(I realize I am soon becoming the Queen of Grief, but you can always read the “Molting Chicken” entry after this one and restore some balance.)

Last Sunday Amie played in her Orchestra concert. This concert featured four Rivers Youth Orchestras, from Preparatory (that Amie is in) to Symphony. It’s absolutely riveting to follow the progress from beginners to as-good-as professional orchestra. The Symphony played Elgar’s Nimrod (Enigma Variation IX). This piece always brings tears to my eyes and they played it superbly, with great restraint and sensitivity.  It’s for the same reason that I prefer this version to, say, Solti conducting.

Nimrod is a tragic landscape: a gentle rise, dramatic summit, then the plunge off the map. As a story, it is sweetness, triumph and then, as for all music, all stories: silence, oblivion. All in under four minutes. It’s like the whole life of a person I would love to meet, beginning to end. You think, when it ends so quickly: wait… what?! It’s unfinished, unfinished. And it’s a species on a planet, taking billions of years to grow into its own, exploding in a matter of a century, then slipping away, quite suddenly, like a question. What happened? Where did they go? Those questions cannot be answered, but one thing is for sure: they will not be back. That’s what this piece is to me: a great goodbye.

I just read another great post by fellow blogger and Transition worker Charlotte Du Cann (in UK) in which she writes about our need to listen to our ancestors. She writes:

Because you realise we have put the best of ourselves out with the trash, and what we have now is the life of a dog and a cockroach. A subservient and a scavenger existence in a technological cityworld.

This has come at a cost: it has cost us gratitude.

We haven’t paid for a long time and the debt is long, stretching back through history. Our dreams tell us this. What we have forgotten, what we have thrown away, what we have become. A pack of English hounds thirsting for the wild red fox, a thousand cockroaches ravening in a New York larder.

No one has said thank you for a very long time.

When I read that I immediately thought, “No one has said sorry either.”

And suddenly I got it.

I have been working on a short story, a letter from a healer and mother in the end days, when her community has failed to listen, failed to adapt and is, as a result, rapidly declining. Though it is often on my mind, I have never set down a word of this story because I could never grasp her voice. Imagining her, I knew she was trying to tell me something but I just wasn’t getting it. For instance, her central monologue goes like this:

Now that we’re here, people still don’t say “I’m sorry.” Instead they still say “I didn’t know.”

I always knew that this is the heart of the story, of the character, but I could never imagine what goes around it. It seemed too bitter, a dead end, a vacuum. It was not me - I admit it, who else could this woman in my story be?

But now I get it. And now here’s also a little test, a surprise for you, reader, as well.

By “I’m sorry” she doesn’t mean mea culpa, “I am to blame”. She means ”I grieve with you.” By lamenting that others are still not saying “I’m sorry,” she is not accusing them of shirking blame. She is lamenting that they are still not grieving. By saying, basically, that they should be sorry, she is not putting blame on them. She is wishing on them a gift.

Do you see? How often have you said “I’m sorry” to someone and have that person respond with “oh, it wasn’t your fault”? How often have you said (or thought) that when someone said it to you? When you read her monologue – “they should be sorry” – did you too see only bitterness, hatred, revenge?

If so, it’s your culture, which acknowledges only blame and turns grief into guilt.

If so, I’m sorry.

I hear her now. She rings true.

 

A few weeks ago a very good friend and I were driving through town, delivering signs for an event. We were discussing vacation plans and I told her about a rule I’ve been tinkering with, that I would fly only to visit family, not  for recreation. She asked me why, which surprised me because she knows me so well. I explained that I want to keep my carbon footprint small. She immediately said, “Oh, so you’ve been riding your bike around town then, have you?”

That struck me dumb. My first (unspoken) reaction was: so a thing is only worth doing if one can do it perfectly? Is that a standard you hold yourself to, or do you only take it out when it suits you? I didn’t say that, of course, but I think my words still had an edge when after a deep breath I said: “I will not take that poison of purity. Yes, I’m not perfect, but that shouldn’t stop me from doing what I can.”

There was so much that was not right about that whole conversation. We were both on the defensive, there was no conversation possibly after that – thank goodness there was work to do! More importantly, I had failed to see what was really going on. The exchange  had not, fundamentally, been about purity. It had been about guilt. Always it is guilt, the elephant in the room, behind which hides the mammoth: grief.

I had spoken from responsibility: I take responsibility for the grievous things I do, and thereby work to minimize them. My sense of responsibility stems from grief – some of which is grief that I cannot indeed be pure in a perfect world.  I no longer feel guilty about what I can’t do or haven’t done, but I do grieve them. And I find that grieving gives me insight and strength. It also, seemingly paradoxically, gives me great joy when I do find a way to make things better. I write “seemingly paradoxically,” because there is no paradox: that is what grief does, it allows for joy, it is, indeed, joy’s necessary companion (*).  Guilt, on the other hand, is all-encompassing, it smothers everything that is not guilt: if you act for the good out of guilt, you will always only find more guilt, more ways in which you haven’t acted or can’t act, for the good.

