Time (Again)

In her new collection of poems, Jane Hirschfield writes,

A day is vast.

Until noon.

Then it’s over.

 

Yesterday’s pondwater

braided still wet in my hair.

 

I don’t know what time is.

 

You can’t ever find it.

But you can lose it.

Every one of those short lines resonates for me. Like Hirschfield, I don’t know what time is. But I know with awful intimacy lots of ways to lose it. Last week I spent one whole morning indulging a kind of fierce nostalgia brought on when two of my three children flew back out to Chicago where they now live. The Christmas vacation had been lovely, with all three kids under our roof for what seemed at the start to be an enormous stretch of unstructured time — but which was suddenly over.  With the house again feeling too big and too quiet, without even realizing it I found myself wandering in the land of memory, going back to their childhoods, baffled and sad that all of that time has passed.

Nostalgia is a classic way of losing time. If we think about it through a spiritual lens, we can recognize that it is also a form of suffering: willful, self-inflicted, delicious in a kind of perverse way — but still, in the end, suffering. We get seduced by a sweet memory, and  instead of lightly waving to it with an easy smile, we cling. Before we’ve even recognized what’s happened, the interior weather has gone grey and cold.

When I caught hold of my own nostalgia last week, it was because I realized — again and for the millionth time — that this is the truth about our backward gazing. I stopped myself and questioned this sadness swirling around me: Is there something I regret? Something I want to change or do differently? Not at all! The truth is more embarrassing:  I want to have done exactly what I have done with my life so far, lived everything that I have lived — but I don’t want it to have taken any time!  I want all the events, adventures, relationships and experiences, but I don’t want to have aged in the process, and I want still to have the same wide swathe of years in front of me that I felt I could count on when I was thirty.

What a greedy little mind, and how delusional! There are only two antidotes, as far as I’ve been able to discover. One is gratitude: we pry open these clinging hands of ours and lean into our gladness for all that life has brought us. And we bring our minds back here, to the present moment — the place where our bodies always live, after all, no matter where our imaginations wander — and greet this moment as a gift.

William Stafford wrote a poem about time called “The Gift”, which ends with these words:

It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,

the composting of where you’ve been and how people

and weather treated you.  It’s a country where

you already are, bringing where you have been.

Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,

turning the world, moving the air, calling,

every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”

 

So welcome in this new year. Here, take it: it’s yours.

Greeting a New Year

Just Now, by Ted Kooser

Just now, if I look back down
the cool street of the past, I can see
streetlamps, one for each year,
lighting small circles of time
into which someone will step
if I squint, if I try hard enough —
circles smaller and smaller,
leading back to the one faint point
at the start, like a star.
So many of them are empty now,
those circles of roadside and grass.
In one, the moth of some feeling
still flutters, unspoken,
the cold darkness around it enormous.
(from Flying at Night)

The start of a new year is a good time to take stock of our lives — not so much in the framework of the typical New Year’s resolutions, but in a larger sense. At the turning of a year we’re more than usually aware of the simple passage of time. Are we doing what we want to do with this precious gift of life?

It’s not always an easy question to answer. There are so many elements of life that are out of our control, after all: we might be stuck in a dull job that we need to keep in order to pay the bills, or we might be hanging on to a sour living situation because we can’t afford to move. Maybe we’re struggling with illness, grief or depression. In those cases we’d say, “No, I’m not doing what I want to do with my life, but what are my choices?”

The concept of equanimity is familiar within the practices of Buddhism, and for a long time the word brought to my mind the serene face on a statue of the Buddha. That seems to be what equanimity looks like, but it isn’t usually the face that I wear, or that you wear, when we’re surprised by changes we didn’t want or stuck in a situation we’d like to exit. But then I learned that in Pali, the language spoken by the Buddha, “equanimity” translates more literally as “to stand in the middle of all this.” I love that definition, and I hold to its wisdom each time I take stock of my life at the turning of the year.

We don’t get to choose the good and the bad that will visit us in the new year we’ve entered, and it’s unlikely that we’ll greet the winds of change with balanced calm and serenity at all times. That vision of equanimity is more than we can manage. But “to stand in the middle of all this”? That’s something we can do. We can ground ourselves in spiritual practices that let us breathe more deeply and see more clearly. We can commit ourselves to a community of faith we trust and love. We can open our eyes each day with the intention to heal, in some small way, one of the wounds in the world around us.

