“The Wretched of the Earth,” Frantz Fanon

1961. Trans. by Richard Philcox. I’ve modified his language somewhat for gender neutrality.

On Violence

The colonized subject is constantly on their guard. Confused by the myriad signs of the colonial world, they never know whether they are out of line. Confronted with a world configured by the colonizer, the colonized subject is always presumed guilty. The colonized does not accept their guilt, but rather considers it a kind of curse, a sword of Damocles. But deep down the colonized subject acknowledges no authority. They are dominated but not domesticated. They are made to feel inferior, but by no means convinced of their inferiority. They patiently wait for the colonist to let their guard down to then jump on them. The muscles of the colonized are always tensed. … The symbols of society such as the police force, bugle calls in the barracks, military parades, and the flag flying aloft, serve not only as inhibitors but also as stimulants. They do not signify: “Stay where you are,” but rather “Get ready to do the right thing.” And in fact if ever the colonized subject begins to doze off or forget, the colonist’s arrogance and preoccupation with testing the solidity of the colonial system will remind them on so many occasions that the great showdown cannot be postponed indefinitely. … It is a known fact that under certain emotional circumstances an obstacle actually escalates action.

Colonial War and Mental Disorders

We have no control over the fact that the psychiatric phenomena, the mental and behavioral disorders emerging from [the war of Algerian independence] have loomed so large among the perpetrators of “pacification” and the “pacified” population. The truth is that colonization, in its very essence, already appeared to be a great purveyor of psychiatric hospitals. Since 1954 we have drawn the attention of French and international psychiatrists in scientific works to the difficulty of “curing” a colonized subject correctly, in other words making them thoroughly fit into a social environment of the colonial type.

Because it is a systematized negation of the other, a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity, colonialism forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: “Who am I in reality?”

The defensive positions born of this violent confrontation between the colonized and the colonial constitute a structure which then reveals the colonized personality. In order to understand this “sensibility” we need only to study and appreciate the scope and depth of the wounds inflicted on the colonized during a single day under a colonial regime. We must remember in any case that a colonized people is not just a dominated people. Under the German occupation, the French remained human beings. Under the French occupation, the Germans remained human beings. In Algeria there is not simply domination but the decision, literally, to occupy nothing else by a territory. The Algerians, the women dressed in haiks, the palm groves, and the camels form a landscape, the natural backdrop for the French presence.

A hostile, ungovernable, and fundamentally rebellious Nature is in fact synonymous in the colonies with the bush, the mosquitos, the natives, and disease. Colonization has succeeded once this untamed Nature has been brought under control. Cutting railroads through the bush, draining swamps, and ignoring the political and economic existence of the native population are in fact one and the same thing.


Fighting for the freedom of one’s people is not the only necessity. As long as the fight goes on you must re-enlighten not only the people but also, and above all, yourself on the full measure of humanity. You must retrace the paths of history, the history of people damned by other people, and initiate, bring about, the encounter between your own people and others.

… The militant very often realizes that not only must they hunt down the enemy forces but also the core of despair crystallized in the body of the colonized. The period of oppression is harrowing, but the liberation struggle’s rehabilitation of humanity fosters a process of reintegration that is extremely productive and decisive. The victorious combat of a people is not just the crowning triumph of their rights. It procures them substance, coherence, and homogeneity. For colonialism has not simply depersonalized the colonized. The very structure of society has been depersonalized on a collective level. A colonized people is thus reduced to a collection of individuals who owe their very existence to the presence of the colonizer.

The combat waged by a people for their liberation leads them, depending on the circumstances, either to reject or to explode the so-called truths sown in their consciousness by the colonial regime, military occupation, and economic exploitation. And only the armed struggle can effectively exorcise those lies about humanity that subordinate and literally mutilate the more conscious-minded among us.


We must abandon our dreams and say farewell to our old beliefs and former friendships. Let us not lose time in useless laments or sickening mimicry. Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world.

For centuries Europe has brought the progress of other peoples to a halt and enslaved them for its own purposes and flory; for centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called “spiritual adventure.” Look at it now teetering between atomic destruction and spiritual disintegration.

And yet nobody can deny its achievements at home have not been crowned with success.

