“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
I find much to love in this opening verse of the poem “Spring Giddiness,” by the Islamic mystic Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi (as translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne). But today I’d like to reflect upon the opening line. Though not every day, I’ve had my share of mornings when I wake up “empty and frightened.” Or, more commonly, simply worried.
I’ve always been a worrier, I guess. Years ago, after I shared some anxiety or another with my father, he told me, “You worry too much. . . . Just like your mother.” But I think I inherited this trait from both parents. My dad just did a better job of keeping his worries to himself. That’s probably why he once got an ulcer. It may also be partly why he died at age 70. My mother, the more open worrier, celebrated her ninetieth birthday this year. She now suffers from advanced dementia, so it’s hard to say how much she worries anymore. Maybe that’s one of the few blessings of dementia, that you don’t spend as much time worrying. But seeing its larger effects, it’s not something I would wish on anyone.
Besides worrying and sometimes waking up empty, lost, and fearful, I also do my share of brooding. No doubt the two are related. Curious about that, I have just checked my American Heritage College Dictionary and discovered one definition of brood is indeed worry. Another is to be deep in thought. That’s certainly me. Not necessarily a deep thinker, but one who thinks a lot. In fact, as I’m sometimes forced to admit to friends, I think too much. Often I do this when trying to make sense of the world.
Lately, it seems to me, the world makes less and less sense. It’s been a hard summer in that way, both personally and in larger respects. For instance, it makes no sense to me that my beloved collie mix, Coya, suddenly became ill in late May, and less than three weeks later had to be “put to sleep” because of complications from an unusual and apparently very rare form of cancer.
Though my family owned a dog when I was in my early teens, Buttons was really my brother Dave’s dog. And though I’ve been a “dog lover” for as long as I can remember, for various reasons I didn’t have a dog of my own until Coya entered my life in 2006. We bonded quickly and deeply and, I think it’s fair to say, we came to love each other in what seemed to me a rather profound way. Coya became my faithful hiking companion and anytime I walked on local trails or explored the Chugach Mountains, she joined me. We shared many adventures together, big and small. And since I moved my mother into an assisted-living home in December 2009, Coya has been the one family member with whom I share my house. (My sweetheart, Helene, currently lives in Oregon, a story in itself, for another time.) In short, she’s been central to my life the past several years.
Coya’s illness and death have saddened and darkened my summer. Mostly I have mourned her passing, the fact that her life (even at 11½) ended too soon, too abruptly, and that her death left a gaping hole in my own life. But from time to time I have tried to make sense of what happened. So far it makes no sense. As much as I’ve missed her, I’ve also grieved the suffering she experienced, the shockingly sudden end of her exuberant stay on earth.
Now and then I also try to make sense of my mom’s protracted illness, another exercise in futility. August will mark ten years since I brought Torie Sherwonit to Alaska from Virginia. As the years have passed, she has suffered from gradually advancing dementia as well as advanced—and debilitatingly painful—degenerative osteoarthritis. Now 90, she has lost much of her memory and is frequently disoriented. She spends a lot of time sleeping and, it seems, “staring off into space” in an unfocused way. Conversations are difficult, sometimes impossible. The irony is that doctors tell me she is otherwise in good health.
So Mom hangs on, in what seems to be a state of existing more than living. Perhaps I’m wrong. Sometimes I wish I could have a better sense of what she is experiencing, though of course she’s unable to describe it. During the periods she is more “present,” she often seems to carry a deep sadness. I suppose that might be my own projection, but I think not. Sometimes she is agitated. But she also has a beautiful smile and shows admirable grace and sweetness in the face of great pain and her much-diminished cognitive abilities. If it’s true that the older we become, the more our true nature emerges, as psychologist and Jungian analyst James Hillman has suggested, then my mom is one sweet and loveable woman.
And still I try to understand, make sense of the fact, that she hangs on in what seems to be a limbo state. Wouldn’t it be better to simply let go?
I mourn my dog and my mom, for different reasons, thinking nothing makes sense. Maybe there is no sense to be made. More than once during Coya’s last days, while trying to digest a series of increasingly dismal conversations with her doctor, I found myself sadly commenting, “It is what it is.” And what it was (and remains), was unbelievably awful.
Our culture and politics, too, make less and less sense to me. For a guy who loves sports and wild nature, and cares about the greater good of both people and the Earth, these are maddening and disheartening times. Though I, like most Americans, was shocked by our nation’s latest mass killing, in Aurora, Colorado, I am not especially horrified, simply because there’s so much horror happening daily around the world. (Maybe it has always been this way and I have simply become more aware or sensitized to it.)
What happened in Colorado seems more horrific to us Americans because it strikes closer to home and seems more random, happening in a movie theater, a place where people go, in part, to escape life’s drudgeries, worries, and stresses. But what about all the deaths of innocents in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, and elsewhere, whether from war or cataclysmic storms, or other forms of violence? It seems we have become so numbed and distanced from these other nightmares that it takes something like the Aurora slaughter to shake us up.
And then there are the horrors at Penn State, especially shocking to those of us who once greatly respected Joe Paterno, considered him the best sort of coaching role model, now disgraced because he chose to protect his program rather than young boys who were put in harm’s way by his own inaction as well as Jerry Sandusky’s despicable acts. More awful stuff that doesn’t make sense. Why, JoePa, why?
