now happens later.”

As Donald Trump sows, so shall he reap. 

Just like you.

just like me. 

***

How We Hated

When we woke, we found hate had been chosen to run the show. We were frightened and angry, a little groggy from sleeping, but awake to the thought of a future with hate in charge. We knew to do something, so went marching together, wearing art on our heads, our hearts on our sleeves. But when hate didn’t listen we hated not to be heard, so we started campaigns to write hate letters together. We put signs on our homes that read “This is a hate-free zone, ” so the haters would know our care no longer included them. We called on the names of King, the Buddha, and Gandhi (mostly leaving out Jesus since the haters seemed to have claimed Him), as we held hands and chanted, To hell with the hating ones! We avoided the neighbors we’d decided believed in hate, or we pretended politeness, then judged them behind their backs. And it consoled us to hate them; we even felt kind of happy, since knowing their wrongness made us feel so good, and right. As hate, untroubled as always by questions of right and wrong, simply felt itself growing. “Oh good,” hate said, “more of me. ” 

–Donna Henderson

  (previously published in Rattle  Magazine)

(* Shenpa: a Buddhist term [Pali language] meaning, approximately, The ego’s habits of reaction to familiar event and words)

“J” is for “Joy”

We were made for joy. Something inside us knows it. Something inside us feels it. We are hungry for joy […] And this desire—our desire for joy—is not secondary to the human experience. It is foundational. We need joy […] Joy is available to us, but it must be received.Josh Glaser 

***

“My own relationship with joy began the year I gave up ‘complaining’ for Lent,” began a piece I wrote on the topic in 2015 (“Joy is the Way”) , and my first thought was to simply re-post it here.

But re-reading the piece, I realized that what I’ve become more interested in since is the “what” of the “how” of joy: in its nature.

I’ve been circling around this question for some weeks now, exactly (I realized this morning) the way I circle around our cat when I am trying to organize her to submit in some way to my will: to get her into a carrier, say, or even just to pick her up when she doesn’t (and she always doesn’t) want to be held. She wants to be engaged with endlessly, yes, but she will. not. be. held. 

Just like joy, it occurs to me, which accounts for my circling, and which brings an insight obscured when I was trying to define joy instead (“‘Define‘: to mark out the boundaries and limits of”). That while we tend to speak of joy as though it is essentially an emotion, maybe it is not an emotion at all, but a quality of experience, a state of being.

Which does better locate my own experiences of joy: experiences in which my utter, unconditioned and non-directive presence spontaneously perceives and receives, within great stillness and spaciousness, the whole inherent glory (I start to write “glow,” but “glory” is the word that forms within) that that moment contains.

And there’s a feeling that comes with it—something like gratefulness, something like awe—but the joy itself is the state of my being in that moment: wholy absorbed in participation and witnessing…something like that. Like light itself, It can’t be earned, grasped, directed, or held onto…and yet is available in every moment to be received.

The world simply is in those moments, and I am simply…all there. 

 

***

So, out of respect for the nature of joy itself, I’m going to circle around it from here on, trying not to “organize the cat” so much as to welcome it by way of fragments, of poetry, of other voices.

To make a spacious invitation of language (language being itself intelligent, you know? ) — an invitation which does not…surround.

***

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider
that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue
bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider
that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the
leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

–A.R. Ammons (From The Selected Poems: 1951-1977, Expanded Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright © 1986 )

* **

On an especially stressful day for her a couple of months ago, my daughter-in-law, Katrinka., texted me that “I have been filling my heart with pictures of beautiful succulent arrangements,”  and included a photo she found online of a rare, variegated Schlumbergera “Carnival” Christmas Cactus.

I loved that thought: joy as the feel of light. And I love how Katrinka knows what to do to engage joy, and to fill her heart with it.

“Joy is available when we stop trying to avoid suffering,” my husband, Rich, said the other day. Only when we do stop trying to avoid suffering, are we free to look instead for what the suffering needs from us, and to receive it.

As K’s method exemplifies. 

* * *

l

“Joy is happiness without the hangover,” as Pema Chödrön is fond of saying. (Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You)

***

***

And as I become more and more absorbed these hours of the afternoon in the writing of this piece, I notice all the feelings that I came to my desk with (resentments and anxieties, mostly) have dropped away, and there is only (yes, you guessed it:) joy.  