So, there it is: I spoke from grief. She instantly turned it into guilt.

Why? I don’t know. I know that our culture mistakes grief for guilt. Why? I think Stephen Jenkinson would say it is because to grieve means ultimately to face death (that we cannot be pure and everlasting in a perfect world), and our dominant culture fears death so much it would rather embrace guilt. Guilt, in its passionate accusation seems to be – seems to be - more about life, more enlivening, but in the long run it is what kills life. Now there’s another culprit: the “long run”. We are no longer capable of thinking seven generations ahead. I’ve even heard a parent say, jokingly: “our kids will solve it!”  That’s the same as saying: I refuse to grieve – and therefore I am incapable of taking responsibility. Or perhaps it is because grief, unlike guilt, is not something you can give away or project onto someone else. It is so intimately yours and yours alone and you are alone in it…

What to do? What to do?

(*) The movie about Jenkinson, Grief Walkerwas translated into French to L’Accompagnateur, literally, the Companion.

 

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And here we go again. Nemo is upon us, starting to throw what will amount, according to the forecast, to buckets of snow. Of course the power is going to go: we expect it now. And as I alternate staring out the window with staring at the Wundermap, I realize how contradictory and conflicting my feelings are about all this.

Staring at the Wundermap, it bugs me that our power grid, our communities, our homes are not resilient. Put the darn lines underground – but who will pay for that? Why didn’t we at least get a generator?  Why are we dragging our feet on the issue that when the grid goes, the solar array goes as well? Should we get a battery backup or some other way of storing the energy? I check on the chargers, powering up all the batteries in the house. I crank the emergency radios. Did mice get into  the bug out bag again? Half that bag is electronics. We’ll have the Kindle and DH’s smartphone to go on the net. The freezer is stuffed: if we don’t open it, the food in there will stay good for a couple of days. We should move our cars to the bottom of the driveway…

Staring out the window — at the towering, whitening, waving trees, the snow horses blowing through, the raccoon’s tracks, erasing — I calm infinitely  down. I know there is a big wood pile and lots of dry firewood on the porch still. The wood stove is idle now but it’s ready to warm our house when the temperature drops, and for cooking and boiling water. The pantry is stuffed, and I just made bread. We have enough books and games to keep us entertained for weeks-years. I’m thinking, if he power goes out for a long time we’ll just put everything in our fridge in a box on the porch – latch the door so the raccoon won’t get in. The tropical fish in the heated tank would perish, but the chickens and the bees will be fine. I wish we had a cat, to take care of those mice. Amie can play for us on the cello. I wish I could play the cello…

I find more comfort, more safety in those things:  in what Ivan Illich called “tools for conviviality,” in wholesome sources of energy made available by nature, and in the fruits of hard work on our part, and in companionship. The wishes and wants that these conjure are sweet and slow.

In my work I promote both these sides.  I am trying to make my community “go solar,” working on energy “solutions” while promoting skillshares, arranging potlucks, joining in hope and despair work. But more and more I know that it is only the latter that I am passionate about because only they make me feel truly safe, fulfilled and connected. No extra machine is going to make me feel secure in the face of the fragility of our technology. I may rationalize that we need “green technology” to buy us the time we need, but I believe it less and less.

More and more it feels like just another postponement of the inevitable, and we’re the kid who did something wrong (terribly wrong), taking a detour on the way home, where the reckoning awaits. But we must and do want to and will go home to the deep and dark ecology.

Update: the next morning:

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In my journal I wrote:

Understanding comes and goes as huge, crashing waves. One recedes and the other comes. It’s hard to catch your breath.

I had just finished reading Stephen Jenkinson’s latest post, “There’s Grief in Coming Home,” when I looked up and I must have had an expression on my face for Amie asked: “What is it, Mama?”

I said: “I just read something by a man with great wisdom, a wise man. You can learn a lot from wise people.”

Amie asked: “Do we know any wise people?”

The question took me unawares. I had to think for a moment.

“We may know wise people, but we don’t know. There used to be a time when people asked for and shared wisdom freely. Now, we wouldn’t know if we were talking to a wise person.”

Amie said: “Just like there are no cobblers any more.”

This went back to her request yesterday morning that I take her to a cobbler so she could learn how to make shoes (she’s reading Little House). I explained there aren’t many cobblers now. She thought this preposterous.

“Who makes our shoes then?”

“Why, machines.”

That didn’t seem so self-evident to her, at all.

“Why?” (as in Why on earth!?)

And we talked, about machines making more, faster, cheaper. About how they do mostly everything, makes shoes, harvest crops.

This had not occurred to her. This didn’t seem right to her.

Why does it seem right to (most of) us?

Through the eyes of your child you look into the dark heart of your culture and your heart skips a beat because the dark heart is your heart, questioning itself, grieving.