Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Equinox Mythos & Mystery

Covering beds for the winter
I watch garden snakes going underground.
The sun retreats from this half of the world,
bodies hibernating through longer nights.
It’s our turn to carry the dark, autumn whispers.
What will you bring with you into dreaming?

Inanna descends into the Underworld, of her own free will. She takes up the journey to meet her sister, Ereshkigal, her shadow self. She will face her hidden half and she will be undone in the dark. But when the dawn comes she will know herself wholly for the first time, and reemerge in her strength and power. What do you see when you face your reflection? Can you breathe in all of the pieces and make a whole image? Do you have the strength to stand naked and unflinching before it?
Unwinding her thread, Ariadne gave her lover the map to the labyrinth beneath the surface of the earth, beneath the surface of her skin. He went to meet her shadow self, her twin brother chained at the center of the labyrinth. The beast we call Minotaur is the primal darkness within her breast, the animal part of her that she hides. She is betrayed as the hero slays the monster, to woo her, to protect her, to impress her. The hero with small vision who cut out her very heart. Do you keep your ugliness hidden from the world? Are you not made more beautiful in the shadow of your flaws? Do you have the strength to expose your vulnerabilities? Can you shed those who would stand in judgment for those who will embrace you as you are?
Persephone leaves the child of springtime behind her as the sands trickle towards autumn. She steps on the path winding into the hillside, away from her mother’s eyes and arms. She leaves her parent’s home, known and fragrant with summer memories, towards the unknown house of her husband, in shadow, where she shall be lover, spouse and woman. She steps lightly on the path. She knows where it is going though she does not know the landscape and she cannot see its end. She trusts that it is the right path. What shades of yourself have you shed in your journey? Have you learned to let them go and accept the changes? Can you be a daughter or son to your parents without being a child? Can you step into uncertainty? Can you keep your feet to your path, though you cannot see the ending?
Orpheus descends to the Underworld in grief, passing where no living being can pass. In love, he wins Eurydice back. But the path out of the darkness is too long and too quiet and he loses faith that she is behind him even though she told him she would be there. He turns around before they reach the sun and she is lost to him forever. Can you face the moments when you slip? Can you take responsibility for your mistakes? Can you rise above them or will you sink into embarrassed despair?
Oya stands at the cemetery gate as the recent dead descend into the ground. She greets them, standing against the flood of their fresh grief. She is the beacon of light calling them to rest. Where does that strength live in you?
Papa Legba stands at the crossroads of dreaming as the ancestors rise to walk the earth again. He stands ready to ferry bargains and deals as we wander through our winter nights. What would you sacrifice to get what you most desire?
Tlazolteotl balances the act of love with the act of defecation, holding both as equally sacred. Sacred in, sacred out. She is the flow between connection and release. One follows the other, like night follows day and day follows night. She walks between for us, holding the memory of light when the darkness overwhelms, and holds the dark so we don’t forget our gratitude for the light.
The veils are thinning. The darkness is winning favor as we turn into autumn. Our mythologies provide us with stories and archetypes we can use to illuminate ways to navigate the path that lies ahead so that we can move forward. What do we learn from these stories? We learn to not fear the dark, but to tread gently through it and embrace it. We should use our personal dark as a space of transformation. Face your twilight reflection and prepare to challenge and test yourself against the chilled slumber of the earth and the lengthening nights.

Covering beds for the winter
I watch garden snakes going underground.
The sun retreats from this half of the world,
bodies hibernating through longer nights.
It’s our turn to carry the dark, autumn whispers.
What will you bring with you into dreaming?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

House Cleansing & Home Blessing

It’s Fall Equinox and the world where I live is turning towards longer nights and shorter days, more dark and less sun. We’re getting ready to close the storm windows and hang the heavier curtains, to put the fans and air conditioners away and clean out the furnace filters. In the Northeast it’s time for apple picking, baked apples, apple cider and homemade donuts. The earth is cold and leaves will begin to turn, to crisp and fall, swirling in the air until they cover the ground like a blanket. It’s my favorite time of year.
Winter is hard and in the spring we gleefully throw open our windows and curtains, letting the first of the warmer air blow through as we let the light hit corners of our darkened caves, our fortresses. So in the autumn, before I close my house up to the world, I do a special house cleansing and home blessing as a means to prepare our apartment to shelter us. Just as our bodies are the temple of our spirits and deserve the best of our attentions and care, our homes are the temples our bodies depend on. It is more to me than wood and flooring, than roof and wall. It is my sanctuary, my resting place. When it is full of clutter and cobwebs, and doubt and shadow I need to recharge, reboot the energy or I start to feel antsy in my apartment, like my skin is crawling.
My partner and I have performed house cleansings and home blessings for friends and loved ones for a variety of reasons: a new home or remodel, a traumatic death in the home, the loss of a loved one, haunting, feelings of being watched, as well as general otherworldly activity. They can be done in an afternoon or an evening, within a couple of hours, depending on how thickly the energy needs to be cleansed and laid. We teach people how to do it themselves, if they are interested. After all, no one is better suited to build the temple of your home than the ones who live in it.
What I share here is a three day cleansing that I have adapted for my personal use in the autumn. Set up an altar in the room that you consider to be the heart of your home. All you need on it is a candle, to serve as a hearth. You can add items that are personal and meaningful for you, including photos of your family- anything that warms your heart and fills you with that feeling. Feel free to personalize it to suit your preferences and tastes. Intention is the most powerful magical tool.

