…an online space for the development and presentation of creative research and experimental arts by Faith R.R., a differently-abled self-taught artist, a person working for healing justice across multiple dimensions of wellness, and someone who is deeply curious about fleeting human experience in a world that is 4.5 billion years old.
Why am I seeing this stuff? Are other people seeing this stuff?
There are little flashes of the maddening urgency of 2010, the first time she took a deep dive into cloud watching and totally lost her mind, became crazy in the context of a unique set of extraordinary pressures and chaos dynamics that she was utterly unprepared to navigate well.
She hadn’t ever really even thought about God that much, though admitted to herself a quiet, stubborn agnosticism, a belief in something that just wouldn’t go away no matter how hard she tried to believe that there was nothing, no matter how hard she tried to be an atheist. She could say – sitting by the heat exhaust smoking cigarettes outside of Kramer Hall, c. 1997, black tapered pants, nerdy white socks, face accented by silver eyeshadow and uncertainty – that she was an atheist, but she’d always believed there was something, at the very least ghosts.
However, in 2010 she was not thinking about God, and had no desire to think about God, except that her life was falling apart and she didn’t know what to do. Her family was impossible to talk with, and her friendships had atrophied in the years of children, work, and a difficult marriage.
As soon as she dropped her son off at skate camp, both of them determinedly cheerful, she collapsed into sobbing. She didn’t want to go home, didn’t want to go anywhere, didn’t want to be anyway. She felt completely disconnected from the life she’d had just 6 months earlier, a life where she was a mother working at a science museum, going through a divorce, but still on top of her game, feeling confident, good about herself and her ability to move forward in her life as a person who had made difficult choices and come out okay.
How had she become this person who could not stop crying, driving around her block in circles, waiting to know what to do. It was almost like she saw herself stopping the car in the bright sun of a regular summer day where people at the church on the corner were serving food from a folding table, white plastic tablecloth blowing thinly like a flag of surrender laid down.
She saw the way that first one, then two, then slowly a small group of people quieted and stared, plates held between hands, watching as she stumbled up the steps, openly crying as the woman preacher intercepted her and led her inside the empty sanctuary, ceiling vaulted and blessedly dark.
The woman laid hands on her as she cried and called down warrior angels. The thought of warrior angels was initially reassuring, but soon became strange and overwhelming – the clouds and the beliefs, the sensations, worlds inside of her being washed away and new worlds blooming, new bizarre worlds where entities such as warrior angels and dark forces were transacting all around and through her.
Keep it simple, Faith.
Don’t go into the bizarre worlds now. The novelty of your delusions is a good story, but it’s not the story you need to focus on right now, and you only have a 1/2 hour to write before you need to start getting ready for the day, because it is your mom’s birthday, and your parent’s anniversary, and your mom is not dead, even though they said she would be. So, hallelujah.
She is a syncrete, an animist, but even in those identifications, she doesn’t follow or study anything too deeply or for too long. She studies the sky, pays attention to what she notices, what she is pulled to learn and to then let go. She does not want to be consumed into anything that may keep her from believing what she believes, which changes as she develops.
Fixed beliefs and externally devised prescriptive practices of spirituality are not for her. They make her feel as though she is worshipping a false idol or something, ignoring the wind and her own ways of connecting to what she experiences as ‘spirit’ or ‘the holy unity of all things held in brief, glorious pausing resonance in the vastly constant tumbling of time and space and place’ or…she doesn’t know…
Writing assignment (for self):
Free-write how you feel when you feel connected to a sense of God or spirit or the earth itself, or to ancestors, or some combination of all of the above.
What do you notice in your body and mind space? What sensations and thoughts do you observe?
What are you grateful for and hopeful for in those moments?
What do you know in the most simple ways of knowing?
Yesterday, she began two small paintings of a cloud picture – one of the many, many cloud pictures that she has taken over the last two months, which has been a major period of cloud observation.
Yesterday, she saw – and thoroughly documented- what looked to be the outline of a whelk that hung in the sky for a solid – she doesn’t know – 10 minutes a half hour. She can look at her pictures and tell how long a structure lasted, or at least how long she documented it before moving on to some other holy wonder that is sprawled out over her neighborhood and that nobody else seems to notice, which – to her – is so fucking weird.
Is it even real?
She has let herself get consumed and misled by questions before.
It is very important to maintain focus and grounding, because – after 12 years – twelve years which have held some seriously alarming mass atrocities and generated disturbing trends in avarice, exploitation, hate, and delusion, and have – alas – foretold of a future, ahem, most grim as far as the health and habitability of the planet we collectively live on, well – she is pretty sure there is something weird going on with the clouds and that it is important that she find someone to talk with – seriously and sensitively and rationally and helpfully – about this.
There is almost a desperation in her and she tells it to quiet down, knowing that she needs to listen, but that to be effective in actually finding the right people to help her make sense of why she sees this and is it real and – if so – is it significant, and – if so – how and why, what does any of it and all of it mean and what should she do?
What should I do? What would you do?
At this point, I have 0 attachments to specific outcomes – though there is a part of me, a part of me that is likely alive in almost every human on the planet that longs for the reality of a glorious greater force to intervene, to help, please help. Lord, please help end this suffering. The people and the animals and the places and the water.
It doesn’t seem crazy to me to think that – in some way – the animals and forests and the ocean itself is crying for help, praying for help.
Fuck my scientific objectivity and all the wishywash mealy-mouth careful step around what I say and how I say it – show them, show the people, let them make of it what they will.
