Archives For Alley Valkyrie

Quotations are useful in periods of ignorance or obscurantist beliefs.

– Guy Debord

*   *   *

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving in France last summer is that battles were being waged on multiple fronts.

There was the most obvious battle, the one that the media was covering, a nationwide uproar over a set of controversial labor reforms that were widely viewed as a betrayal of the working class on the part of a supposedly left-wing government.

There was a secondary battle that was playing out alongside that uproar, a guerrilla battle against capitalism and international finance that was being waged by leftists and anarchists in the form of smashed bank windows and repeated violent confrontations with police.

And then there was the battle for the imagination, the battle of dueling narratives that leftists and fascists alike were waging on every blank surface imaginable, from street poles to mailboxes to the walls of boarded-up buildings. As opposed to the aforementioned battles, the battle for the imagination was one that the leftists were obviously and solidly winning.

The words and imagery that adorned pretty much every conceivable surface passionately and effectively reflected the world that could be, the world that they were trying to build. With stickers and graffiti and street art, those who believed that ‘another world is possible’ were successfully appealing to the hearts and minds of the populace.

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That success was reflected in not only in the physical presence of a leftist culture, but in the widespread public acceptance of many of their ideas and visions and how those ideas manifested in the physical world. Actions that would be almost universally condemned in the United States, such as the repeated destruction of ATMs, were met with an attitude that ranged from indifference to gleeful acceptance.

Even those who disapproved often expressed their sympathies with the sentiments behind such actions, despite criticizing the actions themselves. They understood why the battle was being waged, and their understanding was in part closely connected to the consistent anti-capitalist messaging that they were exposed to on a daily basis.

*   *   *

The distracted person, too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses.

– Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’

In the above-quoted essay, arguably his most well-known and influential work, Walter Benjamin characterized a primary component of fascism as the politicization of the aesthetic and argued in favor of the revolutionary potential of art. Written in 1936, and grounded in his observations of the role of aesthetics as employed in Hitler’s rise to power, Benjamin detailed the transformation of art as a medium through the technologies of reproduction.

He explained how such modernization had created the potential for the utilization of art as a means in which to influence the masses, but also pointed out how that potential could and would be used for repressive and totalitarian purposes if and when the means of reproduction was concentrated in the hands of the few.

He stressed that if and when the means of reproduction were democratized, art potentially holds the same power as a tool of resistance that it held in Germany as a tool of manipulation which normalized and reinforced oppression.

While his point had always resonated with me, the truth of his statements became plainly evident after my interactions with the countless propaganda-covered street poles that I constantly encountered throughout France.

*   *   *

More than anything, Hillary [Clinton] forgot that Obama owed his first victory to an image, to an idea.

I heard the comment as I walked past an art student, talking on the phone as he was waiting for the bus outside of PNCA in northwest Portland. I knew immediately what he was referring to: Shepard Fairey’s iconic ‘HOPE’ poster, which was a near-ubiquitous image during the 2008 presidential campaign.

barack_obama_hope_poster

While his actual campaign promises and proposed policies were undoubtedly a factor in his success, one cannot underestimate the degree to which his victory was on account of his winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of a disillusioned populace through the ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘change.’ The strength of Fairey’s image and the resonance of the message inspired voters to hit the polls in record numbers.

It was many of those same voters, especially those from rural areas, living in poverty and once inspired by the ideas of ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ who switched parties and voted for Trump eight years later.

They flipped in large part because the changes that they had hoped for and expected did not materialize for them, and their hearts and minds were then subsequently captured by a very different but equally captivating message.

But this time, instead of abstract concepts like ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ this message provided not only concrete promises but definitive scapegoats.

*   *   *

The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

– Walter Benjamin

Among other factors, fascism gains its traction on account of a compelling narrative.

Fascism takes advantage of crumbling social conditions, evokes a false nostalgia for the ‘good old days,’ and frames the current material conditions as a ‘fall’ from that greatness. It then scapegoats specific parties as the cause of the fall, and promises a restoration to greatness if and only if the people place their trust in an authoritarian leader and give that leader free rein to rid us of the scapegoats that are responsible for the ‘problems.’

To its credit, liberal democracy also presents a compelling narrative. The promise of ‘freedom’ and ‘prosperity’ and ‘rights,’ especially as it is contextualized within the idea of the ‘American dream,’ has captured hearts and minds for generations now. While it is a narrative that realistically has only ever applied to certain segments of the population (mostly able-bodied white people), over the past few decades the promises of that narrative have repeatedly failed even those who had previously been granted that dream .

The ideology of fascism was birthed out of the ashes of World War I, birthed of the anger of a generation in which working-class people throughout Europe were brutally slaughtered in a war that was mainly fought in the interests of the ruling classes and in the name of democracy. It was the betrayal and/or failure of the narrative and the promises of liberal democracy in Europe that caused large segments of the population to embrace the narrative of fascism.

Although its been mostly forgotten in the mainstream retelling of history, the present turn of events in the United States is not the first time that the narrative of fascism has captured the interest of the American public. Fascism first rose in America in the years after the Great Depression, the last time that the narrative and promises of liberal democracy were proven to fail en masse throughout the North American continent.

While there were multiple factors that in combination were able to overpower the pull of fascism in America that first time around (such as the effects of the New Deal), it was ironically the economic boost that came from the war against fascism in Europe that acted as the nails in the coffin for the power of the fascist narrative in America.

Out of that war came the resurgence of liberal democracy in even greater forms, from the recognition of the United States as a global superpower to institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.

It is the crumbling and decline of those powers in the present day which in large part has ushered in the current wave of fascist tendencies. History demonstrates very clearly that when the contradictions of liberal democracy, both the obvious and hidden, start to weigh heavily enough to crack the foundations of that system, those who have benefited and profited from that system and its contradictions will inevitably embrace fascism in order to secure their wealth and their safety.

In the absence of an equally compelling counter-narrative, a significant portion of the masses will also inevitably embrace fascism and history will be left to repeat itself.

*   *   *

Il est interdit d’interdire (It is forbidden to forbid)

– Situationist slogan, May 1968

In the summer of 1968, revolutions and revolutionary tendencies echoed throughout the Western world, with varying degrees of success and lasting power. Among the most well-known uprisings of the time was the series of events in May of 1968 in France, which at its peak brought the entire French economy to a standstill and nearly toppled the national government. While history generally characterizes the French uprisings as being fueled by violence and physical resistance, the underlying current which sustained the uprisings was based in artistic expression, most notably the tactics and aesthetics of the Situationist International.

