Over Christmas, I did my nerdly duty and saw the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. I won’t spoil it for you who haven’t seen it yet; suffice it to say that it had more than enough high-speed escapes from TIE Fighters, dramatic twists, and splashes of humor to remind me why I’ve been looking forward to this film. But by the end of it I was feeling despondent, and not just because I have to wait a loooong time to see the next one.
Despite the fact that Star Wars happened “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, 99% of space-based science fiction asks us to imagine forward, not back, so it’s easy to forget that it’s not a futuristic tale. And I found myself thinking when I walked out of the theater, “We don’t have a future”. Although I try to limit my media intake to what’s necessary, and balance it out with things like cute animal pictures and video game breaks, I’m still all too aware of the critical point we’re at with regards to climate change, ocean ecosystem collapse, loss of endangered species, and other environmental disasters. And so when the movie ended, so did my distraction from these overwhelming problems.
Beyond the distraction and the drop, The Force Awakens (and plenty of other movies) presents a massive enemy with potentially planet-destroying capabilities, something we know all too well. But everything works out in the end, the enemy is routed, and the whole story wraps up neatly in less than three hours. What should happen is that I should come out of the theater inspired to go fight the good fight anew. Instead, I found myself in deep despair.
It’s the same thing that happened to me after I went to see Tomorrowland earlier this year. In the same way the Star Wars franchise shows ways to defeat the Enemy (even as it regenerates in many disguises), Tomorrowland asks us to imagine a positive future, the possibility of better things than the current media-driven dystopia we seem to be hurtling toward. I hate that it was a box office flop; a lot of people could have used the messages it conveyed about how we don’t have to give in to the inevitability of an ever-worse world.
Yet even I can’t grab hold of that optimism. I’m not fooled by movies’ promises of simple answers to complex problems. As soon as the credits roll, I feel the weight of the world settle back onto my shoulders, and it hurts. I grieve. I get angry at the idea that all we need is the right heroes to come along and save the day. And I start to drown in perceived helplessness; I have no X-wing starfighter that miraculously avoids getting hit by enemy fire. I have no super powers, or advanced technology funded by Stark Industries or Wayne Enterprises. There no Q or Professor X to hand down much-needed information and wisdom to those who work to save the day.
So each time this happens I turn to my partner, my beloved, who knows my weaknesses and flaws and loves me anyway. He is an eternal optimist, but a realist. He knows the worst humanity can do, and yet believes in us anyway. I lay my sadness on him, and he carefully opens it up to see where it comes from. And then he gives me balance and perspective. Yes, there are horrible people with too much money and power, but there are also those who use their resources for the benefit of others. Yes, cynicism is often well-deserved, but that should not be the end of hope. Yes, our problems can’t be fixed with a well-aimed barrage of lasers and proton torpedoes, but there are people who are trying to enact very real solutions, just at a slower pace and smaller scale.
And then he tells me to go read the stack of publications that the various environmental groups I support send me each month. He says to focus especially on their victories and successes, and how even in the face of a battle lost they never give up the war. And so I immerse myself in the good news, often on conflicts and issues that they’ve been working on for years. I have to remember that sometimes I just have to sit back and enjoy the win, without letting the specter of “But the bad guys will attack again” loom over me. I go back over the positive messages of the movies I watch, and I absorb them, and I let their idealism inspire me.
I still often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges we face. It’s the price I pay for being aware of them, and refusing to spend my entire life in an ongoing search for more distractions. But I’m slowly trying to regain the optimism of my younger days, when I was less tired, and temper it with the experience I’ve had as I get older. There are still no simple solutions to complex problems; I don’t even believe that much in “good guys vs. bad guys” any more, only seven billion humans stumbling around trying to figure out what the hell is happening.
And so as I prepare to step into the new year, I resolve to keep taking care of myself, including in–especially in–my times of despair. I continue to heal the ongoing trauma of the destruction of my world, even as I fight to save it in my own way. I will still have the times when I have to ask for help. But that’s okay. In the movies every hero has support, and in the real world every person fighting to make things better has their allies. I need not carry all the weight of the world on my shoulders; we’re all carrying our own piece of it, and even if we can’t find a way to put it down for good in three hours or less, it doesn’t make us any less strong.
Last night I finished looking over the proofs for my next book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which will be coming out in January 2016. One of the things that struck me was how much of the book is spent simply showing readers how to connect with the land they live with. Most books on totemism and nature spirits give a bit of context, and then leap into the “how to find your guide” exercises. It’s not until the very last bit of the second chapter that we even start trying to contact totems. Even after that point, many of the exercises are intimately linked to the physical land, getting people outside and in direct contact where possible (though the material is still accessible to those who may be housebound).
Here in the U.S., most people are critically detached from the rest of nature, at least in their perception. This book is meant to help them reconnect, not just for self-help, but because we live in such an acutely anthropocentric world that we rarely consider the effects of our actions on the other beings in the world (to include other human beings). The problem seems immense: few of us give any thought to our environmental impact, either in part or in whole. When we are unwillingly confronted with it, it’s often in the most catastrophic manners–global climate change, mass deforestation, entire species disappearing overnight. We’ve learned to simply shut off the part that cares about nature any further than maybe sorting the recycling every week.
We’re afraid to care, because caring hurts. It’s hard to find hope in a world where the environmental news is largely bad. As far as I’m concerned, though, where there’s life, there’s hope. And I want to help people find that hope as a motivator to making the world–not just themselves–healthier and better. But because we’re used to seeing “THE ENVIRONMENT” as one big global problem, I reintroduce people to their local land–their bioregion–first in small steps, and then greater ones.
Some of that may be old hat to my nature pagan compatriots. After all, we’ve been hiking and wildcrafting and paying attention to the rest of nature for years. But this book isn’t only meant for the proverbial choir. There are plenty of people interested in non-indigenous totemism who wouldn’t describe themselves as “pagan”. Some of them are looking for self-improvement; others have some inkling that a being is trying to contact them, but they aren’t sure how to proceed. Still others want to feel connected to the greater world around them, but are too used to heavily structured spiritual paths that allow little room for personal experience.
That personal experience is absolutely crucial to my writing and the exercises I offer readers. If we’re going to reconnect with the rest of nature, we have to make it relevant to our own lives. Most of us in this country are used to being preached at, something the dominant religion is good at. But we quickly learn to tune it out, the same way we often tune out the messages about how horrible we are in our environmental practices.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about human psychology, it’s that most of us don’t do well when we’re being yelled at. There really is something to that whole “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” adage. Environmental scare headlines try to terrify people into reconnecting enough to take responsibility, but that approach can be counterproductive. By making reconnection a positive, constructive and appealing concept, I hope to get people interested not just in their own personal spirituality, but how that spirituality is set in a greater world context.
From the beginning, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up talks about the importance of totemism in relation to entire ecosystems, not just “me, me, me, what can I get out of having a totem?” Most of the books I’ve read on the topic are mostly about how the reader can connect with individual totems; there’s very little about the context all that happens in. And that goes right back into the anthropocentrism I’m trying to counteract,.
I’ve had the occasional reviewer complain that the material in my books isn’t “hardcore” enough because I rely primarily on guided meditations and accessible excursions into open areas, that I’m not telling people how to take hallucinogenic plants and soar off into the spirit world, or spend twenty days fasting in the wilderness. Well, of course not! That’s not the kind of thing that I think can be appropriately–or safely–conveyed through a book. Most people simply aren’t cut out for that much hardship and risk, and I don’t think they should be denied this sort of spirituality simply because their bodies or minds may not be able to handle ordeals, or because they lack the money to travel to remote locations in South America for entheogenic training.
