Remembering Mothers

 

 

 

The memories that matter are not at your grave site. There I find only tears, sad faces, loss. No, the memories I seek are in the houses where life happened.

In the kitchen where we sat together shelling peas or on the porch where we ate grapes with ice while waiting for the postman or at the table where we listened to the radio and played endless games and you let me keep score or under the trees where we gathered pecans in autumn. Today I remember life. Happy Mothers’ Day!

On Saving Daylight

Welcome to Daylight Savings Time – again. Why we continue to torture ourselves with this semiannual self-imposed time disruption is beyond me. Today’s Washington Post includes a piece on this annual ritual that refers to it as “a glitch in the matrix that reminds us that clock time is always artificial and arbitrary”. I’m using it as a reason to share with you a passage from my second novel, Shadow of the Hare, in which protagonist Malia Poole reflects on the relativity of our experiencing of time.

When I first arrived in Walden 27, I still felt the need to know the exact time of day or night and I positioned my little digital clock on my table like some deity in a shrine. I learned that Walden 27 was positioned at the far western extreme of the Eastern Time zone. There were only two North American time zones by this time; I remembered having read that, before the original four time zones were established for the convenience of railways in the 19th century, every town kept its own time, keyed to its own experience of the sun’s movements. I came to realize that time zones and clocks meant little to the community of Walden 27.

As my stay extended into weeks and then months, I, too, stopped keeping track of time. It’s all relative anyway, I told myself. We mark our distance from some event in the past or from some planned, imagined future, organizing our activities within the diurnal/nocturnal cycle, across the flow of seasons. In Walden 27, residents rose with the sun, broke for lunch when the sun approached its zenith, or when the temperature rose to a point making a break desirable.

Tracking the cyclic phases of the moon became more important to me than the name of the month or the count of days on a calendar. I noticed how the moon phase tracked with my menstrual cycle. I began to observe the stars and how they shifted position in the sky as we moved toward spring. They don’t actually shift, of course; it’s we who shift our position relative to them. I’d never seen so many stars before coming to Walden 27.

When spring came, the yard around my cottage was planted with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Every square meter of fertile land in the whole of Walden 27 was planted with something edible or useful and it was all worked cooperatively, which meant that I was always encountering people in my garden, working the ground, tending the plants. I had to remind myself it wasn’t “my” garden, though I soon began to do a little weeding there and, later on, I did claim some of the produce for myself.

The lack of regimentation was seductive. In Walden 27, we kept our own time. I relegated my little clock to a dresser drawer.

 

Shadow of the Hare: Recall Chronicles, Vol. II available on Amazon.

Journey to Palmyra…Mexico

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Reading in today’s news that the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra has changed hands once again in the ongoing civil war, I was reminded of the following passage from the second volume of Recall Chronicles – Shadow of the Hare. This scene takes place during the years that protagonist Malia Poole spent at Walden 27, a simplicity community in west Texas, near Marfa.

“I have to make a run to Palmyra day after tomorrow,” Walter told me one Thursday evening when I’d joined him and his house family for supper. “Do you reckon you’d want to come along?”

Because of Walter’s familiarity with the region, he was occasionally set tarea of running errands such as this one to the Book Community known as Palmyra, with which Walden 27 maintained an arrangement of mutual support. He’d told me that Palmyra lay to the southwest and … operated as a sufficiency community.

“Tell me more about this place we’re headed to,” I said. “Palmyra. All I know so far is that it’s a Book Community. Where exactly is it located?”

“Technically, it’s in Mexico.”

“What? You didn’t tell me we’d have to cross an international border. I don’t think I have documents for that.”

“Relax.” Walter chuckled. “Not all borders are the same. Besides, Mexico doesn’t really claim Palmyra anymore. It’s kind of a no-man’s-land. No worries.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Palmyra is down near Presidio, just north of Ojinaga. Real pretty area, where the Rio Conchos joins up with the Rio Grande. Daddy told me that the town started off around maybe 2017 as a detention center for Muslim immigrants, mostly from Syria. There were also some native-born Americans who happened to be Muslim who got thrown into the mix for reasons that most people don’t seem to remember. Anyway, when Texas went independent in 2020, they kind of forgot about this particular detention center—some people say it was on purpose—and it got left in the hands of its corporate managers. And then the rivers changed course in the big floods a few years later and the corporation folks just up and left. Abandoned it. The upshot is that what was once a detention center became an independent community. The original Muslim residents took in some dissident Catholics from Central America and then, a little later, some Jewish refugees from Israel. It was one of the earliest Book Communities, making peace among all the children of Abraham, as they say. Population’s around five thousand or thereabouts now.”