More sadness and horrors: a culture that’s becoming—some would argue has already become—less a Democracy than a Corporatocracy, with a small, wealthy elite profiting at the expense of the larger American population. And the wild Earth. In recent years, a powerful series of documentaries (“Inside Job,” “Bag It,” “The Last Mountain,” and “Vanishing of the Bees,” to name a few) have reported on our nation’s (and sometimes broader) problems, and the sad fact that neither Democrat nor Republican “leaders” (I use that term loosely) have served Americans well, while largely turning a blind eye to the damaging greed of capitalism and corporate America, especially on Wall Street and within the energy industry.
Moving back closer to home: as much as I love Alaska—and perhaps because I love Alaska so much—I am regularly disheartened by our state’s politics and the mantra that Alaska is “open for business” (which usually means a welcome mat for large corporations, no matter their harmful impacts), the overemphasis on development at almost any cost to our state’s lands and critters—and sometimes, even human communities. Need I mention the push for coal mining out in the Matanuska Valley and across Cook Inlet? And of course there is the ever-more extreme war on Alaska’s wolves and bears, a war that I’ve written about frequently.
Though I cringed at much that happened under the Murkowski and Palin administrations, Sean Parnell has been worse than either in his time as governor—if you care about more than big business and far-right politics. While I admire and support the “choose respect” initiative, I wish Parnell would expand that respect to include a greater swath of Alaskans and be less of a champion for the oil and gas industry and more of one for the people he supposedly serves as governor. Instead of stubbornly fighting “the feds” on each and every front—from endangered species protections to EPA actions, and health care initiatives—perhaps he could do more to help our state’s less privileged residents. Is expanded health care coverage for those who can’t afford it really a bad thing? And wouldn’t it be nice if Parnell would support Denali KidCare coverage for more Alaskans who need it? And what about choosing salmon—and people—over coal development? Or a world-class copper-gold deposit? And what about the brutal, unethical methods now being used to kill bears and wolves, so that Alaska’s so-called sportsmen can have more moose stew, caribou steaks, and trophies for the living room (not to mention those who profit from guiding operations).
Locally, the news is just as bad. We Anchorage residents have a pro-business, pro-development mayor, Dan Sullivan, who seems to care more about real estate and other business concerns than making Anchorage a more livable place (does the Title 21 rewrite ring a bell?).
So it goes. For better or worse (and these days things seem to be growing progressively worse), it is what it is. And sometimes there is good news, hopeful news, to be found in the awful stuff that’s happening. I am heartened to hear that more Americans seem to believe that global warming might actually be a real phenomenon, thanks to this summer of extraordinary heat and wildfires in the Lower 48. It seems that extreme events are starting to finally get more people’s attention. As to whether that will lead to helpful actions, who can tell.
And this week I’ve been heartened to learn about the reemergence of the Alaskan public-interest group “Backbone,” a group of high-profile Alaskans who not only support the state Senate Coalition’s resistance to Gov. Parnell’s proposed huge oil tax cuts, but appear ready to push back against the political effort to dismantle that coalition in this year’s elections.
Also encouraging to me have been some EPA actions (ah, the hated Environmental Protection Agency), first its scientific review of the proposed Pebble Mine and, as I learned in a news story this week, its action that requires cruise lines and other big ships to burn cleaner fuel as of Aug. 1. According to the Washington Post story, the new restrictions will “be akin to taking 12.7 million cars per day and eliminating their sulfur dioxide emissions,” which in turn will help prevent between 12,000 and 31,000 premature deaths annually by 2030. Now you’d think this was a good thing. Less pollutants, reduced atmospheric warming—and a sizeable reduction in premature deaths, to boot. Of course the cruise industry is very unhappy. And our governor—and Sen. Lisa Murkowski—are fighting the new restrictions. I hope the EPA, and President Obama, stand firm.
There are smatterings of other hopeful news, too, the Fire Island wind project and federal Office of Surface Mining questioning the state’s Wishbone Hill Coal Mine permitting among them.
No matter how awful the news, I can and do find hope—and joy—in people, from sweetheart and friends and family, to role models and heroes working for the greater good. There’s also my writing life, which I love. And my almost daily walks in nature, which nourishes me when all else fails. Though I began this piece on a gloomy morning earlier in the week, I am finishing it on a bright and sunny July day, my spirits further brightened by a long hike I took yesterday in the Chugach Mountains.
For all the disappointments and worries and sadness that I—like every human—carry around, I understand that I am blessed in so many ways. Posted on the wall in front of me is a quote by Thich Nhat Hahn, which reminds me one immense way that is so:
“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
Sometimes it is easier the recall that I’m engaged in a miracle when sitting on a mountaintop beneath blue skies and white clouds, after walking through marvelous alpine meadows bursting with wildflowers. (This is, I suppose, one way “to kneel and kiss the ground.”)
So yes, there are plenty of reasons to be mournful, worried, or horrified. Or angry. But there are plenty of reasons to be delighted and joyful and hopeful. There is much to celebrate. And to work for. Peace and justice are important to me, as is advocacy for the wild Earth, as manifested in wildlands and wildlife, and our own wild nature. Sometimes I get down on myself for not doing enough, not doing more. Well, besides the many changes I’ve made over the years (some small, some substantial) that have made me a more Earth- and people-friendly person, I’m a writer. So I can write. And that too is cause for hope.