This is the text of a talk I gave for the WCLA Women Writers Series in alliance with the Feminist Majority Foundation /Ms.Magazine February 27, 2014.
When I was invited to this event by Ms Magazine and the Feminist Majority Foundation, I couldn’t simply read from a new book. The invitation from Simone Wallace, who with her sister Adele, founded Sisterhood Bookstore, one of the most important cultural institutions of Los Angeles, required another response. So receiving the invitation, I saw the necessity to acknowledge the trajectory I had been on since teaching at California Institute for the Arts, Founding and Directing the Writing program at the Feminist Studio Workshop the first feminist institute for the arts and social change outside of a university, being part of the leadership of the Woman’s Building where Sisterhood had a store and gathering a small committee to organize and host the first Woman’s Writing Conference – Woman’s Words, since a Conference by the same name in Chicago 1893.
My intention tonight is to trace what I was writing and what preoccupied me then, and what I am writing and preoccupied with now. Literature has taught me the value of a body of work, of the slow, deliberate, heartfull development of form and idea so that one’s work and labor might contribute to the community and the future. This is particularly important as we are living in a culture that commodifies art and literature and has no consciousness of history or the necessity to honor and preserve ethical and cultural values – concerns that were core to the second wave of feminism.
The woman’s movement intended to change the world. It was not that we wanted equal participation in a destructive system but that we wanted to shift the means and values so that they incorporated what we believed were benevolent women’s ways, ancient and contemporary, of living in family, community and the world.
Feminism had a great range from protesting war, economic, political and racial inequality, fighting violence against women, opposing nuclear weapons, to recognizing an intrinsic woman’s culture and seeking interactive, collaborative, intimate, nurturing, non-violent, non-hierarchical, inclusive, earth centered, spiritually aligned, respectful social and creative forms. Not everyone held to all the values and interests, but there was enough agreement, complexity and cooperation for the movement to be effective then. Art, politics, eros, activism, spirituality all blended so that feminism became a true movement determined to achieve social and political change that would benefit all. Women were not seeking dominance. We, each in our own way, were seeking sanity, beauty, peace, security and health for all.
Friend, colleague and neighbor, Maija Gimbutas’ archeological work laid the foundation for non-violent cooperative, life giving matriarchal goddess cultures. Marija came to her conclusions reluctantly. She didn’t start out trying to prove that Neolithic goddess cultures were peaceful. She was unable to refute the evidence. When she joined theater director, Steven Kent and me in Greece at our re-enactment of the Eleusinian Mysteries for the first time in 1500 years, she praised our work, saying we had managed to restore the spiritual integrity of the ancient Demeter ritual. Fifteen years later, we regretted that she wasn’t with us when we found an ancient icon of Persephone in Eleusis, approximately 2500 years old, in the place where the Goddess was said to have made her appearance during the Mysteries.
In my own life, I continue to be taken by two streams from Feminism. Political analysis insisted that one bear witness to the world’s atrocities and women’s spirituality is fundamental to my growing experience of the presence of the spirits. Conventional politics and traditional religion diminished as present day events and my personal experience called me, increasingly, to a different life and commitment to community and healing.
One important artistic focus was on form. It was clear that the personal is political and that form is content. Consciousness raising was intrinsic to the discovery of our own lives and stories. It occurred in circles. The shift from a straight line to a circle was an essential radical accomplishment.
Forty five years later, the circle is even more important than we knew. An indigenous community form, it gained strength from feminism and is entering the main stream as conscious people seek peership and equality instead of hierarchy and dominance. I am increasingly unable, or unwilling, to use what seems like a simplistic linear way. Even here, I seek the energy that comes from following the original associative form that called me to woman’s literature and the rest of my life.
From A Traveling Jewish Theater:
Stories move in circle. They don’t move in straight lines. So it helps if you listen in circles. There are stories inside stories and stories between stories and finding your way through them is as easy and as hard as finding your way home. And part of the finding is the getting lost. And when you’re lost you start to look around and to listen.
This talk is also going in circles and spirals, moving forward, circling back. The first image imprinted on my heart from literature is still vibrant and active in my life and thinking: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is written in the form of a lighthouse. The shapes of our lives are not straight line, but circles, passing into light, falling into darkness, illuminated and shadowed, again and again.
Marxist self-criticism practiced in progressive organizations yielded in the woman’s movement to the positive forms of consciousness raising. My experience with non-Western and indigenous cultures created a deep respect for the wisdom that emerges in a council form. I began to practice Council in my own life as a way of inquiry and problem solving. At Daré, the healing community which gathers at my house, and which my ex and I introduced from Africa, has Council at the core. Council, story circles, dream circles, healing circles all cohere community. Whenever possible teaching occurs in a circle and outdoors, and around a fire in the old ways.
