A Brand New World

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Photo by John Simmons, 1975

I.

“This is how I feel right now/Obsolete manuscript/ No one reads and no one needs Pages lost, incomplete/ No one knows what it means/ Minds grow dark, so suddenly…
Useless part/ This useless heart/ Useless art/ What am I? Why I am I/ Incomplete?/ Obsolete
This is how it feels right now/ Obsolete manuscript/ No one reads, no one needs/ Useless part/ This useless heart/ Useless art . . .” – From the song “Obsolete” by Regina Spektor from her latest album, Remember Us to Life
“‘The Fire Next Time’ was not only for me the story of an elder who’s trying to teach a younger nephew . . . the facts of life. What I probably got from that is the notion of different perspective, that . . . it was legitimate to see the world totally differently than the dominant way . . . which is the Western dominant way of seeing the rest of the world . . . whether it’s Europe or North America . . . there is always this incredible sense of . . . we are the world, we are the center of the world. And we see the rest of the world from that center. . . And [James] Baldwin helped me understand that this was a political standpoint and that we were legitimate to question that and to see ourself as as well the center of the world or at least as important or as valuable . . . to have a different perspective on that . . . that’s why I always said what I learned from Baldwin is this way of questioning something that might seem solid – nothing is solid – and this sort of agility – of mental agility and intellectual agility to question everything.” – Raoul Peck, filmmaker, in an interview on Fresh Air about his Oscar nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.

There are rare occasions in life when we realize that what we’ve told ourselves about the world, the lens we’ve used to define “our world,” has become inadequate, has become too narrow. An epiphany, or an event shakes us out of our version of reality, and concepts that relate to our previous way of thinking feel empty and are no longer relevant, or what we might say about those things. Reading, writing or speaking about various topics, especially the more superficial ones, becomes meaningless, even great works of literature suddenly lose their luster temporarily, unless they are able to bridge their relevance in this new world and if not, have the potential to become uninteresting because we are in a new version of reality we must study very closely as though we are cramming. I’ve experienced this three times in my life.

In 1996 I went to Burning Man in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, normally home to horned lizards, kit foxes, badgers, and rattlesnakes, all of which retreated from the chaos and crowds during that eccentric weekend in the wilderness. I was nineteen.

Silver CDs dangled on a string that reflected the burning rays of the sun, a brown motorized couch moved across the desert earth; there were raves under blackened skies, naked mud baths under oppressively hot sun; there was a drag queen circus show, and a forty foot high wood burning man sculpture with long legs and little other defining features.

In this world a man could have breasts and walk around in a tutu with no shirt on – and she did, a man could walk around naked wearing nothing but a cock ring – and he did, a woman could wear nothing but black leather thigh high boots – and she did; in this world clothes were unnecessary or costumes, and making love out of the shadows would probably be condoned.

After a trek through the barren, parched landscape to explore the novel terrain and human beings, I lay alone, to get away from it all, against the steely gray, cracked earth without a shirt on in very short blue jean cutoff shorts that frayed at the ends, my hair plaited into seven braids. I closed my eyes, my knees pointed upward, and I felt like I was on another planet.

I traveled to Burning Man with a group of poets. The purpose of the trip, and collective pursuit, was to create a “poetry tent,” a place for readings amidst the bands, installations, sculptures and noise.

Back then, I wrote politically and sexually charged performance poetry with feminist and social justice undertones, and I read a couple one night in that poetry tent, but realized immediately, every poem I had ever written had become obsolete/ irrelevant. The subjects of my poems didn’t exist here, in this Dionysian utopia, it was beyond the restrictions and laws our society imposed upon us. As I read aloud, the words felt vacuous and I found myself thinking: who am I preaching to? Who is this choir? And I realized then that it was possible for an environment to be created in which the world as I knew it was gone, or that reality could quickly become something different than I thought it was – even if it was only for a weekend.

On the final night of Burning Man, almost every physical sculpture was lit on fire, or so it seemed, everything ablaze and the smoke and carbon made breathing uncomfortable that final night, it perfumed my hair with bitter flecks and left me with an apocalyptic feeling of emptiness – my old poems metaphorically burning along with everything else.

Something similar happened to me when I went to Nepal in 1998 – the foundation of how I saw reality/ the world shifted. The myth of Western society as center stage dissolved. Amidst the Tibetan monks chanting and ritual instruments emanating from nearby monasteries every morning, the kangling horns and tingsha cymbals, and the prostrating maroon clothed monks with toned arms circumambulating Boudha Stupa, I witnessed the bloody carcass of a buffalo hanging at a nearby meat booth, a mother severely disabled walking on her knee bones (the rest of her leg missing) beside her toddler who gnawed on a piece of raw meat; I saw a pyre lit over a river, obscuring human remains, while family and friends, fully dressed and partially submersed in the water surrounded the body and sobbed; I made friends with homeless children between the ages of five and seven who slept in an ally like a pack of wolf pups, and lastly witnessed a woman wash her hair at dawn on a roof top by herself.

