The Wheel of the Year –Behind and Below

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The wheel of the year is turning, and we go now into the darker time of reflection and recollection; of looking, in the words of Michael Meade, “behind and below” to the places where the Soul comes from and is intuitively acquainted with. It is the time of the ancestors when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. Night falls and surrounds us. The fire is lit. We go inward.

I dreamt I saw my grandpa again, and he was both alive and dead. He was lying just underneath the earth’s surface, only a little way down below the cradle-like embrace of the soft soil. I remembered where he lay, in my dream, though in the waking world he has been cremated. I knew I had to go to him, and take up from his grave something which had been nearly forgotten and buried underneath him. With my hands I removed the blanket of dust from over him, and, seeing his characteristic bald fore-head first, knew that he had been only sleeping there, having not disintegrated, waiting as if in a peaceful nap for resurrection to dawn. He looked old as I always knew him, but not weary: his eyes opened and fluttered, as if to gleam at me catching him in his mid-afternoon sleep in his chair when I was a child. I missed him sorely, wanted him to come up from the earth and be with us again, but he had embarked into the place where time is not like how it is here. “Only a little while longer,” I said with a tear. “Yes, only a little more sleep,” he smiled. And I felt the nearness of all of those who have come before me, knowing that they, too, are asleep for only a little while, though it seems an eternity to us who have not yet crossed over. They are alive in death in a way I cannot explain. I pulled the blanket of the earth back over him, letting the Otherworld hold him, as it must be. The ancestors are alive in the arms of the Great Mother. When we awoke, my husband and I found that we had both dreamt of our grandfathers.

 

Thomas Lynch writes in his book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade,

The bodies of the newly dead are not debris nor remnant, nor are they entirely icon or essence. They are, rather, changelings, incubates, hatchlings of a new reality that bear our names and dates, our image and likenesses, as surely in the eyes and ears of our children and grandchildren as did word of our birth in the ears of our parents and their parents. It is wise to treat such new things tenderly, carefully, with honor.”

 

And I dreamt there was a rite of passage in a forest, and the forest was dark and green, and my people whom I love were there, leading the way. The beginning and the end I do not remember, but there were flowers in the night which were colors I have no name for: I was permitted to see these colors for but a moment, and no longer. Black was the night and wet, but warm, and there were lights of mysterious making in the thicket where we were going. With my mind I could move pieces of wood and whole trees, strong with the muscles of invisible wings. I had gone into the forest to find this gift which was waiting for me. With a desire, a motion of the mind, fallen wood levitated from the ground when I willed it, and I could feel my spirits lift with the lifting of the forest, a swift leap of the heart.

The night before last I was in a small town on the top of a very dry hill, vegetated with sagebrush and dust, but we were not thirsty. It was Christmas at midnight, but it was not dark. The sun, or I think it was a light so many times greater and more beautiful than the sun, shone through the clear window before me in the cathedral which I had come to worship in. Remember what true worship is: the giving of the heart completely. I heard these words around me in that place. The light before me was the brightest white-gold I had ever seen, but it did not blind me or overwhelm me. To look into it was to see more clearly. There was music from the cathedral’s quartet, and I was peaceful and at home, having forgotten, as in another dream, the weight of the waking world behind me. (Journal entry 11.7.2013)

 

The author Starhawk wrote in her book, The Spiral Dance,

“Male shamans dressed in skins and horns in identification with the God and the herds; but female priestesses presided naked, embodying the fertility of the Goddess. Life and death were a continuous stream; the dead were buried as if sleeping in a womb, surrounded by their tools and ornaments, so that they might awaken to a new life. In the caves of the Alps, skulls of the great bears were mounted in niches, where they pronounced oracles that guided the clans to game. In lowland pools, reindeer does, their bellies filled with stones that embodied the souls of deer, were submerged in the waters of the Mother’s womb, so that victims of the hunt would be reborn.”

I cannot shake the feeling that every night’s sleep is a small death, a practice in surrendering to the irresistible return to the Cradle of Life. We lie down and pass over the veil temporarily, while the umbilical cord of breath yet anchors us safely to this side: we go and journey to the places and people we come from, and will return to.

“And if we do not sleep,” Tony once said, “the Other Side comes to us.”

(Sleep deprivation creates otherworldly hallucinations. It is not surprising that the brain would do this, but rather the content matter of the visions themselves. Are they not eerily relevant to whatever we yearn for or plagues us? And why is it the content of dreams, visions, mirages and hallucinations are so unremarked upon by investigative researchers? As if exactly what you dream about has no relevance?)

