I teach middle school, y’all. These kids are full of energy and potential action; they need to be actively taught how to deal with life’s travails, not taught to avoid all discussion of the Big Issues like religion and politics, as my generation was. The way to do this is NOT to show them footage of horrifying things and shame them for not caring enough. (I learned this the hard way). It is to give them ways to engage with tough information, then show them ways to direct their frustrations and energies in constructive rather than chaotic ways.
Karneval/Fastnacht in Germany is like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with some differences. Each year I show the kids highly amusing and disrespectful parade floats that question the justice of certain political actions. ( I left out the really inappropriate ones. ) We talked about roasts, and the political function of having one day when people even as rule-bound as the Germans could say what they wanted, even if it was pretty disrespectful to authority figures, in the spirit of good fun, and honest artistic expression. ( and not get in trouble.) If you are interested in these floats, google “Rosenmontag Mottowagen” and you’ll see pictures of them. Some are crass, some are depressing, some are twisted, some are hilarious, and some are all four. Yay German dark humor!
For our celebration on Friday (late, I know, but I don’t want to party on Tuesday and try to go back to normal the rest of the week!) students will present a piece of art , poem, song, or slideshow that illustrate either something they learned about Karneval, or some injustice they wanted to protest against. Obviously, this is a fine line to walk! I make it very clear that it must be protesting or highlighting a specific event or action, NOT randomly caricaturing a politician or person you don’t like.
Last year, a bright, attentive, respectful, cooperative student asked if she could stage a protest against daily reading time. (15 minutes of silent reading time per day) I told her of course, it was freedom of speech, and so she prepared an excellent little miniature float, mounted on a remote-controlled car, protesting Daily Reading Time. As a result, I negotiated with her class, and we got reading time down to 10 minutes a day 🙂
In case you don’t know, the girl in the Mottowagen pictured is Greta Thunberg, the swedish teenager who has become a spokesperson for the youth environmental movement in Sweden, Germany, England, and other parts of Europe. She is a big deal. I like to teach my students about how kids are taking leadership roles.
from facebook, February 15, 2017
After decades of struggle with depression, I have spent the past year coming into a sense of personal peace. I felt for many years that I was standing on a tiny, shrinking island of safety in a boiling tar pit of nothingness. I was unconsciously holding onto my privileged, unrealistic delusions from childhood, and the cognitive dissonance was destroying me. I was trying to escape from everything and everyone, thinking that if I could just stop the stressors, I could be safe from the Nothing. One beautiful day last spring I took a long lunch and went to the botanical garden, thinking “Escape! I am free! Just me and nature. I can have an hour of peace!” But the peace did not come. I realized then that the Nothing was inside me, not outside, and that the only thing to do was hold my breath and step into the tar pit.
Once I stepped off my island I began to understand that it was never an island at all, but a small, cramped, dirty dome of denial, and the tar pit was really an endless sunlit landscape. Stepping into the fear, facing all that reality, was an excruciating process, but it allowed me to see all the heartbreakingly beautiful things as well, all that had been obscured by the Nothing. Now there is so much sunlight and dazzling complexity, and I can rejoice in all the wonders I have yet to learn, rather than fearing what knowledge may do to me.
The root of this peace is just sitting with the awareness that NOTHING is guaranteed, that feeling entitled or taking things for granted are foolish and dangerous delusions, and that the ability to truly feel gratitude is the sweetest grace we can hope for. Once the gratitude takes up residence in your heart instead of the fear, you have way less time for petty bitterness, dissatisfaction, and blame games, because you see that being on the planet at all is a blessing, and that working to help others is the rent we should all be happy to pay for living here.
The quote below by Tim Wise is the truest thing I have read today. I see now that this is why so many black folks I know were not shrieking, useless, privileged panic monkeys like I was when Trump won the election. My friends were not pleased, but they were also definitely not surprised. They see.
“It is long past the time when white men are going to have to learn something that folks of color have always known: nothing is certain and nothing can be taken for granted; life is about change and disruption. And the minute you get comfortable and sleep on the way the world works, is the minute you go under. The privilege of not having to KNOW that — and a long damned time ago — is what has so many white folks shook right now.”
In an episode of the Simpsons, Lisa is trying to figure out why the bully, Francine, attacks some victims and ignores others. Through a series of experiments she finds that Francine does, in fact, smell fear, and then attacks her nerdy prey as a hawk would.
As a middle school teacher, I can attest to the truth of this. Bullies can smell fear like sharks smell blood in the water. Bullies are needy humans; what they need, first and foremost, a sense of self-worth, so they don’t have to suck the blood of others to get it.
I can sniff that we are a bit.. off….when myself or my husband or son are coming down with something, as I am sure many moms regularly do.
Humans, like all other complex creatures, are equipped with pheromones that signal to others our basic emotions. Fear, anger, sadness…we rub off on each other.
Trained animals can sniff out people in the early stages of cancer.
Babies separated from their mothers can easily choose their mom’s scent from an array of t-shirts worn by different (unperfumed) women.
Like other creatures, we are meant to fully experience the emotion, act on it, share it with others, try to resolve the situation, then once it is resolved, or deemed unresolvable, move on to business as usual. I saw a dog get hit by a car. Not seriously injured, he run off to the side of the road, shook and ran around in crazy circles for a while (shake it off, shake it off) and then trotted off at a normal gait. If we don’t practice our ability to de-escalate our feelings like this, we store up the emotions and they get all swirled and confused inside us, sometimes making situations seem worse than they are.
