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LET’S ALL BE INTELLECTUALS!

Review of Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook.  Boston: Godine, 2021

It is not very popular to be an intellectual in America today.  My husband and I, both college professors, were careful not to draw our neighbors’ attention to our status lest they hold back their friendship.  And now, country-wide distrust has been fired up by the idea that intellectuals inevitably condescend to ordinary people and that neither facts nor reasoning  are to be trusted.

The problem is, I become more and more intellectual as I get older.   Some years ago, having read Christopher Phillip’s Socrates Café about the discussions he holds in nursing homes, schools, prisons and public parks, I decided to solve my problem by convincing friends and neighbors that they were just as intellectual as I, and that it would be fun to have philosophical discussions with each other. 

In my Socrates Café, I make a firm distinction between an opinion and a thought, and I always insist that you can’t engage in thinking if you are opinionated. (see https://bit.ly/3jtmQ2b),  Most people are pleased to think things through, although I had to dissolve a Socrates Café at a senior center when, week after week, discussants refused to abandon their opinions about immigrants and people of color.

In Socrates, Farnsworth finds a perpetual questioner of “the commonplace. the acceptance of traditional opinions and current sentiments as an ultimate fact.” People feel good expressing their opinions in a pushy way, but it is precisely this kind of bold assertion that Socrates questions.  “Questions and answers are the sound of thought happening. An essay or lecture is usually the sound of a thought having happened.”

In asking one question after another Socrates is a skeptic, a word whose root means “inquiry” and which involves less of the modern “disdainfully doubtful” connotation than a person who “inquires without reaching a conclusion.  Skeptics don’t say ‘no’ to every claim, or indeed to any of them.  They just keep asking questions.  They want the truth, and are always trying to get closer to it, but they never reach a stopping point; they never find certainty. They have a dread of ‘rash assent’ and of thinking that you’re done thinking before you really are.”

I have noticed that people really like it when you question yourself in front of them: You can’t come across as intellectually condescending when you display skepticism about your own opinions!

When you apply the Socratic method to yourself, you arrive at a state of mind which Socrates calls Aporia.  “You realize that you’ve been pushing words around as if their meaning were obvious but that you don’t really understand.” Once you learn to do this, you can help other people get there, and that is why, pursued in a non-judgmental, non-interruptive manner, the Socratic method has a lot of promise for the hard-held opinions that endanger American democracy today

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Let’s give it a try with a guy who “doesn’t believe in facts”:

G(uy). Global Warming is a hoax made up by the democrats. It isn’t a fact – it’s propaganda.

Q. How about in your personal life? Do you use facts there?

G. What do you mean?

Q. Well, just for an example, how did you decide on the best commute to work today?

G. I started with a map when I first got the job, but as I went on, I worked out some shortcuts to make it quicker

Q. What did the map tell you?

G. Which roads intersected, distances – things like that.

Q. How did you work out the shortcuts?

G. I found some side roads, and then tested the route with my watch.

Q. Were the roads on the map and the timing you worked out based on facts?

G. Yes, but those aren’t the made-up kind.

Q. So you trust some facts, but not others?

G. Obviously!

Q. How about weather reports – do you trust those?

G. They are pretty accurate most of the time.

Q. Who does those weather reports?

G. The news, tv shows

Q. Where do they get their facts.

G. They get them from meteorologists.

Q. So you trust the accuracy of weather reports because they are given by trained meteorologists?

G. Yes.

Q. Do you know where the reports on Global Warming come from?

G. Of course: the democrats – Biden and his elite east coast friends who look down at us and want to ruin our economy.

Q. Do you think the inftense new hurricanes, wildfires, deluges, droughts and heat waves are really happening?

G. Yes.

Q. Why?

G. I see them on TV and we had a whole week of really heavy rain ourselves  last spring.

Q. Was your house okay?

G.  Yes, though the porch floated away.

Q. So your direct observation tells you that those kinds of storms are facts?

G. Yes, but they are not caused by humans: that’s the hoax!

Q. (summarizing): Okay, I see where you are coming from: you trust maps and your own observations of the closest route to work – which means that you trust your own reasoning from obvious facts. You trust what Meteorologists report about weather because it lines up with the facts you see on TV and with your own experience.  On the other hand, you don’t trust what meteorologists and climate scientists tell you about the causes of Global Warming.   I am not sure how one set of facts that you trust differs from the set of facts you don’t trust?

