News from the Health Well

Once again, my favorite online message board offers a cornucopia of transformative options.

While I regularly turn to Craigslist on mornings when I’m looking for some element of local flavor and character drama with my news, I realized this morning that my tendency to gravitate immediately to “lost and found” and “missed connections” has me potentially missing some fruitful connections in a section intriguingly named “health/well.” Since one of my recent horoscopes came with strong advice to broaden my horizons, today’s news comes from the health well.

When it comes to health, you may feel less than optimal because you are not aware that some services are available. But as life coach Miguel points out, “Knowledge is key!”

With this in mind, you may want to consider these options: Plumbing plus MORE! Tarot card readings! Plus, a narcissistic recovery coach on call, prepared to cater to some very specific needs––personalized, of course, and on-demand. It’s all about you!

Feeling out of alignment with your highest self? Try Reiki. Wanting to test your alignment in general? This aerial circus personal training group may be just what you need. Now there’s a fitness session you can’t get at your run-of-the-mill gym down the street!

You may not know this, but there is someone less than thirty minutes away willing to come juice for you. Right in your own home! Unfortunately, the link wasn’t working, so I am unable to verify if such an offer is a euphemism for some not-yet-imagined service, which might be the key.

Stressed? Try a free hypnotherapy session! You can control unwanted behaviors. You can even rent this salon space and start making money. Now!

If you are thinking of being a life coach, you may want to get some headshots in order. Apparently, the ideal way to market yourself (so far, I’ve seen only male coaches in the health well) is with a neatly trimmed beard, smoky eyes, and with your collared shirt open three buttons at the top to reveal a deep V of confidence. However, if you are a woman considering the service of a coach, I suggest patience. There is currently a market surplus in this industry, and no shortage of men willing to give out this sort of thing for free to any woman not currently in the middle of a sentence. In fact, such offers are so abundant you can probably keep talking and still receive a bounty of unsolicited (and 100% free!) advice.

Want something more physical? Jon, a personal trainer, introduces himself as a “32-year-old human male.” One has to appreciate the transparency of his advertising, which includes species specification. It seems to matter to Jon not to mislead his clients by leading them to believe that he is an enthusiastic Labrador who has unlocked the fountain of youth via exercise, as some characters will do. For emphasis, he includes a photograph of himself standing on what appears to be a stage in workout attire. Jon is very tan.

But perhaps, as I am, you are having some trouble prioritizing areas of need. Fear not! There’s a one-stop-service provider that advertises energy, mood, focus, weight loss, AND mental health, all in one place! Now that is good news.

***

I suppose we all have our quirky obsessions, and this one of mine has become glaringly obvious to me since starting these posts. More craigslist-inspired posts can be found below:

Whisper Songs

Longing for the living silences.

The silent places are gone now, but––I hear–– there are these anechoic chambers accessible through three sets of thick doors, behind three layers of thick walls, with fat grey foam over every surface. It’s so quiet inside that the hiss of blood in your ears is deafening.  So quiet that if you should say something, the sound has nowhere to bounce, and what you hear will feel like needing to pop your ears in a plane.

––Too much, I think. A body wants space, too; a sense of safety within the actual, living world, without having to be in a cell.

There’s the empty concert hall. Imagine an upper corner, a blanket and pillow. In there, you won’t even hear a bomb detonating in the city outside.

It’s not the grave I want, but living silence. Not outer-space, either, with its weightlessness and no air molecules to carry the sound of a scream. Please, just no rumble of truck over grave, no mid-morning leaf-blower.

In the Hoh Rainforest, in Olympic National Park, there once was a small square inch of space not yet affected by the noise of air traffic. It may be gone now.

There are underwater caves in the Yucatan, the Kelso Dunes at twilight, the volcanic patches throughout Iceland; a blanket bog in England, a crater in Maui, parts of Alaska, Big Bend.

