The Power of Memory

Presumpscott River

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, a powerful novel set in the days of slavery and the underground railroad, told through the voice of one young man who is among “the tasked.” There is so much I could say about this story.  Starting with this word, “tasked.” Coates never has his characters who are in bondage call themselves “slaves,” but rather, “the tasked.” And this subtle shift of language helps to transport us beyond the familiar words (of the masters) that have been written as history, into the direct perspective of those who were counted as property.

Even though I learned about slavery from my early days in school, it was easy to discount (even by benign repetition) the pervasive way this institution shaped the whole of our nation from its beginnings, it was easy to mask its reach and extent and corruption.  I grew up in the north, and it was easy to think of it as something far away, other.  But in recounting exploits of folks in the underground railroad, Coates makes clear that people in the north weren’t safe from slavery, or immune to its power. Any person of African descent could be captured off the streets of Philadelphia and transported away into bondage. A person of European descent who devoted themselves to ending slavery risked being murdered.  It was everywhere in this country.

It is not that the novel opened my eyes to some new knowledge, but that it helped me remember what I have already known, and bring it alive in a vivid way.  The whole practice and institution of slavery makes a lie of any notion of “greatest country” or “good old days” or “American dream.”  From the earliest settler invasions in 1619, through the creation of the “United States,” through the Civil War, up to 1865–246 years–the country was bound up in these practices of forced labor, torture, separation of families, sexual abuse. We are part of a horrible legacy that still shapes everything about our country, even though there are strong incentives for us to “forget.”

In The Water Dancer, the central character, Hiram Walker, has a magical gift that is tied to the power of memory.  He was a precocious child with a photographic memory of everything, except for the memory of his mother, who was sold away from him when he was only a young boy.  That trauma erased all memories of her from his consciousness. But later, crossing a bridge over the river Goose, the bridge where so many people had been lost into the deeper south, he sees a vision of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head.

The story begins here.  On the first page he says,

“knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”

He doesn’t come into the power of his own magical gifts until he can awaken the full memory of all that he has lost, and the painfulness of that loss. And perhaps we too will never find healing for all that we face in our world today, until we open our minds to the painfulness of what we call the “past,” (because it is never “past”), until we are willing to face it as it lives within the “down there” of this land we call home.

The Water Dancer creates that kind of magic, conjures the power of memory to transform all that we are.

Raccoon/Espons

One of the great things about our cats is how they alert us to visitors in the yard.  This morning, Billie suddenly leaned over into the bedroom window, all focused attention, and then she hurried off to the kitchen.  I looked out the window, and then I too ran to the kitchen–to look out the French door windows to the back.  We had both seen a raccoon, walking right onto our deck, checking things out.Raccoon on the deck

Sadly, this was not a great nature photo–I didn’t capture the raccoon’s adorable face.  And when they saw us at the window, they decided to move along, leaving only small wet footprints behind. I barely caught their distinctive striped tail as they hurried past on their way toward the steps to the driveway.  Raccoon tail

Compost barrel holeThe Passamaquoddy word for raccoon is Espons, and it means the one who leaves a mess. I pulled on my boots to go outside to see if Espons had left any messes anywhere in our garden–but the only thing I found was a tiny hole dug into the side of our compost barrel.  It looks like that compost is ready.

I think this is the first time I’ve seen a raccoon in the yard, though I saw one in a tree down by the brook a while back. As much as Margy and I love to play in the soil, plant trees and bushes, and tend to the growing plant life all around us, the most thrilling part of connecting to this land is when the critters visit us.

Many small birds and squirrels live here all the time, but we’ve also seen turkeys, a very occasional deer (and not in the last year), the skunk, the groundhog, a few chipmunks, the fox, the hawks, the turkeys (they visit a lot–though not this spring–they must be raising young somewhere else right now), not to mention tiny toads and salamanders. I call them visitors, but really, we share this urban environment. They live here as much as we do–but not usually on the deck!  We try to find a balance between welcoming them, and reserving certain garden foods as our own “territory.”  (Since we don’t yet have much food in the perennial food forest we’ve been slowly creating, it hasn’t yet been a big issue.)

