Relationship Matters: Grief, Joy, and the Land (Nov. 3, 2019)

These are some of the readings and words I shared during a service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield, VT on November 3, 2019. I’ve modified some elements since the original preaching date.

Children’s message: Importance of our names
what are your names? my name is Charis. Sometimes people mess it up. Does anyone ever get your name a little bit wrong? What happens then?…

There’s a mountain near here called Ascutney—have you heard of it? Have you been there? I grew up right near it, and I just love it so much. Do you have places that you really love?

view from the side of Cas Cad Nac

Well, I wanted to tell you that I learned that Ascutney has another name, an older name—Cas Cad Nac. This name is the name the native people, the Abenaki, use for that mountain. When people came from Europe to take this land, they got the name of the mountain wrong, and the Abenaki didn’t have enough power to make sure it stayed the right name.

And I wonder, what happens when we get the name of a place wrong? What do you think?

 

The Remedies

Half on the Earth, half in the heart,
the remedies for all the things
which grieve us wait for those who know thewords to use to find them.
Penobscot people used to make

a medicine for cancer from Mayapple
and South American people knew
the quinine cure for malaria

a thousand years ago.
But it is not just in the roots,
the stems, the leaves,

the thousand flowers
that healing lies.

Half of it lives within the words
the healer speaks.

And when the final time has come
for one to leave this Earth

there are no cures,
for Death is only
part of Life, not a disease.
Half on the Earth, half in the heart,
the remedies for all our pains
wait for the songs of healing.

– Joseph Bruchac

Over the last decade, I’ve written a lot of academic papers—articles, chapters, blog posts. That kind of writing often asks me to present, in the beginning, an argument. And then to demonstrate why the argument matters, or could be true, through the rest of the written work.

A sermon, obviously, is a different kind of writing. A different way of inhabiting words, space, time—a different way of sharing. One of the reasons it is different lies in the way that sermons invite us to speak, and to listen, from our hearts and spirits, as well as with our minds. So, honoring all these ways we can enter into a conversation together as I speak the words I’ve written down, I’ll tell you what the argument of this sermon would be, if it had an argument. It is this:

Relationship matters.

And now it’s possible that you’re sitting there thinking, sheesh, I got up and out of the cozy warm house on this Sunday morning to come hear something I already know is true? Maybe, and if so, you can tell me at coffee hour what you think about relationship, and where I may go wrong in my thinking about it with you in the coming minutes. I welcome such conversations—after all, they are part of making relationship happen.

I arrive at thinking about relationship today because I wanted to talk with you about land, and place, and learning with the places we live. I wanted to talk about what a difference it makes to stay in one place long enough, and to pay attention enough, to actually learn the landscape, to learn the changes and nuances of that place through season turn and the waxing and waning of community, politics, and the moon. I wanted to talk about what it might mean to imagine that the land loves us back—as we attend to and learn to love the land, in a place, maybe it, too, learns to love us.

And I realized I couldn’t have this conversation with you without taking into account the processes of healing that I think we are called to do, with the land, and with each other. This healing work must, by virtue of being a process, take time; and it must, we must, attend not only to joy, connection and feelings of belonging in place, on the land—we must also attend to the ways the land holds stories of violence and fear. The ways that our bodies, and our fellow humans’ bodies, also hold stories of joy alongside grief. The ways that joy and grief emerge out of the land, out of our bodies, as of-this-moment—and also, always, in connection with all the moments have come before. The way that time bends upon itself and all the pasts are always present with us, held in the landscape. So that’s what I’ll talk about today: healing, land, time, and relationship.

Here, in Springfield, we are in ndakinna–the Wabanaki word for this land, which is Abenaki territory. It stretches from what settlers call Maine and Nova Scotia through all of what we call New England to just west of the Hudson River, north through the southern parts of what we call Quebec and south to what we call Connecticut. Joseph Bruchac, the poet we just heard from, is Abenaki, and has been telling stories and holding land-based knowledge for his people for his whole adult life. In The Remedies, he tells us about the ways that Penobscot knowledge about plant medicines has been around since well before European arrival on this continent, and he tells us this by way of tenderly describing the relation between people, plant, and disease. He tells us that the songs, the words of healing are what activate the medicines of the earth. That the good words of a human make the connection between the planet and another human who is in need—and maybe, too, with the needs of the earth, with the land and place we’re in.

It seems to me that we are always in the midst of this work he talks about—looking for the words to share with a suffering friend, or how to talk about the love we have for this earth, as she literally burns and drowns in front of us. This is what I mean when I say that we are called to this work, the work of weaving together again the relations among people, and among people and land, and between human stories and land stories. This reweaving of relations is the web with which we can learn, again, to hold each other in love.

Bruchac describes the work of healing human bodies as a relational work between humans and the earth. This is on my mind as I think about the fact that sometimes, the only words to offer towards suffering are contained in silent witness. Also, words are only part of the equation Bruchac presents to us.

The earth.
The Heart.
The plant.
The person.
The other person.

Suddenly, our field of vision is full with lives and presence. The Remedies in this poem are about earth, words, bodies—they are about the relation between these elements, and the ways that we learn to pay attention to those relations. Learn to speak them. Learn to hold them in a good way. What does it mean, to you, in the fabric of your own life, to be in good relationship with the earth, with the land?

I’ll tell you one of the ways I think about this for myself. All the relationships matter, which means that I think not just of my sense of belonging and connection, but also of the long histories that have made it possible for me to be here on this land, in this place I call home. The stories of how my ancestors came and stole land, wrote and broke treaties, and committed violent acts. This is where it gets harder for me to look at, to think about.

I’m a settler in this place. My people came to this continent from Scotland, Germany, England, between 1619 and now, settling in Massachusetts, California, Virginia. My parents and I moved to Weathersfield from Maryland when I was too young to remember, and I don’t know any other home. I love it here, and it feels meaningfully home. And it is not mine. This is land, this is a place, that holds the story of the ongoing process of settler colonialism. What right do I have to feel like I am at home here?

Part of our human inheritance is the necessity of holding joy alongside grief, remembering that people kill others, as well as give others pleasure. We cannot look at only one side of this coin when we seeking to do justice to what Bruchac tells us is the work of healing.

The earth.
The heart.
The plant.
The person.
The other person.

Many of us come to church for solace. I would imagine that discussing settler colonialism and its violence is not exactly what you think of first when you think about solace. However, I would like to invite you into the possibility that, even if it is difficult to hear and sit with, the kinds of connection and relation that become possible when we sit with pain are, themselves, a gift of solace. At the very least, the act of bearing witness is a way of being in relationship. It is into a space of witness and presence I invite you, again.

I work with the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice as a Program Leader and sometimes as a curriculum developer.  In fall 2019, I had the honor to join my fellow program leaders and CSJ staff for a training in Minneapolis, Minnesota, territory of the Dakota and Anishnaabe. Mni Sota means land of many waters—some of you may be familiar with the Dakota word Mni, which means water, from the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests, in which some people were able to remember and proclaim together that mni wiconi—water is life.

In Mni sota, we spent a full day with Reverent Jim Bear Jacobs, a Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican man, and Pastor Danny Givens, a Black clergyman, both of whom grew up in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area. Together, they’ve created a place-based storytelling tour grounded in their own lives as well as in their communities’ historical and current experiences of violence, survival, and healing.

Our group was silent. We were silent, listening, the whole day, as we traveled from site to site, hearing the stories they shared with us. We were silent, bearing witness, being present in place, because the stories we heard ranged from horrifying to incomprehensible. Our bodies tensed; our shoulders hunched; our stomachs turned over. On the land listening, we were silent. In the vans while driving between sites, we made silly, unrelated jokes and talked about television programs. It was too much to hold, otherwise. Our group of fourteen, all of us leaders in spiritually grounded social justice work through the UUCSJ, black and white and Filipino and Latinx, from the United States, Haiti, Colombia, Mexico, listened silently, holding space in the places we were called into with Jim Bear and Pastor Danny’s stories.

