A Poem + Commentary from a Half Year of Listening During a Pandemic
I’ve been struggling to write something about my experience in a wholly new field of work since July. I joined a corps of case managers during this Pandemic Summer and stayed on when contracts where offered to continue in a full-time capacity. I hadn’t intended to work or at least work in this way. It meant putting aside some projects, delaying more what had already been delayed. Contributing to a public health effort to offer assistance to those coping with the illness and delicately let their contacts know of their exposure seemed a way I could be part of something more than passive grieving. The struggle was how to honor the truths I hear and present in only an abstract way. They are as sacred as they are confidential. I can only impart fragments of feelings, patches that capture the whole of the cloth in a small segment of the pattern of lives lived in mid to late 2020. So, no names of people, no places, no direct experiences and no shred of identifying information.
It’s humbling. I am not sure that this is wholly the word. It is a humbling and profound experience. Maybe the word captures both these sentiments. Maybe humility should be profound. Either way, each of these five days a week, the experience for the Callers are both these things. There are measures of meaning, hour by hour, drop by drop. The Called have a lot to say, even beyond answering questions about clinical details, isolation instruction, how to find resources if help is needed, and recounting possible exposures. There are many questions, but there is twice the listening, twice the time bearing witness, and twice the reminding that “this is not your fault” when someone expresses regret.
Many work in residential long term care, meat packing plants, schools, retail, offices, construction sites, orchards and, of course, there are the skilled nurses. A third of the time I do not speak their native languages and place a three-way call with an interpreter with their consent. Then, those bearing witness are multiplied by two.
This blog is about the inter-regions. Life is lived in intersections of time and place. I’ve heard our current time and place called“liminal” — as if we are on one side or the other of some time and place we regard as more “conscious” or real. We express this as though we are only upon a threshold. It is as though we think of time and place as if the throughfare is real and the side streets are not. We live on the side streets, possibly more of the time. We embark more now upon the place where the snow is rarely plowed and getting out into the world “at large” is an adventure and sometimes treacherous. We were meant to live in this time. We live in this time and place, where many are experiencing something profound with deep humility, and we are still alive. We are still conscious…maybe more so. Wake up, call and be called, take to your side streets and please wear a mask. Wander with care for others–all of them, whether or not its clear that they are exhibiting the same for you.
In the morning I put on my ears. In the morning your voice carries delicate messages. I imagine you aren’t speaking just to me but the world gathers your words directly through the air like the blessing of birdsong. In hours free from clouds of distraction, when ears are tuned to receive essential frequencies, the words, the songs arrive. Above a parade of noisy scrap your net catches more. Free of all that insulates, we become conductors. Cadences crackle, the voice is frail, the message is not. “Listen,” a nurse said, “I’ll tell you: The broken ones of the world are repairing other broken ones. I have a pocket full of fragments of shells collected near the gulf that separates my ward and I. I am trying to reassemble just one, to hold the glassy relic to his head, so he may hear the surf again. Listen. The healers are sick and the sick are healers. We are calling from tidal flats. We are sand clinging to a line of glue and I run the length of a sandbar to bring this fragile earpiece to someone before the tide returns.”
An essay & original poem from where the unsettled and settled worlds meet in August heat…and crickets are deceived by shade and call for consorts night and day.
There is a poem following this essay. It all started with a plant with both a tragic-romantic and medicinal history. Dittany of Crete flowers brilliantly in August with blooms that decorate a terraced garden in my backyard today. Like many objects in nature, it abhors a border, especially a walled one. It has the persistence of bindweed that also files into my raised gardens, shimmying over their wooden embankments and loping through the chicken wire, then casting morning glory like flowers. The evasive weed does this as if to announce it belongs here with the forms more carefully selected. The flowering herb however is trying to get out of the walled garden. The visible natural world is filled with creations that draw their structures over and under barriers: cottonwood roots that wander the length of football fields, around and through limestone cracks to locate and drink from springs. This has been a sometime theme in this blog: the meeting at the edges of the settled and unsettled world, the inter-regions. In other cases, nature can be hyper-territorial, but in obscure places. There is an entire species of salamanders that are found solely in one underwater cave in Bull Creek, Austin. But, in the visible world there is a plum-apple tree which lives both in the earth and the air and leans over a fence and fans out into another’s yard. The natural world we see is migratory in one way or another, living in multiple worlds and realities.
I was interested in creating a botanical garden with artemisia, phlox, hyssop and primrose. I’d heard about this flowering herb which could be used as incense or flavoring which had an attractive name and a medicinal history dating back to citations by Aristotle and Hippocrates: Dittany of Crete. This compound name seems to tell you all you need to know. Dittany, Dictamos, in Cretan dialect, may refer to a goddess widely worshipped in ancient times on the island: Diktynna. She is a defender of mountains and hunters. Intensely romantic fables surround the plant, especially those about the presumed lovesick gatherers. Another name given the plant in Cretan dialect is simply: erontas (love). When I first sought to find the plant, I didn’t know this part of its story nor that it is rarely found in the U.S. and grows exclusively on the hilltops as high as 5000 feet, like those of Mt. Ida in Crete. It has a protected status which makes me wonder how I found cuttings. Most accounts suggest it is still harvested from mountain ledges. It is an ingredient in true absinthe and perfumes, but it’s unclear to me how commercial uses are supported today.
