Carried On The Breath

Years back, in saner times, I went walking in Wildcat Canyon. It was midsummer, the green was creeping down the hills as the relentless sun of the dry season drove the water downhill. I sat under an oak tree and looked at the patterns the color made as gold engulfed green. I came there often and was realizing just how easy it was to get a specific lesson from the land, just by taking the time to really observe. The pennyroyal patch that I’d been making cups of tea from was obviously a place where water pooled below the surface even in summer. The reeds grew in another low place for part of the year. The bracken grows in winter, the wet season when our biome comes alive, and its brown skeletons can be seen as the dry season sucks the green plants dry. The hills are pale gold and the hum of life rises to a subtle scream of heat and light that stretches the days to the breaking point. This is when fire stalks the land. For a time, the only patches of green are the depressions between the hills, the streams marked by the trees that grow on their banks. The alders grow on the lower hills, closest to the water, the oaks and laurels take over from there and dot the hills. The huge purple thistles and Himalayan blackberries, brought by people who should have known better, are happy in their new home on the hills and in large thickets, and broom, another plant that was brought here, crowds out the native coyote brush and ceanothus.

I used to live close enough to ride there. I’d lock up my bike in the parking lot and walk the road that goes nowhere, my very own dystopic landscape when such places were delicious fantasies instead of looming realities. I’d think of what it would be like to be a nomad on a bicycle, living off the land and having adventures.

There is a turnoff and a steep section of hill that ends at a cattle gate. You can let yourself in and continue up the dirt road to the remains of what was once an estate, and then a sanitarium, and then was consumed by fire over half a century ago. What was once a long driveway lined with palm trees is now a rough trail with one or two weatherbeaten survivors, their trunks stout and battered by the struggle of living in a climate they were never meant for. Among them are oaks and bay laurels, the remains of rose bushes, and the low lines of what were once walls. There is a set of steps ending in grass, a fine place to sit, and further on an orchard reduced to a few stunted apple trees sheltered by a snaggletoothed line of cypresses. Strike off for the top of the ridge once you pass the line and there is a brass benchmark set in the bare top of the hill. The view is impressive, you can see the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais, the refinery with its round tanks off in the distance.

That day though, the heat had driven me off the ridge into the shade. I was thinking about the planet and how we were changing it. How it must feel to be the earth as it warmed. The hot day was a reflection of the planetary fever we are creating as we move the stored carbon from the land into the sky. I closed my eyes in meditation and asked the Earth what it felt like to breathe as a planet right then.

I began to feel the heat as I hadn’t before. My throat was dry, and I wanted to lie down. The air was drying me out, and my eyes popped open. I took a gulp of water from my canteen but it didn’t help. Each breath was drawn with difficulty, through the thinning tube of my throat. I began to panic.

Then I remembered what I had asked and realized what was probably happening to me. If it wasn’t, I was far from help and this was before the age of the cell phone. I did lie down, and slowly took a deep breath. I felt the land beneath me, holding me up, and spent some time just breathing, sending the fear down into it, reducing my need for air in stillness, looking up through the leaves above me, the bits of blue sky above. Slowly, the dizziness subsided. I wasn’t sick, not really. The Earth wasn’t even sick. Things were just a bit harder than they had been and I was a vessel far too small to contain the Earth’s pain. I sat up, drank more water, and thought about what had happened.

It has been years since I lived in Richmond. That day I’d driven up there on a whim, wanting to see the place again. As I walked back to my car, a battered silver Honda that had taken me on many an adventure, I realized that this had to be my last car. The Earth could take no more and I would no longer be part of this madness. Yes, my gas-crunch car sipped rather than gulped. It was tiny enough to fit in any possible parking place. Its emissions were so low that smog places asked me what I’d done to it, suspecting modification. I’d bought it from a guy who’d had tears in his eyes as he’d turned over the keys. Impulsively, I’d asked him what its name was. He said “Phoenix,” so fast and low I almost missed it. It had been rear-ended by an SUV, the back hatch had been crushed, but the frame was fine and the car did live up to its name. For practicality, and I admit to add to the Road Warrior ambiance, I popped the back hatch open, installed a couple of hasps on the sides, and padlocked it shut. I loved it like a member of the family. In the end, Phoenix died when a truck turned left in front of us on Highway 1 out of Crescent City. I managed to get down to 35 by standing on the brake. I wasn’t hurt, my coffee hadn’t even been spilled. Phoenix was totaled. With tears in my eyes, I turned it over to a wrecker and in the end joined a carshare.

Today the sky is hazy. The morning light was strained through smoke, the color of fine old Scotch and smelling like it has every summer for the last few years. Fire season is so beautiful, and so sad. We won’t be burning, we live in the city. We are lucky enough to be able to stay inside, able to do the right thing in a pandemic, but so many of us have to go out there, have to work or flee burning houses, or to places where we can breathe.

We’ve triggered planetary defense mechanisms, passed tipping points. In California, we are seeing the beginning of desertification. The forests are changing, turning to savanna in some places, changing their composition in others, burning and dying in places that were once beautiful. Sudden oak death is taking the oaks on Mt. Tamalpais. They are being supplanted by bay laurel and Douglas fir. What will happen to the redwoods, who need their feet in the water? Big Basin is burning, the oldest California State Park, home to the giants.

