Octavia, How do We “Shape Chaos”?
In the house I share with five people, I spearhead the vegetable garden every year and it always causes me more anxiety than you would think a garden should. Collaborations are difficult and we are each so busy. Everyone wants to eat lots of food from the garden whether or not these foods are suited to grow in this climate. I research each one and consider where it should go, organize the years of old seed packets that inevitably turn up in storage, and purchase new seeds. We have too many seeds and too many wants and not enough labor. So much work goes into growing anything.
Early one morning in April, before an 11 a.m. flight to Hawaii, I planted seeds in some of the boxes. I pinched tiny seeds from my palm, spilling some and placed them in hastily made holes. In my mind, I flailed around in other last minute plans and lists. When I returned from vacation, I planted some more seeds.
Then the other day, I squatted next to the boxes, and plopped some more seeds into finger holes in the dirt. When I sat down to update my garden diagram, I realized that in some boxes,Ò I had sown over the original seeds two times. If anything grows, the garden will resemble my life plans right now: manic, impatient, and self-defeating.
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My forty-one-year-old body creaks a little each time I squat over the garden boxes. I am busy with various teaching gigs and commitments. Too busy to take proper care of my body, I think, at least once daily. When I turned forty and for the following year, I felt like I was dying. Even as I earned an MFA and decided to marry my brilliantly compassionate partner, I felt like I was basically one cough away from death. A lost cause. Finished. I could not come to terms with the fact that time suddenly seemed limited.
Now at forty-one and a half, I have softened to my age. I feel like I am living, but I can’t say that feels better. Living is more exhilarating than dying, but living is scary. It is difficult to summon inspiration. Throughout my teens, twenties and thirties, I thought I had an infinite amount of time. This was clearly illusory, but such is youth. Time is limited. Every day I know that it is astounding that I did not die the day before. So what should I do with my time?
* * *
As I tunnel through each day, I teach my classes, cram in Buddhist meditation, writing, maybe exercise while listening to the news, my anxious thoughts create avalanches that bury me. Here is a map of my thoughts condensed into paragraph form…
Should I write a book? Should I build a career? Should I devote myself do activism? Meditation? Should I try to live inside capitalism successfully or should I continue to slither along its edges? Should I live in the city? Move off the grid? (Don’t pretend that you don’t struggle to know.) When every single lifestyle seems abundantly (albeit falsely) available and possible—everything is on the table—who should I be? Where should I be? How should I be? And what will guide me? And when I know my guide, will I have found my people? Will I feel whole?
Maybe you are reading and think that this piece of writing will culminate in an answer.
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Lucky me, I went to Hawaii with my partner, a trip we had both always wanted to take. We were on Big Island just before Kīlauea began to erupt.
We walked on big dried mounds of lava. Some of it is ancient, scarred with petroglyphs from the first Hawaiian people. There is lava from the 1960s and lava from 1990s. With each lava flow that reaches the ocean, Pele, the fire goddess, extends the Big Island beyond its shoreline. She can’t be controlled.
We also snorkeled. It was my first time and the moment I entered the water, about the pull the rented snorkeling gear over my face, I panicked. What if water rushed into the wobbly breathing tube? What if the tube blocked? The knowledge that I would be so close to the surface I would have time to come up and pull the thing off did not ease the fear that my breath would be taken or flooded. I knew I had to get on with it and I did.
Despite the mandatory buddy system, Nelson and I lost one another immediately. When I surfaced to look, I could not make out their wobbly tube from all the others, so I submerged again into the bluegreen, hoping we would find one another as we swam above the coral reefs. Once over those reefs, I experienced my body weightless. Face down, the reefs were a rugged landscape below me. The breath––first rough and then steady––was an
isolated soundtrack in my ears. My body, at first unbalanced, tuned into its own arches and I swam.
* * *
Maybe you are thinking that this writer writes from a settled place, a cottage in the woods just past the beach with the tumultuous sea, where she listens to the waves from a safe distance. Maybe you think she found the path from the windy beach into a green and wooded place where she listens to birdsong in the dewy morning and the lulling buzz of cicadas in the long afternoon. That she figured it out, Eat Pray Love style. That she is meditating, publishing books, and having luscious daytime sex. But that is wrong. This writer is there on the windy beach, with sand in her eyes. These pages are just flotsam and jetsam in the tide.
I don’t like that narrative, the one where everything is a shitstorm and I am stuck inside it, nose to the poop. How about this… hello, I have agency. I am both a victim and victor and we are not lost. We are still alive. We are constantly shaping our present. What about the Octavia Butlerian take that we should be shaping chaos? How do we shape chaos, Octavia? More and more I know that it is the communities we build that are important right now. And that feels complicated. Most of my communities of writers, teachers, Buddhists and activists are struggling to move past our own histories of trauma and oppression. Shaping chaos seems to me like taking advantage of every moment as an opportunity. Maybe the opportunity is to act, to speak up, to put your body on the line, but also maybe to rest, to laugh, to heal, (to eat, pray, or love?).
How do we get free? Is it possible? Is being a catastrophic thinker a help or a hindrance? How can I be comfortable and still prepared for anything?
* * *
As I was writing this paint splatter of a blog post, I learned something about seeds. I learned that a seed will not germinate if the conditions aren’t right. That seeds hold out until they are more likely to survive. Uh oh, I thought. How many seeds are lying dormant in my garden? How can I alter the conditions so they are more favorable? How much is out of my control?
What will my seeds do? Will they all try to thrive at once? Or will some come up and others lie in wait?
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Now I will tie this mania up in a giant bow, the kind you see when someone wraps a refrigerator box and gives it as a gift. I think the thing about learning to be in my forties is about seeds I have sown. Many have germinated and grow wildly, others still hold out. There is an element to that metaphor that feels uncontrolled, like what we call nature. And there is a need to step in and do some weeding. This piece of writing, my garden, our survival in this chaos is asking us both to have patience and to take action. To cultivate. To grow up. Octavia, how do we shape chaos?
I owe my ideas about Octavia Butler, of course to Octavia whose genius we need, but also to the Brown sisters––Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown––whose podcast How to Survive the End of the World is helping me see a threadline through my own life. For a much better description of shaping chaos, listen to this episode of The Lit Review Podcast. Learning about the history of the Hawaiin people and islands kindled a new understanding about earth and nature for me.
Meredith Arena is a writer and performer from a place in New York City called Staten Island. All her writing is inextricably linked to her attempted escape from that place and relearning the lesson that we cannot change where we come from. She moved to Seattle in 2011 and learned how to drive in 2015. Meredith’s writing investigates intersectionality and the interior self in a world where things we hold dear are constantly being destroyed or decaying or both. She is the Blog Editor for the journal Lunch Ticket. Her work can be found in Entropy, SHIFT Queer Literary Arts Journal, Lunch Ticket, The Interdependence Project Blog, Lion’s Roar and forthcoming in Paragon Press. She recently completed an MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.