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Our Darkest Hour

Now the dark is upon us. The late afternoons are suddenly devoid of light, plunging our spirits into an ancient human fear that the sun will never return.

Our national world  plunges into a deeper and deeper darkness; the lights of democracy flicker. The movie we go to see on a lowering winter afternoon, Darkest Hour, echoes our dread exactly. We tend to forget how dim English hopes were in1940, when, the politicians wanting a “peace agreement” with Hitler having very nearly forced Winston Churchill to abandon all resistance, invasion by the Nazis seemed inevitable.

Most Republicans have struck an agreement with an American President who, in tones unnervingly similar to Hitler’s,  thunders  his misogyny, racial supremacy, homophobic and anti-immigrant tirades down upon us while ecstatically applauded by thousands of followers.

Many of us, following Robert Reich’s Churchillian refusal to normalize the tyrannical features of this presidency for a single moment, have thrown ourselves into political resistance.  Nevertheless, several of my women, LGBT, progressive and Jewish friends have found the dread darkness of our time so unnerving that they have actually sunk into depression.

Like many of our ancestors, when the darkest nights of the year fall upon us, we feel a profound need for light.   We set candles on our windowsills, challenge the night with outdoor illumination, and string our Christmas trees all about  with brightness, hoping in our feeble way to turn the darkness into light.

The Celtic peoples believed that the world was created out of a vast outer darkness, which, when the light of creation shone forth, was never absolute again.

Toward the end of Fly Out of the Darkness, the second novel in my Infinite Games series,  the world of my Marshlanders  was as dark as ours is now, everyone feeling puny and weak before the forces of an engulfing evil.  From somewhere in my imagination a character named Father Robin had emerged, a priest of the banished old (Catholic) religion (I don’t know how he got into my novels; one day he was just there). At the midwinter solstice, the darkest night of the year, as my heroes prepare for a final engagement with their enemies, this wispy old priest mounts a wooden box to preach his last sermon.

“Fear not evil,” the ordinarily soft spoken little man shouted forth suddenly. “The universe is luminous with good. There was only one utter darkness, and only that one time, into which the light poured that is all around us, even to this day.

I am not denying that evil can touch us, and mark us, and wound us, and even kill us.

What I am saying is that evil is a shadow, and a shadow is always cast by a light. If you crouch in a shadow, you are holding yourself back from the light that casts it.

That brightness does not shine from afar, it shines from within. The light of the world is in you and in me and in the heart of our beloved community!”

Have courage, friends.  Light your candles in every window, so that we can find each other to go forth together in courage and fortitude to combat the darkness. 

With wishes for a blessed solstice to all.   Annis Pratt

Has Anyone Ever Died For Lack of Gossip?

I often asked myself this question when my soul shuddered down the mute corridors of my academic department, where a heavy silence always prevailed.  There were no huddles of chatting professors, no voices to be heard except those of cowed students from behind closed office doors, nor did my colleagues ever pause to chat on the sofas of our comfortably furnished faculty lounge.

My University of Wisconsin culture was totally different from  Wayne State, where my husband Henry taught. Everywhere in his building you could be distracted  by  gaggles of fascinating gossip, both personal – “and do you know she said…and then, the gall of it, he said.. and political – an ever-fraught entanglement of academic cliques and territoriality.

Here’s a poem I wrote then:

We are born for a web of words, an embracing patter about baseball plays, whose mother called,

what she said, what you said, who is born and who is dying. 

Sometimes in the store when I pass by women talking all together, I feel a terrible hunger – has anyone ever died for lack of gossip?    

Well, what do you know? My feeling that gossip is a mortal necessity turns out to correct. According to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, his striking new book on human history, around 70,000 years ago (about halfway into our 150,000 year residence on this planet)  human beings experienced a “Cognitive Revolution.”  As hunter-gatherers, we had communicated with our own bands and a few others nearby, but now we were able to exchange

larger quantities of information about the world surrounding” us, to have “the ability to transmit large quantities of information about Sapiens social relationships,” and also to “transmit information about things that really do not exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and human rights” (p.17).

