Monday, December 16, 2013

Medicine Wheel Walk

On Saturday, Dec. 7, I walked from my house on Block Island's east side all the way to Dories Cove on the West Side. I began by standing in a small circle of stones in my front yard--a Medicine Wheel where I go to center myself and connect with the spirit world. The elementals are still vibrant on Block Island, and the presence of ancestor spirits is very strong. My intent was for my walk to follow the wheel's rim through the Golden Door of the East, heading south where spirit manifests physically, on to the west, where we go to die and be reborn, ending in the north in the hopes that the island would give me a vision. As I walked the directions, I was amazed to see how the colors of the wheel--yellow, red, black, and white, had messages for me the entire way. I am working on an essay about the walk, but would like to share some pictures with you now.

First message from the spirits as soon as I walked onto the East Beach.


Petroglyphs in the Sand

A detour onto the road showed me I was on the right track, as did the red sign below, encountered when I turned South at the ferry parking lot.



Bird pellet (Regurgitated food. Probably from a crow.)

Red buoy points the way south.

Ballast brick tossed overboard long ago.

Rusty shipwreck at SE Point.


Turtle joins me on the walk.

Normally I would be dismayed that people had graffitied a rock, but I was delighted by the red letters.



This red balloon reminded me of the entheogen amanita muscaria, further enhancing the visionary aspect of this trip.

Bluff guardians.

I read later that a forked tree is a part of the Sun Dance ritual.

Following deer tracks on the beach.

South side. My legs really hurt by now.

Fallen World War II watchtower.

Cormorants explode from their guano coated rookery just beneath the bluff's edge.
This black stone greeted me when I rounded SW Point to the West Side.

Dead seal. Seals are the totem of lucid dreamers.


I was tempted to spend the night here as the sun set.

Someone picked up these black stones from the beach and left them on this boulder for me to find.

Goose is the totem of storytellers.

It was dark when I entered the domain of the North, ruled by the color white, so I don't have any photos. Rest assured, I did receive confirmation that my prayers were answered from the ancestors. You will have to read the essay when it is finished to discover what happened. In the meantime, thank you for accompanying me on this walk to re-weave us back into the hoop of life.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Close Encounters on the Other BI

Some of you may not know there is another "BI" in my life besides Block Island. I have lived four times on Hawaii, known as The Big Island, and have written a lot about some very traumatic experiences I went through while living there. Last night I was thinking how there are some things I just don't write about. Not the traumatic things--if anything I have defined myself as a writer through trauma--but the joyful, transcendent, and sublime experiences. In some ways it's because I just don't have the language for it, so I find myself copping out by falling back on phrases like "Somehow…..it happened," or "There is no way to say it…" Phrases that let me off the hook for describing the emotional texture of the experience.

So last night I decided to write a poem about one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, the kind of experience that if I really let it in would change my life by opening my heart fully to the wonder of actually getting to live on earth, that would make stop feeling sorry for myself, or feeling that there was no point in trying to change. I decided to write about the night my friend Savory took me night swimming with manta rays.

Now since you are not reading a poem at the moment, you may have guessed correctly that I determined, as I did after attempting to get it right, that this experience did not want to be a poem at all. It wanted to be a few prose paragraphs in which I tell you how Savory, Renate and I drove to the Sheraton and parked our dilapidated trucks at the edge of the parking lot where Savory said we could walk out over the lava and swim about a quarter mile to the hotel who shone lights on the water to lure the mantas in for their guests to watch.

Renate opted out from the get go and proceeded to the hotel where she promptly got a good buzz on with a mai tai, claiming a spot for herself on the stone seawall with her purchased drink to watch us.

But first there was that quarter mile swim through the dark to get through first….

Actually, first I need to tell you about Savory, whose fluidity is an essential part of this story. Savory is one of the most courageously strange people I have ever met. I grew up in small town New England. Even the few gays I knew were conservative, and they were all old because to have been out in my high school was seriously not an option if you wanted to survive.

Renate told me about Savory before I met him, but I was still taken aback at our first encounter. Savory was not gay like I thought from her description. He was a straight man who dressed in women's clothes.  I had heard about hetero men who did this for deviant sexual thrills, but Savory dressed as a woman all the time--in daylight. He was a carpenter! He wore lipstick and pearls and a stuffed bra under his wife-beater. On the job he wore jeans, but when not working he favored sarongs. The breasts were always there. You couldn't not look at them. It was like seeing breasts for the first time, looking at Savory's stuffed chest. Even more eye-opening to me was the fact that he had children--two with different women. Although he dressed as a woman he did not want to sleep with men. He wanted to live with women and he did. I tried to imagine kissing him (he was attractive), but couldn't. I was far from New England, in a world too alien, which bring me back to the manta rays…

But first I do have to say that trickster Renate wondered as we got out of the truck if Savory was going to wear a bikini, and what his penis looked like. He did not. He took his bra off and donned a short wetsuit over his trunks and flat chest. I was suddenly aware of him as a male in a way I had not been before. I trusted he knew what he was doing because he embodied masculine authority, telling me toI strapthe waterproof headlamp he gave me to my mask and to follow him out onto the black lava. I was nervous but was good at pretending I was not. If I hadn't been good at pretending I would still be in my hometown, right? Savory snapped a glowstick and embedded it in the crook of a palm tree. "So we know where to get out of the water on the way back," he told me. Gulp. Otherwise we could swim straight out to sea and you know what waits out there beyond the edge of the reef, right? You said, not me. Sharks.

I had never been on a night dive before. Once we were in the water I quickly lost my fear of the dark, surprised myself with the wonder of turning my head to shine the lamp on some new part of the ocean floor where coral and reef fish went about their business as if there wasn't a spotlight in their faces. Of course, it did cross my mind that night is when the sharks came out, but I just kept pushing that thought away until it sank to the bottom, trusting my strong legs to keep kicking me toward the lights from the Sheraton.

Renate waves and hallooed from the seawall, mai tai in hand. We waved back, bathed in the hotel's light. The nightly arrival of the mantas was quite an attraction and had attracted a large crowd. So far there was just Savory and me, cavorting like seals. I decided to put on a show for the tourists, turning somersaults under the water, doing back flips as they oohed and aahed like I was a trained beast at Seaworld. Underneath me a school of mullet flashed in synchronous motion, the moon goddess Hina's creatures, silver-swift. I was quite happy to perform for the tourists, had even forgotten for a bit while we were really there, until a large very well-lit boat lumbered into view, coming out of the dark into the water lit by the hotel lights. This was a tourist boat out of Kona loaded with tourists who had paid to swim with the mantas. Savory and I were gleeful, not only because our payment was just that quarter mile swim through the dark, but because they shone high beams into the water that made it even brighter. We swam out towards them and sure enough, coming towards us so slow we could see the edge where the dark began and the light ended, a manta. I took in a huge breath, cleared my nose and dove down. One, two, three, and then too many to count, gliding out of the dark to feed on the invisible, phytoplankton they filtered in through their gills as they flew. Savory and I flipped and soared with them. Even better, a scuba diver from the tourist boat lowered himself to the bottom with a spotlight he shone up, attracting even more mantas. If this sounds invasive, well, it is. It also provides the mantas with a fine meal since it is the light that attracts their prey.



