Archive for the ‘American culture’ Category

reminders on how to breathe during an airborne toxic event

April 6, 2020

Salomon saith, There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination, that all knowledge was but remembrance; so Salomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion.

Francis Bacon: Essays, LVIII quoted in Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Immortal”

 


 

“How was class?” Denise said.

“It’s going so well they want me to teach another course.”

“In what?”

“Jack won’t believe this.”

“In what?” I said.

“Eating and drinking.  It’s called Eating and Drinking: Basic Parameters.  Which, I admit, is a little more stupid than it absolutely has to be.”

“What could you teach?” Denise said.

“That’s just it.  It’s practically inexhaustible.  Eat light foods in warm weather.  Drink plenty of fluids.”

“But everybody knows that.”

“Knowledge changes every day.  People like to have their beliefs reinforced.  Don’t lie down after eating a heavy meal.  Don’t drink liquor on an empty stomach.  If you must swim, wait at least an hour after eating.  The world is more complicated for adults than it is for children.  We didn’t grow up with all these shifting facts and attitudes.  One day they just started appearing.  So people need to be reassured by someone in a position of authority that a certain way to do something is the right way or the wrong way, at least for the time being.  I’m the closest they could find, that’s all.”

Don Delillo, White Noise

 

Babette, Jack’s wife and Denise’s mother, teaches a community class to the elderly in posture.  It seems just another layer of ridiculousness, but I’ve begun noticing how so many of us during this moment are doing … exactly the same thing.  It rather reminds me, sweetly, of the way our primate relatives pat each other in touching simplicity, sending the message that we are all in this together, that who you are matters to me, that your cares are mine and while I may not be able to make them disappear, I can utter familiar things that allay your anxieties for now.

Or as we murmur to each other and ourselves the ubiquitous expression, “You’ve got this.”

wide open

January 19, 2019
One of the regular sites I go to has an editor that ends his weekly round-up of madcap news stories (all political because that’s where the crazies most regularly perform) with an excerpt from something he’s reading.  He posted this a week ago.

“To be a good human is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”

from The Monarchy of Fear: a Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis by Martha C. Nussbaum

This week he had a quotation from Hunter S. Thompson.
“We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear—fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.”
You can see the drift.  I think fear provides the terms of courage, but we can’t deny ourselves the chance to talk about the fear not only for healing trauma but more importantly in the off chance that there are people who need to see how life works from the inside-out.
Since the horrific holiday I endured many small kindnesses have been bestowed upon me  I don’t mean to diminish the significance of all of them by sharing a story of one in particular that ended up being … perhaps … a gift I wouldn’t have accepted if I’d understood the terms in advance.
Without dredging up the murky details, I needed another vehicle and a person in the middle of the week without almost no advance notice possible to get me out of the house I’d been renting.  If I hadn’t met a former NPS co-worker in a grocery store parking lot on Christmas Eve, I would have been out of luck.  Furloughed by the government shutdown, near by, and still harboring kind thoughts of me from our brief time working side-by-side in the late summer of 2017, Chris had assured me he’d be there when the time came.  And he was.  However, in circumstances he would never have allowed himself to get into, given his overall conservative, if not downright timorous nature, he couldn’t help but feel that his vehicle loan & mediocre stacking assistance also required a large portion of advice on how to live my life going forward.
This attitude had been seeping out in the short time I’d rushed around packing and shifting my few belongings into his truck and my car.  But it was when we finally got to my new apartment and I offered to buy him lunch as a thank you that he pronounced his final act of largesse.
“You can thank me by never talking about this to people,” he answered.  “If you meet a man, don’t start talking about court cases and suing your landlord and this and that.  He’ll label you as a ‘drama-mama’ and stay as far away from you as you can.  Just forget about what happened and put it all behind you.”
What I had endured in the almost three weeks since an alcoholic landlord had gone to the magistrate and secured an emergency protective order against me based on lies he wasn’t required to prove deserved more than this.  I hadn’t required my former co-worker to sympathize – I had friends who were there for that – just to help me move with a minimum amount of judgment.  He had fallen short, and I felt bad that I was unable to be 100% grateful for the little he’d been able to offer that I had indeed needed.
After he left, my thoughts were now not only oppressed by the recent reign of terror but also that this person was sincerely convinced that by counselling me to keep my mouth shut he was doing me a favor, one greater than providing a truck.  That this person had been witness to another instance of my being bullied out of a job the Autumn we worked together and that he was currently furloughed due to the government shutdown — another manifestation of the bullying now in full ascendance everywhere — made it more dispiriting.  His advice distinctly implied that I was drawing these unfortunate events to me by my behavior and that to stop them I must never speak of them to anyone.  Was there no possibility of making connections in this increasingly hostile world that were based on solidarity against the oppressors?  Did we all have to cower in fear, hoping the storm would pass over us and devastate someone else — hopefully someone we didn’t know so we could pretend we “deserved” our near-miss?
Well, the mind, if cultivated assiduously, is there to find or create some form of survival mechanism, whether it’s a tattered life raft or an elaborate long-range escape plan.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t required to buy into the fear he was shoveling.  Buying into it, in fact, was the one sure way to make it grow bigger, stronger, more dangerous.  Testifying about the fear, about the trauma, was one avenue to finding out who was willing to stand beside me and say “Me too.”  It was a way to remind others hiding in the dark places of their mind, in the most depressed moments of their — and our nation’s — lives, that it is because of fear that we are able to express faith and hope and courage.  To be, in essence, a human being, one still capable of openness and trust, the only species I’m a card-carrying member of and the only species capable of creating a way out of this mess.

