This Saturday is the first of two writing workshops I’m facilitating on nature and place at the Orwell Free Library from 10am – noon. I have been listening to Braiding Sweetgrass during my walks and around the house and thinking about my relationship with the land, nature, and place.
In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, writes about her indigenous ancestors’ relationship with the land:
Children, language, lands: almost everything was stripped away, stolen when you weren’t looking because you were trying to stay alive. In the face of such loss, one thing our people could not surrender was the meaning of land. In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold. These are the meanings people took with them when they were forced from their ancient homelands to new places
I first felt the awe of a landscape when I traveled to the Rocky Mountains from my childhood home in northern Minnesota. Then, a girl of sixteen, I sensed something I would now call reverence for those mountains. I traveled off and on for many years, chasing that sense of wonder.
But more recently, I have begun to learn how to know one place deeply and well. I walk the same acres of land day after day and find intimacy, comfort, joy, and discovery. While visiting a new landscape can inspire us, intimacy with place offers a deeper reverence the more acquainted we become.
The changing of the field that rolls out in front of my lawn reveals a way of being in each day depending on the season. The turning of the leaves signify a turning inward in my own body–a return of the energy that moves outward. While the first bright green of spring opens me up to a newness that fills me all summer–a magical abundance that brings late nights around campfires, walks to the pond, kayaking, hiking, and adventure.
In her book, Kimmerer discusses the difference between a relationship of commodity and one of gift giving, which was her native ancestor’s economy. With the sharp eye of anthropologist and instinct of a poet, she examines the way these two economies shape our relationship to the land and to each other.
Join me Saturday morning to explore your own way of being in relationship with place and nature, and to consider the nature of the gift giving economy in our own communities.
Reports have surfaced that women in immigrant detentions center are having forced hysterectomies. This is not new to human behavior, but we did imagine that it would not happen again, especially here in our own country again. The entire West Coast is on fire. Hurricanes are ravaging the Gulf Coast. Our human species is suffering through a plague and some are so angry that they have to wear a mask for protection that they’re storming schools. Black people continue to be lynched by the police and vigilante racists, which has happened for over four hundred years. There have been months of protests demanding an end to police violence and at these protests people are shot; in one instance, by a young, white seventeen year old carrying a large gun did the shooting and the police did not think of him as a suspect when he walked by with this large and illegal gun.
This is my report from the end of the world.
I live on the edge of a field that leads to a forest that leads to a pond where beavers rule. It is a kind of heaven to know a landscape intimately and to watch it turn with each season. The earth, if we can see, offers immense beauty and worthwhile joy.
I want you to know that human beings did love the world. They loved nature and animals. They even loved each other. But we could not evolve quickly enough to save ourselves and because we became a disease that destroyed everything we touched, earth dispelled us. I like to think of it as an eviction.
We spent so much time planning elaborate schemes to lock each other in cages where we tortured and abused the encaged and called it justice. We looked into the eyes of those that looked like us except for some minor detail we’d created, and called them beasts, told them they deserved to die. We took those that sought refuge at our border and stole their children and locked them up or gave them away. We did not feed or love or offer compassion. We cut their bodies open and stole their histories. We lost all empathy, the one thing that might have saved us. I cannot really begin to explain the problem of greed, the desire for power and control, the disease of dominion.
The way we abused each other will remain the single most extraordinary feature of our species. The intricacy and intimacy of it. The blindness of those who called themselves good, whatever that meant. They were all too busy making money to pay the mortgage, the student loan, the car, the insurance… the list is endless, truly. It was hard to get out from under that yolk. It seemed that every day there was something to be bought that might make our lives almost good enough.
I can only speak for the America I know. We did not love but for the shimmer of something we called wealth, which also, somehow, equated to self. We longed to create the image of this in all that we did and on whatever scale we had access to–whether large or small–and at any cost whatsoever. The body of a woman, the face of a child, the square photo boxes we all looked at daily, the poisoning of water and air and food sources, the destruction of land–forests, oceans, deserts, frozen tundra, all of it, destroyed by us. The earth dug out and eviscerated.
