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.

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.

2020 Notes 3: Apple Blossom Time

Apple blossoms are out on the tree in the back yard.

My grandmother had a  habit of blurting out snatches of song, without warning, at family dinners, or quiet evenings, or on Sunday afternoon drives, back when people thought it was fun to hop in the car and go somewhere.

One of her favorite songs was, “Apple Blossom Time.” Another was (I believe) part of the chorus of a 1920’s era song about Little Orphan Annie, “And it gets all over icky!” That would piss off mom, much to my sister’s and my amusement. I suspect my grandmother used to sing that during my mom’s teenage years, and she still hadn’t fully gotten over the embarrassment.

****

In other news of the day, our oldest rescue dog, Kit, a chihuahua / pomeranian mix, is almost 13. She still has so much energy you wouldn’t guess she’s on three medications for serious heart problems.

At the start of February, after a checkup, the vet said, “I’m guessing she has a year or 18 months left.” No way, I thought. That got me back to daily practice of a Tibetan long life sadhana a few weeks before COVID-19 motivated all of us to pursue safety measures, both physical and non-physical in nature.

After talking to the vet, I wanted to make sure we had enough of one of her critical meds, called Vetmedin, that mitigates her leaky heart valve. I had a standing prescription at Costco for three months worth, but when I called at that time, they said it had been on backorder for some time. I wondered then if that was a result of the epidemic in China, for I’d heard that that China manufactures the components of lot of our pharmaceuticals.

I got some Vetmedin from our vet, but because it’s cheaper at Costco, I called again yesterday and was able to place an order that was ready today. They told me when I came to tell one of the people at the entrance that I was there for a prescription only.

Costco is one of those stores now dedicating the first hour of business, from 8:00 – 9:00 am, to people over 60 – a thoughtful practice, but one not exempt from the law of unintended consequences. When I got there at 8:20, I found several hundred people, most with shopping carts in line. With most observing the recommended six foot spacing, the line snaked around the front and side of the building, before disappearing around the back of the store and out of sight

I was just about to leave, to try in the afternoon, when a woman came out to urge everyone to patience, saying they were letting in 75 shoppers at a time. I told her what the pharmacist had said on the phone, and she very kindly allowed me to go in to pick up the prescription. I was in and out in less than 10 minutes.

While I was there, I asked the pharmacist if things generally slowed down later in the day. “By 11:00 it’s usually pretty quiet,” he said – a message I thought I’d pass on to anyone locally who is thinking of getting up early for special shopping opportunities – be ready to queue up really early, or wait and have a good breakfast and coffee first!

2020 Notes 2

The night before last, I had a hug dream:

I seemed to be in a restaurant, waiting to pick up a takeout order when I spotted a friend. He and I hugged, but then, at the same moment, said, “Shit!” and jumped back to to a six foot distance. I ducked into the restroom to wash my hands, knowing that hands were not the issue, and pissed that I’d have to start counting down 14 days again to feel safe from contagion.

Most of the time, the dreaming mind brings up issues and themes we ignore in waking life. When something as topical as the corona virus appears in a dream, we know how far it has penetrated deep into the psyche.

Out in Fair Oaks Park, the weather has mostly been pleasant and the skies stunning.

We see others strolling in ones and twos, with and without dogs. Many of them wave or ask from a distance, “How are things going for you?” Again I sense that, left to ourselves, a crisis like this would pull us together. Our natural instinct is to lend a helping hand.

Then why are we so divided?

The real question is “Who benefits when we are so divided?”

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…