ORIGIN 1990s: shortening of weblog.
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(This essay also appears at www.onbeing.org)
When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.
John Muir, Travels in Alaska
On February 14, 1990 astronomer Carl Sagan made a request for the Voyager 1 space probe reverse its camera and take one last photograph of our planet Earth before leaving the Solar System on its way toward interstellar space. A sweet and loving Valentine’s Day gesture.
The image, a tiny pixel-sized dot amidst the blackness of space, was taken from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers, approximately 3 .7 billion miles away, and is part of the NASA’s Family Portrait series. Pale Blue Dot, the image is called—our Earth, one little dewdrop among many, dangling in space—our precious daily jewel.
This year we celebrate the 46th Earth Day. All but a handful of countries will once again honor this international day of peace and environmental protection. Despite religious and political differences across our planet, despite continued clashes in the name of fundamentalism, people of all faiths will be called to celebrate our shared home, Mother Earth.
This means that while we gather in the United States to reflect upon our human relationship with the Earth, the people in Iran, for example, will be holding a similar focus. We share the same environmental issues: water scarcity, climate change, population growth, urban development, CO2 emissions, nuclear safety, resource depletion, pesticide drift, and the list goes on. How then, should we celebrate Earth Day, given the issues we face together as Earth’s children?
A member of my family is leaving the earth soon. Grandmother, in my personal family portrait series.
I sit on the bed next to her photo albums and stacks of newspaper clippings. A Polish woman in her early nineties, my grandmother has recently been transferred from the hospital to an assisted living facility after undergoing surgery for cervical cancer. She sits with her feet up in the reclining chair. Cold air blows from the central cooling duct above her head, fluttering her thin brown hair.
It’s summer in Minnesota and the flamingo-pink roses are spilling their petals across the sun-baked sidewalks. Even though it’s 99 degrees with 89 percent humidity, I long to take her outside, to push the recliner straight toward the service elevator, down and out to the street where the real heat of summer can be felt, maybe even scorned, but at least experienced.
Instead, I gather rose petals from the sidewalk and bring them to her room, arranging them on the table in two circles, five pink petals in each one.
“This circle is me, Grandma. And this circle is you.”
I have always done things like this, just a little out of the norm, gestures of my connection with nature. While my grandmother is used to this, she doesn’t say anything in response to the action.
For years, decades even, my grandmother has spent most of her time inside her home, where she’s lived widowed for thirty-seven years. For as long as I can remember, the shades have been drawn down tight in every room. When she does go outside it’s to be driven by one of her children to the beauty salon or the doctor’s office. And sometimes in summer my aunt takes her to the cabin on Platt Lake, where she sits in her soft peach skin on a plastic deck chair. Maybe by the water’s edge memories of her girlhood come back to her? Those days in summer on her cousin’s farm, seventeen years old, standing under tall trees, body bathed in sunlight?
To live looking out of windows. To live inside a home. At a computer screen. In front of a television. In an air-conditioned apartment in an air-conditioned city. Curtains down tight.
How many people spend this kind of time indoors beyond their maximum sense of serenity? To work a job? To gather data in a laboratory? To live in some place affordable? How separate from nature can we allow ourselves to become, tucked inside behind walls, with heaters, with air conditioners, with climate-controlled vehicles? How long can our memory of our past encounters with the natural world sustain us, and at what cost?
Oftentimes when I am pressed against my laptop screen for hours I forget to notice my body, my yard, the trees and river beyond my house.
And then I go outside, and I’m overcome in reverie at the return to nature I experience. Again. Nature, and its limitless festival of graces. The seasons, the sounds, the sensations in response to it, and all the subtle and sensual pulsations from within that confirm I am a part of this Pale Blue Dot, this Earth I am made of.
As an undergraduate student at the University of Alaska in Juneau I read John Muir’s The Yosemite, Travels in Alaska, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. These texts supported and inspired my desire to spend many waking hours hiking around the mountains and glaciers of the Tongass National Forest.
