Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Muse of Fire

The Sister from Below is Pleased to Announce

A Political Poetry Reading

Naomi Ruth Lowinsky and Dale Jensen
will read from their chapbooks

Oct. 1, 2020 7-8:30 pm

To attend please register at:

The reading will be available on YouTube after Oct. 1: https://tinyurl.com/newsfrommuse

* * * * * * * 

The Muse of Fire

And so we had to taste hell
C.G. Jung The Red Book

Photo by Jessica Christian, The San Francisco Chronicle


the haters will crawl out from under their rocks
the “white only” nation come out of the woodwork
You won’t know whose country you’re in

                                “Wishing in the Woods     with Hillary"

We wake to the taste of ash in our mouths. The sky has an ominous sepia glow. Day never breaks. Our devices tell us its morning, but it is dark as night. The air quality index is dangerously high. We are filled with a primal fear our ancestors would recognize—what if the sun doesn’t rise?

What world are we in? Some call it Apocalypse. Some call The End Times. Some say it’s the fever dream of our Mother Earth—grievously ill. Some call it Wednesday, September 9, 2020 in California’s worst fire season yet.

Photo by Jessica Christian, The San Francisco Chronicle

Dan and I have been sheltering in place since the Ides of March. We’ve developed the rituals the lucky ones can afford in these times. I work from home. We have weekly family gatherings on Zoom. We get our groceries delivered and our kids help us out with farmer’s market produce and runs to Costco. We’ve learned to live in an introverted seclusion that has its pleasures. But crises keep erupting like new heads on the monster. Count them:

There’s the climate change crisis. That’s been a worry for at least forty years, though it has only recently been taken seriously, at least by some of us. In California decades of drought caused by rising temperatures have left the forests and the wild lands urban interface desiccated—ripe for wildfire.

Photo by Gabrielle Lurie, The San Francisco Chronicle

There’s the political crisis we’ve been in since the 2016 elections, which many of us think were stolen with help from the Russians or by voter suppression—or both—giving us a berserker President who yanked our country out of the Paris Climate Accords because, he claims, climate change is a hoax.

Since March we’ve been in the grip of an invisible killer—intent on inflaming our lungs— who has driven us into our caves. This too, says our leader, is a hoax, and the fault of the Chinese. According to Bob Woodward’s new book Rage, the President told him—on tape in February—that he lied to America about how deadly the virus is.

Rage is the right word for this time. It’s a fire that burns hot in me and everyone I know, outraged and beside ourselves with the corruption, cruelty, mendacity and greed of this administration. Rage is the fire that engulfed the country when we were witness to George Floyd’s terrible death, which ripped the veils of denial about systemic racism off many people’s eyes. We had a moment of hope. There were people of all ages and ethnicities in the streets, protesting the ongoing crisis of black and brown people murdered by police.

We began acknowledging inequities, how many more black and brown people were dying of the coronavirus, how much more they suffered the financial fiasco caused by a pandemic run amuck, with no leadership or responsibility taken by the Federal Government.

In the perverse way new heads keep growing on that monster, we watched in horror as peaceful protests were broken up by brown shirted officials without identification who arrested demonstrators for no reason, or by right wing thugs, whose fury was ignited by the racist–in–chief. He blames racial tensions on the left, especially on anti-fascists, known as Antifa, which makes no sense, since Antifa is not an organization, has no mission statement, no meetings, is essentially a right wing fantasy. He calls systemic racism—you guessed it—a hoax, and in his inimitable way, steals the media thunder and turns the protests into riots. The man is a walking crisis. Whatever he touches explodes in Rage.

Symphony Fantastique by Brad Tepaske

And then, as though the weather were enacting the dangerous fires of our politics, California was struck by lightening—1100 strikes—causing hundreds of wildfires in lands that hadn’t burned in years. Many had to evacuate. Many lost their homes. This in the midst of a frightening heat wave that kept us indoors. Not to mention the heavy smoke in the air—full of toxins, the remains of people’s houses, the remains of beloved forest lands. What has happened to temperate golden California? Our habitat is turning against us. We bought more air filters and turned up the air conditioning.