We started where the Minnesota River and the Mississippi river meet, river confluence, fertile, alive.

It is the place of Dakota Genesis.

It is the site of a U.S. Army concentration camp where Natives were imprisoned.

It is a place of Birth. Life. Genocide.

Measles and other illnesses claimed three or four people a night over that winter that the Army kept Dakota people imprisoned there, in the passive genocide of attrition. In order to ensure their relatives were treated with dignity after they died, many who were imprisoned buried their loved ones under their own feet inside the stockade.

After that winter, it became illegal to be Dakota in the territory of Minnesota. Those people who were imprisoned were taken on a ferry down the river.

Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs called this, then, the place where the Minnesota and the Mississippi Rivers meet, a place of genesis and genocide.

People alive, here, now, live in a land that still tells these stories.

Pastor Danny wove his story starting with the stump where the ferry docked to take away the Dakota, The stump was also where the ferry docked bringing 75 black men and women looking for freedom. Then more, and more. Up the Mississippi towards a life that was more possible than it was way down south, where black lives did not matter. Still don’t, not as much as white ones. That river traces so many contours of history and presents—just like the land around it.

We ended the day in the Philando Castile Community Peace Garden in St. Paul, a small site on a grassy hillock between a five lane road and a fenced in basketball court on the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair. Here, Pastor Givens reminded us of the story of Philando Divall Castile, a young man shot by a police officer through the window of his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds’ car, while she live-streamed the encounter on Facebook.

Pastor Danny told us about the sequence of events that brought him into deep relationship, and the hope that springs from the necessary work of grief with the spot now called the Peace Garden. And Jim Bear Jacobs also told us a story. He told us how, when Philando was shot, he and some members of his congregation were out of cell range, visiting the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It wasn’t until a few hours later, after they had witnessed the site and its mass graves, when they were driving back, that they started to get the texts, the facebook messages, the calls. Another young black man murdered by police.
One of his parishioners, from the back of the van, asked him, “when will it fucking end?” And that’s the question he left us with, there in the Philando Castile Community Peace Garden, surrounded by the memories of Philando’s life and dignity, and the loud struggle of his death.

All of this, grounded in a place. A strip of grass, between a fairground and a thoroughfare. All of this, held in the soil of the earth. All of this, intersections of murdered black men and indigenous genocide, held together, in the bodies of the men who shared the story of their relationship to that place, who embody joy and possibility, seeking connection.

Take a breath.
Place a hand on your heart, or over your stomach. Bring your attention into your body.
Where does this sit with you?
What are you feeling right now?

The depth and breadth of the weaving that Jim Bear Jacobs and Pastor Danny Givens were able to communicate to us was both devastating and enlightening, leading me to wonder other kinds of stories are available, out there in the world, that I don’t know about.

These hours revealed to me how little I know about this place I live, even having tried to pay attention for most of my life. What are the memories that are in the land around me, that haven’t been awoken by the kind of healing song of human words that Bruchac talks about, that Pastor Danny and Rev. Jim Bear are deep in singing? What kinds of stories can my own body tell, in relation to land and landscape?

Growing up with Ascutney, the hikes, the falls, my favorite mountain.

Growing up with the hemlock grove: walking there with my dad, past the quartz boulder, up around the place where the microburst opened the forest canopy, building the fairy houses, sitting the soft needled silent floor, listening, the sunlight slanting as though waiting for something.

These places called me back from wandering the earth in my human feet, as poet Joy Harjo puts it. Call me back to recommitting to place as an adult. Learning my whole-self relation to place: listening, learning from books and other humans how to know the land—ecological histories, farmers’ knowledge and love of seasons and landscape.

But also looking and listening out on the land itself. Just going out there to pay attention and see what’s there, not for exercise or to harvest or to work. Just sitting, or walking, watching bugs, birds, and trees, through the seasons. Learning what the medicine plants have to teach me about where they like to grow, and how to work with them.

All of these practices and stories create a feeling of home and belonging for me—they create the possibility for joy. On top of these long histories of grief and suffering, layered in with joy and determination, I am convinced that I can figure out how to be in relationship with the land in a way that doesn’t close off the possibility for joy, for belonging, for home, with and for Abenaki folks. With and for black folks and people of color.

Based on that conviction, I think that my joy and sense of belonging are not my own—rather, they are only real if I work on making it possible for everyone to feel at home in their places. This means building relationships, over long periods of slow time, through land, through story, through talking to one person, then another, then another. Learning deeper, listening deeper, slowing down.

Returning to how the words of the healer can weave back together things that have been injured or torn, I offer this question back to you.

What would it mean to weave ourselves into good relationship with this land, and this place, and all of its people, knowing that there are stories upon stories upon stories of both grief and joy held together in the very dirt under our feet?

David Whyte, poet, has good words to share with us in closing.

SOMETIMES

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest

breathing
like the ones
in the old stories

who could cross
a shimmering bed of dry leaves
without a sound,

you come
to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

questions
that can make
or unmake
a life,

questions
that have patiently
waited for you,

questions
that have no right
to go away.

-David Whyte

Walking Our Edges: The work of spiritual activism (April 2014)

These are the readings and reflections from a service I offered at the First Unitarian Universalist Parish of Chester, Vermont, in April 2014. 

I open with words from Buddhist teacher Pema Chödron and from Grace Lee Boggs, a long time social justice activist and change worker based in Detroit. I offer this sermon in honor of Dr Martin Luther King, assassinated 46 years ago on Friday.

…Anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present, without a reference point, experiences groundlessness. That’s when our understanding goes deeper, when we find that the present moment is a pretty vulnerable place, and that this can be completely unnerving and completely tender at the same time. What we’re talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye—not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and thinking. The truth is that when we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, [in the present moment], then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape. (Pema Chödron, Comfortable with Uncertainty)[1]2018. Pema Chodron. Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. Shambala Press

These are the times that grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that, despite the powers and principalities bent upon commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.
Grace Lee Boggs, These are the Times That Grow Our Souls[2]Boggs, Grace Lee. 2003. THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT GROW OUR SOULS: Animating Democracy. on Americans for the Arts website

Dreamers, doers, speakers and holders of wisdom have harbored visions for a different world, for the possibility that things might be other than they are, for many years. The time that has gone by has not affected the resonance and the importance of those visions for those who carry them. I’ve come today to offer some thoughts on ways we might all remind ourselves that those visions we share—the ones we can see when we squint, laugh and sigh, for a world of equality, light, love, justice and open trust—are still possible, and we are still responsible for carrying that visionary flame.

I’ve been involved in a number of different social and environmental justice efforts over the years. As a teenager, I worked with the AFSC’s Vermont chapter as they organized against nuclear proliferation; I also spoke out and stood up as a queer woman when the Civil Unions debate was hot at play in Vermont. Later, I worked with Sudanese refugee students in Nairobi, Kenya, helping them find funding to go to high school, and after college I found myself immensely drawn to the transformative, justice-oriented process that experiential education offers students of all stripes, in the U.S. and abroad. Recently I’ve been involved with a number of different environmental justice projects, primarily as an herbalist and a medic but also as a social scientist. Through all this, I have become increasingly aware of the power of power to determine whose stories are heard, whose experiences are marginalized, and what the consequences of that imbalance of power is for building just relationships.

My approach to activism is rooted in my spiritual life, in my understanding of all beings on this earth as interconnected. I am not necessarily skilled, moment to moment, at recognizing and feeling this interdependence, but I practice. You may know, as Pema Chödron points out, that experiencing flashes of interconnection can actually be as frightening as they are liberating. It can be uncomfortable, especially from the standpoint of contemporary United States culture of individualism, to realize, even for a moment, one’s deep interconnection with the rest of the world.

