A week ago, I sat on a wooden bench at the edge of Elk Prairie in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park, just north of Orick, California, watching the resident herd of Roosevelt elk graze. The prairie is a huge open expanse in the middle of forest dominated by coast redwood and Sitka spruce trees, some of them more than a thousand years old. The dominant bull elk watched me back, making sure I knew that the prairie was not my terrain. The elk are magnificent creatures, with massive, shaggy, dark brown heads and chests, tawny fur on the rest of their bodies, and a lighter patch under their tails. At this time of year, the males have shed their antlers; new, velvet-covered buds grow on either side of their heads. The females are heavily pregnant, about to give birth. They shelter away from the males and our intruding eyes.
As I sat on the bench, I understood that the elk and redwood trees are interdependent. The forest provides nutritious foraging and shelter for the elk. Elk droppings help fertilize the forest. A balanced environment includes apex predators like wolves to keep elk numbers in check and prevent overgrazing. In such an environment, elks benefit some trees by dining on their competitors. Their grazing patterns may also alter the course of forest fires by selectively removing fuel.
Bealtaine (May 1) is a powerful time for connecting with the spirits of the earth. On April 29, I received another message about the interdependence of species. This one came in a dream:
I overhear a researcher I used to work with having an impassioned conversation with a man. The researcher talks about the devastating impact the depletion of salmon runs will have on the fertility of the land. As animals and raptors devour salmon, they leave the remains, which add precious nitrogen to the soil. Without that nitrogen, the soil becomes poor and can’t provide enough food for people. As salmon runs dwindle, we are deprived of salmon and other food for nourishment. I picture a situation in which many people are hungry. I imagine laying a whole salmon carcass on the land to feed it.
As I wrote the dream down (a practice I recommend), I realized that I was seeing the land as alive, as a being that needs food too. It needs food to feed us.
This spring, as the weather grows drier and warmer, be sure to include some time in nature, especially in the forest, in your wanderings. The practice of shinrin yoku—forest bathing—provides deep healing on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. Take some time to sit quietly and listen. Let the spirits of the earth speak to you. You may be surprised at what you hear.
It’s spring in the Pacific Northwest, a time when plants that pushed leaves through near-frozen winter ground begin their promiscuous blooming. Next to the hardy hellebores, narcissus and daffodils show off their yellow bonnets. Slender willow branches, brown in winter, turn spring-green as their leaves sprout. At Lake Quinault, where we spent a few days this week, skunk cabbage flowers shine golden in shaded wetlands. Oxalis leaves begin to carpet the forest floor. Curled baby fern fronds unfurl. Sun breaks through rainclouds as the days lengthen.
Spring is the time of new beginnings. Our spirits lift; anything seems possible. What a contrast to a year ago, when a terrible period of illness, death, fear, economic devastation, and violence started. This time last year, we could only glimpse what was coming.
All of us have lost someone or something. Over half a million people in the US – a number I can only begin to comprehend – have lost their lives, most in isolation from family and friends. Their loved ones – many millions – have experienced deep grief at a time when collective practices and rituals to honor the dead and comfort the living were blocked.
Through a combination of luck, privilege, and care to avoid contagion, my loved ones and I have survived. For that, I am incredibly grateful. The biggest loss we’ve suffered has been physical separation from our granddaughter, now almost three years old, for nearly half her life. When we do see her this summer, we’ll meet the delightful little person she has grown into.
When trees die in the rainforest, they immediately become homes and food for the living. Snags and stumps stand for centuries, sheltering generations of woodpeckers, owls, squirrels, bears. Huge trunks lie on the forest floor, their structures breaking down as mosses, fungi, and insects get busy on and inside them. Seeds and spores begin to sprout in this new soil: huckleberries, ferns, maples, Douglas-firs, Western red cedars, Sitka spruce, hemlock. Rows of saplings send roots around and through each trunk’s bulk, seeking soil. Death nourishes life.
