Author Archives: UncommonLoon

About UncommonLoon

I'm a bumbling 20-something with a degree in Fisheries and Wildlife, no plans, and a lot of hobbies.

Castaway Part 3: Camp Comforts

Shitting in the ocean is one of the greatest things. The first time I waded in about belly-button height and squatted tentatively as if the movement might not occur. The second time I leapt from an aging pier, plunged into deep blue waters and relieved myself while treading and swam back to shore. Yes we have toilets here. The fancy composting kind with the rolling barrels inside. I use them frequently and have no complaints. But sometimes you’re a mile from camp and no more than two hundred paces or so from the most beautiful bathroom in the world. No commode can compare. It’s almost as if the masterminds behind shitting into a white bowl of fresh water were onto something but somehow missed the actual point. Shitting into water is only great when you are also in the water. I remember we used to get frustrated with tapirs defecating in the stream dangerously close to our water source at our field camp in Costa Rica. “Why the hell do they have to shit in the water?!” we’d lament, suspicious this particular offense hinted at a cosmological plan to fuck with people trying to live in the wilderness. But I understand now. Absent of the knowledge that shitting in fresh flowing water obviously ruins the “freshness” of said water, I’d shit in it too.

Living on a deserted island with four other people obviously engenders a somewhat “open” dynamic. Being the kind of person who’s been relatively comfortable with nudity and necessary bodily functions for the last several years of my life (I was not always this way), I didn’t have a whole lot of adjusting to do. You could say I fit right into life on Johnston. Thus, the interesting bit of this adjustment has been pondering the way we do things in “normal” life. The stripped-down (literally and figuratively), no-bullshit lifestyle here brings a magnifying glass to the myriad ways we live in utter stupidity in so-called civilization.

Since I was old enough to comprehend the scarcity of fresh water on this planet (around two percent of all the water, only one being drinkable and the rest jammed up in icebergs that are slowly melting into the very salty, very undrinkable ocean) I recognized shitting in it was probably ill-advised. But it was always the sort of “oh well, what else can we do” feeling that followed this acknowledgment. Now, upon using the workable alternative, I’m completely flummoxed. Not too long ago, I read a Vice News story by a reporter who went to live at an eco-commune somewhere in Canada. She was horrified by the prospect of using a composting toilet. Let me re-iterate that. She was horrified by the idea of shitting into a plastic bin with a rotating drum instead of a porcelain bin full of water. The apparatus the shitting takes place on is almost indistinguishable, especially once you’re positioned on it. I suppose she just hated the idea of being that close to other peoples’ dung. And perhaps she didn’t realize that if properly cleaned and maintained, composting toilettes smell and appear far better than their putrid cousin the port-o-potty and many a public restroom. Either way, she probably could have dug her own cat-hole in the woods had the prospect of other peoples’ shit horrified her so. But my guess is she was even horrified by her own shit; a sad reality to live in. I suspect our penchant for shitting in water and flushing it “away” has more to do with the culture-hangover of puritanical body shame than it does practicality.

Many people probably think I’m roughing it out here. The truth is, life is so easy and straightforward here it’s a stark reminder that human existence doesn’t have to be that complicated. Sure maintaining camp takes some extra time and effort: refilling water filtration devices, hand-washing clothes and dishes, staying one step ahead of the ants and mice. But the tasks don’t loom like their “civilized” counterparts do. Cooking a meal never requires a trip to the grocery store (unless you count walking a hundred meters to a bunker with a little wagon in tow). Taking out the trash happens once every couple weeks if you burn all the paper and fibers (this also brings to light the startling fact that landfills are packed, in part, with things that could have been fodder for s’mores). Doing laundry simply requires doing laundry, not accomplishing several other things before the buzzer sounds and you have to put the next load in. Having limited clothes means the dirty ones can’t accumulate; having limited possessions and no internet means limited distractions. I also usually don’t see eels and spotted eagle rays in my basement, so there’s another perk of the ocean laundromat. There is no such thing as traffic.

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Laughs also come easy out here. The things my crew and I find hilarious have quickly degraded from kitschy to hopelessly absurd. Not long after we arrived, one crew member found a disembodied mannequin head on one of the shores. “Linda” now appears in all our group photos. We spend our nights watching an animated children’s show called “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and make incessant references to the characters the following work hours, giggling maniacally at mixtures of cartoon-world jargon and seabird sounds. We hash out clandestine secret societies such as the “Johnston Flat Fork Society,” named for an inexplicably two-dimensional eating utensil discovered among the conventional kitchen items. I’ve yet to experience boredom.

Setting aside the frequent and ever-stronger pangs for loved ones, living here has been just my cup of tea. We also drink a lot of tea, which is great. Though we still have the civilized pleasure of sitting in front of a glowing screen at night (a solar-generator charged during the day powers a projector at night) my crew and I spend our free time reading, making art, brewing kombucha and baking. Though I must confess I spend a good chunk of my spare hours falling asleep in hammocks.

At the risk of sounding braggish, I’ll divulge that there is work going on here. Previous weeks have had my crew conducting “mean incubation counts” for red-footed boobies, tropicbirds, and great frigate birds. These surveys entail counting every nest with an egg or chick on almost the entire one-square-mile island. The coming weeks bring hand searching and an all-island ant survey, both of which will have us on our hands and knees in the midday heat looking for tiny creatures we all hate. There are definitely weeks in which free time is precious and we have little energy for anything other than just laying around. But as I’m told, a busy camper is a happy camper and we have close to five more months to whittle away here.

