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Hot Currents

Essays on this Page:

Nine Eleven Eleven

Imagining the Unthinkable

Death of the American Scholar

Offense to Reason

Center of the Universe

Memory Holes:  The Mayflower Contract and the Beginning of the End of Christian America

Oil Spill:  The Earth Needs an ER

The Phone Tree

Green Village

Jesus’ Penis

The Greatest Holiday Ever!

Looking for America:  Where is Steinbeck (and Charley)?

I Sing the Body Electric

The Needy

Life is Too Short

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Nine Eleven Eleven

“911”

{George W. Bush has killed and wounded more Americans (and others of course) through his senseless wars than those hijackers ever killed or wounded.  We still refuse to learn from our mistakes, and hold our “elected” “leaders” fully accountable}

Diversity rained from the sky that day.  People of numerous cultures, races, political parties, genders and sexualities were lost.  People of many faiths and no faiths died that clear September morning ten years ago (and, do I need to say, people died in every state, and others were born, got married, life went on?).  Oddly enough, East Coast, West Coast, North and South seemed to melt together.  No one was a Republican or Democrat or Independent, for a moment. We were, in a real sense, in a flash and crash, all New Yorkers.  The world seemed to stand tall beside America–a forest of towers across the globe.  Somewhere, someone said, “We’re all Americans today.”  There was a powerful sense of Unity that was palpable–a kind of universal patriotism.  Unfortunately that sense of deep and wide inter-relatedness was itself short lived, came crumbling down.

Those of us who consider ourselves part and parcel of Nature, the natural world, are horrified by any destruction of life.  The worst way to respond to such destruction is to mete out further, greater destruction and death, human and non-human.  We think not only of the unwise, senseless, costly and unwinnable wars our leaders have chosen to wage, and the ten years of suffering and slaughter of Iraqis, Afghanis, Coalition and American women and men, but the unnatural disasters waged on the air, the ground and water, animals and birds.  We are perhaps haunted, when we care to think of them, by children and elderly people in unknown villages who cower in the face of steel power, feeling small and powerless, filled with fear (the so-called “War on Terror” for them a Terrorizing War of Big Armies with Big Machines running on Big Money from Big Corporations).  How big do we feel now?

The awful decision of those devoted nineteen men who committed suicide while murdering thousands will never be forgotten. And neither should all the troubling questions their decisive act threw upon our heads.  That terrible act was a “911” emergency call to the world, but primarily to the United States (US), to wake up to the explosive impact of mixing ignorance, poverty and hopelessness (or stirring up privilege and dominance) with religious extremism.  What if, instead of building new monuments to our wealth and towers to our own freedom we work with people around the world to construct not the tallest and most expensive scrapers of the sky (babbling of how great we are), not glistening centers of trade where the wealthiest can sit high and proud, we might build something no planes can take down, something closer to the ground, the earth, the common earth we have to share or we’re all lost?  What if we could celebrate our national unity (if and when we can make that happen apart from disaster) without vaunting ourselves as “the best and most god-blessed”? What if we found participants, collaborators, co-conspirators who would courageously devote themselves to the harder work, giving their lives in peaceful pursuits (scientific coalitions, educational efforts, humanitarian work)?  What if we could grow something more fruitful and organic, literally from the ground up, to honestly, forcefully and fearlessly address the 911 emergencies facing us all?  I think we all know, we really know, that if we don’t do this and pilot our planetary plane in this direction, more towers will undoubtedly fall, more pieces of our failed walls will rain down, in other seasons including fall.

Those fateful acts in the blue skies of that autumn day ten years ago exposed and threatened any blind nationalism or irrationalism, shattering any and all fragile temples in the clouds.  Those men may be in their heavenly gardens of paradise, but their family, their country, their religion, their world has been left only their delusional fear.  We have to decide if we want their world or something better; if we are better as a world.  If we don’t discover and fortify more reasonable means for safety and sanity we will end up with nothing, standing naked on the other side of TSA screening, with nowhere to go.

It seems clear we have a clear choice:  be in terror and terrorize, or come down out of the clouds to create some kind of livable climate (cool the global warming in more ways than one).  We might begin by returning to our own radical revolutionaries who gave their lives to set the foundation for a new republic in a “new world” here, now.  We might hear the echo of one Thomas Paine whose political news and heretical views caused him to die in infamy though they led him, naturally, to proclaim, “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”  Only a person who can keep their head and think clearly in the midst of a momentous emergency could say something like this.  We would hope this philosophy would be espoused and practiced with immediacy and a similar common sense.

Chris Highland

9/11/11

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Imagining the Unthinkable

Imagine this:  a natural disaster strikes your community.  People are hurt; some die; others stumble into hastily opened shelters in schools, city hall, a local church, wiccan center,  synagogue or mosque.  The Red Cross (or Crescent) mobilizes.  Volunteer fire fighters join with the police to help wherever the greatest need is.  Some are rescued, others are buried.  Months later, most of the area is back to some level of normalcy and people rebuild.

Imagine this:  a tragedy hits your neighborhood.  A family loses their home to a fire or foreclosure, a teenager kills herself or a child is hit by a car.  Some respond immediately to offer comfort, medical assistance, a place to stay or money.  Others arrive with blankets, meals, toys for the children.  Time goes on and the neighbors keep a kind eye on that house and those who are now known by name.

Think.  Who are these people?  Those in need and those who help.  Who do you imagine they are?  Are they Black, White, Asian or Latino?  Are they Chilean or Chinese, Ethiopian or Eskimo,  French or American?  Are they men or women, young or old, disabled or Republicans or Democrats or Independents or Socialists?  Are they You?  Are they Jewish or Muslim or Christian or Wiccan or Buddhist or Atheist or None of The Above?  Do they believe in heaven or hell or read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Tao, the Book of Mormon or the New York Times religiously?  Do they vote like you, look like you, believe like you, work the same job you do?  Who are these people?

By now I suspect you may be thinking something like:  Who Cares?  People need help and others step in to help.  It doesn’t matter at all what all these differences are.  People are suffering and others do their part to assist in many different ways.

Imagine.  If there are people in need; if there are important, even critical, things that must be done and done now; if there are major disasters and daily disasters and personal tragedies and tragedies that hit or strike our communities, our nations, our world. . .and the differences that divide people are really irrelevant in the face of all this. . .then what if we moved on from them?  What if we did what must be done to make our communities safer and healthier and more just and equal for all, and worked together to do the right thing for ourselves and others?  What if we could get passed the judgments and jokes and beliefs that keep people apart to do what disasters make us do?

When the fire or earthquake arrives.  When the tornado or tsunami or hurricane comes.  When the war or the bombs or the attack is here.  When the houses fall with the houses of God and the SUVs and Hummers are crushed along with the old clunkers.  When one family loses their child and another loses their grandparent.  When a person becomes homeless or gets cancer or develops a mental illness.  When every imaginable thing happens. . .what do we do, what do we think, what do we believe or say?

Some say it takes a village.  Maybe what it really takes is a disaster, a common suffering, that challenges us to do what we’ve never imagined possible.  To act together.  To be human, together.

And wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t take a disaster?  Imagine that.

Imagine the unimaginable.  While you’re at it, think the unthinkable.

Chris Highland

June 2011

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Death of the American Scholar:

Emerson and Dangerous Books

“Only so much do I know, as I have lived.

Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

We are not exactly living in a time when words are loaded with life.  There are words everywhere, but is anything really being said?  Even as local bookstores are locking up and moving out, recent reports proclaim e-books are winning out over paper publications.  The good news is that apparently people are still reading (that’s a relief) though a quick scan of “bestseller” lists is certainly disheartening.  Many are trying their hands and laptops at self-publishing (I have five myself–though more no-sellers than bestsellers).  Perusing a list of this tsunami of paper and screen script can be equally disheartening, if not depressing.

So here I e-scribble more words, looking back, reflecting on lines from one of America’s foremost writers and scholars, Ralph W. Emerson.  Re-reading my tattered text from college English class I wade along and sometimes jump or fall in again to Emerson’s deeper streams of ideas.  Though he himself warned against too much back-over-the-shoulder gazing (or blind leaps over your head), I think it wise to re-visit Emerson on letters, words, writing and books themselves.

“I greet you on the recommencement of our literary year,” he begins his oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 31, 1837 which came to be known as The American Scholar.   He chose to address intellectuals and intellectualism within the context of a concern for “the survival of the love of letters amongst a people too busy to give to letters anymore.”  Because of his love of letters and deep interest in wordsmithing, Ralph Waldo decided to take on, head on, the whole program and curriculum and raison d’etre of education at the head of the school term.  He launches straight into a radical challenge:  “Perhaps the time is already come. . .when the sluggard intellect of this continent” will do more than lazily depend on “our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands.”  This looking backward over history’s shoulders if not seas must end, fully, naturally.

As he was to urge Divinity School students the next year to “speak the truth” as they saw it and preach not from tradition’s memory but the soul’s living present, the former minister calls for new harvests of knowledge, new poetry and a new era of true, indigenous American scholarship.

Indeed, as he had written the year before (1836) in his first essay on Nature, “All things with which we deal, preach to us.”  To us.  Radical for sure, to tell ministers-to-be to shut up and listen more to what the world preaches back at the church.  Though he describes Nature utilizing servant language in its “ministry” to the human species, the Cosmos is also the great teacher, source of endless beauty, goodness, godness and wisdom.  In Nature Emerson calls for an end to looking backward (or, to some extent, outward) to endlessly view the world through the eyes of prior generations.  There he asks, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?”  Here, in his lecture to young, early nineteenth century American scholar-wannabees, the sage of Concord exposes the modern intellectual for what s/he is:  a degenerate victim of society who has become a “mere thinker”–“the parrot of other [people’s] thinking.”  What Emerson famously heralds is “Man [Humanity] Thinking”–to place one’s own learning process and knowledge capacity into the more universal context of Thinking itself.  As I think, Humanity is thinking (consider the Internet, as each one contributes to the pulse and flow of the lively web adding to the stream of fresh, “organic” corporate knowledge).  One should become not merely educated but Education–a living book.

