Thursday, January 31, 2013


A major oversight on the part of those trying to understand the dynamics of the 19th century prairie clearances and the confinement of indigenous persons to reservations is the impact of the larger world:  what was going on throughout the planet but particularly in Europe where the generating forces of politics and economics often directly impinged on tribes in America.  It was a perfect storm.  Not just empire building by nations, but also the ideas that are always sweeping through populations, from romantic notions about nature; to the obsession with sexuality that became such a force against the separately evolved cultures of Indians;  to rivalries among religious bodies that prompted emigration as missionaries.  For instance, in France in 1817 the Rev. Jean de Lamennais formed an institute to “supply Christian teaching to areas unable to afford Christian Brothers.  When the French government outlawed all religious teaching orders in 1904, many of these brothers found work in other countries.” (p.95 of the unpublished thesis by Hugh Black.)  Two worked at Holy Family until 1909 when their order sent them elsewhere.

Reading Hugh Black’s history of Catholic missionaries on the Blackfeet reservation, I’m struck by their obsession with polygamy and birth outside church-sanctioned marriage.   (When it came to atypical gender roles, they seem to have covered their eyes.)  Alcohol (the drug of the times) was as much a curse then as now.  (Why do I never hear tales about drunken priests among the Indians?)  Priests had to share constantly the need for food created by the decimation of the buffalo, and the need for shelter in a climate of harsh and quickly changing conditions.  Canvas and cabins weren’t enough: fuel was a constant pressure.  For many, these things have not changed, neither for the Indians nor for the priests.

Because the priests felt an emergency response was demanded by the need to save souls, they often made strenuous life-threatening trips in bad weather. They were literally self-sacrificing. The Indians had evolved “Indian time” in part as a safety adaptation: no need to travel if the weather doesn't allow it.  For themselves, as contrasted with the Indians, the priests’ markers of success were baptism (preferably after instruction), and taking the sacraments to the ill.  Their conviction was that this provided entry into the afterlife of Heaven and they were so convincing that many Indian people would keep away from them when they were ill, for fear that the real goal of the priest was to push them over the line into that unseen place.  

Black robes were seen as wizards with special resources but also inscrutable goals.  No doubt much of the strategy of priests had evolved after the Black Plague of Europe reduced the population to a third of what it had been.  Some orders, like Cistercians, were clearly a response to that emptying of the land.  The Euro-values of cleanliness, obedience, farming as a privileged land-use, and the arbitrariness of God could probably be traced back to that time.  These were THEIR evolved response to conditions so severe that only belief in an afterlife could make it bearable.  

Euros came onto the prairie as creatures from an alien planet with a “more advanced” technology: guns, mostly.  They claimed to “know better.”  There is still insistence that white people are specifically obligated to be successful, admired, and worthy of imitation.  A slovenly, drunken, stingy, criminal white person bears more stigma than the same character if Indian.  Simple failure, economic or personal, is seen more harshly if the failing person is white.  They have no excuse.  The power and “magic” of the priests came largely from their access to the white world far away -- their ability to make contact with people who had resources, by-passing the politicians and power-brokers of the new territory.  They could read and write and the early religious people made haste to learn the Indian languages, so they could interpret.  Like Hudson’s Bay factors, they sent a steady stream of letters and collected artifacts back to headquarters, even to Rome.  It’s said that the world’s finest collections of tribal artifacts are in Rome.  This assertion has never been documented or inventoried, but occasionally something will surface on loan.

Many letters to Rome and patrons would have been begging for money.  No professing religious person on the Blackfeet Reservation that I know of has ever lived any better than their congregation and many have worked hard to bring in resources for charity and to build.  The mission schools were able to save children from starvation.  That IS documented.  I’ve never seen an accounting of how much money the Catholic church has spent on the Blackfeet Reservation but it would be significant.  And that would discourage criticism if there were little slips here and there.

The great advantage the contemporary reservation has is that it is still land-based and the identity rooted in that land is still alive.  This means that when the white rancher’s son goes off to a good college, earns degrees, takes an urban job, marries a city girl, and creates a busy life in that context, he doesn’t come back.  But the Blackfeet offspring still yearn for home and DO come back, even returning as retirees.  Some of them return as soon as they have the skills they need to do some good on the rez.  Things are changing.

Those educated tribal members have solved the problem of food and shelter, earning a living, though they might find they have assimilated more than they had intended. They find that on the rez drugs and sex remain as sources of violence, property loss, stigma, and damage to children, intensifying at adolescence.  One Browning priest said sadly,  “I came here thinking I could help to change lives, but instead I only bury young people.”  But the problem is so intense that the reservation can serve as a test ground for the world -- because the same forces affect the whole world.  It’s as though the tribe as a whole could become nearly a religious order of counselors, but one with responsibility to succeed in place rather than missionizing through some hierarchy someplace else.

One of the interesting people thinking about these issues is David Brooks in the NYTimes.  Recently he brought up the issue of working class kids getting fancy educations that separate them from home forever. A link follows.  He is curious and even admiring about tribes (the really aboriginal ones) but feels excluded.  Of course, this is obtuse if he thinks about how Euros have generally treated indigenous people: eliminated them either with death or conversion, or patronized them as “natural” or “deprived.”

Brooks still thinks there is something “magic” about Indians, a kind of romantic reverse of the old priestly assertion of magic; in fact we are all simply human and doing the best we can with the conditions we’re stuck with.  Here’s Brooks’ bottom line:  “People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice — commitments to family, God, craft and country.”  In the constant struggle between individual and group, he votes for group.  Most Indians would do the same.  ("Shroud" is an unfortunate choice of word.)

I am uneasy about Catholic restitution that takes the form of large amounts of money, especially when the lawyers will take a major cut.  I even get nervous about the repatriation of artifacts when things like Chief Joseph’s shirt turn up at auction. I would rather see restitution in the form of translation of the archives of all those letters to Rome that were written in French and Italian.  Then posting on a website accessible by the tribal colleges and the growing number of personal computers on the rez.   If Hudson’s Bay can do it, so can the Catholic Church.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

RICHARD STERN: Some Class Notes

“Lots of good stuff here, but it’s a jumble.  You’re much too flip, too quick.  Your high intelligence isn’t being patient enough and the consequence is you’re not developing, only extending it.  Time to grip a subject with your teeth until you’ve shaken the dumbness out of it.  Same for the prose.  You haven’t worked nearly hard enough on it.”

This was the marking note at the bottom of a paper for Richard Stern’s class called “Approaching Modernity.”  I had no idea what he was talking about.  It has taken me decades to grow into understanding, but it was worth the thirty year struggle, not that I’m smarter at seventy than I was at forty, but now at least maybe I see what the issues are.

First, clarity of understanding.  What IS modernity?  How does one “approach” it?  Maybe the post-modern movement -- so sharp toothed and willing to shake a subject as though it were a sofa pillow -- has helped with this one.