The SI was formed a decade earlier, a fusion of libertarian Marxist ideas and the ideologies and aesthetic expressions of the surrealist and dada art movements. Arguably the strongest idea to come forth from the situationists was the concept of the ‘spectacle,’ which Guy Debord described and defined as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

The concept of the spectacle was in itself a deep critique of capitalism, specifically the ways in which commodity fetishism had shifted society away from social relations based on direct experience and instead created an arena where individual expression was primarily exercised through the consumption of commodities. The aim of the SI was to reverse that trend, to prioritize and emphasize direct experience and to replace the manufactured desires of capitalism with actual and authentic desires.

This philosophy was central to the artistic and symbolic expressions that fueled the uprisings of May ’68. The emotional appeals of the SI, which stressed personal freedom, social authenticity, and political liberation, created a climate in which many believed that a new world was truly possible. Despite the eventual failure of the uprisings to foment an actual social revolution, the ideas and tactics of the SI left its mark on an entire generation of French youths, who continued with and passed on those ideas into the modern day.

Situationist graffiti in France. Public domain.

Situationist graffiti in France. Public domain.

The propaganda and messaging that is currently seen throughout every major urban area in France, as well as the understandings and philosophies behind it, is a direct and often obvious descendant of the imagery and emotion that characterized the SI and the events of May ’68.

*   *   *

When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany;” it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism.”

– Halford E. Luccock, as quoted in the New York Times, 1938.

Many tend to position liberal democracy and its inherent values as either the prophylactic against or the antidote to fascist tendencies, just as they consider the same system to be inherently opposed and in contradiction to the narrative and the promises of fascism. The values expressed in fascism are framed as the antithesis of democracy, and it is stressed that it is the failure to uphold the values of democracy that inevitably will lead to fascism.

But in reality, they are two sides of the same coin, pun intended.

Liberal democracy is the clothing we put on to hide the obscene nature of the body exposed, so to speak. When the actualized brutality and obscenity that is necessary to uphold liberal democracy is revealed, such as the violence recently witnessed at Standing Rock, it is demonstrated for all to see that the emperor is wearing no clothes.

In that moment, liberal democracy is then maintained and upheld by the portion of the populace that continues to praise the emperor on the beauty of his garments, despite the obvious nature of the body exposed.

“The system is broken,” they say, when the actual truth is that the system is being exposed in and for its true and brutal nature, momentarily stripped of all its trappings and distractions.

It is in those moments that fascism and anti-capitalist leftism are actually in agreement, united in contradiction to the liberal democratic narrative, that in fact the system is working exactly as intended. The fascist praises and encourages the mechanics as a justified means to an end, while the leftist argues that the means do not justify the ends and that the only ethical response is to abolish the system altogether.

When the lies of liberal democracy are exposed for what they are, when the child comes forth and finally points out to the crowd that the emperor is naked, it is the narrative of either/both the fascist and/or the leftist that hold the potential power to define what is accepted as reality.

Which side actually gains power in that moment is dependent on many factors, but among the strongest factors is the ability of their respective narratives to capture the imagination.

Logical arguments do not hold much sway in those moments. Instead it is a matter of which side wins the hearts and minds of the masses.

*   *   *

Nature is a temple in which living columns sometimes emit confused words. Man approaches it through forests of symbols, which observe him with familiar glances.

– Charles Baudelaire

Writers such as Baudelaire or Benjamin are far from the only ones who recognize the power inherent in imagery.

Witches, Pagans, occultists, magicians, and related folk have long understood the potential power that art and symbols have to affect reality and material circumstances.

A powerful reminder of that knowledge popped up in my inbox while I was in the process of outlining this very article.

“Have you seen this?” a friend asked, and sent me a link.

The link was to a website called Curse DAPL, complete with specific instructions and an accompanying sigil intended to curse those building the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The neverending argument around the ethics of cursing notwithstanding, the use of symbolism in the form of sigils as a method of fighting oppression and resisting is a time-tested method that spans countless cultures and societies.

On a personal level, seeing that folks in our communities are using sigil magic in order to disrupt capitalist forces filled me with pride and hope, especially considering that so many are unable to participate in the on-the-ground fight against the DAPL.

As the material circumstances that characterize our world as we know it continue to shift and disintegrate, I can only hope that such methods become more and more utilized and widespread.

*   *   *

The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is, rather, a Weltanschauung which has become actual, materially translated. It is a world vision which has become objectified. 6. The spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society.

— Guy Debord, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’

While most corporations and retailers used Black Friday as a way to convince people to buy tangible items at rock-bottom prices, the folks at Cards Against Humanity had a different idea.

They decided to dig a literal hole in the ground for three days straight, with an appeal to the public to pay for the digging by the minute. They had a live video feed of the hole, and a running tally that looked no different from any other crowdfunding campaign.

Despite its absurdity, the stunt resonated with people on several levels, not only as a commentary on consumerism and the existential bleakness of the modern day, but as a painful and arguably hilarious example of what people were willing to actually spend money on. Excerpted from the website’s FAQ:

What do I get for contributing money to the hole?

A deeper hole. What else are you going to buy, an iPod?

Why aren’t you giving all this money to charity?

Why aren’t YOU giving all this money to charity? It’s your money.

What if you dig so deep you hit hot magma?

At least then we’d feel something.

In the same country where thousands are dying on the streets without aid and thousands more are suffering from lack of medical care, after three days, the ‘holiday hole’ brought in over $100,000. As has been shown countless times before this one, the plight of the suffering has nothing on the draw and the temptation of the spectacle.

Aside from the obvious resonance in terms of the current sociopolitical climate, my first thought was of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies showering Wall Street with dollar bills and then laughing while the hapless traders on the floor abandoned their tasks in order to scramble for every dollar, disrupting the machine of capitalism with the very substance that fuels it.

While such tactics and stunts owe an certain debt to the situationists and the idea of the spectacle, its important to recognize that the theatrical tactics of the American ‘New Left’ were arguably responsible for replacing and displacing the last vestiges of actualized radical struggle in the United States. Once political theater became mainstream in terms of both public acceptance as well as expectation, militant tactics were for the most part abandoned by the mostly white, college-educated left in the United States. This eventually led to a massive loss of political power and social capital, which contributed to the rise of neoliberalism and the post-civil rights era conservative movements that now dominate the political landscape and control much of its discourse.

Moreover, the movements and organizations that did not abandon militant radicalism, such as the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, were left standing alone and subsequently targeted and destroyed from both within and without by the likes of COINTELPRO.

While the humor of such political theater doesn’t lead to direct and actualized change, the potential effect that such humorous spectacles can have on the masses should not be understated. Cards Against Humanity just proved that to the tune of $100,000, and while part of me winces at that reality, another part of me wonders if and how that tendency can be manipulated in favor of a spectacle that creates an actual means to an end.