Nearly 20 years later Emerson put it succinctly and perhaps sarcastically in his journal (June 1855):  “A scholar is a man with this inconvenience, that, when you ask him his opinion of any matter, he must go home and look up his manuscript to know.”  Think of people of faith and their continual appeal to books, prayers, creeds and clergy.

This takes us directly back to Emerson’s “grave mistake.”  To fully appreciate the error he presents we must remember his reverence for life and his affinity for the universal relationships (idealistic in philosophy; realistic in personal and professional life).  The natural world is all around us, permeates and shapes the essence of who we are.  The one who is truly alive is constantly learning, engaging this rich, participatory “spectacle.”  The beauty one beholds in the encircling environment includes the beauty of one’s own mind.  To “know thyself” as the ancients taught and to “study nature” as modern science teaches are, for Emerson and his youthful scholars, at last one.   To know yourself is to know Nature and to study Nature is to study yourself, since ultimately (idealistically as well as in reality) “[humanity] and nature are indissolubly joined” (Nature).

With this wide context laid out, Emerson is now prepared to roll a grenade into the hallowed halls and civilized classrooms.  “The theory of books is noble” he says, setting up the explosion.  Writing has always served to give the writer a means of uttering truth, even at times poetry, inspiration.  However, here, on this warm day in August, Emerson’s insurgent mind is charged at full power, “Each age. . .must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding.  The books of an older period will not fit this.”  Sure this sounds fairly obvious, but don’t we feel the ground shaking?  See the walls cracking?  He’s not finished–he’s only beginning his frontal assault on the foundation of secular education with grave ramifications for religious indoctrination. “Yet hence arises a grave mischief.”  Listen closely.  Be assured, this reasoning has everyone’s attention.  No one is staring out the window now; no one is passing silly scribbles of the presenter’s nose any more.  One imagines a neat stack of paper set in a glass bowl for all to see.  Simple observations from the lectern lights a long match:  Creativity, which has a sacred quality, has been replaced by the historical record (revered manuscripts).  The singing poet has been replaced by the poem on the page.  The great and respected writer is now the great and respected book.  The book, not the living (sacred) creativity that produced it, is now venerated to the degree that schools are built on it and people cry out to defend it in the face of perceived disrespect.  Now, more books, more stacks of inked paper, are written on This Book (fill in any literature you wish).  Ignoring their own principles, propelled by accepted dogmas, so-called scholars simply point the next generation to the same book or books.   In the center of the tension (one supposes tenured professors were not in the least amused), Emerson imprints his reasoning carefully, graphically, indelibly.  “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which [past thinkers] have given; forgetting that [those past thinkers] were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.”  The speaker pauses to shake his own youthful 34-year-old head–“Hence, instead of [Humanity] Thinking, we have the bookworm. . .the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution. . . .”

The emergent philosopher, pulpiteer and producer of poems, essays and yes, books, was of course not attempting to demean or discredit literature or eliminate reading from the heart of education.  This was not a meanspirited attempt to ban the written word or blow up library collections.  Nevertheless, with little warning, a severe weather event of the mind had hit.  For the speaker, “books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.”  Rightly used, books “are for nothing but to inspire.”  To inspire what, whom?  The act of creating, the active soul, the genius.  We look back to the geniuses (or spiritual “giants”) of former times without thought that “genius looks forward.”

We could continue to follow Emerson’s discourse on scholarship, delighting in lines such as, “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing” or “Life is our dictionary,” but I think it wise in this brief essay for us to take a major principle of his critique and apply it across the culture of education, offering, inescapably as it does, broad and specific implications for super-natural religious faiths and their authoritative “holy books.”  We hear the New Englander’s voice echo softly in the auditorium, “Books are for the scholar’s idle times.  When [the scholar] can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other [people’s] transcripts of their readings.”  Remembering that Emerson’s “God”–Unitarian, Transcendental and Pantheistic as that Power appeared–was fairly equivalent to Nature (and Nature to Humanity), we can leave aside any narrow religious interpretation or agenda we might read into this stunning phrase, “to read God directly.”  For this curious explorer, later to be called “a sequoia” by the wild environmentalist Muir, the question might be put, Why cut down the tree to bind a book on trees?  It is the direct experience of the tree, the forest, the wildlife, the living land, the earth that matter.  Yes, writing about the experience, lessons learned, questions raised, may be a response, but we can never substitute figuratively or literally (or literarily) the book for the life.  The branches, leaves, roots, bark, the living being and the relation to that Life ought always to be valued more highly than any human interpretation or analysis of it.  Books cannot replace the beholding of beauty or the exaltation of the brain.  Could inventors, inventive thinkers or explorers be possible without a driving passion to discover what past generations never saw, or knew or experienced?  As Richard Conniff concludes his inspiring book Species Seekers (2011), “it is becoming evident that we live on what is still a little-known planet.”  Therefore, generations ahead can “grow up to know the incomparable delight of discovering new species.”  Emerson immersed himself in this incomparable delight, understanding the human species as wonderfully fragile, vulnerable and godlike in our inquisitive quest to know and understand, to describe what we see, reveal our thoughts and invent (breathe in) our world-creating ideas.  To exhale other, natural worlds, here and now.

For Emerson (as for his colleagues Fuller, Thoreau, Whitman and Muir) the Great Book of Living Nature–the bestseller of all bestsellers–was forever open and accessible, not only to scholars (though we can all choose to be scholars in this sense) but to any and all who find incomparable delight in exploring and discovering new species of life, of ideas, of community.  After all, scribbled notes became one great American essay that was carried from that hall 170 years ago to remind this writer of the “grave mistake” and the hour too precious to waste in thinking someone else’s thoughts, writing someone else’s words, serving someone else’s god or living someone else’s life.

Chris Highland

June 2011

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Offense to Reason

It has become wearisome and worrisome to such a disappointing degree.  Those who claim they are “offended” by the Liberal/Socialist/Secular boogeymen loose in the nation.  Those who find offense in government itself (even as they are IN government, a part OF it, recently elected TO it or seeking to serve IN it).  Those who are “offended” that Their Religious Faith is not respected in the way They demand that it be respected.  So much offense.

Well, maybe it’s time to get a little more OFFensive on what is so ofFENsive to many who see much of this offendedness as children’s whining over their toys and toy ideas.  If your religion is not being “honored” by allowing your prayers and holy texts to be proclaimed in public places like schools and courts and congress then I would have to say your goals are not worthy of respect and I am offended by your offendedness.

Take for example the battlelines of offense hastily tossed together over the so-called “mosque at ground zero” ( the community center proposed for several blocks away from a former office building site—not the site of Sinai or the Temple Mount or Mecca, but an obscenely huge office building—, now called “hallowed ground” in a way Hiroshima could not ever be in the offended American mind).  So, stones are thrown, books are threatened to be burned, words are lobbed like lettered handgrenades and it becomes a huge international issue, more people die and deeper divisions are created.  So, like the powerful storms that blew through New York City this week, a troubling text of truthtelling  emerges. . .along comes this article from the NYT, where Joe Nocera presents a reasonable argument that something deeply offensive (perhaps much worse than any mosque. . .or strip club) is being constructed not NEAR the “sacred site” but actually right smack dab ON TOP of it!

The topic is the economics of 1 World Trade Center — the building, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, with one of the most tortured construction histories in New York history — that is finally being erected at ground zero. When it is finished, it will stand 1,776 feet in the air, making it the tallest building in New York.

With an expected completion date of 2013, 1 World Trade Center is the most expensive skyscraper ever constructed in the United States, with a price tag currently estimated at $3.3 billion. By contrast, the spanking new Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan cost about $2 billion. That is pretty much the going rate for building new skyscrapers in New York City. Just to break even, 1 World Trade Center will require rents far higher than the going rate in Midtown, much less downtown New York, where the building is located and where rents are considerably lower.

The economics, the human impact, the madness.  Doesn’t it offend you?   Are we not offended that our way to “honor” and make a piece of real estate sacrosanct is by investing, by turning it over to developers who are out for millions.  Might as well sell view condos in the Statue of Liberty.  Why not?  After all, our money says In God We Trust so why not trust in those who have lots of cash because they know best how to protect and honor our “holy ground.”  No wonder our grandiose Egos and Made-In-America Arrogance look a lot like the Gods we worship.  After all, building a tower of babel (I mean, freedom tower) 1776 feet high—why, even God will be impressed, up there, on His throne, looking down over His Blessed Country.

Most of what seems to offend the duped patriots of the land is, sadly (and disappointingly) exactly what calls attention to what is the Greatest Offense We Face:  The Offense to Reason. We don’t need another Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson or Lincoln or Whitman or Emerson or Wright to call us back to defense of reason.  We don’t need more people who see the great offense to reason being ignored and “desecrated” by those who claim their tea-stained or god-intoxicated offendedness is of utmost importance while they fight to “take the country back”—we don’t need people whose reason is daily offended to speak out and raise the flag of clear-headed discourse.

Yes, we do.

Afterthought:  Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl once wrote that America might be healthier were we to construct a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast to balance the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast.  I would only add to this reasonable suggestion:  why not a Tower of Reason (a Responsibility Tower), to balance the Freedom Tower?  Better yet, save the money and build neighborhoods, affordable housing, schools and “hallowed ground” of science centers and community halls where the free flow of unfettered ideas might help us find practical solutions together, where more of us might learn to leap over the fences of offenses that divide us.