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**This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service**
Alyssa Salazar
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Castaway Part 2: Johnston Island—First Impressions of a Forgotten Landscape

 

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It’s been a little over a week since we were marooned. After four days at sea on the Imua, and four more nights sleeping on the docked vessel we finally moved ourselves from ship to shore and waved goodbye to our setup crew last Friday. Second thoughts be damned, we are stuck here for up to eight months with no hope of escape. Though this might sound dramatic, the feeling would have been mutual had you been standing on a deserted wharf as your one link to society slowly pulled away. Barring health or weather emergencies, we expect to be here until around the end of June. No return trip is currently planned however as it will depend on scheduling and boat/crew availability. It is never expected that a strike team will be on Johnston for longer than eight months though.

Our first week has consisted mainly of revitalizing camp and clearing routes for our upcoming monitoring of the ecological health of the island. Camp itself is shockingly comfortable by my standards. Life centers around the Ant Cave, a kitchen, library, lounge, and meeting place all-in-one housed in military bunker designed with nuclear blasts in mind. This means no windows—hence “cave.” It was also highly cluttered when we arrived; filled to the brim with old food, files, gadgets, and mystery boxes and buckets from past crews. Despite this, the Ant Cave maintains a certain charm. The large bunker doors are never closed, so light and fresh air (and, admittedly, pests) filter in at nature’s discretion. This gives a sense of being outside even while in a dark, high-ceilinged dome. There is a medium-sized array of solar panels that provide us with enough juice to consistently light and power electronics in the ant cave. Stove and refrigerators are powered by propane. There is no plumbing, but we have a makeshift sink rig as well as composting toilettes. The front and back areas of the Ant Cave are covered with large tarps to provide additional shade for eating and relaxing.

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Beyond our giant outdoor dining room table lie our personal tents. Each of the five of us has been graced with more personal space than most field camps could dream of. A nine-person camping tent shaded with a large tarp set in a clearing of iron woods. Each setup is a comfortable distance from the next, and only one of the dwellings is even visible from the Ant Cave. I set to work personalizing my own space pretty quickly, and my “yard” is almost too endearing (I sometimes don’t want to leave).

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Johnston as a whole is a bizarre mix of beauty and decay. Having been built up as a military base, the substrate in most areas is concrete. There are crumbling bunkers scattered around and areas that bare indicators of residential use. At one point, over a thousand people lived on Johnston. Undeterred by the seemingly inhospitable conditions, vegetation pushes through the cracks and has overtaken most of the abandoned island. There is no shortage of trees and bushes for seabirds to nest in. Only the runway and main thoroughfares for bicycles and gators remain clear.

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Most of Johnston is enclosed in sea wall. Thus, there aren’t many spots to walk directly into the crystal-clear aquamarine water. But getting over the sea wall in most areas requires nothing more than hopping a small concrete border and descending a sloping embankment. About a dozen feet or so beyond the divide, giant table coral heads teeming with fish cluster just a few feet below the surface. Sometimes the ocean comes to great you in full force at this dramatic separation between island and water. I was scrubbing my tent’s rug at the sea wall one afternoon when a four-foot giant moray swam casually between my legs. It took me fully by surprise since the otherwise striking silhouette of its undulating body was hidden beneath the rug until it was almost touching me. My pre-programmed reaction was to leap onto the sea wall. Though I know morays aren’t looking at people as a source of food, their snake-like appearance doesn’t fail to trigger the amygdala. Once I was out of reach though, I watched in stunned silence as the green-brown predator continued away from the sea wall, likely in search of something more edible than a welcome mat.

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The most powerful emotion I’ve experienced upon being left at Johnston has been relief. A month living in Honolulu did plenty to inflame the anxieties that had somewhat subsided since leaving DC, and the lack of personal space on a merchant vessel didn’t offer much reprieve. The sigh of relief I breathed upon entering my tent the first night felt like a long-delayed exhale to an inhale that had possessed me since my last re-entrance to society from remote living almost five years ago. Subsequently, the moments that have really taken me aback so far have been steeped in solitude. Peering through my tent window at the several stars visible from my pillow. Coming up a hill into a field as the sun rises, flanked on either side by nesting boobies but not a human in sight. Swimming naked off one of the tiny “corner beaches” with only fish for company. Sitting on the sea wall watching the sun and birds return to their respective hiding places. Of course I haven’t forgotten about my crew. I recognize that I live in a small village, not a private retreat. We all have strengths, weaknesses, and quirks and there will be difficulties in maintaining a functioning living space together. But a one square mile island provides quite a bit of room for five people. Obviously, I already miss my loved ones at home. But I will be interested to see if my introversion eventually expires, and I start hungering for some novel human interaction. Only time will tell.

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***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service***

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Castaway Part 1: The Departure

It’s hard to say goodbye to someone you share most moments of your life with. They’re there when you wake up, when you go to bed, when you celebrate your successes and when you mourn your failures. They’re there when you don’t even necessarily notice or appreciate that they are. Then suddenly they’re not. And all those little moments that seemed so insignificant, and passed by so easily, emerge as salient reminders of what you’re missing each day. Luckily for me, I have a new family of friendly strangers to cushion the blow. I’m not sleeping in a glaringly vacant queen size bed, but a snug top bunk above a new friend. Though my departure from home is disarming, it’s almost certainly more so for the one I’ve left behind.

