Tossed in the Waves: Bikram Day 38

Oy!  Yoga kicked my asana today.   I did two classes in a row, beginning at four this afternoon.  Throughout the first part of the first class, I felt sick to my stomach, but found relief by finding my eyes in the mirror and repeating my mantra, “I am.”  In the second session, I felt so dizzy that I had to sit down several times.  Again I found my eyes in the mirror and said to myself, “I am.”  It’s a pretty powerful mantra, as Nisargadatta Maharaj found out.

Why was I so tired?  Getting up at 4:30 this morning might have had something to do with it.  Only one train travels non-stop from Pittsburgh to DC and it leaves at 5:20.  My son needed to board it, so I drove him down there.   It wasn’t so bad after we got out the door.

Toxins, mostly residue from sugars, probably also slowed me down today.  I missed yoga yesterday because I had to drive my son’s friend down to McKee’s Rocks in the morning. And since it was my son’s last evening in Pittsburgh, and I don’t get to see him very often, I chose to have dinner with him instead of going to the night class.  I knew I could do a double today.  It was nevertheless not wise to eat mashed potatoes (his favorite) and pasta (my favorite) instead of green vegetables and fish.  Nor was it sensible to indulge in the candied nuts I make very year, or in two glasses of wine.

I don’t regret the wine.  It was a marvelous Bordeaux, dry and round and musky in the mouth.  I do regret the carbs and the sugars.

It’s true what my yoga teachers say every day–that daily practice helps the digestion and keeps the blood sugars regulated.   But it also helps to settle the heart and emotions.   According to my teacher this evening, stress is harder on the body than sugar and other not necessarily healthy things that we ingest.

Today was stressful.  Not because I got up well before sunrise; not because I haven’t been sleeping well for a week.  Not because I’ve been indulging my love of fatty, starchy, and sugary food.  Today was stressful because I parted–only temporarily–with my son.  He’s lived far away from me since he was six years old.   We have a good relationship because we have both made an effort to know each other.   He seems to have adjusted fairly well to the separation, and now that he’s in college it is obviously common and normal to live on his own.   I, however, seem to have a deep wound.  Like an old war-injury, it aches and troubles me, sometimes more, sometimes less.  I know the pain is old, not really relevant to the present.  It’s an emotional reflex, a resurgence of sadness, of loss, of inconsolable heartbreak remembered, that triggers when I have to let him go again.

This dark wave that breaks over me brought me under in yoga today.  I am not talking about something that exists only in my head, in thoughts, in memories, but rather a physical experience, a somatic condition.  The mind and the body are connected.  What makes it bearable, insofar as it is bearable, is that I know that it is just a wave.   I know that I’ll go under and that the current might tumble and toss me more wildly than I might expect.  I also know that if I just go limp during the worst bits, and swim when the surge begins to abate, that I’ll come up and through and out.  The wave will recede, and I will get back on my feet.

I’m feeling rather beached now.  But I still love the ocean.

Being alone in Colorado

2 October 2010

My mother died on this day 30 years ago.

Being alone in Colorado during the day.

When I’m in Pittsburgh I’m immersed in noise.  City noise–boom boxes and explosive car radios, trash trucks, jack hammers, car alarms, planes, helicopters,  that incredibly irritating back-up sound that goes Beep, Beep, Beep, insanely, driving you insane; trucks driving or idling, for no apparent reason,  buses, motorcycles, leaf blowers, people walking down the street who converse by shouting at one another from either side of the road.  In the 19th century the steam engine was thought to be a kind of devil, roaring through the world and practically tearing people’s ears off.  But it seems to me that the devils of the 20th and early 21st centuries are machines powered by gasoline.

When I “relax” I turn on the television, usually quite loud so that I can hear it over the noise in my neighborhood, and when I go “out” to “relax” and have a drink, I go into a bar where there is usually a television blaring or music drowning out the silence that city people have apparently no ability to deal with.  And speaking of bars.  It’s annoying enough that there is a television to deal with, but what I don’t understand is why the t.v. always has to be tuned to golf or baseball or football?  Why can’t it be Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Six Feet Under or Battlestar Galactica?  Let it be CNN or even that republican machine, Fox News.  Are city bars only populated by sports fans?

But here, where I am now, I hear virtually nothing but the sound of my own breathing, the dogs, three of them, following me here and there, their panting, the cat meowing to be let in the door that he knows he doesn’t usually go through, the wind, if there is any, the very rare car passing by.  If I want to hear something, I can play something on my computer, through itunes.  There’s a t.v. here but nothing on.  Nothing means: nothing I care to watch or listen to. And the radio isn’t much better.  Colorado stations seem to feature NPR most hours of the week, but so much of that programming seems to have to do with authors excessively pleased with themselves, who really don’t have that much to say, in fact.  Or that idiotic program, Car Talk, with the brothers whose laughter is so obviously forced it grates.  They don’t laugh because they’re amused, but rather because they’re uncomfortable.  Or so it sounds.  Why would anyone want to listen to the sound of forced, uncomfortable laughter, when one could listen to silence in one’s car or house?

