Dharma and Buddha nature, or layering is a form of propagation
A few weeks ago two different thought clouds clapped against my mind like disparate cymbals, but with no violent residue, no headache. The sounds — the force of each — struck moment after moment of my mind, each confused with the other, and resounded, ringing with joyfully learned, naturally moving polyrhythms. There you have it, the word “nature,” both the ground from which roots draw the substance of life and the material of the roots and tips, indeed the air of respiration.
Layering is a form of propagation, Elaine Ng, an artist and my friend taught me. When I told her about how the last months have been, for me, a popping out of a multi-year experience of bewilderment as one life structure after the other changed, some by my choice, some fated by the course of my own and others’ lives, some changes woeful, some joyful, the whole bewildering, I concluded that now, after popping out, I feel like a grown and aged baby.
A rooted seedling, she responded. A perfect metaphor I exclaimed, a rooted seedling! I went on to further describe the wending of my aged babyhood. She listened and listened; I’m long-winded. And then she said, I’m revising my metaphor. I looked skeptical. What could be better?
And she conjured up and recited a truer metaphor after all. Layering, she said, layering, which is a form of propagation.
If you’ve read or heard me speak about my first novel, you’ll know that layering is the ground I walk on, the air I live in, even — to hold no exuberant excess back — the thermoclines I ripple through when diving. (Hmmm, there are no thermoclines in my first novel.)
Hunh, I responded curiously and unusually pithily.
I said seedling, she said, but you’re a grown plant. A grown plant can get knocked over by something outside itself. It may fall over, be driven to touch the ground. In ideal circumstances, the fallen plant will shoot roots into the ground on which it lies. It’ll draw from the remaining strength of the original plant to grow again with new roots, its tip growing up into new life. After a while this new growth is independently strong. The original plant does not necessarily die, but if you cut it off, the new plant will still live and grow.
I’d never known anything like this, so I looked at her with wonder.
This is layering, she said, a form of propagation.
Really? There are real plants that do this? Is this like the banyan tree?
No, I’m not talking about aerial roots like the banyan has, nor about the bowed rooting that is part of the normal growth practice of forsythia and cane plants (mind you, through all of this I was gaping in my mind, if not on my face, an amazed and delighted gaping). I believe, she said, offering the caveat that she is no expert botanist, that “layering” implies that something external forces the plant to the ground.
Do you have an example, I asked, a plant I may know?
Time, she said. No, she did not say time. Thyme, she said.
Thyme! Of course.
So what does all of this have to do with dharma or Buddha nature, beyond all of these sharing a space in my mind, a time in my life, that morning of October 21, 2022?
Well, let’s start with dharma. I am not referring to what is commonly understood as dharma in Buddhist traditions, but rather a Hindu notion of dharma that I learned as a child and youth. As I absorbed various inflections of “dharma” through stories and philosophical writings, I came to understand it as who one is, living who one is. Your dharma is directly related to who you are, your dharma is to live who you are. This notion is complicated. It’s been pressed into justifying socio-economic stratification in ways which have spilled into brazen constraint and cruelty, as when Hindus have insisted on some version of: you must, you can only, live your caste or lack thereof — your high status, your low status, that’s who you are, that’s your dharma. However, in the stories and philosophical writings I encountered, there are enough examples in which “dharma” is not bound to structural position. I found enough boundary-crossing that I came away with a notion that can expansively hold a complex mess of being human. But then one could ask: do you mean that serial murderers can justify their practice of killing people by saying they are living their dharma? That would suggest a notion so immoral that it has no meaning beyond willful, contingent idiosyncrasy. Technically, yes, a serial murderer could say that. But my dharma, and many of yours too I suspect, includes stopping harm to others, especially what looks like wanton murder, and so we’ll try to find ways or support ways — investigative, judicial, preventive, etc. — to do that. From this perspective community norms and statecraft may be viewed as the collective expression of recurrent and overlapping elements of individual dharmas, including dharma elements related to loving, sharing, seeking well-being, seeking domination, seeking overweening survival-to-immortality, destroying an obstacle, propagation, growth.
But this kind of efflorescing, even rampant, dharma sounds very different from Buddhist notions of dharma which modestly propose a way to live with no, or at least less, suffering by giving up the delusion that if you get what you desire you will not suffer. The Buddhist way is taught in a combination of practice and precepts that often enough sound and feel prescriptive.
Buddhist understandings of dharma — that I draw from my sporadic chunks of practice with Zen sanghas, and my mostly autodidactic reading and home practice of Zen and Tibetan Buddhist traditions — have both attracted and puzzled me. A mystical, Taoist aspect deeply appeals to me because it seems to hold the length and width of what is knowable and unknowable, but then when I read “when love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised,” (Chien-chin Seng-ts’an, Third Zen Patriarch), I make that concise sound again — Hunh?
Well, I’m not going to stop loving, so I guess I must focus on not hating, no dualism, so all love, all-all. And from there I’m back to trying to be good, to only love. Efforts to only love mean constantly denying or suppressing parts of myself, or feeling guilty, trying to be better. Not that trying to be better is bad, but denial and suppression invariably come back to bite me.
The Buddhist teachers I read foresee that happening and tell me that’s no good either. Ok then, feel nothing, think nothing. That’s not happenin’!
Then, on that same day as layering opened up and when I was feeling a nagging conflict of “shoulds” — including the insidious should not-should — around a personal dilemma, I read some pages of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind for the nth time: “When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. … It is just you, yourself, nothing special.”
Bingo! It’s my Hindu notion of dharma! Buddha nature is living who you are. Nothing special. So maybe greedy, conflicted, unhappy is who I am, so nothing further to be done, you might say to me. Maybe, I would respond. I can’t tell you who you are. I could tell you what I experience but that may or may not be interesting or helpful to you. But if you want to feel differently, be more comfortable in yourself, I do find the Buddhist path to the root of your suffering a helpful practice and exploration. Importantly it’s a living that has no end apart from itself; it both has a goal and no goal. From this perspective, fulfillment is not a levitating cushion of certainty.
I’ve found the path laid out by Chogyam Trungpa, particularly in his teachings in The Truth of Suffering, helpful. His detailed description of the path of the Hinayana way to liberation from suffering starts annoyingly prescriptive and ends with illumination of a potential passage to clarity about who one is. Parenthetically, Trungpa’s teachings seem to contrast oddly with accounts of his un-Buddhist sounding lifestyle that apparently included womanizing and alcoholism. These may seem logically inconsistent, even hypocritical, but they are not inconsistent in the body, mind, and emotions of a human. This way of looking at it is not about justification, it’s about seeing all the parts.* Nothing special. Trungpa’s teachings, along with the backdrop of his life, are dramatically different from Suzuki’s austere expressions of his Mahayana way, but they converge for me on an understanding of life, of Buddha nature. This Buddha nature is nothing special; we all have it, we can all uncover it, and it’s not all one thing.
I realize that many committed Buddhists may find what I’ve written here inaccurate or misleading. To them and to you, my dear reader, I say: find your way.
This is where I am on my meandering way — sometimes dancing along, sometimes staggering with too much, sometimes taking the long way deliberately, sometimes levitating on that cushion of delusional certainty, sometimes the cushion collapses and I fall to the ground, and then LAYERING!
Among the recent life changes that bewildered me, my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer. She was my remaining parent and caring for her in her last months turned my experience of life from living and death to dying and alive. Caring for her I became corporeally aware of impermanence, of how life falls away from body and consciousness even as we live as we are now.
So here I am: new growth, energetically grounded in impermanence, uncertainty, and incompleteness. Alive. I can only live who I am, die who I am. Nothing special.
* Is it too much, too extravagant, pushing limits too far to suggest that you read Rita Dove’s brilliant, lovely poem “The Regency Fete” in this context?
AND I struggle with how this notion of dharma or Buddha nature can become a refuge, a delusion in itself, whether on the cushion or debauched like the Prince Regent or colluding, by commission or omission, in the collective injustices of one set of people upon another. Where is dharma there? Whose dharma? If I have the answer in one dimension, I don’t in another. Uncertainty, incompleteness, imperfection, nothing special.
More meandering through dharma, vegetation, changing light, inconclusive living
A couple of weeks after the above piece was first drafted, I looked out of my window and gazed at a tree — mostly yellow, some green still, a few bare twigs — glowing in the morning sunlight, and mused: if I am the tree, I can’t be the sun. But I can enjoy that light, let it warm me, feed me, enrich my living. And I can glow and be beautiful just as I am, making the beauty of my spread and my colors, just as I am. And perhaps someone like me will look at me and see that spread, those colors, my glow. I may not know it, I may never know that Meenakshi watched my leaves grow yellow and fall in yellow showers and loved me and felt her life enriched by me. It’s just the way I am, I live, until I don’t.
These sentiments, projected onto and drawn from the tree and the sunlight, became conscious as I decided to continue reading Andrey Tarkovsky’s lovely Sculpting in Time.
But first I dipped back into Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and found myself reading what seemed to me exactly the description of my vegetative life that morning (though perhaps not quite obvious in this telling): “When you know everything, you are like a dark sky. Sometimes a flashing will come through the dark sky. After it passes, you forget about it, and there is nothing left but the dark sky. The sky is never surprised when all of a sudden a thunderbolt breaks through. And when the lightning does flash, a wonderful sight may be seen. When we have emptiness we are always prepared for watching the flashing…. If you want to appreciate something fully, you should forget yourself. You should accept it like lightning flashing in the utter darkness of the sky.” [Meenakshi’s added note: forget the should as well.]
Of course that vegetative sharing of life with the tree came in the morning, in a time of glory and reflection. But then, that same evening, as I was lower, duller, I looked at that same tree that now, like me, felt night fall heavily. Another dog had pooped, another man had peed. A paper cup and a plastic bag lay in the speckled mud of the tree bed. If I were the tree I’d be wondering: where will my seeds go? (This tree has lovely large, dark clumps of seed pods.) Why do I even bother morning after morning, night after night? So this is living, it’s not all glory and reflection.
I’m also reading Moby Dick. Melville names submission and endurance as womanly virtues, in one of his rare references to the female of a species; most such references offer soft contrasts to the looming, flailing masculinity of the more obviously active characters, indeed of the exploration itself. So, does the tree submit and endure? Is that its action and heroism?
I listen to music as a non-musician, naively. Every listening, even a repeat, or much-repeated, listening is naive. Naïveté in listening is the foundation for the ecstatic luxury of body and sound when I am listening to music. Movement may or may not enter the act; body in stillness is still body, still hearing and sensing the reverberation that is sound.
I listen to a lot of music, infinitely different kinds. In the universes of music I have encountered — with ever greater density rushing past me, mushrooming, my body relentlessly naive — I have found only occasional spots that have stopped me short, but no, I will skirt around that path, it’s not interesting.
Sound — the music I stay with, but sometimes even and consciously ordinary sound — may be just strung or dropped notes without words.
Or: that sound that catches and holds me, that I behold so to speak, may be words that give histories, expressive consciousness of a sort, to the notes that run through them.
In music, I listen to words as sound first, and as words after. Often I barely listen to the words as words at all. This is certainly true about words in languages I don’t know, but often this is true about words in languages I know as well. When I listen to the words, often I hear just a repetition or a phrase, sometimes I hear the wrong words, meaning the words I hear or place in that music are not the words that are formally part of that composition. When I listen to the words, however I hear them, I attach conscious meaning to that phrase of music, to that sound composition as a whole. Sometimes that meaning is fragmentary and surrounded by the corporeal and unconscious sensation of music on and in the body, and sometimes it dominates the composition. Whether scattered, ethereal, or dominant, the meaning permeates the composition, not in some completed or static way, but in a dynamic, evolving, and sometimes dying way.
Returning from my digression into meaning, in the primary experience of listening naively, music as sound and body is meaningless.
This post was catalyzed by listening to the music of Son Lux for the first time. I haven’t dared write about music before this because, well, I’m naive. But some days ago, I listened to Son Lux for the first time. Initially this was an unconscious listening to the background sound of the tumbling pictures and disorderly words of the film Everything Everywhere All at Once. The film is such an eye-popping feast of increasingly riotous movement and meaning that I didn’t notice the music until the credits. That’s a compliment to the synchronicity of the music with the psychedelic movements and meanings that lurch with the characters and their stories, between bills to pay, receipts to recover, hurtling stereotypes, a stunning range of emotional content, and much more.
I only noticed the music, noticed the music as composition in its own right at the end when the score continued through the credits. Aha, this is interesting, I thought. I looked for and listened again to the most obvious track, the song This Is A Life, then bought and downloaded it. After listening to that song a couple more times, I got more curious. Who or what was this Son Lux? So I listened to the full score and loved it. I bought and downloaded all of the two hours. My first few listenings of the whole two hours in one sitting were gloriously naive listenings.
There are some words associated with this soundtrack: a few songs with English words; one song with Chinese words; the titles of the songs; and the name of the group that composed this soundtrack using original and sampled music — Son Lux.
When I first saw the name Son Lux, I assimilated the word “Son” with its homonym, “son” meaning male progeny. Of course, it’s an electronic boy group. Then as I listened to the full score the first time, the second time, “Son” became sound, and lux became the first syllable of luxury, sensuous excess. And that led to this first written reflection on music — indeed sound — as I hear it.
Madre and desmadre
I very recently became aware of a Spanish word desmadre, first spoken more generally in my presence and then directly to me by a group of magnificent women in the centre of San Diego. I was told desmadre means ruckus. The way I heard them use the word, it sounded like John Lewis’s “good trouble.” I thought it was two words. Of mothers? No, no, I was told, one word, meaning ruckus. The word intrigued me. Does it have something to do with madre? Well, of course it has something to do with madre, I found. It comes from a root of separation from the mother. Disintegration. Chaos. And now good trouble.
In my three works of fiction, all the main characters are women: two wandering mothers, one grandmother, many daughters. My first and third work are about separation from the mother, in one case chosen by the mother, in the other not chosen by the mother. I wanted to close these books, close the stories, go from heimlich to unheimlich to heimlich -- the formula for a good novel I was glibly instructed by a literary agent with unliterary tastes — but the characters are broken are broken, whole only in the luminescence of the world in which they live, loved and loving.
Earlier this year I presented the artwork edition of my first novel, Night Heron, in Berlin. My daughter introduced me, moderated the presentation and asked me how I came to write this novel about a visual artist who leaves her son for no very good reason, neither heroic ambition nor poor traumatic past. For the first time in all my stumbling, convoluted speaking about this novel, I spoke about the motivating ambition for this story. It was simple and too ambitiously silly to be spoken of before this, but there in Berlin, speaking to my daughter and a group of mostly artists and writers, I said I wanted to create a female Stephen Dedalus, as in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I had loved as a young woman. I wanted a woman to step out as vividly: the language, yes, but also that stepping out. I found no Dedalus. There was no easy Dedalus, no female derivative who felt remotely real or interesting. My own life at the time — a mother of young children — pushed me to the not-Dedalus figure of a mother of a young son, and then she leaves her son, which is experienced as desmadre by all readers, disturbingly and uncomfortably so for most, satisfyingly provocative in a melancholy way for some.
Art and writing has often propelled or reflected desmadre, traditionally in most parts of the world in the voices and through the agonies of men, often men with, or aligned with, more power (though they could and often did write about men of less power and even women). In the last couple of centuries that has changed. This change has become more rapid in the last sixty years or so as women and traditionally less powerful men — less powerful at least in the context of our long modern era of military gunpowder, industrialization, colonization, and rampant capitalism — have explored what it means to articulate main characters from their own experience of work and living in crowded interior and exterior worlds.
Which brings me to an early stimulus for this blog post.
A few days ago, biographyof.red, an extraordinarily delightful Instagram account that evidently springs from Anne Carson’s work and posts mostly poetry, posted an excerpt from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. The excerpt, in turn, quotes Henri Bachelin on the conjuring of myth - involving “tragic cataclysms” of the past, and ends of times — around winter hearths. Evidently this conjuring comes from men, most definitely not old women who tell “fairytales.” Bachelard’s and Bachelin’s lovely words inscribe the space in which old masculinist myths can loom. Their words projected to me a willfully blind desire for understanding that penetrates “the end,” that grandly foresees its own tragic failure. I refused this space and asked myself, what larger space do I make, what poetics if life is the hurling of oneself — whether slowly, grandly, or awkwardly — against the hard transparency of end? What poetics, what space for people living splintered lives — loving, working, laughing, living — and expiring despite themselves, where narratives of yawning pasts and distant ends are often unheeded?
Yes, yes, I know, Shakespeare, Dickens, the novel. And, yes, how does this relate to madre and desmadre, apart from the obvious gender stuff. Well, yes, the obvious gender stuff is key.
Madre, a trope for connection, with all its connotation of home, gathering, shared food, shared corporeality, cooking, fire, transformation, sometimes even hearth. Complaints, shush, small tales, snoring, reaching into “forces and signs” by women and men. Desmadre, inside and outside. Inside and outside bodies, inside and outside that gathering at the hearth, inside and outside the home, heimlich always roughly pixilated, parts spinning into unheimlich, unheimlich pressed into new forms of homeliness by personal and collective intimacies.
From trope to subject, madre to desmadre, women and the historically less powerful are saying we will occupy this hearth, we will make the space under crossing highways a hearth, we will make it a space for life, for gathering, for drought-resistant plants, for art that exclaims “we are here!”, and here encompasses the beauty and pain of our pasts, the struggles and dancing of our present, and our shared future of children, life, and death, all of that!
I didn’t know how this blog post would spin out. It is still spinning within, tilting into aliveness, spilling into uncertainty.
Madre and desmadre are mythical figures of worlds that have long been binary-gendered. As binary gender dissolves into two figures in a much larger flow, or if gestation becomes incubation in genderless machinery and separation becomes connection to a human, will madre — traditionally female, one of a binary, bloody and corporeal — change? I don’t know. The best I can do for now is to observe that the binary was always only a device, a tool for organizing rhetoric and meaning. The non-binary has always been available, residing in both vast madre and desmadre. Reflecting on the mothers in my fiction and the space-making event alluded to above, madre also seems to connote separation and desmadre also connotes connection, gathering.