READ MORE in Shadow of the Hare, available on Amazon.

The Moon Loop

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Reading the news today about Elon Musk’s planned tourist flight to the moon, I decided it might be time to share a passage from a novel I’ve been working on for almost two years now. It’s called The Fourth Time, and my main characters are an archaeologist and her science-fiction writer husband, both of whom work at a place called Southeast Texas State University. Enjoy! 

“I have something to show you,” Seth said. I dragged a second chair up to the desk and sat down to wait while he found the something. “Ah, here we go.” A full-screen video popped up showing a photo of the moon that rapidly zoomed in to a close shot of the moon’s surface.

“Nice,” I said.

“Well, that’s just the opening screen,” he explained. “Here’s the thing.” He clicked on a little spaceship icon. “It’s a lottery, Meg. A lottery to win a trip on a shuttle right around the moon and back. Run by that private corporation that’s starting up commercial space travel – you know, Out There, Inc., the company founded by Nolan Saveur. Anyway, I want to use some of my book advance to buy you a lottery ticket for your birthday. What do you say?”

I said nothing. I knew Seth meant this as a pleasant distraction, another means of pulling me out of my funk. Instead I felt like crying.

“Meg?” Seth said. “Did you hear me? I thought you might think this was a fun idea.”

“It’s just… it’s like the dream I had. You know, just before we left? A space flight around the moon. With civilians…”

“Oh, gosh, now I remember. You thought it was from one of my stories. I’m sorry Meg. I guess this is sort of like dejá vu for you. ”

I struggled to tame my feelings—anger? fear? resentment? I shrugged and looked out the window. “No, it doesn’t feel so much like dejá vu as like… Is there a word for remembering something that hasn’t happened yet?” I laughed softly and tousled Seth’s thinning hair. “Maybe it just means you’ll win the damn lottery. Do you really want to go?” I’d missed the part about it being my birthday gift.

Seth frowned at the screen. “You know I’d love to buy the ticket for myself, but with my heart problem and high blood pressure, you know they’d never let me go. You on the other hand, with all your digging in the dirt, as you say, in the great out-of-doors – you’re plenty fit and healthy. Please, Meg? I really, really want to do this. It could be your birthday present. Or, if not for your birthday, then for mine. Although mine is still six months away.”

“Isn’t that the company that lost a ship on their first unmanned trial? Somewhere on the dark side of the moon?”

“Ah. Well, yes, they are. But since then they’ve had three successful flights – one unmanned and two manned. They wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t confident of the safety of the thing. They’re calling it the Moon Loop.”

“Sounds like a new expressway. Or an amusement park ride. Or maybe a breakfast cereal.” I sighed. “How much are the tickets? God, Seth, I can’t believe I’m asking a serious question about your loopy idea! What are the odds?”

“Tickets are only $500,” Seth replied. “Odds, of course, depend on how many tickets they sell. But I can guarantee our odds are much improved if we actually buy a ticket!” He winked at me.

“Only $500? Gosh, Seth, think what else we could do with that money.” I was thinking about the new dishwasher we needed and our recent discussions about putting new tile in the bathroom.

“Oh, god, Seth. Let’s just cut to the part of this discussion where I give in and you send these nuts our $500. Happy birthday to us.”

“Are you sure, babe?”

“Yes, yes. I’ll think of this as an investment in the dubious cause of civilian space travel and my husband’s career.”

“Whatever did I do to deserve such an incredible partner in zaniness as my Meg?” Seth grabbed me, gave me a kiss, and let out a happy little whoop as he zeroed in on the part of the website where you actually buy the lottery ticket.