***

Between

It was a good garden, but I wanted it
moved from its plot uphill to the pond’s edge

so I could work by the water—which was so
beautiful: green glaze shimmering away toward some distant

willows—and near the house a marsh
bridged the shift from dry to wet, erasing

seams, the ground going softer, then spongy, then
sunken but still visible through a crest of reeds

where cattle shambled hip-deep and ducks
churned; all the swimming and flying and walking things

met, it seemed to me, in that marsh,
grazing and gulping.

And I wanted to transplant my garden into that turgid soil 
against all sense; to bury rootlets of kale, leeks, 
squash among the muscular grasses, the wild seeds—

So I stood awhile like that, passing my hands 
through the shallows, imagining the joy of whole days

kneeling between those solid and fluid worlds; all day
dipping and lifting.

(in The Eddy Fence, Airlie Press, 2009)

***

***

So how then is “joy” distinct from “hope”?

A pause now after the question, to invite an answer in [….] [….]

…Arrives the thought that there fundamentally is no real distinction, since all distinctions “between things” proceed from the illusion of separateness.

That said, if light itself can be both particle and wave at once (at once essentially still and essentially in motion), just so hope and joy,  joy being the state of presence to the luminous and eternal still-point being, and hope engaged in the motion of light, its wave. 

***

And now from ~~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~       ~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~  

to   …: …: …::…   again they go

Yes light can be both  :…: and  ~~~~ 
I want more ~~~

(excerpt from the poetic sequence, “Send Word,” unpublished)