Center of the Universe

I was reading my little daily devotional last night (The Intellectual Devotional, Biographies) and after reading the awesomely awful story of Hypatia (she was one inspiring freethinker!), I got to another Alexandrian in Roman Egypt, Ptolemy.  This Greek astronomer who lived from about 100-170 scribbled down his observations in a manual titled Almagest, a name derived from the Arabic.  My nightly reading text caught my eye right from the beginning with the introduction:  “Ptolemy. . .may be best known to history for his greatest mistake.”  That’s too bad, yet telling and instructive.  As we all know (or maybe not) one of the greatest astronomers and geographers of Western Civilization claimed that the sun, the stars, the planets all revolved around the Earth.  It wasn’t until Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), about 1400 years later, that we had to alter our view that we were the center of the universe.

Good example of slow change!  Minds and worldviews move like molasses.  Perhaps the greatest blow to our “civilized” Ego, our Human Hubris, came from someone who looked a little harder, studied more, searched, asked questions, dared to question the prevailing and accepted “Truth” of things and made a reasoned discovery.  It changed everything.  But not so fast.  Change is indeed slow.

Today, we see Ptolemaic thinking all around.  It seems pervasive in Politics but especially in Religion.  The ghost of Ptolemy (rest his tortured soul) most haunts our “more enlightened” and technological agora in the popularized Unity of Religion and Politics so obvious in the day of Gingrich, Palin, Beck and the WeakTeaBagParty.  The claim and the quest for a Christian Nation is all we need for example.  “We need to get back to God and get God back into classrooms, courts, congress. . .Everything Everywhere!”  America is proclaimed to be not only the center of the world but the universe.  Anything that questions, challenges or threatens that Number One position is The Enemy, a Terrorist, and certainly not a True Citizen or Patriot.

So the solar system turns.  And many would deny the Science, the rational investigation, the freethought and practice of wisdom that might, just might, call it all into question, put it all in historical context, universal understanding.

We could hope.  But hope isn’t going to do it.  Hope doesn’t move the orbits, the constellations of thinking (or lack of) that swirl some into a frenzy of fear and faith and forgetfulness.  Hope should not focus our attention completely on “what could be” but should transmogrify into clear vision, Copernican Vision, that sees what’s really there and what our place in “it” (the universe, or just the earthly) actually is.

The Ptolemists want to prevail.  They preach a good sermon, stir the masses and shout a good soundbyte loop.  But they must fail.  The Copernicans must “take back” the wider, greater vision that is in danger of being lost, buried under revisionist pseudo-history that would place us back at the center of all that is.  When America is always the “ground zero” for God and the Universe, strong voices need to rise to reason or shout if need be:   “We (America; White Americans; Christianity; Humanity; Earth; etc) are NOT the center of the universe.”

My “devotional” explains that Ptolemy’s other great contribution was his Geography—a world atlas and guide that listed 8000 locations in the ancient world, that left many areas open for people to (Wikipedia-like) fill in the blanks in our knowledge.  It was the first major use of longitude and latitude.  It was not based on “beliefs” about how the world is or how we wish it was.  It was based on evidence, experience and a free exchange of knowledge.  This is not hope—it is true “centering.”

Maybe Ptolemy’s ghost isn’t always haunting our contemporary secular/spiritual revolutions around the light of reason and progress. . .

We’ll see.

Chris Highland, September 1, 2010

Memory Holes

The Mayflower Compact, William Bradford copy

“IN THE name of God, Amen.

We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc., having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the 11 of November, in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domine 1620.”

In his 2006 NYT review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, Russell Shorto begins:

“Not long after the Pilgrims set anchor in the harbor they called Plymouth in 1620, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit paid them a visit near their makeshift settlement and made a wary offer of friendship. It took several months for two of the Pilgrims to venture into the wilderness and return the gesture. When they did, they noticed circular pits alongside the trails, which, the natives told them, were storytelling devices. Each of these ‘memory holes’ was dug at a place where a remarkable act had occurred; every time Indians passed by these spots, they recounted the deeds. The Pilgrims, Nathaniel Philbrick says in his vivid and remarkably fresh retelling of the story of the earnest band of English men and women who became saddled with the sobriquet of America’s founders, ‘began to see that they were traversing a mythic land, where a sense of community extended far into the distant past.’”

I am not a historian nor have I studied the early history of the American colonies in depth, however I think I can comment on, or at least highlight, several aspects of the so-called Mayflower Compact that directly relate to the current “re-Christianizing” of America by those who feel we ought to “take America back” to its moral origins, wrested back from its assumed thieves.  In fact, there may be some wider relevance in the Compact than even these righteous rebels realize.  I’ll try to keep the discussion as compact as possible.

The May-flowering seeds of this essay blew into my eyes while standing recently in a local bookstore to read Newt Gingrich’s new book, To Save America.  In the 15-20 minutes I stood there, even with the blond attorney in her sharp pin-stripe suit talking outloud on her cellphone, I read a good deal of the book and gleaned a fair amount of the point of what his subtitle proclaims, “Stopping Obama’s Secular Socialist Machine.” Leaving aside for a moment the arguably secessionist, even treasonous, words of our current moral watchdogs, it seems at least prudent that some in this country get a handle on what is meant by “save” as in America and “stopping” as in the Machine.

In his very first chapter entitled “Who We Are” (just downloaded free from newt.org) we are told that we are threatened by “the Left” (the Secular Socialists) whose elite view says,  “no longer are we the America that believes our liberty is an unalienable right that comes from God.”   A bit later, during his litany of abuses by the hated Left, Gingrich baldly states, “Early Americans passionately believed in private property rights,” and follows this later with, “the Founding Fathers counted private property among the unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.”  He ends his musket blasting chapter across the bow of Evil Secularists with these fighting words:  “And so Americans who prefer traditional America to the socialist vision are left with one option: to stand up and fight.”

Since Newt Gingrich has strangely wandered back into the forefront of the Religious Right (twice-divorced Catholic convert from Baptist as he is) and now seems to be positioning himself for “higher office” (if not bestseller status, to catch up to that rouged and roguish Sarah Palin?), I think his words are valuable, salient to a wake-up dose of reasoning here.  If they feel there is only one option, to stand up and fight, well, let’s see what they are really standing for and what they really have to fight with.  The intent is not to disarm them, just make it clearer, to point out (however gently with a winking smile) that they won’t get far with those muskets  jammed with jelly or  jets dropping jello. And no one is going to take that army very seriously.  Do you think?

Gingrich, Palin, Beck and their vanguard of Pious Patriots arming to take the nation back have missed something—there are holes in their collective memory.  As Shorto writes, the Pilgrims, when they finally got around to wandering out into the frighteningly wild (uncontrolled, pagan) “free land”—waiting to be blessed by liberty—beyond the safety of their colony, were intrigued by the circular pits along the path near the villages of the Native inhabitants.  It was explained that these were “memory holes,” marking the great deeds of the past.  Something quite satisfying about digging those pits to pause and reflect rather than our insatiable need to cover the land with larger and larger monuments and memorials set in acres of concrete.  Anyway, let’s cut to the chase.  Those who are so vociferously chasing, hounding us like a pack of holy hounds, defending the “original values” of the first people to set foot in the “New World” have conveniently omitted two things:  the original intent of the colonists, and, the original people, the first First People, and their land, their rights, their existence.  Time to talk real origins.

Nothing new here.  At least you would think there isn’t.  Yet, oddly, some memories seem to have sank into the pits, the memory holes, and when some of our more righteous brethren and sistren who lift their crosses high like a Mayflower mast look away from the actual impact on the Old World made by the Plymouth footprints on their proclaimed New World—well, some holes grow deeper, or are never noticed at all.

Look again at the brief agreement signed by a minority (something like 41 out of 100) onboard the Mayflower before she landed.  There were apparently some squabbles over where to land, who would govern and other expected jitters as the seasoaked boat and its salty partly- spiritual passengers and crew were about to spill out on the shores.  Some wanted real religious freedom (freedom to be good obedient Christians anyway).  They were signed on and ready for what their descendants would shape into the first amendment, promising full freedom of religion.  First, of course, it was “in the name of God.”  Of course.  Then, loyalty to their Lord King James (yes, the bible guy), who was “by the grace of God” (of course) the rightful ruler of a huge chunk of real estate in the Old World and certainly (of course) also the “defender of the (Christian, Anglican) faith” (James was no friend of Catholics and demanded an Oath of Allegiance, denying the Pope any authority whatsoever over him—only room for one robe and one crown in this domain.  Thomas Paine, another, more troublesome, English transplant called them all, kings and popes, “crowned ruffians”).

Now, the Mayflower Contract makes it crystal clear what their intentions were.  This voyage had one fundamental, foundational purpose:  the journey was “undertaken, for the glory of God, and the advancement of the Christian faith. . .”  And furthermore, this long and dangerous voyage was endured in order “to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia (of course, virgin land, how pure, how innocent—and whoops, we missed and landed in Massachusetts, sorry).”  The Contract for America (sorry, I mean the Mayflower Contract) continues, “by these presents” (the grace, the glory, the God, the King. . .and the fresh and ready-to-plow land) “in the presence of God” (of course, who else?) [we promise to] “covenant and combine ourselves together” etcetera.  And all of it, every bit of it, for the glory of King James’ God and “for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”  Nice.

So, there you have it.  What?  Newt and Sarah and Glenn and Bill and George are right!  This was supposed to be God’s land, God’s nation, under God’s rule and (only real) religion.  By God, this IS a Christian country!  There.  No wonder the Super-patriots, who are armed with their bibles and bullets, rallying under a big saggy teabag banner, are mustering for the battle to end all battles.  The battle is for the soul of the soil, the soil under the soles of every God-fearing soul of this New Land, this New World—this is Mayflower land, blooming for God—the greatest and best and most powerful and most blessed of all nations that have ever been on this planet or any other planet.  We are number One!  God bless America!  Praise Jesus!

