Can a species lose their senses? De-evolve? Like, could humans lose their sense of smell?
I was thinking about this the other day while writing a poem about communication and connection in our flash poetry session during our IPCC 2021 GREEN SHABBAT MURMURATION 0821 2021.
I was thinking about the things we gain and lose through our virtual screen encounters. We see and hear each other, but have we lost the fragrance of friendship? How does that alter our relationships?
And then COVID, of course, can erase our sense of taste and smell, perhaps permanently. I found the narrative/metaphorical resonance between these two interesting on a story level, especially as I continue to think about how COVID may be a strategic systems response to human planetary impact and how it may play as an actor in our evolution. (You can read about my thoughts on COVID and evolution here: The Empathy of Birds: Lessons from Pacha Mama in the Face of Despair.)
We are losing our senses.
Given the geopolitical chaos that we witness daily on screen, we might argue that WE HAVE ALREADY LOST OUR SENSES.
What does this mean? What are the ramifications of cutting off our multi sensory communication systems that allow us to connect with each other, to understand each other, to understand other creatures, to connect and interact with the pulsing shimmering world?
AND OF COURSE THE BIG QUESTION--what does it mean for HUMANS to evolve? To DE VOLVE?
So here is my poem:
A POEM ABOUT CONNECTION
I can hear the swirl of the birds
the whir of their wings
and then, their sharp
I am watching
I am not
in that field.
They tell me
the smell of the birds
That a murmuration
is not only the glory
of the visual dance
but the SOUND
and the sudden rush
as the birds
turn in the air
during this global pandemic
I find that I see loved ones
hear loved ones
through the flat
square of the screen.
But their scent?
I have no idea.
I don't remember
of a friendship.
Smell holds MEMORY.
Our brain stores
I am trying to train
to use their nose.
They left the oven on.
Do you smell it?
Do you smell
I wonder how sharp
their noses will become
to the sharp scent
The burning forest
the melting asphalt
the stench of the water
at the edge of the beach.
I'm always running late... like a decade or two behind.
For instance, my peers have already had their midlife crisis years and years and YEARS ago. I think. I mean they MUST have. But then how can I really know. I haven't seen them for a while. I don't live near them. I don't live in their house.
I am not their best ex friend or their sister that they no longer talk too. A MID life crisis is a thing of consequence. A thing of conscience.
They seem so put together. Like they've got their shit together, their houses clean, all their wooden ducks in a row. Or, then again, maybe they haven't really had that mid life crisis after all. Who can tell these days, right? What with virtual reality and AI and all those face aging apps, and our charming insistence to use our favorite profile pictures from when we were 33 or 23 or just plain 3. Who the hell knows how old anyone is anymore?
The good news is, IF I'm doing the math right, if I'm having a MIDlife crisis NOW this means I am going to live to be 112.
CAVEAT: my husband tells me that it doesn't quite work like that. I mean, I shouldn't take MID life to be something quite so literal. But I am the daughter of medical Evangelical missionaries. I was literally raised to think that language is LITERAL.
I look at him.
GIVE ME A BREAK!
I CAN DO THE MATH.
56 + 56
+ I've got Swedish genes
and Irish genes....
If I don't die of despair or depression or drink myself to death first (not that I drink...)
if I am not struck by lightening
for something I do or say
or didn't do or didn't say
If I'm not RAPTURED first
I'm in for the long haul.
Thankfully, I guess, I've always been a late bloomer.
For instance, it just dawned on me in the last few months that I really should get a job, like, a REAL job. Where you show up every day and work with a team of other people who show up every day and where you receive a benefits plan and a dental plan and LIFE INSURANCE and have a boss.... Hey, I could be retiring by now! Cashing out my 401K and all. SH*T I don't even know what that is.
So far my benefits include meeting extraordinary people, taking naps, listening to birds and cicadas before dawn, watching the sunrise, watching the sunset, searching the sky for manna, not having to go to work every day, working all day, waking up super early, having the house all to myself in the middle of the night, cleaning the house in the middle of the night and still tripping over dishes in the morning....