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What do you think? Is it working? If not, why not?  And then what?  Do you think there is room for using the Socratic method in everyday life?

How to be Perfec: A Philosophical Journey

A Review of Michael Schur, How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2022.

I took an Introduction to Philosophy in college – my father and my brother majored in it, and I wanted to see what it was about.   What it was about was boring. The teacher wasn’t particularly inspired and never engaged us in the philosophical issues she droned on about. Besides, at that age I didn’t really care about what Socrates or Aristotle, Kant or Bentham felt was so vitally important.

I didn’t see the point of establishing my ethics for everyday living because I hadn’t done a whole lot of everyday living. But now!  After a life filled with the vicissitudes (and joys) of marriage, parenthood, teaching, community organizing and political activism I know what I stand for, though I still struggle to avoid undercutting my integrity by failing to live up to it.

That’s where Michael Schur’s How to be Perfec: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question comes in. The fact that Schur is a tv comedy writer (Parks and Recreation) and is funny even when he is carrying on about categorical imperatives and existential anxiety convinced me to read the whole thing this summer, very slowly.

Here’s the kind of ethical conundrum that typically gets my moral knickers in a twist.   We have a community homeless shelter where I drop in with fresh fruit to supplement the hot lunches. I often chat with whoever has come off the streets that day: I have a rule for myself that if a guest wants to talk I will stop running all over town like a chicken with my head chopped off and take time for a conversation.

The other day I brought a bunch of grapes and stopped to greet a guy I often chat with, who was disconsolately slumped over his chair.  

“Lunch smells good,” I said.

“Would you sit down and eat it with me,” he asked.

He had been in the shelter all day with his mask below his nose, and I am at a high risk category for covid.  In order to break bread with him we would both have to take our masks off.

 “I am really sorry,” I said, “I have another errand.”

I chose between his good and my good, and I am still unhappy with myself about it. So is he: he has gone off me, no longer eager for my company.

That’s why I like Schur’s less than perfec (sic) take on the struggle to live up to our moral responsibilities: “Again, part of the project of this book is to help us accept failure – because, again, failure is the inevitable result of caring about morality and trying to be good people. I really don’t mean to argue for perfect living…because a) it’s impossible and b) I don’t even think it’s a good goal. Instead, I’m arguing that when we fail, in matters great or small, we just take a second to acknowledge our failure to ourselves, and try to remember that failure the next time we have a decision to make.”

He devotes the first eighty pages of his book to “various theories of how to be good people.” 

Deontology – Emmanuel Kant: Arrive at your rules for moral behavior through reasoning, as long as they work as well for others. My personal ethics told me to eat with the guy at the shelter, but, the very next day, I was joining my daughters and grandsons for our summer vacation.  Taking a risk on his behalf could in put me and my whole family at risk.  Or, my (Kantian) categorical imperative of being there when people ask me to was undercut because it might not work out well for others.

Utilitarianism – John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham: Make decisions that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.  Take my monetary donations to that shelter: arguing from quantitative analysis, shouldn’t I donate to groups whose intent is to eradicate homelessness (and poverty) altogether?

Contractualism –  T.M. Scanlon (Author of What We Owe to Each Other):  Make ethical decisions based on what we need to do to live with other people.  What we owe each other is more qualitative and emotional than quantitative and mathematical, therefore “Living with other people” backs my choice to support “bricks and mortar” programs in my own neighborhood rather than distant charities.

Virtue Ethics – Aristotle: what are virtues? Which values do we want to live by, how to we find the golden mean in enacting them that is neither too little or too much? There are two aspects of Aristotle’s ethics that are the touchstone for my decision-making:  first, that life does not consist of ideas but of action; secondly, matching your acts to your values brings life’s greatest happiness; being at one with yourself brings you a sense of wholeness, true flourishing as a human being.

Existentialism – Sartre: don’t look for a meaning in life there isn’t any. There is no source outside of you where you can find moral values: you have to make your own choices (while being sure they are good for others too.)  Camus: Life is absurd; accept human absurdity and try to make good individual choices anyway.

 I used Schur’s philosophical categories to sort out the basis for my life choices.  I have come to consider the universe fundamentally moral, so I go with Kant.   Utilitarianism leaves me (emotionally) chilled; though I have to admit that basing your charitable giving on algorithmically sorted data and quantitative accounting makes plenty of (rational) sense.  

