If you’ve been watching the news, you know that Portland has had a hard time of it over the past months. Our downtown, once an eclectic hub, is now a dystopian pantomime. There appears to be conflict everywhere. A lot of us are homeless and others unemployed, writing our futures not in pencil but in sidewalk chalk that fades fast with the rain.
I have a powerful friend, and no it’s not because she’s wealthy or well connected. I knew Rachel was powerful the day I met her. She has that cheeky, sharp, purple kind of power that some women have running through their veins.
She sat across the table at the little Russian restaurant where we were having dinner and radiated her power, beaming it at me like some kind of 40s movie star. Her boyfriend (at the time) sat next to her, doing his best to dominate the conversation. And Rachel just let him try, such was her assurance in her power of connection.
On nice evenings the park two blocks away fills up with people enjoying the outdoors. They circle with their dogs, sit on benches, and spread out their picnics. It’s essentially a Norman Rockwell scene with every turn of the path. Or as close to Rockwell as gritty Portland, Oregon, will ever get.
There are daredevils at the skate park and high schoolers playing a pick-up game of sand volleyball. I sit on the hill above them to watch these youngsters fly up concrete walls and fling themselves into volleyball nets, reminding the rest of us what it is to inhabit a body so new it can still forget its edges.
I believe that as humans we are built for all things. All feelings. All experiences. I believe this with the fervor of someone who has swung the pendulum of experience pretty wildly for most of my 40 or so years.
Joy. Passion. Victimhood. Oppressive control. Hilarity. Co-dependency. Murderous rage. Apathy. Profound, spine-tickling inspiration. The range of experience here on earth is enormous, and we are wired for all of it.
I like to think of our capacity for experience as an enormous and glorious muscle we get to flex or leave on the couch as we choose. Not everyone flexes all of this muscle, or even some of it. And that’s where I fit free will into my theory. We are free to choose the couch or the flex (or flexing from the couch, which I’ve also practiced pretty extensively).
My belief in this fundamental equality among all people has helped with The Question that has been at me since I was wee. The why are we here at all? question. The big ask that no one else can answer for you, regardless of how human they also might be.
So far my answer goes like this:
I am here to feel, taste, spew words or milk, run marathons or win pie-eating contests, found teaching hospitals, raise little humans, chickens, retreat into silence or sell out stadiums, buy a tractor, inherit a fortune, change my identity, change it again, change careers, partners, locations, find stability, lose it, and find it again, this time with one ear cocked for the punch line.
The more I allow myself to experience—feel—and to keep this aspect of being-ness moving through me, the healthier I am. When an experience moves, it changes. But if it sticks it goes against our basic process of evolution. For me suffering has always and without fail come from the sticking of something, the stagnation.
And aren’t we professional sufferers as much as anything else? We each know the trapped, burning thought streams that keep running over and over through our heads. We know physical suffering and emotional anguish the way we know our own faces—closely, daily, and with an intimacy bordering on fanaticism.
But we also know illumination. The breakthrough. The big shift that pulls someone out of an abusive relationship, a hopeless addiction. Sometimes it pulls a nation off the couch and out into awareness on a scale that we’ve been secretly awaiting no matter how radically it will disrupt our lives.
Covid-19 has disrupted our lives. Racial, class, and systemic inequalities have been disrupting lives for so long they have become our baseline. We have been politically, racially, socially, spiritually and emotionally divided for so long we haven’t even been able to see the gulf for all the years it has swallowed.
Yet something feels different to me with the current collective experience. I have the insistent, growing impression that a new narrative is being born from all this recent feeling. I still overhear a lot of polarization among my neighbors on my park walks, and there is still much confusion clouding us at the moment. But there is also something emerging that is bright as a new, undiscovered element and I’m going to say this anyway, even if it’s a little premature:
I believe we are done with suffering.
Wait? Does this mean we won’t feel pain anymore? That utopia is near?
Unlikely. We are built for pain as much as pleasure, after all. But pain is not suffering just as illumination is not the absence of darkness. I think we’ll always have the gamut of experience on earth, and I think we wouldn’t have it any other way. But I do not think we need to suffer the way we have. To be divided. To play the powerless part.
The organism that we form together is incredibly powerful. Individually we are sparks of that power, but together… together we are an innumerable light.
Our light knows that senseless death is senseless, and will not sanction it. It knows that unity is born from understanding so deep it touches our commonality, makes us gasp, get up, and remember we are free.
Free to change ourselves, our suffering. The world.
These boys were playing on Salmon Creek Beach and so I took their picture. It wasn’t a particularly nice day… cloudy, and the Pacific currents their usual frigid temperatures. I roamed the beach for hours shooting birds and sand patterns and seaweed, and the boys played the whole time.
This image brings me a certain softer insight right now. In this time of struggle to come out from under the white male gaze, it helps me to remember that everyone at some point was a kid who loved nothing more than to play.
I first heard this poem about the cow that eats all day, only to starve at night on her fear, when I was in my mid-twenties and searching.
A man read it aloud on a CD in that lilting, irregular way Rumi is often performed. I hated the poem when I first heard it. The stanzas made me ache with self-recrimination. How often had I been this cow? Safe when I trusted, but oh when I fed on doubt…
I looked at this photo the other day (taken about four years ago) and thought how something about it both encapsulates this time we all share right now and defies it. Bare faced. Close. The people in it are lost in their own realities as much as they are connected. And even the way she is circling the spoon around in that cup looks subversive.
I used to be late for work all the time, or late coming home. I blamed it on the cats (one of them threw up again, can you believe it?) or on a demanding work project. But really I was having an affair with the Sonoma County landscape by way of my new handheld camera. To and from work I sought the light, swell of hills, dance of trees. The surest way to fall into rapture.
The world of woo has changed pretty radically in the past 10-20 years. Slowly, surely the occult has become less other, and today we have influencers and celebrities freely endorsing their preferred mediums and shamans. CEOs now take vision quests and share these experiences with their leadership teams. Certain astrologers and their kin have even become celebrities themselves. Practices that were once strictly supernatural have become… well, kinda super regular.