We’ve targeted the atmosphere, that thin layer of gases that the lives of so many creatures depend upon. It’s as if the planet is sending humanity the same message I received when I asked my question years ago. In specific areas, for specific people, we can’t breathe. And yes, we are compounding our folly by choking innocent people to death, as if to make this human-made tragedy complete.

COVID-19 is the icing on the cake. A disease carried by the air. It most often settles in the lungs, and most people survive it, but that is a deception that only allows it to move more freely among us. As it spreads on our breath we find it has so many more ways of killing or causing permanent harm. A zoonotic disease, it has spilled over into humanity because we can’t seem to share this planet we are part of, and collectively we don’t care about any of the other beings on this planet except as they relate to us. The remedies to limit its spread are simple, but unpleasant and expensive and require cooperation and sharing what we have.

We are being tested—not by a faraway being who created the Earth as some Petri dish to see how far the experiment will run, but by ourselves. We are stretching the limits of our only home and we have nowhere else to go should we damage our habitat to the point it can no longer sustain us.

We can stop this. The test we have devised for ourselves has no individual solution. Living a climatically virtuous lifestyle—whatever that is—is a way to experiment and find alternatives to the unbridled pursuit of growth that has been the norm for the last ten millennia, but it is like throwing a bucket of water on a forest fire. It will not save us as individuals. Enough of us have forgotten how to live as if other people matter, as if other species matter to push us over the edge of the carrying capacity of this place we call home, and until and unless we learn to live as part of a collective superorganism, which is, after all, what this planet is, we will not survive. Like everything else here, alone in the sea of space, we are all connected. Our actions in this time matter deeply. We are unlikely to extinguish all life, but we can certainly extinguish ourselves.

I don’t know how to fix this. The caterpillar doesn’t know how to become a butterfly, but it does so. Are we part of a galaxy, a universe, where this sort of metamorphosis happens? We won’t know unless we make it to the other side. It may turn out that we’re worrying for nothing, that what feels like death approaching is only the process of transformation. All I know is that when we seek stillness and listen to the rest of the world we do know what we shouldn’t be doing.

Our planet lies between two others, Venus and Mars, that for reasons we do not yet understand went in opposite directions, one falling victim to a runaway greenhouse effect and the other possibly losing the ability to support an atmosphere and retain liquid water. Did they ever support life? We won’t know if we don’t survive, but we do know that continuing to fill our atmosphere with carbon dioxide is a foolish thing to do.

I am not for an instant calling the current pandemic a blessing. My own country is closing in on 200,000 deaths, and the havoc and death that has been created by one little virus is not something any sane person would wish for. It is, however, the kind of shock that can create change. The countries who have taken it seriously and taken sensible action to deal with the crisis are beginning to recover. It is blindingly obvious what needs to be done and the consequences of not doing these things. I’m not going to go into those actions because they are being discussed worldwide and the information is available to anyone who chooses to open their eyes.

These things aren’t easy for people who have been accustomed to thinking only of themselves, their families, their nations, their species. Doing them will mean we have at last begun to grow up as a species and realize that we must act for the good of the whole. We will be on the road to planetary consciousness. It will mean that we think before we act, and we observe and learn from the world around us instead of looking for the facts that justify the actions we wish to take.

Someday, when we have done what we need to, I will walk in a wild place once more. Until then I will stay inside and remember what I have learned. Once upon a time I walked the ridge above Wildcat Canyon, camped beside the sea at Point Reyes, stood inside a redwood in Big Basin. Is that tree still standing? What will be left of Point Reyes? Or, like so many beautiful places, will they be only memories?

The Fantasy of Independence

A certain vocal segment of us seem to believe that we are independent of everyone else. We have a right to make our own choices about everything. Our individual rights are more important than the rights of others around us. We won’t be forced to wear masks, we won’t pay for anyone else’s healthcare, or food, or anything else that “they” should be providing for themselves.

This is of course a complete fantasy. I can’t think of a lesson more perfectly suited to pop this bubble of crazy than the mask issue. We don’t need to wear them for our own safety, we do it for the collective, or really, the species. That’s why some of us are confined to our room, until we’re not collectively dripping viruses.

If I were a believer in fate, I could even see the planet providing this particular final exam for us as a way of making us awaken to our interdependence with all life, or die. However, there’s no need to go that far—we did this to ourselves, simply by believing we can do anything we please. We are part of a superorganism that extends over the whole planet and we have started to put the whole in danger. Mother Nature is not mad, God is not “gonna get you” for that. But we are triggering planetary defense mechanisms and the pandemic is one result of that.

As above, so below. Our bodies create a fever to make our bodily climate unhealthy for the pathogens that have infected us whether we are talking about a cold or COVID. Trees give off certain chemical signals when they are being attacked to call specific insects or other allies to help them. Might part of a local ecosystem repel invaders virally? The world is a network of these relationships and feedback loops. If we put a priority on learning what these cycles are and how to be part of them, life will be a lot more pleasant, and a lot cheaper, as we make use of these tendencies to lighten our load. If not, we can continue to be visited by disaster as we blunder around in the equivalent of a darkened room, setting events we can’t see in motion.

The relationship between humanity, bats, and COVID-19 is one example of how this works. Bats are very useful creatures, major pollinators, bug-eaters, and host a whole lot of viruses, some of which can kill us quite efficiently.

Why do these viruses kill us but not bats? Why don’t bats cause disease in us all the time? Finding out why they infect us is becoming clear. Finding out why they don’t get sick could lead to all sorts of medical breakthroughs for us—if we can avoid the temptation of trying to kill them off, that is, since they harbor what to us is disease.

