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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

AFTER GOD IS DEAD, THEN WHAT?


When I was in seminary (78-82), Meadville/Lombard hosted a conference featuring the two major organizations developing humanism as a religious option.  American Humanist Association and I forget the other one.  These groups, each with a powerful leader and a little cluster of handmaidens, got into such a row that right after lunch the more powerful one packed up and left, enraged.  So much for calm reason.  I guess it left with the supernatural they were resisting.

Thanks to the generosity of Merrill Miller of the Humanist Press, I have a copy of an ebooklet called “Regaining Balance” by Michael Werner.  Reading the whole thing instead of the selection on Google Books was quite a different experience.  What had attracted me in the first place was a list of the cultural forces that have diminished and changed the Unitarian Universalist Association over the past decades.  I thought it was a valid list, though Werner’s explanations of them (feminism, black power, paganism, the Aquarian revolution and counterculture, gay liberation, and so on) didn’t exactly present them in their best light.  After all, this was a polemic and an impassioned (!) plea to return to the core of humanism: thought at its highest and best, a scientific approach to the world.

Michael Werner SMART Recovery

One of the things seminary taught me was always to consider the source.  Michael Werner is a founder and CEO of “SMART Recovery,” a non-profit source of support for groups helping people kick addictions from illegal drugs to sex to gambling.  www.smartrecovery.org  This is for people who don’t believe in God, who were happy for the God is Dead movement, but who still need support from a talking circle like Alcoholics Anonymous and their spin-offs.  It is a strange phenomenon of groups in general that they all claim to be the last best hope, rock-solid in conviction, the ultimate solution — and yet they splinter and spin-off in all directions.  This was true of the earliest Christians and much energy has been consumed by historians trying to understand why one little splinter managed to capture the flag — er, Cross.

Werner tips his hand when he describes worship as a kind of obeisance to a great big powerful figure.  Throw down the huge statue that dictators love so much, and you will have thrown down the God who plagues you with patronizing demands.  He shows his hand again when he accuses the UUA of bad marketing, whoring after numbers and therefore pulling in minorities to the Valhalla of the prosperous, well-educated, governing classes.  In a while I was out of patience, even though I basically agree that the UUA is dwindling and needs to sharpen up its image if it wants to grow.  Compassion, social action, pluralism, tolerance are all good qualities but there’s been a paradigm shift and the UUA missed it.


Consider Werner’s program for addictions that is centered on reason and will-power.  I don’t doubt that it helps.  Even he says that some people will need to feel relationship to “Higher Power.”  I agree that it can become magic and superstition, wishful thinking.  I agree that some people can overcome their addictions without any gods and that it helps to have a community that understands.

But the research of the last decades, absolutely scientific and accountable (except maybe to the higher powers and superstitions of funding), makes it clear that addiction has a strongly physical component.  It’s NOT being weak.  Neurology shows that genomic predilection triggered by environmental circumstances (trauma, disease, abuse, deprivation) can change the wiring of the brain enough to create an addict.  Certainly, once a person is addicted — whether it’s to substance or behavior — the whole chemistry of the brain and particularly the unconscious molecular loops in the blood that drive the body hard enough to cancel ordinary homeostasis is PHYSICAL.  There will be physical consequences to removing whatever it is as well as to changing behavior.

Beyond that, addiction happens to one person as a time, but within a social context.  If the people around the addict want to keep him or her that way, it can be a real cage, not least a monetary one.  Ask the Weight Watchers franchise, a very similar enterprise, what happens when someone begins to lose weight, particularly if it’s an overweight woman who begins to be thin enough to be appealing.  We are an addictive culture.  It’s called “advertising.”


So to Werner, a human is a mind with no subconscious or body and a social being without captors or users.  This is not about theology — killing God will make no difference.  Humanism is by name about anthropology, what you think a human being is.  This brings us to the next problem with humanism — which is the assumption that humans are a stand-alone species at the pinnacle of evolution and that evolution is “progressive,” that is, gets better and better.  The evidence turns out to prove otherwise.

We are deeply dependent and interwoven with the whole ecology of being on this planet and only beginning to realize that “better” humans have evolved in the past and then disappeared.  Certainly “better” societies have come and gone in spite of desperate efforts, though they probably look better in hindsight and might not have been all that great at the time or for everyone.  Two movements have opened our eyes:  Deep Time, the investigation of what happened before writing (which was a wall that limited history and gave humans an exaggerated importance), before humans or even life itself,and Deep Neurology that is visible so that we can actually see a brain thinking.  It turns out to be a pretty Rube Goldberg contraption that has bits of reptile, bird, and early mammal stuck together and interpreting the world around us with strange results. 


