This personal blog is the place where I write what I cannot express anywhere else. The main focus has always been “magic, sex, Loki and liberation,” but you can find other topics as well. The category I call “biohazard” is a pun for autobiographical material that I also write occasionally. But in these last few months of pandemic “sheltering in place” it’s been difficult to post, except for signal boosting and quasi-political commentary. My own feelings and thoughts have been all over the place and some days its difficult to focus.
I’ve been almost entirely alone, you see, confined to a pleasant house with a view — so I am quite lucky in that respect. I know that. It’s part of my (almost) daily practice to acknowledge blessings, make offerings to my ancestors and deities, and ask for guidance. But seldom seeing a human being, even at the distance of six feet or more, has been difficult. I already have lived an almost entirely hermit-like existence for the last three years since moving here, but not having the option to mingle safely, or sit quietly in a restaurant with a book, means that the last few chances for in-person social interactions are gone. Three months in, and I find the constant isolation is beginning to wear away at my resolve and resilience. And perhaps a bit at my sanity.
Why hermit-like? Three main reasons and I’ll try to make this brief:
(1) Multiple chemical sensitivity/environmental illness. Once I only dodged airborne toxins like fragrances (often with a mask), now I also hope to avoid a potentially deadly virus. (I’m in a couple high-risk groups.) This has been my situation for thirty years. I am so used to wearing masks in public, you wouldn’t believe it. And part of me is kind of thrilled that other people are now having to wear them, though I am sorry for the reason.
(2) I’m new to the area where I live and aside from a few friends in Lake County that I seldom see (and a brief period spent living with a roommate) I have been alone here for the last two and a half years. I have no community outside of social media. Older friends are far away, in the Bay Area and elsewhere. I have no lover in proximity.
(3) A divorce in 2015-2016 meant that the domestic community (aka family) that gave meaning to my life, especially in my role as a mother, is no longer available to me. My adult kids live far away. It was hard enough to visit them already but now with Covid-19 pandemic raging, I am afraid I will never lay eyes on them again. And we seldom talk via phone or Facetime. I’ve grown tired of begging for contact.
What I do have for company: seven cats to love. I’ve got social security. I’ve got an irrepressible muse/teacher/partner/deity named Loki Laufeyjarson (and a few other spirit guides besides), the love of my ancestors, and the ability to create and work, and the hope of moving from this rural, red-necky area someday. I’ve got curiosity. I’ve got passion for social change. I’ve got a working computer and social media. My sense of humor is intact. I’ve got one long-distance friend that I talk with daily. I have anti-depressant meds. I am blessed with water hot and cold. These are the blessings I count.
And there is my body. I should take better care of it, really. It doesn’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. Sometimes I am too fatigued or scattered to cook. It doesn’t get enough exercise, but sometimes this body dances. Often it sleeps and the cats cuddle and the air here is clean until fire season. I’ve got a car that will get me and the cats away from here if a fire rushes over the wooded ridge behind my house. If I can get out in time…
It feels strange to write like this. Sometimes I am aware of a gradual loosening of “strings” holding my life together. A resignation. Feelings of shame and regret about life’s mistakes. Other times, I have the simmering, unholy glee that I associate with Loki and with my bravest self. I will fight. I will dance. I WILL see my children again. I WILL be able to rescue myself and move to a place where I feel happy and whole and valued. Maybe I’ll even have a non-spirit lover again someday. So I’d better keep that body strong. I’d better call upon my ancestors and my deities for help–as no one, but no one, will ride to my rescue. I do have sources of support, though. I don’t want you to think I don’t.
For example, Loki indicated recently that he will sometimes “hold the bowl” for me when things get too tough or too sad. But he won’t hold it often or forever. There’s a lot that this old lady has to do for herself.
So, plenty of magic here. Plenty of study and writing. No sex, but I am a sexologist and I help clients with their problems sometimes. Loki? Yes, of course–sometimes distant, sometimes near, but always at the ready. And liberation? As I work for the world’s from my warrior keyboard (since I can’t get out much), I also ponder my own. When, and under what circumstances, will my “liberation” come looking for me?
This isn’t personal drama, just the sober realization that I might not make it through this pandemic, just as others have not, and will not. I’m sixty-five. In this country, I (and so very many others) are expendable. It’s not just older people, it’s queer and trans and gender diverse people, and Turtle Island first nations people, and POC, and immigrants caged… poor people, homeless/houseless… Yeah, I try to put all this in perspective, and to be personally stoic but spiritually open to the fact that my “wyrd” may consist of dying alone, without the people I love.
I’m mainly worried about my cats: Popoki, Niblet, Freya, Varda, Keola, Kia’i, and Arya. Who will feed and care for them? Someone do that for me please!
And my kids–they’ll miss me–and any opportunity for closure they may have needed for some of my most stupid child-rearing mistakes will be gone. All the things they wanted to say, all the things I wanted to say… (I love you, I love you, I love you!)