What is an appropriate social media strategy for a project like this, which hardly anyone knows about and that is somewhat loaded in that it deals in themes that people go to war over, deals in themes of God and gods, both of which and all of which I know basically nothing about and am totally okay with that for now, except that I have so many questions that I don’t even begin to know how to answer, and – to be honest – feel like I’m in waaaaay over my head with this project, these questions.
How silly is it to see something not just beautiful but profoundly beautiful – powerfully beautiful – and to see it again and again and again and then – haha – retreat into a study to learn the details of this doctrine or that doctrine, to join some thing and then devote your life to fitting in and being virtuous, respectable, unto the code of that belief system?
Nope. Not for me.
I am open to learning many things, but will devote my entirety to none of them, because ideas can be powerful mediators of experience.
It’s two minutes til I have to get ready for my mom’s birthday. I am going to have a good day.
Getting Amor Fati tattooed on my hands was a fantastic decision, because it is a constant reminder and directive to love and appreciate whatever is happening, to embrace it and keep moving toward a fullness of being, to not be distracted by all the reasons something might be bad or unpleasant, to just love it and learn from it and move on.
I depart from Nietzsche in many ways, at many points, I’m sure, none of which I will elaborate on because I have hardly read anything he has written and don’t necessarily intend to, unless his work and ideas begin to show up in articles and ideas and occasional books that cross my path and strike me as significant or stimulate my curiosity.
One thing I do know is that acceptance and appreciation of whatever is happening is great and all that, but the reality is that I can never ever rest in any kind of peace if I do not do whatever is in my power to do to end avoidable suffering and the exploitation of creation in the world that I live in and that I love deeply.
I will never retreat to the comforts of my own acceptance and appreciation and forget that all over the world mothers are grieving and places are dying and entire worlds are screaming in ways that we can’t even hear.
Then the sky opened up and I was certain that, yes, I probably should continue to think about this, spend time on this.
I don’t think I really have a choice.
This is not the sort of curiosity that one puts on the shelf. “Hmmm, am I witnessing some supranational phenomena that maybe ancient humans saw and felt and understood as God? I dunno. I guess I’m gonna go take a nap.”
I’ve been studying the clouds for 11 years. I lost my mind trying to prove God on the Internet with cloud pictures in 2010, though there was a lot of other stuff going on that year, too. I lost legal custody of my children in part because of my wacky ideas and experiences about clouds and strangers and angels and things like that.
I’m definitely not crazy now. For real. There is something strange with the clouds.
I’m an artist and if I saw clouds painted like some of the clouds I observe, it would be easy to see that they look all wrong – not like clouds at all. They look like pictures and symbols and parts of words.
I reminded myself, again, that I am not trying to prove God with pictures of clouds.
I am observing and documenting cloudforms that I find interestingly reminiscent of various other forms – symbols, animals, trees or atomic mushroom clouds.
This is an observational and contemplative practice. I have to acknowledge, for the sake of noting researcher bias and the potential impact on perception and meaning-making, that when I see some of these things in the sky, it is kind of hard not to believe that the clouds are – at times – manifesting the shapes of the Holy Spirit, or some immanent presence such as that.
I don’t hold to a Christian interpretation, or any specific interpretation at all. I might use the language of Holy Spirit or God, but – really – I should come up with other words, because those words (among many, many other words) mean very different things to people.
Even in the absence of numinous interpretation, it’s the most beautiful and wondrous thing I’ve ever seen. As I write this I notice a rising in my mind, a retort of sorts, reminding me of the miracle of leaves, and of spiderwebs, and of basically everything that has come into life over the past 4.5 billion years. It’s like nothing is more beautiful than anything else, somehow, because it is all connected and even piles of mud and rotting carcasses are a small facet of this infinitely and gloriously expansive entity we are a part of.
I can remember when the world was full of separate things, back when nothing meant much but living because you had to and eventual death – a clean drop of a sharp cliff at the edge of space, the age of the universe or how anything was connected to anything else was impossible to imagine.
There is something in me that is simply stunned by anciently sacred all life is, and concurrent with that stunned feeling is the sensation of wanting to cry, a stifled desire to cry, tho’ I’ve cried quite a bit.
I wept on my porch for the oceans in 2010, felt the floor of the sea (the Gulf of Mexico in particular) violated by drills, the waters that gave life to all becoming toxic, billions helplessly swimming and dying, dying, dying…because of some dumb stuff that humans have decided they like to buy and own and then throw away, some convenience to our modern lifestyles, our ever-so-brief world.
I am angry. Outraged, actually. Outraged like the kid I was when I first began to realize how utterly disgusting it was that sea turtles were dying so people in Omaha can eat seafood, so we could drink our six packs, so we can drive our cars.
I literally makes me feel sick.
I can hear an echo of adult voices in my head. “I know. It’s so sad. What are you going to do about it…?”
“Want to go to the movies?”
So, I just took about who-knows-how-many-pictures of mind-blowing heart wrenching seriously intense clouds. Stood calmly, watched. Took pictures for about hour, then another hour. The sunset hours.
I can totally understand how I lost my mind over this stuff in 2010.
I don’t lose my mind over anything anymore.
I can stand with one foot in the calm and rational while I pan up to see what appears to be a giant ritual skull mask, or skeletal cat face, and I can drop the camera – just for a moment – and look right at the eye-shapes and feel how small I am and say, out loud: “I see you.”