There was love in all of us. I am certain. But the disease was too strong and we had years–centuries–of genetics that led us to abuse, to harm, to hoard. Each needed something we called an identity, and this identity was individual in that it did not exert itself in solidarity or for the good of the group, at least not often or this was never encouraged except in the form of something we called “charity” which seemed to only perpetuate those who needed it and perform a sense of superiority for those who offered it. It became an easy comfort for those who felt bad about the state of the world.
Identity seemed to require a sounding board in the form of a body onto which all bad thought was flung. Without this other, the identities of Americans floundered and they began to feel things–bad feelings of fear and anxiety, which were in fact just the normal feelings of human existence, but were entirely intolerable for most Americans.
They could not cull these feelings, nor learn to live with them, so off they ran to find a whipping boy. The psychology of it was rather obvious, but still powerful.
If you were here, if you are, then you know about the beauty. Everywhere the earth offered beauty and life. The abundance of creatures and plants and landscapes and water and sunlight and stars and moon phases. The feeling of wet grass on your bare feet on the first cool day of September or the lick of salt water after swimming in the ocean, the sun hot against your skin, the water cool. The smell of deep forest. I am certain there are many that know this beauty with great intimacy. But the darkness took us. We could not free ourselves, once entangled. We evolved into our own end and many, many human beings saw that end and tried to change it. I could tell you all the ways they tried. But in the end, they failed. So they lay themselves down against the soft and balmy skin of earth and knew the end would come and took comfort in hoping that without us, the earth would survive and it would be beautiful.
Last night we sat under the almost full moon between the apple trees and garden in a friend’s backyard. I have been lonely in all of the usual pandemic ways. Underwater swimming upstream. How are you? I have taken to sketching birds during Zoom meetings–there are so many. Sometimes I walk to the pumpkin patch alone just to stand beside their fairytale vines on the hill and look out. Every week a new sorrow.
Mostly I want to live in the smallness of the world. To knit a story of the land, to make my own rituals that don’t involve capitalism, buying, making things look a longed for way. I want to gather before the bonfire to perform a ritual as old as dirt. But we have none. We have buying. We have the gods of stuff. We have more and better and slimmer and less wrinkles; we have music lessons and soccer and what’s best for my child. We have gear. Endless amounts of gear sold to us as though we too might scale a mountain free solo or become that woman in the Athleta catalogue serenely poised on a mountain in mountain pose. We have all the Patagonia in the world isn’t going to save the world and our sadness can’t be eradicated in perfect picture squares of neutral shades, raw wood, and white linen.
We bow down to the Gods of Capital like no other society in the history of the world. “Capital,” my colleague Nina reminded me the other day during a phone chat, “doesn’t care about gender or race or ethnicity or class. Capital uses them to get more capital.” I am not immune to any of this. Maybe I am writing this to myself, dear reader. There is nothing, it seems, untouched by consumerism. Nothing that can’t be repackaged and sold to us. And our refusal to see the way this has taken hold of all we do is killing the world.
Underneath the misshapen moon around the bonfire in late August, the three of us shared warmth. In the window from the house, my friend’s daughters peeked out, shining their flashlight like a tiny beacon from across the sea of the lawn. “Go to bed, girls,” she called. And suddenly they were gone, swept back into the comfort of their old wooden beds and fluffy quilts, their fairy books and stuffed animals. Perhaps, like I did as a child, they line their beds with stuffed animals before they fall asleep, a ring of protectors. Their silent prayer to the night fairy: please don’t let them fall into the dark sea of floor where the unseen disappears. Keep them safe.
This morning, endless crying, fights over the kitten. Pancakes shaped like chickens, maple syrup from a mason jar. This morning, coffee while we sit in our chairs, my husband telling me his dreams before work. This morning, the same ache of loneliness that never leaves like a phantom girl I refuse comfort or just from looking again and again at the way it all shapes and reshapes who we are, who we might have been, and what we will become.
There are two Canada geese nesting on the pond, but only one mate. My son and I go out in the kayak in the middle of May. The frogs are mating. Guttural and loud, the sound echoes from the shore of the pond. We watch them in the shallow water laying on each other. There must be hundreds of them who have traveled to the water to mate. The male holds the female in a hug called amplexus and she releases eggs that the male fertilizes. Some frogs laze alone at the water’s surface as though relaxing before looking for another mate. The males appear smaller than the females.