So here I am in a barbed wire enclosed yet somehow still charming bunkhouse in Honolulu, awaiting what may be the strangest seven months of my life. A world apart from my partner, who I’ve left to endure the Michigan winter I’d been striving to escape my entire adult life. It’s worth explaining why I’m here. I’ve taken an eight-month position with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. My official title? Volunteer Ant Killer.

The backstory is long and I’d rather go more into detail about it in a future post when I’ve become more of an expert. The short version though is that during World War II, the U.S. decided to expand a remote atoll off the coast of the Hawaiian islands to use for military operations. Fast forward to now and Johnston is a decommissioned deserted island boasting a bizarre post-apocalyptic facade, but with a twist: it’s a cherished nesting ground for rare seabirds and the location of an ambitious invasive species control operation. Enter CAST–the Crazy Ant Strike Team! An appropriate acronym for a group of volunteers seeking elective exile from pretty much everything. The members of this biannual project ship out to Johnston to preform eradication of the invasive yellow crazy ant and monitor seabird and marine life populations. Are they die-hard bird and fish lovers? Ant haters? Disenchanted misanthropes? Experience collectors in search of a good story? It’s hard to answer for more than one CASTer at a time.

 

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Johnston Atoll, among the most remote atolls in the world. 500 miles from the closest landmass and visited for government business only. There are times when the closest human population center is technically the International Space Station.

 

The reactions I received when I informed my friends and family I’d be joining this effort were a mixture of surprise, fascination, and a little horror. The process usually went like this: “I’m going to Hawaii in November!” “Wow that’s amazing! What will you be doing in Hawaii?” “Well, I’ll only be in Hawaii for a month then I’ll be shipping off to a remote island for seven!” “Wow, how exotic. What island?” “Well, it’s not really an island…it’s more of a decommissioned military base with buried radioactive waste and a serious ant problem.” “Wait….what?!”

Those who really know me weren’t that surprised however. Living on a remote island as far from large human populations as possible sounds just about right up my alley. The specific nature and history of Johnston however was a little hard to stomach though even for my closest loved ones. Though today reported as safe to inhabit, Johnston has served as a veritable dump for various toxic wastes such as agent orange, dioxin, and weapons grade plutonium. Though I wouldn’t say I’m not concerned, I’m more fascinated than worried personally.

I have to give some credit where credit is due therefore to my partner, family, and friends. Thank you for supporting me through this undeniably eccentric part of my life and career. What may look like an insane decision to many looks like a life-changing and door-opening milestone to me. My reasons for joining CAST run the gamut from passion for wildlife to obvious misanthropy. These motives propel me through most of my life, but they don’t eclipse the love I have for and receive from my loved ones. You all are my guiding light, my pillars, and my chief concern through this process. Know that I will take care of myself and that you will be missed each and every day.

So as you may have caught on, this will be the beginning of a special blog series. Though one of the most remote places in the world, Johnston boasts one of the most important amenities of civilization: internet! Though it will spotty and unreliable, I’m hoping it will be good enough to keep this blog updated with my strange goings-ons. I’ll be in Honolulu for the next month training, packing, and preparing for life on the atoll. After that I’ll be CASTaway (see what I did there?) to live amongst the ants, birds, and stars. If you’d like to get in touch beyond following this blog, feel free to drop me a line in the “About” section of this site. Mahalo!

 

***This is a personal blog and the opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the US Fish and Wildlife Service***

Categories: Animals, Blog Series, Environment, Lifestyle, Remote Living, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Do Ants Have Selves?

I had a mental experience the other day that seemed, at the surface, completely inconsequential but upon further inspection revealed itself to be rather interesting. I was sitting around idly while my partner did something routine and uninteresting. The specific thing he was doing isn’t actually important at all. What matters is that the activity had nothing to do with me and there was no usefulness or benefit to my being there. Now, I am a very impatient person. In most situations like this I would be perturbed that there was nothing useful I could be doing or that I hadn’t brought a book. Or I would be thinking about all the different ways I could use my time off, or how I’d rather be spending “quality” time with my partner instead of just watching him do some mundane task. But this time, strangely, there was none of this mental chatter. I remember simply gazing at him passively and thinking, “It’s good for him to be getting this out of the way. So, it’s good for me.”

Now, this may seem unremarkable. When you’re in a relationship with someone, you’re supposed to want what’s best for him or her, right? What do I want, a pat on the back for being happy for my partner? We all like to see our partners happy, and we all should cheer at the thought of them accomplishing things or improving their lives in some way. But although we’d like to assume this comes from a place genuine care and concern for another person, it’s often a little less romantic than that. Evolutionary psychology suggests the overwhelming majority of our thoughts are about ourselves.

Even thoughts that seem to be about other people still tend to revolve around how those other people make you feel. Even in the case of your romantic partner or best friend. When you carefully examine your positive thoughts about this person’s accomplishments you may discover they carry a much more selfish hue than you’d be willing to admit up front. Perhaps seeing them happy directly imparts happiness on you, or their success clears obstacles from your relationship. Though these thoughts are not selfish in the sense that they prioritize you over your partner, they are selfish in that they still revolve around your personal experience or happiness. Though the ability to feel genuine happiness upon witnessing another’s happiness can easily be attributed to what we call love, it doesn’t necessarily equate to altruism when that person’s life and emotions directly impact your own.