And so, stories are themselves circles, each with a magnetic center that draws what is necessary to its beautiful and radiant interior.
And so, my writing. My first published book, Skin: Shadows/Silence is a resonance of voices. Later, still not knowing what I was doing but seeking new and coherent forms, I called The Woman Who Slept With Men to Take the War Out of Them, a novel in the form of a play. I had not consciously envisioned the infrastructure of the circle or spiral as I would later in Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing, then more fully in From Grief into Vision: A Council, and differently, but as determinedly in La Negra y Blanca: Fugue and Commentary. In many of my works, beginning perhaps with the play, Dreams Against the State in 1981, and then in The Other Hand, in Doors: A Fiction for Jazz Horn, in La Negra y Blanca, the endings are codas that reveal and unite the themes and voices together as in musical compositions, chorals and choruses.
As I was writing this, I saw that while patriarchal culture became progressively mechanical and technological, woman’s culture became musical – the writer’s voice, the rhythm of the language, its emotional communication increasingly important. Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras were concerned with the sound of their prose because that carries meaning.
At California Institute for the Arts, I taught a class on 20th Century Women’s Literature — it may have been a first in such an institution — and the first Journal Writing class. As Sheila de Bretteville, one of the three who founded the Woman’s Building, and I explored the possibility that woman’s culture still existed, I heard its resonance in contemporary women’s literature and this gave me permission to follow my own instincts in my own writing.
Soon, women adopted the journal and there, again, explored voice as well as prohibited stories. The Journal writing class was inspired by then recent scholarship revealing the hidden practice of journal writing pursued by pioneer women who had no company on their new homesteads and were quietly going mad. The journals often hidden among the linens helped. The other source was my dear friend, Anaïs Nin, who introduced the journal to contemporary life and to me. Now we scarcely imagine our lives without our journals. In 1970, they were almost non-existent. When I compared my writing to contemporary American fiction and poetry, I was out of the mainstream and had no interest in joining. What needed to be said, what needed to be revealed required its own form. African American literature, Native American literature discovered its own music. To create a culture of one’s own that is also resonant with other non-dominating cultures in the world changes the way of life.
In retrospect as we are facing the slow apocalypse of human designed climate change and the genocide of the beings of the natural world, I see that feminism allying with Native American beliefs gives us the essential understanding that may yet shift our consciousness enough for the earth to survive. Goddess spirituality also held “The earth is our mother.” Feminist theory understood that misogyny paralleled abuse of the earth and the environment.
Domination of women and nature co-existed. Violence against women and violence against the earth – the same. War everywhere. Over time I came to know that being against was being in battle. I began to seek forms in my life and in my writing that offered change. Increasingly I and my characters stepped away from conventional forms and values and created different lives.The Woman Who, What Dinah Thought, The Other Hand, Doors: A Fiction for Jazz Horn, Feral, La Negra y Blanca feature women protagonists who find the means to step into another world – in the last years, learning from Native American spirituality – I recognize it as the 5th World. The books I write depict that struggle to disentangle from western imperialist culture, from patriarchy, from their assumptions, habits, securities and desires in order to live with integrity.
My current teaching is based on what felt like a transmission: 19 Ways to the Fifth World. You can see how they are sourced in Feminism:
1. COMMUNITY. Recognizing and living aligned with community as an essential vessel and means of transformation.
2. COUNCIL. Entering and trusting the ways of Council, Dare’ and Mandlovu mind.
3. STORY. Story is an event and a path. Learning to listen, to recognize, understand and attend the way of Story and the particular path of healing and transformation it reveals for each one.
4. SPIRIT EXISTS. Spirit speaks to each of us in a shared language. Entering into a dialogue with the divine. Developing and living according to a spiritual practice that develops from a real relationship with spirit.
5. THE PATHLESS PATH. Recognizing the path that one has traveled and seeing where one has been taken and the dynamic path that emerges from the journey. Attuning to, developing and being faithful to a spiritual practice on the pathless path.
6. BEARING WITNESS AND DISINGAGEMENT. Bearing witness to the horror and corruption of these times, scrutinizing our lives, and consciously ceasing our involvement.
7. HEALING WAR AND PEACMAKING. Committing ourselves to healing war within us and in the world. Committing ourselves to our transformation from war-traumatized people to peacemakers and visionaries. Walking in peace. Responding peacefully.
8. THE NO ENEMY WAY. Understanding and incorporating the No Enemy Way into our daily private and public ways. Walking the No Enemy Way in the world as best we can.
