Friday, August 22, 2014

thanks, ma

I reposted the last post in a better color. Thanks, Ma, for letting me know.

So, who the heck is reading this blog? I have no idea! That's alright, I s'pose.

Here's my brief update, and then more soon: I'm leaving the Bay in 20 days. I'm going to do some drifting around, some pondering, some writing, some visiting....and then we'll see where I end up. I'll be in Flagstaff for a good stretch this winter; come visit me there!

Something has become clear to me as of late. I probably function best if I live alone. It could be a tiny house in a community of a whole bunch of other houses--in other words, I really really like community--but having a living place that is entirely mine works best with my innards, I think.

That's my brief update. And yep, more soon.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

capitalism (a reposting from the island institute's website)

I have come up with a definition of capitalism that I like because it has within it the explanation of the problem. It is not, in other words, a neutral definition, such as Webster's might try to give us. Neutral definitions are useful. And sometimes loaded definitions are useful too.
Capitalism is the system of relating to the world wherein absolutely everything--including all life forms, all land and water and air, mental processes, all labor, all pleasure, every stage of life including birth and death and love and loss, and everything else--is commodified.
In other words, capitalism is the commodification of everything.
I would like to have a conversation with a group of people with diverse viewpoints, who nevertheless agreed on this definition. We could then discuss: should everything be commodified? Why or why not? Should some things be commodified and not others? What are the consequences of commodifying human beings, for example? How are those human beings affected, and how are the commodifiers affected? How does it affect a forest when that forest is commodified? Is it different to commodify coal than to commodify salmon? If it's not different, why not? If it is different, what's the difference? How does it affect a person to commodify herself, to consider herself a thing to be consumed?
If someone in the conversation said that they believed in a model of limited capitalism, i.e., it's okay to commodify the Earth, but within limits, then I would want to know: who decides the limits? And based on what values? Maybe based on the pragmatism of living sustainably? Even in a system of limited commodification, are there still consequences to considering everything a product, a thing to be bought and used and discarded when done? Are those consequences that feel okay to us? What do we base that okay-ness on?
Is there an alternative way of living on Earth than to commodify everything? Well yes, of course there is. So then my question is: what would it take for any person in this conversation to consider converting to another way of living? Would you give up capitalism? Why or why not?

an easter reflection

Several months ago, I was one of the writers-in-residence at the Island Institute, in Sitka, Alaska. While there, I wrote some blog posts on their website, a few of which I will re-post here. Here is the first one. It's an Easter reflection.


