The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


1 Comment

Strange Bedfellows: Grappling with the Private World and the Public Life of Creativity

A. Sato, 2014

A. Sato, 2014

It’s been a while since I have written anything. No poems. No essays. No short stories.

When I look at the newsfeeds of my prolific friends, I feel a little guilty. “Have you been writing,” one friend asks? Another inquires if I am at least submitting work for publication. Strangely, I have made scant progress on anything related to my own creative fiction and nonfiction.

This uncomfortable truth doesn’t take away the tinges of guilt and envy when I am surrounded by writers and artists who are producing circles around me. And, sure, enlightenment says this isn’t a race or competition… but, we all know it is. At least, the business of what we do compels us to be productive. To produce.

Most of us need the feedback, accolades, connection, and (although laughable at times) financial support we gain from taking our work to the streets. Some might argue the value of the creative process is moving through the creative process, as if just doing is enough.

For spiritualists and believers, the creative process is communication between self and Spirit or God. For others, and I would dare say the majority, writing, painting, music, etc. is our means of expression, communicating our deepest, most intimate selves (souls?) to the world (and, hey, maybe even the means to earn a living).

There are also many others whose work is the catalyst for social and political change – a meaningful vision, an ideal.

Mesquite Grove - A. Sato, 2015

Mesquite Grove – A. Sato, 2015

Back to Me

Through all of the definitions and pressures to produce for reasons both menial and purposeful, I seem to have lost my way. For several months I worried that I was simply bored with my writing. I was restless. I wandered around looking for something I couldn’t seem to find.

Sheepishly, I took all of those “what is your true calling” quizzes. I re-read the Enneagram (Tragic Romantic 4, no surprise). I took all of the career path tests and continued to draw the Writer card. Dammit. My other choices: Clergy or Psychologist.

Writers are akin to preachers, after all, channeling the message of the unseen, unexpressed, and under-appreciated.

“Writers are healers… words are balm,” one friend reminds. The narrative of our pain can conjure healing.

But, lately, I am neither wordsmith evangelist nor wounded healer. Even poetry seems flat to me, a personal chore, like pumicing dead skin. That old glass slipper that once fit perfectly doesn’t seem to encapsulate my big toe now. Bluntly, I am fucking terrified.

Still, in my terror, I refuse to produce for the sake of saying, “Hey, look, I made something!” (says every potty-training toddler).

Another friend lamented, and I will paraphrase, “There are too many photographers and not enough readers.” I argued against this notion of “too many,” but can understand his point.

People are writing and producing art more than ever before with the advent of print-on-demand and the vanity press. We’re all looking for a little appreciation, I guess. To be heard, seen, validated. Through the billions of Tweets and fragments, photos and paintings, the practice of the creative life has been shanghaied.

Let me say it again: the practice

I’m aghast at the grammatical errors found in professional articles and essays. If the pros can’t even manage the discipline to edit and hone skills, I really cannot rail against the amateur. In essence, we are in a creative frenzy, a race to stay ahead of the ADD public.

It’s as if, culturally speaking, we are still living the message of those 1990s Baby Einstein, Baby Monet, Baby Mozart cds … we believe talent just kinda makes itself. Everyone’s an artist, right?

Practice takes too long. Being unproductive means no attention. And, god forbid, the humble role of the student, of being willing to be taught.

Only the Ravens - A. Sato, 2015

Only the Ravens – A. Sato, 2015

The Muse is Dead… Long Live the Muse

None of this is exactly hot off the press news. And, I am not sure analyzing the state of the arts is going to alleviate my fucking terror at my own lack of motivation.

I’m driven by the same insecurity of silence. I want to have my muse back NOW and sell books that will actually be read. But, I am cursed with having to take my own mad advice.

So, maybe I will wait it out some more and see what shakes. Stay curious. Be zen about it.

Tomorrow I am going to one of my favorite mountains. She and I know I won’t share anything about it with you. Because, at least for now, the practice needs to be enough.


3 Comments

On the Tiger’s Back: Addiction, Society, and Uncertainty

Image

** An excerpt

 

The alarm goes off. How many days have I missed work now? My blue room has shadows and in the shadows, I see the summer sun waiting for me. I have been in this room for several days. I don’t sleep, only suffer with my eyes closed. My pets draw in closer to me. Their looks of wonder and perhaps sadness reflect the reality of my life. I cling to them, these innocent fur-bearers, as if they were my very life.

And they were.

Their need kept me alive.

Rolling out of bed was like moving stones. One leg over the side – then the other. Dead tree limbs for arms, winter in my eyes. I make my way to the bathroom to vomit again, wash my face, feed the cats and the dog. Life just keeps tunneling into this darkness, blaring its ugly horn in my silence. I pour a drink and lie down on the carpet, wondering if I have lost my mind finally; wondering what life can allow, what edges I can push against until the sharpness bleeds me entirely.

*******

Throughout my life, I have dealt with alcoholism. From the first drink, it was everything to me. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to be courageous, brave… comfortable. You see, I was never comfortable. I was the girl who tried but never succeeded, the one who barely touched the center of any group. I was always out coaxing wild creatures from hiding or creating fantasylands where I was someone else. There was music, art, and the beasts of the forests. These kept me, held me. In poems, I was the caustic blaze of a city on fire. I was a queen to the tapestry of unicorns and other mythic beasts. I was the mad gin-drinking wanton with a revolver strapped to her thigh. I was many things. I was so many, in fact, I drifted far away from the girl who tried.

