SLUG

Here’s a little treasure I found…wrote it a couple of years ago at the end of the gardening season. I’m posting it now so we can psyche-up for the coming garden parties!

slug-nature-snail-mollusc-158158.jpeg

Well, there it was. The gruesome stories were true: gardens have slugs and they are slimy and kind of amorphous in a Jabba the Hut kind of way, and this particular slug was clearly and in no uncertain terms killing a rose plant. What was I supposed to do? I capture spiders inside the house and take them outside, but this was already outside. Taking it inside seemed counter-intuitive.

I could throw it over the fence into my neighbor’s yard. Bad karma. Plus, what if she saw me? The last thing I needed that day was to be judged by the world’s best gardener.

Salt, right? Yes, you create boundaries around plants with salt and slugs couldn’t cross over the line. So I ran into the house. What kind of salt? Himalayan pink? Fleur de Sel? Kosher. That had a religious-end-of-life feel to it. Back outside, I peeled the slug off the green leaf and gently laid it on a warm railroad tie in a patch of sun. No need to get homicidally violent here. I sprinkled some salt on the slug. And then, I was filled with a riotous guilt that no amount of chardonnay could ever erase.

Sweet Jesus, what was I thinking? Look at it, writhing in pain! If it could scream, I’m sure they could hear it in Canada. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit. I picked it up and ran inside, back to the kitchen. I started rinsing the salt off it, weeping apologies. The slug was dead. Disfigured and lifeless (although it had never really been zoo or circus material, had it?), I desperately tried to revive the slug. Wait, maybe I should put more salt on it…maybe my rinsing the slug was prolonging its suffering. The salt was outside. I dropped the now revered specimen of natural beauty into the garbage disposal. I turned it on, eviscerating all evidence of my treachery.

Now a Buddhist, I lay down on my yoga mat in a darkened room, mourning the loss of life, grateful gardens don’t have kittens hiding under rose bushes.

 

The Soul of the Mountain

OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN WITH MOON

Image courtesy of Wild Light Images

“To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are—painful, impermanent, open, imperfect—and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the process and essence of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence.” -Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

As a child standing in the shadow of the once great “Old Man of the Mountain,” summer after summer I was enchanted by the landmark. Seeing the Old Man was a part of a yearly tradition as we vacationed in Franconia, NH, and we would look for him as we splashed in lakes, hiked up mountains, and drove through the craggy notch in search of the next adventure. The Old Man was as much a part of our family’s lore as it was a part of the mythology of the land surrounding it, the rock formation appearing as the profile of an old man one moment, only to be absorbed into the mighty side of Cannon Mountain at another.

Early in the morning of May 3, 2003, the profile slid from his lookout over Profile Lake into a new formation whose presence was now unknown. This symbol was not just the picture on New Hampshire’s license plates, stamps, and road signs, and the concern was not just economic. The loss was a cultural one, for this symbol had been the focus of narratives for hundreds of years, and it is always difficult for us to be reminded of the ultimate power of the natural world. It’s what makes it beautiful, this dangerous seniority that can both inspire and crush us. There’s a reason we still tell stories like that of Pompeii and the Titanic, and the reason is not just the curiosity of a tragedy that could not be avoided. We tell the stories because of a deep, mythic connection to this idea that we are mere visitors on this planet, and the impermanence of the natural world is a constant reminder of our own impermanence.

The Old Man of the Mountain was formed about ten thousand years ago, through the melting of ices sheets that covered the White Mountains at the end of a glacial period that began 200 million years ago. He was composed of five separate slabs of granite, forty feet high and twenty-five feet wide, and sat twelve hundred feet above Profile Lake. Over the years, water freezing and thawing weakened a crevice beneath his “chin;” just enough to cause a rock slide. For years the state had used epoxy to slow the erosion, but unusually heavy rains and winds that year proved too much for the Old Man. The shock that followed the fall is characteristic of the human reaction to death: no one denies its inevitability, but its occurrence can still be shattering. This was the reaction of many to the loss of the Old Man, which some even likened to the loss of a family member, an old friend, or God. Because that’s the power of the natural world, as its beauty makes us feel a part of something universal, and yet, humbled by its majesty. The connection between the Old Man and the divine reverberates throughout the most ancient stories about him as well.

