Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why I keep writing about Autism

On days like today, I am tempted to never write about Autism again.

Most Autistic people spend a lot of our lives having people try to figure out what is "wrong" with us and why, telling us that if we only tried harder we would be better at the things that challenge us and that the things we are good at or passionate about are irrelevant, trying to get us to change the ways we think and speak and move and the things we like and dislike, and telling us how difficult it is to understand us.

When we speak about or experiences we tend to be told that we are too sensitive, asked to listen to and agree with people's theories about where Autism comes from, lectured to about the non-existent "Autism epidemic,"  told that Autistic people are a burden on our families, or shut down by being told that we aren't "really" Autistic or that we are "high functioning" (a presumption based on our ability to use language)  and therefore aren't "Autistic enough" and therefore should defer to the wisdom of "experts."   The similarities between these responses and the things we have heard about ourselves all our lives can bring up a lot of relational trauma.   After one of these conversations, it often takes me a day or two to recover my capacities to write and engage.

And it is heartbreaking and frustrating that after four years of writing and speaking and teaching about Autism, the starting point of most discussions is still defending our right to exist as we are.  There is so much more about my Autistic experience that I would like to be sharing beyond convincing people that my existence is not a tragedy.

So why do I keep writing about Autism?

Because when I found the writing of people like Nick Walker and Rosie Guedes and Lydia X. Z. Brown it transformed my sense of who I was and of my place in the world.   And every once in a while I hear from another Autistic person who feels that same sense of recognition when they read my words, or a parent who gains a new empathy for their child from hearing about my experiences.

Because it is an act of intellectual self-defense.  After a lifetime of internalizing the idea that there is something wrong with my way of being, in order to not re-internalize those ideas I need to speak out when people repeat them.   Especially when they are people in my communities.

Because I know other people I love feel under attack when anti-Autistic messages are out in the world and not everyone is out to the people in their lives or has the emotional resources to speak out on a given day.

And, because, occasionally, people listen.  And every time one fewer person is repeating hurtful ideas about Autism, there is a little more room for Autistic people to carve out space to exist in this culture.

So I will keep writing about Autism, despite the cost.    But please remember when you engage me, this isn't an abstraction for me, this is my lif.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Damiana and the Cauldron of Warming

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer." -- Albert Camus

Damiana (Turnera diffusa)  is a light at the southwestern horizon reminding us that though the night descending is dark, morning will come.  

Bitter, warming, and aromatic, Damiana grounds us into our bodies, stirs our heart to quicken the rhythm of the movement of our blood, and relaxes the tension we hold to allow the blood to flow freely to all of our parts -- and where blood flows, awareness goes.

In winters of snow and ice, winters of the heart, and winters of our collective experience, Damiana awakens the memory of the invincible summer within us.

For my Irish ancestors, the time when ewes' milk came in marked the turning point out of winter, and became a festival honoring Brighid of the Three Fires -- the fire of the hearth, the fire of the forge, and the fire in the head.   Her three fires roughly correspond to the three cauldrons the gods are said to have filled in different proportions in each human, spoken of in an old Irish poem, "The Cauldron of Poesy", which is traditionally attributed to the great bard, Amergin,  I think of Damiana as stoking the fire of the hearth, which heats the first cauldron, the Cauldron of Warming (sometimes translated as the Cauldron of Incubation,) which in turn provides deep sustenance for the Cauldron of Motion and the Cauldron of Wisdom.

The Cauldron of Warming is the cauldron by which life enters the body, animating the flesh, setting us into motion.   I associate it with our Wild Self which experiences the world through sensation and emotion, and with the fire of the hearth that warms our bodies.  It resides in the pelvic bowl.

The essence poured into it is taken by the gods "from the mysteries of the elemental abyss" -- a reminder that it is our own most primal nature that connects us with the ecstatic birth of the universe, the emergence of cosmos from teeming chaos.

Damiana is well know for its capacity to stimulate pelvic circulation, bringing blood and awareness flowing to the genitals, giving rise to its reputation as an aphrodisiac.   And it excels in this manner. Damiana infused in Coconut oil makes a wonderful lube for those who are not using latex condoms (and Kava is a nice addition for those who enjoy the juxtaposition of numbing and tingling sensations.)