If you have never had a manta swim straight toward you as you flipped back with your arms over your head in a long, slow arc, coming so close you almost rubbed bellies, let me tell you, it is one of life's sublime experiences. This encounter was so alien, so other, I actually felt like this is what it must be like to meet aliens. The mantas were cognizant, focused, playful, agile beyond belief--and they accepted our presence. I don't think the commercial boat operators were too keen on us though, since if the secret got  out about how you could just walk through the parking lot to swim with the mantas instead of paying a bunch of money they would be out of business. Then again, there was that swim through the dark to factor in….I haven't been back to Kona in a few years, but I bet Savory and I did not ruin their business.

After awhile I started to feel seasick from the rocking waves so Savory and I swam back. Like he said, it was really hard to tell where to get out of the water. Thoughts of sharks once again crept in. I have never been so happy to see a glowstick in my life.

We hauled out, stripped off our wetsuits, toweled off. I put on my sweatshirt and shorts. Savory put on his bra and sarong. Tipsy Renate rejoined us and we headed off to the only place open besides the Sheraton to fill our bellies (out of our budget and not likely to want us ragged undesirables at their bar), a sports bar with widescreen TVs blaring some game I could not conceive of liking when the wonders of the deep were just a quarter mile away. We got some strange looks. I realized as we were sitting there that it was not so much that Savory was dressed as a woman that bothered people, it was that he acted like a man. Energetically he was a man and the men in that bastion of American masculinity were threatened by him. To them, Savory crossed so many boundaries he was an alien. The beautiful thing was that to him, he was right at home, in his body that could soar underwater, fluid and fleet in the dark when the hotel lights were flicked off and the mantas rose toward the moon lighting the ocean from within.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Spiral Journey, Or a Heroine's Quest to Be at Home on Earth


Even though the dirt path along the Urubamba from Pisac to Taray was flat, I was out of breath. I had only been in the Andes ten days and we were 10,000 feet above sea level. I was having trouble with the altitude. Five days ago I had turned forty, the traditional milestone of middle age in my culture. I didn’t feel middle-aged, like my life was halfway over. I felt like my life was just beginning. It was not like I left the United States to avoid turning 40, I just opted to mark it in my own way. I didn’t ignore my birthday on the day after Christmas. I told my new friends and we spent the day touring ruins and a salt mine in the Sacred Valley.  We went out to lunch and someone gave me a cintura. If this sounds uneventful, well, my birthday is the day after Christmas. I had had forty years to get used to the fact that Jesus’s birth was more exciting than mine. The day before I had  ignored Christmas, I suppose, losing myself in the Pisac ruins so that I had to stumble down the jagged mountain, searching for the path in the dark. It took hours—my friend was terrified, we had no food and  no water, and for some reason I was wearing flip-flops that were shredded in no time.  I took them off and walked  barefoot down the loose mountain scree interspersed with ancient Inca stairs that were so worn they were far short of level. For some reason I had no fear. At a few points I had to coax her down by getting her to sit and slide down on her butt. She almost had me convinced we should spend the night on the mountain and wait for morning, but I was determined we would sleep in our warm beds that night.  By the time we gotto the bottom of the trail it was raining. I remember how good the mud felt between my toes. I wasn’t worried at all I would cut myself and get a deadly infection. I felt heroic, which was the whole point of this trip in the first place.

When we reached Taray, we turned off the red dirt path on to the cobblestones of the village, heading up the small valley carved into the massive Sacred Valley that  ran from Cusco to Machu Picchu by a waterfall we could hear the whole way. It was flowing down to the Urubamba, we were hiking up, huffing as our legs felt the strain of the altitude. I did my best to ignore the nervous chatter of my two companions, met only a few days before. Faint-headed from fasting, the earth  rolled like a ship’s deck. I wondered if asking these three strangers to come with me had been a mistake. Somehow I was ashamed of them, as if their small talk to pass the time and get to know each other a little better was a weakness. When they asked why I was so quiet I told them I was having a hard time with the altitude. I could tell they thought I must really be out of shape, or perhaps just a lazy American  (one of them was a Swede who had raised six children on a mountain, the other two a couple, from Canada I think, robust and cheerful).  I didn’t correct them. I had been preparing for this hike up this mountain, into this valley, for years. I was on a quest and willing to be misunderstood. In fact, I was used to it. 40 years old, unmarried, childless, a poet—this was only the tip of the iceberg of the ways I had separated myself from mainstream American culture. I was also used to being a scapegoat for those who were unwilling to face their own inner pain, and the destruction our species had wreaked on the earth. Still, I was in pain. Not to be overly dramatic, but I had thought about killing myself many times and wished I was dead even more. Although I am jumping ahead in this narrative by relating my current understanding of why I wished I was dead, I feel that is necessary to reassure the reader that I now see suicide as an impulse of the soul —a darkness so immense and overwhelming that arises when the soul can no longer tolerate whatever is stopping it from being whole. Somehow through the years of despair, I managed to keep hold of the belief that life was a heroic journey, and that suffering was part of this quest to become whole. Still, as someone who had studied initiation, I knew that I had spent too long in the Underworld. I had tried for years to find my way out, but had failed over and over. I decided, like a true hero, to try to blast my way out.


All of the above, and  perhaps something more I can only say felt like the plant actually calling me, led me to Peru to drink ayahuasca, the sacred medicine of the Amazon, although I was in the Andes, following someone I trusted to the doorstep of  Alonso del Rio, a maestro who had spent years in the jungle with the Shipibo, and who I loved immediately when he’d asked  me to come over so he could meet me before the ceremony. I felt inadequate of course, because I was narcissistic and loathed myself. I thought Alonso must have not really wanted me there, but said yes because we had a common friend. I felt like a fraud, especially because I’d brought these chatterboxes along. When we got to the temple I slowly separated myself from them, hoping no one would figure out we were together. We weren’t really. We had all just met. But none of the others gathered there knew that. I had no idea it was possible to not judge, or to have compassion. I saw people through the filter of my own self-loathing.

Because it was New Year’s Eve it was a large ceremony. The temple built of red adobe, was round, and had a thatched conical roof that spiraled toward the sky like the steeple of the Congregational Church I attended as a child growing up in Connecticut, only we didn’t enter it by walking up steps, we bowed down because the door was so low there was no other way to enter. It was dark inside. I had expected  that, but when confronted with how dark it was even before the door was closed I wondered if I could make it through the ceremony without panicking. I had read that sometimes people lost control of their bowels on ayahuasca. I could imagine nothing more humiliating. I memorized my way to the door, worried that I would make a scene if I had to get out. Since I had always been claustrophobic, there was a good chance I would.  Although I was nervous, I calmly took a seat against the wall, gathered a couple of thick wool blankets around me and  laid claim to one of the plastic buckets placed around the room.

