You are probably familiar with the story of the elephant and the blind men. I think that this is the world we are living in now, full of blind men who only believe in their own way and can’t imagine another one.
Reality itself is a lot like an elephant. It is only the part you look at, only the part you believe in. This makes the world you think you live in. If you take two steps and look at it a different way, your whole world changes. And that world looks just as solid and real as the last one. Once you take a few more steps the world changes again, until you can see that the world in all its glory is far more vast and wonderful than you could have ever imagined while looking at it from only one perspective.
When I was a child I had two names given to me by the other kids. Sometimes even the grownups used these names. I believed them with my whole heart. Without really thinking hard about it I accepted the names I had heard for years as an inherent part of who I was, part of my definition of myself. Everyone used them, and even if they didn’t the echos of them lingered in every interaction. These names filled me with shame. Even to hear them spoken in other contexts cause a wave of shame and grief to wash over me.
The first name was Fungus. Just imagine what you know about fungus, even if you don’t associate with it intimately. No one wants a fungus among us. Mold on bread. Skin fungus. Nail fungus. Creeping slime molds. It is something to cringe away from, a thing of disgust and derision. When something is covered with fungus it’s spoiled, rotten, ruined.
But fungi are essential for life. All life on earth is dependent on fungi. We would drown in the detritus of our world if it wasn’t for fungi. And there are many fascinating, magical wonderful things about fungi.
Lets learn more about fungus. New things about the kingdom of fungi are being discovered every day. By one estimate there are 1.5 million different types. There are unicellular fungi like yeast. We all know what we owe to them. Warm, lofty baked bread. Beer. Wine. Whiskey. And compost where, in a nutshell the earth’s cycle of death, decay and rebirth takes place and where gardeners all over the world harvest the Black Gold that makes a garden grow. There are so many uses for fungi, and I bet there are many more to be discovered. Here’s a new one: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/05/20/form-and-fungus where two enterprising young men are finding ways to replace Styrofoam with cheap biodegradable material.
The multi-cellular-mushrooms like button, shiitake, reishi, portobello, truffle. Food, medicine and “all natural” mystical experiences.
There’s mycorrhizzal symbiosis, upon which 90% of the worlds plants depend for life and growth. These filaments of fungi help plants take up nutrients and many times form connections between plants, enabling them to communicate and to pass on both messages and food. A whole world of community and communication under our feet. Think about that the next time you pick up a shovel.
There’s lichen, a photobiont made up of algae and fungi. It plays a key role in soil formation and the start of biological succession. In other words, the start of transforming a bare rock to a meadow or forest. There are lichen in every place on earth. It’s what reindeer eat, it hangs from trees in the tropics, it can live inside rocks (that’s called an endolith.) It is a basis for life everywhere.
Every time I learn more about fungi I am continually amazed. And when I hear the word fungus now, I don’t think of a dirty name for a dirty girl. I think of how amazing a fungus really is.
The other name that kids had for me was a simple alteration of my name. The Bethany. As in The Swamp Monster. The Alien. The thing undefinable but definitely Other. As if I were a lumbering beast, the epitome of ugly, fearsome strangeness.
Bethany took a lot more work. I always had a sense of shame when people used my name even if they weren’t using it derisively. Eventually I decided being the only one of something was itself a worthy thing, and that I would own my name as mine, not something to be ashamed of. There was still a little twinge every so often, though.
Now that there are so many Bethanys and Bethanis and Betheniis and all kinds of variations, I felt the urge to look into the meaning of my name further. At first what I found was ‘House of Figs”. Well. Figs were nice, I guess. They had a double meaning in ancient times, a sexual one. I guess I can work with lush, fruitful, sensual, female. Then I found another meaning, and it was “Poorhouse”. Hmm, not so positive, is it? Who wants to be associated with poverty and destitution? So how did this meaning originate? In the King James bible, Bethany is the town where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And Bethany was the place where people who were sick and poor went to get help. OK. To take this meaning into my name and myself made me feel better. A place where the poor found alms and the sick found healing. And if it is lush and fruitful, so much the better. Now my name is a source of pride rather than shame.
These are just few examples of how looking at something a different way can change your world and make it a better place. I bet you could think of a multitude of new ways to look at the world, too.