Weird Dreams

It’s almost like we’re all part of a huge experiment, perhaps orchestrated from outer space, to see how we react to being caged.  The pandemic and its associated lockdowns have held us in place for nearly a year now.  Long enough that I’ve started to dream about it.  For the longest stretch of time my dreams remained in “normal mode.”  That is to say, people talked about the pandemic very little and it was represented only by the occasional dream anxiety that I wasn’t wearing a mask.  I have yet to recall a dream wherein people are wearing masks.  Recently I dreamed that I had to start commuting again, and I climbed on the bus only to remember I’d forgotten my mask at home.  It was like one of those showing up to school without your pants on dreams,  only scarier.

Dreams are an antidote to the sameness of our days, I suppose.  I’ve watched as stable folks I know start to show signs of isolation stress.  I’m sure that I’m showing them too, but the thing is we often don’t see such things in ourselves.  We’re social animals and we’ve been kept in separate cages for a long time now.  I used to go to zoos and feel sorry for the obviously neurotic animals bored out of their skulls, isolated from their species.  Even as we were being told that animals don’t think and don’t have emotions, it was clear that their having interactions with our species was like us having nothing but Zoom meetings to keep us in company.  It’s artificial, but since the zookeepers have us in separate cages we try to act as if it’s normal.

Speaking of neurotic, at least around here since Trump’s been mostly out of the public eye people have begun wearing masks.  Nothing demonstrates that we’re herd animals better than the fact that an obvious charlatan was able to convince millions of people that he doesn’t care only about himself.  Funny how people can be used and not even know it.  We’ve been enjoying national sanity for just over a month now and things seem like the meds may be kicking in.  Vaccine production is booming and, apart from logistic issues, many people are receiving the necessary protection.  It’s always made sense to me that other beings exist in the universe.  I’m not so arrogant as to assume that we’re all that special.  Looking over the past year, it seems as if we may all be guinea pigs after all.


Signal

It’s difficult to tell signal from noise sometimes.  Specialists in such things tell us that it’s easy to mistake noise for signal.  An exception to this seems to be music.  I don’t often write about music for a couple of reasons: one, it’s very personal, and two, I have little formal understanding of it.  Unlike my wife, who can sing well and who can play more instruments than I could ever dream of, I always struggled in music class.  The teachers I had seemed impatient when I couldn’t quite understand what pitch was, or when I had difficulty keeping a beat.  (Part of the problem is that I overthink such things.  I wondered about things like whether a beat represented the beginning, middle, or end of the sound.  Or how, since your voice sounds different in your head than it does on tape, could you tell if you were replicating the pitch of a note.)  I told you it was personal.

Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

None of this detracts from my enjoyment of music.  In fact, it means quite a lot to me.  Growing up I tended to consider it in the form of individual songs I liked.  Since we didn’t have much money I didn’t buy a lot of music, but the radio was free.  My choice of which albums to buy—starting in college, really—was based on whether I liked enough songs on them to justify the expenditure on an entire LP.  I already knew that the quality of 45s was inferior and that many albums were united by a theme.  Something I didn’t do was get to know a band by its “sound.”  That only started for me recently.

I still don’t have a lot of money.  I also object to paying money for MP3s that seem to disappear when you change devices and you have to buy them all over again.  Still, I’ve begun to discover some bands by their sound without being able to point to a specific song.  MCR (My Chemical Romance) was one.  The Pixies was another.  And recently Radiohead.  The voices of the lead singers speaks to me of youth and all its angst.  Although these bands all have quite different sounds, I find them mesmerizing if the mood is right.  I tend to discover bands once they’re beyond their peak popularity, but I’m personally pleased that I’m learning, in my own way, to separate signal from noise.  It reaps rich rewards.


Winter Waiting

The waiting, as Tom Petty knew, is the hardest part.  Along the slow turning of the wheel of the year it’s now light enough to go jogging before work.  That won’t last, however, because Daylight Saving Time is imminent and will set us back a month in the illumination department.  Also I haven’t been able to jog because the massive snowstorm we had a couple weeks back dumped over two feet of snow on the jogging trail and it hasn’t melted yet.  I miss it.  The jogging, I mean.  I’ve become one of those people who never the leave the house and I see how difficult it is just waiting.  Waiting for the snow to melt.  Waiting for the vaccine.  Waiting for the light.

