A wonderful discourse on the meaning of love by Carrot who writes for one of my favorite blogs AND teaches philosophy, The Dihedral, a blog mostly about climbing.
I’m about to get a shipment of books to read and evaluate for a contest, I have a ton of plywood out there ready to cut, prime and paint, and it’s looking like a dry winter. Yesterday, in the middle of painting a garden sign, I realized I’ve waited my whole life for the chance to be an artist and nothing else. Part of the liberation of 2020. I heard from my Chinese brother (who lives in Ontario). The last time we communicated was at the beginning of the pandemic and he expressed his great concern that something would happen to me, but it was he who got Covid, struggled a long time and, with the help of Chinese medicine, recovered. I’m drinking my coffee and preparing to go to Alamosa to pick up my groceries, which, until April, I had never done before; just couldn’t get organized to do it as much as I hated shopping. Behind everything this morning, I’m listening to music from 1970 right now thanks to my favorite Chicago radio station, WXRT, a soundtrack to another moment in my life of fast changes. In 1970 I graduated high school, got my first real broken heart, realized that my fight for my dad’s life was probably a losing battle but it would be a couple more years before I could accept that.
I’m enumerating all this because it all seems almost surreal. We are one tiny pinky toe into a new year and it’s going to take a while for us to solve the problems we carry with us, BUT one of the most dangerous things we carry with us is the wish for things to “go back to normal.” It was only “normal” because we were used to it. So, as I turned the page on 2020 and looked at the first month on my new wall calendar (yeah, I use one; it has pictures of Italy) I thought, “All this is arbitrary,” but it’s really more than that.
I don’t WANT to return to the person I was “before.” I don’t want to go back to whatever it was I was doing. I don’t want to forget what I learned about myself during this time. I guess that is as personal a decision as it has been to live a semi-hermit life, mask up when I have to, and generally avoid the Flying Spaghetti Monster as much as possible. So, yeah, hello, 2021. I’m glad you’re bringing a vaccine and the end of Trump’s reign of ignorance and fear. I wish you the best. You have a hard battle ahead of you. And goodbye 2020, I’m not altogether sure you deserve the bum rap you’re getting. You were nothing more than the time required for the sun, as we see it, to return to an arbitrary reference point in the sky. There is no real “hello” or “goodbye.” It’s just seasons and the sun’s apparent motion along Earth’s tropical zones.
I had this in my mind when I woke up this morning, from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, my dad’s “Bible.”
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help – for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.
My experiences in and with 2020 have enforced my idea that our lives are what we make them. We’re handed circumstances and what we do with them, how we live with them, makes the difference in our lives, revealing and making us who we are.
I’ve been curious about the 1960’s lately. I was “there” in a sense, but not really. I was 15 in 1967, the Summer of Love, and had no thought of running away from home where my dad and brother were. Why would I? I loved my family and was needed there. I loved my school, my church, my friend (yeah, I had one). I might act out — I did — but I wasn’t going anywhere. I was going to stay and fight it out.
Drugs had begun to penetrate the middle class world in which I lived, but I’d promised my dad not to use them. I smoked some pot my senior year, but that was it.
The other night, out of curiosity, I watched a documentary, Orange Sunshine. It was fascinating — mostly stuff I knew nothing about. I liked the anarchistic behavior of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, but I have always been very skeptical of synthetic trips to an exalted spiritual state. I never doubted the authenticity of an acid trip, but I also have always thought that real things require more commitment, challenge to that commitment, doubt… But maybe that’s just me. The Brotherhood was really all about turning on the whole world which meant they had to — and did — manufacture a ton of LSD. At one point they made enough to “turn on” 100,000,000 people.
That wasn’t all. They also made journeys to Afghanistan for hash — that part of the movie was especially fascinating. The film footage of the Kabul bazaar back then was amazing, exotic, provocative. I’d have gone if I’d had the chance.
I was fascinated by the way the Weather Underground set up Timothy Leary’s jailbreak.
But from the film, I understood why so many people in my life have considered me to be, and called me, a hippy. Learning about “hippy values” from the film I understood. There’s nothing wrong with being a hippy — but I’m not.
I’m not a hundred percent sure where our values come from. Parents? Yeah, but also the books we read and the world around us. I think major influences on my values were my dad (and his precious Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and the Sermon on the Mount. My dad was dying of MS right before my eyes, right there a huge argument for life’s brevity and unpredictability. All the while he was teaching me, “Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why: drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.” The entirety of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is essentially argument after argument for “Sha, na, na, na, na live for today.”
“Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit
Of This and That endeavor and dispute.
Better be jocund with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.”
From Thoreau I got:
“Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played. Grow wild according to thy nature, like these sedges and brakes, which will never become English bay…Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are where they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.” (Walden, chapter 10)
All pretty much boils down to,
27 Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
28 If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?
29 And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind.
30 For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.
31 But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you.
32 Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
33 Sell what ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.
34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Luke 12:27-40 (KJV)
These ideas spoke forcefully to me when I was a teenager. What was the point of acquiring a lot of things when you’re going to die, anyway? And life was (obviously) pretty short — what if I died in the middle of “selling my life like a serf”? I really did think those things. As an adult, I was lucky to spend every single day of my life doing something I loved until I didn’t love it any more. Then, by the grace of God, I was 62 and could get out of it with an income.
Watching the hippy documentaries I understood. It seems LSD took some of my peers to some of the places I was looking for on my own. The “searcher” identity fit me as well as it fit them. The differences — which I’ve always known — are the peace thing and the community thing. I value peace, but I’m not peaceful. I’m also not a person who would want to live communally with a lot of other people. The way they lived, the ideals of perfection they seemed to hold, were at odds with my basic personality which is friendly — but solitary, and fierce.
Last night, pursuing my education into the world in which I reached adulthood, I watched the PBS program from The American Experience — “The Summer of Love.” I didn’t know how it all started, and it was interesting to learn. I did have accurate memories of how it ended.
A woman speaking from her experiences as a hippy on the Haight in 1967 said of the end of the hippies, “Acid deconstructs your world. You have to have the inner resources to rebuild it, and many of the kids who came up here that summer were too young or didn’t have anyway to rebuild themselves.” A lot of people were broken by those days, those experiences. Others remain there, remembering it as a halcyon moment in their lives when everything seemed possible and perfect. Others, like me, were never there. And others, more than we might have thought, moved along the conventional path of the military industrial establishment that the hippies (and I) reasonably questioned.
I loved the film Orange Sunshine. I enjoyed seeing actual clips of The Brotherhood back in the day, seeing Laguna Beach in the sixties (it was one of my favorite destinations when I lived in Southern California), and listening to what the survivors of that time had to say. It was utterly fascinating — and the anarchist in me liked them.
In case you’re interested in the film Orange Sunshine
“Give it up, Faith. It’s inevitable. You got a late start.”
“I can’t ‘give it up’. Seriously?”
“OK, but you’re breaking my heart.” I wanted to explain that our elevation is 7500 feet/2200 meters. That the growing season is barely 8 weeks and by starting out in July? But why? Why daunt an undaunted pumpkin? Besides, who knows?
I know not everyone talks to the Australian pumpkin growing in their garden or to pumpkins of any other nationality for that matter. I loved her Quixotic determination not that she really had a choice. Given good soil, the right amount of water and sunshine and a decent seed to begin with, a plant is going to grow. It’s not exactly an act of will.
And every single day Faith grew. For a long while she was a little plant, most occupied with establishing a durable root system. Then she was four feet long, and then six and then eight and then the bachelors began to appear and the drama, “Will she put out girls?”
She did! “Hand fertilize!” said a friend in Australia, familiar with Australian pumpkins. So, each morning (September!) I was out to see if the girl’s had opened and when they were? I helped twice with successful pumpkin sex. Faith kept making hot girls and handsome bachelors up even as recently as a week ago, but my thought was that she should focus on the two pumpkins who were most likely to make it to adulthood. Kind of pumpkin birth control, but there’s a metaphor there.
So Faith’s two little daughters grew and grew. Then…
Last week, a mild frost hit the upper leaves. Undaunted, Faith sent up new leaves to take their place, but Jack Frost’s handwriting was on the wall, so to speak. Two nights ago, a real frost hit, and yet…
I might have covered her if my foot hadn’t been so incredibly painful at that juncture, but I was not about to walk in the uneven dog-hole riddled ground that is my yard, besides, Faith is more than 20 feet/6 meters long.
Still, the roots have not yet frozen and yesterday Faith sent up a couple of yearning bachelors. One of the large girls succumbed to frosts but the other, in a more sheltered spot, is persevering. I don’t think Faith will give up until the roots freeze — which will be Thursday when temps are slated to hit 17 F/-8 C.
Nature is the boss of the possible, but Faith is the boss of dreams. Faith says, “Do it anyway,” which is, if you think about it, the only possible choice.
This might be very hubristic, but here goes. I’m writing this down for myself (because I need reminding) and anyone else who’s struggling with some personal problems, the angst of our times, or the inscrutable pain of depression.
- Not every day is great. Most days are neither great nor lousy.
- Often the greatness of a day depends on a person’s outlook.
- Sometimes a good outlook is an act of will.
- If you go outside for thirty minutes and walk around, you’ll see something beautiful that will cheer you up.
- Change is constantly happening and often disorienting. I’m experiencing that now. Somewhere deep inside me, in a repository void of logic, I thought getting my hip fixed would transform my life. It only transformed me. Transforming my life is my business, not my surgeon’s.
- That serenity prayer from AA is actually pretty good. There’s a lot of stuff out there that can make us miserable but we can’t change it. We can change our perspective on it.
- Everyone is fucked up one way or another so compassion is important.
- Everyone is afraid others are judging them.
- Smiling at people can improve their day and yours. Where I live, an idle and obvious comment on the weather is a big part of communicating goodwill. We’re all equally subject to the vicissitudes of weather and here weather is often extreme. In CA, we commented on the traffic, Santa Anas or the surf. In China, after the Cultural Revolution, the most common greeting between friends was “Have you eaten?” because food was — and had been — scarce.
- Doing something for others — even a very small something like holding the door for a lady who’s taking two dogs and a big bag of dog food to the vet — can help us see where we truly are in the world.
- A good way to fight depression (yes, folks, I’ve suffered from it off and on since my teens) is to do one thing every day that materially improves one’s life whether it’s cleaning out the garden for winter or washing your clothes. It tells the psyche that it’s NOT impotent, but has the power to improve something.
- Bad stuff happens. If we survive it more-or-less intact, that means we get to plant another garden, pet another dog, make another friend, smile at another stranger, look at another snowy mountain range, take another hike, write or tell another story.
- We lose people we love all the time. Sometimes they die, sometimes they move away, sometimes we grow apart, sometimes we don’t like each other anymore. It’s just how it is. We might miss them forever, but the good part is that we knew them, they were part of our lives for a while, and we don’t forget them. It sounds like cold-comfort but it isn’t. There’s a Brazilian Portuguese word for this emotion, Saudade. It means missing someone and feeling sad but, at the same time, being happy that you know them.
- Loneliness is a choice. My mother died of loneliness. She thought all the time about how my dad had died and she was alone. This blinded her to the love of her daughter, her sisters, and her friends. Maybe nothing could make up for losing my dad, but with 20+ years left on her personal horizon, it wasn’t a very useful world view. The presence of another person cannot fix our lives. See number 3. 😉
“Life is an overcoming,” said Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
I was sitting at one end of the sofa. My very crippled and messed up dad on the other. I was “dad” sitting. He was watching TV and occasionally suffering a leg spasm. I was in high school, going through my sophisticated phase and reading “forbidden” or questionable books. Nietzsche was questionable to my teacher, Miss Cohen for reasons that I think are now obvious. We talked about the book and in it, she explained, came Hitler’s idea of the ‘Übermensch’.
That isn’t what I found at all.
From the first chapter, it’s clear that he has a different view of things, a human centered view. One of the first things he says as he prepares to walk down to the village from the mountain is directed at the sun, “Oh great star, what would you be if not for those for whom you shine?”
And down he comes.
Still no “Übermensch.” I found all kinds of ordinary, simple people and a half-mad oracle. I got the impression that the oracle was a little out of his mind, still, he brought a message of stoicism and hope to the village people (YMCA!) who were struggling with misery and darkness that was, in Zarathustra’s mind, mainly in their heads.
“You tell me your lives are hard to bear, but if it were otherwise, how would you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the afternoon?”
