A few words on the passing of John Trudell

 

“Protect your spirit because you are in the place where spirits get eaten.”
~John Trudell

I read today that John Trudell died. It had been reported for a while that he was unwell. He was someone who was a figure of significance to and influence on me for a number of reasons.

Coming of age in Saskatchewan in the 1970’s, in a poorer neighbourhood and attending a school that included many aboriginal students it was hard to miss the rise of the American Indian Movement and their resistance to settler colonialism. It wasn’t called settler colonialism back then and there wasn’t much understanding of it among white people, even among liberals or the left, unless someone went to a mixed school or associated with aboriginal people. That was not particularly encouraged.

Nonetheless, some of us did associate through attending cultural events, like powwows, going with friends to visit their families on reserves, working and living in the north on reserves (which I did later for quite some time) and just generally having normal human interactions and relationships.

There was a militant resistance among aboriginal people developing and some of us wanted to know what specifically was being resisted and how and why because people we loved were deeply affected by the issues involved.

I heard about the history of residential schools, police abuse, prison and justice system oppression. I had heard about the Wounded Knee incident and the Pine Ridge shootout with the FBI, for which Leonard Peltier was wrongfully convicted and for which he is still wrongfully serving time. The names of AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means also circulated as did the name of John Trudell who served as AIM chairman.

John Trudell was a prolific writer and frequent speaker. His speeches were circulated in some radical publications and interviews were broadcast on university stations or on other counter-cultural community radio programs after that. He was well known among prison abolition/reform activists as well because of the Alcatraz incident in the 1960s and his ongoing involvement with prison justice issues among many others.

There was a contentious point where he testified in a trial involving AIM members in order to exonerate someone who was potentially going to be wrongly convicted. This split off a section of his supporters, some of whom called for a boycott of his writing and music. I’m pretty biased in this regard, having been married for quite some time to a man who spent over two decades in prison for a wrongful conviction. Had someone spoken up and told the truth then, regardless of consequences, he would not have had to go through such an ordeal. So my sympathy very much lies in the Trudell camp on that issue.

The events involving the American Indian Movement, the members of that group and those who were influenced by them provided what I would have to say was my first introduction to developing a political consciousness. I am very grateful for that.

His poetry especially has been something I’ve sought out to read and listen to over the years. His talks and interviews are particularly insightful as well. There are many on YouTube and elsewhere. He has numerous books out also.

Travel well, John Trudell.

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On silence, states of exception and grace

-a postscript dispatch from the grief process

[I am completing this post, started weeks ago, as my elderly mother is in hospital via the emergency room more than a thousand kilometers away. We, that is family, and the doctors, at the moment, don’t know why, other than her intense pain, or what will happen. I am writing in a state of suspension and insomnia.]

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SILENCE

There is no silence in the world.
Monks have created it
to hear the horses every day
and feathers falling from wings.

~Nikola Madzirov quoted in World Poetry Portfolio #53: Nikola Madzirov

At a certain point last year I stopped writing the grief dispatches that I had been doing here after Manoj suddenly died in January. Part of it was because less than 3 months later, in April 2014, I lost someone else who had been very close to me especially when I was younger. She was my best friend when we were in our late teens and throughout our 20s. It was also very sudden and hard to believe.

There were no words for that portion of the grief process when it got REALLY REAL. Initially it had felt like being thrown of a cliff—a sense of everything falling away, nothing there. It was unreal like a strong breeze from a fan on your body. What is that feeling? You’re not floating. You’re not flying. Yet something is passing over, and later I discovered, through you.

I tried in various ways to make sense of it. I wrote blog posts here about some of that process. But at a certain point I gave up and started to resign myself to being unresolved in that empty valley of winds and shadows.

But I found I could not rest in that. Pain, even if you’re quite disconnected from it and not consciously feeling it, tends to shuffle the deck of one’s motivations, desires, habits, thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Something had to be done so I decided to retreat in a lot of ways to deal with myself. [Sorry for all the Facebook unfriending, emails that went unanswered, visits cancelled, and all the rest. This is what it was about. “It’s not you it’s me.” Really.]

One reason I retreated in that way was because it was happening anyways. When you are in a state of exception, that is for whatever reason outside the flow of the everyday or the status quo or “normal” life, be it illness, death, divorce, or other disruptive situation, people tend to pull away from you. Initially they express sympathies, condolences or whatnot, but at a certain point the state of exception becomes more clearly demarcated. This demarcation can become what is termed social death. That is when a person is somehow viewed by others and even at times by themselves, as somehow less than a fully human participant in society. The term is used often to describe the circumstances of racism and slavery where people are assigned to a category in which their life is of little value in social terms when such value defaults to the oppressor’s definitions. It is also used where people are shunned from a circumstance with words like, “You are dead to me”. Those are very deliberate situations practiced consciously.

Where social death is not circumscribed so clearly but evidences itself nonetheless there is social invisibility. You see this as people step around homeless people or as people talk over the excluded person in a conversation as if they are not even there.

