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.