You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction

Charles Thrasher

Michael_Rupert_Collapse

Recently I watched Collapse, a documentary about the ideas of Michael C. Rupert. Those ideas aren’t unique—the imminence of peak oil production, the unsustainable burden of human population in the absence of cheap energy, and the cascading failures that threaten our entire species as a result. I’ve heard them before when I first read James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency (see Black Plague and Boatwrights.)

If I expect the gruesome end
of humankind, I’ll see evidence
enough all around to justify my
dark faith. But if I live without
fear or worry, what might I see?

This time rather than imagining the worst and despairing, a response which I’ve polished like the family silver, something influenced my response. I read an article by Akaya Windwood in Yes magazine titled Life After Worry.

Yes magazine tends towards unrelenting optimism. I rarely read it cover to cover although I subscribe, probably to ease my sense of guilt for doing nothing to leave the world in better shape than I found it or at least no worse. (I’ve been a dreadful failure at both.) The article caught my attention partially because I had seen Collapse, partially because I’m the consequence of religious fundamentalism.

Atomic bomb There is a self-fulfilling force to the belief in apocalypse. The unofficial but persistent faith of America is justified by the world’s end in judgment and retribution. Only the chosen few will survive. It’s the end that we’ve shaped for ourselves if unconsciously. I’ve contributed to that end despite my fall from faith.

Windwood’s article confronted me with the obvious, my attitude was also self-fulfilling. I could face the possibility of our impending collapse with despair, adding my small stone to the cairn we’re piling over the corpse of civilization, or I could approach the same potential future free of that burden, free to act differently, to act freely, to act with grace and spontaneity. Abandoning worry wouldn’t teach me to dance but it might free me from a crippling weight.

It’s a foundational truth of quantum physics that the observer influences what’s observed. We’re all busily influencing reality by our observations and preconceptions. My retreat from the world, my lack of contribution in creating a more humane reality, was just as much an act of creation—an act of observation—as engagement with the world. Every action, even inaction, has an effect. You bring something to the game even if you don’t want to play.

The question then becomes, what replaces worry? If worry isn’t my autonomic response to risk, what is? Compassion? Trust? Meditation? Your choice—my choice—has significant impact upon the future of the world.

Melodramatic, admittedly, but there’s a truth science has discovered about complex systems. Sometimes a small change can have asymmetrical consequences. It’s the Butterfly Effect popularized by chaos theory and a horrible film by Ashton Kutcher. The flapping of a butterfly’s wings over the African coast can create the smallest disturbance in the air, a faint eddy introduced into a complex system (the weather) at the right time and place that can grow into a hurricane that collides with the Eastern seaboard of the United States, impacting the lives of millions of people.

HURRICANE-IKE

Every act of observation influences what’s observed.

I think it’s equally true that how you observe influences what you see. My emotional baggage has weight and substance. My unexamined history filters my perception. I see what I expect to see. If I expect the gruesome end of humankind, I’ll see evidence enough all around to justify my dark faith. But if I live without fear or worry, what might I see? What might be possible?

We’re approaching a moment that will define our species. It may transform us—or end us. Either way, I’d prefer to face that moment with grace and dignity rather than fear and trembling.

The Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead

There are pathways deep in the sea, boundary layers between thermoclines and haloclines where bodies of water differ in temperature or salinity and sound propagates effortlessly, echoing between layers, traveling around the world again and again with little loss of energy. Supposedly sounds have been captured by deep water probes lowered into these channels and by SOSUS buoys, the network of microphones deployed in major oceans to capture the passage of ballistic subs, the boomers that stay hidden in deep water with their payload of ICBMs intended to deter a nuclear war, or start one. Some of these sounds are old.

The sonar technicians peering into their oscilloscopes, intent upon their headphones, may actually be listening to the sound of battles fought at sea during the Second World War.

We’ve gotten used to the concept that the night sky is full of ghosts, the light from stars that have been dead for a thousands years, but the thought of ghost sound is still disturbing.  It is unsettling to listen to the sound of ships breaking up under extreme pressure, bulk heads collapsing, hulls ripped by secondary explosions as the wreckage falls through miles of dark water, entombing the bodies of those who fought and died onboard, listening to the sound of their death as if they were occurring in the present and not a lifetime earlier. Uncanny.