House Cleansing, Day One
The purpose of the first day is to cleanse, clear and empty your house of unwanted energies. Start at the back of the home and sweep towards the outside door of your house that you normally use as your main entrance and exit. I use an actual broom to stir the air and push it in front of me. Go through every room, pushing towards the main door. When you’re done, open the door and sweep it outside.
Now that the energy is stirred and moved, grab rattles, drums, pots and pans… anything that makes noise. Start at the back of the home again, make some noise, and move towards and out the front door. The purpose of this is to chase out anything lurking in your home that wishes you harm or ill, be it an entity or a repository of negative emotional gunk. If you have trouble moving the energy it may be helpful to chant “bad energy out of my house” while you’re working.
To finish off the first day, I burn some white sage, commonly found in smudge stick forms. You can also find it as incense sticks. I also use copal or camphor when I’m low on sage. Both of them are strong herb and resin purifiers.

Resting, Day Two
This day is optional, but it is simple and it does help add a substantial boost to the magic of the cleansing. Burn a cinnamon candle all day. I have also grated cinnamon sticks and burned the shavings over charcoal in a brazier, but if this isn’t something you use regularly, I’d stick with the candle.
Why cinnamon? It’s not just for baking. Cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, is the dried bark of the laurel tree. It’s native to Sri Lanka and was originally the only place it was grown. Most of the cinnamon we use today is Cinnamomum cassia and comes from the cassia tree.
Use of the spice is found in Chinese writings back to 2800 BC and the Egyptians were importing it from China in 2000 BC, using it to embalm in the mummification process. The phenols in cinnamon inhibit bacteria growth and act as a preservative. In the bible, it’s an ingredient in Moses’ anointing oils. The Romans burned it at funerals and used it as currency. Think of the sacred vibrations of this spice as your home fills with the scent.

Home Blessing, Day Three
            The home blessing is the most important part, coming full circle, closing and sealing the gaps. It is about sacredly blessing all of the portals where energy comes in and out of your house, creating a protective filter. Light a candle on the altar you created for this cleansing and blessing. You need a bowl of salt water, a small dish or vial of oil (olive oil works fine) and sage. If it is just you, you will use each of these one at a time. This is a good excuse to invite some friends over and, sharing their love for you, to fill your house with more warmth.
Work room to room and anoint every portal with a tiny dab of water, oil, and then smoke from the sage. By portals I mean electrical outlets, heating grates, windows, doorways, televisions, computers, faucets and drains, toilets, tubs and showers, etc. Do not stick your wet or oily fingers in the outlets- for the love! I just run a dab along the outlet casing. While you’re doing this, speak words to the effect of:
Protect my home and family from harmful energies.
Be mindful while you are working the magic but do not be somber. After all, we are turning into the darker months of the year, yes, but the intention is to fill the house with the light and warmth we harvested through the summer months. When you are finished, pour the remains of the salt water across the bottom threshold of your porch or stoop and ask the Ancestors to watch over you.
May it be so. Ase.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Flooding in Binghamton, Part V

September 17, 2011:
One week later and looking ahead.
The water up to the flood wall, photo from newsfeed.

It’s freezing right now. It’s a beautiful wintry night, as if the earth has emerged from a trance the way I do, so bitterly cold you can’t get your bones warm. I can feel the chill coming off her, through my walls and into my home, radiating off the wooden floor. We have no heat right now.
Tonight I am thinking about all of those displaced people, a couple hundred left who cannot go back home, whose homes are not safe. And so many more still trying to replace heat and hot water tanks. And still some without power until all the homes are checked. Everyone has a flood story, ranging from inconvenience to devastation to despair.
The damage is unbelievable. Every area that was underwater has to be gone through, one house at a time, by the city code workers checking the foundations and looking for hazards that would compromise the safety of the home. Like the flood in 2006, many homes will need some serious work before their owners can rehabitate. What happens to them between now and then? Other houses have been condemned, which means owners are not allowed to step foot inside. So when I say people have lost everything, I mean everything.
It could have been worse. It’s my mantra right now. It could have been worse. That doesn’t make the reality less bad. It makes things like heat, water, shelter, basic hygiene more important. More relevant. I can’t even imagine what the people of New Orleans went through after Katrina. I just can’t let myself think about it.

