Wednesday, September 10, 2014


A piece of bark given by a baobab tree sits on the altar. On it are the tracks and scrapings of beetles, worms and termites, the inscriptions of lives she once held. An elephant might have rubbed that piece of bark loose, or the tree might have lent it to the ground beneath her in the partnership of sheltering they have developed over time. In Africa, baobabs are known as ‘upside down trees’ because their branches look like gnarled roots. The elephants rub and rub against them until the trees get hollowed out. But this does not kill them. They simply regenerate from the inside out. Much of savannah life seeks refuge inside those hollow trees: birds, insects, foxes, bees, snakes and sometimes fugitives, usually poachers. Inside the hollow, the bark forms a rough skin with whorls and creases that look like the tips of elbows, or vulva, or turtle shells, each sculpted pattern a universe. In spring, the trees are festooned with huge, elongated fruits covered with circles that look like eyes looking at nothing, seeing everything.

Baobabs live for thousands of years. I want to know what they know, in the way they have come to know it. I want to see the elephant herds as the baobabs saw them, huge and unchallenged by farmers or tourists or hunters in helicopters.

Baobabs bring time with them. They are carriers of secrets known only to themselves. They look like they’re dancing or embracing as they reach their branches tenderly around the heat-shimmering air, or the icy stars, and make long-fingered perches for the moon when she grows weary and wants to sit awhile in the noisy night silence. She gathers the light of earth’s turning and pours it through the baobab’s branches, creating shadows like webs of veins as together they x-ray the night. Bats and leopards, hyenas and scorpions watch the show, a nocturnal audience whose clicks and coughs, grunts and screeches knit the world together.

This is a remnant of the original world and its perfect contradictions. This is Eden because it contains all the hair-brained experiments ever conducted by mad-scientist coyote Creator. It is an encyclopedia of love in all her forms. And it’s a great big, badass, who’s-your-daddy, walk-in closet big enough for death’s entire wardrobe.

I want to share breath with all the herds, especially the rhinos, with their impossible horns and their armored plates that belie the softness of their snouts, soft as a horse’s muzzle or a grandmother’s cheeks. I know this because I kissed one once, a rhino in Texas, of all places, as far from baobabs as one can get. He came to the edge of his enclosure and when I sang to him he leaned his face against the taut metal wire of the fence and fell asleep, his face rumpled against the fence post from the weight of his massive head, as he leaned forward bending one front leg, balanced like a dancer on the tip of his hoof. I moved my hands slowly toward him until his tender-skinned nose was cupped in my hands, and then I leaned in a little further until I could smell his grassy breath, sweet and dusty, breathing in as he breathed out, breathing out as he breathed in, until stacks of eons fell away, my lungs filled with the breath of his kin, all his ancestors all the way back through 65 million years, and I could smell the spaciousness of original time, smokeless and silent, as it gathered itself and fell forward.

Baobabs bring time with them. They are carriers of secrets known only to themselves. They look like they’re dancing or embracing as they reach their branches tenderly around the heat-shimmering air, or the icy stars, and make long-fingered perches for the moon when she grows weary and wants to sit awhile in the noisy night silence. She gathers the light of earth’s turning and pours it through the baobab’s branches creating shadows like webs of veins as together they x-ray the night. Bats and leopards, hyenas and scorpions watch the show, a nocturnal audience whose clicks and coughs, grunts and screeches knit the world together.

This is the original library, a source text written in fur and sand, claw and hide and dung, the library before Alexander, and before Alexandria. This is the archive that, if it burns, cannot be recovered. There has been a terrible accident and we have been struck in the head by greed that has erased all memory of where we came from, amnesia of the heart, and only the tender caress of the Beloved will awaken us. It is not for us to ask to be inscribed in the book of Life for one more year, but rather to beg that the Book of Life be inscribed in us again. Then we must read each page until the letters dance before us and we leap from our seats to join them.

There has been a terrible accident and we have been struck in the head by a greed that has erased all memory of where we came from, amnesia of the heart. Only the tender caress of the Beloved will awaken us. It is not for us to ask to be inscribed in the book of Life for one more year, but rather to beg that the Book of Life be inscribed in us once more. We must read each page until the letters dance before us and we leap from our seats to join them. This is the original library, a source text written in fur and sand, claw and hide and dung, the library before Alexander, and before Alexandria. This is the archive that, if it burns, cannot be recovered.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


We arrive in Liberia Monday, leave for Voinjama Tuesday. As usual we decide to go to the old man for a blessing before we set out. I don’t like to travel without seeing him first. We meet in the parking lot of the hotel at 5:30 am. The night guard has barely had time to unlock the gates and gives us a sleepy nod as we depart. We haven’t told the others where we’re going. We drive through town. Even at this hour the streets are filling with rickety cars and gleaming white UN Toyota trucks. We head down the steep hill of Ashmun street and pull over to meet Bill’s uncle, Mr. Bundor. Everyone calls him Mr. Bundor, even Bill. I never did learn his first name. With Mr. Bundor to direct us, we head into the rough slums below Water Street known as Westpoint. I think to myself, If this were Los Angeles or Miami or Panama City, it would be a forest of multi-million dollar condominium high rises. As it is, it’s a hodgepodge of muddy streets, open sewers, wood working shops, tea shacks, market stalls, hovels and the occasional evangelist mission outpost.

We arrive at the old man’s place. He is sitting on his front porch, a narrow breezeway inches from the hubbub of the muddy street. The Old Man is a tiny elf of a man, with close-cropped white hair, barefoot and wearing a sleeveless white undershirt and gray shorts. He is all smiles. His wife is radiant, wrapped in a dazzling bright cotton print, her hair neatly braided close to her head; the littlest children, who are the only ones awake at this hour, are all scrubbed clean. Even the stained cement, plank benches and sooty walls look fresh and well kept. He greets us with hugs and vigorous handshakes.

We visit the Old Man each time we arrive before traveling up country to Voinjama. Each visit is different, but with a familiar edge: His exuberant greeting. The sensation of an electrical current of energy in his touch. The seriousness and sincerity of his prayers as they tumble out. Once we get to know him, he leads us into his bedroom. It is always the same: the spotlessly arrayed belongings in stacks at the foot of the bed, a shirt or two hanging on a nail in the wall; the muffled sounds of the chaotic street just outside, shrieks of children playing in the hallway; the fading cool of the morning air and the stillness of the heat gathering in the mosquito-filled air.

Once I arrived with several friends from the U.S., some of them healers in their own right. After the usual jubilant greeting, he lead us as always through the front room, across the pitch dark hallway and into his bedroom. After we squeezed next to him on the bed and along the sagging bench by the wall, he told us he had seen us coming in a dream a few days before, and showed us the two offering bowls he had already prepared. Two half calabashes the size of a small cereal bowl, filled with some kind of rising, fermenting dough, with coins embedded in it. Fragrant, warm, yeasty, a welcoming soft wheat-colored yellow, smooth and round and soft like pale flesh rising around the edges of the coins. This certainty of his that came through the dreams, the fact that he had already prepared the offerings and was simply waiting for us, takes me by surprise and I can’t hold back the tears. I am weeping as he prays for us and gives his blessing. We ask about two disturbing dreams and are told not to worry, we are safe. He reminds us also that he prays for us even when we’re not there, and he is in touch with other zos who are also constantly working on our behalf. It takes a village to raise a child and a circle of shamans to protect the peacemakers.

This time, I have an inkling that he won’t be there. I ignore it. We arrive and of course he is gone. He is at the hospital with one of his sons who is suddenly ill. He is to contact us when he returns and we plan to go later that day, but later his cell phone battery gives out in the middle of the call to Bill and we never do see him before heading up country. We depart for Voinjama in two cars. I am in one, Bill in the other. As Bill’s car heads out of town, two birds fly into their windshield and fall to the road. About an hour later a rooster crosses in front of our vehicle, close but seemingly safe, then inexplicably doubles back the way he came. No time to brake or swerve. We hit it squarely and learn later that it rides on our right front bumper for hours. This explains the astonished stares from people along the way. Why did the rooster cross the road? Bill and I sense that these seem to be offerings in lieu of a visit to the Old Man. We are grateful and amazed.

When we return to Monrovia two weeks later, we visit the Old Man again, on our last day before leaving for home. We arrive to find him lying on a bench across his front porch, feet up, dozing in the early morning bustle of the slum. He jumps up to greet us beaming with gleeful surprise. He asks us to wait for a moment while he slips inside. A few minutes later he beckons and we follow him into his bedroom. It reeks of mothballs and kerosene. I sit on the newly made bed next to him. The others are on the plank bench. Bill and he speak briefly, then the Old Man gets up and fishes out a battered little pot from under the stack of boxes and clothes at the foot of the bed under a teensy, barred, north-facing window. He scoops everything out of the little pot and pulls a string of cowry shells from the bottom, then walks over and puts his hands on my head. The prayers tumble out fervently as he strokes and smoothes my hair, holding my neck with one hand, rubbing the spirit shells quadrant by quadrant over and around every part of my head with the other hand, over and over as he speaks until, several minutes later, the prayers are complete. He spits lightly onto the crown of my head and smoothes the saliva over my hair and down my face. As he works I feel a powerful, quaking energy emanating from his hands. It flows down my shoulders and surrounds me like a body cloak, like a coat for my aura, and vibrates from inside my torso out to meet the energy flowing around me. My mind goes blank as I feel the shimmering buzz of blessing and protection.

I think of the morning two weeks ago when we had gone looking for the Old Man and he wasn’t there. We had invited our friend, Jim to come with us. Jim often works in Liberia and was visiting from the States at miraculously the same time as we were there. I so much wanted to share some of this magic with him, and he had enthusiastically agreed to join us, pulling himself out of bed before 6 in order to do so. I was embarrassed and disappointed that we hadn’t been able to produce the marvelous Old Man, that they would not meet him this trip, or perhaps ever. I was ashamed of tinge of self-aggrandizement that has probably jinxed the arrangement in the first place. Serves me right. I thank Jim for his patience and I apologize. He graciously shrugs it off, says he’s glad to have had the opportunity to drive around Monrovia early in the morning without traffic or noise. As we dropped him off at his hotel, I had said I was concerned about traveling without seeing the Old Man. Jim smiled and said in his soft Carolina drawl, “I’m not aware of any expiration date on blessings, are you?”

Saturday, September 6, 2014


[Many early researchers]… lived in an era when the driving force of events seemed to be great leaders of European descent…when white societies appeared to be overwhelming nonwhite societies everywhere. Throughout all of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, nationalism was ascendant, and historians identified history with nations, rather than with cultures, religions or ways of life.

- Charles C. Mann, 1491

Friday, September 5, 2014


Before Columbus… [many researches believed that] …both the people and the land had no real history. Stated so baldly, this notion – that the indigenous peoples of the Americas floated changelessly through the millennia until 1492 – may seem ludicrous. But flaws in perspective often appear obvious only after they are pointed out [and can take]…decades to rectify.

  • Charles C. Mann, 1491

Thursday, September 4, 2014


It is always easy for those living in the present to feel superior to those who lived in the past.

- Charles C. Mann, 1491

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


The great blue heron stands, stiller than a tree, at his post at the edge of the pond surrounded by ice and snow. The crest along his back is lifting and fluttering in the gale, the rest of him unmoving. I think of this as the embodiment of Heaven Unwearied as described in the I Ching, a piece of the heavens showing us what patience is.

Like a grounding wire, he holds the far end of an electrical current that is arcing from this half-frozen lake to its sister waters in West Africa. We do not know what he knows of such a thing as West Africa. He may or may not understand that there are featherless ones who have divided…everything.

He knows without knowing that he was made for standing at this place in this way, every cell recognizing his point in the circle. Others like him may feel the circle coming and know what to do. The circles shoot up off the earth like sparks that soar and momentarily linger before beginning their graceful arc downward, falling, falling, meeting earth again to continue the other half of the circle underground and back to its point of origin uninterrupted, until the points of beginning and completion are indistinguishable.

The old man by the embers sits on cooling sands as night completes itself, the heron on one leg in a far blizzard, one foot in his belly feathers, the other in icy reeds. Just as the heron’s foot can sense distant warmth, the man by the fire feels a hint of far away ice in the night air and knows that the circle is complete. He gives it a tug to be sure and it holds, flowing steady.

After the spark and the circle there is the tracery of sound. The old man opens his throat and releases the song that will travel the arc. The heron cocks a tiny ear into the wind so the song can find him then travel back down to where all things that grow have their beginning. These are the threads of music and light, circles that hold the world together and make the earth look like a tiny glowing ball of string to passersby in space.

When the song is complete, the old man sits for a long while. It is good to feel the cold wind at his neck. At his age, how many more circles will there be? Some of the people are already traveling. The Spirits are already there. He must ask permission of the wind to send for the featherless ones – those that stare at herons and wonder at their stillness, staring until they can see.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014


[A] story may contain many meanings and levels of interpretation.

- F. David Peat, Blackfoot Physcis

Monday, September 1, 2014


Each group of people on Turtle Island has its own account of its history, origins, and relationship to the land… it is only within Western society that our Aristotelian logic demands a single, unambiguous account of an origin. Some nations, such as the Haida and Blackfoot, speak of having occupied their land forever, while others, such as the Ojibwaj, tell of a great migration to their present land. In all cases, however, it is made clear that the land itself is sacred, that it was created for the People, that they have a special relationship to it, and that there are obligations that must periodically be renewed.

For hundreds and thousands of years these stories have been passed on. They are the heart of Indigenous science and metaphysics. They are what bind a people together and relate them to the powers and energies of the universe. They are what give meaning to the ceremonies of renewal. Within these stories can be found the origins of time, space, and causality. Just as the human body is kept healthy and coherent by its immune system, a field of active meaning that permeates the body, so, too, a people and the land they care for are sustained by the relationships and renewals contained within these maps and stories… Western science is one of those stories that we repeat to ourselves in order to validate our society.

- F. David Peat, Blackfoot Physics

Saturday, August 30, 2014


I believe the verdict of most “hard-nosed” scientists would be that, while Indigenous metaphysics and philosophy is certainly fascinating and, to the extent that brings people close to nature, attractive; nevertheless, it should not be called a science. This is the inevitable conclusion within a worldview whose values are dominated by the need for progress, development, improvement, evolution, and the linear unfolding of time. Within such a world it stands to reason that things evolve, that automobile engines become more efficient, that new computers are faster, and that some societies are more highly developed than others.
Our Western concept of nature is based on an evolutionary model. Left to the natural forces around them, things will “progress,” getting better and better. Going along with this worldview is the need, when faced with alternatives, to decide which one is “better” than the others. It goes without saying that when it comes to other people’s cultures we are generally the ones who are doing the measuring, and are supplying the yardstick as well!

- F. David Peat, Blackfoot Physics

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Heart ship
Kin ship
Fellow ship
Apprentice ship

Slave ship
Whaling ship
Wailing, wailing, wailing ship

Contain-her ship
For end ship
Twin ship
Sense her ship

Star ship
Mother ship
Hard ship
My other ship

Common good
come in good
c’mon, good
Write lively hood

Little red writing hood
Mother hood
Monk’s hood

Priest hood
Saint hood
Robin hood
Brrr other hood

Farther hood
Sister hood
Insists her hood

Baruch atah adonai ehud

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

QUOTE: Robin Wall Kimmerer

“The names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking from the inside or the outside of the circle. The name on our lips reveals the knowledge we have of each other, hence the sweet secret names we have for the ones we love…. Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses (or other natural beings, CT) may suffice, but within the circle, what do they call themselves?”

- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Sunday, August 24, 2014


It begins like this:
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Echod.
And then:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melach Ha Olam, Shechianu Vetsivanu Vehiggianu, Lazman Hazeh.
And then:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melach Ha Olam, Asher kidishanu, Beimitzvotzu vetzianu, Lechadlich ner shel This Day.
These are the prayers that I sing to call my grandfather. I’m not religious, wasn’t Bat Mitzvah’ed, didn’t (and don’t) go to temple. These are the words I use to call my grandfather because he asked me to. I sing the prayers and he comes. He comes,
I sing. The dead have as much need for us as we for them.
When he speaks to me, his words have a cadence and a logic not my own. That’s how I weed out the words that might come from my thinking mind. When my grandfather speaks to me, often I can see him. He’s facing me, a little to the left, next to my shoulder, just out of reach. He’s smiling. He looks expectant. Ready.
I am in the habit of asking lots of questions, especially when I need help. Today I wonder if there’s anything he’d like to ask me. He smiles that knowing smile and nods slightly. (As I write this, I have a fit of sneezes. In Africa they say a sneeze means the ancestors are with you, so instead of Bless You they say Thank You.)
It’s lonely here when you don’t talk to us, he says.
Even dead?” I say. “You’re doing the guilt trip even when you’re dead?”
Not that kind of lonely, he says. A different kind. He pauses, choosing his words with care. Feedback, he says. You feed us, you make your offerings. We want to feed you back. He pauses again. It would go better for you if you let us tell you how you’re doing. Ask us from time to time.
I say, “Is it true that the ancestors need us and want us to talk to them, to ask them for help? Is it true they need our help cross over?”

He says, The silence we cannot cross. Our experience of life is for you. What use here? We see sharp stones we fell on. ‘Put your feet there, not there.’ All the love we could not give. Beads for you to string together. Look how beautiful. Collect them! Will you sing to us? Will you tap to us? We cook what you have not tasted. You will like it. Your mouth will fill with words from here. A life for nothing if not for you.

Friday, August 22, 2014


My suggestion is that the West’s desire for progress, growth and increase has brought about the very diseases that have become its scourge … I suggest that sickness that sweeps through a population has its origin not so much in viruses but in ideas. A virus is information, a segment of DNA that enters into the cells of a healthy body and instructs them to operate in a different way…the conditions under which human immune systems become debilitated are the direct result of social conditions. Disease is a manifestation of human thought because it is ideas, worldviews, and beliefs that create the conditions in which a society can be riddled with disease, strife and poverty or can continue in health and harmony.
- F. David Peat, Blackfoot Physics

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


I was at a Gandhian nonviolence conference a couple of years ago. An American veteran of the Vietnam war began to speak to a packed room. Very soon, the man began to sob. For a full hour, he choked his way through the story of his initiation into soldiering and the work he was now doing to heal from what he had experienced. On his first day in Vietnam, an officer took him up in a helicopter and flew him over a rice paddy. Looking down, they saw a lone farmer. “Shoot him!” the officer commanded. The soldier hesitated, and turned to question the order. Shoot a lone, unarmed civilian? The officer told him that the farmer, anyone, could be Viet Cong, probably was. So, just to be sure…. Again the command, “Shoot!” It was his first killing. For the rest of the war, he remembers nothing else, no other battles or killings.

At the end of the war, again, an officer took him up in a helicopter. They saw a water buffalo. Again the command, “Shoot!” Again the hesitation… Incomprehension. “Water buffalo are essential to the enemy for his farming. Kill the animal, destroy the enemy.” The soldier remembers that he pulled the trigger, and ‘turned it into hamburger.’

He went on to become a professional airline pilot, as many vets do. He married, raised a family, had a successful career. After he retired, he began having a recurring dream. In it, he saw the water buffalo’s face very close. He said it’s eyes were docile, loving, almost Christ like. Night after night, the same dream and the same conversation:

The water buffalo asks, “Do you want to meet them? Do you want to meet them?” The soldier answers, “But I don’t know who they are. I don’t know who they are.”

Night after night, always the same. He would wake up in a sweat and a panic. Other dreams ensued. His life came apart. His wife left him. He stopped paying taxes so that none of his money would go toward war. He was sent to prison. He had a nervous breakdown. In time, he understood that to clear his heart he had to share his story. He had to shed his tears for all to see. And there he was weeping and talking to us, complete strangers, at that conference.

I came to the end of the story. I wasn’t even sure why I had told it. I turned to Bethelson and shrugged. He had an odd look on is face, as if he were somewhere else. Then he said, “But I just remembered something. I remember! I remember!”

“The first time I killed… I was a young recruit in the Liberian national army. There had been a failed coup and the officers responsible, a general among them, went into hiding. I was selected to go with a small reconnaissance party to look for them. And we found them. They were hiding at the edge of a swamp, deep in the bush. The general came out waving a white handkerchief. He had been gone several weeks and I think they were starving. He was very thin and very weak. So he came out with the handkerchief. My commanding officer ordered that general to kneel. Then he handed me a gun and said, “Shoot him!” Can you imagine? Me, a private, shoot a general? And they had surrendered. The man was on his knees. I hesitated. My hand was trembling. My commander told me, “SHOOT!” So I pulled the trigger. The man’s body just toppled over. There was blood everywhere.

“That night I got very drunk. I started drinking heavily, in fact. I became an alcoholic. I started using all kinds of drugs… I wasn’t to myself. This is the first time since that day that I remember it. My first killing. I had forgotten for 37 years.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


As the reality shows, it perhaps required the lives of at least 700 humans, hundreds more infected, including the deaths of key medical doctors and hospital administrators including some of Liberia's and Sierra Leone's key profile doctors, 2 other American medical practitioners who are said to be infected and at the brink of the their lives, and Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian who flew to Nigeria with the disease and left high alert panic in that region…In retrospect, did it require all these alerts before we came to our senses? Where is the trust between our leaders and the citizens gone? And why is it so? 

- Bill Saa, everyday gandhis and WANEP (West Africa Network for Peacebuilding)

Sunday, August 17, 2014


In the dream, there are rows of elephants, or rows and clusters, tied to a post like cowboys’ horses, standing in the dust, and suddenly collapsing as if they were inflated life-size models that had been punctured and just crumpled to the ground. No popping or whistling sounds of air escaping, suddenly they are just deflated and piled limp and empty in the dirt.
It’s as if the Holy has gone out of them - it’s too painful, they’re her most complex creatures, and they’re under attack and struggling. She wants them out of their misery. Spirit can’t stand it any longer and just withdraws. Later, I am sitting in the rich afternoon sun facing the view of Santa Cruz Island. I close my eyes and ask what I can do for the animals, for the elephants, for whom and for what, what can I do and how can I do it, better said, what can we do and how can we do it, what are we to do? I see images of Elephants, Chimps, Tigers, and I hear them called The Beleaguered Ones. It is important for writers to write on behalf of The Beleaguered Ones, because, since they are big and were so numerous, they hold large amounts of Spirit, of the Holy, they are huge repositories of magic, mystery, and ancient knowing. They are indispensable. We cannot do without them. According to news articles, we can’t even do without their shit:

“A drop in the number of hippos has led to a reduction in phytoplankton in African freshwaters, and has caused a decline in fish populations.” The hunting of hippopotami for their meat is responsible for a change in the composition of the water at Kampala, East Africa, and this has led to a reduction in the catch of food fish.” (
"Hippos are extremely important in maintaining the ecological balance in rivers and lakes and nearby grasslands," says Marc Languy of WWF's Eastern Africa Regional Programme. "Hippo dung provides essential basic elements for the food chain, particularly for fish. The loss of more than 27,000 hippos in the past few decades is a double blow: fish catches have dwindled and the freshwater ecosystems are losing hundreds of tons of nutrients every day. Lake Edward supports over 20,000 people living around the Park who depend on fish for their livelihood." (World Wildlife Fund, East Africa Regional Programme Office)
I go on the internet and find a chorus of articles about hippo poaching perpetrated primarily by ex-combatants. The hippo population of the Congo was once the world's largest but now may soon be extinct. In Virunga National Park, there are now less than 1,000 hippos, though in the 1970’s there were almost 30,000.

“The poachers are believed to be veterans of Congolese bush wars and former Hutu rebels who fled to eastern Congo in 1994 after killing Tutsis in the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. They hunt because they are hungry, but also for profit — the meat, though tough, is a pricey delicacy and a three-ton hippo fetches thousands of dollars in village markets across northeastern Congo. In his poaching days in the Congo forests, Guillaume Kasereka used a rusty Russian-made rocket launcher to kill hippos for meat. These days, he says, they're too scarce and the competition too fierce — rebels and militiamen machine-gun the animals and even dynamite lakes to bring dead hippo to the surface.” (
My friend, Hassan Yusufzai, a Pakistani peacebuilder says, “Violence is a form of communication.” Violence communicates frustration, rage, desperation that cannot see other options. I picture men with machine guns, AK’s and grenades, blowing up hippos and lakes and huge tracts of rainforest and I know that Hassan is right. I read headlines about car bombs and drones and I know he is right. I think of my Liberian sons and brothers who are ex-combatants, and I know he is right. I see my neighbor spraying poison on his weeds (a few yards from my well head), and I know Hassan is right. I reach for the fly swatter and I know that Hassan is right.

Colonization, religious zealotry, and, now, resource extraction, sunder indigenous people – including ourselves – from our connection to the earth and each other. The issue, then, is the trauma of isolation that pits us against ourselves and the communities we are necessarily part of. In our anguish, we lash out at the essence of that which sustains us.

Trauma is an epidemic that stretches across generations, geographies and centuries. Even our nervous systems are traumatized by the relentless onslaught of information, of light when there should be darkness, of noise in place of quiet.

Healing is a journey from trauma to wholeness that passes through many landscapes – mountains of forgiveness and grace, valleys of personal responsibility, forests of amends. I once knew a woman named Jean who said, The opposite of enemy is personal responsibility.

When we divorced, my ex-husband made terrible threats and I believed him capable of following through, though, thankfully, he did not. Since those harrowing days, we have gone in and out of détente, in and out of court, and in and out of touch. Because I didn’t understand conflict, I married an angry man. Because I found it difficult to forgive, I became fascinated with stories of people who could. What I had done, and hadn’t done, for my children was what I needed help carrying: The husband I chose, the grandmother in whose footsteps I had unwittingly walked... To stop that freight train of generations that pushed my ex-husband and me together and forced us apart, to make peace with all that, became as irresistible as a dare. Being around communities seeking to make peace after war has helped me put my own dilemmas into perspective and taught me to see possibility rather than impasse.

I had a friend in Santa Barbara who was a profound peacemaker. Forgiveness was a lifelong quest for her. She had divorced her husband when she found out he had molested their daughters. More than twenty years after the divorce she told me, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t wish him harm.” She paused and gathered herself. “It’s taken me years to get that far. I have to let that be enough, because I doubt I’ll be able to forgive him in this lifetime.” We go as far as we can.

Why is it, then, that sometimes those who have lost so much more, lost everything, are able to make the leap into real forgiveness? Is there an inverse proportionality here between heartbreak and generosity, between suffering and the ability to transcend it, a chemical reaction that happens unpredictably and unexpectedly sometimes? And, if so, how to render the stories so that their medicine is distilled but not oversimplified, or, worse yet, so that we don’t mistakenly assume that extreme suffering is required – or is it? – or that suffering alone prepares us for feats of transcendence? Like the wildflowers in the California chaparral, are our human hearts fire-climax seeds, too? It’s possible, and it’s terrifying and dangerous to think so.

Liberian peacebuilder Samuel Gbaydee Doe once told me: “Those who have perfected violence are saying, ‘I’m hurt’… and that is why we need to deliberately move into the field and lavish love on those incapable of loving.” May we be worthy of that challenge, whether giving or receiving. Like forgiveness, like love, grace is a big word. There are those that can naturally sense its coordinates and lock in, while the rest of us remain struggling. It requires that everything be given to those who seem to least deserve it, whether they reach out their hands to accept it or not. But, by accepting it, they begin to earn it, and to be able to offer it to someone else. Grace requires dedication to possibilities not visible to the naked eye, only to the naked heart.

Friday, August 15, 2014


It's only when you see a mosquito landing on your testicles that you realize there is always a way to solve problems without using violence.”
- Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, August 14, 2014


“A gift comes with responsibility.”
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


"Live stories worth telling! Stop hitting the snooze button. Try not to squander your life on meaningless, multi-tasking bullshit."
Annie Lamott (writer), friend of Robin Williams

Sunday, August 10, 2014


During the 1980’s, when I was married and the kids were small, we lived in West Los Angeles. My neighbor was an eminent professor of pain research at UCLA, revered by colleagues and students alike for his dedication to pain relief. Shortly before his death, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences for his early groundbreaking work, interviews with early proponents of adequate medication for cancer patients and others in severe pain, and his pioneering work paving the way for unrestricted morphine use for the terminally ill. Why worry about morphine addiction if someone was dying? Although commonplace now, it was revolutionary thinking at the time.

He kept a predictable routine, had a ready smile and a saucy sense of humor. He liked Willy Nelson and Nelson Eddy. He was kind and funny and the sort of joke teller that would have us doubled up laughing, practically peeing in our pants. He collected first editions of rare books, didn’t exercise, and couldn’t say no to his spoiled older sons from his first marriage. He was utterly dependable, “Like an old diesel engine,” in the words of his wife, my friend Julia. I would never have guessed how unyielding he could be at times, how frightened, how desperately he clung to his routine and resisted the slightest change.

Eighteen years ago he died of a sudden throat cancer. A persistent sore throat worsened until one night he felt his throat was closing up altogether. They rushed him to the emergency room where the doctors removed what they thought was a small polyp or perhaps a resistant patch of infection, but was in fact the tip of a fast-growing tumor which became inflamed by the surgery and filled his throat within a few days. They removed his vocal chords and the tumor, leaving a permanent tracheotomy. He joined the Lost Chord Society, a self-help group for people without voices, and quickly learned to talk in a comical, lecherous rasp by covering and uncovering the hole in his neck. He developed a great imitation of Darth Vader.

The last time I saw him, he had lost fifty pounds. Ever the realist, he was on his way to UCLA to clear out his office. We hugged goodbye, and as he stepped out the door he turned with a smile and called over his shoulder, “Goodbye, Neighbor! See ya around the block!” and was gone.

In the 1960’s, at the beginning of his career, he had won a graduate research fellowship, gotten married, and moved to Paris with his young wife and infant son. The lab was state-of-the-art: well-lit, well stocked, with a sizeable budget assured for several years. My neighbor was hired to run all the experiments. They had plenty of lab animals, clean cages, the crème de la crème of young assistants and lab techs. J. scored a tiny apartment on the Bohemian left bank. Mondieu! It didn’t get much better than that!

At first the work went well. The scientists felt they were on the cutting edge, ahead of the curve, in understanding pain and how to control it. J. desperately wanted to do something for the world that really mattered. It seemed barbaric to him that in the mid-1960’s people should still be suffering from preventable and/or treatable pain. The experiments were done on West African chimps, likely from Liberia, which bred and supplied them to labs around the world.

J. didn’t handle the animals himself. When he was in the lab, he found it easier not to make eye contact with them. Especially Josef, the baby chimpanzee he worked with primarily. For the most part, life was uneventful and J. was happy. He occasionally had small anxiety attacks, and a persistent sense of unease, but he learned to ignore it, attributing his difficulties to the challenges of adjusting to their new life. As his own young son grew to be a toddler, J. began having a recurring dream that eventually forced him to leave the lab and return to the States.

I am in the lab early in the morning or late at night, when all the others have gone. Josef is strapped into a high chair. His gaze follows me as I move about the lab. He never takes his eyes off me. His eyes are pleading with me and although his mouth doesn’t move I hear him speaking in the voice of a human child. “Help me, please, let me out of here! Save me! Get me out of here!”
A few months later he returned to the States, settled in Los Angeles and worked at UCLA until the time of his death. A second son was born. He divorced his first wife and married my friend, J., with whom he also had a son. Twenty years later, he still kept a framed photograph of Josef in his office.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


A piece of bark given by a baobab tree sits on the altar. On it are the tracks and scrapings of beetles, worms and termites, the inscriptions of lives she once held. An elephant might have rubbed that piece of bark loose, or the tree might have lent it to the ground beneath her in the partnership of sheltering they have developed over time. In Africa, baobabs are known as ‘upside down trees’ because their branches look like gnarled roots. The elephants rub and rub against them until the trees get hollowed out. But this does not kill them. They simply regenerate from the inside out. Much of savannah life seeks refuge inside those hollow trees: birds, insects, foxes, bees, snakes and sometimes fugitives, usually poachers. Inside the hollow, the bark forms a rough skin with whorls and creases that look like the tips of elbows, or vulva, or turtle shells, each sculpted pattern a universe. In spring, the trees are festooned with huge, elongated fruits covered with circles that look like eyes looking at nothing, seeing everything.

We had been in the Ruaha game reserve in Tanzania for three days, sighing, gasping, at the edges of our seats and the edges of our breath. There were sand rivers like freshly raked zen gardens, pocked with hoof prints and lion tracks and elephant pot holes. Boulders and bushes were arranged just so, and water appeared in sudden veins and pools bluer than the sky, peeking through drifts of fallen gold leaves turning purple as bruises in the afternoon sun. A red-beaked guinea hen perched on a sable gray termite mound that rose from the scrub like a fist. A bat eared fox stared out from within a roadside cairn of stones at a crossroads. On the morning of my son’s and my shared August birthday, because we are Leos, he wished to see lions, and right away there were twelve of them feasting on a freshly killed kudu, dragged to the side of the road as if in gracious response to our longing. And in the shade of an immense sausage tree, a baboon sat motionless as the Buddha, watching us from an overhanging limb, his ash-white fur framed in tufts of dark brown, with only his eyes moving as he tracked us. Underneath the branch hung a beehive, a huge, suspended triangle of honeycomb white as the baboon, except for the glistening bees surging and buzzing around it. Even Peter Mathiessen himself appeared. We told him that we were there because of him, because we had re-read his book, The Sand Rivers, and so had chosen this place.

Gratitude casts a spell, and the force field of mystery is irresistible, so when I saw the Mother of all Baobabs and she whispered my name, I suddenly felt I had to get out of the car and walk towards her. Brandishing my camera, I asked our guide to please stop for a photo. His name was Josphat but he had the practiced patience of Job, and he stopped the car. When I asked to get out and walk a bit closer to that tree, he must have said yes because suddenly I was striding into the bush as if I had stepped onto a conveyor belt and had only to keep moving my legs while it carried me to the Mother Tree. I would soon be scrambling up boulders and clambering into her branches to rock in her embrace and look out over the plain to gaze into the far distance as she saw it. A ringing silence encased me and carried me forward as if dormant cells of her ancient roots had awakened in my belly and were suddenly reaching toward her and pulling me with them.

It was only the frantic shouts and whistles of Josphat, and then my son and everyone else in the car, that called me back. I heard them faintly at first, as if from another room. Then words like ‘Lions!’ and ‘Come back!’ filtered through, and began exerting a counterforce to the Mother Tree. I remember turning my head and seeing the looks of alarm on their faces, everything in slow motion like a flashback, then looking back at the tree, and turning away again to begin the slow, reluctant walk back to the car. I was so sure I was safe and that I was meant to go to her. Couldn’t they feel it, too? Though their upset surprised me and I regretted their worry, I regretted more having to leave her. Was it hubris, or maybe ignorance, that made me think I could just walk up there like that as if immune to danger, as if I could actually wander so far and scale that little cliff or shimmy up her massive trunk? Perhaps ignorance and hubris played their part. And yet, I know the call was real because I can feel the longing even now, fluttering in my chest like a memory of wings.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


I have a new lover. He’s tall, seems like over 100 feet sometimes. His skin smells like honey and forest and sun-warmed resin. When I look at him, I feel like making love to him, and sometimes we do. He insists that I tell you that.

The first year, I kept finding nails hammered into him. I’d pull them out. Jigsaw puzzle chunks would tear out of him, layer after layer, peeling away like scabs, with these perfect round holes in them like bullet holes. Finally there were no more nails. I’d pull out the nails as gently as possible, whispering apologies. It reminded me of stories of manta rays and dolphins letting divers painstakingly unwind fishing line and pull hooks out of fins. He stayed very still and waited patiently, too.

Then it seemed that the die-back stopped and I couldn’t tell yet, but maybe the healthy needles were just a little greener. And were there a few more of them? Were they a little higher up this time, and a little thicker? And was it perhaps because we loved each other? When the last dry needles, and the small branches that hold them are finally bare, will the eagles come and nest there? Last week a golden eagle landed briefly on the railing of the deck. Checking out the neighborhood?

The wind comes off the lake, picking up the scent of algae-wrapped fish asleep in the murk, trout and bass and catfish. They’ve settled in already, waiting for winter. The wind scoops up the little glistening flecks of light and throws them down again. They tumble like dice across the water’s surface, divining the present, now and now and now again in endless revelations as long as there is light. After dark, the divining continues in secret, with no one but the sky to see it. On this blustery day it twinkles like circuitry on a switchboard. All those lights and flashes, sparkles and whiteness. A landscape of joy outside the window, the stage and props for the joy indoors of sitting mesmerized by the fire, notebook in lap. That’s in his scent, too.

I think, dazzling and dancing and, What is the exact right word for the blue of the water? A blue-green lake reflecting pines along the shore and waterweeds underneath. Not an astonishing blue, and yet it matters. Not the blue of sky, not blue jay, not country-cottage. Not Delft. More like mocha or latte, only instead of coffee it’s a milky blue lake.

I make offerings and pour milk into it, and I like to think I help make it that color faded denim, or help keep it that way. I pour Thank You, and Bless You, and Thank You, I Love You, from a pale blue pitcher with birds on it. I pray thoughts and it drinks them. I make jokes to myself: Lake-accino and Lake-au-lait and Thanks-a-latte.

My lover wants me to tell you what it feels like to fall in love again, and for the first time. The steady way it glows just below your skin and reminds you of who you are because of each other. He says, Say it! Say it! Tell them what it’s like… OK. Here’s how it is: I open my arms so my whole chest presses up to him, and he likes it. My fingers tingle when I open my hands and let him enter through my palms, my cheek flat against his chest, and that scent again, pulling off the lake and wafting up from the brown sugar crevices of his skin. I can’t inhale without closing my eyes and melting gratefully into him.

Tell them, he says, how you sometimes forget all about me and then suddenly remember and how you long to put your arms around me when that happens. Tell them how handsome you think I am, and how happy I make you and how often you tell me you are glad and grateful that we have each other.
Is it cheating on a man to fall in love with a sugar pine? I look out the window and talk to him. It’s cold in the mornings and at night now, so I stand in the dining room or on the landing and we talk. I can sit in the hot tub and watch the light as it moves up to his crown and disappears. The torn and faded green tissue paper kite is still there, its rippling string tail still caught in the second branch from the top. I hope this winter it finally blows loose and floats away. I blame it for the lightning strike.

