Mythic storyteller Michael Meade tells the story of an old woman weaving in a cave. It is as relevant today as it’s been for the hundreds or thousands of years it’s been told around the fire. Here is the story from the White Mountain Apache, adapted from his book, Why the World Doesn’t End.
The old people of the tribes would tell of a special cave where knowledge of the wonders and workings of the world could be found. Even now, some of the native people say that the cave of knowledge exists and might be discovered again. They say it is tucked away in the side of a mountain. “Not too far to go,” they say, yet no one seems to find it anymore. Despite all the highways and byways, all the thoroughfares and back roads that crosscut the face of the earth, despite all the maps that detail and try to define each area, no one seems to find that old cave. That’s too bad, they say, because inside the cave can be found genuine knowledge about how to act when the dark times come around again and the balance of the world tips away from order and slips towards chaos. Continue reading
Fear of embarrassment isn’t the only reason for armoring up, hiding, ignoring or denying love. I just noticed today how much I arrange my life to avoid the pain of loss. It started early on, as habits often do. When I had my first high-school boyfriend, I was just certain he was going to come to his senses and dump me. Which he eventually did. At the time, I took it as a warning to be more careful with my heart next time. As if.
The other evening, my husband and I were out enjoying our forested backyard. He remarked (as he has before) on the grandeur of the tulip poplar that stands right in the center. There are also two huge beeches off to the side and a couple of oaks further back. But this poplar, this giant column of craggy bark, is a presence. I almost asked him whether he has told the tree how much he loves it. But he just had, by telling me. Right after that, I pictured it toppling over in a huge windstorm, perhaps crushing our house. Continue reading
In his Oscar acceptance speech last February for “The Revenant,” Leonardo DiCaprio goes through the usual list of thank-you’s, then launches into weightier matters:
“Making ‘The Revenant’ was about man’s relationship to the natural world, a world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow.”
DiCaprio has been a passionate and articulate spokesman on climate change for at least ten years, ever since his ponderous narration of the film, “Eleventh Hour,” in which he appears dressed in black, with an overly sober, almost frightening demeanor and message of: “You people are bad; clean up your act.” Continue reading
I recently participated in a conversation about Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. It was civil, although heated at times. Many of us expressed our dismay at being duped for all those decades of the “righteous” war on drugs. We were sold a bill of goods by one politician after another. Journalist Dan Baum’s shocking opening passage in the recent Harper’s article about legalizing drugs provides a fine coda to Alexander’s book. He relates an encounter with John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s co-conspirators and inner-circle advisors, who confirmed the cynical intentions behind Nixon’s war on drugs. It’s a sad legacy that haunts us still.
My teenage son asks some challenging questions lately. As I was telling him about the wrangling during the book discussion, he popped this one out: “Why not build a wall between us and Mexico?” He said Mexico built a wall between itself and the country on its southern border. He said he’d looked it up, although he could not in that moment remember the name of the other country. (It’s Guatemala, and a small bit of Belize.) Continue reading
Last, night, I joined in a conversation at my son’s Quaker school about Ta’Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. It was a fairly diverse crowd—ethnically, if not economically. Everyone there was well educated, thoughtful and, with one honest exception, liberal. I was especially thankful for the opportunity to listen to two black intellectuals and a Quaker elder who lived in Detroit during the 1967 riots.
We worked our way through various responses to the book, including praise for Coates’ use of the dream as metaphor, which I wrote about here. I appreciated hearing new (to me) ideas from folks I don’t usually encounter. A black man who teaches high school history pointed out that one of the horrors of slavery was not that white people thought black people weren’t human. It’s that they knew how human they were, and were able to manipulate the relationship to get what they wanted from them—their labor and obedience. Continue reading
In my early 20s, I went through a major Henry James phase. One of my favorite stories—the one that has stuck with me all this time—is, “The Beast in the Jungle.” Maybe you know it. The main character spends his whole life certain that an unnamed evil is waiting out there for him. Something horrible is going to happen; he can feel it. He waits and worries and abstains from engaging with life, trying desperately to stay safe, to avoid this fate. At the very end of his life, he realizes that the catastrophe he feared is, literally, nothing. Nothing has ever happened to him. He has never lived; he refused the love of a good woman and squandered his one, precious life.
