According to the news hound in my family, Peel County where I live in Mississauga, west of Toronto, Canada, had the longest lock down on the planet. I don’t know. I do know it was very long.
It began when our premier told those over 70 not to leave home. Eventually I discovered that chewing chair legs was not nourishing and boldly went forth in search of food. Terrified at my advanced age – I could actually have a child of 70 – but well-informed and masked and hand-washed, I went into grocery stores.
It went on and on. I had a solitary birthday in May and a solitary Thanksgiving and a Christmas on video chat, which made me crazy.
The year swung around and I was back to February when the whole nasty plague thing had hit a year before. My daughter forwarded an item from the New York Times about the Anthropocene Era -the era when we humans are doing our best to wreck the planet and probably bring about the end of civilization as we know it.
I decided to read Roy Stanton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene in which he analyzed how our civilization developed in concert with the geological eras, describing, for example how early humanity fled rising temperatures in Africa, migrating to more temperate climates. He went on to describe the climate warming that is now upon us with catastrophic storms, rising temperatures and sea levels. The summer of 2021 provided so many examples that the argument against climate change changed in a week. Well, okay, so it exists. Now what?
I went on to read a second book by the same title by Bringhurst and Zwicky, as well as The Mushroom at the End of the World, The Collapse of Western Civilization by Oreskes and Conway, The Great Derangement and The Hungry Tide by Ghosh and The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell
Then I began reading Cl Fi (Climate Fiction). I didn’t know such a thing existed. I read New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. (New York streets are now deep canals and the high rises have been waterproofed and are still inhabited although some apartments are underwater.) Robinson has a series of such books. NK Jemisin’s books, beginning with The Fifth Season, a series of 3 novels. Flight Behavior by Kingsolver, Leave the World Behind by Rumann Alam.
Suddenly, I realized I was happy. I have never been a happy person. Circumstances mitigated against it. But now I had an idea. Oddly enough, I woke up from a dream with the opening scene in my head. I would set the story in Colombia a hundred years in the future and tell of how the people there were dealing with the physical challenges of the new climate and the attendant civil breakdown. I had, after all, watched what looked like the breakdown of a great democracy during the lock down. I started mainlining books about Colombia, although Gabriel Garcia Marquez had set me up with a wealth of knowledge beginning with A Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in a Time of Cholera.
I could hardly wait to get back to my desk every morning.
Finally in the summer, fully vaccinated, I traveled to California to meet my great grand daughters, their parents and my daughter. I had seen the 4-year-old only once when she was an infant and I had never seen the 2-year-old.
Why are you telling us this?
Because my hand had discovered a knob on my sternum. My hand knew it wasn’t really a knobby bone. It knew and my subconscious knew that after 23 years, I had breast cancer again. But I might never at the age of 85 see these children again, so I went. I came back delighted and wrote without cease. I haven’t watched television since late June.
I knew that the key to the meaning of the book lay in the ‘Breaking News’ inserts between each chapter, but repressed knowledge led me to send the first draft without the inserts to Beta readers. I would say they hated it, but it is more accurate to say they couldn’t understand it.
So, I started all over again, but I also went to the doctor. Having delayed for too long, I was now aware that hospitals were overcrowded with the Covid D Variant and surgeries were being delayed. Not, it turned out if the diagnosis was breast cancer. A month after my first doctor visit, I had day surgery at one of the Trillium Hospitals. Only it wasn’t day surgery because I developed rapid heart beat and Afib. I felt fine, except an annoyingly loud bell rang every time my heart went crazy. I figured out it happened when I held my breath. Funny thing. I endeavored to breathe. And brilliant idea – they hooked me up to oxygen.
So, home again, home again. Two weeks where every day has been a new and different problem. No machine, no loud bell. A lot of deep breathing. First it was pain, then a leaking drain and then constipation. Finally, the drain had done its job and I could stop worrying about bloody bandages, Removing the plastic tube felt 100% better until it didn’t, because now I was free to feel all the bruises and muscle pain and raw places from the steristrips. And it must be said, no matter what your age losing your best breast is a grievous thing.
Today I planned to get back to writing a scene set in Cali, Colombia, after a 1000 year storm. It will be a lunch meeting of the local Narcos to convince them to support the decriminalization of Class A drugs. They are already ‘legal’ in Colombia, but the goal is to legalize them worldwide. The results in terms of loss of life and reduction in criminality as well as easier access to healthcare for addicts has proven itself in such countries as Portugal.
This is one step in the protagonists’ – Salvador and Alena – plans to reduce the risk of attack on their own Hacienda. Someone is clearly trying to kill Alena. Not only are the Narcos threats, so is the government, including parts of the air force, random roaming gangs, Mossad and Alena’s former mother-in-law.
I couldn’t write though. I was wrestling with getting enough fiber into my system. Salad, pears, vegetable soup, metamucil, magnesium, raspberry jelly made with mineral oil and dried fruit. But I did find I could read my research notes. They inspired me all over again, but I also got a glimpse of the size of the project.
Now that I am not going to die of cancer, I’m just going to have to slow down and take it step by step.
The Beta readers were prone to saying, “You seem to have a good novel in your head, but not on paper.”