9. REVISIONING. Revisioning public institutions of thought and action. Imagining and aligning ourselves with ReVisioned Medicine, Science, Law, Economic Social systems. For example, a ReVisioned Medicine practices the No Enemy Way, does no harm and integrates the combined wisdom of medical people and medicine people. Assuming the equal relevance of indigenous, earth centered, spirit centered wisdom in all reasoning and thinking processes. Changing one’s mind.
10. INDIGENOUS WISDOM TRADITIONS. Studying, respecting, honoring, preserving, supporting, allying with indigenous wisdom traditions.
11. DREAM. Living by Dream, Intuition and Divination. Reading the signs and then following other spirit centered ways of knowing. Yielding to initiation and living accordingly.
12. HEALING. Recognizing the presence of healing. Learning the ways of healing. Seeking out healing. Becoming a healing presence.
13. MITAKYE OYASIN. Living according to All Our Relations.
14. THE WILD. Protecting, preserving, sustaining, bringing healing to the wild, the earth and all beings.
15. THE OTHERS – NON HUMAN BEINGS. Recognizing the intelligence and agency of non-human beings and living among them accordingly.
16. BEAUTY AND CEREMONY. Living according to Beauty, Creativity, Intuition, Prayer, Ritual, Ceremony, Loving kindness and Compassion as essential forms.
17. SILENCE. Valuing and engaging in silence, solitude, formless forms and not knowing.
18. SANCTUARY. Honoring, providing, become sanctuary for all beings by learning the way of the land.
19. ALLIANCES. Fostering dynamic relationships with other groups and organizations working in parallel heartways.
THEN recognizing that one’s mind has changed, one is living in a different field of understanding and assumptions. Stepping through the portal to live faithfully according to the laws of the 5th World that mandate serving Spirit and the on-going future.
Even as a young woman, as The Woman Who Slept With Men to Take the War Out of Them was written in 1978, I was exploring healing and peacemaking, trying to understand what I would call in later years, The No Enemy Way.
From The Woman Who: P. 11
A woman whose name is Ada walks down the street of an occupied village from the cemetery passing her own house, to the General’s house which she enters without a word to lie down unashamed on his bed. She does this –
– With the full cognizance that she is coming a political act.
From The Woman Who: P. 21
The woman who lived in an occupied village went to the General. She knocked at his door with the pretext of selling him eggs.
In the morning, she washed herself and in the shower as water fell on her she asked:
May I be like water. May I bend over rocks. May I not break. May I flow. May I endure.
If I die, may I go up and come down again, may I not be gone forever. May I find a secret hiding place under the earth. May I be a well. May I move under the feet and over the houses. May I be strong. May I be white. May I be pure.
And the water fell on her in great hot sheets ad she soaped her long dark hair and piled it whitely on top of her head The soap curled under her arm, her groin, on all the covered places of her sex and then was rinsed away. And she went to the house of the General and knocked at his door.
Sometimes I think feminism failed. The struggle for economic and political equality overshadowed our passion for transforming our lives and undermining patriarchal agendas. Two women Secretaries of State – yes. Hillary Clinton probably running for President. But business as usual in Washington DC. The wars continue as does domination and imperialism. We had hoped it would be different.
Today is my son’s Marc’s birthday. I remember my early involvement with the anti-war movement. In 1960 a photo in the L.A. Times was captioned, Marc Metzger at 3 months of age, kicks up his heels against war.
At that time, I was also worried about milk. Testing had revealed that Strontium 89 with a half life of 50 days and strontium 90 with a half life of 28.9 years appeared in breast milk in 1961 when I was nursing my son, Greg. And it was also in the formula Marc was drinking. The highest concentration of strontium 90 in milk occurred in 1963.
My sons were three and two years old. I was frantic, looking for powdered milk dated before the various above ground tests of the early 60s. In 1961, Women’s Strike for Peace organized thousands of women against nuclear weapons.
I have a cousin who died of leukemia because as a soldier he was put in the front lines – without warning or permission, at the Nevada testing grounds.
This week, as a healer, I am working with a Vietnam veteran in constant excruciating pain from numerous cancers and surgeries all of which are being treated independent of the root cause of his extreme suffering. When I met him, I couldn’t restrain myself from saying, “Agent orange.”
He had testified for Senate hearings, but that didn’t help him get that diagnosis into his medical chart. From Grief into Vision: A Council, deals with Los Alamos and Chernobyl.
