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.