When Sexual Violence Goes Public

 

Here in North America we tend to forget how pervasive sexual violence is, and how retraumatizing public conversations about sexual abuse and harassment can be for victims of sexual crimes.

This was brought home to me again yesterday while speaking with a colleague in Boston. She works with severely traumatized individuals and spoke about her clients’ experiences of retraumatization due to the recent flood of sexual assault accusations against prominent men. We agreed the resulting, much-needed, public discussion about sexual assault has resulted in a cascade of memories and fear for our clients. This adds to the retraumatization caused by the behavior of government officials who seem Hell-bent on glamorizing sexual assault while destroying the social framework. We also agreed we are experiencing much increased anxiety as we try to understand how to provide some sense of safety to our clients and ourselves in an increasingly difficult social environment.

Not surprisingly, our culture’s focus on sexual assaults and intimidation by males has felt isolating for clients who were abused or harassed by women. Somehow we as a society appear to have once again lost sight of the uncomfortable fact that women can also be abusive. Perhaps there is less attention to assaults by women simply because abuse and harassment at the hands of women appears to be underreported in general. In addition, men, particularly, report experiencing more shame when speaking of being abused by women and are, thus, more reticent to report being assaulted.

The sad truth is that people of all genders are capable of harming others when given the opportunity. Further, such abuses become more frequent when openly, or tacitly, accepted by communities. I’m sure we will hear much more about sexual abuse by persons with power in the days to come. How we respond is crucial.

© 2017, Michael Watson, essay and photograph, All rights reserved

Jung Drops in for Tea

A sunny, frigid, late winter day. Later this week the temperatures will moderate and there will likely be a sap run.

I’ve taken to avoiding news feeds in the evening, and try to limit my intake of news during the day; I also spend too much time fact checking. Anyway, the sheer volume of hatred towards those who are vulnerable, and the environment, is simply overwhelming, a tsunami that threatens to devastate all I love in the world.

Of course, none of this craziness is new. I imagine Jung dropping by for a spot of tea. I can imagine him sitting there in the sun, drawing on his experiences leading up to World War Two, and expressing empathy for our situation. He would point out that we may easily become what we fear, and draw parallels between Islamic extremism and the behavior of extremists on the Christian right. Then he would wish us well, grab a cider doughnut for the road, and retreat to his hermitage.

I’m finding it difficult to take much solace in the knowledge that we humans fall off the cliff every now and then. These historical moments simply create way too much suffering, and I just can’t settle into any kind of detachment. If we learned anything from the events of the past hundred years, it is that any profound change requires acts of both personal and societal repentance and reparation.I understand there is only so much any one person or group can do to turn the tide, even as we must try. In the meanwhile, history moves forward under the watchful eyes of angels, even as many of us dig our heels in and resist.

© 2018, words and photograph, Michael Watson

A Letter from Vermont: A Near Miss

A lovely morning, the bright mid-February sun illuminating the very air as it bounced off last night’s fluffy snowfall. Now clouds have begun to fill in from the west, turning the day chilly and dank.

This coming week is forecast to be as much as 30 degrees F above seasonal norms. There will likely be sap runs and some adventurous souls will likely sunbathe if the sun appears long enough. We are also into Winter break at many of our schools, with families taking off to the ski slopes or to warmer climes for the week.

Speaking of school, our small state was stunned this week when a young man was arrested for planning an attack on the small rural high school he once attended. The eighteen year old had been in a mental health treatment program in a nearby state, but had come home to carry out the well planned attack.

All this began unfolding on Tuesday, the same day as the Florida high school shooting, and reminded us that we are not immune to the epidemic of mass gun violence. We Vermonters pride ourselves on having created a pretty fair place to live and to raise children, so it came as a shock that one of our own kids could live with such fierce hate and intent to harm others.

As far as we know the young man was not motivated by racial or ethnic hatred, as was the youth in Florida who chose to attack a predominantly Jewish high school. Rather, the Vermont youth had previously attended his chosen target high school, and knew some of the students and teachers there. His rage seems to have been more personal.

As always, following actual, or potential, acts of mass violence, we are left to ponder what is truly happening in our society that encourages Caucasian males to plan and carry out mass killings, and what we might do about it. (Virtually all of the mass shootings during the past ten years and more have been conducted by Caucasian males.) I don’t know the answer to either of these questions, although I am certain our leaders’ encouragement of violence in support of ideological goals must contribute to the problem.

While mass shootings rose significantly last year, along with the rhetoric of violent change, during the first six weeks of this year mass violence has been particularly virulent. Yet those in power appear unwilling to reign in either their hate speech, or the availability of the assault rifles that are the weapons of choice in mass shootings, weapons that may be purchased for less than $500 US when purchased with abundant ammunition.

Here in the U.S. the level of everyday violence is rising, along with a sense of unease and vulnerability. Now, when we say goodbye to our loved ones in the morning we collectively find ourselves wondering whether our partners will arrive safely home from work and our kids from school. We also wonder how we are to create needed change when the gun lobby uses its wealth, and the greed of our politicians, to block any and all attempts to make meaningful change.

Here in Vermont there is a long and healthy culture of hunting for subsistence, and rifles and shotguns are often family treasures as well as tools. The idea that those weapons could be turned on our loved ones, friends, and students remains abhorrent to most of us, even as the likelihood someone will use guns to create mass tragedy and suffering, even here in Vermont, increases.

After this week Vermonters are talking about mass violence from very personal perspectives, a conversation that promises to last well beyond this fall’s election cycle.

© 2018, essay and photo, Michael Watson

Embodying Story

I’ve been making theatre for nearly as long as I can remember.

My  first memory of being on stage was in grade school. I was an ultra-skinny kid with a  pronounced Polio limp, earning me the nickname, Chester, a clear reference to the TV series, Gun smoke.  It was a remarkable TV series and a truly dreadful nickname.

In about fourth grade my teacher had me learn a brief monolog which began, “How!  Me big chief, What-A-Pot-AM-I.” When I presented the monolog to some five hundred gathered parents, it brought the house down. My parents were not amused, and I was humiliated, but we never really talked about it, and as far as I know, my parents did not lodge a protest with the principal.

The monolog was problematic for several reasons. First, it mocked me as a disabled child. Second, it outed my family as Native, an identity they tried for very good reasons to hide. Third, it was a filled with settler humor, with jokes that made light of the displacement of the Potawatomi  tribe from their traditional home in Illinois.

I mostly forgot about that night until as a young I began seriously studying theatre. What I learned from that monolog and the audience’s response is that theatre has the power to do real harm to people, and often does.  Too often the stage belongs to the dominant culture, and the words, gestures, and  narratives employed on that stage are used to validate settler and ablist stories of superiority at the expense of people who experience every day degradation.

It was not until I was in college that I saw my first play that privileged others’ voices. I no longer remember the name of that play, but I do remember that it acknowledged the courage and resilience of folks I knew, Appalachian folks, and that it was pure magic. It’s been more than forty years since that night at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Granted, there probably were no black or explicitly Native stories being told, but some of the stories on stage that night were ours.

Later in my twenties I began telling stories and performing at festivals. Mostly I told tales from the British Isles and from Native America, stories I borrowed from books.  For me, the stories were alive and saturated with the possibility of transformation. I noticed early on that for most performers the stories they told were just a vehicle for displaying their theatrical talents. I also noticed that when I tried to be theatrical, the stories I shared tended to fall flat, as though all the life had been taken from them.

It eventually dawned on me that telling traditional stories is problematic in several ways. For one thing, Native stories are traditionally the property of individuals, families, or clans, and one is supposed to ask permission to tell them; one must also acknowledge the holders of stories and their generosity. For another, traditional stories that are told simply come vibrantly alive in the present, whereas stories that are told theatrically become simple moments of entertainment.

