Carried On The Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fantasy of Independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lives Matter

I cannot stay silent, nor is it my time to speak. The voices who have not been heard since long before my birth need my attention and my support in order to finally do this thing of vital importance that has been left undone for far too long, all over the world.

Peace Begins With Me

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

and ask:

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

Cities Are Cauldrons

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

Common Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hope is a Verb

Gibbous Earth rising over moon
Earthrise, Apollo 8, Dec 24th, 1969

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”  -David Orr, from the cover of the program book

I’ve always been curious about Bioneers, but between the location and the cost, I’ve always given it a miss. This year, however, we are feeling just a little more prosperous, and I bought a ticket months ago, at a reduced rate. I’m so glad I did, because the conference was fantastic! It was like going to the best parts of the Green Festival. The speakers are nothing short of inspirational, and they didn’t pretend to offer solutions. They did offer pragmatic assessments of a range of problems, and they dug deep for the short amount of time they had to get the message out. Bill McKibben, in particular, showed us a cellphone video of a collapsing glacier that was absolutely chilling. He told us about a video that you can see here, of the cost to the people who live in the cold places, and the low places.

Rise: From One Island To Another

These are working agents of change, not dreamers. They shared things they had learned from trying out various strategies, and how their mistakes had shaped their current thinking. Many offered actionable items. Not the things we already know we need to do, such as eating less meat and driving less, but actual things that can make a difference. Listen to people who are different from you, question the picture you have of an “environmentalist,” a “liberal,” a “conservative.” Realize that language matters, and that nobody likes to be told what to do, so meet people where they are. We don’t know where we’re going, we are in uncharted territory. We all have a piece of the answer in these times where what we do is crucial to our survival, and all our voices are equally important.

The tiny village that sprang up around the buildings was more about people than the marketplace—though it was indeed possible to drop some major money if you so chose. Yet I didn’t see any junk. No “green solutions,” nothing that was designed to catch the eye, but would be in the landfill in a month or two. No tables full of plastic “gimmes” that were frankly useless before they were even given out. Tables full of information put out by the various people who were there doing the work and looking for help to do more of it.

There were very few vendors, and they were selling socially conscious things, books (where my money went…), ethically made clothing—or demonstrating products that actually help change the way we do things. I came home, for example, with three samples of graywater safe laundry liquid that will solve a particular problem we currently have. Our washer line will not drain, and until I get a snake I’m using soap nuts and using the water as graywater. This makes it necessary to use hot water. We will see quite soon if our plants can tolerate it, and if they do, the product is sold concentrated, in glass. There was also a biogas composter that feeds a gas burner. This is out of our price range right now—but to have the option, when our circumstances change, to have a gas burner and fuel it with our compost, is definitely something I’m interested in. I loathe electric stoves, but had resigned myself to eventually going there…

The largest part of the marketplace was the organizations, though. People doing the work that needs to be done, available and willing to talk about their work, taking donations, gathering subscribers and selling a few things to support their work. I was able to learn a lot about organizations I’d never heard of, and as Nina Simons said in her remarks, synchronicity abounds there. I never expected to find the people I did, and I’m very grateful to have been able to make the connections. The World Cafe was set up specifically to be a space for networking and meetups and it was wonderful to see that much space devoted to doing these things at no charge.

The food vendors were few, but the food was excellent. Cafe Mam in particular was passing out free (EXCELLENT!) coffee in the main venue and selling coffee at the food court. No one had a problem with me handing them my scruffy steel cup, and nobody gave me a second look for cleaning it in the bathroom. That is rare. I also saw people handing over their own plates and bowls to be filled and it was treated as normal. I felt good instead of strange for whipping my bandanna and a slightly flat croissant out of my pack at the morning keynote. I carry food all the time this way, and the difference in atmosphere at this conference was palpable. The little things really do matter. Gender neutral bathrooms where everyone uses the stalls and the sinks? That was HUGE! It felt like going back to college, and forward into a world where gender truly doesn’t matter.

