Friday, February 1, 2013

As the old order collapses, what's a writer to do?

Jack Frost left me a note one morning
Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the scale of the changes swirling around us. For a time, a brief few generations, a certain kind of stability enshrouded much of our society here, along with the emergence of the American Dream, this mythical overhang that clouds our view, always with a bit of a mystical edge to it, that our "standard of living" was on the rise - and always will be forever.

The U.S. emerged from World War II with quite a grandiose sense of itself - that we had somehow saved the world, as if the world that was saved was the only one that existed, and we had done that all on our own. Listen to the debates in Washington and you hear those voices of the old world order having a hard time letting this go, this sense that we are the center of the world and that we can always and forever determine the course of history (Romney said that pretty explicitly during his campaign).

Look around the world right now, in former Soviet Republics, in the Middle East and Northern Africa, in Kashmir and along the India/Pakistan border... An "order" patched together by various forms of western imperialist powers, especially from the days of colonialism, is coming apart after one brutal repressive government after another collapses
. Most news stories forget to tell that part about how European and American governments created those brutal repressive regimes and kept them in place for generations. The so-called Arab Spring is really about the collapse of that order. It was no longer viable, no longer necessary. In its wake, we have chaos and violence, and will for some time. That's what happens in the wake of collapse.

I was walking along the Lake Michigan shore the other morning in a thick pre-dawn fog,

the ice floes and ducks like ghosts
floating in the cloud that enveloped us
in one seamless shade of gray,
impenetrable, fathomless

good for a time to have lost
the rest of the world
which I could not see
as if - not there
as if - never made 

Sometimes when I am at the lake looking out in awe, admiration, and gratitude, I allow entry to the awareness that the lake's ecosystem is in a state of permanent collapse, already irreparably harmed. I watch the water recede - a foot or more in recent months, rock islands appearing off shore where they did not exist last summer. This is because of gross human interference; the Army Corps of Engineers dredging out the St. Clair River to ease shipping has inadvertently created a drain growing ever larger as the flow increases and erodes the banks - and my lake is being drained out to sea. The receding is also because of climate change, lack of winter snow cover and prolonged drought, along with suburban development, which has affected groundwater flows to the lake.

Families in collapse. Inner cities in collapse. Wage scales in collapse. Life savings in collapse. Our nation collapsing into violence, millions of us arming ourselves for the next revolution to overthrow tyranny - tyranny apparently having to do with our Harvard educated moderate right-of-center president - who also happens to be African-American.Yea, we know what that's about. It's also about those hordes of brown people coming to our country to work and raise their kids. Last defense of a white frontier culture coming to a community near you - like down the road here in Oak Creek.

A writer is a "culture worker," no? So how does a writer grab hold of a culture that is fragmenting and fracturing, where animosities and fears are on the rise, and guns everywhere. How do we shed light on this in a nation that seems to want to turn out all the lights and hide in dark corners of our own fears and our unwillingness to emerge into the chaos.

We are losing that old sense of ourselves, grounded in the myth - because those identities aren't working anymore. That is terrifying and we surely need someone to blame.

Can a writer help settle things down by walking right into the chaos and describing what the world looks like from here? Is it possible to create a compelling enough picture of the chaos, the kind of description or explanation or lens that helps us see what's going on as something other than threat - merely the end of one era collapsing of its own weight (rationalism, enlightenment, positivism, reductionism, post-modernism, materialism, consumerism, deconstructionism - add your own to the list)?

We can't "fix" this world. It is not rational in that way. That's why when you take a dictator down, thinking things will get better, they tend to get worse (Iraq being the ultimate example - what in the world was all that violence about; what did it accomplish?!). What's happening now will not fit into any one of the categories of our western logical approach to life, or the myth of the American Dream. We can't put the climate or Lake Michigan's old ecosystem back together again. We can't control what is happening in the collapse of the old colonial order overseas. And if we don't stop allowing the free flow of weapons into the hands of the fearful and unstable, we will not be able to control this epidemic of violence in our own nation either.

What does a culture worker do? Maybe these things:
shed light, name what's happening truthfully, image it in art, use our talents to help break down the rational mind so that we can see reality again (with visuals and metaphors), create camaraderie to help lessen the fear, support one another to ease the anxiety that comes from feelings of isolation (better than arming ourselves).
For example, earlier today on Facebook someone posted this video of a ceremony held in South Dakota on January 25 at which leaders from several sovereign indigenous nations signed the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects. In my work, I have talked about the tar sands, showed photos, encouraged advocacy to oppose this destruction, but one phrase from a speaker narrating the event said more than all those workshops and presentations in describing what is going on in Alberta: the tar sands oil industry is "a cancerous cyst on the land."

Right. That's it. That is exactly it. We see everything we need to see about the industry in that phrase.

Now I search for the phrase, the image, the metaphor to describe what it means to me to stand on the shores of Lake Michigan, to look out on this magnificent body of fresh water gifted to us by the Ice Age, and know all that is ended, all that is destroyed - forever.

And then I search for the words, the images, the phrases that can describe the radical nature of the life changes required of us so that this lake might regenerate, re-create life, a new one because the old one is over - if we can just get out of its way and allow that regeneration to occur.

Which often feels like the only chance we have to survive on this planet.

To do that, we have to break the hold of a centuries-long belief system that clings still to this notion that we are, ever were, ever will be, able to manipulate the energy of this dynamic planet, its cultures, peoples, ecosystems, to finally submit to the grandiosity and ego of the human.

Break down the logical mind, shatter it. Free us to become creative again. Restore our sense of place within the chaos and ferment of creation. Even just tell a good story, or write the verse that stops the mind altogether for a time to let some other way of knowing emerge. Maybe then the mind can learn how to cooperate with the nature of which it is a part (not separate, never separate), to be a tool, not a master, an aide in the regeneration of life rather than a force to snuff it out or ruin it forever.

This is why we need artists and writers. Good cause. Good vocation.

by Margaret Swedish
The photos, too

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