For the last four months, I have been in Chennai, living with my brother and his family, helping take care of my mother who has terminal cancer. This has been a new life for me in many ways: far from my home in West Harlem; reestablishing and deepening bonds of affection with my brother and his family; inverting more fully, with affection and irritation on both sides, my child-parent relationship with my mother; and touching that line between living and dying that is always present in every one of our lives — ‘living is dying’ is a startling truism — though mostly we remain unaware of this illusory line, and when we are forced to face it we tend to fear it, or pacify it by placing it as a central mystery in spiritual or natural cycles.
Death as a physical event is ordinary. Death as the end of consciousness is terrifying. There is no further dawn, or at least most of us don’t know that there is dawn after death. This is true even for those of us who have grown up with rebirth and reincarnation as commonplace scaffolding for being, meaningful and effective in their own cosmological register. Most, if not all, have no consciousness, no corporeal memory, of a dawn after death. Yes, dawn recurs over and over for those who live — I’ll see the sun rise again, ‘this too will pass’ — but is there dawn after death? I can have faith that there is dawn after death, but I don’t know it. I may never wake up again; certainly this body of mine will not wake up again. The hope immanent in that metaphor — dawn after death — may just be a fantasy of this consciousness, now, that will die. In itself, rationally, there is nothing disastrous about consciousness ending. Pain may be grievous. Losing someone who is part of one’s emotional universe feels like losing a part of oneself, but a self remains to mourn that loss. Injustice and betrayal may feel like mortal wounds, but short of death, a self remains to feel the hurt, the anger, the debilitation, the shame, thus to be alive.
Until my current experience of watching my mother live with her fierce energy, her obdurate independence and fierce though momentary pleasures, her recurring flashes of charm and tenderness, her sudden humor amidst her sharp changes in lucidity, until this current experience, I pacified death by drawing wisdom and succor from evidence and accounts of natural and spiritual cycles. But recently two things infiltrated my foundational calmness in the face of death. First, the smell of parsley cooking in my sister-in-law’s kitchen drew a very specific longing in me to cook one of my stews in my NYC apartment, with fresh parsley and fresh lemon thyme. My nose and stomach harked into that future: when I get home, I’ll smell that parsley cooking in my stew, in my home. The second infiltration came from Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do not go gentle into that good night,” one of his best-known poems. I can’t remember how it popped up on one of my screens a week or so ago.
At first reading the poem seems to be calling for a last barricading against death. But after my recent reading, the poem slowly turned in me. Now I read the poem as a raging for life, not just for life too quickly past, nor for life too quickly passing, but for life now, living as dying, dying as living. Live fiercely like my mother does.
“Rage, rage against the dying light,” sounds like an honoring of the last, frustrated fulminations of a dying consciousness that struggles but must slowly fade, and it is that. But I also found the energy of the poem coursing in me, and I see it coursing in my mother. Yes, there is frustration and fear as one part of my mother’s life after another slips away, more and more with no possibility of another dawn. Yes, this is happening throughout our lives. In the Japanese ichi-go ichi-e, each moment happens only once, each moment has no future dawn. Dawn, dusk, death pass quickly in each moment. This is palpable and ordinary if we dwell on constant change, but mostly we live our lives with the experience and expectation of regularity and continuity, the sun will rise again, spring will come again. In terminal illness, the irrevocability of change glares. This is gone, that will never come back. Each quick dawn is smaller, more fleeting, each smile, each lingering step, perhaps the last, each acquiescence to sleep, still only sleep, not death. When my mother’s smallest, most fleeting dawns cease, I will cook with fresh parsley again in NYC.
Is rage in the face of death impotent then, an impotent struggle against the inevitable end of life, better to replace rage with meditative calm among those cosmic — natural and spiritual — cycles? The simple answer is that rage, the full living of each moment, however waning, is part of those cycles, no false choice there between one and the other. The less simple answer — fraught and agonistic — is that each lost dawn is ok if you know you’ll see or feel or hear another dawn, but when each lost dawn narrows conscious time to that point at which consciousness ceases — what dawn lies beyond that point? — the terror is real. Palliate the terror, but the terror may not simply be palliated away.
One of my mother’s greatest gifts to me and the world is her joy of life, her unabashed vigor as she loves, laughs, dislikes, argues, fights, never shrinking, even now with her tired mind and frail limbs. I marvel at that vigor but to see her fully I cannot shy away from the contrast between my imagining parsley cooking in my West Harlem kitchenette again — a plausible future, wafting from my delusion of continuity — and her prospect of what dawn, what smells in what kitchens?
At that line between living and dying, in that gap between the possibility of parsley cooking again and all possibilities as ephemera in a possibly meaningless unknown, in that space between delusion and fathomless uncertainty, Dylan Thomas’s poem exhorts, “rage, rage.” Live now, live now! Live now, live now, my mother’s life proclaims. Dylan Thomas chose “rage, rage” — the words are mad and measured, the sound beats out, and beats against, time — but in his calling for, calling forth, that crazy human consciousness of life, he could as easily have written “laugh, laugh against the dying of the light,” or “love, love against the dying of the light.” Just live, live as long as you touch this life and this life touches you.
Age may have something to do with it, but I’m not sure.
I was safe from March 2020, even before that, and I’m safe enough now. I was healthy enough to start with, and had enough money. Two grocery stores near me were open, a friend sent me a mask when I needed one, my daughter sent me more, I bought a few, I had lots of Zicam, ibuprofen, and Vitamin C, and I live close to the river, which means I can walk by the water. I had my phone, and FaceTime and Zoom. For some months, the only real people I saw were on the streets, in Duane Reade, and in my two grocery stores. People died, many people died in New York City; I didn’t know any of them. In May I saw a morgue truck a twenty-five minute walk from my home. Then one of the grocery stores shut down, the one I favored; it had been struggling already.
I already had a practice of drawing pleasure from small evidence of life or shape: a sparrow; the magic of a male cardinal, his insistent courtship; the loud cacophony of birds in the morning; the small bumps on branches outside my window that grew and burst into fragile green then darkened to heaviness; the early yellow of some hasty fellows, some as early as June; the fall; the winter again. But now I saw and felt more of these, and more than these. I gazed at the shadow of the locked gate on my fire-escape window. I watched the light of the late gibbous moon swell until it was full through the gingko in the backyard. The plants silhouetted against late light in neighbors’ windows became my friends in the night. A trumpeter played and played and played until two or later in the night; then he was gone and the lights stayed off in those windows. I watched mourning doves squat the abandoned blue jays’ nest outside my window, lay eggs, share brooding duty, then one dove disappeared, the other tried, gave up, and the eggs dried to shells that caught the wind and blew away; in grief and greed I prised the nest away and tossed it to use the fire escape for my solitary Covid wine. One May evening, that same May when I saw the morgue truck, when I went back in to replenish my glass of wine, I found G from downstairs with two policemen at my metal-sheeted door. Someone had heard a shot. No, it wasn’t in my apartment, not even in my building; I hadn’t heard the shot, I never heard any more about it.
Through all of this my beloved solitude fell in upon itself, and I wept my losses of the past and the desperation and afflictions – the rising illness, deaths, helplessness in my city – of the present.
Then the woman with the unleashed dog called the police on the birder who protested, and then George Floyd was murdered. Black Lives Matter, the weight of history, the pain, but now we had a cause, a bigger-we though not all-we.*
And Trump amazed me everyday. This small man played the role of incoherence, instability, falseness, indeed the honesty of falseness, it just is he’d say, usually loudly, this is who I am, this is life. We had to get him out.
It’s not that I dream of goodness, not that much anymore. The world is breaking and even we in the United States are sliding into horror. Oh, we already had horrors. Horrors – most horribly of our making, believing ourselves good, or we just said that – have accompanied us throughout. Some of us were rich enough, some white enough, though white by itself was not always enough, to choose not to see, not to hear, not to smell, not to feel.
Through all of this I had joy as well: the river I mentioned, the spring, the summer; walking miles and miles to meet a friend, each weighed-down, delighted, to see the other, although we couldn’t touch. Later we picnicked in a city meadow, blankets six feet apart, with cocktails that were peddled by hurrying men, $10 for a mojito or a margarita in a small plastic bottle. What joy! Perhaps most dear, my daughter, graduating on Zoom, came to live in NYC with her partner. And then, in September, my children, my friends – Covid be damned – managed to make my sixtieth birthday one of my best ever. In the fall, I had Diwali dinner with some of these beloveds, and in that fraught and hopeful winter, Christmas dinner right as Covid knocked closer than ever before.
An intrepid friend went to visit her parents in India. Time to visit my mother, I decided, and so I followed. We’d talked everyday, my mother – then 88, now 89 – and I. We’d been alone, more or less alone, ten thousand miles apart. I flew, double-masked with NYC caution, quarantined for a week then had a test, negative of course, so then why the intense relief? Paranoid Meenakshi with her old mother, paranoid old Meenakshi from NYC.
I loved the light and warmth of Goa, the food. I learned again the joys and irritations of living with someone. I touched the passing of time in my life and the lives of loved ones there. Old friends, new friends. Cases started going up, sneaky small numbers with their sneaky high rates of increase. Most people there, and elsewhere, did not worry; I worried, but not a lot, not enough. And I did not write, I did not write, I did not write. I had not written in a while and that did not change. Instead, I sat heavily or jumped. Time was passing and with it my relevance it seemed.
Two months in Goa, during which I got my mother vaccinated and old-enough me along with her, and “wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles” – yup, I sang that over and over in my Kolkata Catholic high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof more than forty years ago – I heard that I-Park had a place for me in the second session of their reopening residency program. I-Park, the name, the residency, became a time beacon, a stable place in what felt largely like a life of uncertainty and irrelevance, though reasonably comfortable and safe.
Meanwhile, cases were still going up, in India, in Goa, which was worrying but not alarming yet. All of it worrying enough, though, that stress built as I prepared to leave and helped prepare my mother to return to her north Indian home. Luxury would help I thought, so I blew a wad at upgrading which, on Qatar Airways, meant a little room of my own, cotton pajamas, and good wine. On that plane, a 14-hour flight, I wrote more than I had in months. I felt only relief, not even guilty at feeling no guilt.
NYC was getting vaccinated! I returned hopeful. I’d crossed watersheds, crossed something, crossed over, I thought. I was ready to start anew, rebuild life with my loved ones, build community with new friends, new loved ones, get politically active again to build the world I want to live in, or at least to heave against horrors of the past, present, and future. And of course to write again. And now perhaps to find loving eyes for my writing, people who would keep reading my words, their bodies suffused with “aha, I know this, it was always there.”
But my hope turned out to be only exhaustion – from what, you safe and upgraded woman?! Even my upbraiding of myself was exhausted. I didn’t write. I worked through practical tasks, continued to be warmed by those who love me and whom I love, put one dragging foot after the other in the sand of this new shore, was it even a new shore?
India sprung into disaster, death, death, death, burning. And I started hearing from friends and relatives that a loved one, often more than one, had fallen ill. Some died. My mother stayed physically well but fearful and lonely. I stayed physically well in increasingly vaccinated, open, and green NYC, and I felt exhausted and lonely. I met and talked to friends and family. These conversations reminded me that I was well-loved and not alone, but it was as if the months of my Covid confinement – of the body certainly, but also of the fearful, uncertain mind – had led to a separation of the physical (or external?) me – “I’m ok, actually I’m well” – from some other me held in the same cells of that same body – “I’m exhausted, uncertain, alone, so what.” I didn’t write.
Through all this there was joy as well. That river (the Hudson!). Spring again. Noisy adolescent birds. Sitting back with pleasure, though still outside, at a favorite restaurant. My older child came to visit for two weeks, what joy to have both my children with me! Friends continued to love me and be loved. I even met two more men I liked well enough to meet again. If you’ve seen or heard me in this time, I look well, I sound strong, I laugh quite a lot, and all of that is truly me as well. I-Park remained a beacon, straight ahead; not an Avalon or Shangri-La or paradise of any sort, just a place and time of calm in which I would be still and deep, and write.
I rushed to finish as much as I could of my busy practical work. Person after person who heard about the residency wished me well. And so I came to I-Park, masked in an ordinary way, in an ordinary crowded train, and found a place that no one deserves, so I draped myself with this time and place as a gift, a module of life and living that is not willed, that is out of my control. In a way it’s like an upside down Covid.
It’s beautiful here, with green, green, green, a pond, and site-specific ephemeral art on wooded paths. A path runs through Thanatapolis, city of death. Prediction, or prophesy, simply means the stating of what happens: it’s happened before and will happen again.
I’m here. I’m writing this in my studio. I’ve walked many of the trails but not all. I’ve eaten lots of wild blackberries and I’ve fallen in love with wild fungi all over again. I have snake envy – I haven’t seen a rat snake yet, others have – but I’ve seen six turkey children walking single file, with a parent leading and a parent watching the rear. The summer in the Northeast is humid, so damp meets every sense and movement. And summer insects dive into my ear, not nice.
The other artists here – two visual artists, an architect, two composers – are fascinating and about the ages of my children. Our difference in ages should not be relevant, but, inevitably, it is, as we chat in a present that moves malleably and sometimes awkwardly between our incommensurate has-beens and will-bes, with varying curiosity, distance, learning, and perhaps even irritation. All fully vaccinated, we agreed to be a pod and moved from personal fear of Covid to personal fear of Lyme disease. Our artist group seems to have adopted ticks as our fear mascot.
I finished reading a manuscript I was scheduled to send to a bookmaker in Berlin who is working with me to create an artwork edition of my first novel. Conceptualizing the design and working with him has been a creative adventure in its own right but it doesn’t consume and stimulate me the same way writing can. I still was not writing.
One of the other resident artists pulled the Hanged One tarot card for me and that led me to let something go. Somewhere in that swirling, giving up was giving up expectation and failure. I’m small. Start small.
Was this what writer’s block is? I haven’t had writer’s block before this, at least not enough to be named as such. Writer’s block or not, my state seems larger (though I am small!) than my writing. I’m stagnant between the course of my pre-Covid life with its logics, joys, fractures, and morphoses; and now – is it a post-covid life? – with everything thrown into question, a state of dreamlike precarity, with an insistent will to joy, but a seductive fatalism in one corner that sometimes looks like a comfortable resting place, and sometimes is a narrow, romantic, nihilistic acquiescence to death, to nothing. I’m well in the second half of my life and Covid amplified what older people experience more commonly, I think, than younger people – mortality. Death threatens meaning.
Forget the course of it, I say. Treat this state, I instruct myself, as a beginning on a new plane, no more nor less than the last, but different. I don’t have to know what this blog post will open as my first new writing of any length and significance since February of 2021, this dodgy time of post-Covid-still-Covid. It may not open anything. It may just be a whistling not-yet-a-tune that knits once more my cut-off, cut-down selves that are held within my safe-enough and healthy-enough body; though sometimes I think they float around me in words or feelings, all in a complex world of pain, joy, horror, love given and received, love walking away, walking away with love (to quote Abbey Lincoln). The will to live, the will to love, the will to death, not only once, not necessarily in that order, haphazardly out of our control. Deflated, defeated, laughing, loving. Writing.
Hear me: I am alive, to be me, to do this writing now, committed to living which extends
This photograph is of 12th Avenue, not far from my home. This is the route I would commonly use to go down to the River Hudson which I’ve grown to love, and to Fairway Supermarket where I regularly shopped and which has now closed. A couple of months ago I posted this photograph on Instagram with the message that this is also the NYC I love.
All the writing and talking about grief over the last months – in the close circle of my personal life and also in wider circles of the published world – led me a couple of days ago to write, in two columns, all the things that have weighed heavy on me in recent times and then all the people who, during these same times, have received love and given love to me in interactions that range from the ordinary and funny to the profound and otherworldly. Over the last week I’ve fluctuated between lows and highs especially noticeably, to the degree I mentioned it in a work meeting as my check-in, noting that I was at that time on an upswing, perhaps even cresting, but knew from experience it wasn’t going to last so I was just taking it as it comes, enjoying it while I could.
Then Simone Weil’s Waiting for God fell into my hands via a recommendation from Susan Sontag from 1963 and an order from my neighborhood bookstore, Sister’s Uptown Bookstore in the borderlands – actually all one world! – between West Harlem and Washington Heights. I already had Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, with Jasmine Syedullah, which came via a recommendation from thandiwe Watts-Jones a few months ago and from Sister’s Uptown also. It quickly became obvious that I had to read these books in tandem, which I am still doing. A few passages stood out early on. Deeply striking passages have become a regular flow now. If I wrote them all I’d basically be telling you to read the books. I’ll just mention a couple of passages from early on that – along with conversations with dear friends, music, and just living in NYC through day and night with intense attention to every phenomenon in these COVID times – stimulated new clarity about what I am calling grief in a general way.
If still persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry ‘my God why hast thou forsaken me?’ if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence, necessary and pure, something not of the senses, common to joy and sorrow: the very love of God.
There is a God. There is no God. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am sure my love is no illusion. I am quite sure there is no God, in the sense that I am sure there is nothing which resembles what I can conceive when I say that word.
-- Simone Weil
To embody the truth is to live beyond the limits of self-reinforcing habits, which take the narrative of the past, projected into the future, and obscure the present, leaving us to sleep-walk in the dreamscape of other people’s desires and determinations. It is to transcend the borders directed by pain, fear, and apathy, to discover new territory unbound by the privileges and preferences that trade freedom for familiarity and comfort but pretend they’re one and the same.
-- Rev. angel Kyodo williams
With all this gathering like water in a wave, though I no longer really know what’s up or down in the making of such a wave, I woke up at three in the morning a couple of nights ago and didn’t fall back asleep for hours. I don’t often have insomnia but I’ve learned that, when I do, it’s best to “play possum,” which is to stay awake, lying still and physically resting, while thoughts and feelings move in and out. The first hour was the usual lying quietly with my thoughts and feelings. Over the next couple of hours I wrote some thoughts, not in one go; I jumped up every ten minutes or so to write an additional thought. I wrote in the dark because I didn’t want my eyes to get dazzled by the page. I did not want my resting body and sort-of floating mind to get dazzled into full awakeness. Awakeness is usually invoked as a very positive metaphor but dazzled awakeness is also restrictive.