I talk to people I can’t see. I talk to the people in my head, in the land, in history, in what is to come. I talk to my dead cat, and to my grandma when I am a thousand miles away without a phone, and I know that they can somehow hear me. I talk to my grandpa whose body is now ashes in the mountains, and to my mom and dad in a world where they are different, where they are whole. I see them as they shall be, dressed in white and sitting beside a clear river with no more anger. I talk to my ancestors of Old Europe. I hear them singing their songs of mead hall, boats and forests, field and hunt and home and dance, love songs and war songs and silly songs and songs for hellos and goodbyes, blue eyes and wild long hair in the misty forests no longer standing. I talk to the ancestors of the land I live on and I ask them to forgive us and see us now and know that we are learning. I talk to animals when I chance to see them, and I wonder if they choose to show themselves, if they know that same great love that they may bless me with it. I talk to my friends though I cannot see them, and it seems that each are just around that near corner, waiting. I recount their loved faces that I may not forget. Even when I did not know him I talked to my husband whose name and face I did not know, but whom I yearned to meet soon. I told him I missed him and I love him and there is this hugeness of all this love beyond myself that comes up from the center of me like the moment of the world’s creation. I talk to my children of someday, even if they don’t come out of my body, if I never meet them, and I wonder how their lives may be and what it would be like to love them as a mother loves. And all of these are saints to me, who gather around us in love, eager to draw near to this world. I feel them with us, the Communion of Saints. When I lie awake at the edge of the great sea of sleep, I sometimes hear them, every one from all the days of the earth gathered together. They are in a place known only in part to this world where Love lives without weariness, without end. (Journal entry 11.1.2013)

 

 

Photo by UlrichG, pixabay.com

In Memoriam: Seb Barnett 4/21/1981 – 10/8/2016

On October 8th, 2016, Seb Barnett passed away by choosing to end their own life. Seb was an acquaintance and inspiration to me from Wilderness Awareness School. Our paths crossed when I was an Anake with the 2012-13 class and they, an Anake alumni, were the outreach coordinator for the program. I did not know Seb quite as well as many who far more deeply now mourn them, particularly in this season of the ancestors, but I knew them well enough and with such positive memories that I was considerably shocked and in tears the night I got the news a few weeks ago.

 

This is a picture I took of Seb at Linne Doran in 2013 (Wilderness Awareness School's teaching land in Duvall). One of my favorites.

This is a picture I took of Seb at Linne Doran in 2013 (Wilderness Awareness School’s teaching land in Duvall). One of my favorites.

Seb identified as genderqueer. Roughly speaking, it is a gender identity in which a person feels such affinity for the feminine and masculine energies that they prefer the pronouns they, their and them in place of his or her and so forth. I have known other genderqueer friends through Wilderness Awareness School and their friendship has been a great honor and spiritual inspiration to me and many. The news of Seb’s death hits particularly hard in our communities where naturalist rewilding education, earth-based spirituality, art and diverse gender expressions interconnect.

I remember Seb as a modern day Shaman, an artist, a teacher, a grief-worker, and a deeply soulful creature. Memories of sharing good conversation, wildcrafting plant dyes at kids’ summer camps under the Western Redcedar canopy, walking along the edges of wetland habitat together come back to me now. Their green hair, magical body adornments, and strong sense of the numinous stand out in my memory. The night I heard about their death, it was the only thing I could do to pour out my honor and sorrow for them into verse. I have the bardic energy in me, I know, and I hope that it will be an honor to Seb’s spirit.

 

Seb, our Shaman, our Ancestor.

Surely you now put on the cloak

of a new body, some beautiful free animal

unburdened by human pain. Now you live in

hooves and horns, have great or small wings

or glimmering fur. Bless the wild without end.

You go on speaking in sacredness.

We will look for you in the night rain of the forest,

in the talking bones of the creatures,

in electric green moss that climbs into light.

Watch over we who are here in the bodies of humans.

These human minds are too troubled by ghosts.

You put that behind you.

Into the gentle fierce

grave womb you have gone,

where the wild, soft mind is yours

without too much grief. Ancestor, tugging at the

tendon-cords of the raw harrowed heart,

leave all this grief now

to the mammoth dark Earth

who enshrouds and cradles

us all.

 

Here is a beautiful tribute at The Wild Hunt to Seb’s life and work. The Wild Hunt is a major news network of global Neo-Paganism, so I was furthermore honored to discover that I had the privilege of knowing someone so widely renowned in these communities. I wasn’t aware of quite how far and wide Seb was known and loved.

Remembering Seb Barnett: Artist, Creator, Shaman

 

Seb’s website was Greenstag Spiritwork. “Hi, I’m Seb. I’m a Shaman. Ancient ecstatic wisdom for a modern world.” Damn, now I wish I had been their student while they were still alive. I grieve for the lost opportunity for us to learn from them, for Seb to teach from the heart and know they were loved and needed greatly. Now such wisdom as they brought is gone from our human day-to-day immediacy, taken away too sharply, too soon.

 

Here is a Vanguard Seattle interview with Seb on their art and experiences. “…words escape me. Flowers, plants, wild things are so expressed, and they become a translation for my own emotions. They are unapologetic in the way they exist, and to me that’s desirable.”

 

I want us all to remember we are loved and we matter, whether living or ancestor, whether we have seen each other lately or not. We do not leave the loving arms of creation, no matter our pain, or the way we lived or died.

