Every morning when I awaken and see the amber light on the old dying elm and the vigorous eucalyptus, the one that bled crimson sap one season I think, ‘Beauty is still here.’ Relief and gratitude. Life as I have been living it – shall I call it – life as usual – goes on.
I can meet the day. I determine to go on living my life as well as I can. The early morning light is beautiful as it was yesterday. Today will be hot again, but the nights are cool and clear. We are meant to sit under the stars.
Life as usual, what is it?
At this momentarily quiet moment, it is: Pray, eat, write, work, water, feed (the wild), dog, walk, read, family, friends, solitude, sleep. Again and again.
But also at this hour and every hour, deadly radiation – 300 tons of toxic water per day – is leaking from the storage tanks in Fukushima.
“The water from the leaking tank is so heavily contaminated with strontium-90, cesium-137, and other radioactive substances that a person standing less than two feet away would receive, in an hour’s time, a radiation dose equivalent to five times the acceptable exposure for nuclear workers,” Reuters reported.
TEPCO, Tokyo Electric Power Company has finally admitted what we, and they, have known from the beginning: they do not have the means or the knowledge to remedy the situation.
An hour later, the light is stark and will remain so all day.
After twenty-seven years, I am divorced. The reality of this great loss enters my heart. I did not expect to have to re-imagine and rebuild my life at this age. One prepares for the death of a life partner, but divorce is an unnatural death blow to the heart. After divorce, I have to assess what life is, so I can reconstruct a pattern that is a life. The essentials are there: Pray, eat, write, work, water, feed (the wild), dog, walk, read, family, friends, lots of solitude, sleep. Now Fukushima is here. Drone, and dissonance. It adds another dimension to the question: How does one go on? How am I to live?
These are not the questions I expected to ask at this time in my life. But now I must ask them. The personal and the global coincide. Fukushima, only one of the myriad horrific consequences of the ways we are living our lives. How do we go on? How are we to live?
1985. A dear friend died. I was inconsolable. Driving on the freeway one gray morning, a disembodied voice said, “Forgive those who have left early. Who could not stay to witness the end.”
I protested that I was also unwilling to stay to witness the end, but I would stay as long as I saw that I might make a difference. I was not fifty yet. Too young to know that one doesn’t win when trying to bargain with the spirits; I thought I had made a deal: I would stay. We would all work to change consciousness and there would be no end to Creation.
I was certain or I was determined: The human could not (would not) overcome the Holy.
Last night, August 24th, I was anguished about Fukushima, climate change and the Rim Fire “swallowing everything in its path.” as it approached Yosemite . My own personal pain and unexpected loneliness, miniscule and irrelevant before the anguish of the earth. Losing a soul mate is not the same as losing a planet, even though it raises similar questions about how to live and what has meaning.
“A raging California wildfire has grown to 200 square miles and is so large and burning with such force that it is creating its own weather patterns, making it hard to predict where it will move,” fire officials said. “As the smoke column builds up it breaks down and collapses inside of itself, sending downdrafts and gusts that can go in any direction,”
“ She is really angry” a Native American friend says. “No telling what She will do.”
I went to bed asking for wisdom, which only rarely comes to me in dreams.
I dreamed a friend has decided to commit suicide. Her husband and I are accompanying her as witnesses. We are facing her as we sit on the ends of a small couch, a large space between us. She is speaking to us but she is speaking in absolute silence. She is standing, restless, as she reveals her decision. She does not have to explain. We know. We understand. Sometimes my friend suffers what the world is suffering in her body. We see that she cannot bear the pain.
My friend is living in a neighborhood where violence, always a constant, has suddenly escalated. She is aware that the escalation in her neighborhood is an analogue of the global escalation. She is not willing to respond personally without also considering the global dilemma. So she speaks, without words, of the local incidents, the murders and break-ins, and the parallel events in our country, and around the world.
The communication between us is entirely silent and precise. We could elaborate, but, in the dream, we are committed to short hand:
She is thinking of the violence in her city, the violence in our country, the violence in the world. Personal violence, national violence, global violence. Murder, massacre, terrorism, war.
I am thinking of climate change, global warming, nuclear accidents, oil spills, extinction.
She is considering suicide. We are immersed in ecocide. We are each holding everything the other one is holding.