Europe has taken over leadership of the world with fervor, cynicism, and violence. And look how the shadow of its monuments spreads and multiplies. Every movement Europe makes bursts the boundaries of space and thought. Europe has denied itself not only humility and modesty but also solicitude and tenderness.

Its only show of miserliness has been towards humanity; only towards humanity has it shown itself to be niggardly and murderously carnivorous.

… Two centuries ago, a former European colony took it into its head to catch up with Europe. It has been so successful that the United States of America has become a monster where the flaws, sickness, and inhumanity of Europe have reached frightening proportions.

… A permanent dialogue with itself, an increasingly obnoxious narcissism inevitably paved the way for a virtual delirium where intellectual thought turns into agony since the reality of humanity as a living, working, self-made being is replaced by words, an assemblage of words and the tensions generated by their meanings.

… All the elements for a solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time or another in European thought. But the Europeans did not act on the mission that was designated them and which consisted of virulently pondering these elements, modifying their configuration, their being, of changing them and finally taking the problem of humanity to an infinitely higher plane.

… What matters now is not a question of profitability, not a question of increased productivity, not a question of production rates. No, it is not a question of back to nature. It is the very basic question of not dragging humanity in directions which mutilate us, of not imposing on our brains tempos that rapidly obliterate and unhinge them.

octave, sestet, volta

Edit: I wrote the below last summer, the June after I’d sustained a concussion on May 8, 2019.  I have a lot of new thoughts, but so much of this still rings true that I want it here as a record.  The title references something that I planned to write about the structure of the sonnet, and how that particular piece of information architecture has been passed along for centuries, but clearly I never got around to making that point, and now I don’t remember what it was.

I know that I’m not going to sleep tonight, so I will stop trying. Or if I sleep it’ll come after I have given up all hope, usually around 6 a.m.

It started a few days ago when the first four notes of “Ode to Joy” came to mind, for no reason that I can name.  (Not the not sleeping.  That has been going on for weeks.  The magic to do so has left me.)  I was walking in the sun and those four simple quarter notes struck me as I had first learned them at the piano outside of Chicago when I was six, transposed to C major for small clumsy hands, E E F G, and then the major descending pentatonic scale, G F E D and the triumph of arriving finally at C, the dominant note, the note that the theme will end on after it has made its journey above and below.

I remembered learning it for the first time, and I remembered when I was a little older and I used the computer to compose variations on it that I never played for anyone, but I can remember them still.  And I remembered that one of the first books on tape that I played over and over again to try to make the magic of sleep happen, starting all the way back to six or five or earlier, was “Beethoven Lives Upstairs,” in which the fictional child narrator shares a true moment of the first performance of the 9th symphony.  Beethoven by then was fully deaf, and at the end of the symphony, he did not turn to face the audience, and he did not hear the thunderous applause.  A mezzo-soprano (since he was the first composer to write a symphony that included human voices), touched his arm to turn him around and see the effect he had.

Beethoven found the simple quarter-note pattern of E E F G without ever hearing them, and two centuries later I can hear the same notes in my head and place that pattern of vibration precisely.  There is something miraculous about this – the ability of his brain to join those notes together in a string that is now as familiar as a heartbeat, the transmission of music across centuries, my brain’s ability to find those same notes and remember fingering without having to hear a sound.  I walked home in the wonder of it.

I don’t know if it is the headache that I have all the time now, that sits at the back of my head like the reptillian brain and hugs my temples tightly, even more so when I think of it.  I don’t know if it is that the concussion just shook loose the frail magic that I had that let sleep happen.  I don’t know if it is the drumbeat pressure of how many people I am failing by being like this, by working fewer hours, by falling behind, by not saving a world that will have condemned itself to death in a decade if the everything that must change doesn’t.  I am lonely but I am relieved that I do not have someone living with me that I would also fail.  I was given anti-depressants to try to rework the magic of sleep, and they haven’t.  I don’t know if it’s because of them or because of stopping them that I feel on the verge of hiccuping a sob all the time now, that the complete pathos and beauty of the slightest human kindness undoes me, or witnessing any of the small, trivial, crucial, doomed acts of creation that people do leaves me wanting to scream into a pillow, or fold my knees into my ribcage, or wish that my tattoos would come alive and burn with pain again, while I cry and cry and cry beyond my ability to breathe.

