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For reasons known only to them …

by Laura Hughes

For reasons known only to them, some people have endless energy. Not me. For reasons known only to them, some people think COVID’s not a thing. Not me. For reasons known only to them, some people think COVID is a thing, but are still willing to travel freely. Not me. And, frankly, I am pissed off with all of them.

I have two weeks off. Well, it was three – but one has already gone.

I’m not vaccinated – well – I half am – but not enough to count for anything, despite an ouchie arm.

And, none of my plans are penciling out.

Can’t get on a plane yet… at least – choose not to. Certainly can’t go home – not allowed. Not sure I feel safe road tripping to places where governors that I consider mildly insane, or just fucking irresponsible, or stupid – take your pick? – have removed mask mandates, or are about to. Not sure I feel safe visiting friends who work with other humans, even if masked. Can’t spend some ungodly amount on a rich person’s over priced airbnb, or at least I’m not willing to. Not excited by the pacific northwest. Not excited to drive 3 days. Wanting warmth. And stuck. Out of options.

But, most desperately, don’t want to stay here – stuck in the same damned rooms, the same damned walls, with the same damned books, the same damned everything as the last 13 months and 2 days. Not even with a weather forecast that might be sunny, that might hit – oooh – 70.

And all I hear is the timer ticking in my head. Make a damned decision Laura. Just do something. Anything. Because this time in 2 weeks you’ll be staring down the barrel of infinite days, weeks, back at this desk. Back at this screen. Just do something. Anything. Get outside. Go explore. Be free.

In the last week or so, all my patterns have come to the fore, in sharp focus. The abject terror of my freedom being constrained. My hatred of grey. My idealistic daydreams and my deep disappointment that the fantasies I construct in my head are not reality. The fear of boredom and mundanity. The narrowing feeling of having others place constraints. The envy of what others do, what others have, what others create. The desire to be adventurous. The desire to stay safe. The question of whether I’m overly cautious. The curiosity about whether I’ll ever have energy again, whether I’ll ever leave the house, whether I’ll ever feel comfortable. The fear that this is all I am now – my world stuck in small.

The Secret Path

by Anna Rich

The secret path.
The one obscured.
The one I’ve been silently treading around my own heart.
Silent footfalls on moss that double back over themselves again and again.
What am I looking for, walking all around and around my heart?
A secret door?
To climb some crest and finally understand it all?
To see the way in?

Maybe it’s time to just sit down on the soft earth of my heart.
Take off my shoes and spread out my toes in the moss.
Lie back and roll around a bit to get comfortable.
Smell the fresh dirt and plants.
And wait until I’m subsumed, grown over,
and I slowly sink down and become one with my own heart.

What I Thought I Heard

What I thought I heard him say was, “Don’t worry.” So I didn’t. I haven’t. “Don’t take the wheel,” said the voice. “Don’t steer. Don’t figure it out. Don’t navigate. Don’t aim. Don’t want. Don’t plan. Don’t worry.”

What I thought I heard her say was, “Rest. Stay here. Plant yourself beneath the ground. Don’t sprout. Don’t reach. Be at ease. Don’t appear. There’s nothing for you to do here anyway. Stay warm. Relax.”

What I thought I heard was “You needn’t bother. It’s plenty enough that you beat somehow beat the odds, broke through, landed. Now stay where you are. We will do the rest.”

What I thought I heard was a faint bell off in the distance. I thought it might be ringing for me. Inviting me home to the cathedral of all I was ever meant to know.

But I passed it off as a hallucination. Even as it rang again, and again. Ringing in my dreams, chiming me awake each day.

What I thought I heard was a whisper that said, “Come. Get up. Move. Trip over what’s in the way. Make a mess. Break a heart. Know yourself. Love another. Spread out. Get comfy. Stay.”

What I thought I heard was the brush of a felt tip across the pulp of a long-dead tree—the voices of those who, with regret in their hearts, felled the plants and brewed the chemicals and made it possible for me to write these words. To transcribe the whisper so that it is real. So that it is no longer a hallucination.

What I thought I heard was a gentle alarm: There’s only so much time left. A caring challenge: So what’s it going to be?

