8 (Somewhat) Offbeat Ways to Defeat Stress
Sadly, in these days, a life free of stress is a bit of a challenge to obtain. True, there are…
Forgive me if my oak tree existence buckles the sidewalk of your pedestrian life.
It is not my intention that you should fall here,
that you should skin your knees and
curse my earth, but
you must understand that I am a deeply rooted thing.
It is my natural form to not
to be uncommonly broad in my reach.
You whom have wandered far and close,
Understand - I do not exist to impede your way.
But if this is the way you have chosen,
if this is the way,
then this is the path -
and it will be
uneasy and uneven.
And is it not worth the pain of
a stubbed toe
for you to stop and consider
your place in the world?
When last did you fall
to your knees and hands
to call Jesus using the breath
that I gave you?
When last did you consider that
although we are both dying
only I can live
Your life is so short, my friend.
Your body is small and soft and easily broken.
Slow down, my small friend.
Stop and rest.
Curl yourself into the curve of my roots,
where the shade is still cool.
I will protect you from the tyranny of the midday sun.
I whisper this on a breeze.
I speak it with lips of a thousand leaves.
But you do not hear me.
All you hear is the din of your wandering thoughts,
as you follow aimless legs that take you
into darkness and sickness and
peril and pain and
then I get the blame
for your missed steps.
My small friend, you move with so little grace.
But I accept the blame
and your curses and your blood and
still I will give you rest.
since mine is a praxis of patience.
My purpose in life is to give life,
and to take life,
exactly as it comes to me.
You should learn to do the same.
Perhaps then you might see there is no need to wander or
move with such reckless haste.
Because even you, my small friend, are a deeply rooted thing,
you too have uncommonly broad limbs.
If you would just stop moving,
you would see that
within your reach.
In college I majored in zoology and philosophy, a seemingly odd combination for some, but for me it was entirely natural. From my earliest years I have been deeply aware of myself as more than a material being, and I am never more aware of that essential spiritual aspect of myself than when I am immersed in the natural world.
All of my happiest memories as a child and adult are connected to being in the natural world, as are all of my memories of feeling connected to something larger than myself - something spiritual. I have a visceral memory of these things - watering and talking to my mother’s many plants as a child, or kneeling down in the midst of tall, swaying grasses on a cool, breezy December day.
I have a distinct memory of the first time I saw a passion fruit flower. I leaned in so close to examine its strange configuration that I inhaled a noseful of pollen and had a sneezing fit. I was utterly delighted. I remember the first time I saw a sunflower. I was about six or seven, tiny for my age, and completely awed that a flower could grow to be larger than I was. I ran home breathless with excitement, tripping over my words as I described what I had seen to my mother and father. I remember pouring over books on the natural world that my parents bought for me and my older brother - books on dinosaurs geography, geology, meteorology, and the mysteries of outer space. I remember hours spent turning over rocks, looking for the fossilized imprint of long dead plants, and the fascination I felt the first time I saw the glittering surface of an igneous rock.
I remember being overwhelmed with emotion the first time I saw a circular rainbow around the sun. It happened on a Friday, close to Easter when I was eight or nine. It is an experience that is still so personal for me, so intense that I can only barely ever speak of it.
Even my memories of being connected to the people most important in my life are connected to the natural world. I remember my first experience with a particularly loud and angry thunderstorm. The explosive crack of thunder so terrified me that I ran screaming from the veranda to my mother in the kitchen and attached myself to her left leg. I remember sobbing with fear, and the tinkle of her bemused laughter as she petted my head and comforted me. I was perhaps two or three. I remember one of the few happy memories I have of my father, the only time he ever took my brother and I fishing. We caught the weirdest fish I had ever seen in my life - a dusky dark thing with all manner of odd appendages. In retrospect, I think it was some species of catfish or maybe a hyper-melanated clown fish.
In the last several years I have taken to going on extended camping trips to national forests and parks, and more recently I have made a habit of weekly silent meditative walks through the woods. I have learned that these are the things that I must do to regain and restore myself, to be who I really am at my core - a naturalist and a philosopher.