There are many theories and opinions about addiction, addiction treatment or recovery philosophies. I do know that no animal willingly chooses annihilation without being completely insane or seeing annihilation as something other than death. For the mad, life is worse than death. Addiction is the antithesis of life. Addiction is a rabid animal set loose in the mind, body, and spirit that convinces itself that annihilation can be life.

Like creativity or genius, we tend to view the realm of addiction as fantastic, extraordinary. We make shows about it. We spend billions of dollars on it in jails, courts, institutions, and treatment centers. We have “programs” and pathways out for those “willing” enough to accept the rainbow at the end of the clouds. We have so many portraits of addiction, we have lost sight of the complexity of its enormity, its anonymity. I have friends who – despite everything I have lost or done over the years – continue to deny my addiction. It would be painful to accept. It would prompt them to ask their own hard, troubling questions – to view behaviors better kept locked behind closed doors, in cars, in the mind.

In my pursuit of sobriety, I have come to realize that there’s really no way for me to speak about my own experiences without weaving in a societal portrait of recovery. Likewise, I cannot write about recovery without relying on my intuition and perception, having been in rehabs and “holistic” treatment centers and having participated as a Kool-Aid drinking member of AA and other programs.

When you ask most clinicians about treatment options for addiction, twelve-step programs are the go-to suggestion. Not that their rates of success are particularly good – they just propagandize society’s agenda of compliance, lack of personal power, group buy-in, reliance on outside forces, and a steady push to return the individual to “normality.” And while AA and these programs work for some people  – and I do not wish to diminish their effectiveness with those who benefit – I know twelve-step programs don’t work for all. I certainly don’t believe that those who deviate from this model of recovery are doomed.

I have lost friends to this disease. Friends who did all the right recovery things – some of them in programs for years, only to fall into severe and ultimately fatal relapse. I have grown all too tired of hearing, “Oh, if they only didn’t stop doing their program,” or “If only they had gotten a program,” etc. When I suggest that perhaps the program alone wasn’t enough or perhaps it was a combination of events that kept the person sober and a combination of events that led them to the end, I am usually ignored or seen as pugilistic, rather than as someone who sincerely wants to understand this disease. To this I ask, why not question our options?

I think there’s always more to the story…

I do not believe in an addictive type or personality. I believe addiction is cultural, a societal make-up easing us into carefully formed facades that serve the root of addiction. Secrets are titillating. We grow up with a predilection for lying. We assume roles – encouraged roles – and play out our secret lives and desires in ways that often lead to addiction or self-destructive or abusive behaviors. I do not believe in a defective individual; I believe we are made to believe that lies and hidden desires are better options than self-awareness, courage, and bold honesty.

333860_10151275613260114_2081570148_o

We humans like a tidy explanation. Empires and religions are built upon this internal compulsion for reason and logic. And when these fail us, we fall back on the particular recipe of faith we were given. Those who walk outside of these lines and live a little too fully or differently are dangerous – not just to society but to self. Arguably, the alcoholic/addict is a pariah not unlike criminals and madmen. Recovery – the industry of – does little to move away from this otherness.

Recovery-based paradigms encourage the “strange terrain” that embodies addiction, the fatal flaw, for example, that set some up for a life of addiction and do little to critique a culture that encourages the formula for this pathology. Otherness is irrational. Otherness is dangerous. Recovery paradigms have less to do with morality and more to do with conformity. Case in point: it is more socially acceptable to be a corporate thief than it is to be a black dealer. Take a look at any prison and one cannot deny this truth. If society truly cared for morality, and not simply “falling into one’s place,” the spectrum of justice would reflect this.

Recovery – if it is to be effective, meaningful, and lasting – must include this dialogue.

 

The last night
with him, lying down,
he places his hand
on the space
where my ribs furl
back like wings.

To steady
me, to keep me
from rising.
– Nancy Mitchell, The Leaving

 

From the top of the slick rock, I hear the last song cascade down through the stadium, echoing off of the canyon rocks. I have been drinking since noon. The wind whips my hair and dress as I walk along, between couples, between vendors selling t-shirts and other merchandise. Some are packing up. I watch the skyline dim – the corners of the night have become an indigo stain, a broken pen. No stars pierce the clouds. 

*******

As to my own journey, healing and recovery must involve purging habits and rituals, illusions and expectations. In a broader, more effective discourse, we must understand the concepts of recovery that society wants us to purchase. We must understand the touch we thought would bring salvation or balm. We must understand and embrace the ache that demands something to be filled, attained. Burning the desire itself for normal responses to abnormal society is catharsis. To question whether being found or walking a certain path is what is intuitively right for oneself is essential. Recovery must involve honoring one’s deep feeling ways or views, sensitivities and persuasions.

Recovery or healing is borne from realizing that the flame that shines so luminously in what we want – the fairytale or medicine – exists within. It is in knowing that the answers cannot be constricted to one path, but in many roads of exploration, questioning, and wise uncertainty.

