Well, That Sucked.

I. Resurfacing with Two Home Depot Anecdotes Illustrative of How My Life Was Going When You Weren’t Hearing From Me plus a Redemptive Story Concerning a Real Estate Agent

*ahem*

I’ve been away. I suppose you noticed, say, three-and-a-half years ago when I dropped my last blog which, upon a quick re-read, more or less laid out the conditions of a marriage that would never work though it could improve. But, no one meant for it to stay better, so it didn’t. We parted ways awkwardly and in a baffling grand finale in October 2018 that sent me into the darkest fifteen months of my life next to the last eight months of my drinking and the first seven months of my sobriety.

Pointless. Worthless. Scared shitless. This was my third time trying to survive a divorce including my parents’. How many families can one person lose before they go insane? How long can one person sustain performative normality while their fight-flight-and-freeze survival instincts have been on already for twenty-five years? Would I be able to stop myself from driving off the Howard Frankland bridge or would I crack and sail overboard one day, my flight instinct finally overriding my system?

During this time, I almost got in a fist fight with some dude in the Home Depot parking lot because I laid on the horn when he almost backed into me. In hindsight, I believe we were both fed up with the whole of life and were thrilled with the opportunity to take it out on someone. I confess that I decided for the one and hopefully only time in my life, as he was trying to run me off the road on Tyrone Boulevard while screaming ‘fuck you, fuck you, fuck you’, that I would kill him if it came to a face-to-face confrontation. I reached this decision calmly, which is how I also knew that I’d reached a level of self-awareness that would prohibit me from ever engaging with another inappropriate person in a terrible relationship.

During this time, I also got $40 for the pair of socks on my feet–also in the Home Depot parking lot. FORTY DOLLARS.

FOR THE SOCKS ON MY FEET.

Look, beloveds–I can’t explain to you how off-the-rails this time period was except to tell you that a perfectly normal-looking woman approached me as I was walking to my car with paint samples and Hambone. “I have to ask you something that sounds weird. Will you sell me your socks for $40?,” she says. No one was filming us from behind a car. No one was bum rushing me with a cue ball in a tube sock to brain me then steal my purse and dog. It was just a woman. I’d bought these socks five years prior at Play It Again Sports. They were yellow softball socks. Nothing special. I pulled my right foot out of my muck boot to show her the giant hole put there by Hambone. She made a phone call. “We’ll still take them,” she said.

I thought, well, hell’s bells, what do I have left to lose here? I’m either the asshole who sells her socks to a stranger in the Home Depot parking lot or I’m the asshole who doesn’t. And I was broke as hell then trying to sell a house with a mortgage on it while paying on the mortgage for my new house–a purchase that explains why I was always at Home Depot. Forty bucks is forty bucks. I took off my boots, pulled off my socks, handed them over, got $40 cash, and went home.

In the car, I said, “God, what the fuck is exactly going on here?” Then I laughed hysterically clutching two folded twenties because I couldn’t have made up a scene that weird for television. *And also, if she’s buying them for $40 … what is she selling them for? And to whom?*

During this time, I shouldered the grief of a child. That’s what was happening to me, after all. I’d staked my entire claim on one last shot at a happy family, and when it fell out from under my feet, I had to face the pain of all the other losses. I have a small couch in my office. There was a stretch of months where I would just wake up on it during the workday, my grief forcing me down down until it put me to sleep without my permission. From January t0 March 2019, I don’t remember much. Literally long stretches of time I don’t remember. I know I watched the entire series The Americans somewhere in there. I kept everybody fed. I didn’t take any time off work. I didn’t miss any deadlines. I showed up to rehearsals and performed in cabaret shows.

Outside of my mom, the people I thought should or would be there for me weren’t. I got a lot of radio silence from friends and family. I also got a lot of

I’m so sorry to hear about the divorce. But would you mind critiquing my poem? Writing this TV show for me?  Listening to me talk about my awful partner/boss/coworker/life situation because I need some support?

And

Oh, I just went through a break-up, too!

And

People laughing about it. Which was the strangest of all the reactions, like folks expected me to turn it into an impromptu stand-up routine: “He was like, no you get out! Then I was like No, YOU get out!” [pause for laughter] “I’ll be here all week, folks.”

Most of the packing and move I did alone or with the help of my one girlfriend with a pick up truck.  I sold the marriage house alone. I packed it up by myself, cleaned it, staged it, and hauled out everything left in the yards. I bought my new house alone. The cosmetic rehabbing of the new house I did alone. I pulled up carpet. I rolled up cat-pee-stained carpet pads and hauled them to the curb. I learned that you *can* get years of cat-pee-and-possibly-human-pee stained subfloor clean using multiple applications of Nature’s Miracle. Try it–you won’t be disappointed.

I didn’t have money for art, so in my crazy head space I started doing my own with old paint samples.

I didn’t know what I was doing, but I liked where this was going.

And it turned out really cool as far as I was concerned. The room has changed a lot since then, but the art remains.

I painted the rooms by myself except for one afternoon when a friend came over to roll while I cut. I painted art on the walls. I moved furniture alone. I painted the garage door, the shutters, the fascia under the entryway. I most likely sacrificed 4-7 years of my life inhaling Lime Away to clean all the bathroom grout. My girlfriend with the pick up truck showed up one weekend to help me demolish the roof from the collapsed gazebo in the backyard and cut and haul out about 300 pounds of jasmine vine. I rented a dumpster and filled it with the crap the previous owners left in the backyard including two partially full five-gallon buckets of liquified cow manure–which I discovered by accident in 85-degree heat.

Then I had some very unexpected people show up in meaningful ways. Like my real estate agent. He’d been around to help us buy the marriage house, so when I called him to help me sell it, I could see in his eyes that he felt the hurt I was in. He didn’t pity me, but his compassion for my situation was real. I was fucked up, and he knew it. He took it on himself to find me a house that would make me happy. That meant a lot; I’ll tell you that. In the end, he hooked me up with the house I’m in now–10 minutes from the beach, a rental that definitely needed lots of TLC but nothing major, and he had my back when it came time to get the good floors installed. He arrived weeks after closing, toolbox in hand, to fix the leaks at the washer/dryer hookups. He fixed the broken microwave fan. He stopped by for a visit with a pack of elaborate recessed lightbulbs for the kitchen and installed my ceiling spider light while he was at it.

Now, when I’m telling you I was fucked up–I was call-the-hotline fucked up. And I really needed my real estate agent showing up and installing the ceiling spider light for no other reason than he wanted me to have one less thing to do because somehow that proved that somebody physically present in my life cared about what happened to me. Those little gestures go a long way for somebody who was fucked up like I was fucked up in pretty much all of 2019.

My real estate agent Richard and me, goofing around after closing the day the marriage house sold.

 

II. The Recurring Nightmare about Being Lost on a Subway and the Introduction of a New Nightmare Involving Houses Made Partially of Blood

Y’all.

So I mentioned in a previous blog about the dream I had my junior year in college where The Cross appeared (I am Southern; the cross appears to us often) with the words STAY TRUE TO YOURSELF; THIS IS YOUR TEST. It was my dream, so I feel certain the semicolon happened. I woke knowing this message was the point of my life. Believing myself to be independent with a gross disproportion of above average intelligence, such a simple task–be true to yourself–seemed like a cinch. Watch me crush this.

However, twenty-five years after receiving the telegraph, I’m here to tell you I have failed stupendously almost every time I’ve been given the choice between doing what I knew to be right for myself or doing what I thought would be appropriate in the eyes and rule of others. Three times I passed with flying colors: 1) moving to D.C. after college 2) moving to Florida in 2011 and 3) maybe there were only the two times because now I can’t remember what number three was.

Anyway, it turns out this shit really is my test.

After D.C., whenever my life’s  journey took me into a shadowy place, I’d dream of being somewhere–maybe China, maybe New York City, maybe an overseas airport–lost on the subway system, unable to understand the map, sometimes unable to speak the language, revolving through turnstiles, shouted at for doing something wrong, stepping on a train out of desperation only to discover I’d chosen the one headed where I didn’t want to go. This dream picked up steam in my first marriage, sank into the mud of my subconscious for several years, then roared back into my dream life when I was getting sober in 2007. I bought my first house on my own shortly thereafter–again, at the suggestion of others and against my deep desire to never be a homeowner again–which is when I started to have the Nightmare House dream.

In this dream, I’d either be looking at houses to buy or I’d be living in the house with Husband One. Everything’d be fine then suddenly I’d feel the presence of unspeakable evil lurking in the bones of the house. I mean pure, unadulterated malice. This presence traveled inside the wall, following me from room to room. Sometimes I would turn to tell my husband we had to run, to sell, to live anywhere else only to discover he’d left the house to go to work. Knowing I was alone, the presence would start to take a physical form; I could feel it becoming whole in the attic–I was usually at the bottom of the stairs at this point–and I knew I only had a matter of seconds before this thing appeared at the top of the stairs. You know how this goes. Just at this moment, I lose the ability to move. Every step is like slogging through a tar pit. All I know is that I have to get out of the house before I look upon the thing’s face. If I see it–and it sees me–then Evil and I would know each other’s names. At that point, it could claim me. As of this writing, I have always made it out the front door in the nick of time.

After this second divorce–which, mind you, was not a “break up” but the detonation of the last infant hope I held that I would ever experience the safety found in a family of my very own–and after I was tucked away in my new special house by my awesome real estate agent, I started having the Lost on the Subway dream again, this time accompanied many nights by a new dream: the Blood House dream.

In this dream, I was always looking at houses to buy. I would find a great house, usually a funky old number in an established neighborhood. I’d tour the rooms realizing hey, this might be the one then I’d look up to notice the walls were made of blood. Sometimes the blood ran down the walls like the water feature in a membership spa waiting room. Other times, blood–not wood and drywall–made the wall itself. Literally a blood wall. Taken aback, I’d peek in the next room: blood walls there, too. By the time I turned to leave, whole sections of the house would be made of blood. And not solid blood, but coursing blood.

Living blood.

For those of you who know me, you know when I’m working something out I’m on it like dog on a bone which goes for my subconscious, too. I was having this dream almost every night for months on end. What was I trying to tell myself?

If you’ve glanced into Carl Jung’s dream interpretations, then you knew back when I was recounting the Nightmare House dream that I had trouble in my soul. Jung determined the house symbolized a person’s spiritual condition. Throw the manifestation of malice into physical form happening in your soul’s attic, and that’s probably something you should take a look at. Then, I’m in strange places–lost and trying to find my way. Finally, bloody walls when I’m emotionally and psychologically blown to smithereens and circling the drain around old and new family trauma?

I believe many if not most of us go through periods of life where so much of everything you didn’t want to have happen to you does–and there you are, all alone, wondering if you mean anything at all. I was at such a point, friends, and I’ve been at this crossroads before–enough times to know all my roads would always lead me here if I didn’t stab straight through the thing in me that made me get married again even though I knew I didn’t want to, knew it wasn’t best for me, and knew I could never stop myself from the mysterious allure of jobless boy men living off their parents and chasing fantasies of exceptionalism. Why could I not say no?

Because, at the end of the day, it was my house with the trouble inside. It was my living blood–my blood family–revealed as the walls of my soul.

Beloveds, I returned to the message: stay true to yourself; this is your test.

I sat. I got quiet. I started building stuff. I quit the cabaret. I dropped every relationship that held the soft stink of codependency, even ones I enjoyed. I taught myself to repair plumbing. I went back to AA. I started writing for myself again. I built my physical strength. I re-centered my life around the Wild One who loves me, who wants me; She is the only one I understand.

This work was necessary because I had to come to terms with the evil in the bones of the house. I needed a little prep time to remember who I was. I had to do the thing I avoided at the moment of impact: I had to take my heart in my hands and go back in my memory to the events surrounding the fallout and aftermath of my first family detonating. I had to stand at the portraits of our nuclear shadows–my mom, my dad, my brothers, and me–and say out loud in that abandoned space: “I got really hurt here. This hurt me. I have been carrying this hurt because I didn’t know what else to do with it. This pain helped me become almost indestructible. But it also prevented me from doing the things I needed to do to learn how to love and care for myself in the world.” There, I said it. I let myself feel humiliated at the depth of my feelings and just accepted that I feel a lot of shame about the fact that other people could hurt me. I let the monster in the attic get a long, hard look at me, then I left that place.

III. I Find Love Again

A funny thing happened in the midst of this icky emotional reckoning, around the time I was ending relationships and busy turning my heart into stone.

A neighbor sent a text message asking me if I had any friends who could re-home a rabbit. Her grown niece had gotten it for her daughters, but they were teens now and didn’t want to take care of it. Did I know anyone?

“Do you have a pic?” I texted back. As soon as I hit send, a little voice in me said you’re adopting this rabbit. I thought, no way. I have three cats, a dog, and a snake. I know nothing about rabbits. I don’t want a rabbit. I’ve never wanted a rabbit. What do you even do with a rabbit?

The pic came back. I posted it to Facebook asking for a home. No interest.

“Can I go look at him,” I texted my neighbor. Her niece lives three doors down from me. That Thursday night, I stood in their living room with my dog Hambone looking at a tiny, brown fuzzball with lop ears and perfectly round eyes. This is your rabbit, the voice said. Well, okay, then. “I’ll be back to get him on Saturday at noon,” I said.

“Well, fuck, Hambone,” I said as we waked back home. “I guess we’re getting a rabbit.”

I watched a lot of videos, read a lot of articles, and that Saturday Geoffrey Bunson came to live at my house for good. Let me just tell you that I did not know I needed a rabbit. But the Wild One who loves me did. That adorable, furry little fucker stood on his hind legs right in front of me and started stroking and nibbling his long, saggy ears like a cartoon. He hopped around. He made chirpy happy noises when I gave him a raisin. My heart exploded, transforming me instantly into a crazy bunny lady (just scroll my feeds). I built him a huge open-air hutch for the living room that is probably half the size of my freshman dorm room. I would take a bullet for this rabbit. If terrorists abducted him, I would hunt them down to the ends of the earth and make them bleed after securing Geoffrey in a warm, cozy shelter full of banana chips. I don’t even recognize myself anymore I am so in love with this bun bun.

But, as they say, love arrives when you least expect it. And lots of times it doesn’t look at all like you anticipated.

Geoffrey about one month after adoption

 IV. Conclusion; or, Lessons Learned

I can’t say I enjoyed the personal, spiritual crucible that was 2013-2019. I can’t say that at all. But I can say I am relieved to be here, right now, with you, concluding it in writing. All’s well that end’s well, I suppose.

I do hope this long confessional inspires me to return to blogging about more hilarious episodes involving the miracles that happen when I stay true to myself. I penned this epistle to etch the lesson onto the tablet of my heart: STAY TRUE TO YOURSELF; THIS IS YOUR TEST.

If you stayed with me until the end, I thank you. If you gave up in the dream section and skipped ahead and are just reading this part, I thank you for that, too.

night, night beloveds. I hope you stay true to yourselves, too.