Now let’s bring it back to my seemingly unremarkable thought. In this case, I was not cheering a personal success for my partner or witnessing a big smile on his face. I was watching him do an errand, and a boring one at that. Yet I was still able to simply and convincingly tell myself, “This is good.” Contrary to what you might be thinking, I am not using this occurrence to make some grand statement about the validity of my love for this person. Again, the thought I had was still completely hinged on my own personal experience with the world. What’s interesting about the thought is the dissolution of the individual self it suggests. The essence of the thought was almost exactly the same as one I’d have while completing an errand of my own: “This isn’t particularly fun but I’m glad I’m getting it out of the way and will appreciate it later.” It’s interesting to me that though I could, at the time, cite no direct reason why my partner’s completing this errand would benefit me in the foreseeable future, I still felt convinced by the thought and was not perturbed by any need to examine further why I was spending my time sitting idly.

To me, this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of sharing your life with someone. Your lives become so entangled that you (hopefully) start to realize that your interests are aligned in ways you can’t even consciously perceive. The lines that separate the two of you may seem to blur a bit, and the chatter in your head begins to accommodate the needs of a person who was originally recognized as “other.” The concept of boundary dissolution and the questioning of the personal “self” have deep ties to Buddhism and modern psychology. Still, most people don’t experience a release from the concept of self in their daily lives, and might not even understand what that means. However, I think many people could attest to having thoughts such as mine. Thoughts that simultaneously encompassed the needs, intentions, or desires of another person as more or less “second nature.”

When I was in college I read an interesting book in my animal behavior class titled Baboon Metaphysics. It was a chronicle of a multi-year behavioral study of baboons that sought to determine how the primates handle their social lifestyles. Does their behavior stem from complex thought and concepts of identity or is it predominantly instinctual? The findings of the study were rather inconclusive, as metaphysical awareness is a pretty hard thing to judge; there are no philosophical pH strips. The researchers observed that the baboons seemed to fluctuate wildly between moments of near-human social awareness and primitive anarchy. But it’s the character of the question that interests me more than the answer. What are we seeking to prove when we want to find out how an animal views itself? Do we want to establish how similar they are to us? How “intelligent” they are? We often question whether animals (specifically mammals) view themselves as individuals but seemingly neglect the alternative. What would it mean, for instance, if many animals did not recognize the boundaries of the self like we do?

Though the process of natural selection demands animals place their own needs above others’, social animals present a bit of a snag in the evolutionary machine. How can organisms compete to survive, yet simultaneously arrange themselves in a cooperative group? The science of animal behavior has generally assumed that supposed altruism comes in two flavors: kin selection and social bonding. Basically, animals do things for others out of instinctual concern for their own genes in relatives (kin selection) or to pay into a social bank to reap rewards from their comrades later (social bonding). While this description does a lot to explain apparent altruism from a functional standpoint, it doesn’t do much to explain how the animals themselves view the interactions. Does a baboon think, “I’m going to groom my friend so he will groom me next Tuesday” or does he simply feel some instinctual urge to comb through his neighbor’s hair?

I think it’s pretty obvious that certain forms of life do not have much in the way of metaphysical awareness. Ants likely do no “view” themselves as anything, let alone individual members of a group. Their “thoughts” are probably more like electrical impulses that give explicit instructions like “turn right” and “search for food.” Ants operate much like an interconnected network of individually operating but interdependent bodies. They are closer to neurons in a brain than individuals in a community. But what if the experience of an ant wasn’t all that different from that of a baboon? What if, like ants, baboons didn’t always recognize each other as independent “selves?” The neurological limitations that exist in ants may not exist in baboons. Baboons likely have the full mental capacity to recognize their individual bodies and distinguish their intentions from those of other baboons. But perhaps the conditions under which baboon social structure evolved formed a much more malleable version of self than we currently experience in human society. Perhaps baboons waffle back and forth in their metaphysical capacities not because of a lack of intelligence but as a symptom of their social evolution.

Though my proposal is completely exploratory and hypothetical (I am not an evolutionary psychologist or and animal behaviorist), it does have interesting implications as a thought experiment. If other social animals operate on a different understanding of the “self,” or even operate without one at all, couldn’t we feasibly will our minds to do something similar? Weren’t we forged by the same evolutionary fires that gave us ants, dolphins, chimps, and baboons? Perhaps our obsession with ourselves—our identity, our emotional lives, our aspirations, our appearance—is not so much an innate product of intelligent life but a vestigial mental module from a time when we weren’t so reliant on others. And maybe it’s our individualistic culture that has simply fanned the flames of this obsession, ever widening the gap we perceive between our interests and others’.

Though it’s common knowledge in Buddhist and meditation circles that the temporary dissolution of the self is achievable through practice, I do not believe the general populace recognizes the availability of this experience. From the first day we come into contact with the world outside our mother’s womb, we are treated as individuals and taught to perceive and categorize the boundaries of other people and objects. To go against this conditioning is not merely a difficult task, but a mythical one. Many might assume the experience comes only from the ingestion of psychedelic drugs or in the midst of a psychological “break.” We are limited by what we believe is possible and we will never try to dissolve a boundary that we do not inherently recognize as optional. But billions of people experience what they would define as love for others every day. They make choices that prioritize others’ needs with or even over their own, and the others don’t always share their genes or reciprocate favors. Though the content of their thoughts may still be inherently “selfish,” it is possible that their concept of self has been warped by their interconnectivity with another person. Could it be possible for people to use their own observation of love for others to open the door to an experience they didn’t know was possible: an experience of self that does not end with the boundary of their skin?

 

 

Further reading on the subject of the self, Buddhism, animal behavior and evolutionary psychology:

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Waking Up by Sam Harris

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth

Categories: Animals, Culture, Humanity, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

IN LOVING MEMORY OF LITA 2002-2018

It’s been two months since my world fell apart. Every time I’ve even thought about sitting down to write this my mind, and often even my body, has seized up. I suppose sitting in front of a blank page to write about the most horrible experience of your life is not exactly something most people would look forward to doing. But this was a special kind of despondent procrastination. Mixed in with the anguish was fear, even a terror, that I would somehow fail at this task. Just as the fear of failure stalks me in other aspects of my life, I was petrified by the idea of attempting something that could never be done well enough. In this case the lack of confidence stems not just from doubts about my abilities, but also from the sheer insurmountability of the mission.

To commemorate my beloved daughter is impossible. It is impossible in verbal, written, photographic, or any other form. It is impossible to convey the magic of her presence, the softness of her fur, or the intelligence of her gaze. It is impossible to say a damn thing about her that doesn’t pale in comparison to who she really was. But nevertheless I have to try. I cannot go on silently suffering when I have always turned to these blank pages to really feel. I need catharsis and the world needs a record of this miraculous creature.

I am aware that to a large portion of the human population, non-human deaths will never seem earth shattering. I acknowledge this fact and I do not expect those people to empathize or even sympathize with this outpouring of emotion. But, contrary to popular belief, telling someone their feelings are not valid does not actually invalidate them. My experience of grief has been sincere and excruciating. How I feel does not devalue human death, nor does it elevate every non-human death to tragedy status. Every loss is felt in its own way and with its own particular weight. And this loss has been heavy. So very heavy.

I don’t know that I’ll ever feel a love so pure, comforting, and uncomplicated as the love that emanated from Lita (or “The Floof” as we often called her). The greatest gift my parents ever gave me, the tiny grey cat entered my life just as I was falling off the cusp of childhood into adolescence. We bonded to one another with an intensity that can only come when two beings truly need each other. She was my first soul mate. Over the years Lita and I were nearly inseparable. In her kittenhood she would follow me around the house, meowing desperately should a door be closed between us. I wanted to take her everywhere with me, and brought pictures of her when I had to be away for more than a day or two.

Even in those bizarre and torrid teenage years, when many young people lose interest in their family pets, Lita remained a stable and reassuring force in my life. Her presence was invaluable in reminding me that I was not alone, and that I was needed. I will never forget the first time I began to struggle with depression and looked to her as a reason I had to be here. We were in this together. She would go on to serve as one of those reasons many more times in my life.

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Us, circa 2002 and 2015.

In our adult years we still remained tied to one another. Her absence was felt deeply in college, and I returned her to my life as soon as my post-college housing situation allowed it. One of the most exciting times of my adulthood was moving into my first studio apartment on my own with her in tow. I would come home from work and literally dance around the minute space with her in my arms, ecstatic in our simultaneous independence from outside forces but comfortable codependence on one another.

Even when that dream came crashing down as I discovered the apartment to be hopelessly infested with parasites, her reaction is one of the most memorable aspects. I recall sobbing on the phone with my partner while she walked in circles around me meowing incessantly, clearly disturbed that I was so upset. Later, as I sat feeling defeated in my partner’s condo, I held her close and thanked the cosmos that the little life-ruiners hadn’t gotten to her.

The next several years of my life would be marked by indecision, frustration, change, and more defeat. My partner and I decided to make a cross-country move that didn’t stick, and Lita happily accompanied us on multiple nine-hour car trips there and back without complaint. She supported me through the confusion of feeling utterly directionless in life and isolated in an unfamiliar city. Her soft body curled against me each night continued to remind me that I would be ok.

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Lita waiting for me to come home to our DC apartment.

Lita’s health was also a large factor in our intense bond. Her biological brother died suddenly of kidney failure around the same time I moved her back in with me after college. Though his death was shocking and sad, it allowed me to move quickly to get Lita the treatment she undoubtedly needed ahead of the disease’s progression. The extra care I provided for Lita helped me feel even more needed, and I felt in some unexplainable way she knew I was doing a lot for her. Luckily, Lita’s demure nature made her a perfect candidate for the semi-invasive administration of subcutaneous fluids and oral medication, which kept her kidneys functioning for years. It wasn’t until she also developed symptoms of colon cancer that her health truly started to decline.

It would be disrespectful to her character to imply that Lita’s value and impact on my life was tied solely to her service as a de facto emotional support animal. She was so much more than just a comforting presence. She was a brilliant and unique force of life unlike any I ever expect to see again. She weighed all of nine pounds at her heaviest and yet she commanded the respect of all other animals in a room. Never interested in making quadrupedal friends, she generally preferred to boss other cats and dogs around and stick to charming only the humans in the room. But when it came to charming humans, she was a star. She always greeted guests in a matter of minutes from their arrival. She loved the company of her humans and lamented being alone. Lita’s charm came through both in her behavior and her appearance. “Your cat is a person!” proclaimed one of my animal-inclined friends upon first meeting her and looking down at her contented face as she sat swaddled in her arms. There was just something in her eyes that seemed to say, “I may be a cat, but I understand you.”