A week ago, the Island Institute hosted a showing of a new TV series about climate change. The show is called Years of Living Dangerously. It definitely has its merits. I went to the showing, and there were about 15 other folks from Sitka there. After the show the group discussed climate change for a while, and I got frustrated, because I felt like everyone's comments were along the lines of, "Things can change for the better if we just do X, or if we just do Y." I tried to give voice to my frustration, but I'm afraid I wasn't very articulate at the time.
I came home from that conversation reeling a bit. I feel like half of America doesn't even think climate change is real, and the other half thinks it's real and can be turned around if we just all change our lightbulbs to the energy-efficient kind, if we install solar panels and recycle. I feel like--where are the people who can see that the planet really is dying. Ninety percent of the fish in the sea are gone. The ice caps are melting. The deserts are expanding. One hundred and twenty species go extinct every single day. The honeybees are dying. The songbirds are dying. The coral reefs are dying. The glaciers are melting. The ground is collapsing from fracking. The water tables are sinking. The oceans is acidified and poisoned.
So in the following days, I thought a lot about all of this. I thought: what do I think that we should do? If I don't believe recycling campaigns or bicycling campaigns will solve things, then what do I think should happen next? I started writing, to figure out what I might think. What I ended up saying surprised me.
The first thing I said was that when we live in denial that the Earth is dying, we alienate ourselves from each other. It's like if your child was dying from leukemia and you were terribly sad about it because you knew you would lose her soon, and everyone around you said, "Stay positive! Why are you sad? Stop being sad! Take her to another doctor!" That would make you feel horribly alone, because on top of the pain of losing your child, you'd have the pain of no one helping you carry the pain. That kind of aloneness is very terrible. I think many of us know that the Earth is in a very bad state. If we can just say to each other, "Things are very, very bad," and hug each other and cry, then it would be a different experience, because we would no longer be alone.
The second thing I said, when I wrote, was that almost everyone I talk to about these things wants solutions. Everyone wants to be very pragmatic.
And, I mean, if you want to get pragmatic--okay! There are things that could be done! For example, the entire world needs to immediately and completely stop depending on oil. The entire world needs to stop living unsustainably, stop commodifying nature and other humans and animals and water, stop consuming the Earth at rates that exceed what the Earth can replenish. If we want to be pragmatic and honest, those are the for-real solutions. And they are not going to happen voluntarily. Which means they're not going to happen, at least not until civilization collapses, or at least western civilization/the global economy, etc. collapses.
Which means we are kind of back to square one: things are very bad, and they are not going to stop being bad. That is the position in which we all, every creature and river and mineral on Earth, find ourselves. It would be a good idea to keep reminding ourselves of this, over and over and over again. Most people and communities are in such a deep state of denial, that just getting out of denial takes heroic effort. I think we should start hanging signs everywhere that state, "Earth is dying." Just that. To get out of denial.
In fact, even all the talk of solutions is a sign of how deep the denial goes. Let's say you lived in a wonderful town that you loved. And one day someone poured thousands of gallons of gasoline all over every building and every car in the entire town, and set the whole thing on fire. You and your family managed to escape into the hills, and you stood there above the town, watching it burn up. Everything ablaze, consumed with fire. If you then turned to your brother and said, "We can still save it from burning! We just have to think of the right solution!" your brother would be right in concluding that you were in shock, in denial.
So once we're out of denial...what do I think should happen next?
Well, if you stood there with your family above the burning town that you loved, and you managed to pull out of shock, I think that the obvious thing would be that you and your family members would hug each other and hold each other and weep. The third thing I wrote that I wish would happen in response to Earth dying is that people draw close to each other. Close to each other and to animals and plants and dirt and water. Even the poisoned water--it needs to be mourned. Even animals on feedlots. Even people so scarred by the violence we've all grown up with. I don't think any of us will know what to do next until we've drawn close to each other. It's putting the cart before the horse to try to solitarily figure out how to live on a dying Earth, to try to figure it out before we're held tightly and lovingly by other people and creatures. We need to be close, and cry, and feel the full range of what we feel: terror, sorrow, rage, despair, unexpected hope, more rage, betryal. We need to know the truth, and be together in that truth.
And then--and only then--I think we'll start to know what should and will come next.
However, the problem is that the very things that created this situation in the first place--things like commodification of everything, and therefore alienation from everything--will stand in our way as we try to draw close to each other. Therefore, I now realize that I am saying: the way to respond to Earth dying is to resist every force and system and paradigm that has led to Earth's death.
Drawing close to each other in love--it doesn't seem like such a revolutionary thing to do. But I guarantee it won't be a popular move, at least not within the dominant culture. Love based in truth and truth based in love, these are among the greatest threats to the powers based in violence, exploitation, and bottomless consumption. When love and truth are working together (which I think they must, if they're each to be authentic), then domination-based power has got a real problem on its hands. Consider Jesus, who basically went around saying, "Everyone is equally worthy of love; no one gets left out." The Roman leaders and the Jewish leaders were united in their belief that Jesus needed to be whacked, asap.
So they killed him. And then, according to the Christian myth, Jesus came back to life. Debating the literal-ness of Jesus' resurrection sometimes strikes me as beside the point. The point, at least according to some interpretations, is that love triumphs. Sometimes even after it seems like love got crushed, love triumphs anyway. Just in a whole different way than you thought it ever would or could.
Critics of Christianity can say that this is a very nice opiate for the dumb crowds of folks who don't have the guts or the balls to examine the forces enslaving them. Yeah, well, no doubt that's sometimes true. It's also true that many Christians, drawing their courage from Jesus and the love he commanded and embodied, have worked their asses off for a better world. Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, Jean Vanier, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Daniel Berrigan, plus a bunch of Mennonites whose names I don't know, plus a bunch of regular people whose names I don't know. They've made things better for a whole lot of people and animals and places.
Drawing close to a dying planet, and to each other, won't be easy. At all. But it's the way of integrity and love. No one ever said integrity and love were easy. Except, when someone you love is suffering, putting your arms around her isn't really a hard thing to do. But then, the closer you draw in, the more sorrow you also feel. And that is indeed hard. But it is possible. And I think that if we do it, we might be surprised at what happens next.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

quote of the day

"Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him." -Booker T. Washington

Sunday, August 10, 2014

why should i be humble?