The salt flats of Botswana are quiet too, they say. Except that I think the image of the lost lake must pain what is already sore with loss. 

Some are trying to designate refuges where the sound of natural noise buffers the sound of machine. There’s an Urban Quiet Park outside Taipei; there is Eduador’s Zabalo River. Let us hear water noises, squirrel, wren. A church at midday during the week. The low murmur of people chatting in a café would be fine, minus the blenders, the espresso machines, the crash rumbling of trucks on the street. 

They say you can hear the blue magpie in one of these urban parks. I don’t know the sound by name. I had to look it up. They say that deep in the jungle, a canopy of leaves and mosses can make the sound of water echo all around. 

When I was small, I would sometimes curl beneath a blanket on the couch in my grandmother’s living room. She had a garden with hummingbirds and blue jays around, and she’d exclaim over the occasional cardinal. She’d be quietly moving things in the kitchen, in the sink. I would hear the shuffle of her feet, the opening and closing of drawers, cabinets, the birds outside. I would close my eyes just to feel it better, like the tickle of breeze in the late afternoon, the soft sweep of kitten fur against skin, the sudden landing of a butterfly on a nearby surface.  I would hold as still as I could, knowing that I would eventually have to leave her space, and her, and do whatever it was that the adult world demanded. This posture was not unlike the one I would hold in the car while going anywhere I did not want to go, especially school, when I would press my face against the glass as the miles moved too quickly toward the approaching noise, thinking, Shhhhhhhh.

To Beast and Man

It’s a good day to remember Mary Midgely, the English philosopher whose timely impulses moved counter to reductionism, and toward life.

It’s a good day to remember Mary Midgely, the English philosopher who was born on this day in 1919 (died October 2018).  Considering her legacy this morning, I am struck by an uncanny sense of the timeliness of her impulses against reductionism and toward a unifying understanding of human life as that which is intricately and intimately woven within and among all life on the planet.

I am refreshed by her unwillingness to separate humans or their institutions into types: “good” or “evil.” Rather, she saw evil as something that could easily take hold of individuals and their institutions when more virtuous impulses lapsed.  All that needs to happen for evil to flourish, as Midgeley saw it, was an absence of good. Where generosity falters, selfishness will fester. Where courage wavers, cowardice takes over. Where kindness stumbles, brutishness will reign. 

A supporter of the Gaia principle, Midgley recognized that inherent fallacy of attempting to separate the parts of our whole: land from creature, earth from its waters and air, human from nonhuman, nature from us. 

Disturbed by the trend of those who saw science as a solution to all problems, she warned against such foolhardy blanket optimism, and urged scientists not to neglect humanities.  Although she wasn’t religious, she saw no special evil in it, and noticed how the evils associated with religious institutions were akin to those that tend to emerge in any successful human institution.  She warned that doing away with it altogether seemed like a flip and rash response, and not necessarily beneficial. 

Regarding philosophy, she likened it to plumbing in that: Nobody notices it until it goes wrong. 

The greats, she said, noticed how badly things were going wrong, and offered suggestions about how to deal. 

Regarding the oppressive regime of optimism, she observed:

 “. . . Neither ecological nor social engineering will lead us to a conflict-free, simple path . . . utilitarians and others who simply advise us to be happy are unhelpful, because we almost always have to make a choice either between different kinds of happiness–different things to be happy about –or between these and other things we want, which nothing to do with happiness.” (from Midgley’s Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature2002).

Such a thoughtful, loving, and measured approach is most welcome now, in the age where the urge to grieve tends to run head-on into the urge to “Be Positive.” Hope can emerge from grief in ways that superficial “positivity” cannot do. The latter is too brittle to be of any use to the living, but the former is strengthened by recognition of the darkness of the moment, such that it may become the bright light in the dark room, a beacon to others, recognizing the darkness to be what writer Rebecca Solnit has called “a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave” (from Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities).

Here’s to you, Mary Midgley. Here’s to You.