After a while I found myself bored by most of the storytelling at festivals and simply stopped going. I also became bored with my storytelling, and dismayed by the focus on the teller rather than the tale. Now, I love a well told tale as much as the next person, and a fabulous telling will keep me energized for days, but way too often the spirit of the story gets lost in the telling.

It seems to me that what really matters in traditional stories is the spirit of the tale. I was, even as a kid, encouraged to look past the surface of stories and events, to try and ascertain the spirit that resides in the heart of them.  I was taught that if the spirit of the story is nurtured, great healing might come to the listeners and the teller. Although I was not raised to identify as Native, I now know that teaching to be at the heart of Indigenous life, here in the Americas and around the world. That was , and remains, a good and powerful teaching.

Sometime in my thirties I became part of a very active Playback Theatre troupe. Playback is an improvisational form in which individuals from the audience tell personal stories and the actors on stage seek to faithfully play the story back to the teller. Doing Playback well is a remarkably challenging practice, one filled with opportunities to honor profound moments in individual lives, and in our collative experience. At it’s best it is a theatre practice of honoring the sacred.

Playback stories come in many forms: playful, sad, angry, loving, passionate, and hysterically funny. Most of the stories people chose to share are tales of transition or transformation, although frequently the teller only discovers that after the story has been played back. I like to think that the actors, when we do our job well, make the sacred nature of stories visible to the teller and the audience, and by doing so, make a space for some healing.

Playback, like many theatre forms,  is both a style and a disciple, and one can go to Playback school, an activity I heartily condone. Although Playback aims to create decolonized spaces, here in the US it is haunted by the same ghosts and challenges that confront most of North American theatre: there are remarkably few Indigenous people and people of color in the Playback world, and few people with disability.

Often, when audience members tell stories of discrimination and hardship, actors completely miss the underlying truth of the narrative. Playback companies are often eager to make performances for marginalized communities, but are more hesitant to invite marginalized performers, including actors with disabilities, to join their companies, let alone teach in their training programs. Tellingly, there are a number of companies for people with intellectual disabilities spread around the world, but I know of few companies that integrate obviously physically disabled actors into their ranks. I am grateful to our local company for making me a crucial part of their performance lives for many years.

I stopped performing a few years ago, as the late effects of Polio made the grueling work of rehearsal and performance impossible. Every now and then I will tell a story or two to a few people in an intimate setting. Sometimes the stories work, sometimes not so much. The outcome has a lot to do with whether I can give myself over to the spirit of the story, whether I can allow the story to shape itself to the mood and needs of the audience, and whether I can allow the sacred heart of the tale to shine through.

One of my theatre teachers insisted that Western forms of theatre arose from people’s attempts to give physical embodiment to the sacred. Another teacher, a dear one and a traditional healer, believed that healing happens when the persons in the role of healer and patient both embody the wholeness that is the sacred. He was an inspiration, inevitably shifting form deeply serious to outrageously funny without warning, and just at the perfect moment! He insisted that all healing is theatre, and that laughter is a master healer. He also knew theatre could can be a powerful force for those who do evil, that it can harm, maybe even kill. He was profoundly aware that when we make theatre we are choosing sides in the struggle for healing, and he was always asking those who came to him for instruction or aid to think about, “Which side are you on?”

© 2017, Michael Watson

Close to My Heart

It’s June and in our small part of the world, Vermont, the landscape is rich in blossom. Everywhere one looks there is color and shape, great burstings of early summer passion, a vast flood of liquiod desire. Beyond the blooms lies an infinity of green, grass growing by the hour, bushes shaking in their leafing, the forest almost impenetrable in a vastness of viridian.

The garden has risen from its winter brown, some beds literally covered in green; the cress in the lettuce bed fills every free cranny with sweetness. There will be more planting I am sure as some seeds have perished in the cool dampness of the prolonged spring.

Rain has fallen for weeks. Even now the sky seems to hold back a torrent, although there are thinnesses in the cloud, places where there is less threat of storm. Even as we good naturedly complain we know the rain enables the blossoms and the green; without it there would be nothing.

We, too, are blossoms, requiring water, although we may last for years rather than days. These eyes are water, and the brains behind them. When we kiss someone we exchange water, and the taste of the beloved comes through a mist of mouth. Even the minerals in our bones are carried into place by water; when our blooming has ended water will slowly erode the bone, turning it  into water borne mineral to nourish more blossoms.

In our passion hardness inevitably dissipates into soft wetness and intimacy. As we explore we learn that sometimes hardness allows closeness of the most profound kind, and that very hardness is filled with water.  When we make children our very cells swim toward one another through the damp and wet we cherish.

On the family farm, in summer, growing up, there was a creek running through the back pasture and a pond in the apple orchard. Both held fish and sometimes yielded dinner, or on a slow day, lunch. I often wonder how often my cousins and their beloveds made love by the pond, not far from the kitchen window, swimming together in summer sweat, ignoring the chiggers and mosquitoes.

We seldom needed to water the farm’s large kitchen garden. Living a few miles from the Ohio river summer meant frequent storms and live giving rain. Drought was the exception; we worried more that hail would shred the tobacco leaves that in autumn provided more income than all the rest of the farm together. Break a tobacco leaf and water oozed out; fracture a membrane and the fragility of structures made of water became clear even to those who had their doubts water might support the world.

Life depends on water here, on this tiny planet, circling an insignificant sun in a far corner of one galaxy among hundreds of millions of galaxies. Water is quite simply life, and is, therefore, inherently sacred, and what we do with water is inevitably spiritual and moral. I am confident that when we return to spirit the Grandmothers will ask us what we did with our precious lives, and with the water that makes them possible. May we say we stood with many courageous persons to honor and protect the sacred water.

Nearly forty years ago my girlfriend at the time, Janice, and I lived on, and ran, a small ranch in the mountains of northeastern New Mexico. The last year we were there, the summer I graduated from graduate school, was dry, even by New Mexico standards. When the monsoon came the almost daily torrential downpours struggled to make up the deficit.

Our ranch was at the top of the watershed, meaning even in the worst of the drought we had water to feed the two large ponds in which we raised trout, the one crop that made money. Unfortunately, in dry weather the ponds evaporated nearly as much water as the river brought in. The ranches below us also took their share of water, so by the time the river arrived in the village a few miles downstream the mountain torrent was reduced to a trickle that was insufficient for drinking, let alone irrigating the village gardens and fields. It was, as is so often the case in the arid southwest, a matter of water rights versus cultural survival.

The weather was so dry for most of that summer that the cattle could not find adequate pasture; they kept breaking through the barbed wire fences that usually held them in place, making much work for us as they did so. The man who owned the ranch did not want to bring in additional feed for the cattle, although he did supplement the horses’ feed. He also did not seem to care much that folks down river were hurting. His lack of empathy and concern resulted in my girlfriend and I catching parasites from our drinking water, and very nearly lead to an all out water war with live ammunition.

That summer, when I was in my mid-twenties and exploring the intersection between art and ecology, taught me that we humans, like all biological beings, are water. Every day I was viscerally reminded that how we farm, ranch, and share water really does matter. That summer I discovered that winter snow and summer rain are indeed the sacred, shared source of all life, something my friends at the Taos Pueblo reminded us the katchinas have known all along, and a lesson I now hold close to my heart.

© 2017, Michael Watson

 

A Life

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The weather has turned frigid; this follows last week’s record shattering warmth. It has been an up-and-down sort of winter, which is, increasingly and alarmingly, the norm.

I grew up in a farming community on the plains of the Midwest. We spent a lot of time outside, and learned early to keep an eye on the sky. After all, blizzards, ice storms, and tornadoes were the norm, and each was dangerous as well as exhilarating. By the time I  reached eighth grade I was a devout student of climate science and meteorology.

