Dreaming the Present Moment

I spent a few quiet moments during the boisterous Thanksgiving holiday reading David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous by my parents’ fireplace, completely captivated by his description of the Aboriginal people’s concept of Dreamtime. The landscape is fully mapped by the trail of the ancestors, each hill and valley associated with Kangaroo Dreaming Man, or Tortoise Woman, or one of the many other animal spirit beings that are thought to have preceded the natives of Australia. Individuals come to be connected with an ancestor and they learn the stories and songs associated with the “songline” of that being. The songline is one of many trails that cross the country, taking a route through areas most rich in resources. It seems that the ancestors marked the paths that could sustain the people in times of scarcity as these trails would lead the singers of the songline to ample food, water, and shelter.

How interesting that I read part of this chapter on a bus full of college students all plugged into more electronic equipment per square foot than the average Best Buy. No one spoke as screens flickered in nearly every seat and we crawled through towns that couldn’t imagine scarcity. Now I write this back in the mountains of New York, thinking about a book I read not far from the waters of Cape Cod. I have traveled much in the last few days, but I never gave the act of moving across the land a thought (beyond taking a bus instead of renting a car). What is it to move not because the journey was informed by traditions deeper than memory, but simply because of the cut of the highways and a holiday dictated by calendar and national decree? (It is not as if we were all hiking home because the full moon indicated it was time for the harvest, after all.)

One of Abram’s central theses is that the alphabet, written language, made it possible for humans to essentially live without concern for the natural world that sustained and informed all aspects of our own ancestors’ experience. Certainly the excess of food on a Thanksgiving table produced in countless forgotten corners of the planet and the massive migration of Americans in their quest to be reunited for family and football is a time in which we generally forget our allegiance to the planet as we contemplate traffic, getting along with relatives, and the shopping season ahead.

But then again, in its own way Thanksgiving itself is a tradition deeper than memory since we celebrate it not because of a children’s tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal in some remote context, but because the ancestors who inform us of who we know ourselves to be have taught us to feast together at the end of each November. It may be an event less than four hundred years in the making and it may not tell an origin tale that is quite as fundamental as Adam and Eve, but it comes close. In reading Abram’s book I have worried over what we may have lost in the translation of capturing life on a page (or a screen). The indigenous societies he describes all sound idyllic and all of their myths sound pure. But perhaps their stories that we now idealize made some of the tellers cringe because they knew survival of their world came at the cost of other races and species, just as the story of this country often makes me shudder even as I recognize its inherent beauty and revel in its bounty. Perhaps after much happiness enjoyed with my family marking a day that forms the national consciousness, I am able to see beyond the romance of times irretrievably lost to the demons of progress and understand the joy there is to be gained in living right now.

Hoping and Fearing and Sliding Into the Sea

Yankee Beach on a slant

I took this photo this summer on Prince Edward Island’s Yankee Beach in honor of Nanna who always took pictures on an angle (now granted, this was in the days of square photos, so she had some noble artistic license on her side). When I came across it today I was struck by the way this picture encapsulates one angle of my world view. I can find myself in great tumults of panic at the state of the world and can start to believe that we are on a steep slide into oblivion. Granted, this wash of emotion is often related to the ocean rising and swallowing the land rather than the other way around, but the spirit is the same.

I am sure that there are basic personality archetypes that make one more or less likely to spin into alternating fits of passion and despair at the state of the wider world. As I have moved from thinking that fiction then poetry then women’s rights then law then environmentalism then spirituality was the most pressing concern during this particular chance I have on the planet, I realize I am most certainly one who cannot get the state of the universe off of her mind. Another aspect of this need to engage with the broken world seems to be the belief that this is the worst it has ever been – I mean look at the carbon crisis and nuclear proliferation and preemptive warfare and global epidemics and the poverty and sexism and racism that just will not go away! While I am certain that many wise people could talk about natural fluctuations in the earth’s temperature and the evils of typhoid and the fact that we have an African American and a woman running credible campaigns and all the rest, for me these issues just will not go away.

When certain members of my family hear about the fact that I have my doubts about saving for retirement because I don’t really think the banking system will exist in the forty or so years that separate me from my 401K (but I save anyway because, as we have established earlier, I am a really well meaning hypocrite – aren’t most of us?) they always tell me that I just don’t know how good things are now. I’m told to consider the politics of assassination or that the Vietnam casualties were more than ten times that of the wars now and that hey, we fixed that hole over Antarctica, didn’t we? (Wait, did we? I remember lots of talk of CFCs and the ozone layer in elementary school, but we seem to have lost interest in that particular angle…) I just leave the conversation wondering who is fooling themselves – those who cannot bear to imagine that we are on the path to a social/political/environmental disaster or those who are desperately afraid we are on a lethal collision course of our own making?

Many times I have tried to sort out why such a big part of me believes we are in such a terrible state. What do I gain from living my life with tinges of Armageddon on the horizon? Does a belief in humanity’s narcissistic penchant for annihilation a) get me off the hook since we are all lost anyway, b) give me a sense of purpose because I have obsession with someday playing some sort of savior or c) is it just an organic aspect of who I am, a(n) (over)sensitivity that whips me into a muted frenzy? And how do I explain that despite this worry and dread, I am still a hopeful creature who believes we can walk through the darkest times and emerge a stronger, more beautiful world?

But as I spend my evening writing this rather than considering how to quit my comfortable job with its terribly comforting benefits package in order to chain myself to a tree along the Amazon or join Mother Teresa’s nuns in Calcutta, I realize that enough of me must be able to deal with the ills listed herein. Or perhaps none of those terrible phenomena have yet hit quite close enough to home…

A Post About My Cats (and Milkweed and Bittersweet and Vine Swinging)

Banshee and Seamus getting acquaintedFunny thing about epiphanies – not only are you glowing with insights about all that you never realized before, you are also glowing a little with shame at the silly things you did and said and thought before the revelation. Now I don’t plan to dwell too much on self recrimination, but I think it healthy to recognize a few minor revolutions in my perspective.

Last week, buried in a post that rambled on about phenomenology I mentioned that we had a gotten a new kitten and were nervous about how our cat Banshee would accept him. In trying to describe the way that we felt the need to control feline nature rather than allow it to take its natural course and hence were disassociated from the greater patterns the universe, I did apologize for lowering the tone of this space to encompass house pets. Well, I’m not sorry and I am about to do it again.

This afternoon I broke what has become a tradition for me since my husband started working Saturdays. Instead of hunching in my writing spot that is surrounded by windows and wondering if the squirrels were cold out there, I went out to join them. We have miles of trails behind the house – a nature preserve and state park in one direction and a great college town in the other – and it’s a big month if I get out there once. Ah yes, I am the ecofeminist who is too busy reading to feel actual wind in my hair.

I tried to make it a walking meditation; I realized there were brief statements sent in God’s general direction, but really I was just writing blog posts in my head and at one point was repeating “Row, row, row our boat” like a mantra. No real idea why the usual one was replaced with a nursery rhyme, but it might have been something to do with looking at the world through my mostly forgotten childhood eyes. I glanced at bittersweet on the way out and thought of the way Nanna used to collect armfuls of it. I noticed the milkweed pods, their white fur waiting for a strong breeze to send them dancing on the air and remembered collecting them near the swans’ marshes in Falmouth once upon a time.

On the return trip I saw a vine hanging across the path and wondered if I could jump and reach it. Even though the November afternoon chilled my exposed belly, I grabbed hold and swung for a while; this was not a typical Saturday afternoon. When I came upon a patch of milkweed this time I climbed through the brush to feel its silkiness and liberate a few dozen parachutes of seed. So this was what it was like to notice the outer world, to delight in all that it invited me to see, to be.

The sanitized, cerebral version of myself filtered through what I have studied presents an extremely limited view of who I am, and from what I know about epiphanies, they don’t thrive in the presence of limitation. How did I assume I could elucidate anything about my relationship to “Nature” when I was leaving out an inherent aspect of my own nature: I’m a sucker for anything four legged and furry. It’s a condition I’m really quite proud of and I do not even worry that this affliction gets worse with age (I slipped a promise of a puppy into my husband’s wedding vows – it’s been 13 months and Bacchus the golden retriever has yet to materialize, but that is another story).

So my cat related epiphany is about patience and trust. After only seven days, the newcomer has pretty much been accepted by herself. His name is Seamus, and he is really quite shameless, and his dance with Banshee has taught me more in the last week about acceptance and adaptability than any self-help guru I’ve had occasion to hear.S&B curled up

Nature, Ignored, Still Red In Tooth and Claw

Or, black in growl and hiss.

Today I started reading David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. The first sixty pages are heavy with my underlining and marginalia as I considered phenomenology and allowed myself to sink into his beautiful aesthetic, communing with condors and spinning with spiders. Phenomenology, to my limited understanding was first developed by Edmund Husserl as a “science of experience” rooted in the body’s direct interaction with other entities. The intention is to locate ourselves in the “real world” and realize that we can never be truly unbiased or unaffected because everything we observe is filtered through the experience of our own existence. Husserl feared that modern science was driving the West into crisis as a complete separation from the experience of being human was idealized in the pursuit of objective “truth.”

Others have taken up the thread of this philosophy so that it seems to validate the belief that everything we encounter is another universe in and of itself. We can never truly observe something in its entirety because we can never experience all planes of another’s existence. What I take from it at this point (admittedly without even finishing this particular chapter) is the inherently interconnected nature of all things because, to quote Abram’s rhetorical statement: “Does the human intellect, or ‘reason,’ really spring us free from our inheritance in the depths of this wild proliferation of forms? Or on the contrary, is the human intellect rooted in, and secretly borne by, our forgotten contact with the multiple nonhuman shapes that surround us?” Judging this book by its cover, I am thinking we are building to the recognition that we are an integral part of this world’s ecology obligated to work for its salvation and that observing and empathizing with the living creatures around us is only the beginning.

unhappy kittyBut really, this is a post about my cat(s?). (Just this once, I swear I am not turning to stupid pet tricks.) Our beloved four-year-old former alley cat who only drinks out of pint glasses always seemed desperately lonely when left alone for a weekend or even a workday, so when the opportunity came to adopt a homeless kitten we decided to see if Banshee wanted a pet. It has been a disastrous seven hours that has involved a lot of dueling dust bunnies to reclaim our quaking feline from beneath the bed. She is hissing and groaning and hiding and looking as miserable as any furry black faced mammal could without being caught in a trap or stuck in a well. But, you see, the book said that cats live longer when they have a companion and that if you follow these instructions for introducing a new kitten (not that we actually involved a neutral third party and performed a for-our-pet-only pantomime, but we read the page aloud and considered engaging in such absurdity) all will be assimilated nicely. And well, this is our domain and we are only looking out for Ms. Kitty’s best interest with our massive largely homo sapien cerebral cortices and we really must know best, so what if her first reaction is despair? The book also says we have to ignore the new little soul until alpha kitty tells us it is time to recognize her, so there is a four month old kitten hiding in a closet somewhere wondering who these giants are who seem so generous with the food but so stingy with the affection.

And so it goes that one can spend the morning reading about integrating with the brilliance that is the natural world, but still play dictator at home when it comes to the surrounding non-human life (I gleefully sucked up a bunch of spiders with the vacuum today too) – and play it badly. Because we lack the faculties to understand what it is that either of these quadrupeds is thinking we traumatize them both and inflict a mix of human morality and cat handbook logic (written by a biped, mind you) upon them. You see, I was all set to believe that Abrams really was able to chat with a squirrel, but I have to call this cat woman a lunatic because she contends Banshee can tell if I am even looking at the interloper while in another room. It seems we love nature in its place, safely within the pages of a book; it’s completely different in one’s living room. How can I hearken to the pulse of the planet if I cannot make my own cat purr?

If you’ll excuse me, I have to obsess over whether to try to touch our new pet and marvel at the burden of my sweet minded hypocrisy. They’re just cats, after all.

Right?