We paddle along the shore. Mo sits in the little indent behind my seat, a perfect perch for an eight-year-old. He notes the animals he sees: fish, turtle, Canada goose, duck, sandpiper, blue heron. Five baby turtles sunning on a log in the pond, slip under the water as we approach. They dive into the murk to hide. We are hot enough to wear t-shirts and worry about burning.
As we approach the first nest, the two mallards—a male and female pair—swim off. They’re often visiting the goose but depart abruptly when they see we’re coming. She lays out flat with her long black neck along the ground, still and lifeless, waiting for us to move on. We paddle past to the deer head; its hide looks like clean white rubber from its time under the water. It’s face, barely recognizable—blackish mouth, eaten back and teeth protruding. My husband saw it there a few weeks ago on his maiden voyage in the new kayak. It appeared as a kind of horror-movie omen at first. But now, Mo and I like to visit it. We also visit the racoon carcass near the old cabin. We are waiting for it to decompose so that we can take the skull home, like treasure.
In the time before, he went to school every day and I worked. At night, we ate dinner together, I read him and his brother stories, they went to sleep. On the weekends, I mostly graded papers or wrote or worked on other employment, but, we often walked to the pond or went to a movie, for sushi, to visit friends. Time now has changed. Days pass like afternoons. Yesterday, my husband sat on the porch reading all day. He wasn’t in a good mood. I went for a run and he and the boys came to pick me up at our friends’ goat farm. We chatted outside with our friends while the boys went with their two girls down to the pond. I fed the newest baby goat in their herd of nearly 300 with a bottle and discussed the library plant sale with Holly—no browsing this year, call ahead to order and then pick-up.
Will came back alone from the pond and Holly gave him a cup of fresh, warm goat milk, which he gulped down. I’m very thirsty, he hinted for more. I cherish these brief visits with friends even as I fear what may come as we begin to socialize again.
Back home, we eat dinner, we bring in the chicks, we tuck in the boys, we get into bed. The day passes, and little is accomplished in the way we had once imagined tasks should be completed, days filled with plans and lists. But we no longer rush. We sleep for as long as we can, we rise at seven or eight. We sip coffee in bed for an hour while scrolling on our devices or out in the garden listening to the birds.
The children play imaginary games with animals. Sometimes dragons. The games emulate what they know about the animals—territory, family units, conflict and friendship. Sometimes there is screaming and ranting and whining and so on. The regular sort of expected behavior during a time of difficulty or abnormality. But mostly we don’t mind because time stretches out and releases itself from limits.
Time moves back towards the cyclical kind of time that John Berger writes belongs to another era, one long ago. He writes of two kinds of experiences of time passing. “Our experience of its passing involves not a single but two dynamic processes which are opposed to each other: as accumulation and dissipation.” He says that time seems to move at two different rates. The experiences of deeper meaning, he insists, accumulate and therefore stop the dissipation of time. I interpret this as meaning we remember them more. The springtime hours are much more accumulative because plants grow rapidly, offering a physical sense of passing time, a way of holding it in our mind’s eye.
It is really only our bodies and the things we make that hold up time. Everything else lives in cycles that include and absorb death. It is the physical changing of our bodies alone that creates this concept as far as I can tell. Perhaps too, the desire to thwart death with posterity.
All week, I have felt quiet. I’ve reached a shore of silence. Please, sometimes I think, don’t speak to me. Then there are times I look over at my husband in bed, wrapped in his elephant blanket, and wonder who he is. Speak to me, I say, poking him. He grunts and rolls away.
On and on the days go, flowing out towards summer, a time when I usually pack up and head to Minnesota with the kids. Where I sit on the deck and drink coffee with my mom or lounge beside the lake with my siblings and their kids or spouses. Everything about this slower, sunny season in Minnesota or Vermont, feels like a luxury, and affirms my life choices, which are normally a source of anxiety for me.