But to fully appreciate the stirring Damiana brings to the body, we need to broaden our definition of the erotic.   Eros is the force that sets matter dancing, the ecstatic flow of life.    By relaxing tension and increasing blood flow and sensation, Damiana invites us to more deeply inhabit our bodies, engaging eros in new ways.   It is an herb of joyful embodiment, restoring sensual pleasure in all of its forms -- dancing, touch, savoring delicious food, breathing in the scent of snow and Fir and Pine and woodsmoke.    I often give Damiana to elders who are living in a world that forgets that bodies of all ages need and desire sensual pleasure and to people recovering from injuries and illnesses who are learning to be in their bodies again.   I often Damiana with Corydalis yanhuso to keep the return of sensation from being too overhwelming at first.   Damiana is also delicious in honey and amazing in mead.

Like all bitter, warming, aromatic herbs, Damiana is a carminative, stimulating sluggish digestion and relieving gas and bloating.  The latter action of carminatives is an important consideration in the timing of the administration of Damiana as an aprhodisiac in the conventional sense.

Medical science is also bringing us to the understanding that the stimulation of the bitter taste receptors in our digestive tracts (and airways and genitals) dilates our airways, and that the light molecules that we experience as scent when they brush against our nerve endings relax muscular tension by stimulating our parasympathetic nervous systems, meaning that all bitter, aromatic herbs can help us breathe more easily and more deeply. Holding a tincture or tea or honey infused with Damiana in your mouth for a moment will facilitate this opening.  Damiana makes a wonderful smoking herb as well.   I love mixing it with Cannabis and then swimming or lifting weights.

The Cauldron of Motion, which resides in the rib cage, corresponds to the Talking Self, which holds conscious intention and gives direction to our movement in the world.   Whirlpools within that very cauldron can lead the mind to spin in circles without being able to engage the body to take in new information from the world, becoming stuck in an imagined perception of how things are based on past experience.    By returning awareness and sensation to the body, Damiana allows us to come back to our selves and to the world as it is, reshaping our perception and intention and direction accordingly.

The Cauldron of Wisdom, which resides in the head, corresponds to our Divine Self, the part of us that knows its own infinity.  It is important in thinking of this cauldron not to impose our modern understanding of the meaning of the head onto this old Irish framework.  We tend to associate the head with thought and language and logic -- but this emerges from Descarte's decision to drink more than 70 cups of coffee and narrow his consciousness to the point where he believed that his conscious thoughts and his existence were one and the same.   The old Irish understanding of the head was as the place where the gods would set a fire blazing, bringing poets into ecstatic, direct encounter with the living world.  In poetry, Yeats spins the tale of the god Aengus, who tells us

"I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head"

that fire then tooks the form of a "glimmering girl" who called his name and runs -- and Aengus spent
 the rest of his days wandering the world searching for her, his life devoted to the desire to taste her 
lips.  This is not the stuff of the theologian's contemplation of the nature of the world, but rather of 
the mystic's drive to make love to the mystery.    

In my training as a Feri priest I learned that our Talking Selves are incapable of directly connecting with our Divine Selves because the knowledge of our own infinity would shatter all our concepts, leaving our minds in incoherent disarray.  But, when freed from shame and guilt and fear, our Wild Selves can touch that infinity directly through opening completely to sensation -- finding divinity in the feeling of warm water on our skin, the shining of the stars in the sky, the breath of Redwood and Rose, the line of a lover's collarbone.   Damiana invites us into that kind of exquisite presence, bringing us back to ourselves and back into connection with all that is.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Come learn more about Damiana and other herbs for "Rekindling the Heart Fire" at my workshop in Bellingham, Februaru 11 and 12!   Details at  http://www.wildrootbotanicals.com/

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

This post is not about vaccines

Every time people begin debating vaccines, I know that I need to prepare for an onslaught of messages about how my existence, and the existence of other people like me, is an unspeakable tragedy.     