I have asked for help from a god that I feel utterly inadequate to even define what I mean by that word, except that this feeling is so far beyond the capacity of any force that I know to relieve, and yet I still need to ask for help from something.  And perhaps to feel this way is rational, given everything.

“What accommodations is your place of employment making for you in your return to work post-injury?” L&I well-meaning wants to ask me, but I don’t know what accommodations are even possible for a brain that is too broken to sleep, only curl up on the floor and sob.  The needs of the people that I work with were there before I smacked my head against concrete (a part of me treacherously still asks, did you mean to do it? did you want this to happen?) and were already deferred and accruing interest, the needs of the people I volunteer with and the communities I want to support were already there and the shortfall between what I wanted to give and what was needed was already there, and growing… so maybe nothing changed with my brain being shaken, except the ability to turn those needs whispering in my ear into white noise.  Now I feel all of them, and I feel hollow and useless and so deeply inadequate to meet all of them, and to choose some instead of others feels like another act of harm, one harm on top of a pile of so many more than I can count.

I am tired of every choice I make being one that in some way or another causes harm.

I am writing this to tell you that I am trying.


“Beauty’s Nest,” Robin Coste Lewis

From Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis

Beauty’s Nest

Jim Crow Welcomes You Home
After the War, Just After Midnight
Grand Canyon: 1951


Image result for voyage of the sable venus

Beauty’s nest
renders the body
mute. An elegance
so inconceivable,
it’s violent. Extreme. It hurts
the heart to see
something so vast and deep
can also be made of dirt.

And if it can be
of the earth, the body
ponders, might
such a landscape
exist also within me?

The four of you stand
silent, uniformed on its rim,
while the imagination tries
to conceive all the things
it is still too dark
to see.

You jump back
into your wide tan Ford
and begin to drive
again — again — past
all the motels, and their signs,
which, were it not just
after midnight, you know —
and could see — say

For some time, I’d come across my love for you when I turned on the kitchen light suddenly at night.

It would startle me, not because it was large, but because I had managed to forget that it existed, and there it was, in the middle of the tile floor, bold as brass, unwanted.

It would then scuttle quickly, before I could move, to somewhere dark and secret, like the back of the refrigerator.  But for a long time I would know it was there, so close, so small and yet somehow so invulnerable, and I couldn’t not think of it and what it was doing, unseen and so close.

And then I would forget, or pretend to forget, or pretend until I really did forget, and my love for you and I would exist in peaceful ignorance of each other, until I happened to turn on the kitchen light on a random night, and both of us would be ambushed again by each other’s presence.

That is no longer the case.

The kitchen light is always on now, and it shines into the darkest corners, and there isn’t anywhere left to hide.

This is true and not true.

It is true because I thought of it, one night when I turned the light on in my brain’s kitchen and found my love for you still there, unwelcome, persistent.

It is not true because there are no metaphors any more.

I have filled pages upon pages with words, filled them to brimming bloated excess, crissed and crossed lines of text when I ran out of room, turned them palimpsest by scraping the pages clean and writing the same patterns of words again, trying to capture my love for you, trying to pin it down with a needle through one of the thirteen chambers of its heart.

But these pages are now sodden and worn through and can hold no more, and there are no more pages to be had.

My love for you has been exposed, and there isn’t any hiding any more, under the fridge or in a journal or in imagery or in run-on sentences.

This is where it ends.

On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart

By Laura Lamb Brown-Lavolie from Alight: Best-Loved Poems from the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam.

What’s wrong? Titanic asked me this morning, when she found me lying on the ocean floor with all my suitcases strewn open.

Oh, I dunno, I moaned. I was looking through National Geographic and saw some pictures of you, and thought I might come have a chat. You looked great, by the way, in the pictures.

Me? No. Titanic smiled. If anything I seem to have become a Picasso. And I have a beard.

It was true; she looked more like a collage of a ship. Strangely two-dimensional, in a crater of her own making: French doors, boilers, railings every which way. And she did have a bit of a beard-rust icicles hanging in red strands from her iron engines.

Sitting up in my own little crater, I sort-of blushed.

To be honest, I told Titanic, My honey’s leaving town soon and I’m afraid it’s gonna wreck me, so I dove down here.

