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.

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.

A Contemplation of Heroes, Toilet Paper, John Wayne, and John Ford.

Paramahansa Yogananda told a story of two families, one Hindu and one Muslim, who were neighbors during the violence that preceded Indian independence in the late 1940’s. Food was scarce due to rioting, but the mother of the Hindu family got hold of a bag of rice. When she realized her neighbors had nothing to eat, she took half the rice to the Muslim family before lighting her own stove. When we were young, many of us aspired to that kind of heroism. Now we hoard toilet paper.

In all fairness, this is a manufactured crisis, driven by our online yellow press with so many pictures of empty paper good shelves that anyone paying attention might conclude that they better get some extra. But the TP story brings up one of our culture’s major living room elephants – our worship of individualism. Me first. I gotta be me. Do your own thing.

When I studied counseling psychology, we had a unit on “cross-cultural differences,” to learn not to project our biases onto people from other cultures or sub-cultures where identity rests as much on family and community membership as it does on our northern European focus on individuation. Without such training, we would have been ready to put labels like “enmeshed” and “codependent” on anyone who didn’t regard “self-development” as the pinnacle of psychological development.

Fun Fact: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, the bible of mental health or its lack in our culture grew out of a study commissioned by the Marine Corps after WWI. They sought a personality test to filter out those who were most at risk of shell shock. In other words, our mental health norms in this country  are based on the attributes of a good combat soldier. Think about that for a while… Continue reading

2020 Notes 1

Fair Oaks Park, February

February was warm and bright, and I got out regularly to walk the dogs in the local park. It was the finest early spring I could remember, although it struck me that the only other place I’ve experienced such warmth so early in the year was Phoenix, and that suggests a hot summer.

By early February, or certainly mid-month, everyone who was paying attention knew the corona virus was coming, and it was going to be serious. I certainly didn’t anticipate the force of the shock when it hit our shores, but during those sunny walks, I had the sense that this was going to change our world in profound ways. I think lots of people, over the last few years have understood on some level that we’ve been living in a house of cards. I suspect that much of the fear and anger that fill the air derives from this understanding, even if we didn’t quite grasp it consciously.

I thought of what I have read of the prelude to another world changing event. By all accounts, the spring and early summer of 1914 in Europe were the most beautiful that anyone then living could remember. One of the best histories of that period is The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman.

Tuchman wrote another fascinating history of another period that changed the arc of world civilization, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Fourteenth century Europe was ravaged by climate change, never-ending war, and pandemic which triggered the collapse of medieval culture. I am not making this up!

The century opened with two decades of cold, now known as “the little ice age,” which caused widespread famine. The “Hundred Years War,” continued through the century, and in several outbreaks, bubonic plague killed a third of the world’s population.

At this moment, 20 years into the new millennium, no one knows how this century will end beyond the absolute certainty that the way of life we have known will be but a memory.

*****

Yesterday afternoon, Mary and I left home on the important mission of picking up her birthday cake (it’s tomorrow) at Baskin Robbins and having some ice cream while we were at it. I had to laugh when I heard “Love Me Two Times,” on the audio track. The Doors were way too subversive when to play in an ice cream shop when they first hit the airwaves more than 50 years ago!

But who knows? I have no idea when I’ll next be able to get a haircut, so my true colors as an aging hippie may soon be revealed!

James Hillman – on Changing the Object of our Desire

Watching this video in which Hillman so clearly shines a light on the core issues of so many of our current crises, it is hard to realize he left us 2011. It makes what so often passes for journalism and analysis of events seem trivial…

Soul Notes #4: The Chosen One(s)?

This morning I decided I needed a daylong fast from social media. I’m in the habit of doing something with my phone while the first cup of coffee brews, so I clicked on the USA Today app to check the NFL scores. Delighted to see that the Niners trounced Green Bay last night, I clicked the NEWS tab, and there it was, the morning’s lead story: “Rick Perry Told Donald Trump He Was God’s Chosen One.”

For an online news source, with a revenue stream dependent the number of visitors, aka “eyeballs,” it’s a pretty effective headline, designed to delight the right and offend the left, thereby generating “hits” from across the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, that itself is the problem! Think of some of the things these days that cause you to lose sleep. Now think what it means when profits drive a major news source to tell us that the most significant story of the morning concerns a politician who thinks he knows the will of God.

Especially during the last three years, I have often wondered what James Hillman would make of our current political environment. He’d certainly assign some of the blame to the discipline of psychology. One of his basic tenets was that if we only look inward for the root of our problems, we deprive the Anima Mundi, the World Soul, of our energy and our concern.

Above all, Hillman would point to literalism as the greatest ill in our thinking and view of the world, the tendency to mistake imaginal and symbolic truths for literal and historic fact. Soul whispers that each of us is special, but when we take that literally, we end up with a dark history of chosen ones believing they have a divinely ordained license to kill or oppress “the other.”

Even in ancient Israel, where the American concept of a chosen people originated, interpreting the Almighty’s will was not the business of every schmo with an opinion. A culture that venerated prophets knew there were a lot of fakes. On a lighter note, one urban legend suggests that Mr. Perry wasn’t the only politician with no business practicing theology.

Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson (1875-1961), the first woman Governor of Texas, elected in 1924, is reputed to have said, during a controversy on bilingual education, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas” (1). Unfortunately, similar quotes are attributed to others, as early as 1881 and more recently, to “an Arkansas Congressman,” and all these accounts lack reliable verification.

My basic instinct remains – when someone says, “God told me…,” get away as quickly as possible. And when it’s a politician, turn off the phone and have another cup of coffee!

Soul Notes #2: Flying a Sign

A friend who used to panhandle at freeway on ramps told me that “flying a sign” is slang for that activity. The signs are usually hand lettered on cardboard. This post concerns a man I’ve seen flying a different kind of sign.

Last July, when temperatures hovered near 100 degrees, I noticed a skinny guy in his early 30’s, with beard, jeans, backpack, and baseball hat, standing at one of the area’s busiest intersections.  His sign was larger than average, maybe 18″x24,” on a decent quality white board, although the lettering was crude. The sign read,

Nuclear invasion
Jesus saves
Sin no more

My first reaction was irritation – I have little patience with people arrogant enough to think they’ve got a handle on “the one true path.” I started seeing him almost daily, so it seemed he stood on that spot for hours. On days that were especially hot, he moved half a mile east, to the shade of a stand of oaks.

Curiosity overcame irritation. I figured he must be on some kind of public assistance, for he was out there too often to have a day job. If he had anything like independent means, he would have had a professionally lettered sign. I remembered a line from the poet, Theodore Roethke: “What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?” The sign bearer disappeared around the end of August. Now and then I wondered what happened.

Then, in a strange bit of synchronicity, on the day I posted the first of these Soul Notes, I stopped at a Starbucks on a different corner of his usual intersection, and out the window I thought I saw him holding a different sign as he sat on the bench at a bus stop. I could only see him from behind, and only a portion of his sign was visible, but it seemed different – well lettered, for one thing.

I finished my coffee and stopped at the restroom. As I came out, he passed me, carrying this new sign under his arm as he ducked into the other bathroom. I could only read the first line, “The Anti-Christ is Among Us,” and a portion of the second line, something about “One World Order.” I couldn’t see enough to tell whether he favored the idea or not, and I didn’t have the time or inclination to hang around and ask him after he came out.

Since that encounter, I’ve been mulling over a question. I believe that Soul connects us to meaning, passion, and calling, and also that Soul has a religion concern. If true, is this man expressing Soul, or something darker? After all, the Spanish Inquisition and countless religious wars have been perpetrated by people who found meaning, passion, calling, and religious concern in horrific acts.

My own opinion is that acts like proselytizing may be motivated by compassion or by the fear of hell, and although they may outwardly look the same, qualitatively, they are worlds apart. However, that doesn’t really answer my question.

I’m reminded of “the ability to distinguish between spirits” that St. Paul’s lists among “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” in 1 Co 12:9-10. Post Age of Reason western culture seems to be unique in disbelieving in “spirits,” although Jung reintroduced them in the guise of “archetypes.”

Regardless of what we call them, the essential point is that not all of our inner voices mean well for ourselves and others!

I believe that learning to distinguish between the spirits (or archetypes or voices) as best we can is an essential part of soul work, with serious implications for our own wellbeing and that of others!