You can listen to this essay here (17 mins)
The Breaking Open.
Sometimes we need time away to move towards.
Sometimes we need to understand the towards by virtue of distance.
Sometimes distance is the exact measure of proximity.
Sometimes proximity trades in the currency of tenderness.
Sometimes only in returning do we understand what it is we have been grasping to hold.
Schull, West Cork. In the aftermath:
My palms return full, coaxed towards the sky, prayer bound. In one hand: the textures of grief; in the other: the defiance of love. Strung between the two palms; a broken open heart, and a line travelling holding the creative tension of a renewed task: to stay broken open for therein lies the seeds of possibility. What happens next is about root, and flourish.
I’ve needed time away. Away from social media, away from my default of words and ideas, away from routine, and particularly away from screens. Like so many of us, the Covid restrictions were pressing inwards and the moment of release had arrived; like a pressure valve, it was time to let off some steam. So when an invite came from Yerina and Juliana, some friends in California to join them on a road trip to Oregon to attend another friend, Cindy’s play, in Portland, how could I resist. It would be over a 2000km round trip, tracing the run of the Cascade mountains, crossing through State parks and reserves. And so it was that the waters of time and possibility parted, and I joined the jet stream. From the West Coast of Ireland to the West Coast of the US, from the edge of one continent to the edge of another, what is it about edges that hold such fracture, and such grace?
Into the belly of friendship I fell. Into a sisterhood of solidarity and unrelentless care, I was swallowed. Songs blasting on the car speakers, singing our hearts out, singing our souls out, singing it all out, because suddenly, we can. Jumping on hotel beds, because we can. Walking for miles through Redwood forests, Douglas fir and eucalyptus, laurel and cedar, watching out for bears, then from the pungency of the dense forest floor, looking up through the high canopies to buzzards and white-tailed eagles on wing, in praise of the sky and the stars and the wonder of knowing so little. Tracking coyotes, finding out about about gophers, learning about badger habitats, identifying plant species, down in the dirt learning about the hidden trails and systems which help to keep everything bound. Reading poetry late into the night. Playing cards later into the night. Skimming stones. Watching the ripples radiate. Dancing out our hips. Dancing our feet out. Dancing because sometimes dancing is the only thing that makes sense. 80s tunes. 90s. Irish jigs and Swedish drinking songs. Columbian melodrama and an array of romance. We even made up our own tunes, and failed miserably. So we danced. Dancing because to deny dancing is to deny the joy, deny the passion in the joy, deny what it is we are really craving. Dancing because sometimes the pain of the fracture is too much for one body to bear. Dancing because reading the news of the fracture, bearing witness to the fault lines, seeing the repercussions of the fear and the division, is as about as far away from dancing as you can get. So we come to the conclusion: let’s not evade the joy, let’s create it instead.
The living room was filled with candles, a plate of nightlights in the centre- like a vigil, holding court. Along the stairs and the mantle, rings of light to settle ourselves among. When Yerina sent out the poetry salon invite to her network, her network seemed to grow. The yeses were expanding at a rate her living room may not have been able to hold. Yes said the professors, and the students, and the cook and the community radio worker. Yes said the surgeon and the psychologist, the activist and the ethnomusicologist. It was the poetry getting the yes, but so too Yerina’s hospitality and a craving in them all: to gather and to gather in circle. To listen.
‘What might the promise of the salon hold this time?’ I wondered. It would be the first live salon I’ve hosted in over two years, and I could feel the pulse of it already thicken.
In ancient times we gathered in circle around a fire, telling stories, sharing tales. Now, the candles flickered and the circle opened.
I gave the room over an Irish woman to begin. Paula Meehan’s poem, ‘Seed’, felt seasonally and metaphorically appropriate- a phoenix poem on the alchemy of seed and sun, in ‘conspiracy with the underground’; a poem of blessing, a poem to acknowledge the turning of a season in time- temporally and internally; a poem of gratitude to a greater force. I read it twice. The first is always for entry. The second to let it really in and see what moves.