Nothing that is happening in the sky scares me, save for the belief that in some act of divine desperation, all the ancient forces of the earth and waters and sky that have witnessed and absorbed all life and death for – like I said, 4.5 BILLION years – mustered all their molecules together to shape a warning of what we stand to lose if we humans do not immediately cease and desist with the destruction of sacred creation and the splitting of atoms and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, messing around with DNA like we are some kind of genius God when – obviously – we are total idiots because we have destroyed our habitat in like 300 years and have actually managed to erase other living creatures from existence like they didn’t matter at all.
At this point, we deserve whatever scorching mutated soulless and hungry hell of a future we will get.
Oh, don’t worry, I’m not talking about Hell-Hell. I’m talking about Earth, only we won’t get what we deserve – our children’s children will.
sparkling over everything we sigh about, settling.
Replicated in dark creases
inside our heads and chests,
the fibers of our hearts,
jagged line graphs, rising numbers,
hospitals afloat in the harbors,
bright white bundles, rolls and rolls,
biohazard, poppy red,
no toilet paper.
“Close down the schools,” the order came.
“Now we are learning this.”
Tears of God and all Gods
fold the mountain, exhale fog,
as ghosts of the girdled
echo their fallings in the forest,
being morning breezes.
No more coffin wood, only bleak sunlight,
no tooth-leaved shade.
dig and dig and dig.
“Forget the fallen,” old hunger says.
“Now we are learning this.”
Redbud procession, same as before,
only difference in details:
new branches, new blooms.
Creeks surge and wither, slightly
frogs begin chorusing
their one-season world.
Up through the parking lots
empty elementary school,
empty pool –
uncautious shoots of new green rise
through soil made of dust,
bones, bark, rock worn to sand
Once a giant, stubborn roots hold tight.
Unnoticed on ridgelines,
small striving trees,
not yet choked out by blight,
grow, seeking the light
because – really –
what else is there to do?
“Now we are learning this.”
Now we are learning this.
Hi, thank you all for creating encouragement to make poetry during National Poetry Month. I have attached a poem entitled Now We Are LearningThis as a .docx. Please let me know if you have any trouble accessing the file or if a different format is preferable. Have a great afternoon!
Thank you for your poem. I am forwarding to the judges. Since I am not a judge, I can say in my humble opinion, this is an amazing poem. Although amazing is an overused phrase; this time it fits. I have read it twice. It is gorgeous read aloud. This made my day.
Thank you so much for forwarding the poem! It meant a lot to me to write it. My mom picked up the notice of the contest at the library and gave it to me, so she was on my mind a lot as I wrote. Thank you so much for reading and enjoying the poem. That made my day.
I am delighted to report that you are one of the two winners in the adult category of the Library Poetry Contest. There was a tie. As you know, I loved your poem! Amazing is a word often overused. It describes your poem perfectly. Because we only had 4 entries at the time where we had to commit to the Zoom Event, we could not do it. I have your prize. I can mail it or we can meet somewhere in Fairview. Please let me know what works. Are you published anywhere? I would like to read more of your work. Thank you for entering.
Oh, that’s great news! How exciting! This is the first time I’ve ever won anything for writing. I’m not published anywhere – but, hope to be someday! I am working on putting together a little website for my artwork and writing. I’ve spent most of my energies over the past couple decades on family and working in nonprofits. I am in the process of learning how to better follow my passion for doing good in the world through arts.
I hate to ask, but do you know if the poem will be printed in the Fairview Town Crier? I’d love for my mom to see a poem I wrote in print. As many of her ‘library friends’ know, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year and she knows I have always wanted to be a poet. It would make her so happy to see the poem printed! I understand if there isn’t space in the layout, but just wanted to ask. Thanks so much for liking the poem!
When she started to see peculiar-seeming clouds, it was only a matter of days before she began bumbling toward the conclusion of “Oh my God, it’s God!”
Her thinking about God was a mush-mash of recollected symbols and suggestions gleaned from experiences growing up in the everyday+everywhere Christian culture of south Georgia, the imagery and intonation of miscellaneous church services attended after spending Saturday night with a friend, going to church on Sunday, hot and mostly-boring-but-sometimes-with-singing.
She felt closer to God in sweet the relief of leaving when the services finally ended, stepping out into the heat and sun, the living day.
In the 9th grade, she spent a single semester at boarding school, where a van dropped her off Sunday morning at the Episcopal church in Clayton, Georgia right down the street from where there was a Klan rally one Saturday during the town-outing, which was usually a trip to a shopping center where there was a grocery store, a Papa’s Pizza and an Eckert’s drugstore stocked with Robitussin DM, gum, and cheez puffs.*
She didn’t entirely dislike going alone to the Episcopalian service in the little stone church building, dark and wood-filled, shining with color through the morning-lit windows above where the rhododendron outside had grown up over Jesus’ feet.
She felt peaceful there. Anonymous and peaceful, sitting alone.
However, she soon discovered that she liked it far more to lay on the nubby utilitarian carpet of her room, eating Kool-Aid and reading the yearbook for the 100th time after pressing her body against the wall under her roommate’s bunk and holding her breath during Sunday morning roomcheck so she didn’t have to go to church at all and there were no sounds except her own sounds and the building’s sounds, heat through vents.
*Circa 1991: Three senior girls walking in streetlight circle by the dorm’s side exit, tearfully protesting Operation Desert Storm and a Klan rally with full white robes walking down Main Street, right past the grocery store where she would buy ramen and microwave popcorn, 12 packs of Fresca.
The old man said hello to me as I started the walk back to my car from the Senior Opportunity Center, where I and a bunch of other people gave food to elders on Wednesday mornings, high-end packaged salads from grocery stores couldn’t afford to shop at, artisan breads packed into black garbage bags, crumb-dusted pastries, and dented cans of soups, expiring cereal.
He fell into step beside me, walking down the hill and talking about traffic on the I-26, and the accident he almost saw on Patton Avenue. “I was just standing there on the sidewalk, watching these two cars, and I was like, ‘This is crazy!”
“It sounds like you were paying attention.”
The man, tall and stooped around the shoulders, still handsome in the set of his cheeks and architecture of nose, the son of slaves and people who lived here long before I did, had the laboratory smell of a few straight days of drinking, the smell of old alcohol poorly metabolized.
He sat down on the small wall outside of the unemployment office and I sat down beside him. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, sister, I was paying attention. I pay attention.”
We sat there in the companionable silence of strangers, feeling the warm sun and paying attention.
He shifted toward me, leaned like he was about to invite me into a secret, and I understood that he would ask me for money, and I was okay with that.
He began his request, and I didn’t need him to go on about what he was looking for, held my hand up for him to stop speaking. There was no need for him to beg, to spin a story, to make an appeal. He did not have to charm me or convince me.
I opened up my bag, “Let me see if I have any paper money.”
I knew that I did. A crumple of two singles, and a secret 10 dollar bill. I pulled out the two dollars and pressed it into his hand.
The man nodded, almost solemn, squeezed my hand. “Thank you, my sister.”
I felt like God was watching us, sitting there on that wall. The woman wearing all black and the old man in the sun.
There was a pause, and I plucked the ten dollar bill out of the small zippered pocket inside of my bag, grasped the man’s hand, transferred the money.
His whooping surprised me, his jumping up and slapping his leg, pulling his hand into a fist that beat against his chest, solidly, once, twice. “My sister! Oh, yes, my sister!”
I stood up, pulling my bag back onto my shoulder.
He grabbed me, pulled me to him, his sweat and alcohol smell around me, his arms strong and knotted like wood across my back. I didn’t feel scared. I have hugged a lot strangers in my life and, besides, I have a social naivete that makes me almost oblivious to the possibility that some stranger will do me harm. The only people who have ever harmed me were people I know. I wasn’t scared of them at first, either.
He kissed my head, up by my hairline, and hugged me like I really was his sister that he hadn’t seen in a long time.
He began to utter the words, quiet, like a prayer, then broke away from me and shouted them, hollering them out to the street like he was calling down gods, exclaiming to the universe. He turned to me, and put his fist on his chest. “My sister…”
He stepped forward to embrace me again. “I love you, I love you…you, you are blessed person.”
He stepped back, took my hands in his, and nodded to me, then turned and started walking back up toward town, still saying those words, louder and then quiet, a chanting rise and fall. I watched him walk, and listened, said the words to myself, trying not to forget them.
He was almost back to where we’d begun walking together when I caught up to him. “Excuse me, sir, those words? What are those words?”
He put his face close to mine and repeated the words, whispering.
I said them back.
He corrected my pronunciation of the last syllable, and said it with me until I said it clearly, with some conviction.
“It means peace, and goodness, salvation.”
Walking back to my car, I said the phrase over and over again. In my car, I wrote down how I thought the sounds might be spelled, but I still don’t know what the words are, or where they came from.
I tried to Google what I thought the words sounded like, spelled out phonetically, with hyphens between the syllables, to remind myself of the intonation, the rhythm of the sounds.
She waited for her friends to come pick her up. It was raining and they were late. The river was grey and brown, rough-textured with falling water and a steady wind from the east, from the ocean.
Sitting and waiting, nervously considering the possible explanations for her friends’ lateness, she wondered if they had gotten in an accident, and then involuntarily pictured the whole tragic scene – wet metal twisted, a tire still spinning, the underbelly of the vehicle exposed, hiss of rain on a hot engine quickly cooling. Frozen in a stricken sadness, she willed herself not to think about wrecks, and strained to hear the dogs bark, the sound of tires on the wet dirt road. When her friends arrived a few minutes later, she almost couldn’t believe they were okay. There had been no wreck. Nonetheless, the heavy sadness stayed with her, made her quiet and awkward riding in the backseat, still thinking about wrecks and how weird it was that her friends had no idea that she had been almost convinced that they’d been in an accident.
Ideas or imaginings that make her feel something are hard not believe, because they exist in her mind and in her body with the same detail and sensation as things that are real. Her feelings are her nervous system being scared, or excited, happy, calm, etc. The sensations she calls feelings are caused by her nervous system reacting to what she is experiencing.
She is a visual thinker. This means that she imagined the wreck that never happened, she saw the car crash, the slip of tires on pavement, crumpling metal, windshield buckled in like a spider’s web in wind, the sharp impact of a face against a dash board. Sometimes her nervous system doesn’t know that what she imagines isn’t real, and so her heart races, her blood vessels constrict, guts clench, and the chest constricts with a feeling of crying seizing in the throat.
It was of no importance that she’d never been in a car accident, that she had never seen – at least not up close – a bad wreck, had only glimpsed the mangled car bodies on the side of the interstate, in the closed lane.
She had seen plenty of wrecks on television, in movies.