*   *   *

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

– Walter Benjamin

The ‘culture jamming’ movement, which came to prominence in the political climate of the mid-1980s, was deeply influenced by the work of Guy Debord and the Situationist International, most notably their concept of détournement.

Adbusters corporate flag. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh

Adbusters corporate flag. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh

But of course, in accordance with the tendencies of capitalism, it did not take long for culture jamming itself to go from a simple method and strategy of expression to a marketed product with the emergence of publications such as Adbusters. It only took a few years for Adbusters to reposition themselves from critics of consumer culture to willing participants in commodity fetishism under the guise of ‘ethical capitalism.’

I personally think that the spirit of Guy Debord is simultaneously horrified and amused by such circumstances, as it equally acts as an insult to his legacy as well as a solid confirmation of his theories around the nature of the spectacle. But the success that Adbusters found in marketing dissent is also important lesson in terms of its reach and effectiveness and should not discourage us from carrying on the traditions of politicizing art that were pioneered by either the situationists or the culture jammers.

*   *   *

“Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way.”

– Jean Anouilh

We tend to interpret the word ‘propaganda’ as information that is inherently untrustworthy. We refer to “Soviet propaganda” or “anarchist propaganda” with the understanding that those folks likely aren’t telling the ‘truth.’

Historically, propaganda was generally regarded as a neutral force, holding true to its Latin roots. ‘Propaganda’ derives from propagare, meaning ‘to propagate,’ and propaganda was recognized as a powerful weapon that could be wielded in the name of countless agendas. It was only with the rise the phenomenon that Benjamin observed, of authoritarian governments that disseminated mass propaganda through the means of mechanical reproduction in order to manipulate the public in favor of repressive tendencies, that the word took on a permanently negative connotation.

While our tendency is to distrust anything that we consider to be propaganda, we place a rather impressive amount of trust in the great corporate propaganda machine known as advertising. The assumption is that the unsanctioned graffiti or flyer or poster is trying to pull one over on us, but we tend to accept that four out of five dentists recommend Crest without much thought or criticism. We generally grant the benefit of the doubt to the claims made by advertising, despite widespread knowledge of the degree to which that medium is manipulating us.

And yet, just as the only true difference between ‘militarism’ and ‘terrorism’ is legitimatization on the part of the state, the only difference between what we consider to be ‘advertising’ and what is disparaged as ‘propaganda’ or ‘graffiti’ is legitimatization on the part of society and our acquiescence to the various ways in which the state and capital control the commons. Our trust in one over the other is rooted not in fact or substance but in our cultural programming, in our tendency to trust authority.

Those who condemn political graffiti generally do not reserve the same criticism for corporate and/or political advertising, and in that inconsistency they further strengthen the power that capital has over the commons and by extension over our thoughts and our minds.

Graffiti by Banksy, Brighton, England. Photo by ShoZu

Graffiti by Banksy, Brighton, England. Photo by ShoZu

The ubiquity of advertising in modern society and the tight control of access to that medium and the spaces it inhabits act as a current reflection and confirmation of Benjamin’s observations concerning the effects of the means of reproduction when concentrated in the hands of the few.

While the idea of ‘reclaiming the commons’ is usually centered on occupying public space and ‘commoning’ activities such as community gardens, reclaiming and rewriting the messages that currently define the modern commons is an overlooked and necessary component of creating a narrative that has the potential to challenge that of the status quo.

If fascism relies on the aestheticization of politics, fascism needs to be fought by politicizing the aesthetic.

*   *   *

Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.

Banksy

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

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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.

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befunky-design2

“An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” G. K. Chesterton

I.

I left the hotel on foot and headed towards the zócalo, unable to ignore the irresistible pull of the town square any longer. It was my third day in Toluca and my first morning off, and I deliberately woke up early just itching to explore, knowing that I would want as much time as possible to myself before I was needed at the university around noon.

A few blocks from the hotel, I was scanning my eyes for something to eat or drink when I spotted a man with a burro on the other side of the street. On the burro’s back was a large barrel, and the man was holding a bottle of what looked just like horchata. My stomach growled, and without thinking much of it I crossed the street and approached the man and his burro.

“Cuanto?” I asked, pointing at the barrel.

“Quince.”

I reached into my pocket. The man seemed rather surprised, his expression a combination of curiosity and confusion. “Quince?” I confirmed as I handed him my coins. He nodded, and poured a bottle from the barrel, plugged it with a crudely-made but beautiful cork stopper, and handed it to me.

I smiled and thanked him, and started to remove the cork to take a drink. He said something in Spanish to me at that moment of which I failed to catch a single word, and I simply nodded and smiled as I had already become accustomed to doing when I didn’t understand what was being said to me. I thanked him again, turned around, and started to walk away, pulling at the cork. He repeated himself in Spanish, I again failed to understand him, turned to nod and smile at him again, and as my stomach growled I took a big swig from the bottle.

It was most definitely not horchata.

It suddenly occurred to me that whatever the man had been saying in Spanish might have been relevant to what I was drinking. I turned around again, and he was still staring at me with that same curious expression. In the moment, it seemed necessary to both express politeness and save face, and so I smiled and thanked him once again and took another big gulp. He raised his eyebrow at me and nodded, obviously impressed.

I was impressed at myself too, impressed I was able to even keep the second sip down. The taste was memorably awful, seemingly a mix of sour milk, yeast, and lemon, with a strange thickness to it. But I wasn’t one to waste either money or food, and I badly needed something in my stomach, so I chugged the bottle as quickly as I could and tucked the empty bottle into my bag as I continued on toward the zócalo.

As I walked on, I became quickly drawn into and engrossed by my surroundings, and was distracted for several minutes until I realized I was starting to feel a bit tipsy. A few minutes later, just as I could see the zócalo in the distance, I suddenly felt very drunk.

It wasn’t even ten in the morning. No wonder the man with the burro had seemed so surprised at me.

I walked onto the zócalo, and into a sudden cacophony of noises and activity from all directions.

It was only a few days before Dia de los Muertes, and the public square of Toluca was packed with adults and schoolchildren alike, crowding the square and the adjacent market in a mad dash for sugar skulls and other holiday treats. I was suddenly overwhelmed, dizzy, and slightly scared. Getting drunk first thing in the morning had definitely not been part of my plans. I needed to center, calm down, keep myself safe. I looked around in all directions, looking for a place to stop, and out of the corner of my eye I spotted a figure waving to me.

A group of children next to me spotted the figure at the same time. They pointed to him and chattered excitedly among themselves. “La Parca, La Parca,” they repeated while giggling.