I am always alone on these excursions - for hours, days, and weeks at a time. I am always alone by choice, but also not by choice - I am alone by default. I am alone by need.
I have spent most of my adult life alone. And celibate. Invariably I have had this life choice questioned, chastised, and entirely misunderstood by others. I have been called “stingy with the mustard” and a prude amongst other things. I have been asked if I ever get lonely, while being looked at like some strange alien being. “Yes,” I answer, I am sometimes lonely, sometimes intensely so. Yet it is true that most of the time I do not feel lonely at all. That feeling is the exception, not the rule. Still, I understand their confusion. I’ve felt this confusion too.
Alone, I have often wondered at my aloneness. My loneliness, and its absence.
I have recognized for quite some time now that my intensely singular adulthood has been the result of a complex intersection of life experiences, including some very traumatic ones. And indeed, in my younger years, there truly was something a touch pathological about my intense need to be alone - it belied a profound fear of connection, the outcome of a deep rejection of self.
Now, however, this very same choice to be alone - this need to be alone - reflects an ever deepening sanity, and my embrace of myself as myself. I now recognize that choosing to remain alone is in many ways the inevitable result of my unwillingness, and frankly, inability to accept partial intimacy. This choice to remain alone is in many ways the natural inclination of someone who sees very clearly the spiritual in the material, and who is not content to be only half of herself.
Both historic and contemporary notions of romantic heterosexual love are steeped in proprietariness as it relates to the bodies of women. Moreover, for me as a black woman, my body has been so commodified, eroticized, and vilified, that I often end up feeling like something rather than someone in my interactions with men, on both sides of the color line.
To be clear, as a naturalist, I don’t actually take umbrage at being looked at admiringly. Indeed, most of my time in natural settings is spent gazing lovingly upon the simple beauty of natural things. But perhaps because of the philosopher in me, mine is more than mere gazing. There is also a penetrating to presence, a seeing into things, a delving into its being to cultivate an awareness of things as they actually are in all their messy complexity and overarching simplicity. That then, is my actual objection to being looked at, the laziness of their effort - I object to being the object of a gaze that never penetrates. I object to being looked at without ever actually being seen.
“I will marry the first person who learns how to leave me the fuck alone.”
These emphatic words were said by a friend reciting his work at a poetry slam. I was a judge that night, and I awarded that poem my highest rating. When he returned to his seat next to mine I complimented him on a job well done. He visibly recoiled, becoming shy and awkward. “Right,” I thought with a wry smile, “I will leave you the fuck alone.”
I understand well that tension - the irreconcilable desire to be acknowledged for all your depths while somehow remaining unseen. The need to reveal one’s truth while remaining hidden.
This ambiguous state of being is the unhappy compromise made by those who are unsatisfied with being half of themselves, but who lack the faith, either in themselves or others (usually both) required to be all of themselves - to be fully themselves in another’s presence. Such a fractured state of being, I have learned, is at its core incompatible with true intimacy.
But, I understand this holding back, for I too have felt that need to keep claims on myself. I too have felt that unwillingness to simply hand myself over to those who only seem to see half of my meaning. So much of what now passes for romantic love never rises above the petty personal politics of possession. But none of what we are is a thing to be owned, we who are made of star stuff, we whose sister is the sun. And who, after all, owns the sun?
What does it mean to become someone’s so(u)le lover? What does it mean to truly belong to someone, yet not be owned? I ask these questions as a sibling of the sun… I ask these questions as a sister of stars…
Some of us struggle for years to find satisfactory answers to these questions. Some of us struggle forever.
My walks through woods and wilderness has wizened me, and I no longer fear being looked at or seen. As of this writing I am still alone by choice, and by need, but it is no longer fear or lack of faith that drives that need. Rather, I remain alone out of patience.
Patience, which at its core, is the very same thing as love. Patience, which at its core, is the same as intimacy. Patience, which at its core is the same as presence. Patience, which at its core, is the same as being.
I sit in patience without waiting.
I sit in patience for you - for inquisitive eyes, for kind eyes, for brave eyes, whenever they arrive.
I wasn’t exactly surprised when I saw the sun falling from the sky, though I was a little concerned.
It was two am by my watch, and therefore what should have been the dead of night, but instead it was as bright and hot as a July day. I looked out across the rocky desert, strangely lush with its scrubby trees and bushes. There was no one else here, and truth be told, I was not actually sure how I had gotten here either. I tried hard to think of where and when I was prior to this moment, but I couldn’t remember.
This is the way of travel in dreams - ever arriving without the bother of traversing time or space.
The full moon shone over head, silver and low, closer to the earth than it should have been. It was close enough for one to discern its spherical nature, the curve and shadow of its edges promising a mystery on the other side - the dark side, the hidden side. At this distance, it was three dimensional, not at all like the plain white disc that came to mind when I tried to remember past versions of itself.
The air hummed with the sound of the approaching sun. I looked up to note its trajectory and saw that it was on a collision course with the moon which merely stood silent and steady, waiting for what would happen. I started to panic. A cold dread filled me as I thought about what would become of me, what would become of us, should this cataclysm take place.
I wanted to hide. I wanted to find a refuge and wait for the end, but there was no hope of this. Here in the desert, I was wide open. I could only wait as the moon did.
I shielded my eyes as best I could and watched the slow descent of the sun. It was forming a perfectly parabolic arc across the sky.
As the sun drew closer, its yellow glow waned to a burnt orange. The sun danced with celestial fire. My heart raced as the sun approached the moon, steady and silent, without hesitation.
The star closed in.
The satellite waited.
I closed my eyes just before impact, unable to bear witness to this final dis-integration. I waited, wrought with anticipation, to feel but not see my own demise.
The darkness behind my eyes glowed red, then cooled suddenly to a flat black. I braced myself, waiting for the sound. I waited to be blown away by solar winds, to be burned to ash by nuclear fire. But, there was nothing.
I was still here.
I opened my eyes to sudden night. The air chill and crisp. The full moon glowing glorious, a crown amid the stars. The sun had missed its mark and was now completely eclipsed by the moon.
I looked out across the desertscape, bathed and dusted in silver. I exhaled in relief, only realizing then that I had been holding my breath.
Breeze rustled the stunted trees, bringing with it a perfume of unknown origin. I inhaled it deeply, my lungs drinking in the scent with a rare thirst.
I was relieved - but only for the moment, for though the moon had been spared, the sun was still set on its deliberate path. Its arc a clear curve set to crash the earth to a final ruination.
Suddenly, I knew that I had to stop the sun. Suddenly I knew how to catch this falling star.
Across the desertscape’s untroubled surface the air became still and silent in the silver light.
After some time, the sun emerged from the moon’s skirts, much reduced in size and intensity. The air warming only slightly as it drew close.
I was not surprised to see this shrunken sun. But even in its failing, this was still the sun, and it was set.
I tracked the slow arc of its descent, my eyes aglow with reflected embers.
I stood in the place where it would make its mark and tunneled deep. Turning inward, unlocking the deepest spaces of myself until I rent a chasm clear through to the very center of the earth, into the fire of its core.
I opened up and caught the sun. Then, I closed myself for safe keeping.
The sun grows, deep inside the womb of the earth, while the moon begins its reign o’er a season of night.
Giovanni and I met in the sauna at the country club. Slight and white, he entered with a green beach towel draped across his bony hips. He had what I thought of as a Rihanna hair style, shaved on one side with messy dark bangs falling over his right eye, ending just short of his jaw line. It was a hair cut that several of my female students had this year, and they definitely wore it better. I noticed that he had no tattoos, the pristine state of his skin being somewhat of an anomaly given his age and the venue.
He sat down, added some water to the rocks, and disrobed. He sat hunched over, with his elbow on his thighs and his head in his hands. We dutifully ignored each other in the dim yellow light as forgettable pop music played in the background. As the heat rose in intensity, I sat up and breathed in deeply. I closed my eyes, hoping to clear my mind, and lose myself in a meditative state. Instead I remained firmly in place, my mind fixed by the familiarity of a song I was destined to forget the second it ended.
"Let me know if it’s getting too hot for you," he said.
"No, no, it’s fine," I replied, slightly annoyed. "I like it really hot."
A few more minutes passed in silence, and then he said “you live here.” A statement rather than a question.
”Yes,” I replied nevertheless.
"I just moved here," he volunteered.
As a rule, I like my sauna’s silent, and even when they are not, I generally remain steadfastly so in defiance of cultural norms, deflecting conversation with terse one word replies. Usually, the chatterer will get the point and relent.
I was decidedly puzzled then when I heard myself ask “where from?” Even before he answered, I knew that I didn’t actually care.
"Tulsa," he said. "Do you know where that is?"
"I’ve driven through almost every state in the country," I replied in what I hoped was a condescending tone.
"Oklahoma." He said, seeming to miss it. "I like it here so far," he continued.
I noticed a vague, formless antagonism beginning to arise in me as my subconscious mind processed the casual double insult of this white stranger who had assumed that not only was I too stupid to know where Tulsa was, but that I also needed his opinion of my adopted home town as some sort of validation of my life choice.
"Why did you come here?" I said, my tone more accusatory than curious.
"Well, I dropped out of med school, actually. I decided it wasn’t really for me." Then he added with a slightly twisted, sheepish grin, "Plus I had developed a bit of a heroin problem."
Just then, one of the six yellow bulbs in the sauna went out with a hiss.
"Aah…" I said, nodding my head slowly, seeing him clearly now in this darker, danker light. His was a familiar though increasingly rare subtext to the New Orleans new immigrant story - the story of a haunted doll. And this city, stooped with history and riddled with ghosts, has long been a collector of broken toys.
Old new New Orleanians understood this implicitly. They came here not with the intention to fix, but to be in communion with the broken. That was the sense of the place, that nothing would ever work quite the way it was expected to, including and especially the people.
Less enlightened outsiders were often perturbed by this attitude, mistaking this radical acceptance of things as they were as mere indifference or complacency. But what they failed to see was that this tolerance for brokenness was the source of the city’s healing - it was what made the city home for the rest of us. Those of us who never belonged anywhere until we belonged here - among the ghosts of ourselves, among the spectres of the living, and the dead.
We were happy being haunted.
"Well," I said, "New Orleans has always attracted a certain kind of person.."
I asked him about his connection to the city, if the person he was staying with was from here, but he wasn’t. In fact, he was from Tulsa too. “We were actually roommates for a while when I was staying in one of my dad’s houses after I dropped out of medical school,” he explained. But apparently his friend had suffered a personal tragedy, and it is this that had precipitated his move to New Orleans.
"They were never actually together," he explained, "but she was his soulmate, and she died." And so, his friend had fled Tulsa, not to escape this double haunting, but to take the ghost of her ghost with him to the only place where she would have safe keeping, and eventually he had followed his friend, and his ghosts, here.
I nodded my head as I listened to this once common story now fading fast in familiarity - the caravan of haunted dolls come to New Orleans. I considered him more closely now, unsure of how I had missed it the first time - the hollow behind his eyes. Perhaps the slow bleaching of gentrification that had begun to strip this city of all its color had made me drunk on its fumes, causing me to confuse mere whiteness with the harsh fluorescence of artificial light.
He added a few more spoonfuls of water to the stones as we talked in the dim light, the heat rising and then bearing down upon us. We talked about gentrifications, swapping stories about the changing demographics of our respective cities. I told him about the Marigny and Bywater, and he told me about Tulsa. He told me about how the ghettos slowly gave way to hipster wine bars. How poor people of color were systematically priced out of their own neighborhoods and homes. What I described, and what he had seen in his short time in New Orleans looked familiar to him. He shook his head slowly, a fire flickering behind his eyes. “These white outsiders…” he began, and then stopped. A slight smile played on his lips as the irony of his statement found him.
Silence fell. A rivulet of sweat ran down the length of my naked spine, and I shivered in the heat. Eventually I asked him what his plans were, if he intended to stay in New Orleans.
"No…" he said. "I really wanna leave the country… maybe check out Vietnam or Cambodia, maybe South America." He sounded restless and bored.
Silence returned, and then remained. Eventually, he stood, re-wrapping his towel around his slender frame.
"What’s your name?" He asked. I responded.
"I’m Giovanni," he said. "It’s nice to meet you."
"It’s nice to meet you too," I said as he left.
Caring about racism does not make you anti-racist.
Not wanting to be racist does not make you anti-racist.
Talking to educated black people does not make you anti-racist.
Talking to uneducated black people does not make you anti-racist.
Selectively valuing the opinions of black people does not make you anti-racist.
Wanting to f*ck a black person does not make you anti-racist.
Wanting to love a black person does not make you anti-racist.
Actually loving and f*cking a black person does not make you anti-racist.
Attending an anti-racist workshop does not make you anti-racist.
Reading anti-racist books does not make you anti-racist.
Loving black culture does not make you anti-racist.
Knowing a black anti-racist activist does not make you anti-racist.
Knowing a white anti-racist activist does not make you anti-racist.
Wanting to be anti-racist does not make you anti-racist.
Hating racism does not make you anti-racist.
Voting for Barack Obama does not make you anti-racist.
Teaching black children does not make you anti-racist.
Claiming to be color blind does not make you anti-racist.
Being LGBTQ does not make you anti-racist.
Being a white woman does not make you anti-racist.
Being liberal does not make you anti-racist.
Being a feminist does not make you anti-racist.
Being a person of color does not make you anti-racist.
Being oppressed by other forms of oppression does not make you anti-racist.
Working/living in a majority black city does not make you anti-racist.
Having black neighbors does not make you anti-racist.
Having black friends does not make you anti-racist.
Having black coworkers does not make you anti-racist.
Talking about anti-racism does not make you anti-racist.
Sorry, white people, but there is no get-out-of-unwittingly-perpetuating-your-indoctrinated-racism free card that you can magically play to avoid looking at yourself and owning your own bullshit and doing the work of learning to not say/do stupid offensive shit that angers people of color. Your country has been doing this for over 200 years. What on earth makes you think you’re so damn special that you’ve somehow magically escaped all influence?
If you don’t know the anti-racism, don’t want to know the anti-racism, can’t be bothered with the anti-racism, that’s perfectly fine. Truly, it is. I assure you, people of color have learned for generations not to expect much from white people in that regard. Sad, but true. However, don’t also pretend that I’m also obligated to spare your feelings and walk/talk on eggshells when you do inevitably blunder and say/do something thoughtlessly racist and offensive because you’ve never bothered to make the time to educate yourself on how to be anti-racist and unlearn the bullshit you’ve been taught your whole life. This is the age of Google and Wikipedia. Your choice to keep your ignorance gives me no obligation to coddle it.
Oh, and please, enough with the outrage about being called out as racist when you say/do ignorant racist shit. Okay? I’m really over hearing how hurt you are, and that you thought we were friends and blah effin’ blah. It’s not like I called you a damn child molester or a rapist or a Justin Bieber fan or a wall street banker. There are far worse things to be than racist. At the end of the day, we are all implicated in the bullshit game of privilege in some way. So just own up to your own stinking pile of the stuff and get over yourself.
Despite the fact that it is the people of color in this country who have endured a hundred plus years of oppression and brutality in the name of building the American dream, it is almost universally white people (increasingly ‘ordinary’ middle class white people) who succumb to “survivalism,” “prepping,” and general paranoid gun-nuttery. Interesting, isn’t it?
My personal view is that this behavior is symptomatic of deeply unconscious and unexamined feelings of guilt and shame. Particularly guilt and shame about continued complicity in a system built on unfairness. Our subconscious minds are powerful. They tell us truths that we do not want to hear or see. And when we fail to face such truths, that denial grows and warps us. We give in to obsessions and fears that control us.
The collective subconscious associated with “whiteness” knows that its privilege is built on a history of thievery, enslavement, and mass murder, it knows that the current system continues to disenfranchise and is inequitable, it knows that it is complicit in supporting such a system. The collective conscious also knows that anger, and yes, vengeance, is often a natural response to continued victimization and oppression. This fusion of the conscious and subconscious manifests as a profound paranoia that a sizeable portion of the white US populace displays whenever they believe that their “freedoms” (read: privileges) might be under threat.