Every discussion about vaccines inevitably turns to the question of whether vaccines cause Autism. And Autistic voices are almost always pushed out of the discussion

The anti-vaccine movement has built its popularity on celebrity support for the discredited former gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield, who falsified data to suggest a non-existent link between vaccines and Autism in order to explain a non-existent Autism "epidemic."  (Wakefield embellished the stories of the subjects of his study to make them fit his theories, and the apparent increase in the prevalence of Autism is largely a function of increased awareness and expanded diagnostic criteria.) That movement relies heavily on damaging and pathologizing descriptions of Autism, combined with junk science, to build its base.  One of the movement's leading voices, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.  speaks of the "catastrophic tragedy of autism which has now destroyed the lives of over 20 million children and shattered their families." Kennedy is now in talks with the President Elect about launching a national commission on vaccines and Autism.


Now, I know that not all people who oppose or question current vaccination protocols subscribe to Wakefield's theories or cite Autism as a reason for their position.   And my own views on vaccines are complex (I think some vaccines are potentially lifesaving for most people and that with others both the benefits and the risks are relatively small and that in almost every instance people should have a right to refuse any medical intervention that they don't want.)    But when Autistic people are saying that the anti-vaccine movement's depiction of Autism as a horror to be prevented is hurting us, the compassionate response is to acknowledge that pain, not to push past it.


Suicide is one of the leading causes of death of Autistic adults -- for much the same reasons that it is one of the leading killers of Queer and Trans people.   We live in a culture that every day in dozens of ways shows and tells us that there is something wrong with our existence.   If we move or speak in the ways that our neurobiologies compel us to, we face discrimination, ostracism, and violence.  Yes, some of us are able to force ourselves to hold our bodies and craft our words and even move our eyes and our faces in ways that are more comfortable to the majority -- but the price is high in terms of the stress of constantly monitoring our every word and gesture, living in fear that our performance will slip, and the internalization of beliefs that it is not okay to make too much or too little eye contact, or to shake and rock to discharge excess energy running through our nervous systems, or to speak in language that is too complex or too simple or that doesn't use words at all about things that are too childish or too heavy or too esoteric for too long.   We interact with systems designed to meet other people's neurological needs and if we express our difficulties with them or ask for changes we are seen as deficient or needy.  

Personally, I live in fear that a trip to the bank will leave me overhwelmed to the point where I become agitated and begin to shake and lose speech, and that a frightened bystander will call the police and the encounter will escalate into violence.  It happens to Autistic people every day.   Not because we are Autistic.   But because the culture we live in only accepts one way of communicating and one way of processing sensation and emotion.    The things that make it difficult for me to live in this culture are also the things that give me the capacity to engage with plants and gods and history in unique and beautiful ways.   But for large stretches of my life I lived in a world that emphasized my disadvantages and trivialized or ignored my strengths.

Now imagine living this reality.  And imagine being a fifteen year old in a community where the only time the existence of Autistic people is acknowledged is when non-Autistic people are debating vaccines.  And the only thing you ever hear said about Autistic people is that our existence is an abomination to be prevented.   How do you think this would make you feel about yourself?

If you are part of the movement against mandatory vaccination, instead of telling me that you are not doing it because you hate people like me, I would love it if you would take the message to others who are opposed to mandatory vaccination that Autism is part of the natural variation in human neurobiologies that has existed as long as our species has and, like every other variation has its challenges and its gifts.   Please tell people to stop pathologizing us.  Your voice is more likely to be heard by those within the movement than mine.  

The pro-vaccination camp has not done much better by us.  Yes, those in favor of vaccination do frequently point out Wakefield's fraud.  But they seldom contest the idea that their is something wrong with being Autistic.   Rather than saying that Autism is not a tragedy, they tend to say vaccines do not cause tragic problems like Autism.

If you are a vaccination advocate, when you are responding to charges that vaccines cause Autism, please talk about the beauty of Autistic minds besides refuting the false science of your opponents.

