December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Category: Essays (page 1 of 2)

What is Sacred?

Sacre-Coeur

What is sacred? Some would point to the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Sutra, the Vedas. Some would say the sacred resides in their churches, their temples, their synagogues, their mosques. Some would say it is located in Mecca, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, in the Ganges, in Lumbini, in stupas, in the moon, in the sun. Clearly, what is sacred is based on the particular religion and its attendant teachings, practices, values, beliefs and history.

Temple Pagoda

Sacred and Mundane

Religion is the assumed frame for addressing the question, as scared is associated with the holy, which, in turn, is defined and understood within a religious context. The term ‘sacred’ is derived from Latin, meaning ‘to set apart’; a partitioning of the sacred from the mundane. The set-apart of sacred from mundane in most religions involves the separation of “this world” from a transcendental, supernatural world. The transcendental world is before and beyond this world and the source and origin of the sacred.

This partitioning is established and maintained by cultural-religious practices, worship services, dress, ceremonies, rites, and rituals that serve to mark the boundaries of the sacred from the habits and customs of everyday life. They also offer a well-worn avenue, complete with signposts, guides, and guardrails, for entry into experiencing the scared.

Sacerdote Diacono

These states, sacred and mundane, embody two different modes of being: One of awe, reverence, fear, and humility; of being in the presence of the unfathomable mystery and ineffable powers of god (or gods). The other, in contrast, of concerns and experiences of the quotidian and the commonplace. One extraordinary, the other ordinary. One transformative, the other commonplace.

This World Sacred

The set-apart, however, need not require a supernatural presence or origin. The sheer overwhelming presence of the world, the miracle that there is something rather than nothing, that it exists, that we exist, evokes the experience of the sacred. There is another world and it is in this world”.1 The sacred does not shine through this world from a source outside it—it is the world, itself, shinning.

This experience of the sacred shares much with the religious experience: It is not logical, not rational, not cognitive, but a state of being; of awe, reverence, fear, humility; of being in the presence of the unfathomable mystery and ineffable powers of the cosmos. The set-apart for this world sacred, however, is not found through established religious rites, rituals and practices.

The experience of the mundane is the product of being socialized into a ready-made world of routines and habits, familiar meanings and cultural rituals, that render the world obvious, given and straightforward.  And it must be so, if we are to keep from being overwhelmed by the angst and terror of finding ourselves in a world that is beyond understanding; that beneath our feet, firmly planted in the habits and rituals of daily life, lies the yawning void.  Experience of this world sacred, for those well secured to the “straightforward” world, requires breaking open the commonplace to glimpse the miraculous of this world that is papered over by the mundane.2

Experiencing This World

Whereas religion provides culturally established rituals and ready-made avenues for experiencing the sacred, no such sanctioned signposts or well-worn paths exist for experiencing this world sacred. The experience of this world sacred can come unbidden; surprising, shocking, disorienting, alarming, delighting, frightening us.

The encrustment of the mundane can also be punctured through science, which delivers head-spinning discoveries and mind-busting conclusions; our wildest dreams could not conger anything as bizarre, and contra the mundane, as quantum mechanics, black holes, or an infinite, expanding cosmos.3 Science teaches: The world is not only stranger that we imagine, it is stranger that we can imagine.4

Art, music, dance, poetry, theatre all, too, can shock us out of our mundane stupor. Seeing rather than looking; listening rather than hearing. A soup can, a splash of red, a face, a bird’s trill—anything, really—can be transformed to an experience of the sacred with the proper openness and reverence.5

Also, meditation— practicing to be present, alive to the experience of this moment without preconceptions—is another way to be present to the mystery, alert to the epiphany of the ordinary, alive to the holy and the numinous that is the world.

Some may object to this use of words “sacred”, “holy” and “numinous”, either because they fail to incorporate religious metaphysical referents, or because they reverberate with such connotations. But the power of these words does justice to the power of the experiences. No single religion owns these experiences. Indeed, their presence across religions underscores that they are fundamental human experiences resulting from our plight of finding ourselves alive within the Mystery of an unfathomable cosmos. And the challenge, for those of us for whom the sacred is This World, is to stand in the face of the Mystery, without explanation; astonished.

Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box Morality

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, these are giants of moral virtue, courage and commitment. They devoted their lives, sacrificed their lives, for the cause of justice and the greater good. When we think of living an exemplar moral life, it is these lives that we look to because of their engagement of big issues that affect big changes in a multitude of lives. They overshadow our small, insignificant lives, lived in the alleyways of common life.

An equally long shadow is cast from the methods typically used to understand the nature and development of morality. The study of moral development has, for decades, used moral dilemmas to determine one’s moral stage of development. For example, the question is posed, “If you were poor and your parent had a life-threatening illness that required a drug that you could not afford, would it be acceptable to steal it?” Analysis of the reasoning involved in the answer is used to determine individuals’ “moral stage”. Philosophical inquiries into the basis and origins of morality and ethics typically pose similar moral dilemmas to expose underlying moral reasoning and values. These approaches assume that morality is exposed in events of great significance, and that reason and logic are the gateways to identifying and codify the rules of ethics.

Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box

I call the beliefs that morality is manifest only in the lives of great personages or in life-altering situations “Big Box” morality. It is presumed that from the flat, quotidian landscape of life, morality arises and is made manifest in singular lives and in life-defining moments. It is here where moral character is revealed. And this presumption is misguided. These singular lives and defining events, while important, are merely more pronounced features of the rich, dense moral landscape that comprise all our lives. Morality and ethics are not Big Box items. Nor are they derived from reason or deducible from logic. They are conditions of being, like breathing, where our every action is inescapably a moral one. We are, fundamentally, constitutionally, inescapably, moral.1 Not “Big Box”, but mom and pop morality.

mom & pop

I place my mother with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale in my moral pantheon of individuals I admire.  My mother, of course, is not Big Box. She, instead, underscores the absolutely essential contributions of the unheralded moms and pops. The moms and pops are all of us, not just parents, not just adults. Our lives are embedded within the moral matrix of family, friends, and communities, great and small, whose accumulated commitments form us, nurture us, bind us at the nuclear level. Moms and pops are the hands that reach from the past into the present, that constitute, stabilize, and guide us through life, and reach, though us, into the future. This occurs, not at moments of acute crisis, but at the at the everyday, ground floor of human action, care, giving and exchange.

Our daily life is a moral one, and it is only the moral currency we have earned in our life’s journey that matters:

Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last. … A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?. 2

Tribute and Remembrance

Mom

I offer this tribute to my mother and, by association, to all the moms and pops, whether parents, adults, or children, who form the collective web of moral regard that binds us together.

When my mother died we found this Bible verse, Psalm 86:11, on prominent display on her desk:

Teach me your way O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

Teach me, my Lord, to be sweet and gentle in all the events of life—in disappointments, in the thoughtlessness of others, in the insincerity of those I trusted.

Let me put myself aside, to think of the happiness of others, to hide my little pains and heartaches, so that I may be the only one to suffer from them.

Teach me to profit by the suffering that comes across my path. Let me so see it that it may mellow me, not harden, not embitter me.

That it may make me patient, not irritable, that it may make me broad in my forgiveness, not narrow, haughty and overbearing.

May no one be less good from having come within my influence.

No one less pure, less true, less kind, less noble for having been a fellow-traveler in our journey toward eternal life.

Teach me O Lord, your way.

This is how she lived her life.

She died 5 years ago, on Good Friday, April 19, 2014.

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Field Notes: Mets

Mets is the moniker, the nickname, for the Metropolitans; a 4-letter word, a curse for the baseball team sharing the same city as the Yankees. The Mets are the yang to the Yankees yin. The Yankees are baseball royalty, aristocracy, old money. The Mets are baseball peasantry, commoners, Bernie-Madoff-bankrupt nouveau riche.1

Clowns and Costumes

Mr. Mets
New York Post

The Yankees eschew clown-mascots. The Mets’ mascot is Mr. Mets, addressed as Mr., presumably, because it dignifies the mascot; a mascot most famous for giving the finger to his fans. With a smile, of course. He was not fired for this, of course. It is noteworthy that his actions were provoked by merciless taunting from…Met fans,2 who insulted Mr. Mets’ mother (the Mascot’s mother!! And the actor in the mascot suit took personal offense?!). The press noted that Mr. Mets was not, technically, giving the middle finger, as he only has 4 fingers.

Banker Pinstripes

The Yankees wear banker pinstripes. No garish colors, or any color, here. No gaudy script across the chest to announce who they are. Just the simple Yankee logo, known worldwide; no further identification necessary. The Mets are bedecked with the colors, blue and orange, of the two teams, the Dodgers and Giants, that fled New York for greener fields of green, and whose departure left festering scabs of disappointment, loss and despair on their New York fans. The Mets keep fresh the scabs of disappointment, loss and despair in the colors that garb them, their play on the field, and the ineptitude of their boardroom. The Yankees are admired. Fans aspire to be Yankees. No such distance separates fans and team for the Mets. The Mets are us—failure, foibles, follies and all. Fans love the Mets.

Colors of Despair

Morality and Baseball

I love baseball, and love it for many, many reasons. One is because it is a morality play, where good and evil engage in mortal combat. There is a clear winner, a clear loser, and the outcome uncluttered by ambiguity. However, what makes baseball (and other sports) maddening, and despairing, is that good does not always triumph. No guarantees of victory by the righteous are issued in the sphere of baseball; it is not a Panglossian “Best of All Possible Worlds”. Indeed not, as the unrivaled success of that most evil of empires, the Yankees, attests.

Yankees’ out of Uniform

Anthropological Fieldwork

Since I have retired, I have undertaken an odyssey to visit all the baseball parks. My compulsion is not simply to see the parks, but to embark on anthropological journeys into exotic subcultures, each with their own unique architecture, food, attire, rituals, rites, heroes, history, emblems, songs and settings. And fans.

The Mets fans are fierce and tribal. Foreigners, especially National League East coasters from the competing divisional tribes, are greeted as invaders, and met with intimidation, jeering, taunting, vociferous challenges to their parental origins and legitimacy, and symbolic—and not so symbolic— threats. Warriors, asserting territorial sovereignty and protecting the sacred turf of home.

I visited the Mets stadium in the midst of a pennant race, at a game pitting the first place Washington Nationals against the beloved second place Mets. At stake was first place, and it was August, when standings and games get serious. I traveled to the stadium on the 7 train, crowed with boisterous, noisy Mets fans dressed in team shirts, hats, and the jerseys of beloved heroes. One of the most popular heroes is a current player, Noah Syndergaard, who dressed himself up as Thor, cape and all, and tweeted a picture of himself doing power swats.

Noah Syndergaard aka Thor
@noahsyndergaard

When I exited the 7 train, I walked a gauntlet of alcohol addled young men, shouting, dancing, posturing, posing, joking, and laughing; greeting the arriving throng with beer-can salutes and profanity laced exhortations. It was immediately clear: “You are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy”! Or St. Louis.

The highlight (or lowlight) of my visit occurred before the game even began. A physically disabled boy was given the honor of throwing out the ceremonial “first pitch”. He was positioned about 30 feet from home with the Mets catcher poised behind the plate to receive his toss. The child gave a mighty effort and the ball bounced several times before reaching the catcher. Immediately, instinctually, reflexively, in herd-unison, the stadium erupted in a loud chorus… of boos!

I was dumbfounded and paralyzed between laughing hysterically at the absolute absurdity of what had just happened, and horror at what had just happened. As an experienced field researcher, I can offer this advice to any intrepid traveler who may plan to risk a visit to this most volatile tribe: Don’t wear pinstripes. Never volunteer to throw out the first pitch.

Baseball, Oh Beloved Baseball…

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Origins of Ethics

Morality Unspoken

The words were never spoken in my house. Never once uttered. Indeed, they were assiduously avoided, as if saying them would change everything, call into question the very meaning of the words. But never, for a day, for a moment, did I ever feel unloved. They were of a different generation, my parents, a generation less psychological, one less in need of constant reassurance, one both more and less direct. I never longed for them to say it, never felt deprived, never in doubt, for even in their displeasure, censure, and anger, I knew.

There is, of course, merit in saying the words, “I love you”. Few other words have such a life-altering impact as these. But the sinews of love, the binding strength of love, is in deeds, not words. This is why, before and beyond anything we utter, our deeds go forth in the world, and why I know that I, myself, am able to love—because my parent’s deeds live on in me.

My parents love for me, and my sister and brother, did not spring from their religious beliefs, was not contingent on church affiliation, not derived from “Thou Shalt Not” imperatives. They could have left their church (they did), changed religions, or become non-believers and their nurturance, protection and care for their children would have remain unaltered. Their commitment to our welfare was deeper than religion, more primal than creed.

Ethical Indebtedness

We do not choose our children. They are born to us, miraculously, and we are entrusted with their care. Our face-to-face encounters with our children are asymmetrical; our children are completely vulnerable to our response, completely dependent on our care. They expose us to the mystery of life, and their helplessness alerts us to the ever presence of harm, injury, death. Their life depends on our simple, daily acts of feeding, giving and care. We love our children, not for what they can do, or what they provide, but because of who they are, their irreducible uniqueness; specific beings who are bound to us, who have a moral claim on our being.

This moral claim entails love. If our “care” for children is merely functional, simply dispensing nutrients, offering basic shelter, and providing the bare essentials necessary for survival—“care” without love—our offspring wither and die.1 Every culture, in every historical epoch, shares these human truths. Our love for our children, and the attendant acts of care, are hardwired.  And this must be so, if our species is to survive.

The ethical circle of regard encompasses more than our children. We are a social species and our individual and collective survival depends on our communal acts of care, cooperation and sharing. This, too, is hardwired, from the specific brain neurons dedicated to human facial recognition, to neonates’ innate ability to imitate others, to toddlers’ preverbal appreciation of fairness in exchanges, to young children’s spontaneous acts of compassion toward someone in distress.

Ethics does not appear only when creeds are uttered. Morality is not confined to those who profess certain beliefs. We are beholden to others, dependent on one another throughout our lives. We are, fundamentally, ethical beings. Our daily, in-this-moment journey is a moral one, and every action a decision about how to comport ourselves in the face of ethical demands engendered by being with others.

Ethics and Cruelty

Picasso’s Guernica
Museum Reina Sofia
Madrid, Spain

Human history, however, or even a cursory glance at the morning headlines, reveals a frightening range of human cruelty, casting a shadow over assertions about the fundamental ethical nature of human life. Our primordial ethical indebtedness does not prevent murder, rape, abuse or the many other forms of malevolence or, for that matter, the petty acts of greed, dishonesty, and selfishness that pollute our daily life. Overwhelming evidence indicates that more than ethical kindness beats in the human heart. But human cruelty does not obviate the centrality of ethics in human life. Rather, our ethical relatedness exposes human cruelty, allows us to grasp it as such.

Ethical Humanism

Ethical Society St. Louis

I am a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, which is a humanist, non-theist religious community. We are often queried by our more traditional religious friends of how we can be moral without a creed; how we can be ethical without a belief in a higher power. These questions are posed to us by those from a variety of different religious traditions, beliefs and practices. Our answer: The multiplicity, diversity, and sometimes contradictory ethics of the many religions spring from a common human ground of ethical regard. Or, more simply: “Deed Before Creed.”2 3

Bombers & Butterflies

Tucson Postcard

Air and Space Flight

We visited the Pima Air and Space museum during our stay in Tucson and I expected to be mildly interested. Instead, I was deeply touched—surprisingly so. As a kid I was consumed with books about WW II pilots and air combat, and when I saw the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B 29 Superfortress and the P-51 fighter, I choked up. The bombers were so brutal and so beautiful, and what was especially gut-grabbing was the ball-turret under the fuselage of the B-24. Strapped into a space with NO wiggle room, a casket waiting to happen, barely visible amidst the tubes, gears and gadgets, the gunner was literally a breathing extension of the weaponry.