I could sense a collective sigh in the room. The gratitude for the turning, perhaps, but this has been a season like none other. I was aware of a gravity and a weight of the bodies in the room- each body having held its own form of grief, it’s own particular struggle in these years. That’s the thing: no body has been immune, and too different degrees the pandemic has shaped and moulded the outer lives of so many, but also the inner. And to what extent have we held space to sense the new shape of us, to feel who we are now?
I see the bodies breathing, communing again in a kind of circular time. This feels ancient, yet this feels fresh. The flickering renders the room soft, safe, and into that yielding, I feel it is both appropriate and timely to gesture directly to those griefs- to the ones we have been living, and to the incoming ones of these fractured times. To move beyond, I have realised, we must first learn to move through.
It is then I decide to offer one of my own poems into the mix. C19 was written at the start of the pandemic when the numbers of then belied the numbers of now, when little did we know but so much did we feel, and fear. The poem is about the power of naming and our need to account.
…To the grandmother, to the grandfather, to the lover, to the best friend,
to the woman who loved to knit teddybears for the children in the hospital, to the nurse about to give birth..
Can we name the particulars, the poem asks, and acknowledge the human within the masses, consider the lives and the stories each one has marked, and the mark we are yet to make.
‘Tomorrow, we are the ones who get to live another day’, the poem concludes, ‘so we can name the dead by their gifts, and live them onwards
with the days we are still lucky enough to count’
I pause. With the days we are still lucky enough to count.
I can sense tears in the room. A silence descends, like the minute silence at a wake, held in memory and in honour, a silent nod to the hidden grief between us. Below, I know there are still layers of grief not yet ready to speak their name. The circle has a way of embrace, and recognition.
That evening, we let the poetry encircle.There are poems in English and poems in Spanish. There are old poems, and baby ones. Some poets in the room who may not yet realise they have every permission to call themselves such, read their own work. There is a poem about joy, and appropriately, there is a poem about dancing.
We have come to be danced, writes the poet Jewel Mathison
Not the pretty dance
Not the pretty pretty, pick me, pick me dance
But the claw our way back into the belly
Of the sacred, sensual animal dance.
The unhinged, unplugged, cat is out of its box dance
The holding the precious moment in the palms.
Of our hands and feet dance.
Later, when we’ve exhausted the room of words, when only a small handful of us remain, we turn the music up loud, and yes, we let down our hair, and we dance.
I used to think that joy and pain were a continuum- related, but like distant cousins, once removed, only partially resembling each other. But as I grow older, I’ve come to know them as identical twins; held strong through their blood bond, tied to each other in a way which makes each other stronger. To experience full joy, am I also willing to experience the reality of pain, of grief? And to live into that pain- so I may move through it- am I also willing to make space for its bedfellow: joy. Pain and joy. Twin A and Twin B: conjoined amplifiers on the continuum of living a fully lived life- intense and difficult that may be at times- but fully lived.
On the Road to Portland
The Redwoods grow in circular stands, tall and clustered, familial, in dialogue with generations and a timeline beyond the span of our own. Beneath them, breathing with them and noticing the way the canopy is dense in part and loose in others, I am aware of their strength and their holding. This is arboreal nobility; a monarchy of trees, one could think their reign could go on forever. But this is certainly not the case, and at the hands of man, chainsaws, and clear-cut policies, these are the trees which built the American West; railway sleepers, beams, telegraph poles, scaffolding, electrification of the urban dream, San Francisco. So much old growth forest consumed with a notion of progress which forfeits real motions of growth. Listening now, I can sense the poetics of the Redwood forest hold sacred secrets. I want the trees to keep their secrets hidden, in case they too will be consumed.
The songs blare on the car speakers. We’re heading North, on a Latin America roll. There is tango coming from the back seat, and salsa in the front. Until that is, the mood dies and we begin to see the skeletons. Miles and miles of charred forest. Blackened hillsides. They call it fire season now, I hear, as if the seasonality is taken as a given. Like Fall.
We return to another kind of silence. ‘Am I really witnessing this?’, I wonder. I’d seen footage, of course, and I’d read essays, climate change polemics and reports, but this is barren and black and bleak. For miles. Then we notice the waterline. Shasta reservoir, fed from the melt waters of Mount Shasta; a mountain revered for generations, sacred to the Klamath tribes, site of myth and legend, now so low we can see layers of grooves along its banks, each groove a marker of the receding. The melt waters have not returned. This season, already 125ft from capacity. What level of receding becomes normalised? When is drought taken as given?