During the drought, the brown needles kept appearing lower and lower until I thought he might be dying. Each time I visited I’d stand there and cry. I’d sprinkle birdseed and water and beg the birds to sing more, thinking they could call out the greening, raise the healthy sap and banish the damn kite. That’s how I fell in love with him.

Last night we were talking before I fell asleep. He nodded toward the lush, tall pine by the little forest I planted. Begin to notice her, to love her, that tall healthy pine by the shed. She lost a partner years ago and has many things to say. I can picture her easily. There is a huge stump beside her where I put peanuts and birdseed for the squirrels and jays. She has no branches along one whole side, where her partner used to be. In the morning I greet her and the others nearby. I thank her and sniff her skin. She speaks: We were here when they built the first cabins, and later, when it was a Japanese internment camp. We were here before the dam, before there was a lake at all.

The wind kicks up. I am watching the trees along the point across the channel. They lean together and rub branches. Watch how happy we are when we can grow close together, they say, how we love each other in the wind. See how easily our needles fit together, how they interlace. See how we can’t reach to touch each other when we have to grow alone or too far apart. See how things happen when you can begin to see? Just then, did you notice?

A burst of blackbirds pulses off the reeds in front of the house, gusting onto my deck in the low sun, gusting back toward the water. The lake grass, the sun, the insects, the seeds. The blue water. The whitecaps. The blackbirds. The sun. You see how it happens? says my lover.

My neighbor wanted to cut him down. The County Office of Hazardous Tree Removal wanted to cut him down. I threatened a lawsuit. I did all the usual things: I took photos and sent faxes. I signed paper work. I wrote a nasty letter, and even put in a good word for the not-dead, not-hazardous trees across the street that they also wanted to cut down. In the end, they fell silent and for now we are safe. Now I know you meant it when you told me you loved me, he says gently. They can’t cut me down as long as you’re here. Again, the birds. Arcing toward and away, towards the sun and back again, sweeping into the afternoon wind.

Friday, August 1, 2014


“To hear the unembodied call of a place, that numinous voice, one has to wait for it to speak through the harmony of its features – the soughing of the wind across it, its upward reach against a clear night sky, its fragrance after a rain. One must wait for the moment when the thin – the hill, the tarn, the lunette, the kiss tank, the caliche flat, the bajada – ceases to be a thing and becomes something that knows we are there.”
- Barry Lopez, in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


The first sunny day in weeks. To the beach with the dogs at low tide! I am singing softly to myself, then to the hawk who is circling, hovering, circling, hovering, lower and lower. A woman farther down the beach watches it, transfixed, arms outstretched in a gesture of offering and embrace. It drifts down the face of the cliff, hovering, circling, but it seems distracted. A man on a deep blue hang glider hovers and drops alongside it, seemingly unaware of the hawk. Two other hang gliders, one bright orange, the other, bright red, crowd its airspace. It has been raining for days and the hawk must be hungry. It must be hard to spot a meal through fog and rain. The hang gliders are hungry for sun, too, oblivious as they float and dip between hawk and prey. Another hawk appears. Two of the hang gliders are eye level with the hawks. Beautiful for the men - but for the birds? I want to shout to them to get the hell out of the way. One of my dogs is barking at him, she’s shouting louder than I can, and I’m concerned that the hawk will be driven away by all this commotion. I shout too loud at my beloved, terrified dog, and before I think, give her a light smack to shut her up. She is silent for the rest of the walk and I am ashamed - she is never silent around hang gliders. To her they are giant, menacing birds, and she must protect us.

As the hawk swoops down and snatches his lunch, a sleek Doberman Pinscher scampers straight up the hill toward the hawk, feints and continues up to the top of the cliff. The hang glider bobs in the wind. The hawk drops his prey – a huge gray squirrel who suddenly finds himself on the beach. The squirrel staggers, dazed, then scrambles back up the crumbling cliff. The hawk is perched a few feet above him, waiting. Two blonde college girls join the rest of us gaping as this drama unfolds.

“Is that an eagle?” one of them asks, wide-eyed.

“It’s a hawk, a red-tailed hawk,” I say.

“Scary!” says the other.

“Not scary,” I say. “A hawk.”

They walk on. The hawk swoops up again, narrowly missing the hang-glider. As I head back toward the parking lot I see a fourth hang-glider appear. He’s better than the rest, more skillful, floating and gliding and spinning. It looks like fun, but at the moment I hate them all. I look up at the cliff again. Tiny gray swallows and ring-necked pigeons are swooping in and out of the crevices in the chalky white shale. Their wings open and fold like scissors, like feathered origami, like a sudden thought that appears out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. On the sand near the steps to the parking lot is a long, brown pelican feather with a splotch of tar across the middle the size of a large coin.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


“If there is magic in this world, it is contained in water.”
- Wm. Kloefkorn, quoted by Luis Alberto Urrea in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

Sunday, July 27, 2014


There are times when having a story to tell can be a burden – as much of a burden as not having one. If you have a story to tell and you don’t tell it, it sits on a branch like that blue jay over there, squawking all the time. Even if you feed it peanuts and sunflower seeds, it will scold you for neglecting it because, as they say in Africa, ‘Stories are there to teach us how to live’. If one catches you and you don’t treat it properly, then it will call for reinforcements. They might even go after someone else in your family. Stories are like that. It’s their nature. If we gathered more often to tell our stories in a sacred way, not just haphazardly, not just to a friend or to ourselves, then perhaps the course of the stories – and therefore our lives – would be altered.

For example, I turned to that blue jay on the branch and told it, “Did you know that I love you because your people have transformed my people?” He immediately flew away, after sitting there for a long time. Does that change the story? What if he understood what I said and went off to tell the others? What if he told them, “Guess what? She finally thanked us!” Then again he might have said, “I sat there for the longest time asking very plainly for a snack and all she did was talk to me!” We cannot know what he actually thought or whether he told the other blue jays anything.

But if I tell you what happened, telling it as if he understood perfectly, that he has understood all along and has been responding, then you will see for yourself that it was the Story showing us the way and the blue jay and I were just playing our parts.

It began with the courting male blue jay hurtling into my car, the female jay landing on a patch of curbside grass, spreading her wings in confusion and alarm. I scoop up the bird, wrap it in the old clean towel lying on the back seat, and hold him against my heart, driving home shocked and weeping. He is still warm inside the towel. No blood, no visible injury, the body soft and pliable. My breath lifts the feathers on his neck when I bend my head down to look at him.

The dogs slink over and I tell them what has happened. I tell it as if someone else were responsible, as if it were an accident, as if it were planned, but not by me, as if it might be an offering but I don’t yet know what kind. The jay is iridescent. Even the gray feathers glow. I didn’t know this about grayness, that it could be so luminous. Along with sorrow, my chest fills with the honor of holding it so close. The blue jay story has begun. Or rather, it has taken up residence in my life. I am not a victim or a perpetrator. I am a host. My task is to tend this guest.

The story ebbs and flows. At times, it accelerates. I find a fledgling jay lying dead on the flagstone by the guest room. A plump young bird on my doorstep. A tiny fudge and downy gray feather on the sliding glass door tells the rest of the story. It too, is still warm and pliable. I bury it near the place it died. As I sing to it, the tears catch in my throat. I find a dead jay at the cabin in the mountains, a whole bird, cool and hollow, its desiccated body perfectly preserved by the dry mountain air. All that’s left is a shell of feathers.

The story continues to train me. I learn to tend it: Fistfuls of blue jay feathers on hiking trails and camping spots; walking the dogs with blue jays flitting from branch to branch ahead of me. I leave peanuts in the peeling bark of trees. The following day, the nuts are gone. I leave more. We’re in a conversation. I begin leaving peanuts in my patio. I learn to throw them onto the roof so they don’t roll back down into the rain gutter. Most days, four jays come – two that will eat from my hand. The one that is training me pecks at the window or the front the door if the peanut dish is empty. If I leave the slider open, he hops into the house, calling with his hopeful, shrill reminder until I come with peanuts in my outstretched hand. He is teaching me about bravery, the courage it takes to enter the Abode of a Keeper of Peanuts.

Have you ever felt a wild bird’s talons wrap around your fingers, or his smooth pointed beak peck at the soft flesh of your upturned palm? The blue jay tilts his head and looks at me with alert curiosity, his face an arm’s length from mine. Our eyes meet, two expressions of the Infinite gazing at each other. The Story, embodied, takes us by the hand.

My Liberian friend and brother, the former rebel general, Christian Bethelson, called recently. “I was driving to Sarkonedu,” he says, “where the ex-combatants were waiting. On the way going, I saw a little boy netting a blue jay. I said, ‘Stop the car!’ and got out. The little boy said he wanted the blue jay to cook for his soup. He told me that the people gather grasshoppers and cockroaches and put them out to lure the birds. Then they throw nets over them to catch and eat them. So I asked the boy, ‘How much for that blue jay?’ He said, ‘250 Liberian dollars’ (about $4 US). I bought the bird and told the little boy to use the money to go buy a chicken. Then I released the bird!” Then he says, “I cannot describe the feeling in my heart when I freed that blue jay and watched him fly away!” He pauses, then adds, “And you know why I did it? It was because of that blue jay that ate from my hand at your house. It was so sweet! I remembered the feeling of that blue jay sitting on my hand.”

A few weeks later he calls and says: “Today I took my plate of rice outside to sit and eat. I had forgotten my glass of water, so I went in the house to get it. When I got back outside, there was a flock of blue jays eating my rice. I have never before seen blue jays in Monrovia.”

A bird in hand is worth two in the bush, and more.

Friday, July 25, 2014


“…Middle grounds are sandbars or mudflats found in the middle of a tidal channel; water flows on either side of them. They characteristically occur near the entrance or exit of a constricted passage… The politician infallibly steers for the metaphoric middle ground, th4e shifting shallows created by current events. Not so the honest sailor.”
- Franklin Burroughs in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


On the beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, my daughter and I watch an eel being tortured at the hands of a group of terrified, sandy children. They are holding the edge of their Styrofoam boogie board, with the tapered edge pointing down, frantically gouging at the eel. The eel is gaping, gasping for water, recoiling from the scalding sand. It is bleeding from an open wound in its back. Sand is sticking to its body. I approach the children and speak sharply: “Stop! Why are you doing that?” A heavyset girl looks up, terrified, and exclaims, “But they’re poisonous!” I tell her they are not, that they’re harmless, and to leave the eel alone. Just then a very fat man in a bathing suit strides over to the children. Using two sticks he picks up the eel and turns to walk away. My daughter and I inhale, preparing a sigh of relief – the eel has been rescued! – but instead of taking the eel to the water, the fat man in the bathing suit suddenly turns and disappears into his beachside condo, brandishing the crucified eel. My daughter and I stand gaping in disbelief.

We walk back slowly to our hotel. What could we have done? I am distraught and blame myself. My daughter does her best to find comforting words. We walk past the chain link fence with the sign that says Save the Turtles! past the four story condos under construction with the line of frigate birds perched and waiting along the arm of the crane (odd, we say to each other, to call that machine a crane) and we return to our rooms to get ready for dinner. I feels harsh and bitter, my thoughts tasting of bile. I find myself weeping, shocked at my distress. The fact is, it was a small Holocaust and we did not do enough to stop it in time. I burn a bit of sage to lift my shame, and whisper an apology in the form of a prayer. It seems as if the birds outside the window hear me sobbing as the sage wafts through the screen door, carrying my longing out over the ocean waves where I imagine a tiny wisp of it dropping into the water. I see it drift to the ocean floor like a smoky leaf and wonder if the eels feel a tingling on their shiny black and silver flanks.

The next day we walk along the shore again, as we do several times each day. We prefer it to the overblown town, choked with traffic and restaurants. Day by day we feel the place enter us through the soles of our feet – the colors of the sky and the countless greens of palm fronds, the shadows of birds and the iridescence of ancient stones ground to sand. We go to the water’s edge. I drop to my knees in the shallow surf where the waves ripple to shore, and as the water washes over me I ask it if it recognizes itself.

On the morning of the third day, May 8th, we make our way to the water after breakfast. Although it is early morning, a group of people is already drinking and smoking cigarettes. A perspiring waiter carries trays of sweating plastic cups filled with margaritas. Meanwhile, it seems the eels have selected a messenger. The eel, the snake, the edges of the giant clamshell, trace the liminal space between the worlds, the openings and pauses in time. The eel calls across this scalloped space to other worlds and toward the opposite shore, to the living and the dead.

My daughter and I are on our way to swim, but as we approach the water we hesitate: a black and silver eel is lying motionless on the sand, barely moistened by the waves. He has come to the edge where air and water meet and there he waits. We stare in disbelief, looking from the eel and back to each other, and again to the eel. We fear he is in trouble. Kyra quickly removes her sandal and walks toward the eel, thinking to nudge him into the waves. Just then, he coils into himself looks directly at us. He lifts his head out of the water, entering the air we are breathing. Kyra sighs, I gasp, a sudden outlet and intake of breath, and it is done. We have received each other’s inadvertent offering. The eel twists himself into an 8, an infinity, then straightens himself and slips back into the sea. We remain standing, afraid the slightest motion will break the spell. Just then, the waiter walks past, balancing his tray.

“Excuse me,” I say. “But what kind of eel was that?”

The waiter looks puzzled of course, and answers, “What eel?”

“The eel that was there in the shallow water,” I tell him. “It was right there, for a very long time. There was another one the other day up the beach.”

“I’ve worked here for three years,” says the waiter, “and I’ve never seen an eel. We don’t have eels here.”

Monday, July 21, 2014


“The names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking from the inside or the outside of the circle. The name on our lips reveals the knowledge we have of each other, hence the sweet secret names we have for the ones we love…. Outside the circle, scientific names for mosses (or other natural beings, CT) may suffice, but within the circle, what do they call themselves?”
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Sunday, July 20, 2014


I go to pick up the metal dog bowls after a night of rain. A small slug, about an inch long, clings to the side of Ellie’s bowl. Its antennae are extended, it creeps tentatively forward. What is it searching for? Do slugs eat kibble? Does it seek a smooth, dry surface after so much water? The warmth of the metal bowl in the morning sun?

I pick up the bowls, one in each hand, and absent-mindedly clang them together, thinking to dislodge the slug so I won’t have to deal with it. It clings harder, rung with the bell of the stainless steel bowls struck together, its whole body engulfed in the single reality of that sound. And I, too, am, literally, struck by that sound in that moment. I imagine a moment in my world where the whole planet is struck against a twin of itself, only hollow and metallic, the calamitous gonging that engulfs my entire body, everything I know shaken and reverberating, obliterating every other sound, every possible explanation. And I think of Hiroshima, and car wrecks and of ‘smart bombs’ – that’s me, a “smart” bomb, quotation marks and all. And I cannot stand to do it harm, to rid my world of any other single living thing. Only there is no place for a slug (even though the garden is filled with them, what’s one more?) I can’t bring myself to deliberately put a slug in the garden, and I can’t bring myself to kill it, although I’ve already tried. So I carry it inside and put the dog bowls down on the butcher block counter. I fill the bowls, making sure to put in the vitamins and the joint supplements, as the slug makes its way off the bowl and onto the wood. I feed the dogs in their slug-free bowls and step quickly back into the kitchen because the slug is suddenly making rapid progress toward the Cuisinart and I don’t want it there, or anywhere.

I slide the corner of a piece of stiff paper under it and jiggle it onto the card. I don’t want to deal with this creature. I don’t want to have to handle any other life and death crisis, no matter whose, I don’t want the fact of the dilemma to intrude into my already over-crowded life, like the overcrowded counter top, too many indispensable things, too many choices, too many conveniences.