As I left the cabin to walk over to the lab for an afternoon of processing artifacts, I thought that maybe the combination of the jaguar sighting and Seth’s ill-conceived and badly timed offer of a lottery chance for a moon ride might have been just the ticket to pull me out of that place where I take myself and my experiences way too seriously. In the self-same moment, I felt a bitter sadness for the apparent randomness of it all.

Why Walls?

walls

All the talk about building that wall along the border between my home state of Texas and our neighbor to the south made me more than a little curious about who else around the world has built (or may plan to build) a wall. It’s an informative list. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_barrier )

Of 30 countries listed in the Wikipedia article (which may or may not be complete or accurate), only seven of the walls were built before 2000 and only four predate 1990. Prior to that date, the only border walls noted were between China and Hong Kong, between North and South Korea, between Egypt and Gaza, and between South Africa and Mozambique. There also used to be one between East and West Berlin in Germany, but that one’s history. (A history we should study, BTW.)

South Africa has subsequently built additional walls on its borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe, making it one of the most walled-in countries in the world. The second most walled-in is Uzbekistan, which has built border fences with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has barricaded itself from both Yemen and Iraq. India has a wall along its border with Kashmir.

In Europe, a barrier separating Spain from Morocco was built in 2001 (an earlier section was built in 1998) and walls or fences have recently gone up between Bulgaria and Turkey (2014), between Macedonia and Greece (2015) and between Hungary and both Serbia and Croatia (2015).

Walls are currently under construction in eight more locations and are proposed for an additional six. India is fortifying its borders with both Bangladesh and Burma. The other walls being built separate Argentina from Paraguay, China from Korea, Iran from Pakistan, Slovenia from Croatia, Ukraine from Russia, and the United Arab Republic from Oman.

Further walls are proposed between Belize and Guatemala, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, between Estonia and Russia, between Malaysia and Thailand, and between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And then, of course, there’s the one between Mexico and the USA, small sections of which already exist.

Why all this 21st-century wall-building? Of the 30 walls existing, under construction, or proposed, fully 25 of them are being built at least in part to curb “illegal immigration”. Eight instances are intended to inhibit smuggling, seven are built in (or define) conflict zones or “disputed territory”, and four are construed as “anti-terrorism” barriers.

Now it’s time for the anthropologist to make a couple of observations. First, I would point out that there are more people alive today than at any time in the past. Why does nobody talk about overpopulation anymore? Second, we need to talk about the fact that human beings have never been as fixed in place as most of our high school history and social science texts would lead you to believe.

Overpopulation

When I Googled “overpopulation” I got five options – definition, myth, problems, facts, and “in china”. This last entry is about China’s well known one-child policy and we’re going to leave that aside for our purposes here (although I will note that the policy has recently been abandoned).

The definition of overpopulation is this: “excessive population of an area to the point of overcrowding, depletion of natural resources, or environmental deterioration.” This is the standard applied to all species, not just humans.

As for the “myth”, this refers to the complexities of applying the above standard definition of overpopulation to a cultural, social, technology-enabled creature like Homo sapiens. The disturbing idea that there could be some natural limit to human population constituted by the carrying capacity of planet earth was designated a “myth” sometime in the mid-20th century and the declaration made that there really is no such thing as overpopulation for us. This arose in the heyday of our faith in science and technology and human creativity and was touted as recently as 2013 in the opinion pages of the New York Times.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/opinion/overpopulation-is-not-the-problem.html )

Ongoing research into climate change and other forms of human destruction of our planet and its resources calls this optimistic myth-busting faith in human capability into question. Or maybe it’s becoming not so much a question of “can we” continue to support a burgeoning human population, but rather “will we”. When we deny the admonitions of climate scientists to rein in our carbon-transforming ways and refuse to change our high-consuming habits, we are clearly not living up to our potential and may be producing the very overpopulation that scientists have for several decades now told us we didn’t need to worry about. Rachel Carson’s 1960s classic Silent Spring has suddenly become a bestseller again on Amazon, recently grabbing #1 in environmental books. Climate refugees are a reality – people fleeing lands that no longer produce a livelihood – and nations become more possessive and defensive about their own resources. We increasingly perceive a limited-sum game and immigrants are no longer resources who can potentially make our nation stronger. Rather, they are “taking our jobs” and otherwise straining the limited resources of our nations.