In spite of my love of science, during my undergraduate studies I was lured into becoming an art major. This was a surprising turn, as I had imagined myself studying ecology. Sadly, both the ecology program at the university was less than engaging. The art department was vibrant, as was the religion department, and I spent my undergraduate years firmly settled in those disciplines. I also took literature, writing, and theatre courses, much to the dismay of the art department faculty who firmly believed visual artists should draw rather than write.

My first turn in graduate school was in visual arts, although I spend a good deal of that year in the microbiology and electronic music labs. While the art faculty could not fathom what I was doing, they proved surprisingly supportive.

After a few years in the work world, I found myself studying cross-cultural approaches to counseling, and deeply engaged in learning from Indigenous teachers from many traditions. Following several years working as a clinician in both inpatient and outpatient settings, I returned to school to study environmental studies. Once again I found myself at the nexus of several disciples, including ecology, anthropology, and psychology. It was a heady and hearty time! I went on to teach art, ecology, anthropology, and psychology, often interwoven, at a small college for over thirty years.

Now we seem to have entered a time of gathering darkness, an era in which the arts, ecology, climate science, and cross-cultural studies are viewed with suspicion, and, too often, outright hostility. Perhaps most distressing is is the realization that Native values, culture, and lands are again under intense attack.  I guess we should hardly be surprised at the hostility shown these realms of knowledge and experience; after all, each is remarkably subversive to any agenda that would produce normative hierarchies and simplify the world, and that gives preference to ideas about cultural and racial superiority.

Lately, I find myself struggling to address the attacks on these systems of knowledge , and ways of living, I treasure. I  imagine things will only get worse before they get better, even as I hold out hope that they will indeed improve. For now, I do my best, although that is not enough to stop the darkness from growing. I try to keep in mind the words of a much beloved teacher, “The world is as it is, do only what you can.” Still, I would that I could do more.

The Art of “Survivance”

SurvivanceAfter a couple of days of warmth and rain, today is seasonably cold. Next week is forecast to be very warm again, an unnerving scenario as we rely on the snow pack for our summer water supply.

Climate change is a complex issue, not so much because there is doubt that it is human caused and accelerating, but because it affects people unevenly. Here in Vermont folks are divided about the issue. Many are appreciative of our much briefer and milder winters. Others lament the loss of tourism jobs, the declining maple forests, and the increasing number of failed drinking water wells.

Much of the divide in opinion can be linked to whether a person lives their life inside or outside. City folk tend to lament cold, snowy, inconvenient weather. Those who spend most of their days outside are more likely to have a keen sense of the problems and losses that come with global climate change.

Those about to assume leadership of the United States deny climate change. They also reject ideas of diversity,  stewardship, and mutual responsibility and community. But you already know this. What you may not know is that many idolize Andrew Jackson. Jackson defied the Supreme Court and stole the lands and farms of Native people in the Southeast, sending The People on a Trail of Tears. He is so hated in Indian Country that many Native people refuse to use twenty-dollar bills.

Somehow, a few families managed to avoid deportation. I like to imagine they lived up in distant hollows or in the dense forested swamps of the river bottoms.

My father’s family identified as Native, although they refused to tell us younger ones what tribes we hail from. (They did instill in us a deep sense that governments can’t be trusted.) They grew up in Indiana at a time when being Native could cost you your farm, or your life. My understanding is that after my grandfather left the family, my grandmother moved the farm to a rocky, inhospitable, spectacularly beautiful location overlooking the Ohio River. She correctly assumed they would be safe there. My dad and his siblings walked downhill to school, then back up to home. Once, dad took me to see the homestead, in what is now a state park. It took us almost two hours to hike up. (No doubt my Polio body slowed us down.)

A few years ago I was introduce to the idea of “survivance.” The term was apparently a legal term in the Eighteenth Century,  but was adapted for Native use by Jerald Vizenor, a much venerated Native Studies scholar who is no longer here in physical form. The term refers to active survival, a continued presence even as we are supposed to have been erased from the land.

I like to think of survivance as the task of refusing erasure. Beyond that, it is the art of living well in the face of hatred and genocide. I imagine the concept of continuing to live well while under threat might be applicable to the situation of many of us in 2017. (My wife, Jennie, a Jewess, contends that the term applies perfectly to folks who resisted the Holocaust, and I suspect she is right.) Survivance implies asking important questions and making difficult choices. When does one openly resist? When does one hide or, if possible, pass? How do we find and nurture joy, family, and community in the face of hatred?

For me, there is an even more fundamental definition of survivance: the task of nurturing and protecting the soul in the face of those who would obliterate it. We need to save our souls, (individual, cultural, and collective) from those who would destroy them, for soul loss is excruciatingly painful and may impact many generations. (Make no mistake, Jackson and his ilk wanted nothing less than the destruction of the Native soul; those who idealize him now want nothing less than the destruction of all that is “Other”.)

Perhaps we can learn something about survivance from those who came before us. There is much to be said for living on land no one else desires, holding ceremony in the deep night, and pretending to be one of the majority. There is much to gain from building coalitions, going to court, and telling our stories to a larger audience. There is much to be won from making, and sharing, art, music, and literature. My guess is that we will need to draw from all these, and more, during the years to come.

© Michael Watson

 

Aftermath

Shadow_PlayA couple of days after the election my wife, Jennie, and I found ourselves teaching a master class at the Expressive Arts Therapies Summit in New York City. The class, an exploration of the uses of puppetry for clinical and social change, was an all-day affair, and we were teaching the afternoon portion. In the room with us were a group of long-time mental health clinicians and a few students and educators. All were artists as well.

Jennie and I had worked all summer on a brief toy theatre/object theatre performance that we hoped would introduce the group to some of the key concepts and concerns we wanted to share with them. The “play” was about the efforts of a village to resist loosing their beloved land to ruthless politicians and developers. Unfortunately, we could not decide on an ending, although we tried many. With each new idea, the structure of both the set and the play changed; this became a grueling process.

The day before the class we were sitting in a restaurant across Central Park from the Met, having breakfast, when we settled on the idea that, rather than having an ending, we would stop the performance and shift into Forum Theatre, in which the audience is invited to come up and try out a number of alternative endings. Sure enough, audience members gleefully presented a series of very satisfying endings, most of which we had not thought of.

Jennie then announced that as there seemed to be a good deal of angst in the room, we were, with the permission of the participants, going to teach less and focus on facilitating their creation of short performances. She reassured everyone that whatever happened and whatever was said was to remain in the room. Immediately a woman in the back of the room stood, introduced herself as an experienced clinician, and said, “I just want to get an AK-47 and start shooting people.” There followed a collective gasp. (Wow! What a brave person!) Jennie asked whether others had similar thoughts, and many hands went up, mine included. Suddenly, there was breathing space in the room!

The discussion that followed made room for tears and fears, much anger, and a tiny bit of hope. There was also a good deal of laughter as twenty-five clinicians of diverse ethnicities and sexual orientations compared post election notes. A couple of hours later five groups of clinician-artists presented the plays they had spontaneously developed. The creativity, visual engagement, and deeply held feeling of the pieces resulted in works of rare beauty and power.

At the conclusion of the class, participants spoke with us about the palpable relief they felt in being able to safely put aside their clinician role and give expression to their raw experience. Others stopped us in the halls the following day to share similar thoughts. Clearly, playing with puppets had allowed much healing.

We were not surprised. Puppets have long held a special role in many cultures, freely saying and doing much that would be dangerous or forbidden for mere humans. They carry a sense of the uncanny, seeming to act independently from, and often, in spite of, their human collaborators. Puppets have a propensity for truth telling that can leave the observer moved, mirth filled, and/or dumbfounded. They seem inherently suited to healing.

We have put away the set for our puppet play, although if we can find an ending that works we may take it out and make a video. We’re talking about creating the next piece of toy/object theatre. For the moment though, we are still processing the events of the past few months. I wonder whether those experiences will feed the next play, or whether the piece will arise from something we have not yet encountered or imagined. We’ll see.

© text and photo, Michael Watson

Falling Into Ritual

Early_FallThe past two days I have gone out into the world, camera in hand, in search of fall color. Yesterday was one of those prototypical autumn days, blustery and chill, with lowering cloud that muted most of the color. Still, every now and again there would arise within the landscape, for no apparent reason, patches of rich, vibrant yellows and reds.

This morning was again cloudy, although the sun managed to break through at times, brilliantly spotlighting patches of full fall color. Unfortunately this inevitably occurred while I was driving. Still, I brought home what I hope will prove to be fine photos.

I like to pay attention to the season round, watching our lives play out on what Hutchinson called an “ecological stage.” Here in the northern latitudes the set is always changing. We share the stage with many organisms, human and non, in relationships that are themselves forever in flux. Hutchinson likened this to an “evolutionary play.” We are, then, engaged in an evolutionary play acted out on an ecological stage. How cool is that?

Speaking of plays, my wife and I are busily constructing an extensive set for a piece of toy and object theatre that will accompany, we hope, a presentation we are to give in New York City next month. We are also working on the text and movement visuals for this third major iteration of a project that has changed remarkably over the past few months. Time has passed and we find ourselves at the point where we must put aside other almost necessary tasks and focus on the one at hand.

I am reminded that Mother Teresa once reportedly told a young, New York based, theater professional that rather than going to India to work with her (Mother Teresa), she should stay here and try to melt the frozen hearts of North Americans.

I wonder whether Mother Teresa knew about Windigos, cannibal giants  with frozen hearts, who, given the opportunity, devour entire families and villages, if not ecosystems. Even now, every now and then, someone falls under the Windigo’s spell and goes on a murderous, blood lust driven, binge of violence. There used to be a Psychiatric diagnostic category for this, “Windigo Psychosis.” No, really!

It seems to me we humans, especially those of us living under the influence of late Capital’s consumer culture, have pretty much gone Windigo. Our collective heart is frozen solid, and we are going about the task of devouring our many relatives.

So, what are we to do about it? I like to think about the seasonal round as a complex teaching metaphor and a healing ritual. I’m hardly alone in this; for many Native people the central metaphor is that of the Medicine Wheel, in which the four cardinal directions and seasons are understood as standing for life stages, cognitive schema, and seasonal maps. I believe life looks, and is lived, differently in each of those diverse quarters.

Within the Wheel there is an implied fifth direction, which is often portrayed as up; that direction is time. When we move concurrently around the circle and through time, we traverse a spiral. With each turn we return, as T.S. Eliot was given to say, to the same place, only to find that it is different.

It seems to me that autumn is the best time to remember this. Now, we are busily gathering in what we have tended all summer. Soon we will place our attention on the Ancestors and the debt we owe them for Dreaming us into existence.

I find myself thinking a good deal about the sacrifices our forebears made so that we might have life. For some reason, I find myself returning to thoughts about anaerobic bacteria who, way back at the beginning of life on our planet sacrificed themselves so that those of us who would come later might breathe.

In the background is the approaching winter, the time of darkness and Dreaming. Autumn returns every year, yet the particulars, and our life situation, are different from one autumn to the next. Those changes make memorable stories.

If I might refer back to the puppet play for a moment, I will share with you that it is partially about healing in the face of consumer culture’s overwhelming greed. Given this, I doubt it is an accident that the Ancestors have found their way into the play. After all, when we forget our indebtedness to them we are likely more susceptible to the whispering of the Windigo, more given to all consuming hunger and greed.

The play is a sort of healing ritual and a playful ceremony. After the play, we will share with the audience a bit of knowledge about the ways we use puppetry to address social, spiritual, and psychological trauma, and encourage the participants to try out some of those techniques for themselves. This teaching and sharing is, of course, another healing ritual.

It seems to me that ritual and ceremony seek to return us to a richly connected relationship with time, place, and others; in doing ritual helps to awaken the Healer Within. It can be formal or informal, high or low, unique or everyday. There are times when it is good to spend weeks or months preparing for healing ritual or ceremony. Often, when these more formal activities go well, they are both memorable and life changing.

I have a warm memory of traveling for two hard days, with two of my teachers and a few other apprentices, to a cave deep in the Amazon. Healers had made the trip to do ceremony in that cave for some twenty thousand years. The ritual itself took maybe twelve minutes, then we went swimming. Of course, the trip to and from the cave were also the ritual and ceremony, as were the preparations made before hand, and the stories told afterward. As far as I can tell it was all part of the healing.

I suspect that when we pay attention, simple rituals like attending puppet theatre or placing ourselves squarely in the midst of Nature and seasonal change are also healing. One thing’s for sure, when we are awake to the sacred in our lives, feeling connected to our selves, families and larger communities, and to All That Is, the Windigo find it very difficult to ensnare us in their web of greed and hunger.

I’d like to believe that my writing, and your reading, are another form of healing ritual. Nothing fancy really, just time and space shared by two, or more, people, and just perhaps, the spirits. Let me know what you think.

© 2016, essay and photograph, Michael Watson, All rights reserved

The Power of Place

maine-16-duplicates-025Last night was unseasonably hot and humid, making sleep illusive. Sometime after two this morning, a thunder storm passed slowly through, pushing the humidity away and bringing in a gusty and cool northwesterly breeze, and relief.

The past few weeks have witnessed a massive gathering of Native people from many tribes, and their allies, to stop construction of the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline. The gathering, which mainstream media have labeled “a protest,” is an attempt to protect both sacred lands and the planet. It is the latest example of a clash of cultures and worldviews that constitutes an immense divide between worlds. One one side are Indigenous people, and their allies, who understand the land to be alive and attentive; on the other side are governments and industries who deny the land has any consciousness, and who place short term economic gain above the value of treaties or the welfare of the planet.

As I thought about this post, I found myself thinking back to reading the early books of Carlos Castaneda. I first read Castaneda in my early twenties, and was captivated less by his use of psychedelics than by Don Juan’s insistence that places are holy and powerful. I was also fascinated by Castaneda’s total inability to understand place; I’ve wondered since whether Carlos was playing with us, making fun of the dominant European culture’s refusal to grant place awareness, choice, or power.

A while back I found myself in conversation about Castaneda, who remains a highly controversial figure. While he is revered by some, others perceive him as a charlatan, or worse, as a violent cult leader. I am reminded that Barbara Myerhoff, one of the most respected anthropologists of her generation, and a friend of Castaneda, firmly insisted he had indeed trained with a shaman. She also laughed when Castaneda appropriated her stories of shamanic training for use in his books; Carlos, she thought, was the consummate trickster. Unfortunately, Myerhoff died of breast cancer young, and was not around to witness, and comment on, Castaneda’s later writing and behavior.

I was raised to understand that places have the capacity to heal us. They may also hold us, offering safety and comfort, and, as Don Juan famously said, power. In our age of placelessness, this may seem an odd idea indeed, yet it is the knowledge given by my teachers, and my life experiences. I was taught  that we may journey to sacred places, in body or spirit, and ask for aid for self or others, and that seemingly insignificant locales can hold immense power, which they can choose to share, or not.

Without rootedness in place, we cannot understand the true nature of the world, nor our belonging within it. Yet, those who are driven by greed would prefer us to be placeless, to be without spirit or connection, and thus be good consumers of that which does us harm. They take umbrage when we resist their invitations to see the world as lifeless. We are, it would seem, engaged in a battle for our very souls.