Normally, this viral community bats live with is no problem to us. They live their lives and we live ours. But lately, with the general tendency we humans have to take over any part of the world we please, not thinking, if we bother to give a thought to the communities who live there at all, that we are stressing out a whole lot of living things, from indigenous people, to, well, bats. We encroach on their territory and stress them out in all sorts of ways, and their immunity drops. They start to shed virus everywhere. Is this what happened in the case of COVID-19? Looks like that might be the case, but we don’t have the tools to find out yet.

In any case, the problem that led us here was the fantasy of independence. Here we sit, the richest country in the world, confined within our borders because a significant proportion of us won’t stay inside during a pandemic. Our government, that bailed out the wealthy, doesn’t see making it possible financially and logistically for the general populace to do so as a good investment. Even worse, as individuals, some of us have chosen to assert our rights. We won’t do what we know would keep the most people alive. Keeping our distance for a while and putting on a mask—and putting this simple, cheap strategy into our personal toolkits.

The last few months should have showed us how counterproductive it is to ignore science. This problem is easily explainable and obviously fixable using that discipline if we choose to do what is needed. Most of our world has done so, after all, and are now cautiously resuming what is becoming the new normal. Don’t we want to be part of shaping that? Don’t we ever want to get out of our rooms?

Biking on the Bay Trail

One of the gifts the pandemic has given me is a return to my bicycle. Two wheels and feet have become the safest way for me to travel. I have been getting our groceries on the bike, but since I have been called back to work on site, the bicycle makes it possible to take the ferry across the bay instead of using BART. At first there were fewer cars on the road, but even as people decide that they have given the pandemic all the time they can afford to and jump back into their cars, I have become acclimated again, and have found other ways to separate myself from the worst of the traffic. Thankfully, there has been some progress on the bike path network as well. There are still gaps between the paths, but they are shorter than they were, and some real improvements, such as a long stretch of Folsom in San Francisco and a lot of Valencia Street.

I was curious about the Bay Trail running north from Jack London. I decided to see how far I could get after trying to trace the route via satellite imagery. I wanted to go to REI anyway, I needed to replace my beloved baskets. They are great, but impractical for transit and don’t fit lockers or even many racks, which are built for wide handlebars and narrow back wheels. They also make it impossible for me to pick up Beater with any kind of a load. I wanted a real rack that would support panniers, which can be carried separately, and also the weight of a load of groceries. I also wanted to see how crowded BART is, so I took the trail to North Berkeley and rode back. I picked up a rack rated for 110 pounds, and one of the only panniers they had left. No one in the bike shop could tell me how to get through the Maze, so I bought a newer version of the bike map I already have, which is the best five bucks I’ve spent in a while.

The Berkeley end was pretty good. It took less than half an hour to get from REI to Emeryville, and that was because I was dawdling a bit, enjoying being near the water on a really beautiful trail. That ended around IKEA. There is a good separated trail down Maritime, through the Port, but the exhaust is pretty heavy, and there are a couple of spots where you have to cross the streets the trucks use. According to the map there are two other possibilities, 40th to Mandela, or Middle Harbor to Third. Seventh was scary. The path is really a wide sidewalk, and there are several intersections much like those in the Port. I won’t be doing that again if I have a choice.

I bailed at Oakland West, and wished I hadn’t. Third will get me close to Jack London, and the Bay Trail will get me to 5th. The recent improvements in the bike lanes in my neighborhood don’t do me much good, though there is one light on International that has gotten rid of one blind crossing that I appreciate very much. I still have the potholed side streets largely to myself, and have plenty of decent sections of pavement that I can thread the needle home on.

All in all, it was a useful expedition. It looks like there is a very long but possible ride from Lake Merritt to the San Rafael Transit Center. That opens up the possibility of taking a bike to Point Reyes, perhaps to Mt. Tam depending on the trails from the other side of the bridge, and perhaps points north. Maybe, with all the people trying out bicycling, the Bay Trail’s gaps will be filled in the near future.

Peace Begins With Me

Awen made of rocks from Llyn Tegid and yew from Sussex
     The pandemic has changed us, and whether we know it or not, there is no going back to the way things were.
     Our divisions have been laid bare. Perhaps we need to realize our interdependence rather than insist on a fantasy of independence that ignores all the things we depend on to pursue it, from the people, unsung and poorly paid, who sell us groceries, work the land, and slaughter the animals, to the nurses and health care workers, also compensated far below their worth, to the people who hold the reins of power, the ones who need to learn what sharing really is.
     Right now, our world is a chessboard, thrown skyward. Who knows where the pieces will land, and in what order? When all is in flux, it’s time for magic, and then to roll up our sleeves and make what we see real.
So every morning I light a candle to Brighid.
I sing to her, a song of my own crafting:

and ask:

