Anti-vaxxers, mask-slackers, and maybe pessimism is good for you.

Dr. Serizawa in Gojira, 1954

When I was a kid, scientists were a big deal, almost as important in the movies I watched as cowboys. At the Saturday matinees, we learned that when you’re under attack by Godzilla, or the Blob, or space aliens, things always go better when you listen to the people in lab coats. In the world outside, hydrogen bomb drills and the fear of losing “the space race” to Russia, added to the mystique of scientists.

So why is it now, when the world is under far greater threat than it was during the Cold War, that so many people don’t just ignore, but actively denigrate the advice of scientists, and especially medical scientists? It’s not just in America.  Recently, a large crowd marched in Berlin, packed close together and without masks, to protest covid-19 restrictions.

In a twisted way, it was comforting to learn that America isn’t the only land of idiots. It also makes the issue more complex, for the German protestors are clearly not members of the Cult of Trump. One clue is afforded by historical precedents – fear and denial are nothing new in the face of pandemics! Continue reading

2020 Notes: A Truth Teller

If you go online anywhere these days, you see advice on how to reduce stress. Mostly the suggestions are ones I’m familiar with and already try to practice: diet, exercise, sleep, meditation, contact with others by whatever means are possible, and so on.

A few weeks ago I saw a suggestion that keeping a journal reduces stress. I first started a journal when I was a teen and have done so on and off ever since, but it’s no easy task when all of our structures appear so fluid and ephemeral that nothng seems constant from one day to the next. “All the children are insane,” sang Jim Morrison when I was in high school. Nowadays truly insane adult children run the country.

We are inundated with learned essays by people trying to make sense of it all, but even the best analyses are also fluid and ephemeral. Their relevance barely lasts a day.

I often think that if we want truth, we’re better off looking to poets. Think of The Second Coming, which has only increased in relevance in the hundred years since Yeats wrote it.

This morning, Mary showed me, Of the Empire, a 2008 poem by Mary Oliver which also seems more true today than it did a dozen years ago when it was published.

Of the Empire
by Mary Oliver

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Finding a truth teller these days is infinitely precious.

44 Years Ago Today…

Our wedding cake, June 19, 1976, Bandolier National Monument, New Mexico

In 1976, Mary and I were living in Santa Fe. We’d spent the spring planning a wedding for June. It would be small since family and friends lived on the coasts.

We’d arranged for a service on Saturday, June 19, in town, and after that, everyone would carpool to Bandolier National Monument for the reception. We’d then have the afternoon to explore the Anasazi ruins, and spend the night in the old stone lodge that dated from the ’20’s. This would be last year the lodge was open to visitors.

There were lots of glitches, as might be expected, but the most serious one happened the day before the wedding. I was working at a printshop that was failing for various reasons, and bouncing employee paychecks at irregular intervals. My coworkers urged me to go to the owner’s bank across the street to cash my check.

Heart thumping, I prayed that the cashier wouldn’t check the account, but unfortunately, she pulled down the ledger to look it up. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This account is $1,000 overdrawn so I can’t cash your check.”

“Please,” I said. “We’re getting married tomorrow. I’ll need to pay the caterers, and our guests are arriving tonight. If the account’s down a thousand bucks, what’s another two hundred going to matter?”

She thought about it for a moment, then smiled and said, “Have a beautiful wedding day,” as she counted out the cash.

Mary and me at the Bandolier lodge, June 20, 1976

We went back to work the following Monday, and immediately set about saving a month’s worth of living expenses. And then two months. Then we started to talk about moving back to California. Neither of us wanted to leave New Mexico, but in retrospect, it was clearly the right decision.

At times like this, the memories are precious and hardly seem dimmed by the passage of time.

*****

“How young we were!” – Edward Weston.

“Some folks trust to reason / others trust to might.
I don’t trust to nothin’ / but I know it come out right.” – The Grateful Dead

Remembering My Mother

My mother and father, New Years Eve in Chicago, probably 12/31/1946

Forty-five years ago, at the start of the week before Mother’s day, my mother, June Patricia Mussell, spent a happy morning starting a new watercolor in the orchard in Saratoga where West Valley College now stands. She returned home around noon, happy with the start of her new painting.

According to my father, they had a nice dinner that evening, and fell into reminiscing about the life they had shared together. That night, just after 11:00, she collapsed on the bathroom floor. At age 52, she had suffered a massive stroke. A few days later, on May 7, two or three days before Mother’s Day, with no chance that she would regain consciousness, my father requested she be taken off life support, and she was gone. I was in Phoenix and flew home the next day.