The novel I am currently writing, A Rain of Night Birds, is set, in part, on the Four Corners Reservation where the yellow dust from uranium tailings still blows across the land and pollutes the waters. The protagonist is a climatologist. Not my idea of a novel. Spirit sent it. War, the Bomb and the destruction and poisoning of the earth were then and continue to be primary fields of inquiry and deep concern. It always feels that I am called to these concerns, called to write the books I write. That I have no choice. Spirit insists – and that insistence from Spirit, its Presence gives me hope that we might find ways not to avoid the path to total destruction.
From Doors: A Fiction for Jazz Horn, which I had the privilege of writing with the renowned Argentinean writer, Julio Cortázar, 20 years after his death in 1984. P.43.
Rio ultimately acknowledged that he had a toothache. He had been to the dentist who had treated him without, it seemed, providing instant relief. And Iris did not know if it was permitted to reach out and stroke the somewhat puffy cheek in order to sooth his pain; it was a skill she had but was not something she announced publicly. She could put her fingers on his skin and extract the pain. It would happen so quickly everyone would assume the morphine had done it and would look at her transgression with polite disapproval.
In the cellar at that moment, someone was slowly and methodically extracting a friend’s teeth one by one. Iris had not learned to heal across a timeline or a space barrier. When Iris looked at Rio she saw that he knew what was occurring. This was no naïve display of sympathy. The two events were unrelated co-incidence. Rio did not think he was sharing his friend’s torture. He didn’t claim to be suffering someone else’s pain. Nevertheless, the two events co-existed. Rio’s tooth had been removed and he was suffering real and phantom pain that he had no desire to ease before he studied it soberly to learn its qualities. Iris was relived not to understand any of the languages in which they were now discussing what was broadly referred to as politics, for it allowed her to settle steadily into the pain that flared out into the room as from an infection of lilies. No one has the power to ease pain who will not feel it in her own body
In 1989, I made a pilgrimage to the Death Camps of Europe. When I returned, I began writing The Other Hand and addressed it as a letter to Cardinal Lustiger of Paris whose Jewish mother had died in Auschwitz. The protagonist is an astronomer who is inhabited by a Nazi and she attempts to see the holocaust also through his eyes. The novel is an extended koan on light and darkness.
*** The Other Hand p.3
November 17, 1989
Dear Cardinal Lustiger, Your Eminence:
My name is Daniella Stonebrook Blue I am—or was—by profession an astronomer. We are strangers to each other. Your name was given to me by a woman on a bus as we were traveling across New Mexico. Because of her insistence, I am writing to you about this dark period of my life. I need to speak to you about the matter of light. Light is the alphabet of God. I knew this when I was born and then I forgot. This is the first time I have understood it as an adult woman. Even as I prepared to write these words, I didn’t know what they implied until they appeared on the page.
The Other Hand page 105,
Rosa had gotten up from the piano and walked into the kitchen as if she were going to prepare a meal and then just as suddenly she laid the pan down on the counter and returned to the piano, improvising on Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. We were spellbound.
Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are? Up above the earth so high …” It took a long time to get to the fourth line but when Rosa was there, I had chimed in as I had always done as a child, “Like a skymond in the die.”
“What’s a star, Dani? ” Rosa had asked without stopping. “What’s a star, Dani?.” She hit an insistent dissonant chord in the middle of a scale and then returned to her variations on the simple melody again.
Without waiting for my answer, “A star, Dani, is a time bomb. Do you know what I mean?” A few bars of music. “What’s a bomb, Dani? Again, without waiting for an answer: “A bomb, Dani, is a container with a star inside it, ready to go off, taking the whole world with it.”
That plaintive singing. I could still hear it clearly. My mother’s terrible, even demented, singing: “Twinkle, twinkle little star…”
The Other Hand page 166
Babylon was a beginning, Cardinal, where the magi, those Chaldeans, those astronomer- astrologers that the Old Testament rails against, had watched the stars with unprecedented devotion, seeing light everywhere, seeing gods in the constellations and the spirit of light passing down into them as destiny.
Babylon is where it had begun. The Babylonians had not distinguished between knowing the stars and their configurations, measuring the orbits of the planets, discovering the cycles of Venus, calculating the lunar and planetary ephemeredes years into the future, regulating the calendar, studying equinoxes, solstices and eclipses, and discerning the influence of these stellar bodies. And by some grace, I had found myself in this silent blue oasis in the middle of darkness. A brief blue interlude within the fetid industrial air of the poisoned city of East Berlin.
These had been the people of the stars. I was of their lineage even though they had conquered the Jews and brought them to Babylon, including someone whose name I bear. Daniel, the great magician, who had visions and understood dreams, had been here. He had been a captive and lived his life of exile here. Both slave and minister, he had walked down this very processional. He had looked at the stars from this place. He had touched this wall. He had survived the lions’ den and he had touched this lion. His hand on my hand through the fold of years. The same Daniel directed the Magi to follow the star that rose over Bethlehem indicating new light.