Here is what I wrote in the dark, really in the dark, only streetlight on the page of my notebook.
There’s been grief all my life. Most of my life I lived in the midst of it, not always conscious of it, but in the midst of it. Sometime in the last two decades, while living a suburban working-parent life in San Diego, I separated from grief. My divorce and now our COVID times reconnected me with it. At first it felt like grief spouted singularly from the breaking of my marriage and family, but COVID has pushed me into awareness of all the grief, or at least has put me back into the midst of grief.
My separation from grief in San Diego was not because of any special badness in San Diego or myself, but came from a convergence of personal, historical, and cultural time within me. What I needed in my last years in San Diego was not more aware and active efforts to find happiness and experience contentment, as I felt pressured to do by the wider culture, but to feel again the grief that was always there.
Yesterday (catalyzed by the writings of Simone Weil, Rev. angel, Lama Rod, and Jasmine S, along with interactions with a couple of dear, dear friends, and my witness of increasing homelessness in the streets of New York), I reintegrated grief as a regular – mutable but constant – part of my life. In a funny way, that reintegration makes joy more possible. My hurt, loss, and grief from the ending of my marriage are real and still present, but the reintegrated grief is something much longer and larger, with many, many sources, ineffable. The grief of my immediate family and childhood friends, the grief in the streets when I was growing up in India, my failures, the grief that surrounds me now, the grief of real people in real pain across the US and world, not just those tragedies out there while I live in my bubble of clutched and privilege-guilt wellbeing here, the grief of family and friends in this latter stage of my life.*
(Now back to my writing in the present of this day.)
I don’t own the griefs of other people, but I’m in the midst of them along with my own personal griefs. Grief is not separate from me at any time, not even when I feel really happy being irritated with one of my children (or my mother!) or laughing with a friend. I want you to know this. This is not being sorry for myself, or for others. This grief is not instrumental, it is not a problem to be solved, though some of the conditions that give rise to some of the specific sources of grief are problems to be solved. My awareness of the world – joy and suffering – and my commitment to social justice never went away, but I unwittingly separated from grief as part of my life. It became an emotion to get over or a problem to solve rather than an intrinsic part of being. No longer. I can’t ignore it but I can’t control it either. I’m more attuned to, and gentle with, my own and others’ grief, rather than making joy a treasure around which I have to build barriers and defensive strategies, or which I have to pursue blindly. I’d like to stay this way. If you know me, you know that I can be rather joyful, and seek joy for myself and others. That will continue. So will grief.
This piece is very personal, but it’s part of work and writing for what I value in life – beauty, equity, justice, complexity, love, life itself.
* Some of you may read this as referring to specific grand griefs of specific people. Sometimes grief is terribly grand; often enough, in my understanding, it is not. For many people, let’s even say all, there is pain, sometimes inherited over generations, that’s muted, not even called grief. We all have affliction, grief.
Note: The title of this blog piece is exactly the same as, taken directly from, a book by Alice Walker. I have not yet read that particular book, so this blog piece does not refer to its content directly. I have read other work by Alice Walker. The story of how Alice Walker’s title-phrase came to me is in the blog piece below. As the contours of this blog piece have emerged over the last two weeks, it became increasingly clear that this was the right title for it.
On May 22, a little less than three weeks ago, my eye was caught by the tagline of an op-ed article in the NYT:* “Better to love your country with a broken heart than to love it blind.” The title of the article was Germany’s Lessons for China and America. The tag line was drawn from something the current President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said in relation to the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe: “Germany’s past is a fractured past — with responsibility for the murdering of millions and the suffering of millions. That breaks our hearts to this day. And that is why I say that this country can only be loved with a broken heart.” I have seen this phenomenon of loving, or struggling to love, with a broken heart in myself and in others, in relation to people in our lives and in relation to the communities and countries we call “mine” and which have shaped us. People who live in dominant majority communities, as I did growing up Hindu in India, sometimes take a while to feel and understand this phenomenon of broken heart in relation to one’s larger community/country. It took me layers of learning, layers of foolishness, over decades.
In 1980, I came to college in the United States, like most people having had some personal challenges (practical, emotional, existential) but generally comfortable in my external identity of (majority) Hindu, well-educated (class-privileged), Indian (heterosexual) woman. Yes, I was vocally feminist and spoke up against injustice as I saw it, but in both cases I felt largely secure in who I was, and surrounded and supported, sometimes prodded, by feminist/left-leaning forebears and peers. My first somewhat conscious encounter with what I might now call loving one’s larger community with a broken heart I remember with shame. I asked another student at my college who was Jewish Iranian whether she felt more Jewish or more Iranian. It was a genuine question and I was struck (silent!) by how much it seemed to hurt her. I did see and hear how deeply that question evoked a negative reaction. It both seemed to miss the point and deeply hurt her. I didn’t know myself well enough to know how to seek further understanding. I never got to know her well enough to come to an interactive understanding of myself and her through the foolishness of that question, and so this retrospective understanding on my part is still partial. Her understanding may or may not coincide with mine.
Fast forward to the mid-nineties. I was waiting for my older daughter’s pre-school day to close, just sitting in some random outside space when I was joined by some random man. We started chatting. It turned out he was Jewish and had grown up in Russia. I don’t remember the details of the conversation. He was an erudite and eloquent man and we spoke about Russian literature and music. He knew a lot more than me, which I always love. I don’t remember any details. What I do remember is how deeply he loved Russian literature and music and how much he hated Russia.
When I read Roger Cohen’s May 22 piece, I recognized what Steinmeier said. I’m not sure all Germans consciously feel what he expressed, but the question of how you love your country and by extension yourself is a live one for all Germans since WWII, I believe. It took the Holocaust and WWII to make that majority community contend with its own broken heart, to feel the violence embedded in who it is, to see that violence, to face the emotional violence that it has generated and potentially generates, and to struggle with how to love and to love itself with that broken heart. I use the collective “majority community” and the impersonal “it,” but this plays out in individual people, individual hearts, each in its own way.
Usually when emotional violence is committed – often enough but not always accompanied by physical violence – the bulk of the resulting emotional work is left to those who suffered and survived the violence, with such effects extending to their loved ones, their descendants, and their communities. The experience of emotional violence and its effects are most obvious in, and to, those who are on the receiving end of such violence, but it also affects, profoundly, the soul and integrity of everyone in that system, whether direct perpetrators, witnesses, bystanders, or those who turn away, dissociate themselves.
Fast forward again to about two weeks ago. Angry, heartbroken, and feeling helpless after the video of Amy Cooper in Central Park and with news breaking on the killing of George Floyd by a police officer openly in the presence of other police officers and ordinary people – neither of these new or unusual events – I was conversing with a writer friend, thandiwe Watts-Jones. I spoke about my own anger and heartbreak. I mentioned the Roger Cohen article and the Steinmeier quotation, focusing on the phase “this country can only be loved with a broken heart,” and she pointed out that Alice Walker had written, “the way forward is with a broken heart.” Of course.
Today, I am a citizen of the United States of America. I have lived in this country for forty years, about two-thirds of my life. I have been a citizen for a little over fifteen years. I love this country and I am deeply critical about many things here: many of our policies, our current President, the stark structural inequities of our society and economy; and our resistance to facing the physical and emotional violence, particularly to Native Americans and African Americans, that is centrally part of our heritage. I love the music and artistic work of Americans.** I love the brashness of American culture. I love the way Americans come from all over the world, as a result of which we live with immense complexity. I am proud of the stated Constitutional commitment to “freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.” I became a citizen when I realized that while I am very opinionated politically, I had never voted in any country. I left India before I started voting, and then for more than two decades lived in the United States as a “legal alien.” What this meant was I referred to “you Indians” when I criticized something in India, and “you Americans” when I criticized something in the US. One of the central reasons I became a citizen was to hold myself politically accountable. I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, but I am accountable for the government of the United States.
From that sense of political accountability I have grown to know that, as an American, as a citizen of the United States, I also hold accountability for the history of the United States, for what it means to be American, including the hegemonic intonation of “American,” and including the emotional and physical violence of my heritage as an American. What I am as an American today, even being a relatively recent immigrant of color, is also founded on dispossession of Native Americans and the continuous weave of slavery, racism, and anti-Blackness in our history.
For several centuries until right now in 2020, we Americans have allowed African-Americans to carry disproportionately the risk of death and other physical violence as well as most of the emotional burden of slavery, racism, and anti-Blackness in our culture. Some form of color- and race-related anger and heartbreak is chronically part of African-American lives. African-American writers and speakers have told us this repeatedly. They’ve told us how their children are taught to watch out for and avoid the risk of being killed, and to expect and overcome risk of humiliation, all this only because of their “color” and “race.” And they’ve taught themselves and their children how to love themselves in the face of indignity that is often intended, sometimes unwitting, how to love themselves and this country with a broken heart.
