Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin –
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

— T. S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”

What’s Your Tree

Julia “Butterfly” Hill disturbed the universe for 738 days by sitting in a 1,500 redwood tree from December 1997 to December 1999 to keep the 180-foot tree from being cut down. Her efforts saved the tree. Though many people, including those who agreed with her, said she was carrying her protest to an extreme level, the very nature of what she did attracted attention, garnered support, and that resulted in an agreement that saved the tree. In spite of one attack by morons with a chainsaw, the tree is carrying on its long life.

Most of us wouldn’t have done that because when all was said and done, the practical ramifications of sitting in a tree for two years would have probably made us unemployable, not to mention the loss of income that would have bankrupted us.  There is so much noise in the world, that it’s hard to know what any of us can do or say to disturb the universe enough to make a difference.  Today, authors hear that “it” is all about “platform.” One has to have a “platform” filled with Facebook and Twitter and blogs and Pinterest and LinkedIn to have any hope of seeling books. The trouble is, everyone else is out there in the same social media trying to sell their books. It’s hard not to get lost in the crowd.

Anyone who wants to follow his or her beliefs and passions and work for meaningful change is likely to feel just like the writers who are trying to sell their books: what must I say or do to be heard? Fortunately, there are many organizations we can associate with that will help us be heard as part of a group. If you want to fight to save redwoods, for example, you can join the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the National Parks and Conservation Association and many other groups. Many of them want hands-on help as well as your donations and your help in letter-writing campaigns.

In 1967, I came within several breaths of going to Sweden to avoid being drafted and forced to participate in a war I did not support. I had the means and the opportunity. The reasons why I didn’t are both complex and unclear, but within the context of this blog, my leaving the U.S. (and being banned from coming home for many years) would not have changed U.S. policy in Vietnam. If I had been famous, perhaps living in Göteborg might have either changed a few people’s minds or convinced everyone who knew me that I was nuts.

It’s a hard call, I think, to figure out the difference between running away and leaving because you cannot accept what your country, town, company or organization is doing. I absolutely cannot accept the United States’ policy of using drones to kill people it doesn’t like in foreign countries. In my view, that is unconstitutional and in violation of international law. This practice hasn’t been discussed very much in the Presidential race because few people are upset enough about it to disturb the universe. And, like those of us who have considered sitting in trees or moving to Sweden, we’re more likely to scuttle our own universes rather than impacting the national debate.

I would like to disturb the universe when it comes to the use of drones in sovereign foreign countries, the spying on Americans done with little uproar based on so-called “security reasons,” the mistreatment of the environment, the intrusion by governments and religious groups into a woman’s personal rights, and a dozen or so other issues. But I never quite know how.

The Quiet Approach

Whenever my frustrations about issues get too strong, I use every relaxation technique I know to pull myself back into what I believe is an essential truth: as Joseph Campbell said “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”

Seriously, we’re not burying our heads in the sand when we admit that we cannot save the world. While some people will make very noticeable positive impacts, most of us will have to take a quieter approach. Perhaps we’ll donate some money to Planned Parenthood or we’ll add our name to a petition about oil pipelines through sacred Indian lands or we’ll spend the weekend with a volunteer group that’s clearing brush and deadfalls off a national forest or national park trail.

And who knows, there the ripples from such quiet actions influence. The universe we must dare to disturb, I think, is ourselves. Are we following our beliefs? Good, then doing so may impact a friend and then a neighborhood and after that, who knows who will step aside from their busy day-to-day life to help. We’ll probably never meet the people we influence,  but that doesn’t matter. We won’t have a page in wikipedia that tells the world who we are and what we did. That doesn’t matter either.

The hardest thing is, perhaps, that first step. Are we following our beliefs? If not, we need to disturb ourselves greatly. Once that happens, the universe that matters will never be the same again.

Malcolm

Awaiting another voice on the new year

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” – T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Mythologist Joseph Campbell has written that in spite of the seeming chaos of our lives at any given moment, the past when seen in hinsight will appear well-planned. The continuity of our lives was one of my favorite themes in the novel Dune. The image author Frank Herbert used was that of a desert wherein those with second sight who thought they had been wandering could see through meditation the events of their past aligned across the dunes as a perfectly ordered set of footprints leading up to their present location.

We are who we are, I think, and making abrupt changes at the end of a calendar year is unlikely to be effective—and might be dangerous if we knew how to keep those noble resolutions we made during the last days of December.

Author Smoky Zeidel often speaks of the fallow periods in a writer’s life—or, in anyone’s life, for that matter—as periods we should accept and learn from rather than fight. Winter, a time when seeds wait in the darkness of the earth beneath the snow, is symbolic of fallow periods. As in the old story of Taliesin out of pre-Christian Welsh mythology, we germinate in the darkness of the womb and undergo many changes before we emerge into the springtime of our full potential.

Perhaps our hopes and resolutions at the beginning of a new year aren’t really abrupt, desperate or rash changes in personality, lifestyle and direction. They may well be part of our continuing evolution toward our truest dreams, more on course than we realize as the new year approaches.

The Darkness of Winter

The darkness of winter is often said to be synonymous with the underworld, the last place any of us logically want to visit. Yet, the visionaries amongst us say that, like seeds in the soil, all things are born in darkness, arising with a new voice when the time is right.

My 2011 novel Sarabande is, among other things, a story about my protagonist’s descent into the underworld where she will prepare for the next steps in her life. At the moment, I have yet to extricate myself from the underworld I envisioned for my young protagonist because, as Robert Adams discovers in the book, men are not by nature equipped to navigate the dark regions without a guide.

Writing that novel was a learning experience. So, too, is my period of re-acclimation back into the real world. Part of writing is the fallow period that arrives after the writing itself is done. The same process is probably true for most of the major experiences of our lives. Even the best of them might carry us through periods of confusion, depression and even sadness as we gather close around us what we have learned and how we have been changed.

I’ve quoted T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” in other year-end posts because I’d rather spend winter with great expectations for my voice of the new year than thrash about in the darkness making rash promises and finely phrased resolutions. The flow of the seasons is (obviously) a natural river of time in the temporal world and whenever I’m pressed to make a resolution, it is “to keep swimming with the current.”

Malcolm