I had come through the arch of the blue gate, blue as the sky, with its gods, with its dragons and bulls of gold and white and was walking along the blue processional wall with its lions, gold and white as stars. There was no one else in this vast room that was, unlike the others, gleaming with the colors of light: gold of marigolds, white of lilies, blue of approaching light, blue of twilight and dusk.
Babylon was a point. A moment of light. Its rays like roads from the temple of the astronomer priests glanced off in different directions of space time: astronomy, astrology, cuneiform, writing, mathematics, diasporas, captivity, slavery, Talmud, Daniel, the Christ Child, Berlin and the Bomb. ….
Let’s meet in Babylon, Cardinal. Let’s go there together and watch the astronomer-priest climb the stairs to the summit so he can study the stars. He was the most honored one. After him came the ones who did the calculations and after them, the scribes who wrote it all down. Let us be with him there because shortly after this moment, he divided in two and the astronomer went his way and the priest went the other way and we see where that has led.
In 2005, I was honored to deliver the keynote to the American Academy on Environmental Medicine. A few days later, I went to the land around Los Alamos to do ceremony for restoration. My cousin, Alexis Lavine, then a geologist at the Laboratories, was my guide and companion.
From Grief into Vision: A Council: P. 93-94.
I went with Alexis to the suffering land where nuclear waste and other chemicals from experiments at Los Alamos had been dumped into the canyons and carried by the waters. Lat year, the spirits led Alexis, then a geologist at Los Alamos, to find a cave on land that originally was a sacred home to the Tewa people.
(An identified sacred cave [see photo in book] at Los Alamos has been closed with steel mesh and bars and is inaccessible even to the native people.)
This cave is a sipapu, a portal to the spirit world. We came in under a heavy cloud cover that arose suddenly. We had been required to change the time of our visit so many times, we had to accept that were being called to this place at this exact moment. Though the sky had been clear, I had had the premonition that we would encounter weather and soon we were accompanied by the rumble of thunder.
Alexis stopped, advising me that the cave was around the bend and it was time for us to take off our shoes. As we did, lightning flashed closer and closer and then it thundered again and hail fell furiously. We huddle momentarily under a tree that didn’t protect us and then made our way barefoot over mounds of hail to another cave from which we watched the display of lightning and of hail dancing.
Thunder continued to astonish us with its force and proximity. It was as if we in it and we blessed the Thunder Beings for gifting us with their presence. Water was streaming through the adjoining cave, a small flash flood that didn’t enter where were despite the hole at the level bottom of the common stone wall. After the storm, we made our way to the cave we were seeking. The only standing body of water we saw was at a small rock in front of the cave. Everything around us was renewed, vibrant and alive from the gift of the abundant water as if we were given a sign about the possibilities of restoration.
To return to the beginning. The title for The Woman Who Slept With Men to Take the War Out of Them came to me in a dream. Finding the icon at Eleusis when the archeologist at first dismissed our claim because they had scoured the area for twenty years and were sure there were no artifacts left, was a miracle. Collaborating on a book with a dead man was a gift from spirit. I was introduced to Cortázar work when a book, New Writing in Latin America, fell off a shelf into my hands and introduced me to Latin American culture and politics which have engaged me ever since. There are miracles every day and they determine our lives. Often the miracles appear as afflictions.
I had breast cancer in 1977. I had been writing a novel, The Book of Hags, about women who had cancer:
From Tree: Essays and Pieces P. 31.
For years the women had been dying. One by one. Stricken in their youth or middle-age just as things were beginning. An unknown assassin. Just at the moment when everything was possible. Education. Power. Consciousness. Self They sickened and died. That is not true. They did not die of their own accord. Something sickened them and they died. They were murdered. Stricken. Poisoned. Assassinated. Suddenly. The doctors call it cancer. It is. But of what nature? And why now? And why so many? And why so young?
When I finished the book, I discovered I had cancer. I was 40. I didn’t know I was a very young woman to have cancer. It was hell. My children were very young. My ex had a heart attack a week later. I was afraid my children would be orphaned. I had to find the life force for all our sakes. One conclusion in the Book of Hags is that cancer is imposed silence. So I took a typewriter to the hospital.Tree, a journal, was the result.
I had a mastectomy. I did not have chemo or radiation. Ultimately, Hella Hammid took a photograph of my tattooed chest and we published the Warrior Poster, designed by Sheila de Bretteville. Having traveled around the world, becoming even a book cover in Japan, the Poster has, I know, saved countless women’s lives, those who might have suffered, might still suffer from silicone poisoning or complications when pursuing reconstruction and or breast enhancement.