I wrote letters home, mailed with the tiny paintings I had made while exploring the forests and muskegs of Alaska’s Inside Passage. I sent letters to my grandmother, too, that must have survived for a time in the archives of her home because of her Great Depression ethos. What quotes did these letters contain written in the hand of an earth-inspired youth? What sort of earth-centered altruisms did I share with my grandmother, a devout Polish Catholic, as though to create a portal through which she might see me?
And through which portal might I see her, standing at a distance as we did, like two distinct nations, separated by generations containing historical events and trends that have shaped our outlook on the world?
In 2001, to finish my undergraduate education, I moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, a quiet boreal forest town on the edges of pristine wilderness. At the time Fairbanks seemed much more conservative than my native Minnesota. I remember overhearing a man at the Fred Meyer grocery store saying in conversation with a clerk, “It’s my God given right to throw my glass bottles in the trash if I want to!”
And then on Earth Day 2001, one of the Baptist churches in town displayed their signboard to read “If the earth is your mother, then you’re mother is a dirtball!”
This made an impression on me. Who was this message for, and what was it meant to suppress? I most certainly loved the earth—isn’t that why so many people yearned to experience Alaska, Yukon, and similar wilderness expanses? Has any one of us actually experienced a life separate from the Earth?
Why would this essential relationship necessarily threaten our relationship with God, the Divine, Great Spirit—the Sacred Mystery of Life?
When I got married in my early twenties my husband and I used Wendell Berry’s words in our wedding program, at my insistence:
“And there at camp we had around us the elemental world of water and light and earth and air. We felt the presence of the wild creatures, the river, the trees, the stars. Though we had our troubles, we had them in true perspective. The universe, as we could see any night, is unimaginably large, and mostly empty, and mostly dark. We knew we needed to be together more than we needed to be apart.”
Afterwards my grandmother said, “I thought you could have used a verse from scripture instead."
In The Yosemite, John Muir writes another kind of scripture, a scripture honoring earth and one man’s first hand experience with it: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
I believe this natural place of play and prayer is something that my grandmother and I shared from our childhoods. All the same, these are things I do not say to her before she passes away. I do not tell her how my deepest sense of the spiritual is fostered by things like the simplicity of rose petals. She does not ask me to explain my relationship with God. I do not ask her to see me or understand me.
Instead, I move closer to her. I touch her. I hold her head with cupped palms. I hold her feet. I feel the life force in her body yet in form. She closes her eyes, resting in her own internal wilderness, her Being-ness. She rests. I wait. I watch. I pray.
Over the years I have admired John Muir because he said things that reached beyond our cultural and religious structures, he said things that acknowledged the “spiritual” in the natural world: “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”
I wonder, who has stood between two living trees and not felt a sentient presence there?
Muir said, with a more opinionated stance, “The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.”
Who has not felt some delicate aspect of their natural Being-ness suppressed or repudiated by the large hands of Culture?
On this year’s this Earth Day, wherever you are, be it the city or the suburbs or the countryside, go for a walk in your natural Being-ness.
Be it stormy, cold, or clear skies, be it that you are busy, or unhappy, or joyful, or questioning—wherever you are inside yourself—go outside onto the Earth and move in the plentitude of air.
Let the Earth touch you, as she has touched the children of this planet for millions of years. Invite the feeling of our unity as a human species.
Come closer to some element of the natural world. Touch a person, a pet, a tree. Choose to extend love to whatever wild part of life shows itself to you.
To celebrate the beauty of the Earth, stand at the doorway between two pines where a world of play and prayer is happening simultaneously. This is the space of celebrating Earth Day together. Can we rejoice in this sustenance, for the living and the dying, for the grandmother nearing her death, and for the new children—plants, animals, insects, humans—being born?
After all, Carl Sagan, who knew how to perceive the universe from such great distances said, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Winter has fled by, a deep rivulet, subterranean. So much dreaming with so many characters, spirits, ghosts, friends, allies, beloveds.
These past months I have deliberately scaled back my working hours (on the bodywork front, see: www.biopoetics.com) and hunkered down at home in my writing loft, the nest built by my partner Andrew in the little house here off the high road to Taos, New Mexico.
The fire has been warming the adobe walls. Books have come out of boxes and off of shelves, at last. Late nights and early mornings of writing. Naps by the river in the still warm winter sun. The voices of daughters and many stories written and shared.