“Lady of Healing
Please throw your Cloak of Healing over the Earth.
Help us to remember our kinship with all beings.
Help us learn to live in peace with all beings,
from the microbes to the stars.”
     It is suicidal to declare war on the microbes, the largest kingdom on this planet.
They are us. They digest our food and return our bodies to the Earth when we die.
They are the oldest inhabitants of this planet, the ones who turn the wheel of life as we cycle from one life into the next, fed by and feeding on the life we are part of. These great cycles are what make us one.
     Every morning I call on the life force beneath and above me and say these words:
“Peace begins with me. Peace begins with all of us. Today I take that health, strength and peace that flows through me and spread it over the whole world, radiant and alive.”
     I see the Earth glowing with it, feel it flowing through me and back to its source until I can feel it rising from the ground beneath me.
     I continue:
“I now live in a world where everyone has that peace, where everyone has food, shelter, and clothing appropriate to our needs and our creeds, and above all the awareness that we are the web of life. What we do to the web we do to ourselves.”
     I send energy where it is needed, to those I know in particular who need it. And then I can do my own stretching and bending, to keep the flow of life within me strong, so I have something to share, so I can climb on my bicycle, carry heavy loads, do the work that is mine in this world.
     If we all do what we know needs to be done, we will all be healed, safe, fed, clothed and sheltered. We are all responsible because we are the ones here, now, the only ones that can respond to the world around us. We don’t get to pick and choose. Everyone is worthy, and all are needed.
      I spent the week in preparation. I will al long last be going back to work. I am apprehensive to be forced back onto public transit on a daily basis, but have no practical choice right now. A tourist attraction seems to me to be the last thing that should be opening up right now, but the dice cup is rattling and perhaps my perspective will be useful. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
     It also looks like the government here is hiring contact tracers—a badly needed step. We have both taken the training, but my partner is the one without a job and I need to keep the one I already have. I’m setting in place the ways I can help her while being out of the house again on a full time basis.  I am also making masks, in this last week I am free to do this work. I don’t know where they will be needed, but the way things are going, I think we will all be wearing them for the foreseeable future. Might as well make some attractive, well-fit ones that are as comfortable as possible. I know I want a week’s worth to make sure I have a clean one each day, and I plan to carry a few wherever I go to pass out as needed.
Every morning, I light a candle…
Candle burning in a cauldron, on an altar

Cities Are Cauldrons

Gibbous Earth rising over moon
Gibbous Earth rising over moon
Earthrise, Apollo 8, Dec 24th, 1963
There was a bit in the latest Cosmos where Neil Degrasse Tyson compared our planet to a cauldron. I think of cities the same way. Some like to speak disparagingly of “city people” and our myriad faults, but I see it differently. Cities are perfectly natural expressions of humanity. They are our beehives, our anthills. They are where we come to become more than the sum of our parts.
I live in what was once a very fashionable part of town. It is a neighborhood time forgot. We live in a beautiful, if a bit run down, Craftsman cottage, built on the grounds of a mansion that has also seen better days. Two back yards away is one of its outbuildings, a separate property now that went from being a church to a dwelling. It has a swath through the block, as does the mansion, which now lies on a narrow strip of land that fronts on one avenue and backs onto another. The main path to the front door is lined with huge Tasmanian blackwoods, a forest in the center of the block. The owners are busily putting in palm trees wherever there isn’t a blackwood or an oak. I oscillate between worry and gratitude, because their tastes seem to be tropical, but at least the old trees are not being cut down yet.
My city is young enough to remember the forest that once was there. There are still oaks here, and redwoods, remnants of a vast old growth forest that once covered this area. Two buses away, an insurmountable obstacle in Pandemic times, I have my choice of the Redwood Bowl and the site of the once massive Navigation Trees, or Leona Heights, where the last old growth redwood of that forest grows. Two blocks down from our house a wide avenue runs in the bed of what was once a stream. The lake down the hill was once marshland, the lake created from it in the mid-nineteenth century as a bird sanctuary. We humans, as we often do, have put trees in everywhere, replacing the forest that once was there with one more to our liking. They look like our neighborhood, many sizes, shapes and colors, most never meant to grow here, but getting along together as best they can. Aspens, birches, magnolias, and the palms. There are olives dotted through the neighborhood, doing well in our Mediterranean climate, twisting in fantastic shapes and dropping olives on the street every fall.
The trees must remain here, placed and chosen by us, but the people come and go. Most of my neighbors are only here for a few years, landing by chance, in the hope of a better life or a good real estate investment. We are the same. We came there because it was the only area we could afford, to stabilize our housing bill. We stay because we can’t afford to move—yet. But the land is beautiful, and it isn’t so bad a place. We are part of the land, transient, true, living on Ohlone land, but we have never known the lands of our ancestors. Really, where would that be? How many different places did your ancestors come from? Mine were scattered all over Northern Europe. Do I return to Germany? Scotland? Other places my family had forgotten before I was born? All we can do is to live in peace with the people we find ourselves among, and try to leave these places better than we found them.
My partner and I are city kids, and frankly proud of it. We can get along with anyone, of any ancestry. We don’t fear hearing other languages spoken around us or different customs. We learn from the people around us. Once the pandemic is over and businesses open once more, it’s nice to be able to eat the foods of other nations, cooked in the restaurants immigrants run. It’s handy to be able to get ingredients and goods from places far from us in our own area. it’s interesting to live where we do—not always pleasant, but no place is all wine and roses. More than anything, it’s really nice to be ourselves. No, we are not always accepted, but we aren’t living in places where we are a minority of two. We once did try to move to a place like that, where we could have afforded a large house and the forest was nearby—but our same gender relationship and California plates caused the locals to spit us out as if were were some kind of infection, there to “Californicate” them. All we wanted was a place to live and a new community to become part of. But we are still here, in the area we were both born and raised in.
Cities, I believe, are where we gather to share new ideas, to find some solutions to the problems that ail us all. We humans have made a mess of things. The yardstick of money and social position that we have used since before Europeans first came to this continent has put an end to an entire geologic epoch. We made this mess, and we can fix it—if we choose to. We have all the tools we need. In the city, it’s possible to try out new solutions. The inputs that support our lives there come from outside, of course, but they don’t need to. We have chickens in our backyard, there are goats in our neighborhood, and community gardens. No, of course we can’t feed ourselves or our animals—yet, but we are trying out the ideas that could teach us to do so. We are growing gardens that aren’t monocultures. Some of us are walking, biking, fixing things instead of throwing them away—and making connections with people who are different from us. I truly mean it when I say refugees can live in my neighborhood. They already do. I have no right to tell anyone where they can live, and I hope to live long enough to see a world where my partner and I are welcome to live anywhere. I hope to see us exchange the yardstick of money and the Great Chain of Being for the compass needle of the health of all beings and all peoples.
The pandemic is a terrible, terrifying gift. We are the frog thrown into the boiling pot instead of slowly parboiled. So many of us are dying needlessly, so many more suffering, overworked, unpaid, sick, starving. Every inadequacy we have in our relationship with each other and the rest of the world is being laid bare. I wish it didn’t happen this way, but it has. It truly doesn’t matter whose fault it is, only what we will do with what we have, right here, right now.
The Cauldrons of the Cities are one of the places we will find our solutions. In many ways they are the ground zeroes of this disaster. Here where we are crowded together is the place where time is sped up. Keeping our distance is impossible for many and difficult for all. Lockdown happened as spring began, when we are all crazy to go outside after a long winter. We need to be out, but we need to keep the streets and buses empty for those who must go out.
Our search for individual solutions, a major thread running through our attempts to come to grips with climate change, are laid bare in this pandemic. We have groups of people—groups! demanding their freedom from lockdown, telling each of us to make our own decisions about whether or not we feel safe enough to go out. They want the freedom to go to work, get a haircut, go to the beach, as if that is an individual choice, something we can do without affecting anyone else. It is interesting that the fact that the stylist that will have to come to work or the retail clerk who will no longer be able to collect unemployment is seen as having a choice.
The truth is, our previous choices have been taken from us, and this is a great loss. It can’t be transferred to anyone else, and there is no one to blame who will make us whole. Only we, together can do this, by doing the work before us. I can hear the Earth saying “Stop. Be quiet and observe.” Not being able to go on with business as usual is quite a teacher. We have forgotten how to do so many things for ourselves. We don’t know where so many things integral to life come from. As the air begins to clear and the neighborhood begins to quiet down, what can we see and hear that we missed before? What can we actually live without, without too much pain? What better options have come to us in this time of great change and terrible loss? How can we become part of the solution instead of the problem? What will the next months bring?