It no longer matters to me that some dismiss our understanding of place as mere superstition. In the end experience is the great teacher, showing us what is of value in our lives. Through living I have come to understand that places are good to visit and to build relationships with. In life, we may return to place, offer gratitude, and find renewal; at death, we may revisit beloved places, and say farewell before we head off to whatever adventures await. Without place, we are indeed lost.

– Michael Watson

Knowing

Lake_Champlain_duskThe past few days were breezy and hot, the humidity creating a sea of moisture in which we swam. The wind danced through the trees, turning leaves on their sides, bending branches slightly, and singing a sweet song. Sitting on the front porch, we felt the coolness of air moving across our hot skin.

We in the West live in an odd culture, one that privileges the knowing of the eyes over that of the body and spirit, rejecting lived, felt experience in favor of abstraction and distance. Perhaps as a result, we are given to imagining ourselves as separate, isolated beings, ignoring the immediacy of our own innate experience of interconnection.

Still, I am continually surprised when people tell me that Indigenous people are superstitious, that we mistakenly perceive that everything is conscious and notices our actions. They seem to believe that accepting the consciousness inherent in all phenomena is , as in Jung’s view, childish, and act as though gratitude, humility, and respect shown to beings and forces, seen and unseen, lacks dignity.

This is an odd position to take, given consciousness appears to be an inherent characteristic of our quantum universe, and thus of everything in it, from pebbles on the beach to ecosystems, to planets and the stars they orbit. Is it not just a very small step from an acceptance of the ubiquitousness of awareness, to the notion that we live in a totally interconnected world in which everything we do impacts others?

A number of years ago I stood on the banks of a river in Amazonian Brazil, as one of my beloved teachers, hopping from one rock to another, worked her way away from shore and into the river. She then faced upstream to where the water cascaded over a fifteen foot high waterfall. Raising and extending her arm and hand, she closed her eyes and sank into deep reverie.

When she returned to shore, she spoke to me about her experience of merging with the waterfall. She explained that she thought the waterfall might be available to aid her in healing patients, and that she had asked whether she might call on its spirit for assistance when needed. The waterfall had graciously agreed.

Up til that day I had struggled to learn the art of merging, my sense of inadequacy and insistence on things being logical creating barriers to simply connecting. My immediate thought, upon hearing my teacher’s words, was to look at the waterfall and think something along the lines of, “This is a puny waterfall on an insignificant river. Why bother?” Then I looked at my teacher’s face, radiant and joyful, and thought, “Why not?!”

I took some space to myself, assumed the posture she had taught me, and setting most of my doubts aside, reached out to the waterfall. Almost immediately I felt a deep sense of joy and pleasure, almost glee, as I became, for a few moments, the land that gave form to the river, the water falling over the embankment, and the two together. I felt the great, yet subtle, power of the place, the essence of the waterfall. I became aware of the water dividing some fifty meters above the falls, some continuing on over the falls and some surging into the treacherous subterranean cavern carved into the river bottom. Then my focus shifted to the quieter pools below the torrent.

For a few minutes I was aware of myself both as an animal who could move easily across the landscape and as the falls that traveled  centimeters per year upstream. One of us would live for decades, while the other lived for untold millennia. (Our companion’s teachers had been coming to this spot for twenty thousand years, an almost incomprehensible length of time for me, but an instant in the life of the river!)

For a brief time, the waterfall and I were unique, yet connected as one. I thought, “How is this, that we can be our discrete selves, while merged as one?” Then I remembered moments of lovemaking when the boundaries between self and other had collapsed and I inhabited a shared body-mind. I also understood, in an insight filled with compassion, that the act of dropping my defenses, of allowing deep intimacy, was difficult for me as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.  Even now I wonder whose compassion I felt, and whether it matters.

As I began the return to a separate self, I asked the waterfall whether i might call on it to aid in the healing of self and others. The answer was a firm, playful yes, to which I expressed gratitude before saying,” goodbye”.

Over the years, I have revisited the waterfall in memory and spirit many times, sometimes for aid in healing, other times for the simple comfort of our connection. I have learned the waterfall is capable of being gentle, almost childlike in the dry season, and of great, fierce power, when carrying the immense volume of rainfall from the Amazon’s wet season. Each time I have asked, the waterfall has been there, actively engaging with me in connection and healing.

As I write, we are between much needed showers. The breeze, which has hardly stirred all day, has picked up, and the sun is trying to burn through cloud and haze. On this rainy day I am reminded that water is truly a great mystery, circulating through all living beings and systems on our blue-green planet, and that we are truly beings of water, and thus are all kin of the waterfall!

Sometimes, I think, we look for difference rather than honor the interrelatedness our bodies know and crave. I wonder about our culture’s insistence upon loneliness, even as I find myself connected in spirit to many beings and places, and feel blessed and honored to be allied with them in the project of living and healing. Clearly, seeing is not necessary for believing; my body and spirit know what they know, and I am grateful.

© Michael Watson

DREAMING THE WORLD: An Interview with Michael Watson

Michael Watson
Michael Watson

JAMIE:I often tell people that if have time for only one blog, it should be yours, DREAMING THE WORLD. You bring such a wealth of understanding, experience and education to your posts, so gently delivered and so healing. Thank you! You write a lot about nature. Did you grow up in the country?

MICHAEL: Thank you, Jamie. I am deeply moved and honored.
My dad was in the Air Force so we moved periodically. He hailed from Southwest Indiana, from a hillside farm overlooking the Ohio river. My mom grew up on a farm in Texas, a couple of hours west of Dallas. The upshot was we tended to be stationed near one family or the other. When I was six or so, we lived in rural Lincolnshire, England, on an estate, complete with a game warden, where I spent untold hours in the woods with friends. Then we moved to rural Illinois, where we lived on the edge of a small town, and I was free to roam the countryside. From there we spent a year in suburban Ft. Worth, Texas, then we lived in urban Ohio while I finished high school and college. No matter where we were my parents had a garden, and made sure we kids had access to Nature. Given the option, I would head for the forest or prairie. I spent quite a few fabulous summers on my uncle’s farm in the fertile Ohio river valley near Madison. My dad’s family encouraged me to understand myself as part of the Natural world.

JAMIE: How did you get interested in therapy as a profession?

MICHAEL: I had a good therapist in college, then was clinical coordinator for a large “Free Clinic”. After working for the Soil Conservation Service for a while (I had a splendid job where I was outside most of the time, often in wilderness), I realized my legs were not going to tolerate the demands on them, and I had best find a more sedentary job. I already had an MA in Studio Art, and was offered a position as a community based artist, so I grabbed the opportunity to explore engaging people in arts for healing. I also went back to school to get a degree in counseling. During that time I provided some services to patients in the local university medical center, and when I finished my degree they offered me a part-time position, as did an outpatient clinic in town. One of my teachers worked in the clinic, and when he decided to leave his private practice, he essentially gave it to me.

JAMIE: What spurred your interest in shamanism?

MICHAEL: My dad’s side of the family has always identified as Native, although they steadfastly refused to tell us our tribal identity. One of my cousins, who is a genealogist, has tried several times to trace our family, without success. There are birth certificates for family members that go back three or four generations, then there is simply no record. All the birth certificates list us as being Caucasian. Indiana was a very nasty place for Native people during much of the last two centuries and it was very common for light skinned Natives to pass. My grandmother used to say, “We must protect the children.”

