Mary Oliver

Photograph by Mariana Cook

Photograph by Mariana Cook

I was standing outside in the cold late last night. I was staring at the cider press my father rescued from a junkyard in Iowa and thinking about Mary Oliver’s death. Apples pass through the spinning gears that crush them into pulp.  As someone who writes poetry, the press seemed like an accurate description of the writing process…which is usually at least a good part horrifying. The horror was watching the death of what I formerly envision writing poetry to be: delicately slicing the apples of my ‘profound’ thoughts and stategically placing them into a Martha Stewart approved apple pie masterpiece. There were no spinning crushers.

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I was unable to look at this 160 year-old cast iron creation from any viewpoint other than that of the apple about to meet its end. It looked like it would fit in with the other devices of torture I saw in a museum in London. It was like a horrible roller coaster ride with the end of the ride being dismemberment. I know that there is also the viewpoint of those enjoying glasses of the freshest cider they have ever tasted…but I couldn’t seem to get to that perspective. I was stuck with the hopper that descended into dismemberment.

Earlier in the day, even before I had heard that Mary Oliver had died, I had been listening to an audio book on the history of spices. The Portuguese, when taking over the spice trade in India, had shut down their Arab competition by attacking them and then cutting off their ears, nose and hands. The spice trade was a way of making money. It was the oil of the time. But, I couldn’t get it out of my head that this torturous treatment of another human was part of the process of bringing flavor and spice back to Lisbon and Europe.

Yesterday was Thursday, which also happens to be the day I pick up freshly slaughtered pig heads to cut up for food. I would be lying if i said it was easy to cut apart another sentient creatures head. I tend to become really quiet. I think that those around me must assume I’m angry. I have to focus on my breath and have a conversation with the pig about how I will honor the gift of its body. I understand that this might be a foreign concept to people whose meat always comes wrapped on a styrofoam tray. But someone is killing and cutting up what we eat. I am always relieved when the smell of the pig has been boiled down into the smell of pork and delicious broth. There’s some comforting alchemy of amnesia that takes place. But,

I feel like my ability to maintain this amnesia is slipping. 

Mary Oliver writes often of paying attention. It is the first of her three ‘instructions for living’ from the poem “Sometimes.” That paying attention, brings with it the awareness that there is a deep pain and suffering that accompanies most of what arrives in your experience. It doesn’t matter is you eat meat or are a vegetarian…the suffering is integral to being fed. There is no way to not eat from the body of the world.

Mary was a master beggar with her bowl held out for alms of shiver-inducing beauty and awe. She was not one to force you to stick your fingers into her wounds even though you know a counterbalance must exist for this cantilevered, heeled-over ability to speak beauty. She didn’t even seem to require that you shared in the humility of her begging…she was begging for you.

There is something that seems too good to be true in this…I feel like the inmate being fed his last meal with Mary’s poems: unable to enjoy it because I can’t find the still point between savoring and the dreaded cost.

When I see Mary’s line “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” on a greeting card or poster it feels uplifting and buoyant. But If I go say this to myself ninety-nine times while staring in the mirror it is downright disturbing.

‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘to stretch’.

We are being asked to stretch so that we have a greater capacity to receive this life. Stretching has very little to do with comfort. Somewhere between the greeting card and the mirror is a boundary that has a toll booth. It is the toll that worries me. I am being asked to ‘pay.’ It is not simply ‘receive the beauty of this world that is your birthright’. There is a bartering. The origins of the word ‘pay’ speak to this:

The Old French verb meant, among other things, “to be reconciled to someone,” Oxford says, reflecting its classical Latin ancestor pacare (to appease or pacify), derived from pax (peace).

What offering or sacrifice have I brought to my one wild and precious life?

I don’t know.

I have heard my partner say many times that hatha yoga was initially developed as a way of paying attention. It was a vehicle not a destination. One stretched and focused on breath in order to meet reality in a fuller manner. But much of what yoga has come to be in the West is collapsing the vehicle into the destination.

I catch myself doing this with Mary’s poetry. I feel as though Mary cooked down the pig heads into broth for us. She used the depth of her wounds as an inkwell to describe the astonishing beauty of life. But her words also seem like the spices that showed up in Lisbon to add a depth to our meals…or the sweet apple cider that had endured a crushing to come by it’s sweetness. I wonder if she is rejecting the notion that she needs to disclose her wounds. Maybe she is saying: “stick you finger in your own wound.”

‘Be astonished’ is the second instruction Mary gives in “Sometimes.” ‘Astonished’ etymologically means to be thunderstruck.

Maybe this is the payment.


Being struck by experience in a way that you can hold onto nothing but the experience. Bowels loosed. Escape plans destroyed. José Ortega y Gasset, the Twentieth century Spanish philosopher, masterfully describes this:

“The man with the clear head is the man who freed himself from those fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth — that to live is to feel oneself lost — he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against reality.” — José Ortega y Gasset

Corsaire -Shipwreck by Gustav Dore

Corsaire -Shipwreck by Gustav Dore

Mary’s ship was wrecked early in her life. She saw in that chaos some flotsam called poetry. She declared it her salvation. She clung to it fiercely. She told about it (the third or her marching orders).

It is almost comical that Mary’s poetry can be sentimentalized into a tiny floating piece of sea ice about to glance off the starboard side of our listening vessel. Don’t fool yourself, there is a haunting mass below. I think she wants our ship to be wrecked…and for us to proceed through the world on the stories of our own wreck (not hers). You don’t have to take my word for it…go find a mirror and ask yourself ninety-nine times:

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Do the Polar Vortex with Me


The term ‘polar vortex’ sounds like it should be the name of a dance. What it refers to is a spinning low pressure system that keeps the severe cold sequestered towards the North pole. More frequently, in recent years, the vortex has become unstable and its instability has released a cold, low-pressure system to travel south

It is negative four degrees fahrenheit just outside the door where I sit writing. But for the three dead ash trees that we cut down several days ago, it would be close to that on this side of the doors. We have been preparing to welcome this visitor from the north.

The phenomena of the breech that allows a part of the cold to wander can be theoretically explained by the warming Arctic and loss of sea ice. While science often reveals great truth, it has a penchant for revealing it in cut up pieces and not always connected to other ways of knowing. The very word ‘science’ means to cut apart. I cut apart cats when I was in nursing school as a way of gaining a greater understanding of cats. But, I have also learned much from relating to cats that I have not cut apart.

I started wondering about the wandering cold. What are the threads beyond the science of it?

There is something about experiencing extreme cold that I deeply love. Kent Nerburn has a book titled ‘A Haunting Reverence’. That term, ‘haunting reverence,’ is what I mean by ‘love’. The cold commands my attention and stills the entire land. Squirrels move like enjambed poems instead of in their long summer sentences. The bones of the trees stand stripped of the flesh of flowering and growth. And then, the snow reminds me that there is always a beneath to the surface, no matter how brilliantly it reflects light. Death comes and walks beside me and I know that death will lock step with many. There will be a time when it is me.

The haunting reverence the cold holds space for reminds me of the sikke. It is said that the sikke (camel hair felted hat that dervishes wear) is a tombstone that signifies the death of the ego. It sits in the middle of the dervish’s spinning atop their head, holding the still space for listening. The listening is to the larger dance. Rumi said the whirling mirrors the planets’s orbits around the sun.

There is nothing ‘woo woo’ about the microcosm and the macrocosm sharing ways of being. My poetry teacher Fran Quinn often said: “It’s not ‘woo woo’, it’s just paying attention”.  That the Dervish treasures the same stillness for hearing the world anew that I treasure in the cold…and that the cold that sits atop our planet is held in place by stratospheric winds circling the planet twenty miles above the surface like the Dervish’s tunic… this is something that I am paying attention to today.

