Conversation w Clara in the bath, while reading Ramona
Do you know what ‘Conscience’ means?
Do you want me to tell you?
People usually think that a Conscience helps you know when you have hurt someone else, or broken a social rule, does that sound familiar?
Do you think you can tell in your body, the way Ramona can, that you have done something other people don’t want you to do? Ramona’s tummy hurts. Sometimes my throat feels tight because I am worried. Does anything happen for you?
I just cry.
OK. Yeah. Is there anything that helps you feel better when you have that feeling?
Someone talking to me. But not the person I hurt and not the person who got me in trouble. Someone I love or someone who doesn’t know what I did or doesn’t mind.
… I pause, sensing that there is moral threatening on the horizon of my mind …
Do you want to say sorry to the person you hurt, after you feel better?
… Pause …
Some people think a conscience is to help you learn what hurts people so you can change what you do so you don’t keep hurting them. What do you think?
I don’t know. I don’t want to hurt people unless I’m mad. Like, if I hit someone then when I am mad again I will probably hit them again.
Who do you hit?
Zelda. Only Zelda. Because she is my sister. I wouldn’t hit my friends.
Because they are my friends! I don’t want to. I wouldn’t.
What about Ida?
But you do get mad at Ida.
Sometimes you are sharp with your words.
Yeah. But that is because we are deep friends. Deep heart friends. I can get mad at her. Not like my school friends. They are head friends. We play more carefully.
Zelda and I rode to Laurelhurst park on May 31st to protest. It was the second night since this most recent iteration of the uprising for Black Life had sparked in Portland. Maybe the third. Jeff had just gone downtown to “help clean up” with John G.
Tonight I will march again … for the 10th or 11th or 12th time.
My google calendar still holds the old story: swim lessons, gymnastics, childcare swaps. I am returning from a BMC training in Lorane. I am headed out on a five day backpacking trip with youth from school – school where I am no longer employed and no one is leading a backpacking trip for youth.
It was too much to delete everything at once. And it is too much to add what is actually going on somehow on top of what was planned. So I let the days float freely, unadhered to the construct. I write very little here. It feels like such a struggle to quantify, to try to name, to hold it still.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been in the crowd, chanting, walking, heart in fist. It doesn’t matter. Only a few things matter, is the legitimate relief of now: the source of all possibility. So much floats, but the path is clear.
I have no paid work and yet I work, am being paid. I think about the same issues, practices, processes I thought about when I was “working,” though the number of interactions with others is far fewer. The pressure to produce on an external schedule is much less. The pressure to grow is not less. The pressure to grow comes from within, from the pull between earth and sun.
In a text conversation with a former colleague and still-friend, I joked that I had no idea the government was going to pay me to work for Black dignity, joy, and self-determination in 2020. As soon as I saw the words on the screen, I realized the disconnect: of course I did know; before I got laid off, before Covid-19, before the uprising – that was my job, as I conceived it.
It looks different now. I miss my students. I miss my colleagues. Like most everybody, I stay home a lot, doing repetitive things in my house, some of which are functionally supportive (making dinner, listening to the kids, moving money into Black lives and Black orgs) and others which are dysfunctionally supportive (eating the cakes the twelve year old makes, going for periodic swims in the meme ocean, painting my fingernails black so I won’t bite them and then biting them anyway).
I look at my phone a lot. I take mandatory breaks and struggle, but manage to cut down. Then I congratulate myself and re-addict. I just want to stay in connection with the movement, with the cultural body that is close enough to my value matrix so that I can resonate, cultivate, transmit beyond just the small feeling of me locked away in my privilege in my house.
On the streets I feel connected, rooted, powered by the great bursting desire of the Earth. And then I feel, afterward, relieved to take a break from the drumming, shouting, dully repetitive language of the march, of the crowd. My inner Virgo rises, and I want carefully constructed sentences, details, history, multiple meanings, shadow and light. My inner Taurus wants to slow down, touch the grass like a lover. I want to move my own small body in generative, intuitive ways. I want to feel the myriad replications of life, in a dance that includes time but is not defined by it. I want to explore the ramifications of even the smallest codes – “what does Good mean in this case?” I ask the children, again and again. My inner Cancer wants the loving push-back that can only happen in intimacy, where the fetus kicks, where personhood and personality can be parsed, and the warp of conditioning fingered gently from the weft of Life.
But here at home I am often blank, shifting from one room to another, putting the phone down, picking it back up. I sit to write, and tiptoe along the edge of hopelessness, using two hands to break the full flooding spectrum of sensation into word problems I can solve for an imagined audience. So I try to read, and in three pages am so full of the concentrated literary transmission of one human (Hanif Abdurraquib or Christy deGallerie or Aja Monet or Ta-Nehisi Coates or adreinne marie brown or Suzan Lori-Parks) whose sharing of their embodied experience of oppression, white supremacy, family, safety, legacy, beauty, gender and Blackness is so unique, so collective, so painful, so rich and proud and elegant, so impenetrable and isolating and impossible to fucking get a break from – that I subside again, rocked by intimacy and vastness. A cat sits on me, and I collapse into relief at being only this body again. If I pet the cat long enough, someone will sit with me, and I can listen to a kid talk about a show or a dream, or read a kid a book, and then it will be almost time to cook dinner, again.
The rest is garden: turn of leaf, root need, language of shadow and air, too tight here, too bright there. I draw out where the abundance makes a rhythm that erases difference, limits possible outcomes; I feed in where my desire is whetted but not yet met. The soil is so many ways; my toes show where it was garden bed, where pathway, where an anchor plant has made the land a home. I feel the space between “me” and “it” – from the window/ from the deck/ passing on the path/ deep in, crumbly on my sweat. Our relating shifts from eyes to ears to smell to skin. I breathe translucent, ego-less, from watching-the-gold-lit-leaves to wet-shirt-petal-pile to how-are-you-corn? I am cells upon cells, a whisper garland on my mother’s chest.