As an author (and by extension a teacher) it’s my job to meet people where they’re at and help them explore someplace new. I am a product of my culture, and so is my writing. I am not part of a culture that lives close to the land and its harsh realities; mine is conveniently cushioned through technology and the idea that we are superior animals to the rest of the world. We don’t have a culture-wide system for intense rites of passage or life-changing altered states of consciousness. And I don’t have the qualifications to single-handedly create such a system, beyond what help with personal rites I can give as a Masters-level mental health counselor.
So are my practices gentler than traditional indigenous practices worldwide? Absolutely. That’s what most people in my culture can reasonably handle at this point. Trying to force them into something more intense would go over about as well as Captain Howdy’s rantings about “being awakened” in Strangeland. Sure, sudden and seemingly catastrophic experiences can cause a person to reach higher levels of inner strength and ability–but they can also cause severe physical and psychological trauma, or even kill. And, again, since we don’t have a culture in which everyone goes through an intense rite of passage at a certain age (such as adulthood), we can’t expect everyone to accept such a thing immediately.
Maybe that’s not what we need, anyway. Plenty of people engage in outdoor, nature-loving activities like backpacking, kayaking and rock climbing without the foremost notion being that they’re going into some intensely scary and dangerous place that could kill them in a moment. Most experienced outdoors people are fully aware of the risks and take necessary precautions, but their primary intent is connecting in a positive way with the rest of nature.
I think it’s okay for our nature spirituality to be the same way. I don’t think we always have to work things up as “BEWARE NATURE WILL KILL YOU AND YOU HAVE TO DO THINGS THAT COULD POSSIBLY KILL YOU IN ORDER TO FIND GUIDANCE”. I’ve spent almost twenty years gradually rediscovering my childhood love of the outdoors and its denizens, as well as developing a deeper appreciation for it. I’ve had plenty of transformative experiences without fasts or hallucinogens, and they’ve served to both improve myself as a person AND make me feel even more connected to and responsible for the rest of nature.
Does that mean there’s no place for ordeals? No; they have their place for the people who respond well to them. But they shouldn’t be held up as the one and only way to do nature spirit work. Again: meet people where they’re at, whether that’s on the couch or on the trail. You’ll reach more people, and create change on a broader scale as more people participate in the ways they’re able. And isn’t that change ultimately what we’re after, those of us who want to save the world?
“Hey, can you make me a pouch, but with fake fur instead of real?”
“I really like your animal headdresses, but can you make one with a taxidermy form and glass eyes in it?”
“Have you seen those resin rings with moss in them? I bet you could make an even better one!”
These are just a few of the suggestions I’ve gotten over the years as an artist. And I really do appreciate when people try to turn me on to new ideas, materials and the like. It shows that they’re paying attention to my work and they want to see what happens when I turn my creativity in a particular direction. (In other words: please don’t stop making suggestions just because of what I’m about to say in this post!)
Eco-Art and Styrofoam
Some of these ideas work really well. Others…well…they don’t even get out of the starting gate. Some of them are axed due to the limitations of physics (real, triple-curled ram’s horns are very heavy and don’t work for the sort of headbands I use–and also my neck says ouch!) Others are no-go due to legalities (sorry, I can’t make you earrings with real raven/crow/hawk/blue jay/owl feathers since it’s illegal here.) And some, like the suggestions in the first paragraph of this post, I opt out of because I don’t feel they’re going to help me create more eco-friendly artwork.
One of my biggest challenges as an artist and an environmentalist is finding eco-friendly art supplies. As with everything else in our industry-heavy society, most art supplies have been created solely with human need in mind; the environmental effects are much a much lower priority, except where regulations have induced manufacturers to comply with certain standards. Therefore our art supplies are full of plastics and other nonbiodegradables, along with a host of synthetic chemicals, unsustainably mined metals, and other environmentally unfriendly components.
So the very last thing I want to do is to add to that. I’ve had a LOT of people criticize my use of real fur and then suggest I use fake fur instead because it’s supposedly more “eco-friendly”. What they mean is no animal immediately died to make fake fur–but their fakes are made of plastic-based synthetic fibers. These plastics are often derived from petroleum, coal and other pollution-inducing materials, and the entire manufacturing chain for fake fur causes more animal (and plant and fungus) deaths than the death of a single fur-bearing animal. They also don’t biodegrade, and as they break up into ever-tinier bits of plastic they cause even greater pollution and destruction, up to and including killing zooplankton that eat the tiny fragments. (We need that plankton–it’s the backbone of the ocean ecosystem!)
The same thing goes for the polystyrene taxidermy forms on the market, and which people keep insisting I use for taxidermy headdresses. I am not about to take a brand-new chunk of non-biodegradable styrofoam and shove it into the head of a headdress, never mind the additional ecological burden of the hide paste (often polymer-based), plastic fake teeth, and mass-manufactured glass eyes used in the making of taxidermy. As for the resin jewelry? It’s made of acrylic, and I’ll explain why that’s a problem in a minute.
Allow me me make something clear: I’m far from innocent, even as I eschew the above suggestions. While I try to be mindful of my supplies, I’m as deeply embroiled in this system of toxicity as most other artists. Let’s look at a recent piece of mine as one example.
Deconstructing a Fox
This is a fox skull necklace I created earlier this year for an art show. It’s pretty typical of my work–lots of yarn and beads and paint, with real bone as the centerpiece. Pretty eco-friendly, right? Well, let’s dig into that a bit more.
The skull itself came from another artist’s leftovers; it was likely from an animal hunted or trapped for its hide. More people are reclaiming the bones from these animals so that more of the remains are being used rather than discarded. When other artists sell off their supplies or collections I like to buy them up when I’m able to afford to; it keeps me from having to buy new ones, and it lets me put a bit of money in the pocket of an individual who needs to pay the bills.
Bone itself is pretty environmentally neutral, but remember that in this case I coated it in acrylic paint. I use acrylic for all sorts of projects; it adheres well to both bone and leather, comes in a variety of colors, mixes easily and dries quickly. It’s durable enough to be put on drums (with sealant) and it’s inexpensive. It’s often upheld as a good alternative because it’s water-based rather than oil-based, and other than acrylics made with cadmium and other heavy metals they’re relatively free of pigments commonly thought to be toxic. But what about the acrylic itself?
Acrylic is a thermoplastic made from applying heat to certain organic compounds. At least one of which, acrylic acid, is very corrosive to human skin, so don’t think “organic” equals “harmless”! All an organic compound is is a molecular compound containing carbon–many of which can be man-made. Additionally, the craft-grade acrylics I usually use often have vinyl or polyvinyl acetate (in other words–more plastic) mixed in for better stickiness and to cut costs. Both acrylic and vinyl are polymers, which means they’re made of very long chains of molecules. It also means that they’re next to indestructible, and therefore not easily biodegradable. So essentially what this means is when I paint a skull with acrylic paints, I’m putting a very thin layer of plastic on it. Even if I forgo the acrylic sealant (which would add yet another layer or three of acrylic), it’s still a lot of plastic molecules that are eventually going to flake off into the environment, and even tiny bits of plastics can have a devastating ecological effect.
The skull is strung on a necklace made of braided yarn and embroidery thread. I did buy the thread and yarn secondhand, since the thrift stores are full to overflowing with craft supplies around here, and I can get big bags of the stuff for relatively little cash. So I’m able to cut down on the demand for new manufactured goods, but what happens once the cord wears out and has to be replaced? Well, the yarn is–surprise, surprise!–acrylic. The embroidery thread is “mercerized cotton”. What the hell does mercerized mean? In short, it’s a process wherein cotton fibers are wrapped around a polyester (plastic!) core. I can only imagine the chemicals that went into the dyes used to bleach and color these things. Here’s a partial list of what could be in them. The dyes used in clothing, which likely have some overlap with yarn, are supposedly “nonpoisonous”, but again they’re only looking at the direct effects on humans who accidentally ingest them, not the massive environmental effects of the production of these dyes.