***

(For more on “hope,” see “’H’ is for Hope” and “‘I’ is for the Immanence of Hope”)

~~~~ *** ~~~~

it is a serious thing

writes Mary Oliver, in the poem, Invitation

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing

[…]

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

 (click the title above to read the whole poem– you’ll be glad you did)

***

The poem brings to mind a recent conversation with Dr. William Barish, Chief Wellness Officer for Samaritan Health Services, in which Bill spoke about the connection between the inextricability of joy from the experience of presence. He offered the metaphor of the difference between appreciatively considering a tapestry,  and actually being conscious of the beauty as the weaving is happening, from within.

“My work is to notice when I’m actually weaving, and not just reflecting back on the finished product,” said Bill .

***

***

***

Joy

I was so hungry!
& my hunger longed for the bite-sized Joy

in my pocket, its luscious crush in my teeth,
almond soul from the brown glaze

sweetly releasing.
But my plans!

To hike the length of the path,
then have my Joy, when I’ve earned it.

 But my Joy wouldn’t let me loose
from the lot undevoured.

Whispered, my hunger,
Have it now, let it sustain you.

                                    Joy’s not the end,

                     Joy’s the way.

                                     (in Transparent Woman, Howlet Press, 1996

(collage by Laney Urness)

“I” is for “Immanence” (of Hope)

“To find hope, I have to give up hope”

   –Tom Amsberry 

 

IMG_3137

June 27

Song of wrens in the canyon, and the general chatter of a.m. birds. It’s a little bit after 6. Sun almost up through a smear of clouds. Amber ants cluster and scatter on the patio, and earwigs fall from the lavender like drops of brown dew.

I am thinking about hope again this morning, with COVID19 on the upsurge, and also because I have been thinking about hope pretty much continuously since my June 8 post (“H is for “How to Hope”) in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

In that earlier post, I had reflected on the “how of hope” as being

a way of living based in a commitment to ever more consciousness. And since consciousness is the bell that we can’t un-ring, we can trust that it will inherently inform and direct all other right-actions.

But if that is the “how,” what defines the kind of hope on which such a way of living is based?

As I consider that question this morning, I notice how reflexive it is to think of hope as a kind of optimism, essentially sentimental, located in imminence (pertaining to the future), and associated with things (people, conditions, behaviors) changing in some specific, imagined way.

And it occurs to me that when I locate hope there (in the future, and with a specific outcome in mind), it is essentially fear I am responding to. After all, what else but fear prompts the need to imagine a future that is different from the present in some specific way? Why else reach for something that effectively gets me out of the present, imaginally? And what else but the ego opines and decides what hope’s object should be? In short, where does the need to imagine a future that is not the present come from, except from some kind of fear of the present as it exists, or else a fear of the loss of it? And so it follows also that (and here’s the irony:) if “hope for the future” is fear-based, then however lofty that kind of hope seems, it is essentially ego-driven.

As I realize that, and as I observe and investigate my own involvement in the act of “hope-for-ness,” I notice that the problem with experiencing hope as a feeling, with its object the future, is that it also locates elsewhere, later, and with others (or with some future, better version of myself) the responsibility for how the future I want will turn out. Which in turn makes it possible –without any sense of incongruence or irony– for me to pass judgement on others, in the act of hoping for a more compassionate in world, when in reality, the future unrolls from nothing other than the entire material of the present, like a roll of fabric unfurling.

So if hope is not sentimental, and it’s not essentially about the future, and if it doesn’t involve an imagined goal or outcome, what is its essence, then?

 

 

Pausing, I look up, download-2and see five osprey circling high over the water together; circling and sailing in the cool, still air. “Hope is a thing with feathers” sounds in my mind.

Immediately this feels true.

I have no idea what it means, and though I remember the next line, (“That perches in the soul—“ ) I don’t remember the rest of the poem. Still, it feel so very… true.

—a thing with feathers.

Now the kitty pops up out of her little expedition in the vinca. A breeze rises and pauses and disappears; the sun rising seems to be causing this.

I wait a little (I am working on breaking my habit of immediately Googling the answers to questions before taking the time to “live the questions”  awhile first), then I do look up downloadthe poem, which I know to be Emily Dickinson’s (poem #314, as I found out). It goes:

           Hope is the thing with feathers –
           That perches in the soul –
           And sings the tune without the words –
           And never stops – at all –

           And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
            And sore must be the storm –
            That could abash the little Bird
            That kept so many warm –

                                                           I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
                                                           And on the strangest Sea –
                                                           Yet – never – in Extremity,
                                                            It asked a crumb – of me.

 

I read the poem, and it is as though I have never read it before, charged and alive as it seems this time not with sentiment, but with the mystery of hope itself. I don’t “get it” with my mind; instead, there is a sense of recognition (re-knowing) something.

 