Thank you to everyone who has reached out these past months, for your loving kindness and support. With spring almost here, what might happen next?
An ongoing theme in my writing is authenticity. How do we become what we were meant to become?
I have had to sort through my opinions, opinions being generated by the culture around me. Right in the middle of being domesticated something restless stirs. Sitting around at the table and talking about work, some imagines and attitudes creep in and then the domestic mask shows itself. Choose to take off the mask. Take the mask right off, yous and yous and me. Let's be real.
Choices. We have the power to choose. To choose what to think and believe. I have children. How do I teach them about choices? How do I teach myself?
So the other day I talked to this woman with the words "fuck love" tattooed on her neck. I was driving afterwards and I had a clairvoyant thought about what cynicism actually is. Cynicism versus questioning: how it's possible to question from a distorted place in the Self. (In case you were wondering, I am CONSTANTLY asking questions).
It seemed as though this woman's tattoo "fuck love" contained a question, tattooed right under her neck, about where the hyoid bone lies beneath the skin and connective tissue. The throat chakra. As if to say, "Are you going to try to talk to me, mister? Don't, because I've already made up my mind about love." I felt compassion for this woman, seeing as I remember the feeling of having my heart all smashed to pieces and thinking I would never recover. I recovered. I've dropped the cynicism about love. I've spent some time in my poetry recovering the word "fuck" for my own sensual, sacred purposes. "Fuck" is actually a good word. Any word, renovated from its negative usage can become a "good" word, a cleaned up, healed structure within which to place something special, a feeling, for example.
"Love," maybe love was the word that this young woman wanted to question. Maybe I'll choose right now to see that she was (I'm telling the story here, after all) questioning the word love. Maybe she was preparing to speak about love. To love. With love. And that's why she had it tattooed right there on her neck.
Thanks to NPR for featuring this short essay of mine on the On Being blog. I've been a longtime fan of what used to be called Speaking of Faith, and happy to have a voice amongst such good people. Click here to read.
And thanks to my beautiful partner Andrew Hunt for taking such sweet photographs.
Check out their other program podcasts & other blog contributors at www.onbeing.org. Thoughtful, quality, life-enhancing stories.
Do you remember being a child and experiencing a hum of feeling through the house, whatever specific house in whatever specific place you grew up in, of the people around you,
what they were thinking and the corresponding emotions? Did you step into a room once and hear, through feeling, what was left unspoken?
How did you stand, then, in relationship to that hum of feeling? How do you stand, now, in relationship to that hum? What does it mean to feel? And, what are emotions?
As a writer and healing artist--as a Human--I am endlessly studying the remarkable phenomenon of our emotional power, how it comes and what happens when it does. I study the Human stories we have about emotion. The myths and religions of emotions. The economics of emotions. It is this or that. It is a colossal mistake to let your emotions dictate your decisions. Or, It's a colossal mistake to block yourself from feeling your emotions. etc.
We have the power of the verb, "to feel"--to have an interaction or experience with someone or something. I touch things. To allow communication between me and the earth. A tree. The wind. Another person. The sun on my skin. I feel sometimes as if a seemingly inanimate object was inviting me to come closer (the truth is that I don't believe anything is inanimate). I feel in my body. A felt-sense. A knowing. A sense of relationship. A peace or agitation. And then an emotion arrises.
Sometime we move too fast to acknowledge our feelings and emotions with any awareness. Often we move too fast. Often we are in rush hour, or trying to make it to work on time, taking the kids here or there. Bolting off to make be somewhere on time.
And then sometimes we are at the grocery store, waiting in line. We just are. We find some natural way, as if giving ourselves permission, to be present without the restraint of impatience. I imagine we all have this deep well of presence, we all have the capacity to be here now, not through our brain's processing the industry of thought in our heads, but through experiencing the hum of feeling around us.
What is this hum, and should it have a name? Is it latent with some specific meaning? Does your awareness of such a hum imply compassion? Unity? Community? Do some of you think my questions are pure fluff, simply comments upon non-exisitant forces? Or as a fellow Human can you own your capacity with feeling and emotions? Or lack thereof?
What is feeling a tool for?
This hum, a kind of music for Human motion. For growth. For learning. For interconnection.
"The scientist does not randomly choose a specific discipline or speciality, but is drawn to a particular field by a complex of subjective experiences and encounters, many of which unfold far from the laboratory and its rarefied atmosphere."
Someone asked recently if they could interview me about my time as an apprentice of the Delicate Lodge Teachings. I said thank you and turned down the interview, but I do have a few things
to say on the subject.
These teachings came to me at a time when I was remembering my spiritual sense-of-self. I was in graduate school studying poetics and alternative healing modalities. I was dancing and reading a lot. I was looking for myself in the poetics of language, in the process of communication (communion through words) and through the magical quality of healing that comes when one focuses upon beauty and design in the human body and in nature. I was seeking myself through that which animates and affirms life simultaneously. Poems. Dance. Touch. Prayer. Nature. Laughter. Community.
After studying different spiritual traditions, all of which are essentially poetic in their structure, I found what was called the Origin Teachings of the Delicate Lodge. I knew in our first ceremony, a small gathering of women on the rocky shores of Lake Superior, that I was being offered something comprehensive, something that could contain every other spiritual notion I had thus far encountered. Wisdom feels pure and innate when it reaches us. Whenever we feel touched by wisdom we are simultaneously touched by a universal hand. A collective energy. A sensation of bell-clarity arrives. A knowing of the unknowable. It's as if a breath of clean air has drifted from high in the ancient mountains down to our lungs, here now, in the present moment. With one breath we feel the renewed articulation of Truth.
The Sikh’s call their religion the one universal religion. The Buddist and Daoists express a similar sentiment. The Christians say "God is Love." A universal quality can be found in all spiritual lineages, these rivers of information where one encounters the "Truth." When you come upon a model of Truth—be it in a poem, in the words of a yoga teacher, in the voice of a vibrant and connected child, in an ancient text, or in a serendipitous sign—you feel it deeply. It reaches you. You are touched. Changed. And what is true for you is not necessarily true for me. And what is true for you now might not be true for you in a year. Or five years. Or ten years. And for me, great spiritual structures can endure the shifting and changing perspectives of our inexorable human questioning.
I found an aspect of my truth in the Medicine Wheel teachings--so much so that I decided to embark upon a ten year journey to study the teachings, apprenticing with WhiteEagle Woman Sterling, a Keeper of the Delicate Lodge lineage, to more fully embody the wisdom I found there. As an apprentice, I sought to live the teachings fully in my daily life. With my family. With my community. With the natural elementals around me. With every thought and breath I sought to take the wisdom more deeply into my being. I woke daily with a spiritual focus.
Last year I left my apprenticeship and many people have asked why. Because I trust this: my heart said I needed to move on. One of my teachers during this time said, "Always follow your heart, no matter what anyone else says!" So simple and Hallmark-cardish. Simple and brilliant and true. How do we make sense of the comprehensiveness of the heart's message in moments when not all the information has presented itself? While there were very personal things that happened for me in the months leading up to my decision to leave, there were also mysterious elements and messages that came during that time that I have not surmised the total meaning of yet. I am still gestating what I felt, sensed, and dreamed about during that time.
I am a writer. A poet and non-fiction writer, and I share transparently about my life in many forums. But to share about my decision to leave my apprenticeship, now, while I am still coming to understand my own learning ground would be a dishonor to the creative process that I am in. It would be making-up-a-story-to-make-other-people-happy. A pretense. Dear Reader, I offer no pretenses to make life more comfortable. Snakes digest their prey without haste. Anything sustainable grows slowly. I am still ruminating upon the nuances of what happened for me, what activation of self-authority occurred that made me turn suddenly to embark upon a different, more authentic path. Nonetheless, thank you for your questions, your care and concerns. Thank you for your love. Thank you for the years or moments of relationship that have passed between us. A dear friend recently said, "I'm starting to think that relationship is God." This rings true for me. This is the context of everything I do and write. (So more on that soon...)