The garden senses, I think, if I am in a mood to visit and listen, or a mood to fuck things up. Sometimes I am a reverant worshiper; sometimes the nature of harm reduction is action after action, because learning from impact requires engaging with choice. Red bark cracks from manzanita branch. The jays squack at the cats. The bunnies watch me expectantly, knowing my process brings fresh green things to the pen. I wonder if their categories for the leaves I toss them overlap with my own: grass, broad leaf, woody stalk … do they peruse by flavor (bitter? sweet?) or rate of digestion (fibrous cells, watery ones). Do they break up bites of the medicinals with something a little blander? Or is it all about what is most fresh?
Walking the stalls at the farmers market every week, throughout the pandemic, the winter, and for seasons and seasons before (and after), I fancy myself like the rabbits, twitching my nose and tuning in to my salivary glands – a wordless inquiry, reading the recipe for satisfaction in red cells/ thirsting for that which only green cells can eat: soil and sun.
In the kitchen it is simple, rhythmic: clear a space. Beets. Greens cut off and boiled, roots roasted, their damp, leathery skins rubbed off with a blue towel. Cool under the shakes of a vinegar bottle, rain of salt. In a bowl with cucumbers, smooth white goats cheese peeled out of plastic. Pause, face to light, to dream of the day when the green tomatoes on the vine will be red in the bowl. Black pepper. More vinegar. More salt. When it is time to eat, unwrap the head of lettuce from its shroud. Chop gently, add with oil to the bloody pile, turn with kindness in your heart, eye-edges wide and soft. Feel safety in the skin of bare legs. Sense the back of your neck. Let the air all around extend in and out; feel held. Gather; ring the bell.
Sometimes I pull tarot cards, since a friend leant me hers. I tend my altars, sit on my cushion, follow my spirit into the center as I fall to sleep, wind it out again in the waking light. I’ve spent plenty of years of my life inquiring into specialized practices for juicing the nervous system, flushing toxins, burning the seeds of karma, grounding anxiety and leavening depression. I’ve taught these practices and learned from the alchemy of witnessing the spells at work in others’ bodies. I’ll continue to do this. But “practice” in this way is like the boxes of my calendar: a construct. I let that track go on, but what floats above it, or walks beneath, is everywhere. Not held or transmitted, not known or learned. Not planned, not future or past. It is each footfall in a rumbling wave of feet: Now, Now, Now.
Last night, something real happened between my daughter and me.
As a friend said, “everyone’s regular patterns are just getting louder right now.” As my therapist said, “Strategies are going to show up.” As another friend said, “I don’t think we can expect to do this better; I think we can only try to be kind to ourselves and each other while we struggle. Cuz we’re going to struggle.”
Of course, one of the biggest strategies that is showing up in response to socially enforced isolation is substantially increased screen-time, at least for those of us with ready access to internet. This is something I’m hoping to write a lot about, because it feels like the leading edge of the social experiment our culture is running right now. At the same time, I feel like maybe I shouldn’t write so much about it, because the direct experience of seeking to get relational needs met through screens is triggering to me. Maybe I should just go back to the garden.
So this unfolding interaction occurred between me and my daughter, but it also occurred between me and my device and the social media platform that I primarily use on my device, and – maybe? adjacently? non-consensually? – the people who follow me closely enough on that social media platform to glance at my story while this messy fleshy thing was happening, right here in my house, between us. We know our interpersonal neurobiological relational complexity is both magnified and blurred through translation to high speed pixelation – right? But here is a specific moment: just a small normal set of interactions between a mama nearing 40 and her tween daughter, spending long days in a house together, feeling not totally consenting, seeking connection and release through the internet…
This great kiddo, who is in sixth grade, who has had a smartphone of her own since the beginning of this school year, and who has multiple social media accounts, including, most recently, Instagram, has, over the last few months, like many of her ilk, experimented with baking. A while back she made some chocolate chip cookies that were a hit, and she has made them several times since. Yesterday, I asked her to make them. For me. Because I feel grumpy and sad and confused. Because it is the beginning of the third week of our new not-normal and maybe a cookie would help. She agreed.
Then her good friend came over (this is something else I want to write about specifically here, which is that, in the midst of a call to retreat completely into our – very separate, very often hetero-normative monogamous family units – we have chosen to remain un-isolated from a small version – 9 people total – of what we consider our chosen family) and they proceeded to goof and giggle their way through the recipe. I was on a work Zoom call, and they were throwing themselves on the floor in the background, gasping and cackling. It was vaguely irritating. But they are eleven, they are cooped up, they were having fun together and I was going to get some cookies.
Off the call, I discovered what had been so funny: they didn’t make the cookies quite right. Melted too much butter. Poured it all in anyway. Didn’t mix the wet ingredients before adding the dry. I mean, screwing up baked goods is something I can really understand. And the cookies were still very much edible, if lumpy and a little burned-butter flavor on the bottom. But I was sad. Another expectation not met. If I had made the cookies, I would have pouted, maybe even shouted. I might have gotten a little sobby release out of my disappointment that this small thing couldn’t be normal and comforting.
But I didn’t make the cookies. And the people who did were still cackling. I suppose I could have tried to laugh with them. Or just eaten a bunch of the disappointing, lumpy, slightly-burned-butter cookies. Or gone for a walk! Or smoked a joint! But what I did was take a picture and complain on my Instagram stories about how my kid made “gross” cookies. I said, “and I can’t even throw a tantrum” – even though I was throwing a digital tantrum (albeit without any of the physiological benefits), for an unknown number of people, both instantly and for the next 24 hours.