And whatever camp you fall in, when Autistic people tell you that we are tired of being a political football in your debate, please stop and listen instead of going back to your script.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

On Safe Spaces and Ritual Purity

My gods are ancient and immense.

Like me, they emanate from the ecstatic explosion that ensued when the original darkness looked on darknesself's reflection and fell in love and in lust with darkness' own reflection.

Like me, they contain multitudes.

They are irreducible, and they teach me to own and to stand in the fullness of who I am.

Each morning, I pray that they help me keep pure the intentions of my heart.

They tell me "the only thing that is impure is your concept of impurity."

And so I take a cup of water in my hands and begin the work of releasing and transmuting all the fear and hate and guilt and shame that cause me to reject any part of their beauty, my beauty, and the beauty of the world we weave together, along with the myriad embodied and disembodied beings who join us in the perpetual orgasm of creation.

----

So what would it say if I invited them into a space that was hostile and uninviting to people who have been marginalized and oppressed?

My teacher, Karina taught me that Victor Anderson said that if we did not address our racism and misogyny, we would be in danger when we stood with the gods in circle.

My gods exist before and outside human gender.   What do I say to them if I say that only people performing the gender they were assigned at birth are welcome in my circle?

My gods are lusty and fecund.  What do I say to them if entry into my circle is denied to people based on who and how they love and desire?

My gods take pleasure in the multitudes of biological expressions that exist even within a species.   What do I say to them if my circle is not welcoming to every kind of human body?

Before they were my gods, my gods were the gods of the East African ancestors of all of humanity (or at least of those among them who walked beyond the edge of the fire to re-encounter the wild).   What do I say to them if I disown these ancestors or their fellow descendants just because they do not come from the same continent or have the same skin color as my more recent ancestors?

Freeing my circle and myself of hatred, bigotry, and oppression is the most important act of ritual purification I can engage in.

-----

Those who say "sacred spaces are not safe" engage in the fallacy of equivocation.

On the one hand, absolutely, no ritual space worth of the name is truly safe, in that encounters with the divine and with the wild tend to upend all our categories of judgement, all our structures of belief, all the places we have become rigid.

But if by "safe spaces" we mean spaces that are as free as we can make them of oppressive actions and attitudes and images,  then the only truly sacred spaces are safe spaces, because they are the only spaces in which the gods we invite are invited to bring all of who they are.    Its not that these spaces are unsafe for the gods, they will sanctify whatever they touch by pulling it into resonance with their own natures, but rather that they are unsafe for those who would enter them clinging tightly to their own fear and hatred.   The gods will shake them loose.   And if someone is holding tight to their bigotry, the shaking will not be a pleasant one.

Standing in the presence of the old gods is unsafe for those who make spaces unsafe for others.  The only thing that is impure is our concept of impurity.  And it, too, will be purified, one way or another.




]

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ghost Pipe: A Cautionary Tale

Thank you to Renee Davis for the Facebook post that pushed me to stop procrastinating on writing this.  And to Howie Brounstein for telling me many of these things in is inimitably loving way.

"I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods 
meeting the unmarked strip of light— 
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise: 
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear. 

"And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you 
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these 
to have you listen at all, it's necessary 
to talk about trees." 

-- Adrinenne Rich "Revolutionary Road"

I thought it was enough that I didn't give the names of the forests where I found it.

I thought it was enough that I told people to take only the aerial parts and only a few from each stand and not share their harvest spots and only use the medicine when nothing else would do.

But none of that matters to the plant whose populations my writing and teaching served a role in decimating.

I thought it was enough that I had the plant's permission to teach about it.

But plant's don't know  much about our culture's desire to take things and have them for our own.  So it was never really informed consent.

I told myself it was ok because William Cook had written about Monotropa uniflora all the way back in the nineteenth century and he hadn't made its populations dwindle.  But I didn't understand the impact another century of removing people further and further from the wild and from their own wildness would have.

I thought, nobody is going to read what some upstart late bloomer herbalist working with pot growers in rural Maine says, these words won't reach very far.   My false humility kept me from understanding how far my voice would carry.

I wish I had never begun writing and speaking about Ghost Pipe.

Yes, there are people who were helped who no other plant could serve who met Ghost Pipe through my writings.   And people who fell in love with the plant after I introduced them to hir and have built loving relationships with hir.   But I know enough about plants and about magic to know that I could have made this happen in more discerning ways.

So I am writing this now so you do not accidentally betray a beloved in the way that I have.

___________________________

Another Adrienne Rich poem comes to mind:

"Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill.
We move but our words stand
become responsibly
for more than we intended
and this is verbal privilege"
___________________________

The nature of plant knowledge is similar to that of other magical lore.  Those new to the Craft, tasting the liberation and vitality they are feeling in enduring ways for the first time in their lives, want to share everything so that others can be free too.   They assume the magic they have found is so pure and so powerful that it will transform the hearts of those who engage it, leaving no need to fear for its abuse.

That was what I believed when I began writing and teaching about Ghost Pipe.  Connecting with plants made you a better person, so all knowledge should be out there, free for the reading and finding.   (At that very time I was stalling from beginning to pursue training in the Feri tradition because I was struggling with the vow to hold certain knowledge and practices close and not speak of them publicly.)

The years that followed gave me a more nuanced understanding.

Yes, absolutely, the plants are there for all to encounter.  Just like the gods and the elements of nature.

But as with gods, there are some plants, and some aspects of their being and their medicine that are best shared by the plants themselves alone, when and how they choose to share them.   Or, by a seasoned practitioner with a trusted student after years of working together.    Not because that knowledge belongs to an elect few, but because it loses meaning outside its context.

 As my teacher Karina says often, not everyone needs to know how to use a chainsaw.

Many of us who teach hold this to be true about poisonous plants and profoundly mind altering plants, because of the dangers they might pose to people using them without the knowledge of the proper time and place and manner.

It is equally true of rare and fragile plants, because of the danger people might pose to them by using them without the knowledge of the proper time and place and manner.

___________________________

I understand why knowledge of a plant like Ghost Pipe spreads like wildfire.   We live in a time when people feel cut off from the living world, and finding out about a strange, beautiful plant that taps into the mind of an entire forest brings a stir of recognition of the kind of connection the deepest parts of ourselves know is possible, even when we so seldom experience it in our lives and our worlds.

And I understand why so many feel the need to harvest the plant for themselves or buy the tincture from someone else.   We live in a culture that has objectified and commodified everything.   And in which the sense of our entitlement is magnified and the sense of our impact on the living world is diminished -- my own included, or I wouldn't be here writing this mea culpa.   It can seem like the only way to access the magic Ghost Pipe represents to us is to hold something made of the body through which that magic moves.

I am not saying nobody should use Ghost Pipe as medicine.   I am saying it should be used only when no other medicine will do, by people with enough knowledge to know that no other medicine will do, who have also cultivated a deep relationship with the plant.

For those who have come here seeking knowledge about this plant, here is what I suggest you do instead:

go to the forests, the fields, the deserts, the mountains

find strange and beautiful beings

make intimate relationships with them

and hold their medicine as close as you would the hidden pleasures a lover's body brings.







Thursday, July 21, 2016

Our Existence is Not an Epidemic: An Open Letter to Jill Stein

Dear Dr. Stein,

I was an activist in the early days of the Massachusetts Green Party in the late 1990's and early 2000's.   We met briefly a few times when you were running for Governor.

I am also Autistic. 

The last time you ran for President, you told John Saul of the Seattle Times that:

"In 25 years in clinics, I witnessed an increase in diseases – asthma, obesity, autism. Certainly our DNA did not change in that short time; the problem is with our sick food system, pollution and failing health care,”

When you make statements like this you are further marginalizing people like me -- which flies in the face of the values the Green Party is supposed to represent.