As I wrote to a friend recently about Seb’s death, Seb has left this side of reality too abruptly. I want us all to completely love who we are and know we are needed here. Let’s only many decades from now follow Seb into the holy dark, at the end of our long and natural lives, and I pray not by our own hands. I, too, have struggled severely with thoughts of taking my own life. I’ve battled it on and off for many years, and with the grace of modern medication, compassionate counseling and strong spiritual self-work I am very well recovered from depression at this time in my life. It is a mystery why some of us get past depression and others succumb to it. I don’t know why, but I can empathize with why people are compelled to die by their own hand. For myself, it was a yearning to commit some strange act of total, desperate self-love, as if by killing myself I would be enfolding me in an all-consuming, comforting final love for myself I struggled to have in life. But when suicide really happens, when it’s not just a passing depressive fantasy but is completed bodily, it throws everything into sharp perspective. I am shaken by the thought I ever wished to kill me. I am glad I didn’t do it, so glad because I have learned to give myself that total love in the magic of daily life, not in death. Maybe because of this, I am lucky that daily life can never be boring for me, because the see the shimmer of God’s magic and nearness everywhere. Mother Death, good comforter and friend of God, waits for us all in the end, ready to rebirth us to new life, but we must not run to her too quickly. Even she is sad to come collect us when it is our time, wishing she could sit beside us longer, not yet the time for us to go. That is why Mother Death comes is her mourning cloaks of black, to cradle us gently in the womb of the earth, returning us all to tender love, wishing even she will see us again.

 

In sacredness, my fellow creatures.

Amber

 

An Art of its Own Kind: Nature, Embodiment and Human Wellness

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There is an intersection between a relationship with the natural environment and human health. This relationship, or lack of it, critically affects the lives of individuals and society at large. Interconnectedness is the immense single web of life of which all aspects of wellbeing are closely interwoven.

There is an ongoing cultural problem of defining health by purely physical measures. Yet that very physicality, in our modern culture, often lacks a depth of integrity, of basic body-awareness, emotional intelligence or relationship with nature. In other words, our obsession with the physical realm of life is, paradoxically, alarmingly anti-physical. It does not honor the body’s animalian or emotional component, which brings the motivating joy to feeling fully alive in a body in the first place. It is the obsession of a disembodied mind.

How many advertisements for thinness, for macho-muscular athleticism, for food are we dumped with? Yet this type of overemphasis on physical appearances without feeling only further dulls and disconnects us from the native beauty of our animal bodies. We are separated from the delight of our bodies by outrageous expectations and internalized shame, to please a distant standard while draining ourselves. This is not helped by the problem of philosophical traditionalists telling us that the physical body is not as sanctified as the severed Cartesian mind floating in it’s enlightened glass jar of “higher” reason. The West has an old problem here. We are disassociated from the liveliness of our own physicality.

Ecopsychology, nature-based education, rewilding, and ecofeminism all help to heal that. No wonder we don’t want to “exercise” when the dominant cultural understanding we have of exercise is a race to get thin or muscular for no other real end than looking a certain way. We expect that if we are to feel differently from “working out”, it will be a satisfaction at having conquered our bodies, as if our bodies were an enemy to be dominated in war. This masculinist, warring, domineering attitude toward our bodies has left a trail of carcasses. We think that getting “in shape” will not be to love and care for ourselves more completely, but to control and rule.

No wonder it is so uninviting to exercise when the very idea of it feels, to so many people, like a task to wearily get done with that is separate from everything else we do. The problem of exercise being separate from the rest of normal life is a problem society has never had before these modern times. In days before the prevalence of sedentary office jobs, daily labor was often physical, exercise happened without worrying about it, and medically-dangerous morbid obesity was extremely rare.

In David Abrams’ remarkable book Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, Abrams tells the story of young Vincent Van Gogh’s reawakening to the sensual, embodied world, and how this infused life into his paintings.

Although his first career was that of a preacher, Vincent’s passion could not contain itself in that stance, denying his body while straining toward a beauty beyond the visible; it fell back into the world. And at that moment, as his intellectual faith in a truth beyond the sensuous fell away, he found himself abruptly caught up and carried by a faith more implacable than any mere belief: the human body’s ancient and inexhaustible faith in the breathing earth, in the whispering leaves, in the meandering river and the night and the goodness of the sun. His senses burst open like sunflowers scattering their seeds: he began to paint the surging world. In Vincent Van Gogh’s canvases there is nothing that is not alive. (Abrams 50)

If a returning to bodily senses so ignited Van Gogh’s paintings with vivacity, how much more would it empower we who struggle to embody beauty in our physicality? Rebuilding a relationship with our bodies is an art of its own kind. Mental health is directly related to physical health. How exactly the relationship manifests is diverse from person to person, but the relationship is undeniably there. Physical movement relieves depression: laughter welling up in the airways tickles the body. Sunlight seeps through the shade surrounding our minds. Access to nature makes whole the human animal. In the words of psychotherapist Friedrich Salomon Perls, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.”

Nature’s role in physical and mental health need not be explicitly rural. Many of us do not live near to majestic national parks. Some of us are lucky to have a car to get out of the city we live in. For others, the call is to find Great Nature, as the Shinto religion speaks of it, in the sparkling and waving of trees along sidewalks, in city parks, in the air in your lungs, or the warm pulse (and impulse) of your own body. We are not fundamentally separate from nature or nature’s ability to heal.

Izanami is the Japanese goddess of creation and death. She is similar to India’s more well-known Kali. Izanami is a Dark Mother archetype, who’s way of bringing life is through transformative death. She eats, with the fangs of the earth, everything which is contrary to ultimate life and wholeness so that it will be destroyed to make way for regeneration. Dark Mother medicine is timely for dealing with the grief, frustration, stagnancy, pain, disconnect, toxicity and amnesia of the worst aspects of modern life which make us chronically unwell. Perhaps ironically to the message of liveliness, Izanami often takes the form of a corpse. Mythologically, there is rhyme and reason here; look again, more closely. She divinely mocks an obsession with appearances, for she reveals to us the seriousness of accepting our own mortal physicality. She compels us to be at peace with having animal bodies which are intimately bound with the cycle of life and death, birth and decay in the earth. We mark our lives as preciously short. Dark Mother destroys illusions of perfection, destroys the damaging praise of disembodiment, of health in appearances only. She is a fiercely female, earthly, embodied force of reckoning.