Whew.  Thanks.  I had to get that out.

So, one long sentence later, the Pilgrims’ pilgrimage was done.  There’s the coast, the rocks, the sand, the seagulls and whales and. . .savages!  Oh-oh.  Who are those un-Christian, un-Human looking creatures?  We can imagine this kind of exchange—or at least, one way conversation:  Well, by God, literally, we are here to be your friends, see.  As long as you kindly bless us by giving us your land, your resources, your women-folk (oh, sorry, didn’t mean to actually say that) and if you change your clothes (well, at least get dressed) and change your culture and peacefully disarm and give your full allegiance to Our King and Our God and Our Faith, Our Contract, Our Colony. . .—here, sign right here, thank you!

Here we have it.  “The general good of the colony”—the righteous, regulated, submissive and obedient colony and its culture and law and divinely-ordained leadership was absolute.  Others can lay out and have laid out the ensuing development (“progress” might not be appropriate) of pilgrim and puritan culture in early America all the way up to the little skirmish between Parent and Child called the Revolutionary War.  Here, we’re only concerned with the “origins,” right?  Well, that’s what the “Right” says.  We are being called “back” to the genesis of our government, the genesis of our national values and while we’re at it to the Genesis in the Bible because that’s what it was all based upon.  Now we know.  End of story.

Not so fast.  A troubling question is biting my leg.  Or is it the sweet puppy (oh, I don’t have a puppy).  I’m troubled by this historical juxtaposition, this anachronistic attempt to anachronize by calling us as a nation “back” to something unsustainable, even destructive, and a might dangerous.  Are we seriously being asked to be Pilgrims again?  To resurrect their culture?  If so, what do these Pietistic Prophets say about the Native Peoples, their culture, their beliefs, their very lives in the face of the occupation of their free, virgin land by the boatload of believers who ended their freedom, stole their liberty, killed their gods and faith, all in the name of King Jim and His Master Machine of invasion, need we say genocide?  Mr. Newt, the divine- commander-in-chief wannabee, seeker of a Republic of Republicans, is worried sick about Obama’s Big America-Killing Machine of secularism, socialism and any ism that isn’t Christianism or Mayflowerism or just plain Newtism (I like the sound of that, as I am fond of the slow and slithery newts I see on my forest hikes–here on the Left Coast–zzzing).

Let’s be seriously honest:  Would the Pious Pirate-Pilgrims accept for a minute the likes of Palin, Beck, Bush, Graham or Gingrich into their submissive and obedient coastal colony?  Would the faithful folk leaping off their leaky boat receive “into fellowship” as fellow believers the likes of Dobson and Roberts, Haggard or Osteen, O’Reilly or Limbaugh?  And let’s not forget the Boehners and McConnells, the McCains and the Bachmans, the Coulters and other Cartoons.  Politics, Religion; Religion, Politics.  Religious Politics.  Political Religion.  All the same.  And probably, wouldn’t you guess, completely unacceptable to the signers of the Mayflower Compact?

Down the memory holes we go.  Problem is, different people, on different sides of the fences we have pounded into the soil and the soul of this land, see different things in those rough and shadowed holes in our long ago history, what used to be our common history and perhaps, a very long time ago, our common sense.  Besides, could we ever remember that feeling romanticized by the historian, that those early settlers “began to see that they were traversing a mythic land, where a sense of community extended far into the distant past.”?  One wonders if we could.

To those who want to take us back, back to the way it was, back to early Pilgrims sloshing off their little lifeboat, or further back to the bible, to the faith, the true faith—to these I say, sorry, it ain’t gonna be, never happen, no how, no way.  Save America?  Yours?  Mine?  Whose?  You see, if it did (listen up, Newt), you wouldn’t fit in, it wouldn’t be like a word-smackdown on FOX or a fearful call-to-arms bestseller for tea-guzzling gun and bible slinging “Real Americans.”  You see, if you try to take us back there, we wouldn’t be the same at all.  America wouldn’t be America.  It would be free land.  It would be wild.  It wouldn’t be Ours at all.  Some might say it would be God’s Land, as it was, once.  But the owners, that is, the caretakers, would say Great Spirit or something we couldn’t even pronounce.  It would be simply home, to all life, on this continent, on this patch of earth.  It just wouldn’t be America any more.  But. . .we could dream, if you’d like.

Chris Highland

June 2010

Oil Spill:  The Earth Needs an ER

17 million, 800 thousand gallons.  500,000 gallons a day.  As of today, now, pouring into the ocean, the gulf, the water of the world.  100 miles of coastline, sand, marshland.  Birds, dolphins, seals, turtles, fish.  Their home, our blue food pantry.  How to describe this.  I watch the live video feed from a mile under.  Plumes of brown.  Almost beautiful; like billowing clouds in an early evening storm sky.  Looks like a space mission, robot arm repairing something—with the steel, crescent-wrench arm positioned over the gaping wound, pumping “mud” mixed with chemicals into the hole.

We have opened up an old wound in the earth, but we don’t have an emergency room large enough to handle the injury.  Our emergency response is slow and weak and guesswork.  No one is sure we can stop this or save the patient, here or on other cuts, scrapes, traumas.  Some say it could get worse, the hole that is, the gusher a mile down.

Petroleum.  “An oily flammable bituminous [mineral pitch; tar] liquid that may vary from almost colorless to black; occurs in many places in the upper strata of the earth, is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons. . .”  In other words, liquid history oozing from ancient epochs long before humans appeared.   We tap the bubbling stuff and stir it up and add fancy stuff and, voila!:  Petrol. “Fossil fuel.”  Brilliant.  Thanks Henry Ford.

I wonder if there may be one ugly benefit from this leak, this boiling cold spew down there.  It’s a fantasy, very unscientific, but I can imagine something in the realm of truth here.  What if the earth is held together, its crusty layer of skin held up by the liquids below. . .what if the removal of the lifeblood of the planet leaves it empty or virtually empty. . .what if there is no more ancient “fuel” left and caverns are formed to fill with volcanic magma from the center. . .what if?

Well, we know what if, don’t we?  At least some of the “what if.”  We have a pretty good idea what would happen to us, the human infestation on the surface (bacteria on the skin), if the petroleum drains away.  We would be forced to live without oil.  The thought of that makes many folk panicky.  And what if those chambers began to fill with magma?  New volcanoes?  Or what if the chambers began to collapse?  More earthquakes?  The planet itself begins to deflate like a basketball with the air sucked out and then, eventually, implode?

We humans mess around with something so vast, complex, massive, on a scale so much beyond us, that we just may be forced one day, as humus humans, at some point, to say, “Oops!  We pulled the plug!  We’ve killed the big beast we rely on. . .We’ve cracked the foundation of the only house we have.  Oh, my.  What have we done?”  And no corporation, no government on the big fragile ball spiraling through the ocean of space, will be able to help, or heal, or do anything but wait and see if we blundered into suicide.  And for what?  We know, we all know, exactly what:  money, and the mad rush, the drive (literally) for more money.

As I’ve written this, about 95 thousand more gallons have gushed up.  Is this black blood from the earth just going to continue, to kill Gulf life and on into the ocean and oceans beyond?  All I know is what I suspect: We’ve popped open something that may be full of too many what ifs.  We may have caused a wound that no ER on earth can handle.  And maybe the earth is the only physician grand enough, skilled enough to provide the care, to treat itself.  Who knows?  I don’t.

“The Phone Tree”

I called her after nine in the evening that first night in the tiny one-room, cedar-shingled cabin with the bamboo ladder reaching to the cozy loft overhead.  Another dramatic relocation for the nomadic gypsy in me.  When I returned to my homestate to briefly settle in the basement of an island home overlooking the bay and mountains I kept my dream of living in a cabin in the woods.  Now it was a reality.  Smaller than anywhere I had ever lived its isolation and rustic nature were balanced by the new powerline (one outlet), compost toilet and well-water just a short walk away down a winding tree- and berry-lined path.  I knew my wireless phone would let me say hello at best.  I had checked the reception earlier and it was not good–only one bar on the screen. I called my close friend Heather from my forest hideaway and though Heather lives in Oregon and I am resettling here in Washington I did not want to be on an island of isolation.  I looked forward to a shared excitement and words of encouragement.  She had seen me through nine moves over the years and knew exactly how it felt to finally find just the right spot to make a home.

Heather’s phone rang and I waited, knowing she was there but unsure whether she would make it to the phone in time.  Her house in the Rogue River valley is so large and it is just her with her mother, a cat named Mooshoo and an old dog named Luke.  I also knew her well enough to keep in mind that she could be out in her spacious gardens watering or taking a late evening walk with a glass of chardonnay.  I began leaving a message and she picked up.  “I’m here.  I’m here!” she panted.  “We were just finishing dinner and I wasn’t sure I could get to the phone in time.  How are you?  Are you in the cabin?  How does it feel?”  Being a great cook and baker she knew how to pepper me with questions.

As I began to tell her about the day she interrupted.  “You’re cutting out.  I can barely hear you.”  I tried again and it was clear that my voice was anything but clear.  I stood and went out onto the deck beneath the stars and silhouetted trees surrounding in all directions.  “I can hear you a little better now” she said.  “Yes, I can hear you very nicely” I replied.  I went on with the story of my day of cleaning the old place and arranging my meager possessions in a new place.  Then she laughed.  “You sound like a strobe.  You’re cutting out and then coming back.”  So I started to repeat sentences, then phrases, then words.  Heather laughed more and I joined her.  For the next half hour or so I spoke in repetitive phrases and words (“I love it here–I love it here;” “The stars and moon are beautiful–are beautiful”).  Even Heather started repeating words and we could not stop laughing.  Finally we agreed that speaking this way was getting old very fast.  I told her, “I’m gonna try to find a ‘phone tree’ and call you later in the week.”  I guess she heard that because she said she would think of me and talk with me soon.  Shutting the flip-phone was a relief.

The next day I continued to settle into my new cabin, cleaning and organizing the storage boxes trying to make every square foot count.  On my list for the day, just below “clean the windows” and “bring dad’s lilac in the gator [tractor],” was “phone tree.”

I slipped into my walking shoes, threw on a hat and grabbed my little folding phone, tucking it into my shirt pocket.  I set out down a forest path I had cleared in past months heading for a tree I had paused beside and pondered by the pond (well really it was a marsh, so I suppose I mused).  I remembered wiping the sweat with my forty-year-old cub scout kerchief and saying, “You would be a good climbing tree.  I’m coming back to climb you.”  In a few minutes of jumping roots and pushing aside bright green, sprouting salmonberry branches I stood under the cedar.  Behind a sturdy evergreen huckleberry bush I found a low, living limb for the first step up.  It was an easy climb but I took some time, clearing away short dead sticks.  Half way up I checked my phone:  still only one bar–bad reception.  I continued upward, getting the scented sap on my hands and strands of lichen in my hair.

Resting on a perfect perch near the top I looked down without seeing the ground.  All I could observe from high up there was green life–trees in all directions.  Not a house or a person; not a road or a light.  Carefully drawing my phone from my shirt pocket I was mindful that it would be a long drop if the cell slipped from my hand.  I lifted its gray metallic lid and the light illuminated the connection:  three bars.  I had good reception.

The call went through and I heard my sister’s voice loud and clear.  “I’m calling from my phone tree” I said and she burst out in laughter.  Describing the sight and feel she thought it was crazy but appropriate for me.  She knew I loved climbing trees.  This was a natural for me.  A few minutes later I called Heather.  Delighted by the call and the location I was calling from she wanted to know all the details about my move and the cabin, what she couldn’t pick up in the echoes of the other night.  As we spoke a light rain began to fall and I leaned closer against the swaying trunk.  Concerned I might get electrocuted or fall Heather encouraged me to descend but I was in my element.  “No, this is great.  The tree is protecting me from the rain and I feel secure on these limbs,” I assured her.

When we hung up I was still hanging up there, in the natural antenna tower of the cedar.  I breathed deeply and wiped wetness from my eyes–a mingling of tears and rain.  I knew I could stay in touch, that I could enjoy my solitude without being isolated.  That I could be reached and could make calls by reaching up and up, climbing the heights of this original, more natural, living telephone pole.  The lines were open; I was receptive.  As a robin, a jay and a chickadee went about their flighty business below me–below me!–, a Great Horned Owl called out from a marshy grove a little way off.  I smiled, nodding, bobbing on the branch with emotion–I had never felt higher after a cellphone conversation.  I had some roots in the forest and now a place in the leafy boughs to sit as I would, in my private phone tree.

June 2006

“Green Village”

{originally published on the Marin Shelter website}

At a shelter the other night one of our most active volunteers said to me, “If the church, if I, could just help one of these guys get off the street, I’d be happy.”  I assured him that helping one would make a difference–and that assisting one, just one, is a respectable, practical and sensible beginning.

All throughout this shelter season I have seen staff, volunteers and our guests themselves interacting with others in caring and positive ways.  “How’s John doing today?”; “Will Millie be coming back soon?”; “Jenny isn’t looking well.  She needs to see a nurse.”  Questions and comments that reflect the kind of relational caring this program is based upon.

Now, congregations are struggling with how to help people, one by one, before and after the shelter closes.  In a few short weeks hundreds of volunteers from dozens of congregations will be saying “Goodbye” to our guests.  It’s always hard when you’re a host to say goodbye to guests that you have grown to like and respect.  And, yes, it can be a relief as well.  That’s honest.  It’s time for a change.  But this time, this season, with this shelter, something seems different.  People have genuinely connected to each other, one by one.  ”Homeless People” and “The Religious” now have names, faces, lives to share.  Out of this connection, many in congregations are meeting to ask the hard questions and make difficult decisions:  “How can we help These people, people we know, and help them Now?”  ”I feel bad that I can only help one person or that my congregation can do so little.”  ”What if we can only find one of our friends a job, or a room, or give them a ride, or take them out to lunch?”  All legitimate, heartfelt and reasonable questions and concerns.

One way we are addressing our struggles is to openly discuss specific people and how more than one congregation can work side by side with another to continue the relationships.  At one meeting a pastor said her church was hoping to help one of the staff.  Then two other congregations said they were concerned about the same person.  The three of them are now discussing a collaborative response.  We have heard from Adopt a Family and the Open Table program about what might work for us.  And we are picking up ideas from staff and guests as well.  One person mentioned opening a camping area for legal, permitted camping (and safe, legal parking for “metal homes”).  Which leads to the next discussion.

I had a very lively conversation with Albert and several of our guys in the shelter last evening.  We were tossing around a wild and revolutionary idea that we named “Green Village.”  It reflects how “out of the boxes” (homes and minds) we have to venture to create something better, something that works, for housing and human community.  This is a giant step away from the unsightly, unsafe and unsanitary “tent city” or “shantytown” messes in some areas.  “Green Village” would be a circle of tipis (cheap, portable, sturdy, time-tested dwellings) on public or private land, pleasing to the eye and respectful of the land, managed by some of our staff, with solar-power, low water use, compost toilets and an organic garden.  A central meeting space, around a common fire circle, would create an open, inclusive “spiritual” space for meetings, services and events.   A model ”sustainable” village, somewhat based on ancient tribal communities.  The old and outdated term “homeless” would just dissolve into the ground.  Albert feels that people would come from everywhere just to see the village and learn from the simplicity of people living in an earth-friendly community. Social workers, medical professionals, job counselors, chaplains and the sheriff would make regular visits to support and encourage the clean, sober and safe environment.  “Green Village,” with its small footprint, would be the best of Marin, at the forefront of both the movement for creative housing solutions and environmental sensitivity (featured no doubt in Sunset Magazine and given international attention!). . .and provide housing, work and supportive community for many who cannot sustain the standard of lifestyle required to “fit in” to Marin.  Businesses from ILM to Autodesk, successful musicians and artists, investors, congregations and environmental organizations would want to buy into this model.  It is a win-win model that benefits everyone.  By the way, if this looks like just another new-agey ripoff of Native American culture, consider that we have been sheltering Native people from various tribes both last season and this season (and many of our guests live “in the elements,” close to the earth, day and night).  ”Green Village” is a natural, respectful honoring of what we have lost by forcing indigenous peoples and ourselves into an artificial, unneighborly Culture of Boxes where the only “central fire” is the glowing television or computer screen in each locked box.  Besides, the irony should not be lost either:  when we are struck by an earthshaker similar to Haiti or Chile (and we will be), and our boxes crumble to little pieces, we will need shelter, and the only shelter left may be “Green Village” whose inhabitants will be our hosts, and we will be their guests.

Is this completely crazy?  A bizarre dream?  Probably not.  Is it crazier than playing the “housing element” numbers game with city after city, or pumping millions into new shelters and programs for “the homeless?”  Is it more bizarre than arresting people for sleeping outside or criminalizing people without houses?  Wouldn’t this take years to develop and huge amounts of cash?  I don’t think so.  The County, in partnership with a landowner, congregations and environmentalists should deem the housing crisis a Present Emergency, immediately opening some land for the project (always an obstacle, but this isn’t a tent city or a housing development).  Community partnerships, with the Marin Community Foundation, could assist with the purchase of materials including the tipis (several thousand dollars apiece).  Architects, conservationists, sustainable farming folks and Village residents could help develop the layout, build the foundations and set up the tipis, the compost toilets, common kitchen areas, etc.  Congregations, schools, clubs, agencies and families could “sponsor” a tipi, helping furnish each dwelling and monitoring upkeep (individuals and families could enjoy regular visits to stay connected to “Village Life”).  For another working example of this type of community, see Portland’s Dignity Village.

How many of our sheltering hosts and supporters would get excited about this innovative concept?   How many would want to be directly involved in a project like “Green Village?”  See why we have to be careful when we listen to those “on the outside,” who think outside the boxes because they live outside them?!  In the immediacy of the next few weeks we may not be able to open a “Green Village” –we may not think this is doable at all, but what is the alternative?  Really, what is left?  The same old sheltering and housing approaches, that try to make people live the way “civilized” people live–get a good income, a big house, a car and pay your taxes on your pretty boxes.  Think what it would be like to have people living “the old way,” as most of our ancestors lived, close to the earth, the ground, in circles around a central fire, when true community meant that no neighbor was excluded, each was known by each and everyone made a valuable contribution, each had a vital part.  Could “Green Village” lead the way forward, with a step back to what life was meant to be?

Maybe we can help one person now.  Maybe two or three congregations can be companions for one or two of our guests.  Maybe connecting a person to a room or a job is all we have the time for.  Perhaps some of us can still eat lunch at St. Vincents and mingle again with people as their guests, in their community.  This makes a huge difference in that person’s life, and ours.  And together, would it be too wild to say that we can make the “Green Village” a reality AS we are helping each individual, one by one, life by life?

“Jesus’ Penis”

Warning:  No doubt this will be the most controversial, offensive essay I have ever written for public view.  You have been warned.  If this isn’t a “hot current” I don’t know what else is!  Well, except hunger, homelessness, healthcare. . .

“Sex is the best and most powerful means to “prove” the disgusting beast of our nature.  The Church has consistently used our natural sexuality as a weapon—to varying degrees in Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Conservative and Liberal factions (mainline divorces over the “sanctity of marriage” and alternative “unions” leave even “progressive” lovers of God feeling jilted and unsatisfied).  No wonder Whitman was so obnoxiously obscene and offensive in his celebration of the “body electric” and his proclamation that “the soul is not more than the body” (Song of Myself, 48).  Oddly and ironically, in-timacy (a close relation which dissipates all fear—though this is not the Latin derivative) is judged disastrous to faith in fear-driven Christianism.  We are “fallen” because of a rise—the erection of our humanity emasculates our spirit (and clitoral orgasm shudders—and shutters—the soul).  Is this too graphic?  If you think so, I give you your own reaction as evidence.  The eunuch, the saint, the virgin—each an exemplar of purity and faith in their denial if not dismemberment of God-given but God-cursed sexuality (one could say, with a certain shudder, this is actually a dismemberment of God).  Sex is a no-win for the person of faith.  The Church is pornography incarnate; selling out the body for the bodiless. Show me one, just one, crucifix where Jesus has a penis (a recent art exhibit with just such a well-endowed figure was, of course, attacked).  In our culture, blasphemous as it is to the belief that we are made “in God’s image,” this would be (and is) condemned as pornographic.  The power of irrational faith is nowhere as evident.”  (Life After Faith)

I want to develop this theme a bit more than I had room for in my Life After Faith book.  Did Jesus have a penis?  If so (and of course he did), why not show it, depict it, worship it?  Why deny it?  Why avoid the fact that the “Son of God” had to take a leak and that he may well have “used” that appendage for what it was “meant” for?  Maybe this is the one thing Christianists fear most.   They fear Jesus’ penis.  Why?  Because it is the most human part of a man and leads to every kind of major “sin” available to the tempted.

Ask a person of faith what pornography is and they will no doubt say something about de-valuing the “sacredness” of the physical body, of sexuality, of our “god-given blessedness” or some such.  They will say it cheapens the “gift of sex” and makes it “recreational” instead of procreational.  So, I ask, if we are not to deny our sexuality but celebrate its sacredness and somehow see it as a spiritual act, then why deny that and not celebrate it in the man who is the central god in the flesh for a large body of the world?  Did Jesus really have a body and if he did then did he not have a brain, a heart, an arse and a penis?  Why be embarrassed by this?  One reason:  Religion or no religion we are embarrassed by our own sexuality.   Second reason:  If Jesus had a penis (whether he used it for more than peeing aside for a moment) then he was very, very human, which shakes up the “pure and undefiled” image that makes him different, “unique.”  If he had a penis, he was too “common,” “earthy,” “masculine.”   A third reason people are uncomfortable with a divine penis:  It is the one thing that really makes a man a man–a down to earth human being–so an emasculated god is easier to worship as Other, Other than Human, Not Quite Human, Above and Immaterial and Super-natural.  A fourth reason:  If Jesus had a penis he might be suspected of using it for something more than pissing on a cactus.  Jesus could be suspected of having sex, and the image of God’s Only Son screwing around with Palestinian women is unthinkable!

Here is a strange truth I have pondered for many a year:  Sex is the Number One form of Evangelism on the planet.  Conversion is best without a condom.  Why are there so many Hindus?  Sex is “sacred” and free.  Why are there so many Muslims?  Multiple wives lead to large Muslim families.  Why so many Catholics and Evangelicals and Pentecostals?  Birth control is taboo and having as many children as possible is encouraged.  It grows the “family of faith.”  Why so many Mormons?  Polygamy in the past and present, and. . .the more children the more vessels for souls awaiting birth.  Simple.  Of course.  Makes sense.  Well, in a twisted kind of overpopulated way.  So, the history of religion proves it:  the penis is the main “tool” for proselytizing through propagating.  God’s fundamental means for de-seminating faith is through semen (no wonder we joked in seminary that it was really “semenary”).  The seeds of the spirit are passed along primarily through sex, which is not to be pleasurable because that would encourage sex without reproduction and hence without the main purpose:  to make more believers.  Logical?  Of course.  Or, not.

God said to the Jews, “Be fruitful and multiply. . .be like the sands (or sperm) of the sea” and JC said to the Christians, “Make (love, uh, that is), disciples of all nations.”  The more sex, the more believers covering the land.  Which of course means, the more marriages and the more progeny the better and more blessed.  Maybe the original Mormons really did have it right.  Polygamy leads to polygeny and eternal life through propagation.  It’s just so “Pro Life” isn’t it?  Think of all those lost baby believers being aborted!  Abstinence is the best defense against having sex for pleasure.  God no!  Wait for marriage (blessed by the church, or mosque, or synagogue, or temple) because once you have that holy paper filed and framed on your bedroom wall, you can have all the unprotected sex you want and manufacture whole busloads of believers, guaranteeing you and your faithful flock will have a mansion in heaven (you’ll need the space!).  And, oh heavens, don’t do “the act” for your own pleasure.  Pleasure is for God and God gets orgasmic over more and more and more pro-creation!  Think of the souls waiting for their own organs so they can make even more organs, forever and ever amen!

Is the story of Jesus’ Penis really the greatest story yet untold?  Not pornography but born-ography.  Gives rise to a stiff conversation, does it not?  Why are we so embarrassed about a well-hung holy one?  At least the Hindus have the Shiva Linga, representing the phallus of Lord Shiva (they pour milk on the stone for blessing—quite the symbolism).  Our Lords, with their lack of a phallus, might just “fail us” with their impotence.

To be continued (with further insight and research). . .

The reaction to this crucifix in a church in Oklahoma makes my point.  Is this offensive?  And snow penises are illegal. . .didn’t you know?!

“The Greatest Holiday Ever!”

We’re all weary of these overbloated holidays, overloaded with more stuff as we stuff more in, pretending its noble or spiritual or our national duty.  So let’s combine them all; make one Giant Holiday, one super-bloated day with all the images and songs and plates piled high with coronary dressings, all mixed into one big blob.  Why not?  We have to do this.  It’s too late to “redeem” the old and moldy holy celebrations wholly devoid of meaning anymore.  Here’s what we do. . .

We start by retelling the stories. . .no, unwrapping the stories and sticking together what makes sense, or makes us laugh–which is really what we need to do, especially laugh at ourselves and our fat, faded and phony images in the mirror.  What if we took the ultimate fatguy–no, not Buddha– Santa, and melted him into a turkey, stuck on some antlers and had him (or her) waiting in a manger with mangey animals under a menorah of stars, waiting for three little pigs in Valentine slippers to sing Auld Lang Syne to the tune of White Christmas as three black angels who look like Malcolm X, MLK and Barack Obama appear in the heavens singing Kwanzaa songs and little goblins with pumpkins throw candy on a tree hanging with a bloody Easter bunny under a Solstice moon who miraculously wakes up, hops down, does an Irish jig for Saint Patty and dances hand in paw with a Pilgrim in tights singing America the Beautiful under a shower of Fourth of July fireworks.  Or something like that.

“Looking for America:

Where is Steinbeck (and Charley)?”

I’ve been reading John in the John.  Sorry, but it’s the truth.  For some reason I ended up with a bookshelf of Steinbeck books in the bathroom and a few weeks ago I grabbed one on the rush to the flush.  Not the most novel thing I’ve done, since Travels with Charley isn’t a novel.  I picked up this little treasure in a used bookshop (now closed of course) back in ’96.  A ’63 edition with the banner across the front of the faded paperback cover announcing in red letters:  “The #1 National Bestseller–Now Only 75c.”  I probably paid $2.50.

That’s the book.  Now the story.  Simple really.  A famous author turns 60 and hits the road with his dog Charley, in “Rocinante,” the big six-cylinder truck with a camper on back (named for Don Quixote’s horse), outfitted for a trek across the continent from Maine to California via everything in-between.  Adventures?  Yes.  But mostly day to day to week to month stories of real people, Americans–with some Canadians and Mexicans mixed in, true to the American spirit–of all kinds.  In this 275 page love letter to America Steinbeck scribbles his hopes and disappointments and mystification and exaltation in the woof and the warp of a strange and beautiful country (woof supplied by Charley the French poodle).  Reflecting at some turn of the road, the author says it would be nice to be able to say of his travels, “I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.” But instead he can say, “This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.” Our “Americanness” reveals our innate difference even as it affirms the kinship net of our peculiarly American relationships.  “From start to finish I found no strangers” the driver could say, and his point was “driven home” even as he, mile after mile, experienced the complexity of “Americanness” as complex, troubling and often as directionless as the complex system of roads and highways that bind the land like one big perplexing surprise package.

Without a tedious recap or summation of this brilliant little faded paperback, I simply take a few rest-stop breaks with John and Charley.  With a “Ftt” of dog language and a cup of brandy served in a jar, these lines from the great master of words still sing down the highways and drift like fresh air into the cracked windows of my thoughts.  And I know these road-words from 50 years passed are the real reasons I grabbed this book on the way to sit buddha with the fan humming above.

On being Lost in America: JS gets lost on the streets of a small town in New York in the rain.  Pulling over to make sense of a map he realizes that “to find where you are going, you must know where you are, and I didn’t.”

On Class and Country Living: Passing through countless cities and their urban urbaneness, he prophesies that one day the pendulum of the city-flights will swing back to the country.  The “swollen cities [will] rupture. . .and disperse their children back to the countryside.” He sees this prophecy already coming true with the movement of the rich out to the open places.  And then he caps it with, “Where the rich lead, the poor will follow, or try to.”

On Immigration: Encountering, even sharing a drink with, migrant workers across the land–“Hindus, Filipinos, Mexicans, Okies. . .French Canadians”–he reasons, “just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work.”