Photos by Scott Strazzante, San Francisco Chronicle
Crises collided with crises, as though the monster’s many heads were attacking each other. We watched our grandchildren struggle to find their way as colleges sent them home to study in isolation on screens, and their paths were obscured by ash. We worried about those less fortunate than we are. There is an ongoing housing crisis in California. As people lost their unemployment insurance and the extra money the government had been providing, how would they pay their rent? The Republicans in Congress are dead set against helping the economy by helping the poor. We have an ongoing crisis of homelessness. How can the jobless pay their rent? Where are they supposed to go? Live with relatives and give each other the virus? The words of the psalmist come to mind:

Lord… How long shall the wicked exult?
They gush out, they speak arrogantly;
All the workers of iniquity bear themselves loftily.
They crush thy people, O Lord,
And afflict Thy heritage.
            Psalm 44: 3–7

The Surrealist by Victor Brauner (1947)  

Cultivating Fire

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. It provides the opportunity to do things that were not possible to do before. Rahm Emanuel

In another life—post election 2008—in another crisis—the Great Recession—Obama’s Chief of Staff made this wise remark. But he said “crisis” in the singular. By my count I’ve just named 10 crises, as though it’s the Passover Seder and we are naming the plagues:

1. Climate Change
2. The Pandemic
3. Systemic Racism
4. Economic Inequality
5. Right Wing Extremism
6. Drought
7. Wildfires
8. Homelessness
9. Unhealthy Air
10. The Hoax in the White House

How do we confront all of these raging interlocking crises at one time? When I feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed, I often look up the word I’m pondering in the etymological dictionary. It’s my way of calling up the magic of the ancestors, the wisdom embedded in the roots of language, to help me. “Crisis” is related to words that mean to separate, to discriminate, to judge. It’s also related to the word “riddle.” This calms me. I recognize that we need to use our fire strategically, that we need to separate careful judgment from our terror, we need to acknowledge the puzzling nature of the riddle of our times. Our ancestors have been through many crises. They knew fire as a deity, as a trickster, as a healer; they knew fire as trouble and fire as passion, fire as destroyer and fire as what cooks your food. “It is through fire, “wrote Eliade,” that Nature is changed, making it the “basis of the most ancient magics” (The Book of Symbols).

Fire, we are told by indigenous people, can be cultivated to tend the land so there won’t be wildfires. What has happened in our politics is a wildfire, because we haven’t done controlled burns—we haven’t faced our history, taken responsibility for genocide, slavery, racism and the catastrophic destruction of habitat and species. Many among us are engaged in that work, but not yet the powers that be—the ones with the money, the media, and the wherewithal to change things. As we approach the 2020 election I’m counting on the fire in all of our bellies, and the clear judgment and discrimination to sort right from wrong, corruption from policy, greedy self interest from the common good, our own habits and appetites from the needs of the planet, which must be obeyed if we are to survive.

We heard the fire and the judgment in both Michelle and Barack Obama’s speeches at the democratic convention. We heard Kamala Harris’ blazing tongue taking on the outrages of the current administration. And we heard Joe Biden’s righteous rage about the hoaxes perpetrated by the current president, his refusal to fight the virus in a strategic way, using the judgments of science, his refusal to confront the horror of so many people dead and gone, who had to die alone, because of the virulence of the crowned virus. Those that survive them, couldn’t say goodbye. Where are the rituals of mourning? Where is the wailing and the moaning? Where are the lowered flags? Where is the reading of names? How long would it take to read 200,000 names? It’s Joe Biden who speaks for the lost and the grieving.

Grief and empathy are qualities of maturity, of the capacity to hold complexity. The Hoax in Chief beats an angry drum that rouses the fire in people to say “No!” Like a tantruming two-year old or a rebellious teenager you can’t make them wear masks, you can’t make them stay home to protect themselves and others. They insist on their guns and their freedom to spread germs. But they are not the majority. If we can use our cultivated fire to listen to those who are lost, angry, isolated, alienated, who feel that their vote won’t make a difference, to acknowledge their hurt and their losses, perhaps we can light their fire to vote for a better world.

Uprising Time in America

We’ll make a fire    talk story    remember our mothers’
invisible powers

            “Wishing in the Woods with Hillary”

I remember that night, long ago, in the Before Times—election night, November 2016. I drove home from work. Dan opened the door to the garage as I drove in. His eye-roll said it all. I gasped. I hadn’t wanted to believe what I’d begun to hear on the car radio. We weren’t about to drink that bottle of champagne. We were about to descend into a national hell realm with a misogynist rabble–rouser in chief who was about to destroy most of what we held sacred in our democracy. None of his atrocities seemed to leave a mark on him. His base was his base no matter how corrupt, cruel, shameless and crass he was. The refrain among my circle was: “How can 40% of Americans support these outrages?”