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

He made quick motions with his hands, coaxing me over, and I timidly approached the costumed figure. He did not look like a traditional grim reaper, but I know better than to argue with children and he had a strong energy of magic and death all the same.

At his feet was a bowl filled with pieces of paper. He pointed at me, and pointed at the bowl. I reached into my pocket, pulled out a few pesos, and threw them into his coin dish as I bent down to choose my fortune.

“Dos”, he said to me.

I took two, one with my left hand and one with my right. I stood up and realized he was staring at me intently.

“Bruja”, he said. It was a statement, not a question.

I nodded and smiled, this time because I actually did understand.

He then pointed to my left hand and addressed me in English. “That one is for now,” he said, motioning toward my left hand. He then motioned towards my right hand. “That other one is for later.”

“How much later?” I asked.

He shrugged. “You will know,” he replied.

I placed the paper in my left hand in my pocket, and I tucked the paper in my right hand deep in my wallet. I then turned to walk away but had a second thought. I pulled the bottle of mysterious liquid I had downed out of my bag and showed him the bottle. What is it?” I asked.

He opened the bottle, sniffed it, and started to laugh. “Pulque,” he replied. “Alcohólica.”

Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I thanked him again and stumbled on through the zócalo, shaking my head in awe at the moment and at the circumstances that had brought me here.

II.

A week earlier, I had been at home in Eugene, printing in my studio, when the phone rang unexpectedly. Am old friend and former employer was headed to Toluca in a few days to attend a conference on indigenous healing plants, and was having cold feet about traveling alone. Would I accept a free trip in exchange for acting as a personal assistant? I had never been south of the border before, and despite my other obligations, I said yes immediately without even thinking. Three days later, I was boarding a plane to Mexico.

Toluca is the capital of the state of Mexico, located about 45 minutes southwest of Mexico City. The city has a reputation for being a center for administration much more than tourism, and I had been warned my friends who knew the area that there was “not much” to see in Toluca. But my trip happened to coincide with two significant events: Mexico’s 200th anniversary and Dia de los Muertos, and the combination of the two occasions turned a ordinary state capital into an extraordinary visual feast.

I had seen snippets of the attractions and celebrations over the first few days as I went back and forth between the hotel and the university, but I hadn’t had enough free time to really take it all in until that morning on the third day, when an open-ended exploration turned into an intoxicated romp through downtown.

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

As I continued to walk through the zócalo that morning after my run-in with the reaper, I was immediately drawn to music coming from the inside of the main buildings surrounding the square. Forgetting about my obligations at the conference, I headed towards the music, and when I walked through the door I found myself in a wonderland of color and celebration. Never in my life had I seen anything like it.

The entire building had been transformed into a Day of the Dead marketplace, with stalls as far as the eye could see filled with sugar skulls, Catrinas, household decorations, baked goods and pastries, candles and other offerings, and brightly colored thematic toys for children. I was quickly sucked into the atmosphere and spent the next few hours walking through as though it was a museum, taking in every detail I possibly could as I drifted through the crowds. Between the intoxicating nature of the market itself and my own physical intoxication, I forgot about time and obligations, and I completely lost myself in the atmosphere.

As I continued to walk through the endless halls and eat many sweet things, I eventually started to sober up and to suddenly remember that I was supposed to be back at the university at noon. I looked at my phone and realized I was already an hour late. The university was a half hour away on foot. I stood there for a moment, taking it all in one last time, and then quickly headed back towards the university.

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I headed back the same way that I had made my way there, taking the most direct route between the zócalo and the university. It was about five blocks west of the route I had been walking the past three days between my hotel and the university, which had taken me through a neighborhood that contained nothing but car repair shops, block after block. As I hurried back, I noticed that the neighborhood I was walking through on this route contained almost nothing but dentist’s offices.

I stopped for a moment and looked around, and as I turned around I saw someone approaching me, waving. It was one of the students from the conference, who I had met at lunch the day before.

“Hey, there you are,” he said once I was in earshot. “The rest of your group was wondering what had happened to you.”

Dammit, I thought to myself. “Are they pissed? Did I just screw up royally?”

“No, no”, he assured me. “The noon panel was actually cancelled. Most folks decided to go out to lunch instead and we noticed that you weren’t around. I was headed downtown and told them I’d keep an eye out. And here you are so there is nothing to worry about now. Are you okay?”

I nodded. “Yes, I’m okay. I accidentally got drunk, met the grim reaper, and then found myself surrounded by music and candy. But now I feel okay again although lunch does sound good.”

“I was on my way to lunch,” he replied. “There’s an amazing little place a bit west of here down near all the suit shops. Do you want to come?”

“Yes, thank you,” I said, and we headed back towards downtown for a few blocks before taking a left towards the church. A few minutes later we started to come across various suit shops.

“Is the whole town organized this way?” I asked him as we walked. A different industry in every neighborhood?”

“Pretty much, except for the town center,” he replied. “Where I live it’s mostly barbers. I thought it odd when I first moved here but it really makes life much easier.”

We came up upon a bright red hole in the wall with a picture of a turkey leg on the side. There was only one dish, slow-roasted turkey leg with a side of cabbage. We each got a plate and sat down at the nearest table to eat.

Partway through the meal, I remembered the two slips of paper that I had taken from the reaper. I pulled out the one that I had stuffed in my pocket, the one I was supposed to read now, and handed it to my friend across the table. “Can you translate this for me?” I asked.

He stared at the paper for a moment and then smiled. “It says: Pay attention to advice that is offered in kindness. It may lead you to magical places.”

I sat with that for a moment as we ate, oscillating between brushing off the message due to its vagueness and feeling a need to take it seriously due to the nature of how I came upon it. I took the paper back from him, scribbled the translation on the back, and put it back in my pocket.

III.

We headed back towards the university, and a few blocks away we started to heard drums in the distance. We turned towards the drums for a moment but kept on our path until another friend from the conference frantically ran up to us.

“Do you want to see something that you will never see again?” he asked. I immediately thought of the message on the slip of paper. Without waiting for an answer, he then said, “Come with me, you want to see this,” and grabbed my arm. We followed him as he broke into a jog.

“We have to hurry,” he said. “It’s is about to begin.”

We came over a hill and there were dozens of people gathered in a field, some with cameras and many others with small children on their shoulders. Not far past them was a group of indigenous dancers in traditional costume, moving in motion to the beat of the drums. There was a square on the ground in front of the crowd was covered with carefully arranged fruits and legumes. In the distance a procession was slowly headed toward the field.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I looked around and suddenly realized that my friends had disappeared. I then looked next to me and a woman was looking back at me. “Do you speak English?” she asked.