I wanted some allies. I wanted to just quickly bitch to someone who would get it. Be snarky. I wanted to take some of the irritation out of the space between me and my kid, and stick it on a digital shelf somewhere, to see if it had a half-life.
This is not the real thing that happened. But it was necessary to the real thing.
A few hours later, my kid came to me, upset. She had seen on my stories what I had said about the cookies. Gross. She had seen that 45 other people, most of whom she does not know (and some of whom I do not know) had seen what I had said. She was clear that I had crossed a line; that the joke I had tried to make was a mean one, and mean at the expense of my own kiddo, in the company of strangers.
Getting a lesson in the nuances and dangers of social media from an eleven year old is a real thing! After weeks of watching her spend more and more time with her sweet, broad face tipped down in the green glow of the internet, inwardly rehearsing my fear-prayer that her nervous system was rewiring at top speed in the time of corona, I was being called in – by the very victim-child I had projected on – to a more careful culture of emotional-digital overlap.
I consider myself pretty good at getting feedback from my kids. In a relationship where the power dynamic is this extreme (in which I – The Mother – will live on as both shadow and sun, whether I like it or not, in their bodies and minds, even into a future I cannot imagine), there is little to be lost in seeking to open to their reality when they seek to share it. At the same time, I must be true to the reality I experience, or risk handing them a power they cannot hold. The dance between these is an inner one, of slowing and softening. Of feeling ground and opening to the precious temporality of an honest encounter with another being, wherein she exists fully, without erasing me, and I exist fully, without erasing her. I know from many, many tries that to choose this quality of presence is to have already begun to heal the rupture, whether the rupture that is healing is current or deeply past.
Still, I admit, it took me a minute to sense the full benefit of this opportunity. “It was a joke!” I tried. Also: “That wasn’t for you. Or for your friends. It was exaggerated, and silly, and for other adults, who can judge me as a mean mom and also laugh at me for being sad, and also have compassion for me as I grasp at straws in the sanity-suck that is our current moment.”
My girl held to her incredible communication skills, and let me know that as I said these things, she felt angrier, because I was pushing away her real feelings of hurt and exposure that she was trying to tell me about. She squeezed out some tears and we held each other and looped back. I tried some I Hear Yous. I tried reflecting, naming what I was hearing with a willingness to be corrected. And in that, she found some space to hear me. “I guess it is hard for me to think of you as more than just my mom. I can unfollow you on Instagram.”
She talked about a good friend of hers, who has helped her understand how easily people can get hurt on social media, and about her desire for privacy when it comes to mine. I clarified that I would ask for her consent on images or stories that directly involved her if I was going to share to a broad public. Before I punish this blog, I’ll have her read it and see if it feels ok.
I requested that her friends not follow me on social media and said I wouldn’t follow them.
Gradually the charge dissipated. I deleted the offending story segment, in a teaching moment wherein she saw how to delete story segments. I took an unflattering picture of myself and put some text on top apologizing for my rudeness and correcting the unfair slander on her cookies. She laughed some, and sent the clip to a few adults she is close to, via direct message. We touched a lot, and she washed her face. I stayed with her until she felt complete, and thanked her for being clear and direct with me.
I don’t know what this interaction will mean to her in time; if it will be significant because she felt heard, or because she felt hurt. Or, possibly, because her mom wrote a long blog post full of “very fancy words, mommy” and asked her to read it. In the overall arc of this strange time, maybe it won’t stand out at all.
There are days – moments – when this prolonged pause feels similar to a meditation retreat. The lack of distractions, or the obviousness in the effort to be distracted, brings me home to the subjectivity of my moment to moment reality. The proximity of death feels more real, more tangible: a common experience when we get closer to life. The falling away of the illusion of choice (oh the way I used to wander the grocery aisles, touching things I never intended to buy) exposes the depth of my interdependence. And the boredom, the increasing proximity of nothing happening, is a precursor, I know, to a new level of trust.
Where silent meditation retreats take us deep into relationship with our own minds, though, this one seems to be emphasizing my relationship with domestic intimacy. On retreat, we get the time to see how our projections of reality are not reality, and yet nothing exists outside of the mind. But here, at home all day long, the reality of cookies, of Instagram, of tender touch and tears – seems only more real. My mind balks and scrambles, but 7am dawns, and everyone is back in the kitchen again.
I wonder: if Z and I did not do the repair, would we exist differently? Would there be less air in the house? More strategy? When I say that what happened between us was real, I think I mean that through it, we were each made more real for the other.
Yesterday I scrubbed away the thick black line of goo (sneaky, deep-crack goo) that was making the dishwasher (and the inside of the wine glasses which should smell purely like waiting-for-wine and the steam that should smell foggy-clean when it rises into your face as you open the door) smell like old fish. As I did not meditate yesterday, this was my first morning activity: unload dishwasher; remove bottom rack; scrub goo.
A section of bath-accompaniment then ensued, in which I ate a sourdough english muffin with peanut butter on it while also “eating” several kinds of “sushi” made out of wet pieces of fabric. Clara’s body in the bath has been, now, a delight of seven years. My heart breaks a bit on the rocks of how repetition and ease can transform what is most precious into a sort of side job. I mean, I was pretty full, but I ate that sushi anyway.
For an hour I jumped around to pop music and touched my elbow to my knee a lot. I assume there were a lot of other people in their dining rooms with their tables pushed to their walls doing the same thing at the same time, because it was Dance Church.
Lunch was a bowl of tomato soup adapted from this recipe. I put a sweet potato in because the tomatoes we canned this year are especially tangy.
And then I walked to The Peoples Yoga to teach. First, for Suniti’s ongoing teacher training, Treasures of Engagement (great name, right?), I offered a couple hour walk through of a process I’m in most of the time. Pray, Breathe, Sense, Resource, Discern, Reach. I was teaching this particular material – a weaving of so many threads in my body and awareness – for the first time, and I’m deeply grateful to Suniti for openly inviting me to bring what is current for me. I have benefitted from her collaborations with others in the past, and I see how she brings the power of trust to help the between-ness grow rich.
