Archive for the ‘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.”

The Airborne Toxic Event

March 25, 2020

If you handful of people who ever read this recognize what the title of this blog entry refers to, then you’re miles ahead of everyone else.  Delillo’s White Noise offers satisfaction during this time on many levels (another of the novel’s countless running jokes.)  Although my copy had been packed away in … 2013, and I’d had no intention of unpacking prior to my still-fervently-hoped-for upcoming move, bizarre times required bold moves.  If the marginal comments and marks are any indication, the 20 something grad student who wrote her final paper on death in White Noise for a cultural studies seminar in 1991 wasn’t far wrong in identifying some worthy gems.  Arguably there isn’t one element of the entire book that doesn’t offer relevant insights to today’s moment.

One thing that strikes me now is how Delillo imagines his refugees all holing up together, whether in a deserted Boy Scouts camp as the toxic cloud backlit by tracers and towed by helicopters hovers or in crowded grocery stores where waves and particles flow or on highway overpasses where townspeople crowd to watch the sunsets whose breathtaking beauty is equally heightened and undermined by the real possibility that the lingering traces of the airborne toxic event or the microorganism dropped to devour it are to blame.  It makes the solitude we’re being requested to endure that much more poignant;  amidst this profound uncertainty we are being asked, effectively, to experience it alone.

Frankly, that’s another refreshing element of the novel:  no internet.  Thirty-five years after the novel’s publication, our lives are so permeated by various technological devices that even our dreams incorporate text messages, twitter and instagram posts and video memes.  To have the confusions of human life be ratcheted down just a few levels to television commercials, car crashes, Hitler studies, modern pharmaceuticals and the fear of death makes the trashy culture of the 80s look like children’s games.

There’s so much of significance to take in and the space to do it in this novel; the generosity and the abiding love for humanity is apparent even at moments of deep cynicism.  When the hero has to stop his German lessons because a metaphor his colleague Murray has used to characterize the German instructor overwhelms his senses (“What had been elusive about Howard Dunlop was now pinned down.  What had been strange and half creepy was now diseased”), he still feels bad about it.  There’s no certainty that Murray’s claim is true; it’s only a metaphor after all.  # Cancel culture is still a couple of decades in the future, although Gladney does note as he tries to gauge the ethnic background of his teenage son’s friend Orest Mercator, “It was getting hard to know what you couldn’t say to people.”

I feel as if I’ve been in training for this moment in history for a long while with my nomadic lifestyle, my own free form version of social distancing, my insane frugality, my value system as portable and infrangible as a pinned on medal.  Or maybe it’s just deja vu.  Regardless, the hapless and helpless J.A.K. Gladney is as perfect a symbol for what any of us — prepared or not — may or may not be able to offer at moments of great significance.  While I can’t watch children sleeping at night to return a sense of peace to my fractured mind or snuggle close to a life partner, there’s a reverence modeled in this prescient novel one can’t fail to find sustaining.  Read, laugh, marvel, and love!

 

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!

 

Everything’s connected; everything’s changing. Pay attention!

March 8, 2018

photo by Annelise Makin imakinations.com/wordpress

 

This morning I saw three juvenile bald eagles. Their graceful swoops looked more to me like play than competition. But I still have a lot to learn about bald eagles.

The moment after I watched them disappear into the blue, my elation collapsed. “I am an apex predator who’s terrified,” I thought to myself. It seemed, suddenly, a horrible waste of evolutionary preeminence.

Our mind has as many possibilities as the sky, which can bring winds and sun, stars, and magnificent birds. Into mine the next thought arrived, sweeping up like the eagles:  of Bandelier National Monument and its Frijoles canyon where indigenous puebloans lived from somewhere around 1000 AD until 1500 AD.  Last year I was privileged to learn and then to share with park visitors a little about how the inhabitants might have experienced their lives.

For my guided walk of the canyon’s pueblo, cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs, I chose to structure my observations around the theme of time. I knew even then that I was interested in the subject more for what I didn’t know about time than for what I did. Like the tarot pack’s Fool, I was walking off a cliff, cheerfully hoping the steps would arrive when I needed them.

I would start my talk with historical time – covering the history of the park service and gesturing to the pueblo revival buildings built by the CCC – then move to geological and biological time, which led to agriculture. When we reached the first kiva, constructed in the circle the puebloans had brought with them from Chaco, I would talk about cosmological time as they would have brought the Chacoans knowledge of the night sky with them as well.