Autism is not a disease.    As Autistic scholar Nick Walker writes "Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant."  Our divergence comes in the form of increased sensitivity to sensory and emotional stimuli, marked differences in verbal and non-verbal communication from the general population, and a tendency toward non-linear systems-oriented thinking.   These differences have made us driving forces in technological and cultural change throughout human history.  And, in this culture, they have made us pathologized and feared.   Many of us have trouble "functioning" in the ways this society expects us to, because this society was not made with us in mind -- just as Queer and Trans people often find challenges to integrating into a society that is based on heteronormative and cis-normative assumptions about gender and sexuality, Autistic people often find it challenging to integrate into a culture rooted in assumed neurotypicality.

(Incidentally, being fat is not a disease, either.   While there is some correlation between a variety of health problems and high body weight or high body fat, correlation does not equal causation, and healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes.  The moral panic about "obesity" is unscientific and contributes to discrimination against fat people.)

Nor is there an "Autism epidemic."   First of all, in order to have an epidemic you have to have a disease.   But, secondly, the increase in the frequency of Autism diagnoses is explained by changes in definitions and diagnostic criteria.

As someone who struggled with asthma most of my life, in part because of growing up in a cluster of trash incinerators in Massachusetts, I am more aware than most of the public health crises caused by pollution.    But my neurobiology is neither a pathological condition nor is it the result of anything in my environment.

Please:


  • Stop talking about Autism as a "disease" or an "epidemic."
  • Clearly and publicly distance yourself from the fraudulent and hurtful claims of former gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield that vaccines cause Autism.   While I understand your principled position that vaccines should not be mandatory because people should have a right to make their own health care decisions, in the absence of such a clear statement, your opposition to vaccine laws provides cover for those spreading false information about vaccines and Autism.
  • Get to know Autistic adults.   Consult with us about our needs.   Adopt policies that support the work and struggles of Autistic people.

I would love to be able to support your campaign, but I cannot do so while you pathologize people like me.


Sincerely,
Sean Donahue





Sunday, April 10, 2016

All Acts of Love and Pleasure

"Both of us say there are laws to obey.  But frankly, I don't like your tone.  You want to change the way I make love.   I want to leave it alone." --  Leonard Cohen

What does it mean to be sex positive?

Seeing more and more people openly express the vibrant, healthy, holy, liberatory potential of sexuality is a beautiful thing.

But from lube shaming and to descriptions and proscriptions and prescriptions of right and wrong ways to experience orgasms to the erasure and/or objectification of the bodies and sexualities experiences of Queer people, Trans people, fat people, disabled people, and People of Color to the lack of understanding of how the sensory experiences of neurodivergent people and trauma survivors shape their sexual experiences, a lot of what passes for sex positivity in contemporary culture too often excludes a lot of people's experiences of sex.

So, I want to spell out what I mean when I talk about being a sex positive herbalist, a sex positive priest, a sex positive person:

I am sex positive even when I struggle with shame and fear about my own sexuality.   Even when shame makes it difficult for me to engage or express my own desire.   Even when fear makes me too dissociated to be able to connect with a lover.    Just as much as when I am feeling as free and embodied and lusty as a rutting stag.   All of these have been common experiences at different points in my life.   All of them are part of my experience now.   Sometimes I experience all of them at once. I am sex positive because I believe in being present to my body's authentic responses and sensations and desires and emotions however they show up.

I am sex positive when I encourage other people to allow themselves to play with and explore their own bodies.   And when I celebrate the pleasure they share with each other.   And when I encourage them to be honor their own boundaries, their own hesitation, to be still and slow and present with all of their parts as they come into different states of embodiment and different intensities and flavors of sexual desire and sexual aversion.

I am sex positive when I say that there are no right or wrong ways for people to have or not have sex, to have or not have orgasms, to ejaculate or not ejaculate,  to stretch their own boundaries or honor their own need safety, to run power through their bodies alone or with other people, to play with flows of power and pleasure between people, to explore sensation so long as they are grounded in authenticity, respect, and consent.    No such thing as too much or too little sex as long as a person's relationship with their sexuality helps them engage their vitality.   No profane sex except that which violates someone's sense of integrity.    

As Doreen Valiente wrote in "The Charge of the Goddess,"  "All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals."

And it is my goal to liberate my own love and pleasure, and be an ally in others' liberation.

That is what sex positivity means to me.