Posts Tagged ‘sorrow’

All At Once

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

All At Once

Spring Display photo by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2015)

“Love exists in itself, not relying on owning or being owned.” Sharon Salzberg

Last year, handguns killed forty-eight people in Japan, eight in Great Britain, fifty-two in Canada, twenty-one in Sweden, and 10,728 in the United States. I was listening to the Giants sweep the Dodgers and feeling euphoric and glad when I received the email with those handgun death statistics, and I was reminded of a dharma talk I attended many years ago in Berkeley.

After her prepared talk, the Buddhist teacher took questions from the audience. A woman asked, “How can we be happy when there is so much suffering in the world, so much violence and cruelty and inequity, and so much of it unnecessary?”

The teacher replied, “If we immerse ourselves in news of suffering and violence, it is very difficult to be happy. Life is full of sorrow and joy. Sometimes we feel great and have wonderful experiences, sometimes we are sick and miserable. That’s the nature of life. Buddha said nothing about striving to be happy. He did suggest we make a conscious effort to be kind to each other and to ourselves. Kindness is now the heart of my practice.”

Speaking of sick and miserable, I recently suffered through a bad case of food poisoning that rendered two days entirely void of happiness for me. And yet, during those same two days, the lettuce doubled in size, the apple trees burst forth with hundreds of lovely blossoms, and Marcia was full of her usual vim and vigor and love of life.

“There are good and bad tastes, good and bad feelings, agreeable and disagreeable ideas. It is our attachment to them that creates suffering.” Shunryu Suzuki

This morning we discovered our thirteen-year-old cat Django has not yet retired from hunting, though we thought he had. A decapitated, eviscerated little rabbit greeted us as we opened the door to the laundry room where Django has his bed. I scooped the carcass up with my shovel and flung the body into the forest where all the atoms of that formerly cute furry animal will soon be scattered around the cosmos.

Speaking of the cosmos, the news lately is full of reports of planets just a hop skip and jump away, if only we could travel faster than the speed of light, that might be loaded with water, might be conducive to life as we know it, and might already have life fermenting thereon. I read these reports and can’t help wondering if they are another ploy to distract us from our collective annihilation of the planet we currently occupy.

Yet another collection of eminent climate scientists have come out with a declaration that unless humans reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, there is little chance the biosphere will remain habitable for children and other living things. Meanwhile, carbon emissions are increasing every year and the powers that be spend trillions of dollars on weaponry that might be spent switching us from fossil fuels to renewables.

Speaking of renewables, did you know the state of Washington is experiencing a historic drought? We knew California was dry as a bone with a snow pack less than ten per cent of normal, but Washington’s snow pack is not much better. This is bad news for salmon and kayakers, but really bad news for apple lovers because Washington grows seventy per cent of all the apples in America and commercial apple farming uses lots of water.

“When you are walking, there is no foot ahead or behind.” Shunryu Suzuki

Everything is happening all at once. My brother’s good friend was just struck and killed by a bicyclist. A young couple we know is about to have a baby. Our government is about to pass so-called Free Trade Agreements that will give corporations supremacy over state and national laws. Rain is drumming on the roof and I have the hiccoughs.

Meanwhile, the Giants are up two to nothing against the Colorado Rockies behind our good young pitcher Chris Heston who comes to us courtesy of injuries to several of our other pitchers not half as good as he. Who knew? Playing at mile-high stadium in Denver where the thinner air favors the hitters will be a big test for the young hurler.

Then there are the resurgent redwood roots. I’ve been gardening in redwood root country now for nine years and am fast approaching the point of surrender. Now the Rockies have tied the game. And now we’ve gone ahead of the Rockies, but now they’re threatening again. Life is threatening and lovely and I just cancelled the manure run for tomorrow because it’s raining hard and Kathy’s corral will be a quagmire. Now the Rockies have tied the game. Nothing is certain.

A recent exhaustive study of the most recent American election, referenced by Noam Chomsky, reveals the level of voter participation today is equivalent what it was in the early nineteenth century when only landed white men were allowed to vote. No wonder our government is so entirely out of synch with the wishes of the American populace. To make matters worse, the Rockies have now gone ahead of the Giants five to four.

Should I live so long, I will be a hundred-and-one-years-old in 2050, though given my tendency to eat questionable foods and hurt myself, the chances of that are not good. Besides if we don’t reduce carbon emissions to zero long before then, nobody will be alive in 2050. But we never know what might happen. This is not wishful thinking but an acknowledgment that life is unpredictable. There may come a moment when everything happening all at once precipitates a sudden cessation of carbon emissions.