Anyway, I mostly didn’t think much about Natives, except to identify with the cowboys when we kids played cowboys and Indians. I could never figure out why my dad got upset with me for being a cowboy! Then in college there were all these books about Native American healers and shamans. A lot of those books turned out to be fraudulent but they got my attention. When I went to New Mexico for grad school I had many Native friends. I ran a small ranch in the mountains so I could afford school, and got a real hit of the sacredness of that country. Eventually I moved to California, then back East. I kept meeting Native elders who offered to teach me something. I’d protest that I wasn’t Native and they would look at me as though I was completely out to lunch. Often they would say, “We know more about you than you do.” I guess they were right.

When I was living in northern California I had a vision that turned my life upside down, and set me to trying to understand what I was being asked to do. That was forty years ago. I still ask the Powers what they want, and I’m still not the best at engaging with them.

JAMIE: You have lived virtually all your life with polio: traumatic, painful and disabling. I know you’ve thought a lot about disability, about cultural misconceptions and about meaning. What is the most important thing you think we need to know as a culture about the nature of disability and the impact – not so much of the disability itself – but of the assumptions that are made about people with disability?

MICHAEL: I was seven when we came back from England. I started school, second grade, and after a week we had the Labor Day weekend holiday. I developed Polio during that weekend and spent the next year trying to recover. I was in the iron lung and had significant paralysis; I made a rapid recovery (one of those “miraculous” recoveries that happened fairly often) and left the hospital after only a bit more than three months. We Polios were encouraged to believe we were not disabled, but many of us were. Much later, we discovered there is a correlation between the severity of the illness, the degree of one’s recovery, and the disabling that comes with Post-Polio Syndrome. PPS had been studied for about a hundred years, but everyone conveniently forgot about it once the vaccines arrived and the epidemics ended. (The same thing happened with us Polios, we were forgotten, even by the March of Dimes, an organization that had promised to support us, and our families, for as long as we needed them.)

Being an enlisted person in the military means one is not well paid; a lot of military families are on food stamps! As it turned out, I most likely survived Polio only because I was in a military hospital, and the Air Force literally did whatever was necessary to support me during the acute phase of the illness; they even flew in two top Polio docs to help me.

Being a closet Native and a Polio who tried, rather unsuccessfully, to pass as able, I learned a lot about the way our culture attends to people with disabilities. There is a strong Calvinistic streak in the culture, one that subtly, or not so subtly, places the blame for disabling events on the disabled person and their family. There is a strange cultural belief that disability is a moral failure, rather than an act of Fate; there is also a belief that physical disability implies cognitive impairment. (There are more reportedly Ph.D.s among Polio survivors than any other segment of the population.) There is also a willful refusal to notice and address all sorts of physical and cultural barriers that greatly affect disabled people.

I have worked on issues of disability throughout my adult life. When I am teaching about the experience of disability I remind students/participants that disability is largely a social construct; even the medical definition of disability is socially constructed, a fact many doctors forget. (Actually, younger physicians tend to be much more aware of this.) I often ask those present to speak about the experiences that disable them; I find it immensely useful to aid individuals to understand the experience of being disabled by locating parallel experiences in their own lives. The truth is, most of us have had moments when someone else’s attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs are/were disabling to us. Disability is created!

Oh, one more thing. There is, in North America, a cultural expectation that persons with disability will be either unceasingly cheerful or despondent. We should never be angry. Well, what is one to say to that? I have a wide array of responses to my experience, certainly including anger.

[Michael, I appreciated this by you: We find it useful to define disability as a lack of access to the social and/or physical environment, a lack created by the beliefs and behaviors of self, or, especially, others. While many disability activists and theorists find this definition overly broad, we believe it aids people to understand the experience of disability, building empathy and community.]

JAMIE: You also have been involved in education at the university level for good part of your life. How do you feel about the current emphasis on vocational vs. liberal arts/humanities? What price do we pay or will we pay for this?

MICHAEL: I have long encouraged students to explore widely, to engage the fine and liberal arts, and to create internships and other avenues for applying their learning in the everyday world. Being educated in the fine/performing arts, and the liberal arts, gives one models for being creative, and understanding historical and cultural context, as well as opportunities to learn about human nature. Hopefully, one also gets enough science to be able to understand the broader ecosystem implications of one’s behavior. Unfortunately, those who have overly specialized training tend to be lacking in tools.

JAMIE: What is the major work or interest of the next year for you?

MICHAEL: I’m dealing with progressive Post-Polio Syndrome, and approaching seventy, so I am practicing becoming more choosy about the projects I take on. I will continue to see clients in my counseling and healing practices. I have a list of photographic and writing projects, and Jennie, my wife, and I are working on new toy theater shows. Now that I am no longer classroom teaching, I’m also working to create time to read for fun!

Illness, Disability and Servitude

dsc02402Today is cool and rainy and the garden seems grateful. Although we are now into June, the songbirds greeted the rain this morning with noisy jubilation.

Friday I attended an ethics conference that sought to address ethical concerns of mental health professionals. As too often happens, the presenters seemed more concerned with legal issues than with the moral and ethical issues that drive clients to seek aid. At the end of a mind numbing, profoundly frustrating day, a colleague told me that his spouse had been diagnosed with a rare cancer. Apparently the cancer can largely be managed, but at a cost of $175,000 per year. My colleague and his partner had sought aid from their insurers, but were denied. Fortunately, she is a vet, and the cancer was deemed likely to be service related, so the cost will be covered by the V. A.

Driving home, I thought about a former student who died of breast cancer a few years ago, when she was in her early forties. For some years she had been on a cancer medication that was affordable and effective. However, the manufacturer decided it was no longer financially viable and, although knowing this would likely be a death sentence for a number of women, discontinued production; my student, who had been vital and deeply engaged in our community, died a few months after that. I also know a man who uses an expensive anti-cancer drug to control prostate cancer. Although his insurance covers almost half the cost, his portion of the cost would be out of reach of most of the folks.

The new model for cancer treatment is to render the illness a chronic condition. This strategy offers much hope, yet, given the greed and indifference demonstrated by the pharmaceutical industry, also opens the door too much misery. There seem three likely, perhaps overlapping, outcomes if current trends continue: a system that only treats the wealthy; a system that bankrupts patients before abandoning them; and a world in which healthcare absorbs most of every dollar.

I wonder: what solace or advice are we healers and health care practitioners to offer patients caught between terminal cancer and impossible medication costs? What sort of moral sense are we to make of what seems, increasingly, to be a form of indentured servitude? Why are there not more voices for change, within government and medicine, and in the population at large?

This problem of affordability is also faced by the vast majority of individuals and families with disability. We have been looking for a vehicle that could accommodate a lift, and my scooter, and are again reminded that it is very expensive to be disabled; accessibility is costly, both to the public, and particularly, to those who are disabled. I wonder how my parents managed the expense of having a Polio child, especially after the March of Dimes withdrew support from Polios, post vaccine. With the vaccine, and the subsequent end of the epidemics, fundraising focused on other illnesses, leaving over a million Polio survivors, and our families, to fend for themselves. This after promising support for as long as it was needed; for many of us this would be a lifetime!

Thinking about the ways catastrophic illness becomes a rich resource for non-profits and corporations alike, I am reminded of the wider arc of U.S. history. The U.S. grew wealthy by stealing the land, culture, and resources of Indigenous people, before reaching out to plunder much of the rest of the world. Now, as the world challenges our country’s domination of markets, resources, and peoples, corporations have begun to use the techniques and technologies they honed on others, on us, and are doing so in an increasingly blatant, hungry, and soul-destroying manner. (They have become Windigo.) I find myself enraged and heartbroken that the promise of humanely managing disability, cancer, and other illnesses, as chronic conditions, moves ever closer to being a nightmare.

