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Ask of the Fire
What do you need of me?
Boozhoo, indinawemaaganidog! Aaniin! That is to say hello, all of my relatives! Welcome to another edition of An Irritable Métis. I appreciate all of you taking the time to read, and I want to extend a hearty welcome to all of the new subscribers. Given the sudden and shocking arrival of February is upon us, the next post to follow will be another of the monthly “A Few More Sentences….” editions exclusively for paid subscribers. Those kinds of posts don’t come around often (and I’m considering disappearing them entirely, more to come on that in the future) but if you don’t want to miss out, feel free to scramble aboard as a paying supporter of my writing. If you choose to, just don’t be trampled by all the folks leaving, heh. There’s been quite an exodus lately, which seems to be related to Substack’s fudging the subscription numbers by including the free gift subscriptions that were being passed around, that are now expiring, I don’t know. I try not to care too much. A couple years in and I still don’t know how half of this stuff works and am probably better off not knowing, I’m just happy to still be getting as much support as I am….
We have been hit hard here in Montana with another blast of subzero winter cold for several days now, with windchills driving conditions from inconvenient to dangerous. That’s the downside. The upside has been bright, sunny, bluebird days and star-filled skies at night. The evening light has lingered and I have seen both Venus and Neptune multiple evenings – events to celebrate given how long it’s been since I saw either of them – in the last minutes before nightfall. Two mornings ago I was at the kitchen window watching the sunrise. It was glorious, and I reflected on how it looked like one might appear in a different season were it not so bitterly cold out. I teetered on the brink of longing for spring but managed to keep it at bay. I’ll try not to dream of that too much until April or so.
These events, for all of how they stir my heart, have been bittersweet these days. Beauty is out there every day and I’m usually good at taking note of it, and I have been. I also think it’s necessary to acknowledge how awful things are too from time to time otherwise I run the risk of thinking things are better than they are. Take the morning at my kitchen window: it was one of those days where I was feeling guilty over the utter privilege of my life, how many people are suffering because of the choices we allow to be made in our name, all of those things … and how powerless I often feel to do anything about it. How powerless most of us feel, and how little any of us are doing about it.
I’m talking about Tyre Nichols, of course. I’m talking about cops, and institutionalized murder, and everything related to that. How cops killed more people in 2022 than ever before. How our U.S. southern boundary is becoming more and more a police state governed by a largely unchecked border patrol, and that 2022 was also the most profitable on record for border contractors.
I’m talking about how Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has come and gone. All the usual memes are shared. People are outraged that murderers like the FBI post tributes to him while they actually wanted him dead then and aren’t so different now. I think of how the radical MLK is never championed in modern times, at least among us in the mainstream, because to do that would be a mirror in our own faces showing our failure. I’m thinking how so many people who celebrate him would think he is “too radical” if he were alive today, fighting for justice, just as we often think his descendents are.
I’m thinking of this line from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and feeling the sting of it, because it is as much about me as it is about who Dr. King is talking about:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
So I’ve been thinking of what I might write in a newsletter, questioning if writing newsletters is even worth the effort, if anyone really cares. I’m not in a bad mood, just kind of spiritually tired. And deeply, deeply sad, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise.
I’m tired of being a pawn, a cog, a whatever of this bullshit world eating machine. Are you ever tired of that? Of feeling you aren’t out for anyone other than yourself, or maybe your immediate family, your immediate concerns, that the world has forced you into that? For some of us maybe just getting through our own days is all we have in us … but I also wonder if that isn’t just a copout for others of us. I wonder if we haven’t just been lulled into a complacency by the people who profit from our inaction. I wonder about the choices we make and who benefits from them. Do you ever ask those questions of yourself?
Surviving the Winter
The first northern flicker of the morning has arrived and is assaulting one of the suet blocks. There have been about half-a-dozen flickers around these last few days, harassing each other and the other birds. When the weather is like it has been I feel a huge obligation to keep food out for them. It is a harrowing time to be wild, especially in these conditions, but I guess they are as prepared for it as they need to be. I know there are some corners that argue against putting food out for wild birds and I get it … but I am also reminded every single day how much habitat has been remade just in my little corner of the world. If I can help with a couple tubes of seeds and some suet cages, I’m going to.
Last Sunday as I was leaving the house I noticed a single Eurasian collared dove settled down like they were roosting at the base of the cherry tree. The sun was out and bright but it was frigid. I was curious of this bird because their behavior was unusual. I didn’t approach too closely but I was worried about them. When I returned a few hours later, on my approach to the porch a Cooper’s hawk erupted from my yard and flew off. “What are you up too?” I asked.
The remains of the dove – copious feathers, their partially-consumed corpse – littered the snow right where I had seen them when I left. I felt that hitch of sadness, but then reflected that hawks gotta eat too, don’t they? Things worked out as they should. But then, not long after, from inside puttering around I looked out of my window at the scene and just a few feet away, under another feeder, was another dove, hunkered down exactly as the first had been. I went outside and approached it. As I neared the bird’s eye fluttered open but they didn’t move. I peered closely. Was the bird sick? Should I have brought them in? I decided not to, and when I checked later the bird was dead. The following morning I gathered up the remains of both of them.
Maybe they were sick. Maybe they froze to death. It is a harsh world and these days the conditions are harsh and particularly difficult to survive. Should I have brought them in and tried to restore them to health? Maybe it was too late. I let nature run its course. Maybe it was cruel of me.
Is it cruelty, this letting nature run its course? How about in the ways we treat one another? Are humans cruel by nature? Some are. There are people among my neighbors to the north where the Flathead County Board of Commissioners “called on community members to stop enabling the ‘homeless lifestyle’ and blamed the valley’s growing homeless population on the opening of a low-barrier shelter.”
“When a low-barrier shelter opened in our community, we saw a dramatic increase in homeless individuals,” the letter read. “Using social media and smartphones, these wanderers are well-networked and eager to share that Kalispell has ‘services’ to serve their lifestyle. Make no mistake, it is a lifestyle choice for some. In fact, many of the homeless encountered in our parks, streets, and alleys consist of a progressive networked community who have made the decision to reject help and live unmoored.”
The letter did not provide evidence that people from out of the area are actually coming to Kalispell. [my emphasis]
This is sickening rhetoric and all too common, especially in these communities populated by a certain ilk who profess to be god fearing Christians. MLK is one thing, but what would they make of a radical like Jesus H. fucking Christ in their midst?! I believe taking care of one another, of all our relatives, is our highest calling. Didn’t Jesus have a word or two about that in his message? I think so, but what do I know? I’m a treehugging dirt worshipper. A goddesses-and-gods-full heathen. Reflecting now makes me lament even more my decisions regarding those two birds. They needed help, presumably, and I failed them.
And what of the growing populations of houseless? Where are they supposed to go if we are not going to provide for them in their need? What of treating their illnesses? What decisions are we going to make? Who are we going to lobby for to act in these interests rather than continue to send people to office who just … don’t? These are not questions we can let other people ask for us, it is in all of our power. We need to ask better questions and demand good answers.
“We can't always go home. The reality is that because of fractured relationships, displacement, forced and unforced migrations, we may not know where home is. My friends who are part of the Black diaspora have talked about the heartbreak of not knowing the places their ancestors called home. Colonialism has disconnected us from land, severed us from that first relationship, often through violence. We need to restore our relationship with the land around us. That means going outside, as my son is prone to remind me. It means noticing and listening.”
There’s this woman named Sharon Blackie. I think she’s English. She writes a lot about myth, stories, etc. and she’s pretty great. Anyway, she published this newsletter around the Winter Solstice – kind of a reflection on the coming year – that lined up with what I’ve been thinking about and wrestling with. I pulled these excerpts because they are of particular relevance to what I’m trying to say here:
Ask of the fire “What do you need of me?” [I love the idea of “asking of the fire.” As in literally sitting at a fire and asking of it. Yes!]
What exactly am I contributing to a challenged planet and a fracturing human culture which seems to be hurtling with desperate inevitability towards collapse? Is my daily work still in service to these things? Am I using my gifts – my writing, my creativity, my connectedness to this world through image and story – to serve it in the best way that I can?
I’ve learned the hard way that constantly striving to do more, out of feelings of helplessness and inadequacy, only breaks you. And so now I ask: Could I be doing this work better? – because ‘better’ means not killing myself in the process. Means not agreeing to do things I don’t really want to do because I think I ought to, or because they matter deeply to someone else who I don’t want to say no to.
Doing this work better means that ‘Does this bring me joy?’ is as important a question to me now as ‘Does this serve life?’ And so when I ask ... ‘What do you want of me in the year ahead?’ I’m really asking, ‘What will allow me to flourish and grow and be joyful, while serving the world to the fullest as I’m doing it?’
She also talks about community, which is something I think about all the time. How do I become part of a collective effort beyond this newsletter, which is great but also not physical world enough for me? I like to think of it as a place we can share ideas and maybe inspire each other and then take them out into our respective worlds to inspire others. Is that too high and mighty sounding? What else would the point of doing all this be, then?
“The realities of living under white supremacy never get easier, but over time I’ve found ways to channel my energy into collective and cultural change.”
– Jessica Wilson, It’s Been Always Ours: Rewriting the Story of Black Women’s Bodies
To that end, I’ve been offered a position on the board of All Nations Health Center in Missoula, and I’m taking it. I don’t know what it means, but it seems like a good start in connecting to a wider community, particularly to a wider Indigenous community. Of helping people, of not feeling entirely powerless. We’ll see how it plays out.
Hallmark Card Hippie
I get asked about my rage a lot, how I manage it. Some days I do, some days I don’t. But I try very hard to not live in rage, even as it swirls inside me; to not be cynical, to try and face it all with love. Some days are better than others. I think closing with this from Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files is a perfect way to end. Nick nails it, as he so often does.
When did you become a Hallmark card hippie? Joy, love, peace. Puke! Where's the rage, anger, hatred? Reading these lately is like listening to an old preacher drone on and on at Sunday mass.
ERMINE, GRAND MARAIS, USA
Things changed after my first son died. I changed. For better or for worse, the rage you speak of lost its allure and, yes, perhaps I became a Hallmark card hippie. Hatred stopped being interesting. Those feelings were like old dead skins that I shed. They were their own kind of puke. Sitting around in my own mess, pissed off at the world, disdainful of the people in it, and thinking my contempt for things somehow amounted to something, had some kind of nobility, hating this thing here, and that thing there, and that other thing over there, and making sure that everybody around me knew it, not just knew, but felt it too, contemptuous of beauty, contemptuous of joy, contemptuous of happiness in others, well, this whole attitude just felt, I don’t know, in the end, sort of dumb.
When my son died, I was faced with an actual devastation, and with no real effort of my own that posture of disgust toward the world began to wobble and collapse underneath me. I started to understand the precarious and vulnerable position of the world. I started to fret for it. Worry about it. I felt a sudden, urgent need to, at the very least, extend a hand in some way to assist it – this terrible, beautiful world – instead of merely vilifying it, and sitting in judgement of it.
Perhaps, Ermine, you are right, and I did, for good or ill, turn from a living shit-post into a walking Hallmark card. But, well, here we are, you and me, sending smoke signals to each other across a yawning ideological divide. Hello Ermine, I drone, hello.
“No matter what they ever do to us, we must always act for the love of our people and the earth. We must not react out of hatred against those who have no sense.”
— John Trudell
This poem was sent to me by an Irritable Reader. It fits perfectly with my thoughts today….
Miigwech for reading, friends. I know this one is a mess and all over the place. Things will get better.
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