All posts by Elizabeth West

Living Like It Matters

We actually do not have all the time in the world, so I am going to be bold.  What you do after you finish reading this is your business and ultimately, that is exactly as it should be. We may all be facets of a larger Oneness, tiny sparks of the Divine dwelling in human form, but for the moment—allowing the potential truth of a larger connection–we are very clearly individuals, each with our own experience and outlook. We have our own ways of coping and to some extent, each of us charts a unique course through this life. We are often granted some choice about how we live and how we die, though most of us vastly prefer to focus on the former.

Even there, we tend to let life happen, getting pulled from one urgency to another amusement without full consciousness of how we spend the time. “Where did the time go?” is a plaintive query, often-expressed. “Time flies!” When you are having fun, when you are busy, when you aren’t fully present.  Life happens to us more often than most of us would like to admit.  But still, we can always meet it–our life—where we find it today and choose differently how we experience the flow of time, how we interact with the circumstances we have been given and crafted for ourselves.  Such is the beauty of being alive.

As for dying—it is arguably the biggest taboo in first world cultures.  Whereas nearly every shamanic tradition teaches students the imperative of carrying death close by at all times, we’re not so comfortable dealing with it in the West, and thus we lose out on a lot of life.  Without death whispering in our ear, reminding us that our time is finite, it is easy to just let life happen.  And then, time flies and we don’t know where it went.

Never has it been more urgent to consider how we live and how we die.  We have—as individuals and a species–made serial choices about how we live, many of them unconscious and often without all the facts. But the sorrowful reality is that in a world of cause and effect, those choices have led us right up to where we are today, at least waist-deep in the sixth mass extinction. We stand right at the edge of the end of much that we have known and taken for granted.  It is my sense that most of us understand this in our bones, in our old reptilian brains, in what remains of our intuitive connection to the rest of life here on Earth. And, we are–in larger numbers–beginning to pay intellectual homage to the facts. They are overwhelming and increasingly hard to ignore.

So, on the one hand, there are more and more people acknowledging that we are pretty thoroughly screwed, that time has run out and there is no change we can make big enough to avert disaster. On the other, while there is clearly a lot of fear and grief out in the world, plenty of panic and the kinds of behaviors that arise in reaction to dire threat, these expressions tend not to be connected consciously to climate catastrophe. Projected on to anything but the mess we’ve made and don’t have the will to fix, we get pretty excited about protecting ourselves from taxes, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Cuban crickets, Palestinian children with rocks, vaccinations, as well as people who don’t vaccinate their kids, and, of course, Donald Trump and his gang of feckless thugs. The list goes on.  Add your own favorites.  Anything but the big kahuna.  The final finale.  Anything we think we might actually be able to solve, change, neutralize.  Our frailty is exposed here, and by avoiding consciousness of the imminence of catastrophe, we miss out on the chance to live as fully as we can, while we can.

No one knows for sure how long we have.  No one ever does, but we try to make reasonable assumptions and operate from there.  Estimates for the timing of civilization’s demise now range from a pessimistic year or two to an optimistic eighty or so, though nearly every day a new and often ‘shocking’ study announces that planetary degradation is happening much faster than previously predicted. From what I can glean, ten years might be a fair guess.  Not so long.  And for some, the wild and so-called ‘natural disasters’ have already come calling.  Maria in Puerto Rico, Paradise and the Polar Vortex have all claimed plenty of lives, thrown countless others into chaos. If I am wrong and the Arctic starts to freeze over again, the rain fills shrunken aquifers in the Central Valley of California, the oceans recede a few feet and vulnerable islands are reclaimed—well, then, I am in error and will gladly suffer the ridicule.  But if I, and many others better qualified to make the assessment, are not wrong, we don’t have that much time left to consider: how do I want to live?  And…possibly more helpful: how do I want to die?

Last week, I attended an informal gathering at a friend’s house in Berkeley, just ahead of a KPFA- sponsored talk on climate change by Dahr Jamail and Antonia Juhasz entitled ‘Is Our Earth in Hospice Mode?’  Joined only by our understanding of where the Earth is heading, everyone there was ‘post acceptance,’ far along the path of their own personal climate collapse journey. It bears noting that although some of these people would probably describe themselves as ‘doomers,’ I haven’t been in a room with as much joy, gratitude and laughter in a long time.

After sharing a potluck meal, we sat in a circle and talked about living and dying.  Not surprisingly, each of us had thought about how we wanted to engage with the time remaining, the time, however long or short, between now and ‘then.’  As we took turns talking, it emerged that some of us are focused on cultivating gratitude and looking for joy in the gifts of each day, each breath, each connection.  Others are prioritizing ways to be of service or finding the right means to stand in solidarity with the Earth. Checking items off bucket lists came up a number of times.  A few of us spoke of having work and family obligations that keep us simply putting one foot in front of the other, caught between an old paradigm and the gnawing awareness that it is not sustainable.  Predictably, being with loved ones and in nature were critical to many in the room.

Then we turned to our impending deaths, to our considerations of the manner and timing of our departure from this life.  It was a conversation far outside the bounds of normalcy, a discussion that could only happen in such extraordinary times. Listening to fifteen relative strangers lay bare how they imagine they will face their final days or hours was a profound experience.  The range of responses was broad, from a plan to hole up with a rifle to protect the last food and water, to a desire to choose a moment and check out intentionally before personal control has been completely forfeited.  Some of us admitted to stashing Nembutal while others have caches of rice and dried beans and bottled water.

One young person spoke of his ‘kit,’ which includes plenty of candy bars and tequila, along with a solar charger so he can spend his last days able to look at photos of family, friends and happier times.  Pure comfort.  Another man, who acknowledged that he had not been able to delve into this question before, found himself in tears.  He remembered the transcendent beauty of the time he spent, years ago, with a woman he loved, helping her to live while she died, laughing and crying together, enlivened and awake, during her last months.  He knew then that this was what he wanted to do with his grandchildren, all the way up until the last breath.

Despite what might seem to be a macabre topic, there was no despair in the room.  In fact, I think it safe to say that we all experienced some lightening, some lifting of mental weights, some new space cleared for joy. The opportunity to be totally honest with other human beings about something so important, so deeply personal and yet so widely silenced by our society was both freeing and energizing.  Overall, none of us want to die, but we are facing head-on the likelihood that we will.  Before our time, as it were.

A friend and I had already been conducting an exploration of our own death-desires over the past few months, meeting every couple of weeks to map out possible scenarios and trying to understand how we would ideally respond to each one.  In the end, the ‘plans’ are loose and full of holes; too many variables to account for.  But the process has been illuminating, allowing each of us to become clearer about our values and the things we want to remember when crisis arrives.  Just for illustration, I honed in on my truth that if given the option, I want to go out sharing with others, vulnerable and possibly a lot sooner, rather than sequestered and parsing out sardines and peanuts in order to eek out a few more days or weeks for myself and my family.  Since I have no idea what adventures lie ahead, I may or may not end up being able to act upon this, but I feel immensely more at ease, having gone to the mat with my survival instincts to see just how powerful they are. My friend’s truths are very different to mine in content, but he too was able to identify some of who he really wants to be in a time of crisis, as well as the challenges he faces in doing so. Knowledge in this case may not be power, per se, but it is unquestionably empowering.

Because I—and most of us– live within the duality of current reality, largely unchanged, and the foreknowledge, at some level, of massive tumult, this exercise often felt a bit surreal.  My life proceeds much as it has, yet death is now firmly ensconced on my left shoulder and for that, I am grateful.  It speaks to me: don’t miss a moment, choose the life you really want while you have the chance, don’t waste time on things you know don’t really matter. Having a framework for how I want to approach my death frees me up to live more authentically and with greater integrity and intention so long as am granted to live.  I am, paradoxically, more here since I have let myself contemplate the time when it will no longer be so.

Each of us must navigate the uncertainty and upheavals ahead in our own way, following our personal compass.  But for anyone who has reached a point of acceptance that their days are numbered, whether it be as a result of climate collapse, political chaos and war, or just the relentless advance of years, two big questions inevitably arise. How shall I live what is left?  And, how do I want to die when the time comes?  My experience, which echoes wisdom handed down through most mystical traditions, suggests that attending to the latter first provides essential guidance for understanding the former.  My life—whatever remains of it—is inestimably richer for having taken the time to investigate how I want it to end. I find that I’m living bigger and bolder, not holding back, not waiting for some mythical time in the future when perhaps it will be easier to do so.  I want to live as I want to die, sharing with others despite the risks.  In all honesty, I feel some trepidation writing this piece, speaking openly about death-designing to an anonymous audience. I am fairly sure that it will disturb more than a few who read it, and yet the old fears that would have stayed my hand in the past now seem less needful than the impulse to connect honestly as time grows shorter.

Clearly, there can be no one right way to live in these times; the waters are uncharted.  We will do what works for us. Denial, grief, gratitude, hope, anger, depression, action—who is to say which of these each of us must traverse, for how long and in what order?  But I share a fragment of my journey simply as an invitation: if it feels right to you, consider diving deeply into the truth of our collective and individual realities, facing your mortality and that of those you love. Death offers wise and consoling advice if you have the courage to listen.  And that courage is quite likely to be rewarded with a life more precious, richer, and ironically, that much harder to bid farewell.

Is it worth it?  I can’t answer for anyone other than myself, but we can probably agree that this situation seriously sucks. Given what is, and what almost certainly lies ahead, I find myself heartened and even hopeful, not about the quantity of my life, but about the quality of it. I feel very fortunate to have found this small silver lining, the goad I needed to finally be here now.

Love and Loss in the Anthropocene

What can we do?  We are without doubt in an historically unique and incredibly challenging position. The Anthropogenic extinction is here, now. It is not something we are anticipating or awaiting. It is upon us. Today, we are in it, watching the life we have known unravel on a hundred different fronts. And I find myself asking with crazy-making regularity: how can I — one ordinary human amongst 7.5 billion — honor this extraordinary time with whatever gifts and goods I happen to be carrying?

Many of us are posing similar questions to ourselves, to one another.  These are my own very personal musings of this moment, shared in the hope that they might spark or support others’ explorations. I expect that there are as many answers as there are humans willing to ask; we all must find our own way, our own truth in these times.

I experience a lot of gnawing low-level anxiety of late. I have frequent bursts of anger and I regularly skirt the precarious edges of depression.  It is not easy for any of us to hold in full consciousness the massive losses—and concomitant suffering– that are already underway, not to mention all those which are almost certainly just around the next bend. I try, like so many of us do, to balance awareness and honest acknowledgement of our impending collective demise with kindness and compassion. I work hard to avoid becoming completely subsumed by grief, to stay in the moment. It isn’t fun–or particularly functional–to wallow in sorrow. More importantly, I don’t want to be lost in my own inoculating darkness when there is relatively little time left to manifest the best of who it has been given to me to be.  I continue to believe that among the few meaningful actions left to us may be the choice to seek within ourselves love and courage and connection, even—and especially– in the midst of devastation.

But grief arises as part of that commitment. We know: loving almost always entails loss. To live with an open heart means being present for the slings and arrows.  Grief is part of the journey that lies ahead for all of us, should we choose to make it in consciousness. And sometimes the grief captures my attention in ways that take me completely by surprise. As a parent, I am ever aware of the legacy of our choices, all that we have made impossible for our children and grandchildren.  Easiest to see are the larger and most tangible of consequences – the horrifying prospects of global warming, climate chaos, habitat destruction, rising and acidifying seas, breakdown of civil order, war and…extinction.  Any human under 50 today– and all the other innocent beings on the planet–are facing a life immeasurably more difficult than the one I was granted.

Unbearable at times, I do try not to let the looming calamity keep me small or shut down, from delighting in the advent of another spring, from watching the birds with wonder and gratitude.  Nature, though brutally ravaged by human greed, still manages to offer deep sustenance, an unbeatable and incredibly generous antidote to the fear and anger and sadness that are afoot everywhere in these times.

A few weeks back, out walking in the unseasonably warm weather, I came upon a gnarled old apple tree, in full bloom. As I always do, I leaned in for a good whiff, a deep receiving of the tree’s offering.  My own personal ‘madeleine,’ the scent instantly conjures for me the glory of infinite possibility, the breathtaking capacity of human beings to make beauty, to create meaning, and to love heroically.  Twined together forty-three years ago, that particular fragrance and the aliveness I felt back then, on the cusp of adulthood, cannot be separated.

At seventeen, I embarked ebulliently on the adventure of my life.  My best friend and I moved into our first apartment in January, and we got jobs that paid us the minimum wage of $2.10/hour, to cover the rent. We bought big sacks of bulgur and millet to eat, and I brought home as many leftovers as I could from the college dining hall where I made salads all day.  As spring arrived, our landlady gifted us with armloads of beet greens thinned from her large garden, and then rhubarb stalks as they emerged.  We didn’t know what to do with them, but we learned. Turning down free food was not really an option.  Besides, we were saving for our very own telephone, and in a couple of months we succeeded in getting the necessary cash together, and proudly found ourselves waiting for the calls to come in on the brand new yellow wall phone.

Our apartment comprised the second floor of a farmhouse nestled in the midst of a rambling apple orchard.  The windows ran almost floor to ceiling, filling our living room with incredible light in the mornings, and being up high, we could see the purple shadows of the Catskills in the distance as we washed dishes in the early evenings.  The shabby furniture, the makeshift kitchen, the ancient bathroom—none of these eroded one iota our wonder and delight at the breathtaking freedom and promise of our lives.

We filled the place with too many plants, got a cat and a puppy, and spent a great deal of time dreaming.  I was going to be a French chef.  Maybe a Classics scholar, rendering obscure Latin poetry into meaningful contemporary verse. Possibly a shaman: I’d learn to fly and heal and see far into the future, into the very meaning of life.  And, of course, we were both going to find love that surpassed even our literature-fueled dreams.  Almost everything we imagined seemed within reach. After a few beers, listening to Mozart’s piano concertos and then The Velvet Underground and finally, Laura Nyro, we would weep for the unfathomable breadth of potential and possibility of what lay ahead, for the bittersweet knowledge that it would not, could not, all come to pass.

We were so fortunate.

As March drew on, something unexpected but utterly foreseeable occurred.  The orchard burst into bloom.  Everywhere, everywhere, the pale pink blossoms called to the bees and the scent, subtle but persistent, filled the air, drifted in the windows we opened to feel the spring on our skin.  Although we knew it was not especially ethical, knew that the farmer counted on each of those flowers to mature into apples for sale, we stole out in the night anyway and cut massive sprays of the branches to bring inside, sticking them in jars and arranging them in every one of our three rooms. Something beyond reason commanded us to immerse ourselves in this amazing efflorescence, this unlooked for gift from the earth. To bury our noses in the blossoms and sink gratefully into olfactory celebration of the new life that spring promises, the beginnings, the vastness of what might be.

We were so innocent; we had no idea.

Like many of my time and place, I ‘grew up’ in fairly short order. I made choices, and with each choice, I shut the door on other options.  My trajectory, though never straight, became clearer.  I learned about limits, and despite protestations both internal and external, I came to accept that there were things I would never, could never, do or be.  The lingering sorrow of this is balanced somewhat by the knowledge that I did manage some of my dreams, modestly understood. Following those dreams was a privilege that I took mostly for granted.  It was a privilege that many of my contemporaries never had, and which few, if any children today will claim.

Hard on that moment a few weeks ago, inhaling the scent of apple blossoms and being overcome with the visceral memory of unlimited potential, came the grief.  What have we done?  Oh, what have we done?

As a species, we have been unable to meet the challenges posed by our own misguided attachment to growth.  While the apple blossoms in the orchard around my first apartment faded and began their transformation into fruit (duly sprayed, no doubt, with stockpiled DDT), the fifth annual Earth Day was observed.  It is impossible to say whether we might have changed the course of things enough if we had paid attention to what was already known then, but the point is moot. We didn’t grasp the urgency, we didn’t act. And for the main, we still do not, even as the world burns.

Life, such as it is, goes on, and all of us try in our own ways to live it without undue pain or suffering.  In the developed world, those with the means drive, eat, charge our phones and computers, heat and cool our homes at minimum.  When we can, most of us look for release and entertainment, travel a bit, and take in the beauty of our planet while we still can.

I really do try not to judge anyone’s choices, much less their coping strategies. After all, I have done my bit to contribute to this situation, I am far from blameless. We are facing epic disaster, extinction in all probability, and although I have not always done my best for this planet and its inhabitants, it feels incumbent upon me to do so now. The truth is that these are desperate and utterly unusual times; no one really knows how to navigate them, there are no experts at walking gracefully into annihilation. We are making it up as we go and have only our own vast, and often ignored, inner resources to guide us.

For me, part of the answer lies in feeling it all, in refusing to turn away from what is before me. To look both the beauty and the horror head on, to keep my heart open, no matter what it finds. Some days this leaves me enveloped in a sizzling joy, encountering the glories of this world, human and otherwise. Other days, that same display plunges me into despair, as I sense the transient, ebbing nature, the impending loss of all that has been so good and beautiful.

On those days, there are moments when the hellish scenarios that populate my imagination take over and scare the shit out of me, but sometimes I simply long to apologize. To bow down and beg forgiveness, to offer up my sincerest regrets. To the waters, the dolphins, the oaks, the salamanders, the children. All beloved and all endangered. I was never especially profligate with my resources, but along with many others, I was entrusted with stewardship of this planet–my home. I did not do enough and I bear responsibility for the consequences of our shared indifference to the fate of the planet.

Leaving aside any breast-beating, which accomplishes less than nothing at this point, I am simply incredibly sorry for what has happened, and what will inevitably happen to the trillions of beings who will not have the chance to make their own choices. I am indescribably sorry for the destruction, the suffering, the pain that are already visited upon the many as a result of human action/inaction, and which will undoubtedly become universal in the not too distant future.

Our insistence upon having everything has ironically set us upon a journey toward an era of great loss. Some of what we will have to relinquish is painfully clear already, as we see cities and small nations burn and/or wash away, as we find ourselves increasingly donning masks so as not to die of the very air we must breathe, as we find cesium 137 in our fish, RoundUp in our grains, microplastics in our waters. These are the obvious costs.  The larger lamentations as we walk the road to extinction.

But there are other losses not so readily apparent or dramatic, for which I weep as well. They will make themselves known as we continue our collective walk down this road, the one we have chosen—consciously or not—for our species, our planet and most of the other beings with whom we share the earth.

Today, a lesser lamentation. There were, according to the United Nations Population Fund, 1.8 billion young people in the world in 2014. More now, to be sure, but we know that there are at least that many young human beings in the flowering of their lives, readied by time and nature to imagine, to dream, to believe in the future and all it might hold.  That which was so heady and life affirming for me is denied them. The future is no longer a place where vision can forge reality, where longing coupled with determination can lead to almost anything imagined.  Admittedly, this isn’t nearly so dire as losing life or limb or family or home, but it matters.

Prompted by the precious scent of this year’s apple blossoms, I am quietly grieving this little loss: the end of the future as something the young can dream into reality, take by storm, make their own.  Never an option for all, now looking obsolete and unattainable for everyone.  Even those with a luxury bunker in New Zealand.

And so I apologize to those young people whose lives will almost certainly be robbed of the richness, the freedoms, the potential—the very future– which I enjoyed.  I cannot substantively change what lies ahead; I am afraid it is too late for that.  But I can own my part in creating it.  And, perhaps more meaningfully, I can try to be an honest witness, I can find the courage to look without flinching, no matter how painful it gets.  I can decline to turn away, I can refuse to close my heart, I can continue to love even when it hurts like hell.  It isn’t much, it isn’t nearly enough, but in concert with my unfettered delight in the return to my neighborhood of a breeding pair of ospreys, it is what I can wholeheartedly offer today.

On the Road to Extinction: Maybe it’s Not All About Us

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

It is crystal clear—unlike the smoky skies where I live–to most of us who are willing to consider the facts: this summer’s ‘natural’ disasters have been seeded anthropogenically.  Wildfires in the northwestern United States and Canada, in Greenland, and in Europe are often referred to in the media as ‘unprecedented’ in size and fury. Hurricanes and monsoons, with their attendant floods and destruction, are routinely described as having a multitude of ‘record-breaking’ attributes. No one reading this is likely to need convincing that humans –our sheer numbers as well as our habits—have contributed significantly to rising planetary temperatures and thus, the plethora of somehow unexpected and catastrophic events in the natural world. I’d like to include earthquakes, particularly those in Turkey (endless) and Mexico (massive), in this discussion, and while intuition tells me that there is a connection between them and climate change, research to support this supposition is just emerging, so for the nonce I will leave the earthquakes out of it.

Our proclivity for advancing our own short-term interests has made a mess of things from the beginnings of this current iteration of civilization. Irrigating the Fertile Crescent, which was not very fertile prior to the ingenious innovation of bringing water from the mountains down into the dusty plains, opened the way for a massive increase in food production and a concomitant population rise. Cities grew and became kingdoms. After a reasonably good run, though, irrigation led to salination of the soil and ultimately left it sterile and useless (for agriculture) once again. Many people and their livestock starved or were forced to migrate in large numbers. Great idea, irrigation.

The internal combustion engine seemed a brilliant response to the need to move more commodities more efficiently as the Industrial Revolution created both increased product and demand. Though not necessarily so intended, the automobile initially offered humans wildly expanded freedom and ease. It also led to pumping the innards out of the Earth, filling the atmosphere with CO2, and oil-grabbing wars that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.  Another great idea with a few minor issues that did not get worked out ahead of time.

Plastic.  Now there is an incredible invention. Tough, pliable, lightweight, eternal…this stuff filled a myriad of needs. And conveniently, it could be produced using the fossil fuels we were already extracting for those internal combustion engines. Sadly, we never imagined it would come to microscopic plastic filaments in our drinking water, our sea salt, and even our beer. Not to mention in the bellies of just about anything that lives in the Earth’s oceans.

The list of creative inventions designed to make our lives better is long and varied, but almost inevitably, given enough time, our interference (or improvements, if you prefer) upon the natural state of things comes back to bite us.  And hard.  Fukushima could easily head up that list; most of us would have no trouble adding to the tally of follies flowing from Homo sapiens’ clever life hacks.

If you delve into the motivation behind these ‘advances’ there is generally a desire on the part of people to make life safer or more comfortable or easier in one way or another.  Maybe for themselves and their tribe, or their class, or their nation, but still—the impetus does not tend to flow from a place of malignity. We simply use our big brains to see what is adversely impacting our species (or sub-group thereof) and devise a fix for it. How could that possibly go so wrong?

Hindsight, they say, is always more acute than foresight. Could this be because we do not understand fully how our world works?  Is it possible that we lack a lot of critical information about the ways in which this planet’s life forms and forces are interwoven and connected?  Maybe our superior intelligence, while it has been billed as a powerhouse in the problem-solving department, does not really have the scope of vision that would ensure that problems—solved–stay solved?  Hmmm…might there be an issue with hubris here?  And how do we solve that?

What appear to be straightforward challenges that should yield to linear corrections are in fact predominantly multifaceted and many layered. We see only what we see—because we do have limits in terms of perception– and we act upon that. No real fault there. But you do something over and over and over and get consistent results, you keep being bitten by your brilliant solutions. Quick gains, long-term disasters: this is a pretty common human story. Are we capable of examining it? Even acknowledging it?  Of recognizing that our anthropocentrism and self-assurance may be doing us more harm than good despite (or possibly because of) our fêted cognitive capacities?

So here we are: the summer of 2017 with the arctic ice melting, the temperatures rising, the oceans rising and acidifying, our non-human companions on the planet going extinct like nobody’s business. We thought about ourselves from the get-go.  From the beginning of known human history, we wanted better lives, longer lives, happier lives. For ourselves. We used our gifts to reach for what we wanted, like toddlers, with no sense of the bigger world around us, no notion of the consequences of our actions. No awareness of the unfathomable complexity and the perfection of balance represented by the environment we inhabit.

Or, no will to act from that awareness. Because in all fairness, someone has always pointed to it. Not everyone thought situating nuclear power plants on earthquake faults was a bright idea. And no doubt there was someone back in Sumer who advised stridently against the moving of mountain waters to the fields in the valley.  But the collective, or the powers that own the collective, were not interested in anything that thwarted short-term gains.

We have careened along, from one improvement to another, many of them requiring their own fix a bit down the road.  Now we look at super-storms and mega-fires and what do we see?

Unfortunately, as is almost always the case, we see our own interests and little else.  I have been perusing reports and commentary from a wide variety of sources and there is a lot of factual information: the size of the fire, how many miles per hour the winds are blowing, how many acres are still uncontained, or in thrall to the winds and rain. Then, there are stories about losses. Photos and videos and details about homes destroyed, businesses wiped off the map, human injury and death.

But do we talk about the other life forms affected by these human-accelerated events in nature?  In nature, I repeat.  Do we read or talk or hear about the animals who die?  The trees lost? The sea life and habitat ruined? Yup, there are bits and pieces about the animals that belong to us, which are, like our houses and businesses and automobiles, more possessions.  Pets, livestock, even zoo animals are considered.  How do we shelter the cheetah at the Miami Zoo?  Or what about the Cuban dolphins airlifted out of danger to a safe place on the opposite side of the island? Heartwarming, I suppose, and good for those dolphins, but what happened to the wild ones in the sea?

Here is the thing: we helped make these disasters because we always thought about ourselves and neglected to consider the balance of life.  Because our needs were far and away more important to us than the spotted salamanders’.

And maybe that is true. Maybe our lives are more valuable than all the other lives. Who am I to say?  I too am human and subject to the same hubris and shortsightedness as everyone else.

Still…if something is not working, I ask: why keep doing it?  Even if you have no natural affinity for the pine martens who die in the fires or the sandpipers who are flung to their deaths in the monsoons, pragmatism would suggest a change in practice.

We can’t prevent the suffering and dying of wild life, and the Earth herself, when confronted by the unleashed forces of fire and water, but we can include them in our assessment of the cost. We might even grieve for them. Their losses are indeed ours, and if we do not see them or their importance to our lives, if we continue to either ignore and/or dominate all other life on this planet, it won’t be long till we join them.

This piece of writing is, in a ridiculously small way, an attempt to acknowledge those losses that have gone unseen. It isn’t much, but I invite you to join me in taking a few minutes to honor and mourn those who have died in this summer’s conflagrations and deluges. We won’t know much about most of them, but we do know that they lived and we know that they died.  And that we are all diminished by their deaths.

On the Road to Extinction

It is crystal clear—unlike the smoky skies where I live–to most of us who are willing to consider the facts: this summer’s ‘natural’ disasters have been seeded anthropogenically.  Wildfires in the northwestern United States and Canada, in Greenland, and in Europe are often referred to in the media as ‘unprecedented’ in size and fury. Hurricanes and monsoons, with their attendant floods and destruction, are routinely described as having a multitude of ‘record-breaking’ attributes. No one reading this is likely to need convincing that humans –our sheer numbers as well as our habits—have contributed significantly to rising planetary temperatures and thus, the plethora of somehow unexpected and catastrophic events in the natural world. I’d like to include earthquakes, particularly those in Turkey (endless) and Mexico (massive), in this discussion, and while intuition tells me that there is a connection between them and climate change, research to support this supposition is just emerging, so for the nonce I will leave the earthquakes out of it.

Our proclivity for advancing our own short-term interests has made a mess of things from the beginnings of this current iteration of civilization. Irrigating the Fertile Crescent, which was not very fertile prior to the ingenious innovation of bringing water from the mountains down into the dusty plains, opened the way for a massive increase in food production and a concomitant population rise. Cities grew and became kingdoms. After a reasonably good run, though, irrigation led to salination of the soil and ultimately left it sterile and useless (for agriculture) once again. Many people and their livestock starved or were forced to migrate in large numbers. Great idea, irrigation.

The internal combustion engine seemed a brilliant response to the need to move more commodities more efficiently as the Industrial Revolution created both increased product and demand. Though not necessarily so intended, the automobile initially offered humans wildly expanded freedom and ease. It also led to pumping the innards out of the Earth, filling the atmosphere with CO2, and oil-grabbing wars that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.  Another great idea with a few minor issues that did not get worked out ahead of time.

Plastic.  Now there is an incredible invention. Tough, pliable, lightweight, eternal…this stuff filled a myriad of needs. And conveniently, it could be produced using the fossil fuels we were already extracting for those internal combustion engines. Sadly, we never imagined it would come to microscopic plastic filaments in our drinking water, our sea salt, and even our beer. Not to mention in the bellies of just about anything that lives in the Earth’s oceans.

The list of creative inventions designed to make our lives better is long and varied, but almost inevitably, given enough time, our interference (or improvements, if you prefer) upon the natural state of things comes back to bite us.  And hard.  Fukushima could easily head up that list; most of us would have no trouble adding to the tally of follies flowing from Homo sapiens’ clever life hacks.

If you delve into the motivation behind these ‘advances’ there is generally a desire on the part of people to make life safer or more comfortable or easier in one way or another.  Maybe for themselves and their tribe, or their class, or their nation, but still—the impetus does not tend to flow from a place of malignity. We simply use our big brains to see what is adversely impacting our species (or sub-group thereof) and devise a fix for it. How could that possibly go so wrong?

Hindsight, they say, is always more acute than foresight. Could this be because we do not understand fully how our world works?  Is it possible that we lack a lot of critical information about the ways in which this planet’s life forms and forces are interwoven and connected?  Maybe our superior intelligence, while it has been billed as a powerhouse in the problem-solving department, does not really have the scope of vision that would ensure that problems—solved–stay solved?  Hmmm…might there be an issue with hubris here?  And how do we solve that?

What appear to be straightforward challenges that should yield to linear corrections are, in fact, predominantly multifaceted and many layered. We see only what we see—because we do have limits in terms of perception– and we act upon that. No real fault there. But you do something over and over and over and get consistent results, you keep being bitten by your brilliant solutions. Quick gains, long-term disasters: this is a pretty common human story. Are we capable of examining it? Even acknowledging it?  Of recognizing that our anthropocentrism and self-assurance may be doing us more harm than good despite (or possibly because of) our fêted cognitive capacities?

So here we are: the summer of 2017 with the arctic ice melting, the temperatures rising, the oceans rising and acidifying, our non-human companions on the planet going extinct like nobody’s business. We thought about ourselves from the get-go.  From the beginning of known human history, we wanted better lives, longer lives, happier lives. For ourselves. We used our gifts to reach for what we wanted, like toddlers, with no sense of the bigger world around us, no notion of the consequences of our actions. No awareness of the unfathomable complexity and the perfection of balance represented by the environment we inhabit.

Or, no will to act from that awareness. Because in all fairness, someone has always pointed to it. Not everyone thought situating nuclear power plants on earthquake faults was a bright idea. And no doubt there was someone back in Sumer who advised stridently against the moving of mountain waters to the fields in the valley.  But the collective, or the powers that own the collective, were not interested in anything that thwarted short-term gains.

We have careened along, from one improvement to another, many of them requiring their own fix a bit down the road.  Now we look at super-storms and mega-fires and what do we see?

Unfortunately, as is almost always the case, we see our own interests and little else.  I have been perusing reports and commentary from a wide variety of sources and there is a lot of factual information: the size of the fire, how many miles per hour the winds are blowing, how many acres are still uncontained, or in thrall to the winds and rain. Then, there are stories about losses. Photos and videos and details about homes destroyed, businesses wiped off the map, human injury and death.

But do we talk about the other life forms affected by these human-accelerated events in nature?  In nature, I repeat.  Do we read or talk or hear about the animals who die?  The trees lost? The sea life and habitat ruined? Yup, there are bits and pieces about the animals that belong to us, which are, like our houses and businesses and automobiles, more possessions.  Pets, livestock, even zoo animals are considered.  How do we shelter the cheetah at the Miami Zoo?  Or what about the Cuban dolphins airlifted out of danger to a safe place on the opposite side of the island? Heartwarming, I suppose, and good for those dolphins, but what happened to the wild ones in the sea?

Here is the thing: we helped make these disasters because we always thought about ourselves and neglected to consider the balance of life.  Because our needs were far and away more important to us than the spotted salamanders’.

And maybe that is true. Maybe our lives are more valuable than all the other lives. Who am I to say?  I too am human and subject to the same hubris and shortsightedness as everyone else.

Still…if something is not working, I ask: why keep doing it?  Even if you have no natural affinity for the pine martens who die in the fires or the sandpipers who are flung to their deaths in the monsoons, pragmatism would suggest a change in practice.

We can’t prevent the suffering and dying of wild life, and the Earth herself, when confronted by the unleashed forces of fire and water, but we can include them in our assessment of the cost. We might even grieve for them. Their losses are indeed ours, and if we do not see them or their importance to our lives, if we continue to either ignore and/or dominate all other life on this planet, it won’t be long till we join them.

This piece of writing is, in a ridiculously small way, an attempt to acknowledge those losses that have gone unseen. It isn’t much, but I invite you to join me in taking a few minutes to honor and mourn those who have died in this summer’s conflagrations and deluges. We won’t know much about most of them, but we do know that they lived and we know that they died.  And that we are all diminished by their deaths.

Nature as Nurture: Ancient Lessons in Sacred Sustenance

Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed.
— Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, 2002.

We are a well-fed species.  In general.  I won’t gloss over the fact that there are too many of us who are undernourished, even starving, but overall we feed ourselves—particularly in the industrialized countries–quite lavishly.  So much so that a worldwide increase in excess weight and obesity are creating epidemics of associated disease, straining healthcare systems and shortening life spans for the first time in many generations.

There are numerous factors fueling this increase in our consumption, our size.  We know that many of the industries involved in food production have cynically and deliberately lied to and manipulated us in order to boost profits, to avoid the natural consequence of marketing poison, and to turn investigative spotlights in other directions.  Processed foods have become a seeming necessity for many, as the demands of everyday life cut into time that might have been spent purchasing and cooking from scratch.  Then there is the ubiquitous array of technological devices which have nudged many of us into more sedentary lifestyles. Adults tend to work less on their feet, and children are seen playing more often bent over with cramped fingers than they are with joyous and out-flung bodies.  The mindboggling variety and ready availability of food in 1st world countries, coupled with massive marketing campaigns, lead many to seek to meet all sorts of needs through food:  pleasure, comfort, company, entertainment, sedation, fortitude or happiness.  Food was never intended to make us happy nor to fill our hearts.  In vain we eat to find something we lost long ago.

I raise this issue neither to criticize nor condemn, but rather to acknowledge the emptiness and longing it speaks to with such urgency. We feel a deep and persistent hunger, many of us, but the food we lack is needed for our hearts and souls, not our bodies.

It has become fairly common in certain circles to look to the advent of agriculture, the Neolithic Revolution, as the point where homo sapiens lost our way, the moment in history when we took the road which inevitably led to this current moment, to runaway global warming, overpopulation and the likely imminent demise of our species. There is considerable merit in this postulate, and I want to examine the shift from foraging to agriculture through the lens of our apparently ever-expanding hunger.

Humans gained a great deal when we settled in communities organized around cultivating the food needed for survival. Important benefits accrued, like the security provided by crop surpluses against times of famine, and the development of creature comforts only achievable when stationed in a fixed location for extended periods.  There were, as there always are, unintended consequences of this seismic change in how we lived, not all of them welcome.  In addition to the glories of civilization — art, music, philosophy, written language, creative governance — which were cultivated alongside early grains, we found ourselves dealing as well with new diseases, tooth decay, the potential for unheard-of wealth creation and concomitant societal stratification, labor specialization and more highly defined gender roles, narrowing of nutritional variety, deadly famines in times of crop failure, and wars over resources unlike any that had occurred prior to the Neolithic.   Just the tip of the agricultural iceberg, but it hints at how powerful a move this one was. In other words, this is not a simple subject, and I will forego any attempt to canvas comprehensively the ways in which the Neolithic Revolution altered the trajectory of all life on this planet.

What specifically prompts me to look so far back in time is the catastrophic situation we face today. The Great Acceleration is underway and we see it everywhere: the Northern Sea Route was navigated without an icebreaker for the first time last month, the human population passed the 7.5 billion mark this year, extreme weather events are devastating lives around the globe, juvenile posturing in deadly nuclear playgrounds is holding hostage any residual hope for any kind of future.

There is a ‘new normal’ in relation to these realities which I have noticed of late. References to the end of the world, or the extinction of homo sapiens, have become threaded more frequently into the cloth of general discourse. What was heretically unsayable a few short years ago finds its way into the MSM, casual conversations with friends, and serious considerations of life choices.  For some there is an urgency to do something to halt or ameliorate this exponentially growing threat, but I often hear a kind of theoretical acceptance and resignation from many with whom I speak.

While it might be true that there is nothing we can do to change the course of events we have been so instrumental in setting in motion, it is never the case that we are helpless. The choice about how we live, as unique and potentially extraordinary beings, for as long and under whatever conditions may be granted us remains, regardless.  Who do you want to be, how do you wish to use your life force, your intelligence, your innate ability to love?  It is likely that as the next few years unfold, our concrete and quotidian options will diminish.  Look to the residents of Mumbai or Houston for a preview.

All the more reason, I say, to learn now, while there is still some time, how to be fully human.  It is, after all, the only shot we may have at it, so why not do our best to get it right as individuals, even if the final conclusion may be that we got it wrong as a species?

Which brings me back to our far-distant ancestors, those who lived before humans moved into domination of nature, those who were forced to live in balance with all of life in order to survive.  What did they understand that might help us to live with greater fulfillment, even at this far reach?

Probably a lot, but I want to focus on the relationship they had with their sources of sustenance.  I want to recollect what pre-Neolithic people knew about that relationship to see if there is wisdom for us, inspiration or guidance to serve us in these times.  Indigenous peoples all over the planet maintain some of their traditional foodways from that long ago time, and certainly nurture carefully the truths underlying them, so we can start there.

Foremost amongst those truths is the fact that all of life is connected.  This is said so often that is sounds trite, but how, really, do we actualize it?  Mostly, we don’t. We live as masters on this planet: raping, pillaging, taking what we want without permission, destroying that which doesn’t immediately appear to benefit us, tossing that which we have used up into the oceans where dwell some of the most singular and beautiful creatures we will ever know.  How could we possibly allow DAPL to be built or Gaza to be bombed back to the Middle Ages or plastic water bottles to be sold in national parks if we were living with even a superficial understanding of our interconnectedness?

Chances are, neither you nor I are going to stop ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo–or the interests that control them both, though there may be some space for altering the outcomes of particular projects.  We can, however, choose—in each moment and every day–how we live as individuals, how we actualize what we know to be true about life and our place in it.

Hunter-gatherers lived (and in a few isolated cases, continue to live) as part of a magnificent web.  A web requires parity and balance in order to maintain its integrity and strength. The food our ancestors needed to survive was obtained as part of an exchange. It was not something taken without reciprocation. On a very physical level, humans were prey as well as predator. The old, the young, the ill fell and fed other beings, giving their lives to prolong and empower others.  Human bodies returned to the earth to make it rich and fertile.

But more importantly, pre-agricultural humans understood that they were truly not alone, isolated, or separate from the rest of earth’s dwellers. They saw the vibrant and unique spirits possessed by plants. They knew that animals who gave their lives that they might eat deserved deepest gratitude. Respect for the multifaceted manifestations of consciousness kept humans in sacred balance with the rest of earth’s beings, giving just as they received, and reaping the profoundly satisfying rewards of interdependence.

Today, as a gnawing and insatiable hunger drives so many of us to eat more than our bodies need, we might find a means to greater fulfillment in nature.  In what still remains of it, awesome even in its most modest expressions, there is sustenance and satisfaction to be found in great measure.

Most of us know that a walk in the forest is renewing, that time spent near waves can alter a mood, and that interacting with pets improves physical well-being. All good, but we can choose to be more intentional; it is what this very singular time invites us to do.

Birch trees, goldenrod, redwing blackbirds, lizards, skunks, coyotes, ants and luna moths: they are no different to us in that they thrive when their contributions are seen and respected.  They do not exist merely as embellishments or challenges to our lives, but rather as beings having their own passage through this world.  There are tenets of exchange which govern that passage, ones we have forgotten to our great cost: call and response, give and receive, take and then reciprocate. If it is to hold, the web must be tended.

As I try to find ways to live right–dharmically–I am drawn to a more generous and mutual relationship with non-human forms of consciousness.  The fact that my existence is hopelessly urban may appear to be an obstacle to actually moving in that direction, but it is not insurmountable.  We know that everything is changing, and yet for most of us, business continues pretty much as usual.  So, for the foreseeable future, I will continue to buy peaches and heirloom tomatoes from the farmers who grow them.

But I will also take the time to cultivate connections with the trees, the birds, the waters, the stones.  Not because I ought, but because those relationships, which answered a deep appetite in earlier humans, literally fill me with joy and wonder and a sense of belonging that no amount or kind of food ever will.  If we look to the wisdom passed down to indigenous people today, ancient hunter-gatherers fed not solely on berries and roots and fish and fowl, but also upon the energetic of the exchange that ignites whenever mutuality and interdependence are experienced.

We are clearly not managing to eat ourselves to happiness, security or even satiety.  Always more and more, bigger and faster and better.  And still, the hunger persists, sending us off to seek something, anything to stop it, to fill the void.  Perhaps it is time to shift our focus from what we want and need, to what it is that we can offer in exchange for all that we receive.  To how we might try to affect that sacred balance which so sustained our forebears.

There are many ways to do this and perhaps you already have your own means.  If not, you can make small steps in this direction: feed the birds or water a tree, but take care to do it with full consciousness of your connection and your debt.  Offer some sustenance, not from the magnanimity of human dominance, but from the humility of shared destiny.   Or if you want to go a bit further, commune with a plant or a body of water or another form of consciousness. Just sit (or stand, or walk) and spend a few moments feeling all the way into the essence of another, non-human, being.  Allow yourself to be fully present with that other, experience the mutual thrill of connectedness that is always there, but which we so often overlook in our hubris and haste.

And then notice how your offering of time, energy and attention leaves you feeling.  Without fail, I feel more human when I do this: whole, relaxed, joyful and empowered. In some small way, I earn my place in the greater scheme of things by giving back, by making the effort to truly see and honor my companions on this journey of life.  All sense of separation dissolves, and the happiness that flows from knowing I am one with all else here on this amazing earth—even for short moments– totally sates any lingering cravings.  And unexpectedly, feeling more human, more full, allows me to continue to hold awareness of and respect for the non-human life that pulses everywhere around me.  I live as part of the web, and it is good.

As our world continues to turn, there will inevitably be increasing grief and loss, but I see that as all the more reason to hold ourselves upright, and in delight when possible, so long as we are here.  Few of us can (or would) voluntarily choose the nomadic life of a hunter-gatherer, but if we look back, before ‘the fall’ represented by the Neolithic Revolution, we may rediscover lost wisdom and ways to flourish, remember how to hold love in adversity and maintain balance in the face of an utterly upending era.

What About the Kids? Conversations on Parenting in Dark Times

For many of us, it is insanely difficult to wrap our hearts and minds around the prospects which lie ahead for humanity. The list of potential calamities is long and varied, and the scenarios that rise to the top of the ‘most probable today’ column shift all the time. Are we looking at full-blown nuclear war, or will it ‘just’ be Fukushima cesium making its way into our food and water? Could it be rising acidified oceans, unpredictable weather fueled by hotter seas, or maybe a methane ‘burp’ that leads to an abrupt end to agriculture?  And then, even if we somehow evade all of these and manage to survive, what about the social and political chaos that is being fomented by right-wing ‘populists’ around the globe?  What will happen when climate refugees are either: a. us, or, b. camping in large numbers in our backyards?  Where will water come from? Food?  Security of any sort seems less than certain looking into the decade ahead.

It is entirely possible that things will unfold in a manner none of us can foresee and if that happens, then we will have to be nimble and respond accordingly. No guarantees, no promises. We are in uncharted waters and not only is there no easy answer for the collective, but we must all find our own way, both in this limbo time, when for many of us, things continue pretty much as before, and in the years ahead, as the status quo collapses.

This time becomes exponentially more difficult for those who have children and grandchildren, those who love individual kids and hold them close in their lives. It is one thing to contemplate the breakdown of natural and social structures known throughout our lives, to allow oneself to consider—and to grieve—the destruction of so much of the planet and those, human and not, who have made it their home. It is another thing altogether to feel into the suffering, the loss and the violation of hopes and dreams that likely await many children, those who have yet to really begin to live their lives.

I speak here of the children of privilege. Clearly, there are already too many children on this planet-of-plenty whose hopes and dreams are limited to the modest wish for a bowl of millet, the continued well-being of a single parent, the departure of the ominous droning overhead. But in various parts of the developed world, there are children whose lives appear untainted by the shadows that are beginning to loom over all of us, acknowledged or not. Many parents (as well as aunts, uncles, grandparents—including the honorary sort), are loathe to look at our global circumstances head-on simply because they cannot bear to confront what the current reality bodes for the little ones, the innocents, whom they love and cherish.

Writing about our prospects of survival as a species has invited correspondence with many deeply thoughtful and loving people; one of the most impossible and important questions I have been posed is “How do I raise my kids knowing what I know about the future of our planet?” Obviously, teaching your child to recycle and pick up litter isn’t enough anymore. Some parents wonder if there is anything concrete to do—shall we buy rural land, rain-collection barrels and a goat? There are those who have the luxury to consider such a course; others are where they are and will stay there to weather the storms or perish in them. But as awareness of our plight reaches consciousness, all adults who love ‘their’ children struggle to understand how to hold the information they have, what to share and how to share it in a way that both protects and prepares the children for an unknowable future. How much is too much to tell your joyful six-year old? What do you say to the twelve-year old, exuberant with enthusiasm for life, planning for college and career and family?  How do you prod the eighteen-year old, who reads the news and ponders apocalypse, to finish his college application or résumé?  Do you even try?

There are no pat answers. We have never been here, precisely, before. Yes, we can look back in history for ideas and we can consult students of the mind and spirit for guidance.  But ultimately, I believe that the best way to discern a path through this time, to hold your child’s hand lovingly in your own while the ride gets wilder and wilder, is to bring the conversation out of the dark and put it on the table where we may all contribute. There is deep and totally understandable fear abounding, and fear often begets denial. Our denial, however, does our kids a great disservice. No matter how painful it is for us to look at the facts, we owe our children at least that much courage. Remember, young kids ‘read’ feelings. Our words, no matter how reassuring, mean nothing if what we broadcast from our hearts is out of alignment. Talking with one another, as adults, about the challenge of how to raise our kids on the brink of planetary collapse is urgent and imperative. Sharing ideas, feelings, experiences and strategies invites creativity and innovation, both of which we sorely need if we are to do our very best by our children.

In order to invite discussion, I will offer a few thoughts that are currently guiding my parenting.  I hope they can be seen and used as a jumping off point, a catalyst to consider your own values and how you might best weave them into what is quite possibly the most potent and important relationship you are likely to have with another human being.

Before I dive into particulars, I want to note a couple of overarching principles. They may seem obvious and simplistic, but they are also foundational, so please bear with me. First of all, everything is dependent on the child in question—who they are temperamentally, how old and how mature, what their strengths are and where they find support, what and whom they love and treasure. You know your child better than anyone else and if there was ever a time when our kids needed to be deeply seen for and as themselves, it is now.

Secondly, the surrounding circumstances are paramount to how you approach your child.  If you live in California as I do, you teach your children to take short showers, and to learn to love parched golden-brown lawns. You may use public transportation or limit unnecessary driving. But for the average fourth-grader in this part of the world whose parents have legal status, the sky isn’t falling. Yet. If you lived with your family in Fukushima Prefecture, or you and your kids were recently displaced by flooding and mudslides in Colombia, you are likely facing something more complex in terms of the narrative you share. The point is that we will all be facing more difficult times, and as the adults, we must gauge our parenting to the current circumstances as well as to the individual child.

Finally, a great deal depends on how you view this time.  Is it catastrophe or opportunity?  Can you find ways to authentically and honestly embrace the challenges and the gifts of the changes that are fast approaching?  You set the tone for your children. With that in mind, here are a few of the tenets that I lean on to help me find my way:

#1. Know yourself and your own feelings.  Seek out your own responses to the global crises. Whatever we deny or repress in ourselves will tend to create a stiltedness, which can in turn inspire worry in our kids. There is no right way to feel—ever–but knowing your own feelings means you are better prepared to both talk and listen authentically to your children.

#2. Never lie.  It is about respect. (They will likely see through you, anyway.) Our children are sovereign souls who are here for reasons we cannot fully know. They may be small, or young, or naïve, and sometimes dreadfully uncooperative, but as fellow humans, they always deserve our respect. Which means: do not lie to them. Truth is nuanced, and this is at the nub of what we are exploring here: how to be honest in the most loving and responsible way possible.

#3. Never impose your personal truths.  We are likely to have strong opinions at times, and we may be very certain about what will or will not transpire in the future. It can be tempting to pass these truths on to our kids, to stand firmly in the sea of chaos, but it is important, in my view, to make sure that everything we do share is based upon the child’s interests rather than our own. Consider silence, consider waiting for questions. We are people first, parents next, and sometimes it is very difficult to see the line that separates our own needs from our kids’.  It is worth some extra vigilance in this arena.

#4. Tell your children the ‘right truth’ to the best of your ability.  While you may know how things look to you and which pieces of the puzzle are clear and thus, potentially reassuring for you, these may not be the ‘right truths’ for your child.  (I shudder at the echo of ‘alternative facts’ here, but there is a profound difference in the relationship. As parents we are in charge of vetting information and presenting it in the way it is most likely to help our kids prosper and thrive. Even now. Especially now.) Know your kids’ developmental capacities. Listen to your child’s questions and comments to hear the subtext. Ask questions before you tell them the ‘truth.’ Try to discern what it is that they are really asking for, under the words they are using. What truth can you share that meets them where they are?  Different kids, different ages, different circumstances are all going to play into the ‘right truth’ and it will change, continue to evolve as the child does, and as life does.

#5. Allow plenty of space and support for any and all reactions, including none. Let your child know that it is good for her to feel anything and everything that she does. And follow her lead. Be there if that is what she wants—a lap, a hug, a talk, a cry together, a round of teacups smashed in the back garden—but beware of prioritizing any need you might have to make it all ok.  Some kids are going to want to dance or watch a movie or play basketball. And not talk. Honor their wisdom in dealing with impossibility.

#6. Offer something to replace that which is lost.  We are not especially good at giving things up wholesale. Most smokers need gum or hard candy to replace relinquished cigarettes. When things get really bad, wherever on this planet we are living, our kids are going to lose a lot. We must do what we can to offer them something to staunch the pain of that loss. Not false assurances, not mental methadone, but something simultaneously honest and supportive. Something that helps them to stay upright, to know how deeply they are cherished. Preliminary ideas include: making lots of time and space for joyful activities together (in spite of everything); being in nature; celebrating your child aloud and often for who he is and his amazing contributions to this life with specificity; service, possibly as a family, to others whose needs are greater.

#7.  Listen and learn.  Our children carry wisdom we often overlook and discount.  It is their lives which hang in the balance; in these times it is especially critical to understand their vision, to learn what we can from them, and to honor their right to carve a path of their own design. They may, after all, save the world.

These thoughts just barely skim the surface, and don’t begin to address the incredible emotional intensity involved for parents and children alike. They are offered simply as a catalyst to broader and richer conversations. I urge anyone who feels moved: follow the thread, connect with others, contemplate your values, and consider carefully what you are going to give your kids as the world alters.

Most of us want dearly for the children we love to have a broad range of choices and a full and vibrant life. But we are embarking on a collective journey of learning about limitation. When I set myself the exercise of clearing away all the ‘stuff’ of contemporary life, the wish I am left with, what most of us want for our kids—at minimum– is to hold them close and keep them safe. Much as we long for it, this has always has been beyond a parent’s reach at some point or another. We do what we can, and we do the best we can.  Ultimately, heartbreakingly, we cannot protect them from life. But we can love them, and we can bring an ardent consciousness to our love, as well as a profound gratitude, moment to moment, for the mysterious and beautiful path we walk together as humans connected one to another, old and young, on this incredible planet, for so long as it is given to us to do so.

Elizabeth West has a lifelong interest in revolution, and in exploring the interstices where love, truth, imagination and courage meet, sometimes igniting wild transformation. Her political writing has appeared in CounterPunch and Dissident Voice. Write her at elizabethwest@sonic.net or visit her website.

What about the Kids?

For many of us, it is insanely difficult to wrap our hearts and minds around the prospects which lie ahead for humanity. The list of potential calamities is long and varied, and the scenarios that rise to the top of the ‘most probable today’ column shift all the time. Are we looking at full-blown nuclear war, or will it ‘just’ be Fukushima cesium making its way into our food and water? Could it be rising acidified oceans, unpredictable weather fueled by hotter seas, or maybe a methane ‘burp’ that leads to an abrupt end to agriculture?  And then, even if we somehow evade all of these and manage to survive, what about the social and political chaos that is being fomented by right-wing ‘populists’ around the globe?  What will happen when climate refugees are either: (a) us, or, (b) camping in large numbers in our backyards?  Where will water come from? Food?  Security of any sort seems less than certain looking into the decade ahead.

It is entirely possible that things will unfold in a manner none of us can foresee and if that happens, then we will have to be nimble and respond accordingly. No guarantees, no promises. We are in uncharted waters and not only is there no easy answer for the collective, but we must all find our own way, both in this limbo time, when for many of us, things continue pretty much as before, and in the years ahead, as the status quo collapses.

This time it becomes exponentially more difficult for those who have children and grandchildren, those who love individual kids and hold them close in their lives. It is one thing to contemplate the breakdown of natural and social structures known throughout our lives, to allow oneself to consider—and to grieve—the destruction of so much of the planet and those, human and not, who have made it their home. It is another thing altogether to feel into the suffering, the loss and the violation of hopes and dreams that likely await many children, those who have yet to really begin to live their lives.

I speak here of the children of privilege. Clearly, there are already too many children on this planet-of-plenty whose hopes and dreams are limited to the modest wish for a bowl of millet, the continued well-being of a single parent, the departure of the ominous droning overhead. But in various parts of the developed world, there are children whose lives appear untainted by the shadows that are beginning to loom over all of us, acknowledged or not. Many parents (as well as aunts, uncles, grandparents—including the honorary sort), are loathe to look at our global circumstances head-on simply because they cannot bear to confront what the current reality bodes for the little ones, the innocents, whom they love and cherish.

Writing about our prospects of survival as a species has invited correspondence with many deeply thoughtful and loving people; one of the most impossible and important questions I have been posed is “How do I raise my kids knowing what I know about the future of our planet?” Obviously, teaching your child to recycle and pick up litter isn’t enough anymore. Some parents wonder if there is anything concrete to do—shall we buy rural land, rain-collection barrels and a goat? There are those who have the luxury to consider such a course; others are where they are and will stay there to weather the storms or perish in them. But as awareness of our plight reaches consciousness, all adults who love ‘their’ children struggle to understand how to hold the information they have, what to share and how to share it in a way that both protects and prepares the children for an unknowable future. How much is too much to tell your joyful six-year old? What do you say to the twelve-year old, exuberant with enthusiasm for life, planning for college and career and family?  How do you prod the eighteen-year old, who reads the news and ponders apocolypse, to finish his college application or résumé?  Do you even try?

There are no pat answers. We have never been here, precisely, before. Yes, we can look back in history for ideas and we can consult students of the mind and spirit for guidance.  But ultimately, I believe that the best way to discern a path through this time, to hold your child’s hand lovingly in your own while the ride gets wilder and wilder, is to bring the conversation out of the dark and put it on the table where we may all contribute. There is deep and totally understandable fear abounding, and fear often begets denial. Our denial, however, does our kids a great disservice. No matter how painful it is for us to look at the facts, we owe our children at least that much courage. Remember, young kids ‘read’ feelings. Our words, no matter how reassuring, mean nothing if what we broadcast from our hearts is out of alignment. Talking with one another, as adults, about the challenge of how to raise our kids on the brink of planetary collapse is urgent and imperative. Sharing ideas, feelings, experiences and strategies invites creativity and innovation, both of which we sorely need if we are to do our very best by our children.

In order to invite discussion, I will offer a few thoughts that are currently guiding my parenting.  I hope they can be seen and used as a jumping off point, a catalyst to consider your own values and how you might best weave them into what is quite possibly the most potent and important relationship you are likely to have with another human being.

Before I dive into particulars, I want to note a couple of overarching principles. They may seem obvious and simplistic, but they are also foundational, so please bear with me. First of all, everything is dependent on the child in question—who they are temperamentally, how old and how mature, what their strengths are and where they find support, what and whom they love and treasure. You know your child better than anyone else and if there was ever a time when our kids needed to be deeply seen for and as themselves, it is now.

Secondly, the surrounding circumstances are paramount to how you approach your child.  If you live in California as I do, you teach your children to take short showers, and to learn to love parched golden-brown lawns. You may use public transportation or limit unnecessary driving. But for the average fourth-grader in this part of the world whose parents have legal status, the sky isn’t falling. Yet. If you lived with your family in Fukushima Prefecture, or you and your kids were recently displaced by flooding and mudslides in Colombia, you are likely facing something more complex in terms of the narrative you share. The point is that we will all be facing more difficult times, and as the adults, we must gauge our parenting to the current circumstances as well as to the individual child.

Finally, a great deal depends on how you view this time.  Is it catastrophe or opportunity?  Can you find ways to authentically and honestly embrace the challenges and the gifts of the changes that are fast approaching?  You set the tone for your children. With that in mind, here are a few of the tenets that I lean on to help me find my way:

#1. Know yourself and your own feelings.  Seek out your own responses to the global crises. Whatever we deny or repress in ourselves will tend to create a stiltedness, which can in turn inspire worry in our kids. There is no right way to feel—ever–but knowing your own feelings means you are better prepared to both talk and listen authentically to your children.

#2. Never lie.  It is about respect. (They will likely see through you, anyway.) Our children are sovereign souls who are here for reasons we cannot fully know. They may be small, or young, or naïve, and sometimes dreadfully uncooperative, but as fellow humans, they always deserve our respect. Which means: do not lie to them. Truth is nuanced, and this is at the nub of what we are exploring here: how to be honest in the most loving and responsible way possible.

#3. Never impose your personal truths.  We are likely to have strong opinions at times, and we may be very certain about what will or will not transpire in the future. It can be tempting to pass these truths on to our kids, to stand firmly in the sea of chaos, but it is important, in my view, to make sure that everything we do share is based upon the child’s interests rather than our own. Consider silence, consider waiting for questions. We are people first, parents next, and sometimes it is very difficult to see the line that separates our own needs from our kids’.  It is worth some extra vigilance in this arena.

#4. Tell your children the ‘right truth’ to the best of your ability.  While you may know how things look to you and which pieces of the puzzle are clear and thus, potentially reassuring for you, these may not be the ‘right truths’ for your child.  (I shudder at the echo of ‘alternative facts’ here, but there is a profound difference in the relationship. As parents we are in charge of vetting information and presenting it in the way it is most likely to help our kids prosper and thrive. Even now. Especially now.) Know your kids’ developmental capacities. Listen to your child’s questions and comments to hear the subtext. Ask questions before you tell them the ‘truth.’ Try to discern what it is that they are really asking for, under the words they are using. What truth can you share that meets them where they are?  Different kids, different ages, different circumstances are all going to play into the ‘right truth’ and it will change, continue to evolve as the child does, and as life does.

#5. Allow plenty of space and support for any and all reactions, including none. Let your child know that it is good for her to feel anything and everything that she does. And follow her lead. Be there if that is what she wants—a lap, a hug, a talk, a cry together, a round of teacups smashed in the back garden—but beware of prioritizing any need you might have to make it all okay.  Some kids are going to want to dance or watch a movie or play basketball. And not talk. Honor their wisdom in dealing with impossibility.

#6. Offer something to replace that which is lost.  We are not especially good at giving things up wholesale. Most smokers need gum or hard candy to replace relinquished cigarettes. When things get really bad, wherever on this planet we are living, our kids are going to lose a lot. We must do what we can to offer them something to staunch the pain of that loss. Not false assurances, not mental methadone, but something simultaneously honest and supportive. Something that helps them to stay upright, to know how deeply they are cherished. Preliminary ideas include: making lots of time and space for joyful activities together (in spite of everything); being in nature; celebrating your child aloud and often for who he is and his amazing contributions to this life with specificity; service, possibly as a family, to others whose needs are greater.

#7.  Listen and learn.  Our children carry wisdom we often overlook and discount.  It is their lives which hang in the balance; in these times it is especially critical to understand their vision, to learn what we can from them, and to honor their right to carve a path of their own design. They may, after all, save the world.

These thoughts just barely skim the surface, and don’t begin to address the incredible emotional intensity involved for parents and children alike. They are offered simply as a catalyst to broader and richer conversations. I urge anyone who feels moved: follow the thread, connect with others, contemplate your values, and consider carefully what you are going to give your kids as the world alters.

Most of us want dearly for the children we love to have a broad range of choices and a full and vibrant life. But we are embarking on a collective journey of learning about limitation. When I set myself the exercise of clearing away all the ‘stuff’ of contemporary life, the wish I am left with, what most of us want for our kids—at minimum– is to hold them close and keep them safe. Much as we long for it, this has always been beyond a parent’s reach at some point or another. We do what we can, and we do the best we can.  Ultimately, heartbreakingly, we cannot protect them from life. But we can love them, and we can bring an ardent consciousness to our love, as well as a profound gratitude, moment to moment, for the mysterious and beautiful path we walk together as humans connected one to another, old and young, on this incredible planet, for so long as it is given to us to do so.

Don’t Get Distracted!

In this post-truth era, when the splashy surreal stands in for the real, it pays to be extremely vigilant about where our attention gets focused. It is understandable that we become snagged on the unfathomable. How can one fathom that which is beyond belief?  Our poor brains just cannot wrap themselves around the garbage that is being offered up as reality, as reasonable human conduct, or god forbid, as governance. And how can we avoid returning to look at the wreckage, to try again and again to grasp the insanity and the absurdity, to ask how this came to pass?  It is compelling—in the manner of a fiery highway crash– and with the help of the media, we can spend vast amounts of time and energy, mesmerized in disbelief and horror, focused on Donald Trump.  Is there a more perfect definition of armchair hell? And if by chance we drop into our hearts, there is no question that the circus feeds pain and dread there, increasing the urgency of our attentions and the levels of our anxieties.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Trump administration and their lackeys in Congress will cause unimaginable suffering for individuals all over the planet, even as they blow up the still-standing ruins of American democracy. This goes almost without saying, but I say it none-the-less for foundational purposes, to acknowledge the terrible significance of the real actions/inactions being underwritten by our current government.

But, friends, this is a sideshow. A riveting one to be sure, replete with drama, true trauma, tragedy and comedy, but a side-show all the same, run by a carnival barker who knows well how to keep us turning his way.

As we fix our collective and terrified gaze on the (dangerous) antics of a canny bully and his gang, more and more evidence emerges to suggest that no matter what they do, what any of us do, our species’ time on this planet is rapidly drawing to a close. Certainly that which we term ‘civilization’ is well into its final act.  Trump and his cronies are an engine that will vastly accelerate this near inevitability, but the greater decimation is not of his making.

Very few of us would like to look in this direction, to consider the increasing probability, for instance, that most of the children born this year may not make it to middle-age, quite possibly not even to adulthood.  Even in first world countries. Even in the upper economic echelons of first world countries. This reality—as opposed to the surreality emerging from the White House– appears to offer so little to work with, to engage with, to, well…DO.  As humans, most of us like to DO, and we like to find ways to feel valid and hopeful and good about our lives.  It isn’t always easy and the specter of repeatedly chosen self-destruction looms darkly right now, acknowledged or not. Survival fears, well-founded ones that currently spark in a panoply of flavors, drive many of us, intent upon finding comfort, into unconsciousness, denial, frantic action.

Joining with others—virtually or in person—who share righteous outrage at violations of decency and morality and law—this can alleviate the sense of helplessness. Being angry, being right, being in solidarity are all energizing anodynes for despair and disempowerment.  A case could be put that the Women’s Marches in January made very prominent important points of view that oppose the administration’s. Which is something. But did all those pussy hats, did the speeches and the songs and huge numbers of human beings in the streets accomplish anything concrete?  Did anyone on Wall Street quake?  Even a little? Did the leadership of the infamous 17 intelligence agencies feel more inclined to act lawfully afterward?  Did the administration think twice about its intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement?  (This latter being much too little, much too late, and yet we hold fast to the tiny strands, hoping that we can turn this raft around before that roaring ahead reveals itself to be the Niagara, falling.)  We all suspect strongly that the answers are consistently in the negative. The impact of protest and civil disobedience hinges heavily upon a state’s capacity for shame, on its having a conscience. Neither of those are much in evidence these days. Let’s not forget that 30-some million people out on the streets worldwide in early 2003 didn’t manage to slow down the roll-out of Shock and Awe at all.

But what if we ask another set of questions, having to do with the hearts and minds of those who participated and those who couldn’t but would have liked to? Then we see the value of coming together and coming out to state in positive ways who we are and what we believe. We embolden and affirm one another. And perhaps—perhaps– someone with a bit of power is moved in ways we cannot and will never see.  Maybe the airport demonstrations actually created enough ‘drag’ to delay the zealots for a few weeks, weeks that meant the world to a number of individuals.

So, activism is worthwhile. We can make our passions known through public displays, we can organize locally to make change in that arena, we can write and make movies and record songs all to disseminate the truth, we can choose differently about what and how we consume, or drive, or educate our children.  We can direct our resources to support what we believe.

Each of us is responsible for considering how we contribute to or diminish the common good, for knowing and living up to our own capacities in this regard.  You know what you can do, and you also know what can’t do.  You also know—for yourself– what alleviates the feelings of panic and rage, and what leaves you feeling hopeless and despairing.

Which brings me back to the likelihood that we are now in the midst of the Grand Finale.  Why would anyone want to think about the prospect that we are rapidly approaching our own self-orchestrated extinction event? Too late to alter outcomes, we may see but two choices: helpless contemplation of a bleak and dystopian future that ends in rubble, or taking a smidgen of control and tuning it all out, changing the station, and maybe even revving up a little over the ‘All Trump All The Time’ news.  It seems pretty simple.  If there is nothing to be done, then why make ourselves sick and sad and depressed over that which can’t be changed?  And there is no denying that there are sideshows aplenty to divert us if we are so inclined.  Maybe we can even DO something about the social and civil disasters.

Imagine this: you are in a hospital bed recovering from major surgery.  You are starting to remember who you are and why you are here and what is at stake.  The pain is pretty bad, but you can manage it if you keep downing narcotics, if the healing continues apace, if you can get back to your real life soon. The doctor arrives to check on you.  She appears to be kind and encouraging and competent, and yet you can read the bad news on her face before she speaks. When she does, she tells you that the pathology was not good, that short of keeping you ‘comfortable,’ there is little more that medicine has to offer.

How could this be?  Just a few weeks ago, all was well and you were looking forward to a new trajectory in your life.  Maybe a grandchild, maybe a grand opus, maybe a love just beginning.  But here you are: in bed, suffering, having just received the diagnosis: you are terminal.

So what do you want to do?  Are there things you don’t want to leave this life not having done?  Or been?  Books to read?  Conversations to have?  Amends to make?  Places to see?  Habits to break?  Things to learn?  Truths to tell? Do you want to find peace?  Forgive yourself or someone else?  Do you want to let go of fear?  Do you want to love with all your heart?

If you wish to make the most of the time that remains, you need to live with death on your left shoulder, as many shamanic traditions advise.  You must not put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Time is precious if you have limited quantities of it and you have living left to do.  When we reach this juncture, as most of us will, some will ramp up the fight to live, others will wander lost in sorrow. Some of us will use all of our energy to uphold the scaffolding of denial and still others will spend their final weeks or months in anger and regret.  When we are facing almost certain death, the options are limited.  It is, after all, a fundamental loss of control.  But we can choose how we live while we are alive. That may be all that is left to us.

You will see where I am going with this. As a species, Homo sapiens could well be on its last upright legs.  That means you.  It means me. It means our beloved children and everyone we hold dear. And it is quite likely that another round of chemo (e.g., the Paris Agreement) will forestall the inevitable only slightly.

This is heartbreaking, a virtual definition of tragedy.  It didn’t have to be this way, and yet something (the fatal flaw?) has brought us as a species to this pass.  (I leave aside for the moment all the other species we have carelessly dragged down with or ahead of us.)  Serious scientists and thinkers are writing in increasing numbers that we need to consider the possibility our children will not live out their ‘natural’ lives.  Google human extinction (57 million hits in .66 second), or try the search feature on Dissident Voice or Counterpunch for substantive reporting on our prospects.

It is almost too grievous to look at full on.  But if we fail to do so, we may lose the impetus to live our lives as truly and as gloriously and as deeply as is possible.  You may want to spend some of the last part of your life watching everything Fred Astaire ever danced, or you might want to read Nietzsche at last, or you could have a passion to swim with the dolphins (if they consent).  Maybe it is your longing to stand in front of an IDF (or American) tank in the purest affirmation of human empathy and courage you can muster, or perhaps have always felt poetry rising within but never committed those jewels to paper.  Whatever it is—know it.  And then, do it.  Live it.  Feel it.  Be it.  We are all in that hospital bed, whether we allow ourselves to feel the truth of it or not.  Miracles do happen and there is no need to be defeated.  But as is often said, we have only this moment.  Trite, but never truer.

So I joyfully suggest that we seize the day.  Be who you are here to be.  Be who you want to be.  Don’t hold back and don’t wait.  Fight for what you believe in, but don’t forget to live fully, unfurled, as yourself.  There may be no one in the future to look back and remember or celebrate us, but we do have this time, precious time to be-here-now, to share our love, our wisdom, our gifts; to rejoice in the many and gorgeous offerings of other humans, the scent of apple blossoms on the evening breeze, geese honking as they wing overhead. Despite what might be a fatal flaw, we are an extraordinary, profoundly beautiful invention.  A failure to endure forever need not diminish that reality. So let’s live our humanness all the way, while we can, while we are here.  And please, don’t let anyone, no matter how surreal, no matter how mad, rob you of the right to make that choice.

*First published in Counterpunch

Don’t Get Distracted: the Specter of Extinction Must Trump the Sideshow

In this post-truth era, when the splashy surreal stands in for the real, it pays to be extremely vigilant about where our attention gets focused. It is understandable that we become snagged on the unfathomable. How can one fathom that which is beyond belief?  Our poor brains just cannot wrap themselves around the garbage that is being offered up as reality, as reasonable human conduct, or god forbid, as governance. And how can we avoid returning to look at the wreckage, to try again and again to grasp the insanity and the absurdity, to ask how this came to pass?  It is compelling—in the manner of a fiery highway crash– and with the help of the media, we can spend vast amounts of time and energy, mesmerized in disbelief and horror, focused on Donald Trump.  Is there a more perfect definition of armchair hell? And if by chance we drop into our hearts, there is no question that the circus feeds pain and dread there, increasing the urgency of our attentions and the levels of our anxieties.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Trump administration and their lackeys in Congress will cause unimaginable suffering for individuals all over the planet, even as they blow up the still-standing ruins of American democracy. This goes almost without saying, but I say it none-the-less for foundational purposes, to acknowledge the terrible significance of the real actions/inactions being underwritten by our current government.

But friends, this is a sideshow. A riveting one to be sure, replete with drama, true trauma, tragedy and comedy, but a side-show all the same, run by a carnival barker who knows well how to keep us turning his way.

As we fix our collective and terrified gaze on the (dangerous) antics of a canny bully and his gang, more and more evidence emerges to suggest that no matter what they do, what any of us do, our species’ time on this planet is rapidly drawing to a close. Certainly that which we term ‘civilization’ is well into its final act.  Trump and his cronies are an engine that will vastly accelerate this near inevitability, but the greater decimation is not of his making.

Very few of us would like to look in this direction, to consider the increasing probability, for instance, that most of the children born this year may not make it to middle-age, quite possibly not even to adulthood.  Even in first world countries. Even in the upper economic echelons of first world countries. This reality—as opposed to the surreality emerging from the White House– appears to offer so little to work with, to engage with, to, well…DO.  As humans, most of us like to DO, and we like to find ways to feel valid and hopeful and good about our lives.  It isn’t always easy and the specter of repeatedly chosen self-destruction looms darkly right now, acknowledged or not. Survival fears, well-founded ones that currently spark in a panoply of flavors, drive many of us, intent upon finding comfort, into unconsciousness, denial, frantic action.

Joining with others—virtually or in person—who share righteous outrage at violations of decency and morality and law—this can alleviate the sense of helplessness.  Being angry, being right, being in solidarity are all energizing anodynes for despair and disempowerment.  A case could be put that the Women’s Marches in January made very prominent important points of view that oppose the administration’s. Which is something. But did all those pussy hats, did the speeches and the songs and huge numbers of human beings in the streets accomplish anything concrete?  Did anyone on Wall Street quake?  Even a little? Did the leadership of the infamous 17 intelligence agencies feel more inclined to act lawfully afterward?  Did the administration think twice about its intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement?  (This latter being much too little, much too late, and yet we hold fast to the tiny strands, hoping that we can turn this raft around before that roaring ahead reveals itself to be the Niagara, falling.)  We all suspect strongly that the answers are consistently in the negative. The impact of protest and civil disobedience hinges heavily upon a state’s capacity for shame, on it’s having a conscience. Neither of those are much in evidence these days. Let’s not forget that 30-some million people out on the streets worldwide in early 2003 didn’t manage to slow down the rollout of Shock and Awe at all.

But what if we ask another set of questions, having to do with the hearts and minds of those who participated and those who couldn’t but would have liked to? Then we see the value of coming together and coming out to state in positive ways who we are and what we believe. We embolden and affirm one another. And perhaps—perhaps– someone with a bit of power is moved in ways we cannot and will never see.  Maybe the airport demonstrations actually created enough ‘drag’ to delay the zealots for a few weeks, weeks that meant the world to a number of individuals.

So, activism is worthwhile. We can make our passions known through public displays, we can organize locally to make change in that arena, we can write and make movies and record songs all to disseminate the truth, we can choose differently about what and how we consume, or drive, or educate our children.  We can direct our resources to support what we believe.

Each of us is responsible for considering how we contribute to or diminish the common good, for knowing and living up to our own capacities in this regard.  You know what you can do, and you also know what can’t do.  You also know—for yourself– what alleviates the feelings of panic and rage, and what leaves you feeling hopeless and despairing.

Which brings me back to the likelihood that we are now in the midst of the Grand Finale.  Why would anyone want to think about the prospect that we are rapidly approaching our own self-orchestrated extinction event? Too late to alter outcomes, we may see but two choices: helpless contemplation of a bleak and dystopian future that ends in rubble, or taking a smidgeon of control and tuning it all out, changing the station, and maybe even revving up a little over the ‘All Trump All The Time’ news.  It seems pretty simple.  If there is nothing to be done, then why make ourselves sick and sad and depressed over that which can’t be changed?  And there is no denying that there are sideshows aplenty to divert us if we are so inclined.  Maybe we can even DO something about the social and civil disasters.

Imagine this: you are in a hospital bed recovering from major surgery.  You are starting to remember who you are and why you are here and what is at stake.  The pain is pretty bad, but you can manage it if you keep downing narcotics, if the healing continues apace, if you can get back to your real life soon. The doctor arrives to check on you.  She appears to be kind and encouraging and competent, and yet you can read the bad news on her face before she speaks. When she does, she tells you that the pathology was not good, that short of keeping you ‘comfortable,’ there is little more that medicine has to offer.

How could this be?  Just a few weeks ago, all was well and you were looking forward to a new trajectory in your life.  Maybe a grandchild, maybe a grand opus, maybe a love just beginning.  But here you are: in bed, suffering, having just received the diagnosis: you are terminal.

So what do you want to do?  Are there things you don’t want to leave this life not having done?  Or been?  Books to read?  Conversations to have?  Amends to make?  Places to see?  Habits to break?  Things to learn?  Truths to tell? Do you want to find peace?  Forgive yourself or someone else?  Do you want to let go of fear?  Do you want to love with all your heart?

If you wish to make the most of the time that remains, you need to live with death on your left shoulder, as many shamanic traditions advise.  You must not put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Time is precious if you have limited quantities of it and you have living left to do.  When we reach this juncture, as most of us will, some will ramp up the fight to live, others will wander lost in sorrow. Some of us will use all of our energy to uphold the scaffolding of denial and still others will spend their final weeks or months in anger and regret.  When we are facing almost certain death, the options are limited.  It is, after all, a fundamental loss of control.  But we can choose how we live while we are alive. That may be all that is left to us.

You will see where I am going with this. As a species, Homo sapiens could well be on its last upright legs.  That means you.  It means me. It means our beloved children and everyone we hold dear. And it is quite likely that another round of chemo (e.g., the Paris Agreement) will forestall the inevitable only slightly.

This is heartbreaking, a virtual definition of tragedy.  It didn’t have to be this way, and yet something (the fatal flaw?) has brought us as a species to this pass.  (I leave aside for the moment all the other species we have carelessly dragged down with or ahead of us.)  Serious scientists and thinkers are writing in increasing numbers that we need to consider the possibility our children will not live out their ‘natural’ lives.  Google human extinction (57 million hits in .66 second), or try the search feature on CounterPunch for substantive reporting on our prospects.

It is almost too grievous to look at full on.  But if we fail to do so, we may lose the impetus to live our lives as truly and as gloriously and as deeply as is possible.  You may want to spend some of the last part of your life watching everything Fred Astaire ever danced, or you might want to read Nietzsche at last, or you could have a passion to swim with the dolphins (if they consent).  Maybe it is your longing to stand in front of an IDF (or American) tank in the purest affirmation of human empathy and courage you can muster, or perhaps have always felt poetry rising within but never committed those jewels to paper.  Whatever it is—know it.  And then, do it.  Live it.  Feel it.  Be it.  We are all in that hospital bed, whether we allow ourselves to feel the truth of it or not.  Miracles do happen and there is no need to be defeated.  But as is often said, we have only this moment.  Trite, but never truer.

So I joyfully suggest that we seize the day.  Be who you are here to be.  Be who you want to be.  Don’t hold back and don’t wait.  Fight for what you believe in, but don’t forget to live fully, unfurled, as yourself.  There may be no one in the future to look back and remember or celebrate us, but we do have this time, precious time to be-here-now, to share our love, our wisdom, our gifts; to rejoice in the many and gorgeous offerings of other humans, the scent of apple blossoms on the evening breeze, geese honking as they wing overhead. Despite what might be a fatal flaw, we are an extraordinary, profoundly beautiful invention.  A failure to endure forever need not diminish that reality. So let’s live our humanness all the way, while we can, while we are here.  And please, don’t let anyone, no matter how surreal, no matter how mad, rob you of the right to make that choice.