Once, on the bus to the Catholic school, someone swore they saw a foot, a severed foot, laying in the road by a wrecked red car, but she didn’t see it, except in her mind.
For years before she’d ever been to New York, she could picture being in the city so thoroughly that she had to remind herself she’d never been there, pause a moment if anyone asked what cities she’d been to.
Her head is full of things she’d never experienced seeing – car wrecks, war zones, the devastation of floods, the anger of men in dark rooms, the creeping stalk of late night streets, cities lit at dawn, the tangled of interstates coming alive while people on the other side of the world bake under the midday sun, speaking different languages, living in refugee camps, steam rising from the earth, the stink of the slaughterhouse, quiet halls of rest homes, bombs going off, rivers always flowing, waterfalls plunging into the dark, mountains asleep as the edge of glacier falls heavy into the ocean, unseen and heard by anyone but the bears, blithe seals giving a brief shudder before sliding back into the water.
All of this is happening all at once, a rapid-reel flashing of scenes and thoughts running in the background, a sense of seeing, witnessing.
It’s made up though, her imaginings of these things she has never seen in real life. It’s all based on television and movies and pictures in books, stories she has read.
She stopped watching television in 2001, in the days immediately following the American event of 09/11/2001. Taking the dog for a walk around the NE Portland neighborhood she lived in, she found herself picturing the President’s face, the buildings falling again and again, the people and the smoke.
She could feel it in her body – terrible, stunned, and close – almost like she was there, like it was real to her beyond the news reports of what was happening several thousand miles away.
My belief that I was noticing and witnessing elemental communications from something like God gave me a far-greater purpose than being the total loser that everyone seemed to think I was – the selfish, ungrateful wife who wanted to get a divorce, the person who was laid-off from work, the one who “wasn’t thinking about the kids” – who was being selfish and immature, crying too much and not trying hard enough to get her ‘act together.’
When I think back objectively, I understand that I really wasn’t that much of a loser, but at that point in my life, I deeply believed that I was, in fact, a huge failure as a human being and this belief was reinforced by criticism and hostility in extended family relationships during the process of a bad divorce.
American history and economies create a toxic and transactional culture full of power and control dynamics and run-through with traumatic experiences in core relationships and maladaptations to not having our basic needs to:
be seen in a way that is dignified, worthy, valid
to not be harmed, exploited, or abused by the people and institutions we rely on to support our human existence and nurture our individual potentials.
It was almost cliche when my mental health history and brief, relatively minor parenting transgressions – (getting upset and tearful during confusing conversations that turned into arguments in front of the kids, being late to drop them off at school some rare morning or another because one or the other of them was refusing to leave the house and those things can take a minute, spending time on artwork when I was supposed to be helping my daughter learn how to read even though she didn’t want to sit down with me and look at the boring books of phonetics, simple sentences) – were brought into divorce discussions.
I had thought – hoped – that everything could be amicable, copacetic in the process of uncoupling. However, that ended up not being the case.
There began to be discussion of custody lawyers specializing in mood disorders, and one of the other mothers from my son’s class called to let me know that people – other parents from my children’s classes – were being told to keep an eye on me, that I was unstable.
The drawing-everyday-for-a-year blog was getting even further off topic – pictures that twisted and folded onto themselves in semi-disturbing surrealist mash-ups of figures and fish.
These were not the sort of pictures a well-adjusted mother should draw.
She definitely shouldn’t draw a recognizable and unflattering caricature of an extended family member, and if she is foolishly bitter enough to draw such a picture, she probably shouldn’t post it to her weird blog that was not the sort of blog that any normal mom would have, a blog that was – unbeknownst to her – being surveilled by concerned family members and a handful of parents of elementary school age children who had known her since their kids were mutually tiny people playing at parks and preschools, kindergarten.
She could feel that people were thinking things about her, that there had been conversations.
It was literally palpable – the different person I had become to almost everyone, as though the moment I stepped toward the space where the other mothers were talking in a loose, easy circle, a force-field went up, and the awkwardness of this new person I had become slipped over me like a cage as I saw that they did not want to talk with me.
I began to just wave my hand a little as I passed by, to or from taking my children to the door of the building, the door of the classroom. Then, as the school year finally came to a close, I just smiled a half-smile and gave a half-nod, no real eye-contact as I dropped the kids off in the morning.
I began to simply cease to exist as anyone that anyone talked with, and stood alone, waited alone at the end of the day for the bell to ring and the doors to open and my kids to come back to me, to get to come home.
Some situations that end up being pivotal in our lives begin in ways that don’t initially seem important at all.
True, there are some stories that shift dramatically at evident turning points – a winning lottery ticket found crumpled on the sidewalk, a phone call in the dead of night, worry flashing across a doctor’s face as she looks over your test results, etc. A moment, people say, that they’ll remember forever as the moment their life changed.
This is not one of those stories; the moments that changed my life were not big, obvious moments – at least not at first.
Had I been presented all at once with the idea that slow-formed as the days dragged through June and July 2010, I might have lost my mind a lot sooner, or – alternately – resolutely clung to my ideas about what was what, what was real. I’d have dug in my heels and rolled my eyes at the idea, an idea that would surely have seemed dismissable, absurd – crazy!!! – had it been suddenly plunked down into the middle of a usual day.
I probably would have simply gone about my business, staring straight ahead and keeping my mind on the list of things to do, places to go and people to see, people to be.