When the cold leaves the northern center to journey down into what is now called the United States, at a point in history when few seem to have any capacity to pay attention, how do we listen in a way beyond seeking explanation?…explanations either that climate change is not real or climate change is very real.

Likely, the heat generated by industrialization and the pollution has knocked the spinning vortex out of its rhythm. Likely, our collapsed attention spans have created a world that doesn’t hear the rhythm of the greater life. Likely we have lost language to speak of our connection to the larger spinnings of the world and can therefore not honor our place in the dance. I don’t know. I read that if the dervish becomes too caught up in his or her revolutions, that another dervish will tap their tunic to bring them back. What if the low-pressure system wandering down from the Arctic is that little tap? Could the cold be saying “Hey, there are many dancers on the floor, please root your attention in the larger dance and not just your own”?

I am declaring that this is what is happening. 

This is what I heard the cold say:

“Hey, there are other dancers on the floor. Some of them are human. Some of them are not human. Some of them are not even ‘living’. I need your complete attention right now. I am tapping you on the tunic. Dissipate your need to be the star of this production. Take a deep icy breath and watch it return to the larger world as frozen mist. Be astonished by the mist’s beauty. Let the next sentence spin from your mouth with the same beauty as the mist. Welcome back to the dance.”

Toilet Bolt Tightening

A buddy of mine used to work for a plumbing and heating contractor. He told a joke about how to install toilets. It went: “How do you know how tight to make the toilet bolts?” The answer was: “Tighten them until the toilet breaks and then back off a half-a-turn.”

My privilege is on my mind almost all the time. It is the refrigerator humming in the background of my life. I will sometimes forget about it only to have the privilege compressor kick on to remind me that it is still what is allowing me to proceed in the manner that I am.

I have so much. I have time to pontificate and write. I have time to cook really nice meals. I don’t worry about where my food will come from. I have the luxury of choosing what I will do on most days. I rarely worry about violence towards myself or my family. I make very little money, but as my father used to say: “Once you have lived in East Africa with people that own next to nothing, it is difficult to call yourself poor.”

With all the talk about building walls I have wrestled with the cost of defending my afforded privilege. Were there to be a global Jubilee, I would be on the ‘losing’ end resource-wise (I might come out ahead in terms of joy and would undoubtedly come out ahead in terms of appreciation and gratitude.) My privilege requires a wall. It doesn’t matter if I believe in building a wall between the United States and Mexico. My way of life is dependent on the vast majority of my fellow humans not having access to what I have.

I don’t consider walls inherently bad. I am glad that my cells have walls around them. I think it’s healthy in many ways to have lines of demarcation. Such boundaries afford identity and protection which are both highly beneficial. I like my tribe. I like my town. I like the walls on my building…but there are 7.7 billion people who also have similar feelings. That is nearly twice as many people as when I was born. It is difficult for me to think about what my responsibility is to this larger group of humanity.

I didn’t and don’t plan on bringing any children into the world. So I could try to make the case to myself that I am not responsible for this unprecedented demand on resources. It’s not my ‘fault’. I could try to convince myself of this.

I was listening to a recording of Kent Nerburn the other day. He was telling the story of a Lakota man whose son broke into a liquor store. When the police showed up at their home, the father took the fall for his son and went to prison for a decade. The father’s reasoning was that he could make it through the prison sentence without having his spirit broken because he had endured the torturous experience of boarding school when he was young (If you are not aware of this history, educate yourself…). I was struck by the idea of making a choice based on knowing one’s capacity to endure and inner resources as opposed to entitlement and personal responsibility. I started to think that the source of life in the world doesn’t give a shit about personal responsibility. I mostly think Life is desperately alluring us to think of ourselves in terms of our capacity to serve something beyond personal.

The toilet is going to break. I guess that is how we will find out what is too much. It is strange living in a place and time where our dilemma is too much. We have reacted to our ancestors struggle to survive and get to a better place by demanding that we not simply be allowed to proceed, but that we be entitled to proceed with storage units full of stuff. I do not exclude myself from this evaluation. We have access to more resources than we require. The yoke of abundance is not easy. It is a heavy burden because it requires defending our stuff and our ‘right’ to maintain our way of life. There are people who refuse this burden.

One time I was helping a man die that had been homeless much of his life. One of his most prized ‘possessions’ was Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. He had memorized it and recited the entire poem to me as I sat at his bedside. It was his companion when he was homeless and he walked with it through parks and forest preserves. The fact that he carried this poem without having to defend it made its companionship to him intimate in a way I envied. It was on his lips as his part of the caravan moved beyond my view.

Maybe the porcelain has already snapped. Maybe we are in the time of staring at the broken toilet in disbelief. The time of wondering why this happened to us. The time of wishing we had just stopped tightening the damn thing a quarter-turn ago. The time of trying to figure out who’s fault it is…the directions were written horribly…the thing was a piece of crap to begin with…and on and on.

I wonder why it is this time in history that I am alive. There is a great rage welling up around the world. There are leaders being elected for all sorts of offices who get our vote by declaring that the toilet should not have broken and it is clearly someone else’s fault. But what is our capacity to learn from the broken toilet and help steer spaceship earth (as Buckminster called it) in a way that serves the more-than personal, the more-than-human, and ancestor-and-yet-to-arrive honoring? My prayer is that this great welling rage collapses into a turbulent kinetic energy of grieving. Not grieving for just our own losses, but grieving as a path to access our capacity to struggle for something that serves more than ourselves. If my writing can serve this, I give myself to it.

Cultivating a Mediocre Life

I used to have a set of Sesame Street cassette tapes when I was young…I think I was in my early twenties when I got them. I would listen to them when I drove around in my car. My favorite story on these cassettes was the one about cookie monster going to look for the meaning of life. He eventually ends up meeting a spiritual teacher on top of a mountain and the teacher poses the question to him: “You can either have everlasting joy and happiness…or these cookies.” I don’t have to tell you how this story ends. Ahhhm nam nam nam nam.

I was reminded of this story today as my partner and I were discussing a quote she read on an instagram page that says “You did not wake up today to be mediocre.” Kara stated that she wants to be mediocre and that being great all the time sounds exhausting. We were talking about the word mediocre and looked up its etymology. It literally means “halfway up a mountain.”

When I was almost a teenager I lived in East Africa and climbed Mount Kenya. Halfway up the mountain is about when you realize that the plants begin to resemble something Theodor Geisel would have imagined. This also seems to be an apt metaphor for middle age: an overwhelming strange beauty that is difficult to pay attention to because you are so focused on the destination and the need for achievement.

My memories from our ascent are of my friends lips turning blue as we neared the top. We witnessed the wreck of a helicopter that had attempted to rescue a climber but crashed. We took turns warming one of our friends, who had hypothermia, by climbing into his sleeping bag to warm him. I think back on the dangers and wonder about what our goal was of making it to the top.

Gary Smith wrote a beautiful article in ‘Vault’ on Ian Howell’s first climb up Mount Kenya.…/622474/a-day-in-the-life-of-mount-kenya.

Ian Howell has climbed Mount Kenya more than 160 times—probably twice as many times as any man ever—but he remembers the first time well. He had paused at an altitude of 14,000 feet, nauseated from his exertions and the thin air and awed by what remained, when two Africans appeared through the mist, dragging a goat up to the base of the peak. The snow was coming down hard when they saw one another: the white man, with his nylon all-weather clothing, his portable cooking gear, his shiny climbing spikes and axes and his book about the mountain; and the black men, with their hair in dreadlock strings down to their buttocks, flimsy white gowns and bare feet. The black men stretched their hands toward the summit, fell to their knees, strangled the goat and prayed to the god on the peak for rain. The white man climbed the summit and exulted.