Unless they say my name and light a candle after I’ve gone. Unless they deal with me as an ancestor newly among many, part of a vast company prepared to shower blessings from beyond, as if I’m present to them in another way, and open to healing. The dead can change…
Thanks to the teachings of Daniel Foor, for the last couple of years I’ve been doing “ancestral medicine” work with my ancestors. My work is not complete but I’ve asked for and then felt healing with most of my stickiest, most painful family quandries (not all, but most). I am at peace with the lineages of my grandmothers and grandfathers. I ask for blessings for my mother (still alive) and for my kids. I’ve even mostly cleansed my relationship with my deceased, neglectful, narcissistic, alcoholic father. I don’t feel love for him, just a kind of pity, and the comfort of not having him as an ever-present, gaping hole in my life. My wounded child is mostly okay now, as far as he goes.
I’m not being morbid. It seems to me that the real work of this liminal waiting time–the time of social lockdowns–is to be spiritually and personally introspective and to make sure that all the relationships that truly matter are cared for in ways that are more forgiving and loving. And to shuck the others that are meaningless or toxic, to wish them well and wave goodbye. Out with the dross. Out with the pointless and thoughtless habits… in with the new, to make a new world. Can I live up to this lofty agenda? I don’t know but I will try. And if I can’t live up to it one hundred percent, I’ll die (eventually) into it.
I’m blessed. Past spiritual teachers of mine have recently come forward with new offerings to the world. Those of us who are clustered around the modern version of flickering firelight–the cold electronic light of our screens (if we’re privileged enough to have them!)–can easily partake. I’m hoping that other offerings of generosity and bravery are showing up beyond the internet: local mutual aid, more food banks, more emergency housing, grocery shopping for seniors and disabled people, and so on.
My affairs are mostly in order. I leave behind cats, books, trinkets, a house, a few bills, and my writing, whenever I do go.
So remember me with forgiveness if you can’t remember me with love. And children, light a candle for me. Find me among our ancestors. Say my name.
Living as I do in a chemically avoidant “bubble” (meaning I stay home most of the time), I confess to some envy of those who move freely amongst the populace without gasping for air or succumbing to unpleasantly dizzy brainfogs, making a swift retreat and bedrest a necessity. However, the people I envy the most are not those who casually sashay through the detergent aisle of the supermarket (though it would be nice, as cat food is always across the aisle from the really awful smelly stuff), but those who are right out there making outrageous stuff happen–art, music, revolutions, burlesque, whatever!–without getting sick.
Life is not passing me by–I get stuff done. I write. I teach. I create. I sometimes help people from afar. Sometimes I see friends or my kids. And I am in life-long service to cats… But I confess to an occasional vicarious fascination with people who puncture the norms in the outside world. I like to watch them do it (yay for the internet) and I cheer them on, also from afar or in the comments section of a YouTube video. My all too active imagination performs a sort of recombinant conceptualization of a world that doesn’t exactly exist, but that I would like to join. My favorites are all there. I won’t name them here but their music, performances, art, and words remind me there is more to living than the interior of my house.
Sometimes I conjure, then cut and paste their attributes into characters in my books. For example, my “Ornamental Hermits” and their magic companions are partial composites of the outrageous “friends” I’d like to have over for tea and magic rituals. Since there’s no way to socialize in the real world, I set these characters in motion against real estate developers and supernatural bad guys. Sometimes these characters fall in love with each other, which is often a surprise! And on the real world stage, similar things are happening. We (the arty, the weird, the transgressive) stand opposed to the truly monstrous and cruel, but we haven’t yet morphed into a global fellowship, combining our powerful energies and visions into an unstoppable force for renewal and joy, for sex and life, for art and transformation. Perhaps we never will.
I can only sense the pulsations, observe from the sidelines, and stir my witchy “thought potions.” My “wicked fascinations” are ingredients added to the creative cauldron. I stir winks and shimmies, a puffy clown suit button, swear words and sass, tears of anguish, shouts of triumph, a blackened eye, the sweetheart who died, and a pair of sequined pasties, into my brew and serve it up hot–or cold–as the writing demands.
And then I exhale over the simmering stew and invite my spirit companions to do the same, charging the mixture, bringing it to life. Thought forms emerge, pledged to carry my vision into the places I cannot visit in the flesh. They go forth in books not yet read.
I’m getting some post-PantheaCon discussions coming through my social media feeds, with much said on the topics pertaining to inclusion–the need for great heaping gobs of it–for “everyone.” Reading these posts, I always have the pitiful question, “does that mean people like me too?” Generally, it doesn’t.
I ‘ve never gone to PantheaCon or any other neo-pagan convention because my disability is seldom accommodated. I didn’t go to this last PantheaCon either–the very last, ever, apparently–but some friends of mine just got back from it. These are people who have a long history with the event and with some of its founders. I’m talking “Old Guard Pagans” who have been active for a long time in Northern California. One of them brought back a stack of ephemera from the conference so I’m looking through the flyers and postcards, as well as the conference program, to see what I missed.
And, frankly I’m also looking to see if any one of these organizations, events, or teachers bother to put the magic words, “Come Fragrance Free,” on their ephemera. But before I get too curmudeonly and critique-ish about the program and ephemera, I need to say a few things first and ask a few questions.
Here’s the Pathos.
Please take a few moments to consider the following. Can you imagine:
Living like an “almost hermit” for a major portion of your life, simply because consumer toxins, including fragrances, are in wide use?
Becoming ill, asthmatic, or brain-fogged after ordinary outings such as trips to the grocery store, dental and medical appointments, buying new tires, meeting a friend for lunch at a restaurant, going to a concert or event, attending a class, filing out forms at government agencies such as DMV or Social Security, venturing outside when a neighbor is doing laundry, taking public transportation, using a public swimming facility, and pretty much any other activity that involves other people and poor indoor air quality?