There is an ancient Chinese story about an old farmer with one son. They are very poor, so poor that the son has to pull the plow to cultivate their field. Seeing this, a wealthier person gives them a horse. The village is jubilant, “What a good piece of luck,” they say. “We”ll see,” says the old man.The son doesn’t know much about horses, but he sets off to ride to their field and begin to plow. Halfway there, he falls off and breaks his leg. The villagers carry him home. What a terrible piece of luck, they say. The old man and the son will starve to death. “We’ll see,” says the old man. Then the ruler of their district declares war and orders all the men to report for military duty bringing their own weapons. It is a war they are sure to lose against a powerful enemy, especially as they have only shovels and scythes for weapons. How lucky you are, everyone says, that your son cannot go to war. “We’ll see,” says the old man.
I have read versions which go on from there to 7 or 8 different circumstances, but always with the same reply, ‘We’ll see.”
At present, I am waiting to see.
After 10 months of Covid isolation, depression, terror, hand washing, mask wearing and prayer, I suddenly felt very happy. I had a dream, which I could see could become a novel. It wrote itself. It was like taking dictation. I loved the characters and the challenge of imaging Colombia in 2120, when sea level rise is wrecking havoc and civilization is going down hill. I especially like the humor of the book, the answer to the question, how do you live in a dying world.
I plugged away at it, eventually producing a revised version, 370 double-spaced lines or about 90,000 words.
On Tue. August 31, 2021, the following happened: -the dentist said I have no cavities, -three of the Beta readers of my novel report they can’t understand it, although it seems as if I have a good book in my head. The other two haven’t looked at it yet -I discover that the funny rib knob at my sternum is a very large breast lump.
By good luck, I get an in-office doctor visit with my GP. I get a mammogram and an ultra sound two days later. I get a biopsy two days after that and am told because of Labor Day, I will get the results on the 14th of September, but by good luck, my GP calls and tells me the cells are positive for cancer and by further good luck I am already signed up for an appointment with a general surgeon, although, bad luck, not until Sept. 20th.
I begin rewriting my novel (I trust You to Kill Me) https://115journals.com/2021/08/11/new-novel-goes-to-beta-readers/ following the advice of the 3 crazed Beta readers, who can’t follow version 2 to the extent that they have lost their minds.. On Sunday evening, I finish for the day and save version 3 on the desktop (thus on iCloud) and on my backup drive. On Labor Day, I begin to open version 3.
It isn’t there. Not on the Desktop, not on the backup drive and icloud hasn’t heard of me. I spend 3 hours with Apple helpers. Sorry dear!
But there is hope. I have printed up to page 211 of version 3 and given it to an uncrazed Beta reader, who has not read anything yet, but she is 3 hours away at a cottage. Never mind. I have 151 pages printed and lying on my desk.
So, I start out again with short breaks to mourn my mortality – I am 85. Short breaks to be comforted by a) booklovers and b) relatives. Short breaks to comfort relatives. Short breaks to lose my mind utterly. Short breaks to lie down and stare.
Today, I have rewritten up to p.150.
The lump has the same steep, volcanic contour as one of the Andes mountains in my book and is spreading out into the llanos or grasslands.
I am not a stranger to cancer diagnosis, having had breast cancer in the left breast in ’98, 23 years ago, and a carcinoid in my ascending colon in 2001, that memorable month, 20 years ago. By the time, it was my turn for surgery, I hadn’t eaten sold food for a month and fitted size 8 jeans.
I threw out the ‘cancer’ wardrobe in a fit of optimism two years ago after my ex-husband died – of cancer..
I miss those carefree winter days vaccinated, taking dictation from some heavenly muse, never having heard of the Delta variant. I thought I was lucky then.
It’s not a good idea to try to change the future, so I’m just waiting to see – and writing.
“But surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” 23rd Psalm
Hope is a thing with feathers That perches in the soul And sings the tune without the words And never stops at all. Emily Dickenson
Imagine being told that you have to spend a year inside and not see your beloved friends and family.
Oh that happened to you too!
It has now been a year and two weeks for some of us. Maybe you as well. I have an underlying condition called old age. I didn’t enjoy those news stories out of Italy last year, when they had to triage hospital patients with Covid or pictures of the ice arenas and churches full of bodies. I didn’t enjoy the stories from New York City of bodies in freezer trucks, or even just in trucks. I got hot under the collar when politicians suggested I was old, so I didn’t count when measured against the economic loss. Having said that, I hand-wrote an addition to my will, opting out of ventilator treatment, with the hope mine would go to someone younger.
Spring did not cheer me up. I was having my groceries delivered and I had finished watching Tiger Joe. Even Schitz Creek couldn’t pull me out of my slump. I had been writing a third book, a second mystery. I couldn’t figure out who the murderer was and I didn’t care. On Twitter, I followed other writers who wanted to encourage me by challenging me or telling me what they were accomplishing. I thought they hadn’t caught the bus, that they didn’t know we were dying in great numbers and nothing else mattered. Summer! Well who cares? It was like the summer of 1914 or 1939. Australia and California were burning as well. Nobody cared. The leader of the western world certainly didn’t.