I watched her from a different rooftop and she didn’t see me. She washed her long black hair in a bucket as the sun came up, she whipped her hair down into the full bucket, and then flipped it back into a fast-moving waterfall, then combed through every shiny black wet strand of it until there was not a snarl. So then, that was it. I realized there is not one way to bathe, to wash one’s hair when the sun comes up, even “toilets” can be anything (in Nepal more often holes in the dirt with no toilet paper in sight.) I had lived mostly in Boudhanath for a month at that point and it hit me: there is no one way to do anything, there are millions of ways to exist, to live, function – existence is the epitome of multiplicity. I realized there is no one right way – to believe or be – from the grandiose to the minuscule gestures of life on earth.

II.

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Photo by Doreen Simmons, 2011

“The center was not holding . . . It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of American in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hope and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not . . . I had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.” – Joan Didion from her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game/ if you are the healer it means I’m broken and lame . . .Vilified, crucified, in the human frame . . A million candles burning for the help that never came/You want it darker . . There’s a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame . . .They’re lining up the prisoners/ And the guards are taking aim/ I struggled with some demons/ They were middle class and tame/ I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim/ You want it darker . . .
– Leonard Cohen from his newest album, You Want it Darker released October 2016. He passed away November 8th, 2016, the day after the U.S. election.
“Leading up to the war, I doubted the value of anything but antiwar poetry. I thought all my nature poems were . . . Well, stupid. But the moment the antiwar movement failed and the bombings began, I knew how important poems about birds and trees and loneliness and sex and food and joy were. I knew those little poems were weapons in the war for human kindness.” – David Budbill in and interview with Diana S. McCall in The Sun, reprinted in the January 2017 edition.

The third time I experience a fissure in my perception of reality, a fissure in my perception of the world – it’s the fall of 2016. This time the country of my birth – the United States of America – has been twisted into an alternate reality of disconcerting fictional discourse and dissonance by the man elected president. What I always felt my fellow citizens and I were immune to – is no longer the case – we are like other countries now – the ones subject to control by a dictator-like figurehead.

On election night I realize immediately this is one of the most significant events in American history in my lifetime.

After a few hours of sleep, I get up on November 8th and feel like someone I love has died, or like I have made a grave mistake I cannot erase mixed with the worst hangover in history, even though I barely drank the night before.

I have a hard time getting the words out to my three-year-old son when he wakes, “Trump is our next president,” my voice breaks, the sun begins to rise. I have nothing else to say. Nothing else on my mind.

“Hilary didn’t win? I thought you said she was going to win,” he says concerned.

“No, she didn’t win . . . I‘m so sorry. . . I was wrong.”

“Trump is not nice,” my son says.

And then I count up in my mind that my son will be seven and a half in four years – which seems like an eternity – an eternity in which a text book narcissist and habitual liar could be president, a man whose commentary is sometimes inappropriate for children to hear; a man who says he doesn’t like the idea of heroes.

After observing my unwavering despondency throughout the day, my three-year-old later reassures me, “It’s okay that Trump’s going to be president,” sort of the way the Dalai Lama might say it, and something in me wants to be soothed by his words, that on some bigger bird’s-eye-level it will be okay, the way great catastrophes are okay, or okay in the sense of accepting such and such is reality, therefore, on some profound level, okay – the world goes on, things go on, humanity finds a way..

I find myself -alone – in couple’s counseling a day later. “Yesterday, my clients and I cried together all day,” the therapist says woefully with a peaceful smile. I realize this is one of those moments all Americans will remember, the way they remember where they were when JFK was shot or when the World Trade Center was hit.

At this moment I’m incapable of feeling that Jews, Muslims, Latinos and all people of color are safe in the United States (due to the promises made, hate speech used, and documentation about those now in the highest positions of government, and I can‘t shake it, my anxiety hard to quell, the proliferation of hate crimes across the country in the name of the man elected, not by the majority of Americans but by the Electoral College, is on the rise) and I’m not alone. In a conversation with Nick Hasted a few days after the election, published November 17th, in Independent, Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the graphic novels Maus: A Survivor’s Tale I and II says:

“I seriously worry all the time . . . It’s my nature. But here – eureka! – I’ve finally found something worth worrying about!. . . And I also can’t help but see parallels to the Thirties and Forties wherever they’re to be dug up, to a degree . . I see something similar to Hitler. . . in that it’s gone very fast to things that seem surreal to me, like Trump supporters shooting four civilians at a polling place in California – one of them died. And there’s the slide towards incivility . . . For the first time I got to see my name with three parentheses signs around it. I don’t think it was a secret that I’m Jewish, but they were making sure that the alt-right people would know that I was Jewish. That’s just something I saw a couple of days ago. ‘Oh, I see. OK, it’s a new day.’ And at this point we don’t care about refugees’ lives. They’re not white lives. So yeah, sure, I’m worried.”