Part I

All four times I have taught Critical Thinking, a good percentage of my students have told me I'm the best teacher they've ever had. Recently I've been getting compliments on my writing. Some folks have also said positive things about the way that I treat Ariel, with whom I work 7 days a week for months on end. I work hard to treat her well, even when no one is watching, to be the kind of person I really want to be towards her--even though she'll forget what I say 30 seconds after I say it, and even though no one else witnesses most of what I do. I work hard in my classes, too, to reach beyond being the cool teacher into being the kind of human being I want to be. I work hard inside myself to have the kind of attitude towards others that I want to have, even when those others know nothing about it.

So then the other day I asked myself, why should I be humble? After all, I do a lot of things right. I genuinely try to have integrity and be an authentically loving person. I'm not just putting on an act. I do work hard on things that are worth working hard on.

Ariel's been increasingly mean and disrespectful in the last couple months and that's been hard for me. She's gotten everything she wanted for most of her life. She's been extraordinarily privileged, supported by men with money. She's never had to work for a living, and she's often been--well--mean towards others. Now, because she has a broken arm and is frail in general, sometimes we have to say no to her. And she does not handle it well.

So a few weeks ago when she was saying nasty things to me, because I had said no to her about something, I said to her, "Ariel, I cook your meals, I buy your food, I sit with you so that you don't fall, I do so much for you. It's just so disrespectful that you're treating me this way." And so she, ever one to pull an Ace, said to me, "You're so self-righteous."

So I went away and thought about that. Am I self-righteous? And I also thought, again, why should I be humble? I know that humility is a high virtue, and I know that whenever I encounter arrogance in others I'm disgusted, but the question I was asking myself was: upon what ought my humility to be grounded? In which geography inside my heart might I locate this particular virtue?

It seems to me that that kinds of questions I ask determine what answers I might receive--or at least they determine what I'll spend my time thinking about. ("If they get you asking the wrong questions, they won't have to worry about the answers." -Pynchon)

I hadn't thought all that much about what cause there might be for humility in me, perhaps because mostly in my life I've been tortured by pervasive self-criticism (to understate the case), so humility never seemed to be my issue. But in these last few years, I find myself become more and more the person I want to be (and also I can look back and see how I've been becoming that person, in many ways, for years)....and that feels very good. It feels good not to be so cruel to myself. It feels good to be patient with an old person who has repeated herself nine million times. Sometimes at the end of a long day with Ariel, when I've been patient, and responded with humor rather than falling on the floor from boredom, when I've gotten her into her nightgown and tucked her into bed, I do indeed go to my room and sink into my rocking chair and think, "I am awesome!"

(Actually, I can't ever recall doing that. But, well, it's the spirit of the thing.)

So--why be humble? I was worrying about this, because I felt like I was supposed to be humble, but I couldn't quite pin down what humility was about.

Then the answer came to me, via literature. For the last month I've been reading the new novel, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, a story set during the Holocaust. Many of the characters are German Nazis, some of them teenagers (what we'd now call child soldiers if they were in Africa--or just soldiers, if they were American troops), and some of them middle-aged men in low-management positions in the Nazi party. There's no ambiguity about what's right and wrong in the complicating evil in order to make it seem less evil. And yet, neither does the author simplify any of the characters--even the ones I'd want to simplify--and make them pure evil.

I recommend the book. I won't explain it any further, but it's excellent....and it held my answer. The answer is that I cannot know for sure what I would do if I lived in Nazi Germany. Would I cower and only protect myself? Would I do whatever it took to live, even if it meant harming others, or leaving others in harm's way? Would I try to protect my Jewish neighbors, even if I knew there was good chance I'd get myself killed in the process?

