Spirits

On Sunday, a 39 year old man drove an SUV through the annual Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Five people are dead and many more injured, including 18 children between the ages of 3 and 16, who suffered abrasions, broken bones, and serious head injuries. I remember the joy of a Christmas event like that when I was about 4, that climaxed with Santa arriving by helicopter. Will Advent and Christmas ever be joyful again for the people of Waukesha?

The media mostly glossed over the event. If the killer had used a gun or had a political motive, it would have been front page news, but apparently regurgitated opinions on the Rittenhouse trial got more clicks than another massacre in America.

As of this morning, we know the accused man was on bail after allegedly running over the woman who claims to be the mother of his child at the start of the month. On Sunday, he was involved in a “domestic altercation” before plowing into the crowd. One of the few comments I saw the night of the attack came from Marianne Williamson, who said “an evil spirit” was loose in Wisconsin, and we needed to pray.

Williamson evoked some mockery during the 2019 Democratic primary debates for statements like that, but hers was the one comment I still remember from those events. She said “No amount of policy wonkiness can overcome all the hate in this country.” More recently she echoed words I’ve heard from other leaders in other spiritual traditions that, “There are no political solutions for what ails the nation.

I’ve been thinking about belief in spirits, both good and bad. Some acts are so heinous it’s hard to believe that “mere” human malevolence lies at the root – the Manson murders and Jonestown come to mind. As far as I can tell, only western culture since “the Enlightenment,” has refused to acknowledge the possibility of non-material influence on our behavior. Belief in spirits was part of original Christianity, and “distinguishing between spirits” was listed as a gift of the Holy Spirit by St. Paul (1Co 12:10 NIV). When you’re hearing voices, it’s good to know if they’re trustworthy!

We can call them spirits or call them neuroses, but at times like this, it’s dangerous to call ourselves invincible. In a more peaceful time, when the Star Wars movies first came out, everyone knew the Force was good and wanted it, without taking it literally. It’s worth remembering now that all it takes to turn us to the Dark Side is anger and hatred.

From Sea to Shining…

One of my favorite photos of our nearest shining sea. Sunset, Bandon, OR, 2013.

A story that Tibetan meditation master, Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche told during a Zoom teaching last year came to mind this Independence Day.

Rinpoche said that when he was young, his passion was to learn ultimate truths. He said he eventually realized that ultimate truths are beyond the grasp of our ordinary, discursive minds, and the question he now asks is, “Is this beneficial?”

Historical truths are more accessible than metaphysical ones, but this July 4, the contention over even fundamental “facts” is central to our national malaise. I remain convinced that for a nation, just as for an individual, a fearless admission of wrongs is a pre-requisite to further efforts to manifest dreams and ideals.

Our national ideals of equality, freedom, and democracy, are now International dreams. So are the forces of fear and greed that feed the rising waves of world-wide authoritarian movements. The dream of democracy will survive, and now would be a good time to pray that nations that currently embody it do as well.

***

This seems related – Mary and I were out this morning, and when we got back, it was too hot for a vigorous walk with the dogs, but we took them to the park anyway, sticking as much as possible to the grassy and shady areas. Not many people were out, but at one picnic table, three guitarists with portable amps were playing a stunningly good instrumental version of Dear Mr. Fantasy! It seems like just the song for this Independence Day.

Here’s a nice version of Steve Winwood playing it at Crossroads, 2007.

Normal, anyone?

These days, it’s impossible not to daydream of “getting back to normal,” though it gets complicated the moment you try to figure out what that means. Much of “normal American life” led to our current messes, and some of the least desirable normal things, like mass shootings, have been the first to return to our not-yet, post-pandemic world.

I am profoundly fortunate, with a reclusive temperament and a living situation that allowed me to weather 2020 safely, with a fair amount of residual sanity. Even so, yesterday, I discovered how much I miss some normal things. Mary and I left for an errand near downtown, with nothing more than a piece of toast, so by 10:30, when we were done, we were more than a little ravenous. An impulse led us to Lido’s, on Fair Oaks Boulevard, which has always had outdoor dining on the front porch. Several tables were open by then.

