Thirty-One Totems of Respect for Empathy
by Dan Paracka

In the dream to save my soul, I map the butterfly’s path, paths worn       deep, meaning laid bare,
try hard to keep pace, making the implicit explicit, the unfamiliar familiar.

To powerful dirt not heaven look for ancestors’ wisdom buried deep       within,
down on my knees, soil sifts through fingers, watching plants grow and       seasons change.

Third eye fell upon stolen lands, rivers of lost languages whisper about
birch bark, wild rice, acorns, honeysuckle, tree frogs, lotus root, lichen,       and moss.

To cultivate rice use feet, hands, repetitively, plough under, pull weeds,       irrigate regularly,
wait, watch, scare away birds, glean, winnow, chaff, boil.

Practice discipline, suffer freedom, do not waste genuine regard,
quiet truths, looking for nothing, finding beauty in everyday doubts.

The blind sees utopias, humbled empowerment sits cross-legged under       a tree
encircled by an old growth forest in pregnant silence and emptiness.

Pure shiny bright blue green pearl island, orphaned slave child rising       above tyranny
with acts of kindness, combatting climate change and nuclear       proliferation.

To find hospitality among strangers in small gestures’ unspoken warmth,
a policy of noninterference, of patient reassurance, life-affirming       conversations.

Learning to see the best in others, to appreciate the hardships, they, too,       have endured,
inadequate and overwhelmed, always wanting more from the family of       ten thousand proverbs.

Wrestling identity with all the fear, anger, hatred running amok, roadkill,       isms,
war-torn, war-weary, greedy twisting of everything into advantage.

Apathy of affluence, planned obsolescence, fast fried industrialized       process foods, computer
compartment grind, incessant drive-thru commodity delivery noise, thick       layered cultural debris.

Trampling over tourist routes past insidious deals my government makes,
through rainbow layers of soap scum blanketing mangroves in oily froth.

Forgotten plant wisdom, all her protective instincts exposed raw nerves,       abysmal fissures,
spoon fed, either/or right and wrong answers, as privilege appropriated       corrupts.

No watershed sanctuary, no forest remedies stockpiled, growing       wastelands,
flooded gulfs, body fidgets, awakened from sickly comfort.

Immersed in transactional, competitive zero-sum worldviews, bent on       how to get ahead,
an acidic climate overheated results in massive species extinction.

To extricate truth from the onslaught of lies manipulation, where it may be       vaguely possible to discern
commitment in the river’s flow against the witchcraft of

Migrate as severe drought leads to famine, poor powerless minority,       labeled criminal, unprotected
vulnerable victim, left alone to starve, deserted in time of need to die.

To escape persecution, lost homeland, refugee family flees violent       homeland,
secretly crosses border to hoped-for safety, their son killed by a state       that felt threatened.

Restore dignity to extended family of compromise, where one might       surrender
the limits of our human self and stop imagining the world as a dangerous       place.

Welcoming recognition for creative hardworking immigrants, desperate       for a better life
without borders of control, sustainable justice, alternative energy flows,       existential being.

To regain what is lost, nurturing rhythms, restful replenishment,       reconciliation,
memory of appreciation for all that nature openly gives.

Forest ecologists, tree physiologists, evolutionary biologists, thankful for       trees
talking to each other, deciding to fruit and flower together in abundance,       returning blessings.

Off road, grassroots, ecotherapists, healing stewards engaged in       sequestration,
reforestation, decarbonization, recycling, reuse, repair.

Sun rays, ocean drops, threads handwoven into cloth, cloud roots,       craggy peaks, aimless steps,
foggy marsh, dream journeys, stone cairns, grounded present, reflective       breaths.

Serene pine knolls nestled undergrowth covered with dew, creation       dances barefoot all night as stars
sing to the moon at the festival of happiness in the palace of inner peace.

Turtles tote lotus flowers, beetles light candles, find sustenance in       aesthetic delight,
sunshine comforts forgiveness, water a living spirit, equity sustainability.

Beating hearts remember, wisdom confesses ignorance, inspiration floats       on breeze,
lodges in cliff, grows into a garden, procreates love.

Tearful cheeks on smiling face, bearing gifts, weeds are wildflowers, roots       resemble branches, light of
laughter, reaches, searches distant shore, hears hatred, retreats, surfs,       and returns.

One planet with common problems in need of collective solutions finds       freedom through social justice
towards transformative reciprocity, learning how to walk, how to breathe,       how to love.

There is joy in the fruits of the earth, in giving back to the wealth of       community, across species,
peacemaker, caretaker, thankful for symbiosis.

Tree full of grace, sprouting under canopy, growing towards the light, in       the security of earth’s embrace,
filtering water nutrients, supplying fresh, cool, clean air, not going it alone.

PAINTING: Dahomey by Lois Mailou Jones.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: In this poem each pair of lines conjures up a totem, spiritual relationships symbolizing heaven, earth, and humanity.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Asking forgiveness for things said without thinking, thankful for becoming imperfectly other, holding the healing power of nature sacred, Dan Paracka, was born in New York City and grew up meandering among the creeks and ridges of southern Appalachia. A global citizen, he lived in Sierra Leone, West Africa, for two years as a rice farmer, palm wine tapper, and Peace Corps Volunteer. He also taught English in the People’s Republic of China for two years where he learned to speak Mandarin. He is currently a Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University and has served as an international educator for over 30 years helping students learn about intercultural interdependence. He is a son, brother, husband, and father. In his spare time, he grows bonsai trees and learns patience.