images

 

I read the lines again, then look up again, and the osprey are still there, sailing and circling. Their unlinear project. And at once I sense the nature of hope as that: as a quality not of the future but of the present. As immanent, that is (existing, operating, or remaining within; inherent), versus imminent (about to happen). Sense it as a kind of luminous, circulating aliveness with an existence of its own, and present to me.

                                         I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
                                         And on the strangest Sea –

A hope that is not an attitude; in fact not produced by me at all, or even involved in my imagination or my will. Which I do not even have to be present for, for it to exist, to be.

                                            Yet — never — in Extremity
                                             It asked a crumb from me.

It is the kind of hope, I remember now, that Cynthia Bourgeault described in her huge little book on the subject, “Mystical Hope,” which I read a couple of years ago but had difficulty, at the time, comprehending, not to mention metabolizing. But Dickinson’s poem has offered (in the way poetry does) a kind of portal to a mystical, not simply mental, comprehension of Bourgeault’s ideas.

I go retrieve the book. 9781561011933_p0_v3_s600x595

Of the five interwoven meditations on hope, the fifth, “Hope and the Future,” is the one I am most interested in today, with respect the quality of immanence.

While mystical hope, she writes, is involved in the future (“the world is going somewhere, and […] hope is the the means by which it gets there”), the future is not hope’s object. Instead,

Hope’s home is at the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth in hope, regardless of the physical circumstances of our lives. Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender […] and yet when we enter it, it enters us and fills us with its own life— (p 86-87)

                            And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
                            And sore must be the storm –
                           That could abash the little Bird
                           That kept so many warm –

 

downloadNow a story that Pema Chodron tells comes to mind:

I remember reading once about a peace march. When one group was coming back from the march, some pro-war people started cutting them off and blocking them; everyone started screaming and hitting each other. I thought, “Wait a minute. Is there something wrong with this picture? Clobbering people with your peace sign?”

“[In] a metaphysic geared to the ‘quality of aliveness’ as the place where the work is really being done,” writes Bourgeault, the kind of dissonance this story illustrates

becomes immediate, and unbearable. If I say I am working for peace but am myself angry and self-righteous, then the energy I am putting into the atmosphere is anger and self-righteousness. If I come preaching the gospel of Christian love but am myself rigid and judgmental, I am putting into the atmosphere rigidity and judgment (p. 91)

 

July 17

I’ve been working on this post for a couple of weeks now, off and on, as much as anything as a way to keep circling around what I want to invite to keep circulating within. And as I do, I find myself more and more full of hope: hope which is not optimism about the future, but rather the direct, felt sense of the quality and force of the “aliveness of God” (what Kabir Helminski calls “The electromagnetic field of love”) at work and play, persistently suffusing the present. A hope which, while asking “not a crumb from me,” invites me to invite it to participate in me. And I see what is always “hidden in plain sight:” how my consent and surrender to the aliveness of love participating in me, and not my agendas or ideals, directly and literally “matters,” by the weft it adds to the warp of the material of life as it weaves its way forward.

July 18

So here I am at my desk again this morning, circling this post with the intention of finding a way to land it; a landing that eluded me yesterday. It’s still eluding me, and now it’s my birthday, so I decide to take a break to join R for some breakfast, and to read my cards.

Opening an envelope from my friend Judy*, what do I find but this, by way of a birthday greeting:

IMG_3173
artwork by Judy Talbott

You really cannot make this stuff up.

But something does.

 

 

(*See Judy’s poem, “Love Alone” in a previous post on the Cento poetic form)

 

 

“H” is for “How to Hope”

Among the comments which followed my recent post on the nature of systemic racism (“G” is for “George Floyd,” June 1, 2020) were some from readers who, in acknowledging the validity of racism as a systemic condition, indicated that my words simply validated their pre-existing feelings of self-blame and shame, and that they had come away from the post with even more despair about the possibility of being able to effect real and lasting change.

Initially, I was surprised, since the central assertion of my piece was that feelings of personal guilt and shame (and the corresponding projection of these in the form of judgement and blame of others) are not only irrelevant, but in fact directly prevent us from being able to understand and effectively address racism as it actually exists and is maintained.  How did that not come through? I wondered, and proceeded to re-read my post several times, thinking maybe it had not been clear as I’d thought, about that most central point.

It had been.

As I reflected on that, I finally remembered what I know about shame from almost 30 years of psychotherapy practice, but which I had forgotten: how very quickly and easily our shame gets triggered, and how completely it absorbs our attention when it does.

Unwittingly, then, the passionate intensity with which my words were a call away from individual “racism shame” so that we might become interested in understanding and taking responsibility for what actually uproots and dismantles it, had (for some) triggered…shame.