I think about how the group I climbed with had a goal of making it to the top of the mountain. The reason that we were climbing was to make it to the top.

I receive so many messages throughout the average day related to how to make it to the ‘top’…living my greatest/peak/higher/better life. Most of the these messages are either suggesting that I buy a product or service or letting me know about someone else’s peak life conquering event. I feel like we are being asked to live on the mountaintop. Why? The two Kenyans who Ian Howell met, were on the mountain to make a sacrifice for rain, so that life might continue for those down in the valley. What was I there to do?

When you mention the word ‘yoga’ in conversation it is often met with the response of “I’m not flexible.” This annoys my partner to no end: that yoga has been collapsed into flexibility. Kara schooled us the other day on the difference between flexibility and mobility. My simplified understanding of her eloquent description is that flexibility is the furthest point that can be travelled to and often involves pulling or pushing from outside to achieve this. Mobility is what can be done under the muscles’ own strength and also involves the furthest extension that can still have functional strength…or maybe it would be the furthest extension that can be reached while still connected to the core and rooted into the feet or earth. When Kara was explaining this I realized that the same thing holds true on many levels.

We think of living our greatest life as being synonymous with extreme peak experiences that we often force ourselves into. (Quick snap the photo!) We push past all limits in order to achieve our ‘greatest self.’ We have massive debts of all types that we have accrued in pursuit of greatness. We ignore that these debts leave a hole somewhere as we continue to push. Young people die trying to do a handstand on a skyscraper or catch a bullet with a book. You only live once so kick life’s ass…right? Be all that you can be…and more. Have the most exotic instagram, facebook, autobiography…and on and on.

But why is it the peak we glorify?

I’ve read that the Kikuyu people of Kenya have a god named Ngai that dwells on top of (Mount Kenya) Kirinyaga. Ngai’s wife Mumbi lives below the mountain in a grove of fig trees. How amazing is it that majesty and the fertile ability to create life live in different locations? I wonder how and where they connect. There must be a path.

I grieve as I write this thinking about the overwhelming isolation of the culture we have created. Living our ‘ultimate’ lives that we share in almost entirely disembodied social media formats (like I am doing now). How do I value that my experiences are of merit, not for being extreme, but for being able to feed life? When we are so conditioned to not pay attention to that point beyond which we cannot connect back to the core or village, how do we learn to develop an awareness of that? There must be a path.

I never thought that coming down the mountain would be so hard. Toes smashed into the front of shoes. Sliding in the razor sharp scree. Getting down to base camp, where those who were too sick to go to the peak were staying, and encountering their heavy disappointment. We were unsure how to share our exultation with them. And finally, we trudged all the way back to the minivan that would return us to the city.

I’ve heard Martin Shaw speak of our culture as being ‘addicted to disclosure.’ Disclosure is not the same as Digestion. Disclosure is a picture of the mountaintop posted online. Digestion is more like struggling your way back down the mountain and trying to find out how the view you had feeds the world. It’s really damn hard. I am trying to figure out how to do it in my life and I have no pointers to share with you…or maybe I have one: try being mediocre.

Here’s a prayer I’ve been digesting. I stole from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin…and changed some words.

Patient Trust
Above all, trust in the slow work of Life.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them digest,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only Life could say what this new way of being
gradually forming within you will feed.
Give yourself the benefit of believing
that Life is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense, incomplete, and mediocre.

modified and stolen from—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ
(excerpted from his Hearts on Fire)

My 'To Don't' list for 2019

There were so many things that I wanted to write down last year that I didn’t write down…or I just made some illegible notes on the envelope of a bill and then proceeded to place the paper in my pocket never to be seen again as anything more than wads of paper in the dryer. In a similar way, there are the remnants of dreams when I wake. The residues of another world, that I quickly wash away by clicking my phone on to see what number is associated with the cold that my bones feel. Some days, I pause while putting on my socks and wonder about the loss or inability to listen well to these sources. I, again, allow practicality to snap me back to my ‘to do’ list. I allow an anxious urgency to mandate several deep sighs about how there is not a chance of completing what I have written down. When I think about new year’s resolutions, It’s as if I could use a ‘to don’t’ list. It might go something like this: 
1. Don’t use social media or the internet as a sani-wipe to remove disturbing residual dreamtime. I am of the generation that remembers PCP (pre cellphone). I also lived in the desert in Somalia for a time with no electricity. This combination was remarkable. Ghosts and dream residue might hang out in your room for months. You could go to swim in the Indian ocean or into the market to buy camel meat and the gang was all there when you got home. There was no ritual with my thumb or fingerprint to banish them.

2. Don’t use ‘I must be practical’ as an excuse. The etymology of practical simply means something that can be done. It is the same as saying that something has not been done, therefore, it cannot be done. We idolize those who have ‘discovered’ new inventions or ways of being after they have benefitted us but ridicule the ‘impractical’ process by which this happens. What ‘practicality’ has collapsed into meaning is ‘what culture deems worthy’ and in the culture of the U.S. that has further collapsed into ‘what creates money.’ Nothing is practical until it is practiced. I don’t practice ways I long to be in the world because I deem them not practical…do you see how little sense this makes. The queen in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ tells Alice this very concept using the word ‘possible’: 
"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

3. Don’t allow your imagination to collapse into eating table scraps, It is actually an amazing chef. My friend was arguing with some people about how design is the future of our small town. If we design and bring into the world novel structures and activities, people will come and support us in many ways including financially. The counter-argument was that all ability to draw people to our area relies on the casino which relies on the historic domed hotel. My friend’s response was that someone built the domed hotel. It is so easy to forget that we still have the ability to be authors of our reality. It is so easy to think that we are only making notes in the margins of a text written long ago. But someone wrote that text. They made that up. This is why I have never agreed with the atheist denigration of the source of creativity (god) as ‘imaginary friend’ I think what they are trying to say is ‘un-imaginary friend’. Because the imaginary friend (call her whatever you wish) is the counterpart that brings us back to authorship of this reality. She is the womb that holds space for new ways of relating, creating, living and dying.

4. And following closely on the heels of #3 is ‘Don’t accept that this is just the way it is.’ This is the underlying collapse of all imagination. Why doesn’t anyone speak of the verse from the bible in which Eesho says that those who follow will do far more amazing things? Most ‘Christians’ would consider the idea of ‘outdoing’ Eesho as heresy. I think that this is a deep seated self-hatred of the isolated modern person. First it is a collapse of the role of human into a fragmented individualism. That we act as a single unit and not as a community or body (Christ). Second, this is collapsing time into the idea that our actions are separate from all of our ancestors and all that will follow. Likely, the verse I refer to is a poor translation of something like “This caravan will continue on and travel to many places”. So ‘Don’t accept this as the destination’ might be another way to say this…or as I heard Neil Douglas-Klotz say once: “The world is a bridge, just don’t build your house on it.” The caravan is still moving. We are a part of it. It is our responsibility to take time to listen deeply and plot our route from the allurement of that listening. We are not simply riding this experience.

5. Don’t spend your time denying or trying to distance yourself from your privilege. I think one of the blocks we might have in taking authorship or our experience is that we are grief illiterate. If we are the authors, then why are women treated the way they are. If we are the authors then why don’t black lives matter. We can’t claim authorship without grieving that these ways of relating are real and were written to serve someones collapsed interest. Simply making these distorted ways of relating ‘wrong’ is like trying to spend all of our time erasing what is already written. We need to read these perversions and then write something more beautiful. It is futile to spend our time trying to distance ourselves from them or erase them or justify them. We need to see grieving-the-shit-out-of-them as the same activity as writing something much more beautiful and with space for more than people that look like us.

So there is my list. I’m going to be writing this year. If you know of ways to help me connect this with keeping the lights on give me a shout. May you all be fierce enough to hold space for your wild uncomfortable dreams in the coming year. Andrew


Be Devastated with me Prayer.

A few months ago my dear friend and I were writing a song we called ‘some other child.’ The song was a prayer about birthing a being that is not a ‘child’ in the traditional sense of the word. Neither of us have flesh-and-blood biological offspring. It was interesting writing the song because the concept of giving birth from death or rot or darkness is so far outside our culture’s idea of normal that it only lives in the realm of ‘horror’ films. To me, this exposes the monotheism of how things are brought into the world. This monotheism is more dangerous than the homogenizing industry bringing cheap goods from China to your neighborhood Walmart…because this one resides within you.

This time of year, I am amazed at how the Christian narrative of “unto us a child is born” can collapse the notion of how holy imagination enters the world. It can turn into a homogenizing route itself. The narrative seems to say that the divine entered the world ‘one’ time and ‘one’ way. I’m not trying to say that being actualized in a specific way denies authenticity or source... I just think that declaring a specific actualization as the only-right-way is fundamentalism (the worst of ‘f’ words.)

When I was in college I wrote a song about the ‘last prophetic bird’ that came to talk to the world. It got stuffed and put into a museum. It was killed and stuffed because its novelty was turned into an idol. It was not allowed to be a holy icon or example of how beauty shows up. It was a silly song addressing all the ways the holy might show up and be ignored… or ways the holy shows up and we cannot see. But, that prophetic bird still talks to me.

I think of the poet Octavia Paz who said something like “I don’t see with my eyes…words are me eyes.” The holy doesn’t just show up, it is spoken and imagined into place…and not from the victory of heroes, but from all that was deemed unusable and of no-merit…essentially what we call ‘dead’ in this culture.

As we leave the space of solstice, may we not simply think that the ‘new’ light comes to us from nothing. May we not simply think of the clean, sweet-smelling child in freshly-fluffed hay. This fantasy scene never existed, and the holy actualization doesn’t need to be turned into such pornography. It would be far more helpful to think of the babies on oxygen and life-support in Neonatal intensive care units. Think of the ones who are there, because their mothers had no idea how to care for themselves during pregnancy. May all the rejection and abandonment those mothers carry…all that is dead and rotten in their lives, be transformed into an angels of creative imagination. Angels that allow seeing new ways of being in the world…like a holy mirror.

But this is all fed from looking at the bruised and mangled parts of ourselves. My prayer is that before we ‘begin again,’ we can weep, and know that our weeping is the only rain that will water those seeds. They are not fed by water from nowhere. This water has a source.

Here is a poem by Deena Metzger:


I want what is left: 
The tea leaves, the soiled images on cards, 
The gasp of words as meaning slips away, 
The rinds of the alphabet, 
The chewed poems of prisoners, 
The bones and the skeletons, 
The secretions, the shattered sperm, 
The blind blood, the phlegm and the cough.

It has always been women's work to prepare the corpse.

But, I will not make a corpse from these elements, 
I will make a child. 
I will make you such a rose of a child, 
A rose of a child held in the crook 
Of the dark hand of a dead branch, 
I will make you a child shining 
Like an angel from these elements of dark, 
And the child will sing.

This is what we have 
This is what we have to work with.

So give them to me, 
First your dead, moldering 
In the dreadful heat of your deserted cities, 
Then give me the iron birds in the sky, 
With their demented warbling, 
Last, I want your radiant soul 
With its eternal shimmer. 
Give me everything mangled and bruised, 
And I will make a light of it to make you weep, 
And we will have rain, 
And begin again.

-Deena Metzger

Letter to the Front: Calling on Muriel Rukeyser

I just returned from my communities gathering for women on my town square. I carried the Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser with me as I walked around the square. I am calling on the spirit of Rukeyser. I am claiming her as my ancestor. I am asking her to help us battle the war on meaning that is being waged.

Dear Ancestor Muriel,

I am calling on you to help us hold space for carrying meaning. The powers that be want meaning to have no one willing to carry it. As brother William Stafford says, they want: "the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark." But, You Muriel have a fierceness held by spirit, matter, sex, voice, words, life, that carries with a power that is not afraid of that darkness. Be with us now Muriel. Help us find that underground river. Help us wrestle for places in our communites.

Thank you,

Andrew, The American Death Party





Women and poets see the truth arrive.

Then it is acted out,

The lives are lost, and all the newsboys shout.


Horror of cities follows, and the maze

Of compromise and grief.

The feeble cry Defeat be my belief.


All the strong agonized men

Wear the hard clothes of war,

Try to remember what they are fighting for.


But in the dark weeping helpless moments of peace

Women and poets believe and resist forever:

The blind inventor finds the underground river.



Even during the war, moments of delicate peace

Arrive; ceaseless the water ripples, love

Speaks through the river in its human voices.

Through every power to affirm and heal

The unknown world suggests the air and golden

Familiar flowers, and the brief glitter of waves,

And dreams, and leads me always to the real.

Even among these calendars of fire.

Sings: There is much to fear, but not our power.

The stars turn over us; let us not fear the many.

All mortal intricacies tremble upon this flower.

Let us not fear the hidden.  Or each other.

We are alive in an hour whose burning face

Looks into our death, death of our dear wish.

And time that will be eating away our flesh

Gives us this moment when blue settles on rose

And evening suddenly seems limitless silver.

The cold wind streaming over the cold hill-grasses

Remembers and remembers.  Mountains lift into night.

And I am remembering the face of peace.


I have seen a ship lying upon the water

Rise like a great bird, like a lifted promise.



They called us to a change of heart

But it was not enough.

Not half enough, not half enough

For all their bargaining and their art.


After the change of heart there comes

The savage waste of battlefield;

The flame of that wild battlefield

Rushes in fire through our rooms.


The heart that comes to know its war

When gambling powers try for place

Must live to wrestle for a place

For every burning human care:


To know a war begins the day

Ideas of peace are bargained for.

Surrender and death are bargained for-

Peace and belief must fight their way.


Begin the day we change and so

Open the spirit to the world.

Wars of the spirit in the world

Make us continually know

We fight continually to grow.



-Muriel Rukeyser

Hell: Consumption without Carrying

Yesterday I went to my local food co-op in the evening to have a meal and watch some members of our community tell stories of their time at Standing Rock. One of our community elders brought more than stories back. He befriended a young British couple and they came to visit our community.


The whole program was beautiful and from the heart. Near the end, the young woman sat down with a zither type instrument and sang…or channeled voice... I’m not quite sure how to describe what happened. All I know is that there was a great wail coming up from my gut that I clamped down upon and was almost unable to contain. There was something really old inside of me, that resonated with the sound she shared, and I was afraid to let it out. It was a wavelength longer than the human lifespan. She was singing harmonics on wavelengths that remember being born as ancient stars. She was holding space for a whole ancestral choir…and not just human ancestors. I could hear the soil, and the sheep, and the cattle, and the bees, and the grass that had fed her people. She was truly willing to carry beauty.


Now, I don’t discount that the space had been ceremoniously prepared...the vessel for beauty had been created. Bowls of water had been laid out for the four directions and blessed. The breath had been channeled through a wooden flute. And, we humans showed up, willing to listen and carry as best we knew how. But carrying seems to be an endangered way of proceeding. We took a step towards that ancestral beauty being sung into our hearts and it, in return, took ten steps into us. It felt vulnerable.

