Archive for the ‘Plant Medicine’ Category

Put Your Butt Here

July 26, 2013
Put my what where?

Put my what where?

My seventh-grade students dream bigger than any directive.

When a street sign like the one we saw on the way to the High Line tells them Place your butts here, they will comply like good citizens, and then defy like even better citizens. They are budding semanticists who know that words both open and close doors.

Each word has a special charge.  Thus surely my students will also put their “buts”  here—and their “ifs” and their “ands”, amending signage to reflect a vaster cause:  Please place your dirty cigarette BUTTS here, but don’t stop moving your ANATOMICAL AND MOTIVATIONAL BUTT towards the greater good. 

When their personhood and minds are respected and “bolstered”–thank you for adding that to our vocabulary list, Obama!–my students think with their hearts: with this kind of cognition from a contingent of twelve-year-olds, the results move (the urban equivalents of) mountains.

Writing Up High:  What's your inner phenology?

Writing Up High: What’s your inner phenology?

These young people follow the signs that maintain convention only in so far as this doesn’t handicap the growth of a vital community.  Otherwise, we teach them how to edit radically, and use words to set everybody free.

My students now look at their city and see the secret gardens reestablishing themselves incognito in the most misshapen, arthritic sidewalk cracks, in rich and poor neighborhoods alike.  Like the human spirit when nourished, these “invasive” plants won’t be held back.

This same crew is learning Urban Ecology.  I make the pleasant mistake of writing Nettles Prick on the board as part of a parsing lesson.  They have to squeeze their anatomical butts and slow down their breathing to keep from erupting into hormonally-mandated giggles without end.  Prick: thank goodness some body parts are inherently funny.

The Buddha said all life is suffering, and certainly studying grammar, were it a shaming prison for their otherwise rolling thoughts (as it is often taught), can be that.  But these little Buddhas know how to keep the joy in the rules and the rules in service to saying what they need to say.

Serious Laughter Pollination

Serious Laughter Pollination

A short prayer to the Curriculum Fairy: May all young people use their whole body and whole mind to follow their whole heart.   May all young people sit down on their anatomical butts RIGHT HERE and refuse to budge, should anyone try to fence them from their wildest dreams out of  fear about the vestigial societal anatomy they may dismantle in the process.

May those who would rather pick their butts than support our young authentically have an ingrown hair that wakes them up to what pain is.

May all young people without exception be happy, healthy, safe and at ease.

(And to all you young people who are applying to college shortly and are ready to write your essays, visit our Essay Intensive programs to guide, inspire and challenge you HERE!)

Natural Grammar

Natural Grammar

Unfathomable Web of Verbs

January 6, 2013

What Moves

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emergent subject

My former student, J, to whom I taught Latin years ago when he was a totally bewildered but well-meaning (as they say) 8th grader who would spend most of the class cooing at the pigeons on the window ledge, writes to me:  I love your writing.  I would buy your book!

these be the messengers

these be the messengers

J, do you mean my invisible, incipient book? The one I feel in my belly like a prayer searching 

 for muscular wings?  For a few weeks in the fall of that year, I was very sick with mono, which is only supposed to afflict you from sharing Dr. Pepper sodas or callous, drooling make-out sessions when you’re 14, but I guess Mono didn’t get the memo.  One day my headache was so intense that another nail-bitten student asked me if he could go to the bathroom and then came back after fifteen minutes with a half-steeped Lipton black tea in a Styrofoam cup.  Here, he said, handing it to me.  I got this for you.  He had taken note of my habits, if nothing else.  I could see where he had drawn on his hands with his pen.   And, he added.  I didn’t do my homework.

 Sometimes one accepts love in any medium.

 

leaves i love

leaves i love

Plus, it was Mono that stopped me in my tracks enough to show me the potency of yoga, what yoga was really up to, the face it only reveals once you’ve drawn the mental hospital curtains and signed up for the spiritual blood transfusion, come what may.

So all these years later, to have an attuned, adult-ish J praise my work is just the right medicine for a different kind of disheartenment.

Moved by his profusion, as any writer would be, I say: I think I have a book in me, but I don’t have a subject!

He returns:  If you cannot find the subject, look for the verb.

This is exactly what we instruct young Latin students to do when learning to read the language.  It’s not how literate Romans thought or operated.  But the verb is kind of the boss of the sentence, and it can be useful to take orders from a boss when confused.  Once you find the verb, most of the mystery of the subject is removed, for the verb’s inflection fixes its pronoun correlate: if the inflection is a he-she or –it (shit, for short), the subject cannot stray, nor escape the tyranny of the verb’s decision making.  It bows and complies.  If you didn’t understand any of this paragraph, count yourself in good company.  Now you know or remember what it is like to be an 8th grade boy.

So there is a correlate in writing: when you find your action, the movement, you also know what or who is moving.

The maxim is kind of Taoist-sounding, when it isn’t just irritating.

what moves

what moves

And when you are an 8th grader, you take the issue of grammatical agreement personally.  As if the Romans set out to make things complicated for you.  And did a damn good job.  I’ve heard many a middle-schooler whine this whine verbatim: Why did they make Latin so hard?  The legacy of the Romans was hair-tearing grammar.  The aqueducts were really a second-tier invention besides their puzzler syntax.  And for this contribution, no one can forget them, wish as they might.

And the subsequent frustration can cause weird, reactionary behaviors (I’ve seen them firsthand)—again, mostly in males: photographing your own eyeballs, seeing how swiftly you can stab a pencil point in the spaces between the fingers of an outspread hand, before you miss and stab yourself.  OopsmayIgotothenurseIjustpuncturedmyfinger?  No.  She’ll just stuff a cracker in the wound.  Conjugate this verb first.

not eight grade boys not learning latin

not eight grade boys not learning latin

But as a rule for writing, as for living: do you know, really know, what moves you?  And if you only sense it, down deep in the pre-syntactic zone of embodiment, can you dare to eff the ineffable?

Because once the prayer comes out of your mouth, its wings take it where it pleases.  You cannot author a bird’s whim.

Bummer Marriage

I rush into the train station as best I can in my air-cast.  It’s a hobbled rush, really. O.K., so not a rush at all—more like a heroic limp.  The time remaining until the train arrives, displayed on the digital screen, is increasing rather than decreasing as I stand there, helplessly late for work.  The trains are cryptic and uncompassionate on Saturdays.

A bum sits beside me on the platform.

He looks like he’s in rough shape.  He’s got a few crumpled and sweaty dollars in his hand.  He unrolls and re-rolls them, watching the physics of it intently, like he is hoping they will turn into a greater amount than they currently are.  The bills are vaguely waxy.   He also looks like he might have just climbed down the beanstalk.  He regards me.  I have dressed for the wrong season—yesterday it was winter, today it feels like early spring.  My dirty backpack and long down coat are on the bench in a heap beside him.   He appears jealous of their heap-ness.

please let it come

please let it come

Will you marry me?  He asks, like a dart protruding from a cloud.

Me: Sure.

Bum: Really?

Me: Sure.

Bum: Hey, wow.

[Considered pause.]

Bum:  So, what should we do now?

Me:  I don’t know, it was your idea.  Come up with something.

Bum: Hmmm.  Could I have your phone number?

Me: Remember this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.

Bum: I have no memory.  [Points to long scar above his eyebrow.]  Car accident.

Me: Ouch.  A long time ago?

Bum: Yeah, when I was a kid…[Regarding me freshly.]  What is your job?

Me: I’m a teacher. I’m on my way there now.

Bum: Oh?  Why don’t you dress up nicer for work?

[F! I’m in my good clothes!]

Me:  Because I’m dressed up on the inside.

Bum:  Damn.

We nod appreciatively at one another.  My subway comes rushing in, like it knows it is late and feels vaguely performative about its compensatory hurtling entrance (This makes me think of when my students are late to class and arrive excessively out of breath, as if they climbed Mt. Washington to get to me rather than walked down a hall).  I gather my things to board.  The Bum looks disappointed, but we have that kind of arrangement—each of us able to go our own way, with respect for the other.  On a scale of 1-10, this marriage already gets a 9: mutual regard, easy conversation, agreement about when to say more and when not to, and effective, even instantaneous decision-making.  Voila.

