Canary in the Coal Mine

Idiom in the News: Canary in the Coal Mine, by ShareAmerica, 11/12/14

canary in a coal mine (plural canaries in a coal mine or canaries in coal mines)

  1. (idiomatic) Something whose sensitivity to adverse conditions makes it a useful early indicator of such conditions; something which warns of the coming of greater danger or trouble by a deterioration in its health or welfare.

Last summer, while attending a Tibetan teaching in the east bay, I spent two nights in a motel about 30 miles east, to save money on room cost. The exit was Cordelia, familiar I’m sure to everyone who travels on Highway 80 to or from the San Francisco area. There are lots of gas stations, fast food places, and motels.

I was surprised to see that the one sit down restaurant – a Denny’s – had closed, after decades as a fixture at that exit. I reflected then that it seemed analogous to the economic “hollowing out of the middle,” you see in department stores: Walmart and Target appear to be doing well, as are high end boutiques, but the mainstream “mall anchors” – Macy’s, Penny’s, and the late-great Sears, are struggling or gone.

Similarly, on the food front, fast is thriving, as are the kind of restaurants you visit for anniversaries and birthdays, but the “family style restaurant,” the place for a Saturday morning breakfast, or a casual lunch, or a visit with a friend over coffee and pie, appears to be in trouble.

That hunch, sparked by a defunct Denny’s last year, has materialized with a vengeance this summer in the immediate neighborhood. Continue reading

Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 3: Soul in a Dark Time

Edvard Munch, “The Lonely Ones,” woodcut, 1899

“the darkness around us is deep.” – William Stafford, 1960

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.” – Theodore Roethke, 1963

“There’s a darkness at the edge of town.” – Bruce Springsteen, 1978

In a recent post I quoted Sri Daya Mata (Faye Wright), successor to Paramahansa Yogananda as president of Self-Realization Fellowship, describing a vision she had on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas in 1963:

“A huge black cloud suddenly swept over me, trying to engulf me. As it did so, I cried out to God…Through the practice of meditation, the all-knowing power of intuition develops in each one of us. I had intuitively understood what the Divine was telling me though this symbolic experience. It foretold a serious illness I was soon to undergo; and it also indicated that all mankind would face a very dark time during which the evil force would seek to engulf the world.

Daya Mata’s vision came to mind during the 2nd Democratic debate on July 30, when Marianne Williamson, a candidate I had initially dismissed as a lightweight, made the most pertinent observation of the evening:

“If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in the country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”

Both the concept of world ages and that of dark forces are pertinent metaphors for something we sense – and most cultures have explicitly believed – there are forces greater than what we can see behind and within what unfolds in the visible world.

An especially important image for me, is Soul as James Hillman used the word, (as when we say someone or something “has soul”), and the parallel image of soul loss. This metaphor has grown in importance for me as I’ve recently read both Hillman’s and his colleague, Michael Meade’s speculations on what loss of soul can mean for an individual or culture: Continue reading

Cycles, Gyres, and Yugas, Part 2 – Why Do We Fight?

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again; and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. – T.S. Eliot

In the previous post, I discussed the current “dark time,” or Kali Yuga, from the view of time as a series of ascending and descending ages, without beginning or end. The post ended with video clip from Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, where a young man asks, during a brutal civil war, “If the times are hopeless, why do we fight?”

Past critical turning points in history, involving the rise and fall of nations and empires, often hinged on battles. “Why” may have been the central question then, but now, as climate change marks an inflection point for the whole planet, we also face the questions of “Who (or what) do we fight?” and “How?” For us, these may be even more difficult than why, although that is the issue I will consider first.

As a college freshman, working my way through The Iliad, I had to get a handle on the concept of arete, meaning virtue or honor. Because this was the epic of a decade long war, in The Iliad, arete meant martial courage and prowess. The Vietnam war was raging then, and arete sounded too much like the prattle of those politicians who wrapped themselves in the flag to drum up dwindling support for a war that was a horrible mistake.

Now I understand arete from a wider perspective. The word meant “‘excellence of any kind.’ The term may also mean ‘moral virtue.’ In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential..” 

Arete means seeking to do what is right in every circumstance.
Continue reading

Boiling Frogs

Barbed Wire. Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

Some 20 years ago, I came upon an online article by an elderly German man, responding to a question those of his generation were often asked – “How could you let the Holocaust happen?”

He said it came about over time, in incremental steps – like the old story of boiling a frog by turning the heat up slowly. “There was never a single incident so different from the ones that proceeded it that large numbers of people had a reason to take to the streets…By the time rumors of a ‘final solution’ reached us, we were too dispirited and fully compromised.”

Ten months ago, Ben Ferencz, age 99, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, called the Trump administration’s family separation policy, a “crime against humanity.”