Common Ground

img_1304

These people with guns storming statehouses are just trying to do the right thing.

They’re failing miserably, but that’s where they’re coming from. A steady diet of hate mixed with a coldly calculated approach designed to find and weaponize common ground has created a deeply divided populace. It’s hard to see the little man behind the curtain when you’re blind with rage and jacked up on words like liberty, freedom, and fascism. On either side.

There are a fair lot of us, however, who are isolated in our homes, doing what needs to be done, working from home and flattening the curve. These Astroturf demonstrations, widely covered, photogenic and deeply disturbing are designed to elicit a reaction from us. We don’t have to play along. We have other choices, but only if we calm down and think before we act. It’s hard to do, I know, when we’re confined to our own homes with only a television and the internet to connect us to the outside world. Can we see that this carefully curated–by each of us as well as by the powers that be–version of the truth is being used to return us to a status quo that no longer exists? Failing that, it will be a new normal that will benefit the holders of power–if we play along.

We are all in the same mess, together. We are nowhere near being in the same boat. Many of us are barely hanging onto the lines around the lifeboat, trying to keep our heads above the freezing water. Far more of us than should be are floating, dead, around the boat. A small number of us are living high, eating well and getting regular COVID tests, trying to figure out how to get past this unpleasantness before our core assets are affected. I am talking mainly to those of us who are in the boat with me–privileged enough to be able to stay home and watch all of this unfold as we work from home, or can survive there for long enough to get through lockdown, but in no way capable of doing it indefinitely. These protesters appear to be mainly of this segment of society, using their enforced leisure to protest, demanding the right to get haircuts and go outside. They are asking for “liberty,” not bread, and carrying expensive weapons instead of scrambling to make ends meet.

These people want a fight. The President who is egging them on knows that the more of a shambles he creates, the more likely he is to be able to steal a second term. Look over here and miss what I’m doing with the other hand has been his modus operandi from the beginning. The Republican party is now whittled down to the people who will go along with anything if they can profit from it, and as long as 45 keeps delivering the goods, they will do whatever it takes to keep him in the Oval Office.

The problem, as I see it, is we can’t fix any of this by ourselves. We got into this mess together, and that is the only way we are going to emerge. As it is now, a lot of people have died, and a lot more are going to. What we do now is crucial.

If there was ever a time for the Strength card, now is it. We can’t give the present holders of power what they want. We can do this without leaving our homes, luckily. It can begin quite simply. Stop spreading these news stories about the protesters. Stop whipping up the anger that makes us all act in ways we will regret later. If you’re living now and reading this blog, you know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, Google is your friend.