 

** This is an excerpt from a complete article to be published in July 2014.

 

 


1 Comment

Reaching Nirvana in a Juniper Tree: The natural, healing pleasure of trees

grayfox

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
― John Muir

“To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature.”
― Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree

Every now and then I must be reminded of my need to climb.  When I say climb, I am not referring to fancy gear and indoor urban gyms with toned bodies and challenge courses. I am not even speaking of the extreme sports element, getting to the top of some massive granite peak or navigating icy slopes in blizzard conditions. When I say climb, I mean the tree in one’s backyard – the nearest limb and UP into the canopy where the intersection of reality and dream waits. I mean the treehouse climb of youth and the rock-hopping, creek-lingering climbs of local nature preserves, forests, and – ideally – home.

Down in the low Sonoran Desert, one could seriously be injured on the spines of many of the native trees. Although, I have been known to take my chances with a Palo Verde or Acacia when I needed to get to a high point. So when I get the opportunity to ascend Perry Mesa and the Mogollon Rim, where the lovely escarpment kisses the blue beyond them, I am the first to bound out of the car and find a Juniper. I have written poems to Alligator Junipers I have known as temporary shelters, dreaming places, relatives. I know both their perfume and the intricacies of their plated patterns intimately.

child-climbing-treeI am unsure when my love for climbing started. No one in my family seemed too interested in knowing the tops of trees, but my unabashed curiosity and gift of living in the country opened the door to enchantment. My friend Kiva Rose Hardin told me that she often sees Gray Foxes up in Junipers near her wild New Mexican home.  I have yet to be so lucky to witness this, but have more than once felt the urge to recline in a late-afternoon soporific repose on the limb of a strong Juniper. I believe that Fox spirit is my own. My foxfire and forest roots tend to light up with verdant curiosity and adventure every time I am met with a new and wondrous tree friend.

Climbing for me is less about personal accomplishment or challenge than it is about connection. Being a tree-loving, earth-kissing pagan, I cannot think of a more divine act than to sit in the crook of a branch and sing, write, daydream or simply observe the creatures above and below. With each pull of the wrist and leg, the body hoists up into heights that could – if missteps occurred – cause serious injury. Climbing requires precision, pace, and more importantly, intuition. Climbing unravels the need for hurry. It requires one’s utmost attention.

Oftentimes, I am drawn to the sky when I feel heavy-hearted, dampened in spirit, with the weight of some problem pressing down upon me. The healing aspect of climbing perhaps is rooted in the physics of rejecting the mortal earth-bound gravity. It is symbolic upward growth. It becomes the Peregrine’s view, the world spread out in a vast yet consumable measure. I get this feeling when I am in a plane – a biped’s false sense of aerial mastery. Is this what the raptors feel? I watch my cat consumed by finding the highest spot from which to pounce. For thousands of years, mountains and other high points served as lookouts or defense refuges against danger.

DevilDogCanyon

Hypervigilance is a disease I carry from childhood. The condition of constant anxiety is one that plagues many of us. The symptoms of such are insomnia, digestive problems, low energy, difficulty making decisions, skin sensitivities, immune system collapse, exhaustion, and the list goes on. Fortunately, nature-based therapies in treating PTSD, addiction, and general mental health issues are becoming more accepted and integrated into traditional treatment options. I have always found the woods to be a powerful source of healing and protection. I marvel over people’s fear of sleeping outside alone. What about bears, mountain lions, rabies,” they ask. “What of people,” I respond. I have yet to feel the threat to my life in the forest or desert as I have in the comfortable walls of suburban homes and concrete, urban corridors.

“As a homeless teenager, I spent many nights in city parks, climbing up into welcoming branches and sleeping with my legs and arms wrapped around the comforting body of a living tree. I told my secrets to their leaves,  and listening to them whisper back with every small breeze.”

Becoming the Enchanted Healer, Kiva Rose Hardin

Different trees offer different medicine. For myself, certain trees have particular meanings based on my encounters with and observations of them. These are my own myths, of course, and I am not making an academic case or factual report of them… these are simply the healing stories I have created.

ironwood2

Ironwood trees are important teachers for me in that they are one of the most durable, rugged (visibly so, too) low desert dwellers, but they are also quite sensitive to frost. In fact, they are only found in the Sonoran Desert and are one of the longest-lived plants here. I have spent many mornings sitting beneath an Ironwood tree with my coffee and notebook. Ironwoods remind me to take it easy on myself. Even the most seemingly strong among us can be vulnerable to something. Ironwood asks me to find my Achilles heal, that thing that does have the power to destroy me if not addressed. The branches of Ironwood pull in and around its base and trunk, creating a natural defense against predators and a shelter for small mammals and reptiles seeking safety against other animals and the sun. It is good medicine for times when one needs to become introspective, or contain energy for one’s own healing and creativity. Despite its ability to defend, it does not make a good home for birds seeking nesting limbs. Symbolically, I look at this tree as a protector but one that advocates for self-sufficiency, resilience, and transition.

Juniperus_deppeana_USDA

While Junipers are common throughout the West and Southwest, Alligator Juniper is the subspecies I choose. I once walked among the largest recorded specimens of Alligator Junipers just outside of Skull Valley, AZ. When I think of this tree, I am reminded of my favorite places and those big, vast, and unforgettable views along the transition zones between high Sonoran country and the Mogollon Rim, the plateaus and sky islands. Perched on slopes and cliffs, I become a weightless wood nymph, a raptor. I feel unfettered and free to feel and think and be whatever I want in that moment. Alligator Juniper is a noble and strong father. I often feel safest when camped beneath its armored trunk and limbs, to gaze through at the night sky, perfumed of course by the tiny cones mistakenly called berries. Alligator Juniper medicine is that of home. It is not particularly unique or revered in the way some statuesque trees might be, but it is good shelter: strong, reliable, and unmistakably borne of the West. Its scent I equate with a release from heat, an opportunity to sit among branches without fear of thorn or fall. Its promise is that of familiarity and release.

mesquiteOf course I cannot fail to mention the archetypal Sonoran Desert tree, the Mesquite. Mesquite has been one of my strongest gardening allies. Mesquite not only provides a serious nitrogen fix for the plants beneath, it also offers a delicious food source: the Mesquite bean pods that can be ground into nutritious gluten-free flour. I love the taste – it reminds me of caramel corn. Mesquite limbs are among the most elegant – the tree itself seems to waltz as a silent dance with the dignity of food source, heat, and shelter.  Mesquite is a hard wood that grows very slowly, so patience and perseverance are key traits to incorporate into my own journey. Its wood burns hot and thoroughly, a consideration for those who tend to lean toward Type A burnout. It heralds the importance of nurturing oneself and others.  I once read a Yaqui Indian story about the Mesquite speaking to a young girl about the coming industrial culture. Mesquite denotes survival and tradition through dedication. It asks, what are you willing to sacrifice?

I was raised by the song
Of the murmuring grove
And loving I learned
Among Flowers.

―Friedrich Holderlin

When I was a teenager, I spent every moment beneath the Tulip Poplars and Oaks around our rural farmhouse. I remember a few occasions when in a state of absolute despair, I went out and sat on the cool stone beneath the flowering Tulip that reigned over our front yard and sheltered the mailbox. There I waited for letters, hope, and an opportunity to leave Indiana. The tree itself seemed to watch over and embrace this young girl’s grief in the human world, offering some protection among stories, lore, and myth. Now I find myself seeking the company of trees out of joy rather than desperation. It is in them and through them, I breathe, I live. If there were an incantation of love to be written, a marriage bond, a birth, it would be among trees I would choose to welcome such changes.

Now, as I ready myself for another weekend adventure into the deep canyons of the Southwest, I know where I will be found, where I belong. I am the girl of the grove and the winter longing of another spring. There is always home and hope among branches.


4 Comments

Unbound: A Modern Exile

16. aloneswing

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.

It had clearly imagined Paradise,
and now can at most guess,
could not conceive of nothingness,
and shudders today at the thought.
― Song of Childhood, Peter Handke

And for the first time, he wished he were far away. Lost in a deep, vast country where nobody knew him. Somewhere without language, or streets.
― Paris, Texas, screenplay by Sam Shepard

On October 1st, I will be forty years old. The imaginings of a linear life have left me disappointed… the hands, the work, the “deal” – none of it mattered to me. I wandered through a variety of lifestyles, always feeling empty and restless. Restlessness seemed to be the precursor to my entire life – nothing can compare to the daydreams of a ten year old. There would be no sultry saviors, no absolution and no erasing the names. There would be a tapestry of longing and a growing compassion for process.

red-lipstick-fearRecently, I made the decision to be truly honest in my decisions. I have written extensively on the subject of work, place and self-awareness. I have a fascination with those whose approach to life smashes barriers. In my twenties, I revolted against femininity and modern capitalism. I squatted in abandoned homes, I jumped tracks and I traveled with an unabashed, caustic personality that drove me to places I never thought I would see. I didn’t participate in the traditional life. I hoofed it with fellow wanderers and freaks. I saw to it that I would never, ever be owned or trapped.

During this time, I explored the trends of body and spirit dualism, eating disorders and body image. I exploited every revolting aspect of the flesh in hopes of making them beautiful. I danced and tripped on mushrooms. I would go without bathing or combing my hair. I pushed for a love of flesh – in its complete glory and eventual decay – because I did not know how to love my own mortal shell. I thought that salvation, or revolution, was found in the intersection of love and physicality. I wanted to be in my skin – lovely and horrible, yet completely body-authentic.

Throughout my thirties, I developed an interest in authenticity as commodity and trend. Authenticity became the battle cry of marketing firms and big brands. The migration from body wisdom to authentic identity of personhood was troubling; mainly because of the way the mainstream embraced the concept. The collective consciousness of Gen X was quickly and quietly overtaken by a new promise of being both successful and authentic. More people, particularly young people, embraced their weird uniqueness and eccentricities, and that was wonderful in many regards. However, this co-opted form of authenticity remained sophomoric and typically American. “I have a right to be me” became the empty shell of egocentric pursuits and isolation. More niche and fringe groups formed based on limited cogent forces – the individual became a composite of type. When a question was posed, the individual could simply fall back on adolescence, “You just don’t understand me!” Me went off the charts. Me denominated the market and continues to do so.

“Remember the quiet wonders. The world has more need of them than it has for warriors.”
― Moonheart, Charles de Lint

What would it be like to lose one’s identity? The movie Paris, Texas (screenplay by Sam Shepard) illustrates the need for an endless terrain and a loss of identity. The main character, Travis Henderson, becomes drawn to “forgetting” and being unknown in an unknown land, simply slipping the realities of tragedy, loss and addiction, TravisimagesCAX2CIXT makes his way home only to choose to return to the land of unknown – the power of movement, following the crack-snap song of power lines that cut through otherwise desolate country.

Tragedy, however, need not be the only impetus for losing oneself to the world. Shamans, prophets and wisdom keepers tread the path of the unknown, the lost one. In shedding former identity, an understanding of place can be attained. One can transcend human boundaries, hearing the songs of crickets and owls and wearing the night like a coat that cannot be slipped. The wanderer becomes small yet great in smallness, silenced yet wise in the vacuum.

Personas can be shifted. Over the past few months, I have considered the random and unsuitable personas I have worn over the years. My general dissatisfaction with a monetary based system has also been a pinnacle factor in my desire to shift from laborer to vagabond. Perhaps persona is a modern development, a modern affliction. Did early man consider his uniqueness? Did he cultivate a collection of property or skills that helped him become alpha, popular and accepted?

There is a connection to the dog-order of humans and other pack animals. Somewhere along the evolutionary process, this aberration of self was developed in order to secure … well, security. With exaggerated limbs and features, bigger-faster-smarter, we rose and challenged. We amended. We edited. We made over and dominated in a pernicious quest for immortality.

Troubling Uniqueness

You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?

― Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads

shaman0011

The paradox of the fascination with uniqueness is that it is made moot by context. How are we unique if not in the reflection of a communal norm? There would be no uniqueness without a benchmark. We are never separate, individual. There would be no concept of identity if we had no place within a larger social order. That is why the most isolated of tribes or individuals have a rich dreamscape that has not been eradicated by comparison.  In these worlds, plants become as alive as humans. Stones tell stories. Garbage is sacred. It is a mad world that invites weeds to the storyline.

Since the original concepts of loss of identity and regaining of self have nothing to do with pandering to a value based system, we as a culture have little regard for or understanding of those who move beyond what is acceptable. For example, the unique worldview of a person deeply entrenched in paranoid schizophrenia – without being medicated – perhaps represents the purest form of authenticity. The mentally ill and their schematics and dreamlands create fear and order in a tunnel almost devoid of common experience.

There has been much research on the subject of self and mental illness as well as self and shamanism. In this paradigm, there is room for all forms of perception and reality.

To jump off into cholla with dreams of remaining unharmed…

To climb the slick rock and see antelopes dancing in the shadows of light descending…

To know the names of every plant and rock… to call them when you are alone and need life to follow.

My life is changing. Nothing seems fixed as such – and in this shape-shifting, fluid state, I worry less about my life and my purpose. There is a dignity of ignorance I seek. You see, the unchanged world of beliefs and personas is an unforgiving one. In this static state, you are sick or well, pure or rotten. There is a collective desire to find Elysium in the status quo and the illusion of authenticity.

I don’t want to be clear; I want to be knee-deep and murky. I want to wade out when the songs of the sirens bellow across the turquoise. There is beauty in dissolution and chaos. Nature adores the ever-changing and amorphous. There is no regret in simply living without having one solid version of life and the beyond. Perhaps it is not for us to know. Perhaps being an animal among field songs and flight is a very good life, indeed.


4 Comments

Reframing Belief and Prosperity

 

July13dump 085

I am standing on a rhyolite cliff looking at a fresh pile of bear dung. Not a pretty way to start a story, I know, but this is where it begins. It’s 8am and the sun has started to burn away the clouds that line the canyons and valleys below. A lone Steller’s Jay decides to announce his presence, then his displeasure with mine. His streak of black-tipped feathers against a strikingly cobalt body remind me of clubs in Toronto where hair and body never quite took on the proper colors and textures. I bend down to survey the pile before me… the bear must have been here within the last hour. It’s not that ominous a scene, however. The Sierra Ancha mountain range is full of black bears, deer, mountain lions and other woodland mammals. Although I have never actually seen a bear here, I have seen their tracks, their scat and their tell-tale scratch marks. It’s an honest place to be.

For three hours, I sat in my tent looking at a deluge that washed over the ridge. There wasn’t much to do in those moments but kick back, read or think. In this case, I opted for the latter. Looking out on damp pine needles, my mind wandered to the themes that are most pressing in my life. Those themes that keep me up at night in the city, but are soon diminished in the cold, damp and windy confines of these high cliffs. It isn’t like they disappear entirely… no, but they don’t suffocate me. They are like the damp pine needles. I just see them and notice their presence. For the past two years, I have felt a building ache in my heart. It started as a married woman. I had dreams of escaping the city with my partner, reluctant dreams. Now, as I am – alone and in flux – I want to do things that I have never before attempted to do.

For one, I am done trying to live my life by anyone’s measuring stick – friend, companion or otherwise. I am also done carrying secrets – mine or any else’s. I do not wish to control or judge; I simply want to be free to live as honestly as I can. I understand that I will lose friends over this. I know it will be uncomfortable for some to accept what I am about to embark upon. Frankly, I am old enough to know it isn’t passive-aggression or rebellious behavior. I just decided I am tired of being a part of an assembly line lifestyle I don’t and never did want.

None of these statements are particularly revolutionary. Many more choose the off grid or simple life: activists, Buddhists, seekers, iconoclasts, etc.. For some reason, though, I have found it difficult to find those who relate to my vision. I meet many people who are on a spiritual path or a path to recovery or healing, yet they still seek the same societal end-means that the rest seek. I am not a believer in the Promise. I do believe that our thoughts impact our perceptions and experiences, and possibly even our outcomes, if external factors align and we are blessed to reside in a country and time that upholds these principles. I still believe in work, direction, movement and animal truth.

This brings me to prosperity. One of the pinnacle reasons I avoid “abundance” as a movement is that it is rooted in the outward rather than how one feels and the quality of experience and character. Plenty of people buy into the idea that if they “positive think” everything, they will be gifted material rewards – usually in the form of entrepreneurial endeavors or independence from wage slavery. The focus is on the monetary compensation that will arrive if they magic-think it so. Abundance thinking has never been outlaw thinking. If anything, it upholds the systems that demand us to believe poor people or those who have experienced hardship haven’t opened up to the power of the universe or simply have a bad attitude. It does not question why some people acquire yet abuse their possessions and power. It also is nation-centric in that the basic premise is that an individual naturally is equipped with a wide variety of choices. It ignores famine, captivity, disease, oppression, slavery and war. By logical deduction, if blessings are created by positive thoughts than hardships must be equated with negative thoughts. If one has control over prosperity than one must also have mastery over poverty. Hmm… sounds like familiar rhetoric, doesn’t it?

One of the reasons I love being in wild places is how it brings me down to the most basic element of being alive: I want to bJuly13dump 319e alive. If I believe I am the most powerful animal in the forest and go about my delusion foolishly, I may get injured or die. It doesn’t matter how much I believe I am the master of my universe, or that Christ or some other deity will protect me; life soon finds a way to subterfuge my beliefs with a mortality wheel I have no means of stopping. In this state of utter surrender, one can be truly prosperous and totally authentic. By understanding the limits of my beliefs and ideas, feelings and thoughts, I can work within a larger framework that includes everything around me: other life, stone, earth, stories. In including everything around me as abundance, I also embrace death and disease, the occasional let-down, loss and missed opportunity.

One of the most fundamental ways of cultivating abundance is through connection. My desire to disengage in the “game of getting ahead” is largely informed by a very human desire to connect. Being a part of a career puts me in isolated odds, whereas serving the community relates to the larger whole. Abundance, ultimately, is rooted in contentment and happiness, comfort and safety. False ideologies will have us believe these can be attained through competition and cultivating our authentic selves. But what are we without others?

Whether we shroud ourselves in an illusion of isolation and self-sufficiency or we desperately seek validation from others, we are still suffering from the same malady to validate our time here on earth. But the most basic beauty is that we all are alive and a part of this life. Just by going outside and noticing the plants and animals in our yard, we can understand that our goals are just as basic as the those of birds and the plants. We are a part of the whole of this dying process, despite our thinking lives, and are here for a very short time. It really doesn’t matter what we believe. The reality is, we are not that unique. Our creature sense wants the same basic things: warmth, food, shelter, the softness of other animals.

What is comes down to is making peace with a lack of control and uniqueness. Imagine the possibilities of being with rather than against. What would our lives feel like if we were more communal than opposing? If we walked among the trees and moss and felt no need to stand apart.

Life is fragile; our own lives are rife with threat and potential. Maybe there is less to do than we think. Maybe sitting on the edge of a cliff and watching the sun rise is a fine way to live. Let us embrace our commonalities and know abundance lives in the place where understanding meets fearlessness, where enough is good, really good.


Leave a comment

The End: Honoring Death, Pain, Disease and Decay

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Over the past year, I have been faced with some disheartening news about my cat Freckles, my sole consistent companion since I was in college. He was diagnosed with kidney disease and has been relatively healthy up until about a month ago. Since then, I have watched him lose weight, his coat become oily and unkempt and his insistence upon water out of a dripping faucet much more physical in urgency. Most days, he sleeps in the bathtub, possibly to be closer to water and the promise thereof.

While he continues to eat and enjoy attention, I see his movement toward the inevitable end and have found myself avoiding talking or thinking about it. Being such a vet-phobic and nervous kitty, frequent trips to the clinic produce additional stress on his compromised system and result in him not eating for a day, staying well hidden until he realizes I am not taking him anywhere again. At 16 years, he has aged into the upper level of life expectancy – a senior boy who has had a great life. So why is it so hard to accept his mortality?

While the veterinarian continues to recommend IV therapy, it is costly and would add more stress on Freckles, who is otherwise still purring and getting around. Yes, it might buy him a few more months, weeks or days, but for whom? I wonder if our insistence on extending the lifespan of our pets, despite their pain and lack of quality of life, is simply a reflection of our intense fear of death and decay, of loneliness and release.

Pain is a necessary aspect of being alive. While spending billions every year on prescribed pain and mood management drugs, cosmetics, legal and illegal mind-altering substances, surgeries and other therapies, we have lost touch with the necessity of being aware of our body and our health. I am not advocating for a return to the pre-anesthesia medical model or denying ourselves the treatment of diseases; however, I am advocating that a little bit of pain during emotional hurt, loss and the disease and death process is actually good for us and for those witness to these processes.

Without pain and discomfort, we lose the opportunity to strengthen sinew and spirit. We lose our evolutionary advantage of adaptability. We weaken ourselves mentally because we become used to being in a maintained “false state” where we are not under any sort of perceived threat, even though we are, of course, really susceptible to our own demise. This delusion of mastery over age, health and life is carefully managed through our current medical and behavioral health models.

When we hurt, naturally we want to take action to remove or relieve the cause of hurt. We learn something about our physical being, our surroundings and the threat that caused the hurt. We may internalize this as a lesson and avoid such situations in the future. We may even pass something on to our children, resulting in the next generation acquiring more information for survival. We gain an understanding of what we like and what feels good by these elements being juxtaposed against what we do not like, what is dangerous or what feels bad.la loba

By synthesizing pleasure and anesthetizing pain, how far will we go to strike a perpetual state of feeling good? And, will our willingness to adapt, grow and act as our own teacher and advocate against those who are managing our pleasure and pain states wane? As animals, we function best when we are fully engaged in controlling our bodies, minds and emotions. When we subvert our survival instincts – if by only even minute levels – we allow the state and corporations to take away our right to experience and express pain through illness, disease, aging and death.

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional… er, sorry – also inevitable.

In most Eastern religions, suffering is seen as something akin to the human condition. Even the sages and bodhisattvas experience some suffering. Through meditation and study, reducing our human tendency to form attachments and expectations encourages a reduction in the frequency in and severity of suffering. Generally speaking, suffering is perceived as a given state of being aware of and in resistance to a life that will most certainly end.

Suffering can be a part of the human experience that enhances our life – after all, if we did not greatly grieve the loss of a loved one, how might our depth of love be altered? Is the fact of finality not an aspect of intense love, pleasure, communion and affection that allows us to have these feelings?

I was raised in a Baptist church and as a child I recall being intensely frightened of the idea that when I died, I would go to Heaven – you know, Paradise – where I would live FOREVER. I remember thinking about the enormity of what would never end, what would be an unending amount of time, drifting in an Elysian Field never to arrive at any destination – just eternally blissed out. That scared the hell out of me! How can something never end, I thought. It went against what my body knew as truth. How boring, to live forever in the same state. I like an ending to anything, even orgasmic rapture. I consider that child, so afraid of manufactured happiness, to hold the key.

If we are always avoiding pain, nullifying our aches and using any means (including enlightenment) to subdue the reality of our demise, what will we miss as individuals, families and societies? Where will our rites go, and how will we recognize a life well lived  if there is a struggle to maintain a baseline of absolute balance?

Dying is painful. The body decays and then shuts down, but not without discomfort. Is this an abhorrent thought? Learning to let go to the transition of any loss and fully experience that ache is the fulfillment of the life cycle. Even if we personally seek to avoid pain, what are we denying our peers to witness, honor and move through to cultivate their own wisdom and understanding?

The bodies of the ill are sequestered away in institutions where we sterilize and anesthetize. While machines hum and bland art hangs on ultra-white walls – where everyone speaks in hushed tones with serious looks and padded shoes, we fall to sickness and death. When we die, we are dressed in suits we loathed to wear in life, made up with rouge that would offend Dolly Parton and are propivped in silk, posed like some fly pinned beneath glass. When my grandfather died, I thought he looked like a stranger. Where was the garden dirt, the disheveled hair, and why did he smell like baby powder and not tobacco and sweat? This was a man of the earth, not the air, to be pomp and pretense. This was a very real man, not to be belittled and made into some digestible piece of fiction. He died, and we gathered in denial of what is so difficult for the living to accept.

Life is alive on the nerve endings, on the shallow breath of  fight or flight and the mating call and mourning song. Being fully aware is frightening. A broken limb or a gash to the skin, and we cannot escape our body-limitations. Pain can be a teacher. Pain makes us soft to the hearts of others, aware of our own sweetness and fragility. In addiction, watch how that light dims. The addict is a perfect example of pain avoidance. We penalize the addict for doing the very thing we want to do: anesthetize.

My old cat may be in pain. He still holds a fire in his eyes, a curiosity and enjoyment of sitting by the window watching birds. To deny him his life / death process would be vanity and selfishness. It hurts to watch our loved ones transition and experience pain, but pain is in itself not bad. I have watched animals take their last few breaths, with broken bones along desolate, winter highways. Still, there was nothing in them that said they’d prefer to be dead before that last breath was ready to leave them. As living creatures, we want to live. Mercy killing is insulting and unjust. Life leaves the body when it is ready. We spare others and ourselves the experience of transition and a reverence for the dying process by intervening prematurely.

The last time I visited Indiana, I spent some time talking to my grandfather and other ancestors at their grave sites near a beautiful cornfield lined by oak trees. In my hand, I held the written prayers of wind, dirt and laughter – seeds I threw into the June windstorm. I know their transitions – some of them painful, some of them prolonged – were beautiful aspects of their life narratives. Their endings, the way they transitioned and even the diseases that facilitated the end to their lives, all comprised the next generation and what we have to learn – to struggle against – and to embrace. Ultimately, I live the song of suffering as much as the song of happiness. I wish no less for you.


Leave a comment

Making Work a Conscious Act

elite-daily-stripper-pole-girl

I have had many jobs in my life. I have scrubbed toilets, bussed tables, sold trinkets, stripped and posed for an 80 year old sculptor. I have been a business owner; I have been a corporate drone. Perhaps my most important role, however, has been as a nonprofit professional, raising money for a myriad of good missions over the years. Still, looking back, I do not associate any of these roles with who I am as a human, nor would I have passed up the chance to quit any given job to pursue a life of exploration, learning and spiritual growth.

There is no job or career I have taken on that supplants my desire to run, to move, to wander this world with an inexhaustible curiosity no career could ever sate. I simply do not believe in career or job as being something natural to us. Work is of course a part of being alive. We work to eat, keep warm, find a mate and gain security… but work was never meant to consume us in such a structured manner of identity and value. The need to work would often arise with the need for outcome. Spontaneity, chance and flexibility revolved around the perils and payoffs of work – reward or lack thereof. As we formed community, roles were assigned, but again, work was the basis of an outcome and not a descriptor with false value and meaning assigned per se, until we began to move into such a context.

From industrial perils to blue collar masses to college-fresh degree holders entering into the career world, we have replaced the elements of work that make it work with fantasies of identity, power and prestige. Work no longer produced only results = i.e. food, house, car; work became our pinnacle form of identity and pride. Academic institutions pushed the new “educated worker” with the mantra of a more enlightened nation and a workforce of specialists, making higher wages. In fact, the past 80 years have funneled us into believing that we can earn our worth. This philosophy assumes that our worth is based on monetary gain, academic success, or – in the case of many conditioned women – our ability to work someone else’s gain.

The problems inherent in this phony empire of career pomp are becoming more apparent as the disparity of classes and make-believe markets are creating deeper gouges in the fabric of this economic dreamscape. But I am not writing about the current fiscal crisis and profound inequity between classes. Ultimately, what I argue is why must we even subject ourselves to this?

As someone who grew up in rural lower middle class/poverty Americana, I was – despite being a bright and relatively good student – encouraged to find a job at one of the local factories in our mid-sized community. On a positive day, my guidance counselor might have suggested community college. You see, poor, rural folks were to be tailored for industry. This was the early 90s – not the early 1900s.

Thankfully, my stubborn gene kept me from succumbing to limited suggestions, and I left the small town and traveled throughout North America, working various odd jobs to support me as I wrote and experienced a multitude of places I thought I might need to see: Seattle, Boston, New York, LA… and the plethora of tiny burgs full of artists and writers, weirdoes and geeks. My life living paycheck to paycheck felt normal – I existed day-to-day and actually don’t recall worrying about the next source of income, whether I’d have a savings account or if I could afford to fly back to Indiana when my 1980 Honda hatchback (with its still working 8-track player) finally and stubbornly gave in to the auto graveyard.

Of course, this story does not serve to advocate the life of the young vagabond to those who want to have kids and settle in to some kind of community. Perhaps the sheer fact of youth and curiosity led to me to this pathway, but I am most certainly happy I took this course and started the ebb of wanderlust at a time most appropriate for passage into adulthood.cubicle

This story, however, is not a moral fable about lessons that lead one to buy that house, that car, that oceanfront property. This story is about someone who has decided to leave every myth behind entirely. For me, success comes through community, creativity and self-expression. I don’t care if I if I ever own the latest gizmo x, y or z. I want the kind of life that distinguishes perceived need versus impact. I want the kind of freedom that doesn’t require upgrading product every year.

Now, I can hear you screaming, “Luddite!” at the top of your lungs, but what I am advocating is not an elimination of technology, but rather a moderation of reliance upon such. There are always vast benefits in being able to communicate and learn globally, relate to new scientific advances and build social activism on a level never once achievable. However, just as with any other product or outlet, we can reduce  blind adherence to buying these tools when we view them as tools and not an extension of worth. Any time I have worked with teens and early adults, I have witnessed the incredible social impact of owning the latest tech toy or cell. It truly is brand talking and not necessarily need or advancement of intellect or action.

Getting back to work… there are many choices at hand for those seeking more fulfillment in life and moving away from the 8am-6pm dregs. Some suggestions to reduce economic enslavement are as follows:

1. Outline what you want

As a survivor of domestic violence, this obvious fact-finding process was very arduous until I was able to honor the internal. Before any of us can begin to manifest work as an expression, we must know Self and our subsequent values, ethics and hopes. Make a list of your deepest, most purposeful intentions to begin.

2. Adjust your habits

Ah, this is where action comes into play. Many of my dissociative habits – such as drinking and running – were counterproductive to the life I outlined and the beliefs I held close. What habits do you allow to run the show? How do your habits prevent you from engaging in your life and the life you desire?

3. Resist fear

I recently heard from a wise female friend how she made a decision to stop the “scary movies” she was playing in her mind. I connected to this on an intuitive level – my life was almost held hostage by potential horrific scenes of future atrocities. In order to manifest something new, we can maintain a state of mind that receives the energy of the day and resists future posturizing.

4. Reach out and accept

Reaching out and forming community, as well as getting sage wisdom regarding our chosen paths, are essential elements to growth and moving into a work that truly meets our soul-needs.

Allow yourself the guidance to listen, learn and apply.

5. Pass it along

When the time is right, pay it forward! Think of the myriad ways you have been told, “no” and pass the gifts of independence to others.

When I think about the ongoing theme of dissuasion from my true talents and calling, I am even more motivated to help others cultivate a path that honors their values, beliefs and talents. Work – that is, the stuff we do to attain housing, food and security – need not become our primary purpose. Work can be supplemental, but our paths and expressions can be aligned with our life at large. Purpose is so different from work. Purpose transposes talents with communal benefits and blesses us beyond measure.

It is a true gift to begin to look at the quality of one’s life, even in dire economic or health circumstances. Open to the possibilities inherent in each day and remain a student – the world needs more iconoclasts, willing to bridge the pressures of society while supporting the ideologies related to independent thought, action and path.