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.

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.”

Cute Doesn’t Cut It

My oldest daughter has always been petite — one of the smallest kids in her class. As recently as last month, a woman in our congregation asked her whether she’d begun sixth grade this year (she’s a sophomore). My daughter takes it in stride — except if someone makes the mistake of declaring her “cute”. The deep-freeze chill that instantly enters the room makes it pretty clear to the transgressor that the word is not considered a compliment.

This attitude runs in our bloodlines: the women in my family don’t do “cute”. My younger daughter is far more interested in her skill and strength at riding horses than in how she looks in the latest fashion. My aunt was the first female ranger and then biologist in Yellowstone Park, and has faced off grizzly bears, rutting elk and renegade buffalo in the course of her years there. My Montana cousin and both her daughters hunt deer and elk enough to feed themselves and a few lucky relatives, and they do everything themselves: from tracking the animals to making them into steak and sausages. My sister sells commercial real estate in Chicago, where she routinely plays hardball with the big boys. And I came into ministry early enough to be told from more than one male colleague (though not within my own denomination) that a woman in the pulpit was an abomination.

We do very well, thanks. We’re tough and smart and skilled; we’re opinionated as hell, and sometimes way too judgmental and impatient. Along with these qualities, some of us are even damned attractive. But ‘cute’?

Please.

Enter Sarah Palin. During last night’s debate, I was startled the first time she gave that flirtatious little wink of hers. The second and third times I was simply revolted. This is the woman the Republicans think should be the political partner to the President of the United States? This is the woman who wants our help to bust through the glass ceiling right next to the one Hillary Clinton almost cracked? This is the woman we’re supposed to believe could competently lead our nation if a President McCain should die in office? And she’s letting us know that she’s ready for all of this because she’s so…cute??

It’s probably too much to hope that Palin feels a bit ashamed of herself. She’s been using these li’l lady tricks for much too long. But the Republican party, and especially smart, competent Republican women, should be ashamed. What we need is experience and savvy, intelligence and creativity, skilled diplomacy, intellectual curiosity, compassionate attention to those who suffer, brilliant problem solving, a good dose of humility and as little self-righteousness as is humanly possible.

“Cute” isn’t even on the list.

Take a Deep Breath

May you live in interesting times.

The phrase is supposed to be an English translation of an ancient Chinese curse, though it’s probably of much more recent (and western) origin. Whatever its roots, on first hearing it sounds like more of a blessing than a curse. After all, who would really want to live in boring times? But its meaning as a curse is clear to anyone whose life has been turned upside down by the large forces that can unravel whole nations and cultures: war, plague, hunger or economic upheaval. They make people wish for the stability and certainty that might not seem very interesting in historical retrospect but are in fact much more pleasant to live through.

We are now officially living in interesting times. Today the stock market fell by almost 800 points in reaction to Congress balking at the mind-blowing price tag of a bailout. Why would anyone think this debt-ridden and greed-driven economy could go churning on forever? My current favorite quote on the topic sounds as though it comes from some irate curmudgeon shaking his fist at the current news: “The budget should be balanced; the treasury should be refilled; public debt should be reduced; and the arrogance of public officials should be controlled.” In fact, it’s from Cicero, who lived 106-43 B.C.

It’s a weird time to be living through, since we have no idea at all how far the unraveling will go. Maybe in a few weeks everyone will dust themselves off and carry on as though nothing much has happened, but I doubt it. And wherever we collectively land, it is a time of high anxiety. People are losing their homes, and tent cities are already springing up in some towns. People without a job watch their chances dwindle, and a lot of others whose jobs seemed secure a month ago are waking up at night in a cold sweat. People who thought they could live comfortably on retirement savings can see those savings evaporate into thin air. And as the economy tanks, it’s pretty easy to predict that what’s left of the safety net for the most vulnerable will just disappear.

Those of us in parish ministry are each at the center of a little circle of stress, as our troubled people turn to one another and to us for a word of comfort. There’s not much that we or our congregations can do to impact a global economic crisis (but for God’s sake VOTE FOR CHANGE!). But there is a whole lot we can do to sustain one another in an age of anxiety. We can remind each other to take a deep breath, and look up at the sky so we can see that it isn’t falling. We can gather in worship, and in our smaller circles of study or support, sociability or labor, remembering to speak a calming word or add an extra kindness to what we’re doing. We can bind ourselves solidly to a particular small ship and its crew, in the faith that together we will work out ways to weather the storm. We can stay centered, sane and peaceful in our spiritual practices. And one day we will look back together from a safe distance, and shake our heads as we remember how interesting the times were back then…

Fear and Trembling in the Blogosphere

Sometimes I wonder when I will finally hit my technology threshold and become wholly incompetent in the art of adaptation. This is my first posting on my first blog, and I know I’m late to the party. There is a simple explanation: I am a techno-peasant, and I am old. Only fifty-two, but still: the generation gaps, which used to be counted in decades, now seem to occur every few years.I taught myself how to type on a manual typewriter in my first year of college; my kids learned to type in school, on computers, in second grade. I bought my first computer when I was thirty-one; my kids have been using them since they were tall enough to drool on the keyboard. And I didn’t really start using e-mail consistently until about the end of the last century. By now, as my daughters explain to me pityingly, e-mail is “old people’s technology”. The girls are now thirteen and fourteen years old and, with the temporary schizophrenia that characterizes the teenage years, they are capable of simultaneously wishing their parents were cool and finding it “gross” that we are on Face Book.So why would I start to blog? There are three reasons, none of which have to do with a perverse need to add one more thing into my insanely packed days.

Number one: I am really tired of the degree to which “religion” and the “religious perspective” are still so dominated by the those who are conservative in their faith and right-wing in their politics. I want to be one more voice exploring the complexity and diversity of religious faith and the ways in which it compels those of us who are progressive in our politics toward action in the world.

Number two: I am at least as tired of the degree to which many secular progressives believe not only that they themselves have no use for religion, but that religious people in general are foolish, irrelevant and vaguely embarrassing. For those folks who draw all their hope, inspiration, perseverance and courage from purely secular convictions and heroes, good for you! But I’d like to help generate a bit more respect, open-hearted curiosity toward and solidarity with those of us who draw these things from our religious faith.

And third? I think it’s a form of spiritual discipline to notice where the boundaries are for our various comfort zones and stretch ourselves out of them a little. I am most deeply in my comfort zone in the truly “old people’s technology” of the printed page; so I am pushing back against my Luddite soul in the hope that the vast network of techno-wizards out there will be tolerant of my blunders and kind in your guidance.

So… even though I really have no idea what I’m doing, off I go! Call it an act of faith…