What I thought I heard was the pop and crack of my long-hunched spine as I finally pressed my feet into the warm grass and stood upright. The bells were clear now. Constant. Beckoning.

It’s no thought: I hear them.

I begin to walk.

What I thought I heard

by Jan Martinez

What I thought I heard him say was, “I don’t eat bees.”  I was on the phone with my dad several years ago, when cell signals weren’t as reliable as they are now, inching my way eastward on Walton Blvd toward the Livernois intersection where Rochester Hills became Rochester and home.  

I’d had a particularly tough day of negotiating with Purchasing at one of the Big Three automakers.  My buyer, whose initials were M.D., aka Doctor, had accused me of falsifying information, insulted my intelligence, and thrown me out of his office.  My father, the only other family member who’d worked in “industry,” immediately understood and informed me cheerfully that all Purchasing agents were going to Hell.  I laughed, delighted that Doc, who gave me such Hell, might one day figuratively go there, at least for a visit.  

We’d moved on to produce, groceries, and my stop at Whole Foods, always a mood lifter, when my father had announced, “I don’t eat bees.”  

“Bees?”  I asked.  Of course you don’t eat bees, I thought.  No one eats bees on purpose.  Maybe bears when foraging for honey, but they’re after the honey, not the bees.  

“Fleas!” he insisted. “I don’t eat flees.”  Of course.  No one eats fleas on purpose either.  Maybe dogs, accidentally.  
I had eaten a termite once, on purpose. But it was offered to me, and so it seemed the honorable thing to do.   I was visiting a camp along the Tambopata River, a tributary to the Amazon.  We were about an hour out from Puerto Maldonado, Peru, when we stopped at a small jungle farm.  We met the farmer, his wife, and two small children in their shorts and once-white t-shirts.  After a tour, we’d been offered a fresh cacao bean, the white pulp tasting like a delicate, floral chocolate grape, a slice of papaya, cut with a machete used to cut everything, and a termite.  A tiny wriggling creature, not at all like the winged house-devouring giants of the Midwest.  I was the only one in our group to eat the proffered termite.  There was such warm sincerity in the offer of this humble household staple.  It tasted both dusty and minty — ochre brown, somehow, the way tannins of the river wash everything brown over time.

“Fleas?” I asked my dad.  “Peas,” he insisted, or “beans.” By now I was crawling past the high school, where a friend of mine said she’d taught theater arts to Madonna in the ‘70s.  Yes, that Madonna.  I once saw a newspaper headline that proclaimed, “Madonna, Live from New York City!”  I bet that pissed off Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, and the whole mitten-shaped state.

“Beans, Dad?  I see you eat beans all the time.”

“Seeds!” he shouted through some miraculous shift in cell towers.  Like my commute, it seemed the world wound down to stillness and in that stillness came focus.  And something else like sadness, regret, or humility.  I’d been chatting happily about bread, Seeduction bread, which was full of seeds:  pumpkin seeds, poppy seeds (earthy and a little dusty – a bit like termites without the mint), sunflower seeds, whole millet, tricolor quinoa…  and this bread had seeduced me from day one.  This had been the item I was most looking forward to if my commute ever ended.

Here’s the thing, my father had given up nuts and seeds many years ago after recurring bouts of diverticulitis – excruciating and sometimes requiring long courses of antibiotics or hospitalization.  We all knew.  Even so, he’d started introducing himself to friends and strangers as, “Hello, my name is Inocencio Martinez, and I do not eat seeds,” something like, Mandy Patinkin in the Princess Bride:  Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die. It had all become a family legend, and here I was babbling about a bread that was chock-full of seeds.

I’d finally cruised through the Livernois intersection and was nearing the hospital, walking distance from home, as another family legend surface, far older than the diverticulitis that had stricken somewhere in my dad’s 60’s.  This was the one about all the epic ways my father had experienced being misunderstood since coming to this country in his late teens.  There was the airport van driver who asked my father “what airline?” to which my father answered “Delta.”  Repeatedly.  Somehow this mono-tongued, mono-eared, driver managed to hear and respond with:  Malta? Northwest? TWA? Air Lingus? before finally conceding that my father had said, “Delta.”  In Atlanta, Delta’s hub, no less.

Personally, I only speak English fluently, but I do speak some Spanish and some German, but moreover, I have a curiosity about languages and an uncharacteristically high level of patience when it comes to listening to people whose first language isn’t English.  At the time of said commute, I didn’t think in terms of “being seen” or “being heard,” but I knew its presence as a felt sense of safety, warmth, belonging.  And I knew its absence as a queasy, off-kilter quality of misalignment.  So empathy bloomed in my chest whenever I encountered immigrants or visitors struggling to be understood in the face of the American Linguistic Cyclops.  It still does.

“Seeds, he said again, “I don’t eat seeds.”

“Oh!  Seeds…” I laughed a little sheepishly.  In the space between strong cell signals I had become a Linguistic Cyclops.  “Yes, Dad,” I backpedaled, “of course, I know you don’t eat seeds.  I also bought some great pumpernickel – caraway all ground up – and the biggest jicama you’ve ever seen.”  I paused for a moment, by now turning into the haven of our neighborhood, and went for the save, “Hey, how’s Mom anyway?”

Time to decide

I’ll probably be fined for saying this, but I do not meet 2021 with relief, and I definitely do not bid 2020 good riddance. For one thing, it’s never felt to me like an arbitrary flip of the calendar blinks us suddenly into a new dimension. More than that … what a beautiful year it was. Even in its sorrow. Even in its pain.

I can’t be the only one who doesn’t want it to end.

Not the crises. Of course not. Of course not. Not the despair. The separation. The loneliness. The unnecessary deaths and heartbreak that this year has brought with it. All that can end.

For me, what can’t end is the beautiful inwardness of it all. The circumstances of daily life (a privileged one, no mistake) that only grows more liberating for me by the day. I watch in awe as massive shifts disrupt and reveal so much of what hasn’t been working in our world.

I am not tired of this yet. I don’t think I’ll ever be.

Still, very soon, we’ll fully reclaim our characteristic human stranglehold on Nature—wresting her to the ground, hog tied and gagged, so that we can get on with the making and spending of money, so that we can get back to the commutes, the offices, the parties, the bars, the places that take us out of our homes and out of ourselves, so we can stop doing all this reflecting, all this truth-telling, all this meaningful bonding with those in our immediate surround.

We’re so close to resuming the blind march forward: our laser-sharp, tunnel-vision gaze on the bleak horizon of ‘normalcy,’ deaf to what Nature might have been trying to tell us through that pangolin or bat or whatever wise and innocent creature, flushed out of its environment and hunted for meat, got this whole ball rolling. Consume, destroy, expand, drive, run, win, sell, sell, sell …

It will all happen again—the tide of ‘progress’ reclaiming the precarious lessons. It’s happened throughout history; as with the tide itself, we can trust in its return.

Again and again we chew off entire limbs of humanity to escape what feels like the trap of a slower, saner existence. Again and again, we double down on our identity as the parasites we are, consuming a planet that is constantly and forever trying to tell us that this isn’t the way.

Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a matter of moments before this magnificent Earth shakes us off her back like so many fleas. Before she deploys some last resort of an internal remedy that she really hasn’t wanted to use but now, she’s afraid she must….

The ‘excuses’ we’ve had this year for lightening up on how much we abuse her and ourselves daily are evaporating. With the crutch of excuse about to be revoked, it’s time to start deciding for ourselves.

What will our decisions be? I think I know mine—or, rather, what will help me make them.

Again, I speak from a place of privilege. I’m under no illusions that my circumstances—including my ability to think and write these thoughts—are an all-out luxury.

And.

In all this I have found the capacity to be with people in a different way—to be gentler, more receptive, kinder. To help them feel safe and loved. To take the time to be with them in their fullness rather than resent them for their demands on my time. I’m finding how to do that. Yes, ‘finding:’ it was there all along, I was just too yanked apart to be able to feel it, see it.

I see it now. I’m not letting it out of my sight.

So once we implacable humans track down the last discontinued cog, tighten the final screw, press the red plastic button, stand back and watch as the long-obsolete machine smokes and coughs itself back to life, spewing its ancient poison into the air, I am vowing here to engage with it in a different way.

Not in any way that is epic, or even noticeable to anyone but me. Mostly it’s about listening. I’ve learned to listen this year. I want to get better at that.

One feeling that’s been easy to listen to—and as such has become a great ally—is relief. Relief at not having to be places, to drive as much as I did. At not having to shock my settling system by dragging it back out in the evenings to do things that are ‘good for me.’ Relief the dearth of needless errands to acquire vapid things and shorten my meager stacks of coins. Relief at being held back from slamming my sensitive body into those merciless waves of daily life to prove how strong it is.

The relief is intense, physical. It’s been at the fore for nine months. There hasn’t been a moment where it’s dissipated and I’ve said, “ya know? I kind of miss the way it was.” And the way it was wasn’t bad by any stretch—it’s just that it was devoid of space to breathe, to feel into what has meaning for me.

I can’t be the only one, can I?

Regardless, as the masses wake up in these first mornings of 2021, heaving their collective sigh of relief, assuring themselves that last year was all a terrible nightmare and everything is going to be OK now, maybe we don’t have to be so quick to dive back into what had been true, automatic and reliable before we entered the dream. Our hearts can be heavy and hopeful at the same time—they have the capacity to feel many things at once. Perhaps we can let ourselves linger for a few more minutes in the in-between, wander through the apparent wreckage, and notice what shines up at us.

What will you let yourself keep?

What it used to be like

by Michelle Hynes

What it used to be like to see my friends: A festival of baking and hosting and hugging. Pouring tea. Sharing bites.

Yesterday I gathered with dear ones — on Zoom. We lamented the loss of rituals for this time of year. The ways we used to see our families, see each other. Now reduced, smaller. More spacious and less nourishing — like eating sponge cake rather than a rich bite of brownie or beef stew.

What we shared yesterday were tears. Stories of grief and loss. And then we took a deep breath and said yes to a new way. We will gather. We will gift. But six feet apart.

So many things about “what it used to be like” are ripe for letting go. I know we need new ways. And I desperately want the feeling of holding my friends in my arms, leaning on their shoulders, looking at the horizon together. I want what it used to be like. 

The First Thing I Remember

by Hao Tran

It is the thing that I have forgotten. It is a soft rain, so soft you can’t see the drops. You only feel its cold and moist touch on your skin, enough to dampen your hair, your shirt.

“It is dew,” my brother says.

He notices the puzzled look on my face. I remember now. It has been more than forty years since I last felt the dew in the early morning. The time of day in the tropics, same every day. The roosters crow and then the sun rises, at six o’clock. Everyday.

You can count on it. In the dew, people walk with baskets balanced on bamboo sticks, up and down, bouncing toward the market. They carry cabbages, potatoes, mangos. In this dew, children get ready for school. In this dew, Ma cooked me my favorite breakfast: rice left over from the day before, turned over in the frying pan with browned shallots, a few peas, and an egg.

In this dew, I am puzzled–where have I been all these years, so long that I have forgotten the simplest thing that I should remember? Dew! It feels like home. It is moist and soft, like a caress.

Dear Muses

I found this today. It’s a piece I wrote in December 2014. The muses have answered, gently. It hasn’t been nearly as chaotic as I feared. In fact, it’s been great fun.

Dear Muses,

I’m stuck. You know this. You know because you’ve been knocking on the door, calling and getting a busy signal, sending registered letters that get returned. No such addressee. Return to sender. No solicitors. Go away. I’ve refused you. I continue to refuse you. Have you given up? Or have I gotten so wonderful at refusal I can’t hear the knocks, the rings; no longer see the letters dropped through the slot?

Is it fultile to contact you now? After all I’ve done to shut you out? Insulting you, disrespecting you? Judging you as too mischievous, too brazen, too dangerous to be in my life?

Because let’s face it. If I let you in you’d trash the place. Upend tables with trinkets placed just so, rip out pages of rule books, open the cages and let the birds fly free. You wouldn’t listen to me when I say stop, quiet down, you’re making a mess and upsetting the neighbors. You wouldn’t care that you were embarrassing me as you ripped open the heavy velvet curtains to reveal me, naked and uncertain. None of that is your concern. Your mission is to free me and you’ll do whatever it takes. No matter how thoroughly it disrupts my life. Your job is clear. You won’t stop til it’s done. You’ll ruin me if you must.