This is where I see the work of spiritual activism really blossoming. At this edge space, this uncomfortable place of encounter. For me, all social and environmental justice activism s what we might call ‘edge work’ — exploring and expanding the boundaries of our knowledge, our experience, our sensations.

As someone who is privileged in terms of where I was born, the color of my skin, and my class position, I have learned that it is especially my responsibility to consider the ways that margins, edges, and uncomfortable places affect my own life, and to look honestly at how those edges are experienced by the billions of other beings with whom I share this earth.

What does it mean to be in a margin? Where are the margins in our own lives? What can we learn from our own sensations of margin, and what do we hear in others stories of marginalization, of existing in spaces between cultures, between lives, between power or outside of it? How can this teach us to live better on this planet? These are the questions I ask myself as I sit down to ponder out this sermon to share with you.

*   *   *

As an anthropologist I carry with me a sense of deep and long social analysis—this sense comes with me into my spiritual life as much as into my activism. At times it can feel like a weight—any familiarity with the last 200 years of human history is enough to make anyone groan, and sustained examination offers a danger of making us think things can never get better. Genocides on every continent—every continent where there are people. The rape and pillage of our fellow nonhuman residents of this planet, allowed and encouraged by our tendency in the west to think of them as “natural resources.” A shift towards ways of knowing the world that makes no room for the numinous, for the inexplicable, for the beautiful, for anything beyond rational explanation. We are in a time of great loss, and many of us feel the grief of this deep in our gut.

It could be a bleak picture, if we stop there. Some days, I do stop there, and it really sucks there. The weight of history, and the depth of grief sits in my flesh, huddles in my bones. These are the days when, listening to news headlines, I weep. The days when all I want to do is grab a nice novel and a hot beverage and a cushy armchair. Maybe not everyone has these days of despair, but many of us do.

What do the other kind of days look like, though? The kind where some small crack opens up and you can see through, you can see a better way, or maybe even just scent it on the wind that drafts in. It’s those ones I’d like to lift up alongside the hard days.

For me, at least, those days where I can see through the crack of this world into the possibility of the next are filled with a sense of purpose, a sense that the places I set my work to today matter deeply. And that these small hands could, in fact, play a role in what that old U.U. minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker,[3]1853, Ten Sermons of Religion by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience, Start Page 66, Quote Page 84-85, Crosby, Nichols and Company, Boston. and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. after him,[4]1958 February 8, The Gospel Messenger, Out of the Long Night by Martin Luther King, Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Official Organ of the Church of the Brethren, Published weekly by the … Continue reading called the bending arc of the moral universe.

The work I feel brings me closest to that purpose and clarity is teaching work and healing work. Teaching, learning, and healing are things that always happen at the outside edge of the gentle curve of our comfort zone. Whether we are 12 year olds experimenting with hammers, nails, and a budding but not fully bloomed sense of hand-eye coordination, or whether we are 31, 48, 69 or 85 and finding ourselves, once again, at sea in a delightfully unknown experience.

That space of unknowing can be one of light—of possibility. Whether we step willingly into that space, or are dropped, dragged, or cajoled into it, it is a space where, if we let ourselves, if we listen with our whole being, if we set aside our expectations and open ourselves, we may be transformed.

***

Ecologists speak of the “edge zone” as interstitial spaces between different ecosystems which are often prolifically creative, fertile and abundant. So, too, with human interactions–our edges, when they meet, are creative, fertile, abundant, and often challenging.

Dr. Gloria Anzaldua, a visionary Latina feminist scholar, speaks of ways that we might re-write our culture, our cultural expectations—the ones that spring out of our complex histories of racial and class discrimination and marginalization. This is one place, one time, when the practices of spiritual activism can encourage us to step forward, to lean into the struggle and challenge of interaction, rather than retreating into ourselves from fear of pain. In thinking about the potential that our margin spaces hold, I find her words to be thought provoking. She says

 When two or more opposing accounts, perspectives, or belief systems appear side by side or intertwined, a kind of double or multiple seeing results, forcing you into continuous….encounters with these different stories, situations, and people. Trying to understand these convergences compels you to critique your own perspective and assumptions. It leads to reinterpreting the story you imagined yourself living, bringing it to a dramatic end and initiating one of turmoil, being swallowed by your fears, and passing through a threshold. … Each little encounter is an awakening that causes you to question who you are, what the world is about. The urgency to know what you’re experiencing awakens la facultad, the ability to shift attention and see through the surfaces of things and situations. (This Bridge We Call Home, p 547)[5]Anzaldua, G., and A. Keating. 2002. This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation

I choose this passage to share because Anzaldua offers us a way think about encounter, and about difference. She speaks of “a kind of double or multiple seeing…” and of the shock of reinterpretation awakening our “ability to shift attention,” to see through the surfaces of things.

One story from my own learning process in social justice activism comes to mind, spurred by these words about shifting my attention. A few years ago, I was teasing a good friend about her increased salary–perhaps feeling a little jealous that I was not making as much money as she was. After I made a few comments about her salary, this friend said to me, “Charis, you cannot say things like that anymore. I’m getting really angry about it. It’s really not ok that you’re teasing me money. I grew up in extreme poverty, and I live with a consistent fear that I will not have enough money–for my basic needs let alone for emergencies. You have no idea what that is like.”

And she was right. I did not have any idea. I was ashamed–I was mortified–I was humbled. I got that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I get when I know I really messed up, and my words and actions were, in fact, hurtful to my friend. I had never thought, before, about our relative class backgrounds–in a lot of ways I had thought that it didn’t really matter. And in terms of heart connection, it doesn’t. But in terms of this good friend’s life experience, and mine, and how we understand and interact with the world, it makes all the difference. My ignorance of that difference brought us to a place where I hurt my friend with thoughtless words.

This is a fairly mild example of the kind of learning that can take place when my outside edge meets the outside edge of someone else’s experience. I am challenged to reimagine what I know about the world. As Anzaldua alludes to, this can be dangerous, risky, and was certainly painful for me and for my friend. The risk and the pain involved are all proportionate to how much we otherwise allow ourselves to be closed off from the world, and how much we are willing to open, to love.

Our edges are generative, confusing places where we learn things about ourselves that we did not necessarily want to know.

We find ourselves saying:

oh. is this what I really believe?….

Eee. That is not what I meant to say.

What life am I living, that I’ve come to this point? Is this the life that is the one I want?

What kinds of power am I unconsciously wielding?

We find ourselves hurting, challenged, and maybe, just maybe, we find ourselves, through that hurt and challenge, wanting to reach out again past our edge, to extend the territory that edge covers, to discover what else there is about the world that we haven’t noticed. To listen to the stories we haven’t heard—the untold histories of people who are not familiar to us. The song of the land we live with.

I work towards reaching out and listening, in my practices of spiritual activism. I don’t always succeed–but I practice. Joanna Macy speaks of a “wild love for the world,” and that is the sensation I cultivate in myself when doing the edge-work of spiritual activism–a sensation of connection, where the heart expands, and a sense of where and how I might belong, and what I can do, expands along with it. This expansion is a risky business, as Anzaldua suggested. It is a risk, an act of bravery and trust, to extend love to another human–I suspect we all know that and have taken that risk, and been delighted and hurt in turn. It is no less a risk to extend an amorphous hope for a better world, or love to all these billions of fellow travelers with whom we share this blue boat in the cosmos.

But what, really, is love without risk? It seems to me that they come hand in hand. Risk is the sharpness of the edge in edge work–the part that might cut you. It is also the sharpness that can cut a door in the world that we know, and in the dreams that we have, to make way for the ones that come next, the ones that come better. Walking our edges is a practice of spiritual activism, being willing to risk being cut in the hope that sometimes, too, the door will also be cut open.