Time is on our side

March 11, 2018

I met Jean my last year in undergrad.  A core group were taking both the Virginia Woolf and the honors literary criticism seminars, so in the natural way young people do (and older people don’t), we fell in together.

Jean’s mind moves like a computer except she’s working with one or two more dimensions, making her mental loops fluid and fascinating.  Add to this her urban upbringing and her spot-on taste, and even a myopic magoo like me was intimidated.  After we graduated, that she’d been biding her time awaiting her reunion with better company was obvious.  We stayed in touch mostly due to my persistent letter-writing, until I found what I thought were my own people, ex-husband-to-be included.

Fast-forward some twenty odd years, and I’m wondering if I can find her on the internet, a do-hickey that was still in its university swaddling clothes when we’d last signed off.  And there she was.  Reconnecting with her was one of the shining lights of a 2017 where fog enshrouded and eroded much of what I’d thought was happening (aka, my reality).

Besides the advantage of the internet, we now also had cheaper long distance, so we were able to catch up in some small measure.  My lack of discernible progress in the material world ceased to embarrass me when she shared her own dissatisfactions.  We began to share strategies and insights, dream interpretations, youtube links, and photos.  As other friends had dropped away, retrieving Jean from the past was a timely gift.

The distance and difference between us, however, remained.  She had jumped from San Francisco to NYC to LA to Paris to Austin and back to the Bay Area, while my wanderings had taken me to places like Southern Utah, Yellowstone, New Mexico, and the Northern Neck of Virginia.  I don’t think she could conceive of why I would chose to live in these spots.  Helping me sort out my vision for the future, she offered a provocative comment:  “I think you’re avoiding something  because you think you’ll get contaminated by it.”  The assessment sounded right to me, but she thought I’d done the calculations wrong.

I was taking time to ponder the merits of this critique when she sent me a link.  “Great job for you,” she e-mailed.  The title did sound intriguing:  “Narrative strategist.”

Since I’d welcomed Jean’s earlier commands, like the latest version of What Color Is Your Parachute, as good structuring exercises, I read through the description with as much open-mindedness as I could muster, no easy task after the fifth sentence which touted serving clients like Facebook and Google and other “global change-makers.”

Eventually, despite my sympathetic willingness to imagine myself as more affluent and much much hipper and busier, even a cursory look at the job showed how I wouldn’t fit.  I was not only a “luddite” but proud to be so, and I was about as far down the line as anyone could be from their imagined candidate who was “passionate about disruptive technology.”

Passionate about disruptive technology?!  A storyteller?!  Would Homer be passionate about disruptive technology?  George Eliot?  Tolstoy?  I might be an “inherent optimist, with faith in the future despite the immense challenges of our time” and possess the “ability to process complex stacks of information without getting lost down a rabbit hole” as they phrase it, but I’d rather put my intellectual juice into conversations on how disruptive technology affects our ability to summon resonant metaphors and strategies for how to counteract it than into pretending it’s enhancing our lives.

Basically, the small start up wants to “on-board” someone to use stories to sell shit or to justify shit.  To convince people that shit doesn’t smell like shit because there isa beautiful story that connects us all to shit or whatever the fuck they need to do to make money so they can keep up their aesthetically and spiritually multi-hued new agey lifestyle in Sonoma county.  One of the bulleted “capabilities” for the position was “Maturity – you must have an active contemplative practice.”

During this moment, as I sat slackjawed, probing my disinterest in stepping up into the metropolitan fast-paced future Jean was envisioning for me, a few other “tells” passed in front of my eyes.  First, a Guinness beer ad that suspiciously sounded as if it were narrated by Alan Cumming, that deliciously gay man with a gorgeous Scottish accent.  Over images of all manner of folk connecting over a pint of frothing ale, the ad tells us that, in our desire to cozy up to friends and alcohol, we’re all alike deep down.  Okay, fine, I like beer too, and Cumming is hot regardless of his sexual preference.   All good.  But what if the challenge were to de-weaponize Amazon with a compelling story?