Here are a few things that have recently come to mind about my mother these 45 years since the day of her passing. She had a lifelong love of art, nature, and literature. Hers was an imaginative nature, one that could turn even seeming mundane events into adventures. She had a spiritual  hunger too – both my parents did, but hers, I think was compelling, a driving force in her life. After I left home, we’d scoop each other on books worth reading. When I discovered  Lord of the Rings, I sent her a paperback set, and she fell in love with Tolkien too.

Not all of her attributes were beneficial, either to her or those around her. She was a lifelong worrier, resulting more than anything else, I believe, from the death of her father as the result of a freak accident, when she was only seven. She spent most of her life with an eye toward where the next blow was going to fall. That was a trait that I picked up, and still have to work to resist.

Like everyone else, at times, I had stormy relations with both of my parents. They’re gone now, and I’ve come to see them simply as fine people with flaws, like everyone else, who did the very best they knew how for my sister and me. In some cases, they didn’t even recognize the power of the gifts they gave. Here is one example that is worth telling in detail: Continue reading

2020 Notes 5: What We Truly Need

I read pretty much constantly, but over the last several years, my reading has mostly been non-fiction. Our current circumstance made me long for an absorbing novel, so I started Spider Woman’s Daughter (2013), the first of the Navajo mysteries Anne Hillerman wrote after the passing of her father, Tony Hillerman, (1925-2008). Over the years, I’ve savored Tony’s 18 novels centering on Navajo Tribal police officers, Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito. A review I posted in 2011 serves as a summary of the pleasure I’ve taken in his stories. Now, I can happily say his talented daughter’s work is equally satisfying.

Even as I was savoring the story and vivid descriptions of places I love in the Four Corners, I was saddened to hear how devastated the Navajo nation has been by Covid-19, lagging only New York and New Jersey in per-capita infection rate. The 27,000 square mile reservation, stretching across parts of three states, has only 12 healthcare facilities, problems of  chronic health issues, and a shortage of medical staff. And as Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Nation, said:

“You’re telling people, ‘Wash your hands for 20 seconds multiple times a day,’ and they don’t have running water. Or you’re saying, ‘Go buy groceries for two or three weeks and shelter in place and don’t come out,’ but people can’t afford groceries for two or three weeks.”

Navajo Stone House, Public Domain.

In addition, Federal Assistance has been delayed due to red tape. All these difficulties make the following story, unfolding today, so gratifying to hear.

In 1847, shortly after 60,000 Native Americans had endured the Trail of Tears, on which thousands died, members of the Choctaw nation, relocated to Oklahoma, heard of starvation in Ireland due to the potato famine. Though poor themselves, they managed to raise $170 – about $5000 today – which they sent to help the Irish.

Since word of the Navajo and Hopi Indian’s plight got out on Twitter, the Irish have made significant contributions to a GoFundMe account that has so far raised $1.8 million to help purchase food, bottled water, and other supplies for the Navajo and Hopi people. ( stories in the New York Times and IrishCentral News ).

Vanessa Tulles, who helped set up the GoFundMe account, said:

“In moments like these, we are so grateful for the love and support we have received from all around the world.

“Acts of kindness from indigenous ancestors passed being reciprocated nearly 200 years later through blood memory and interconnectedness. Thank you, IRELAND, for showing solidarity and being here for us.”

Most of us can recognize and appreciate the compassion and generosity of spirit that make such kindness and spirit of kinship possible.

It may well be the most important factor in determining who will survive and thrive on the far side of this crisis, and who will not.

2020 Notes 5 – Freedom and Fear, the General and the Zen Master

Zen master Hakuin, 1686-1769, self-portrait

Over the last week, most of us have seen pictures of protests against the coronavirus shutdowns. A lot of the protestors carried signs saying their “Freedom” was threatened by shelter-in-place orders. Some of the viral images of rage are more than a little disturbing.

Another image, from Illinois shows a woman wearing an American flag face mask, holding a sign that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” German for “Work Makes You Free,” the words inscribed at the entrance to Auschwitz. These pictures bring a lot of things to mind – for me, three things in particular;

(1) The nation has experienced this before. I urge everyone to read this brief summary on History.com of the “Spanish Flu,” which actually first appeared in Kansas in 1918, and over the next two years, killed more Americans than all the wars of the 20th century. Among other things, we learn that:

  • “Mask slacker” was the name given to those who refused to wear face masks in public. In San Francisco, they could be fined $5 or jailed.
  • Philadelphia refused the urgings of doctors to cancel a parade to promote the sale of War Bonds in October, 1918. Two-hundred thousand attended. Eleven thousand died that month. “Drivers of open carts kept a near-constant vigil circling streets while hollering, ‘Bring out your dead.'”
  • The article ends with this summary of the effects of the flu on the nation: “The combination of the flu and the war made Americans afraid of what was out there in the wider world, so there was a growing notion of becoming an isolationist country and keeping out foreign elements…It combines for a period of great fear—fear of communism, bolshevism and socialism. There’s a tremendous growth of the Ku Klux Klan because people were afraid of what was foreign. The whole nativist impulse was fed by people’s fear.” 

