Monday, July 2, 2012

Writing at the edge of the precipice

I've neglected this blog for a bit. Sorry 'bout that. It's not for lack of things to write about, probably more like too many things to write about - and that meets life and overwhelms. That's what it feels like these days.

I'm putting off a necessary tedious task to post this morning. The tedious task can wait.

Source: UNISYS, found at Capital Climate
It's been a bit warm across the nation, a bit crisp, a bit fiery, a bit stormy, a bit dry - unless you're in Duluth or Florida's panhandle. In these places it's the deluge. How about that 'derecho,' straight line winds up to 90 mph suddenly building and blowing from Indiana to Maryland!! Oh, and up north, the annual Arctic ice melt is already a record, and it's only June.

I work on ecology issues for a living (a rather meager and uncertain living at that). My last book, Living Beyond the 'End of the World,'  laid out the scenarios and the dangers facing our unsustainable way of life on the planet and then applied a Christian spirituality to get at the cultural values bringing us to our collective suicide and how we might pull from that tradition some inspiration and support to live in a way that could save our lives and the lives of future generations.

I "sit" now. While I have deep admiration for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I also know that most Christians don't live from the values articulated there, or respond to the prophetic, even radical and revolutionary way of life that would mark the real followers of Jesus Christ. The downfall was when those four books became religion blessed by the Roman Emperor Constantine. We all know that most of what is preached as Christian religion avoids just about everything challenging in those four books - like the Beatitudes and woes, the "woe to you rich" stuff, the Good Samaritan, the denunciation of religious authorities, Matthew 25, giving up possessions and giving one's money to the poor as a prerequisite for following him, and most especially why Jesus was executed by Rome under the urgings of those same religious, tribal, authorities.

And then I struggle so much with the centrality of the human in this tradition. I understand that in the small cosmological experience of these tribes of 2,000 years ago that might make sense, but now? when we know humans come only in the middle of the story and will disappear, along with the planet and the solar system, still only in the middle of the story? If humans are the image of God, what happens to God then? Is it possible we made up this version of the divine out of our propensity to human narcissism?

I "sit" now. And once or twice a week, I sit in sangha. I do not embrace Buddhism as religion; but as practice and psychology and spirituality it has a resonance with our current predicament that is spot on, at least it seems so to me, and especially as interpreted and articulated by people like Joanna Macy and Thich Nhat Hanh. And Buddha and Jesus share a common trait for me: neither one of them intended to start a religion. Both of them wanted to open our eyes, or to allow our eyes - and our hearts - to be opened, to point out a path for that opening to occur. And what they hoped we would find when we did that was what they found - a bottomless well of compassion and some strong words for the cultures of oppression, slavery, and injustice, insight into suffering and its causes, paths we humans can take to alleviate suffering.

We humans are causing so much suffering. We live in the delusions Buddha and many interpreters down through the ages have articulated - clinging to what does not last (or, as Jesus might say, storing up in our barns), concocting illusions and then living as if they are real, denying our own mortality, as well as the mortality of all we know, trying to preserve and hold in place what simply cannot be held, which causes more breaking apart, more suffering.

Jesus was pretty clear about where he saw the sources of suffering - in injustice, in hoarding, in trying to achieve worldly power and success as if these things mean anything, in using the cudgel of orthodoxy and hierarchy to try to control people's access to the sacred, whatever name (or no-name) one might give to it.

We see this every day now, how religion is used to justify the horrors of increasingly gross inequities, patriarchy and hierarchy, war and imprisonment, and cultural values of self-enrichment and selfishness.

For a writer, living in such times can be a challenge. As I've written here before, words matter, and most of the words of the culture are noise meant to drown out meaning, to deaden our senses so that we can't be in our actual experience of what is going on, how our planet is changing, how civilization and all it's built on is crumbling, that we are standing at the edge of the precipice... you know, all those worn out metaphors that are unfortunately true.

I love that image of Wily Coyote who, fooled over and over again by Road Runner, runs headlong into a mirage, an illusion, right off the edge of the cliff. Then frozen in midair, he looks down and realizes nothing is holding him up anymore, that below him lies the abyss, and then, bye, bye Wily.

Found this apt: The Wily Coyote Cartoon

This week we have the Westboro Baptist crazy people in the Milwaukee area. They are going church to church raging against gays and lesbians and how our tolerance of them means we will all burn in hell. They sing about that; they sing it with joy, with pleasure written on their faces. They can't wait to see us all burning.

It's quite a narrative, no? It is clear, it is blind, it is passionate, and it smacks of dangerous zealotry.

How do we come up with words and images equally compelling, that can crash through the noise and bring things into stark focus, but which foment insight and compassion instead of hate? Why does hate always seem to be more compelling? Why does concocting some clear enemy, in this case LGBT people, in Nazi Germany, Jews, in many U.S. communities, Muslims, etc., prove so effective in motivating alienated unhappy people? Why has the narrative of the right been so successful at demonizing public sector workers, and especially teachers, and then the poor and those left on the margins of the society?

I'm working on memoir in which I hope to share insights through the story of my parents and ancestors on what has made this culture so uniquely unable to understand the danger in which it has put itself by creating a powerful aura of denial all around our self-proclaimed wonderfulness and superiority. We are no doubt "wily" as can be, one of the wiliest cultures of the past couple of centuries. We are running headlong towards our fantasy not seeing the edge of the cliff, the precipice that awaits us.

