I loved going to museums, but over the last couple of  years the simple joy of it got entangled with doubt, guilt, and sadness. With every visit now it gets worse (and more interesting). In the “mummy room” at the MFA I felt a misgiving akin to my horror of zoos. I practically fled from the Peabody Archaeological Museum, where I used to spend contented hours grazing the treasures of human culture, for the sheer shame of it. The sight of the slag heap at the Harvard Semitic Museum reduced me to tears. At a contemporary “traveling” exhibit of Australian aboriginal art at the Harvard Arts Museum I read a curator’s explanation and got so upset I had to sit down for a long time.

On that bench in the full presence of an amazing work of art, the sadness, horror, shame, and anger ran like quicksand. I have not had the energy or clarity to untangle it all. I’m not, it turns out, after all, one of those admirable thinkers – Timothy Morton comes to mind – who can passionately set their analytical skills to the task. I’m in too deep. But I have some insights. They might interest someone.

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Let’s start with place (always a safe place to start). All art works, artifacts and bodies in art and archeological museums have or used to have a home (a place there they belong and can do the work they are meant to do). For some that home is, for the moment, not safe or welcoming, and so one could say the museum is “hosting” them, intending to return them when it is safe again. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) for instance, museums need to repatriate Native American artifacts and human remains when a tribe proves their ownership and claims the work. But that is the exception.

The place, time, culture of most works in museums has passed. Take a portrait by Rembrandt of a wealthy burgher: the seventeenth century parlor that it was painted for, that is even depicted in the background, no longer exists. The neolithic vessel: the culture that utilized it is remembered by no living person. Or a first-century Roman frieze: that temple has long been replaced by an office building, that god by other gods, or none. Homeless works of art, then, and the museum not a host but… an orphanage?

You might say, well, they might now and here be out of place, but in these cabinets of wealthy collectors, art galleries, and museums, they still do very well. Anything is better, anyhow, than oblivion. To which I would say, that may be so, but only under certain conditions – and how could it be otherwise?

~

I sit in front of these now, having paid my ticket, and I am grateful for the privilege of a glimpse of those past, dead, destroyed cultures. As someone who firmly believes that the past (whether it is remembered or not) very much informs the present, I also believe that it is helpful to know one’s past if one is to understand what the hell is going on.

dscf8003smallGilgamesh, you see here on this seal,

with the help of his domesticated wild brother Enkidu,

cuts down Humbaba, the spirit of the great forests,

so that next he can cut down the mighty trees to build his great city and feed its fires

and  when the gods protest, he will cut down the Bull of Heaven as well.

Because if you have an axe, you have to use it, right?

That old image and all the millennia that surround it, what a feast for the eyes and the mind! And in the glass case, the real thing, not a reproduction. It comes from that time, when it meant what it was meant to mean: the proud seal and story of the civilizing power of the man, Gilgamesh, through the domestication of spirits, wild animals, trees, gods and metals. As one who believes that the past informs the present, the original work of art and the absolutely perfect, indistinguishable (and therefore machine-made) copy of it are like the stone and the image of the stone: the one, with the gravitas of a long past of being worked on, in sweat and spittle, and carried through time, and sometimes lost and then found again, against huge odds; the other, a pastless image, three seconds deep. Oh, I appreciate the gift very much.

I can appreciate them on the condition of listening to them speak of what they are and where they come from, of all that being gone, stolen, forgotten, mislaid by carelessness, erased on purpose. This too they give. They are a good thing that is also terribly wrong, a corpse, stolen goods, a crime scene, a gravity well of loss and grief. There is much listening to be done, even more so as our own forgetting time draws near.

~

It’s a hard thing to do, that listening, but that’s not nearly the end of it. Part of the sadness and mayhem is that these dead are not also heard by the curators, funders, patrons and visitors on their rainy Sunday outing. When you hear it you want them to hear it as well. But it takes guts to weep in public places!

Ah, public spaces… Susan Sontag touches on this in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003):

Space reserved for being serious [“standing back and thinking,” and bowing and weeping]  is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or museum). (p.119)

So there is another condition, another task here.

Perhaps that is what we are looking for on social media, Facebook, and in blogs. But those “places” not being places, and those “people” not being people, and those “friends” not being our friends, and those faces not being faces, those are not the public, common space at all. When you weep at the museum, you undeniably are somewhere, being seen and seeing those who see you. And they will see you, in fact, they will stare.

I cry in museums. I bow down deeply before works of art in an offering of humility,

regret and apology.

You may stare, but

I think as time winds down, you will see more people doing it.

Imagine a picture of you and your family on the wall,

People passing by, unmoved –

you’re a beggar with your hand out –

They don’t even say, goodbye, goodbye.

If you think that we have lost the skill and habit of making public our thoughts and feelings in a mannerful, effective, healthy was speak only for yourself, or better yet, give it a try. The expressing of it is actually easy in that it just happens, pretty raw and naked, yet controlled too. You may want to shriek, but you’re in company here, of those who are calling you, and of others who are not hearing it yet. All this has a gentling effect on your expression, and on your mood too. That’s what used to be called “a civilizing effect” – now much maligned. Better to say: you’re paying your respects.

So, not so impossible after all. The difficulty still lies in the reactions of those who witness. You, who weep, know immediately that in one sense you have joined the vanished in the paintings, the mutilated victims in the war photographs, the eyeless mummies in their wooden boxes: your goodbye, goodbye is not understood. But unlike theirs, your grief is heard loud and clear. Where they were but images, objects for consumption, they now sound out through you. You’re drawing them all in, the long dead with their beauties and histories and grievances and joys, and all the living who are staring and hearing it, changing that silent museum/megastore into a common, public space.

So, a call for nevertheless, notwithstanding, going to the sorrowful museums and taking them to task by listening and weeping. And a call for approaching those who cry there and asking them: why do you cry? What is here that makes you cry? And why can’t I hear it? Yet.

(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.

 

DSCF9939

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.