If I had immediately known that what I saw would, in only a matter of months, create an enormous rift between me and the rest of the world, pulling the threads that held my reality together and supplanting the experiences of simple, everyday life with outlandish, urgent visions of a world that other people seemed unable to see, I would have had to think long and hard about even briefly entertaining the idea as it emerged.
Nobody could have told me that studying cloudforms would – ultimately – result in me sitting in the back seat of a police cruiser with my hands cuffed behind my back. I probably would have never looked up, had I known.
If you click here or on the image above you will be transported to a lengthy scrap of what I was thinking about 01/01/2010, and – from there – you can see what else was going on in 2010, a year that included numerous events that reconfigured my life as I knew it, up to and including the sadness, frustration, and shame of losing legal custody of my children due to concerns about my mental health and my ability to make good decisions.
Cloud-watching and fumbling around with different ways of thinking about the world, different ways of seeing the world, created huge (and probably avoidable) upheavals.
While I regret that my children had to endure a single moment of not being sure what was going on with their mom, not knowing if I was okay and if – by extension – if they were okay, if their little home-world was okay, I am still immeasurably grateful to have had the experience of genuinely believing – with a clarity that was more certain than any clarity I had ever felt, a clarity like truth – that I was witnessing some force like God drawing pictures in the clouds, trying to tell me something about how deeply, anciently alive and beautifully interconnected everything truly is.
In that way, I suppose my life did change in a moment, a moment that an external observer may have seen as a woman alone in her yard, aiming a camera at the sky and crying like she’d never cried before.
However, as much as I believed, I also couldn’t entirely believe. I didn’t know what I would be believing in if I did believe. I cried as much for not believing as I did for believing, for wanting to believe and finding myself again and again as the skeptical jerk who needed a stupid scientific explanation for awe-spurring wonders and mysteries.
Why can’t I just accept that it’s beautiful and that it’s a mystery and go about my life?
Why do I need to know how it works, how its possible, why I see what I see?
This is not a story of a person’s finding their way to God through spending contemplative time in nature, or anything like that.
This is the story of a naive and ignorant demi-genius with a mental health diagnosis who has a pretty solid track record of fucking up her life and letting people down despite trying very hard to do the ‘right’ thing and to be a decent human being, who – when in the midst of her life falling apart in new and unprecedented ways involving a not-great marriage, upset children, a dead dog and a lost job – happened to be spending a lot of time looking at the sky with her heart breaking all over the place.
She noticed something, and became curious, began to pay attention and wonder about the workings of things.
This is a story about questions, and about the circuitous path toward answers that may not even exist.
Panarchy is an empirically-informed model of the cyclical nature of complex adaptive growth, development, and change dynamics within ecosystems.
Panarchy arose as a data-informed concept model in sustainability and development sciences, and can be a framework for understanding the life and death of forests, economies, and institutions. However, the utility of the panarchic model as a framework for understanding growth and collapse patterns in all relationships, that define life, growth, transformation and death stretches well beyond the bounds of any one discipline or type of ecosystem.
Panarchy suggests tendencies that may be present in all interconnected complex adaptive systems. Cycles characteristic to the panarchic process can be observed in the trajectories of human interactions and reactions within social relationships, work, and even behavioral habits.
Everything is an ecosystem.
Our bodies are ecosystems.
Our communities are ecosystems.
Our cultures and economies are ecosystems.
Our relationships and our families are ecosystems, too, and are thus shaped by the same tendencies of any system to thrive when conditions are ideal, to fall into collapse during crisis, to heal, reconcile or move on having learned what we learned, to begin again in the next phase of growth.
Everything is connected.
Although the above statement reads like an over-simplistic bumper sticker, it is absolutely true that everything is connected, in various ways and to various degrees.
Everything causes something to happen.
Even if we do nothing, there is an effect.
Panarchy describes the ways that systems organize and evolve in relation with one another.
Our lives as we know and experience them are vast constructions of interactions among dynamic variables, and in each moment there are multiple processes unfolding all around us and within us.
A panarchic cycle is driven by variables that are shaped by other panarchic cycles; What happens within one cycle impacts the state and direction of other cycles.
Panarchic cycles vary in the amount of time that it takes for a system to progress through the processes of growth, unsustainability, collapse, and reorganization. Depending on the scale of the complex adaptive systems involved, some panarchic cycles – such as those that shape forest ecosystems and the health of oceans – unfold over millennia.
Sometimes, one can observe the processes of growth, acceleration, revolt/collapse, and regeneration in the seemingly simple course of a conversation that doesn’t go well.
We are living in vastly nested panarchic cycles.
Panarchic processes direct growth, evolution, transformation, and sustainability in many (if not all) of the phenomena of living.
The experiences we may have within our individual lives are informed by panarchic processes that involve our physical bodies, our relationship with the environments we live in, and the events which unfold within our lives as a result of culture, economy, access to resources and opportunities, and relationships.
The panarchic cycle can be identified by four distinct phases:
R: Rapid growth
The emergence of an ecosystem or a new system of ecosystemic relationships. The potential of the ecosystem is determined by resources which support or impede the growth and development of the ecosystem and its constituent parts, with what happens in one sector of the ecosystem becoming inextricably connected to the health and development of other sectors, each of which is comprised of numerous variables which exist and evolve in accordance with one another.
In the panarchic ecosystem of an individual human life, an enormous amount of growth and change takes place very quickly, and one’s potential is augmented or impaired by access to resources which promote growth within and across domains of living such as physical health, social and emotional health, economic and occupational health, and spiritual health.