The next time we “exercise”, let’s be kids again. Run and play for the pure joy of it, be hilarious, forget expectations. And if a strange sadness arises and the play doesn’t feel immediately exuberant as it once did, know that such pain is natural, too. Even the frustration is held within the Great Nature of animal life. We have lost something, but we can find it again.

 

 

Sources

Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

Perls, Frederick S. Gestalt Therapy; Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian Press, 1951.

Cartwright, Mark. “Izanami and Izanagi.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. December 6, 2012. Accessed August 16, 2016. http://www.ancient.eu/Izanami_and_Izanagi/.

 

Photo (c) 2016 Amber MV.

Only by loving that which needs changing do we care enough about it to heal and transform it.

Thoughts on womanhood

We women are active and we women are passive. We want to run and we want to sit down with a book. We want to be involved with the emotional lives of others. We want to do our own thing. We are not ashamed of relationship, find no inferiority in our sensitivity, and where we draw power by our own wisdom doesn’t have to be judged by a male standard. Sometimes, we are so hungry. Sometimes, we cannot eat. We want to be filled with the world and so we will fill the world in return, cut through the veils that would lie and say we have no importance. We have a world of importance. We are life-makers even when we do not give birth. We give birth to ideas, to good works and ways of being and seeing. We are in conversation with the ancestors from one womb to the next, bearing traumas or joys or the place of passing between. We involve men and want to make life with them. We put the pieces together again, revel in the taste and the sense and the touch.

……

When stories are told of female people being trafficked, I want to see those accounts ultimately paired with stories of sex-positivity, empowerment, and an awesomely recovered joy in sex. It’s too easy to let the victimization of girls give the message that girls should fear sex and men, should be ashamed of their bodies’ desires. Girls already feel too damn responsible for the shit put on them to begin with. I know I was severely shaken by this subliminal message of female-at-fault as a kid. There’s been a lot of crap out there where people twist up agendas: using the documentation of sex slavery as a way to scare and silence female people away from their own sexuality and ability to say “Yes!” as well as “No!” when the time is right for each.

 

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It’s too easy to “tell the story” without offering empowering, joyful solutions to victims and viewers of sexually traumatic stories. It’s easy to sensationalize it, even unconsciously by well-meaning people, or to present the survivors as forever helplessly victimized, emotionally disabled and unable to overcome and move on. That attitude of victimization-as-identity puts survivors in a hole, socially predestining them to be always defined by a trauma they went through. But identifying with the trauma doesn’t heal it. We are not defined by what we have survived. We are defined by how we get our lives back to empowered vitality so that the trauma has no more a strangle-hold on our lives. Yes, there is the critical importance in telling the story, but don’t stop there. Don’t stop at the narrative of endless pain. That’s not who we are! Go all the way to the joy of life rediscovered that follows! Others will see your empowerment and will know there is sacred life ahead to be regained and lived. We recover and distance our identity from it, from the toxicity that tries to pull us down into re-victimization around every bush. We move on from dwelling on it, sensationalizing it. We strive to cope with and not be overcome by the knowledge of these terrors. We participate in the world to come, and all the good of the world that is already here.

……

Gender equality must include the wellbeing of male people with female people. A gender equality movement that is sustainable for many generations will care to support men in transforming away from abusiveness and toward a compassionate guardianship of all people. It will be lovingly male-positive. Only by loving that which needs changing do we care enough about it to heal and transform it. The focus should not be on “liberating” one sex from another, but to bring people of both sexes together in loving, trusting affinity. It is healthy to foster affectionate platonic friendships between boys and girls early in their lives, so that they may empathize with each other without competition or early sexualization. Human beings, male and female, belong together. Life functions well when we are interconnected with the whole of who we are. I am skeptical of any society where female and male people are segregated on the basis of avoiding assumed harm from the other.

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I wonder if all-girls schools or all-boys schools, for example, reinforce the alienation from and assumed threat of the “other” gender. It is enriching to have a women’s social group but I would not appreciate one where the group is defined as getting refuge from the perceived threat of wicked male-kind, as compared to a group that merely wants more focus on female friendship and talk of women’s lives with other women. There is a critical difference between running away from or running toward something. The same goes for a men’s religious group which excludes women on the basis of fearing women’s sinister sexuality will “tempt” their own natural masculine desires. Compare this to a healthy fraternity of men that mingles fondly and respectfully with women, but is focused on fostering more brotherly affection and confidence among men’s lives and experiences.