Second, how does one be “patient” with intelligence and what does “high” mean?  I thought it meant being clever and quick-witted.  Now I see it as more like focus and waiting for meaning to develop, something like waiting for a contact photo print to develop in its chemical bath.  Steady contemplation until the insights arrive.

Third, how do you work hard on prose?  I thought it was correctness.  He was talking about rhetoric, but not just choice of words or proper antecedents.  All my papers are full of problems with what I now know as “rhetorical grammar,” sentences internally arranged in a way the reader can assimilate.  My sentences tended to be built in the order that the elements occurred to me, with the result that the “point” was often in the wrong place.  My sentences were “inside out.”  

Fourth, I was a flim-flam artist.  My undergrad education was in acting, so I sometimes tried to outwit profs by using terms and strategies from that realm.  With Stern, no matter where I went, he’d already been there and knew the context.

None of this was discouraging.  I should have changed my major, but I was enrolled on ministry scholarships and that task was equally challenging, though not unrelated.  The overlap between writing and theology was in the concepts, because good writing has to be rooted in clarity.  But secular writing includes human consciousness (here’s where the modernity comes in) which challenges classical reason and theology, not necessarily a welcome enterprise even in the Unitarian Universalist seminary of my legal enrollment.

My Stern class notes include the following bits, aphorisms mostly unsourced.  I hope they are worth pondering.

“Don’t give a person the knowledge of himself like a hard blow to his head but slowly let him come to his own knowledge according to his capacity to bear it.”  (“Bear” is clearly written -- the word is not “hear.”)

“Allow the sensations to speak for themselves.”

“It is characteristic of Americans to constantly modify their statements.”

“Pound’s theme is that everything is connected.”

“One has a secret self, an ‘other’ self, as a way of escaping an intolerable tight spot.”

“A novel forces one to a kind of justice that is not demanded by poetry.”

“Pound takes a Renaissance approach: by WORK on manuscript fragments one opens them up and makes them new.”

“The conditions of beauty:  rant, war and destruction broken through by the individual.”

“The unity imposed by the psychological and organic arch of one personality.”

“Impossibility of capturing and penetrating reality but the obligation to make the attempt.”

“Armature becomes the lifeline of the sculptor.”

“The sense that the answer to the mysteries lies right within the mundane facts: the key, the lock, the table.”  (Joyce)

“A book written to include its own origins.”  (Joyce’s “Ulysses.”)

“Whether or not to get involved: witness, voyeur, or participant?”

“Slow estrangement of a man bewitched by art.”  (Flaubert)

“The absurd is the hatchet that opens up the closed doors.”  (Kierkegaard)

“Reality favors SMALL symmetries.”  (Borges)

Stern to Pound:  “How are you?”
Pound to Stern:  “Senile.”

“The good writer produces a hunger only he can satisfy.”  (Stern)


I’ll posit that before modernity the central mission of a writer was to achieve “high standards” of thought and writing.  Modernity shifted the focus to human consciousness, but Stern/Pound insisted that there was still a deep pattern that ought to be found.  Post-modern came along and said,  “Oh, sure, a deep pattern that YOU see!  Because it serves YOUR needs to be in charge, empowered!”  They examined the fragments and found fingerprints everywhere -- humans, sure, but not who they claimed to be.  There were structuralists, and then the post-structuralists.  (I write this in a flip, bloggy way -- consciously.  Or maybe I’m just covering my butt.)

The present literary movement is commodification:  what sells, what the big-shots respect, one’s self-promotion, one’s Amazon rank.  Stern’s obits -- as were the reviews of his books -- are full of name-dropping and the lament that Stern never was “popular,” as though being a best-seller were an indicator of quality.  They love his rueful quip:  “I was a has-been before I’d been a been.”  

Blogging is an enterprise that doesn’t really encourage the values of reflective patience,
clarity, careful grammatical sentence rhetoric --  it’s a hotbed of flim-flam and flip.  That’s why I like it and Stern despised it.  But it is my personal desire to please Stern that makes me take the next step:  gathering my blog hipshots into manuscripts for revision, revision, revision.  There were few-to-no personal computers in 1980 when I took Stern’s classes.  No one has remarked much on the new ease of working on structural, rhetorical, sentence grammar.  Stern used to emphasize the necessity of generating raw material to work on, but then to revise, revise, revise.  The third step is knowing when to stop.  Some fast hot writing should stay ragged and passionate.

As Pound said,  “Everything is connected.”  Everything unfolds out of what went before.  Stern always taught irony:  that every optimism should contain the seeds of its defeat and every pessimism should include a dawning light.  I’m wondering what David Brooks is going to say now about his old professor, who blog-beat him severely for being nice about Sarah Palin 

Brooks might be pleased to know about me catching Stern out.  The latter had blogged that these Middle Eastern wars must not amount to much since he didn’t know anyone whose sons were fighting, the way everyone knew about such young men during WWII or even Korea and Vietnam.  So I sent him a description of the photo displays in every Montana small town grocery and bank, praising the double-dozen local athletes now in the military.  I told how the bodies came home at the head of a long solemn parade of newly clean pickup trucks.

He could have just zapped my email.  But at once he saw that he had missed the fact that his friends were elite people who could exclude their children from danger.  He had been assuming that his experience was typical when he knew very well it was not.  As a writer of novels, he was forced to justice.  But he sweetened my criticism of him with a bit of praise for me, just as he had with the dead-on criticism of my unformed writing quoted at the top of this blog.  Teacher habit.

Stern claimed he was a teacher because he didn’t make enough money by writing to raise his four children.  That was a disguise.  His beloved “modernity” is already centuries old.  The famous old men he met as peers for meals and talk are dead or dying.  Stern’s students are just hitting their stride.  He loved teaching because he was curious about us and where we might go.  His wasn’t a reputation based on the past, but one aimed at the future where all is potential and can’t be labeled this or that.  I’m hoping we are writing for justice and transformation.