I nodded. “Oh, good. I’m really getting tired of speaking only Spanish,” she said. “I’m a professor here in Mexico but I grew up in Texas and I do miss English sometimes. So hello, how are you? Do you know what this is?” she asked excitedly, pointing towards the dancers and the procession in the distance.

“I have no idea,” I said. “But it’s beautiful.”

“It is called the Dance of the Fishermen,” she said, and then pointed to a group standing a few feet away. “Those are my students. We traveled from Mexico City to be here for this.”

She made a hand motion out toward the field. “They are all from Joquicingo, which is an hour south of here. This is a traditional ceremony that is rarely ever performed outside of their village.”

I nodded and then stood watching as the ceremony unfolded before me. The procession contained a beautiful mixture of Catholic and indigenous imagery, and throughout the line were children dressed as fish. The procession made its way to the center of the field, where the drums eventually faded out as both indigenous and Catholic priests started to bless the children and dancers. At that moment, I remembered the piece of paper in my pocket. I pulled it out and read it again.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

Pay attention to advice that is offered in kindness. It may lead you to magical places.

I looked around again and acknowledged the magical place that I was experiencing just then, grateful to both the friend who had dragged us over as well as the morning events that had led up to that moment.

“This is absolutely magical,” I said to the professor.

“You like magical?” she asked. “You need to go down to Malinalco if you have the time.”

“Malinalco? Where and what is that?” I asked.

“It’s a small village in the mountains not to far south of Joquicingo, maybe an hour and a half from here,” she replied. “It is known as a place of magic, of sorcery and witches and spirits. You can hire a cab to take you there for about 500 or 600 pesos, and it’s worth every penny.”

“Malinalco,” I said to myself out loud. There were two days left of the conference but then I had a full day off before we flew back. “I will try to remember that. Thank you so much.”

I turned my attention back to the ceremony, watching as children in fish costumes filed past me carrying flowers and altar boxes towards the center of the circle. And once again, I thought about the message on the slip of paper, and was then determined to follow up on the professor’s advice.

IV.

The next few days went by quickly. I didn’t venture off campus much in an effort to save my money and energy for the adventure I wanted to take once we had a day off. My traveling companion didn’t have any specific plans for that day, and it was easy to convince him that it was best spent wandering through a supposedly magical city in the mountains. I told him of the reaper and the translated fortune, and admitted that part of the reason I wanted to take this trip is because it was in line with the message. I don’t know if he took me seriously at all, but he seemed curious enough and agreed on the trip.

We walked downtown and found a cab willing to take us to Malinalco for 500 pesos, and within minutes the landscape transformed from the urban center to a rambling, desert-like countryside. We zipped up and down narrow roads that hugged the sides of hills and mountains, passing by and through a number of small towns as we made our way down and through a large valley. After an hour or so, we could see a decent size city in the distance. Our driver pointed to it and smiled as he took a sharp turn down towards the city.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

A few minutes later the city was directly in front of us, and immediately we were both overcome by its energy and its charm. From the backseat of the cab I could tell we had made the right decision. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.

We wandered the streets for hours, with every single interaction having a feel of enchantment to it. Every building we walked into, ever alleyway we turned down had a distinct taste of magic. We had lunch in the market in the town square, where random people came up to us and gifted us with candy and flowers. When we decided to wander off the main roads and into a residential area, we were randomly invited inside an old stone house that looked like it came straight out of Faery. And it was quickly obvious that owner was as pleased with our reactions as we were pleased at what we were seeing.

After we left, we stumbled upon an old church that contained a shrine to Guadalupe, where I left her flowers and then thanked the reaper for the message as we walked past the graveyard. At that moment I remembered that the second message, the one that was “for later,” was still in my wallet.

We treated ourselves to pastries at a coffee shop and ended up lost in a fascinating conversation with an American expat couple who had moved to Malinalco because it felt like a “spirit magnet” to them. They had also ended up here due to the random advice from a friend, and moved there permanently a few months later. Looking around, I could understand that pull, as I was feeling touches of it myself.

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[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

“This place feels like a dream,” I said out of nowhere.

“Oh, yes,” one of them replied. “And the dreams themselves are very vivid here, more so than in most places. Are you staying the night?”

“No,” I answered. “I would love to, but we need to get back to Toluca tonight.”

“Oh, well you better do that soon then,” the other replied. “Cabs don’t run here all night. And they’re a bit pricier than they cost in Toluca, just so you are aware.”

My companion and I looked at each other, slightly alarmed. We had put aside exactly 600 pesos, assuming that the ride back would be comparable to the cost of getting there, and we had just spent the rest of the money we brought with us on the pastries.

We thanked them and headed towards where the cabs had been gathered. Sure enough, most of the cabs that had been parked there earlier in the day were gone. The drivers were huddled at the end of the street smoking cigarettes, and as we approached them a large man emerged from the crowd and addressed us, acting as though he was in charge of all the other drivers.

“Can we help you?” he asked in English.

“Yes, can anyone take us back to Toluca?” I asked

“Absolutely. 800 pesos.”

We looked at each other and shrugged and sighed before I turned back to the man in charge. “We only have 600 pesos on us. Would anyone be willing to take us back for 600?”

The man turned towards the drivers and started yelling at them in Spanish. Most of them shook their heads no. And then after a moment, a younger, smaller driver emerged from the back of the crowd with his hand up.”

“Ah, see, Joe will take you there,” the man in charge told us. “He’s still learning his way around, so he charges a bit less. But it’s an easy route. He shouldn’t get lost. Right, Joe?” he asked as he turned back around towards the driver and laughed.

Joe the driver laughed back. “No, I won’t get lost,” he said a bit nervously. My companion and I looked at each other and shrugged again. We didn’t have much of a choice but to trust Joe at this point.

We got in the cab and Joe sped out of town. The sun was just starting to set, and the countryside was beautifully illuminated as we made our way back up and through the valleys and mountains. Staring out the window, I started to briefly drift off when my companion shook me awake. “Do you hear that?” he asked.

I paused to listen and heard a very prominent grinding noise coming from underneath the car. “Yup,” I answered. “That is not a good sound.” I tapped Joe on the shoulder and pointed down towards the noise. “I’m a little worried about that noise,” I said to him.

“Oh, I’m sorry, so sorry about that,” he quickly replied in an apologetic tone, and proceeded to turn up the radio loud enough so that we could not hear the noise coming from underneath.

I felt like both laughing and crying at that moment, and neither of us knew what to say to each other nor was there much we could do, so we simply stared out the window. I started to silently pray to whoever was listening in hopes that we would get back safely.

Not long after that, Joe turned off the main road and suddenly we were in a small town, one we had not passed through on the way there.