This edge work demands our attention. It is a matter of opening the many layers of our eyes–of, as Pema Chödron might suggest, taking off our armor to the world and noticing, in a raw state, what there is to notice. To use another ecological metaphor, walking our own edges is like walking the springtime, in those first weeks of bloom. Perhaps some of you know of what I speak these last few days–the light and warmth is finally enough and you’re out there in your thin jacket, and you’re out on the road or in the woods and suddenly, everything comes rushing in.

The bark of the pine tree is extraordinarily textured–how did I not notice this before? The air smells of greening earth, a deep and feral scent that awakens something in my gut. The leaves in the path, decaying since October, catch your eye as they shift the path of the sunlight. You notice the squish of the ground under your feet, and you maybe even notice your own hands—look at them now. Look at them—look at the fine lines in your palm. … Notice the way the skin flexes and folds on your knuckles as you bend them. Look closely! This is your hand! Have you noticed it before?

Opening ourselves to the astonishing world–human and otherwise–is at the root of walking our edges. Not only are the leaves of the forest floor much more interesting in the first flush of greening spring than we thought they were—not only are our hands much more complex, deserving of our loving gaze. So too, the rest of the world. So, too, is the world made up of layer upon layer of complexity—and every place those layers intersect is an edge, a creative and generative space of challenge, of joy, and of pain. Really paying attention, listening with our whole selves, feeling into those places where our listening leads us to hurt, to learn things about ourselves or our world that we were maybe not ready to know—this takes courage. Walking the edge, celebrating and welcoming the challenge, welcoming being humbled by our own ignorances and by our own, human, honest, limitations—this is at the root of the most meaningful work for justice in this world.

This is the heart of spiritual activism–a daily opening, small as it needs to be, to the unknown. A daily practice of meeting scary things with love, with openness. This is the work that can transform this world, person by person, into whatever we want it to be.

Between this world and all the ones that are coming, there are many thresholds, many ways to step, leap, slide, grow across. But we can’t get from here to there without thresholds—without encountering the margins, the edges, of our zones of comfort. We can’t get there without being willing to make ourselves raw, to open to some of the hurt that is in the world—our own, and that of other humans, and that of this planet. We can’t get there without, in that rawness, being willing to listen, to attend carefully, to seek not only new versions of old histories that we didn’t know—but to seek also for new versions of the history of the future, the stories of the times that are coming. To seek for new versions where we can see ourselves, in all our edgy curiousity, in all our risky love and courage, moving, listening, feeling, mourning, touching, laughing, learning.

Closing Reading:

Whelks
Mary Oliver

Here are the perfect
fans of the scallops,
quahogs, and weedy mussels
still holding their orange fruit—
and here are the whelks—
whirlwinds,
each the size of a fist,
but always cracked and broken—
clearly they have been traveling
under the sky-blue waves
for a long time.

All my life
I have been restless—
I have felt there is something
more wonderful than gloss—
than wholeness—
than staying at home.
I have not been sure what it is.

But every morning on the wide shore
I pass what is perfect and shining
to look for the whelks, whose edges
have rubbed so long against the world
they have snapped and crumbled—
they have almost vanished,
with the last relinquishing
of their unrepeatable energy,
back into everything else.

When I find one
I hold it in my hand,
I look out over that shaking fire,
I shut my eyes. Not often,
but now and again there’s a moment
when the heart cries aloud:
yes, I am willing to be

that wild darkness,
that long, blue body of light.

References

1 2018. Pema Chodron. Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. Shambala Press
2 Boggs, Grace Lee. 2003. THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT GROW OUR SOULS: Animating Democracy. on Americans for the Arts website
3 1853, Ten Sermons of Religion by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience, Start Page 66, Quote Page 84-85, Crosby, Nichols and Company, Boston.
4 1958 February 8, The Gospel Messenger, Out of the Long Night by Martin Luther King, Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Official Organ of the Church of the Brethren, Published weekly by the General Brotherhood Board, Elgin, Illinois. 
5 Anzaldua, G., and A. Keating. 2002. This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation

Plant Time: An Ecotopian Loanword

In 2019, I had the honor of contributing an essay to an eclectic and engaging collection of works, “An Ecotopian Lexicon,” edited by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy. Envisioned as a series compiling “loanwords” to live by in the context of the anthropocene, the editors invited scholars, artists, practitioners, and dreamers to contribute short pieces borrowing a word from another language, a social group, a conceptual field… The results are fantastic, literally, and really fun to read.

My contribution, Plant Time, can be found listed under the letter P. I’m also honored by the fact that one of the 9 contributing artists chose to illustrate my essay, and you can check out Natasha Bowdoin’s art here.

And imagine my delight and fanboi moment when I learned Kim Stanley Robinson was going to write a Foreword! Ah! The company of genius! (Especially exciting since I had closed my short piece with a microfiction engagement of plant time as a practice). Here are a few of the words with which Robinson opens the text:

“So many new words gathered together like this, each bringing with it a new concept and system, creates a dizzying effect. This is good and right, because we live in a dizzying time. What we do now as a global civilization will create one future out of a vast array of possible futures, an array which ranges from utmost disaster to lasting peace and prosperity. The sheer breadth of this range is all by itself extremely confusing, to the point of inducing a kind of mental and emotional gridlock. Anything could happen! So what should we do? Maybe nothing! Maybe we can’t do anything!

But we can do things, if we can figure out what they are. Various good futures are achievable, even starting from our current moment of high danger. So some really comprehensive analysis, destranding, and remapping is now part of our necessary work. Inevitably new concepts and new words will emerge—lots of them. So this book’s profusion is an accurate foretelling of what will come. It’s a kind of science fiction story in the form of a lexicon, and it postulates and helps to create a future culture more articulate and wiser than we are now. Thus by definition it is a utopian science fiction story.”

Go check it out. The book is available in e-book and hardcover form (I really like the paper they printed the hardcover on, highly recommend if you’re a bibliophile for textures). And if you just can’t get enough…there’s merch! The pieces by artists who illustrated 9 of the essays are available on t-shirts, tote bags, stickers and more. This means you could buy a t-shirt, Or a baby onesie! with a weird and beautiful image on it that is an artists’ interpretation of how I represented herbalists’ experiences of plant-time. TALK ABOUT SOME META CLOTHING. Proceeds go to support creative cultural and political interventions focused on addressing climate injustice.

Pedagogy…online

…in a pandemic. Requires some flexibility! There are by now doubtless thousands of reflections on what it means, and how it’s working to transition much formerly in-person teaching into hybrid or fully online modalities. I’m part of the many that are doing this–teaching my first fully online semester as we speak. And my students are for the most part enrolled in their first fully online class with me. We have been ironing out the details of what good teaching and learning looks like in this space and they are, for the most part, very patient with me. It’s a steep learning curve for all of us, even though I’ve been teaching online community workshops since June. The shape of a semester course, and the demands of its several-month-long arc, mean that this is still a new beast.

However, it is new in some of the same ways that all semester courses are new. It’s a new set of students, and we are all encountering the material afresh, even me. It’s a different year, a different politics, a different time in my life than the last time I taught an Introductory course in Anthropology. And though I’ve always had a lot to say about everything, I’ve gained confidence and grounding in myself as an engaged anthropologist teaching anthropology.

I’m glad to get to engage with the students of AN109b at St. Michael’s College this fall. They’re smart, funny, and concerned with figuring out how to be their best selves in a weird, weird world. Thanks to them, this syllabus is better than it would have been otherwise. Feel free to peruse, interrogate, and converse about it. Introduction to Anthropology Fall 2020 Syllabus

On Grief and Love: We Need Each Other

These are some of the words, readings, and songs I offered for a service with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield, Vermont, March 29, 2020.