Finding out that friends, family members, and lovers or spouses prefer their toxic products to spending time with you?
Finding that you’ve lost the love and concern of people you deeply love, because accommodating you is just too much work and they’ve grown tired of it?
Not having a job, as there are practically no fragrance free workplaces, and not being able to get disability benefits either?
Having your options for affordable housing severely limited due to toxins used in building products and home furnishings, as well as by people who could have been roommates?
Finding that most of your social contact takes place online, but then being shamed for it?
Being told that your sufferings are imagined or exaggerated, or the result of negative thinking? Being told you don’t “look” sick or disabled?
Seeing medical and mental health professionals who have little or no idea what you are talking about?
Being constantly exposed to substances that make you sick, tired, brainfogged and frustrated, just in order to have something that remotely resembles a normal life?
And finally, can you imagine all of the above and also being denied physical entry to spiritual communities, fellowship, and solace?
I could go on.
Welcome to my life and the life of every other person I know who copes with “Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance,” also known as “multiple chemical sensitivity,” “chemical injury,” or “environmental illness.” We not only cope with “invisible disabilities” but are also invisible ourselves, as we “don’t get out much” and most dialogue about inclusion & disability and environmental health & justice take place without us. For most people, we do not exist. And there are no social programs to assist us with our special needs. There are no celebrities or major philanthropists championing our cause. As for allies–there are only a few.
Now For the Curmudgeonly Part
Back to my examination of the PantheaCon program and ephemera. In the program, I don’t see any of those magic words that address disability accommodation and indoor air quality, such as “please attend fragrance free to allow people with asthma and enviornmental illnesses to attend.” The program also does not have a section with disability access information. I do notice “no smoking” and “no incense, smudging or candles” policies are in place, and those are certainly helpful to preserving some semblance of breathable air. However, the lack of restriction pertaining to fragrance use in public spaces, workshops, and rituals makes the PantheaCon (and any conference) a dangerous place for someone like me.
I also skimmed through the “Event & Ritual Etiquette,” looking for some awareness of “share the air” manners, but there’s nothing. None of the hospitality suites, workshops, ads, or group events contain accommodation language either, EXCEPT for the following:
(1) Katrina Rasbold’s The Limpia: Cleansing the Mind, Body, Spirit workshop (p. 20) specifies that “no smoke, scents, or scented sprays are used in this workshop.” Reading this makes me want to adore her!
(2) Dree Amandi’s Aromatherapy Magick-Spellcraft warns that “we will be actively using essential oils, hydrosols, and carrier oils in this space.” Such warnings are also deeply appreciated, though use of such substances in a workshop may also affect my ability to attend adjoining workshops in that time frame, or workshops which take place in the same room or nearby afterwards.
Workshops that might be expected to use this inclusive accommodation language would include anything with a breath, “eco,” or healing theme, such as: Selena Fox’s Circle for Planet Earth and her Brigid Healing Ritual; EcoActivism & Climate Change, which was put on by Circle Sanctuary EcoActivists; The Power of Yoga–Energy and Healing with Lisa J. Hamlin; Chants for the Earth with Starhawk and Evelie Delfino Sales Posch; Eco-Magical Activism with Starhawk; possibly The Healing Isle with Christopher Penczak, though the talk of “potions” and “plant essence” makes me nervous; Theurgic Activism Panel; Tomorrow’s Pagan Panel: and Envisioning the Future of Paganism with Solstice.
Such compassionate and inclusive language would also be nice for Elysia Gallo’s Pagan Speed Friending, as I couldn’t risk being “speed friended” by a well-meaning person off-gassing toxic petrochemicals in the form of personal care products. And for anyone talking about inclusion and diversity as part of their program–likewise. Set an example of inclusive welcoming by asking people to be considerate on behalf of those who depend heavily on the “kindness of strangers.”
Of all the many pieces of ephemera gathered by my friend, only one is inclusive of people with multiple chemical sensitivities and respiratory ailments. This is the postcard advertising the “JeWitch Camp,” an event with “Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Starhawk, and Friends.” It has the magic words: “come fragrance free.” (And again, I want to adore them!)
I think you get the idea.
I won’t say I never go to conferences, ever, but the ones I attend are professional conferences which enable me to gain CE credits to update my professional certifications and/or may help boost my diminishing private practice–my only means of work. Still, I don’t go to more than one every few years, and I build in recovery time and escape routes and limit my attempts to socialize. It sucks, frankly. Read my Fragrance-Free FAQ on my professional site to know more.
Why Are Pagans OK with Polluting the Air-One of Our Four Essential and Sacred Elements?
Ea is a word in the Hawaiian language that first means “sovereignty, rule, independence.” Its second meaning is “life, air, breath, respiration, vapor, gas; fumes as of tobacco; breeze, spirit” (Pukui, M.K. & Elbert. S.H. (1986). Hawaiian Dictionary: Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, p. 36). To me, the connections between these two categories of meaning are highly significant.
And I want to know why–when air is our sacred elemental symbol of mental powers and intelligence–we humans are short-circuiting our brains with deliberate inhalation of toxic, petrochemical fumes, via consumer products? And why are we so stupid as to deliberately pollute our air, INDOORS and out, along with our water and soil? As pagans, shouldn’t we be extra aware and respectful?
