A Time of Trouble: From The Smokehole in Siberia to Boccaccio’s Decameron


My friend Dr. Martin Shaw is one of finest storytellers we have in the English language. In the last few days wrote this:
In Siberian myth, when you want to hurt someone, you crawl into their tent and close the smoke hole.

That way the gods can’t see them.

Close the smoke hole and you break connection to the divine world. Mountains, rivers, trees.

Close the smoke hole and we become mad.

Close the smoke hole and we are possessed by ourselves and only ourselves.

Close the smoke hole and you have only your neurosis for company.

Well, enough of that. Really, c’mon. We’re grown-ups. Let’s take a breath.

We may have to seek some solitude, but let’s not isolate from the marvelous.

High alert is the nature of the moment, and rightly so, but I do not intend to lose the reality that as a culture we are entering deeply mythic ground.

I am forgetting business as usual. No great story begins like that.

What needs to change? Deepen? What kindness in me have I so abandoned that I could seek relationship with again?

It is useful to inspect my ruin.

Could I strike up an old relationship with my soul again?

You don’t need me to tell you how to keep the smoke hole open. You have a myriad of ways.

We are awash with the power of words—virus, isolate, pandemic—and they point toward very real things. To some degree we need the organizational harassment of them.

But do they grow corn on your tongue when you speak them?

Where is the beauty-making in all of this?

That is part—part—of the correct response. The absolute heft of grief may well be the weave to such a prayer mat.

Before we burn the whole world down in the wider rage of Climate Emergency, of which this current moment is just a hint, could we collectively seek vigil in this moment?

Cry for a vision?

It’s what we’ve always done.

We need to do it now.

I have been heartened that you, you good purchasers and supporters of my little venture of Primal Derma, have consistently written back after these weekly newsletters sharing your appreciation of them and about their wonderings. And also raising your proverbial glass to the dreaming and the visioning and the longings and rememberings towards which they might point. I raise my glass back to you.

This larger story of which I am trying to share – about how the health of humans is bound up in the health of land and proper relationship with the animal world. And the unseen world as well. And the possible reclamation of a culture.

Well, that story seems very relevant to where we have found ourselves in the last week or two.

And I didn’t (and don’t) want to continue to churn out newsletters not responsive to the times we are  in. To simply say ‘Primal Derma can help with your overly dry hands from all the hand washing’ seems to profoundly lose the plot of what you and I – and everyone – is contending with. Or to simply write another poetic rendering of a people or tradition from somewhere and ignore not just where we are but where we are. And who are we being called into a courtship with.

Have you been getting emails where your response has been “Read the room! Really? You are sending this email now?” These horrifying and cold ‘business as usual’ communications. Although I hesitate to call them communications at all. There is no communing happening whatsoever.  These emails, in function, make me draw back and tighten an already too tight jaw. And similarly the ones that are attempting to tell you all the newest facts or news, or how they are struggling too. Mercy to all of them. I don’t point these out to slander them. I understand why they are there. Any thing that looks like normal might veil us into thinking that normal is just around the corner. And then our lives are back and this can all be over already. “This has been enough, thank you.” But normal isn’t coming back. And what this new normal is I couldn’t say. But how tenderly will we hold it? How tenderly can we hold that new state?

This week I started to re-read The Decameron by Giovanni Bocaccio. I haven’t read it since the middle years of college more than 25 years ago. While it is a classic in the Western Literature Canon it isn’t necessarily one of the more famous ones like The Odyssey, Shakespeare, or even Dante’s Inferno.

Why did I pick it up? What is it about?

The book was written in 1353 after the author lived through The Black Plague of 1348 when half of the population of Europe perished. The book is set outside of Florence, Italy in 1348 and centers on seven women and three men who escape the city during the plague and fit to survive by electing a different person King or Queen for a day and tell stories to each other to make this time of waiting endurable. Then there is a new election each day and new stories are told on different subjects.

I’m not going to do a book report on The Decameron for you but there is precedent in telling stories as one part of getting through thoroughly uncertain times – which we are in. This is the first global plague any of us have had to contend with. So maybe we look back and wonder about those who survived plagues contended with them in some dimensions.

So I am taking my cue on how to proceed from Bocaccio and Martin Shaw. I’m going to try to be faithful to this time by continuing to share stories and weave a prayer mat and make beauty and maybe, maybe, maybe have some beautiful words arrive. Will they be corn on my tongue or yours? I’ll try. If we are lucky some seeds will shake loose and perhaps find some ground in your part of the world. That is a lot to ask from a newsletter when there is no lack of digital effluvia. But I’ll try and see what comes.

May it be worthy.

Thanks again for your willingness to attend to such a thing.

Please proceed with great care in your days. You are needed in your corner of the world.

Until soon,


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