Opening Words:

In a time of challenge and change, we light a flame of sharing, the flame of ongoing life. In this time when we search for understanding and serenity in the face of loss, we light this sign of our quest for truth, meaning, and community.

Song: Woyaya (We are Going)

Woyaya

We are going, heaven knows where we are going,
We know within.
We will get there, heaven knows how we will get there,
We know we will.

It will be hard we know
And the road will be muddy and rough,
But we’ll get there, heaven knows how we will get there,
We know we will.

We are going, heaven knows where we are going,
We’ll know we’re there.

Woyaya was composed as a collaboration of seven South African musicians. It was recorded by Sweet Honey in the Rock and also covered by Art Garfunkel on his debut solo album. Lyrics written by Annie Masembe from Uganda.

When I started thinking about the topic for this service, several months ago, what I had in mind was holding space for a general conversation about the entwined nature of grief and love; joy and sorrow; and that they are each community feelings. They arise in our own bodies—but they do not arise without context, without stimulus, from the worlds and communities we are connected with.

Now, in the midst of a global moment of challenge, talking about connection, context, and the coexistence of grief, love, joy, sorrow, pleasure and suffering seems even more relevant. In honor of the ways that these community feelings arise in our bodies, I’d like to offer a short meditation.

I invite you to find a comfortable seat, or if you are more comfortable standing you are welcome to do so.

  • close your eyes as you are comfortable
  • connect with your breath—place your hand on your belly, take a breath into your hand, filling your belly
  • imagine a connection running from the base of your spine into the earth, down through the floor, the building, the soil, the rock, through the layers of the planet into its warm center, rooting you
  • imagine another connection arising out of the top of your head, the crown, moving into the air and up towards the stars.
  • As you breathe in, let the energy of the earth flow up from below through your connecting cord into your root, the base of your spine, flowing into your body.
  • As you breathe out, release into that cord.
  • As you breathe in, let the energy and spaciousness of the sky and stars flow down through your head, and let the light of the stars warm your heart. Pull that energy into where you need it most.
  • As you breathe out, release.
  • Breathe in the earth energy, and let it go to the places in your body which are sore, tired, tight, numb
  • exhale aching and tenderness down into the earth, and allow the earth to hold it.
  • Breathe in the star energy, letting it go into the places in your body and heart which are too full, which are heavy
  • exhale and let light enter those places, softening.
  • Breathe in earth through your seat, breathe out and release into the ground
  • Breathe in stars through your crown, breathe out and let light fill you
  • Breathe in, …. breathe out
  • Breathe in,…. breathe out
  • For these final two breaths, breathe in the gifts of the earth and skies, and breathe out a blessing or a gratitude that you feel

When you are ready, open your eyes.

Our bodies tell us stories. They tell us stories about what’s going on in the world—they give us signs about how to proceed in processing difficult things. I honor you and the process you are in the midst of, living in this human body, right now.

I want to tell you a story, too. This one is about Chiron, a Greek mythological figure. Chiron was a centaur—half human, half horse—and immortal as a result of his parents, one of whom was a Titan and the other of whom a sea nymph. He was the god Zeus’s half brother. Classically, Chiron is represented with human forelegs and the rear parts of a horse, unlike most centaurs, who are represented with the front legs of a horse as well. The fact that Chiron has more human parts is meant to indicate that he is less warlike, less violent, and more intelligent than most centaurs were thought to be.

I bring up Chiron because he is known as the wounded healer. He was deeply knowledgeable about medicine—plants and foods and how to prepare them. He was a gifted educator as well as a healer. It’s said that he was the teacher of dozens, including Asclepius, a root figure in Greek medicine. The word “surgery” we commonly use now originates from the Greek kheirourgos—the same root as his name. Chiron, then, taught; he healed; he prepared medicines; he was kind and intelligent and gentle, and quite important.

One of his students, Herakles, accidentally shot Chiron’s foot with a poisoned arrow while trying to fend off other centaurs. The hydra-venom poison couldn’t kill Chiron, but it caused him great pain, and he was for once unable to heal himself, though he tried mightily. In generosity, he offered up his immortality in return for the freedom and life of Prometheus, who Zeus was punishing for bringing fire to humankind. Prometheus was freed, and Chiron was granted a place among the constellations. There’s a celestial body, an asteroid or perhaps the heart of a comet, in our solar system named Chiron to this day—and the wisdom and kindness he enacted lives on in the hearts of many who practice medicine.

Kindness and loss; woundedness and healing; grief and love. We humans have been living lives full to the brim of all this and more. And we have been telling each other innumerable stories about them—about how these feelings, these community feelings, are connected. We have been telling these stories since the beginning of telling stories.

Why, though? Why do we need to keep telling each other such stories? Surely, each of us in the fabric of our own lives is no stranger to the grip of anticipatory grief—awaiting a loss we know is coming. Surely nobody is under the illusion that love and healing are free of struggle. Why, then, do we need to keep talking about it?

I suspect one good reason is that the actual feeling of grief, of woundedness, of pain, can arise in our bodies with such intensity that it seems like it must only be ourselves who feel this feeling. Sometimes we find ourselves thinking, I alone am suffering in the world. This pain is unexpected and large—I alone am grieving. The loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a species, the loss of a world as we knew it. In our aloneness, we become stuck, and the pain defines us.

There are times for seeking solitude to make space for what is challenging. And there is also a deep need for the collective honoring of grief and pain. It matters for us to be able to turn to one another and say, you are NOT alone. Not only right now, but always. In any moment. This world teems with life, with people around you, with birds and plants and the sun rising and setting as though nothing else was going on. You have never been alone, in that sense. We may not feel exactly the same feelings, but it is a certainty that each of us confronts loss and grief.

Aung San Suu Kyi, a Myanmarese politician and activist, has said that there are three movements in the flowering of compassion: the courage to see, the courage to feel, and the courage to act.

Courage. It takes courage to be present to grief. It takes courage to be present even to our own pain—to tune in to the stories that our bodies are telling us. These days, I move through a sea of news and silence, interspersed by participating in acts of radical love and imagination. Despite the fact that I know that grief and love are both community feelings—that I have personal practices which I intend to honor these related feelings and body processes, it’s still a challenge sometimes to be fully present to my own process, even as I try to hold space for others in theirs.

Suu Kyi starts her three movements of compassion with the courage to see and feel, first, before she mentions the courage to act. It takes deep courage to encounter pain, and to hold ourselves and those around us in compassion. Com-passion, which means literally, the deep feeling-with. So then, maybe part of the reason we humans have been telling each other stories about wounded healers, star-crossed lovers, and the inevitable suffering in life, is because we matter to one another—it matters to reach out and offer a hand, and say you are here with me.

Maybe part of the reason we write each other poems, songs, stories, is to keep reminding each other that we are able to make room for one another. There is room for your grief. There is room for your fear, and your sadness. There is room. We do this for one another, we make room. And we name that room compassion, presence, and love.

SongWe Shall Be Known by Mamuse (Thrive Choir!)

We shall be known by the company we keep
By the ones who circle round to tend these fires
We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap
The seeds of change, alive from deep within the earth

It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive

In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
x3

Closing Words
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities
and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth,
the glory of action,
the splendor of beauty;
for yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every
yesterday
a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.
-Attributed to Kalidasa

Hope and Art When the World is Falling Apart

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of getting together with Michelle Kuen Suet Fung and Sam Solnick, two of my fellow contributors to An Ecotopian Lexicon from University of Minnesota Press, for a conversation. The inimitable Maggie Sattler of UMP walked us through the basics of recording a podcast together, and did the beautiful work of editing our meanderings into the form you’ll find linked here. In “Hope and Art when the World is Falling Apart,” we tacked among subjects, discussing each other’s contributions to this volume, discussing etymology of collapse, apocalypse, utopia, dystopia, discussing the relevance of hope and creative process for reimagining the world into a new form–away from racism, xenophobia, classism… you know the drill. I invite you to listen, and share your thoughts and reactions.

Here’s UMP’s description of our conversation.

In the era of climate change, how can we imagine better futures? AN ECOTOPIAN LEXICON is a collaborative volume of short, engaging essays that offer ecologically productive terms—drawn from other languages, science fiction, and subcultures of resistance—to envision what could be. The book connects thirty authors and fourteen artists from a range of backgrounds and locations, and three of them are here in discussion today: anthropologist and herbalist Charis Boke, visual artist Michelle Kuen Suet Fung, and Sam Solnick of the University of Liverpool. This conversation was recorded in August 2020.

For more information, visit ecotopianlexicon.com.

Works and writers referenced in this episode in order of appearance:
David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants
Carolyn Fornoff
The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt
bell hooks
Evelyn Reilly
Karen Barad
Donna Haraway
Climate Changed by Philippe Squarzoni

Thanks to the conversants:
Charis Boke, @charisboke on Instagram, @charisboke on Twitter.
Michelle Kuen Suet Fung, michelleksfung.com
Sam Solnick, @LitSciHub on Twitter

Wait, what is anthropology?

In this pithy post, I share the working draft of my syllabus for the Introduction to Anthropology (AN109B) course I’ll be teaching this fall for 31 students at St. Michael’s College in Winooski, Vermont. Check out my shiny new faculty profile on SMC’s Anthropology Department website. Because #2020, we will be meeting virtually, and running all our classes via Zoom and something else called Echo360, in addition to Canvas and Google Docs. I’m excited to be back “in the classroom.” Moreover, I’m excited to be teaching with Investigating Culture, an excellent textbook Dr. Melissa Rosario recommended as well as with Dr. Teresa Mares‘s recent ethnography of migrant farmworkers and food justice in Vermont, Life on the Other BorderAnd finally, bringing many of my loves and lives together, we’re also going to read The Dispossesseda speculative/science fiction novel written by Ursula K. LeGuin, child of old-school-famous anthropologists Alfred Louis Kroeber and Theodora Covel Kracaw Kroeber Quinn.

There’s much more I could say about how I chose these texts and why, and how I designed the arc of the syllabus. I’m going to leave it here, though, and welcome any comments.

Introduction to Anthropology AN 109_FA2020 Syllabus

What if? The Power of Open and Honest Questions (Dec 1, 2019)

These are the readings and some of the songs included in a service I offered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield, Vermont, on December 1, 2019. 

Opening Song: #188, Come, Come Whoever you Are

Reading:
A Gift
Denise Levertov

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

Reflection: What if? The Power of Open and Honest Questions

Last January, during a time I felt I was, as Levertov puts it in her poem, nothing but a flimsy web of questions, I went on a retreat in northern Vermont. Held at Rock Point Center on the shores of lake Champlain, twenty of us gathered for a few days of winter reflection facilitated by WholeHeart, a Vermont-based reflection and action group.

All of us knew that part of the process of the retreat would include a portion when we would hold space for the questions we were living with. That was part of the purpose—the retreat was called Winter Wellness, and its calling to participants was to step out of the hustle of daily life and reflect on what, really, nurtures us and brings us toward wholeness. And because we had filled out a form before the retreat, we also knew that a few folks would have volunteered to offer their story, their questions, in a more formal small-group setting. We knew that we would split off to listen to another participant’s deep question, and to practice asking them open and honest questions.

The arc of the retreat moved us towards the capacity to open such questions. It’s harder than you might think! Or maybe you know exactly how hard it is, to ask a really open and honest question. That’s one thing I’ve been reflecting on, these last few weeks—how hard it was for me, and I suspect for many of us, to listen deeply enough to each other that we can reach for the question that someone is asking without knowing they are asking it.

That’s what I want to think about with you today—the process of discernment that we are called to when we are called to witness each others’ challenges. This process of discernment is about cultivating the ability to listen to ourselves, so that we can truly listen to another and hold a space for them.

Quaker elder, educator, and activist Parker Palmer suggests that when we are called together with a friend or colleague or other close one, the call is more often than not, to sit, and listen deeper. To sit in witness of the unknown heart that is in front of us, rather than in advising and fixing. To descend past the impossible layers of our own experience and memory in order to craft a question in conversation with that unknown heart, and offer it to the person in front of us. He says that when we make our way towards the really open and honest questions, we are making room for the person in front of us to tune in to their own knowledge. Here he is, in his own words:

Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

Aye, there’s the rub. Many of us “helper” types are as much or more concerned with being seen as good helpers as we are with serving the soul-deep needs of the person who needs help. Witnessing and companioning take time and patience, which we often lack — especially when we’re in the presence of suffering so painful we can barely stand to be there, as if we were in danger of catching a contagious disease. We want to apply our “fix,” then cut and run.

Parker Palmer, from the On Being blog

I bring Parker Palmer into our conversation today because his methods to support humans sitting in deep witness of each other, through his Courage and Renewal facilitation trainings, was the basis of the retreat I went on last year. Let’s go back there for a minute.

On the first day of the retreat, we learned each others’ names and a number of other things, including the amount of silent paying-attention we would be doing, with ourselves and each other over the course of our time together. We also learned who would comprise the small groups for the final evening, and who would be the person bringing their question to each small group. I remember thinking, prior to the retreat, how surprised I was that I did not want to share the tangle of my current life dilemma with a group of willing listeners at the time, as I am usually willing to talk about just about anything with just about anyone.

But I had not filled out that part of the form. Somehow, with that particular tangle I was in, it felt like too much, too vulnerable. Thus, it was with a sense of respect and gratitude that I regarded at my new friend who would be the focus of our small group’s attention on our final evening together. It really did feel like she’d offer us a gift—the gift of sharing a story about where she was feeling most tender, most bruised, most without-a-good-compass on the map of her life.

Most likely it seems clear to each of us why this act that my friend undertook required courage. To sit in front of people one doesn’t know well, and tell one’s story, and ask for questions. She was invited to share as much of her story as needed, in order for us to have the context to ask good questions. Even with people we do know well, telling the real story, opening the real vulnerable spots, can feel intimidating. Her story was one of a major decision in a relationship. The tenderest of tender parts, her heart, the shape of her life, was on the line. She was at choice, in a moment of decision. Especially in the social context we live in now, when communication that is “efficient, clear, and well-managed” is most profitable, and profit is most valued by many people, it is an act of vulnerability to bring forth such a story to a group. Such stories are always tangled, unclear, layered, and slow.

It’s also an act of courage and vulnerability to listen—that is, to really listen. Stories offered in settings like this take on a stretchy, clingy weight of their own. Each participant has some tender part of themselves that aches with the thrust of past decisions; each listener immediately remembers a friend, or relative, or partner, for whom such a story would also resonate. Each person listens, first, embedded in their own lives, because that is after all how we experience the world.

And that is where the act of vulnerability comes in, for listeners, for those who will be seeking the open and honest questions. Not only might the story we hear resonate with our own experiences and create discomfort or recognition. But also, then, we are called to sort through those feelings and reflections and discomforts with a fine toothed comb so as to get to the open question for her. What is mine, and what is hers? I must ask myself with each reaction that rises to the surface. I must be willing, as a listener seeking an open question, to fully acknowledge the edgy, surprising memories that are mine alone, that will not be of use to forming an honest question. If I form a question based on my experience of her story alone, I am asking a question that is about me, and I already think I know part of the answer.

Much more vulnerable, much more difficult, then, to ask a question to which I do not know any part of the answer, because it is a question for her.