The last nail for this glass coffin where I’m putting Humanism is a serious accusation.  Where are the humanities in humanism?  The arts are not just a frivolous luxury.  It was metaphor, also known as art, that marked the transition into our current state of intelligence.  When we found Neanderthal jewelry and figurines, we knew at last what the genome has confirmed: they are us.  No more sneering about knuckle-draggers and being animals.   Intelligence is not just math and logic.  It is also dance, the goat-herd’s flute, and ceremonies.  THERE’s your worship — it’s art, expressive and consoling.

It has been said that the universal language is money, and it is the only way to put all the cultures into communication with each other.  Profit beyond survival or accomplishment is the cultural fat of accumulated money that can be taken to be power.  It is addictive, it is viral, and it goes to the lowest common denominator.  

Minority groups, women, queers, and otherwise excluded peoples came to the UU movement because it stood for wealth, power and achievement — not because it was so protective of the excluded.  They thought that if they dressed like a UU, talked like a UU, went to UU meetings, attended UU conferences, they would be as prosperous and respected as those then in the UUA.  The trouble is that the markers are gone.  The power players are no longer late-middle-aged white men in suits, sitting in pews or standing in pulpits. 


I’m not sure where the power-mongers went.  They are an exclusive and solitary bunch, very guarded.  Maybe selling drugs in Columbia, maybe running trade cartels from China, maybe enslaving children everywhere.  I feel confident they’re still male and that their values are the same as God’s, at least judging from the evidence.  They love the arts, or at least their wives do.  They eat your children for breakfast — no Passover this time.

Werner is a nice guy, affable and constructive.  Maybe a little affected by a rather nasty addiction called “Oppositional Defiance Disorder”.  If a person tries to organize a group to break that addiction, expect fist-fights to break out.  Hopefully, only metaphorical quarrels.  I know about this one — I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t use illegal drugs, etc. but I will NOT do what you tell me to do.  But I will try to be human in all directions: mind, body, community, landscape.



Monday, May 23, 2016

EVERY TIME I FEEL THE SPIRIT. . .A




Ever since I started really thinking about the split between a “feeling of the sacred” (which goes back to Eliade in 1978), and began to think about “religion” as institutions complete with bureaucracies, internal hierarchies, and a lot of other trouble-making aspects, like war-mongering, I’ve put my energy into the question of how to summon the feeling of present holiness.  

As we put it in seminary, “Can you call the Holy Spirit?”  Mostly, as the tradition says, it bloweth where it listeth in that big metaphor of wide open spaces like deserts, prairies and skies.  Now and then someone describes it as being like struck by lightning, but many have told about lesser versions of the same thing, more like turning on a light in a dark room.  Evidently the spirit appreciates a little space and time, but can also interrupt.

Out of fairness I should think more about religious institutions, which often claim they “own” Sacredness and have it in a bottle.  Plainly they don’t.  What do they have?  Advantage.  Privilege.

To what end?  Survival.  As a generalization, belonging faithfully to a religious institution that has a good plan for survival, a way of life that is likely to keep you happy, whole, and in the midst of friends, will keep you alive.

Unless the larger conditions change radically.  In that way, a religious institution is just a species, an arrangement that will serve a specific ecological niche.  Sometimes the times change so radically that the institutions are no longer an advantage.  We seem to be in one of those times.


Bob Scriver used to tell a story about the difference between farm chickens and prairie chickens, a kind of grouse.  If you came around a corner and there was a flock of, let’s say, buff orpingtons, in the road, they would stick together so that you would either miss them or run over them en masse.  This is because when you feed a flock of chickens, they all run together to get the food.  The ones that don’t will die of starvation.  But with prairie chickens, the idea is to scatter to find their food independently and to scatter to avoid predators.  If you’re driving a car, it will be hard to avoid crushing at least one of them, but the species will survive.

The strange thing about Christian institutions is that they insist that they are ALL Christian, each in their own way, scattered to suit their circumstances.  To avoid outright war, our unspoken agreement is to just call them denominations.  In fact, some will assert that Judaism, Native American beliefs, Hinduism, and whatever else you’ve got are actually kinds of Christian, denominations.  A distinction becomes so inclusive it is no longer distinct.


“Lefties,” liberals, democratically based institutions, free thinkers, non-conformists, and other labeled “species” of people are prairie chickens.  The biggest problem is that they scatter.  The Unitarians go in and out of Universalism, the Unitarians go in and out of just about every sub-category of life-styles there are, the Humanists go in and out of super-rational Unitarianism, but the Pagans, Feminists, Blacks, Gays all build adjunct institutions though few of them ever achieve critical mass big enough to get recognition as religious from the uber-institutional government.  Like “tax-free”.  

This is like the special treatment of NA tribes who struggle over the profits of gambling.  Strangely few American Indians get very invested in free-thinking organizations.  Maybe they prefer the spiritual side.  Maybe they just don’t have a tradition of individual thought and academic/written culture.  Most of the “left” religionists tend to be individuals and print-based, neither of which is very good for building a consensus group, much less a functioning institution.

The forces that hold a liberal group together are compassion, justice, a canon from the past, socio-economic norms, and aesthetics, though the last is much neglected recently.  Indeed, it appears to have been captured by the commodifiers.


The commodifiers are now so powerful that they subsume everything else, even owning people to one degree or another, the extremes becoming destroyers of survival.  I’m talking about trafficking, oppressive labor, famine, and war.  No longer do they bother much about dressing-up these practices with supernatural spirituality.  They just want what they want and the rest of us are yard chickens, walking dollar bills on the bookkeeping lists.

You’d think that the liberals/free thinkers/minority-justice people would find this so atrocious that they would band together against such predators.  But they don’t.  They turn away.  To survive.

Because the very thing that gave them freedom to read, travel, learn, qualify for good jobs, establish quiet safe homes, is now too precious to give up.  It’s easier to just not know.  I always think of the year we spent re-writing the Portland, OR, animal control laws.  Though the enforcement agency had to deal with cases of bestiality, there were no legal guidelines because the people who wrote the law didn’t conceive of such acts.  It was hard for the more tender members of the panel to face such things.  Today the inconceivable acts are as likely to be against children as animals.  (The tough among us have known this all along.)


But now we realize — thanks to science and thinking that escapes the suppressive mega-corporation commodifications — that humans are not privileged unless they fight for it.  And if the environment around them, their anchors in cultural and environmental ecology, are destroyed, then humans will be eliminated.  Our survival is no longer about family, about institutions, about nations (which are institutions), but about our ability to understand and accommodate the whole planet, because we’re connected to the whole shebang — to the depths of the sea, to the thinnest layer of atmosphere, to the far reaches of the solar system.  Even the butterflies count.

Though commodification has protected science to some degree, and though many groups have found more than enough critical mass to work for survival of the many through the few, it’s hard work.  (I think of Medicins Sans Frontieres)  Restoration of the spirit is key and real, or the inspired will exhaust themselves. 




Dominant cultural institutions will try to control containers of the Sacred but they can’t put the wind in a bag, nor can they prevent the Spiritual from turning demonic.  If they could, they would have by now.  The Demonic is gaining, strong among us.  But the spirituality of the Demonic is not necessarily a bad thing — it can crack the walls of prisons.  This takes us back to the individual versus the group — add the element of Evil and it’s easy to see that an Individual against a group is defined relatively, according to whether one privileges the group or single human.  Sometimes one and many are aligned.  Then we survive.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

THE SCRIVER SAGA

Meadville/Lombard Theological School

On my shelves are a set of two 3-ring binders labeled “The Scriver Seminary Saga.”  They are the collected one-page typed weekly reports to my home church (First Unitarian of Portland, OR) during my four year seminary education, including the summer of Clinicial Pastoral Education in Rockford, IL, and the year as an intern minister in Hartford, Connecticut.  (78-82)  Once I began to serve churches, their newsletters replaced the practice.

Firmly, I believe that anything closely examined over a period of time is worth preserving evidence from to look at again when one’s mind and being has evolved or cooled or caught on fire or whatever other change might happen.  I was very much impressed by a course with an historical bent that discussed a church record in Europe that was kept for centuries but had some mysterious gaps.  The point of the discussion was how powerful the gaps were once a person inquired into their cause:  like, for instance, the Black Death.

But there are no gaps in the Scriver Seminary Saga because in those days (and now) I considered one of my virtues to be consistency and tenacity, partly natural temperament and partly reinforced by marriage to Bob Scriver who also valued those characteristics since he was a musician and the way to Carnegie Hall is practise, practise, practise.  (He didn’t make it past the Montana Historical Society warehouse.)  But I haven’t gone back to see what I said or, as Kenner would put it, what it meant.  I have been discouraged by the collapsing of both seminary and denomination.  But maybe it’s time now.  There's been a gap.

A small part of the reason I left the ministry in 1988 turns out to be related to a big part of the UUA’s problems.  The Unitarian Universalist Association that so attracted me changed into something else and it was — in my eyes — ugly.  I didn’t realize until recently that others shared my opinion, at least in part.  This morning I stumbled upon “Regaining Balance” by Michael Werner, a monograph published by the American Humanist Association which is a kind of sibling to the UUA that is sometimes pulled in and sometimes pushed out.  It’s a history of the roller coaster ride both movements have been on for the last decades as the cultures surged around them. 


I can’t order the booklet at the moment because someone fraudulently used my VISA to order car parts (!) which was evidently detected immediately -- maybe because I only order books and cat food.  A “fraud specialist” called me to explain and to tell me to cut up my invalidated VISA.  A new one is on the way.  I gather that there are plenty of these cases, thus justifying a specialist, and I also gather that most of the fraudsters are amateurs, easily caught.  (Is this a clue to religion?)  

So to get the booklet, I went to the AHA to request a review copy.  All copies are Kindle via the Internet, so if they refuse, the delay will only be the time it takes to mail me a new VISA, not mailing the booklet, but the mail is entirely unpredictable these days.  I don’t know whether AHA will send a review copies since I'm only a blog.

"Starhawk" he's not.

So I read the part of the publication that’s on Google Books and was startled that it was so clear and that I am so much in agreement.  BUT it’s old-fashioned.  (Consider the source.) Or at least "old-school" which sounds a little better.  These days, everybody who is more than ten years behind on the avalanche of technical scientific discoveries is old-fashioned. Even "The Edge" is old-fashioned.  So are Aeon, TED, maybe not Nautil.us.  They are ALL culture bound.  To the dominant culture.  Even Ozy.  Al Jezeera went under.  Indigenous equals invisible.

Anyway, why is it is that the American Humanist Association never takes on the current assault on the humanities?

The shifts (indeed, explosions!) in paradigms they (logically) demand, the radical revision of our cherished 19th century humanist and religious ideas, our tanglefooted integration of contradictions, and the necessary economic/governmental implications, require some working premises to anchor or center ourselves for the sake of sanity.

Many, as always, are finding that anchor to be a life in community, maybe simply growing where they are.  Ecology, IMHO, is the root of harmony.  Happily, the Internet means possible virtual community online.  My additional strategy is a rather ascetic private life (AKA poverty) in order to wring out enough time to think and to find sources beyond sensational media skewings and commodifications.  

Werner’s book is part of a series.  I would like to add to it the implications of the new science that I read about and that are so deeply suggestive.  The findings continue to unroll, so it’s not worth a bound book, but there's enough evidence to write something.

Here’s a partial list of what I mean:

1.  New understanding of how the human body works, what “thought” means in bodily terms, the evolution of the brain, the actions of neurons, the 200 specialized sense cells that are in our brain besides the familiar organs, how memory works (it’s complex), gut thinking, limbic thinking, and the capacity to share thought and feeling simply by looking at each other.  Why consciousness is not the key to survival.

2.  Instead of the bricolage interpretations of pluralistic “equal” religious tolerance, an environmentally informed deep understanding of metaphor drawn from living experience, and the dangers of institutional rigidity and “ownership” if it becomes dogma.

3.  The idea that a print-based culture, “People of the Book”, is better than all others;  how that suppresses the more basic speaking-only small-group cultures; and what iPhones means to them.  What many identify as a fall from grace because of agriculture with its walls and hoarding, it’s priests and lawyers and kings, might really be about the hegemony of writing: record keeping, laws, hierarchies.

4.  The slow realization that there is no such thing as “rationality” and logic, as opposed to deep feeling of the Sacred, because both emerge from the formation of basic theories of life when we are infants, structures of conviction that are nearly impossible to escape.  Both rationality and emotional responsiveness are part of it, always in conversation with each other.

5.  Humans, including the 200 estimated hominin species preceding us, cannot be defined as the end point of evolution or even the apex.  The march of life up the beach to the triumph of progressive humans is a broken metaphor.  Rather there is a surge, a sheet, a symphony of unfolding life that emerges from itself in surprising ways.  Salvation is not going to heaven, it's participating in the furor and ferment that we both receive and pass on.

6.  We need far better ways to balance resources with their uses.  Food, rare metals, energy, water, soil fertility, each other.

7.  People, some on the other side of the planet and some just down the street, are suffering terribly and being actively destroyed.  We cannot address this by making ourselves oblivious.  Instead we need to approach, to question, to sift through the shit, get dirty.

8.  Religious denominations are controlled by demographics and economics, much of it unconscious and propelling evil forces. They can stifle all progress and replace genuine responses and observations with whatever makes them feel good:  inclusion, therapy, economic safety, elitism.  They are not about beliefs.  They should not be controlled by political factions in the larger world.  The killer of both AHA and UUA is arrogance, privilege, entitlement.

My tenacity is still paying off.  Consistency is a lot tougher.  People who have not been keeping up with this new research don’t even understand what I’m talking about.  My seminary has literally been gutted, the library and faculty moved downtown.  But the building, now housing the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, IS addressing this new body of inquiry by supporting a series of scholars and lectures.  That’s nice and a good use of the building.

But “nice” is a very suspicious category.  If you think your church is “nice,” you are stuck in the past.  What IS a church anyway, but an institution?

Neubauer Collegium of Society and Culture



Saturday, May 21, 2016

GET OUTTA HERE WITH THAT PARADIGM


Many people know to say “paradigm shift” and some of them know what it actually means as proposed by Thomas Kuhn.  In 1947 when new ideas were fermenting but not developed, he was asked to teach a class on science to humanities students.  In preparation he read — for the first time — in the then undefined field of “history of science.”  He read pieces back as far as Aristotle.  Plainly at different times, depending on what people knew already, they thought about science in quite different ways.  He saw that when new dissenting information was introduced, at first the difference was tolerated — just sort of pushed to the side — but as more evidence accumulated, the person and the culture began to see the big picture differently.  Usually it was so gradual that no one noticed.

So Galileo and others, now that they had lenses for telescopes and microscopes, could see things they had never seen before.  The poetic metaphor about the spheres around the earth on which the stars were attached, revolving to music like a carousel, now was obviously wrong.  So the paradigm shifted.  There are so many paradigm shifts today that we can hardly keep up.  Many are happening in medicine and many more are being demanded in government and economics because of malfunction.  Maybe it makes sense to say that realizing we need paradigm shifts IS a paradigm shift.  And that many people hate science because it welcomes paradigm shifts.


It appears that what you see depends on how you look at it.  And there is NO big final reality outside of human thought.  That’s HUGE.  Humans construct the world, each by each and culture by culture, according to the evidence they have.  If a shared version lasts long enough, it becomes institutionalized and institutions will then be invested in making it hold still — no more shifts.

WWII is still so painful that I found I couldn’t watch “Band of Brothers” and simply returned the discs after the first one, though it was my earliest childish world paradigm (b.1939).  I had wanted to look at it with adult eyes.  About the time I was in seminary, some individuals made it their business to DE-construct the world that had already been nearly destroyed across Europe.  The names are notorious:  Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and my fav Deleuzeguattari, which is really two men.  Deleuze and Guattari were as interested in creating a new paradigm based on the pattern of rhizomes as they were in the take-downs many of this kind of philosopher apply to any institutional assumptions, including capitalism, colonialism, and other dominations.

In the opinion of some, this business of pulling out all the sticks in the structure has been a disaster, far more than the social hippy anarchy based on pleasure.  For others, it clears a way to the future, though the future they describe sounds familiar.

Since this is a post for Sunday, I’ll take on religion.  (That’s an assumption right there: seventh-day religion.  Friday, Saturday or Sunday?)  It has been announced that God is dead, there is no God.  This is obvious.  No mega-humanoid lives in the sky and throws thunderbolts on our heads.  But people refuse to give up the assumption.  The tribal need (probably biological) to have a Big Guy we can pin our hopes on is so deep that we simply redefine God and go right on as usual.  People who hang onto old-time religion this way are fewer and fewer.

We can talk about theodicy (the puzzle of how a “good” and all-powerful God can allow babies to suffer and die and other evil atrocities) or we can talk cosmology all we want.  Within ten minutes Western people will be speaking again as though there is a God.  They’ll say,  “God is love,” or “I really mean Fate.”  They will NOT accept the idea that things happen because one-thing-leads-to-another and we can control our response, but that's about all. We can control what we do as individuals and collectively.  Sometimes.  Sometimes not.  Most of the time we don’t really know what’s happening anyway.



Half a paradigm shift — not liking the present but not being able to construct a future — is about where we are as a culture now.  There are think tanks and individuals trying to imagine where to go — in terms of religion we seem to be moving towards something like mystical science — especially those who don’t reject felt meanings, gut level.  The rule-based commandment morality dimension is more of a problem.

It’s been fascinating to watch these patterns play out in terms of sex, which old-time religionists seemed to feel was by far the most crucial and defined part of religion, though times have changed sex more than anything else except the economy and violence which people are too scared to think about.  It’s as though sex were a proxy for money and violence.  They were always entwined.

The sexual “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” have changed — not just whether who can “know” whom, but also “whom” one is.  Did God make a few clay rough drafts and lay them aside, so that now they come to life?  If you met a Denisovian, should you hook up?  People in Europe evidently hooked up with Neanderthals.  But the Denisovians went to Australia as the original people of that continent.  Do white Aussie fellows have some Denisovian genes by now?  I’m pretty sure Genghis Khan didn’t get there.


So much law is dependent on genetic inheritance, but who has inheritance rights for a baby with implanted mitochondria, the genetic “three parent” child?  Far more painfully, what about the child who has no functioning or accepting parents when people are so hooked on the idea of genetics being the main connection?  These are not just surface ideas, like whether automobiles are wicked, but rather go to the core of being human.  

Morality was once enforced by the community, who shunned the wicked or possibly stoned them or chopped off their heads.  Here we are millennia later watching that on the internet.  What do we do about whole cultures who refuse to shift their paradigm?  Will they inherit the world?

A lot of paradigms are a big mess.  Instead of voluntary communities, organically developing over years, we’re being pressed Onto lists of dependency for insurance or banking, if not pressed into prison cells for disregarding financial obligation.  College graduates aren’t made prosperous for life — rather they are so encumbered with debt that they move off the continent to escape.  

The good side of this is that it’s so awful, so intolerable, and so obviously can’t be cured by going back to the past, that we MUST find new ways.  They may be very harsh, like the ascetic cut-backs in Europe now.  Some are suffering, some are dying, and some are blaming the victims.  They say that the girls that Boko Haram kidnapped to use as slaves and “wives” are being returned one-by-one, but are so stigmatized that their lives are worse than captivity.  It’s beyond any animal behavior — more like insects.


Those who have the answer to the future are those who will be able to survive long enough to see it and be it, or who will be able to protect children who can survive.  No need to be genetically connected.  Probably the forces that will draw them together will be caring for each other and forming groups with effective skills, like cooperation for enough emotional support to confront reality, no matter how unpleasant it may be.  Like global warming, for instance.  Or the state of the Ganges, destroyed by religious paradigms.

People will weep.  People will die.  This paradigm is likely to be tragic.  But not necessarily.  Today I read about a group of murderers released in a pardon program.  Outside they formed a community to help each other.  None has gone back to prison.  None has killed again.  If this story turns out to be invented or the group begins to fail, I don't care.  It's a useful story.  A paradigm.

Friday, May 20, 2016

WRITING HELPERS

The caption began, "Higher than an eagle flies. . ."

My earliest and hardest writing challenge was writing captions for Bob Scriver’s miniature dioramas in the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.  They had to be short, full of information, simple enough language for kids to understand, intense enough for people to remember.  More than that, Bob offered the challenge to all sorts of people, including his former lover, and some of them did better at it than I did.  It was emotional.  But it sank the hook.  By the time he died, he said,  “You sure can write.” But the dioramas rot in a warehouse, so what was it for?  For the doing of it.

I wrote Bob's biography, “Bronze Inside and Out,” and it was published but not because it was well-written or because he was so famous.  It was simply seen as enhancing the people who controlled him — the galleries, the curators, the promoters, the historical societies, and the customers.  They complained that I put too much in there about me and too much that didn’t make him look good so what they owned would be more valuable.  “Go ahead,” said one of them.  “Be a bitter old divorcĂ©e.”  They knew that their fixation on success was shared by Bob and was the kernel of the divorce. It is a key to our dysfunctional culture.


By that time I was in the ministry and preaching weekly in four major Montana towns.  What I wrote was delivered four times each—once for each small group. I could see what was reaching the listeners.  Instant feedback.  Four different reactions.  The secret was to hit them where they lived.  They didn’t give a fig about all the stuff we learned in seminary.  They wanted to feel better.  Sometimes I could see how to deliver that.  Other times it began to be a ceiling, a cage, too much like building popularity instead of poking people where they needed to be poked. In these years I was typing on a Selectric, a red one I bought from an African-American lady minister in Hyde Park.  I still miss it.

During the four years of seminary (78-82) it was too early for the Internet, though for a living I was transcribing spoken dictation to a mainframe system of work stations handled by a big computer in the basement of the U of C Law School.  Teaching in Heart Butte got me onto the Macintosh, because a friend of the superintendent needed to off-load some obsolete models.  None of the teachers knew how to use them.  There were no programs; no one knew what they were.  I bought “Writenow” and used it until the company was sold.  There were bulletin boards, and soon I was on Blogger.

I'm disconcerted to see that one can simply download this book online.
Nor have I received my royalty check.

Because I was writing short, atypical nonfiction and posting often, I’ve ended up with a lot of small pieces, a fact that hurt “Bronze Inside and Out,” but also saved it, because I could group by theme and image instead of the same old biographical chronologies.  It is as much about bronze-casting and the steps of making sculpture as it is about the man named Scriver.  But I almost lost control of all the various pieces.  It held together because of intense emotional connection.  

Now I’m (still) working on a book I call “The Bone Chalice” which is a developed version of my Meadville/Lombard thesis.  The problem is that it is based on historical examples and introspective (philosophical) understanding.  It's an argument for escaping institutionally dictated liturgy, but the fact that I argued for “felt” (emotional, visceral) elements was joined by neurological research that confirmed and expanded my ideas far beyond the original manuscript.  The original is still useful, but old-fashioned.

So — as often happens with me — the thesis has been joined by a second manuscript I’m calling “Patterned Tumult”.  Neurology, brain evolution, human thought at the dawn of art and science, the material metaphor culture of sensory thought, and so on are subjects piling up daily.  But I’m aging.  I had already hit the limits of my technological understanding when T. and I stopped writing together.  In fact, it was hurting our collaboration.  I couldn't keep up.

A platform like Medium is only basic exposure to possible markets.  Not very different from Blogger.  In fact, Blogger has more and stabler elements than Medium if they can keep from being raided for time and skill to feed the newer Medium.  (The same people are involved.)  I see that Gmail, which claimed it would be there forever, trustworthy and unbreakable, is no such thing.  One contractual agreement behind closed doors and all agreements are broken.  Facebook wiped out years of work done by Cinematheque.  No recourse.  I need to keep hold of paper.  Innovation in instruments may even render my desktop Macintosh obsolete and unusable.  Already I don't fit handheld culture, a specific genre.

So I went looking yesterday and found Scrivener.  It’s almost a joke since my name is Scriver.  It’s a print management system and will be hard to learn because it’s complex, but it gives a lot of control and all of it is suited to writers, not journal-keepers or texters.  It is also shouldering Lulu aside as a way to format “books” of all kinds.  I’ll have to find somebody else if I want to sell, promote, distribute.

It turns out to be an advantage to write in short segments — 1,000 words is my daily goal— in view of so many people reading on handheld instruments as they travel by bus, train or plane.  I think some of Scrivener will also work for sound, so I listened to my few past sound pieces for T.’s video.  The main thing I need is a desk chair that doesn’t squeak.  But age is affecting my voice.  I choke and strain.  Maybe I need an otolaryngologist.  I like what Sid Gustafson is doing with short stories he reads.  (His website is his name.) Scrivener will let me embed both sound and vids — just as Cinematheque had envisioned years ago.

But I want to produce some long, printed, high-culture books.  Scrivener may be the bridge I need for that.  It’s a tool.  The writer will be enabled, not made a better writer except in terms of better control.  It could and probably does produce a lot of the sterile, repetitious boilerplate fiction that’s always around and that some writing coaches pitch. 


A person needs something to say, like Sid’s passion for horses or the major catastrophe of Swift Dam breaking or his fraught intimate relationships or the deep emotion of being close to Native Americans.  But those forces of thought and emotion are enough to manage without having to fuss with numbering pages properly or keeping fonts consistent for chapter headings.  It’s a bicycle, but you’ve got to pedal it and choose the direction yourself.

Besides being able to instantly reformat for various book forms, the program offers different streams of production including scripts, music and poetry, research, recipes.  I’ll leave them alone for now.  Old diabetic ladies must avoid those seductive recipes for food porn.  Aging and disease simplify life by eliminating choices.  Sometimes it makes for better writing, better use of time, clearer perception of what the question is.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

HOW CAN WE HELP THE HELPERS?


Like Steve Jobs, I have some little key stories, homilies that I use all the time.  One is about my little brother on a camping trip at Lost Lake, which is on the side of Mt.Hood.  We stayed in our folding camp trailer near the shore in a mostly undeveloped campground.  My brothers discovered the salamanders that lived along the edge of the water and enjoyed playing with them.  When it came time to go home, Paul had attached strongly to his mud-puppy with its little hands and wide mouth and he didn’t want to give it up.  

My mother explained that Portland is no place for salamanders, but Paul insisted,  “He’ll be all right.  I’ll keep him safe in my pocket!”  Of course, that would kill a salamander.  In fact, removing any living creature from its environment might kill it, because living beings are interwoven with their surroundings, adapted to them.  Some of those surroundings are created by humans but that only means they are adapted to one kind of person.  In the early days of Euro exploration, when sailors insisted on dragging home treasures and treated other human beings like keepsakes, many Native peoples died in the perfectly comfortable London surroundings of the sailors.  It wasn’t just psychological — it was physical: failure to adjust to food, climate, germs, uncertainty.


Sebastian Junger, the war correspondent, has a TED talk in which he points out that PTSD may not always be the result of combat — in fact, a small percentage of soldiers see actual killing up close and personal —but rather the consequence of going from a regimented, organized, tightly bonded band-of-brothers where decisions are made for you, to a society that has become confused, torn, alienated, uncertain, judging and hostile.  It’s not even particularly admiring of soldiers.

People who “rescue” young women from Asian brothels are disconcerted when the girls want to return to where they knew what was expected of them, were protected in some ways, and had many friendships.  Going to another country or starting a small shop was beyond many of them.

“Helping” people depends on the assumptions of the attempt.  Many do-gooders do it because they assume they will be admired and the receivers will be grateful.  When that doesn’t happen, bitterness can be the result. If the “helping” has lasted long enough for the helpees to get used to it and depend on it, removing that help can be devastating.  This is the problem of Indian reservations:  what was intended to be a protecting reserve becomes a unique environment sustained by outsiders, a trap.  It’s heresy to say so, but maybe reservations — which were not used by conquerers outside the British mindset — are only a delayed cruelty that cripples the People so that they can’t function in the larger society.

Such situations are always triage:  some will be able to cope and others will not.  Those who survive will be most like the conquerers — either were in the first place or become that way.  The problem is often those who are neither here nor there or waffle back and forth, like frequent offenders of criminal law who go in and out of jail or prison, carrying subtle dangers in and out with them.  Behaviors, networks, diseases, addictions — all things that were meant to be confined by prison walls.


Less dramatic and more sentimental are the people who come in and out of reservations, partly because of romantic notions about accessing a secret Shangri-la where they will be appreciated at last; partly about the stubborn conviction that spending the summer painting buildings and getting to know old tribal people will do the tribe good; partly as scholars looking for material that can be published to enhance their tenure; and partly by rabble-rousers, usually counter-culture youngsters who bring in radical political notions along with drugs.  These are innocent compared to the people who take criminal advantage of any place where laws are complex and overlapping, populations are in disagreement, the larger culture demonizes individuals, corruption dominates all levels of government and some people suffer so intensely that raw survival is their only concern and the help they wish for is death.

So being a helper can be approached from the values of the helper, from the values of the receiver of help, from those who find the situation an opportunity for abuse, or from the larger context of a nation, a planetary given imposed by the environments of locations.  It’s three-dimensional chess that is dynamic, because every intervention creates a whole new set of givens.  The environmental givens overwhelm everything else: floods and forest fires, earthquakes and volcanoes, drought and famine all challenge the survival of humans, who are — after all — as vulnerable as soft little wet salamanders.

Those who work with minority populations who are suffering — let’s say street people, let’s say delinquent boys — okay, “at risk” or whatever euphemism you want, most of them imposed by helpers from outside — will find that the suffering might not be hunger, numbness, fear of death, loss of family, or whatever other horrors are in Pandora’s box.  It’s not enough to supply food, shelter, literacy, or even skills that can be monetized.  Down there in the bottom of the box — according to the story — was “hope.”  You cannot “give” people hope. 

Hope is an emergent capacity of human beings.  Emergent means that it comes from the right conditions for it to spontaneously kindle.  Those conditions will not always be there even after all the animal needs are met, including a belonging group with a name for itself.  Some have been damaged so deeply — looking at it from the helper’s view — that they cannot be “saved.”  Unless they go back to the life that they adapted themselves to.  The people in that context will consider their return to be salvation.

So this becomes damage to the helper, who feels it as loss, failure.  Where is the helper’s hope?  It can’t come from praise of those who assumed everyone is pleased to be just like them, prosperous and happy, and who enjoy the reflected participation of praising people they define as saviors.  These latter folks will only be damaged by the knowledge that their safety can be removed so easily by an economic Depression, a health challenge, loss of a loved one.  This is the point where some kind of belief system, a conviction of what the world means, will be very “helpful.”  If you believe Jesus loves you, even when a scroungy, mean, hopeless little humanoid spits on you, that “helps.”  If you can’t believe in Jesus, then what?


Hope, the capacity to be helped even by people who ask us to create a new identity, to be “reborn”, can be either a individual emergence or a group emergence, possibly labeled religious or political or even cultural through the arts.  I’m transcribing and consolidating old conversations and note how often the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies comes up.  Did it do damage by breaking all the rules, just for the pleasure of seeing how brittle they were?  Did it start to liberate us, but then scare us into being obedient suits?  Did we aim for Jesus and get Trump instead?  How do we help ourselves without getting stuffed into someone's pocket?