The other night I got on my knees to observe a line of ants walking across my kitchen floor. The tile was dirty, the carpet needed a good vacuum and the cats (both blind) could sense something was amiss. But despite my impulse to lunge for the Swifter I stayed with the ants and just watched for a good 10 minutes. There must have been hundreds of them, following a scent or perhaps escaping trouble. The thing about ants, I discovered, is that it’s hard to know if they are coming or going. I followed their little conga line to what I believed was their final destination–the dishwasher. Now, if I were an ant the dishwasher would be the last place I’d want to set up camp, like a jacuzzi gone impossibly wrong. But these ants had a plan, and I was in no position to upset this plan. Though, even as I was charged by my roommate (who had left town for a week) to handle this invasion I was having second thoughts about disrupting what clearly was a dance toward survival. Maybe it’s because I had just watched Planet Earth on Netflix or maybe it’s because the weather is warming and all the little birds and bees are starting to make themselves known to me, but I didn’t do anything. I still haven’t. And I probably won’t because there’s something magical about that line of ants marching themselves across my dirty kitchen floor. There’s something mysterious and life affirming in the way they instinctually know where to go and who to follow. Perhaps the ants don’t know what the end game is, the goal of the mission, or if God is real or not; but, they’re doing what they were born to do, present in the moment, living fully as an ant. I admire those little guys pushing through as a team, and I think the world is better off with ant lines than without.
These sand dunes have buried boys alive. My father once told me a|story about a boy who dug a tunnel here and when the wind picked up, and the sand started howling, he crawled in and disappeared into the Earth. His parents had walked ahead and when they came back to look for him, all they could find were sand whipped mounds covering the dunes.
Exposure. To leave a person or thing unprotected. In other words, submitting oneself to the elements, bareness in open space, telling your story to listeners. I have climbed these dunes three times in my life before today, but never alone with my mom and never past the first hill. Today we are exposed— to the sky, to the dunes, to the wind and sand, to the lake ahead and to each other. These dunes are haunting and they will pull you under; they will offer you shelter in their grandeur then toss you to the lake below. Walking here is an act of humility; we are as small as a grain of sand and our footsteps will be gone by the time we turn around. Continue reading “Point of Reference “
Writing is a muscle that swells and contracts depending on the time of day. I’ve felt the need to write in moments of jazz, moments that take the shape of explosive devices and moments of solitary depression.
Writing is nothing if it is not honest. If writing does not pinch or punch, tear a muscle or leave a bruise then I say forget it.
Writing is damn sexy. Lyrical and vivid, full of nightmares and subconscious memories. It’s my memoir dammnit and I’ll remember what I want to. It’s playful and sometimes even publishable. It’s internal, revealing, isolating and bloated.
Writing brought us closer together. These are the things I never knew you felt.
Writing is subconscious. It’s that dream I had about my grandmother who moaned until the morphine hit, then died in silence. Only her skin remained a translucence mother of pearl; her fingernails a fresh coat of hot pink. In the dream, she called me on the telephone and asked how I was doing. Her voice, clear as the freezing of water. She was a writer too.
Writing is investigative. Exposing truth and beauty in a broken world. Ask me what is the point of writing? What is the damn point? Terry Tempest Williams says: Writing is bearing witness. Writing on genocide, hurricanes, prairie dogs and cancer. It will never be enough, but what else do we writers do?
Writing is fucking hard. Sometimes I have no patience for it. Like an old friend I know I must keep, but don’t really want to ever talk to. Yeah, writing is sorta like that. It’s finding the willpower to continue when it stares at you hard in the face pointing out every zit, every wrinkle, every shadow under your eye. It’s there when you clean the bathroom sink in the middle of the day, waiting for you to return.
Writing is stubborn. To keep going to get over the past. I’ve written because I didn’t understand something until I wrote it down. Got ink to paper until the scribble felt real. I wrote about old friends, lovers, electronic equipment. Anything to move forward. Pull it out of me then wash it away.
When I write I am more alive, and observant of so much more. I see my life, and my surroundings as stories, lessons. Images become sharper, somehow more colorful. The world I know is utterly more painful and beautiful at once. And I am in it. I become more than a shapeless wanderer, but a member who has a story.
