Octavia Tried to Tell Us

the other day i had the honor of being the fifth guest in the Octavia Tried to Tell Us series, hosted by Monica Coleman and my teacher-friend Tananarive Due!

here is the full video if you want to watch it!

here are some highlights of what i shared that were posted on social media:

we’re in a very parable time.

if you’re feeling numb, dig into that feeling. numb leads to overwhelmed. overwhelmed leads to rage. rage leads to heartbreak. heartbreak leads to something’s gotta change. don’t give up on pursuing yourself.

Organize as if we’re going to be here a long time. Not as if we’re only going to be here until tomorrow.

This is an immense time to pivot into the kind of community you want to be in, and articulate it.

We do know how to care for each other and ourselves when we are given a little room. ritual, song, circle, conflict resolution, healing, staggering, rest, etc. WILL emerge in community given the right space.

people creating togetherness in this moment is a form of creating, a form of art.

“How do I help?”…”Take yourself seriously as someone who has the destiny to help.”

you’re not late to the movement. whenever you get here, you made it.

There are some things you can teach, but there are some things you can only learn through experience.

Ask yourself, how do I break my relationship with capitalism today? When I feel I’m satisfied, I don’t need to buy anything. When I feel, generosity emerges.

There’s power in giving ourselves permission to be the one to imagine the next phase…what am I contributing to what comes next?

A major city is defunding the police? It’s now done. You can’t tell me it can’t be done.

So much of emergent strategy is being able to let go of what’s no longer working. If an experiment fails, you don’t double down on the experiment. The experiment of policing has failed. It’s time to imagine something new – a system that values ALL BLACK LIVES.

Thoughts on sabbatical and unplugging: ‘It’s not that I’m not needed, but that my rest is ok.’

We want to create a culture where it’s irresistible to do the right thing. Let’s make it culturally unacceptable for Trans lives not to matter’.

Part of rejecting white supremacy is rejecting Black respectability.

Nature says each of these lives is miraculous, and can never be created again. Each of these breaths is miraculous.

With the trendy BLM posts shared by corporations, we can see these cynically of course, but also as a culture shift – now we have something we can hold these companies accountable to. Capitalism doesn’t get to claim our work. WE are the ones shifting the culture.

and here is the big announcement i made at the end:

On June 22 (Octavia E Butler’s birthday) we are launching Octavia’s Parables!

It’s a podcast with Toshi Reagon and myself going chapter by chapter thru both (all three!) parableswith summaries, analysis, questions to address in community, and original music.

Patreon.com/oparables
twitter.com/oparables

Additional Resources for Facing Coronavirus/Covid19

ah loves, turns out it’s not easy to take a sabbatical during a global apocalyptic event. in my attempt to stay away from news, work, stress, and distraction, i found myself a little rural hideaway which, who could have guessed it, is now in a quarantine zone. i am fine, supported, connected, stocked, staying calm and solo and washing my hands in that near-obsessive way virgoes are prone to do naturally.

but there’s no escaping this, even with reduced contact – friends, family, media, strangers in the grocery store…we are interdependent and it shows so deeply in moments we are asked to stay apart for our own good.

i keep thinking – should i write about this? and, conversely, am i really writing about anything else? every bit of fiction and song emerging from me swerves into the territory of connection, safety across generations, virus, right relationship. i am writing about this, but there’s also so much that i and others have already written and spoken that might be helpful for the human, land, spiritual, community, movement, familial, network, and/or society side of this virus at this moment.

the science, the protocols, i leave that to science and government: wash your hands, stay home, think collectively.

and here are some resources that might help you think about where to be, how to be, and how to see the possibilities even in this moment, how to move towards life.

1. Octavia’s Brood.

over the past few days as i have had to consider where to be, i was comforted by Dani McClain’s excellent story Homing Instinct and then remembered how Mia Mingus pointed to society shaped by those with chronic illness and disability in Hollow and how Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha reminded us we can travel without traveling in Children Who Could Fly. these texts feel relevant now, as we would do so well to learn from those who survive toxic exposure daily and know about being safe and connected in vulnerable bodies.

i am challenged anew by the implications of my own story The River, in which earth moves to protect herself and those who love her. only time will tell how this moment will impact our relationship to earth, but early reports of reduced emissions appear to be a silver lining to this tragedy.

here is a real-time resource leah just passed on to me for mutual aid and survival!

2. Emergent Strategy.

change is constant, be like water. we are used to being a rushing river pounding through every obstacle. now we see there is danger in that endless rapid flow and we need to find a place to pool deeply and be still and let time cleanse us in its way. i have received messages from people who are finding a first or re-read of the book useful in this moment.

a few bits to highlight:

* “transform yourself to transform the world”, grace lee boggs’ wisdom is literal right now. this virus doesn’t stop because of blame, pointing at other people’s faults, or races/ethnicities. it only stops, or slows, because each individual increases their own accountability to the collective. people have suggested different songs for hand washing time, to help stay in the sink long enough to do an adequate job. i found this bit of magic with the ‘fear is the mind killer’ guidance from Dune that i love. i am also often just saying a little universe prayer – “with this handwashing i align with the universe, with this handwashing i wage love, with this handwashing i care for [here i insert the names of elders and compromised immune systems i cherish].” i am transforming my own behaviors through practice and repetition.

* there is a conversation in the room that only these people at this time can have…there are conversations that will only happen because you initiate them, lives that will be saved because you risked being the awkward one to ask ‘how are you adapting safety protocol in response to coronavirus?’ i have a text thread of dear ones who are sharing news with each other and one had to push thru the resistance of her elder family members (our elders have seen so much – how do we honor their experience and dignity and still acknowledge that this virus is hungry for them, specifically?). another just changed the safety trajectory of her pilates studio. and in another friend circle a european book tour was canceled. this is no time to politely drift along with the herd, this is the time to ask direct questions and generate unique community solutions in conversation.

* there’s always someone already working on the problem. i think of all of my patient friends who have navigated chemical sensitivity for years. or those with lyme, gluten intolerance, fibromyalgia, cancer, aids…who in our communities must we protect, yes, but who has been surviving collective cluelessness and obstinance, who must we now listen to?

* beware of haters (and infiltrators). here we are, figuring out massive issues of safety during a fraught election year in the u.s. under a government hungry for tighter borders. this virus may change how voting happens, and how communication around the election happens – if we are all dependent on the internet to contact each other, campaign, even vote, there’s a lot of uncharted and quicksandish territory. our electoral system is dysfunctional on a good day. and, this collective experience will impact what people seek from leadership. and, the outcomes of this election will effect the future of this virus and how other similar global threats are handled. it is not a time for petty, haterish, divisive behavior. it is a time to be in heightened awareness of infiltrators, instigators, agitators. beware the lone wolf, beware the critic who isn’t oriented on any solution, beware the social media poster who has few followers and fewer posts, beware time sucks, red herrings, and vapors posing as people. it’s easy to get sucked in. liberate your attention back to the much more important and difficult work of finding political alignment and righteous compromise amongst the people you know and live next door to, your relatives, people who care about you.

* pay attention to patterns. what is being detoxified from the soil? what is migrating? who is in drought, in flood, in peril, in privilege? i am definitely influenced by having just finished The Overstory by Richard Powers but…ask the trees what they think this virus is about. what to learn, now?

* localize your attention. what grows near you? who grows it? how can you secure resources together vs stockpiling individually and combatively?

* and, as aways, what’s in your go-bag?

3. Pleasure Activism

right now we are getting to experience the unexpected expected. we all knew contagion was coming and have made countless entertainments about it…but when, how, from where?

it may seem counterintuitive, but i am putting my attention on the pleasures of quarantine, aka ‘if introverts ran the world’. what to do when you can’t go somewhere else and be around mad people to do it?

obviously there is a way of working with less distraction when isolated, which those of us liberated from offices already know to be a pajama-infused delight.

i have made a list of additional recent pleasures i opted to fully experience instead of panicking – washing my hands in warm water, writing, reading, new kinds of orgasm, cooking, painting, slow yoga in the sun, going out in the yard to observe my local ecosystem during the day (which often involves attending to what is usually the periphery – the sound on the edge of hearing, motion on the edge of sight) (and which, during my writing of this post, included watching and hearing two bumblebees mating in the air!), and at night listening to owls, porcupine, wind, river, traffic, life. catching up on shows, extended and deeper video chatting with loved ones. inventory (this may just be me but i like assessing that i have enough), being topless outside, creating and executing rituals. getting high, or, lately, getting that other high that comes from not getting high, but getting present.

i encourage you, whether you’ve already been quarantined or it’s coming soon, to at least attempt the mental emotional embodied exercise of not fighting it, but finding the pleasure and connection potential in it. how can it increase your freedom to have your routine disrupted? how can it allow for more intentional and reverent interdependence? don’t just think about where you will get your food and water, also map out where you will get your togetherness, your touch, your laughter, your joy.

4. how to survive the end of the world

in the years of doing this podcast with my sister, we have had many conversations that feel relevant to this moment.

our conversation with Sister-Doctor Alexis Pauline Gumbs on breath, among other things – we need to practice breathing deeply thru a respiratory invasion. our conversations with Toshi Reagon on prophecy and responsibility. and with Angel Kyodo Williams and Lama Rod Owens on being still. with Mariame Kaba on justice – because this virus is largely spreading by human error, and how do you address the harm caused by someone not washing their hands, the sickness and death caused by humans who didn’t mean to hurt anyone? and the conversation with Siwatu Salama-Ra, how to generate freedom within when externally contained? and, of course, our talk with Michelle Mascarenas-Swan of Movement Generation, about the larger systems at play in this great turning. plus roughly every other conversation.

5. generative somatics.

this is a time to get more curious about your body, your health, your patterns. listen to your gut – the other day i was ten minutes out from home heading to the store when i realized i’d left my hand sanitizer on the table after checking if it has enough alcohol in it. with almost no thought, my body found the next spot to turn around (i am way down a single lane dirt road) and went back to get it. i used it four times while out and was so grateful my body knew i needed it. my body steers me away from people with sniffles and coughs, processing information faster than my brain can generate a logic for me. if it’s hard to hear and trust your body, get into this centering practice from generative somatics genius Sumitra Rajkumar, let repeated centering awaken you. there’s time.

so. visionary fiction, emergent strategy, pleasure activism, and surviving apocalypse. attention liberation, somatics, right relationship. listening, adapting, surrendering.

may this serve as it needs to. i am with you, of you, and you are of me. let’s do this transition well.

the parables: an ecstatic review

today i saw the Parable of the Sower opera.

it is the work of my beloved ancestor-teacher Octavia Butler in the hands of Toshi Reagon, begun as a collaboration with her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon. Dr Reagon is now retired, but her sonic fingerprints are all over the piece that continues to grow.

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today as i watched it, Octavia’s family and her incredible agent were in the audience. i got to meet them after, for which i am grateful.

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i saw the opera years ago in an earlier iteration. i remember loving the music then, in the dark, in a circle of voices.

today it was in a theater, packed, and it opened with the sweet gift of Toshi just giving us some context, some welcome. she has one of my favorite voices in the world, speaking or singing. she was on the stage the entire time, along with two others called the Talents, who rode the wave from earthly to ethereal as the two hours passed.

every singer who entered the stage was powerful, well cast, sounded timeless. Toshi later explained that the singers were trained to truly open their mouths, sing with their whole bodies, sing in a 19th century style. they sound like forever.

it was a congregational opera, we were invited to sing when we knew the songs. even the balance of lights made it feel as if we were part of the circle of survivors trying to find a viable future.

the music Toshi gathered and/or wrote is so beautiful, so emotionally accurate to the story. the pieces were tender – at one point i found myself crying in a new way, the pain of my eyes sharp – something was being cleansed in the tears. i gasped as the last song landed; now hours later, i feel freedom like what only comes after suffering, i feel connected to other believers within a dual web – archives and whispers.

in the iterative process of this opera the singers have left their seats and now we must call them actors. these actors danced as a flock of birds, they migrated north, fractal, iterative, each one contributing to this act of musical genius.

Toshi is not just conducting the musicians, the sounds…she is orchestrating emotional liberation from apathy and oppression, with our bodies as instruments. this is sound healing.

and these actors, these players! there’s a moment when Lauren’s stepmother (played by Karma Mayet) is singing to Lauren’s pastor father (Jason Charles Walker): “I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall” and i felt my concept of love changing. this is a kind of love/survival we need access to for this coming change.

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and then Lauren (realized, embodied by Shayna Small) singing “Have You Seen My Father”…writing out the words brings the grief back. this is what i was worried would be lost in translation, the solitary work of grief inside of the stunning experience of terror. the hyperempathy, which was well done, AND the mundane experience of losing someone. Toshi didn’t shy away. there were several moments when all we could hear was a weeping song and the breath of tears.

and emergent strategy was so apparent. the verses Toshi selected – “belief initiates action or it does nothing”, “embrace diversity” – are those that most read as instructions for how to survive the impossible.

tonight we held a conversation at the national black theater, a historical location which was perfect for us as a stand against gentrification, not to mention they’re in the middle of a season called Black to the Future! the temple was packed and we generated life. here are a few highlights, moments that increased our honesty and togetherness:

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Toshi spoke to how she’s not going to be one that runs, that’s not what her body does. she said she will stay, she will cover the backs of those who must go. and that the idea of playing this role makes her smile.

Shay spoke to how being Lauren Olamina on that stage is changing how she moves through her real life, what she practices, making her revolutionary.

Manju and Alexis came up from north carolina, where the parable was put on last fall. they spoke of the need now for direct action, and for recognizing that when God is change, each of us is God and must act accordingly.

in this state, with the bias of ecstasy, i recommend you bring the Parable everywhere. give it every grant. run to see it when you have a chance. change and be changed.

bonus: for yesterday’s #movementtarot i pulled a spread on the relationship between movements and Octavia Butler.

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#sundayspread on the relationship between movements and Octavia Butler.
(in honor of me going to see the Parables Opera today and then hosting a conversation with the Parables team later this evening at the National Black Theater.) what we bring: “the student of branches carries a fire in their belly that refuses to be put out. other people don’t always understand why the student must act with such fiery determination. and that’s OK. the student doesn’t always understand either. they just know they have been called to move, and they are heeding that call. the student wants to bridge the gap between what is imagined and what can be actualized.” ?

what Octavia gives us. “the visionary of stones reminds us that being grounded need not mean being boring. a dazzling diva whose glamor is drawn from the natural world, the visionary represents the pinnacle of intuitive connection to the earth element. when the visionary appears in your reading, recognize that you have the power to reshape your world.” ?

the composite energy is the visionary of vessels, but in reverse. “the supporter needs support, the healer needs healing. a temporary blip or disruption in intuition and empathy. approaching powerful wisdom and capacity to heal, but not there quite yet.” what to practice? the four of stones. “no need to hoard, no need for excessive accumulation. trust that there is always enough. ground your sense of security in that you are always enough.” from @slowholler deck, #resistancetarot #movementtarot

Parable of the Sower Concert Review/Gush

Terry Marshall of Intelligent Mischief recently articulated this moment we’re in as a Black Renaissance. I concur – we are transforming pain into gold at an impossible speed. I keep turning around and finding something black, brilliant, fantastic, collective, wonderful – I feel in the midst of an artistic explosion, of a people cultivating creativity and joy in the face of genocide and mass produced misery. And Octavia Butler is one of the seed mothers of this moment.

There are some of us who read the Parable of the Sower (and it’s sequel the Parable of the Talents), as sacred text. Butler, the author of these two near-future novels, was a black sci fi writer hermit who died in 2006 after giving us 12 novels, a collection of short stories, and winning the Hugo, Nebula and MacArthur genius grant.

Everything she wrote is provocative and interesting, but in the Parables she cuts in right next to her own story, and many of ours, a black girl creator, surviving. Lauren Olamina is growing up in a gated community in dry, divided California as the government swerves violently to right.

I heard a few years ago that Bernice Johnson-Reagon and Toshi Reagon, mother daughter movement folk singers, were going to make an opera of the Parables. At that time, I fell out with possibility. Then I wished I had lived my life differently, seriously pursued my vocal practice, tightening up my pitch issues, because clearly this was the best thing that could ever happen in life.

As the Opera/concert piece has moved along its iterative process, I’ve been awestruck by the caliber of talent in and around it, while also landing in my own Octavia/sci fi work (I’m in NY because Octavia’s Brood is reading at the Schomberg open house on Wednesday!).

In January there was a first set of Parables concerts. I was out of the country and seriously priced out what it would cost to fly to NYC for one night. Out of my economic capacity.

Then it was in Abu Dhabi, because…of course. Octavia in Abu Dhabi. But again, tickets were researched and too expensive and I was left bereft, so distant from the experience of my dreams.

All of this context is just so you understand a little bit about how ecstatic I was when it was announced that the concert would be in at the Annenberg Center in Philly when I was scheduled to be in NYC, when I priced the trip, when I realized it was possible. I got tears in my eyes buying the tickets. That’s the level of anticipation I took with me on the bus, to Philly, and into the concert.

Because this was a predestined perfect night, I got to eat at White Dog Cafe, which I’ve been hearing about for years – I have tons of respect for its founder Judy Wicks, who is one of the sparks in local living economies work. I shared a meal with my dear friends Sofia Santana, who bussed down with me from NYC, Jennifer Kidwell, and Sham-e-ali. Jennifer, an incredible singer and performer now based in Philly, was part of one of the earlier iterations of the opera. Sham, a poet, had seen the concert the night before and said she’d wept the entire time.

Rasheedah Phillips of Afrofuturist Affair was in the lobby with her sweetheart, we’d all been together at Ferguson is the Future just a couple of weeks ago.

Sofia and I got to the theatre right as the show was starting – I dashed to the bathroom and switched from my bus outfit into something more appropriate for a historic event. It had a belt, pink lipstick, the basics.

The musicians were tuning up in the black box of the theatre. There were twelve chairs in a circle, microphones, a full house audience, and the singers were standing at the edges of the theatre. I recognized vocalists Tamar-Kali and Karma Mayet Johnson, Marcelle Davis Lashley, violinist Juliette Jones. Many of the others were new to me.

Then Toshi came out from the back with a gorgeous smile on her face. I love watching her perform – she sits down surrounded by instruments and immediately makes it feel like we’re just watching her jam out in private, extending ease and intimacy to everyone.

Then the music came. It came up through Toshi, and from the edges of the room. I had to take off my belt right away. The context was set in songs that walked the line between chant, lamentation and praise. We learned that the water was gone, that some were seeking solace in God, and the gifted and gorgeous singer Shayna Small, who sang Lauren Olamina, was feeling a change, feeling everything.

After the second song I turned to Sofia and said “this is a best-experience-of-my-life”. There was a fearlessness about the songs, they were precise and subtle and then deep and full, the pace was just right – the pace respected the way Octavia told this story.

Toshi gave us some context after a few songs. I’m not sure it was needed, it all felt so spiritually correct…but how could I know, I’ve read the text twenty something times.

Toshi spoke at various points throughout, her words always spare and heart opening. As the journey north began, she said, ‘if you don’t know where you are going, you can just make something up and walk on that.’

The main thing I will say about the songs is that as I was hearing them I was deeply satisfied, and when each song passed I wanted to rewind and stay in it, even the songs that covered the hardest moments. Hyper empathy in an apocalypse is painful, the terrifying world changing behind them as Lauren and her crew made their way north, the ideological battles between systems of belief that give and take away responsibility – the Reagons have written songs that allow us to feel all up in this text.

I didn’t know I needed these songs till I was flooded in them.

One of my favorite moments was Toshi inserting a folk singer into the story. She said it was Octavia’s mistake, that when things are going so badly, people need the singers to tell the story, to give them back to themselves. Yes, exactly.

Towards the end of the concert, the songs were straight up Earthseed verses. I kept catching tears all over my face and then getting caught up in wonder, needing to undulate and tap my foot and dance and sing along.

Helga Davis was a sitting closest to us, and her moves were so funky and distinct, Sofia and I couldn’t take our eyes off her.

I walked out after and ran into several magical people, including radical dance artist Althea Baird, both of us wide open and teary eyed. Annie Danger later posted that those of us who’d experienced the show might need a support group to live into the change. Sonia Sanchez was in the audience.

Now I’m glowing from the experience, wanting everything I suffer through, everything I learn, to be sung in chorus by the Reagons. And even as I wonder how I can hear the songs again, I recognize that in this time of instant gratification it is a gift to be given something so rare, so visceral, so about being bodies and hopes and grief in a room together.

Thank you Toshi and Bernice for the vision and the execution. Thank you Eric Ting for the direction – the presentation felt so organic, centering the songs and voices. Thank you Bertilla, Helga, Karma, Tamar-Kali, Morley, Marcelle, Josette, Shayna and Jason for the gift of your voices and the way you became conduits for this crucial story. Thank you Juliette, Robert, Fred and Adam for the music which swelled up the room.

Looking forward to the next iteration.