One native American legend is this: The Pemigewasset and Mohawk tribes were old enemies, until Chief Pemigewasset fell in love with the daughter of the Mohawk chief, whose name was Minerwa. When they married, peace reigned. One day, Minerwa received word that she must return to her tribe to attend to her dying father, and Pemigewasset swore to his wife that he would faithfully wait for her return. But winter came, and Pemigewasset remained behind while the rest of the tribe moved to more suitable grounds for the coming season. Pemigewasset died waiting for Minerwa’s return, and in the Spring, his people buried him on the cliffside, facing the direction from which Minerwa would return. As the people sadly left the sacred burial place of their beloved chief, they looked up to see that the Great Spirit has immortalized Chief Pemigewasset in the side of the mountain. The Old Man was thus the face of Chief Pemigewasset, watching over his people as well as for his missing wife. Most poignantly, this story reflects a common theme in Native American mythology: there is life within the land, and the land cannot be separated from the people.

Telling a story that puts the face of God on a mountainside is an act of courageous creativity that connects the natural world with human spiritual life. All that is needed is one more step in thinking: by protecting the wilderness, we are protecting ourselves, and by seeing God in the mountain, we are illuminating the numinous within ourselves.

 

 

Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love

bread

At writing group last week, our prompt was to pick a title of a Dali painting (there was a list to pick from) and write a reflection based on the title. Not the painting, just the title. So I picked “Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love” and wrote this:

When I was a teenager, I was told a parable, and I can’t remember by whom or under what circumstances, but I will never forget it. You see, there once was an elderly couple, and they would sit across from each other in the morning, to share toast and tea. One morning, probably a grey Tuesday morning, I imagine, when the toast popped up, the old man reached for a piece and buttered it carefully and handed it to his wife. Then he repeated with the second piece of toast, and they began their breakfast. But the wife wasn’t eating.

“What’s wrong?” the husband asked.

“I’ve had it!” said the wife. “Almost every morning for 62 years you’ve taken the heel of the loaf, toasted and buttered it, and given it to me, keeping a soft piece for yourself. Why do you do that?” she asked testily.

“Because it’s my favorite piece,” her husband replied.

For thirteen years now, I have risen almost every weekday morning at 4 AM, because that’s when my husband wants to go to work. He doesn’t have to…that’s when he wants to do it. I make him breakfast, pack him a lunch, and send him off to work. Have I resented that ever? Absolutely. I’ve had my mornings of slamming pans, cursing, and general grumpiness. I’ve felt taken for granted. He’s often in a bad mood. I’ve thought he’s selfish and a real pill. But I never ask why… anymore.

I know it makes him feel loved and cared for.

It feels good to be doing something tangible and showing my sustained love with my persistence.

And once when I grumbled, “Why do we have to do this every frickin’ day?”, he said, “Because I can come home at 3 and still have the rest of the day with you.”

Which is strictly bullshit, but the right thing to say. And no matter what, getting up at 4 am is my heel of bread. There are reasons.

I read it to Bob the next morning while he was eating breakfast (his back was to me). He was pretty quiet when I finished, and then I saw him wipe his eye. “Are you CRYING?” I asked. “I have something in my contact,” he said. “Well, did you get it?” (Full of questions, I was.) “What kind of dullard do you think I am? And I love you.” So, like I said, there are reasons. Many, many reasons.

 

The Mythopoesis of Love

My writing group’s theme for our blog this month is “Love. Art. Repeat.” Since in the near future I’ll be posting about my paper that I’m working on, “The Mythopoesis of Alternative Justice,” after I get things wrapped up, in the meantime I thought I’d share what I wrote for the group’s web page (won’t be published until next week) at http://www.mhcpugetsoundwriters.com.