Amidst tragedy, outrage, and chaos, we have grown in new ways this year. Facing catastrophe, we reached out to others in our communities to do what we could to help. Powerful, Black-led protests against systemic racism, spurred by ongoing, brutal murders of Black people, drew more support and participation than ever. Many white people moved to a deeper level of understanding our complicity and committed to the next steps to undo it. Led by Black women in the South, we worked hard together to meet dangerous threats to our democracy by defending the right of all citizens to vote. We managed to defeat a would-be dictator and wrest control of the Senate from his enablers.
When hurricane-force winds knock down hundreds of shallow-rooted rainforest trees at once, the landscape changes dramatically. At first, death and absence prevail. Soon, life asserts itself. Sun-loving alder and Douglas-fir saplings take root and grow, nourished by those that have passed on.
May the abundant waters of this region cleanse and rock us as we grieve. May the spirits of our ancestors and loved ones who have died be with us as we rebuild amidst the wreckage. May we have the courage to do so in a way that ensures justice, opportunity, and freedom from oppression for all.
Image by Jens Rasch from Pixabay
Brigid, or Brid in modern Irish, is the triple goddess of healing, poetry, and alchemy. As the goddess of fire, she rules the forge and is the patron of blacksmiths, who through their art transform molten metal into useful, beautiful, and even magical objects. I am the great-granddaughter of a blacksmith. On this Imbolc, Brigid’s holy day, celebrated on February 1, I call upon Brigid in her transformative aspect.
The need for transformation has never been clearer. In the US, we need to reimagine and rebuild our power structures, economy, ways of governing, judicial and peacekeeping systems, relationships to the natural world of which we are a part, and relationships and communications with each other. Here, all of these systems rest on a crumbling foundation built by chattel slavery and genocide of Indigenous peoples, reprehensible policies carried out by European immigrant settlers with our own legacy of unhealed trauma. The structures have to be rebuilt from the foundation up.
This sounds impossible. But a few years ago, it would have seemed impossible that two Democratic senators from Georgia would be elected at once and that control of the US Senate would be flipped as a result. The election process and results in Georgia in 2020-2021 give me great hope. Black organizers in Georgia, led by Stacey Abrams of Fair Fight, Nsé Ufot of New Georgia Project, and LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter, among others, have worked and fought tirelessly for years to register new voters and make sure Black people and other underrepresented populations in Georgia are able to cast ballots. Despite determined efforts by Republicans to suppress BIPOC votes, voter turnout in the 2020 Presidential election in Georgia was almost 68%, higher than the country as a whole, and the state voted Democratic for the first time since 1992. The January runoff that sealed victories for Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff and tipped control of the US Senate to Democrats had much higher turnout than most runoffs, particularly among Black voters.
The groundwork for these stunning victories was carried out, town by town, voter by voter, over a long period of time. What might have seemed like a sudden change was the result of patient, persistent, strategic actions by a number of people. I was lucky enough to talk with some of these people as I recruited volunteers by phone to do door-to-door canvassing to cure ballots – to surmount onerous voter suppression requirements like voter ID by making sure that voters whose ballots had been rejected had a chance to correct any errors or omissions they might have made while voting. I was inspired and energized by the dedication and positive attitudes of these volunteers, who worked many long hours to ensure that everyone in Georgia who wanted to vote could do so.
Every small action we take in the direction of transformation makes a difference. Those of us making calls were told that each volunteer we recruited would be able to cure at least 10 votes. Each day we recruited hundreds of volunteers. That’s thousands of votes that otherwise would not have counted. Call by call, volunteer by volunteer, voter by voter, all of the election workers and volunteers in Georgia pulled together to produce those stunning victories. The fate of our democracy literally hung in the balance. Now we have an administration and a Congress that can and will act in ways that serve the American people – not perfectly, but in much better and more equitable ways than before.
The promise and peril of this moment we are living in seem overwhelming at times. How can we meet them? The task is daunting. Each of us has skills, abilities, gifts to contribute. Each of us has our own personal network, our sphere of influence, in which we can act. The systems and ways of communicating and behaving that need to be transformed extend into our local governments, workspaces, organizations, neighborhoods, families, relationships. Every action we take to change them in a positive direction, no matter how small, has an effect.
We will at times feel afraid, discouraged, uncomfortable. We may believe that nothing is changing, until suddenly everything does. For hope and inspiration, we can imagine the intense heat of Brigid’s flame melting the old forms so that the blacksmith can reshape them into new ones. We can embody the blacksmith – and the flame itself.
Light Is Returning
It’s the darkest time of year in the darkest year in memory, for many of us. Death, suffering, fear, isolation, cruelty, oppression, corruption, destruction, mendacity, malice. It all feels overwhelming. How can we trust light will return?
At the moment of Winter Solstice, the balance of light and darkness shifts almost imperceptibly. The days begin to lengthen a few seconds at a time. The word “solstice” comes from two Latin words meaning “sun stopped.” If you plot length of day on a graph over time, what emerges is a curved line called a sine wave. This shape occurs often in nature, in ocean waves, sound waves, light waves. At the wave’s two extremes, Summer and Winter Solstice, the amount of change in length of day is tiny, much smaller than in the middle of the wave, at the Equinoxes. Like a swinging pendulum, change in length of day slows down as it switches direction.
At Solstice, in nature, life’s speed stalls. Plants don’t grow much. Each dark, wet, cold day seems like the last. When we consider the huge challenges we’ve all faced to different degrees and the stagnant rate of positive change, it’s easy to feel hopeless. If we do, we’re not alone. The Seattle Times reported that a survey done in mid-November showed a higher rate of symptoms of depression – “feeling down, depressed, or hopeless” – in Seattle than in other major metropolitan areas in the US.
As the late, beloved Charlie Murphy wrote in his song “Light Is Returning”:[i]
Light is returning, even though this is the darkest hour
No one can hold back the dawn
Let’s keep it burning, let’s keep the light of hope alive
Make safe our journey through the storm
In just over two weeks, Georgia voters have a chance to elect two Democratic senators and flip control of the Senate to Democrats. This would clear the way for progressive changes that Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans have blocked. In one month, a new President and Vice-President will be sworn in. Their administration will focus on ethical and functional government and on racial, social, economic, and environmental justice to a much greater degree than the current one. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two vaccines that are highly effective in protecting against COVID, and these vaccines are being distributed right now to people at highest risk.
As we wait to feel the impacts of these hopeful developments, how can we keep from falling into despair, given all we have lost?
Sometimes the best place to look for light is deep in the dark. Underground, spring bulbs prepare to sprout. I can already see tiny, swordlike green leaves pushing through the soil’s surface. Trees whose above-ground growth is dormant in cold weather find opportunities to expand their networks of roots, getting ready for the spring bud break.
Last night, I dreamed:
Something needs to shift underground, beneath a grove of trees. The shift will nourish the trees and also prevent conflict or war. I am trying to figure out what system, what mechanism, to use to help make the shift.
What needs to shift in our bodies and lives so that we can strengthen our roots, lean toward light, and prepare for more abundant growth in freer, healthier times? This week, I am attending to basics: eating and sleeping well, moving my body in ways that strengthen me, connecting with family, friends, and nature. Doing something that brings me joy every day, even if it’s five minutes looking at photos of my far-away granddaughter. Making plans for trips we can take when travel is safer. Making phone calls to voters in Georgia to help them navigate voter suppression and have their votes count.
For me, the shift from depression to delight can hinge on the smallest change in thinking and behavior. Earlier this week, a couple of days before that Seattle Times story came out, I hit an emotional wall, then realized that if I took a walk every day or worked in the garden when it wasn’t pouring rain, I felt better. There is so much I can’t control, so I focus on what I can. When we each do what we can to make change, it adds up. Collectively, we told Donald Trump, “You’re fired!” (Even if he can’t admit it yet.) Now it’s time to dream up the world we want, one that feeds life and manages conflict in a more constructive way.
May your dreams light up these long nights.
[i] © Charlie Murphy, recorded on the album “Canticles of Light,” by Charlie Murphy, Jami Sieber and the Total Experience Choir (Out Front Music, P.O. Box 12188, Seattle, WA 98102)
Dreaming in Dangerous Times
I often have dreams about events before they happen. This ability first came to my awareness in a dramatic way almost 40 years ago. For a couple of decades after that, I had no idea what to do with those dreams, how to hold them, when to share them. Now I have training, experience, and community to support me. And it can still be challenging.
Four years ago, on October 27, the day before James Comey made his devastating announcement about investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails, I had a terrifying dream. In the dream, men threaten sexual assault. I manage to escape, only to fall into deep water. In the last scene, I and two others are swimming in a sea of garbage, as if we are floating pieces of garbage. We are all at risk of drowning or being killed by garbage dropped from above. One of the others, a woman, is darkly humorous, cackling, glorying in our predicament.
No one knows or cares that we are here, and no one is likely to save us. But I hold onto some hope that I’ll survive and get home.
At the time, I was just as naïve about the outcome of the looming election as most white progressive people. After Trump won, the metaphorical meaning of the dream became clear in shocking detail.
This fall, I have been tracking my dreams for signs of what is to come. Finally, I asked directly: “Please show me what the ultimate outcome of the election will be after the new President is inaugurated.”
I am trying to move my vehicle into a parking lot from the dirt road I am on. I need to turn left into the lot. Someone has left a pile of wrapped presents in the road. I need to move them to proceed. I turn the car off and get out to do so.
Two days later, I dreamed:
I am riding a bicycle in the right lane of a busy, multi-lane road, heading to a university. I come to a large intersection. The drivers behind me yell at me to go faster. I lose my temper and yell back, ‘I’m going as fast as I can!’ I forget to get in the left lane to turn left, so I have to turn right for a short distance. I stop my bike, walk it across four lanes of traffic at a crosswalk, and go left toward my destination.
Each of these dreams shows me turning left. I find this metaphor encouraging; perhaps it foretells our country going in a more progressive direction. In each, I need to overcome a challenge. The wrapped presents in the road may be a timing marker: the shift to the left will happen after Christmas. The initial right turn in the second dream could mean any number of things, including the recent confirmation of an arch-conservative woman to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat.
Still, rampant anxiety persists as Election Day approaches. Recently I asked a similar question. I dreamed:
A tall woman with long hair needs to make a crossing. She needs to walk toward me across a narrow wooden bridge with no railings over a deep chasm or crevasse. She is able to do so. The message comes to me: we can make this easier collectively. We have the power. As I think this, the chasm gets less deep and dangerous, the crossing easier.
This dream has many potential meanings, especially now at Samhain, when the veil between the world of the living and the world of our beloved dead is thin. I take heart from the message that reminds us of our power. Working together, we can make the path easier and less dangerous, especially for women and femmes.
These dreams comfort me and help settle my activated nervous system in a difficult time. I offer them in the hope that they may give you heart. We have the power.
If you want to know more about how to receive and understand your dreams and how to ask questions and get interesting answers in dreams, sign up for Dream Wisdom in Dangerous Times, second Wednesdays in November and December (Nov. 11 and Dec. 9).
Síle na Gigh showed me, squatting, spreading her luscious lower lips wide open, grinning. Síle showed me the way to the womb of the Great Mother, Gaia, Mother Earth.
As our group of women called in the elements – air, fire, water, earth – we listened to hear what they had to say to us. Air gave me a single word: stillness. The smoky sky above Seattle held its breath for over ten days. Tree branches barely moved. Few birds fluttered about.
The raging fires brought transformation, birth and death. Amidst unimaginable destruction, in conditions of high heat, Douglas-fir trees drop their seeds. Those that germinate grow quickly in newly-opened landscapes.
I had just watched the documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a man who dives daily into frigid ocean off the South African coast to connect with an octopus, so it was easy for me to enter that element in my imagination. Water asked me to dive deep, immerse myself fully, and trust the wisdom of my dreams.
As soon as I thought of earth, Síle appeared, shining like her silver image on a necklace I bought in Ireland. Síle na Gigh (Anglicized as Sheela na Gig), ancient, mythic hag who survived centuries of demonization and neglect, whose stone-carved image adorns weather-worn Irish and English churches, who celebrates the ecstacy and pain of opening life’s doorway.
“Why?” I asked. “Why Síle, here, now?” What came to me is this: the Great Mother, the creative force from which all life on earth is born, is in labor. We are called to attend her, breathe with her, hold her, help her withstand the excruciating pain of transformation. What she is birthing – what we are birthing – we can’t imagine yet.
Anyone who has given birth knows that at some point along the journey, it seems impossible that a child will emerge. The pain feels all-consuming, and nothing the laboring one or their supporters do seems to help. All one can do is keep going, keep breathing, let the body do what it knows to do, and seek expert help when needed.
That is where we are now. So many losses, so much pain, illness, agony, death. Will it ever end? Will a new way of living be born, and if so, will it be monstrous and destructive or loving and life-generating? We don’t know.
Síle opens the door, shows the way. We need to show up as our most audacious selves and remember where true power lies.
What Will This Fall’s Harvest Be?
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Within the next six months, we will determine the fate of democracy in the United States. This is not hyperbole. If our democracy dies, many people will die too – even more than COVID-19 has already killed. Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) are particularly at risk, many times more so than white people. What we each do now to defeat encroaching authoritarianism and build a more just and sustainable world matters, perhaps more than it ever has.
Lughnasadh, celebrated on August 1, honors the Celtic god Lugh, the Many-Skilled One. It’s a harvest festival, honoring the Earth’s abundance. Lughnasadh is also a time to prepare for the coming winter. Many of us can or freeze fruits, vegetables, and salmon and other meats to feed us in leaner times, when gardens and fields lie fallow and salmon have spawned and died. We also take stock of our ourselves and our communities. What have we learned in the last year, and how can we put that to use? What skills have we developed and strengthened, and how can we offer them to serve all? There is no time to waste.
The latest crises – the COVID pandemic and the anti-racist uprisings led by Black Lives Matter in the wake of recent police murders of George Floyd and other Black people – offer a huge opportunity for long-overdue systemic change. Nothing will go back to the way it was before January. We also face great danger: if Trump manages to get re-elected, or to seize power illegally if he loses, the US government will complete its transition to an authoritarian dictatorship, modeled on Putin’s Russia. How can we meet this moment?
Those of us who are white are undergoing a reckoning with our own, our families’, and our nation’s past and present shameful transgressions against BIPOC. We need to untangle unconscious patterns of dominance, see and tell the truth about oppressive behavior and systems in our families, lineages, and communities, and make a firm commitment, not to perfection, but to concrete action to make significant change happen. We can lean on each other as we do this work, listening to, learning about, and following the leadership of people of color. It’s not their job to teach, reassure, or exonerate us. Expecting that is just racism in a different form.
Inner healing and outer action go hand in hand. One is not meaningful without the other. We each have something important to contribute. There are many different ways to do so that make the best use of your personal skills, match your values and temperament, and accommodate any constraints you may have on time, resources, and physical ability.
If you need inspiration, read Rep. John Lewis’ last opinion piece, published in the New York Times on the day he was laid to rest. As he was dying, he took the time to write to us with power and hope. Here are some of his words:
“[Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
No one of conscience can sit on the sidelines. What do you plan to do before the election on Nov. 3 to save our democracy and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives?
Lies Coming to Light
When I imagine the kind of human community I want to live in, I go to the forest in my mind.
In the forest, there is no analogue for racism. No exclusion of certain plants from the web of connection, nurture, and support because of their physical characteristics. That would be counter to the natural order. Racism and race were invented by humans of European descent. The use of trees as murder weapons, as in past and recent lynchings, is a particularly cruel, grotesque and unnatural practice.
The automatic, often unconscious negative feelings and thoughts that white people have about people of color are based on lies. Lies originally made up to justify theft of land, labor, lives; lies that now serve to ensure continuation of structures and policies that make theft systemic. We’ve been conned. But, like Trump supporters who refuse to believe overwhelming evidence that he’s a crook, we resist giving up our attachment to the lies, in ways overt and subtle.
It’s astonishing and painful to contemplate the extent of suffering – the sheer number of deaths, families torn apart, unnecessary illnesses and injuries, the amount of housing, property and wealth lost – that has been necessary to wake white people up to the reality of systemic racism. It proves how strong the lies are and how deep our indoctrination and complicity has been. Now large numbers of us begin to listen, to see, to stand up and speak out, to take action. I have had more conversations with other white people about racism in the last month than I’ve had in years.
This process of waking up, standing up, speaking out, and taking action is the work of a lifetime. In a briefing a week ago, Governor Cuomo of New York, addressing anti-racist protesters, wrote, “You don’t need to protest, you won. You accomplished your goal. Society says you’re right, the police need systemic reform.” This statement might have seemed progressive a month ago. Now we see that we’re just getting started with the changes we need to make. Everything this country is founded on needs systemic change.
In her essay “The Idea of America,” published as part of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst… Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals… Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.”
To unravel the lies and take action to change the structures they protect and perpetuate, white people need to develop capacity. We need information about historical truths that have been withheld from us. We need compassion for and connection to others from whom we have separated ourselves. We need to listen rather than talk, to follow rather than lead. We need compassion for ourselves and connection to the strengths and gifts of our ancestors, however flawed they might have been. We need stamina for the long haul. The road to justice isn’t paved yet. It’s rough going.
Trees store carbon. They also store history. Some of the old-growth trees in Seattle’s Seward Park were alive before the first European explorers landed on the Pacific Northwest coast and long before white settlers took the land from the Native tribes who had called it home for thousands of years. Many old-growth trees in Washington State – including the one in the photo above – were already growing tall before the first slaves were stolen from Africa and brought to the colony of Virginia 401 years ago.
If we want to learn how to live in community and share resources so that everyone can thrive, if we want to reduce stress in these tumultuous times, if we want to boost our immune systems in the midst of a pandemic, we can go into the forest. Indigenous peoples know this. Our long-ago, forest-based European ancestors knew this.
White people are accustomed to thinking that humans are the most advanced species. Given the evidence, that’s debatable. We’ve been too proud to think of trees as our teachers. That, too, needs to change.
Opening Our Hearts
This week I had a stunning dream:
I am in a canoe in a stormy sea. The sky and water are the same color, dark gray. The canoe is crafted from two deer hides sewn together. The canoe is our response to the pandemic. I am being asked to allow my heart to be as big as those of the deer. I feel how large that is, feel my heart expanding in my chest.
A huge, dark whale appears. I ride on its back. Its heart is many times bigger than mine or the deer’s. My heart opens and grows until it is as big as the whale’s.
After this powerful experience, I kneel on the shore. The two deer hides are folded in front of me in two large squares. The hides are a rich, warm brown color. Each is covered with writing and pictures in red and black paint or dye. I place one hand on each hide and give thanks to the deer for carrying me out into the ocean to meet the whale.
What does it mean to open our hearts in response to a catastrophe like the coronavirus pandemic? Every day, on the news, on social media, and in our lives, we see – and participate in – acts of love for family, friends, and strangers. People sew masks and donate money, food, and supplies. They gather on porches and balconies to applaud and express gratitude for the heroism of health care workers and others on the front lines: in hospitals, grocery stores, agricultural fields, meat-packing plants, delivery warehouses. People care for neighbors, run errands, make sure others have what they need to survive.
We also see acts of unspeakable cruelty, greed, neglect, ignorance, and indifference to suffering. Wealthy business owners snap up loans intended for small companies that will go under without them. People hoard or engage in price-gouging of essential protective equipment. Officials refuse to release immigrants from detention and people accused or convicted of non-violent crimes from jails and prisons. Some prisoners are locked up only because they can’t afford cash bail; poverty becomes a crime and, in the pandemic, a potential death sentence. Small but vociferous bands of protesters crowd together to demand “freedom” from life-saving public health activity restrictions. The federal administration uses its clout during the epidemic to reward sycophants, punish those who dare to speak the truth, and suspend vital environmental and civil-rights protections. The President publicly touts dangerous, unproven remedies that his followers then take, causing harm and even death.
As an older, white, middle-class person who doesn’t have to work, I have the privileges of housing, ample resources, and access to outdoor space without risking infection. Few people I know have had COVID-19, to my knowledge, and so far, all have survived. Despite physical distancing, I feel held in a web of love, caring, and sharing.
From my secure home base, I open my heart to those who suffer deeply. The millions who have had COVID-19, those who have died and those who have recovered. The people who have lost loved ones, unable to be with them as they died. Black and Brown people whose existing oppression is multiplied in a thousand ways by the crisis. Disabled people, immigrants, and other marginalized groups who struggle to survive under ordinary circumstances.
Opening our hearts individually is a necessary first step. In the dream, I first allow my heart to grow to the size of a large deer’s. Growing our hearts to the size of a whale’s – the size of a small car – requires collective consciousness and action.
We live in a small-hearted society. We all participate, voluntarily or not, in unjust structures that kill the least powerful among us. Right now, people are dying in numbers that we can hardly grasp. To cure the conditions that cause so much unnecessary suffering and death from COVID-19 in the US, to create a society that values the lives of people and other living creatures more than profit, we need a collective whale-sized heart.
What Is This Crisis Calling Us To?
My grandparents Florence and John Taylor. Florence died in the flu pandemic of 1918-1919.
What is the coronavirus epidemic calling us to?
Ironically, this disease that separates and isolates us from each other as we try to prevent its spread also calls us into deeper levels of connection. Connection with community, with ancestors, and with nature.
Being more physically isolated can be stressful and scary. At the same time, the invisible threads linking us become more apparent. We are woven together through sound waves, news, social media; through local, national and global systems – political, economic, health care; and through shared spiritual energy. It’s clear how dependent each person’s well-being is on the well-being of the whole.
The epidemic challenges us to curtail the rampant individualism that has characterized our nation and to act for the collective good. Individuals who hoard N95 respirator masks and other protective gear endanger first responders, health care workers, and patients. Those workers are making enormous sacrifices right now – even their lives. The rest of us need to contribute in whatever way we can. Examples include: pressuring our current immoral and incompetent administration to start making the situation better instead of worse. Donating money and supplies to those who need them. Running errands for at-risk neighbors. Working in many different ways to create access to education, health care, living wages, and a sustainable environment for all. Staying away from each other doesn’t mean we don’t care about each other. It is an expression of caring.
Each one of us has ancestors who survived epidemics, many of them worse than this one. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. We can remember, honor, and call on our ancestors, those who survived and those who died in epidemics. We can look at photos, hold the ancestors in our minds and hearts while meditating, or meet them in other intuitive ways. They can offer wisdom and resilience.
My great-great-grandparents on my mother’s side survived the Great Famine of 1845-52 in Ireland. During that time, a million people died of starvation and the raging epidemics – typhus, dysentery, smallpox, relapsing fever – that fed on weakened bodies. Another two million emigrated, some in ships overwhelmed with disease, called “coffin ships.” My ancestors made it to New York City as young adults, fifteen years after the Famine started. Almost 60 years later, their eldest granddaughter, my mother’s mother, died at the age of 26 in the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. My grandfather, mother, and uncle survived. I carry both trauma and strength from these experiences embedded in my genes.
The swift spread of a disease to which few in the United States have resistance has a terrible precedent. When European explorers landed their ships on the shores of what are now the Americas, they brought with them diseases that none of the indigenous peoples had been exposed to before. Indigenous people died by the millions. Aided by epidemics, European settlers took possession of almost all of the land through genocidal violence. The current crisis calls us to remember this shameful part of American history and, for white settler descendants, to make amends. Small but meaningful examples: we can honor the Duwamish Tribe, the original people of the Seattle area, with land acknowledgements and support the tribe through Real Rent Duwamish or other contributions.
We modern humans tend to focus our attention on our interactions and relationships with other humans. As these become less of a focus day-to-day, we can take time to interact with our other family members and neighbors: the plants, animals, birds, and insects that inhabit our homes and immediate surroundings. We depend as much on trees and other living beings as we do on people; without trees, we can’t breathe. You don’t have to go far. A crack in the sidewalk, a planter box in a window or on a balcony, or whatever lives in the yard, if you have one, can provide connection, delight, and wisdom.
Illness and disruption cause significant suffering – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. They can also open us to new ways of thinking, feeling, living. May this epidemic push us to remember our history, personal and collective, and repair the disconnections and injustices that help fuel the spread of disease.