American Utopia

Black t-shirt with white text that reads Here's The Connection encircling an image of a human brain in yellow.
“Where’s the Connection?”
American Utopia Unisex Brain Tee $40

I love David Byrne and it was a joy to be able to share the experience of live theater, live music– performance with my son, getting out to see American Utopia last night. Grateful for that opportunity AND a deep sadness and frustration still hanging around today. Even anger, disappointment if I’m honest. Part of it was having to navigate all the drunken stupidity that fills the city up round midnight on a weekend in Times Square: all the bridge and tunnel folks in for a good time.

Only it’s not just around Times Square, there was lots of bullshit around 34th street and 14th street and all the kids around West 4th and Washington Square. It’s everywhere. Stupidity and recklessness and unchecked rage. In our neighborhood on Friday night 16 people were injured in a house fire including a 4 year old and up the block a fight broke out in one of the building lobbies (two up from the one that used to be the gang building) and a kid got shot and died. I love people but I deeply hate the ignorance, hatred and delusion that fuels us. The whole city connected this weekend with drunkenness and violence, with pain and loss and all the ways people try to numb and distract from having to feel that pain.

Watch out, you might get what you’re after

I was so looking forward to seeing the show. L & I did catch Merry Wives in the park, which was fantastic (called “a celebration of Black joy and vitality”) but T hasn’t been in a theater in years. It’s one of the things that makes living here great, live theater, music, art. Or that’s the idea anyway that art still happens here; that the city runs on hopes and dreams, on magic. The artists create art, musicians create music, the poets craft their poems and together we create a vision of the world anew. New York City pulses with the energy of our dreams, it’s what connects us. That’s one of the fantasies believed true about this place, it’s become a marketing strategy. (Believe it and I’ve got a bridge for sale you might be interested in…)

American Utopia was aptly named. I loved the first half, singing along inside my mask, David Byrne within spitting distance. Closer to me than the air filter that helps me breathe here now is. That close! All those old favorites– songs I loved and listened to on repeat when I was my son’s age. Familiar songs, sounds, familiar gestures bringing me back to pleasant memories. My kid doesn’t really know from the Talking Heads and when I asked him if he knew any of their songs he kept offering me up Rolling Stones titles and Psycho Killer. Not sure if he really thinks that (Stones = Talking Heads) or if he was just fucking with me. 

Sympathy for the Devil

Black face mask with text that reads Here's the connection in white and yellow print. Text beneath the mask reads American Utopia The Connection Face Mask $15
Where’s the Connection?
American Utopia Face Mask $15

At a certain point though, like with all art, the enchantment slipped and I lost the magic. Reality broke through the fantasy and I was no longer mesmerized. There’s an I Ching hexagram that speaks directly to this, #16: art weaves a spell of enchantment, remember yourself. One Oracle offers this interpretation: “This is the power of theatre and art to create an artificial reality to which an audience will willingly surrender…We need to be able to step back from our own fantasies and those of others… As an artist you have a responsibility to be sincere in your projections and then return the audience to their lives without abusing their enthusiasm. As an audience, you have the responsibility of not replacing your reality with an illusion beyond the enjoyment of the spectacle itself.”

Up until that point I’d thoroughly enjoyed the dream. I was onboard with the conceptual framework, he was speaking my language, talking about brain development, the process of narrowing that happens and he didn’t say it, but I knew we were moving toward neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, David Byrne, that’s what you’re getting at, that’s what you’re talking about. The vagus nerve— I know shit about this, this is part of what I do. Change is possible! Growth is possible! Healing and repair are totally possible. I teach this! Only that’s just where I was going, not the final destination for everyone in the St. James Theater last night. Byrne and the amazing cast made it clear, more than once, that we were— in fact— just on a Road to Nowhere

Say something once, why say it again?

He talked change and sparked imagining with the minimalist set, the amazing sounds, the freedom of movement and connection between the people on stage. All the same (oneness) in their grey suits and barefoot except for the Canadian woman who wore stockinged feet with toes drawn on. Leaning into the implication that the connection extends out to everyone in the audience. You, me, everyone. All of us. Connection. Possibility. It’s a beautiful dream isn’t it? Utopian in vision, just like it said on the playbill.

Thing is, by the time we got about halfway through the show, he got on the mic and said that the theatre allowed dancing but the fire department required us to keep the aisles clear. If there was really a fire, any dancers in the aisles would have an unfair advantage and segued seamlessly into Burning Down the House. That was it for me, enchantment well and truly over. I couldn’t see anything but how surrounded by middle aged white people I was. This was their anthem. All the knee taking and fist raising and Say Their Name-ing that populated the rest of the show was lost on me: hollow words signifying nothing. 

Pull up the roots

Anybody who’s been here a minute– here meaning awake, aware, lucid– knows that we need to get underneath of our issues collectively: all the wounds, the harm done, the poisons that now permeate all of life. Learning to care and nourish and nurture each other, this planet, to love must become our primary way of being. Being human means to anchor what’s divine in us (if only in our hearts, minds, imaginations) anchor it into the earth, into our relationships, into our neighborhoods, our institutions. Another interpretation of Hexagram 16 is Providing for– collect what you need to meet the future. Not just shadows and dreams, but materially, practically. Get real and get ready. Part of that includes harnessing the power of song and dance, of joy.

Utopia is utopia because it’s never a place that gets arrived at. More process or vision, aspiration than destination. (What did David Mitchell say? “‘Utopia’ means ‘no place’…That’s the paradox. It’s unattainable.”) It’s the dream that unites us, the beautiful vision we row our boats toward. But if it’s not grounded at all in some raw practicality it’s not much different from that spiritual bypass that plagues our movement and spiritual communities. Let’s make it real. I thought that’s what we were here for. Let’s have some action items, let’s embrace and embody this beautiful vision of connection and oneness, not just pretend at it with matching suits and wall shadows.