Lita’s death has been the most painful and destabilizing experience of my life. I’m aware this communicates an embarrassing level of privilege, but I can only say that I wish more people could assign their greatest woes to the loss of a loved one. I’m lucky not to have experienced trauma or neglect in my life, but that doesn’t mean I am impervious to emotional pain. In fact, it is probably part of the reason I feel this so deeply. Her physical decline and eventual loss pulled an existential rug from my feet; making me question whether anything is worth the pain we endure when we continue to open our eyes each morning.

As I held her lifeless body after her euthanasia and wailed into her fur, I thought things could never get any worse than that moment. But the weeks that followed didn’t offer much reprieve. I’ve struggled with hopelessness, desperation, dissociation, sleeplessness, nightmares, and lethargy in rapid succession. I have collapsed into a chair after work and not moved or done anything for hours at a time. I have googled suicide helplines and then deleted my browser history. I have considered trying to convince myself in the existence of an afterlife in order to cling to some shred of hope I might see her again. I have sobbed so deeply I’ve worried my body might collapse in on itself with one final heave.

I wish there was something else I could say. I wish there was some magic word I could use or perfect poem I could write that would instantly communicate the importance of the relationship I had with Lita. The knowledge that my memories of her will fade over time terrifies me. As I pass her ashes each day, sitting atop an altar among our favorite pictures and her favorite toys, I beg the universe to allow me to always remember her the way I do now, even if it continues to hurt this much.

If you or someone you know has lost someone, please remember that the species of that person does not matter. We are all made of the same complicated, bizarre, goopy stuff and our capacity to build relationships does not recognize the boundaries of phylogenetic trees. Love is love.

I love you so much Lita and I will never stop missing you. Thank you.

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An Ode to Landscaping

Keep your edges on game
Maintain, clean shave
Burn the remains of life slain to regain control of a brain
That won’t stop you living in pain
Don’t pay for sins til clouds spit on your grave
What’s in a name
But a soul; control
Nine number’s all it takes to harvest energy like cattle
Don’t think you’re not chattel
A mastermind no but a system on fire
Ever searching for a buyer of higher designer ideologies
That simmer men to create psychologies
Reduced to nothing but the need to repent and beg apology
For daring to set foot atop a crust of a bludgeoned rock under an unloving god
So what’s the shock
When your grass keeps growing
When your ignorance keeps showing
When you wrote the script but still don’t fit it
Your mind’s a hornet’s nest, best not to kick it

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Untitled

Progressive, relentless, merciless
An uninhabitable truth or an uncomfortable lie
Sit still in your decaying skin
Personality evaporates
Crystals emerge from pools of liquid chaos
Give back in anguish all you never meant to take

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Simple

I am simple. Everyone wants to proclaim their intricacies; expounding endlessly on the ways they are enchantingly singular. But I am simple. You are simple. We are the same, you and I. There is not so much between us as there is underneath us. Just like a cat in a box that might be both dead and alive, I am both enduringly unique and painfully bland.

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Big City Probs

As my time living in a large US city comes to a close, I’m reflecting on my experiences and general observances of life here. Setting aside the astronomical (and totally not worth it, in my opinion) price tag, I found Washington, DC to be clean, well laid-out, and often charming. So why would I almost never consider living in a big city again? People are dicks. 

Are you surprised? Probably not. Everyone says people in New York can be rude as hell, and DC is just a smaller, lamer New York with politicians. Gross. But I think this rule probably applies to almost every large, ambitious city on the globe.

When we live in big cities, we are surrounded on all sides by people. This is what we would traditionally call a “community.” But if you consider yourself part of a community in a big city, it’s likely your neighborhood or profession, not the greater population. It’s literally impossible to befriend everyone who crosses your path in a day, let alone everyone who lives in your city of choice. You can’t possibly remember the details of 600,000 lives. There’s an important difference between being introverted and just recognizing the futility of your social advances. In big cities, people stop being people and become hordes, numbers, and statistics.

Quite often, I just have no interest in talking to other human beings and would rather focus inward. But on rare occasions (typically when I’ve had a good amount of sunshine and food), I could fathom the idea of striking up on conversation with a stranger. Yet I still almost never do. The times I do, it’s with an individual I’m highly likely to see again. The concierge of a building I work at frequently, a person who lives in my apartment complex, you get the idea. The reason behind this is obvious: building relationships with people helps us to not only enjoy our interactions with them more, but to win their favor in the hopes it might benefit us someday.

This is what being a social animal is all about. But what happens when you force human beings together repeatedly, but remove the reward of these relationships? Rudeness. That guy on the subway who takes up two seats for no reason, the person who collides with you on the sidewalk while looking at their phone without so much of an “excuse me.” Anyone who’s lived in a city will probably complain that the people they cross paths with every day just don’t seem to give a fuck.

But why should they? For the vast majority of human history, we lived in small, nomadic hunter-gatherer bands or agricultural communities. Each individual’s survival and wellbeing relied heavily on his or her relationships with others. Be a dick to one of your neighbors, and it would almost certainly come back to bite you in the ass. Be a dick to everyone, and risk ostracization—a prescription for a swift and definitely not painless death. Much like small living spaces force people to pick up after themselves, small communities literally force people to value positive interactions with their fellow humans. Don’t shit where you eat. Once a society or gathering becomes large enough, individuals stop caring as much about how they treat one another. The likelihood that you will have to deal with someone you’ve been unpleasant to shrinks dramatically.

Still, some people in cities seam to be interested in friendship and communication, while others are walking nightmares for everyone around them. It’s not uncommon for city-dwellers to point out that upper-class folks tend to be more dickish. This goes to show that the old rules of human social structures may still apply, but only for those below a certain economic threshold. As a pleb, be a dick to your roommates, boss, or a police officer, and you’ll find yourself in a world of pain and financial trouble. But for many (a shrinking number, I’ll point out), a steady supply of magical green paper ensures beyond any doubt their needs will be met regardless of whom they piss off.

asshole

The recipe for a community of dicks goes like this: Take a bunch of people from all over the world and put them very close together. Add in the privacy obsession of sex-negative and body-shaming cultures for some reclusiveness and paranoia, if desired. Stir in a heavy dose of the individualistic ideals touted by capitalist economics. Simmer for at least a half-century.

Cash flow has replaced social support as a means of overcoming challenges, thus success and independence have eclipsed social interaction as the prime directive. Even lower class individuals will often turn to crime rather than ask family or friends for help. In capitalist society, pride is not a deadly sin but a central aspect of a person’s self worth. People respect “the hustle” more than vulnerability, honesty, and friendship. With no dollar sign on politeness and little opportunity to build lasting relationships, where does the incentive even lie for the average person to be kind? The poisonous result of this cocktail of individualism and population density does not just cause the wealthy to condescend and the impoverished to resort to crime however. It entices absolutely everyone to only look out for number one.

I’m sure many will throw up their hands in frustration and proclaim that I’m ignoring the silent kindness that goes on every day. The people who, to no apparent benefit of their own, are continually kind to every stranger they meet. These people are emblems of altruism, and the true representation of human nature. The others are just assholes. This leads me to two unsavory logical conclusions: 1) the majority, if not vast majority, of humans beings are assholes and 2) kindness is some sort of mental disease suffered by a small, but noticeable, portion of the population. However, these individuals are to be held up as “correct” human beings.

Like many bad logical pathways, this one’s error lies in an assumption early on in the reasoning: the assumption that kind people are selfless. The truth is that kind people have simply decoded the truth about the world: that independence does not make you happy,  relationships do. Many people misunderstand this to mean happiness lies in a perfect romantic partner, family, or the right number of friends. They focus on having “their people” and often end up saying “fuck you” to the rest of the world. They still fell under the spell of self-reliance and isolation that tells us there is no inherent value in non-repeatable positive interactions. And they have been severely misled.

The truth is that positive interactions, be they with strangers or long time friends, have both immediate and lasting effects on happiness. I know this because science. But I also know this because of my own day-to-day struggles. As a severely introverted and under-confident person, I typically avoid social interaction as much as possible. Conversations with people, especially strangers or casual acquaintances, are so stressful and taxing, that I feel I need an hour of solitude to recover from every one I have. However when I’m forced to let this wall down, either by work or an activity I’ve chosen to take part in, every positive experience I have improves my day.

Using cognitive behavioral therapy tactics often referred to as “taking in the good,” I dwell on these positive interactions and they create lasting impacts on my brain, helping to battle the depression and hopelessness I struggle with each day. My motivation for being kind to people could not be any more selfish. I am literally doing it to improve my own mood temporarily and my life as a whole. As far as I know, the person I have been kind to has received nothing tangible from our interaction (except for maybe some awesome customer service at the place I’m working). Yet, when I’m kind to people, they are (almost) always kind in return. My guess, which isn’t really a guess, is that they are receiving a boost from this interaction too, whether they know it or not.

Many people may never realize the degree to which they have isolated themselves. They may have a family, a good job, and friends so society tells them they’ve done everything right. But they continually search for a nonexistent community. Many find supplemental happiness in the tribal institutions of sports teams, churches, or political parties. It definitely doesn’t hurt to have a group to associate with. I know I find serious healing power in the community environment of small music festivals and artistic gatherings. In today’s world, a common interest is often the only tool we have to sift through the masses of people who exist around us, and help us decide who is worth investing our social energy in.

But what these groups really do is take the community process and turn it on its head. They allow us to decide we like people’s hobbies or opinions before we decide if we like them as people. Meanwhile these “friends” probably don’t live near you, and they probably value you more for your utility as someone to spend time with than as a trustworthy and caring member of their extended family.

Perhaps this is part of the reason so many people in the United States struggle to make friends in adulthood. While their school years gave them plenty of time to sort through the people they interacted with, deciding if they were a good fit for them or not, their work life or social group friends are just kind of, well, there. I wouldn’t exactly tell someone to drop everything in their life to pursue their old high school or college mates, but I think everyone could stand to be a little more invested in the community they build around themselves.

And hey, if you do live in a big city. Stop being such a dick. It can’t possible be worth shoving an old lady down the escalator to make your metro car. The place where you’re standing is VERY CLEARLY a thoroughfare and you’re impeding dozens of people a second with your idle chitchat about the weather. It’s rude to stare. Give a homeless person a fucking dollar while you’re standing in line to get into a overpriced club and buy drinks for people you hate. Give someone a hug. A real one. With both arms.

Categories: About me, Culture, Humanity, Lifestyle, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Be the Religion You Want to See in the World Part 1: What is Paganism?