And why isn’t consensuality considered? Why is the physical violation of other people’s bodies with airborne toxic chemicals not a matter of discussion? We ban smoking in public places. Why not scents and fragrances and essential oils, which contain some of the same cancer-producing and respiratory irritant chemicals found in tobacco smoke and vaping?
The answers to the above questions have lots to do with capitalism, entitlement, and industry pressure on legislation and policy. And they also have a lot to do with who we feel is worthy of “accommodation” and assistance. There is something in the American psyche that despises the “snowflake”–those seen as weak are deemed unworthy. And people with significant adverse reactions to chemical toxins are among the “snowflakiest” of us all.
In 1998, Scientific American published a study that claimed that the air in the average American home is MORE polluted than the air around most outdoor Superfund Clean-Up sites. Here’s the PDF: SciAM-EverydayExposure-3 As for me, I’d love to have a study done on the air quality in the average pagan conference in an average hotel. And then I’d like something done by way of solving this problem, so that we may all breathe freely in fellowship with each other. Pagan conference organizers, I’ve thrown down the gauntlet. What say all of you? Or can you still not hear me and those who are like me? A 2018 study showed that one in four Americans suffer from environmentally caused illnesses (Ann Steinemann study–download here). So, with this increase in illness, how long can you ignore the effects on people in pagan communities? How long can you refrain from a proactive examination of this issue of indoor air pollution, and from creating policies that seek to diminish the health consequences of attending your events?
Spirits of the Air, I conjure thee–give us the awareness to do better, help us heal your sacred substance, and that of the earth, and of all living bodies–else we be doomed to choke on our hypocrisy and ignorance as all living things perish around us, through our selfishness.
While I do think there’s no better way to age-out in this life than to become an “old witch,” I do wish someone had warned me that this time of life is as confusing (if not more so) than adolescence! I feel like a teenager again: confused about sex and my changing body, experiencing weird hormonal shifts, pissed at the way society dismisses me, concerned about my economic prospects, the way people act around me, my place in the world…
I talk with my friends about how weird this is. We’ve not yet reached the point where we’re dying off (yet), but we’ve entered the realm of “near-death” experiences even as we consider a life on social security. What I mean by “near-death” in this case is the momento mori nature of becoming gradually more invisible to those who still exist, apparently, in The Land of the Obtuse Living. We who are visibly aging beyond what is fashionable no longer matter as we once thought we did, no matter what our accomplishments. We are pushed ever more to the margins of all human consideration–familial, economic, artistic, social…
A long-time friend called me a couple of weeks ago. It’s been about five years since we talked. She and her husband recently moved. They had an economic need to downsize and that meant leaving the city where she lived for so long, moving to a town on the outskirts. She’s socially isolated as a result. I was commiserating with her (yes, I feel that too) until she mentioned an 80-year old neighbor across the street who was friendly, but then she said something to the effect that this neighbor “won’t be around for very long so why bother?”
OMFG. When even the younger old can be this callous toward the older old, who are we as human beings?
I’m also preparing to move. I’ll be saying good-bye to this lake and those mountains sometime this spring. I’ll be moving closer to a real city, closer to people in general, nearer to some friends and medical care. I need to be in a place where I can access things like food and care if illness and infirmity strike. Here the nearest bookstore is twenty-two miles away. I’d like a situation that’s more walkable.
I moved to Lake County to be as near to my adult children as I could afford (150 miles away from the SF Bay Area). But after two years here, and not much in the way of visits, I have no hope of much attention from my children, so it no longer matters how far away I live from them. It’s difficult enough just to get an appointment to FaceTime with them once or twice a month. I can’t blame them, really. They are attempting to navigate the hell that is young adult life in a world of accelerating climate change, citizens of a fascist country that is greedily genocidal. (We elders are costly–I presume we’re among the “disposable.”)
I am bewildered. This is not what I thought would happen to me at this age. I thought I would be cherished a little. And though I remain interested in so much (and interesting too, I hope), and long to participate in many of the exciting movements and resurgences that are going on right now, I realize my role can only be as a quaint onlooker unless I galvanize a bunch of other pissed off older witches, artists, writers, and musicians to Do Some Stuff and Kick Some Ass. I’ve always been quietly audacious. I now find myself wanting to throw my aging back in everyone’s face much as I used to want to throw my youth. Here’s the story of (some of) my life:
“You want a pregnancy test? I’ll do it. You want punk rock vinyl fashion? I’m making it happen. You want a feminist space group? Already done. You want a sexologist for a wife or a girlfriend? Watch me! (Oh, you didn’t want that after all? Too bad!)You want a three-part fantasy novel? I’ve got one in the works! You’re expecting fierce commentary about what it means to age in the 21st century? I’m so fucking on it!“
And so I find myself saying it still, the same thing I’ve said for at least fifty years: “World, don’t you dare underestimate me, not even now. Just watch what I’ll do next!” The funny part about all this, of course, is that no one much cares and I know it. But I really have no choice. It’s an all-out, bat-shit old lady thing.