Making it real requires honest reckoning with the poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. Seeing them for what they are, getting underneath them, understanding them and then planting different seeds. Tending the soil. There is no dead earth that we are the saviors of, it’s just that sometimes we’re in need of care. All of us. Concentrated care. Attention. Kindness, compassion. Love. 

Where’s the connection?

That’s what I need anyway, I’ll speak for myself. In that theatre last night surrounded by white folks getting turnt I felt that familiar Otherness keenly, deeply. This connection we’re supposed to have, where is it? I don’t agree with the American Utopia swag that connection happens in the brain. (Plus, why would I pay $40 for a t-shirt??) If anything, I think the brain may be the heart of the problem! The thinking and conceptualizing is what fuels the feelings of otherness in me. My connection with the people in the theater wasn’t from our thoughts because I’m pretty sure we were thinking very differently.

The fact that we have brains, that our physical experiences on this earth connects us, that’s true. I can get behind that. We were all born and we’ll all die, we’ve got that in common. We are all breathing the same poisoned air, that’s true too. But what truly connects us in ways that can move us forward to the Utopia in the songs and poems, the place of manifesting oneness, that happens through the heart. Through an understanding and experiencing of suffering that’s characteristic of being human, the suffering along with the compassion that can grow from it.

Every day is a miracle

Like I said, I heart David Byrne and appreciate him using his platform to try to help spread awareness, political consciousness, engagement. They had headcount out in the lobby, but the ushers filtered everyone out the side doors when the show was over. Byrne tried to make people understand the importance of voting, of active participation in the electoral process, k cool. But I don’t think telling people works. Telling folks we are connected, telling us what to do. Lecturing never really works. I had this realization and you should have it too. Nah. Fuck outta here with that, son. Can’t tell me nothing. People need to feel it. Need to experience connection, experience oneness. Who feels it knows it. Music and art and performance is one way that can happen. Our hearts beat as one with the drum, the original pulse, the heartbeat of creation.

Everything is divided / nothing is complete 

Maybe that feeling of connection happened for people last night, but I suspect if it happened it was white people feeling connected with the people who looked and dressed and acted like themselves. It’s easy to resonate with folks you feel similar to. Moving people’s hearts to open to more, embrace more: the neutral people, the strangers, the difficult people, the “others”– that takes more effort. It may take conscious practice and discipline. They can’t work to dismantle racialized systemic oppression if they still can’t even recognize themselves as white. Can’t and won’t. 

And like I said, there were whole numbers in the show with knee-taking and fist raising and dude monologued a little bit about all the violence and how it’s not new, but he thinks all the protest means possibility for change. Go on, David Byrne, all old and shit. It’s cute that you think that. I’d tapped out by then and it struck me as just shallow, hollow, nothing. (Like Góngora’s line “… en tierra, en humo, en polvo, en sombra, en nada.“) Just shadows on a wall.

However well intentioned, it was signifying. David Byrne realizing he’s white and maybe complicit in some ways in all of the violence and oppression, maybe he’s benefited from it. Was he realizing that? I’m not sure. Were any of the 50-something white people drunk in their Homer Simpson masks and tight little black dresses holding it all in with Spanx, in the city for a good time, bouncing up and down awkwardly to the party anthem of their youth getting it? (“If I could dance better, well, you know that I would”) I don’t think so.

The black and immigrant cast banged their drums and cried out “say their names, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Emmet Till…” but what was anyone hearing? How did it land in their thinking minds? In their hearts? What did it even mean, really? Hell you talmbout up here on a Broadway stage? The black women crying out “say her name Breonna Taylor, say her name Sandra Bland” to a room full of almost entirely white people who’d paid— what? How much did they pay for those tickets? For their big night out? 

After the money’s gone 

Our tickets were free, we got those give-the-awkward-seats-up-front-to-broke-students-so-the-house-looks-full tickets. It’s not Hamilton, but tickets must start at $60 or $70 a pop, let me check… No, I’m wrong: orchestra front center, where the people my eyes kept landing on being rowdy AF and cringey, their tickets started at $350 a seat. So there you go. Cash does rule everything around me. They were there to party. Nothing in their demeanor, their movements, their responses indicated that they gave any fucks about the murder and violence unleashed on Black and Brown bodies in this country.

They could give no fucks because they’re burning down the house. Right? Not in a revolutionary way, not in a raze this poisoned structure to the ground so we can build anew with equity and justice way. Not really about Land Back, or Black Lives Matter. Of course I don’t know what they were thinking, what their lives are like, what’s in their hearts, I can’t know any of that. I just know how they were acting, what they said and did. And I shouldn’t be surprised. I shouldn’t even be angry, sad or disappointed. How revolutionary you gonna get on Broadway? Not revolutionary at all.

This must be the place

I salute David Byrne for sharing his gifts and for trying to use his platform to offer what awakening he’s experienced with others, but some people are not trying to hear it. Maybe you did just realize you’re white and you’re just seeing the genocide and oppression and violence at the roots of this American Utopia, just now seeing the racist ideas and policies, the structural oppressions that prop this system up.

Maybe we can dream another way, dream our connections into being meaningful and nourishing, but the artists who dream and the activists, parents and workers who make dreams manifest can’t afford to live well here anymore and haven’t for some time. Who was in that theater last night and who wasn’t? Follow the money, look at what it takes to live here, to breathe. Who’s entitled to entertainment and relaxation, rest, connection and joy and who isn’t? Who has the leisure, the time and space, is nourished enough to dream our new worlds into being? This Broadway show is just a celebration of the idea of dreaming, of its possibility– a lot like the set: light and shadows playing across the wall. Intimations of connection, of movement, of possibility but actually just darkness and light. A room full of people sat in the dark, hearts beating together with the drums, breathing the same air through masks for a couple hours with no intermission.