Two and a half hours on Zoom later, I ate half of a large chocolate bar and took a short sunny-windy walk. This delight is new to me: the reality that one can have more than a square or two of chocolate at a time. I started figuring it out because I was keeping chocolate in my car to help me get home on the freeway from work. Over a year and a half, I have tried a lot of different things to help me get home on the freeway after work. Podcasts, loud music, changing my pants, rolling the windows all the way down even when it is cold and rainy, making videos of myself… Turns out eating more chocolate than I think I am allowed is the best thing yet. Try it. Specifically good chocolate that I like. Junk chocolate doesn’t work for me but it might work for you. The trick is to have a lot though, so you want it to be not too dark, but also not too sugary. For me it is good if there is something salty and snacky in it, like pretzels or nuts.
Teaching embodiment through a screen is also relatively new to me, and about as easeful as the freeway, in the trapped sympathetic nervous system sense. So I tried chocolate as a snack/recovery item between strange, dislocating, hopeful sessions of trying to connect and connecting and also not connecting – stretching my sense of the meaning of connecting, or stretching my willing suspension of disbelief, at least. It helped, and the little walk helped, and talking with Suniti helped. In the sense that those things helped me feel real and slightly more whole, which is my running definition of help, right now.
And finally I taught my regular Sunday class, 5pm, called Grounding Practice, in which we lay on the floor. Or lie. Whichever feels more real.
And before we did that, I read this wonderful piece by Ross Gay, from his Book of Delights which really is the inspiration that got me to write this journal entry in this public “place” at all:
60. “Joy is Such a Human Madness”: The Duff Between Us
Or, like this: In healthy forests, which we might imagine to exist mostly above ground, and be wrong in our imagining, given that the bulk of the tree, the roots, are reaching through the earth below, there exists a constant communication between those roots and mycelium, where often the ill or weak or stressed are supported by the strong and surplused.
By which I mean a tree over there needs nitrogen, and nearby tree has extra, so the hyphae (so close to hyphen, the handshake of the punctuation world), the fungal ambulances, ferry it over. Constantly. This tree to that. That to this. And that in a tablespoon of rich fungal duff (a delight: the phrase fungal duff, meaning a healthy forest soil, swirling with the living the dead make) are miles and miles of hyphae, handshakes, who get a little sugar for their work. The pronoun who turned the mushrooms into people, yes it did. Evolved the people into mushrooms.
Because in trying to articulate what, perhaps, joy is, it has occurred to me that among other things – the trees and the mushrooms have shown me this – joy is the mostly invisible, the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy.
I wanted to share this piece because of how it helps me feel my place as I offer a practice, an online class, some notes about my day… as one piece of a union, one little handshake, opening up for transmission, letting something through.
Along with chocolate – even quite a lot of chocolate! – and walks – even very short walks! – I’ve been helped this last week by other people who are sharing their practices online.
I know from experience: these practices just want to move. They want to get into bodies and wrap them up and make them move and settle them down and open them up. The people are letting it all through, and that is what is most inspiring and encouraging to me as I sit here trying to just let this one darn blog post get out of my body!
Deanie, we are 7 years this day from the day you came out of me, there on the living room floor under the tree where you are sleeping now.
The kittens are curled around your legs. Hazel in my bed upstairs. The presents on the table – including a card you made for yourself, a tall black taper, a bowl of oranges, and your leaf-lantern from solstice.
I don’t expect a perfectly smooth day today. You have wishes – to be surprised! But here, you say, let me tell you exactly how the surprise will go. You have pleasures – and you still hop and flap to show us what and when. You can be gracious, so tender, purposeful, you will fulfill the letter of a contract to a T.
And you negotiate hard. There can be some tight corners, especially between you and I, right now. You are differentiating, and that means a lot of quick and certain Nos, a lot of Buts. You will not do what everyone else is doing for the photo. You will not help with the muffins. You do Not want to go the solstice walk to the Cape.
At the bathrooms at Cape Lookout, we battled over the hand dryer vent. Playfully. You cut your hands over mine, then I over yours. When the fan ran out, our hands were dry. Or: mine were dry enough for me.
I stepped back, and you pushed the button again. Looked at me. A winning move. I let the bathroom door close behind me and waited for you, listening to the high hum. You came out quickly. I said, “Don’t you want to use the fan?” You said, “But you came out here.” I said, “I’ll wait.” You said, “But I want to be together,” and buried your face in my coat front. I held your back and felt a little shudder of suppressed tears. Right there, under the surface of your defiant fierceness – a defiance that I find unpredictable, and also triggering – is this little person, holding her tears.
I think of you reading this in the future. How I just threw out “triggering” to describe the sudden and puzzling wave of reactivity that rises in me in response to our boundary negotiations. I mean to say that it is not your fault – the feeling I bring is not in you or from you: what happens in me is from the past, and from the struggle to survive it, in my lifetime or in the lifetimes of your grandparents who raised me, and those raised them, back and back, through and through… and it seems to be in response to you because it desires to live on in you. I see you respond in confusion, too, and to try to claim your own space. You do not need to carry this ancestral burden of blurry boundaries and guilty power-assertion, my love. But I do seem to need your help to recognize it. And I admit, I cannot protect you or free you from it altogether. I seem so powerful to your child-self, and indeed in your small sphere I am, but I am just one little person in this world, puppeted by spirits and trends, lifted up by compassion and drug down by projection and ignorance… just like all the rest.
