This was a strange week. Two former students from Browning in the very beginning of the Sixties and Seventies, died, both white. One was a boy who never behaved and had a malicious streak. I called his father to ask for a conference. His father sighed and said, “Oh, I’ll beat him again, but it won’t do any good.”
The other one was a polar opposite, a glamorous hard-working young woman who starred in a play with the man she would marry, both of them respected, invested in education and ranching. Cancer took her early. These contrasting former students are the boundaries of a world I shared for a decade and then left behind because of — sorry, but this is going to sound pretentious — intellectual hunger. I wanted university in an inchoate way, but not the way college is thought of around here: beer blasts, best friends, good connections, certification, escaping parents.
I wanted the full ivory tower. With bells. And I got it, though it wasn’t what I expected. But it was serious, it mattered, and it was actually about how to think. Not much to do with IQ or being smart. Rather how to join into a conversation that has lasted for thousands of years, one that some people think of as religious and others think of scientific.
This same week an old friend and her husband stopped by on their way to a family reunion. Kathy was the sister of a gifted chef in East Glacier in the earliest Seventies. We had grown up not knowing each other but in the same time and place: Portland in the Fifties where nothing ever happened. I was newly divorced and sorting out my head while living in Ramona Wellman’s big abandoned house. We sat for hours talking in the built in breakfast nook that has now been torn off the building.
Now we’re all grown up now, getting old, and Kathy and Craig have accomplished children with happy grandchildren and good jobs and everything has been pretty much resolved. People walk into my house and are impressed by my books, a working library that covers most of the walls. They think it’s a sign of erudition instead of just a tool, but Craig — who is not quite retired — was interested because of his own equivalent library— housed in his office at Portland State University as an Associate Professor of Public Administration, and coordinator of the MPA specialization in environmental and natural resource management for the Division of Public Administration. He asks, what does one do with such a library on retirement? The sheer effort of sorting and transporting is overwhelming.
But it freed me to talk about what I’ve done with MY retirement: I’ve recreated my seminary setting, my ivory tower. (Good thing — since my seminary’s library has been moved and probably reorganized and edited.) The categories on my shelves are Montana history (including natural history), Montana writers, Western and French bronzes, Blackfeet, theatre, UU history, and miscellaneous things like clouds, sewing, star constellations and the complete works of certain authors: Matthiessen, Berry, Dinesen, Stratton-Porter.
The most active section is the current research on neurology, deep time, the evolution of the brain, pre-literate and sub-literate thought, and the design of sacred ceremonies, with emphasis on anthropological thought — NOT institutional dogma. I don’t talk to people about it much because they never understand it anyway. Not their fault. The concepts are just now forming and they are entirely different from what we have assumed because instruments give us so much more information.
In fact, I don’t think I really understand it that well yet myself. We know that there seems to be a “real” world with solid objects and predictable characteristics and actions. But we also know that all that is just waves and tiny impacts, ion showers, molecules and radiation. Now we realize that each of us is an evolved colony of cooperating cells that are somehow capable of perceiving the “real” world in various ways (far more than we suspected), translating all those waves and molecules into code that can be transmitted along the axons of nerves to the brain where the code is sorted and translated into what we fondly think of as reality.
The brain is an extremely complex “organ” that is actually just the dashboard for what goes on everywhere in our skins. Almost artistically, the brain decides what to recognize, what to ignore, what to pretend is something it isn’t, and what to do about it. It saturates the body with indicators and directions, and evokes what we think of as emotion.
We end up with something we call our identity. At seminary I struggled to understand Stephen Toulmin. I could only get a shadowy impression. Now I’m reading Mark Johnson’s “The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding” which you can get an idea of on YouTube through an hour and a half lecture at this link:
There are a lot of related vids that YouTube will suggest. It’s all this material and more that I’ve been struggling with for half a century. For the last decade I’ve been in conversation about the issues in a “practicum” for these ideas. We owe a lot to the real lives of a steady stream of boys and young men searching desperately for meaning. Drugs, abuse, displacement, catastrophe, disease and torture have sorely tested their ability to survive. The effort to protect them, and help them grow, constantly suggests hope but also raises questions of metaphysical dimensions, and sometimes casts us all into an abyss of despair. They die incomplete.
So I read my books and across the continent T folds the laundry while making sure there are pills to take. (Those are metaphorical statements.)
Kathy Shinn had not long ago taken a trip to Bhutan, the real Dragon Country, with a group of brave women who crossed suspension bridges and toughed out icy nights. She’s still processing it. Craig understands and admires this. When I said that I begin to think that the end of the civilized world is coming, maybe sooner than we thought, he agreed but then began to lay out the evidence for prevention and mitigation. We didn’t have time to go far with this, but it’s real and it may turn the tide.
I don’t include many people in this conversation because there’s already too much to process. I’m narrowing my own goal down to the composing (think music) of experiences that are sacred for humans, carrying meaning. I have no interest at all in institutional religion nor in conventional philosophy. It was strange to talk to people who understood, not because of being beaten or because of conventional university courses, but because they yearn for knowing and they love the world. They see a lot of books and know they are means, not ends.