Events that impact growth and development can be fast or slow. For example, illness or food scarcity will predictably impact physical health.
Stresses and trauma shape not only physical, but social and emotional health in reflexive relationship with economic and occupational health.
In panarchic models, the R phase is marked by a period of rapid development and the emergence of structural relationships within the ecosystem and everything it is connected to.
In the natural world’s way of striving to live and to grow, the R phase may be characterized by exploitation of available resources, or development of growth patterns or resource relationships that may not ultimately be sustainable.
In nature, the R phase can be a period of intense, fervent growth – a field of seedlings all sprouting in unison, clamoring for nutrients, water, and light, the hunger that drives a seasonal migration.
K: Exploitation/Acceleration of Growth
Expanded complexity in relationships between interdependent variables, the complexity of a system informs its resilience, both in the vulnerability to disturbance or in the inability to adapt or grow in healthy ways.
In the natural world, individual species tend to exploit resources available to them in an ever-evolving drive towards life and sustainability of species.
The invasive tendencies of some plant and animal species is not the result of avarice, but simply the nature by which these species try to gain a foothold in living.
The K phase is characterized by increased resource utilization to support rapid growth, and by the emergence of increasingly complex connections and dependency arrangements between constituent species within an ecosystem developing in concert with one another.
This interconnectedness may reduce flexibility in adaptation through multiple variables reinforcing the behavior and roles of one another.
When adaptive change or innovation is impeded within one complex adaptive variable by its relationship with other variables within the system it is a part of, the resilience of interdependent variables can be reduced as the system itself becomes self-reinforcing of structures and relationships which may, depending on social ecological systems, not be ultimately beneficial to the health and equilibrium of the ecosystem. These interdependencies create strongly coupled hierarchies that may be vulnerable to disruption by external factors or that may prove to be internally unsustainable as growth exceeds capacity of the ecosystem to support the structures and relationships which have emerged within it.
If variables within a panarchy are inextricably linked to variables that connect to other complex adaptive cycles, if collapse occurs at one level or scale of the ecosystem, a cascade of collapse can occur.
Omega: Breakdown, collapse, release of resources, revolt
When an ecosystem becomes unsustainable, or when it is critically impacted by external forces or internal structures which compromise resilience, the ecosystem can no longer sustain the operations and relationships which defined it, and a collapse process begins.
The collapse of an ecosystem can be slow or fast, depending on the unique structures of economy and relationship which exist within the ecosystem and the external pressures or resources which may augment or ameliorate the process of collapse.
Within the complex adaptive systems that comprise an individual human life, collapse may be created by conditions such as illness and injury, deprivation of resources to support growth in the form of poverty, conflict within families and communities which dislocate or change the role of the individual within the larger systems they are a part of, and can lead to disruptions in resilience and adaptive capacity.
Depending on the individual and the circumstances of their lives, collapse or vulnerability to collapse may be indicated by increased subjective distress, impairment in functioning in health and growth promoting ways due to internal or external factors within one’s life, and significantly heightened biological stress.
Following collapse, the ecosystem begins a process of reorganization, leveraging resources which remain from previous ecosystemic iterations and relying on knowledge gained in previous growth cycles.
In the natural world, this may be observed as the release of seeds following a fire and the re-establishment of hardy and adaptive species from which a new iteration of the ecosystem will arise. The question of which constituent attributes or species will come to define the reorganized ecosystem depends on the rate of growth of individual species, availability of conditions/resources needed to thrive, and barriers to growth such as – in forest ecosystems – soil quality, pathogenic factors, and water availability is intersecting with event variables such as floods, fires, drought, or agricultural and industrial development.
In any panarchic cycle, a number of connected panarchic and complex adaptive cycles are shaping the successive details of the development course, the outcomes of defining events, and relationships that define the panarchy.
For example, if one considers the life of an individual human being within a panarchic framework, it is necessary to consider the factors and variables which determine health and potential within the individual’s environment. Factors such as poverty and vulnerability to poverty, increased risk of adverse experiences, access to resources, and other social ecological determinants of health have to be considered.
In each successive and evolving panarchic cycle, the organization and health of the ecosystem is informed by what came before it, and by the assets and barriers that evolve with growth.
The Panarchy of Mental Health
To understand human distress and wellbeing, and the way that qualitative and functional states of being and existing within our individual and communal lives in relationship with the environments we live in, it is necessary to take into account myriad variables and to understand the workings of complex adaptive systems, as these workings shape the tendencies of all living things.
Assumptions in the formulation of a panarchy of mental health:
Like all things that are living, human well-being depends on access to resources and conditions that support growth and health.
The circumstances into which an individual is born play a massive role in the course their life is likely to take, the experiences they may have, and the impact those experiences have on health and ability to live well.
This fact is well-established across all disciplines concerning themselves with human health.
Our understanding of the negative health effects related to conditions such as, for example, malnutrition and exposure to toxins, is empirically supported by decades of medical research, and the social sciences have deeply explored and documented the ways that factors such as poverty and violence affect the health and function of individuals, families, communities, and the global society.
Public health initiatives have gathered extensive data on the relationship between poverty, trauma and health outcomes across all demographic sectors on multiple scales.
There is a sea of research spanning all disciplines that strongly suggests that what happens within our lives matters.
We all intuitively know that what happens to us matters, that we are deeply affected by the events of our lives. Events can be acute or unfolding over the course of a life stage.
Our lives are culminate outcomes of the events we have experienced and the ways those events have shaped us and driven us, charted our lives.