I wonder what this different life would be like. One in which we are farmers or makers or stay-at-home teachers of children; one in which we value our relationships with our family and the landscapes that surround us so deeply that we refuse to work excessively in offices spaces or the like, and it’s somehow possible to live this other way. I wonder if Berger’s concept of time applies here. But, though I have read and re-read his passages on time in his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, I can’t quite distill them. I only sense an affinity to his words, a knowing that I have held like water through my hands. A flickering that once passed can’t be made into words. There is a different way of knowing death, a way to make it a part of life. To draw up close to it and hold it gently near to you and it is in this way of knowing we return to another way of life lived close to the land, close to each other, in quietude. Our constant longing for more, fed by living. All our loss absorbed in the soil of the body, renewed.
Last night as I was laying in bed scrolling I got the terrible news that John Prine had passed away from Covid19. He had been in intensive care for at least a week and his wife Fiona had posted that he was in critical condition on March 29th. He died on April 7th on the eve of the year’s second supermoon–the Pink Supermoon–which was the closet of all to the earth.
I can’t help believing that he walked those moonbeams out into the galaxy or some such thing. His words were that of myth and legend, the gentle and often hilarious or heartbreaking truth of our human existence. He seemed to understand both the loneliness of our lives and the intimacy that comes almost exclusively from ordinary life. He wrote often of porches, screen doors, lost love, kitchens, and country life and the story was mostly about how little we need in order to be happy but how hard it is to see this truth.
His songs make me love more, want less, and believe in the human spirit as a force of goodness known through truth.
Prine has always been a legend in my family. Three generations of my mother’s family loved him. My grandparents, my mom and aunt, and then us cousins. I’m one of the only family members who didn’t see him play live. My cousins got to meet him once while wearing homemade t-shirts that read in puff paint: “You may see me tonight with an illegal smile” and “Hello In There.”
One of the last memories I have of our grandma is her dancing with my sister Hannah around the cabin at Burnt Shanty Lake to Prine’s song “Big Old Goofy World”. Later, in the dark of the deck, she wiped her eyes and told my aunt and mom how much my grandfather (who had died nearly twenty years prior) would have loved to be there.
According to my mom, her father loved everything about his life as a high school civics teacher and was filled with an immense gratitude for the small pleasures. These simple pleasures are what Prine most celebrates. But he was also an iconic writer of protest songs like “Jesus the Missing Years,” ” Sam Stone,” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”
It’s hard to say what Prine meant to America. He wasn’t exactly a household name but he was known and deeply loved and a revered song-writer. He saw through the greed of his industry and remained loyal to his own heart, voice, and vision. He offered a kind of homespun wisdom that spoke to us. At least for me, he reminded me of what was beautiful and sad and interesting and hilarious about this life. And for that I am grateful.
When I think of what our country is going through right now–the absolute sham of our presidential leadership, the insanity of how this pandemic is being handled on the national level, the greed and cruelty of the president, the division among us–it is Prine who stands as an icon of everything we could be but aren’t. It is he who would sing about the people that keep on keeping on despite the insanity–the people everywhere that are making the supplies we need, working in hospitals, grocery stores, gas stations, warehouses, and delivering our goods. The people we call heros because they are giving their lives for us. So we can stay home and stay safe. And of course, they are not being properly compensated or protected.
More than anything, I wish he could write a song about dying in the middle of a pandemic and send it to us. I know it would be good, his best, heartbreaking & true.
lyrics I like:
I’d like to build me a castle of memories just to have somewhere to go.
Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry Make me a poster of an old rodeo Just give me one thing that I can hold on to To believe in this living is just a hard way to go
Blow up your TV throw away your paper Go to the country, build you a home Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches Try an find Jesus on your own
Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger, And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day. Old people just grow lonesome Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
Holiness and death. Everyone has something sacred and something to which they devote themselves, whether it be spiritual or just an iPhone, or self-improvement which I think is just a part of capitalism. But mainly I write about death, indirectly. That we die and our lives are small and insignificant and trivial but we feel them to be immensely important and singular, and so they are and we are. I can’t get over this conundrum and so I write about it because in writing all the weird feelings and thoughts can become significant or they gain voices and lives of their own and I take comfort in this. I take comfort in beauty… continue reading
I want to believe in winter’s magic, I really do, but it isn’t always magical for me. Yes, the frosted branches of morning trees present a certain mysticism that can get quickly squashed by the idea that pops with a robotic ding into my head: I should take a picture of that. The sliver of moon in the trees I saw this morning, made me think, I am the only one seeing this. The cold sniff of smoke as I move from the car to the house, the ache of just a glimpse of winter stars, the warmth of the fire. Yes, there is magic in those moments, those brief glimpses into eternity.