Well come on in, Titanic said, but I’m not sure I’ve got what you’re looking for.

So in I climbed, through a window between two rust stalactites, and began to pace her great promenade. (Which should have been awesome, by the way — walking by the ghosts of all those waving handkerchiefs — except that I was in that feeling-sorry-for-yourself state where every hallway is the hallway of your own wretched mind, every ghost your own ghost, so I didn’t take a good look around.)

When I got to the Turkish baths, I sat on the edge of a barnacled tub and watched weird crabs scrabble at my feet.

I was hoping you’d teach me how to sink, I said. You who have spent a century underwater with 1500 skeletons in your chest.

I don’t know, said Titanic, I’m kind of a wreck.

Exactly! I said, Me too! I’m here to apprentice myself to wreckage. I’m here to apprentice myself to you! Great bearded lady, gargantuan ark, you floating hotel. With enough ballrooms in you to dance with everyone I’ve ever loved.

My heart has an iceberg with its name on it, I told Titanic, so I need your advice. Tell me, did you see the iceberg coming?

I did, Titanic said.

And you sailed right into it?

It was love, Titanic said.

And the band just kept playing? And the captain stayed at the wheel? What did it feel like to swallow seawater? Tell me, Titanic, how did it feel?

It felt like a hole in my side and then it felt like plummeting face first into the ice-cold ocean.

She’s a straight talker, the Titanic.

Alright, I said. Now let’s talk about rust. When my love leaves, I’m planning to weep stalactites from my chin. I will wear my sadness in long strands. Like you, I will be bearded by it.

Then I made a terrible noise.  Eeeeeeeeeeeerkkkkkkkkkk! I’ve been practicing the sound of wrenching metal, I told her, from when my love leaves.

But you aren’t made of metal. Titanic said to me.

I’m a writer, I said, I can be made of anything.

Well then, be a writer. She said.

Be a writer? I paused, anemones between my toes. Okay. When my love leaves. I will start with SOS. I will Morse code odes as the whole world goes vertical. I will write nosedives as my torso splits in two.

And the next day I will write the stunned headlines, and the next day I will write the obituaries, and the next day I will write furious accusations, and the next day I will write lawsuits, and the next day I will write confessions of wrongdoing, and the next day I will write pardons, but I won’t really mean it, and the next day I will write sonnets, but they won’t fit the schema, and the next day I will write pleas, please, please come back. The next day I will write epitaphs, navigation maps, warnings for future generations about the hubris of human love. I will write quotas and queries and quizzes, I will write nonsense, I will write nonsense, I will write nonsense all the way down and no diving teams will find me, no robot arms will retrieve me in pieces, never will I be reassembled in plain air. No, I will remain whole, two miles down, with my suitcases strewn open, and in 100 years I will still be writing about this feeling, though my heart be a Picasso, though my heart be bearded at the bottom of the sea.

The Titanic let me cry for a while, my sobs echoing off her moldy mosaics.

Then she said: Girl, you’re too young for a beard like this. You’re never gonna get some if you rust over now.

I sniffled a little and scratched my name into the green slime of the tub.

The trouble with you humans is that you are so concerned with staying afloat. Go ahead, be gouged open by love. Gulp that saltwater, sink beneath the waves. You’re not a boat, you can go under and come up again, with those big old lungs of yours, those hard kicking legs.

And your heart, she said, that gargantuan ark, that floating hotel. Call it Unsinkable, though it is sinkable. Embark, embark.

There are enough ballrooms in you to dance with everyone you’ll ever love.

That’s what the Titanic told me this morning, me, lying next to her on the ocean floor.

There are enough ballrooms in you.

“If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler” by Italo Calvino

This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition.  But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts brings with it its consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it: though al my actions are bent on erasing the consequences of previous actions and though I manage to achieve appreciable results in this erasure, enough to open my heart to hopes of immediate relief, I must, however, bear in mind that my every move to erase previous events provokes a rain of new events, which complicate the situation worse than before and which I will then, in their turn, have to try to erase.  Therefore I must calculate carefully every move so as to achieve the maximum of erasure with the minimum of recomplication.

… All I did was to accumulate past after past behind me, multiplying the pasts, and if one life was too dense and ramified and embroiled for me to bear it always with me, imagine so many lives, each with its own past and the pasts of the other lives that continue to become entangled one with the others.  It was all very well for me to say each time: What a relief, I’ll turn the mileage back to zero, I’ll erase the blackboard.  The morning after the day I arrived in a new country, this zero had already become a number with so many ciphers that the meter was too small, it filled the blackboard from one side to the other, people, places, likes, dislikes, missteps.


… Now you are being read.  Your body is being subjected to a systematic reading, through channels of tactile information, visual, olfactory, and not without some intervention of the taste buds.  Hearing also has its role, alert to your gasps and trills.  It is not only the body that is, in you, the object of reading: the body matters insofar as it is part of a complex of elaborate elements, not all visible and not all present, but manifested in visible and present events: the clouding of your eyes, your laughing, the words you speak, your way of gathering and spreading your hair, your initiatives and your reticences, and all the signs that are on the frontier between you and usage and habits and memory and prehistory and fashion, all codes, all the poor alphabets by which ones human being believes at certain moments they are reading another human being.

And you, too, O Reader, are meanwhile an object of reading: the Other Reader is now reviewing your body as if skimming the index, and at some moments they consult it as if gripped by sudden and specific curiosities, then they linger, questioning it and waiting till a silent answer reaches them, as if every partial inspection interested them only in the light of a wider spatial reconnaissance.  Now they dwell on negligible details, perhaps tiny stylistic faults, for example the prominent Adam’s apple or your way of burying your head in the hollow of their shoulder, and they exploit them to establish a margin of detachment, critical reserve, or joking intimacy; now instead the accidentally discovered detail is excessively cherished — for example, the shape of your chin or a special nip you take at their shoulder — and from this start they gain impetus, cover (you cover together) pages and pages from top to bottom without skipping a comma.  Meanwhile, in the satisfaction you receive from their way of reading you, from the textual quotations of your physical objectivity, you begin to harbor a doubt: that they are not reading you, single and whole as you are, but using you, using fragments of you detached from the context to construct for themself a ghostly partner, known to them alone, in the penumbra of their semiconsciousness, and what they are deciphering is this apocryphal visitor, not you.

I went to the One Table meeting and all I got was disillusioned

“Let’s keep listening to the people who have not only been there but are still there.”

I worked many hours this week, and I had already planned on taking Friday afternoon off when I learned that the next meeting of One Table would be held in Seattle this afternoon.

A coalition of King County, Seattle, other municipal governments in King County, service providers, philanthropists, and community members, One Table congratulates itself for its bold vision of actually addressing the root causes of homelessness.  Today’s meeting focused on the identified root causes that had taken eight months to generate.  Many people mentioned the word “accountability.”  The room of 80 or so people broke into small groups of 6-9 people and were given about 30 minutes to introduce themselves and answer two questions:

  • What priority strategy/strategies are you most committed to working on as we move into scalable implementation?
  • What do you need from the One Table community in order to move forward in this work?

Not surprisingly, very little in terms of concrete steps or commitments were determined in this amount of time.  The report out kept returning to the same basic facts: there’s a lack of housing, there’s a lack of money to build it and to sustainably pay service providers, and that the people who are at risk of homelessness, currently experiencing it, or have survived it are not being heard.

No one talked about why there was the lack of money.  The word “accountability” was never applied in the context of private business, but was instead thrown around to the point of becoming word salad.  At one point the mayor of Auburn said that she expected to hold everyone in the process accountable – funders, service providers, even those receiving the services.  (She then lauded Debbie Christian, director of the Auburn Food Bank, for her work in obligating people visiting the food bank to offer unpaid labor in cleaning the facility and neighborhood, and then the food bank posting their stories on social media.  I can’t help but feel that the subtext is that people wouldn’t need to go to the food bank if they just took the moment to pick up their own garbage.)  Otherwise, there was much talk of the need for accountability – mostly from people other than whomever was speaking at the moment – without ever defining what accountability would look like.  What it would cost.

We went through the exercise of breaking into small groups.  I listened to health insurance providers pitch ideas for housing facilities that integrated with services.  I listened to someone else at the table counter with “We’re not going to end homelessness through cost-savings for managed care services.”  I listened to Sally Bagshaw talk about how she liked the idea of modular housing.  I listened to King County Assessor John Arthur Wilson talk about repurposing vacant land – some of it public property, some of it not – to create “urban villages” near light rail stations in South Seattle.  He spoke about the need to build community.

