Semi-Sermon: Panic and Serenity

**

 I confess. Nasty political news gets to me. It puts my mind in Hell. Yesterday’s NY Times headline reads ‘Trump Gets Terrible — Things can get worse, and with him, they always do.’  Staretz Silouan says Keep your mind in Hell – and despair not!

Yesterday’s paper had a short video of a dog racing toward a mound of leaves and diving in – disappearing into a Mt Edna of leaves!  For the moment, Trump is in exiled!  I try to remember the little things – and big things – that fall outside the ugly frenzy. Hellish news keeps my mind in hell. Other things keep me from despair.  After a winning world series night-game, right fielder Mookie Betts skips the celebrations to feed the homeless on the steps of the Boston Public Library.

There’s nastiness, good news, and long-term damage out there. We’re losing the three-legged balance between Congress, the Courts, and The President. Congress abdicates its role as a check on Presidential power, and Presidential power, unfettered, packs the Courts. It’s creeping dictatorship, the love of power, unchecked revenge against enemies, and demonization of non-whites and Dems. He celebrates violence against journalists in Montana. He waits over a week to notice the murder and dismemberment of a US resident in a Saudi Embassy. He calls a woman “Horseface.”

I got this less than cheering message from a friend in Brazil: “A despicable human being is about to become Brazil´s next president. Things are going to get nasty down here… what’s happening to the world? Could you please enlighten me?”

 I have no enlightening words.

The Washington Post reports that for three consecutive years the average American life span has gone down from drug overdoses. George Will, in the Washington Post, calls this a “disease of despair.”  There are more drug-related deaths now in one year than deaths in the entire 10 yrs. of the Vietnam War.

Loneliness is another killer. We need neighbors, cousins, joy-mates, Grandkids, Otto, and cats. These are survival connections.  To maintain them defuses despair. Openness to Creation also defuses despair.

**

Our Hebrew Bible reminds us that Job found his mind and body rotting in Hell. He suffers affliction after affliction, pain after pain. Then he hears the whirlwind celebrate Creation. He’s overwhelmed. His complaints ‘melt away.’  He had been in Hell, yet at last, despairs not.

The King James has Job say, “I abhor myself. But why would he loath himself? He’s done nothing wrong, And God knows it. He refuses to “curse God and die.” He yields in amazement to the glories of Creation. He “melts away.”   

Steven Mitchell finds the theme this masterpiece of world literature to be “. . . nothing less than human suffering and the transcendence of it; it pulses with moral energy, moral outrage, and deep spiritual insight.” The insight is that despair is not the last word.  “I melt away” is a permissible rendering of the Hebrew, and it captures Job’s amazement at the glory of Creation.

When we think of creation stories, we think of Genesis, but the Lord’s words in the whirlwind or storm give a Creation that to my ear is more vivid than Genesis.  Job’s Lord lays the cornerstone of Creation — “while the morning stars burst out singing / and the angels shout for joy!” Job hears singing, shouting and covers his mouth. He melts away.

**

I can remember worse times – the sixties. That doesn’t make the present OK, but it shows we’ve survived, up to now, even worse. I ducked down in a VW van to hide a Black friend as we drove to Mississippi. Viola Liuzzo, a church activist from Detroit, had been murdered by the Ku Klux Clan.

There were daily Vietnam body counts on the TV news, and many assassinations — Martin Luther King, two Kennedy’s, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, the Oakland, California, school superintendent. Patty Hearst was kidnapped. The civil rights workers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered. There were deaths at Kent State. Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities were on fire.  

So far we’ve been spared assassinations, though twelve pipe bombs have been found aimed at Obama, Clinton, CNN, Brennan, Biden, and others. We’ve been spared lethal, exploding pipe bombs, murders, and burning cities – so far. The president jokes over his disruptions.

Yet even in the violent 60’s the mosaic of experience presented more than Hell. We celebrated the Beatles, and the inspirations of Martin Luther King. There was the rolling surf of the Sonoma Coast and Casco Bay, strangely indifferent to politics. Music, poetry and quiet kindness are indifferent to politics, as is a dog diving head first to disappear into a Mt. Edna of soft leaves.

I’m not advocating quietism, or burying heads in the sand. Our good pastor leapt to a table in defense of the Berrigan Brothers in the ‘60s. I applaud.  I look for quiet moments that remind us of who we are beyond outrage, exhaustion, and despair. I seek hope and quiet as substitutes for fury and desperation. A bit like tai chi, action can be rooted in meditative quiet.

We are mosaics, bits of hell, bits of despair, bits of hope. We walk, see, inwardly wail, and day-dream. We sense ways of taking up with the world and being happy to be of the world. Serenity and hope can elude us but we seek it. We keep our minds in Hell and despair not. Job’s despair is defeated with morning light. He melts away.

**

We are mosaics of moods and responses, mosaics of outrage and relief, shoutings, fears, and tremblings. And we embrace things that are precious — laughing kids and leaping dogs. Serenity – melting away – doesn’t shrink moral space. We melt away in music or star gazing without losing a moral compass, or a sense of the invincibly precious. Whatever the hell, despair not.

Mary Oliver writes: “When it’s over, I want to say:  All my life I was a bride, Married to amazement.  I was the bridegroom, Taking the world into my arms.”

Isaiah is more exuberant. “I will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst forth into song, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

Be married to amazement. Protest, but also let yourself melt. Embrace the invincibly precious. Take up the world in your arms.                              

 

 

 

 

        

Advertisements

The Reality of Love

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 12.22.39 PM**

It’s not like me to be still thinking about a Netflix series three days after the finale.

It’s not like me to be writing at all about a Netflix series.

There’s something mesmerizing, horrifying, yet almost lovable about River – Stellan Skarsgard, who plays the detective. River’s his last name. We never hear his first.  He’s not close enough to anyone to get addressed by his first. And there’s something mesmerizing and, well, lovable, about his sidekick, Stevie (Nicola Walker). Her presence-absence haunts the show and it’s she who unexpectedly teaches River, at long last, to laugh and sing (even if only with her mirage). Does the reality of love depend on a mirage?

This is a crime thriller, and as important, a family drama, and a study in hearing voices and hallucination. It’s a study in the abuse of illegal immigrants who will do anything, including murder, to get residency. It’s a story of marital infidelity and the bare-faced corruption of apparently good men in high  places.

Because there are six episodes, we see Stevie’s murder, in agonizing slow motion, numerous times. Working a case with River, she has ventured into the street just outside a suspect take-away shop. A gunshot from an approaching car throws her violently to the pavement.

We watch the scene as River studies the video in slow-motion looking for clues. Stevie had no apparent enemies. River has no apparent friends. He was abandoned early in life and his friendless solitude no doubt has roots there. Perhaps his ‘visitations,’ where a cast of three or four characters periodically appear to taunt him, are rooted in that trauma.  The maternal, adorable, hugable Stevie appears regularly in postmortem visitations. She’s there not to taunt but to smile, and cast an unforgettably vibrant radiance his way.

It would be fruitless – and tedious — to try to replicate the twists and turns of the plot. Let’s just say it’s gripping, through six episodes. After her death Stevie appears repeatedly to coach River, to edge him out of his icy reticence. Bit by bit she succeeds. He goes for a generous midnight swim with her son (she’s there for us on screen though invisible to all but the hallucinating River). She coaxes him toward holding and smiling a bundled infant still in diapers. As he drives, she turns on the radio to sing along. With her smile and magnetism she tries to entice him to join. She’s a good angel, and ever-so humanly alive. The catch is that all her appearances are River’s postmortem hallucinations.

River is perceived by most others as ‘nuts-o’ – yet tolerated for his brilliant detective work. They’re utterly baffled when he undergoes an hallucinatory seizure. Yet somehow we’re taken in by Stevie’s admiration and warmth and so we avoid the temptation to view him in a clinical light — though we don’t for a moment doubt he actually gets accosted by the mirages we see on screen. And we utterly believe in the magnetically joyful Stevie. In fact, she is clearly as real as he is — perhaps more real. As is her love.

 

Walden on the Rocks

Thoreau believed that we, like Nature itself, can renew ourselves “completely each day.”

*
This is an essay by the Chilean-Ameican writer Ariel Dorfman found in the latest NYReview of Books.  It treads the shores of Cape Cod, strewn with the bodies of shipwrecked Irish immigrants.

**

The bodies are strewn everywhere along the beach. Burials are complicated because nobody knows the names of the dead—mostly women and children fleeing famine and poverty, trying to reach the land of plenty that has been promised to them but finding, instead, an early end in turbulent waters. Spectators gape at the debris from the recent shipwreck “cracked up like an eggshell on the rocks,” while others go about their business.

“In the very midst of the crowd about this wreck,” writes an eyewitness to the aftermath of the disaster, “there were men with carts busily collecting seaweed which the storm had cast up, and conveying it beyond the reach of the tide, though they were often obliged to separate fragments of clothing from it.”

This scene of devastation and indifference seems torn from the latest headlines or photos from around the world, just one more group of refugees appearing fleetingly on our screens and in our consideration. In fact, the victims of this particular wreckage were 140 Irish immigrants who perished when the St. John, the ship upon which they had sailed to “the New World, as Columbus and the Pilgrims did,” crashed on the shores of Cape Cod during a huge storm in October 1849. The eyewitness referred to above, without whom we might not remember the incident at all, was none other than Henry David Thoreau.

It is not that story of bereavement on the shore that first comes to mind when thinking about Thoreau today. This year’s articles, exhibits, commemorative stamps and the like to mark the bicentennial of his birth have focused, rightly, on a life dedicated to nature in its multiple and luminous forms, and his ground-breaking call to civil disobedience. But it is worth turning our attention as well to that lesser known experience of his on Cape Cod, the calamity he witnessed such a long time ago that nevertheless feels so sadly contemporary. Thoreau issues a challenge to us over the chasm of time and we would do well to listen to him.

What strikes me most today is how Thoreau understood and demarcated the moral dilemma posed by anyone confronting a catastrophe such as the sinking of the St. John. He contemplates the workers who, with “no human interest in the matter,” go on with their everyday lives: “Drown who might, they did not forget that this weed was a valuable manure. This shipwreck had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society.” And he notes that, for an old man who, along with his son, was carting “the wrecked weed” to his barnyard, “those bodies were… but other weeds which the tide cast up, but which were of no use to him.”

Thoreau is not judgmental about this attitude, perhaps because it strangely mirrors his own dispassionate detachment. With the eloquence typical of his discussions of his own mental meanderings and contradictions, Thoreau explains the reason for his emotional distance: “If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more,” adding that rather than “all the graveyards together… it is the individual and private that demands our sympathy.”

It is an uncomfortable observation, all the more so for being undeniable. In this year alone, the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, innumerable migrants continue to die without most of us in the West having any idea about the contours of those lives, their identities, dreams, faces. Who knows anything about the hundreds of unheralded Mexican and Central American migrants who have died anonymously this year trying to cross the desert which, like a vast dry perilous ocean, separates Mexico from the United States? Or about the Rohingya who have recently been consumed by the Bay of Bengal as they attempted to escape the massacres in Myanmar? Are we in the privileged West not equally ignorant of the lives and deaths of almost three thousand migrants from Africa and the Middle East who have perished at sea in search of sanctuary in Europe, one hundred of them in the last few days alone, including twenty-six Nigerian women, most of them underage, who may have been raped before they drowned?

Could it not be said of them, as Thoreau wrote of the Irish corpses he contemplated, “Why care for these dead bodies? They really have no friends but the worms or fishes.”

We are faced today, as we will unfortunately be tomorrow, with the same ethical quandary that Thoreau formulated so elegantly but was unable to resolve: How can we breach the gap in empathy that resurfaces every time we are bombarded with news and images of corpses on the shore or in the desert or under the ruins of a city, so many bodies blurring into one another that we cannot meaningfully process the fact of their deaths?

One way of counteracting that “collapse of compassion,” as psychologists call it, is to take a route that Thoreau did not follow. He ascribed the fate of those corpses to the workings of Nature, avoiding any mention of the “visible vibration in the fabric of society” that led those families to flee their homeland. He does not address (either here or elsewhere in his work) the famine that drove so many starving inhabitants of Ireland to emigrate, a famine that was man-made and not at all due to “the law of Nature.” The potato blight that compelled those Irish families to mount perilous boats was exacerbated by social and economic afflictions: exploitation by absentee landlords; land tenancy that favored grazing over crops and made farmers dependent on one vulnerable strain of potatoes; the export, by Ireland’s colonial government, of enormous amounts of food at the very moment when the people of that island were starving.

Today, if each of us cannot fully bring into our hearts all the faraway fatalities we see on the news, we can at least try to acknowledge and understand the causes of such cataclysms, a necessary step toward preventing further carnage. Civil wars, poverty, political repression, droughts, and pollution are ordained not by Nature but by Man. In fact, it is our human ravaging of Nature, the very depredations that Thoreau most dreaded—“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste to the sky as well as the earth”—that is so often the source of the conflicts and scarcity that have pushed many millions to search for salvation in foreign lands. A desperate quest destined only to get worse: the International Organization for Migration reports estimate of between 25 million and 1 billion additional refugees created by man-made climate change by 2050.

If Thoreau did not analyze the storm of social ills behind the tragic shipwreck he was witnessing with the perceptiveness and patience he lent to his descriptions of trees and flowers and streams, he does provide a model of what needs to be done when we feel helpless and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the horrors that assail us daily. He would urge us, in these times when the Earth he venerated is so assaulted and pillaged, when communities have been destroyed and their residents forced to flee, that we heed his call, in “Civil Disobedience” (1849), or nonviolent resistance to oppression. He might say to us now, as he said to his fellow citizens then, that it is “not too soon for honest men to rebel.”

Thoreau practiced what he preached. Opposing what he deemed the two evils of his day, slavery and the Mexican-American War (waged, he believed, as an imperial project to expand the territory for slavery), he refused to pay his taxes, preferring to be jailed. It was this stance that prompted him to write the essay “Civil Disobedience,” which was to inspire Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. The latter echoed Thoreau in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

It is true that most of us possess neither the courage nor the stamina to undergo such drastic penalties. That does not mean, however, that we are condemned to lead “lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Thoreau does not demand that everyone display a taste for martyrdom. On the contrary, two hundred years after his birth, he has gentle advice for his readers, suggesting how each of us might build a legacy of creative protest: “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once done well is done forever.”

Thoreau believed that we, like Nature itself, can renew ourselves “completely each day.” If we listen to his voice intensely and deliberately, perhaps we can be encouraged, each of us on our own terms, to discover that small way to contribute to a different sort of society. Because those bodies scattered upon the sand and the sea that Thoreau saw—a vista obscenely repeated in our time—are, if we dare to look deep into the canvas of our imagination, harbingers of the communal fate that is in store for the ship of humanity as it heads toward the rocks. They are a warning to us to act now, to sing the song that is still in us, before it is too late to prevent the wreck that awaits us all on this damaged planet. And with no Thoreau left on the beach to tell our tale.

November 29, 2017, 12:40 pm

**

Some of you will know that I too, EM, am fascinated with the passage Dorfman frames from Thoreau’s book Cape Cod. In Excursions with Thoreau (Bloomsbury), p. 90, I write:

Finding nature accepting deaths in due course releases Thoreau from the sense that his losses are uniquely his to endure or protest alone. “Every part of Nature teaches that the passing away of one life is the making room for another.”[1]  It’s striking that Thoreau makes this entry on the first page of his newborn Journal. For him, from the start, the crack of dawn cuts through lingering darks. There’s nothing dejected in Thoreau’s raising a cairn to Margret Fuller by the surf off Fire Island where she drowned and was ravaged by sharks. [The search for Fuller gets lifted from his Journal into his book, Cape Cod, without mentioning his earlier mission to recover her body.] Here is the passage — I’d call it majestic in its affirmative mourning:
I expected that I should have to look very narrowly at the sand to find so small an object, but so completely smooth and bare was the beach . . . that when I was half a mile distant the insignificant stick or sliver which marked the spot looked like a broken spar in the sand. There lay the relics [Fuller’s bones] in a certain state, rendered perfectly inoffensive to both bodily and spiritual eye by the surrounding scenery, a slight inequality in the sweep of the shore . . . It was as conspicuous on that sandy plain as if a generation had labored to pile up a cairn  . . . It reigned over the shore. That dead body possessed the shore as no living one could.[2]
[1] Journal, Oct. 24, 1837, p.  3.
[2] Cape Cod, p. 123.   The roots of this passage appear in Journal Oct 31, 1850, p. 80.