Pandemic as Liminal Space
My uncle claims he can tell if someone is a Protestant or a Catholic by looking at the length of their toes. He’s a history professor who specializes in the Protestant Reformation, and when I was younger he used to regale us over holiday dinners with religious propositions like corn and wheat are Catholic crops because they require praying to intermediaries, like saints, for rain. “I am not a Christian,” I once heard him say, “but a Christian,” as if he had managed to free himself from the heavy baggage of historical Christianity and its modern day evangelical residue with a crisper, more courtly version. To this day he continues to play Christianity in a theatrical, performative way, dressing up as a pilgrim or a member of a monastery or a duke.
On holidays my uncle also liked to play something he called Liminal Space, making frequent reference to the anthropologist Victor Turner and his book The Ritual Process. Liminal space was transformational space, a threshold, a gateway, part of a rite of passage to cast off the mundane world and grow into something more creative and dynamic. Liminal space was anti-structure, carnivalesque, an afternoon’s access to a more luminous world than the narrow vision of the secular, modern, isolated, status-oriented individual. That’s my wording. The way my uncle interpreted Turner’s concept of liminal space was that everything significant in life takes place on a holiday, a holy day, where real life abides. Liminal space was the territory of right-brained activity. “Conversion is a right-brained neurological experience,” I heard him say once. “Like Alcoholics Anonymous, which was started by two Calvinists.” One had to undergo extreme ordeals to shut down the controlling part of the left brain to create enough room to make poetry. Holidays, like right-brained liminal space, were the day’s equivalent to the night of a blue moon, a time to pursue our heart’s convictions, where anything could happen, the only true plot points of our lives. All else was only survival, business as usual, getting by. I tried, at one point, to write a novel where the plot progressed only on a holiday.
I associated family holidays with liminal space — not only because of my uncle, but because, like the mycelium network, on holidays the entire family would morph into a mass of connection and belonging, akin to what Turner refers to as communitas. Communitas, Turner writes, emerges in the absence of structure. On holidays we would often rent a house on the coast, or in the woods, and for a few days to a week, thirty of us would live in a kind of anti-structural pandemonium. None of us was rich — my uncle started out as a tile setter, and the rest eventually became teachers or social workers. (My brother, the richest one among us, became a restaurateur.) But at these gatherings we would turn life upside down and play elaborate games like Aristocrat, or Russian Tsar.
One summer, for an annual summer retreat, we chose to play Egyptian Goddess. By now my generation were young adults. We all congregated at a place up north where my cousin lived, a commune and retreat center with an unfortunate name, the Isis Oasis, after the goddess Isis, rather than the terrorist organization. When I arrived the suitcases were piling up on the porch because no one knew where to put them. My mother and my aunt, who were responsible for sleeping arrangements, were still busy deliberating about how to ensure that the single people didn’t get discriminated against and have to sleep, like Harry Potter, under the stairs.
Some people were already in the living room playing board games, including Dixit — an intuitive picture game for the right side of the brain — and Dominion and Pandemic, games of global expansion focused on building railroads and disease networks, respectively. Others were in the kitchen playing a game called Quirks, in which everyone takes turns doing quirky things: one person constantly consults her feet; another spins around anytime someone else mentions the word I.
My cousin, the one who was living at the Isis Oasis, was preparing for a ceremony to become an Egyptian priest that was taking place that evening. He handed out Egyptian robes filched from the commune’s costume closet and cups of yerba mate because, he said, drinking it was the equivalent of having an intense conversation. I changed into an Egyptian robe and joined my uncle in the family room. He was playing John Denver songs on his guitar with one of my cousins, who was playing the fiddle.
Our family, smashing together, was one giant concussion.Tweet
My aunt was at the kitchen table taking little chairs out of a box. She started explaining a game called Chairs to me and my cousin. She had just bought it at a garage sale.
At first I wondered if, in agreeing to play, we were just being polite, but soon we were both absorbed in the game. The goal was to stack a bunch of tiny plastic chairs — actual chairs — on top of one another. The stacking required full concentration, like an elephant balancing a rod on its trunk. The poise and intense focus allowed us to talk about the intimate things we needed to talk about, the things we might not have talked about in any other context without being put on the spot. My cousin and I stood side by side stacking little red and green chairs as high as we could manage. At first, we could only stack four without them all falling down. But after a few rounds my cousin clued in: “It’s counterintuitive, but I think the secret is making them diagonal.”
We stacked chairs while my aunt explained to us the three tasks of women from a book she’d just read. “The first task is to sort your values,” she said, “to value your values. The second task is to collect, under cover of the darkness of the night, the wool that’s rubbed off on the trees. That’s your internal treasure. It says collect in the book, but I think it actually means concentrate, so that you can enter the waterfall of your life and not fall down.”
“I think the word collect is better than the word concentrate,” my cousin said. She had many children and didn’t have time, at that point, for much concentration.
“And the last is, build the inner cathedral,” my aunt said.
I didn’t say anything, but I put down the chair I was holding and started taking notes.
After my cousin was done handing out the robes, he herded everyone together into the living room and tried to organize an om-a-long. He wasn’t forcing anyone, exactly, but a low-grade feeling of discomfort pervaded — the sense that if we didn’t participate in every activity, we might miss out on something, perhaps an important conversation that would lead to an important revelation. We sat down in a semicircle around my cousin’s harmonium, but he was pumping the bellows a little too fast and while we were figuring out how to synchronize our breathing and oooming, his brother — the rebel, because he had become a banker, though he eventually returned to the fold — began chanting wa wa wa wa, disrupting our oneness. My uncle, his father, glared at his son, my cousin, with a look of Christian consternation. “I like to chant individually,” my cousin replied, unfazed. “My life is not a group activity!” someone else protested, but the sentiment was drowned out by all the singing.
At this point my Egyptian-priest-initiate cousin tried to organize another group activity. This one was called Fungi Bungi. “It’s like a sustainable green bus tour,” he said. “We’ll all walk down the driveway inside a rubber band, and I’ll give you a tour of the property.” A rubber band? He shepherded us all outside and into a three-foot-high, ten-foot-long giant green rubber band. The younger kids couldn’t see out because the walls were too tall. Someone complained that someone else was stepping on her heels. Someone else called out, “Is everyone wearing sunblock?”