And there—right in that tender spot—is exactly what sociologist Robin DiAngelo Robin-2018-640x800means when she writes about white fragility: download-5the feelings of personal and generational shame and guilt which are (and which  keep us) self-centered, and never lead to any real good. Shame may spur us to action in the moment, but it tends to be action aimed ultimately at relieving our own anxiety, including anxiety about our sense of guilt and shame.

i fear the short    attention span of the left   & middle left    /   self-satisfied recaps

says the speaker in poet and activist Brenda Hillman’s poem “Hearing La Bohème after the March” (in Extra Hidden Life, among the Days). 51o4NezBHPL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_ I love that line for the way it speaks to the kind of activism that, being based in anxiety, is ultimately rootless and self-centered and unable to be maintained in the absence of immediate results or even reasons for optimism.

So I feel compelled to say it again: as white people, as long our interest in racism remains tethered to our ego’s own self-regard (“Am I a good person, or am I a bad person and didn’t know it? And if  I didn’t realize I’m bad, what do I do so that I and others will be able to think of me as a good person again?”), we are not free to be truly curious about how racism remains in place by way of us. Instead, we remain manifestly self-absorbed, entirely missing both the point of understanding racism as a system, and the opportunity to address it in a way that is manifestly hope-full.

As we know (and so much more easily acknowledge, because shame is not involved) in the presence of COVID19, “We are all in this together.”

Racism: same deal.

And as we have learned from COVID19, the most collectively-effective and personally-responsible response to its presence begins by learning as much as we can about how it multiplies, sustains itself, and infects others by way of us each, since racism (like COVID19) doesn’t pick and choose only those with obvious “symptoms” (in the case of racism, the symptoms of “prejudice and bias”) by which to spread.

And, as with COVID19, in order to know what to do to take care of ourselves and each other to stop the virus from spreading, we need to first become interested in learning how it does, not by looking for evidence of how we or others are an exception to the “infection” of racism, but to understand how none of us are “above” being carriers. Like COVID19, racism has no regard for who are “good people” and who are “bad people.” And both are most virulent where there is a lack of consciousness of its presence, and/or a willful denial about our individual and collective responsibility to do what we can to keep it from spreading.

I’ve come to think that one of the reasons that we resist becoming conscious (whether about racism, COVID19, or anything) is that we are afraid that we’ll be left understanding more than we can do anything about: that consciousness will simply leave us in a state of deeper despair.

But true consciousness (which comes from setting our egos aside so as to be open, courageously curious, and alert with the whole of our being) actually has the opposite effect, since consciousness is always accompanied (sooner or later) with a corresponding clarity as to how we are each individually meant to act with respect to what we come to understand.

Which is, I believe, the “how” of  “how to hope:” to see hope as a way of living based in a commitment to ever more consciousness. And since consciousness is the bell that we can’t un-ring, we can trust that it will inherently inform and direct all other right-actions. For some, “effective action” may simply (and powerfully) amount to ceasing to do things we used to do in unconsciousness to maintain racism and contribute to other causes of suffering. 

IMG_3128
Women’s March, Washington D.C., 2017. Photo by Brenda Hillman

My sister Bonnie enacts “how to hope” in great part by continuing to tirelessly dedicate her time, her education, her social position and her financial resources (all of these resources a direct result of the system of racism, as are other white peoples’) to travel all over the country (as she has been doing for the past four years), canvassing and campaigning with others to elect candidates of color to positions of representative power.

For my friend Julia, who recently retired from a career in academia spent teaching about bias and diversity, “how to hope” has meant continuing to be actively and avidly curious about what she doesn’t yet understand about her own participation in racism, instead of feeling superior for what she does.

For me, in this moment, “how to hope” means writing as a response to my real grieving and anger over all that George Floyd’s death means for and about us collectively as a racist society –grief and anger I could not (I realize now) even deeply and directly feel to respond from until I could set aside my self-centered shame and blame. It meant reading White Fragility, and in seeing myself in it (and seeing the hope in the seeing), it means inviting other white people to do the same. It means actively seeking out people of color (from writers and other public figures to personal acquaintances) to help me learn what it is important to them for me to understand (which is itself an act of relinquishing my white authority), so that I can respond ever more…responsibly. Going forward, I am curious to discover what else it will mean. 

“So much opportunity to learn and grow in 2020!” Julia signed off in January, in her text message urging me to read White Fragility, too.

Little did we know.

“G” is for “George Floyd”

I am angry.

Angry at Derek Chauvin for yet another murder of a black man, and at the “justice lite” (so far) gestures that are once again the response to the white officers responsible.

download
George Floyd