My mother used to say “Do nothing which is of no use.” It is the ninth principle in Musashi’s Book of Five Rings and while I have of course not always managed to act according to it, I have never forgotten it. It could easily be the touchstone for this pandemic. We are being exhorted, above all, to stay inside, if we can. To be modern Anchorites, albeit with a little more freedom and a temporary term, and leave the streets and public transit for those who have no choice but to go out.

I know I’m privileged. I’m working mainly from home. I am quarantined with only one adult, my partner, my best friend. We have only lost one of the jobs that support us, and my partner has an undetermined period of unemployment insurance while to figure out what her best options are. I’m spending what time is not devoted to work, helping her, and keeping us fed to things like restarting my blog and doubling down on daily practice. Making masks and writing to reps. Using the news as a tool, not letting it use me.

When I saw that angry, despairing post this morning, I saw a wise friend in pain. And yes, the first thought I had was that these people will probably get sick, and what could they expect? Not my finest moment, I agree.

I think sending in the National Guard is a demonstration of weakness, not strength. It would be proof that we are afraid of them and that they must have power. I don’t believe that for a second. If we want to meet them head on, we would do better to channel our inner Mel Brooks and Bugs Bunny. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.

Protesting is a pain–even if you manage to get coverage–and most of the time you don’t. It is about as fun as beating your head against a brick wall, at least for me. These people are getting far more coverage than most, partly because of the guns. They’re not getting massacred or hauled away for many reasons, the largest ones painfully obvious; they’re white, and they’re not shooting. They also have great lawyers. They are not immune to COVID-19, however, and are going to add to the chaos and the body count. How long will they continue to do this hard, unfamiliar work once the sugar high of being constantly on the news ends? What will they do when people begin to get sick? How about when people close to them die?

When you’re in a hole, the first thing you have to do is stop digging. Sending in people to stop these people will only expose more first responders in the form of police and, if there is violence, health professionals, to possible infection. If these people want to dance around any Capitol in the country with guns, let them! Turn off the cameras, move the lawmakers online or to other locations to govern and let them play. Alone. See what happens. And think of some truly creative ways to make them look like buffoons, or better yet, find a way to frame the issue that they can’t ignore. And watch as time passes. How many of them are there, and are any more coming to join them? This is a trash fire, not a movement. Remember the Malheur Wildlife Refuge? Not sending in the Marines, so to speak, was a better idea then too.

In the end, we all know what needs to be done. We need to stay in. We need to make sure that the people who need it get money–that means all of us getting on the same page and lighting up the lines to all of our representatives for the things we actually need. Coronavirus relief for everyone who is not getting a steady paycheck. Healthcare and testing for everyone. I think it’s odd, for example, that today I’m going across the Bay to San Francisco to get a PCR test instead of walking six blocks up the hill to the public hospital. No more handouts for rich corporations. All of this is much harder work and far less exciting coverage, but other countries have managed it. Many hands make light work. This is only difficult because so few people are doing it.

We have a chance to change a lot of things right now, when every institution we thought we could count on has been upheaved. The Overton Window is WAY wider than it has been in a long time. Will we allow the change to be determined by the people now in power by letting them get by with this stuff, or are we going to show them and ourselves that the tools of democracy still work?

Believe it or not, there is plenty of common ground. We are all scared of having our freedom and our lives taken away. We all fear for our livelihoods and our future. We all fear our own government. We’ve forgotten that it’s ours. Talking, not shouting, with each other is the first step. The people on the steps with the guns will realize this eventually. There are a whole lot fewer of them than it seems on TV.

A woman in a white dress pushes a gaudy lion's mouth closed.

 

The Triad Of Worth

Awen made of rocks from Llyn Tegid and yew from Sussex
Awen made of rocks from Llyn Tegid and yew from Sussex
Awen made of stones from Llyn Tegid and yew from Sussex

Three things are the foundation of wealth:

A body, healthy and strong, able to do what we ask of it.
Our time our own, to spend as we please.
Money enough to do what is needful, to pay what we owe when the bill comes due.

Work, for its own sake, is not a fit offering. I am a human being, not a human doing. While of course the gift of life and the things we require in order to maintain that life flow to us, and from us, the relationship and the flow are in themselves lessons in balance, and the art of living.

Working for a living has become working to survive for so many of us. It is so easy to become distracted when we spend so little time doing work that matters to us and to the world, and have so little time to reflect and simply live. I find so much of my “down time” is spent recovering from the time spent working and commuting—the time that is not spent doing the personal work necessary to prepare for the labor of the next working week, that is.

I can’t help but think that part of this is by design. If we are too busy surviving, we don’t notice how much of our lives are stolen from us. We are too busy running to catch up, too worried that we’ve missed some task that needed to be done, trying to make the grade, hit the mark, cross the finish line that we can never reach.

We spend money in order to reclaim time, which suits the ones we labor for quite well. We buy food prepared and ready to eat so we can avoid the time spent cooking and cleaning up. Coffee every morning on the way to work, takeout at night. We buy things we no longer know how to make, clothing and a plethora of different products that do simple things that used to be accomplished with soap and water. Different soaps for the hair, the face, the hands, magical cleaning pads that mop and wipe and pick up pet hair—in a fraction of the time! Most of all, we buy simply because we can, to fill the hole within. We call it retail therapy. All of this fills the coffers of those who sell and while it does create gainful employment, what does it really cost us?

