Sunday, August 21, 2016

August in Exile

So already, a couple of mornings ago, I left my house and turned right where I usually turn left. No beach this morning, I had already decided. In my off-kilter mood, I knew the constant whoosh of Boston-bound traffic on Quincy Shore Drive would irritate me. Even if sunlight and water chose this morning to put on a dawn's-early-light, gold-medal performance, I knew the traffic noise would prevent me from taking it in.

Thickly settled places seldom offer silence. But sometimes, they offer a choice of what to hear. Tying on my sneakers that morning before heading out the door, I'd heard the freshening wind in the oaks and maples behind the houses across the street from me. I'd even stopped momentarily to watch the branches bow and dip. The sight and sound felt right, so I decided to swap Wollaston Beach for Wollaston Hill.

But things were off kilter on Wollaston Hill, too, courtesy of the drought afflicting Quincy and everywhere else. Last summer's plush green lawns and vibrant, overflowing gardens have been supplanted by patchwork parched grass and flowers that bloom and then fade and shrivel. When I walked up close to a Rose of Sharon bush that seemed to be thriving, I could see that the petals of the flowers were beginning to curl up, as if to shield themselves from the sun. A number of unopened buds drooped rather than stood. And at the foot of the tree, so many flowers had already fallen from the branches that they seemed like a flower girl's conscientious handiwork.

August, as I'd come to love it and expect it, seemed to be in exile. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised from a religious point of view. This year--and this isn't usually the case--August most overlaps with Av, the Jewish month during which Jews recall and mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. Given the role ongoing environmental destruction was probably playing in August's seeming absence and the desecration of Temple Earth, this alignment seemed to have something to teach.

Had August forsaken us, or had we forsaken August? Wondering whether my question was political, scientific, or spiritual in nature, I thought about the rose of Sharon's important place in The Song of Songs.* The ardor, the plenty, the promise, the languor, the sensual but sacred union associated with that flower seemed gone from Wollaston Hill. Such love requires people, but they seemed in as short supply as water in this particular neighborhood. With their shades drawn and driveways empty, many of the nearby houses seemed unoccupied. To most Wollaston Hill homeowners, "August in exile" seemed to mean "away on vacation." 

Suddenly, above my head, the leaves rustled, reminding me of why I had chosen this route and place. Seeking the consolation of the deep green canopy, I looked up--and didn't find it. A branch of dried red-brown leaves that contrasted starkly with the dark green branches surrounding it met my gaze. Maybe there are always such branches in mid-August trees. But in the context of what I'd been thinking, I couldn't view that branch simply as a harbinger of fall . Something important, something big seemed even more at stake than usual. Alarmed and saddened, I finished my walk, terribly conscious of the human capacity to cause serious harm, and fearful that there was no way to escape "man," his noise or his destruction.

Back at home over breakfast, I picked up the Boston Globe and encountered David Abel's front-page article about the increasing evidence of global warming--and the decreasing window of opportunity for reversing or limiting its effects. Yesterday, two days later, Harvard Magazine arrived, its front cover featuring a photograph of melting polar ice and the words "As Greenland Melts . . . Changing climate, rising seas." 

While there are lots of news stories about intensifying, increasingly irreversible climate change, those stories are not news to us. The dots------the ones that we need to connect in order to understand what we need to do and how urgently we need to do it--have been waiting for us to connect them for a very long time. But so many of us--myself included--consistently resist connecting the dots to one another and then to our own lives. I can't count the number of times I could have acted personally, socially, politically, and spiritually--and didn't.

But this week's heartbreaking news stories about flooding and displaced people--exiled on so many levels--in southern Louisiana and my own experience of localized drought--primarily an aesthetic problem for me, but a galvanizing one--have driven home to me the urgency of the situation. The question remains, though: will I manage to hold on to that sense of urgency and act accordingly?

And what about other people who also understand what's at stake? Who will change? Who will encourage and support others to change? And who will continue to do nothing at all, intentionally or unintentionally leaving the problem to others, including the toddlers who are currently learning to play together in the daycare center across the street from me? Furthermore, what do our answers and our behaviors say about who we are, what and whom we really care about, and what we think life is for?

When all is said and done, environmental problems are political, economic, and spiritual in nature. Some of us may own our houses and own the land and even some of the waters that surround them, but the planet Earth is not just a collection of parcels of property belonging to individuals and nations. At some point, we're called upon to care about Earth's future, and not just because our own descendants might be living on it. That broader kind of caring relies on a world view that has everything to do with believing human life matters, has meaning and purpose, and needs to exist in a physical place so that the humans have somewhere to live, work, and aspire.

My worry is that these kinds of questions of meaning and purpose can't be talked about in present-day America without the kind of personalization and self-reference that locates their possible answers in this time, this place, and this community. My fear is that the dedication of many--too many--Americans to individual success and personal "pursuit[s] of happiness," luxury, and comfort generally makes them balk at all notions of personal sacrifice and collective destiny.

Toward the end of her recent article in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan expresses concern about the values of some Americans who have enabled their high-school-age children's binge drinking. Theorizing about why these kids keep drinking once they get to college, she explains not only that their parents have "been in the business of raising winners" and placed their children's success ahead of their children's well-being, but that their children know this. Then, she postulates and describes the "hollowness at the center of their lives" that these young people often try to avoid or to fill with alcohol consumed in excess (27).** Many readers of the online Atlantic responded to Flanagan's theories with scathing criticism.

While I question some of her reasoning, I do think Flanagan is on to something. In a society in which social and economic "success" has become widely accepted as the goal and the god, in which people regularly equate high-end possessions and expensive experiences with happiness, and in which people view their lives as independent of rather than connected to others' lives, some important understandings and convictions are missing--precisely those that might lead people to make small and even much larger sacrifices for the sake of preserving life on this planet. Dare we think only of our children and not our grandchildren? Dare we think only of our grandchildren and not of all the people they might befriend, love, buy groceries from, work beside, elect to office, drink coffee with, play on sports teams with, get helped by when their cars break down on the highway? Could we come to admire a small carbon footprint as much as we might admire a large house?  

Shadow of Rodin's "The Thinker"
Call it synchronicity,*** but yesterday, while I was in the midst of thinking in a more desperate way of humankind writ large, of the size of the challenges that face us, of the varieties of our human power and powerlessness, and of our capacities and our weaknesses particularly as Americans, I had the opportunity to visit the Rodin exhibit currently on view at the Peabody-Essex Museum. I couldn't have asked for a more profound experience of the ways we as humans are physical and spiritual, earthbound and heaven-connected, profound and flawed, tragic and triumphant. I also couldn't have asked for a more intense experience of the human ability to transform materials and consciousness, and to work on a massive scale.

Though The Song of Songs had come to mind while I stood on Wollaston Hill a few days ago, I'd had Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" lyrics on my mind since then--and they accompanied me into the Peabody-Essex Museum: 
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man
I don't know who I am
But Life is for learning
     We are stardust
     We are golden
     And we've got to get ourselves 
     Back to the garden****
So when I came upon the statue of that "child of God" Eve in the full angst and shame of her knowledge and exile, I couldn't take my eyes off of her. I wondered what it must have been like for Rodin to immerse himself in her anguish: how could he have created her emotion without having had to embody it himself (Auguste in exile?).

Other visitors to the exhibit seemed equally spellbound by her. Maybe it was because she was almost life-sized. Maybe it was because she cried out to be comforted--desolately locked out of the garden, beyond everything she'd ever known. Or maybe it was envy: as guilty of disobedience and awash in shame and pain as she was, Eve could truly claim ignorance, something we can almost never do. When environmental or other issues ask us to use what we know and understand to guide our decisions and actions, we generally do know a great deal that can help us choose wisely. Yes, complex decisions often require us to think from a number of different perspectives that value certain kinds of knowledge and particular outcomes more than others. Still, whatever we choose, we often choose it knowing what we hope and think will happen--and also what we hope won't happen but could happen.

It's a temperate evening in the Wollaston section of Quincy. There might be rain tomorrow night, but it won't be enough to bring August back home, not this year. Meanwhile, I went back to the beach this morning. Saturday early, there are very few cars, joggers, and bicyclists, so those of us who are out there walking get to give sunrise our undivided attention. Today's was one of those "beginning of time" sunrises--just great. We have so many selfish and unselfish good reasons to act to save our world. It's time we act with what we know and believe in. And who else if not us? It's the only way back from exile and back to the garden.

* "I am the rose of Sharon,/ the wild lily of the valleys." ." Bloch, A. A., & Bloch, C. (1995). The Song of Songs: A new translation with an introduction and commentary. New York: Random House. 2:1.
** Flanagan, C. (2016, September). How helicopter parents cause binge drinking. The Atlantic, 318(2), 24-27.  
Screen shot of C. Flanagan article, online version:
*** Julia Cameron would call it synchronicity in The Artist's Way. 
**** Mitchell, J. (1969). "Woodstock" lyrics [Song on "Ladies of the Canyon" Circular]. Siquomb Publishing Company.