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The Otherwise of Where We Are

Karen Margolis, “Moleculars: Miasma,” 2011

“There she goes, Persephone caught in a whirlwind the underside

churns up, the otherwise of where we are…”

- From “Prairie,” in Rivering by Daphne Marlatt

We need different stories for different historical moments. Our stories tell us who we are, as individuals and as a community, and also offer us visions of who we might be. What stories are we telling right now, and what stories do we actually need?

The daily newsfeed is awash in charts of confirmed cases, masks and ventilators, testing swabs, risk analysis, jobs lost, deaths. Worry is the modus operandi of the moment, and numbers the language employed to manage that anxiety. These stories offer the illusion of security even when the numbers – and the facts – keep changing.

For better or worse, my own anxiety isn’t easily assuaged by abstraction. It seeks more concrete places to lodge. Lately I’ve been fixated on a strange little lump on my right index finger. Back in February, I had called my family doctor to get it checked, but before I could see her, Covid-19 arrived and minor complaints like bumps on fingers suddenly seemed quaint. The appointment was cancelled.

My acupuncturist, despite being deemed nonessential, has continued to meet with her patients online, offering virtual acupressure and advice on herbs and diet. When my own fear threatens to dislodge me, I find solace in the stories of bodies that she tells, stories that are markedly different from what is on offer in the daily news. So, when I felt overcome by distraction, I scheduled a Zoom call with Angela.

A bit ashamed of the finger-lump obsession, which, in the glare of Zoom, seemed ridiculously insignificant, I focused instead on all the other things I’d been worrying about. My sinuses are blocked, I tell her. My chest feels tight. My digestion is out of whack. I’m exhausted. Should I get tested? She suggested I try massaging an acupressure point to stimulate the large intestine meridian. She showed me a diagram of the pathway, which begins on the left side of the nose and extends down to the right index finger. Right where the lump is. The lump that I hadn’t mentioned.

The large intestine system, I learn, is in charge of separating out that which we no longer need. When that meridian is malfunctioning, we lose the ability to distinguish between useful and useless, beneficial and harmful. Failure to eliminate the old leaves no room to take in what is fresh and new, resulting in stuffiness (sinuses, swelling) and lifelessness (exhaustion). Not attending to the health of this network, of separating and eliminating -- can also lead to rigidity in deep visceral muscles; the diaphragm and intestines may become tense and spastic (difficulty breathing, indigestion).

Also: the Large Intestine is intimately related to the Lung network, which is the Yin to the Large Intestine’s Yang. For every breath taken in, for every inspiration, there needs to be an equally effective expiration. And vice-versa.

Whispers of story emanate from the depths of our body wilderness. The lump on my finger appeared sometime in January. Like animals who can sense a change in the wind long before our rational mind registers the imminent storm, perhaps my body knew what was coming even if my conscious mind did not.

The other kind of story that is popping up everywhere now is the promise of a neat narrative fix – a vaccine, a pill – which will transform this nightmare into a good news story and allow us a quick “return to normal”. But what is this normal life to which we so desperately long to return?

After decades of slow violence, in the past year, the reality of imminent environmental crisis seemed to finally be seeping into mainstream culture. Wildfires, droughts, floods and storms signaled an uncertain and potentially devastating future. Glimmers of hope were emerging as well: school strikes, pipeline protests, regenerative agriculture, Green New Deals. Then with breathtaking suddenness, Covid-19 upended our everyday lives and revealed that, as storyteller Martin Shaw suggests, we were already living in that future; we just hadn’t realized it yet. If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it is that the normalcy we desire is itself an illusion.

Shaw cautions that, in uncertain times like these, stories with neat endings are at best unproductive and at worst truly dangerous. Instead, I’m inclined to embrace the open-endedness of myth – where messages arrive without warning, from unexpected and improbable places. Where plants and animals and divine beings and the earth itself speaks truth to hapless souls who may or may not be ready to hear it.

I’ve been looking to myths for guidance for some time, especially the story of Persephone, who, despite being the daughter of gods, was woefully unprepared for the improbable event which set her story in motion. She was innocently picking flowers in her mother’s garden when the earth opened and down she tumbled into the Underworld. And there Persephone waited, listening for the message of transformation that would finally lead to her rebirth. A message which eschewed resolution, which instead initiated a cycle of descent and ascent, of death and life, that has shaped our lives and the seasons of the year ever since.

In the old days, prophets and mystics ventured out into the wilderness to seek such wisdom: craggy peaks, dark forests, windy deserts, or, for Persephone, the depths of the earth, were sites of revelation. But we’re stuck at home now. What messengers could possibly appear within these four mundane walls? Surely, no wildernesses exist here.

But with all of my frenzied handwashing and scanning for symptoms, am I not spending my days gazing anxiously into the unknown, the wilderness of my own body? Wondering what is going on in that uncharted microbial terrain? What stories are waiting to be revealed?

I don’t know yet what I – or we -- need to eliminate in order to open up blocked passageways, although I have my suspicions. One thing I feel pretty confident about: whatever it is, it’s not going to be expelled without a struggle. Myth is about the difficult stuff after all. And revelation comes on its own schedule. Like Persephone, we’ll have to be patient. To resist the desire for easy closure, although it goes against everything our culture has taught us about what we deserve.

Here in Ontario, spring is arriving slowly, in fits and starts. One day I soak up the sun in a t-shirt, the next I’m back in my winter clothes, gazing ruefully at snow flurries in May. It is a Canadian reflex to lament this slow transformation. But now, perhaps it’s just what we need. A little extra time to stay put, clean house, open blocked passageways, and fortify ourselves to meet the unknown with courage. Time to wander in the wilderness within, keeping an ear open for whatever comes next.

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