Downtown Owego, underwater, newsfeed photo.
Owego was underwater. Johnson City was underwater. Twin Orchards was underwater. Conklin, Kirkwood, Union, Windsor, Unadilla, Binghamton, Apalachin… and so many more places were partially or fully underwater. Several NYSEG substations flooded. Two sewage treatment plants flooded. An entire school was lost in Endicott. It was the first week back. Union, Vestal and Conklin towns are still under curfews and some towns have to boil water, signs of lingering effects.
Most people have heard of the pet store in Johnson City, who did not evacuate their animals on Wednesday and Thursday morning were not allowed into the building that was underwater. It wasn’t safe to go into the water and at that point, unfortunately, authorities were rushing to evacuate residents who had become priority. One hundred animals died. It’s saddening. It’s saddening that there was any loss of life.
It could have been worse.
The police, guardsmen and first responders, including FEMA workers, have been working tirelessly, often on 12 or 14 hour shifts to get people home and cleanups in motion. Dozens of donation centers have opened up handing out food and clothes to families who lost their homes. Businesses are pitching in to raise money for flood victims and/or do their laundry for them, offer free bowling games, etc. From the debris of what was left behind, the idea of community is growing from the muck.
I have a story second-hand of Wegmans, our favorite grocery store, handing a check to an employee whose house flooded that would cover the costs of a new water heater and furnace. I have followed the stories on Facebook of people stopping into Whole in the Wall, a favorite local restaurant, to help clean up and rip out the sodden insulation. The fact that they thanked another local restaurant, The Lost Dog Café, for feeding them during the cleanup is heartwarming.

Lourdes Hospital, 2011, photo from newsfeed.
In 2006 Lourdes Hospital, on the river, flooded and had to be evacuated. Just this past April they finished the construction of their new flood walls. They held beautifully. In aerial photos you can see the flooding of their parking lots around it, but besides reports of needing to use generator power, the hospital remained safe.
I am proud of my city. We learned from the last flood and while this one is proving to be more devastating, the information for residents came quicker and the response time was faster as well. We weren’t prepared but we were better prepared all the same.
After a natural disaster, there is no such thing as business as usual, though it's true the world keeps moving forward. Perhaps we need to be more like the water that ravaged us, flexible and changing and less like the earth we build our homes with. It’s more metaphor than opinion. We think of earth as stability and security (at least, those of us who don’t live in areas prone to earthquakes).  We build our homes and think we are safe within them. But in Ouaquaga Creek, the flood waters move stones the size of cars with ease. I keep thinking of a time when humans were nomadic, moving seasonally to suit the changes of the land instead of figuring out ways to make the land do what we want it to do.
There are layers to everything and my brain tends to find strange nooks and crannies. We’re coming up on the Autumnal Equinox, a time of balance as we are coming out of an extreme natural imbalance. Many of the houses that were flooded also flooded in 2006. Those residents are facing a tough decision of whether or not to rebuild (again) or move. There’s this community feeling of needing to rebuild to show that we’re strong and we can overcome… in a general sense. But at the individual level of existing paycheck to paycheck, how many times do you watch your home flood before deciding that rebuilding may be a fool’s errand? I do not envy those faced with such a decision.
There’s no way to tidy this up in a conclusion. We are still learning the extent of damages and we are still figuring out what needs to be done for the immediate and distant futures. You may not hear much about us on the news anymore, but the reality is that the work of recovery is only just beginning. For us, this is just starting. Be grateful for the many blessings you have.
Keep us in your thoughts. Keep us in your hearts.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Flooding in Binghamton, Part IV

September 11, 2011:
The fellowship of friends.

