yesterday at the online conference the zen teacher norma, whose people were from the island called oahu, on the side where it rains everyday 200 years on the chinese side and 3,000 years on the native side, spoke of each place saying the ocean they call the pacific the country sometimes called america i felt the spaciousness of that naming today the sounds of the birds at waking smashed me to the bed with joy and fear how glorious to be woken by bird song how horrible to live in a world without birds with only bird alarm sounds and bird stories and bird stuffies and bird poems and no birds as though the naming erased the thing being named john a powell said identity becomes more important when it is attacked harder, stacked like scar tissue that can’t flow to respond to new conditions contradictions a boundary is any place where movement happens any movement is across a space if we allow for the space then there is a boundary to negotiate between the land and its name between one ancestral train and the one that flows the other way tugging, contradicting for a time, loving but also between the cells in that ancestral body between the molecules that make the globule edge between past and future also a boundary constantly reconfiguring one side memory-phillic one side memory-phobic the binding, the cross over not unified but glorified the birds call the birds die not all together but one, one, one at a time
Spring comes on apace. Buds nearly opening on JD’s cherry; the white magnolias by the Chinese garden in full bloom. Must take a walk around the neighborhood to see if any of our favorites from last year are going yet. Odd to think of how much suspense and unknowing was packed into this week a year ago. We walked around, full of potential (and heartburn), with no idea what we were getting into. I remember being fairly calm about the whole thing, but feeling the dam about to burst with all the force of new experience behind it. It hasn’t stopped for a moment since then. This I failed to imagine. Before her it seems like life was something of a patchwork, in which I could be absorbed in one thing for a time and then walk away from it completely, to something else. Only now do I recognize the peacefulness and quiet there was in having only myself, my internal world and consciousness . . . Jeff is right that Zelda is like a low hum that never goes away. Her color is on everything now and has been for nearly a year … and will be my whole life if I am so lucky?
When you are bigger, I want you to know these things about the year after you were born: we were together all the time. I did everything for you. Your father, too. He worked endlessly to make you happy, to keep you from crying or to stop it if it started. We fed you bite by bite, our hands like bird mouths, alternating as we placed bits and pieces on your tongue. I almost never refused you the breast. Until the last month or so of this year, I literally always gave it if you asked. And you asked, on and off, all day long and all night long; every hour, or half hour, or three hours. When you were sick, I held you without pause all day and night, sleeping sitting up leaning against pillows that your father placed carefully for me. You never liked to lie on your back, or your stomach. You liked to stand on our laps, or sit, facing forward, in our arms, leaning your head into life. For the first week after you were born, you would fall asleep on your father’s chest, your head over his heart and your arms splayed. He loved it. You are sleeping now, sitting on my lap in your pouch, your legs wrapped round my waist. Occasionally turning your head from side to side against my chest, murmuring in your throat. Your hands, for once, hang limp. I look around at all the mothers in this world, at the grocery, on the street, in the parks and restaurants and pools, and marvel: they all did this? Lived this endlessly devoted existence? Waited days upon days to shower, stood at the sink up to the elbows in dishes with a yelling child yanking their pants off? I am awed.
Your papa is concerned about justice. He sleeps alone, in the other bedroom. He feels guilty that I have no choice but to wrestle with you all night long, always hoping you will remain asleep a little longer this time, or go back to sleep a little quicker. If you are restless, if you are teething or on the edge of some developmental leap, or if you are just the way you are and wake again and again and cry and struggle against sleep or its opposite and kick me in the belly and smack my face with your little hands, then that is simply the nature of my night. You rule my world. And perhaps there will be a time when you read this and are indignant. You see these words as complaint, or believe that I am trying to tell you that you owe me something. But that is not the case. I knew, every step of the way, that I was choosing to never turn you down, to never deny you the physical assurance and comfort and attention that you believe you need. I knew that we made the choice to bring you into our lives and that giving you all of ourselves would be, for us, a necessary part of that choice. Your dad and I – oh, babe – we love each other so much. We had no idea what we were going to give up in this first year to be able to give you what we believed you needed. But when your dad worries about justice, I tell him, we are here. And now she’s here. We’re bound to each other. That’s justice.
