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Speaking with spirits, within and without
What accessing intuition might have to do with survival
On hot, August nights in Tokyo I knew that ancestors were all around us traveling from the spirit world. I could see the horses they rode: thin cucumbers balanced on four chopstick legs, which people had placed in front of their houses. Once the Obon festival was over, full of food and laden with gifts, the ancestors would ride home on the sturdy eggplant cows, standing ready next to the cucumber horses.
In the deep of winter as I walked to the bus stop in the gray dawn, I knew I was protected by the three Jizo statues at the corner. The stone figures, tucked in an alcove, looked warm in their red hats knitted by the neighborhood obasan (aunties). I was comforted by the peaceful expressions on their faces, knowing they stood guard over children both in the spirit and material worlds.
I’ve written before of how I absorbed the animism of Shintoism through my childhood in Japan. Recognizing, interacting with, and communicating with beings other than humans was just part of life—not often talked about, but simply another thread in the weft and weave of daily life. And intuition—knowing something in my hara (gut/belly)—was a perfectly acceptable way to understand my experience.
These days, accessing my intuition and communicating with unseen spirits and energies often feels very hard. Sitting in meditation, I find I’m desperately grasping, struggling to listen. My monkey-mind shows off with backflips and acrobatics. And if I feel I’ve received a message, image, or communication from plants or ancestors, my well-trained rational mind tells me that the only “real” information comes from my five senses. Whatever else I perceive, it says, is just my own brain working, my own imagination.
But sometimes, I can access my intuition and receive messages with a little more ease. Ritual and letting go help. Patience and practice, too.
I’ve started lighting a candle before I write. I breathe into my hara and let my ancestors and creative energies know that I’m open to what comes through. I started this essay having forgotten to do this ritual, and I struggled through some false starts. Then I remembered and performed the ritual. That’s when the words flowed more easily. This too, is a kind of intuition, an exchange of communication between myself and the creative forces I call on when I sit down to write.
Sometimes, the ease comes from knowing I’m not alone. I am just one of many poets and writers seeking to re-learn and practice these ways of knowing and creating.
One of my current projects, Poetry as Spellcasting, features an essay by co-editor Lisbeth White, who writes about how, as a young child, she communed with trees outside the window. She describes the ways in which so many of us as adults must re-learn how to “engage with the subtle energies of the world.”
“Some of us, like myself, felt it in our bodies as children, matriculated through a human- and commerce-centered ‘growing up,’ and needed to recover the knowledge again later in life, as we began to reclaim our original wholeness.”
In the same book, the essay by writer and plant worker Dominique Matti explores how a summer of profound loss brought her closer into communication with both plants and ancestors. She writes:
“I first began speaking deliberately to natural and ancestral spirits because I wanted to share what I could not otherwise share and know what I could not otherwise know. … All around me I could sense an environment populated by infinite latent witnesses and onlookers, and I desired to be in conversation with them. So I set about becoming fluid in their language, assisted by the ways in which energy transmission had become second nature through writing.”
And Black feminist scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs describes what she calls “survival radio”:
I am trying to learn how to receive the longing of an expanding universe. Since domination, extraction, and consumption are what keep us speeding toward our own disappearance, I am desperate for another form of reception. Could I listen deeper, tune into another possibility beyond the sad apocalyptic jingle that is swift becoming the legacy of our species?
This practice where I pull what I need out of the air and hope to vibrate differently. Breathe back frequencies that hold, that slow us down, that move us through, beyond the bounce of feedback.
As I light my candle and invoke my ancestors and creative guides, I feel, too, all around me, the murmurs of these writers and so many others—herbalists and healers, organizers and astrologists, so many BIPOC, women, trans, and nonbinary folks, queer folks, disabled folks, witches, artists, musicians—all of us sensing into the magic and power that will pull us through to the other side of this time, society, and culture not made for us. I feel how we are tapping into ancient and ever-present forces guiding us on our way.
It’s been a disturbingly warm winter in New England, with not enough cold and snow for trees and plants to gradually go dormant as they should. Meanwhile and elsewhere, an atmospheric river flooded California. The city of Buffalo was buried under a historic blizzard. Human, animal, and plant lives threatened and destroyed by the manifestations of the climate crisis.
Earth is communicating. The Earth is making abundantly clear that the dominance of human systems that ignore and deny our connections with each other and with all beings must end. That we must uplift and practice systems of listening to and understanding the world in much more complex, subtle, and profound ways than the rational and scientific world-view that too many of us have been indoctrinated into for generations upon generations.
There’s a particular tree that dances with grace next to the path I often walk next to the Neponset river. This tree caught my attention months ago and I have visited them regularly. I am doing my best to listen to what they want me to know. Sometimes I can sense fragments of messages. Sometimes we simply lean into each other for a moment.
I don’t know if we will survive the many crises we are living into. Me, the tree, those I love, and those I am afraid of.
But if we do survive, it will be in part, because many more of us reclaim and reconnect with our intuition, with other ways of knowing and being, with our ancestors and with the Earth. It will be because many more of us have learned to follow what we know in our bodies, what we hear in our guts and our hearts. It will be because we have successfully centered systems that acknowledge and honor how humans are just one part of a vast and interconnected web of life. It will be because we know profoundly, deep in our bones, with every heartbeat and every belly breath, that we are part of everything and everything is a part of us.
A prompt for listening
Find a place where you can be comfortable and undisturbed for 10 to 30 minutes. You might want to set a timer for the length of time you want to allot for this practice. Have a notebook and pen or other writing tools at the ready.
Light a candle or otherwise mark the start of this session. You could call in loving ancestors, spirits, elements, or energies to be with you. You might say “I am open to what wants to come through.”
Start by taking in your surroundings and feeling your body in the environment you are in. Notice what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. See where your breath takes you in your body. Are there parts that are tense, gripping, numb, or uncomfortable? If it feels right, breathe into those places. Are there parts of your body that feel relaxed, happy, comfortable? Breathe into those places, too. Notice what your breath is communicating to you
Follow your in breath and out breath.
If it feels right, put your hands on your belly and breath into your hands. Do this for five breaths or more. See if any image, sensation, sound, or idea arises. Don’t second guess yourself. Write down anything that comes up. If nothing comes up, that’s okay, too.
Now do the same with your hands on your heart. See what arises, if anything, and write it down.
If it’s comfortable in your body, place your forehead on the ground. You might do this in child’s pose, or simply lay your full body face-down on the ground and rest your forehead on your hands. Take five breaths, and imagine with each inhale you are breathing into your third eye. See what comes up, and write it down.
Now, take the rest of the time to freewrite. If you wrote down any phrases in the previous steps, reread them before you start writing. Otherwise, just start writing. Freewriting means you write without stopping, without crossing anything out or deleting anything. You keep the pen moving or your fingers typing until the time is up. Let whatever wants to come through, come. If you can’t think of anything to write, begin by describing every action you took since you started the prompt. See where that takes you.
At the end of the time you have, thank any beings or energies you want to thank, and blow the candle out if you lit one.
Revisit your writing one day, one week, or one month later. Circle the words and phrases that feel strong, powerful, and true to you. Use those to write a new poem.
What I’m reading and listening to
Destiny Hemphill’s poem “our own names” showed up in my inbox a few weeks ago, and I have returned again and again to this love poem for its music and its lessons. Destiny writes: “I wanted to write towards a commitment to operations of Black care, which necessarily push beyond and against the state.” Stay tuned for more next month from Destiny, who I’m lucky to work with as co-editor of Poetry As Spellcasting.
This poem by Maya Pindyck on The Slowdown, and host Ada Limon’s reflection, captures beautifully what an expansive definition of “family” might look like—one that includes birds, and trees, and flowers.
Alexis J. Cunningfolk provides instruction on using the major arcana of the Tarot to provide simple self-care guidance. I adore the practicality and love behind this practice.
In December, I took a month-long “Reiki for beginners class,” with Marika Hamahata Clymer, which introduced me to an approach that seeks to reclaim this healing practice from all the ways it has been appropriated and removed from its Japanese roots.
Announcements from the Starlight & Strategy community
“Trees give life. Cops take it.” If you are not familiar with the organizing to stop the building of “Cop City” in Atlanta, please visit this solidarity site. There are actions all of us can take around the world to pressure corporations and government institutions to stop the construction of this massive police training facility in the Weelaunee Forest.
I’m really excited to let you all know about Tarot for Writers: Unlocking Creative Pathways Through Intuitive Tools, a new class offered by my friend An Xiao (Ana) Mina, along with fellow authors Xiaowei R. Wang, Dorothy R. Santos. It looks like a really fun and inspiring journey that will help you tap into the power of the tarot to spur creative processes. Starlight & Strategy subscribers (that’s you!) can get 10% off the course price with the discount code TAROT. Also, the three instructors are hosts of Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice, which I highly recommend!
I’m currently in the middle of reading an advance copy of Nancy Lynée Woo’s debut poetry collection, I’d Rather Be Lightning, and it’s fantastic. Clear-eyed about the climate crisis while brimming with love for humans and more-than-humans, this debut collection is a powerful force of language and hope. You can pre-order your copy here.
And, of course, Poetry as Spellcasting: Poems, Essays, and Prompts for Manifesting Liberation and Reclaiming Power, edited by me, Destiny Hemphill, and Lisbeth White is available for pre-order as well!
Do you have an event, a book, an album, a gallery showing, a theater production, an action, a rally, a retreat, a podcast or other artistic/spiritual/activist announcement you’d like to share with this community? Send it my way!
Thank you for reading to the end! I’ll be back with another missive on the next full moon, March 7. Until then, may you be held in loving community and may the ancestors bless your path.