Nothing is perfect, however, but we are all products of the culture we live in. Marin Center is a nice venue, but it is completely car-dependent. I chose, for a few reasons, to do the conference on public transit. The first reason was economic. Renting a gig car for the weekend would have cost about $250 on top of the ticket, or considerably more if I’d even tried to get a hotel room. To be fair, I also expected to pay more the first time as I found out more about the conference and met people.

The second reason was also economic, but it was cultural as well. Buses serve a different segment of society, and they put one in contact with a different sort of Bioneer. Very, very few of us were on those buses. Marin County also gets much browner when you get on a bus that isn’t serving the commuter population. These people illustrated something that was, in fact, brought up at the conference. Environmentalists are largely seen as white. That shapes participation in very real ways. Heather McTeer Toney, whose credits include being the National Field Director of Mom’s Clean Air Force and the first African American Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, brought this up in her keynote speech in a very revealing way. She showed us what an image search for “environmentalist” returns. When you get on the bus the demographics are reversed. I shared my Saturday morning bus with a young Asian activist coming for the first time to Bioneers. In many other ways than race, I could have been looking at myself at her age. I was going to living history events back then, instead of climate conferences, but that bus system was my lifeline to get to the North Bay. It hasn’t gotten any better in the last thirty years. At night, however, it was a couple of white women who were older than I am—the ones who were around when I was a kid in the sixties and were still walking their talk, and a couple of black men. We were all leaving early because this was the next to last bus from Civic Center.

I could have stayed longer if I’d been willing to hike out to the freeway bus pad, a little over a mile away. The last bus is around 11 there. I did that walk during the Friday lunch period because I wanted to know what it entailed. Again, the same demographics were in play as soon as I’d walked past the Civic Center. I was the only white person walking. The bus shelters were few and far between and occupied by brown people and kids. The route to the bus pad entailed crossing the on-ramp farther along a blind curve than I liked, and then crossing the offramp. That was why I eventually decided not to stay late. It was twenty feet of spooky with a narrow island in the middle and I decided not to chance it in the dark. I was very glad I’d chosen to have this experience though, because this is the reality of public transit, and it explains a lot about why we stay in our cars. It’s one of those negative feedback loops that need to change if we expect people to use the system unless they’re foolish idealistic adventurers like me or economic prisoners.

So I missed Caroline Casey on Friday night, someone I’d particularly wanted to see. One of the women I rode back to San Francisco with on Saturday night said that as usual, Caroline had run way over time, and it was only because she’d run into a friend who drove her to the transit center that she’d been able to get home at all that night. To be fair, I did have choices that many others don’t. I could have rented a car. I could have called my father and had rides, and/or a place to stay. I wouldn’t have learned as much, though, and we can’t change what we don’t know. For what it’s worth, on Friday evening I did one more experiment. I’d gotten to the bus stop a half hour early and I decided to go back to my college days and try hitchhiking. After all, I was a white woman in a skirt (and I admit, a strange Scots bonnet) with a conference badge hanging around my neck. Lots of people were leaving for dinner, and maybe I could get a ride to the transit center. Not one person would even meet my eyes, let alone stop. These people were more than willing to talk to me at the conference, but once I was standing in the road, I became a stranger. This is not really a value judgment on any one individual, more an illustration of the tragedy of the commons. This is where we are now, not where we will be in the future, depending on our choices. Cars, sadly, make us strangers, even at an event like Bioneers.

The conference does have a rideshare board, which is awesome, but they could do one simple thing to encourage the use of transit—and incidentally, to help out all of these young activists whose resourcefulness in transcending barriers of many kinds is astounding and who were properly celebrated at the conference. It’s something Renaissance Faire used to do for their actors, back in the 80s.

Please consider running a shuttle. Not all day long, or all night. Two trips would be enough, really. Mornings are probably OK, because the San Francisco bus is timed to meet the Civic Center bus at least on Fridays and Saturdays. A bus after the last panel and the early night events to the Marin transit center would really help. A bus at the end of the films and night events—say at 11, would be a godsend. It would allow those who take transit to walk our talk and not have to pay the price of missing the evening events. It would put us on a par with those who choose to drive, and maybe even get some of us out of our cars. We wouldn’t have to spend our conference time lining up a ride, we’d just have to show up at the entrance to the venue instead of walking all the way around the lake for buses that can’t take the conference schedule into account. This is one of the simple actions that would mitigate the fact that this very expensive conference is held in the middle of one of the largest transit deserts in the Bay Area.