And still. And still. I’m tempted, drawn, seduced. I feel about you now like I never have. I’m so bored in this house, with its dark, neat rooms and silent order. I fear that if I swing open the door I’ll want to follow you out into the day, into the danger of the unknown, unprepared, fragile, sensitive to the light and the noise. I’ve become a shut-in, you see. A recluse. Set in my ways.

But I want to come with you, muses, because I see now it’s the only way you’ll be of any use to me. I can call to you but I must acknowledge your replies. When I send for you I need to expect that you’ll show up, like you have, again and again, only to have me respond by drawing the blinds, pulling the covers over my head and pretending to be asleep until you went away.

I hear you knocking, calling—god knows you’ve been writing—and all because I’ve asked you to. I’ve needed you to. Next time you knock, I hope I have courage enough to go to the door, peek through the hole, maybe even pull it open to the length of the chain. Submitting, eventually, to your ever-invitation to come out, come out and meet myself.

Please, muses, don’t give up on me.

We can’t breathe

A virus that’s attacking our lungs. George Floyd crying “I can’t breathe” over and over before being suffocated to death. Wildfire smoke choking much of the western U.S. Saharan dust clouds crossing the ocean to infiltrate the respiratory systems of the American south. Intolerably high temperatures everywhere.

We can’t breathe. Air, perhaps the one thing we took for granted — smog- and pollutant-rich though it has been for years — is eluding us. Its absence making us sick. Killing us. (As always in this country, disproportionately killing people of color.)

Several days over the last few weeks I haven’t been comfortable anywhere. Air purifiers and fans circulated what little oxygen was left to us in our small apartment with all the windows shut in 90+-degree heat. I decided that I prefer smoky air that moves to air that is thin and still. The air-conditioned car has felt life-saving.

Constantly I’ve been aware that this suffering of mine is nothing compared to that of folks driven from their homes by fire; driven out of their own cars and onto the ground to be cuffed, knelt on, shot; feeling the life drain out of them as doctors look around in vain for an available respirator.

We can’t breathe.

Physiology

I went looking for what this points to, the fact that we — as a nation, a culture, an ailing, flailing, crumbling empire — can’t breathe. It wasn’t terribly hard to find.

In Chinese medicine the lungs are associated with grief, sadness and detachment.

“The lungs encompass the heart centre and the emotions. The symbolism of many of the symptoms which affect the lungs is breath holding, being in a state of emotional hurt, a sense of giving up and fear of living life fully, with the mucous which often accompanies these conditions a physical manifestation of unshed tears.”

“Symbolism of Illness: The Lungs and Breath,” Melanie Creedy

And from a different Australian article:

“…the lungs are directly affected by emotions of sadness and grief, which constrain the organ’s feelings, and restrict its movement. Being unable to express these emotions or being overwhelmed by them causes the lungs to weaken. Our immunity goes down, and we can easily develop respiratory problems… Grief is a necessary painful process. It is a transitional period of acceptance that one part of our life has changed.”

“Grief and The Lungs,” Olivier Lejus

Grief, then.

In this culture, grief is a disorder. It is seen as something we need to cope with, get through, overcome. If necessary (and it is often deemed necessary) we drug ourselves so that the fullness of grief doesn’t overpower us.

This, of course, is no remedy at all. The repressed grief will hide somewhere in our bodies and express itself as something else: resentment, illness, abuse of self or other. It carries into future generations, embedding in our evolution, growing us into a detached, head-based culture that encourages being ‘strong’ in the face of grief (i.e., bottle up anything you’re feeling for fear of freaking out the kids).

It was trickier to search for physical manifestations of grief. I found “symptoms” of grief. I found ways to cope. To get through. I typed in “grief and letting go” and found advice on how to let go of grief and move on.

What is missing in all of this, I think, is the acknowledgment that grief IS letting go.

Thankfully (and not surprisingly), Jack Kornfield’s wisdom swims gently upstream from the prevailing current. He says:

“Grief is one of the heart’s natural responses to loss. When we grieve we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain, the measure of betrayal or tragedy in our life. By our willingness to mourn, we slowly acknowledge, integrate, and accept the truth of our losses. Sometimes the best way to let go is to grieve…

Most traditional societies offer ritual and communal support to help people move through grief and loss. We need to respect our tears. Without a wise way to grieve, we can only soldier on, armored and unfeeling, but our hearts cannot learn and grow from the sorrows of the past.”