Not a question about her. Not about her story, or about her situation, or about the other people involved. Those are fact questions. An open question is a question for her—a question that is essentially, at its best, in service to the person telling the story. It is not possible for me to even begin to know the answer to a question like this.

I and the other three holders of space for my friend took our time to craft questions for her. In my case, I took three full minutes (which is a long time, as any of you who teach or facilitate will know—even thirty seconds can feel like an eternity in a silent room, depending on the context!) of silent sitting. In that time, I peeled back layer after layer of my own thoughts and stories, in order to discover a question that could perhaps be in service to her.

“What does love feel like?”

What does love feel like. Not what does it mean, or how does it make you feel, or what do you love about the world, or the person, or do you feel loved when they do X. Generally, those questions are things that I thought I knew something about. I’ve read bell hooks’ book on love, and a one or two other things that help me understand healthy connection. I know what I love about the world, and I think I know what my friend loves about the world because I know her a little now. But there is literally no way I could possibly know what love feels like to her.

When I got down to this layer of questioning, I was startled. It felt so unusual to be asking a question that I could not imagine the answer for.

How much of our lives do we spend doing this? Asking each other questions that we, consciously or subconsciously, think we already know the answer for? Or the beginning of the answer?

Most of us out here in the daily world of our lives prefer to have at least the illusion of control. We like to move around with some idea about what is going on, and where we fit in it. Much of the way advice is offered, or conversations unfold, revolves around the crux of shared knowledge. At the very least, advice emerges from what WE think is happening, how it relates to our own lives and memories, and what WE might do in a situation.

But with another human, there is always more information than we could absorb. Even with ourselves, in fact. This is why the open and honest questions of Parker Palmer’s work are so important. Making space to ask them of others requires of us that we are willing to not know what they will say, or where the conversation will go. To not even think we know.

Asking questions in service to another person is both a way to hold the gift of their question and a way to offer them a gift in return. And looking for that question, at least in my experience, is a process of peeling back layer after layer of my own assumptions, judgments, and stories. Noticing that my first question inside my head is a leading question—one that assumes I know the answer I want the person to give. Noticing that the next layer in my head is one that makes me feel defensive—why wouldn’t they do it this way, my way, the RIGHT way? Noticing another layer where the story the person in front of me is telling me about their lives gets tangled again in my own experience, as I think about my own relationship transformations, decisions about schooling or children, process of coping with emotional turmoil. Noticing how much effort it takes to root out the tendrils of my own stories from that tangle to really hear their story.

This effortful noticing, I think, is what Denise Levertov refers to when she talks about holding the questions of others in empty hands. She says they are

songbird eggs that can still hatch,
if you keep them warm…

She says the questions, like butterflies,

trust you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.

Digging through the layers, gently removing the viney tendrils of my own attachments to a story from the actual story I am hearing, is the work required to be in service to the stories and questions of others. To ask a question for another is to seek not to injure the other’s story, the other’s path of discovery.

What might it feel like, if we were more routinely able to stand witness to each other? TO not shrink back from the difficulty of a tangle, but also not to move on our impulse to fix it? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to occupy that witnessing space in our bodies for one another? Perhaps a profundity could open up—the enormity of inhabiting the fundamental unknowing, the gulf that separates us from one anothers’ internal worlds, that also joins us in the universal unknowing. And the enormity, at the same time as inhabiting that unknowing, of holding and being held, of offering and receiving through vulnerable witness.

This is a far cry from the advice-giving world of bullet lists on the internet, or easy memes and quotes telling us how to fix it. The swiftness of networked communication may leave many of us feeling that pressure—to fix, fix, fix it all. When really, we are called to listen, listen, and listen again. To help each other listen. To sit in stillness long enough that we can truly cup our empty hands to hold the questions of others as gifts that they offer us, ones that might even help us to listen to ourselves more clearly as well.

Song 3, #108, My Life Flows on in Endless Song

Closing Words

Because of those who came before,
we are;
in spite of their failings, we
believe;
because of, and in spite of the
horizons of their vision,
we, too, dream.

Let us go remembering to praise,
to live in the moment,
to love mightily,
to bow to the mystery.

-Barbara Pescan

 

 

 

Status

Fever/Rest

3/14/20

When I decided to leave Philadelphia earlier than planned from my research trip to the F.C. Wood Historical Medical Library, I was reading the founding documents of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, from 1793. The CPP is the longest standing settler-colonist medical institution on the continent. Benjamin Rush founded it, wanting a place for young men to come get trained in the art of physics—and of course, Benjamin Rush was also one of the signatories on the Declaration of Independence, so his name and the institution hold a coveted space in the settler narrative of this nation’s founding. In late August of 1793, the College of Physicians was asked to provide recommendations for what we now know as “public health” during a yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia. This outbreak ended up lasting until 1795. I was reading this document as the staff and administration of the College of Physicians and its’ sub-institutions, the Mutter Museum and the F.C. Wood Historical Medical Library, were having an all-staff meeting to announce the closure, for two weeks, of most functions of the institution, in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in North America. The experience was surreal, to say the least.

I want to write about this, and share it with you because as I was reading, I was thinking about the way that health, disease, fear, and love bind us all together, across space and time. As fear spreads virally across our social media even faster than the exponential curve of infection’s outbreak across our communities, I also see love, and calls for community care, iterating outwards. The fact that I, like so many of us, chose to go home, and to minimize my contact with other people as much as possible, is not just because I live with chronic illness—it’s because each of us, each body, each heart we carry around, has a chance to be in loving community, even in a time of fear and mortality, by pausing, and resting, and reimagining what the world can look like.

So now I’ll tell you the story about the College of Physician’s response to yellow fever. You can see a couple of images of the handwriting and the document here. Two things in particular stood out to me. First, the way that understandings of what a disease is, and how it is communicated, have changed over time. Lots of folks have written about this elsewhere, but I’ll add my two cents as well. And second, I was deeply struck by recommendations the Fifth, and the Eighth, from the College of Physicians’ list.

Notes from the August 25th, 1793 Special Meeting of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Here’s a transcript of the College’s earliest recommendations in full:

August 26th 1793.

The [College of Physicians Committee on Fever] reported a Copy of Directions for preventing the further progress of the malignant Fever, which being amended was agreed upon. It was agreed to have it signed by the Vice President and Secretary, and to send a Copy of it to the Mayor. The directions were as follows, viz.

The College of Physicians having taken into consideration the malignant and contagious Fever which now prevails in this City, have agreed to recommend to their Fellow Citizens the following means of preventing its progress.

First. That all unnecessary intercourse should be avoided with such persons are infected by it.

Second. To place a mark upon the door or window of such houses as have any infected persons in them.

Third. To place the persons infected in the Centre of Large and Airy Rooms, in Beds without Curtains, and to pay the strictest regard to cleanliness by frequently changing their Body, and Bed Linen; also by removing as speedily as possible all offensive matters from their Rooms.

Fourth. To provide a large and airy hospital in the neighborhood of the City, for the reception of such poor persons as cannot be accommodated with the above advantages in Private houses.

Fifth. To put a stop to the tolling of the Bells.

Sixth. To bury such persons as die of the fever in carriages, and in as private a manner as possible.

Seventh. To keep the streets and wharves of the city as clean as possible—As the Contagion of the Disease may be taken into the Body, and pass out of it without producing the Fever, unless it be rendered active by some occasional Cause, the following means should be attended to prevent the Contagion from being excited into Action in the Body.

Eighth. To avoid all Fatigue of Body and Mind.

Ninth. To avoid standing or sitting in the Sun, also in a Current of Air, or in the evening air.

Tenth. To accommodate the dress to the Weather, and to exceed rather in warm than in cold clothing.

