for Gavin on his birthday

I looked up the word ‘virus’ in the dictionary this morning, and got variations of this definition: “submicroscopic infectious agents that cannot replicate on their own but need a host cell in order to survive.” 

In other words, “We don’t really know.” 

Unlike a bacterium, a virus is invisible even under strong magnification, so what exactly is it and where does it come from? 

Again, we don’t know.

As I ponder this invisible ‘no-thing’ that has us in its thrall, I am reminded of a day on the southern Brittany coast when I learned the hard way to pay attention to the larger contexts of things. I had walked out across the mud flats at low tide to a small island of seagrass about a quarter mile from shore to spend some quiet time writing. A few other people were there for picnics, and I found a small hollow to curl up in with my notepad. I must have fallen asleep in the sun, and was awakened later by the sound of waves lapping by my side and realized I was alone on the island, the tide had come in and I was surrounded by open water. 

Panic! In my wish for a perfect place to write, I had neglected to notice the larger context of this place – its regular tides, the time, the current phase of the moon, the history of the Morbihan coast. If only I had stopped for a moment to think! But in fact, all I took into consideration was my immediate desire for a pretty place to write.  

Wading in ocean up to my armpits with my backpack held high above my head, I made my way back to shore amid laughter and congratulations of strangers who had watched the whole charade from the beach. I was even treated to a beer for providing such amusement to the locals!

We humans do that sort of thing – we get a great idea but neglect to think through the consequences, and then get stuck in a big mistake that can get us – or the earth itself – into a pack of trouble. 

Scientists are as guilty of this as any of us, creating plastics that end up in landfills because nobody wondered what might happen after they were used, or splitting the atom to make a bomb! Maybe we’re a little too smart for our own good – though not too wise – and maybe this pandemic will force us to stop for a moment and wonder how to live safely and well with one another on this planet. 

As I write to you on my trusty computer, to which I am as attached as anyone, and prepare to send out this missive to friends everywhere, I learn from a talk by Dr. Thomas Cowan that the very technology that makes it possible to send messages across the earth in seconds may be at least partly what is causing this pandemic in the first place.

 He asks a pretend question about dolphins who become sick after an oil spill has invaded their waters. “Would you examine the dolphins for pathogens to determine what is wrong?” he asks, “or would you presume the recently poisoned waters were probably what was affecting their well being?” 

You know the answer. Dr. Cowan explains that a virus is not a ‘thing’ in itself, so much as an excretion of toxicity from a cell, and occurs when a cell is invaded by debris it needs to clean out. The poor so-called ‘virus’ itself is not the cause of anything! The cell is simply trying to purify itself by excreting whatever poisons are sticking to it! 

All animals do a form of that as well; we call it, amongst other things, ‘poop,’ and consider it a healthy thing to do.

Puts a different spin on our dilemma, doesn’t it?

So our cells, which make up our organs and our bones, our blood and our nervous systems, are what bodies that need clean air and water and healthy food in order to thrive, are made of, right? 

But if we live in a polluted environment, our cells may be overworked clearing out more toxicity than they were designed for, resulting in the so-called ‘viral’ loads that take us down. Adding noise pollution to that, and night skies alight with city lights to that, no wonder our cells are working overtime to get rid of more debris than they can handle. 

Dr. Cowan also points out that we humans are electrical beings and that the ever-increasing electrification of our global atmosphere with new technologies beaming high frequencies from satellites above our heads are of course affecting our bodies. 

Given all of this, of course we’re in trouble! Of course our cells cannot keep up with so much toxicity, and perhaps Sheltering in Place is a blessing in disguise. 

As I watch myself slow down my pace, hang out in the garden to read, think and exchange news with my neighbors – six feet apart, to be sure – and go deeper into my thoughts and questions, sensory memories come up, along with gratitudes and longings, I find this break a Godsend. I am talking to neighbors who never had time before; I am cleaning closets untouched for years; looking through photos of yesteryear and reading favorite books again.

I love that people are again talking about Universal Health Care, and that the canals in Venice are now clean enough for dolphins to swim in, and that people are singing together from their balconies – as I also did in Ravenna all those many years ago when I was young and madly in love. I’m so happy to clearly hear, for the first time in memory, a Hermit Thrush singing for a mate in the garden and see, across the Bay, the clear profile of Mt. Tamalpais without its usual haze. From my bedroom window, I can even smell the new mugwort and lemon verbena plants down in the garden.

As we shelter quietly back into our own lives, it’s as if we are able to recapture something of our birthright innocence – but with the  advantage of age and experience. I’ve been waiting for this and even preparing for it for a long time. I’ve hoped it would happen while I was still here and strong enough to experience it whole, for I believe it is a shared initiation into the next phase of becoming, and the larger context to which we all belong.

We’re all in this together, for better or for worse, even those we love to hate. Personally, I’m finding that I love them all now – US all, even him – because we are all together in an existence much bigger, more interconnected, more Whole, than we might ever have imagined before this virus showed up!

And I’ve learned, for myself, that it often takes some big bad trouble before I wake up and come to remember that I am living in the midst of a miracle, an enveloping, ever-expanding miracle of life with its ingenious mechanisms for maintaining itself despite our human weaknesses.

Which is not the same as our childhood innocence, but different because coming back to innocence is an act of maturity and strength, being deliberately playful and ready to cooperate with grown-up intelligence with the largest context we can imagine. 

It’s kind of like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time – and laughing while you do it.

It takes some practice, but what else were you planning to do with your free time?