In more amorphous circumstances still, social death signifies some kind of change of status or becoming marked in some way, often by being seen in terms of lack. If you lose your job, get divorced, or are diagnosed with an illness for example, people step away. Sometimes they run, but usually they try to be discrete about it and inch towards the door instead.

You become awkward for people to deal with. You are “problematic”. You have slipped from the position that social consciousness once recognized into some grey area that is difficult to categorize and handle with the ease of the usual social scripts. People may just become distant and call it “giving you your space”—even when space is all you’ve got and you don’t really need any more of it–or they may in worse cases resort to sarcasm, callousness and so on as a way of keeping emotional distance from someone.

The effects are internalized too. You can’t relate to them, whoever “they” may be, the way you used to because your circumstances have changed such that you may not even know what to do in a situation that depended on your previous circumstances. There might be embarrassment for you or for them. There might be fear of even further marginalization.  Even if you tried to relate, their responses would likely be altered until, and if, both you and they came to terms with such changes.

Grief by Raymond Carver

Woke up early this morning and from my bed
looked far across the Strait to see
a small boat moving through the choppy water,
a single running light on. Remembered
my friend who used to shout
his dead wife’s name from hilltops
around Perugia. Who set a plate
for her at his simple table long after
she was gone. And opened the windows
so she could have fresh air. Such display
I found embarrassing. So did his other
friends. I couldn’t see it.
Not until this morning.

Another reason I withdrew was because it was clear that I was using a lot of things to try to stuff more stuff into the vacant spaces in my life.  Like anything one uses to try to fill up a nihilistic or uncomfortable sense of lack, that works until it doesn’t any more. Then one is left with that space still along with the fallout of attempts to alleviate the situation. That space beckons to be filled, with something, with anything.

Some people’s biggest accomplishment is their misery in such circumstances. You seem to find a state that’s just bad enough to dwell in and not so bad that you go under. That’s the state I reached. I wrote a post about the initial contact with that nihilistic state here, This is Not the Emptiness You’re Looking For. It really grabbed me for a while. You don’t thrive there, you simply exist in a diminished way while you lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling with your hand in a bag of Cheetos, or on a bottle, or with a hand full of pills or what have you. It was arid and empty and I felt nothing of any consequence whatsoever. But I wanted to feel something, anything even if it was just my own damage.

When there’s the feeling of emptiness in the nihilistic sense or in the sense of lack or neediness, there is not enough of anything to fill it. Sometimes we might even fill it with pain just to have something there, something familiar even if, from a less subjective viewpoint, it might complicate things further if not make them worse. Sometimes we might even think about suicide, which I wrote about here, Ghosts and Imagination (also stuff there about Walter Benjamin and equanimity which briefly is neither accepting or rejecting, just engaging)

Pain is easy to grab on to. There’s plenty of it around and plenty of ways to inflict it on each other and on ourselves. Humans are really good at manufacturing and distributing pain and even simulations of pain. There are whole industries devoted to pain distribution now-arms dealers, military contractors, prison systems. That’s besides the pain related epiphenomenon that occurs in commercial enterprises, entertainment, schools and families.

Pain and suffering is sometimes glorified in Christian influenced societies. Some who have suffered harder than others are even made saints by the Catholic church. That’s not to say that pain isn’t glorified in the secular arena as well by those who “play through their injuries” or stood up to a beating “like a man”, the US gives purple heart medals to wounded soldiers, and so on. One is expected to not only embody their pain but embrace it even harder.

This “lean-in” approach is extremist. It doesn’t deal with what is but creates a more intense and artificial situation. It manufactures a false circumstance that can easily bring about a false sense of victory. [Hope some of my Zen friends are hearing that.]

That lean-in type of catharsis is not a road I wanted to go down when I decided to retreat and deal with what was happening. The point was to remove obstacles, or let them fall away, not build a higher artificial wall around them to be cleared first.

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“If we go down into ourselves, we find that we possess exactly what we desire.”    ― Simone Weil

Everyone has their own way of introspecting. I’ve meditated for more than 25 years and practiced some cognitive-behavioural techniques so was pretty familiar with my subjective landscape. This, however was all new territory.

Grief is like a strange doppelganger that you carry around inside of you, that sometimes trades places with you and you try to hide from, until one day it slips out and sits across from you and you look into it’s eyes. I’m using (very mixed) metaphors of course but at a certain tipping point emotional baggage can shift in pretty sudden and unexpected ways. This can feel like panic and a loss of control. That loss of control is necessary to some degree in order to resolve the inner dilemma.

Self-examination, particularly when it turns to self-critique, can become a rigid, disciplinary exercise wherein one becomes an ideologue parroting acceptable phrases, rather than undertaking a useful process of learning and growth. That generally happens when the processing is all done on an intellectual level, that is, in the head. Emotion is disciplined into a corner and ideas take over. Intellectualization of this type is a psychological defense mechanism with the purpose of protecting one’s sense of self, esteem and to rationalize behaviour. It can also become rather cold and heartless.  It was somewhat useful to intellectualize as I had to close up our apartment and deal with the practical matters of death along with his family members. But it becomes all empty again, as all psychological defense mechanisms ultimately do if the situations they are invoked to mask is not dealt with.

So I had to abandon that approach, which I’ll admit is my favourite because I’m really good at it, if I wanted to deal with myself. That left me kind of lost and I went into depression off and on for a few months. Eh, it was something.

In that kind of state dissatisfaction is rife, as is anger and a lot of other stuff, but it’s still pretty much under the surface. You still can’t feel it really except during brief and often unintentional flare ups. Once more something had to be done because that felt like a deep hole too.

Finally I said “I really need to contact somebody who understands”.  Finally I decided to contact Manoj’s friends, who were/are also my friends. We were now on different continents and hadn’t spoken much after the initial couple of months.  One of them said, “You are welcome to come home any time, we have been waiting for you.” That broke me. Totally. An unqualified, unconditional statement of care. No amount of thinking could have brought me to that solution. It was the pure need for human connection. It wasn’t just for me either..people had been waiting.

One thing I have learned is that there is no silence no matter how silently one retreats. Not even in emptiness–of any variety. Life is very full—it is blossoming, withering, exploding, expanding, coagulating, entwining, decaying, convulsing–fecund and noisy in other words.

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“The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it.”
― Simone Weil, Waiting for God

When people talk of grace they usually mean divine grace, that is some sort of blessing from a deity that frees someone from suffering and torment. I have no God of any kind to which I might direct such an appeal.

I would not have been able to write this post without the presence of friends. I call it friends because there’s not a better word I can think of. It’s the place where the possibilities of human connection and love really begin. It is the place where one says, maybe in not so many words, “I am prepared to hurt for you, and with you.”

So no possibilities without those friends of the past, those who I am bound to in the present, and those I hope will be friends in the future. Without them I would not have realized much of this. Mostly though it is because of Manoj and Marina, two people who were willing to dive deep with me, laugh with me and hurt with me and I with them, that let me know I was nothing to be scared of, and that nor were other people, in themselves, scary.

What I have found, through them all, is grace. I realize that it has been there all along.

Our planet is poorly equipped for delight.
One must snatch gladness from the days that are.
In this life
it’s not difficult to die.
To make life
is more difficult by far.

~Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, from To Sergei Esenin

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Cubist Emotions

-a dispatch from the grief process

I wrote in the last post

seems grief gets worse before it starts to get better…

like a slow motion fracture across the emotional landscape

it’s like these internal earthquakes happen with a memory or thought…

not predictable…

my hands start to shake

I call this feeling Cubist emotions.

The Сity - Fernand Leger

Fernand Leger “The City” (1919)

 

Things at angles

and broken

sliding apart

damaging frictions

 

 

Writing desk - Olga Rozanova

Olga Rozanova “Writing Desk” (1914)

 

the measure of the words

does not equal their weight

in spilled ink

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Umberto Boccioni “Nocturne” ( 1911 )

 

The night leans over

renders everything lopsided

view of myself as alien in an alien landscape

I hear the neighbors on the balcony

words in no known language

where is this?

Emotions Like Ghosts

-a dispatch from the grief process

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Emotions move through like ghosts

Neither resistance nor surrender

Whatever you resist will persist

Whatever you surrender to will stagnate

One has to learn transparency

Becoming like a ghost

To meet these ghosts

Assimilation and dispersion

The Frame

 

Antaiji Temple in Japan was long associated with Kodo Sawaki Roshi. He was abbot there at one time.

Antaiji has a winter session. This is the last talk that was given during that session.

Sabine Timoteo in the "bird cage"

 

The poem she reads at the beginning is by Jacques Prevert. It is a slightly different translation than this.

TO PAINT THE PORTRAIT OF A BIRD

First paint a cage
with an open door
then paint
something pretty
something simple
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
then place the canvas against a tree
in a garden
in a wood
or in a forest
hide behind the tree
without speaking
without moving…
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but he can just as well spend long years
before deciding
Don’t get discouraged
wait
wait years if necessary
the swiftness or slowness of the coming
of the bird having no rapport
with the success of the picture
When the bird comes
if he comes
observe the most profound silence
wait till the bird enters the cage
and when he has entered
gently close the door with a brush
then
paint out all the bars one by one
taking care not to touch any of the feathers of the bird
Then paint the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful of its branches
for the bird
paint also the green foliage and the wind’s freshness
the dust of the sun
and the noise of insects in the summer heat
and then wait for the bird to decide to sing
If the bird doesn’t sing
it’s a bad sign
a sign that the painting is bad
but if he sings it’s a good sign
a sign that you can sign
so then so gently you pull out
one of the feathers of the bird
and you write yours name in a corner of the picture

– Jacques Prevert, translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti