Sunday, October 15, 2017

What Made You Happy?

Circa 1957. I'm the shrimp in the middle.
I don't think of my childhood as very pleasant. My parents were older than most. My dad was 53 when I was born, and my mother was an exhausted 38. She was nervous and depressed, and he fell ill for the first time when I was ten. My sister left home that year, and my brother was three years gone, so for eight years I was the sole companion of two people whose lives hadn't started well--both were orphaned early--and weren't drawing to a close in much peace.

So when Carolyn Baker and Dean Spillane-Walker, at their workshop Resilience Bridge, asked all of us to recall what made us happy as children, as adolescents, and as adults, I didn't imagine that the first chapter of my life would yield much.

I was wrong. I came up with lots of things.

I loved to return home from church to fried chicken on Sundays. My favorite piece was the thigh, and I was always grateful when my parents and siblings saved one for me. When I'd learned the Lord's Prayer, I was sometimes allowed to say it. I congratulated myself on my performance. (I didn't really hear it until childhood was long gone.)

Speaking of church, I loved eating those little powdered donuts between Sunday school and the 11:00 worship service. I fed a few crumbs to the goldfish in the courtyard pond.

I loved surprising my father when he came home from work at 3:30 in the afternoon, still in his overalls. When he opened the front door, I jumped out from behind it, and he always (I mean every single time) acted surprised. After he changed his clothes, I sat in his lap until he dozed off.

I loved spending my allowance at the dime store on Marysville Boulevard. When I was six or seven, my mother let me walk the five blocks there by myself. I crossed am empty half-block, the potholed corner lot next to Marie's Donuts. It was dry and brown in the summer, green and muddy after the rain started, and teeming with tadpoles. I scooped them up in my hands and returned them to the water. (I'd brought some home once in a jar, but my mother wasn't thrilled.) I turned over rocks and poked the ground with sticks. I daydreamed of flying like the crows on the telephone wire.

Even chores, although I never had many, gave me joy. My sister and I used to sing show tunes while she was washing and I was drying dishes, learned from the LPs she collected. I still have the  lyrics in my head to "What Do the Simple Folk Do?"

I loved my cats. I loved squeezing my cats. When I was ten and my father developed a tumor, I heard my mother talking on the telephone to the doctor. She asked if the tumor was malignant. It wasn't, but I didn't hear the doctor's answer. I looked up malignant in the dictionary and darted into the backyard before my mother could see me crying. There was a box of kittens in the garage then, and I carried it out onto the grass. Those kittens were a great blessing.

Food, child-sized adventures, animals, routines, stability. These things made me happy, and insofar as my life and my family's aren't utterly disrupted by the hard times approaching, I can cling to these childhood blessings and try to bestow them on others. When my life is disrupted (as the lives of so many have been severely disrupted this week by fire) I can do my best to restore my blessings or, at the very least, remember them.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

House on Fire

I was born and raised in Sacramento. My parents are buried there. I studied in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and San Jose, and lived in Palo Alto for 35 years. I still have dear friends in Northern California, and it's on fire. I feel as if I'm on fire myself.

A CNN report this morning says that a "perfect storm of factors" created the conditions in the wine country that have taken 17 lives, left many unaccounted for, tens of thousands evacuated, and whole neighborhoods wiped out.

These factors include "really strong winds" with gusts of up to 50 mph in some areas and 80 mph in others; night-time onset, making it harder to notify people and get them out of harm's way in time; dense, dry vegetation following years of drought, a wet winter that brought new growth, and another very hot summer; and low humidity.

The fires are currently zero-percent contained according to a fire chief quoted this morning in the New York Times.

There will be investigations. Did someone set it, as in the case of a recent fire along the Columbia River? I guess it's important to know that, but not as important as recognizing that the conditions listed above, with the exception of the timing, made the fire worse, and are all the results of climate change.

I write fiction in part because I believe that fictional characters can sometimes tell truths with more clarity than real people:

We must bring ourselves to surrender to what is true.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Who Will We Be?

My friends Carolyn Baker and Dean Spillane-Walker have begun teaching a three-day workshop called Resilience Bridge. I attended the very first one a couple of weeks ago in Ashland, Oregon. Another will be offered in Boulder, Colorado, Oct. 13-15. An on-line version is also in the works.

A few who came to Ashland wanted to talk about scenarios. What would we be faced with as the environment degrades, as political unrest increases, as economies grow shaky? And we did spend a little time discussing the "sober facts" of collapse--the numbers, the science--although most of us already knew a lot about that.

What we didn't and don't know is how these facts will play out where we live, what particular obstacles to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we'll face.

Some of my own fears include going without the medication I depend on, not knowing what to do for my children and grandchildren when they are sick and no doctors are available, not having enough food in the house, not being able to raise vegetables because the growing season in Bellingham, already short, becomes too hot as well, having to defend from intruders those supplies I've managed to stockpile, and violence, violence, violence.

We live in radically uncertain times, perhaps the most uncertain in human history. And what we are facing are predicaments rather than problems. I believe this distinction originated with John Michael Greer. (I recommend his books The Long Descent and Dark Age America.) Problems can be solved whereas predicaments are messes that resist cleaning up--like Superfund sites, my family of origin after the 2016 election, Florida. Predicaments like water shortages, soil degradation, and ocean acidification require "solutions" that seem either politically impossible in the time we have left (like taxing the rich to fund green energy), or mostly theoretical and likely to remain so (like carbon sequestration). We do our best to respond to predicaments but they remain stubbornly insoluble.

Carolyn and Dean suggested that a more pointed and useful question might be who will we be when these things happen, how will we live in the world. What, for example, will we say and do when a flood comes to our town and a fellow human we don't recognize washes up on our doorstep?

That's what the workshop was really about, how to keep living as living gets harder, and even--this is the best part--how to grow.

Carolyn and Dean's definition of resilience: The life-giving ability to shift from a reaction of denial or despair to learning, growing, and thriving in the midst of challenge.

More to come.
An urban garden in Havana following trade sanctions in 1989. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

My Stubborn, Entitled Self

Erik, my grandson, at 21 months
A few years ago I wrote a blog post called "Renouncements." You can read it here if you're in the mood for a laugh.

I claimed then to be giving up some troublesome habits. I'm still struggling with most of them.

Red wine is a smaller problem than it used to be but still on my radar. I have to be careful.

I continue to eat red meat although the guilt is crushing. (See Cowspiracy.)  

I returned to the Vermont Studio Center during the Polar Vortex of 2014 for a writing retreat. I didn't stay long.

In 2016, I traveled on an airplane to Sligo, Ireland, partly to visit Yeats's grave. As it turned out, he's probably not even buried there.

I'm still coloring my hair, and I've begun to watch the occasional violent film, particularly since Trump was elected, and particularly if Denzel Washington is starring.

I have a grandson now. I'd lay down my life for him without a moment's hesitation.

I'm trying the Unitarian Church.

BUT . . .  I still haven't read Lolita.

* * *

I've been back to therapy, too, and it's still about adjusting to life as we find it. Here's the big difference between 2013 and today. There is no longer any other choice than to adjust. We've waited too long to make any significant changes in our collective habits and policies. Now we know that the storms are coming no matter what. The droughts are coming. The heat and the breathing problems are coming. Like many in the Pacific Northwest, I spent part of August struggling to breathe as the smoke from the British Columbia forest fires and unusually hot weather coincided. (How much longer will I use the word unusually?) We must try to survive these new conditions, these enforced changes to our personal habits, without turning into monsters.

Man wading down a post-Irma street in Naples, Florida
(photo by The Atlantic).
What I mean by the title of this new blog is that it's time to evolve. It's time for me to evolve. Setting my stubborn, entitled self on a more evolved path won't prevent any of the disasters coming at us, but it might make me face them with more scruples, more generosity. It might lead me to be more effective in caring for the people I love. It might allow me to reimagine what's truly comforting. Would that be revolutionary? It depends on how you define revolution.

In the past, changing the self and changing the world were often regarded as separate endeavors and viewed in either-or terms. But in the story of the Great Turning, they are recognized as mutually reinforcing and essential to one another. --Joanna Macy