The bombers were industrial—not one concession to comfort or human concerns—WAR was the architecture writ large in every detail. On the B-17 and B-24, neither was pressurized and they frequently flew at altitudes of 20,000 feet or higher. They had doors that opened for gunners with machine guns so the crew endured sub-zero temps at high altitudes for hours.

There was a special hanger for the B-17 and the day we were there a vet who flew 28 missions in 1943 was there to talk about his experiences. 95 years old and he looked and talked like someone in their 70’s. He had interesting stories, but even more noteworthy was we were in the presence of someone giving voice to frightful happenings so long ago; the last echo of a past age.

The B-29 Superfortress, which is what dropped the A bomb, was the largest and most impressive of these planes.  It turns out, they were very dangerous—for the air crew, because the engines had a propensity to catch fire, and accounted for more losses that enemy fire. The problem was known from day one, yet they continued to make 4,000 of them. Why? The calculus of war— its strategic importance (long range, high altitude, pressurized, heavy payload bomber) outweighed the known casualties that would result from the design. We protected civilians of opulent prosperity have been spared these types of grim calculations…as those who have been in combat know only too well.

Flight in Air and Space

The previous day we visited the Tucson Botanical Garden, a gem of artistically arranged plants from several desert regions (with local bird accompaniments). What proved to be the surprise of our visit was the butterfly house. To prevent any errant escapees, a guard was stationed at the double-doored entrance to escort visitors in, and a guard manned the exit of the small enclosure, scanning those leaving for any hitchhikers, before allowing them to depart through double-doors.  Entering—what a sight! Amidst blooming orchids, tropical plants, in jungle-like humidity, were hundreds of winged, near weightless apparitions, filling the air. The fluttering yellows, reds, whites, browns, blacks and iridescent blues evoked an ephemeral, dream-scape. We stayed here for a long time, holding our breath, as the butterflies flitted about in their erratic flight—prompting me to ask; what kind of body-music animates these whimsical paths? Certainly not the one-two, one-two, that organizes our movement.

(An attempted hitchhiker)

Flight

Flight of the butterfly, flight of the B’s. Both lifted by the same currents— one, a bejeweled, vulnerable expression of life; the other, a steeled fist, tasked with ending it.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Randall Jarrell

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

(See Jessica Plattner’s stunning paintings of themes related to “Bombers & Butterflies”: http://www.jessicaplattnerart.com/home.html)

Dictionary of Silence

Silence of The Oxford English Dictionary:   
“The complete absence of sound”. 

This definition is a succinct statement of the physical characteristics of silence. It exists as an absence, a negation, a nullity. This definition, however, is impoverished by the exclusion of the psychological aspects of silence. Unlike physical silence, psychological silence is not an absence—it is a presence filled with meaning. Many, many meanings; sometimes elusive, sometimes contradictory, but always of significance. I offer this very abridged Dictionary of Silence to augment Oxford.

Silence of Language:

Silence is a precondition for language. It presupposes a silent regard between speakers. When we come into the presence of another, before we speak, we share a common ground of understanding that makes speech possible. We need not share the same language—a mutual understanding that we are in the presence of another, a shared co-presence, an intersubjectivity, is implicit in our face-to-face encounter. We are meaningfully attuned to others from birth, as our biology instinctively orients us to the face and eyes of others. Nonverbal gestures—eye gaze1, facial expressions, bodily postures and movements—all are of the fabric of intersubjective regard from the first moments of life. We do not need the physical presence of another to be within the meaningful ground of silence; our very being confers meaning to silence.

Silence of Music:

Music, like language, presupposes silence. It is a form of language whose expressive power “takes over at the point at which words become powerless2. It may seem that music is composed from the notes, from the sounds, but this is only half-accurate. Music teachers talk of those who have a musical sensibility and those who don’t. Beginners, and those who don’t, can play all the notes, and perhaps do so in perfectly correct time, but they do not “make music”. To do this, one also needs to play the silences; the pauses, hesitations, legatos that express the meaning of the relations between the notes. Music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them”3. The ultimate expression of the central role of silence in music is John Cage’s ‘composition’, 4’ 33’, consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. The “music” is whatever sounds that occur during this silence. He purposely draws attention to the fact that sound arises from the ground of silence, and that all sound-silence in our lives can be experienced as music. Once we decontextualize sound-silence from our usual interpretative frames, experience it as “music”,  we become aware of the sheer miracle of sound—any sound—that startles us, alerts us, awakens us to the thrill of being alive. It is not unlike the visual artist Andy Warhol whose soup cans urge us to “see”.4

Silence of the Elephant (in the room):

This is the unspoken presence of an unavoidable issue that is avoided; left to the realm of silence because, if given voice, it would lead to unpredictable and, perhaps, irreversible, damaging consequences. This is a silence of fear and anxiety.

Silence of Complicity:

Elie Wiesel offers this exhortation against silence: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

And here is Pope Francis’ response to the question that he was aware of and sheltered priests who had sexual abused children: “The truth is humble; the truth is silent.”

Silence of Guilt:

When accused, silence is a powerful, ambiguous and, possibly, damning statement. Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher who wrote extensively about the power and meaning of silence, had this response to the accusation that he was a supporter of the Nazi’s during WWII (he was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party until almost the end of the war):   Silence.

Silence and Truth:

Silence can also offer up truth. Newton, perhaps the greatest scientific mind, who possessed unimaginable creative power to penetrate Nature’s secrets, has this to say: “Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation”.

Silence of Books:

They sit on the shelf, mute. The soul of the author, who may be long dead, pressed into its pages, waiting to be released in the life of another who, silently, will enter its corridors of meaning. A book is a miraculous leap of the spirit across space and time, in a collusion of silence.

Silence of Libraries:

A double silence permeates libraries. Rows and rows, floors and floors of books, poised at attention. The air vibrates with the silent murmur of centuries of voices, compressed between covers, beaconing passers-by to leap across space and time into another reality. Libraries are also a place specifically set aside for books, and one of the very few public spaces that enforce a code of silence. Libraries honor and pay homage to reading and contemplation. This is a sacred silence, the silence of a temple to the life of the spirit.5

Silence of Truthful Madness:

Helen Keller was both blind and deaf, and offers this insight about the relative loss from each: “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.”

Deafness creates a wall of silence, blocking all communicative contact through that most potent, biologically conferred means of exchange; speech. The lack of hearing, however, does not exclude from the circle of human relatedness. The fundamental ground of intersubjective regard conferred by our human biology, noted above in the Silence of Language, is shared by those who cannot hear, and makes possible the various forms of nonverbal communication used by the deaf community.  Nevertheless, isolation and an underlying sense of “other”, of being outside the normative circle of the “hearing world”, accompanies deafness and can result in profound and disturbing detachment. Goya, one of the greatest of Western painters, became deaf in his later years. Over the course of his lifetime his paintings moved from deeply insightful psychological portraits of royalty; to deeply unsettling depictions of war; to, finally, deeply disturbing images of universal human madness.6 I cannot help but think that this last stage was forged within the detachment of silence that gave rise to his penetrating and unsettling visions of the human condition. I have tried to capture what this experience must have been like for him by watching television with the sound off; trying to view the actions of the players, naively, without the automatic interpretive frame we typically use to understand social activity. This, I think, has helped me to crudely conjure up his experience; the human scene as a “clown pantomime of absurdity”.

Silence of Love:

This silence assuages our isolation and loneliness in an indifferent world. Knowing that someone we love is in the world, with us, even if they are not visibly present, imbues our experiences with their loving scent. I sit in my house, alone, writing, but I know that I am not bereft, for while Sharon is absent, the silence of the house sings her presence. Her presence in the world warms the silence of her absence.

Silence of Grief:

This silence is a scream, a lament, a cry of emptiness. It is the absence of a presence that will never return. When someone we love dies, even if expected, the absolute finality of the loss and their irreversible disappearance is a silence that chills. This silence in a house of grief unmoors us.

Silence of the Grave:

This silence passes beyond the silence of the living—to nonexistence; to Oxford’s definition of Silence.

Silence of Being:

There are many, many more silences, all with their special meaning: The silence of 3 AM darkness, the world all to myself; the silence of a winter’s night snowfall, covering everything in brightness; the silence of the desert that assumes an almost physical presence. I am sure you can think of others.  We cannot escape its ubiquitous presence but it is oft overlooked, ignored, avoided; hidden by the noise that surrounds us, the noise we make, the noise we seek. We chase away silence with loud distractions, incessant chatter and self-reassuring boomings aimed at keeping us from fully experiencing the deep silence that enfolds us, pervades us, resides at the heart of our being. Silence is a route to the sacred in many religious practices, for it is in silence that we shed the nervous, busy-bustlings of the world.  It forms the ground of our life-giving bonds with others. It also constitutes the most severe form of punishment—solitary confinement. The emptiness, the solitude, the isolation of silence intimates death, and can provoke responses untethered from the mundane concerns of everyday life. Silence offers a glimpse of our existential predicament, inspiring transcendence, underscoring our relatedness, and evoking angst, despair and madness. Oxford’s Silence brackets our life, and between these brackets we inhabit the Dictionary of Silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy New Year!

“Opening Words” for Ethical Society Platform
 December 31, 20171

Today is New Year’s Eve. Many will be going to parties where there will be much merriment, singing, countdowns, kissing (and more). Restraints are lifted; noisemakers, hats, costumes, games and drinking to excess mark this joyous occasion. It is an affirmation of life, but just below the frantic fun lies the thorn of mortality:

We have made it through another year”!!

Will we make it through the next”??

New Year’s Eve parties are part of a larger calendar of life. New Year’s is a national holiday that formally marks a change in time; banks, schools, government and businesses are closed, our calendar scrolls to the next year, marked by a new number, as we are synchronized to a communal rhythm regulating our individual lives. New Year’s marks an end, and a beginning, in the seasonal round of time. A time of pause to consider the passage of time, reflect on our lives and our place in the larger cosmic arc.

New Years is the oldest of human holidays, dating back to Egypt and Babylon, and the most universally celebrated world-wide. It is a celebration often associated with celestial events: winter solstice, moon and sun cycles, seasonal changes. Cosmological myths and stories of our human origins and fate are entwined with this celestial ordering of our lives. Our contemporary celebration of January 1st is a legacy of the Roman calendar and cosmology; January named after Janus, a two-faced god, simultaneously looking backward and forward in time. While New Year’s has recently become secularized, it has long associations with both pagan and Christian celebrations.

It is most appropriate, then, that today Dr. Claude Bernard will discuss the scientific understanding of the cosmos and its role in our human origins. This is our Ethical Society origin “story”, and is why we have a prominent display of evolution in our gathering space downstairs. I use the word “story” metaphorically, as this story is derived from fact not fantasy.

I know many find this “story” unappealing cold, rational, and without appreciation of the transcendental mystery that pervades our lives. And this is mostly an accurate assessment of the scientific method. It is purposely impersonal, which is required to arrive at facts that are universal and not dependent on the perspective of any one observer. Understanding must be derived from a reasoned integration of the facts that anchor explanation in the material world. The understanding that results from this method, however, while not transcendental, is certainly not lacking in wonderment.

Our presence here today is bestowed by miraculous conception. We are stardust, composed of elements forged in cataclysmic cosmic conflagrations of unimaginable scope and power, hurling seeds of new forms, new worlds, into the void, across vast distances of space and time. The earth and all life found here, past and present, are the progeny of these seeds. And the dust that is us, configured into breathing, beating life for a cosmic eye-blink, derives its origins from the happenstance of millions of years of cumulative couplings, reaching back to the first wriggling’s of life on this planetary outpost.2

Almost as miraculous, we speak here today of these origins. Dust giving voice to its own beginnings; the cosmos, through our most frail, ephemeral being, bearing witness to itself. The facts, methods and rational inquiry of science yields an origin “story”, rooted in the material world, more astonishing than any conjured through transcendental metaphysics. In Goethe’s words:

“The highest religious act is the shudder of awe before the visible universe”.

May you experience a shudder of awe at the wonderment of our cosmic origins.

Happy New Year!

Songs of the Seasons

November’s Song1

The leaves changing to deep, intense colors—blood red, sunshine yellow, electric orange—express the passion of life’s last exclamation before surrendering. Life’s goodbye. I feel an empathy, a communion, an organic connection to trees. As I watch my hair grow white (sadly, no reds, yellows, oranges; I go out with a whimper, not a bang…), feel my limbs creak and groan under the strain of the north wind, as I observe the obvious decay of my memory and vitality, I draw comfort from my friends the trees.

One of the most poignant and evocative moments of the fall, a moment that stops me, breath abated, is the gentle flutter and fall of a single, solitary leaf. Followed by the seemingly capricious and hypnotic flutter of another. And another. Tens of thousands of leaves on a tree, each scribing their unique trajectory to the earth.

December’s Song

The transition to December’s song are trees, denuded, but surrounded by a blanket of fallen leaves. It lasts only for a day or two, before the color is drained by decay, the leaves swept away by the wind into piles of soon-to-be compost. The last, faint kiss.

 

Winter trees, shed of their life, reveal the bare, skeletal expression of a lifetime of storms, struggles, and strivings captured in the frozen movements and entanglements of the bare limbs and branches.2

Winter trees speak truth. Everywhere I turn, they stand, reminding me of my fate; a fate that looms. But the trees also reassure that I am not alone. My fate is shared with all life, however humble and brief, that has burst from our fertile earth. My good fortune is to have been given awareness of my life, of my seasons, and to bear witness to the experience of the seasons that all life, in their unique form, experience. I go down in a crowd. Can I, through the pain and suffering that usually accompanies the end of life, draw some measure of solace knowing that I join a wide, well-trod path? That pain and suffering are the grease to ease the passage into the night? That the adventure of life exacts its measure of payment? Can I…?

In Blackwater Woods
Mary Oliver

 

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let go,
to let go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eyes

PRESENCE OF ANOTHER

Eyes. Eyes! We cannot endure to gaze into another’s eyes for more than a brief moment. Eyes are the electric shock of the presence of another that is unnerving, frightening. This presence comes with excitement, danger and allure, for it is in the eyes that we most directly experience the thrill of the mortal, beating thump of life. And not just with each other, but with other species.

The first time I saw an owl, I stopped—riveted in a sacred moment. Two yellow eyes peering at me from a bare tree limb at about my height; this was not an “owl” but another living being with whom I had entered into an intimate co-presence. We were joined at the eyes. The owl’s eyes aided this union, for it mimics, and suggests, the human face, where both eyes are in the front of the face and fully visible. The form of the owl, and those piercing yellow eyes, however, also signals “difference”.  This difference allows for easier dismissal; that it is ‘not like me’, an ‘owl’— but it also can be the call to leap over forms, to join another sentient being in a shared moment; a moment that thrills and disquiets.

Fortunately, my owl eye-encounter was benign, but the deep, central nervous system shock I experienced alerts to the species-leaping power of eyes. Had the owl been a grizzly bear, such direct eye contact could have been taken as a challenge and resulted in the end of my central nervous system functioning. Or if a mountain lion, maintaining eye contact could help ensure my survival. Surprising responses, and consequences, arise. I hunted when I was young, and the last time was when I shot a rabbit. Looking down at it, we made eye contact. How could I do this to this creature, now helplessly staring at me as it breathed its last, looking up at its killer? Those eyes are still with me today.

SOCIAL EYES

 Human eyes are more than an organ for sight—they are integral to social communication and exchange. The social-communicative function of eyes is biologically hardwired. Human eyes, unlike other animals, including primates, have irises visibly framed in the sclera, the “eye-whites”. This allows for social signaling. From birth, directed eye gaze communicates. It is a nonverbal pointer, located at the middle of the face—the center of gravity of another’s regard—graphic and unmissable. Want something? Engage another’s eyes, then look left (or right) to direct them to attend to the object or place of interest. Unsure if they followed the directive? Look back, check their eyes to see if they have followed and what their eyes signal about their reception to the overture. Do their eyes track to the location that was indicated? Are they looking to it and back to see if that is where attention was intended to be directed? Confused or interested? Stare. Angry or dismayed? Look away. The world presses too close; too much stimulation? Close your eyes. The spotlight allure of eyes is conferred at birth. Human infants are biologically attuned to seek and regard the eyes of another, which enables locating, engaging and exchanging with others—all essential for survival.

The role of eyes in social engagement does not wain with age. Rather, it becomes part of the fabric of communication that broadens to include language. Language comes to dominate discourse, but the power of eyes, while less obvious, still holds sway. No wonder that the early iconic representations of the power of hypnosis depict an irresistible magnetic force emanating from the hypnotist’s eyes. This is more than mere hokum. While there is no magnetism, there is social influence, an intersubjective force akin to magnetism in the social-psychological field of action. Eyes are a portal for this action-at-a-distance force, and eye gaze is a common technique for harnessing this force to induce a hypnotic trance.

Eye gaze is a highly regulated activity that we must manage in the course of social discourse. The etiquette of eye gaze is a tightly scripted cultural dance that signals much. Ignore, disrespect, render invisible—with no eye contact. Acknowledge, reciprocate, exchange—with modulated eye gaze. Entice, alert, seduce—with lingering contact. Unnerve, scare, challenge—with unblinking gaze. Our eye-dance is largely habitual and automatic, allowing us to comfortably travel within established cultural pathways of exchange. This type of ‘looking’ helps us routinize our encounters with others, to control, dim and objectify them, rendering the experience ‘mundane’ and, thus, facilitating the ordinary exchanges required in the commerce of everyday life. Prolonged eye gaze breaks these rules, tossing us into untamed territory lurking just beneath the surface of habit and routine. Here, we experience an unregulated encounter with another, staring back, who is alive to our presence. The other person is no longer objectified. Fright, panic, intimacy, compassion—are some of the reactions this can provoke. Prolonged stare is not necessary to enter this state; we can do so by being mindful of the moment during our routine engagements, inhabiting the present,  being present with another in this altered state.

LOOKING AND SEEING

 

Looking at the non-animate world is similarly habit-encrusted. The first time I remember the scales falling from my eyes was when I was working as a construction worker, laying reinforcing rods for a concrete floor to be poured on the seventh story of a new building. Uncoiling my body to take a break from the ache of back-bending labor, from this perch high above everything, I saw a sign for the Shell gas station across the street. Except this time it was not a Shell sign I saw. What I saw was a large, bright, eye-popping yellow image on a pole thrust into the sky. It had been stripped of its cultural meaning, laid bare as a shocking object qua object. I could now ‘see’ Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans as he intended—a compelling, garishly decorated, bizarre object.

‘Looking’ versus ‘seeing’. We ‘look’ most of the time. This is necessary for quick, adaptive, appraisal of the environment. It provides comfort, stability, assurance. It promotes easy exchange and confident action.  ‘Seeing’ disrupts, overturns, startles. ‘Seeing’ is not merely a shift in cognitive focus, not a change in perspectives—it is change in the state of being, from mundane habit to the bright lights of this moment; an epiphany. The ordinary becomes supercharged, becomes extraordinary.  Shell signs, soup cans, owls, babies, and wherever else  we direct our ‘seeing’ are de-familiarized. The assumed meanings that anchor us, provide us with a sense of rock-solid security are undermined, and we find ourselves cast into a world without footholds, without a compass. The intense, roiling emotions that possess us when ‘seeing’—thrill, excitement, consternation, distress, allure, fright—alert to the groundlessness beneath our feet. We are vulnerable. Impermanence prevails, intimating our mortality. And we are alive to the vision of Ahab, in Moby Dick: “All visible objects, man, are but paste board masks”.  As we journey through our days, the challenge of ‘seeing’ confronts us: How shall we sail these seas? Ishmael’s answer: “As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.  l love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts1.

Time Travel

Time Machine

The dream of time machines, in their many forms, have usually aimed to take us back or forward in time—to slide along the trajectory of human existence, either to visit a long past event or leap to the future. We want to spy how it was, or how it will be, for us and our fellows. Our most urgent concerns are, naturally, with ourselves and this desire animates our quest to unbind the fetters of time. In this quest, we move along a “horizontal” temporal axis, maintaining our experience within a constant human “temporal envelop”.

Our “temporal envelop” is dictated by our biology; life span, adaptive functioning and evolutionary niche. Our beating heart, breathing lungs, marching steps, habitual movements, and suite of neural and perceptual-motor reflexes are metronomes that establish our time signature.

What would await us if we traveled along the vertical axis? If we to spin the dial to the shortest intervals possible, then to the longest?

Shorter Intervals

Consider if we were to nudge the time dial to a slightly quicker ‘time zone’ within a different biological metronome: hummingbirds.  The life span of hummingbirds  is a short 3-5 years, but much intense life is packed into this brief time. The heart of hummingbirds’ pulse at 1000 beats per minute, wings snap at 50 beats per second, lungs breathing 250 times a minute, flying up-down-backward-forward-hovering all in an eye blink, yet migrating for 1000 mile journeys and, at night, entering a hibernating torpor.1   The contrapuntal rhythms of hummingbird heart, wings and voice, the staccato, stabbing movements of flight and fight, and the allegro molto pace and multimeasure rests makes for incomprehensibly complex jazz riffs.

 

Things get weirder still if we were to spin the dial toward the smallest time intervals. Events in this briefest of temporal neighborhoods occur in the domain of subatomic particles that inhabit near infinitesimal space and throb to very different beats than living organisms. The swarm of subatomic particles, governed by quantum mechanics, has been called a ‘particle zoo’  and the shortest enduring fundamental particle is the Z boson, which exists for a duration of about 10-25 seconds.2 A cloud chamber is one of the first methods used to capture the presence of subatomic particles, which leave vapor trails that allow for observing their fleetingly brief interactions 3.

Perhaps the most bizarre members of this ‘zoo’ are virtual particles, whose liminal existence is both substantive and unmeasurable. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle sets a time-energy/mass limit, or barrier, beyond which we cannot detect the particles themselves. But we know they exist by their effects on particles that endure on the detectable side of the barrier. The Uncertainty Principle, then, both establishes the lower limit of measurable time and also reveals that time, in the quantum zone, is tethered to mass/energy.

Longer Intervals

On the other hand, what if we nudge the time dial to a slightly longer interval, one attuned to a very different biological metronome: trees? Trees, whose upturned arms passionately reach toward the sky and whose roots tenaciously grasp the earth. Who have memory, send alarms to friends, offer aid to neighbors in crisis, nurse the young, nourish the aged and fallen, tell time, create and capture water, create and enrich their home/soil, wave welcome to birds, plants and critters of all kinds—all this we overlook, if not disbelieve, because our temporal beat allows us to see only a snapshot of the life and time of these living, breathing creatures 4.

The Big Bang occurred about 13.7 billion years or 1017 seconds ago,5which marks the age of the universe and the longest time interval on our time dial. When we spin the dial toward this limit we lose our moorings. Time, itself, is revealed to be not a simple slide along a single dimension but a thread in a space-time fabric.  Incomprehensibly large cosmic distances are measured in light years; the time it would take for light to travel from one point to another. So, the starlight we see convey the happenings that occurred long ago. This measurement of space via time hints at a more fundamental entanglement of the two. Time’s messages travel at a finite speed; the speed of light. Cosmic simultaneity does not exist—it is not the same time everywhere. This realization leads to a host of head-spinning conclusions: The basic coordinates for mapping events must be space-time coordinates. Clocks tic at different speeds and lengths and distances shrink or expand—depending on the frame of reference. And, the space-time fabric itself is curved, twisted and, in some places, torn, where time-events fall into bottomless black holes. The contours of this fabric are determined by the mass of the matter in its vicinity; more mass, more distortions, and holes where stars have collapsed. Much of what seems bedrock-stable in our narrow time zone is an anomaly from a cosmic time perspective; Alice-in-Wonderland is the cosmic norm.

Time began with the Big Bang. Was there a ‘before’?  The ‘before’ might well have been nothing, the void.  However, the void— space with no energy, charge or matter— is not empty. It is pregnant with possibility; a churning, bubbling, boiling stew of virtual particles that flicker in-and-out of existence, ever so briefly. It is surmised that the Big Bang was a cataclysmic leap from possibility-to-actuality in this frothing quantum foam.  Furthermore, our universe, and its Big Bang, may, perhaps, be a small region of a larger cosmos that has existed prior to this event. Our universe may be but a local time zone amidst an infinite space-time landscape.

Quick Decaying Particles

A being who exists near the largest cosmic space-time interval may likely have a similar perspective toward us as we have toward  subatomic particles— our little, obscure, ephemeral neighborhood of space-time would be its particle zoo. Consciousness, which influences the actions of these tiny, scurrying, quick decaying particles—us— would be a kind of virtual particle in this physics, and our architecture, art, texts, broadcasts and space probes would be our vapor trails. The vertical traverse of time rockets us through  dizzying loops, wrinkles, twists, spins, tumbles and holes. It does not offer visions of our human past or future. Rather, spinning this dial rips us from our comfortable temporal-spatial moorings, offering a wild ride through time itself and a kaleidoscopic glimpse of our place within the roiling cosmic order.

 

 

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