Discover more from Cathleen Falsani: This Numinous World
A Tuesday Story: The Beltane Blues, Rage Crafting, and Saying the Things
Monday began by earning its dreadful reputation, but after some art therapy, a hot beverage with a soul friend, and laughter, the day was redeemed in time to embrace May Day and the hope it augurs.
When I became a professional newspaper columnist for the first time more than 20 years ago, I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I made promises to myself — and my readers — that I would always:
1) Write about what was actually on my heart and mind, and
2) Say the things that were true and real for me even if it felt risky to say them.
Those promises have served me well over the years and I continue to try to keep them in these pages.
To wit: Yesterday, May 1, 2023, largely sucked. I dragged myself out of bed, put on my workout clothes, and headed to the car to drive to the park to meet the wonderful woman who trains me. But it was raining. So, we had to cancel. Again. (It’s basically been raining here since Christmas, which usually I enjoy, but it was a long Gray-pril and make with the sun, SoCal, before May Gray and June Gloom arrive.)
[This is a warning for the those with more delicate sensibilities when it comes to language. In what follows, there will be more swearing than usual.]
I took off my hiking boots, climbed back into bed, flipped open my laptop, and received the news that one of my dearest friends, Terri, was almost shot in the head during her birthday party dinner in New Orleans. No, I’m not being hyperbolic or exaggerating. This really happened.
Thankfully, Terri is physically OK and back home in Chicago. She is a force of nature (as well as a national treasure) with a hefty quiver full of skills for navigating life and working through trauma as well as a close network of friends and family who will make sure she continues to be OK.
She assures me she will be fine. I believe her.
I’m so fucking tired of the fucking guns in this country and the tyranny those who value firearms and their right to own and bear them above the sanctity of actual human life and our collective human right to live without terror inflict on all of us.
If this offends you, I am not sorry. There’s the door.
Of course there are responsible gun owners. Of course not all gun owners are terrible humans. Of course it’s complicated.
But for the love of God — literally — enough is enough.
It was enough a decade ago and a decade before that. The problem is the guns and the deathkult that clings to them like Sméagol and the Ring, as if they mean something profound, as if they protect us from anything. Because they don’t.
While Terri was celebrating her birthday over dinner with a couple dozen of her closest friends at a well-known restaurant in New Orleans last Friday night, a car rolled up and someone began firing toward the restaurant, murdering one of the servers — a young man named Hilbert Walker III — who was standing outside. Mr. Walker was 23, the same age as my son.
Police say the two gunmen targeted Mr. Walker. There was an armed security guard at the restaurant who, according to reports, returned fire, shooting at the perpetrators who, at this writing, remain at large.
The gunmen were bad shots and some of their bullets made it inside the restaurant, sending patrons, including Terri and her party who were in town for NOLA’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, diving to the ground for safety. One of the “stray” bullets hit one of Terri’s friends in the back (miraculously, she is expected to be OK).
Another bullet missed Terri’s head by a couple of inches.
Thank God she ducked when she did.
This senseless, violent tragedy was not a mass shooting in the horrendous vein of Covenant or Uvalde or Newtown or Columbine or Parkland or the Pulse nightclub or the Highland Park Fourth of July Parade or Mother Emanuel Church or Tree of Life Synagogue or the 184 other mass shootings so far in 2023 alone.
The shooting that caught Terri and her friends in the crossfire in one of her (and my) favorite places on earth, New Orleans, was of a more grotesquely quotidian kind of gun violence, the sort that happens a few hundred times a day, every day, in the United States. It’s the kind of shooting that might not have made the news if it hadn’t happened at a popular restaurant on the opening night of Jazz Fest and if Terri hadn’t been there.
We have more civilian-owned guns in this country than civilians. That’s close to 400 million weapons. As of May 1, more than 13,900 people have died from gun violence in the United States this year. And that, to me, is fucking insanity. There’s a psychological phenomenon called “cumulative traumatic stress disorder,” which is common among first responders and in the helping professions (including clergy). But I think we’re all living it in this country.
The gun violence is unrelenting. It’s too much to bear. Our minds, hearts, and spirits were not meant to have to bear it. And they shouldn’t have to.
At my house, we’ve always been vehemently, virulently anti-gun. In the past, we’ve lobbied and protested, volunteered, and canvassed and collaborated with others to try to make guns — especially military-style assault weapons — less accessible. We’ve lost friends to gun violence. We’ve experienced gun violence in our family.
Soon, I’d imagine, if it hasn’t happened already, most of us will have a personal connection to a mass shooting. I do to several.
All our grandchildren have grown up with active-shooter drills in school as the norm. But it’s not normal. It’s not civilized. To live with the relentless possibility of dying from gun violence is barbaric.
In recent years, we’ve begun to wonder aloud, often, how many guns there may be in the homes of our neighbors in the tony, exceedingly low-crime seaside town where we live in Southern California. Many is our sadly educated guess. As we consider what we’d like the next few decades of our life to look like, we’ve begun to talk regularly about safety — what it means practically speaking, what it isn’t, what is negotiable, what isn’t.
Last week, my husband asked me, “Where would you feel safe?”
“In this country?” I answered. “Nowhere.”
As he left for a lunch meeting at a restaurant down the hill from our house yesterday, I added “Don’t get shot” to my usual, “Be careful. I love you.”
Alone in the house midway through Beltane, the Celtic festival that marks the midpoint between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice (in the northern hemisphere) and is meant to usher in more light, I left a voicemail for Terri, exchanged messages with other friends about the gloomy state of the world, and generally felt a mixture of anger, sadness, and frustration. Or, to illustrate it more specifically for you, I felt like Ron Swanson with low blood sugar at a barbeque where there were no grilled meats to be had.
I allowed myself to hate everything for a few minutes, but then my contemplative toolbox began rattling on the altar where I keep it by the bedroom window, reminding me first to breathe and then to widen my aperture, panning back about 30,000 feet to have a better look at the world and our collective circumstance.
That was initially not super helpful, when you consider climate change, wars and rumors of wars, pandemics, rampant stupidity, and the writer’s strike in Hollywood (I am 100 percent team WGA — please, major studios and streaming services, pay these essential artists what they deserve so our society, which is dangling by a janky gossamer thread, does not slip into complete chaos when we run out of new TV and film content to distract us from the terrible and the horrible.)
So, I tried panning back even farther, to a more eternal vantage point, and that’s when I remembered some helpful instruction from Bruce Cockburn who wrote and sang the line in his “Lovers In a Dangerous Time” that U2 later borrowed for their own anthem, “God Part II”:
Kick at the darkness til it bleeds daylight….
Do not go gently.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light and/or the machine.
Phone a friend
My friend Melinda, who has been one of my ride-or-die Anam Caras since college, lives a few towns south of me. She’s an artist, a demi-Celt and spiritual pilgrim such as I who finds solace in nature and in making things. I texted her to see where we might go to pick some of the abundance of superbloom wildflowers blanketing Southern California to use in making a May Bush (or May Tree) — one of the charmingly mystical Beltane traditions still practiced in our ancestral Ireland.
According to a helpful blog post Google helped us discover:
The May Bush is not actually typically a bush at all, but is generally fashioned from a flowering branch of a hawthorn (whitethorn) tree, which is planted in front of a house or tied to the front fence of a dwelling. Generally, as local traditions determine, on either the last day of April or the first day of May. May Bushes are decorated in much the same manner today as they were by our long-dead ancestors; wildflowers, ribbons, sea shells and coloured eggs shells (sometimes saved from Easter) continue to be as popular as ever, and while candles and rush-lights have given way to sparkling sweet-wrappers – the tradition of using anything at hand or deemed to be suitable for embellishing the May Bush continues to this day.
Whether to ward off naughty fairies, welcome the benevolent ones, or summon the light of spring and summer and the hope for new beginnings that they conjure, creating a May Bush felt like a good way to kick at the darkness.
While I tried to find somewhere nearby where hawthorn might be growing wild (no luck) or even grown at a nursery (nope), Melinda continued the wildflower picking search only to report back with some disturbing news:
In the state of California, it is illegal (a misdemeanor, but still) to pick wildflowers on any public land.
REALLY? Do I really have the right to own as many AR-15s or AK-47s or whateverthefuckelse implements of death, terror, and destruction, but picking wildflowers is verboten?
That didn’t feel good.
I mean, I get that if everyone went to, say, Joshua Tree National Park to see the superbloom, traipsed out into the desert, and picked as many blooms as they could carry, there would be nothing to look at. And I get that some people are assholes and would not follow a sustainable wildflower-picking ethos, ruining it for the rest of us. But it was a bummer to learn that we’d both committed light fauna misdemeanors over the years, however unwittingly.
We almost gave up. My alternative plan for welcoming the light and marking Beltane was to shut myself in the bedroom, draw the shades, and begin rewatching all six seasons (and two films) of the original Sex and the City series on my laptop.
And yet … we persisted.
I grabbed a bag full of ribbons and headed south while Melinda gathered art supplies from around her house, along with a red-barked branch she’d brought back from somewhere up north some time ago, and we determined to make our Beltane May Bush with the riot of nasturtium blossoms, vines, and a few blooming branches of a blighted peach tree in a corner of her back garden. We set up shop on an outside dining table while two rattan ceiling fans, pushed by the growing afternoon breeze, made languid mandalas overhead.
She stuck the red branch in an empty metal flowerpot stand and we got to work with yarn and ribbon, twine and shells, a few random glass beads, the nasturtium, peach blossoms, and no design plan whatsoever. As early evening arrived, the sun came out and the breeze kicked up a few notches — not a gale, but more wild than gentle — enough to pull on light sweaters.
We worked at the May Bush and talked about family and place, about guns and safety, about the books we were reading and films and shows we were watching, about the mystics we have learned from (shout out to Jim Finley and his blissful, magic eyebrows), about friends and friendship, walking and hiking and having adventures. We plotted a bit and fiddled with our in-process rage crafting project.
I braided long strands of organza ribbon in shades of blush, tied them onto our bush in three places, Melinda lifted it up, the wind caught the plaits, and just like that…it was done.
The gloaming was upon us. “Would you like some tea,” Minna offered.
“Oh, yes, please.”
She put on her kettle (I have the same one at home), we sat with two strong cuppas, and talked until the sun was almost set. We made plans to go for a hike in new spot with a view of a more off-the-beaten-path superbloom, and to get together to watch Grey Gardens while she dog sits for a friend next week.
We wrestled the May Bush into the back of my car, hugged, and I headed for home — about a half hour’s drive. In the car, I listened to the very end of the Mary Oliver audio documentary I leant my voice and thoughts to, Wild and Precious, and then Audible rolled into the next book in my queue: Marc Maron’s Attempting Normal, which is pretty much the opposite of the Mary Oliver experience, but not in a bad way.
Within minutes, I was howling with laughter as he told the story of his attempts at rescuing five feral kittens from the alleyway behind his apartment in Astoria many years ago during a particularly low point in his personal life. One of the “wild animals” he named La Fonda. Another, Monkey. Hissy was difficult, and then there was Meany, who could not be tamed or kept or wrangled.
I stopped at a grocery store to pick up something for quick for dinner — crustless quiche and some vegan dolmades and — an impulse buy at the checkout, a copy of Backwoods Survival Guide, because why not? I laughed my way the rest of the short distance home with Marc, who is one of my favourites. He always says what he feels and talks about what he’s actually thinking about and I love him for it.
It was about 8 p.m. when I pulled back into our driveway, the last vestiges of the sunset a narrow ombre-orange-purple ribbon on the horizon just to the east of Santa Catalina Island’s silhouette.
I grabbed the May Bush from big back and as I did, I heard a familiar voice, one I’d not heard in many months.
Hoo-hooo, hoo-hoo. Hoo-hoooo, hoo-hoo.
One of the great horned owls that calls our canyon neighborhood home had returned. I hooted back, holding the May Bush in on hand and my Gelson’s bag in the other.
Maybe thirty seconds passed.
I hooted again.
And a moment later, the owl responded.
“May” by Mary Oliver
May, and among the miles of leafing, blossoms storm out of the darkness— windflowers and moccasin flowers. The bees dive into them and I too, to gather their spiritual honey. Mute and meek, yet theirs is the deepest certainty that this existence too— this sense of well-being, the flourishing of the physical body—rides near the hub of the miracle that everything is a part of, is as good as a poem or a prayer, can also make luminous any dark place on earth.
By the way, in my last dispatch, where I talked about the Mary Oliver audio doc, Wild and Precious, I said that my contribution went from about minute 32:00–39:00 in Section II. What I didn’t realize until last weekend when I finally had a chance to listen to the entire documentary while hiking, is that I come back for a second appearance later in Section II. I was so surprised to hear myself again, especially given that I was talking about prayer and how I understand it now compared to when I was younger (which has not a small thing to do with how Ms. Oliver understood it, too) I made myself cry. Literally.
So if you’re interested — the whole audio doc/audiobook is so lovely I cannot recommend it enough, even if I weren’t, ya know, in it myself — my second appearance (where Sophia Bush re-introduces me as “Cathleen Falsani, a fan of great horned owls and Jesus”) can be found from about minute 50:53–55:25.
I was not paid for my contribution to the Mary Oliver audio documentary and receive no royalties. It was just an honor to be a part of it and the project is so beautiful, I want as many people as possible to experience it.
Here’s Mary’s poem about prayer and how we understand it and don’t, “I Happened to Be Standing” from her collection A Thousand Mornings:
I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do. Do cats pray, while they sleep half-asleep in the sun? Does the opossum pray as it crosses the street? The sunflowers? The old black oak growing older every year? I know I can walk through the world, along the shore or under the trees, with my mind filled with things of little importance, in full self-attendance. A condition I can’t really call being alive. Is a prayer a gift, or a petition, or does it matter? The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way. Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not. While I was thinking this I happened to be standing just outside my door, with my notebook open, which is the way I begin every morning. Then a wren in the privet began to sing. He was positively drenched in enthusiasm, I don’t know why. And yet, why not. I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe or whatever you don’t. That’s your business. But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be if it isn’t a prayer? So I just listened, my pen in the air.
Earlier today, I returned to my favorite podcast, Inglorious Pasterds — taping a new episode with Michael, Matt, and Brad — our first since The Before Times. We talked a lot about fear and snakes and COVID and death and integration and Richard Rohr and Prince and Stephen Hawking and dogs. Oh and snakes. There’s a lot about snakes. We also laughed and swore a lot.
I LOVE these guys. Tune in if you dare.
I am told the new episode drops tonight. You can find it at the link below and wherever you get your podcasts.
No matter how grim the state of the world may seem or how grumpy or hopeless we may feel, let’s try to be as brave and as kind as we can. Even if just for a few moments.
Maybe make something, whatever it is, just for the sake of making something. Let loose your creative energy out and let it heal your spirit.
And dearhearts, please never forget that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love, and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,