Instead of coordinating our breath for oooming purposes, we now had to coordinate our feet. While we bumbled along in the giant roofless, bottomless balloon, my cousin pointed out the commune’s attractions: the cages of exotic Egyptian cats, the house made from a wine barrel, the hobbit hut (called a cobin) my cousin had constructed out of cob. (He had also recently changed his name to Sir Cobalot.) Amid the confusion, a son/brother/nephew, in any case one of the family’s youngest members, snuck into the peacock cage and stole a peacock egg, hoping, I learned later, that it would incubate. It did not.
We got to the swimming pool and lumbered past demurely after spotting another visiting group engaged in group therapy by the lawn chairs. They were releasing their childhood traumas by beating simulation family members on the heads with foam bats.
On the lawn, Sir Cobalot demonstrated how to play Fungi Bungi: everyone would lean back against the walls of the rubber band and two people on opposite sides of the circle would alternately propel each other across. During the game, while flying across the ring, my head smashed into my cousin’s head. I heard a big crack and crumpled to the ground. Everyone gathered around until I could stand up. “That really woke me up,” I said, glaring at my cousin. “I feel like I just drank a cup of yerba mate. Or had a really good conversation!” But life kept happening, too swift for the self to catch up or gather enough time for a concussion. Our family, smashing together, was one giant concussion.
For lunch we went Iranian: parchment-thin bread as long as surfboards; glass jars of quince jam and grapefruit peel preserves; meadowfoam honey that tasted of toasted marshmallows and caramel; ice cold mint leaves on thick slices of feta, marinating in a bucket of brine; walnuts soaked and dried again to lose their bitterness and heat; yogurt — Bulgarian and Romanian, since we couldn’t ever leave any cultures out. We ate it all with tarnished silver spoons. The muesli was the only thing that wasn’t interesting.
“I think I’d like to become an Egyptian priestess, too,” I told my sister, spooning honey onto the feta. “Why wouldn’t everyone want to be an Egyptian priestess?”
“Because I crave authenticity!” my sister said.
The next morning someone was in the middle of making pancakes from a box of Bisquick in the kitchen. A giant bowl by the stove oozed batter. My cousin, ordained as an Egyptian priest since the last time we’d seen him, and also the resident gluten-free person, was looking around in search of alternatives. There were many: maple bacon, scrambled eggs, avocado slices, white nectarines, and coffee, though the coffee pot was overflowing onto the floor. No one had noticed. People, instead, were standing around the open box of See’s chocolates, confounded that someone had cut each piece in half. My sister admitted to the crime and my cousin remarked that there are two types of people in the world: those who cut See’s chocolates in half to see the centers inside because they are afraid of surprises, and those who don’t. My sister disagreed and said she was just being pragmatic. One should always know what one is in for, and she didn’t like coconut.
“I always thought the two types of people were those who let a piece of chocolate slowly melt in their mouths, and those who gobble it up in one bite,” my uncle said, accusing us all.
“Why only two types of people?” my older cousin asked.
I had woken up with a sore throat, not necessarily from all the singing we’d done the night before. Probably it was the flu, or the viral bronchitis that was going around. Or maybe yesterday’s concussion. My brain felt gummy and slow. While watching my older cousin flip pancakes I thought, “The secret to life is pancakes. It all comes down to pancakes, to blini,” and I wanted to write that down but didn’t have enough energy to pick up a pen, wasn’t sure if I ever would again — no, that must be the flu affecting my brain. But the importance of pancakes, and not only because Chekhov wrote about them — his characters suffered apoplectic fits from eating too many pancakes and caviar. I had been reading Chekhov’s letters, and his writing infused the family (or his family infused him?), and he always had pet names for his wife, like Puppy Dog, Horsey, Little Horsey Doggie, and he always had to have visitors, even, one time, an unpleasant mongoose. Someone always had to be playing the piano. Chekhov would complain about the noise, but when it was too quiet he would beg someone to play. He couldn’t write unless someone was playing the piano. I vowed that when I felt better I would learn to play the piano to create an atmosphere that someone else could write in.
Life wasn’t long enough to love as properly as I should.Tweet
After breakfast all the cousins cleared the table. A mother (my mother) had missed breakfast because she’d been lounging too long in the Egyptian temple room and had gotten caught up in long, important conversations. Had I missed out on a long, important conversation? She scooped up the last bits of scrambled eggs off a platter. My older cousin was wiping down tables, and I wondered in my flu-inebriated state if, instead of pancakes, the secret to life was getting everything to the table on time and then wiping down all the tables.
Tarzan of the Apes
My aunt announced that she had had a vision. She wanted everyone to walk through the pinot gris vineyard across the road toward the river, picnic baskets in hand. But then she acknowledged that she knew it was so hard to organize anything, to get everyone out the door at the same time. She didn’t consider herself a leader. “Not everyone has to be a leader,” her daughter, a leader, consoled her. My mother, also a daughter, a sister, an aunt — depending on who’s telling the story — wanted to continue lounging with coffee in the Egyptian temple room, the one with the long silky curtains over the long cat-faced columned windows, having more long conversations, the kinds that can only arise in such a room. Conversations about someone who had decided to find a need and fill it, and who as a result had invented a new type of ballet slipper, one that didn’t hurt the toes. Or about the neighbor, the one who was still mad at Jacques Cousteau for suing Clover the Cow over that “Jacques Cowsteau” billboard. “Jacques Cousteau should just stay underwater in his scuba gear and not be looking at billboards,” the neighbor had said.
In the afternoon we played bridge with medical marijuana cards. My aunt protested that this was sending the wrong message to the people in the family with addiction issues, but the facts on the cards regarding medical marijuana were boring, and everyone soon forgot to read them. A niece/sister/cousin felt intimidated by a son/brother/cousin/husband who always counted cards and made her feel slow. I kept getting bad hands and wondered, vaguely, if at least I was getting rid of bad karma this way.