Garden Notes, August

Reviewing what it takes to tend to the project of growing something in this world.

In August, remove dead heads from spent flowers, teasing new growth. Teasing new growth, harvest fig, cucumber, pepper. Watch the ants, can the beans, make notes for the next season. Give extra support to limbs heavy with fruit.

This is what you do for a garden in August, unless you are fleeing the blooming fires, unless you are fleeing what will take your life, unless the tending of your tendencies tends in other directions. Still, aren’t we all, always, tending them? Unless we are setting the fires, unless we are taking what others have grown, unless we forget, unless thoroughly spent.

It still seems useful to review what it takes to tend to the project of growing, to review the detailed list of threats that are forever angling to choke out anything that anybody tries to grow, any month of the year. It still seems useful to make note of how there they are anyway, all these gardens and these gardeners, keeping on.

Counting Losses

What hurts the most, the ones you can list or the thousands you can’t name?

Mondays are hard, with all these losses piled up against all these lingering expectations, and the sleep still in the eyes. Something is missing. Check the listings.

Why does it matter to name it? Will that bring it back? All you can do with a name is add it to a list.

That is something. Look here. Someone has arrived at their location in Lakeside with their boat still attached to the trailer, only to discover that somewhere along the way, the sail has flown out.

Meanwhile, just across town, a shepherd has fled the yard on the same day that Dozer, a best friend without a collar or a chip was taken from the motel parking lot. This near midnight, Friday night.

There are at least three new orange tabbies out there today. Plus, two huskies and a fifteen-year-old pug. 

No, that’s not it. Something else. Look somewhere else. 

Shall I tell you about the massacre of children, the holy war, the thousands dead or homeless? Or would you like to hear about what’s happening with the weather? The fires have––

Stop, no. I can’t.

On this day in 1960, a man dropped from a balloon over New Mexico, and during his fall achieved the highest speed by a human without an aircraft.

What sort of challenge is this? Who falls fastest? People will make anything into a contest.

What hurts the most, the ones you can list or the thousands you can’t name?

Let’s take a break from this line of thought. Tell me about a birth.

On this day in 1920, Charles Bukowski was born. Check this out. He wrote, “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us.”

The hope is exquisite here. As if to indicate that the act of cherishing was an antidote to loss. 

It is, in a way. Because at least you are holding it well. At least there is something there, until the moment when the floor gives out, or the hurricane strikes, or the top blows off the mountain that gave us shade in the late afternoon, raining ash on our city of light.

Here’s something else. I think you may like this one, another thing Bukowski said.

All the impossible losses, accumulating over all our cities of light, all these missing best friends and the sails gone to our boats, what is a body to do?

No, listen. I think you will like this.

What?

He said this, too. “Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning, and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside, remembering all the times you felt that way.”

Do we have coffee?

It’s brewing. It’s almost done. Just wait.

***

More in this series:

In Loving Attention

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day.

It’s easy and expected to underestimate the value of giving our full attention generously and with love. So many forces in the world can work to divide us from ourselves and each other. Plenty profit from engineering more advanced ways to do just that. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into a habit of looking where we are expected to look. Fortunately, it’s not actually that hard to do the opposite, and look with intention. Most of us just need regular reminders, that this is one of the most valuable acts we can do. 

Considering this at the start of a very full week, I am remembering how moved I was when I discovered the work of artist Marina Abramović through a video about her 2010 MoMA exhibition, The Artist is Present. Here’s a description of this installation:

“The work was inspired by her belief that stretching the length of a performance beyond expectations serves to alter our perception of time and foster a deeper engagement in the experience. Seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair, she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. Over the course of nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.”

Rebecca Taylor at smart history.org describing Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present.”

Abramović speaks about her work with trust, vulnerability, and connection in her 2010 TED talk:

Poet John Clare has written, “Poets love nature and themselves are love.” These lines can be powerful reminder for an artist in any medium. These words remind me back to back to deliberate absorption, which is very different than being absorbed into the pull of endless tasks and distractions. 