Finally, let’s look at the metal content of this piece. The cord is adorned with brass bells and copper beads, both from India, which means more shipping costs like ocean pollution. The copper wire was reclaimed from old computer components, so at least that’s a reclamation. All of these metals were probably mined in less than environmentally satisfactory manners, with resultant pollutants and other damage. Even in areas with regulations, violations of these laws are all too common. While the brass and copper itself may naturally corrode over time, the chemicals used in its mining, treatment, and manufacture into crafting materials likely won’t break down so easily.
Reducing the Impact
I’ve been aware of the environmental impact of my artwork for years. It’s not feasible–or desirable–for every artist to entirely switch to a completely guilt-free medium all at once. An established oil painter wouldn’t do very well to suddenly start making all of their art out of old bottle caps and twist ties. But we can look into ways to more organically shift our materials in an environmentally conscious direction.
–Secondhand first (and local when new)
This is currently my most common solution to the environmental conundrum. Most of my acrylic paints are secondhand, either from SCRAP, local thrift stores, and even free boxes on Portland curbs. These sources often yield other treasures, like perfectly good paintbrushes, beads, yarn and related materials. And, as I mentioned earlier, I try to buy hides and bones secondhand as often as I’m able. I don’t remember the last time I actually bought something from Michael’s; the last new thing I bought was a couple of tubes of paint (acrylic and tempera) from the local family-owned art supply store around the corner from my apartment.
–Use it up, wear it out, make it do…
I throw very little away when it comes to my art. Tiny hide scraps and ends of thread end up as pillow stuffing. Old paint brushes get repurposed into assemblage materials. I don’t get rid of a tube of paint until I’ve squeezed the past tiny bit out of it. I also don’t buy things I don’t need. I have one pair of jewelry pliers I’ve been using for almost twenty years. While certain parts of my art might be a little easier if I owned an airbrush, I prefer to keep making the acrylics dance to my tune.
–…or do without
Sometimes I just say no, like with the taxidermy headdresses and resin jewelry. I already make awesome headdresses and beautiful jewelry without adding more to my plastics load. I don’t need to jump onto the next trendy-trend, especially if my conscience really isn’t okay with it.
For the past few years I’ve been wanting to experiment with better alternatives to some of my materials. It’s only been recently I’ve started trying these new media, though. My most recent experiment has been testing tempera paint to see how it compares to acrylics in my usual creations. I’ve thought about making paints and glues from scratch (like these Earth Paints that my friend Autumn reminded me about recently), though I do have to be mindful of my time restrictions and the relatively small amount of paint/glue I use in one project. But it’s still an option on the table.
I also have to make sure the alternatives aren’t just as bad as–or worse than–what they’re replacing. I occasionally use hemp cord instead of yarn for necklace cords. Trouble is, it’s a lot harder to find it secondhand, which means I almost always have to buy it new. That means I’m contributing to the more immediate demand for this resource, which is often manufactured overseas and then shipped over here with a heavy environmental toll for the trip. And like other industrial crops, hemp is grown as a monocrop, which means miles upon miles of natural habitat chewed up for fields that only produce hemp, wildlife displaced and native plants exterminated. So in this case, at least, I figure secondhand yarn is the better option for me.
–Don’t take too much
It’s become en vogue in recent years to incorporate pine cones, seed pods, dried leaves and other such things into artwork, particularly assemblage and jewelry. Unfortunately, this can be devastating to a local habitat, especially if over-harvesting is done on a regular basis. I tend toward materials that aren’t in any danger of being extirpated; after a windy day I walk around my neighborhood and pick up sticks covered in lichens since they’re just going to end up mulched anyway. I leave nettles alone, though, because in Portland the numbers of red admiral butterflies have plummeted in recent years thanks to overharvesting of nettles for food by would-be back-to-nature fans. (Thanks to Rewild Portland for being honest and spreading the word about that unintended consequence!)
Nothing is better than reducing your impact. But everything we do in this tech-heavy, resource-hungry culture has a negative effect on the environment, and so sometimes we can help through a sort of rebalancing. In addition to trying to be a more mindful artist, I give funds (and some volunteer time) to environmental nonprofits who can do more to make big changes than I can. I’m not a lobbyist, I don’t have the paperwork to go into parks and start planting native species, and I don’t have money to buy conservation easements. But I can at least funnel some of my income towards the people who do these things and more. And while I’m a busy self-employed person, I at least have enough schedule flexibility to do some volunteering now and then, whether it’s litter pickup or water testing.
When it comes to art and the earth, there are no quick and easy answers; using fake fur won’t automatically make you a more eco-friendly artist than I am. But if we keep having these conversations on what’s the best alternative for our own needs, and if we keep sharing information and resources, we can start shifting the attitudes that have led to our primary options being toxic and destructive, and move toward a more mindful and responsible way of creating our art.
This morning settled upon me gently; drowsy eyes opened to cloud-shrouded light through the cracks in the blinds. The past few mornings have been tight-laced with urgency, as all event days start. We have to get to the venue; we have to make sure the booth is open; wait, did I remember to pack the cash box, and is there enough change for the day? And so forth. The day’s activities variously include making stock to replace what’s sold, interacting with and helping my customers (sometimes large groups filling the entire booth), steeling myself against ninety-degree heat and direct sun or an air conditioner turned down to chilly levels, and usually tons of music and background noise through which my consciousness must filter only the most important information. Wait, did I remember to eat? This can go on for eight to twelve hours straight. By the time I fall into bed at the end of the day–whether my own, or a hotel’s, or an air mattress in my tent–all I want to do is sleep for fifteen hours, even though I know I need to be awake in eight or fewer.
I do love vending; I love getting to see people, and talk to folks I normally only run into at events, and of course it’s nice to sell my art and books as well. But I am, at heart, an introvert, and while I can socialize quite well and enjoy it, too, it drains me after a while. Plus there’s all the energy that goes into preparing for, executing, and tearing down the booth at an event, and then arriving home and realizing just how much I still have to do, all those things that got shoved to the side for this one big burst of effort that has eaten up my days. I’ve had something scheduled every single weekend since Labor Day, and while there’s been a lot of fun involved and it’s been worth it financially, today is the day I’ve been waiting for the most.
Because today is the first day where I don’t have a huge event waiting at the end of the weekend. I have a book signing at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show this Saturday, but that’s it. A quick boomerang trip, wake up at home and sleep at home. And in front of me stretches a month of few commitments. Plenty of things on the to-do list, but plenty of freedom in which to get them done. There’s no schedule but that which I put myself to, and it is a beautiful thing. It’s easier to take one thing at a time now, focus only on what’s right in front of me. Like the trees divesting themselves of leaves, I, too, shed extra weight.
So I’ll be heading out to my community garden plot to pick the last of the tomatoes and start preparing it for the cold months. There will be time to start cleaning the apartment, left too fallow during the busy festival season. I have packages to mail, and custom work to create, and articles to write. My Etsy shop needs some nifty new things, and there are book ideas floating around, too. The next few months are full of potential and ideas and creative juices bubbling forth–and I’ll sleep when I want to, too. And, best of all, there’s so much hiking to be done–and I’ve already reserved a yurt on the coast for a personal writing retreat in October as well. The wilderness beckons, and I yearn to run to it.
Autumn is here, and as the land around me prepares for a quieter time, I also come home to my den, only to venture out so often, and glad to be in the comforts of home.
Last summer, when I was working a day job in addition to keeping the Green Wolf as a business going (yes, it was a busy time) I was fortunate enough to be able to walk to work every day. Along my walk there was an office building where someone had some house plants they decided they no longer wanted to care for. So within my first week of work, I had adopted several new plants from the curb. All of them were dehydrated and in too-small containers, and most of them I wasn’t even sure what they were.
One in particular stood out to me. It looked something like a philodendron, but with odd natural holes in the leaves. With a little research, I discovered I had a specimen of Monstera obliqua, the Swiss cheese vine. It’s the little cousin of the better-known Swiss cheese plant, Monstera deliciosa; its proper Latin name is actually Monstera adansonii, but both I and the totem rather prefer Monstera obliqua between the two of us. The plant does grow like a philodendron, and like its lookalike it can be propagated with cuttings.