In choosing my actions I have never been a loner, but always join in the social contracts of the organizations where I volunteer: there is my (Unitarian) church’s covenant to principles, for example, and the stated rules that the Citizens’ Climate Lobby adheres to. And there is our United States Constitution and our Rule of Law, about which I am passionate.  

As for Existentialism – when I fell into it during the (mercifully few) depressions I suffered, existential anxiety and a sense that life held no meaning whatsoever  undermined my entire (Kantian/Contractual/Aristotelian)  process of moral reasoning to leave me disastrously adrift on life’s tumultuous seas, without a rudder.   

One of the truly lovely things about living (as often as possible) by integrity is that your ethics have a way of making themselves available at a (non-deliberative) second’s notice. A moment suddenly arrives when I realize that I must stand up for my values, right then and right there. Trembling all over, I get up on my feet to speak my piece for what I think is right and good, and experience what Aristotle described as true human flourishing – a great and all-pervading feeling, a warm bolt of complete happiness that rises from the tips of my toes and shoots up my spine to the top of my head as, once again, I head for good trouble.

Are Rivers Persons?

Have you heard about courts endowing nature entities like rivers, wetlands, and even rice as “persons” with inherent rights? I am fascinated by this concept from an ecological point of view. Isn’t it anthropomorphism to accord humanity to beings who are utterly different from humans? Doesn’t this natural beings-as-persons approach value human beings over nature, which is how we got out of balance with nature in the first place?

Here is a column I wrote about this for www. impakter.com. https://bit.ly/3FbedUa

Dear Socratians

DEAR SOCRATIANS

For many years, I have been facilitating a Socrates Café © at our local library, where people ask questions and discuss answers in a non-judgmental, non-interruptive conversation. We meet once a month (including on zoom during the never-ending pandemic), and when I send meeting reminders to my fellow Socratians, I usually include a quote or a question or philosophical tidbit to whet their appetites.  They, in turn, send me questions for a vote at the beginning of our meeting.

As lots of us are doing during this latest Covid lock-down, I was having a big sort-out of old papers when I came across a pile of “Dear Socratians” meeting reminders. During these homebound days and long winter evenings, it might be fun for you to discuss some of our philosophical ideas around your supper tables or, if you live alone like me, inside of your own head.  

Most people are alarmed at the idea of philosophical discussions because they sound so academic and “intellectual,” but Christopher Phillips holds his lively conversations at every kind of venue – school classrooms, prisons, senior centers, and right out in the street – where ordinary people get caught up in issues they have always wanted to discuss.  As Ward Farnsworth notes in The Socratic Method,  Socrates “was the first to show that life affords scope for philosophy in every moment, in every detail, in every feeling and circumstance whatsoever.”

As a facilitator using Christopher Phillips’ methods, my first task is to get people to stop expressing opinions instead of thoughts:

Dear Socratians,

At our last meeting we decided not to express what we have already made up our minds about (opinions) but reframe our ideas as philosophical questions (thoughts).  We had a good start discussing the limits of human choice,  but, when abortion came up, things got a lot less rational.

When our emotions are roused, the neo-cortex can be overwhelmed by the mammalian brain – all fright and flight.  Thus an issue that we are already angry about or personally shaken by is going to subvert the rational tone of our discourse.

Let’s work on proposing questions that we haven’t already made up our minds about.  That way, we can develop our little oasis of reason in this contentious world.

Dear Socratians,

We avoid political and religious questions because these are so contentious. If we really need to ask them, how can we find calmer ways to approach them?  In a Socrates Café, almost any question can be fine-tuned so it can be examined in a philosophical way.

Example 1: When Timothy McVeigh was put to death, a person who wanted to discuss why this happened framed the question as “who owns human life?” In that way the group could look not only at the particular issue, but also at a wide range of o philosophically import ideas that were related.

Example 2: Soon after we went to war in Iraq, people wanted to talk about whether this was the appropriate course of action.   To do so in a philosophical way, they framed the question as  “What is a just war?”

Example 3: A group of Socrates Café members wanted to examine the “gay marriage” issue in a philosophical way. “What is an excellent marriage” let them discuss it in the broader context of the institution of marriage as a whole.

Dear Socratians,

Thanks for your questions!  I wish we could discuss them all, but we will take a vote on just one for Sunday:

1.     What brings you joy any time of the year?

2.     What is intelligence, specifically defined? Is it part of a larger area of understanding? Is it broad or narrow like engineering?

3.      What is courage?

4.     We know about physical illness. We know about mental illness.  Is it possible to have soul sickness?  How would you describe it?

5.     Do words mean different things depending on who says them?

Dear Socratians,

Everyone seems to think that human beings invented mathematics.  But how do you account for the “Golden Ratio,” the fact that in the spiral of a nautilus shell or the ratio between rows on a sunflower head display identical formulas? 

The sea snail and the sunflower evolved before we did, didn’t they?  What do you make of the fact that they contained discernable mathematical algorithms before human beings evolved?  Is the universe mathematical?

Dear Socratians,

Sometimes in the dark hours of the night, or in the middle of yet another chaotic day, most of us have asked ourselves “what is this all about?  Is Covid 19 entirely random?  Is everything on earth just whirling about every which way, with no rhyme or reason?”

I have been thinking about Stoicism lately. This ancient Greek way of life takes the things we can’t control – our health, random catastrophes, the contradictions and setbacks of economies and careers – and separates them from what we can control, which is our attitude and our choice of action.

Is Stoicism too strenuously selfless for you?  You might consider Cynicism, also a classical philosophy, but this one is based on the idea that people only pursue their individual self-interest and that social norms are ridiculous.  Nor will your life as a Cynic be entirely taken up with sneering – the name derives from “dog” and it’s a dog’s life you will live doing your own thing, like chasing your tail and lazing around in the sun all day long.

Dear Socratians,

In the school of philosophy called cynicism you get to be skeptical about everything and to live all careless of outcomes, like a dog.

I thought you cat lovers might like to know that there is a feline school of philosophy as well. 

John Gray has published a book on Feline Philosophy:  

“Rather than groping for meaning in a universe that offers none, we sure try to be more like cats, creatures that are congenitally happy being themselves…(fostering) contemplation-a mode of perception that fosters equanimity – and offers a scheme for emulating the catlike qualities that might permit us to thrive without anxiously inquiring how to live.”

The question is, aren’t these just as canine as feline qualities, or are cats more “contemplative” than dogs?

Dear Socratians,

There is a kind of philosophizing you could call “short-term” in that it takes place inside a single figure of speech.  For example, look at antitheses, which are words expressing an idea one way in one phrase and another (usually opposite) in the second:

“The United States Right long ago rejected evidence-based policy in favor of policy-based evidence.”

“Intelligence isn’t knowing everything. It’s the ability to challenge everything you know.”

“We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”  

Try writing one – they are fun (like eating peanuts). 

Dear Socratians,

Thanks for your questions!   I am looking forward to seeing which one you vote for on Sunday:

1.     What makes us human?

2.    What does it mean to have a conscience?

3.      When does freedom turn into license to do any and all things?

4.      If we can process the death of cats, dogs, and elephants, why do we have such a hard time defining and coping with human death?

5.    Why is there something rather than nothing?

Would you like to attend one of our meetings? They are the third Sunday of the month at 2PM, currently on Zoom. Just email me to avpratt@aol.com and I will send you a Dear Socratian reminder.

Zee you there!

    

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS?

After the gatherings and feasting and general jollity of Christmastime, it is traditional to prepare for the stark winter months by making resolutions. We usually do this on an individual basis, with a list of things we want to change in our lives. Everyone knows how dispiriting this can turn out to be three or four months later, when we have “broken” them all.

 A “resolution” is something you resolve to do, with a flavor of fixity of purpose, a tight-lipped determination.   When we make a New Year’s resolution we are resolute about something.   There are negative items on our lists – to interrupt people less for example ; and positive wishes as well -such as to listen more closely to what other people are saying.

Would you believe that the idea goes back 4000 years to a New Year celebration in ancient Babylonia called Akitu, when promises were made to various gods and debts were paid off? 

The Jewish New Year at Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays leading up to Yom Kippur may derive from that ancient Middle Eastern celebration; in Judaism, people list the wrongs they have done, and not only repent for them in their hearts but make atonement with anyone they have harmed.

We can learn from these traditional practices because a problem with the kind of New Year’s resolutions we list is that we make them as individuals rather than in groups.   Though this has the advantage of making us solely responsible for carrying them out, it is much easier to break them with impunity.

Would making resolutions with other people work out better?  I am not thinking so much about getting together with a friend to carry out a diet or exercise regime as finding a group that is resolute about the same thing that I am and strengthening our resolve (and effectiveness) by joining in their actions. 

Yes, evil stalks the world, fire and flood are upon us, the media tells us that we are failing to solve our problems, plague and pestilence assail us in relentless urges – it is no wonder many of my friends feel hopeless about the future and helpless about being able to change it.

A couple of years ago I had a wonderful long winter’s read in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  No mere shallow bromide about positive thinking, the book is full of data and charts proving that things are going exponentially better for the human race than they ever have before.   Nevertheless, the media – including liberal print news and progressive tv news analysis – keeps right on bombarding us with the misguided idea that nothing we can do will change things and that we are all going to hell in a handbasket.  So I am delighted that Steven Pinker has come out with a new book,  Englightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, and Human Progress.

Here’s Pinker’s TED talk on the topic: https://www.ted.com/talks/the_ted_interview_steven_pinker_on_the_case_for_optimism

Pinker notes that we are “more galvanized by negative thoughts than those of optimism and hopefulness,” (which is why the media favors bad news) and that the crucial thing about making resolutions lies in “our assessment of how our actions can affect the world. That is, if you are optimistic in the sense that good things will happen no matter what you do, then there’s no need to do anything. But if you have an attitude of what Hans Rosling called ‘possibilism’ and what Paul Romer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, called ‘constructive optimism,’ that attitude can lead to action. Again, with that variety of optimism, it’s not that good things will happen; it’s an if-then statement—namely, if we perform the following actions, then positive results could ensue.”  (See Steven Pinker on the Past, Present, and Future of Optimism | by Darryn King | OneZero (medium.com).

My proposal for our New Year’s resolutions this year is that, with a problem-solving adjustment in our attitudes and a spirit of constructive optimism in our hearts, we find groups that share our goals and then join them in their actions. Your resolution doesn’t have to swallow up any more of your time than you want: one call, one email a week in concert with the tactically brilliant folks in the groups suggested below can be very effectively lead to concrete results:

  • I resolve to do something about the attacks on our democracy.  Robert Hubbell suggests you join Sister District, “which is actively recruiting volunteers to help with all phases of the 2022 election.” A reader (of Hubbell’s daily newsletter sent the following note:

Our flagship electoral program works to get Democrats elected to strategic state legislative seats by supporting campaigns with grassroots action. We “sister” volunteers from deep blue districts with carefully targeted races in swing districts, where flipping control of the state legislature will advance progressive policy. Our volunteers canvass, phonebank, write postcards, text bank, and fundraise for candidates. We welcome volunteers and candidates of all genders! Defend Democracy is another effective group that lists specific actions.

Another group with lists of possible actions is Defend Democracy

  • I resolve to help get out the 2022 vote.    Jessica Craven has a practical, action-focused newsletter called Chop Wood, Carry Water, keeping you up to date on all sorts of ways to keep democracy going – see, especially, her link to Voters Not Politicians.   
  • I resolve to do something to mitigate global warming.  There are all sorts of groups bringing useful information and effective action to the aid of our Beloved Planet.   My two favorites are www.citizensclimatelobby.org  and www.sierraclub.org.  Or, to combine your interest in Democracy and the Environment, you can work with the Environmental Voter Project www.environmentalvoter.org  or the League of Conservation Voters www.lcv.org.

Making New Year’s Resolutions like these isn’t naively optimistic.   Nobody I know has any doubts about the vast reach and power of the evil (which I understand as the product of bad human choices) rampaging through our times; rather, we are determined (as Emily Dickinson puts it) to “dwell in possibility” while resolutely face up to the reality of evil and refusing to be cowed by it.



A Startling Joy

Have you ever been knocked off your feet by joy?  I don’t mean the moment when you spot your long-absent sweet heart rushing toward you in the airport with arms open to give you a bear hug, or the kind when your boss emails you that you’ve got the promotion you’ve spent years longing for.  This kind of joy that knocks you off of your feet is never anticipated, totally unexpected -a sudden surge of happiness that jolts you from the top of your head to your curled up toes.

For that moment, you know that the universe is existentially good, and that, for you, all manner of things are inexplicably well.

These days we are accosted by cascades of bad news.  Bad news is stronger “click bait,” more emotionally galvanizing, than good news; it is thrown at us to get our attention.  In the journalistic bromide, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  Even news channels whose basic political bent is as progressive as I am do this: “there is much bad news to report,” Robert Hubbell explains, “but it is overwhelmed by orders of magnitude by good news that goes unreported. Good news is not reported precisely because it is ubiquitous. It is all around us.”

Plenty of philosophers consider “the good” to be the ground of reality.  Plato and Socrates assumed that a moral good underlay all social arrangements, as did Adam Smith and America’s founders.   Like them (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”) Immanuel Kant insists that reason dictates a moral imperative. Christianity assumes that the universe rests in God’s hands, and that God is good.  Human error can always be corrected by attention to divine justice.  When the Reverend Martin Luther King said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he meant (as did the Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker whom he was paraphrasing) that that the presence of God behind all things calls us to seek justice.

Here is how Parker put it in his 1853 sermon: “We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice.”  To this 19th century Unitarian, the universe contains moral directives which we must first discern and then enact.   Universalism, a denomination which merged with Unitarianism in 1961, goes even further in its assertion that the universe is intrinsically good and that every one of us is endowed from birth with goodness, dignity, and worth.

One of Hubbell’s respondents worries that when we are bombarded by bad news we experience “moral injury”:

          “It is a moral injury to see wrong being done, legally, in an ongoing way. And to not see enough being done to stop it. Moral injuries unbalance our sense that the world we live in is basically good. They bruise our trust that we will continue as a ‘good enough; nation.”

          “The the reader has put her finger on the answer,” responds Hubbell: “We do live in a world that is basically good—a truth that is difficult to see at times. Our perception of reality is skewed to the extent that it is informed by the relative proportion of good news versus bad reported by the news media.”

These days, everything we read and hear suggests an ever-increasing power of a profoundly malignant evil.  So where to these sudden moments of joy, of inexplicable happiness pouring all through our beings like warm butter, come from?

As I am waking up I like to listen to the radio.  A few mornings ago,  I lay there being accosted by news of a  gigantic tornado tearing whole towns apart and burying everyone in the rubble, the world-wide proliferation of the omicron covid variation, cascading Antarctic icebergs raising sea levels by ten feet, school shootings and species depletion – all of that – when my dread and my terror suddenly melted away and the world became inexplicably lovely, inexplicably good.  It was one of those warm-butter-all-through-me breakthroughs when all manner of things were well in every direction and I found myself reveling in a world of total joy, of total goodness.

Where did that come from?  If it was a breakthrough, where did it breakthrough from? Do we live in more than one world, all at the same time?  Is there a space we within us, buried beneath all the bad stuff, that we inhabit unwittingly?  Is it as real as the real world?  Is it the real world?

Wishing you all happiness and joy, as often and as jolting as possible.

A Time of Darkness, a Time of Waiting

It grows darker and darker now, for longer and longer.  The sun sets as early as 5 in the afternoon, and the dawn often brings only a narrow golden band that is all too soon absorbed by the grey overhang.   When we have sunshine, it is so fleeting that we rush to put our coats on and go for a walk before it vanishes. More often, the sun is a mere pewter disc, briefly glimpsed and, apparently, ephemeral.

Even if we don’t observe the liturgical season of Advent, we experience advent as a sense of something coming into being, an undisclosed incipience. This time of year, we sink into a sense of waiting and of longing, an ancient yearning for the end of so much darkness.  Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen sees it as a “time for deepening” when an odd mixture of joy and despair shapes our moods and feelings – joy if we are nurtured by a loving community and despair if we find ourselves alone.

Happiness, we are told, springs from attachment – to community, to family, to friends we are fond of or to someone deeply loved.  When people nurture children or fall in love,” writes Maia Szalavitz in an article about why people take opioids, “hormones like oxytocin are released, infusing memories of being together with endorphin-mediated feelings of calm, contentment and satisfaction. This is one way that social contact relieves stress, making bonding a fundamental protector of both mental and physical health.”  Conversely, “when we are far from our loved ones or sense that our relationships are threatened, we feel an anxiety that is not unlike withdrawal from drug.”

In countries like Finland and Denmark, where there are as little as six hours of daylight, Scandinavians seek to ward off winter gloom by producing an atmosphere of “hygge” (pronounced hoo-gah), a mood of cozy, warm comfort.  This can be a cup of coffee or tea or cocoa and a good book in your most comfortable chair, or it can be a gathering of friends or family for long winter talks and hilarious games.

To set the mood you need something baking in your oven, fire your fireplace and candles on the mantle, as well as evergreens and glittering ornaments fetched out from (dark) attics and basements.

“He seems very nice,” my mother would say when I brought a suitor home for her inspection, “but is he good for forty years of long winter evenings?” (Reader, he was)

The principal holiday of the season antedates Christian Christmas as the Winter Solstice, when our primitive fears that it will get darker and darker forever are alleviated by the observation that – very gradually and at first barely discernably -the year has turned and our days will get lighter and lighter from now on.  And that is why candles are lit everywhere to welcome the returning light and urge it on its way; and why, in Celtic traditions, we “open wide the guesting door” to family and friends and to all those in need of the solace of company.

When I was growing up, we attended midnight service on Christmas eve.  Full of every kind of expectation, we sat silently in the pitch dark sanctuary until an old chorister named Chauncey appeared at the door to sing, in a deep a capella voice,” Oh come, oh come Emmanuel” as he made his way up the aisle, swinging a dimly lit kerosene lantern.  When he reached the chancel, candles sprang into light all over the church.

I used that memory in my novel Fly Out of the Darkness, so here is that take on Advent, with my wishes for your joyous advent, profound hygge, merry Christmas, and strength for the new year.

Father Robin’s Solstice Sermon – The Worlds We Long For (annispratt.com)

Pandemic Autumn

In the spring, I still had a sense of humor.  I could write comic pieces about how my mask frightened the neighbors because I looked like a burglar. Now the weather is cool again, and the same outfit seems sad rather than funny.

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year – back to school, fresh writing projects, activist tasks that refresh my spirits and lead to meeting all kinds of new people.   In the fall, even the “familiar strangers” of my daily encounters – sales clerks and grocery baggers, pharmacists and librarians – respond with more than their usual verve in the interactions I have always cherished.

Now it is all deliveries to my porch or the brief, unsatisfactory encounters of curb pickups.

My state of Michigan has managed Covid 19 very well, and I have not caught it, but a gang of white militiamen who are furious about masks, social distancing, and (especially) bar closures laid plans to kidnap our governor.  Our terrifyingly dictatorial President caught the virus, but, far from being sidelined, he has lurched back into the last weeks of his campaign with spooky intensity, wearing a superman undershirt.

There is dread in our world.  There is dread for our world.

There are sleepless nights.  There are tearful mornings. There are long, lonely stretches as the afternoon dark comes early.

A November without Thanksgiving and a winter without Christmas are upon us. We plan to gather around the Zoom hearth and eat our solitary feasts with some (remote) semblance of festivity.  I do feel rather clever to have purchased two electric lap robes for the porch, so that I can still have friends over for a chat.

My neighbors have been more neighborly than before the pandemic: they buy me groceries, swap extra supplies, go for walks and sit on the porch.   My friendship groups offer heartwarming support on Zoom, and I deeply cherish long phone calls with my dearest old friends.  

But we are dying – two of us are gone now (dear Rheba just a few weeks ago) and though I have a good, solid philosophy of mortality  along the lines of “What a life! What a lark,” it doesn’t keep timor mortis from my door every time I have a fever or feel a bit flu-ish.

My father was quite a recluse, as is one of my grandsons; I worry that being shut in so long might turn me into an agoraphobic.   I am unused to company:  last Saturday, with two real people coming over (distanced walk/with masks, distanced porch-sit/with masks) plus a densely populated Zoom meeting, I freaked out and crawled under my bed.

I have always talked to myself, but now I am talking to people who aren’t there.  When dear Rheba died (as Mozart played in a Canadian hospice where she was given an injection to the heart – what verve! what courage!) I fell right over keening, like a ululting Arabian widow.   Then her last words (filled in on the “motto” line of her Canadian end of life form) got through to me –

“Disturb the universe!  Rejoice!”

– So I got to my feet and brought her along on my household chores, chatting all about them with her.

This morning I had a long discussion with the bathroom spider about where he planned to secrete himself while I took my shower.

I bet I am not the only senior citizen arguing with her stuffed animal about who will sleep where in my bed.

I say good morning to the squirrel and to the nuthatch, and goodnight to the moon and the stars and to my picture of the Dalai Lama.

Tenzin Gyatso – 14th Dalai Lama

He is just my age and has this enormously engaging grin; he seems to find everything funny.

I plan to work on that.