My dad had a more severe spasm and nearly slid off the sofa. I was there to catch him. He motioned to his urinal. I said, “No problem, dad.”
He said, “Errrrwwa errr eading?”
I said, “Thus Spake Zarthustra,” handing him his urinal.
“Werrr ooo ike it?”
My dad finished. I took the urinal to the bathroom, flushed the contents, rinsed it out in the tub. Back in the living room, “Listen to this, dad. It’s beautiful.”
I read the beginning, the prologue.
WHEN Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake
of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed, and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went be- fore the sun, and spoke to it thus:
You great star! What would your happiness be, had you not those for whom you shine?
For ten years have you climbed here to my cave: you would have wearied of your light and of the journey, had it not been for me, my eagle, and my serpent.
But we waited for you every morning, took from you your overflow, and blessed you for it.
Behold. I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.
I would rather give away and distribute, until the wise among men once more find joy in their folly, and the poor in their riches.
Therefore must I descend into the deep: as you do in the evening, when you go behind the sea, and give light also to the underworld, you ex- uberant star!
Like you I have to go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.
Bless me, then, you tranquil eye, that can look on even the greatest happiness without envy!
“Isn’t that beautiful, Dad?”
“That’s just the beginning!”
I loved Zarathustra. I knew nothing about who or what he was supposed to have been, but I liked the idea of his going off by himself to figure out his right relation to the universe. The message of life being “an overcoming” really struck home for me given the situation we — my family — were all living at the time.
As for Hitler, all I could guess was that he didn’t really understand it. I suggested this to my English teacher, Miss Cohen, and she nodded. “Possibly that’s true, Martha,” she said. “But what horror that misunderstanding unleashed.”
So this morning I revisited Zarathustra. It’s still beautiful.
You tell me, “Life is hard to bear.” But for what purpose should you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the evening?
Life is hard to bear: but do not affect to be so delicate! We are all of us fine beasts of burden, male and female asses.
What have we in common with the rose-bud, which trembles because a drop of dew has formed upon it?
It is true we love life; not because we are used to life, but because we are used to loving.
“Fair is for soccer,” said the Intro to Religious Studies professor. He said this every semester, maybe to every freshman class he taught. There are things that must be said to university freshmen, and that’s one of them. “Don’t expect ‘fairness’ out of life.”
“Yeah, but…” sputtered a long-haired blonde girl in the front row.
“There’s no ‘yeah, but.’ It’s how it is. Fairness is something humans have made up. It’s why we have laws.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” said a kid in the third row from the left, toward the back.
“It doesn’t? Why not?” asked the Prof.
“Justice comes from God.”
“Does it? Tell that to the mother of the baby born dead. Tell that to the family whose husband/father is killed by a drunk driver. There are plenty of people who believe God ‘did’ that to punish those people. Is that what you mean but ‘justice comes from God’?”
“Well, the 10 Commandments.”
“Law. Those are laws.”
“But they came from God.”
“They came from someone who didn’t want to give his name.” The professor smiled. This is how it went every semester. “Anyway, law is our attempt to create fairness in an unfair world where some people are just plain luckier than others.”
“I don’t believe in luck.”
“You don’t think you’re lucky to have a chance to study at a university while that mentally retarded guy two doors down from you is lucky to tie his own shoes? You don’t think that’s luck?”
“I didn’t think of that.”
“Maybe human ethics means we’re able to equalize the unfair portions of luck just a little bit. Let’s say you discover, through your time here at the university, that you want to do research on the human brain or you want to be a social worker or teach special ed. Any one of those things could change the life of that mentally retarded guy two doors down for the better. Your luck could improve someone else’s. That is higher justice. See what I’m saying?”
“There’s no law that says I have to help that guy, Professor.”
“No, there’s no law. Laws are for the lowest common denominator of human behavior. The laws forbid you from hurting him and tell you that you’ll be punished if you do. There is no law that says you must help him. There can’t be.”
“That’s a question I want you to answer in your journals for Monday. I look forward to finding them in my office by 9 am.”
P.S. Dr. Mueller is/was a real professor. His lectures were so well delivered, so animated and engaging, that I used to sit in on them. Lecturing was not my strong point as a teacher, but it was a necessary evil especially in the beginning of a semester. I saw this dialogue play out three or four times and it always amazed me.