All of these things help us “stand in the middle of all this” – in the middle of the rush of our lives. They help us see it differently, greet it differently, as we recognize both our feast of losses, and the preciousness of each stone in the road, each thing that comprises our sweet lives.

Slouching Out Of Iraq

Yesterday the New York Times reported on Iraq in the immediate wake of the U.S. withdrawal:  “Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq threatened on Wednesday to abandon an American-backed power-sharing government created a year ago, throwing the country’s fragile democracy into further turmoil just days after the departure of American troops.”

Okay, for starters, could we please agree to stop using the term “fragile democracy” in this context? Iraq is not and has never been a democracy, fragile or otherwise. Constructing a democratic government was the thin disguise for a U.S. invasion that was premised on other things: illusory weapons of mass destruction, getting rid of Saddam Hussein and the drive to secure the American oil supply.

Webster’s defines “democracy” as:                                                                                       a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority                                                   b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. 

The stage props that the United States set up to create an illusion of this definition are swiftly crumbling just days after our army withdrew, so let’s stop pretending that it is a “fragile democracy” that’s struggling in Iraq.  The Times article continues: “The escalating political crisis underscores the divisions between Iraq’s three main factions — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — that were largely papered over while the American military maintained a presence here and lays bare the myriad problems left behind with the final departure of American troops: sectarianism, a judiciary that the populace views as beholden to one man, and a political culture with no space for compromise…..I’d say that this analysis is a direct contradiction of the earlier characterization in this article of a “fragile democracy”.

Why am I making a big deal about this? Because words matter, and the truth matters. Call Iraq a “fragile democracy” and it implies all kinds of things: that the United States really intended to foster democracy in Iraq and truly succeeded in that wildly ambitious plan; that this delicate new flower of freedom is now threatened by outside forces bent on destroying it; and that the United States will be positioned on the sidelines, wringing its collective hands in regret that our well-intentioned efforts, so heavily financed by both money and the lives of over 4,000 Americans, are threatened by the forces of evil.

It would be well to point out that if our goal in Iraq had been democracy, we could have begun at any point during Saddam Hussein’s rule, since we established and sustained him in the first place. And it would be honorable to admit that the people of Iraq might organize for their own democracy, like those in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have begun to do, if they’d not been beaten down not only by years of dictatorship, an earlier US war, terrifically costly sanctions and then nine years of another US war.

I’m in the mood for a little humility and a lot of truth-telling as this shameful war winds down. I will not say “ends” because it is not going to end, though the US troops are largely withdrawn. We have set the conditions for more suffering. The least we can do is be honest about it.

Veterans’ Day Prayer in a Time of War

Light a candle to name this hollow sadness,
to name the fear, and the tendrils of despair.
Watch the fragile light flickering there, and promise
in the name of all that is holy
that you will shelter within yourself an answering flame:
the call of peace, the insistence on peace,
setting other lights ablaze for as long as it will take.

Pray for the soldiers of our country,
warriors who battle in our name.
They are so young, these sons, these daughters.
They are afraid they will be killed,
afraid they will do grievous harm.
They are frightened of failure, and of what they must do
to succeed.
Pray for the safety of their bodies and the wholeness
of their spirits;
pray for some comfort to touch the ones who love them.

Pray for the soldiers of our enemy,
whose names are shaped by a foreign tongue.
Pray for their safety and wholeness as well.
Pray to remember that these are our brothers:
they bleed when they are wounded,
their hearts break in sorrow.
Like us, they long for a gentler day
when they might wake to the morning in peace
and know themselves to be safe.

Light a candle in a time of war.
Do not hide from the truth of what unfolds now
on the far side of the sweetly spinning earth.
Remember: swords do not shape themselves
into plowshares.
That work is in our hands.                                                                                                From Shine and Shadow, Kathleen McTigue, 2011 Skinner House Books

Evicting the Occupiers (or not)

I’ve been scratching my head a bit over the Occupy Wall Street events of the last 24 hours. Why would the Bloomberg administration order an evacuation of the protesters right on the eve of a well-publicized call to action? It was completely predictable that since several thousand new protesters were already gearing up to join in, a significant percentage of them would get there early in order to prevent evacuation. Hence the “oops” moment early this morning, when the police action was called off in the face of 3,000 new bodies.

