Poet Tree

Perspective often determines reality. Among those animals that can potentially live what seems to us a long time, humans measure centuries and millennia, looking for evidence of progress. An article reviewing Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things in the World, on a recent New York Times page, suggests reassessment might be helpful. When it comes to longevity, plants tend to have the advantage over animals. Although the Times article is only a sampling, here we find fungi and plants that have survived for thousands of years. Sometimes as collectives, sometimes as individuals, trees especially have proven themselves to be particularly vital. I was reminded of this as we recently went through the annual ritual of taking down the Christmas tree. We have, since returning to the United States after my doctoral program, visited tree farms where we select a still-living tree each December. Although they are grown to die, the Christmas tree becomes very poignant as it stands naked, ready to be dragged outside and dumped on the curb. The anticipation, the joy involved in welcoming it as a new member of the household, seems lost in the grayness of January. We have killed and now we abandon.

The Christmas tree is, of course, symbolic. Predating Christian solstice remembrances, the evergreen ironically reminds us that life has not ceased, despite the cold and snow. This particular tree has paid the ultimate price to bring another species joy for a few weeks. Can we so heartlessly throw it away? Of course, the community mulches the trees to give new growth to future generations, so there is a kind of sad resurrection here. Life dwells deeply with trees. Some of those highlighted by Sussman have survived since the Sumerians first learned to write on clay, to this very day. Some have survived even 8,000 years.

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Life is tenacious. Our tree by the curb still looks green and healthy to me. It has given life to a holiday season that always seems too brief, with its carefree days and sense of togetherness. We now have another year to survive until we might take a few days and ponder if there is indeed more to life than work. Without moving from its spot, simply being grounded in the earth that brought it forth, a tree can survive millennia as human civilization emerges with its frenetic madness and insistence that there is so much more to do and earn. I do wonder, however, if perhaps our long-lived forest dwelling companions might have some deeper wisdom for us. We can be born, grow old, and die in the shadow of a tree that was planted by generations past, or simply found its own way into the world. And after we’re gone there will be some who will look to trees and find an answer.

Ships Ahoy

Huge ShipsI’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor. Some time ago a humorous list of improbable book titles was circulating the internet. One of those books was How to Avoid Huge Ships, by Captain John W. Trimmer. Privately published, it surely made its author little money, and it quickly became one of those books with hilarious, bogus reviews on Amazon. My family, knowing my predilection for seafaring (at least in imagination) and my love of irony, found an overpriced, used copy for my birthday. I was glad to have it, but wasn’t sure I’d ever read it. I don’t own a boat, and my efforts to live on the coast have always been thwarted. But then, I’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor.

How to Avoid Huge Ships, subtitled I Never Met a Ship I Liked, is one of the most parsimonious books I’ve ever read. Trimmer, a veteran of many years at sea, writes with paternal concern for those who have no apparent sense of reason. Large ships, as most of us with a modicum of physics realize, can’t stop or turn quickly. Yet, in this spellbinding little book, Trimmer reports, and even provides photographic evidence that smaller, private boats often deliberately cut across the bow of these fast-moving juggernauts. As he points out, no license is required to drive a boat, and most small boat pilots have no training. Accidents and fatalities occur. People destroy exorbitantly priced yachts by not moving out of the way of what can truly be called a monster. And like an impatient father, he’s somewhat weary of it. The style is so unpretentious that it might redeem self-publishing in an era when common sense doesn’t interest commercial book houses.

Aware of his own literary limitations, Trimmer bemoans not having an exalted final chapter of great wisdom. He’d already won me over, however, with the simplicity of his sermon. Get out of the way of massive ships. It is a gospel for those with ears to hear. He even points out that the non-seafaring Israelites had respect for ship pilots (citing Ezekiel on Tyre, with decided hints of Melville, intentional or not). I’m not likely to be on a ship soon, but I have survived a horrific hovercraft trip across the English Channel that forever taught me the true respect for the sea. And I know, if I ever find myself again upon the waves, I will consider myself fortunate for having read this wonderful little book.

Soulful Phantoms

PhantasmagoriaPhantasmagoria is a most appropriate title for the book by Marina Warner that bears that single-word name. The back cover bears none of those helpful tags that give the reader a handle by which to categorize the book. The subtitle helps somewhat: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century. The book is about ensoulment. The popular rage among many academics is the exploration of embodiment—the times and trials and wisdom of having a physical body. (We all know it, but it is the scholar’s job to think about it.) Warner asks what soul stuff is and pursues this through many media: wax, air, clouds, light, shadow, mirror, ghost, ether, ectoplasm, and film. She’s not suggesting that souls are made of these things, but rather that people have used these media to explore what a soul might be. Apart from being a fine historical resource on these different avenues of exploration, individual chapters in the book focus on various artists, psychologists, parapsychologists, writers, and Scriptures. This makes for a fascinating, if challenging, exploration to undergo.

One of the topics that emerges in the discussion is how soul distinguishes itself from other unquantifiable aspects of being human: what is mind, for example. We can’t really define soul, but it is frequently differentiated from mind or personality, neither of which is particularly well understood. In an era when we’ve not so much ceased to ask these questions as sublimated them into various fictional realms, a book like Phantasmagoria is especially important. The reaction against materialistic reductionism is strong, if not empirically provable. We still flock to theaters to watch zombies on the screen, precisely because we too have become soulless. Romanticism had a place for Gothic sensibilities as well.

Along the way Warner makes a particularly apt observation that politics and entertainment have become difficult to distinguish. Thinking over the number of entertainers who’ve become policy makers, this is a particularly disturbing thought. We trust the media and it gives us entertainment. Most college professors make so little money as to be jokes when it comes to running a political campaign. Where your treasure is, as the saying goes. Media, in all the forms explored, has failed to capture the soul. The chapter on Revelation (the book) is truly spectacular, coming, as it does, in the section on film. It is the embracing of the chimera of the end of the world pieced together from various myths and nightmares that our political leaders find, in many cases, far too compelling. Someone like Warner might be a much better leader to trust, even if she is a scholar.

Weather to Panic

Over the long weekend, our furnace kicked off two days in a row. This January has been chillier than some, and we’ve been sitting around with blankets on our laps waiting for the air temperature to reach a tolerable level. We keep our place cool, in any case, partly from environmental concern, and partly because we can’t afford to do it any other way. So I was interested to see an article from the Guardian that my wife forwarded to me about the weather. I’ve been interested enough in the weather to write a book about it (Weathering the Psalms—available now!) and since I stand outside every morning waiting for a frequently tardy bus, I do tend to notice when it’s cold, raining, or snowing. The article, “I don’t care what the weatherman says when it’s just hysteria,” by Martin Kettle, makes a good point. The weather used to be information on the news, now it is entertainment. We dramatize and give names to storms as if each is a miniature apocalypse. As Kettle notes, most of us have been around long enough to know how to survive a cold snap or two. But an apocalypse?

We’ve become accustomed to the controlled environment. Many of us define our “work” as sitting in front of computers all day, tapping out virtual ideas that other people will see, indoors, and we probably don’t even have to step outside to get the message delivered. The weather might make it difficult to get to work. We might lose a day of productivity. That snow that was fun as a child has become an impairment to those adults driving to work to get inside so we don’t have to be made uncomfortable any longer than is strictly necessary. Snow never makes it into the forecast, but a storm personified with a name and with destructive intent. No wonder the biblical world saw weather as a divine weapon.

That which Kettle terms “[t]he debauching of the weather” is a sign of the times. We seem to be deemed unable to process facts. We must be entertained. How many mornings have I sat worried in the dark, wondering if I’ll make it in to work or if I’ll spend a good portion of the day trapped on a bus frozen on the Parkway? How much energy do I expend trying to decide whether I should spend extra money to take the train, even though I’ve already paid for a month of bus service? Will the weather throw itself on us all and prevent us from another day’s work? In the Psalms, the response was often one of wonder and praise. These were things only the deity could do. Now, however, we are in the realm of the media meteorologist. If they don’t entertain us, we might just turn off the television or computer and go outside to check for ourselves. If only we would we might discover one of the true wonders of nature that doesn’t require comment. It might be the ability to judge for ourselves.

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Creating Diversity

Informed opinion is a chimera. I write that as someone who has time to read only the news stories my wife or my friends pass on to me. Once in a while one of those stories makes me feel less bad about being uninformed. A recent piece by Slate author William Saletan looks at polls regarding Creationism. The piece, picked up in the New Jersey Star-Ledger on a recent Sunday, demonstrates that although the United States is a nation of Creationists, we don’t agree about what that means. What becomes clear to me when I read such stories is that people who believe in the Bible seldom read it. Or at least understand it. Creationism “is not a thing” in the Bible. Many accounts about how the world began are represented, and the main point seems to be that it’s important that it was the God of Israel who did it rather than the competition. The first couple of creation accounts are compelling with their insistence that people are special, and that we are in charge while the owner is away. In fact, however, creation is a minor point in the story. It just has to start somewhere.

Those who set out to read the Bible, I suspect, begin to stumble in parts of Exodus and generally give up once they reach Leviticus. Although the main point of the books of Moses is the rules, the modern Christian finds the story more engaging. And the creation accounts of early Genesis are among the stories people actually read. They do make for a great, if contradictory, tale. They have, however, little impact on what people are supposed to do. Ironically, those accounts have become failsafe political devices. We vote according to how old we think the earth might be. We are special, after all.

Saletan’s point in the article is that the finer we parse the questions, the more divergent opinion becomes. The Bible doesn’t say how old the earth is—it’s really not a point of any significance to the story—but if you’re going to take it literally, you can do the math. Few literalists truly take the Bible literally. Logic very quickly breaks down as Genesis 2 follows Genesis 1. Americans are told that the Bible is literally true, but such a view literally makes no sense. We are committed to it, however, as we somehow equate believing in stories to be more important than understanding what those tales are trying to say. The polls, according to the article, make the point abundantly clear. When it comes to understanding the Bible Americans are very committed, if very confused.

Just one Creationist museum.  Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons

Just one Creationist museum. Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons

Just Justice

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It was not intentionally because it was Martin Luther King Junior’s alma mater that I chose to attend Boston University School of Theology. King’s legacy there was certainly a perk, but I had found the seminary engaging because it had a rare combination, at least in my limited experience, of academic rigor and a strong sense of social justice. Too often, it seems, academic enterprises become dispassionate and social justice becomes one of those squishy human element sorts of things that really can’t be quantified. We pursue knowledge without really thinking if its impact will be positive or not. At least fair or not. Fairness is a concept rooted in belief, and, as studies of primates show us, it is very deeply embedded in us. What has it to do with academic achievement?

This Martin Luther King day, I’m concerned about how difficult social justice is to find, even in those places where we expect it to reside. Taking second place to doctrine in many churches, social justice is more of an uncomfortable requirement than a true passion. This winter I’ve noticed more and more homeless on the streets. Our “economy” seems to dictate that many have to be losers so that few can be big winners. Instead of helping them out, I see authority figures come along to shoo them out of the way before those who have jobs have to come that way. We don’t want to be reminded that we might lose everything as well. Affluent society requires victims, and we can be very academic about it.

I have to admit to relegating holidays to that mere Monday off work. The relentless wheels of capitalism ever turn, and only with reluctance do our companies grudgingly give us ten days spread throughout the year to recuperate. The next slated holiday comes in May. Will there be social justice by then? With the eventual warming of the air by that season, will we simply blend those without homes into the less well-dressed and pretend that we have achieved a fair society after all? What do we really celebrate today? Is it just another morning to sleep in, or is there something more to it? A dream that won’t be extinguished until fairness is established? Seems like a worthy idea, at least in theory. But until then you’ll find us at our desks, working to keep the system strong. And hopefully, we won’t forget to dream.

Divergency

DivergentSelf-denial, no matter what its motivation, is a religious ideal. In its more extreme forms it becomes martyrdom, but most religions agree on the value of taking less for yourself so that others might have more. This has been running through my head since seeing the movie Divergent. I read and posted on the book some time ago, but having recently seen the movie—a fairly faithful adaptation to the novel—I was forcefully reminded that this is a dystopian parable. In the future, society is divided into different factions, based on a person’s predisposition. This is done to keep the peace, and the factions seem to get along until suspicion grows about the group called Abnegation. The Abnegation faction is moved by pity and compassion for others. They are the consummate self-deniers, not thinking of themselves to the point of limiting time they can spend looking in a mirror. Others are the focus. Naturally, those who see the utter selflessness of others wonder what they’re really up to. Suspicion grows that this group is after wealth, in the form of food, secretly stockpiling it for themselves. Nobody would give up for themselves so that others can have more.

As I watched the movie I thought about religious groups that preach self-denial. Granted, I’m only one person, but growing up that was the message I continually heard loud and clear in the teachings of Jesus, according to the Gospels. Deny yourself so that others might have more. The deeper I became involved with the church, however, the rarer I found such behavior. By the time I reached college, I still hadn’t figured out that religion had become an industry, like any other. A service industry, to be sure, but it still had CEOs and treasurers and, increasingly, political power. The political seduction of religion already had a history by the time I became aware of it, but I still believed that self-denial was at the core of true religion. Perhaps the factions I heard whispering around me were right. Perhaps there was something more driving all this.

In Divergent, the belief in selflessness leads to self-sacrifice. In many feel-good movies, this leads to an expected resurrection. Here the future is bleak, and the dead remain dead. There is a kind of resurrection as the Dauntless faction comes out of its stupor, but the movie leaves the viewer wondering if there is a future after all. Is there a place in the world for those who legitimately want everyone to share? I think that every time I find myself driving. Behind the wheel, selfish maneuvers that lead to little, if any, ultimate gain seem to be deeply embedded in those who want to get there first. Abnegation, it seems, is a danger on the road. Driving, it seems to me, is a real test of someone’s religious convictions. Perhaps it is that one has to realize that the vehicle in front of you contains another human soul. Or perhaps it is that the fragmentation of society has already gone too far and those who don’t take for themselves are not emulated, but consumed.