Four years later, having experienced horror upon horror, we need to remember the seats we won in 2018, because of our strategic use of political fire. We can’t allow our discouragement, our horror, our exhaustion to stomp out our fire. We need to do whatever is in us to do to win this election and begin to cut off the many heads of that monster. Whether its donating money, being a poll worker, sending postcards to voters in swing states, or telling everyone in your life to get out and vote, vote early! your involvement is essential. We are at a crossroads in the history of our country and our world. I think of James Baldwin’s remark about middle class white America:
…we must realize this,
that no other country in the world has been
so fat and so sleek and so safe and so happy,
and so irresponsible and so dead.
                        I Am Not Your Negro
This time of crisis is an opportunity for us to wake up to reality and begin protecting the earth, facing the truth of our history, taking seriously our responsibility to one another and to the common good. That is what I believe Hillary was working toward. That is what Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are working toward. They need our help.

My fire is poetry. I hope you’ll join us on October 1 to hear fiery political poems. One of them, “Wishing in the Woods With Hillary” is a women’s healing circle for her and for all of us, to reconnect to our Mother the Earth, to our values, to our backbones, to our sacred fires. I offer it to you:

Wishing in the Woods    With Hillary

I wish you’d surprise me    in the woods     Hillary as you did
that young mother     baby daughter on her back    the day after we lost you
for president     She took a selfie      My daughter sent me the link
Who will we be without you     in your moon bright pantsuit?
Who will stand up to the strongman    when Michelle and Barack
walk out of the White House    and speak to us only in dreams?

My wish is to see you among trees    their leaves gone gold
and crimson    or dry and dead on the earth      Your little dog
will sniff me    And you    who’ve been pilloried
your goodness debunked    as though working
for women and children    lacks gravitas      As though gravitas
is a loaded scrotum    whose natural enemy    is a woman with powers

Mother trudged from father’s study    to kitchen    to bathroom
and back when he whistled      I kid you not     He whistled      She typed
his manuscripts    cooked    bathed children    darned socks    Hillary
She was the air we breathed    the water we swam in
the earth we walked on    our hearth    our heart beat
Her powers invisible    to the kingdom of men      But O

she was fierce    about voting for you in ‘08
Now she’s lost    her way in the woods
lost my name     your fame    lost the whole world
of visible powers    lost to the outcry

the pandemonium    the kids walking out
of their schools shouting     “Not Our President”

The trees raise their boughs    and prophesy
When the moon comes closer to earth
than it’s been since the year you were born
the haters will crawl out from under their rocks
the “white only” nation come out of the woodwork
You won’t know whose country you’re in

Maybe our time is over    Hillary      All that e-mail evil
because you’re attached to your old familiar    that Blackberry
you refuse to waste time    learning new smartphones    I’m with you
But my dear    the world is passing us by     That young mother
in the woods     after we lost you for president    posted you
and her baby daughter on Facebook      It went viral     My daughter sent me the link

Hillary    my wish is to surround you    with sisters
of the secret grove     We’ll sit in a circle    kiss the earth
with our holiest lips      We’ll lift up our hands and pray

for your healing    our healing   the healing of the dis–
respected    disaffected    molested     undocumented    Jim Crowed
And let’s not forget    the trees     the bees    the buffalo

We’ll breathe into our bellies      Our backbones grow
into strong tree trunks    our roots descend       While I’m wishing
let’s throw in a chorus of frogs    and the smell
of the earth after rain      For it’s downgoing time    in America
underworld time    time to hide out in a cave
How I wish for your company in the dark    Hillary

We’ll make a fire    talk story    remember our mothers’
invisible powers      Maybe we’ll sink into dreamtime    Maybe Michelle
will visit      She’ll wear a wonderful dress    remind us of grace    of joy
She’ll speak from her heart      Though the weather’s becoming
a banshee goddess      Though the “white only” nation
is trolling the web      Though the emperor elect

is tweeting our downfall      My wish is      Remember
The way of women     is our way       The moon swells
the moon goes dark     pulling the tides    in and out
The way of the trees     is our way       So raise up
your branches    sisters    for we are one    gathering
Soon sap    will rise    apple trees flower

We’ll weave us a canopy    all over this land
It will be uprising time    once again
                in America