Bus Stop Song

Wrecked Honda in the mechanic's garage
Wreck of the Pacific Coast

My last car was knocked off the road back in 2008. I’d just visited the Trees of Mystery and was on my way out of Crescent City when a truck coming the other way turned left in front of me. I stood on the brake and managed to get down to about 35 before we hit.

I just sat there a minute, then got out of the car and looked at the bashed in front end. It felt like losing a friend. I knew that this was the end for Phoenix, a 1980 Honda Civic that had come to me through another bad accident. That time his rear end had been crushed, but the SUV that had done it had been so high off the ground that the frame had survived. No such luck this time. The front bumper was leaning at a terrible angle, the whole side of the car bent downwards. I was a couple of hundred miles from home, hundreds from my destination, a three month long sailmaking course in Washington State. I felt like crying, but there was no time for that. There were people running towards me, and the driver of the other vehicle was babbling that he hadn’t seen me and had really had to pee. I calmly reached inside and grabbed my coffee cup out of the teapot I’d been using as a cup holder. Phoenix hadn’t spilled a drop.

The insurance company of course wrote off my car as a total loss. a hunk of metal good for nothing but the scrap yard. They rented me a car, and blind with tears, I unloaded the friend who had given his life for me into the rental. I sent him off well. Two brand new tires, four quarts of oil lined up on the back seat, and a plastic Viking helmet I’d brought along on a whim perched on the dashboard. I remember thinking that it was as close to a Viking funeral as I could manage for him. I christened the rental Jeeves about ten miles down the road, out of frustration for his annoying habits of doing everything for me, whether I wanted it or not. The doors locked the moment I began driving. The GPS “helpfully” asked me if I wanted to set a destination at the beginning of every trip (no thanks, I carried perfectly good maps, and it’s damned hard to get lost on Hwy 101).

I bought a real junker to get me through the three months, and sold it as soon as I got home. I’d decided a while back that Phoenix would be the last car for me. I think that as a culture we have to rethink our relationship with the personal automobile, and as I said in my last post, it might as well begin with me. I’ve gotten by on a carshare, a bicycle, and public transportation ever since.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m not here to judge you, or really to convert you. I’m just relating my experience and asking you to think about the way we get around.

Yes, it does take a bit longer to get some places without a car. Some places are out of reach without one. This is why I belong to a carshare. There are rewards, however, and I’ve had adventures and made connections I never would have if I’d stayed strictly behind the wheel. I have to think before I go places, but I have freedoms I didn’t have before, and luxuries as well.

I’ve gotten a much deeper connection with my neighborhood. I know the fastest walks and the nicest ones. I admit I know the trees better than I do most of the people, but that’s mainly because almost no one walks in this neighborhood unless they have a dog. I live in the heart of the city but I feel at times as if I have grounds and a large estate because there is so much greenery and wildlife to be seen. I’ve learned a lot about plant identification simply by walking and identifying what I find. And I have all the wild onions to myself, sadly.

I know the public transit system very well. This has shown me how much we have been neglecting this vital set of links between places, but I will never be stranded by the loss of a vehicle or a breakdown of any one system. When BART went on strike, I just switched to the transbay bus. My commute is my gym. It may cost me a little more on a daily basis to commute, but I have no insurance bills, gas costs, or tolls. Or gym costs. When I had a car, it was easy to decide to drive to BART that morning instead of bike. Now I can’t get out of walking or riding, and I’m in better shape because of it. And I really like walking. It’s a chance to think, and explore. It’s also a great way to do errands. When I’m walking, I can stop in at any store I please without having to look for parking. I don’t have to backtrack to where I parked, I am free to keep walking, or hop on a bus.

When I travel, my habits really pay off. I know how to learn a public transportation system, and how to explore an unfamiliar city. I don’t live in the greatest part of town, and traveling around it without a car has given me a certain amount of street smarts. I’m not saying I’m superwoman, but I do know a bit about keeping out of trouble. I really get to experience the places I go because I see them at a walking pace, able to stop anywhere that interests me. I know how to use a map and love doing so. When I go home I can relive the trip from my marked up maps and pictures.

The carshare is turning out to be cheaper than my car ever was. I spend less per month on it than I did for just the insurance payment on my last car. If I’m short one month, I can just not use a car that month. When I do drive, I’m always driving a car much newer than any I’d ever owned, and I don’t have to pay for gas or maintenance. Sadly, I always have to drive an automatic, but that’s a small sacrifice to make. I don’t miss doing tuneups and oil changes in the street, or unexpected repair bills one bit!

Not being able to go to out of town wild places as often as I used to or visit my out of town friends as much makes me treasure those times more, and if there is one thing I wish I could change about being without a car it’s that. I don’t think getting back in one is the best way of solving that particular problem, though. If the public transportation system in urban areas has gotten less useful over time and doesn’t give convenient access to all the places it used to, we are partly responsible. We have overwhelmingly chosen to travel by car even when it isn’t the best option.

