Year 5, Piece Six: 6. Red Purple

Mary Oliver. Fibonacci Rabbit Sequence. Generations.

Red Purple is bodily wisdom, embodied intelligence. The refrain I keep hearing is that line from Mary Oliver’s very famous “Wild Geese;” maybe you know it:

You only have to let the soft animal of your body 

love what it loves.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Hearing that line makes me physically slump, set my ears back like a rabbit settling into its own fur. It’s sort of like relaxing, but with a pout. A vulnerable, incredulous, pleading pout. Like, please, could it really be that simple? Are you sure, Mary Oliver, that I don’t have to be good? And of course it’s not that simple, when loving what you love can be cause for your murder depending on the particulars of what and where it is. But even so, and maybe especially so, it is so vitally important to remember (again and again) that we are animals made of bodies that are here to love. That’s the baseline: loving is all you have to do. Being is all you have to do, and to let that being be loving.

My grandfather wasn’t familiar with Mary Oliver’s work before I shared it with him. This is notable because at age 96 he is familiar with many, many other things. A voracious reader of periodicals and historical non-fiction, he is also a lover of poetry. He talks about how as a young man he and his friends used to recite poetry aloud to each other as a source of entertainment. I think he also appreciates my love of poetry: he has sent me his copy of Poetry Magazine in the mail every month for over ten years. Maybe fifteen at this point. So at the beginning of the pandemic I sent him a copy of Oliver’s New and Selected Poems, Volume One (Beacon Press). 

He is not an effusive person, but I could tell my grandfather was excited because he called her a “down to earth writer” and asked me to tell him two or three poems he should read. Of course I pointed him toward “Wild Geese” (page 110), “The Summer Day” (page 94, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”), and a third one that I hadn’t encountered before picking up the book but is now perhaps my favorite (page 123, emphasis mine): 

The Turtle

breaks from the blue-black

skin of the water, dragging her shell

with its mossy scutes

across the shallows and through the rushes

and over the mudflats, to the uprise,

to the yellow sand,

to dig with her ungainly feet

a nest, and hunker there spewing

her white eggs down

into the darkness, and you think

of her patience, her fortitude,

her determination to complete

what she was born to do—

and then you realize a greater thing—

she doesn’t consider

what she was born to do.

She’s only filled

with an old blind wish.

It isn’t even hers but came to her

in the rain or the soft wind

which is a gate through which her life keeps walking.

She can’t see

herself apart from the rest of the world

or the world from what she must do

every spring.

Crawling up the high hill,

luminous under the sand that has packed against her skin,

she doesn’t dream

she knows

she is a part of the pond she lives in,

the tall trees are her children,

the birds that swim above her

are tied to her by an unbreakable string.

I find it hard to articulate the experience of having given birth, or in the case of the turtle, given life. Perhaps it takes place outside of the realm of words. This poem speaks to procreation as a shared animal activity, contextualizing it in a way that doesn’t rarify or fetishize the one doing the spawning but celebrates everyone’s place in it all the same. 

When I first started writing this, I wasn’t sure why a soft animal body loving what it loves would make me want to write about my grandfather. He has taught me many things but perhaps none that have to do with that. But what is my relationship with my grandfather if not part of that unbreakable string? As my only living grandparent, a flesh and blood connection to the generations before me that made me what I am?

And yet this turtle is not only connected to her eggs and offspring. She is a part of everything, everything is a part of her. Our connections as bodies on this earth are about so much more than blood. Or maybe it is blood in an expansive sense, that the vast majority of our DNA is shared so closely among so many different kinds of organisms. We are all relatives, we are all kin. There is no reason to see yourself apart from the rest of the world or the world from what we must do.

There is a phrase from a Hebrew prayer that has become an expression: “L’dor v’dor.” It means “from generation to generation.” This concept is a hallmark of Jewish faith and culture, as the primary means of its propagation. You can point to matrilineal blood lines and DNA tests to see if someone “is Jewish,” but the blood is perhaps the least interesting thing about it. In the prayer, the phrase continues “L’dor v’dor nagid godlecha...mipinu lo yamoosh lay’olam va’ed” or “from generation to generation we will tell of your greatness...your praise will never depart from our lips.” Now, we can and should debate who or what that “you” is, but what I love is the emphasis on speech. It’s not about creating more people in a bloodline, it’s about passing down values through what we talk about, through storytelling. It’s about sharing love. If I have learned anything in this pandemic, when blood family is so far away for us, it is the surprising power of intergenerational chosen family.

I’ve been thinking about Ancestor Work lately, how to honor and connect with those that came before me, before us. It’s a bit tricky to know how to engage, but I have heard the advice from practitioners that it’s okay to go slowly. One new pandemic habit I’ve picked up (like so many others) is baking bread, very specifically challah for Friday night, for Shabbat. There is an old custom to take a bit of the dough and throw it in the oven as a burnt offering, following a commandment to offer the first portion of your bread to God. I don’t like the idea of intentionally burning anything in the oven, filling the house with VOCs for tiny lungs. But I like the idea of an offering, and I especially like the idea that it might be an ancestral offering. After finally overcoming the fear that I would be producing weird sacred bread trash that I wouldn’t know how to dispose of, for the last two weeks D and I have made a teeny tiny challah loaf along with our other two loaves and put it outside under a tree next to the sidewalk. It has blessedly disappeared both times. And I am totally fine if that means we are sharing it as an offering with our raccoon relatives.

Speaking of smallish furry animals, let’s talk about bunnies. Why bunnies? Red Purple made me think of Mary Oliver’s soft animal bodies which made me think of bunnies but also made me think of sending a book of poetry to my grandfather which made me think of generations which also made me think of bunnies, specifically the Fibonacci Rabbit Sequence and species proliferating over time. Maybe you know the Rabbit Sequence: one pair of rabbits is born, they reach maturity at one month, and then each subsequent month every mature pair of rabbits has another pair of rabbits. The formula continues on and on forever in the golden string, an unbreakable string: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…

This sequence is beautiful, and also dizzying. Beings creating more beings and more beings, generations and generations spawning like so many viruses, multiplying and proliferating. Red Purple is afterall also survival and intuition. Survival instinct. Where the drive to procreate and proliferate comes from, and maybe how humans have come to build all the things they have built, wanting not only their genes but their memes to live on forever. This is when “l’dor v’dor” is not a comfort to me but a source of anxiety.  

But with anxiety often comes awe, and perhaps that is what also draws me to the Fibonacci Sequence, the golden ratio. That encoded in so much DNA is this formula: the unfolding of a fern leaf, the curling of a nautilus shell, patterns of swirlings branches. Another bit of bodily wisdom on a planetary scale. Universal scale? 

You may know about my purple plastic rabbit named Rabbit, but what you may not know is that I initially liberated him from a children’s museum display on the Fibonacci Sequence. I carried him around for a few years like you might carry around a small dog, as my pet, as Art. Rabbit was (is?) a gesture to daily evoke the absurd and as living commentary on what I thought must be other people’s relationship to their own pets. In retrospect I think this was reductive, as I now have a deeper firsthand understanding of bonding with a nonverbal dependent. Rabbit is in some ways a body without a mind. But I think I’ve given him a spirit. So here in his honor is a purple rabbit; many, many, purple rabbits.

Red Purple is embodied wisdom. Your wisdom isn’t just in your body, your wisdom is your body. Your human self is your animal self, which is tied to every other animal, plant, mineral self. Where Red Purple could be a separation of mind and body it is indeed reinforcing their very integration. So while we are human, and while we are here on Earth (Space may be different), you have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.