Then I stumbled across an article detailing what certain behaviors convey about a person revealed that long e-mail messages show neediness.  Well, yeah, that’s me, I conceded.  Needy.  Look at how long this blog post is.  And guess what?  NO ONE READS THEM.  After the shame the stupid content managers had slimed me with dribbled away, there remained a flicker of anger.  Yeah, I’m fucking needy, I wanted to shout.  I need people to pay attention; I need people to think for themselves.  I need people to understand how their day job is connected to the rest of the world.  My bad!

Then another article, which makes 3 and certifies this as a fairy-tale,  began with this quotation

We cannot be careful enough in refusing to act as splitters (i.e., like the Nazi doctors) or in refusing to live a split life in that sense.  And yet, in many circumstances, we cannot avoid acting as economic men and women of our time, performing certain professions and thus maiming our hearts.

— Ivan Illich In Conversation (David Cayley, editor)

I had a wild hair of a thought using a picture of the stories I was currently consuming as part of a job application.  An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States; Cheyenne Autumn; Killers of The Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and The Birth of the FBI; Pillar of Fire: American in the King Years 1963-1965; The Magic Mountain.  Which of these stories, I imagined asking coyly, might they ask me to draw upon to craft a narrative strategy for Facebook or, say, Energy Transfer Partners?

I suspect that the e-mail I received from Jean in response to my “thanks but no thanks” signals our friendship has shifted on to a back burner if not into cold storage.  This time, however, despite not yet finding my tribe, I’m less hurt.  She’s given me much to think about, even if it’s an awareness of where I don’t want my life to go and why.  And I hope when we connect again I’ll be able to report my progress and she’ll be able to share hers.  The stories we share will be complicated ones, cobbled together after we’ve done the hard work to chisel out and stay close to what’s most important to us.  I’ll drink to that!

 

Know peace. Know justice.

November 3, 2017

I have just started a fascinating book entitled American Taxation, American Slavery.  To paraphrase poorly her argument, the writer, an historian @ Berkeley, uses her examination of how tax codes were written and implemented in the colonies and then the newly formed states up until the Civil War to illustrate how today’s anti-government rhetoric is a narrative that can be directly tied to the elitist, pro-slavery, anti-democratic governments of the southern states.

For me, having returned to the south and with my own connections to slave-owning founding fathers (including living 4 miles from Robert E Lee’s birthplace), this a timely link, but I think it is also an illuminating way to perceive how racist assumptions underlie what’s transpiring in our culture.  It’s also a useful reminder that until we ALL work to pull apart these complicated skeins, this stain of injustice/abuse of power will remain and pollute our possibilities toward peace.

I had an interesting dream I’m still processing. It was quite disturbing, although the graphic elements were mercifully absent. At a celebratory party (maybe my birthday), close friends and I treat an outsider in a dismissive way. As others laugh at him, I do too and he gives me a look that I register as hostile and aggressive. After the others are gone, he comes in through an unlocked door, holding a bat. Because I cannot bear the thought of being beaten, I submit to his raping me. As time goes on, this situation continues, with me saying nothing to anyone. My friends wonder why someone so unpleasant is permitted to hang out with me/us, but I’m too subdued by guilt and shame to say or do anything. At one point, a group of us discover the bodies of girls who’ve been tortured and murdered in an empty building, and I am sure the perpetrator was him.  I realize that by allowing him to abuse me, I have not minimized his capacity for violence but instead in some manner increased or at least continued to conceal it.  I confide in one friend, and together we begin to devise a way to bring him to justice.

This issue of justice is one I’ve been allowing to remain in my peripheral vision, the way one yearns for beauty or love or community as an ideal. For instance, what’s happened to me in my various park positions are examples of power being abused and of my allowing the situation because of some degree of guilt/shame. My growing interest in the subject of slavery also involves the abuse of power,  finding it threaded through the stories we tell about our country when we talk about “founding fathers” like Thomas Jefferson & George Washington whom, we explain, hated slavery but couldn’t find a feasible way to free their slaves (a story that desperately needs to be re-framed). What I’ve found, however, in my own heart, is that when I think about justice, I allow myself to accept injustice being perpetrated in my own line of sight because, I argue silently, “the world is an unjust place.”

In a newsletter he sent out early this morning, an astrologer whose cultural critiques I find perceptive in an intuitive way wrote about the Trump-Manafort news in terms of justice. I’m not quite sure I can completely agree with the assertions he made in this instance, but he provided an observation that’s provided a useful description of the path my mind is tending:

Having faith in justice is in part the result of being a just person, since if you’re not personally connected to something, it’s difficult to imagine its existence.

That this issue of justice and each person’s connection to it are fascinating and fruitful to me I can feel in my heart which feels tight with possibility. It’s a scary feeling, one I can sense others (and me in the past) would easily turn away from.  If I take what the wisdom this astrologer has offered here and my own intuitions, I know the difficulty involves working through and moving beyond one’s own collusion with injustice (through the vestiges of our guilt and shame) so that we can stand on the side of justice.

I hope I can find the courage to commit to unearthing the layers of the stories that are offered to me as a means of testifying to a different way, a better way.

new neighbors

May 30, 2017

 

When I walked the bosque this winter, I noticed how dogs and their owners shared physical resemblances.  The only pet I’ve felt I ever resembled was arguably my cat Clarabelle who was slightly large, noticeably indolent and bossy.

But I’m thinking the burros who browse the field next door and I might have something in common.  Specifically, we’re descendants of a long line of hard workers who at this juncture of time and place have little real work to do.  I like to think also that the three of us share an appreciation of the nature of time.

It’s probably an overstated truism that observing plants, animals, and other expressions of the natural world can be surprisingly healing.  But my experience has been that one must perform this observation, as much as possible, on their terms.  What good would it do to get pissed off at a donkey because it doesn’t act according to our dictates or at a peach tree whose blossoms were blighted by frost and whose branches hang empty in the midst of summer or at a river whose new channel is now half a mile away from our property?

What plants and animals and river and rocks share is that their behavior is indivisible from their nature.  They know how to be what they’ve been born to be.

Human beings … not so much.

How we may have gotten cut off from our essential natures is open to much debate, very little of which concerns me.  However, I have, of late, been scorched by the out-of-control flames of those folks who can’t quite get themselves sorted out.  It has felt like a slap in the face to have worked hard not only in my professional but also in my personal spheres last year and to be rewarded by a former supervisor who lies about my performance to potential employers.  Here’s someone who actively wishes me ill well beyond the confines of Yellowstone National Park and whose efforts to bring my park service career to an end have almost completely succeeded.

For my livelihood and my home I have arrived at a few solutions, neither of them what I had set my sights on; those goals were sabotaged by my supervisor’s falsehoods.  But once I’d preserved my bodily self, I have found my soul locked in sadness and confusion, unable to decipher the message the Universe has sent.

Last night I dreamed of a river.  It had turned back upon itself, as rivers do, twisting into oxbows, creating sandy levees, carving out new beds and then leaving parched, rock-braided beds behind.  There was a kind of judgment on the river’s actions that my mind refuted when I awoke.  “A river can never be against its own nature,” I thought.

I considered whether we might not be able to make the same statements about people.  If someone deceives, instead of judging that this contravenes her integrity, instead shouldn’t we say that this person’s nature includes deception?  If their behavior can never come from outside their own nature, then their actions express how they’ve come to understand the world.  For instance, a woman who works hard to create financial security does so because she’s assessed how the world works and has decided that this is how she will meet its demands.  A man who lies to his lover about having other lovers does so because he believes this is the only way he can satisfy his need for love.  A supervisor who agrees to act as a reference for a former employee and then offers lies about her performance is a person who has decided that the only way a person can achieve professional security is to behave in this manner.

I’m not offering this as some kind of earth-shattering revelation.  At the least, it’s only earth-shattering to me who may have possessed the pieces to this puzzle but had never put them together in a way that made sense.  Now when I consider someone like my former supervisor, the image is one of pain and self-dividedness.  In these, her actions have perfectly expressed her nature.  And for that pain, I truly can summon compassion.

Since in the end our cogitations about the world lead us back to ourselves, as I drew out logical conclusions about how my acquaintances had organized their lives, I was forced to consider mine.  What did my behaviors say about how I’d assessed the world?  Well, there’s the “hide” and “dissemble” bit (along the lines of “don’t let the bastards know what you’re up to”) which speaks to the terror I experienced as a child.  There’s also the “work hard and carry your own shit” since I never felt I could trust others.

But there is something else; a mode I’ve been trying to place appropriately.  And that is “wait.”  This isn’t a dictate we often hear in our culture; it’s certainly not something even my close friends  understand about me.  But this “wait” isn’t simply about laziness or indecision (at least I hope not completely).  This “wait” comes with a demand that’s also an explanation: in waiting, I must be figuring out what I want to do because there are consequences to every action.  And I need to limit my own contribution to the world’s pain and suffering.

Now when I consider what to do next, the question I will ask is what I would like my actions to say about me.  I hope my behavior reflects a person who feels the rhythms of time deep in her bones and who understands that we are all busted and are simply trying to piece something road-worthy back together.  Because we are all working to our fullest capacities, looking for love, worthy work, and a place to call home in a world where what it means to “be human” is anyone’s guess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The history of unemployment

January 20, 2016