King Count Assessor Wilson did not speak about what could be done to strengthen and root the communities already there, historically made up of people of color and immigrants who could not live elsewhere in the city due to redlining.  He did not speak of the displacement those communities are experiencing due to private developers capitalizing on the new proximity of the light rail.  He didn’t talk about keeping people housed in the communities where they have connections, where their children go to school.  He didn’t talk about working with communities to build these urban villages.  Instead he showed the room a promotional video of modular housing by a private developer that looked like an Ikea commercial.

At the end, someone asked me what I got out of attending this meeting, and I was hard pressed to answer.  The decisions of consequence – who gets paid to do what, who pays to make it happen – were clearly not being made in this room or this format.  The solutions proposed were disconnected from the situation on the ground.  The phrase “racial equity” was lobbed frequently but never made concrete into what could be done about it.  Instead, the speakers offered gimmicks – modular housing! talking about root causes! making teens “more employable for high wage jobs”! incentivizing private employers to be “proactive” in hiring – without ever answering the questions of…

  • Who pays
  • Why are some jobs paying much more than others
  • How are governmental systems perpetuating institutional racism (for example, youth incarceration)
  • The responsibility of the private sector in causing the current circumstances, and in solving them in ways other than the deployment of a new slick product

What I got out of this meeting was the performance of busy-ness, the lip service to inclusion.

(One of the most honest parts of the meeting was the final slide of the county assessor’s presentation.  It was the typical shot of Seattle, with the Space Needle skewed disproportionately large and Mt Rainier in the background.  This shot is from Kerry Park in Queen Anne, one of the richest neighborhoods in Seattle – a solid metaphor for the distorted perspective in the room.)

The meeting wrapped up with elected officials saying a few words about accountability, governance, how revolutionary it was to be talking about root causes.  Only one woman said anything meaningful.  She was the one person of color to speak.  I did not catch her name but had the impression that she had experienced homelessness, that she was a veteran.

She asked the audience to imagine the worst moment of their lives.  She told us that those who had experienced homelessness were being asked to relive that moment by participating in this forum.  She spoke of the exhaustion of being in a room full of well-meaning people who spoke of those who had experienced homelessness as “they” and “them” – inconceivably othered.  And she ended with the quote above: “Let’s keep listening to the people who have not only been there but are still there.”

She got applause, of course, because sometimes just hearing an impassioned call to bold, behavior-changing action feels like something has actually been done.  We all wanted to be a part of that moment, because then we could chalk up at least one accomplishment for the day: we listened to a black woman tell it like it is.  That’s enough, right?

If anything changes, it won’t be because of what happened today.

From “Future Home of the Living God” by Louise Erdrich

The Pebble

I live yet because of a common pebble.

Yesterday the bubble burst.  Once again, I saw into the depths of things; only it was worse because things are so much deeper now.  Not one aspect of the world could appeal to me or affect me.  Not the end of things and not the beginning.  There were no colors.  Everything was neutral.  From this I know that hell is not black or fiery.  It is an unvaried gray without promise.  And so the morning passed with its coffee and dry cereal.  By noon, I was at the Superpumper, deciding which method to use.

As I walked with a length of rope toward the woods out back of the shop, a pebble flipped into my shoe.  It hurt.  Each step was painful.  I stopped and removed it.  The stone was a bit of ferric oxide, earth banded hematite, strayed from the Mesabi Range, where one-third of the world’s iron ore was at once time located.  This piece of stone was  laid down as a sediment in the Animikean sea sometime during the middle Precambrian period in Minnesota, and was probably between 2.6 and 1.6 billion years old.  The pebble was a rich, deep, hot, clay red, striated and shaped like a tiny toaster.

I tossed it over my shoulder and continued down the path.  Another pebble.  Ouch.  This time it was pointed.  This, too, was no ordinary rock, but a sharp of graywacke or greenstone, a basaltic lava that was perhaps shoved to the surface of the earth 3.5 billion years ago during the Keewatin.  Howah! Lotta time.  I dropped the stone to the side of the path and kept walking toward a particular tree I’d picked out sometime before.  A good strong branch jutted from the trunk.  Perfect to swing a rope over.

