no filter on this photo. everything is a shade of violet, pink, purple, magenta at sundown. never practiced much graffiti but i appreciate it. always saw growing plants in abandoned lots as a variation, a kinship in practice, a certain kind of art. especially encouraging the growth of the wild ones.
many people question the practice of allowing plants to grow on their own accord. but when we get to talking, engaging, and addressing issues like clean air, deterring illegal dumping, creating a tiny ecology of livelihood, people come to understand. the plants are often here to help us.
with regards to the photo, you can see the money sign sprayed next to the wheat paste. our intention has never been to make money at the garden. but it has been to disrupt the normal flow of capital. developers have had their way with abandoned space in philly. it is long past due that people challenge that. there is a network of gardens throughout the city who are fighting for the land. there is a webwork of people fighting for the rights of housing. we are not the first. we are not the last. at moments it seems disparate, but connections are made strangely in the way that seeds flutter through the air and land down in the most unassumed places. they care not for borders and grow wherever they are determined to grow.
the echinacea in the foreground has historically been worked with as an antidote to snake bites. at a certain point in time, most likely recently when snakes became less populous in populated spaces, echinacea shifted into an immune booster. it stimulates the immune system, so it is recommended only for limited periods. otherwise overuse can potentially push the immune system into allergic reaction. more or less the body starts rejecting the medicine.
sometimes it is necessary to surge and pull back and administer different medicines to complement and continue what has already been put into effect. i’m currently witnessing this with the move from 8th and cherry to city hall. the movement and free flow of people is not only necessary but natural.
it is clear to many of us that we live in dire times. there are moments concurrently happening across the country. from teachers’ strikes to OCCUPY to electoral splashes of DSA candidates. everyone deserves access to education, healthcare, time for family, shelter over our heads, nutrient dense food, paid vacation and extended holiday, paid maternity leave, and the list goes on.
to see the world flourish like the old texts say, what is everyone actually working for
Consider that you are loved.
Even when people don’t know how to show it.
Even when you don’t know how to receive it.
Consider that you are loved.
There is a lot going on in this world. A lot of struggle. People are hurting in all kinds of ways. We all know this. We feel it deeply. In our bones. In our flesh. In our shortness of breath. The panic. We lash out. Bare our teeth. Snap and growl. Especially with those we love. We snarl. Spit. Act nasty. Get ugly. We bottle up our emotions and explode.
We have this tool. The internet. To reveal our happiness. Our scorn. Our absolute disgust. Our love and relationships. We tell little lies and noble truths to garner scraps of attention. We fumble and flop and flounder
biding our time until what?
What is more intimate and revealing than feeling safe to express our darkness, our hatred, our anger? To be listened to in silence. Ears big as elephants. Hearts large as houses. What is more intimate and revealing than the gesture of loving space held?
I spent a small bit of time with an Argentinian writer and anarchist outside of Buenos Aries. We talked about love. Amor y rabia. He disagreed vehemently with the idea that “all you need is love” in no roundabout words he called it shit. People need housing and healthcare. People need time to spend with their families. People need food. You can’t eat love.
I didn’t disagree with him. But our conversation was loud and passionful because we still need love.
We still need love.
We live in greedy times.
The days are eaten up by work.
Work is eaten up by bosses.
The vicious cycle plays out from the time we hit the alarm clock to the time we clock out. Labor is stolen. Time is stolen. Where does that leave love? Love is not a currency. Love is not quantifiable.
Love gets shoved into a box and wrapped as a present to give a few times a year. Love gets a hallmark card scribbled on at the last minute the barcode succinctly ignored. Love gets pushed around yelled at stomped on used like a doormat ripped out of the chest tossed in the gutter and rained on.
I love the rain.
Love gets the brunt of the anger and rage. The hatred swirling in the short breaths taken without acknowledging we are actually living blood pumping hearts stomping out of the chest into the streets to scream at whoever will listen.
Love. We are mourning. We are grieving. We do not always mean what we say. We may believe in the moment the harshness. The fuck you. The curses swelling like waves. But we are a loud cry from those who deserve it.
The rule makers have no peace in their hearts. Only greed.
The greed trickles down
turns us all green
we puke our disgust
onto one another.
We are covered in the anger
meant for another
meant for the collective
to wield as a weapon
to recall times of the guillotine
pulling down figure heads
and holding them up for show.
Consider that you are loved.
Consider you are powerful
Consider that you are hurt by a loved one. It is true. We hurt one another. There is no excuse. There is no retribution for unthinkable transgressions. We are forced into situations by circumstances systemic. We cannot become alienated and isolated over minutia. We cannot spurn one another without cold reason. We must take up our chains. We must take up our anger and rage.
As I finish this poem
I overhear lyrics spoken
“I never had healthcare
just a pistol on the waist
for the people”
It gives me a moment of pause and contemplation.
There’s no denying these times are dire.
The fire burns.
The fire burns.
Consider that you are love.
That you are
another piece of the puzzle.
the big picture crumbles at the feet of tyrants. Full of greed. Full of unknowing.
We all deserve better. So much better.
They woke up early in the morning. Right as the sun peeked over the horizon. A fanciful dream left a vivid impression. Their limbs had transformed into branches and roots. Like Kafka’s metamorphosis, but a tree.
No sooner than getting out of bed and putting clothes on, a wave of depression flooded in. The feeling from the dream disappeared like a wind. Their feet and body felt heavy as though walking through miles of sludge. The struggle began. Acutely. Today was bound to be a shit day.
Where did the dark clouds come from? Why was everyday filled with tears? They tried to fid answers, but every step of the way became blocked up with harsh realities.
Detention camps. Fear propaganda. Rampant injustice.
The list could go on and on, and it created paralysis. Powerlessness. Stagnancy. They tried ignoring it for a moment, but the signs of the times seemed to be everywhere. Even walking down the street and seeing a cop car. Everyone reacted like a predator had shown up to feed on the downtrodden. Because it had. Law enforcement agents stood at a memory’s distance from Japanese internment camps and the Carlisle Indian Schools. It was just a different time with a different mask. Same methods. Divide and conquer.
The mood hung like a fog over everything.
Seeing people playing basketball on the courts or kids running around yelling and screaming seemed surreal. Unthinkable. How can anyone enjoy themselves when the air was thick with fascism? Perhaps people needed moments of reprieve. A few hours of laughter and celebration to make the world feel bearable. And of course, the kids didn’t know any better. They didn’t know the world they were brought into. To them, magic still coursed through everything.
They stood for a moment, hanging onto the chain linked fence by a few fingers, trying to remember their childhood. But it flew away like the morning’s dream. The images remained, but the feelings of freedom could only be experienced vicariously by watching the children play in passing.
Without warning, the sadness turned sharply into seething anger. Like a stranger had slashed their gut wide open. They looked around but no one was there. Their whole reality flooded with red. They gasped for breath.
Why did it always happen so quickly?
They stormed down the street, bumping shoulders, people yelling. They didn’t know what to do or where to go. They felt like dying.
They almost always wound up in a graveyard. Nobody went there so it seemed natural. They fell between the gravestones. Dry heaving. Coughing up spit and tears.
At that moment the skies covered over and broke into a thunderous downpour. They laid on their back and cried, begging for a strike of lightning right to the heart.
When the storm passed without answering their prayers, they walked dripping wet into work. They were only five minutes late this time.
You know those days when you wake up and go outside and you can’t tell if it’s a spring haze or an internal heaviness or a combination of both? And something in the brain feels like a dream and the words are wonky coming out your mouth. And simultaneously everything seems crystal clear, like conversations like the state of violence like the scream of oppression like people worn down like sirens piercing morning dreams like newborns gobsmacked with the reality of breath,
I can’t remember if that first breath tasted like pollution or not. I can’t remember opening my eyes for the first time. I can’t remember if the fluorescent hospital lights hurt or not. I can’t remember if the first rays of sun made me squint. I can’t remember the first human touch.
I used to think I was all alone in this world, but somewhere in my late teens a part of my self dissolved, like the walls of individualism caved, and I realized there are people all around. There are people inside. Voices constantly talking. I realized I am never alone. I try to hide away and find solitude, but there is always someone there, around the corner, walking, running, fighting, singing, what-have-you, in the next room. I love you. I hear you often. Although I can’t remember that first human embrace, I know I came into this world loving people, craving human touch, a strong desire for relationships that extend beyond the conceivable barrier of language.
It can be carnal at times, and base, but I like going to sleep with people. Horizontal, sixty-nine, on the floor, in the bed, ruffled sheets, no clothes, standing up, sweat meshed together like droplets of saltwater in the ocean. And that’s not it. What about handshakes and hugs. Kisses on cheeks. Arms around shoulders. Looks from across the room when eyes palpably touch and smiles perk upon faces. High fives. Shoulder rubs.
We know how precious life is. That’s why we don’t want to get out of bed on rainy mornings. To stay curled up with cats or dogs or humans. Unless it’s to retrieve a cup of coffee and a novel only to get right back under the covers after cracking the window to let in the moisture of rain that accompanies the breeze. We know how precious life is. That’s why we crack the car window and roll it all the way down to let in the salt air of the ocean because it smells like home. We know how precious life is. We do. We fight for it. Because how much time are we able to settle in deeply to appreciate it?
I see sadness in eyes. Especially in eyes that cry. But when I see eyes that don’t cry, I see sadness in shoulders, hunched up, holding the weight of tears like an aqueduct buckling with age. It makes me sad to see such sadness. It sweeps over,
We know how precious life is. It’s crystal clear. But there’s this spring haze. Or maybe it’s an internal heaviness. Could it be the dark moon calling in all the shadows? There are many reasons. Bills. Rent. Mortgage. Mouths to feed. The morning news. 60 dead. Another war. Another friend OD’d.
There’s this dream I woke up to, but I forget it now because I didn’t write it down. The day started so quickly.
I. Hornet’s Nest Dysphoria
“The first thing to depart in mental illness is the familiar. And what takes its place is bad news because not only can you not understand it, you also cannot communicate it to other people. The madman experiences something, but what it is or where it comes from he does not know.” – Philip K. Dick, Valis
It feels dangerous to talk about it out loud. So I take to writing it down.
The illusions of grandeur started when I was 19 or 20 years old. It was a three or four year period living in this particular hellscape. The internal world I traversed at that time was one of psychic torture swinging into bouts of ecstatic overload. It was volatile. Apocalyptic. Paranoia wove its way through my mind ceaselessly. I forever thought friends were inviting me out as a joke. Even a funeral I went to, beforehand, I had thoughts of not going because I kept thinking it was a ploy to out me as a scourge unfit for family and friendship. I had enough presence of mind to talk myself down from these thoughts, but it was difficult.
I remember hearing voices telling me I was a prophet, the reincarnation of Buddha, the second coming of Christ. I had thoughts telling me I was sent here by God to unveil secrets to those around me. Prophecies. Everything was a sign pointing me closer and closer. To what though? I don’t know. Enlightenment? Transcendence? Fulfillment of divine purpose? It must have been a click in my brain. A jolt in my being. A freak show of ego and narcissism. Chemistry out of whack and firing haywire. There were any number of rationalizations for it, but the fact of the matter was clear. This is happening. I don’t have any small doubt it is a major reason for me being a writer. I wanted to hammer those thoughts into submission. I wanted to mold them into stories more sane and relatable. Transform the language and find new words. I wanted to channel those thoughts into something less cultish. Less religious.
I also did not in the least want to walk that path into schizophrenia. Mental hospitals. Dissociative disorders. Strapped in institutions. Drugged into zombification.
I was haunted by fear. Outlandish visions. I had nightmares of being gang raped and beaten pretty regularly. I wondered if I was tortured in another life for a practice of witchcraft. I recall smoking weed with friends, and feeling the need to stop, because it felt as though I was inside everyone’s heads, hearing all their thoughts. I had no idea what to make of my experience, this unreality, this alternative world, that worked its way into my thinking, but I dealt with it on my own.
There were nights I sat in my room unsure how I made it through another day. I felt like I had zero control, like I was being pushed through life by an external force co-opting my inner will. I gave thanks and praises to whatever it was keeping me safe and harboring me through the chaos. Many times I considered taking off into the quiet life of monkhood. A monastery. A mountain. Somewhere cloistered and sacred. Practice daily ritual and meditation. I don’t recall talking about this with anyone until years later. Even then, I’ve kept very quiet about it. It certainly showed up in some of my writing, albeit thinly masked and self-ridiculed. I’m 31 now. It’s been about a decade. I feel like it’s been long enough to revisit these thoughts in earnest, because they don’t leave. They’re still in my memories. Much quieter now. Almost an absurdist abstraction. A surrealist spat at a distance. I’ve dealt with it in ways that I knew how. It’s different of course in the present. Back then, I felt forever on the brink of losing complete and total touch with reality. Like my head was exploding with archetypal upheaval.
It’s ironic in a way too. Don’t the teachings of Christ make such suggestions? At least the Nag Hammadi Texts? The kingdom of heaven is within. Christ is in each one of us. We don’t need the middleman of the priest to know our connection to the universe or god. In all probability, we don’t want the priest to corrupt our natural encounter with feminine.
At the time, I was also reading about shamans, so this archetypal energy was presenting itself simultaneously. But the modern American culture makes as much space for shamans in society as it does for prophets. So that didn’t seem like a much better path to tread. Michel Foucault wrote about the village idiot. The person where madness found a dwelling. Mircea Eliade relegated the shaman to a madman suffering schizophrenic delusions.
Given what was arising in me and what roles are acceptable to fulfill in modern society, I suffered a lot of confusion. At the same time this was happening, I felt more and more a part of me that is a woman. I remember a dream I had in which my mom and aunts and the women ancestors sat around me in a ceremonial circle as I heaved and cried and screamed, “I don’t want this! Why me!” “It is part of your gift,” they said calmly. “You must accept it or it will eat you alive.” The idea of being transgender or non-binary was barely on the periphery of my understanding, but even then, I have often felt like and continue to feel like both a man and a woman. Not one or the other, but an interweaving of both. This is part of the reason why Willow has become a chosen pen name.
I ate mushrooms for the first time when all this was happening. To be honest, I believe it helped me ground, get real, filter and integrate these thoughts.
During one journey in particular, I traveled back thousands of years. I lived in the trees and wore a loincloth. I overlooked the forest village in which we lived. It was paradisiacal. As I returned to the present day, I experienced the fall from grace and entered a period of profound sadness. How could civilization develop in such a way? So much violence toward one another and toward the earth. Violence that is both explicit and unconscious. But that trip, deep into the terrain of psyche, helped me understand the nature of those reoccurring grandiose illusions. We are complex beings. We are more than just our present life. We have memories encoded in our DNA. Our genes carry the weight of millennia. I don’t need to give my whole identity over to one particular upheaval of thought patterning.
There was another voice that said over and over again, “You are gay. You are gay. You are gay.” It was frustrating. It was clear that women turned me on. My sexual fantasies indicated as such. Men, not so much, but I was and continue to be open. Experimental. So sure, I’m gay. I feel an emotional, romantic connection with men. Not all men. A heartfelt brotherhood. But as teenagers, our touching one another was always aggressive and competitive, expressed through sports and wrestling around. There was less hugging. Little to no softer intimacy. This is something I craved much more than sexual attraction. There was this phrase “butt buddies.” It indicated that two friends were attached at the hip and vaguely implied that they were fucking one another. It was used as a derogative. A point of joking and making fun of people. Closeness with men was clearly discouraged.
I grew up in a place that was progressive and open, but still people were steeped in tradition. Homophobia existed in subtle ways. It wasn’t so much a hatred for the LGBTQ community, but more so a fear of it. “You’re gay” was a way to say, “you’re dumb.” When it came to sexuality, it seemed as though you could be either straight or gay but no in between. There were no degrees along the spectrum. Only a strong binary. Gay or straight. Man or woman. In the closet or out. Strict, defined boundaries. As someone who identifies as queer, this didn’t appear on my radar when I was younger. It was almost too complex. My whole experience was too complex for me to get a grip on.
Most of my younger days were spent in a hazy darkness. The space needed to find clearness of thinking and expression of an inner world didn’t really exist. I remember being relatively miserable. I had a few friends I could relate to on these matters, but I don’t think we had the language or concepts to describe what was happening to us. We most definitely searched though.
I understand consciousness forever ebbs and flows, changing like a chameleon depending on the context of society and individual state of mind, but still, it’s important to name the delusion.
Where does romance come from?
I’m specifically interested in the feeling of romance, but my curiosity has led me to take a quick look at the etymology of the word. To break it down, as an adjective, romance describes any language coming from Rome, i.e. the romance languages that derive from Latin. And from that point onward, those who told stories in the vernacular where known to romance. Often those stories involved knights, heroes, lovers, and adventure, hence the meaning we generally associate with it today.
I sense there is some patriarchal dismantling to be had given its formation during the days of chivalry, but I’ll save that for another time when my thoughts have delved more deeply into its origins and connotations.
For now, let it suffice on the surface, the feeling of romance arose from a walk through the city, a section known as Kensington.
The night air remained chilly, but not terribly freezing. Nice enough for a walk under the El with the train rattling overhead. The floodlights along the avenue showcased storefronts, most closed up for the night. The metal shutters rolled down to the ground with a clang covering up the glass windows and doors. Barbershops stayed lit up with lights and music and customers into the later hours.
I was on my way to grab a steaming bowl of noodles.
I passed an AA and NA recovery building. People hung outside. Chatting lively. A fenced-in yard stood next to it. Wonky, wooden crosses dug into the ground erected on slanted angles. Across the street a Franciscan soup kitchen loomed humble and unnoticeable save the people always around. When the weather is warm, people hang there for hours on end. Even tonight, a person slept curled up tightly with blanket, snuggled into a nook between the steps and a wall to stay protected from the wind. How tired must one be to fall asleep in the cold?
I served food there once or twice. I remember talking with a monk brother about meditation and psychedelia. In his deepest trances, he saw images of Christ meditating before him, emanating blue white and golden light. I didn’t doubt his experience. He called it visceral despite it being a visual hallucination. I just looked at him like, “You’re tripping.” He traveled with a number of other monks from Wisconsin to Philadelphia stopping at other soup kitchens and churches along the way.
I find I’m often in similar places.
A few years back I attended a Quaker church hosting Buddhist monks. They wore robes like the Franciscan monks except different colors. The Buddhist monks traveled around touring cities and sacred spaces meditating through the creation of sand mandalas.
I found it fascinating.
On one night in particular they planned to play music. I arrived early with a friend, her kids, and their friends. Right away, they ran off to explore the church. I sat with the sand mandala on my own and stared into the patterns and colors, the infinitesimally small mounds arranged so delicately, appreciating the elusive magnitude of it all.
Not soon after, a grandfather and granddaughter walked in.
“Make sure you don’t stare them in the eyes!” He warned. He carried a balloon in one hand and her hand in the other.
“How come, Pop?”
“They’ll hypnotize you!”
“Oh!” The little girl looked surprised yet enchanted, filled with a million lovable questions. She couldn’t control her excitement and interest, so all those millions of questions condensed and funneled into a simple exclamation, “But how?”
“They have snakes in their eyes!”
“Oh!” She hollered again and pointed at me from across the room, “Is he one of the snake monks?”
I smiled at the question. Her grandfather looked at me and nodded his head, “Look at his eyes. He’s got snakes!” I didn’t know what to think about that response, but it amused me. They walked over to a nearby pew.
People slowly filed in. Everyone quiet and whispering. Even the kids kept their cool for the most part.
The monks ushered us over to a different area for the music. We sat in pews and they faced us. I don’t know what I expected, maybe something relaxing or soft. Which it wasn’t. These instruments, which I couldn’t name other than brass, a shaker, a scraper, a drum, probably another horn, in addition, an interspersal of throat singing, made so much clanging and discordant nonsensical sound, it jolted me awake. It crashed into my peripheral understanding of meditation and smashed it up, dancing all over it like a danse macabre. The kids kept trying to stifle their laughter, the parents kept trying to shush them, but the laughs just bubbled up and out like a creek unimpeded and joyful. It was great. The playing. The jolting. The meditation. The laughter. It felt like seeing an abundantly playful noise band.
In all my explorations of meditation, juxtaposed to what we expect, I find the nature of violence to be a consistent theme. One full moon many moons ago, I attended a chanting meditation of the Rinpoche lineage. So much of the language described how dastardly corrupt the world is, and how strong and prevailing in spirit we must be to walk through it.
We often have this idea that peace of mind is accomplished high up in the mountains far away from society, and that’s true, it can be glimpsed at and cultivated there. But what happens when the practitioner returns to the poverty of the city? It’s a whole different world. The subtle and overt violence is striking. The gentle mask is ripped away. The air is dirty and the water’s poisoned. Are we trying to expel the darkness of life or understand it? We often have this idea that we must always be standing in the light to be healed, to acquire knowledge and wisdom, to live righteously. I think there is merit in that, but I believe wholeheartedly in living with the darkness, in continued confrontation with our demons, treading the shadowed waters. We have to be honest with ourselves. The day falls dark. The moon disappears once a month. The stars shine thousands of lightyears away. How many of them have already exploded into death?
My last semester at school, I volunteered at a soup kitchen in downtown Boston. I went once a week just about every week for a few months. We prepped food, served those who were living there and a few others who came in off the streets. It was a halfway house, so a lot of the folks were either addicts or coming out of jail or both. After serving, we ate with everyone and conversed. It seemed just about everyone wanted to talk about god. They spoke intensely and wild-eyed about their journeys discovering the divine. It pummeled them with inspiration to talk and read until their heads cracked like lightning. I was there for it. No doubt.
When we got to talking, everyone assumed I was there for a class requirement, so they acted surprised when I told them I was volunteering simply because I felt compelled. Good for you, they said. It’s not really volunteering if you’re required to do it anyhow. During that time I found myself buddying up with all kinds of people considered degenerates, drunkards, addicts, criminals etc etc more or less the demimonde, the underworld, the subterranean of castaways and outcastes.
One day I remember slicing my thumb open terribly bad. We were cutting bagels. Blood dripped onto the table like little ink blots. The pain sat me down for a long moment. I got woozy. The blood rushed from my head. Everything flashed white.
A woman stared at me smiling, “It makes you feel alive, doesn’t it?” I looked at her bug-eyed and she smiled wider. I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up. I felt sick. But her suggestion took my mind a different route. I recovered the ground under my feet and got back to helping out.
That weekend, I drove to White Plains, New York with a friend, hopped a train to NYC and a bus to Philly. My thumb throbbed and yelled at me the whole time. I tried to practice my breathing while repeating the mantra, “Pain is an illusion. Pain is an illusion.” But that worked only vaguely. The pain faded in and out slowly, without warning, and when the pain returned, the intensity didn’t subside.
That night I arrived home, I stayed up staring at the gash, wondering about the healing process. I wanted to watch the mending occur. The coagulation. The scabbing. The slowly closing up of skin like a flower opening and closing in tune with the sun. I didn’t have the patience to stare at it that long.
At one point, my cat walked into the room. I must have been in such a daze. She appeared to motion me to follow. So I did. She sat down next to an aloe plant and looked at me in that peculiar way cats do, aloof yet expecting something. I held my hands out like, “What?” So she licked my thumb and it all made sense. Of course. Aloe. I broke off a tiny piece, spoke with it, and asked it to heal my thumb. I slept with aloe that night and the following night, and in three days time, to my amazement, the cut healed like magic. I still have a little indentation on my thumb from that.
Since that time, I’ve never experienced such quick healing with aloe specifically. I continue to use it when it’s around, but tend towards other woundworts like St. John’s.
Only one other instance have I personally experienced rapid healing of that nature: I was pounding rebar stakes into the ground with a metal mallet hammer and it slipped down the side of the rebar and smashed my instep. Everyone knows how sensitive that area is. I yelled fuck! and took long, deep breaths. I went back to work, and afterwards, took a trip to the garden to pick a couple comfrey leaves. By the time I got home, my foot turned red and was beginning to swell. I didn’t even crush the leaves up into a poultice. I just wrapped my foot with the clean, intact comfrey leaf, securing it with an ace bandage. Before going to sleep, I brushed up on my study of it and stared into the other leaf I harvested. If you’ve never stared into a comfrey leaf, especially when you’re under the spell of pain, I recommend doing it. It is a deep leaf. It penetrates. It’s also called knit-bone. When I woke up the next morning, I had no pain in my foot and no evidence of swelling or bruising. I could walk on it with ease, but it was still sensitive to a heavy touch. It healed within a week.
I’m not saying plants work like this all the time, but it does happen.
When my friend broke her hand, I wrapped it with a comfrey poultice. Before doing so, it looked like a baseball mitt. She could barely move her fingers. Within an hour of applying the poultice, the swelling completely subsided and she could gently and slightly close her hand. When she showed it to her aunt and mom, they looked at me like I was some kind of witch.
I know it’s hard to believe, but plants really do work wonders with our bodies.