This is the text on the poster: From Tree: Essays and Pieces. P. 91
I am no longer afraid of mirrors where I see the sign of the amazon the one who shoots arrows. There is a fine red line across my chest where a knife entered, but now a branch winds about the scar and travels from arm to heart. Green leaves cover the branch, grapes hang there and a bird appears. What grows in me now is vital and does not cause me harm. I think the bird is singing. When he finished his work, the tattooist drank a glass of wine with me. I have relinquished some of the scars. I have designed my chest with the care given to an illuminated manuscript. I am no longer ashamed to make love. In the night, a hand caressed my chest and once again I came to life. Love is a battle I can win. I have the body of a warrior who does not kill or wound. On the book of my body, I have permanently inscribed a tree.
Cancer changed my life. I became a healer. I train healers. I am a medicine woman. I have gathered physicians and medicine people to create a medicine that does no harm to humans or to the earth. We call it ReVisioning Medicine. That is how I met the veteran who is toxic like the earth is poisoned. Seeking to bring healing to him, we are seeking also to bring healing to the earth.
On 9/11 I was in Zimbabwe. Entering the Ghost River opens with these words:
Entering the Ghost River P. 5
What is your medicine? I was asked.
Story. Story is my medicine, I answered.
Cancer taught me to ask: What is the message, the Story the affliction is carrying? What is the healing Story?
In The Woman Who, Ada goes to the General to heal him of war.
In 2007, I met the General. I was working with a grassroots peacebuilding organization in Liberia when we met a rebel general who, because the war was over, was going to become a mercenary in another West African country. Instead he became the youth director of everyday gandhis. We did not become lovers as in The Woman Who, but he calls me Mama Deena.
Peacebuilding and healing one gesture. One thing we learned in Africa is that you can’t have peace unless you heal the land. Our bodies, our communities, the earth require simultaneous healing. Healing depends on seeing the other. The great blessed other is the natural world. The other person. The other animal.
From Feral P. 9
The moment it first occurred to the woman that she would bring the girl home was when the girl had climbed to a sturdy branch half way up the sycamore and ensconced herself there, first removing, then dropping, her yellow leather work boots and then her socks, stretched out like lilies at their tops, fluorescent lime green no less. The girl wrapped what looked like prehensile toes around some of the finer twigs so that it appeared that she had grown into the tree or it into her.
When the woman was trying to discern the nature of the being she was examining, first she thought feral, then thinking feral, she thought wolf. But wolves don’t climb trees, both the girl and the woman knew that Confronted by the girl’s feet, she was compelled to say simian, ape, primate, mono, monkey, but stopped there as no one would identify a species by its feet alone.
Then as the woman teetered between one identification and another without knowing if the confusion or complexity was in the girl or in herself, the girl raised her mouth to the sky and opened it into a fluted goblet as if to catch rain. The sadness the child exuded was so like a perfume that one could not bear taking it in or being without it. Grief eased out into the air extending itself in mineral colors like oil on water, the thinnest of diaphanous films until it found its destination and wrapped itself about the living body, a sculpture in opal and mother of pearl. So many days, the woman admitted, she had been curious about grief while most willing to avoid the textures of its mysteries.
From “Coming Home,” Intimate Nature p. 363
It has taken a long time to be properly humbled by the irrefutable evidence that I have been living much of my life in the presence and territory of other distinct, awesome, might intelligences without having any but the most rudimentary understanding of the meaning of their individual and species lives which I have nevertheless so deeply violated. This cultural and historic obliviousness, which sometimes overwhelms even those traditions that hold otherwise, has now brought all of us to the brink of destruction. So even if I weren’t personally compelled on this quest of alliance, making amends and restoration, even if I hadn’t opened up worlds of beauty and interest, even if I weren’t motivated by irrepressible passions and curiosity, it would behoove me to ask the animals: Who are you? – and to continue to adjust my life according to what I hope will be an increasing ability to understand their answers.
But nothing prepared me for meeting the wild Elephant Ambassador, four times, four separate years.
I met the Elephant Ambassador in the wild in Chobe Wild Animal Park in Botswana. He had walked to the open back of our truck with clear determination and intention. I had had the strange and inexplicable desire to sit in council with elephants, and now he was standing before me looking me in the eye.