She and I have declared our houses as sanctuaries for the community of human and non-human beings. Now sanctuary is threatened. Sanctuary , a quality of earth, is threatened everywhere. In the dream, the reality of the loss enters her heart.
At first, neither her husband nor I interfere. It is, after all, her life. We know her anguish. But then it seems, I do question her decision and she falters. She cannot stand her ground about suicide. It seems she decides to live. Or rather, she decides not to take her own life. In the dream, I am now responsible to her for the unbearable pain she will have to bear.
She will ask the question: How shall I live? She will ask that even if there are no remedies that she knows. No remedies for her pain. No remedies for the disasters the world is facing.
I am trying to follow the wisdom and direction of the dream.
On August 23d, NPR played an interview with climate scientist Judith Curry, who in 2005 predicted that hurricanes were going to get more severe due to climate change. She also did diplomatic work behalf of the IPPC, the United Nations, International Panel on Climate Change. This spring, she testified to a house subcommittee that “If all other things remain equal, it’s clear that adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will warm the planet, but all other things may not remain equal.” She didn’t feel certain about the outcome and so she recommended taking no action. “I have six nieces and nephews who have recently graduated from college,” she says. “Not easy finding jobs in this economy. Are we going to jeopardize their economic future and they may not even care?”
Leaked material from the soon to be published IPPC 5th Assessment Report declares that scientists hold humans 95% responsible for climate change. Until we are certain of this, do we indulge business as usual for the imagined economic benefit of our relatives without considering all the other beings, human and non-human on the earth?
Native Americans have an answer to this. In Lakota, it is mitakye oyasin, all my relations. Ideas are not abstractions. Embedded in culture, they, like the force that turns sunflowers always toward the sun, magnetize and focus our energies in particular directions. These two words, alone reveal the great gap between a culture that lives for a technology that created Fukushima and a culture that lives through a reverent love of the earth.
As it happens, I am writing a novel , A Rain of Night Birds, about an atmospheric scientist. The novel was ‘given” to me. I would never have conceived of it, nor could I have developed it, by myself. I have been writing it for two and a half years, faithful to whatever is given me, listening, listening, listening, deeply involved and yet not knowing. I have given the summer to it and in turn I have been guided in ways that bring me to my knees.
Because of a series of accidents and complications, I was seated in my car and turned on the radio, just as the interview with Judith Curry aired. Had this been an ordinary day or hour, I would not have heard her.
These are the last days of the writing retreat. When the novel came to me, I knew no more about climate science than the average well educated citizen. Frustrated with trying to write intelligently about characters whose work and knowledge are central to the story while I do not share their understanding, I set out to query several scientists for a reading list of books I could understand without having the math background necessary for environmental sciences.. Years ago I had managed to learn what was necessary to bring Daniela Stonebrook Blue, an astrophysicist in my novel, The Other Hand, to life. The research had taken a year or two, but afterwards I could write in the language of the stars. Maybe I still have a year or two to learn enough of the environmental sciences to satisfy the integrity of my characters. Within a few hours, and before I wrote to anyone, a reading list appeared with articles I could understand that cover the entire field: “Welcome to Resources in Atmospheric Sciences.” Welcome, the title says. Welcome!
I do not generally associate technology and magic but I see that the spirits use any means necessary to communicate with us in ways that we can accept. They use dreams and they use Google. The combination is breathtaking. And a little humorous.
Earlier in the week, other strange circumstances connected me with the IPPC 4th Assessment Report. I had never read it. A brief section startled me: The Role of Local and Indigenous Knowledge in Adaptation and Sustainability Research. “Research on indigenous environmental knowledge has been undertaken in many countries, often in the context of understanding local oral histories and cultural attachment to place. A survey of research … outline the many technical and social issues related to the intersection of different knowledge systems, and the challenge of linking the scales and contexts associated with these forms of knowledge. With the increased interest in climate change and global environmental change, recent studies have emerged that explore how indigenous knowledge can become part of a shared learning effort to address climate-change impacts and adaptation, and its links with sustainability.”
How did this report come to me? The novel called it forth. The inner world and the outer world, experience and the imagination, life and spirit, they are always in resonant exchange. This report came to me because its material is central to the novel. Every environmental /earth scientist will read the Assessment, so will the characters in my book. But perhaps, the Assessment came so that I, as a citizen, will read it. So that it can be brought to your attention here. So that you , and I, will learn something of what we are facing AND that spirit exists. Both and together.
I do not know how to restore the earth any more than I know how to write this book. But I do know that it is necessary to take signs seriously and listen deeply. This is one of my commitments to these times.
And so the dream. I am trying to follow the meaning and implication of the dream. In a strange way, Judith Curry is part of the dream. As so are the characters in the novel I am writing. Environmental scientists. Earth scientists. How do they bear it? How do they live given what they know?
Often dreams pose questions rather than answering them. Dreams focus our attention in new ways. Here are some questions the dream may be asking:
How do we live if there are no known remedies?
Are there changes we are being called to make whether or not we know in advance whether anything will make a difference?
What might it mean to give up life as usual to actively face and meet these grief times?
How do we shift, if we don’t know what to do?
At least for this moment, let us agree. Let us not live life as usual. Let us not live business as usual. Let us not allow life, our lives, to be beholden to commercially designed, media driven, technologically determined life style.
How, then, will we live? How will we live each moment with integrity?
I had breast cancer in 1977. I sought out the life force, as a healing strategy, in the face of threat. In 1997, I wrote a journal of healing, Tree. In it, I named the life force, Toots. It was a proclamation. The question I asked then: What are the forces in me that say Die and what are the forces in me that say, Live?
The answers were so easy then. So personal. I had to change my life and I did it. At that time, a dream that alerted me that I had cancer, instructed me to step out silence. To speak. That was one way. I was a feminist; I understood how essential this was.
That dream in 1976 centered on fascism. It was set in Chile under Pinochet. It featured the Dina, the Chilean secret police, and a Nazi matron from Dachau who intended to use torture to silence me.
Today, as I remember the dream, and our need to identify our real lives, Daniel Ellsberg declares “”We have not only the capability of a police state, but certain beginnings of it right now,” Ellsberg told The Huffington Post Wednesday. “And I absolutely agree with Edward Snowden. It’s worth a person’s life, prospect of assassination, or life in prison or life in exile — it’s worth that to try to restore our liberties and make this a democratic country.”
In my dream of August 24th, 2013, my friend and I speak silently of everything that is bringing us to grief. Somewhere in our hidden conversation, teaching us how to live in such times, are Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange.
Here is another question inspired by the dream and the gravity of this time: If we have the courage and capacity to consider everything that is threatening us at once, might there be responses that can help us meet everything at once?
What would it mean to hold and consider everything at once? In the dream, my friend wants to die because she cannot bear it but later it seems she capitulates to the need to live and bear everything. What is everything? We each have our own list:
It is probably divided between the deliberate killing and the concomitant dying. The wars we are waging and the victims we have become of those wars.
(Please stay with me, with us. If you’ve come so far, please read this list, create your own and stay present to it.)
The development, sale and use of weaponry and the victims of these weapons.. Nuclear weapons and the dangers of nuclear power. Hiroshima / Nagasaki and Chernobyl /Fukushima. Syria and the new potential for horrific war sparked by the U..S. Arms sales and rapes and murders. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Drones., Surveillance, poverty and prisons. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, torture. Home foreclosures and city bankruptcies. Hurricanes, tornados, and fire storms. Monsanto, Keystone XL pipe lines, fracking, drilling, mountain top removal, coal, and mining, The melting glaciers, the release of methane from permafrost, the rise in carbon dioxide levels, the holes in the ozone layers, the rise of seas, the deaths of the polar bears … Our maddened and suffering children. All our losses and disconnections.
We murder and we die. This is who we have become – murderers and victims, both and at once. “I have become death, “Oppenheimer declared. That recognition did not save us.
Here is the challenge – for me and for us: If we have the courage and capacity to consider everything that is threatening us at once, and every way we are living that supports it, might we find ways that can truly help us meet everything at once?
And what if no answers come that guide us to know what to do? What if there are no remedies? How will we live our lives?
So often, I come to writing thinking that there is something new and urgent that I must set down. And then, I find myself, as at this moment, at the same insight. But once again, with urgency. Perhaps that is what writers and artists do. We are given an essential form or insight that is ours to continuously examine and perfect.
Remember the classic story of the renowned Japanese carver who had saved a very particular log. Being more than eighty, he told a friend, that after a lifetime of study, he thought he might be ready to begin to carve.
Mitakye oyasin as a response, as a standard, meets everything at once.
The repeating, on-going, continuous, relentless, insistent understanding: if we change out lives, if we step back entirely from those forms and habits that directly, if inadvertently, lead to Fukushima or any of the horrors we faced above, then … then … we still might save Creation. Everyday, the need to change and the radical nature of the change gets greater and more urgent. And even so, if there are no carbon emissions for the next year, the seas will not freeze over as before in a year or two. But we do not know what might result from such a united and complete offering to Spirit.
Judith Curry wouldn’t speculate on global warming because she can’t calculate all the factors. Or perhaps, she hit despair. When we hit despair, we go on with life as usual, in its most diminished form. We continue to insist on what we, individually need and what we individually want.
Unlike Judith Curry and like all the contributors to the IPPC 5th Assessment, we can assume that global warming will get worse and we are responsible. Therefore …
Just after 9/11/2001, I wrote in Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing (Hand to Hand):
“At the time when the planes hit, seven of us … were engaged in fierce ritual work.
“Two stories intersected in that moment: a story streaming toward destruction and a story streaming toward healing.”
The path toward destruction has gained momentum. Fukushima may mean that destruction is imminent. And yet …
I don’t know what is at the end of that last sentence. I will let you finish it. But the dream implies there are right responses even if we do not know them. And that we are to choose life. I am asking myself and all of us, what does it mean to choose life?
Are we willing to change our ways, to live in what Native Americans call the good ways, to step away from what leads to the tragedies we have each listed, even if, ultimately, it may not save our lives? Are we willing to make those radical offerings?
At the end of When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams writes: “An albatross on Midway Atoll, dead and decomposing, is now a nest of feathers harboring plastic from the Pacific gyre of garbage swirling in the sea. We can kneel in horror and beg forgiveness. Or we can turn away. But the albatross crying overhead, buoyed up by the breeze, is now suspended in air by her vast bridge of wings. She is the one who beckons us to respond.”
Terry learns that she has a tumor close to the language center of her brain. Surgery might threaten her understanding or her speech. Doctors giving second opinions “all asked the same question: ‘How well do you live with uncertainty?’
“’What else is there?’” she said.
The friend from the dream and I have just had a conversation. “I have made the pledge to live twice,” she said.
“I have as well,” I answered. “But I made it conditional upon reversing the terrible disorder of things. Perhaps the dream calls me to make the pledge unconditionally.” As I write these words, I wonder if this is the offering?
My friend says, “You will not be alone if you choose life. We will help each other bear it.”
Since I was young, I have been told that we can’t go back to the way it was. (Also that this way is better – that is not worth bothering to refute.) Don’t be a Luddite, I was advised – or warned.
This is the other theme explored here: Everyone of us comes from an indigenous culture. That means we all come from people who knew the spirits, loved and interconnected with the earth and all its beings. It means we have the love of the earth, beauty, art, song, healing, vision within us. It means we have access to deep peace and respect for all beings. It means that we can all follow the African way of Sankofa, the mythical bird that flies forward by looking back.
It means we can go back. it means that, as in the dream, we can falter in our determination to kill ourselves and destroy all life. It means we can gather the wisdom we need to live real lives. It means we can be freed from what has taken us over. It means we do not have to continue on this death march of our own invention.
When Fukushima first exploded, I journeyed to Her, to the one who I called the Great Earth Sea Mother. I didn’t dare do this in what is called real time, but I could do it through the ways that Spirit has given us to reach across from one realm to another. I wanted to comfort Her of course. She did not allow me to ease my heart that way. “Be with me,” she said. So I was as extensively as I was able. Imagine then, the pain of the on-going nuclear reaction within her, the unimaginable fire, the continuous, relentless agony.
We don’t know how to decontaminate the waters. We don’t know how to ease her pain. A hundred years estimated to repair the nuclear facility? How many years until the radiation is spent?
But we also don’t know what will be possible if we go back to the original wisdom and live accordingly. I don’t think any indigenous people on the planet have the intention of saving us. But living in the old ways, that they have so carefully and respectfully preserved, may save the earth.
 Tree: Essays and Pieces, North Atlantic Books,.1997. (First published by Peace Press, 1981)