Everyone had such strong feelings about how to best mingle our communal tentacles. Feelings got hurt, and then mended, like on the river later that afternoon, when we finally managed to get there: one mother (my mother) reclined on the blow-up raft, pretending to be an Egyptian goddess, pulled by her younger sister, my aunt, until my aunt insisted on a turn, too. While my aunt was pulled by her niece (me), she flung kisses to the shore, making sure they were distributed equally. I’d heard her complain recently about how when she was a girl, her sister (my mother) and the girl next door would play Tarzan of the Apes. Her sister was always Tarzan, the girl next door would always be the ape, and my aunt would always have to be “of the.”
“I was relegated to half a prepositional phrase!” she complained. I always wondered why she couldn’t have been Jane, or another ape. But identities were fluid on the river, and my aunt was able to expand hers. She was now the Egyptian Goddess of the river.
Back ashore, my aunt told me about Julian of Norwich, who married a church building and lived in its bowels. She wrote the first book by a woman in English. She didn’t get distracted by errands, my aunt said. I had been complaining about the daily labor of errands, but I doubted this was a lecture. “St. Julian stuck to the truth of her spiritual experiences, trying to figure them out, even when it was difficult.”
What was that singing inside my heart? I wondered.
At dusk I saw my brother spraying down the dust in the driveway. The hose was long enough to drag around the house and up the hill a little, up toward the barbecue pit where he was grilling pork ribs for dinner. When people returning from the river walked past he nodded to them and sprayed the toes of those not wearing shoes. He’d then set the hose down to pick up the basting brush, painting on his special barbecue sauce like tar on a roof.
Someone had left a hymnbook out from the night before, and the afternoon breezes had scattered the pages across the parking lot. I walked around picking them up. They were the pages of the song “This Is My Song,” to the tune of “Finlandia.” It’s about how in every land the sky is blue and the grass is green, and how in other lands there are other hearts beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine. What was that singing inside my heart? This! This song! I felt a lingering repentance for all the time I’d wasted not living in connection, in communitas. I’d heard that the word “repent” comes from the Greek word meaning “to go beyond the mind we have.” How could I set up my life to live beyond the mind we have? Life wasn’t long enough to love as properly as I should. How could I go beyond my mundane self and maintain belonging-mind, where I would no longer be me, but part of a wider web whose tentacles touch those that belong to the people who live in the lands beyond mine? I gathered all the scattered song sheets and put them on the picnic table and placed a rock on top. I made a little vow, that incessant little vow that hovers hummingbird-like, to be more like Chekhov: Welcome the stranger. Welcome to our family. We are a caravanserai.
My name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization
In the fall of 2017, after the fires in Northern California charred through my county and destroyed a significant portion of my hometown (over five thousand houses), a therapist named Francis Weller began to lead grieving rituals throughout the region. He told us that for hundreds of thousands of years, grief was processed communally, but since we had no modern methods to process our grief, our individual grief could easily turn to despair. We were exhausted, benumbed; everyone’s adrenal glands were spent. The skies were still brimming with smoke and the only other people helping us grieve were the acupuncturists who were offering lung treatment discounts. (They said that the lungs are where grief is stored.)
Weller’s community grieving rituals were imbued with a sort of high-mountain medicine curated from his own experiences with nature-based cultures and the writings of indigenous, environmental, and theological scholars: Paul Shepard, Thomas Berry, Malidoma Somé, David Hinton, Douglas Cardinal, Jeannette Armstrong, Thom Hartmann, John O’Donohue, Michael Meade, Jean Liedloff, Stephen Harrod Buhner, Lois Crozier-Hogle, and Chellis Glendinning, who wrote the beguilingly titled book My Name is Chellis and I’m In Recovery from Western Civilization.
Weller spoke of the Western Soul and how we’ve gotten it wrong, how the soul is not singular but a riot, a riot of blossoms in spring. The eruption of plum blossoms thus becomes a part of who we are, as does a gulf oil spill. He proposed that over the past few centuries our sense of identity has been radically reduced. “We become shrunken residue as we grow up,” he said, quoting Freud. He said that we try to scratch out an identity from our personal stories, but those personal stories turn out to be too small. He sought to help free us from privatized psychology.
His words resonated, or relumed, with the part of me that understood the self as only existing in relationship, and not as something separate from everything else. But what I had never considered was that nature was also part of that self.
Weller spoke at length about grief. He said that it was a congestion of the heart, and that congestive heart failure was a disease provoked by our modern industrial lifestyle. He said that the Chinese word for busyness came from characters that mean heart and killing and that business as usual was killing our hearts. He said that the grief we carry is not only our own but also the grief of our ancestors who had also, at one point, lost their connections to Earth. He described grief as food for the ancestors. He said it was our spiritual duty to metabolize grief because grief then becomes medicine for our community. In this way we could recover our original perception. If our perception were cleansed, there would be no fantasy of individual experience.
Trauma, he said, tears us out of the cosmos, but ritual is a form of suturing the wound. Ritual has the power to derange us, Weller warned. But sometimes we need derangement because the current arrangement isn’t working. His aim was to help us empty the cargo of our sorrows and, through ritual, recalibrate the fields of our trauma, and thus restore our capacity to be astonished.
The ritual we enacted was to tell our stories to a stone and place that stone into a bowl of water. What we needed to process our grief weren’t couches and words, but sunshine and rhythms, so we spent a lot of time singing and drumming around that bowl of water. We wrote down what we were grieving and read those words aloud, in pairs. Someone, a volunteer, then carried the stones to the ocean to be washed away.
It helped a little.
The World of the Soul
The more important thing I got from Weller’s grief workshop was that our modern form of personhood was a somewhat deranged version of the self. Our well-boundaried, masterful, individualistic selves seemed rather peculiar to many other cultures. Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan (not a law office, but a trio of academics) wrote that our version of the self was WEIRD! (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) compared with many others, who would consider the notion inseparable from place, seasonal cycles, history, nature, gender, ancestry, spirit, and community. In other words, the innate state from which we’d distanced ourselves tended to feel a much deeper sense of belonging.
I didn’t really know how one went about accomplishing that, especially due to the grief I was feeling for the imminent loss of our ecosystems. It didn’t look like any of us modern-day WEIRD people had the will or the capacity to respond.
In the spring of 2018, I accompanied my uncle and aunt to attend another course Weller was teaching called Anima Mundi: The Soul of the World, A World Ensouled.
