A Scourge Upon the Earth!

A giant bee suspended from the canopy framework drew me into a booth at the botanical center’s plant sale. Inside, I found an education display on pollinators. A young man stepped out of the shade. “Do you have a question for a naturalist?” he asked. He and two other people waited alertly for my reply.

My husband, later, told me I’d missed my cue. According to him, I should have asked, “If you are naturalists, why aren’t you all naked?” It’s probably for the best that I missed that cue.

But I did have a question. “Why is it legal for my neighbor to use poison on her property?” The young man kind of sputtered. Then he said he had an answer to that question but it would be better if he didn’t give it.* (Kind of like me dropping my cue.) The woman beside him told us about a friend of hers whose neighbor sprayed poison on the perimeter of his property and killed her friend’s plants.

The young man began explaining how my beautiful lawn, maintained with safe practices, could set the example for my neighbors. I explained that my lawn wasn’t beautiful to anyone but a rabbit because of all the weeds and clover. This response seemed to make him happy. (My yard undoubtedly makes my house-proud neighbor unhappy. Hers is the ideal smooth, even green. Obviously, we have different ideals, at least where lawns are concerned.)

Then I asked the naturalists about my still dormant passion flower vine and they reminded me it’s still early in the season and I shouldn’t give up hope. They gave me a detailed pamphlet on native and invasive plants and I continued among the other booths looking for heritage tomatoes.

My neighbor with the immaculate lawn employs a mosquito control service to fumigate “her” portion of the outdoors. Not infrequently during the warm season, Other neighbors are out with their own personal tank of poison slung over a shoulder, aiming a spray nozzle at driveway cracks or fence perimeters.

So far this year we see only two bats fluttering among the trees at dusk. Fifteen years ago we could count ten. I have read that birds who also catch their suppers on the fly have decreased populations. Fewer insects means fewer meals.

We humans claim to value intelligence but we only value our own. We ignore the conversation of the trees and the communications of the whales. Because we set ourselves outside and above the underlying intelligence, the web of all life, we have only recently begun to see other forms of intelligence. Those populations may well disappear before we ever get a true sense of their extent or qualities. We go about wrecking the environment as if we don’t live here, too.

The tragic part for us humans is that the environment we have constructed for ourselves isn’t even good for us. It’s an economic system which evolved to feed the bloated demands of profit and power. It tramples on the souls of the people who live under it. Toxic food, bad air, polluted water and stress. Money thrives. People and their communities, not necessarily.

There are environmental extremists who view humanity as an evolutionary experiment that failed. These environmentalists look forward to the days when a plague cleanses us humans from the face of the earth so Eden can rise again, a phoenix from the crematorium ashes. Oh! How the beetles and birds and baboons will frolic without the contamination of human kind! Things will be perfect again without us.

In that scenario, my neighbors would no longer spray herbicides around willy-nilly and I wouldn’t be heating my house with fuel oil or polluting the air with my car.

True, the human quest for total world domination is literally killing all of us (except maybe cockroaches), I’d prefer a solution that doesn’t depend on our extermination from it. Other inhabitants of this planet are known to modify their immediate environments to live here. They tunnel, they forage, they eat each other, etc. Other animals also extract and exploit. There are even other species that, left to themselves, run amuk.

“Any time you have non-native species of anything- plants, birds, or animals, there is an inherent risk of devastating damage to the natural environment that may well be non-recoverable.”

If we were half as intelligent as we think we are, we’d learn from our mistakes. Instead, we are inflexible and self-justifying. In other words, not as adaptable as a cockroach.

And, of course, that “we” is a concept that has glaring inaccuracies. “We” can all be wiped out by a pandemic because we are basically physically alike. But “we” don’t all think alike.  “We” don’t all share the same level of suffering from the toxicity “we” create or the same (relatively) short-term benefits “we” gain from exploitation of the natural world and each other.