“You can’t let your thoughts get out of control,” my therapist says, “you can’t guess what the future will bring, we just have to see what actually occurs and deal with each thing as it happens. Anxiousness causes a fight of flight response which makes it more difficult for your brain to react as rationally as it would in a calmer state. Put a photo of Trump on your meditation altar and send him thoughts of loving kindness,” she says with a snicker.

I think, yeah, yeah, sure, it will probably be worse than I can imagine, and there is a disconnect between she and I – I feel an urgency to put myself on the front lines (but I do not tell her) and I have a looming sense that I may have to sacrifice a lot, maybe everything, that my role as a mother may have to be secondary at times to this cause – it feels similar to the dread and existential crisis I might experience if I knew an asteroid were heading toward earth . . . my country as I once knew it is about to disappear, and suddenly none of the rules apply, and it’s as if all the other things I could write about – the subtle things – do not matter.

I know I’m going miss writing about the lush forests sometimes and seeing their every contour, and the river water gold hazel of my son’s eyes; I know I’m going to miss some of the beauty that’s all around me, all the time, because of the need to stay informed about what’s occurring and to vigilantly protest it, and there is a weight to this form of collective grief and political upheaval, a weight to consuming the details of the many events, rulings and their outcomes that go against everything I believe in, not to mention the dizzying array of obvious misinformation and propaganda that spews like a geyser daily.

I hesitantly confess to the therapist, knowing I will be reprimanded, that I read every article I can from every reputable journalistic newspaper and magazine I can in every spare minute of everyday. I read it all until my hands are blackened with ink, no not that, until I’m dizzy and can’t see straight because for the first time in my life I’m utterly addicted to reading everything on my iPhone, everything possible in the time allotted, every article, every blog post from every reputable news site I can. I sleep beside my phone, it’s the last thing I look at before sleep and the first thing I look at when I wake, and sometimes I pick that glowing rectangle back up at two in the morning so I don’t miss something, and in the in-between hours what I read seeps into my unconscious where I dream that I live in an annex where ominous voices can be heard below.

She says, pointedly, like an annoyed mother, “Why are you doing that! Don’t do that! Don’t read articles right before bed!” and also goes into a tangential diatribe about how great NPR is, a source I enjoy but don’t find sufficient as my sole news source at this time. When we discuss politics I can tell she hasn’t been filled in on several current stories I’ve read in the New York Times and Washington Post.

I nod politely as she continues to talk about the frontal cortex and the importance of calming the monkey mind as I contemplate whether it would be a good idea to start training to use firearms, or if my life as I once knew it is gone – the comfortable bliss of freedoms allowed in a true democracy, which we didn’t have to fight for only two days before.

A couple weeks later, my three-year-old runs around the front yard under 200 foot redwood trees, after four straight days of rain, yells on the top of his lungs over and over again, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Donald Trump has got to go!”

“Where did you learn this?” I ask him.

“From Eric in my class,” he says casually, giggling, with a contagious sparkle in his eyes as he looks directly into my eyes to make sure I see what he’s doing and acknowledge his sense of humor. After he receives my non-verbal wide-eyed queue and smile, he looks away quickly and carries on with the chant – so carefree – happy – entirely unburdened by the words he’s shouting – for him, it’s pure comedy, pure theater.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera, wrote, “The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”

And so here we are, closer to the earth, like so many before us, closer to the precipice of the shrinking polar ice caps, where we hang on a very fragile ledge of the unknown, in a brand new USA, a less democratic one, with a wannabe dictator regime I don’t have words for yet, or perhaps too many.

Everyday millions attempt to carve into this brand new world, for all of humanity, chip away at it like Rodin, forming “The Thinker” out of nothing, try to make something bright out of decay and repugnance. This is our clay, but it’s trapped like the bones of a prehistoric creature in tar pits. An anchor reaches out to save the sinking cargo, the sinking pieces of what once was our world and the rope slips but will not be released.

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2 thoughts on “A Brand New World

  1. Mara, you say this all so eloquently. I can relate to so much of this – and the times my version of reality has shifted – especially to your most recent example. This is one of your pieces that will I will think about for days – like your piece about returning home. I’m not sure if it provides much comfort – but you are not alone. Sending love.

  2. Phenomenal piece. Bravo. I’d wanted to save the world or at least my family from it. So deeply sorry I failed to make it better. I tried dropping out , becoming the alternate reality as a balance to the insanity. Living a life on the fringe until life crashed in on me and I ran for air with my children trying to keep up. What have I done… Or what have I just not done? My grandson deserves a better world. Thank you for carrying the staff and vision. But for his sake, get more sleep and dance the joy of living where the dark forces can’t find you. I applaud you!!!! Mara, what a gift you have and you are.

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