How to Survive a Collapse
When I was a child, I believed my heart glowed in the dark. Actually, I think that I must have believed this far longer than for what would be considered “childhood,” though I never spoke of it, even to myself. Later, I would poeticize my heart as a warm coal, a beehive, a magnet, a bird. And perhaps what I actually speak of is not my heart itself, just the shining inside of me at the source of where my breathing seems to come, and then to go. Perhaps you also know this feeling. Do you?
I remember coming home in middle school, with secret taunts in my head from other kids. I was rarely bullied freely or loudly, but I have sustained many sly, cross-the-lunch tables, between best friends sort of bludgeons quite carefully for most of my life. Anyway, I remember coming home and being quite familiar with the ways in which those cutting commentaries or bullying actions were true, but I also remember seeing a face and a tone in my mirror that rang above all of that. I remember thinking I did not understand why others did not think I was as beautiful as I was. Why the heart was left glowing in the dark of my insides, while the outside sometimes went to school with unwashed hair, or with pimples. Looking back on those memories, I am sure those were conversations of confusion with myself in the mirror, not of conviction. But looking back, I am overjoyed that from a young age, I knew there was a seed in me. A seed of resourcefulness, of enrichment, of depth, of grace to believe in, even before I had heard my own voice.
The first time I heard my own voice was at the age of 30. I mean, I had probably heard it many times before then, when it flitted in and back out again, but what I’m saying is that it took 30 years for me to hear it and know, as I was hearing it, that it was coming from the deep place. The wild place of knowing. And do you know what it sounded like? I bet you want to hear that it sounded like a roar, or a melody, or something strong. But actually it was a dying sound. And when I heard it, there was a split second delay before I realized it was coming from me. And when I realized it was coming from me, there was a split second delay that came before what I did next. And what I did next was call my mother. That sound of my voice was the warm coal going out. The conversation with my mother was a match or a rekindling breath. The details don’t matter. What is important is that after I hung up the phone and wept (crying has been wisely called the disassembling of defenses, and the facing of oneself), I picked myself up and walked, painfully and methodically into a new world. It was terrifying-- spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, professionally, financially, and socially. But it was the best thing I have ever done. It seems like so long ago, now.
The past two weeks have been a thick mass of confusion for me. I have gone to bed every night and awakened each morning with a pile of small stones on my chest. They are called Charlottesville, Donald Trump, being white, Houston, mothering, loving the world, cancer, death, heroin, and so forth. They are all balanced there, me craning my neck to see them, me breathing under their weight thanks to the beehive inside of me. I do not know what to do. I make a hammock from my pillow for them, and I call it a crisis of culture. I call it a crisis of spirit. I put the stones in one by one to get them off of me. To keep the bees alive. My children slip easily from their beds and dress. They do not see the rocks I have hidden in the sheets. They eat (we are so lucky), they put on shoes (we are so lucky). They leap from their seats to the curb at school, and patter confidently to their classrooms. The beehive swarms around as if my guts are a field of pregnant flowers. I can hardly breathe.
Last week, I tried to explain to my lover about the wildwoman that lives in me. I call her silver dollar woman, though I forgot to tell him this. She is, I think, the beekeeper. The fire tender. The magnet maker. The mother bird. She is me, of course, but she is an underwater form of me. She is subconscious wisdom, vast integrity. She is whistling, roaring, laughing, knowing, birthing, dying, calling, receiving. When I left my life before and struck out into the new world to make sure I never lost my voice again, she became me in that time. She is the one who made flour and water into food, who sang to the boys during the rainstorms when we were alone in our house. She is the one who paid the bills with no money, who left work to cry by the river, who burnt all the self-hatred and regret that I bore in night after night of feverish fear. She was me, that whole time, taking me over. I wrote about her for the first time here, as the deepest, truest embodiment of the woman that I am. I wrote about how when the most brittle part of that time of my life was ending, it was a revelation to me to realize that silver dollar woman was receding slightly. That I didn’t need her, right there at the surface, all of the time. I needed her at the surface to survive a collapse that I could no longer deny was happening. And I needed to get to know her well enough to never forget.
I remember when I went through my awakening, the long nights of despair in the little sage green room that I painted in my little white house in Asheville. I remember the ceiling in that room, and all of its cracks. I remember the exact times that the train would come through every night. I remember the look of my arms as I tossed about, the taste of my tears. The tip ends of my long wavy hair crashing through the sheets. And I remember her there, silver dollar woman. She was the one telling me to take a picture of those moments. She was the one, as I cried and cried and said oh me I am so miserable, who then said, well yes of course you are, dear. But what are you going to do about it?
The reason I was trying to explain her to my partner was because she had peeked out, rather indiscreetly, in a conversation we were having. She had watched me sit and eat Indian food, and question my own worth, and so she came riding up my ribs at a voracious speed, writing questions all over the walls of me. And I think it was very confusing for this man I love. Which looking back causes me to wince a little, but it also causes me to smile a powerful smile in my stomach. Because I know what that means. It means I have not forgotten her. The coal is quite alive. The bird is flying high.
I felt compelled to write this today because I feel that we are facing so many instances of bleakness in our culture that we are in danger of losing a collective gentleness which we very desperately need. In order to have it collectively, we need to cultivate it individually. If I am going to sort through all the stones in my pillow, I need resources, from deep within, and I need the capacity to believe in them, no matter what the headlines say. No matter what the bigot at the corner gas station says. No matter who is writing the laws or pardoning the criminals or blaming the mayor for the weather. And I am afraid that not enough of us have it. Not enough of us have a spirit rider charging up our ribs, a heart which glows in the dark that we know about, a deep resource inside that we have tested and matured. A way to survive collapse without denying that it is happening.
I am writing this because I don’t trust my leaders. I don’t trust some of my neighbors. I don’t trust the very freedom I have been taught that I possess. What has given me solace in the instances of horrific inhumanity and injustice that I have witnessed this year are individuals who have the courage and the grace and the ability to do the right thing when it is needed. The individual attorneys who sat in the airport, writing appeals for those who had been banned from travel. The laypeople who are right now in their personal boats, having converted their cell phones to walkie talkies, pulling people from the water in Houston. The young black woman who threw her body over the huddled mass of a white man with a Confederate flag on his back, protecting him from attackers even as he had appeared on the streets to parade his hatred of her.
In this time, we cannot count on laws and we cannot count on man-made systems. We have to be able to count on people who have a fire within them, a wild man or a wild woman inside, reminding them of what is ultimately and universally true. And we have to be people whom others can count on. We have to have our own beehives humming, our own inner magnets pulling for what is right. If you have that, rejoice, as I am rejoicing. That means you are part of the solution. And if you have that, take time to be quiet and to charge your cache, because you have a lot of work to do. You may not have a boat, or know how to write an appeal, but you might get cut off in traffic today, or get served a coffee by someone who doesn’t smile at you, or be parenting a child, or be a steward of the dying. You might at this very moment be choosing to either throw away a plastic container or wash it out and re-use it. You might be staying quiet when what you want to do is help. Sharon Salzburg calls this your “three feet of influence.” That metaphorically quantifiable impact that you have on the space immediately around you. Use it.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, if you look in the mirror and you can’t see a resource for beauty, or an artist in yourself, if you feel yourself sitting down and crossing your arms when someone good is winning, if you feel your sense of power dying when other people are given basic opportunities…If you don’t have a beehive, a bird, or a bomb in your chest, you also have some work to do. You have something to push up against, to find your own voice. You have books to read about beauty, you have woods you need to walk in. If this sounds like a lecture to the empty, glamour-obsessed American, it is. Do your work to discover how righteous and saving it can be, to look past your hurt in service of truth. To look past yourself in service of others. To make your three feet of influence one of rock solid justice and safety. For all.
What is wrong is not outside of us, it is in us. And the solution is not outside either, but within. I am so glad I remembered this today, and told it to my children somehow in children-words, before they left for school.