I wrote blog posts titled by day, as in Day 36, etc. I could think for the hour and half that took me. Then I was gone.
Finally, my province allowed me to see one other singleton household. I saw my sister up the road, and once we knew we could trust each other, my niece, her daughter. I could not go to the U.S. to see my daughter or even to Barrie, an hour and 15 minutes north to see my sister’s large and boisterous family as I usually did at holidays. The three of us soldiered on at our small feasts, with or without video feed.
Then – drum roll please – everything changed. I had written a number of posts about Global Warming and the end of civilization as we know it and suddenly, an entirely new and paradoxically warm and even funny story started writing itself in my head.
The upshot is that I have to get it down before I forget it, so I don’t have as much time to write blog posts. I apologize for that and also for feeling interested in life again, especially if you are still not loving it and not writing or whatever. Rumi says, “There is one thing in this world you must never forget to do,” ( Rumi: The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks p.181) What I am learning is this is not a puzzle for serious study and introspection. It is a matter of learning how to play.
(Also I’m so old, I was able to get the Pfizer shot two weeks ago. I apologize for that as well.)
A few days ago, I posted my first discussion of Learning to Die: wisdom in the age of climatechange(2015). In it, I talked about the first essay in this small book “The Mind of the Wild” by Robert Bringhurst. He said that in order to remain sane in this tumultuous time, we need to calibrate our minds by going into the wild. In the second essay, Jan Zwicker recommends practicing the Socratic virtues. Roy Scranton in his Learning to Die: reflections on the end of a civilization (2015) depends on cultural narrative (see earlier posts 115journals.com) and practicing a thoughtful pause before re-tweeting or otherwise passing on hysterical news., contemplative practice and compassion
Most of us, even if we have not had to read Plato’s account of the life of Socrates, know that he administered his own execution by drinking hemlock, subsequent to being found to be an enemy of the state. Jan Zwicker calls her essay “A Ship from Delos”. This ship is, they say the tribute ship that Theseus sailed to Crete, which sails in memorium of the saving of Athens. It sailed away decorated for celebration and no execution can take place until it returns. It has been sighted. Socrates must die.
Zwicker says, “Humans collectively are now in Socrates’ position: the ship with black sails has been sighted.” She goes on to detail facts that show no adequate preparation has been put in place to avoid the ‘catastrophic global ecological collapse ..on the horizon’. (43) Zwicker does not advice ‘duck and cover’ or even ‘shelter in place’. She recommends we each become an ‘excellent human being’ by cultivating Socrates 4 virtues, amending the list to 5 to be clear. As Zwicker interprets them, they are knowing what’s what – with humility, courage, self-control, justice and compassion. Roy Scranton would certainly agree with self-control, while his cultural heritage idea encompasses the others.
IMO as they say on Twitter, knowing what’s what has been a bad problem here in the U.S. and Canada for the last several years. And, yes, sorry, this small country to your north has sheltered Trumpers and anti-maskers, Proud Boys and Jordan Peterson, although they may not have done the same degree of harm. We have only about 24,000 dead of Covid and no assault on the Parliament Building in Ottawa.
The common theme, I have found in the 2 Learning to Die books and in The Mushroom at theEnd of the World: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015) is that they require not more recycling or technical progress, but more character building, more attention so we can endure the future with a measure of grace. (The mushroom is the matsutake, Japan’s favourite.)
The heart of Plato’s portrait of Socrates is ‘How are We to Die?’ Socrates is affable and ironic and demonstrates the 4 -really 5 – virtues that make an excellent man. He is not grieving, although he has compassion for the students he is leaving behind, who certainly are. In the David painting above, Socrates is reaching for the poisoned cup willingly despite his unjust conviction.
The virtues are those that we need at this moment as a pandemic and a serious threat to democracy need to be handled. Of course, global warming needs to be handled as well but this book, like the others I have mentioned is based on the idea that climate change is like Covid-19 in March 2020. It is already too late. The trend is downward toward catastrophe. Our feeble actions may produce some improvement but, as we know 550,000 Americans and about 24,000 Canadians have already died. It is possible we are facing a third wave from variants. Similarly, civilization as we know it is doomed and possibly the race itself. The earth may survive without us. These effects are approaching more quickly than we thought they would. How are we to die?
We die well when we have cultivate the virtues: sophia– wisdom but better translated as knowing what’s what, having the savvy of a person of affairs, yet recognizing there is much we do not know. It is the robust willingness to question belief, to pause as Roy Scranton advised us before we retweet the latest scandal and take the time to question before we magnify an ill-founded lie.
Courage is not just manly spirit. It is the morality and strength required to be aware and not let opinion pass as understanding. We will need physical courage to handle the pain and hardship of civic strife, civil wars, mob violence, death tolls from disaster and pandemic.
Humility is a deep unconcern for the fate of the self. Self-control means not wanting more than enough. Some of us in the economic downturns, such as Covid is giving us, have had that thrashed out of us by events.
Justice, living with the hierarchy of the soul in mind: intelligent governing, warrior safe-keeping and skilled application of virtue, a workmanlike excellence. Contemplative practice works to make us aware of the world and our self.