One does not need to contrast indiginous peoples in the Amazon with the Board of Directors of the World Bank to illustrate this point. Right here in Virginia people are sitting in trees to block pipeline crews with chainsaws. The pipelines would transport fracked oil across the state to the seaport for export, wrecking havoc on the landscape every step of the way — from earthquakes at the drilling site to likely spills on the sea. All for the private profit of an already wealthy “we.”  The wealthy “we” write the laws that favor the interests of profit and the wealthy “we” insure that law enforcement protects their interests. The “we” who sit in the trees are not the same subset of “we” who want to build the pipeline.

The love of money may well be the root of all evil but comfort can devolve to decadence and complacency. Otherwise, at this point, “we”, intelligent beings all, should be sitting in trees, literally or figuratively.

Where is your tree?

 

(*Shouldn’t it be natural for a naturalist to have informed opinions about legislation that affects nature? And to freely share that information at a booth about pollinators? )

Three time’s a charm

I am not superstitious but my mother always said things come in threes. If Mama broke a glass or spilled the clothespins, she might say “That’s once!” or “That’s twice!” followed by a deep sigh and “What next?” And something always was next, if you were looking for it. My formative years I watched her looking for it.

In the last few weeks, we’ve escaped the Grim Reaper twice — slipped right through his boney fingers.

Lord preserve us from #3.

The first time we gave him the slip, we were out in our all-around-great “new” car. We were just coming into an intersection when a solid wall of metal and glass materialized in front of us. BAM! The next thing I remember was opening the car door to let out the white smoke. Exploded air bags, it turns out, stink like burning plastic.

You could say, as our daughter did, that government regulation saved our lives — the mandatory seat belts and air bags. And the two nice young men (17) in the other car were also unhurt, though the responding police officer could not convince the driver that a blinking yellow light did not grant him the right-of-way. (“I’ll let the judge explain it to you,” he had to tell him.)

After the initial shock, we were simply thrilled to be alive and whole and find each other also still alive and whole beside us. Every shining leaf on every tree and bush was a miracle. Life was glorious!

In a few days, though, we were sad about the loss of our good car. And, of course, dealing with tight-fisted insurance companies is enough to dampen anyone’s mood.

Two weeks after that accident (“That’s once!” SIGH), my husband came down with flu and sciatica, self-diagnosed as many of us will do in these situations. After five days of worsening symptoms, I dragged the man to a doc-in-the-box where we were quickly sent on to the ER. The “flu and sciatica” was bacteria in the blood from an infected abscess in his back. My big, strong, healthy husband was under the scythe — but the hospital pulled him back  before The Reaper could swing his blade. It was a near thing.

He’s recovering at home now. He has a PICC line for six weeks of intravenous antibiotics and also a wound vac for the incision at the base of his spine. Everywhere he goes, he is accompanied by one erratically gurgling medical device and another occasionally beeping device, each enclosed in its own personal black shoulder bag.* My husband is pretty much himself again, except he tires easily. He is a little stronger each day. And, once again, we are relieved to both be still alive and together.

Whew!

But: “That’s twice.” SIGH!

My mother also used to say that new shoes on the table were bad luck. We don’t have any new shoes to put on the table so we can’t stop putting them on the table to prevent bad luck. Garlic is supposed to deter vampires but I’ve never heard anyone claim it works on Old Man Death. Eventually, the Grim Reaper calls on us all.

There might be another way to look at this. Maybe I can finagle this 1-2-3- into infections of paperwork? The car accident generated it’s own paperwork: reports and claims and counter claims (we are still working to get fair compensation for our car). The life-threatening illness itself is spontaneously generating paperwork and there are sure to be mess-ups in the insurance filings creating even more paperwork. And — Behold! Number #3! — deadlines for income taxes are coming up fast! (We haven’t started yet.)

Death and Taxes! That old duo!

Taxes roll around each year and the Grim Reaper is always waiting in the wings. I’ll try to keep up with the paperwork and I hope I have time enough to take care of it all. As we were just so clearly reminded — twice! — we aren’t guaranteed another day.

But –please! —  if you don’t mind, we’ll happily pass on another glimpse of that fellow in the black robes. We don’t want to see him again for a good long time!

 

*(At first, these esoteric, computerized devices upset us. What if we pressed the wrong button? What if we tied a knot in the tubing? But now that we’ve become better acquainted with them, we can sleep through their usual noises though they aren’t the kind of  friends we can take to Quaker meeting. They gurgle and chirp 24/7.)

 

Step by Step

Yesterday, a friend called me to ask if I wanted to carpool to the demonstration downtown today. I said, no, my husband and I  plan to go to a different demonstration on Monday, in front of a different building downtown. This the third time since January that I’ve turned down a friend’s invitation to one demonstration because I had another demonstration lined up. These days, there is no way I can attend them all.

And how did you react to Donald Trump’s presidential election victory?

A handful of my relatives and close neighbors were jubilant — but not my Quaker meeting. We are deliberately non-partisan, but we are liberal. Inside our clear windows and plain grey walls there were tears, wails and the gnashing of teeth. (This is not totally an exaggeration.) Meeting might have reached unity on draping our front doors with black crepe swags if our clerk had proposed it.

We were gobsmacked! Corporately and individually we had been knocked off-center. We thought we were striding onward and upward toward (our vision of) a better world when suddenly the whole country took a detour! How did this happen? Why didn’t we see this coming?

In hindsight, it is obvious we were infected with complacency. Progress, it seems, is not inevitable. Those of us vulnerable in any way now know fresh fear.

But for most of us in our Quaker meeting, cocooned in relative comfort and security and our white skins, we didn’t grasp the depth of insecurity, fear, frustration, homophobia and racism running through a broad swath of our fellow citizens. We just weren’t looking for a resurgence of hate and discrimination. Who voted for Trump, anyway?

It’s not that we weren’t aware of the other people around us. But ours is a stratified society with neighborhoods and schools determined by income. Even our meeting membership is, to some extent, limited in class diversity. We who are comfortable are never forced to mingle with the hungry. We take up collections for food banks and we do charitable works. We know the statistics and support legislation to alleviate poverty.   Daily frustration and hopelessness isn’t ours.

But Trump’s strongest support came from people with annual incomes of about $70,000. For most of us, neither racism nor homophobia is a daily insult. But racism and homophobia and misogamy lurk all around us and are breaking the bonds of inhibition  loosened by leaders like Trump with no compassion or shame. Even worse, some ministers reinforce these messages.

Quakers revere their more famous members of the past who were on the right side of history. And we are justly proud of the American Friends Service Committee and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (to name just two Quaker groups out in the world doing good). One day future generations may even revere a few of us current Quakers who are made of the same stalwart stuff as those abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights workers.

But most Friends are like most other people. We aren’t heroes. We aren’t activists. We don’t like to rock any boats or cross any lines. We think we know the difference between right and wrong and we vote accordingly. Besides, when Obama was president, we believed, the country was in good hands. We didn’t have to worry.

Then we wake up one morning and Donald Trump is president. We are in shock!

After a great deal of moaning and commiseration, we begin to climb out of this deep pit of despair. For the first weeks and months following the election, we administered self-care: prayer, readings, journaling, music. As a meeting, we decide to hold a retreat on Responding to Challenging Times. We calm down. We see that the sun still rises. Now we are ready to face reality.

There is some recognition that the problem is not Donald Trump. The problems were there all along — even while Obama was president — and Donald Trump is just a manifestation.

Now, along with millions of other people, we are paying more attention. We are swept up in that wave of others rising to assert decency and tolerance. We have our senators on speed dial. We subscribe to email newsletters chock full of alerts on committee hearings,

Pete Seeger

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notices of demonstrations, talking points to share with our legislators. We write to the editor, pressure lawmakers with phone calls and letters. We are energized around common concerns. We hit the streets (peacefully, of course). We send post cards and make phone calls to other voters. We canvas. We hang signs and share Facebook messages. We not only vote — we get-out-the-vote.

VOTE
Collage postcard to encourage voting

IMG_20171026_001709.jpg Remember when we flooded town halls, demanding answers from our elected representatives? And when we were shut out of  the those town halls, new groups (run predominately by women) organized their own town halls with local experts to examine social issues and look at possible solutions. Grass roots efforts found candidates and supported them with time and money.

Here in Virginia, these efforts have paid off in the midterm elections. In spite of  gerrymandered districts that heavily favor Republicans, Democrats tossed out incumbents and took seats all over the state. They won in districts the party itself gave up on. And those new delegates are more beholden to the voters than they are to the Democratic party. (May we hold their feet to the fire.)

Ten months into Trump’s administration we are sticking it out. We persist.

But “Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty” is a tall order. How long can we keep this up? Will we slip back into our old patterns and trust Democrats to take care of our interests?

Blind trust didn’t work the last time. It brought us Donald Trump — and the continuation and expansion of endless war and income iniquities and the occasional child dead of a toothache through lack of health insurance and too many children hungry while their parents work hard at jobs that keep them poor. Even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, to what degree would that have changed? Would we have paid as close attention? Would we have witnessed and acted — or blindly trusted that Things Would Get Better?

We citizens have begun to feel the power we have. Will we use it? How will we use it? Or will we elect a few good people and go back to thinking elections are enough to fix everything?

Take heart. Take heart.

Persist.

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A short and helpful guide book for navigating our alarming political climate.

 

 

3 Ways to Get Over It!

We all have out buttons that beg to be pushed. Yours may be different than mine but they are probably equally unimportant in the wider scheme of things. Unless you are an evil dictator with the power of life and death over your cowering subjects, history will remain unaffected by your flare-up when somebody slams a door.

These last few weeks, due to chronic fatigue/fibromyalgia, I’ve been mostly out of commission. I look normal enough, I guess, if you overlook my horizontal posture. When I do stand up I usually lean against something. Sitting? my elbows are propped on the table and my hands hold up my head. Flat or upright, my brains are mush.

With so little energy to draw on, you’d assume I’d just let little things pass me by — that any buttons I have are obviously wired to dead batteries. Go ahead, you might think. Use ‘you and me’ instead of ‘you and I’ as the subject of a verb. Insert random apostrophes. This poor woman may have that coveted* degree in English but she’s in no shape to react!

And you would be right! I am powerless in my own life. Go ahead and push my buttons. I can’t get it together to lecture you on your transgressions so rub it in my face.

Yes, life goes on even when I can’t take part. To fill the hours, I read ten novels this week — eight historical romances, one YA fantasy, and one literary novel (the least enjoyable). — while wonderful things happened all around me. [Editor’s note: The writer does, in fact, go places and do things — just not as many of either as she would like. She’s waving around the proverbial half-empty glass here and spilling a good bit of it in the process.] Real life — engaged, active, vibrant — passes me by. In the meantime, the garden is weedy, the bank balance is a mystery, and the refrigerator is bare.

But if you think a debilitating illness is guaranteed to make you a more patient person, forget it. Struggling with such a condition can bring you to temporary state of acceptance. You might, briefly, step outside the pain and experience yourself as clear water flowing over and around rocks in a dappled stream bed. But this state will not last. At least, it never does for me.

Little things still get me.

After Quaker meeting [Ed: See? she does go places.] another Friend and I were bemoaning how others had come into the meeting room before the hour and, even though some were already settled, they whispered and laughed and walked around greeting others. Why don’t they know that meeting for worship begins as we center, not by watching the hands of the clock? Both of us confessed our disappointment to hear any Friend substitute the word “consensus” for  the word”unity,” the end result of our Quaker process. And too many who should know better refer to our meetings as “silent” instead of  “waiting worship.”

How spiritual is it to get irritated by misunderstandings of spiritual practice?  But without understanding, can there be full appreciation?

While I was taking a stranger on a tour of our meeting house, she asked me, “What do Quakers believe?”  I began with “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone, that we are all equal in the eyes of God. We believe in continuing revelation, that if God ever spoke he is still speaking.”

Afterwards, a Friend asked why I didn’t just recite SPICE — Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality? This never occurred to me. To me, the core of the Religious Society of Friends is how we arrive at what we believe. There is nothing simple about simplicity or peace or integrity or community or even equality. We have to know how to ask the right questions in the right spirit to put our beliefs into action. Quaker process is a gift to the world.

The irritation of a grain of sand can result in a pearl. Irritation, carefully examined, can guide us to the right questions. We can benefit when we allow ourselves to flow like water around the irritation, calmly taking it in. Quaker process is a way of setting aside ego and listening beyond words. It is not efficient. It’s painstaking and time consuming. To some of us of a certain temperament, it can be irritating. But that’s the price of unity.

Usually, though, there aren’t profound messages in the things that push our buttons. I get perturbed if I trip over my husbands size 13 boots or he doesn’t close a drawer all the way or forgets to turn out a light. He gets ticked if I run cold water in the sink when he’s washing dishes or I turn off a light he needs or I slam a door. We each try to avoid pushing each other’s buttons or over reacting when one of our own buttons gets pushed. That’s the price of getting along.

Some days, I watch myself getting ticked off about everything and snapping at everybody. This is a sign I’m falling into a bad place with the CFIDS/Fibromyalgia again. And then I have to spend most of the day apologizing. And that’s really irritating!

So the the heading of this piece is misleading. I don’t know 3 Ways To Get Over It — I don’t even know one. I get irritated by lots of things. I probably always will. Occasionally, my irritation is instructive. But most of the time, I just take it in stride and step over it.

How about you? How irritating is it that this piece contains no answers?

 

 

P.S. One suggestion: music. I’m listening to The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane.

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*Obvious example of irony

Atheism: the Faith of My Father

In meeting for worship, the question was asked: “What does it mean to have a personal relationship with the Lord?” A previous message had claimed this “personal relationship with the Lord” and offered a definition of God as “Love and Light, Good and Right, Wisdom, Knowledge and Compassion.”

I learned faith from my father, a birth-right Quaker and a devout atheist. Daddy was an equal-opportunity anti-God fanatic. With little provocation, he delivered passionate sermons aimed at converting believers to Reason and Logic. He was evangelical — a missionary among the washed hordes of Christians in semi-rural Ohio. Like all True Believers, my father suffered for his faith. In our little town, people like Daddy who openly, loudly — even brazenly — didn’t attend church were looked upon with suspicion, to say the least.

He tried to raise me as a Quaker without God and hundreds of miles from any Friends’ meeting house. Social justice, the equality of persons, the evils of war — he lectured me on these topics. Countless times, as the sole member of his congregation, I listened attentively as he thundered on in rolling tones about the curse of ignorance that breeds superstition, the hypocrisy of worshipping on cushioned pews beneath stained glass windows instead of feeding the hungry, the impossibility of the virgin birth and the resurrection, the contradictions of the bible, the pagan antecedents of Christian holidays, and so forth and so on, ad nauseum.

I soaked up his every word. I believed. God was an invention of men. Religion was anti-science. If something can’t be proved by scientific, objective measures, it doesn’t exist. Daddy’s worldview wove a thick cloak of superiority about him while others stood naked and exposed in their ignorance.

But now I’m a Quaker, and I consider myself Christian within that tradition.

I didn’t abandon the faith of my father overnight. Mine was a gradual turn about. Even while I was still enthralled by his pronouncements, I was reading heretic texts like The Sleeping Prophet and devouring “non-fiction” on mysteries like Big Foot and UFO’s.  (Decades later we moved to Virginia Beach and I came to know people who knew Edgar Cayce and offered more stories of his second sight.) My friends and I were fascinated with Ouija boards and ghosts.

Even in junior high, the idea of reincarnation appealed to me. The way Cayce explained it, reincarnation sounded fair, and we all want the world to be fair, right? Maybe my life this time is an easy one because I starved to death in the last one. Of course, reincarnation can be used to enforce a caste system and justify inequality. In that way, it’s no different than a religion to keep people under the thumb of the King or in the rifle-sight of a tribal chieftain because obedience and piety are rewarded in the after life so keep your mouth shut and do what you’re told.

Though I liked the idea of reincarnation, it wasn’t enough to undermine my faith in Fundamentalist Atheism. Even from where I stood — a place of relative privilege and comfort — it was obvious any God worth worshipping wouldn’t allow people to suffer like lots of them obviously were. If there was a God in charge of this world and all its hunger, sickness, and premature death, he wasn’t a god I wanted anything to do with anyway.

About mid-way through college, five months pregnant and not married (this was a big no-no back in 1970), I was sitting on my dorm bed at college idly considering a jump from the window and a plunge to the asphalt three stories below. (This sort of thinking I learned from my mother.) Then I heard that still small voice: You don’t have to do that. Things will be difficult for awhile but everything will be all right in the end.

I heard the voice. I never doubted the words. It was enough to keep me going. I didn’t bother to weigh the silent voice on any scientific scales. I just accepted it and moved on.

Three years later, I returned to campus with my daughter to finish my degree. And I met a really nice young man. And I heard that voice again: This is the man you are supposed to marry but you’ll never have any money.” This was an Oh Shit! moment for me, because, in my (still) atheist worldview, money was the only security. The more money the more security.

So I set aside my need for money and that kind of security and married that nice young man. We never were hungry or homeless but we had some lean years and some hard years. I never doubted that we were supposed to be together — I’d been told — and we came through those years a out on the other side.

But in spite of these and other mystical life-changing moments, abandoning the faith of my father was a gradual process. My husband had been raised in a strict Baptist Church and was in no hurry to ever join another one. Years went by and were we unchurched, but, soon after we moved to a town with a Quaker meeting, we began attending.

I suspect anyone who’s been gifted with trustworthy directions and guidance from a source that defies rational explanation longs for frequent communication from that source. In my life, that voice has been crucial and rare. The best substitute I’ve discovered is to fill my life with good people and learn from their examples. And in that little Quaker meeting we first joined, there were people well worth emulating.

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When I told my father I was attending a Friends meeting, his first question was “Race Street or Arch Street?” I assured him we’d joined a Hicksite congregation and he seemed, for an atheist, oddly satisfied. He took great pride in his Quaker forebears and cousins in spite of their irrational beliefs.

Once Daddy got over being pleased that I’d joined the Religious Society of Friends — that his daughter had come into the very fold he’d abandoned — he felt compelled to argue with me about the existence of God — God anywhere, in any form. Since you can’t prove God exists, Daddy argued, God does not exist.

[Oddly enough, I have a disease — CFIDS/ME — that cannot be confirmed with a laboratory test or x-ray. For years, doctors used that same argument against people like me: We can’t prove you’re sick so you are not sick. In spite of their sound reasoning, I am sick. Medical science is catching up with my experience.]

I came back at my father with arguments for the existence of music and love, neither of which have scientific explanations. (Or so I said at the time. I’m wouldn’t make such pronouncements today.)

My current and fluctuating understanding of God is whatever It Is that binds us, makes us human — like the force that holds bees to a hive, working together for the greater good. It’s hard for me to see any sense in altruism without God. If there’s no meaning beyond one’s own individual needs and pleasures, what’s wrong with doing whatever it takes to achieve whatever’s best for yourself? Ayn Rand, anyone?

Do I have a personal relationship with the Lord? Well, it’s an on-again, off-again kind of thing. I don’t always stay in touch. But here’s what faith means to me: an ability to accept uncertainly.

My father and other fundamentalist atheists I’ve met — the brand of atheist compelled to harangue us ignorant church-goers — have a great deal in common with religious fundamentalists: the drive to be RIGHT! The basic flaw in atheism is the claim of certainty. To me, agnosticism seems more consistent with reason.

The idea that something can only exist if human science confirms it’s existence is a strange one. It’s like claiming the Grand Canyon didn’t exist until Joseph Ives sent his Report upon the Colorado River of the West; Explored 1857 and 1858 to Washington, D.C.

This idea also overlooks the expansion of human knowledge, the way new discoveries overturn old understandings.

I can’t explain what I believe and I can’t justify it to a non-believer. That’s fine with me. I don’t care if I’m wrong and I can live with uncertainly.

Isn’t that part of what it is to be human?