The ultimate apprenticeship is always with one's self-authority. The apprenticeship that we can all claim for ourselves is the intimate conversation we are in with Life itself. All the designs of nature are reeling through our daily experiences. In sorrow or happiness the wisdom is huddling around us. We live in a net of universal wisdom whether we are awake or asleep to it, or hungrily seeking it. Our opportunity to speak directly to "God" is always upon us, as though to our shirt collar is pinned a live microphone, and the Divine is sitting here with us, ready to ask the next question in a life-long interview.
I offer this to you, Life--my most current and enthusiastic reply.
I recently offered a biodynamic craniosacral session to a friend who was visiting New Mexico.
She asked me why I seemed so ignited, so full of grace, so alive with inspiration. I remarked that I could remember times in life when I was not exactly ignited, even though I've generally lived with the spark of creating (what it means to be a "poet" in etymological terms, after all), and that these times of known-misery had provided the ground upon which I today am able to savor and evenly return to inspiration as a priority.
In other words, the discomfort of misery can inspire one to move past the misery.
And then, how does one become ignited?
Oh, the enumerated poets and artists who have been engulfed by the flames of inspiration! And also, scientists, mathematicians, mothers, fathers, nuns, school teachers, engineers, lovers, comedians, wine connoisseurs, small business owners, pilots, tattoo artists and the list goes on and on.
In my travel today, touching lines on a cool stone in the REI parking lot, and then sitting down there to watch the tree shadows on buildings delivering a sense of warmth to the surroundings, like a returning season giving fair warning.
The steps: to stop, and be. And breathe. And ignore haste. And touch something.
And be receptive.
Being willing to see.
To see the substance of life as an "as-is" thing. Not the label on a clothing item describing its torn or improperly sewn hem, but the "is-ness" of life. Grit. Mar. Texture. Smell. Etc. And also, the impression received by the poet. In the body. The heart.
Poetic Receptivity: to become ignited while being receptive to becoming ignited! To make one's mind into a flammable material.
Friend, set yourself alight, on no uncertain terms, with the flames of your most inspired thoughts, words, or deeds. Be like the sun, stapled so high in the sky, supplying a season of warmth to all those who dare to receive you!
What are we talking about here? At the airport, letting the ticket agent know that I have some rare minerals in my suitcase? A formal announcement of some decision I've made? A legal statement before a court of law?
Let's talk for a minute about the declarations that come (or came, past-tense) in the transcendent clarity of our youth.
Here we are with the word, "declaration": ORIGIN late Middle English: from Latin declaratio(n-), from declarare‘make quite clear’ (see declare). Here I am, with a six-year-old daughter who declares that she WILL NOT, under any circumstance, hit her sister back when she's been big-sister pushed/hit/kicked etc. "I want to create peace in our world, mom," she says.
When I was five years old I remember declaring to myself that I WOULD NOT use drugs or alcohol when I grew up. Save for a few moments of peer pressure and curiosity (that I can count on one hand), this declaration has been clear and true for me.
In the past year someone said to me "Children of alcoholics learn how not to trust themselves." Some kind of beam of light shined into my mind at hearing this. I slipped the statement into my mouth. I chewed it. Tasted it fully. I had some changes to make to hear my heart properly. To trust, myself. A declaration was made, by me, in the deep dark night under the frighteningly luminous stars.
I will follow my heart absolutely, I said, out loud, in the expansive winter void.
When making a declaration we take out our inner map. We lay it on some sturdy surface. We say, "Here, right here. That's where I'm going, come hell or high water."
The declaration becomes a Journey.
Epic. Challenging. Uncomfortable. Sublime. Necessary. Inevitable.
Where are you heading, Reader? Fellow Traveler?
What declarations are waiting to be made, heard, witnessed, or acknowledged?
Find someone who cares and "make quite clear" where you're going next. Or share it here, in this inspired space, where success is measured by the instrument of the human heart.
This poem lifts me to remember the miraculous underpinnings of seemingly ordinary encounters. As per "Our Interconnection Saves & Inspires."
from "The Angel Poems"
by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke
Scattered Letters of Penelope: New & Selected Poems
Graywolf Press 2009
If in nature Being becomes secure
and ceases to whirl about,
if it conceives of change without moving,
the angel will raise frame high
and the image will spread out like a rug
and transport us.