But the whole thing was a bit peculiar. Why would the police decide in the first place to descend the day before a major mobilization? Why not wait until Sunday, after the day trippers had returned to their jobs and other commitments far from the epicenter and media attention? (Of course, that’s probably exactly what they’ll now do).

Maybe the timing was absolutely arbitrary: it took this long to figure out some marginally legal ploy for booting people off the property. Maybe it was just a dumb mistake on the part of the city administration, so fixated on getting rid of the protest that they neglected to notice the gathering energy right under their noses. But another, grimmer possibility exists as well. It’s conceivable that the choice of timing was a cynical calculation made precisely because larger numbers were expected this weekend. More people means more chaos, especially when the police are pushing people around.

One of the images noticeably absent from all the Occupy protests thus far has been any violence on the part of the protesters. Is it possible that the timing of today’s aborted police action was chosen in the hope of serious confrontation? One clear image of a bandana-disguised protester hurling a brick through the pristine glass of the surrounding office buildings would just about do it, if the goal is to scuttle support for this movement. Is it possible that the Bloomberg administration is itching for just this kind of image to broadcast?

When I visited Liberty Square this past Monday, one of the most striking things in the densely packed community was the high level of organization of the physical space (kitchen, comfort station, media table, meditation corner). But just as evident is the philosophical organization. It’s crystal clear that beneath the profoundly egalitarian, participatory nature of this action, there is a foundation of disciplined nonviolence. All around the square there are reminders of this commitment. Everyone there has been educated in the practices of nonviolent resistance, and among the consensus statements reiterated in flyers and on the website is the repetition of zero tolerance for any level of physical violence.

So when the postponed confrontation finally comes, if it results in one of those iconic images of protester violence I’ll be among the skeptical. The government use of provocateurs has a long and well-documented history in our country. If we see violence, my bet is that it won’t arise from Occupy Wall Street, but from those who want to deflect attention from the compelling message at the heart of the protest. May we hold to that message — of the culpability of corporate greed and the need for fundamental, nonviolent change — no matter what provocations arise.

Occupying Wall Street

I’ve been a little slow to really focus in on the demonstrations against Wall Street in New York — which have now begun to spread to other US cities. September is a busy month under normal circumstances, and it was easy to be doubly distracted by taking one kid off to college and helping another one launch into her last year of high school.

I’m chagrined that it took me a few weeks, but I have begun paying more attention, and next week I plan to spend a day with the protesters myself. I know that the whole idea of occupying Wall Street might seem the perfect example of tilting at windmills, an analogy that is supported by some of the earnest, idealistic rhetoric coming out of the protesters. But I’m actually in the mood for some earnest idealism, and I’m also in the mood to join my own voice to others who are venting their outrage at the appallingly skewed system we’ve been living with docilely for far too long. And idealistic or not, I am quite certain of one thing: Wall Street is precisely the right target.

Do you remember the massive protests that were held all over the world in February 2003? An effort to prevent the disastrous Iraq War, they involved many millions of people in over 800 cities globally. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the most massive protest in human history. I joined it in New York City, along with my mother and oldest daughter, and in frigid temperatures we walked until the crowd became so utterly massive that it couldn’t move: we filled the streets for dozens of blocks and by sheer numbers rather than intent, brought the city to a halt. I remember city buses and taxi cabs simply abandoned in intersections: they couldn’t move. In all my years of activism I had never experienced anything close to the size of that crowd, and our knowledge that similar crowds had gathered around the globe, passionately speaking out for peace, made it feel possible that our voices would actually carry the day.

Remember what happened next? We went to war, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and still counting all of these years later.

When the war began I remember thinking with fierce sorrow that if we could have brought those same crowds to New York on a weekday rather than a weekend, we would have paralyzed Wall Street. And paralyzing Wall Street might have kept the war from happening.

Whatever is beginning right now, Wall Street has not yet been occupied, at least not to any degree that forces the attention of the powers that be. But maybe we’ll get there, this time. At least it’s starting in the right place.