The sea shall give up its dead
and the sound of their dying.

It may be only an urban legend. I’ve been able to find only one reference and that in Lyall Watson’s book The Nature of Things: The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects (perhaps not the most reputable source) but if it isn’t true, it should be. The world would be a more interesting place where such unsettling things still happen.

Dark Carnival

Have you never felt your life was set on a stage with players and props and painted scenery and when you moved from place to place, playing your part, speaking your lines, the painted scenery was moved as well, providing a thin semblance of depth and continuity? But what lies behind the familiar painted screens? What exists beyond the stage props? What occupies the shadows past the blinding footlights?

Carnival_clownPhoto credit: flickr

Something is stirring but I don’t know what it is. Some rough beast may be slouching toward Bethlehem again. Magic is alive, God is afoot, but are we sadly mistaken about the nature of both?

At some point magic comes head to tail
with science like a snake devouring itself.

I am not a religious man. I suspect the purpose of organized religion is to efficiently control people’s behavior through fear. But I begin also to suspect the world is far more mysterious than we’ve imagined and that religion may be a more appropriate response to the mystery than science.

In subtle and unexpected ways science and religion are approaching common if uncertain ground. At some point as the scientific focus becomes more and more specific, as the particles examined by quantum physicists become more and more elusive, magic comes head to tail with science like a snake devouring itself. Mystery escapes its cage of scientific incredulity.

But magic isn’t all wonder and delight. There’s a darkness that occupies the heart of everything living just as there is light. Each strives to consume the other. It’s only in the balance of opposites that we survive. And we’ve long been out of balance.

By the pricking of my thumbs…

The Wisdom of Spiders

Commenting on my blog post, Ghost Dogs, Trina said:

I am trying to find some kind of significance with a particular recurring dream/ hallucination..(it’s hard to distinguish). Usually when I am on the brink of sleep I will see the unmistakable figure of a dog in my room. It never makes any sound, only stands and watches me. Sometimes it will scare me awake, but other times it seems more dreamlike. The dog doesn’t have any distinguishable features like eyes or fur it is just a figure. I haven’t come across anything as close to what I’ve been experiencing as this.

It might help following my own crooked path to understanding a recent experience. I don’t mean to imply I have any special understanding of these things. I’m not a professional, not even trained in the interpretation of dreams. Whatever knowledge I’ve gleaned is simply that of a dreamer.

Spider_web I woke from sleep staring at an immense spider scurrying across our bedroom ceiling. It was a big as a tarantula. My wife is terrified of spiders, a fear bordering on technical phobia. My first thought was to ensure she didn’t see it.

I walked around the end of the bed. The spider dropped silently to the floor and disappeared. My wife asked me what I was doing. I answered that I must have been dreaming but I was awake when I answered. We both went back to sleep. (She’s less afraid of my dreams than unreasonably large arachnids.)

I doubt a broom and dust pan would have been adequate weapons against a spider the size of a Frisbee.

Again I woke to find I was staring at the enormous spider on the ceiling. It was more shadow than substance, more shape and movement than a specific species, but it was undoubtedly a spider and undoubtedly in my house. Again the spider fell silently to the floor. We don’t have spiders the size of tarantulas in Seattle. Rationally I knew it must be a waking dream or hallucination. I suppose they’re the same. But I couldn’t distinguish between the dream and reality. For me they were the same.

It happened three times. The third time I went downstairs to get a flashlight and a broom to hunt down the spider hiding beneath the dresser. I was acting as if it were real because it was real. Our reality is determined by our perceptions. It’s all in our heads. The terrifying hallucinations of a schizophrenics are real to them, as real as the bus stop or McDonalds. I’m not schizophrenic but the difference in experience is only one of degree.

Spider

Obviously I never found the spider. I doubt a broom and dust pan would have been adequate weapons against a spider the size of a Frisbee. But I’ve thought about its significance since. It’s disconcerting not knowing the difference between waking reality and a dream.

I believe the experience had meaning, that it wasn’t merely the random misfiring of synapses in my brain. It wasn’t Scrooge’s bit of undigested beef. Whatever meaning would be peculiar to me—the particular bias I’ve built from all the bits and pieces of my experience—but nested within the larger experience of all humanity, our common cultural heritage.

The repetition of three is itself significant. The cock crowed three times in the garden of Gethsemane. The number defines the trinity, a union of duality. It’s repeated in myths worldwide. The repetition of a dream three times adds weight to its meaning and takes it out of the ordinary. (Not that chasing dream spiders across my bedroom is ordinary.)

They are messages, mostly messages to our selves, but so dense that they require unraveling…

I don’t have any particular fear of spiders even if I didn’t collect them as a child. I admire the complexity and beauty of their webs. Years ago when I bought my first Nikon SLR I took dozens of macro photos of spider webs strung across the morning light capturing droplets of fog on Point Reyes. It’s that image I remember first when I think of spiders.

Size often represents importance. Something larger must represent more of a kind—more wisdom, more ferocity, more power, more authority. What are the characteristics of spiders that might be exaggerated by size?

I searched the web for references to dream imagery and spiders. There are a lot of references to spiders in myth, especially native American myths. Among the Southwest tribes Old Spiderwoman is the mother of wisdom. There are myths where the stars themselves are dew captured in a spider’s web woven across the sky. Some of the dream books associate spiders with creativity, especially writing. I’m not sure of the segue between webs and words but I am working well into a novel, not my first attempt but my most promising and most determined. Could the repeated waking dream represent an encouragement to continue the work, to complete it? Could it be reinforcing the importance of the work, at least for me? It seems a strange way to go about it.

And there lies the mystery of dreams. They are messages, mostly messages to our selves, but so dense that they require unraveling, sometimes over years, before they’re understood. They’re like a ball of thread compacted by the gravity of a black hole. The threads each have to be followed before the heart of the mystery is revealed but each thread carries its own meaning. Each thread leads us toward the heart.

Dreams are shaped to capture our attention like a spider’s web. They are webs shaped by a part of ourselves to snare the attention of another part, the waking part which arrogantly thinks itself the only part. The strands of the web are made of images, not words. They require thinking about in a way that precedes words.

So, what’s the meaning of my dream? What’s the meaning of Trina’s? It may take me some time to understand my own but I regard it as important, something worth remembering, something worth reconsidering. It is a message to myself and maybe a message with a larger context. It’s a little scary, surrendering control, acknowledging that my conscious self can be usurped, that dreams can cross over into reality, but also an affirmation that what lies beyond consciousness has tremendous power and potential.

Ghost Dogs

Last night, New Year’s eve, the transition between one year and the next, I lay in bed with a fever and heard Moppet’s bark, a single bark from a dead dog. I recognized it immediately. I had no doubt. I had heard her bark a thousand times. It didn’t seem a dream. I couldn’t distinguish is from waking reality. It was equally real but impossible. I lay in bed thinking it one of those experiences on the edge of dreams, between sleep and wakefulness, and then I heard Mizzen’s bark. A single, unmistakable bark.

Both Mizzen and Moppet died last year. I had been beside them at their death. Hearing them bark could only be a hallucination, probably the result of the fever.

I had been reading Marie-Louise von Franz’s  book On Divination and Synchronicity, The Psychology of Meaningful Chance. She writes about the activation of archetypes and access to the collective unconscious. I thought perhaps my unconscious mind was aware of a danger and using a hallucination as a warning. What more appropriate image of warning than a dog’s bark?

I checked the entire house armed with a .38 caliber revolver. Nothing. The sound of a frame house cracking its joints in the cold, the whirring and humming of motors, my own heartbeat. Otherwise, nothing. No smell of smoke or burning insulation. No footsteps. No shadows fleering in the corners.

Entire worlds might fit in
that space between what is
acknowledged and what
ignored.

Logic assured my conscious mind that no one was in the house but my wife and myself. The perimeter was guarded by alarms. Nothing was likely to get in. There was no immediate risk. I slept uneasily the rest of the night, more awake than asleep. Nothing happened.

But the experience of my dogs barking was so realistic, indistinguishable from reality, that it had significance for me. Of course I could ignore it as an anomaly, symptomatic, random synapses firing in my fevered brain, but that’s what most of us do when confronted by something inconsistent with our definition of normality. In doing so we narrowly constrict what is real. We exclude what doesn’t fit. Entire worlds might fit in that space between what is acknowledged and what ignored.

