Friday, November 7, 2008

Burning the robes

For most of my life, I have feared my own power and my own desires.

I have tried to suppress and deny and cloak them.

At a deep level, I have embraced the archetype of the priest in an attempt to contain them. I have worn that identity for so long that I began to mistake it for a second skin.

I sought an ideal of purity. I sought to lock my own desires away deep inside me, believing that I did not deserve to be loved completely and that there were parts of me that needed to be purified or burned away before I could show all of myself to anyone. At the same time I was afraid that allowing my core to be touched was a threat to my purity. Purity was my vestment.

The robe served to cloak my nakedness, to keep everyone from seeing the primal, virile, wild self that existed at my core, for fear that it might threaten or frighten or repulse people who came close to me. I did not believe that part of me could be loved or desired.

The robe also serves to shield me from the world, to keep out the air and sun and water that might feed that primal self while I tried to suffocate it out of existence.

Wearing that robe, I invited an intimacy that flowed in one direction. Come to me, show me all of who you are, and I will love you without judgement, I will support you through everything, I will take your pain as my own, I will pleasure you without expectation of return. But I will remain cloaked in my robe, hidden from you.

Sometimes, when I trusted a lover enough, I would shed that robe -- but the expectations and terms and dynamics of the relationship were already in place, and often those lovers would be confused or frightened when that all suddenly changed. And those experiences reinforced for me the idea that deep inside I was monstrous and hideous.

A very few saw through the robe from the beginning -- but convinced that if they saw deeply enough they would find something dark inside me I pushed them away.

It has taken me a long time to look deeply enough in myself to see all that I tried to conceal.

I see now that my wildness and strength are beautiful, just like the wildness and strength of the women who stir my desire.

I see now that in refusing to be seen and desired I have denied those who have tried to come close to me the very experiences I sought from them -- the pleasure of giving pleasure, the pleasure of feeling love and lust, the pleasure of touching deeply.

I see now that my wildness is at the core of my heart, that it is the wild part of me that is in love with the world and seeks to defend it, and that to tear out my wildness would be to tear out the beating heart that pumps my lifeblood.

Yes, I live in a culture that fears love, that fears strength, that fears wildness, that fears anything it cannot control.

But any fear our aggression I might trigger and inspire is far less a threat to my survival than my own attempts to sabotage myself.

I am throwing my robes on the fire.

And letting the rising flame illuminate me, revealing me in my nakedness.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The beginning is near . . .

Driving through Maine, "All Along the Watchtower" kept playing on the radio, seeming to capture the electricity in the air . . .
"Let us not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late . . . "
The Joker and the Thief.

It took Gary Shandling, of all people, to give a cogent analysis of the state of the nation during his October 3 appearance on "Real Time With Bill Maher." In a brief moment of lucidity, Shandling said that the economic crisis represented a victory for Al Qaeda, which with the September 11 attacks, provoked the U.S. into two disastrous wars that will ultimately cost us over a trillion dollars. Shandling said that the attack on the World Trade Center had been an economic attack that set into motion the events that led to the destruction of our economy. He then resumed slurring his words and leaning in uncomfortably close to Christiane Amanpour. The true Shakespearean fool.

As Daniel Pinchbeck observed, the attack on the Twin Towers was like a tarot card come to life -- the burning tower of the tarot representing the collapse of a world built on false premises.

Global capitalism would of course have come to this point on its own eventually. Any system based on the assumption of the infinite availability of resources -- and the need for massive military force to subjugate people around the world in order to exploit their labor, mine their land, cut their forests, drill their oil and water, and take their harvests -- will eventually come up against the limits of its own power.

Already, the concentration of more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands was creating tremendous instability. What remained of the middle class in the U.S. owed its continued existence to the easy availability of large lines of credit. Meanwhile, as a very small elite acquired unprecedented wealth -- to the point where they could afford to lose tens of billions of dollars, and so risk became a negligible factor, leading them to put huge amounts of money into the riskiest investments on the off chance of tremendously high returns. These investments expanded the credit bubble to the point of its inevitable bursting.

That was of course hastened by the siphoning of money into a substantially privatized war, rising gas prices as oil runs out, and the diminished ability of a military tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan to maintain "order" around the world.

George Kennan famously wrote:
"We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts.”
We have now reached the next stage -- the stage where straight power has reached its limit. The U.S. is no longer able to force other countries to submit to its will. New power blocks are emerging -- like the alliance between the new governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru -- carving out space for social, political and economic experiments.

Empires don't die easily of course. As the economy collapses, there is fear of massive unrest at home -- and an ominous sign that we may be on the verge of seeing a level of violent repression not seen in this country since the early part of the twentieth century.

The Army Times reported on September 30 that:
"The 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team has spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq patrolling in full battle rattle, helping restore essential services and escorting supply convoys.

"Now they’re training for the same mission — with a twist — at home.

"Beginning Oct. 1 for 12 months, the 1st BCT will be under the day-to-day control of U.S. Army North, the Army service component of Northern Command, as an on-call federal response force for natural or manmade emergencies and disasters"
This marks the first time in recent history that a full combat brigade has been assigned a long-term mission on U.S. soil. (Troops were sent to Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973 in response to the American Indian Movement's occupation of the site of the Wounded Knee massacre to protest the brutality and corruption of the tribal government on the reservation.)

The Brigade is subject to activation under an executive order that essentially authorizes the institution of martial law in the event of an emergency -- including an economic emergency. As Matthew Rothschild writes:

"'In Bush's National Security Presidential Directive 51, he lays out his authority in the event of a catastrophic emergency. In such an emergency, 'the President shall lead the activities of the Federal Government for ensuring constitutional government' and will coordinate with state, local, and tribal governments, along with private sector owners of infrastructure.

"NSPD 51 defines a catastrophic emergency as 'any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government function.'

"Notice the use of the word 'or' above. In our current circumstances, it might be more relevant to read the definition this way: 'any incident . . . that results in extraordinary levels of . . . disruption severely affecting the U.S. . . . economy.'

"President Bush could declare a catastrophic emergency today. And he'd have the 3rd Infantry, First Brigade Combat Team, well trained from its years patrolling Iraq, at his disposal here at home."

All of this marks the final phase of what Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos has described as the Fourth World War -- the war in which global capitalism, no longer restrained by opposition from the Soviet bloc, attempts to gain complete domination. Of course, in a universe governed by entropy, any attempt to obtain total domination courts disaster. As Marcos wrote in 1997:

"Unlike the third world war, in which the conflict between capitalism and socialism took place over a variety of terrains and with varying degrees of intensity, the fourth world war is being conducted between major financial centres in theatres of war that are global in scale and with a level of intensity that is fierce and constant.

"The ineptly-named cold war actually reached very high temperatures: from underground workings of international espionage to the interstellar space of Ronald Reagan’s famous 'Star Wars'; from the sands of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam; from the frenzy of the nuclear arms race to the vicious coups d’├ętat in Latin America; from the menacing manoeuvres of NATO armies to the machinations of the CIA agents in Bolivia, where Che Guevara was murdered. The combination of all this led to the socialist camp being undermined as a world system, and to its dissolution as a social alternative.

"The third world war showed the benefits of 'total war' for its victor, which was capitalism. In the post-cold war period we see the emergence of a new planetary scenario in which the principal conflictual elements are the growing importance of no-man’s-lands (arising out of the collapse of the Eastern bloc countries), the expansion of a number of major powers (the United States, the European Union and Japan), a world economic crisis and a new technical revolution based on information technology.

"Thanks to computers and the technological revolution, the financial markets, operating from their offices and answerable to nobody but themselves, have been imposing their laws and world-view on the planet as a whole. Globalisation is merely the totalitarian extension of the logic of the finance markets to all aspects of life. Where they were once in command of their economies, the nation states (and their governments) are commanded - or rather telecommanded - by the same basic logic of financial power, commercial free trade. And in addition, this logic has profited from a new permeability created by the development of telecommunications to appropriate all aspects of social activity. At last, a world war which is totally total!

"One of its first victims has been the national market. Rather like a bullet fired inside a concrete room, the war unleashed by neoliberalism ricochets and ends by wounding the person who fired it. One of the fundamental bases of the power of the modern capitalist state, the national market, is wiped out by the heavy artillery of the global finance economy. The new international capitalism renders national capitalism obsolete and effectively starves their public powers into extinction. The blow has been so brutal that sovereign states have lost the strength to defend their citizens’ interests.

"The fine showcase inherited from the ending of the cold war - the new world order - has shattered into fragments as a result of the neoliberal explosion. It takes no more than a few minutes for companies and states to be sunk - but they are sunk not by winds of proletarian revolution, but by the violence of the hurricanes of world finance.

