Pandemic Diaries / 2

The Great Invitation: On Learning to Listen to Bats and Pangolins

It is a full eleven days since we arrived at our sanctuary ‘shelter’ in the California hills. In eleven days our business — a nature-based retreat center serving non-profits, yogis and nuptials — has nosedived. The first wave of cancellations was followed by a second, then the third. Within four days, almost a third of our annual revenue had disappeared and my husband, Jon, after no small amount of hand-wringing, shuttered the business. In a matter of days, reality as we knew it had come to a grinding halt.

Over the last eleven years, my husband Jon and I have slowly developed Bell Valley, a retreat center near Boonville in Anderson Valley, California. Receiving invaluable support along the way from the team of people working with us, we’ve largely run the business remotely, commuting here on weekends from our home-base in Berkeley two and half hours away. Our twin 10-year-old boys, Charlie and Ben, have anchored us in the Bay Area where we’ve felt the centrifugal pull of schools and summer camps, but Bell Valley has been a workplace we travel to on weekends they’ve grown up with, allowing us to raise our children as much as possible outdoors, away from screens.

View looking through the front door, past a dog lying on the floor, and out the back door of an old wood0-sided building
The Toll House

There are too many stories to tell about the journey developing a rural retreat center. It started with the renovation of a historic toll house on highway 253 the year the boys were born. From those humble beginnings, (until a few weeks ago, at least), our team’s efforts over a decade helped to create a thriving rural hub for meaningful gatherings and reflection, accommodating groups of sixty in glamping tents, barn meeting spaces, along miles of woodland trails leading to a freshwater, swimming pond.

However, of all the stories to be told, one thread runs through them all – the thread that carries my love for the land here. As each season has passed over eleven years, (a dot in time compared to what the ancient oaks here have seen), my affections have felt returned to me in spades in a love affair that only seems to deepen with time. Over the years, no matter how busy I’ve been, (some days driving up and back on the same day), a spectacular canvas of clouds, ever-changing, like a vast, dynamic watercolor painting meets me where I park my car at the hilltop cabin. Each spring, wildflowers cast their symphony of color along the sides of the roads leading up there. Each dry august, the grasses crunch under our feet on our hikes, their prickles getting stuck in our socks as we witness the hills transform from a patchwork of green to gold. And each brisk October, the tired trees undress their many leaves one more time for the bare, prayer of winter.

Sun Rise

There were years when the stress of trying to build from scratch a place for humans to gather here in this rural landscape made me want to walk away. There were years when I couldn’t see the beauty because my marriage was faltering, the demands of the project overtaking every corner of my husband’s life. But we survived and looking back, it almost felt as if the seasons carried us through. The last three years in particular, since that fateful November day in 2016, we have thrived.

I don’t think it was Trump’s election itself that triggered the change. It was bigger than that. Trump was simply a symptom of something happening in the world that began to feel like the beginning of a Great Invitation. When America and the planet started tilting off its ‘comfortable’ axis, exposing the many shadows created by a late-capitalist, white, elite ‘alternate reality’ long preceding Trump, that which has been long kept in the dark can begin to have a chance to see the light of day. Hidden deep in the disillusionment and chaos, in the heart of the despair and confusion, the outrage and grief is an invitation to re-discover oneself and one’s life, anew.

Shortly into Trump’s first term, I started to feel my love for this landscape as an ache in my chest, a pressure beckoning to me, like a new story waiting to unfurl, searching for the human words to tell it. On our weekends up here, my harried glance towards the hillsides and views spoke to me of home in a new way. Not in the traditional sense, but rather like I was home in a precious sanctuary, a church, replete with sermons, but the pastors were the tall, ancient oak trees, the prayers were the birdsong of the sparrows and robins, the sound of rain, its irregular symphony echoing through our tin-roofed cabin at night, was the choir. This landscape I had loved over eleven seasons, in short, was beginning to speak to me.

Where it started — whether the trees were speaking to me with an insistence, or whether my body itself signaled the urgency, I don’t know. I know only that I couldn’t resist the desire to listen any more than than I might the rousing invitation of a baptist choir or the solemn and sublime meditation of a Yo-Yo Ma performance. I was being invited into a conversation, that would require I learn a new language, and to learn it, I would need to slow down and listen. Listen as I’d never needed to listen before. Listen with the apertures of my ears, but also my heart and body-wide open in tenderness. I couldn’t bear being a foreigner in my own country any longer. Alongside the trees, the birds and the rain, I wanted to belong.

Looking upward into the canopy along the trunk of an old tree, whose smooth bare trunk is bisected by a rough-textured vertical wound from a healed-over lightning strike.
Old Madrone

Since Trump took office, I’ve watched the smoke from the spate of wildfires that swept over California the following year engulf the sky across the valley. I’ve driven the two-hour drive back to Berkeley, past pylons in Santa Rosa on the side of the freeway still burning alongside big box stores and hotels, whipping in flames. Two years ago, a fine retreat center, much like ours, in a neighboring town was engulfed in these fall flames. Moving forward, there is no autumn that will pass without my daily prayers, no season when I will not notice the unsteadiness of unseasonable weather patterns here, the unreasonable heat of Januaries, the atypical hail and snow too late in springtime.

The white fluff of a dry thistle flower going to seed in dry grass.
Thistle

Most of all, through these past four years, I’ve relished a beauty, that, as yet, still reveals itself so generously without being asked and without demanding anything in return. A stunning homeland given, season after season, for free. And in this past year, especially, each time I have come here, I’ve just wanted to stay. Each drive back to the bay area, my chest would tighten in the car like an ambivalent child leaving home for school. I started counting down the years until my own children would graduate from their bay area lives so my husband and I could finally move here.

And then, of course — is it really just 11 days ago? — California schools were the first in the country to announce they would close for ‘two weeks.’ The day we heard, I scrapped my day’s plans in Berkeley and began to pack. I told the boys to set aside clothes for more than the customary weekend. Get socks, shirts and plenty of books. Alongside clothes, I packed the boys’ instruments, a guitar, a saxophone and, in lieu of our real one, an electric piano. I emptied out the fridge, packed up drawers of dried goods and moved on to extra shoes, two dog beds and several weeks of dog food. With two car-loads filled we arrived here late in the evening, surviving the guilt of our old dog Lulu’s initial foray into the dark wilderness on arrival. The next morning we woke to a blanket of snow. It was a dream come true. Except, it was built on a nightmare.

Three days later we got word of the ordinance to shelter in place. It could be up to 18 months, Trump said. Some eight years earlier than I expected, then, this sanctuary I had been yearning to move to would be our new home for the foreseeable future. Yet what a pyrrhic victory. Alongside our business, all around us, the world as we know was falling to its knees. Those far less privileged than we are, facing evictions, no money for food, and un-told complicated circumstances we may only learn about in the pandemic’s wake. As easy as it might be to take in the pristine contours of this sanctuary escape here, riding on the coattails of denial, we are here because of a global crisis. Our life, up-ended, has sent us to heaven but we got here on the hinges of hell.

There is no gift that does not behold the receiver in obligation. In the best circumstances, the obligation is couched in gratitude and love. This is my condition then. We are here not simply to escape an “enemy virus.” Nor are we here to ride out a “war” in privileged exile. Rather, we have been relocated to a landscape beckoning us to let go of what we have known so that we can finally begin to learn its tongue, finally learn to listen.

Because as devastating as this virus is, I cannot help but see it in the same category as Trump’s election, as part of the Great Invitation. In this form, it is not the enemy, rather, it is the body of the earth speaking to us. The urgency of our times, beyond the androcentrism with which we customarily meet the world, is not only for facemasks and ventilators — the things that will keep humans, and our kin alive. This urgency is a call to reflect on the world we have known, the world we have created, and all the worlds that are possible that we have forfeited in this unsustainable world we are living in at such an unsustainable pace.

News reaches me from Berkeley friends and beyond that, the invitation is reaching others, too, in cities. People are rediscovering their parks, waterfronts and hillside trails. They are tending to their health, noticing themselves, their own bodies, perhaps in ways, they haven’t for decades, racing past them to complete the tasks at hand. They are finding the space in their lives, away from what they have grown accustomed to, to meet the fresh air while we still have it. Off freeways we are clearing up the skies, getting a taste of what could be possible. Many of us are taking time in solitude sensing into our all-too-human vulnerability, acutely aware of global inter-connection on this earth. Could the invitation, even to those who are not eager to speak nature’s tongue, to learn her language, be any more clear? Like Tolkein’s great Ents, the gestures and corralling of our actions are guiding us towards an understanding of the message being ‘spoken’ from the earth.

Isn’t it beyond time to listen, after all? To begin unlearning something so we can learn to listen again within the matrix of mutuality our species knew until the amnesia created by the industrial revolution. Is this not the time we need to reconsider what we think we need to begin to see what we really need. Is this not a call to un-do ourselves, like the trees in winter, laying ourselves bare while the contours of our lives starkly change?

What if the urgency we feel really is the orchestration of a call from the earth to simply stop. To slow down. To suffer the anxiety we might feel in this sudden stillness and reach out from that awareness towards where we find support. Beyond the din of news headlines, spiking numbers in Italy, and the spin over Trump’s latest tweet, we can always open the window and listen. A virus of unknown origin is speaking, its words heard in the stress of a bat, snake, or a Pangolin sold at a wet market in China. An animal removed from its habitat and sold for the passing delight or appetite of a human’s pleasure is speaking, like the planet speaking through its own fevers and wildfires. The earth does not, itself, know how to hold back from rising temperatures to strike out the virus in its own midst — one which, if we listen more deeply, of course, we can only know as ourselves.

In the coming weeks, my husband and I will learn how to plant a garden here with the boys. We will learn to recognize the calls of the various birds, songs that in the past we have appreciated but never stopped to decipher during our work-filled weekends away from city life. We will get our food from Burt’s Boontberry Market, a lovable, small redwood shack in town with locally farmed food and handmade ointments and elixirs. We will live off less. We will learn how to clear trails, thin fir trees, and mix compost. We will nurse our old dog Lulu through her final days. We will play and fight. We will be scared, we will pray for others with far more to fear. Along with others, we will face the great creative void of the unknown. We will open ourselves up for the teaching.

When I have time, I will search for the human words that meet the new language we are learning here. In this way, the new story, at least as it unfurls in this space of shelter, will be written. We will listen, and together we will surely come un-done, learning how to live a different life.

A pink sunset over hilly country with bare trees along the ridges and green grass in the foreground.
Twilight

On March 13th, after our children’s school announced a ‘two week’ closure, my family of four (plus one dog) packed two cars full to ‘shelter in place’ at our retreat center, on 600 acres in Anderson Valley. Privileged, isolated, my husband and I will learn how to become the ‘village’ that once helped raise our children. Along with the rest of the world, we don’t know how long we will be here. Facing that uncertain future, as time permits, I will write this pandemic diary.

PART TWO: Power – The Essence of Hatred (4 of 5)

If you inquire into hatred, itself, it transforms into power. You want to feel hatred, be open to it, welcome it, see what it is about. Where did it come from? What is it trying to do? …That, by itself, unfolds it to reveal the truth lying within. – Hameed Ali, Diamond Approach, Spacecruiser Inquiry

These days, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the hatred coursing through American’s political landscape. Progressives and Democrats are the first to point it out in the raucous, contemptuous, racist chants at Trump’s rallies or in his daily twitter missives aimed at the opposition. Around my progressive hometown, posters are scattered in front yards and on main street store windows with the words: “We Stand United Against Hate.” When we look at the damage and cruelty being wielded by so much of the hateful rhetoric today no doubt all this concern with hatred is more than understandable.

However, the moral stance against hatred needs to be met with a strong degree of self-honestly from those of us who are quick to vilify it. Many of us, many, are lugging around boatloads of righteous hatred ourselves. In fact, that’s one of the things the right tends to hate about us – our hypocrisy about hate.

I’ve always thought of hatred as born in the moments of utter heartache where anger, pushed to its furthest limits, is thwarted and gives up. Hatred isn’t the negation of anger, it’s high-octane, compressed anger, the combustible, incinerating power of the darkest, blackest coal. Rather than quickly hot, however, hate has an air of coolness and restraint about it, just like a deceivingly innocent piece of coal that takes time to reveal its real capacity to char the crap out of something. In this way, hatred hides in thoughts and projections that appear harmless but can crush another’s subjectivity with one, seemingly simple ‘idea’ (witness racist ideology). As such, hatred can be a wicked weapon and one that has devastating capacity when linked with mechanisms of power that seem innocuous but can have a devastating impact on people’s physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

But back to the troubling hypocrisy among liberals… hatred can live quite comfortably in the people who hate the haters – people whose hateful parts would – in all honestly – wipe those powerful hating assholes out in a heartbeat if they could without consequence. Hatred can operate in slick ways like this; hiding in a sense of pride and victim entitlement and, unlike anger, can more easily live outside our awareness. Like a sleeping giant, it sneaks out when we issue utterance about someone despicable who disgusts us. Before it becomes action, however, hatred is a feeling. It is not a bad feeling, but an all-too-human feeling, one that may cause more trouble when we forbid it, or act it out, than it would if we found the space and support in our lives to actually feel and explore it. Continue reading “PART TWO: Power – The Essence of Hatred (4 of 5)”

PART TWO: Strength – The Essence of Anger (3 of 5)

She’s mad but she’s magic. There is no lie in her fire. – Charles Bukowski

On January 21st, 2017 between 3-5 million American women walked out their front door and onto the streets for the largest single-day protest the country had ever seen. One day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March proved a preamble to the foment of the unprecedented impact of the #MeToo movement that followed. There was more than enough evidence that a groundswell of American women were done with being “nice” and had simply had enough. Books released in 2018, like Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, or Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, brought laser focus to this reality, exploring the history of accomplishments attributable to women’s ferocity in taking action around circumstances that were simply no longer acceptable. In the days after the women’s march a conversation was mounting about women taking off in our country, reflecting, perhaps, the Dalai Lama’s prophecy that “the world will be saved by Western women.”

This broad display of angry, defiant women is progress, no doubt. The record level women and minorities elected during the mid-terms reflected this. It was something feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of The Yellow Wallaper, written in 1892, could hardly have imagined during that early period of first wave feminism. Gilman’s character had found a kind of liberation through a ‘crazy’-madness where she began to challenge the status quo around her, but herein was a different kind of mad: angry mad, publicly angry mad, mad by the millions!

However, just as statistics about a rise in anxiety during the Trump presidency don’t tell the personal story of people’s experience of that anxiety, how it has changed them for better or worse, nor do statistics about the number of women (and their allies) who took to the streets tell the story of how women across America have experienced their anger, fed-up-ness and outrage. How it has over the last several years perhaps deepened their cynicism or, potentially, spawned a new level of empowerment and vision. This is the inside story. Continue reading “PART TWO: Strength – The Essence of Anger (3 of 5)”

PART TWO: Separation and Reconnection (2 of 5)

Each experience of love nudges us toward the Story of Interbeing because it only fits into that story and defies the logic of Separation. ― Charles Eisenstein

I start on the screen of my choosing. I am on a zoom call, Dec. 6, 2017. Here, in encountering my isolation I forge two new relationships. The first was with the woman on the screen, a therapist and member of what Glennon Doyle in her best-selling memoir Love Warrior refers to as “the universal underground of sisterhood.” The screen is a compromise on our being together in physical presence, but this does not stop something memorable from happening that day because this is where it started. This is where the second relationship was born with the part of myself that had been trapped in the wallpaper of my own life for decades. Continue reading “PART TWO: Separation and Reconnection (2 of 5)”

PART TWO: The Inward Turn – Exploring the Soul of Citizenship In The Trump Era (1 of 5)

Madness in Mad Times

In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published a short story titled The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman’s female protagonist was relegated to an upstairs room by her husband, a doctor, for a ‘rest cure’ to address her ‘nervous depression, despair, and hysteria.’ (Gilman had been given this “treatment” for depression herself, by a Dr. Silas Mitchell).

Enclosed, trapped, powerless, and pathologized (gaslighted), Gilman’s character became intoxicated by the wallpaper in the room. In the first third of the story, we find her in what seems like a petty preoccupation with the wallpaper, irritated and angered by the pattern in it, the sallow, yellow color, the sheer incongruence of the design. But as the pages turn, her intrigue with the wallpaper grows, over time ‘finding’ a woman trapped within its patterned contours.

The story continues to chronicle the protagonist’s building ‘madness,’ as she alternates between self-doubt and engagement with the woman (sometimes women) she is able to discern in the wallpaper. The protagonist refers to the guidance of those who are taking care of her, guidance she originally obliges but comes over time to question, then confront. Before long, you can’t help but join in her mounting irritation with the way they dismiss and minimize her distress and coddling her into ‘recovery.’ Over the course of the story, Gilman’s character builds the capacity (in a kind of defiant, madness) to dismiss these ‘caretakers’ who pity her condition (again, gaslighting). She finds an intimacy with her direct experience, learning to trust what she is seeing, feeling, discovering in a conscious awakening to a self-authorized reality of her own.

A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life. – Virginia Woolf

Gilman’s story culminates with the protagonist successfully stripping the wallpaper off the walls setting free, to her great satisfaction, the woman she sees caught there. When her husband opens the door in the final passage, he finds his wife proclaiming in delight: “I got out at last, I got out at last!” Said husband then faints and we are left with the image of a woman crawling in circles around him in the room, ‘mad’ and elated. We are also left with a disturbing but strangely intoxicating paradox about the relationship between a woman’s madness and her liberation. Continue reading “PART TWO: The Inward Turn – Exploring the Soul of Citizenship In The Trump Era (1 of 5)”

Some Words for the Senate GOP’s White, Male Patriarchs: We’re sorry; it’s time to step down.

At what point do these white men of patriarchy speak up to challenge The Father?

When do these men know it is time? Or, was it taken out of them? Were they taught, at the receiving end of a switch, that their lives depended on strict obedience? (As if it did not depend on the women who gave birth to them.)

Will they walk behind The Father, blindly, with military protocol — their own free will — sacrificed for ‘duty’ and ‘loyalty’? Will they choose to stand in the shadow of the man who has “the balls the size of watermelons,” for fear of being the one one who has “raisins”? Will they continue mistaking political and economic rank for ‘God,’ forgetting that vulnerability is the only real foundation of faith? How long will they mistakenly assume their dependence is on The Father and not All-Life-On-Earth? How long will they continue to walk the line behind him, their terror well disguised in principles of righteousness and claims to ‘Know. Unequivocally. What. Every. American. Family. Needs. Or. Should. Continue reading “Some Words for the Senate GOP’s White, Male Patriarchs: We’re sorry; it’s time to step down.”