Our bodies and emotions are designed for us to live in small, non-anonymous groups. It is really hard to cheat or rip someone off if you live in the same community with them, and have to look them in the face. It’s hard to lie or bully someone when you have to face them, and face the consequences of your actions. Our legalistic, anonymous, not-my-problem system makes it a whole lot easier because if the evidence comes down to the words that “he said, she said”, then it is often impossible to make a fair judgment. If compassionate others are there, watching, present, it is much harder for the truth to be obscured.
The trouble is that in our culture,we don’t get very close to each other, and we and are inordinately grossed out by body odors, so we don’t make it our business to sniff people. We don’t want to be involved in other people’s sh*t.
One result of this lack of sniffing is that people have a lot harder time understanding each other. As I have noted before, words often fail to communicate. English especially is imprecise; it is very hard to say exactly what you mean, and even harder to get someone to understand it exactly how you meant it. Especially if one or more parties are angry, which causes words to become bombs, whether bombs of truth or bombs of lies with the intent to harm. It is much easier to misunderstand someone if you cannot sniff out their motivation.
And that in turn makes it a whole lot easier to lie to cover your own butt,and to get people to believe your lies. If you have enough money and social capital to spray rosy perfume all over your actions, people just walk on by like your sh*t doesn’t stink.
The writing prompt in my middle school class one day was ;”Write about a time when lying might be the right thing to do. ” I was thinking I would get stuff like “when my mom asks if the dress makes her look fat, I say no”
The truth was that nearly every single kid reported about lying to get out of trouble. Some of them wrote about “my friend…” when I could tell it was a thinly veiled confessional. Even the kids you’d never think. If the school or the home is set up to where the kid is afraid to tell the truth, because he knows he will be punished for it, then a double standard is prevailing. The kid knows how to pretend to be, in order to not get punished. I see this over and over with seasoned bullies, who quietly needle the nerdy,weird, or minority kid while teacher isn’t looking. In the hall, at lunch, while teacher’s hawklike attention is elsewhere. Then, in the middle of class, the nerdy kid breaks, yelling at his sneaky attacker, and gets in trouble, because he is the one making noise when the teacher turns around, and the bully by then is angelically staring at the board. Over and over we reward lying. We reward keeping the peace. We reward not speaking out. We reward sneakiness, because we can’t prove anything.
This happens with policemen too. Cops get played by rich folk pinning crimes on lower-class people who make scenes instead of keeping the peace. Cops stuck between rocks and hard places, needing the conviction to keep their job and their reputation. Like in True Detective episode 3, where the crime is pinned variously on lower-class folk; is it the native-american guy? the black-guy with the weird eye? The drunk guy who might be gay? The long-haired teen with the death metal shirt on? Takes a long time to get to the guy who has money to pay these people off, or have them offed.
If you assume the worst from children, or if you assume perfect abstract blanket adherence, rather than a series of mistakes that need forgiveness in order to progress, kids will comply in the only ways they can. Instead of learning how to be an honest, trusting, and trustworthy person, they will learn how to look for loopholes to get ahead and not get caught.
What can we do to help kids not practice being loophole seekers? To seek truth and to be truthful, rather than “play the system?”
Love them how they are. Encourage the truth, even when it hurts. Help them dispel the idea that anyone can be totally good or totally bad, and help them to see themselves and everyone else as works in progress.
Get close to people. Look them in the face. Smell them. Of all our fallible senses, smelling lies the least.
Smell you later.
March 2, 2019
some of my students were calling each other ghetto yesterday
a flow of words coming through the door
scrutinizing hair and clothing for signs of poverty
then we watched Lion , and they saw the ghettos of Calcutta
they asked why people washing clothes in the river
why that boy wore the same thing every day
and I told them how so many people don’t have running water
hundreds of people bathing, pooping, washing clothes, all in that same river
and my students’ flow of words slowed.
When I got home the water was out
workers digging through the street up the block
water flowing down my street like a river
I cooked rice with bottled water
and woke up to no shower and no place to poop
that meme says you value every drop of water
once you’ve had to carry it yourself
but for how long?
How do I hold this gratitude
for my hoarded emergency plastic water bottles
and the bathroom at the coffee shop up the street past the water main break?
How long will our water systems hold up?
When will they be just broken aqueducts like the ones in Rome?
water cannot be hoarded as easily as money or power
it is living and wants to flow down or evaporate up
whether floodstage or drought
we can corral but not tame it
it runs us
March 1, 2019
Your attention is valuable. Yes, you. There is someone in your life today who would really value your listening ear or undistracted eye; someone you can learn from.
I met an interesting older gentleman today at the coffee shop. He talked of his mother, who he calls a queen of Kinloch. She died sixteen years ago. He was wearing a warm hat and nice glasses. He is gay. He is diabetic and has a number of other ailments. He showed me his medications in his backpack. He said that the doctor said he needed to take better care of himself, and he explained calmly and rationally that if the doctor were to trade places with him for one month, and live homeless, that he might understand why it is harder for a person to take care of himself living on the street. He said does not like to ask for money. He said he asks around for odd jobs to do, to earn food. He said he has asked every preacher and pastor and priest he can find for an honorable way to earn money.
He is not used to people looking him in the eye. I looked him in the eye and listened to all he had to say. I told him that I agreed with him, that if we could have some sort of exchange program, to force people to live the life of a homeless person for one month before returning to luxury and comfort, then people might see that they do actually live in luxury and comfort, even if they are dissatisfied with their small house or crappy job. I told him about a facebook friend of mine from elementary school recently evicted from her home, and how she and I talked about how everyone (except the super-wealthy) is just one major health crisis away from financial disaster. He listened, surprised to hear me say these things.