Here it is:

hd-love-art

                                                     The Mythopoesis of Love

For the past few days, hour after hour, I have been immersed in note-taking on Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Now what on God’s green earth would motivate me to do such a thing? Have I developed some kind of program of atonement based on utter boredom? Do I believe that the intricacies of Hobbes’s distinction between contracts and covenants is important to know? (By the way, you can’t have a covenant with a beast. Nope.) None of the above; I am painstakingly doing this because I am taking an online class called Revolutionary Ideas: Utility, Justice, Equality, Freedom.

But why am I doing that? I’m taking the class because I’m giving a presentation in a couple of weeks about the Mythopoesis of Alternative Justice at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference. Why? Because I’ve read a bunch of books in this past year about different areas of North America (that includes Mexico and Canada, folks!), and the roots of their immigrants, their belief systems, and the stories we all tell (books, movies, TV) that illustrate our anxieties and profound hopes about justice. That doesn’t explain it, really, though, does it?

Why did I pick that topic right now? Because I need to understand, like many, many of my fellow Americans, what is happening in this country. I’m scared, and hurting, so fundamentally confused, and can find no unity nor answers by talking. Even conversations I have with people with whom I agree feel tense and angry. But I don’t think yelling at each other or retreating to preconceived notions about what is important in “your” America is going to work at all. So, I did what I can do very well. I decided to love and write. (And apparently exhaust my brain to the point that reading an article in Popular Science seems frivolous.)

This is at the core of all my creative efforts: I want the fruit of my labors to be reflective of who I am as a person, and not what I believe. To me, if my writing, and my cooking, and all my other quests to create nice things isn’t rooted in this desire to understand and love, then it’s not worth making. I wrote a paper, and made a Power Point presentation, and got some awesome movie and TV clips, and thought of some funny ways to tell people about my paper. I’m not trying to change what anyone thinks, or make some self-important statement about right, wrong, and what people should be thinking about. I am trying to create out of love.

image courtesy of HDW Pro

The Myth of Masamune and Muramasa

I’m back! I know, it’s been forever. I have been focusing my “blogging time” to my writing group’s blog; check it out at mhcpugetsoundwriters.com. I realized, though, that I was neglecting my passion, so here I am, with a new priority. So, let’s just get to it. For the following, I would like to thank my friend and colleague Allison Stieger who turned me onto this myth about a year ago.

Masamune was an actual craftsman of swords, believed to live from around 1264-1343 in Japan. To this day, there is an award for swordsmiths called the Masamune prize. But that’s not the legend.

As the story goes, Masamune had a student named Muramasa, who was extremely talented and thought himself to be equal to Masamune in skill. So Muramasa challenged Masamune to a contest: each would craft his own sword, and then test their quality.

Muramasa’s sword, expertly made, was called Juuchi Yosamu, which means “10,000 Winters,” while Masamune’s sword, equally beautiful, was called Yawarkai-Te, which means “Tender Hands.” For the contest, each swordsmith put his sword in a stream with the blade facing up, towards the surface of the water. When the leaves passed over Juuchi Yosamu, they were cleanly split in two, as were the fish. Even the air passing over it was sliced. Over Yawarkai-Te, however, the leaves drifted past; the fish swam gently around it, and the air remained calm.

Muramasa thought this was a riot, and laughed, proclaiming the superiority of his sword. (That’s called “bullying,” kids.) After all, his sword sliced through everything quite easily. But a monk was nearby watching, and he approached the competitors. He declared Masamune’s sword superior, and here is why: Juuchi Yosamu was bloodthirsty and evil; it slaughtered everything in its path, including innocence and beauty. Yawarkai-Te, however, was discriminate. This sword was holy, in that it showed control, and did not kill everything in its path. And that’s why it was the better sword.

Why did I choose to tell this myth on my first day back, the day after a pretty notable election for this country? Because we all wield swords, whether they be words, ideas, or actions, and in the depths of despair or the soaring of victory, we begin to brandish them. My hope is that in the course of any ensuing battle that first an foremost we will be mindful of beauty and innocence, and intentional in what we wish to destroy.

Achilles

Last week my writing group responded to the prompt of “a part of the body.” I went back and forth, but landed on “ankle,” which made me think about Achilles. So here’s what I wrote…keep in mind I only had 30 minutes!<b>Thetis</b> dipping <b>Achilles</b> in the River Styx.

Have you ever heard of an “Achilles’ Heel”? It’s a reference to a point of weakness one may have, for example, “Passive-aggressive people are my Achilles’ Heel,” which means that you can deal with just about anyone, except for, say, Gandhi, or my brother. “Achilles’ Heel,” though, is kind of a misnomer, since Achilles’ mother, Thetis, dipped him in the River Styx upon his birth, in hopes of making him invincible. She had to hold onto him somehow, so she held him by the ankle. It doesn’t make any sense if she held him by the heel; see what I mean? [Reference Reubens’ work above.] I usually refer to the Achilles tendon for discussions like this, since that seems to be a far more anatomically correct reference for this tale. So Achilles’ ankle-area is a mythic representation of this idea that no matter what our strength, there is always the potential for downfall.

What many people don’t know about Achilles is that his name translates to “the grief of his people.” Now, unlike the aforementioned “heel” reference, this makes sense to me. He was great, actually the greatest of warriors, and the promise of his nation. He assured the Greeks military dominance. And then, he was killed, not by a mightier warrior but by some pissant named Paris, who started the whole Trojan War in the first place and then killed the hero Achilles in the most cowardly of ways. Paris hit Achilles right in his weakest point. Some say Apollo guided the arrow and some say Paris was just lucky. But it really doesn’t matter, because this myth is like so many of our cultural myths (think Titanic) that warn us of hubris, or not considering possible outcomes other than success.

And that, is the grief of a people, or the sadness of a nation. Or an individual. We cannot ever be assured of our triumph. However, if we truly follow Achilles’ example, we also should know that the noble thing to do is try, because the chances of success are excellent if we think we are invincible.

Which brings me to my own ankles. I have weak ankles…I’ve been told this many times by many doctors. I try to strengthen them, but it never completely works, because I’m not committed enough. So my ankles are literally my Achilles’ Ankle. And it kind of works that way metaphorically, too, since I’m often swaggering around in fashionable shoes or rocking the treadmill when my ankles give out and remind me of this particular shortcoming, literally by twisting my ankle and metaphorically by taking me down a notch. Does this weakness mean I don’t try to spiff up a bit and dare to wear those wedges? Certainly not. Does it mean I have an excuse not to get on the treadmill to improve my cardiovascular and muscular health? Yes, but it shouldn’t. Anyway, here’s a wish that I send out today: May our weaknesses never prevent us from attempting greatness, and may our shortcomings never cause others shame.

Mwindo: Small but Mighty

ALERT: If you read this very long blog post, there’s a picture of a cute baby at the end…

ALSO: If you live in the Seattle area, the Seattle Children’s Theater is doing a production of Mwindo in January. See http://www.sct.org/Shows/2014-2015-Season/Mwindo.

 

            The Mwindo epic is a story that is rooted in a mythological story from Zaire, which today is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The tale would be shared around a fire with song and dance, and usually would have to be told over several nights, as the story is very long. The storyteller would be swinging a conga (flyswatter) and wearing ankle bells.  Sometimes in this culture, the name “Mwindo” is given to a boy who is born after many girls. I’ll just lay the story on you and then comment. Apologies to any Mwindo fans out there; I’ve had to shorten the story considerably, and have taken liberties with the translation of the refrain of the poem.

            Here’s a very Europeanized vision of Mwindo with his conga:

Mwindo_art

 

In a village called Tubondo there was a great chief named Shemwindo. One day he called together his seven wives and the rest of his people. Shemwindo made a very frightening proclamation:  he said that he would only have daughters, and that if any sons were born, he would kill them. You see, Shemwindo didn’t want his power to be threatened, and therefore he could not afford to lose any of his money; or so he believed. He said, “When a daughter is married, her father receives a bride-price. But when a son is married a father must pay a price for his son’s bride. So I want no sons!”