I really shouldn't be telling my own secrets or anyone else's for that matter.
Which is why I am having a midlife crisis...
I am officially rethinking the whole secret life thing.
The whole gosh darn kit and kaboodle (even my missionary swearing betrays me and THIS is what I would like to officially question WHY am I still afraid that I might be burned at the stake or go to HELL, or not be RAPTURED (good G*d PLEASE don't rapture me), or die a sudden painful death from cancer, or called a wh*re, so still screwing up the courage to talk about THAT. Though it helps that most people who still believe in the rapture are wearing MAGA hats. That's a clear line I can stand on the other side of...MAGA hats are proof of my vindication.)
My husband laughs at me when I get mad. He laughs at me when I swear.
I don't have the gifts or genes to curse like a Cuban, bless you wherever you are my dear Jose O Vilanova.
I could use your fire today.
And if you are afraid to curse, afraid to burn ears, afraid to make someone mad, afraid to pull back the veil, afraid to tell your own damn story because it might impinge or cast shade on someone else, then how do you talk at all?
How do you talk about history? How do you talk about a life lived? YOUR life lived...
How do you go about writing a memoir, for example, except maybe one that serves as a performance piece with a stage filled with falling fluttering white pages.
That could be cathartic.
That could be all I need to say.
White pages. White history. White lies.
I can hear my husband laughing. My mother laughing.
We once had a conversation as my mother was dying from ovarian cancer about how we all dreamed of being the silent type. Holding words close to the chest. Raising the quizzical brow. If you knew my mother, or my husband, or ME for that matter, you know how ridiculous that sounds. Silence is something I dream about.
Silence is something that wraps me up tight like the silken threads of a green cocoon.
MY life lived, YOUR life lived, my father's life, my mother's life, my great grandmother's life, my children's life, my husband's life... How do you tell these stories without betraying yourself or the ones you live close to or the ones you love?
Do you turn to fiction?
Do you turn to farce?
But then, how do you NOT tell these stories. We've listened to the news. We've read history.
Silence is complicity.
Silence is also betrayal.
How do you go about orienting yourself if you can't tell your own story, if you are forbidden to tell your father's story, your mother's story, your son's story, your daughter's story?
Is it just me? Am I the only one that gets squeamish at the idea of speaking truth?
And yes I know, DEAR READER, I am a grown woman.
Half way to 112! I don't need permission to talk.
I can say what I think and then think about what I say, and change my thoughts all around. I can stand on my head and chant limericks if I want to. Who the hell cares.
After all, I am 56 half way to 112.
Lots of lessons learned, a lifetime of lessons still to come. Some of those may be harder, some may be easier. I am hopeful that I will learn faster. That I have learned a thing or two in life about learning a thing or two and actually putting that knowledge to work.
So in the midst of my mid life crisis, I am rethinking the whole truth telling writing life narrative thing. I can feel the weight of my ancestors breathing down my neck. I can hear their Christian voices. The voices of the CHRISTIAN FATHERS...
It gives me chills.
Rethinking my vocation.
Rethinking what it means to be a story teller, a writer, a scholar, a daughter, a mother...
And what I have come to so far is this: maybe I should grow up already.
Maybe I should run away to the circus.
Maybe I should become a belly dancer.
Maybe I should become a priestess.
Maybe I should become a midwife.
Maybe I should become a flame thrower.
Maybe I should become a surgeon.
Maybe I should become a designer.
Maybe I should become an engineer.
Maybe I should become a painter.
Maybe I should become a prophet.
Maybe I should become a poet.
Maybe I should become a comedian.
After all, me and my friends, we're headed to 112!
We have a whole life time left to live.
Happy Monday everyone!
A comment on the College Admissions Counselors FB page reminded me that as we launch into Common App season again, we have the opportunity as international counselors to open up conversations about colonialism and the construction of racism and its different articulations within different countries and continents.