On a day when our city was still underwater, relevant and happening now, the world retreated to 10 years past, a day no one can ever forget. I know where I was and everything that happened the moment I first saw the news. It is forever etched into me like grooves on vinyl. I can close my eyes and replay it enough on my own. I do not ever wish to watch it again. For me, today, my emotions are too raw, and we’re still in this current disaster.
Instead it was a morning of finding out what roads were open and what areas were still underwater, to see if we could get to a last minute gathering of friends to barbecue chicken salvaged from a home that miraculously missed the flood by a couple of houses. It had lost power and the meat wouldn’t keep.
I was weary and feeling vulnerable, but needed the comfort of friends. I needed the touch of people I loved. We are humans and we are meant to touch one another. It’s a language that we do not often make use of. We isolate our bodies as if we are each islands in an ocean, with so much space between us. For days I have existed on a physical island, cut off from the world by real water. And I needed those bridges back. I needed to see my friends and see their safety.
And, after two days eating tuna on crackers, chicken sounded really good. Just before we left, a storm rolled in and I cried. I did. The sound of the rain was too much, too soon, and I immediately found myself uncertain of leaving home. So I made myself, and was glad I did.
The company was a mix of exhausted, grateful, heartbroken, empty, hopeful and open people but the common thread was presence and sincerity. Gratitude. There is an openness in people who have faced a great change. Some may be overwhelmed by despair, some may hold on by staying in motion, but it is the moment where they stand together just before everything alters that connects them.
My city is connected because this flood happened to us. My county is connected because this event happened here. Those who live on the Chenango River and the Susquehanna River are all connected, because we are at their mercies. It’s not personal, it’s Mother Nature. Maybe the lesson we’re supposed to take away from a flood is bigger than the obvious ones of detachment from material things. These disasters throw us back into our bodies, pulling us forcibly out of the routine day-to-day factory world we live in and push us back into being alive.
I had gone for companionship and was unaware at how closed in my body was for a while. Taking a breath, I leaned over and put my head on my friend’s shoulder. And the shell I had built that was my fear of being flooded finally broke. I was able to stop myself from sobbing but I sat there, touching, and having gratitude that everyone I loved was all right.
In a way, it’s an interesting juxtaposition. In 2001 my partner and I had just moved to this city. We knew no one. Had a friend not called from Boston to ask us if we were okay (he thought we were much closer to NYC) we might not have known. We might not have connected the television up in time to see the second plane hit, to watch it as it was happening. We might not have spent 24 hours at the table, just the two of us, isolated from our loved ones by miles, watching the bodies fall.
This year found me experiencing that same wave of helplessness at the grief and loss of so many people’s sense of home and stability. Feeling useless in a city that needs help is much better done in a room of friends. I know people who have lost. I can’t help but think if I lost everything, what would I miss? From that perspective, I realize I have much more than I need.
It is important that those who were spared help take up the excess for those who were devastated and I am watching it happen. I am helping it happen. I have watched passersby stepping in to help carry loads to the curbside. I have been one of them, talking to more neighbors in the last few days than I have in ten years. I have heard that community folk are helping local businesses clean up, bringing offerings of food and water where they are not as physically able.
We’re taking care of each other. We will take care of each other.

Flood Gratitude
            I have gratitude that my little family was all in one place during the flood. That my partner was able to get home before roads and bridges were closed. I have gratitude for hands to hold and shoulders to lean on. For friends who delivered cat litter to us when we realized we didn’t have any. Everyone I know is safe.
            I have gratitude for water we collected before the river flooded. I have so much gratitude for water I can drink. I have gratitude for gas that allows me to boil water before drinking it. I have gratitude for power that flickered but didn’t die, that allows me to keep in touch with loved ones far away and assure them of our safety.
            I am grateful the river has crested and that the waters are retreating. I am grateful for the brief rains that have washed the hazardous materials away and cleansed the vegetation drowning in mud. I am grateful for a landlord who made us a priority though he was evacuated from his home. I am grateful for the sump pump and the end to the flash flood warnings.
            I am grateful to the emergency crews who worked through the heavy rain and the flooding to safeguard the city and evacuate people, tolerating and understanding the energies of scared and panicked residents. I am grateful to the internet and news for offering up-to-date and as-it-was-happening reports. I am grateful that we had enough food. I am mostly grateful that I have plenty of unneeded belongings that will allow me to share with those who are now without.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Flooding in Binghamton, Part III

September 9, 2011:
The waters are receding.
Behind Riverside Drive.

