Weather Weirdness

The deep weirdness of this particular winter weather continues here in New England: day after day of brilliant sun with just occasional cloudiness passing through. The temperature goes down below freezing occasionally at night, but it’s up into the forties, fifties and last week, even low sixties during the day.

Sometimes I appreciate how beautiful it is. I try to go out walking most days for at least a half hour, sometimes over an hour on the many wooded trails that wind through open space — town owned — not far from my home. I watch the sun coming through the bare branches onto the bright moss as I walk, I notice the serene, pastel sky and feel the mild air on my face like a protracted blessing of spring.

But it isn’t spring: it’s winter in Connecticut, and this particular weather has been pretty much what we’ve had through December, January and now well into February. After the freak snowstorm of late October that caused enormous damage because it fell when the trees still held all their leaves, we’ve had exactly one snowstorm, and it left just enough on the ground to last us for two days. That’s it: one winter storm. There is a sameness to the days now, as they rise and fall away without the punctuation of weather changes, without the exclamation points of dramatic — and normal — winter displays of storm.

I know, as we all do, that weather is not the same as climate. I do not forget the extraordinary amounts of snow that fell a year ago, during which our driveway finally had to be cleared with a bucket loader because there was no more room left for any sort of snowplow to push the snow. We had over five feet on the ground that lasted for much of the winter. All over New England roofs collapsed from the weight, and Connecticut alone lost more than 100 historic barns to the weight of that snow.

Yesterday my neighbor told me cheerfully that she’s thrilled with the current weather and she doesn’t worry about climate change because she just averages our two successive winters: last year with so much cold and snow and this year with so little. But of course that isn’t how it works. This weather weirdness is not going to go away. We do the small things that we can to live more consciously — after working toward it for a couple of years my husband and I just bought a used Prius to reduce my commuting footprint. But the big changes that can only be made by government decree are not even close to being enacted. Instead of confronting the need to reduce our use of oil and gas, we’re facing battles over ever more destructive ways of feeding our appetites, like through hydro-fracking.

The sun feels lovely on my face as I walk. And I am filled with dread.

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.

Welcome! What Are You Doing Here?

This post is a reiteration of a recent “Faith Matters” column in the New Haven register, which a number of folks missed and wanted to read:

The Catholic priest Henri Nouwen lived for many years in Toronto, serving as the resident pastor in a community home for mentally disabled adults. He liked to recall what he learned from the way he was greeted by two of the residents there. Each day, a woman smiled at him as if seeing him for the first time and said, “Welcome!” And a man looked at him quizzically and asked, every day, “What are you doing here?”

Nouwen said he came to think of these two members of his group home as angels who brought him important messages each day: the assurance that he is welcome here, and beloved;  and the challenging reminder to ask himself what he is doing with his life on the earth.

This anecdote is one that crystalizes the purpose of a faith community — a place in which we should hope and expect to find both embrace and challenge.  The message of embrace is simple: Welcome! You are welcome here, with your rough patches and flaws, your uncertainties and doubts. Your religious home is meant to be a place where connection and intimacy flourish, where love and respect bind people together across all their differences.

The message of challenge is more complicated, and just as important. What are you doing here?  Behind this question we can hear, as Nouwen did, the implication that we are all still works in progress. Though we are welcome and beloved just as we are, we also have some growing to do in order to be as kind, compassionate and open-hearted as we are called to be. We have some work to do — both on ourselves, and out in the wounded world.

The two messages of embrace and challenge are both essential. Through an open-hearted welcome, we recognize that we are all one people, we human beings — whatever our faith, culture, language or color, whatever lines and walls might divide us. Through our challenge to ourselves, we recognize that we are called endlessly to the task of growing into the kind of people we truly want to be. We’re called to ask: What are we doing here, on this fragile little planet, to bring peace and to ease suffering?

Surely this is the core question for people of every faith — a question by which we build our lives, and bind ourselves to one another.

The Wrong, Wretched Death Penalty

Like so many others, I was part of the long-distance emotional roller coaster surrounding the pending execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.  I signed petitions, wrote e-mails and made phone calls urging the powers that be to institute a stay of execution. I breathed a sigh of relief when the appointed hour came and then passed and he was still alive. And then I watched with both despair and disbelief as the last minute appeal to the Supreme Court failed last night and Troy Davis was executed by the state.

The Washington Post began their story by writing, “After a day of last-minute appeals, including one made to the U.S. Supreme Court, Troy Davis was executed at 11:08 p.m. Davis convinced hundreds of thousands of people, but not the justice system, of his innocence in the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail in 1989.” This is an absurd statement. The tens of thousands of people who opposed Davis’s execution did not do so because we were convinced he was innocent; we are not in a position to make that judgement.

We opposed his execution because there were so many contradictions in this case that Davis’s innocence was a distinct possibility: seven out of nine key witnesses recanted key elements of testimony, and there was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. We opposed his execution because our judicial system is weighted so heavily against black men, a bias starkly evident in the application of the death penalty. We opposed his execution because in states across the country, the Innocence Project has now exonerated more than a score of men — that is, absolutely proven their innocence — who, like Davis, were facing execution.

We opposed the killing of Troy Davis because the death penalty is a barbaric practice that costs our society an intolerable price. We pay for it in the moral contradiction between opposing murder while sanctioning state execution. We pay in the reprehensible fact of its racial bias. We pay through the financial burden of the many years of legal appeals that would not be pursued if the punishment were life imprisonment. We pay in the isolation of being the only western nation that still sanctions execution. And we pay through the soul-deadening willingness to enact vengeance: putting even an inarguably guilty person to death does not bring back the murdered loved one, nor does it make society safer. It just lodges us in the ancient violence of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

I am deeply saddened. And I am more than ever determined to bring an end to the death penalty.

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.”

Primitive Theology

News began to filter out of Haiti Wednesday morning and through the day, revealing to the rest of the world the full and catastrophic dimensions left in the wake of Tuesday’s earthquake. By today there is still no clear understanding of how many are dead and dying, but the numbers will surely reach into the tens of thousands. If international aid on an enormous and sustained scale is not organized and delivered soon, the toll will go on rising for months.

That’s how it works among the poorest of the poor. Catastrophe strikes dramatically in the form of earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, and for a few weeks or months your town or country hits the headlines, your suffering eyes look back at us from the photos, and people who live elsewhere, who live in the unimaginable comfort of running water and supermarkets, scramble to find the best place to send their twenty dollars. And then it all fades out of the world’s consciousness as the next disaster bumps yours off the front pages.

But for you, living in Haiti or Nicaragua or Darfur, the crisis never ends. You were at the rock bottom to begin with, already suffering what is for you an almost normal level of calamity. Now you’re living about as close to a definition of hell as any person could conjure, and you know — because in one form or another you’ve seen it before — that “recovery” will almost certainly mean a new plateau, a new “stability” in which daily suffering is even more profound than what you were living out before the earthquake.

Into the unspeakable injustice of this reality steps televangelist Pat Robertson. On his Wednesday television show he said, “…something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil.  They said we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True Story. And so the Devil said “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

Set aside for the moment that Robertson is not obligated, unfortunately, to cite his sources for this extraordinary declaration. Think instead about Robertson’s notion of God. It is a primitive theology that imagines a Devil with whom one can make a pact: “Okay, it’s a deal!” It is a cruel, senseless theology that posits a God who routinely (eternally?) punishes any single person — much less generation after generation of people — by sending natural disasters to ravage their nation. The Christian Broadcasting Network should be ashamed to have such manifestly un-Christian poison spewed over its airwaves, but Pat Robertson is well-known for this kind of venom. Shame at the cruelty of his own statements or on the part of those who send it out into the world appears to be beyond their moral powers.

So it falls to the rest of us to lift up not only the voice of compassion but a sustained attention to the literally unimaginable suffering that now unfolds in Haiti. It falls to the rest of us to name the Holiness that can move through us, putting our compassion into action. It falls to people of any faith who put connection ahead of blame to not turn away this time, once the media has lost interest, and to sustain our commitment in the weeks and months ahead so that Haitians might not live perpetually in the hell that is created not by Robertson’s “Devil” but by the insidious and far more banal devils of colonialism, racism, corruption and poverty.

Today the New York Times described a scene from last night in Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of people camped outside a wrecked clinic afraid to sleep inside any building because of the aftershocks. “With no electricity, stars offered the only illumination in the city, which, with its suburbs, is home to nearly 3 million people…Then the singing began. Those gathered outside in tents, on lawn chairs, sitting in the middle of empty streets, sang their hymns. One phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls, as if those voicing the words were trying to make sense of the madness around them.

“Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”