When I was your age, words like triggering, boundaries, and reactivity were not in the intellectual pop-psychological commons. I don’t know if people knew there was a pop-psychological commons, though I’m sure there was. I wonder how in the future this language will have shifted. How will you conceive of the currents and pressures of micro and macro interdependence? What metaphors will you use? Will you be curious about this as I am? Will the culture honor you or sideline you? Within you, what will get in the way of your fullest expression?
I think of you telling me how you hold in your tears at school because you don’t want adults to try to hug you. Of you at Vernon, hidden under the slide at recess to let the grief run. You try to make a space for your feelings. Everyone seems determined to make your little body process their feelings and hold ground for their needs. I wish for you, whenever it is possible, that you have the strength and the trust in those who love you, that you can claim your space without hiding. I wish for me that I can grant you that space without leaving.
We held each other in the bathroom alcove at Cape Lookout – where we have been so many many times, you in my arms or strapped to my chest or sleeping in a stroller or getting a wipe or goofing with Ida, or, now, sometimes, just going with Zelda, on your own – and I stayed quiet. Any word, I know, can break the spell. And after time we took hands and walked back to the yurt. I stayed near, to watch you get dressed. Tried to honor your sovereignty (god, I struggle): to wait for you to ask for advice or help as you choose your outfit, to tuck away the things I want you to have so I can provide them as support when you discover the need, instead of forcing them on you as representations of my superior experience. Watching you, careful, interior, bolstering yourself for something you were not looking forward to, I tried to state the obvious, as lovingly as possible:
“You haven’t been on this hike since you were a baby. Since we could carry you. The reason I want to go with you today is because I think you are big enough. I know you are strong enough to have fun and run and walk through the forest. And, I know you are the littlest on this trip, in this group. I think it is not so easy to be the littlest sometimes. If you need to rest or want to go more slowly, you will not get left behind. If you want to run ahead and notice plants and climb, someone will be with you. We are in it together.”
You let me say my piece, and your eyes shone with your held-back tears. I felt you accept my framing, which means not Yes, but also not No, not But. I think of all the ways and all the times you’ve had to go along, when it wasn’t your time or choice, and we were, all the rest of us, needing to go, to do the next thing. I think of how, now, you like to be the one to speak, to name what will happen, to take control.
You and Hazel were a team throughout. Running ahead of all of us, 4-legged across balconies of roots, straddling the monster mud puddles on tip toe, nose to nose under the feathery roof of a low branch, telling stories, consulting on school and age and reading, Hazel always with her deep encouragement: Try.
And then at the end, you got tired, and came out the end very last, trudging hand in hand with your dad. He fulfilled my promise, as he often does.
Afterward, snuggled in the yurt with all the girls, you drew the two of you on your box paper, to fold and burn with the old year. Big trees on either side, dwarfing your bodies; the sun as quarter round of yellow in the corner.
I see you developing your coding skills, finding symbols to begin to translate what is inside of you, to feel in control of it. I think it is a somewhat false hope, but I don’t say that now. We must all walk through the doors our culture, our families, our ancestors and the spirits of the places that we live create for us. We must convince ourselves that we are erecting those doors. That we can say No to them if we want to. And then, after coming out so many, many times into spaces that seem new, and then finding, gradually, that the old rules have come with us, we get a chance to make peace with what is beyond the code, what is true on both sides of any door.
I think of you showing me the license plates on the cars at the campground, naming numbers and letters. How you described music class, saying, “we do lots of stuff on the inside of our bodies” (knowing this is my interest), and led me through the progression of deep breath arm movements (qi gong), there in the road with the bright morning mist glowing up the mossy edges of the trees all around.
I see you stretch when you wake, your still-so-supple psoas unwinding toes to skull, little articulate wrists jingling your spirit around like bangles. I know it is inevitable, how you will grow stiffer in places to hold yourself up under the weight of what this world tells you you must be. How you will collapse here and there, to make yourself amenable, appealing to those whose love or approval you need or want. I feel the sorrow as I write the words: what sort of mother plans ahead for this?
But you are not alone in any of this. It is not wrong, just sad. We are all transforming the fear of our time and place into possibility, strategy, strength. We are all seeking enough space to be ourselves, while still keeping the contact we need to feel our edges. I am. Your dad is. Your Gaga. Zelda. Ida. Your Aunt Janie. Addie. The woman sleeping in a wad of wet blankets in the doorway of the bank. The person peering into your mouth to clean your teeth. The artist whose drawing we gaze at in the pages of a favorite book. The young cedar tree in the corner of our yard. The new kitten spirits that now grace our home.
You will grow big and fierce and tender through your strategies. And underneath, all the time, there will be that little person – six years old – holding her tears. I hope you will take such good care of her. Better care, even, than I have taken. I hope you will honor her highly. More highly, even, than I have. I hope you will respect her boundaries, and never grab her as she passes, just for your own pleasure, as I have. I hope you will watch her as she draws, and never cheat by looking at your phone, as I have. But even if you don’t, as how could you? I hope you will forgive yourself, as I do. Hold yourself accountable to share your love generously and do your own work with curiosity and compassion, as I do. And I hope you will come back, when all your power is gathered around you like a glowing cloak of moss, and tell me in your own words, your own voice, what that little person needed that I couldn’t see; what your big self wants from me and what I can take with me when I go.
The night of the solstice, after we folded the boxes around our words and drawings, and tossed them in the fire, and watched them burn… after we took our lanterns to the beach and listened to the waves in the dark and danced along the deep, flat beach of low-tide… after we ate cake in lantern light and you kids withdrew to the yurt to tumble and sing… I drifted away to sit with my friends the trees. I rested into a vast stump, open with age in her center to hold me. I named you, my baby, and Z, and asked after her own many many children. We nodded and sighed, and settled into silence. It was with her support and encouragement that I came to find you, later, the littlest, to respectfully invite you into bed. You leaned your head against mine, so intimate, acknowledging. “Yes, Mama,” you said.
I’m thinking about you in academia. Thinking about your body. I imagine R is a good companion, helping you eat warm food and find pleasure and shake off some of those many many hours.
The weather here has turned. I am eating soup. This past weekend Zelda and I went into the woods together. The place we went is called the Lewis River in the guidebook, and on the signs that advertise excavation or lumber or bass boats for sale. Being out – stepping out – from the dark protection of big trees to stand with bright, sharp, pale green grasses at the water’s edge, I do not think “Lewis.” This rippling body: mother, vessel, innocent, everything – I do not call her “Lewis” in my mind.
As I’ve taught my daughter to ask when we come to a new place on the map: does this name come from those who were harmed to claim it, or from those who did the harm? Is it a name that claims by memorializing that which could not – by design – survive the claim?
Z and I said, “hello river. thank you river. look how clear and quiet you are.” We drank from her (filtered, yes! we are fragile little beings), made our soup and hot cocoa from her body.
Last week, Clara and I were playing in the garden. She collected leaves and crunched them; I turned the earth to distribute gleanings from the rabbit hutch. She brought me some treasure, to show me – and I had to apologize. “I’m sorry I don’t know the prayers to teach you so you can properly thank mama earth for all she gives us.” She patted my hand. “You have that book of prayers, mama. You can use some of them.”
It took me a moment to figure out she meant the chant book from Great Vow – the Zen Monastery. C and Z have been there a few times; they know the special energy of the place. While Zazen happens on Sundays, one of the warmest women living at the monastery will take the kids tromping around the grounds. Last time we were there they made paintings from berries, leaves, and flowers, smashing them into the paper. The paintings were still in the back of the minivan when it died, actually.
I am planting in my nascent garden again, as water falls from the sky to welcome the newcomers. Here, in the city, as I take them from plastic pots and Clara rubs her hands in their roots to encourage them, I can think, Vine Maple, Nootka Rose, Milkweed. The illusion of their individuality is palatable here. I bow to each. I wonder what it will take for them to trust this place, my clumsy care.
In the woods, though, I feel the pad of life I’m standing on. The giant white chanterelles erupt through what we think of as path overnight, showing “the path” is merely a drape over a body – a luscious body which rolls, gestures, peeks through like a glute through ripped jeans. How do I say: here is this plant, and over here, this one. It isn’t that way at all. Even if I knew better names. Our language fails: it sees separateness, it names delusion.
Moss and lichen embrace all the surfaces. This bit of precious woods where we were is protected by big trees. We leaned at their feet with our backpacks on like woozy children at the end of a party. We saw a beetle with a back like an in-set jewel crawl from the floating frond of a fern to the glistening brown dome of a newly-expressed mushroom. Each little beetle foot made what it touched freshly visible to us. We oohed and awed.
I’m writing mostly to share this.
As we were leaving, the next morning – heading back to “Washington” and then “Vancouver” and then, finally, “Portland” (these flat, solid ideas, like the pavement that comes with them) – we drove, suddenly, toward a bright spot in the woods. Zelda in the passenger seat perked up, in that way of a life-form drawn to light. It was a clear cut. We gasped, then moderated our shock. I mean, of course. On both sides of the road, vast, rippling, glowing green gave way to a field of bloody lumps of red and brown and the many small, upright white mesh tubes they use to cover the stunned baby cedars and firs they push into the ground after they drag the whole forest away.
I’m othering. Should I replace ‘we’ for ‘they’?
The thought that came, as I put the car in park in the middle of the empty road, was Charnel Ground.
I have heard this for many years from Tibetan teachers of the Vajrayana tradition: go to the Charnel Grounds. In Tibet, where the ground is frozen so much of the year (or was), they bring the dead out to a place and leave them there – in ceremony, I am sure – for the scavengers. Unlike everyone else, the monks go while still alive – literally, figuratively – to come closer to impermanence, to learn to tolerate their own aversion, to be with the whole of what is here.
A friend who is lost to me now once told me about her friend’s doctoral thesis in philosophy, which had at its center – I think – the argument that the only really ethical response to climate change is mourning.
In that charnel ground (not unlike a hospital nursery full of bawling babies in plastic boxes) I thought of this thesis. The potency of grief as a true connection – not only to what is not here, but to the shocking sensation of what is.
I write this to myself, but thinking of you helps me write it. I wonder what you may have grieved, or maybe you are grieving now. I warm to the tenderness that sustains mourning. The willingness to feel. I consider myself a beginner in this sort of willingness; my ancestors in their fear, their grasping, tell me: Everything is Fine, Keep Moving. Maybe that is why grief feels like a doorway to me, a mystic portal: whiteness is a monster made of projecting all loss onto other bodies. What if all loss happens right here, in my pelvis? I’ll need all the love there, too.
Grief as magic. Grief as transformation. Grief as reciprocity.
When we got it (they? her?), Clara’s language was such that she called it We-vaan. The name stuck.
The last place I drove in Wevan was the farmer’s market on Saturday with H and my mom. A good last trip, though we had no indications of trouble. The next day the battery seemed dead, but (we found after two tows) actually the engine was somehow seized. Permanently seized. It is a mystery to everyone how we got here, but here is clear: while following traffic laws, our family does not fully fit in one car that is a small truck. There has been a death. We are noticeably – if not noticeably emotionally – bereft. Today I’ll arrange to donate the van to @pearmentor.
I’m writing about this because I’m curious about what this car meant to me; what cars mean to us, generally. I’m curious about how such a large loss – indicating such a significant privilege – seems to count as so little. I’m curious about my deep and lasting ambivalence around car culture and how that expresses itself in my body considering the many years I have spent in cars in the course of my lifetime. I’m especially interested in the shimmering, just-for-a-breath possibility of being in right relationship.