In my city, the waters are receding. The river crested overnight, allowing me a sigh of relief. We could stop waiting for the physical swell to get worse. Roads and bridges are still closed. The police, guardsmen and emergency responders tell us that the best way we can help is to stay home- those of us whose homes are not underwater. I think I am still in shock.
Most people are already moving forward, cleaning out basements, replacing water heaters, and trying to get back to work. Some people are boiling or disinfecting water and waiting for their power to come on. A quarter of the city is still crammed into evacuation centers where they have been for over 48 hours, wondering what has become of their homes and facing the possibility they have lost everything. I have to remind myself of that… and try not to feel guilty for being spared.
It was guilt that pulled me out of my house for another walk with my friend. I walked the edges of two rivers and found the line between what was home and what was water blurred. People were crying, sitting on their porches in a state of shock, standing in small clumps, everyone making eye contact, coming out of their personal isolation and looking for connection. They wanted to know they weren’t alone. In hard times, we need to know we’re not alone.
People stood at the new shoreline, staring. They all said the same thing- I can’t believe how much water there is. An old woman cried next to me, for her two daughters, both flooded and evacuated. She told me how she had watched the water line creep up into the houses from her apartment, and pointed behind where we stood. Only then did I notice the mud in the grass and the debris line of leaves, algae and twigs behind us. Only then did I realize that the water had been six feet higher than what I was looking at, just the night before.
It’s one thing to watch the photos on the internet and news. It’s another thing to stand before a force of nature and drink it in with your own eyes. Any excitement I might have felt at the idea of that much water was sobered by its reality. Fallen trees were crossing my field of vision in mere seconds, the river was moving that fast. The sun was shining and the water was going down, but the danger was still there. The floodwater is not done yet. It’s not time for business as usual yet.
My friend and I, mindful of the pain and grief around us, spent our time contemplating what it means to be an animal in the natural world, stopping often to watch the water in motion silently. We were not people who wanted to put their lives in danger. We were pagan women who needed to see the destruction caused to our city, to remind ourselves of the awe-full power of nature. We needed to know just how lucky we were.
We overheard residents along the Susquehanna discussing how they had been looted. They were pulling rugs and furniture to the curb, trying to avoid prolonged contact with the thick, viscous and stinking mud left in the wake of the water. It’s the kind of smell you can’t imagine ever getting out of your olfactory cavities. Trust me.
I found the mummified remains of a critter in mud on the road between the old debris line and the new one. It might have been a raccoon. It could have been someone’s pet. It might have been long dead and buried elsewhere, stirred by the waters and risen again. It was a grim reminder either way. Our bodies are our bodies and mine is still walking and breathing and praying. I spoke one for the corpse, wishing its spirit peace. It’s something I do.
Backtracking home the way we came, we saw the water had dropped two feet since we started. It was a significant visual acknowledgment. The ground seemed a bit more solid beneath me. We went back, quietly up the Chenango and into the residents who were trying to go about their everyday, arguing with the very people who had been fighting the rising waters on our behalf. To keep us all safe, even the noisy people who were untouched by the flood, and for whom it was easy to forget that this just happened yesterday. Is still happening to us.
The sun is shining. The waters are retreating. The heat will bake the mud that remains, turning it back into earth.

The homes behind Riverside Drive.
You can see all the mud left behind.
The leaves in the forefront show the original flood line, before it started to retreat.
We fared better than others. This is Apalachin, and the flood line reached up the sign. Photo by Laylla Forsyth.

September 10, 2011:
What the water leaves behind.
Four days in and towns around us are still underwater. People’s lives are still in limbo. The pictures we’re seeing are worse than I could imagine. It’s not New Orleans after Katrina. It’s not Joplin. It could be worse- it could always be worse. And for us, it’s the worst we’ve seen. We stayed to the house again, watching reports for roads open and closed, or washed away. Today, people are talking. Neighbors are reaching out. Strangers are helping strangers. My people are showing their best colors.

I walked the park at sunset, escaping the sounds of the landlord pushing the last of the water from the basement. The wooded pass is still covered with fungus of varied and multiple hues and shapes, a testament to rebirth. But the smell filtering into the beautiful violet and lavender sky was of death and dank and what gets left behind. The houses along the park were flooded from oversaturated ground tables and the furniture, rugs and old Christmas trees piled on the curb reeked against a Monet-colored sky. Drunk college kids played golf in the public areas while local residents carried belongings outdoors, to be carted to the dump.
The Mayor announced that no one would have to pay a garbage fee for flood debris. For the next week the bus lines will run free of charge, with an apology that some of the roads are still inaccessible. We absolutely still have no idea the extent of the damage.

Most of the people in the areas that are underwater (again) are people who live paycheck to paycheck. And insurance companies will quibble with them (again) over whether or not it was damage due to river-water-rising flooding or ground table saturation flooding. From our perspective it doesn’t matter. Devastation is devastation. When I think about the people who were hit hard by both floods, I wonder how much horror one heart is meant to be able to hold. This is a devastation that will linger emotionally long after the garbage and debris are cleared away.
I’m suddenly starting to see just how lucky we are.

Yesterday: Part II, My city is underwater.
Tomorrow: Part IV, The fellowship of friends

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Flooding in Binghamton, Part II

 September 8, 2011
My city is underwater.