Today, the first day of the new year, I read in von Franz’s book about animal helpers in fairy tales. Wherever there is a helpful animal in a fairy tale, there is an assurance of success.

Native Americans believed in totem animals, spirit helpers. It’s no longer a common belief in Western cultures enamored with science but perhaps it remains valid in the unconscious where archetypes are less affected by fashion. Although it sounds absurd perhaps my hallucination was a helpful sign, a reassuring sign, rather than symptomatic. It’s a small thing but I’ll take it.

God, Chess and Einstein’s Dilemma

Tristan Jones once sailed to the Arctic Ocean in a converted lifeboat and the company of a three legged, one-eyed dog. Frankly, I think the dog was the only one he could convince.

Tristan_Jones Inevitably the ice fields closed around him and the boat was trapped in the lee of an enormous berg. The counterbalancing mass beneath the surface eroded and the berg shifted, positioning thousands of tons of blue ice directly above the lifeboat held fast by the pack ice. Throughout the arctic winter the odds were even whether the pack would free the boat first or the berg would turn turtle and crush it like a rotten melon.

Jones mostly ate burgoo, a loathsome layering of porridge, bacon, and whatever else was at hand, flavored with whiskey and frozen in a barrel on deck. Meals consisted of chipping off bits of burgoo with a hammer and heating it in a paraffin stove. The dog ate the same but probably enjoyed it more.

God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

Jones played chess with himself. A game with proper suspense required he forget his opponents’ strategy, a sort of self-induced schizophrenia. At first he had to wait several weeks between moves until he had forgotten the old strategy of what was now his new opponent. It was awkward.

Over time he perfected his ability to play without cheating. Not only could he bounce between players in the game, occupying the memories and strategy of one while forgetting the other, but a third personality developed, a meta personality that impartially observed both players, cognizant of either strategy, forming judgments and opinions but giving away no clues to the opponents. The lifeboat became rather crowded.

I wonder if God plays chess.

Before the first creation, before the spark that ignited the universe, God was pure potential, the sum of all possibilities but the realization of none. What’s the point of potential if it’s never actualized? I suspect God was like a kid with a new 12-gauge shotgun and nothing to shoot.

Of course it’s absurd to ascribe human emotions to something utterly beyond human experience. Whatever the impetus, God lit the fuse that ignited the Big Bang, the dice were rolled, and the game begun.

There’s a problem. A game is hardly interesting if you already know the outcome. God was faced with Tristan Jones’ dilemma: How do you play a game alone? I suspect God’s solution was the same—forget that all the players are yourself.

It’s an elegant solution if simplistic. Everything comes from God initially; everything returns. In the interim, everything forgets itself in order to play the game convincingly.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong.

Of course, it’s not my original idea. It’s been kicking about for thousands of years, probably first recorded in cuneiform on clay tablets. God is insatiably curious. Curiosity is the spark that ignited creation. Of course God, being omniscient, already knew what would happen. But we didn’t. We’re continually surprised, delighted, appalled, enraptured, disgusted, intrigued, excited, depressed, disappointed, amazed. In short, we’re immersed and enthralled by the game.

And that may explain those people with near death experiences who don’t remain dead, their entire lives flashing before their eyes in exacting detail complete with emotional soundtrack played in a bubble of timelessness. It sounds rather like a data dump, the incredibly dense data of a person’s entire life.

Albert_EinsteinI find that thought oddly comforting. Nothing is lost, nothing forgotten. Every false start, every failed ambition is remembered. As well, every kindness, every selfless act, and every bit of wonder.

Einstein, confronted by the inherent uncertainty of Quantum Mechanics, asserted that God didn’t play dice with the universe. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps God does play dice. Or chess.

The memory of crows

Crows remember the faces of people who’ve wronged them. They have a long memory and they share their memories with other crows. Researchers disguised as Dick Cheney when banding crows were afterwards mobbed by the same crows when they returned. Crows that weren’t witness to the original harassment also came to recognize the danger posed by Dick Cheney. Wherever Cheney went on campus he was mobbed and met with shrill derision.