I learned more about it in Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, principally that it was known to this 17th Century botanist (and physician and astrologer). It certainly was hard to find a cutting and when I did it was in a “metaphysical store,” these days a neo-pagan supply shop, founded by Wiccan partners and exceptional gardeners in Austin, TX. I “had” to seek it out again after I moved to Colorado. I found it in a tiny Congress Park garden shop in Denver. Each time I discover it, it is like a trope in an eerie short story, found in the dark corner of a mysterious store and the purchase destined to change the life of its patron. It is the only non-native I’ve ever planted anywhere.
I had a writing instructor who said: “write about your obsessions” and that the story you’re most reluctant to tell is the one your readers want to hear. Western mythologies are full of these tales. The behaviors of gods and goddesses are often more cringeworthy than heroic and based on their follies, conceits and petty jealousies. Authors, like Ovid knew this was the story listeners wanted to hear. Love, the crux of it all, was rarely idealized and full of so much lusty trickery and shapeshifting to capture a heart, get one’s lover into bed or exact revenge on infidelity. The gods and goddesses had the power to do all these things, ingeniously. A great many of the Greek Myths are tales of obsessive love. So much so that there was a god designed to equalize the world with “love returned” who could null unrequited love, named Anteros. Many more give their names to psychological disorders, such as Narcissus, with his most extreme form of self-love.
The tellers of these myths spun their obsessions of observable behaviors in the world that were sometimes deeply disturbing. Think of Hera reacting to one of Zeus’ many infidelities by causing Lamia, Queen of Libya, to slay her children, then endowing her with eyes which would never close. Lamia would “see” and obsess over the act forever. These “love” stories were grim. To represent the rare idyllic and pure intentioned lovers, stories were often punctuated with foolish behavior and early mortality for its protagonists. This is a tradition which carries into Shakespeare to present day literature, the tropes in tv and film of destructive love. It is even in the narrative in modern psychology with a named disorder–obsessive love syndrome.
The story of the erondades is somewhat different though and is not always fatal. It reminds that human pursuits sometimes have a sad core and much is spent in the hysterical quest to fill a hole in one’s life. Often cited in folklore, the physical collection of Dittany from rocky crags in vertical cliffs of Crete was manual and was reported to be an occupation of the passionate, lovesick or, frankly, the mad. They scaled the cliffs to harvest the plant seeking perhaps the aphrodisiac properties of the plant or to craft laurels for the objects of their affections. Skilled or not, many fell to their deaths in this dangerous pursuit. The folklore is supported by hazardous modern harvesting techniques reported into the 1930’s involving repelling technique from reels of rope.
Nestled deep in the final book of the Aeneid by Virgil, there is a reference to the magical properties of Dittany of Crete. Venus harnesses its healing potential to unseal an arrow from Aeneas. The outcome of the application of ‘Th’ extracted liquor with ambrosian dews’ is to loosen and lift the arrow from his flesh, a magical property apparently known also to goats which ranged Mt. Ida and were reported to eat Dittany when wounded.
A branch of healing dittany she brought, Which in the Cretan fields with care she sought: Rough is the stern, which woolly leafs surround; The leafs with flow’rs, the flow’rs with purple crown’d, Well known to wounded goats; a sure relief To draw the pointed steel, and ease the grief.
So here next is a poem, revisited after a year in a dusty corner and offered when the plant is in aggressive bloom to accompany this long appendix. Here is to the meeting of the settled and unsettled world and to a nature which ignores arbitrary boundaries. Here’s to the Greeks who, notwithstanding their crowd-pleasing tellings of manic love in ancient ballads and myths, had eight words to express the varieties of love. These included agape, universal and selfless love, and philia, for friendship. Moreover, as a tonic to tales of manic love, here’s to what Billy Collins calls Aimless Love, a love more fluently pursued. It is love that lives in the present and honors the small things all around: a plum-apple tree on an alpine hill in the backyard, a dog curled beneath it on the hottest day in August, and the fragrant flowers of an herb spilling over an edge of stones secreted here from a quarry.
There were no monuments around him. The setting could scarcely have been more modest.
It is possible, but seldom practiced in oratory, to press into the world a message that enlarges humanity while insisting that we grapple with our failings. It happened barely seventy-six years after the Declaration. There were no monuments around him. The setting could scarcely have been more modest. He was speaking to an anti-slavery organization which was a former sewing club. It’s notable that its members, aggressive social reformers, were women. He drafted a singular statement recognizing a deep affection and respect for the work of those who reached for independence which he sensed to be a catalyst for freedom for everyone, even globally. But he vigorously argued where our nation’s practices fell short in providing the means of freedom for all.
The US Census in 1850 enumerated over 3.2 million slaves.
Slavery was permitted, it was widely practiced and engrained in the economy. A former slave, an abolitionist, and a public intellectual, Frederick Douglass did nothing less than amend the Declaration of Independence in 1852 to rally for complete inclusion and insist that anything shy of that was in the least a national embarrassment and, in fact, extreme brutality. Remember, he escaped slavery in Maryland. If anything should be carved in stone, its this address. It looks nearly 170 years forward to our current moment. It was later called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass had more humility, he left it untitled, or merely, “ORATION, DELIVERED IN CORINTHIAN HALL, ROCHESTER, BY FREDERICK DOUGLASS, JULY 5TH, 1852.” He gathered the facts about our already distressful history and the then contemporary state of captivity of the nation’s inhabitants. Although they would not be accredited with “citizenship” until 1868, the US Census in 1850 enumerated over 3.2 million slaves. The numbers were still growing and by 1860 the Census counted almost 4 million slaves. But in the end, Douglass saw a hopeful new world, even as he understood the world was smaller and economic and social globalization had already commenced:
“Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable.”
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