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Walking Slowly

“Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.”

– Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: time Management for Mortals

Walking Guy

I first saw him about 15 years ago, way up in the hills where I lived. Wispy light-blonde hair that hung between his shoulder blades. Jeans, t-shirt, a bomber jacket either worn or carried in a loose fist at his side. Converse sneakers. Skinny. In his 30s, or his 50s.

He was walking. Just walking. Not decked out for exercise. Not (as I concluded after several months of encountering him in different spots) headed anywhere. He walked. His face always neutral, looking in no particular direction, never acknowledging passersby.

I started to wonder, of course. Where did he walk? For how long? And of course … Why? I wanted to follow him. I actually entertained the thought that maybe I was the only one who saw him. That he was some kind of urban bay-area yeti.

As humans do with mysteries (and as I do with absolutely everything), I made it about me. This dude must have a message for me, I decided. Why else would I keep seeing him? Was he my white rabbit? If I trailed him would I end up somewhere mind-bending and marvelous?

There was something about his vibe, though, that made him decidedly un-trailable. He wasn’t hostile, but there was a certain impenetrability—one that told me that if I was to engage him, even at a distance, I’d be violating something sacred.

Years after I’d first seen this fellow, I started dating my now-husband and told him about my possible hallucination (he might as well have all the questionable facts up front, right?). Then one day we saw him together. Now I had a witness, someone to wonder with me. He became Walking Guy in our shared lexicon.

One time saw him talking to someone and our minds were blown. Walking Guy is a person who knows other people! OK then. Another day we saw him walk up the front steps of a house, unlock the door, go inside. It was his house, we realized. WG lives in a house. Not some rabbit hole or mysterious Brigadoon. Moreover – buckle up – the house is on the next block from ours. Walking Guy is a neighbor.  

Of course, confirming WG’s humanity and proximity did nothing but make this more of a mystery to me, and further convinced that there was something I need to learn from him.

Productive

On days that feel particularly overwhelming, the question that comes to quiet me is, “what if all I ever did was walk and write?” WG certainly certainly shimmers into the periphery of my thoughts in these moments. Sometimes he actually walks by.

I’ve always loved to walk, but it’s tended to be a don-spandex-and-march-up-the-hill endeavor, always following the same route. It’s a task, a goal, the point being to work off the calories consumed that day, or to earn (yes, earn!) a good night’s sleep. If I wasn’t walking with a friend, I’d have a podcast or audiobook shouting into my head, or getting a phone call in, or …

You know. I was being productive.

Since getting back on my feet after having surgery in June, I’ve had no choice but to stay close and walk slowly. At first it was just moseying to the end of the driveway with my elderly chihuahua, the two of us taking a full two minutes to shamble all of 30 yards. From there I began teetering cautiously around the block, not realizing just how hilly these ‘flats’ I supposedly live in still are. Nor did I realize how beautiful they are. How teeming with life and beauty and care, from the well-tended gardens to the awesome graffiti to the wild things growing up signposts and out of holes in water main covers.

Still, hanging over my gratitude for such a swift and steady recovery, for all that I’ve come to see and appreciate in my state of near-motionlessness, have been the threatening storm clouds of All I Must Get Back To once I’m fully well. Even as I amble, the steep hills loom symbolically, beckoning me to strike out for them just as soon as I can.

The project

To be clear, my life is not especially overfull. I’m not ambitious. I don’t neglect my relationships for the sake of achieving more professionally. I am naturally easygoing, and am at my best when things are simple and spacious. And against the backdrop of a world in dire need of saving and ambitious folks passionately committed to doing so, I’ve felt more than a little guilt over this.  

Hence my other priority: fixing myself. Most of my adult life has centered on self-development, which, in my current forced slowness, I have come to see as one big project to literally repair what is wrong with me. I’ve been endeavoring to transform myself into someone who leaps out of bed every morning, joyfully driven by some singular purpose, who has the stamina to juggle an impossible amount, to make everyone happy, who is lithe and strong and fierce and influential and makes a whole lot of dough.

That if I am not that, I am broken.

The project hasn’t been without its benefits. I have become inarguably more embodied, grounded, bolder. But it hasn’t really helped anyone. It’s been largely self-serving. A vanity project, really. An attempt to blend into the surround, in my case the San Francisco bay area, where everyone with the privilege and resources to do so is up to something huge and impressive.

I wonder how I might have come to this place more genuinely, joyfully, and whether I ever needed to crack a whip over my own back to become who I am today.

As with all such shifts in perspective, this one was fomented by a major event that has forced me to stop everything and simply watch as the false narrative crumbles like an apocalyptic cityscape. It’s been overwhelming, confusing, peppered with doubt. It is ongoing. The rebuild will take the time it takes. It’s also, I must keep reminding myself, happening smack in the middle of a life of astounding privilege. Nothing in this world is working against me… except me.

The next slow step

For now, I’m experimenting now with putting down the whip, seeing what growth can be if left to nature, wandering in the direction from which I hear life call. As I take my slow walks, I recall the question that has asked itself to me, persistently, for years: “what if all I ever did was walk and write?” I conjure Walking Guy and, when I do, I instantly feel the alignment that comes with being right where I’m supposed to be. Maybe that’s why WG’s space feels so impermeable. Integrity will do that. When we’re not fractured or seeking or hiding—when we are genuinely lined up with ourselves—it becomes very difficult for anything we don’t want in our space to barge in.

I’ll start adding things back in as it feels right to do so. For now, I write, I do writey things (like hang out with you fine people), I work, I eat, I sleep for a devilishly unearned 8 hours, and … I walk. Quite literally just put one foot in front of the other. I let my body tell me how fast, how far, and when it’s time to stop. I acknowledge the inner voices who still scream, may never stop screaming, “It’s not enough!” I give thanks for the privilege that allows me to live this way, and for the genuine joy and kindness with which I feel able to greet all who do approach—which feels far more healing for the world than throwing myself hard at life. I endeavor, simply, to do no harm.

And that feels like plenty for now.

WRITING PROMPT

What question, or person, or apparition, or symbol, has persisted for you? When you get really quiet, what is consistently there, pointing you back to yourself?

Set a timer for ten minutes and keep your pen moving in response to the prompt: “It was always right there.”

Postcard from a pixelated self

Here’s 10-minute free write I did a few days after a recent surgery, when I was still drug-hazy, largely inert, incisions still hidden under gauze. It’s a messy, staccato, close-in memory of the day: itself a fleeting moment compared to the span of time that has ensued. Kind of a postcard from where I’d been, written and sent to myself to retain the essence of what happened. I don’t know if I would remember any of this by now had I not scribbled it from within the fog.

Complications during the procedure left me with five incisions—which I’ve been gigglingly referring to as ‘stab wounds’—and a bladder injury. It’s all healing well and pain has been minimal. Still. Life these past weeks has been … surreal.

We usually don’t know what the biggest moments in our lives are til we’re long past them. We adapt and we forget. Which is why it can be important to write from inside those moments, to get down some notes, just in case. No matter how pixelated you are. No matter how much your body is hurting, or your heart. Write just for a couple of minutes. Just sentence fragments. It doesn’t have to be for anyone but you.

I wrote in response to a prompt from a deck of cards authored by Natalie Goldberg. I had no idea where I’d go with it. We never do when we write this way. That’s the point. That’s the beauty. 


“What did you bring—in your purse, on a trip, to a party, in your suitcase, in your book bag, in your car?”

ID, Kaiser card, form of payment. All in a little purse the size of a pants pocket. Phone just in case—lifeline. Nothing else. Wear no makeup, lotion, scents, they said. Not even chapstick (that may not have been a directive but I took the advice to rather an extreme).

PJ pants, green t-shirt, hoodie. The last time I’d walk swiftly and upright for weeks. Unencumbered, bouncy, nervous. “May I use the restroom?” A last nervous pee. The last – no, the penultimate – one that would go from my body directly into the toilet until the next calendar month. I brought a full bladder instead of a full purse. Travel light, pee heavy.

I brought my friends in spirit, my family’s love, my nerves. High blood pressure when they first took it.

“Are you stressing?” the nurse asked. She reminded me of my friend Christy. Put me at ease.

“I am a little nervous.” (A little?)

“We’ll let you settle. Check it later.”

In the meantime getting piled on by people bearing equipment, all kind, all meant to heal, to care. Those circular pieces of white tape slapped on my chest to monitor heart rate and who knows what else.  An IV, first to draw blood (she spilled some—is that normal?) then to push whatever was needed. Fluid, drugs, anesthesia.

“First you’ll get a drug that feels like a cocktail. It’ll make you feel good, relaxed.” The anesthetist was Ray. I remember it made me feel a little dizzy. My body felt no fear anymore but my mind still had questions. They were answered by darkness. A few hours of it felt like a few minutes to me.

Rising back to half consciousness with all the accessories gone – the shower cap, the monitors, the compression socks. My glasses were back on my face. Sea sick. Helped back into my clothes, the drawstring plastic bag that had held them now full of medical supplies we didn’t know we’d need. Alcohol wipes, extra tubes.

I was bringing home a catheter attached to a urine bag attached to my leg. I was bringing home a battery of meds to help me not feel anything. “Whoa,” said the recovery nurse when she saw the the pile of bottles.

I brought my uterus. I left without it.

An invitation from the planets—and from me

Adorably, since posting this the first time, Mercury shuffled things on me and I had to change the date of the mini-retreat. Until and unless Life decides differently, I’ll now be holding workshops on June 11 and July 9.

Dear friends,

Those of you who are astrologically inclined (or who are, like, on Instagram) know that Mercury is in retrograde at the moment. Astronomically, that means the planet Mercury appears to be moving backward in the sky. On Earth, it’s a lot of spinning beach balls on computer screens, dropped calls, traffic detours and misunderstandings.

Mythologically / energetically, Mercury is the god of (i.e., embodies the energy of) travel and communication, so its apparent reversal messes with our incessant human desire to move forward, forward, forward.

In fact, I’m writing this on an airplane because the TVs and WiFi are both inexplicably busted. (I may have had something to do with this, actually. Knowing I’d be traveling this week I bargained with Mercury that it could have the entertainment systems in exchange for flights being on time. I hadn’t thought of the parents with little kids who need their iPads. Sorry about that folks).

This is sort of the point though. I don’t know about you, but in order to write I need to be in a place where I’m free of the tyranny of technology and efficiency. Otherwise I’m constantly abandoning what I’m working on to respond like a well-trained dog to the email ding. Or taking a quick break to see what’s up on Instagram. Or rushing through an otherwise spacious evening to get to the ‘finish line’ of plunking down on the couch to watch Better Call Saul.

One of the gifts of Merc Retro is being stirred from this hypnosis through interruption. Our plans are thwarted. The voices constantly flowing into our ears become staticky. The delivery method of so much (the Internet) is spotty.

Sure, we can fight it and get miserable, which I’ve already done a good handful of times in the last week — like when my Very Important Errand was thwarted by a city-wide road race that made it literally impossible to get where I needed to go. My hand and throat were sore for a full day after from screaming and punching the steering wheel. Of course the errand was never that important. The urgency I felt was, yet again, the itch to get away from myself.

What if instead we allow ourselves to trust—versus dread—that whatever we attempt may go sideways in this next little while? Can we surrender to the apparent direction we’re being nudged in: to give ourselves moments to simply sit and listen, and see what emerges from deep within, from the void of not-knowing? 

Here’s what astrology.com invites us to look at it as part of a fantastic, orienting article:

Mercury’s retrograde cycles, however disruptive they may be at times, offer us the ability to gain greater objectivity in a particular area of life. In normal waking consciousness, and in an increasingly over-scheduled, distracted world, we have left ourselves precious little time for reflection. For many, once we are on a given path, we can end up myopically married to it, losing all perspective; viewed in the right light, Mercury retrograde becomes an opportunity to re-approach important aspects of our lives with renewed vision.