The vulnerability of preparing ceremonial space and speaking to the more-than-human world with one’s community is a skill that has not been honed much (in recent times or spaces). There is an awkwardness of professing love for the place that feeds us. My partner commented on how, when praise is removed from the milieu of church, there is an embarrassment about participation. Why is it 'normal' to say "praise Jesus" and strange to say "praise water?"


And just to clarify, I use the word carry because I don't believe it is possible to own beauty. It is like trying to hold hot soup in your hands. We have become so focused on the soup or the 'thing' that we rarely have an awareness of the vessel, bowl, home, heart, language, village, womb, or cosmos that holds the 'thing.' The main word that Eashoa' M'sheekha used to describe the source of life referred to the womb. It was that which held and carried. Humans have this ability. We may have forgotten most of our ability...but it is still in our hearts, waiting to be washed off with tears.

cancer cells.jpeg

I remember sitting at the bedside of a man that was afforded few opportunities in this life. Hard drugs and street life had eaten his body and relationships. No one was left to sit at his bedside as he was dying. He had been hanging on the edge of dying for days. I decided to go sit with him. I told him: “I cannot imagine the struggle that your life has been and I have no judgment on how you made your way. I just want you to know that I will carry you.” As soon as I finished speaking he let out his last breath. I sat there in wonder. I wondered what I had agreed to do. I had some fear around if I had made a promise I couldn’t fulfill. I realized how little I knew about what I had promised.

It would seem that, because we are so good at consuming, that we would at least have a rudimentary ability to carry. I don’t think this is how it works. I think we have so divorced consuming and carrying that we can eat the communion wafer and turn around and hate our neighbor almost without blinking. We can buy a steak or block of tofu at the store and not think of the life of that animal or plant. We can extract self-help pointers from a book or video without having to think of the struggle that birthed that idea or way of being.

I was thinking about what the opposite of life is. The opposite of life is not death. Life and death are partners. Death feeds life and life creates beauty from death and carries it. The opposite of life is consumption without carrying. It is proceeding, without acknowledging that what is allowing you to continue, comes from somewhere. This is also my definition of hell. Hell is consumption without taking the threads of that which is feeding you and weaving it into your story. That weaving is how we grieve and sing praise.

It is easy to demonize consumption. But consumption alone is not the demon. Consumption is necessary to continue. You must eat. It is also easy to demonize what and how much we eat. But how are we to know how much to eat without an awareness of the vessel...without an awareness of what we can carry? How are we to know, that where our food comes from directly impacts our ability to carry the life it has given us? How are we to know this without having any skill at carrying?


The country I live in is in hell.  

We consume without any idea of what we are able to carry.

Maybe we should all stop for a few weeks and reference Dante’s Inferno as a roadmap. We could make bonfires and then lay in the ashes while we read the Inferno. Possibly we would become aware of Dante and Virgil's escape from hell by exiting through the naval.

(Note: Dante does not stay at the navel or try to climb back in the womb or get born again. It is a place to pass through, not a destination. “But the stars that marked our starting fall away. We must go deeper into greater pain, for it is not permitted that we stay.” )

They pass from the Northern Hemisphere of land into the Southern hemisphere of water. They pass into relatedness. They connect to the larger story from the axis mundi. They pass into belonging to a place of origin.


Maybe heaven is a way of proceeding, that is willing to carry that which is consumed.

It is being willing to walk with the ashes of that consumption on your face in an unabashed manner. It is a way of telling the stories and singing of all that died to make your life possible. And when the tears of gratitude run down your face, they carry all that was given for you down to your heart. And those tears, carrying those ashes, clean your heart space and make room for the next seeds to be planted.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza. 
–Dante Alighieri

May it be so.

May the party of carrying begin.

A Bully Knocked My Teeth Out: A Prayer for Men

My front two teeth are missing. Most days I can joke about this. Everyday this is a part of my life. Every day my tongue looks for his lost friends. Every day I bite into something and it fails to sever into an ingestable unit. Every day I catch myself holding back or modifying a smile or a laugh. I'm not seeking pity for this, it is just my reality. My mother would like me to find a way to have them replaced. It is not that simple.


When I was in seventh grade I was on the basketball team. While in the locker room before practice, three of the eighth grade team members thought it would be funny to take some sugary carbonated drink into their mouths and then spit it on other people. Some part of me decided that I should tell them that I didn’t approve of this action. The situation turned into the three of them beating me up, while everyone else watched. I was thrown against lockers for a while. Then, the final punch that landed before the coach returned, landed squarely on my front adult teeth.



The history of these teeth, between that time and now, is long and costly. I will summarize by saying that it started with a Finnish dentist in a Nairobi clinic attempting a root canal on nerves that were not dead and ended with a crazy alternative dentist in the suburbs of Chicago removing large parts the jaw above those teeth while an anesthesiologist ran large amounts of propofol (made famous by Michael Jackson) into my veins.


After paying for three sets of fake teeth that didn't fit, I began making my own. I have made my own fake teeth out of about any material you can think of so as to be socially presentable for work as a hospice nurse. (The irony of pretending you have not lost something while working with the dying is not lost on me.) I did remove them on occasion, once to lament with a woman with cancer telling me of her teeth falling out. My favorite homemade set was crafted from moose jaw. That moose was killed by an Anishanabe man, in what is now called northern Ontario. The jaw cost me my favorite book of William Stafford poems and a calligraphy pen. My least favorite set was wood. That George Washington story is bullshit.

A few years ago, one of my dear friends and I were writing an album. I had the beginning of a song with the working title of ‘Throw Your Privilege Down.’ The more I thought about the title, the less I felt as though it was a statement that I wanted to make. It felt like a lie. I cannot throw my privilege down.


I will not quit being male. (My friends have told me that even with surgery I would make a poor woman.) Last week I was mistaken for a person of Mexican heritage by a person of Mexican heritage, and I have First Nation blood in my veins… but, I am almost always recognized as ‘white’ in the community I live in. I am afforded the privilege that accompanies ‘white’ male in my community. When I walk into the hardware store, I am treated a certain way. I am told certain jokes.


This privilege (that of the white male) is dying. I can see that clearly as someone who has been witness to many deaths. The amount of technology, gerrymandering, and resources this privilege is costing to maintain clearly parallels a person's last days in the intensive care unit. I see the election of Donald Trump and the climate of bullying very clearly as the last gasps of this system. And when I say the word ‘system’ there is a slight hiss due to my missing teeth.


But, I cannot ‘throw down’ this creature of dying privilege right now. This also needs to be midwifed into death. Holding space for dying is one of the hardest tasks this culture faces. I need to hold space for this creature's death in order to hold space for wondering what gave birth to it and how it grew up. To not just quickly fix the problem or get on to the next better thing is hard. To hold space for something's end, when the redemption of that thing is likely to not be seen by your eyes, is an excruciating discipline.



It is easy to think that 'holding space' for death is a waste of time...shouldn't we just be working on the new system? 'Holding space' is not the same as fighting. One of our century's design masters, R. Buckminster Fuller says:

“You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

The part that Fuller doesn’t state is that the new model is built from the rotted body of the existing system. It is not simply hopping from the knackered horse to a fresh one and galloping off into the sunset. The bones we will have to build with depend on the manner of the death. Think of it in terms of trying to make a coat out of a deer hide that is riddled with holes vs a hide from a deer killed skillfully with a single arrow.


I am not advocating violence. The violence has already occurred at our own hand. We are the teenager racing his motorcycle on a hot summer night. We are going 100 mph down county roads with the tall corn blocking all visibility of the next intersection. We will only be aware of the impending impact for a split second. This is no longer about trying to steer or brake. This is about going deeply into the only moment we have been given in order to set our intention. Maybe to say a blessing for our organs that they might be transplanted into another body. Maybe just saying, "May all that I am serve the larger life of the world.”