 

 

 

 

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I quit telling the truth.

I haven’t wanted to write this blog for a long time.

Where have you been?

Are you writing blogs anymore?

Sorry I haven’t been keeping up with your blog. Oh, you haven’t been writing any? Glad to know I didn’t miss anything.

*

Here’s what happened: I got married to someone I didn’t know. I left a life I loved very much because I got married to someone I didn’t know. Our dreams fell through. We got good jobs we didn’t love. I chose a safe, relatively well-paying office job as a copywriter that turned full time after I finished my novel and had no more excuses about why I couldn’t work full time. There was depression. There was therapy. There was a rather lengthy period of instability where the word divorce lurked like a shadow. There was more depression, more therapy. More confusion about how things went so far sideways of what we had promised each other. I did not drink. My wild spirit felt the walls closing in, and she went somewhere. Wherever it is, far away from me, she goes to. I tried to dance. I tried to make friends. I tried to love Tampa. I tried to make sense of what was happening. I learned the office politics, I learned the way they speak. I got a new title and a director-level position. I had proven ability to perform other duties as required. I grew to fit the mask. I grew into Andy’s house after I grew too tired to fight anymore about why we needed to start our own life. I fought for my marriage. I fought for my sanity. I fought even though I felt low.

I miss you. You look so happy on Facebook!

I did well for myself in my new life with the name that I don’t really belong to.

I went a little mad.

*

When I started this blog at the end of 2011, when I got in the car crash that catapulted me from North Carolina to the Florida Everglades to start a new life, the idea was that I would have a public forum to practice my ability to tell the truth, uncensored, un-re-revised, which, honestly, wasn’t that great. You haven’t heard from me since 2013–not really–although I did publish a handful of blogs about my work with animals in sanctuary, the crazy traumatology internship I decided to take, and the ongoing re-education of the white public perception of racism–a re-education totally related to animals in sanctuary and the crazy traumatology internship.

I did try to write to you, beloved. I tried. There were so many cool things I experienced: skinny dipping one afternoon with my gorgeous friend Kimmi in San Diego during whale mating season. I was pretty bummed you never got to hear about that. And Sam the Tiger. He died. I wrote to Jim, the man who cared for Sam, after Sam died and admitted that my time with Sam was the closest I have ever come to being with Jesus. I don’t mean that metaphorically, as though it were a religious experience. I mean Sam was, in all ways that I have ever been taught, a Son of Earth and a Son of God. I wish so much that I had been able to come home from my time with him and Jim in the last days and write about it, what it meant to me to sit in the presence of Sam’s embodiment of himself. It was Kingly, the calm of him, the absolute certainty of his sense of everything. Maybe one day I will, beloved, because it is something vitally important about the Mystery. In Sam, I met the Unknowable, and I loved it with all of my ability to love, with some crazy, outer-space kind of feeling, without caring whether or not that love was returned to me. Who am I to get that kind of lesson? What am I supposed to do with that? How do I explain the deep, deep, deeply comforting smell of tiger pee?

Sam on my feet

The last afternoon I spent with Sam.

But, I could not. I wrote titles, first paragraphs. Then: nothing. The writing wasn’t there. And by that I don’t mean I was resistant, lazy, posturing about writer’s block. I mean: there was nothing there. In me. Zip. Zilch. Nada. A dusty old well. That was that. My wild spirit was gone. There was nothing to say.

*

Days dripped by. I quit telling the truth. I went to work. I called old friends. I studied trauma. I studied captivity. I related. I felt ungrateful. Privileged. I talked so much shit. I gained ten pounds. I talked so much shit all the time. About my job. About my husband. About my birth family. About having to get sober because how do you never ever ever get to take the edge off ever and fuck yoga. About my many friends who constantly post pictures of themselves doing yoga in bikinis on the beach. About the soul-sucking, aging Greek Week mixer that is Tampa, Florida. I found some friends at work who also love talking shit so we talked shit together. In canoes. On the sidewalk. At lunch. In the car on our way to volunteer opportunities that we also talked shit about. We talked shit and we laughed. Andy and I fought. But our fighting isn’t like fighting. It’s like ninja intellectuals fighting. Fighting about your emotions with no emotions. It sucks. No one wins.

We loved each other. We were sad. Andy called our therapist an asshole. During therapy. We saw another therapist. It worked.

I found ways to love my job. So did Andy. We moved into our own place in a small, funky beach town full of other weirdos. It feels nice. I made gratitude lists in my head. I started doing the annoying business of appreciating what I had instead of what I didn’t have. That also worked. We bought me a kayak and named her Necky Moore. We started reading Urban Tantra. Things got better.

This morning, I woke up and knew I would start writing again, that it was time. But, I thought I was going to get to write a mic-dropping blog on my perspectives of the current situation involving attitudes about race and racism after Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officer massacre. I didn’t know I would have to write this overtly confessional blog first at a seemingly inappropriate moment socially. But, I don’t get to pick. The wild spirit returns from her wintering den, and She is.

Oh, Woman, where have you been?

*

My dad, whom I’ll really-really write about at some point because oh my god, gave me only two pieces of useful life advice. But, they are so extraordinary that they negate all the other totally inaccurate things he’s told me:

  1. “Marlowe, sometimes in life, you have to look at what you’ve done and go, ‘I totally fucked up there,’ and move on.”
  2. “Things go bad. Then things get good again. Then they go bad. Then they get good. Then go bad again. That’s just life.”

Things went good. I fucked up. Then they went bad. I moved on. Now they’re getting good again.

That’s where I’ve been. And that’s the truth.

*

night, night beloveds.

 

 

 

 

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Rooster Business and the Flight of the Glitter Dragons

I was fine until they hauled the two live roosters up the hill by their wings.

Two men, one bird each, pushed through our small crowd crushed on a steep hill of a remote beach on the Cuban coast, outside of Santiago. It was late afternoon, and several houses of devotees congregated in separate ceremonies on the beach. Cantos. Tambors. Songs, drumming from our hill down to ceremonies at the far end of the beach. Below us, three men waded into the sea with a massive goat overhead, climbing onto a large, table-like boulder with the live animal. 

Oh fuck. I contemplated dashing down the hill away from the rum, the plastic multi-colored bowls of diced melon, squash and yams, arinas, dried beans, the large cast-iron cauldron circled in cut sticks of sugar cane. Away from the whole dried fish and the small, gold statue of Jesus Crucified in front of the black pot. Away from the sharp kitchen knife tucked between a watermelon and the ground.

But I didn’t. I stayed for the tying of the roosters’ feet. I stayed for the ceremonial blessing of the bird on each attendee. I felt the soft, warm feathers touch my forehead, my wrists, my feet. I stayed while the babalawo produced the knife, invoked its sacred purpose, crossed us each on the forehead with the flat side of the blade.

I forced myself to watch the blade slip through the rooster’s throat. He did not thrash. His red eye moved, that was all. The goat on the rock below thrashed, though. Rooster blood anointed our altar. Red stripes across the melons. Blood dripped from the gold statue’s hands and head. I stayed for the second rooster, too. When it was done, the baba gently arranged their bodies in a ceremonial basket and took them with the other offerings to the sea. We honored the Mother of All Water with our songs, our holy sacrifices.

I don’t remember what happened to the body of the goat.

*

I arrived late in the evening to Jungle Friends in September 2015, around 9:30 p.m, traveling from a Member Day event at Save the Chimps, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, about four hours southeast from Jungle Friends, a monkey sanctuary in Gainesville. That week, on September 14, the United States Fish and Wildlife Commission’s ruling to place wild and captive chimpanzees on the endangered species list went into effect. The classification is a move forward for protecting chimpanzees from human use. Humans share roughly 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees. They are, along with bonobos, our closest living relatives on Earth. Most of the residents at Save the Chimps arrived from biomedical labs and entertainment companies, many in dire psychological conditions and one, an old female, couldn’t allow herself to go outside for a year. In time, she made bonds with some other chimps who taught her it was okay to leave her room. But still, she relies on holding onto a railing for fear, as far as her caregivers observe, of being locked out of her safe place.

From Save the Chimps. Groups of chimps live on islands with minimal human interaction.

From Save the Chimps. Groups of chimps live on islands with minimal human interaction.

Well, get here safely, Kari, the owner of Jungle Friends, emailed me after I sent her a note that I was heading her way. And all I have to say is CHIMPS DROOL, MONKEYS RULE!!!! 🙂

Kari met me at the Jungle Friends gate in her golf cart, leading me to my quarters–a trailer they referred to as The Shire. She handed me take away containers full of leftovers from their vegan communal dinner.

“TVP sloppy joe, sauteed vegetables, marinated portobello, some salad. And here’s breakfast.” She placed a container of soy yogurt in the fridge and a few granola bars on the counter.

Later, my husband, a former vegetarian, had to tell me TVP meant “textured vegetable protein.” Why non-meat eaters don’t concoct more delectable names for their food baffles me. It’s not hard. Look at sweetbreads: they’re actually glands and offal, but who, if given a choice, would pick “TVP” over something called “sweetbreads”?

I sat on the plush, second-hand couch and imagined having to live the rest of my life in that trailer without ever being able to go outside. It had everything that, on paper, by scientific standards, a human being could want. A bathroom, full fridge, bed with pillows and blankets, climate control, clean running water, laundry room, and even enrichment activities like wi-fi, TV, puzzles and windows. What if I had to live with Randi, the sanctuary worker who lived in The Shire full time, for the rest of my life because we were two humans so why wouldn’t we be happy together? Humans are social creatures and need the company of their own kind.

I can barely stand confinement to an office cubicle two and a half days a week. My guess is I’d be self-mutilating in that trailer within two years.

Unless people came to take me out of the trailer so they could inject me full of diseases and observe my reactions so humans could live longer. Then maybe I would never want to leave it.

*

I didn’t find out until the next day that ChiChi, one of the elderly capuchins, died in Kari’s arms while I was touring Save the Chimps. ChiChi was one of the first monkeys brought into sanctuary with Kari, acknowledged as a great teacher and friend. Kari posted pictures of ChiChi’s death on Facebook along with a deeply personal eulogy. “She was one of my best friends,” Kari told me later, over lunch in her trailer in a section of the Wizard of Oz-themed sanctuary called Kansas. “We’d been together since 1995. That’s a long time to know somebody.” She’d wrapped ChiChi in a blanket and laid beside her until she died.

Most Jungle Friends supporters are aware that it’s a hospice sanctuary. In that framework, death is not hidden or decorated in euphemism. Death happens openly, with compassionate acceptance, as a final chance for the living to honor the dignity of a life. But one Facebook reader, a nurse, blasted Kari for sharing images of ChiChi’s death on the grounds that death was awful. “But it’s the reality,” Kari said. “It’s the most natural part of life. It’s something we need to know about and share.” She gave me a sad smile. “If it’s at all possible, monkeys die here surrounded by their friends and the people who loved them.”

From Jungle Friends' FB page. ChiChi, saved from an uncertain future when the circus she worked for folded, grooms Jimmy in this photo of her early years in sanctuary.

From Jungle Friends’ FB page. ChiChi, saved from an uncertain future when the circus she worked for folded, grooms Jimmy in this photo of her earlier years in sanctuary.

That Tuesday, we drove to the Orlando airport to pick up Cuzco, a capuchin retired to Jungle Friends by a zoo out west, when Kari’s phone rang.

“They’re doing what?” she said. “To the United Kingdom? Did you tell them you have room? Uh huh. Hm. Yes. Uh huh. No, I hadn’t heard that.”

The caller turned out to be a well-known chimpanzee expert and sanctuary founder.. She and Kari are on the steering committee of NAPSANorth American Primate Alliance, to create a unified voice for the welfare of captive primates. The caller phoned Kari to disclose that a prestigious primate research center in the south, as a result of the September 14th ruling, was retiring its chimpanzees. Instead of placing them in a sanctuary, the university administration decided to place the chimpanzees in a wildlife park in the United Kingdom.

“Not a good placement,” Kari said. “Sunny Florida is much nicer.”

 

But some labs don’t want to front money to sanctuaries for lifetime care of these valuable contributions to research who happen to be our genetic family. And sanctuaries must tread a tricky political path to get biomedical research animals to sanctuary, which is still a relatively new idea in a field that previously tended to kill or sell of animals at the end of the project or the animal’s usefulness, whichever came first.

“We had an animal rights activist once stage an extreme protest at a lab that had a capuchin we really wanted to get out of there and into Jungle Friends. I had almost negotiated his release to us when she went to the media, called in all kinds of threats about what she was going to do if they didn’t free him, like fire bomb the lab and the students. In the end, her actions were ruled domestic terrorism, so the lab couldn’t comply with her demands. The lab didn’t release the monkey to me–that monkey is dead,” Kari said to me. “It’s very delicate and serious what we’re trying to do because most people, even animal lovers, never question the assumption of their own beliefs in human superiority.”

*

Farm animals taught me how to speak.

What does the cow say?

What does the duck say?

What does the rooster say.

*

The Man in the Yellow Hat stole Curious George from his family in the jungle by luring him into a bag because he wanted a little monkey for a pet. Then he put George in a zoo, explaining he will like it better there, in the big city. Then George goes through a series of plots that involve him getting punished for not following rules he doesn’t understand and never having the ability to speak on behalf of his own innocence.

Curious George remains one of the best selling children’s books of all time.

*

Cuba wasn’t my first ceremony that involved ritual animal sacrifice, just the first time I ever forced myself to witness it. I’d been in a ceremony once before in Brazil, but the goat–much smaller there–was killed in a private, more sacred ritual before the ceremony I was allowed to attend.

And there were the combined 76 Thanksgivings and Christmases of my life so far, tallying roughly 450 turkeys and pigs (two sides of the family plus our family) slaughtered for a sort of second-hand sacred observance. Of those roughly 450 animals, I witnessed zero of them being killed for our table. We did not pray over their sacrifice for our holidays, although we did pray. For ourselves, our family, people going through hard times.

*

I had seen rooster business once before, in Brazil, when a friend of mine got a particularly challenging reading from a priestess of candomble, and her path had to be cleared by a sacrifice.

I tagged along out of anthropological curiosity, playing checkers in the TV room with the 10-year-old daughter while my friend and the grandmother-priestess dressed in their whites and disappeared into the kitchen.

I saw them one other time, when they came out of the kitchen, rooster dangling upside down but still alive in the old woman’s hand, knife in the other. My friend looked at me bug-eyed, some mixture of terror and humility on her face, before they disappeared again into the kitchen.

“I can’t talk about it,” she said to me when I asked what happened. “Maybe not ever. I’m just saying rooster business went down in there and now there’s blood on my life. You don’t go back from that. I owe it to that bird to make something happen now.”

You don’t go back to the person you were when you witness the sacrifice. That’s something I learned on the hill in Cuba. A year later, working at Jungle Friends monkey sanctuary and contemplating Curious George, I understood what bothered me most was not bearing witness to the slaying of the rooster, which was terrifying for a few reasons. What bothered me most was knowing we rendered him incapable of choosing for himself in that moment.

*

“So, nobody knows what happens when you die. Everybody’s just made something up, right, so you might as well make up something really good. When I think about the places that some people describe as where you go when you die, depending on how “good” or how “bad” you were, I’m like, I’m not sure that’s my kind of afterlife.” Kari pushed her empty plate of lemon pie across the placemat. With her mother’s blessing, she moved into an ashram in Arizona at 17 years old but got kicked out after passing out drunk in the prayer room. Despite that seeming failure, the experience set Kari on her spiritual path and towards veganism. Today she counts among the regular attendees of Michael Singer‘s Temple of the Universe ashram about seven miles from Jungle Friends.

“I totally know what’s going to happen to me when I die,” I said.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, I so know.”

“Let me tell you mine first. Then you go.”

“Okay,” I said.

In Kari’s afterlife, you can choose to go into a time machine and be whatever you want whenever you want. With this version, Kari knows her mother, and ChiChi, will come back to her in some other form. “We get all these stray dogs, you know? I’m always like, Mom…? Mom? But, nothing yet.”

In my version, the moment my body crashes and its lights go out, I explode into my true form: a giant dragon made of glitter. I exist in multiple dimensions at once, and I can see everything, I understand everything, which is nothing but my righteous belonging to the Universe. To the human eye, I look a lot like the pictures from the Hubble telescope.

Pillars of Creation from Hubble Telescope images

Pillars of Creation from Hubble Telescope images, or Me When I Die

 

“Not bad,” Kari said. “I like it. I think I’d be green, green with maroon. What color are you?”

“White. Silvery-white. With turquoise and red accents.”

“Then what happens, do you stay that way forever?”

“No, when you’re done you blow up and glitter rains everywhere,” I said.

“Duh. Of course.”

Kari drove me back to The Shire along The Yellow Brick Road, passing the sleeping cotton top tamarins and marmosets. I’d agreed to go to Temple with her on Sunday morning–again, mostly out of anthropological curiosity.

We ran a bit late and arrived at the tail end of the chanting in time for Michael’s talk about letting go of fear of death and embracing each moment of right now as a passing flow of life that we can uplift–this, he would tell us, is the simple key to enjoying every moment of our lives.

“Because nobody,” he said. “And I mean NOBODY knows what’s gonna happen when we die.”

Beside me, Kari leans over to whisper “glitter dragons” before closing her eyes to meditate for the rest of the hour.

I think about chimpanzees heading for the United Kingdom and how they will explode into glitter dragons one day. All the monkeys isolated in pet shops, elephants chained and living alone or giving tourists rides in Thailand and in Florida roadside flea markets. The tigers penned up in junkyards in Ohio, the crates of chickens crapping on each other in warehouses in countless factory farms. Lions bred for canned hunts in Texas and children trafficked all over the world because no one ever stopped The Man in the Yellow Hat from taking exactly what he wanted for no other reason than he wanted it, and we never stop reinforcing this goddamned miserable perversion into very tiny, very formidable human minds.

curious-george2

I imagine the flight of the glitter dragons because it’s a better ending than most.

The veterinarian who oversees medical care at Save the Chimps told us how the chimpanzees grieve when one of their loved ones dies, how they scream to alert everyone of the news, then congregate, touch the body, and, one by one, walk away when they have made their peace with the moment. Once, she said, a female stayed with the body of her friend for one hour, and the staff there never interrupted, never tried to control the natural process of communal grief in the chimp culture, of forcing the female to leave the body of her friend before she was ready. It reminded me, in some way, of Kari.

Sometimes it is quite easy to uplift the moment as it comes our way. By doing nothing but leaving animals to their own business.

Jude and JB. From NPR files.

Jude and JB. From NPR files.

*

night night beloveds.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

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I End Up at a Monkey Sanctuary Called Jungle Friends

I. Dinner with Kari

“So I say, ‘Okay, sir. Explain to me exactly how you’re going to get AIDS from my monkeys?’ and he says, ‘I’ll tell you exactly how. Those monkeys will be up in the trees, and they urinate. That pee goes into the ground water, and I’m downhill from you, so that pee is now in the water my sheep drink. That’s how.'”

Kari Bagnall and I sat at her kitchen table amid empty plates of mac and cheese, green bean casserole and soy chik’n patties, the mac and cheese and green bean casserole are gifts from a kind woman whose former pet monkeys now live at Jungle Friends, Kari’s monkey sanctuary. “I keep telling people we’re vegan, which includes cheese and milk, but I have to be freegan sometimes,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. The small rescue dogs Jackie and Potter hovered at our feet trying to wait patiently for someone to put a plate on the floor. Kari’s house, a spacious trailer, is one of several that dot the sanctuary property, providing on-site housing for the primate caregivers, where they can live rent-free and a short walk or golf-cart ride to their work area. Everyone on site must agree to be vegan while on the property, often sharing communal meals at night and using the leftovers for tomorrow’s lunches. Kari’s white-blonde bob managed to always stay perfect despite Kari’s round-the-clock life dedicated to the care of and fundraising for 300 monkeys and seven parrots. I’d been immersed as a primate caregiver for four days, and I already looked like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.

“‘Kari, be good,’ I told myself,” she said, picking up her story. “‘Be a good person. Don’t ask him how AIDS is going to get from the sheep to him.’ And I held my tongue. It was hard, but I did it. Here you go, Jackie.” She placed her plate on the floor, Jackie pouncing on the gobs of cheese goo and cream-of-mushroom soup leftovers. “You can give yours to Potter,” she instructed me. I put my plate on the floor. Potter was happy until Jackie finished her plate and took over his. He laid down under my chair.

Kari–pronounced Carrie–relocated her monkey sanctuary from Vegas to Gainesville, and she thought she’d be courteous and introduce herself and her work to the neighbors. She and her mother picked Florida because the climate suited their growing number of new world monkeys (monkeys from South and Central America) and moving to Texas was out of the question. Her mom Googled a Florida political map, found one blue area in a sea of red, noticed it was a university town and reported to Kari that “we might be safe here. It’s called Gainesville.”

At the county commission hearing for Kari’s special land permit, several of her neighbors showed up to protest the permit on the grounds that they didn’t want themselves and their children to get AIDS and die. Apparently the urine-runs-downhill neighbor held a meeting to explain to everyone the trouble that was coming to town, despite Kari’s info packets containing documents from the Center for Disease Control and the Jungle Friends vets explaining that the monkeys of Jungle Friends were safe and not the species of monkeys who carried SIV, simian-immunodeficiency virus.

After a string of AIDS arguments, the county commissioner finally had enough and forbade anybody else from bringing up AIDS. “He was like ‘what don’t you understand, these monkeys don’t carry AIDS.’ Very exasperated. We all were.” Kari and Jungle Friends got their permit and a decent reminder that they weren’t in Vegas anymore.

Leaving the courthouse, a young woman in tears approached Kari.

“‘But Kari,’ this woman said to me, ‘I don’t want my babies to die of AIDS!’ And you know what I told her? I said, ‘Then you’d better teach your children not to come over to my place and share needles and have sex with my monkeys.'”

*

II. The Caregivers Take Me Under Wing: A Montage

Toothless. Geriatrics. Diabetics. Regular. Spiders.

No sunflower seeds for the spider monkeys, they don’t have thumbs. They get leaf-eater biscuits, not regular monkey biscuits. And the capuchins get about 15 biscuits in their bowls, but you can kind of eyeball it instead of specifically count. This special mix is for the geriatrics, they get more fun stuff because they’re old and we don’t have to worry too much about diets, like with the diabetics. We are very strict about their diets, we watch their sugar intake constantly. Got it down to only two who need insulin shots anymore. Lots of pet monkeys end up diabetic, you know. Toothless spiders get these special biscuits because they’re softer.

Because people have monkeys’ teeth pulled. So when they get bit it doesn’t hurt as bad.

Max gets Ensure. Blind Buddha gets boost. Gotta make sure the diabetic’s partner gets a dummy treat, you never give one monkey something and not the other. Or take something without giving something in return. It’s serious business.

*

Jungle Friends in Photographs

*

If you go in the squirrel or spider areas, you’re dirty. Squirrel-ized. This means you can’t go in the munchkins or you might spread a virus the squirrels naturally carry to the marmosets or tamarins. It’s harmless to the squirrels or other monkeys and us, but it can kill the munchkins. So if anyone asks if you’re dirty, don’t take it personally.

This area is Kansas. Where the capuchins live. We have over 100. Five different species. This dirt road here is the Yellow Brick Road. It goes to Oz. The new squirrel monkeys from the lab out West live there, they’ve only been here a few months, and the Oz Boys, the male brown capuchins some people call them tufted capuchins, live down there too, by The Shire.

We have a researcher whose university wanted him to start invasive research. He said no, gave up his funding, got his monkeys moved here. That’s how we ended up with these cotton top tamarins.

No, a lot of universities euthanize their monkeys. Or sell them off to other labs. Or zoos. Retiring them to sanctuaries is a new idea. That’s how we got the 57 new squirrel monkeys. All cognitive research. Oh yes, they’re smart.

These are our freezers, Christopher Walk-in and Walk-in Phoenix. Help yourself to any of the fruits or veggies.

Do you want to go with me to give insulin shots? Great. But stand back, monkeys are wary of new people. A lot of these guys are going to mess with you until they get to know you. That’s how monkeys are.

He’s flirting with you. It’s rude to not flirt back. Rub your chest like this. Raise your eyebrows like this. Mmmmmmmneh  Mmmmmmmmneh that’s capuchin for I like you, you’re good looking.

Do you want to come with us to pick up Cusco from the Orlando airport? White-fronted capuchin. He’s being retired from a zoo. Self-attacking too much. Yes. Be ready at 4:30. We’ll have the cooler packed, our crash kit ready, and we always hope they arrive alive. This guy was shipped from China to L.A. as a baby. They had no papers in China so he and his family sat there a few days, then China shipped them back to L.A. By the time the crate got to L.A., Cusco’s family was dead and he’d had to cannibalize some of them to stay alive. He was two years old then went into a zoo. So, you understand, flying is probably going to be a bad memory for him. He likes blankets, stuffed animals, and easy listening music, so let’s make sure we have all of that.

From the Jungle Friends Facebook page, Kari makes a special "Easy Listening" Pandora station for Cusco for our ride with him from Orlando back to Jungle Friends.

From the Jungle Friends Facebook page. Kari makes a special “Easy Listening” Pandora station for Cusco for our ride with him from Orlando back to Jungle Friends.

Ah, yeah. You may want to duck under their runways. They like to reach down and pull your hair. Did he get you? Not that time? Just wait.

*

Munchkinland is all the tamarins and marmosets. These are the cats of the monkey world. They are happy for you to serve them, and they don’t have to care about you. And you fall in love with them. Momo is now giving you stink face. That’s marmoset intimidation. Do you feel intimidated? It’s hard, I know, they’re so small and cute. We all feel bad about adoring the stink face. We all get it. That’s Zabbu, but we call her Flabbu or Zabbuddha because she has gotten so mysteriously fat. We’re working with the vet to figure out why. Look at her, that’s a big woman. Zabbu the Hutt.

Ricky self-attacks. His human’s boyfriend was about to kill him. Ricky started eating his own feet. He’s on Fluoxetine, monkey Prozac. We had a portly man volunteer here, he stopped and stared at Ricky. Ricky spent the next day attacking himself. Makes you wonder what the boyfriend looked like. Yep.

No, seriously. These banana spiders are everywhere. I walked through a web and one got in my hair. You can imagine I freaked out. That little tamarin watched the whole thing go down, no reaction, then the spider walked towards his habitat and bam! Grabbed him and ate him. It was awesome.

We’ve got so many monkeys. Eventually we can find monkeys who can be friends, companions for each other. We’ve had some luck finding mother figures for some of the younger or newer males, and they can be happy monkeys together.

This is Nicor. He’s a cotton top tamarin. His mama attacked him when he was just a baby, that’s how he lost most of his tail and one leg. He and his girlfriend had to be separated recently. He self-attacks and has bone marrow leaking out of his good leg causing him pain. So, put the Buprenorphine in the banana. Poor thing’s on enough meds for a grown man. He screams like that some days. Where did he come from? Lab.

He’s from a lab.

Nicor. His researcher human made sure he ended up in sanctuary and checks on him often. Kari is quick to point out many researchers, in her experience, do not want to test on animals. Nicor was used in non-invasive tests, and Kari, among others, work to collaborate with universities to retire their lab monkeys into sanctuary for lifetime care.

Nicor. His researcher human made sure he ended up in sanctuary and checks on him often. Kari is quick to point out many researchers, in her experience, do not want to test on animals. Nicor was used in non-invasive tests, and Kari, among others, work to collaborate with universities to retire their lab monkeys into sanctuary for lifetime care.

 

*

III. A Few Notes About Sanctuaries

They are not open to the public, they do not buy, sell or breed animals, and they do not trade animals. They are not rescues. They are specific spaces for animals to be animals without having to somehow serve humanity. If you ever purchase an admission ticket to go to a sanctuary, it is not a sanctuary. It is a zoo.

Working with animal care is very hard, very monotonous, very rewarding work that involves a lot of cleaning. I mean sweeping, scooping poop, wiping up poop, mopping up poop, sweeping up old food, mopping up old food, chopping food, putting bowls down, picking bowls up, locking gates, unlocking gates. Lifting heavy shit. In Florida, in September, this is done in 90 degree heat. You have moments where you wonder what your master’s degree thesis advisor would think about you spending hours of your day scraping fecal matter out of little metal food bowls with a dollar store spatula.

But you also get to see lab monkeys learning to live in the sunlight. You pick up a monkey in a box from the airport and, a few days later, see him engaged in plucking leaves from his own banana tree, making friendly overtures to the monkey next door. You hear stories about monkeys who lived their childhoods in basements discovering grass and learning the joys of grooming another monkey. You meet a comical pair of capuchins named Don King and Sloth who always want to clown around with you on your way home from a long day. One moment, in a fit of self-important irritation at having to yet again sweep the squirrel monkey house, you understand that these very animals had their lives stolen so humans could gain some bit of knowledge. The least you can damn do is offer them a clean place to live. All that, to me, is worth lifting heavy objects in the hot sun and using a spatula to scrape poop out of a food bowl.

*

IV.  Afield in Trans-Species Psychology and Observations Thus Far

In August, I started an internship with The Kerulos Center in trans-species psychology and traumatology. I read an article about the center and its founder, Dr. Gay Bradshaw, in my Humane Society magazine, contacted her immediately, and began my studies in sanctuary, traumatology, and psychological kinship among species. So intensely fascinating are these studies in neuroscience, trauma and recovery, and re-thinking the notion of human privilege that I wanted hands-on experience in a sanctuary. I found Jungle Friends, and Kari invited me for a 9-day working interview to immerse myself in what it is like to be a primate caregiver in a hospice sanctuary.

Animals need sanctuary because their selves and their cultures are fractured by human will and the strange human desire to objectify animals and deny them rights to their own freedom. Basically, Descartes’ and Linneaus’ ideas of human superiority, the efficiency of categories, and the made-up hierarchy called “the great chain of being” placed humans directly under God and everything else under us in level of importance. These two “great thinkers” shaped the foundations of Western philosophies which also neatly rationalized that “savages” of dark skin fell somewhere down on the great chain, as they qualified as animals (my friends studying post traumatic slave syndrome will understand these ideas all too well). So, it was okay to enslave Africans, capture pygmys and bring them back to Europe as pets, and storm the wilderness for exotic animals to capture, massacre, enslave, and prop up the still very active industries of entertainment and exotic pet trading. Today, in 2015, we continue to act out this largely unexamined, human-held belief that humans are totally supposed to factory farm, hunt, own, capture, force to work, force to entertain, breed, experiment upon, and offer animals as ritual sacrifices.

But what about what’s happening to them and their cultures as we continue to treat animals this way? As they continue to witness us doing this to them? What do we make of the mounting evidence of their quite effective means of sharing information about us?

What are we to do about ending the very need for sanctuaries when there are segments of humans who honestly think you can contract AIDS because your sheep drink water with monkey pee in it?

The field of trans-species psychology integrates neuroscience, ethology (animal behavior) and psychology to talk about the reality of our shared existence instead of the false notion of human superiority that drives ideas asserting animals are not like humans and vice versa. We all share brain structures and processes, so what can happen to the human mind most certainly can happen to the monkey mind, dog mind, elephant mind, etc etc.

Humans long ago gave up our ability to speak the languages of nature, most of us, anyway. Some of us are working diligently to remind ourselves how it goes, and we have a lot to learn from the many people who have immersed themselves in animal cultures to rekindle the sacred trust that is our right, indigenous relationship to our animal kin. The greatest obstacle for animals is that they do not speak human, and so we say animals can not speak. Worse, they have no right to a voice in their own experience because they do not speak our language. They have no rights. Most humans, even very well-intentioned ones, even animal lovers and animal rights activists and owners of rescues, interact with animals because it gives something to the human. Money, a sense of connection to nature, a boost of pride, a shot of the kind of thrill unique to dominating another.

I have a ton of blood on my hands, friends. I didn’t get to Jungle Friends and a mid-life career change to talk about traumatology in human and nonhuman animal cultures because I’m a saint. I’ve done everything on the list of crimes above except go on a hunt. Though, I imagine my six years in my first marriage of sitting by while my husband and his dad and brother killed for sport qualifies me as an accomplice. I let it all happen because I didn’t have the legs to stand on to defend the animals except to know how dismal and angry it made me, and my emotional response wasn’t enough “proof” that it was so terribly fucked up the way we all thought about what we were doing.

Nicor screaming is the same screaming of an orphaned refugee. Different species, same trauma. Same need to be taken in.

Same need for sanctuary.

*

night, night beloveds. There are way too many tales to tell about my time at Jungle Friends and, by extension, my work with Dr. Bradshaw in trans-species psychology to cover in one blog. Look for more to come–I could write a book about the nine days I spent with Kari and the Jungle Friends staff, who are tremendous and generous people, at least the ones who took me under wing.

As of September 29, 2015, Jungle Friends needs primate caregivers (they will train), an office manager, and possibly some other positions. If you are interested in taking on this kind of work, Kari may be interested in you. See the Jungle Friends website for her email address. 

 

 

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Mother Emanuel, American Holocaust

Friday afternoon in July in Charleston, South Carolina and the heat is in the mid-90s. The black woman, whose name I never got, sweats in the sun, removing dead flowers, dried wreaths, and the other desiccated offerings at the foot of Mother Emanuel AME church, three weeks after Dylann Roof murdered nine of their worshippers at the conclusion of Bible study.

Emanuel means “God is with us.”

Mother Emanuel.

Mother God is With Us.

She stuffs the brittle stems in a white Glad bag while people place more flowers outside the wrought-iron gate. A young man twists palmetto fronds into roses on the sidewalk, selling them to the transient crowd. Pilgrims, gawkers, both. On the corner, a man sits behind a folding table with black #Emanuel9 t-shirts for sale.

“What do you need?” I ask her. “We came from Tampa, and we know a lot of people who want to do something for you, for your church. Tell me what you need and I can let our friends know how they can help.”

She stops stuffing the trash bag and rests her hand on the black iron fencing. “Prayers. We need your prayers. Keep praying. Any money people want to send to help us with our building. We got so many old people can’t get up the stairs. We were trying to get an elevator built before, you know, all this happened. Those of us can’t get up the stairs go in the annex, watch the sermon from closed circuit. Now we’re behind, we could use some help.”

A woman’s companion takes her photo in front of the stairs, surrounded by funeral wreaths, holy candles, homemade memorials. Others use the Sharpies by the plywood circle propped on an easel to write their names, sentiments, condolences, words of solidarity, the names of the fallen. A banner, affixed to the wrought iron gate, also bears these things in Sharpie. More people stop. More people write names.

“What about you?” I ask. “How are you holding up? How are the members of your church holding up?”

“We’re holding up,” she says. She shakes her head. “I just told another lady. He came here, and he wiped out almost our whole ministerial team. Clementa, our pastor. Reverend Daniel. Depayne. Ms. Sharonda Singleton.” She trails off. I don’t know what to say. I stand there, and I watch a wide bead of sweat form in her hair then fall along the slope of her face, slipping on the curve of her eye, bumping along the wrinkles there, skidding to a stop at the base of her cheek. I notice the name she does not speak.

In this moment, I am not reacting to a newspaper article. I am not protected by the comfort of my own intellectual understanding of the socio-politics involved. My opinions mean nothing. I am not playing Facebook with this tragedy. I can tell I am in some sort of shock because I feel like I just got hit in the head with a moving object. My brain is concussing, my spirit is here but my mind wants to fly away from this scene as fast as it can. I hold onto the fence. Do something. Say the right thing. But I have nothing.

I heard her speak the names of her people, of our countrymen and women, of the human beings who, three and one half weeks ago, walked up and down the stairs of this church. People who also rested their hands on this iron fence. I am witnessing and I do not like it, but it is necessary.

So, I stand.

Andy and I are on our way to North Carolina to adopt a dog. We stopped by Emanuel AME with flowers* to pay our respects en route to Sunset Beach, NC, to meet up with my friend Danielle who I haven’t seen in 20 years but who happened to read my last blog about racism and who happened to be vacationing in NC from San Fran off the exact highway Andy and I planned to take. Highway 17, the same highway that runs near downtown Charleston where the giant white facade of Mother Emanuel towers over Calhoun Street. mother emanuel So many roads but one road. This is how I feel inside this moment at the fence.

I am overpowered by history, overwhelmed with the senselessness of fear and hatred, outraged at how helpless I often feel in the politics of domination and bullying, uplifted by the outpouring of a massive demonstration of choosing the strength of love and unity as a proper response to the sickness of the racist American mind. It’s the same feeling I had when I went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The same one I had at the Vietnam Memorial. The same one I had when this metaphysical trip began for me, in 1997, when I entered Ford’s Theater and witnessed, first hand, the space where John Wilkes Booth fired a bullet through Abraham Lincoln’s skull. It is the terrifying humility of recognizing that this is all real, when the myth of the good guys vs. the bad guys, my team beating your team turns into the horrifying reality of endless days of human suffering. History transforms when, in a flash, you’re given the perception of seeing it as other people’s pain. History transforms when, with a relatively minor amount of effort, you go places and understand, in the very root of your heart, that history isn’t a pile of tales, information for articles, bullet points for a test. History is a collection of other people’s lives. And all of their lives led to your life.

“The families,” she finally says. “We’re strengthening our faith. They already forgave that boy. We have to move on. If they can forgive then so can we. They strengthen us and we keep going. Life moves on.” So many roads but one road. She resumes removing the old offerings from the church ground, stuffing them in the plastic tall kitchen garbage bag. Andy and I leave, finding a deli at the visitors’ center. He reads a magazine. We drink flavored sweet tea and eat sandwiches. Then we leave that space, but I do not move on.

*

Sandra Bland got stopped for a traffic violation and ended up dead in a Texas jail. That happened this week.

Brit Bennett wrote this reflection of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book Between the World and Me, Coates’ letter to his black son. It’s about the black male body. It’s a warning. A lamentation. That also happened this week.

I am happy to see the stunning images of Pluto with its ice mountains indicating water abounds under its young surface. That also happened this week. Pluto appears to be a body of interest, a body worth celebrating. A heavenly body, our celestial, misunderstood neighbor. How glad we are of that body.

But I am at the fence, contemplating the human body. Sandra Bland’s body. The Marines and young people inside the recruitment center in Tennessee. Their bodies. I want to know who cleaned up the Mother Emanuel AME church the day after, who is tending the Body of Christ, if Christ was to be believed, that he was the Truth. Those people also need flowers.

Most of the time I mask my despair, my anger. I wake, treating my mind with prayer before I get out of bed not because I value religion but because I need help functioning outside of this man-made senselessness other people accept as the way it is. No. I must examine. I must witness, and here it is:

This. Simple. Matter. Of. Respecting. Someone. Else’s. Body. Do not rape it. Do not slaughter it. Do not bury it alive. Do not invent stories about it and tell those stories to your children as if you know. Do not burn it, hang it, chase it down, fire bullets into it, hold it underwater. Do not criticize it. Do not mock it or defile it with comparisons. Do not take it as your possession because it makes you feel less hateful towards yourself, or makes you money, or makes other bodies fear you. This simple matter of all the bodies being parts of the One Body.

Mother Emanuel. cross at AME #

A few months ago Andy and I listened to a podcast interview of Christian Howes, one of the greatest jazz violinists in the world. Howse is also a convicted drug trafficker and spent several years in a maximum security prison during which time he gained some renown in The Warden’s Band, part of the Ross Correctional Vocational Music Program. All of that is interesting.

But not as interesting as the moment in the interview when he confessed that the most surprising revelation he had in prison was that being surrounded by men who were always trying to start something, of never being able to relax because he never knew when someone was going to try to dominate him psychologically or physically made him finally understand what the average life experience must be like for a woman. A woman anywhere. Always on the ready to fend somebody off, deflect a threat with a joke, navigate the day, the workplace, happy hour, married life, a hike in the woods, a board meeting, government lines, a routine traffic stop with the consistent high alert of “am I safe in this moment”?

“Goddamn,” I said to Andy. “He gets it. But that motherfucker had to go to prison before he could understand what it means to walk around the world as a normal woman.”

A woman’s life is akin to a man’s life in prison.

Just think about that for a second.

Christian Howes, please go tell everybody. Please go tell all the men what you learned.

I am at the fence. I am thinking about women’s bodies. I am wondering if black people wish white people understood they live in a social prison. I am wondering if black people wish white people would help them communicate their pain to other white people or if the last thing black people want is white people’s help. I am wondering if black people hate white people, if The Black Community Vs. White America isn’t just another badly written conjecture of racial narratives because we’re conditioned to not tell the truth about race, racism, and our feelings therein in this country.

#

In 1997,  when I lived and worked in DC as a young person, I went to Ford’s Theater to see where Lincoln got shot. That experience pinpoints the moment I came to in the terror that makes up American history.

Yes, there was a waking-up period, my groggy conscious mind struggling to make sense of the mutilated and defiled images of black bodies I saw during my Southern studies classes in college, the pictures and letters detailing the removal and imprisonment of indigenous people in order to make the united states, the rioting kernel of my soul’s anger at the deadly double-standards for women, of the consistent messaging that whatever you do, make sure you don’t disturb, inconvenience, challenge, shock or upset the men. And whatever you do–with your clothes, your ideas, your mouthiness, your ambition, your desire for sexual freedom, your insistence that maybe some of the boy cousins should clean up after Thanksgiving, too–don’t let them suspect you may be threatening their egos. The tiniest glimpses outside the prison walls, even when (and even now) “smarter” people tried to convince me no, this isn’t a prison this is the real world, grew this awakening consciousness in me that came screaming into the world while I stood in the spot where Lincoln got his brains torn out.

I discovered markers directing me to the house Lincoln died in, so I crossed the street and went in there, too. The Petersen House. I stood over the bed. The bed is short, a twin. No place for a long body.

I went home and probably got very drunk. For the next several years, I fixated on Abraham Lincoln, a road that led, inevitably, to studying the Civil War. Growing up white in the South, I got the romantic view of Our Team of Heroes valiantly defending our honest, hard-working homeland against Northern aggressors, and commonly, white folks of a certain social regard traced themselves back to some important Confederate general.  My dad’s mother claims we are related to J.E.B. Stuart on her side–although the blood tie has, to my knowledge, never been confirmed. And our personal family history is not of plantation owners but of farmers, alcoholics, lay preachers, and Southern folk who figured out how to provide for their families with not very much to go on, so our stake in The War was never built on reality but, like a lot of white Southerners, we sure loved the idea of being in a story cast with stout-hearted rebels and good-looking heroes. And you know what would really mess up that version? Terrified, brutalized black folks. Knowing that perhaps somebody in your family fought and died for the right to own other humans for economic reasons. Let’s just not talk about that part. REBEL YELL, let’s go to the fishin’ hole! You can’t tell me what to do!

So, there is an entire white oral fabrication of the Civil War (beautifully captured in Tony Horowitz’s book Confederates in the Attic), supported by the current Southern Pride movement of Don’t-Tread-On-Me-ers who honestly make no connection between the Confederate flag and black people’s American experience in slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights struggles because those parts get edited out of the retelling. It is mind-boggling. It is as mind-boggling to me as people who turn to the Bible for information regarding science.

I needed to go see with my own eyes, so I did. I went to the grounds, the battlefields of this romantic war, because I had to reconcile my own self. I started at Manassas/Bull Run, at sunrise. The morning fog lifted off the canons in the new light, and it was not glorious. It was creepy as fuck. As romantic as guillotines.

Chancellorsville. Vicksburg. Gettysburg. Shiloh. The Wilderness Campaign. Seven Pines. Fort Fisher. You don’t see the blood on the ground anymore, of course, like you don’t in the carpets of churches, recruitment centers, elementary schools, jail sheets. But it’s there. 

Rights. My rights. My right to keep my head on my own body. It’s an outrage when the Taliban takes a head from a body. ISIS. Al-Qaeda. As it should be. This should not stand. We understand the rights of the body. We are civilized. We understand, right? Right?

I stood in front of Lincoln’s skull fragments at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. That museum, to this day, holds many American body parts. Some on display, but most in storage. Legs. Arms. Heads. Eisenhower’s gallstones.

I stood over the grave for Stonewall Jackson’s left arm in Chancellorsville. I was the only one there. Stonewall’s arm rests in a private cemetery while the rest of his body, when it died from pneumonia after the amputation, went to Lexington, VA.  Stonewall’s own men shot him. Accident.

Burial trenches full of unknown soldiers line the battlegrounds in Shiloh, TN. I stood there, too, with a friend, on our way back to DC from a wedding. The trenches contain hundreds of American bodies.

Shiloh burial trench. Taken from the blog Our Country's Fiery Ordeal. 700 bodies reported in this trench.

Shiloh burial trench. Taken from the blog Our Country’s Fiery Ordeal. 700 bodies reported in this trench.

I do remember, very clearly, drinking all the way back to the capitol. I sipped Budweiser tall boys from a brown paper bag and watched the auburn blur of autumn scenery whiz through the passenger side window.

The American Civil War is a four-year murder scene of mostly starving boys and men stumbling for miles knowing if they changed their minds about the cause and deserted, they would get shot. The American Civil War tore families apart, turned them against each other. Women did not know where their sons and husbands were buried. A generation of women literally lost their families’ bodies. The entire generational history of African-Americans in 1861 was one long story of lost bodies of family members, yet black men also went to this war. The American Civil War holds within it the lives of millions of Americans–slaves and white people, free people of color–all slaughtered in the ugly business that gives us the key to understanding the deformation of the current body of this country.

It was easy to identify the Germans as evil. The pictures of the bodies from that calculated terror: skin-dressed skeletons, the black-and-white photographs of trains toting the still plump bodies to a place they knew not where but, as students in high school history, we knew where they were going. Imprisoned in camps. Gassed. Murdered. For what? Their physical attributes? Their beliefs? Their race?

My Jewish high school AP History teacher first taught me that the Civil War wasn’t actually about slavery. It was about state’s rights. AP means Advanced Placement, as in the gifted class. “But wasn’t the right the right to own slaves?” went unanswered. We liked her class because we got a lot of free time so we let the question evaporate on the ceiling somewhere. My world history teacher, a man I admired very much and who taught me far more than what would be expected of a public high school history education, also let it slip–as a footnote–that the Africans themselves sold their own people to European slavers during the transatlantic slave trade. I guess that means black people brought it on themselves? Great! Now white people are off the hook and can return to our regularly scheduled play-pretend of the indomitable Southern spirit of independence.

What are these messages? How could anybody have a healthy mind with good thoughts in this environment we’ve created after the fact of slavery, of regional resistance to integration, of a brain-numbing dumbing-down of the complicated, complex, extraordinary and African-dependent history that is ours?

After WWII, America–and Germany–acknowledged that the war was, in large part, about the horror to the Jewish body. The Jewish Body. The names of the concentration camps are equal in historical stature to the names of the American battles. There was a sympathy, a human compassion, that imbedded in the horror of uncovering the Holocaust in Europe that was a part of reconciling the world after the war. American history can not face its own terrorism of the black body, The Black Body, and women’s bodies–much less speak to it intelligently, compassionately, non-judgmentally in our classrooms as a part of our natural curriculum. After Charleston, we have talked a lot about slavery, the roots of this madness, but the truth is that while unspeakably brave young American men left home to stop Hitler, white boys in the South gathered in packs, singled out black men, and strung them from trees. America did not exercise compassion or reconciliation after slavery, after the Civil War, after the violence of the fight for civil rights. 

I don’t ever remember a conversation I’ve had with anyone about WWII in which people defended Hitler’s economic plan/way of life that just happened to include the eradication of Jews, gypsies, and other darkish people. I don’t ever remember looking at a photograph from the mid-century American South where gangs of well-dressed black men in hats and cigars stood hatefully and righteously underneath the swinging feet of a lone white boy.  And yet we exist in this cognitive dissonance, this denial of the ongoing trauma of terror to American bodies that galvanized in our Civil War, a denial of the trauma to black people, the secondary trauma to white people who witnessed or who as children had to participate in systems of racism out of fear and wanted to talk about it but didn’t know how. 

#

All lives led to this life. So many roads but one road.

This is what I’m telling you: when the body absorbs trauma, when part of the body is mutilated or ripped from the rest of the body, there is no forgetting that. Witnessing the mutilation of another’s body–there is no forgetting that, either. History is not a thing in the past but the body. Earth is a body. We are a body.

All bodies belong to the One Body. We live not with this wound, but in it. And we will stay here until we reconcile the body.

This work is personal. When the personal part is complete, it moves outward. 

Mother Emanuel.

#

I am at the fence until I finish this blog, at which time I will move on. But only from the fence, that moment of freezing in time when she said to me “life moves on.” I found it a strange platitude given the circumstances, and I wanted to ask her “do you really believe that?,” but I deferred to my own need to respect whatever she said. Perhaps she said it as a phrase for when you don’t know what else to say, or you are ready to leave a conversation. Maybe she really believes that’s the best road to take from the massacre in her church by a terrorist, in a national history shadowed by its own unacknowledged holocaust. I do not know.

Andy and I continued on the road.

#

Some years after my obsession with the Civil War and Lincoln subsided, I wrote a short story published in Louisiana Literature about a widow with alcoholism called “Sleeping with Books about Lincoln.” In it, the narrator mentions that, on any Lincoln biography, will be cover art of his head and chest. Usually just his head, in tact, unwounded.

David Herbert Donald's book LINCOLN

David Herbert Donald’s book LINCOLN

Unless the book is for children. It seems children need to see The Body. book by Mary Osborne There is a need for wholeness. There is a need for truth.

Mother Emanuel.

* night night beloveds. To the roads. To the body.

*The Flower Cottage at 31 Elizabeth Street in Charleston, 3 blocks down and around the corner from Emanuel AME, donated the money we spent for our flower arrangement to the church, and they have been doing so for people since the shooting. If you make your pilgrimage to the church, please stop in for flowers with them, and say hello to LadyBelle, their Labradoodle who serves as the shop greeter.

**If you would like to make a donation to the church for their elevator or for whatever, follow this link: http://www.charleston-sc.gov/index.aspx?NID=1330. There’s also a link to the Reverend Pinckney Fund.

***If you don’t trust the Charleston government to allocate the funds, here’s the link for the Mother Emanuel AME website, and you can donate directly from the main page: http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/

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Moving Towards Forgiveness. Here’s how I learned to be racist and then unlearned it.

You had better believe I learned to be racist in the South, and as soon as I figured out what troubled me–you’d better believe I unlearned it, too.

I grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, with parents who loved me. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had access to music lessons, dance lessons, sports teams and braces. Everyone assumed we would go to college, have good jobs and families, and we had no reason to believe that path would be anything other than wide open to us. My brothers and I were popular, with lots of friends, and we had a privileged upbringing though I didn’t understand that until I traveled and saw what entire communities and countries in economic depression looked like.

We went to an affluent church where I was baptized in Christ in the 6th grade, and though it took, I never internally identified myself as a Christian. I didn’t feel any kinship with other Christians as a group though I connected with Jesus’s teachings of kindness and, through his story, was able to see myself as a child of a living God that I didn’t understand. My mother, especially, sought for our moral instruction, and she was diligent about my constant consideration of others although this wasn’t a hard lesson for me, being naturally empathic and prone to heightened sensitivity. Witnessing any sort of cruelty was likely to break my mind in two, and I had a long history of mysterious bouts of silent screaming and sticking up for people and animals.

I say this to you because you don’t have to be a cross-burning, gun-wielding maniac driven to murder to participate in the system of racism that continues to work in the South because it is a system of thought passed down from adults to children. Of course, it’s not in the South only, but all over the country. I keep my comments to the American South because that is my place, the one I know and love best, the people and places I have studied and written about, and I believe I can shed some light on this terrible revival of racial terrorism that is the undeniable reality of American life.

I am, constantly it feels right now, consumed with a silent scream.

#

The pinnacle of my racist life happened at a closed meeting of white, well-respected mothers and daughters in Rocky Mount sometime around 1989. Our long-standing debutante club, the Sub-Debs, disbanded for reasons I can’t recall, and we’d assembled to create a new social club for the high schoolers of our ilk, invitation only, three dances a year by each grade. We named it the Junior Sorority.

We had two progressive mothers in the bunch who thought we should include black girls.

“No,” I said. “I vote no. There will not be black girls in this club.”

Mind you, this is only a few years before Bill Clinton is elected. Jim Crow laws have been abolished for more than thirty years, slavery is some 120 years in the past, and the public schools have been integrated for a generation. I was 15 years old.

“Marlowe, why? Why does it matter?” This from one of the progressive moms.

“Because they have their own club. They can stay there. All we have to do is invite one, and then it’ll be another, and then they’ll take over. And it won’t be ours anymore. No.”

The progressive mothers tried to counter, but I was more fanatical, and louder, and truthfully most everyone else wanted what I wanted so we adjourned. The Junior Sorority, like the Sub-Debs before it, stayed all white.

#

Was I really racist? Or just prejudiced? What if I was merely “culturally ignorant”? What if I was only exercising my right to private membership?

No, I was racist. And in a very subtle, seemingly innocuous way, I toed the thought line of white supremacy in that gathering even though I had no idea what I was doing at the time. I didn’t know I was a part of the system. I would have told you I wasn’t prejudiced; I had black friends at school, I spoke out against the “n” word, I didn’t laugh at jokes about killing black people, which happened regularly in my middle class, mannered, public school childhood.

Let’s review my argument: All we have to do is invite one, and then it’ll be another, and then they’ll take over. And it won’t be ours anymore.

They’ll take over, and it won’t be ours anymore.

This is how white supremacy thought works in America. It really is that simple though the psychological complexities of race that include ideas of ownership, entitlement, sexual fear, abusive racial co-dependency formed during plantation dynamics, and enmeshed ideas of me-as-not-you make trying to simplify understanding race relations in the American South a maddening exercise in deconstruction.

However, it is very easy to understand that if you hold this belief, like I did, then you are a part of the racist system. People will continue to be shot as long as there are Americans who participate in the thought system, even if they themselves never pull any triggers.

At 15, I was smart, top of my class, yet all I knew was that tiny eastern North Carolina world, and, for me, it wasn’t a very nice one. I could no more tell you how my own mind and emotions worked than I could explain algebra. Looking back, as an adult, it’s much easier to connect the dots.

I started out not knowing blacks were any different from me. Once I got to school things changed. I came home from preschool one day to announce to our black maid (in the late 70s) that I didn’t like black people. I learned to think black people were different because I wasn’t allowed to dress like them in kindergarten even when I wanted to. I made a best friend in school, she was black, I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at her house. “Don’t lick your ice cream cone,” I was told. “Bite it. Black people lick ice cream.” And I will never forget hearing a joke about the pending MLK federal holiday, the old one about shooting four more. Then we’d get the whole week off. Compound these messages over 15 years, and you’ll see how easy it is to grow a racist, even if that isn’t your intention.

Black people “can’t get over it” because it’s not over. If it was over, the murder of the congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church could not have happened. We can no longer deny that there aren’t many other Dylann Roofs being manufactured in the South, in our own families, because of our racial history and the continued underground oral history of disgust for black people that is passed down from adults to children.

If there was no direct antidote in a young person’s life to racism where I grew up, you grew up racist. You can make Jim Crow illegal all day and all night, but you can’t stop the white oral history. You can’t stop the fear with laws. You can’t stop the hatred born by fear by forbidding behavior.  All of that goes underground, where it festers, and towards the end of the administration of America’s first black president, a Millennial terrorist erupts in a black church with the same damn rhetoric white men used to burn economically successful black towns after the Civil War. The. Same. Damn. Words.

If you extend this line of “this is ours/they will take over” thinking to its violent conclusion–which we all know has been acted out generation after generation in American history–you end up in an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. You end up with scads of Americans who chant about “taking our country back” and yet never do anyone the courtesy of explaining from what, or whom, or when, exactly, they had possession of the country in the first place. The tricky, poisonous insanity of having a mind bent with racist beliefs is that the person infected usually doesn’t know it, can’t explain how he or she got that way, denies any responsibility for creating the society in which we live. The extreme examples, like Dylann Roof, act on the system of beliefs; he tries, impotently, with a gun, in a church, to take his country back. But for every Dylann Roof, there are many more less violent people stoking the fires of white supremacy: an Obama nigger joke here, a coon and spook epithet there, evenings spent with wine and well-off white friends railing about how “those people” need to “quit complaining, slavery is in the past, pull yourself up with a bootstrap” and being disgusted about how black folk just can’t seem to get it together as a people.

When I speak of racism in America, it’s rooted in my personal experience, and I happen to have a lot. I’m related to a fair number of racists. All of them are not college educated; some of them are very sweet and kind in all other ways, generous and compassionate. A few racist people I know have PhDs, and they’re not racist, they’re just “sick of black people wanting something for nothing” as they watch news coverage of riots but don’t spend time with any living, breathing, thinking, feeling, black people.

Let’s face it, if there had been any “American justice,” the macho, eye-for-an-eye warmongering nonsense that has become normal by now, every slave owning white family would have been murdered in the cotton and tobacco fields in 1865. Every “Negroes are, by nature, inferior to whites” congressman and scientist would have hung from boughs, predictable fruits, along the Washington Mall at the turn of the 20th century.

Deep down in the Southern subconscious, we know the score was never settled. The land is still haunted here. We walk among ghosts. We walk in fear of black people because there was never any retaliation for what we know, in our hearts, deserved it. The wound, as we’ve come to acknowledge it in the literature after the Charleston massacre, was never nationally tended to, dressed, cleaned, no healing salve applied. Let’s be honest: there’s a very real, serious reason why justice is such a volatile topic when it comes to race in America. It has a root cause that is not very hard to understand. There’s no consistent, historical record for systemic fair treatment of people of color.

Normal, “boys will be boys” behaviors my brothers did as teenagers would, had they been black, gotten them locked up. Usually, the cops just brought them home and had a quiet talk with my parents. The end. As an alcoholic female, I have no clue what would have happened to me had I been a black woman; I love my support group, and I’ve been to a ton of meetings in lots of places in the US, and I’ll tell you one thing I hardly ever see is a black woman. Where are they? Prison?

As has always been true in America, normal everyday working Americans are dying because we are ravaged by trickle-down fear that manifests in our minds as an Us-And-Them way of thinking that rationalizes murder.

The struggle to end racial violence is our struggle as Americans. It is a national struggle rooted in the formation of this false democracy. American society is currently in a state of collapse because the false democracy could never sustain itself; people are afraid because the great American experiment resulted in a corrupt political system co-dependent on business interests with a largely sick and willfully uneducated populace oblivious to their own responsibility to each other as citizens of the same country.

#

I loved a black girl. In tenth grade. Her name was Danielle.

The power of caring for her was stronger than the power of the messages of separation, so I grew up. Already my education was opening doors in my brain, and my common sense returned as I pored over photographs of the slave trade, of plantation life, and examined the language of slavery that reduced people to terms of property.

I loved her the same way I loved my other sister friends. There was no separation.

One day, in AP History class we were talking about race relations in America. Our high school, majority black, She turned to me.

“Hey,” she said. “What color are you?”

It took me a second to understand the question. “Same as you,” I said.

“That’s right.”

We stared at each other a moment to make sure the other knew what we were really saying. Satisfied, she turned around. I distinctly had a sensation of expanding.

Danielle had just taught me what it felt like to beat the system. We had overcome.

It’s possible.

#

Fear is easier than forgiveness. And, it’s hard to love when you’re scared. That’s why violence continues but never wins. Only love wins. I didn’t come up with this idea. I learned it by walking through fear. I learned it by having to forgive people who hurt me. The reason I don’t terrorize other people and teach the children in my life to hate women, or men, or brown people is because my fear doesn’t own me.

Love owns me.

For the family members of the slain Americans praying in Charleston, please know there are many of us who can not abide the prevailing, desperate measures taken by people clamoring for the ways that created this collapsing system, and we are watching you forgive.

If the South must rise again, may it be from your example as elevated Americans. We stand with you.

night night beloveds.

Addendum: June 10, 2020–Author’s Note about Forgiveness in Light of Recent Events and More Learning about Her Own Racism

The current situation–a nation in protest over the public murders of African American citizens Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd–two of which were filmed and broadcast on social media–caused a white friend to reach out to me about reposting and resharing this blog. At her request and earnest belief that it will help other white folks better understand why anti-racism work isn’t just socially responsible it’s going to SAVE THE LIVES of our black and brown neighbors, I have honored her request.

That being said, today I wouldn’t write, as a white person, about black people and forgiveness. In the years since I posted this blog, I’ve followed several social media conversations among my black friends and peers, so I’ve come to understand it as a topic within the black community as a private, inter-community conversation about choice–choice on how to (or how not to) respond to the terrorism and trauma of systemic and institutional racism. I won’t re-write the title or conclusion because I think part of being accountable as a white woman unlearning racism is to be real about letting people look at the process. It’s not pretty, but we must face the truth.

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And the Author Surfaces, Like So Many Marine Mammals

So it’s been two months since my last post, and, as promised, I vacated Facebook to finish my novel. I’m in the last part, Part III, and decided to break surface on my solitude and recap the last few months of silence. I haven’t missed the obsessive checking of the Facebook newsfeed, but I have missed keeping up with all of you and ZA photos of our new kitten, Big Cypress “Binky Griptite” Moore Fairbanks.

bink and R spoonbink watches Andy

 

Binky G came from the cat shelter with an adorable personality, won over Rufus fairly quickly, and just as quickly gave us all a case of dermatophytosis, which normal people call ringworm. Most folks know by the time they’re grown that it’s not a worm at all, but a fungal infection caused by dermatophytes, which are microscopic fungi that live on everybody. They are munching on you as you read this sentence. “The world belongs to microbes,” my physician said to alleviate my heebie jeebies at having a fungal infection called ringworm. For word people, the phrase “fungal infection called ringworm” conjures images much worse than the reality, although I don’t know if telling you that “dermatophytes” translates to “skin plants” will delight or disgust you in my now oversharing on our ongoing household episode with skin-plant-itis.

Moving on: so, the new kitten is great, and we love him. For those of you who have been with this blog for the last few years, Binky G reminds me of Rick in uncanny ways, not the least of which is this cat likes to have his belly rubbed, flopping about to make sure you hit all the right spots. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Rick found his way back to me in this little house cat. I always felt our time together was too short, that I would be content to spend a lifetime taking care of that animal, as I will be content to live out as much time with Binky G as we’re allowed.

As for animals, I miss Buckley all the time. And Rufus, well, it’s chilly in Tampa today and this laptop seems to be the most desirable napping zone. Writers need cats, this I learned at Hemingway’s Key West place this summer. That cats need writers is a lesser known truth.

Last week I had the remarkable opportunity to work with Chicago performance artist/head of graduate fashion program at the Art Institute of Chicago Nick Cave for a performance in Tampa. I played the front end of a giant raffia horse named Sage. Truth: the most enthralled audience members were five-year-olds and drunk adults. Truly I say unto you, intoxicated grown ups love the magic of a puppet horse. This experience goes back to my unwavering belief that people, somewhere inside, yearn to rekindle our connection to animals. I LOVE THIS HORSE drunk women said to my fabric head, rubbing my face. YOU ARE SUCH A PRETTY HORSE.

I had a ball and am happy to report I did not slip and fall on the raffia although there were more than a few of us who did.

If Nick Cave or his work comes anywhere within driving distance of your house, please go.

My next thing is this: in two weeks I leave for a dance immersion/research trip to California, where I will reconnect with the women whom I met in Cuba and also in Brazil. Los Angeles and San Diego are happening places for Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian dance, and I remain flabbergasted that we have no such communities in Tampa. I wanted to let you all know that Kimberly, my mentor and who led us on the Cuba trip, is hosting another trip to the island in June. If you have any interest in Cuban culture, dancing or drumming, figure out how to go: Dance and Drum Cuba. With any luck and grace, I’ll be writing another book about these adventures in travel and dance, which, as I’ve mentioned once or twice, are really my adventures with the Mystery.

So, anyway, I need to get back to the book. I just wanted to let you know what I was up to, that I miss you, that writing is really lonely business when it isn’t going well but otherwise it’s sublime, and that I hope you all are doing well.

night night beloveds! Back to the deep.

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For Cuba, my sister who was not waiting to be rescued

“My husband was six when his family left Cuba. They made his mother strip naked in the airport in front of them before they left. He remembers that, seeing his mother naked in the airport in front of guards.”

I’m talking on the phone to a friend of mine whom I haven’t spoken to in a few years.  Her husband is in his late 50s/early 60s; she’s in her late 40s. I’d told her about my recent trip to Cuba, about how special it was, when she mentioned her husband was Cuban. Did I know that?

“No,” I said.

“He hates Cuba,” she finished.

*

July 5, 2014.

I’m in the city square of Santiago, Cuba, eating lunch at the Casa Grande Hotel on the verandah, with my new friend Jeane, an American samba dancer who lives and gigs in Los Angeles. By luck of the draw, we ended up roommates on this 16-day dance immersion trip, and we happen to enjoy each other’s company immensely and travel well together.

Jeanne and me. Lunch. Santiago de Cuba. July 5, 2014

Jeane and me. Lunch. Santiago de Cuba. July 5, 2014

Across from us sits Spanish conquistador and imperialisto primero Diego Velazquez’s house–the original house, not a replica. Velasquez stole Cuba from its native people in the 1500s, conquering, enslaving them, and then becoming Governor. To my right stretches the blue-and-white Old Town Hall, famous as the site of Fidel Castro’s first speech after the Revolution on January 1, 1959, two years before America severed its ties to punish Cuba and the Castros for the Revolution, for bedding with Russia, and for general defiance. Such were the rules of the Cold War. The great Catholic church completes the city square, a buttercream colored colonial monolith crowned with a rampant angel. Her dark figure screams against the Caribbean-blue sky.

Old Town Hall. Fidel gave his first speech after the Revolution from that balcony.

Old Town Hall. Fidel gave his first speech after the Revolution from that balcony.

The rectangular structure is Velasquez's house.

The rectangular structure is Velazquez’s house.

Catholic church, under construction.

Catholic church, under construction.

Jeane and I have no way of knowing in this moment that we will be the last iteration of Americans to experience Cuba under the embargo. In this moment, we are alive in the only land forbidden to U.S. tourists, intoxicated with son and salsa and the palpable thrum of humanity’s complicated and extraordinary colonial collision on this sacred island, this island of Oshun. Jeane and I are uninitiated but claimed daughters of Oshun, one of the most respected deities who traveled with slaves from Africa. She is the rivers, the springs, beauty, motherhood, a protector of children and the voice to calm wild energies. According to Santeria, Oshun represents everything about life worth living. African slaves brought to Cuba syncretized Oshun with Our Lady of Charity, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, also called by a more familiar name: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

She is the patron saint of Cuba.

“It’s a shame,” Jeane says. “Most Americans will never know this. It makes no sense that we can’t come here like we’d go anywhere else in the world.” I nod. “This.” What is “this”? But I know what Jeane means: the electrified feeling of being on this land, of being excited with the ritmo of Oshun’s people, of the welcome silence from the frantic manufacture of images and marketing and device-driven communication that characterizes our lives in America.

Jeane and I feel Cuba as literally as we feel each other’s presence. She holds us like a mother to lost children, and we both sense a difficult-to-describe homecoming on this land. Cuba has a metaphysical mind, an electro-magnetic charge carried in the exchange between the people and the music and dance, through the waters. That energetic channel is wide open. Everybody I know who’s been to Cuba tries to speak of what it’s like to receive this phenomenon, but mostly how it comes out is something like: “Cuba is special.”

“I love it here,” I say. “I don’t understand my feelings.”

Jeane nods. What else is there to say?

*

“This picture here is of Papa in Cuba, his favorite place on earth. He wrote seven novels here on his estate Finca Vigia, and he loved Cuba, fishing in Cuba, and the Cuban people so much they considered him one of them. When Castro came to power, he seized Hemingway’s holdings in the country as property of the people, taking Finca Vigia and robbing Hemingway of his Cuban home. Hemingway was so devastated by the loss of his property in Cuba that he fell into a dark depression from which he never recovered. Soon after, Hemingway took his life in Ketchum, Idaho on July 2, 1961, with a single shot from a double-barreled shotgun.”

Andy and I are on a tour of Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, two weeks before my lunch with Jeane in Santiago, and the local actor/guide leads us through the rooms, pausing before the significant objects to relate the seemingly endless thrilling tales about the great manly-man character that is the alcoholic, prophetic mess known as Papa Hemingway. As a kid, I watched Old Man and the Sea when it ran on Sundays on our local TV station. Even as a first-grader, I got wrecked on that damn story every time Spencer Tracy lifted the shark-eaten body of the prize marlin from the side of his boat in the final scenes.

I will experience a similar feeling of hopeless desperation as I watch Obama’s announcement of renewed relations with Cuba, the rhetoric spooling out the same worthless lines of exporting “our values” and our business interests for the sake of making better lives for “the Cuban people.” We’re finally bringing the great prize marlin of democracy to poor Communists. Except it never works like that, economic and political ambitions. The sharks find the live body tied to that boat of freedom, as they have in our own country. It’s easy pickings, and it’s an arrangement that has consequences “for the people.”

I don’t even know what “American values” means anymore when regular folks speak it, so empty that phrase has become in the last few generations. However, I do know what it means, these words “American values,” as appropriated by our corrupt national political system, and a lot of people I care about still live in a bubble-headed denial that “American values” are something else other than a set of rules created by men to rationalize why, in the final analysis, the economy will be more important than human dignity. Instructing other cultures in American values appears akin to advising American families to adopt the values of reality television. We appear free, yet when you peer into our lives, millions of us are slaves to debt and economic fear that will drive our decisions about our quality of life for the foreseeable generations.

After watching Obama’s speech—and I actually like this misunderstood President–I want to tell Cuba,mi madre, mi Hermana: our political system does not always speak for our people. I say this because I do not know what is really getting ready to happen to your people, your untouched natural beauty, your sacred energy, now that the line has been cast in your waters.

I want to tell my Cuban sisters: men and women with money will come for your beautiful bodies to sell their products. You will be much more exciting to look at than the peeling, irrelevant billboards of young Che, young Fidel that keep selling a revolution. But your bodies will become inextricably linked with things, and you’ve got it tough enough, navigating your way through the oppression of machismo and poverty. You have many American sisters who love you, many of us who will support you in this change, whatever it means for you.

Later, during my research for this blog, I discover the tale about Finca Vigia is untrue. Hemingway’s mortal depression onset after plane crashes in Europe, and conflicting stories exist about how the Cuban government ended up in possession of the estate, though none of them involve an abrupt seizure of the property by revolutionary goons, Castros or otherwise.

The truth is not nearly as egotistically satisfying as a story-telling. So it goes with politics and its many attendant worlds of self-glorification that pass for reality. If, as a conscious, awake people, we continue to ignore the fact that we are all separate aspects of one species, and if we continue to ignore the necessity of spiritual truth in our rules of relationships—personal and international–then we will continue to manufacture our own slow destruction as fearful animals of war and possession, condemned to an unceasing confusion over our own dissatisfaction, whether we acknowledge that dissatisfaction or not.

Here’s a fact about Hemingway, the greatest literary icon shared by Cuba and America: in 1954, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature after publishing Old Man and the Sea. He took the prize to Santiago, Cuba, and left it at the feet of the statue in the La Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre, Oshun’s shrine, as an offering to Her.

Seven years later, he blew his brains out all alone in Idaho. I wonder if Papa, given all his intuition, all his great capacity for love however fumblingly executed, had seen it, too: his Mother, stripped naked in front of the guards in a place where he could not hate.

It’s an instructive story for both governments, if they can find the spiritual truth in it.

Hemingway's bar in Havana. A tourist attraction now, but his daily watering hole when he was in Havana.

Hemingway’s bar in Havana. A tourist attraction now, but you could find him here in the afternoons when the day’s writing (a good day was 600 words) was done.

*

Night night, beloveds. May you all sleep knowing we are one big, crazy family, there’s enough for everybody, we don’t have to be the same to be equal in God’s eyes, and there is a different way of seeing this story called life, if we want to.

And may you get to Cuba before WalMart and Starbucks.

Peace.

 

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Buckshot Lee Moore Fairbanks c.2000-2014

“We don’t know very much about him. He doesn’t seem to be into anything like toys or fetch or what have you. But he likes treats. As you can tell.”

Indeed I could. The tennis ball the shelter volunteer had thrown across the play area rested untouched in the close grass. The big white bird dog I was considering adopting on a temporary, let’s-see-if-I-like-him basis had watched her throw it only because of the sudden movement. He cared about the unlimited possibilities locked within that tennis ball the way I cared about Keurig revolutionizing coffee, which is to say, not at all.

But the treat jar.

That was a different story.

The dog, I guessed, was about 70 pounds, white with a brown mask across his face and mismatched floppy hound dog ears, one solid brown and the other white with brown spots. He was big like I like them, but I had come for a brindled boxer mix. When I was told my pick was “kind of a handful,” I asked what they had in the way of a submissive good companion, someone who didn’t need a lot of attention or exercise.

“I am looking for a glorified stuffed animal,” I said.

I was still in shock from walking out on my yellow Lab, Ginger, 18 months earlier, when I left my first marriage. Her middle name was Fireball, and that damn dog lived up to every letter and then some. I loved her, we were inseparable, and I was the only one she would listen to when she chose to listen, which was only when she was being told to do something she wanted to do anyway. I drank a lot to not think about leaving her behind, she would have a great life with my ex-husband and his family and they loved her, but in her heart and mine we belonged together. I was her person. I never told her I was leaving. I just left and never saw her again. Then I got sober, spent a year without a dog, and didn’t admit it until several years later, but I was standing at this no-kill animal rescue partly because I was a dog person in search of a dog but mostly because I needed to make amends to Ginger. Every promise I failed her I would make up this time around.