Compassion is other than a contempt for fear, which leads to denial and and anxiety. Compassion listens and provides companionship in suffering. Awareness of grim truth does not preclude hope. (As I advance into old, old age, which starts at 85, I see that wallowing in despair is not a saving grace. A 95-year-old retired priest once assured me, he felt as if he were going to start kindergarten any day.) Hope involves humility: earth is prodigious and in many ways still very much alive. Our present beauty might fade, but there are other kinds of beauty.
The writer quotes from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace,”The poet produces what is beautiful by fixing attention onto something real… Love, awareness and the desire to respond: these are the distinguishable but inseparable aspects of genuine intelligence.” Later, she is quoted as saying that “prayer is nothing other than the absolutely unmixed attention.”
I never watch CNN now. I gave it up because I can now see such intelligence at work, but for over four-years, like many other Canadians I fixed unmixed attention on the failing democracy to the south. Now I have time to look at Global warming with clearer eyes and to acknowledge responsibility. Weil tells us that our refusal to do so blocks our grief at what’s to come.
“Mourning returns the soul to the community… When we point with our hearts to what we have destroyed, to our addictions and to our self-deception about our addictions”, we are freed into a cleansing grief.
Every family has sayings of wit and wisdom: “Is this where your cookies live?” 3-yr-old English boy, “Not my guinea pig,” one small girl to her sister when their pet dropped dead, “Gee, Lenny, it’s all f—ed up,” 2-yr-old gazing into the engine of a stalled car. I have a new one my family will have to learn. It is at the end of “A Ship to Delos” (71). It is the answer to what did the pilot say as he realized his plane was going to crash?
Many years ago, my mother-in-law, who was not aging well, came for Sunday dinner – roast beef and mashed and brussel sprouts, her favourite. She choked. I leapt to my feet, seized her under her ribs and jerked with all my might. No luck. Her son leapt up and walloped her on the back. No luck. He picked up her tiny body, yelled ‘call the hospital’ and raced for the car.
An ER doctor somehow tweezered out the sprout leaf and she breathed again after 10-minutes, fifteen (?). Whereupon she kicked him.0
I happened upon Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the end of a civilization (2015), advice about how to live in its waning days. The title intrigued me for several reasons. It is outrageous, for one, of course, but it just so happened that a 92-year-old friend made a run at leaving the world at the same time. She got such good care from her daughter-in-law and her son for the next 6-weeks, that she got much better, but the care was killing the carers, and it was 5000 ft. up a mountain in winter. She had a crisis in the middle of a bad snow storm, hours from a hospital, so she had to move to a long term care home in Bakersfield. She calls this $6000 a month accommodation, a prison.
This coincidence lead me to write a number of posts, 115journals Nov 2020- Feb 2021 the first six about learning to die as I observed it and what compromised a good death. The last two posts dealt with the book itself. Scranton like many others, who understand climate science, holds out little hope that our race will survive, but he recommends that we take refuge in our culture, the narratives that have sustained Homo Sapiens throughout its 200,000 year history. Since I had built my life on the study of literature and philosophy, it resonated with me as did his experience as a private in Baghdad. I didn’t serve, except in the private army that was my father’s family. We had spies, assault and defensive units and despite indications to the contrary, we four children survived and grew old. Believe me when I say that we practiced dying every day. We had seen what our father could do.
I was surprised to find there was another book called Learning to Die: wisdom in the age of climate crisis (2018). It is a very small book by two Canadian academics, Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky. It contains three essays, the final one is part of the footnote section and refutes the optimism of Steven PInker’s Enlightenment Now: the case for reason, science, humanism and progress (2018) by pointing out its logical flaws and use of questionable science.
Bringhurst, Zwicky and Scranton are not ghouls smirking and rubbing their hands at the bad news. They have looked at climate science and seen the obvious conclusion: it is already too late to avoid disaster. Yes, it’s good to eliminate plastic from your life, stop flying off to Mexico for the fun of it and driving a gas guzzler, but do you really believe ‘they’ are turning your recycling into new products. Might ‘they’ be sending a lot of it to the third world on barges. Canada has had one such barge returned lately. Oddly, when I surveyed my friends – not a large group, to be honest, but informed and intelligent, they all admitted they also thought it was too late. Seven billion of us and another billion every decade.
Bringhurst advises us to seek grace in the wild in his poetic essay ‘The Mind of the Wild’, first given as an address in British Columbia, Canada. He begins by referring to Mark Twain who said, “It was wonderful to find America, but would have been more wonderful to miss it?” He goes on to tell us that the sailors in 1492 carrying their Bibles with them, like even the best scholars, did not hear the Hebrew text laughing to itself, weaving… puns, reversals and half-rhymes to tell us hubris and pride are a widespread disease. ‘But in translation, no one hears the laughter.’
My first experience of a synagogue was, – these fleeting thoughts are almost subliminal, arising from habituation and actually a profound relief and source of joyonce I’d dealt with the shock -‘Why don’t they sit down and stop chatting and act respectful in a house of God?’ Even if the service hasn’t started yet. Not like Church of England people. The synagogue people are jovial and outgoing at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, maybe funerals, I never went to a Jewish funeral. A joke in the Bible?! Bringhurst has just quoted the bit where humanity is exhorted to ‘be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it’. Oh, unhappy choice of words for ‘upright’ ears. I have spent a 35-year career speaking in public, but casually ask me to speak at Passover dinner.’But I’m not…’ I manage to do as I’m asked but only just. To me that is a kind of wildness, such as I see in African American church services – on TV. I haven’t been lucky enough to have family like the latter, although I’m grandma to a bunch of Rosenbergs.
But even a White Anglo-Saxon can love the wild. When the government took a few feet of my grandfather’s farm to widen the dirt road, he acted as if they had abused his soul. One family lived beyond him and they didn’t want or need a wider road, but look. ‘They’ve moved rocks. ‘They”ve gouged out the slope.
Bringhurst describes the wild as ‘various and rich’ although at least 98% of its species is extinct, ‘so the wild is not only rich and complex but at the same time economical and lean.’ If our species followed its model, there would be fewer than a billion of us.
I have driven across most of America three times, once by myself, once a few weeks after 9/11. Driving west, I got a sunburn on my left arm. And every single day, even on the throughways, I was goggle-eyed at its immensity, its density, its numberless vehicles, its ‘wealth’ of consumer goods. I drove to Chase County, Kansas to see what William Least Heat Moon describes in Prairie Erth as the centre of the county. In the grasslands, I saw crowded pens of cattle getting fed fat and had a delicious steak dinner. The wild punished me by locking my steering wheel. I sat in pitch dark with the light on, reading the owner’s manual for the Toyota Tercel and rereading it until I figured out how to unlock it. (Reef like mad.) Then into the desert. I knew this desert, having come several times from LA to a hot pool near Victorville, so I started out before dawn. I came finally to Fourth St. in Santa Monica and the left turn just before the Pacific Ocean.
I got to know the partially wild ridge trails near Los Angeles – Topanga Canyon, Malibu State Park, Will Rogers, but it was not until 2014 that I found myself in the wilder, forested mountains of Kern County where it abuts Los Angeles County. By then I was flying not driving and requesting wheelchair assistance. I could walk the edges of the wild, but that was all. Fortunately, my daughter could hike the wilderness. She tells me when she is setting out, but since I am stuck in Toronto these days, she also tells someone there and checks in when she gets home. She hikes up to 18 or 20 miles a day, gives me detailed accounts and sends me pictures.
Bringhurst says that in order to stay sane, we have to calibrate our minds by going into he wild. In winter months, I have to settle for ‘virtual’ hikes. Soon I will be able to drive up the Niagara Escarpment to Rattle Snake Point and do the relatively easy climb along the edge, letting the green energy of the woods bring me down to earth.
America is a miracle to me, so huge, so various, so resourceful, so adaptable, so resilient. I really never believed it could be taken down until 2016. In 2020, I knew it could. Because it could be taken down politically, economically and by disease, I lost that faith. My faith in the wild was more resilient, but government was stripping so many protections -both mine, Canadian, and American – that I finally began to get it. Just as Covid testing and Covid protection was too late and too little when it began, it was already a done-deal in mid-March 2020. Nearly 600,000 Americans have died as well as 24,000 Canadians. Before the vaccine and herd immunity can control it, the total for the two countries will be well over a million deaths. So too, our recycling, our pathetic ‘promise’ to keep temperature rise to just over 1 degree centigrade, our efforts to control global warming are doomed. The human body cannot survive a wet bulb temperature of 35 degrees celsius, (Wet bulb – bulb thermometer wrapped in wet cloth for humidity.) no matter how much water is consumed. Sure you can do it one day and maybe more with cooling stations, but not as a matter of course.
Bringhurst uses long term futures to alleviate the reader’s angst. But as my daughter is threatened by California fire, an in-law is flooded in New Jersey, my grandson lives a few blocks from the tsunami line in Culver Ciity/the Marina, the other hunkers down under the stairs in Dallas until the tornado warning lifts and even in Canada, the summer heat keeps us indoors, I have little faith in global warming measures.
The essay tells us that the myth of constant human progress cannot be supported by the wild. We are already asking too much of it and our demands are going to double in a decade. I remember being able to handle that world in the 1950s when we were a billion. Only just. Moving back to a country village 33-years ago, seemed to cool things down for me, but at the cost of a two-hour-long commute every day and fenced-off, tamed wilderness. I could hear packs howling at sunset and peepers singing in the spring, but economically, the hundred-year-old house ruined me.
The author doesn’t think we can save the world. Only the wild can possibly do that. What we can do is save our self-respect. He concludes, as MLK did, that we have a moral obligation, not only to cooperate with good, but also to resist evil and extend civil disobedience to cultural and biological issues as well as unjust laws. Invading the sanctified halls of democracy on trumped up, disproved pretexts doesn’t pass the test of justification.
If we start thinking like an ecosystem, we can go down singing.
Next a post on ‘A Ship from Delos’, an essay on the Socratic virtues as a saving grace, the second in the book.