Harari thinks that It all began with gossip, the passing along of personal, social, and spiritual information garnered from far and wide, an exchange of information that become the covenantal glue binding cities, nations, and civilizations.

We live by legal and social agreements; we are all in covenant, one with the other.

 

When our social agreements begin to crumble, argues New York Times columnist, David Brooks 

“We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal.”

The cognitive mind-set of the far right perceives liberal progressives like me as so existentially “other” that they dismiss everything we say as “lying propaganda.”  To our shame, from within our similarly obdurate cognitive bubbles we  demonize them as deplorably stupid, inexorably evil and  unworthy of our conversation.

Our national covenant, the constitution,  prescribes a balance of powers within which we can thrash out our differences; it presumes that if citizens  exchange ideas it will be possible for us all to reach a compromise.  If, in both our personal and civic behavior, we cast aside our national covenant about how to handle disagreement, our democracy is in peril.

So this Thanksgiving, lets try good old gossip for starters, perhaps some  give-and-take about baseball scores, whose mother called, what he said, what she said, who was born, and who is dying. Having established our commonality, we might find openings to discuss what else – our economic needs, our fear of fire and flood, our hope for our families – that we have in common and can work together to ameliorate.

 

(The three bronze women are a sculpture by Rose-Aimee Belanger called “Les Chuchoteuses,” the whsperers)

 

 

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A Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water

There is a chapter in my (tattered and torn) Winnie the Pooh when it rains and rains and rains until Piglet finds himself stranded in a tree, musing that “It’s a little Anxious to be a Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water.”

Didn’t we all feel that way during the September hurricanes in Texas and Florida,  the Caribbean Islands and Puerto Rico?  Television coverage alternated between graphics of one vast storm after another whirling down upon us and close ups of towns and villages, highways and shoreline communities entirely surrounded by floods.

Everyone down there must have felt just like Piglet:  “Here I am, surrounded by water, and I can’t do anything.”.

I attended a Paul Hawken webinar this week. He pointed out that when we puny humans hear about overwhelming natural disasters, we tend to ward off anxiety by freezing emotionally. The way the news is presented impacts us too.  “Battle” language about “fighting climate change” or “going to war with global warming”  convinces us that we are in a win/lose situation. Faced with such  a vast, existential threat to earth’s and humanity’s future, we feel like very small animals indeed; if somebody is going to “lose,.” and it will probably be us.

But Piglet is not without resources. He concocts a survival plan of putting a  message in a bottle. “IT’S ME PIGLET, HELP HELP!” Pooh finds it, and, though “a bear of very little brain” he is  is clever enough to cork up a big jar and float on (and below) it  to find Christopher Robin to read it. Christopher realizes that he and Pooh can go to Piglet’s rescue in his umbrella. (Considering that Pooh has acted very cleverly indeed, he christens their craft “The Brain of Pooh.”)

Paul Hawken’s Drawdown describes the many clever ways we can bring the time  when greenhouse gasses diminish closer.  It is basically a list of 100 technological and social solutions, a short chapter for each. They are all quite doable, things like refrigerant management (the top of the list as most effective), onshore and offshore wind towers, rooftop solar, managing food waste and production, the education of girls, planned parenting, etc.

Piglet is rescued from an overwhelming threat by his ability to formulate a plan, by Pooh’s little bit of  smarts and by Christopher Robin’s literacy and resourcefulness, none of which would do them any good were each not impelled by a will to action on behalf of the others.

As we watched the 24/7 coverage of hurricane flooding, our anxious hearts were lifted by all those people rushing around to rescue each other; white people wading out carrying black people on their backs and vice-versa, Cajun folks organizing flotillas of rescue boats, all impelled into action by community feeling.

And so we learn that global warming can be mitigated if we

1. Don’t just sit up there in our tree frozen with terror and anxiety

2.  Use our smarts.

3.   Brainstorm practical ideas

4.  And then, altogether, PADDLE!