12/20/2011 11:34 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2012

A Solstice Gift

I want to share something that one of my former students just wrote to me:

Milking cows is aerobic and slightly dangerous -- I jump the gutter and squeeze my body into the small spaces between these mamas, 1,300 pounds of dense flesh and hooves. Cows are an amazing combination of sedentary and obstinate, and while they are lugubrious 99 percent of the time they often suddenly and unexpectedly decide to throw their weight against you or kick you, hard, just because they feel like it or because the moon is full or I am wearing amethyst or they are hungry. As I wash them and hook up the milkers I lean heavily into the center of their bellies in the space out of reach of both their front and back legs and use my body to listen to their bodies' motions and I get out of the way when I sense the slightest muscle twitch. They are constantly urinating and pooping and farting. Being in the barn humbles me to the animal body and all its function and routine. I primarily consider this part of my day (about three hours) as silent space to listen to audiobooks, during my time in the barn books wash over me like waves. I feel underwater there, and sound of the cows swinging back and forth tossing hay in the air in their metal stanchions reminds me every day of sailboats moored in a breezy harbor.

Lauren Valle was an outstanding student in several of my classes at Columbia, and we've kept in touch intermittently over the last few years. Whether or not we're actively communicating, I think about her and wonder what she's doing at that moment. I heard about her travels in South America with her boyfriend, her experiments in making new kinds of art, and her ongoing work with various events and interventions protesting environmental and humanitarian outrages, from mountaintop-removal coal mining to Tibet's lack of political autonomy to the BP Gulf spill. For years she was a trainer for Greenpeace and other organizations, working with people to carry out safe and successful non-violent protest actions. When she was taking classes with me, she would always let me know when she was likely to miss class due to being arrested for peaceful protest events, and she sometimes did her essays while in jail. She was active in sidewalk theater and spoke politely and articulately in the lobbies and boardrooms of Wall Street for years before OWS became front-page news.

The big shock came when I read her name in Michael Moore's blog "A Boot to the Head," sent to me by a friend. There was a picture of Lauren, her head and neck looking tiny and fragile under the shoe of a Rand Paul supporter.

I called her immediately; she was recovering in Tennessee. She'd been standing on a sidewalk at a Kentucky Republican rally with a sign saying "Rand Paul, Republicorp Employee of the Month" when she felt herself shoved off the sidewalk toward the oncoming cavalcade. Later claiming that she was rushing Rand Paul's car, several large men pushed her down on the pavement and one stomped on her head.

I was in tears as she told me how she'd been practicing before the event, which was meant to be a minor action. The choice was made to strategically place a single, experienced placard-holder -- Lauren -- rather than stage a more provocative group action. To prepare, she found herself inexplicably wanting to do extra meditation, yoga and cleansing processes, though the planned action was not meant to be especially challenging. When the attack came she was able to go limp, and her conscious relaxation and lack of resistance probably saved her neck from worse injury.

Nevertheless, the event was highly traumatic, not least because of the ugliness that followed. Lies and absurd accusations swirled downstream like the toxic effluvia of a Koch Brothers industrial plant. People went to Halloween parties dressed as "the Kentucky Stomper."

Now, over a year later, Lauren is living on a farm with her boyfriend and close friends, growing their own food and making a subsistence living, doing art and still working on the processes of healing, both physical and emotional. She has her watercolors and drawings up on a website. Her work is achingly beautiful, like souls turned inside out, jellyfish, wombs, nebulae, multiverses. She's done drawings of people and plants that are half-dreamtime, as well as realistic dynamic drawings of elephants, artifacts in South America and friends.

Reading her emails reawakened the lost joy of being in seminars with her and other students whose faces I can still see in my mind. It's the joy of just sitting around a table with a bunch of people who are trying out their own voices and ideas, tentatively or recklessly moving from trying to make things sound good to trying to make good things sound. It's the joy of watching the slow building of a group's trust in itself to cohere yet continue to grow.

I sent Lauren the first draft of this piece, and she wrote in response to this paragraph, above, about our seminar:

... the quiet, inner work that builds our ability to communicate with ourselves and with each other, the preparing, the gathering information, trying on identities. It seems like what you are getting at is the importance of the other side of things, the contraction, darkness, cold, the yin, the quiet, the moments in our life where we labor over minute details, the moments spent searching for our power instead of being in the midst of it. My work as an activist and OWS are the externalization of this process, the forceful, visible expressions of will, but they cannot exist without the other side ... it always does come back to the Dao, doesn't it? Culturally, we are just now learning (or rather, relearning) how to acknowledge the importance of this kind of work and to give each other space to do it, and the honor the process and the result. I am going to forward you an email that Sam [fellow activist Samantha Corbin] sent me -- she is, of course, deeply imbedded in OWS in New York -- because it demonstrates the grappling with language the movement is in the midst of.

Her emails about her own contraction, darkness and quiet, walking and healing in the forest, also reawakened the memory of how we used to talk about going walkabout in New York. We talked about what it is like to join streams of people and let the tight rings of self-possession dissolve. You aren't changing anything. (Lauren writes: but you have -- you are letting yourself be the witness.) The senses of smell and movement become more powerful, balancing the usual dominance of sight. The subway exhales up at you through the grates, designer perfumes drift by, a damp wool coat holds onto last night's cigarette, your favorite bakery brushes against you from all the way across the street. The distillation of yourself vaporizes in a mouthful of moment, releasing the longings and dreams and inner whispers of others. And it's not ugliness that you taste, it's the nearness to light.

Lauren's honesty about her slow processes of healing also made me remember the fecundity of depression, what she calls "velvet black, shapeless space, the primordial void, the womb, the sea-floor of being." I recognize the tremendous Saturnal gravity she has been pulled into. It crushes you, but when the atomic dust has dispersed new blood begins to flow. It is black death unsoftened by coma and crimson new birth undiluted by amnesia.

Heartbreakingly, she writes, "When I get near a scene of protest and action, my former love, I just feel blank and bewildered." Yet I am sure that what she is doing now is also non-violent resistance. She said, "You're right, I'm occupying something, somewhere, but not in the way you might think."

She is occupying herself, just as she is, she's occupying her work on the farm, her cooking, her painting, her love for her little community. She's occupying her depression and her healing. If we all occupied ourselves the way Lauren does, then Wall Street would have nothing to sell. The digital casino chips traded in our cyber-markets would have no buyers, and the "cures" for loneliness, longing, and fear no takers. If we could recognize that everyone shares a velvet-black shapelessness, then sharing what each of us makes of it -- what we see, hear, touch, smell, taste, feel, speak and grow -- would not be so painful. We can use our bodies to listen to other bodies. Deep down we know how to occupy the world without being an invading army, a marketing campaign, a horde of holiday shoppers. Sometimes we have to know when to get out of the way. Sometimes we can't.

Lauren writes:

Half of the cows are sick with "winter dysentery" (ick), there was a calf born this morning. We pulled the winter storage carrots out of the ground today with frozen fingers and moved all of the medicinal herbs out of an old greenhouse because we are building a new one and I have been drinking lots of ginger and chocolate. I just finished Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, in it he has a line that says that there should be six seasons, not four: summer, fall, the locking, winter, the unlocking, spring. I do feel that the earth is closing her doors on us to go deep inside. I am wishing her a journey that will give her strength and peace.