In the meantime, the Rockies are now up six to four as we head into the seventh inning. The rain has abated, the lettuce seems delighted by this April shower and as my Uncle Howard was fond of saying, “We’ll see what develops.”

Sad People

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

The house with no windows

The house with no windows painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“In the silence of night I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people.” Judy Garland

The well-known actor Philip Seymour Hoffman killed himself last week with a heroin overdose. He was forty-six. Hoffman was one of those actors who, with the notable exception of his portrayal of Truman Capote in the movie Capote, generally played himself—an intelligent and somewhat cynical depressive. Because Hoffman wasn’t acting, in the sense of pretending to be someone he wasn’t, if the script was good and Hoffman was well cast, he was wholly believable as a real person—a rarity in contemporary American movies. If the writing was bad and the actors miscast, as in A Late Quartet, Hoffman, through no fault of his own, verged on the ridiculous.

As Truman Capote, the role for which he won an Academy Award, Hoffman presented a restrained and studied imitation of the real Truman Capote’s voice and mannerisms, an imitation I found maddeningly unbelievable, perhaps because I have an entirely different idea about who and what Truman Capote was than the character executed by Hoffman.

My opinion aside, Philip Seymour Hoffman was regarded as one of the best American character actors of the last fifteen years. He was wealthy, respected, and the father of three children with his devoted partner. Yet he killed himself with the heroin he habitually injected to find temporary respite from what proved to be terminal self-loathing.

Tens of thousands of people commit suicide in America every year, but we don’t often hear about those deaths unless the manner of dying is sensational. However, the suicide of a famous person is big news in our celebrity-obsessed society, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s suicide resurrects the age-old question: why would someone so successful and adored and in the prime of his life want to stop living? The unstated implication of that question is that we know why unsuccessful and unloved people want to end their lives, but why would a revered star want to die?

One answer to the question of why a successful and well-liked person would commit suicide (while still relatively young) is that self-perception is rarely, if ever, altered by the perceptions others have of us. Indeed, if others perceive us differently from how we perceive ourselves, those contrary perceptions rarely penetrate our consciousness.

If we feel we are useless and pathetic and inadequate, and someone tells us with great sincerity that we are useful and admirable and capable, we might enjoy that praise for a moment, but such praise will not alter the foundational self-assessment implanted in childhood and reinforced by the accompanying continuous loop recording blaring away in our unconscious mind every minute of every day: you are just no good!

As it happens, most people who suffer from extreme self-loathing are also supremely self-involved. This is neither ironic nor surprising when we understand that the maintenance of self-loathing requires self-fixation. Good or bad or mundane, for the narcissist everything must be about the self—all else irrelevant.

“I need the applause.” Jerry Lewis

When I was in high school, much to the dismay of my parents, I stepped off the academic path preparing me for medical school and signed up for Drama. I loved acting, and I especially loved being in the company of so many beautiful emotive girls who wanted to be actresses. I aspired to write plays, too, and had at my disposal many eager young thespians to act out the scenes I wrote for them, which was a fantastic learning experience for me.

I was fifteen when I got my first part in a school play—the minor role of Franklin Roosevelt’s son in Sunrise at Campobello. This was an ideal first role for a young actor because I was onstage for much of the play, pushing the actor playing Franklin Roosevelt around in his wheelchair, but I only had a few lines to memorize and just one slightly meaty scene. Thus I got to bask in the electricity of a live performance in front of an audience without any great dramatic responsibilities.

Nevertheless, I comported myself well enough so that the applause from the audience swelled just a bit when I came out to take my bow at play’s end, and I vividly remember how my body received the applause as if I was being injected with happiness, an injection that made me high as a kite for hours thereafter. I noticed, however, that when I came down from that high, I was anxious and fidgety and desperate to experience that same sort of high again.

By the end of my senior year in high school I had been in seven plays and was addicted to that scalp-tingling rush from being enthusiastically applauded. However, I was also painfully aware that the euphoria I experienced from such mass approbation was becoming shorter and shorter-lived with every performance, and that in the aftermaths of those transitory highs, I experienced debilitating lows, such that I began to dread applause and the ensuing depression, which fear decided me not to pursue an acting career, but to focus instead on mastering writing and music, the pursuit of such mastery insuring a lack of applause for many years to come if not forever.

“The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star but to go one’s way in life and work unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause.” Gustav Mahler

Easier said than done, Gustav. The advice of this famous composer works better for me if we change the word point to practice, because the world’s opinion—which I take to mean the opinions of others—can make the difference between an artist earning enough money to live on from his or her work, or not earning enough. Therefore, to withstand the slings and arrows of such potent external forces, one’s internal sense of self must be especially strong and positive, and we must fervently believe that what we are endeavoring to create has value regardless of our worldly success or lack thereof.

“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” Pema Chödrön

I don’t think we can rescue anyone. We can momentarily save a drowning person, but there is no way to stop that person from jumping overboard once our backs are turned. Still, I’ve known many marvelous people struggling with some murderous addiction or another, and I have many times fantasized that if I could only spirit them away to an island from which there was no escape and where they had no access to the killing substances they were addicted to, that with the guidance of a wise master they would finally come face to face with those terrible internal threats they were trying to suppress by shooting heroin or getting drunk or eating too much, and they would undergo cataclysmic emotional and spiritual crises and come out the other side into a state of being that is, in the words of Shunryu Suzuki, “Not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.”

Which is what happens, more or less, to addicts and depressives who experience life-saving transformations, except not usually because someone kidnaps them and takes them to some mythic isle presided over by a bodhisattva. No, something inside them, something more powerful than the command to self-sabotage leads them through the fiery labyrinth of self-hatred and crippling self-doubt and into meaningful communion with others. But if that divine spark is not in them, or the spark has grown too weak to become a flame, that person will inevitably seek escape from suffering through other means, a needle or a bottle or a flight through space to the unyielding ground.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Albert Camus

Just a few months after I graduated from high school, Henry, one of the boys in my Drama class, committed suicide. Henry was a fantastic actor, though he never got a part in one of the school plays. I knew of his talent because every Friday the Drama students would perform scenes and monologues we were supposed to learn and practice during the week. Our grades for the semester were determined almost entirely by the grades we got for our Friday performances, and Henry never failed to bring us all to our feet cheering and applauding his performance.

Whereas I rarely did more than memorize my lines and practice my scene a few times before the Friday performance, Henry rehearsed his monologues and scenes hundreds of times, spent hours in front of the mirror creating his costume, and before each performance would have a makeup artist make him up to look stunning under the stage lights he would carefully orchestrate to fit the moods of his scenes.

Sometimes Henry did comedy, sometimes tragedy, but underpinning every performance he gave was an almost unbearable sorrow that brought even the most glib and cynical among us to tears.

Why Bother?

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.” Vaclav Havel

Dave Smith’s invaluable Ukiah Blog Live pointed me to a sobering presentation by Guy MacPherson on YouTube entitled Twin Sides of the Fossil Fuel Coin. MacPherson is a prominent conservation biologist who argues clearly and concisely that the only hope for the survival of humans beyond another couple of decades is the complete collapse of our global industrial society right now, today, and even that probably won’t be soon enough to stave off fast-approaching human extinction and the extinction of virtually all living things due to increasingly rapid global warming.

I watched the nearly hour-long presentation alone and then I watched it again a few hours later with Marcia, and then I spent a sleepless night wrestling with the overwhelming evidence that, barring a confluence of major miracles, we are about to experience massive economic and environmental collapse, and when I say “we are about to” I mean any day now, with some very reputable scientists suggesting the earth will be uninhabitable by humans in less than twenty years.

That’s right. Twenty years. Why? Well, in a nutshell, all recent data suggests that the warming oceans and the concurrent melting of arctic ice and the thawing of previously frozen bogs of Siberia, Canada, and Alaska are combining to release so much methane into the atmosphere that earthly temperatures will soon rise to deathly levels and everything that needs oxygen to survive will perish. And long before the oxygen runs out, crop failures and water shortages and catastrophic storms and economic collapse will instigate mass starvation and unimaginable social chaos. There will be no safe havens when there is no oxygen to breathe. We cannot move to a nicer place. This is it.

Meanwhile, I’ve got bills to pay and the men have arrived to install a deer fence. The house needs a new roof, we’re out of carrots, and we better get that package in the mail today or the presents won’t get to my sister before Christmas. Marcia is rehearsing some lovely cello-piano duets with Carolyn in the living room and the greedy bastards have just upped our health insurance twenty-five per cent and Obama is caving into the Republicans on tax reform because he is a Republican, and by the way, Obama doesn’t give a rat’s ass about global warming and the fast-approaching death of everybody’s children including his own.