"The son (neoliberalism) is devouring the father (national capital) and, in the process, is destroying the lies of capitalist ideology: in the new world order there is neither democracy nor freedom, neither equality nor fraternity. The planetary stage is transformed into a new battlefield, in which chaos reigns."
Chaos is a dynamic force, allowing the emergence of the space where the "intercourse between creation and destruction" allow the emergence of new worlds.

The New Yorker ran a cartoon last year in which a fish with legs emerged onto the beach holding a sign that said "The Beginning is Near."

For most of us, no matter how radical our politics, imagining life outside capitalism is no smaller a conceptual leap than it would be for a fish to imagine life outside water. For five centuries, capitalism, and its underlying ideology which defines the world as a machine has defined our culture's shared reality. Even socialism accepted the basic assumptions of capitalism -- the assumption that the ideal path for humanity to take was the maximization of production, disputing only the questions of who should control the means of production and how the fruits of production should be distributed. We are now entering an era where it is abundantly clear that living a life based on those assumptions is a recipe for disaster in a universe where matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, and where the only economies that are truly sustainable are those which honor and embrace our places in cycles of life and death, give and take, where the survival of the individual is deeply dependent on the survival of the community and the planet.

Elements of the new world are already taking shape: growing resurgences of herbalism, homebirth midwifery, homesteading, permaculture, gleaning, and localized barter networks in the U.S., the creation of liberated autonomous zones by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, and even aspects of the national projects in Bolivia and Ecuador where socialism, indigenous traditions, and participatory democracy are interwoven in the fabric of a different kind of society. Ecuador's new Constitution outlines concepts essential to the formation of sustainable and just institutions in a post-fourth world war world. Helga Serrano and Eduaro Tamayo outline some of the key provisions of this Constitution:

"The constitution combines a series of progressive traits that overcome some of Ecuador's current inequalities, discrimination, and injustices, such as the following: the balanced living concept (sumak kawsay), which implies living in harmony with oneself, society, and nature; nature's right to assure 'the maintenance and regeneration of its vital cycles, structure, functions, and evolutionary processes'; national diversity and collective rights; the right to water and the prohibition of its privatization; food sovereignty and the permanent right to secure food sources; the right to communication, and access to public, private, and community media.

"The new constitution also has a chapter on the prioritization of national production in its economy. In regards to development, it recognizes the 'group of economic, political, social, cultural, and environmental systems that guarantees the realization of the balanced life, sumak kawsay.' This means that economic growth is not the only priority as a means to reach development; instead, it is considered an integrated vision. It proposes, among other things, 'to build a fair, democratic, productive, solidarity-based, and sustainable economic system founded on the equitable distribution of development benefits, means of production, and the generation of dignified and stable work.' (Article 276)."
All of this, of course, describes only a process of transition, a framework that creates the space for something new to emerge -- animated by something very old, the pre-capitalist understanding of the world as alive that was shared by Earth-based cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. An idea that was suppressed but never completely destroyed by the Enclosure movement and the witch burnings in Europe, the genocidal campaign against the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the kidnapping and enslavement of countless millions of Africans.

As the culture that perpetrated that violence falls and its myth of domination and control begins to disintegrate, older worlds that never completely died are beginning to regenerate and re-emerge. Cultures driven to the edge of oblivion won't re-emerge in their original forms -- they will evolve in new forms that arise from the conditions of their re-emergence. In many places those forms will be hybrids that reflect the history of people ripped away from different places and different traditions interacting in new places. Exactly what will emerge is beyond our imaginations.

But it is abundantly clear that the beginning is near.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fertile Darkness -- Fragment of a cosmology

In The Book of Herbal Wisdom, Matthew Wood writes:
"The lower world is spoken of in hushed tones. It is called the Underworld, a dimension apart from ordinary consciousness. Here, if we entertain the old tales, the root essence of each creature is found in its unblemished origin and potency.
The night that I met M., when I heard her speak of learning to listen to the plants, I imagined her with her ear to the ground, listening for something stirring, and I saw the dark world beneath the snow and frost where seeds lay waiting for water to melt into the soil and awaken them. I feel in love with that sense of openness and belief and listening.

In that strange moment of opening and discovery we had access perhaps also to the root essence of our own beings and the connection between them, in its own "unblemished origin and potency."

Time would change that and leave the origin unrecognizable.

But I hunger again for that same kind of opening, for the moments in which the fertile darkness of the underworld seeps into our own reality, and something takes root, the rhizome winding through the crack between worlds, pulling up water from outside of time.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I don't want to be that gringo . . .

Coming back from Oaxaca in December, 2006, I wrote "I don't want to be that gringo, bleeding all over the page . . ." And I still don't. . I was supposed to be in Oaxaca to tell the story of people living under an occupation, not to write about myself.

But its all coming back. In Minneapolis, when police in dark uniforms walked through the hall of our hotel, my heart raced and my whole body tensed and in mind they became indisinguishable from the Mexican Federal Preventitive Police (PFP) I had seen in the streets of Oaxaca. And last night, watching the video of Amy Goodman being roughed up by police in riot gear, I felt an uncontrollable rage coming over me.

I tell myself these are normal reactions. But in my gut I know there is something more going on.


We arrived in Oaxaca shortly after the last street battles, when the barricades fell under the onslaught of riot squads and tanks.

Just over a month earlier, a plainclothes police officer had shot and killed an American journalist, Brad Will, who was trying to tell the story of how the people in Oaxaca had risen up against desperate poverty and violent repression. Just before we arrived, police announced plans to arrest other gringos who they accused of fomenting rebellion.

Oaxaca was tense and strangely alive. Tanks controlled the central square, the Zocalo. By day we met with people in hiding -- the sister of a man shot by police, members of the teachers union who had been beaten and jailed, human rights workers trying to find missing people.

By night we stood on the roof of the hostel where we were staying, drinking mescal and watching white pick-up trucks roll by carrying men in black uniforms armed with automatic rifles on their way to kick down doors of people suspected of taking part in the uprising, beat them, and fly them across the county to distant prisons where they would be tortured.

On our last night there, walking home from a restaurant, one of the white pick-up trucks passed just a dew feet away from us. The PFP officers had taken off their badges and covered their nameplates and wore masks over their faces. Their rifles were cradled in their hands. The truck stopped at their corner and I locked eyes with one of the cops.

For a split second I was certain he was about to point his gun at me and put me under arrest. But the truck pulled away.

I felt a wave of relief -- followed by the sickening realization that that someone else was going to be flown to the prison in Nayarit that night, someone who didn't have the protection of the U.S. consulate, someone whose torture would bring no Congressional inquiry. I was embarassed at my selfishness and fear.


The next night it was all I could do to remind myself that the State Trooper standing next to me in the airport bathroom in Boston wasn't PFP.

For months afterwards, every time I saw a police car, my heart would beat furiously and every muscle in my body would tense. One night, passing a cop on a dark road in rural Maine, with one headlight of my van out, I flew into a panic. I concoted an entire scenario that I was thoroughly convinced was about to unfold -- cop pulls me over, brings up my record on the computer in his car, sees that I am an activist and pulls me out of the car and beats me, then writes in his report attacked him and he acted in self defense. The cop never pulled me over to begin with. I was three miles further down the road before I realized that I had never been in real danger.


I am telling this story because my very resistance to telling it tells me it needs to be told.

I am telling this story because when I am gathering stories in Latin America and I get together with other journalists and human rights workers at the end of the day we drink too much.

And I normally hardly drink at all.

I am telling this story because often when I get together with veterans and hear there stories I remember Oaxaca and Colombia and Bolivia and the same thing happens.

I'm embarrassed to say that because my own brief forays at the edge of war zones are meaningless in comparison to a year or more spent in combat in Iraq.

I am telling this story because these past few days my body has felt very much like it did right when I came back from Oaxaca.

I am telling this story because there must be something compelling me to be sitting at a computer at 11:47 after days of not enough sleep.

Every bit of judgement I have is telling me this is all melodramatic and self indulgent. And every bit of sense I have tells me to delete everything I just wrote.

But instead I am clicking on the bright orange box that says "publish post."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Fire This Time?

I'm sitting in the lobby of the Mall of America Ramada in Minneapolis, blogging in a lobby equally divided between Republican delegates and anti-war veterans.

As I write, news is coming in that President Bush has cancelled his scheduled speech here tomorrow and the Republican Party is considering shortening their National Convention as Hurricane Gustav is poised to hit New Orleans.

Last night, Jeremy Scahill reported that Blackwater mercenaries are already being dispatched to New Orleans to "maintain order" in the streets as battered partially reconstructed neighborhoods are subjected to a mandatory evacuation order. Meanwhile National Guard troops who signed up to help in natural disasters remain tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The full story of what Blackwater did in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina remains unknown. The image of a city under the control of heavilly armed paramilitaries fresh from combat defending islands of wealth in the midst of poverty brings to mind my brief time in Barrancabermeja in Colombia where the Army and the death squads rule the streets and the Chamber of Commerce celebrates the fact that there is order in the streets. The repression we have enabled and sponsored in the Global South has come home with a vengeance, the distinction between citizens and non-citizens eroded as the poor are pushed around at gunpoint with impunity.

Meanwhile though, systems of control are unravelling. The U.S. military remains unable to impose "order" in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador have seized the moment to take charge of their own resources and their own destinies. Mexico seems again and again to come to the brink of a civil war our billions of dollars of weapons and training may not be able to prevent. And in the ranks of the U.S. military, disssent and resistance grow. On Wednesday, just after I flew out of Denver, Iraq Veterans Against the War led a march of 10,000 people to the Democratic National Convention, demanding that Barack Obama make a real commitment to bring all their sisters and brothers home from Iraq, give them the care they need when they get home, and pay reparations to the Iraqi people.

The center cannot hold. Increasingly friends have been passing around Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing -- a novel where people nonviolently defend autonomous zones carved out in a country placed under martial law after an alliance of corporations and theocrats rose to power and privatized food and water. Every day it reads more like prophecy.

From my time in Bolivia and Oaxaca, I know that there is only so far people can be pushed before their desperation becomes stronger than their fear of death. The waters will soon be rising in New Orleans. But they may be followed by the fire this time.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Alchemy of Hope

Maybe it was the altitude here in Denver going to my head. Hearing Michelle Obama speak tonight, I wanted to believe that the man who watched his newborn daughter in the rearview mirror with such love and concern on their first trip home would feel enough compassion for children living amidst poverty and violence around the world to fundamentally change our country's place in the world.

Something in me, something in us, wants to believe in Obama as some magical alembic who can transmute our country, separating its higher nature from the dross of racism, militarism, and extreme poverty in the shadow of great wealth.

My rational mind knows that its not true. I've read the fine print of Obama's plan to keep "non-combat" troops in Iraq. I watched as he slipped out of town this June rather than having the courage to vote against funding the war well into 2009.

Alchemy teaches that the alembic is not the source of magic, but rather the site of transformation. The magic exists in the change itself, performed on both physical and spiritual levels, that transforms not just the substance on which the work is being performed but the alchemist as well.

And history teaches, in the words of Frederick Douglass, that "power concedes nothing without struggle." Great change is achieved not by great leaders but by the rise of social movements powerful enough to force whoever is in power to concede to their demands.

That understanding puts the responsibility for change back on our shoulders. But in accepting that responsibility we also take back the power we've given over to the "leaders" we have wanted to rescue us. The moment when we take back that power is the moment when real magic begins.

Walking the Labyrinth

By the light of the full moon, I walked the labyrinth, singing "Every step I take is a healing step . . ."

Halfway through the path led me back to the edge, and though I knew I could not have strayed, some part of me panicked, unable to understand how I had gotten so far from the center or how I would ever reach it.

I realized my life is like that -- I measure my progress in a linear way, despairing when I seem to backtrack. But the path I walk is a spiral path, and its impossible to lose my way.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Excavating the Green Man

(Photo (c) 2008 by Rachel Smith, used by permission.)

The history of our culture is a history of violence -- rape, murder, slavery, genocide.

And that violence has historically been orchestrated and carried out by men in order to maintain systems of domination and inequality.

Because of this, I've spent much of my life running from masculinity, not wanting to be implicated in cruelty and destruction.

But violence and domination are not the essence of masculinity -- they are its perversion. And any attempt to transform our culture has to take into account the need to redefine and reshape masculinity, to provide channels for masculine energy to flow that meet and match and dance with the incredible strength of the feminine rather than seeing to subjugate it.

Seeking to dismantle brutal systems of control, and influenced by post-structuralism, many feminists and Queer theorists have sought to dismantle gender altogether, asserting that masculinity and femininity are purely cultural constructs. Certainly, the definitions and structures are culture has created about masculinity and femininity are limiting and oppressive. And the strict binary categories into which we've divided the world don't accurately describe most people's experience of our bodies, our lives, and our sexuality.

