A lyrical Dystopia

This book is haunting me. The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter. Rarely have I read a story so pregnant with meaning.

Within the story – a woman fleeing flood in London (a Climate Change inundation, presumably) -are short quotations from many of the world’s creation and flood stories, and nestled within the woman’s story is the birth, from the waters of her womb, of her child.

Little happens, if you don’t count escaping from flood and returning as a major plot suspense device. Yet the story is in itself mythic, echoing in every image with the fragility and tenacity of life, and the hope that never dies in our human story.

I identified first, strongly, with the story of her giving birth and after-“bursting stitches in the bathroom”-: it is so real that I wanted to go and read chunks of it to my daughter here, as one of the defining and unique  experiences of women. Myths are so often told as if by men, even if the characters are women- as is Persephone, for example. And myths are, to most of us, a fairy tale or unreal world, not a participating of our little lives in universal experience and truth. This is real, and also mythical, and also poetic. “Between the waves of disembowelling wrench, the world is shining. I feel like Aldous Huxley on mescaline. I am drenched in is-ness.” The author, Megan Hunter, is a poet as well as a novelist.

As the protagonist is universalized by lacking a name (as is Offred, in the dystopia most familiar to us right now) so is her son. After trying many names the parents choose one beginning with Z. And Z  he is from then on. Will this Z be an end or a beginning? How do ends relate to beginnings, and beginnings to ends? The title of the book is from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. “The End is Where We Start From.” One thought that surfaces more than once in the book is whether we should make new beginnings in what seems like the end. It is a question that was asked in my generation when nuclear war seemed a real possibility- as it does today with two strident and possibly unbalanced world leaders with nuclear weapons, uttering threats. But as Kivrin notes, in another of my all-time favorite books, every century is a ten. Z is his own forceful self, with, as his nurse says, the sharks’ eyes all babies have. What will the end be? Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega point? Or the extinction of our species? (Or both?) Who is the First and the Last, Alpha and Omega, A and Z?

But the news is rushing by. It is easy to ignore in those early days, but the new reality cannot be ignored. They flee. Refugees. Climate refugees. As so many today, they move onward stubbornly, looking only for survival and safety. Z is the infant Jesus, escaping to Egypt. He is Aylan, four years old and drowned on a foreign beach. He is Everyman. How can we see human stories, and become aware of our deepest and most absolute needs, universal and timeless, and turn our backs on any refugees?  This again is a woman’s story, not an adventure story of fights and survival through strength, but of survival through the will and need to carry on. And the child grew and thrived.

The story’s return is, and is not, to the beginning. Is it a beginning? The last line has the power of the last line of a poem, but with the impetus of a whole book.

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Being Mortal/ Don’t talk about the War

Atul Gawande has written a book about a topic doctors mostly aren’t taught, and patients don’t want to think about, but the book has been on the NY Times bestseller list for many weeks and has a four and a half star rating on Amazon. Hmm. He must have something to contribute. Can we face Being Mortal?

One morning several years ago, I woke up with a headache, walked over to my father’s flat (I was visiting him for a week) -and lost the next several hours until the evening. No memory was laid down, so just odd disjointed flashes came back later. It turned out to be harmless, (a T.G.A.) but I have thought many times since that that moment, walking out of my door, might have been my last living moment. My last visual awareness. My last memory. The opening of a door into darkness. I might never have come back. It takes an experience to make most of us think about Being Mortal as something that does not only affect other (=old, sick etc) people. “Don’t talk about the war.”

Yet the book is about living, not dying. What do we want when we are old and/or dependent? Our chances of getting a life we feel worth living is much higher if we think about it beforehand. And that is the key to the book, I think. To think about what makes our lives worth living at every stage.

This will amuse my kids who laugh at how incapable we their parents are in making ANY decision, however limited, and have seen us waiting until a decision is made for us by circumstances or health. At present we are nomads, moving between three regular spots plus one occasional one,  to keep in touch with each of them and our grandchildren, and the extent of further planning has been to say “When we can’t face Heathrow one more time, we will stay wherever we are at that point.” But this hides unspoken assumptions and is subject to real-life limits. At present we have medical insurance to cover this, and pension to cover our costs: we can cope with the exhaustion and stress of travel, and we know we can in fact stay either side of the pond. So we “don’t talk about the war.”