My old neighborhood in MD. Photo: ML
It's a difficult story to write. It gives me some hard days. But when it's 115 in Kansas, and places I love in Colorado are burned to a crisp, and places I lived in DC/MD are suffering massive damage because of global warming-induced extreme storms, and the place I live now has just moved officially into a drought designation with Madison seeing the least amount of rain and the highest temps ever recorded in the month of June - I could not live with myself if I didn't keep trying to write it - write it in stories, write it in creative non-fiction, write it in essays, write it in poems, write it in metaphors when the straight telling can't come close to expressing the danger and awe and fear and wonder of all that is happening to us now.

I keep writing - because I don't know what else to do. I write and I sit, and I take in and I listen, and then I write some more.

The lie deeply embedded within the culture must be revealed to us; we must reveal our denial to ourselves. And then good writing and good art ought to open the doors of perception, it ought to take the lid off the well of compassion so that we can drink from it freely and urgently. At its best, it should show us there is a different way to live than this one.


  1. This is an interesting project: deconstructing the culture to discover its narrative. I've thought about that for years. There seem to be several "layers" or interacting "narratives".

    One is primordial: 3.5 billion years of Darwinian Evolution. We have brains / minds shaped by that narrative. Human racism has its roots in chimpanzee tribalism. And of course, much else, much of it positive. Humans are tool making animals (hence - in the long run - technological animals, given the time for technology and, later, science to emerge). There is much fossil evidence as well as comparative human / chimp studies (behavior, anatomy of upper limbs and nervous system) that demonstrate that the tool and humans CO-EVOLVED. Human and tool evolution are linked, co-dependent, "symbiotic". We would not have survived without tools, they would not exist without us. One of our innate gifts, tool-making / technology / science is STRONGLY "emergent" at this point in our story. The hick: we have not learned to master or control SciTech. We have become the Apprentice Sorcerers of the planet. Not learned to use our full mental / spiritual powers: Einstein said, I believe, that we use only 10% of our mental capacities.

    Another layer of cultural or civilizational narrative (or programming) is the rise of what Edgar Morin - the philosopher of Self-Organization - calls "Historical Societies" (I personally prefer the term, "Patriarchy" or "Patriarchal Culture"). This phase marks the rise of centralized, hierarchal, militarized, imperial states about 6000 years ago (I guess). This phase is marked by urbanization, specialization, professionalization, the appearance of slavery and class oppression, the worsening of the status of women, and the rise of "plundernomics" (economic systems based on imperial expansion, rape and plunder of the earth and it's peoples. Industrialization is its latest, most toxic avatar).

    I guess one could describe subtexts for the specificities of different cultures and periods but these are the broadest outlines I see, at present..

  2. What we know about biological evolution as well as the finite and frangible physical world we are blessed to inhabit would lead sensible people to conclude that there is nothing or precious little that can be done to change the human 'trajectory'. So powerful is the force of evolution that we will "do what comes naturally" by continuing to overpopulate the planet and await the next phase of the evolutionary process. Even so, still hope resides within that somehow humankind will make use of its singular intelligence and other unique attributes so as to escape the fate that appears 'as if through a glass darkly' in the offing, the seemingly certain fate evolution appears to have in store for us. Come what may. In the face of all that we can see now and here, I continue to believe and to hope that we find adequate ways of consciously, deliberately and effectively doing the right things, according the lights and knowledge we possess, the things which serve to confront and overcome the 'evolutionary trend' which seems so irresistible."

  3. Steve, I pretty much agree but for one point: "seemingly certain fate evolution appears to have in store for us."

    I don't think there is anything certain about the outcome. That we are in a crisis - yes, that is certain. That it will get worse - most likely, virtually certain. That it will get much, much worse - pretty "certain".. But the outcome is very uncertain. We are at a phase or state transition. Small fluctuations or efforts will produce huge, highly leveraged effects (with massive unpredictable secondary, tertiary, etc effects).

    Our efforts should be directed toward crash landing as survivably as possible so that recuperation - IF it occurs - will be rapid. I would - if I had $ - invest in building Transition Town Initiatives in 3rd word countries. Aim to bypass industrial revolution as much as possible (including cash crops). Aim for as much hands on, participatory democracy, hands on, participatory economic and financial behavior as possible. Try to teach PRACTICAL knowlege / skills as EARLY as possible to as MANY as possible. Teach innovative thinking, teach the SCIENTIFIC METHOD! Teach these as early as possible (with hands on experience especially in alternative technologies and organic agriculture). Why do this in the 3rd world? Part of the answer: Historians observe that when empires collapse, civilization moves outward into border zones, into recently colonized provinces.. Where are the border zones of industrial world? Latin America, Africa, Asia..

  4. One of the reasons to do this in the so-called "3rd World" is that these are the regions which are already experiencing the worst impacts of ecological degradation. The strategy you suggest here amounts to urgent survival mode for these cultures and how you describe it makes me want to nominate you for head of the UNDP. It's about the only path that would work - separate from the industrial growth civilization and build self-sustaining resilience to absorb the crises descending upon us.

    The other reason is that these cultures will cope far better than we will because they are not yet so dependent on technologies that will continue to shield us for a time, despite the lessons we should be learning after the storms in the mid-Atlantic (there are still thousands without power) and the fires in CO.

    I agree that we don't know the outcome, we only know we are going to live through incredibly difficult times. This can flip very fast, not only for the worse. We are learning the hard way, but we are learning.

    The writer/Buddhist part of me insists that we have to do this with creativity and include celebration and art, as I learned from Salvadorans and Nicaraguans in the worst times of their brutal civil wars and US-backed repression. They would still take out beat-up out-of-tune guitars and sing and dance, and Nica poetry was ubiquitous and beautiful. If we don't make the journey inspiring, then we can give it up for sure. Humans need inspiration and we still have more than enough within and without to provide it.