I trace the waterlines like scars; a new map of the territory is being drawn. Then I drive on, complicit.
It is so hard to reconcile travel in this age of complicity. The flight, the car, participant with the fossil fuel engine of the economy. But what of friendships, and what of connection? What of travelling poetry salons and writing workshops? What of learning and exploring and different smells, tastes, languages, perspectives? Do I give this up? Or stay longer, or do less of it? For the moment I choose to go, knowing my choice is bound with a system which exploits the very things I care most about. My heart breaks that bit more and I realise I need to ask myself some direct questions. So what am I willing to do to amplify that care? And for as much as I take, how much more can I offer back in return. Then amplify that.
Something always brings me back to story.
Time is a malleable mould. It seemed like we were moving for days. There was another friend’s home, and a friend of a friend, whose doors welcomed us as if we were returning ancestors, here to complete a cycle. We soaked in a hot tub, sharing tales of love won and love lost and dreams still yet unfolding. We talk of nature, climate change, somatic psychotherapy, poets and the creative process, psilocybin, politics, racial healing, the constraints and the gifts of marriage, languages, hope. We make pasta from scratch and roll each strand as if they are bonds to sustain our connection. We walk dogs, play more cards, wander in bookshops. We eat a lot, drink the best of wines, and my gosh, do we laugh. I don’t want it to end.
Of course, everything comes to an end, but need it come to a conclusion?
Away from screens, and away from the daily familiar, distance was holding a mirror up to me, and a bridge. Travel was reaching out a hand to guide me to parts of myself I have forgotten about, or simply did not have the chance to encounter in the lockdown/ lock in. Now instead, the newness was a platform to look back and see where I have come from, and sense into the gap which I am being called now to grow.
One night, Juliana said she had a gift for us. She’d been mischievous all day, dodging questions, disappearing for a few hours, sneaky grins.
We’d made our way to Portland, five women now- Juliana, Yerina, Cindy and Emily. We’d all met four years ago, held in the presence of another circles of Redwoods, as part of the On Being gathering. We’ve been meeting every month since, online, for conversation, connection, presence. But a body is a body is a body. I had not realised the extent to which I was craving the living breathing presence of being. Until, that is, I got it, on full blast in this circle of wise and wild, wonderful women.
Juliana made us stand outside the living room, blindfolded us, then guided us one by one to a seat. Waiting, waiting. Then on came the music and the poem, off came our blindfolds, and out came her dance. She danced the dance of her life, her long flowing dress capturing the movement of flamenco, her sway like the current of flight, and the ocean. A woman, who just that week had become a grandmother, abuela, for the first time, dancing because sometimes that is the best way to say, ‘let’s celebrate, each of you for your fullness and your femininity, for all that we are and all that we are becoming’.
She then gave us books as yet more gifts, we shared more poems, she gave us sparkly gloves and some sparkly bindis, we laughed so hard, and yes, we danced.
In returning now, there is still remembrance in my bones: all this movement is an embodiment of what friendship can create, a sanctuary of presence to that which is unfolding around us and within us. The friendships are a way to let our own light in, then to amplify each others, even through the pulse of our fears, and the grief. And there is a remembrance now too, it is easier when we learn how to travel together, for then we can help each other navigate our own edges with more acceptance and grace. This, I realise, is compassion in action. This time, it happened to come in circles.
Into the circles of Redwoods, I was awed. Into the circles of poetry I was enchanted. Into the circle of friendship I was held, then held deeper. It was a trip where my sense of scale was expanded, and the distance mapped outward would mirror the distance mapped inward. For the trees and the rivers, my heart breaks. For the divides and the fractures, it breaks some more. For the fear and the fearful, yet more divide. In one palm I still hold the pain. But in the other I hold this renewed sense of possibility- this love, this love, this love. And in the breaking, in the opening, suddenly, space.
Sometimes only in returning do we understand what it is we have been grasping to hold.