Why can’t I move through this season like anyone else? Why this grief that catches like broken ice in the gully of a river or what, the gullet of some creature… even better. What weird and melodramatic metaphor can I offer up from the self-effacing dungeon of despair. OK, it’s not that bad! Or is it?
My kids are out the window playing in the snow as the last of the light dusts out. I can hear the soft thrum of my husband’s radio upstairs where he works trimming hemp plants he harvested in October. Black beans and onions and garlic in a pot on the kitchen stove, something made, something done. I used to write poetry from January to May every winter. Here, spring doesn’t come until May. But it’s been years since that time.
I tell my husband I want to move. I tell him that the children are corrupted by X, Y, Z. I say I can’t take it anymore. It’s a broken record, the depression. He says, you will still feel these things even if you move, get a new job, fix X, Y, or Z. I grow angrier when he tells me these true things. I feel trapped. I know he is right. I just have to ride this out. But how?
It happens like this: first the feeling of malaise and discontent, then the story…. but what if, I don’t start in on the story, you know the one? The story of all the things that aren’t the way you’d like them to be? What if I refrained?
Running, I see a fat red tailed hawk swoop–why does it look so plump? Winter feathers? I hear the mechanical sounds of the neighbor’s farm, the scent of manure and grain–animals. I pass the stonebarn where last year’s lambs munch hay, their wool a dull white.
Up and down, back and forth, I move through this season with a mix of trepidation and unhinged determination. Here’s what I can offer you based on my experience (forty years!) coping with long winters…
My go-to strategies for surviving winter because, let’s face it, we still have several months to go!
Get outside. Everyday. Take a walk, take a jog, ski, snowshoe, window shop. We need 20 minutes of sunlight a day in order to get enough vit D and feel like our normal selves. Fresh air leads to fresh ideas and increases my mood 100%.
Drink tea. Find your favorite warming tea blends and stock up. Make a ritual of tea and relaxation. Rituals help us relax because our bodies create associations with activities that lead us to anticipate what comes next. Our bodies can learn that tea drinking leads to relaxation.
Heat up. Take a hot bath, sweat in the sauna, or sign up for hot yoga. Do you feel like your whole body is clenching? Heat loosens us up, releases tension, and helps us reconnect with our bodies. I stock up on bath salts and suds and get in there at the end of every day with my tea. I also use the sauna at my gym after workouts (it’s great motivation!). When in Minnesota, I try to get to my sister’s hot yoga shack as much as possible–who knew a shack could be such a luxury!
Plan cozy celebrations with your besties. Potlucks are the mainstay of Vermont winters. They used to include copious amounts of red wine, but now we seem to drink a lot of seltzer and apple cider. Celebrating with my best friends at low key, relaxed gatherings where there’s no pressure to create a fancy meal or host, helps me to feel connected and feeling connected to those we love is essential to our well-being.
Get Away! A long weekend in a different city, a couple of days in a cabin, skiing in the mountains, or, if you can, get to a hot beach for winter break. I love heading to NYC or Montreal to check out museums, see new art, walk around and find fun places to eat. If I could, I’d be headed south for at least a week of sunshine. Wherever you go, take it easy and keep your expectations low. Plan to wander with maybe only a dinner reservation in place (yikes! I can’t tell you how many friends find themselves hangry in Montreal with their loves and end up ruining their getaways!). You’ll be even happier to get back home to the comfort of your routines after a break!
This Month, I wrote a short essay for Cynthia Newberry Martin’s How We Spend Our Days blog. Give it a read here: A Day In January And follow her newsletter for more amazing writers writing about how they spend their days.
Join me Tuesday, February 11th at 6:30PM at the Brandon Library for a reading & conversation of Made Holy and The Essay Exhibits. I’ll be discussing creativity and spirituality as a form of healing from substance abuse disorder.
I’m reading this amazing book: This Is My Body by Cameron Dezen Hammon “In this memoir of faith and faltering, musician Cameron Dezen Hammon, a Jew-ish New Yorker, finds herself searching for love, meaning―a sign. She’s led to Coney Island, where during a lightning storm, she is baptized in the murky waters of the Atlantic by a group of ragtag converts. After years of trying to make a name for herself as an artist, she follows her boyfriend and new God to Houston, Texas, the heart of American evangelical subculture. Her job at a suburban megachurch there has her performing on stage before crowds, awash in lights and smoke, yet grappling with outdated gender expectations―look pretty but not too pretty, young but not too young―and ultimately her identity as both a believer and feminist.”
It’s funny how the end of the year suddenly seems daunting because it’s supposed to mark something big. Last night was the final full moon of the decade. This year marked the end of a decade for me as well. So perhaps it is a big ending for me.
The end of my thirties, which began with marriage in the Spring of 2010 and saw my graduation from an MFA in creative writing program, the birth of my two sons, the writing of my first book, first teaching job, first marathon, and probably a lot of other first I can’t think of.
Last night we gathered in the community room at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury where I read from Made Holy, lead the group in a walking meditation around the Essay Exhibits artwork and writing currently on display at the library, and spoke with artists Sarah Ashe and Fran Bull.
Both are immensely talented artists and creative people. It was with a tender admiration that I asked them about their work, why they said yes to The Essay Exhibits and how art can change the world. Can it? I think their work can and does. I think creation, bringing into existence what is previously only a ghost in one’s mind–image, light, color, song, idea–is the radical center of our holiness.
These are holy days, high holidays, and the end of the darkness.
I feel most taken up by the light, most called to a place of humble acceptance, a place of love.
I also dig the story of Jesus’ birth in the manger, the message of salvation that he brings to the world, and the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, the menorah, to symbolize the miracle in the temple and the faith of a people in their God. I have always love Christmas trees–lights!
But the force of materialism is at its most powerful this time of year. While I love our little shops in Middlebury, adore The Vermont Book Shop, and strolling across the bridge with an oat milk latte in hand, consumerism isn’t where it’s at for me.
But consumerism reminds me that it is through our spiritual selves that we are fed, made whole, filled with light, set free, or whatever your way of saying it is.
There is a tender inward turning that occurs in the north where light and darkness do not maintain equilibrium. We are called to slow down and snuggle into bed early. Our bodies grow drowsy and for a while we resist the cold by staying inside, lighting fires and candles or Christmas tree lights to keep us.
In the new year as the light begins to grow again, I become more engaged in outside activities again. But it’s this small moment of darkness in which we most need to pause.
Last night at the reading, a small group of people (20 or so) gathered and I sat in a chair and read two essays with intense commitment and deep emotion, which is the only way I know how to read and which takes a lot of energy for me. My husband wept, as he usually does, and I kept looking at him, my true north–focus and anchor.
I was surprised each time I looked up to see people still looking at me, still engaged in my words, and not their cell phones. We were connected in this moment of offering. Here, I give you this gift; here, I receive it. There is nothing more powerful to us than this connection, unfettered by money.
I have started and abandoned this December letter half a dozen times in these past weeks, not certain of what to say.
These are merely reminders to myself. But perhaps you need them too. Just remember why we make celebrations, why we gather, why we give offerings to each other–small trinkets of our affections. They are meant to signify our love and nothing more because what can really mean more than that?
Go out into this cold night of long darkness and seek the stars. I often stand for half a minute looking up into the clear sky on my walk from car to home. It’s just a tiny glimpse of the stars, but I think how I want to get bundled up and come out here and lay down on the earth and let the stars come alive. Let this be the gift I give myself. Let me remember how short it is, how quickly it goes, how beautiful the world.
I’ve been working on getting “The Essay Exhibits” ready to hang at the Orwell Free Library and I think all the pieces will finally be up later today. On Wednesday, October 16th at 7PM I will be reading from Made Holy, answering questions about the book, and signing and selling books! I hope you can join me. Bring cash or checks to buy a book.