There weren’t going to be any cuttings off this sad little vine, though, at least not for a while. She had one single vine, barely six inches long, with just a few shriveled leaves on it, and was still potted in its original nursery planter, a tiny plastic box-like thing about three inches cubed, with bone-dry soil. I gave the poor thing some water as soon as I got to the office, and then carried her home with me that evening for repotting. After that, it was a waiting game to see if she and her companions would pull through.
I am pleased to say that not only did they make it, but they flourished! The Monstera has been the most successful; a year later, that one little vine is now the better part of ten feet long, and there are others of varying lengths. (I think of her as my tropical Rapunzel, albeit an inedible one!) I recently repotted her again, and had the chance to have a long conversation with her totem, Monstera Obliqua.
First, the totem thanked me for caring for its offspring and rescuing it that day. Then it asked me about my experience caring for the plant for the past year. I talked about how fulfilling and exciting it was to see her thrive and grow, rebounding from poor care. I had enjoyed learning more about how to take care of her and my other house plants, especially since my experience had mostly been with temperate vegetables, not tropical vines! And I appreciated the beauty of this unusual plant, brightening first my office, and then my home when my temporary summer job ended.
Then Monstera Obliqua said “In the wild, my offspring must climb the taller trees in order to get enough sunlight to live. They have to climb off the forest floor to keep from being trampled and destroyed. There is nothing wrong with relying on those around you for help. My children do not harm the trees they climb; there is no competition, only opportunity. The tree can get what it needs regardless; the vine simply benefits from its strength.
“In the same way, this little vine has relied on your strength. She is not in her home tropics, but in a place of more varied temperatures, at the mercy of whoever brings her water and food and soil. You have offered her somewhere to grow and be, and attended to her needs. The only thing she might hope for is a little more space to stretch her vines along, letting her instinct to climb be realized. But you see how she flourishes; she appreciates you and makes the most of what you give her.
“Can you say the same of those who give to you?”
And that gave me reason to pause. For many years now I’ve ended my day with a thank you prayer for all those who have given of themselves to keep me alive and well in this world, and I try my best to show my gratitude to those who help me each and every day. Sometimes I have to struggle a bit; even the toughest experiences are still lessons to be learned and stories to be made, and I do my best to live with no regrets, only perspective. But every moment I breathe is a gift, and I thought of all the times when I was the vine climbing a tree, and all the times I was a tree with vines climbing me for support. It wasn’t competition, just everyone doing what they needed to to survive.
And now I look at my not-so-little Monstera vine with a little more meaning and a little more understanding of the complex ecosystems and webs I am a part of. There’s no shame in needing others, and there’s no arrogance in being strong. Not every vine has to be a strangler fig, killing its host over time, and not every person who draws on one’s resources is going to take too much. A healthy balance is a good thing to aspire to, and the totem Monstera Obliqua reminded me of that.
Recently I’ve run across a few online discussions and blog posts asserting that vegetarianism and veganism (abbreviated as “veg*nism” from here on out) are the proper dietary choices for pagans and other spiritual people. The arguments for this have ranged from “meat is icky and does icky things to your energy” to “such and such culture is/was primarily veg*n so we should be too” and, of course, “no TRUE pagan (Scottish or otherwise) would ever bring harm to another living being” (forgetting, of course, that animals are only one of several kingdoms of living being). I’m not going to link to any of these discussions because I don’t want people to go start arguments there; I think that sort of brigading is a form of harassment and an ineffective way of getting one’s point across.
On that note, before we go any further, I want to speak to the sometimes thoroughly aggressive and unnecessarily hateful speech and behavior that I’ve seen a small portion of people use in these debates over the years. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay for someone to scream at you that you’re a murderer because you eat meat. It is not okay for someone to say “Ewwwwww, you eat meat/drink milk/eat eggs? That’s so gross it makes me want to vomit!” or “You’re an evil bitch/bastard who’s going to burn in hell for hurting poor little animals!” It is not okay for someone to tell you they wish someone would kill you and cut up your body and cook it, or that they hope you die of a heart attack from eating meat. It is not okay for someone to call together a bunch of their friends to leave hateful messages on your Facebook profile or fill up your inbox with the same in a harassment brigade. That shit’s just not okay.
At the same time, I also don’t think it’s okay to antagonize veg*ns for their dietary restrictions. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay to deliberately annoy veg*ns with stupid jokes about meat. It is not okay to tell a veg*n that they just need to eat more bacon, or that they can’t possibly be in good health, or being all “Oh, yuck, tofu? How can you EAT that?” It is not okay for you to question a male veg*n’s manhood just because he doesn’t eat meat. And it is most certainly not okay to sneak meat into a veg*n’s food, whether or not you then tell them you did it. That shit’s also just not okay.
Now that we’ve established some ground rules, I want to address some reasons why it’s okay for you to be an omnivore if that’s your choice. These are talking points you can draw on if someone ever comes in swinging at you for your diet; they’re not meant as bludgeoning objects to try and convince someone that their veg*nism is wrong for them.
Your Body, Your Diet
Bodily autonomy is a basic human right. Regardless of how you may feel about the autonomy of other living beings, almost all of us can agree that each human being’s right to their own body should be inviolate, and the violation of bodily autonomy is at the root of some of the most serious crimes and human rights crises. That means that you get to choose what you eat (finances and availability allowing, of course), no matter what anyone else says.
It also means you have the right to look out for what’s best for your body. Some of us simply don’t thrive well on even a well-balanced veg*n diet, and if that’s the case for you you don’t have to run around sick and malnourished because someone else yelled at you for not eating the way they think you should. That being said, it’s also a good idea to be aware of what you’re eating and the effects it may be having on your body. My partner and I have both been eating less meat (especially not-fish meat) because we both have familial health risks that could be aggravated by too much meat consumption, and we both love good salads anyway. It’s still your prerogative if you want to live on Denny’s ham and cheese omelets and soda (even when other things are readily available to you and within your means), and part of respecting bodily autonomy means accepting that people are going to eat what they will no matter what anyone else thinks.
Spirituality and Subjective Projection
From a more particularly pagan angle, I’ve seen numerous claims that a veg*n diet is better for spiritual practices. The reasons include everything from the claim meat is harder to digest, requiring more bloodflow to the stomach and therefore less to the brain, to the concept that meat clutters up your energy/aura/etc. The part about digestion is true–cooking meat, marinating it (particularly in an acidic marinade) and even pureeing it can make it easier to digest, but it still take more effort than, say, cherries or lettuce. If you’re an omnivore and want to amp up the bloodflow to your brain for the purposes of a particular meditation or retreat, then a temporary veg*n diet can help.
What about the other assertion, that meat makes your aura more icky because you ate dead animal flesh (just this side of cannibalism, according to some)? Well, quite honestly, there’s no way to prove this. A veg*n who claims they felt better and more spiritually active and clean once they kicked their meat habit may be telling the truth about their experience, but it doesn’t mean that meat was necessarily the direct cause. Instead, it may have been the relief they felt in their conscience, which is also a valid feeling. But there are plenty of us who feel just fine spiritually after eating meat. And for those of us who really are obligate omnivores, few things ruin a good spiritual experience like not having given our bodies what they need to function properly.
Given the choice between spirit and science, I’m choosing science every time; spirituality is not meant to be a replacement for professional medical care. That means that since my doctor, who has seen me for years and has been tracking my health with her years of experience and her knowledge of the most up to date research, suggests I stick to omnivorism, that’s going to trump someone without credentials telling me that they think my aura looks muddy because I had bacon this morning.