Whether or not we ascribe to this particular orientation*, and regardless of the position of the planets, there are always steps we can take to free ourselves from this myopia and find renewed perspective.

You might experiment with a media fast: 24 hours of not letting anyone else’s stories into your ears and eyes and heart. No TV, social media, articles, books, podcasts. I know, terrifying. But when I did this last week I was in awe of how the hours stretched, how much time I had to just be human, to take in what the world actually is beyond the miasma of noise that usually has my attention.

It doesn’t have to be this extreme of course. You could simply allow yourself ten unassailable minutes every day, maybe when you first wake up, to be with yourself, be with the page, be in contact with what you know to be true beyond the world’s insistence.
 
And for now, while we’re in this strange period of being forced to a halt anyway, see what liberation you can find in just … going with it.
 
One way is to join me for an upcoming mini-retreat (how’s that for an inelegant segueway?). The next ones [are now on] June 11 and July 9. Merc will be direct again by then, so the opportunity will be competing with lots else you could be doing on an early summer Saturday. Your soul, your fellow writers and I will be honored if you end up choosing us.
 
Wishing you ease (and surrendering to typos),

* I am not astrology obsessed by any means, though I do think there’s a lot to it. For those who dismiss it as utter poppycock, here’s how I heard a friend explain astrology to a hardcore scientist some years back. If the moon – the teeny tiny celestial body that it is – can do what it does to the oceans, and if the average human body comprises 75% water, how can we not think the planets hold some sway over our lives?  

What I didn’t see …

The baby hummingbird in the nest in the dogwood last spring. Small as the tip of a human pinky finger. Purplish pinkish and making a start at becoming iridescent. Little stubby beak, almost like any other bird who doesn’t need a needle-straw to feed.

Its mother very nearby, applying her own needle-straw to some blossom, taking in the sweet liquid, holding it under her tongue like a tincture for the flight back home, putting her needle in the baby beak and releasing the nourishment.

At least I imagine that’s how it went. I didn’t see it. Hopefully nobody else did either. Neither human nor cat nor hawk nor anyone who might think them delicious, or fascinating, or have any reason to get too close.

A miracle that tiny warrants all the air it can breathe. A giant perimeter of reference, of safety.

I dreamt I wrote a novel. I’m remembering it now. It just started coming out. I didn’t see what was on the pages but I remember the feel of it. Realizing I could actually build it, one page, two pages at a time.

A dream that important needs space to unfurl. I take two, three respectful steps back and ask for the space in my waking life to attend to it or real, when the time Is right. Maybe in the spring when the baby hummingbirds begin to be born, begin to hum …

I felt the sun on my face but what I didn’t see was the quite visible ray extending through the solar system to reach me in particular. I didn’t see that I was one of her children, her ray a needle-straw, beaming life into my mouth, down my gullet and into my body, charging and nourishing every cell. I didn’t – I don’t – see this happening with every breath of oxygen gifted to me by trees.

I don’t see the earth reaching upward, offering warmth through the soles of my feet, claiming me as hers, telling me in each moment that I do, in fact, belong.

If you look closely…

If you look closely you’ll see a ring of guardians standing around you. To look closely in this case doesn’t mean to squint, or even to soften your gaze and let everything blur so that the invisible comes into focus. No, this is a different kind of looking. The hardest kind. How easy it is to forget how held we are. How protected. How cheered.

It took my friend Justin reminding me yesterday that he is one of the many who stands in my circle, like a ring of redwoods. A population of spirits: living, dead, yet to incarnate, or just fine to hang out on the other side for all eternity. They are layers deep. If you look closely you see their faces, one at a time, many at once.  

You see their hands, held in one another’s, held up in blessing, busy knitting or painting, or with birds perched on their fingers. Beckoning. Patiently unlocking the cages you insist on building and rebuilding. Sometimes striking matches and burning them down. All the better to see them, my dear.

Ah, you are starting to see now, aren’t you? Just like time itself, lineage is not linear. It is a ring. A series of rings. Ever-widening circles, as Rilke says. That persistent spiral – the shape that everything takes, if you look closely.

