Essay

Dispatch #085

HOW TO BE HUMAN – Letting Go

by Elisa Stancil

From the early days of this sea change April 2020

Yesterday a package arrived from China, elastic I sourced from Etsy months ago. Upon opening the package thirty-one individually sealed, single use surgical masks cascaded out, along with many yards of flat elastic. Kindness from so far away…

This was a sign.

In the beginning I sewed one hundred fifty masks and gave them away. Friends and family dropped off glorious flowers. A neighbor braved Costco and delivered sanitized groceries a number of times. Cooperation and compliance was comforting. As the weeks bore down, the volume of death, the spectre of suffering alone, these realities left me breathless. In tiny increments my sense of kindness lost buoyancy.

I know in earlier posts I suggested you look for signs, in nature, all around, for guidance and strength. Signs are key. I missed some signals of my own. Without noticing it at first, I became more critical, suspicious, and other directed. I ceased meditating. Despite my intention to be my best self, after a few weeks my focus shifted—were others being their best selves? Wear a mask, people! Comply and cooperate! Pitch in!

Okay. Who made me the room monitor? Um, me. The scared me.

When trails opened on the mountain I hiked sixty-five miles in three weeks in search of solace. Stamina is good, but I found no solace. Lately my mind grinds away in overtime, seeking a solution to the testing, supply chain and political quagmire that obscures our horizon. But this concern is like the hiking, like the sewing… a coping mechanism.

I realize I need to go deeper-- not faster, not further. I need to dive in to retrieve faith, heart, hope.

I meditate and visualize swimming in the sea. The quiet, the undulating motion, the enveloping otherness, this is the rapture of the deep. Fears fall away. Fears are about tomorrow, the unknown. I visualize the sea itself as the reality today and accept that I am surrounded entirely by the absolute unknown. How to survive this moment? With no boundary in sight my only option is the very simplest one. I must float. Be still. Trust. It has taken weeks to come to this realization. To survive this I must let go. Just let go, and float.

GREET THE LIGHT and WIDEN THE LENS

by Elisa Stancil

The figure shown below is exhibited in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. I took no notes when I was there a few years ago, just photographs. Until today I knew nothing of the Kongo region on the east coast of Africa (now called the Congo) where this icon was crafted centuries ago, when the Kongo Kingdom had a government ruled by elected officials and Kongo people practiced a dualistic religion based on life as it is seen (daily interactions) and the unseen (influenced by spirits of the dead and the supernatural).
                    When preparing to write about the George Floyd atrocity I could not find words, or any way to convey the tragedy of more than 400 years of racism. Yet over and over this little figure, bearing a large drum, a gourd and what might be a net, came to mind. Centuries have not diminished the illuminating glow emanating from this tiny statue, one of many originally crafted to honor and protect resources such as water, mountains, or harvest. The tenacity and worth captured by the posture and expression, these are riveting, powerful and memorable.

                    After weeks of research about our society today, I finally decided to research the history of the Kongo region, to trace why this golden bronze face, so undeniable, was coming to mind every time I tried to write about race.

                    In the late1400’s the Portuguese first traveled to the Kongo region, seeking a waterway to India. Welcomed by the King of Kongo, the Portuguese established themselves on a small island and began trading for copper and ivory. But within a decade, these new neighbors demanded labor instead of goods, and in an escalating and seemingly inescapable pattern, developed what would become the nexus of the Portuguese slave trade. From 1570-1867 it is calculated that 5.69 million Africans were captured, transported and embarked from the Kongo coast to serve the labor needs of the Americas as well as various small islands later named Haiti, the Bahamas, Cuba and etc.

                    For the priests, officials and slave traders persistently sought to dehumanize the African race as a means to justify the slavery practice. Disinformation about the cultures and the religions of the African people spread fear and judgment, embedding seeds of racism throughout cultures of Europe and the Americas.

                    The African culture of Kongo changed radically. Elections ceased. Descendants of the earlier king now ruled, and these unelected kings were known to trade in captured Africans in some cases. The seen and the unseen dualistic religion transformed to a blended form of Christianity. A typical Kongo icon from the late 1800’s is shown below, with nails piercing nearly every surface. Unceasing pain seems to be the message from this period. Where is the worth, the power, the knowingness of the glowing totem forged from the Kongo peoples’ original beliefs?
                    In May the relentless replay of the murder of George Floyd drove nails straight into the denial, the numbness, and the avoidance of racism in our country. Racial disrespect, pretension, fear, grief, guilt, despair, and shame are the nails piercing the second Kongo effigy. Nails which we in America must extract, with care, with awareness, and with respect.

                    When I was twelve I realized the life I was living was not authentic, not deep, and not likely to become more so. This sudden schooling came from a short phrase, written by an anti war activist, and her six words motivated me to change my life.

                    “I greet the light within you.”

                    When I saw this simple phrase in 1962 I felt a possibility, a presence of respect that changed how I saw my world and my place in it. I felt seen.

                    Fifty years later, at the Quai Branly, the gleaming icon radiates this message anew.

                    Before I researched the origin of these statues I used the nailed version for the “How to be Human” category on this blog. In my naïve view the nails represented womanly inequality, loss, and struggle. And now, schooled on where these totems actually came from, what they represent, how they evolved, and what has transpired all these centuries later I see two things—the seen world, where I appropriated the suffering from another culture, and the unseen world, where the supernatural insisted I widen my lens. This is how we begin.

                    In preparing this post I consulted many authors, discussed perspectives with friends and authorities. Some of the sources are listed below. But all the while, since the day Mr. Floyd was murdered, these icons I shared in photos above have been haunting me, asking to be seen. May they spirit you along on your path to acceptance, forgiveness, tolerance and love—of yourself first. Be the compassionate witness. Bear it. Stand up. Greet the light and widen your lens.

Resources
Some Thoughts on Mercy by Ross Gay The Sun Magazine July 2013

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson 2020

White Fragility by Robin Diangelo

How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ubran X. Kendi

I’m Still Here, Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. Du Bois

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Movies: Best of Enemies

               13th Amendment

               Just Mercy

Sent to us on: February 10, 2021

How will the Coronavirus Pandemic shape storytelling for the years to come? 

Calling all Dispatchers!

San Francisco Creative Writing Institute is pleased to announce we were awarded California Arts Council Local Impact Grant! 

With support from the California Arts Council, San Francisco Creative Writing Institute will present Dispatches from Quarantine: hybrid storytelling events and writing workshops. 

The project is scheduled from January 2023 to August 2023!

We will be broadcasting the public readings and discussions on our youtube channel as well as hosting four creative writing workshops with writers from diverse genres. The project will continue to be interactive as we will encourage viewers/participants to send in their “dispatches” to be published on our blog, keeping it alive as a living document.

 We invite you to submit a dispatch: 

Suggested Theme:

What is your Covid story? How will you tell it? 

You can send submissions in any format to us via email at: All genres will be considered for publication on the blog. submissions@dispatchesfromquarantine.co  The theme should be somehow related to this time of Coronavirus. We are particularly interested in posts/ideas/writings from 2022-23.

Submissions can be sent by email to: submissions@dispatchesfromquarantine.co

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