Posted via email from Charles Thrasher’s Lifestream

Miles From Nowhere

After 58 years of memories, many of them crowded out of awareness by the sheer volume, the jostling mass, there are several that always remain salient. They are like familiar faces at the front of the crowd. One of those is of the coast north of San Francisco. It was 1969. I was 19. The Coast Highway was a two lane road threading the edge of the continent between cliffs falling away to the wide Pacific and old hills rounded by time and shaded by live oak. I was hitching on an empty road in the company of a few sheep. The scattered clouds looked like fleece. I had new camping gear and a sleeping bag I’d bought in Haight Ashbury. I threw my rucksack over a rusted barbed wire fence and climbed to the crown of a hill and laid down in the summer grass that waved in the sea wind. The sky was pale blue, as fragile as egg shell. The skirling cry of a hawk carried down the wind. I was utterly alone, free of the past, unburdened by the future, without expectations or demands. I was perfectly, completely in that moment, of that moment, and nowhere else. But the moment was unsustainable.

I slept there that night without a fire or tent, laying in the grass, at the bottom of a sea of stars. They seemed a vast adventure.

I felt like a taut string vibrating with the tension between solitude and the need for community. Those are conflicting demands I’ve never resolved. Perhaps the function of life isn’t resolution but living within the tension like a water ouzel swimming in a mountain torrent.

The sound track of that moment is always Cat Steven’s song Miles From Nowhere.

Posted via email from Charles Thrasher's Lifestream

A Small Dog’s Death

Yesterday Moppet died. Linda cried all day and fell asleep crying. So much grief, such a small dog. Today the page is blurred by my tears. I’m slower to respond than Linda; perhaps only one of us can be crazy at a time.

Moppet could no longer stand upright when we took her to the vet the last time, wrapped in a blanket that will forever belong to her. Linda washed her beforehand. She lay in the tub without lifting her head. She was hardly more than bones and beautiful hair. She never weighed more than four pounds when most substantial. She was little more than a whispered breath at the end.

After so many years life becomes welded to life, even the life of disparate species. Sixteen years is a lifetime for a dog and no small part of a human lifetime. The shared times and places form a web of connections that are sundered by death like a storm wind scattering the strands of a spider’s web.

She was a stubborn little dog who consistently failed to recognize her proper size, intimidating much larger dogs that could have ended any debate with a single bite. Four pounds isn’t much weight to throw into a dog fight. It was as if she cast a virtual presence, a shadow much larger than herself. She was most like a Bouncing Betty, a disagreeable little anti-personnel mine made popular during the Vietnam War. Step on one and they would leap from ground level to detonate in your face.

For a lap dog she was surprisingly disdainful of laps nor did she care to be coddled. Perhaps she was true to her genetic coding. Dogs bred to follow rats down their holes shouldn’t be humiliated by cloying familiarity. It takes more bravado than brains to beard a rat in its own den.

She died with her eyes open but unseeing. She seemed incredibly small on the vet’s examination table, diminished by death, her consciousness collapsing into itself like a dark star.

Sixteen years is a long time for a small dog. Near the end she was crippled, blind, deaf, incontinent…and unrepentant. That seems to me a worthy ambition, to be whatever you are without excuse, without apology, and without repentance.

Sound of Silence

I was 19 years old when the city fell silent. I had lived my entire life amid the sound of traffic—tires whining on dry pavement, engines accelerating from a dead start, brake pads grinding metal on metal, trucks rattling over potholes and expansion joints, and rarely someone pushed beyond endurance to use their horn. In LA in the ‘60s, flipping off the guy in the next car was less aggressive than using your horn.

SoCal_Freeway 

The freeway interchange that collapsed in the San Fernando Earthquake. Photo attribute: MyDifferentDrum on flickr.

LA might have been called the city of angels. In reality it was the city of engines. Their sound insinuated my dreams. The ground trembled slightly beneath their weight. The sky thickened with their exhaust. I had grown up living in the continuous presence of automobiles, every hour, every day. It was a presence as familiar as my heartbeat, and equally ignored, until it stopped.

It was 1971…muscle cars thundered down Van Nuys Boulevard and Bob’s Big Boy was fined for making hamburgers from horse meat.