You want some facts? Consider that between 1999 and 2011, global population increased by a billion people. That’s a lot of strain on human ingenuity. Furthermore, our population continues to grow by more than 3,000 hungry mouths every twenty minutes. Just this past week, the United Nations declared a state of famine in South Sudan. Clearly, our human creativity and engineering potential are struggling. It’s also worth pointing out that these 3,000 new people per day hunger not merely for food and clean water but also for cars and air conditioning and cell phones. (SOURCE: http://www.postconsumers.com/education/10-facts-overpopulation/)

Human Migration

When I taught cultural anthropology, one of the most stubborn misperceptions of my students was the idea that there were great benefits to humans “settling down” during the Neolithic farming revolution and even that humans would have found it a great relief to do so! First of all, I would explain, the initial stages of living in the same place year-round would have meant a less varied diet (relying on a limited range of crops) and a much less hygienic environment (living in the midst of your own waste is not so pleasant). Archaeological data support this hypothesis that the earliest farmers were less healthy than hunters and gatherers in a strong environment. Furthermore, how can you argue that humans are naturally sedentary in light of our thriving tourism industry? We love moving about! And the archaeological record clearly shows that we have always done so.

We also tend to have these crazy ideas about European countries being somehow ethnically homogeneous entities. To begin with, most European countries encompass relatively small territories. France is comprised not merely of French, but also of Flemish, Alsatians, Jurassians, Bretons, and Occitanae, all speaking distinct languages. Spain, too, has its Basques, Catalonians and Galicians, in addition to its Spaniards. Add to this the shifting boundaries through history and you begin to get the point, which is that national boundaries have always been artificial and the notion that they enclose “a nation” is a tribal myth.

Humanity is diverse and always on the move. Our numbers are inexorably increasing. In our eagerness to incorporate “primitive” peoples into the world economy, we induced them to give up subsistence farming and plant cash crops. In many places those crops have led to more rapid deterioration of farmland and we now berate these same people for their inability to “feed themselves”. The global competition for resources – led by the richest and most powerful nations – contributes to conflict and political unrest on almost every continent. It is no wonder that desperate people are fleeing their failing and conflict-ridden homelands in record numbers.

Because population increase continues apace and because our drive for survival always outweighs any sense of rootedness in a home territory, the flood of refugees and migrants worldwide will only grow. The 21st-century phenomenon of wall-building is rooted in the growing suspicion that there really may not be enough for all of us.

Walls are not going to fix anything.

Broken Things

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I broke a teacup today. Well, I didn’t exactly break it; it was broken when I unpacked it from the move. You can tell by the clean lines of the break that divided it into exactly four pieces that it was a pressure fracture rather than an impact. That would have shattered it and produced messy shards.
The cup was part of a delicate little tea set hand painted for my mother by my best friend’s grandmother in the late 1950s. Well, she was my best friend back then. After my family moved away in the summer of 1962, my best friend and I wrote letters back and forth for a while. We were in high school and by the time we both went off to college, we only saw each other a few more times. Now I don’t even know where she is or what her name is. These things happen to women. We change our names and move on.
One of my Facebook friends suggested I have the cup repaired by the Japanese technique that fuses the pieces back together using gold or silver, making the piece more beautiful for its accident, making the break a part of its history instead of the end of it. That didn’t seem right for this piece.
My friend Debra Broz said she could put it back together and make it look good as new. I’ve seen her work; no one would ever have known it had been broken. Except me. I’d always know. And I’d always know it was Debra’s art as much as my school friend’s grandmother’s art that created my teacup. That didn’t seem right either.
Another friend suggested I have one of the fragments made into a piece of jewelry. Maybe I’ll do that.
Or maybe I’ll just try to track down my school friend and we can talk about her grandmother and drink tea from the cups that didn’t break.

Divided We Fall

What Have We Built?

What Have We Built? (24 x 24, $450)

The country of my birth (and the birth of at least five generations of my direct forebears) is more deeply divided now than it’s been since the Civil War. And the most dangerous thing about today’s division is that a large group of our citizens find themselves utterly beyond the reach of fact and reason. They have succumbed to the insidious belief that belief is all that matters, that all facts are relative and that science is an anti-religious plot. They have elected as their standard-bearer a reality show star with dubious business credentials and they cheer shamelessly at his invective-laden lies du jour and eagerly transmit fake news created by amoral entrepreneurs and Russian operatives who have never believed in the American version of democracy and who are now undoubtedly wriggling with delight at its demise.

How did we come to this? It hasn’t happened overnight. We’ve seen it coming (or should have) for a long time, primarily in our schools, in our courts of law, and in our newspapers.

In our schools, teachers became too timid to speak with conviction about the scientific facts of climate and evolution. They accepted bullshit as a “science project” and rewarded pretty presentations more highly than ragged attempts to grapple with truth. Schools backed off too readily when parents objected to particular literary works or found new historical research findings incompatible with what they were taught when they were in school. And if the teachers were resistant (and many, God bless them, were) then the science deniers and history skeptics took control of school boards and pushed their agenda harder.

In our courts, lawyers increasingly found it easier to plant seeds of doubt rather than assemble hard evidence to support their cases. Discrediting opponents via query and innuendo and disputing their stories via hand-picked “experts” who could be relied on to say what was needed became accepted practice. Lawyers became adept at obfuscating the very nature of facts and truth and were highly rewarded for their skill.

In our newspapers, editors tried too hard to provide “balanced” coverage and thereby led readers to believe that points of view with no basis in fact or logic had equal merit with the views of highly educated and experienced professionals, people who had dedicated their lives to investigating the subjects in question. As the digital age impinged upon journalism, selling papers or garnering viewers and clicks became more and more challenging and a hot story became more important than in-depth coverage. They printed or broadcast anything anyone in the public eye said and rarely bothered to follow up with fact-checking. As long as they had a source on the record, they put it out there for the public to consume.

So here we are, weeks away from the official launch of the Trumpocracy.

I don’t know where we go from here. What I do know is that we must stay focused on verifiable fact, sound logic, and reasoned argument and that we must do that because that is who we are. We are people who cannot give in to the desire to fight bias with bias. We are well aware that those on the other side cannot be swayed by fact, logic, and reason. Nonetheless, we soldier on, speaking truth, marshaling facts, reasoning logically, and knowing that we don’t stand a chance unless we know precisely where we stand: We do not stand united.

What To Do?

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Lately I find myself remembering a particularly volatile time we went through at the University where I used to work. Things got extremely political and there was a lot of hateful talk and distrust. Some of us prided ourselves on our activism and clever words. We became distracted and self-important. Others just hunkered down and did what they needed to do to advance the actual work of their departments and their students. When the shit-storm finally passed, guess who came out on top?

So now, in the context of a much bigger shit-storm, I think it’s time to consider what kinds of words and actions are useful and which ones are just making us “feel better”. Here’s a short (and unquestionably preliminary) list.

  • First, consider the things that have no substantive effect:
    • “Liking” and “reacting” to posts on Facebook and re-Tweeting stuff.
    • Sharing anything that comes from blatantly partisan pages and websites.
    • Embedding ourselves in an echo chamber where we hear words and words and more angry words from people who think exactly as we do.
    • Signing every online petition that comes along.
    • Posting on Facebook that we’re praying about it.
    • Protests that are only opportunities to vent. If there is no clear intent, demand, or message, then it’s probably a waste of time.
    • Buying and wearing T-shirts with pictures of Bernie that say “Hindsight – 2020”. Or similar. (I just really liked that one.)

I’m not saying not to do these things – just don’t fool yourself into believing they actually help. Also, I’m not saying that feeling better is of no value. Certainly supporting one another (for example, on Pantsuit Nation) and offering words of encouragement and solidarity are important things. It’s just that it’s not enough.

  • Now here’s a to-do list of a few things that might actually help:
    • Be well informed. This means reading – all the way to the end – well researched pieces from actual experts and real journalists. Sharing these is also useful. Everything else on this list follows from being well informed.
    • Get involved in activities and organizations that promote and protect the people and activities that are currently threatened. And by “involved”, I mean volunteering and actually DOING something.
    • Pay attention to local politics and show up to meetings and events that can have an impact on community policies and decisions.
    • Allocate resources to organizations that are having an impact. But never, never feel that giving money is enough.
    • Reassess the values you promote in your own work and lifestyle and stay aware of how this impacts the bigger picture.
    • Refuse to be distracted. Stay focused.
    • Live your life as if the world you believe in actually exists.

I’m sure there are lots of other things that could be added to both lists and I encourage comments. Yes, writing this made me feel better. Now to get busy and do something that might actually help.

Morning. After.

"Discouraged" 8 x 8 shadowbox

“Discouraged” 8 x 8 shadowbox

11/11/2016
Early morning walk.
I greet my neighbors.
“Morning,” I say in passing.
I can’t yet say “Good morning.”
It isn’t good.
And it won’t be good
Until
Everyone can feel as safe as I do
Walking through their neighborhood.
And mine.
Until the woman in the headscarf,
The youth in the black hoodie,
The man who is fluent in Spanish,
The lady in the wheelchair,
Until all of us can be safe.

Safe when we roll down the car window
For the policeman who pulled us over.
Safe when we put our arms around
The one we love
Right out there in public
No matter who it is we love.
Safe when we speak a language
Other than English
Or English with our parents’ accent.
Safe when our disability means
Maybe we take a little longer at the ATM.
Safe when we’re the only woman on the bus.
Safe when our visa has expired and we’re
Too scared to go back to our broken country.

I want to know what it’s like to be you.
I can put on a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt
And experience the hateful stares and scoffing comments.
But I can also take it off.
It doesn’t tell me how you feel every day
Walking around in the skin you were born with.
I can speak Spanish with my friends
But no one assumes I don’t speak English.
I can wear a headscarf like I did on cold, windy days
When I was a girl. We all did that.
No one would assume I was a terrorist.

I don’t ask that we always be comfortable.
Only safe.
Because safe is really important.

I have done nothing to deserve my privilege.
You have done nothing to deserve less.
Someday I will go for my morning walk
And say “Good morning!” to everyone I meet
And mean it
And know it is also a good morning
For you.
Until then
We have work to do.
Please, can we do it together?

Privilege

“For those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

I don’t know who said this first, but the words keep coming to my mind as an appropriate response to posts and comments all over social media’s political spectrum. People are saying all kinds of horrible things to one another because they’re hurting, and in many cases they’re hurting because they’ve lost some kind of privilege and they resent it. It got me to thinking about what kinds of privilege we – various ones of us – have become accustomed to. Here’s a quick checklist:

  • White privilege. This is universally apparent to people of color but often elusive to white people themselves. Ourselves. Some white people like to claim being “color blind” and to not notice color. This has no impact on privilege. Others readily make the leap from embracing white privilege to claiming white supremacy. (As an anthropologist, I could go on for pages and pages about the irrelevance of “race” to the human genome although not to the human experience. But that’s not what this post is about.)
  • Male privilege. This has been eroding away for decades. Is it any wonder many men are all too ready to follow the lead of a swaggering “alpha” male who exemplifies all the benefits of privilege they feel they’ve lost? A lot of women – perhaps fearful of being labeled a feminazi – still believe in male privilege, too, identifying with the sexy helpmate image the males assign them and seeking out the most swaggering domineering males they can find. It makes them feel protected or something.
  • Christian privilege. Suddenly there are Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists openly practicing their faith, openly not being Christian. Christians are horrified. Isn’t America “supposed” to be a Christian nation?
  • Marketplace privilege. Protected industries like oil or coal or manufacturing fall victim to “green” industries, robots, and offshoring, and people whose jobs and family history are tied to those industries feel robbed. They still work hard or are willing to if given the chance. They want to know who took their jobs, the jobs they thought they were entitled to.

As privilege erodes, those who have enjoyed the benefits of privilege feel deprived, hard-done-by, oppressed. Worse than that, though, is when people tell you you’re in one or more privileged category – white Christian male working in the oil patch, for example – and your life still sucks. These are Trump’s people. They want the privilege they were promised but never got. They want to “Make America Great Again”. Like it never was for them.