“It’s a crime against humanity. We list crimes against humanity in the Statute of the International Criminal Court. We have ‘other inhumane acts designed to cause great suffering.’ What could cause more great suffering than what they did in the name of immigration law?” Common Dreams, August 8, 2018

The administration’s chaos style of governance effectively pushed the issue out of mind through its regular deluge of outrageous acts. Fortunately, one clueless administration lawyer may have turned the heat up too high by claiming that it is “safe and sanitary” to deny soap and toothbrushes to immigrant children, and have them sleep on concrete floors under bright lights (1). This appears to have set off a firestorm of outrage – hopefully enough to to spur some action.

Here are some links to various takes on the situation, beginning with some concrete suggestions on what concerned people can do to #CloseTheCamps:

What You Can Do to Close the Camps.

AOC’s Generation Doesn’t Presume America’s Innocence.  Argues that the right fears naming the concentration camps for what they are because only “bad countries” have concentration camps.

An Expert on Concentration Camps Says That’s Exactly What the US is Running at the Border. “Many of the people housed in these facilities are not “illegal” immigrants. If you present yourself at the border seeking asylum, you have a legal right to a hearing under domestic and international law.”

America Was Never Great. Behind the Flag is a Harrowing History. The shadow cannot be ignored if an individual, an organization, or a nation is to grow.

A Firsthand Report of Inhumane Conditions at a Migrant Children’s Detention Facility

Detained Migrant Children Denied Adequate Food, Water, and Sanitation in Texas.

If Your Church is Silent Right Now, You Should Leave it.

The War on Beauty

I was in grade school during the height of the cold war, the decade of duck and cover hydrogen bomb drills and Nikita Kruschchev pounding his shoe and promising to bury us. But what I feared most from the “red menace” wasn’t nuclear incineration. It was life in a world like the Life Magazine photos of Moscow: grey, cold, barren, and devoid of beauty. Two things brought this to mind recently.

The first was an article in the New York Times, How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution. Charles Darwin believed that animals “could appreciate beauty for its own sake,” and behave accordingly, in ways that far exceed the utilitarian requirements of survival and reproduction. Mocked by his peers, this aspect of his theory was neglected – until now. A new generation of biologists believe that “Beauty…does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”

The other news that brought the barrenness of 1950’s Moscow to mind was anything but a delightful story of exuberant animals. It was an account of how, with open gates but furloughed rangers, some visitors have been trashing our National Parks. I was particularly saddened to read of the vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park, a place with great meaning for me.

Joshua tree cut down by vandals. NPS photo, Public Domain

Visitors have cut down trees, graffitied rocks, driven off-road vehicles over fragile desert soil, and camped under rare trees. Scientists say the Joshua trees face possible extinction by 2100 due to loss of habitat to climate change. In October, Park Superintendent, David Smith, told National Geographic, “We’re just in crisis mode right now.” The willful destruction during the shutdown is simply accelerating the destruction of a magnificent desert refuge the size of Delaware.

You have to wonder why, unlike in every previous government shutdown, the current administration chose to leave the National Park gates open even as personnel were furloughed. Were they simply stupid? Or was this a move that parallels their attack on so much else that makes life for the vast majority of us worth living: clean water, clean air, education, health care, and so much more?

Although Trump is not capable of strategic thinking, some of his puppet masters are, and I often wonder if they don’t want a world like the photos I saw of life in Moscow in the 50’s – a dispirited, sick, hungry, uneducated peasantry, obliged to work until they drop, for beggars pay at meaningless jobs.

James Hillman said the lack of beauty in contemporary public life is pathological. I would add that it’s part of a cluster of pathologies, that pass for sanity in minds of many of those with plenty of greed and lust for power, but no imagination.

A high school friend, a poet, didn’t hold back in a piece he published in the school literary magazine, with this description of our dean, which I’ve never forgotten:

His triple breasted chin,
arranged in folds upon his chest,
he blunts my life with a technicality.

During the ’60’s, a time of excess as well as exuberant celebrations of imagination and beauty, Phil Ochs, one of the best protest singers of the era, wrote a poem for the back of his last album, with a line that read:

You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty,
Ah but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.

That is a beautiful hint and instruction!

Who and What Divide Us?

Embed from Getty Images
A Camp Fire evacuee plays with an abandoned dog, Chico, CA, Nov. 15

Daily updates on the deadliest fire in California history are almost too horrific to take in. The Camp Fire, named after its place of origin on Camp Creek Road, has destroyed the town of Paradise. This is a beautiful part of California, just a few miles east of Chico where Mary and I once lived.

The ever-changing toll stands at 71 people known dead, more than 1000 missing, and as many as 12,000 buildings destroyed. Fifty thousand people have been displaced. Breathing the air for a day in San Francisco, 150 miles away, is equivalent to smoking 11 cigarettes. (1).