(2) It’s a psychological truism that anger is a “secondary emotion” – there is something underneath it, such as grief or fear. Grief and fear is a natural reaction to something invisible that has killed more Americans in two months than we lost in 20 years of war in Vietnam. I’m told that if a person were 500′ tall, the virus wold be the size of a tennis ball. Right now we cannot do much more than try to hide from the virus. For many, it’s easier to displace that fear and rage onto a visible target, like a governor, if they believe their “Freedom” is at stake.

(3) What kind of freedom are we talking about? Especially in light of the images we’ve seen in the news this week, I think of “freedom” in the Buddhist sense of “freedom from afflictive emotions.” That brings to mind a classic Zen story:

“During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.

“You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

“You can’t always get what you want,” as the Stones told us more than 50 years ago, but if we try sometimes, we don’t have to lose our peace every time the world refuses to meet our demands.

2020 Notes 4 – Silence

It’s strange to walk in the local park when it’s so empty – just a few other dog walkers who wave from a distance, or runners, or families with kids on bicycles. The silence has an appeal all its own. It’s not really silence, of course. It is bird songs and the sound of a breeze stirring the leaves rather than calls of “Hey batter, batter,” from the softball fields.

For those of blessed to be safe and healthy right now, and with the time and inclination to pause and reflect, the space and silence we have is a gift and a profound opportunity. To reflect deeply at this time of pandemic driven isolation can be a way to reconnect with ourselves, which is, in many ways, a deeply subversive act in a manic culture so bent on distracting us that lately videos with loud and annoying soundtracks are even starting to show up on gas pumps.

In a 1985 essay that I recommend to everyone, Report From El Dorado, journalist Michael Ventura wrote, “To go from a job you don’t like to watching a screen on which others live more intensely than you…is American life, by and large.” In the same essay, Ventura noted that the average American family watched six to eight hours of television a day. He concludes that the “fundamental message of television is: ‘It’s all right,’ and “The culture…is in the infantile position of needing to be assured, every day, all day, that this way of life is good for you.”

Ventura’s essay was written during the “good times,” the Reagan years, one of those boom times for many, when the cracks in the culture were hidden from those who weren’t paying attention. I suspect it’s one of the periods of supposed greatness that inspires nostalgia in MAGA people.

There will be no return.

There never is after this kind of event. A cultural inflection point like this changes everything forever, as did World War I, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and 9/11.

Those with a vested interest in the crumbling status quo are in full panic mode, desperate for us “to get back to work,” no longer even pretending it’s good for us. A spike of 2% – 3% in the body count is “acceptable” according to both the Lieutenant Governor of Texas and Dr. Oz.

People who know how to pause and be silent, to disconnect from their screens and mental chatter, will not be so fast to lay down their lives for predatory capitalists.

I’m blessed to have a back porch where I can sit in the shade, and pause, and reflect. There are many ways to still ourselves. One simple method was advocated by James Finley, who teaches Christian contemplative practice. He advocated this reflection on a phrase from Psalm 46:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.

People who are able to connect with their inner Awareness are the ones we will need to shape a post epidemic future that will be worth living.

Online Dharma Teachings in April

Two Tibetan meditation masters whose teachings I follow have scheduled extensive online learning and practice sessions in April. They are free and appropriate for both beginners and those more experienced in meditation.

Anam Thubten: Immersion in Awareness.

Anam has a gift for making complex concepts and practices accessible to all. In addition, no particular belief system is required, nor does the study of Awareness contradict the tenets of any spiritual tradition. He will host four online presentations on the four Sundays in April. Click here for more details and login information.

Schedule: (California time)
10:00 am -10:45 am: Guided meditation
11:00 am – 11:45 am: Dharma Talk

April 5:           Taming the Mind
April 12:         Responding from a Higher Intelligence
April 19:         Inviting the Shadow
April 25:         Celebrating Existence

 

Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche also focuses on Awareness practice and will host three teaching sessions on the first three Saturdays in April, from 1:00 pm – 2:15 pm Pacific time. In addition, he will lead guided meditations on Wednesday evenings  throughout the month.

How to Have a Pristine Mind in Challenging Times. April 4.  Register here.

The Time for Dzogchen is Now. April 11. Register here.

Padmasambhava’s Teachings on Turning Obstacles Into Allies. April 18. Register here.

Weekly Guided Meditations, Wednesdays, 7:00 pm – 7:45 pm, beginning April 8.  Register here.

If you’ve been wanting to begin or continue a meditation practice during this time when we’re all sequestered, I cannot think of a better way to proceed!