A memory.  By accident I was breakfasting with a book at a local cafe when Stern came to meet his soon-to-be second wife, the poet Alane Rollings, at a nearby booth.  They were plainly delighted to see each other.  I overheard him ask, sincerely wanting to know, “Did you sleep well last night?”  Just a little human fragment, private but universal.  Sleep well, Professor Stern.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


When I made it to the U of Chicago, I went looking for Norman Maclean as a fellow Montanan.  Retired and in the early stages of Alzheimers (poorly understood in 1978), he was hard to track down but I finally managed to spend a little time with him.  I asked him about Richard Stern.  In his woods-crew foreman voice, Maclean said,  “I hired him to run the undergraduate English program because the job demanded a mean sunnavabitch and he’s been very satisfactory.”  What he meant was that this particular cohort of students is brilliant, tenacious, resourceful and determined, so he needed someone tough and smart enough to hold the line.  Stern may have overachieved a bit.
A great believer in the grindstone theory of learning, I headed straight for his classes and took all that he would let me into. (Three.)  When I signed up for his writing class, which in the past had been packed with eager young men -- a sign of high status -- he was at a low point because of a fracas over censorship of the student lit mag, which wanted to print the favorites of the Seventies: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, et al.  He was identified as on the side of the administration, a suppressor, though he protested that he was not, and he actually helped and contributed to a breakaway defiant alternative.   He was, after all, a translator of Rimbaud and Baudelaire
The result of the popularity drop was a class of four women.  One young man had signed up but Stern warned him away on grounds that he would need more male company and also that there was a clear possibility that the class might simply be canceled for insufficient enrollment.  It was not, probably partly because of feminist political pressure, but also I got the impression that it was a bit of a self-affliction on his part, acceptance of fate.  We were a goofy bunch: two were around twenty, one was thirty, and I was forty -- very different in background and soon tightly bonded.  He regarded us with exasperation and we saw him with considerable affection.  I feel sure of this.  He didn’t think we worked hard enough and he was undoubtedly right.  One of his eyes went off on its own, but if he saw you weren’t relating to his good eye, he’d point to it so you could reorient.
Stern and I were a mismatch, but he gave me a lot anyway.  He didn't understand the American West, he didn't understand women like me, but he understood words and his exasperation with mine was an honest and dependable compass I've used ever since.  I’ll come back to this in a later post, but what I want to point out -- esp. in view of the rather bristly obit in the Chicago Trib -- was that he was essentially a tender and wary man capable of going to war if necessary.  But maybe because he was so Jewish, so Manhattan, so conscious of the precariousness of prosperity, he was a little too cautious for the popular taste.  

His major hero was Ezra Pound, whom he had sought out.  Of all people to befriend, this cryptic, crazier-than-anyone-in-San Francisco poet, such an example of adult non-compliant defiance disorder that for a month he was kept in a 6’x6’ public outdoor steel cage, on display and spotlit at night, until his sanity broke.  Pound’s entire biography is astonishing, but this is about Stern.  For the latter’s military service, post-WWII, he was an interpreter and translator.  I think that for him the world always had two versions at least; this awareness was suitable for the study of modernity but less so for the teaching of opinionated students.  He was sexually circumspect and yet broke his first marriage for love of a student poet of talent.  Never one to waste good material, he wrote “Other Men’s Daughters.”  That second marriage lasted until his death.

In many ways his saving gift was recognition of the hilarious absurdity of being human.  One episode of one of his characters had him enjoying an evening with a lady of the night and taking her back to his hotel.  In the very early morning he is awakened by the woman breaking wind like a bassoon next to him.  Her sleep is content; his wakefulness is not.  This sort of thing makes the reader wonder how much is from real life, but you’re unlikely to find out when it comes to Stern.  His novel “In Any Case” AKA “The Chaleur Network,” set in the post-WWII chaos, traces a man’s effort to refute accusations of treason against his son.  Gradually he indicts himself.
Stern understood the political forces that stuck him with four women students more interested in studying him than actually writing.  I think he came to enjoy it.  But the first course I took from him was “narrativity” just as everyone was asking, to quote Banksey, the graffiti artist,  “What the Foucault?”  Stern had helped to organize a seminar with big guns to consider this post-narrative, post-modernity eruption.  I walked into the classroom the first day to find a scrum of students around Stern’s desk getting scarce tickets to the seminar.  Carelessly, I remarked,  “Oh, a person can generally sneak in on such things if you wait until a while after they’ve started.”
Stern came up out of the bent-over students like a buffalo heaving up from a river crossing.  “You will NOT behave improperly at this conference,” he bellowed.  He was big, his comb-over had come loose (again), and his blade of a nose was flaring.  I was impressed.  This was the sort of authority figure I had expected in the Divinity School where everyone had turned out to be disappointing mild-mannered.
I was so delighted to see the photo of Stern as a young man in the Chicago Trib, but I knew him as a fully-grown, highly-productive and long-suffering prophet.  My life merely grazed his:  from my bedroom I could see the tennis courts of the Faculty Club where he pursued the ball without benefit of binocular vision, on a second side I could see the playground of the daycare supervised by his first wife, and on my desk was a growing stack of his books and my writing.

Richard G. Stern, 1928-2013
Award-winning novelist taught at U. of C. for 46 years
By Bridget Doyle, Chicago Tribune reporter
January 27, 2013
Richard G. Stern taught literature and creative writing at the University of Chicago for 46 years while establishing himself as a writer of novels and essays that won a devoted if never especially wide following.
Mr. Stern, 84, died of cancer Thursday, Jan. 24, at his home in Tybee Island, Ga., his son Andrew said.
Mr. Stern, a "breakfast table conversationalist," spent much of his time in Hyde Park cultivating students and engaging with those who "enjoyed the life of the mind," said David Bevington, a professor emeritus at U. of C. and longtime colleague. Mr. Stern's circle of friends included Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
Students in the writing classes Mr. Stern taught were held to very high standards, Bevington said.
"You had to be a pretty skillful writer to be in his classes," Bevington said. "They were mainly the serious pursuit of writing fiction. Students would say he's a very knowledgeable but exacting teacher."
In his long literary career, Mr. Stern wrote more than 20 books. Among the best-known, according to Bevington, was "Other Men's Daughters," published in 1973. Though highly regarded in the literary field, Mr. Stern never achieved the wider popular following many thought he deserved, Bevington said.
"He was very aware he was in the shadow that way, but intellectuals regarded him as important," Bevington said. "His writing is somewhat dense, although clear. Perhaps he was writing for a more tough body of intellectuals."
Mr. Stern was born Feb. 25, 1928, in New York City. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina in 1947, his master's from Harvard University in 1949 and his doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1954.
With his first wife, Gay Clark, he had four children, Christopher, Andrew, Nicholas and Kate. After they divorced, he married the poet Alane Rollings.
Andrew Stern said that growing up in Hyde Park, he and his siblings regularly met authors and academics his father brought to their home. Mr. Stern also worked very hard, his son said.
"He spent his career writing like mad," his son said.
Mr. Stern's first novel, "Golk," was published in 1960. His other novels include "Stitch," "Natural Shocks" and "A Father's Words."
He received the Award of Merit from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1985. Mr. Stern also was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award in 1995.
In 2001 he retired from the university as Helen A. Regenstein professor emeritus in English language and literature.
Andrew Stern said his father traveled widely, once moving the entire family to Venice, Italy, while he was on a yearlong sabbatical.
"He loved soaking up the world to try and come up with characters," his son said.
Mr. Stern also loved playing tennis. "He was intense about the sport," his son said. "We'd go play for hours in the withering-hot sun on courts where the Regenstein (Library) is now."
Mr. Stern continued to write in his later years, publishing a collection of essays, lectures and other writings called "Still on Call." He also tried his hand at blogging.
"He didn't much appreciate (blogging)," his son said. "He'd ask, 'When do I get paid for my words?'"
In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Stern is survived by five grandchildren.
Services have not been scheduled.

