Death, and the Community of Life

“Each individual life-form has its own historical appearance, a moment when it must assert its identity, fulfill its role, and then give way to other individuals in the ever-renewing processes of the phenomenol world..

“In our Western tradition, this passing of our own being is experienced as something to be avoided absolutely. Because we are so sensitive to any personal affliction, because we avoid any threats to our personal existence, we dedicate ourselves to individual survival above all else. In the process of extending our own lives, we imperil the community of life systems on the planet. This leads eventually to failure in fulfilling our own proper role within the larger purposes of the universe.” (Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts, Sierra Club Books, 2006, p.35)

Berry speaks as a one-time priest who went on to become an environmental thinker and philosopher. He died this past June at the age of 94. He spoke and wrote of Creation not in divine terms, but in holy terms. To his thinking, the processes of the Universe and of the Earth were sacred- to be in awe of, and to respect and protect. We do not stand ‘over’ those processes: we are not in charge of them any more than we were responsible for setting them into motion. Yet we (and I’m speaking here of humans) insert ourselves into those processes again and again in an effort to..make them better?..patent them? ..demonstrate to God how it should be done?

We dam rivers because we decide where to build cities. We drive cars because we’ve to get ‘there’ more quickly, we splice the genes of grain to yield more nutrition grown per acre, we build 4000 sq.ft. houses because the neighbors have a 3500 sq.ft. home, we fill lakes with antibiotics to kill off the algae, viri, and other biotics we’ve caused, for other former reasons, to grow there, and we do whatever it takes to live as long as possible. Or, in some cases, exist as long as possible. And then, in these and all things, we ask the God of our choosing and the government of our location to bless us: “Take care of us iun the manner to which we’ve made ourselves accustomed!”

By 2011, there will be seven (7) billion people on Earth. I once heard a conservative radio commentator point out that the entire population of the earth could stand in state of Oregon, and that each person would have something like 100 sq.ft. on which to live. He was pointing this out in order to pooh-pooh the arguments of what he called ‘over-population alarmists.’ What he said about living space is, indeed, true. But what he didn’t say is also true: he didn’t address the need and locale of arable land, potable water, storage and transportation of food and water, septic tanks, and the ease with which every virus, germ, and flea-laden brown rat could wreak havoc! Building supplies, climate control, and fuel are easy to ignore during the moments one is broadcasting vitriol-disguised-as-humor to a radio audience. But, in the eastern desert of Oregon, occasional shade will be necessary. Someone- picky, picky, picky- might need new shoes. And certainly there will be a need for shovels- lots them!

But, our broadcaster has helped a significant number of people again turn a blind eye- at least for a little while- to the inevitable problem of too many people! It is part of the blindness, or perhaps a result of the blindness, with which we have almost all turned toward Sister Death. We don’t like Death, so we postpone it as long as possible. We spend as much money in the last weeks of our lives on medicines and medical procedures as we have previously spent in the first 70, 80, 90 years!

We are choosing and able to live longer and longer lives. Which is nice on one hand for many of us; but for many others of us, the too-old age diseases of cancer and Alzheimer’s are like those hooks reaching out from behind the curtains to drag us reluctantly off the stage we thought was ours forever.
We are afraid of dying and we are institutionally committed to squeezing as much time from eternity for ourselves as possible. Quantity trumps quality for many at the end stages of life. We call the fights against cancer, for instance, courageous- and some of them are, absolutely! But there are also fights being fought against various diseases in which the winner (if we must use such a word) is easily predictable. And the battles in those cases are not born of courage so much as they are of being afraid of what is inevitable.

In the meantime, the sheer numbers of human beings increases. The fact that fewer and fewer of them are dying on the evolutionary and/or God-imaged timetables that thousands of generations before us have died on, causes that human population to be even larger than it would be through improved birthing methods and better nutrition. We are, by our numbers and our need for calories, crowding out others who are also in desperate need of the Earth’s surface!