Beyond Earth Day

A few months ago, I had a date with my dentist for the tedious and unpleasant process of a root canal. Like dentists everywhere he knows that no one comes into his office with eager anticipation so in an effort to put his patients at ease, he chats for a minute or two before he gets started. My visit came in the middle of February which, as you may recall, was a kind of wild time weather-wise for parts of the Northeast, where people found themselves digging out from record levels of snowfall. So this was the topic of my dentist’s chat, and he ended his commentary on the weather by stating, with absolute conviction, “I guess this finally proves that global warming is a myth.”

I, of course, begged to differ, and though I was at a physical disadvantage with my head already tilted toward the ground and a very bright light shining on my face, I started in on climate change and the scientific consensus that three feet of snow in Washington DC is irrelevant to the overall rising of the earth’s temperature and the devastating consequences. My dentist replied, with a touch of irritation, that there are just as many scientists who think the earth’s climate is doing just fine.

At about that point I realized that he was poised to put some very sharp things into my mouth and that it was probably not the best time to continue the argument, so I murmured something placating and he went about his work.

But it got me thinking about the whole realm of denial when it comes to climate change. The scientific evidence is so overwhelming that it’s quite literally undeniable. So why is there still so much denial? Part of the reason surely has to do with politics, on the largest scale. Of the one hundred largest economies in the world, fifty-three are corporations. Exxon-Mobil is larger than 180 nations. Corporate interests have enormous power to influence policy and public opinion, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

But part of the problem also has to do with the simple, powerful human tendency to not want to see or know or feel what is painful. We are all together in this. Even among those of us who are absolutely convinced about the threats to our environment, most of us don’t live as though this were true. For instance, despite how far apart we are in our perspectives on the environment, my dentist and I may not be far apart at all in how we’re actually living on the Earth. He drives an SUV, but I drive an aging mini-van, which is not much better when it comes to fuel efficiency. We both live in a small town that has absolutely nothing in the way of public transportation, and there are no economies of scale for energy supply.

I don’t know whether or not my dentist recycles or hangs out his laundry on a line instead of using the dryer or puts his garbage into compost instead of the dump or uses energy efficient light bulbs or keeps his heat turned down in the winter. I do all of these things, and I know that they weigh almost nothing on the scales of climate change. What we’re up against requires much more of me than I have so far been willing to give: more of my attention, more focus on what I can change in how I live, more will and determination to make those changes, more advocacy and agitation at the policy level than what I have given. To what can I attribute these truths about my own life except some form of denial?

It is disturbing to turn and look squarely at the toll that industrialized human life has taken and is taking on the Earth. It is painful to accept the truth about what is already happening: to know how rapidly the deserts are growing, how steadily the rainforests are being destroyed, how vast the dead regions already are in the oceans, how imperiled are the glaciers, the coral reefs, the polar bears, the bats, the wild tigers, even the lovely little peepers, the frogs that cry out the sound of spring all around us here in New England.

And it is heartbreaking almost beyond the bearing to let in the information about where all of this is leading us, the steep slope down which we are already tumbling pell-mell.

So even though the information is all around us, even though we might make ourselves read it or listen to it, it’s very hard to make ourselves really take it all the way into consciousness. We know, but so many of us don’t live as though we know. We watch ourselves instead live as though all is well, as though it’s okay, as though somehow these enormous problems will solve themselves.  We are living in a dream.

In his book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, Gus Speth writes, “People have conversion experiences and epiphanies. Can an entire society have a conversion experience?” He doesn’t know the answer to his own question, and neither do we; but we know that nothing less than this kind of society-wide conversion will be enough to bring us back from the tipping point in climate change.

Culture change on this scale means a completely different orientation toward what we mean by words like success and responsibility. Success cannot mean bigger or more or richer; it has to mean less stuff, greater wisdom, and finding joy in one another’s joy rather than in winning out over each other. The focus on individual wants and preferences has to yield to a sense of solidarity.

And the long human habit of seeing ourselves as somehow outside of nature, in control of it, has to yield to the truth about our place in the scheme of things. We are part of the Earth: a part that has consciousness, so we have a lot more responsibility than a rock or a tree. We have to use our minds to figure out how to protect and preserve the planet.

And infinitely more challenging than this, we have to use our minds to change our minds: to take charge of our own endless desires and to finally stop our grasping and our using up, our dumping and our reckless speed, our denial and our indifference. It isn’t easy, but it isn’t hopeless either. As Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy puts it, “Another world is not only possible. She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”