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

Back to wonder

I’ve spent the last few nights at a friend’s place while his housemate is away. I’m sleeping in a guest room filled with his housemate’s books—five bookcases, thirty-three shelves, filled with titles I’d have once found thrilling. It’s one of the best personal collections I’ve ever seen of books on energy work, consciousness, archetypes, stages of growth and maturation, esoteric and channeled teachings, psychology, mythology, mystery schools, healing, and the human brain. But today it all feels to me like ballast. 

I’m a book person with a thirsty mind. I grew up in a house full of books and became a bookworm as soon as I learned to read. After all these years, a house without books still feels more like a hotel suite to me than a home. So it’s not the presence of books, per se, that’s bothering me. Plus, being among books such as these used to be heaven to me. What has shifted? Maybe it’s simply that the room is small, the bookcases are made of dark and heavy wood, and the books aren’t mine to browse. But I sense something else at work here.

I’ve always loved ideas, analysis, speculation—wondering about what we are, how we work, how we evolve, or don’t. Plus, I’m a writer and editor; word skills are a key professional credential in my world. This collection, however, feels like a 60-pound backpack on a day hike, or too many blankets on a soft spring night. The sheer weight of so many ideas meant to uplift us, so many confident assertions and instructions and results of research into the ways and whys of being—the weight of so much evidence of our relentless drive to know. Once, I’d have wanted to devour nearly every book here. Now all I want is a bottle of water, a sun hat, and good shoes for the day hike, and when it’s time to sleep, one or two good blankets, not a mountain of them.

We don’t know the way things are. We barely know the way we are. Yet in book after book after book, we claim so much knowledge. Why?

I don’t ask that idly. I’ve lived by why. I’ve long been driven by curiosity. I’ve a mountain of “spiritual” books waiting for me back home, all books I love or may yet come to love. But do I still need them to show me what’s essential now and what has always mattered? 

In meditation, when my mind quiets enough to allow Presence to greet, enter, and fill me, it’s not more analysis, more speculation, more explanations that I’m offered. It’s more Love. It’s that simple. Love. Love that inspires me—to move, to acknowledge, to create something, to share.

I appreciate the irony that one of our best ways to share and inspire Love is through books. I’ve written one and I suspect I’ll write more. But the Presence that meets me is wordless. It’s an intimate sense of the life in everything. Sometimes I call it “the hum.” And it doesn’t speak. 

A few years ago I noticed that I was learning more from noticing than from studying. Take photosynthesis, for example. The mind-boggling miracle of photosynthesis that’s occurring in the leaves of the tree next to where I sat this morning isn’t explained in any of my books. They do describe the photosynthetic process—the chemical cycles and patterns involved. Those, we understand. But the wonder of it? No. And noticing that it’s miraculous, noticing what is, seeing the beauty in the patterns and textures and movements and cycles of this astonishing planet, is teaching me more than books right now. Moments of clarity bring me knowings that bypass my earnest mental efforts to understand.

I will always love books. But compared to such moments of knowing, books are like the second-hand garments of experience. They are to life what an archeologist’s thoughtful description of a flint knife’s possible use and origin is to the actual glint of light and blood on the knife’s razor edges, the sound it makes skinning a felled deer, the smells of the mineral blood and the waiting fire. Good poetry and vivid prose can bridge that gulf—they conjure the essence of the living moments they reflect on. So I’m all for writing. But the accumulation of so much expositional information and speculation about being spiritual and human seems more deadening to me right now than enlivening. Presence keeps calling me—analytical, knowledge-seeking me—back to Itself. Back to direct experience. Back to noticing. Back to wonder. 

Photo of plants by Ren Ran; featured photo of books by Darwin Vegher, both on Unsplash.

At the aquarium, waiting for a wedding to begin

This poem started writing itself years ago at the Seattle Aquarium. I’d arrived for a an evening wedding, and had time before the ceremony to stand transfixed before three exhibits: the jellyfish, the octopi, and the seahorses. The wedding was beautiful, but the image of the seahorses lingered longest. This poem is from my book, Pluck Another Apple, Eve, And Finish It .

At the aquarium, waiting for a wedding to begin

Dorsal fin fluttters
a soft wave.
Prehensile tail
wrapped around a coral twig
lets go,
curls into the golden ratio
of nautilus,
a perfect Fibonacci spiral.

There was a first time in all time
when something dropped to its knees
in awe.

I speak of that moment
the universe grew into
while its galaxies
spiraled in swept currents,
the first time something gasped
and knelt
because it didn’t know
what else to do.

The photograph of the swimming seahorse is from Pixabay.com, and was posted by PublicDomainPictures.

One more degree of freedom

If you’re at all like me, it’s your body that tells you when something infinite is moving within you. It’s your body that transforms abstractions like Awakening, Opening, Freedom, Unity, Grace, Source, and Awareness, into an intimacy you can trust.

When it speaks, 
it’s not often sound I perceive, 
but sensation.
A knife-quick outbreath
concaves my chest;
my heart splits 
and refills it. 
Tears rise and my mind weighs in 
but by then I’ve already answered.
If I touch a wall to 
steady myself, 
people who notice may wonder 
if something’s wrong. 
Nothing is wrong. 
These are the moments that make me. 
The whisper enters; 
something breaks open. 
One more degree of freedom. 
The day goes on.

From Pluck Another Apple, Eve, And Finish It, poems by Holly L. Thomas.