I am reminded somehow, by the joy of this unexpected visit, that my spiritual “marching orders” during this past cycle of seasons have been rather clear.  I was not to try to “make magic”–which I understand as to focus my intention and will to create something or to make change in this world.  Rather, I was to flow with the already flowing magic of the deeper River, to let the Earth move my feet, let the Wind guide my mind. I was to rest, and let the Fire of joy carry me through the days.  That joy has carried me into some marvelous learning–the Wabanaki language class comes to mind.  That joy has carried me out into the garden to plant and tend and haul wood chips around.  That joy has carried me to the pages of this blog site, to write and reflect.  But it isn’t really about creating a garden or a blog.

It is about observing, being quiet, listening to the trees, tuning in to the flow of interconnected life. It is about moving beyond doing into a different way of being.  A way that is alert to the many beings who visit us, whether we notice them or not. It is about noticing.

Margy's clover & daffodils

Margy’s clover & daffodil garden in the front yard.

May Day the old way

May Day treeYesterday evening, eight of us danced around the pitch pine in our yard, dressing it up with rainbow ribbons for May Day.  Did you know that the original Maypoles were not cut wooden poles, but live trees?  It makes sense to me, coming from people who worshiped among the trees, who honored and revered the trees. And so what better way to celebrate the full arrival of spring, the arrival of the May, than to celebrate the tree with an ancient dance?

Earlier, I had attached eight ribbons to a small metal ring, and then Sylvia tossed a rock-tied string over a branch so we could lift the ribbons to a good height for dancing. Margy went to a field close to where we used to live to pick forsythia branches to decorate the bottom of the tree. In this time of the earth awakening, we joined our life energy to that of the earth, that we might all be full of life and regeneration.  It was a magical moment to be weaving in and out between each other, with our bright colors, dancing on the earth, and finally surrounding the tree, hands joined in a circle.

After a rain-filled night, I took photos this morning. We keep hoping for more warmth…it is only in the 40s today.  But we’ve finally finished planting all the bushes. I set up the rain barrels (by putting in their spigots and re-attaching their overflow hoses), and yesterday I found smaller containers for storing a big bag of Kaolin clay (an organic product used for certain orchard pests). Tending and planting and tending.

When I pay attention to what is happening to our planet, I feel so much despair, I feel overwhelmed. I know it is better to plant trees, than to cut them down.  I know it is a good thing to tend this small plot of land.  But even with many of us planting trees, or protesting, or changing our lives, do we have the power to stop the destruction?  No, I think not.  But what came to me the other day was this.  If we are out there, planting a tree, putting our hands in the soil, watering a seed, dancing on the ground, or even lying in a hammock under a pitch pine, perhaps we can learn to hear the voice of the earth.  Perhaps she will see us there, and take pity on us.  Perhaps she will open our ears and hearts and guide us into regeneration and healing. This is my hope.May Day Pitch Pine

A wing and a prayer

A poem & photo reflection from eight years ago that I found again today.  (Photos by Margy Dowzer.)Bird WingI think of the wing of a bird

the wing I found by the side of the road 

          of a bird now dead

the wing so intricate and beautiful

           now in decay

I imagine this–the millions of birds–

           beautiful

           coming into being, fading away

the artist painting a billion paintings

the stories wondrous, tragic

the story of that bird—alive, 

           growing feathers, flying, eating

            alive and then dead,

            and then the materials un-forming

so brief a story, so brief a life

 

I imagine The Life

creating itself into a billion forms

and then re-creating another billion forms 

          with almost infinite variation

a kaleidoscope of beauty and diversity

and different ways of being conscious of the work

and different ways of participating in creating

              making choices

Can you feel the inner creative energy in each one?

 

So now I am creating and seeing as Myke

          (and how beautiful I am

            eyes looking out at this world

            heart capable of love

             making changes, healing, choosing)

and I will dissolve and disintegrate too

and I will reform into a new being

 

The larger I Am –it sounds so static, in a way–

yet it is not static

it is creating, evolving, engaging, weaving, curious

dare I say hopeful?

(Is there a goal to which it strives?)

(Or is it playing to see what happens next?) 

(Am I?)

The stories, billions of stories

Can the stories appreciate the magic

            be full of wonder and gratitude

            enjoy the show?

 

I am that

I am the bird who grew feathers and died

          and was seen by the Myke

          and was photographed by the Margy

I want to wake up

 

Holy One,

open my body and emotions and intellect

to be united in awareness with my Larger Self

with the Creator

with the Limitless One

Help me to remember who I Am

          as the I

          as the Myke

Each being is beautiful

We are all one Being

Each story is beautiful

We are all one Story

Bird Wing closeup

Sunrise Calling

Screen Tent UpThe dawn wakes me up at 5 a.m. even though I went to bed after 11.  Part of me cries, “No! I’m tired!”  I’ve been weary and out of balance since my father died.  But then I remember that the morning is my proper habitat.  I remember that the dawn is full of magic.  So I get up and go outside, and finally set up the screen tent that functions for me in summer as a place of meditation and prayer.

The tent is getting old and faded–this might be the last year before it falls apart.  But it is a place I can come to in rain or shine, protected from mosquitos, a little sanctuary.  This year I set it up near the fire circle, and enjoy the feeling of that area taking shape as a circle of spirit and connection.  On the other side of the fire circle is what will eventually be a pond.  The old white pine is nearby.  And the hammock.

This place grounds me.  I water the vegetables and new plants with water from our rain barrels.  I pray for the mulberry tree which is still a stick–but are there tiny green buds just beginning to show?  It is our question mark tree–will it come to life or not?  I learned from Fedco that mulberries can be late bloomers, so we’ll give it a few more weeks.  I go round to bless the blueberry plants–both of them had had damage to one of their two branches the other day–little animals breaking them off?  It hurt to cut them off below the break, so that the plant could recover.

I water the asparagus plants–which although planted within a foot of each other, emerged at different times, with different strengths, some tiny and weak, others big and bushy–may these fronds give strength to the roots so that they can return year after year.  The other day I transplanted the licorice bush into its spot.  I made a little bed with cardboard over the grass, then compost, some coffee chaff, some soil, wood mulch on top.  It needs to grow for a few years before we can dig up the roots to use in medicinal teas.  I had to think about where to place it, but finally decided on a spot near the sea kale and turkish rocket plants, which are in full bloom right now.  I put a little fence around it to protect it from random water hoses or accidental mishaps.

Dear mother earth, dear trees, dear home, bless our human lives.  Bless this world with its many troubles.  Bless the parents who are being separated from their children, the children being separated from their parents.  Bless those who struggle for justice, for dignity, for the water, for the people, for the planet.Licorice sea kale rocket

 

Spring Arrives in Maine

Spring Arrives in MaineToday is the first day of spring everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere.  What it looks like in my neighborhood is huge piles of snow and a really cold morning, but with a bright sun leading us into a clear day.

Margy and I hosted an Equinox ritual at our house last night.  It was a small group of five this time, and most of us were weary from the winter, so our ritual was simple and low key.  We named the friends who had joined us for Solstice and Imbolc, and sent blessings to all of them.  (You know who you are!)  We shared thoughts and readings about our lives and about winter and spring.  We talked about what we wanted to let go from the winter season, and what intentions we wanted to carry into this new season.

I thought about the next several weeks until Mayday.  The snow will disappear, and the ground thaw, and begin to fill with green.  Our plants will arrive from Fedco:  an apple tree, a peach tree, two blueberry bushes, three hazelnut bushes, a mulberry tree, a licorice plant, 25 asparagus plants, and 3 golden seal plants.  By Mayday, I hope they will be in the ground.  Our friends volunteered to help with the planting.

I remember when we first imagined this new home, when we began to lay out our intentions to find greener housing in the summer of 2015.  Our intentions included creating a permaculture garden, and having space in our living room for people to gather.  And here we are!  Living those dreams into reality.  The magic of deeply felt intentions can be surprisingly powerful.

River of Rock

river of rock

Yesterday, with the ice and snow thawing, I ventured all the way down the path by the brook and discovered that the way was blocked by this new river of rock. There used to be a small wooden bridge over a small drainage ditch that led down to the brook, but now there was this huge thing.  And an orange mesh barrier blocking the way on both sides.

Today I went back and discovered that someone (a dirt bike?) had pushed the mesh barrier down, so I stepped over the mesh too.  I walked across the rocks consciously imagining that the path will be restored with a new little bridge.  Don’t our feet have some sort of magic to trace the energy of our intentions, and create or preserve the trail we want to walk on?  As poet Antonio Machado wrote, “Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking.”

So perhaps all of us who walk or ride this small path are preserving it by our collective energy, by our love and attention, and by moving through barriers. Perhaps there is a lesson in this.  Thank you kindred travelers.

mesh down