“Umm, where are we going?” I asked him. He ignored me and rolled down his window as several people ran towards the vehicle, smiling and waving at him. A woman leaned into the car to give him a long kiss, and I realized that we were witnessing a family reunion of sorts.

“Are we in his hometown or something?” my companion asked me.

“I think so,” I answered, and strained to listen to the conversation going on through the window. “And if I’m understanding correctly, he’s asking that other man for directions back to Toluca. ”

A few minutes later, we were back on the main road, radio still at full volume, heading for Toluca. I was tired at this point, but paying attention just enough to notice that as we approached the city, the driver went right past the main exit for Toluca. I tapped him on the shoulder again.

“Excuse me, but I think you missed the exit,” I said.

“Oh no no, no worries, I know the way,” he assured me. Hoping that he had been given an alternate route when he stopped for directions, I leaned back into my seat again, but then it became clear very quickly that we were lost.

It was dark at this point, and while we were somewhere on the edges of the city, nothing looked familiar. We both started to feel nervous. Not knowing what else to do, I reached into my wallet and pulled out the other slip of paper from the reaper. I then pulled out my Spanish dictionary and started to translate the slip of paper in the back of the cab.

“What are you doing?” my companion asked me.

“Hoping this piece of paper holds the answer,” I answered as calmly as possible. By then we seemed to be driving in circles, and I could tell that the driver was also nervous at this point but trying his best to hide it and stay calm.

“But why are you doing that now?” he asked.

“Because I don’t know what else to do,” I answered. “I was told by the reaper that I’d know when to read it, and right now feels like that time. Have you got a better idea at the moment?”

“Fair enough,” he said. “What does it say?”

The driver pulled over to make a phone call just as I finished looking up the words of the sentence. I read it to myself a few times, digesting it before reading aloud.

“It says, “When in trouble, trust your intuition. It might make the difference between life and death.”

“Well that’s just lovely,” he replied. “Could you possibly have produced anything more ominous?” I shot him a dirty look, and he paused for a moment before continuing.

“Okay then,” he said carefully. “What does your intuition tell you right now?”

“I think we should get out right here and make it back on foot before we end up even more lost,” I said quickly, the words pouring out of my mouth before I could really think them through.

The driver was still on the phone, his voice sounding even more panicked. “We are going to get out here,” I told him. “Can you find your way back the way you came?”

He nodded, looking relieved. “I’m sorry,” he said, obviously embarrassed.

We hopped out of the cab, and as he drove away we looked around at our surroundings. We had ended up in the neighborhood that specialized in funeral supplies. There was nothing but coffin and urn stores as far as we could see in either direction. Other than us, the neighborhood was deserted, with barely a street light to guide our way.

“And how is this any better than being lost in the cab?” he asked me. “We are literally surrounded by death.”

He was terrified, but I thought there was something beautiful about it. It was two nights before the Day of the Dead, and there I was, lost in a mid-sized city in Mexico in a neighborhood filled with coffins. I thought back to all the crazy twists over the past week that had led up to this moment and started to laugh uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked me, sounding both annoyed and nervous. “Have you gone mad?”

“Probably,” I replied. “But I do think I might know how to get back from here. Someone mentioned this neighborhood the other day and I’m pretty sure it’s not far from the area with all the suits, and if we can find that place I can find our way back to the hotel.”

We walked in the dark for the next hour or so, wandering up and down the deserted, coffin-filled streets until the funeral supply shops finally faded out and the rows of pantsuit shops began. Eventually we came across an intersection that I recognized from my lunch at the turkey shack. From there we could see the lights in the town center, and we both breathed a sigh of relief. We had found our way back.

“Do me a favor?” he asked as we walked up to the hotel. “Can we get through the rest of this trip without you relying so much on reapers and little slips of paper? Please?”

“Oh, come on.” I replied. “That entire adventure was amazing and you know it.”

“It was something, all right,” he answered. “That was all definitely something.”

V.

The next morning, I woke up somewhat early, feeling the need to head downtown one last time before we had to head back to the airport. Part of me wanted to see the displays of sugar skulls again, and another part of me was hoping to run into the Reaper again, though I wasn’t quite sure why.

On the way back towards the zócalo, I once again passed the man with the burro. He recognized me and waved me over. I shook my head and thanked him without stopping, wanting to acknowledge his role as the catalyst for my series of adventures but not wanting to end up with another bottle of pulque.

[Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

I continued on, and as I approached the zócalo I kept my eye out for the reaper, but he was nowhere to be found.

Inside the market, I found a small Catrina figure inside a coffin, which I felt the need to have given what had occurred the night before. After I purchased it, I went out onto the square again to observe for a few minutes. Government employees in suits were walking quickly between the buildings as children in costumes darted between and around them. I took it all in for a moment, thanked the place itself for its role in my experiences there, and then headed back to the hotel for the last time.

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*  *  *

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.

[Alley Valkyire is one of our talented monthly columnists. On the fourth Friday, she brings you insight and analysis about issues coming from within or affecting our collective communities. If you enjoy her work, consider donating to our fall fund drive today. It is your dollars and your support that make it possible for Alley and our columnists to continue their dedicated work, and for us to bring on more talented monthly voices. Please donate today and share the campaign! Thank you.]

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I. The Discovery

A few weeks ago, it was announced that the wreck of the HMS Terror, one of two ships that comprised the long-lost Franklin expedition, was found on the ocean floor southwest of King William Island in what is now known as Terror Bay.

This discovery comes almost exactly two years after Franklin’s other ship, the HMS Erebus, was found farther southward in the same general area. Both were found by exploration teams that were financed by the Canadian government.

Many major news outlets in both North America and Europe have covered the story of both “discoveries” and to some degree have mentioned the history that has led to this point, but overall these media sources have failed to highlight the fact that the location of the shipwrecks have been known to local Inuit communities since the time of the exploration’s disappearance in 1848. Instead, the focus of the stories have mostly been on modern technology and due diligence, with only a few articles even briefly mentioning the Inuit.

Native and alternative media sources, on the other hand, have been stressing this crucial aspect of the story that Eurocentric media sources have summarily ignored: that the discoveries validate over 150 years’ worth of Inuit accounts, of orally-passed folklore concerning the fate of the Franklin expedition, accounts that were dismissed and ignored countless times by generations’ worth of European explorers and researchers. While European-descended Canadian explorers celebrate their “discovery” of the ships, indigenous voices are pointing out that “the Inuit were right”, a fact that mass media as a whole has failed to note.

II. The Officer

When Sir John Franklin of the British Royal Navy set off in search of a navigable route through the Arctic Circle, he was following in the footsteps of over 350 years’ worth of exploration attempts to secure a “Northwest Passage” for the purposes of trade between Europe and China.

Franklin sailed from England with two ships and 135 men in the spring of 1845, first traveling to Scotland and then to Greenland, where the exploration then sailed west through Baffin Bay. The last European sighting of the expedition was in July of 1845, when a whaling ship spotted the Erebus and Terror moored off an iceberg in Baffin Bay, south of what is now called Devon Island.

The expedition spent the winter of 1845-6 in an encampment on the western coast of Devon Island and attempted to sail on further in the summer of 1846, but the ships became trapped in ice off the coast of King William Island in Sept., 1846.

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The note from Franklin’s crew, written in 1848 and found in 1859 . [Public domain]

The only written clue as to what had transpired from that point on came in the form of a note dated April 25, 1848, which was found in a pile of cairns on the north coast of King William Island 11 years later by an explorer searching for the lost expedition. The note stated that the crews of the Erebus and Terror had abandoned the ships in the ice just north of the island after being stuck for two years, and that 24 men had perished at that point, including Franklin in the summer of 1847. The note went on to say that the rest of the crew were going to follow the “Back’s Fish River” south, where a trading post was located.

None of the crew members ever made it to the trading post, and the most widespread and accepted theory from the time the note was found has been that both ships had sunk off the north coast of King William Island and Franklin’s crew died on foot en route to the trading post. For this reason, countless searches and rescue missions have been focused on the Victoria Strait and the northern part of King William Island.

But from the very beginning and for decades thereafter, that version of the story conflicted with numerous stories from the Inuit people, who relayed a different version of the fate of Franklin’s crew that was dismissed time and time again by those searching for the exploration.

Over 50 searches for Franklin and his crew were conducted in the decades after the disappearance of the ships and crew. Over time, more explorers and ships were lost in search of the Franklin expedition than the original casualty count of the Franklin expedition itself.

A route through the Arctic wouldn’t be discovered for nearly 60 years after Franklin’s attempt, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen successfully navigated the passage between 1903 and 1906.

III. The Lady

By all accounts, Lady Jane Franklin, the explorer’s wife, was a woman well ahead of her time. An famed explorer in her own right, she first gained attention for her travels through Australia while her husband was the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830s, and became a popular figure amongst the citizens of the colonies, noted for charitable actions and kindness. She was instrumental in founding early schools throughout the Australian settlements. She was also an early advocate concerning the conditions female convicts in Tasmania, and had corresponded with famed prison reformer Elizabeth Fry about their plight. Lady Franklin also was deeply involved in her husband’s career, with accounts detailing how she significantly managed his affairs and advised his career behind the scenes.

After her husband’s expedition was confirmed as missing in 1849, Lady Franklin devoted the rest of her life and much of her personal fortune towards finding what became of the it. She sponsored seven search parties to the Arctic between the time of the disappearance and her death in 1875, and used her social status and wealth to consistently bring attention to the unknown fate of her husband. She offered sizable cash rewards for information, and worked diligently to keep the story in the public eye and a matter of national interest.

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[Amelie Romilly, public domain]

However, she was fiercely protective of her husband’s image and legacy to a fault, and when explorers returned with information that she disapproved of or disbelieved, she also worked tirelessly to discredit such stories and in one case went to great lengths to discredit the explorer himself.

IV. The Search Parties

Scottish explorer John Rae was one of the first tasked with searching for the Franklin expedition under the authority of Lady Franklin, and he made three journeys through the Arctic from 1849 to 1854. In 1851, during an attempt to cross Victoria Strait towards King William Island, Rae described finding pieces of wood in the strait that had come from a European ship.

Three years later, while exploring the Boothia Peninsula, Rae came across local Inuit tribes who saw two ships trapped in the ice when they passed through in the fall on their way south. When they had come back through the area the following spring, they found multiple corpses and evidence of cannibalism.

When Rae relayed this information upon his return to England, he was initially credited with solving the mystery of the Franklin expedition and was granted the promised reward. Lady Franklin, however, reacted in horror, and many in the British press and upper classes, including writer Charles Dickens, shunned and publicly condemned Rae for suggesting that the crew would resort to cannibalism.

A few years later, in 1859, when Sir Leopold McClintock of the British Navy was searching for the Franklin expedition, a group of Inuit shared similar accounts of the fate of the missing ships with the explorer and his crew. They claimed that one ship sunk and another became trapped in the ice in an area they described as “Ootloo-lik.” During that same search expedition, McClintock’s team found the note left by Franklin’s men, describing ships trapped in the ice in Victoria Strait and the death of Franklin. When McClintock returned with this information, Lady Franklin apparently initially dismissed it, still convinced that Franklin was alive.

Five years after McClintock’s expedition, in 1864, American explorer Charles Hall was also searching for the Franklin expedition when he also encountered Inuit from the same region, who told him that they had stripped wood and metal from an abandoned ship that had been stranded in and crushed by the ice off the southern coast of King William Island. The ship had been found while seal hunting, there had been evidence that it had been recently inhabited, and a decomposing body had been found on board. They had also seen footprints leading to shore that were not made by Inuit.

These accounts contradicted the theory that was based on the note that McClintock found, that both ships had sunk off the northern coast of the island. The Inuit stories suggested that instead of following the river to their death, some of the crew members re-boarded the second ship and attempted to sail south, only to once again become stuck near the southern coast where they eventually perished.

And again in 1878-9, when explorer Frederick Schwatka and journalist William Henry Gilder searched for the expedition, they were told stories by local Inuits of skeletons found on the southern part of the island, and of compasses and watches and human remains found on the trapped ship. Once again signs of cannibalism were mentioned, of bones that looked as though they had been sawed off.

Lady Franklin had died a few years earlier, and could not personally refute these new claims as she had in the past, but nonetheless the claims were overall discredited and dismissed, in part because they contradicted the heroic narrative that had developed in the decades after Franklin’s disappearance.

Artistic rendering of the Franklin Expedition sailing through the Northwest Passage. Public Domain.

Artistic rendering of the Franklin Expedition sailing through the Northwest Passage. [Public domain.]

V. The Legend

The disappearance of the Franklin expedition created a sensation throughout Victorian England. Franklin and his crew were quickly cast as romantic heroes and cultural icons in the eyes of the public, and Franklin was memorialized in countless ways, from statues erected to stories and plays and musical compositions written in his honor.

One of the earliest tributes to Franklin is arguably also one of the most lasting and well known testaments to his heroic status. The folk ballad “Lady Franklin’s Lament,” which first appeared around 1850, tells of the disappearance of Franklin and the subsequent heartache of his wife from the fictional point of view of a sailor who had a dream about Franklin. Countless versions and recordings of the song have been published over the years, more recently and famously by artists such as Pentangle and Sinead O’Connor.

The lyrics of the ballad beautifully capture the sentiments of the time:

We were homeward bound one night on the deep
Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep
I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew

With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May
To seek a passage around the pole
Where we poor sailors do sometimes go

Through cruel hardships they vainly strove
Their ships on mountains of ice were drove
Only the Eskimo with his skin canoe
Was the only one that ever came through

In Baffin’s Bay where the whale fish blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin alone with his sailors do dwell

And now my burden it gives me pain
For my long-lost Franklin I would cross the main
Ten thousand pounds I would freely give
To know on earth, that my Franklin do live

Such sentiments, however, and the public image of Franklin that inspired such material, came up against many conflicts over the years as explorers brought back more and more information about the fate of the expedition, most notably the numerous Inuit accounts regarding cannibalism. From Lady Franklin’s public evisceration of John Rae to the subsequent dismissals of Inuit lore regarding the fate of the expedition, much of the denial of these stories was driven by the need to protect the public image of Franklin and his crew. The idea that the crew resorted to cannibalism to survive was highly offensive to Victorian-era sensibilities, as such heroic Englishmen would obviously never resort to such “barbaric” acts.

VI. The Bones

Searches for the Franklin expedition continued throughout the early part of the 20th century, but tapered off after the 1930s. The last notable expedition of that era was in 1931, when a manager for the Hudson’s Bay Company named William Gibson retraced the assumed route of the expedition on land and found several skeletons as well as pieces of naval cloth and wood from the ships.

Fifty years went by after Gibson’s finds without any other significant developments. Then in 1981, a forensic anthropology project backed by the University of Alberta started to search for remains of the expedition on the west coast of King William Island. Researchers found extensive skeletal remains, and they had the bone matter tested. The results showed that the crew members of the Franklin expedition likely died of vitamin C deficiency and/or lead poisoning.

Later excavations throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s yielded bones with distinctive cut marks. Scientists then determined the cuts were likely the result of cannibalism, thus validating the various Inuit accounts as well as the reports from John Rae, whose name and career had been essentially destroyed as a result of accurately relaying what he had been told.

VII. The Discovery

In 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper initiated a new round of searches for the Franklin expedition, although it has been steadily argued that his intent was not to solve the mystery of the expedition as much as it was to assert dominance over the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Circle as a whole for the purposes of trade and profit.

Due to the increased melting of the polar ice caps, the Northwest Passage has become more easily navigable and for a longer portion of the year than it has ever been in the history of maritime exploration. This “development,” courtesy of climate change, has significant consequences for international trade as the “ownership” of those waters has long been in dispute. Canada claims sovereignty over the waters of the Arctic based on the British Empire ceding their claims to Canada in the 1880s, but the United States and many other countries consider the Northwest Passage to be international waters.

Additionally, the melting ice is also creating countless new opportunities for offshore drilling and mineral exploration, and the Canadian government has a significant interest in securing and asserting the rights to such explorations. Canada’s claim on the Northwest Passage has been framed as a matter of national interest, a message which has been specifically aimed towards Inuit communities in the Arctic Circle despite the fact that climate change and offshore drilling threatens the livelihood of those very communities.

Uncovering the wrecks of Franklin’s ships also factored prominently into the nationalist ideals that Harper’s government had promoted since taking power. The Franklin expedition was a key moment in the early history of Canada, and discovering the remains of the expedition would not only potentially legitimize Canada’s claims to the Arctic, but it would also inevitably strengthen the narrative that romanticizes the Arctic Circle as the birthplace of Canada as a nation.

For seven summers, Canadian anthropologists searched the northern, western, and southern shores of King William Island, uncovering numerous artifacts related to the expedition. They also conducted underwater searches both in the northern location where the note stated that the ships had become trapped as well as the more southward locations where Inuit lore claimed one of the ships had sailed before becoming permanently trapped.

In September of 2014, Harper announced that one of the ships had been found south of King William Island. At the time of the initial announcement, archaeologists had yet to determine which ship it was, but a month later it was reported that the find was the remains of the HMS Erebus, the ship that Franklin himself was thought to have died on.

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[Alex Guibord]

But despite the fact that it was found in an area that matched the Inuit accounts of where it had sank, Harper’s public statement failed to mention those accounts and their importance in the discovery, instead lavishing credit onto various military and governmental entities before giving unspecified thanks to the government of Nunavut for their “tireless efforts.” Additionally, Harper’s government excluded representatives from Inuit communities from discussions and negotiations concerning the ownership of the finds, despite a legal agreement which grants 50% of archaeological finds in Nunavut to the Inuit people.

Then in September 2016, it was announced that the “perfectly preserved” remains of the HMS Terror was found on the southwest coast of King William Island, north of where the Erebus was found but still 60 miles south of where the ships were assumed by Europeans to have been abandoned in the ice. Not only was it also found in an area that the Inuit had been mentioning for over 150 years, but the sunken positions of both ships in relation to where they were assumed to have abandoned also matches up with Inuit accounts.

Additionally, it is of note that the only reason that the search team was searching that specific area in the first place was due to hearing a story from a young Inuit crewman on their ship. He stated that he had seen a wooden mast sticking out of the ice in Terror Bay off the southwest coast of King William Island while on a fishing trip six years earlier. The search team was initially set to search in area described by the note found in the cairns, but after hearing the story from their fellow crewman, the ship decided to break with historical tendencies and for once a search party did not dismiss the story they had been told by a local. The ship then headed towards the location where the wreck was finally found.

But once again, the Inuit are fighting for a voice in the upcoming discussions concerning what is to become of the artifacts.

*   *   *

If there is any one consistent theme that defines the Franklin story from the very beginning to the present events, it is the belief in European superiority. From the earliest dismissals and outrage over Inuit accounts of the crew’s fate to the current denial of Inuit rights to the artifacts from the wreckage, its clear that overall the attitudes and actions on the part of those in positions of power have not changed much in over 150 years.

It is also that superiority which has fueled the relentless pursuits of strategic dominance that set the stage for both the beginning and the eventual ending of the Franklin story. The fact that the remains of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were only ever recovered in concert with Canada’s attempt to exert control over the very same route that Franklin died attempting to navigate is a notable synchronicity to say the very least. And its a connection that occurred as a continuation of the same imperialist and economic intentions that prompted the initial wave of European exploration through the Arctic in the first place.

As Inuit representative Cathy Towtongie told the Guardian:

If Inuit had been consulted 200 years ago and asked for their traditional knowledge – this is our backyard – those two wrecks would have been found, lives would have been saved. I’m confident of that.

But they believed their civilization was superior and that was their undoing.

 

*   *   *

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.

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.

visitor7

[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.