Roy Scranton published his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the deathof a civilization in 2015 before Donald Trump was elected and Steve Bannon, his disrupter pal moved into the West Wing. Scranton predicted that working and middle class electors facing economic stagnation would react violently to the “cruel optimism” of the system, which never fulfills its promise. Willy Loman’s Death of a Salesman was solitary and self-destructive. Like many Americans, he had put his faith in sports and particularly his son’s success in football. That didn’t work out. Willy got fired instead of retired and the fridge broke down just as they made the last payment. .Like other teachers, I taught the play to seniors as the death of the American dream. Scranton predicted that once the angst of these classes could not be contained by sports, the social fabric would tear and the U.S. would be subject to rioting, rebellion and civil war.
He saw that the daily transmission of feeling, the instant and constant feedback system of television and social media would heighten fear, rage, envy and hatred while not providing the political leverage to effect change. And so President Donald Trump and his groupies, senators, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, serving military and police launched their assault on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, otherwise known as Epiphany -coming of the Wise Men – or St Nicolas Night. The immediate gift was the desecration of the building sacred to democracy, even to non-Americans like me. Five people died that day, 140 were injured, many law enforcement people, and two police committed suicide in the aftermath. All of this to support the entirely debunked lie that the election had been stolen.
To stop the destructive domino effect, we have to stop. Scranton turns to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk who says, “we must let the stress conductor die in us by refusing to pass it on. Instead, we can interrupt the stressor, quietly seeking to understand it. Such an interruption practices dying.
Philosophers from Cicero to Montaigne have said that accepting our end is the beginning of wisdom. Being wise comes down to not being afraid to die.
I began this series of posts when my 92-year-old friend nearly died on Christmas Eve. https://115journals.com/2021/02/13/learning-to-die-5-practicum/ She was incoherent, unable to move and praying vehemently in tongues. Clara practiced meditation and belonged to a humanistic religion, but hadn’t attended church in years and her religion did not practice speaking in tongues. In previous family emergencies, she had arranged for thousands of believers to pray for us. My daughter Julia concluded that all we had ever needed was Clara. In the morning, Clara slept. Waking up, she asked what was for breakfast. She was hungry.
Thanks to six weeks of round the clock nursing in her home and good food, Clara began to sit up, walk and eventually to move to a long term care facility when her care proved to much for her son and daughter-in-law. https://115journals.com/2021/02/14/learning-to-die-6-practicum/ Her outrage at that indignity and the long, boring halls have got her up and walking. At present, she is not going ‘gentle into that good night’.
Dying is easy. Dying well is hard.
When I registered at MacMaster University, I chose Philosophy and English, one to earn a living and one to help me understand why bother. Coincidentally, for the next three months, I was Joyce in the daytime and Anouilh’s Antigone in the evening in the tower room where we rehearsed. The chorus began the 1944 play by introducing the characters. He said of Antigone, “Another thing she is thinking is that she is going to die”. True to form, I got roughed up by the guards and King Creon every time and walled up in a cave by the end. Antigone lived and died for her principles. Nothing futile about that life.
Hannah Arendt is quoted from her book, On Revolution: “the inherent futility of life is negated by the study of certain concepts, certain guideposts for sheer reference which arise out of it”. That has been the lasting effect of my education, which continued as I taught, and read for pleasure. Hundreds of lines of poetry are, for example, at the ready to spring forth for strength and comfort.
Scranton uses the ancient narrative poem, Gilgamesh to illustrate this point. It is an encapsulation of the race’s progress from hunter-gather to agricultural and the rule of the tyrant. It is about the taming of the wild man and yet the need for him. In Baghdad during his service there, Scranton met an Iraqi rock group that eventually made an album called Gilgamesh. By doing so, they used mutual support and decency rather than aggression to connect Iraq and the United States.
By my last year, we philosophy majors had dwindled to 8, 7 tweedy, pipe-smoking guys and me. They had been chortling about Hobbes’ idea that “life is nasty, brutish and short” since we were freshmen. I didn’t get the joke. Our last semester was devoted to Logic. Every single time, the prof called on me, they swiveled in their seats and stared, “What IS she doing here anyway?” I finished the exam in record time and fled to the Dean of Women. Who made me lie down in a darkened cubicle. The professor graded my paper as the men finished writing theirs. The Dean brought back the news. I got 66%. But I didn’t get joke until just lately.
As I enter my old old age at 85, I find I am living in what Scranton calls the photohumanism era. Homo Sapiens as a race passed through the clay tablet era, the papyrus, the paper, the printing press and the powered printing press era until now I can sit at my desk, write and print. And send what I write far and wide. Instantly. With pictures. I can follow the thoughts of important thinkers and respond – if I dare. The trouble is that we are like the horses I knew on the farm, “biologically reactive, easily panicked, all to easily stirred to hate.” Horses will run as a group back into a burning barn. So we read something outrageous, deeply troubling, unjust, abhorrent and we retweet with comment. In short order, we have a large number of people believing that a decent, courageous, educated CNN reporter, who has just introduced his new son to the world, actually eats babies. We live in “networks, webs and hives” (not to mention pods and bubbles.), so that we become vulnerable to the sudden, dangerous empowerment of the hive mind”
This happened in the early days of radio, when Hitler was able to harness the hive mind and its attendant madness. Trump had a much more powerful instrument, Twitter.
To prevent the inevitable hysteria, riot and social breakdown, according to Scranton, we must learn to die. In other words, stop. Don’t react. Don’t amplify your own reaction by passing it on. Suspend the stress chain by pausing, taking time to assess the information, to question the source, to debate, to place it in the framework of cultural history, to “rework the stock of remembering”, to let go.
Well, sure, that pause might prevent another assault on the Capitol, but what does it have to do with the death of a civilization? Scranton isn’t promising a rose garden. He told us in the beginning that we are past the point of saving the world from global warming, although he acknowledges that some of our race may survive the end of civilization and whatever tyrant arises from it as long as we don’t “abandon the memory of the dead”.
To echo James Baldwin, we need to negotiate our passage through life as nobly as possible for the sake of those coming after us. How should I live and die to honour the dead as well as the unborn?
One of the most annoying things about Blake’s dying days (https://115journals.com/2021/02/11/learning-to-die-4-practicum/) was that he wouldn’t stop giving loud diatribes about how we had to change the world’s economy a.s.a.p. We had to pay each human being a living wage and not depend on capitalism to trickle one down. In other words, choose Bernie Sanders as a candidate. Elect Bernie Sanders. While we – his children and I, his ex-wife – were desperately trying to achieve a level of sanitation in his home that would avoid charges of elder abuse, he was reforming economics for future generations. He wasn’t wrong. He was just very distracting. His job, in our minds, was to leave, to end his unbearable pain and weekly emergencies when it overwhelmed him. But he was steadfast. If anyone ever comes back, reincarnated, it will be Blake. And maybe Bernie Sanders.
Blake was forming a new philosophy, a humanistic way to deal with our evolving world.
Roy Stanton describes the argument of his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: we have failed to manage global warming and capitalist civilization is already over. “But that humanity can survive and adapt if we accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths and work to nourish the variety and richness of our cultural heritage.” He goes on to clarify that learning to die as an individual means letting go of our predispositions and fears, while learning to die as a civilization means letting go of a way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success and progress.(24 in e-book)
Blake and I were the first of our working class family to go to university. We became high school teachers. We had worked our butts off to get there, but we assumed life would be like that from now on. We would do better than our parents. We bought our starter house in our late twenties. I went back to teaching because we needed the money. For a few years, maybe 8, we had a comfortable life with a pool, a sail boat and long trips to Europe. When we split up, Blake still had the boat and the Corvette. As the economy ebbed and flowed, I gave up owning. I rent. I lease. I shop at Walmart. Blake left a house worth nearly a million and an old sail boat that I had to give away. I settled his debts and divided the remaining $400,000 among the 3 children. One of them settled her debts.
Yes, there is a disaffected class of those who slipped down. I am not one of the slipping disaffected set. I may have nothing but I have a pension. I am disaffected because I thought that morally and spiritually we were evolving. Then along came the U.S. election of 2016. The pandemic was more of a scientific failure until it changed into a contest between those who were caring and dying and those others. The latter are still advocating the moon is made of green cheese.
Stanton quotes German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, “It is a characteristic of being human that human beings are presented with tasks too difficult for them without having the ability of avoiding them because of their difficulty.”
On a personal and less universally significant level, I once became allergic to almost every food and most of my environment. My condition baffled doctors and limited my life so that I became increasingly weak. I ended up having to have an oxygen tank for severe episodes. It became clear to me that I had to find my own way out. First I began walking around the block. I did that repeatedly until I could walk around two blocks. Then I adopted a macrobiotic diet. I had gained enough strength to be able to cook a pot of brown rice and steam vegetables like seaweed and kale, which I had not eaten previously. Once I was able to return to work, I continued walking for half of my lunch break and for several years I continued the macrobiotic way of eating. Very gradually, without ever having been diagnosed, my condition improved until I more or less back to normal. I remember clearly that when I first began walking, I felt that it was an unsolvable problem, which I had to solve.
Stanton outlines the evolution of the human race starting in Africa 200,000 years ago when average temperatures were 61 degrees F., 3.5 degrees F. lower than now and went even lower. At 135,000 years ago, average temperatures increased +5 F, leading Cromagnum humanoids to flee to more temperate regions. Fifty thousand to 10,000 years ago there was a cultural explosion in the Euphrates valley – cultivating, herding, as well as hunting and gathering went on in the villages, which grew into great cities like Uruk. This civilization ended with a 300-year drought. Five thousand years ago, a series of other civilizations – Greek, Roman, Tang, Mongolian and our own arose.
Human civilization thrived in the Halocene period, the most stable environment in the last 650,000 years. Carbon has ended it.
Because my early life was lived in remote hill country, it was still based mostly on biomass energy. We had no electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing. We did have kerosene lamps, although we still remembered how to make tallow candles. We could hear the hoot of the steam engine across the woods and from time to time a gas-fueled vehicle appeared if the dirt roads were passable. As an adult, I got used to thinking my past was unusual until an immigrant pointed out to me, as he wired my cable, that it was like his own and many other immigrants’ who had come from the middle east.