The buckets were for “getting well,” i.e. vomiting. Instead of being considered a sign of sickness, vomiting in an ayahuasca ceremony was a sign that you were purging spirits on a physical level that were making you r soul sick. As I sat there, I felt a chill from the ground creep into my bones and wondered if it was actually coming out of them. My heart was cold. I kept my head down and didn’t make eye contact with anyone in the room. I was terrified, but numb, ready to endure.

Ayahuasca is known as the vine of the dead, or the vine of the soul. It is used across the Amazon by indigenous people to heal sicknesses of body, mind, and soul, as well as to connect to the spirit world for instructions on how to live. I had read many wondrous accounts of people who had been healed of addiction, depression, even cancer by ayahuasca, all of them harrowing. From what I had read, everyone’s experience was different. The medicine gave them what they needed, although there were identifiable realms where people encountered  snakes, condors and jaguars, as well as geometric patterns I had seen stitched into fabric by the Shipibo, proudly sported on the bags and backs of the North Americans and  Europeans flocking to Peru for la medicina.  Everyone I had spoken to had agreed that the intentions of the medicine were good. Those who asked for healing often experienced  terror because they needed to face fear inside themselves. The goal was to encounter death in order to be reborn.  

If ayahuasca does indeed give those who seek healing what they need, it makes sense that westerners who share the paradigm of the masculine heroic quest would suffer in order to purge and be reborn. Although female in body, my consciousness, like most westerners of all genders, was skewed toward the masculine, addicted to striving, progress, and achievement. An intense person, I expected to have an intense experience with ayahuasca, to face my personal demons and emerge stronger on the other side. Like I said, I was going to blast through the Underworld. At the time it did not occur to me that it was ironic that there were so many spiritual seekers on a heroic quest attracted to la medicina, also called la abuela, or grandmother. What kind of grandmother sends her children to hell? One who loves them enough to drag them down into the earth so they can  release their fear of leaving it when they die. One who is willing to strip away the illusion of order to reveal the truth that Chaos is our mother. Ayahuasca shows us we are creatures of the dark and must come to love it to be whole.

 I expected lights, colors, serpents and jaguars, demons or fierce angels. As Alonso sang and played his guitar, I could sense the shift in the dark when the others in the room with me began to hallucinate, retreating into private worlds. Nothing was happening for me. I wondered if the ayahuasca was working. About forty-five minutes into the ceremony I began to feel nauseous. The dark thickened, became denser, pressing me down. From a far distance that was also right inside my head, pouring into the left side of my brain, I heard an old woman’s voice, high-pitched, singing in a language I didn’t know. I could no longer hear the music in the room or even sense there were others there with me. I was being crushed by an immense pressure that seemed to come from within me.  I’ve tried for years to put what I felt into the words, but I haven’t really been able to yet. If I had seen images, maybe I could have, but all I experienced was emotion—terror, dread, the certainty of annihilation (I said later it was like the way it must feel to put your neck on a block on a scaffold knowing that in the next second your head would be severed by an executioner’s axe).

NASA image, black hole
And then it was over. I didn’t know it was at first. All I knew was that the fear was gone along with the woman’s voice. I could hear Alonso again, feel my body against the earth wall. A smell drew my nose to touch my alpaca shawl. It was wet—I had vomited. I had no memory of vomiting. I wondered if I had fainted, if I had lost control, but the people on either side seemed unaffected by me, still immersed in their private journeys. The main thing I felt was relief. I relaxed into the wall, completely lucid and listened to the music for what seemed like hours, until everyone had returned and a fire was lit in the center of the room. When the flame lit the room I met people’s eyes in the circle, saw myself in them and let them see their beauty in my reflection. To be honest I didn’t know it at the time, but for the first time ever I was present and fully in my body. I fell asleep on the temple floor under a mound of wool blankets at peace, though a little alone. Everyone else had wandered off together, but I was used to being alone. My ability to endure loneliness, not to have need of anyone, was something I took pride in, although at the time I wouldn’t have said that, and although I told my companions in the morning (they had seen all the bells and whistles: snakes, mantis-like beings, colors) that I was content, I was not. I had wanted a vision. All I got was some time in the dark. They couldn’t wait to go back for another ceremony. I had no desire to go back. I could still feel the terror of waiting to be crushed by that black hole. I wasn’t much of a hero after all.


I did go back for one more ceremony. This time I prayed to have an easy time and my prayer was answered. I saw the lights, the colors, angels and lost relatives, was blessed by the music and wandered down the mountain in the morning with the hummingbirds at dawn. Another person I brought to the ceremony had left before it was over—a taboo—and I had been asked to go out and bring him back. He refused, saying the ayahuasca was weak and he was going home. I felt ashamed I had brought him with me, though no one shamed  me. I also felt ashamed that apparently I preferred weak ayahuasca. The next day, listening to him complain, it occurred to me that there was no way Alonso was brewing weak ayahuasca because his intent was to rip people off, or because he thought we couldn’t handle it. I had faith in the medicine by then and knew that each one of us who drank Alonso’s brew was drawn to him for reasons we most likely were not aware of. I can’t speak for my friend, but a couple of years later, still in despair, I wondered why I didn’t swill as much ayahuasca as I could when I had the chance instead of prolonging the misery of trying to get out of the Underworld.  At some point the thought wandered into my mind  that blasting through was exactly what I did not need. I needed to be nurtured (psychiatry says that the root of narcissism is improper nurturing. Think of that the next time you’re frustrated with a narcissist.)--to be embraced and soothed. I needed a heroine’s quest, not a hero’s. One that would take me into my body instead of out of it. My hatred of my body, which I had been trained to see by the masculine paradigm as a vehicle for my self, was just as intense as my hatred for that self I was trying to bring fully into the world.

The next winter found me returning to the Hawaiian Islands, where I had been severely traumatized fifteen years ago while living on the Big Island. Fifteen years later I was still so ashamed of things I had done, I had never spoken of most of what I went though there. Even more telling, was that I was ashamed of what had been done to me, things I had no choice in because I was female and  not strong enough to fight back against the physical violence I was subjected to. My body literally erupted when I set foot on Maui. I got my period three weeks early waiting at the luggage carousel, blood  flowing so heavily it seeped through the dark jeans I had donned back in the Rhode Island winter. It didn’t show, but the smell was on me. Everyone knew. I was a creature of shame. I didn’t deserve to be in Paradise. Although it was not my intent to return to the Big Island, the scene of my trauma, after a week at my friend’ s house on Maui, I was all of a sudden boarding another plane to Kona International Airport. Landing in the harsh, black lava beds after the lush green of Maui was a shock, but as I looked up at the vog coming off the mountain and smelled the sulfur in the air, I knew I was home.

Vog is short for volcanic fog, a result of the continuous eruption of Kilauea, the volcano on the east side of Hawaii that is the home of the goddess Pele. 

Pele, by Herb Kawainui Kane

Fifteen years earlier I knew nothing of Hawaiian culture or mythology. I had no idea that Pele was alive and that she could tear your life apart if she chose, steamrolling over you the way she destroyed the village of Kalapana , birthing new land, sharp and brittle as glass, as she dropped off the edge into the sea. This time I knew more, but I was still not taking her seriously enough to consider that this living goddess needed to be propitiated with sacrifices and offerings if you wanted to live on her island. I had literally crouched twenty feet from where she flowed into the ocean, thinking I would be allowed to go back to Kona to swim with dolphins all day and wear plumeria leis. I did this time around. I even stood at the top of Waipi’o Valley, where I had been such a foolish victim fifteen years ago and told myself I was not afraid. I believed I had exorcised those ghosts.



Looking back, I think it may have been all the time I spent with the dolphins that forced me to finally begin dealing with the reality of having a body It was, after all, my body that enabled me to swim with them for hours in the clear, blue bays of South Kona. Although being such a tough coconut to crack I never cried, it was quite common to hear people weeping in the water or on shore afterwards, overwhelmed by the beauty of the dolphins, convinced their hearts had been opened by contact with them. I guess I would have said that happened to me at the time. I certainly knew that I loved them, and felt their pleasure in swimming with me,  blowing rings underwater and playing “the leaf game,” but I think that my heart at the time wasn’t open enough to even know that it wasn’t open. I was still traumatized, in a state of shock, and although my attempts at blasting through the shock had not been successful (or at least as not as successful as I wanted them to be), some part of my soul caught my body’s attention . A few days before I returned to Rhode Island, my body took over.
That's me swimming with dolphins!

It was not just the experiences I had my first time on Hawaii that separated  my spirit from my body. Like so many in our culture, I was a victim of other forms of abuse. Not that I was special.  The way I see it, we are all trauma survivors of a culture which has tried to annihilate the feminine. Since we all have a feminine half of our soul, we are all damaged psychologically as individuals by the abuse to the earth carried out by the masculine paradigm that treats our planet as a resource to be harvested, justified by the desire that endless growth is necessary for our survival. On the plane back, I was struck with diarrhea. It didn’t seem too alarming at the time. I figured it was nerves or a travel bug, totally ignoring the fact that this was bloody diarrhea. I ignored it. In a miracle of denial that I still find amazing, I convinced myself it would go away if I stopped eating and slept a lot. After about a month of this I could no longer walk. A friend called my parents because that’s who you call when are 41, single and poor, and I got on a small plane that looked like a mosquito and flew the 12 miles to the mainland. My father took one look at me and drove me to the hospital. I still thought I was fine and would be better soon. The doctors were astonished I had not sought help earlier. Apparently, I was in a drastic state, my bowels close to rupturing. They told me I could have died from blood  poisoning if that had happened, hooked  me up to an IV and started pumping with me the drugs that saved  my life.  Eventually they told me I had ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease that I would suffer from for the rest of my life. Their advice was to try medication, but that I would most likely need surgery to have my large intestine removed. The medicines would suppress my immune system, leaving me open to other illnesses, and had a high risk of cancer associated with them.

Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune disease. Researchers are not sure how it happens, but something triggers the immune system to turn on the body and attack it. In my case, it was the large intestine, which serves to eliminate waste from the body. Seen on a symbolic level, it could be said that my body was at war with myself because I was holding onto toxic emotions caused by trauma and abuse.  Of course I refused to accept the diagnosis, and as soon as I was released from the hospital (I actually went back two more times that summer) started a regimen of holistic healing, convinced I could heal myself through herbs, the right food, affirmations—whatever it took. If I had to look dead-on at the trauma I had gone through, I would do it. I would face my addictions and explore every ignored and abandoned corner of my psyche that cried out to be acknowledged. Although I was careful not to use words like fight and conquer in reference to my disease that was exactly what I was doing. Ulcerative colitis was my new heroic quest and I had no doubt I would conquer it. I refused to believe in the word chronic.

Over the next three years I went on and off medication. I would be ok without it for awhile, but eventually my bowels would flare up and my life would become regulated by shame and access to bathrooms. I would eventually give in and go back to the doctor and they would put me on prednisone, nothing as heavy as the chemotherapy treatments of Remacade that I had needed the first flare-up. I took this as a sign that I was improving—I didn’t need the big guns anymore. I was still in denial, still in fight or flight mode. The fall I was forty three I once again booked a flight to Hawaii, even though the colitis was slowly flaring, denying it could stop me from returning to the place my heart longed for.

I turned 44 in Puna, a remote jungle district of the Big Island that is just miles away from the active lava flow. You could say I was living in Pele’s back yard. I was living in a community called Kalani in a tent, chatting with my fellow volunteers at meals, schlepping laundry baskets and making beds, all the while dashing off into the bushes because I couldn’t make it to a toilet.  I stopped eating again. Despite starving myself, my body was still subject to violent spasms, as if it was trying to purge itself of itself. Eventually I was too weak to work and laid in my tent all day, getting up when my bowels spasmed to go in a bucket outside my tent. In the end all that came out of me was red, bloody mucus created my body in attempt to soothe my macerated intestines. It looked a bit like lava.

After a month of this I stumbled into the Kalani office and  mumbled that I needed someone to drive me to the hospital in Hilo. The reaction of the doctors was much as it had been back on the east coast, shocked that I had made it so long. They had no idea what I could endure. I lay in a bed in the Hilo Medical Center for two weeks. I shit in a commode next to my bed and sometimes the floor, sometimes on myself, just as I feared I would during the ayahuasca ceremony three years earlier. I was treated with nothing but respect and kindness by the orderlies who cleaned up the floor, the nurses who helped me shower, the doctor who sat by my bed for an hour (it was a much slower pace in a Hawaiian  hospital than on the mainland) chatting about literature, and by the social workers who got me into the Hawaii state medical system to pay for all of this since I didn’t have health insurance. I slept very little because of the prednisone. As I lay awake in the dark listening to Coltrane on my headphones one night, I finally surrendered to my illness.

I had always heard there was peace, even bliss, in surrender, but I could never do it. I could never do it because it can’t be done. It has to happen by itself and  requires total acceptance of what is, no matter how painful. I needed to accept  ulcerative colitis, not just acknowledge the traumas I thought had caused  it. I needed to accept the help of those doctors and nurses and the state of Hawaii who paid for my hospital stay. I needed to believe that I deserved to be helped simply because I was human. I needed to learn how to stop feeling ashamed.  This was the heroine’s journey—not to struggle against, but to embrace.
Make sure you bring this with you to the hospital.
One of the things I had to embrace was the shame at the core of my self image. I was led by a therapist to the work of Karla McLaren, an empath who defines shame as a form of anger that arises when a boundary inside has been broken by something you’ve done or have been convinced  is wrong. You can read more about her work at www.karlamclaren.com.  McLaren distinguishes between authentic shame, when you actually have done something harmful to self or others, and manufactured shame (being shamed), which happens when we are coerced into embodying someone else’s ideas of right and wrong. The practice for working with authentic shame, according to McLaren, is to “make it right,” by strengthening your boundaries and atoning for your transgressions and amending your harmful behaviors toward yourself and others. Viewed in this manner, shame has the potential to provide deep healing for the heart. I found that as I began to work with my authentic shame, my compassion deepened and I was led to begin the process of forgiving those who had shamed  me. Ultimately I was grateful for all of it. Being a victim had put me on the path to sovereignty.

In that hospital, spiraling into other dimensions through Coltrane’s saxophone, I began to truly inhabit my body. I was even grateful for Remacade when the doctor put me back on it. If my body needed  to be injected with a toxic chemical in order to be well, I would give it what it needed. When I was finally well enough to leave the hospital and  return to Kalani, this time I really was living in Paradise. The sound of rain on my tent roof, orchids in trees, the welcome of everyone in the community that I had only lived in for a month, clean sheets to be folded, beds to be made, rooms to be vacuumed--I passed the rest of the winter there and flew back to Block Island and  have been here since. I am still taking medication, although it is the mildest, least toxic one available. My second  to last doctor told me my colitis was so severe it probably wouldn’t work and recommended I should continue with the Remacade treatments, but I told him no. My latest doctor told me when I saw him three months ago that my bloodwork showed no signs of colitis. If I continued to show no symptoms for another six months he would support my decision to gradually wean off medication.
Reclining Buddha, Kalani Oceanside Retreat
A couple of years ago I had a colonoscopy to see how my bowels were doing. Because the medication suppresses symptoms the doctors have to look inside to see if the tissue is affected. At that point I was in a rebellious stage, not taking my medication. I decided to eat only fruit for the week before the test so there would be nothing for the doctors to see. By the time I got to the hospital my blood pressure was so low they couldn’t anaesthetize me all the way. I consented to the procedure anyway, telling myself I would look away from the screen so I wouldn’t be repulsed by the site of my intestines. Groggy from the anesthesia, weak from fasting, I turned my head slowly turned toward the monitor like one of the sea turtles I used to swim with at Honaunau, The Place of Refuge where Hawaiians who had violated kapu, sacred law, would be given sanctuary if they could reach  it. What I saw on the screen was like a hallucination, unexpected, hard to believe--and totally convincing. A white serpent lived inside the dark of my body. As the camera revealed my interior, I was awestruck at the sight of my intestines, spirals of glowing pink-white flesh, perfect, mysterious, beautiful. A revelation. I smiled and asked the doctor, “is that me?” He was nonplussed by having a patient who was awake, but he answered,. “That’s you, all right.” “Amazing,” I said, closing my eyes so that I would always remember what I had seen. I had finally accepted my body. My first place. My last place. Now, every place is inside me.
DNA, the double helix

Monday, September 30, 2013

Fragile as Glass

 
Today, sitting at Vaill Beach with a friend, a surfer walked up to us, waving a glass float he had just found tucked into a crevice in the clay bluff. I was immediately envious--I had wanted to find one ever since Wakefield glass blower Eben Horton started putting them out year as part of his Glass Float Project. Details about the project can be found here: www.glassfloatproject.com. Anyway, I was not only envious, but upset with myself for being envious. "I want to find one," I whined to my friend. She looked at me in sympathy, having found one last year.

After she climbed back up the steep Vaill path, I thought to myself, I am going to walk down to the end of the cove. Maybe I will find one. Then I realized that even though I wanted to find a glass float, that I knew they were out there--I hadn't been looking. I had given up.

I give up a lot. Every day I go to work I feel like I'm giving up. My failure to find joy in my livelihood crushes my soul, even though on a day to day basis I usually find some humor or small pleasure in my tasks. Still, it is not enough. The child inside me is very sad and does not believe that things will ever change. I've got a litany of excuses for why the world doesn't want my heart's work, but none of them really matter. If the child inside me was in  charge, then hope would be enough.

Today, not really believing I would find a glass float--I figured that surfer must have found the last one--I finally did. I didn't just wander up to it. I was looking. Hoping I would find one, paying close attention to the flotsam and jetsam at the base of the bluffs. Sure enough, there it was suspended in the torn netting of a washed up lobster pot.

It was much more solid than I expected when I picked it up. Not fragile at all. I felt a strange emotion well through me--delight, then satisfaction. I smiled to myself and became quieter, although there was no one there to hear me. I kept walking until I reached the end of the cove, laid on the sand belly down. Fell asleep like a child holding my glass ball, half believing it was too good to be true. When I woke up it was still there, solid in my hand--something I had longed for. A dream that had come true. Today I fed the child inside me. She gifted me in return with her innocence. With her trust that I will guide us into delight.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Choose the Moon


My house is on a strip of land called “The Neck,” a bridge between the head and body of the island which has been my home for the past twenty one years. At some points “The Neck” is so narrow you can see the ocean on either side. I know that if the wind is blowing from the southwest the waters of The Great Salt Pond to my right as I bike into town will be placid, but if it shifts to the northeast I’ll have to pedal against a headwind that will make my thighs burn. I know that the buck will appear in the field near my house when the light turns rose-gold, burnishing the fur on his newly sprouted antlers. I know where the robin and his mate nested after the landscapers cut down the cedar shrub where they were nesting without their permission, and that the gulls that soar in the ferry’s wake sleep in the dunes at the far northern tip of the island. I have felt the jetty rumble at the harbor’s mouth, witnessed the cormorants that sleep in the cracks between stones explode over the black ocean. I know where and when the moon will rise as the year turns, how the tides will affect my moods, when I should write, and when I should be still, watching the silver light break and reform, break and reform, as the waves touch the shore. I wonder if they long for land? If they know it exists, or if they discover it each time they break? If it hurts to break, or if they are numb to it, do they arrive here weary and grateful, or are they impassive, beyond the simple emotions which weigh me down or lift me up, depending on the moon? I wonder if the moon cares that its light which I find more beautiful than all others, is just a reflection of the sun’s?

I didn’t learn any of this from books, but I am compelled to write about it. It has been an act of healing, first for myself, now for others as I begin to flower in the world. Over twenty one years on Block Island, I have broken and reformed many times, enough now that I know that this cycle is endless, and rejoice that this is so, for every time I break, my roots grow deeper, not just my roots to this island, but the roots to my soul who remembers that it is connected to the whole earth, every blade of grass and every stone, every person I pass in the grocery store whose eyes I don’t meet because I’m in a rush, or annoyed, or exhausted, or the drunks who stumble out of the bars at night who I sometimes deride, even the customers in the sandwich shop where I’ve been working lately with special orders. At the end of a busy day, and sometimes in the middle of the chaos, I try to remind myself I am here to witness and to make connections. I use the poet’s tools of line and metaphor to weave a tapestry that will re-enchant the earth so that everyone who comes in contact with my words will once again recognize that Earth is sacred, something that should not be bought or sold. Though my work is personal, my goal is political. I aim to heal and initiate on the individual and cultural level with the hope that my voice will play a part in re-envisioning social and economic systems that are mutually beneficial for people and the plants and animals with whom we share our home.

It has not been an easy path towards even realizing this was my goal. First, I had to go through the process of initiation myself, without even knowing that I needed to, or that it was happening in the first place. My severance from society and descent into the Underworld, two necessary steps in the initiatory process, led me into years of self-destructive behavior that was the primary inspiration for my work for some time. Now that I have pulled myself up out of the Underworld, I look at my scars and am in awe that I survived, but don’t feel compelled to share the details. I have learned to be intimate with myself. Now I can look beyond my well-formed boundaries and write about what I see on the other side of my skin—the doe grazing in the shadow of the stonewall, the hydrangeas growing through the slats of the porch railing, a thousand insects whose voices blur together as one. I want to learn how to speak insect, to apprentice myself to that zeeg zeeg zeeg I hear just now…


I was recently awarded a fellowship and the local newspaper asked if they could do a brief interview. Heading into the office, I was vain enough to prepare some answers in my head, as if I was getting ready to make a speech at The Academy Awards. “What inspires you to write?” I imagined the editor asking me, hands poised expectantly above his keyboard. It turned out that he did not ask that question, but my answer to my own question surprised and delighted me. I have written so long with a goal in mind—to heal, to transform myself and our sick civilization, that I didn’t expect the answer to be, “I write because I love words.” But there they were, the words that told me I had finally arrived where I’d longed to be for so long, somewhere I can create by tapping on keys, or by swirling wet ink across white paper, somewhere that is filled with silence and sound, with acceptance for all that is, the beautiful and the terrible, the unknown territory inside my body and the earth’s, the unexplored corners of my soul and the world’s. I love these words that allow me to push the edges back a little further, to go deeper into the shadows with the deer, to break with the ocean, over and over, to reform like the moon’s reflection. It is painful to be torn apart. There will always be a gap between our bodies and our souls. But words are a bridge, a strand of pearls around a neck gleaming with silver light that soothes the skin after the sun has gone down. I am surrounded by ocean. I am all shore. I am an island of words returning its touch. It is beyond my control, sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle, but my response is not. I choose the moon and its tides. I choose to be broken, again and again. I choose to open. 

#blockisland #foraging #whitewave #blockislandpoetryproject

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Plant Spirit Lessons with Pokeweed

This giant pokeweed appeared on the back north-facing side of my house last summer.
Over the winter there was a leak in the water main coming into the house that was flooding the basement. The backyard had to be dug up to get to the leak. As of now, one summer later, not much has grown back except for the pokweed, bigger and bolder than ever!

An herbalist friend of mine told me once that whenever a plant shows up in the vicinity of your dwelling place it is most likely there because you need it, so when the pokeweed showed up last year I took note. I did know that pokeweed shoots and leaves are edible in spring, although like milkweed they need to be boiled at least twice. Not being a fan of boiled, mushed greens, I've never tried pokeweed. I did eat some berries once, thinking they were sumac. They were horrendous and I spat most of them out which is a good thing since apparently they can cause severe digestive upset. 

This year when the plant reappeared after the backhoe did its best to eradicate it, I resolved to do some research about the medicinal qualities of pokeweed on both physical and spiritual levels. My intuition, combined with my brief taste of the berries told me this was a powerful, intense medicine. Pokeweed has magenta stalks and when the berries are ripe they are also magenta. The color is fierce and startling. To be honest, I was a little afraid when I saw this plant last year in my yard, and even more unsettled when it came back this year after the job the backhoe did on the rest of the vegetation. A friend told me he has rubbed pokeweed on skin cancers on his face to burn them away. (and that it worked.) In other words, this is no soft, velvety mullein good for soothing sore throats. Pokeweed is serious business.

This morning I finally got the courage to look into pokeweed's uses. According to www.witchipedia.com/pokeweed the plant is not only used for healing cancer, but for inflammation as well. Since I've been on a healing journey with ulcerative colitis for the past 5 years its presence in my backyard made sense, although the specter of cancer scared me since the incidence of colon cancer in people with UC is high.

 I have been hospitalized with UC four times. Two times the reason I've gone into the hospital was because I was in such denial that I could not cure myself that I refused to acknowledge that I needed western medication. I had trained myself to always look for the spiritual and emotional source of any illness and believe that imbalances in these areas cause disease to manifest physically. To me, western medication, which focuses purely on the physical components of disease, was simply applying a band-aid. If I could go directly to the source of the spiritual imbalance through doing the required emotional work, then I believed the physical disease, which every doctor assured me was chronic and would be with me for the rest of my life, would resolve itself.

My belief was arrogant and it is not a surprise to me that I ended up in the hospital a 4th time last year. It was never going to be "I" who healed myself like some kind of new age superhero. I've written a long essay which I am currently revising about my journey with ulcerative colitis, but one of the insights that I will share here that came from my last hospitalization, was that being so sick was an opportunity for me to surrender, to be completely vulnerable, something by constitution and life experience that I have learned to avoid. I realized that I had been in protection mode (often called hyper-vigilance) for years. I also realized that the greatest surrender for me would not be to go back into the Hawaiian jungle and tough it out through fasting and herbs, but to hook myself up to the scary infusion machine that pumped toxic drugs into my system that suppressed my immune system so that my body would stop attacking itself.

The two weeks I lay in bed in Hilo Hospital, tended by kind Hawaiian nurses and aides, was one of the deepest spiritual journeys of my life. Because of the drugs, I barely slept so the border between me and God was thin. I had no control over my body in a lot of situations that, in the past, I would have found humiliating. To my surprise I found that by losing control, by having to rely literally on the kindness of strangers--I had no family anywhere even close, no medical insurance, and no money, I was able to shed many layers of self-protection that kept me from accepting the simple truth that I was human and deserving of love for this reason only. I didn't need to do anything to earn it. Instead of being ashamed that I was broke and sick, I was grateful for all the help I received from everyone in the hospital and from the community in Puna where I had been living as a volunteer. There were even moments of bliss. As I detail in the coming essay, I've been on medication since, although fortunately not the chemo because it was making my hair fall out. Most of it has grown back and I am continuing, now that my body has been stable for a year, to look into the deeper levels of my disease.

So.......last week I actually started watering the pokeweed when I water the grass seed I planted that is not exactly flourishing. Fortunately the owners of my house are not exactly plant savvy and think it is a shrub. Maybe a butterfly bush which it slightly resembles. I don't think, if they ask me, that I should cut it down. I might even have to refuse if they ask. A scary prospect, since my housing depends of pleasing them. Today I observed that it is on the north side of my house. As a student of the Medicine Wheel I know that the north has to do with ancestors and wisdom. Sometimes I've felt that getting ulcerative colitis was not only a way for me to clear personal karma and stored emotions, but to clear it for my family as well. Not just the relatives I know or have been told about,  but my whole genetic line going back to the beginning of, well, humanity, or at least civilized humanity which currently is in a state of healing crisis itself. I have done some of this work through ceremony, but apparently one of my life lessons is to figure out how to actually live in a body. I have been so good at checking out of my body, that I had to get sick to actually accept that I had one! My intuition was right on here, I think, since one of the other things I learned from witchipedia was that pokeweed, in addition to being used to treat inflammation (ulcerative colitis is inflammation that occurs in the lower digestive tract due to an auto-immune response, which means the body is as at war with itself) has traditionally been used to break hexes and protect areas from harmful or negative influences! As an HSP (highly sensitive person) www.thehighlysensitiveperson.com I am aware that I absorb energy and emotions like a sponge, so the fact that pokeweed has come to assist me is pretty exciting. I also feel that I am committed, in a calm way, to my journey with ulcerative colitis. I'm not trying to get rid of it anymore. I no longer resent the 4 pills I take every morning or that I can't eat a normal diet. UC has given me boundaries, which I was in severe need of. Pokeweed is here to take me to the next level. I am ready to dive deeper into my genetic memory, to ask my ancestors what they need in order to free them, possibly from a hex that has been passed down through our genetic memory into my body. I am really feeling honored that pokeweed has chosen me. I plan to keep watering. And even if I am still a little afraid of it, I look forward to when the berries, which have appeared in the past week become so flushed with desire for life that they turn an intoxicating purple. This time I will not eat them, although I am hoping the birds in the thicket over the stone wall enjoy the feast!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ravished By Rhode Island's Swans


“Good, that’s one less pest we need to deal with,” said the local Nature Conservancy educator as he handed off my bag of organic vegetables at the weekly CSA pick-up. I had called his office earlier to report the dead bird. I knew he and his colleagues were interested in anything out of the ordinary and had called before with reports of strange birds or dead marine mammals I’d come across on one of Block Island’s remote beaches. “On the mainland the DEM addles the eggs so they won’t hatch,” he went on to inform me. I stuffed my anger and retreated down the barn ramp with my bag of vegetables, ashamed.

It was a young swan, silver-gray instead of white, but fully grown. It lay belly-up on the strip of emerald grass between the paved road and a stone wall. Its long, curved neck was stretched all the way out, exposed to the cobalt sky in what, if it had been alive, I would have called rapture. There were no marks on its body I could see, so I concluded it hadn’t been hit by a car. I had never seen a swan in the road anyway, and it was too perfectly composed to have been flung to the side of the road. When I touched its belly it was still warm. I felt firm muscle under feathers. Looking up, I noted a power line above and deduced maybe it had flown into it, which would account for the perfection of its death, shocked out of the sky to land on the grass, wings slightly open and loose at its sides like a yogi in savasana.. Later, The Nature Conservancy confirmed that it had hit a power line. Apparently swans have poor frontal vision and often collide mid-flight.

When I think of swans I see them as a poet, not as a scientist. I see the “The Wild Swans at Coole,” who drift in Yeats’ poem “on the still water,/mysterious, beautiful,” not the pests that have been destroying pond ecosystems in North America through overgrazing of subaquatic vegetation, not a bird so aggressive it drives out indigenous, threatened birds like least terns and skimmers. I did know not to get too close to a swan. As a child we used to feed a flock of waterfowl at the town docks not far from our house. My parents always warned us to step back whenever a swan lumbered out of the harbor for a breadcrumb. They hissed when they approached, and I had no doubt they could, as my parents warned, break my legs, but this threat of danger only increased my awe and fascination. The swan was not silly like a duck, it was seductive and sinister. It got what it wanted. My brother and I scattered our whole bag of stale bread and ran from them. Not a crumb for the ducks. I learned of Zeus transforming himself into a swan to ravish Leda. Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” makes the power of the swan visceral. One of the reasons it is so disturbing for me is because there is a hint of sexual pleasure in what we are told is a rape. In one essay on the poem I read that what we are reading about in Yeats’ version of the story is not rape, but ravishment—a forced surrender to the divine that results in a deeper ecstasy than can be experienced if one surrenders willingly. Yeats writes:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower[20]
And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

I have to admit I don’t know how I feel about this. A part of me feels it is true, a part of me does not want to feel that way. I have recently become aware that my best writing comes from this uncertainty. Most of the time I don’t know what I know, or even what I think until I begin writing, so this is ripe territory for me that I plan to explore when I finish this essay. In the meantime, I can say that the swan is a powerful totem in many cultures. In general, it is associated with fluidity, intuition, dreaming, emotions and creativity. When it appears in our lives we may become more in touch with our intuition, or have a visionary dream. As many know, swans mate for life, so they are associated with love and devotion. In the Celtic tradition they are linked to the sun gods Belanus and Lugh, and to Brigid, goddess of fire, healing and poetry. The Celts also saw the swan as a vehicle from the Otherworld to this one and tell the tale of Aoifa, the Irish princess whose four brothers were condemned to live as swans by a jealous stepmother. Aoifa remains mute for seven years and weaves four flax shirts that break the enchantment.

In the “Ugly Duckling,” by the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, we find an awkward, speckled cygnet raised by ducks who thinks he is ugly in comparison. Once he sees his inner beauty, he is transformed into a glorious white adult. He earns his beauty by transforming from the inside out. In German folklore, we are told of Swan Maidens who become human women when they take off their feather robes to swim at night in a lake. When a hunter steals the feather robe of the youngest of seven swan sisters, she, freezing after her nocturnal swim, has to become his wife when he refuses to give it back. If she wants to survive she must accept his cloak, which she does, following him home to become his wife and bear his children. When she discovers her feathers hidden behind the wainscoting, she takes to the air, abandoning her family, telling her daughter that if her husband wants her back he can follow her to the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The husband sets out to find her, and after a series of trials he wins, through trickery, a cap that makes him invisible and shoes that will carry him immediately to his destination. At first he can’t tell which of the seven maidens is his wife, but he asks the king if he can hold the hand of each woman. He knows his wife from the calluses on the forefinger of her right hand, roughened by years of sewing his clothes. The king, as a man of his word, hands over his daughter, and the hunter takes his wife back to the forest. However, this time he lets her keep her feather robe so that she can visit her family whenever she wants.

Stories like this used to infuriate me. When I learned to look at folk tales through an archetypal lens, my views changed. Instead of oppression, I saw transformation. When each character becomes an aspect of one’s consciousness, myths act as a guide for our souls. Our reactions to them—where we find ourselves in the story—can give us a glimpse into the unconscious. We are able to see what we are hiding from ourselves, and if we allow ourselves to be penetrated by the story, we open up the possibility of birthing a new aspect of ourselves which will add to the depth of our vision and our capacity to relate. We all have a swan maiden and a hunter inside us, and sometimes we need a magic cap and shoes, and a bit of trickery to get past the conscious mind so we can get to the king inside us who will give us permission to marry. The goal is always union. That’s why so many stories end with marriage. The male aspect of ourselves unites with the female and a child is born. In our own brains, we have two hemispheres, the left representing masculine qualities, while the right is a container for the feminine. They are joined by the corpus collossum. When the hemispheres are in balance we make choices that are based on intellect and intuition. We are in desperate need of this holistic way of perceiving in our culture, which over-emphasizes the left brain, keeping us isolated from the rest of creation.

The mute swans, scourge of freshwater and brackish bodies of water in the northeast U.S. is not a native species. It was imported from Europe in the late 19th century as a decorative embellishment. Someone had the idea it would be inspiring to watch them glide on ponds, and unless you know the damage they do, it can still be inspiring. In fact, I know the damage, and am moved beyond my rational thoughts into ecstasy when I see one. There is no denying the physical beauty of this white bird. Like all wild creatures, they tried to escape, and were successful. The first noted escapee in Rhode Island was actually sighted, in 1923, here on Block Island. It pains me that swans are wiping out other birds, and I understand the DEM’s approach. What I don’t like is the pleasure I heard in the Nature Conservancy educator’s voice when he told me about the addling program. (By the way, addling consists of coating the eggs with oil, usually, corn, smothering the embryos so they die in the egg. The eggs are left on the nest so the swan will not hatch new ones.) I don’t think the pleasure I heard in his voice was in killing, it was pleasure that I was hurt. He was mocking my emotion, which has no place in his world where a cool, rational intellect is necessary in order to choose who will live or die. I respect him for it, but I wish the scientist in him could have encountered the poet in me with a reciprocal respect, a willingness to cooperate, instead of ridicule, an acknowledgement that the imagination has as an essential role in restoring balance to our ecosystem as the mechanics of science.

In The Nature Conservancy view “nature” is entirely ruled by chemical and biological forces. Their answer is to add a few drops of swan poison and the ponds will right themselves. On the other side there are people like me who mourn the swan as well as the loss of skimmers and least terns. We are often called sentimental and would not survive the survival of the fittest if it was a purely physical contest. In the case of imagining possibilities, we are not only more flexible, we are muscular as well, and have an essential role to play in re-establishing balance so that life on our planet can go on.

When I weep for the destruction of beauty I weep for the death of the imagination. According to current science, the corpus collossum, the part of the brain that connects right and left hemispheres, is not fully functioning in humans. Since the Enlightenment, we have valued the intellect over intuition to such an extent that it’s as if the bridge of the corpus collossum has become so tattered, like one of those rope bridges you see strung across ravines in wild places, it’s about to collapse, leaving us on one side without a means to cross to the other.

Poetry still exists in the world. Even in Western culture, people still tell the old stories, adapting them to current mediums. Darren Arronofsky’s film “Black Swan,” based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet, sourced itself from a Russian folk tale is a recent example. Although many would deny it, we still need myth and poetry. Although the ropes are near to breaking, and there are only a few wooden slats left, it is still possible to make it across the bridge if you have the ability to leap. I’m not sure how to cross over in a practical sense. I could try to get a job at the DEM and tell stories about Swan Maidens to my colleagues while we sneak up on swan nests at night to addle their eggs, but I suspect they are not hiring poets. This essay, cloaked in the logic of grammar, is a start.

So I ask you to join me in noting the parallels between ourselves and mute swans—neither of us are indigenous to this continent, and we are both beautiful. What happens when we view ourselves as the invasive species? In China they limit population growth through mandatory abortions. We in the U.S. have not yet reached that point, and I hope we never do. I pray that we find a way to merge with this land, before we and the mute swans cause more extinctions. Until this happens, we are invaders on this continent. My prayer is for us to become natives.

The way to do this is to listen to the old stories, because they are the earth’s, and contain a wisdom far greater than what can be discerned with the scientific method, which does not connect biology to the soul, although, as shown in the analysis of fairy tales by William Irwin Thompson, they contain knowledge about our biological origins that have been proven in our time by science. (His unfolding of the Rapunzel story in Imaginary Landscapes is fascinating.) This is true of many indigenous cultures today. In “The Cosmic Serpent” Jeremy Narby writes of how knowledge of DNA, the fundamental structure of life, is revealed through the Amazonian plant medicine ayahuasca. The growing popularity of ayahuasca in North America points to a shift in our collective consciousness. More and more of us are called to follow the shamanic path which provides a direct experience of the divine that is outside the possibilities offered by the scientific method.

Consider that our collective unconscious may have summoned the mute swan to the shores of North America because we knew we needed to be reminded, like the ugly duckling, of our own beauty, or that we called the swan to us because we need to be forced into surrendering to the truth that our actions are destroying Earth. In “Leda and the Swan,” Leda is ravished by Zeus. Forced to surrender to divine sexual ecstasy, she incubates, as I mentioned earlier, either one or two eggs. In the story where there are two, out of one hatches the divine Helen and Castor, out of the other, the mortal Polydeuces and Clytemnestra. It is Clytemnestra, the mortal child, who kills her husband, King Agamemnon. When the King in us dies we lose our sense of inner authority. Without divine guidance, the King flounders and is lost in the Wasteland, dragging the rest of us behind him to wander in the gray landscape, wondering what we are missing.

I don’t expect the DEM to stop killing swan embryos, but since we humans brought them here, we have an obligation to them as well as to the native species. This is obligation includes doing the inner work that will lead us to the satisfactory conclusion found at the end of Shakespeare’s comedies—marriage. Writer and explorer Jay Griffiths, in her conclusion to “Wild,” writes about the difference between Shakespearean comedy and tragedy. Comedy ends with us married. In tragedy we end up lying in pools of our own blood on the palace floor. Nature, which we have declared outside of us, marries everything it can. We may die on the forest floor and rot back into the soil, but that is a form of marriage, too, isn’t it?

Right now you could say that western culture is heading toward a divorce trial that will end in a settlement that is not going to make anyone happy, even if they do survive. However, there is an underground movement to bring marriage back in fresh, new ways that serve the soul, instead of the traditional function of marriage as a union to benefit material growth. When this kind of marriage becomes the standard, it will mean the two hemispheres of our brains have been re-united, our imagination will be able to assist our intellects, and we will find a way to live in balance with the rest of life, like the way we did before we believed we were thrown out of the Garden of Eden for knowing ourselves. The mute swan calls to our hearts to surrender body and soul with the fierce longing of a bird that has no voice. The swan, at home on land, earth, and air, is considered a master of all three elements. In Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript,” the swan, seen as “earthed lightning” becomes a master of fire as well. Heaney writes:

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown head-strong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

In this poem fire becomes the creative spark we need to ignite our vision. Notice what is required: our hearts blown open.

According to legend, the swan finally sings when it dies. My hope is that we never hear this song, unless it is in our imagination, where the aspects of ourselves that keep us from union die a glorious death, enveloped in a reverie of white wings and a song that can only be heard once in life, those moments when we swoon in the arms of our lovers. Surrendered, we know rapture, touched by the divine we become fully human. The whole planet rejoices at our wedding.
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