September

I was thrilled to see this image for September in my calendar from Nikki McClure. I love everything about it: LIBERATE, all the books… Perfectly aligned for me with the time now. September marks my official return to the library world. I’m so happy to be back in the library where I belong. Most of the work I do in the world is related to helping people find the resources they need. It’s beautiful to see it illustrated in this way, LIBERATE. Finding freedom, finding a way out of no way, finding inspiration, finding tools and information, finding what’s needed, finding resource.

September from Nikki McClure's 2021 calendar. Image description: black and white image of books stacked floor to ceiling against yellow backdrop with a person in the distant center gazing at them, standing on yellow ground.
September from Nikki McClure‘s 2021 calendar
Image description: black and white image of books stacked floor to ceiling
against yellow backdrop with a person in the distant center gazing at them, standing on yellow ground.

I was talking with friends yesterday about the differences between doing our soul work/heartwork/living our dharma: being on the path, being in alignment– it’s called many different things– and doing what we have to do to survive. The differences between what that heartwork is and what we do to survive as physical beings living within a system of Capitalism.

My life’s work, my heart’s work isn’t always what I do to help pay the bills, to put food on the table. I think for a long time I thought that it had to be. Like if I was truly living my truth, committed to my spiritual path I would only do work that matched that ideal. Like if I was doing anything other than teaching yoga and meditation and writing poems it was defeat/failure/sell out. Why did I think that? Where did that idea come from?

Meaningful work

Right livelihood doesn’t mean having to extract enough payment for my own survival from the things that I love. That takes the joy out, infects love with some desperation and anxiety for me. It seemed cool to make a living doing the things I love and value, why wouldn’t I want that? More power to folks who make enough money doing the things they love to survive and thrive. It doesn’t always happen though. I think it may actually be quite rare.

What happened for me with poetry years ago (why I never wanted to teach, why I dropped out of the scene a bit) has recently happened again with dharma and mindfulness practices. They are vital to me, essential for my own thriving and liberation AND I cannot have them coupled with my physical survival. I can’t have my ability to eat and pay bills and care for my family dependent on whether people want to read my poems, buy my books or sign up for my classes.

It’s possible that I suck at marketing or I haven’t tried hard enough– that may be true. Also, I prefer not to. I don’t want to have to hustle in the marketplace to share tools for liberation. What I am doing right now is feeling immense gratitude that another path opened up for me. I get to fall back on another of my loves: libraries. I’m grateful to have options. I know not everyone does. I appreciate how lucky I am to have many loves.

Love

Anybody who knows me knows how I love me some libraries. They have been essential to my own survival and liberation in a way that’s not so different from dharma. In fact, there’s a lot of crossover the way I see it. I was comparing insight dialogue with informational interviews and they’re not all that different: pause, relax, open, attune to emergence, listen deeply, speak the truth… Helping people identify the questions beneath the question, what they’re really asking, what the need is. (Not so different from Nonviolent Communication either, come to think of it.) The adventure of setting out on a path of discovery, of finding out for yourself what’s needed, what’s true. (Ehipassiko, see for yourself.)

Worldly concerns

It’s been ten years since I was last a librarian: librarian as role, task, job, identity. I was one of the librarians at Occupy Wall Street and it felt important and transformative. As much as I tried to stay off the radar, I did get some attention for it and just like the Buddha taught, I was tossed by the worldly winds: where some people praised me, invited me to speak at their conferences and gave me awards, others blamed me, attacked me, sent me hate mail and stalked me. While some people loved the People’s Library and were inspired by it, some took offense. Whether it was objectively true or not I felt low-key blacklisted in the library world because of my participation. I didn’t/couldn’t get another library job until just now: ten years later.

The air outside is getting a little bit cooler, it’s chilly at night. NYC public school starts tomorrow. September finds me digging out my cardigans, adjusting my glasses and totally giddy about the opportunity to be back in the library again helping people find what they need. Whether folks are looking for liberation, looking to transform oppressive systems or just looking for the bathrooms, I’m happy to help and grateful for the opportunity.

eco-erotics

Today I’m celebrating our interdependence, not celebrating colonization and genocide. I was introduced to the work of Melissa K. Nelson yesterday and I haven’t been the same since. Sometimes someone puts into language an idea or a knowing that I’ve had without having access to words to adequately describe it. The term “eco-erotics” resonated immediately, is just what I didn’t know I was looking for.

Sex educator/sex worker/porn star Annie Sprinkle has been going on for years about sexecology, maybe still is (ecosex manifesto) but that just didn’t impact me in the same way at the time I encountered it. Struck me more as performance than it resonated with my own experience and understanding. The idea of eco-erotics weaves together sexuality, our relationships with nature and all beings as well as the dissolution of subject-object and the prison of binary thinking that, when dissolved, can support survival, thriving and liberation.

spring grass and cherry blossom petals
spring grass and cherry blossom petals

Getting dirty

In her essay “Getting Dirty: The Eco-Eroticism of Women in Indigenous Oral Literatures” Nelson writes, “Reclaiming our eco-erotic birthright as human beings and Indigenous citizens requires a peeling away of the colonial and religious impositions of patriarchy, heteronormativity, internalized oppression, original sin, shame, and guilt (among many other idiosyncratic layers), especially in relation to our bodies and our capacity for intimacy and pleasure. These beliefs are based on a fear of the wild and uncontrollable, both in nature and ourselves. After centuries of oppression, expressing the joy and diversity of our Native sexualities is truly an anticolonial, liberating act. Questioning the internalized authoritarianism that denies and demonizes our psychospiritual and animal closeness to “nature” is a decolonial and revolutionary act of survivance.” (Nelson)

Feels relevant to share this work today– I see lots of folks out there waving flags and feeling patriotic, pretending the nation’s founding fathers were heroes rather than enslavers. Have your point of view, I’ll have mine. For me, the 4th of July is a great time to add to the energy of all decolonizing and liberation efforts. Nelson’s essay is a great contribution I’m happy to lift up. The essay concludes recognizing our interdependence and the urgency of decolonization:

Interdependence

“’Getting dirty’ means we become fully human by remembering and embodying our trans-human animalness. This requires a decolonization process, because we must question and shed the conditioned beliefs that say we are more intelligent than, different from, or better than our animal nature and other natural beings (i.e., human exceptionalism). Our bodies are filled with intelligences that are faster than and beyond the intelligence of our cognitive brains… All life depends on other life for survival, regeneration and celebration.. Indigenous eco-erotics… remind us that humans (and all life forms) are capable of profound intimacies and transformations if we embrace rather than repress our fundamental desires and the permeability of our consciousness. Embracing our eco-erotic nature helps us recognize the generosity of creation, and our part in it, so we can truly embody an ethic of kinship.” (Nelson)

This feels very related to something from a longer piece I’m working on that explores some of the same themes of embodied ecology and relating with more than human worlds. I’ll share some of that here (written before encountering Nelson’s essay).