What has kicked off this melancholy musing? A combination of things, really. Looking around at all the things I’ll either pack or give away. The boxes of family photos no one seems to want. Stuff I’ve collected, written, drawn. Business records and “archives.” More fine china than I actually need… It’s not that I feel I live in a museum (yet) but I’m still ravenous for dynamic interactions and transformations. And so I blog, leaving wordy breadcrumbs for the “children” (who may not be mine) who may teleport into my fragrance-free witch’s lair, filled with cats, books, art, and talk of sex and magic over tea.
I’m not done with this world yet. But it seems to be done with me. If the margins are all that’s left, that’s where I’ll be. Actually, it’s pretty much where I’ve always been. I’ve always drawn sustenance from the outer limits. I just didn’t know that life here could feel so diminished. It’s up to me, as a bat-shit old witch, to serve this up with fire and fury.
They say you “can’t go home again,” and yet this last couple of days I’ve had the closest thing to a prodigal return, though I was staying in a place I have never and will never live. I came down to the SF Bay Area on X-mas eve to be with my youngest, flu-stricken kid: a millennial living in a household that includes his father, and in the apartment downstairs, his brother. But everyone was away traveling, and Paul was taking care of the upstairs dog and the downstairs cat. He’d tried to go to the doctor the day before I arrived, but a $135 co-pay was impossible and he left. It was only after I assured him I’d pay for the urgent care visit that he went back and got the requisite medications (another $60 plus). Yes, he’s feeling better now but he still feels like junk and will for another several days.
So I barreled down the freeway on X-mas eve, with only my computer and a toothbrush (mostly), and with a mixture of longing and dread, once again called into action as a useful parental person. But I was also aware that I was going to be spending a couple of days in a household where I am not exactly welcome. (My divorce, though outwardly civil, still holds deep trenches of sorrow, regret, and resentment on both sides).
It’s unusual for this particular kid to admit to vulnerability with me–even though I’ve never been one to shrink from that–but he did say he felt scared by being so sick and all alone. Having my children want me still forms the apex of my bliss and so, you can imagine…
The home of a person who is very ill will often not be “company ready” and so I spent a few hours doing dishes and cleaning the kitchen once I arrived. It was fine. I was there to do that, to do for my kid what he was too sick to do for himself (and to make numerous cups of Throat Coat tea). But what was one part amusing and two parts freaky was the realization that I was handling many humble household objects that are familiar to me and/or that I chose and bought myself.
I’ve lately begun to take photos of my objects, because I am planning a book which tells their stories, and when I do that, I can let many of them go. Here I am confronted with objects that I left behind: some records, books, cups, bowls, cutlery. The knives my brother gave me when I married. The champagne flutes bought early in the marriage. The wooden bowls I purchased in the Japan Center hardware store, in the days when my kids attended Waldorf School and wood and wool were social requirements. And if these things I was cleaning weren’t things I owned and left behind, there were others that I’ve washed, dusted, and arranged over the years. What is it like for him, I wonder, to make daily use of these objects? To see them in cupboards and on shelves?
Perhaps he performed exorcisms by dissociating them from me, but I am not that capable. Objects speak or scream at me, their stories and place in my life are always connected with their use. Our children, however, are living links and I suspect that some efforts of erasure have also come into play in the last four years, not about him, but about me.
Sleeping in my husband’s room was a challenge. That bed, that dresser, those paintings, that stuff, the odor of tobacco over all. The same mattress, pillow cases, bedspread. The first night, I couldn’t get to sleep for the longest time. I was buzzing with the physical rememberance and energies of past pleasures and past pains. The deepest sorrows, the pile of resentments soaked into the sheets and the stuffing, the sad memories of a once-great love sunk into a swamp of conflict avoidance.
The second night I was more at peace. I could bless the past, bless our mistakes, bless the beings we have each become–no longer having enough in common to even be friends except in the most casual exchanges. We went separate ways long ago.
What baffles me though is the tarnished metal and red-bead “bellydance” belt of mine (dating from my tantra days) that he’s hung on the curtain rod in his bedroom, next to his bed. What does it mean? He has been in haste, previously, to give me boxes of “my stuff” that I left behind. But the belt–does he even realize it was mine? Or does he think it belonged to another? I have no idea, but seeing it makes a deep mystery. I don’t know if I should feel touched or not. Is it a form of silent communication? Is it something like the hands we held during family mealtime grace–the only touch for many years?
Is that tarnished belt in its unpolished state a communication or a commentary like the two paintings of his that I keep in my bedroom: the “Shade Tree” and the blue butterfly? Is it like the way I always say “my husband” and then have to add the “ex?”
Or is it just an off-hand gesture, placed there and forgotten, like the towel thrown on the bedroom floor or like the “Christmas” plates that he insisted on using throughout the year, diminishing (for me) their ceremonial specialness at this time?
In any case, I have left the kitchen cleaner than I found it. And I hope he perceives that as a “thank you” and not as a rebuke.
Disclosure: I write from the perspective of someone who is quite socially isolated due to 30 years of living with multiple chemical sensitivities and environmental illnesses–finding most environments and many people harmful to my health due to use of consumer toxins. I am also isolated through geographical distance from my closest friends and family. Social isolation is the curse of my situation, but an outsider’s perspective is the gift.
When my oldest child, Asher, was only three, he was overheard speaking to a dog: “Puppy, do you know what it’s like to be human? It’s kind of a job, being alive.” Three years old and already that perceptive. Yikes!