The emaciation of the lexicon of human religious ideas in recent history is, in my humble observance, cause for concern. On a planet with seven billion intelligent and emotionally complex apes, shouldn’t we have a more diverse set of mythical paradigms? You there, reading this right now! I implore you: explore your own mythology. I don’t care if you are a Hasidic Jew or an atheist. Unless you are in a situation where practicing unique religious or a-religious ideas could put you or someone else in danger, I encourage you to look around, really look. You need not apostate your religion or atheism, but at the very least enrich it. The world is magical. If you have to redefine magic to believe this, redefine away. We’d all love to hear what you come up with!

In the interest of expanding the lens on religion, I’d like to talk a bit about nature worship, or “paganism.” Though this term has endured many meanings, I find the general gist it implies useful. Examining how nature worship came into being gives us a fascinating new context to put so-called “modern” religion into context.

It’s important to remember that today’s cultural views on “nature” are fairly new. With the dawn of agriculture, humans began viewing the environment around them as something under their control. If plants could be grown, animals tamed, and ground repurposed, the world could bend to suit the needs of man. The resulting “settlements” were built on the implicit assumption that the earth had finally been “tamed” and would continue to support life without the arduous need to move about the globe to forage and avoid inclement weather. If this assumption were not solid, it would have been hard to encourage nomadic humans out of their hunter-gatherer ways. Still, even in this new era of Earth seemingly under humanity’s thumb, culture began to evolve  to accommodate the forces of nature.

The first human religion was arguably what we often refer to now as “paganism.” It’s generally accepted that the word pagan first appeared as a pejorative term for peasants of the Roman Empire, those who didn’t conform to the teachings of the Christian god. It was likely used as a catchall term for polytheists, atheists, and practicers of magic. But nature worship and polytheism appear much earlier in human history than ancient Rome. Though Hinduism is regarded as the oldest religion in the world by many noted Historians, dating back to at least 1500 BCE, polytheism and theism in general are regarded as much older. Primitive cave drawings and sculptures dating back thousands of years before Common Era depict god-like supernatural forms, such as the impossibly voluptuous Venus figurines and impressive animal-human hybrids. It’s impossible to say in what way primitive humans viewed these representations as deities, but it’s certainly not outlandish to infer they looked to them for comfort or guidance.

800px-Guennol_Lioness

“The Guennol Lioness is a 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian statue depicting an anthropomorphic lioness. The statue was found near Baghdad, Iraq and is on display in New York City’s Brooklyn Museum of Art.” [Wikipedia Commons]

The creation of art that represented otherworldly forms may have been the spark that fueled the creation of more complex and organized polytheistic religions such as Egyptian gods, Hinduism, and Chinese folk religion. It’s likely our nomadic ancestors created deities to make sense of the often-chaotic natural world and passed these gods onto their agricultural descendants to aid them in harvests and war. Thus it’s not surprising to think Paleolithic humans may have prayed to idols of women and animal-human hybrids. The female form, especially in its oft-exaggerated relief, is a perfect symbol of fertility and perhaps, by association, power and creation. Lion, snake, and goat-headed humanoids may have been dreamed up to inspire the channeling of strengths from the “natural” world, acknowledging that there is a little of these animals in all of us (which, evolutionarily speaking, there is!).

The construction of belief paradigms based on “natural” forms and phenomena can easily be conflated with the Christian church’s definition of “paganism.” Yet the people persecuted across the ages were hardly the goat-worshipping witches we often think of when we see the word pagan. More likely than not, pagans were just believers in the traditions that had been absorbed from the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures. The celebration of Saturnalia, a winter solstice holiday, and praise for the many Greek/Roman gods existed for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Still, it wasn’t long after the reign of Emperor Constantine (the first “Christian Emperor”) that these beliefs were shunned into obscurity, leaving us with the fragmented understanding of paganism we have today.

Despite its seemingly long history of persecution, the reverence and worship of nature has actually endured longer than any other “religion.” Throughout history, paganism has enjoyed its fringe believers, often in some of the darkest corners of human history. Supposed “witches” in Europe and the Americas were aggressively hunted for allegedly “casting spells” on innocent God-fearing citizens, using twigs, bones, and animals in their sacrificial routines. In reality these people, most commonly poor women, were likely the shamans and spiritual guides of their small pagan villages. It seems crying witch was a convenient way to get rid of bothersome or threatening women (and what intelligent woman isn’t threatening, right?). Slaves brought to the Americas from Africa also maintained complex polytheistic beliefs before many were forcibly converted to Christianity. Their unique culture and shared faith likely gave them hope in beyond desperate times.

Truths held by human cultures are based on specific experiences, and the shape of the world can vary greatly through each individual set of eyes. The prevalence of Abrahamic religions today (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) denotes a departure from the specific identification of the forces of nature and an embrace of a more mythically obscure god. While devotees of these religions may scoff at the idea of a fire god or god of fertility, they seemingly have little trouble acknowledging a single omnipotent being that controls all reality. Though much of the intolerance for archaic religions seems to have evaporated, supposed “witches” and “heathens” are still persecuted in many countries and in some cases, these attacks still kill hundreds or thousands of people a year.

Will we ever turn a true corner on religious freedom in which we don’t care what deities people choose to pray to or abstain from? Will we ever stop blaming supernatural forces for our human quarrels? Should our goal be to eradicate myth and superstition or simply to evolve it? I’d like to explore these questions in the coming months in this blog series.

 

Categories: Blog Series, Humanity, Religion, Supernatural | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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