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day. The work of a generous artist, offering presence and attention, never fails to remind me back to this. As Greg Boyle, one of my favorite artists of the heart has observed, “We are here to return ourselves to one another.”

So today, my focus is on returning. Not once, but over and over again. The beauty of intentional attention is that its rewards are immediately apparent. We have only to try giving it, to be reminded back to why it matters. We have only to offer ourselves fully, to be returned.

Widening the Lens into New Dreams: Revisiting the Flying Man

I have most faith in the knowing that emerges slowly, which feels like immersion in mystery, which is unknowing.

I want to return to the flying man story that’s recently prompted me to revisit it for deeper understanding. The full version appears in yesterday’s post, but here’s a brief summary:

Man escapes fire, sits by river bank, unseeing. Woman of the river finds his wings beneath the silt of the riverbed. He enters the water, pulls them out, sets the wings on land to dry, and falls asleep. Waking, he tries on the wings and walks to a cliff above the river. He looks at the water. The woman of the river sees him, and he starts to re-dream all that is to come. She releases the breath she’s been holding, it catches his wings, and he flies.

This story has been living in me for some time, and this and other stories of flying men have returned to me this week: Icarus, fitted with the wings his father built him, escaping the labyrinth, only to fly too close to the sun and his death. Toni Morrison’s exquisite Song of Solomon, “O Sugarman done fly away / Sugarman done gone / Sugarman cut across the sky / Sugarman gone home.” In Morrison’s work, there are several men preoccupied with flight, and the women are support systems for them, via song and inspiration. I had not realized until recently how deeply these myths were embedded in me until recently. I’ve been working on some new material, and the image of the flying man returns. It brought me to revisit a story that arose organically from a brief freewriting session, summarized above, and presented in longer form in yesterday’s post. 

I was deeply affected, in my late teens, when I first encountered the mythical heartbreak of the fallen Icarus, and I have long been aware of a certain longing for flight that is a noticeable facet of our current psyche, especially in men. This longing to me seemed like a very particular response to a very diffuse and complex system that works to limit, imprison, and kill.

I suppose some of the draw, in my case, is also gendered. We learn the expectations of established roles before we learn to question them. They’re embedded in the dominant systems and stories of the moment. I realized yesterday that there was more to this flying man story than I had previously mentioned.

The shift has to do with the lens, which in this tale, focuses on a moment that begins when the man enters the vicinity of the river and ends when he flies over it. In allowing him to fly, the woman has fulfilled her purpose as prescribed by traditional norms. Additionally, because he has flown, her own attentions are freed from being consumed by the day-to-day details of his terrestrial care.  In this way it is both affirming and freeing. It makes sense that I would have become preoccupied with this myth during decades when I was preoccupied with a calling to heal that felt sometimes at odds with the space I needed to generate the energy to sustain my own life. Naturally, I was influenced by extant mythologies in the dominant stories around me, in which the ideal feminine is often tied to a sacrificial figure.  By this logic, her work is fulfilled when he flies. 

However, we tend to see through a glass darkly, and I missed a larger message, one which carries within it seeds for new understandings. It has to do with who this woman is before and after this. Even though she is called the “woman of the river” I somehow saw her waiting on the banks. Here’s the point I missed. She didn’t live at the water’s edge, but only came up there to look from time to time. She lived in the water, moving between the river and the sea. Her world is invisible from the perspective of the man, and the original story, as I read/told it, was viewed through his lens. The dominance of male lenses in storytelling is so omnipresent that it tends to be invisible, even to female storytellers. 