As we move into the second year of your life I will have to turn you down more. I will have to ask more of you, and more of myself, to do this. In many ways, this year has been very simple: you have done a wonderful job of taking care of yourself. You have let me know what you need and have taken it. (I hope so much that you will always be able to do this: to state your needs, to unapologetically accept what is offered to you when you ask for it. It is a wonderful thing to live in this world as an animal, with a deep understanding of need and family (those who must and will give you what you need, and to whom you must do the same) and the judgments left aside.) I have not had to decipher your wants from your needs, as I will have to do each day for many years, and occasionally, after that, forever. In regards to you, I will have to do this for myself as well, and your papa for himself; we will want things from and for you that we do not need, and I hope that we will have the sense to back away from these things if you do not also want them.
today’s photo is of
Me as the framer, behind the camera. I am not visible. And yet, I am always present in what I choose to show, in how I am reflected in the moments I witness, cultivate, memorialize, study.
When I first conceived of the desire to make a writing practice out of witnessing my younger self through the lenses of cameras held by adults who surrounded me as a child, it was because I was so moved and awed by the results of a similar practice as shared by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, on her website and instagram.
As I daily published the first three of these explorations this week, I mentioned this connection, hoping to point anyone interested toward the path of her work, which I honor as highly as any I’ve been exposed to in my life. What I feel toward Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a creative devotion, and a spiritual one.
Then, a friend asked me to consider the harm of showing up in social media space as a white person, examining and displaying my white girlhood, and naming a connection to the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs – without naming the Blackness of her work, the Blackness of the being and belonging she remembers and embodies, and the cultural dominance of whiteness, which gives me access that I haven’t truly earned.
Receiving my friend’s reflection, I thought of another new friend, Moe Bowstern, a white poet, gnc neighbor witch, who has been so steady in her accountability to the ig project she’s been doing daily since back in March that it has become a touchstone of my own pandemic experience. A part of this accountability has been charting her decolonial and anti-racist un-learning in public, as she receives loving feedback and and reframes from a place of growth.
These posts are my favorites often, because god yes do we all need so much modeling of repair! The violence of whiteness makes us fear being seen as vulnerable, in process, interdependent. Protecting ourselves, we cannot grow. Paralyzed, we solidify the power structure with the illusion that power connotes competence.
Emergence depends on collaborative presence; we have to fall sometimes to feel the ground. Most of us don’t trust that others will help us up if we haven’t felt it.
I’m coming to love fucking up and falling apart because I trust that I will be loved into growth. Love is shaped so many ways, you know? But. And. No one can love me into growth if I am not there first, fingers in the dirt, landing in the humility of my unconditional belonging to Earth. For a white person in white dominant culture, this feels especially important, especially fraught. Who do I harm when I don’t have a practice of melting this perverse, pervasive insistence on my infallibility?
Receiving my friend’s reflection, I knew that I had come to the project with the larger intention of witnessing cultural forces acting on my child body. How was I welcomed into whiteness? How did my body learn to perform the gender assigned to me? When did I learn to smile and play innocent ignorance, at the cost of developing my ability to witness and interrupt harm? Was I always seeking a cultural holding that would make me less lonely? Was I always wandering into the spirit world? Did the people around me know? Did I wonder then about how and why our structures were so restrictive, so hollow? Did I suspect? Did I notice the holes?
These questions are rooted in cultivated curiosity about my participation in genocidal patterns. I have felt again and again how each of our unlearning of cruelty is essential for our collective freedom. I write again and again in letters to incarcerated humans on the land we call Oregon: none of us are free until all of us are free. I believe this with my whole self. And, as I experience when I get to listen to or read Alexis Pauline Gumbs, we are all already free, already in the unfolding of love, already fully accompanied.
It is each of our responsibility – opportunity? – to feel this, to help breathe this truth into the collective body. But. And. Although my practice is pointed toward remembering the truth that Alexis Pauline Gumbs seems by her nature to know, bearing witness to what is in the way of that paradise, as a white person in a white dominated world, defines the shape of my own work. I cannot shirk the difference there. Any skipped step is subtly in service to the status quo.
Receiving my friend’s reflection, I felt how I had pointed the lens. What was inside my frame and what was not. Yes, the child self I was studying was at the mercy of cultural forces beyond her control. But the adult self I am revisits these touchstones in choice.
I get access to Alexis Pauline Gumbs as a writer and teacher: a Black Feminist writer whose poetry is also a guide to practice. My experience of her practice is that it celebrates Blackness, love, and collectivity. In the introduction to their Finding Our Way conversation, Prentis Hemphill says, “In her work and in her way of being, Alexis illuminates the Black Feminist path forward which is the path of our ultimate liberation.”