Thursday night, I met three amazing writers while reading for the New England Review Vermont Reading series at the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury. Check out Sarah Wolfson’s beautiful book of poetry A Common Name For Everything published by the Green Writers Press and Sara London’s book Upkeep. You can also hear the work of NER Summer Intern, Middlebury College student, and writer, Rahat Huda by listening to episode 7 of the NER Out loud podcast which she worked on. It was a privilege to read with them.
Promoting Made Holy has at times felt overwhelming. But when I read the essays that speak to the current social issues we are facing right here in Vermont and across the nation I feel empowered and carried by something bigger than me. I am grateful to be of service in this way and to have a voice and a platform to talk about addiction issues.
As the season changes, I feel the familiar pull of the inner world, the longing to retreat, to hunker down and hole up. It’s a good feeling mostly. But this season is rife with fears of melancholy and depression for me. And while I have a number of ways to cope, I feel the beast of it in every corner. Of disease I make myth because in my culture we are barren of stories, guides, healers who move beyond the medical models instilled by psychiatry and western medicine–both entrenched in the masculine model (patriarchy and capitalism) of the industrial complex. And so, this black dog or angry beast or shadow self grows.
In my groups, many people offer up suggestions on how to cope with depression: Light box, eating less (for real), exercise and fresh air, meditation, and one man whom I admire said it was soul work. Depression arrives to call us back to ourselves and to remind us that we have healing and a healer within. I am skeptical but also the places that bear light for me are often spiritual and internal as well as of genuine connection with others.
Mostly I believe that depression is a social disease that comes from the despair of trying to live in a society that stifles human creativity and devalues human life. This morning, over breakfast at a friends, she discussed the ways dividing ourselves into liberal and conservative create a divide that can often shut down communication between members of a community such as those in Orwell. Our response to people we don’t agree with lays out the way we will treat them–the standard for treatment. This is hard when we feel under threat, attacked, and like our human rights are at stake. It doesn’t feel like there is room for this level of compassion. But there is.
The deepest wound of capitalism is our loneliness and our lack of connection to each other. We too often do not see ourselves in our neighbors. This beautiful essay “A Letter to my Children: Historical Memory and the Silences of Childhood,” written by Timothy J. Stanley, discusses this loneliness along with the “drearily mundane reality of ordinary people doing evil things”.
Stanley quotes the great philosopher Hannah Arendt and her understanding of loneliness, which she discusses in relation to Nazism: She argues that loneliness violates human beings’ contact with others, and undermines common sense “which regulates and controls all other senses and without which each of us would become enclosed in his (sic) own particularity of sense data which in themselves are unreliable and treacherous..”
He goes on to discuss how mass culture fosters loneliness and encourages us to replace others with whom we engage with Others we fear. “[Mass culture] replaces others with whom we are connected with Others whom we fear. It encourages the folly of abandoning the public sphere for the dubious safety of private fortresses”. We become consumers rather than producers of a shared culture.
How do we rebel? Here in Orwell I have met quite a few rebels and they are mostly farmers (hill people) and folks who want to create a different way of life. They understand that as long as we participate in the system of exploitation commonly known as the forty hour work week, we cannot heal, connect, or deeply engage in our world. As long as we maintain our to do lists above all else, we will never find time to lay and the grass and watch a chubby caterpillar or the clouds, bring food to a neighbor or spend a day in deep connection with loved ones because we are saddled to our lists, our work, our finances, our debt and not to each other.
It’s not black and white. It’s always gray. But I want more breathing room. Less drudgery. More connection. Less isolation. More spiritual journey. Less careering.
Above all else I want to be in service to this world and the people here. What can I offer today? A cup of tea, a conversation, these words, a hand? I know there are layers of privilege here. People can’t walk away from their jobs, they have mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay and so on. But most of us can argue for a different world simply by choosing different priorities. Taking time to consider what we value and how we serve each other. Yes, serve.
Ask yourself, How can I be of service today? See what happens.
The Essay Exhibits is up! Here’s a peek.
I’m so excited about this show and I hope you can all catch it at one of the libraries this year. Here’s the exhibit schedule.