Casting the circle

Hello my friends. Greetings from these tenuous first days of spring here on the peninsula, from the day-at-a-time. The sap is rising in the maples, the birds are returning by the hour, and human life has taken a queasy turn down some parallel path we’d just as soon leave untrodden. But here we are, and we’re here together.

Back in December, just after the solstice, I had a dream that has been puzzling me since. The dream contains a kind of admonition, but also an invitation, and has proven remarkably impervious to my mulling despite (or owing to?) its dense and folded surface. Our present reality of pandemic, however, seems to crack the dream right open. It’s not the kind of thing I’d ordinarily broadcast far and wide, but we lost sight of ordinary around the last bend, didn’t we? And besides, the admonition and invitation could each prove prescient. Here goes.

In the dream I awoke to a world that was colorless and bleak, without temperature or smell, but still somehow altogether convincing. I was profoundly alone, and even so, I knew that person-to-person connection was nothing but a distant abstraction here. It occurred to me that my responsibility, in the dream, was to carry forward the noble human tradition of gathering meaning, extant meaning, and to hold it together like a bundle of short strands. But such a task verged on impossible; in its bleakness, this dream-world presented me at each turn with the utterly convincing prospect of eternal futility, of insufficiency. I stumbled around grasping at the strands, feeling them slip between my fingers, and any I managed to gather would simply blow away. Despair and shame weighed heavy. When I awoke back to our world I was overcome with the sweetness of the earthy, more-than-human meaning that surrounds us, with the way we can connect to and through it effortlessly, the way it coheres without toil.

That is the dream I had at the solstice. It was a strange one, for sure, but I’m hesitant to write it off as just that. What I saw strikes me now as synchronous with the present reality; synchronous in Jung’s sense, as being causally independent but meaningfully related. What then is the admonition it contains? And what is the invitation?

Well, here at the end of March 2020, we may well be approaching a time when it will fall to each of us to sit with loss, with death, to look at it squarely and with all empathy. To stay with it despite the siren song offering an illusory respite in turning away. When that time comes, we’ll be called to gather and hold the fraying strands of human meaning together against a tearing wind, without the benefit of knowing if it’s enough, or whether there will be relief. Each of us will feel the possibly inexorable pull to let go, to let the strands blow away; to let death pass unwitnessed. That, I understand, is the admonition contained in the dream. Failure is to look away at the moment of loss, to let human meaning slip from the grasp. But nothing else is failure. Not struggle, not shame or despair, not crying.

I will tell you this: the moment of loss comes without warning, very often disguised. It creeps into the house and only shows its face after it has passed. I know because it visited me years ago, it haunts me now, and what I dreamt at the solstice connected the dots; we can see death coming up the path this time, and that makes all the difference.

We are not alone, as I was in the dream. By the grace of the gods we are not alone — and connection is just the thing. This is the dream’s invitation: toward laughing-with, opening-to, flourishing in mutual response-ability (as Donna Haraway says) with one another. Feeling a friendship deepen over the phone, checking on a neighbor, carefully delivering groceries to our elders, asking for help. Through connection we begin to make ourselves collectively and joyfully ungovernable by the illegitimate authorities of fear, panic, government, capital. Better yet, we begin to render those authorities obsolete by sidestepping their medieval story of separation. It’s the first step over to another parallel path, this one in all ways inviting rather than queasy. Through connection we entwine human meaning with that sweet, earthy more-than-human meaning extant in the world — this world, humming as it is with boisterous, anarchic life. We form a hand-in-hand circle (imagine that!) around the strands, and the circle will shelter a legitimate, immanent, rising power. And when death comes we will know to sit with it.

A black and white photograph of ice melting in the shallows of a clear lake. The ice is thin and flat, sparkling in the afternoon light, and the water is glassy calm, reflecting the clear luminous sky.

I went for a walk with my dog Tucker the other evening along an abandoned gravel road that weaves between a marshy beaver pond and a remnant fence-line. The beavers — may aspen-boughs rain upon them in blessing — have flooded long stretches of the road, which grows squishier and less road-like by the year. The sky was clear and still that evening, and the birds were cacophonous over the water: red-winged blackbirds pulled spring up from deepest muck with their seductive song, sandhill cranes cast an echoing primeval-present-future circle around the marsh. I lay down on dry ground and looked up into the silica bowl of the sky as I listened to spring’s flourishing. We are far from alone, and the circles join again.

So, here we are at the outset of this second cycle of Polylith. Glad to have you along for the walk. I spent February thinking about what form these letters might take in 2020, but I didn’t expect this first one to be decided for me in quite the way it was. Even so, I send this with more than a little trepidation — dreams feel so private! But I’ll just roll with it. What a time to be sentient, huh?

Oh, and also: over the course of this year, I’d very much like to loop in your words (yours!), and include a little something from readers at the end of each letter. I’ll extend that invitation clearly next month, but in the meantime if you want to talk, you know where to find me.

Until then, much love from this peninsula.