© Michael Watson, essay and photograph

BOOKS AND THE GREAT WEATHER

Leaf-OutThe weather has turned, the cool rain of this morning having ended, replaced by chill and a stiff breeze out of the northwest. Here and there, the overcast parts to share blue sky and allow shafts of sunlight to filter down to the earth. Wanting to be on the safe side, we’ve brought in the geraniums.

My attitude towards books is a lot like our New England weather, highly changeable and demanding. Being a avid reader, I have developed a suspicion that, like the Great Weathers, almost any book can change one’s life for good or ill, and that timing has a lot to do with the outcome.

Lately, I’ve been reading quite a bit, sampling here and yon. This week I’m engaged with Michael Yapko’s, Treating Depression with Hypnosis, a handbook for mental health clinicians. Michael understands that depression is shorthand for life lived under a regime of fear and hopelessness, a malaise characteristic of our time. He offers the reader hope, and urges us to resist the influence of those who sell programs of self improvement, and those who encourage us to ignore the real problems in our lives and the world.

The book was written more than a decade ago, yet remains a smart, useful, compassionate read. One of the takeaways is that when one is a change agent, the best gauge of success is whether one’s work actually leads to change. Michael warns against allowing the drive to “do it right’ trump our joy in watching others make the changes in their lives they wish to make. I so appreciate his straightforward urging that we allow our clients to tell us how we are doing!

He makes two other strong assertions: it is useful to be focused on the future and to tolerate ambiguity; these strategies, he insists, spark relief and enhance compassion. Michael argues convincingly that an orientation to the past pretty much assures we will fail to notice new options in the present. It’s not that we should ignore the past, rather, he encourages us to learn from the past while being open to a future that is not governed by it. He also suggests we practice “not knowing,” and allow things to be not only ambiguous, but perhaps unknowable. If we do so, he believes, we may find ourselves more thoughtful and kind, and better able to address the challenges of our client’s lives and the world.

My teachers insisted that the task of the change maker is to awaken the Healer Within, and I have come to believe that the best books do that as well, be they texts, plays, novels, or thin volumes of poetry. These books awaken me, guiding me to be more accomplished and effective at aiding others while reminding me to reach for, and nurture, what heals me. They stir things up and get me moving.

I’m not certain why this book landed in my hands at this time. Perhaps it chose me, in part, because I was recently at a hypnosis training that left me feeling a bit dispirited. Or, maybe, after a period where I have not utilized hypnosis as frequently as I might, I am just drawn back to it. I do not know, so I am seeking to simply be curious as to what is at play here, to trust my spirit and allow it, and my unconscious (whatever that may be), to guide me. I know from long experience that when I am able to do this, to trust and be curious, change comes more easily and becomes something akin to contagious. As a result, I become a more effective healer, and a happier person.

Speaking of change and weather, my beloved just came in from a wildflower walk on this day of leaf-out. She’s about an hour early; it seems everyone got cold, and having seen enough of spring’s splendor for one increasingly uncomfortable day, decided to go home.

I imagine she may shortly settle down near the fire with a good book, one fitting the fickle weather of the day. Chances are, her reading will lead to a rich conversation. I’m looking forward to that; after all, deep conversations help me feel alive, to experience belonging in relationship and the world. As a result, they, like good books, are often profoundly healing. Ah, but that is something to write about another time.

– Michael Watson

© 2016, essay and photograph, Michael Watson, All rights reserved

The Gift of Relationship

Mt_DesertYesterday was lovely, bright and warm. Right now, we have heavy snow, and the trees in the forest outside our door are coated. In a day or two, temps will be 60F and the maple sap will be aboilin’. Must be we are in the month of March.

Folks who know me will likely tell you that I am quite fond of the Natural World, and learn what I can about how it works. As a young person, this fascination with Pachamama and the ways we humans interact with her many facets resulted in me doing doctoral work in environmental studies and anthropology. Along the way, I visited many green places and accrued a good many field guides and related books.

One of the joys of being in wild places is the opportunity to meet non-human beings. Of course, this is not without risk. A couple of years ago we were walking in a jungle park in Kerala, India, when we came upon a branch lying atop the sidewalk. I was about to step over it when our guide told me to stop. The branch was a marker: on the other side of that branch were tigers and bandits! How marvelously liminal: in one step we could go from civilized wilderness to real wilderness with all of its unknows and dangers!

There are, I think, many forms of wilderness, most of which lie outside our cultural definitions of such. One in particular has my attention as I write: if I were to really get to know you, I would no doubt find that you possess an unfathomable depth, a wildness that is both raw Nature and your nature. In order to know you at that depth, I must be willing to be in relationship with you as you are.

Somewhere in our library there is a book that portends to explain the meaning of a great many animals that may appear to us in dreams or visions. The visage and meaning of each animal, including amphibians and birds, is given to us by author in a direct, succinct manner.  Each species is presented as an archetypal image, and given a tidy definition.

The book was recommended by a traditional teacher many years ago. Being a dutiful student, I went right out and bought it. I was already well into middle age and remember making that purchase with considerable trepidation. I brought the volume home, opened it, and, apparently visibly cringing, began to read.

Sure enough, my worst expectations were confirmed. While the descriptions of the animals were fair, the author’s project, to carefully define the meaning of each, seemed painfully reductionist. I’ve often wondered why my teacher recommended the book. I remind myself that he was a trickster and probably just wanted to make a point. Point made!

I have met a fair number of animals in my life: cats and dogs, crows and ravens, mud puppies and frogs, deer, turkeys, and coyotes.  I’ve also met quite a few very helpful plants. Not one of those living, breathing beings was like the others in its species!

One of my dear friends, an aging Medicine woman who sprints circles around me, has several friends who happen to be crows. Each responds to the name she has given it, and each has a totally unique relationship with her. As I don’t spend time with them, I have trouble telling them apart. Not her! (Truth be told, they are not all that interested in me anyway.)

In my twenties, a vision came to me while I was visiting friends on on a reservation in California. In the vision, I watched the Amazon basin turn brown and be covered in ice. I was terrified and heartbroken; only later, after spending time in the Amazon, would I realize that I had been visited by the being of an entire ecosystem.

When a being comes in a vision, dream, or everyday encounter, they come primarily as a self, and only then, sometimes, as what one might call an archetype. (The magpie, river, or forest that appears in one’s dream is first, and foremost, an individual magpie, river, or forest.) The being, whether Ancestor, plant, animal, weather, or spirit, appears, offering relationship. Along with that offer might come information, guidance, or healing, but the first focus is on relationship.

Oh, sure, that magpie might well also be Magpie, a representation of the species, and therefore totemic or archetypal, but she is primarily a person. I can tell you that it is an odd, unsettling, even enraging, experience to be asked, as a Native American raised in the pan-Eastern Woodlands tradition, to speak for all Natives. I personally do not like being reduced to a stereotype, even an archetype one. Truth is, I can only speak for myself, although, I may still be helpful.

I believe we are best served by allowing individual animals and plants to teach us what they will, and that we humans make an enormous mistake when we reduce individuals to species, and species to archetypes. Such reductionist thinking erases the possibility of real relationship, and diminishes our grasp of Life’s complexity, as well as our opportunities for healing. Next time a creature approaches you, consider pausing, noticing its individuality, and asking how you might be of service. The answer might surprise you, and you just might make a new friend.

– Michael Watson

© 2016, essay and photograph, Michael Watson, All rights reserved

At the Bird Feeder

DSC01861Earlier today I went out back to refill the bird feeder. I walked through a couple of inches of new snow, each step providing a pleasant crunch; otherwise the day was silent. I reached up and removed the feeder from its limb, filled it, replaced it, and began the return walk to the house. I had gone maybe ten feet when the air was filled with chick-a-dee sound. Turning, I saw the tree had filled with birds and said birds were greeting, and thanking me!