This will not last for ever. We never expected it to continue for the last eight years, with little change. And the likely point of change is medical. When someone (of any age) gets seriously ill, their world becomes very different from the world earlier generations experienced. Gawande gives many examples of negotiating being mortal, drawn from family, friends and patients. His Indian grandfather lived until over 100 in the family compound, over which he still ruled, supported by generations of his family, living on his own terms even when that seemed unsafe.

Since the recent explosion of medical interventions (antibiotics, heart operations, chemotherapy etc) more people have been surviving longer- but not always with any good quality of life, and with an increasing need for somewhere to live and be looked after, other than the old poorhouses. (The chapter detailing this 20th century development is fascinating.)

I see this in my family history just as Gawande does in his. One of my great grandfathers was kicked in the belly by a horse and died a few days later: I imagine internal bleeding and damage. My maternal grandfather died of cancer in his 80s, at home with little but  what pain killers were available and comfort care from his unmarried sister who had already nursed their other brother. But more recently, my mother in law avoided, several times, what usually follows the phone call saying “You’d better get here soon…” and she was discharged twice from hospice before the final bout. She had many, many bouts of treatment and tests for many medical conditions before the end. Last spring my husband and I  went to the hospital one day for some inoculation or test and then met friends for lunch nearby-and found ourselves laughing that this is old folks’ social life. My own mother, though had one round of radiation therapy for lung cancer, then hospice care and home nurse visits and was able to see her first great-grandchild and die at home.

This is not the blog for my Living Will or even decisions for Power of Attorney for Health matters. But most of us want to be independent. Most of us want to live and die at home. Most of us don’t want to spend our last weeks in the ICU. Most of us don’t want to spend our last months feeling like death in the hopes of holding off  death for an extra couple of months. I have seen people who never wanted the ICU/hospital death still enduring that because each step in attempting treatment can lead inexorably to the next, and the next. Reading this book might help us decide how much to let ourselves get processed into a health system that is always aimed at cure, or one further possible attempt at cure. I have read that doctors tend to do less for their own illnesses than they do for their patients.

What alternatives for living do we have that leave us with the particular things that keep us feeling joy  and living the best life we can each day? Loneliness, helplessness and boredom at the banes of old age with its limited physical abilities. How do we prioritize our living situations to deal with these?

Much of Being Mortal talks about the alternatives people have been inventing. The friend who recommended the book to me (herself a retired doctor) particularly mentioned the Eden Alternative. They have dogs! My father would have loved that, in his Sheltered Accommodation which was in other ways ideal for him and my mother for over twenty years. They have parakeets (=budgies) My father did love his budgies. The ten principles of the Eden Alternative are really worth pondering. Not mentioned, but something Bud and I had seriously considered, is Co-housing. We visited several. Bud convened a group to plan one in Humboldt County, and we had a prospective site and an architect. Then came the 2008 financial meltdown, when we could all have been undertaking payments  on a new facility while struggling to sell  houses which had suddenly lost a third of their value. We are also still theoretically on the list for a Friends’ House – assisted living in Santa Rosa,California- which we signed up for about 12 years ago! We have recently emptied our storage unit.

And we live with our daughters until we need to face any next stage. Three different homes in different communities certainly keeps at bay the Loneliness, Helplessness and Boredom.


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I passed the 11+! I liked doing puzzles (intelligence tests.) I had (note the past tense) a good memory and liked writing essays. All that spelled academic success back in the 50s.

I taught in secondary schools in the 60s. I remember spending lots of time (mostly break, admittedly,) making a table sized model of Roman Londinium with one class. I remember taking another class into the garden and picking up flints, bashing them together and trying to make flint tools with the kids. The school was in north London, so on the edge of the old glaciers, and there were lots of flints. Blood happened- luckily, mine.

Among my family, some passed that looming 11+ exam, and some didn’t. Some read whole books at 3 1/2, and some could not talk at that age. One who “failed” the 11+ got a Ph.D. and teaches in University. One who could not speak intelligibly till age 5 or so was most gifted in mathematics according to a family member with a Doctorate in Electronic Engineering. Some are gifted at taking things apart and fixing them while some are complete klutzes.

Is your family like this?

And just  last month we discovered that several of the family have aphantasia– a new word for something that blew my mind. Apparently when most people say they can see something in their mind’s eye, they see it: not just a metaphor. We aphantastics (?) are blind inside our heads and no one ever noticed the difference, because each one of us experiences only our own experience.

Way back, we assumed everyone could be measured on one line, the magic I.Q number. One end good, the other end bad. Are we doing this again with all the school testing, in both my countries (England and the U.S.) even though that one measure is no adequate forecast of, for example, life contentment, job success or usefulness to the people around us, let alone goodness, compassion, humor… need I go on.

I read Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman specifically because one family member – youngest grandson- has been identified as autistic, but it opened up so many doors to understanding different minds that it would have been engrossing even without the immediate relevance. One of my “best books of the year.” The earlier part of the book was often difficult because of the horrible treatments for people who were diagnosed with this “disability” or “mental impairment” or “psychosis” to the extent that I am heartily relieved that some family members who seem to me to be on the autistic spectrum were not diagnosed. My hero in all the research is Dr Lorna Wing, who widened the definition and highlighted typical behaviors observed so that the DSM has a much more comprehensive analysis of what autism involves: she also said though, that she would label a child a zebra if it got that child the educational help they needed!

The best change has been to move away from research trying to cure a disease or disability, though autism can present many difficulties, towards an appreciation that all brains are different and learn differently, and cope with empirical input differently. People need different accommodations to enable learning and communicating, and some may never  be able to live independently. Rain Man, the movie starring Dustin Hoffman, who spent much time getting to know a couple of autistic men, opened many people’s eyes to this. Temple Grandin, diagnosed as brain damaged in childhood, but now successful in University teaching and research and and in design of more humane animal raising and meat production, shows and can explain to us, how her autistic mental processing can do things that “neurotypicals” (= most of us) can’t do.

Most teachers, I imagine know this to some extent from experience. To note an obvious challenge, one student was blind and I had to read onto audio tape whatever texts and notes she needed. Some of my kids would have learned and remembered more from the model-building and flint-chipping than from text books.

Then why, why, are we moving to teach to tests, almost exclusively of grammar, spelling and arithmetic, in years when young minds are most receptive to learning about so many things in so many ways? And why, why do we make some feel like failures when they have not been helped to process the world in ways their minds can do? Why, why have we been so slow to see “the virtues of atypical minds” in Temple Grandin’s words?

Once upon a time, those who didn’t fit the pattern were kept in back rooms at home or institutionalized, or even sterilized or killed. (Yes, it’s in the book.) Just as once upon a time, and still in many places, girls and women are not educated.  My parents were told that my going to University was a waste because I would just get married. And when I got to University, a professor wanted me not to sign up for his philosophy class because “women’s brains aren’t good at that kind of thing.”

Am I neurotypical? Are you? Is anyone? But I am sure that all of us are worth helping to develop our gifts and to make sense of the world- the great human enterprise- in any way we can.

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Exciting reading!

I’ve been enjoying various novels, but today I read something that excited me enough to blog again. You may not believe this but it is Pliny’s Letter to the Emperor Trajan, which I first read back in Uni. in the 60s.  (So have I already lost most  readers of my Facebook page?)

The editor/author whose internet copy, in English and Latin, I was reading, is K.C.Hanson, a name husband Bud recognized from his reading in early Christian communities and worship, -which has been his big discovery, interest  and ministry since reading Alan Streett’s Subversive Meals.

When I first read Pliny’s letter to the Emperor, dated around 100 C.E., my interest was caught by its reference to Christians, one of the very early references in non-Christian sources, but my main interest was in the relationship between the Governor of a Roman Province and the Emperor. I admired the basic humanity and common sense approach- namely to punish Christians who would not recant, but not to seek them out and to ignore any anonymous accusations. I regretted the torturing of slaves to get information, but this was Rome, and slavery and  brutality were part of the culture.

What went right over my head, what  hit me over the head when I read the letter today was the section about the slaves who were tortured.

Not the section about the meetings and worship of those Christians, or Christ-niks, as Hanson translates the term Christiani, which was at that date still derogatory.  That is interesting and relevant to the modern Church. Bud, (and I, as I  have to admit,) has been fascinated to read this section, the description of the assembling of Christians around 100 C.E., to sing to Christ as to a god, and to meet at dinner time for a common meal, as other associations did:

“They also declared that the totality of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a certain day to chant verses antiphonally amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves with an oath, not in a criminal conspiracy, but to abstain from fraud, banditry, and adulteration, to commit no breach of trust, and not to renege on a deposit. After completing this foolishness, it was their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an common and innocuous type.”

No. My attention was captured by the slaves who were tortured. Here are Pliny’s words:

“Quo magis necessarium credidi ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset veri et per tormenta quaerere” or, in Hanson’s translation: “This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth from two female slaves—whom they call “ministers”—by means of torture.”

Poor women. This is the  reality of slavery, then and recently- and now. I have just read The Book of Negroes, so the life of a woman who does not even own her own body or life is very much in my mind. Then as now for those utterly helpless slaves, pain, sexual violation, torture and death were always possible. Slaves lived in permanent insecurity and fear, and knew how valueless their lives were to the people in power over them.

Except among the Christniks. As Paul said “there is no longer slave nor free, male nor female, all are one in Christ.” How affirming of individual worth the Christniks were. This was a community where each person’s precious God-given life could be recognized. Not only the value of the Christian’s life is affirmed here, but further, these two slave women, ancillae, were also, within the community, ministrae, ministers,  This is a period when the later rigid demarcation of leadership roles- deacon, priest, bishop, or elder, minister, (depending whether you look back from a Catholic or Protestant assumption) has not yet been regulated. This term, ministrae, which would be ministri if the slaves had been men, is sometimes translated as “deaconesses” which is a jargon word not in normal vocabulary, with a fuzzy connection, again depending on your background, to deacons, (or deacons for women? or deacons’  wives? and what is a deacon anyway?) or to full time but not ordained women in service of the church.

Clearly though, these two ancillae, slave women, were respected and in leadership in the Christian community, though their status as slaves in Roman society was somewhere above a mule.

Disposable assets? Or God-created, part of the Christ in the world, equal to men and equal to freeborn.

It is still a uniquely important question.

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The Book of Negroes:

Daughter Marjorie read Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes and said it would probably be her Book of the Year, even though we are still in March. And yes, I think it is that good. It covers the story of a single African woman, kidnapped into slavery in America, her losses, her escape to freedom in Nova Scotia and her return to Sierra Leone, and then to England to fight slavery. So -one of those sagas of an era.

Yet she is an utterly convincing character, a person, Aminata Diallo, whom I will remember as I remember the real free black man in England, Olaudah Equiano, among the other historic names who appear (fictionalized, as the author clearly explains) in this novel. I grieve for her stolen children and lost husband and vanished homeland. I hesitate to write, as I usually do in this blog, about how her life interacts with my experience, because it seems so absolutely presumptuous to say as a white educated woman who has lived a safe life in the US for forty years, that I understand being black in America or how the experience of slaves dragged there at peril of death in cruel and squalid conditions can be paralleled anywhere in my life or my children’s. Just today I read of the 100th anniversary of the death by suicide of Ota Benga, an African held in a cage in the Bronx zoo as a “missing link,” next to monkey and other primate cages. Regarding black Americans as somehow less has not been acceptable for many years- but recent events show that the utter disregard for our shared humanity is still there, and may even seem again acceptable.