I carry it to the fence and tell it it’s going for another ride, with a steep drop in it, and wonder how slugs do with steep drops even as I am tipping the card over the fence into my neighbor’s yard, into the hedge they never trim, knowing what a stupid gesture this is, that there is nothing preventing it from crawling back through the spaces in the fence and coming straight to my compost, my plum tree, and, yes, the dog bowls, a mere 8 or 10 feet away. A day’s walk for a slug, surely.

And as I tip the slug over to its oblivion (oblivion only for me) I remember my son’s dream two years ago, about this neighbor and this fence: In the dream, a toxic gray fog forms in the neighbor’s yard and drifts between the spaces in the fence into our yard, spreading from there throughout the neighborhood. The poison fog can go everywhere, there is no escape.

I go inside and wash the sticky slug mucous off my thumb and forefinger. I didn’t want to touch it. I did everything I could to avoid getting the mucous on my hand. But there is no avoiding touching everything, hurting things I don’t want to think about, no way to create an impermeable fence, or even a filtering one. The poison is everywhere and we don’t know how to live with or without it.

Friday, July 18, 2014


“Pondering on the facts of gravity and the fluidity of water shows us that the golden rule speaks to a condition of absolute interdependency and obligation. People who live on rivers – or, in fact, anywhere in a watershed – might rephrase the rule in this way: do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
-Quoted by Donna Seaman in Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Awake at 3 a.m., no obvious reason. I try to settle myself. I notice my breathing, how my heart pounds, and work to slow the breathing down, practicing tricks that work when I’m traveling: Lying on my back, I sense my toenails, the backs of my knees, my thighs and hips, belly, breasts, spine, neck, the spaces behind my ears. I reach the top of my head. (“Dice?” my daughter would ask.) No dice. My dread is gathering – now I am more awake than asleep. The panic rises. I push it down. It rises. I push it down.

As I lie there in the dark, a voice says, Go outside and close the studio door so the rats don’t get in. I think, What rats? Besides, the screen door is shut, I checked it. I am alarmed that not only am I fully, heart-poundingly awake, I am awake and having a conversation about rats with a voice in my head.

Go outside and close the studio door.
But I’m so sleepy. If I do that, I’ll really be awake.
Shut the door!

(Ten years ago, when my father was in the hospital recovering from surgery, my mother and I went to visit him. As we were leaving, stepping out the door and into the hall, he called out, “Shut the door!” In her best gravel-voiced imitation of Jimmy Durante, she called back, “Je t’adore, aussi!”)

I am doubting, sleepy, and whiny. I want to put conditions on things:

Not at 3 a.m.
Not a conversation about rats.
Not if I don’t get to sleep.
Not if I have to get out of bed and go outside in the cold.

Not for rats.

For what, then?

Get up and do it!

Out I go in my robe and slippers, flashlight in hand, talking to the dogs, reassuring the cats, asking them why they stopped catching rats and if they might like to start again…

I train the flashlight on the windows of my studio, on the bird feeder where I so happily watch the house finches, the sparrows, the doves and the occasional jay enjoy my offerings. It is one of my greatest joys, to offer the seed and to watch the birds come. The crows even tell me when the feeders are empty.

The feeder is boiling with rats. They don’t even look up when the light catches them. They look beautiful – so sleek and fat!

I rush into the studio and quickly shut the door behind me, then shut the door I was told to close. (Je t’adore!) Then I go back to the patio and stand there shivering, horrified and amazed. I grab the hose and spray the rats, splashing the newly clean windows, scattering the seed into the rose bushes and spraying everything for several extra minutes. I am wasting water. I don’t care. In the morning I check the feeder: No wonder the birds haven’t been coming lately. The feeder is caked with dried seed and rat droppings, as is the hanging birdbath next to it.

This latest turf war is an unwelcome new dilemma. I am already overwhelmed by a growing list of dilemmas that run my life like koans: How can we live in a way that creates the world we want to live in? How can we trust that our efforts are helping when everything just seems to get worse? Why must is suffering so persistent? I spend considerable time while awake (and a growing amount while sleeping, or, as it turns out, not sleeping) considering how to live closer to nature and in respectful communication with animals. (I, in a suburban neighborhood in a not-green house where I am gratefully comfortable most of the time. I love to be outside but I don’t like being too cold or too hot or too wet or too thirsty or too sunburned.)

I am thinking up ways to eliminate the rats that gobble up birdseed, fertilizer, unripe quavas, ripe tangerines, and who, I found out today, live not in my neighbor’s cursed ivy but in my very own compost heap. In my delight at communing with the birds and the trees, and my guilty satisfaction at turning all the water-guzzling grass trimmings and shameful quantities of uneaten food into a feast for the garden I don’t have time for, I have inadvertently created an organic, cat-free rat condominium and 24-hour smorgasbord. And don’t tell me they’re nocturnal, which is what I thought until today when I took a break from writing this, went outside to sweep the porch and startled a fat gray rat nosing around the rose food less than two feet from my oblivious, sleeping cats.

I want to eliminate the rats but not what I am meant to learn from them.

Rats and mice are shrewd, tenacious, communal, adaptable. They shred things into tiny particles and attend to each one, storing each thing in its proper compartment. Because their nests are hidden, sometimes underground, and they move so skillfully in the dark, in some traditions they are said to move between the worlds, connected to the ancestors.

During the past two years, life lessons have arrived borne on the corpse of a bird or a rodent – too many to dismiss or account for. In the past week alone: a dead gopher on the hood of my car, the body of a baby mouse on the trail while walking the dogs, and of course today’s ‘porch rat’. Last Spring, a courting male blue-jay swooped into my car, a baby jay smashed into the sliding glass door of my studio (the same one the rats wanted to use), the leg of a baby oriole courtesy of my non-rat-eating-cats, and the dozens and dozens of crow and jay feathers appearing for a full year everywhere I walked, but never saw before or since.

I decide that Step 1 is to dismantle the rat condominium and remove the smorgasbord. (Step 2, contact the rats telepathically? Step 3, look in the Yellow Pages under Exterminator.) What was that about living in balance with the natural world? Having rats feasting and multiplying is definitely not balanced but neither is killing everything that annoys or threatens us. I discuss this with the gardener, who is a supremely gentle and hard-working man of great generosity. He told me once he believes that helping others is an opportunity to do God’s work and to attain a state of grace. He will come this week to clean up the side yard where the rats live. As we are talking, I say it’s a shame to have to get rid of the compost.

“Why don’t you just spend five dollars every so often for a bag of mulch”, he asks.

Good question. I mumble something about plastic bags and not wasting food, but it’s feeble and we both know it. Then he says,

“Remember the other day when you asked me to spread compost on the fruit trees?’

Something in the way he says this makes me look up at his face.

“I stuck in the pitchfork and when I lifted it out I had skewered a big rat.”

Q: When is a nuisance not a nuisance but a creature trying to survive?
A: Now.

Q: Why don’t the rats eat the peaches on my neighbor’s tree, ten feet away?
A: Because they heard him say he was going to set traps?

Q: Still, do I have to live with a burgeoning rat population in my tiny yard?
A: Apparently, yes.

Q: Will they leave if I learn these lessons well – assuming I can figure out what they are - and respectfully ask them to go?
A: I guess I’ll find out.
The gardener comes two days later. The side yard is clean and organized. I ask him if he saw any rats. “Oh yes,” he says. “When I lifted up the compost barrel a huge one ran away. Their nest was in there, underneath. In the ground there was a hole filled with babies, at least 20.”

“What did you do?”

“I covered the hole and buried them.”

I cringe. I thank him. I go to the beach with the dogs. As I meditate and pray, a feeling of immense relief sweeps over me. I don’t feel the least bit guilty. I am amazed by this. I think it must be wrong, I must be in denial, I must get in touch with the sorrow. I try hard but don’t feel it. All I feel is liberated and relieved.