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

 

LETTER TO THE FRONT

 

            1

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.

 

            2

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.

 

            3

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.


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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.

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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.

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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:

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“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. https://orphanwisdom.com/full-dark/

 

Hold fiercely the space for darkness

Hold fiercely the space for listening

Hold fiercely the space for wonder

 


 

The Racists are Right

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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.” 
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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. 


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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.


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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. 

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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

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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.

 


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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...

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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. 

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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. 

 

click here to read our MANIFESTO FOR THINGS ENDING WELL: TEN THESES