But to utter the plea of serving something more than ourselves, we need to see clearly.


A man who works at my local hardware store was helping me to load bags of concrete into my truck several weeks ago. He looked at my bumper sticker, which says "There are no jobs on a dead planet," and said, “But, He's going to give us a NEW one." I shook myself out of shock and responded by saying "I'm really fond of this one." The ‘daddy god’ will buy us a new world after we destroy the one we have now. Why would we ever bother taking care of anything? This incident reminded me of a man I heard screaming in the hospital, furious, that he couldn't just get new parts (organs) put in. This is the blindness we are up against.


My friend told me just the other day of a piercingly cold winter. He said he had received more work than he could handle burying dead horses. He described how difficult it was to bury a dead horse even with the aid of a backhoe. He said the teeth kept breaking off the backhoe bucket as he tried to dig the frozen ground. He could replace the teeth, but the ground would still be frozen.




My friend's story struck me. The ground is still frozen. There is no point in spending money on teeth. It is not time to try to hide or bury the dead horse.  Maybe we can go bow deeply beside the dead horse and weep. Maybe we can sit with the uncomfortable rotting carcass of the system that created tormented power structures. My missing teeth are my reminder of this. They are my daily meditation on uninitiated bully energy.


The guy who punched me in that locker room was known for punching people. He was given no initiation into how to serve the world. We now have a president-elect with no idea of service or what it means to be an adult human ... this is not a moral judgement, just an observable situation to anyone who understands that being an adult human is not inevitable. We will be required now, to be fierce holders of space for the uncomfortable task of allowing the system to die. It will be all too tempting to try to sustain or fix it. But, we do not have the resources to sustain or fix this system. Those resources need to be allocated to growing food and supporting communities that might survive post-petroleum and post-bully.


It is also all too tempting to want to shoot the hide full of holes with bullets of pious anger…to ‘put it down’ so to speak. This only leaves a carcass that cannot serve those who follow. I am not advocating being nice. I am advocating being fierce. When I teach new nurses about working with a dying person I tell them that holding space is the most important thing they can do. I show them a video of Joan Halifax talking about being fierce and compassionate.         


Joan speaks of seeing clearly. For me, seeing clearly is not trying to hide all of the privileges I am afforded. It is also not pretending that all is well with the role I inhabit in my culture. The wounds need to be made visible. The energy needs to be shifted so that we are not wasting our energy pretending that a new 'great again' is about to be delivered just for us.


Our wounds are the opening into spacious time. They are our connection to this place, without which, we cannot hold space for dying well. I will still cover my mouth with my hand. I will still try not to smile and show my woundedness. But, my tongue reminds me every day. It reminds my to call upon all men to be vulnerable and wear their woundedness, not in shame but in courage. It reminds me to try and take care of this carcass, my body, as something precious that may one day serve as a beloved coat for those who follow … but also as the sensual vehicle of this experience right now. It reminds me to not fear the pleasure of being alive or hate those who are enjoying their holy experience in ways that make me uncomfortable. It reminds me to throw the toxic ‘pussy grabber’ bravado into the nigredo so that some fierce warrior gold might emerge … if not for me, then for my nephews or their nephews.



It reminds me to live as a deep prayer for men:


May we see clearly even if that vision leaves us wrecked.

May we bow down beside the dead horse and weep.

May we fiercely hold space for the dying of what no longer serves life.

May we help that which is dying, do so in a way that feds those who follow.

May we risk pleasure and vulnerability.

May we risk loving that which will not be here tomorrow.

May we risk being wild wounded warriors who protect the space of the womb…

the space that births not for our small selves, but for a carrying-on we may never see.

May we risk speaking forth our prayers into the world…even with missing teeth.



Sacred Nothing is the Reason for the Season


I hear so much lip service being given to ‘bringing God back into the holidays.’  I will refrain from listing the phrases used, as I have a gag reflex that kicks in upon hearing them. I want to honor that this might also be so for some of you.


I don’t feel as though I’m opposed to celebration…It’s just that, as one of my original heroes Arlo Guthrie says: “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” So in an attempt to find out what happened to our ‘dark to stick it in’, I started looking at the human the approaching holiday supposedly celebrates.


Turns out this Jesus guy, when speaking about the divine, used the word ‘Alaha.’ It also turns out, that the word ‘Alaha’ has got the ‘dark to stick it in’ built in…it’s right there. Neil Douglas-Klotz writes about this in The Sufi Book of Life:

The feelings of yes and no connect to the most ancient names of the divine in the Middle East. The names use the root word AL (or EL), meaning the sacred Something, the ultimate Yes, coupled with the root LA (or LO), meaning the sacred Nothing, the ultimate No.
Yes and no, existence and nonexistence, are built into the cells of our bodies. So if we dive deeply enough into the heart, we will find the place where the two need not split us in two.

To those of us whom have befriended the ‘no’ of existence, this time of year seems especially lonely. The expectation of joy and small-talk is difficult to be present for. The cold air seems to beg to be released in the same deep quiet it was drawn…why else would we be able to see it so clearly as it rises in clouds of mist? 


To make matters worse, our culture has turned this season into a celebration of materialism. This is our god. In this season that asks us for stillness we bring the noise of excess. How did this come about?


Many of our ancestors that lived in the northern hemisphere would have been having a last ‘feast’ before the deep winter… the deep winter that many would not make it through. They might spend their days slaughtering animals that would not have food in the coming months. Where did that awareness go? How quiet do we need to be to remember that feeling in our bones? Is there even a space in our culture to be that quiet?


My partner and I have a tradition for winter solstice. We shut the electricity off to wherever we happen to be at the main panel and sit in the quiet. Then we read a piece written by a human we have had the honor of sitting with in this life.  This is a human who is fierce about defending the aforementioned rarest-of-things: the space for remembering and wonder. Here is his sculpture of words that honors the darkness.


Hold fiercely the space for darkness

Hold fiercely the space for listening

Hold fiercely the space for wonder



The Racists are Right



Last year my wife and I moved into a very large and very undefined space. We moved into a vacant factory building, almost 12,000 square feet, or over six times the largest house we had previously lived in. There was delight in the possibilities of such a grand space. So many things that we could do…go roller-skating in our house for example. But, the grandness of what-is-possible soon wears thin when there is no actual defined space. Or to say it another way, the grand kitchen that you might build one day is hard to cook eggs and toast in today. 

There is a sectioning off or a holding space that is required for life to happen. In the same way that I can’t cook without space for cooking, all life requires space. Biology is a great teacher of this principle. Look at the cell wall’s definition and role: 

“A cell wall is a structural layer surrounding some types of cells, situated outside the cell membrane. It can be tough, flexible, and sometimes rigid. It provides the cell with both structural support and protection, and also acts as a filtering mechanism.” 

So ‘tough, flexible, and sometimes rigid’ are attributes that hold space for a healthy cell. But what does any of this have to do with racism? Well…the ‘rigid’ sectioning off in order to hold space reminds me of what the white nationalist group in my town is seeking.  They are attempting to create a boundary that holds space for their community.

They define their community as a group with “Shared blood, history, and traditions” And while I personally view this as a collapsed view of community, I think that how we hold or don’t hold space is something worth looking deeply into.

The racists are right about the need for holding space.

And, they are being very systematic and disciplined in their approach to this. They are actually doing it so effectively, that many who don’t agree with them have had that feeling of nausea upon realizing what they have accomplished. Perhaps it is like realizing, when playing chess, that your opponent is thinking 10 moves out, and you are thinking about your next move. So, they are ‘right’ about the need to hold space.

But ‘right’ doesn’t live in your body. It doesn’t live in the soil that grows your food. It doesn’t live in clean water or air. It turns out that ‘right’ doesn’t really have a home (well it might live on Facebook.) ‘Right’ is the fantasy of a teenage culture in desperate need of initiation. 


Our culture is an awkward teenager that has told his parents to fuck off. We have gone to our room and are pouting about not having the things we think we are entitled to. We are fascinated with all that is disembodied: the internet, cell phones, Facebook. We feel that nobody understands us and that we have no allies. We are just going to stay in our room.


But we cannot hide in our room forever. Even with over 50% of the U.S. budget going to militarily maintain our ability to hide in our room. It cannot be sustained. And there are very few enablers left that are willing to bring us meals and slide them under the door. Fear guides our suspicion of anything and anyone that is not like us. So we drive away all of our possible allies and fall prey to anyone proclaiming that we deserve the best spaces available because ‘we are special.’


We are experiencing the growing pains of coming in to a new body…an adult body, a Cosmic body, an Imago. A body associated with the whole but rooted in the corporeal sensing body. Dissolution of body may have been part of the process to become associated with the whole. We may have needed the whole deconstruction of time and space that science, petroleum and the internet provided. But what is now required is that we participate in the whole by going deeply into the place where we are. Place is not our enemy but our very foothold in the world, and the way we journey into place is by being deeply in our bodies.


It is also only by going deep into our sensing bodies that we will realize that we have allies.

Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.     -Khalil Gibran

This is not a motivational phrase or a feel-good saying. Gibran is reminding us that when we inhabit our sensory body we actually have allies. This is simply paying attention.


We must learn to pay attention. We must learn to pay attention with our senses. We must learn to listen to the more-than-human world. Our culture is about to receive its initiation. Many cultures use some form of wounding for initiation. This may very well be what Donald Trump’s regime is. He is to be our initiatory wound. 


To survive initiation, we will be required to fiercely hold space for the new adult community that is being born. It will need to have a permeable membrane in order to be sustainable. We can no longer lock ourselves in our room. We need to develop the skill of ‘filtering’ what is allowed in our space and what is not. This is the job of any intact culture. Unfortunately we don’t have an intact culture. But, we do have allies.


Our only chance of surviving this initiation is by learning to listen deeply to the place we live. Our place is our ally. This deep listening will let us know how to guard our space. The deep listening will let us know what we as a living system can support. We will then be able to see that, when we as humans are fed by the more-than-human, we have a debt. And, as learning-to-be-adult humans, we might learn to honor this debt as a mandatory part of what it means to continue on as humans.


We cannot afford to let how we listen for and hold space for community collapse into juvenile and simplistic understandings such as 'white,' or whatever the current code word is for entitlement. The etymology of ‘ethnic’ has the same root as does ‘idiom.' Both refer to ‘one’s own.’ The immature understanding of ‘one’s own’ is ‘that entity which serves me.’ The adult human understanding of ‘one’s own’ is ‘that to which we belong, serve, and die into.’ Leonard Cohen pleaded for our culture’s chance of finding the latter definition:

Show me the place where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, I've forgotten, I don't know
Show me the place for my head is bending low
Show me the place where you want your slave to go


May we learn to listen deeply so that we may continue.

May we hold space for our immature self-serving culture to die.

May we hold space for the new community to be born.

May the party of good endings begin.

Cannibals and the Coming Winter

I went to the courthouse yesterday and filled out some boxes on a computer device. I knew this was an important task, but there was no sense of completion for me as I walked out of the courthouse.


Later in the day, I was at the recycling center, and noticed several shot-up paper human-gun-targets in the paper recycling. There was something about the tiny paper tabs hanging from where the heart of the human would be located (and the highest value was labelled) that really reminded me of voting in a haunting way. 



I started to think about how the trickster-teacher Carolyn Casey states that we vote for reality with our imaginations. Is shooting at the likeness of a human, voting for the scenario of shooting a human? I realized that the collapsing of what voting means to election day box-checking is not being responsible. What is it that I am voting for with my imagination on a daily basis and why am I voting for these things?


I realize how much, of what my imagination wants to vote for, gets shut down by fear. Almost all the fears that have driven this election cycle are still hungry even after the votes have been counted and the winners declared.


The Anishinaabe know of a cannibal winter creature/spirit called Wendigo. Wendigo’s immense hunger is only increased by eating and his emaciated thin grey skin just becomes more tightly stretched over his bones. It is in many ways a similar creature to the zombie that keeps surfacing in current culture. This is the hunger that is never satiated.


The United States has just consumed a last supper of cannibalistic fear during the lengthy ceremony we call elections. It was the anti-sacrament. What “rough beast, its hour come round at last” have we just drank the blood of? (Yeat’s The Second Coming) There is no way for this cup to be taken from us.


It doesn’t matter what ‘side’ you were on. You can ask: “Who are these people who voted for this person?” They are your neighbors. You might as well admit that you are terrified of them. But here we are… all sitting at the same table. So, now that we are here, bloated with fear and hungrier than ever, what do we do?


Prepare for the putrefactio (decomposition). We must digest all of this shadow that we have consumed. The last supper is not followed by being ‘born again’ or having ‘great again.’ That dark-skinned prophet from what is now called the Middle East is often misquoted as having said something about being born again. What he actually said is more akin to “be born from the beginning.”  He was not handing out avoid-all-responsibility passes. He was asking for us to be deeply responsible for all of life. 


As we enter the winter, as we enter the nigredo, may we vote with our imaginations to digest all of the shadow we have consumed. May we vote to look clearly, without glancing away, at how is it is we got to be here. May we deeply honor all that has given life so that we may have life. This is the skill of grief. This is the skill of walking with deep responsibility. And may our imaginations create wild spaces, with vulture-filled trees, where beings and ways of being may go to feed that which follows in this amazing caravan.

Lost and alone in the Bunker of Entitlement


I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what entitlement means. I watched a PBS news segment about the town where I live: “Why white nationalists hear a political ally in Donald Trump.” One of the men interviewed in the piece said:

“You know what…Yeah, make America great again. Build a wall. Kick these people out. This is my country…this all belongs to ME.”

This statement seemed to exemplify entitlement. But just labeling it didn’t lead me to understanding the deeper relationship and source of it. So I just sat with it for a few days. I then started wondering if entitlement is the opposite of belonging. More specifically, if entitlement is the opposite of being claimed by a place such that who you are cannot be pronounced without the place that holds you as the words. I felt a deep sorrow for the man in this video and for all of our poverty-of-not-belonging and I became deeply present to my own desire to be claimed by the place that holds me.

When you have lost the skill of being claimed by a place, you feel abandoned. Your identity is not your relationship to the land or to the more-than-human. You likely have learned few skills to connect to either of these or to your ancestry. You have been left to make the case for yourself.

And that is what entitlement is: It is having been left to argue for your own merit. It is having forgotten that you have allies. You have to generate your title and statement of worth from the poverty of a collapsed self.


From this place of abandonment, your arguments have a sense of desperation to them…like a cornered dog. You think you are arguing with an enemy, but to those who belong to a place, it looks much more like you are having an argument with a shadow. You are trying to convince yourself of your right to be here. Everything else just gets in between you and that enemy (you). Woe to anything that gets between a man and his attempts to prove he has a right to be here. And woe to us all… as there has never been a better stage for acting out self-hatred or violence.


warli painting.jpg

And while there are resources that could be accessed to learn to rebuild the community of identity from which one is claimed, it is difficult for someone who feels alone and desperate to reach out. There are humans who understand and practice deep belonging all around us. But there is little space held for these people to teach.


Mostly what happens, in situations of entitlement, is further isolation. Build a wall. Find other entitled people to be with. Make sure there is a space for yourself by any means possible. Because when belonging collapses into defensiveness, holding space collapses into large concrete border walls, automatic weaponry, and bloodlines.


My first suggestion of my ten theses is to give up your entitlement to live. The goal of this is not nihilism. We are not seeking to give up making meaning. The goal is to be free to participate in life that is larger than the isolated bunker graffitied with violent claims of why you deserve to be here. But this is not a simple task in this day and age.


The problem seems to be, that relearning to be claimed, is something that only grows out of the fertile ceremonial ground that grief creates. And grief is a scary, foreign, and vulnerable way of proceeding to most. Grief is steadying ones gaze at how it is you have been left alone to define what your life means. It is steadying ones gaze at how it is you were abandoned by a language, land, and kin that once claimed you. It is apologizing to the orphaned longings that you denied knowing and made no space for as you huddled in your bunker. It is hard work.

I’ve been reading Yeats’s 'The Second Coming' frequently as of late. The centre is slipping. No centre is meant to hold forever. The centre needs to die, so that the new centre may root in the soil of that death. This is not an ‘if,’ but a ‘how.’

There are two ways that the guest of death is met at the door in our current time: violently  (attempting to defend a collapsed world where humans alone define what it means to be human), or as an honored guest. The latter is one of the most intimate acts of feeding a place...of feeding the guest.  With this set of choices, I cease to ‘lack all conviction’ and throw my passionate intensity into holding space for grieving . Grieving is how we set the place for this meal. May we look down through tears, at the banquet of this beautiful life, to see that we are the feasters and the feast. What a joy to give up entitlement for this. May the party of good endings begin.


American Death Party: Reformation Day Launch


It is reformation day. Four hundred and ninety-nine years ago Martin Luther wrote a letter criticizing the corruption in the Catholic church. He had no idea what he was starting. It is also All Hallow's Eve. The leaves have begun to journey to the ground. The mornings are cooler. The political parties are finally done debating.  The politicians somehow forgot to reference this season of dying back and contraction. Jimmy Carter tried it once, and it was political suicide. Then, along came Reagan, with his famous ‘Morning in America’ ad speaking of a prouder, stronger, and better America. America bought that idea like a Black Friday special at Walmart. 


But, there is no morning without night. 

There is no spring without fall and winter. 

There is no better or great again without allowing death.


There is a Sumerian legend that tells the story of the argument between Emesh and Enten, or summer and winter. They are arguing over who is more important to the life of the world. They finally take the debate to Enlil, the wind, who declares winter more important. Winter brings water from the mountains. Water feeds life. The dying back feeds the flowing forth.

Out in what has recently been referred to as North Dakota, there is a gathering of humans whose ancestors’ bones have been feeding that very soil long before it’s recent naming and ‘civilizing.’ Maybe from those who never bought into the ‘magic’ of modern culture, or maybe from watching (like a parent) as a child tears the wrapping paper off of their gift only to demand another gift seconds later, or maybe just from a deep listening to place… there is a voice saying: “Enough!” The childish entitlement to the last dregs of over a million years of stored sunshine that we tore the wrapping off of less than two centuries ago has to stop or it will destroy us. It is time to stop pretending we deserve more, better and greater forever.

Pretending is expensive on so many levels. In health care, forty percent of Medicare dollars are for care of people in the last month of life. Pretending that we have not run out of oil is the same. Pretending that we can technology our way out of this is one of the biggest distractions. I would refer you to James Howard Kunstler’s Too Much Magic for an in depth look at this.

“But how do we continue without growth?” seems to be the question no one is asking. How did continuing and growth become one and the same? Why aren’t continuing and death ever seated next to one another? In Norse mythology there are two human survivors after the end of the world. This country is in desperate need of  a story like Ragnarök so that we may redeem what it means to continue. 

I started working with hospice about fifteen years ago. I don’t prescribe how continuing and death fit together for people, but if you want a front row seat to that question, go listen to someone who has been told they are dying. You will have to arrive without a comforting agenda or collapsed ‘fix it’ listening…these are only armor for you. You will have to arrive being willing to put down pretending that things don’t end and being willing to pick up talking about how they end. 

If you are able to pull this off, you might catch a rare second of wondering ‘what does it mean to continue when my individual life will not continue?’ If everyone in our society could truly do this for just a few moments it would be revolutionary (and we are in desperate need of a revolution). 

Revolution brings with it images of violent revolt, but it need not be so. Revolution involves the ending of life and birthing of the new. I have seen both of these happen in stunning beauty and without violence.

John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” I paraphrase President Kennedy by saying that those who make peaceful endings impossible will make violent endings inevitable. I have seen the tricks and tools of the intensive care unit cantilever lives out over the void based on the belief that one individual life is entitled to continue. I have watched invasive tubes inserted into the bodies of humans with the ‘hope’ of prolonging life. Now we watch invasive tubes cut into the body of the earth. This way of refusing death acts the same way on all levels

When the wheel of life inevitably turns, the final act for an individual usually involves breaking the ribs while performing CPR in a last-ditch refusal. This so-called ‘doing everything possible’ is almost always preferred to the ‘giving up’ of dying.

Once again, the course of our individual lives parallels the life of this country. We are squandering resources trying to keep pretending that we have not run out of petroleum. We are willing to risk the water that sustains us for another millisecond of not ‘giving up.’ We are accepting more and more invasive and violent means as necessary to keep going. We are pretending times one million.


As a country, we are at an ending point -- a point when things are asking for us to hold space for their dying. While this is incredibly scary, our inability to hold space for this revolution and transformation will bring us only more and more violence. 


What are our politicians’ responses? Imagine our country as a patient in the intensive care unit. Two family members arrive to take in the situation...


The first is the spouse of the patient. She is adamant about continuing all technological and medical interventions, no matter how invasive or dehumanizing, to keep things going on as long as possible. Increase the ventilator settings and IV drips to maintain blood pressure. She has a medical background and can competently make suggestions while refusing to acknowledge what is actually happening.

The second family member is the patient’s son, who has flown in from New York City. He hasn’t really been in contact with his father for years. His approach is to make great proclamations about the type of care his father deserves. “He should be transferred to the BEST hospital with the BEST doctors.”  He questions and insults the medical staff caring for his father. He repeatedly and childishly rants about a former time when this would not have happened.


Having worked as a hospice nurse for four years in Chicago, I have seen both of these scenarios many times. I have seen many people die, but I don’t believe that this is the same as seeing death. In the above scenario, neither family member is seeing death. I can state from experience that this typically means that the family member will not die well. They may end up in a long-term acute-care hospital with their body rotting while they are connected to ‘life’ support. 


I would not choose this option for us as a nation. But, this seems to be what is happening as corporate and political structures are unable to die to serve something greater than power and money. No politician will suggest contraction and dying. (It’s always morning in America.)


So what will it take for things to end well? What will it take for our nation and culture to let go of the idea that we are entitled to ever-expanding life without death to feed and nourish it?


Maybe we need a movement. A party not seeking votes, but a contraction. A party committed to that, which no longer serves the larger life, ending well.


I call it the American Death Party. 


Is it political? Yes. As Pete Seeger said, “You can get together and drink beer and that’s political, because you are affecting the body of politic.” Start tending to the body of politics that includes all your relationships. Include your relationship with the soil, your relationship with the more-than-human, your relationship with those you struggle to relate to, and your relationship to your personal end… because every true relationship includes within it the end of that relationship.