Weller began by saying that we were addicted to spirit, disembodied and transcendental spirit, and had forgotten about soul, a place rooted in earth. “A collective of individuals,” he said, “makes it difficult to build community. We don’t know how to think like a village anymore. It will require some long learning. We have to learn to think like a watershed.” Weller said that grief ripens us and that we cannot mature without a fundamental relationship to it.
“Have you noticed,” my aunt whispered to me at one point, “that at the grieving rituals, the men hog all the weeping?”
Weller quoted Paul Shepard, from his book Coming Home to the Pleistocene, about how the original human, the two-million-year-old person, who coevolved with plant relatives, still lives, undamaged, in every individual. Weller proposed that we are still carrying the wisdom of that two-million-year-old person through a process he described as the ancestral echo. We couldn’t go back, but then we didn’t need to, because we’d never left. “When you become part of the mountain,” he said, “you become part of an ancient conversation.”
No Longer in Collaboration with Humans
After the fires of 2017, climate summits began sprouting up like dandelions all over Northern California. I attended one in San Francisco, where policymakers, climate scientists, and even corporations eager to improve their reputations clambered for a platform. A number of people in the audience were following a fairly prescribed set of behaviors, from their choice of clothing to the topics of acceptable discourse. There was a lot of virtue signaling via dangly goddess hemp wear, turmeric elixirs, and the word resiliency.
The businesspeople and government officials spoke with well-groomed confidence about their successes at developing green businesses, green policies, and green technologies. A representative from a chocolate company discussed how they had switched to organic sugar. Every panel also included a chief from a North American Indian tribe. Whenever one of the Native Americans spoke the room went silent.
“We are already greening our reservations because it’s the only energy we can afford,” one of them said. “We’ll be the first nations to be entirely green.”
“In the old times,” another said, “we knew how to use fire to restore the forests and to use smoke to cool the streams when the salmon were spawning.” One of the chiefs said it was possible that sudden oak death is a disease of sadness — the oak’s sadness about no longer being in collaboration with humans.
One man from a tribe that lives near the Bering Sea stood up and smiled gently upon the crowd. “Hello, my other self,” he said into the microphone. “The afternoon tastes good.” Then he said, “People of good heart around the world are asking the wrong question. They are addressing the symptom and not addressing the reason.” He said that our hearts have closed and our minds can’t understand, and that the way through this mess we’re in is to take the journey from the head to the heart. It’s a short journey, he added. Less than a foot.
“But how do we do that?” asked someone in the audience. The CEO of the chocolate company cleared his throat and asked the same thing.
“There are many ways,” he said. “Try crying for an hour every day for a month. That will confuse your head. The head needs some rearranging.”
One after the other, they said, “We’re still here, we’ve retained our culture. You haven’t erased us yet, and, it turns out, you might need us because you’ve forgotten the truth that we are all connected.”
A Native woman from Canada said, “We have a sacred connection to the earth, so we will defend her, for she is our mother.”
Another audience member asked, “How can we develop that connection?”
“I can’t answer that for you,” she said, “because I don’t know what it’s like to live without that connection. When we are born our mothers bury our umbilical cords in the earth. But don’t take our ceremonies. Ask your own ancestors. They will bring you back.”
The next time I saw my boyfriend, Bongjun, I said, “I think I have to learn how to talk to my ancestors. Their wisdom contains medicine that we need for our time.”
“Christina?” he said, “Instead of learning to talk to your ancestors, I think it’s more important to learn how to talk to swing voters.”
“All sorts of people are writing books about how to talk to swing voters,” I said. “That’s nothing new.”
“No, Americans don’t know how to talk to swing voters.”
“How do you know?” I said. “You never even read American news. Every time I come to your house we have to sit on the floor and listen to Korean traffic and weather reports.”
“Is that how you would talk to a swing voter?”
“No, is this how you would talk to a swing voter?”
“You’re not a swing voter.” Bongjun said. “I’ve been listening to your talk show hosts and they don’t talk to swing voters well. They don’t give them a sense of belonging.”
“OK, but we don’t have a monoculture like you do. The situation here is different.”
“Maybe so, but why do all Americans keep looking to the American Indians?”
“Not all Americans are doing that. But I think people are realizing that it’s important to apologize. Even the poem for the day sent by the former mayor is about this. Can I read you the poem? It’s by D. H. Lawrence. It’s about apologizing.”
“An apology should be addressed to the people who have been hurt,” Bongjun said.
“So who should the US apologize to?”
“First of all the Native people because of the genocide. And African Americans. And then Panama, Central and South America, and Iran and Iraq, and almost all countries. And Vietnam. And North and South Korea and almost every corner of the world. So they all have to be apologized to.”
“And you think that would help heal our nation?” I asked.
“Yes, because you have to disconnect yourselves from the wrongs of the past. The best way to do it is by apologizing. You are making the declaration. ‘OK, I’m not the bad guy I was in the past. I will do things better.’”
“So how would that happen?”
“That I don’t know.”
When I got home, I googled my last name. My heart sank as I read “Nichol is one of the thousands of new names that the Norman Conquest of 1066 brought to England. It comes from the given name Nicholas. Nicholas derives from the Greek Nikolaos, which is made up of the words nikan, meaning to conquer, and laos, meaning people.”
The Earth Dreams in Ritual
One of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read is Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places, about Apache storytelling. It demonstrates how within the Apache community, landscape is inextricably bound up with the moral universe. Saying aloud the name of a place, such as Pausing at Scattered Rocks Stand Erect, or Trail Extends Across Scorched Rocks, or Trail Extends Into a Grove of Sticklike Trees evokes a moral universe the same way a Supreme Court case like Brown v. Board of Education does to an American. I came across this same landscape-infused storytelling when reading about the Raràmuri in Mexico, who, when they see a tree called the Brazilwood, are immediately reminded of the story of a woman named Sita, a bad gambler who was always in a bad mood and mean to people. Eventually the creator came along and turned her into the Brazilwood tree. When a member of the Raràmuri sees that tree, they remember their responsibility to their community.
All of these oral tales were constantly being retold within the community. They were fluid and alive, and everyone in the community contributed to their creation. They provided a moral structure that was intimately tied to the ecosystem. All these narratives shared a belief in the coexistence of physical and spiritual realities and the necessity of maintaining harmony with other plants and animals. The oral traditions contained teachings and rituals primarily for the purpose of keeping their relationship with nature in balance with the universe.
I thought about Basso’s book toward the end of Weller’s next session. He concluded by saying the earth dreams in ritual. He said that when we enter Earth’s dreamscape, we enter the soul of the world. He said we needed to become receptive to the dream of the earth.
The purpose of ritual was to become transparent to the transcendent — to connect to something larger than ourselves. It was necessary to address the daily pressures that modern industrial life inflicted on the soul in order to restore primal rhythms.
Ritual needed to be congruent with the particular psyches of a culture, Weller said. Not only would borrowing or stealing a ceremony from a nature-based culture piss them off, but it wouldn’t even work. Art is ritual. A story is ritual. The modern novel is a ritual that tracks the consciousness of the individual. How to align myself with a different story that included landscape?
The earth dreams in ritual, I kept repeating to myself as if it were a Buddhist koan. How to tap into the earth’s dreams? I had no idea.
Commitment to Color
The next time I was at my aunt’s house, she was working on her French phrases. Est-ce votre élan de chocolat ou le mien? “Is that your chocolate moose or mine?” All the Italian phrases she’d been studying the year before were now French. There was a songbook sitting on top of the piano that was open to French melodies. In their bathroom — the salle de bains, or was it the pièce de la toilette? — anyway, there were French words taped everywhere. La brosse à dents. Le dentifrice. There were French words over the mirror and on the soap dish, on the lapis lazuli floor tiles, and on the basket full of first aid for the feet.
The last person in the bathroom had added too much bubble bath and the foam had overflowed onto the floor. I stomped down the bubbles, and I saw a book on the ledge of the tub: Movie Stars in Bathtubs. In one of the pictures a Hollywood actor was dressed up as a monkey and taking a bath. My nephew must have seen this picture, which explains why he was running through the house, scaring the cat, yelling, “Monkey in the bath! Monkey in the bath!” He was acting like a real enfant terrible — “a child whose inopportune remarks cause embarrassment.” That was one of the phrases on my vocabulary Listserv that day. The other words were phycology: a branch of botany dealing with algae; hagiocracy: a government of holy persons, holy rule; Last name effect: the closer a person’s childhood name is to the end of the alphabet, the faster that person tends to make purchases. The words quickened my digestion, reminded me to try to be creative enough to generate situations that day in which I could end up using those words.
In the living room Mexican plates in the shape of fish hung on orange, red, and bright pink walls. A Mexican angel with overly rouged cheeks, looking more earthy than celestial, swayed on a string from the ceiling. Multicolored candied birdseed shells covered the floor next to the cockatiel cage. There were lamps by every sitting nook for reading. Bookcases filled with histories of kings and queens, whom my uncle continues to emulate whenever he dresses up to teach his history classes. Tentacles in all directions were touching again, like the vines on the jungle wallpaper in the guest bedroom, and we were becoming part of a termite colony. One brain. One heart. I felt myself spreading out again in this house, no longer limited to just myself. “Things are themselves only as they belong to something more than themselves,” wrote David Hinton. Hagiocracy. A family of holy rule.
Candles burned on top of the piano as they always had, though my aunt had recently switched over to battery-powered candles and was demonstrating how to use the remote control that went with them. She whirled the wand and whisked up colored light. Weller had said that one of the purposes of ritual was to wake up the old one inside us, those parts that do not speak English or watch TV, but which understand candles and color. Since my aunt had a long and committed relationship with color, when I sat with her outside, under her cypress tree, I asked her, “If the earth dreams in ritual how do you think we can we tap into the earth’s dreams?”
She thought for a while. “Nature is a mnemonic device,” she said. “Those redwood trees just over there are a constant reminder of our nature-based ancestors.” Then she added, with some irritation: “Regular humans take up too much psychic space! But those violets, with the heart-shaped leaves, growing up with the hydrangeas? Do you know they just planted themselves there, all by themselves? They just hopped over the neighbor’s fence! So if I were to think what sorts of ritual the earth is doing, I would say she just keeps making images of herself with endless imagination.”
Sounding Out Earth Letters
I decided to attend a weeklong permaculture course to try to learn how to sound out some letters of the text of the earth.
Our permaculture instructor, who seemed to have a master’s in punning, took us on a tour of his property to teach us “bipedal sacks of saline solution” some “landscape literacy.” We were going to also engage in some forest restoration by pruning the low-lying branches in a stand of Douglas fir. But in order to restore a forest, he told us, we needed to start re-storying our own inner ecosystems. So he brought us to the pond to ponder, to engage in what he called PATO, Protracted and Thoughtful Observation, not to be confused with Protracted and Thoughtless Labor.
“Notice the contours on the hillsides, the swales, the slopes,” he said. “You’re going to have a swale time with this.” He said he aimed to “restore our reverential relations with rehydration, to learn to think like water.” What would water do? Wa’ter she does, you do. Water people speak water language, he told us. “Water as a noun is finite, but as a verb it’s infinite.” “Pay attention to the difference between drain-age and retain-age.” And, “We don’t live in a water-scarce area, we live in a water-storage-scarce area because we put down too much asphalt, but I’m not going to argue about whose asses are at fault.” “What some people call resources, we call relatives and plantcestors.”
Then he pulled us into the dense forest. He stopped at an outcropping of moss-covered serpentine rock and pointed out a polished part. “Feel this smoothness right here? We call this mammoth butt rubbing rock. It’s where the wooly mammoths used to scratch their behinds millions of years ago. This fir forest used to be a giant savannah.”
While we were feeling the smooth part of the rock he said, “Look around. What do you see?”
We looked around. Someone pointed at a little lump in the middle of the forest.
“Is that a gopher hole?” someone asked.
“Look closer,” he said.
Now we saw small mounds, spaced evenly apart, everywhere. Each mound had contained a grapevine that the Italians had planted when they settled here in the 1880s. But during prohibition they’d had to uproot all the vineyards and gradually the fir forest took over.
“The hortitorture is returning, though,” he said, pointing up the hillside to a newly planted vineyard in one of the last remaining ancient meadows. “Consider whether you’re gonna be a regenerative disturber or degenerate disturber. Whether you want to be part of the eco system or the ego system?” Changing our language, he believed, would change the way we viewed the world.
As the spring rain fell that afternoon I watched the water trickle into rivulets clustering together, scrambling into culverts, culverts tumbling into streams, twirling into rivers, surging like blood in my veins, and felt a sudden inexplicable urgency to get to know my watershed. I gotta go, I said, pulling on rubber boots and tromping out in the rain. Water is the conductor. How had I gotten this old without an intimate relationship with my watershed?
Not Enough Masks for the Carnival
Bongjun and I were in the middle of breaking up when the end of the world took place. But it turns out that it’s almost impossible to break up with someone in the middle of an apocalypse. (I’m using apocalypse in the Greek sense of “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known.”)
“We’re only going to be friends now, right?” I asked, as Bongjun got into his truck.
Bongjun reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed a mask. “You’re going to need this,” he said. “There’s going to be a shortage of masks.”
“I already have a lot of masks left over from the fires,” I said. “Besides, they’re saying masks don’t help.”
“That’s because the US doesn’t have enough masks. They need them for the health-care workers. But we’ll need to wear these to protect others, to stop the spread. Tests in Korea are showing that 50 percent of the people who have it are asymptomatic.”
“But how hard is it to produce masks?”
“Very hard. The raw material for N95 masks comes from the Chinese supply chain. But at least China has Korea’s back.”
It’s hard to break up with someone during an apocalypse, and even harder when that person comes from a country that’s doing everything right.
The first case of the novel coronavirus was diagnosed in South Korea on January 20. The first case in the US was diagnosed one day later. On January 20, President Moon immediately sought advice from medical experts and asked every Korean factory that was capable of doing so to start manufacturing masks and test kits. Korea tracked every case, preventing community spread. Local governments hand-delivered two masks per week to every person for free. Those who tested positive received a free quarantine packet that included toothbrushes, packages of food, water, and toilet paper.
It was two weeks after the first diagnosis that Bongjun handed me the mask. Six weeks later, his brother in Korea was still teaching classes at his university, while my university had closed for the school year.
It was the fourth time in three years that the university where I teach had closed. The other times were due to fires or smoke from fires. You could hear the weary tone in the emails the administrators sent out thanking us, once again, for attending to the needs of our traumatized students. One student wrote to me: “I’m looking forward to things getting normal again.” But then things hadn’t been normal before.
Communitas of Disaster
In Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy, a book by Victor Turner’s wife, Edith Turner, she describes what she calls the “communitas of disaster.”
She writes about the Dakota floods of 1997: “The story of the disaster showed the guts and humor of the people . . . and the love humans can have for each other.” She goes on to say, “People compared it to the London blitzkrieg — this time, though, it was the battle of the Red River. The people were by now living with others, in firm community. The newly forged groups sandbagged with heroic perseverance. Sandbagging was life.” People talked about practical things — how to build tall stable heaps of sandbags; injuries; food, Salvation Army trucks of food arrived, and here the game was to catch one before it disappeared down the street. Sports were canceled. Colleges went part time.”
Same here! We had been walking along, minding our own business — too much minding our own business — and stumbled into the sacred. But unlike every other form of communitas, in this case we couldn’t be heroes working side by side with sandbags. The real heroes, medical workers, were telling us to all stay home. What to do with all that innate, bound-up heroism that arises naturally during communitas?
Improvised normality became more moving than the abnormality we had had before.Tweet
When Governor Newsom first announced shelter-in-place for the Bay Area I couldn’t get part of an Anna Akhmatova poem out of my head: “Everything’s plundered, betrayed, and sold / The wings of black death have flown by / Why, then, do we feel so radiant?”
Akhmatova wrote that poem in 1913 on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, in a country that has been shaped by communitas. I’d witnessed it for a few years when I lived in the republic of Georgia, during the years of economic collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was a creatively fertile time as Georgians reinvented their post-Soviet personalities. I’d seen the camaraderie that develops when death is at the doorstep and comfort and convenience are removed. The experience had given me an abiding faith in the solidarity that arises in such difficult circumstances, but I had since lost hope that the US could ever attain that sort of cohesion. But now, suddenly, it felt that amid all the horror, this place of insecurity and inferiority, this absurdity, this disaster zone, this festival of failures, this disoriented ambiguity, or as one of my students described it, “not pertaining to one, neither to the other, but being in between, like we say in Spanish: Ni de aqui, ni de alla,” this stripped down naked place, this “fucked-up beauty,” as my sister referred to it, this place of fluid identity, solidarity might actually be possible.
“I now identify as a weed,” my older cousin said. That condition is where many artists and other marginalized people live (indeed, are stuck!) all the time.
“We’ve got this!” my artist friends and I said to one another.
But of course we didn’t, not really.
Despite the daily barrage of grim news, we seemed to be living in the realm of the carnivalesque in which horror danced with frivolity and we settled into a daily rhythm of panic and poetry. Magical realism became realism, or vice versa. A police department in Utah announced that criminal activity was “suspended until the end of the month.” For the first time, horseback riders rode their horses down Main Street. A nude couple, wearing matching pink purses, knocked on doors on my street, asking people if they wanted to dance. No one called the police. Late night talk show hosts appeared human and vulnerable under bad homemade lighting, like the rest of us. We watched Bill Maher climb a tree in his backyard.
Every night people howled to one another, like our very own call to prayer. The permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline was canceled, and so was the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Improvised normality became more moving than the abnormality we had had before. Teachers visited their students at home and read them stories through cracks in the door. People were joining mutual-aid networks en masse. Churches held drive-through confessions. Artists whose galleries had closed stacked paintings on their porches and held drive-by art openings. My brother received an $850 emergency tip at his restaurant, which was now only open for pickup. He went home and cried. Old structures felt provisional. Rules we thought weren’t movable suddenly bent. A friend flew back to Kentucky to visit his mother, and airport security told him, “Sir, keep your laptop and phone in your bag.” We were now required to wear masks in a bank. Ukulele sales peaked.
Due to the fires, we already had the highest homeless population of any rural county in the US. (Five thousand people, one for every house that burned down.) Now some of the homeless were put up in hotels.
Germany dusted off their 14th-century German patron saint of pandemics named Corona and planned to take her on a tour. The permaculture people were posting webinars on how to create a Pandemic Victory Garden, and how to raise your own livestock on your balcony. (The livestock were worms.) During a May Day festival in Sweden, some concerned citizens dumped chicken manure on the festival’s former gathering places to keep people away. In a month they’ll have a gaggle of flowers. A student of mine started dyeing clothes using avocado pits.
Over online bridge one night with my aunt, uncle, and cousin, I read them the poem that Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, had posted. It was written by the Ngāti Hine/Ngāpuhi poet Nadine Anne Hura and dedicated to Papatūānuku, Mother Earth. Part of it went like this:
I wish we could say we were doing it for you
as much as ourselves
But hei aha
We’re doing it anyway
People always said it wasn’t possible
To ground flights and stay home and stop our habits of consumption
But it was
It always was.
We were just afraid of how much it was going to hurt
I asked my mom what kind of ritual she thought the earth was dreaming. She said, “Have you seen the spider in the bathroom?” She had cordoned off a section of the tub as spider habitat. It had woven a web and was sucking the juice out of the ants, whose bodies lay fallen together in the soap dish. “I think that spider weaving a web is a type of ritual,” she said.
You Are Not in Control
Bongjun bought a big TV because he thought that’s what you are supposed to do during a pandemic, and we binge-watched twelve episodes of Kingdom, a Korean zombie show that made this pandemic look mild.
I suggested to Bongjun that maybe this virus was a giant global ritual that the earth was dreaming. “Everyone is going through the phases in a rite of passage, the ritual of separation and liminal space.”
“But in Korea we haven’t had to be separate.”
I told him what Richard Rohr, the Franciscan friar, had written in one of his online daily contemplations, how rites of passage have the potential to realign people to the patterns of reality. Rohr had listed the five things most people learn when they go through an initiation. They are as follows:
Life is hard.
You are not important .
Your life is not about you.
You are not in control.
You are going to die.
“Is that new to Americans?” Bongjun asked.
When Covid-19 arrived, I reread The Ritual Process and realized that our family had strayed quite a bit from the way Turner actually characterizes liminal space. For Turner, the idea comes down to erasure of the individual self. A better example of liminal space than a giant rubber band might be military training, or the pause after an earthquake, when the air is plumped and crackling with negative ions and you stand stunned in humility at how the powers of nature are so much larger than yourself. Or a monastery, an actual monastery, not the Franciscan Monastery that we sometimes played.
Liminal space is the second of three phases in a rite of passage — Turner borrows the phrase from the folklorist Arnold van Gennep, who calls it rite de passage — consisting of separation, threshold, and aggregation. Separation is characterized by “detachment or isolation of the individual or group from the previous fixed point in the social structure.” In aggregation, “the passenger returns to the stable state and is expected to behave in certain customary norms and ethical standards.”
Turner likens liminality to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, darkness, androgyny, the wilderness. The luminar (as Turner calls someone to whom liminality is happening) is reduced, ground down, and the secular distinctions of rank and status disappear, giving rise to a type of euphoria. Intense comradeship and egalitarianism then take its place: liminal space is the harbinger of revolutions.
In a traditional indigenous society, liminal space was a realm to pass through to revitalize one’s élan vital, or life force, of evolutionary potential. But in our modern industrialized society, one lacking in these initiation rites, the people of structure get stuck in their structure, and artists and strangers and all other luminars get stuck in their anti-structure, and rarely do the two cross-pollinate or dance together in any substantial, emancipatory, fertile way. Without this dialectic, Turner writes, society is in danger of becoming pathological and raising a despot to lead them.
Doing, Striving, Traveling, Consuming, and Gaining
One day, while Bongjun was chopping yams for soybean stew, I told him about all the emails I was getting from people who, though they recognized that the pandemic was causing extraordinary suffering, were astonished that for the first time, at least in our lifetimes, everything paused. “Here’s an e-mail someone just sent me,” I said:
The old power systems of control, dominance, hierarchy, and greed are being exposed and seen for what they are. People’s eyes are being opened. There is much confusion, misinformation and fear being circulated, which asks us to be discerning, to not immediately accept what mainstream channels are telling us, but to do our own research, and stay open. We’ve been halted from our “normal” pace, shaken out of a sort of hypnosis, and it feels a bit like the wheel we were running on has toppled over. It’s hard, challenging, and illuminating. We’ve been abruptly paused from the manner in which we’ve been moving, all the doing, striving, traveling, consuming, and gaining that has been hurting the planet’s health in many ways.
“That’s a good perspective. I hope that idea spreads,” Bongjun said, and went back to stirring the stew.
“But isn’t it astonishing?” I asked. “Aren’t people talking about this in Korea?”
“No. People are talking about other things.”
“How are people not talking about this in Korea?” I asked. “What is more important than realizing that we are all interconnected?”
“Because we already know all that. In Korea we have had this idea for a long time.”
“So then what are people talking about?”
“How we’ve failed so many times in the past. How to get it right this time. How the yellow journalism and the opposition party are always trying to convince us that we’re not connected. We’ve been fighting this battle against opposing stories for a long time. Now we’re talking about how to act on that knowledge. People are saying, ‘Oh, Koreans are handling this virus well because we are a collective culture.’ No. It’s because we have a good leader.”
Enforced Buddhist Mindfulness
In her book Back from the Crocodile’s Belly, about Filipino indigenous beliefs, Leny Mendoza Strobel says that it’s not enough to grieve. One needs also to fall in love.
During that first disorienting week of shelter-in-place I couldn’t stop grieving. The friend who went to visit his mother in Kentucky had come from India, and the day he landed in the US, India shut down its borders. He fears he won’t be able to return for two years. “I just came to visit,” he said. “This is not my pandemic.”
“This is not anyone’s pandemic,” I had said. “But it’s everyone’s.” I hadn’t built the community I had longed for. I didn’t have a home. I too had just returned from India, where I had spent a year living with indigenous cultures who held weeklong wedding ceremonies around a tree branch, and other rituals that don’t apply here. I had returned to another fire. To more blackouts. I was grieving what would befall India. This was not the time for more isolation. My extended family met over Zoom. We hadn’t met all together in so long. The communitas of those family retreats had been tamed. Everyone had gone off and gotten married. Now, watching everyone’s family pod coupled up, I had to turn off my camera.
When we were in college we would drink and say, “What if? What if? What if?” And it worked. We are now dreaming in our new world.Tweet
I called up a friend who said, “I don’t have time to talk. I’m about to enter a Zoom Zendo. Want to come?”
I kept my camera off and virtually entered the Zendo. Incense curled over Buddhist monks who sat on cushions in an empty wooden room, but the starkness of the room was strangely comforting. After one monk rang the bell, dozens of virtual people sat together in silence. I sat weeping on the floor. My friend texted me after a full five minutes had elapsed. “Turn off your microphone!” read the text.
I turned off my microphone and cried for the remainder of the session. I wasn’t ready for this enforced Buddhist mindfulness, where everything you touched could kill you or someone else. I wasn’t ready for how much death all this was going to cause. And then I went outside. What was I doing on Zoom? Everyone was outside. Doing the Corona Waltz: six-foot radius, smile, nod, little bow. It was at that point that I started to dream with the planet. I noticed weeds for the first time, as if they were long-lost little friends. Weeds also live in liminal space: ignored, trampled on, not even seen. And yet they grow together, egalitarian, in resilient communist clusters. Dandelions, mallows, mustards — many types — radishes, curly dock, plantain, mugwort, clover, oat grass, sweet grass, miner’s lettuce. As a kid I had always wanted to go into a field and put salad dressing on miner’s lettuce. Why had I never done that? I now understood, more or less, why when the Soviet Union collapsed, the first thing Siberians did was run into the forest for mushrooms.
A Historic Election
The main thing Bongjun was worried about was whether the Korean Embassy in San Francisco would remain open during the pandemic so he could vote in the upcoming legislative election. If the opposition party gained enough seats, the progressive party would lose all the progress that President Moon Jae-in had made over the last three years.
On April 15 the Korean election turned out to be a historic one. In the middle of a global pandemic, a record number of people turned up to vote. Bongjun stayed up all night to watch the returns. The next morning he texted me the following message: “Big win. Historic. 180 out of 300. We can pass almost any laws except amending the constitution. Hallelujah! We will witness President Moon in full throttle.” South Korea hadn’t had such a liberal government in sixty years.
“We can now fix our corrupted judicial culture,” Bongjun said a few days later. We were walking along the bike path near his house, picking weeds for dinner. We had to stay six feet away from each other, but not from the earth.
I had started picking dandelions to make dandelion salads and other immunity-boosting dishes. The mallow plants along the path were taller than my head, so it was hard to find the dandelions. Their leaves glinted like green stars with small yellow suns in the center close to the ground. I leaned down.
“Could you go out farther into the field?” Bongjun asked. “Dogs pee on them here.” Bongjun blew on a mustard leaf and then looked dreamily into the willow trees along the creek.
“You are a really slow mustard leaf picker,” I said.
“That’s because you pick the ones with the bugs still on them,” he said. But then he dropped the leaf he’d been blowing on and looked toward the sun.
“You seem really happy,” I said.
“I can’t really explain to you what it means to live in an awakened society,” he said. “We can achieve anything now. When we were in college we would drink and say, ‘What if? What if? What if?’ And it worked. We are now dreaming in our new world.”
From the library I checked out an out-of-print book by Judith Berger called Herbal Rituals. The library closed the next day and sent me a note that I could keep the book until October. Berger wrote how during the 11th century St. Hildegard of Bingen emphasized the need for viriditas, or “greening power,” to maintain our creative health. She signed letters to bishops with: “May you stay moist and juicy.” I went out in search of violets and found them ensconced in heart-shaped leaves, hanging out together with chickweed in moist shade. I started making violet leaf soup, clover salads, green silken mallow water. And from the dandelions growing up along the sidewalks, I made dandelion quiches, dandelion Korean pancakes, wild weed pestos, creamed dandelion with wild onion, dandelion ice cream, dandelion popsicles, dandelion jelly, and dandelion chocolate that contained complex layers of subtle double bitterness. I made mustard petal mustard to eat with Russian curly dock weed pita pockets.
I wanted to honor the weeds, so the dishes started getting more decadent. I made chervil vinegar and leaf tempura, cattail pollen madeleines, wild radish leaf ribollita, and honey-soaked lavender flowers. And then I found the elderberry trees and thus discovered that the Native Pomos had called the area where my town was built the Place Where the Elderberries Grow. Asking permission from the tree, I made elderberry cordial and elderberry butter. Without my consciously putting any effort into it, I discovered a whole new mapping system in my head. It rearranged me, deranged me, and I had an entirely different range of vision of my neighborhood. The map in my hearthead revealed patches of wild sage, rosemary, nettle, thistle. Finally, I ordered a professional whipped cream can from Amazon with twenty-four nitrous oxygen whippets to make fancy culinary dandelion foam, but because I usually only order books off Amazon, the purchase was flagged as too wild, and they canceled my account for “unusual activity.” Amazon was trying to re-tame us.
I tried to talk to a friend while weed walking. All I could say was, “Something strange has happened. I’m developing an intimate relationship to weeds. I am eating the earth’s stories and starting to dream.”
Both of us had students. Hers were about to graduate but would have no graduation. “My students are really sad about this,” she said. “Everyone in my community talks about Francis Weller. He’s too busy these days, so now I have Francis Weller envy.” She wanted to think up her own grieving ritual for her students.
I told her how we had told our stories to the stones and washed them away in the ocean.
“But how is it tending to grief if you dump it all in the ocean?” she asked.
So she whisked up a ritual the way my aunt created light by waving her remote control wand. Students would write down their stories and bury them in the earth. Then they would plant seeds: flowers or vegetables or medicinal herbs. “They can tend to their calendula,” she said. And they would speak their hopes to a can of water, what they hoped would emerge in the world after this liminal one, and they’d water those stories with hope.