Monday, January 28, 2013


Some things are obvious requirements for the basic existence of any creature, but a few  are unique to human beings because they happen in the cerebral frontal lobe -- no other animal has evolved in this way.  Probably not all human beings have these needs and it’s clear that a person could live without them, though the quality of their life would be diminished.  I’m talking about relationship, pattern/meaning, and holiness. 

These three phenomena weave in and out of each other in confusing ways.  Relationship is a complex that includes sexuality and community.  It’s closest to basic mammal necessity.  Pattern is both produced from inner response and imposed from outer necessity.  Holiness or significance can be attached to objects, geology, words, events or persons.  Then all three might interact in what we call “paraphilias” -- sexual obsession with possibly inappropriate objects, acts, persons -- or “sublimations” -- substituting one thing for another, displacing love or desire or knowledge from natural channels into unnatural ones.  (Like, from suitable adult sexual partners to children.)  Hopefully the substitution might be constructive (art instead of drugs), but if not, there can be a dark side, a sucking vortex in life that drags us down. There is a hydraulic or pneumatic quality to these things because they are dynamic processes.

The powerful ground of art, dreams, desire, and sacredness can NOT be properly guided by institutions, which only try to capture the energy in dogmas and roles.  Individuals succeed because of what we call “creativity” and “inspiration” and having a “muse.”  They need an anchor point and resources, but trying to codify and confine them is hopeless.  Some cultures will honor visionaries and poets -- others are threatened by them and will try to suppress or eliminate them.  Sub-cultures of them form for protection or just to have a sympathetic community.  It CAN all be a grand fulfillment.

Sometimes the whole field goes wrong, Satanic, evil, destructive.  Those qualities are culturally defined but there is nothing that says these processes must obey the culture.  If they become neutral, pleasant, entertaining, taken for granted, then they are leaving their true nature in order to conform to the culture that wants to control them, either for the sake of profit or in order to avoid trouble.  The power goes out of them.  Marilyn Manson becomes Andy Williams.   

In a way, it’s too bad when a sub-category like atypical sexuality becomes normalized and accepted, because the power of its free defiance is diminished.  Like every process, its energy is shaped by interactions and forces, so that new dynamics emerge -- maybe unexpectedly -- and transform everything.  This can happen as easily from a small accumulation of unnoticed changes as from some dramatic “black swan.”  Transforming and interacting is the very definition of “life.” 

Humans have the capacity to create a “virtual” world in their cerebral forebrain cortex that both warns them and calls them to creation without committing physical actions until some hypothetical scenarios and calculations are considered.  Feeling around for what is sacred, imagining communities and narratives, “making love” in both physical and mental ways, are how we go along into the future.  Done in community, it can become a religion, an institution.  So believers can say “God has a purpose for me,” and to them it is true, to their church it is true.  If you are not part of that group, it might not be true at all.  And the group might slowly become sclerotic.  But now -- while people are starving and the planet is going barren -- it’s time to quit quibbling over whether God has a mustache and other trivia.

“The Human Experience”  is a movie that is intended to create hope.  (It streams on Netflix.)  Two handsome smart well-spoken young men (buddies) go live on the streets for a few days.  The cameraman is there, obviously.  The film is edited, obviously.   It’s actually safe.  It only skips over the surface.  But it’s a start and it’s very much about this human frontal lobe stuff.  This is the kind of story religion used to promote:  both the talk and the walk.  These days such idealism seems to have become a secular phenomenon.  NGO turf.  Mostly admirable: helping sick kids, philosophizing with street people -- though none too high or drunk, none too “dark” or sexy.  Visit an AIDS program, do some sweaty digging, shake hands with a leper, forgive your alcoholic abusing father.  And include a little surfing.  Not the web -- the ocean.   These young men are what we used to think priests were like.  Christianity was originally a young man’s religion, not an old man’s sinecure.   

In fact, this same set of young men as created “The Human Experience” made a short documentary called “Fishers of Men” which has inspired many to enter the priesthood.  That makes me nervous.  Thirty years ago I sat in a group with a young priest as he described his seduction/rape on his first night in the priesthood -- an unwelcome initiation at a vulnerable time.  That’s probably the least of it.  Fighting through the predation, the doubt, the loneliness, the narrowness is tough.  If I knew his name, I would look for it to see if he survived. 

There’s no reason to accept a pre-fabricated historical religious institution.  A person can find one, build one, grow one.  These splendid young men with their vitality and ideas -- don’t look at them.  Look at what they’re looking at.  

After thirty years things might be very different for these fellows.  If they find church placements that suit them, that provide a decent place to live, a caring congregation, good meals and enough practical help, they’ll be staunch and cheerful still.  But maybe someone will manage to smash the stained glass, so to speak.  What then?  Gradually through the movie we discover their points of vulnerability: a mother who died of AIDS, a father who beat his son, a shriveled arm from birth.

The original theory and perhaps reality of living a dedicated celibate life in service to the Roman Catholic Church was that faith in an All-demanding and All-rewarding God would be enough.  The priest would be filled up with joy by the blinding light of righteousness.  Right.  Machiavelli, who knew quite a bit about the Roman Catholic officials, would laugh.  Caravaggio, who knew even more, including their fondness for boys, would put that light in his paintings and hope to get paid well for it.  Just because a person’s frontal lobe is full of amazing tricks, the rest of the body still needs the basic food, shelter, and so on in order to stay alive.  Those who don't get enough of them are deformed and stunted.

The Roman Catholic Church only pretends it doesn’t change.  There are dead spots but there are also growing edges.  Urgently the priests need to be “re-faithed.”  They know about evolution.  They know there are no Pearly Gates in outer space.  Change won’t happen because of lawsuits or financial reparations.  Something has to be emergent from forces within the priesthood.  That’s how it all got started in the beginning and how it continues on the growing edge, probably more with the missionaries in the field than in suburbia or downtown, though a person should never underestimate monasteries -- or nuns, no matter where they are.  We’ll wake up one morning and the terms of the institution will have changed, just as the USSR did.  Then the real work starts, as we know.


Another version of the same opinion:

Sunday, January 27, 2013


More than a few of my friends can hardly hear the words “minister” or “priest” without becoming angry.  The images summoned up in their minds are harsh, punitive, old white men who will only scold and judge, impose penalties, and divert justice.  How did this image get so strong?  Somehow the Ward Bond/Barry Fitzgerald sorts of benign, slightly goofy priests, cycling across the Emerald Isle on a mission of mercy, have been co-opted, along with the Ingrid Bergman/Deborah Kerr saintly nun.  Maybe it’s about times changing -- these gentler versions are images from my childhood.