From Entering the Ghost River P. 183
In my mind, I said the following to him:
I know who you are and what kind of beings your people are. I have some sense of the extent and depth of your intelligence and development. And I know that you are a holocausted people I know something of this means because I also come from a holocausted people and I have studied other holocausts and the planet in this century. I apologize to you for my species and what we are doing to you. I cannot tell you the extent of my shame and grief. If there is any way for you to imprint me with your wisdom so that we can form an alliance, so that we can, together, accomplish something on behalf of the earth, I am here and I am not afraid.
Alliance with the animals and alliance, also, with the elementals. All the beings of the natural world. The EarthSea Mother is profoundly injured in so many ways including the gulf spill and Fukushima.
La Negra y Blanca was written in the flames of fire storms. La Negra is a woman and/or a spirit or the rain itself.
From La Negra y Blanca 252
The setting sun is very red. Twenty miles away, rugged canyons have been burning for more than a month, columns of smoke, higher than the mountains mount the sky. It will be many more weeks before the fire is contained. It is hard to breathe because of the dense smoke. It is very quiet here as the sun sets; the fire has stilled everything. There is only the hum of a few bees, as of a depleted swarm searching out a site for a new hive to establish a new life. Or there are only a few because the bees are disappearing. A friend says the weather is perfect where he lives; though the plants are full and hearty, they are not yielding crops. There are flowers, he says, but no fruit. Some flowers are pollinated by the wind, I reassure myself, alarmed as he is.
A year later, the fires are transforming the colors of the sky again. This time the smoke turns the sky yellow brown, a sallow color and the trees cower in the wind. Everything is turning brown. I can smell deer flesh roasting in the fire hell of the burning wilderness.
It is August and the smoke from the wilderness fire twenty-five miles away blows over the setting sun, turning the sky brown yellow and the sun blood red. The fire will rage for weeks, even after it is contained, drawing closer and closer to the molten center. There was a drought before the Conquest. The Maya had been taken, as Blanca’s people are being taken, by the follies of empire. The Maya also cut down the trees. Drought followed and then increased warfare. Devastation everywhere. Fire is replacing rain. The trees are dying, the forests are aflame, the poles are melting, animals are going extinct; even the bees are threatened with annihilation. Where drought isn’t, there are floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and hurricanes.
Blanca takes a rain stick and goes up to the circle of trees above her house. She has placed a sculpture of three frogs in a crude clay basin of water. The drought has reached extreme proportions, calling us back to the old ways of reverence for the earth, to different lives, to prayer and offerings. When there is no rain, the wars increase and the earth increasingly suffers our violence. May rains come bringing an end to the untenable wars we are waging.
From La Negra y Blanca 253, 254
The terrible drought of 1989 finally broke in Yaxumá, Yucatán, only a few days after the village shaman, Don Pablo, had conducted a three-day long ritual called a Cha-Chac ceremony to summon the storm gods who would bring rain to the parched lands. Having participated in the earlier ceremony, an astounded David Friedel stood in his archaeological field camp watching the rains Don Pablo had called sweep in from the northeast over the pyramids of the ancient city next to the village. With his triumph written across his face in a huge grin, Don Pablo came running over the crest of a nearby hill, clutching his hat in the gusting winds as he fled inches ahead of a gray wall of rain. A great rainbow arched over him in the brilliant orange light of the setting sun in a magnificent display that affirmed the success of his performance as shaman.”
The old knowledge of relationship comes with the rain. When we are oblivious to relationship, drought is inevitable. The shaman running before the rain is literally attached to the rain spirits, to Chac, to the thunder beings through the bright banner of his ritual work and prayers for the earth.
The sky is clouded over and the winds are fierce each morning and evening as if a storm is imminent although it has not rained for months except the intense moment when Blanca had been typing these words about Don Pablo, the Shaman of Yaxumá, Yucatán and the sky darkened with storm and emptied, rain and hail. May the rains come now.
The sky has turned dark and when Blanca gets up and goes to the door, there it is, a crash of thunder and rain pours down.
As I speak to you in Los Angeles on February 27th 2014, it is raining. It has been the first real rain in Topanga in about eighteen months. It is not enough to last us the next year, but perhaps it will restore the dying sage and the trees. The deer will eat the new grass and be sustained for a short time. In the last months we have put out water for the wild creatures and even alfalfa for the deer. The squirrels in the area share the bird seed with the birds and we try to provide for the wild on the land we have taken from them in ways that might be somewhat equal to how we provide for ourselves. In the last weeks we have seen bobcat, skunk, raccoon and eagle in addition to all our familiar neighbors, coyote, cougar, rabbits and squirrels. These days, everything I do is, I hope, a prayer for rain, the wild and a generous future for all beings.