One outcome is that African-Americans have done some of the most extraordinary soulwork of any group of people at any time in history.*** The rest of us – not just Americans, the world! -- have drawn on their soulwork, expressed in music, writing, art, and inspirational leadership. Martin Luther King Jr, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglas, Oprah Winfrey, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, bell hooks, J. Saunders Redding, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, Ishion Hutchinson, Jesmyn Ward, Kendrick Lamar, Nina Simone, Gil Scott Heron, Shirley Horn, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Abbey Lincoln, Jimi Hendrix, Janelle Monae, John Legend, Meshell Ndegeocello, Kamasi Washington, Regina Carter, Noname, Chance the Rapper, Tierra Whack, William H. Johnson, Betye Saar, Romare Bearden, Bisa Butler, Nari Ward, Ja’Tovia Gary, Spike Lee, Simone Leigh, Jeremy O. Harris, Lupita Nyong’o. I could go on. I know some of the work of every one of these people. These are just a few of the African-Americans whose work I have experienced as immensely generous to me and to the world. This brief video made by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre illustrates what I am trying to tell you in this paragraph better than anything I can say.****
Last Christmas, I gave my two daughters Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, in part because they might learn something about being American and being feminist, but mostly because Audre Lorde is a profound guide in soulwork for anyone, anywhere. When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I suggested that any man should read that with his son. It’s a hard book if you are “white” and live the “American Dream,” but if you get past your defensiveness you will see it is also about engaging with the complexity of the world, about heartbreak, about loving and nurturing and protecting your child in the face of complexity and heartbreak. If you feel into your defensiveness, you will learn a LOT about anti-Blackness in the United States.
In ordinary ways many of you – across the world! – draw on the African-American lyrics and music of spirituals, blues, jazz, soul, and rap to engage and understand your own heartbreaks.
African-Americans have done the bulk of the emotional work of our country for too long. Over the last few weeks, as our country increasingly convulsed with pain and protest, the rest of us are beginning to pick up our share of the emotional work, our share of the effects of the emotional violence of racism and anti-Blackness. This isn’t just about empathy from the outside – often forms of what Dr. Kenneth Hardy calls “privempathy” – but eventually about learning to feel that wherever you are in a system that breaks someone’s heart, tending to their heartbreak means recognizing your own broken heart, the irrevocable break in who you are, and learning to love, and protest (and make policy changes! and change our culture in fundamental ways!) with that broken heart. [ADDED NOTE: I was corrected by a reader: “privempathy” as referred to above is not merely empathy from the outside but is the “hijacking” of the experience of an African-American by empathizing through one’s own (privileged) experience of some form of hurt/subjugation. The notion of “privempathy” is described in this summary of Dr. Kenneth Hardy’s very compelling, and challenging, approach to cross-racial work. In some ways, the generalization of broken heart work in this paragraph may be interpreted as a kind of privempathy. Please see the end of this blog piece for a longer/larger clarification of what I mean as I call for this 'broken heart' work around anti-Black racism in our country.]
Broken heart is a beginning. For Zen and Leonard Cohen fans, it’s the crack that lets in the light. A week or so ago, I wrote to a colleague, someone I don’t know well, about my (and shared) anger and heartbreak. I added an apology in case he felt I was overstepping into the personal. He wrote back that “reaching out with a loving heart is never overstepping.” When I recounted this exchange to another colleague and dear, dear friend, he commented that this exchange illustrated stepping into being vulnerable with a broken heart and open with a loving heart. This isn’t easy and often I feel foolish, and sometimes I’m told I’m foolish, or even downright wrong, directly or indirectly.
If you have read thus far, some of you are probably saying, yeah, yeah, but what do we DO?!!
I do believe that soulwork is essential, but as Audre Lorde said to her African-American sisters: “And political work will not save our souls, no matter how correct and necessary that work is. Yet it is true that without political work we cannot hope to survive long enough to effect any change.” She made that call to her sisters in the early eighties. Now in 2020, I say to my fellow Americans who are not African-American, while political work will not save our souls as Americans, extensive political work is needed to keep African-Americans alive and have equal access to good health and opportunity for “the pursuit of happiness.”
Even today, June 10, 2020, African-Americans routinely face systemic inequity in education and healthcare, and discrimination in work places and public areas. They face very significantly disproportionate risk of death and indignity at the hands of police as well as non-police community members, and historically such acts of physical and emotional violence have tended to go unpunished or minimally chastised. The protests after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which followed the stark demonstration of structural inequality in COVID19-stricken New York, suggest that we may have come to a major turning point.
Some of my thoughts on what is to be DONE are below, but first a note addressed to immigrants of color like me. This blog piece is written for all non-African-American citizens of the United States, but here are a few words for immigrants like me who are not white. While we may have our own experiences with racism and colorism both within and among us, and as we engage with fellow Americans, we also own the history of anti-Blackness and racism towards African-Americans. That racism and anti-Blackness is deeply our heritage as Americans. As my niece Mallika Roy taught me, we can’t just assimilate to some form of “white privilege,” or appropriate the African-American experience of racism as our own, or just sit out of this enormous political, cultural, social, and economic question that dates back to the earliest years of our country. To get us started, here is a great letter written by Asian American children to their parents four years ago, in 2016.
So, now, some thoughts on what is to be done:
-- Speak up
-- Support activism and campaigns to change policies, government apparatus, and political leadership to
-- Pay attention to inclusion and exclusion, both implicit and explicit, in your workplaces and communities.
-- Do soulwork to understand better what African-Americans have suffered, learned, and given to the world; and to examine your role (you, yourself, as well as the you that lives out of complex and long-developing heritages). Carry some of the burden of the emotional work related to the physical and emotional violence of racism and anti-Blackness that African-Americans have carried for generations.
-- Don’t run away. It’s hard to live with what you can’t solve and with the pain of inequality, the pain of your own privilege and someone else’s suffering, to live with a seeping guilt (avoid that!) of your heritage(s). But, really, don’t run away!
-- In the end, be guided by the excellent three steps offered by Maria Ressa, a journalist from the Philippines, in the graduation speech she gave in May 2020.
Acknowledgements: If you know me you have probably shaped what I’ve written here and/or heard some versions of this. If you see yourself in this piece, you probably are in it, even if I haven’t named you explicitly. That said, I started on this path most consciously in San Diego where there are particular people who have guided and pushed me in extraordinary ways. These include: friends and colleagues among the organizers, faculty and fellows of RISE San Diego’s Urban Leadership Fellows Program particularly in 2018 when I was on the faculty; staff and members of USD’s group relations conferences, particularly of the On the Matter of Black Lives conference held in March 2017; and finally words aren’t enough to acknowledge the guidance, patience, knowledge, and loving hearts of my dear, dear friends Zachary Gabriel Green and Cheryl Getz, and also Henry Wallace Pugh who has stood beside Cheryl for as long as I’ve known her. Of course, that doesn’t mean they would endorse what I have written here. These are people I have grown to love, which is the full face of gratitude, but I am still learning, still making mistakes, still working through my own cluelessness.
* The NYT is still figuring out what it wants to be in the 21st Century, as we fell into a Trumpian age that I hope we are clambering out of now. The NYT is not alone in this, but as one of the most prominent news organizations in the world, its spinning across torment, sentimentality, overwrought opinion, (rarely) humble offering of information, portentous screeds, and occasional brilliance affect us all. After all they are not a blog! And yet I read and learn from their articles. In many ways they represent and express a swath of our zeitgeist.
** This is a good time to acknowledge that I use the word American as the most quick and convenient designation for those who seek the benefits of, and carry accountability for, being citizens of the Unites States of America and as an adjective pertaining to their lives, activities, and creations, but I am aware that in the context of US domination in the Americas, “Americans” may intone and express a sense of US hegemony in our hemisphere.
*** I learned the word “soulwork” also from thandiwe when she referred to the work – “soulwork” – of the Eikenberg Academy founded and directed by Dr. Kenneth Hardy. The word may have a longer history, but I learnt it from thandiwe and Eikenberg. I receive it as an evocative word for emotional work that goes deeply into what it means to be human, filling out and beyond, with great beauty and expansiveness, the more standard “life of the mind” that tends to get foregrounded in the “Western” (“white” or Euro-American) traditions.
**** I haven’t written about influential African-Americans in sports because I don’t watch or follow any sport, and don’t really know enough about any particular person in sports.
Note of clarification added June 17, 2020: A question from a friend who read this post led me to write this clarification. There are two pieces to this clarification.
First, while it is written for anyone interested in reading some of my (still learning/still developing!) understanding of anti-Black racism in the United States and what needs to be done now, it is addressed primarily to non-African-American citizens of the US.
Secondly, and very importantly, African-Americans don’t need to be aware of broken hearts and loving this country with a broken heart. They know this already! Their hearts have been broken over and over and over again for more than three centuries. And yet in 1955, James Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Then in 1984 he had the following exchange with an interviewer for The Paris Review.
“Essentially, America has not changed that much,” you told the New York Times when Just Above My Head was being published. Have you?
In some ways I’ve changed precisely because America has not. I’ve been forced to change in some ways. I had a certain expectation for my country years ago, which I know I don’t have now.
Yes, before 1968, you said, “I love America.”
Long before then. I still do, though that feeling has changed in the face of it. I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it.
These thoughts and sentiments have been expressed in word and action by many, many other African-Americans. So, no, African-Americans don’t need to be aware of broken hearts and loving this country with a broken heart. They know this already. It’s the rest of us (not Native Americans, who suffered violence and dispossession in the founding of this country, and who like African Americans have carried the burden of that emotional and physical violence) who might want to consider how we, as Americans, are broken. That, yes, we aspire to “land of the free,” AND that that aspiration also is based on a history of cruel dispossession and violence.
This is not work for African-Americans to do nor do they need or want to help us do this work. This is our work, the rest of us, most of all white/Euro-Americans, but the rest of us as well. What African-Americans do need and want is for us to make our American culture and institutions less life-threatening and blocking to them. This is not about being sorry for African-Americans; they do not want or need us to be sorry for them. A couple of days ago, Imani Perry wrote a powerful and beautiful article in The Atlantic on this. Do read it.
So then, what do we do with being aware of our brokenness as Americans? I don’t know. We’ll live some answers and then modify them as we see the effects of those answers. I think if we are more consciously aware of our brokenness – which cannot be erased, which is a core part of our history as citizens of the United States – we will shift our culture and institutions from the systemic injustices that arose from our violent history and we will love ourselves and others more fully. If you doubt love has anything to do with this, here’s something that James Baldwin wrote: “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” —from Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961) Read James Baldwin, if you haven’t already. Every time I read James Baldwin I learn something about myself and the world.
The focus on emotional and physical violence against African-Americans does not mean that other forms of discrimination, exploitation, and injustice don’t exist, or that economic systems don’t exacerbate climate change with all the effects it will have on vulnerable populations and ecosystems worldwide. I believe, though, that not only is eliminating the gross perniciousness of anti-Black violence way overdue, these various areas of systemic dysfunction are connected, and anti-Blackness is both a foundational element and one of the most terrible manifestations of linked injustices that have built up worldwide over centuries. I believe the building of concerted awareness and action against systemic anti-Blackness will vitalize other critical movements for change.
A month ago, as we were told to retreat from public life in NYC, I found people, including me, staying out more widely and gathering more, and more densely, than the warnings called for. Then slowly New Yorkers, including me, retreated to our neighborhoods and then to our homes. As we did this, as an individual I worried specifically about loved ones and more abstractly about the scale and effects of this impending cataclysm. My family and loved ones live on several continents, some of us alone. I live alone. Like many other people I’ve learned to increase my use of messaging, phone, and video for mutual care with family and friends. Some people living alone feel lonely. I have a very high tolerance, and even need, for solitude, so mostly I don’t feel lonely, but the current form of my solitude – distant, with no physical activity of care for others – is also a building block for my bubble. In contrast to my situation, some people and families, especially in the small apartments of my city, contend with the everyday struggles of being constantly closed-in and crowded in small spaces.
I live in West Harlem in Manhattan. My neighbors are primarily Latino and African-American. My own coloring is just about halfway on the range you see in my community. I’ve lived here almost two years now. From the beginning I’ve loved that people commonly speak to me in Spanish, at least until they see my goat-in-headlights expression.
Before COVID19 lots of social life in my neighborhood happened in public spaces. Groups of all ages, but especially older men, and sometimes older women, would gather on or around a few chairs on the wide sidewalks of Broadway or on the small patches of green in the neighborhood; or they would gather on and around the benches on the divider between the two sides of Broadway. It was common to hear music, usually with an African-American or Caribbean rhythm. Quite elderly people – some disabled – were given place and engaged with in these public spaces. This was not some idyllic world. Most people looked worn. Many looked busy. Some frowned. Many looked intent, even worried. But I noticed and loved how familiarity gathered among people who live and work here and slowly I started feeling allowed to join in that gathering of familiarity. I have never felt unsafe in my neighborhood, even returning home on foot or by bus or subway after midnight.
As COVID19 became more clearly, more palpably, a threat, we were told to stay home except for essential services (health care workers, transit workers, EMT and FDNY, police, grocery store workers, pharmacy workers, postal workers, trash collectors, and so on) and essential activities (grocery and pharmacy shopping, exercise). At first my neighborhood seemed barely changed. The old men continued sitting in their chairs and chatting, the young men played basketball at the recreation park not far from my home. For the first few days the sidewalks did not look hugely different from pre-COVID19 days. Slowly that changed.
People continue walking up and down my street, but fewer, with more distance, and increasingly with masks on. People go to laundromats, people need to get food, people need to get away from crowded homes, and people – essential workers – go to work. Over the last few weeks most of what I see is from my closed second-floor window (it’s still cold in NYC) or on my walks to the grocery store or post box, or to the river for fresh air, beauty, and also to be with people though we keep our distance. Last Saturday, a young man, a stranger, delivered our mail. Our usual mail carrier is a young African-American woman who was assigned this route (to her delight, she told me) about the same time I moved in. I started wondering why this man delivered the mail and when I saw her again a few days later on my way to the river, I exploded at her with relief (from a distance). She had taken the day off to be with her children and family.
So what am I doing behind my closed window, apart from looking at my neighbors walking up and down my street and clapping at 7 pm? Lots of phone calls to people around the world who are concerned about me, and whom I’m concerned about. I speak to my mother in India every afternoon. Almost every day I have contact with each of my grown children who are making their own adjustments to living with COVID19. All my consulting work in conflict resolution and leadership development – in any case no longer my primary occupation – is on hold. My primary occupation is writing fiction. I am trying to get my first two novels published, and have been reading in what I considered my fallow time before I start my next novel.
Often I veer off to read and watch the news, including NY Governor Cuomo’s press briefings. A few times a day I get mired in my Twitter feed. Mostly my engagement with news and Twitter is a kind of frantic spectatorship. I look for places to donate to and donate, both to organizations that will provide resources to those most hurt and political campaigns of people whose values I support. Because of my recent divorce, I have some money I can invest so I watch the stock market, somewhat bemused. A faint guilt permeates the time spent watching the stock market and remains under the surface. Then I tell myself, better me than those hedge funds and rich people. But the faint guilt remains. I rule out certain industries and companies. But the faint guilt remains. We are all complicit in the economy. Some have less choice. Some have less effect. Some gain. Some suffer a lot more. Some don’t care. The faint guilt remains.
Starting a month or two before COVID19 affected me directly, I've noticed a storm gathering within me regarding my third novel. In the greater solitude of this stay-at-home time the storm signs have become more urgent and I’ve been trying to figure out whether it’s time to chase that storm, and, if so, where to get close to it, how to engage with it. It’s a very large storm that’s been gathering, about all of life, which means life all the way from the quivering inside from where we are subjects, objects, heroes of our destiny, and beaten down. I’ve loaded my jeep and I’ve started out to chase this storm.
Meanwhile, in numerous phone calls and messages I’m asked, “How are you? How are you in NYC?” Friends and family worry about me and they see me as touching, directly, the frightening tragedy they read about in their news media and see on their televisions. Inarticulately I tell them, I’m in a bubble. I feel like I’m living in a bubble, I say. I feel like I’m living in a bubble in a location of immense fear and distress. That’s all I’ve been able to say. I haven’t been able to, I can’t, claim more than that.
Concurrently my internal storm is getting larger and more compelling. I’m closer to it. I’m ready to start writing again.
Then, in the last few days, two things struck my bubble. Not bursting it, mind you; this isn’t a heroic story. A friend who works with very low-income women and girls in Kolkata sent me The Guardian article called A Tale of Two New Yorks. Yup, I know this, there is no hiding was my external response. Yup, we can’t hide from this anymore was my internal response, with a distant cynicism about what we can hide from given a little time and self-serving distraction. I turned to follow my internal storm.
The second thing was my experience at an open mic program organized a couple of evenings ago (April 10) by Under the Volcano, a superb international writing workshop program in Tepoztlan, Mexico which I had attended in 2018. When the announcement and invitation to sign up arrived in my inbox, I immediately responded and got a spot. In Tepoztlan, two years ago I did my first open mic reading; I chose an excerpt from my first novel, narrating the main character’s frenzied turning inside out while painting. At that time I was in the beginning stages of my second novel, so for April 10’s open mic I decided to read an excerpt from my second novel which is about memory, identity, and the internet. The novel is also about love, anger, and difference, but for my three-minute slot I chose a piece that is rollickingly about coding, gaming, hacking, and AI. I love that piece, I still do. But when I heard a young woman in the Bronx read her piece I hit my bubble. Inside, outside, all of me hit my bubble. In and after a texting exchange with another participant after the open mic program, I continued to bounce in and off my bubble.
Then, yesterday, another friend sent me the same Guardian article referenced above. With the repetition and given my experience at the UTV open mic, just knowing that two New Yorks exist, already knowing, did not exhaust my internal or external response. I immediately wrote the paragraph below and sent it to the friend who’d just sent me the article and a few others.
This is at the core of my bubble: “The public advocate pointed out that 79% of New York’s frontline workers – nurses, subway staff, sanitation workers, van drivers, grocery cashiers – are African American or Latino. While those city dwellers who have the luxury to do so are in lockdown in their homes, these communities have no choice but to put themselves in harm’s way every day.” I see that every day in my neighborhood. I know that my going out won’t help, in fact by increasing density will raise risk for everyone. So I stay home, doing work nonessential for my city in crisis, in many ways unconnected to my city in crisis, in some ways – if I gain from that benighted stock market – gaining, how can that be possible, gaining while my city is in crisis. The question is how do I connect my work, my living with this reality: how do I connect life inside me – that storm gathering – with life outside me?
This blog post is one start to addressing that last question, amplifying the question, looking at how it rises both outside and inside me. I do not touch the distress of my city directly, but, in my bubble, I am part of it.
This is not an ending. There is no resolution here. The inequities that exacerbated the unevenness of tragedy in my city existed before COVID19. The communities that have been asymmetrically affected by illness and death are likely also to be least helped by recovery efforts, least strengthened for the longer term. I can’t just be appalled. I can’t forget. This is a long game, not a short-term wringing of hands.
Added perspective: This blog post focuses on my bubble in NYC where I live, but the bubble phenomenon is countrywide, worldwide. In the U.S., race and color add an enormous burden, but low-income people everywhere serve more and are served much, much less.
Added comment: This was a difficult piece to write. It’s hard to reveal privilege even to myself, because a significant amount of privilege is unfair; I want to be “good.” But it’s much, much harder to live (and die! to see your loved ones die) without genuine equality of opportunity, equality of access to wellbeing, and equality of access to community resources in times of need. When I was young, I often fought for fairness, but I learnt slowly that life, often enough, is “unfair.” Getting old, I know life is “unfair,” but I’m learning that if I cut myself off from directly engaging with life outside me, I become emptier inside. In my case, directly engaging with life outside me means not turning away from being appalled by unfairness that I’ve always known; from my own confusions, complicities, and complexities; and from attentively, cannily choosing fairness and equity more and more rather than less. In practical terms, the last means supporting adequate wages and income security for minimum wage/hourly/casual/gig workers; easy access to health care information and services, including health insurance that is affordable or free where needed, but also specific systems in place for outreach, health education, and diagnostic and preventive services; attention to environmental health hazards, including housing deficiencies, work conditions, and inordinate production and marketing of junk foods; equality of opportunity in education which means explicitly lots more effort for children who don’t grow up with income-/class-based access and exposure outside of school systems. These are obvious ongoing things. Crises will come again; climate change is looming. In crises, the first question must be: what extra attention must we pay, what extra must we do to protect people with the fewest resources, in places with the fewest resources, who are often also most at risk? We must be prepared for this question, that extra. In a crisis we are all appalled. When this is over, how will I continue? How will you?
I am coming to the end of my first artist residency. I’ve been revising my second novel, Pretty Lights, sometimes triumphantly, sometimes with a deep insecurity that it, my writing, will never be widely liked. I’ve also been drawing, at first as play, then increasingly with a seriousness that I have grown to cherish. And I’ve been walking a lot, on an average three miles a day. I had not known that a residency could be a space of such creative work and beauty.
Four weeks ago, I flew into SFO and was driven here along with another artist, Beatrice Pediconi, a visual artist. On that drive she said two things that foresaw the shape and future of this residency for me. First, somewhat sternly, or perhaps she was just tired from our long and delayed flights from New York, she said that artists are here to work and don’t disturb each other. When she said this, it sounded almost monastic. I wasn’t intimidated, more curious. She also said that she does one residency a year. Now, I want to do the same.
Another writer, an established author, had told me about residencies about five years ago. They were places of work and community she told me. She sent me her list, and Djerassi was on that list. At that time, with my other work and family life, a residency had seemed a complicating luxury. Then, after my first foray into a formal program for writers, Under the Volcano in Tepoztlan, Mexico in January 2018, I decided to apply to one residency. I was still living in San Diego and didn’t want to travel far. Djerassi looked beautiful and I loved that they mix artists of different kinds. Of course the chances of my getting selected were slim, though I didn’t know how slim until I got in. Soon after applying, my marriage started falling apart for reasons unrelated to the application, at least on the surface, though no doubt there were resonances from my writing into and out of the fault lines in my marriage.
I got the forwarded hardcopy notification from Djerassi just a day or two before the deadline for responding, when I was already settled into my new life in New York City, that of a single woman claiming “writer of literary fiction” as her primary professional identity. The letter arrived like a soon-to-expire password to the new level of a quest, and I carried it like a child’s talisman, opening it on the subway and elsewhere for the rush of pleasure it gave me.
So in the second week of September, I came to Djerassi, a few days before my younger child’s twenty-first birthday and my own almost-sixtieth birthday. I had just parted ways with the publisher who’d contracted to publish my first novel this fall. It was a late – and painful for me – parting that we mutually agreed on as it became increasingly clear that they wanted to publish a novel quite different from mine. Djerassi had been the first major acknowledgement of me as an artist. Now it remained the only major acknowledgement of me as an artist. But I came to Djerassi more confident of myself as a writer than I’d ever been and I’m leaving more confident of myself as an artist than I’ve ever been.
My decision to withdraw my book from Speaking Tiger was remarkably without rancor. The decision was clear. I am not averse to further revision or editing, but I know now, quite profoundly, that I can only revise for a better version of my novel, not simply for a novel the publisher wants to publish. One day those will coincide for my work, but at this time Speaking Tiger and Night Heron are not a match.
I came to the Artists’ House, the main house with old rooms, shared bathrooms, a lovely large kitchen, and views of forest, redwoods, ocean, dry grasslands, and variegated hills.
The beauty starts off stunning as I drink my coffee on the deck in the morning, enwraps me through the day, especially on my long hikes, and closes with spectacular sunsets almost every evening. The few days we had a foggy cover come in from the ocean, the greens turned dull and a kind of gloaming settled on the day. I came to expect day after day of light, shadows, shapes, nature, and art.
My last new walk – also beautiful, though the most ordinary, indeed the most dull – made me realize how addicted I’ve become to the quiver of sensory, intellectual, and emotional response to striking beauty. This addiction and its sources have run through my knowing and claiming every part of my creative work here – dreaming, writing, revising, drawing, experiencing shame, speaking about shame, researching my next residency, planning my next round of submissions, staring at the breeze – as work.
Every one of us here worked. To my knowledge, every one of us worked every day, including over weekends. This was not vacation, nor was it a retreat from work. It wasn’t put-your-head-down-and-create-a-monetizable-product work, though all of us would want to earn from our art and for some of us art is the primary source of their income. It wasn’t work simply aimed at an externally demanded deliverable,* though all of us would want others to read, or see, or hear, or watch our work and feel some of what drives us to make it, perhaps remake it from their own history of being, perhaps think something new, jumping off a moment of the phenomenon of our work, and jumping into some wide mindscape of their own knowledge. Here at Djerassi more than ever, I deeply sensed, felt, and recognized how in the quivering process of creative work, art connects the deeply introspective – the interior and idiosyncratic space of living, being, sensing, feeling – with the world of historical time, of physical phenomena, of conventional forms and social understanding, and of the imprecise emotional lives of sentient beings who live together.
The Djerassi program gave me almost constantly beautiful space and expansive time. Among other goodies, Chef Dan cooked us dinner every weekday evening, and our fridges, fruit baskets, and bread baskets were always full. My ten fellow artists – three visual artists, a composer, a choreographer, and five other writers, including a poet and a playwright – helped make this an intensely creative workspace for me, one of productive solitude as well as sometimes easy, sometimes intense interaction; artists at work as well as a community of artists. My fellow writers challenged me shockingly, shockingly productively. I am particularly grateful to the visual artists for letting me see some of what they see. And quite apart from the space and time it gave us, I am grateful to the program for inviting us to conceptualize an outdoor artwork (which I greedily assumed extended to me, a writer) as well as requesting from us an “artist’s page” as a small representation of the two-way gift between the program and each of us.
These invitations led me first to conceptualize a Brutalist window – mimicking a window of The Met Breuer building – between the Djerassi junkyard and the forest beyond it, a reflection on the ineluctable immanence of two sides, indeed of a general integration. In this piece and three more that followed, I experimented with visually representing some passages of my writing. Emboldened by these efforts, I then experimented with creating a visual piece with no connection to my writing, indeed with no prior content intention at all. To me this piece is naïve art and delightful.
Djerassi has been a place where I can work with intensity, seriousness, excess, and naivete. In many ways, my time at Djerassi was rather like falling in love for the first time.
I close with deep thanks: to the Djerassi program for selecting me and placing me with this group of artists at this time; to my fellow artists for introducing me to new ways of thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, grieving, and even laughing. I loved the mountain lion spirit that came into our group early, and then stayed with us. And, of course, many, and big thanks to all of you – artists and staff – for making my birthday this year one of the best ever!
Below are some photographs of wild life and cattle who also charmed and shaped my life at Djerassi. And at the end are two videos that convey sounds of the wind when it blows. .
* Some of the artists worked to deliver on commissions.