Everyone I know is safe. A number of friends had to abandon their homes in the evacuation. They are still evacuating people from their homes. The sun is out but the rivers are still rising. They evacuated houses to the west of us, south if us, east of us and to the north of us.
Downtown Binghamton at its worst, aerial photo from newsfeed.
…but we still have power. The hot water tank can be relit or replaced. The water can be emptied from the basement. All of the roads into the city are closed. All of the bridges are closed. We’re in a state of emergency. It’s hard to find out what’s open or closed. The helicopters and sirens are becoming constant background noise. We can’t drink the water. If you were evacuated in 2006, you MUST leave your homes NOW. They’re coming to get you. The waters are still rising. The river hasn’t crested…
There was no rain today, though the waters continued to rise. My morning glories opened. The streets around me were soggy but visible. The dawn brought some familiarity as early-morning neighbors walked their dogs. And then the pictures poured in across the internet and the water levels kept rising and more people were evacuated as my landlord pumped more water from the basement.
I am going to create an altar to the Almighty Sump Pump, a breathing and whirring fountain deity. I’m beginning to understand how divinities were born... not always from fear, but sometimes from gratitude. Thank you, oh spirit of the Sump Pump, who takes the bad water out of my basement and returns it to the earth outside, to bake away in the heat of this hot summer sun… how can I have such an overwhelming feeling for a mechanical device? I think anyone who has been saved by one would understand.
Johnson City flooded, photo from newsfeed.
Shared experiences bond people. Looking at the breadth of the flooding on-line made me cry. Landmarks I should know well were barely discernable. I couldn’t believe those images were happening outside the walls of my house. The pull to go see it was strong, like wanting to see a body to make the death of it real. But it wasn’t over yet. I knew we’d be in the way, so a friend and I made a compromise and took a walk toward higher ground. When houses are flooding, or filling with water, they no longer feel safe. So we went outside.
            A walk in the park displayed a staggering variety of fungus carpeting the ground beneath us, decay and life wrapped up in one motion. The streets were so still we thought the city deserted. We talked of water and reflection and how it soothes and heals and also magnifies. Grounding the excess would be important. We talked about how natural disasters fear us back into our bodies, into ourselves. They remind us what it's like to be alive because being alive is both life and death. It was good to be outside. It was good to be with friends. It was good to see the sun.

Not an apple, a fungus, Recreation Park.
My friend said we believed them when they told us it wouldn't happen again in 2006. And people rebuilt. They said it wouldn't happen again for another 100 years. They said... but science is not divinatory and nature does not bend to its whims. They were sure. They were pretty damn sure. But it happened again, washing away the security net so many had held onto. It is happening. The damage is already worse than 2006, and continuing.
We had a conversation today about planning a lunch date to our favorite Chinese restaurant and a trip to the fabric store. But a moment ago I was sobered by a photo of the plaza underwater, where our restaurant lives, and the realization that the fabric store might not even be there... I can’t believe I forgot that earlier.
Vestal Plaza underwater, photo from newsfeed.
We simply don't know much yet. It just happened yesterday. It just happened today. It’s still happening. The water is still rising.
Tonight, my crisis mode is over, the shock is ebbing and the scope of the damage is more than a bit overwhelming. I reassured my family that no matter what they saw, we were okay and were going to be okay. And we will. And we are. But there is so much water everywhere, magnifying the grief and horror of what was lost. How long will it take to pull ourselves out this time? It is not lost on me that there is so much water here, flooding New York when Texas is on fire and so much land burns around our family there. It’s imbalance trying to right itself.
I am grateful for my family and friends and my breath right now. I am breathing. My family is okay. My friends are safe. We will help each other with what comes next. Dark moments remind us of what we have and illuminate that we have more than we need. I am grateful. And lucky. So very, very lucky.
Vestal Plaza, sunset. Photo attributed to Jen O'Brien and found on Facebook.
            I will sleep tonight and dream of the waters receding. I will dream of sunshine to come and bake the layers of water away, revealing what was lost beneath. Hold us in your thoughts, hold us in your dreams, as we do what humans do and rebuild again.

Yesterday: Part I, To evacuate or not to evacuate.
Tomorrow: Part III, The waters are receding.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Flooding in Binghamton, Part I

In June of 2006, Binghamton, NY made the news with the disastrous flooding that brought Broome County to a standstill. There hadn’t been a flood in 78 years, and officials felt safe in calling it a 100-year flood. Last Wednesday, areas of my city were once more being evacuated and my basement was under water. Most of us experience natural disasters as the current news story. In a population this large, most of them don’t affect us personally. We think the danger ends when we stop hearing about it, but for the survivors that’s when it begins. What follows is the first of five days of me, experiencing the flood, mostly personal with some relevant perspectives.

What’s happening here is still happening.

September 7, 2011
To evacuate or not to evacuate.
We were prepared to lose power and water...