The Common App question asking students to identify their race and ethnicities always befuddles my students here in Ecuador. They are confused by the question since they may never have encountered this question before. For better or worse, Ecuadorian institutions don't ask these questions.
Over the years, I have taken the time to pause on this question and discuss the construction of race and the history of systemic racism—how racial divides have been constructed and imposed through the conquest, colonialism and slavery—with different articulations and systemic expressions on different continents and in different countries. Ecuador’s racial divide focuses on Indigenous Peoples and African Ecuadorians.
That said, students of privilege in Ecuador from upper class families are often shocked to encounter racism when they go to the US as they are lumped into the vitriol against Hispanics and immigrants. Many of my students experience racism directed at them for the first time when they go to the US. Almost all my students tell me after the fact about the different encounters they have with racist comments and ignorant assumptions. They have been verbally attacked for speaking Spanish on the train or in restaurants. One of my students even had an encounter with a racist older man in the South that went viral.
This isn't new. When I first went to the states to study in the western suburbs of Chicago in the mid 1980's I was shocked to see Hispanic friends smeared by racist comments both by students and professors. No one ever made a comment to me, even though I am Ecuadorian because I am of Swedish Irish English descent and pass as White American.
So, back to the Common App and the opportunity it provides to open up conversations around racism and prepare students for different social landscapes where they may encounter racism directed against them for the first time.
For many of my students, the conversation, and their encounters with the unfamiliar US, UK, or European racial landscape helps open their eyes to the way that THEY hold racial power in their positions of privilege in Ecuador.
Back around the time of the Charlottesville march there was a news story about a group of Colombian kids who identified as white supremacists and went to Europe to participate in a sponsored white supremacist event where they were attacked and badly beaten because they were not white.
All to say, the Common App questions can be shocking or puzzling to non US students and it provides an opportunity for us as counselors to talk about the history of racial oppression, the systemic construction of racism and how that shapes educational systems as well as to prepare our students to participate and navigate these important discussions of racial justice--both at home and abroad.
Sometimes the most obvious insight takes years to see.
All my life I have worked hard to learn how to read the body and read the land. To read my life and the lives of those circling around me.
Narratives, after all, are what sustain us, propel us. They are the flicker of flame that allows us to see, even barely, into the shifting shadows. They are the skeleton that reveals the shape of a life lived in the air, on the land, in the underground river, or in the volcano vents at the bottom of the warming sea.
Narratives are lifelines that we cast ahead of us.
Narratives are anchors that ground us.
Narratives are phosphorescent remnants that shimmer within sight of our descendants, filaments of stories that we leave behind.
I have been thinking about dying. I imagine others have been thinking the same. After all, we have passed 500 days of the global pandemic with over 4.24 million dead.
I know people who have died. I imagine you do too.
Some at a distance. Others, beloved.
Some from COVID.
Some in accidents.
Some through long illness.
Some pulled out in the riptide.
And then the others, holding on. Holding on. Resisting.
When I say I have been thinking of dying, I don't just mean I have listened every night to the tally of the dead. But rather, I have been thinking about living and the shape of a life, the shape of my life.
How to begin my day.
How to end my day.
How to end my days.
What is it that I want to accomplish?
What is it that I want to do?
Who are the people I want to be with?
Whose voices do I want to hear?
Who are MY 7 starlings? Who are those 7 birds that I must follow as I swoop with the flock at sunset? As we clear the ground of predators? As we settle in for the night?
Who should I follow in this vast murmuration that is our collective life?
A flock of starlings flies near Tarragona, Spain. Photograph by Tony Marshall in The Atlantic. For more images of murmurations from this series check out this lovely article.
So this is the insight that came to me this morning. So obvious, but I am apparently still learning to understand the world with a flickering flame in my hand in the midst of shifting shadows.
In dying, there is a lesson.
The reason why we leave this world naked and empty handed, is simply because in life we must share all of the gifts the Creator has so generously handed to us, so that when we die we have nothing left to give.
Nothing left to return.