At any given point in our lives, multiple events are unfolding simultaneously.
Beyond the scope of our conscious awareness of what is happening in our lives and how we are affected, events across all interconnected scales of family, community, culture, and economy are unfolding in relationship with the environments we live in.
Panarchy and the Human Stress Response
Assumption: There is no clean slate, no neutral state. Prior, even, to the moment we are born, we are having experiences and processing information about our environments, and our bodies are reacting to motivations to seek basic necessities for living and to threats or injuries we experience or perceive within our environment, and – as we grow – our relationships.
In the human stress response, one condition or response catalyzes subsequent reactions and conditions. Biological stress responses unfold in a causal sequence of activities occurring within our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and our psychological responses to fear and stress conduct themselves similarly, with one state of cognition and perception stimulating a qualitative and functional shift in the operations of stress-affected psychological, cognitive, and emotional states. You can see this process of cascading reactions in responses to fear-producing events or stimuli, the senses and faculties of psychological interpretation perceive a threat, and this provokes a release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and shifts activity in the brain from the prefrontal cortex, areas of which govern language production, and reasoning, among other things.
In a model of human psychological health and resilience in the sense of the human psychological and experiential system being able to maintain consistent adequate function to stay healthy within one’s life, events which stimulate a stress response present disturbances to resilience in the sense that they disrupt or change function, catalyzing both immediate and protracted processes of adaptation to the stressor. If the human psychological and experiential system does not have the resources (material, external resources which may support problem solving, and internal resources of skills, learning, and psychological-emotional-spiritual factors such as hope, motivation, and positive creativity) to support adaptation, the resilience of the system breaks down in the form of reduced self-directed functionality in the actions and relationships which maintain and contribute to continued functionality of the existing ecosystems of our lives and realities.
The stress response is variable, depending on the stressor and the individual experiencing stress. Biological stress responses are both innate and learned – meaning that we are all born equipped with mechanisms of perception and response that arose within our human species to help us to stay alive, to recognize threat and to respond in ways that may keep us from experiencing harm. We learn, throughout our lives, what fear is and what to be afraid of and what to do when we’re afraid. There is increasing evidence that we may hold fears that our ancestors felt, that fearful knowledge is encoded in our DNA, a whispered message of what to be scared of from those who came before us.
Stress responses in our body are also stimulated by our instinct to seek the things that are beneficial to our continued living and reproduction – food, sex, opportunities to increase access to food and sex within our social ecological systems. Positive stress – like excitement, desire, motivation, and reward – are sometimes referred to as Eustress, from the Greek prefix Eu – meaning good.
However, depending on the social ecological system we are a part of, excessive eustress may be as disruptive to our lives as excessive distress in generating pleasure-seeking as a dominant motivator in ways that undermine the functionality of life ecosystems.
Poverty is a panarchic cycle, and the conditions of poverty exist as part of a complex adaptive system that connects individuals, families, and local communities to structures that determine global economies.
A panarchy is a nested set of complex adaptive systems.
Psychologically, as we interpret and make meaning of our lives and how we feel within them, we may observe the rise and fall of subjective experiences of hope, motivation, fear, and overwhelm.
This site was created as a means to learn about panarchy and to explore the different ways that this framework of understanding the life and death of states within systems may apply to different phenomena of experience within our world.
When the word experience is used here, it is meant to suggest the qualitative and objective attributes and phenomenal circumstances of existing.
Humans have experiences both individual and collective.
Forests have experiences, as does every living thing within them.
Cities and governments and economies have experiences.
The variables and conditions that define those experiences have an impact on what happens in constituent complex adaptive systems existing within a larger, interconnected ecosystem, and inform what happens next in an ecosystem’s growth and evolution.
Sometimes ecosystems collapse. Knowing this to be true, the development a popular, collective understanding of why collapse occurs within ecosystems, individual human lives, economies, species, and social, institutional structures.
When one system collapses, this collapse affects all interconnected complex adaptive systems in some way or another.
When one system collapses, other systems inevitably emerge to take its place.
As the world we collectively live in evolves and responds to new conditions within social ecological system, it is increasingly important that all humans consider the ways that the complex adaptive systems operate and function in processes of growth, adaptation, and collapse.
This project explores the panarchic process in accessible and familiar domains, such as human experience within our lives and relationships, and invites consideration of the nature by which most things rise and fall as it may present in economies, in forests, rivers, and weather patterns, and even in group processes such as meetings or arguments.
Everything rises toward growth, and when the system cannot sustain itself, the tendency is toward collapse and re-organization. Most people are probably aware of this, at least dimly.
In this stage of our development as a species on planet earth, knowing what we know about how the world works and the errors of our history, it is important that we all – as human beings – evolve in our ability to see our lives and experiences as complex adaptive systems – because that is what our lives and experiences are.
Learning about complex adaptive systems is important because doing so allows us to be more active participants in the unfolding of our lives and in making decisions that promote health and wellbeing within our ecosystem world.
The science of complex adaptive systems and the framework of panarchy is not only for those who research social ecological systems. The lessons and teachings of change and collapse in complex systems in nature, by nature, extends to all facets of our lives in some way or another because this is how the world works.
As inhabitants of our lives and of our world, we have a right and a responsibility to understand these workings and to consider why the conditions that define our lives are as they are, and to make skillful, informed decisions about how to best approach making change within those conditions, how to ease the transformation that will inevitably emerge, that is emerging right now.