When the doors close, he is still looking at me, his dollars hanging loosely in his hand.  As the train departs, a spiderthread of affection trails backward, the web of life growing ever-weirder in the fullness of its design.

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Infloresence

May 1, 2012


Infloresence

Alighting

The flowering on the trees, even in Brooklyn, is so intricate that Nature seems out to flummox by design.  When no one is looking, even the pigeons are impressed.  With people out on the streets distracted by the complexity of blossoms, they are scoring more half-bagels than ever, the vermin’s equivalent of filet mignon.  Fucking Toffuti again, one pigeon says dismissively to the other in ineluctable pigeon-ese.  One tiny foot pins down the second-rate bounty, scraping the tofutti off into the sewer grid, where it joins the stew of prescription med run-off and children’s socks.  Both birds turn beady pigeon eyes upward, where the flower show is staged on the tree boughs, their necks ruffling with the dumb pleasure of it all.

It’s like this: beauty is impossible to hold in check, and it spreads over the hard edges and cement flavor of urban life like varicose veins.  Mugwort (Artemisia Vulgaris), a medicinal weed that thrives, like the lotus, in waste beds, grows hugging the side of my local Key Food.  It pushes up from the crack where its brick walls meet the uneven sidewalk like it is bench-pressing the universe.  My green medicine teacher talked about the alchemizing power of certain plants, how they can thrive in even the most polluted soil beds and yet contain no trace of those toxins in their cells; and the plants retain this power, untraceable as it might be, to draw the toxins from ours.  So the weeds arrive on the city scene, defying even concrete, from seemingly impossible conditions—as a balm for the haste of our lives.  Mugwort, like its viscous weed consort dandelion, is at peace with being generally ignored; it does its work anyway.  Healing is everywhere, y’all, the plants insist.  But y’all are wearing sunglasses at night.  So I’ll just sit here until you catch on.  The pigeons stroll by, too—more interested in the human foods, processed, and fabricate, than in what is wild.  They could much improve the tofutti’d bagel by shredding artemisia on top: a little bitter, a little better.

Guardian of the Weeds on Daffodil Hill

Spring is a series of mathematical explosions of beauty, stealth moves in the nights, speaking reassuringly to us.   Even though this winter was too warm, and the spring bears the kind of convoluted promise of a really good nap on one’s deathbed, it is hard not to blossom with the blossoms.  It is hard to hold back.

Blood-flower

Lithic Cyclic

Mugwort is not just a patient whore in front of Key Food; she is also the bringer of women’s blood.  She moves what is stagnant in both the imagination and the womb; she’s as common as a sentence.

Some women really do not like their monthly shedding of blood—dread it, in fact, and all its messy excesses, strange smells and nebulous moods.  If they could skip it, they would, and there are drugs engineered to make this wish come true—the equivalent of taking the inhale, but skipping the exhale.  The desirability of all bodily functions exists on a relative scale.  For me, menstrual blood is the Mona Lisa of physiological processes– her smile is buried in the looker’s eyes, her mysterious and oddly drab aesthetic somehow managing to attract all the attention in an enormous museum.

Wait a minute, someone might object: what about fartsShow me the virtue in those!  As I learned from a wise naturopath in Istanbul, some people relish in the return of flatulence after a long spell on anti-depressants, which often interfere with the “normal” expressive transit of the digestive tract.  So that awful-smelling thing that somehow made its way out of your rear-end becomes due cause for celebration, and you to want to shout with glee: “Everybody, I farted!” As it is, few proudly declaim flatulence-pride in that way.  Nobody in “right mind” would do so in a full subway car or in a small elevator.  O contraire, as my J says: his little boys are wild about their own farts, the pull-my-finger pleasure of ownership.

That same kind of unchecked exuberance– boys exalting in their farts as if here, at last, was the awaited Messiah– erasing the fuzzy lines of propriety, was what came over me last night, when my menstruation started for the first time in a year.  The brown flecks on toilet paper, specific enough in color and texture to have safely exceeded the palette of my wishful thinking—I caught my breath, as I heard the party going on outside the bathroom door, fumbling conversation a tapestry in which our little lives were woven—Everybody, I’m bleeding!  Is this the kind of TMI that makes people not want to read blogs?  Well then, it’s the same TMI that a body naturally puts forth, while we, in our learned confusion, tidy it up, odorize it, and hold it in check—that is, until death personally removes the bounds and lets the body have its oozy way.  We often don’t like to think of people we know having actual bodily “functions”—but, surely, that is part of the beauty, surely the beauty actually runs on that.

Bloodflower in the world's panties

Holy holy holy.  I stay in the bathroom a long time in wonderment.  The Sistine Chapel has nothing on this crumpled piece of toilet paper.  I can hear E playing the flute in the back room, then the electric keyboard, then tambourine.  A had told me at the last party here about squatting in the November cold, barefoot, in the tiny park near her house, holding the arms of her partner, while she miscarried into the grass.  Our menstrual blood usually goes into the toilet bowl or the garbage.  But it is as holy as any lost thing.

And, really, the bleeding of even one woman should be cause for a whole party of people to celebrate—for each release of blood, by any woman, signals the alignment of the body, and therefore of every body, with the cycles of life that are both co-extensive with the individual and far vaster.  And when you’ve doubted, as I have, whether the arms of the cosmos were in fact broad enough to wrap around you, to rock you as if you were its only child–

Shame-Flower

My beloved teacher, R, tells his class to write a poem in praise of something unlikely.   He writes his own to dear shame, and then a birth-story poem to his mother, who blithely told (and told and told) her children that they were mistakes; only once she began to slide into the den of Alzheimer’s did she forget, occasionally, to remind them of this.

Can you praise the error of your own birth? It’s a litmus test for irony.  The poem turns warm the cold walls of those maternal words by enveloping them, too—them, too—in the praise of being alive.  Is this backwards, or perfect?  R has spent much of his beautiful life swimming in shame, as if shame were another layer of fascia organizing his limbs, ejecting him, time to time, from his own body.  How teens get kicked out of public parks at dark by authorities who don’t want trouble in the manicured non-wildness, which nonetheless still carries the seed-memory of its own wild state; the teens go off sulkily, leaving behind all the canopy of trees, disabused of the notion that parks are for recreation and pleasure in all its miscreant forms.  Praise, praise what troubles us.

R has been a beacon of light for so many human creatures in the oh-too familiar, brambly, and bloated tic-infested woods of our suffering.  It’s a neighborhood we’ve all lived in, even if briefly, often frozen and hoping for eviction notice.  His way is an ecosystem of brightness, how the light glints off of even what can kill us.  R is the kind of person that you’d ask to whisper a poem to you on your deathbed, or shout it, so that all the spirits, who gather round as the mind begins to un-tether and the body shuts down on its last call, might be given a strong beat for their liberation Cha-Cha.   He is proof that one can have parents so totally inadequate at giving love, and still become a flaming source of love in the world.  Like me, though, R has always known the liminal-state best, the spiritual semi-colon—the place between worlds.  But it will eat you for lunch if you’re not careful.

Fire Flower in the Dark

My own shame has been over my tenuous relationship with my menstrual cycle, which for so long made me feel like a squatter in the Cosmos, unable to align with her rhythms, the elevator always getting stuck between floors.  Mother May I?  Not sure.   Two steps forward, three steps back.  My body-weight has fluctuated, as if it were controlled by a private moon, causing it to wax and wane, wax and wane. Tiny but powerful, they say.  My dad tells me that, born two months premature, I laid on the baby-warmer, all two-pounds eleven-ounces of me, and strained against the fisticuffs that held me in place so that I could safely receive my neo-nate medicine: heat.  Busting out of the constraints, indeed: these metatarsals were made for walking.  My dad, I suppose, and not the table itself, held me in place with a smile-flower.

Corpse Flower

You can find some really strange flowers, if you look.  Not just the feeling of what explodes into bloom in the belly, chest, mind, or trees, but the wild, un-understood wild places.

The flower Amorphophallus Titanum seeds only a few times in its tall, heavy, long life.  Its posse is tiny: Raffelasia Arnoldi, a fellow plant in the Sumatran jungle playground.  It looks like carrion and smells like it too—something you might say in the schoolyard, meaning, only kind of, to be mean.

Sorry, you’ll have to Google it for images.

J and I are gifted with this specimen while searching online to find the name of some little purple-brown flowers that he had once painted.  His piece was an untitled oil of the muscular back of a part-man-part-beast, crouching on the ground, his bare skull proximate to these odd blossoms in an otherwise dark milieu.  Chocolate flower.  This plant no longer seeds itself—propagated instead by cloning, by human hand.  It is named for its smell: “chocolate,” God’s little synaesthesic joke.

Among the images of extinct flowers, we come across some real atrocities, making the toothed plant in Little Shop of Horrors look like a rosebud on a china plate by comparison.  When open for and to pollinating, the Titan Arum flower emits the smell of rotting flesh, attracting the pollinators for whom that is a sexy smell. See?  Nothing is disgusting to everyone.

Actually, this is a great solace in the world.  Certain creatures flock at a pace towards fresh carrion– flesh at its most flesh-like.  We, too, are creatures of decay, from birth onwards.  Right now, if we believe our statistics, the world is on over-stock of its fleshy products.  It can’t feed us all, the way we’re choosing to live, so it’s best if we hurry along and be food for/ feed something else.

Note the absence of photos.  But rot is everywhere, if you look for it.

The so-called carrion flowers bloom for only a few days, every many years.  There are folks, botanists, for whom this is the event of a lifetime, as it is for the flower.  That’s a lot of waiting, J says.  Amorphophallus Titanarum.  Don’t hold your breath, one might caution a hopeful audience; it could be seven more years.  Far-gone yogi(ni)s might be up for such a challenge; but they’ve been the flower, and their breathing rate is based as much on creation cycles as carbon dioxide build-up.  Their bodies undergo the reverse: open all the time, they wait to shed the already-odiferous flesh—we carry around, vivified, our dead body– for the moment of great liberation.  Long breath retentions are just warm-ups for accommodating, and being accommodated by, the infinite.

Admittedly, the botanical name of this flower, amorphophallus titanarum (fun to say, mirabile dictu!), sounds like a condom brand for taxonomists.  My etymological gloss renders it: Shapeless penis of the Titans?  O, and, by the way, you smell like death?  It can’t get much sexier, and it would definitely score you a big bang in Hades.  My love is like a red, red, carrion flower– these flowers meant to attract the pollinators who would, in lieu, be excited about carnage of any sort.  The little critters wander away from their hefty organic parasite, bloated, sated, dutifully helping life to go on.

You got me, death flower

Foreplay

I have been attracted to death in my own way for as long as I can remember.  Like John Keats wrote in his “Ode to a Nightingale”: “Darkling, I listen and for many a time/ I have been half in love with easeful death.”  His eyes tracking the flight of the nightingale, real or imagined, through the landscapes that buoyed his mind.  He’s such a whiner, my high school student says, when we read through his Odes and the love letters he wrote compulsively to his girl Franny, who lived a mere fence away—hardly a breath’s distance, really.  Why is it all about you, JK?  But breath was what he, saddled by tuberculosis, couldn’t quite muster.  He had to rely on the birds for both wind and song.   Later folks would argue about whether the nightingale was a real bird that he really saw.  As if the futile beauty of the endeavor, the slow drinking of the river Lethe as if it were an I.V. dripping along the movement of the poem’s lines, would be nullified by some anal fact-checker.  There was no nightingale, buddy.  Why don’t you just own up that it was a pigeon?

mind infloresence

Romantics had the tendency to co-extend the mind with environment—to elevate nature to a pristine thing, convenient poetic material for holy idealization.  But what about when the mind bumped into the one-hundred-and-twenty pound flower, four feet wide, gaping there, rootless, and smelling like the very thing that poetry was supposed to wash off?  This mortal vise?  The nightingale, if it was real, also had to shit while it flew—to stay light, as they say, “as light as a feather.” Not even a single spiral of extra bird feces to weight it down.

Down, down to where the blossoms are.   Praise, praise where the blossoms are.

Where the Wild Things Are