Stanton considers the possible solutions to global warming that is cutting back carbon emissions. One of the problems of managing the electrical grid is that electricity has to be produced at the moment it is needed. In the week I am writing this, we have seen black outs in southern states, such as Texas, brought about by extremely cold temperatures and correspondingly high demands on the system. These were compounded by the fact that Texas has opted not to link to the federal grid to avoid federal regulations. The governor tried to convince us it was the entirely the failure of solar and wind power. In fact wind power here in Canada is not affected by cold because it’s engineered that way. Texas fired most of its power by natural gas anyway.
One by one, the author deals with possible strategies – sequestering carbon dioxide, nuclear fission, carbon tax, cap and trade, a sulfur blanket in the stratosphere. Grid managers are reluctant to go above 27% of production by wind and sun, since they are variable with the weather, complicating the other variable, demand. The other strategies are either too expensive, potentially harmful – burying nuclear waste, sulfur blanket, impossible to implement as one and in a timely manner. The problem requires the global community made possible by carbon energy to act as one, but economic fallout prevents action.
“The problem is that the problem is too big. The problem is that different people want different things. The problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is us.” (68)
Another post will follow, reflecting on the second half of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
A psychopomp is a conductor of the soul of the dead and mythology pictures it/they as an animal or even a bird. In our hill community, Aunt Mae was a midwife for birth and death. When Georgia, my sister and I were small, we called it a ‘sick-pump’. Most of us still walked to the spring to get a pail of water on the farms, but we could imagine a sick-pump. Aunt Mae roared with laughter.
“I just want you to be ready, so you won’t be scared when you see your first dead person come back. Just treat them real polite and tell them to go to the light.”
“Are they ghosts?” Georgie whispered.
“No, no, girly. They’re just confused at first. Maybe don’t want to leave their people behind. The main thing is we have to keep loving those who pass. It comforts them and gets them pointed in the right direction.”
“What is heaven like?” Georgie.
“Oooh,” Mae sighed. “It’s just whatever you’d like it to be.” She was smiling to herself and her hands were raised to her mouth like prayer steeples.
“Is there hell?” Georgie asked.
“Only here. Only here on earth,” she sighed deeply. “In heaven, there is no judgement.”
“That’s not what the Bible says,” I said, not defensively, just curious.
“Can’t help what some ignorant old ancient wrote. Those old coots surely got a lot wrong. Not the part about Jesus’s love though,” and she was chortling again.
So your country community didn’t have a designated psychopomp? Probably didn’t have gowns with hoods either. You let those burdens fall on your minister/pastor/priest – whatever.
As a child, having no playmates, I explored the corners of the fields and the big rock piles that had been cleared from the hay field. I saw fairies there and small brown creatures in the woods, so I was not alarmed when the odd dead person turned up and sat in the rocking chair. For a while, when I was an adult, I could count on the family dead showing up at least once. Now they seem more likely to visit Georgia. One sat in the middle of her couch for two days, in December. Curiously, I was able to describe what she was wearing, although I hadn’t been there. She wanted to know who had killed her. And she wasn’t even a relative. Georgia had worked out who had done the deed, but she was too tactful to say. It seems as though eventually the departed one figured it out as well and simply vanished.
When people started dying of Covid, I felt their great sorrow and loneliness at being ‘abandoned’. The greater the number of the dead on any given day, the heavier the weight. As I extended my love to them, I knew that many thousands of others like me were doing the same psychopomp work and I could imagine the hosts of angels guiding them home.
I had been following the Auschwitz Memorial Site on Twitter and I began to understand that had happened then as well.
There is a whole theory of how to die, which Robert Thurman or the Tibetan Book of the Dead can teach you. I have read these, but, try as I may, I cannot memorize the stages you pass through: mirage, smokiness, fireflies in the sky, clear candle flame, clear moonlit sky, clear pitch darkness and the clear light of the clear predawn sky. (p. 42.Thurman. Tibetan The Book of the Dead.) I get discouraged. Then as I experience others dying, I know that unenlightened and miserably angry as they might have been at last glimpse, they sailed through to that clear light like Tibetan gurus.
I’m sure it is love that gets them there and I know that this love doesn’t have to be sitting at the death bed. It can emanate from someone thousands of miles away as Blake’s daughter’s did when he passed on.
My first requirement for my own good death is leaving in a timely fashion. I know lucid dreaming is possible. I have stopped a dream before and rearranged things, given myself a weapon or an ally, so I meditate on a lucid death. I very much do not want to stay making my survivors miserable and broke.
I believe a good death is also one with a certain amount of insight. Not still blaming mom and dad for everything. I believe we choose our path and so if my father wronged me terribly, I chose him knowing that possibility. One way or another he made me what I am and I do not want to regret that. Did I add to the world, make somebody’s life better by being here? Was my heart able to open to more than my immediate family? Has humanity taken even a tiny step forward because of some excellence I achieved, however momentarily? Did I create an individual self that demonstrated divinity? Did God see godness through me?
And, of course, can I let go of judgement of myself and others? A toddler trips and falls. No blame.
Next: a reflection of Roy Scranton’s book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene