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Email Anna Alkin,
aka Big Mama,
I've been thinking a lot about how to affect systemic change in the face of the vast, overwhelming environmental crises facing us as a species, like that of global climate change. And my ongoing meditation about climate change, interestingly, has been shaped by my health challenges. You see, I recently discovered that I have an autoimmune disease, Sjogren’s Syndrome, in which the immune system attacks the moisture-producing glands of the body, particularly the mouth and eyes.
Because traditional medicine can’t do much to disrupt the disease process of Sjogren’s, I started seeing a Chinese medicine herbalist in April. Only two weeks into drinking an unpalatable tea twice a day, I no longer felt like I was climbing up a steep mountain in the hot sun after a night of binge drinking. My fatigue has abated, and with that, clothes have begun to be folded, strawberries planted, floors swept and mopped, and I feel like a gentler, kinder woman — some of the time at least. The effect of this herbal tea on my health has been nothing short of miraculous.
After a couple of weeks of dutifully drinking my mystery miracle potion, I asked my herbalist some questions. I learned that Chinese medicine considers Sjogren’s Syndrome, a disease characterized primarily by dryness, as a “toxic yang” condition. The metaphor he used is that my body is like a burning building, and as a consequence, the normal energetic pathways (on which health depends) are blocked. This makes for some pretty crazy, seemingly unrelated, physical symptoms, in my case ranging from having numb or tingling fingers, dental issues beyond belief, to feeling ice cold even in the unrelenting heat of the Texas summertime.
So check this out: an autoimmune condition characterized by intractable dryness and heat, resulting in seemingly disconnected and contradictory symptoms, like the sensation of cold. If this isn’t an apt metaphor for global warming, I don’t know what is. Only we are the cells who are unwittingly attacking our shared body, planet earth, by spraying pesticides, draining aquifers, clear-cutting forests, and boosting CO2 levels in the atmosphere with our penchant for burning fossil fuels. Our earth is now the burning building, many natural pathways to balance blocked, causing increased temperatures and drought conditions worldwide, except for increasingly common instances of extreme weather — savage cold, rain or wind — worldwide.
Yang is the outward-looking, warming, initiating, doing principle, often associated with the sun, maleness, and the mind. The yin pole, in contrast, is the inward, cooling, responsive, meditative, being principle, often associated with the moon, femaleness, and the belly. We all have both energies available to us, of course, but as humans and often as whole cultures, we tend to live habitually out of one energy center or the other. I’d characterize our culture as a toxic yang culture, and whether we wish to participate in the disease process of global warming or not, we can’t help but pour fuel on the fire by going about our daily lives, not unlike a confused immune system that attacks itself as a natural outgrowth of profound imbalance.
Here’s where the irony, and the hope, steps in: the secret ingredient in the herbal tea that is working wonders in me, helping rivers to run again in the desert of my body, is a powdered form of a snake, found in the South of China in the summertime. The paradise of good health — my Eden, if you will — is being restored by a snake!
Predictably, I began encountering snakes everywhere at home once I began drinking my Chinese tea. And so I have been thinking a lot about snakes, about their ability to shed their ill-fitting skins and start anew, symbolizing new life and regeneration. And I’ve been thinking of how the snake was a common symbol of the Goddess in ancient days, only later to be depicted as the “Evil One” as yang religions gained ascendancy with their hierarchical structures of leadership, their orientation to a male Sky God over a female Earth Goddess, and a marked preference for the head over the belly as the primary source of wisdom.
I have also been meditating on the snake as potent teacher and spiritual medicine, pointing us to alternative approaches to healing the crisis of our collective body, planet earth. Snake medicine for toxic yang — toxic doing, toxic consuming, and toxic warring with what is — suggests that we learn how to bring our energy low, slow, and on equal ground with all others. Snake medicine reminds us how to journey forward, but with serpentine movement. And perhaps most important, snake energy reminds us to attend to the wisdom of the belly in seeking new ways of being and acting on behalf of our shared body, planet earth and all her beings.
There’s a story I know that speaks to honoring the intuitive process, yin wisdom, or snake medicine in dreaming up meaningful responses to the world. One afternoon, about a decade ago in Austin, Texas, I visited the Mary House Catholic Worker to attend a “hen party,” for women only. At this hen party, I met a remarkable woman, Joanie, who told me the story of how she came to find her path of social service in the world.
Joanie, married and living a materially-comfortable life, found herself with time on her hands and the determination to do something of good for the world. But what, she had no idea. Every morning, this woman went to church. In prayer on her knees, she asked to be told, shown, or nudged in the direction of what she was to do.
Low and slow, adopting a posture of a heartfelt and humble search for answers, this woman resisted the cultural imperative to just do it. Instead, she asked and waited, asked and waited. In fact, she asked and waited for her answer for quite some time. Perhaps more unusual yet, however, was the fact that Joanie, embedded as she was in a patriarchal religious tradition and society, trusted that she had a particular purpose and gift to give the planet.
In our culture, with our emphasis on the head as the primary gateway to wisdom, it is common to look to professionals with impressive credentials, to the halls of "higher" education, or to the heads of organizations to give us guidance when we’re at a crossroads in life and seeking answers. Joanie, however, made a very different choice. Belly down in the dust, where no one is higher or lower than anyone else, humble but also equally endowed in worth, talent, and purpose, yin energy connects us to the promise we each hold in healing our world. Grounded in the value of her unique soul, Joanie inquired within to discover what her contribution might be. She inquired within and waited.
Then one day she received an answer: peanut butter. I kid you not: peanut butter. On a gut level, she had received an answer, a “knowingness” if you will, which is made of more solid stuff than anything manufactured by the mind. You can wait quite a while for the gift of knowingness, but often the answer you receive — peanut butter — can seem the tiniest bit crazy and off the mark, especially to our linear minds. It’s hard to know what to think, and that’s the point: now we’re in the realm of authentic, unique, and homegrown inspiration, of which we need a great deal more. Joanie stopped by the grocery store on her way home and, lo and behold, there was a prominent display of peanut butter — on sale. It must have been a quite the sale, peanut butter so cheap and plentiful as to not be passed by, because Joanie stocked up on several cases, all the while wondering how she would explain this to her husband when she returned home.
The path of the snake, while forward-moving, does not travel in straight lines, but weaves first in one direction and then the other. With all these jars of peanut butter taking up the available pantry, floor, and counter space in her kitchen, and no earthly idea what it was all for, you can imagine Joanie wondering if she had completely lost her mind. Thankfully, one morning a few days later, the phone rang. A friend was calling, brimming with excitement about an article she had just read in the Austin American Statesman about the “egg lady.” The egg lady, Lynn Goodman-Strauss, who to this day runs the Mary House Catholic Worker, brought hard boiled eggs and tortillas to feed the day laborers who stood waiting on the downtown streets in the early morning hours, hoping that they would chosen for a job that day. These workers were often so poor that they came out to find work without first eating.
Joanie, kitchen full of peanut butter, reasoned to herself that if these men needed eggs for breakfast, they would probably like a peanut butter sandwich to take with them, too. So began Joanie’s peanut butter sandwich ministry, which she operated out of the trunk of her car to complement the efforts of the egg lady. The work of the peanut butter and egg ladies lasted for many years, until a larger organization, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, was organized to feed the hungry with food trucks throughout Austin. From the seed efforts of a small number of deeply committed individuals, like Joanie and Lynn, a new effort took root and spread, enlisting the help of a great many more volunteers with the ability to feed thousands of hungry people daily on the streets of Austin.
Now you may be allergic to Christianity, mention of prayer, peanut butter, or the thought of a higher power. That’s fine by me. You can still practice snake medicine, or yin wisdom, in your own life with none of the aforementioned trappings. But perhaps you’re simply not sure how feeding the hungry amounts to action on behalf of a planet on fire with a toxic yang imbalance. Me either, exactly. But I’d say that whatever your authentic answer is to the question that the world poses to you, if you engage in the yin spiritual practice of slow, low, gut-centered action, then that action holds promise for addressing some part of the disease process from which our planet suffers -- headstrong yang doing, consuming, and warring with all that is.
What we all need are more free peanut butter sandwiches and belly laughs to soften the desert of meaning, and drought of joy, that afflict us. That’s all I’ve got: I don’t yet have my unique answer for how to disrupt the disease process of global warming, though as a mother and as a human being, I have a lot riding on this one. In the meantime, I will join in the effort where it feels fitting, marching here, contacting my Senator there, keeping bees as best as I am able.
But the real work, the radical, to-the-roots effort of my being, I carry within me quietly, unseen and unheralded by the world. I carry the question that this beautiful, suffering world presents to me, embracing it as fully as I can: head, heart, and belly. As I meander through the days, I am silently, persistently, asking and waiting, asking and waiting.