Our resident birds have come to know us well over the years. When we forget to fill the feeder they will flock to the front porch and reproach us when we come to the door, or hang out on the back stoop, literally looking in the door and windows as we attempt to eat dinner. Once one literally stopped our car, hovering in front of our windshield as we attempted to enter the garage.

I remember a summer evening many years ago. At dusk, a family of raccoon sat on the fence in what was then our back yard, and sang to us. My wife ran inside, grabbed the kids and her guitar, and returned to sing back. What followed was miraculous: a bursting forth of song, solos, duets, and full choruses.

It seems to me we have more in common with the other animals than our culture likes to believe. Maybe the only real difference between us and other species is that we can imagine the future and, therefore, know we will die. Of course, we do not know that other creatures do not foresee death, we only imagine this based on our apparently unique neurophysiology. In the end this very notion might just be hubris.

I read recently that Shakespeare was a signer for the Acts of Enclosure, essentially barring commoners from access to his land. The Acts of Enclosure were a series of Parliamentary maneuvers designed to force peasants off traditionally common lands, thereby allowing landowners to use their lands to increase personal wealth. The effect, however, was desperate poverty for many of those denied access to fields and woodlands.

When my Sioux ancestors were forced onto reservations, they faced a sort of inverse enclosure. (My eastern woodlands Native ancestors faced a different form of displacement.) Plains Native cultures were largely nomadic, moving to take advantage of available resources, and to avoid placing undue stress on local ecosystems. The people moved with the seasons; they were an active part of the great world of Nature. Enclosure stripped them of access to resources, and attacked their sense of self and culture.

Of course, this intentional separation of people from the land was a technique used throughout the U.S. as colonists surged forward to empty the land of Natives so that they could literally enclose the land for their own uses. Now things have gotten so bad that food, medicine, and water are enclosed, access to them is limited not just for Natives, but for the great-grandchildren of the colonists.

Still, enclosure continues. Our brothers, sisters, and cousins the birds and animals are confined to ever shrinking spaces. Often the resources they need for life are in critically short supply or absent. Yet, knowing this, we continue to fragment and enclose the landscape. Climate change amps this process up; we are left with the Sixth Extinction.

I’ve heard eminent scientists suggest that if we humans can survive another thousand years we can colonize the stars, leaving Earth behind. As a Native person I find this a difficult idea to grasp. Apparently we are to accept the extinction of untold species as simply collateral damage, a necessary evil of interplanetary expansion. I imagine this idea arises from the Western psychological paradigms of adjustment and individuation, a sort of soulless vision for life, devoid of empathy and relationship.

When I hear such pronouncements I am reminded of the still very much in vogue idea of Manifest Destiny, and the genocide it was used to justify. Only now, the living world, the Mother who gives our lives and souls, relationship and meaning, is being sacrificed, along with our wild kin.

This seems a sort of illness, and a heavy price to pay for someone’s colonial dreams. As for me, I’ll prefer to remember that I am just another animal, and share what I can with those who lived here long before people arrived. It seems good to have their company on this journey, and I refuse to accept the concept that life would be just fine without them.

– Michael Watson

© 2016, essay and photograph, Michael Watson, All rights reserved

We’re Still Here

dsc_0050-1This morning dawned warm and bright, with autumn’s colors seemingly more prevalent across the landscape than they were last evening. While today is forecast to be in the mid-seventies, there is talk of snow in the mountains by the weekend.

Today is Columbus Day, a good day to consider the history of European influence in the Americas. Like most things, this history is very complex. After all, I hold genes, ideas, and traditions from both Indigenous and European populations. That said, the larger context is one of ongoing genocide. It seems an everyday occurrence that some politician suggests we should be assimilated, steals more of our land, breaks a treaty out of greed and convenience, or ignores the rape or murder of thousands of Indigenous women. Too many of our people feel hopeless, resulting in unimaginably high suicide and substance abuse rates among our young people. Our young men are imprisoned at a rate far beyond our proportional share.

There is a strange dichotomy afoot: one hand the movement to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day is growing; on the other hand, the theft of Native lands and culture appears to be accelerating, as are calls for our assimilation. Noticeably absent is real movement towards honoring existing treaties and making reparation for centuries of broken promises and focused harm.

Rather than acknowledging the intergenerational effects of trauma, and of institutionalized racism and poverty, the dominant culture continues to place the blame for the suffering of Indigenous people on Indigenous people. Too many political leaders use the suffering of Native America as a rationale to do ever more harm. I find myself confused and dismayed that so few people challenge the politicians, like Donald Trump and countless others, who publicly espouse the destruction of Native people through assimilation and erasure. It is painful and frightening to listen to oneself, and one’s people, spoken of as worthy of extinction. I guess I am getting a hint of what my grandparents and still earlier generations faced.

While all of this is true, today we acknowledge something else. Today we proudly focus on our collective resilience and creativity, and the miracle of cultural continuity in the face of genocide. We are STILL HERE.

© 2015, essay and photograph, Michael Watson, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC, All rights reserved

the land remembers

Near_TurinoWe were visiting cousin Toni and her family in a hilltop, walled village near Torino. Looking out across the landscape we saw castles, and their villages, atop each of the many surrounding hills. Between each village lay fertile fields and the occasional woodland. Vineyards and orchards appeared here and there across the countryside. The Alps rose craggy in the distance.

Northern_Italy_LandscapeI asked about the presence of so many castles, and was told that for many centuries there was conflict between villages. These conflicts were not simply local, but reflected larger forces at play in northern Italy. The fertile landscape spreading out before us was a much coveted resource, fiercely contested among local and international powers. Thus, life was difficult for the people of these beautiful hilltops and valleys.

In the village wall, just steps below our relative’s home, were the impact craters of bullets. During World War II, thirteen village men had been executed against that wall, killed by the Nazis in revenge for the death of one soldier. The men, including the village priest, had been taken as they left Sunday morning mass at the local church, lined up against the wall, and shot. The village still mourns.

Today, Italy is at peace. Her people, still face, of course, many challenges. There are few jobs for young people, so the young leave for other companies, an exodus reminiscent of other generations. People grumble that the government seems incapable of addressing the real problems faced by Italians; that, too, is familiar to Italians across generations. Yet, much works: education is essentially free, as is healthcare. The country’s infrastructure is excellent: the trains are inexpensive and run on time, the roads are well-kept, and the electrical grid generally dependable. Internet speeds are slow, an inconvenience that has no immediate solution.

Still, the history of conflict and warfare lives, often just below the surface of everyday life. That history, perhaps carried in the genes of each generation, permeates the landscape, culture, and local history. Stories arise in many contexts, even at Sunday afternoon brunches, or neighborly gatherings around the table beneath the fruit trees in the garden. Even in the immediacy of peace and relative prosperity, trauma sits nearby, never far away.

DSC00104As we enjoyed a classic, home-made Northern Italian lunch, complete with great local wine and desert, I thought about the way North Americans ignore the needs of the land, and the history it speaks to. I pondered our willingness to consume expensive, tasteless food, rather than nourish the land and those who farm it, and wondered what might lie beneath our collective obsession with covering the land with concrete, as if history would not, like Nature herself, force its way to the surface through every crack.

Listening to the flow of stories, I mused that I often hear that America has not experienced war on our soil, yet know our land has witnessed much warfare and bloodshed. I imagined that the soil of North America, like that of Northern Italy, remembers, even as we try desperately to forget.

Watering_CanLooking at the people gathered around the table, it occurred to me we North Americans could, as has much of Europe, choose to embrace the land and the history it holds, and build a society that honors the histories of the places we inhabit. Perhaps we would all be happier then.

© 2015, essay and photographs, Michael Watson, All rights reserved