From Ruin and Beauty: New and Selected Poems P. 292
RUIN AND BEAUTY THE END
A last poem on behalf of ruin and beauty. A last poem hovering somewhere near, alongside everything that needs to be said now, in this time. The last poem for a book may be the last poem for a lifetime. What offering can be made with yet another last word?
Each time I write, I pray the last word will be a beginning. Even I pray for this, I, who love sunset, more than I love dawn, for its abandon to fire as embers turn to coal and then to diamonds that emerge from the heavy night. These are not the diamonds of the field; they do not rip the life out of the earth or the life from the hands of those who must carry the shovels that will dig into their hearts. These are not lights that need to remain buried in the dark.
I am remembering myself now because like everyone else I have spent a life forgetting. I recognize the child who loved trees as well as the woman who fell so passionately in love with light; she would follow it to its birthplace in the distant stars if she were able. When she was younger, she announced her willingness to burn to ash for the sake of blazing, and today she is an aging woman pausing before the bare elm, as skeleton now as the woman soon will be. It will dim before it blazes and so will she.
Who knows but the two, tree and woman, may fall at the same time, the way the acacia fell the night of the funeral, the way the great pine went over, bent over prostrate, along the threshold, the night the wind rose to take everyone down. We cut the pine into round steps; they decay, they fall apart, they ease into the earth or become the kindling we burn in the bright winter fire. The wisteria went down with the pine, but has risen again. It is winding a future of delicate purple blossoms through the eucalyptus trees. It will be fire next time before the fall.
It is not envy, it is not my own death that moves me. I am not wistful before the resurrecting wisteria displaying nubs, hard pressed, like a young girl’s nipples toward the sky. Rather I shade my eyes before the certainty of God, an invisible shimmering bird, perched in the elm’s silver nest, dull bark turning platinum with the Presence.
Soon the ravens will come, the hawks, vultures and owls to take possession of that naked perch, claw to claw, searching for prey and rain in the great round of life that still remains to them despite the airplanes that bruise the surfaces of clouds, poisons dripping from metal tail feathers.
I have written of this all my life. Each time I try to get it right so that life will continue. Not my life, you understand, but life itself. The magic formula constantly eluding all magis. I let each day fall out of my hand, another petal on the patio stones, or on the metal table, splashes of color turning brown, becoming soil again, melting into the future. The earth deserves a long life that will never end, constructed entirely of the sweet and rightful deaths of all the creatures who feed here on the various honeys of creation.
Of course, I am lying when I say my death isn’t a big deal. A poet’s rhetoric. It will seem that the world is dying when I will be dying. I will be leaving but it will seem that the world will be dimming and falling away. A physicist’s relativity.
“How do we serve the dying?” the exhausted woman asked from her mother’s bedside. Could she assure the dying woman, she had the courage and fortitude to pull away from us and enter the last adventure on her own. Easier said. But every one of us will be in that bed, wondering how to triumph at the end of the taffy pull. We will wonder about how to do it, while someone who hasn’t met that challenge yet will kindly reassure us with what she cannot know. If she is skilled, we will believe her, and we will speed away at sufficient velocity from all that we have until this moment loved more than life, have assumed is life, the whole of it.
This is where we part from the earth that until now we called our mother and so presumed she would precede us in all things. We pull away toward the solitude that is finally, irrevocably ours. We can report to no one from the dark cave that may or may not be a tunnel with a light at the end. Whatever it is for us, no one will ever know. We have been practicing a lifetime to learn to be, finally, on our own.
Earth is not so fortunate. She has made the essential bodhisattva sacrifice. She remains here until all beings are enlightened. Oh how bitter! She is unable to escape us. Even light gets to fly away.
In a clay bowl filled with white milk, we washed the dark feet of a soldier who had eaten human hearts. Another woman came and then another, washing, washing. Such forgiveness, acts of utter hopelessness and impossible hope. Forgiveness required that we sharpen knives until nothing could resist us, so we could sever the past from the future, for him and for us. He slashed and we slashed. The milk roiled in the earthen pot. Milk so white, pressed out of a living creature, milk I know because I nursed my sons, swirling about my burning hands. I searched to find all the love within me though the general had devoured the source of love so many times. He had assumed love would disappear from our planet forever; how else could he survive? When we were finished, the milk was so white it could have blinded us. Some deaths cannot be redeemed without acts of utter desperation.
Ruin, you see, is not the end of life despite museums of crumbling cornices and corner stones. Ruin is unremitting beauty flinging us to the ground. Ruin is a supernova exploding, an old one turning in on itself and becoming, in that moment, as much light as will blaze from the sun in the next ten billion years. Ruin is that gamma moment pouring out into the universe now.
Ruin and beauty:
There will be a future;
There will be a future before
Or after we die.