When my youngest child turned three, on the evening of his birthday, he turned a gaze on me that was clearly the spirit of the “big” Paul looking through the eyes of a little boy. It was a gaze that shook me to my core for hours afterward. I have never in my life had such a look from any human being.
I am not saying my children are special (though of course I think they are) but that I was lucky enough to hear and perceive things that I might have easily missed. I believe all children provide such moments. Whether the adults heed them is another matter.
So what does it mean to be a human being? At the moment I write with a kitten in my arms. She has inserted herself between me and the keyboard and so I am leaning over her to type. It’s a perfect example of one kind of human role–as a mediator between tech and animal life. She dozes with her head on my left forearm. She trusts me. And yet I am a member of a species which has accomplished the most profound betrayal of all–the collective, burgeoning destruction of every ecosystem on this planet that we share. And so I love my cats in the way that I love my children–with deep regret and sorrow at my share in this betrayal of trust.
And yet I’ve lived for thirty years as a “canary in the coal mine,” an activist mom warning about the dangers of household and industrial chemicals. No one much has listened to me, or to others like me, so I now refer to us as “Cassandras in the coal mine” (because people at least paid attention to the warning songs of canaries). But I am still complicit. Every mouthful of food that I eat, the clothes on my back, and almost every item I own are the direct result of income or goods produced by someone working his/her/zir/their ass off in a toxic industry –from my ex-husband to workers I’ll never meet–and probably destined to suffer from health consequences as a result. (FYI–my own condition is also due to occupational exposure, years ago.)
Yesterday I wrote about the complicity of settler-colonist genealogy–of facing the almost certain fact of ancestors who perpetuated numerous incidents of brutality and cruelty against the first peoples of Turtle Island, and probably also against victims of American chattel slavery. And if there weren’t always direct actions on the part of my ancestors, there were/are the social, economic, political, system-wide benefits and privileges that came from being an oppressor, rather than one of the oppressed. I am struggling to recognize and disengage from the ongoing inclinations and assumptions that attend these genealogies while also trying to recognize and disengage–as much as possible–from my participation in malignant, toxic, consumer culture.
And yet, I reconize that in some essential way I lack the tools or skills or mindsets that could enable me to fully function with other people in a wholesome, collaborative, and productve way–a way that I identify (from afar) as being “fully human.” But it’s not just me. All around me are (mostly) white people who have good hearts, intelligence, creativity, compassion, some understanding of social justice issues and certainly the understanding of the urgency of our climate crisis, and yet we just can’t seem to function effectively together! There always seem to be egos and agendas, mean girl machinations and mansplaining obfuscation, and all kinds of other weird-ass territorial factors at play. Why is this?
And all around me are my cis-female friends of “a certain age,” who are also socially isolated, economically disadvantaged, and in other ways marginalized, who know we have entered the twilight zone of the socially disposable and thus need to band together to take care of each other, and yet we just can’t manage to plan and strategize on how to do this, how to pool our limited resources and join together to mutual advantage. We know the need, we might have some skills, but not the collective will? Why is this?
For several years now, I’ve come to understand that our settler-colonist, capitalist, consumer culture does not help us learn to Play Well With Others. I have watched other cultural communities, from the ally sidelines, do much much better in terms of coming together, organizing, and providing what is needful with a generosity of spirit that is–to me–miraculous. And yet I understand these capacities are what it takes to be “fully human.”
“And in the camps themselves you had sort of the primordial sort of beginnings of what a world premised on indigenous justice might look like. And in that world, you know, everyone got free food. There was a place for everyone. You know, the housing, obviously, was transient housing and teepees and things like that, but then also there was health clinics to provide healthcare, alternative forms of healthcare, to everyone. And so, if we look at that, it’s housing, education — all for free, right? — a strong sense of community. And for a short time, there was free education at the camps, right? Those are things that most poor communities in the United States don’t have access to, and especially reservation communities.
But given the opportunity to create a new world in that camp, centered on indigenous justice and treaty rights, society organized itself according to need and not to profit. And so, where there was, you know, the world of settlers, settler colonialism, that surrounded us, there was the world of indigenous justice that existed for a brief moment in time. And in that world, instead of doing to settler society what they did to us — genociding, removing, excluding — there’s a capaciousness to indigenous resistance movements that welcomes in nonindigenous peoples into our struggle, because that’s our primary strength, is one of relationality, one of making kin, right?”
Now there’s a danger in romanticizing this as something “those others” do–which can come close to the old “noble savage” crap of yore–and I am aware of that. I’m also grumpy about white people saying that indigenous people are going to save us all now from climate catastrophe (i.e. clean up a mess that was never theirs)–even though they often have little in the way of power or resources. This mindset sidesteps the need for settler-colonists and their corporations and political representatives to drastically change everything about the systems that are running dangerously amok.
In order to avoid that dangerous and ultimately unproductive mindset, we who are settler-colonists have to continue to swing back to a recognition of where we ourselves are now and with that recognition of our deficits and their origins, work double time to develop capactities and understandings necessary for “relationality,” as Professor Estes says above. Doing this is going to take a helluva lot of humility. I’m sixty-five now, and I’m willing to go back to human “kindergarten” (as long as it’s in a fragrance free zone).
What follows is a speculative question. Is it possible that the epigenetic expression of European-originating people was triggered toward self-centeredness, violence, conquest, and greed due to long histories of violent subjugation by Romans (as one example) and others, and by exposures to such things as wars and continent-wide plagues, where bodies piled in mass graves could have fostered a sort of despair and then an unconcern about the preciousness of life? An even bigger speculative question: can we willfully trigger another kind of epigenetic expression in real time, to call back the capacties our ancestors must surely have had in the long ago? The kind that enabled us to live in villages, farm or forage for food, and provide care and sustenance for all? The kind that enabled us to see other creatures in this world–plant, animal, and spirit–as worthy of respect and kinship?
And can this be done in record time, to meet the climate and environmental/political catastrophes that are no longer a train wreck in slow motion?
Personally, it is hard to reach out toward others in real life, to work on my skills for “relationality,” when my condition requires this degree of isolation in lieu of disability accommodation. My activist efforts in the past have seldom been met with understanding–because this whole environmental illness request for fragrance-free accommodation thing can look like a “special snowflake” or “white lady” way to, I dunno, derail or disrupt others and the work that is being done. It can look and feel like a request for more privilege and special treatment from a white settler-colonist who is already inherently privileged by other aspects of my circumstances. And so my blogs are the only way I can reach out. Writing about what I see and feel is all I can do at this point.
I wish it were otherwise. I truly do wish to be of use in creating a better world. Like everyone else, I have the future of cats and children–and all living beings and our only planet–to consider.
“It’s kind of a job–being alive.” And right now our biggest job is to keep everything else alive too. It’s really down to that.
Nov. 23 UPDATE: Link to a blog post signal boosting the leadership of black trans women and other trans and gender diverse POC in the work against violence and for health and vibrancy in their communities. Includes links to several articles in Out Magazine and Essence by Raquel Willis, founder of Black Trans Circles (video here!).
Hey everyone! Thanks for everything you’re already doing AND here’s something else to put on your agenda! It’s the petrochemical “elephant in the room.” You need to know this. You’ll thank me–I promise.
I am hoping you will share information about the following two studies and findings with other climate change activists as well as policy-makers.
Almost 40% of Urban Air Pollution Caused by Personal Care Products and Other Volatile Chemical Products (VCPs)
Though the focus of 350.org and other organizations has to do with fuel and energy, an overlooked component of air pollution and climate change involves the production and use of Volatile Chemical Products (VCPs). It turns out that VCPs, including personal care products, comprise 4% of the mass but have 38% of the impact on urban air quality–almost equal to gasoline and diesel emissions! NOAA and air quality researchers at UC Davis. PDF of the study here:
[“A gap in emission inventories of urban volatile organic compound (VOC) sources, which contribute to regional ozone and aerosol burdens, has increased as transportation emissions in the United States and Europe have declined rapidly. A detailed mass balance demonstrates that the use of volatile chemical products (VCPs)—including pesticides, coatings, printing inks, adhesives, cleaning agents, and personal care products—now constitutes half of fossil fuel VOC emissions in industrialized cities. The high fraction of VCP emissions is consistent with observed urban outdoor and indoor air measurements. We show that human exposure to carbonaceous aerosols of fossil origin is transitioning away from transportation-related sources and toward VCPs. Existing U.S. regulations on VCPs emphasize mitigating ozone and air toxics, but they currently exempt many chemicals that lead to secondary organic aerosols.”]
So, with this kind of impact on outdoor air in cities, what do you think the impact of such products may be in buildings and indoor events? And in public transportation, which we are all asked to use in order to cut down on fossil fuel use? What happens when proposed solutions like public transportation ignore a substantial population of people who cannot access them?
So… if we connect the dots…our current rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments, plus environmental illnesses, are caused and exacerbated by VCPs as well as VOCs (petrochemicals all). And part of our climate catastrophe could be mitigated substantially by including public awareness of the huge impact of VCPs on climate and health (remember, this 4% mass of VCPs causes 38% of the effects on urban air quality–and presumably also a correspondingly large impact on human health). Such products must be boycotted wherever possible, and their use in public spaces, health care settings, workplaces, schools, and transportation should be regulated and/or prohibited, much like the use of tobacco smoke. Also, less toxic and non-toxic products already exist and should be promoted as alternatives.
Climate Justice is Intersectional
Recognition of the enormous but unacknowledged impact of VCPs can lead climate activists and others to a fruitful intersection of public health concerns, disability accommodation, changes in consumer buying habits, and rather substantial decrease in degraded air quality (both outdoor and indoor).
Why not listen, finally, to those of us–people with environmental illnesses–who have been “Canaries in the Coal Mine” for so many years? (I’ve been calling us “Cassandras in the Coal Mine” since no one listens to us…) We have deep, hard-won knowledge of the impacts of chemicals on human and environmental health. And now the NOAA/UC Davis study shows how what’s been hurting us is also an enormous factor in air pollution and climate change.
So why not welcome us into your activist meetings and spaces (by making them “fragrance-free” for a start) and why not include the above scientifically significant findings in your strategies and platforms? (350.org, Drawdown, are you listening?)
Let us help you create the education and messages necessary for public understanding and action on this point, thus adding substantially to the array of solutions to our current predicament. Seek out people involved with environmental health organizations and Facebook groups of people with chemical sensitivities.