Translated by Kimon Friar
Someone is about to save your life. Someone is crafting their day or their evening to be in the right place at the right time--to help you. What is it that you need? Do you seek to be inspired? Held? Praised? Do you seek to learn? If you seek learning you will find someone somewhere who appears as the Angel with a crystalline lesson. Do you seek clarity? Someone will arrive and offer a clear mirror. How do Angel's save us? We are these Angels, for one another. A friend calls and says, "I think your business is going to be successful; I have good feelings about this." A sister writes, "I send the Big Love to you." I am lifted. Someone is about to save your life. Open your heart and receive.
I pawed the ground. My life had changed, dramatically. There was no one to tell me what to do, and no one giving hints. Except that everything was a hint. My husband left. I wanted him to leave. I loved him. Or, there was love between us, liquid and vital as love is, but there was no dance. No inter-play. We wanted different things. I was studying spirit, that is, the thing-ness that makes our universe tick. And he was, well. It doesn't matter what he was.
Eight years ago I was skiing on a frozen lake at night, deep in the northwoods. My husband then was inside the little cabin feeding the wood stove and watching our little girl Ava, not yet a year old. Each night when he returned home with his parents from work (for it was their cabin and their hospitality that created an environment for sweet disequalibrium in me) I would bundle up from head to foot, and ski over the deserted lake to the white pine crowned island and beyond. Me. My breath. The shrewd darkness of subzero winter night. The north slanting wind. And words.
We're all in some kind of conversation with the restless inspiration-ready universe. We call it different things. Some call it a "career." Some call it "thought" or "idea." I call it "the conversation" I am having with every sliver and shard of life, moment by moment, if I can muster the presence, and I do. Often. And in this conversation I am listening a lot of the time. Hearing what people are saying, synchronistically, in proximity to me. Seeing what kinds of signs are showing up. What the birds say in their dash through air above the parking lot. What news appears streaming through the radio. A book someone recommends. The voices of my daughters channeling ancient wise advice ("Mom, don't take it so personally," Ava, age 8, remarking upon my frustration with my laser jet printer).
So as I was saying, skiing across the lake, I heard a voice that said, "Meridian, you don't need to worry about that..." and "Meridian, keep going, don't turn back just yet..." and "Meridian, we love you and support you."
In the creative world we all hear voices. Elizabeth Gilbert, famed author of Eat, Pray, Love says that we cannot be fully responsible for everything that comes to us through our writing, through our creative life. We are "sourced" by other means, beyond our limitations of ego and identity and daily thought-patterns. Art comes from a muse, from something bigger than us.
And so, when I heard a voice speaking to me and calling me "Meridian" I stopped where I was on the ice, where a week earlier I had watched, with adrenaline skipping and rattling through my body-system, a timber wolf chasing a deer across the lake under the nearly full moon's light, and said, out loud, "Who? Me?"
And I heard, "Yes, Meridian. You."
It stuck. The name. I skied the entire length of the lake, white shimmer of snow under the quarter waning moon. I pushed hard against the north wind. I returned to the cabin and everyone was sleeping. I brought my notebook to the living room and wrote under the small light above the kitchen sink. I spelled m-e-r-i-d-i-a-n in a notebook.
That night I dreamed about watersheds. The flow of water over the earth. I saw a map of where the basins meet. A perfect accurate map of the way water spills and spreads across our planet Earth. A hint.
I took the name, as if into my mouth. Tasted the implication. Felt the dance of new sound in my mind. My ego said, "What the hell?" My muse said, "Yes, Meridian."
And so it was, that in the midst of these changes. Divorce. Leaving my apprenticeship. My name changed me. And so I changed it consciously. A act of dancing with what is mysterious. What has always called me forward from beyond.
I have loved who I have been as Stephanie. She was a sweet curious thing. But I cannot pretend to know what will become of my commitment to listen to the muse. I am not a material all of my own making. Life is making me too. The night is crafting me. Words are heroes and heroines helping me to surrender to what wants to happen.
If you listen closely, maybe some new sound or word calls to you in a name you think is not your own. A poetic call, leaning into you from the night air and whispering to the "you" who is becoming. This is one way that a name can change.
(Thank you, Stephane N. Johnson, for the beautiful journey in sound and identity.)