Stick figures with interlinking arms drawn in chalk around the trunk of an old plane tree
Stick figures with interlinking arms drawn in chalk around the trunk of an old plane tree

Intimacy with all of life

Why do you imagine I can’t have a mutually satisfying relationship with the earth? With the plants and the trees and the soil. With the water and the rock formations, with the creatures of the air and the creatures of the sea and all that walk and crawl and slither on the earth. Trees support me. I don’t mean it metaphorically. I mean they hold me up. My spine to their trunks we combine our energies and they project it up into the heavens and down through their roots into the earth. My relationships with these beings are meaningful and supportive to me.

I grew up drinking dew and rainwater and I still drink dew and rainwater. I dance in it, I bathe in it, I sing in it, I celebrate it. When I was younger, nuclear war seemed imminent. I was told and I believed that the rain would turn to acid and kill us all if the bombs didn’t wipe us out first. I didn’t expect to live past thirty.

My prayers started then. I prayed for clean air and water every chance I got. Every wish I got. Birthday wishes, eyelash wishes, dandelion wishes. Every wish that ever came my way I returned to the earth. May you be well. Be happy. May you be healthy and strong. Live with ease and joy no matter what the people do. Decades before anyone told me about metta practice it just flowed out of my heart on its own.

Future survival

I spread seeds for future forests, I celebrated the clean water that there was. My best friends were the birch tree, the rhododendron, the honeysuckle and the mulberry. (Apologies for leaving anyone out.) The morning glories, the pokeweed and the milk thistle. I’ve got a lifelong love for milk thistle. I love the plants and I’ve always loved the plants. (My plant people know what I’m talking about here, I see you making those elixirs, smokes and salves. Bless up!) Plant allies have always been important in my life. The green witches told me to get to know a plant deeply, spend time with it before moving on to another’s medicine, so I did. I spent a whole summer in a monogamous relationship with dandelion once. Eating its bitter leaves in every kind of way, every day. Raw, cooked, made into teas. That’s intimacy.

Oatstraw too, milky oats: eating it, drinking it, bathing in it. Red clover’s supported me for ages as do nettles. I can’t be without my nettles for long. Tulsi– all mints have been supportive friends. I can’t shout out all the allies I count in the plant kingdom because there are so many. (Not just plants either. I had a very passionate affair with a strong wind outside of Taos one winter, but that’s a story for another time.) I love and honor them knowing my health and happiness depends on them. That may be why I grate at these superficial relationships with nature I hear folks been pushing lately. It looks painfully shallow, coming from and processed entirely through the intellect. Walking on the earth in bare feet! Admiring “nature” from a distance or through a theoretical framework– isn’t nature nice, isn’t it nice that we’re part of nature– annoying af.

Deep relationship

I don’t need to be irritated by it though. It’s fine. It’s sweet. Everyone has to start where they are. Walk on the earth, sit with a tree. That’s beautiful and important. Also I want to see right relationship, deep relationship, true honoring. Take the earth as your lover, your mother, your partner. In a real way. In the body, in the flesh. I mean fucking in the hedgerows to help bring in the harvest. Covering the bare flesh of you with mud, sitting there until it cracks and flakes off revealing a new you inside.

Laying still on the earth when the rain begins and not moving until you’re saturated, soaked through receiving it. Soak in the hot springs until you can’t bear it anymore, repulsed at the sulphur smell, but soothed and softened by the heat. How hot can you take it? How much can you withstand? What are your limits? Where are the boundaries? I join in calling for an eco-erotics, honoring our interbeing. Where does the earth end and you begin? Where do you end and the earth begins? This is making love with the earth, being love, being a good friend, partner, relation. Celebrating each other and ourselves, human and more than human, all together.

Five remembrances: “I will grow different”

Mornings start with precepts (mine are a little less traditional) and evenings end with recollections or chanting if I can stay up late enough. Naturally, not every day– I won’t front– but most of the time. Way back when I first encountered the 5 recollections (or remembrances) years ago I made a note in my phone so I could have them at hand at any time.

Upajjhatthana Sutta

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Upajjhatthana Sutta starts, “There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?” Here are the five I have in my phone, 5 Remembrances:

1: I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

2: I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape ill-health.

3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4: All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

5: My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

IRL

During sangha last night these remembrances were brought up and they really hit me in a different way. Although I’ve been practicing with them for years, but somehow the languaging I heard last night shifted my experience of them. Noting the difference between “there is no way to escape” old age/illness/death and “I have not gone beyond” old age/illness/death. Subtle, but profound. “I have not gone beyond” really zaps exceptionalism right out of the picture. Me up here secretly thinking sickness, old age, and death just happen to other people…

#4 I used to bludgeon myself with. Truly. Like brutalizing myself with imaginings of loss and separation in an attempt to steel myself against future pain. Last night was the first time I felt into the fact that it’s not just everyone outside of me, everyone and everything I love having the nature to change, I’m included in that too. Aspects of myself that were dear to me, things I thought were essential, that I identified with have changed: beliefs, habits, attitudes. I’m not the person I was. And that’s not all loss, it could be growth or just change. Transformation to make it sound more dramatic.