I didn’t live in LA proper but the Valley, the San Fernando Valley, where adolescent girls spoke an English dialect called Val Speak. Every sentence began with “OhMyGod!,” three words hurried into a single breathless rush. The greatest good was called “tubular” after the shape of a wave hollowed by an offshore breeze. Frank Zappa made fun of us. He could afford to. He came from Lancaster, a fly blown town on the edge of the desert where the wind herded tumble weeds down the main street. I came from Van Nuys where we didn’t lock our front doors at night and no one spoke Spanish. We were living in a surreal dream of unremittingly white security. Later I realized that the dream ended precisely at 6:00 am on February 9.

Armageddon & LA

It was 1971, the era when gas was still $0.21 a gallon, muscle cars thundered down Van Nuys Boulevard, and Bob’s Big Boy was fined for making hamburgers from horse meat. At 6:00 am I was still in bed, a college boy living at home, when the earth moved. More than moved, it began lurching like a drunken sailor. The house creaked and groaned and popped arthritically. The light fixture suspended above my bed, a glass globe hung several feet from the wall, began to swing, gathering momentum. There was a basso profundo rumble from somewhere far away like the earth clearing its throat of phlegm. I was tossed side to side in my bed. It seemed like the bed accelerated rapidly in one direction but only a few inches before it stopped abruptly and began accelerating in the opposite direction. I felt like a rope toy in the jaws of a big dog. I spread my arms to keep from being thrown to the floor. The glass globe was describing wide circles above my bed. Inside the house I could hear crockery falling. I thought of getting out of bed and leaping through the window but I was utterly naked. Finding something in my closet to wear while the earth was doing a demented hornpipe seemed too challenging. A conversation with the neighbors start naked was even less attractive. The glass globe was thrown violently against the wall and shattered, showering my bed with shards of glass.

The earthquake lasted only 60 seconds. Afterwards 65 people were dead, $505 million dollars of property was damaged, and glass littered my bedroom floor. But it wasn’t the earthquake itself that was most remarkable.

The earthquake not only collapsed hospitals and bridges, it weakened an earthen dam that withheld 10,000 acre feet of water poised like the apocalypse above the San Fernando Valley. If the Van Norman Dam failed that water would seek the lowest point—the Sepulveda Catch Basin. We lived directly in front of the Catch Basin.

My choice was mandatory attendance at the Burbank Foursquare Church where they spoke in tongues or a horrible death in a Biblical flood.

Predictably, they evacuated the Valley: 80,000 people along a six-mile swath of potential destruction. My family left to stay with my paternal grandparents in Burbank. Given the choice of mandatory attendance at the Burbank Foursquare Church where they spoke in tongues and threatened to roll in the aisles or dying horribly and alone in a Biblical flood, I chose to continue classes, sneak past the police roadblocks, and return home each night.

We lived within sight—and sound—of the San Diego Freeway. It wasn’t the most desirable location but my parents had bought commercial real estate, a set of four single family, low income rentals, and lived in one while managing the rest. Real estate was their means of financing an interest in boats they couldn’t otherwise afford. I grew up remodeling houses and living near the freeway.

When the authorities evacuated the flood plain they also closed the San Diego Freeway. Police cordoned the area with roadblocks. The city was dark, without electricity. Police cars on patrol continually broadcast a warning that looters would be shot on site. It was the only sound in a city of empty streets.

An Architecture of Sound

Before then I hadn’t realized how a city is an architecture of sound as much as concrete, bricks and mortar. Sound creates a topography that can be felt if not seen. During the bustle of daylight it burgeons, growing large and complex like some gothic architecture of crooked alleys and spiked towers. At night it contracts into subtlety and murmurs and isolated alarms. But it’s never silent. Even in the dead hours of the night there is a background of sound like an archetypal cat purring. It colors and shapes the cityscape.

In the silence that descended after the earthquake the city collapsed. The horizon contracted. Sound drained away like water seeping into the dry soil, utterly absorbed. Only a dry husk remained.

I’ve experienced one other similar profound silence, in the days after September 11, 2001 when the sky was empty and no plane flew overhead, none except military aircraft looking for an enemy.

Had the Van Norman damn failed, I later learned that a wall of water 10 feet tall would have swept across the valley floor studded with the shattered remnants of innumerable frame houses and the broken bodies of people too foolish to evacuate.

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