The stories that we tell ourselves allow us to slide through and around those places that we most need relief from. They can be a temporary salve as well as a key to a locked door. As Ben Okri writes in A Time for New Dreams, “We are constantly becoming, constantly coming into being.” In their stunning work, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People, philosopher Timothy Morton stresses the necessity of deliberate dreaming as the way for our species to imagine restorative ways forward. Dreaming into new ways of being is very different from “finding solutions” from a locus of established norms. And yet, as Morton puts it, real solutions to today’s crises can only come into being with the deep, immersive visioning that we associate with dreaming, not boardroom-oriented crisis management task forces. 

I consider the implications of this new understanding of the woman and her relationship to the flying man. I am still moved by the badly burned men always arriving at the water’s edge, and yet I am having a better sense that the capacity to heal comes from living in a place separate from the land of fire that keeps burning and imprisoning them, from which they might fly.  She lives in the river. Seeing this, I can better and more deeply understand the importance of returning to the water. There is plenty of work to do on land, but to do it, she must emerge from the river and return to it, again and again. In her story, the moments on land are brief. This is significant. In order to listen and respond most effectively and honestly to the real and immediate needs of a given day, I need to be continually immersed in the aqueous otherworld. 

I have most faith in the knowing that emerges slowly, which feels like immersion in mystery, which is unknowing. I marvel how one of the preliminary understandings drawing me to this deeper knowing was a pull I had a few days earlier, to remember the manatee, this other former land-dweller who lives in the water, this curious, non-competitive species, now endangered. They feed on abundance, these manatees, consuming a quarter of their weight a day in sea grass which are naturally plentiful in the rivers where she lives. When the natural abundance of these grasses is choked by the machinations of greed, she suffers. What is good for her is good for all of us, because we also suffer by this machine. 

Saving ourselves is not separate from saving others, human and non-human; is not separate from nurturing art, laughter, wonder, and joy. Returning to the depths of the dream worlds that allow us to see this is not separate from relief from the fires that burn us, is not separate from the need to fly. 

The Flying Man, Revisited

Reflecting on the myths we live by.

Once upon a time, there was a man who came walking from the land of fire, and he was badly burned. He sat on a rock by a cool stream and the woman of the river watched him with his shoulders stooped and she noticed how his eyes would blur so that he was not seeing the river, really, not seeing anything at all but his own broken reflection against the broken sky.


So, the woman of the river sunk her hands deep into the ancient silt of the riverbed and she pulled from this a pair of wings, and she released these into the river’s rush, and as she released the wings, she slowed the waters of the river by inhaling a deep breath, thick and musical with time, and she pulled it inside herself sharp at the edges like freezing air or smoke. She held it within her, resisting the urge to cough against the pressure.

The wings floated beneath the gaze of the man on the rock, and he bent at the banks of the river and reached one arm and then both, and then he entered the water: one leg, then both, and then he was up to his knees and then past the tops of his legs and then to the middle of his chest as he pulled on the wings. It takes more strength than anyone would think, to pull a pair of wide wings from a current, even when the current is slow. Eventually, he pulled the wings up the banks and set them on the rock where he had earlier been sitting. Panting and soaked, he had forgotten for a moment all about the land of fire from which he had escaped, and he sat and stared at the wings: large, black, and weathered, glistening beneath the dapples of sunlight pairing through the forest canopy above him. He stared at the wings as they dried and he dried as he stared at the wings, and then he fell asleep.

When the flying man woke, he picked the wings up and he noticed that they were attached to a harness that he could fit through each of his arms like a backpack, so that the wings were attached to his torso. Then, wings attached behind each step, he walked through the forest, beyond the last tree, to the base of a great mountain, and as the woman of the river watched him, he ascended the great mountains, carrying the full weight of his new wings on his back, and he walked three days and rested three nights until he reached a cliff, and there stood before a vast green valley, and as he breathed on that cliff he looked at the river running through the valley, catching sunlight. He stood, looking, and the woman of the river stood also, watching him, and after several long breaths, various cloud bands, and several movements during which he witnessed in the valley a retelling of all that he had seen before in the land of fire, and against this, a re-dreaming of all that was to come.