They stand near, and far, and as you make the circuit of your life—moving farther each time from the core wound, but visiting it again, repeatedly, endlessly—you also pass each of them.

They offer a hug, a handshake, a bow, a good, long look into their eyes – into their own memories of forever, the galaxies they’ve traveled to – and you remember that you are oh so small and you are never, ever alone.

If you look closely you’ll see that the center of you has its own eyes, ones that know where you came from and where you’re headed. It pulls you to the ones who remember when you forget. Who utter, “I am here, and I always will be.” And with those words a light flicks on, and suddenly you needn’t look closely any longer. You can see them perfectly well.

Please scream inside your heart

“Theme parks in Japan have banned screaming on roller coasters, because it spreads coronavirus…. and advised riders: “Please scream inside your heart.”

– The New York Times, July 2020


Yes, scream
Shatter its walls
Let the shards and the goo
and the light spill out
Let the lava infiltrate your being
    and then burst that open too

You say you’re about to crack. Good.
Let go, crack, crack up, crack loose
Crack so that it scares everyone
Crack so that you lose all your friends
    all the respect
    all you’ve been so fastidious about building

Nobody, dear. Nobody has ever known what they’re doing
The ones that do
ask questions
    constantly
    Forever
    undermining
    their own premise.

Foundations are shaky at best
Wobbly, like your reclaimed wood desk

Actually no, shaky isn’t best—
Muddy is.

Let the shards of yourself
sink into the silt
    Wriggle downward
    Find soil
    Take hold
    Sprout anew
    Fight through
    Wilt
And try again

Please scream inside your heart
Let the scream echo against the cavernous walls
now that you’ve cleared the detritus:
Everything you thought you were meant to keep safe
    build from
    treasure always
    pass along

It went up in flames the second you laid claim to it.
Since then you’ve been grasping at ghosts
Sticking price tags on illusions
Chasing them hungrily down aisles with your empty shopping cart
    With all your might. With all you have.

Please scream inside your heart
Scream, “Stop!”
Scream, “Enough!”
Scream, “Don’t you see?”
Scream
I     DON’T     NEED    YOU     TO     SEE     ME    ANYMORE

Careen past the other shoppers and out into the sea
Stop trying to be clear or transparent or
    Colorful or
    Opaque

Lay down your street-performer juggle-balls and wade into the water.

Please, please scream inside your heart and set your essence free.
Every single thing your heart can see is in the way.
Scream past it. Scream it open. Scream it free.

Body scan, then write

Foot on the gas, the brake, gas brake gas brake. The echo of it in my right shin.

“Uh-oh!” I said out loud when the truck in front of me didn’t begin moving the instant the light turned green. The old Boston driver coming back. The only place I’ve ever been aggressive: behind the wheel.

“Uh-oh!” The most passive-aggressive phrase I could have mustered. Northern California has fully infiltrated the psyche but not the body. Another four seconds and I would have driven under that truck. As it was, I maneuvered a dangerous swerve around its right flank it as it made its perfectly timely, perfectly safe, perfectly unrushed left.

Me, though: gas brake, gas brake. Rev rev stop. Rev. Stop. Go go go. We’re supposed to be going now. Drumming my fingers at every red light. Every meal. Every episode of Jeopardy that counts as quality time with my husband. Every moment of lying in bed, not asleep but too tired to accomplish anything of note. Scroll, then. Shop. Hypnotize self with a reality show in miniature. No use reading: my eyes simply scan the words while my mind whirls. The flywheel again. It doesn’t stop. Too much momentum. Too much to do. Too much.

Gas brake. Gas gas gas, rev, rev, motor uphill, careen down. Brake for the turn, or not. List sideways and nearly tumble off the cliff. Careful!

A few days ago I heard a silence so silent I knew it was the earth speaking. No other voice could be that deafening. My shin bones become the stalks of the redwoods, the columns of the cathedral, the ode to the everything. Equal weight, gravity. They know no brake, no rev, only reverence. They stand in holy stillness.

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?

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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