I’ve learned, above all, that there are many definitions of freedom. A car has been sold to us as a nation as a symbol of freedom and a way to express our identity, but I’m no longer so sure of that. No, I can no longer step out my front door and instantly into my “seven league boots.” But I have learned that most of my regular destinations don’t really require a car. I’m not a big drinker, but when I do go out, I don’t have to worry about not being safe to drive home. I’m a lot more physically fit because now I’m in the habit of walking and biking and I have time while doing that to do a lot more thinking. I get more reading in because I’m on the bus a lot. And I’ve got more options financially because I’m not having to pay all the costs associated with owning a hunk of metal that spends most of its time parked.

I leave my house early each morning and walk through my quiet neighborhood. I hear the dawn chorus of birdsong and feel the song of the earth around me. Is it gray and cool, or is the sun beginning to paint the clouds pink? What is the shape of the day just beginning? I imagine what it could be like, if my neighbors were out here as well, if we were all sharing the streets, the buses, if we could put a name to a face and so had some idea who we share these folded hills with. I wonder what it would be like if the stores that sell cheap liquor and junk food sold staples like flour and milk and produce, if I could walk around the corner and barter the eggs from my chickens for milk or butter or produce with my neighbors. What if we hired the people with spray cans who are currently shouting their existence and worth through scrawled tags to paint murals on retaining wall and storefront with the owners’ blessings? What if our neighborhood was safe because there was always someone on the street?

I look at the trees in the yards and next to the freeway. There’s a lemon tree that drops its fruit at the top of the hill and I usually pocket one good one. The rest are left to rot anyway. I can name many of the trees and plants, and some of the birds. I have my own little hedge school each morning. The wood grain of the fence behind me speaks the language of the forest it came from. The concrete below my feet was once part of the floor of the ocean. At the bus stop the fennel, oxalis and plantain colonize the glass-choked dirt behind me. Weeds, or healers? It all depends on your point of view. I know I never would have seen the things that I do if I’d stayed behind the wheel. I am a pioneer of the post-gasoline age and I like it.

Walkway over Hwy 580, Oakland, CA
Have You Seen Jack-In-The-Green?

It Begins With Me

Forest Path
Forest Path, Llyn Tegid, Wales

We live in wonderful, terrible, pivotal times. It’s scary, yes, but I think fear and the anger that often comes from it will be the thing that will destroy us–if we let it. I think awareness is the opposite of fear, and I think it can only come to us from a place of peace. I think we are the ones who are determining the future, and that is a heady bit of knowledge, and a great responsibility.
We are each our own spiritual authority. We are free to believe–or not believe–whatever we choose, and to work in the ways that feel right to us. We are free to put our feet on the path to peace in as many different ways as we can imagine. I believe that our strength lies in this freedom, and the wisdom that comes from it. It’s harder to work in this way. You can’t just show up and do as you’re told. There is no certainty save that which comes from our own hearts, yet we humans cannot create community from those things that we hold in common until we know what we hold in our own hearts.
If I were going to ask us all to do anything, it would be to find out, moment by moment, what lies in your heart. Take a little time every day to hold peace in your heart. How does it feel? What does it look like? It doesn’t have to take very long. It can be done hanging on a strap on public transit, on the walk out to your car at the end of the day, in the morning or the evening, or during your shower. I do mine as I travel through my quiet neighborhood in the early morning, alone on the streets of Oakland. What would the world look like if everyone had this peace I hold within myself, alone among the trees of the urban forest, walking the folded hills? What if everyone knew that they would, more likely than not, come home every night to their home and family? What if everyone knew they had enough to eat, a roof over their head, and clothing appropriate to their needs? What would our world be like if everyone knew that we are all part of the web of life, and that what we do to that web we do to ourselves? What would the place you are standing in right now look like in that world you hold for a moment each day?

Yes, my neighborhood will have people shouting in it later in the day. There will likely be gunshots. Demagogues around the world will inflame their followers to fear those who are different and incite people to violence. There have been bombs and death in Belgium, and there is death daily no matter where we are in the world. But right now, I am at peace, my neighborhood is at peace. It’s hard to remember to spread that peace during the day, but each moment I can keep my mouth shut when something nasty wants to come out, each moment I can avoid dehumanizing someone else because they’re annoying me, because they live in another country doing things in ways different from my own, or have done something I don’t agree with, I’ve made the world a better place. It starts with me, and it starts with you. It isn’t easy, but I think it’s the most important work there is because ideas spread. We all need to make sure there are a lot of good ones in the mix.

I think those of us who live in a bubble of peace, who live in a world where we see our loved ones come home every day, where if they don’t it’s a tragedy and a surprise, rather than something we face the reality of each day, have a duty to send that deep peace out into the world however we can. Let it spread like a cool fog, an inner silence that lets us hear our own inner voices. Let it wrap us in the knowledge of all the tomorrows that wait for us.
What ideas will you spread today? What peace will you create?

Cormorants in the Cauldron

The cauldron formed by Municipal Pier in San Francisco
Aquatic Park, San Francisco

I work in a poisoned Cauldron, filled with plastic and wicked currents that take you far from where you thought you were going if you’re not careful. It was made from government money and the visions of the artists of the 1930s, who walked off the job when they found out their work was going to be used for private gain rather than be open to the general public.