Further, the sutta goes into greater depth, (‘I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me’) exploring what it all might mean, how it shows up in life once we start reflecting on these remembrances regularly.

#5 has always been my favorite. I am the owner of my actions and the heir to my actions. “I am not the only one who is owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator…whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.” LOVE it.

belonging

It’s got me looking at belonging differently. Belonging’s a whole thing for me, a very hot topic that I can go off on at great length. I really like conceiving of it in this way. My actions are my only true belongings. My only companions.

Eventhough I find that I don’t experience belonging in the ways I usually hear it talked about. I don’t much belong to my identities, for instance, or any particular lineage or location because they’re always changing, always shifting. If anything I belong in motion, being motion. I belong in love, being love. Centrally, for me, mornings start with precepts and they also start with locating myself. Finding the directions, I reach out to ancestors and future generations. Locating myself in space time, in dimensional space, in history. I find center, find ground and move from there. In fact, I have to do this every day because it’s always changing. We are of the nature to change.

tl;dr

So I made some little videos for the 5 remembrances because that’s how I do. Don’t get mad. Video 1 is for recollections 1-3, video 2 is for recollections 4 and 5. (Although playback’s a little clunky on phones, it seems to flow pretty well on computers.)

1: I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

2: I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape ill-health.

3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4: All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

5: My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Also I always loved #5 because it reminds me of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now.” Judge me. Idc. I am the owner of my karma, heir to my karma, my actions are the ground on which I stand.

relative and absolute: 70s candy

Sebene posed some interesting questions about how we’re experiencing relative reality/absolute reality and I can’t articulate in words right now my experience in a way that doesn’t operate inside of a binary, sounding like an opposition. That’s not how it feels to me. All day long we can talk about both/and and paradox, but it literally is, at some point, the actual same thing in my experience. There’s this convergence. How to talk about this?

The closest I can get is two sides of the same coin where the coin isn’t an object but a portal where each bleeds into and through the other. Normally I keep these kinds of thoughts to myself, but I’ve made a commitment to showing up in a more engaged way so I’ll just put this here for now. It’s on my mind. Holler if you’ve got thoughts to share. The only other way I’ve been able to conceive of it is like candy from the 70s:

Where chocolate = relative reality and peanut butter = absolute reality. Or the other way around. Perfectly absorbed in their own experience, headphones on, oblivious to everything else around them. I guess this works for now. (lol @walking around eating a tub of peanut butter, I mean absolute – we’re all one ❤️✌🏽😂)

we celebrate each other

We love each other, that’s what we’re here for. To alleviate suffering as best we can and to treat each other with respect, care, honor and dignity. I dreamed everybody in the neighborhood got together to celebrate Mary. Organization happens by word of mouth around here so I didn’t know it was happening until it happened. All the neighbors came out and formed a circle in the field just a ways from the building and J and someone else helped Mary walk out. She got dressed up for the occasion. It was a very big deal.

Of course it was a big deal. Making it to 93 years old is an incredibly big deal. That’s a lot of life lived. It makes you a treasure. An asset is what people call it, but how can we say that in a way that’s not wrapped up in financial systems? Elders can embody wisdom, strength, lessons learned, but the passing of time isn’t enough to confer the title. I remember how my father cringed on that retreat when people started calling him an elder. He said it himself: age doesn’t automatically confer wisdom.

Just because someone’s old doesn’t mean they’re wise. But everyone advanced in age has seen some suffering, lived through varieties of heartbreak, had all the ups and downs you can have in 90+ years and they are deserving of extra care and respect just for that. I don’t know why folks imagine themselves immune from aging and its challenges: mystery illnesses, breakdown of the body, loss of mobility, of cognitive functions. One breakdown or another happens to everyone who’s lucky enough to reach old age. We are of the nature to grow old, we cannot escape aging.

new ancestors

Toward the end of her life, Mary heard music no one else could hear. She was very thin and frail, not able to handle going up and down the marble stairs anymore, but loved connection and would hang out on the landing like a spider in her web, ensnaring anyone who passed by in conversation. It didn’t cost much to talk to her, though because her hearing was poor sometimes it took some extra effort to communicate. She told me a little about the music that drew her up toward the roof and I think it was maybe not dissimilar to the lights my maternal grandmother saw at the end of her life. Lights that were a friendly energy, spirit, angels maybe. Companionable lights no one else could see. There were threads of light, dancing.

Both of my grandmothers lived into their hundreds and managed to keep their wits about them, more or less lucid to the very end. In my last conversation with my grandmother she shared her outrage and sense of injustice, can you believe this shit? No grandma, I cannot. I truly cannot believe this shit and trust me, you got out when the getting was good. I’m so glad she didn’t have to live through what’s happening now. She made her exit in November 2019 at 103 years old.

My heart aches for the lack of dignity older folks experience in this country at the end of their lives. Losing agency, condescended to, ignored, hidden from sight. Part of the tragedy of covid is how many of our elders we’re losing. Numbed by the the enormity of our losses we’re even losing the capacity to mourn, to grieve together, to share ceremony honoring those who’ve passed. We need to celebrate each other.

celebrate each other

A couple years back, in our neighborhood we had a funeral for the hamster of a kid in the building next door. People from different buildings all came out, we had a moment of silence, said a few words honoring its life and its contributions and it was buried in the park, sticks for grave markers. R played Taps on his phone. The kid cried and cried and adult neighbors stood by respectfully.

Part of me thought it was too much, but another part of me was honored to participate, grateful to share in holding space for the child. He had loved. He lost a good friend. His heart was aching. We were paying respect to the life lost, to the love, to all of it. Honoring their connection to each other, the love and joy present between them, as well as our connections with each other. As we celebrate each other, we celebrate life itself

We’ll die too. All of us will die. What will happen then to the ones we love that are left behind? Ceremony is important. Me saying it doesn’t make it so, but I hope maybe people can feel it by now. We need to grieve. And not only in isolation, feeling like we bear this suffering alone. Some things are too much to bear alone. We need to feel our pain and allow it to move through us, transforming us in the process.

Grief and helplessness and rage, we’re not in charge of those feelings or how they manifest in us– when they arise and pass, but we can create space internally to allow them to be present, to be with them for as long as they need and then when ready, they will continue to flow. Uncried tears are poison. Denied anger and grief, poison. It’s essential that it be honored and respected because it is there, it’s part of this life, this being human. Allow it to clear you out, burn you to the ground if need be. Not because you like it, but just because it’s happening.

in it together

Some things are just too much to bear alone. We need each other for this. That’s what the ceremony was. The boy cried and it was ok to cry because we were there with him, holding space. Honoring and allowing and supporting him in all his expressions. That is love too. The collective mourning that’s necessary now to integrate the experience of this pandemic and all the losses it’s brought us is more than my mind can conceive of. I know we need each other to bear it. None of this is meant for anyone alone. It’s not personal.

P noted wisely that the great anthem isn’t called “I shall overcome,” it’s “We shall overcome.” And folks weren’t singing it because they felt happy or confident in victory. Rather, it’s much more likely they felt beat down and devastated by all the violence, hatred and loss on all sides. But there’s such a thing as being held by the collective (many hands make light work) and a place where faith can come in to support as well. (Don’t call it faith if that word bothers you, call it something else like determination. Maybe even just intention would do.)

dWhat kind of life do you want to live? What kind of relationships do you want to have? How do you want to be treated? What world would you like to live in? A culture of care? A place where there’s room for us to celebrate each other and all that is. Good, because that’s what we’re doing now. Welcome aboard, thanks for joining us.

“We Shall Overcome” from Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Concert (Clearwater Concert), Madison Square Garden, 5/3/09. Featuring: Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Billy Bragg, Keller Williams, Ani DiFranco, Ruby Dee, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, New York City Labor Choir.

it’s a revolution

Sunday January 10, 2021 5:51 am You say you want a revolution? It’s a revolution alright. All I keep seeing and knowing again and again is to sit with it, be with the discomfort. Allow the anger and pain to arise and be with it, be in it. Above all, care for myself enough to recognize what’s happening for me, in me, around me and bring care and compassion to myself because this is how it is now. This is what’s happening. Turn to myself with kindness, feel into my own experience and meet myself there, meet my experience with love. However it is in this moment. (A note on pronouns: “I/me” could be “you” or “they/them” could be “we/us”. Use what works.)

Calligraphy from Thich Nhat Hanh. Text reads: peace in oneself peace in the world
Calligraphy from Thich Nhat Hanh. Text reads: peace in oneself peace in the world

can you allow it?

Check in with your self and recognize the qualities of your experience. How is it in your heart? How is it in your mind? What sensations are arising in your body? What thought forms are passing through in this moment? How is it right now? See how it is, be with how it is and generate some kindness and compassion for yourself. That’s the beginning. That’s the initiation point. Move from there. Sit in whatever is happening, allowing it, meeting it, naming it, recognizing it for what it actually is.

What is true right now: not what stories you’re hearing or telling yourself. Not your ideas or beliefs. Not what you think is happening, what’s ACTUALLY HAPPENING right now in the body, at the sense gates. What sensations. Is the body hot or cold, is the heart racing or is it steady and calm, how is the breathing? What are the qualities of the breath? Is the breath cycle long and deep or short, truncated, shallow. What’s it like to take a breath? Is it easy? Is it a challenge? How is your heart, the heart beat? Is it racing, pounding, is it steady? Notice. Notice these things. Recognize what is true.

Dharma is truth.

Idgaf what you THINK or what you BELIEVE. I don’t need you to agree with me. I’m asking you what’s happening right now. Only in the body. Only at the sense gates. What do you smell, what do you see? What’s above you, behind you, below you. Look at what’s happening within, internally. Attend to experience as it is. Not your stories, not what others have convinced you to believe, not what your parents or friends say or what you saw on the internet. Your own experience. See for yourself.

How is it for you right now in this moment? What are the tastes in your mouth? Does it taste like blood? Can you feel the sensation of the air on your skin? The texture of the ground or floor beneath your feet? The texture of clothing against the skin? Is it tight, restrictive, loose? Soft? Pinching somewhere? What are the sounds in your environment? Are there sirens like here? Is there yelling? Any pounding at the door? Are there mobs in the streets?

Are you sheltering in place, hiding under your desk like we’ve trained the children and senators to do? Maybe you can hear a gurgling stream or a peaceful fan whir, the wind in the trees nearby. Can you hear birdsong? Traffic rumble? Explosions? How is it for you right now? However it is, it’s a revolution. Revolution is turning, is change, is transformation. Impermanence makes sure that it’s a revolution in every single moment.

this very moment

Being where you are right now. Recognizing what’s happening, physically. Bring this attention, this awareness to your experience. What’s happening internally in the physical body, the emotional states, what’s the quality of mind? Distracted? Concentrated? Where is your focus? Are thoughts racing? You making some plans? Fantasizing about something better, different? How is it right now? This investigation leads to a cultivation of capacity, the strength to stay with what is, whatever it is.

In order that you may be able to sit still long enough to tolerate discomfort. You can tolerate uncertainty, you can tolerate hostility, fear, aggression. (Is there some reason you feel you should be immune to discomfort and uncertainty, always get your way? That could be interesting, look at that.) Build the capacity to sit with whatever arises. Joys and sorrows. Not only pain also pleasure, sublime states of joy. Anything that is possible, the whole range of experience is all right here. Can you be with it? Is it possible to you recognize it as it’s happening?

Perhaps you can allow it to unfold without trying to exert control or influence over the outcome? That’s a sticky question. Why would I want to do that gets into examining wtf you think an I is, which is a larger exploration. (Where I am, how I am, what I am, why I am, whereby I am: I am a reassuring illusion.) For now, maybe we can leave it at this idea of building tolerance, capacity.

Maybe it’s possible to accept that responding from anger hurts us and hurts others. Not only because responding from anger, responding unskillfully causes more harm than good. I’m not totally sure about this, just testing the idea out. But isn’t it always more skillful when responses come from a place of calm and self-care, self-compassion rather than reactivity? When we’ve allowed whatever is happening to happen, taken it all in, been able to receive it, see it, come to know it in some way before we engage with it.

Deeper investigation of the video of “Elizabeth” from “Knoxville, TN” (or is it Bowie, MD?), the one wearing a Trump flag as a cape. The one who stormed the capitol building the other day because “it’s a revolution!”– showed that she was rubbing her eyes with a sliced onion she held in that towel in her hand. Was she really maced? She gave a great performance. Lots of performances happening, lots of grifters, lots of emotion.

I’m not giving my power away to any of this. I’ll choose what I get worked up about, what gets my attention and what doesn’t. Of course, I am human, so I have my own reactions, but I also have choices about how I respond. When we move away from pure reactivity, we have more power, more agency. We’re not as tossed about by emotional reaction or habit patterns, we can begin to decide for ourselves. Use discernment to identify an appropriate response. Sometimes the appropriate response is to do nothing.

from reaction to response

I can’t believe I’m saying this!! I’m Mars ruled, Mercury in Aries. Believe when I tell you I can’t believe this. I like ACTION. I’m all for action: quick, direct, decisive action. Direct action gets the goods. I can’t keep my mouth shut most of the time, I truly can’t. Especially when I feel somebody’s doing wrong/being wronged. Anybody who knows me has seen. For me it’s like a volcano inside, I feel like I’m going to explode.

Perhaps I’m just saying this to say that I surprise myself hearing me preach temperance, but apparently I do now. (It is a revolution.) I’m not saying do nothing. I’m not saying don’t respond. I see a lot of buddhists out here will just close their eyes, sink into a meditative state and bypass. Not about that. Fuck that. That’s not what I’m saying at all. Don’t do that, that’s bullshit. We have ethical responsibilities, moral obligations and there are karmic consequences for folks who believe in karma.

May all beings be safe and protected from harm. May all beings be happy and peaceful–free from fear, anxiety and worry. May all beings be healthy and strong. May all beings live with joy and ease. May all beings be free. I am one of all beings, may I be safe and protected from harm. May I be happy and peaceful–free from fear, anxiety and worry. May I be healthy and strong. May I live with joy and ease.

May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself. May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself. May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day. May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent. May we all know peace.

(some of these metta phrases are from Thich Nhat Hanh)

untethered grief

May 5, 2020 2:18 am I’ve been up half an hour at least because L was silent screaming in her sleep– fair enough response. Mourning rippling through the collective. We should all be screaming at the top of our lungs now (those of us who can). This is a nightmare we’re living in, a fucking nightmare.

I keep pondering the absolute lack of ritual. There’s zero collective mourning happening. Next to none. I see Lincoln Center with Union Theological is hosting concerts every week. I see facebook has added a couple emojis to indicate CARE. Individuals light real and virtual candles, but where are the altars, the shrines, the tributes? Where can we cry out, shake out, celebrate the lives of those who’ve passed, move grief through our bodies? Savage Remix ain’t it. It’s bothering me.

Responding to a twitter post from Kristin Rawls, the importance of collective mourning has been gnawing at me.

collective mourning

Grief– this grief– is collective. Treating it as an isolated experience, compartmentalizing it as individual suffering isn’t just wrong, it’s lies. That’s not the truth of how things are.

One of the many lessons we learn in opening our hearts is that all beings are connected not only through love and joy, but also profoundly connected through pain. Recognizing our connectedness in suffering is one of the ways we can recognize our common humanity. Fronting like we must bear the enormity of this pain alone is an offense– a moral offense and an affront to our humanity.

Reading the above twitter thread, there were many folks who wrote that they didn’t want to acknowledge all the suffering of this moment because it’s still unfolding, it’s not over yet. It reminded me of what Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote, “the Buddha says that there are few who are stirred by things that are truly stirring, compared to those people, far more numerous, who are not so stirred. The spurs to awakening press in on us from all sides, yet too often, instead of acknowledging them, we respond simply by putting on another layer of clothes to protect ourselves from their sting.” (Meeting the Divine Messengers)

Death is considered one of the four heavenly messengers in Buddhism, offering us opportunities to reflect deeply, re-evaluate our lives. Confronted with the mass death we’re surrounded with in this moment, it makes sense to me that “we must make drastic changes in our existential priorities and personal values. Instead of letting our lives be consumed by transient trivia, by things that are here today and gone tomorrow, we must give weight to “what really counts” (Meeting the Divine Messengers)

Moving forward, we need care and nurturance built into the very systems that support society. Care and connection– acknowledging our interbeing must be centered in the framework of our societal structures. They’re not now. Not here. Right now we’re still collectively operating out of this myth of the solitary hero, the lone wolf, all those pick yourself up by the bootstraps narratives– it’s all lies based on an outmoded worldview of power over, of us vs. them, of exploitation for profit, of individual vs. collective freedom.

Those times are behind us. I see building power with, all of us together, a culture of nurturance and care. Moving forward we build together, we care for each other, we mourn losses together acknowledging that all belong, all are worthy, all are loved– all beings above and below, seen and unseen, heard and unheard, living, passed and yet to be born.
All beings without exception. No one left out.

some reading:

Rebellious Mourning, Cindy Millstein ed.
“The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture,” Nora Samaran
We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic,” Ibram X. Kendi

Those We’ve Lost, The New York Times
Faces of the Dead, The Washington Post
Mourning America

embodiment

I’m thinking about embodiment. I don’t often go into astrology here because it’s not everybody’s thing, but today’s Taurus new moon is joining up with Uranus as it’s squaring Saturn. That’s talking about a profoundly deep movement toward liberation & previously unimagined possibilities while confronting restriction, rules, limits, pressure, with possibly burdensome responsibility.

This 50th anniversary of Earth Day (lol, every day is earth day). Really being present with the transformation happening now, including the chaos, uncertainty, fear and grief that accompany it. It’s a wild ride & these bodies are our vehicles. Our physical bodies, the body of the earth. Sitting with what makes a body up.

Feliz Dia De La Tierra / Happy Earth Day

via GIPHY

In the Satipatthana sutta, we get great instructions about how to contemplate the body internally and externally, both internally & externally at once. We attend to our breathing, the breathing body, the whole of the body being breathed. The body in different positions: sitting, walking, lying down. Attending to the ways the body inhabits and moves through space aware that our experience of moving through space is different for different bodies. Our embodiment impacts our experiences. There was an article in the NYTimes recently addressing this, about being a black man wearing a mask in public during this pandemic, “For Black Men, Fear That Masks Will Invite Racial Profiling.” To extend the contemplation of the body externally, contrast that to the masked and armed “protests” taking place around the country to “liberate” the states.

That’s not the kind of liberation I’m talking about when I say liberation.

Embodiment is unique to each individual body. We are sharing a collective experience and can talk about the collective body, but our experiences are wildly different. (There’s an insightful reflection on It’s Going Down, “All We Have Is Us: A Report From A Delivery Driver In Manhattan.”) Structural inequities are laid bare now. We’re seeing what there is to see, but how are we experiencing it in our bodies, how are we making sense of it?

Embodied experience

The body doing activities, the body’s experience of impermanence– of arising and passing away in the body. I love the anatomical parts part of the Satipatthana myself: “in this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, bowels, mesentery, contents of the stomach, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints and urine.” (from Ven. Analayo’s Satipatthana, the direct path to realization.) These detailed methods of contemplating our component parts are a highly effective way of herding our attention toward what we’re made of.

Disclosure: that’s an affiliate link. My first one ever. If anyone ever buys a book from my site, Bookshop will throw me a couple coins. Literally, it’s pennies. I want to encourage and support independent bookstores especially in these times. Bezos won’t miss your business, I promise.

These parts of ours (each part worthy of attention, worthy of love and care) are comprised of elements. “In this body there are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, the air element.” Celebrating earth day, honoring the earth, we celebrate ourselves. It’s not poetry, it’s highly practical and pragmatic. As within, so without. How does embodiment show up in our lives, in our bodies, in this present moment? What are we made of? Imagining what will we can create with the elements we share. What’s residing in our hearts now? What are we capable of? How will we shape this transformation? What structures will we put in place? How do we manifest the embodiment of our ideals, bring feeling and aspiration into form? New moons are for planting seeds for future harvest. These are the things I’m thinking of as I do what I can to move us all closer to true freedom.

Cultivating embodied awareness

Laura from the Poetry Project asked me to share a few writing prompts from the workshop I led in the Fall, meditation in an emergency. I’m sharing them here as well, a few writing prompts to cultivate awareness of the body and practice communicating with/through embodied presence. Some ways to write when it feels like an emergency–

Writing prompts

  • Cultivate present moment awareness– deliberate, non-judgmental, bare attention to the now. Write from that place: what you can discern through your senses right now, in this very moment? What do you see, hear, feel, taste, smell? Not thoughts or ideas, you’re the scribe of direct experience, what’s happening now? And now, and now?
  • Inhabiting that awareness, write to and from the body (personal body, body of the earth, fear body, grief body, body electric) &/or body parts.
  • Too anxious to generate new material? Write into or from (take a line, phrase, words, ideas, anything you like) this poem https://poets.org/poem/i-sing-body-electric or any other text or song that you like.
  • Anything that supports moving beyond self-focus can be a useful path through emergencies. Finding and creating flow states, for example. Flow = a state of being completely immersed in a project or learning experience that challenges us.
  • Write for 3 minutes without picking up your pen. I do mean write, not type. (I guess you could type if that’s your thing.) Try to incorporate the sensations of the writing experience into the work. (How’s your posture? How are your eyes feeling? Are you getting sweaty? Is trying to write new work stressing you out? Are you having fun yet?) Try 5 minutes.
  • Try creating: collaging, chapbook making, drawing or painting without judgement around it, simply focusing on the pleasure of the experience.
  • If none of that’s working, ask what Bernadette Mayer would do & try that: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Mayer-Bernadette_Experiments.html

there is a path_wisdom

It is said that all the Buddha ever talked about was suffering and the end of suffering. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha laid out the diagnosis, the prognosis & the prescription to end suffering: there is a path. I don’t want to leave folks hanging, let’s get right into it – that path is the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya-magga in Pali, the language spoken in the Buddha’s time) & it can be explored in three different sections.

Discussing the Eightfold Path, folks often use term RIGHT (“right view,” “right speech,” “right livelihood”); I find myself using WISE instead. Right can imply wrong. Wise works just as well and allows for a little more subtlety.

The first grouping deals with the cultivation of wisdom or discernment (pañña) and is made up of wise view and wise intention. The second group is concerned with the cultivation of virtue (sila) and is made of wise speech, wise action and wise livelihood. The third is all about concentration and meditation (samadhi) – wise effort and wise mindfulness. Let’s check out wisdom.

1: Wise View: knowledge of the Four Noble Truths

(crying emoji!) If a clip of a half-naked Seth Rogan singing the “Age of Aquarius” is enough to lure anyone into learning more about Right View, then my work here is done. This is time well spent.

2: Wise Intention: motivation to resolve suffering – resolve, renunciation, loving-kindness

I’m not much of an Aziz Ansari fan anymore, but it’s a good clip. Apologies if that kicks anything up for anyone. I haven’t gotten around to writing up notes on supporting last weekend’s API Chaya / Project NIA training to address gender-based violence, support people experiencing harm, and support people causing harm to change. That’s a post for another time.

Right now is a chance to learn more about about the Eightfold Path! Here are a few places to start: