Dream City Home

Welcome to day 31 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They are all listed here.

To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of, I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room. … Am I alien? Alien from what exactly? Perhaps my home is my dream city, more real than my waking life precisely because it has no relation to waking life…  — William S. Burroughs

Dream city as home. This idea works for me. My dreamspace, which feels like a place where I live even more vividly, more sensually, than usual, is often architectural in form and setting, with past houses (which obviously do have a relationship to waking life) — especially this one …

Maine house, Feb. 2001
partial kitchen, Maine house, 1994
Thanksgiving in Maine house, 1995
fireplace and living space, Maine house, 1994
stairs and warming oven, Maine house, 1994
Christmas 1996 (with Cactus) in Maine house

… and apartments, hotels, restaurants, frequently other people’s houses, auditoriums, hospitals, bridges, schools, bathrooms, meeting rooms, buildings and built spaces that I don’t think I have ever been in except in dreams (and there they are typically recurring settings) — all common in my dreams. Of course, dreams have to be set somewhere, like plays, but what interests me is the transformation of knowledge and memory of the building, and the exploration of it in the dream, and how often dreams are set in places I don’t recognise except perhaps from previous dreams. (This dream, e.g., about my dad a year or so after he died, takes place in several buildings I’ve never been in in waking life.)

My “dream city” feels like a multiplicity of places — some real, some not real as far as I know (or at least not remembered by me in real life) — that are significant for various reasons: because of my emotional and aesthetic memories of a real place; because of the feeling evoked by its architecture or layout; because of some association with it through other people’s stories (what my imagination conjures — from novels, from what friends have described, from song lyrics or lines of poetry, from what I’ve heard on the radio — or what my eyes have actually glimpsed, momentarily, in paintings, on TV or in movies, riding past, etc.); or who knows what reason.

Yemassee SC Dec. 2013
Rocky Mount MC Dec. 2013
somewhere in Rhode Island, Feb. 2008
somewhere in Connecticut, Feb. 2008

Why do buildings and other places resonate and spark imagination? Why do they “make us” feel a certain way, evoke moods and sensations (e.g., “haunted houses”)? Is it because they contain us, hold us, bring us together or split us apart, both exclude and include us? Do they somehow form an external correspondence to our interior spaces?


More to Burroughs’ point, my sense of homelessness, placelessness, alienates me from real life sometimes. My family moved often — due to my dad’s corporate life promotions and transfers — so when asked, e.g. as a security question on a financial site, “what is your hometown?,” I have no idea. I have no hometown, and my home is pretty much where I am at the moment, so in one sense I feel “at home” almost anywhere. But coming home after being away feels jarring — home is familiar, a place I know well and am comfortable, but re-entry to normal life after being away feels oppressive, constrictive; I feel restless, like I’ve lost something. I think it’s partly that on the road (hotels, motels, trains), there is much less stuff and therefore less emotional tiredness brought on by the emotional and physical demands of stuff.  But I think it’s more than that, perhaps something to do with the way, as I’ve mentioned previously, that travel disrupts, questions, and subverts conventional thought and behaviour. Coming home, I feel the demands (that word again) reinstated, the sense of what I am expected to be and do limited by the circumference of “home.”


Unlike Burroughs’ experience (“I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room”), I have in my life almost always had a base, a room, apartment, or house to come home to day after day — and yet these places have always felt transitional to me. (I’ve written about this before, 5 years ago, in Oct. 2012). I can’t help but notice that all our lives and all our places are transitional, ephemeral, not made to last. In the short run, someone will dig up my garden or terrace it, a storm or fire may take out trees and destroy homes and towns, objects and materials constantly wear out, living things die (some exceedingly quickly, others at a slower rate) and everyone I know, including me, including friends’ children and their children, including all the animals now alive on earth, will die soon. In the long run, all bodies, all buildings and things, all governments, all human constructions will disappear and wild nature will take over, as it is wont to do now when given half a chance.

seaweed growing on rock, Kennebunk ME, Dec. 2014
fern growing out of rock, brick, in Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, GA, Dec. 2015
trees growing out of rock ledge, Northern Rail Trail, NH, April 2015
watermelon plant growing on beach, Jekyll Island, GA, Sept. 2013

And in the longer run, land, sea, and all mortal beings, all species of flora and fauna, will disappear.

Which is why perhaps a heterotopia appeals to me so deeply … the placeless place, neither here nor there: a ship between shores on which an ad hoc society exists only as long as a cruise or passage; a tourist town, which shutters up and closes down after a few months; a public garden, where antiquity meets modernity (and as Louis Marin says, “the unsurpassable contradiction, where art and nature, artifice and truth, imagination and the real, representation and being, mimesis and the origin, play hide-and seek”); a museum (hard on the back and wearying though they are), where the past is reinterpreted by the present (“Foucault’s museum is not a funereal storehouse of objects from different times, but an experience of the gap between things and the conceptual and cultural orders in which they are interpreted”- from Beth Lord); a cemetery, where past and present collide and almost all of us have a relationship with it. A place, in other words, where here-there-everywhere and now-then come together in some ambiguous, disturbing, provocative way. A place that deviates from conventional norms, a constant reminder that ‘normal’ is always and everywhere just a temporary construct. These heterotopic places are where I feel I belong, if one can be said to belong to such a place, because they match my sense of what’s real.

my mom, Evergreen Cemetery, Roanoke, VA, 13 Dec. 2014
Dad’s ashes, scattered in Mt. Rogers National Recreational Area, Virginia, June 2013


We each exist in a place now, places that seem real, solid, geographically tangible. At the same time, or in another time that runs alongside the chronology we obey, we are placeless, standing at a threshold, that liminal space, waiting, one foot here and one foot there, waiting, inhabiting multiple realities, multiple places and times in one moment, in one space. That’s how it feels to me, and I guess it’s why hotels, motels, lodging, and the movement of travelling resonate for me, reminders of the non-linear world beyond and inside and overlapping this other world we are inexplicably placed in. They remind me that we’re here for the moment, we’re in this spot in each moment as we move toward another spot in each moment, places we’ve never been, or have visited in dreams and in memory.

We live out of suitcases, uncertain in the middle of the night how to find the bathroom and the lights; we wake up disoriented, aware of strangers coughing, flushing, moving about next door; we check ourselves in the mirror before opening the door and stepping through.



Thanks for traveling with me on this part of my journey.


Fascination with the Apocalypse Now

horseriders on Driftwood Beach, JI, 27 April 2012


Someone recently asked, at a sort of salon conversation gathering on 21 Dec. — the day that some believed the world was going to end (as implied by the Mayans’ calendar ending on that date) — why we humans are so fascinated by speculation about the END OF THE WORLD. It’s a good question.

After all, although the Mayans didn’t really predict the end of the world — their  ancient calendar simply rolled over, beginning a new 394-year century (baktun), which some believe may usher in a new and perhaps more peaceful age — lots of groups and people throughout history, since 2800 B.C.!, have predicted and prepared for Doomsday, Armageddon, the Rapture, the Second Coming, Judgement Day, the Apocalypse, the End.


Plenty of religious folk in particular — popes, cardinals, rabbis, prophets, nuns, Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist forerunners the Second Adventists, the Nation of Islam, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Millerites in the 1840s, Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God (in the 1930s, 40s and 70s), Billy Graham in 1950, Hal Lindsey in his bestselling The Late, Great Planet Earth (my mom had a copy), Pat Robertson on the 700 Club — but also others, like 16th century seer and apothecary Nostradamus (who may have said that the world would end in July 1999), UFO cults, numerologists, pyramidologists, alien channelers, the white-supremacist group Aryan Nations, John Napier (the mathematician who discovered logarithms), scientists who expected comets and asteroids to wipe us out — have been predicting the end of the world practically since humans have existed on the planet.

Some contemporaries of Jesus interpreted his words as written in Matthew 16:28 (“Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”) and in Matthew 24:33-34 (“So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.  Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”) as a prediction of the world’s imminent demise then, and religious people have been predicting specific dates ever since, despite Jesus’s assurance immediately following (Matthew 24:36) that ” of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

Perhaps the “the first bona fide Christian doomsday cult” was founded around 156 AD and lasted for several centuries even though Jesus didn’t show up. Some thought the world would end 6000 years after it was created, or no later than 500 A.D.  There were “end dates” during the 800s, 900s, and every century thereafter, dozens and dozens of them. New England preacher and witch hunter Cotton Mather predicted it would end three times (1697, 1617, and 1736), Christian preacher Harold Camping has predicted “Judgment Day” on May 21, 2011, and again in 1994, and they’re not alone in their serial predictions.

Some people still interpret the books of Revelation, Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel in the Bible to be apocalyptic prediction, with a heavy focus on events in Israel seen as ushering in the end times.

(Lists of predictions are available online for those interested, via Wikipedia’s List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events and Chris Nelson’s rather more detailed A Brief History of the Apocalypse.)


Many people, families and small groups now  (religious and not) are quietly planning for a cataclysmic end to life — either globally, nationally, or regionally — as we know it. There are so many ways we imagine we could go! To name just a few:

  • the consequences of climate change, ranging from scarcity of water, food and oil to a new ice age or extreme flooding caused by glaciers melting;
  • government attack on gun owners or on non-Christians, or conversely, an armed citizen insurrection against the government;
  • a terrorist act or series of them, involving nuclear or chemical warfare;
  • widespread natural disaster like an asteroid hitting, or a super volcano, or a massive earthquake or shift in tectonic plates;
  • widespread public health disaster such as antibiotic-resistant infection or highly contagious and lethal disease;
  • technological (or Congressional?) disaster that could freeze the flow of money and keep us from accessing bank accounts, causing worldwide panic;
  • the planet Nibiru could enter our solar system and become a second sun;
  • the magnetic poles could shift again

And the list goes on. The Telegraph, in its Dec. 2010 article, “Armageddon in 2012? The truth behind the doomsday theories,” listed and rated some of the most popular doomsday theories.

We recognise the dangers of being mortal and of living on Earth, and some of us spend a lot of time thinking about it and preparing for threats. Even those of us who don’t do much to prepare may feel perennially anxious in the shadow of a cataclysmically disastrous future.

As a recent CNN article noted, there are a number of popular TV shows about preparing for the end, including Doomsday Preppers (a reality show, on National Geographic Channel), Falling Skies (fiction, TNT), Revolution (fiction, NBC), and The Walking Dead (AMC, fiction about the zombie apocalypse). The article also reminds us of the “Left Behind” series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that are based on the dispensationalist idea of a rapture, or the Second Coming, and the years of tribulation on earth afterward. Post-apocalyptic fiction and tales of werewolves, zombies and vampires abound. Disaster movies have been popular for many decades, from the first apocalyptic film in 1916, The End of the World.


Of course, some think it’s just Americans who are obsessed with doomsday prophecies. In July 2012, the BBC considered “America’s Fascination with the Apocalypse — “There is a long tradition of such apocalyptic thinking in the US. But … it has now moved beyond religious prophecies into the secular world. … [A]ctivists from both the political left and right have embraced apocalypse thinking, issuing dramatic warnings that everything from the traditional American way of life to the very existence of the planet is under threat” — and in Sept. 2012 at Fordham University in NYC a lecture was held with the title “Apocalypse Now: America’s Fascination with Doomsday and Why It Matters,” with Elaine Pagels, Jim Hoberman, and Andrew Delbanco speaking on the topic. In the BBC piece, author Matthew Barrett Gross (The Last Myth) calls it “an idea that unites all Americans” and says it has “played a central role in the American story since the very beginning.” Apparently there are 3 million “preppers” in America, preparing and stockpiling for an apocalyptic future.


Scientific American also covered the phenomenon this month in a collection of  articles, essays and blog posts (originally published from 2009-2012) on its website and devoted a print issue to it, with the headline “the end. or is it?,” in Sept. 2010, including Michael Moyer’s “Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We’re Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise,” which suggests that “[t]he impulse is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature … It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points.”

That CNN article I referred to earlier, and many other sites online, offer a number of other explanations for our obsession with the end of the world, despite the fact that “apocalyptic prophecy behavior is puzzling at first glance because people tend to be optimistic, rather than pessimistic.” They boiled down to a few main ideas:

  • Apocalyptic tales give us a safe theatre to explore death and the unknown, as they “embed a tale of fantasy into reality.” This might be called counterphobia, “the idea that we pursue what we are most afraid of in an attempt and effort to control anxiety over it. I think at some level, the fascination with the end of the world – whether a book or in movie form – gives us a way to control the uncontrollable, to master anxiety over death which is inescapable. For that reason, it provides us with a degree of comfort,” says psychologist Lawrence Rubin, quoted in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson.  Richard Beck discourses on length and with great insight on this idea in his series of posts The Theology of Monsters, including “Monsters, Horror & Death.” More on this below.
  • Related to and deriving from the first but diverging slightly: Apocalyptic scenarios and predictions give us a sense of greater control, not just over death-anxiety but by offering an opportunity to reimagine and remake our world, to change our lives, to become more self-reliant, to feel we can control and co-create our future and mold it so that we feel we are not victims but survivors. In this last — seeing selves as survivors rather than victims — it’s still very similar to the first idea, that we can face (the possibility of) our own death and yet live. We can expect the end of the world and prepare ourselves so well for it that we survive it. And it’s similar to the last idea (below), that our lives feel humdrum, so we long to shake them up by imagining — with that delicious frisson of terror we experience when watching horror movies or telling ghost stories — the unimaginable. But there is also a New Year’s resolution feel about this explanation, a belief and feeling that we can co-create a new and improved world, that whatever comes may be better. In a way, that’s still a strategy for reducing death anxiety (like a belief in a happy afterlife), by means of imbuing us with a sense of renewal and even hope.
  • Another explanation is that these doomsday scenarios allow us to rise above our petty differences of gender, colour, race, creed, class, etc., and cooperate for the good of all against a powerful adversary. (Rubin, again, in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson). It’s a narrative that captures our sense of the heroism of humanity. We feel good about ourselves because we are in the struggle together, making communal and noble sacrifices against a common enemy.
  • Finally, for some, these stories may offer a way out of despair or simply the boredom of a humdrum, unsatisfying life: “[T]hose who hope the world will end [may] need a little excitement in their lives or secretly want society to start over.  ‘There’s a lot of benefit that may come for some if the world ends, unfortunately, and some people look forward to that.'” (CNN) And along the same lines, we like to imagine the world ending on our watch (as people also did in ancient times and ever since) because it enhances or validates our sense of being a key part of something absolutely monumental: “We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet — with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. … Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.” Cracked magazine (go-to source for this sort of thing, right?) says it this way:

As a species, we like the apocalypse in the same way that a mopey teenager might like the idea of their own funeral: We want to see our decaying remains and revel in the tragic glory that we couldn’t appreciate until it was too late. We want to see crumbling skyscrapers and flooded metropolises and know that, once upon a time, we built those things.

Not only do we feel part of something incredible, but imagining THE END — whether of our own life or of everyone’s life all at once — boosts our appreciation for what we have in the here and now.


I said before that these explanations boil down to a few main themes, but really I think there is only one underlying theme: Seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. And what we most can’t control, and what everything else we can’t control hints at, is our own death and the death of those we love. We want to be survivors, but history and medicine tell us that we won’t be, if surviving means that our hearts keep on beating. Most of us won’t even be remembered beyond a generation or two.

We want to be the heroes of our own stories — noble, good and strong — but in the end we will be bones, ashes, compost (if we’re not locked inside titanium vaults).


In the past, and in less developed countries now, people have been more in touch with death, because it was ordinary. It happened in the home, it happened often, it happened accompanied by a lot of pain and undeniable suffering. People feared it but they were also conscious of it.

Now, in modern times and places, we still fear death and dying, even though we rarely see it first-hand, in our homes, in the streets, every day. Still, the absolute threat of death is just as prevalent as ever — we are all still going to die — but now we are much more able to repress the thought of death from our conscious minds. Most of us don’t smell its stench. We rarely see it and when we do, it’s often in antiseptic hospitals, or on a mediated screen.

Beck’s post on Monsters and Death, mentioned above, addresses this:

Thanatologists, those scholars who study how cultures deal with death, call our current era ‘the pornography of death.‘ That is, modern life in America is typified by systematic cultural death repression. That is, death is systematically pushed out of consciousness. Consequently, to discuss death in the public sphere is inappropriate. Like pornography, talk of death is illicit.

He sees the Industrial Revolution, which changed the way we got food from killing and processing it in our yards (“Farm children lived with death on a daily basis”) to buying nuggets that look nothing like a chicken (“Boneless meat fosters a kind of death repression”) as one thing that distanced us from death, and the other is of course the modern hospital: “Before the rise of the modern hospital we died at home in our own beds. After death, the body was prepared and displayed in the home. The wake was in the home. In short, death and dead bodies were common features in every American household.” Now we have a funeral industry and we’ve moved corpses out of our back yards and into memorial gardens.

In short, “In modern America [and elsewhere], one never comes into contact with the dead. This lack of contact fosters death repression.”


The ways most of us do come in contact with death are precisely through our imaginations (as humans have always done — including when we lived daily with actual, ubiquitous death — through “grimm” fairy tales, ghost stories, fables, doomsday books, art imagery, and so on) and now also through the media, which present us with stories, photos and videos of plane crashes, natural disasters, terrifying encounters with sharks and grizzlies, mass shootings, tragic highway deaths, acts of terrorism and war, etc. We also have extremely violent and popular video games where people kill and are killed over and over.

I think the glimpses of death we get through the media, even through those video games, only serve to keep death safely in the unconscious realm. We think if we rehearse it, if we acknowledge its existence in fantasy, in the lives of other people in other circumstances than ours, that we will somehow defeat it. But we don’t. And we won’t.


I said earlier that I think that apocalypse-speculation all boils down to one explanation, which is seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. I’ve explained how I think that motivation underlies our urge to explore death in a “safe” space (far away, in imagination, non-immediately) and our preparations and affirmations that lead us to believe we are survivors and not victims; and I think that the same explanation also underlies the satisfyingly noble feeling we have when we feel we’re cooperating together, rising above our differences, against a common enemy (aliens, comet, germs, NRA, government, terrorists, etc.) as well as how special we feel to be part of something extraordinary. Whether religious, atheistic, pagan or other, we humans seem to want a “sacred centre” to give our lives meaning, to give us a feeling of transcendence, goodness, unanimity in righteousness. To give us identity.

As always, I feel James Alison explored and expressed the psychology of the “sacred centre” and the unanimity, grief and fear attendant with it — all of which are important to us when speculating on all things ending — in his talk on contemplation in a world of violence, after 9/11. I’m quoting at length because I think his insights are complex, deep, and widely applicable:

I would like to take us all back in our memories to the afternoon of September 11th — the afternoon, that is, for those of us who were on this side of the Atlantic. What I want to suggest to you is that we were all summoned to participate in something satanic. Now, by ‘satanic’ I don’t mean an over-the-top figure of speech, but something very specific, with very specific anthropological content, something whose very ability to be decoded by us is a sign of its failing transcendence.

“[I]mmediately we began to respond, and our response is to create meaning. It is our response that I am seeking to examine. Our response was sparked by two particular forces: the locations chosen for the suicide with collateral murder — places symbolic of power, wealth and success (never mind that many of those killed were neither powerful, wealthy or successful); and the omnipresence in the cities in question, and particularly New York, of rolling cameras and a hugely powerful media network which enabled a significant proportion of the planet to be sucked in to spectating from a safe distance. An already mimetic center, drawing more attention than ever towards itself, on that day became virtually inescapable.

“As we were sucked in, so we were fascinated. The “tremendum et fascinosum,” as Otto described the old sacred, took hold of us.  … And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. All over London I found that friends had stopped work, offices were closing down, everyone was glued to the screen. In short, there had appeared, suddenly, a holy day. Not what we mean by a holiday, a day of rest, but an older form of holiday, a being sucked out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre so kindly set up for us by the meaningless suicides.

“And immediately the sacrificial center began to generate the sort of reactions that sacrificial centers are supposed to generate: a feeling of unanimity and grief. Let me make a parenthesis here. I am not referring to the immediate reactions of those actually involved — rescue services, relatives, friends, whose form of being drawn in was as a response to an emergency and a family tragedy. I am referring to the rest of us. There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives. Phrases began to appear to the effect that “We’re all Americans now” — a purely fictitious feeling for most of us. It was staggering to watch the togetherness build up around the sacred center, quickly consecrated as Ground Zero, a togetherness that would harden over the coming hours into flag waving, a huge upsurge in religious services and observance, religious leaders suddenly taken seriously, candles, shrines, prayers, all the accoutrements of the religion of death. …

“And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy’s roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like ‘to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter.’ …”And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.“What I want to suggest is that most of us fell for it, at some level. We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic.  … A huge and splendid show giving the impression of something creative of meaning, but in fact, a snare and an illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgments clouded by satanic righteousness.

“When I say satanic, I mean this in two senses, for we can only accurately describe the satanic in two senses. The first sense is the sense I have just described: the fantastic pomp and work of sacrificial violence leading to an impression of unanimity, the same lie from the one who was a murderer and liar from the beginning, the same lie behind all human sacrifices, all attempts to create social order and meaning out of a sacred space of victimization. But the second sense is more important: the satanic is a lie that has been undone. It has been undone by Jesus’s going to death exploding from within the whole world of sacrifice, of religion and culture based on death, and showing it has no transcendence at all. … [W]e no longer have to believe it, we no longer have to act driven by its compulsions. It has no power other than the power we give it.

I think speculation about the end of the world enables us to explore death from a safe vantage point, to prepare for it “if” it comes, and mostly, to feel better about our humdrum existence, to feel we are part of “something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity.”


Alison goes on in his remarks to offer another alternative:

We are given a very specific and very commanding example of the divine regard: it teaches us to look away, not to be ensnared, to de-sacralize. It is the very reverse of apocalyptic.” … We are tempted to imagine that suicide planes, collapsing buildings, increased security, the unanimity of the rich and powerful, and of course, bombs and more bombs and more bombs, are signs of power. Are creative of a new world order. … But what Jesus suggests is that all that power is a dangerous illusion. His talk is of a quite different power coming, scarcely noticeably, in the midst of all those things, weaning us off our addiction to the sort of crowd desire which makes that power possible and apparently all englobing.

In short, Alison says that fascination with the sacred centre is “a distraction, dangerous to us, but of no consequence to God, a distraction from the real coming into being of an entirely gratuitous, peaceful, creative meaning, and one in which we are invited to be involved.”

For myself, I think the “apocalypse” is ongoing, every day. It’s, literally, the uncovering, the unveiling, the revelation of a world that we can be part of all the time, when we notice that the sacred centre and its attendant grief and drama is a lie; when we resist the temptation of feeling morally good and right, either because of what we do or what we believe, and instead let that go entirely so we can receive what’s freely given; when we look through the illusion of meaning, identity and security that’s gained through violence, unanimity, and sacrifice; when we stop locating evil in others, justifying our own violence, and making distinctions between good and bad violence. When we stop looking for the end of the world as we know it … and just live it.

As Mary Oliver writes:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Photo #16

dad walking, HHSP, florida Feb. 2007
dad walking, Hickory Hammock State Park, Florida, Feb. 2007

I wrote this piece in November 1993 — more than 18 years ago.

At Home

My father called last night. He’s finally changing his will and he’s made me executrix. The term surprises me, and before I can stop myself, I flash on Electrolux vacuum cleaners, then high-priced call girls performing exec-u-tricks for CEOs. I don’t think about what it really involves until after we hang up, and then I can’t stop thinking about it.

Dad and his girlfriend, Nancy, are renting a house on the Carolina coast for three months, then they’ll decide what to do next: either house-sit in a Michigan lighthouse, or build their own log cabin in the western Virginia hills, with the idea of living in it half the year and travelling during the rest. Either way, he’s still looking for a home, temporary or less temporary. He’s spent the last 10 years hiking, living in the woods, living in other people’s houses while they’re away – usually without a telephone, so my sisters and I never know when we might talk with him again. We make up for it by talking about him, comparing the evidence of our lives and finding him both mutable and constant.

Lately, Dad talks a lot about money. He never used to mention it, not specific dollar amounts. Until I was 25, I had no idea what his salary was or what the house cost. If I asked, he’d say “Oh, we have enough. You don’t need to worry.” Now, he brings up the subject while we’re talking about breakfast or the Orioles. He tells me what his 401k will mean for my sisters and me when we split it three ways. He tells me how much money he settled on my mother in their divorce last year, and how much she’ll receive from a life insurance policy. I write it all down for later.

I remember when I first realized my father wasn’t all-powerful. I was 7 and my mother, who never listened to me, was vacuuming around me one evening while I talked. I packed a few stuffed animals and fewer clothes, and I told her I was leaving. “Goodbye!” she waved, stepping over the cord into the living room. I slammed the door, walked through the dark to the back yard, and stood under the redwood deck Dad had made the summer before, wondering where to go now. The mint grew thick in the shade, the aroma so strong I’m overpowered even now when I pull it out of my own garden. I heard the front door open and close, and then my name yelled into the night. I heard him coming towards me and as soon as he got close, I took off. It felt like a game, then. We ran three times around the house but I was more agile around the corners and stayed well ahead of him. He couldn’t catch me. I felt powerful, strong, safe in my youthful body. It was only later, in bed with my animals, that I felt a cold sliver of fear near my heart.

I feel the same chill now, sometimes. When Dad and Nancy visited this summer, we played 4-card stud, 7-card draw, hearts, and any other card games we could remember most of the rules for. Suddenly, Dad got a charley-horse and fell writhing to the ground. I ran to get the analgesic cream. After Nancy and I rubbed it into his calf, he was able to stand up again, but he seemed a little shorter, a little stooped. I don’t think I had ever witnessed his pain before, so direct, so unmitigated.

When we talk about his will, or the house they may build, I know that hiding just beyond the circumference of this conversation is another conversation, one much more difficult to navigate.

I had a nightmare the other night that my father killed himself. In the dream, he had made a promise to me that he would live out the length of his days. Everyone in my family dies young; few have lived past 65; and he knows I’m anxious that someone break into old age, just to show me it can be done. But, in the dream, he kills himself and the promise is broken. In life, he’s made no such promise, and even if he had, I couldn’t hold him to it, no matter how strong I am or how weak he becomes.

Eventually, he’ll find his home and he’ll want to stay there.

Photo #4

black vultures on bridge, Florida, Feb 2007
black vultures on bridge, in Florida, Feb 2007

These vultures lined the pathway from my dad’s house in Florida to the spit of land, poking out into the canal, where I had the best chance of making a cell phone call without the connection being dropped. I smiled darkly, but with amusement, each time I ran the vulture gauntlet.

I was visiting my dad for a week in Feb. 2007, just after he called, crying, to let us know he had cancer. He hadn’t had surgery yet, or chemo, and he was feeling perfectly fine, if a little shell-shocked, so we hiked or took walks for a few hours together every day, as was his routine, and we ate out, and we drove in the new Mini to Sebring to visit his cousins and take walks there, and of course we talked.

I clearly remember him asking me, as we strolled around the streets and paths of the Church of the Brethren retirement community that he lived in, whether I had any questions I wanted to ask him. Anything at all. We were near the little orange orchard. And I clearly remember my response. If you know me at all, you know that I can’t remember a darned thing, so my remembering any of this was a clue to myself that it mattered.

And my response was to look at him, smile, and say, No, not really … Is there anything you want to tell me?

We had already talked about his diagnosis, to the extent that he wanted to, and I guess I could have probed more here, but I think we both knew the score, even then, and there didn’t seem any point. Stage 4 is stage 4.

Some years before, he had already made a Will and had end-of-life stuff sorted out. I had spent the last decade or more drilling  him on his family’s genealogy and on my early childhood, which I don’t remember. I still have the cocktail napkins on which I took notes as we had a drink together or ate out together and I asked him, once again, about his mother, his early work experience, his honeymoon with my mom, his father’s brothers, what it was like to drive a hearse.

I really didn’t have anything more to ask. I felt I knew what I needed to know, not so much about his family, his life, my life, or his death … but about how to live. Because I had watched him live, even with vultures lining the bridge — as they always d0 and always will.

I read this at a family memorial service we held this summer for him and his sister, my aunt, who predeceased him by almost a month — she died the weekend after she visited him, when he was dying:

“It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love, for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true.
I want to know if you can disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied. I want to know what sustains you
from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.”

(from The Invitation by Oriah)

What interested me then, and now, is what he ached for and dreamed of, what sustained him,  how he kept faith and didn’t betray his soul, what made him cry “Yes!” to the moon, that he truly liked his own company. But I already knew all that. I still know all that.

Loveliest of What We Leave

"Loveliest of what I leave
is the sun himself
Next to that the bright stars
and the face of mother moon
Oh yes, and cucumbers in season,
and apples, and pears." --  Praxilla (fl. c. 451 BC)  Adonis, Dying

I’m part of a thoughtful discussion group about Caroline Fairless’s book The Space Between Church and Not-Church: A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of Our Planet. The book starts with the ideas that we need a non-anthropocentric vision of our (humans’) place in the Earth community and that we need to “reimagine our moral compass,” reconfiguring it so that paying attention, responding gratefully, and acting with compassion are key. And she seeks ways to use sacred ritual and art to bridge the space between those who are comfortable with the language of religion and those who are not. (That’s a simple summary and possibly not accurate as it’s my interpretation.)

The conversation this week started with musing about urban/suburban/rural experiences of “nature” Around the table, we wondered whether one needs the experience of the natural world to be whole, or to be fully connected with spirit, or something like that. (I’m sorry I can’t recall exactly how it was posed. I’m uncharacteristically not taking many notes during this process.) I think implicit in the conversation is the assumption that to the extent that we (humans) feel connected with place, with the natural world, we will appreciate it, feel gratitude towards it, and act with compassion towards it, as we would toward anyone we love. If this were our attitude, we wouldn’t be stewards, the humans that manage everything not-human as fairly or sustainably as we can; we would be servants, washing the animals’ feet, offering our time, energy and resources towards the joy of the beloved Earth.  I can imagine this.

The first thing I thought about was how unconnected even most Americans (and/or Westerners) who live in rural places are from nature, particularly from our food, from our place in the food chain, from the whole predator-prey way of existence. Obviously, those who have to hunt, fish and/or gather their food, and those who live on a farm and raise, grow, kill and harvest all their food (like Barbara Kingsolver and her family tried to do for a year in Virginia and reported in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral), are more intimate than most Westerners with a process that is the basis for most animals’ existence, i.e., causing death and (to a much lesser extent, given farm life and weaponry) being in danger of being caught and eaten oneself.

I realised that my thoughts were perhaps far afield from the question at hand: thinking about the benefits of a pocket park for the city dweller, or about how enriching the experience of being in the woods is, focuses the conversation differently than thinking about the predator-prey relationship. So I considered whether and what the difference is between a. experiencing the natural world, and b. experiencing oneself in one’s true place in the natural world, as a kind of animal, a mortal being.

And, in the way of the unrigorous mind …

… “That’s the way the mind works: the brain is genetically disposed towards organization, yet if not controlled, will link even the most imagerial fragment to another on the flimsiest pretense and in the most freewheeling manner, as if it takes a kind of organic pleasure in creative association, without regards to logic or chronological sequence. … The brain has a dangerous habit of messing around with stuff it cannot or will not comprehend.” (Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) …

… in that way, I wandered farther and wondered further about how, though we are animals, we seem to try to distance ourselves from that fact. For instance, through shame and denial of all manner of bodily functions.

The conversation as it unfolded — with discussion of what we love about wild places, of how they can speak to us, and about the “practice of place” — and my internal responses to it brought to consciousness two things I had recently read.

One thing our conversation reminded me of is a lengthy book review of metaphysical philosopher Michel Serres’ new (and short: 106 pp) book, titled Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?  The review is titled “Sacred Dirt.” There is much in Serres’ analysis that may seem far-fetched or that may be questioned (as the reviewer, Princeton humanities professor Susan Stewart, does), and at the same time, Serres’ ideas, as interpreted in this review, seem to me insightful, provocative and relevant to our discussion.

The other reading that our conversation brought to mind is a series by Experimental Theology writer Richard Beck on The Slavery of Death, and most specifically, The Slavery of Death: Part 12, The American Culture of Death Avoidance.

malfeasance book coverThe main idea of Michel Serres’ book is that

“animals, humans included, use pollution to mark, claim, and appropriate territory through defiling it and that over time this appropriative act has evolved away from primitive pollution, urine and feces, to “hard pollution”, industrial chemicals, and “soft pollution”, the many forms of advertising.” (AdBusters review)

The book is divided into two sections, the first of which is titled “Urine, Manure, Blood, Sperm: The Lived Foundations of Property Right.” Through some etymological sleight-of-hand, he builds an argument that humans tend to

“create significance through practices of inclusion and expulsion. … Like most animals, human beings use their bodily excreta — urine, manure, corpses, and sperm — to appropriate places. Sacred places are ‘polluted’ by such excreta and must be bounded off from it …. These excreta — urine, sperm, blood, corpses — are used to mark and claim more and more space as they accumulate. … Natural law becomes positive law, according to Serres, by evolving from these practices of sacrifice, invasion, crimes, and stinking, excremental trash to the “soft signs” of the signature on paper, the logo, the brand, and the re-appropriation of what has already entered the economy. He describes us at the end of this long process of rationalization, sporting the logos of those corporations that have ruined our air and water and exploited the labor of our bodies: “the victims stand in line to multiply the advertising that targets them.” …

He says that

our ‘cleanliness is our dirt’: our desire to possess the world by ‘cleaning’ or claiming it for ourselves and then throwing the consequent dirt and detritus beyond the bounds of what we deem ‘propre‘ has brought about, he claims, the ruination of ourselves and our world. He describes how we are severed from the rest of nature to the point that we suffer an accelerating, self-perpetuating, and alienating symbiosis between forms of material pollution — such as industrial waste and toxic dumps — and forms of mental, or metaphysical, pollution — such as the monotony of muzak, the squawking of mandatory televisions in public spaces, and the relentless commands and demands of advertisements in every view. …

Pooch Cafe cartoon strip about tagging

(Pooch Cafe cartoon, 10/25/2011)

There’s a whole lot more in the review, about Serres’ idea that humans should be tenants of Earth and not property owners (individually or communally) and his observation that “the term ‘environment’ leads us astray with its anthropomorphic center in the human figure.”

The connection for me with what we discussed is in the phrase “our cleanliness is our dirt.” When I read that, I think about how we have carved out green spaces in cities, parks in suburbs, forests between highways, and so on, and how much, on the one hand, we love and likely benefit spiritually, aesthetically, emotionally and physically from these wild-er, leafy, green, quieter places of refuge (and some other animals and plants are sustained by them, too), and how, on the other hand, carving out these pristine places carries a significance that harms our spirits, as we separate our space into proper, sacred space (pure of visible waste products, pure of visible signs of death and decay and mortality) and … space that’s not sacred, because it’s contaminated by reminders that we’re mortal animals.

Some would say that all natural space is “contaminated” by reminders of death, because their cycles are seasonal, so in fall and winter we can’t help but observe withered plants, dead leaves, bare branches, fewer obvious signs of life than in spring and summer. That’s true, and yet it seems there is almost a romantic sensibility attached to these dying months, a feeling of nostalgia, melancholy or grief for the brevity of Life (of which our particular life is theoretically part), accompanied by the knowledge that the Earth is merely “resting” until it bursts forth with energy again in the Spring.  Fall and winter, in their own way, enable both a surrogation of our death-grief — an arms’-distance way of not-really experiencing it but feeling like we have — and they also point toward new life (in spring), and all of that is comforting when death and dying are scary.

Of course, graveyards — the place of corpses — occupy a funny place here. They’re both set apart, lying outside the boundaries of normal life because they hold what’s “unclean,” and they are also considered sacred by many humans (and perhaps some other animals, like elephants), and some cemeteries also serve as refuges and places of peace for people in a busy, constructed world.  Taboos can sometimes be recognised as that which can only be talked about or experienced in what is perceived as a sacred setting.

This brings me to Richard Beck’s thoughts in his blog posting.

Beck writes in this posting about Americans’ fear of death and the lengths we go to to suppress, repress and deny the fact that we will die, and anything that reminds us of it, such as aging, illness, disability, and decay, obviously, but (and this is my addition to his thoughts) also those activities that remind us that we are mortal animals, such as sex and waste elimination. These are our cultural taboos, and as such, they define what’s allowed and what’s not, what’s included as proper and “clean” and what’s excluded as improper and “unclean.”

As taboos, they also give rise to obsession, so that on the flip side, when it comes to death, we seem also to worship violence and killing, with our death rows, gun culture, first-person-shooter video games, very violent movies and TV, sacred language relating to the military, the way we grieve over the deaths of celebrities, etc. We both glorify and glamourise it, and we deeply — Beck says, neurotically — fear it.  We will die, everyone and everything we know will die, and yet death will live on. We worship and we fear death’s power. And our repression and denial of it leads us to rope it off, by sacralising it — giving it sacred meaning and endowing it with transcendent powers — and by making it taboo and prohibiting expressions of it. We do everything we can to make it not ordinary, not normal… an aberration.

Beck argues in a previous post that

“in technological cultures death has become disruptive, illicit, and unseemly. Death has become ‘pornographic’ in our era, not fit for polite discussion or contemplation. You don’t want to bring up death at a cocktail party with co-workers. It’s uncouth and vulgar.”

(This partly explains why I’m not good at cocktail parties.)

Beck quotes copiously in the linked post from Arthur McGill’s book Death and Life: An American Theology:

The most crucial task is for people to create a living world where death seems abnormal and accidental. They must create a living world where life is so full, so secure, and so rich with possibilities that it gives no hint of death and deprivation. Here we have the first ethical duty imposed by the conviction that death is outside of life and that life is the only good for which we should live. According to this duty, a person must try to live in such a way that he or she does not carry the marks of death, does not exhibit any hint of the failure of life. A person must try to prove by his or her own existence that failure does not belong essentially to life. Failure is an accident, a remediable breakdown of the system. McGill calls this duty to hide death–the pressure to be ‘fine’–the ethic of death avoidance:

Every American is thus ingrained with the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of his or her normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness. The ethic I have outlined here is often called the ethic of success. I prefer to call it the ethic of avoidance…Persons are considered a success not because they attain some remarkable goal, but because their lives do not betray marks of failure or depression, helplessness or sickness. When they are asked how they are, they really can say and really do say, ‘Fine…fine.’ “ *

All this to say that to the degree that we feel an obligation to “create a living world where death seems abnormal and accidental” and to clean our space of “dirt” and keep it apart from us, we may fear “nature” and avoid experiencing it … as if we could do this simply by spending no time outside among dirt, trees, plants, sand, water, et al.; the fact is that we ourselves are “all natural” — most of us, anyway — made of flesh, bones, blood and other “dust,” which will return to dust.

Or, we may want to whitewash nature, evidenced in our cultural fondness for charismatic mega-fauna (the dung beetle, which Fairless suggests is as significant as any other being on Earth, is going to have a tough row to hoe, I’m afraid, in its bid to become the poster child for Earth-love), and our penchant for sunrises, sunsets and rainbows, and our attraction to pristine parks and places set aside and looking lushly or starkly attractive (depending on your aesthetic sensibility).

And even those set-aside places may derive from and play into our death-avoidance:

“[M]any Americans have to create a society which does not cause or require debility and death. Life, life, and more life — that is the only horizon within which these Americans want to live. Epidemics of sickness, economic disasters bringing mass starvation, social violence and disorder threatening at every street corner — if any such things were to happen, then death would no longer be outside of life, be accidental to life. Then, the American venture of nice homes, clean streets, decent manners, and daily security would prove to be false.” (McGill via Beck)

These pockets of refuge, with their elements of nature, feel refreshing and soul-fortifying to many of us, as do art museums and other aesthetically pleasing spaces amidst grimy cities. And, they can also serve to keep us in forgetfulness about tooth-and-claw life, life that’s vibrant and vital, even as it leads to death.

And yet, who can blame us for seeking out nature as a balm, a refuge, a way to openness, connection and vitality, where we can “feel alive again”? As Joseph Campbell (in The Power of Myth) remarks:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re really seeking is an experience of being alive.”

Maybe there is something that happens — unnoticed consciously, or sometimes noticed quite consciously — that does renew our hearts and minds, when we are in the midst of other living species, in our true place on Earth; maybe we do align ourselves, or find ourselves, on some psychic or biological wavelength with all of creation, and know in some deep place that we are co-creating, that we are living and dying like all that is natural.

This, then, reminds me of one of the stories in Fairless’s book: There’s a backstory, but the upshot is that she challenges a creative writing class to write about Jesus’ death, but not his resurrection, without using religious language. Her poem “Yellow Bird” (pp. 90-92) is her response to her own challenge, and at the end of her poem, the injured bird is dying, there is no reprieve.

But no one else in the class stopped at death. The students (including the non-religious) all continued on to include resurrection, redemption, the “happy ending” in their stories.

But, when it comes to death: there is no hope, there is no reprieve. Death is normal and inevitable.

It’s not that I don’t, just like Fairless’s students, imagine life beyond death.  I imagine that.  I can also imagine life before death.  I feel some inkling (sometimes much more) that life in all its fullness — “life that is empowered by an imagination not shaded by death,” as James Alison puts it — is fully present, available, liveable in every moment now, pre-death; and that death, which will destroy and is even now destroying  my body and your body, and destroying perhaps my self and your self, doesn’t endanger it. I think we labour under a double delusion: that death won’t happen to us; and that death holds power.

Even more strongly, though, I feel that segregating life into categories of sacred and secular, holy and profane, pure and impure, clean and unclean, good and bad — and once segregating, then excluding, justifying, sanctifying, accusing, scapegoating  — does violence to our lives in a way that death cannot. Maybe this exclusionary mechanism is the very thing  that keeps us dead, though our bodies are alive.

I wrote this a few years ago as part of a larger poem — I’ll end with it, because poetry seems to have a way of linking thought, feeling, and experience, and then expanding into mystery:

“All faith is autopsy” -- Søren Kierkegaard
 autopsy: from Greek, autopsia,
a seeing with one’s own eyes. 1. The personal act of seeing.

I read that a religion should answer four questions:
1. What explains the human condition?
2. What is salvation?
3. What is the nature of goodness?
4. What is transcendent?

Pretend this is true.

Two things explain much:
We want more, and it’s both more and less than enough.
We want what the other has and
we want what the other wants.

And, we forget. We forget.
There is no other.
It’s a thin space, liminal, porous,
air even more than it’s ash.

Salvation is how we are reminded constantly.
How we are reminded — in glimpses, echoes, shimmers,
a fluttery beating, restless silence, a dream or memory
that leaves a shadowed residue as it slips away –
that everything living is loved. That each and every
each and every
is being reconciled, delivered, re-created no matter what
we think we see.

Goodness begins in every moment by recognising
our own complicit violence.
Goodness recognises suffering, acts with compassion,
ardently pursues peace, resists rivalry
and easy dichotomies,

like goodness,

The transcendent is everywhere
and nowhere
there is anything and nothing.

It’s the deepest, darkest arctic magic,
the cry you hear in the wilderness,
the voice you want to hear inside,
a spirit, a creature, a yes that never ends,
even when

* FINE: Per Louise Penny in her crime fiction, “I’m fine” means: “I’m Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Egotistical.” When I tell you I’m fine, know this is what I’m saying.

The border image is foliage and bloom from a poplar tree in our yard. It seems to be dying. It’s lovely.

Reading Lately

I didn’t cry until the end of this:  The last post, by Derek K. Miller, 1969-2011.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Yes: on being, not being someone by Cheryl at [ hold :: this space ] … “suddenly I realised why Marianne Williamson’s quote above has always slightly set my teeth on edge. … Our worth comes from being, not from being someone.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Yes: Rejoice? Bin Laden and the cycle of violence by Simon Barrow at Ekklesia:

“This morning I woke to an orgy of media-fed delight about a violent death. According to Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lugdunum, ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ According to at least one politician I listened to on the radio, what pleases God most is an enemy brutally murdered. …

“President Obama … used a Medal of Honor ceremony to declare that the world is a safer place because of the death of bin Laden. This is most unlikely to be true. Already announcements are being made about the cycles of revenge that will almost certainly follow. …

“At a moment like this, it would be wrong not to extend heartfelt prayers for all those who lost loved ones at Ground Zero. If they feel a sense of vindication, it is hard not to sympathise. But it would be equally wrong not to acknowledge the deep damage that ‘rejoicing’ at another’s death does to the human spirit.”

“As theologian Walter Wink and Christian cultural anthropologist Rene Girard have said, the most primeval sites of sin in all human cultures are the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ (which believes that wrongdoing is undone by yet more wrongdoing) and the ‘scapegoat mechanism’ (whereby we mimetically seek to expel evil by projecting it wholly onto another and then killing that other in order to restore a supposed purity to the community).”

What is Death the Loss of?

In Tom Rachman’s novel, The Imperfectionists (2010), one of the characters — a woman in her 70s who has cancer and is dying — gives a soliloquy on death to a reporter who’s come to interview her for her obituary; here’s part of it:

“But my point, you see, is that death is misunderstood. The loss of one’s life is not the greatest loss. It is no loss at all. To others, perhaps, but not to oneself. From one’s own perspective, experience simply halts. From one’s own perspective, there is no loss. You see? … What I really fear is time. That’s the devil: whipping us on when we’d rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won’t hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales. My past — it doesn’t feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It’s as if the present me is constantly dissolving. There’s that line of Heraclitus: ‘No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and it is not the same man.’ That’s quite right. We enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn’t the end of life, but the end of memories.”

When I read this, my immediate reaction was, No, that’s wrong. Not the part of the past feeling unreal – that’s so for me, too. Not the suggestion that memory maintains this illusion of a permanent self – I think that’s right, too. But what we fear in death — or what I fear — is not the end of memories, which, as she has just said, are often inauthentic and are really about someone else anyway (the self at that time). It’s the end of experience. Of possibility. Of piqued and slaked curiosity.Of what might happen and of what is happening.

My fear is not about the loss of memories and of the past — the past is already gone and memory only grants the illusion of a self, of a number of selves; my fear is the loss of curiosity and the possible future, and the loss of experience in this very present moment.  ‘Experience simply halts.’ Yes, that’s the unimaginable grief of death.

Of course, I am also curious about what might happen after death. But I don’t hold out a lot of hope there. It seems likely there could be nothingness, no experience. Or if there is experience and consciousness, could it ever be any better than lying outside in the sun, listening to water lapping and gulls voicing, thinking hazy thoughts and making pleasurable plans? Or better than discovering something new, some new pattern, some unexpected collision of ideas, something full of wonder that changes the way you think and feel? If not, then what’s a heaven for?


Crying Today – 8

My Dog Days Are Over by Doree Shafrir in the NYT (23 March 2011).


What’s your favourite taboo?

Mimetic theory sees taboos (and prohibitions) as necessary in culture/religion — along with myths and rituals — to protect us from all-against-all mimetic violence. Cultures create taboos to forbid access to behaviours that might lead to a mimetic crisis, trying to reduce intense and escalating rivalries.

What is taboo and what is sacred — pure and impure, clean and unclean — are usually linked; as Britt Johnston says in How Girard’s Mimetic Theory Can Help Us Understand the Relationship Between Science and Religion (2004),

“Human culture inhibits the development of the mimetic crisis by also putting in place taboos, laws, and other forms of sacred differentiation so that the effects of mimesis are reduced, thus slowing the development of mimetic crises.”

Girard, in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), describes how taboos that seem quite different — e.g., against floods, medical epidemics, mirrors, and twins — actually stem from the same logic, that of limiting escalating imitation:

“A good example of an apparently absurd prohibition is one that in many societies prohibits imitative behavior. One must not copy the gesture of another member of the community or repeat his words. The same concern can no doubt be seen in the prohibition of the use of proper names, or in the fear of mirrors …. Inevitably we imagine that the prohibitions covering imitative phenomena must be quite distinct from those against violence or intense rivalries. But this is not the case. When is impressive in imitative phenomena is that those who participate in them never cease imitating one another, each one transforming himself into the simulacrum of the other. … What strikes the primitive is the resemblance between the competitors, the identity of aims and tactics, the symmetry of gesture, etc. “

Floods, epidemics, and other natural disasters resemble mimetic propagation and spread. They snowball in similar ways as do interpersonal conflicts, compounding their damage. All prohibitions are in essence anti-mimetic, leading us away from imitation, from a flattening of difference.

Girard summarises:

“Prohibited objects are first of all those that might give rise to mimetic rivalry, then the behaviors characteristic of its progressively violence phases, finally individuals who appear to have ‘symptoms’ thought to be  inevitably contagious, such as twins, adolescents at the stage of imitation, women during their menstrual period, or the sick or the dead, those excluded temporarily from the community.”

Elaborating on the connection between imitation and the “progressively violent phases” of mimetic contagion and escalation, Girard says, in I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (2001) that

“the cultures that do no tolerate twins confuse their natural resemblance in the biological order with the level effect of mimetic rivalries. … to the extent that their antagonisms become embittered, … antagonists resemble one another more and more. They confront one another all the more implacably because  their conflict dissolves the real differences  that formerly separated them. Envy, jealousy, and hate render alike those they possess, but in our world people tend to misunderstand or ignore the resemblances and identities that these passions generate. They have ears only for the deceptive celebration of differences, which rages more than ever in our societies, not because real differences are increasing but because they are disappearing.”

Lack of differentiation is problematic for at least three reasons that I can think of:

1. The more people we take to be our equals, similar to us, the more people will be for us to envy and to be in rivalry with. We compete with those around us, in or surrounding our social sphere, in or nearby our social status.

2. As Girard describes at length, undifferentiation reminds us of the mob, of  disorder, of the clammering in one voice that means were in the midst of some societal catastrophe.

3. Lack of difference also reminds us of death, because in death we all look the same, decay the same, and do not exhibit our quirky and identity-defining individual differences. We lose identity. We lose our selves.

On the other hand, difference is also problematic, because with perceived difference comes status; and the desire to attain greater status, approbation, and worth; and the desire for what the other has, seems to have, or desires themselves. Here lie the roots of rivalry.

(Alain de Botton describes status, equality, and difference very well in his book Status Anxiety. Paul Nuechterlein describes mimetic theory’s view of equality (lack of difference) — and its dangers — in an essay at Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.)

Back to taboos. Common taboos (and, on the flip side, rituals) are sexual (incest, adultery, and generally, who can do what with whom when), death-related (killing, especially of parents by children and children by parents; doing most anything associated with the dead or gravely ill, particularly touching them), and body-related (concerning handling of bodily fluids and waste products, how much of the body can be revealed, etc.) because these are areas where behavior threatens to erase distinctions between us (see Girard’s summary, above).

You can determine what’s taboo in a culture, or micro-culture, by observing what behaviour or speech leads others to exhibit moral outrage and anger, or to express disgust and revulsion, or to attempt to expel or silence the behaviour (or the behaver).  And you can also make this determination by listening for euphemisms, as noted in the first article I want to highlight, The word: Don’t say it by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe (13 Feb 2011). She speaks here of “benign” euphemisms:

“Euphemisms can be private or public, trivial or deadly, serious or joky — but they can’t be dispensed with. … So long as humans have had things to be discreet about, they’ve had names that furnish some rhetorical distance from the things themselves. … And this euphemizing of intimate matters — death, bodily functions, sex — seems like a perfectly reasonable social contract: I’ll pretend I would never picture you on the toilet, or in your coffin, if you’ll pretend the same in return.”

In DNA testing gives doctors a new dilemma: Baylor geneticists warn procedure can detect incest, raise ethical issues by Todd Ackerman in the Houston Chronicle (11 Feb 2011), incest is the taboo that is coming more and more to light as DNA tests are done more often:

“Sex between first-degree relatives [parent-child, sibling-sibling] is illegal throughout the country …. ‘Certainly, the concept of incest gets people a little on edge.  … But we do a lot of diagnostic tests that have the potential to show possible evidence of child abuse, the most dramatic ethical issue raised by this testing’s occasional discoveries of incest.’ …

“Tests showing 25 percent of identical DNA are evidence of parentage by first-degree relatives. The percentage drops to 12.5 percent for uncle-niece relationships and about 6 percent for first cousins. Beaudet [Baylor’s chairman of molecular and human genetics] said he is not interested in judging the latter two cases, which are not taboo in some societies.”

Joanne Carando, in a fascinating article on Hawaiian royal incest (Hawaiian Royal Incest: A Study in the Sacrificial Origin of Monarchy, 2002), views incest in a Girardian light, and we are back to undifferentiation again:

“The consequence of [incest and parricide] is the destruction of the difference, from which follows mad rivalry (Girard 1972, 115). For instance, in Oedipus Rex, parricide is the conclusion of the conflictual symmetry between the father and the son. It is anger that led Oedipus out of Corinth for there he was the bastard child, and it made him kill the old man who was blocking his way, his real father. The same anger led Laios to first hold his whip against his son; and in the beginning it is anger again that motivated the paternal decision to eliminate his child. Parricide implies the destruction of the difference with the father. Incest, in Oedipus Rex again, is destructive of an other major difference in the family. Jocasta is the mother/spouse whose womb bore both Oedipus and his sons. In this case incest entails a double lack of differenciation: between the son and his mother and between the father and his sons.

“The taboos of incest and parricide are directly linked to the sacrificial crisis and their unique purpose is to prevent its repetition. “

Link Dump

It sounds inelegant, and it is. Let the dumping begin.


>> Dave Pollard (How to Save the World) has made his move to Canada and is realigning his life. Several recent posts have spoken to or for me, including this one on Civilization Disease. He diagnoses civilised peoples with a dis-ease that is caused by: adult humiliation when child behaviour is non-conforming, “relentless ‘normalizing’ propaganda,” a “competition-based education system” and work system, and a consumer-focused model of scarcity. Obviously, it’s not just postmoderns that suffer from this dis-ease but people throughout the centuries, as long as civilisation has been in the business of normalising, i.e., from the start. There is a religious aspect to normalising propaganda that dovetails in my thoughts with Girardian ideas, with mimetic theory and the idea that rampant societal violence is always held at bay by ‘lesser’ violence.


>> Introverts in the Church at Experimental Theology hits the nail on the head:  In some churches, “there is an implicit theological theme that marries sociability with spirituality. That is, being sociable — visiting intensively, and being willing to ‘get into each other’s lives’ — is highly prized. … But introverts fare poorly in these sociable churches. The demand to visit, mix, and share with strangers taxes them. Worse, given that these social activities are declared to be ‘spiritual,’ the introvert feels morally judged and spiritually marginalized. As if their very personality was spiritually diseased. … Now, you may say that these introverts just aren’t good people. But you would be wrong. Introverts are very, very relational. They just aren’t sociable.


>> I like these images at Silke’s blog, Metamorphosis. Reminder to self: do this.


>> The Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project. I like Sela’s art in particular.


>> Is Your Brain a Communist? at Neuroskeptic offers some slight additional confirmation of another  hypothesis of mimetic theory: in relationships, groups and society as a whole, we try to reciprocate equally in order to avoid conflict. (Often, however, reciprocity only leads to greater conflict.)

I agree with Neuroskeptic that equalising actions among people can be explained by “concerns for social image or reciprocity.” In fact, I think they are. I think we know, as inculcated civilised beings raised in culture, that we risk violence when we fail to reciprocate or when we reciprocate inappropriately, and so we strive to give and take in proportion, and we often cloak the reciprocity, or time-delay it, to avoid direct comparisons and measurements that could prove dangerous (“I gave you an item of x value, and now you’re giving me an item of x-5 value?? wtf?” or “I gave her a $25 gift card and she’s given me a $50 gift card. Yikes!”). We call this quid pro quo, tit for tat, Christmas.

We tend to break this rule only within ritualised settings, like Yankee swaps, where people are ‘free’ to take a better gift and give someone else a crappy one; and yet, in practice, few people do this, even within the ritual, or if they do it, they apologise profusely and try to equalise the imbalanced reciprocity in another concrete or abstract way, inside the ritual or outside it.


>> I like John Stephens’ guideposts. They seem well-chosen words. In particular, “mind the Light,” “concrete action to answer human needs, challenge evil, and build resilience” and “Enjoy bread, laughter, and the horizon.” I like “challenge” rather than something like overcome, fight, smite. I like “the horizon” for its ambiguity. Nice.


>> Emotional Communion through E-Mail Forwarding?: “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” by John Tierney (8 Feb 2010). Several explanations given for why people prefer to e-mail “articles with positive rather than negative themes” and “long articles on intellectually challenging topics.”  I think they hit the nail on the head, for me anyway, with this one:

“If I’ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together.”

Stated one way, it’s seeking emotional communion; stated another, it’s solidifying ego-identification and seeking ego-affirmation. Just like my saying “I like this” in a blog post. Or posting in the first place.


>> In The Comforting Notion of An All-Powerful Enemy, Tom Jacobs looks at the pacifying role of the scapegoat (vilified as evil and deified as all-powerful) in popular discourse:

“This tendency to exaggerate the strength of our adversaries serves a specific psychological function. It is less scary to place all our fears on a single, strong enemy than to accept the fact our well-being is largely based on factors beyond our control. An enemy, after all, can be defined, analyzed and perhaps even defeated.”

Bingo. Of course, this also meshes strongly with Girardian thought, but my comment here is personal and only philosophical in a writ-small way.

I’ve thought about this a lot in light not just of political and social discourse (Jacobs’ main concern)  but also in light of the way we talk about and try to manage cancer, and disease and death in general.  We talk about fighting and struggling, losing a battle or winning a fight. We talk about disease as an alien invader — but cancer isn’t an alien, it’s our own cells, our own Jungian shadow side perhaps, which could be incorporated (that great word again) into the whole; and mortality is built into us ab initio. Maybe disease and death are not the powerful enemies we fear.

And this is related, I think: When it’s suggested to me that a particular doctor — or other expert,  like a lawyer or realtor, but especially a doctor — may be incompetent or not well-qualified, or the hospital may not be that good, and so we should look for another, better one, I find that I react with a sort of psychic exhaustion. I’m not sure, but I think that what these well-intentioned suggestions, borne of true concern, actually suggest to me  is that there is always a way to prevent or circumvent disaster, death, “bad things” — if we just tried harder, researched more, applied ourselves more, put a little more effort into it, or did SOMEthing different and better.

I know that my reaction could be simple resistance to diving back into the morass, doing more research, making more difficult decisions whose consequences I can’t fully know, risking conflict by changing a current situation that may not be optimal but has an equilibrium about it. I don’t want to stay in a bad situation simply because it’s easy. I know the statistics that show that people, while they may bewail politics or medicine in general, are in large numbers perfectly happy with their particular politician or doctor. It’s a bias borne of the pain that cognitive dissonance causes us.

On the other hand, there are so many intangibles, intuitions and emotions, and unknowns that go into our choices, including selecting or accepting doctors, and our well-being is, IMO, largely based on factors outside our control (anathema in this age of affirmations, I know) that I no longer believe, most of the time, that what I chose has much bearing on what happens. I still think choices matter, intensely, but not for their outcomes.

So the implicit suggestion that I can avert disasters — whether small ones like selling our house for less than it’s worth, or paying more in taxes than necessary, or big ones like suffering longer or dying earlier than otherwise — by doing more, better, faster … seems a convenient truth to me. It feels false, and it tires me, and maybe it tires me also because it is so tempting to believe the control myth, which is ubiquitous in culture, and to resist its message, even passively, requires a lot of energy, day in and day out.

I challenge the researcher’s premise that “‘If you can somehow raise people’s sense that they have control over their lives and negative hazards in the world, their need to ‘enemize’ others should be reduced.'” That seems like a construct to me, a lie scaffolding that leaves us feeling better — until it’s shaken. Maybe a solution, in part, one that will minimise enemising and scapegoating, is the simple awareness that we all have little control over many hazards. The expectation that things will go awry and go awry badly.  Sure, we will still make decisions to minimise hazards (or not), but we might do so with gusto and with awareness that making the best decision is not necessary, or necessarily best.


>>Have I mentioned that the NyQuil knock-off I am taking for my cold has a hypnotic in it? I didn’t know either until I looked it up. No wonder my dreams are extra wild this week.