La Vieja: A Journal of Fire Paperback by Deena Metzger
Published February 17, 2022 | 282 pages
Deena Metzger’s fascinating new novel, La Vieja, is a love story within a love story within a love story. There is a young couple who fall in love, yes. There is an old woman in love with the Earth. There is a bear who dares to love humans as bears might love other bears. Each inhabits their own geography as well as their own strand of ‘now’. At times they intersect. They interact and sometimes overlap. And they all live outside, as in out-of-doors or nearly so, as well as outside of societal norms. They inhabit intersecting realms of choice and possibility. Because of this, we, the readers, are liberated from the confines of conventional narrative. We are free to make our own journey in and among the layers of the story in order to find our way through the dilemmas of our time. It is the first step in doing what Metzger and La Vieja require of us: to take on the essential questions of planetary survival at this time and to participate in Earth’s repair by tending to the disconnections within and among ourselves.
Page one reminds us, When you are on a battlefield or a mass grave, you know. Exactly so. Earth Herself has become a battlefield and a mass grave. Our bodies know this, even if our minds resist. We long for the restoration of a world in which all life thrives. Metzger reminds us that longing is a holy path. Something in us recognizes this truth. We cradle the shards of this broken world in our hands empty of answers, except for the whisper that tells us that Tikkun Olam requires that we live our lives in devotion to repair. This is what author Lewis Hyde calls ‘the labor of gratitude’. In order to fulfill this obligation, we must see with fresh eyes, and love with a clear heart. Each of us must walk our own holy path of longing. Our task is to learn how to discover it, and, as La Vieja admonishes, to let it discover us. This is why we need stories like those that comprise La Vieja: stories that teach, enliven, accompany, and reveal through the ways they intertwine. Gorgeous language lifts us up: It was a few hours before the solstice itself, which would be at 3:30 a.m. but there would be little difference in light so far north except the sun that had slid behind the mountains was appearing through a wide pass in the rocky scimitar of land reaching to the sea when dark clouds stampeded the small slit causing night to slam down.
Step by hopeful step we proceed. La Vieja shows us ways to relinquish all we thought we knew about time, about distance, and especially about other-than-human kin willing to guide us. One of these is Bear. Though we cannot truly know what Bear knows, in the way Bear knows, the process of inquiry and deep listening, gradually allows the linear mind to hibernate. We emerge, awake to new life, as we expand our perceptual field. This includes our sight: the capacity to see into the distance as well as to harvest ‘insight’ – to look within, so as to be clear-eyed about the many ways that western culture has coerced us to participate in its insatiable appetite for things and attention. We must recognize who we have become even as we return to our expanded selves, to what La Vieja calls our intrinsic identity.
The story unfurls from the anguished imagination of La Vieja, of Deena Metzger, of Lucas, Léonie, and Bear: she – they, write from multiple perspectives, multiple loci, and multiple time frames. In its structure and in the weave of events, the book itself is teaching: How the story appears is as important as the story. The way the story manifests is also the story. This is part of what is required in order to truly see.
La Vieja can see things that are hundreds of miles away. This is not a fictional talent: the Kogi people can see distant stars with the naked eye. The lines between what we think is possible and what is actually possible are tenuous. As we learn to connect tiny dots of recognition and attend to them, we discern the holy path to an intact world. La Vieja felt for a nanosecond what it was to be rooted when suicide and so ecocide were not conceivable. She had, she understood, come here to know this… She had to come away from her own kind in order to know the holiness of connection. We, too, must find somewhere to go – if only in our minds, to know these things. Western culture cannot help us. Like La Vieja, we must somehow step away from strictly human concerns to know the holiness of connection. To know that Interconnection, inter-relationship… are ecstatic forms.
Because we have blood on our hands, we must retrace our steps. Blood has been spilled, but not in a sacred way. Nonetheless, blood – especially innocent blood, penetrates Earth as a message – not of blessing, but of ruin. How, then, to sanctify the lives lost, to give deliberate, conscious attention to putting things right? La Vieja offers to lead us through the maze of dilemmas dismantling the world. As with any true quest, once we commit to this journey of discovery, guidance appears. The stories that teach and sustain us also teach us how to forge unlikely alliances. Because we live in unexpected times, we must respond in unexpected ways.
Through humility and careful observation, we can learn to meld our awareness with that of other Selves. It is a way of opening up to the unknowable. With practice, it becomes a reliable means of cultivating our innate capacity for alliance and alignment; in La Vieja’s words, for extending our field of respect. When we do this, relationships with other Selves deepen and become reciprocal. The Bears, like Elephants, the Others, communicate through tools intrinsic to another reality… We pick up these unfamiliar tools, feel their heft, adjust our grip. How can it be that all the Beings speak the same or similar languages, but one? We are brokenhearted because we have exiled ourselves from our global family of extended kinship and so we are outside its sacred language. How, then, to relearn it, to become autodidacts of the holy intactness that preceded – and at one time, including us?
Bears share breath with each other and perhaps, occasionally, with humans. We can reclaim our capacity for knowing through our animal natures by refusing to inhabit the constrictions of labels or history or time. We can reject a terminal diagnosis for the Future. As La Vieja has realized, The illnesses are of the mind, heart and soul of the desperately injured and distorted world soul. Again, our senses – our animal natures, will carry us.
Peacebuilding pioneer John Paul Lederach once said that it takes about as long to get out of a conflict as it took to get in. This truth invites us to live in extended and overlapping time frames. If we calibrate our decisions to respond to the multiple crises of now from the vantage point of an incremental long term, we place ourselves on a continuum that corresponds to the origins and momentum of harm. In La Vieja’s words, if we take this challenge to heart, The harm we do will no longer be intrinsic to how we live. This is the uncoupling required for deep change. It is the spacious pause that makes room for context and nuance. It necessarily reshapes our priorities. Like La Vieja, we can choose to live outside chronology; that is, without a line from here to there, outside of linear progression, but within a sphere of relationships ballooning from a point, first in another realm, and then a point of contact in this realm… From a common point, a new world can emerge. How do our decisions change if, from that place of deep-rooted knowing, we inhabit a one hundred year – or five hundred or thousand year – timeline as well as a nimble and multifaceted now in which we recognize Bears and other Selves as kin? In order to do this, we must shift our perceptions and priorities. We must shed our assumptions and apprentice ourselves to the natural world to re-learn the ways of mutuality in order to reclaim a culture of connection. The willingness to be humble, to let ourselves be led by other-than-human intelligence, in the face of our holy longing, is, in itself, an act of repair.
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