The truth is that given fear, hunger, and sleeplessness-just those three things--I could become someone very different from who I am trying to be now. If someone held a gun to my head, I don't know what choices I'd make. If I were very hungry, I might climb over other people just to get to food. If someone offered me a million or a billion dollars to act cruelly, can I say for certain I wouldn't take the money.

And that, it seems to me, is the reason for me to be humble. Because my goodness is fragile and contingent. My very humanity, my whole life, is fragile and contingent.

Part II.

Then, today, I was thinking: why is it that when I imagine myself in Nazi Germany, which I do a lot, because I grew up in Jerusalem where I was taught over and over that I must defend the Jews if they are ever threatened again.....when I imagine myself in Nazi Germany, I always imagine myself in the position of potential perpetrator. Why is that? Why do I never imagine myself in the position of victim? What if I did live in Nazi Germany, but I was a civilian girl in a small town in the eastern part of Germany, and my town was in invaded by the Russians and I was raped by Russian soldiers? Why do I never imagine myself in that role? Or the role of a Jewish woman with young children?

Perhaps it has to do with growing up as an American who, from the age of four, was aware of the power of her American-ness. I was aware, at least from the age of 8 or 9, of being from the country that is at the top, in terms of world affairs. Perhaps it has to do with growing up as part of the family who owns the largest commercial fishing operation in Alaska, and being the oldest child of the oldest son of that operation. My family was powerful, at least within the kingdom of our trade.

But I wasn't powerful, not as a child in Israel or Alaska, not as a young woman.

So today I've come up with a different answer to my own question. I want to be humble because humility connects me with others, and self-righteousness or arrogance or pride disconnects me from others. I need other people, I am dependent on other people, and this is a very good thing. And also, other people are dependent on me, and that is indeed a very humbling thing.

dispatch from Gaza

I came across a magazine called Guernica: A Magazine of Arts and Politics. I've read now several short essays written by Palestinians living in Gaza. I'd like to draw your attention to this one:

Friday, August 8, 2014

quote of the day + song

"God have mercy on the man who does what he's sure of." -Bruce Springsteen

This is quite the video. Bruce talks for a while about marriage, love, multiple selves. Quite the video, quite the song.

 (What Springsteen says/sings here mirrors my own feelings about identity, love, committed relationships.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

open letter to israeli leadership, regarding gaza

Dear Israel,

What the fuck did you think was going to happen when you trap millions of people in a tiny area for decades? Of course you knew what was going to happen, and you did not care. May the responsibility for these human souls be on your eternal conscience.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

quote of the day

We have a long, long way to go.
So let us hasten along the road,
the roads of human tenderness and generosity.
Groping, we may find
one another's hands in the dark.

Emily Greene Balch

save or savor? (JON: DO NOT READ THIS POST!!!)

My friend Jon E. sent me, in the mail, a long article about Annie Dillard titled "The Ecotheology of Annie Dillard: A Study in Ambivalence," by Pamela A. Smith. You can find the article here. If you're an Annie Dillard devotee, I really recommend the article. Smith's main point is that although Annie Dillard observes and deftly describes the world, even a world of great suffering, she rarely (really, never) devotes energy on the page to suggesting that we should do something about the suffering. The world is being destroyed, the animals killed, the humans burned or slaughtered, but Annie Dillard does not suggest, or even really imply, that we should try to change this state of affairs. It's because Dillard is deeply ambivalent about God, the human world, and the natural world, that she does not take steps towards reformation, says Smith.

Smith's summation, at the end of the article, is this:

Her central contribution to ecotheology is that she displays, in minutiae, what has been and what still exists in a number of significant bioregions. She also exhibits for the ecological thinker that familiar twentieth-century phenomenon: an inability to move from observation to ethic, a sense of personal insignificance and alienation, a tendency to let things alone. There is a God, and he is up to something or other. There is wonder in this world, and that prompts a God-ward "Hooray!" There are gods all over the place, and we honor them with our attentions, appreciations, or fixations. Like God, nature has its darknesses and its lights. It moves us and frightens us away. Or it leaves us dumbfounded, watching, and doing nothing. Humans watch and see and become entangled in mystery. We make things, we ceaselessly eat, and we die. The earth turns, galaxies swirl, and new things ever arise. God may or may not have in mind the way things turn about and will turn out. Such seems to be a summation of Dillard's theology and metaphysic.