This time of sheltering in place goes to the crux of this issue. We are all defined by what we have, how much money we are bringing in. Why must we calculate the worth of our actions and lives constantly and make sure that we’re on the right side of the ledger? Simply staying home is the most valuable thing most of us can do, yet it feels like nothing, a sentence instead of an action.

Some of us, myself included, have this gift of time, however much more of it there is, to think on these things, to see who we are. Some of us are lucky enough to have our basic needs taken care of and can stay home, others are “essential,” and must work. Many of us who are in that position hold formerly “worthless,” “unskilled” jobs. Service is rarely respected or even adequately compensated. The definition of “Essential,” we should realize by now, is dependent on circumstance. It isn’t wise, or safe, in this world run by people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, to make these judgments and force us all to live by them. Especially the people who are still on the streets.

A person without money always has the wolf at their door. Why are some people worthy and others not? It has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of people, it is a roll of the dice, and a sacrifice. If there are people on the streets, it keeps the rest of us in line. Job loss can happen to any of us, or the loss of the relationship that kept a roof over our heads. We are all one injury or piece of bad luck from disaster. This knowledge is part of the hole within, knowledge that keeps us from being whole.

We will not be whole until all of us can come in from the cold, until we redefine wealth. There is enough for us all.

Of course, we will all have to do the chores, so to speak, but we can all share them out far more equitably than we do now, and have far more of our time returned to us in the process. I have based my morning meditation as I walked to work on this triad, and all the ideas that have come out of it. I will continue to share them in future posts.

Eating Our Own

I think the saddest thing is, as people are dying, fighting their way across the world to get themselves and their children away from unbearable situations, that we in the First World, unsure of what to do but wanting above all to avoid being implicated in the real crimes committed by our rulers, are beginning to eat our own. As happens in any revolution, and make no mistake, we are in a worldwide revolution right now, from the bloody horrors of Syria to the bloodless destruction of the lives of government workers in America, we are seeing demons wherever we look.

The truth, as many of us know, is that the demons were there all along. We long ago drank the koolaid of the cult of individuality. We are all supposedly responsible for our own situations, no matter how horribly unfair they are. We all should have known better all along, and in the rush to realize it, we are just creating more hierarchies of woe. If we point the fingers where everyone else’s are, if we share the latest atrocity and condemn it loudly enough, we will be perceived to be on the right side of history. The problem with that is, we are just shoving the new information into the same old paradigm.

I’d rather look for the angels of our better natures. Better yet, let’s start seeing people. Imperfect, fallible, but aren’t all of us? There’s no “them,” there’s only us. The only real difference between Donald Trump and our crazy uncle is that Trump has the power to do real damage. He is the raging id inside all of us that only grows stronger the longer we ignore it.

This passage in a book relating a story told to the author by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has always stayed with me. She had this experience while visiting Auschwitz, speaking to a Holocaust survivor:

“How can you be so peaceful when your whole family was killed here?

Golda looked back at me—those peaceful eyes!—and said in the most penetrating voice I had ever heard, ‘Because the Nazis taught me this: there is a Hitler inside each of us and if we do not heal the Hitler inside of ourselves, then the violence, it will never stop.’… She told me she was working in Germany, at a hospital for German children injured during the war, the children of the Nazis who had sent her family to Majdanek. I was shocked. I asked her why. ‘How else,’ she asked, ‘can I heal the Hitler inside me but to give to them what they took from us?”… There was something in her voice that day, some invisible thing that my younger self did not consciously understand but could only feel. And it went into the depths of me and there it remains still. And sometimes when I feel the cruelty in callous and indifferent men, when I hear the velvet violence hidden in the innocuous-seeming words of a mother speaking to her child, when I see the people among us from whom the powerful have stolen the future—and the present, when I feel some rage inside me wanting to do harm because I feel so helpless that I can find no other thing to do, that teaching, in the depths of me, rises up again into awareness and I see that young woman at Majdanek and I feel her eyes looking into me and I hear Elisabeth’s voice once more and I begin to think outside the box again.”

—Stephen Harrod Buehner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

This is why I won’t hate our leaders. I’ll be angry at them, I pity them deeply and I do wish them to understand their actions in all their ugliness and cruelty, but I don’t want to be them. I can’t take up many of the chants I hear at marches. I can’t join the mob with the pitchforks and torches. I am better than that.

We are better than that.

We are living in awful, beautiful, pivotal times. It falls to us to create the new paradigm from the ashes all around us. We didn’t create this mess, but we have to clean it up or there will be nothing for our children. The cult of individuality won’t serve us any more. We can’t parcel out the guilt and horror and each carry our share. It doesn’t work that way. We can’t fix our part of the world, can’t choose between condemning corporate and governmental actions or changing our diets and giving up our cars. That kind of thinking only leads to paralysis—the state we’re in now.

What we can do is the right thing, every time the choice is presented to us. We can be aware when we are not in a position to do that, and work towards changing the things that stop us. We can take ten minutes to write a letter or make a phone call and not rage that we can’t change our representative’s mind. Above all, we can vote—and then move on to he next useful thing that occurs to us. We can choose carefully at the market and the mall, bundle our errands, look for a new job if that’s what’s needed, and the list goes on. Above all, we can be gentle with ourselves and each other. This isn’t a contest, or a rush to judgment. You don’t know what that other person’s situation is, and you don’t have a right to tell them what choice to make. If a guy with a drum feels called to step in between warring groups, instead of second-guessing the situation, why don’t we do what we can to calm the whole thing down?

The dust raised by the boots of those who march to war will have to settle before we can see the path to peace.

Who Are We?

Lady Liberty in a window

Lady Liberty in a window

Some ignorant, fearful idiot scrawled swastikas on the walls of an institute of higher learning today. This is yet another bit of proof that our time has come. Those of us who decided, as I did as a child in the 1970s, that the bad old days of the Holocaust were behind us and that if we lived in them, we would be on the right side of history now have our opportunity. We can walk our talk, or we can become the people who let people who did not look like them be slaughtered.
It’s happening right now. In Yemen. In Central and South America. In the United States, our President—and yes, he *is* your President if you live in this nation—is whipping up hatred and fear against people who have walked for weeks, their children in their arms, to escape death. They are no different than the Jews who were turned away from our shores in the thirties. I live in a neighborhood filled with people who don’t look like me, who come from Asia and the Americas. I hear other languages spoken around me daily. Trust me, it doesn’t hurt. The only reason my neighborhood is unpleasant is because we, collectively, don’t have enough money to live well. Many of my neighbors haven’t even got enough to live decently. They work, they do their best. They expose every day the lie that if we all just work hard enough we can all have the American Dream.
On my window sill is Lady Liberty. Her torch is turned outward to face the rising sun, and the neighborhood I live in. If the words written in her book, if her light does not shine on everyone, she means nothing. Today I asked her to shine a light on the pathetic people who came in secret to daub an image of fear, in blood red, on a school, a place where the light of learning is preserved and passed on. They terrorized people who are leading us forward, leaving the darkness behind and I asked Lady Liberty to help us find them, to give us a chance to talk back to them and show them what their actions have done, what this rising groundswell of hatred and bigotry is doing to the supposed Land of the Free. Let them explain to us in the clear light of day why they did what they did, and what they want out of it. Let them hold their heads up in the public square, if they can. Most of all, may they learn why what they did is wrong, and may we in the end be able to welcome them back into the community as productive citizens. May They become Us once again.
Underneath Lady Liberty is a gorse bush, with Robert Mueller’s picture laced within the thorns. It symbolizes us, protecting him. A gorse bush is a thorny plant, but gentle, for all that. It doesn’t grow here in America, in fact it’s an invasive plant. This is why it grows inside. I’m responsible for making sure that it doesn’t run wild, like the English Ivy, the Himalayan blackberry, the French and Scotch broom and the huge thistles that homesick Britons brought here. I’ve to it confined to a small pot in a closed room so I can enjoy it safely.
Gorse is a plant of an ancient Irish system of knowledge, an alphabet called ogam that is used to hang knowledge upon. Gorse in particular is the vowel “O”, the gorse bush, and the cormorant. This bird, in fact, connects it to Cerridwen’s “ugly” son, Morfran (Sea crow, or cormorant) Afgaddu (Utter Darkness). He was a great warrior, in the end, but bent, like the thorns of the gorse, to his mother’s will when she brewed the Awen for him. Like him, We The People are easygoing and generous, when we are at our best. We bend rather than prick when we can. We don’t sweat the small stuff. But when we feel we need to protect something, we are impenetrable, like the Gorse. Like Afgaddu’s army, who would follow him over a cliff, if that’s where he led.
This is why Mueller is in the gorse bush, and I offer this visualization for you, if you like. The Gorse encircles Mueller, protecting him while he does his work. We The People, each one a thorn, are gently preventing him from being disturbed, watching his back so he can concentrate on doing his job well. Every letter we write, every phone call, every time we stand in protest. Every vote we cast, every sign we make—small actions, true—are the way each of us stand, like the thorns of Gorse, between Mueller and our current President. Those actions are the way we get that ill-chosen man out of the highest office in the nation, and how we remain the American People, choosing strength and integrity instead of fear, violence and hatred. We are not the people who gather with torches, we’re the people who knock on doors. We’re not the people who screech in hatred at each other, we’re the ones who have reasoned discussions. We’re the ones who live and let live. We’re Jimmy Carter, not the Westboro Baptist Church. We can live up to our best impulses, or down to our worst.
The time to choose our path is now.

cropped-poppytrail.jpg

Liberty

Lady Liberty statue in a window

You can’t have that word.
You don’t own this Lady.
A gift, from across the sea,
From an ally we should remember.
A shared history.
A reminder of who we are.

Out of many, we are one.
Drops of water make an ocean.
Thorns of gorse, individually, are easily pushed aside.
A bush full of them is impenetrable.

We are a nation of immigrants.
None of our ancestors had papers, when we came.
There were no quotas, no walls.
As we grew more prosperous, we forgot who we are.

The people, resourceful and strong enough to get here
Should be welcomed.
That is the only test of citizenship that should matter.
Our ancestors built a nation.
The ones who come now,
What will they build?

We need not fear what will come.
We need to look to this Lady and remember who we are.
The words written in that book she holds
Apply to everyone, or they mean nothing.

You took the swastika.
You cannot have Thor’s Hammer.
You cannot have the Runes of my ancestors.
Othala is a place we all belong
All creeds, all colors, all genders.

The Awen flows through me onto this page.
Cerridwen’s Cauldron tests our hearts and our minds,
Not our bodies, our lineages.

I place this Lady in the window,
A cheap souvenir, anyone can have one.
But her Light shines upon us all.

 

Inspired by the posts of Mrs. Whatsit