When the Universe Tells You to Wake Up
-Wake up! I want you to know!
-I want to know. What is it?
-That’s what I want you to know.
Now go back to sleep.
More than Five
Shiro-yoku, forest bathing:
drinking in the forest through
all five senses.
She says: I want more than five.
Hiding under a moss rock.
Hiding in a tear-shaped opening in the boll of a sapling.
Hiding in the knock of two sturdy branches.
Hiding in lichen on a boulder.
Hiding in a spore.
Hiding in a pinecone.
Hiding in muck.
Hiding under a brown leaf.
Hiding under a pebble.
Hiding inside a cracked acorn.
Hiding between two halves of a split stone.
Hiding between two mighty trunks of a conjoined tree.
Hiding in a log.
With all of these places to hide,
why are we so in the open?
It is because we can’t choose,
and leave a piece in each.
Young hemlock waving its branches up and down
not so different from how the toddler goes, with a need to touch everything,
was that you last night who
caught the glistening sky before it fell
and broke on the forest floor?
I have pine in all my pores.
There are needles that have become caught in my clothes
and sap has glued my hair to my cheek.
I have a certain look in my eye
and bark flakes in my teeth.
People call me changed.
When I stand still I sway. When I lay, I fall.
I should use soap, take a shower, scrub harder,
I will, tomorrow,
one more pine bath.
All poems from residency at Cairn Cove Retreat: surrounded by lake and woods, fed and led by savant/creatrix/caretaker Page.
I met Sue when I lived in Virginia, as part of the community of people in our region who were working to oppose the order of business as usual. As a community we gathered at protests, panels and planning sessions to strategize and support each other in what were always linked struggles- against racism and militarism, NAFTA’s effects abroad and mountaintop removal in our collective backyard. Sue lived in a mountainous, rural area of Virginia where she was pursuing a PhD in ornithology. She had traveled to Argentina to study the populist social movement of early 2000, she had been arrested at the School of the Americas in 2003 for protesting the teaching of torture techniques to U.S. and foreign military, and when I met her, she wanted us all to go occupy a mountaintop to prevent its imminent destruction. She was also a longtime anarchist and activist on women’s rights who had spent a lot of time talking about how women can fight violent patriarchal oppression without resorting to participation in the police state.
In the fall of 2004 I went abroad to hike and farm and eventually I wound up in France, where I hitchhiked to Paris to visit with a friend from Bread and Puppet and celebrate Buy Nothing Day, french-style. On Thanksgiving I got word that Sue Daniels was missing. At first we all thought she had been disappeared by the government. However, it quickly became apparent that she had fallen victim to an even older and more entrenched institution, that of male violence against women.
Sue was murdered by a man who had been her friend and lover and who would not accept the boundaries that she repeatedly set for him. Although people in her community thought of him as a kind and gentle person who would not harm anyone, he scared her enough that she had created a safety net of trusted people to come to her aid in place of the police, because she did not believe in the police. The night before she died she challenged an audience: how do you deal with violence against women in your community? Before he killed her and himself he broke her phone, her one connection to that safety net.
Stalking sounds like a movie or TV drama crime, an invented phrase. Sue’s friend clearly stalked her. It sounds problematic, yet potentially romantic, except maybe someone will be hurt or killed. I think of stalking as a clearly identifiable set of actions by which one person uses the implicit threat of violence in order to control or possess another person. In some ways the storybook romance- a sort of indefatiguable pursuit deaf to the actual interest of the other person, an I-must-have-you pigheaded dedication- is stalkerish, especially in the hands of men. Especially or particularly, because the implicit threat of violence is a tool for keeping the status quo, for keeping power in the hands of the dominant group.
It pains me to say that I have now personally experienced this. I never would have thought that this would be the case. I never would have thought that power could be wielded over me in this way. And then it was.
I put up with it for too long before I finally went to the police. And the ensuing drawn-out and traumatizing legal scenario was all of the worst things I expected, and then some. But I feel like I have won, because I am alive, and I would fight again for my own safety, and again, and however many times it took.
Sue Daniels was a warrior. She fought against all of the social ills of our time, and in the end was killed by male oppression. I could also say she was killed by one man, mentally ill, who had internalized the disease of our culture, but what is the use of oppression if not a mental illness? When I met Sue, I was struck by the force of her presence. I had just read my poem, Botanical Declaration of Liberty, at a campfire in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains, and she came over to tell me that she had liked it. The last time I saw her was in New York City at the Republican National Convention at St. Mark’s, one of the organizing epicenters.
Every year I read or recite this poem in Sue’s memory.
For Sue Daniels
Even the birds lament your absence.
Mountains lift their heads in proud remembrance.
In a clearing at the edge of woods,
ash marks where your cabin stood,
proving what conceals, reveals.
Appalachia, pueblos, the disappeared, chanting at the gate,
Shut it down. Become irate.
Loss is a fist to the sky, a stone by my foot,
voices in the waters, my tongue pressed to dirt.
All of nature cries dusty tears for her daughter,
Then erupts in green laughter, writing in viney script:
You cannot be erased from the earth who loves you.
We live in round, walking all about the holy ground.
I asked H. about the finger once, the misshapen right forefinger of her grandmother’s hand that ended just barely past the third joint whose skin stretched smoothly and seamlessly around the enlarged finger.
“I think she was born with it” H. told me. The finger nestled within her hands when they lay peacefully in her lap on our visits and emerged to expertly unwrap foil from the chocolates proffered each time, extracted from countless stashes in drawers and cabinets. I periodically find them in my pockets, red and gold and purple foil-wrapped packages of Grandma’s abundant love manifested in cocoa butter and sugar.
“I was…sugar water..others… outside playing” she speaks with effort. This month everything has radically changed. These visits aren’t so much an easy source of delight in an ever-present source of love in the world. H’s grandmother becomes confused and fearful, in need of reassurance. Today is one of her better days though her speech still comes more slowly than before and she looks inward as often as she looks outward.
“Grandma! Tell me about your mother! You like to talk about your mom!” H. hollers close to her ear. Sometimes it is not clear: did she not hear, or is she adhering to her own cosmically-attuned inner agenda? Today she periodically, for unknown reasons, says “Vodka!” and looks at us sternly. Earlier in our visit H. described a recent trip with beloved friends and colleagues. Her grandmother listened carefully and then responded, very clearly, “Joyride.”
“Yes, Grandma. It was.” H. said. Grandma has lived a good life with love in her heart for ninety-six years, so it makes sense that she can cut right to the heart of the matter. Though the vodka declarations remain mysterious.
”Did your mother have a sweet tooth too?” I gently yell in her other ear. She wakes from her reverie and a story rolls off of her tongue.
“I was…sugar water…others…playing outside.” She looks down at her finger.
“You were stirring?” I ask.
“Yes, I was stirring. In those days, if you wanted candy, you had to make it. I was watching them play out the window and my finger slipped in- at first they thought I would lose the finger. But they saved it. The doctor lived at the bottom of the hill, so I just ran down the hill, and my sisters told my mother, so she was running right behind me. The doctor cleaned it up and at first they didn’t know if they could save it. I went every day after school.”
“Grandma, I didn’t know that” H. says. We are all looking at her finger now.
“I always used to hide it after that. Then Lisa told me it was my special finger, my baby finger. She told me that every time she came, and now I don’t hide it.”
She begins again. “I had a little girlfriend who had a little boyfriend- a boy who was her friend, five, and he told her to lay her finger down on the ground, so she did, and he chopped it off with an axe. That was worse, it was her thumb, and then she thought that no one would ever love her. But we both had people come into our lives.” Another pause, as she listens inwardly, diffuses, and then re-focuses, right on us. “Maybe this is why you came today. So I can tell you this story and you can know you are loved.” S., who has been manfully fending off tears for several minutes, both laughs and tears up and I do as well. I laugh like this when children unknowingly speak remarkable truths and I try to explain to them that I am not laughing at them, I laugh because of how true it is.
“Holy laughter. That’s what it’s called. Tears and laughter at the same time. It’s good. Sometimes at funerals, you have holy laughter.” At the word funeral H. has to look away. I still have some distance, some reserve. As much as I love her she is not my family. I have not known her my whole life. This does not mean she cannot instantly disarm me, even from this supposed ground of safety. “It’s good you came into her life” she tells me. “You came into her life, and you also came into my life.” She looks right at me. Never underestimate the power of a ninety-pound ninety-six year old grandmother in a wheelchair. Holy laughter, I feel you.
“Grandma!” H. says. Our knees are almost touching, H. and I in chairs and her grandmother in the wheelchair.
“May the circle. Be unbroken” she says with effort again, and then clearly, firmly even: “I had a home and now it is gone, and Jesus is my home, and I hope he takes me home soon.” She speaks assuredly and kindly and now S. has to actually stand up and go examine the phone really closely and cry for a minute because it hurts too much to think about saying goodbye to your favorite person in the world. The phone rings, her daughter checking in, and in a confusion of phone cord and oxygen tube and hospital beeper cord and wheelchair rolling we hug and say goodbye for now.
H. and I leave and I appreciate that we have some time on the road between hospital and home. I don’t see old people very much. I don’t hear these stories anymore. At school we have a book called “Grandmother’s Stories.” The book contains stories of all varieties that are framed by the grandmother telling them. Probably some of the young children in my class still hear true grandmother’s stories, but it is not only the very young who need to hear them. How are we supposed to know how to live when we are not informed by the people among us who can offer us stories framed by almost one hundred years of life experience? I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories, told first by her, and then by her children. They were told at her table, over tea and cake, told over our heads, then to us, and now by us. I tell them to the children at my table. I tell my grandmother’s stories of her grandmother.
A sweet tooth, a pot of sugar water, a missing fingertip; a desperate run down the hill, mother trailing after; the rescuing of her finger in later years by her granddaughter, who trims her nails and paints them a different color each time. How we hold each other, how we save each other, how we tell the story.
All artwork on loan from the Virginia Virtual Museum of Folk Art
Like Ahab, but no longer after a whale, not a scientist either: I was a human on the hunt for the heart of America. I began in Washington. Oh, I see you rolling your eyes, what naiveté- put it aside. Go along with me. You can’t find a heart without being a lover, even a heart as dried up, as desiccated as you might suppose this one to be. Who is to say it might not have been in the Smithsonian, cleverly disguised as a furnished room from the Colonial era, chairs that turn you out onto the floor, portraits and busts that eye you severely, a lamp that either bathes you in a syrup of golden light or grains each pore with shadow. The halls and hallways of the Smithsonian as chambers and ventricles usher me in and though I make myself small I do not find the last and tiniest chamber of them all, complete with early American doll furniture.
So I became a rat and ran the sewers until I reached the shield, the coat of arms, the breast plate of Washington, the most defended and secret cell of all. I wormed my way from the Smithsonian down through dark pipes and flushed secrets of prominent politicians until I emerged in a den of mystery: the Pentagon.
Quel disappointment. All men and men-like people and all suits, all ties, all desks and desk jobs. I go after the passion, the deep aaaah of inamorados, and find no lair but that of beurocrats engineer details of death for export. As a rat I was beloved in the Pentagon, stroked and fed endless remnants of chips and snack mixes and pretzels, and sometimes the tail end of a candy bar, taught to roll over and have my belly tickled. I knew I had to leave before they hired me and so late one night by the blue light of data crunching its teeth on death I slunk out, one last cheese doodle under my scrawny arm, yellow dust on my whiskers.
Who is physician to America? The cardiologists and cartographers will have to get together and procreate themselves a love child, and that child will have the eyes of the hawk and the hearing of a dolphin or whale.
The brain, the brain: banks of Google computers? A vast fungal system in the Oregon rainforest? Nervous system: cell phone towers. Pancreas: Great Dismal Swamp, VA/NC. Belly: Texas. Eyes, seven, silver with green flecks, eyes of a behemoth: the Great Lakes, threatened by cataracts of algae.
Now on to commuter flights I went, sometimes as stewardess, sometimes as business commuter. By a combination of triangulation and deduction I placed the center somewhere in the midwest. I was on the scent and this wild heart beat everywhere. If only, if only it were beneath the floorboards, I could find it, but it is under the floorboards of America. I employed a pacemaker, a geiger counter, a dowsing rod and a pendulum and I walked in fits and starts up and down the central plains and crossed cul de sac and pasture. In fits and starts- I start, I am struck. The beat is striking, beating, pulsing, pounding, it requires the gerund, the echo ever after. Again and again I woke to find myself tangled in barbed wired, hooked into clothes and beard. My clothes tattered and my skin bled, it weathered and cracked and my leather shoes curled. One day I woke up by the rail yard, surrounded by broken glass, and I got on the first grain car that came through- back porch riding, Chicago-bound. Boxcar Bertha is my name and under my many coats I wear a locket with only a question inside. In the Chicago yards I change to a Dtown line. It has come to me, where I must go, sharpened in my mind like an etch-a-sketch in reverse. The ghosts of hobos ride with me and tell me stories, sing songs to pass the time. When I arrive I climb the fence and walk the roadside, confident of my direction. At the factory the locks fall open, the doors swing wide; it is like the parting of the thorny woods upon the prince’s return to the castle to wake Sleeping Beauty from her glass casket- no, that part was Snow White. I carry a key but I don’t have to use it. I stride through the silent production floor and a cemetery of stillborn cars in hopes that at the center of the tomb I will find a still beating heart.
Unassuming, in a small wooden casket lined with bullets, set in the center of a metal desk, chair pulled back as though whoever was keeping vigil just left. As I look upon it, the charges detonate, and the whole factory blows.
Now I travel with the wind, over all of the land, and hear all of the sighs of every heart rise out of chimneys in a flock that darkens the sky. People think it is weather. All of the coos become feathers, and all of the tears turn to dust and blow in the air. When the wind settles the dust sinks into the rivers and turn to tears again and I go with them. I flow with the rivers, I trickle from spigots and fill kettles and baths and run down drains. I go into cells and facilitate mitosis and I also go in and through the bedrock where it is so dark I become light. I shine out of lamps, candles and the twinkle in your eye. I go through the dark in order to re emerge as light yet again.
And everywhere I go, I hear it in the land. Striking. Beating. Pounding. It is not the ticking of machinery. I hear it in the cement fortresses of Attica and Riker’s Island and Angola, especially strong and low. Every day, bolts are slid to and fro, locks are latched and opened. Every day, rust. Every day, bullets.
A red herring. A heart in a box. A sleight of hand, a trick. A tick that is not a tock. I become a rat again, I sleep in a hole in the earth. Every night I am lulled to sleep by thrum of a beating heart.
“Human hearts beat 50 to 90 times a minute. But the heart of a large whale pumps very slowly- perhaps fewer than 10 times a minute. No one knows exactly, for the pulse of earth’s most ponderous creature never has been taken satisfactorily. To do so has been my dream of 40 years.”
So begins Paul Dudley White M.D., cardiologist to President Eisenhower, in his expedition account as published by National Geographic Magazine, 1956, a magazine that sat undisturbed in a shelf at my parents’ house for another twenty-five years after I brought it home from the middle school library. There were a few of us who sought refuge as library volunteers, and we spent hours sorting and discarding old magazines. The National Geographics were the most favored, and we spent considerable time assembling personal collections of the most promising- for example, a photo essay on the personal effects of King Tut, an article on the desert-warriors of Oman including a photograph of a young Sufi boy skewering his own shoulder with a stiletto, and “Hunting the Heartbeat of the Whale.” National Geographic: a magazine of Otherization at a time when nearly everyone in the world was an Other.
I know for a fact that I saved it for the whale heartbeat article. I know because I would do the same thing now. It was a gift from my twelve year-old self to my present self, a twelve-year old self I have often disparaged, a self who proves wiser than I remember.
“..in setting forth with such an aim, we were really searching for the mysteries of the human heart.”
I do not think of 1956 as the Year of Plumbing the Mysteries of the Human Heart in America, nor was my thirteenth year such a time. Some stories wait, encapsulated, to burst on the tongue and tell themselves. Twenty-five years later I am caught again by Paul Dudley White’s forty-year dream, by the foolhardiness, the single-mindedness. By the utter romanticism which will get me every time.
If I judge by this article, the science of the fifties was personal, poetically descriptive, schmaltzy. I am invited in to the slow and powerful pulsing of the whale heart, perhaps ten beats a minute, sonorous, resonant. I can imagine dancing to the pulse of the whale, and then the human, the hummingbird. It is the dance of the whale heart that appears most beautiful this morning, the slowing and drawing out of the human gesture.
Here is a human gesture. Paul Dudley White and team of scientists and engineers took their boat into a lagoon in Baja California to try to measure the heartbeat of the gray whale. Thirteen men, several boats, cardiology instruments and several harpoons were on board an 83 foot expedition boat called the Dorado. The Dorado and all thirteen men returned, but they paid their price.
“Medical science searches for deeper understanding of the heart, not only in quiet laboratories but in distant and dangerous places.” Some would say, especially the romantics amongst us, that the heart itself is a difficult and dangerous place. I am either in search of a deeper understanding or in flight from it. Sometimes just by standing still I can experience flight. The story of the whale heart is not the story of love, except that it is. I believe a forty-plus year story is a love story. Even a twenty-five year story, a message from my former self: love.
“The whale charged into the keel, sheared off the rudder, bent the propeller, and left the fragile craft with a gaping hole smashed in the bottom.”
Yes. It is most certainly a love story.
The whale who smashed their boat- which was the small craft being used for the actual operation, not the large boat- was a mother whale defending her calf. The scientists had chosen the lagoon because it was calving season, and in the narrow and shallow waters the whales would have little room for evasion. They would be backed into a corner. The scientists believed that the wire barbs they shot into the gray whale’s flesh would “Inflict Little More Than Pinpricks.” Here is a description they provide of the whale’s reaction to the pinprick: “The upright whale gave a massive shudder and fell away to one side in a white thrash of water.” The whale then took off with all of their equipment in tow.
In some ways I see this story as bumbling, unqualified failure, a manly failure to live in the world as it is. These men have missed/forgotten/failed to attend to some basic facts, such as:
The mysteries of the heart, human or otherwise, are dependant on these basic realities that we live with. They are powered by the heart, in fact.
Paul Dudley White writes, “We are not downhearted. We had failed, but it was a profitable failure, for we knew now where our shortcomings lie.” His solution involves better technology, helicopters, perseverance at all costs.
I envy his attitude. I spent much of last year writing about how people construct their life stories and that of Quest has been the notable male narrative. Setbacks are simply part of the narrative, vital to it, in fact. The elemental truths which may cause these setbacks are challenges to be overcome. I envy the perseverance, but not the disconnection.
I don’t read many stories of failures in the newspaper, in magazines. I don’t think we tell those stories these days, possibly because our entire ecosystem is experiencing massive failures. Maybe if I read scientific journals I would read more of them. Paul Dudley White, MD renders an account of failure, epic if you throw in those forty years. Recently I have been telling my own stories of forty-year failure, ungenerous in spirit. He begins with the mystery. He has not left that behind, even though the beginning of his telling is simultaneous with the ending of his failed attempt. Can you still hear the slow pulse? It has not stopped.
In 1916, forty years earlier, he saw a whale heart from the last whale caught by a whaling vessel from New Bedford, Massachusetts. He describes the delicate tissues; the size would “overflow a bushel basket.” Though he does not name it as such, this is the root of his story; Paul Dudley White MD meets Whale Heart. New Bedford, 1916.
I take heart from this. I eagerly read for failure, irregularity, and for the bones of the real world that hold me up. I read for the normal abnormalities. Parting words from the undaunted cardiologist: “What might seem at first glance to be a malfunction may be due merely to a heart larger than average.”
This essay is based on the article “Hunting the Heartbeat of a Whale,” written by Paul Dudley White, M.D., Samuel W. Matthews, and J. Baylor Roberts, as published in The National Geographic Magazine, July, 1956. All quotes are excerpted from the article.