Just Because We Don’t Have Catchy Slogans Doesn’t Mean We’re Wrong
One of the most frustrating things for me is when slogans like “MEAT IS MURDER!” and “EAT BEANS, NOT BEINGS” are bandied about as though having a catch phrase is all it takes to make you right. Like a sports team’s traditional cheer, these sound bites serve to bind together activists in a common cause with a quick, easy to remember distillation of their message. Unfortunately, just like sports fanatics who stalwartly stick by their team no matter what, the people chanting these things sometimes don’t consider the possibility someone else could have a perfectly valid disagreement. Moreover, these slogans also provide activists with a way to shut down any possible conversation. An omnivore could say “Hey, I choose to eat free-range meat because…” and all the other person has to do is scream “IT’S STILL MURDER, YOU MURDERER! MURDER!”
Here on the omnivore end of the spectrum, we don’t really have slogans, beyond those created by marketing boards. I mean, “PORK! THE OTHER WHITE MEAT!” isn’t really an inspiring rallying cry. And sometimes we don’t really know what to say when someone comes at us, ready to beat us into the ground with a guilt trip. It takes a lot longer to explain why The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook spoke to you than it does for someone else to say “YOU KILLED BAMBI!” There’s very little room there for critical thinking.
Why is critical thinking important? Because there’s bad information on both sides of the debate, and critical thinking is a good opportunity to question and double-check this information. One of the discussions I mentioned in the very first paragraph stated that over half of greenhouse gas production is specifically from agriculture; however, the EPA reports that only 10% are from all combined agriculture, livestock and otherwise. Conversely, there are people who honestly think non-human mammals aren’t able to feel pain–yes, there are still those who subscribe to Descartes’ concept of mechanistic physiology in which animals only respond to stimuli because they’re meaty machines, never mind all the modern research to the contrary. And when someone questions either of these assertions, the people who hold to them are likely to just latch on more tightly.
Critical thinking is scary because it can show the flaws and cracks in one’s own beliefs and posits the idea that maybe the other person does have a point. Slogans, on the other hand, often present something as universally desirable for everyone, a much safer but more inaccurate proposition. Even I can see the severe limitations of “Milk: It Does a Body Good”, starting with the significant number of lactose-intolerant and dairy-allergic people out there. This brings me to my final talking point…
We Face Very Complex Problems With More Than One Potential Solution
I am an omnivore in part because I care about the environment. I study (from a layperson’s view, anyway) the entirety of our food system, which is a complicated thing. I am aware of the horrific conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses and the overfishing of the ocean. I also know how the pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals that are sprayed on conventional crops kill countless animals through poisoning all the way through the food web. They also wash into the ocean to harm animals there and create anoxic dead zones. That goes for crops fed both to livestock and to humans, omnivores and veg*ns alike. And I’m aware that a lot of the food in the stores, regardless of what it is, got from its source to the shelf (often by way of lots of processing and packaging) with an immense amount of fossil fuels, water, and other resources. I’ve watched wild lands around my hometown and elsewhere being chewed up for agricultural fields all planted with one single crop, unable to support the diversity of life they once did, and I know that habitat loss is the number one cause of species endangerment and extinction.
For some people, the answer to this is veg*nism–fewer animals die, less grain is required for animal feed, and so forth. It’s a good answer for many. But it’s not the answer that works for me, not just because of my body’s need for animal proteins, but also because I choose to focus my efforts at a greener life a little differently. I buy most of my meat from a free-range ranch a few hours outside of Portland; they have a booth at nearby farmer’s market every weekend. I’ve toured their ranch, too; the animals are entirely pasture-fed, with no grain finish. Those pastures also support a diversity of wildlife and plants, and the soil is nourished by the manure of buffalo, heritage turkeys, and other livestock. I have my plot at the community garden and my collection of pots on my tiny balcony; it’s not enough to feed both me and my partner, but it’s a very good supplement, and we can make up the difference with organic produce (especially during the summer when the farmer’s markets are full to overflowing with choices). And there are fishmongers at the same markets who drove just a couple of hours from the coast–or, in the case of salmon, nearby rivers–with small-scale, sustainable seafood. All these things came locally, cutting down on carbon pollution compared to conventional alternatives that were flown in from out of the country. And the meat I buy is a damned sight better in my mind than a Morningstar Farms veggie burger, produced by Kellogg’s from non-organic soy and other ingredients.
But this is my solution, as someone who is an obligate omnivore, who happens to live in a very food-friendly city, and who has the financial means to pay a little more for organic at the store and the time to tend to a small garden. I would never dream of presenting it as the One True Solution to carbon pollution, factory farming, and dead zones in the ocean. When I write about my adventures in gardening, or share recipes on Tumblr, I’m not doing it to tell people that they should do things my way. Instead, I’m leaving my experiences out there as examples for others to consider along with other information, and to encourage those who have been thinking about trying out the things I’m doing. That’s as far as it goes.
And you know what? I’m fine with being an omnivore. I don’t run around wearing an “OMNIVORE PRIDE!” shirt, because I don’t think diet is something to particularly be proud of or ashamed of either way. But I have carefully considered my options with research and critical thinking and found a solution that both works for my needs, and sits well within my eco-conscious conscience. I’ll always question it, too, as new information comes out and as new options arise, because fundamentalism of any sort sucks. (You can insert your own end comment here about omnivory and sacred cows.)
See, as I’ve gotten older I’ve become something of an aspiring amateur foodie, with a particular emphasis on sustainability. I’m much too cash-strapped to afford any restaurant that has a constellation of Michelin stars, and my partner and I are more likely to shop at CostCo and the farmer’s market than Whole Foods. But we have our community garden plot and a few pots on our tiny apartment balcony, and these help me feel a little more connected to the terrifyingly complex systems that bring food to most Americans’ plates.
Truth be told, I’m probably more aware of these systems and their impacts than the majority of people in this country, which is why The Third Plate has been added to my short list of books I think everyone ought to read. There’s a severe lack of food literacy in the U.S., and in recent years several authors ranging from Michael Pollan to Jane Goodall have offered up their written reasonings on why we need to be paying more attention. We can be a tough audience, though; five decades of being told the environment’s going to hell, life-giving soil included, has served to overstimulate and then numb us to the problems we face. Apathy may very well be our downfall, if we aren’t careful.
But this is why I absolutely loved The Third Plate. It’s a delightfully inviting read, where Barber brings us all along on his journey from his own farm on the skirts of New York City, to an inventive seed facility in the Skagit Valley in Washington, and even far across the Atlantic to coastal Spain where pigs and geese alike root through acorn-studded fields. Each stop brings us face to face with some creative individual working to stop the corporate-harnessed juggernaut that is the American food system, whether through resurrecting old resources, or mindfully inventing new ones (or, quite often, some combination thereof).
This is no dry agriculture textbook, though; instead, the true-life stories of farmers, chefs and other innovators illustrate each chapter as Barber discusses how soil, land, sea and seed all come together to feed us. Right off the bat, we enter into the world of Klaas Martens, a wheat farmer who started with being poisoned by his own chemicals, and embarks on a journey that leads him to perennial wheat with roots as long as Rapunzel’s hair. There’s Veta la Palma, an aquaculture facility (read: fish farm) that defies the stereotype of environmental degradation and instead has become a prime spot for migrating birds (even if they do pick off fish with some frequency). Fans of Southern cooking may be surprised to find that what’s being offered to them is a lie, and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills is determined to shine light on the truth. And far in the Northwest farmlands, Steve Jones works to bolster the available variety of seeds with something old and something new (but nothing GMO), further insuring us against the collapse of a mainstream agriculture that is all too reliant on monocultures and a tiny seed catalog.
These and other key movers and shakers in the grassroots “let’s eat better, more sustainable food” movement share their stories and their motivations through Barber’s words. Not everything goes smoothly; a key critic of overfishing is served a piece of bluefin tuna, and not even the ancient manner in which it was fished can mollify him. And Barber’s own attempts to recreate the “field gras”, a more humane way to grow tasty goose liver, takes some serious trial and error to even get out of the gate (spoiler: opening the gate solves the problem).
But in the end, we’re left with a glowing sense of optimism, even with its realistic tempering. The real beauty of The Third Plate is in its ability to inspire and motivate the reader. Barber (like Pollan, Goodall, and their ilk) presents both the problems inherent to our current food system, and a variety of real-world solutions. Where he really shines, though, is in showing how people more deeply involved in the relevant industries than the average consumer are making real changes. We here on the eating end of things all too often feel like our ability to create change is limited to our buying power (such as it is). Barber shines light on a handful of the growing number of people who are doing extraordinary things in restaurant kitchens, in fields and estuaries, on farms and in research facilities, all aimed at a more sustainable–and flavorful–future of food. By showing where each of these innovators started, what their root problems were, and then sharing the sometimes long and winding paths they took to their current and ongoing solutions, he breaks down the process of changing the world into more accessible portions. And in doing so he reveals that every one of them is just an ordinary person doing their best right along with the rest of us.
I find that to be incredibly inspiring, particularly as a person of rather limited means and resources. Even before I was finished with the first section of the book on soil, I was already researching options for getting the soil in my little 10′ x 20′ community garden plot tested, and wondering if I should try to plant a winter crop of emmer wheat next to my red clover cover to help the soil this autumn. This is a book for creating dreams, even if they’re a little over the top. Because it’s that willingness to break out of established parameters and be a little crazy that has given the people in this book–and Barber himself–the power and impetus to make change happen. I’ll be doing more reading and research into organic farming beyond “no chemicals”, but I’ll also return to The Third Plate whenever I feel my enthusiasm flagging.
As to who should read this book? Like I said in the beginning: everyone. Even if you don’t garden, even if you’ve never even been on a farm, no matter what your dietary choices and restrictions may be–if you eat food, this is a must-read. And don’t be scared by the almost 500 pages contained between the covers; it’s a fast, compelling read that has the power to keep you up well past bedtime.
I’ve always had a pretty psychology-heavy approach to spirituality, even before I went to grad school. I confess that I am one of those people who studied psychology in part to figure myself out; while in some ways I am a very capable, functional and adaptable human being, I do have my challenges. I’ve used therapy for years to help treat my anxiety and other idiosyncracies, but even when going on a weekly basis, I still have to attend to myself the other 167 hours. For a good long while I used meditation, with a strong focus on emotional processing, as a big part of my personal psychological toolkit.
It worked pretty well for several years. It gave me an outlet for exploring the weird twists and turns of my mind, particularly regarding my past. I grew up in a pretty safe and loving household, and even if I seemed to be a peculiar child, I was never, ever unwanted. But I also grew up with a constant onslaught of bullying at school, starting in second grade and going all the way to the end of high school. I had very few friends, and most of the ones I did have would often turn on me with no notice. For years I found refuge outdoors, alone and mostly unsupervised, able to immerse myself in the fauna and flora and fungi around me. But there was an additional trauma when the woods I took refuge in were suddenly and brutally bulldozed, and I found myself with nowhere to turn with my grief.
My twenties were tough, and I spent a lot of time trying to detangle myself from all these early influences. And for a while, it served its purpose. I gained more awareness of why I behaved in certain ways, and felt a little less like a badly programmed automaton. I even did some rite of passage work to banish certain behavior patterns or the effects of particular memories as a way of trying to reprogram myself.
But knowing how my brain worked and doing one-off symbolic actions wasn’t enough. In fact, beyond a certain point, it became counterproductive. I started spending too much time in my head, and would retreat into it as a defense against the anxiety, stress and other nasties that had plagued me for so long. I thought that if I could just tell my life story a little more clearly, I’d somehow be free of it, once that final piece was laid into place.
That’s not how it happened, of course. I just obsessed over my past more and more. More destructively, I was judging and measuring and nitpicking my every move and thought and trying to determine “Well, why am I doing this?” I was my own special little lab rat. I’d do a thing, and then I’d analyze it to death, and then I’d write up the “results”, usually on Livejournal. I don’t even want to think about how many pages-long posts of agonized processing I word-spewed onto the update page (thankfully hidden under LJ-cuts to spare my followers who didn’t give a crap what was going on in the deepest convolutions of my gray matter). It can basically all be summed up as “I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS THING FROM MY PAST BECAUSE I DID A THING NOW THAT REMINDED ME OF IT AND NOW I’M GOING TO TAKE AN EXACTO BLADE AND SLICE IT UP INTO TINY BITS AND SCRUTINIZE IT UNDER THIS MICROSCOPE AND LOOK AT HOW DEEP AND INTROSPECTIVE I AM EXCUSE ME WHILE I GO MEDITATE AND REFLECT AND PROCESS IT SOME MORE IT’S NOT MUSHY ENOUGH”.
This was all amplified when I ended up in a relationship for a few years with someone who also did a good deal of internal processing and past-picking. Now I had someone else encouraging me to dig deeper, spend more time “sitting with myself” and my problems and my pain and otherwise focusing on the stuff in my head. Some of their suggested techniques were different than what I was doing, but the result was the same–I stayed stuck in my head, a broken record skipping over the same crack again and again and thinking that the sound I made was the music I was supposed to hear. Eventually it became something of a horrible feedback loop between us, especially when we’d fight–instead of dealing with the problem itself, we’d take turns explaining exactly why we were each behaving the way we were, sometimes spending hours in this war-storying* circlejerk. Unsurprisingly, the actual thing we were fighting about rarely got addressed, and it would just come up again later. In the interim, we’d both meditate and otherwise “reflect” on ourselves and our quirks and flaws in an attempt to gain control of them, which invariably did little good. I was supposed to be visiting my past in these meditations as a way of giving myself control in my everyday life, but instead all I was doing was reinforcing the neurological pathways in my brain that led to the anxiety and other problems.
This approach to “fixing things” continued until I became involved with my current partner a few years ago and began trying the same processing patterns with him. Not too long into our relationship, I had a bit of an anxiety attack, and my immediate response was to open up the mental Rolodex of “Why is this happening? What patterns in my childhood led to this response behavior?” and so forth, going over the same tired examples in the hopes of finding some new little twist I’d missed before. He’d seen this happen a few times, and he’s a pretty observant person; I’ve actually learned quite a bit about empathy and active listening from him.
So he stopped me in mid-sentence. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of “Lupa, what are you trying to do? You’re not ten years old any more; you’re not fifteen, and you’re not twenty. You are who you are now, and you need to stop hanging on so tightly to who you were back then. Be here now.” And then instead of letting me continue to obsess over the reasons for my anxiety attack and what created my anxiety disorder in the first place and who bullied me, etc. etc., which kept my anxiety heightened until I exhausted myself, he carefully walked me through the anxiety, calmed me down, and grounded me in the present.
It boggles my mind that until that point no one had ever effectively done that for me before. I’d gotten a lot of dismissive remarks like “Just get over it” and “What are you making such a big deal for?” I’d gotten yelled at and bullied and retraumatized into shutting up by those who couldn’t handle what was happening to me any more than I could, even by people who were supposed to be helping me. And I’d both inflicted on myself and had reinforced by others this idea that if I just “sat with my past” it would fix everything and empower me to change; in the end, people who thought they were helping me by leading me deeper into myself were just perpetuating the problem and hurting me even more with their “expertise”. And yet someone who had only known me for a handful of weeks was able to see where I was stuck in my head and gave me a lifeline out of it.
It took me a while after that incident to break myself of the instant response of “INTERNALIZE! PROCESS! REFLECT!” whenever I got hit with stress. There were plenty of times where I realized, or my partner observed, that “Lupa, you’re doing that thing again. Quit it. Come back here.” And being that I was deep in grad school at the time, I was embroiled in upper-level psych and counseling classes that kept unearthing things in my head (this is why my program required every student to receive at least ten hours of therapy before starting their practicum). So it was a hard fight out of my internal cage.
