I try to journal every day. In conversation and in writing, I do better when given a question or prompt. So, this morning, I asked myself a question: What does coping look like for you?
One of the contexts for this prompt is an article I read about the real-life Lord of the Flies: In 1966, eight adolescent boys from Tonga took a boat to get away, encountered a pacific storm, and became stranded on the island of ‘Ata in the Pacific Ocean. ‘Ata is a giant rock jutting out of the ocean and uninhabited because its residents were taken by a slave ship. It proved untenable for the boys until they found the ancient crater of a volcano that had flourishing flora and fauna, including chickens that have been breeding for over a hundred years. They took care of each other and survived for a year and three months until a fisherman from Australia found them. Rutger Bregman from The Guardian writes, “While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.”
Another is the image of the six of swords from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck. I consider using tarot cards psychological exercises aided by interpretation. And I interpret images (and sounds) for a living now. From it, I was reminded of the statement “We are under the same storm”, instead of being on the same boat in light of the coronavirus crisis. People’s ways of coping are affected by their resources and mobility. So, we are all navigating one storm in different boats. Some have great ships, most have small boats.
A third is the story of American activist and author Julia Butterfly Hill, who protested the clear-cut logging of redwood trees. She “tree-sat” a tree she called Luna for 738 days. In Taoist scholar and professor Dr. Benjamin Tong’s “The Taoist and the Activist” from a show called Lunch with Bokara, Hill says: “So for me, activism is about a spiritual practice as a way of life. And I realized I didn’t climb the tree because I was angry at the corporations and the government; I climbed the tree because when I fell in love with the redwoods, I fell in love with the world. So it is my feeling of ‘connection’ that drives me, instead of my anger and feelings of being disconnected.”
Activism is also doing everything we can to not let out home knocked down and our boats destroyed by a storm; tend to the hearth fire so it never burns out and we can always have light, warmth, and nourishment. I consider activism as a means of coping—keeping that hope and feeding it with action—and preservation. There are people, in our time—ordinary health workers, laborers, farmers, and kind ones—who will do everything in their power to not let it all fall apart.
The same can be done on a personal level with the body. To answer my own question: It begins with my body and the parts that need tending. And tendering. I can’t sleep until I’ve let my grief be carried away by the tide. Obviously an unscientific perception, but I’ve always believed that certain pains and negative feelings hide or embed themselves in specific parts of my body. The tense muscle on my upper right back is where the pressure to succeed resides. When I lie down, it twitches and sends a sharp current of pain down to my hips. To rest is to expose myself to hidden pain. Hidden because I don’t feel it during the day and forget about it until it is time to sleep. In my throat are thoughts that I would rather swallow and stomach than express. The back of my jaw hurts, mostly because of teeth that needs to be pulled out, but also because this is where I carry my worry and rage.
It’s morbidly astonishing how much dirt can get in my skull. My nose is itchy, my ears full of dust gathering like ambergris that can only be extracted by a tiny spoon-like tool, and I can feel phlegm sloshing at the back of my throat for two out of four seasons. Sometimes, the phlegm can feel like a slug sliding through the crevices of my skull; there is excruciating pain when it gets stuck, especially when I am flying. I can’t even conceive of the top of my body as a “head” because all I see and feel is a screaming, flaming skull. The dirt and filth in my skull bear stories of different adventures, big and small. To very bottom, the soles of my feet are calloused and warped from carrying this entire existence.
So, coping for me is to be able to think and write about all kinds of feelings and sensations. Most of all, the difficult ones I would rather avoid because it’s too much to work on. It is such a task to curb my anger, for instance. I try to find a way to transmute all the great and small things that give me pain and grief into a condition close to comfort and joy. Part of my small boat is a tiny lantern. I also tend to that tiny flame as I do try to be excellent to myself. The closer I am to my sparkling core, the better connected I become to the people around me and to my surroundings. At present, this is all that is asked of anyone: be gentle and thoughtful.