Most days, I wake up feeling uneasy, like something is wrong and it’s probably my fault. One recent morning I caught myself and thought of how many days I open my eyes and feel this mild dread. It’s like all the fears and failures, doubts and embarrassment, so carefully packaged and hidden during the previous day, grow restless in the night and surface with the new day. Where else are they to go? They don’t seem willing to stay stuffed down by my oppressively optimistic self. The list-maker. The implementer who stays busy to stave off anxiety. The do-er desperate to avoid an end-of-life realization like Henry James’ unfortunate character. Continue reading
A few years ago, pondering my tendency to give in to fear, I got this image of my life as a birdcage. My body is the cage, the beautiful bird in the cage is Spirit, Unity, pure consciousness. As long as the cage is uncovered, the bird will sing and sing. My ego is the blanket that I throw over the cage, especially when I grow fearful of the song or can’t imagine how it can fit or direct the living of my life. Of course the cage is completely porous between inner and outer worlds. What happens when I open the door and let the bird fly out? What happens when I become the bird and fly to meet my fellows?
A dear friend who had recently come through a difficult period strenuously advised not to become the bird, and certainly not to leave the cage. Rather than paraphrase her words, here is what she wrote:
There is so much to chew on, but we are of matter. Of humanity. I think I tried to fly as they say. . . and in the end, I found out that I’m still just human. And we are connected. So my question is: how do we connect and fly together? Connect those dots. It seems to me, from a consciousness perspective, we all need to lift off together. Continue reading
In the final two chapters of his exquisite book, Becoming Animal, David Abram unleashes a series of simple and brilliant observations and proposals for a way forward. One point he makes is that when Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo discovered that the earth is not fixed after all, but rather orbits a fixed sun, the senses were increasingly derided as deceptive and untrustworthy. It was thought that our observations had led us astray into primitive and naïve beliefs about our place in the cosmos, and therefore about ourselves.
It’s true that oral, place-based, indigenous cultures did rely on the body’s perceptions of, for example, the way the sun left the sky and traveled beneath (within) the depths of the earth at night, reemerging in the morning to begin anew its daily transit of the sky. This observation kindled a relational understanding of the fire that is visible in the sky being in league with the fire that is within us. They understood through direct experience that the gravitational pull of the earth on our body is the same attraction between the sun and the earth. Are these two ways of perceiving mutually exclusive? Continue reading
When you are tuned in via a creative process that works for you, surprising things come through. Writing is one medium that does that for me. I start noodling some ideas around—often, two or three seemingly unrelated ones that have caught my attention. It helps to ask questions like What is this really about? and What am I trying to say? In the course of the writing, insight sneaks in.
I want to say revelation, but keep choosing the word insight for its modesty, its unwillingness to make demands. Maybe it’s like when bakers or brewers rely on wild yeast, rather than controlled addition of packaged yeast. I picture wild yeast as dust motes floating invisibly on currents of afternoon air warmed by low streaks of sunlight. Where does wild yeast even come from? Can bakers and brewers count on it being there in the air, waiting to dive into their dough or mash, to mate with their flour, rye or barley? Is that the appeal: the risk, the lack of control, the mystery? Continue reading
With the fiercely honest, gorgeous language storm that is Between the World and Me, Ta’Nehisi Coates offers no prescriptions, plans or programs. He simply holds up the chipped, tarnished mirror that we call “civilization” to show us what he calls “the dream.” I love this book. It has broken my heart in a way that few books have. It has cracked me open and turned me upside down. To say that it challenges my assumptions about the state of race relations in this country is as far off the mark as saying that Silent Spring is a book about songbirds.
It’s not a long book and yet it contains everything. Worlds, galaxies, histories, ancestors. Having lived for the past twenty-five years in Baltimore, I enjoyed listening to the recorded version, hearing his words in his Baltimore-tinged voice. Even though I’m well aware that his Baltimore was vastly different from mine, a tiny part of me feels connected. So many thoughts, reactions, fears, despairs, and hopes are swirling in my body in this moment—a sure sign that this is one of those books that changes everything. I will listen again and then read it too and insist that everyone I encounter read it. It’s that important. Continue reading