I found Smith's article more or less convincing, from what I've read of Dillard (and I've read the bulk of her nonfiction). I do think Smith misses Dillard's sense of things....that is to say, I don't think Smith shares Dillard's take on the world. Smith seems to be coming from a Judeo-Christian/highly ethic-oriented perspective.

I wrote Jon (who sent me the article) a letter in response, and I thought I'd share a part of the letter with you, because in it I write about what has been one of the central puzzles of my life. Here's that part of the letter.

The author of the article seems pretty critical of Dillard because Dillard doesn’t take a stand, doesn’t seem interested in resisting oppression, doesn’t have an ethic, isn’t remotely an activist. And I feel like reading this tension between Dillard’s stance and the author’s obvious stance on the side of ethics/activism—it’s like reading about my own lifelong struggle (or at least a struggle of the last 18 years or so) between the priest part of me (that’s an ethicist, reformer, activist) and the artist side of me (that observes and tells the truth—the truth seeming to be that our sojourn on Earth is unfathomable, insanely confusing, and not even remotely accounted for by the reformers/ethicists). I remember saying to myself, when I was a chaplain, that I hated being a chaplain because it meant I couldn’t tell the truth. 

The reformer part of me thinks she knows how things should be: patriarchy is bad, capitalism is bad, living in unsustainable ways is bad. These things should be struggled against. The artist part of me (which usually feels to me like a deeper and realer part) thinks—who the fuck knows what is going on here. Certainly not me. And not most anyone else, as far as I can tell. Sometimes ethics seems like a way—a sophisticated way—of avoiding really feeling the truth that we will all die. But—then sometimes ethics doesn’t seem like that at all.

In my class, all the readings I assigned were from the ethical, reformer stance. And my students understood the readings and conversed easily about them. We talked about how things should be different—white privilege should be eradicated, people should become more empathetic and engaged and alive—and sometimes the conversations were a stretch for them but mostly they understood what I was saying. But then, for the very last reading of the class, I assigned them an essay by Dillard called “This is the Life,” the basic point of which is—what the fuck is the meaning of it all, the meaning of life? My students wrote responses to the essay and it was very clear that they had no idea what the hell she was talking about. They were so confused. Only one student—and totally not the one I would have predicted—even comprehended what she was saying. Which—I feel like that experience is a microcosm of my life! When I am engaged in Making A Difference, I get lots of positive response from otheres. Making A Difference has so much social capital! Whereas, when I’m being an artist, I and everyone else are just wondering how I’m going to pay the electricity bill! 


I thought I’d finished my thoughts about the reformer’s life versus the artist’s life but then today I was out on a walkabout and I Had More Thoughts. What I want to say about feeling pulled between wanting to savor the world and wanting to mend it—or really, pulled between wanting to know and experience it on the one hand and change it on the other hand—what I want to say about that is that it’s actually a very good place to be. I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who spoke of wisdom as being able to simultaneously hold in mind two opposing ideas. And perhaps there’s a real goodness, or sanity, in simultaneously embodying the seemingly contradictory desires to know (“know” in the deep sense) the world as it is, and to change the world pronto. There’ the Galway Kinnel poem that I fucking love:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

And I absolutely feel that way—so wholly. And then I read this novel I’m reading, All The Light We Cannot See, set during WWII, and I want to devote myself utterly to ensuring in every move I make that I am reducing harm and suffering in the world—and that I’m always actively working toward becoming the kind of person who would rather be harmed than harm an innocent person (i.e., to stand up for the oppressed, even if it risks my life). That seems like a good tension to live within—a good tension to not try to resolve—to even resist trying to resolve. And when the artist part of me tries to silence the reformer part, or the reformer part ignores the artist—it’s then I should be concerned.