On Friendship and Companionship: Soaking out the toxics from depressing and lifeless people he had met, he slipped down into a hot bath and vodka near Bangor:  “I remember an old Arab in North Africa, a man whose hands had never felt water.  He gave me mint tea in a glass so coated with use that it was opaque, but he handed me companionship, and the tea was wonderful because of it.”

On Roots and Restlessness: Somewhere on the road near Toledo JS talks it out with Charley.  “Could it be that Americans are a restless people, mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection?. . . .  Every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the restless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay at home.”

On Texas Secession: Of much interest in our present day, Rocinante rolls through Texas and the driver ratiocinates, “Texas is the only state to come into the union by treaty.  It retains the right to secede at will.  We have heard them threaten to secede so often that I formed an enthusiastic organization–The American Friends for Texas Secession.  This stops the subject cold.  They want to be able to secede but they don’t want anyone to want them to.” No one hits the nail or the nonsense on the head like Steinbeck.  Love it.

A few more,

On Americans and an American: Traveling in Europe JS found that people would criticize “Americans” but not single him out for judgment.  There was something different between an individual American and Americans as a whole, as a myth or a stereotype.  Struggling with his own Americanism and even troubling undercurrents of racism, Steinbeck witnessed something similar across the nation.  “If there is indeed an American image. . .what is this image?”  “The more I inspected this American image, the less sure I became of what it is.”  He felt the acute paradox that seemed to have no clear resolution.

On Gratefulness in the Face of “Evil”: In Oregon Rocinante needed two new tires after one blew out in the rain, in an “endless muddy puddle.” In a little town everything was closed but one tiny service station where the owner was “a giant with a scarred face and an evil white eye.” He didn’t have the right tires.  The John and Charley show seemed stranded.  But then the evil ogre made some calls and found the right tires, they were delivered and installed.  “If ever my faith in the essential saintliness of humans becomes tattered, I shall think of that evil-looking man,” the grateful traveler wrote.  “I was so full of humble gratefulness, I could hardly speak.”

After reading Travels with Charley I was wondering what became of Rocinante.  She sits at rest in a museum.  Thankfully she has not been crushed like the auto industry in Detroit.  I continue to wonder what became of Steinbeck’s America–the perplexing complex sketch of landscapes he traced with his truck and his pen.  And, perhaps more troubling to ask and wonder, Where is the America he didn’t find, that he couldn’t find even as he searched with hope.   He found that America cannot be found and the questions become the answers to What or Who is America?  So we are left to travel for ourselves, with the dreams of Quixote and the companions of our wishfulness, searching down every open road, for an America that may never have existed, and that may never exist–should it?  Along the winding way, maybe the reality, the torn and crumpled map laid out on our dashboard, is that each American finds for themselves what America is, and what it means to be a restless traveler named American.

“I Sing the Body Electric”

“O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,

O I say now these are the soul!”

~Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”

I was awakened in the middle of the night, not by thunder but eerily quiet electric sky.  Dark shapeless clouds spread over the eastern hills like a mass of algae on an inverted sea.  Standing naked at the shadeless window to watch the intermittent explosions across the fields over the bay, I thought of the air on fire, of the earth too, even the ocean, and of the catastrophic conflagration of flight 447 suddenly lost over the Atlantic out of Rio.  Kata-strophe: to turn down; the final event of the dramatic action, especially of a tragedy.  High drama brought low.  The turn down, into death, into a conflagration–a burning fire of destruction.  The beauty of the fire in the sky that night seared the silence of death over the sea into my vision.  It was tragically beautiful.

John Muir saw the fires in the sky, and in the forest, and mountains and rivers.  Like all good naturalists, he had an eye for the fire within all things–the life that animates the world.  He once wrote (in Our National Parks) of a mighty earthquake in Yosemite Valley, describing it as Mother Nature bouncing us upon her knobby knee.  The force of Nature was not something to be feared but learned from, even delighted in.  In saying that “all Nature’s wildness tells the same story” he exults in the music of that wild tale, shaken to the bone with the crazy wisdom of storms, that whether they be “torrents, earthquakes, cataclysms, ‘convulsions of nature’, etc., however mysterious and lawless at first sight they may seem, are only harmonious notes in the song of creation. . . .”  In that trembling night Muir was not endangered and no lives were lost.  Yet, maybe he was identifying a profound fact often forgotten in the way we cope with “natural” calamities (calamitas: destruction; state of deep distress) and cataclysms (cataclysmos:  a violent washing).  We are not in control (an oft-forgotten truth), and certainly not masters of anything except perhaps our own reactions–our responses to what occurs naturally–sometimes mysteriously, but always naturally.

A nephew of mine wrote to raise some contemporary issues with the ancient ideas of Plato in The Republic.  The time-honored questions of idealism and the supernatural distilled down, in my young relative’s mind, to the sobering understanding that we can’t control the beyond, the supra-physical, only the earthbound, tangible and temporary.  One can only be honest to speak about the known and the knowable, not guess at the unknown and perhaps unknowable.  We are too quick to turn our guesses into knowledge or fact.  Were Plato and Socrates plugging in to the main current of wisdom when they considered the soul some kind of booted up body and vice versa?

In Walt Whitman’s famous poem he sings of his own body’s electricity.  It was in a day when electrical power was only beginning to be fully understood and “harnassed” (an anthropomorphic fiction tricking ourselves that the environment can be domesticated).  Whitman celebrated the lightning in his own protoplasm, in his flesh, his bones and brain.  He was charged with life and the living of it, fully juiced, amped up as we might say today.  His “song” is amplified early in the great section of Leaves of Grass (his incarnational book that hit America with its own shocking bolt), the section Whitman named “Children of Adam.”   Born of the earthly, virescent Eden, garden-dweller, the Poet of the Cosmos (so honored by John Burroughs) is compelled to march with “the armies of those I love” whom he charges “full with the charge of the soul.”  If you are familiar with the electrified poet you are aware that Walt’s soul is “not more than the body” (Song of Myself) and here he asks with full volume of extended lungs, “if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”  Whitmans’ electricity is not only palpable here but catastrophic–a dramatic turn down to the earth.  If we think he is simply and narcissistically “getting himself off” in these thundering passages of sex, procreation, and creative tension, that this is only another tune repeated from “Song of Myself,” we are ill-prepared to head into the storm with him–we hit the towering, ion-packed thunderheads over the ocean as he drives us in, face to face with the high, punishing winds of the slave auction.

He steps in to “sell” a man, then a woman, on the auction block–both naked, representative people (as Emerson might say and did), both dark human beings standing upon the dark pedestal of inhumanity yet illumined as a lightning storm for who they are–they stand, literally, for us, for America, for humanity.

Whitman “sells” these human slaves, liberated by the cataclysm of their sheer humanness, and in his electric ecstasy he concludes his composition, his sold-out solo concert in the public square, with the “likes” of the parts of the human body–zapped with power, piece by throbbing (whipped and scarred) piece.  He is a child of Adam, of Eve, of the Mother and Father of the planet, of God, of Slavery, of Revolution, of the Poet writ large in neon lights upon the clouds, because every part of him is lit up by being wired to everything.  For Whitman, seller of slaves, was selling himself, his own body, with every sale.  He lists, graphically, comprehensively, all the parts of the body(read “soul” or “poem” or “human existence”), parts long hidden, shamefull and sacred, singing,

“The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body, the circling rivers the breath. . .the thin red jellies within you or within me. . O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul, O I say now these are the soul!”

Only the soloist on his auction-block stage, singing such an earthly and ground-bound pile of leaves collected into his opus “Leaves of Grass” could draw us all into a soulful chorus that identifies the soul with the body, the “spiritual” melting into the material, fully conscious of the beauty, the injustice, the clear skies of day and the dark, dangerous, atmospheric illuminations of the nightsky.  This song on the breeze brings a note of dread and discovery; a calamity in the clouds above and within.  A new truth is strangely attractive in its dissonance.  The “soul” may be simply, scientifically and spiritually, the electrified body, synapses and syncopation in the song of flesh, bone and thin red jellies.

The “souls” who perished in the night sky high over the Atlantic, like perhaps those slaves sold by a rapturous poet, may have, in their final moments, witnessed the catastrophe, the final tragic event, of the drama of supercharged Nature, when body and soul unite in life’s crescendo.  In that moment, is it all clear in the bright darkness of life’s unbounded energy?  When Death and Life meet in an instant as do Body and Soul, are they seen for what they are, felt, experienced in a flash as undivided, inseparable, identical?  Undeserving of such an ending, perhaps those who have rained upon our ocean planet, in some shocking sense, were worthy, privileged of a death–a turning down of life– in the awesome brightness of the explosive and electric sky.

Chris Highland

Sandy Hook 027

“The Needy”

“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.”  ~Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham City Jail, 1963

Who are the neediest people in our nation, our state, our county, our city, our neighborhood?  Who are those who are defined by what they do not have and what they ask for or even demand of the rest of us?  Are we ourselves defined by our need to know, to learn from and identify with “the needy?”  Might it be healthier, let alone more honest, if we were all to admit our own neediness?

What are we in need of?  More things?  More money?  More?  I would suggest that we are all in need of more understanding, knowledge, active listening, compassionate responding.  And I would also urge us to acknowledge that we need less—less fear, less ignorant reactiveness to what we do not understand, less preaching about otherworldly matters, and less creation of an environment of Us versus Them—the haves and havenots.  We all have something to contribute and we all need the contributions of others.

The essays on these pages direct toward a re-thinking of the fundamentals of society, politics and religion in the context of Nature, facing the naturally troubling and energizing questions that touch on neediness, fulfillment and the shades of poverty of mind as well as the poverty of material things.  We need less of some things and more of others.  We need things, and we need to release our need to be attached to things, perhaps especially mental things that hide our deeper needs for human relationship and creative community.

Welcome to the conversation.  Our need to search our need places us each and all in the same small boat, looking up at the same stars and the same beautiful potential for good and great, beyond the chilling fog and drenching fear of our age, nearer and nearer (we could hope) to the vision and decisive action of Martin Luther King and his successors:  us.   The truth lies somewhere in this daily mindfulness:  We have seen The Needy for we have seen ourselves.

Chris Highland

Anyone and Everyone

Anyone and Everyone

Life Is Too Short

originally written in 2003

“To simplify one’s life!

It seems the most natural thing in the world

to undertake,

yet it’s just about the most difficult.”

~Henry Miller, Big Sur

Another weekend’s sleep-in was interrupted by a neighbor’s dog barking in their yard down the street.  Living in the forest is fine, and wild creatures give it a remote feeling, but domestic animals can take something from the experience.  After about an hour and a half of nearly nonstop arfing and yowling I picked up my weapon of choice, turning it over in my hands.  It felt good on my skin—sleek, smooth, strong and sharp—ready to send a message clear and cutting. . .my pen.  Not a weapon to use against the animal, mind you.  I like some dogs.  Really.  It’s unmindful, unneighborly neighbors I have difficulty with.  It’s them I feel like attacking with this most powerful of weapons.  So I began to write on the small, blue legal pad.

“Awakening to a morning’s bark (alas, not of the tree kind). . .bark, bark, bark.  Then more,

bark, Bark, bark and the finale (a finale that never ends):  Bark, Bark, Bark!”  I signed it

“Your neighbor, who will, next time, bark at the cops.”

This was the second time in as many months that I’d sauntered a poetic scribbling down the hill and artfully placed the paper in a tree limb by the neighbor’s garage door.  I don’t like confrontation anyway (though my entire career as a counselor belies that) so it felt good to make my creative statement and smile as I walked back up, all the while knowing that the owners (“masters”!) would likely not return until much later in the day.  When my nearer neighbor rode up on his bike saying “Can you Believe it?” with a nod toward the dog-house, complaining that he and his partner had suffered with the noise all morning, I took him back and read him my poem-grenade.  He laughed and exclaimed, “That’s great.  Much better than what I planned to do!”

Reminding others to be mindfully awake and aware has been unfortunately tied into my work for many years.  Not because I’m necessarily More awake and aware, simply it seems I seem to be more aware that I am unaware, comparatively speaking, day in and year out.  Early Sunday School lessons, a smathering of Jewish ethics and later Buddhist and Taoist lessons put a certain responsibility in my face and in my lap.  I’m free to do as I please, not judged but loved by the Great Awake Spirit of All, yet I’m also responsible, to myself, others and that greater One, the Over-soul spoken of by Emerson.  What I do responds to my environment and cor-responds to the “greater purpose of compassion.”  Or so I would hope.  As an interfaith chaplain in three incarnations—as a teacher with people who are labeled disabled, as a jail chaplain locked in with offenders and, for the past eight years serving as street chaplain among homeless people in one of the richest counties in America—I have had to respond with corresponding compassion to crisis after crisis as counselor, spiritual guide, teacher and friend.  I’ve had to stay wide awake.

When my father died in 1984, followed by my mother in 1991, I began to radically alter my perception of Life.  My father had spoken of retirement, preparing for years to take all those fishing trips he’d dreamed of.  The year he retired, after 30 years at Boeing, cancer snuck up and strangled him and all that was left was fishing gear in the closet.  Mom outlived him a little, having battled arthritis for as far back as I can remember, planning more of her world journeys to see what’s out there.  But, ol’ demon cancer stabbed her too, and she went down with little dignity—slipping off into a morphine sleep as I sat vigil.  It’s not quite enough to say their deaths simply altered my perceptions.  When they left, or rather, altered their presence, a deeply abiding new sense sunk into all I am, all I do and say.  This sense can only be described with words as “Life is too short.”  More than a mantra, this brief brush of wisdom’s brush not only came to guide me; it became and still becomes the single principle upon which Life’s fragility totters.

What I mean particularly by “Life is too short” is not exactly a complaint.  I’m not saying “Shit!  This life is so short and it ought to be longer.  I’d make it different, and better!”  What I’m thinking with this short line is that I now profoundly recognize the brevity of this bodily presence we call living and seek to guide my life by something more than “oh, I have all the time in the world,” or “I’ll wait and do that wonderful thing later,” or “this or that matters so much that I can’t live without it,” or, this may be the biggest, “I’ve got to hold on tight to this thing or this person because I don’t want to lose it/them.”  Call it a sense of transience, impermanence, or whatever.  I know, deep in heart and mind, that life is a flash, a spark, a shooting star, a wave of the sea. . .something quick, often painful, often wonderful and beautiful and therefore incredibly, no!—credibly precious.  I can believe in Life because of its immense worth.  And I think I’m a better, more balanced person since I face it squarely and honestly and wholeheartedly as “short.”

Seeking to guide one’s life by a cognizance of life’s shortness may actually be a manner of conducting life by an open attitude of “Life is too short to Not do, say or experience” something.   Does this necessitate a fearful reaction that “anything goes?”  The moralistic pious would perhaps have that reaction.  Are there limits or boundaries to this freeing attitude to live one’s life by an open principle of “What if?”  What if I stopped working so much and took more time to enjoy the leisure side of life?  What if I let go of the rushing pace of contemporary life, pulled out of the torrent and contemplated the beauty of things more?  Are there places I’ve always wanted to go, things or people I desire to see, experiences I’ve wished to have, books I’ve dreamed of reading or writing?  All these challenging questions urge me not to let it pass.  The experience or this short life.  The boundaries are mutable and often moot.  So am I, so is my so-called life.

Life’s tragedies have a sculpting influence on these matters.  As Bertrand Russell once wrote, “In these moments of insight [marked by pain, suffering and mystery], we lose all eagerness of temporary desire, all struggling and striving for petty ends, all care for the little trivial things that, to a superficial view, make up the common life of day by day; we see, surrounding the narrow raft illumined by the flickering light of human comradeship, the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour. . . [A Free Man’s Worship, 1903].  Our darkest times bring us into the liminal moments that shape us, though tossed on the waves like driftwood.  The trivial, the flickering and rolling can serve to jar us awake to the meaning of our existence in the sharpest moments of sight or insight.  Russell is expounding a truth I now live by.  Pain, loss, suffering of all kinds will happen.  No avoiding possible.  Yet, as a Native American man on the street once said to me in a conversation about principles of living:  “All I can do is my best.”  I responded, “Life is too short to Not do one’s best.”

Another channel that this river could trickle down would be the one where a person could say:  Life is so short; I’m going to live it to the hilt and risk it all in dangerous adventure.  This can be seen in those who enjoy “death-defying feats” of thrill, those who push the limits of endurance and safety in extreme sports or practice sexual conquests.  Interestingly enough this careless attitude is also evident in those who believe in a religious fundamentalism that preaches:  This life is short and sinful so we don’t care if we die; there’s a better Eternal life ahead, beyond death, so let’s be martyrs for heaven.  I will only say here that this devaluation of the earth and the body is not what I personally mean when I realize the brevity of the life span.  This trickling creek dries up while it loses the wonderful, priceless treasure of beauty that is life itself.

Far from a complaint, or an excuse or a reckless abandon, this abiding, guiding principle presents me with a life full of opportunity to explore, discover, invent, be real and honest, and to live as I Must Live, by choice, by my own gifts and abilities.  To practice a Short Life is tantamount to setting sail to new lands or even planets, not to be a self-styled adventurer or brash jock of a journeyer but to learn, grow, be awestruck and stunned by what lies out in the vast world around, even within.  Life is Not too short (for most) to see, hear, feel or think something new, create something innovative, be a better person or go where no one has gone before (to borrow the inspiration from Star Trek).  Life is Not too short to condense the best of what life offers into one’s own span of experience.  It might mean some sacrifice of myths of success and stability to achieve a balance of simplicity and comfort.  Choosing to live a short life may entail some harsh realism blended, one could hope, with an equal amount of playfulness, humor and intrinsic joy.  I’ve seen this in some who have terminal diseases, who find a way to exude a sifting of goodheartedness [without that killer bitterness] and a gutsy humor in the face of obvious pain and even a little fear.  I’ve felt this when conducting a memorial service for a baby who suffered for many months as his parents tried desperate procedures to keep him alive.  At the service, the mother was just as interested and focused on making lemonade for everyone who came, with a smile and a hug for each, as she was in telling us how she had to say goodbye and let her little one go.  Her gesture of release, raising her hands and throwing her arms apart, became our corporate ritual of grieving—a gift to us.  The father, without I think denying his pain at all, had smiles and gratefulness to give to each person.  Life indeed is not too short to love, to be kind, to struggle for grace and peace, to create and to give.  It is up to us, and we ought to choose this— the best of ways to live, because there is precious little time to waste.

Henry Thoreau once wrote a poem that contained the line, “Think on thy home, my soul, and think aright, of what’s yet left thee of life’s wasting day.”  Having read a great deal of the Concord naturalist’s writing I would not conclude that he was thinking necessarily of some heaven beyond.  In light of the fact that this was the man who wrote “heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads” I can only surmise that his sense of “home” was life lived to the fullest and best here and now, in this branching present moment, as the poet Rumi said.

And now, one might say, this essay has taken enough valuable minutes of life, and is drawn too long.  I have said about all I can say about this short subject, for now.  I’ve barked loud and long enough.  Life is too short to throw more words at it.  Agreed.  So, I will end with a twist on something Mr. Spock used to say (in the future of course):

Live Short, and prosper!

Chris Highland

Summer 2003


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