Security is the great American Golden Calf, y’all. No one has true financial or bodily security, because we are all mortal; you can’t take it with you. It is the great lie than our money-driven fear-driven security-obsessed culture teaches; that your security is your God-given right. Nope. No sacred text says “certain people deserve and are guaranteed lifelong financial security and health”, but rather, something more along the lines of “some are lucky, and to whom much is given, much is expected.”
We don’t want to look at unhoused people because they make us doubt our American-advertising-instilled “right” to financial security. Their existence makes us uneasy in the gut. The truth is, he equally as human as I am, despite any mistakes he or I might have made, or the hand of cards we have each been dealt. He knows I cannot save him from his troubles. He wasn’t asking me to. He just wanted me to look him in the eye and value him as a person.
When I first moved to St. Louis, I was not used to homeless people. I was scared of them. When walking, I would cross the street to avoid a conversation. Just seeing an unhoused person made me feel a strange icky mixture of fear, disgust, distress, and shame. I didn’t want to smell them. I wanted to wish them away, to pretend I hadn’t seen them. They disturbed my ideas about the fairness of the world. I wanted to blame them for their misfortune. Gradually I started facing uncomfortable truths. So many hardworking, honest people I know live with health challenges and struggle to pay their bills. Many homeless shelters are closing. A huge percentage of the homeless population consists of thrown-away veterans with PTSD, or people who lost their homes because of a loved one with a health crisis and no insurance. The problem isn’t “them”. “They” are “us”.
Could he have been lying to me about some of his story? Sure. I don’t care. People lie to themselves and each other all the time. Sometimes without even realizing it. When you work with middle schoolers, you see how pliable the truth can be; the story changes from telling to telling, the dots get connected differently, blame gets assigned differently, causation gets assigned differently. I have had so many children lie to my face, and all I can do is continue to love them and work with them in the best way I can. Some cultures, especially native american ones, realize how tricksy words can be, painting different realities, morphing into huge misunderstandings. Often what people say is what they WANT to be true. People often leave out really important parts of the story because they don’t want them to be true. Regardless of the exactness of the details of the story, the truth is clear; people need to be looked in the eye and and treated with respect. That’s easy, y’all. Just look people in the face a minute and give them your patient attention, and see what you can learn.
There is a relationship between written words and fossilization. It is taxidermy of an idea. Words that have ossified can lose their meaning. Words work best when spoken and heard directly. They carry more of the original meaning. We all know about the game of telephone, which ends up with wild misinterpretations of the original. It is so, to a lesser extent, with almost everything people ever say or write. You could also liken it to making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy; or of a cassette. It eventually gets blurry. We all have had misunderstandings over text or email that could have been avoided if someone had been there to hear our tone of voice. Every utterance is not the pure idea; it is the sketch someone managed to make of it, and then what the other person hears is their sketch of the sketch. I like to play a game in German class where the kids draw crazy creatures, with different animal heads, body parts, etc, keeping the pictures secret and hidden. I then choose a monster and describe it slowly it as a listening activity, and they draw them on their whiteboards. The different images that emerge are either uncannily similar to the original, or wildly different based not only on how much the kid understood , but how well he can draw. EVERY TRANSLATED DOCUMENT HAS THAT SAME EFFECT. Doubly, triply, quadruply filtered through different points of view and different writing abilities. Imagine how much more so this occurs after a text has been around for 1000 years, and has been translated, beaten and buffeted by societal meanings. Retelling the stories breathes life into them, but can also change their form. What remains might be a recognizable fossil. Or it may look more like sedimentary silty mud or polished creek-stone, completely different from the original living idea.
My little birdies cheep so soft that no one else can hear them. They live in a box under my dresser, and when I get them out sometimes there are four but today there are five. I am holding them so carefully so nothing can hurt them while I am checking on them. Rusty comes in and sees me sitting on the carpet by my dresser so he knows what I am doing and he grabs my hands and claps them together hard and says “ you smooshed them!” But I said “Those are the ROBOT birdies you squooshed, not the real ones!” and we laugh.
I was bouncing on Darren’s bed because it is cooler down there in his room and he isn’t home much since he got old enough to drive. But then he comes in and yells at me! But he isn’t really mad I don’t think and then Russ comes in and I scream “SHARK!” I am so excited because it WORKS ! Keith gets on the boat with me and rows the boat and PROTECTS me while Rusty swims on the carpet and makes “JAWS” sounds and I scream and I am so happy because I am scared but it is the all-fake kind of scared. Rusty don’t wanna be the shark but somebody’s gotta be him.
I picked blueberries for mama to put in the pancakes. I only ate three. The small bushes down by the playhouse had a handful of ripe ones and a bunch of purply ones. They are beautiful and tiny. You have to check them every day so the birds don’t get them. The one behind the prickly cedar had only a few ripe ones, but my favorite big bush up by the road had a bunch. I like the woods so much better than helping mama in the garden, even if she lets me play with the hosepipe. The okra and tomato plants itch me and the sun cooks me redder than dirt. The blueberry bushes like the shade and so do I.
Daddy took me fishing today. I was good at keeping quiet so the the fish wouldn’t hear us. I poked the hook through the worm’s guts all by myself. We ate Vienna Sausages out of the can and saltine crackers and drank Grapico. We fished all day and I never wanted to leave. I caught a golden perch and I was sad about how little it was but daddy told me how rare golden perches are. When we were speeding back I stuck my hand out of the boat and the water felt like a sharp edge. The wind was so fast it pulled my eyelids back and the water felt like hail and I had to curl up and put my head on daddy’s knee and I was safe then.
My brother can make anything. I got to stand in his room and watch Russ finish the tiny skeleton model, surrounded by little square bottles of shiny paint. He used that one-haired brush to paint eyes on the green snake coming out of that skeleton’s eye socket. I know I get to stay longer if I don’t say anything so I just smelled the paint and glue and listened to his Thomas Dolby tape and I love Europa and the Pirate Twins and I was so happy I felt like crying.The song is sad though and Thomas Dolby keeps saying “we’ll be the Pirate Twins again” over and over but they never are and the song ends that way.
I want a cat. Most of the books I make are about cats. I found an old one where I drew the cat marrying a DOG. Can you imagine?? In the next one the girlcat marries boycat and has a bunch of kittens. Last week I went to my friend’s house and laid down on the ground next to the kittens drinking from their mama, and she looked bored but patient and kind of sleepy, even when they pricked her soft parts with their little teeth and claws. When they were done eating, the mama cat let me touch them. They crawled all over me, and I felt their tiny claws prick my skin just enough to itch. I put my nose in their fuzzy fur and breathed their smell. I let them tangle in my hair even. It made me feel warm and sleepy like the mama cat. I want a cat but no one else in my family likes them.
There was a wild kitten on the playground but we didn’t see it until it was time to come in. Mrs. Wilkinson said I could stay out longer so I could rescue the kitten. But she let this kid Billy stay out too. We chased the kitten and got closer and then Billy got too close with his big shoe and all then all I could see was the soft, shiny pink of its skull-skin, its fur was torn off and smeared into the ground. After I threw up I couldn’t feel it anymore but I could still see it.
The deer was already hanging up by its back feet when me and mama got back from church. Daddy was about to skin it. Its eyes were cloudy, its fur kinda crumpled, its nose dried out. I thought about how different it would look once the skin was on the smooth fiberglass form, the glass eyes perfectly in place, mascara on its eyelashes, the fur combed, the nose painted a shiny black. It would be beautiful.
I wanted to write a story about what I saw but I am still shaky so I will just write in my journal so no one will see it. I was walking in the woods like usual but I went too far. I wasn’t lost exactly. There were weird soft noises, and when I looked up there were all these big dark shapes in the branches hanging like some weird fruit and they were monkeys. So many, dozens or hundreds, and they smelled like dead things. I felt really crazy because I know there are no monkeys in Georgia. I got dizzy. Monkeys??? I moved closer to them and they suddenly turned into big black buzzards with naked heads. Then I saw the pile of deer bones and flies. This is where daddy brings taxidermy leftovers. I felt a little better. But I was still smooshing down the fear that things would change into other things. This is when I first learned that you can’t trust what you see.
It looks alive, doesn’t it?
The glassy eyes of the taxidermed hawk stare
no mercy for the mouse he will never devour
both wrapped forever in the limbic heat of attack
The real hawk is merciful when sated
And takes a joyous victory lap.
Once a good idea becomes ideology
the life has gone out of it
It becomes a virus
No longer creating joy or hope
Merely replicating itself.
If we hear a good idea
Then do the good idea
it can grow and change and fly
when it needs to become
Food for scavengers instead of raptors.
Misha examined herself in the looking-glass, frustrated. Her cheekbones were too long and bony, like the rest of her. The powder could not quite cover up her sun-damage. More than ever, she felt like her face was not her own.
Misha was fourteen today; the Passing Ceremony would happen to her. She was so grateful Karenina was there to help her get ready. Even though Karenina had to manage all the girls, Misha felt that the kindness in Karenina’s hands was a bit more for her than for the others. Probably because Karenina knew the other girls hated Misha. Well, the little ones Misha kept during the day hadn’t learned to hate her yet, but she couldn’t very well share her secrets and dreams with little girls barely old enough to talk.
Karenina carefully unwrapped the once-white gown which had been used for each girl in Marana for as long as anyone could remember. She left the room for a moment so Misha could dress in privacy. It had been preserved with aksa, which smelled like pine tar. As she pulled the fabric over her head she was overwhelmed not only with the scent of aksa, but also the perfumes of the hundreds of girls who had worn the dress before her. Misha’s headache grew worse. She fumbled with the corset strings, which were not quite long enough.
Finally encased in the dress, Misha flipped back her despised hair. It was the color of pale mud. Why could she not have shining black hair like everyone else? If she was going to be a freak misbirth, why could she not have been blond like a Selucian? She tried to smooth her offensive hair under the golden circlet she found with the dress.
Something behind her made Misha whirl in alarm. Karenina stood in the doorway, staring at her, eyes wide, her hands over her mouth. She was staring at Misha’s naked knees. Misha felt the ugly red blush move up her throat towards her face. The dress was not decent on her.
“What can I do? “ Misha panicked. She knew the dress could not be altered. She wished that Karenina could speak; usually she could answer just fine with her hands, but this was too difficult to explain.
Then she noticed the bloody stain spreading up the front of the dress. Misha tore off the dress in horror and ran.
Taxidermy can be beautiful. The essence of taxidermy is preservation of something that is dead, such that it should look alive, and remind us of the life it once had. My father was a literal taxidermist. He mounted the finest deer heads in Troup County Georgia. I took pride in helping him comb the soft fur, applying eyeliner and mascara to their beautiful glass eyes, applying the shiny topcoat to the nose to make it appear dewy and alive. Eating the meat and thanking the creature for giving its beautiful wild life.
Almost everything we do is an attempt to stop time, in order to apprehend meaning. Ask Keats. Ask any artist or poet.
It seems that there are two ways of doing this. One is open to flow and change, embracing, glad of memory. The other is frozen by fear of change, idealizing what never was.
There is good taxidermy, which reminds us truly of the beautiful essence of living things. All good art, music, and writing are the good kind of taxidermy.
And there is the bad kind of taxidermy. That which freezes a living thing in a position of awkward, stilted deadness. Or preserves a thing which need not be preserved. During the excruciatingly slow death of tribalism, people try to ossify values that made sense before but no longer apply in a sped-up world.