Even as an adult, I knew priests like Father Griffin, who served St. Andrews Parish in Portland where I grew up a few blocks from the church.  Not that I knew him well, though I did attend mass there now and then, but I knew his works.  He was famous for unscrewing the pews so as to drag them into a circle and for selling the church communion silver in order to pay for a public phone for the poor people.  (He served communion from an ordinary wine glass and saucer.)  One of the major needs of street people was a “permanent address” so he gave them his.  He died in 2000 at age 68.   Below I’m quoting in part from his obituary.

“Father Griffin received his doctorate in canon Law in 1964 from Lateran University in Rome, during the Second Vatican Council.”  He never left those ideals, which were in part to pull law back into usefulness and to return the institution to the ideals of Jesus.

“Father Griffin was also known for his community and pastoral work as inner-city pastor of St. Andrew's Parish in Northeast Portland . . .  Under his leadership in the 1970s, St. Andrew's became a hub of social action and a welcoming place for the neighborhood's low-income African-Americans.”  Most big churches in neighborhoods that “go bad” just close up.

Just north of the church, which is a major piece of architecture, were a couple of streets of humble houses on small lots, many of them owner-built.  When I was working for the City of Portland, these houses were meant to make way for urban renewal.  Father Griffin spearheaded a way to buy the houses, and then inexpensive land so as to move them to instead of demolishing them.  They were sold at reduced prices and low interest.  Somehow the church carried the mortgages.  How bad was the area?  The moving contractor found a dead woman in one of his heavy-duty trash bags.

'Father Griffin was the most beloved and highly respected priest in the archdiocese,' Archbishop Vlazny said.   'He was held in high esteem by his fellow priests and people themselves. He was a good man, and that's what makes a good priest.'

What they said privately was that Griffin would have been suppressed, thrown out or disciplined except that he was a genius at accounting and the only one who truly understood the diocese books.  He had a firm grip on a crucial part of church anatomy.  When churches are about money, they are not about God.  But money is necessary.

“Father Griffin was active in Ecumenical Ministries and served as the statewide group's president. He nurtured dialogue between Catholic priests and rabbis. He also helped start local Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.

“Father Griffin helped establish the Portland Organizing Project, a grassroots coalition of churches still active today, and was a founding member and president of Oregon Fair Share, a citizen-action group.

“At the same time, the priest earned a national reputation for envisioning the future of the church.”

Maybe the “mean” image of priests and nuns comes from parochial schools.  One summer I worked at a counseling center on the Hyde Park seminary circuit and got to know a Benedictine monk pretty well.  He wasn’t a priest -- didn’t officiate at mass.  If you want to have a good time, look for a Benedictine.  He was a lot of fun and told this story which I’ve repeated many times since.  

When he was about ten years old, one of the legendary superstrict teaching nuns went past him on the aisle and smacked him for something.  Not really hurt, he nevertheless screamed and flopped onto the floor.  She tried to make him get up, nudging him with her foot.  This was in the old days when nuns wore habits to the floor, giving the impression they were on wheels.  Seeing a human ankle revealed, our hero (now out of control) bit the nun just above her shoe.  Her turn to scream.  Then she marched him to the principal.

My friend sat squirming on a hard chair in front of the imposing priest, waiting for execution.  The man worked on papers and let him suffer.  Finally, he looked at the boy and with his mouth not quite under control demanded,  “Did you REALLY bite Sister Agatha on the ankle?”  When the boy admitted it, the principal could contain himself no longer and began to laugh and laugh.  “I’ve often wanted to do that myself,” he admitted.  But then he sobered up.  “It really won’t do, you know.  You must not bite nuns.”  

Totally confused, our hero agreed never to do that again.  Many years later, after he had been in religious orders for a few years, he ran across Sister Agatha at some conference.  She came up with tears in her eyes to ask if he would forgive her.  She tried to explain why she had been in such a bad place in her life.  I don’t think they went out for drinks or even indulged in a hug, but there was real forgiveness.  She turned out to be human all the way up.

These days the parochial school on the Blackfeet reservation is where the good kids go.   In the bad old days you sent a tough kid to be “controlled” by the nuns, because they could punish harshly without being fired.  These days the troublemakers are simply excluded -- the individual outvoted for the sake of the group.  The task of today’s parochial school is to provide a peaceful, constructive place to learn.  It is the public school that has to take the near-incorrigibles while being forbidden to do anything more to them than “in-school suspension,” meaning sequestration with a pile of homework and a non-teacher supervisor. 

Meanwhile back at the church, Pope Benedict is no longer allowed to condemn defiant priests like The Rev. Tony Flannery to be burned at the stake.    Lucky for Father Flannery.   He can only be an excluded troublemaker, not burned alive. The individual is protected at least that much.  But what a lot of people don’t realize is that ultimately what’s "at stake" is the formation of an American Catholic Church breakaway.  Every time the Vatican is shown to be out of touch, out of step, out of control, the breakaway happens a little more.  I think of the polar ice caps losing vast melting shelves that float off into the sea.  

Because of the need for good priests, more and more priests are previously married men who stay married and more and more nuns are empowered to offer Communion.  Still the breakaways increase.  The present Pope will probably not live long enough to see a complete break, unless the Hispanics leave the church. You realize, of course, that many Hispanics are at least partly Indian.  The present pope, I believe, is not in favor of Liberation Theology.  He loves the little children and obedience.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


This is a data-base of all the confirmed testimony of cases of priests abusing children and the outcomes.  It is huge and discouraging to read.

I would not be happy to be responsible for stopping what seems to be an uncontainable wave.  It seems almost like trying to stop drug addiction.  When such widespread phenomena exist, the only thing that can have real impact is the change in the culture itself, all the things people assume about what is true and how to act.  At present our media gives us many vivid examples of crime and transgression.  Not alternatives.

Looking at this database, I see that the great majority of cases are boys at adrenarche (ages 5 to 9 or 10), which has been labeled “latency” in the past, a time when boys in most cultures run in same-age packs and do quite a bit of physical experimenting that is considered harmless at their age, but would not be if they were older.  Something about this age triggers something in some priests: maybe memories of their own abuse, maybe desire for women displaced to boys, maybe just that this is the age of altar boys and choir members, so they’re around the church.  (The boy choir is safer than the altar boy in the vestry.)  Obedient and eager to please, they are old enough to be unsupervised by parents but not old enough to fight off a molesting priest.  I don’t see cases of priests molesting babies and it seems as though most who interfere with adolescents are as likely relating to females.  The “Thornbirds” syndrome.  Young females falling madly in love with “safe” men.  When does molestation become seduction?  States prescribe specific ages, but individual development is unique.

Adrenarche may be far more important as a stage of development than we realize, with much worse damage consequences throughout the rest of life.  To sexually assault a younger child is physically damaging but the need to enforce secrecy is less pressing since the victim can’t say much, even if they understood what was happening.  An adolescent teen is old enough to think about things, share with peers, read and reflect, make moral judgments.  Even rationalize that he was being Chosen, a Sacred Honor.  But in that 6-9 span, identity is forming in a crucial way.  The child is learning to read, do math, study a map, relate a dream, absorb a film, understand art, music and games.  In some times and cultures boys this age were castrated to prevent them from entering adolescence.  Something about wanting them to be androgenous, “innocent.”  Native American and other “brown” boys that age (hairless) are often photographed or depicted in charming paintings, like Caravaggio’s famous painting of a boy, “Amor Victorious.”  Photos of explorers and travelers often show dozens of boys this age running alongside, sometimes begging, always curious, maybe stealing, boundary-crossers, up for adventure.  They look for heroes and those from damaged families look for fathers.

At the same time there is something about boys this age that attracts violence.  I don’t see so much on this graph about priests being physically violent -- that would be more in the context of the classroom beatings or self-flagellation -- but there is something about a few grownup priests that seems stuck at age nine.  Maybe it’s celibacy arresting the sexual development that is the task of adolescence or maybe it goes the other way around:  that arrested sexual development draws men to a celibate occupation like the priesthood.

Another huge historical issue doesn’t much get addressed.  The Roman Catholic Church has always considered itself a “nation” that is independent of and equal to the territory-based nations and their laws.  This is a result of being the sole official religious option for centuries all across Europe, wielding threats of retribution from God (something like threats of nuclear war).  With clever diplomatic interventions among the kings and emperors as a “first among equals,” the Pope was sometimes able to calm or deflect war.  (Which makes the failure to intervene against Hitler -- except for the efforts of individuals -- even more shameful.) 

Once Luther broke the Roman monopoly, erosion of power began.  As in any such institutional circumstance, the powerful who feel entitled are apt to insist and to use means such as secrecy, suppression of internal criticism, and claims to supernatural powers.  In modern times failure to report sexual abuse of children to civil authorities might have been somewhat justified IF the abuses had been effectively addressed, punished and prevented from first detection.  But the failure to do so, in hopes that the problem would go away, only made it inevitable that the criminal laws would claim primacy.  If the church can’t live up to its own ideals, it has disqualified itself.  Many forces would like to see the power of the church emptied and their purses moved to national tax bases.

In a similar but opposite confused way, conservative factions and religions have tried to get secular authorities to accept their sectarian moral standards into criminal laws about marriage, abortion, same-sex relationships and so on.  Since Roman Catholic officials can’t control their own people, they want their standards enforced outside their own flock, so that even nonbelievers, Buddhists, Islamists, and so on would have to accept Catholic rules.  This is why it’s wise to separate church and state.  There’s no going back to 1100 AD.

In the past a religion could defend itself by using damnation and excommunication, but if people are no longer superstitious and don’t care if they are excluded, what can a religious institution do but hide?  At one time it was claimed that a priest’s acts were efficacious even if the priest himself were corrupt -- something like arguing that a presidential office deserves respect regardless of who occupies it.  But now it’s hard to persuade people that a bad priest is a Holy priest.

Abusive priests on reservations not only betray children but also damage the centuries of dedicated and agonizing work their compatriots did in the past to carry a whole people from one culture to another.  Now that we value the culture the People were forced out of, the task itself is questioned.  But if you grant that there was really no realistic alternative but to operate the equivalent of boot camp, no other way of “civilizing” them than by removal from families and “immersion” in a mission school, then there were saints out there putting body and soul into the task, however misguided they might have been.  The stupidity of assaulting children totally discredits those predecessors.  

No worthy civilization destroys its children under the pretext of saving them.  Given all that, and quite aside from any notions of monetary reparation, we need to ask ourselves whether we ourselves are in a worthy civilization.  Given the present trafficking and slavery levels, how have we improved?  

Friday, January 25, 2013


Here are clips of actual wording of Roman Catholic Canon law in the matter of sex:  

Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity. . . 
Clerics are to behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful . . .

Neither the Catholic nor the Orthodox tradition considers the rule of clerical celibacy to be an unchangeable dogma, but instead as a rule that could be adjusted if the Church thought it appropriate and to which exceptions are admitted. . . 
From the time of the first ecumenical council the Christian church forbids voluntary physical castration. . .  [ Guilt is a terrible thing.]

While cruising Google, I learned a new word:  
The Council of Nicaea, AD 325, decides in Canon 3:
The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.  Notice that it is assumed only adult females are a danger and that the taboo on incest is assumed to be effective against them.  The concern is for the clergyperson rather than the “subintroducta.”  But then, that’s the subject.  I don’t know whether there is canon law specifically for “subintroductas.”

The rule of celibacy/continence, conflated together, developed over the same centuries that Protestantism and other forms of dissent were fermenting between 1100 and 1500.  Part of the demand that priests submerge their personal relationships to the larger Roman Catholic Church was to make the priests more Holy, more special, more dedicated.  The Orthodox and Russian Catholic Churches were not so challenged by the pressure of change or European war politics in which the Pope intervened, and therefore the Orthodox and Russian branches went on allowing marriage and children.  

I don’t know whether there is any evidence at all about the 1100 AD abuse of children by religious people, either by violence or sexually.  I suspect children were often victims then, no matter the context. Consider that punishment in those days included burning at the stake for heresy.  The average lifespan was not much longer than needed to create a set of children and get some of them to adolescence.  Luther, of course, married a nun and often spoke of the rewards, saying that when the Devil pursued him, he put his hand between his wife’s legs and thus turned the Devil away.  This is all history and research and not exactly relevant to the fishing in the newspaper ads every day.  

The following is a first brainstorming list of what I think might be relevant, esp. in the case of priests preying on boys.  This is a mixed list so far: forces from history that encourage abuse, forces in today’s church, in the personalities of priests that attract them to the work and possibly twist them once there, in the boys that make them easy prey, in the entire hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church as compared to other similar institutions, and maybe some other things.  NOT the essential evil of priests or even the demonization of individuals.  I’m after things that can be changed.

1.  Altar boys, who are chosen because they are “good boys,” are behind the scenes early in the morning (you know about morning “woodies”?), trained to be obedient and to do mysterious things with oil, water, wine and wafers, putting clothes on and off in a private space.  They are simply present and easily intimidated, could even be pulled around or struck without retaliating because one’s parents feel being there is an honor.  This is less true with the addition of altar girls.  

2.  The opportunities for abuse are greater now where churches are understaffed, under-attended.  Priest and child are more likely to be alone together without interruption.  Confession is also a point of vulnerability, although much lessened by getting rid of the wooden “box” and speaking to the priest in plain sight but out of earshot.  (Change IS possible.)  

3.  Our culture defines “sex” as nubile girls having full-frontal vaginal intercourse, completely undressed.  Anything different is not considered sex, even in the mind of the President of the United States.  Boys simply don’t count any more than sheep.

4.  The reward of a priest used to be high status, moral authority, and ability to step onto protected ground, as in an ICU ward, a battleground, a prison, and other places of high seriousness.  This is much diminished.  Not just priests, but also teachers, doctors, lawyers, leaders and so on have lost prestige and privilege.  Professions no longer profess.

5.  Catholic parishes once included everyone in a whole area but now they tend to be much more “gathered” and therefore harder to serve, more exposed to dissenters.  The authority of priests is much less. 

6.  The willingness of the church to punish members by forbidding them access to communion or by defrocking priests is weaker because the church is shrinking which endangers the whole institution, so the peculiar hypocrisy of giving communion to people who are divorced or using contraception seems somehow related to the hypocrisy of covering up priestly misbehavior.  Boundaries are blurred.

7.  Perhaps priests see themselves in boys and perhaps they are angry at themselves, particularly if they are abusing boys (maybe because of trying to resolve early abuse against themselves), but the boys will feel the abuse as anger at themselves, and this will make them feel they’ve done something wrong, so that shame will keep them quiet and compliant.  The shame and guilt on both sides intermesh and perpetuate, festering into fear and hatred.

8.  A subcategory of priests (as in every group of humans) will be grandiose narcissists so preoccupied with their own inner lives that they simply don’t consider any other human beings.  They are in “empathy” with God, their only equal.  This is what drew them into the priesthood and it will keep them there.  They are likely to rise through the hierarchy, if only because it is their goal.  As people become alerted to recognizing toxic narcissism, their power will diminish.

9.  The eroticism of violence is explicit in the lives of saints.  Sexualized torture abounds in the stories and their illustrations.  Using it to educate children can be a big mistake.

10.  Clergy of all kinds develop a kind of subculture in which, like cops or emergency responders, they can relax and let out their real feelings.  The natural result of this bonding is to protect their own, as well as the larger institution.  Men or women who would not tolerate anyone they knew damaging children, will yet be slow to make accusations or investigate.  There may not be a clear or protected way to act.

There is a process called “formation” of clergy readiness and character discernment.  This has become a concern for many denominations and seminaries.  What works, what the goal ought to be, how to balance the survival of individual against the survival of the institution, are not perfected.  Anyway, what is relevant will change as the culture changes.  Therefore it is vital to keep in mind the goal:  the safety of children, because they are also in a process of “formation.”  Sacrificing children will destroy the institution.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


This is going to be a really boring post because it is background information that might help to understand future posts.  It’s stuff I had to google.  The reason for doing it is wondering about the four law companies who have been fishing with half-page ads in the Great Falls Tribune and the Glacier Reporter for information about abuse or sexual molestation committed by priests.  So far they claim to have information about two deceased local priests, both of whom I knew slightly, mostly because I attended funeral masses where they officiated.  One was Father Egon Mallman who was at St. Anne’s in Heart Butte for many decades and one was Father Patrick Stimatz who served the whole reservation from Browning.  Both were strict and crusty.  Locals, especially kids, might use the word “mean”.  No doubt memories have not softened over the years. The statute of limitations is a moot point in the case of these two men, since their lives are over.  It is the church itself that is being sued.

The law firms sponsoring these ads are as follows:

Datsopoulos MacDonald & Lind, P.C. in Missoula.
James, Vernon & Weeks, P.A. in Coeur d’Alene.
Kosnoff Fasy, PLLC, in Seattle.
Joseph A. Blumel III, P.S. in Spokane.

The initials only indicate the kind of business organization: PC for Professional Corporation, PA for Professional Association, and PLLC for Professional Limited Liability Companies.  Limited Liability means there is a cap on the amount for which they can be sued.  To those “in the know,” the specific law school that granted the degree might hint at a particular approach.

In the background, on the website of Datsopoulos MacDonald and Lind, is another entity: the Seattle University Center for Indian Law & Policy and the related Seattle University Law School Indian Wills Project.   I’m puzzled about what relationship might exist between this Jesuit university and these four “fishing” law firms.  It would seem that the Jesuits would be invested in protecting rather than exposing dead priests.  On the other hand, connecting to a Jesuit law school with a special interest in Native Americans might be a good way of attracting Native American students.  A cynical person might say that the Cobell settlement means there is a lot of money out there for higher education and that contemporary young Blackfeet might be more interested in a law degree than in a used car.

From the Seattle University website:

Seattle University, founded in 1891, is a Jesuit Catholic university located on 50 acres in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. More than 7,700 students are enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs within eight schools and colleges.”

“Professor Douglas Nash serves as the Director of the Institute for Indian Estate Planning and Probate. He is a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and has practiced Indian law for some 34 years in numerous capacities including 14 years in private practice during which time he did estate planning and probate work, Chief Counsel for the Nez Perce Tribe for 10 years.” 
One byproduct of these ads will be a list of Native American persons who read newspapers and are interested in the issue because of experience, idealism, a desire to reform systems, or the hope of money.  Kosnof Facy has a great deal of experience with Boy Scouts claiming to have been molested or abused by their leaders.
Authority can be raw and immediate:  the authority of a gun, for instance, which is so craved by people who have no other authority.  Or the authority of lesser violence -- do what I say or I’ll hurt you or what you care about.  The authority of employment gives managers or owners control over one’s access to a salary or conditions of work, from providing insurance to requiring damaging actions.  The most extreme of this kind of authority is slavery and trafficking where a person is reduced to being a domestic animal without even the protection of cruelty laws.

Or authority can be earned by virtues like generosity, steadiness, wisdom, warmth, and understanding.  The authentic authority of religious leaders cannot be enforced if they do not provide these qualities.  People who require obedience that they cannot get by voluntary allegiance might become frustrated enough to use force.   There is always tension between the role and personal qualities.  In the best of all worlds, they go together.  When they separate, both are diminished.  In our modern world - in the case of parents/children and clergy/children - there seem often to be separations between role and person.   Adults “don’t get no respect” from having a title.  They have to earn it.

It is not all the fault of the adults in question.  Children get many ideas from the media and if what they learn is not to respect poor people or drunks or the uneducated or the shabby or the infected, that can overwhelm valuing those individuals as persons, unless there is real connection, real understanding.  I notice how many times the word “respect” is used to justify force in street life.

What follows now is a kind of check list of kinds of law.  The over-arching premise is that by going through the standardized, self-governing procedure by law, people can at best receive justice and at least avoid violence, especially in inflammatory areas like children and sex.  
The concept of authority can be distributed out over a kind of graph:  horizontally according the power of various institutions:  state, church, military, etc.;  and vertically down the levels of written law and enforcement:  treaty, constitution, federal law, state law, county and city law, regulations at all those same levels, and the personal discretion and witnessing of the on-the-ground enforcer.  Keeping order among all these factors is a parallel series of courts and judges, including a system of appeals.
Two major categories of law are criminal laws which address harm to persons and property at various levels (capital, felony, misdemeanor), and civil law which has more to do with business practices and keeping public order like marriage or adoption.  

Besides that, is “tort” law, which is suing someone because you just feel what they did was unjust or damaging.  You can sue anyone in this way, but you must have “standing,” which is to say that you must show you have a personal stake in the outcome and you must show that you were actually damaged.  Lawsuits in the case of abuse by dead priests would come under tort law and possibly “class action” -- a grouping of a category of tort law victims.

Two kinds of law remain:  natural consequences, which means that if you go around offending and challenging people, someone is likely to retaliate, and religious law, which might be specific as in the Old Testament or a matter of principle as in the New Testament: most cogently, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

If I have any institutional affiliation, it is that I’m still in “good standing,” though not active, as a minister in the Unitarian Universalist denomination.  I will not be identifying any individuals, pro or con, unless they ask me to or are public figures, but my motivation comes from many individual priests, some my friends and some my distinguished professors, whom I admire.  I might quote and therefore name the latter, but I don’t go on witch hunts.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


This video is the acceptance speech of Alvina Krause at a gala honoring her at Northwestern University.  Martin Luther King is a fine man and I admire him.  But THIS woman was my teacher and her speech I take to my heart of hearts.


Homeostasis is an ugly world, with overtones from the Latin roots that don’t work in English -- “homo” doesn’t refer to homogenized milk anymore.  But I haven’t settled on a good synonym yet.  What the long word really means is the limits of the stream of life for an entity.  Too much blood sugar/not enough blood sugar,  too much heat/not enough heat, too much oxygen/not enough oxygen -- those are physiological limits that if the body fails to regulate automatically, some compensation must intervene.  Too much belligerence/not enough belligerence, too much curiosity/ not enough curiosity, are personality limits.  We don’t know much about how to intervene, but ideas, images and stories seem to help.

There is a life-limiting set of parameters inside the skin: the duties of the organs, the circulation, the heart/lungs pump and so on which normally function subconsciously; and another outside the skin: temperature, air exchange, and so on.  Outside things must stay out (microbes, knives, poisons) and inside things must stay in (liver, blood, guts).  But some outside things (air, food, water) must come in and some inside things (feces, urine, sweat) must go out.  This constant exchange between inside and outside is the process that IS a person.  This exchange across a “skin” is also what creates a living cell.  If it is done according to a gene code, the cell is eukaryotic.  (Remember “eu” means good.)

The human brain is the organ that must take in sensory information and put out behavior based on what it predicts is wise for the life of this person.  If the brain gets it right, things go well, but miscalculations (ignorance, addiction, excessive emotion, fanaticism, violence, brain disfunction) can cause death.  Bad “life maps” kill, not just oneself but others.

Just as there are “shores” within which individuals must swim to sustain life, there are group limits that will destroy a whole species or perhaps just a sub-group (denomination, nation, or tribe) that will be eliminated by excess or shortage.  Many of these dynamics are social:  group versus group.  We share identities, ideologies and resources in a political “brain” that might or might not be codified in a document that might or might not be historical, might or might not be applied evenly.  Some of these groups are defined by place and its borders.  Others are gathered by affinities, individuals magnetized to each other by shared issues and identities.

Between individual and group is a field of interaction, both conformity and dissent.  It is regulated by emotions like guilt or shame, empathy or hatred, control or neglect.  Negotiating this field -- which can be a battlefield or a safety net -- is the ground of story as recorded in art, religion, mythology, and testimony.

Through most of history the biggest category of homeostasis, life-limits, was the planet itself.  It acted upon us -- still does -- as volcano, earthquake, drought, flood, avalanche, hurricane which we called “acts of God” because they exceeded our ability to survive them or to devise compensatory shelters.  We were excited to find we could build dams and aqueducts and exalted to discover we could even travel to outer limits of gravitation, like the moon.  So far as we know the only threats to the existence of a physical planet are solar explosion or giant asteroid impact.  But then we found out, by going far enough from the planet to see it as a whole, our cumulative impact on what was already changing, though slowly, that there are limits on what on this planet will sustain -- life as we know it.  Now we know that the planet must stay within specific limits of the elements of the atmosphere and the ph level of the oceans, in order to maintain the “sweet spot” of life.  And we can see that we are at the edges of that spot. 

In our realization that a few other planets might have this narrow set of requirements for human life, we have taken a new look at our own human circumstances, but it is not enough for a planet to host humans.  We are deeply interwoven with every other form of life on this planet and whatever they might need in order to survive.  It’s not enough to “terraform” a planet by creating atmosphere and oceans: they must be populated with beetles and jellyfish, microbes and fungus, and the host of plants that reverse our respiration into their respiration and so we can exchange it back again.  It is all dynamic, a process, and it is all exquisitely connected, as much socially as physically.

The cost of connection is terrifying.  The real cure for HIV is for every creature on the planet who can catch it to have died from it.  No host, no disease.  (There are some people who are immune, the same as there are some who don’t catch flu.  The good news is that we’re learning to implant immunity -- for those who can afford it.)  It is not a matter of virtue, but of adaptability.  Those who believe they are immune as individuals because of their own behavior or because of stigmatizing or criminalizing those with the virus or by simply not funding what the afflicted need to stay alive, are grossly underestimating their interwovenness with the rest of planet.  Africa’s “failed states” and America’s internal Third World ghettoes affect everyone on the planet.  The cost of a population of children raised with no cultural endowment because of missing parents is war -- the force that burdens our National Debt.  

Missing life-maps mean returning to the Stone Age without any bombs being necessary.  The human genome can be completely stunted and broken by the failure to transmit culture, which is a river as deep and wide as any on the planet.  But that’s not all: humans do what they must to survive and soon evolve strategies that prey on the rest of us:  Somali pirates, South American drug lords, American corrupt CEO’s with offshore banks.  The result is not just sub-populations.  Greed and exploitation have pitted and contaminated the continents with wastelands and the oceans with dead water zones where life cannot survive.  We are now verging on the poisoning of the atmosphere, the changing of the ocean current beltways that sustain a climate that allows crops, and the elimination of small key creatures like little brown bats.

We know all this.  We are aware that the polar bears are drowning and starving for lack of ice floes.  We are even vaguely aware that we should change our behavior.  Some despair, some freeze, some build walls, some try to run away.  Some read, write, and compose images to share on this miraculous communication network growing around the planet.  Unless political, economic, or electromagnetic forces intervene, this image-laden internet may be the evolved phenomenon that saves human beings by giving them the sensory input, the poetry, that will change their behavior to predict better outcomes.

No one expected this communication network.  To my parents a telephone was miraculous.  They stood on tiptoe and shouted into a wooden box, operated with a crank.  I don’t have a smart phone or even cable TV, but on my desk computer I watch movies in which people talk to each other with what looks like a slim pack of cards.  That’s not the part that might save life as we don’t know it yet: what counts is what we have to say that will describe the future with a map that works.  Not just Google Earth vs. Amazon maps, or any GPS system, but a concept map in the brain.  An epiphany.  One by one by one by millions and millions.  As many as stars.  It might not save individuals, but it will save the planet.