The Arms of Creation

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I dreamt last night that I was a traveler through a great house of time showing me the ages of the earth. For so long it was the Age of Reptiles in their green and watery chambers of cool stone and warm, wet vine, their habitation stretching snakelike under the earth where the sun’s rays broke from time to time in pieces the tepid sky of the water’s surface, for we were submerged. Black stone as slick and heavy as night, and yellow eyes with slits the blacker I looked into, and marveled in fearful awe at the seeming eternity of their reign. How they marched in circles around their prey, I remember: giant crocodiles, lizards standing upright with horns for crowns, scales of purple and yellow-green, talons and slit pupils readied to kill, to slice and devour. In a circle they marched as one plays musical chairs, as if making thoughtless light of their killing, and the one who was to be slaughtered was jailed in the middle. I studied their ways even as I managed to evade them with the ever-present gift of flight I am blessed with in sleeping. Through their dim and swampy kingdom I tracked them, tracking into the unnamed eons of sands outpouring millennia, and I saw that their life did not rise again from those bogs of algae and insect but were commemorated only by fly and mosquito at the ready to feast. And now I saw a new age open before me. Escaping at once the death-snap of a monster’s jaws at my heels, I passed through a new door, welcomed as a refugee from execution. There I saw a lamb and a lion, and the waters around them were clear and unmuddied, the translucent blue of a jewel. Other mammals were there too, for this was, at last, the Age of Mammals. Mothers held their young close to their warm blood, furred bellies and pouches, and creatures gathered in affectionate packs of herds, flocks and families. Hoof and paw lived together, and when I could finally take my eyes from the radiant white of the lamb’s body, I saw that there was a temple formed out of the river, out of the landscape of savannah and forest where the great sky was not concealed. If I did not look I may not have seen it, that the arms of creation in branches and mountains held up the altar where the lamb and the lion resided. I perceived now that this altar was also the door I had passed through, and from it’s vantage the whole kingdom was seen without barrier. And I saw that crimson blood flowed from the altar, but the lamb lived, and his blood became water for all the animals of the land. And when the blood of any animal was spilt in this land, for food or for sport or for defense, for good or for ill, the lamb came to the body and the spirit of that animal and gave his own blood to save theirs, and even if all was drained from the body, still would the animal rise. This way, there was to be no death in this age when the age had come to be fulfilled. And at last I looked into the shining blue above and saw creatures with wings, whose yellow eyes, scaled feathers and talons rung familiar to another age and life I strained to remember, as if from a dream, so many eons before. And in their whirling and swooping for pure joy on the wind surrounded by the unveiled light, they looked down on the earth where once they swam and crawled and walked in the swamps, the grasslands and deep forests.

 

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Journal entry from 10/19/2013

 

 

header photo by DariuszSankowski. Public Domain.

footer photo (c) Amber MV 2016 

Get Going

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To that beleaguering whine of ingratitude I hear

emanating from mine own ear,

an echo in the place between my crown and spine

what says, “I cannot go”: to you I say, resign.

I bought the ticket, I will go,

hauling out my introverted self in tow.

Jesus, really,

I am thankful to the ones who love me

such that with delight

myself they to the party

do invite.

And so I shall arrive in peace of mind

and in a hearty disposition, singin’ praise

of fellowship and these lucky days

enfolding me in graces

which were before, to me, unknown

when blessings I’d not counted,

nor smiling faces,

and in such made myself alone.

 

 

(c) 2016 Amber MV

 

Photo by Unsplash. Public Domain. Pixabay.com

A New Sanctity for Marriage

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People don’t get married now for the same reasons they did so historically. Marriage used to be about family alliances, sharing resources, surviving in an uncertain world that was, paradoxically, more familiar to its inhabitants than ours is to us (pre-20th century history changed slowly). Now, the world is relatively much safer: enemy clans, the plague and the scourges of winter starvation are unlikely to raze your village to the ground –and we don’t even have villages now, for that matter (we talk a lot about “community” because most of us don’t really have it.) Love mattered back in the day, but this was only one factor among many others determining a marriage, and depending on the culture and time it may not have been considered at all. Now, we marry only for love, yet a lot of couples can’t trust each other to get married because we now have more unprecedented relationship problems than we know what to do with. Marrying for any other reason than love would be socially unacceptable, but love seems harder to come by, though we are more free. Marriage used to be obligatory, but somehow love could be found. Even the unmarried –celibate religious dedicants, widows and spinsters– found the love of God and each other. A good marriage founded the economics of the home. Now the economics of marriage are afloat on the sea of chaos. Everybody is expected to support themselves, including mothers who hold down full time “jobs” while their serious labor at home as mother or housekeeper is invisible and devalued to anyone outside of the family. Oh, but we’re supposed to want to “have it all”, right?

Let’s sympathize in both directions. Modern people justifiably value privacy and choice, but we can take a tip from the ancestors’ very realistic need to have marriage be a communal, public bond for survival’s sake. It was the time when vital resources and basic security were procured through such alliances. Good-hearted parents often attempted to arrange the most compatible match between a young woman and man, taking into consideration personality, attraction and consent. History is not entirely heartless. Yet, even in blind marriages many couples grew to love each other deeply, devotedly, and with tremendous cohesion. I maintain that the word “institution” to describe marriage is and always has been far too heartless a word: nobody goes to bed with an institution every night, even if the marriage was strictly, nonconsensually arranged. There’s still a human relationship there, and it could mean anything to the people inside it. Even in the most old-fashioned, patriarchal, public, communally arranged marriages, human beings are still human beings with feelings. Personal affection and attraction develop between a couple so that the marriage becomes intimate and private to them, even if that emotional bond wasn’t there initially at the marriage ceremony. Death and divorce are and always have been mourned not for the loss of an institution, but for the loss of someone you were intimately bonded with. We moderns can take a lesson in love and commitment, here. And conservative pundits can take a lesson when they talk about marriage being a glorified legal institution of times past, because they’re still missing the huge point that marriage will ultimately always be personal. Every culture has it’s love poetry.

Today, we are at the beginning of something with marriage. Our private choice of who we marry and when, without our family’s input, need be no less sacred, sincere or meaningful than the public commitment of yesteryear. We are not lacking dignity just because we don’t enter into marriage to get more cattle and a dowry. That being said, we’re in the middle of a whirlwind of struggling to redefine marriage at a deeper level than just an unstable emotional whim without ultimate purpose, a natural side-effect of new freedoms in marriage that comes with the territory of inventing whole-cloth a completely new culture of courtship. We are shaken by divorce, which is sometimes necessary but always anguish. We are struggling to re-sanctify marriage not as an exclusively patriarchal or heteronormative “institution”, but something no less serious or deeply sacred in it’s dawning expansiveness, its inclusivity to new ways of being.

The problem with our secular culture is not that many of us don’t believe in a particular deity or participate in public worship. The problem is that we have laughed off the entire deeper concept of sacredness in society altogether, which is dangerously throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is what triggers many conservatives who are against gay marriage. Though we rightly advocate for the freedom to marry our beloveds of whatever gender, societally we’ve forgotten the religious imagination which sanctifies this most intimate of human relationships, the sexual bond between people. Now, our task as a changing society is to bless, with whatever framework of ultimate meaning, devotion and beauty we can imagine, the sincere bonds forming between people. This will restore interconnectedness, community, purpose, belonging and a new cultural tradition. We grieve the absence of these parts of a functioning culture, leading some to question all personal freedom in unhelpful ways.

It is the mark of a healthy mind to be able to respect other peoples’ choices, within reason, while maintaining a different standard for one’s own life. Though we have differing values within an overarching culture, we all need a framework by which to live. We are in the midst of redefining multiple frameworks by which we may live, and the change can feel dizzying. Rapid change causes discord between people of different views, because there is a fear of losing touch with the anchoring foundations of our history that feel so essential to life. Liberals, while they work for a more humane world, can come to respect this need to be anchored to a cultural past. Though marriage is now a private matter, it is still impossible to engage in anything as consequential as marriage without affecting other people. The life the couple chooses to share together may be what matters most, but the success or failure of a marriage still greatly affects the the other people who are close to the married couple. American society is in search of equilibrium.

 

Photo by BhaktiCreative. Public Domain. Pixabay.com

The Sign of the World

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They move in unison across the landscape
separating their bodies but remaining one mind.
Now and again their minds are one.

Paint-blue storms from the sea call down the power,
flicker-snow flower as the sun parts the big arc
of the firmament and you’re surrounded on all sides,
baby eyes seeing, skin breathing, doe ears perked,
the long learning of grace and a large understanding:
love sacrifice and how the spring waters flow from it.

Warm fire, imagination. Cool, white heat.
Vision forever and ever.

True light goes where it wills,
recalls in it’s old smiles the first day
it seeped through the tan canyons,
caressed the green hills.
Now I am sure we are back at that first day for a moment.

I saw the grieving crowned with laurel and cedar,
the scent of sage and your sweet sweat in the mountains.
I heard a melodious sound on both sides of the night gate.
I saw bodies whole, our own bodies at play and at peace
and the stars all wheeled in their way overhead.
I felt the hands of a child bring to me the stag’s antler,
I saw the sign of the world in turtle tracks in the cool mud,
I saw ravens barrel-roll on the blue hem of heaven,
I awakened to the caravan’s laughter and water, fish in deep water,
I saw the sun called up by a father with heart and fire,
I heard a violin in the Juniper thicket.

Everywhere your face is clear to me,
whose lovely name is known by the mountains,
whose generations live in your being
from song into form into life.

I give my hands with yours to make the bread of the world,
cure for the sick, the heart that is restless for home.

Move through the woods and arroyos with beauty and grace
all my people, all one.
All souls are one.

 

Written for Anake Outdoor School of Wilderness Awareness School class of 2012-2013, The Awakening Otter Tribe, at Quail Springs Permaculture Farm, Cuyama, California, February 2013

 

Photo (c) 2013 Amber MV. All rights reserved.

Eight Dimensions in Culture

 

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There are, typically, seven dimension of wellness according to health researchers on the topic. They are Emotional, Environmental, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social and Spiritual. I’ve added Financial, so we’ll call it eight areas of wellness, here. I did some brainstorming as to what improvements can be made for our mainstream modern culture in each of these areas. These are rough notes, and will doubtless leave out important issues in each area. But this is what came to mind, food for thought. Please, respectfully add your opinion in the comments section as to what you would like to see improved in each area.

All this being said, I’d like to note that I think there’s a lot to our modern culture which is just fine and isn’t in urgent need of changing. We’re really good at at fulfilling due process of law, attaining high literacy rates, getting rid of Polio, abolishing slavery, not burning people alive at the stake, etc. So this is not meant to be an overwhelmingly negative critique. America, my modernized country from where I write and am most influenced by, is a country which is relatively very comfortable with change, even among conservative people. I am proud of this. Change is expected and is written into our cultural life together. Sometimes I think we actually need more of the healthy kind of stability (ie, everybody please stop bitching about Christmas trees and how people feel about them being in public. This is not worth arguing about.) But I critique my country because I love it and I believe in its worth. I intend my critique to be in a good spirit of uplifting and righting that which I love.

Areas of wellness, room for improvements and the challenges that hold us back:

 

Emotional

Improvements: More openness, transparency, and respect for the actual emotional inner lives of real people, ourselves included. Good communication. Better compassion and service for the mentally ill, in particular widespread chronic depression and anxiety as a common ailment which too many are afraid to openly claim or discuss. Ceasing an alarming trend of public shaming via the internet, which increases rabid mob mentality and isolates recipients of attacks.

Challenges: Depression, social isolation, self-loathing from trauma or social stigma.

 

Environmental

Improvements: Spending soulful time in wild or green spaces. Prioritizing nature education and a personal human-nature relationship with efforts at conservation. Being careful to not emphasize death and destruction of the environment above what good there still is, where success and resilience reign (children especially are sensitive to too much of an alarmist dying-earth message in education). Having a sense of identity, belonging and responsibility for where you live, connected to your land. Recognizing the deep aliveness and spiritual power of the animal, plant and nonhuman world, and our proud natural relationship to them. Increasing understanding between “creationists” and “evolutionists”; there is not a strict division, one can be both in a broad mind.

Challenges: Cultural disconnection/severance from the primal, nonhuman, wild world. “Nature Deficit Disorder” in kids and adults alike. Too much time inside, in artificial surroundings. Disconnect with the body.

 

Financial/Economic

Improvements: Becoming financially literate. Strong comprehensive financial education of teens and young adults. Decreasing reliance on credit and debt. Values of simple living: balancing needs and wants. Concurrently, respecting natural desire for material items in moderation without cultural shame of this desire, which feeds a psychological complex of obsession over materialism without fulfillment. Economic justice for affordable housing, increase the minimum wage and absolute respect for service workers, working parents, visibility and gratitude for the invisible people who clean our buildings every night. Adopting an attitude of “We are all in this together as Americans”. Honoring “hard work” without glorifying strenuous, exploitative labor at the cost of economic justice and basic restful wellness.

Challenges: Overwhelming debt, high cost of college, money-shame. Inexcusable lack of financial education for citizens.

 

Intellectual

Improvements: Finding real delight in learning, discovering that knowledge is often a greater joy than mere entertainment. Discovery of the inner and outer worlds of human life. Integrating the emotional and intellectual components of the full range of thought. Pursuing truth and wisdom.

Challenges: Rigid academia. Divorce between the emotional and intellectual. Lack of empathy in intellectual culture. Bad experiences with school turning people off from their own intelligence or potential. Biased, narrow measurements of intelligence.

 

Occupational

Improvements: Connection with economic justice for working people. Knowing that what you do for money does not define who you are. Fair and meaningful labor options. Organizing fellow workers and demanding more time off and better working conditions.

Challenges: Oppressive, systemic problems in work culture/history that affect us all. chronic overwork, lack of sleep, lack of childcare for working parents. Lack of social mobility, low pay and unequal pay discrimination. Not feeling free to be authentic self in work culture.

 

Physical

Improvements: Think of “exercise” as not separate from the rest of life, not a punishment; self-regulated, less boot-camp ideology, which is unsustainable. Pacing ourselves. Embodiment and delight in our physical selves. Allowing yourself to rest when you need, eat food when you need, move when you need, piss when you need, touch when you need, run when you need. Do not sit all day. Awareness and Vitality.

Challenges: Furniture culture, sitting too much, even while I’m writing this and a part of me would rather be outside with my eyes on the marvelous movement of clouds across the bright, big sky instead of glazed on a computer (but I’m here because reasons). Being conditioned as kids to think of exercise as a punishment or a task inflicted on you externally, instead of internally-driven. Despair, disembodiment, devaluing the body’s aliveness.

 

Social

Improvements: Grasping the spirit of “I am because we are.” –African traditional saying. Intact cultural identity. Connection to greater human story. Going outside yourself. Having a supportive village-style community. Having an intimate spouse/life partner or finding fulfillment as a single person. Interconnected social identity with one another, an end to self-segregation.

Challenges: Too much individualism. Not enough restorative alone time may exhaust what time is spent with others if it is not quality time. Confusing the difference between in-person and online relationships. 

 

Spiritual

Improvements: Seeing the Divine presence in all places, the “Imago Dei”. Sing songs that give you power in the middle of the chest. Understand the poetic and prophetic. Gratitude. Go into the forest. Listen for the voice of Wisdom and Beauty, knowing you are not estranged from it. Play with God. Delight in the World.

Challenges: Fundamentalism, including both conservatives’ textual literalism and liberals’ rejection/belittling of all that is imaginal, metaphorical or mysterious. Loss of imagination, dulled inner vision, numbed awareness of natural magic innate in the world. Rejecting the nonhuman world. Not remembering or paying attention to the pull of the heart.

 

 

References:

Seven Dimensions of Wellness from University of California, Riverside

 

Photo by Unsplash, Public Domain, Pixabay.com

The Spell-Charm of Everyday Speech

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Lately I’ve noticed how automatic and unconscious speaking a language is. We know what sounds right, but we don’t always know why it sounds right. We rarely stop to think through every word we say in a sentence unless we’re learning a new language, or when we trip over words that don’t sound right. Intriguing. In doing some research on this I came across stories of people who grew up without a language: deaf people born to hearing parents who were unable (or unwilling) to sign with them, as in the astounding article from Greg Downey, Life Without Language (Susan Schaller wrote a book on this, A Man Without Words). Many of these people, until found and rehabilitated by the deaf community in adulthood, were depressed and isolated without any ability to communicate, or even to clearly distinguish one object from another. With language, symbols for communication, the parts of everyday life actually become more real and discernible.

For example: I’m wondering why the difference between “much” and “many” is a big deal to native English speakers; and we catch it when we pick the wrong one of these two– “she has much dollars” makes our ears wince– but we can’t immediately explain why. Follow the white rabbit down the hole of linguistic anthropology to the mysterious root of language in our species. What began as a question of grammar becomes a deeper marveling at why we say anything at all, why pattern adds up and sounds make sense. Why is it these symbolic patterns, this unconscious depth continues to overtake our attention, sometimes causing us to speak a glitch in the system?

When I am feeling emotionally distanced from language itself as my primary mode of expression is when I am more likely trip over grammar and not care about how it sounds. I have always considered myself a wordy person, but in the past couple years I’ve been more focused on physicality, less “in my head” and at times more keen to express myself not immediately in words, but through image or movement. It was then the difference between the plural and the singular became increasingly irrelevant, my patterns of speech loosened and I could write more freely without self-censorship. Creative writing became easier, not harder, when I wasn’t stuck in Wordlandia, but explored other forms of language (language is not only words, it’s the conveyance of meaning). Being stuck in the realm of the “left brain” becomes restricting. It is necessary to break language’s patterns, invoke the animal body. Experimental freedom in language may happen more readily in spoken language, as that is when we allow ourselves to be more unselfconscious in our communication, in tune with others’ body language and focused on physical ques of the real, sensory world. Compare this to the cerebral strangeness that is writing an essay on a computer screen, every mis-written word underlined in red squiggles.

I once heard the idea that words as symbols can actually separate us further. At the time I heard this I was approaching near-worship of wordiness, an unconscious response to finding myself suddenly immersed in a (beautiful) subculture of an outdoor school which valued physical experience and body language as much as the spoken and written word, if not more. I loved this place, but worried my inclination toward expressing myself verbally was uncool in this social scene I so pined to be accepted in. The idea goes as follows: if somebody says “wolf”, you may both think of the animal, but if they go on to say, “An old grey wolf in summer is hunting for food,” that could separate you more. You both have different internal ideas of the animal’s fur color, what an old or young wold looks like, how summer feels, but maybe you were imagining snow on the ground before they said “summer”. More specifics could lead your imaginings further apart, according to the idea. It was an ear-opening way of understanding the world, and human communication. I think it is easy in modern society to over-glorify words in particular as the best means of communication, when we also have other ways of understanding each other.

In the academic paper Psycholinguistics, Formal Grammars, and Cognitive Science, Fernanda Ferreira introduces the field of psycholinguistics and its relationship to what might be going on at the level of cognitive processing. She writes,

 

“Psycholinguists who study adult processing are interested in how people understand and produce language. In the sub-area of comprehension, their aim is to develop theories that explain how listeners understand utterances in real time, even in the face of massive ambiguity and indeterminacy in the input. For production, the goal is to capture how speakers move from a communicative intention to a series of articulatory gestures, which results in utterances that are reasonably fluent and typically comprehensible to others. Psycholinguistic investigations focus on the constraints associated with real time processing. People understand language at the rate of about 300 words per minute, which implies that lexical retrieval, syntactic parsing, and semantic interpretation all occur in a matter of a few hundred milliseconds. Considering the size of the databases that must be consulted during comprehension, the speed and accuracy of human processing is truly astonishing.” (Ferreira)

 

That “speed and accuracy of human processing” is what I have come to appreciate from being a writer who draws from real-time, spoken life. To write in this way is to scratch the surface of what language is and why we are so sensitive to it. In tracking spontaneous, unedited patterns of speech from myself and those around me, I’m caught in wonder by the warm-blooded mechanics underlying evolving human language. Calling on any logical sequence of words as a species is real-life magic. It’s no accident that there’s a double meaning to the word “spell”; to write a word, to cast a charm. And there is hidden spell-charm in everyday speech. I know several people whose names are seemingly common, called the same as another’s, but they do not sound the same to me. To the untrained ear of an outsider there may register no difference. But to me, they have different names. One of my friends named Alex is not the same as the other, and it takes a friend to hear the difference. Somewhere in the ether between the life of the lips and the ear of the beholder, a word is made flesh. Even common names are incantations. Language may be a smaller pattern within nature mimicking the structure of nature itself.

 

 

Works Cited

Downey, Greg. “Life Without Language.” Neuroanthropology. WordPress, 21 July 2010. Web. 3 Sep. 2016. https://neuroanthropology.net/2010/07/21/life-without-language/

Ferreira, Fernanda. “Psycholinguistics, Formal Grammars, and Cognitive Science.” The Linguistic Review 22 (2005): 365-80. Lingo.stanford.edu. Stanford University. Web. 3 Sep. 2016. http://lingo.stanford.edu/sag/papers/ferreira05.pdf

 

photo by wilhei, Public Domain. Pixabay.com

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