Oops, another.  These low docksiders, whiteman’s shoes, seemed to scoop the rocks right in.  This pebble was a dime-sized circle of black basalt shaped by lake waves and probably poured out at one time from a deep volcanic fissure under the sea that covered us.  The lava cooled and was broken into bits that washed away, eventually to the shore, changing on the way to this lovely water-stroked smoothness.  This one I placed carefully upon a stump.  The youngest pebble, it was probably no more than several million years old.

I had nearly reached the tree when a final rock cut me — actually cut me as I stepped down upon it.  An agate, inexplicably shattered, it showed the grain of the fossilized wood and algae that it had once been.  What colors!  A light bronze, gray, black, and deep red.  There was a landscape within its features.  Chert surrounded by jasper.  A living thing.  It would make, I thought a beautiful necklace for Sweetie, were it only polished.

I don’t know why they want me here on earth, the little rocks.  I don’t know why they care about me as they do.  I only know that by the time I reached the tree I had no choice but to fling the rope away from myself.  I turned back, my fingers rubbing the little agate.    All the way back to the store not a single rock slipped underfoot.

From “Savages in the Mirror,” Paula Gunn Allen (1974)

… The Americans separated themselves from their paternal heritage [Europe], or so they 220px-paula_gunn_allenbelieved.  They removed their maternal heritage [the natural world] from sight and embarked on the expediences of treaty, fraud, murder, mass enslavement, duplicity, starvation, infection – deliberate as well as accidental – whipping, torture, and removal.  They needed land, it is said.  They were greedy, it is said.

But to my mind, neither need nor greed can explain the genocide.  Neither can explain the raging destruction of the earth.  Neither can it explain the single-minded, horrifying assault on the tribes as tribal entities, long after Indian presence was reduced to nostalgic memory, long after Indians could possibly be a military or economic threat, so long after that even today the assault continues.  What obscure drive causes this single-minded pursuit of destruction?

America, the lonely hero, sprung full-blown out of the mind of God.  The moral condition.  The righteous imperative.  Without father or mother, alone, divided, singular, driven to destroy all that speaks of cooperation, sharing, communality.  The Puritans’ own communes couldn’t last a single generation.  I am told that “thirty years is a long time for a Utopia to last.”  (In America, I silently add.  Other utopias have lasted millennia.  But they weren’t based on the idea that a single individual was more than God.)  It seems that Americans, loving loneliness best of all freedoms, die from it.  Far from all that was familiar, the colonials learned, perforce, to view alienation as rugged individualism, making it their defining virtue.  Isolation and self-referencing became “self-reliance,” providing the basic theme for American civilization for the ensuing two centuries.

The loneliness of exploration was, and is, a compelling idea for Americans.  The lone hero still wanders, determined and self-assured, however lost, across the pages of America.  Ronald Reagan in the forties and Robert Redford in the seventies flicker in their autistic heroism across the projected screens of American life.  The Great American Cowboy is cheered for his self-reliance; the most hated American is the one who accepts society’s help through a welfare allotment.  And it isn’t a matter of virtue in the Protestant sense that creates this peculiarity: It is not that taking care of oneself is a virtue.  It is that the hero is, above all things, lonely and happy in his estrangement from all bonds that bind and cling, depend and shape.  Andrew Jackson was idolized for his singular determination to let no considerations of social need or wish, of moral or legal noblesse oblige, interfere with his isolated, splendid determination.

In America, law substitutes for custom.  In America, society substitutes for love of family, comrade, village, or trice.  Walden is the self-proclaimed triumph of the isolated, superior individual.  Alone with nature, not in it.  Not of it.  One can be with it as a scholar is with a book, but as an observer, not a creative participant.

Indians are called primitive and savage not because they commit atrocities; everyone commits atrocities one way or another.  Indians are designated primitive because they place the good of the group and the good of the earth before that of the self.  Mexicans are denigrated not because they speak with an accent, not because they take siestas, not because they routed American heroes at the Alamo, not because they have what Americans want – a large share of North America – but because they think sangre is more important than reason, that la familia is more important than fame.  The community is the greatest threat to the American Individual Ethic; and it is the community that must be punished and destroyed.  Not because Americans take much conscious notice of community, but because community is what a human being must have to be human in any sense, and community is what Americans deny themselves – in the name of progress, in the name of growth.  In the name of Freedom.  In the name of the Hero.

A person can’t cherish glorious loneliness from within a community.  So, most women, as keepers of community, are also despised: Remember “Momism”?  We are a constant reminder of the lonely male’s need to belong to others so that he can belong to himself.  And it was the natural and necessary belonging of the Native American that so infuriated the Americans, so that those men who are America’s greatest heroes rose to commit mass murder of the tribes.  The difference between Native Americans and Americans, William Brandon says (The Last of the Americans), is that belonging is most important to the Indians, while belongings are most important to the Whites.  But what are belongings but a badge of isolation, a mountain clutter that walls one off from those around?  Thoreau revealed the most about himself (and his admirers) by saying that he felt that the name Walden was originally “walled in.”  He was most taken by the idea that Walden (or White) Pond had no apparent source for its water, and no outlet.  Entire unto itself.  A very moist desert dependent on nothing.  Caused by nothing.  Surrounded by smooth, regular stones.  A wall to keep its pristine clarity, its perfect isolation.  Secure.

It is not so strange that everyman-America hates and fears Communism.  The very word strikes at the root of the American way and at the heart of the American sickness: a communist is one who must depend on others.  A communist is one who must cooperate.  A communist is one who must share. …

It is not that Americans are lonely that matters here, but that Americans cherish loneliness disguised as solitude as though it were a wife.  They take her to their breasts and cleave to her with the determined clutch of catatonia.  They will not let her go.  They protect her with all the ferocious murderousness of a jealousy-crazed lover and will kill anything that threatens to tear their loneliness away.

It occurs to me that governments are instituted among men to keep them apart.  And so is capitalism.  And its fodder, money.  And so are “nuclear” families – highly mobile, of course.  And so is progress, the touchstone of corporationism, of the nation, and of every American’s life.  It occurs to me that the ‘melting pot’ never worked because it was not intended to work and that schools and other institutions are designed to teach and reinforce the principle that group experiences are painful, anti-human, demoralizing […] . Loneliness, the beloved of the American Hero, is a coiling clinging snake.  It is strangling the life out of the people, the families around us, killed by the murderous creation of our own minds.  Yet it is seductive, hypnotic in its murderous intent, because however fiercely loved, solitude is not really possible in this world, after all.

… And when the last Red Man shall have perished and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone.  In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.  At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land.  The White Man will never be alone.  — Sealth

Why is it essential that the American be self-reliant, communityless – without a place to belong, a past to remember, a beginning in the roots of time, a heritage that would give them a meaningful place in the living circle that is life on this earth?  Americans have an overwhelming, consuming need to be different.  Do we cling to loneliness because nothing can be so peculiar as this monstrous love affair with isolation?

low tide

For a while now, I’ve used the internal shorthand of “low tide” for when I’m in a depressive period.

There’s the word “low,” in it, naturally.  And I know that it’s a temporary state, even as I know that it’s also one that will come back.  But more, it is the feeling of being left both stranded and exposed – the water has left you behind along with dead kelp and trash, and the seagulls are circling overhead to pick you apart.

But it’s been a while since I actually encountered low tide outside of metaphor.

IMG_1075 (1)Our last day on Whidbey Island, we came back to the beach during low tide.  Boat owners had known it was coming.  They had pulled the motors on board and the boats sat quietly next to their anchors.

The water had raked the sand and the tiny rivulets that were running back to the ocean were so strikingly warm for bare feet. The wet ribbed sand made “shmp shmp” shushes when we walked across it, packed hard and smooth so far out into the water, farther than I thought it possible.

And the sunlight was pulling the water out from the sand so the mist it made was luminous and numinous and I felt that I could walk out in shallow water on firm forgiving sand into the light until the edge of the world.

IMG_1084 (1).jpg

My tides are going to come in, and go out, and come in again.  And that’s all right.  I’m working to finally accept that it is part of myself, like my eyes being brown or being right-handed.

But it’s a very human habit to start to mistake the metaphor for the thing itself, and then to forget the nuance beyond the service that the metaphor provides.

Talk to your neighbors, and meet your metaphors, at least every once in a while.