Monday, August 29, 2011

Without Kinfolk

Summer is coming to an end, and soon I'll be back in the ordinary world. During the summer, I read widely, about psychology, art, culture and anthropology, and in particular, about the transition from kinship groups to political structures. Kinship seems to work best when in a limited population. Once a group reaches a certain size, two things may happen: A subgroup may split off, maintaining kinship structures, or the larger group may expand and develop political structures. Political structures are formalized relationships in a group that may or may not include blood relatives or that is too large for every member to see one another face-to-face.

I was particularly interested in Eli Sagan's At The Dawn of Tyranny (1985). I've been trying to pin down the turning point in human history in which the dominators took control, and Sagan may have nailed it. He describes the interim societies that are a missing link between kinship groups and the kind of political structures we call civilizations. He calls these interim societies "complex societies" and follows them from chieftainships to kingships—oh, the horror and violence that characterize them all!

Sagan's contention is that although political structures were necessary for humans to advance to higher levels of complexity and sophistication, the transition was fraught with anxiety. Humans evolved in kinship with one another and with nonhumans. Wrenching ourselves away from one another is terrifying. Thus, he concludes, we assuage our anxiety with godlike headmen, violent controlling power, and human sacrifice.

How many of us would be able to murder our own brothers and cousins to secure our power over the group? Only the most wicked bullies and psychopaths are capable of such an act, and these men became the first dominators.

There's lots more to the story, but I'll end it here, and move on to a thought provoked by the idea of kinship loss and anxiety. I come from a family that did not value kin—we were cut off from even our closest cousins and grandparents—and how I miss those relationships today! While my friends may complain about the annoyance of a nasty brother-in-law or that lousy drive up the coast for a wedding, I feel adrift in a sea of strangers and I long for family. But few of us enjoy extended families today and even nuclear families are broken apart by divorce and transience. My own kids, with whom I have wonderful relationships, live thousands of miles away. I'm lucky to see them once or twice a year.

Because of the internet, we've also come to a new turning point with regard to face-to-face relationships. Our friends may live on the other side of the globe. You, who are reading this, are connected to me by the thinnest of electronic threads. I wish you could come to my house. I would offer you the best liquor and cook meals for you, and we could talk late into the night. There's something good that happens between us when we are in one another's presence, and I believe that our anxiety in contemporary dominator cultures may be due in part to the lack of it. Lack of kinfolk. Lack of touch and face-to-face relationship.

Perhaps one way we can transform dominator culture is by re-establishing kinship forms through intentional community and building extended families. I would even venture to say that when we finally come to see every other human being as our kin, our anxiety would turn to peace and violence would cease.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

From the front lines of midlife

It's been a summer of change.

I spent my life so far in the pursuit of "truth." I wanted to know the real from the manufactured. I wanted to know whether there was a big-G-god or gods or angels, and if there was life after death. What was human nature? Why did people act cruelly and selfishly? How could I manifest in the world and in myself the potential I saw in the 60s?

I had a desperate need to know, not only because I knew early on that my parents were clueless, but because I wanted to be good and do what was right. Right for the world and for myself. And in order to be good and do right, I had to know what was, objectively, ultimately real and true.

This summer, I changed. Now, I know that there's nothing to know. Reality just is. Whether it was created on purpose or randomly, it was created and now it just is. There's nothing to know. There's no right or wrong in the objective and ultimate, great and mysterious Everything. Everything just is. Once I saw that, the pursuit of truth that was the  purpose and meaning of my life just . . . disappeared.

I sent an email to my friends that some of you got, with a page torn from my sketchbook, in which I stated these ideas and then asked, "Why be good?" I was surprised to get many thoughtful answers. And many of those told me that the writer had come to the same conclusion at some point and had decided to choose the good. This is the existentialist answer. Of course, it begs the question of what is good, which may be answered in myriad ways.

Summer is coming to an end. I have a few trips to take and I know I'll learn things while I'm in other places, but it doesn't matter, not really. My art doesn't matter. This blog doesn't matter. One friend told me that it's our relationships that matter, and I sure as hell feel love for my beloved Jack and my kids and my friends this summer. I feel that love so deeply sometimes, it's like my heart's gonna burst. Does love matter when nothing else does? And if love matters, then does art matter? Do I simply choose to live as if my choices matter?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Disempowering the children

Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, writes that "we treat our kids like adults when they're children, and we infantalize them when they're 18 years old." I caught that quote from an article in The Atlantic this month, titled "How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids." But the cult of self-esteem is just one way we're ruining our kids.We're disempowering them, making them stupid, weak, and incompetent. Our children are being trained to be good consumers and unquestioning acceptors of the status quo, but they would be lost if the electricity went out.

There are lots of ways this is being accomplished. You can read about some of them in The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein, or the Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson, or The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, or any number of new studies that are sounding a generally-ignored alarm about our children. Many of these books describe the negative impact of digital immersion and consumerism on our children. Some of the results of contemporary "screen" living, for example, include the deterioration of social skills, lack of empathy, inability to sustain attention or read, and lack of impulse control.

Advertising and other consumerist media have changed our children's values and expectations. Kids expect life to be easy and are easily frustrated. Ease and comfort are such high values that hard work is denigrated. In fact, any effort at all is too much effort and this laziness is contributing to ill-health. Speed is a virtue and anything new demands their money and attention. Their understanding of the world has been truncated by media, and reality and fantasy have merged, so that every drive is a video game, houses  clean themselves at the snap of a finger, food comes in packages, wars are entertainments, and wealth and celebrity are right around the corner. Wealth and celebrity are what our children worship and adore, and many young people have grand expectations for a Mercedes-Benz kind of life . . . although they haven't the faintest idea how to get there.

I have a heightened awareness of this problem because I work with middle school children. Their arrogance is stunning, but I feel so sad for them. Their world has been reduced to the size of a two-inch screen, and they think that friendship is a click on facebook. They haven't the wherewithall to  educate themselves and what they're offered in school has no meaning or purpose that they can understand. They "do" school because it's expected of them but they learn from electronic media.

The flip side of this is our kids' incompetence. They can't peel a potato or tie a knot. Many 12 year olds can't write their own names—they use keyboards only—or read a face clock or care for a sick relative or mow a lawn. The shop teacher in my school talks about how every year fewer children know how to hold a hammer or screwdriver, and if a button falls off a shirt, they wouldn't know how to sew it back on. Technophiles and futurists tell us that kids don't need to know this stuff anyway. They can buy a new shirt if the button falls off. They don't even have to know how to read, since they can get any "information" they might need on youtube.

Considering the way our economy is heading, our children might, indeed, need to know this stuff in the future, but there's a greater loss than this, because if our youth don't know how to read, think, make decisions, bond in nurturing relationships, or work or wait, they will not be able to control their own lives. They will be at the mercy of the dominators . . . just the point of this dumbing down, I assume.

Our nation's youth are on my mind right now because of three stories I recently heard of college-age youth who were not able to cope. They all attempted college, but couldn't succeed and they came home, all three of them, and malingered. One has an illness of unexplained origin. She lies in bed and plays video games. The others simply hang out, eat and sleep and party. In all three cases, the parents simply enable them. Their parents have infantalized them, as Twenge describes. As children, these young adults were given infinite choice and abundance instead of discipline and skill, and now they are paying the price. True self-esteem comes from competence. We are raising a generation of incompetent, insecure, and unhappy adults.

I read a while back about an elderly American Indian in the early 20th century who described how the white people had destroyed his culture. "They took our children," he said, "and made them weak. Our children no longer walk without shoes because their feet are too soft. They cannot hunt or grow their own food. They are incompetent and depend on white people's business for everything. They destroyed us by destroying our children." I would say that this is as true today as it was then.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Resist Apocalypse!

I'm getting frustrated with this "series" about my animist "practice." Heck, I'm just a human animal doing my thing. I try to live consciously. I want to see clearly. I want to grow in spirit and I want to die into Charlie's arms. My practice includes things like cooking nice dinners for my husband and spending my money flying out to California to see my beautiful older daughter and taking the creepy bus to NYC to see my beautiful younger daughter and helping to send my son to Germany with his band.

If you're looking for ritual, then, I observe the agricultural year, and I offer one day each week to the gods of love. That's my shabbos (sabbath) and I don't make or spend money on that day, and I make love and art and play on that day and take naps. I create and enact ritual when times need ritual, for example, to heal from sickness or celebrate an anniversary. I work magic when times need magic, but I have great respect for the forces I call upon and choose carefully and rarely when to work magic.

I talk to my gods and they talk to me on an ongoing basis. I'm awfully lucky that way. I can hear the voices of my gods whenever I call on them. I don't need a liturgy or church or even a ritual. I just say, "Hey! Charlie, watcha up to?" And Charlie tells me stories. I say, "Sun, you are one powerful dude." And Sun shines down on me. I say, "Green God, would you feed me today?" And damned if he doesn't feed me.

And several times each week, I enter into green space, define that as you will, and I make art, dance, sing, make love, hang out with my tree friends, and in other ways, I am in the joyful moment in the flesh. That's my practice.

Here's an animist practice: Resist the apocalypse of the dominators and their monogods. Do everything you can for the salvation of humanity in the flesh on this garden earth, and for the sustenance of this garden earth, for millions of years to come. Until the Sun goes Nova. Until the stars fall from the skies. Do it with joy.

Make a lot of love. Make love and be saved! How's that for a motto?

Make more love and make more joy and make more art and resist their damned apocalypse with everything you've got. 
How's that for an animist practice?

PS: You can help my son bring joy to kids on street corners here: Vermont Joy Parade.
PPS: The picture above is from a larger piece, 12 x 12, that doesn't cut off her shoe.