Partner with the Canaries. Our “songs” are more helpful than you know. Here is the one I’m “singing” now…
Am I wrong to feel disgusted that Siri and Facebook contain programming to remind me of my oldest kid’s birthday? As if I could ever forget it. The birth of that day. It’s been thirty years. And today is appropriately the “Super Black New Moon” in Virgo.
Where does that time go? In that thirty year span I’ve many, many failures and regrets to gnaw over in my darker moments, but the birth and raising of my children are not among them. The children may argue with me and their father about the “success” of their childhoods or the skill of our parenting, but while I deeply regret mistakes I made and the times I got things totally wrong, overall I don’t regret the unrelenting work of childrearing and the attempts to do right by them. My two kids are “the loves of my life,” when you really get down to it. I gave as much as I had to give.
When this first child of mine (who perhaps regards himself as a changeling) was first put into my arms, I was struck by the valor of the new soul. Nothing is so brave as a newborn–physically helpless and relying utterly on their own charm and the animal hope that our intentions toward them are benign, at the very least.
And to incarnate in this shitstorm of an epoch? That takes guts. I was twelve when I began to observe the warning signs of world-wide dystopia and disaster-in-the-making and now here I was, age thirty-six, daring to bring another into the world. Love is foolish, desire for family runs deep. I was not immune to the hubris that says “I can do this.”
The pregnancy was difficult. When I was quite far along, I was put on eleven weeks of strict bedrest to prevent pre-term labor (one week in the hospital, ten at home). I was also prescribed Terbutaline, a drug now contra-indicated for pre-term labor “because of the potential for serious maternal heart problems and death.” (Here’s the 2011 FDA warning.) Terbutaline feels like speed. Imagine having a body and mind that can’t stop racing, yet being forced to lie flat in bed (only allowed to get up to use the restroom) because to do otherwise might imperil your child? I lived with constant fear and chafed at my helplessness. And what were effects of terbutaline and my fear on the fetus?
During these eleven weeks of bedrest, my sister was coping with having rented an apartment to a man later wanted for killing his own mother with a pickaxe. (The crime happened in another state). I’d get several calls a day from her, first while he was on the lam–she was terrified because legally she could not change the locks on his unit–and then later she would call about all the weird crap found in his place, once he was finally captured. This juxtaposition of my endangered pregnancy with the theme of matricide was deeply disturbing. A couple of years later I attempted to write a murder mystery using some of this material, but I never completed it.
And if that weren’t enough, the gestation and birth of my child also contained the onset of my environmental illness. Before I’d been confined to bedrest, I had begun to notice extreme adverse reactions to fragrances and other substances: headaches, dizziness, fatigue, trouble breathing, and so on. Forays into the outer world were becoming unexpectedly difficult as a result, but I didn’t have a name for what was happening to me.
Once I was freed from the confines of bedrest, and able to lumber about for a couple of weeks before my due date (because a week or two early wouldn’t matter so much), I tried to make the most of my time: lunches with friends, last minute shopping for baby items. In the late 80’s, Noe Valley in San Francisco was the epicenter for the “older first-time mom” phenomena. Women my age or older were suddenly pushing strollers on 24th Street. The woman who ran the store for used baby clothing was a former punk in the SF scene. I felt right at home.
Once our little one was born, I began my time of total immersion in motherhood: nursing, changing diapers, wobbly hormones, hyper-vigilance, sleep deprivation, exhaustion. Due to unforseen circumstances, I was alone for most of the daylight hours, struggling to cope. The Loma Prieta quake hit when the baby was four months old.
I also began to have a feeling that the couple I’d been a part of was for some reason already eroding, even as we had enfolded another into our lives. (We did try our best to keep it together, for many years, even past the birth of our second child…but that’s not a story I want to tell here.) But I/we also had the intense sweetness of bonding with the baby. There’s nothing like it. And I cherish those memories.
It’s also riveting to watch the development of a tiny human as she/he/they/ze grows in size and complexity. I sang silly songs to my baby. The toddler would sing back to me. I remember one time in particular, on the back outside steps of our tiny cottage… I could have died then from happiness. Later there were drawings and stories and harp lessons and anguished observations of bullying directed against my kid. There were passionate friendships and struggles to arrange playdates, especially with one particular mother who didn’t care that her feckless, last minute playdate cancellations were devastating for my kid. There were many, many trips to the California Academy of Sciences and the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. There were annual Revels. There was Waldorf School (now a source of sour critique). There is so much I remember, and so much forgotten, and so much that my thirty-year old kid would probably like to forget–because there were times I let him down. Badly. The times I was there, doing all the things that mothers do, those are barely worth mentioning as they are part of the young animal’s assumption of care, and for the human in us, part of the atmosphere we breathe. Hopefully not too toxic or cloying, most of the time.
Children must pull away from their parents. They must critique their childhoods and their parents, and reshape themselves in their own chosen images. They are sculptors of self. Even so, as a parent it is hard to watch the teens and twenties. It’s like being on bedrest again, utterly impotent. And yet I’ve never been anything but happy and proud to know this person. So here is my “Son of the Morning,” not so much a star as a streaming millennial comet, determined, self-made, relentlessly creative, and as a song of his says, “never this young again.” His youth he did not waste. I trust his maturity will be wise and fine.