So how do we proceed when we know the end of everything is so near? We can carry on as usual until something stops us from carrying on, or we can call our friends and say, “Let’s put our heads together and think of what we can do to try to help save the world?” And then we can start doing whatever we figure out to try to do. In either case, according to MacPherson, we’re doomed to a horrific future because we’ve waited too long to make the substantive changes we needed to make to avert global disaster. So why bother to try to improve things if we’ve already missed our chance? Why not just enjoy life as much as possible for however many years we have left and then when things get really icky, commit suicide?

That is probably what some of us will do. And some of us will hoard food and water in hopes of staying alive for a few months longer than we might otherwise live. And most of us will starve to death or be killed by other starving people or…you see why I had trouble sleeping.

In the meantime, I sure am enjoying the music Marcia and Carolyn are making in the living room—such masterful players, and so attuned to each other. What a miracle that humans evolved to where we could compose such gorgeous music and invent such fabulous instruments on which to bring forth such heavenly sounds. As it happens, I’ve been composing some new piano pieces I hope to record in the new year, and I’m looking forward to my novel Inside Moves being reissued in paperback in June with a flattering introduction by the famed Sherman Alexie; and I’m in talks with a publisher about bringing out a new edition of my book of writing exercises The Writer’s Path, and the deer fence guys are making great progress, which bodes well for the big vegetable garden I’m hoping to plant in the spring, and…

Gardens? Books? Music? Writing? What am I talking about? The human experiment is about to end. Forever. No more Shakespeare, no more Mendelssohn, no more Edith Wharton and Tony Bennett and Bill Evans and Eva Cassidy and Vincent Van Gogh. No more duets in the living room, no more walks on the beach, no more talks by the fire, no more snuggling in bed, no more laughter, no more Anderson Valley Advertiser, no more Giants baseball, no more going to the post office to get the mail. And no more garlic and basil and olive oil and almonds, i.e. no more pesto. Damn!

“The whole thing is quite hopeless, so it’s no good worrying about tomorrow. It probably won’t come.” J.R.R Tolkien

In 1971, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, I started an eight-person commune in Santa Cruz with the intention of becoming adept at organizing and operating group living situations that would, among other thing, minimize our use of automobiles and fossil fuels while maximizing regenerative ways of warming our dwellings in winter and growing lots of nourishing organic food. I was stoked (as we used to say) about the prospects of creating social systems that fulfilled the creative, emotional, culinary, and spiritual needs of individuals while enhancing life for the larger group and impacting society beyond the group in highly positive ways. What I discovered was that it was relatively easy to create such systems, but it was almost impossible to get American people, even fairly enlightened American people, to embrace such collective living arrangements for more than a little while.

Following the failure of the various communal systems I was involved with, I was initially at a loss to explain why so many people were so fiercely resistant to communal living (or even just neighborhood sharing systems) that were so much more economical and fun than going it alone. After years of thought, I came to the conclusion that social systems based on sharing rarely succeed in America because Americans (certainly those born after 1950) are entrained from birth to think of themselves first as individuals, secondly as members of a family (a distant second), and then maybe, and only maybe, as members of a larger group. Thus our various experiments failed because successful communal systems require individuals to put the group first, at least some of the time, which is the antithesis of the American way. In short, I was trying to fit round pegs into square holes, and I, too, was one of those round pegs, especially when it came to how quickly I lost patience with my fellow humans.

I mention these communal living experiments because in thinking about the fast-approaching end of life on earth, I think I understand why we have not been willing to change our ways to slow the destruction of the biosphere. We do not inherently feel we are part of anything beyond our separate selves. But even so, had we not invented such horribly destructive industrial systems and cars and trucks and trains that run on gasoline, and had we not so grossly overpopulated the world with our kind, we might be here for another two million years. Yet those destructive systems and inventions were born of our urge for individual power and control over others, and overpopulation is a function of our unwillingness to sacrifice individual desires for the good of the larger group.

So…do you believe Guy MacPherson, that the end of life is really very near? If you do believe him, what are you going to do about it? And if you don’t believe him, why don’t you?

Meanwhile, the deer fence guys are going great guns and Marcia and Carolyn are sounding fabulous and I want so much to believe that the scientists haven’t figured everything out that mother earth might do to cool herself down, and maybe we’ve got more time than they think and maybe my friends’ children and grandchildren won’t perish too soon. I’m sixty-three, so if I die ere long I will at least have had a fairly long life, but…

This just in! A planet with conditions capable of sustaining life is orbiting a star neighboring our sun! The star, called Tau Ceti, is only twelve light years away. Quick! Ready the giant spaceship (and dub her The Ark) and load the sacred vessel with two each of…

But seriously, folks, as the rain drums on our roof, and life goes on a while longer, I think of Mary Oliver’s poem The Buddha’s Last Instruction that begins

“Make of yourself a light,”

said the Buddha,

before he died.

I think of this every morning

as the east begins

to tear off its many clouds

of darkness, to send up the first

signal—a white fan

streaked with pink and violet,

even green.

Giants and Greece

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2012)

“We don’t have to look far to see how pervasive suffering is in the world.” Joseph Goldstein

Matt Cain recently pitched a perfect game for the San Francisco Giants while Greece is in the midst of a massive economic collapse. Gregor Blanco made one of the great catches in Giants history to preserve Cain’s perfecto while Spain is in economic freefall with over 25% unemployment and Spanish real estate prices falling falling falling. Cain gave his catcher Buster Posey much of the credit for the no-no while Syria is in the midst of a horribly bloody civil war with thousands of casualties, many of them women and children.

Cain’s perfect game is only the twenty-second perfect game in the 130-year history of baseball while the Japanese government has ordered the restarting of several of their dangerously unsafe nuclear power plants despite a vast majority of the Japanese people opposed to nuclear power in the wake of the ongoing catastrophic meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

And how about Melky Cabrera, the Melkman, leading the National League in hitting while the American economy is collapsing around our ears. True, Tim Lincecum is having an awful year so far and Barry Zito is showing signs of faltering after a strong start, but the rest of the Giants starters are pitching magnificently while California’s budget deficit is several billion dollars more than state officials anticipated, though anyone with half a brain knew that such drastic cuts in government spending would guarantee equally drastic economic contraction.

“We may have compassion for the victims of social or political injustice, but can we feel compassion for those who perpetrate that injustice?” Joseph Goldstein

For many years I have been in the habit of listening to Giants baseball games on a little silver transistor radio I carry from room to room and out into the garden. When I lived in Berkeley, I had a neighbor who was bothered by my interest in the Giants, and he told me so one day when he found me in my vegetable patch listening to a game while I pulled weeds and watered.

“You’re such an intelligent person,” he said, shaking his head. “How can you listen to that meaningless junk when there’s so much suffering in the world?”

This fellow, I hasten to add, walked his talk. He was a medical doctor who worked long hours in a clinic for poor people and spent the rest of his time reading books about social injustice and political corruption and writing passionate letters to government officials and marching against social injustice and wars waged for corporate hegemony. He lived frugally and gave away most of the money he made to help fund the clinic where he worked, so…

“This is an antidote to my own suffering,” I replied, comforted by the inimitable ambience only baseball on the radio provides. “A form of guided meditation.”

“Sponsored by earth-killing corporations,” he said, pointing at my radio dangling amidst the snow pea vines. “Listen. Yet another ad for Chevron.”

“I studiously do not buy gas from Chevron,” I said—an easy boast since I didn’t own a car.

“But why do you like that garbage?” he asked, visibly upset. “You like basketball, too, don’t you?”

“Love basketball,” I said, nodding. “Basketball was my salvation and succor for many years.”

“And you actually care who wins?” He sighed despondently. “What a waste.”

“I care and I don’t care,” I said, as one of our boys led off the seventh with a single. “The game matters in the moment and doesn’t matter in the next moment. I’m not attached once the game is over. For long.”

“But do you know why the major corporations sponsor these games?” he asked, waving his arms in frustration. “Because it keeps people occupied so they won’t take any meaningful action to create substantive change. It’s a mechanism of social control. And look what they’re selling. Gasoline, beer, cars, insurance, computers, plastic, Las Vegas.”

“So what do you think I should do?” I asked, trying not to hold him responsible for altering the game with his negative attitude (see quantum physics) and causing the double play that just wiped out our first decent scoring opportunity since the first inning. “I don’t have a television or a car or health insurance or really much of anything except a piano, a guitar, a very slow computer, and things to cook with. You want me to toss the little radio and take a vow of chastity and silence? Gimme a break, it’s baseball. I love baseball. I played baseball growing up. Baseball is in my bones, in my blood.”

“Entrained since childhood,” he said, nodding dolefully. “That’s what they do. Cradle to grave entrainment disguised as entertainment.”

Then it hit me: this guy did not play baseball growing up. Baseball was not in his bones, in his blood. He did not understand what I was experiencing when I listened to a game on the radio because he had no real understanding of the language of baseball. He might as well have been listening to someone speaking Greek, assuming he didn’t understand Greek, which I think is a fair assumption.

And the moment I realized that his antipathy was as much about what he didn’t understand about baseball as it was about what he did understand about corporate control of the media, I was filled with compassion and said, “Want any lettuce? I have a vast surplus in need of harvesting.”

“Love some,” he said, his frown giving way to a smile.

“Compassion is the tender readiness of the heart to respond to one’s own or another’s pain, without resentment or aversion.” Joseph Goldstein

There are only eleven million people in Greece, about a quarter of the population of California, and because Greece is so small, relatively speaking, the annihilation of Greek society by their corrupt government in collusion with their corrupt banking system is easier to discern than the annihilation of American society by our corrupt government in collusion with our corrupt banking system. But the mechanisms of both annihilations are identical (not to mention intertwined), and what unfolds in Greece is predictive of things about to unfold here if the powers-that-be don’t quickly and dramatically shift current fiscal policy away from austerity to something resembling the stimulating policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That is to say, a small minority of unscrupulous people in the banking/government system of America, stole trillions of dollars from the people of America, kept billions of those dollars in their personal bank accounts, and gambled away the rest. Then when the financial system began to totter and fall, these same criminals stole trillions more to prop up the markets and the banks a little while longer—which is where we are today.

In their most recent election, enough Greeks were scared by erroneous propaganda into voting for the same criminals who created the current economic mess so that the annihilation of their country will continue, in the same way that enough Americans in our upcoming election will be scared into voting for the same criminals who created our portion of the global mess so the annihilation of our country and the world will continue.

The good news is that the Giants are doing remarkably well this season and are poised to make a strong run in the second half. If Lincecum can get back on track and Pablo will shed twenty pounds and stop swinging at high pitches out of the strike zone, and if Blanco can keep getting on base ahead of Melky, and Melky and Buster keep hitting well, and Crawford keeps being Crawford, we might very well go deep into the post season if not all the way to the World Series. And once there, as we know from recent experience, anything is possible.

As Charles Dickens wrote to begin A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

And as Joseph Campbell said so eloquently on his eightieth birthday, “The field of time is a field of sorrow. Life is sorrowful. How do you live with that? You realize the eternal within yourself. You disengage and yet re-engage. You—and here is the beautiful formula: you participate with joy in the sorrows of the world.”

Both At Once

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2011)

“Truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Morning: A beautiful day in Mendocino, the rhododendrons madly blooming, the headlands a riot of wild roses and wild irises and wild mustard, while across the ocean a terrible thing is happening: four nuclear reactors in Japan are out of control, melting down, and turning vast areas of that nation into dead zones for thousands of years to come.

“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world.” Allen Ginsberg

Noon: A friend writes to say his business is doing well, his daughter about to get married, and he hasn’t felt so well in ages. In the same mail is a note from another friend telling me about his neighbor, a fellow from Japan, who now has five relatives living with him in his tiny apartment in Berkeley, the hope being they can somehow figure out a way to stay here once their tourist visas expire, because as far as they’re concerned there is no going back to Japan unless they want to die much sooner than later.

“There is only one answer to destructiveness and that is creativity.” Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Afternoon: I weed my burgeoning beets. Oh how they loved all the recent rain; and oh how they love the fulgent sunshine. Making tea, I turn on the radio and listen to Michio Kaku, the renowned physicist speaking to Amy Goodman. He believes the ongoing meltdowns of the nuclear power plants in Japan, along with the massive releases of radioactive materials into the atmosphere, must be dealt with promptly and thoroughly or there will soon be catastrophic consequences far beyond the already catastrophic consequences. When Amy asks him what the Japanese government should do, Michio says they should call out the army and do everything necessary to entomb the power plants as quickly as possible.

“The only thing you can believe in a newspaper is the date.” J.B.S. Haldane

Night: The Giants win a great game in the bottom of the tenth inning—a real thriller, the winning hit causing me to hoot for joy. On my way to bed, I check the interweb for news of the nuclear meltdowns, though I know such news might mess up my sleep, and I find a recent statement from Barack Obama saying nuclear power is definitely the way to go because nuclear is clean energy and won’t contribute to global warming.

“The fool has one great advantage over a man of sense—he is always satisfied with himself.” Napoleon Bonaparte

Morning: I make a pot of coffee and turn on our local public radio station and listen incredulously to a show purporting to be about energy. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. The hosts, two self-proclaimed experts on energy, are both extolling the virtues and safety of nuclear power. Having just read the latest nightmare news from Japan, I am about to call the show, when they take a call from a guy who says, “Hey, all power is nuclear, right? Solar power is nuclear, right? Comes from the sun, which is nuclear. Right? So…”

And the hosts agree. “That’s right, all power is nuclear. So…”

They take another call. A woman. I’m hoping she’ll say what I want to say, which is, “Are you out of your minds? There are four nuclear power plants in Japan in full meltdown, radiating the entire earth, sewing the seeds of millions of cases of cancer, and you dare call nuclear power safe?” But she says something about life being a beautiful dance “…and, like, so…enjoy the dance.”

I turn off the radio and do the dishes. I vacuum the house. I chop kindling. I mulch the potatoes. I grab my bucksaw and go down into the woods and find a fallen fir. I cut the tree into draggable lengths and lug them up the steep hill to the woodshed where I saw the logs into firewood. I chop some more kindling. I drive to town and park at Big River Beach and walk into town along the beach and up the stairs to the Presbyterian. I am so angry at those people for saying nuclear power is safe, I’m about to explode, and I figure if I keep working and walking and using the energy of my anger to get things done, I won’t explode.

At the post office, Sheila and I talk about the Giants. We’re both sorry De Rosa hurt his wrist, but, hey, the guy was a dead weight on the team, bad mojo, and without him we’re winning again. We’re both looking forward to Pablo coming back. I buy some Gregory Peck stamps. I didn’t know Greg was dead. Did you know a person has to be dead before he or she can be on a postage stamp? The one exception to this I know of was the stamp (3 cents?) commemorating the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. Apparently, one or two of the men in that famous (staged) photograph were still alive when the stamp was issued.

Part of the official reason for America dropping not one but two atom bombs on hundreds of thousands of defenseless Japanese civilians at the end of World War II was so our armed forces wouldn’t have to invade Japan “Iwo Jima-style” and suffer thousands of “unnecessary casualties.” This was not the real reason the bombs were dropped. I don’t know what the real reasons were, though I have my suspicions. What I do know is that anyone who says nuclear power is safe and clean should immediately go to Japan and help entomb the nuclear power plants that are in full meltdown and radiating the planet.

“The two divinest things this world has got,

A lovely woman in a rural spot.” Leigh Hunt

Marcia just came home from a three-week vacation in England, her first vacation in a very long time. She is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever known. We laugh sometimes about being artists and how people, lots of people, think artists have it easy and don’t work as hard as, say, dentists or hedge fund criminals. But we work seven days a week from morning until night. Yes, we take breaks and eat meals and go on walks and run errands, but we put in ten to sixteen hours of labor every day for which we may or may not get paid a cent. That’s our life. We work because to not work is to not answer the call of whatever is calling us, however esoteric that whatever may be.

One of the hardest things for me and probably for you, too, is not letting all the horrible terrible frightening sickening news depress us so much that we can’t work. Thus I intentionally limit my intake of news when I feel overwhelmed with fear and anger. A few days of ignorance may not create bliss, but it usually clears the lobes and allows me to focus on the few things I have some control over.

“There are only two emotions in Wall Street: fear and greed.” William Le Fevre

Buddha understood that fear was the great obstacle to peace, both personal and societal. When we’re afraid, we don’t fully experience the present moment, and therefore we are not fully alive or fully aware of what’s really going on. When we’re afraid, anger arises and seeks release. War might be said to be a massive release of anger masking fear.

“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” William Sloan Coffin

I’m reading a letter from a friend full of news about his five-year-old daughter. I grin as I visualize his brilliant, beautiful child racing around, singing, talking, learning, when suddenly these big drops of water splat down on the page. I look up into the clear blue sky. How can it be raining? Oh. I’m weeping for joy at hearing about the miracles of his daughter’s happy childhood, and weeping for sorrow about the world we are leaving her—weeping about both at once in the same breath.

Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com