We are airborne

Yesterday morning on CNN I saw a video clip of News Anchor Chris Cuomo sharing an x-ray image of his lungs, to help viewers understand a bit more about his experience of Covid19. To me, his lungs looked like folded wings.

We celebrate the heart. We celebrate the brain. But, unless we’re singers, we usually do not celebrate the lungs, even though it’s through our lungs that we partake of everything in life.

With every breath, air molecules enter, pass into our blood through our lungs’ astonishing structures, and do magic of the deepest kind on our behalf. When those molecules’ work is done and they’ve transformed into something we no longer need, they leave us, with every exhalation. Consider the way our lungs welcome the air—how carefully they form and guard the threshold where what’s outside us enters and becomes us.  

It is said that the lungs are where grief lives. Perhaps that’s because our lungs are strong enough to hold grief until we are able to release it, like everything else we can release by letting our spirits and our bodies exhale.  

It is time now to acknowledge the lungs of the world. The lungs of every air-breathing creature. The lungs of humans, elephants, mice, Komodo dragons, hawks, orcas, otters, dolphins, wolves, garter snakes, bison, macaws, tigers, and macaques—the lungs of every kind of predator and prey.

It is also time to acknowledge the plant world, the partners that make breath possible. Photosynthesis is an unsung miracle.

Notice the clearer skies across the planet. The cleaner air. The way our lungs’ distress is reminding us of how precious clean air is.

If you pray, please pray for the lungs of the world, the lungs of people struggling to breathe in overcrowded hospitals, the lungs of people struggling to survive at home, the lungs of people grieving.   

Remember that we are creatures of air and earth, of sky and water, of mineral and flesh. Pray that our lungs and Earth’s lungs will clear together. For we are winged animals who wear our wings inside, folded around the heart. As lungs, our wings turn air into vitality. Each breath lifts us not into the sky, but into life, and we are airborne. How foolish to believe that isn’t flying.

Photo by Sunyu on Unsplash.

Love in the time of Covid19

Editor’s note: A shortened version of this piece was published in the Community Letters section of The Seattle Times on March 15, 2020. Seattle is in King County, Washington, the first epicenter of Covid19 in the United States, and the first county to enlist its entire population in helping to slow the virus’ spread.

There’s a blessing—albeit a harsh one—in the Covid19 pandemic. It’s offering the whole world a chance and a need to replace anxiety with resolve. A reason to refocus on core priorities—Self, Family, Friends, Community—instead of multi-tasked busyness and distractions. And a way to act individually and collectively on behalf of everyone regardless of our usual divisions—without a World War forcing us to do so.  

Does anyone else have the feeling that this is some kind of boot camp for drilling in skills we’ll need as more and more consequences of past choices show up in the world’s future? (The countless consequences of climate change, for instance? A note I saw this week said “Climate Change should hire the Corona virus’s publicist.”)

I’m talking about skills like adjusting, prioritizing, calming down, slowing down, taking care, changing plans, changing habits, listening, organizing, making do. Thinking. Inventing. Intuiting. Planning. Convening. Allowing. Forgiving. Honoring. Dealing with the unexpected. Leading from afar. Anticipating cause and effect. Bouncing back. Remembering. Waiting.

Plus all the physical skills like building, cooking, gardening, fixing, and, to finally give it the respect it deserves: cleaning.

In short, every skill that’s useful in Confucian-style “interesting times.”  

I don’t mean to downplay Covid19’s seriousness in any way. Many people are dying or suffering, with more to come; most of us are scared or nervous about our health or livelihoods or economic futures, or are at least facing significant disruptions. If we don’t quickly seize this chance to practice shifts in our daily habits and work routines, our health care systems could be completely swamped in a matter of weeks, and the consequences could up-end a teetering economy.

My point is that we can learn and practice. As we focus on finding solutions, what will ultimately matter—the real life skills—will come from how we work them out together.

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this piece was published in the Community Letters section of The Seattle Times on March 15, 2020. Seattle is in King County, Washington, the epicenter of the first outbreak of Covid19 in the United States, and the first county to enlist its entire population in helping to slow the virus’ spread.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Corona

Image from the CDC of Corona virus

A new life form in our midst is occupying our attention, showing what something infinitesimally small can do to our whole world—revealing the cracks and the strengths, asking us to ground and relax instead of adding to the spreading fear. In my own ponderings over the last several days, here’s what has emerged.