But, (I ask, in Mr. Berry’s words) are we compelled to regard the “passing of our own being .. as something to be avoided absolutely” ? Must we continue to stiff arm our Sister when she insists on a conversation, then fighting her for the seat beside us she will, absolutely will, soon be sitting in? Or should we talk about it, with each other at first, with genuine thinkers within our various faith traditions, and with the thinkers in other faith traditions? I think we should, because we must. I don’t want to be pushed out of the way by the younger world surging behind me. I have earned no special situational graces by virtue of having lived longer than 90% of all humans who have ever lived. I want to be accommodating and gracious myself. I want, when my time is come, to not fight selfishly, but to take the final steps expectantly and hopefully, for those many generations of all other life systems I am preceding.

It’s Texas. It’s July. It’s Hot…(not the good kind of hot, either!)

(from the 2006 FirstMorning newsletter)

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106°

It’s July in Texas. The heat is like a horsehair blanket laid across the land- it has its own disabling and dense weight; it slows us down to a ragged crawl as we make our way through it, when we must. It even itches like a blanket; the heat penetrates our skin, our eyes, our hair. We feel like we are in the first stages of the ancient Chinese torture “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” We are slowly cooking, like slices of beef turning into jerky, drying up from the outside, inward.

The grass turns crisp- the color of fried pork rinds. The leaves of trees and even weeds, droop in derisive mockery of our own sagging shoulders and squinting, downcast eyes. It’s too hot under this immovable blanket even to breathe without the heat clawing its way down our throats and into our chests. The only sounds against the stillness outside are the cicadas, high in the treetops, hotly buzzing their reproductive siren songs. Even they, though, despite their newly uncurled wings and their few days of freedom to fly before dying, stay strangely still on their tiny branch landscapes, unwilling to move any more than they must to to effect their own perpetuating instincts.

Each year at this time, I ask myself why, how..why for God’s sake, how in God’s name.. did people dismount from their horses, their wagons, their stage coaches or railroad cars and, setting down their bags, say to themselves, “Let’s live here”? Perhaps when the artificially cooled air of air conditioning was not a possible-to-consider option; perhaps because the horses themselves were too exhausted to take a single step more; perhaps because they had heard about and believed the stories of deep, undisturbed topsoil covered by springtime’s flowers; perhaps those were among the reasons they stopped here to plant and establish homes.

Perhaps.

Or maybe they were just absolutely, flat-out nuts.

clip_image004I must admit there is- despite the obliterating, withering, relentless nature of Texas in July- there is a certain shared community charm to this place which metamorphosizes from a Garden of Eden every April into a summer hell. The heat holds all of us in its grip; it respects nothing about our bank accounts, skin color, age, status, politics, or our need to breathe. The climate has a universal, non-discriminatory grasp on us. None of us is able to stand up oak-like to it; we are all pansies against its onslaught.

The heat slows us down. To walk fast through this heat is to increase the abrasive friction of hot oxygen against flesh. Walking slowly allows a perfect balance to be achieved between the production of sweat and the evaporation of same, thus allowing one to stay alive. Moving slowly also makes it possible to perceive, so slightly, the tiny breezes that waft our way, however intermittently, however weakly. Summertime, and the living is all in sloooooow motion. Lest we die.

I remember when I lived in Ohio. Every summer, some local Youngstown reporter would, on one of the many slow summer news days, crack an egg on the sidewalk so we could watch it fry in the day’s “bristling” 85° heat. It never did. Here in Texas, in July, I could fry that same egg on my head. I made the mistake of leaning against a metal flagpole yesterday and branded myself.

I know some preachers would use this description of the heat to crank the discussion up a notch or two and begin warning about the fiery bowels of eternal hell. Let them. It’s too hot to think about hell right now. There is already something worse than July in Texas to think about, anyway:

August.

Battles

I dreamt, after wakening, that there really are prophets who can hear the One Sound- the music of Creation as it battles Death.

It is the Sound of the Ocean and of Blood, the rhythm of the Moon and the response of our Pulse in a saltwater symphony. It is the voice, not of the god of our imagined fears, but of the triumphal entry of All That Is into the squalor of Jerusalem.

It is the music that proclaims, “it is finished,” even as crabs scurry across the sand and even as ocean waves spread New Life in metered rhythms of New Beginnings.

There are prophets who hear that terrible Harmony even as they are crushed by its Beauty.They laugh and they cry at once for the horror behind them and the hope in which they are wetly standing.

And they must tell others- those few others who can hear the music wherever they, too, are wetly standing. So that they know their feet are not wet in vain, and so they know their always breaking hearts are vital to the continuing Music.

We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For..*

*From Alice Walker’s blog, on the occasion of the events of November 4, 2008

We not only are the ones we have
been waiting for, we’re all we’ve got. Pray all day and all night for the next month, send your miracle-seed donations to whatever shyster television evangelist you choose, or otherwise passively wait for something supernatural from the sky to occur to solve your financial problems. Write angry letters to the editor of your shrinking daily newspaper, call the offices of your congressional representative weekly, go on strike, organize a boycott, find somebody to sue, or sit around the cafe and make jokes about people who for whatever reason- color, age, gender, sexual preference, nationality- are not as good as you and bring their financial problems on themselves and it’s just not fair because now they’re going to be helped and you’re not and God knows you’ve worked hard and you really are a victim: of bankers, Jews, Socialists, Obama, William Ayers, that guy who kills turkeys in Alaska, the CEO of GM, Affirmative Action, and/or global warming, Big Oil, gay guys who want to get married, gay women who believe in evolution, et.al., et.al., etc., and so forth . Do those things; hand the responsibility for your individual fix and our collective predicament over to some thing or some one outside yourself and begin the long slow descent into madness then death, while watching TV and waiting waiting waiting for what once was to be again..

Or..

We can start new philosophical, spiritual, and even legal balls rolling that will culminate one day in a very different set of economic attitudes. And those new attitudes are not an option; they are a necessity. An economic system based on perpetual growth is a Ponzi Scheme Supreme. It will fall, as all top-heavy things do. (read Genesis 11, about the Tower of Babel..it’s an old, old too oft-ignored story.) The American economic system of 2006 was bound to fail!! The fact that it is so amazingly easy to see that now is exactly the reason we can’t be tempted to return to it.

We need new thinking. It probably won’t be fun as we have been prone for too many myopic years to define fun: i.e., “Hey kids, let’s go the mall!” or, “Wow! Look how much our house is worth! We can retire early!” or “Just put it on the credit card.”

Nor will the new thinking we must undertake be able to have the old assumptions of unlimited natural resources, unlimited and willing labor, and an always expandable world market to be constructed upon. In fact, if we hear ideas based on those presumptions, we can know- even without being an economist- that they are wrong.

Here are some things I think MUST be thought about, reconsidered, redacted, discussed, argued about, and then allowed to evolve. These are just a few things and I’ll write more about each and add to the list as well. I hope you’ll talk about things like these in your circles of influence, too- in honest and open ways and in full knowledge that this is a New Creation we are part of..which is both scary AND exciting, isn’t it?

1. We must focus locally and in smaller ways, in every way we can. Interestingly, building “up” is a way to do both (think Manhattan). Walking more, sharing tasks, making do with 1 car instead of 2 or 2 instead of 3 won’t be options one day. The ‘New Marketplace’ will be the hub of the New Community, and for the sake of local employment we should not listen to any proposals by Walmart or any other large corporation to run those Marketplaces!

2. Speaking of Corporations, let’s not, as much as possible. Theirs is a legal status which must be redefined as we move this country from Corporate Socialism with their attendant strangleholds to something far more humane- something really strange and wonderful and new: small businesses, in real competition. (wow, what a concept!)

3. Everything I say about Corporations I say about Big Unions, too. It’s time to rethink everything no matter what color your collar is. Blue collars don’t automatically make you into a working class saint, and white ones don’t mean you’re a bourgeois sonofabitch.

Bottom line: Big has proven to be a hazardous concept, generally speaking. Small must b demonstrated to be the cool new kid on the block that everyone wants to be friends with, because small can give life. Big sucks life away. As someone’s grandpa used to say, “Put that it in your pipe and smoke it.” Really.

4. Here’s something else we should be allowed, if we choose to, to put in our pipes and smoke: hemp. Marijuana. There is a huge industry waiting to be begun in the growing, processing, transportation, selling, and taxing of hemp. Marijuana. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that exists already but doesn’t raise a single taxable nickel while most of the proceeds flow south. Legalizing hemp (marijuana) would ease our prison costs, allow huge fiber industries to begin (Rule: If you’re going to buy hemp fiber, you’re going to process it in the USofA, ok? Good. We understand each other.)

Are you shocked? At a preacher saying this- at any good American saying such a thing? Well, get over it. I’d much rather have my kids (or your kids) passing a pipe around a circle of munchie-hungry friends, than slamming down Dos Equus and Grey Goose in a bar 10 miles from home, while some guy in the corner over there is getting alcohol-angry and is about to rage on the girl who is about to vomit on the kid who is dying alone and silently under the table of alcohol poisoning.

And anyway, it’s the prison building corporations and the alcohol distribution corporations who really don’t want the hemp industry to take off in the U.S. That speaks volumes, doesn’t it? (Ok, now..pass the Cheetohs, wouldja, and the chips and the bean dip, and where’s that cake? [Just Kidddiiinnnggg!!!])

5. Barter, trading. I’ll mow your yard this year for you if you’ll allow us to pick from your apple and pecan trees. I’ll paint your house in return for piano lessons for my kid. I’ll keep your pickup running if you’ll help replace my furnace. I’ll trade you my TV for your extra lawnmower. I’ll give you 2 pickups of wood for a calf. I’ll trade my extra room to you for janitorial work at the store.

You see what I’m saying. I know you do. It’s how people all over the world lived for tens of thousands of years but it’s a way of life most Westerners have put behind them. It became easier to hand people money rather than friendship or time. Behind the security fences there are people who need you. And you need them. Don’t wait until you or they are hungry to make introductions. (Ask the elders among us- the veterans of the Depression- if that last statement makes any sense; they will assure you it does.)

6. Death. No, I don’t want to talk about it. The trouble is, nobody wants to talk about it, so we continue to treat it as if it’s something that can be denied, put off, or foiled. We make absolute fools of ourselves with the massive amounts of money we spend to gain a few years of uncomfortable life at the end of our life. This is a huge subject that is very much a part of any discussion of a new economy, a New Community. And I’ll have more to say.

OK, that’s a start. Discuss amongst yourselves. Just don’t spend a moment humming “The Way We Were” or wishing you could have a conversation with your stockbroker like you used to have in the late 90’s. Those days really are gone. Kaput. Fini. The saviors we were hoping for never arrived. We really are all we’ve got; we really are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Cool, yes?

(and yes, there are a myriad of other subjects in the new economy- all things green, for instance, cottage industries, family and community gardens, and on and on. But w’ve all got to start somewhere. These are the places I chose to begin.)

Was Blind, But Now I See..Part I

Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see. (Blindness, Jose Saramago, pg. 326)

Luke 4:16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

I once was lost, but now am found..was blind, but now I see.. (“Amazing Grace,” John Newton)

I’m not anticipating with any glee whatsoever, what I am about to begin writing. Most of what I write (or think, or preach, or eat, or do) is motivated by Want– I want to write about nature; I want to eat mashed potatoes with hamburger gravy; I want to go to South Padre Island next week. And I will do, because I want to, all of those things.

But, kind of like the occasional serving of greens peas that I eat at a dinner party so I do not appear to be rude, there also those things which I, or any of us, must do. These personal essays about being blind are, therefore, motivated by Must, rather than Want.

(There are few things I find more repulsive to eat than green peas. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know why. You’ve got an illogical, indefinable revulsion about some food, too- I know you do. So I know you know something of the feeling I’m talking about. I put the peas in my mouth, try to keep my tongue from touching them, dare not chew [!], then swallow quickly, and hope I don’t obviously gag.)

After reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness several weeks ago, enough of a new vocabulary permeated the boundaries of my thinking, that previously unformed groups of thoughts, ideas, and even dreads began to coalesce into what has become, for me, a new coherence. Vague feelings of confusion and concern which have a way, when they are inexpressible, of descending (personally, anyway) into anger or depression, seem to be backlit now; I have been able to begin to think about them in new ways, shadowy as they might still be.

I was emerging, with a language, from a very real blindness which had been caused in large measure, by an inadequacy of words with which to communicate, to myself or anyone else. But it was not a good feeling: it was flat-out alarming! I had gotten used to living with a mild, unfocussed alarm over “what it is I do not know specifically.” But vague shapes and washed-out colors have now begun to gel and brighten; I can see them well enough to feel the need (I apologize ahead of time) to shout them.

This entry serves as a warning then: future entries will begin with this same title but be followed by a specific word. You will see words like Life, Death, Religion, Time, Science, Technology, Politics, and Evil following “Was blind, but now I see..” My point in telling you this is that you may not want to see, or you may be highly interested in the particular word of the day, but not want to read about what I am seeing. So be it. Skip that day’s essay, or all of them. My personal therapy is to write, and plant seeds of curiosity and thought in doing so. Some of those seeds will blow away, some will be eaten by birds, some will be washed downstream, but some might take root and grow.

And I think some of them, all of them eventually, must. And soon. We have lived under a veil- luckily, some of us- for so very long that it feels comfortable in the darkness. The air might be stuffy, we may rarely be able to discern real Light, but having gotten used to such things, we don’t even notice we are breathing harder and struggling to see with less and less success.

I think we’ve been blind; I know I have been blind, much of my life, to much of what I have only begun to see, to look at critically, and then to observe contemplatively. While we’ve been blind, others have been dying and suffering en masse because of the majority’s inability to see.

I know I’m not alone in my “shouting.” I am simply one more in a long long line of known and unknown men and women throughout the ages who could not stop seeing, once they had begun. I also hope there are many millions more that will transcend my voice and vision with greater eloquence, insight, and urgency.

Tomorrow’s word: Hope

For the Beauty of the Earth..

These are pictures of my “Lake Office.” That “office” consists of two concrete picnic tables erected sometime in the 70’s beside a local lake. It is a place I have spent much much time visiting with others, reading, and writing Sunday messages.

But I hadn’t been there in a couple of weeks and when I went there today, I found the place had been trashed. It had become a littered monument to Sonic Drive-In, Subway, Budweiser, and Marlboro Lights in the box. Mr. Trojan had also left a few calling cards.

So I picked up. Normally I do that each time I’m there, and day by day it’s not a difficult task. But today I filled a small dumpster. There are about 118,000 cigarette butts remaining to be raked up but that’s for tomorrow.

Before I began:

lakedirtyb lakedirtya

Litter is the ugliest but- in reality- least harmful of the many things we humans have thought to do with the surface of the planet. Deforesting it, paving over it, pouring on it everything from chemical manufacturing wastes to Arkansas chicken poop, burying under it whatever can be buried including nuclear waste and formaldehyde- filled bodies enclosed in oaken coffins which are themselves enclosed in sealed concrete vaults, piling on it newspapers, Styrofoam, and other plastic which will still be recognizable for the convenient crap it once was for the next 30,000 to one million years, and digging into it constantly so I can drive my car a quarter mile to the grocery store or burn fossilized carbons to keep my TV on- those are planetary superficialities with deep, deep ramifications. Litter of the Sonic and Subway kind is just aesthetically injurious.

But it makes me crazy.

Richard Bode, in Beachcombing at Miramar, writes this: “I am infuriated by these empty cans, disillusioned by the abuse, the flagrant insensitivity to the beauty of the land. And yet, despite the evidence all about me, I can’t let go of my conviction that the quest for beauty is as inherent in the individuals who litter..as it is in me, as it is in every woman, every man.

“Why do they do it? Why do they carry their beer cans to this lovely isolated beach when they could just as easily sit on a city curb or beside a garbage dump? I believe it is because they have no choice. They are drawn to the beauty of this place; this is where they have to be.

“But when their party is over, it’s as if some imp of the perverse takes over- as if they have to prove to others..that they are immune to the force of nature that lured them here. To behave otherwise would be a tacit admission that they feel a connection to the land, an attachment to the sea and sand, a bond with what they perceive as sacred in the world.”

I think (I have NO data to back this thought up, by the way), but I think that men are the primary perps of most litter. It is feminine to like pretty things, yes? It shows sensitivity to want things to look nice, correct? Thus (follow me here), intentional mess-making becomes one more way for a man to assert his hyper- heterosexuality (he hopes!).

To extend what may be proving to be an impossibly complex metaphor, isn’t littering akin to a dog claiming territory by peeing on every vertical object he passes? Isn’t that grand sweep of Sonic litter from the picnic table onto the floor of my office a goofy form of arm wrestling at the bar, wherein the guy with the biggest biceps has first dibs on the new waitress?

OK, I’ll stop. Call me gay, but here’s what the place looked like about an hour after I arrived:

lakecleanb lakecleana

Can We Survive this Century?

Well, I know I won’t. I’m 58, it’s 2008, you do the math. But this is a larger, vital, and very (very!) important question which concerns us humans, and untold other species of plants and animals that have arisen through time from the starstuff of earth:

Can we survive this century? Will the year 2100 be noted, observed, or recorded by anyone?

The question will be the subject of an ABC special this coming September- Earth 2100. Scientists from various disciplines will gather together to discuss what might happen, and when, if current population growth and resource consumption continues unabated.

Last summer, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman was published. Weisman interviewed biologists, engineers, geologists, and meteorologists about changes that would occur if, for whatever reason, humans were no longer part of the planetary equation. The result is both fascinating and disturbing- if you’re a human, of course. For most other species*, the possibility of our sudden absence would (if any of them noticed) be the greatest day in the last 1.7 million years!

The deterioration of buildings and infrastructure would begin within days. A Scientific American video- The Earth Without Us, based on Weisman’s book- is an interesting introduction to the phenomena of urbanscapes turning into landscapes. Intriguingly, one of the last recognizable humanly concocted “structures” to exist would be Mount Rushmore.** Four million years from now, barring any direct asteroid hits, George, Abe, Tom, and Teddy will still be staring out through granite eyes, into the Black Hills surrounding them. (Where there once lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon, somewhere there.)

The immediate disappearance of all humans is almost impossible, outside of a cataclysmic planetary event, like a massive asteroid, or a physics experiment gone terribly wrong. But there are numerous possibilities for the gradual but total absence of humans. Chief among them would be a virus, or a new strain of bacteria. Other possibilities- very real ones- would be nuclear fallout after a large scale war, meteorological changes, a series of smaller asteroid hits, or a depletion of resources a la Easter Island, on a global scale. And if anyone thinks that humans are not stupid enough to let the latter happen, keep driving your SUV, or allowing agri-businesses to patent the world’s food supplies, or burning anything we can put a match to.

What will be lost, if humans are? The ability to record what is happening in the world and the universe, great art (paintings will turn to mold), and the inability to warn other species that may evolve into beings that “need” styrofoam about our short-sighted and continuous mistakes.

What would be gained? Consider the lilies of the field, and the birds of the air..

*Animals that are dependent on humans, of course, would not find such an event very fortunate.Most pets would soon die of starvation, as would all zoo animals which were unable to escape. Cattle, most breeds of which have had all speed and most wildness bred out of them, would be the victims of canines- wolves, coyotes, dingoes, and dogs- which would flourish, and some felines, which would make a gradual comeback as well. Pigs, if they could escape their confines, do fairly well, fairly quickly in the wild. Interestingly, roaches living outside of their native tropical environs, would disappear after a year or two of no heated buildings. Mice and rats in former urban areas would also disappear as food supplies dwindled and as raptors- hawks, eagles, and others- began making high rise buildings into dream aviaries.

**Also interestingly, the last artificially lighted city on earth, because of the nearness and automated systems of Hoover Dam’s electrical production, would be..ta-da!..Las Vegas!

The Earth Without Us