We hadn’t been to a restaurant since the second week of March, 2020, so scrambled eggs, country potatoes, a bowl of fruit, and coffee seemed like the finest breakfast I’d ever had. The good spirts of those dining on the porch were contagious. The downside became apparent after breakfast, when I masked up to go indoors to use the restroom – the place was jammed with maskless people, and I could only reflect that the end of the pandemic is in no way assured!

Stupidity is as normal as genius in this country, and I think we’ve become conditioned, especially after the last four years, to pay closer attention to the former. And yet…

In the afternoon, as I sat on the back porch, two hummingbirds joined the bees in circling and darting through through the apple blossoms.

Cheri Huber, a Zen teacher I met years ago, had a favorite saying: “The quality of your life is determined by the focus of your attention.”

She was right.

At Year’s End

Winter sun and shadow on the back fence

A week or so ago, at noon, I was sitting on the back porch, gazing at the sky. I was dressed warmly for it was 50 degrees and windy, which is cold if you live in a hot climate. Suddenly – and this made no sense – I heard the distinctive jingle of an ice cream truck. Stephen King came to mind, and I imagined a truck full of killer clowns. It has been that kind of year.

King himself has tweeted that nothing he’s written is as scary as 2020 has been. To be precise, he said nothing he’s written “is as frightening as the current administration,” which is to state more clearly what has made America the epicenter of many of the horrors the world has endured this year.

My father was born exactly 100 years ago, on December 31, 1920. As I sat on the porch this afternoon, on another chilly day, I was thankful that he didn’t live to see this year. Then a pleasant memory came to mind. Continue reading

2020 Notes: Survival of…

On Friday, a few days after the CDC recommended that people avoid Thanksgiving travel, someone tweeted a video clip of a crowded terminal at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. Other tweets have confirmed that this is unfolding in many airports.

On the plus side, everyone was wearing a mask. The ceilings were high and there may well have been good ventilation. One man was using hand sanitizer. I’m sure some had purchased non-refundable tickets even before the current coronavirus spike. Most had probably done so before the CDC announcement. But the virus doesn’t care, and many of these travelers were going to be crowded together in terminals and airplanes for hours.

It struck me that this is truly in an evolutionary moment. As in, survival of the fittest. But what is fitness now, in this situation?

Surviving the first wave had much to do with luck – or karma if you wish. We did ok if we weren’t in a nursing home or on a cruise ship. If we weren’t a New York City bus driver. It helped if we were young and healthy, were not homeless, and didn’t have to work in a meat packing plant. It helped to be distant from the first epicenters while scientists worked out aerosol transmission and our current distance and mask protocols.

But now, a year after the first appearance of the virus, when everyone knows the guidelines, what attributes give us the greatest chance of survival? I’m thinking just of western nations for now, for I don’t know much about the cultural dynamics of places like China or Korea. What are the attributes that will keep us alive?

The first thing that comes to mind is compassion, a concern for others, born, at a minimum, of an understanding that we are all in this together – that no one survives by themselves. We wear  a mask, not just for ourselves but for the grocery worker who stocks the shelves with toilet paper. It’s the opposite of the adolescent, “You’re not the boss of me,” concept of freedom which lies close to the core of the dismal failure of the US effort to contain the virus.

In addition to an open heart, it helps to have an open mind, open to evidence and not locked into concepts, blind beliefs, or dogma. A South Dakota nurse recently lamented that some of her patients have died proclaiming that covid is a hoax.

And finally, despite the teachings of “positive psychology,” there seem to be times when pessimism is an asset. A few years ago, I heard a discussion on NPR, of research, including a study by the American Psychological Association, that pessimists may live longer – if we are worried about our health, we may guard it more carefully. “Two of our hunter-gatherer ancestors are caught in a violent storm, but see a dry cave on a ledge above them,” said the narrator. “One of them says, ‘Oh look, a dry cave!’ The other hunter says, ‘I don’t know…there might be a bear inside.’ Which hunter is more likely to live long enough to pass on his genes?”

I find it interesting that two of the western nations that have best contained covid-19, New Zealand and Iceland, are islands, while Hawaii has consistently been at the top of American states in that regard. According to today’s (Nov. 22) New York Times update, they have again been at the lowest level, of 10 or fewer daily infections per 100,000 people over the last week. There’s no way to prove it, but my hunch is that residents of an island know that they’re all in this together more viscerally than we on the mainland can.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, as the pandemic rages out of control and even our best prepared hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed, our public response is irresponsible travel and hoarding toilet paper. Our mythic, “American Exceptionalism” has come to mean exceptionally stupid. I am reminded of the challenge back in the ’60’s as the Vietnam war raged: “America – love it, or leave it.”

It’s easy now to think that leaving, if and when other nations would even have us, is a reasonable survival strategy. And yet that part of me with roots deep in this land, that grew up feeling pride in this nation, can only offer the same response we gave in the ’60’s: “America – change it or lose it.”

The Social Dilemma: A Movie Review.

The Social Dilemma, released on Netflix on September 9, is a comprehensive evaluation of the dark side of social media, by some of the senior engineers who designed the underpinnings of these systems:

What is your history with social media?

I started this blog in the summer of 2010, after attending a seminar presented by the California Writer’s Club. I learned about “clickbait” from the blogger who led the session, who made his living managing eight blogs, and drew 50,000 – 80,000 hits a month. He used Twitter and Facebook to extend the reach of his blogs.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to hustle a profit from blogging, but I did take to social media to further publicize each post. For five years, I used it for little else.That changed in 2015, during the presidential election season and has only accelerated during our nation’s and the world’s accelerating disasters.

When I worked in the tech industry, we constantly had to think in terms of “cost vs. benefit.” By the start of this year, the benefit I received from social media was maybe ten percent – about the percentage of non-political and non-end-is-near posts my newsfeed provides. Continue reading

2020 Notes: This too…

Anam Thubten, a Tibetan meditation master, recently told a story that illustrates the Buddhist concept of “impermanence.” Long ago, a king gathered all the sages in his realm and asked them to tell him something that is always true. After conferring among themselves, the wise men and women returned and in just four words, told the king the one thing that is true in every possible circumstance: “This too shall pass.”

Sometimes that’s good news, but in 2020, it seldom is. This year, everyone has experienced loss and the fear of loss. Significant among the losses in this country is the loss of confidence in our future and in “the American way of life.” In a recent Gallup poll, only 13% of Americans expressed “satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S.”

That many???  I don’t personally know anyone in that 13%, and it’s hard to imagine who they are. Extremely rich? Comatose? Living with wolves? The rest of us may be split over which outcome in November will benefit the nation or destroy the remnants of American greatness, but for most of us, the sense of multiple crises is pervasive.

I’ve long had the sense that the arc of that greatness and its decline extends over many decades, but I’ve not been able to express it or find someone who could until now. I highly recommend an article which appeared on August 6 in Rolling Stone: The Unravelling of America, by Wade Davis. It’s a long article, but worth it.

Davis relates that six weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had captured 90% of the world’s rubber making capacity. To ramp up the war effort, the U.S. government called for a speed limit of 35 mph to extend the life of existing tires, and the nation complied! No one accused the government of overreach. No one complained that their freedom was compromised or suggested that mandating shared sacrifice during a crisis somehow violates the Constitution.

Perhaps that aspiration for greatness was best expressed by John Kennedy, when he said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country  can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That spirit probably started to die when Kennedy did, and Davis reviews, in heart-rending detail, some of the missteps that led us from then until now.

Wade Davis’s article concludes with the observation that when Trump said of the coronavirus, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” he might as well have been speaking of the American Dream…

And yet, to start to imagine solutions to a problem, we must begin by trying to understand what the problem really is. It also helps to remember what the ancient king’s philosophers told him: this too shall pass. 

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.