How long can I hold my breath?

Not long enough to wait this out.

Our lungs take in so many things with air.

Eyes, nose, mouth—

all inward facing portals to mortality.

Changing how we approach each other

or refuse to,

we’re already inventing new hello’s,

foregoing handshakes and hugs

to let our shoes kiss,

our elbows touch.

We might bob our heads

or puff up our chests like pigeons.  

Or pirouette like five-year-olds in tutus.

Maybe more of us will bow.

Meanwhile we wait, we watch,

we stock up,

we hunker down.  

We try not to overreact.

This isn’t, after all, smallpox.

It isn’t Bubonic plague.  

It’s just…enough.   

Who knew it would start so simply?

Who knew the universe was listening

when we began to define success

as “going viral”?

This taste of what “we’re all connected” means—

is it the slap that will wake us?

Or a kick before a series of body blows.

A timely stress test of global systems,

like water flushed through aging pipes?  

Or a frightening one—

pressurized propane seeking the weakest weld.

We know so little yet.

This might not be temporary.

A new flu with a higher death rate

than we’re used to—

a new incentive to work together

but stay apart?

Consider how untrained we are in vigilance.

Especially about something we can’t see.

Biology is miraculous and ruthless.

Which are we?

Paper masks are nearly useless if you’re well.  

If you’re ill, they help safeguard those around you.  

May we greet the face behind each mask.

And eye to eye, across the prescribed distance,

say “Thank you and Godspeed,”

not “Go away.”

Where soap and water replace holy water,

let us bless them.

As we wash our hands

and count the seconds to be thorough,

let that counting become holy in its way.

Just as celebrants wash their hands

before the main show of a ritual,

let our hands summon us

to presence and to patience,

over and over and over and over again,

prayer wheels,

permanently attached at the wrists.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Belief, exploding hearts, and holy fire

During a zoom call with my friend Maria yesterday, we both realized that a missing ingredient in our intentions for the future was belief that what we wanted to happen could happen. We hadn’t yet chosen to believe, so we resolved to do so.

Sounds straightforward, right?

But only minutes after our conversation ended, as I sat quietly considering my own doubts and beliefs—my sense of what is and isn’t possible for me—I found myself gasping and sobbing as a flood of energy and comprehension filled and burst my startled heart.

This wasn’t a heart opening. This was a heart explosion, brought on by some fiercely muscular and tender thing, as if a dragon inside me had woken up and breathed holy fire in all directions.

It was a transient state, and despite the drama, a familiar one. Every so often, this dragon wakes and takes over my heart to remind me of what we can be or already are. What I perceive during these experiences is so big, so rich, so vast, and so poignant; awe/joy/sorrow/gratitude/love and a sense of magic come together, bowl me over, toss me around, and then retreat. I’m left awestruck and breathless, feeling almost too connected to the mystery and power of All That Is.

So I cry hard for a while—the kind of waterfall crying that gives way to lightness (go, endorphins!) after soaking a heap of tissues. Then I settle back into normal humanness and the blindered density of 3-D life, until the next time.

To readers whose medical or psychiatric Spidey Senses might be buzzing: I’m not talking about seizures, psychotic or manic episodes, or the like. These are glimpses into reality, not breaks from it.

Are they sensitivities or visitations? Maybe both. The fact that I can experience them without losing touch with reality means they’re part of my way of being human—a part I wish everyone could share. The currents of love and empathy they carry are HUGE.

Maybe this comparison will help:

Have you ever felt the shock of a soul gaze? If you look into another’s eyes and silently hold that look past the edge of decorum, past the unsettling sense of exposure, past wondering whether it’s okay to continue, and on to the point of pure intimacy, the combination of seeing and connecting becomes so powerful, it’s nearly painful. At that point I know I’m seeing the Divine. Knowing the gaze is revealing my own soul just as fully to the other person and feeling how thirsty I am for such connections both reassures and unsettles me. It seems to cut straight to the core of everything. And I do mean Everything.

But unlike a soul gaze, my “waking dragon” episodes have no other human witness. And there’s one other crucial difference.

Yes, this latest surge deposited me back in my normal so-called reality, but something had changed. I’ve learned to interpret each such episode as a Las Vegas-sized neon sign that whatever I was pondering just before the surge holds a key, a code, a catalyst—something important to my evolution, something that needed a raw blast of awe and life force to knock it free and get it moving.

This time, what I’d just been pondering was how to believe that the future I dream of is possible.

Message received and acknowledged. I choose to believe.

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash.

This Christmas morning

This is from my collection of poems, Pluck Another Apple, Eve, And Finish It. I wrote this one many years ago today, and it still applies. Happy holidays, everyone. May you know peace, joy, love, and wonder.

Sleeves don’t reach my wrists

This Christmas morning, I sip tea,

wearing the past

like an old chenille robe,

too familiar to part with

but ill-fitting.

The sleeves don’t reach my wrists

the way they used to.

My arms keep growing.

Photo by Quincy Alivio on Unsplash

Stars

In the silence of remembering, I breathe and choose to focus on the sensations that breath brings into my body. And on the sensations’ shape…the gentle wave rolling from belly to ribcage as my lungs fill and empty. I notice how the lungs frame my heart like wings, how they swell and ease in rhythmic slow motion to sustain the heart’s lift and, therefore, my own. How they raise me up.

Next, I remember my feet, my hands, and bring breath into them until they warm with my intention and attention.

It’s when I invite breath into my wrists and ankles that something new comes in. As I’m appreciating their complexity—the unsung strength and delicacy of their bones and connective tissues, the way ankles make it possible to walk the Earth, and wrists make it possible to hold and manipulate and make and shape almost anything we can imagine—I start praising them and all of the body’s other connections: the hip joints, knees, shoulders, vertebrae. And the whole spine—queen suspension bridge and central channel uniting the upper and lower realms.

And it occurs to me, as such things sometimes do, that if we could light up all those remarkable junctions—all of our bodies’ connectors between long bones, all the places and joints that allow us to bend, pivot, and dance—and highlight only those, so that the rest of each of us was veiled in black…

…we would all look like constellations of stars.

Photo by Guillermo Ferla on Unsplash

“We are the river of gold”

Don Paulson’s “River of Gold” arrived on a postcard a while back. Anne Stadler sent it to us from the IN & OUT installation at the Vashon Heritage Museum on Vashon Island near Seattle, so we could pass the message along. IN & OUT chronicles the LGBTQ community on Vashon. The installation’s co-producer, Stephan Silha, generously provided the clear image we’ve used here.

I’d never heard of Don Paulson, so I did a little sleuthing.

Don Paulson, 1933-2012, chronicled Seattle’s Gay culture, especially the drag scene, and coauthored an in-depth look at the drag culture in Seattle in the 1950’s and 60’s, “An Evening at the Garden of Allah: A Gay Cabaret in Seattle.” The text of the postcard appears in quotes with no attribution in an article he wrote years ago for Seattle Gay News. My best guess is he was quoting someone from the book.   

These are strange times for humankind and Earth. I get can as caught up as anyone in grief and dismay. But when I think about how much has changed in the 50 years since the Stonewall riots in San Francisco surfaced a gay rights movement that had been slowly building up behind the scenes, I remember that some things have absolutely gotten better. Hugely, ginormously, heart-openingly better.

Thanks to the Gay Rights movement and its transition to LGBTQ advocacy, straight and binary-minded people like me are beginning to understand how richly varied human genders and gender identities actually are. We’re being shown more colors for the palette, more flowers for the garden, more lights for the show. Fifty years are barely a heartbeat in human history. And think of what’s been accomplished in that time.

I’m not claiming LGBTQ rights are secure. There are still places, communities, cultures, religions, and whole countries where being gay or someone other than cisgender can mean death, abuse, or abandonment. But the past 50 years have proven that vast numbers of human beings can learn, change, adapt, deepen, and open.

Don Paulson may have been thinking specifically of the gay community when he wrote, “We are the river of gold.” I believe his message applies to all of us, now.

“Who would think that we would drink from the river of gold. That we, too, may dine in the light and sleep safely through the night. Who would think a lowly stream could sweeten a bitter sea. We have the right to win the fight for justice and liberty. We are the land. We are the free. We are the river of gold.” — Don Paulson