Right relationship does not depend on purity. It is not a measure of worthiness. It is not stagnant or formulaic. But I still believe it is possible. In any given moment I am a part of the unfolding. If I can hold a boundary, keep my commitments, honor potency, and recognize my smallness in place and time, letting connection and destruction both exist without needing to choose sides… If I can resource myself without stealing, and nurture without resentment – both kinds of suffering made of the illusion of separation… These sensations are guides toward a living reciprocity. Where better to lean into it than in the relationships I navigate every day? Here is my phone, my child, my car. Here is my bed, my morning coffee, my daily breath.
I write these words perched in a moment of freedom, in this space without. Here, I ask for rides, take the bus to the train, initiate fewer plans. Yes, our lives are pretty fucking stable that I am making this big of a deal out of a seized engine. Yes, we will buy another car, stepping deeper into debt to do it. What car we will buy next will be determined by our particular calculus of camping, kids, commute, Oregon-to-Idaho across the Blues, maximum out-of-pocket, minimum-gas-mileage, how-long-will-it-last factors. Identity bits will sneak in there too, ones I maybe can’t see, even still. The kids just want windows in the back that open, which means it won’t be a minivan.
For years I drove Wevan without ever loving it, though I loved where we went and who went, even when I was so sick of the process of loading, unloading, and cleaning up after two or four or six bouncy, distracted, laughing and bickering little bodies. The songs they made up from what they saw out the windows; the rising energetic pitch in the car as resilience waned; the squishy, slumped forms when they finally gave in. Long talks in person or phone; podcast cry-moments; just-the-right-song with just-the-right-sky moments. When I got a freeway commute last year, I started by feeling excited for this precious alone-time. Quickly, excitement turned to resignation: I join the drugged masses each day as, in some kind of solidarity, we parade, secured in our convenience machines, sucking on the straw of the black snake to more easily funnel our own sap into the engine of destruction.
Talking about a first date she went on recently, a friend cringingly mentioned how the guy, who she had fun with, picked her up in a sports car, flashy, with after-market adjustments. She didn’t want to be judgmental but … Like someone taking you to church, right on the first date? I suggested. She said yes, it was finding out about one of his Gods – and wondering if that religion is compatible with her own.
I didn’t pick out the van. I let Jeff decide what would make the most sense. I’ve never purchased a car without his push, is the full truth, and it was my first time at a used car dealership. I had a baby on my hip, and another holding my hand. I was grossed out and intimidated all at once. Our relationship – already pretty heteronormative – gets exponentially more so in proximity to anything with an engine.
Last year I was crossing a bridge in Wevan with the kids when I got passed at full speed and volume by a lifted truck on huge tires. In a brief fit of intolerant rage, I said, “Don’t you girls ever spend time with a man like that.” Zelda was on me instantly: “How do you know the person driving that car is a man?” Me: “I just know.”
A debate ensued that lasted weeks and birthed her Spring Science Fair project. She set up a rating system to quickly register the relative size of a car (1-10, small to large) and then the gender presentation of its driver on a 1-10 (female to male) scale. (She determined that having a beard, a plaid shirt, a large adam’s apple, big hands and a belly all at once was a 10.) Then she collected data while we drove for a week, and plotted it all on a graph to look for trends. Her results? Anyone can drive any car — except: she did not see anyone under a 6 for gender presentation driving a car over a 7 for size. One quadrant of her graph remained blank.
When we decided to be practical by replacing Wevan’s blown transmission last spring, I vowed to accept this partner-in-driving. To stop fantasizing about a conversion van with a carpeted ceiling. I stuck on the bumper stickers I’d saved and bought a few more. I planned a road trip with my kids, and revelled in the freedom of choosing that night’s camp from the vantage point of the camp we woke up in. At each sweet slick of wilderness, Wevan released our tent, stove, propane tank, and cooler, and each time we said goodbye she took them back in easily. This is what we’ve been doing together since long before this car (we did it all while I was growing up, too) but this summer I really worked to value the flexibility, ease, and low-profile style of my dust-colored mid-aughts seven passenger truckster. With half-dressed girls sleeping between swims and Brandi Carlile crooning her mystic’s lyrics just to me, I swooped smooth like a heavy hawk between canyon walls shaped by the rivers I followed, shedding lead, weed-seeds, and burned carbon as I went.
The van brought us to my family and my body’s home, winter, summer, spring, fall. It carried us to blueberry fields and beaches, to our favorite camp spots on the Clackamas. We loaded the Wedgewood stove I cook on into Wevan, hugging the seller and swearing we’d take such good care of her baby. In a daily way, Wevan was like a giant rolling purse, full of the material of my to-do list. It was the shortest line between two points. It was a guarantee that I would be able to pick up another kid if need be, or get that dresser someone just dragged out to the curb. It protected me from the exposure of the bus, the physical struggle of a bike. It kept me from needing anyone else. I often waved to my neighbors twice a day from the window of Wevan – in the driveway, and out again. It was the default.
Given all of this, I notice that I still very much resist the sense that the van – a car – was or is an important relationship in my life. Who writes a eulogy for their 2006 Ford Freestar? Just borrow some money, buy another car, get insurance and plates – move on. But my whole practice is to notice, with open eyes, ideally with patience, what is already here. As my teachers have whispered to me again and again through the years, “What we don’t see controls us.”
If I were the benevolent dictator (some would see this as a malevolent choice, of course) of this current drama on Turtle Island, the first thing I’d do is tax the hell out of oil. Then I’d see what new earth-drug the tycoons turned to, and tax the hell out of that too. I’d use all that money to pay people to grow and find food, and fix up old houses, and to teach and learn these things from each other. I’d also honor the treaties, including recognizing that all National and State parks and all BLM land would be better run by Native governments — but that’s a different eulogy.
I write this not to invite disagreement on the practical points of my fantasy/plan, but to express my dear wish that all manner of car and truck travel cease being associated in the American mind with convenience, autonomy, and family life. I mean, obviously this would be a rough transition. On par with no more coffee, or no more wine, or no more sugar for the kids. A small apocalypse.
My life would be just as affected as any other. My ancestors trekked across this land, always West, always hungry, always wanting more. I’ve kept it up. As a kid, I drove with my nuclear family on twice-annual ten-hour pilgrimages to my mother’s family and body-home. Now I do the same with my own children. We bounce like checkers on the board. Without car-life, what would I choose? As I often ask my students: where is the gray area between the white of everything-depends-on-a-car and the black of my power-mad apocalypse? Knowing I live in a time when car-life is both connection and destruction, what choices do I have that I am not seeing? Where am I unwillingly controlled by my own life?
Yesterday I went to the auto-shop to say goodbye. I left in Wevan: a homemade CD cover with my daughter’s face on it; several green plastic army men in yoga postures; leaves and dirt from many precious, precious places; candy wrappers, altoid tins; the sock that – sort-of – keeps the pop-down kid-view mirror from rattling; the jack; some dried fruit that may have once been fresh. I brought away with me: three rolls of exposed film; many collected rocks, most from the headwaters of the Salmon river; jumper cables and an ice scraper; several sticky library books; a Sawyer water-filter stick; various Chinese remedies.
Next to the van in the back of the locked lot, there was a car I was proud to have my lost-one temporarily interred with. The people who loved this thing were no strangers to complexity. They worshipped and they warned, in one. Among other creative and laborious expressions of Truth in Car Practice, this living vehicle displayed a modified shopping cart glued to the roof, in whose child-seat rode two devilishly painted baby dolls. I don’t know if that car drives still, but with the tires it had, I can’t imagine how. I bowed to both silent hulks as I left, headed back to a friend’s car, borrowed. As I turned the key in the ignition, just for a moment, I felt the life light up within. The locks of my cage doors clicked. I drove away.
Woke at 4 yesterday bc my alarm was still set for the airport. Didn’t realize til 5. Worked 7 – 6, including traffic. Not as bad as I expected, honestly.
I look around the room at the career teachers who are the leads for Work Samples for their buildings and are about to go back and “calibrate their teams” and the little bell within me doesn’t ring. At school, I look at the kids and it rings once for each, a name rising up, a true hope – not for something in the future, just the breath of possibility.
I am patient with myself as I wonder if I can do this for more than a year, constantly trying to shush them so that I can get them through the hoops. Yesterday I helped a very sincere very silent kid cut his block of emotional, poetic writing up with scissors and shape it physically into an essay. Next I need to make a graphic organizer to remind him of the steps we used (IEP).
Of the 100 students enrolled at Lents, 50 are seniors. What does that even mean?
J is installing at night both yesterday and today.
C feels very solid after her weekend with him.
On Wednesday A will be here.
I missed you while I was gone – trying to be reflected or to reflect these old friends of mine, and needing to let it all float. Your marvelous gravity holds me.
As this new school year begins I am reminded again and again of the relevance of my internal experiences to how I am supporting and honoring the experiences of those around me.
I notice tremors of insufficiency and recognize the spirit of scarcity behind these momentary possessions. Who benefits from my sense of scarcity?
Or, if I am present to these sensations and notice the narratives that I have adapted to justify and substantiate them. Without buying-in to the solidity of shame, defensiveness, desire for proof, construction of a more perfect abstract self that I can measure my current manifestation against. What spirit is here? Vulnerability?
A mystic transubstantiation of scarcity into fundamental sufficiency.
The reach through the curtain of solidity (lolly-pop tree) to tenderness (curved trunk, bent branch, chewed leaf) lands me in presence, actually, where none of us (humans, flowers, ants, words) is an object.
What if every student is a subject? What if this computer is a subject? The water I drink. The coffee grounds through which I pour it. The spirits held in the words that are written here.
Can you feel it? The breathing-ness? The abundance of intelligence?
Yesterday we, the teachers, introduced ourselves to our new student body. Between a quarter and a third of the youth are new to us, to our school; the rest familiar faces, to whom we are familiar. Our new team member won’t join until next week (see, first ever interview panel).
We divided the students into 5 groups and sent the groups room to room to hear from each teacher. I quickly realized that other teachers had prepared their introductions. There were slides, power points, lists of favorites. Oh! Hello. A manifesto, just here, in my chest, of the scarcity spirit: I am not prepared. So: surface the feeling, with as little defensiveness or performativity (oh, my sweet inner white girl, always smiling and self-deprecating, making herself small enough to share the power) as possible. Then, feel for what resources are present.
The Circle is present. Name the value of the circle. Make it personal. Invite without requiring.
Being in relationship is present. Students who know me offer what they know. I say names and allow for pauses, invite them to pass as they need. Everyone finds something to offer. I am easy to talk to, understanding, keep my word, artist, yoga, makes good broth, theatre field trips, outspoken, loving, upbeat and energetic. To each thing I express gratitude, and add words.
When there is a lul or we lose the thread: what resource is here? The word Abolition arises. The resource is truth. The resource is ground. The resource is having others who are doing the work and showing me the way. I call them into the room with this word. My students are quiet to hear about this spirit: Abolition. She takes many forms. She sees dehumanization. She sees what is possible. Healing. I say: hurt people hurt people. Systems that don’t support the most vulnerable harm us all.
Now, I am not the only person here, isolated by scarcity. Instead, I am made present by connecting to resource. I see their faces, instead of my own.
Vulnerable means able to be wounded. I wonder about this. If I am the most powerful person in the room, can I protect myself from wounding and still offer trust?