At the same time, stories of generosity emerge as vividly as the deadly statistics. A former NFL linebacker, who lived through the Santa Rosa fire, paid for three large truckloads of bedding and similar goods to be sent to those in shelters. Individuals and businesses throughout north state are doing what they can to help. There are stories of people displaced by the fire spending their days sorting donated goods to benefit others. Here is another dramatic account from the LA Times on November 12: Continue reading

An Avian Stray

The wounded magpie

Last Friday afternoon, I came home from various errands to find a magpie with a broken wing in the back yard. Seeming dazed, it was swung its head back and forth, as if its vision was impaired, and flapped wings in unsuccessful effort to fly. Then it would run, often in circles, falling over because its balance was off. The afternoon was hot, but the bird was fast enough to scoot away when I tried to set a water bowl nearby.

In the evening, I turned on sprinklers. As the sun got low, other magpies flew into the yard to peck at seeds or insects. The injured bird joined them to eat, but when they flew away, it made it’s way alone to a section of fence behind the cover of bushes. Hours later, when I took the dogs out before bed, I shone a flashlight to look, and the bird hadn’t moved. I wondered if the magpie, left behind by its tribe, felt something akin to loneliness.

I hadn’t been sure the bird would last through the night, fearing that injuries or a cat would finish it off, but in the morning, it was dashed around with more energy and coordination than the day before. I checked on it through the day, and that afternoon, was surprised to see it approach a squirrel that climbed down a tree in the shade where the bird was resting.

Magpie and squirrel

The magpie came close to the squirrel, who at that point, charged and drove it away, but this close encounter between two species I’d never seen interact before made me wonder again if the bird was experiencing something we would call abandonment.

We’ll never know, but such speculations can no longer be dismissed as mere projection or pathetic fallacy. I’ve seen numerous examples of this recently, including an article this week in The Atlantic, about an Alaskan Orca who carried her dead calf with her for 17 days:

“It is hardly anthropomorphic to ascribe grief to animals that are so intelligent and intensely social. Tahlequah’s relatives occasionally helped her carry her dead calf, and may have helped to feed her during her mourning…

The Lummi Nation, who live in the Salish Sea and also depend on salmon, have long understood this side of the southern residents. ‘We’ve fished alongside them since time immemorial,’ says Jay Julius, the nation’s chairman. ‘They live for the same thing we live for: family.’”

Our role in the magpie’s story came to a happy ending. We managed to scoop it into a cardboard box I’d drilled with air holes, and on Sunday morning, carried it to the Sacramento Wildlife Care Association, a wonderful organization that rehabilitates injured or orphaned birds and animals.

As I’ve said before, both modern physics and ancient Buddhist teachings agree that there really isn’t “a world out there,” out there.  The physical world we experience is what our limited senses configure out of swirling masses of energy and light. The meanings we experience are those we impute on a world that is far more dream than solid “reality.”

I never named the magpie for fear it wouldn’t survive, but in my favorite version of the dream, this bird, healed and nourished until it is strong again, will rejoin its fellow magpies, stronger than it was before, as a result of its time of trial and solitude.

Stories…again.

Pre-Columbian, Mexico. At Art Institute of Chicago. Public Domain.

Yesterday, at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, someone asked what I blog about – an excellent question. Though it might not be obvious looking at eight years worth of posts here, it took only a moment to answer.

The constant thread running through almost all the posts here was stated like this by 20th century poet, Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

One area of fascination for me is the way both modern physics and ancient Buddhist tenets agree that our seemingly solid and stable world is anything but. “Out there” we have only complex patterns of swirling light and energy. It’s the same “in here.” Our limited physical senses give us an illusory experience of a solid world, and we make up stories about it. Many of them deal with simple survival: red means stop and green means go; every part of the oleander is poisonous; if you face the rising sun, north is left and south is right.

Of far greater interest are the stories individuals and cultures tell themselves about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing there. That’s where we get into trouble, by and large, as a glance at any newspaper will confirm.

I’ve never forgotten the account of a young boy, a fan of The Six-Million Dollar Man, a TV show in the late 70’s, that told of an astronaut, badly injured in a crash, who received bionic implants during surgery, which gave him super-powers. The boy decided to jump off the roof of his home, thinking that if he hurt himself badly enough, he might get super powers. He lived, but spent a long time in traction.

Stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and they can kill  individuals, cultures, and as we are coming to see, entire species.

*****

Last night the sun, through a brown haze, was red when it set. This morning, through a brown haze, the sun was red when it rose. When we left the house at 7:15 to take the dogs for a walk, there was fine dusting of ash on the cars. Though Redding is 170 miles north, and Yosemite almost 200 miles south, there is no way to forget that California and much of the west is burning in what has become a year round fire season.

The northern California fire chief said fires of this intensity are new, and sadly, appear to be a “new normal.” During a summer of worldwide weather extremes, the scientific community is united in saying climate change is not in the future – it’s here. At the same time several pastors have said that God is angry because California tolerates gay people.

Let me repeat what I said earlier: stories have many different levels, literal and symbolic. Get that wrong and stories can kill individuals, cultures, and maybe our entire species.

If they could talk, what would the lead lemmings tell their comrades when the edge of the cliff came into view?