But at the same time the effort to separate human experience from human biology is in many ways a reproduction of patriarchal thought that privileges mind over body, culture over nature, control over wildness.

Within the herbal community, the Wise Woman movement has resurrected traditions centered around the Blood Mysteries -- the ways in which cycles of ovulation and menstruation connect women with processes of regeneration within the body and in the body of the Earth. Historically, capitalism built its power on the control and subjugation of the fertility of the land and the fertility of women's bodies. As historian Carolyn Merchant writes, when communal rural land holdings were broken up an privatized in the seventeenth century:
"Nature cast in the female gender, when stripped of activity and rendered passive, could be dominated by science, technology, and capitalist production. During the transition to early modern capitalism, women lost ground in the sphere of production (through curtailment of their roles in the trades), while in the sphere of reproduction William Harvey and other male physicians were instrumental in undermining women's traditional roles in midwifery and hence women's control over their own bodies."
The imposition of this new order involved the torture and execution of countless herbalists and midwives who were branded as witches, and the dismissal of their traditional knowledge -- science based on thousands of years of women's experience working with native plants -- as superstition. Wise Woman traditions of midwifery and herbalism have resurrected these suppressed arts, allowed them to cross-fertilize with the knowledge of people native to this continent, and brought into being a dynamic tradition of medicine that puts women back in control of their own bodies and helps them develop a relationship with the body of the living Earth.

But similar attempts to reclaim and transform the concept and experience of masculinity are notably lacking. Attempts at critical analysis of masculinity in the 1980's began with efforts to create spaces for men to grapple with their emotions and create rites of initiation, but quickly degenerated into an ugly right wing backlash against feminism that blamed women who were just beginning to claim their power for emasculating men -- when in reality it was the system that had enlisted these men in the violent subjugation of others that had robbed them of some of their own humanity in the process. The conversation never took the critical step of re-imagining what masculine strength and power might look like in a culture base on partnership and equality.

Clues to a different conception of masculinity lie in the art and myths of pre-Christian, pre-capitalist cultures.

The face of the Green Man, leaf-bearded god of regeneration, appeared etched in stone churches throughout Europe well into the early modern period. The stories surrounding him have largely vanished, but he is widely understood to represent the irrepressible virility of the wild -- its rebirth in spring from the seeds that fall from dying plants in the fall, and its survival in the face of attempts to contain it and push it back. He resurfaces as Robin Hood, defending the forest that provides sustenance to the poor against the privations of Prince John who has usurped the power of the rightful King.

Cernunous, the Celtic god of the hunt, wearing the antlers of a stag, was himself both the hunter and the hunted, symbolizing the cycle of give and take, life and death, the fact that our bodies contain and continue the lives of the plants and animals we kill in order to live. He embodied willing sacrifice, the gift of the his own body to feed the worthy hunter.

Across many cultures, the shaman was a hunter of the spiritual realm. Because men lack the intimacy with the process of regeneration that menstruation gives to women, the shaman is traditionally initiated into the mysteries of healing by surviving a terrible illness or undergoing a physical ordeal (the vision quest and the sweat lodge are traditions common to both North American and Eurasian indigenous cultures that traditionally open men, not necessarily shamans, to new levels of consciousness by pushing their bodies to the edge of their physical limits.) The shaman would then master ecstatic techniques -- drumming, dancing, visionary herbs -- for delving into darkness, traveling into other levels of reality to hunt down the source of diseases plaguing others.

I don't yet know how we translate these traditions and archetypes into our own place and time. I have just the tiniest sense of where to begin.

As I wrote coming out of the vision quest, I believe that the darkness those who would walk the same path today need to delve into is the darkness of the suffering created by the violence of our culture. The Wise Women who walk beside us on this path tell us that "the problem is the ally of the whole." This means that in order to transform masculinity, we need to come face to face with the results of its perversion by being present to the reality of the suffering war, torture, and sexual violence have brought into the lives of their survivors, both women and men.

And so I am determined to begin walking that path -- in hopes of bringing healing to those who are in pain, in hopes of liberating victims and perpetrators alike from cultural scripts that lock them into violence, and in hopes of liberating myself by discovering at my core that power of regeneration that the Green Man represents, that virility that can plant the seeds of new life in the fertile darkness of the great mystery.

The Wound is Where the Healing Comes

By the third day of my vision quest, fasting alone in the forest just above a stream flowing into the Pemigiwasset River, it was all I could do to to stumble to the edge of the ten foot stone circle that marked the boundary of my world.

Just beyond that border, I saw a fallen hemlock branch covered in lichen -- and among the lichens, a patch of usnea that seemed to glow with a pale light. Usnea is a lichen made up of long, grey-green threads commonly called "old man's beard." To protect the trees that it grows on from infection, usnea produces antibacterial and anti-fungal compounds that also serve as very powerful medicine for humans and other animals.

From somewhere inside my chest, I heard the voice of the lichen speaking, telling me that the lichen would often grow in the places where the tree was wounded, that the wounds themselves called forth the medicine. A song began to rise inside me:

"The wound is where the healing comes,
The wound is where the change begins!

Break on open and feel again,
Break on open and dream again,
Break on open and grow again,
Break on open and live again!"

As I sang out loud, cycling through the chant again and again, questions and contradictions I had been struggling with began to resolve themselves.

Central was the conflict I felt between the political work I have dedicated my adult life to up to now and the healing work that I have been powerfully drawn to in recent years. More and more it has been working to bring people together with plants that can support the healing of their bodies, minds, and spirits that has made me feel most alive. But strong voices inside me had been insisting that I had a responsibility to be part of political and cultural transformation.

That dichotomy fell away. I thought of the people who have come into my life and the pain they are living with -- veterans, torture survivors, military families, survivors of sexual assault. And I came to understand how opening to the reality of the trauma they have suffered reveals much about the fundamental disease at the heart of our culture that gave rise to the violence that brought such devastation into their lives. And if as Wise Women teach, "the problem is the ally to the whole," and if usnea as usnea was telling me, "the wound is where the change begins," then by coming to know the nature of those wounds I would also come to know the wild, living medicines that would help bring wounded bodies, minds, and spirits back to health. And that healing would point the way to bringing a sick culture into the dynamic balance of justice and sustainability.

In the myth of the Fisher King, the king sits on a throne by the water's edge, blood pouring from a gaping wound in his thigh. And because the king is wounded the land has become barren. The wound never heals because everyone is afraid to ask the one question that would stop the bleeding and restore the king and the land to health -- "What is the source of the wound?" The answer to the question lies beneath the waters the king is afraid to dive into.

The reverse of the Fisher King is the Tarot's King of Cups. The King of Cups is the King who has dived into the waters of the unconscious, come to terms with the darkness, and emerged transformed -- he sits on his throne holding a cup that overflows with healing water. As the bearer of the chalice he is a servant of the Great Goddess, the cup a symbol of her womb and the sacred blood of its mysteries.

The role of one who would walk a shamanic path in this lifetime, who would step up to accept the responsibility of holding that chalice of healing water is to come face to face with the reality of the devastation our culture has inflicted on people it now chooses to render invisible, an in bringing the wounded into contact with the healing powers of the wild, living Earth discover the medicine that can transform us all.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Remembering the midnight painters

There's a mural on the corner of Centre St. and Seaverns St. here in Jamaica Plain that depicts a teenage girl lying spread out across the roofs of the city, gazing up at at a sky filled with white doves. Across the bottom are scrawled the words "If you learn to see without your eyes, you'll see something more profound, more true -- you'll see you."

I'll have to learn to see the mural itself without my eyes -- this morning on the way to work I walked past a man covering the mural over with grey sheetrock.

The scene brought me back to Oaxaca, the December before last, a city under siege by paramilitary police brought in to crush an uprising that had begun by June, sparked by the brutal repression of a teachers' strike.

U.S. reporters had bemoaned the desecration of colonial buildings with political graffiti -- largely oblivious to the brutal subjugation of Oaxaca's never fully colonized people engaged in a struggle the Zapatistas in the neighboring state of Chiapas aptly described as a "war against oblivion," their cultural survival threatened by ecological destruction, economic globalization, and military repression.

In an effort to show that they had regained control, city officials had work crews out all day whitewashing the graffitied walls.

By night white pick up trucks full of masked men in black uniforms armed with assault rifles would patrol the city, kicking down the doors of suspected dissidents, beating them and shipping them off to distant prisons to be tortured. From the roof of my hostel, I would see the trucks go by every fifteen minutes.

But throughout the city there were kids with cans of spray paint who knew the exact timing of the patrols and would run out and leave fresh graffiti on the whitewashed walls.

Today I think of the midnight painters and wonder how we can bring their spirit to the more subtly occupied and regimented cities of the United States.