But I am also dismayed and angered by the discourse of white people who are dismayed and angered by “racist whites:” a discourse that itself allows us to neatly distance ourselves in our own minds from “those bad white people,” which in turn protects us from recognizing and having to grapple with our own direct complicity in and responsibility for George Floyd’s murder, as if racism were simply an attitude of hostile prejudice, and attitude avowed by the white supremacists of the world and enacted by cops who murder black men .

What do we not understand here? We don’t understand that the murder of a black man by a white police officer is simply another of the bloody blooms that surface from the vast thready network of the racist root system that is America itself, and of which we are all a part. We don’t understand that without our active complicity in maintaining that root system (correction: we are that root system), Derek Chauvin and the other officers involved in George Floyd’s death could never have killed the man.

That they are acting for us, that is: they are simply racism’s henchmen, its actors.

What we don’t understand, as white people, is that it is by racism that we “live and breathe and have our being” in America. Such that, for a white person to say s/he is “not racist” is to say s/he doesn’t actually understand racism.

The thing is, racism isn’t simply a synonym for easy-to-recognize-and-disavow prejudices and biases, but a systemic condition from which white people benefit at the expense of others, every moment of our lives.

In a post a few months ago, (“‘B’ is for ‘Books and Blogs’”), I included a late-breaking recommendation by a friend, of sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. It was a book I had not read yet, but which my friend Julia had read not just once but twice. A book that had so powerfully informed and affected her that she texted me from a beach in Mexico, urging me to read it without delay. So immediately after posting her recommendation I did read it, and had the same response…and what I learned from it about my own (I see now) willful (if previously unconscious) naïveté about my own inherent racism, and complicity in maintaining it, is precisely why I had to respond to George Floyd’s racism-derived death, today.

What DiAngelo’s book helped me to begin to understand is that racism is all about power and the concentration of power, and the privilege conferred to ALL members of the group (white people) who hold that power.  Power and privilege which is so near and dear that it is truly like air: like air, we can’t even recognize it as separate from ourselves, since we live our lives by breathing it. DiAngelo helped me to understand racism is a system and not merely an attitude held only by people who say the N-word …or who we (smugly) believe don’t say the N-word in our presence only because they know that we “non-racists” would disapprove. And I began to understand that the system of racism is designed for white people and actively maintained by you and me (if you, like me, are white) to benefit and privilege white people at the expense of people of color, by every economic and social measure at play.

In a review and interview In The New Yorker after DiAngelo’s book was released (in 2018), Katy Waldman wrote,

DiAngelo addresses her book mostly to white people, and she reserves her harshest criticism for white liberals like herself (and like me), whom she sees as refusing to acknowledge their own participation in racist systems. “I believe,” she writes, “that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.” Not only do these people fail to see their complicity, but they take a self-serving approach to ongoing anti-racism efforts: “To the degree that white progressives think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.” “Color blindness,” the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does.

The most effective adaptation of racism over time,” DiAngelo claims, “is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.” This “good/bad binary,” positing a world of evil racists and compassionate non-racists, is itself a racist construct, eliding systemic injustice and imbuing racism with such shattering moral meaning that white people, especially progressives, cannot bear to face their collusion in it.

“Pause on that, white reader,” Waldman herself then urges us, asking us to consider whether perhaps “You may have subconsciously developed your strong negative feelings about racism in order to escape having to help dismantle it.”  (from “A Sociologist Examines the “White Fragility” That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism”)

To truly understand, then, how racism was to blame for George Floyd’s death means to understand that for you and I to say “I am not a racist” is effectively to say “I choose to remain blind to the reality of racism and to the ways that my blindness actively contributes to maintaining it.” It is to choose my own positive self-regard and self-righteous (as distinct from righteous) anger over the truth of my complicity and responsibility, allowing me to sit back and feel judgmental and superior to those who do racism’s more obvious violence for me, as though they are the only ones to blame. It is a position which asks nothing of me, really, except to express myself and “demand” change, as though the problem itself and action needed is located somewhere other than with me.

In 2014, Eric Garner’s last words before he died were “I can’t breathe”. George Floyd’s last words: the same.

COVID-19 is ravaging us, making it difficult to breathe, and yet systemic racism has been tightening its grip on our throats for years, wrote the Reverend Al Sharpton on Sunday 

If you are, as I am, angry about this latest “bloody bloom” of racism, good. But unless ours actions derive from a deep understanding of what racism actually is, how it works, and how we white people ourselves personally —whether we are male or female, rich or poor— actively if unconsciously (and “unconsciously” is the problem) benefit from and maintain racism every day of our lives, our actions will express our outrage but result in no real change, because real change can only result from white progressives’ willingness to give up not only our delusion of superiority as “not racist,” but the actual privileges of racism for which black (and other people of color) pay a daily price.

Interested in understanding racism and our part in it, white readers and friends? If so, I can’t think of a better place to start than DiAngelo’s book.download-5

Not interested, because you think racism doesn’t apply to you? Well then, you (like I) are exactly who it was written for.

For we white people, racism truly is the air we breathe. And every day that we are not willing to look at, understand and grapple with that with humility and honesty, we are effectively saying to Derek Chauvin, “Go for it,” and another black man’s last words become “I can’t breathe.”

 

 

 

“F” is for “The Force…”

For April.

For this April in particular.

 

 

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
                                                                   (after Dylan Thomas)

informs the slow orgasm of the rose, the doe’s
blunt lust for grass, the gross grunt and the grace
note, all that unfolds, fizzes, races past, devours–
force that outwaits all restraint and fear and frost and rest.

–Donna Henderson

 

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(The poem was inspired by the title of Welch poet Dylan Thomas’ [1914-1953] own poem of the same title. Read his here. )

                                                                     * * * 

In these days of COVID and division, poetry feels more urgent than ever to me, to both write and to receive. For that reason, it is my personal practice to begin each day with poetry (with reading or writing or both), so as to listen to the soul (which is hope) of the world, before its fear-full news. As poet and physician William Carlos Williams famously put it (in the poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”), It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.

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You can read more of “Asphodel” at Poets.org .

And while you’re on the website, consider making a Poetry Month (which April is)  donation to the Academy of American Poets. download-1Donations support its ongoing mission of supporting poets, and making poetry freely accessible to millions of readers, through its Poets.org website, it’s publications, and programs.

Programs such as the upcoming Shelter In Poems: a Virtual Reading” to be held on Thursday, April 30, at 7:30 pm EDT. Click here to register for this free event; read the full press release here

 

And for lots more wonderful poetry, check out the titles from Oregon’s own  Airlie Press. We need their poetry, they need our support!

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“E” is for “Epidemic*”

Spring Training

Shut off the news, the cell phone, the TV
for all the hours you can.
Sit or walk outside every day.
Let the sunshine percolate into your skin.
Look for small things, surprises to notice
gifts to be thankful for.
A lonely cat takes shelter on my front door mat.
A neighbor, her chemo finished is
walking her bouncy, three-legged dog.
A hellebore has seeded and made more purple flowers.
Go outside when the sky is black, watch the moon
as it swells toward its fullest.
When the Easter moon arrives celebrate
all the life that is emerging here
despite your darkest fear.

—Dina Triest (reprinted with permission) 

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How to even begin to write about, around or into this, here?

What is needed is language that attends, abides; which by its nature is fearless. “Fearless” because not alienated from the experience it attends and abides.

Which is the life of poetry. Language like breath itself, language that roots to rise.

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Which brings to mind a text exchange a few days ago with my friend, Susannah: IMG_1297

Me: I woke up this morning thinking about what you said last night about this crisis, by nature, being something that asks for a kind of recalibration of attention/strategy, and so also of corresponding attitude-toward-oneself. That since it’s not of the order of things that can be outmaneuvered somehow, by “being smart enough to stay ahead of it”, then judging oneself for not having done [fill in the blank] sooner is pointless, because irrelevant. & how the bigger challenge, which is to be-with, and to respond sensibly and speedily & sensitively to the unfolding itself, opens the heart to compassion, self- and other. Something about the difference between living in fear (in the sense of being “driven by anxiety”) and living with the Fear (in the sense of “Fear of God”, which is actually “Awe”). Anyway, that’s my spin on your words, which were very orienting, in this continuous process of reorienting.

Susannah: Omg this is IT. What I hope to maintain is the fear of God: the awestruck experience of watching something enormous unfold VS. the fear of being out of control, which is a fear of myself and what I can and can’t handle. And then a tenderness toward the experience of being ultimately tiny in the face of the awesome.

                                                           

                                                                 What she said.

                                                                         

Tell all the truth but tell it at a slant, begins poem #1129 by Emily Dickinson, which ends, The truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind —

 

I want to write (as I want to respond, to live) in a way which is commensurate somehow with the nature of the unfolding of the pandemic and its vast effects; an unfolding which intimates, but which defies comprehension or containment. A kind of “gradual instant” which calls us to the kind of  reflections and responses which do not default to the flight into meaning that is the mind’s defense against what it cannot wrap itself around. Nor, correspondingly, to the flight into sentimentality that is the heart’s way of not-breaking (by feeling about an idea of a thing, and not the thing itself).