I decided not to go back Sunday, though I regretted missing some of the panels. Transit and money were factors, but were not the decisive factors. When I talk about money, what I’m really saying is I needed to keep my butt out of the conference bookstore. So many EXCELLENT books! I took home as many as I can practicably read before they become part of the wiggling stack I intend to read “someday.” I made the connections I really needed to make and contact information was exchanged. I got a taste of how the world might be, and fresh inspiration to shape my part in the song of the future. I actually got to sing in an amazing workshop that introduced me to song circles, which I’d never heard of before.

I’m very glad I came. I’m on the fence about returning because there are so many places I can put the time and money that attending this event takes that will also help to change things. I considered volunteering, but again, the bar for entry is very high in so many ways. I love the Brigadoonlike community that springs up for a few days and then disappears for a year. The container that is created is a piece of a world that isn’t yet here, but might be. Getting a glimpse of what it could be like really does make a difference. The seeds planted here are vital to our survival and the things I learned here will stay with me for a long time. Riding the bus is such a small price to pay—but there are so many things that need to be done…

The tents and hay bales of Bioneers, with a large inflatable amanita mushroom in the middle.
A Bit of Bioneers

The Sickness

I got it! Why Pantheacon left such a bad taste in my mouth—why, of all the years I’ve gone, I got sick this time. Con crud has always passed me by before. I thought my “secret” was purely physical, a protection conferred by my homeopathic remedies and the fact that my job exposes me to basically everything, as well as all the walking I do, the trash I pick up barehanded, etc., etc.

It was something much older that made me sick, something I thought I had learned back in grade school when I became an outcast, and later, when I couldn’t find a boyfriend like everyone else. I realized then that there was no point in wanting what everyone else had. I knew, in a moment much like the one I experienced at the beginning of this week, that what everyone else has will never make me happy. Life is not one size fits all.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit it. What I wanted was to become a Big Name Pagan. I wanted to give talks and write books and not have to go back to this job that was not the deal I made with the Earth, lo, those many years ago.

Now it isn’t that I don’t have a book in me. I have many, as a matter of fact. I have songs and albums, the Awen has a metric fuckton of work for me to do. But not for attention. Not for status. For Gaia, and for Saturn, my taskmaster. For Taliesin, my inner container, strong and skilled, into which the Awen pours beauty. I forgot for a moment that all this stuff wants is a conduit to come through into the world, and that Cerridwen told me that all I had to do was serve my purpose. The rewards will come, and their form will be surprising. Jupiter will make me wealthy. I just have to remember that my conception of wealth has very little to do with money.

I forgot all this, and I made myself miserable and sick.

I’m all better now. Life is crammed full of wonder and wealth. The sun shines gold on me, the rain pours silver on my head. I met Rambling Jack Elliott yesterday, a Uranian twist of fate if ever there was one. I accompanied him around the vessel he knew well back in the day, listened to his silly jokes, and how he was chased off the boat at nineteen by the guy who used to own her in the Thirties. Amid the sound of the chipping hammers I’d do anything to be able to swing again, pulling dainty little covers off capstans that have no need of such fripperies, pulled from my servant’s station where I had been placed by the Hollywood Pirate who will never see these gallant Ladies as anything more than a rung on the ladder of status.

I went back to my bench, with my laminated slices of My Lady’s History, under the cotton candy clouds, beneath the brilliant blue sky, and realized that I am exactly where I need to be, for now. My sentence is coming to an end, with every status-seeker who moves on, with every story I tell of the 5,000 year history of deforestation that passed through our vessels, with every light that goes on behind the eyes of some traveler who thought they were coming to see the “pirate ships.”

You got more than you bargained for when you ran into this Bard, no? My workplace got more than it knew when it hired a resident Witch. And the Ladies got exactly what they deserved.

Eating Our Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Stephen Harrod Buehner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

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

We are better than that.

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

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

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

Who Are We?

Lady Liberty in a window

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

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