Eleventh. To avoid Intemperence, but to use fermented Liquors such as Wine, Beer and Cider with Moderation.

The College concede Fires to be very ineffectual, if not dangerous means of checking the progress of the Fever. They have reason to place more dependence upon the burning of Gunpowder. The Benefits of Vinegar and Camphire are confined chiefly to infected Rooms, and they cannot be used too frequently apon handkerchiefs or in smellingBottles, bu persons whose duty calls them to visit or attend the sick.

            By Order of the College

            William Shippen James Vice President

Saml. P. Griffitts Sec.y.

 

                                    On Motion.

Here’s some historical context, before I dive into why I find #5 and #8 particularly compelling (I am guessing you already have an idea of that anyway).

Fever

At the time, a prevailing theory of disease had to do with coming into contact with “bad air,” also sometimes called “miasma.” (check out great scholarship by Conevery Valencius and Gregg Mitman on 18-19th century relations to air and health). Thus, some of their suggestions revolved around getting rid of bad or stagnant air. They suggested doing this by cleaning the city, and to be sure that every place had fresh air, including the bedchambers surrounding people suffering with the fever, and hospital wards for those who did not have airy bedchambers at home. The College informed the State Governor, after receiving a testy letter from him, that they believed the “malignant fever” had been imported, though they were not sure which ship it had come on. So the safety and cleanliness of the ships, and sailors was stressed, as well as the cleanliness of the port, and of the streets, and of houses. Among other things, the College recommended dumping “unslaked lime” on the “necessaries”—toilet areas outside of houses where the contents of chamber pots were disposed.

“To purify the City from latent Infection, we want to recommend that every House, particularly those in which there have been any sick ,should be thoroughly cleaned and kept open, so as to admit fresh air through every Aperture—the Walls should be whitewashed and Gunpowder burned in all the Apartments—the Beds and Woolen Apparell of the Sick should either be destroyed or smoked with gunpowder in a close Room and exposed to the Air and Rain. Unslaked Lime should be thrown down the Necessaries, and the streets should be kept clean, especially in the confined parts of the city.”

Ibn Sina (Avicenna), a physician in the 11th century, as well as several others in the following centuries, proposed early versions of a germ theory of disease by describing the process of contagion. Antoni von Leeuwenhoek was surprised to see what he called “animalcules” in a drop of water upon gazing through the first microscope he created in 1677. Those longstanding voices couldn’t outweigh the force of belief in miasma theory, though, an approach to understanding illness rooted in part in the 2nd century Roman physician Galen of Pergamon’s writings. So a germ-theory approach to what we now call “infections” wasn’t taken up by European medical lore until the late 19th century, after Louis Pasteur’s work on bacteria in food.

In brief, “western” medicine or “biomedicine” approaches to working with what we now call infectious disease are pretty new, relative to the history of human health (that is, all of human history). A hundred and fifty years, more or less. Pharmaceutical antibiotics were developed in the 1920s, but not widely used until the 1940s. That’s eighty years ago. Pharmaceutical antivirals started to emerge in the 1960s, and are most widely used with the herpes family of viruses (which includes HSV1 and 2, as well as shingles, chicken pox, and Epstein-Barr virus). That’s just sixty years ago. Anti-retrovirals for HIV are even newer.

Folks have been working with plants that address bacterial and viral infections for much longer—but, of course, in the last 150 years we’ve collectively changed the landscape in which all kinds of infections operate. So though herbalists are out there working hard to support all kinds of infections (shoutout, folks, to herbalists helping folks understand immune system support and other interventions around viral infections), things look different now than they did in Benjamin Rush’s time. This last is a little bit of a “duh” statement, but I make it because not everything looks different, and that’s why I am so touched by recommendation #5 and #8 above.

Rest

Fifth recommendation of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to the City Governance on the matter of public health during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

Fifth. To put a stop to the tolling of the bells.

In the context of an urban disease outbreak, a bell tolling was a public acknowledgement of a death. When I read this line, I heard in it a plea to City officials to stop the proliferation of panic. To stop the thing that was reminding people every moment of every day that people were dying, dying, dying. Not because the College of Physicians wanted people to forget the seriousness of the outbreak, or to pretend that people were NOT dying. Each toll of the Bell created a different kind of instability in the hearts of the people who heard them. Surviving a pandemic requires more than good medical care—finding moments of equanimity, patience, rest, and grace are also medicine for the heart. Obviously, the College wasn’t under any illusions that less bells tolling would decrease the spread of the outbreak, or give people the opportunity to feel peaceful in every moment, because that’s not possible ever, let alone in the context of an epidemic or pandemic. But ceasing the tolling of the bells could allow citizens to potentially have access to equanimity, patience, rest and grace. More space for the heart and mind, more space for the immune system (though that concept wasn’t yet at play, it certainly is now).

Eighth. To avoid all Fatigue of Body and Mind.

This one, too, I read as the College of Physicians seeking ways to support the capacity of people to respond emotionally, socially, to the infectious outbreak. Rest, rest, rest, they said. Avoid fatigue–even mental fatigue. Rest. Let the bells cease tolling, let us keep in our hearts the fact that people are dying (people are always dying) and many of us are afraid (someone is always afraid) and we are all connected in these entwined communities where we can take care of each other and ourselves (we can always take care of each other and ourselves). Rest.

What would it look like if we allowed these moments, shot through with occasional panic and overdose on news, to be interspersed with rest? With deep rest. With just-sit-the-fuck-down. What would happen to our hearts, if we let ourselves rest—obviously, those who are ill can always already rest, and those who are well can support them in love and caring community. But what if we rest, even when we are not ill? Rest is the nadir of capitalism, I think, and we have in front of us a massive opportunity to rest, and to help others rest. What does it take, in your life, in the lives of the people physically, emotionally, spiritually closest to you, to rest? What would it take for everyone to have consistent access to rest?

How would the world change, how would our communities change, how would our hearts change?

I invite you to pause, close your eyes, and sit with this question for a space of some breaths.

What would it be like if we just let ourselves rest?

Last year I had cancer. I had never noticed before that I didn’t know how to rest, but I learned. I lay on my couch for hours at a time waiting to heal from surgery, from exhaustion, from the mental and physical process of losing so much of what I thought was already mine, from losing parts of my body. Last year on the couch I rested, staring out the window at the flapping flag, and the trees. Skeletons in the winter in the wind. For hours last year, I noticed again for the first time (because each time is the first time) the fact that breath goes in and out of my body. Every day. Multiple times a day. The fact that I breathe, barely thinking about it, all the time. I rested, and noticed this breath. What would it be like if we let ourselves just notice the breath? Our own, and that of the wind? If we rested, and noticed how these breaths move against things?

Living in a pandemic invites us to access our connection with the inexplicable, the mysterious, the wonder—and the ways fear and grief are bound up with the mysterious, not just joy and transcendence. It invites us to show up for our loved ones, for ourselves, to show up for the neighbors we didn’t know, to show up for those who cannot access what they need in order to survive. This is grace, the blessing of the earth, already within each of us, if we listen closely. Maybe, like me, you call that the energies of the earth; maybe you call it essential Buddha nature. You might understand it as agape—divine love, or the wisdom and energy of ancestors echoing down the years.

Snowdrops in Bartram’s Garden on March 9th, 2020. Beyond them is the oldest gingko tree on the continent; beyond that, not visible, the skyline of Philadelphia.

Living in a pandemic also invites us to reckon with the troubled history of this continent—this is not its only pandemic. Remember smallpox? One of many imported diseases that killed hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people when colonists arrived. How do we live with disease, now, in a way that honors the past, and works to name it, and to build relationships that move towards justice?

May our ancestors who survived the plagues move through us with their strength and courage. May those who did not survive the plagues move through us with their resolve and clarity.

With love and courage,

Charis