Quarterly Media Review

By rights this re-view ought to include the many articles that have been assigned reading for the Environmental Humanities (MOOC) course I began in January run by the University of New South Wales via the UK platform, FutureLearn. So many times in the last few months I have wondered: what on earth was I thinking? And: who has the time, the wherewithal, to process this properly? But then, I remembered what I had been thinking and that, though I was not able to keep up at the pace the course was run, I do have time (especially as there no real limits on time; it being ostensibly self-paced.) It has been a rich course, one aligned with core values I hope my life is fruitfully entangeld with, and I have gained much insight and been able to think in good and generative ways with it.

BOOKS

PAGE-TURNERS

  • Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, Robin Sloane. Great title! The book itself is luminous. It shone at night on the shelf beside my bed. It’s low fantasy, wholly bookish, and it’s about reading, reading closely,  and about print, both physical and virtual. It’s also, eccentrically, about the Gerritszoon font.  An easy read, not without gems of insight, but mostly it felt like reading a comic. Was this an experiment approaching new modes of storytelling? Mmm. I’m not sure that it succeeds. Who loved it?
  • Cobra, Deon Meyer
  • A Banquet of Consequences, Elizabeth George
  • Conclave, Robert Harris
  • The Myth Gap, Alex Evans. Loved the connections made thinking with this book! Also, the portrayal of Margaret Barker of Temple Theology renown as ‘the real Indiana Jones’ I found quite delightful!
  • Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (on going)

SLOW READS

  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (on going)
  • Japan’s Cultural Code Words, Boyé Lafayette de Mente
  • Silence & Beauty,  Makoto Fujimura (Lent book, ongoing)

EVEN SLOWER (~ CLASS PREP.)

  • The Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd
  • Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson

ESSAYS

  • “All that offers a happy ending is a fairytale,” (Granta), “To Speak is to Blunder” (New Yorker), YiYun Li
  • “The Smallest Woman in the World,” Clarice Lispector (Dodson, trans.)
  • “Karaoke Culture”(Williams, trans.), “Questions to an Answer”(Hawkeworth, trans.), Dubravka Ugresic

PODCASTS 

+ Aspen to Go

  • Tom Friedman Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (12.21.2016)
  • Drew Gilpin-Faust & Leon Wieseltier Humanities in Decline: A Cultural Crisis (8.31.2016)

+ The Anthill

  • The Future (2.23.2017)

+ London Review Bookshop

  • On Benedict Anderson (5.18. 2016)

+ Tim Ferris

  • With Krista Tippett Calming Philosophies for Chaotic Times (2.21.2017)

Anyone with ears or eyes knows of Tim Ferris and his 4 hour work week. I’d never encountered his work before, only the promos. This was a most enjoyable interview which runs about 2 hours that I listened to lying in bed one afternoon at the beginning of what has lately blossomed into bronchitis.

+ BBC World Service, In The Balance

  • The End of Ownership (4.3.2017) [Notes on the Circular Economy]

+ Intelligence Squared, Yuval Noah Harari

Myths we need to survive

ON SCREEN/S

+ Inside Out

+ A New Story for Humanity: Change the Story, Change the World (Findhorn, 1h42″), which you can read about here.

+ Mozart in the Jungle

+ Broadchurch

Saving & Being Savable

The sun was out and a stiff breeze blew as I crossed the bridge to the library to pick up some books for the weekend. I noticed the flags were flying at half-mast and in a flash remembered that it was the 3.11 memorial day for the East Japan disaster of 2011.

I was out walking that afternoon and this, riverside. To be in the presence of water – life giver & death dealer – seemed right. My spontaneous prayer was a quiet walking meditation along an enchanted, little-used path that touched, as I was capable of sustaining the images, on catastrophes of scale utterly beyond my understanding.

In my mind, somewhere, somehow, I re-see the roiling black waves, living nightmares, looming over seaside towns up east, insatiable, leaving profound devastation in their wake. Is this a face of God? The elemental face of the Deep, beyond our human ken?

In my body, I register the way the light shines, the luminous jade colour of the riverbed, and I catch sight of the little placidly paddling nutria pup hoving into the sparkles under the overhanging boughs, beside the scrubby, sun-bleached pale yellow reeds. Easy to feel the Presence here. Even to exalt.

*

Miroslav Volf recently tweeted:

 Our task is not to save the world; only God can do that. 

 Our task is 

 to protect and enhance flourishing life 

 in a world we cannot save.

 

I was struck, and a little annoyed (feeling I should know), by the question: What does ‘save’ mean here? [1]. Keep the same? Rescue? (From what/whom? For what/who?) Is the message emancipatory, hopeful? Something about limits? Does it have anything to do with its Latin roots in ‘health’ (salvus) or its other cognate, ‘holiness’? Is the message meant to be anti-hero/anti-individualist, inviting a non-zero sum play, instead? [2] Not, of course, that the positive task of protecting and enhancing the flourishing of life is for sissies. But, inescapably, for me, at least, when I think about what it could mean to ‘save the world’, it is to that benighted figure from the myths, Sisyphus, that my mind goes.

I wondered, watching as much as I could, my collar soaked in tears, the deeply terrifying National Geographic-edited live footage of the disaster: What is saving for? Why save? What is worth saving? Is what is saved unchanged and/or unchanging? How does one live, being saved, with trauma? In certain lights the answers present with absolute clarity. One saves because one chooses Life. Perhaps what troubles me is the assertion that our work is not to save the world. That ‘the world’-whatever that means- cannot be saved, by us (be made to conform to our fantasies?) seems evident. On the other hand: who else is there, to meet it, as it is, in the vein of St.Teresa of Avila, but us?

*

Something Dame Ellen MacArthur said in a recent interview stuck in my brain: deep water is safer than shallow. This burrowed in as I read more about tsunami. When the conditions are bad, the advice goes, move either to higher ground or further away (inland or toward the horizon), or into deeper waters, the deeper, the better (it’s friction that increases the devastating power of the wave). [3]

There are times when it appears we can do things to be savable. Equally, there are times when we cannot, and we sink. It may be terrible this self-emptying, responding to what we do not choose, what we do not will for ourselves. To answer with surrender means a rejection of what we may have once imagined as true of saving and of safety. It is, essentially however, an expansion. A busting of limits. The submission represents, paradoxically, a leap, beyond, into the Unknown. The act of surrender moves us out of shallow waters, farther from the shore and into the deeps. Then what? I like to think, and hope, that the saving graces here continue to unfurl, even while they happen off the page, underground, in darkness, outside of the range of human comprehension.
Volf is right about one thing: while we can, let us choose Life, and in any way open to us, protect and enhance flourishing.

—-

[1] A quick look in a dictionary calmed me somewhat. It is a word with a lot of meanings.

[2] Robert Wright describes the non-zero sum game as the kind in which everyone’s interests are aligned, so that everyone wins or loses together. Wright argues that history tends towards more and more non-zero-sum co-operations and higher … levels of social complexity. See Alex Evans’ The Myth Gap, 41-2.

[3] I blush to think how closely this aligns with my reflexes where conflict is concerned. There is useful friction, we can agree, I think, and then there is the corrosive and ultimately destructive kind. Discernment advised!

Doing, Not Doing

In English, they can sound almost the same, fate and faith, but a little better familiarity with Latin would have tipped me off to their quite different roots. Still, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the concepts that these two words carry for a couple of weeks, where faith is likened to doing (it is something we practice, or cultivate) as opposed to fate, not doing (something we are subject to, powerless to influence). The tension grew after I was introduced to this captivating, rustic gentleman, Masanobu Fukuoka.

Watching this lovely, old, long white-bearded grandpa claiming that we ought just to relax and let nature take its course, and simply do what needs to be done and then take a nap, I was, I admit, quite drawn to the message. I don’t know that I could actually surrender enough to do it; I imagine it would make me anxious after all these years of learning to work in my community. Still, wouldn’t it be something to try? I mean, it gets to the heart, doesn’t it—What Is A Life?—and it throws into question all the restless questing we become attached to as grown-ups. Then I began to wonder: was Fukuoka’s approach not simply fatalistic? Or was it, in fact, a portrait of abiding trust? Possibly, why not, it was (most likely!) a mix of both. (10” video)

“The ultimate purpose of farming is not the cultivation of crops,” Fukuoka claimed, “but the cultivation and perfection of the human being.” A similar comment might be made about the study of the humanities: it’s not about the job or the status or the money, it’s about learning how to be human, to be natural, related, a human being. Is this what the Gospel verse printed on our University stationery meant to convey? I was sardonically amused when I laid eyes on it: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin …’  Was this pretty message, couched in flowers, meant for the women of the society in which I teach? Or was there, perhaps, a deeper truth waiting to be recognised?

When I watch the little old man surrounded by aliens from the cities looking to be restored rolling seed balls, I think about education and about the ways things spread; how we spread ourselves. As teachers we are putting a whole bunch of different seeds  (whose riches contained we trust cannot be destroyed by hungry critters, real or figurative) into a package that will be flung out into society, lay on the earth for a time, and, if/when conditions are right for flourishing, begin their sprouting.

Yes, I know, this is dreamy. In dreams, though, is where the quickening seed engages the tension between faith and fate. We hold each, or both, by heart; this much is apparent when we choose to respond. We do well to remember what David Steindl-Rast teaches:

“The heart is a leisurely muscle. It differs from all other muscles. How many push-ups can you make before the muscles in your arms and stomach get so tired that you have to stop? But your heart muscle goes on working for as long as you live. It does not get tired, because there is a phase of rest built into every single heartbeat. Our physical heart works leisurely. And when we speak of the heart in a wider sense, the idea that life-giving leisure lies at the very center is implied. Never to lose sight of that central place of leisure in our life would keep us youthful.”

Keeping Watch

What of the world has touched me this day? What, gratuitously, has reached me? Via all my preoccupations and distractions, what have I allowed in, registered? What grace have I mindfully received? To what and to whom have I given my attention?

These have been the questions that have been informing my way of late. It used to be that I kept a list of all that I did in a day. I tried that for almost a year in an effort to discover how it was at the end of a day I was utterly spent and with no memory, let alone satisfaction, of how I had become that way. So, I kept a list. Looking back over that list did not make my heart sing, however, not at all. Who cares, I thought? Not even me: all the things I did. It was a little misery-making to realise this, I confess. Papers marked, grades logged, meetings attended, classes taught, papers written, emails sent, phone calls made, bills paid, swims swum, walks walked (OK, that last one I do care about.) It seemed an experiment that bore no fruit, no nary a blossom.

At bottom I was haunted by that line of Annie Dillard’s ‘How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.’ (A reflection on this very question, is here.) I guess one of the reasons I decided to keep the list was to see how I was spending my days, my hours. I wanted to see if I could get a peek at something bigger than my sense of fragmented business. I wanted to make sense.

The alternative practice I started at the new year, based on the questions (above), can be seen to be somewhat (informally) connected to the Ignatian examen (which I’ve never really been able to get into).This way is, I feel, a focus more on being (attentive) than on doing. In one sense it is effortless; in another it requires a certain orientation of mind, a certain alignment of intention, an attunement to divine frequency. Into a notebook I’ve begun to write down the things that penetrate the fuzz, or buzz, of living. Mostly I’ve noticed that they are sensory charges. Detonations in the routine hum-drum. Poetic Instances. The cold, sweet sip of water in the middle of the night; the fragrance of slow-cooked hot sweet potatoes bought off the wagon in the shopping street;  the sweetness of a mikan eaten while soaking up the sun; watching an earthshine moonset from my apartment window, a new moon accessorised by bright Venus in a two-tone sky of peach and gradated blues; the sound of my keys thunking into the ceramic bowl as I return home.

Oh, blessed asymmetry of life!

This day of ashes and of earth is a reminder: we are home. Being with this, orienting around it, encouraged and inspired by all the gifts I am sensing along the way, these things really do make the heart sing.

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