Since new rangers are thrown into their talks much like early christians were to the lions, that’s about as far as I initially dug into the excavation of time. But I remember the feeling of dissatisfaction I had those first few weeks. There was something just out of reach, a lesson that would, once grasped, allow me to articulate the feeling I had when I walked through that canyon –  of something that was intangible but also singularly present. It was like an echo one wasn’t sure one had heard.

When rangers do their walks, supervisors pummel them into working out their transitions from one stop to the next. At first, when you’re trying desperately to learn everything from geology and botany to hiking trails to excel spreadsheets to coworkers’ sensitivities, the harking on seamless transitions is a form of torture. But by leaning into that struggle to link the stop at the creek to the next stop, the kiva, I found the door into the realm I’d been sensing.

Archaeologists know that the puebloans had fields scattered on the mesa tops. Given the scattered rainfall patterns, having plots in various locations ensured a greater chance of harvest. But they also would have had plots in the canyon bottoms, using either irrigation systems or hand-watering the crops vital to their tribe’s survival. When we were stopped at the creek, I’d ask visitors how they would feel if their job was to water the corn plants. Would they be irritated because they had other things they wanted to do?  In our culture, that would be a normal reaction since there are so many other tasks we are push ourselves to accomplish.

These indigenous people, I suggested, knew that their tasks, no matter how small, were intimately connected to their lives, to their tribe’s success, to the lives of their ancestors and descendants. The corn itself was understood and celebrated as a gift from their gods. Through their acts of tending it, they were living in sacred time, where they were the center of the universe – in the middle of a circle – not strung out on some linear spectrum where some work was more valuable than others.

As it is with any circle, I can’t be sure exactly where this thought had begun, only that once I possessed it, it encompassed and enchanted everything else, carrying me along to the kiva’s circle and to the concentric circles etched again and again in the walls above the cliff dwellings. And the theme of sacred time led me to my final, and favorite, stop – the Macaw petroglyph.

I loved the chance to ask visitors what they thought the image was. “Anteater,” I’d get more often than you’d imagine. “Horse” or “donkey” were others.  Each guess, no matter how far-fetched, offered the opportunity to remind them how people couldn’t draw what they’d never seen. Since anteaters weren’t native to North America and horses & donkeys were not reintroduced to North American until the Spanish arrived, those possibilities were eliminated. And it also built to the significance of what they were seeing: a tropical bird native to rainforests 3000 miles away.  Since the brilliantly colored macaws could fly and talk, they were considered birds of spirit, and their feathers were objects of trade. But the person who drew this image didn’t see a macaw feather, I would point out. “He saw the whole macaw.”

At this point, as I spun out an imagined scenario of how this ancestral puebloan might have made the trip to central American to capture these birds, how it might have been the most thrilling part of his life, how he’d chosen to commemorate it with this massive drawing and how he might have been known by other tribe members as the guy who would go on and on about the time he brought back the macaws, I could look out beyond my visitors and see much of the canyon stretch below. That people had chosen to live here, to love here, to die here, and to make their art here was, I hoped, as present to my visitors as it was to me.

“Today we don’t all experience sacred time,” I would remind them. “And even when we do, we are able to achieve it momentarily through meditation or through religion. Or we might experience it through art, through music or movies or images. Think of how when we hear a song we loved when we were younger and how time suddenly becomes vertical, not linear. We remember the first time we heard it and maybe another time and another time. That’s how these people lived their lives all of the time. And when we look at this macaw, at this work of art, we have the chance to experience what they did every minute of their lives.”

I wasn’t at Bandelier for long, but something about that canyon moved me, or helped move something within me. I took what I learned there and used it at my next park, George Washington’s birthplace, imagining more experiences that were hidden from plain sight but were waiting, like ghosts, to be brought into the light: the enslaved families and their ways of existing and resisting.

I’ve continued to build a foundation of perception that our contemporary culture would prefer none of us possess. For it is a powerful and revolutionary act to see spirit all around you, to choose your ancestors, and to know how you act in honoring them matters across dimensions your mind cannot access alone.

Those three eagles were not an accident, my Bandelier spirits whisper to me. I will never figure out all the secrets to time, but I’ll keep walking and talking, writing and sharing, and trying to discover new doorways that will, I know, offer more beautiful sights and inspired insights, like steps revealing themselves just in time on The Fool’s path.

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.