As Shemwindo’s wives started having children, they were all daughters. Then it was learned, that Shemwindo’s favorite wife, whose baby was not coming, was pregnant with a boy. Mwindo, in his mother’s belly, said to himself, “When I am ready, I will not be like other babies! I will come out of my mother’s navel, and dance around with a conga.”  One day, Mwindo burst forth from his mother’s navel, swinging about his conga made from fine wood and the tail of a buffalo. Mwindo’s mother cried out in fear as the baby danced around the room, singing,

I am Mwindo,

the one born walking

the one born talking.

My father does not want me,

And wishes to kill me.

But he can do nothing against me;

I am small, but mighty!

Shemwindo, hearing the ruckus, came running and was very angry. Did he not say that there were to be no sons? Did he not say he would try to destroy any son who was born to one of his wives?

Shemwindo threw a spear at the child, and Mwindo waved his conga. The spear fell to the ground, and Mwindo picked it up and broke it in two. Shemwindo cried out, “What kind of child is this?” And Mwindo cried,

I am Mwindo,

the one born walking,

the one born talking.

Father, what can you do against me?

I am small, but mighty!

Now the chief, Shemwindo, was very angry. He called to his counselors, “My wife has given birth to a son! I cannot spear him, but I want him buried. Dig a grave and put him in it.” Sadly, the chief’s counselors dug a hole, put Mwindo in the hole, and filled it with dirt. They could not go against the chief. Then everyone went to sleep.

When Shemwindo awoke the next morning, he heard a song being sung.

I am Mwindo,

the one born walking,

the one born talking.

My father tried to bury me,

but what can he do against me?

I am small, but mighty!

Shemwindo ran out to find the child on his mother’s lap. Even she was perplexed by this strange child. Shemwindo, though, would not be discouraged. Next, he wanted to try to get rid of Mwindo by putting him in a drum and floating him downriver. When his orders were carried out, the chief was astounded to see that the drum holding Mwindo did not move! It just stayed where it was, and from inside, Mwindo sang

I am Mwindo,

the one born walking,

the one born talking.

Oh, my father, why do you send me downriver?

Mwindo will go where he wants to go.

Mwindo will go upriver to my father’s sister,

my aunt Iyangura will want me.

I am Mwindo, and I am small, but mighty!

So Mwindo used his magic to float in his drum-boat to his aunt’s village, where he was welcomed. When his aunt’s servants told her of a singing drum down by the river, she raced to the place and cut open the drum. There she saw Mwindo, singing and waving his conga. His aunt couldn’t help but admire how handsome and powerful he was…he shone like the sun, even though he was just a baby. The aunt lovingly raised Mwindo.

When Mwindo was grown, he told his aunt that it was time for him to go and face his father. But his aunt was worried: “He’s a very great chief, with many men to fight with him!” cried Iyangura. But Mwindo brandished his conga, and sang,

I am Mwindo,

the one born walking,

the one born talking.

My father did not want me,

and tried to kill me.

Now he will face me.

After his aunt gave him more powers and a great feast, Mwindo went back to his father’s village, and confronted his father and the men of Tubondo. Easily, Mwindo defeated them by waving his conga; all of their spears bounced of his body and fell to the ground, and everyone in the village stood in awe of Mwindo. Mwindo sang and danced and waved his conga, calling,

O Lightening, look here.

O Lightening, be the judge.

Is my father right?

O Lightning, send your bolt.

Show who’s right,

show who’s wrong.

With that, a lightening bolt flashed from the sky and all of Shemwindo’s men fell dead. All in the village stood in awe. Mwindo then awoke all of the slain men, and called out, “Where is my father?” and there was only silence. Afraid to face his son, Shemwindo had run into the rainforest and found a kikoka plant, tore it out of the ground, and jumped through the hole into the underground world where the gods lived. Mwindo knew he must follow. This land was the land of Nyamurairi and had no sun or stars. Iyangura said, “Mwindo, you must not go! No one can go to the land of the dead and return to the land of the living!” But Mwindo sang,

I am Mwindo,

the one born walking,

the one born talking.

My father goes to the gods.

Mwindo goes there too.

Mwindo goes where he wants to go.

The son will find his father.

Beneath the earth, Mwindo came upon Kahindo, the daughter of the chief god. She was very impressed by Mwindo, and he was equally impressed by her. Kahindo asked him, “Why have you come to the land of the gods? No one can return from this land; only the dead can come here.”

Mwindo said, “I have come to take my father home. I must succeed…can you help me?”

Kahindo wanted to help this handsome man, so she warned Mwindo that her father would try to trick him. She said, “He will offer you beer and porridge, but you must say, “Shall I eat food and drink that has passed through my host?’ Say these things and you will be safe.”  When Mwindo got to the house of Nyamurairi, the chief, the god told him that neither he nor his father could return to the land above ground. Mwindo sang and danced,

I am Mwindo,

the one born walking,

the one born talking.

O god of fire,

even you cannot stop me.

O god of death,

even you cannot hold me.

Mwindo goes where he wants to go.

Nyamurairi tried to trick Mwindo into eating and drinking, and when that didn’t work, he tried to give Mwindo some impossible tasks to do. First, he told Mwindo if he wanted to take his father safely home, he would have to grow an entire banana grove the next day. All the chief gave him was a knife, and axe, and some banana shoots. Mwindo used his conga to create a banana grove in one day, got honey from a tree, and foiled Nyamurairi’s attempt to kill him with a magic belt.

Nyamurairi had fallen to the ground, killed by his own cursed belt. As Mwindo danced, singing his victory song, Kahindo approached and saw her father lying in the dust. “Oh, Mwindo!” she cried,” You came to bring home your father, but now my father is dead!” Mwindo was sad, and swatted Nyamurairi with his conga. Amazed by his powers, Nyamurairi allowed Mwindo to leave the land of the dead, and return to the land of the living with his father.

Mwindo caught his father running from the gods’ village. His father ran fast, but Mwindo ran faster. Mwindo caught his father.
“Will you kill me?” cried Shemwindo.

“No, I will not,” replied Mwindo.

“Will you hurt me?” Shemwindo asked.

“No, I will not,” replied Mwindo.
“Then what do you want with me?” asked Shemwindo.

Mwindo said: “A father cannot be a father without a son, and a son cannot be a son without a father. You must be my father, so I can be your son.” And finally, Mwindo danced and sang and waved his conga,

I am Mwindo,

the one born walking,

the one born talking.

O my father, you did not want me.

But how could you escape me?

The son found his father.

The father faced his son.

Now you are truly my father.

Now I am truly your son.

Shemwindo was amazed at how wise the young Mwindo was. He said, “Of course, Great Mwindo! I will be your father, and you will be my son!” And Mwindo sang his song.  Back at the village, Shemwindo spoke to his people. “This I have learned: A man must not value only a daughter or only a son. Each is a blessing of its own.” And when Shemwindo grew old and died, Mwindo became chief. He was very famous and to this day, everyone tells the story of the one born walking, the one born talking. The mighty Mwindo!

**********

OK, that was long, so I’ll keep this short. I love this story. It has all of the characteristics of the world’s great epics: a personal journey, tales of bravery and wit, a journey of importance, and a resolution the reunites and gives hope. Perfect. I love that the story turns the value of one’s children into something outside of the world; “children” and “cost” should not be spoken in the same sentence. They are a piece of you, irretrievably tied to you, yet so powerful and separate in their own rights. And size does not denote how powerful you are. Also, the village should not be fearful of speaking up. In the end, we all have to go to a dark place, in order to rise again. We are all magic. And we are all part of a cycle of life and death that makes each of us weak and great.

Also, flyswatters are cool.

baby1

For Ruby Amelia, the fifth daughter of my dear friend. May you always understand your worth as a woman, inspire unity in your family, and embrace life in the “village” of those who love you. You came into this world later and wiser than we could have imagined. And, like Mwindo, you went where you wanted, when you wanted! Unlike Mwindo, your parents will have to pay for your wedding.