Writing forces me to remember things that otherwise would go unnoticed. Like today, how the moon was full and small so high above a grey building. And how the clouds formed a shelf in the sky, moving forward or away, I didn’t know, but that it could have been a mountain. I could have lived in the mountains. And both those things—the moon and the cloud mountains would go un-remembered if I had not written them down.
It’s as if we writers lead double lives. The living, conscious moment, and then the making sense of it. The act of courage to re-live even the most guttural, clawed out experiences so that we connect with the dead or the part of ourselves that needs to be amputated.
Writing is an act of carving out this chaos. Hallowing out the bone and muscle of a moment so that we can see the moment clearer, just the blood flow of it—the heartbeat of it. The softness and ripening of a moment or a story becoming full only as we stumble through the writing of it.
Today I practiced yoga in the heat of a brick colored room. The instructor said: allow your body to contract, to release, to expand. And isn’t that what writing is— a continual contraction, release and expansion. Moments that make up a life, sliced into the way our bodies bend and twist.
And I write toward darkness; an unearthing and tearing down my fears that only my writing life knows how.
Last night I dreamt of fire. Green flames licking blown out windows; curling wood planks falling from abandoned houses. Detroit was burning.
My dreams are real. Speramus Meliora Resurget Cinerbus. We Hope For BetterThings; It Shall Rise From the Ashes.
Father Gabriel Richard, a Frenchman who settled in early Detroit, first said these Latin words after a fire on June 11, 1805 nearly destroyed the entire city. With no fire department existing at the time, citizens formed lines between the Detroit river and the burning buildings in order to pass buckets of water from hand to hand. Despite their best efforts, the fire leveled most of the city to the ground. Almost 100 years later those Latin words became sealed on the city flag with an image of two women, one weeping over the destruction of the fallen city, the other gesturing toward the new city that will rise in it’s ashes.
Fire: The rapid oxidation of a material in exothermic chemical process of combustion releasing heat, light and energy. Fire is alive. A breathing, convulsing element. In it’s purest form a dance between light and shadows; a movement toward destruction and rebirth at once.
As one of the first grassroots organizing movements in the city, the 1805 fire proved that a resiliency–a certain fix it ourselves attitude– existed in the minds and hearts of those Detroiters that formed the fire line that June day. We shall rise from the ashes, they thought, hand over hand, sweaty from the Michigan humidity, their faces ablaze with hope and fear of what would become of their dear city.
Last night I dreamt of fire. Smoke inhaled into my lungs, each one expanding, a hot air balloon with every breath. Smoke singeing the roots of my hair. Fire sweeps through Detroit Homes the headlines read.
The Detroit Fire Department puts out an enormous amount of fires a day all across the city. Over 95% of the structural fires are due to arson, many of them in vacant houses. People start these fires for lots of reasons: amusement, insurance fraud, or even ridding a neighborhood of unwanted vacant homes. The city burns, and the people respond.
As a child of the 90’s, growing up in suburban Detroit, I knew what Devil’s Night meant, everyone did. The term fueled many fears that the city was evil–hot, and that those of us who lived on the periphery of these flames should stay out. The 1980’s and 90’s saw the peak of Devils Night, where every year on October 30th-the night before Halloween- arsonists would set fire to hundreds of homes across the city.
This past October, less than a month ago, the fire department recorded 97 fires on what is now called Angel’s Night. Every year, Detroiters patrol their neighborhoods calling in any attempts of suspected arson on the night before Halloween. That’s the fourth year in a row fires were below 100. A far cry from the over 800 fires the city saw in 1984. We shall rise from the ashes, they thought as they patrolled the city streets. We hope for better things.
Last night I dreamt of fire. Piles of ashes and soot, clouds hanging low over roofs; a grey film over the cityscape. In the fog, a flash, the white heat sparked, and in the distance shadows of people combing through the rubble, organizing for a new energy in the rising morning light.
It’s night in rural Michigan and the red light indicating a train is approaching blinks incessantly. Beyond my car corn fields carpet this stretch of land. An abandoned barn house peeling white paint, a rusting carburetor on its lawn. Not far a dog shakes a chain link fence and lets out a rough bark while a plastic Sprite bottle lazily rolls toward a sewer. To the south, Toledo. To the East, Detroit. Between that the blinking red light in Milan, Michigan. Cities themselves rusting from the inside out, though I’d always fought back against anyone who claimed to know that for a fact. Sitting in my car, I daze into the eye of the red light, an oppressively comfortable moment. Lonesome and flat, hearty and wholesome at once. The sound of blackbirds cawing and earthworms burrowing in the cool September evening. Somewhere close folks glow blue from their T.V. screens. The smell of garbage bags freshly tossed to the curb sweetly rotting somewhere in the distance. The train barrels by, a blur of graffiti going somewhere new. How familiar a moment, how restless my foot on the brake.
I am inside autumn’s spell today.
The season has crept over me this year, and now in mid-October I am immersed in its full body aroma. The way the rustic yellow leaves smell of a burnt sweetness reminds me of my10 year-old self slideslipping into a giant pile of crunching crimson leaves. Today, I shuffled my feet along the sidewalk and listened for the familiar swish and swirl of fallen leaves. The Norway Maple is showing off again. Her low hanging branches sweep gold against the backdrop of a sliced blue sky. The tree canopy across the street is ablaze with fire stained leaves. When the wind blows, the leaves lift from the ground like a flock of startled birds.
If you take careful notice when a leaf begins its color change, you will see patterns emerge. Each leaf is distinct in its design and color. The veins are suddenly exposed like sutures, stitching up the leaf face. One particular leaf has raised red veins like tributaries running into rivers. Another is curling at the tips like an old watercolor painting, the color of honey bleeding into green. Wet from last night’s rain, the leaves imprint the pavement. In winter, trees stop producing chlorophyll because there is not enough light energy from the sun. When this process slows, pigments that have been in the leaf cell all along, the yellows and oranges of carotenoids and the red in anthocyanins are unmasked, and the leaf shows its hidden colors. Warm sunny days and freezing nights make for the best exhibition of color.
Winter is coming and deciduous trees protect their leaves by releasing them to the wind. These leaves, like paper cutouts, are too tender, too fragile, to live through a winter of snow and ice. Their fluid is a thin, watery sap that would freeze in such harsh conditions. The mother tree knows the rules of release, and when the time is right she sets free hundreds of her children. What an exhilarating moment for a leaf, to be exposed to the wild world in a flurry of unknown events–to literally be carried into the wind with no determination or want. This is the course of life. But this is neither the beginning nor the end of life for a wandering leaf. It will fall to the ground and decompose, nourishing the soil with nutrients that in turn feed the tree it fell from. There is purpose here in leaf litter; to decay is to give life. Today, the leaves have quilted together in my yard, like a blanket on fire, warming the near frozen soil beneath. Here we see nature’s cyclic beauty feeding and protecting itself–teaching us the rules to this life.
How do we know this season autumn? If we view falling and decaying leaves as precursors to wintery gloom and death, then we are truly out of step with nature’s cycles. That fresh wet smell of decay is the beginning of life, not the end. Fall is fierce with change, and its dramatic dance with color is testament that it and we are alive.
Last winter I went through a difficult time where I couldn’t sleep. Being an insomniac meant getting familiar with the subtle night sounds and blinking lights around my house: the humming of the fridge; the glow of the oven clock, the occasional yell from a drunk kid walking home. As the sleeplessness progressed, the knot in my chest tightened. The fatigue turned my mind into a dim fog of itself and the knot was diagnosed as situational anxiety. I started to question whether I was capable of meeting any of the goals on my long “Life To-Do” list. My only goal was to sleep.
Every weekday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (and let’s be honest, more than that) I am a “professional environmentalist” fighting to curb climate change and promote cleaner energy; I sit on conference calls, respond to e-mail threads, speak up in meetings, and create PowerPoints. This is honest work. Hard work. Mostly thankless and bad-for-my-posture work, but work that I believe in nonetheless. The work itself wasn’t so much the source of my anxiety, but rather the thought that nothing I did was ever going to be enough. I felt utterly overwhelmed with how much I wanted to accomplish, and blocked with the fear that I wouldn’t–didn’t– have the time or energy to become the activist, writer, gardner, mother,partner, dog owner person I hoped to be one day.
Stamina is not something I’ve encountered as a lively discussion point amongst my peers and colleagues; more often we’re contemplating the next crisis to address in the midst of writing grant applications and reports. As much as the principles of sustainability anchors our work, the term “burn-out” is commonly referenced as the inevitable path for young professionals of my generation doing work within NGOs on behalf of social and environmental causes. How ironic to find myself in a field that requires so much passion, sacrifice and knowledge of ecological balances and limits yet hardly creates space to pause and consider our own human limits and methods of self-preservation. If I am not able to sustain myself for a lifetime of this work, who on Earth will? Certainly not a bunch of burned out environmentalists who wish they were sleeping instead of staring up at the ceiling with the light still off (to save energy of course).
In Psychology Tomorrow Magazine, journalist and mediation teacher Jeff Warren writes about climate suffering. This particular suffering doesn’t seek to describe how more frequent drastic weather and warming temperatures physically impact humans. Instead, he insists the repetitive facts and horror images of climate change often overwhelms people into exhaustion and cynicism. This is felt by everyone who lives and breathes the facts of climate change, but particularly affects driven and ambitious people–not surprisingly the type of people who would identify as climate activists. A burned out brain has high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower frontal lobe activity resulting in less executive functioning and decision making. Fortunately, the brain is a malleable, adoptable piece of machinery and just as the brain can become stressed when confronted with insurmountable stress, it can regain balance if given the opportunity.
Lately, in the mornings, before showering and breakfast, I hold sacred time for myself. I look out the Easterly facing window to gauge the sun and weather, light a candle, turn on the tea kettle, and sit cross-legged on the floor to mediate. Often the light is a simple grey blue and my breathe is all I hear in the slim hours of morning. I do this ritual as a check-in with myself in order to sense any physical or emotional tension brewing. Thoughts always come and some mornings I follow the trail for minutes, but on days when I can let the storytelling go, and simply follow the trail of air that lifts into my nose, dives into my lungs, and releases out my mouth I can find a few heartbeats of calm.
Buddhists talk about the art of letting go. True meditation isn’t about trying to become something better, or stopping all thoughts, but rather a practice of befriending who we already are, and the letting go is simply releasing the resistance of who we think we should be and the thoughts that affirm those beliefs. Pema Chodron describes “on the spot tonglen” a breathing method for dropping the storyline and cultivating compassion for ourselves and even others we dislike. Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and author of several books, including Comfortable with Uncertainty, encourages students and readers to relax with the notion that all things are fleeting and changing.
She insists there is time–even amidst my generation’s greatest ecological disasters–to simply pause inside a single breathe. Perhaps the most non-selfish thing an activist can do for the climate change movement (and arguably any social justice movement) is to live gracefully for our own self-preservation with the compassion that we deserve. Judging where our lives should be going, or feeling guilt or shame because we haven’t reached our ideal selves is the root of suffering. Through my own mediative practice I’ve started to untangle the knot, the clamp of self-talk, and refocus my energy on the person I am in this very moment. I don’t pretend that this is easy, but the alternative is starting to seem less and less like an option.
A body, with all it’s blood, heart, nerves, muscle and bone, is its own ecosystem, and as such goes through periods of ebb and flow in sickness and health. Sustainability as a concept understands this ebb and flow, these periods of disruption, in fact thrives on changes in environmental conditions if–and that is a big if–an ecosystem can find equilibrium again. Without regular ground fires, for example, many forests cannot keep brush and young trees in check and are more susceptible to destructive wildfires. I argue that climate activists (and all humans for that matter) are comparable to forests in that we need to spend time clearing out the underbrush of our minds, the worries and fears, the self judgement and the loathing. This practice is to build stamina for ourselves and the environmental movement.
Grace Lee Boggs, American revolutionist and one of Detroit’s most prominent change makers puts it like this: “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.” Grace Lee Boggs herself went through tremendous philosophical perspective shifts in her life. From a radical Marxist to a vegetable growing community organizer, Boggs never got stuck in believing she was just one type of person or activist; she allowed herself to transform. At 98 years old she continues to write, speak publicly, hold interviews and organize. If that’s not stamina, I don’t know what is.
When it comes down to it, saving the planet, so to speak, starts with our own emotional and bodily ecosystems. A simple breath, a pause. And a release.