Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Losing focus - then trying to get it back

I imagine this is the plague of many a writer whose work addresses the times in which we live. I imagine it is also impact of the rapidity of change in our world right now, the intensity of events, and the intense connectivity and exchange of information with which most of us engage on a daily basis now as we try to understand our human predicament.

I've struggled as a writer this year - not because of who is in the White House (though that adds a measure to it) - but because of how clear it has become that we are facing a mixture of crises that are unfolding rapidly and which we humans do not seem to have the capacity to address, at least not in a way commensurate with the scale of the crises.

I've been working around themes of ecology, spirituality, and culture for some years now. But clearly they are not differentiated "themes" anymore. They are a nexus, a point of connection at which the true nature of the crisis is revealed - or so it seems to me. We humans are managing to destroy the web of life that is our home, from which we evolved and which has made possible these hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. We U.S. Americans are in the process of cultural decline, becoming fragmented, incoherent as a polity, all the worst of our historical sins coming home to roost, as they say. The global economy is consolidating into the control of small but powerful elites of corporations and investors whose wealth has become disconnected, or abstracted, from the planet and the living reality of most human beings (pure delusion as this is impossible).


The crises we face are real, they are existential, and they have come upon us so quickly over the past few decades of industrial-technological growth, the explosion of population, the shredding of habitats, and a long, long list of demographic, climate, cultural, and other changes, that we barely have had time to breathe, to take them in, to reflect on what they mean, what they tell us about the times in which we live.

All of this is interrelated, of course. The crises feed upon one another. And I, for one, have been left feeling a bit overwhelmed, and often discouraged, when it comes to sitting with my pen and journal, or at a keyboard, to attempt to write. Often, I am left with the blank page unable to focus. Where to start? Does it matter? Is there any point to it? Does what I write make any difference at all?

I have a feeling I am not alone in any of this. I can't blame the November election because it was and is all symptom, not cause, and the point is to try to get the diagnosis right so that the crisis can be treated correctly and effectively.

Except that we don't want to go there as a culture. Because the diagnosis is that the culture itself has been the disease and, like incurable cancer, you can keep trying to treat the symptoms but eventually the disease will overshoot the treatments and you will die. The cancer cells: individualism, self-interest as a value, capitalism which always concentrates wealth and demeans labor, capitalism and western economic thought which sees nature as one big resource to be tapped for economic exploitation, cancer cells that spread into and destroy things like a shared sense of the common good and the good of the commons.

As I write this, I feel a renewed sense of mission as a writer rising with passion, restlessness, some hidden rage, a fierce sense that truth above all is what writers need to write. This cancer is out of control and it is eating us from within, destroying vital organs, metastasizing to our brains so that our thinking is muddled and confused.

To mark his passing, I have been reading Brian Doyle's "Mink River," and find myself gasping out loud at times by his lyrical brilliance, weeping at times at his tender compassion for his characters, for this community of absolutely no importance to the world of this nation and its economic and political culture, but how the humanity of the people in it, however broken - at times literally -  puts pols and pundits and many religious and cultural "leaders" to shame.

This is us - all tender and broken, struggling with, or avoiding as much as we can, this question of whether there is any meaning at all - except in the place of tender connection, or at the spot amidst the tall grasses on the hill where one can see the waves of the ocean breaking over the rocky shore of the Oregon Coast, the sound of the Mink River as it meets the sea, the sound of the bicycle wheels as Daniel and the bike go over the cliff, the view of the ocean from the doctor's porch.

The humans, the salt wind, the wet earth, the cedar trees and hemlocks, the feel of bodies wrapped around each other in passion or sleep, the hangovers, the fear, the comfort, the despair, the simplicity, the violence - the all-too-human things that make up our real lives (including our mortality), but that this culture hates seeing within itself, covering over weakness and vulnerability in all ways possible, and these days with noise, frantic activity, "success," distractions on little screens and big screens, and constant texting and connectivity via satellite (rather than directly), storing up in barns, and our constant restless mobility - anything that helps prevent us from having to face the vulnerability of who we are in the way the people in the fictional village of Neawanaka see themselves - because they do not have the economic means to hide from who they, we, really are. They are raw, exposed, and they are the neglected parts of ourselves, shunted to the margins, even in a place of stunning beauty.

Doyle gives us this mirror - as any true writer should do.

I don't write fiction, but I have grown increasingly attached to the "creative" part of creative non-fiction. I do write essays on the blog for the website that sponsors that "nexus" work I do, the Center for New Creation. Maybe you would have a look.

But the other writing stalled in recent months, and now it is urging me back to it, as if some transition had to be gone through, some transformation from one way of seeing the world to another (and it is quite profound, also freeing), before I could sit again in front of the screen (first, of course, I had to sit with the journal and scribble things by hand so the muse had a path from heart to paper). It needed time, including time to get over the panic of not writing and not submitting, time to let go some expectations, time to discover that I am not the only one who thinks it too late to save us from real catastrophe, and that the chaos time is upon us and it is necessary to go through it. One of the essential missions of culture workers now is to tell the truth about that - what it is and why it is necessary - and to point out how stripping this era away, letting it go, and returning to the truth about ourselves can be our salvation on this planet - while it is still able to hold us and ultimately to heal, and we along with it. Stories, poetry, creative writing, many forms of art and music - this will all help us now. We need all of it to help us see the collective path opening for us, not despite the tumult and chaos, but because of it.

So this is what it feels like to get my focus back - a sharper view, and therefore a clearer rendering of the true state of things. The stripping away of both hope and despair leaves a space for more creative expression without trying to promote or cling to either one. I have a much better sense not only of what is being stripped away, but also what is emerging.

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As we descend into the fog, we feel our way, step by step. I don't know any other way to move through darkness, but to put one foot ahead of the other and listen for the exact sound of our footsteps. If we have to drop to our knees sometimes and press our hands against the duff and damp of the earth, then that is what we will do.

~ Kathleen Dean Moore, from the essay, "Overnight Fog in the Valley," in Wild Comfort - the Solace of Nature

Photos & essay: Margaret Swedish

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