– From his intro to “a Meditation on Grief”

What are we grieving? What are we not letting ourselves grieve? Why can’t we breathe?

Death

To help with these questions I revisited the teachings of one of the sagest elders out there, Stephen Jenkinson. To oversimplify his vocation, Stephen educates folks about what it is to be human, sane, and mature in the face of death—and how to be useful in our dying culture.

In a 2012 interview that I revisit often, he points to all that is happening (eight years ago, mind you, not the thousand-fold version of it we’re seeing now) as the signs—not the causes—of a dying culture. The question he poses is, “If the culture is dying, then what is asked of you?” He likens it to a dying parent: in that scenario, do you try to stop it happening? Do you get as far away as you can? No.

“You approach. You’re terrified, you’re enormously distraught, you don’t know what to say or do, but still you must make your feet walk toward his/her deathbed. That’s the obligation we have if the culture itself is dying. Our job is to be a faithful witness to what is happening… Don’t turn your head, and don’t blink. Cause some day someone much younger than you is gonna need to know what it looked like in the early days when things started to turn real bad, and it was irreversible. They’ve gotta get it from somewhere, man, they’re not gonna get it from newspapers… But they might be able to believe someone in whose eye they can look while the story’s being told.”

– Extraenvironmentalist podcast, Interview: Stephen Jenkinson – Culture of Dying

We can’t breathe because this culture is dying and we don’t know how to grieve it. We haven’t been taught that. We’ve been taught to act, fight, fix, deny. We know how to long for how things used to be. We are expert at kidding ourselves that it will all go back to ‘normal,’  convincing ourselves that we actually want that.

We can’t breathe because we can’t let go of our collective biases, beliefs, attitudes and actions that have contributed to the terminal illness of this world. We won’t let go because we believe they’re the truth, and if the truth is taken away what do we have left to stand on?

We can’t breathe because early on we disconnected from our collective breath, the breath of the planet, which has done her best to impart her wisdom since the dawn of humanity. That is when she—and we—started dying.

We can’t breathe because we can’t face our grief here at the deathbed of our known way of life. Grief, if felt, if allowed, is the pathway to something new, but if we don’t let our hearts break that metamorphosis isn’t going to begin.

We can’t breathe because we don’t know what is to come. We need to know, we strain to know, we frantically grasp and rearrange the few pieces of certainty left to us to formulate a story we can swallow—one that ends happily. That lets us know that everything is OK.

We can’t breathe because we won’t surrender into grief that comes with acknowledging that it’s not OK. It won’t be again for a long time, not until we learn what we are supposed to. That may take generations.

And so?

This morning I step outside and smell smoke faintly, grateful that there is any air at all. Eye my little air purifier and tabletop fan with reverence. Amazed that even a few years ago I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever stop taking air for granted.

I feel my own directive being re-awakened. I can’t breathe, my body is in pain, and there are things I can’t ignore any longer. It is time. It is time — as I’ve known for a while — to consciously bear faithful witness to our dying world. Become a hospice worker of sorts. Keep turning toward what is happening, powerless though I am to stop it. Be as kind as I know how to be to myself and others. Face what I have done and continue to do to contribute to our hurt, our disconnection, our brokenness. Do what I can to repair it.

It’s not a passive activity, grieving. We must stay awake as the parade of emotions barges through our being. We have to say what we need to say before it isn’t possible any longer. We have to face what is broken, hidden, unresolved.

To grieve is to let go, yes, but it is also to repair what we can, remove the wreckage of what we can’t, and prepare for whatever newness that clearing makes way for.

We don’t like this year because it’s getting harder and harder not to grieve, so we’re holding on tighter and tighter. Constricting our collective breath. As with our culture’s approach almost everything, it is completely unsustainable. It is the opposite direction of healing and growth.

Sounds like giving up, I imagine, to willingly let go in this time when all there seems left to do is fight for our lives, and in a culture that knows no other way. Perhaps it is not for us to go down swinging, but rather breathless and in awe.

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