I identify with Prentis Hemphill’s use of the word ‘our’ in this statement, even though – indeed, because – I understand that the ultimate liberation they reference is not framed around my freedom or lack thereof.
Unlike Alexis Pauline Gumbs, I am not a Black Feminist scholar. I am not in devoted, direct relationship with the women and queer people, living and dead, who have shaped that movement. I am not Black. Like all of us, I have ancestors who would today be considered Black. Like all of us, I live today because of their thriving. But that honor is not mine in this life.
Further, my recent ancestry is shaped by potent patterns of harm that both allowed my people to survive, and traumatized their relationships with Earth, Life, and Spirit. Along with love and labor, the unconditional support of the Earth, and the often conditional support of their relatives and communities, my ancestors made their ways to me by acquiesing to and perpetuating racism, settler colonialism, and murderous patriarchal christian capitalism. We learned to lie, and to forget. We learned to keep each other numb by shutting down empathy and shaming connection categorically. In these patterns, everyone suffers. But the suffering, and the responsibility, and the healing – look different depending on the places we’re held in the pattern.
Holding this difference is the only way for me, as a white person, to enter a room where Black women thrive. Really, holding the difference, I might see that I don’t belong in that room at all. And, because of Black Abundance, I could still be filled with wisdom, just sitting in the hall.
Like Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “my creative practice and my spiritual practice are the same practice.” I think this is true for Moe, too, and for the friend who gently called me in. I offer unconditional appreciation to these three, today, in their very different places in the constellation, for their influence in my practice. I offer, especially, gratitude and humility to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, her ancestors, and our shared Earth, as I acknowledge how easy it is for me, as a white-bodied adult with the encouragement of educational privilege and social media speed, to pick and choose what I use and what I show, without sufficient context or patience to honor the integrity of how each of us knows what we know.
I make an offering of this photograph, of my first born child in the arms of my mother, whose first born daughter, I am. A reminder of the pace I know in my body, of this particular cellular unfolding of love. This is the pace at which I want to practice. In this granular intimacy. With grief and vulnerability and dedication and joy.
In 1983 I prayed to ducks
a few geese, sometimes a seagull
I went out to them, dressed, with my toes covered
Driven by coach to the edge of their water hostel
Or, if I had the choice, in my nightgown
Bare feet on dew spiked suburban lawn
Web of relations hidden, gone
Ceremonial scent of Juniper
Offering bag in my pink paw
Always together, tied by love
Powerful smack of wings above
Floating, iridescent grace
Cupped in a palm of reflected space
Peers on the ground, familar toddlers:
side to side, shoulder sway strut
Yet – they could leave at any time
Shake their tails – fast – down the wide asphalt
Delicately, then, show what you’ve brought
Adults away – you’ll scare them off!
The bag often deeper than my arm was long
The holy task of crumbling, giving to ground
Of desert morning light
sparkle of the night’s wetness
ascending to sky
Ring chain of calls
Here are my gifts
Let me belong
Little mama, talking to the spirits.
The solace of women all around, modeled in the kitchen, on the shows
Alone? So often alone at home? Repetitive jobs to do, babies to hold
Pick up the phone
Cradle it to your tender face, ask to be held
To be known
(After Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who writes beautiful reflective poems connecting to elements, ancestors, childhood, and more than human family on her website and on instagram.)
After Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who writes beautiful reflective poems connecting to elements, ancestors, childhood, and more than human family on her website and on instagram.
I find a lot of photos, deep in the front closet, that turn my stomach a bit. That tender one, me, already trying to be … I find others where I am caught in a moment of authentic connection with the photographer, or with my inner world, with spirit, with Earth. I find photos made by me, as I found my way to the safe space behind the lens. I find photos that I am in, which I also made, family – human, tree – without which I would not be, bunched around me.
When I was photographing at p:ear, I would chat the young people up who spent time there, show them my camera, see if they were interested in touching it. The light, simple plastic quality of a Holga is a ready invitation: not familiar, also not intimidating. I would suggest a swap: I make an image of them, they make an image of me.