But eventually I got there. I don’t remember the precise time when things shifted; like so much growth, it was gradual–as opposed to the sudden growth spurts I think I must have been expecting with every new revelation I discovered about my past during meditations and processing sessions. It’s been a couple of years at least, though, since I can remember it happening.
Of course, some things are still the same old Lupa–I still have anxiety attacks now and then, usually from fairly predictable stimuli. But at least now my panicking brain focuses on the here and now, along with some catastrophizing about the future. The catastrophizing I can get around by reminding myself that I’m looking at the worst case scenario and the future hasn’t arrived yet so it does no good to worry about it now, and so then I can get down to the business of the present. And because I’m shifting my focus to the present, I become aware, most of the times when an attack happens, that my mind is going haywire because my brain and body are flooded with fight, flight or freeze chemicals, and I hang onto that awareness til the chemicals flush out of my system and I can think rationally again.
More importantly, I’m not constantly reinforcing that connection with my past. While I have an understanding of how my past shaped who I am today, it’s no longer the central focus of my identity like it used to be. Instead, “influences from my past” is just one of many and varied threads of self that all weave together to create who I am in this moment. Nor do I have to nitpick every single thing I do under the magnifying glass of my past. If I happen to notice a connection between past and present, I note it briefly, usually with a bit of curiosity and “Huh, okay, that makes sense”. And then I move the fuck on with my day.
This is a big part of why my path has shifted so drastically to the physical in recent years. Pagans talk about “grounding” in the sense of visualizing one’s self being energetically rooted into the earth. Sometimes it involves symbols of nature, like pretending to be a tree and putting down roots, but it’s still a technique based on being in my head. The best thing for me has been being grounded right here in the moment, not pretending to be a tree or a beam of light or a cloud, but being me, Lupa, in the flesh. I’m tired of willful dissociation, and I’ve wasted too much time on it. Now, when I feel overwhelmed, I go back to what worked first in my life–I go outside, preferably alone and where it’s quiet. It allows me respite from my thoughts, and it does things that reduce the physiological causes of anxiety and stress, like lowering my blood pressure and letting my senses drift instead of focus hard. My answer to problems is not to think more, but to think less for a while, and rest from thinking. When I come back, my thoughts and plans are more calm and steady, not frazzled from reaching inside for THE ANSWERS.
Does this mean I’ve written off meditation entirely? Absolutely not. But these days I use it as an antidote to overthinking; my meditation is based in mindfulness, not magic. Even when I do guided visualizations I’m not trying to power my way through chakra blockages or go on quests to seek the grails within. Instead, what I visualize are things that reconnect me with the physical world. With my eyes closed, I try to pinpoint exactly where a particular sound is coming from, or to remember where I am in location to a specific tree. And then when I open my eyes again, I am fully here and now again, not rabbiting off down some path to the mean old past yet again.
And that’s made all the difference. A few years ago, if I were talking about my relationship with meditation down the years, I’d be hyper-analyzing every detail of the story, and finishing it with “…and that’s why I am the way I am today! Look how smart I am for recognizing that!” And that’s it. This post is a curious note in my thoughts today, where I realized “Oh, hey, remember that thing you used to do, Lupa? You haven’t done it in years!” And my response was “Oh, hey, that’s cool.” I thought maybe my cautionary tale would be of interest to some readers, maybe if others are stuck in the same headspace; I got out, and maybe you can, too.
As to my ongoing work to calm my anxiety? I acknowledge that my brain doesn’t quite work right; maybe that’ll change someday, maybe not, but I don’t need to try to figure out every single thing that led up to it being the way it is. It’s okay that I’m able to largely ignore injuries of the past and let them work on healing while I do other stuff. I’m like this little puppy with a busted leg all wrapped up, run-stumbling around Tumblr lately:
Like Tumblr user iraffiruse said about the pup:
Some people might feel sorry for themselves in this situation
Puppy don’t care
Puppy’s got stuff to do
Puppy’s got places to be
Puppy’s got people to bark at and things to sniff.
And I think I can relate to that little ouch-legged pup in that.
* War-storying is a term I picked up from when I was interning at an addictions treatment facility in my final year of grad school. It refers to a phenomenon in addictions treatment where the client spends their time telling and re-telling stories from their past to get an emotional rise out of themselves and, as they hope, their audience. It isn’t particularly effective, as it’s just reliving the experience rather than attending to its effects in the now. It’s also very similar to some of the “internal work” I was attempting to do.
This past weekend, I listed the first big bunch of animal hide headdresses that I’ve posted in about a year over on my Etsy shop. Traditionally, headdresses have been a mainstay of my artwork; I made my first one in 2002, and have continued with it ever since. They’ve become one of my signature offerings, and I’ve made hundreds of them in the past decade and change, both on spec and as custom orders.
Last year, during the summer when I was doing temp work full-time at my old internship site, I was also struggling to keep the Green Wolf going as a business. I knew the day job was only going to be a few months, and I needed something to come back to once it was done. It was really exhausting, as you might well imagine, and during the latter weeks of this experience I found myself feeling quite pent-up creatively. I only had the time to keep making the most bare-bones fundamentals of my shop and booth, and there wasn’t a lot of time for what I call “me art time”, which is where I get to experiment with creativity, try new techniques and materials, and so forth. It felt pretty stifling.
So by the time October rolled around and I was free to be self-employed again, I found myself being completely unwilling to go back to my old rotation of “Today I’ll make this sort of thing, and tomorrow I’ll make these, and the next I’ll get some more of those going…” I wanted to shake things up a bit (while also making sure I kept paying my bills!) So I dove into some new artistic territory, doing more assemblage pieces and other experiments.
Along the way, a few of my old stand-bys fell to the wayside for a bit. Some of this was sheerly circumstantial; I just didn’t make the time. But the headdresses were deliberately shelved. I’d spent so many years making them, and they were such big, impressive pieces, that the rest of my work often got overlooked and I felt like maybe I was just becoming “Lupa the headdress artist”. It’s not that I didn’t love the ones that I made; I’ve always enjoyed creating them, and dancing with my own. But I needed a break from them.
So other than a few headdresses for my vending booth and whatever custom orders came in, I stopped making them a regular part of my art. I kept experimenting with new media, and pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I began feeling that I didn’t just want to not be known only as “Lupa the headdress artist”–I also felt corralled into the label of “Lupa the hide and bone artist”. So I spent much of the winter trying to reinvent myself and my artwork, not throwing out the good things, but adding on more good things, if that makes sense.
I really needed it, too. One of the things about being an artist for a living, rather than as a hobby, or having someone else financially supporting you while you make art, is that there are certain popular pieces that will replace your day job as your primary form of income. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with them, too, and I realized that art had stopped being as much fun because of it. I needed to be able to get back to my roots as a creative person, that busy, somewhat crazed immersion in possibilities melded with opportunities serving as brief snapshots of where I was with regards to skill and inspiration.
And I think I felt I needed to prove something to myself and to others–that I wasn’t just a one-trick artist, that I didn’t just make headdresses (and a few other things). Moreover, at some point making headdresses became trendy, and more and more people started trying to cash in. I didn’t want to get lost in the masses, but I didn’t want to define myself by just making yet another variation on the headdress.
So that’s where a lot of my experimentation came from. And it worked. I felt a lot less stifled creatively, and more motivated to make both my old stand-bys and shiny new things, too. I got good response from people with my newer pieces as well as the classics. I got the rejuvenation I needed, and became a better artist as a result.
It wasn’t until this month, though, that I felt ready to go back to the headdresses. I missed them, really, and while I really enjoy making custom pieces for other people, it’s not the same as getting to create them on my own time, with no restrictions. So I pulled out a few hides I had stored away and spent a couple of weeks stitching up tears and holes, reshaping ears and faces, adding straps, and getting them ready to wear.
And then I went out with my friend Julie to Laurelhurst Park where she graciously modeled the new headdresses for me while I took photos. As I did, I felt my old enthusiasm for the headdresses coming back. Watching another person take on these spirits, even for a few minutes, and enjoy connecting with them reminded me why I started making them in the first place. I wanted to see them go to new homes where they could have that kind of attention more often, and teach someone new how to dance and shift and return to their animal selves. I wanted them to have the same opportunities my own headdresses had, and make those new relationships happen.
It led to a sense of completion, like the last piece fell into place–for the moment, anyway. No doubt I’ll want to shake things up again before too long. But for the moment, I think it’s going to be a good summer for headdresses.
See that tiny little bar of metal in my hand? That was embedded in the upper edge of my navel for a decade, the one remaining piercing of a trio I got (navel, both ears) in 2004. These days getting your belly button pierced is a fairly benign modification; here in Portland even facial piercings often don’t register as odd. But for the person I was ten years ago, it was part of a personal revolution.
Everyone’s life goes through transformative periods, some longer and/or bumpier than others. I’m not talking the full onset of lycanthropy, of course, but the times that try souls–and personal resilience. Sometimes one event sets off a cascade of effects that brings a person’s whole life crashing down; any built-up stagnation comes pouring out in a series of messy floods. Eventually, out of this slippery mess slides not so much a phoenix reborn as a brand-new foal still coated in amniotic fluid, not quite sure what leg goes where, and in danger of being eaten by predators–but if the cards are right, that foal’s a unicorn and is going to go some great places once it figures those legs out.
That was my 2004, back when I was still living in Pittsburgh. In a space of about eight months I was dumped twice, moved three times, switched from a third shift job to a very early first shift one with a totally different skill set, and had the first really bad spike of anxiety in my independent adult life. Amid all that I decided that I needed to explore all the crazy things I never did as a fairly sheltered teenager years before, when I was isolated and friendless in a small town. I won’t go into too much detail about my much-delayed rebellion; suffice it to say the main things I retain from it today are a better understanding of Things Not To Do, my first tattoo, my preference for classic black high-top Chuck Taylors as everyday footwear*, and a hole at the top of my navel.
Everything but the shoes could be considered rites of passage to one degree or another. The piercing was probably the toughest of all in some ways, and certainly the most deliberate. I am not a fan of needles at all, and while I’m better than I used to be (I no longer panic while having blood drawn), at the time sharp things were a source of great fear. In order to confront that fear, I decided to get my ears and navel pierced. I figured they were the least likely places to experience nerve damage, and I’d already had my ears done once when I was a child (I eventually got tired of earrings and took them out) so the navel would be an additional challenge. Suffice it to say I went into the piercing parlor all by myself and survived the ordeal with nothing more than a chorus of “Ow, ow, ow”, but it was worth it for the adrenaline and the feeling of accomplishment. I had survived something I had thought I’d never do, and I felt pretty damned brave. I used that experience to help me get through other tough times and to challenge myself further; there were literally situations in which I told myself “Look, you had a piece of metal shoved through your skin and got through that just fine. You can totally handle this, too.”
Up until this past Saturday, my navel had the aforementioned (and pictured) little banana bar of steel through it. It was the original piece of jewelry I got when I had the piercing done. I kept it in because by the time it healed completely, I’d already had my ear piercings close up after less than a week of having to take them out at work. I was reading utility meters at the time, and my manager, who had aspirations of being a petty dictator (emphasis on the “petty”) had told everyone that no ear jewelry was allowed, not even tiny studs, in case they got caught on underbrush or other hazards while playing “Find the Meter” in people’s landscaping. My mutant healing factor must have kicked in, and by day three of this policy, I was no longer able to force the earrings back into the holes at the end of an eight-hour shift.
But I still had my navel piercing, and I hung onto it like the last remnant of my freedom. It lasted longer than that job did, longer than my time in Pittsburgh (plus a year in Seattle), even longer than my ill-fated marriage. As I continued to move from apartment to apartment, dealt with divorce and learning healthier relationship practices, survived graduate school, and settled into self-employment, the piercing remained as a link to a younger, more chaotic self. Not in any bad way, mind you; I was quite fond of it, and still appreciated my bravery even a decade later.
It was not to remain that way, though. I’ve been prone in the last few years to assorted problems in my digestive system, some of which are probably genetic and others–well, who knows where the hell they came from? So I got pretty good at paying attention to any pains in my midsection. Every so often I’d have a little twinge of discomfort right around the piercing that would last anywhere from an hour to a day. I never thought much of it; maybe it was just getting caught on my clothing. But this past week I had pain there that, although it registered around a two on my pain scale, didn’t go away, and I decided that in order to help in a potential diagnosis, the jewelry had to be taken out. Maybe I had developed an allergy to the metal, or perhaps my body was just sick of it. But if I wanted to be sure that was all it was, I needed to eliminate the possibility entirely.
Now, I’d been wearing this thing for so long that the ball had gotten stuck on the end; try as I might, I couldn’t remove it. For a moment I had nightmare visions of having to snip off the end with a pair of bolt cutters and then file the edges so it wouldn’t tear me up on the way out–and then I had the brilliant idea of seeing if a professional piercer might have a better idea. So my partner and I headed down to Ritual Arts in the Hollywood District, where resident piercer Shane 7 Wolfe somehow sweet-talked that tiny, stubborn piece of steel into cooperating. (Seriously, if that’s not the mark of a good magician I don’t know what is.)
As it turned out, removing the piercing didn’t make the pain go away, and as it got worse, I made the decision Saturday night to go to the emergency room. I didn’t want to wait until Monday in case it got worse, even though I wasn’t running a fever or showing other serious symptoms; I figured if I caught it early enough that at the worst I’d be sent home with some antibiotics. (The last time I waited on having abdominal pain checked out I ended up in the hospital for two days under IV antibiotics and the threat of surgery if I didn’t get better. Lesson learned.) It turned out to just be a mild intestinal virus from who knows where (maybe I didn’t rinse the dirt off the radishes I ate from my garden well enough?), and I was sent home with nothing more than a prescription to help with the pain if it got worse and instructions to just let it work its way through my system.
At this point I had the option to put the bar back in my navel. And I did seriously consider it for a moment. But then I thought back to all those times that I was worried by pain, and the confounding factor that the piercing entered into any potential assessment of the cause. I’m not likely to have my digestive system miraculously recover its intestinal fortitude (ha!), and it’s almost certain that as I get older (and especially now that the warranty has expired on my body, drivetrain and all) there’ll be more random flareups. So it’s more prudent to not complicate the matter any more than I need to.
And that choice became a rite of passage in and of itself. Whereas a decade ago the message was about bravery and facing scary things head-on, now that I’m well into my thirties I have more experience with those scary things. Rather than leaping in to engage them in battle, it’s a wiser choice for me to prepare for them if they make an advance. I’ve proven to myself time and again now that I’m more resilient than I sometimes think. I don’t need to look down at that little piece of metal to remind myself of that any more.
But I did hang onto it as a memento. It has a safe place in my home, and I’ll run across it every so often and remember. It’ll be a while before the hole in my skin closes up, too, and there’ll always be a scar to remind me of my brave act. I must admit that I prefer not having that constant feeling, ever so small, of something being there, moving around., filling up space. Even with today’s challenges, comfort has become more of a priority than ever, and I’ll take this little bit of comfort that moves me a little more into a new stage of life.
* I’ve been trying to find a sweatshop-free alternative that’s available consistently in the U.S. ever since No Sweat Apparel discontinued their lookalikes a few years ago and went wholesale-only. I’m aware of Autonomie’s Ethletics, which are a good option, except none of the distributors seem to ship to the states, and gods know how much that would cost even if they did. Suggestions are appreciated.