***

 

In the early weeks of COVID19, my sister Heather reminded me that our father had experienced and survived the last pandemic —the Spanish Flu (an H1N1 virus)— and had written about it in his memoir. I had forgotten that, and found it ominous and companionable both, to re-read it now. 

Early in 1918 [my brother and I] we both came down with the deadly Spanish Influenza, the worst infectious disease outbreak in human history. It is estimated that it killed between twenty and fifty million people worldwide in a little more than a year, killing 675,000 Americans, more than were killed in all the United States’ wars of the twentieth century combined. […]

There was no effective vaccine for the disease. Hospitals overflowed; doctors and nurses who hadn’t been called to the war were overwhelmed, and many of them were stricken too. The flu was fatal within a week to one-fourth of those infected. […]

We boys both beat the odds. Mother told us later that as our fevers soared to105 IMG_2959degrees. we sometimes were delirious for hours and then would lapse into ominous lethargy. I remember only frightening dreams followed by the soothing sounds of Mother singing Stephen Foster songs and Maudie [who kept house for the family] crooning spirituals. The homespun care worked its magic, and by the time father reached home [from travels in Central America] we were both on the mend.

The flu epidemic in the U.S. peaked in October, with 119,000 deaths that month alone […]  (George M. Henderson, Lonely on the Mountain, p. 10)

 

***

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My mother arrives in a dream, and it feels like a visitation. I’ve been hearing these kinds of stories from others: stories of encounters through the veils and across divides. A long-dead parent clearly appears in a doorway. A living relative with whom a decades-long rift has existed calls, and the rift dissolves. Our people are drawing close to us, my friend Claire observes.

                                                                      

***

 

On a walk, Rich complains about the incessant stream of information and explanation the media delivers, in a kind of one-tune show. “The gesture of explaining is the real text,” he laments. “We can’t let any mystery slip in, and we have to explain, we have to blame.” IMG_2614

We need information to respond, react, he says, but we also need silence, contemplation, so as to discover the gestures that respond to the vastness of this, to meet the sea-change within and among us that it invites.

                                                                     What he said.

 

If we are truly and profoundly transformed by this experience, individually and collectively, it will not be at the level of sentiment or of ideology. Sentiment, however intensely felt, is by nature volatile and fleeting, and ideology essentially heartless in its righteousness, precisely because it is involves an a priori devotion to principles over presence. Profound transformation will not be evidenced primarily by how we think or feel or believe, but in how we act, and be

 

 

I am noticing a sense of vigilance, each day all day; it is the felt-sense that it is important to do what’s most important in each moment…and that what that is changes, moment to moment. That what is for the moment is also known only by the moment. A sense of vigilance, but of a mindful, “keeping vigil” kind, not an anxious kind. Vigilance as distinct from hypervigilance. I notice how anxious-vigilance interferes, in fact, with my discernment and response to what’s important. “What’s important” might be to make a call to a neighbor who might or might not be in need of something, or it might be the action of restraint: of refraining from an impatient reaction, say. Or in a gesture or expression of gratitude that I might not, before, have made, being in too much of a self-centered hurry to do my own next thing.  Or it might be in washing my hands again.

And I am noticing, in the process, how “what’s important” and “what’s urgent” are not always the same. That “what’s urgent” is first of all (and sometimes only) simply what has the first and loudest voice in the room of my consciousness, which is maybe always the voice of fear. What it urges may also be the “most important” at a given moment, but it often isn’t so.

I am noticing also how much energy this kind of attention takes. And how important it is to give it.

                                                                      

 

What’s invaluable in love is to help51lGsG7N6QL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_
 each other reach the end of a long road.
 Although every day seems the same, love resides in the ordinary

 

(from the poem, “Surprise” by Ha Jin.
in A Distant Center, Copper Canyon Press, 2018)

 

 

***

It feels like we are all being invited to a primal shift in consciousness … as the destructive “normal” way of doing life is not automatically there.  One thing I love about it all is the relief to our mother earth from all the carbon emissions and pollution that “normal” has been causing.  Like our Mother can breathe a little more.  Or know that it is possible to breathe again. (Tom Amsberry, in personal correspondence)

I hadn’t thought about that.

So I went to the Weather Underground website and looked up “Los Angeles.” The air quality rating was “Good.”

So I looked up Beijing. “Good” also.

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***

    I greet the God of Mystery, Mercy and Mary

One morning these words just…arrive as I wake, and they become my prayer.

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*Note: COVID19 is technically now a “pandemic.” But I had to look it up to find out the difference. An epidemic is an outbreak of disease that infects many people within a short time span, but which is localized to a community or region. It becomes a pandemic when it spreads throughout the world.

& for some more poems from and about this time (including the splendid poem, “Pandemic,” which has been widely circulating (I am deliberately avoiding using the term “gone viral” here) on the internet recently, visit poet Lynn Ungar’s website: lynnungar.com