I’m no psychologist, but I have to wonder if that isn’t one of the greatest stresses faced by the many stir-crazy people who’ve been shut-ins for pretty much a year now.  For us this snowstorm took away the little mobility we had.  Getting out daily for a constitutional put me in touch with nature, at least.  Now nature is under a thick, crusty white blanket, slumbering away.  But the birds have begun to return.  With their avian wisdom they’ve seen the end of winter.  Suddenly this past Wednesday they were here, bringing hope in their wings.  Birds have long been symbols of freedom—we’ve got a couple bald eagles in the neighborhood, reminding me of that.  A far more ancient association was that between the bird and the human soul.  The ability to soar.

We may still be mired in winter, but time is inexorable.  Relentless.  As the globe wobbles recklessly back toward the warmer seasons we need to take responsibility for our part in global warming.  Ironically these freak storms are the result of an overall warming trend.  The weakening of the jet stream that allows cold northern air to drop snow in Texas and storms to cover much of the rest of us all at the same time.  The pandemic has helped clear the air a bit.  At least we’ve rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, and we’ll try to begin undoing the damage to our planet that the last four years introduced.  It will take some time, of course.  By now we should be experts in biding our time.  The snow will melt.  The light will continue to grow.  I will get back out on that jogging path again.  But for now we wait.


Knowing Everything

Of all the jobs I’ve held, being an editor is the only one where strangers send random emails trying to convince me of God’s reality.  Granted, part of that may be because email is now so common as to be passé among the younger crowd.  When I myself was younger it was still just catching on.  Still, part of these strange emails is likely based on the evangelical compulsion to make others see things their way.  Someone who edits biblical studies books might seem like a good target.  I got another such email just last week, and as always, I wondered over it.  What kinds of assumptions must random strangers make about biblical studies specialists?  One of these assumptions, it’s clear, is that they suppose we are atheists.  They know this without even asking.

Technology has made such blindsiding communication easier.  It didn’t invent it, though.  It took a lot more effort to write up a letter, address it, buy a stamp, and mail it than it does to sit down at a keyboard, click, and they start proselytizing away.  In my earlier days, in other incarnations of a career, I received unexpected missives from time-to-time.  And certainly as a seminary professor you had students who had already figured everything out by the time they’d gotten to matriculation.  Many of them were coming to seminary to teach rather than to learn.  Such can be the arrogance of faith.  I fear that many of them graduated with their biases intact.  Education, perhaps, doesn’t work for everyone.

Photo credit: NASA

Having it all figured out is something many of us strive for.  We want things to make sense.  We want our spirituality to fit into this increasingly materialistic world.  Some of us go to seminary and/or graduate school to help us make sense of things.  We encounter minds further along the journey than our own, and, if we’re open, we learn from them.  For me, it’s difficult to understand how education isn’t always a humbling experience.  Oh, I get emails from academics who think they’ve figured it all out as well.  Such communications always make me sad.  The human enterprise, such as it is, has spanned millennia and true progress has only been made when people were humble enough to admit that they didn’t know everything.  They would eventually invent the internet and email.  Then those who already knew all the answers could send them to strangers to convince them of their own great learning.


Critical Snow

No two snowflakes, I’ve always been told, are the same.  Far be it from me to question the collective wisdom of our species, but I wonder how this fact is ever confirmed.  I suppose I’ve personally swallowed a good deal of the evidence over time.  Snowflakes melt and we can’t get them all under the microscope, can we?  This year has been a winter of more than usual snow around here.  During our most recent storm I stared out the window and tried to count.  Billions of snowflakes collected in my yard alone, and no microscope-bearing statistician was anywhere to be seen.  I like the idea of each flake being unique, but I know it’s a theory impossible to falsify, and I wonder if it’s accurate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about critical thinking.  At its base, critical thinking is about asking questions and learning reputable places to find answers.  Not “fake news” or “alternative facts”—these are tools in the Devil’s workbox—but evidence-based information.  Primary education, it seems, is about learning to read, and write, and handle numbers.  It is about learning who we are  and who we’ve been.  About the way that science helps us understand this old world.  Higher education, as it’s generally conceived, used to be about learning critical thinking.  That was before colleges became mere trade schools, catering mainly to careers with high earning potential so that alumni would give more money back to the college.  Where will we learn critical thinking?  No two are the same, right?

Instead, knowledge and hearsay become very similar things.  I used to tell my students not to take my word for it.  Just because I can legitimately put the word “doctor” in front of my name doesn’t mean I know everything.  Yes, I am an expert but even experts aren’t exempt from the test.  So, as more snow starts to fall, I think about all the many, many places I’ve heard that no two flakes are the same.  I think of the astronomical number of snowflakes that have fallen this year alone.  The number of years before we ever evolved on this planet.  In ice ages and even during human-initiated global warming.  And I realize nobody’s done the actual work of comparing every single snowflake to every other one.  Tradition is like that accumulating snow, building on past layers until great glaciers form.  And who, I wonder, would argue with a glacier?


Plants Will Lead

The world just keeps getting weirder.  Although I very much appreciate—“believe in,” if you will—science, sometimes the technology aspect of STEM leaves me scratching my primate cranium.  What’s got the fingers going this morning is spinach.  Not just any spinach.  According to a story on Euronews, “Scientists Have Taught Spinach to Send Emails.”  There are not a few Homo sapiens, it seems, who might learn something from our leafy greens.  The tech comes, not surprisingly, from MIT.   When spinach roots detect certain compounds left by landmines in the soil, it triggers sensors that send an email alert to a human being who’s probably eaten some of their (the spinach’s) very family members.  I’m not denying that this is very impressive, but it raises once again that troubling question of consciousness and our botanical cousins.

Some people live to eat.  I’m one of those who falls into the other category—those who eat to live.  In my life I’ve gone from being a picky omnivore to being a somewhat adventurous omnivore to vegetarian to vegan.  I’m not sure how much more restricted I can make my diet if I leave out plants.  I’ve watched those time-lapse videos of trees moving.  They move even more slowly than I do when my back’s acting up, but they really do move.  If they had legs and speeded up a bit we’d call it walking.  Studies into plant consciousness are finding new evidence that our brainless greens are remarkably intelligent.  Perhaps some could have made a better president than 45.  I wonder if spinach can tweet?

People can be endlessly inventive.  Our thirst for information is never quenched.  Universities are among those rare places where ideas can be pursued and it can be considered work.  While I don’t think everyone necessarily needs to go on to higher education, I can see the benefits it would have for a culture.  Indeed, would we have armed mobs trying to take over because of a fact-based election loss?  I wonder if the spinach would take place in “stopping the steal.”  Hopefully it would fact-check more than those who simply follow the leader.  Consciousness and education can work together for a powerful good.  I’m not sure why Popeye’s favorite was chosen for this experiment, but it does seem to show that we can all get along if we really want to.  Maybe then we could meet in the salad aisle rather than out in the field looking for explosives.


One Day or Another

Although normally a time for celebration, Mardi Gras, I’m told, was subdued this year.  Today is Ash Wednesday but many of us feel like we’ve been living a year of Lent already.  I once told a fellow office worker on Ash Wednesday, “I think about death every day, I don’t need a yearly reminder.”  Looking out at the old snow, melting, freezing, refreshed with occasional flurries, I’m reminded of the cycles of nature.  I’ve been watching the turn of the year’s wheel.  Over the solstice I looked into Yule, and just a few days ago considered Imbolc.  The wheel of the year is a symbol for modern earth-based religions seeking to be kept in sync with nature.  It is a cycle, slowly turning.  Death, in this way of thinking, is part of a larger system.  It seems appropriate to consider it this Ash Wednesday.

I say it’s Ash Wednesday but it would be more correct to say “for many Christians it’s Ash Wednesday.”  Cultural imperialism is difficult to shake.  With the pandemic still embracing us tight we haven’t had much reprieve from thoughts of death these many months.  Thinking of the wheel of the year, however, may bring hope.  A wheel in motion spins around to a new beginning that, in the nature of circles, is equally at every point.  New beginnings are offered every day.  While we’ve never been in a year of isolation before, there is nothing that hasn’t been before.  Self-aggrandizing dictators, world-wide pandemics, calls for social justice and fairness, have all come around before this.  They may come around again.  The main thing is to keep it moving.

It moves, in fact, without us.  One of our human foibles is being species-centric.  When we discuss, in a pique of teenage angst, of “destroying life on earth” we really mean destroying humankind and perhaps many other species as well.  Not all.  With a kind of collective insanity we go about warring against our own kind, exploiting all other species we deem valuable, and talk as if that’s all that matters.  Today, for some, it is Ash Wednesday.  For others it is World Human Spirit Day.  For many of us it’s just another workday among many very similar, cut from the fabric of a year that has no even spokes to keep it rolling.  Beneath our feet this orb spins on, regardless.  The cycles continue, with or without us.  How wonderful it would be if we could actively contribute to their progress.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

 


Call It Therapy

For many years, about all I ever pursued, research-wise, was ancient Near Eastern studies.  It’s still the reason people visit my Academia.edu page.   From the stats it’s clear that not many people are interested in the horror aspect of my work.  Still, I know what motivates me (most of the time).  I recently read a piece that features a brief interview with Peter Counter, discussing the therapeutic value of horror.  Since my interest in the genre has been rekindled (starting, not coincidentally, around 2005), I think I’ve known all along that horror is therapeutic.  The people I know who watch horror aren’t the kind many people picture—creepy troglodytes who don’t come out of their houses where the shades are always drawn.  No, they are normal folks, at least for academics.  They find the genre profound, for the most part.

The interview with Counter (in the Nova Scotia Advocate) makes clear that Counter uses horror therapeutically.  The first reason that he gives is that it’s honest.  I agree.  You see, I grew up with more than my fair share of phobias.  I could go into the reasons here, but I don’t know you well enough to trust you with them just yet.  In any case, I worried a lot about things that could go wrong, often involving everyday circumstances.  I didn’t think watching monster movies was a coping technique—I didn’t even know what a coping technique was.  I just knew that somehow those kinds of movies made me feel better.  I began reading gothic novels in my teens, even as I was becoming very religious.  I never saw a conflict between the two.

Now, as an adult, I feel that I have to explain this “unusual” interest to people who know me.  Now I can more clearly see the therapeutic value in such movies.  I can even see elements of it in movies that are classified otherwise.  I recently watched Groundhog Day (back around, well, Groundhog Day).  It had been many years since I’d viewed it, and the elements of horror in the film struck me.  Being trapped in the endless return, Phil Connors contemplates, and indeed commits suicide many different ways only to reawaken in the same scenario the next morning.  The look on Bill Murray’s face when he snaps the pencil before getting a couple hours sleep when he begins to realize what is happening says it all.  A similar realization same came clear on a recent rewatching of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Watch it with an open mind.  The interview with Counter makes the point that a pandemic like this is an opportunity.  Isolated, we can watch horror and we can learn to cope.


No Go Subjects

The problem with being eclectic is that you never catch up with everything.  Although I was once a professor of Hebrew Bible—not technically the field in which I’d studied—I read (both past and present tenses) widely.  Anyone who’s brave enough to follow this blog for any length of time must know that.  I tend to think the element that ties them all together is religion, or a curiosity about religion.  I have read material on science, art, psychology, history, geology, astronomy, literary theory, mythology, the paranormal, religious traditions, monster theory, to name just a few.  Because of my interests across standard disciplinary lines, I often wonder about “no go” subjects.  No go subjects are interests that will likely ruin your prospects of getting either a job or basic human respect.  Although the government is taking serious interest in the topic, one of those subjects is UFOs.

For historians of religion such as myself, the study of UFO religions is sometimes acceptable.  Indeed, there is a correlation between some evangelical sects and the UFO phenomenon.  I experienced that firsthand as a child when my mother drove us to a church meeting where a guest preacher was discussing UFOs and God.  I have only the vaguest recollections of that event in my then young mind, but it did leave me with the question of why respectable people aren’t allowed to look at certain subjects.  Why does taboo even exist in an academic setting?  I recently ran across David Halperin’s website.  I’d known of him because his recent book, Intimate Alien, had gotten a lot of press.  What I didn’t know was that he was formerly a professor of religious studies.

It seems to me that many of the interesting, outré topics fall into the baskets of religion scholars.  We touch the taboo objects that nobody else will.  Why?  Because there should be no “no go” categories.  Sex?  Religion scholars study it.  Politics?  We’ve got it covered.  Paranormal?  We go there too.  Perhaps it’s because religion scholars have so little to lose.  We’re not high on the prestige list.  I tend to think, however, it is because people who go into religious studies are innately curious.  (Not all, of course, but many.)  We’re drawn to that which doesn’t fit into the everyday, the ordinary.  Transcendence, seeking that outside of which we daily operate, haunts us.  Why do people scoff at what they don’t understand?  Doesn’t it make more sense to look at it and try to increase our comprehension?  To me it seems to be basic human nature, even if the interest is literally out of this world.


Animal Spirituality

I had little scientific basis for my claims.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have evidence, but it was more one of those “if you see something say something” kinds of scenarios.  I have been claiming for many years that animals experience some kind of spirituality.  My evidence was drawn from disparate scientific materials I’d read, along with ancient religions.  Egyptians believed baboons worshiped the sun.  Chimpanzees make threatening gestures toward the sky during thunderstorms.  Penguins grieve.  Human spirituality, it seems to me, is part of our kinship with other living creatures.  Then I found an article by none other than Marc Bekoff titled “We’re Not the Only Animals Who Feel Grief and Spirituality,” in no less a prestigious place than Psychology Today.  Bekoff, some of whose books I’ve reported on here, has studied animal emotions professionally.

Our ideas of human exceptionality, it seems to me, often get us into trouble.  Arrogance is perhaps the most dangerous of psychological states.  When we see ourselves as part of a continuum, and realize that it can go on beyond us—yes, there are likely greater intelligences—humility should be an expected response.  Those who are arrogant frequently experience their comeuppance, even if they have to get elected to high office for it to happen.  We share emotions with our fellow creatures, and, now according to at least one expert, we share spirituality.  What is spirituality?  It seems to be an awareness that the body isn’t everything.  In my lexicon it’s listed there right with consciousness, mind, and soul.  We know it because we feel it.

The interconnectedness of the world, and beyond, is something many want to take exception from.  Looking around, such folks say, “Hey, we’re different than all of this.”  Yes and no.  We’re different, but that makes us no less a part of it.  Nature is our matrix.  We build fancy houses, but so do bower birds, and they do it without benefit of opposable thumbs, or even hands.  Of late we seem reluctant to admit that even human beings have spirituality.  That doesn’t stop us from feeling it, however.  I’m glad that others see it in the animal realm also.  Anyone who’s “owned” a dog knows what it’s like to receive worship.  We’ve selectively bred these wolves to adore us.  Is it so much of a stretch, then, to suppose that other animals also feel a sense of admiration for what’s beyond themselves?  Only the most arrogant wouldn’t pause to consider it.


How Clean Is Your Brain?

First it was in.  Then it was out.  Now nobody seems to be sure.  “Brainwashing” isn’t really a scientific term, but human suggestibility is very well in evidence.  Advertisers count on it.  Did I really need that phone case when I never go out?  And so on.  The real question is can people be compelled to do what they normally wouldn’t want to.  Think Jonestown.  Heaven’s Gate.  Waco.  Do people really want to die en masse?  Are we but higher lemmings?  I’ve seen hypnotists do their shows.  The human mind is manipulable.  We can be shut off from reason.  A recent article from The Middletown Press my wife shared with me raises the question whether conspiracy theories, such as those sported by QAnon, are something like brainwashing.  Clearly they are.  As are many Fundamentalist forms of religion.

You can recognize this when a conversation becomes such that the true believer simply won’t listen to evidence.  They’ll say they want to discuss an issue when all they really want to do is have someone state their side so they can tell them they’re wrong.  Reason has nothing to do with it.  When that part of their gray matter that handles things rationally feels backed against a wall they resort to ad hominem attacks.  I’ve been observing this since I was a child raised in such a paranoid religious tradition.  It works for politics, too.  For many QAnon sorts, Trump’s word was God’s word.  Once uttered it could not be refuted, not with all the evidence in the world.  It’s very much like Fundamentalist views of the Bible which can’t take context, translation, and reason into account.  When contradictions are blatantly pointed out they respond with “there are no contradictions.”  Is there brainwashing?

Conspiracy theories can seem real because there are actually some conspiracies.  There are government secrets.  Only the naive deny that.  Still, once you start throwing in the ridiculous—that a devil-worshipping cabal of pedophiles is running a secret government—you’re in water over your head.  Not only that, this sounds incredibly like the satanic panic that spread through much of the world in the late 1980s into the 1990s.  When the evidence was examined, it was found lacking.  Some of the key bestselling accounts were admitted to have been forgeries.  The believing mind, however, has trouble letting go.  We used to call fringe groups cults.  We used to suggest that people could be held against their will.  People leaving QAnon are reporting similar experiences, according to the article.  Brainwashing by any other name would be so real.


Growing in Intent

Balance has become a desideratum.  Ours is an age of extremism.  Black and white instead of shades of gray.  One of the unnecessary polarizations is that between science and religion.  Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the labels we insist on using.  Science is shorthand for evidence-based research—it is a way of understanding the physical world.  It doesn’t necessarily discount a spiritual world but its methods can’t engage that world, if it exists.  Religion is a poorly defined word, often one of those “you know it when you see it” kinds of phenomena.  Often it is characterized by blind adherence, but that isn’t necessarily what religion is either.  To me, balance between the two is an authentic way to engage the world and other human beings.

Take plants, for instance.  And take consciousness.  While consciousness isn’t always associated with religion, it is one of those things that falls out of the ability of science to measure or quantify.  We don’t really know what it is, but we know we have it.  We know some animals have it, but rather arrogantly assert it is only the “higher” animals, as if we comprehend the hierarchy of nature in its entirety.  We dismiss the idea of plant consciousness.  For many years I’ve been pondering intent.  Without it no life would be possible from sperm germinating egg to heliotropes following the sun.  There’s some kind of intent there.  Will.  Recently The Guardian ran an article about scientifically measured intent in bean plants.  Although many have been left scratching their heads, or pods,  over it, to me it makes perfect sense.

I planted an apple seed a few months back.  It finally sprouted in late December.  I carefully watered it, and put it by a south window to get sunlight.  It grew quickly for a few days and then began to wilt.  I watched helplessly as it gave up the will to live.  I’m no botanist, but I suspected it was the coldness of being set on a windowsill.  (Ours isn’t the best insulated house.)  December had been mild, and it sprouted.  January took a sudden shift to chill, and I realized that new plants outdoors wouldn’t sprout in winter.  The seed had germinated, but the plant had no will to survive in temperatures chillier than its genes told it that might be safe.  I’m not a scientist, but I observed this scenario carefully.  Is it possible that french bean plants show intent?  I think it would be more difficult to explain if they did not.


Learning Lingo

Languages are more than ways of communicating.  They are ways of thinking.  I figured that out with German, the first foreign language I studied.  It became even more evident with Greek and undeniable with Hebrew.  Beyond that, Ugaritic and other Semitic languages confirmed my suspicion.  To unlock a language is to open up a new way of thinking about things.  (This is one reason Trump’s isolationism was so dangerous.)  Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, by Gaston Dorren, is an overview of twenty different ways of thinking.  The book picks a prominent feature of the twenty most-spoken languages in the world.  Apart from the list of what they are (in order of appearance: Vietnamese, Korean, Tamil, Turkish, Javanese, Persian, Punjabi, Japanese, Swahili, German, French, Malay, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish, Mandarin, and English) there are many other surprises.

Many of these languages—perhaps all—are reflections of history.  The histories often include intentional divisions between people.  “They are not like us” thinking.  Usually on the part of elites and rulers.  The common person is quick to pick up the language of neighbors but those, like Trump, who hate differences, tend to rise to the top.  Quite apart from that, the features of these various languages show us the many ways people have learned to convey their thoughts.  Some tongues are super, even hyper-polite.  Some are reserved for women.  Some represent an entire continent, but notice the sheer number of Asian languages on this list.  Dorren notes at one point that having a unifying Scripture, such as the Bible, often codifies a language.  Religion is part of the human way of thinking.

Nowhere is this more obvious in the case of those languages that are considered divine.  Arabic, as many people know, is considered the only appropriate language in which to read the Qur’an.  Since languages are ways of thinking, that makes perfect sense.  What really struck me the most, however, was the case of Tamil.  A language of south India (many of these languages are spoken in India), Tamil is considered not only a divine language, but some adherents make it into an actual deity.  In a polytheistic culture there’s no problem with adding another god.  The idea that a language can be an actual divinity, however, shows once again how important it is that we try to understand one another rather than asserting one people is superior to another.  The book is appropriately titled Babel, and to properly understand that it is probably necessary to learn Hebrew.


Impatience

It’s only human nature, I suppose.  We see our own circumstances and fail to appreciate how others have equally (or perhaps more) complexity to juggle.  I’m thinking ahead to work on Monday.  The week before the holiday break the most popular question posed to me in my work emails was, “Why haven’t I received my copies of X yet?”  It’s a fair question.  What it betrays, however, is a lack of comprehension of just how complicated a business publishing is.  I should be flattered that we make it look so easy!  To begin with, publishing, and printing, are nonessential businesses.  Most of them may be up and running at, at least partial capacity, but the flow of materials to printers didn’t stop just because a pandemic hit.  It simply did what backlogs always do—it piled up.

Publishers have very intricate and, for the most part, efficient operations.  If a blockage occurs at any point—even the end point—other things back up.  Have you ever seen a toilet overflow?  I have, and it’s not a pretty sight.  Add to that the fact that many academics, unable to travel or do their other privileged activities, decided to finish up their books and send them in early.  Everybody should be happy, right?  Have you ever overeaten?  The happiness lasts only until your brain catches up with what your body has done.  I can’t speak for all publishers, but this combination of more input of material than expected and the inability to *ahem* process it has stressed the system.  Schedules exist for a reason.

Covid-19 has affected everything.  And continues to do so.  As we live through this pandemic we find our coping mechanisms.  Once we reach a level of uneasy symbiosis with our situation we stop thinking about how others might be dealing with it.  I think of those who’ve been out of work for months now and who’ve been evicted from homes because of what the wealthy can call force majeure and hire lawyers to argue.  Indeed, the coronavirus outbreak is the very definition of force majeure and the response we all ought to have is compassion and kindness to one another.  It’s not easy to think of other people before meeting our own needs—it’s not human nature.  Species that learn cooperative, altruistic behavior, however, are those that thrive.  As we say goodbye to a year of willful government inaction—the Trump administration knew of the danger well before it hit, but doesn’t believe in science—let’s vow to do what our leaders won’t.  Show compassion.  Recovery will occur and let’s hope we come out of it better than we went in.  This seems a good mantra for the beginning of a new year.


Stay Curious

Needle felting.  I’d never heard of it.  I’d got along some five-plus decades without knowing a thing about it.  My daughter received a needle felting kit as a Christmas gift and, being the kind of person I am, I had to research the history of felt.  I always knew felt was different from other fabrics, but I couldn’t say precisely how.  I came to learn it is perhaps the oldest textile in the world, known by the Sumerians.  Felting is a process for making non-woven cloth.  The natural fibers of some wools are scaled, like human hair is, and when compressed and worked with moisture (wet felting), becomes cloth.  Finding out how things work is one of the great joys of life.  It also made me think again of how anyone could possibly be arrogant.

The longer I’m alive the more I’m learning what I don’t know.  Granted, felt has appeared in my life at numerous junctures—how many crafts do kids make of felt?  And I have a felt hat—but I had never thought much about it.  My wife likes to read about pioneer women who had to make pretty much everything by hand.  We call such people “rusticated” these days, but they know far more than most urbanites, simply by dint of having to do things for themselves.  Modern conveniences are great, but I often wonder how many of us might survive if we had to make it on our own.  Just the last couple of weeks we worried about losing power with the storms that blew through.  What do you do when the thermostat no longer works in winter?  Something as simple as that vexed me for days (I had to work rather than worry, so it couldn’t properly use my brain power).

I’ve known many people impressed with their own knowledge.  I can’t imagine how actually learning new things doesn’t make someone humble.  The universe is a vast and mostly uncharted space.  Down here on our somewhat small planet we have so much yet to learn.  I’ve studied the beginnings of agriculture, metallurgy, writing, and religion.  There’s still so much I don’t know.  I wouldn’t do well on Jeopardy—I second-guess myself too much.  Staying curious about the world is a good way, it seems, to keep humble.  I entered into this holiday season thinking I knew a fair bit about various crafting options.  As a family we cover the creative spectrum fairly well.  Then a small, soft thing such as felt made me realize just how little I really understand.  Any invitation to learn is one that should be accepted.