“We call him Buck,” the volunteer said. This previously uninterested in everything dog wiggled in the sit position impatiently, eyes darting hopefully between the lid of the treat jar and her. The second the lid made its clinking scrape of release, revealing the hodgepodge of donated goodies inside, ol’Buck couldn’t stand it anymore, sprang to attention, and began stomping in circles, pushing into her legs, stomping in circles, nosing the jar, sitting, standing, holding out one paw, and eventually sitting for a split second so he could snarf the treat from her hand and peer hopefully at the still-open treat jar. “Okay, one more,” she said. Snarf. “Okay, one last one.” Snarf. “This really is the last one.” Snarf. He had this great clown-face smile, this “oh, goody!” look for the treats, the only time I saw anything that resembled a personality.

“He would eat the whole jar,” she said. She laughed and tried to pet him, but he didn’t get that any more than he got the tennis ball thing, so he sat patiently by the treats until he realized it really was over. His face closed up again, and he trotted off to sniff the grass.

“We have to warn you,” she said. “He has been adopted out once but was brought back. He isn’t house broken.”

Oh. This dog was probably seven or eight years old and not housebroken. He’d been at the rescue a little over 18 months and didn’t seem like kind of dog I was looking for. God, I prayed on my to the shelter, just the right one. Not what I think I want, but the right one. I’d learned this handy prayer in recovery soon after I discovered how poorly motivated my decision making skills had grown after ten years of drinking every day. For some people, getting a dog is a simple matter of choice. In this moment of my life, I thought that’s what I was doing, making a simple choice.  I had to start practicing love and commitment, but there was an angry part of me super unwilling to love another animal like I had loved Ginger. I had a plan: I would care for this dog, but I wasn’t going to let him in.

“I can house break him,” I said. “But I need a week. If he hasn’t caught on, I’m bringing him back.”

I wrote TRIAL RUN on the top of the adoption contract. I’d never had what I call a “dead dog” before; dogs that have no life in their eyes, dogs who you can tell have their spirits boxed up somewhere and there’s never been a person to love them and open that up. And I’d never housebroken a dog before either, but I felt like, how hard could it be?

Really and truly, when I left the animal rescue in my pickup truck with a big, white, country ass birddog in the back, I believed I would return him if he didn’t housebreak.  I didn’t realize, until he died, that his adoption was no simple matter of choice. That choice was a complicated one, a psychological, emotional and spiritual matter of wanting to recreate my entire notion of family relationships. I was a wrecked human being when I brought that dog into my life, starting to rebuild. Somehow I needed to prove I was not a piece of shit, that I could stand up for something.

So, yes, it was a mutual rescue.

*

“Look,” I said to his face, which was sticking through the small window between the cab of my truck and the camper shell. “I can’t call you Buck. It’s vulgar. But you’re old, and you know that name, so I’m not going to make this too difficult on you.”

I’d already picked out Roy Lee for the wild brindle boxer, and I didn’t want to let that go. It was a good name. At that time, in a voluntary celibacy that would, a year later, become quite involuntary, I was obsessed, pitifully, with Jeff Buckley, the dead 90s heartthrob singer/guitarist/prophet, who was my stand-in lover while I was working on myself. The dog looked like a Buckshot, so I could combine Buckshot with Lee, call him Buck Lee, and no one would know I secretly named my dog after the dead musician who owned the teenaged infatuation factory called my mind.

But, Buck Lee didn’t look right when I wrote his name on paperwork, and “Bucklee” posed an affront to my sensibilities. So, Buckley it was. Buckshot Lee Moore.

He stank like a bus station and peed on the corner of the stove. I gave him a bath. When I jumped off the deck into my above ground pool, he followed, unaware that the water kept going down, so when I opened my eyes underwater he was staring right back at me, bug-eyed as a monkey.

I fell so in love with him then, down down down my heart went so deep into his eyes that two days later I told my mom I’d rather kill a man than take Buckshot Lee back to that shelter.

A few days later, during some trust-time sitting on the edge of my bed as I was familiarizing him with the concept of sleeping 1) inside 2) on furniture 3) with me, he peered into the bathroom. He saw, in the large mirror over the sink, himself, and mistook it for another dog. Eyes wide, he threw back his head and ripped this glorious, spine-tingling, hilarious woooooooooo wooooooooo woooooo. The offending dog didn’t leave. Buckley glanced at me, confused, and I said “that’s you in the mirror, buddy. And me. That’s us.”

We sat awkwardly for a minute.

“You’re not a birddog at all,” I finally mentioned. “You’re a coonhound.”

semi-clown face

Hierarchy of Beings: God, then Dogs.

It took me longer than a week to house train him. But he did take to peeing on the commode instead of the stove, which I thought proved how smart he was and how much he wanted to do the right thing. He was all set until I put up a real Christmas tree in the living room that December, which he mistook, rightfully so, as his personal bathroom. When Buckley was uncomfortable, he peed in the house, mine or yours, wherever he was. He had such a sweet, sad, lovable coonhound face, most people found his anxiety-pee charming. So, they forgave him with lots of kisses and treats, which I always considered his ultimate coup d’etat.

*

Buckley grew up in Brunswick County, North Carolina, to a family who abandoned him, at five or six years old, at the kill shelter when they left town. There were pellets in his chest from being shot, his tail was broken at the top as if someone had slammed it in a door, and, inside his right back leg, the hair grew every which-a-way over old scar tissue from being dragged down a road. He also had about 20 seeds of birdshot above his spine, which Andy and our Tampa vet discovered in X-Rays of his kidneys.

I don’t know any more about his background than that. But that was enough to explain his terror at loud noises, especially anything that sounded like a gun, and his eagerness to hide in the bathtub or shower during a thunderstorm. He would hide in the shower even if I was taking a shower, and once he climbed into the bath with me during a particularly thunderous summer storm in Fort Myers. He curled up between my legs at his end of the tub and rested his chin on the side, submerged up to his collar, as if he were doing nothing more than chilling on the couch. “Dude, seriously?” I said. He flashed me a look, the kind where his eyebrows see-sawed up and down as if to say, “Yeah, what? Why not?” and took a deep breath, sending a soft ripple in the bathwater.

Buckley lived with a (mostly) quiet fear of abandonment for the rest of his days, up until his last, when he was satisfied, finally, that I had made good on my promise never to leave him. I don’t know why, given his background, he kept his gentle nature. Buckley loved kids, there must have been some in that first family, and his face was the kind of face that stopped people at the dog beach, on walks, at the vet so they could remark about his face: “what a sweet face! what a sweet boy! look at that face!”

“He’s so swheeeeuuuuuuut,” the southern girls said.

“That’s a good lookin’ dog!” country boys said.

People usually wanted to love up on him, but Buckley wasn’t like that. He loved me, and, in time, took in Andy and they loved each other, but Buckley’s contribution to any occasion was mostly the great gravity of his gentle spirit. It did not take much love before Buckley came around to being a dog with a person. He woke up to it quickly, after a few weeks of sleeping in a bed and going on walks and being only mildly in trouble for doing things like eating whole bunches of bananas off the kitchen counter.

But he was always, as Andy noted, “deficient in his dog skills.” His reactions to many situations were un-pack-like, un-dog-like, so much so I took to explaining his behaviors to people by describing Buckley as somewhere on the autism spectrum. It was not a joke. He sometimes answered to our calls by running, with great determination, in the other direction, and he had absolutely no understanding of stepping around people. If he got in the bed with you, he would find his spot only after jumping on your legs and walking on your arms and nuts or full bladder. He stood on people’s toes for no apparent reason. He groaned peacefully when you rubbed his ears at night, like purring. I could pretend he was a motorcycle by gently twisting his right ear like a handle accelerator, and he’d respond rrrRRRRR rrrrRRRRR.

The day Rufus became my second family member. This picture pretty much sums up their personalities.

The day Rufus became our third family member. This picture pretty much sums up their personalities and our relationships.

“Buckley,” I would say, “it’s time for an injustice!”

An injustice could be anything dogs don’t like to do: get ears cleaned, take a pill, have toenails clipped. But after every injustice, we’d give Buckley a treat, and so this great mystery of a dog got to the point where he looked forward to injustices and never suffered one without his proper reward. At the end of his life, he, too, defined what constituted an injustice, adding his monthly stints with Frontline and Heartgaard. “Was that an injustice?” I’d say, throwing the empty flea vial in the trash. He’d charge up his clown-face grin, stamp and wag and run to the bag of Beggin Strips, beaming at his fortitude in the face of such hardships as getting medicated.

Then he’d lay on the couch and sleep, sending out his soft ripple, waking up if I walked through the room to make sure I wasn’t going to leave.

*

Andy and I discovered, when Buckley left us last Monday morning, that so much of the sweetness of the FRF emanated from the dog. Our family balanced as mathematically as planets: Me, Buckley, Rufus, Andy, Clementine, in the order the family appeared in my life. Buckley carried a lot of weight. What started that hot September afternoon in 2008 at Southport Oak Island Animal Rescue ended in Tampa, Florida, November 10, 2014, in the corner of our yard, a wild Florida subtropical paradise created by Andy’s grandparents some 60 years ago.

Buckley's Corner behind us.

Buckley’s Corner behind us.

Buckley had stopped eating except, of course, treats. Sunday night he started showing signs of kidney failure, followed by a grand mal seizure, Andy and I doing the best we could in this terrible moment. Buckley let us know, in his unceremonious way, he didn’t want us around for the end of it. We let him out in the yard, and he found a quiet corner next to the fence, hidden and protected under a canopy of oaks and a tall thicket. In the morning, we found him barely alive, and called his vet to help him. Andy cut a path through the overgrowth for the vet and the technician. They arrived, Buckley died. When he went, he went peacefully, and, poetically, within a thicket of wild ginger.

*

The path to Buckley’s Corner starts in front of my office window, where I write. I can only see the path, not where it leads. When Buckley died, I had the strange sense of plummeting out of orbit. As I told a good friend, I was prepared to walk with him to death, but I was not prepared to have to live with him gone.

In the time of our great love affair, Buckley brought me to the understanding of many aspects of love, including the profit of a gentle nature, the appreciation of treats and the rewards of faithfulness.

Christmas 2012

Christmas 2012

He showed me I was not a piece of shit, but rather a powerful person for whom Love makes a tender life possible. Buckley was, as you’ve figured out, just the right one.

*

I will be howling in the wild ginger for this dog’s spirit for a long time.

night night beloveds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cuba: The Study of the House

“We simply must start with the Universe first.” —R. Buckminster Fuller

Eco, from the Greek oikos, or “house/dwelling”, and -logia, meaning “the study of.”

I.  Flashpoint

Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, fall 1995:

I’ve taken a half hit of ecstasy with my friend Maria and we’ve been rolling, adrift, through our college campus. We’re seniors, honors graduates, wandering in the night, searching for something we can’t find. My mind needs something in the place my high seeks. My heart leads, but there’s no satisfaction in the streets and the old familiar buildings. I say I need a diet Mountain Dew, and when we come out of the convenient store we take a left on Franklin Street, the main drag full of Saturday night people and bars and traffic. Way down the street we hear drums, a deep bumping and slapping of hands and skins, that unmistakeable dropped down thump of the djembe pumping through the air, and when it finally makes its connection to the ear in my heart, I am as bound to it as a root.

We follow; two dirty hippie boys, about the same age as Maria and me, emerge at the source of the sound, sitting on the ledge of the old used bookstore, the drums between their thighs. They don’t say anything to us, they keep playing, and I make eye contact with the boy on the djembe. His head is back, his smile as wide as it can go, his eyes sparkle at me because drummers know when the dancers arrive; after all, they have been calling to us. My own smile feels as if it splits my face in half, and I close my eyes and drop into time with these two strange boys. I know my hips move first but then something changes. The drum is already inside me; I’m not dancing to the rhythm. I’m not keeping step. Something else is occurring, and I can feel the beats of the drum clamoring up through my feet and legs and torso and into my mind like the drum is clawing its way out of my body. The impulse of the tone, the relentless boomboom pop pop boomboom pop pop fills my brain until I’m forced to stop fighting the rhythm to think about what is happening. When I surrender, I have this enormous sense of falling upwards, like a balloon let go, and I don’t feel like I have a body at all. I’m a beating beating mass of breath. My blood is made of djembe and my corpuscles hold all the information of the universe which they are willing to divulge in the deluge of these pounding sounds like waves like radio static like honeybees like river rapids on a rock face like the sound of my lips on the skin of my beloved. The secrets of my corpuscles gather me up into the great gulf stream of the Mystery.

I can’t hear anymore. I only feel, and I can’t distinguish between the frequency of the drum rhythms and the sensation of the march of living blood. Everything becomes one giant pulse, one silent surge that I am riding but also a part of, like one molecule of water in an ocean wave. My body dances to these drums on Franklin Street, but I am being carried into the Source, and I leave my body in the care of the drums, safely attached to earth by two hippie boys and one fresh, cold diet Mountain Dew. I am the molecule. I am also the wave.

I arrive in the Tower of Babel. I see the honeycombs of rooms, I hear the one true language, and I see us all when we were one people. Then I see us fall apart, I am told why, and I watch the generations spill into the desert like fire ants from an upturned mound. I am held. I am told things. I experience, for the first time in my life, pure, unadulterated, unfiltered, untainted joy. When the drums stop, the wave crashes to shore. I am absorbed by sand, returned to the earth.

I open my eyes and find myself back in front of the used bookstore. I did not know such an experience was possible for me, much less on the sidewalk of busy street in a college town during prime time Saturday night. We hug the drummers, we give them all the money in our pockets. I have the distinct never-the-same-again sensation of someone walking away from a conversion experience. Maria and I walk back to our house with our arms around each other, giddy.

“I talked to God,” I say.

She nods. She smiles at me, a wild, wise, conspiratorial smile shared between  women who dance to the old, sacred language. Maria already knew about drums.

II.  The Study In Context: Florida and Cuba–This Part Isn’t About Miami

The Spanish took Cuba from indigenous people, mostly Taino and Ciboney, in the identical unethical, disturbing, nonsensical but well-rationalized theory of superiority employed by all the other European imperial colonialists who were rampaging through the Caribbean and the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Spanish ripped 600,000 people from Africa and displaced them to Cuba as slave labor for tobacco, coffee, and sugarcane fields, thus an incredible collision of cultures began in the early 1500s that would–despite revolutions, despite political ideologies, despite the Cold War, despite The Embargo, despite racial stereotypes–create a rich and powerful culture fueled by a distinctive, otherworldly connection to music and dance.

I was headed to Cuba to study the otherworldly connection, but I could not ignore the deep bell in me clanging on about the relationship between Tampa and Cuba, which is mainly recognized as a socio-economic-political one, if–under the brighter and more recent historical lights of Miami–it is recognized at all.

The truth is that there was a Little Havana in Tampa first. In the 1800s. I’m serious. And purists–rightly so–will already have their hackles raised that I said “Tampa” and not “Ybor City,” but I did so only because I desperately, yet with poor motivations, want the glory of some of this history for my own address, even at the expense of being historically and ethically inaccurate.

But I owned up to it, so let’s continue.

I can no more ignore the importance of the Cuban people in making Tampa what it is today than I can ignore the influence of Spain in Cuba. Long–way long–before Fidel and Che would make their indelible marks on American history books, unrest and revolution were afoot on the tiny island to unhook the bothersome tick of Spanish imperialism on the Cuban people. We’re talking the late 1700s and early-mid 1800s.

The United States had just plucked out its bothersome tick of English colonial rule, and we really loved Cuba then and got lots of sugar as an import–a relationship that would have ironic consequences on the Everglades in the 20th century, and I may or may not get to that in this blog; after all, I’m not writing a book here, people, (and I claimed this part wasn’t about Miami)–so America wasn’t crazy about Spanish control of Cuba, either. We thought we could do a much better job of controlling Cuba, so much so that we made a decent offer to buy the island off the over-extended superpower of Spain, but they refused, and later we ended up in what is erroneously referred to as the Spanish-American War but is actually the War for Cuban Independence, or, at the least, the Spanish-Cuban-American War, as is explained by the placard at the memorial battleground at San Juan Hill, Santiago, Cuba, the last conflict of the war:

Photo taken at San Juan Hill, Santiago de Cuba, July 2014, by me.

Photo taken at San Juan Hill, Santiago de Cuba, July 2014, by me.

 

The trenches dug by American soldiers who fought for Cuba's independence remain preserved at San Juan Hill.

The trenches dug by American soldiers who fought for Cuba’s independence remain preserved at San Juan Hill.

At this point, global demand for Cuban cigars was in an expanding, insatiable bubble, and the patrones de tabaqueros, mostly Spanish-born elite, had built the cigar business in Cuba into a lucrative, multi-million dollar a year industry. Not bad money for 1869, only four years after the end of our Civil War and the year Wyoming shocked the world by giving women the right to vote.

There were a few head honchos of the cigar industry, but none as important to our tale as Vincente Martinez Ybor. Suspected (correctly) of being a Cuban sympathizer, he fled to Key West, which, only 90 miles north of Havana, was more or less “in the neighborhood.” The location was wonderful for re-creating his cigar dynasty, but not so wonderful because laborers could go home whenever they wanted to, and one never knew if they would return.

At the suggestion of some fellow patrones de tabaqueros, Martinez Ybor and his business partner checked out a Florida outpost called Tampa–access to rail and water and not such easy access back to Cuba. They liked what they saw, bought a tract of land two miles north, and, in 1885, began to build what would become a magical, multi-cultural hotbed of anarchists, proletariats, turn-of-the-century One Percenters, and the community equivalent of a family-sized canister of mixed fruits and nuts featuring Anglos, Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Germans, and Afro-Cubans.

Delicious, unpredictable, and a satisfying mix of flavors, Ybor City grew into a thriving cultural and economic center, all of it–and I mean ALL OF IT–supported by the cigar-making industry founded by Martinez Ybor. Cubans flocked to Ybor City to work in the factories, as did Afro-Cubans, who comprised 13% of the Cuban population.* “Native” Tampans (white folk) enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom and the entrenched old-blood families saw the rapid evolution of two-horse Tampa into a legitimate 20th century city.

Okay, so all that started in 1885. We have Ybor City, which, truly, I can get on my bike right now and ride to the last remaining shells of the brick cigar factories of the era I’m telling you about. Tampa/Ybor City and Cuba are blood sisters, inextricably linked. So much so that in the 19th century, Cubans considered Ybor City part of their own country*.

Fast forward ten years: 1895. The War for Cuban Independence is about to start. It’s led by a charismatic artist, philosopher, revolutionary, and political visionary named Jose Marti. Four years earlier, in 1891, he needed to rally Cuban support on this side, so where does he go? Yes, Tampa. Yes, Ybor City. Our Cuban community here supported that revolution, Marti’s Revolution (forgive me, Antonio Maceo, I know not what I do), financially, with media, and with the kind of focused commitment to la patria the Cubans can especially, and impressively, muster.

Given Cuba’s history, and the significance of Jose Marti in their national identity, and in honor of the better will that used to sing between America and Cuba and poured with great gusto from Ybor City, I can’t overstate the importance of Jose Marti’s presence and influence in Ybor City as a tangible link that still exists for me, as a Tampan who journeyed to Cuba.

In Santiago, I made a special pilgrimage to Marti’s grave, a memorial paid for by the Cuban people, but it wasn’t until I came back to Tampa that I found out he stayed here, that he came to his people here for help in liberating Cuba from Spanish control.

Jose Marti's memorial, his remains lay in state, where a volunteer honor guard changes watch every half hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Jose Marti’s memorial. His remains lay in state, where a volunteer honor guard changes watch every half hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

marti's memorial

The memorial represents Marti, surrounded by the 14 provinces of Cuba, positioned so that the sun always shines on Marti’s remains.

I feel, very strongly, the roots of family, still, that exist between Cuba and Tampa and Ybor City.

This is what I will tell you after spending time at Marti’s grave in Santiago and after sitting on the Malecon in Havana on the morning of July 13, 2014, and sitting on the balustrade at Bayshore Boulevard, modeled after it, in Tampa that same night: the places haven’t forgotten they belong to each other.

Malecon, the balustrade in Havana, Cuba. The last morning in Cuba. July 13, 2014.

Malecon, the balustrade in Havana, Cuba. The last morning in Cuba with our offering to Yemaya. July 13, 2014.

TB bay shore blvd w buckley

Bayshore Boulevard balustrade, modeled after Havana’s Malecon. Las Hermanas Siempre.

 

III. I Get to Cuba by Way of Ritmo and a Research Visa; It Does Not Go as Expected.

In Cuba, there is no escape from the ritmo. Music starts as soon as people awaken: radios, televisions, car stereos, all playing salsa and son and rumba and reggaeton. Polyrhythms punctuated by horns and held together by the clip-clop of claves while multiple voices weave textures of harmonies about “Coo-ba!”, sometimes in lugubrious waves of sorrow, sometimes in workout-levels of shouting.

The persistence of the music calls the spirit into the streets, into the plazas, and folks’s energy is rubbing up against me constantly and men, Jesus, the men with their engorged energy of machismo and music and rum are always trying to penetrate my protective barrier, my polite force-field, and run their energy throughout me. The men here love to dance, they are decisively good at it, and they know it. I am not good enough to dance salsa, rumba. I am willful and have a natural disinclination to follow, and I gave up being charmed by men with booze on their breath a long time ago. I do not fit in well in Cuba, at least in these situations, and I am usually asked to dance only once.

“Feel it,” my dance partner says to me, giving my hand a shake, like he’s trying to wake me up or discipline a lap dog. “Feel it.”

Ritmo is everything in Cuba. No one hides inside a facebook app on a smart phone because they don’t have apps or facebook or smart phones. People interact, they exchange vibes in a constant barter of conversation and feeling. There is a traffic of energy. I feel the come-and-go of human electricity here the way I feel the come-and-go of subway trains standing on the platform of the Metro.  I don’t see throngs of people insulated by earbuds because it’s almost impossible to get mp3 players and ipods.

In Santiago and later, in Havana, the absence of the noise of signage and billboards and sales pieces and screen culture makes it so the acoustics of Cuban life, the ritmo of the people, of the place, is so immediate and un-tune-out-able that I find myself buzzing with consciousness awareness. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. It’s a ride not like the contrived danger of a roller coaster, but like a bareback canter on a horse I just met. I have the sensation of trying to hold on to what is happening in that moment. I am focused and aware, sharply so. Some of this sensation is, of course, traveling as a woman in a third world country, but most of it is being a dancer in a country re-built on its own music and dance of the people.

My mind is in hyperdrive, and I can feel it starting to fall apart, being rearranged by beats. I recall the same phenomenon happening in Brazil: the drums breaking me down and rebuilding me in their image. As the days go by, I will notice deficiencies in my ability to concentrate, down to the point where I can’t remember any Spanish words in the phrase, “and you?”.

I find HBO in English with Spanish subtitles and watch the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I watch part of an episode of True Blood not because I’m interested in the show but because they have Southern accents, and I need a little rhythm that is familiar before I wake up to salsa music blasting from the radio in the hotel kitchen and jump on the horse for another day.

I can’t explain why–because this didn’t happen in Brazil–but in Cuba, I keep finding myself outside the drums. This is a sad, frustrating place to be as a dancer, much like having to visit the love of your life in prison and talk on the plastic phone while looking at each other through plexiglass. I am a dancer who likes to have the drums in my body. I like the rhythm inside of me, and there is a noticeable difference between dancing to drums and dancing with them. There is another level of noticeable difference between dancing with them and dancing in them.

Musicians in our Havana dance class

Musicians in our Havana dance class

I can’t get in the drums because I’m too worried about what I look like. I care too much about being a beginner, a new student. I want to make a sensation here because I have been dancing a long time; I need The Cubans and The Californians to validate me, and these desires of my will do nothing more than force me to practice acceptance, surrender, humility. And sometimes, I really don’t like that.

What I’m learning through this infernal internal dialogue is that life is between El Ritmo and me now. In the final analysis, so it says on the wall of Mother Teresa’s house, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them, anyway. Ugh. I keep dancing. I keep surrendering my will for perfection and compliments. I keep haranguing myself for being off-rhythm, out of step, stumbling. I surrender again, I laugh at myself. Finally, on Thursday, during a Shango class where the drums knit riddles beyond my comprehension, I quit, walk to the bench upon which sit three bata players, and I squeeze between two of them, my back to the drums. I close my eyes, shut up, and listen.

I experience no transport to the Mystery. I do not arrive at the Tower of Babel. I sit on a bench in Cuba, in a dance space the size of a warehouse between two drummers. Their beats bounce off me like hail, there’s no connection between these Cuban men and me, the line is dead. But whatever barriers in me exist are absorbing the shock of impact, and I know enough about rhythm and willingness and the body to know that on my cellular level, the drums alter my mind in a quiet quantum download that will, eventually, express in my body as a new language of movement.

There is no shock-and-awe moment. There is only the tedious business of training. I am still. I am letting the rhythm do its thing inside of me.

IV: Spiritual Ecology, the Role of the Dancer in Community, and GODS OF FLORIDA 

Right before I left for Cuba, I encountered the field of study and inquiry called spiritual ecology, which “acknowledges the critical need to recognize and address the spiritual dynamics at the root of environmental degradation.” Relying on critical work in the disciplines of science and academia, religion and spirituality, and ecological sustainability, the people working within this field hope to create a more meaningful dialogue about the spiritual roots of our constant need to destroy our own house and what we can do to begin to understand our simple and sacred cause-and-effect relationship to the air, water, light, land and living connection to this place where we spend our earthly toil.

In the early days of human society, in our ancestral background, the dancer’s responsibility was to be the intermediary between the spirit world and the people, carrying messages back and forth in ceremony. I see no difference in the role of the dancer today, though the look of our ceremonies and the bonds of our social relationships are quite different, at least in the United States. Dance has the power to restore the lost connections (if you will, the weak signals) of our community with our living environment.

And I will tell you this: it is no joke to call down the gods in drums and then begin to dance.

No joke at all.

This excites me.

So, I traveled to Cuba to study the sacred Afro-Cuban orisha dances of Lucumi. Like the Afro-Brazilian devotees of candomble, Afro-Cubans had to syncretize their African deities with Catholic saints. I did not know I needed this Afro-Cuban movement to complete GODS OF FLORIDA until my friend Cynthia emailed me to ask if I was interested in traveling with them for a Cuban dance immersion. Oh, I thought, this is the next piece. Divine timing.  So, I threw in my lot with a group of dancers from California and tagged along to Cuba as a researcher. Unlike with the Brazil trip, where I went because of a deep, intuitive nudging but was without any intention other than to discover what the nudging was all about (and did I ever), this trip to Cuba signified a conscious effort on my part to study and work with Afro-Cuban orisha dance and rhythm because I am, in no small effort, choreographing one giant love poem to the holy wilds of Florida.

As I’ve written about many times before, my temple is the wild. When I traveled to Brazil in 2012 and Linda Yudin and Co. exposed me to the Orixas for the first time, dance and nature met the drums, coalescing these previous separate parts of me into one language. Finally, through the study of orixa (in Cuba: orisha) dance and song, I was able to start to speak of the sacred things that came to me when I was in the ocean, woods, swamps, and, now, on the blackwater rivers and especially when I enter our springs. If I can show you in dance what I feel and make you feel it, too, then I have honored God. I have honored you.

 

 

 

 

There is no separation between nature, humankind, and The Spirit. None.

I can not be any clearer on this point.

How we treat nature, the other creations who live with us on Earth, and each other is our treatment of God. If we disregard water flow, if we exploit our resources, if we tear up our wetlands and our forests and each other’s bodies, if we pollute our air and our water, if we house animals in cages to make money, if we factory farm them, all we do, over and over, is akin to destroying our own house–but not before ensuring all our loved ones are inside it.

But, habits are hard to break. Andy and I still eat meat from the grocery store, even though I know the animal suffered ill treatment before I ate it, and now I’m eating that animal’s suffering. I remain entrenched with most everyone else at the But Bacon Tastes Good phase, though I’m reconsidering how I obtain my food. Most of the time I prefer not to dwell on what I know about the meat industry in our country and our profligate holocaust therein. I go with what is convenient, and I willingly put growth hormones and traumatized meat in my body, like most Americans. However, there isn’t a meal anymore where I don’t connect to the flesh on my plate. That used to be alive, and it’s life now supports mine. There is a sacred honor in that relationship. There is no honor in waste. There is no honor in killing for killing or killing for property, or killing for possession of resources. There is no honor in bragging over the taking of a life, whether that life belonged to a fish or a convict, a lion. A spider. A cypress tree.

There is no separation.

There is nothing outside of El Ritmo, the great rhythm, that creates and contains us all. In dance, in music, in drums: all connect in this material plane, the scientific here, the spiritual Here, and we can all talk to each other.

We reunite in the one language.

This is what I learned in Cuba.

***

night, night beloveds. You know it is my intention to share these dances with you, to make more in the community where you live and in the wild places where you feel what I’m talking about here. Send me a message if you’re interested. I’ll also write more stories of the Cuba travels later, and introduce you to many of the intriguing personalities I encountered along the way.

peace.

_____________________________________________

*Many thanks to Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta’s book The Immigrant World of Ybor City for helping me understand the immigrant context and history of Cuba and Ybor/Tampa. And thanks to Andy for recommending it to me. BTW, Gary Mormino is to Florida what the Oracle of Delphi was to ancient Greece. Please read his historical works.

*Thank you also to my mother-in-law Linda, who went to Cuba the year before I did, and loaned me her copy of Julia E. Sweig’s Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, which I also referenced for this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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