The woman of the river released the breath that she had been holding, and the man above her opened his winged arms, and he felt her breath through his feathers.

He felt his feet leaving the ledge and he leaned into the current of wind now lifting him above the valley, above the river, above all that he had ever known and all he had yet to see—and he flew.

***

This story was originally published in sections, embedded in a larger story, “Twilight at Blue Plate” which appeared in the August 2019 issue of Oyster River Pages. As I woke this morning, I noticed that this piece was demanding some reflection. I have recently been coming into awareness of certain understandings that appeared to me in this fairy tale before I was ready to consciously know them. It’s been my experience that stories often do this. I will be revisiting in tomorrow’s post and considering its role and possibilities in my own. It has been my experience (and I don’t think I’m unique here) that usually my reading and writing vision is a few years ahead of my conscious understanding.

I think this is true for many people. Has it ever occurred to you what stories are shaping your life? I never would have known precisely how central this flying man story was to me, except that I was in a class where we were challenged to spend fifteen minutes on the spot writing a fairy tale, and after my initial eyeroll, thinking “I don’t write fairy tales” this came out whole, in that one brief sitting. This is because it had been in me all along, as so many myths, legends and fairy tales are. In my notes this morning, I began to uncover some layers of understanding that I hadn’t been ready to see before. To share them here would make for an over-long post, so I’ll save these for tomorrow.

Perhaps you may find value in considering what myths and fairy tales are central to your life. As Joan Didion writes in The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Manatee: a Retrospective

What moved you, manatee?

This morning, when I wake tense against the noise of the coming day, knowing I’ll need to retreat from it so I can hear, I am thinking of the manatee. Of the fingernails on its flippers from when they walked on land. 

I am wondering, what moved you, manatee?

Legend has it you were a young woman, bathing at the river’s edge. Then came a hunter and you knew: better to throw your body into the water than to risk staying where you were. Since then, they watched after you, puzzled after your retreating form–– comparing it, I imagine, to their memories of other women, gone.

They call you sea cow, but watch your fluent dance: now alone, now a pair, now an aggregation, all after the same dying grasses. It’s the algae, they say, fed by runoff, blocking the light.

The mothers when the calves are born, lift them to the surface, to breathe. You will wait to breathe when needed. You will wait to breathe, when sleeping. You will not wait forever.

Your curiosity draws you to the nets. Your hunger draws you to the grasses, entanglement in fishing line. Your calves would feed beneath your flipper, except when the line chokes your milk, and they say your name comes from the word for breast.

When you can’t get warm, there are lesions on your flippers like frostbite. On the surface of the water, you sigh rather than breathe. Do you whisper, too? You must have known the hunter once. How else could you know when to leave the land? 

What did you know, daughter of the river, before you entered, and where are we supposed to go now?

Against Forgetting

How do you resist the monster that would have you forget your purpose in creating?

Against forgetting, give water to the plant

and notice the light in a stranger’s eye

––and the shadows. 

Notice the work still waiting, against

what would have you close your eyes,

surrendering time, white flag waving

for a moment before it falls like a sheet

over the sleeping body, like a sheet

over the dead.

I’d lose my head, The old women would say, 

If it wasn’t attached, as if to remind us to

hold the tether to what was less securely 

attached; as if to say, you’ll lose your life

if it isn’t attached, by the substance

of a series of tiny actions like clay around

the whisper-thin thread of your otherwise

invisible dreams.

Against forgetting, say to the child unsure

how to begin, Here, and hold out a hand

and keep mealtimes. Against forgetting,

extend an invitation to the table, 

to those cast out, disposed of,

dispossessed. This includes the children

before you and the ones made invisible

and the ones you once were.

To say, I see you, Here 

we are and remember.

To notice the little bird in the low branch,

to say its name and listen for its response

to what you have not said. To walk in

the desert, in the dark, with water and

with light.

“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”

-James Baldwin, from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times

This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, on the monster that wants us to forget.