Morfran Afgaddu might have felt the same when he found out that a young boy named Gwion had been conscripted to do the work that was to create the Awen his mother Cerridwen was brewing for him. Did she ask him if he wanted such power? Did he have a choice, did he participate in any way in the task of creating that brew? If he did, the Tale does not record this. Was he ready to receive what had been brewed for him when the Cauldron gave up its power? Did Gwion push Morfran aside to steal the Awen, or was it an accident? It was meant for the one who stirred the Cauldron, regardless. You can put a lot of learning into a year of stirring, after all.

Would you like to go on a boat ride with me, the oars stirring the Cauldron as we see where the current takes us? I am a sailor, after all, I have spent long hours with time and tide in this lagoon. Morfran lives here in the cormorants who dive deeply when they feel your eyes upon them, in the yearly round of tern and grebe and the starlings who are briefly here. Would you like to float in the Coracle and see what wisdom comes to us?

I’m here, of my own free will, trapped upon a spear planted in the mud of the lagoon. Held here by the love I bear for the Ladies in this Sanctuary. I am a link in the chain, keeping the ships alive by the work that I do and my eyes that see what ails them and does what is needful. I’m here because my parents took it in their minds and hearts to come here. My tenancy is less than a generation deep, but I am here where I belong, where I was meant to be. Was I Called, and did not know it? Were they?

This land, Cascadia, was meant to be made of Salmon, the fish of knowledge, who swims in the Well of Segais, who snaps the nut from the hazel, discarding the husk and keeping the kernel. Cascadia is kin to Albion and Ireland, connected by Salmon, by the Land, so similar, yet so different. I have stood on the shore in both lands, looking westward out to Sea. The Celts went ever Westward, and so my ancestors, Northern Europeans of many countries, came westward until we fetched up here, on the Shores of the Western Sea, where Land, Sky, and Sea meet, where it is said that poetry is born.  The Salmon run is a shadow of itself now, the fishermen lying idle, their boats growing old as they lie in harbor, waiting for a season that is cancelled, the quota too small to put diesel in their tanks. Stan Rogers sang it, he heard an old song down on Fishermans Wharf. The last schooner lies done in the harbor sun, with her picture on a dime. Gewgaws and gimcracks replace the fish, the crab, the sailors. You can get a shot glass with a picture of Alcatraz, but the crab come from Washington State, if you’re lucky.

Afgaddu is still here, though. The cormorants dive in the harbor. Gorse is the wood of the cormorant, Onn, sole of the foot, the Wheel. The journey is there to be taken. The speckled wood of the ogham fid is in the waves that brush the shore and Afgaddu became a warrior, his ugliness no barrier to the warriors who followed him. His Awen was inside himself no matter what his mother thought. He knew himself and dove deep till the drama was done, and then became himself, a fearsome force. The black bird floating upon the wave, taking his prey. I have stirred Cerridwen’s Cauldron for a year. I have stirred the Cauldron of my work for more than nine. I work in a poisoned Cauldron, but I know I am part of the healing.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Oak tree in a yard in Oakland
Oakland Oak

I’ve always been a city kid, so it’s hardly surprising that I’m an urban Druid. I dream of forests primeval, I’m even on occasion lucky enough to visit them. I am a lifelong Californian, living in the cheap seats of Oakland across from my hometown of San Francisco, so I’m blessed with bits of the old growth forests that once covered this state mere hours away by car. I’m car free though, so getting there takes ingenuity–and friends.

This forces me to get up close and personal with my own urban forest. The trees around us aren’t a cheap substitute for the natural world–they’re the world we have built. Don’t say that you’re not responsible for the way your city or neighborhood is because we are the ones who made it that way. We have the power to change it every day. Responsibility is not just a blame game. It is literally our way of responding to the world around us. Do you hate the trash around you? I know I am not fond of it. So I pick some of it up. Not all of it, I’d be doing nothing else. I’m selective. I concentrate on plastic and scary glass and I just grab a piece or two, the ones that call to me. The broken bottom of a glass with the points sticking up. I see that embedded in my knee and I grab it before someone gets badly hurt. The rubber band that I see in a seagull’s stomach.

The funny thing is, by doing this I have entered into a conversation with my world. Gaia encourages me. She tells me jokes and gives me gifts. The scattered shreds of red plastic near Ocean Beach that I reluctantly decided to pick up before they ended up in the water turned out to be rose petals scattered at my feet. There are oghams in the flight of birds across the sky and awens made of scattered balloons from the street vendor who makes balloon animals. The grass at the side of the FoodsCo in the Mission yesterday had bits of tumbled bottle glass and several round stones arranged in a random, but beautiful pattern. It couldn’t have been wholly natural. How do round tumbled stones and beach glass find their way to the edge of a dirty parking lot in the middle of the city? The stinging nettles around the chain link fence were as beautiful as any botanical photo.

I sat down at my keyboard to show you the beauties of the urban forest and ended up in the weeds. How typical. I was rubbing my knuckles as I walked towards transit, but it was only a glancing blow. Later that same day I walked through my neighborhood to say hello to my greenblood neighbors. The aspens next to the stairs on East 20th St are still asleep, their buds green and swelling, but their branches are still bare. They were the first trees who had a conversation with me and there are very few left. They are slowly being taken out by a more involved neighborhood group that is cleaning up the area. The garbage is gone and the hillside is being replanted. That is what we humans do, though. We have planted most of the trees in our respective areas. The aspens are not native, nor is the huge palm and the eucalypts who share that hillside. The Monterey pines might have grown there by themselves, but I doubt it.

I cross Fifth Avenue with care. Few people walk in this neighborhood, and Fifth is a very fast street once you get past the small shopping district on East 18th. There are hawthorns in the next block, and I touch their bare branches. They, too, are still asleep, a few red berries clinging still but the leaves are hard greenish buds. The hawthorn Queen at the top of the block is the same. She will burst out in white flowers in a few short months but now she is skeletal, her long thorns bare and sharp.

There’s a redwood with a doubled trunk in a yard a few blocks further on. It is well loved as is the yard that surrounds it. The fence has been replaced with two-by-fours that mark the perimeter, but are obviously movable as the tree grows in girth. I stop and touch its soft green needles and whisper “Happy Spring” before continuing up the hill to the gnarled olive at the top. This tree is a magnet for furniture. People sit under it and talk in the summer, and the street is littered with its fruit each Fall. I think of Poseidon’s salt spring as I admire Athena’s far more sensible gift, a tree that can serve a community in so many ways.

I pass under a couple of large pin oaks as I continue towards home. There are still acorns on the ground under them, as well as fallen leaves. They are so large it wouldn’t surprise me if they, like the large redwoods, were here to witness the building of the neighborhood. The oaks would feed us if we had the sense to let them. They certainly feed the plentiful squirrels in the area. I see them often, running on the wires and telephone poles as well as the trees.

I used to beg Gaia for a new posting, but this is where I’m planted, for now. I am here to see the green, to notice the trees and the animals and the life all around us. I’m here to plant my own seeds of awareness, and to nourish the ones in you who are reading this. So many of us live in cities, and that isn’t likely to change in the near future. It may be part of our evolution as social animals. We made these cities for good reasons. They are cauldrons of change, mixing different cultures, ideas, peoples. This is reflected in the trees. Palms grow next to redwoods, next to aspens and magnolias. None of us, individually, freely chose to be here. We are planted by circumstances only partly within our control. We have to live with people we wouldn’t have chosen as neighbors for many reasons, but the dance of sharing space can bring out the best in us as well as the worst.

Since so many of us live in cities, this is where the world is most likely to be changed. I may dream of living in the forest, but I know that I have a responsibility to the future. I was shaped in the city and carry its gifts within me. I grew up hearing many languages spoken around me, wrapping my tongue around names that sang of other lands, playing with kids of many different races. That doesn’t make me immune to prejudice–I don’t think that’s possible for any of us–but it did give me a base of comfort with people who aren’t like me. It made me crave difference in people, foods, clothing, points of view.

I notice as Druids, so many of us devalue the cities we live in. We view them as necessary evils. we dream of escaping to the country, and we frankly spend more time in our cars, and at our destinations, than we do in this environment that we have made. I hear rural Druids lamenting the fact that all the big events happen in cities, and it’s difficult and expensive for them to attend. I hear them talk of their isolation, as I hear of Urban Druids talk of our disconnectedness with nature. I watch us all pile into cars, either to head for the city, to be with others of like mind, or to escape to the country, where we are more in touch with nature. This is difficult, expensive, and damaging to the environment we all profess to love.

So what is the answer? We’re going to have to discover that together. But I think that we can start by loving where we are, and by getting out of our cars whenever possible. Walk your neighborhood. Meet your green neighbors. Meet your animal and human ones as well. If you don’t like where you live, look for your true home by all means, but maybe it’s closer than you think. Land, Sea, and Sky are available to all of us, any time. All you have to do is concentrate on what’s beneath your feet, what fills your lungs, and the tides that flow inside you. Gather online, or, like the Druids of old, create gatherings large and small and support those around you. Above all, realize that like it or not, your life is being lived where you are, and bloom where you’re planted.

Mother Of The Grove

Dead sequoia snag, burned, with the sky showing through the holes where its branches once were
Mother of the Grove, California

There is a dead seqoia in the middle of a grove in California. Burned, but standing as if still alive, she is telling the story of her own death. Faint lines, eight feet apart, ring her trunk. They are the marks left by the workers who built a scaffold and removed her bark in eight foot wide sections, to be taken to London and displayed in the Crystal Palace. In 1908, she caught fire. She is beautiful even so. She stands, even though she is gone.

I went to the primordial forest with a pack of Druids. We’d just gone to Pantheacon, and were sharing our forest with a Druid from Wales. He’d shared Llyn Tegid with me, and it seemed only manners–as well as first rate fun!

We were completely unprepared for this, and maybe that’s how it should be. That’s why I’m not telling you where this was, though it’s easy enough to find out if you want to know. This tree broke our hearts. Opened our hearts. Made us ask the question, how could we humans do this? She stands to remind us that we must never do this again. She is a warning, she shows us the guilt and pain we have already bequeathed to the future in what we have destroyed, and asks us if we want to continue to add to it.

Sailing Into Land, Sky, and Sea

The Golden Gate Bridge, and the waters of San Francisco Bay framed by the ship's rig.
The Golden Gate Bridge seen from the deck of the Lady Washington

It takes five types of lines to work a square sail. That means that if you understand this basic pattern, you’re well on the way to understanding the rig, and how it works. Sure there are well over a hundred lines on any ship, but there are only three basic repeating patterns–the square sails, the fore and aft staysails/jibs, and the gaff rigged spanker. There can be a few others thrown in there, depending, but once you know the basics, the others become pleasant variations. So I’m making a tiny demonstration mast with a square sail on it and those ten lines, one set of five for each side, to show people how it works.

I neither expect nor want the visitors to go out with an understanding of all of this, I just want to present the boat as something accessible and user friendly–because it is.  It’s sad to see people consider the language of the sea as complicated and impenetrable. It is short and precise, true, but based on patterns which are basically the same in any ship in the world. Our mission statement in part directs us to preserve the maritime culture and history of the sea. If I can’t paint and scrape any more, I can certainly do that.

As a Pagan and a Druid, I see Land, Sky and Sea come together in a sailing ship. This is a liminal space, and that’s why it’s so hard on ships and people. That’s why it can bring out the best in us, and it allows for a deep connection with those three realms. This is why skill has always been the yardstick at sea. The sea will always find you out, and the ship will do what she can to preserve the life within her, but she will not serve a bad master, or put up with poor seamanship, or craftsmanship. The sailor must put the ship first, for she is our life. We have to be aware of what she needs–that annoying deck leak will get worse if not dealt with. If there’s water in the bilge, where did it come from? If there’s rust, or rot, grab some tools and fix it. Keeping her brave with paint, bright with varnish and black with tar is not just aesthetics and respect for the vessel, it is what keeps rot and rust from becoming dangerous.

So a ship is a tool for developing awareness, and skill. The life of ships is measured in what sailors do and see. The tasks are repeated endlessly, but they are varied and can be endlessly fascinating. It feels good to get better at them, to notice when a line is getting worn or the coatings are failing–and to renew them. It definitely feels good to pass the skills on to the next set of hands. Sailors are links in a chain, passing the tasks and the vessels from hand to willing hand. Ships, like the world, are held together by love.

The ships talk to me. If the bilge water is salty, the ship is telling me that she leaks, down below, where it’s dangerous. That cleat that is crooked, leaning towards the strain of the cable is bedded in wood that is rotting away. The brightwork, shining in the sun, is the handiwork of a volunteer, an old man who sailed in steam and, strong and healthy still, comes in as dependable as the sun to do that work. The ship sustains him and he sustains her. I enjoy the sight and walk on. There’s a strange dull circle on the deck, inside where the mizzen mast passes through it. That deck used to be outside. The ship tells me where the fife rail used to stand by the marks it left in her deck. I ask the oldest shipwright about it. He points out the varnished deck and tells me of the capstan that used to be on display next to the mast, where it of course could never have been used. It kept a section of the deck as it had been when the ship was in service, because of course, the deck of a working ship is oiled. I remember the smell of a freshly oiled deck, the slow meditative work of pushing the mixture into the wood with a shearling pad on a pole. Together we find the square patch where a section of deck had been replaced long ago, where a capstan had originally been bolted down. Marks on the steel show where sections of bulkhead were altered, replaced. The ship wears her history on her hide.

Poetry is born where Land, Sea and Sky meet. A ship is a bit of Land, a dry place for humans to set their feet as we cross the trackless Sea under the endless Sky. I am a different person offshore and I miss the taste I have managed to get of that life. When conditions are good, it is like a bubble of quiet. I remember the Lady fighting her way north, up the coast, under power because there was a schedule to keep. The steady hum of the engine was the background all other sounds were built on. I learned to wedge myself into places on deck and below, becoming one with the steady pitch and roll, rocked to calmness by it. I slept like a starfish, spread out in my bunk, rocked to sleep. We are quiet because someone is always sleeping when the ship is under way, someone is always on watch. I crept through the darkness in the foc’s’le, a red lens in my flashlight as I checked the bilge, my crewmates sleeping around me. I stood on the bow, the eyes of the ship, walking quietly aft to report what I had seen to the watch leader. I climbed down into the hot, noisy engine room, making sure the straps of my gear were well tucked, my long braid securely down inside my coat. The cool air on deck was a relief when I emerged. The land danced beneath my feet for days after each voyage until I lost my sea legs. The poetry of wind and water will be with me forever.

Now I can no longer pull my weight aboard ship. So I limit my time to museum ships, retired like my Ladies. Since I can’t seem to keep my hands off the lines when others are working, this is simple self preservation. I’ve lost enough mobility and physical strength, thank you. I am still a link in the living chain of sailors, but my task now is to pass on skill, to inspire the next sets of hands and show them how to forge their own connection and find their own truths.

Don’t Quit Now! We’re Almost There!

earthdec71972

Speaking out on the rights of transgender people is in your best interests. For the LGB community, it’s something we owe to the rest of the world, particularly those Trans folk who have always been with us. We would do everyone a disservice were we to simply retreat behind our lavender picket fences now that we have what we want, to assimilate while there are still folk on the outside looking in.

Robert Heinlein, cleverly disguised as Lazarus Long, said: “Never appeal to a man’s “better nature.” He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.” So I’ll take a shot at that. Our cultural gender identification is a Procrustean bed. Most of us don’t recognize the fact that we have been cut to fit in it because the process began when we were in the cradle. Most of us learned to deny the desires that were inappropriate. For many of us, the rewards we got for doing so were worth a price we weren’t really aware we were paying. By the time we are grown, this is who we are.

The edges of the box are after all only apparent when one runs into them. We’ve learned to enforce those edges. Most of us have a learned need to know if the person we are interacting with is male or female. It is inherent in our language. Many languages other than English have gendered even such sexless things as tables and chairs. Even in English there is no truly neutral pronoun in general use that is not considered insulting. None of us, after all, are comfortable being addressed as “it,” nor should we be. For many Trans folk, even using a public restroom can be fraught with danger. I don’t think these issues are something any of us should be willing to live with. I think it reflects badly on the United States, and on any culture that allows such routine devaluation of people. I think it makes us all run the risk of being devalued for something, causes us to hold deep, dark secrets inside ourselves lest we be found out and ostracized for them.

Most of this stuff really doesn’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with a boy wearing nail polish. There’s nothing wrong with having no visible gender markers at all. It really doesn’t hurt any of us to politely ask a person whose gender we are not sure of what pronoun they prefer, or to call someone by the name they introduce themselves with, even if it does not appear to match their gender presentation. If we, as a culture, get used to allowing this sort of freedom to other people, we also get to claim it for ourselves. It was once very strange, even upsetting for some to see a woman wearing trousers or working in a traditionally male occupation. Now, most of us consider restricting womens’ dress or choice of occupation old-fashioned and upsetting, or if we don’t, most of us have learned to keep our mouths shut. How many of us realize that what is so obviously restricting to women is also restricting male expression as well?

We still have a long way to go in the United States. There are people trying to turn back the clock. They seize on the things that are still on the edges of those boxes we live in. A woman’s choice not to bear a child or the new fascination with what restroom someone uses. They disguise these things as issues of public safety or things even less defensible when the argument used is followed all the way back to its source. Many of us fear what we do not understand, and don’t examine how and why we feel as we do. This is the source of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, things I think we would all be better off without.

We all have a tendency to fear change and our fears can cause us to do very ugly things to others. We often don’t realize that what we do to others we also do to ourselves. Gender and sexuality is only one aspect of this, but it hits very close to home. We may not notice we have a race, or a certain amount of privilege, but we are all, even us non binaries, strapped into an expression of gender. We’ve come a long way in the last decade on these issues. This is a good thing for so many reasons, and our own self-interest should motivate us if nothing else does. Gender and sexual expression, I have found, are not fixed and immutable. We can and do change over time. You may not see this, and you do not have to. No one should ever be forced to change who they are, nor should they be forced to remain in a state of mind and body that they no longer feel comfortable with. I think it is time that we all learned not to be threatened by what someone else looks like, or how they choose to be in the world. It really has nothing to do with us, and learning to live and let live would actually make our lives much easier and our world a lot more pleasant to live in. If we can get all the way to acceptance, it would be even better, we might get to actual joy in our communities. People-watching would get a lot more interesting, and each of us would be a lot more entertained, and entertaining in our daily possibilities for interaction with each other. We’d be safer too, knowing that we were free to be whoever we wanted to be that day, and that tomorrow could be a completely different adventure.

I’m speaking through the lens of gender and sexuality because that is the part of the culture that I find most confining. I’m speaking to LGB folk because I see that we are the ones who are currently ready to say we’ve won and go home. Some of our organizations are already in the process of disbanding. I think that would be a huge mistake, and poor payment for our newly won acceptance and freedom. I think we need to pay it forward now, and give the rest of us a hand. Trans folk, people of color, immigrants–the list is indeed depressing and much longer than it should be. Let’s do our part to shorten it as much as we can, in our short lives, and with the two small hands each of us has. Let’s open up our communities and invite everyone in to add their own spice to the party we could all be having.

I can’t tell you where this story came from, or who told it to me, but it goes something like this: When we die, we go back into a great big pot that god stirs. We become the soup. When someone is about to be born, god dips the ladle into the pot and pours into the new person just enough soup to give them a soul. And so we are all one. Our job in life is to sweeten that soup.

Ghost Story

The rooftops of Glastonbury, from an upper room of the hostel there.
View from Glastonbury Backpackers Hostel

I’ve seen ghosts. I’ve never looked for them, I don’t want to see them, frankly, but it’s happened nevertheless. None of them have been particularly scary, but they’ve scared the life out of me every time. Maybe it’s just because our worlds are not meant to meet. Maybe it’s because they are not meant to be, echoes that were supposed to move on but are trapped like flies in amber. Maybe it’s just my instinctive fear of death. My mind knows it’s just a passage from one state to another, but my body knows better.

There was the little dog under the bed across from mine in Glastonbury.  I had the luxury of a four bed dorm–with a view worthy of any novel concerning scullery maids–to myself for three glorious nights. On the second night I woke up to see a little dog curled up under the bed opposite placidly looking at me. I jumped for the light. The dog disappeared. It took me a bit of time before I could turn the light off and go back to sleep. Too bad, perhaps it was only observing me. Perhaps it was planning a journey that only we two could share. Perhaps I was having a dream that could have been even more interesting. I’ll never know because my first impulse was the light switch.

The ghost aboard the tallship came long before the dog, however. He really chilled me. He kept coming back, which was even more unpleasant. The first time I saw him I was sleeping alone in the main hold. All the bunks in the fo’c’s’l’e were taken and I was making do, hoping, as every recently joined crew member does, that one would open up. The main hold contains the galley, and padded bench seating that serves as the ship’s living room. So it’s basically couch surfing, salt-flavored. I woke up and it was dark. I saw someone bending over the coffee pot at the far side of the space, and my first thought was ‘Oh. It’s the cook putting on coffee. It must be 5:30.’ Then I realized the figure was glowing. “Joe?” No answer. “You’re not really there are you,” I said, and jumped for the light. The figure disappeared. I was alone in the space. The galley clock struck 7 bells. 11:30. PM. I was a big chicken and left the light on. We were in port, on shore power. No one noticed, as no one was standing watches. I didn’t do too much more sleeping anyway.

The next night the engineer came in late, drunk, and amusing, at least for a while. He knew what was what, and had no problem telling us. He steadily got angrier, and began talking to the bunk I’d been sleeping in. He was talking to someone who wasn’t answering him. He wasn’t having any of my telling him no one was there, and the purser, who had a Zen way about him that could calm almost anyone, was having a hard time with this one. By then I was getting upset, because I knew who I thought he was talking to, and that someone was lying in my bunk. In the end, the engineer went to bed, and I told the purser about the ghost. He took me to the fo’c’s’l’e and made a crew member, who was sleeping with his girlfriend each night anyway, give up the extra bunk he’d been claiming as his. She was crew as well, it was a common enough arrangement aboard, but I didn’t know the ins and outs of it all. I was just grateful not to have to spend another night alone in that empty, dark hold.

Things were fine, we left port, and lived in that wonderful calm bubble that is offshore sailing. One watch on, two off, and all that we do is done in the service of Herself, the vessel that encloses us. We serve Her, she protects Us. We are one, and even if the food isn’t great, and the trip up the coast is bumpy in the extreme, as long as conditions at sea are good, we all fall into a state almost meditative. We stand our watches, take our turns steering, scanning the sea ahead for lights at night and obstacles by day, and check the bilge, the engine, the lights. We walk quietly on deck and don’t talk near hatches, knowing that the ship is hollow, like a giant guitar, and someone is always sleeping.

One night I woke. The ghost was in my bunk. I didn’t dare open my eyes, but I could see the glow of him through my eyelids, surrounding me, and hear the hum of him, there, but not there. I reached for my bunk light, and again, he was gone. I spent a long time telling him silently to go away, that this was MY bunk, and he was NOT welcome to share it. He didn’t return. Why me? I’d never seen a ghost before. I’d never *wanted* to see one, and very much never wanted to see this one ever again, though I felt sorry for him. The purser, you see, had known whom I was talking about. He’d told me that they’d picked him up one night, offshore. Maybe he had drowned and come across the ship one night. He didn’t know. That was all he said, and all I know.

The last time I saw him the ship was in port, all the crew gone except me. I was catching a greyhound bus south in the morning and was spending my last night aboard. I had my favorite fo’c’s’l’e bunk, had stayed up late reading in solitary splendor after an excellent dinner ashore. I once again woke up, in the middle of the night. A figure made of light was climbing down the fo’c’s’l’e ladder, inches from my bunk. JESUS! I jumped for the bunk light, he was gone. I eventually got back to sleep. The next morning I was gone.

In retrospect, maybe I missed out. I don’t know if any communication was possible, because I never tried. Only one other person on board knew what I was talking about–but I only spoke to one about it. No one else that I know of saw him, except possibly the engineer, and he was not in ordinary waking consciousness. Neither was I, every time I’ve ever seen a ghost I’ve been awakened from a sound sleep. What side of the border of sleep did these encounters happen on?

Maybe the ghost missed out too, if ghost he was. What state of consciousness was he in? What awareness did he have of the ship and of us? He climbed aboard one wet night, apparently. What might it be like to flow like the sea after dying in it, perhaps not knowing when the boundary between life and death had been crossed? The waters off the coast of California are cold indeed, he might have let go of life from the cold alone. Was he just trying to live his life, aboard this ship, or was he looking for a way to move on? Could I have helped him to do so?

All these questions flowed from that jump for the light switch. If I’m ever in a similar situation again, I hope I’ll stay tucked up in bed and see what happens.

Living Among The Trees

Cauldron of Oak
My cauldron, filled with acorns, oak leaves, and a necklace of Land, Sea, and Sky

I was lucky enough to spend the morning in Lafayette. It’s heavily wooded, as many of the more affluent East Bay suburbs are, and at 11 on a Tuesday morning, I had the back streets to myself. It was finally Fall today. Cloudy and cool, and the streets are covered with oak leaves and acorns. I used to come here on days like this to collect acorns, as oaks are the dominant tree here. I chose three perfect acorns of three different species, scarlet, valley, and live oak. They are all three tasty, but processing acorns is very hard on the hands and these days I choose to save the limited use I have of mine for writing and music.

I thought, as always, of the wealth of this community. Between the oaks and the deer, how could anyone possibly starve here? Huge trees and huge yards for gardening. I heard more than one chicken singing egg song as I walked.

Oak in Lafayette
An oak in a yard in Lafayette

I saw redwoods as well, and as always felt a little sorry for them. They’re all in ones or twos, rarely a planned development has a forest of young ones planted. They try hard to form a forest, throwing out shoots all around themselves, but vigilant landscapers take care of those before they get too big.

Redwood with Shoots
A lone redwood trying desperately to build a forest

One potential mother of a grove was sly, throwing out a potential trunk high in its side. By its size, this one has been allowed to remain as it is far above eye level and growing close against the trunk. In the forest, a tree like this would produce a branch of trees, growing in the sky.

redwood mother
A redwood trying another way–growing a forest in the sky

When I got back to Oakland, I rode my bicycle through my own urban forest. The olives growing in the beds created by the traffic calming curbs:

Olive in Oakland
Olive in Oakland

The hawthorn a couple of blocks away, at the top of the hill:

Hawthorn in Spring
Hawthorn in Spring

The birches in front of the apartment building on 8th Avenue:

Birch on 8th Avenue
Birch on 8th Avenue

There are many others as well. The trees in my neighborhood resemble the people. Few of us are natives, but we have all made a home here. Except for the spreading oaks and redwoods, the only large trees are those that were planted on the grounds of the great mansions that were the first houses built.

What does your neighborhood look like? what trees do you share your home ground with?

Life Is Story

Gaia statue among the ferns
An Anthropomorphic View of Earth

When I began studying archaeology, one of the big questions was, what makes humans different from other animals? The answers have been shifting throughout my life, from our use of tools and language, to our adaptability. Now the changes we have made in our world have caused us to name the current epoch in geological time for ourselves. Whether that is hubris or simple assumption of responsibility only time will tell. I no longer think that there is any point to this question, beyond simple classification of species. We are part of a greater whole, and our place within it shifts, as do the places of the rest of this organism called Planet Earth. One of the things we humans do exceedingly well, however, is tell stories. We can’t really help it, this capacity is such a part of us that most of the time we don’t even realize that that is what we are doing. We have been choosing to tell the ones that set us apart from every other being, the ones that make us special, that give us the right to determine the fate of all beings.

We have done our best over the last few centuries to pull apart our world, to turn each piece over and see how it works and what it does. This, in planetary terms, is the equivalent of a baby discovering its fingers and toes. The antiquarians and Victorians created marvelous catalogues of the life on this planet. Useful and beautiful, they are a guide that allows us to orient ourselves and our studies, but they also shape the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. The tree of life has us at its apex, evolved from the lower animals. Since we are the storytellers, it is no surprise that we are the center. The story of archaeology gets even more specific to us, chronicling our rise from hunter-gatherers to the heights of civilization. While I learned the pitfalls of ethnocentrism, and that the hierarchical model of our evolution, cultural and physical, was only a portion of the truth, the idea of the great chain of being is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it is difficult to see it. Egalitarianism is an idea that we find attractive, but we’re really not very good at thinking of ourselves or our world in that way. It is an option, not an imperative.

I don’t think it was always this way. We know how to share, and we are as capable of cooperation as we are of domination. While it is very difficult to separate the assumptions of the first ethnographers (or even the current ones) from the realities of life in the cultures they studied, it appears that the closer to the land the groups studied were, the more cooperative their ways of life were. While it is very easy to create from this idea a myth of an interdependent Eden, it’s also possible to use it as a means of breaking the invisible bonds of hierarchy and allow us to see ourselves and our place in the world more clearly. We can compare ourselves to other animals, weigh our various cultures against each other, and get an idea of how varied the ways we are capable of interacting with each other and our world are, but the one thing I do not believe that we will ever do is find the one best way of being human.

The pace of change has become a race, run for its own sake, with no clear goal. We are falling over our own feet in our haste to get to a future whose shape is unknown. We have become Kali, trampling the earth to mud as we dance in celebration of our own godhood. We have moments of remembering our connection to that which we are destroying, but distraction in the form of new possessions, power, or other means of changing our consciousness is infinitely preferable to utter terror, so we keep dancing, keep consuming. We keep reaching for that golden finish line, not realizing it is the light of our own destruction.

We can change the storyline any time we want to. Some of us have spent their whole lives working towards this. We have, as a result, a vast number of very useful tools to hand. We know how to harness the power of the Sun, and how to read the book of life that resides in every cell. The knowledge we have gathered, and the disciplines that grew out of them, have shown us how our world works and where we came from, and the story is growing clearer with every discovery and every connection made. We have clearly seen the faces of the planets in our solar system, and of the Earth.

We stand at a wonderful, terrible, pivotal moment in time. We are in the midst of a change that is as monumental as the discovery of agriculture, when we discovered how to strike a bargain with plants and animals that changed the nature of life on this planet. We are still bound by the terms of that agreement, no matter how hard we try to forget we ever made it, and now we must extend it to the whole planet. We have gained the power to reshape the world in a way even more fundamental than the domestication of a few species who were willing to cooperate with us. We are now being called to partnership with the planet as a whole.

Our ability to tell stories is not unique. The Earth, the solar system, the Universe tell them all the time. We can read the book of life, and our stories are written within it. The story of our choices now will be there as well, if there is anyone left to read it.