It had been raining a lot, as my green tomatoes lusting after sunshine could attest to. Wednesday afternoon, they said the flooding could be as bad as it was in June of 2006. Considering that many people and businesses have only just finished rebuilding, it was enough to create warranted fear. In 2006, the house my apartment is in had been spared from more than water in the basement, sitting high above the flood stages though close to the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers. I prepared the same way I had five years ago, by raising the electronics off the floor, just in case some water came up through the boards.
My landlord came by and pumped the water out of the basement twice during the day. While I couldn’t gauge the rate of the rising water, I felt like I didn’t have to worry. In 2006, the water stopped three inches from the first-story floorboards, and that was after 24 hours. But then the rain came, pummeling and pelting the sides of the house with a force I could not recall hearing anywhere else… except at a campground in the Adirondacks in my childhood. It was raining so hard, we were watching tiny rivulets of rivers forming and sweeping past us as my dad and brother tried to level the trailer. I remember someone pulling my brother out from underneath it and the fear of the almost-accident as a jack slipped in the mud.
That day I understood something terrible could have almost happened for one of the first times in my youth and that feeling was settling in me, in my adult body. I am not special. I have to reason to assume that we will be spared again, just because we were before. Fear crept over me as the rain continued, unrelenting. By the time the dark set in, the news was saying it was probably going to be worse than 2006. And our landlord, who lives a few blocks away, came by to pump again and told us he had been evacuated from his home.
I set to motion and filled every container I could find with water, in case our water treatment plants were flooded out. I lit candles on my Ancestor Altar and prayed to those who came before me, who weathered floods, tornadoes, blizzards, hurricanes, earthquakes and more. I didn’t pray for them to save me or to stop the flood- that’s not in my cosmology. I prayed to their spirit inside me and sought the strength and courage of their past survivals to quell my current fears. We might have to leave our home. We could lose everything. But we would survive. That breath made it easy to relax into doing what needed to be done. Waiting.
Every hour, I went down to the basement to check the water level. The sound of water rushing into the basement was too loud, magnified by the reflective surface creeping upward. But the creeping was slow enough and we would be okay. At some point, the rest of the house went to bed. I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I kept vigil by the hour and left the news open on my computer. I had just begun to calm after reading that those who were going to be evacuated were receiving automated phone calls when the phone rang. It was the automated messaging system, instituted after the previous flood, telling us that three new areas were being evacuated around me.
I couldn’t tell if we were in the areas or not. After ten years I don’t know all the street names and I had to pull the map out to verify. Not us, but we were so close I wasn’t sure I could assume we’d be fine. And what about our cats? If we did evacuate, where would we go? Where could we take them? In a natural disaster, if you wait too long to go elsewhere, your choices of what to save get smaller and your options of physical ways to safety shrink vastly.
I don’t know what choice I would have made had we been pushed. I sat up all night, checking the basement every hour, and waiting for the knock on the door of men telling us we had to leave, prepared for them to pry my cat from my cold, dead fingers (because I would not have been able to leave her behind). But Bella slept in my lap as I waited, mentally running through checklists. I backed up all of my files and photos on sticks and put them in a Ziploc bag to take with me.
Looking around, I realized that, next to my partner and my two cats, in the core of me I truly believed that I could leave everything else behind. I made a pact, not with deity, but with myself, and I spoke it aloud to my Ancestors. If we were evacuated and the four of us managed to get to safety, I would accept the loss of everything else. And the fear of losing things ebbed in me.
It was a sleepless night of waiting, checking road closures and accessible evacuation centers. It was scarier in the dark, when the sound of the rain was so heavy on the skin of our house, filling slowly with water in its bowels. The raging storm outside served as isolator. Everything is scarier in the dark. I greeted the dawning sky with a weary sigh and allowed my eyes to close, if only for a few hours. I would let the morning show me what was yet to come.

Tomorrow: Part II, My City is Underwater

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Awakening Your Heart with Metta

The practice of Metta, or loving-kindness, began for me with a series of repetitive spoken meditations. The basic premise is simple enough: to have awareness of your emotional state, awaken your heart to gentleness and teach it to have compassion for yourself, loved ones, acquaintances and people you have difficulty with.
Besides being more relaxed and patient, Metta has gifted me the confidence to trust my own intuition. Maybe it was just the twenty minutes of meditating every night that opened the door to reconnecting with my personal voice, but it was the decision to learn loving-kindness that brought me my awakening and I have gratitude for it.
Today, I can express my thoughts and opinions without caring if people disagree with me or criticize me for what I think. I still worry about it, because I’m human, but if I want to be able to have faith in what I believe and share those beliefs, I have to allow others to be just as opinionated, don’t I?
Their differing opinions are not about me. We are all threads in the beautiful tapestry of life. Instead of getting upset or hurt, I use my Metta compassion to seek clarification, so that disagreements breed conversation and discussion, which allow my thoughts and beliefs to grow. In general, I find myself acting from a place of kindness, and no longer out of fear.

How Awakened is Your Heart?
Or, I could also say, how present are you in your body? I use this exercise as a test to gauge the connection between my emotional and physical body, which helps me stay mindful. Relax and place your hand over your chest. As you say these three phrases slowly, one at a time, pay attention to your breath and your emotional responses.
Inhale. Say “May I be well” on the out-breath.
Inhale. Say “May I be happy” on the out-breath.
Inhale. Say “May I be free from suffering” on the out-breath.
Say each phrase in a strong voice, as if you mean it.
Repeat 9 times.
If the words sound mechanical falling off your lips, you need to open a bit more to connect to your heart chakra. If you are overly emotional from the go, you will want to do them with the focus being control instead of opening.

Meditations for Loving-kindness
These are the meditations I learned from Whispering Deer. Spend days, weeks, months or however long feels right for you, at each step until you feel genuine compassion blossoming in your heart. Be mindful and present with the words you are speaking.

Self: Speak each of these phrases out loud. Reflect on how you feel after each one. Listen to catches and tremors in your voice that reveal your emotional state. Like a soft-focus gaze, you want to feel the edges around your heart soften as you repeat it:
May I be happy and peaceful.            
May I have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May I be safe and free from harm.     
May I be protected from harm and danger.
May I be healthy and strong.  
May I care for myself happily.
May I live with ease.                           
May I live in peace and harmony.
            May I accept myself exactly as I am.
            May I accept myself exactly as I am.
            May I accept myself exactly as I am.
This meditation is to be repeated, until you feel a softness in the heart. This is the start of having loving-kindness for the self. While it is easier to have compassion for others in our society, we cannot take care of others until we can take care of ourselves. Revisit this meditation again, once you have mastered the others.

Loved Ones: This should be someone you are close to and have an easy relationship with, like a family member or friend. It should be someone you have loving feelings for.
May [name of friend] be happy and peaceful.                       
May [name of friend] have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May [name of friend] be safe and free from harm.    
May [name of friend] be protected from harm and danger.
May [name of friend] be healthy and strong. 
May [name of friend] care for myself happily.
May [name of friend] live with ease.                          
May [name of friend] live in peace and harmony.
            May I accept [name of friend] exactly as they are.
            May I accept [name of friend] exactly as they are.
            May I accept [name of friend] exactly as they are.

Neutral Acquaintance: Think of someone you interact with, maybe not every day, but regularly enough that you have a sincerely ambivalent feeling for. Someone you could enjoy spending time with but maybe wouldn’t be someone on your list of people to call if you wanted to do so.
May [name of neutral person] be happy and peaceful.                     
May [name of neutral person] have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May [name of neutral person] be safe and free from harm.  
May [name of neutral person] be protected from harm and danger.
May [name of neutral person] be healthy and strong.           
May [name of neutral person] care for myself happily.
May [name of neutral person] live with ease.                        
May [name of neutral person] live in peace and harmony.
            May I accept [name of neutral person] exactly as they are.
            May I accept [name of neutral person] exactly as they are.
            May I accept [name of neutral person] exactly as they are.

Difficult Person: This can be someone you have trouble having good feelings about in general, or someone who has acted hurtfully against you. I recommend doing this part at least twice. Start with someone you just have a bad feeling about and move onto someone who has hurt you.
May [name of person you hate] be happy and peaceful.                   
May [name of person you hate] have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May [name of person you hate] be safe and free from harm.
May [name of person you hate] be protected from harm and danger.
May [name of person you hate] be healthy and strong.         
May [name of person you hate] care for myself happily.
May [name of person you hate] live with ease.                                  
May [name of person you hate] live in peace and harmony.
            May I accept [name of person you hate] exactly as they are.
            May I accept [name of person you hate] exactly as they are.
            May I accept [name of person you hate] exactly as they are.
Any time things become difficult and you feel agitated or constricted, ease out of it and return to a category or person that is easy for you.
Tips for Meditation
If you’re someone who falls asleep easily when you try to still yourself, let me assure you that it’s very common. It’s actually a way of your body throwing up resistance. It may be helpful to do these meditations with your knees bent upward, if you choose to lay down. If you start to fall asleep your legs will fall and wake you, and then you can slip back into where you remember leaving off with the meditation. Another thing you can do is to sit/lay with your thumb connected to another finger on the same hand. That physical touch will remind you subconsciously that you are meditating. They were both helpful tools in my early practice.

Wrapping Up
There is one final stage, which is to have gratitude for all sentient beings. By the time you are ready for that step you will most likely discover you already have those feelings of compassion within you. This work is slow work. It’s not an immediate relief. It’s difficult to unravel a lifetime of negative thinking. Allow yourself your feelings and be gentle. Never forget to hold compassion for yourself first, so that you may be able to offer it to the world around you.

Relevant Posts:
Moving Towards Loving-kindness (posted August 31, 2011)
Stillness, Goodwill (posted December 29, 2010)
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