Please God don’t let it all be pointless
I want to understand as much as I can
beyond the vanishing point of despair.
Help me find some bridges
When I am out to sea, staring at the stars,
my boat drifting farther out.
Help me to participate in life
wrestling with my angel serotonin
Help my addled brain decide what matters
So I can act on it
Transform the idea that my mood is morality
That my flawed organization is sin.
Help me not be overcome by the din
of the hundreds in the cafeteria struggling to be heard
of the hundreds in the hall struggling to prove their worth
of dozens in my classroom struggling for attention
The noise of all those wills I am obligated to guide and manage and control
When all I want is to give all my attention to one beautiful soul at a time
And take them seriously and show them they matter
Instead of always employing the eyes in the back of my head
My attention splintered, my light scattered
Help me not feel heartbroken
When they don’t want to learn what I have to teach
Because they are caught in their Maslow’s needs
Transmute my triggers of being misunderstood and voiceless
Into love and light
Let me help the misunderstood and voiceless
Give me the art, the will, the joy, the call to action
To help them engage
with empathy and understanding
Some days I feel like a true leader of my classes;
they hear, they learn, they grow.
Other days, when my mood fails,
And all I want is to climb under the porch like a dying animal
so I can’t hurt anyone and they can’t hurt me.
Help me God to accept and manage my inconsistencies
Instead of pretending that I should be “100% on” all the time.
Help me to be a conduit for realness and joy and connection.
Let me use what I have learned about
The fragmented realities that are common trauma
Transmute my struggles
Into some sort of plenty for others
So that my petty fragile suffering just been more than just
A stupid waste.
Transmute my ick into fertile soil
So I can help others transmute theirs
Please God I pray
I want to give without getting depleted
Help me to be both strong and kind
Help me to face the bones of reality
Beyond the reflection of my own glass darkly
Help me see the truth
Communicate the truth
Make me a clear channel for your love.
Give me a strong backbone and a soft heart
To help them live into the unknown without fear.
Art By Howard Finster. Cover Art for Talking Heads album Little Creatures.
An agent of sorrow
is what people need
to outgrow youth’s anger
of happiness decreed
You traveled down into
abysses of shame
and built fortress walls
of issues to blame
You sealed off your heart
with a great rolling stone
you strengthened the barricade
to “lighten your load”
honey you listened
but still don’t see light
your eyes are still blinded
by perfectionist might
Give up. Give in.
Let them eat your remains.
You are less than you think
and more all the same
Let the reins drop.
face up to the end.
Count on what’s beautiful
then you’ll begin.
You cannot change life
with catalogs of woes
life is a movement
it’s power that flows.
Don’t give up your power
just use it for good
don’t pick that flower
just leave it to bloom.
Live moving forward
don’t let thorns remain
tidy your shoes
from guilt and from pain.
You carry your own heart
you need nothing more
your gifts can be heartfelt
and leave you less poor
Breathe in your essence
of gold and of strength
let go the bindings
that strip you at length.
The hallway is narrow
the kitchen is bright
your lifetime is gift time
it isn’t a fight.
surrender is all
make your soul like a dove
the fighting must end
if you throw down the glove
take careful stock
of material things
so you know what you give
and can then give it wings.
Breathe child breathe
today doesn’t end it
it’s one golden moment
you don’t have to spend it
You know what you’ve come from
you know where you’ve been
you know what your soul is
now step in it again.
If you cling, it gets taxidermed
cold, hard, and dead
let spirit flow through you
it’s not in your head.
You didn’t invent this
its been going for years
but culture has squashed it
with objects and fears.
Cling only to truth, girl
and love as it unfolds
you can’t use your terror
in well-lit abodes
These teachings they teach you
in one ear out another
but love is what’s acted
in, through, and under.
I drank it with you, that blast of sensory overload. High fructose corn syrup, chemically-induced hazelnut flavor, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil for creamer. But oh, it was the most delicious coffee, because it was with you.
Nervous systems charged, we drove to the trailhead, hacked through the briars, and descended into the silky-damp of the cave. As we went deeper, it got darker. The only light was your headlamp. You turned it off at one point, impish, to see if I would freak out, but somehow it made the dark more velvety. My anxiety did not kick in. This part of earth’s womb is always warm yet cool, perpetually 57 degrees. Change is slow here. I touched rocks worn soft by years of dripping water, becoming slowly coated with mud, silky-smooth as clay slip. Colorless, eyeless salamanders darted under us as they sensed our hugeness. I felt in my eardrums some rustling overhead, maybe bats.
You turned the lamp back on and we went forward. We came to a bottleneck so narrow that it might tear parts of me off. I was afraid I would be trapped forever. I froze. My blood beat in my ears and my chest felt glued together. But you scoffed and cajoled and pulled me through with your wiry strength. On the other side of the squeeze, the cave opened out again, and we sat on the cave floor, trembling, covered with rose-petal soft mud. Breathing. We turned off the lamp again and sat watching glowworms, winking here and there, visible only if you waited still long enough.
The water dripped patiently into pools not growing in size. I illusioned the stalagmites growing the slightest bit as we were standing there. This dripping was not chinese water torture, but a painless, sweet process distilling the calcium into its next location. The wetness here was the cleanest I’d smelled, since stinky bacteria seem to prefer a bit of light in their darkness. In one of the ponds glided a perfectly white eyeless creature. An eel? A fish? It was slightly pearlescent and beautiful for no reason, as even its mate could not see its beauty.
Then we got up and moved foward until we reached the tightest of tight spots, our goal, the inner sanctum. We knew it because people had marked it; this was where the grand cave paintings were, ancient masterpieces (or graffiti) still unmolested by modern graffiti. We’d heard of it but no one so far had managed to get a good photo. It seemed like sacrilege to try to photograph it. Like you had to make the journey to earn the privilege to see it, then burn the image onto your mind, no cheats allowed.
But the opening.
I could not fit through that birth canal. My boobs would not fit. My ass would not fit. My heart constricted in sorrow. I choke-joked that you should take your narrow lil T and A on through that hole, and I’d wait here.
Laughing, you squeezed through the hole. My darkness was complete.
You screamed and I was unprepared because I was supposed to be the scared one but you were the one afraid of snakes. I was the one who wasn’t afraid of snakes. Why wasn’t I afraid of snakes? I was scared of everything else, of all the things you were brave about. NO FAIR NO FAIR NO FAIR
You were panicking and the snakes might be biting you and all I could think was NO! I AM SUPPOSED TO BE THE ONE WHO GETS TO PANIC!
I had to get through that hole even if it tore pieces of me off.
I wrestled with the earth then and she gave a little but I gave more and I knew I would bleed but I had to get through and and I knew somehow that she wouldn’t take all my blood and that she would let me back out
Then I saw you, your face a mask of panic, lit strangely by the headlamp, and my heart filled with something. Light slowly glinted off the shiny backs of the beautiful tangled swarm of serpents. Somehow I picked you up out of the nest of snakes and held you tight like a child, listening to your crazed heartbeat, and time slowed to a crawl.
When time started back up, the snakes slithered rapidly away in all directions.
We breathed. The sun trickled golden through tree roots and cracks above us, dappled patterns illuminating the inner sanctum.
Clucky the Two-Spirit Chicken
A friend of mine told me some time ago that many tribes of Africa and Native America have the various words for people born not 100% masculine or feminine. One such word is a term of respect; the Two Spirit is respected as having great, special wisdom, and is indeed often a shaman.
I, my friends, have met a chicken-shaman.
My artist-friend Bill Christman trucks in all forms of junk. The heavier and weirder the better. He turns the junk of the world into beautiful things. His work reminds me of Howard Finster, but without all the preaching written on it. He is the guy responsible for the Museum of Mirth at the City Museum.
One of the more noticeable of his works is the giant chicken outside of his art-gallery/concert venue, Joe’s Café.
One of the less noticeable things is Clucky. On first glance, Clucky looks like any other chicken, hatched in someone’s backyard near Mr. Christman, among other, regular fowl. But hatching with both male and female characteristics soon caused Clucky trouble with the other chickens; they pecked confusedly at Clucky when normal gender protocols were not followed. Clucky retaliated, first by fighting back, then by running away.
Clucky found a home in Bill Christman’s garden of sculptural wonders, a loner, King/Queen of a fabulous, noncompetitive paradise, where no one except the squirrels or pigeons competed for the food the humans provided.
I have never met a more well-adjusted, calm-looking chicken in my life.
With all the brouhaha about gender-neutral bathrooms, and about transgender people in the military, it seems like a good time to bring up Clucky. This bird has a brain the size of a peanut; this means that there is no room for idle deliberations about gender expression. Clucky knows about not being a regular chicken, and not being accepted by the other chickens. Clucky had no choice about hatching with both heel-spurs and egg-laying apparatus. Nonetheless, Clucky has found a place to live in peace.
In the Gospel of Thomas 22, Jesus, upon seeing some babies nursing, remarks; “What these little ones who are nursing resemble is those who enter the kingdom.” They said to him “So shall we enter the kingdom by being little ones?” Jesus said to them “when you make the two one, and make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside and the above like the below, and that you might make the male and the female be one and the same, so that the male might not be male nor the female be female… an image in place of an image— then you will enter the kingdom”
Matthew 8:3 says, relatedly, “Assuredly I say to you, unless you change and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
My interpretation of Jesus’ words is that our souls are what matter, and that the form of our bodies has nothing to say about the state of our souls. The things that disgust certain cultures about the body have nothing to do with what is inside us. Our bodies are temples, but they are also dust; just vehicles for our souls. So why do we fight so hard against believing in those who have “atypical” bodies? They had no choice in the matter any more than Clucky did. I have always been drawn to people who are “atypical” (I prefer a term like “less common”) whether they were gay, bi, trans, effeminate, extra-masculine, gender dysphoric, etc. I have never felt the disgust towards them that other people seemed to feel… I felt only awe and respect for their strength and wisdom in dealing with the cruelty rained on them by others. I am involved with the gay-straight alliance at my school and the kids know I am safe to talk to; I have had a great number of students who did not fall into rigid gender roles. They appreciate that I work to make my classroom a safe space for them to be whatever they are.
The Gay Men’s Health crisis of the 80s was a horrible, horrible, horrible thing. But it had exactly one good outcome. People could no longer deny the existence of gay men, as they died by the thousands. They were real and they deserved human kindness; no one could claim that they didn’t exist. I think that Trump’s calling attention to transgender people is similar. The immediate outcome of these issues may be for good or ill, but at least now no one can deny that two-spirit people exist; they are not figments of the imagination. They are not crazy, and they are not “making it up”. They are real. I know quite a few, and all those I know are beautiful inside and out. Many cultures, including the Greeks (think of Sophocles’ Tiresias) acknowledged that twin-spirits not only existed, but had special wisdom to impart. Clucky taught me something. Let us have ears to hear all those we can learn from.
Our peach tree was laden with hard green peaches when my friends and I circled around the firepit earlier this summer. It happened to be the last day it was cool enough to abide a fire. The kids ran around playing with shaving cream and the water hose as we watched the fire and chatted. Peaches are among the tenderest of fruits; they do not travel well, so one usually sees them only in season.
Then my friends’ little girl Razmi stopped playing and came over to us. She had noticed the fallen green peaches lying all around us on the ground. She surveyed the situation and did the best she could. She selected four battered fruits. She then solemnly presented me with one. Looking me in the eyes, she said “This one is yours. You have to take good care of it, okay?”
Faced with such sincerity, what could one do but agree to take care of the half-gnawed fallen fruit? I nodded, and rubbed my fingers across the prickly velvet of the busted little peach. She then repeated the ceremony. She proceeded to my husband, and then to her parents, presenting them each with their misbegotten-looking peach, and extracting the oath to care for it.
I was dumbfounded by the wisdom of this. Razmi’s parable tells so much about how to heal what is broken. Our culture throws people away because they fall from the tree too soon. Or because they were gnawed by sharp teeth. Or because they have lain awhile,overripe in the hot sun. Our culture assumes that these people have nothing to give. We are taught to think that if the outside is damaged, that the seed is also damaged and the person is beyond hope. So we take away their supports and shame them in the classroom and in the courtroom, which makes it very difficult for them accept nourishment and grow in their best direction. The hard gnawed fruits that looked like trash to anyone else were clearly valuable to Razmi; she could see the viable seed inside each one, ready, if nurtured, to grow into a beautiful tree.
We had been living in St. Louis only a year or two, and, having come from the public-transport-free rural south, I was still leery of buses. Because of my indoctrination from my hometown, I still thought of public transportation as full of dangerous people. I sat nervously on the edge of the seat, gripping the loop handle protruding from the ceiling. The woman beside me had a number of children. She was getting frustrated because several of them needed something at once. She glanced over at me, glanced again, and said, “ You mind holding him a second?” I reached out my arms for the fat, sticky 10 month old. His diaper was wet. He was drooling on me. He had sticky crumbs on his face. And he was utterly beautiful. The fact that this woman trusted me, a random chick on a bus, with one of her most precious treasures, tore my heart open. I jogged him on my lap and he was content. He smelled like happy animals. I was a happy animal too. I had to hand him back when her stop came. She felt no need to thank me, and there was none. Her trust was thanks enough.
Earlier this summer at a hotel, I was swimming with Wolf in an almost hallucinatorily chemicaled pool (i am sensitive to chlorine). I had to escape, but Wolf needed to play and swim some more. He is a good swimmer now, but I still can’t let him play in the water alone. Desperate, I knew I had to get out of my chemical-soaked suit and wash my chemical-soaked hair. I spotted a mom sitting by the side of the pool, fully dressed to the shoes, nervously watching her clutch of boys playing loudly in the pool. I walked up to her saying excuse me. She looked up, surprised and a little suspicious. I explained, and asked if she would watch my boy, and if she would instruct her boys to help him if need be. Her face broke into an extraordinarily beautiful smile and she agreed.
I took my shower, which was freezing because the hot water faucet was broken, then sat in the sauna for a few minutes (never a thing I envisioned myself doing in 100 degree heat) and I was utterly unworried, because I knew that Wolf was fine.
When I came back with my hair in a towel, she smiled, explaining. “Well, I made him promise me not to put his head underwater til you got back. I am scared of the water; I never learned to swim!” I told her she reminded me of my sweet mama, who won’t go in past her knees for terror of the water. So I knew she would make the best watchwoman. I shook her hand and thanked her, but I knew to her, my trust was thanks enough.
Then Wolf abruptly got out of the pool and ran to me, chlorine in his eyes, putting his face in my clothes, his freezing, chemical-covered little body using me as a towel. We waved to our friend as we left.
TURTLES AND CHICKS
Later in the summer I was blessed to attend Wade Blevins’ Ignite Native American Teacher’s Conference. I met so many amazing people, so many native men and women with their souls nesting quietly inside them like serene birds, rather than like clawing predatory animals.
On the last night of the conference, we were at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds for a meal prepared by the community. Little Nonni moved between Wade and a number of women in her family with anxiety-free grace. I could honestly not tell who was mother, father, grandmother, cousin, aunt. It did not matter to Nonni. They were all her family and they all loved her, and her face just beamed with it.
After dinner we began assembling around the fire for the stomp dances. Because I was the only one of the teacher-trainer group who had driven my own car, I took the more exhausted teacher trainers back to the hotel before returning for the dance.
One of the dancers was suiting up at her car, which was near mine. She was putting on what looked like heavy casts. Confused, I asked if she was hurt, and she explained that she was dressing for the dance. It takes a lot of padding to go under the heavy turtle-shell shakers, which she strapped to her calves beneath the rainbow patchwork skirt her friend had made for her. The turtle-shells are filled with river-stones, and the dancers shake them to create the perfect rhythm for the songs as they circle the fire. It is hot, heavy, and difficult art. To be a turtle dancer is a sacred call.
We talked only a bit, but I learned a lot from her. “Turtles” can refer to any woman who cares for others. If there is a baby whose mother dies or is ill, auntscousinsgrandmothers close a circle of love, so that there is no gap of love for that child. Turtles carry the world on their backs. I later found out that this beautiful person had made a harder choice than becoming a turtle dancer. Given a boy’s name at birth, she chose to change that not-fitting name as an adult, thus taking the weight of the world on her shoulders. I am in awe of her.
She chose the name Ahyoka. The best-known Ahyoka is the daughter of Sequoyah, who helped him create the Cherokee syllabary. Before that, the Cherokee language was an oral language, not a written one. The world was never the same again. Ahyoka means “she brought happiness”. She sure did bring happiness to me by sharing her story with me.
When I got back to the fire, I felt ready jump in and dance with them even though I am normally shy, am an awful dancer, and had no idea what I was doing. They welcomed me seamlessly into the circle, counterclockwise around the fire. I cannot do justice by describing this honor, but I will try. The longer I stomped with them, the more the rhythm of the turtles got us all into sync. Wade, out of breath and sweating, somehow led it all, his strong voice singing the calls, dancing while Nonni clung to his chest like a heavy, comfortable monkey. Round and round we went, golden light building, and I was in awe of strength of these souls who let me see into their sacred truth.
Then it was over. I felt like I’d gotten off a boat, or off roller skates. We were milling around, hugging goodbyes, friending each other on facebook, staring at stars, Nonni decided she had to give each of the teachers one more blessing, and I was first. Riding on Wade’s shoulders as usual, she leaned down and placed a golden, perfect peach of a kiss on my right cheek. I can still feel it there. The blessing of a child who is certain she is loved by many.
Driving my friends back to the hotel, I was thinking trying to process it all. I thought back to a conversation we’d had over our frybread. Nonni had lost a batch of chicks to predators. When the next batch of chicks hatched, Nonni carefully selected a chick for each adult. She then presented the chick to its protector, demanding a solemn vow to be responsible for that one chick’s progress. One adult, one chick; she entrusted one to each. These chicks would not be devoured by predators.
Chicks, dances, peaches. They deliver the same message. Show love and trust to whoever is in your path. Love is responsibility, but a sacred, happy responsibility manifested, not only in obligation, but in in daily small actions of trust, play, and laughter. Thank you, girls.
We blue-violet girls floating above the earth
Goitered, bipolar, hysterical, vestibular
Torn open and sewn back together too tight
silent when we talk
divided against ourselves
Mud v/s light hidden under flowery print sheaths our mothers made us
Like Venus, we are morning star and evening star both.
Over the years we built dense structures of neurons
to protect our golden star-essence
which grew darkly resinous, then
spiky, defending against outside light
the applejack retreating farther, constricting into a dense point of light
For protection, we curve our bodies down and in.
Look up, my blue-violet sister!
Sirius leaves for her moontime
But rises with the sun in dog days,
She was a blazing blue star before she went white dwarf
Still she scintillates red white blue yellow.
Polaris, Stella del Mar, Yildiz, the leader star
By luck she is aligned with the earth’s north pole
Yet she too is inconstant
For a time, her brightness decreased and she sadly lagged
Yet now, like no other star we know, she waxes
continually increasing her gold-white light
Twice as bright
As when the Greeks observed her
Sirius and Polaris are not single stars, but star systems, multiplicitous.
Like you, my sister, they are made up of seen and unseen parts.
That black hole you feel is not you, sister.
That gaping wound of fear is the gulf between you and your unseen siamese twin
Separated too far from you, crying alone in the darkness
Look. You are the large one. Look at your blue little sister and hug her, don’t fear her
She is just a scared little girl, neglected and ravenous
There is no black hole
Blue stars burn the hottest
But white dwarf stars, conserving energy, burn slower and longer
Let’s help our blue sisters to burn slow and now
If we work together, our energy is greater than their mass.
We can shine clear and golden.
We are more beautiful than our carbon,
Even densely compressed diamonds
We are more.
We are star-energy .
We are golden oud.
BIBLIOGRAPHY for OUD AND STARS
1.The fragrance of Oud itself. Sniffing it I mean. https://www.facebook.com/AftelierPerfumes/?pnref=lhc
Thank you to Mandy Aftel for finding real oud and selling it in quantities small enough for me to afford!
If you didn’t read the post about Oud, here it is.
2. Iodine by Haven Kimmel. This novel is about a blue girl, a damaged dissociative girl learning to exist in the world. I have read this book dozens of times, and it is my favorite book on earth, which is really saying something, coming from a person who is unable to make decisions. I would like to thank Haven, who is in fact a dog-star, for my writing is greatly affected by hers. I had a writing workshop with her and the lovely Barry Yeoman, who taught me a decade’s worth about writing in a single week. I am so grateful for what they had to teach me.
3. The Stranger in the Mirror by Marlene Steinberg This book provides clear information about the widespread phenomenon of dissociation. She estimates that it affects up to 30 million people. We are looking at a widespread phenomenon. People seem to always be lying. They aren’t . You are getting a different view from a different alter at a different time. That’s why their lies seem so convincing; they believe the lies themselves. Like Trump believes his own lies.
4 Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro
This is the only method that has been proven to help with PTSD. It trains you to reconnect your dots. I greatly admire Francine. Her ideas have been appropriated for moneymaking workshops, and she herself has been ostracized from this group, choosing instead to publish her own books so anyone can learn from her at low cost. Bravo Francine.
4. Polaris. The Finnish singer Chisu taught me about trusting my star. Listen here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6pm-dLctVE
5. Hans my Hedgehog, as interpreted by Jim Henson in The Storyteller. This story slays me with its beauty and healing.
6.The Story of your Life; Becoming the Author of Your Experience
Thank you Mandy Aftel, again, for writing this book. https://www.amazon.com/Story-Your-Life-Becoming-Experience/dp/0684826968/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
She taught me the following truth about narrative-building. Our lives are dots made up of events and emotions. We make a rational effort to connect them throughout our lives. She taught me that although it may be duplicitous, it is not LYING to remove the faulty connections you built, strip down to the dots, and rebuild a narrative of your liking. This is a humanities way to think of EMDR therapy.
7. Re-Visioning Psychology by James Hillman. This book taught me about the many ways that modern psychology poisons the wells it should be tapping.
8. Cuts you Up. This Peter Murphy song illustrates what it feels like to be running away from your own self. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrfFHzqGBZI