Archives For Alley Valkyrie

It was the end of my time in Europe, as I was set to fly out of Cologne in a few days. I had just traveled from Strasbourg, France to a friend’s house just outside of Mannheim, Germany, and I was trying to figure out the best way to Cologne from there.

“If you take the train from Mainz, I can show you the Isis temple in the basement of the mini-mall,” she said to me.

I was sure that I hadn’t heard her right. “Wait, what?” I asked. “A temple in a mini-mall?”

“Well, in America it would be called a mini-mall. Here it’s just a regular mall because we don’t have big malls like you do. But yes, when they were building the mall they uncovered the remains of a temple to Isis, and now the temple is in the basement of the mall and anyone can go visit it.”

Still not quite believing my ears, I immediately decided to travel out of Mainz. I spent the night at my friend’s wonderful old farmhouse, and made plans to go to the temple the next day, and then on to the train station.

That night, I dreamed about the burial mounds in and around Chillicothe. I woke up not quite understanding the connection, but it was made clear to me before long.

*   *   *

Mainz is located in western Germany on the west bank of the Rhine. Known as Mogontiacum in the days of the Roman Empire, the city was founded as a military stronghold in the first century BC and named after the Gallic god Mogons. Mogontiacum was one of the most important fort cities in the Roman Empire until it was destroyed by Attila the Hun in 451 AD.

In 1999, construction workers broke ground for a new shopping center in Mainz only a short distance from the bank of the Rhine. Unlike in America, where many states have no laws whatsoever that protect archaeological remains, German local historic preservation offices automatically oversee the digging of a pit in any historic location.

When the remains of the Isis temple were discovered, construction on the shopping center was halted for seventeen months as the remains were carefully uncovered and catalogued by a team of archaeologists. During the excavation, over 5000 photographs were taken, and over 350 scaled drawings were created of the finds. Three meters of soil were removed and carefully sifted through, and extensive geographical survey charts were drawn up which noted the exact locations of the remains as well as how far above sea level they were found.

Not only was an ancient temple discovered, but also the remains of a Celtic burial ground dating back to the Iron Age. The temple itself was dedicated to both Isis and Cybele, who the Romans knew as ‘Magna Mater.’ It is the only temple to both gods that has ever been found outside of Italy.

When the excavation was completed, local citizens pressured the government and the developers to preserve the temple in its original location, and to make it available for public viewing. As a result, a museum that contains and features the remains of the temple was built right into the structure of the shopping center. Today, the museum is accessible from the inside of the shopping center and is open and free to the public.

*   *   *

I admit that I didn’t know much about either Isis or Cybele other than what is contained in the standard myths that most Pagans are familiar with. I had no idea, for example, that Isis was adopted into the Roman pantheon and that her cult thrived there. I had known that the cult of Cybele had reached Rome, but I didn’t know that temples dedicated to her were ever built within the Roman Empire.

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Entrance to the Isis temple in Mainz. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie.]

Arriving at the mall that contained the temple was quite a surreal experience. In the downtown of a major city, we parked and took an elevator to the first floor. As soon as we walked into the mall itself, the temple was right there near the entrance with a staircase leading down below.

The volunteer at the desk handed me a tour guide in English, and my friend was kind and patient enough to translate everything on the panels inside the museum, which were all in German. What I learned over the next hour from my tour guide and my friend’s translation was the following, retold to the best of my memory with the assistance of a few notes:

Archaeologists and historians knew that a temple to both Isis and Magna Mater had existed at one point in Mainz, but they didn’t know where until the discovery and to this day they still don’t know why it was built. According to historians, a temple like this was usually built after some sort of political catastrophe and/or misdeed on the part of the Roman Empire as a way to both appease the local community as well as appease and ask forgiveness of the Gods. And given the size and the detail of this specific temple, it is assumed that there was some sort of significant event that the Emperor and Senators of the Roman Empire felt a great need to rectify.

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Tablets inscribed to Isis Panthea and Magna Mater. [Photo Credit: A.Valkyrie.]

Among the consecrations carved on limestone tablets was the following:

For the welfare of the emperor (and) of the Roman senate and the people and the army, Claudia Icmas, freedwoman of the emperor, and Vitulus, slave of the prince, under the priest Claudius Atticus, also a freedman, have had this inscription set down for Mater Magna.

Another tablet bears the identical words except that they were set down for Isis Panthea. The naming of these various persons and institutions is suggestive of a very grave or controversial occasion or event that the consecrations were meant to make amends for. There are also a significant number of stamps from various Roman legions on the outer walls of the temple, signifying that not only did the legions feel the need to specifically mark their participation in the building of the structure, but that the structure itself was a state-sponsored and state-financed project.

And yet the specific event or catastrophe that prompted the building and consecration of such a temple is missing from the historical record.

The temple itself was built in several phases, starting in the latter half of the first century, AD, and the cults of Isis and Magna Mater worshiped at the temple for approximately two-hundred years. It had gone through various renovations over that time, with differing materials and architectural styles found throughout the layers. When parts of the temple were demolished and restructured, the building materials from the destroyed parts were re-used in the rebuilding.

Remains of the temple in the center of the museum. [Photo Credit: Matthias Süßen / Wikimedia]

The insides of the temple were off-limits to those who were not initiates of the cults of either Isis or Mater Magna. However, those who were not initiates were still allowed to participate in certain celebrations, activities, and offerings. Pits were discovered outside the temple walls, which contained layers of burnt offerings. Anyone could leave or burn offerings in these pits in order to request and/or secure divine assistance. Hundreds of oil lamps were also unearthed, many which were found in the offering pits. Other lamps had images of gods carved onto the surface. Evidence of animal sacrifices were also found in the pits, primarily the bones of chickens and other birds.

Discovered among the ruins were many poppet dolls and curse tablets, some of which were very detailed in their targets and their aims. The curses ranged from requests for revenge on jilted lovers to pleas for justice in legal matters. The tablets were made of lead, and were rolled up and buried once inscribed. The archaeologists discovered many of these tablets in various stages of decay, which had to be carefully unrolled in order to decipher and translate what was written on them.

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Devotional objects and curse tablets on display. [Photo Credit: Martin Bahmann / Wikimedia]

Also uncovered and displayed were a large assortment of sacrificial and devotional objects, such as pottery, resins, carved bone, grains, and various figurines. Some of the figurines were hand-carved, others molded, and varied from representations of ordinary people to statues of gods and goddesses.

Remains from the Celtic burial ground that existed in that space prior to the building of the temple were also on display. A burial chamber built of wood planks, which was originally set between an earthen mound, was uncovered and inside the bones of what is believed to be a noble woman were discovered. Her remains were dated through a dendrochronological analysis and were thought to be from around 650 BC. Found buried with the remains were fragments of pottery and jewelry, ostensibly her personal possessions.

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Reconstructed scene and remains from the Celtic burial chamber. [Photo Credit: Martin Bahmann / Wikimedia]

As someone walking through the display for the first time and with little knowledge of what I was about to observe, I felt an immediate connection to the objects and the history that was being displayed and expressed, not only because of its presentation but because it was displayed in the actual location where it was found. There was a certain resonance, a connection between the space itself and the objects on display, that was unlike any other museum I had ever seen.

*   *   *

With my head full of a wide assortment of new knowledge and thoughts and ideas, I bade farewell to my friend, thanked her for her hospitality and her tireless translation throughout our visit to the museum, and then boarded the train to Cologne.

Once I was on the train, I sat and relaxed for a few moments and remembered the dream that I had the night before. I suddenly realized its significance in terms of what I had just learned and witnessed. Aside from the general theme of ancient and sacred places, the Celtic burial chamber that was unearthed below the temple had originally been built below a burial mound, a mound which was constructed for the same purpose and around the same time as the burial mounds in my dreams.

The burial mounds scattered in and around the Ohio Valley and West Virginia were built in the time of the Adena culture, which is estimated to have thrived between 1000 and 200 BC. But unlike the varied historical protection laws that European countries have enacted concerning archaeological remains, Ohio has never enacted a law that protects structures or finds of historical significance despite years worth of pressure on the state legislature to do so.

As a result, countless burial mounds have been destroyed over time, especially over the past century.

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Adena Mound, circa 1900, prior to destruction. [Public Domain]

In 1998, a commercial property owner in Chillicothe, Ohio wanted to develop a piece of land for retail purposes. But unlike the situation in Mainz, they knew from the start that the Chillicothe land in question was a sacred site in the form of a burial mound, which was in the way of their plans. So, they simply demolished it despite efforts from preservationists to stop the destruction.

The land then sat for nearly two decades until last year when developers wanted to build a mall. The developers claimed that they were not aware that the parcel was a recently bulldozed sacred site. Under pressure from the community, they consented to allow archaeologists to dig for thirteen weeks.

And over the course of that time, many archaeological finds were uncovered from bones and teeth to shards of pottery. A local archaeologist estimated that the mound dated from between 200BC to 200AD, putting it in the same general time frame as the remains unearthed in Mainz.

But unlike the temple in Mainz, nobody built a museum in the basement of the new shopping center, which was built on top of the sacred site. What stood before in that spot has not been properly respected or honored or protected. What was once a burial mound is now a Dick’s Sporting Goods, with nothing to remind those who shop there that the building stands on sacred ground.

While the trip to the Isis temple was a breathtaking example of the importance of preserving and restoring historic remains, it was also a stark reminder of how little my own country has progressed in showing such respect or care for the sacred remains that are scattered throughout this land.

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Early stages of the destruction of the mound, 1901. [Public Domain]

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

  *   *   *

The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.

“One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseille would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible.” – Hannah Arendt

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin [Photo Credit: Gisela Freund]

The ‘catastrophe’ that Arendt refers to was the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of Walter Benjamin on the night of September 25, 1940, only hours after crossing the border into Spain in an attempt to escape the Nazis. Although there is some question as to how he actually died, the most accepted version of his death is that he committed suicide by overdosing on morphine in his room at the Francia Hotel in Portbou.

At the time of his alleged suicide, Benjamin and his two companions were under police surveillance along with another group of refugees from France. They had arrived in Portbou earlier that evening after hiking over the Pyrenées from occupied France, only to learn that they were being denied entrance into Spain. They were to be deported back to France and handed over to the Vichy government the next day.

Despite assurances from members of the other refugee party that they could potentially bribe their way out of it, Benjamin took a fatal dose of morphine that night, after having been on the run for seven years. It was a dose that he had been carrying around since the burning of the Reichstag. This was seemingly an act of both desperation and defiance. He was not only more than aware of what his fate would be should he fall into Nazi hands, but he had also apparently decided long before that moment that he would choose death by his own hand over such a fate.


*   *   *

I am not much of a hiker, and I have never hiked a mountain before. I’m in decent enough shape considering that I don’t work out or engage in any type of regular strenuous activity, but I also struggle with chronic fatigue and nerve pain which often keeps me from outdoor activities. And I definitely knew on one level that the trail that I was so determined to hike was a bit out of my league in terms of experience.

But I also knew that 
Walter Benjamin was in much worse shape than either my friend Rhyd or I. And, every time I dwelt on the fact that he completed the route under the circumstances that he did, and in the poor physical condition that he was in, it served as ample justification for dismissing my own worries. The pull I was feeling to take the hike was strong and not fully of this earth, and I had recognized for many months that the trek was an essential part of our pilgrimage to Europe. We both recognized the importance of tracing his footsteps as a tribute to him, and that importance far outweighed any concerns that I had about my abilities.

At the time that Benjamin escaped from France over the Pyrenées, he was forty-eight years old and suffered from a heart condition, having been in delicate health since childhood. He had been living in poverty and exile throughout most of the 1930s, which had greatly exacerbated problems with both his physical and mental health. When he made his escape, he took with him a heavy briefcase that contained an unknown manuscript – one that he insisted was more important than his own life.

We packed much lighter than Walter Benjamin did, bringing only some food for lunch, two bottles of water, a half-empty bottle of Orangina, a sweatshirt, and our phones. I also took a small notebook and a solar charger, which I kept in a small side bag, while Rhyd carried the majority of our gear in his rucksack.


*   *   *

By summer 1940, Walter Benjamin had been in exile from his native Germany for seven years. He first fled to Paris in spring 1933, understanding the significance of the Reichstag fire long before most recognized what that event would mean for the future of Germany. As a Jew, a Marxist, and a cultural critic, he knew he was in danger for many reasons, and he sought refuge throughout France as well as briefly in Denmark with Bertolt Brecht. He was a heretic on the run, desperately trying to write and publish as much as he could while both his economic and physical livelihood fell into ever increasing danger.

In 1938, Germany revoked the citizenship status of Jewish citizens, and overnight Benjamin found himself to be a stateless man. Eventually the French caught up to him, and he was imprisoned in a French internment camp in 1939. After his release was secured with the assistance of friends in early 1940, he returned to Paris, where he stayed until French defenses were defeated by the Wehrmacht.

Benjamin then fled Paris for Lourdes the day before the Germans took the city. The subsequent armistice between Germany and Vichy France contained an extradition clause that denied exit visas for all German refugees in France and required the French to surrender anyone who had been granted asylum. Overnight, Benjamin was suddenly trapped in a country where he was a wanted man with no legal means of escape.

Knowing that he needed to leave France in order to save his life, he eventually left Lourdes for Marseille, where he managed to secure an entrance visa to the United States in August 1940. While in Marseille, he met up with his old friend Hannah Arendt and then reunited with Hans Fittko, who he had met the winter before when they had both been held at a French internment camp in Vernuche.

The mountains.

The mountains [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After learning that Benjamin was trying to escape, Hans Fittko told him that the only potential route to safety was to make it to Spain without having to go through a border crossing, and then to cross Spain to Portugal and exit Portugal on a boat to the United States. Fittko then encouraged Benjamin to contact his wife Lisa, who had recently left Marseille for Port-Vendres on the border with Spain with the intention of finding a smuggling route over the mountains.


*   *   *

Every single website we had checked, including the official tourist site for the city of Portbou, stated that the hike was a 7 km, three-to-four hour trek. 
My instinct told me from the beginning that it was longer than that, and while my general rule is to trust my instinct, I also recognize (usually in hindsight) that there are times when I ignore that hunch for what later is revealed to be an important reason.

Looking back at this specific instance, the reason I ignored that hunch is very clear. Had I known how long the trek actually was, I likely wouldn’t have attempted it.

But having convinced myself at least on the surface that it was a 7 km hike based on the information that we found online, we planned for that amount of time and distance. We slept in that morning at our campsite near Perpignan and timed our travel so that we would arrive in Banyuls-sur-Mer around noon. Based on that schedule, we assumed that we would be in Portbou by four or five at the latest. We took just enough food for lunch and about three liters of water.

*   *   *

The route over the Pyrenées was a smuggling trail known as the Lister Route, named after Enrique Líster, a general in the Spanish Republican Army. Lister led his troops to safety over the Pyrenées to France at the end of the Spanish Civil War when Spain fell to the Fascists. While few knew of the route’s existence, one of the people who knew it well was Vincent Azéma, the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, one of the first towns on the French side of the Pyrenées. Azéma was a socialist who had also been sympathetic toward the Republican cause in Spain.

A little over a year after Spain fell and Lister made his escape, the Vichy government took power in France. Azéma wanted to help those who were seeking to escape the Nazis, and his knowledge came in handy the day that Lisa Fittko showed up at his office seeking a route over the mountains. Like Walter Benjamin, Fittko was also a stateless Jew who was wanted by the Nazis. A dedicated anti-Fascist, Lisa and her husband Hans had also been on the run for years and had been working with the underground Resistance for much of that time. The Fittkos had also made their way down to Marseille not long after the Vichy government took power.

In September 1940, Lisa Fittko headed down to the border with Spain with the intention of securing a smuggling route across the Pyrénees. After only a few days in Port-Vendres, some dockworkers told her that the mayor of Banyuls-sur-Mer, Monsieur Azéma, would be able to help her find a route over the mountains. She went to see Azéma soon after, who discussed the route with her in great detail and gave her a hand-drawn map of the path.

*   *   *

I had never heard of Lisa Fittko until she died in early 2005. I had come across an article about her in the New York Times, which ran a story about her life and death and also mentioned Walter Benjamin’s tragic ending. I had heard of Benjamin before, but had never read his work, and it was that story in the Times which first prompted me to seek out his writings.

By that summer, I had immersed myself in his works, hunting down everything I could. It was the same summer that I ended up sharing my apartment with a young woman from southern France who was interning at a production company in Manhattan. The fact that she was from Perpignan, not far from Banyuls-sur-Mer, didn’t strike me as the least bit meaningful or synchronistic at the time. But all the same, that summer was dominated by two distinct perspectives: her observations and views of New York, and the work of Walter Benjamin.

Over the years, Benjamin’s work has undoubtedly influenced my thinking more significantly than that of any other writer, and nowadays I regard him not only as a profound thinker but also as both a prophet and an ancestor with whom I have forged a working relationship over time. And although the pull that I felt was much stronger overall than the individual parts that I could comprehend, the level of influence and relationship that I feel toward Benjamin was the primary reason why 
I felt the overwhelming need to trace the path of his fated escape path over the Lister Route during my pilgrimage to Europe.

It seemed fitting that my friend from Perpignan, who I hadn’t seen since that summer in New York eleven years earlier, was the one who kindly offered to drive us down to Banyuls-sur-Mer in the midst of transit and gas station strikes throughout France. She took us all the way to Puig del Mas, a neighborhood just south of Banyuls-sur-Mer, where the route actually began, and dropped us off on a side street that bordered the beginning of the mountains. We thanked her profusely and stumbled up the hill toward the end of the road.

*   *   *

On Sept. 24, 1940, Walter Benjamin knocked on Lisa Fittko’s door in Port-Vendres and told her that he had been sent by her husband and that he needed to escape to Spain.

Having met with Mayor Azéma only a few days earlier, Fittko quickly agreed to lead him over the mountains. She also agreed when he asked to take along two acquaintances who he had met in Marseille, a woman named Henny Gurland and her teenage son, who were also German refugees seeking to escape France. Fittko made it clear to Benjamin that it would be a strenuous climb, and that she did not know the route and that they would be taking a risk, but he seemed unconcerned. He stressed that to not make the attempt would be the “real risk.”

Later that day, Benjamin and Fittko left Port-Vendres for Banyuls-sur-Mer on foot, walking down back roads in order to avoid the growing police stops being conducted on both trains and auto routes. Fittko wanted to meet with Mayor Azéma again to go over the details of the route once more and to see if he had any additional advice or suggestions.

*   *   *

After Stéphanie dropped us off at Puig del Mas, we walked up the hill a bit but quickly realized that we couldn’t find the beginning of the route. I had downloaded a GPS map of the route onto my phone that morning, but it vanished from my screen and then refused to reload as we walked to the end of the road toward the vineyards.

Luckily, we saw a man exiting his car and walking up the hill. Figuring that he was a local, Rhyd asked him if he knew where the route was. The man was more than happy to walk us down the hill a bit, and then pointed us to the right and told us to look for a staircase.

We went down the staircase and through a narrow path, and found ourselves surrounded by vineyards.

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We then walked for a few minutes up an easy path, and looking up at the trail before us, we decided to stop for lunch before tackling the steep terrain. We were surrounded by vineyards, some so old that the vines were literal trunks, bearing a much greater resemblance to dwarf trees than any type of vines  I had ever seen before. I kept looking down at our food, and then up at the terraced vineyards, and it hit me halfway through our lunch that what we were eating, while quite unintentional, was very similar to the traditional meal that vineyard workers in the region were accustomed to eating – bread soaked in olive oil with some meat and cheese on the side.

After washing our food down with some water, we packed up our gear up again and headed upward through the vineyards.

*   *   *

When Walter Benjamin and Lisa Fittko sat down with Mayor Azéma that afternoon, he advised them to take a practice run in the daylight before actually hiking the full route. He recommended that they hike up past the vineyards and as far as the tree line, turn around and head back to town and check back in with him. Then, they could attempt the route in full the following day.

And so they set out on the route on the afternoon of September 24, only to learn quickly that the path was much steeper and more treacherous than Azéma had thought. Benjamin had brought a heavy briefcase with him, which Fittko offered to help him carry. When she asked him what was inside the briefcase and why he had brought it on a trial run, he told her that it contained his new manuscript and that he dare not risk being separated from it because its contents must be saved at all costs.

It is more important than I am, more important than myself,” he told her.

It took them several hours to reach the tree line, and by the time they hit that point Benjamin was so fatigued and run down that he refused to turn back. After unsuccessfully trying to convince him to return to town, Fittko headed back to Banyuls-sur-Mer in order to prepare for the full hike the next day. Meanwhile, Walter Benjamin proceeded to spend the night, the last full night of his life, alone and exposed on the mountain at the base of the tree line with only his briefcase.

*   *   *

After Rhyd and I made it up past the first plot of vineyards, we came across an elderly couple hiking up the trail. They were equipped with hiking poles, which admittedly made me pause for a moment. Hiking poles? Do we need those too? What have we gotten ourselves into?

We walked behind them for a moment, until we came across an intersection in the paths. They were following the road, but another path went straight up into the mountains, and my instinct told me that the path straight up was the one we were supposed to take. And yet, we were without a map.

“Excuse me,” I asked them. “Do you know which path is the Chemin Walter Benjamin?”

He pointed to the path straight up, and then to the markings at the base of the path. “See the two black lines? Those are what you need to follow.”

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I thanked him, and looked at him with both gratitude and wonder. Of all the material I had read on the route, not one source had mentioned the relevant trail markings. I expressed my thanks again as they walked off down the road, and we looked at the path before us, both realizing at the same time that this would be anything but an easy hike.

It also didn’t take us long to realize that especially without a working GPS map, those trail markings were absolutely crucial when it came to staying on the path. As the path kept twisting and turning on our way up toward the top of the tree line, it occurred to me numerous times that if we hadn’t run into that couple we would have been hopelessly lost.

*   *   *

After leaving Walter Benjamin at the clearing on the mountain the night before, Lisa Fittko once again started up the trail before sunrise the next day with Henny Gurland and her son in tow. It took them about three hours or so to reach Benjamin, who was still lying down in the exact place where Fittko had left him the night before.

The party quickly discovered that Benjamin had a talent for navigation, and he expertly directed them, keeping them on the right path as they climbed further and further upward. Everyone took turns carrying Benjamin’s briefcase as they climbed toward the summit. On account of his heart condition, he insisted on taking a minute’s rest for every ten minutes walked.

Despite such a disciplined rest schedule, Benjamin stopped not long before the summit, insisting he couldn’t go any further, and both Fittko and Gurland literally dragged him up the incline to the next resting place not far from the top. A short time later, the group finally reached the summit.

It had taken them between four and five hours from the point of the clearing for Benjamin’s party to reach the summit, and seven to eight hours overall since Fittko, Gurland, and her son had left Banyuls-sur-Mer early that morning. But finally they had reached Spain.

*   *   *

A few hours after parting ways with the elderly couple, Rhyd and I finally spotted a sign that pointed toward the summit and stated the distance. I realized at that moment that the websites were all exactly half-right. It was 7 km and three to four hours to the summit at Querroig. But it would then likely be 7 km and another three to four hours to get back down and into Portbou.

It was now mid-afternoon, and the breeze and the shade of the cork-oaks made the hot sun bearable. As we continued to climb, a certain amount of diffused worry built up between us. Both time and our ability to stay hydrated were subtle but ever-growing concerns that we managed to communicate lightheartedly, but regularly, to each other without ever quite naming our exact thoughts for what they were.

We started to monitor our water supply, already halfway gone, taking smaller and more deliberately timed sips with an unspoken understanding that we would be up on the mountain much longer than we expected. We took extra care of ourselves; stopping for breaks under trees, continuously looking behind us as inspiration and relying on the visual power of the fact that the more that Banyuls-sur-Mer shrank in the field of vision behind us, the closer we were to the top.

And yet there were feelings of hopelessness at times, feelings that reverberated from our surroundings as much as they originated from within. And those feelings, as much as I tried to block them out, kept bringing me back to the figure whose escape path we were tracing.

The summit near Querroig.

The summit near Querroig. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After four hours or so we finally reached the summit. We took a few moments to rest and to take in the beauty of it all, but we then quickly began our trip down in order to try to make up for lost time.

*   *   *

Lisa Fittko had originally planned to leave Walter Benjamin and the others at the summit, as she did not have the proper paperwork and could not risk being caught on Spanish soil. But once she reached the top, she was concerned about their ability to navigate the treacherous downhill terrain. So she guided the three refugees down the narrow mountain paths.

Not long after they began their descent, they stumbled upon a greenish pool of water, obviously dirty and polluted. Walter Benjamin immediately bent over and stopped to drink, as the party had run out of water by that point.

You can’t drink that,” she told him. You could catch typhoid fever…

Yes, perhaps,” he replied. But you must understand: the worst thing that could happen is that I might die of typhoid fever – after I have crossed the border. The Gestapo can no longer arrest me, and the manuscript will have reached safety. You must pardon me, please…

And so he drank, and then they continued on downhill.

*   *   *

As we began our descent, I noticed that our surroundings were suddenly completely different than the terrain that we had been hiking for the previous four hours. The flora was different. The plants were different. Cork oaks and scotch broom had given way to cacti and succulents, and water could be heard rushing below. And the buzzing of bees was a consistent and strong presence throughout the entirety of our descent through the mountain brush. At times the bees were louder than our own voices, and while it faded in and out it served as a dominating chorus throughout the trek down to the road.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

While the Chemin Walter Benjamin on the French side of the path had been very casually marked, often with handmade signs, and was nearly impossible to navigate unless one knew what trail marks to look for, the Ruta Walter Benjamin on the Spanish side of the mountain was much more ‘official’ and organized. Every kilometer or so there was a waymarking sign, usually accompanied by a plaque sponsored by the Catalonian government. Each marking detailed an aspect of Benjamin’s life while featuring quotes and graphics. The trail blazes, which had guided us from the beginning, were still present and constant. However, the new signage took out much of the guesswork and deliberation that had characterized our way up the French side of the mountain.

*   *   *

Lisa Fittko led the party downhill for another hour or so, until they finally reached a road at the end of a cliff-wall that led down toward a town below. Portbou was now directly in their sight and, at this point, Fittko bade them farewell, instructing the group to take the first train to Lisbon as soon as they had their entry stamps.

A sigh pointing towards Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

A sigh pointing towards Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Benjamin, Gurland, and her son continued down the road to Portbou, while Fittko headed back up the mountain toward Banyuls-sur-Mer. The road that wound down from the mountains led directly into town, and they followed it through the train tunnel to the downtown promenade and then up to the train station, where they surrendered themselves to authorities with the expectation of being granted entrance.

It was there at the train station where they learned their fate. It was at this place where police told them that they were being denied entry into Spain and would be deported back to France the very next morning. They were put up at the Francia Hotel for the night under police surveillance, and Walter Benjamin allegedly committed suicide that night in his hotel room, believing that his luck had finally run out for good. His briefcase subsequently vanished.

*   *   *

It was at that same juncture between the path and the road where Lisa Fittko bade farewell to Walter Benjamin and his party, the same juncture where she had finally decided that they could make it the rest of the way on their own, that Rhyd and I briefly got lost.

I’m generally an adventurous sort that usually deals with being lost without much fear. But, at that point it was only a few hours until sunset; we had next to no water left, and we had already been on the mountain for nearly seven hours. We were not thinking clearly; our judgment clouded by the combination of fatigue, fear, and thirst. And, it was this lack of clear thinking that led to a few mistakes and a few moments of panic.

There was a fork in the road, one way headed slightly up and one way headed slightly down, both pointing in the general direction of Portbou. Those who know a thing or two about mountains probably would have deferred to common sense at that point: if you’re heading down, pick the road that goes down. But we are not mountain dwellers, nor regular hikers, and for the first time since we started, there wasn’t a waymarking sign or a trail blaze to be seen. So for some reason we decided that the road that headed upward was the way to go. And as we continued on, ever doubtful, that feeling of hopelessness once again crept in.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I didn’t learn until after I returned to Perpignan and studied the terrain at length that it was only another wrong turn and a dead-end that kept us from walking straight back to France. Once we hit the dead end, we briefly argued over what to do next, and I took stock at that moment of how much my judgment was compromised and decided to defer to Rhyd’s judgment.

He pointed to another road below, stressing that even though it might technically be off the trail, the priority at that moment was to get off the mountain before sunset. I was doubtful but I agreed nonetheless, and we headed down that road only to discover within the next hour that it had actually put us right back on the trail, exactly where we needed to be in order to get to Portbou.

*   *   *

A few days after Lisa Fittko returned to Banyuls-sur-Mer, and before she had learned of Benjamin’s untimely fate, she was approached by Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee, who had heard of her success in smuggling Benjamin over the Pyrénees.

Fry and his associate had set up a legal French relief organization, the Centre Américain de Secours, with the intention of using it as a cover for smuggling Jews and other refugees out of France. Fry had both connections and funding, and wanted Fittko’s help in establishing a smuggling route that could potentially be lead by refugees themselves.

She agreed, and over the course of the next few years, Fittko and the Emergency Rescue Committee saved thousands of lives by leading folks over the Pyrenées via the Lister Route to Spain. Their efforts went down in history, and the Fittkos as well as Varian Fry are remembered to this day as some of the many heroes of the Resistance. The Fittkos finally fled France for Cuba in 1942 with the help of Varian Fry, and eventually settled in the United States.

And it wasn’t until almost forty years later, during a telephone conversation with Benjamin’s closest friend Gershom Scholem, that Lisa Fittko learned the fate of the mysterious briefcase that contained Benjamin’s final manuscript. She had always assumed that it had reached safe hands, especially given its importance, and was shocked and upset to learn that it had vanished.

*   *   *

Our original plan had been to reach Portbou by four or five in the afternoon at the latest, where we would then take a taxi to Cerbère, the very first town on the French side of the border, and then a train back to Perpignan where we were staying. The last train from Cerbère was a quarter past eight, and if we did not make it we would be stranded in either Portbou or Cerbère for the night.

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A plaque near the train station in Portbou. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After following the road down the mountain for a while, we finally started to see houses and we could also see Portbou straight ahead. We both felt a sense of relief, having held a mutual, muted tension for several hours at that point. But with that relief also came a heightened sense that we needed to hurry, as it was already past seven at that point.

Signs of civilization where suddenly everywhere, from cars to dogs to a huge reservoir right below us. Without realizing it, due to our mutual state of light-headed and fatigued relief combined with the need to hurry, we followed the rest of Benjamin’s exact path into town without either map or sign as a guide. As we walked down the road toward town, we kept looking back at the mountain, watching as the fog quickly drew in. We had made it off the mountain just in time.

We continued through the tunnel, down the promenade, and to the train station where Benjamin and his party turned themselves in to the police. And while we were only seeking a taxi, not an entry visa, there was something in the moment, connected to the themes of hopelessness and escape, that lingered with meaning.

After a few minutes’ worth of location-based and linguistic stumbling, we finally hailed a cab to Cerbère and then caught the very last train back to Perpignan.

*     *     *

While the official story is that Walter Benjamin died by suicide, there is an alternate, much more recent theory of the last day of Benjamin’s life, which many dismiss as conspiracy theory. Yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly supported by a combination of evidence and inconsistencies. This theory claims that he was murdered by either the Gestapo or by agents working for Josef Stalin, who had learned of his escape plans and were determined not to allow him to leave Europe.

Both the Gestapo and Stalin had adequate reasons to want him dead. Not only was he a Jew and a Marxist attempting to escape the Nazis, but he had also apparently offended Stalin quite personally with his most recent and final work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Released in early 1940, “Theses” was a biting and influential critique of orthodox Marxism, and it was viewed by many as a betrayal of the tradition as well as a direct attack on the Soviet regime. There was also precedent for such an action on the part of Stalin. Leon Trotsky had been assassinated in Mexico City only a month earlier by an NKVD agent who was acting under direct orders from Stalin.

There are several oddities about his death that suggest that it was other than a suicide. First, theret was the suicide note itself, which many believe to be falsified because it had been written in French as opposed to his native German, and also contained inconsistencies regarding his location. And then there was the death certificate and related paperwork, which listed the cause of death as a stroke, not a drug overdose. There was also the fact that Benjamin was granted a Catholic burial in a Catholic cemetery, which would have been forbidden had he committed suicide. Finally, the fact that his briefcase disappeared also potentially points to a suspicious ending, especially given the degree to which he felt the need to keep its contents out of the hands of the Gestapo.

It is also notable that Portbou was a small, close-knit town and was rumored to be a Fascist stronghold with a reputation for hostility toward French and German refugees. Once Benjamin and his companions were detained, their presence in Portbou would have been anything but a secret, which created an ideal opportunity for agents of either Stalin or Hitler or anybody else for that matter who wished him dead.

How he truly died will always remain a mystery, as will the contents and the fate of the briefcase that disappeared after he perished. But his writings, his final days, and his life and death itself serve as a series of important lessons and reminders, not just of our past but our future possibilities and the potential we all hold to alter our fates through an understanding and analysis of what came before.

*   *   *

Through his life can be read the violent unfolding of the twentieth century, which destroyed not only him, but millions of others. Yet his writings envision a world not condemned to repeat its mistakes, unlike the defeatist cosmology of a Blanqui; a world in which the political subject still has recourse to revolutionary praxis, unlike the disempowering theory of a Habermas. Benjamin’s writings tell of other possibilities, models for future thinking and acting, re-encounters with the past and proposals for what might yet be to come. Such are his important living remains.” – Esther Leslie

I had known for several years now that Lisa Fittko had written a memoir about her experiences smuggling refugees over the Pyrénees, but it wasn’t until we got off that mountain and back to Perpignan that I felt an overwhelming and sudden urge to read her book. It’s almost as though I had deliberately overlooked it on one level and, yet only in hindsight, had recognized this fact, sensing that having read it would ruin my adventure somehow. But after completing the route, taking in Fittko’s recollections seemed to be a crucial piece of the puzzle which was that experience. It is akin to seeking out a book for its details after having seen the film version. After sensing and experiencing what we had over the course of the seven hours over the mountains, I felt need to fill in the potential gaps and the questions in my mind.

I ordered the book online from France, had it shipped to my home in Portland, and started to read it immediately upon my return home nearly a month after completing the hike over the Pyrénees. I was immediately taken in by her recollections, and quite blown away by both her overall story as well as by a few similarities between her experience on the mountain and our own.

Among other things, had I read Fittko’s book beforehand and known that it would be a 15km hike that would take twice as long as I assumed it would, I likely would not have attempted it. And yet learning that they had also assumed a much shorter hike brought our experience in step with Fittko and Benjamin’s in an oddly synchronistic way. In her memoir, Fittko wrote of Mayor Azéma’s “elastic” understanding of time in terms of what “a few hours” actually meant, a tendency which she noted was common in mountain dwellers. Seventy-five years later, I had discovered the same tendency in those who authored the many websites that spoke of a three-to-four hour hike. In both cases, this tendency resulted in similar experiences and conditions in terms of the non-mountain dwellers who took such advice at face value, and then proceeded to trek over the mountains.

But much more so than matters of time and distance, Fittko describes a certain disposition, a certain determination and desperation, a certain way about Benjamin that he overwhelmingly exuded in her presence throughout his last days. The sentiments in her expression and emotion were so familiar that it was though I had read her words many times before.

For tucked into her words and descriptions were the identical sentiments and thoughts that I had taken from the mountain itself that day. In tracing Walter Benjamin’s final hours, in gaining that perspective as we followed his final path and in our mirrored experiences during that journey, I feel as though I somehow collided into his spirit directly and to this day the resonance of that collision is not only lingering but ever strengthening. In following the footsteps of and paying tribute to a prophet whose heresies tragically collided with fate, what came forth was a new level of understanding, connection, and Work.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

   *     *     *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I. The Intrusion (Summer 2005)

At first, I thought she was simply a delusion. Looking back, I had every reason to think so.

I was a month into recovering from a traumatic incident that left both my brain and my body in a compromised state when the dreams started. Slowly, subtly at first, but over the course of a few weeks she had become a nightly presence. The dreams weren’t always about her, necessarily, but as soon as I drifted off, she was there.

And then, I started to see her when I was awake. Again, slowly at first, but suddenly she was everywhere. And it took me a while to convince myself that this was not just symptomatic of the trauma I endured, nor a figment of my imagination.

I had never met a god before. Not like this, anyway. I had communed with a myriad of lesser spirits, and I surely had attempted to communicate with gods in the past. And while I liked to think that such attempts at communication were reciprocated, and I accepted any sign from the blowing of the wind to a warm feeling inside to confirm such reciprocation, it was still all very much up for interpretation.

This, however, was not up for interpretation. She was very real, she was trying to get my attention, and she was inserting herself nearly everywhere I looked, from the bark of a tree to the face of a woman on the subway. She was quickly becoming impossible to ignore.

And I had no idea who she was, nor what she wanted, and wasn’t sure how to proceed.

After a few months, after I was solidly convinced that this wasn’t simply a manifestation of my altered neurology, I brought it to my teacher.

“I’m being visited by someone, and I have no idea who she is. I have no idea what she wants. But she won’t leave me alone. It all seems very intrusive, frankly.”

“You don’t know who she is?”

“No, and I have no idea where to start.”

“Well, did you ask her who she is?”

No, actually, I hadn’t. Of course. How obvious. And so the next time I caught a glance of her, I demanded to know who she was and what she wanted. That night, she came to me in my dreams and provided plenty of answers.

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

“I am Sara-la-Kali. I have come to you because your work is my work.”

My work? Up until that summer, I had been working at a 24-hour diner in Park Slope, a job that I planned to go back to once my health was back to normal. What did my work have to do with her?

I didn’t know, but in the meantime I did my best to find out everything I could about this strange deity who had foisted herself upon me.

II. The Myth

There are two versions of the legend of Sara-la-Kali.

In both tales, the story starts with the ‘Three Marys’ – Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe. Mary Salome was the mother of the apostle James the Greater, later known as St. James Matamoros who is venerated at Compostela in Spain. Mary Jacobe was the mother of the apostle James the Lesser. The Gospels of Mark and John place all three Marys at the crucifixion of Jesus, and they were the first witnesses of the resurrection of Christ three days later.

Some years after the death and resurrection of Christ, the Three Marys were forced to flee Palestine under threat of persecution.

A medieval legend concerning the Three Marys first appeared in the 13th century and states that the Three Marys fled Palestine by boat without either sails or oars. They eventually landed on the shores of Gaul, which is now Provence in southern France, in the town now known as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Saint Sarah, or Sara-la-Kali, first appears in Vincent Philippon’s The Legend of the Saintes-Maries in 1521.

Depending on which version of the legend one chooses to believe, the figure that came to be known as Sara-la-Kali, was either a slave of one of the Three Marys who traveled with them by boat, or the head of a tribe living on the Rhone who had a premonition of the Three Marys and met them at the shore of the Mediterranean when they landed in Provence.

It was apparently a medieval-era description of Sara as a dark-skinned charitable woman who collected alms that first caused people to identify her as a ‘gypsy,’ and over time the Roma claimed her as one of their own.

Saint Sarah became known as the “patron saint of the Gypsies,” and for several hundred years Romani travellers from all over Europe have annually pilgrimaged May 24, her feast day, to venerate her in the town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. During that veneration, the pilgrims re-create the legend by removing the statue of Sarah from the crypt of the chapel in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and they bring her down into the Mediterranean Sea.

Over the years, many comparisons have been made by both anthropologists and historians between the yearly veneration of Sara-la-Kali and the various Hindu celebrations and venerations of Kali Ma. And while I experience them and regard them as definitively separate entities, the connections and similarities cannot be ignored, especially given that the Roma people originate from India.

III. Doctor Number Six (One Year Later)

“You need to understand that there is not much more that can be done. I don’t know how to say it to you softly, so I am just saying it as it is.”

I stared at her blankly.

“There are things we can try, and I am more than happy to work with you, but I need to tell you right now that you are assuming and expecting a level of recovery that simply cannot happen given what you have experienced.”

She was the sixth neurologist that I has consulted over the past year, and the first who did not either label me a hypochondriac or suggest that the neurological problems I was experiencing were rooted in mental illness. She was quick to validate my experience, and she was the only doctor I could find in all of New York that had dealt with my condition before. And yet I did not want to hear what she had to tell me and, at first, I dismissed her analysis just as I had dismissed the opinions of the five doctors prior to her.

To say that I was starting to ‘lose it’ was putting it mildly. In the previous months, I had gone from hopeful to desperate to highly unstable and contemplating suicide for the first time in my life, a state that was only exacerbated by the dismissals and misdiagnosis of the first five doctors. When I left her office that day, I was determined to ‘prove’ her wrong somehow, and yet deep down a part of me knew that she was the first one to speak the truth that I had been dreading and denying for months.

A few blocks from her office, an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary stood prominently in the courtyard of the local Catholic church. Walking home, I glanced at the statue momentarily and did a double-take. In the face of Mary, there appeared Sara-la-Kali. I walked into the courtyard, collapsed in front of the statue, and sobbed.

“You said that your work is my work, but I may never be able to work again. And I understand even less what you want from me now now than I did a year ago.”

“What you were doing before? That’s not your work,” I heard her say.

“Your work will be revealed to you in time. But right now your work is with that doctor.”

And so I returned to Doctor Number Six, who eventually I came to rely on as a therapist as much as a neurologist. She had been born and educated in Russia and, after several casual mentions on her part of having experience with shamans in her home country, I decided to tell her about Sara-la-Kali.

She laughed when I told her the tale.

“Would you like to know what I think?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Well, you have been courted by a deity who is the patron saint of a landless, oppressed, impoverished people. And she came to you only weeks after your own life circumstances changed in a way that has made you similarly vulnerable, at least by American standards. So perhaps when she speaks of your ‘work,’ that work has nothing to do with waiting tables and everything to do with working on behalf of those who share your plight here in America.”

I nodded again, and she continued.

“Especially given the lack of support and resources available to you, your potential plight is also the plight of millions of others, both in America as well as in Europe. Right now you believe that your life no longer has purpose because you can no longer live the life you once did. But I ask you to challenge that position. Your life has plenty of purpose, but perhaps your ‘work’ is not what you thought.”

“Sometimes,” she continued, “Sometimes it is only through tragedy and trials that we find out true purpose at all.”

IV. The Vow

While working with Doctor Number Six, my contact with Sara-la-Kali once again began to intensify. It was almost as though Sara and the doctor were co-conspiring. And then, over the course of a week in late May, right around the time of Sara’s feast and pilgrimage day, I had a series of dreams and visions of the sea, of a quaint little beach town, and of thousands upon thousands of people following a procession taking Sara into the sea.

“One day, one day you need to join me here,” she told me.

“I can’t do that now,” I replied. “I mean, I would love to, but you know as well as I do that such a trip is impossible for me right now.”

“I did not say now. I said one day. One day you will join me here. Yes?”

I couldn’t possibly imagine any scenario in which my circumstances would afford me a trip to Europe. And yet I knew better than to say no.

“Yes, one day. I promise.”

V. The Preparation (May 2015)

Over the years, my work did indeed become her work. And through the course of that journey, I also came to recognize the wisdom of Doctor Number Six. In time, I pretty much dedicated my life to aiding and advocating for the landless, the oppressed, and the poor here in America. And among many other things, such work constantly led me to contemplate both the similarities and differences between the homeless ‘travelers’ in America and the Romani in Europe.

I immersed myself in what I now understood to be my work, and continued and strengthened my devotional relationship with Sara-la-Kali. But admittedly the idea of pilgrimaging to Europe had erased itself from my consciousness. And then in the spring of 2015, a few weeks before Sara-la-Kali’s feast day, she reminded me of my promise.

“I know, I know,” I told her. “But I am in no more of a position to do it now than I was ten years ago.”

“You can do it, but you will have to ask for help,” she replied.

And so I reached out to a close friend, a fellow polytheist who was the veteran of several pilgrimages to Europe.

“I need to do this thing. In France. And I think I really have to do it next year. I promised Sara-la-Kali that I would do it one day, and she’s making it very clear that I need to fulfill my vow.”

“Well, I was thinking on and planning another pilgrimage to Europe next spring anyway. So yeah, I’m game, lets do it.”

   *    *    *

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I spent the next year preparing for the pilgrimage on every level. I sold most of the assets of my long-failing business, parted with many treasured possessions in exchange for the money that they were worth, and clearanced out hundreds of dollars’ worth of art and clothing via Facebook. And without my even asking, several members of my community stepped up and offered financial help, with at least one confiding in me that they were also visited by Sara-la-Kali and felt an obligation to help me make this pilgrimage.

By the time I was ready to leave in May, I somehow had amassed exactly enough money to make the trip safely. I bought my tickets, made the arrangements, and was set.

The night before I left for Europe, Sara-la-Kali once again came to me as I drifted off to sleep.

“I told you,” she said with a smile. “I told you that you would have help.”

VI. The Pilgrimage

We arrived in Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer just before Mass started in the chapel at 10.

Immediately, I felt both her presence and the strength of her devotion among the crowds of people. Mobs of people were streaming in and out of the chapel. I briefly pushed my way inside and felt her so strongly that I immediately started to cry. Her devotees had come from all over the world; people of all races and colors and languages, singing and crying and holding hands.

“Gitane! Gitane! Regardez les gitans!”

Outside of the church, Roma women were dancing in frenzied celebration, while the men surrounding them played lively music and clapped along. As people poured in and out of the church, the dancers held a consistent and festive energy, equal parts lighthearted celebration and deep devotion. Their rhythms and steps were mesmerizing, unlike any performance I had ever seen before.

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

After Mass was over, it would be another five hours before the beginning of the procession to the sea. We went down to the sea and napped on the beach for a few hours. The beach was nearly empty, and as I lay there napping, my head filled with scenes and visions of the past ten years and of everything that got me to this moment. What we did not realize at the time was that the spot where we had chosen to nap was the exact place that the Three Marys had washed up on the shore, and where the procession would be headed later that afternoon.

By mid-afternoon, we returned to the church as Sara-la-Kali was removed from the crypt.

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

We climbed up to the roof of the church, where dozens of others were gathered in order to watch the ceremony and procession below. People of all ages, from young children to old women, braved the heights and the narrow staircase and the slippery stones of the roof in order to secure the best seat of the house. I was terrified, both of the height in general as well as the lack of treads on the bottom of my shoes. However my fear quickly subsided in the face of the bravery and devotion of everyone else on the roof. We watched from above, and then eventually descended back to ground level as the ceremony wrapped up and the procession to the sea began.

It took nearly an hour to walk the five or so blocks from the church to the sea. As we walked, hundreds of people sang songs and hymns in French, songs for the Three Marys and Sarah alike.

“Viva Mary Jacobe! Viva Mary Salome! Viva Saint Sarah!”

Eventually the procession made it through the streets, up the ramp to the sand, and down to the beach. As we walked up the ramp, I then realized that the crowd was focused on the exact spot that I had been napping earlier in the day.

And then I saw the people. Thousands upon thousands of people, along the beach and the rocks and the streets, all waiting to see Sara-la-Kali into the sea. I gasped. Not only were there more people there than I had ever seen in one place, not only were they all there for Her, but it was also the identical scene that I had witnessed so many times in my dreams and my visions.

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

As the procession headed towards the water, I swallowed a lifelong fear of the ocean and did something I never thought I would do: I yanked off my shoes and socks and ran into the sea with the crowd. I ran through the water along with thousands of other people, mobbing Sara-la-Kali and the horseback riders who accompanied her procession. And as quickly as the procession ran into the sea, it emerged back onto shore, and we were all nearly trampled by Camargue ponies as the procession charged back into our direction.

I was soaked, sunburned, and exhausted, but it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my entire life.

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

VII. The Aftermath

On the bus back to Arles, I momentarily closed my eyes to ward of the inevitable nausea when I suddenly felt her presence very strongly.

“I finally did it,” I said to her silently. “I’m sorry it took me so long…I understand now why it was so important to you.”

“This was never about me,” she replied. “It was always about you, about getting you to where you needed to be, about showing you what you could accomplish if you believed you could not fail.”

“It was as much about your heart as it was about the sea.”

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Notes from the author

  1. In the United States, the term ‘gypsy’ is generally regarded as a pejorative by the ethnic group that it is intended to signify. Most folks of Roma ancestry living in the USA identify as either ‘Romani’, ‘Roma’, or ‘Rom’, and tend to take offense to the term ‘gypsy’. However, in France, the Roma and related groups primarily self-identify as ‘gitane’, a French word that directly translates as ‘gypsy’, and will often also use the English word ‘gypsy’ as a self-identifier and do not consider it offensive in its normal usage. For this reason, due to the fact that I am writing primarily about the Roma in France, I have used both the terms ‘gypsy’ and ‘gitane’ in this piece. But I want to be clear in that I am only doing so because of the very specific context of this piece, and that I am very aware (and wish my readers to be aware) that the term ‘gypsy’ is generally considered to be an ethnic slur in the United States.
  2. The entire collection of the pictures I took of Sara-la-Kali’s veneration can be seen on my Instagram account.
  3. Special thanks to those whose support and generosity made this experience possible. You know who you are, and I humbly hold you in my heart.

 

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I.

If determined enough, the dead can assert themselves to appear nearly as present as the living.

And if one who is noticing and interacting with them does not know they are dead, and/or they are too young to comprehend what dead even is, the distinction between dead and living becomes rather confusing if not at times completely irrelevant.

This was my experience, anyway.

What I believe to be my earliest memory, for example, seems quite average on its surface.

I am a toddler, just old enough to walk and talk. My grandparents are sitting up in their bed, facing the television that was perched on their dresser, and I am sitting at the end of their bed, playing with a pile of coins, babbling enthusiastically to my grandpa about my stacks of pennies. On the television is a rerun of ‘Matlock’, and my grandpa is engrossed in the show, not paying much attention to me. But my grandmother keeps reaching her hands out toward me, trying to get me to sit on her lap. And I keep looking over at her and smiling at her, but I am too distracted by stacking pennies and the sound of my own voice to go to her.

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Me at 2 1/2 in the yard where I sometimes saw my grandmother.

It’s a notably clear memory, right down to every little detail. And it wouldn’t strike me as unusual at all if not for the fact that my grandmother died of cancer when I was only a year old, well before I was old enough to climb onto the bed and babble in sentences and recognize Andy Griffith’s face on television.

And yet nobody had told me directly that she had died, and everyone else in the house still talked about her as though she was still there. So it didn’t seem all that out-of-place to me as a toddler that I would see her around and occasionally interact with her. My clearest and most sustained memory of her is of that day in the bed, but I can also clearly recall seeing her hovered over the counter in the kitchen, sitting in one of many antique chairs in the living room, hunched over the dryer in the laundry room, sweeping on the back patio, or in the backyard near the doghouse.

Our dog also had been dead for quite some time, having been my mother’s childhood pet. The backyard had seemingly been abandoned once the dog had passed on. By the time I was a toddler, the backyard was so overgrown with ivy it was barely navigable, and the doghouse still sat in the corner, rotting and collapsing, with a metal bowl still poking out from the ivy. But just as I did not grasp that my grandmother was no longer on this plane, I similarly did not completely grasp that we did not actually have a living dog. I never saw the dog quite as I saw my grandmother, but I sensed that she was there all the same.

It wasn’t until I was around four years old that it started to occur to me that my grandmother was not a current member of our household and that my sightings of her were not shared by my mother or my grandfather. I had overheard a phone conversation in which my grandfather mentioned “the summer before Betty died.” I still didn’t understand what death was, but I could sense what it meant on one level, and it meant that the person was said to no longer be here.

And yet she was. She was all over the house.

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My grandmother in the kitchen, exactly as I remember her.

II.

One afternoon not long after that, my mother and I were in our front yard, sitting on the sole boulder that graced the edge of the yard. My mother was watching the road in front of us, waiting for a friend, while I scrambled up and down and around the rock. There were etchings – crude letters carved into the side of the rock, which I had always noticed for their texture but which suddenly held a greater interest to me as I was just learning to read.

“What does it say?” I asked my mother.

“It says ‘Here Lies Elroy’, she said.

“Who’s Elroy?”

“Elroy was my brother’s gerbil.,” she explained. “When he died, Jay buried him under this rock. That was when we were kids, long before you were born. This rock is Elroy’s gravestone.”

“So Elroy is dead like Grandma?”

“Yes, and like your uncle Jay.”

All I knew about my uncle Jay up to that point was that my bedroom was once his room. In a sense, it was still his room. It was often referred to as “Jay’s room” by my mother and my grandpa, and I had always felt that, while it was my designated space within the house, on another level it was not my room at all. I had somehow always felt more like a guest in that room than its primary inhabitant. But unlike Grandma, who was talked about regularly and often as though she was still present, Jay was rarely mentioned, and I had always sensed not to ask questions about him. My room was his room, and that had been the extent of my understanding.

But now, at least I knew he was dead. And on one hand, that knowledge only deepened the mystery, but on the other hand for the first time I felt as if I had some concrete understanding about who was still here and who was not. They were all dead – Jay, Grandma, Elroy and my mother’s old dog who still seemed to live in the backyard. At at that moment the fact that they were all dead was suddenly real where before it had only been abstract.

III.

As I reached grade school age, the sightings of Grandma became much fewer and farther between. And while I couldn’t deny to myself that I was still seeing her occasionally, the part of me that knew that I wasn’t supposed to be seeing her would very actively kick into gear, resulting in a tug-o-war in my head between experience and reason every time I thought I spotted her.

‘Ghosts aren’t real’

‘But I saw her!’

Part of me didn’t want to be seeing her at all. Part of me just wanted to believe I was imagining things. And part of me also wanted to tell the world, or at least to talk to someone about it. But part of me also knew that it was very real, and that I was best off keeping my mouth shut.

And so I did keep my mouth shut about Grandma. I also knew to keep quiet about what was in the garden.

My mother had built a garden in the side yard the year before. She would sit me out in a tiny lawn chair with books-on-tape as she worked for what seemed to be hours on end, weekend after weekend, tilling and planting neat little rows of flowers and vegetables.

Within a few months, we had a glorious garden, and it quickly became a favorite spot of mine. I would spend hours out in the garden, examining flowers and bugs and stealthily rescuing/relocating the snails from the saucers of beer that my mother would leave out to drown them.

Garden slug. Photo by I, Colae.

Garden slug. [Photo Credit: I. Colae]

But eventually, I sensed something else there too. Unlike Grandma, I couldn’t see anything concrete, but after a while I felt a constant presence every time I was in the garden. I could sense her; I could hear her,

Maybe this is God, I thought to myself more than once. But God is a man, I would then reply to myself. I knew little about religion or God, other than that my mother had referred to our family as “lapsed Catholics” when I asked her once. But I had taken enough in from the wider culture to know that ‘God’ was also the ‘Father,’ and while I couldn’t see whatever was in the garden, I felt very strongly that it was female. So she couldn’t be God.

But what was she?

I didn’t know, but she was definitely there. And I liked her, and I could tell she liked me back.

Around that same time, I had started to read the book Anne of Green Gables. In the book, Anne refers to God several times as ‘Providence,’ which stood out to me as unusual as I had thought that Providence was a female name. At some point, I was reading the book in the garden, and when I felt the presence of the yet-unnamed entity in my garden, a potential connection stirred in me.

I asked whoever was there if I could call her Providence. And I sensed immediately that the answer was yes.

IV.

When I was ten, my grandfather died.

My mother and I had moved out of the house three years earlier. She had remarried, and they were able to buy a house of their own, a small Cape Cod-style bungalow about ten miles away from what then became known as “Grandpa’s house.”

Grandpa had continued to live in ‘his’ house for the next few years until a heart attack rendered him unable to live alone, and he ended up moving in with us for what ended up to be the last few months of his life.

grandpaxmas

My grandfather, six months or so before he died.

I grudgingly surrendered my bedroom, not really grasping that his life was coming to an end. He recognized my frustration at losing my space and invited me to share the bed with him if I wished. I took him up on it a few times a week.

And it was on one of those nights, when I crawled into bed with him in the middle of the night, that he died peacefully in his sleep with me sleeping right next to him. When I woke in the morning, I turned to shake him awake, and he was cold. I knew instantly that he was dead.

After the wake and the funeral were over, what remained to be reckoned with was nearly as emotional and painful as my grandfather’s death in itself. We needed to do something with Grandpa’s house.

I had assumed when he died that we would be eventually moving back into that house. After all, not only was it bigger and nicer, and in a much better neighborhood, it was our home. My grandparents were the original owners, and both my mother and I were raised in that house. While I didn’t recognize it so distinctly at the time, I considered that house the closest thing I had to an ancestral home, and the land around it was the only piece of land with which I had ever had a real relationship. I wanted to live where I was born and raised, where Grandma and most likely now Grandpa still remained. I wanted to replant the garden where I first met Providence. I wanted to clean up the backyard and fix up the doghouse so that it was a more proper place for the dog that I sensed was still there.

My mother, on the other hand, had absolutely no desire to live in the house again. And while in retrospect I can completely understand why she felt that way, as a ten year old this decision sparked nothing but anguish, anger, and resentment on my part. I sullenly tagged along as she slowly emptied the house. At times, I flat-out refused to help, as I watched her empty it of the antique furniture with which I had grown up. She eventually put the house up for sale.

By the time prospective buyers were beginning to look at the house, it had all become so painful for me that I started to emotionally detach from the process, not able to bear the thought of losing it. During that period, I often took refuge in what was once the garden, by then overgrown with grass and weeds, crying my eyes out to Providence and anyone else who would listen. At one point, it occurred to me that in losing the house I would be losing my relationship with Providence as well, which only brought more tears.

It wasn’t until a few months after the house had been sold, as I finally started to recover from the numbness and grief associated with the entire episode, that I started to notice an occasional and familiar presence as I went about my day-to-day, unmistakably the same presence that I first met in the side garden as a child.

V.

My mother quit smoking the year I started. Ironically enough, her quitting and my starting were both directly related to the same event. She became pregnant with my sister and quit for the obvious health-related reasons. And then a few months later I started it up as a coping mechanism, wanting no part of a life with a younger sibling. I was fourteen years old and an only child, and was dreading the changes that were sure to come.

When my mother was a smoker, she occasionally kept a pack or two stashed in random places, a fact I remembered one day when I was home alone. Inspired by the idea of found treasure in the form of nicotine, I rifled up and down the sides of my mother’s dresser drawers, hoping to find that prized, half-empty pack of stale smokes.

But instead I found an old envelope in the crack of her sock drawer that had a piece of newspaper poking out of it. I generally wasn’t one to pry in such a way, but my instinct told me to look inside, and so I carefully and gingerly opened the envelope and pulled the piece of newspaper out.

It was a clipping from the local paper dated April 1982, summarizing the death of my uncle Jay. He had been killed in a car crash, having driven into a telephone pole only a few miles away from where we lived. The article stated that alcohol was a probable factor in the crash.

I thought of the uncle I never knew, whose room I grew up in, whose death was never mentioned once throughout my entire childhood. I felt a sudden and strange relief, as a mystery that had grated on me for years had finally been answered without my having to actually ask.

jayID

My uncle’s college ID card. He died a year before he was set to graduate.

I also immediately understood why it was never mentioned, especially given my mother’s penchant for avoiding uncomfortable subjects. And as I took in and processed this new discovery, I also forgave my mother for her silence.

VI.

I had been living on my own in the city for a year or so at that point, and had decided to drive out to Jersey to visit my parents for the day. On the drive out, my mind drifted to thoughts of my grandfather’s house, which I realized hadn’t seen since it was sold nearly a decade earlier. Out of curiosity, I decided to take a detour through my old neighborhood before heading to my parents’ house.

I parked on the street and stepped out of the car, and the moment I stepped onto the property I felt a distinct chill. Instantly, this place and I recognized and remembered each other despite many years of absence. The yard and the house had both been altered with much of the original flora removed, but Elroy’s rock remained as did the tree I planted as a small child. I walked toward the side yard, toward the garden where I first met Providence. The garden was gone.

“Hey, what you doing?” I heard a voice yell behind me. I turned around and found myself face to face with my former next-door neighbor, whose expression went quickly from anger to a smile as he recognized me. I knew him quite well; he and his wife had lived next door to our family since my mother was a small child. My mother grew up playing with their daughter, and I grew up playing with their granddaughter.

“Oh my God you’re all grown up. Look at you. I knew you’d come back one day.”

Without exactly knowing why, I burst into tears.

He reached over to hug me. “You know,” he said, as I tried to calm down. “Maureen talks to your grandpa and grandma constantly. She sees them all the time.”

I immediately stopped crying and jerked back in shock. Maureen was his wife.

“She does?”

He nodded. “Oh yes. Her and Betty have long conversations. I don’t know the details, but she says they’re both quite loud and active.”

I spoke before realizing I was speaking, before realizing that I had never said what I was about to say aloud before.

“I used to see Grandma all the time. She even tried to play with me once. I remember it quite clearly.”

He nodded again and pointed to the house. “Since your mother sold it, its changed hands three times in eight years. I swear, your grandparents are so loud over there that nobody wants to stay for long. The last folks remodeled the entire kitchen and patio before they left… I watched them just pour thousands into it but then just pick up suddenly and leave anyway.”

I thought of Grandma in the kitchen, and suddenly it all became a little too much.

I explained to him that I was on my way to see my mother and that I had just taken a quick detour and should be going.

“Come back anytime,” he said as I quickly walked towards my car. “I’m sure Maureen would love to see you.”

*  *  *

“I went by Grandpa’s house today,” I casually mentioned over dinner.

My mother looked up immediately. “Oh yeah?” she asked. “Does it still look the same?”

“Not really,” I answered, uninterested in talking about the aesthetic changes. “But I saw Bill. And he told me that Maureen talks to Grandma and Grandpa all the time.”

My mother laughed a bit and then was silent for a moment. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Its funny, I always felt like Mom had never quite left that house.”

I stared at her for a moment, not quite believing what I just heard. Until that moment, my mother had never acknowledged anything of the sort to me, had never given any indication that she ever sensed the presence of anything at that house. Suddenly, between Bill’s words earlier and my mother’s words just then, my experiences were validated after nearly a lifetime’s worth of questioning in silence.

“She never left, Mom, trust me. She definitely never left.”

Still stuck on the idea that my mother held any kind of religious belief or superstition, I decided to go all or nothing and ask one of those questions I had never before dared to utter.

“Why are we lapsed Catholics as opposed to regular Catholics?” I asked.

It was almost as though she was expecting the question. “Well, your Grandpa’s mother, your great-grandmother, she drowned in the ocean when your Grandpa was a teenager. And even though she drowned, the Church insisted it was a suicide, and they refused to grant her a Catholic burial.” She paused.

“And then they turned around and said they would bury her for a price. Which the family somehow paid, but once she was buried the family didn’t want to have much to do with the church after that. And so neither do we.”

I had never really thought much about my grandfather’s life growing up, other than the knowledge that he had lived through the Depression. But something hit me hard the moment that my mother told me that my great-grandmother had drowned in the ocean. Our family had spent nearly every summer at the beach as I was growing up, a yearly trip which I always dreaded due to a lifelong and unwavering discomfort of being in the ocean. I could never fully enjoy the water no matter how hard I tried and I could never quite understand why, and I couldn’t help but to reflect on that discomfort in light of what I had just learned.

“What was her name?” I asked. “My great-grandmother, I mean.”

“Her name was Providence,” my mother answered.

VII.

A friend and I had spent the day endlessly talking and catching up, and trying to plan out the pilgrimage that we would be taking in just a few months. Both of us were under a lot of stress, both coming off of traumatic experiences, trying to piece together what had happened with our lives and what was being triggered by our upcoming journey. After hours and hours of back and forth, he eventually passed out on the couch. I passed out in my bed not long after, and slept better than I had in weeks.

And when I woke up, I felt a strange familiar presence, which I noted but didn’t put much thought into until he woke up a few hours later.

“I felt so safe,” he told me. “Safer than I had in ages. And I actually slept. And when I woke up early this morning, I heard this lovely voice telling me that I could go back to sleep, that it was safe. And I did. And I feel so well-rested. And whoever that was, it was such a wonderful feeling. Do you know who or what that was?”

I thought back to the presence I sensed when I woke up and I smiled. “Yes,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that was Providence.”

“Who’s Providence?” he asked.

“I’m not exactly sure,” I admitted. “I once thought she was a land spirit, or more specifically a garden spirit, nowadays I think she might be an ancestor spirit but again I’m just not sure. What I know is that she’s been around me since I was very small and she’s always nurtured and protected me. She’s just… around. I don’t think about her for a long while and then she’s just there and reminds me she exists. I’ve never seen her, but I feel her and I hear her and that’s been a constant for most of my life. She never wants anything. She’s just around, and she’s warm and she’s wonderful.”

“Yes, she’s quite wonderful,” he said with a smile.

VIII.

I woke suddenly, not knowing why. It was the middle of the night, but I couldn’t remember anything that I was dreaming which could have stirred me awake. I sat up and looked out the window, and immediately felt the urge to be outside.

Quietly so not to wake my partner, I slipped on my shoes and my coat and went downstairs. I stepped out the front door of my building, and felt myself being pulled toward the river. A minute later, I was lying on by back on the dirt by the riverbank, suddenly overtaken by a stream of visions and messages that seemed to be pouring out directly from the full moon above me.

Full moon over Portland. Public Domain.

Full moon over Portland. [Public Domain]

Under the Scorpio moon, just a week before Beltane, the dead filed through and thoroughly between my ears. I closed my eyes and saw generations’ worth of flashes through my mind, scenes that I can only assume were connected to my ancestors. And then, my grandparents. And then, my uncle Jay. And then the scenes changed sharply, and I was back at the house in which I was raised complete with all the familial spirits and old furniture, and as I saw myself as a child in the garden. I felt the presence of Providence nearby.

I opened my eyes for a to stare at the moon, and then closed them again. This time I saw what I only can assume to be the future, with flashes and aerial scenes of myself and a dear friend backpacking over mountains as the dead stirred beneath our feet. Every step we took echoed both above and below, an echo I physically felt in my feet throughout the course of the vision.

It then morphed into darkness, and we were in a cave-like setting. And then, he is gone, and it is only I. And there she is. Not a ghost, not an ancestor, but a god.

I knew what she was about to tell me. I also knew why he had suddenly disappeared, as he had not only received this exact message from Her before, but had related it to me only a few weeks prior. There was also a small part of me that knew that if I opened my eyes at that moment, that it would all disappear, that I technically did have a split-second option to escape this moment.

But I also knew that, while I may be able to escape the first-person utterance, I didn’t get to escape its consequences. And I realized in the moment that the message, though delivered before, was incomplete in its overall meaning until now. For the words were not just about the future, but also about the past.

So I kept my eyes closed and stayed, anticipating her words.

“Do not look there, unless you’d leave.”

*  *  *

I returned home and back into my bed. When I fell asleep again, I deeply and vividly dreamed about the house for the first time in years.

We were all sitting at the dining room table, all having what looked like Thanksgiving dinner. And when I say all of us, I mean all of us: Grandpa, Grandma, my mother, my uncle Jay, and myself as an adult. In my sleep, straddled between worlds, we were talking and laughing and drinking wine and breaking bread without any concept of the barriers between life and death. We were just together, enjoying life, as the family that never quite was.

Even the dog was there, in the corner, patiently waiting for scraps.

 

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

I. Migration

“no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark…”

According to the United Nations, there are currently more displaced people on the planet than at any other time in recorded history. Nearly sixty million people have fled or have been driven from their homes on account of war, violence, political destabilization, or severe economic conditions, compared to around 38 million a decade ago. 1 out of every 122 humans on this planet is currently a refugee, and 9 out of 10 of them are in regions considered to be underdeveloped by international standards. While the Syrian war is currently the largest contributor to such displacement, displaced people hail from every corner of the world, from Haiti to Pakistan to Senegal to Colombia.

More than half of the world’s sixty million refugees are children.

*   *   *   *   *

“you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well…”

Refugees flooded into Europe in record numbers last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times. While the majority of refugees fled from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, they came from every corner of the world; from Haiti, Mali, Senegal, Eritrea, Pakistan. The vast majority of them landed on Greek shores, but they also flooded into Hungary, Italy, and Turkey, desperately hoping to eventually reach Northern Europe.

They are fleeing civil wars, sectarian conflicts, and widespread poverty caused by both natural disasters and social forces. They are leaving their homes, their ancestral villages, and their families, with many never to return, risking their lives in an attempt to reached a promised land of safety that in reality is often quite harsh and unwelcoming. While the conflicts and tragedies that drive them from their homelands are varied in both complication and scope, nearly all are bound by the common roots of imperialism and colonialism.

Iraqi and Syrian migrants land on the island of Lesvos. Photo by Ggia.

Iraqi and Syrian migrants land on the island of Lesvos. Photo by Ggia.

In response to this “migrant crisis,” the affected countries of the European Union (mind you, the very same countries that have financially benefited for centuries off the same imperialist meddling that is at the root of the current conflicts) have recently moved to close borders, restrict free movement, and otherwise thwart the attempts of the refugees from reaching Northern Europe.

The rhetoric employed by both government and media throughout Europe in order to justify these actions follows the same tried-and-true scare tactic formula that immigration foes have effectively used throughout recent history: dire warnings that the migrants will “game the system,” “refuse to assimilate,” “steal jobs,” as well as contribute to “moral decline” on account of their differing “culture” and “values.”

American lawmakers and media personalities have also similarly politicized the refugee crisis, using both the aforementioned rhetoric as well as fears of “terrorism” in order to turn an easily manipulated populace against the idea of supporting refugee resettlement in the United States.

Their tactics are no different from the rhetoric of a century ago, even two centuries ago. The exact same dire warnings were once used by American “settlers” against the Irish, and later the Italians, Chinese, Greeks, Portuguese, Hungarians and Jews. Nowadays they are used against immigrants from both Latin America and the Middle East. And both them and now, such arguments only further benefit the ruling class at the expense of the oppressed.

“go home blacks, refugees, dirty immigrants, asylum seekers, sucking our country dry…messed up their country and now they want to mess ours up…”

But while this rhetoric negatively affects the level and effectiveness of humanitarian efforts, it obviously does nothing to stem the tide of people fleeing their homelands. Well over a million refugees flooded into and moved through Europe last year, comprising the largest influx of migrants from outside the European continent in modern times.

“the dirty looks roll off your backs maybe because the blow is softer than a limb torn off…”

II. Push

A hundred years ago there were also a million people per year moving through Europe. But instead of risking their lives to reach Greece, Hungary, and Italy, they were risking their lives to migrate from these very countries, in many cases due to sociopolitical conditions very similar to those that are triggering the current migration crisis. They fled war, poverty, natural disaster, starvation, and religious persecution, embarking on perilous voyages across the sea only to arrive in a foreign country that was harsh and unwelcoming, treated them with great prejudice, and often subjected them to severe exploitation.

Where did they flee to, you ask?

They fled to America.

Immigrant children at Ellis Island, 1908. Public Domain.

Immigrant children at Ellis Island, 1908. Public domain.

*   *   *   *   *

“you only leave home when home won’t let you stay…”

When it comes to why refugees are currently fleeing Iraq or Syria, the basic answers are readily at the tip of everyone’s tongue. War. Conflict. Terrorism.

But ask the average American why their own ancestors came here, and they tend to respond with either or both of the following vague answers: they either came for “religious freedom” or for “a better life.” And while these answers are not necessarily untrue, they painfully oversimplify and sanitize the myriad of complex factors that triggered massive waves of immigration to America.

Immigration functions as a “push” or “pull” phenomenon: in short, those who migrate from one place to another are either being pushed out of a specific region due to specific negative sociopolitical factors and/or they are being pulled into a specific region due to specific positive factors, factors that frame the belief that immigrating to said region will allow for “a better life.” The standard American narrative around the immigration journey emphasizes and glorifies both the pull of America in terms of its religious freedom and promise of prosperity while stressing the great sacrifices that our ancestors made coming to America.

But what is often overlooked and forgotten in that narrative are the very reasons that so many made such a sacrifice in the first place. The pull factors are stressed, but the push factors that led to large-scale immigration to America are minimized and rarely ever summarized beyond the simple statement of “a better life.” Which then leaves unanswered the specific question of why thirty million people fled Europe over a span of a hundred years for a better life in the first place.

And in ignoring that question, we ignore both our roots as a nation as well as the struggles of our ancestors.

One of the most crucial and yet most overlooked aspects of white American identity is the fact that with very few exceptions, we are all descended at least in part from people who fled from war, persecution, starvation, and/or poverty, and who risked their lives and left everything they knew behind to do so. We categorize them as “immigrants” or “pioneers,” but in reality so many of them were refugees, no less refugees than many of those currently fleeing the Middle East for Western Europe.

*   *   *

“you have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land…”

In November of 1913, sixteen year old Sofia Manossadakis arrived on Ellis Island after a three-week journey at sea. Sofia and her three siblings were among nearly a million immigrants that arrived that year, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. For her, a better life meant the chance to escape the sectarian violence and political instability that had characterized her homeland of Crete for well over two centuries.

The Ottoman Empire took possession of Crete in the mid-1600s after several hundred years under Venetian rule, and the Greek Christian population of Crete spent the next two hundred and fifty years consistently and actively resisting Turkish rule, culminating in several notable revolts and rebellions. From the Daskalogiannis Revolt in 1770 to the numerous Cretan revolts throughout the 1800s, the island was consistently destabilized by violence. Uprisings and riots in the mid-1890s culminated into the Cretan Revolt of 1897, which directly coincided with the Greco-Turkish War being fought on the Greek mainland, a war fought over the possession of Crete. The overlapping of these two conflicts and the resulting violence led to an intervention by the great powers, who declared the Cretan state an autonomous territory under Ottoman suzerainty.

It was also in 1897 that Sofia Manossadakis was born in Livaniana, a tiny settlement high in the mountains of Sfakia on the south-west coast of Crete.

The 'Lefka Ori' of Sfakia. Photo by Oltau.

The ‘Lefka Ori’ of Sfakia. Photo by Oltau.

Sfakia had been a stronghold of Christian resistance against the Ottomans since the Daskalogiannis Revolt, which originated in the mountains of Sfakia in 1770 and was brutally suppressed by the Turks. The village of Livaniana itself had lost nearly half its population during the uprisings of 1821, and had suffered further violence in the subsequent uprisings throughout the rest of the century.

By the time Sofia was born, the population of Livaniana as well as the surrounding villages was significantly dwindling, with more and more peasants either fleeing for mainland Greece or risking the voyage to America in order to escape the violence. The autonomous designation of the Cretan state did little to quell the chaos, with sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims breaking out throughout the first decade of the twentieth century. Revolts in 1905 prompted another intervention by the great powers, and the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 prompted Crete to declare union with Greece. The international community refused to recognize the union, triggering yet another series of revolts. A few years later, the Ottoman Turks went to war with Italy over control of Libya and were easily defeated, a defeat which prompted the members of the Balkan League to then declare war on a weakened Ottoman Empire.

It was against this backdrop, with seemingly no end to the violence and hostilities, that Sofia, her two sisters, and her older brother sailed for New York on the RMS Carpathia, which departed for New York from Trieste on November 5, 1913. Their passage was paid with help from their oldest brother, who had established himself in Massachusetts after immigrating a few years earlier and who they planned to reunite with in America. Their parents stayed behind in Crete, never again to see their children.

A little over a week later, while the Manossadakis siblings were partway across the Atlantic, the Greeks and Ottomans signed a treaty officially ending the hostilities between them, at which time the Cretan union with Greece was finally recognized. Only a few days after the Carpathia docked in New York Harbor and Sofia was legally admitted to the United States, the Greek flag was finally raised at Firkas Fortress in Chania, Crete after centuries of struggle.

Firkas Fortress, Chania, Crete. Photo by Moonik.

Firkas Fortress, Chania, Crete. Photo by Moonik.

*   *   *

“no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck…unless the miles traveled means something more than the journey…”

Nobody will ever know for certain how Manuel Cardozo made his way to America, but by far the most plausible scenario is that he smuggled himself to New England on one of the countless whaling ships that came through the Azores on their way across the Atlantic.

Thousands of Azoreans made their way to port cities in New England via whaling ships in the late 1800s, most notably Bristol, Rhode Island and Fall River, Massachusetts. Those who could leave the Azores freely usually sought employment on the ships in exchange for passage to America, but those who could not leave freely had no choice other than to travel as a stowaway. And Manuel Cardozo could not leave freely.

Uninhabited when claimed by Portugal in the early 1400s, the Azores were first settled by Portuguese prisoners under the direction of Prince Henry the Navigator. “Free” settlers soon followed; peasants from the Algarve and Madeira, Sephardic Jews and New Christians who were expelled from Spain and Portugal under the Catholic monarchs, former Moorish slaves and prisoners exiled from the Portuguese, as well as peasants and merchants who migrated from war-torn Flanders. The islands were established as series of ports serving the Portuguese crown, and for the next five hundred years the Azores were treated similarly to many other colonial possessions in that they served a dual purpose as a source of profit for the mainland and a convenient place to exile the unwanted and dispossessed. The well-being of the peasants themselves was rarely an afterthought.

Faiai Island, Azores. Photo by Luca Nebuloni

Faiai Island, Azores. Photo by Luca Nebuloni

For the next five hundred years those living on the Azores suffered through poverty, starvation, famine, and a series of wars initiated by both the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. With a terrain inadequate for sustaining the population in even the best conditions, and a land-ownership system that prevented peasants from ever attaining any sort of upwards mobility, many Azoreans started to again migrate beginning in the 1600s, most often to the newly-founded Portuguese colony of Brazil.

Those who stayed continued to suffer for generations, and a series of crop failures combined with natural disasters in the mid-to-late 1800s once again spurred a wave of migration driven by desperation and poverty, this time to the New World. However, while so many of the impoverished and oppressed throughout Western Europe were able to migrate via steamship to Ellis Island, the illiterate peasants of the Azores faced unique barriers to “legal” immigration, given that it was the most impoverished region in Western Europe.

Not only was the cost of and access to a steamship voyage to America financially unfeasible for most Azorean peasants, but males who had yet to complete the mandatory period of military conscription required by the Portuguese government were legally barred from leaving the islands unless they posted the equivalent of $300 as bond, a figure ten times higher than the $30 average steamship passage that was already out of reach for most.

As a result, the whaling ships functioned as the primary means of immigration for Azoreans, whether legal or illegal, whether as employee or stowaway. And at sixteen years old, Manuel Cardozo had every reason to take his chances as a stowaway rather than spend the next four to eight years of his life helping to expand the Portuguese empire only to then to be forced back into a life of ever-worsening poverty and starvation with absolutely no hope for mobility.

Manuel arrived in Bristol, Rhode Island around 1899, established himself and found work amongst the Portuguese community in Bristol, and a few years later married a woman of Portuguese descent who “legally” came to America by way of Hawaii. And despite lifelong illiteracy and a lack of fluency in English, Manuel supported a family of sixteen through hard work and determination, finding employment in factories and second jobs as a night watchman throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

He lived and died as an “illegal alien” in this country, having never received a single benefit throughout his entire life, but his sacrifice and hard work (along with the magical powers of “assimilation” and “whiteness”) ensured that his children and grandchildren had the opportunity to both contribute to and benefit from the “American Dream.”

III. Land

On one hand, it can be fairly stated that people have been driven off of land through actualized or threatened violence since the beginning of recorded history. But the specific geopolitical and economic forces and conditions that triggered both the colonization of the Americas as well as the eventual push of mass migrations of Europeans to the New World were dependent on a very specific process known as “primitive accumulation.”

Primitive accumulation is the process of seizing land that was previously regarded as commons for the purpose of commodification, a process that first developed in Europe during the Middle Ages and was central to the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In Karl Marx’s words, primitive accumulation was “the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production.” Those displaced producers, generally known as peasants, are then reliant on the market for survival, which tends to force them into urban areas seeking wage-labor jobs, leading to industrialization due to the sudden and enormous pool of desperate workers.

farming-pic-edit_med

The Enclosures of Medieval England. Public domain.

This process, which echoes and repeats clearly and continuously from 12th century Flanders to the effects of NAFTA in the late 1990s, still continues to this day in places such as Nigeria and the Amazon, triggering the same consistent patterns of violence and displacement that have been fueling migration for hundreds of years. Waves of primitive accumulation throughout Western Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries not only drove direct emigration, but also triggered a cascade of socioeconomic conditions that led to later waves of migration, most notable the thirty million immigrants that came to America between 1850 and 1934.

Primitive accumulation also factors starkly and prominently in the accumulation of the land the eventually became America in the first place. This accumulation, which came at the price of around 100 million indigenous people, quickly developed into an economic powerhouse due to its investment of 20 million African slaves, which in itself can be seen as another form of primitive accumulation.

Going back even further, it was in fact primitive accumulation that financed the “discovery of America” and sparked the colonial era in the first place.

*   *   *

In the sanitized version of history propagated mainly through American public school textbooks, Christopher Columbus discovered America while sailing under the flag of Spain. This narrative is problematic for many reasons (most of which others have elaborated on much better than I ever could), but aside from its sanitization of details and pro-colonialist framework, it is also most often problematically presented as having occurred in a vacuum.

While such a voyage, whitewashed or not, may have signaled the “birth” of the New World from a European colonial perspective, the voyage occurred at a pivotal moment in European history, standing as a symbolic consummation of a fledgling power that came to be known as Spanish Empire. The rise of that power, a victorious culmination of hundreds of years of warfare, would not have been possible if not for the sudden and consistent influxes of wealth generated through what was arguably the very first instance of what came to be known as primitive accumulation.

In 711 AD, Moorish armies invaded the Iberian peninsula, establishing what would eventually be known as the kingdom of Al-Andalus. Within a decade, the vast majority of the peninsula was under Muslim rule, and the various Christian kingdoms in Iberia spent nearly eight hundred years fighting to reclaim Iberian territory from the Moors.

Al-Andalus and the surrounding Christian kingdoms, circa 1000 AD. Public Domain.

Al-Andalus and the surrounding Christian kingdoms, circa 1000 AD. Public domain.

This campaign, known as the Reconquista, gained strength in the 9th century with the alleged discovery of the remains of St. James in Galicia, transported and then enshrined in a town that came to be known as Santiago de Compostela. This discovery sparked a pilgrimage route through northern Spain that quickly became the most popular medieval pilgrimage route through Europe. The influx of pilgrims across what became known as the Way of St. James was of both financial and social benefit to the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain, who were able to strengthen their position and finance further mercenary armies to reconquer Iberia from the Moors.

The Moors, meanwhile, had imported merino sheep from North Africa into Iberia, and as the kingdom of Castile gradually retook land from the Muslim kingdom, the Christian aristocracy recognized the potential for merino wool as a lucrative cash crop that could reliably fund the Reconquista.

Common lands throughout Castile were then seized for the purpose of sheep grazing. The Castilian crown quickly prospered and amassed significant wealth due to the demand for wool in northern Europe at the expense of the peasantry who were displaced en masse and left to starve. Unlike the later cycles of primitive accumulation that affected England, there were no industrialized cities desperate for exploitable wage labor for the peasants of Iberia to flee to. In many circumstances, the only viable (and bitterly ironic) alternative to starvation for Iberian peasants was to join the very armies that were funded by the commodification of the lands they once lived on.

By the mid-1300s, the crown of Castile controlled the majority of the Iberian peninsula, and a hundred years later the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon created a consolidation of power that would bear fruit in 1779 when Ferdinand succeeded his late father as king. The combined union of the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon then successfully conquered the last Muslim kingdom of Granada thirteen years later, in January of 1492.

It was only weeks after the fall of Granada in 1492 that the court of the kingdom of Castile agreed to finance Columbus’ voyage. Columbus had been presenting his case to the Spanish court for a few years at that point, but the completion of the Reconquista meant that the profits from Castilian wool were no longer needed to fund armies and mercenaries. That wealth could now be used to fund “exploration” with the purpose of acquiring further wealth.

And so as peasants faced the choice of migration, starvation, or conscription while sheep comfortably grazed on their former lands, Columbus set sail for what he thought would be the Indies financed by the profits derived from those sheep. The voyage, as we know, did not lead him to the Indies, but instead he landed on the shores of an island known to its Taino inhabitants as Guanahani.

Illustration of Columbus' men massacring the Taino. Public Domain.

Illustration of Columbus’ men massacring the Taino. Public domain.

The Italian explorer and his crew expressed their gratefulness towards Taino hospitality by committing horrifying atrocities against the Tainos and by seizing several Tainos as slaves that they then took back with them to Spain, an action repeated by Columbus on subsequent voyages, as well as by Amerigo Vespucci a few years later. By the time Columbus left what was by then called Hispaniola for the last time, the Taino population had been reduced from eight million to less than 100,000. Not long after, slaves from other islands had to be imported to Hispaniola from other possessions of the Spanish crown as the native Taino population had been decimated by murder and exploitation to the point of extermination.

The taking of both land and slaves for the sole purpose of exploitation and profit eventually progressed into the accumulating genocidal force that we know today as global imperialism, and those takings are the foundation on which the United States was built.

IV. Legacy

A hundred years after immigration peaked at Ellis Island, the New World that once provided a remedy for the intertwined issues of land and scarcity in Europe is now the epicenter of an end-stage crisis that is a direct continuation of the same cycle that produced America in the first place.

Gentrification on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Photo by David Shankbone.

Gentrification on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Photo by David Shankbone.

The crisis is most often coded in the languages of development, policy, and economics, deliberately isolating it from its historical roots or patterns, but it is neither a new process nor one confined to the terrain of cities or the field of urban planning. While one was obviously a much more physically violent and bloody process, especially on American soil, overall there is little difference between the mechanisms of gentrification in America and those of colonization as a whole. The specific modes and methods of violence and oppression differ greatly, but both are processes sparked by the intertwining forces of scarcity, commodification, and speculative profit, the same processes that have been driving displacement and migration for centuries and that forced so many of our ancestors to leave their homelands for the New World.

In turn, several generations after the completion of the massive land grab that was America, the descendants of that massive wave of immigrants are now learning the hard way that the limits of the “American Dream” are congruent with and dependent on the physical limits of available, affordable and viable land. But unlike a century ago, this time there is no viable pull, no newly colonized landmass for the current crop of landless peasants to settle on and continue the cycle of oppression.

*   *   *

In the fall of 2007, I sold nearly everything I owned, packed what I had left into my van, and drove across the country from New York City to Oregon. I had little to no connections in Oregon, no job prospects, and no concrete plan on how I would survive. But despite these unknowns, I knew that the possibilities that lay before me on the other side of the country still held more promise than what I was leaving behind.

I was an economic migrant, driven from NYC at the height of late-stage gentrification. I could not find an affordable piece of land to live on, which forced me to leave my “homeland” in order to seek out “a better life” on the West Coast where land was not as scarce and in demand.

I was the first American-born member of my direct lineage to make such a journey. Neither my parents nor my grandparents ever needed to migrate for socioeconomic reasons, as the privileges we call whiteness, assimilation, and citizenship allowed them to generate wealth and stability through the American Dream of property ownership. But my journey into adulthood was congruent with what’s now been referred to for at least two decades as an “affordability crisis,” and property ownership is now out of reach for a significant portion of my generation due to a manufactured scarcity of viable housing.

This scarcity of available and viable places to live combined with job scarcity and depressed wages has not only led to a newly proletarianized white middle class (in as much as the opportunity to generate wealth through land ownership has been newly denied to them), but it has also led to widespread migrations from economically saturated urban areas as a result of inflated housing prices. And those migrations inevitably result in triggering the cycle of gentrification in the areas that they settle.

A decade later, three thousand miles from my homeland, I myself am a part of and am witnessing this very effect. The same cycle of gentrification that drove me from New York a decade ago has now thrown my adopted home of Portland in crisis, erasing any potential of a better life in terms of economic security. And yet, despite this crisis, I am still in an infinitely safer position than some of my fellow economic migrants, whose lack of privilege in contrast to my own has resulted in their being forced to exist in some of the most dangerous and squalid conditions imaginable.

*   *   *

Across the street from my building in downtown Portland, a homeless camp slowly but steadily formed over the past several months. While homeless camps have been sprouting up with frequency throughout America for at least a decade now, the growth of a camp literally in my front yard in tandem with the growing refugee crisis in Europe made the similarities and shared causes and circumstances impossible to ignore.

In technical terms, “refugee” is reserved for displaced people who cross a border seeking refuge. Those who do not cross a border but are still displaced are referred to the UN as “internally displaced persons.” And while the UN may not categorize the ever-growing population of homeless in the United States as internally displaced persons in terms of their reports and statistics, there is little difference between the sociopolitical forces that produced the camp across the street and the sociopolitical forces that produce many refugee camps around the world. Once we strip away the specific signifiers (“homeless,” “bums,” “travelers,” etc.) that we use in our culture in order to characterize them, they are simply landless peasants, displaced persons, economic refugees and migrants.

One of the great myths that drives homeless policy on the municipal level in the United States is the belief that the majority of homeless people in any given area are not actually local but from somewhere else, and that they migrated to the city in question because it’s somehow better for homeless people there than wherever they came from. Often presented as incontestable truth by both local politicians and business owners, the myth is used as a justification for not funding services or shelters, as it is stressed that doing so will “enable” and “attract” these supposed masses of migrants from elsewhere.

visitor7

Homeless camp in Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Visitor7.

That this idea is myth as opposed to truth is incontestable: federal data consistently shows that the majority of homeless persons within any given urban area are local to at least the county if not the city itself. And yet this myth is still consistently and successfully wielded as a weapon as it serves the ruling class on multiple levels. Not only does it exploit the same fear-of-others tendency that is also central to anti-immigrant rhetoric, the myth also serves to placate and flatter the citizenry and to create a false impression of economic stability within the community. By positioning the community at issue as a “draw,” the myth reinforces the idea that the community is such a desirable place to live that homeless folks would travel from all over the country to take advantage of the quality of life that the taxpayers enjoy, as well as create the false assumption that poverty is not a severe issue in their community.

If the visibly poor are conveniently regarded as being from elsewhere, denying and/or hiding the severity of poverty in any given community becomes much less of a challenge. Poverty itself becomes the other.

Such inaction, combined with criminalization, only exacerbates the problem of homelessness. While the federal government estimates around 600,000 homeless people currently living in the United States, that number is widely regarded as a dramatic undercount due to the federal government’s narrow definition of homeless combined with a significantly flawed data collection process. When the definition of homeless is expanded enough to include those living in cars, motels, and those who are temporarily living with family and friends, the number of American displaced persons and economic refugees rises to well over eight million people.

Though not (yet) as severe in its scope, the “homeless crisis” is to present-day America what the “refugee crisis” is to present-day Europe, and the myth of the other, the “migrant” seeking to “take advantage” of local communities echoes with eerie similarity throughout the politics and rhetoric around both crises and across two continents. And of course, that rhetoric is no different from the rhetoric that so many of our ancestors in America once faced.

It is for these reasons that I can’t walk past the camp without thinking simultaneously of the refugee camps of Europe, of my own economic migration, of the journeys of my own ancestors, and of the cycles of accumulation and displacement that lies the root of all of it.

*   *   *

It is the basic contradiction in our entire history as a nation. The first European settlers who landed on these shores saw themselves as creating a great new experiment in democratic government. Yet they were enslaving a whole population of human beings, Africans, and committing genocide against the indigenous peoples of North America. As a nation, we have never really dealt with this contradiction. We’ve only picked around the edges of it.” – Anne Braden

On one hand, I am undeniably a child of empire, born and raised on unceded Lenape land that colonial occupiers renamed “New Jersey” after driving the Munsee out in the 1600s. I am a product of the same American Dream that is theoretically afforded to everyone under the protection of this empire, and despite my lack of access to land ownership I am the recipient of an immeasurable amount of privilege purely on account of my European ancestry.

On the other hand, while raised in relative stability as the descendant of two generations’ worth of landowners, once I step back any further in my family line I am a descendant of refugees and illegals. And those ancestors, who suffered through war and poverty before leaving everything behind to come to America, were in turn descended from countless generations of landless and exploited peasants.

It is variations of this contradiction that most white Americans cannot escape, the often coterminous roles of oppressed and oppressor. And in facing that contradiction we also must face our ethical obligations and closely examine our actions and attitudes towards both historic and present victims of oppression. For whether it’s the homeless already in our back yards, or the refugees risking their lives to reach our borders, to turn our backs and other them is not only a refusal of basic decency and hospitality in the face of suffering, but a painful hypocrisy given the histories of so many of our own ancestors.

When we deny hospitality and safety to the displaced, when we refuse and dismiss those begging at our door seeking safety and relief from war and poverty, we in turn deny our own past, we dismiss the trials of our ancestors, and we erase our own truths.

V. Epilogue

A few weeks ago, the camp that had built up over months across from my building was suddenly and harshly evacuated by law enforcement, with dumpsters and personnel on hand to confiscate and destroy any trace left after the residents were forced to leave. A few days later, the refugee camp in Calais known as “the Jungle,” one of the oldest and largest refugee camps in Europe, was also bulldozed and evacuated.

DIsmantling homeless camp underneath the Steel Bridge. Photo by John Monroe.

DIsmantling homeless camp underneath the Steel Bridge. Photo by John Monroe.

In both cases, those displaced were given nowhere to go. They are without land, without possessions, once again victimized by a cycle of displacement that has been benefiting the few on behalf of the many for nearly a thousand years.

A cycle that will never end for as long as the value of land carries a higher worth than the value of people.

*   *   *

This piece is dedicated to the estimated 2,500 refugees who died at sea trying to reach Europe in 2015.

It was written under the guidance and with the persistent urging of my own ancestors, most notably my maternal great-grandfather and paternal great-grandmother, whose stories I shared in this piece.

What is remembered, lives.

*   *   *

The italicized quotes running throughout this first half of this piece are excerpted from ‘Home’ by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet currently living in the United Kingdom. The poem in its entirety can be found here.

*   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I. July

“The gods are making it clear that I really need to walk more,” I said to Rhyd as we walked through downtown Portland on the way to the bus stop.

“But I’ll admit it, I’m stubborn. I really like my bike. And I know I’m screwing myself over on many levels, from simply needing to be in shape for the trip to the whole ‘let’s not ignore the gods’ thing. But dammit, my bike. I’m a creature of habit, and walking everywhere just screws with my routine. And yes, I know how that sounds. I really just need to suck it up and walk. They’re getting louder about it.”

He nodded. We had just spent the Fourth of July weekend discussing the various destinations and meanings of the pilgrimage path that had been laid out to us a few months earlier and which had been consistently revealing itself to us further as the weeks progressed. Our departure was still ten months away, but it had been made very apparent to both of us that the journey that had been demanded of us had already been initiated as far as the will of the gods was concerned. An unfolding was in the process, and while that process was far from complete it was clear that the journey was going to require significant walking, including a few hundred miles along a route considered by the ancients to be the literal path to the end of the world.

After Rhyd boarded the bus back to Seattle, I spent the walk back to my building reiterating to myself that I was going to start using my feet to run my errands. But as I walked under the Steel Bridge, I suddenly remembered the package I had waiting at the FedEx center, and my previous thoughts were forgotten as I instinctively decided to bike over to retrieve it.

At that exact moment, my eye briefly drifted toward the haphazard pile of bicycle wheels that had been continuously shrinking and then growing again for the past few months. A mountain of metal and rubber, the pile was covered with a tarp and doubled as both a visual barrier and physical perch for the man I knew lived behind it, a man who I had nicknamed the ‘bridge shaman.’

The bridge shaman wore a long, black duster jacket, accentuated with a striking combination of aluminum can tabs and small animal bones hanging off the flaps. He had several animal teeth hanging around his neck, carried a wooden staff adorned with various markings, and seemed to wield sole authority over the small homeless community living under the bridge. I knew not his specific craft nor his origins, but I regarded him with the same combination of wariness and respect that I did toward any otherworldly figures who do not specifically reveal themselves as either friend or foe.

But when my eyes drifted toward the pile of bike wheels, which happened to be the very same moment that I had decided to ride my bike to the FedEx office, I saw a pair of boots rising up from the top of the pile. My eyes followed the boots, and the next thing I knew I was staring right up at the bridge shaman himself. His eyes met mine and flashed angrily.

I looked away, immediately making a conscious decision that I simply wasn’t going to allow his reaction to have any significance or meaning at that moment. I nodded toward him and then continued on toward my building, fumbling for my keys so that I could unlock my bike as soon as I got to the rack.

I turned the corner and froze. My bike was locked to the rack where I had last left it, but the wheels had been crudely removed, the brake lines and chain having been ripped off and damaged in the process.

I reflected immediately to my conversations with Rhyd, my various interactions with and messages from the gods that prompted my conversations with him, and then to the bridge shaman and my conscious decision to ignore the flash in his eyes. And while I briefly acknowledged what was being laid out very obviously in front of me, at the same time I was simply not in the mood to entertain or accept it. My anger at the immediate situation overpowered my ability to accept my fate in the face of meaning, and I turned around and stormed back to the bridge.

As I approached the underpass, I spotted the bridge shaman, who had repositioned himself from the pile of bicycle wheels and was now perched on the guardrail at the entrance to the underpass as though he had been expecting my arrival. I took a deep breath, trying to quell my rage as I knew that diplomacy would get me further than anger.

“I think its possible you may have my tires,” I called out to him once I was in earshot, pointing toward the tarped-up mountain just behind where he was positioned. “They went missing this morning, and I would love to have them back.”

“Why would you think I had your tires?” he sneered.

As I glanced again at the pile of tires, I noticed a familiar looking one peeking out from the edge of the tarp. I turned toward my building for a moment, and then back toward the bridge shaman.

“Because your pile is taller than it was yesterday and my building is right over there. And because that one sticking out there looks just like one of mine.”

He jumped off the guardrail and approached me menacingly, stopping less than a foot away from my face. I immediately noticed his knife, prominently strapped to his waist, and then quickly glanced down to my own knife on my boot.

“Those aren’t even my tires. Those belong to my community. And yours aren’t in there.”

“And how do you know that mine aren’t in there?” I asked angrily, immediately regretting my words the moment they left my mouth.

“BECAUSE I SAID SO,” he bellowed as he stepped in toward me. I jumped back, reaching for my knife just as he reached for his. He saw my hand move and instinctively stepped back as he realized I was also armed.

As he backed off, his eyes flashed just as they had when I had passed him earlier in the day. And in that flash, the entirety of what I had been both deliberately as well as subconsciously ignoring hit me all at once. I suddenly knew exactly what I had done, exactly what this was about, and exactly what was about to happen, and yet I had no choice in the moment but to stand there and allow the scene to play itself out to its logical conclusion.

“Now you listen to me right now. There are no tires here. Not yours, not anyone’s. And you’re not here anymore either, do you understand? You better turn around and go, and I don’t want to see you anywhere near this spot again, you hear me? DO YOU HEAR ME? GO.”

I nodded and obliged, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Not only had the option of biking just been forcibly removed from my choices until further notice, I had also just cut off my only direct access point between my building and the downtown area, which meant that any given errand would require my walking the equivalent of at least four blocks out of the way in order to avoid the underpass.

 

underpass

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Not only was I walking, I was taking the long way until further notice, until the bridge shaman decided to move on.

I headed back to my building, frustrated by the realization that I was once again experiencing that one crucial lesson, the one that never seems to stick despite its simplicity and despite how many times I had already learned it. Gods will often have their way whether you cooperate with them or not.

II. August

It was day two of Many Gods West, and by mid-day I didn’t have much left in me. It was a combination of several factors:  the stress of travel, adjusting to a large group of very powerful people, and the consistent pull of the familiar dead from the lake shore directly behind the hotel. My energy had been divided and subsequently depleted by all three, and I was debating on whether to take a nap or not when I walked past Sannion, smoking a cigarette in front of the hotel.

I stopped to say hello, and he asked me if I was planning on attending the Bakcheion ritual that night. I expressed that I was feeling rather drained, and he smiled and told me that he wanted to give me something that would help to bring me back and center me.

A few minutes later, one of the other members of the Bakcheion found me in the lobby, and handed me a teabag as well as a woven bracelet with a talisman of sorts hanging through it. Having a significant aversion to anything tied against my skin, I wove and then tied the bracelet into the top eye of my right boot, and then went to find some hot water for the tea. A few hours later, I was feeling myself again, and attending the ritual that night was one of the highlights of my weekend at the conference.

And being a rather superstitious type, I left the woven charm tied to the top of my right boot after the ritual was concluded, where it remains to this day. And while I don’t know and can’t vouch for the exact meaning or power of the charm, nor can I single out any singular effect it has had on me alone since the day of the ritual, the charm quickly revealed itself as a very specific and powerful beacon in regards to others.

boots

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

It goes where I go, often traveling several miles per day at dog’s eye level. And for the most part, it serves as an invisible accessory; very few notice it at all. But fitting of an object constructed by Dionysians, those who do notice it are almost exclusively in varied states of intoxication and/or madness. And when they notice it, they fixate on it excitedly, asking me what it is, often asking to touch it with a pleading but respectful tone in their voice or sometimes even asking if I would be willing to part with it for a price.

Which, upon reflection, means that the charm actually does create a specific effect that it has on me alone. It reinforces the irrelevance of the concept of ‘belief’ in the face of what consistently reveals itself to be, as to ‘believe’ supposes that one could ‘choose’ not to believe. What is has a way of presenting itself as truth whether I’m in the mood to ‘believe’ in it or not.

III. September

On foot, my patterns and rituals realigned themselves as my daily pace slowed down and my route subsequently transitioned. While a five-minute journey should had become a twenty-minute one in theory, in reality the very process of walking combined with my low-latent inhibition had resulted in an entire series of new rituals and relations that created many holes for time to leak through, so to speak.

In lieu of my being able to travel westward on foot via the underpass, I diverted my route up and then down the Broadway Bridge, carving out a daily path that I quickly dubbed ‘The Voyage of the 81 Steps’ in honor of the number of stairs that it took to reach the top. Once at the top of the bridge, the descent back down the ramp leading to the Pearl District was fraught with various distractions and obstacles as an unusually dangerous intersection led down to a narrow sidewalk overrun with both pigeons and their feces.

pigeonramp

It was in my first week on this new route that I started to notice frequent yelling and cursing from others who walked up and down the ramp, as the pigeons perched above on the light-post would regularly poop on those who walked below. I laughed every time I heard someone cry out until the fourth or fifth day when I was also pelted with a significant dose of bird shit, which admittedly made the overall situation much less funny.

Since it was impossible to avoid walking below the birds as the light-post was the same width as the ramp, the next day I decided to start acknowledging the pigeons, offering them peanuts, and asking them not to poop on me. While not wanting to be shat on was a big part of my motivation, a bigger part of me simply wanted to see if such actions would be effective. And, of course, a very small but very persistent part of me wanted to yet again test my relationship to coincidence.

Three weeks later, after witnessing countless folks pelted by poo while completely avoiding such a fate myself despite my frequency on the ramp, I deemed the experiment a success. Pigeons were no different from people or gods, in that even simple attempts at communication and mutual respect often went a long way.

IV. October

The significance, demands, and implications of our pilgrimage continued to unfold with an ever-greater frequency as the days progressed. It was obvious that revelations were coming out of every corner if I simply chose to accept that what I was perceiving as reality, and yet there’s a seductive illusion of control in denying such realities, an illusion that also functions as a defense mechanism when it all becomes a little too much.

And it was a little too much that day. Deep in my head, walking down the ramp, I found myself angrily ruminating on the idea of coincidence as it stands in opposition to meaning, questioning my sanity for the umpteenth time as I struggled to not only make sense out of everything that was being revealed but also struggled to reconcile the fact that I had to make sense out of it in the first place and could not merely dismiss it as coincidence.

If only I could, I thought to myself angrily, stewing in such muddled frustration that for the first time in six weeks I neglected to acknowledge the pigeons on the light-post above me.

They acknowledged me, however. At the exact moment I found myself envying those who had the luxury of dismissing such synchronicities of meaning, the pigeons acknowledged me with simultaneous shots of poo to my head, neck, and back.

And of course, I didn’t have the luxury of dismissing any of it.

“That was meta,” I shouted up toward the light-post as I turned around to head home and shower.

“Very meta. Good one. Nice job.”

poo

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

V. November

“Perhaps the answer to the question lies in the question. Perhaps you should read my thoughts, line them up like soldiers…” – Tori Amos, ‘Police Me’

It may have been a Tori song, but it was Nimue who was singing it in my ear.

I heard it as I woke up. I heard it consistently throughout those random cracks in time during the day when the mind is momentarily unoccupied and the other world can seep through. I heard it when I deliberately invoked silence and stillness. And I heard it throughout my dreams. I knew not what it meant, but it persisted.

The song was once again in my head as I walked toward the post office, through the crowd of hustlers and transients that congregated just south of Union Station. Head down, I was humming the very line that was haunting me when someone jumped right in front of me. I halted and looked up to see a noticeably strung-out homeless man blocking my path.

His eyes fixated on mine for a moment as his lips started to move.

“That red-headed bitch… I can’t get her out of my head,” he mumbled at me. He jumped twice in place, and on the third jump he moved aside so I could pass.

“Red-headed banshee bitch,” he continued. “Don’t listen to her. Don’t listen to any of them, you hear? It doesn’t leave, never leaves your head.” His voice had risen at the end, teetering on the border between civil speech and primal scream.

His eyes widened. “Don’t listen,” he repeated. “You hear?”

I nodded, not knowing exactly what to think. I briefly pictured the red-headed singer whose tune had been haunting me for the past several weeks, then nodded again at him.

“Yes, I hear”, I said, and walked away from him as fast as I could.

VI. December

“Never before have I been so deeply entrenched in my own story, so to speak. And I have no idea how to even begin to write about it,” I said to her over early-morning coffee.

“I know we’re both writers, but I’ll admit I can’t really relate to what you’re struggling with, as much as I wish I could,” she said to me sympathetically. “I’ve never met any gods, let alone have I ever tried to write about them. I can’t even begin to imagine what that’s like.”

“But I don’t actually write about the gods at all,” I argued. “Not directly, anyway. I actually go out of my way not to write about my interactions and relations with the gods themselves, but instead I focus on where those interactions take me and the conclusions they lead me to.”

“And yet that’s failing you now.”

I nodded. It was not only failing me, it was driving me to madness.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why what? Why is it failing? Or why I don’t write about the gods?”

She laughed. “Dare I say the answer to your question is found in your question? Start with the second one. Why don’t you write about the gods?”

My face reacted instantly in horror as I recalled the song lyric incident near Union Station a few weeks prior. I momentarily fixated on my companion’s bright red hair, all too terrifyingly aware that the tendency that I was struggling so greatly to both write about and explain to her was manifesting itself in the very moment.

She smiled innocently, unaware of that manifestation and equally unaware of what a loaded question she had put forth. I racked my brain for a neutralizing response but quickly realized I had nothing to wield but the truth.

“Because those conclusions are much easier for me to defend than those relationships. Because it does not damage my psyche for someone to tell me that my politics and my viewpoints are delusional, as that’s a step removed from the accusation that I am delusional as a whole, which does damage my psyche and which I open myself up to very easily by directly writing about my interactions with the gods. I feel vulnerable enough as it is with what I already put out there.”

“Ok, now the first half of the question. Why is that strategy now failing?”

I thought for a moment. “Because this one’s just too real. And I’m at a loss at how to describe it, to relate it, while keeping it contained enough so that it feels safe.”

“But it’s not safe,” she said quietly.

She stared into her coffee cup for a moment before she continued. “Again, I can’t conceive of what the gods are like, but it’s obvious from way over here that whatever it is you experience is very, very real. And as much as I don’t understand it, the only explanation that makes any sense to me at all is the very one that you seem to accept without question while at the same time you fight it with everything you have. You are trapped in that contradiction, and I think that by trying to feel safe you only fuel it.”

I sighed, trying to settle the internal discomfort that always came with uncomfortable truths. She was absolutely right. I did internally fight it with everything I could muster. I had never asked to be gods-bothered or anything of the sort. I could handle the realities and consequences most of the time, but my inability to either ignore or express the sea of meaning I was drowning in had pushed me to the edge of madness. And it was always in those moments, teetering at the edge, that I often most desperately wished that it was all indeed just a delusion. And yet I knew it was anything but.

“I don’t think you’re looking for advice,” she continued after a long silence. “I think you’re looking for permission. And I think that the only force that can grant that you that permission is within.”

VII. January

The dreams had officially become a significant interruption. Although that’s not even quite right, as they were anything but dreams. They were most active and most traumatizing during sleep, sure, but I knew to distinguish mere dreams from visions, and these were definitely of the latter category.

And yet, knowing they were more than dreams did not produce nearly as much anxiety as the content of the visions themselves. Constant scenes, of war, violence, carnage, which had first started appearing the summer before but had only become a nightly phenomenon since around the time of the new year. I didn’t know what the scenes were, nor did I necessarily want to know, but there were a few key impressions, most notable of bombed-out towns and stone ruins, that simply would not leave my head no matter how hard I tried.

I had these very images in and hanging over my head as I went out on my daily walk on an unusually cold day, taking a slightly longer route with the hopes that potential distractions would empty my mind a bit. I bought myself a coffee and wandered through downtown, inadvertently disassociating myself from the goings-on around me as I tried to clear my head.

Without realizing it, I found myself randomly stumbling through the aisles at Powell’s a few hours later, having indeed become distracted after wandering in to use the bathroom. I wasn’t searching for anything specific, but after walking around in the cold for so long there as something quite comforting about the cramped, crowded aisles of books, and so I methodically wandered up and down the aisles clutching my coffee while trying my best to shake off various troubles.

The aisles at Powells. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust

The aisles at Powell’s. [Photo by InSapphoWeTrust]

And then out of nowhere a book fell off the shelf just to the right of me, knocking my right foot and landing on its spine, flipping the book open to the center. I bent over to pick it up and when I brought the book to eye-level I saw my dreams of bombs and ruins staring back up at me.

The photos were scenes from the Spanish Civil War, of battles that took place in the very towns that we were set to walk through as part of our pilgrimage, which was now only a few months away. I turned the page, and the images on the next page were also familiar from my dreams and visions. I closed my eyes for a minute, suddenly trying my hardest to clearly recall what I had been trying so hard to block out for weeks, and then stared back at the page again.

As I stood there, the words I had taken to heart on the ramp a few months back ran through my mind, and I resisted the urge to crave the luxuries of ‘coincidence’. And suddenly, standing right there in the middle of the aisle, connections started to form and yet-unasked questions started to answer themselves without warning. The pilgrimage. The bike. The walking. The dead. The dreams and the not-dreams. The unknowing emissaries. The touched prophets. The book that just fell in front of me.

Perhaps the answer to the question lies in the question.

I put the book back on the shelf and ran out of the bookstore, desperately needing air. I walked around the block, composed myself, bought another coffee, and then went back in to buy the book.

The book, of course, was no longer on the shelf when I returned, despite the fact that I had carefully placed it in an unassuming spot. And for once, I simply surrendered to what was before my eyes without feeling a need for answers, without feeling the need to either deny the significance of it all or to analyze the significance to death. After all, the book had served its purpose, and I hadn’t even gone looking for answers.

VIII. February

I’m at Pantheacon, and I’m in the women’s bathroom.

Except I’m not in the bathroom. I’m sitting in the stall, but it’s not really the stall, I’m no longer really in San Jose, and the harsh lighting has been replaced by a murky darkness.

Part of me knows that I am in middle of a flashback, and yet most of me is already too far gone, once again reliving the same terrifying series of moments that has held me captive for eleven years. The stall has evaporated into a dark, wooden shack. The wind is howling outside, rattling the walls around me as I desperately try to remain upright, remain present, simply remain.

In my hand is a plate of rice and beans. White rice, black beans, on a soggy paper plate that is starting to give on the right-hand side, the side that my hand is clutching. My hand is shaking like a leaf and the rice and beans are shaking along with it, creating a blurry optical illusion that is greatly enhanced by the kaleidoscopic effects of my tear-blurred eyes.

There is a firm hand grasping my leg, trying to still my shaking, trying to ground me just enough so that I can listen to what she is saying. Attached to that hand is an older figure, wrapped in robes, who evokes equal parts wise-woman and desert warrior. Seated at the same level, I tower over her physically, and yet she looms much larger than I in the moment.

She is speaking softly, her voice gravelly but strong, the cadence of her voice evoking a calming, lulling effect. I stare down at the rice and beans again, fixated on the sagging plate, as her voice slowly makes its way into my head. Her accent strikes a place of comforting familiarity, momentarily bringing me back to Brooklyn, bringing me back home to my front stoop and to the endless conversations that I used to have with my elderly Israeli neighbor in Park Slope. She then squeezes my leg harder and I once again come back, remembering instantly that I am far from Brooklyn, far from the comforts of my stoop and my former neighbor.

I have never met her before, but I knew to trust the folks who brought me to her. Or did they bring her to me? My body and my being jolt at the realization that I are unable to recall. I don’t even know how they found me. Did someone else bring them to me first? Did they give me the rice and beans? If not, who did?

My brain hiccups, momentarily halting my shaking, and her grip on my leg tightens again. I look up into her eyes, trying desperately to focus on her, and only then do I realize that she has been speaking to me since I sat down. I realize that I trust her too, that I trust her completely, and that I don’t know why but it does not matter. I try with everything I have to tune into her voice long enough to actually hear.

“I want you to follow my finger. And remember to breathe.”

I start to breathe, and I follow her finger. Up, down, left, right. Over and over and over again. And suddenly time and consciousness start to blur even further, and all that remains in that moment is darkness, repetition, and a consistent reminder to breathe. Not only does darkness envelop the moment, but the moment envelops into itself and by the time I think I’ve come back I don’t know whether I had just lost minutes or hours, or what actually transpired in that little shack once she started to move her finger and talk.

At one point, the sagging plate lost the battle with the rice and beans, but the plate was subtle enough in its surrender that I didn’t even notice as I followed her finger, clinging to her words, trying desperately to simply remain.

And when she concluded, when she let go of my leg with a release of finality and a pat, I did come back, or at least I thought I did at the time. It would take me many years to accept the fact that I could never truly come back from such a thing, but at that moment enough of my being was restored that I could potentially fathom the idea of walking out of the little shack on my own two feet and continuing on with whatever it was that one is supposed to do after they brush up so closely with death.

I can’t even speak, can’t even comprehend, can’t even find words to thank her. I simply start to shake and cry uncontrollably. She reaches over and embraces me, soothing me with both her arms and her voice. I drop the plate of rice and beans to the floor and allow myself to simply be held.

And then I slowly come to and open my eyes and I’m once again staring at a wooden slatted door. The variety of noises and voices behind that door snap me instantly back as I realize that I’m sitting on a toilet seat in a bathroom stall at the DoubleTree and there are people in line waiting their turn. And I can’t help but note the irony in that just as in the very moment that I had just re-lived, once again I have no idea whether I’ve been sitting there for minutes or for hours and I can’t stop shaking.

I quickly slap some water on my face in an attempt to bring myself back, hurrying as I realize that I have no idea how long I’ve been out of my booth. I look in the mirror for a minute to make sure I look presentable enough to fake it for the next few hours, and as I breathe a sigh of relief at the person reflected back it occurs to me that everything I have become, everything I have been able to sustain, everything I hold and have kept intact would likely have not been possible, would possibly not be at all if not for her intervention.

You likely owe her your life, I confided to my mirror-self, finally giving voice to a truth that I had been holding this entire time but could never actually admit.

I walk out of the bathroom and past the info table, trying my best to shake off the intensity of what had just occurred, while trying even harder at a subconscious level to deny the very actuality of any of it. Unlike my struggles around the luxury of coincidence, blocking this reality out had become an effective and reliable short-term coping mechanism over the years. As I walk around the info table, I absentmindedly stare blankly toward the smaller tables that are positioned right outside the vendor room, and as I turn at the end of the info table toward the vendor room door my gaze inadvertently drifts to the left.

And there she is, sitting right next to the door, looking right at me.

The wise woman, the desert warrior. The one who I had just reminded my mirror-self had likely saved my life. The one who holds my truth. The only one who knows that one piece of my story better than I do. There she is, thirty feet from the bathroom, sitting right there next to the door.

My mind flashes back to the shack again as I stare at her in disbelief. For once, I couldn’t fathom trying to dismiss the enormous significance of her presence, especially in congruity with the flashback I just had and the realization while staring in the mirror. My body starts to shake as my stomach pulls itself into the tightest knot imaginable.

She recognizes me and her face immediately lights up. I pull up a chair and sit down, pulling the chair in tight next to her so as not to block the flow of traffic. She reaches across to hug me and once again I am momentarily pulled back to the shack, to the grip on my leg and the embrace and the plate of rice and beans that slipped from my hand. I hug her back while kicking my left leg with my right foot in a desperate attempt to once again remain while doing everything in my power to compose myself emotionally, acutely aware that we are in a very public space.

“How have you been?” she asks me softly after we finished embracing.

My mouth opens and words start to flow out, uncontrollably at first. I’m not able to harness what’s coming out; nor does it present itself in any easily identifiable order, but she seems to understand me all the same. I babble, she nods, time blurs once more. I shift from kicking my shin to crushing my left toes with my right heel, trying to be conscious of physical impact while lacking any other way to keep myself in my skin. I breathe. I try to calm. Eventually my heel relaxes. Eventually my babbling ceases.

“I think of you often, always wonder how you are doing,” she says, and I finally lose control and briefly burst into tears.

“Sometimes I’m fine, but lately… all of it… it’s just too much, too much meaning… it’s so suffocating…. it suffocates me whether I accept it or deny it. And I can’t turn it off, it never stops, never. Even just now. Right here, the fact that you’re here and I’m here right now, there it is again. I can’t escape it no matter where I turn.”

“No, perhaps you can’t escape it”, she said. “But I know in my heart that you will figure out what you need to do to process it all, to understand and heal from it all. You just mentioned to me a moment ago that you’re a writer now. Maybe you just need to try writing about it.”

“The very thought terrifies the shit out of me,” I said softly.

“And that’s exactly why you need to do it,” she said with a smile.

*     *     *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I. The Silence (December 2013)

It was the last city council meeting of the year on a frigid, snowy evening two weeks before Christmas, and the immediate future of the Whoville encampment was on the line. A few days earlier, the police department had made public its intentions to evict the 50-person camp sometime within the coming weeks.

The thought of so many people being tossed back onto the streets around Christmas time had prompted a community response unlike any I had seen before up to that point. In the hour or so before the meeting, the plaza outside City Hall quickly became a crowded scene with protests, press conferences, and media interviews simultaneously occurring as council members started to filter into the building.

As I walked back and forth between people and cameras and bursts of energy, my stream of attention kept being interrupted by a sole figure, one of the few faces in the plaza that I had never seen or met before. She stood silently amongst the chaos in the center of the plaza, bracing against the wind and the cold, holding a sign that said, “Have Mercy”.

There was something about her presence, something about her simplicity in the moment that made me pause every single time I walked by her. Others noticed as well, nodding toward her as they passed in recognition of the space she was holding. When I walked by her for the last time on my way into the building, I felt a small lump form in my throat.

havemercy

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

There were nearly fifty speakers that night, most who used their two minutes passionately pleading the Council to spare the encampment. Halfway through the speakers, an unfamiliar name was called, and I looked up to see the woman from the plaza, holding her sign as she approached the podium.

She stepped up, held her sign up to the council, and spoke softly into the microphone.

“What about those of us who aren’t safe within four walls? What about those of us for whom a tent is our home?”

And for the next minute and forty-nine seconds, she held the entire room in silence.

The effect on the crowd was immediate and profound. Within seconds, I saw people start to stiffen, tear up, grab the hand of the person next to them. Others closed their eyes, a few with their hands in prayer formation. As I looked around, I felt my stomach tighten as the lump in my throat grew larger.

When I looked up at the Mayor and the Council, however, I saw a very different sight. They sat in obvious discomfort, and their facial expressions ranged from forced smiles to wide-eyed looks of terror. In all the years I had attended Council meetings in this town, in all the dozens of times that I had stood at that podium and attempted to appeal to their consciences through my words, and in all the times I had watched others more powerful than myself do the same, I had never seen the Council anywhere near as affected as it was in that moment. I kept my eyes straight on the Council members, watching them sweat out the seconds.

As the powers-that-be shifted uncomfortably in their seats, the entire room was holding a communal energy of great power, and she was at the center, anchoring that power from her physical position directly between the figures of authority in front of her and the populace behind her.

After what seemed like an eternity in a moment, the two-minute buzzer broke the spell that she had held over the room, and immediately the Council members snapped out of their discomfort. The crowd, on the other hand, stared at her in awe as she walked down from the podium towards the back of the room, several of them with tears streaming down their faces.

I was also in awe, and tears were streaming down my face as well.

*   *   *

The encampment was not only spared through Christmas, it held on for another three months after that. And while I have no doubt that it was a variety of factors that swayed the Council towards that decision, my mind consistently goes back to that 109-second moment in time when a young woman demanded mercy from those in power by so effectively holding silence.

II. The Noise (A Few Weeks Later)

The phone woke me out of a sound sleep. I quickly reached over and fumbled for it, instinctively sensing that it was an emergency and not a wrong number.

“Alley? Are you there? You need to get down here. Please.”

The caller was panicked and in tears, but I still recognized the voice immediately as one of the local street kids who was camped down by the river a few miles away.

“Stitch? What’s going on?” I asked.

“It’s Casey. He needs to get to the hospital. I need your help. Please.”

I sat up and shook myself awake, trying to make sense of what was occurring. I momentarily wondered why Stitch had called me instead of 911, but the terrified urgency in his voice quickly overrode my need for details at that moment.

“I’ll be right there,” I said and hung up the phone, scanning the room for my waterproof boots. As I briefly recalled the two-hundred foot stretch of mud between their campsite and the nearest navigable path, I looked out at the pouring rain and mentally prepared myself for a potentially soaking and treacherous trek. I found my boots, threw them on, and five minutes later I was driving towards the riverbank.

The sun started to peek out from behind me as I drove, and as I pulled into the parking lot closest to their location I was granted exactly enough light to safely navigate the terrain before me. I ran down the hill toward the path and then across the tracks where I knew to climb up and cut into the woods. From there, a maze of endless mud pits and boulders eventually led me to their encampment, nestled between the tracks and the river, so well-hidden that they had avoided detection for nearly a year at that point.

photo-500x373

[Photo Credit: A Valkyrie]

Stitch was standing outside one of the tents as I approached. He waved me over and bent down toward the tent next to him. I stooped down and peered in, and saw Casey keeled over, rocking in pain as he struggled to breathe. His skin was pale and clammy and he was severely disoriented.

“He’s been fighting bronchitis and pneumonia for a few months now, and he’s been super weak,” Stitch told me when I climbed back up. “We took him over to the ER last week, but they wouldn’t admit him. And then we couldn’t get him to the clinic last Sunday because we didn’t have a ride, and then he got real bad the other day. I called 911 yesterday, but they told me that they couldn’t dispatch anyone out here without an address or exact location.”

I glanced around and thought for a moment. The nearest “address” was the car dealership nearest to the parking lot where I had left my car.

“Can you drive him to the hospital?”

I shook my head. “I can’t safely transport him in my vehicle. And I’m not sure that you and I can even carry him safely up there. But I’m going to get someone to come down here and help.”

I took off back through the woods, dialing 911 on my phone as I reached the top of the path near the parking lot. I described Casey’s symptoms to the dispatcher and gave the address of the car dealership.

As a fire truck pulled into the driveway I waved them over toward the back lot. The truck followed me up to the point where the lot ended and the hill down to the path began, but the driver stopped as soon as I started waving them down the hill. I turned around and ran back up the hill as he started to climb out of the vehicle.

“What is this?” he yelled angrily as I approached.

“I’m about to ask you the same thing,” I replied, matching his anger. I pointed down the hill. “He’s back in there. I’ll lead you there to him. Come on.” I turned to head back down the hill.

“Back there? Down by the riverbank? Like in a homeless camp?” He scoffed without waiting for me to answer. “No, absolutely not, we’re not going down there.”

For a second I was in utter disbelief as to what I had just heard, but quickly snapped out of it and turned back around, furious.

“That man down there has been sick for weeks, and if he doesn’t get to the hospital, I truly think he’s going to die down there. And making sure he gets to the hospital is YOUR JOB. So do your damn job and get back behind the wheel and follow me down there. OK?”

He glanced back at his colleague for a moment, who shook his head. “Where is he, at the bottom of this hill? Can’t he get himself up here? We came to check him out, but I’m not driving down there.”

Check him out? It was clear from his tone, his language, and the lack of an ambulance on site that not only was he convinced that Casey’s current condition was not serious, he was annoyed at being sent out for what he was viewing as a welfare check at a homeless camp.

I momentarily tried to control myself but then just exploded in anger.

“No, he can’t get himself up here. This is an emergency. That’s why I called 911. I don’t know what the hell your problem is, but I’m telling you right now that if you don’t go down there and do your f**king job, getting fired will be the least of your worries. You will regret this more than you can possibly begin to imagine, mark my word.”

I stood there, shaking, as shocked as he was at what had just come from my mouth. He muttered a string of obscenities under his breath and turned back towards the truck. Glaring at me angrily, he started it up and slowly started to drive down the hill. I ran ahead to guide them toward the path.

At the intersection, the truck stopped and the driver jumped out once again. “We can’t drive past here,” he said, pointing at the narrow path ahead. “Where is he?”

“He’s way back in the woods there,” I replied, pointing down the path. They followed me to the tracks on foot but once they saw me start to climb up the dirt ledge they once again shook their heads.

“That’s not a path,” one of them said. “Where’s the path?”

“There is no other path. This is it,” I said and continued climbing up.

At that moment, I heard Stitch yell from the woods. I turned around toward the voice, and saw him struggling toward us with Casey on his back. Everyone helped to lower Casey down, and as soon as the driver saw Casey’s condition his expression immediately shifted from annoyance to grave concern as he reached for his radio to call for an ambulance. They quickly ferried Casey up the hill past Stitch and I. We hobbled after them, struggling to keep up.

A minute or two later, the ambulance pulled away with Casey in the back on his way to the hospital. Stitch and I were soaked to the bone and covered in mud, and as we made our way back up to the top of the hill I offered to take him back to my place to shower and clean up. He accepted, and as we got to my van I made another phone call, this time to a fellow advocate and trusted friend.

“Hey. Can you go to the ER and meet Casey there? He’s in the ambulance now on his way and I’m soaked and covered in mud and I don’t trust that they’ll actually treat him unless someone who they perceive as having power is insisting on it. At least that’s been the theme so far this morning, and I’m not taking any chances at this point.”

“Of course. No need to explain, I’m headed there right now,” she replied in a soothing voice. “Go home and take care of yourself. Are you OK? What happened?”

“I’ll explain later, but long story short, I’m now more aware than ever that the existing power structures are perfectly willing to simply let someone suffer and die unless and until someone else with social capital makes a whole lot of noise about it.”

III. The Echoes (Recently)

Staring out the window of the train, I tried hard to fight back feelings of hopelessness and déjà vu. I was headed down to Eugene for the first time in many months after receiving the news that yet another acquaintance had died on the street, this time only a few blocks away from where I last had lived down there.

Despite nearly two years and a hundred-plus miles of distance between myself and the community at hand, the news had brought on the same level of pain, emotional turmoil and crushing secondary trauma that had been a constant throughout my years in Eugene. I felt numb and dissociated, haunted with the helplessness that comes with knowing that no matter how hard I fought, no matter how hard we all pushed, people we loved were still going to die on the streets no matter what we did. And while I knew this trip was necessary in order to process and deal with my emotions, I was also dreading it. I didn’t want to face it, I didn’t want to process it. At that moment, I simply wanted to forget it.

When the train stopped in Albany, an older man sat down next to me. He immediately pulled out a large sketchbook and started to draw, connecting his new lines to an already complex series of miniature abstract images. Ordinarily I would have been fascinated, but in my numbness I was simply relieved that he was keeping to himself as I didn’t have it in me for small talk. I kept my head toward the window and tried to empty my mind as much as possible, but after a few minutes I sensed that I was being stared at.

I turned my head. My instinct was correct, he was staring right at me.

“Are you an artist?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Do you know the Dali painting, the one with the melting clocks?” he asked me.

I nodded again, warily but obediently, sensing immediately that I did not have the luxury of ignoring him.

He smiled. “It’s about the balance and paradox of time and memory, you know. And power. That painting, it’s called The Persistence of Memory. Think about that, that’s important. Because it’s the memory that persists. The time, even the place is often irrelevant. The power is carried in the memory. What you do now matters later, what you have done in the past may matter significantly at some point in the future.”

“It not only persists, but it perseveres,” he continued. “I like to riff off of Dali sometimes, and I often remind myself of the perseverance of memory. Actions become memories, and those memories seep into the cracks, like Dali’s clocks are seeping down. They lie in wait as seeds down there, and then they sprout when you least expect them to. Sometimes, long after I lose hope, I then learn that seeds that I planted end up bearing valuable fruit.”

He paused for a moment. “It’s like sound, right? From my perspective, my scream ends not long after I stop screaming. But whether I hear it or not, that scream echoes, and my lack of perception of that echo has no effect on whoever may hear that echo and whoever may be affected by that echo. The echoes retain power long after I let go.”

I wasn’t sure if he knew who I was and was offering specific advice to me, or if he was merely offering random babbling wisdom to a random stranger as some folks around here tend to do. But at that moment his words took on an entire universe of meaning.

He smiled at me while nodding and went back to his drawing. I sat there, dumbfounded but no longer numb, not knowing what to do or think other than to take out a notebook and write his words down as accurately as I possibly could.

*   *   *

A few hours later, I was walking downtown near the bus station when I heard someone yell my name from behind. I turned around and there was Casey, running toward me with a big grin on his face. He grabbed me for a hug and started to talk a mile a minute.

“I’ve been looking all over for you! They told me you left town. Oh my god I’m so glad I found you. I’ve been housed up for six months now just north of Mapleton. You need to come visit me. I was finally able to get SSI and OHP and my pneumonia’s been clear for a year now and I’ve got this great place on a piece of land right not far from the river. Let me tell you how to get there. So you know where the main intersection is right? At 126? OK, so you make a right so you’re going north…”

I became too overwhelmed at that moment to follow his words. I had known through friends that Casey had disappeared from Eugene the summer before, but nobody I knew had heard from him and I had feared the worst. But not only was he alive, he was healthy, housed, and looked ten years younger than the last time I had seen him.

I burst into tears and hugged him while thanking every god that was listening for this beautiful moment, this rare happy ending. I thought back to that horrible rainy morning on the riverbank, and then thought of the words of the man on the train earlier that afternoon, and I hugged Casey even tighter.

Hope. Time. Persistence. Perseverance. Echoes.

*   *   *

The following afternoon, when I got to the station for my train back to Portland, I learned it had been delayed another hour. I was hungry, so I headed to the bar across the street from the station.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I ordered a beer and some chicken fingers, sat a few seats away from everyone else, and glanced around while sipping my drink. Immediately I noticed a man at the end of the bar staring intently in my direction with a look of recognition in his eyes.

I averted my eyes and immediately cursed the train for being late. Drunken confrontations in public establishments were one of many reasons I had left Eugene in the first place, as my political work had eventually made me into a target and I had no longer felt safe in public. I saw him rise up from the barstool and walk toward me, and I tensed up as my heart started to pound, instinctively anticipating conflict.

He sat down next to me and ordered another drink, I could tell immediately that he was on at least his third or fourth. He turned toward me. I kept my head down as the bartender watched us both warily from a short distance away.

“What, are you afraid of me or something?” he asked me after a moment.

I opened my mouth to snap back, paused, swallowed my words, and started again, realizing in my initial sputter that this was a moment where surrender might be more effective than defensiveness.

“Yes, actually, I am afraid,” I replied as steadily and calmly as I could muster. “You seem to know who I am, so you probably know I get yelled at a lot, so yes, in this moment I am afraid of you and I am afraid of conflict. In my experience, when someone spots me from across a bar and comes over to talk, it usually doesn’t end well.”

His eyes widened for a moment, and then he started to laugh. “Well, I’m not going to yell at you,” he said, his voice slightly slurred. “But I must say that your response is a bit amusing, considering that you got up in my face and yelled at me once. And I never would have admitted it then, but I’ll tell you straight up here and now that you scared the living crap out of me.”

I looked into his eyes, examining his facial features as I pleaded with my memory to cooperate. While he seemed vaguely familiar, I could neither place him nor the incident he had just referenced. He laughed some more as he took another swig of beer.

“Let’s see….” he started, with obvious amusement in his voice. “I believe your exact words were… ‘if you don’t go down there and do your effing job, getting fired will be the least of your worries…’ “

My memory jolted and my stomach clenched up immediately, the incident with Casey at the riverbank already fresh on my mind after running into him the day before.

“Ah. Yes. Of course,” I said as calmly as possible.

I literally have no idea what to say, I thought to myself. I wasn’t sure if he was looking for an apology or a punching bag, but I was determined not to cater to either role despite my fear.

“I literally have no idea what to say,” I then blurted aloud to him.

He gulped down the rest of his drink, waved at the bartender, and pointed at the empty glass for a refill.

“You don’t need to say anything to me. You were in the right that day.”

I looked up at him, shocked at what I had just heard.

He continued. “Yep, you were absolutely in the right. My behavior was inexcusable that morning, and what sickens me most in hindsight is that such behavior was typical, everyday reaction for me. It was normalized.”

He looked at me for a moment with a look of distress and then continued. “And your reaction was also normalized to your situation. Not only were you  in the right, but the very fact that you knew you had to be there in order for him to get the help he needed…that is what sickens me the most.”

His voice had suddenly gotten quite loud, and the bartender looked over again and raised an eyebrow at me. We’re fine, I mouthed towards her as he continued on.

“Heh, yeah, I can see that now. I couldn’t see it then, but I do see it all differently now. And that morning was a part of that. I didn’t get it immediately. But now, nowadays…”

I still had no idea what to say. My heart was still pounding although my fear had subsided, and my mind was racing in a million directions at once. He shifted on the barstool, sat back and looked at me quizzically for a moment. Suddenly his face softened and he leaned in toward me.

“I’m sorry I scared you. I’m sure that lots of folks aren’t nice to you at all. But I still have to laugh a bit. To be honest, based on that morning I didn’t think you knew how to be scared.”

I finally knew what I wanted to say. Well, to be honest, based on that morning I didn’t think you knew how to be kind or compassionate. So let this stand for both of us as a moment in time when our surface-level assumptions were satisfactorily disproven…

And yet I bit my tongue and only shrugged, hoping that this was one of those moments where silence would speak louder than noise.

At that moment, the train pulled into the station, announcing itself with a deafening blast of the whistle. I grabbed my bag, pointed toward the train and nodded, and made a quick exit.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: Names and minor identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

I. The Other

“I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to.”Rev. Ivan Stang

Sitting on my patio, I looked up from the clay in my hands and was suddenly and immediately awestruck by the silence. For a moment, the entire street symphony was quiet: the birds, the cars, the workers on the Broadway Bridge, the pedestrians, it was though the volume had been suddenly turned down for dramatic effect. I looked around and down towards the street, surprised by the silence, and it was at that moment a truck came roaring by out of nowhere, hit the loose pothole right outside my building, and set off the car alarm for the fourth time that day.

I looked down towards the car from my third-floor balcony, enraged. I knew exactly which vehicle it was, license plate number and all, as I had been directing my anger towards that car on a near-daily basis for several months now. It was a beat-up black Honda, one of those late-80s models with the exaggerated black rear window louvers, and its alarm went off nearly every time without fail whenever a truck directly hit the lose pothole.

The view from my balcony. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

The view from my balcony. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

The car had been a constant source of my frustration and rage since the first week that I settled into this unit, having moved from a smaller unit upstairs at the beginning of last summer. Other than the constant car alarm, the unit and the streetscape that accompanied it were exactly to my liking, which in retrospect I realize only further aggravated my anger towards the car. It was the only nuisance in an otherwise ideal scenario.

The alarm stopped for a few seconds and then started up again. My mind started to rant, presenting the same line of questions that came forth every time I got aggravated over the alarm. How can the owner not know it’s going off all day? What kind of person acts so inconsiderately towards their neighbors and their neighborhood? I can’t be the only one pissed off about this.

I stood up and looked over the balcony, noticing as I rose that my instinctive reaction had become a ritualized routine at this point: Truck goes by; alarm goes off. I get up as my mind starts to rant. I look down at the car in anger; beam rage down from the balcony; contemplate filing a noise complaint; remember that it won’t have any effect; fantasize about having the car towed; silently curse the owner under my breath; and then get back to whatever I was doing until the next time the alarm goes off.

In consciously realizing the pattern I decided to interrupt it at that moment. Instead of stepping into the cycle that I had just identified, I went inside, closed the door, and turned up the music. My housemate looked at me quizzically.

“Its that Gods-damned car alarm,” I said. “Every time I hear it, all I want to do is throw a brick at that miserable excuse for a car. This has been going on for months! When’s it going to stop?”

He looked out the window towards the street below for a moment and then shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t even notice it,” he said. “I mean now I do, because you pointed it out…”

If only I didn’t notice it, I thought to myself.

I grabbed my jacket and went out for a walk, hoping that by walking it off I could drain the frustration out as well.

As I walked, the rant between my ears carried on. How does the owner not know that their alarm is broken? Can’t they disable the alarm? If it goes off here constantly, it must be going off anywhere they park. How does a person not figure out that it’s their car? I mean, they have to know, right? Which means that they’re just an inconsiderate excuse for a human being, and they don’t care that someone like me has to hear it all day. I hate people. Dammit, I hate people so much…

I allowed the stream of consciousness to fade out as I started to physically tire, and I could feel the anger had mostly drained away. After a few hours I turned back toward my building, making mental notes of the patterns and emotions that I had just experienced in the hopes that I could react more rationally the next time the alarm went off.

I was a half-block from my building, walking directly below my balcony on the sidewalk, when a car pulled into a space a few feet in front of me. I was so deep in my head that I almost walked past it when I noticed the telltale black louvers out of the back of my eye.

My heart and my stomach jumped at the same time, as my anger immediately rushed right back in. This was the car. And the driver is inside.

I froze and stared at the car, realizing that in all the months of anger and frustration and rage that I had never actually conceived of this moment in my mind, never thought that I would actually ever be face-to-face with the person responsible for the constant interruptions that had plagued me since the summer. What do I do? What do I even say?

The door opened, and the driver stepped out. I shifted immediately from anxiety and anger to bewilderment and shock. The driver that just emerged from the car was my former neighbor from across the hall when I lived upstairs – a sweet, elderly, nearly-deaf woman who I befriended and interacted with on a daily basis when I lived in my old unit.

Instantly, the entire situation explained itself, and my consistent internal questions were answered. Of course, I said to myself. She can’t hear the alarm from inside the building. She probably doesn’t hear it if she’s more than ten feet away. It then occurred to me that even if she did know that her alarm was broken, fixing it would be a great challenge as she lives on a fixed income and did not seem to have family nearby. As it was, she collected cans in the building to supplement her income.

She saw me, smiled, and waved. I waved back, barely noticing that I was returning the physical gesture as feelings of guilt and nausea swept over me. I immediately thought of how may times I had been tempted to call the police; how many times I had wanted to have the car towed; the amount of anger and hate and frustration that I had exerted towards an unknown entity, the ‘other’, who had turned out to be a friend.

She continued to grin as she walked toward me, and I had to remind myself that she was unaware of my internal transgressions. She had no idea that I had been wildly fantasizing for months about throwing a large object from the balcony onto her car. She nodded hello and I nodded back and, in my awkwardness of the moment, I offered to help her with her bags. She accepted, and we walked in silence up to her apartment.

After I dropped her bags off at her front door, I went back to my place and completely fell apart. It wasn’t just the immediate situation, but a much harsher feeling of hypocrisy and a failure to live up to my own standards. As someone whose work for years has been rooted in demystifying and breaking down ideas and prejudices around the ‘Other,’ I had fallen into the identical trap that I have spent countless hours of my life writing, teaching, arguing, and lecturing on. I had demonized the unknown based on a personal inconvenience, and spent months projecting my anger and rage onto that Other, only to find out that the Other was actually not only a friend, but one of the most vulnerable people I know.

While the car alarm had been a legitimate annoyance, one could argue that the homeless man who plays bucket drums on the downtown was a comparable annoyance – the man who I see being yelled at all day by working folks who scream “get a job”. And I have always stood as the constant defender of him and others like him, always conscious of the fact that the anger projected at him is much greater than the annoyance warrants, always aware that such anger is being displaced onto him because he represents the Other.

I sat with that hypocrisy and with that discomfort for what seemed like endless hours, finally passing out only to enter into a dreamland in which my conscience and hypocrisy were at the forefront.

The next morning when the car alarm went off, I immediately felt a guilty pang upon first hearing it but then found that I could almost immediately tune it out. Later in the day, when it went off again, I was instantly able to tune it out, which was relieving on one level but also made me even more uneasy on another. I thought of my housemate, who is able to tune it out every time, and I realized that my past overreactions and my prior inability to tune it out had everything to do with my displaced rage and little to do with the actual annoyance factor of the sound itself.

Against the other regular sounds that float in off the balcony, the alarm suddenly seemed no louder nor more prominent than anything else in the immediate sonic landscape. I knew deep down that it has everything to do with the fact that I now immediately connect the sound to a vulnerable friend who lives in poverty, as opposed to the unknown, horrible, mythically inconsiderate person that I had built up in my head. I could see clearly what had happened; I could see and understand and explain the trap that I had fallen into. But understanding it did nothing for my conscience and my anxiety.

In hindsight, at that moment I was in the midst of yet another repeat lesson that I hadn’t realized that I needed. For the rational mind can explain and justify and forgive, but it has little effect on the psyche as a whole if the emotional mind throws up enough roadblocks.

*     *     *

A few days later, I met a friend down by the waterfront and spilled the whole tale.

“On a intellectual level, I recognize how powerful social conditioning is, I recognize that no matter how much work we do we can never root out that conditioning completely, and I know that to dehumanize the Other is deeply rooted in that conditioning. And yet despite recognizing that, I’m having a hard time forgiving myself. No matter how strong the conditioning, the fact is that I still caught myself red-handed not practicing what I preach, and when I look at how easily I fell into that trap, I feel like perhaps I haven’t embodied the lessons that I teach as much as I thought I did.”

She thought for a minute, and then spoke.

“Or maybe the fact that you can never embody it fully, that no matter what you do you will always be somewhat susceptible to that conditioning, maybe that’s the lesson you needed to learn instead.”

 II. The Self

I remember when I first encountered anthropocentrism. I was in primary school and, in preparation for our confirmation, the class was learning about the afterlife.John Burnside

It was one of the most powerful learning experiences of my life, powerful enough that it reverberates just as deeply over fifteen years later as it did the time the lesson first sank in.

“Go out for a walk in the park, make it a long one,” he instructed me. “And while you are out, concentrate fully on everything occurring around you, and assume that every single thing that you notice, that occurs in your presence, that falls across your path, is a message from the Gods. Absorb as much as you can, and come back to me when you can’t hold onto any more of it.”

And so I went out on a beautiful spring day into Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and spent the next several hours divining my environment according to instruction, taking in everything I saw as a significant symbol or trail of meaning. As I made my way through the park, reading the swaying of the trees and the patterns of the birds, I hit a moment of what felt like enlightenment, a spiritual breakthrough, a place of true power.

The Nethermead at Prospect Park. Photo by Garry R. Osgood

The Nethermead at Prospect Park. [Photo Credit: Garry R. Osgood]

The entire park is speaking to me, I though to myself. I am in communication with the universe as a whole. We are one, we are connected, we can read each other’s thoughts. All the archetypal notions of woman as witch, woman as connected to nature, the universality of the divine – at that moment all were at the forefront.

I headed back to my teacher, intoxicatingly high on what I had perceived as the ultimate taste of power and divinity, floating on air and my own ego as I approached his house. He opened the door as I walked up the porch stairs, took one look at me, and his face immediately fell.

“Dammit,” he said, shaking his head while also trying to stifle a smile. “I should have known. This is just like when I gave my son the whiskey.”

“Wait, what? Whiskey? What are you…”

My voice drifted off as I stood there, my face reflecting my complete and utter confusion, a confusion that brought me down from my metaphysical high almost instantly.

He laughed. “When I was young, maybe ten or eleven, I was walking with my mother one day and we saw some of the older kids in my neighborhood drinking in a nearby alleyway. There was something about it that intrigued me as we walked past, I started asking my mother about alcohol and drinking and all of that business. So when we get home, she asks me if I want to try some alcohol. I was stunned… and confused, of course… why was she offering me something that was forbidden?

“So of course I say yes. She hands me a bottle and I take a foolishly big gulp, and it was the most horrifying taste and sensation I had ever experienced in my entire life. I immediately vomited and started to cry, and I didn’t dare try alcohol again until I was well in my college years. Meanwhile, those kids who drank in the alley all the time, they never made it to college. And of course as I got older I recognized why she did what she did, as unorthodox as it was, and I recognized how effective it was on me as a kid. It made me a believer in preventative measures.

“So when my son first showed curiosity around alcohol, I repeated the lesson. I handed him a bottle of cheap, cheap whiskey, the kind that tortures your insides no matter your disposition, and he took the same big swig that I did as kid. But unlike me, his eyes immediately lit up as it went down. He loved it, I remember him licking it off his lips. I remember standing there in horror – what had I done?”

He paused for a moment and then smiled. “My son, though, I raised him right, and he understood that his reaction was the exception to the rule, and that my intent was to keep him on the right path, and he internalized what I had intended in the lesson despite that lesson backfiring in reality. He stayed away from the troublemakers in the neighborhood and went on to finish college like I did.”

“But what does this have to do with me?” I asked.

He smiled again and paused to collect his thoughts. “Well, I basically sent you out there hoping it would have the same effect as a bitter gulp of whiskey, so to speak. But you reacted just like my son. I can tell that you loved it.”

I thought back to the intoxicating high I felt during my journey in the park. “I did love it. That was amazing. But I still don’t quite understand what you’re getting at.”

He waved me inside and we sat down at the table, the tea already set out for two in anticipation of my return. I took a few sips and he started to speak again.

“The reason its like the whiskey is because I intentionally gave you an exercise that in a sense was supposed to make you sick. Not vomiting sick, but anyone else I’ve ever sent into that park has come back here either physically exhausted, angrily frustrated, or teetering on the edge of madness. But you, you’re happy and glowing like you just came back from a successful first date.”

He continued. “When one works with place, with the land, with the land spirits, its very easy to fall into the trappings of anthropocentrism. The connections forged in an ongoing relationship with the land, the ongoing process of learning to read signs and symbols, it can open up a dangerous space where we as the spirit worker become convinced that the universe and the gods and the spirits are speaking to us at every moment of every day.

“The universe is always speaking, yes. Absolutely. It is relaying messages at every moment of every day in every corner of existence. But neither you as an individual nor us humans as a whole are necessarily the intended target or recipient of those messages. And yet, many fall into that trap where they are convinced that every leaf, ever feather that falls in front of them carries a crucial meaning, and it is those unfortunate souls that tend to descend into either narcissism or madness.”

I nodded. I thought back once more to that feeling that carried me through the park, but this time I immediately recognized its potential danger.

“So yes,” he continued. “Again, the universe is always speaking, but the point is that its not always speaking to you, and the intended lesson was that opening oneself to the idea that they are the center of the universe does not end well. Sometimes the Gods are trying to get your attention, and sometimes the squirrels are just chasing a leaf and it has nothing to do with you whatsoever.

“And yet I feel that we both learned unintended but powerful lessons today. You are smart, as smart as my son if not more. And I have no doubt that you understand the lesson in its intent just as my son did. You’re just going to learn it a little differently in its application. Like my son, you will need to keep in mind how much you liked that forbidden taste, which may make resisting it a bit more challenging.”

You’re just going to learn it a little differently, I repeated to myself.

“Wait, going to learn it?” I asked. “I thought I just learned it. “

He laughed. “You have. But you’ll learn it again and again before you’re done, my dear. Lessons like these don’t begin and end, they hover constantly and tap you on the shoulder when you need another reminder.”

*     *     *

I was walking home from downtown last month when I decided to take a detour, making my way down to the riverfront so that I could walk through Waterfront Park towards the Steel Bridge.

Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie.]

It had been one of those days where the planet seemed off and the land felt shifty somehow, as though the place itself was tense in expectation. I couldn’t help but internalize that feeling as I did my errands that day, feeling myself slip into moments of uncertainty and paranoia, and everything that fell before my path seemed to confirm or further validate what I was feeling.

I was nervous, started to quicken my pace towards home, when I suddenly heard a racket out of nowhere coming from the seagulls above my head. I looked up for a split second and quickly did a double-take.

The air was full of seagulls, but they were flying haphazardly through the air, swooping unnecessarily and chaotically as they circled the immediate area. They reminded me at once of stunt pilots, swooping through the air to dazzle and amaze the crowd. But these were birds, not airplanes, and in all my years of concentrating on the flights of birds, I had never seen birds act like this before. I thought back to the uneasy feeling I had been noticing all afternoon, and as I continued to watch the birds I slowly and surely became absolutely terrified.

I watched as two gulls nearly crashed into each other, and the one that was nearly hit responded by darting up and then nose-diving straight into the river.

My mind started to race. Are we about to have an earthquake? Is a meteor about to hit? A hurricane? I looked around to see if there were any other animals acting oddly in the vicinity. A couple was walking their dogs down the riverfront path, oblivious to what I was witnessing. Their dogs were also oblivious, ambling along and sniffing the path without a care in the world.

I looked up again. The seagulls were still flying around everywhere, swirling around without end, with some yelling while others bounced from tree to tree in bursts and fits. Did something horrible just happen? Was there a terrorist attack? I pulled out my phone and quickly pulled up the news headlines as my eyes kept focus on the gulls. I then glanced back down for a moment and scanned the page. Nothing unusual, just a few sports games and some kind of international conference.

I looked back up at the sky, my fear growing as I started to think back on all the signs, all the synchronicities, all the feelings that had drifted through and past and before me over the course of the afternoon. I watched as two seagulls landed in front of me, stared blankly at each other while yelling, and then quickly took off and started circling around the nearest tree.

Minutes went past, and I continued to stare at the sky in terror, having no idea how to proceed. I wanted nothing more than to walk away, than to pretend that I never witnessed this and/or that it was simply a random and easily explainable occurrence that held no significant meaning. But my fear would not allow for such a decision. What in the world is going on here? What does it mean? What are they trying to say?

A group of seagulls then landed in front of me, and as I looked down at them I also once again glanced around the immediate vicinity, hoping that someone else was at least witnessing what was occurring in the sky. As I turned and looked behind me, I noticed a group of street kids about twenty feet away, watching me as they were stifling their laughter.

I shot them an angry look. “What are you laughing at?” I pointed at the gulls, who had once again taken to circling around like stunt pilots. “This is not funny. There’s something seriously wrong here. Birds aren’t supposed to do this. I pay attention to the gulls every day and I’ve never in my life seen them do this.”

The street kids started to crack up uncontrollably. “They’re fine, I promise you,” one of them said through his laughter.

“No, they’re really not, they’re not fine at all,” I countered.

“Well, they may not be fine right now, but they’re acting as expected,” he replied

He looked back at his friends for a moment and raised his eyebrows at the group; a few responded with a nod and a shrug. He turned back to face me again.

“Seriously, they’re fine. We just gave them some acid, that’s all.”

I stared at him, shifting from disbelief to anger to relief back to disbelief. I looked up at the birds and then back again at him, and I knew immediately that he was telling the truth.

Suddenly, my fear melted away and an overwhelming wave of relief came over me, a wave of relief so powerful that the part of me that was horrified and disgusted that someone would give psychedelic drugs to seagulls was immediately drowned out and overcome by a feeling of safety. This has nothing to do with me. Not only am I not the intended recipient, this isn’t a message for anyone. This is not an omen, the world is not ending, the universe is not trying to communicate through the seagulls. They’re birds on drugs, that’s all.

I wanted to give the kid a verbal thrashing, but I found myself speechless as the sense of relief started to shift to a feeling of utter foolishness. I can’t believe I fell into that trap, I said to myself as I stood there in front of him. I looked up once again. Oh, gods, I thought. Those poor birds.

He walked back to the group, which was still trying to collectively contain their laughter. And as I walked away towards home, I thought back to the original lesson in the park all those years ago. I continued to hear laughter around me long past the point where the street kids were out of earshot. It was laughter that I admittedly deserved. I could almost hear my teacher’s voice in my head, his commentary slightly altered for the occasion:

Sometimes the Gods are trying desperately to get your attention. But sometimes, the seagulls are just on acid.

III. The Fabric

“All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation.” Walter Benjamin

My morning routine takes me up eighty-one steps to the top of the Broadway Bridge, then down the ramp past the rear of the Post Office Facility toward Lovejoy Street, my eventual destination being a coffee shop a few blocks further down the road. It is a half-mile stretch that I have walked near-daily for over a year now, and there is not an inch of the terrain that I haven’t either studied or committed to memory at this point.

It is that deep familiarity and intimacy with the terrain and its expressions within that half-mile stretch that allow me to quickly lose myself and tune in completely to my surroundings while maintaining enough of an awareness to engage in the varied rituals that have revealed themselves as necessary over the course of many months. Every block and turn in the journey has aspects and signifiers that demand specified attention and, while I go out of my way not to invest too much meaning into any given signifier, I cant help but to ‘read’ my daily walk the way some read the tea leaves at the bottom of their cup each morning.

A week or so after the Paris bombings, I was on the return leg of my daily outing, walking up the ramp that connects Lovejoy Street to the Broadway Bridge, when I looked up at an instinctive spot and noticed an inconsistency in the landscape.

Pigeons on the light-post. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Pigeons on the light-post. [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

The light-post at the top of the ramp is home to a pigeon’s nest, and there is rarely a time that at least a dozen pigeons are not perched on the top of it. Passers-by often notice the pigeons the hard way as they are hit by poo as they walk underneath. After observing this a few times, I started making eye-contact with the pigeons as part of my daily routine, announcing my presence each time I walked under and asking them to grant me a poo-free passage.

On that day, however, when I looked up at the light pole from the bottom of the hill, I noticed that instead of pigeons, there were crows atop the pole, and they were all staring down at something below. There was not a pigeon in sight. I greeted the crows from a distance as I walked towards the pole, reaching into my pocket for some peanuts while looking around to see where the pigeons had gone.

A few steps closer, I was able to see onto the rooftop below the bridge where the crows’ gazes had been fixed for at least a minute now, and from a distance it looked like two pigeons were mating. I laughed at the idea of the crows as voyeurs, assuming that the other pigeons had the decency to grant the pair some privacy, but my amusement quickly turned to shock as the roof came into focus and I once again looked down.

Staring directly at me, less than twenty feet away, was a hawk with a pigeon in its talons, jumping up and down to smother the bird and smash it against the concrete surface while simultaneously squeezing the life out of it. I looked away in horror as I heard the crows editorializing above. I looked up briefly and observed them leering over, and I followed their eyes down as they watched the brutal display on the roof with a rapt fascination.

The hawk and I again locked eyes, and continued to stare for several seconds. The hawk maintained eye contact while continuing to squeeze the life out of the pigeon. I thought back to the seagulls in the park a few weeks prior, and then shifted to the brief and hopeful notion that this was a random occurrence devoid of any significant meaning. And yet I could not unlock my eyes, and the hawk seemingly read my mind and both his gaze and the motions of its talons intensified. At that exact moment, I heard the hawk in the back of my head.

Make no mistake. This one is for you.

I started to shake as once again terror came over me. I felt paralyzed, held there by fear and the realization that I was meant to bear witness, trapped in the gaze of the hawk as the pigeon screamed for its life. I averted my gaze for a split second and looked down at my hand, realizing that I was clenching the peanuts that I had taken out for the crows. I then turned back at the hawk, who was staring bullets through me, its head nodding in a taunting manner as the pigeon continued to struggle between the grip of the hawk’s talons.

At that moment the pigeon let out a horrible, desperate wail, and before I realized what I was doing I flung the peanuts in my hand onto the roof a few feet to the right of the hawk. As the peanuts landed on the roof, the hawk tightened its talons once more, snuffing the rest of the life out of the pigeon, and then took off with the bird in its claws while continuing to stare me down until he flew past.

The crows and the gulls on the light-pole immediately took after the hawk, and out of nowhere came a flock of pigeons, literally screaming for justice as they followed in pursuit behind the crows and the gulls, who chased the hawk under the Broadway Bridge and across the Willamette River.

I stood there, shaking, once again stunned at what I had just witnessed. I glanced around, hoping someone else had seen what I had, but this time there was nobody in sight. Looking down toward the roof, the only evidence of what had just occurred was a scattering of feathers in the exact place where the violent act had unfolded. I then scanned my eyes over toward the river in the direction of the birds, drawing immediate meaning from both the randomness and the significance of the incident as the birds disappeared out of sight.

I walked to the top of the ramp and crossed over toward the bridge and the staircase, briefly stopping to glance back at the path I had just walked. Unlike the other repeated lessons of late, this one needed no explanation, no reference, no external validity. I was all too familiar with what it meant to have a hole torn through the fabric of one’s routine, through one’s illusion of safety, and once again I recognized the value of an old lesson reinforced. I thought of the Paris attacks again and shuddered.

Heading down the stairs, a wild-eyed man was walking up toward me, and I could hear him muttering to himself as we neared each other. “Death, She speaks through the birds,” I heard him say as he brushed past me on the way up.

“Yes, yes, I know,” I muttered back.

*     *     *

Note: Columnist Alley Valkyrie, who has been with The Wild Hunt since 2013, has started her own Patreon account to help enable her to become a full-time writer and artist. 

*     *     *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

[Alley Valkyrie is one of our talented monthly columnists. If you like her stories and want to support her work at The Wild Hunt, please consider donating to our fall fundraising campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. There are only 10 days left. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Alley to be part of our writing team. Thank you so very much.]

I was headed toward a friend’s place for tea, on foot from my place to hers. I wove through Old Town, and then into the heart of downtown, climbing uphill toward the south and west. I followed I-405 as it snaked through the city center and up into the hills.

I first spotted her building from a few blocks away, perched near the base of a hill overlooking the interstate. As I walked across the overpass toward the building, I noticed how the road around the building winded back, seemingly defensively, as though it was holding the building and the hills behind it back from the man-made chasm below. I looked down at the highway for a moment and then back at the building again. The configuration of the streets around and the exits onto the highway were telling; the assortment of dead-ends and winding curves were suggestive of the historic layout of the area prior to the building of the interstate.

When I got to the other side of the overpass, I looked back for a minute, amazed at how what in actuality was the exact length of one city block felt like a much longer distance just then. It was as though I had just crossed over an invisible boundary, a ley line that felt as defensive as the curve of the road had suggested. The building itself, while obviously rooted, seemed to be almost holding on for dear life.

“Do you know how old the building is?“ I asked my friend as she let me in. “Does it pre-date the highway?”

“The building was built in ‘52,” she replied. “I’m not sure about the highway.”

I nodded. I was pretty sure the highway was built in the ‘60s, and the age and curvature of the street that snaked up past the building struck me as older than either the building or the highway. I made a mental note to do some research when I got home.

We had a lovely afternoon over tea and, after I left, I once again distinctly noticed what seemed to be an exaggerated distance and an energetic shift while walking back over the highway. Curious, I decided to follow the 405 again back toward home, but this time paying close attention to the specifics of the twists and turns; the blocks that were taken out; the houses that were obviously and sometimes awkwardly spared; the random dead-end streets that once cut through where the highway now runs.

Older houses on an awkward dead-end street overlooking I-405 [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Older houses on an awkward dead-end street overlooking I-405 [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Fifty years ago, the planning, layout and building of this highway was an event of great controversy that permanently altered the downtown landscape. While every building spared along the route has a potential saga attached as well as a potential tale of power and corruption, it was the structures and blocks that were not spared that most likely carried the most tragic and quickest forgotten stories of them all.

But while those stories are forgotten, the present negative effects of the highway have been a source of local frustration since the highway first opened. An unforgiving scar cutting through the natural topography, the highway is universally recognized as a visual eyesore, a pollution nightmare and a cumbersome structural boundary that awkwardly splits the western half of the city in two. The idea of a freeway cap has been floated around a few times over the years, but as it stands the 405 is a canyon of traffic and white noise, harshly cutting through the body that is downtown while seemingly creating a vortex-like boundary at its various crossings.

As I followed the 405 north past Burnside, I briefly paused and turned down at a familiar spot – the intersection where the highway rises from the ground and starts to elevate. While the elevated highway creates an unwelcoming, imposing shadow, the underpass provides a rare source of shelter to dozens of homeless folks who have nowhere else in the vicinity to stay dry. I walked under to say hello, and to my disgust I found that it had been recently swept by police, most likely that very morning.

 

I-405 underpass, swept by police.

I-405 underpass, swept by police. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

And for the rest of the way home, my mind was preoccupied with patterns and histories of land grabs and displacement.

*  *  *

I-405 runs straight through the heart of downtown Portland. The highway branches off from I-5 just south of the city center, running below grade as it loops around and through the center of downtown, then rises in elevation and eventually over the Fremont Bridge, rejoining I-5 again on the east side of the Willamette River.

I-405 on the left and I-5 on the right in blue, forming a loop through and around Portland. Image by OpenStreetMap

I-405 on the left and I-5 on the right in blue, forming a loop through and around Portland. [Image Credit: OpenStreetMap]

It turned out that my friend’s building did indeed pre-date the highway, and I was able to locate an aerial map from the 1950s that showed the downtown core in its glory several years before they broke ground on the path of the 405. Tracing the current path of the highway over the streets and structures in the photo, I could see how the previous street grid combined with the natural topographic features influenced the eventual path of the cavernous interstate. As I suspected while standing on the overpass earlier that afternoon, the building was the last structure at the edge of the hill that was spared when the highway was built through the neighborhood.

Aerial photo of Portland, circa 1955. The red dashes indicate where I-405 would be built a decade later.

Aerial photo of Portland, circa 1955. The red dashes indicate where I-405 would be built a decade later.

A few days later, I found myself at the corner of NW Glisan and 13th on my way to the reuse store, subconsciously anticipating a ritualized pattern as I hesitated for a moment and summoned my strength before heading westward across the street.

Its not that far, I said to myself, and yet I felt myself resisting, as though I was trying to talk my body into a five-mile hike as opposed to a destination that was less than five blocks away.

Its not that far, I said again, and yet there was something about this last leg of the journey that was consistently overriding my everyday sense of time and distance. It wasn’t just a one-off; I felt this resistance every time I was set to walk west of 13th Street. I looked up at the terrain before me, the small hill that led to the overpass that crosses I-405. Its just a hill, I said to myself.

It has nothing to do with the hill, I said right back to myself, as I realized that this psychic resistance had a counterpart: the walk that I had taken over the same highway on my way to tea a few days prior. It was not the distance, nor the climbing elevation, but the act of walking over the 405 itself that felt so fatiguing.

I walked quickly up the hill and onto the overpass, pausing halfway across. Staring northward at the 405, I closed my eyes for a moment and envisioned the layout of Portland, transposing the route of the highway over that image in my mind. The slightly jagged line, running directly through the center of the natural shape of the land mass, immediately brought to mind an often bare-chested friend who bore a vertical scar down the center of his chest from open-heart surgery. I opened my eyes and chewed on the layers of meaning that sprung from such an image; the highways ripping through the hearts of communities, of neighborhoods, of the city center, the visual scar that the highway leaves on the landscape to remind us of that brutal surgery many years ago.

The overpass and the highway beneath [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

The overpass and the highway beneath [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

As the traffic whizzed by me, turning downward into the chasm-as-highway, I remembered that the technical name for the road I was standing on was an arterial road, and the significance of the metaphor grew ever stronger as I stood there, watching the concrete arteries literally feeding into the heart, into the scar, into the highway

Suddenly the west side of Portland was a living being before my eyes, highway-as-scar torn through her chest, with cars being fed to the highway from the roads-as-arteries that cradled out and enclosed the land mass from all directions. The two halves of the west side took the shape of lungs on either side of the highway, and she breathed in and out as the cars circulated in and out from the highway and the arterial roads from every direction.

The west side of Portland, divided by the 405 in yellow.

The west side of Portland, divided by the 405 in yellow. [Public domain Image]

I turned around and walked back, abandoning my destination, deliberately falling into and feeling each step that I took down and off the overpass. I was preoccupied with the sudden realization that the hesitance, the vortex, the skewed distance and/or perception made sense once I took into account that I was walking over a living wound.

I looked down as the cars sped past below, never-ending, through the arteries, drowning everything out for blocks. Everything, that is, except for the energetic effects of the wound itself, which could not be drowned out no matter how loud the white noise.

*  *  *

The next day, I decided to walk the length of the 405 as far as I could toward the river, and then cross over and follow the edge of I-5 going north, reading the journey along the way as though it were a story.

Where I-405 breaks off to route through the heart of downtown, I-5 runs over the Marquam Bridge and then north through southeast Portland. There, for the first few miles, it runs mostly on and over landfill, towering over patches of grass and fill dirt that extended the river’s edge by the equivalent of up to two city blocks.

It’s not until I-5 crosses Sullivan’s Gulch, just south of where the two highways rejoin on Portland’s east side, that I-5 creates an even more damaging effect than I-405 does through downtown. This time, the highway cuts through five miles’ worth of residential neighborhoods in north Portland up through to the Columbia River. The interstate cuts like a knife straight through a series of communities that were the heart of the Black community in the 1960s – a community that was already once-displaced a generation earlier as a result of deliberate racism and negligence.

Out of all the advances in urban planning over the past half-century, in not only technology and philosophy but policy and practice, the one true reliable constant is that eminent domain will inevitably be wielded against those who are the least equipped to fight it. Tucked within the overall story of any urban planning “achievement” is the suffering of those who were uprooted; their communities demolished; their homes taken for far lesser value than they were actually worth.

I-5 at N. Lombard Street, circa 1973. Public domain.

I-5 at N. Lombard Street, circa 1973. [Public domain Photo]

As I walked north, following the interstate just to the east of its edge, I started to notice lots and blocks where the continuance of the cycle of displacement was currently unfolding. Four and six-story buildings were going up in lots surrounded by single-family homes, and a noticeable amount of houses were undergoing significant renovations that indicated recent turnover. The same neighborhoods that I-5 sliced a wound through fifty years ago were now undergoing various stages of gentrification, and it appeared that many longtime residents were being uprooted nearly as quickly as those who lived along what became the route of I-5 were forced out all those years ago.

Walking along, taking in the details, absorbing the quaintness and the beauty alongside the construction and destruction, I started to alternate back and forth over each overpass I came across. The strength of its boundary felt even stronger here than it did several miles south on the 405, and with good reason. While the 5 in north Portland does not cut as deep as the south end of the 405 does, the 5, at the overpasses I was crossing, spans three city blocks as opposed to the single block-wide chasm that contains the 405 through the downtown core.

Each time I looked across at the houses on one side and then the other, I couldn’t stop thinking that what I knew were once pieces of a connected community seemed all too far away from the pieces on the other side. I thought again of the heart and knew I was standing in a place where the heart had truly been torn out, where two halves were permanently disconnected with little hope of reunification. I tried to picture the houses that once stood in the path of the interstate, tried to imagine what the neighborhood would have looked like without a giant canyon of speed and noise running through it, but contemplating the vastness of what had been obliterated quickly overwhelmed me. I thought of the heart and the arteries again, realized that I had fully taken in what I had set out to know for now, and I headed away from the interstate back down towards the river to process it all.

*  *  *

In the few weeks since I walked alongside the highways, I’ve gradually changed my routes so that I deliberately cross over the 405 on a near-daily basis. Each time I cross, I note the wound and the boundary. I greet the older buildings teetering at the edges, and yet I mainly focus on the warped perception of distance, often imagining that I’m pulling the two halves of the neighborhood closer together as I make my way across the chasm of traffic below.

And, while I can’t definitively attribute it to either a deepening of my relationship with the chasm itself or the effects of a deeper awareness and attention to specifics along my route, each time I cross with attention and intention I take away with me a little piece of understanding – a sign of some type, a detail that holds a greater meaning. Despite the eyesore despite the vortex, the arteries and the wall of sound, I’m finding that the chasm itself tells many stories from its edges.

It’s a fitting conclusion when I consider that the ‘story’ that originally focused my attention on the interstate in the first place was a building perched at the edge of the chasm as though it was holding on for dear life.

*    *    *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

[Alley Valkyrie is one of our talented monthly columnists. If you like her stories and want to support her work at The Wild Hunt, please consider donating to our fall fundraising campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Alley to be part of our writing team. Thank you very much.]

“The housing crisis doesn’t exist because the system isn’t working. It exists because that’s the way the system works.” – Herbert Marcuse

Borders and Fortifications

On one side of the post office sits Bud Clark Commons, a Housing First complex that also functions as a day center and a drop-in shelter for the homeless. Extending just eastward from Bud Clark Commons are both Union Station and the Greyhound station, anchoring one of the defining corridors of what little still remains of Portland’s ‘Skid Row’.

Portland's main post office. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Portland’s main post office. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

On the other side of the post office is the eastern edge of what is now known as the Pearl District, a neighborhood currently at the tail end of a twenty-year redevelopment plan that transformed the area from an industrial district to the most expensive neighborhood in Portland. Trendy shops, bars and restaurants and million-dollar condos now dominate the ten-block radius just west of the Post Office complex; a neighborhood which thirty years earlier was dominated by auto repair shops, warehouse art spaces, and various types of industry.

The post office itself is not only the city’s main post office, but also the main processing facility for all of Oregon and southwest Washington. The complex stretches from Hoyt Street to the tail end of the Broadway Bridge, spanning 14 acres and the equivalent of eight city blocks. The post office predates both Bud Clark Commons and the Pearl District by a generation, having first opened to the public at the height of the Kennedy administration.

Rear view of the post office complex. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Rear view of the post office complex. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

While the physical presence of the post office creates a delineating barrier of sorts in terms of its sheer size alone, there’s more to it than just that. It serves as a significant energetic buffer between two neighborhoods that are on the opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. The post office stands as neutral ground, holding a space understood as commons at an otherwise volatile crossroads where affluent folks often feel uncomfortable two blocks to the east, while poor folks are made to feel uncomfortable only two blocks to the west.

It feels and acts as a fortification as well as a territory of safe passage. But the fortification is seen as an obstacle in the present day, as the eight blocks that the complex rests on is among the most valuable land in Portland. City planners and local developers have been itching to redevelop the land for years and, after many years of negotiations, the plan is finally coming to fruition. The timeline has not been set as of yet, but the complex’s days are all but numbered. 

I actually learned this news as I was standing in front of the post office itself, staring into the newspaper box at the headline. Since I don’t believe in coincidence, I stood there digesting the moment when a older man tapped me on the shoulder – a man who I knew to frequent the area around the train station.

“You live here, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. He continued.

“You know this whole place is done for, right?” he said, gesturing with his hand in an arc towards the complex. “According to the news, its going to be condos or some crap like that. The whole thing, coming down.”

I nodded.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking. I mean, I know what they’re thinking, they’re thinking money. And it may make dollars but it makes no damn sense. Not to me, anyway. They want to take over all of it.” He pointed over towards the Greyhound Station. “All the hotels, all the SROs, straight up to Burnside, they want to take over all of it.”

“Yes, yes they do”, I said to him sadly.

“And where do we go then, huh? Where we all gonna go?”

He walked away without waiting for an answer, which was a small relief only in that I sure didn’t have one. The only thing I could focus on at the moment was that this was at least the third time that month that I had a nearly identical conversation in nearly this exact spot.

Vice, Temperance, and the Vanishing Commons

The term “skid row” originates from the greased skids that made up the roads that loggers would use to transport cut logs from the forest to the river in the Pacific Northwest. To be ‘on the skids” was to have no choice but to live in such an area, as the conditions of the roads were considered not to be fit for dignified habitation.

Portland’s skid row stretches down through Old Town Chinatown, butting up against the borders of downtown proper. It has unwaveringly held that territory since Portland’s early days when it was considered one of the world’s most dangerous port cities. The history of “vice” in Old Town is as old as the history of the city itself, and it is both that history of vice and the resistance against its proliferation that define much of the landscape and the historic nature of the area.

Portland's historic 'Benson Bubblers'. originally installed as temperance fountains in the early 20th century.
Portland’s historic ‘Benson Bubblers’. originally installed as temperance fountains in the early 20th century.

As a result of well over a century’s worth of blue-collar domination, much of the original infrastructure is still intact. Old Town and the northern edge of Downtown are home to an impressive inventory of Victorian-era commercial buildings, many of which are historic landmarks and have been kept up to their original glory. Others, no less lacking in history, have fallen in disrepair over the course of many years, but many still retain landmark status and due to the current real estate boom are newly slated for renovation and preservation.

Unlike the sidewalks outside of busy establishments, which for the most part are regularly controlled and policed, the sidewalks outside the tenant-less, abandoned buildings of Old Town function as a commons, not too differently than the the block which contains the post office. In the absence of anywhere else to carry out such functions, homeless folk of all stripes eat, sleep, commune, fight, bicker, barter, hustle, and otherwise claim territory throughout these uncontrolled sidewalks, which in turn only adds to the desires of developers to gentrify the area and displace such folk.

Long abandoned, the Grove Hotel is slated for renovation and restoration in the near future.

Long abandoned, the Grove Hotel is slated for renovation and restoration in the near future.

Those who displace and renovate also rebrand, and Portland’s rebranding on a national level of being a haven and destination for craft beer is starkly reflected in the newer establishments that have accompanied the recent waves of gentrification throughout Old Town and the surrounding areas. Hipster vice has replaced working-class vice as the area is slowly overtaken by drinking establishments that cater to the young and affluent. Meanwhile, bars that cater to the neighborhood’s historic population have all but disappeared.

Business owners and community members alike credit themselves for “cleaning up” the area, and while I’m sure they’re “cleaning up” economically, it becomes apparent after a while to those who live here that they’ve simply replaced one group of unruly drunks with another. Apparently it was not the presence of “vice” itself that was supposedly “dragging down” the area as much as it was the socioeconomic class of those who were partaking.

Ruins and Reminders

Before Portland had a source and the proper infrastructure for importing natural gas, it manufactured gas from oil in a process known as “coking.” The Portland Gas and Coke (Gasco) plant was built in 1913 on the NW riverfront just across from St. John’s, just north of where the Cathedral Bridge would be built nearly twenty years later. The plant refined gas from 1913 until the city converted to natural gas in 1957, and the plant was shut down a year later. An estimated 30,000 cubic yards of coal tar had accumulated on the site over the years. Fifteen years later, it was covered with landfill when the site was sold, and most of the operational buildings were demolished.

The original administrative building, built in 1913, still stands and has been vacant for nearly sixty years. It is perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful Gothic ruin that I have ever seen with my own eyes. A ghostly reminder of the past, it is one of Portland’s most photographed structures, and over the past several years a fence has been installed and a guard put on duty in order to discourage explorers and adventure-seekers.

In addition to the crumbling condition of the building itself, the land that it sits on is among the most contaminated areas along a stretch of the Willamette River through Portland that has been designated a Superfund site. A DEQ report from the late ‘90s states that contaminated water was detected up to 100 feet below the surface of the west bank of the Willamette. Any significant cleanup of both the Gasco site and the Superfund site has yet to begin.

NWNatural, who still owns the building, announced last year that the building was to be slated for demolition. A community group attempted to raise the funds to buy the building, but they failed in their effort, and NWNatural announced last week that the Gasco building is to be demolished next month. Its reasoning mostly centers around safety. But what is unspoken yet completely understood is that, once the site is cleaned up, the land that the building currently stands on will be quite valuable.

It stands on its own as a sentimental tragedy that such a beautiful structure is to meet the wrecking ball, but there’s something that hits deeper in the timing of the announcement, given that demolition and gentrification have dominated both media headlines and local conversations nonstop for the past several months. The announcement comes in the same wave as the proposed redevelopment of the post office site, further talks of an “urban renewal” plan for the adjacent Old Town neighborhood, and a record number of demolitions and no-cause evictions. While the destruction of the building itself is a significant historical loss, the timing, the symbolism, and the layers of meaning and crossover between the demolition of the Gasco building and the greater overhauling of the city and its denizens — these combined factors speak to a much greater collective tragedy than the loss of any one structure.

Confessions over Coffee

“I mean, there’s a part of me that feels like I did a bad thing, but at that price I just couldn’t say no.”

I looked over at the table next to me and saw two men in suits with portfolio cases at their sides, having what obviously was a heart-to-heart over some sort of business decision. Intrigued, I leaned in slightly in order to properly overhear the conversation.

“Are you crazy?” the other man replied. “You said yourself that you profited nearly a hundred times what your grandfather originally paid for that land. Every other house on the block had already had a date with a wrecking ball. How many hundreds of houses have you bought and flipped over the past five years? This is really no different.”

“It’s a little different. He built that house with his own two hands. That house was a Sears bungalow from the 20s… you know, the kind you bought and put together yourself. Three generations in that house. Mom’s still confused, still thinks we own the house or that she lives there, but we all agreed that she’s better off in a home… but still. It’s the house itself. Its this weird attachment, almost. Knowing they’re going to raze it. I feel like I signed its death warrant.”

1920s era Sears kit house. Public domain.

1920s era Sears kit house. Public domain.

“Its business, Tom,” the other man said after a moment. “You need to remember its just business.”

“I know. I need to stop. It’s just a house. But there’s something that feels nagging.”

I stared at them in disbelief as I realized that this man, obviously a wealthy real-estate developer, had sold his family homestead out from under his ailing mother, not out of economic need but purely for profit. Suddenly I felt sick, and I quickly got up and headed toward the door.

That nagging something that you feel is most likely your ancestors, I muttered under my breath as I walked past them on my way out.

The Yelling Field and the Green Cross

Anywhere I’ve ever moved to, I quickly seek out the abandoned parts, the empty lots and the derelict warehouses. I look for a place, hopefully with features that echo, where I can yell as loud as I need to and nobody’s close enough to hear or investigate or call the police. I call these places my ‘yelling fields’.

When I settled into this neighborhood, I found my closest yelling field a mile or so up the main drag from my building, just north of the Fremont Bridge. A series of abandoned waterfront lots, a few dotted with ‘for sale’ signs but no sign of activity, and nothing else for blocks other than an ancient-looking bar and a run-down strip club a few blocks away across the street.

I thought it to be a consistent landscape that wouldn’t surprise me with any significant changes, but I walked by one day and noticed two things at once. My yelling field was suddenly fenced in, with a sign from a construction company posted in the center of the lot. And across the street, the strip club had closed, and in the window covering the old sign was a new sign that stated “Coming Soon” above a picture of a green cross, which in Portland is the universal symbol for a marijuana dispensary.

I stared at the sign for a minute, thinking back. Fifteen years ago, when I watched New York City undergo a similarly massive gentrification, the “Coming Soon” sign accompanied by a Starbucks logo became known as the telltale symbol that an area was about to gentrify. I realized at that moment that this symbol in front of me was operating on the same pattern, that the green cross held the same symbolic power in this new chapter of gentrification as the ubiquitous coffee goddess did when that first wave hit New York.

And sure enough, I watched over what seemed like only a few months as not only my yelling field, but several consecutive waterfront lots, went from abandoned industrial frontage to high-end condominiums and townhouse apartments. The dispensary opened right around the same time that the first completed development did.

I lost my yelling field while developers created a cash cow. Meanwhile, recent signage indicates that more riverfront construction is to come.

Demolition and Migration

I heard them talking while standing next to the food carts waiting for my lunch.

Food carts in downtown Portland. Photo by Another Believer.

Food carts in downtown Portland. [Photo by Another Believer.]

“We’ve been living in that house for less than six months, and our landlord just sold the house right out from under us. We have less than thirty days, and I have no clue what we’re going to do. I mean, the realtor literally just knocked on the door, asked for the owner, and made an offer right there…”

Her friend nodded in acknowledgement, and she continued.

“Turns out that same developer bought three other houses on the same side of the street. Apparently if they’re approved for a zoning change, all four will be demolished to build condo units.”

“Yeah, that’s happening everywhere,” her friend said awkwardly, obviously not knowing what else to say.

“Yep, and so I’m just following the pattern of migration. I don’t know what else to do, so we’re all looking in way outer SE for a big house out there. But then the folks who already live out there are then pushed farther out once folks like me start moving in. So in following the pattern, I’m complicit in the cycle.”

They paused for a moment. “But my only other option is to go back to Arizona and there is absolutely nothing for me there. I have community here. I need to stay here. But I can’t stand the thought of being the gentrifier. I feel like I’m either I’m screwed or I’m screwing someone no matter what I do…”

I swear, this entire town is having the same conversation, I said to myself.

Remedies and Realities

I stepped out of Powell’s and saw a man with a sign.

“Rent Tripled, Newly Homeless. Need $28 for a Bed, Keeping My Job Depends On It.”

I gave him a dollar and walked down the street, looking up for a moment at a building just long enough to notice a green cross in the window. It didn’t matter where I went, what I read, where I looked, who I talked to. Everything, everywhere, from the people to the signs to the snippets floating through the air, a city in crisis that was broadcasting and reflecting its collective distress through every possible method of expression.

A few blocks later I walked past a man sheltering himself in newspapers. I stopped for a moment and noticed that the headlines that were covering his legs stated that Portland mayor Charlie Hales announced that he wants to declare a housing emergency, while the headlines covering his feet highlighted a proposed “demolition tax.” I’m not sure if the man was aware of the irony and symbolism contained in his presence at that moment, but the universal broadcast was suddenly much louder than I could really handle.

Walking home, mind racing, I realized that I couldn’t recall a day this month where the local headlines haven’t greeted me with displacement-related stories, whether its astronomical rents, multiple mass evictions of both tenants and artists, studies that stress that the national housing crisis is about to worsen, the impending eviction of a longtime homeless camp, ominous comparisons to the market situation in San Francisco, citizen calls for a renters’ state of emergency, and now the potential for a housing emergency actually being declared.

And yet the hope of a remedy provided no real or imagined comfort. It was clear from the level of the broadcasting crisis around me that most others weren’t fooled either.

*    *    *

bell hooks had it right when she described gentrification as “colonization, post-colonial style”.

Her words serve as an important reminder that the term ‘gentrification’ itself fools us into thinking that what is currently occurring in both Portland and in cities all over the world is a 21st century phenomenon and a “sign of the times.” In reality, this is only the latest round in a cycle of colonization and primitive accumulation that has been ongoing for hundreds of years.  And, it is a cycle that will continue its destruction unchecked as long as laws, policies, and sentiments continue to value and prioritize profit and property rights over human need.

In the meantime, I remain in search of and in service to the ever-vanishing waterfront ruins and yelling fields, consistently and helplessly bearing witness as the economic powers allied with the green cross and the wrecking ball seek to displace and devour every last square inch of this city.

And in those searchings and wanderings, my mind keeps going back to the displaced. I keep thinking of the conversation with the man in front of the post office. I wish someone had an answer for him. I wish I knew where he could go.

I’m not sure where I’ll go, either.

*    *    *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.