One of my favorite youth to chat with – we, especially she, could run the words of daily pain, delight, hope and harm up the philosophy flag pole for hours – taught me a practice. She said when she photographs herself (describing dysphoria, grief, pleasure, attraction, a desire to present, a desire to be revealed – alllll the portrait wisdom), she can only get through the desire to run from capture… by taking a breath. Breathe in, breathe out, click. Tied together in the act of portraiture, we did that. Frame; breathe in; breathe out; click. She held the camera, we did it. I held the camera, we did it.
She was beautiful. Dark eyes, pig tails, sharp jaw, torn plaid dress open at the chest. I was maybe a bit in love with her. While also holding my boundaries: mentor, adult. She kept hers too, in her way, quiet then brassy, on estrogen and off, housed and not. On days that I saw her there, I know my face showed how I felt. Her willingness to let everything else disappear for hours with me, her face when I understood, showed something too. Would those faces have showed in our photos?
Turned out the camera was set to bulb for rolls and rolls that I didn’t get developed until too late to know, before my time there ran out. So everything was unsalvageably blurred. We looked at the prints together; probably I gave her one to keep. We agreed that the movement of breath was visible.
Now I sit with this school portrait – studio session? at, maybe, seven, and see how I was holding my breath. Holding my teeth. Holding a smile. Holding a plastic log or edge of a piece of furniture. At the center of attention, warm lights on me, a formality, an excitement, a little urgency. Not yet able to feel the relief when it is over and my spirit slides back in. Not yet able to give myself permission to feel the relief. Heart in throat; throat in mouth. Sit up, look here. Apple cheeks, bright eyes.
Who was I looking at, with the lights in my eyes? Aware of being seen, but floating in the blank between me and whatever it is they see. Aware of the projection, caught in the dream of controlling the narrative by fulfilling it. Not yet aware of my own tightness, trying to present, hoping to be revealed.
My face is the face of a secret. Mischievous. Holding my breath. The secret of relief, of expansion, of yelling, running, dress mussing. The secret of anger. The secret: nothing will please, everything will please. The secret of real mountains, real trees. Their bodies.
The knowing that this representation somehow matters. Like the collar: a merengue around my small neck, a wimple, a clown suit. Now I seem to recall, that dress a copy of one I had for my doll, something I asked for. In it, maybe I could love myself as I loved her? Ceremony of lights, sit up, smile, hold still. The display of a white girl child, hoping to look like a doll. Some armor I knew, from generations, how to live within, how to use.
A representation of aspens, clouds, mountains. Fall color frozen in time. A representation of childhood. A representation of a person with a secret, which is her own wild life.
Hello love. Hello me. Feel that breath? Step outside, let it free.
Begin in a moment when you feel relaxed and at ease in your body.
While sitting in a comfortable chair, holding the baby.
While the kids are breathing in their sleep and you have given yourself permission to rest.
While reading a book to an interested, relaxed child.
While on a walk, watching a toddler study the world with all their senses.
While witnessing an older child as they share something with you they care about.
Notice your feet in this moment.
Then your belly.
Feel all your skin; how you are contained by the air around you.
Follow that containment back into your belly.
In the bowl of your pelvis: the location where this child began, whether in your body or in another’s.
The place where their own future children rest now in possibility.
That place in your body has a tone, a pulse.
As you notice yourself here, can you imagine this place in your body getting heavier?
Can you imagine your gentle breath expanding in this place?
Can you feel yourself settle down – warm, heavy – into this place, as a baby settles into sleep in your arms?
Stay with this sensation for as long as you like. Revisit it as often as you like.
Notice when it is hard to access this feeling. Notice if you are avoiding this place in your body.
I’ll suggest that, regardless of how you relate to yourself, this refuge is always there.
Can you check to see if this feels true to you?
Here is a practice:
Observe your child enter the room
Consider yourself at your child’s age
Say nothing still
(If they ask you a question or request something, respond
minimally, just enough – you might have to put off the practice
for later – there will be many chances, believe)
Feel the back of your body
Sense your soft liquid self going right to the back
Still, remain quiet
Imagine what the person you were (and still are)
might most have wished to know about themselves
when they were constantly under the scrutiny
of the person who provided house and home, life and limb
Consider the privilege of knowing
this person, in front of you, now
who’s choice will, inevitably, be
to go away from that scrutiny, so that they can expand more fully
Feel again, the full volume
of you – how you have made this space
to live in
Feel how your eyes/ ears/ tongue/ hands
can turn and soften, to touch within
There is that younger you,
just there – feel, where?
And, across the room
is someone entirely else
Can you look with new eyes?
If you do: