An Epiphany in Escaping from Freedom

It’s true; Escape from Freedom is heavy going for me. I don’t want to jinx it since I’m also enjoying it, and it’s been good for me recovering my brain from Covid, but I’m glad I wasn’t assigned the book to read over the weekend! Forgive me for all these boring posts.

Writing about it as I read helps me process and understand, which makes sense as my academic training at those liberal indoctrination camps was to do just that. I’ve been wading through what I have found to be Fromm’s somewhat questionable and slanted perspective on the Middle Ages and the transition to so-called “modern times.” But I am a medievalist. I like those people. I like their way of thinking. I like their institutions and their religious philosophy. I like their literature and their artwork. I don’t think I romanticize the period, but everything I’ve studied has shown me that we just don’t know much about them, and we assume a lot — for example that they never bathed and had no toilets. Studying them opened my eyes to the fact that we all share a future bias, which is that humanity is better now than it was in the past (whatever that means).

Anyway, one important thing Fromm seems not to have considered, or forgotten, or intentionally ignored, is the impact of the Black Death on the change between Medieval times and the, uh, uh, I’m just going to call it the 16th century. I mean, when 60% of the population of Europe DIES in roughly a decade during the 14th century from the Great Mortality, the world WILL change. One of the biggest changes was that it gave bargaining power to the peasants, tradesmen and craftsmen who survived the disease. (“men” = humans) “You want my labor? You pay for it!” “You want the food I grow? You pay for it!” “You want my skills? You pay for them!” People even moved to places where they had a better opportunity.

But, Fromm seems to be ignoring that and that’s OK. It’s not my book. The Reformation is his destination; it’s what he wants to write about. He is interested in what we might call the “cult of personality.” So am I.

By the beginning of the 16th century, the Church was losing its power over the people. It was a centuries long process. There are 12th and 13th century poems/minnesangs that complain about the pope’s treatment of people particularly those who live far away from Rome. The pope and the emperor(s) had been at war for generations over territory and power, wars that depended on mercenaries from Switzerland and, later, areas in what would become Germany. That ONE thing right there was a big factor in the success of the Swiss reformation in the early 16th century which ultimately led to the growth of several different protestant faiths. There was the period of the papal schism at the end of the 14th century when there were two popes — one in Italy, one in France. There were also what look to us from the long lens of time as “small” attempts to reform the church — Saint Francis — and pretty much every religious order — started out with that aim in mind. My point is that the church wasn’t a static, universally loved power over the people, not at all.

It never occurred to me before that the BIG change of the Reformation was that it put a charismatic (religious or other) leader in front of vulnerable people in contrast to the times when the church was God, God was the church and Bob’s your uncle. The plague (about which Fromm doesn’t write) would have scared the living shit out of people; it was Covid times a million. On top of that, death from the plague was gruesomely ugly, horrifying, and involved the color BLACK which we all know represents evil. People were more concerned about demonic possession than disease since disease WAS demonic possession. Fromm doesn’t write that along with the years of the Renaissance and Reformation came such leading lights as Savonarola or such noble institutions as the Spanish Inquisition, witch-hunts and heavy persecution of Jews who, during the Middle Ages were, for the most part, just other people in the village.

By the 15th century, I imagine people were lost — they’d gone through a period with two popes during the Great Papal Schism; people had died all over the place and the plague didn’t completely go away; clearly God had abandoned them. As Europe picked itself up after that, many great and good things happened, no question, but there was also a spiritual and leadership gap. Religious skepticism — disillusionment — had to have been enormous. Certainly they looked for someone to blame, something to blame and they looked for something to believe in.

In beginning his discussion of the Reformation, Fromm makes sure we (meaning I) understand that he’s talking about the psychology of the leaders and the followers. I’m cool with that, and as I read I got the feeling I was about to understand the very thing I’ve been struggling with for 6 or 7 years now. And voila…

Fromm writes that psychology of the leaders of the Reformation (early 16th century) meshed with qualities in the psychology of their followers that enabled a religious revolution. He emphasizes that it wasn’t logical, but psychological, meaning that contradictions were an intrinsic part of it. Fromm writes, “The influence of any doctrine of idea depends on the extent to which it appeals to psychic needs in the character structure of those to whom it is addressed. Only if the idea answers powerful psychological needs of certain social groups will it become a potent force in history.”

Nailed it.

I give you Exhibit A. Shooting an assault rifle from a helicopter, the esteemed representative from an impoverished district in Georgia, has just (allegedly) killed a wild pig in Texas. Making America Great (Again)

Back to Escape from Freedom

Erich Fromm has wandered into deep water at this moment and he’s really pissing me off (he’s SO worried about that!). He’s stereotyping the Middle Ages and has bought into the myth of the Italian Renaissance. I have to remember that since 1941 a whole lot of archeological science has emerged, and he could not know. But I like a little humility in my philosophers and the factual awareness that most of what we can know about, say, the 13th century is conjecture. He also seems to be floating along on that fallacy that the present (and by association, the future) is/will be more advanced than the past. That depends a LOT on what “advanced” means. BUT we humans have to believe in progress, I guess, but, again, that depends a lot on what progress means, the area in which progress is happening. I’m all for antibiotics and vaccines and the dramatic reduction in intestinal worms in civilized populations, but I’m not sure our addiction to our cellphones is healthy or progress. Progress seems to be always a mixed blessing.

It’s going to be tough going for me with Fromm now because, well, I have a different bias. My bias is that we really don’t know a lot more about the past than we know about the future. Much of what we know is what we have from the words of others and they could be 1) lying, 2) angry, 3) exceptional, 4) drunk, 5) tripping — we don’t know. A little humility in the face of human “development” is, to me, the first imperative of a historian but Fromm isn’t a historian, so I guess I have to cut him slack.

Last night I watched a documentary on Chaco Canyon that blew me away. I’ve been there and it’s strange. I’ve visited many Anasazi sites and most of them feel like “People lived here and did interesting things.” Those things were visible everywhere — from ball courts to theaters to piles of ancient trash, but Chaco? It felt weird. Last night I learned that it is now believed to be a gigantic, precise, celestial, observatory where few people actually LIVED but where people went at certain times of the year to celebrate rituals. I believe that — it’s in an area with a very hostile climate. You can learn more here at The Mystery of Chaco Canyon.

The other thing Fromm is doing that I am very skeptical about is he is choosing facts and creating definitions that “prove” his argument. That’s not cool but we all do it.

All this said, I also read some lovely, intriguing stuff I want to share. Among the good things he says about the Middle Ages is, “Although there was no individualism in the modern sense (I think that’s an overgeneralization, but…) of unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life (ah, OK) there was a lot of concrete individualism in real life.” I’m intrigued by two things in this passage; one is that the modern sense of individualism means “unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life” and the idea of “concrete individualism.”

If Fromm and I were to sit down and talk about this, I’d say, “I’m not sure about that. It seems to me that whatever era into which we’re born, we are born with limitations, the first being the era into which we were born. Humans don’t live in vast swaths of time. We have three days just like we humans have always had three days. And don’t give me that life-expectancy stuff. I’m onto that. Our choices are limited by the culture into which we’re born, our gender, our parents’ views, their level of wealth, the opportunities that exist in our world in the moments of our lives. No human is so free they have ‘unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life.’ Maybe our societies are not as fixed and stratified as most medieval societies, but that kind of freedom of choice? Doesn’t exist. As for ‘Concrete Individualism’? Isn’t that the most important? Do you mean integrity?” I wonder what he would say.

I’m not sure I would tell him I dreamed of playing centerfield for a professional baseball team, but I was not free to “choose” that. I remain skeptical about his dichotomy between “negative” and “positive” freedom, but I’m not him, and I’m mostly open-minded.

Two paragraphs at the end of the preceding chapter struck a chord with me. Here goes…

“…the history of mankind is one of conflict and strife. Each step in the direction of growing individuation threatened people with new insecurities. Primary bonds once severed cannot be mended; once paradise is lost, man cannot return to it. There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual.

And if that doesn’t happen? Fromm is ready…”However, if the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality in the sense just mentioned, while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world that promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of freedom.”

It made me think of the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, whose work I loved back in the 80s. First was the title of one of Kundera’s books, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera; the title was so intriguing and, to me, pointed to just what Fromm has described, that being itself is so volatile, so “light,” (we ARE light in a sense) that it can be unbearable. “Being” could, maybe, be equated to Fromm’s idea of “individuation”? I don’t know, but… Being an autonomous “self” is difficult. My unmarried Aunt Martha took so much shit from the family just for that choice she had made. Just that. In a way Kundera did reach this in another novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting when he writes about the “circle dance.”

“That is when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back. It is not by chance that the planets move in circles and that a rock coming loose from one of them goes inexorably away, carried off by centrifugal force. Like a meteorite broken off from a planet, I left the circle and have not stopped falling. Some people are granted their death as they are whirling around, and others are smashed at the end of their fall. And these others (I am one of them) always retain a kind of faint yearning for that lost ring dance, because we are all inhabitants of a universe where everything turns in circles.”

― Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kundera’s point is that if you CHOOSE (as he did) to leave the circle you cannot choose to return. The circle closes. He’s writing about the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia (as was), but it could be any social/political system that offers an escape from freedom, as Fromm writes about.

I think we experience this in a lot of ways that don’t have anything to do with politics, anyway, I have. Doors close, another limitation put on our freedom of choice. When that last happened to me, I ended up here. What were my limitations? Money, first and maybe that was all. Within my limitations I had to find a place where I would like to live. I was not “free.” I was “free to choose” within that parameter. Did that make me “free” from having to live in a million dollar home in California?

So far, I don’t know. Fromm has me both nodding and shaking my head. I’m not sure this is anything new. I’m free to think that. 😉

For “concrete individualism” I offer Emerson: These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. 
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance.”

More Discussion of Escape from Freedom

Fromm begins his book — and his argument — with his two definitions of freedom — one positive (Freedom To) and the other negative (Freedom From). I’m not sure I buy those as opposites. Freedom FROM hunger is freedom TO eat. Freedom from oppression is, uh, oh, yeah, freedom. But I’m happy to see where he goes with that (to me) rather arbitrary dichotomy. I know one thing for sure about freedom. It’s difficult to define.

Yesterday the ladies and I went to the museum to see the new exhibit which is all kinds of stuff from the olden days. The idea is to figure out what all these strange things were used for. Lyndsie (the new director) made a guide to go with the objects that are common household tools and objects for farming, things like a cream separator and a seed spreader. We had a good time. It was followed by lunch which wasn’t great.

Elizabeth is Australian and she got up early to watch Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. She’s long held the thought (and frequently expressed it) that the United States needs a royal family. On the drive home, I mentioned I was starting to see her point. That led to a front seat discussion about presidents and who did and did not “act presidential.” They agreed Obama acted presidential; there was dispute over whether Biden does. I was in the back so I had the privilege of listening with Fromm’s book still on my mind. I think a lot depends on what a president inherits when he takes office — and Biden inherited a mountain of shit — divided country, an insurrection, a pandemic and its resultant economic challenges, all followed hard on by a war in Europe.

When I was able to pick up Fromm’s book again — beginning a new chapter, “The Emergence of the Individual and the Ambiguity of Freedom” — I was again stunned.

“The social history of man started with his emerging from a state of oneness with the natural world to the awareness of himself as an entity separate from surrounding nature and men.”

Good god… This was a little challenging for me because I think our separation from the natural world is an illusion. We might THINK we’re free of it, but we’re not and, in this particular case, that is to say it seems to ME, that at this juncture in human history, this drive and (its corresponding illusion) is killing us. The other day, MTG said, “AOC worships the climate. I worship God.” All I could think was, “Uh they are one and the same you stoopnagle.”

Too much abuse of our world, resulting from our freedom to create an environment designed for man, might lead us to a very sinister negative freedom, that is freedom FROM life. But the bizarre end-days cult to which she clings might be all about that, after all Revelations says the world will end in fire. I don’t know. I can’t know what goes on in their twisted little minds.

Fromm went on to discuss the emergence of each of us as an individual, a process he called individuation which is the moment in which a person recognizes that he/she is a separate entity, not connected to parents, but a self of its own. As I read I thought about my own childhood and recognized the moment, though it wasn’t a “moment” so much as a process of self-definition that took about three years. It began on a train crossing Wyoming north to south and culminated in a little movie theater in Nebraska watching Lawrence of Arabia and sucking on sour cherries. The first was the opening of the question, “Who am I?” the end was, “I am no one but myself.” A book was an instrument in the beginning; a film in the completion.

I remembered the numerous times my mom said, “You and your brother were easy as little kids and then?”

Well, mom. I thought of all the times I said, “I’m not you. THIS is what I want to do.” I understood at that point that what I did might not work, but I was OK with that, I was OK with failure. My independence mattered more to me even as a kid than success.

It hurt when friends snubbed me (kids do that) and it wasn’t easy for me to make friends, but after a while that was OK, too. I didn’t feel isolated. I came to understand back then, on some level, that all the kids around me were in this process, too. That was one reason kids fight. That was a motivation behind adults organizing us into team sports where each of us would begin to focus more on a skill than in competing for identity. It seemed to me at the time — and I have no idea if it’s true — that girls were generally less determined to become selves than were the boys. Their playground games were more peaceful and sedentary; their games at home seemed to revolve around role plays of adult life. The boy’s games interested me more; I wanted individual achievement. I wanted to get better at things, run faster, hit more balls, see more, know more.

Fromm then discusses how the moment (process?) of individuation affects people (the process is inevitable). Some people are overwhelmed by the sense of solitude in the universe. Others recognize the solitude, but accept it.

“The process of individuation is one of growing strength and integration of its individual personality but it is at the same time a process in which the original identity with others is lost and in which the child becomes more separate from them. This growing separation may result in an isolation that has the quality of desolation and creates intense anxiety and insecurity, it may result in a new kind of closeness and a solidarity with others if the child has been able to develop the inner strength and productivity which are the premise of this new kind of relatedness to the world.”

Whoa. Person 1 — riddled with anxiety and insecurity — will seek submission to escape that painful solitude. Person 2 won’t, having made peace with freedom, or so it goes more or less. I’m not sure, but this seems to be the argument Fromm is building. Naturally, I brought all this home to people I have known. I saw my mom in a completely different way. I saw that she never made peace with the intrinsic solitude of individuality, never found a way to live productively within it. It struck me that perhaps the foundation of freedom is just that. “I’m alone and it’s OK with me.”

Fromm makes that point.

P.S. This might be tedious, but I don’t have anyone around to talk about this with. Writing about it helps me process the ideas. The book is just under 300 pages so this won’t go on forever 😜

Beginning an Interesting Book…

A while ago I mentioned a book I’d read about in another book (ah, the great chain of reading) by Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom. Yesterday I remembered I had it (ha ha) and began reading. It’s captivating. His perspective is that of a psychologist. While I’ve benefited from other’s study of psychology, I have never studied it beyond what I had to in college. The book begins (and I’m in the beginning) with a discussion of psychological explanations for human behavior and the role of the individual in society as defined by different psychological systems. From this discussion, I’ve learned that Fromm has great respect — love? — for the individual and regards individuals as dynamic forces in human culture and history.

There’s so much here. It’s truly the richest writing I’ve read in a long, long time. It was originally published in 1941 and Fromm sets freedom against Fascism which he defines as the systems that had gained ascendancy in Germany and Italy. He writes that when he wants to discuss events in Germany only, he’ll call it Nazism.

For Fromm, freedom is the property of individuals; freedom is individual, and the threat to freedom is that people don’t want it. It seems — so far — that the tension is between individual freedom and an equal desire on the part of many for submission. That’s so whack. He writes, “Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from? Why then is it that freedom is for many a cherished goal and for others a threat?” As I read, I thought about the Supremes overturning Roe v. Wade, eliminating an important individual freedom from the law of the land. How do I feel about abortion? Nobody likes it. I don’t like it. I’m sorry for any woman who finds herself contemplating it. Should women have dominion over their individual bodies? Yes. Can I live with that? Yes. Apparently others can’t.

Fromm quotes John Dewey (go west young man) “The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence upon The Leader in foreign countries. The battlefield is also accordingly here — within ourselves our institutions.”

In 1997 I attended an Alice Cooper concert in Zürich. It was held in the Tonhalle. Earlier that day I’d seen photos of the very auditorium taken during the Nazi era. One of the photos was a meeting of sympathetic Swiss in the Tonhalle. I don’t know how to describe my feelings that night, with that photo still living in my mind. When Alice started singing “School’s Out,” most of the audience stood, raised their fists in the air, and sang along. I remember asking myself, “Who are we?” Same hall. The same image as in the photo. Same people a generation or two later. Same idea of uniting with others of like mind or music taste, anyway. “What makes us do this?” I saw the whole thing — Nazi rally, Alice Cooper concert — as bonding rites.

Fromm writes about this, too, about the different kinds of isolation. I think that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother blog post, but the bottom line is that people cannot live without others. Fromm explains all the kinds of possible connections and as I read, I thought of this blog. Some time back, I happened to look at my stats and saw that 2020 had the most connections. I understood that; in our enforced isolation our WordPress “neighborhood” became more important, maybe necessary.

I am not sure where Fromm is going next, but it seems at this point it might be the eternal tension between self and belonging. Not sure… I could be putting the cart before the horse. Anyway, so far I like this very much. I like his attitude toward Freud (You gave us a lot, but, dude, your ideas are flawed), I like his focus on the individual. We’ll see what happens as I continue reading — one thing for sure, this is vastly different from the contest books I read every winter.

OH, in my continued pursuit to figure out WHAT is attractive to anyone about TFG I learned yesterday about a book that’s passed out at his rallies. President Donald J. Trump, The Son of Man – The Christ. It’s very scary to me that there are people who actually believe this. From the opening:

I had long appreciated that his followers constitute a cult, but I had no idea…

“Freedom!!!!!”

In the book I’ve been reading, The Spell of New Mexico, I read a line which mentions Erich Fromm, “As Dr. Fromm long since reminded us, most people try to escape freedom.” It’s in a long essay by a writer named Winfield Townley Scott — an American poet I had never heard of. His essay goes month-by-month of his first year in Santa Fe, NM. I liked it. He writes about how many people in the early 20th century (now?) were essentially ex-pats in New Mexico. Pretty much every essay in this book makes that point one way or another. We all know that there was a big art colony kind of thing going on in New Mexico during that time (still) so that isn’t new. But reading the perspectives of all these different writers has been interesting, particularly since New Mexico has played a big part in my life since I was a baby.

But…what struck me is that reference to Erich Fromm, that statement that most of us run from freedom. It made me think about freedom, particularly in these days when the word is thrown around so loudly and so shrilly by people who seem, to me, to represent the opposite of freedom. Maybe proving Fromm’s point? And now I know there’s a whole book entitled, Escape from Freedom? Again, one of those “O Brave new world,” moments and I want to read this.

Escape from Freedom is a book by the Frankfurt-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, first published in the United States… in 1941 with the title Escape from Freedom and a year later as The Fear of Freedom in UK. It was translated into German and first published in 1952 under the title ‘Die Angst vor der Freiheit’ (The Fear of Freedom). In the book, Fromm explores humanity’s shifting relationship with freedom, with particular regard to the personal consequences of its absence. His special emphasis is the psychosocial conditions that facilitated the rise of Nazism.

Wikipedia “Escape from Freedom”

I don’t know what freedom is. The little I’ve read about Fromm’s book mentions his idea that there are two kinds of freedom; negative and positive. Freedom from (negative) and freedom to (positive). I’ll take that on faith for now until I have the chance to see for myself, but it makes sense to me.

Living here in the San Luis Valley after a lifetime in a very different world and environment, I have been puzzled by freedom. I have freedom TO paint, to write, to think, but I do not have freedom to “be” in a more social sense. People around me are suspicious of “intellectuals,” and I am one. That’s not ALL I am, but I am that. It never occurred to me that this would be the case until my neighbor looked down her nose at me and called me “privileged” because of my education. This happened at the beginning of this summer. After that I saw how often it had happened in my small gestures in a more social world. I scare people.

During my training to become an intellectual (ha ha) I didn’t do all that well. I was not a star student and the coterie of brains in my graduate program seemed bloodless and vague. I have hardly ever found a kindred spirit which is all fine. An aspect of freedom is liberty from encumbrances, expectations and ties, I guess. I have learned here that people expect that I am judging them and looking down at them, and, before I understood that, I wasn’t. Now, probably, I am. Prejudice of any kind is unappealing and destructive. I don’t like it when it’s turned toward me, but who does?

I don’t expect people all to be the same. I also know where my life has taken me and that not everyone has gone there. I believe we’ve all had choices to make in our labyrinthine lives, difficulties, terrors, mistakes, opportunities — both missed and not missed — bad relationships, illness, bizarre elements of fate. Godnose what any single person has had to deal with, and as such I believe all are worthy of respect. “What a poor good thing is man after all.” Goethe

Freedom is a weird word. Personally, I think may be too obscure and absolute to be discussed in a meaningful way. I think what people want is not the obscurity of “freedom,” but liberty which is the legal protection of their rights. BUT the Far Right in this country harps on freedom all the time when what it seems to offer is authoritarianism. That makes Fromm’s book even more interesting to me.

Freedom — as a concept? As a reality? Would seem to respect the individual, and I’ve seen in recent months that the Far Right doesn’t respect individual rights/freedom, not even to decide what a woman can do with her own body or a young person can do if he/she realizes that his/her mind and spirit were born in the wrong body. Minuscule things, these two things, affecting a small, small, small percentage of the population, but they reflect respect for the most personal and individual freedoms — freedom to be ones self, freedom of physical integrity. Why should these things interest anyone but the individuals faced with a couple of pretty excruciating problems? Being prohibited from choosing what’s right for her in the case of a woman with a complicated pregnancy, or prohibited from pursuing medical intervention to make life work for young person diminishes freedom to and puts the burden on freedom from. “You don’t have to make this decision, sweet cheeks. The government will make it for you.”

And more. It seems to support a rather whimsical (friendly way to say subjective and unjust) application of the law which diminishes liberty except for the selected group and creates fear.

So, yeah, I’d say people do fear freedom. We’ll see what I think after I get the book and, I hope, read it.

Humans…

Surreal is just a word. If you look straight at reality it’s, uh, surreal. Think about it. What’s more surreal than any single day? What’s more surreal than a whole planet going on about it’s (bizarre) business and being hit by a microbe? To add super-surrealism to that, imagine the most affected species on that planet ARGUING about the reality of that microbe while, ultimately, six million people die? What’s more surreal than a species working daily toward its own destruction and then paying good symbolic wealth (in itself surreal) to watch films or read books depicting dystopian futures? What’s more surreal than a tiny, tiny, tiny bird flying all the way from the Yukon to suck nectar from my Scarlet Emperor Beans for a whole 3 minutes? What’s more surreal than any single day on this planet? It’s not surreal. It’s real. Like me, just now, typing “How many people have died of Covid?” and getting the data for the US as if there were NO OTHER COUNTRIES? And why did I do that? Because I confused the number of people who died during the Holocaust with the number who’ve died from Covid. If THAT isn’t surreal what is? Not surreal. Real. Absolutely totally real. OH and that we refer to THE Holocaust. Wow. I don’t think it’s even possible to count — or describe! — the number of historical holocausts. It’s just the “one” closest to us in time. Our penchant for naming things in order to dismiss them or pay knee-jerk respect to them is surreal. That’s surreal. A great poem that demonstrates the surreality of this naming fetish is The Naming of the Parts by Henry Reed.

On top of this reality we create philosophical structures to help us understand it, and they are completely bizarre, then, to add a skosh of total absurdity to THAT we have wars over them. Or are they just what our species would be expected to do by its nature?

Surreal isn’t all bad. I have a 90 year old pen pal in Seattle. How did I get this penpal? Well, the woman who ran the museum in Del Norte’s husband’s cousin, who became my penpal, wanted my notecards, and preoccupied with the museum and her husband’s extremely surreal death (not surreal, real), she didn’t send them to him. He found my business card and called me. Where did that lead? Well, among other things, the gift of a thermal cup from Starbucks at the Beijing Airport. Not surreal; real. An old man, on the trip of his dreams, through China with his daughter, bought souvenirs that he would have no use for, but he has a friend in the remote valley where he grew up who might value them. Real.

My dogs? “So, Martha, what do you want to do with your life?”

“Thanks for asking Walter (Cronkite). I want to walk dogs.” Everything else has been ancillary, apparently.

Surrealism in art is another thing. “I’m going to paint weird shit to show the world as it really is,” or something. I don’t know, but other than Dada which set out (partly) to depict the horrific reality of WW I to counter the (surreal) propaganda, I don’t think surrealism is nearly as “surreal” as daily life. When my friend, looking at my paintings, made the comment, “What’s your obsession with reality?” I thought, “You’re blind.”

Nowadays when someone says, “That’s surreal,” I just shrug. Clearly they were just born. Our ability to perceive reality? Never expressed more clearly than by Towelee in this episode of South Park

Featured photo: me with a torn ACL back in 1992. The evening after this photo was taken, the Boys on Bikes took me to see Jurassic Park and to dinner at McDonalds. They’d scraped together all their money so I didn’t have to pay because they respected my injury and loved me. Surreal? Or the fact that the hospital refused to repair my ACL with surgery because I had no health insurance?

Epiphany

Sometimes in our lives we’re just cruising along living day-to-day, doing OK, enjoying our lives enough, overall fine but not filled with fire and enthusiasm over any of it, just kind of muddling along, unaware and unconscious and something happens that throws our life in front of us so we see it for what it is and we see our achievements for what they are and we feel knocked over with gratitude to the external factors that helped us along but also grateful — proud — of ourselves for what we’ve overcome and who we are. I know this is one of the purposes of events like graduations and maybe even weddings, but when it isn’t tied to any life-measuring moment or something it’s very special. Most of the time I think we humans think in terms of what we hoped to do and didn’t or couldn’t or gave up on, all that, so-called “failures.” For me, anyway, it’s not always easy to see where things are right because sometimes some of the most right things don’t fit the mold, the pattern, the expectations, but they are, for us completely and totally right.

I had such an experience yesterday. I won’t go into the details because HOW I got here doesn’t matter — I think it would be unique for everyone.

But wow. All day today I’ve thought of a couple of lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” The poem doesn’t hit me, but the end does. I first read those lines as title of a book I judged for the contest, the memoir of a woman and her husband who’d built schools in Africa. The title of the book is My Wild and Precious Life. It’s a really good book and I recommend it. The poem ends with:

I do know how…to stroll through the fields
Which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Suddenly, yesterday, it hit me that I couldn’t have done better given the hand I was dealt and the person that I am. I felt so much gratitude for the fates that landed me in that 3 bedroom tract house in Nebraska across from a forest from which I learned who my best friend through life would be. Yesterday I felt fully how much that has meant to me and how well it has served me, still serves me. As I composed that little poem in response to a small challenge, I realized that I have been writing one poem since my very first poem when I was 10. I’ve written other poems, but that has been my poem. Sometime when I’m not so lazy I’ll go find that first poem and transcribe it here. Maybe. 😉

So what will I do with my “one wild and precious life?” I’ll keep going on as I have been. ❤



Here’s Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?



Light as a Feather

In the last few days I’ve come to see that the “powers” (whoever and/or whatever they are) has taken me in hand, thrown me onto the ground, forced me to slow down, to ask for help, to return “home”. My friend in Colorado Springs really needed my help as he pulls together the first class he’s taught in a few years and he wanted me to stay longer than the three nights I’d originally planned. Other friends wanted to hang out with me (and vice versa). My short journey turned into a very nice — if painful — week once I resigned myself to the fact I wasn’t going anywhere.

More resonant words by the Bronc Riding Philosopher Plumber, “I’m not going up to Denver. If my family wants to see me, they can come down here. I don’t see any good reason to leave the San Luis Valley. I don’t go up there any more.”

I laughed and said, “Yeah. If I hadn’t gone to Colorado Springs, I wouldn’t have hurt my shoulder.”

“Exactly.”

Once I got home? Same story. There was a moment when I actually thought, “Why do all these people want to see ME?” I still think that’s a little odd, but I also think my wonderment is a little odd. It isn’t that friendship isn’t important to me — it is very important to me — but this past year shifted my orientation somewhat from what friendship means.

I can’t speak for every introvert out there, but my need for people is possibly different from the need extroverts have. I can’t even really define it. Random or brief contact is nice. Long, heart-felt conversations are nice. Socializing for the sake of socializing gets a little uncomfortable. So, I live here…

But we do need each other. We need to be able to walk outside our front door, take a quick survey of our personal ambient reality and feel, “God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world.” We all know that the “future is uncertain, etc.” We need to know that the present moment, anyway, this one is doing pretty OK overall. It occurs to me that’s exactly what we lost over the past few years.

Is it a luxury, or entitlement, to think we “deserve” that when so much of the world DOESN’T have the slightest possibility of that? When the water heater went out I thought, “OK.” I didn’t see it as a huge problem. I’d heat water on the stove and carry on as long as I had to.

When I called the plumbing company the woman who took my call said, “We’re really backed up (what an admission for a plumbing company!) but, wait. You don’t have any hot water? OK. I’m pushing you up the list, ahead of the leaky faucets.” The plumber was here first thing the next morning because not having hot water was an “emergency.” In China all the showers were cold. Only the “final rinse” was warm, water heated in a bucket on the stove. Of course, in summer, the water tank on the roof of our building heated a bit in the sun and that was nice, but a year of cold showers didn’t kill me. It was what it was and it was OK. Was that resignation or was it acceptance? There’s a fine line.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been striving for in my own tiny little life and the recent hammering by “the powers” seems to be helping me get there. And… in the high country north of here it snowed last night. Oh, I hope “the powers” have a snowy winter in mind this year, not the kind that traps people on the highway or causes avalanches and breaks trees and kills birds, but the normal snow that falls softly on a dry and confused world, slows time, soothes the people, satiates the fields and gives joy to me and my dog.

Breathing Is Good

Bear’s bronchioles were working hard last night when we were hit by a surprise — and very loud — thunder-boomer. We’ve had real rain twice now and I’m very glad. I was happy to see real mud puddles in the alley, muddy paw prints in the house, new holes in the yard. Best of all (in my little life) no watering of the lawn.

BUT… Bear began her anxiety march which means walking in a circle from the living room, through the bathroom, to my room and back to the living room. She’s recently decided that my bed is the best place for her during a storm — a new thing this summer. I don’t like that. I love my dogs, but I don’t sleep with animals, not even in my room. BUT I finally surrendered and put a cover on the bed. When Bear’s anti-anxiety meds kicked in, I found her sleeping on my bed. And yes, that’s a tiger under the window. No, not a real one. In the window? Old-school air-conditioner. 🙂

No, Bear’s not spoiled.

I’ve been keeping the corner of one eye on national events. After getting expelled from Twitter, I knew I had to take a few steps back. Today, however, I made the mistake of seeking to be informed. This struck me:

“In emotional testimony that recounted the abuse he received while defending the Capitol on Jan. 6, D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges said he was struck by the flags carried by members of the mob, whom he characterized as “terrorists.”

“To my perpetual confusion, I saw the thin blue line flag, a symbol of support for law enforcement more than once being carried by the terrorists as they ignored our commands and continued to assault us,” Hodges said.

He nodded to the conflict between the beliefs represented by the flags, and the actions of those holding them…”

And…

Men alleging to be veterans told us how they had fought for this country and we’re fighting for it again. One man tried to start a chant of four more years,” Hodges said. “Another shouted, ‘do not attack us. We’re not Black Lives Matter,’ as if political affiliation is how we determine when to use force.” Washington Post

That summarizes everything for me. I’ve come to understand that many of these people are convinced that Biden was not REALLY elected, that the election was fraud, that Trump TRULY won the election. They believe that fighting against what is (in truth) a legally elected administration they are fighting for our country.

I have no answer for this. It’s an absolute mind fuck.

I had a direct experience with something similar not long ago. On the other side of the valley live some truly big-hearted people that I’ve known since soon after I moved here. Last week one of them forwarded me some email correspondence between them and their son who is an artist. It concerned a good deal on some art supplies, but it also contained some passionate anti-Covid vaccination information. I almost wrote a response then I thought, “They 1) aren’t thinking about that, but about art supplies,” 2) “The ARE thinking about this and are (paradoxically) sharing this with me for my well-being. Their intention in this case is loving.”

BAM. These people are conscientious mask-wearers, but they are NOT getting vaccinated.

“As we get older and stop making sense
You won’t find her waiting long
Stop making sense, stop making sense…stop making sense, making sense…”


“Interesting Paradox, but How Useful Is It?”

1. a pragmatic attitude or policy.”ideology was tempered with pragmatism”

2. PHILOSOPHY an approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application. (How well does it work?)

I like pragmatism. Back in my philosophy studying days (ages 18 and 19) pragmatism (as a philosophy) had almost NO appeal because I was an ARTIST and ROMANTIC and YOUNG and had IDEALS, but that didn’t really matter because, as a person, I had already learned the double-fisted skill of imagination and practical action (if your dad falls getting from the sofa to the wheelchair, pick him up, put him where he wants to be. If he wants to be in the wheel chair, be sure to strap him in so he won’t slide out if he has a spasm). The question, “Should my dad have MS?” might have been interesting, but it was totally irrelevant because he DID have MS.

Beyond that? Reading the Pragmatists wasn’t very interesting compared to some of the more high-flying philosophers whose thinking and maybe writing verged on something that required a Rosetta Stone, guys like, I dunno’, guys like Heidegger who is (IMO) almost unreadable. I “liked” Kant and I “liked” Spinoza, and I “liked” the Greeks, and, of course, guys like Emerson and Thoreau, but those who wrote about the idea of ideas?

Still, I maintained a problematic relationship with the study of philosophy, and the tension between idealistic and pragmatic thought played out in a philosophy class I attempted to take later. The prof said, “If you’re a woman or a Jew you will not pass this class.” I got up and walked out (idealistic) but forgot to actually DROP the class so I got an F thereby proving the professor right (in my case) — a failure of pragmatism there. “It’s fine to walk out, Sweet Cheeks, but remember to DROP the class, OK?” The guy was WRONG but I still had to follow certain rules or I’d hurt myself.

Being a dreamy yet down-to-earth person makes it seem I am, as my mom always said, “straddling a fence,” but being all or nothing doesn’t avail anything. The phrase, “Supposed to” and the other one “Shouldn’t be/Should be like that” are now just kind of annoying. How things are supposed to be vs. how they are? We live here, where things are as they are. Even if we think they could be better, we have to start here. And “shouldn’t be like that?” A lot of things shouldn’t be the way they are, but they ARE that way. It’s already difficult enough to see things as they are. I’m never 100% sure I have succeeded in that.

The question is, “What is a person going to do about it?” That’s a very pragmatic question. If there is nothing to do other than accept it and move forward, that’s what you do. If there are remedies in one’s power, that’s another story.

Still, it took a few years — and a major depressive crisis occasioned by the question, “What’s real, anyway?” — for me to grow into my own essential philosophy, which, it turns out is “I have no fucking clue.” As my personal pragmatic philosophy evolved, I found it here, in a seldom (if ever) quoted part of Ecclesiastes 3, that “to everything there is a season” bit, but verses 9 – 13:

What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. I know that there is no good in them (any of this), but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.  And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God... (KJV)


I think that pragmatism is summed up in the Alcoholic Anonymous prayer. in fact, if there’s a pragmatic definition anywhere of pragmatism it’s, “…God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Since there came a moment when I walked away from the study of philosophy (what was the point?) I only know what any “Intro to Western Philosophy” student knows about this stuff and, maybe, a little more having read the enormous biography of William James written by my thesis advisor, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. It’s an amazing book.

I remember the day I went to my philosophy teacher — Dr. Ria Stavrides — and said, “I’m changing my major. I don’t see much point in a philosophy major. I’ve thought a lot of this stuff already on my own.” An eminently pragmatic reason for changing majors…

“I understand, Martha,” she said in her Bavarian accent. “You’re an artist, not a philosopher.”

She was pretty pragmatic, too.



*The title of this post is a quotation of something my one-time boyfriend said. Clearly, I never forgot it.

** The featured photo is the pragmatic solution I have found for walking my very large, very powerful dog. I can’t control her completely. If something charges us I will let go, but mostly… Though now she understands the limits of her range and she wants to be with me. The halter is “just in case” because, you know, people.