But how rare is it to “hear” silence, to be able to think for one’s self, in quietude?  We live in cacophony and wonder why it is that we are continually getting sick from “stress.”

I’m not lonely.  There are three dogs here–Bear, Blackjack, and Kea, in order of importance.  Bear is a good friend, even though he begs too much.  Blackjack snores in his sleep and I find the sound comforting.  Kea is always way more excited to see me that I think she will be.

I love being able to do exactly what I feel like doing.  I can walk, dance, cook, and drink. I drink as much wine as I feel like drinking.  I’ve been cooking a lot and finding that I have lost my taste for meat.  It is good to be alone; to be with myself for an extended period of time, in the quiet, without a schedule, without quantification, just being.  I go to be around 8:30 and get up at 5 or 6.  I live as I want to.  It is wonderful.

Being alone in Colorado at night.

I had to go to Hotchkiss this afternoon and didn’t turn back until after dark.   Halfway home I stopped along the road, turned off the engine and the lights, and got out to look at the sky.  A dog at a nearby farm was barking but it fell silent.  So many stars.   It had been a long time since I had seen the Milky Way.

It’s hard to comprehend how we could be “in there” when, from earth, it looks as though it is “up” or “out there.”   And when I remember that it is not a water-cloud, but a star-cloud, and that the opacity of “out there” is more or less how our “over here” looks to the beings on that side of the galaxy, it’s harder to grasp.

Is it like the relationship between Self and Other?  We dismiss or underestimate or simply forget about or try to kill the Other because it is other, because we can’t stand the difference in the color of their skin, or the way they eat, or walk, or express affection, or believe, or vote, or fish.  What we’re missing out on when we allow these differences between to divide us is that we are not “here” and “there” but, rather, together, bound up in the same web, the same world.  There’s a German word for this, mitsein.  It means “being with”  So, it is possible to say, in German, not only “ich bin,” I am, which is a pretty powerful thing to say, actually.  But it is  also possible to say “ich bin mit,” I am with.

As I got back on the road I thought about how insignificant I was, in my tiny little car, soft flesh clothed in an exoskeloton driving along on a capillary.  So often I think of myself as the center of the universe, a “me” an individual, isolated sun, and that what I am doing is of infinite importance, and must come before all other things.  The sky above seemed so vast, so much greater than this personal scenario, this whole world. But then I thought about the complexity beneath the tires on the road, and beneath and beside the road, all the birds and skunks and snakes and lizards and toads, and the insects that they eat, and the hives and burrows that the creatures build,  and the thread-like paths that ants leave, and the smaller ones, the mites, the tiny larvae, all busily going about and around And then I thought about smaller things that you can only see under microscopes, and all the organisms that make up dirt, in which the plants grow.  So I felt better.

And when I got home the three dogs were so happy to see me they danced. Blackjack ran around the yard with his enormous teddy bear in his mouth, and Kea wagged her whole back body at me, and Bear was love-dumb as always.  I laughed at them and said, “Hello, Friends!”

Danse Macabre: Mourning My Mother

So I’m listening to Mahler’s first symphony, which I love and have loved for all of my entire adult life.  Or since I was 20.  When does adult life begin?  Hard to say.  I’m about to turn 50 and still sometimes have trouble understanding myself as grown up.  But what is the 1st symphony about? It is about life, the business of life, the joy and buzzing business of the bees and the flowers and the animals and the fervor of everything that never ends, even when some of us die.

But standing here on the verge of my fiftieth decade frightens me, not least because my mother died of colon cancer when she was 55.  She was diagnosed when she was 54.   There were signs before.  The winter of her 53rd year we were in Sun Valley, and instead of skiing my mother stayed home, in agonizing pain that every one of us, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, my brother, my sister, and I interpreted as gas.  How could we all have been so stupid?  Yet we were.  What do orthopedic surgeons know about the diseases of the internal organs?

So, she died.  By the time we caught it, the cancer has metastasized and spread throughout her body, including her lungs.  She died of asphyxiation, fluid from the cancer building up in her lungs.  It took some time…enough time for us to go on a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.  She had had the first eliminating surgery, and some chemotherapy.  We were all pretending that she was going to recover, go into remission. But she was so short of breath.  And my father knew.  I didn’t.  Not until the very end.

It was yuk.  You can’t say how awful it was so you have to understate it.  I remember driving around the hills of Santa Barbara on the days just after her death, madly playing polka music, which I didn’t actually like all that much, not least because it struck me as a kind of dance of death, that mad refusal to believe in the end, that the peasants of Bruegel or Defoe are dancing.  I was driving in delirium, the furious round and round of the mind that cannot take in what is.

The thing about death-dealing sicknesses, or bills of death, sentences of death, in short, cancer, is that the mind does not go there.  It refuses.  And death or its prognosis never makes any kind of sense.  It interrupts the rational.  It fucks you up.

So here I am witnessing the sentence pronounced on my dear sister-in-being-and-love, MJ, who has just discovered that she has ovarian cancer.  The silent killer of women.  A sort of Jack-the-Ripper of the reproductive organs, a disease for which there are few reliable diagnostic tests, and fewer cures.  When it is found in the body late, as it has been with my sister, the prognosis is not good.

Everyone said that my mother’s cancer was nothing to worry about.  O, people recover from colon cancer all the time, they said.  It’s one of the best cancers you can get.  There are no good cancers.  Each one of the is deadly.  Every cancer spreads like a noxious weed, a plant that, thriving, chokes out the life in which it grows.  And it flourished in my mother.

My mother did not acknowledge this flourishing.  This bitter root spreading throughout her.  Or she did, but thought that somehow thought could eradicate it.  She believed that if she could heal every one of her significant relationships, her connections to her brothers and her children, that miraculously the cancer would die.  This theory infuriated me because it located the source of the cancer in other people while blaming the victim.  It seemed to be a kind of mental torture program masquerading as help.  If she could only fix her relationships, she would recover.  And we were all enlisted in this recovery, of  course.  We weren’t allowed to be negative

I took this philosophy to heart, and tried to be supportive, accommodating, helpful.  I quit my job as Director of State Relations at NYU and moved home to be with her.  I was pregnant.  I needed my mother.  Nothing worked.   She died. But I was not permitted to acknowledge that she was dying.  As a good daughter and caretaker, I was enlisted in a program of upbeat thoughts and morale building.  It was worth a shot, of course.  But I never got to say goodbye, because my mother never acknowledged that she was going.   When she left, I felt it was my fault. If only I had tried harder, had believed more in the possibility of her recovery. If I had had that powerful faith, then it would have been enough.

Yes, I know.  This was an unreasonable fantasy of power.  But we are exhorted in our culture to have these fantasies, to pray, to believe in prayer, and to blame ourselves for not having prayed hard enough when our prayers fail to come true.  I did not believe that she was going to recover.  Was it therefore my fault that she died? Or am I to blame for not having been more “supportive” of the fiction that she committed herself to?

My mother seemed to be the victim of a false consciousness program propounded in books for people dying of cancer–a program that exhorted that if only the mind would change, the body would follow.  This program sold lots of books but also made lots of people who ended up dying of the cancer they couldn’t control anyway feel like losers, like people who hadn’t tried hard enough.  I hate this program.

It seems to me–and how I hope that  will not need to practice what I preach here–that when something happens to us, especially when that thing is a medical condition that we have no control over and cannot understand, that we need to accept what is and step aside from the whole program that tells us to feel responsible for the fact that we got sick and that falsely promises that we have within the power to get unsick.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to maintain a healthy body/mind connection, or that we shouldn’t eat well and take our vitamins and get plenty of exercise.  We are responsible for our health every day.  But my mother was the healthiest person I knew, a moderate drinker, a light but hardly anorexic eater, and an active exerciser.   She played tennis three or four times a week, walked vigorously for miles every day,  had good friends, a relatively happy family.  As a good if lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist, she avoided fatty foods and alcohol and caffeine and ate loads of fiber.  But she still died of colon cancer.  It wasn’t her fault.  Nor was it mine. Or anyone else’s.

I just wish she had said goodbye, that she had let me know that she knew what was going on and that she had some kind of parting wisdom for me.  But she didn’t. She just left.   And I felt really guilty about it, because it seemed that I had not done everything that  was capable of doing.  If only I had prayed harder; if only I had believed in prayer.

It’s hard.  You have this life, however short.  My younger sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship I guess because we lost her, our mother at such different stages in our lives, directs everyone who receives email from her to live each day as though it were their last.   Nice sentiment.  What if you only had a year, or six months, or two weeks, to live?  What would you do?

My first impulse is to say that I would keep on working on my book.  Or I would try to paint at least one painting, that “tree of life”painting that I’ve had in my head for all these months.  But what if I didn’t have the energy?  What would I do then?  I would like to think that I’d write letters to all the people I love, in order to tell them how much I appreciate them. I would explain what they mean to me, and how they have changed my life.  Maybe I would do nothing.

My mother did not write any letters.  She just left.  But that is not quite right. She had been telling me all her life how much she loved me, how much I meant to her.  What more could she say?  Probably something.  But that was not her style.  She would have frowned, as I would, on some perfunctory expression of love, since she would have known that no singular declaration could possibly encompass all that she felt.

In short, we forgive the dead whom we have love, we make an effort to understand how they went, under what circumstances, and to appreciate them over the course of their lives.  We do not measure them according to their last moments, or years.  We remember them fondly, openly, with love.

Does everyone who leaves us remind us of this primal loss, the death of our mother, the woman who bore us into the world?  Probably.

I don’t have the faintest idea of how to process this new confrontation with death, this reminder of my own mortality.  How are any of us to know that we do or don’t have ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women?  Why don’t we as a nation or world have better tests for detecting this killer?  This, too, is a woman’s issue.  Why should the silent killer go after one of the great woman leaders of my time, my friend and sister, MJ?  How do I know that it has not also invaded my body?  Why don’t we have better technological understanding of this disease?

I am frightened.

The Origins of Easter and some thoughts about fertility and gadflies

220px-Ostara_by_Johannes_GehrtsChristians celeberate a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered son and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father.  This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris, in which Isis, “the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old,” restores Osiris to life, mates with him, and then begets a falcon-headed sun-god, Horus.  Representations of Isis suckling her son were commonly associated with Mary and Jesus from the 5th century, A.C.E., onwards.

Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.

Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover.   Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.

A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs.  Decorated goose eggs were found in a German grave that dates back to the 4th century.   Lithuanians began to decorate and share eggs with one another at least as early as the 13th century.  Common motifs on these eggs are  spirals, suns, teeth, trees, flora and birds.  According to  Lithuanian historian Marja Gimbutas, who pioneered archaeomythology, an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that combines archaeology, mythology, ethnology, folklore, linguistic paleontology, and the study of historical documents,  these symbols represent fertility goddesses worshiped by the people of ancient Europe.

Persians have exchanged red-colored eggs to celebrate the beginning of their solar year for millenia.

According to Bede, the Northumbrian monk living c. 720 A.C.E., the oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon.The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.  When Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Empire, defeated the Saxons in 700s, all the months of the year were changed from their Latin names.  April was called “Osteranoth” in Frankish and Ostermonat in German.  Jacob Grimm speculated that the German equivalent “Ostern” derived from the name of the same goddess, Ostara, or Oestre.

A goddess with a similar name is found on some Roman altar stones from the Lower Rhine in North-West Germany.  These altars were dedicated to local mother goddesses, who frequently appeared as triple deities and were associated with fertility.   Similar altars dedicated to goddesses with Celtic names occur throughout northern Italy, France, Spain, and Britain, where the goddesses often have Celtic names.  Very close to St. Bede’s  Easterwines monastery at Monkwearmouth there is an ancient Roman fort where many inscriptions are found on an altar dedicated to Astarte, the Syrian and Phoenician fertility goddess.

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called “Ishtar Vase” from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC. The pubic triangle and belly-button are heavily emphasized, while the breasts were crudely scratched in as an afterthought.

Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the  Europeans worshipped.

As historian Richard Sermon observes, the name Ostare or Easter may derive from this goddess’s name:

It is theoretically possible to project forward the name Astarte to an intermediate *Astare or *Astre, which could then have appeared in Old English orthography as Eostre/Eostre. Furthermore, there is an earlier precedent for this intermediate name on the bilingual gold tablets from Pyrgi in Italy (c.500 Bc), that contain dedications to the Phoenician goddess Ashtaret… and her Etruscan counterpart Astre …

 Sermon also rightly points out that
 It is spurious to suggest that the early Church (centered around the eastern Mediterranean) would have timed its most important festival to coincide with that of a north European pagan goddess.

Nevertheless, the timing of the festival and the symbols with which it is associated, eggs and rabbits, also suggest that the Christian feast adapted local customs that far precede Christian practices.  Archaeological evidence strongly indicates that human belief in feminine deities as creators of all life is older than the current, dominant myth that a male father-god.

Fertility celebrations are found throughout ancient European and Mediterranean regions.  The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians  all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.

Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,

Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,

With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,

We carried Death out of the village

We are carrying Summer into the village.

Ritualistically casting death into the river, the villagers celebrated the return of the growing season and new life, preparing for summer’s bounty with red eggs and sun-shaped and colored food.

“Oestre “also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the  Greek οἶστρος).  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the estrus cycle as

the period of sexual receptivity and fertility during the reproductive cycle of most female mammals; the time of being in heat.

Lefthandofeminism likes Wikipedia‘s version better:

The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go.  As Le Guin observes,

Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything.  This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.  The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make.  Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.

Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions,  every year, we celebrated this time of year by considering the sexes as equals, as companions, as equally powerful and active agents.

What if we were to celebrate Eostre and the oestrus in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life?  What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?

We should especially celebrate  the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.

Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.”  Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.

And really–to all of you who celebrate the holiday, Happy Easter!