I am an intended audience for this book though, just as the nineteenth century was moved to awareness and action by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by a white woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, a book that became the best selling book of the century and enormously influential. This novel, The Book of Negroes, written by an author, Lawrence Hill, who is of black and white parentage, is a story for this generation, helping us all to see where lie the origins of a 21st century United States that is still so obviously structured to the advantage  of one race and clearly still shows the legacy of repression of one race, even though “race” is itself a tenuous distinction, not biologically based, and its effects are muddled with the effects of generations of poverty, limited education prospects, and uneven law enforcement.

When we lived in East Oakland, in an ethnically mixed neighborhood, I was very glad that my children were attending a school with no majority of any ethnic group (including white.) All were minorities. But there were other schools to which I would not have been willing to have them assigned, unsafe, ill-provisioned, in neglected and unsafe buildings: I need not label which ethnic group had to attend those. Nor need I label the different treatment received by different young people from police.

Most of us have been so sheltered from the cruelties and tragedies of life that we are not aware of others’ worlds. All of us have tragedies and suffer injustices- but it takes a book like this to help us have some deeper awareness of the levels of injustice. Then perhaps we can expand that to concern for all who still need to walk free– children harvesting chocolate or mining cobalt, or fishermen on slave ships in Asian waters, or children sold for sex with mostly white western “tourists”  and all the others who need to be seen as our brothers and sisters.

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When my youngest child was born, there was no internet. When I was born, hardly anyone we knew had a car. When my mother was born, people were cooking on solid fuel black-leaded ranges. My little grandchildren cannot imagine not being connected online, think cars are ordinary and busses more exciting, and can fix a simple meal in a microwave as toddlers.

The Sixth Extinction, by  Elizabeth Kolbert analyses the consequences to the planet of the changes we have absorbed  in a lifetime or a century or two.

Starting usually with an example, an indicator species, she opens up a world of expert exploration into the land, water, air, and animal and plant occupants of a quickly changing planet. The golden frog of Peru is vanishing. What happened to it and other amphibians? The coral reefs are bleaching – life on them dying. What is happening to them and their occupants? What happened to the flightless birds of New Zealand and Hawaii- and why?

We know one of the great extinction events of the past, 65 million years ago, was the end of the dinosaurs and Jurassic Park will not bring them back. That extinction was caused, in the present consensus, by a massive asteroid hit in the area of the Yucatan. When my middle daughter was first fascinated by dinosaurs, though, that had not yet been uncovered: in fact she was six when the first proposing of the theory took place.

All the evidence, from so many areas of research, points to the sixth extinction now, involving high CO2 etc in the air, acidification of oceans, deforestation, the spread of organisms worldwide because of human travel, and many factors besides. All these changes endanger and cause the extinction of many species in an ongoing and accelerating story.

It’s a sad story. But I found encouragement in reading of so many scientific researchers who care enormously, and dedicate their careers to examining the facts and the possibilities. It’s the feeling I got from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and the possible loss of the monarch butterflies, depicting a scientist who carries on in spite of  that knowledge, and the optimism of Preston, a little boy who is full of hope for the future.

I hope our children feel Preston’s hope and determination, even though there may be no rhinos, elephants, polar bears, icebergs or coral when they are my age. It seems utterly irresponsible to claim not to “believe in” climate change when it is happening. If I, a non-scientist, can read what experts are doing and discovering, and can follow the consensus of their conclusions, it seems irresponsible to say I can’t “believe it” because I’m not a scientist. I am not a computer expert either- couldn’t tell you what’s inside this little white rectangle, but I “believe” it either works or doesn’t, and if it doesn’t I need tech. support.

Our world is changing. Much that we hold precious is passing away. Much is endangered- we may not be too sure ourselves that our species will not become extinct sooner rather than later.

Teilhard De Chardin saw evolution moving in the divine plan towards an omega point which at the least involved consciousness as a high point of evolution, and as a Christian, he tied this to his theology of Christ’s kingdom. I wish he were alive now. He saw that free will in humans involves the alternative: that we will not achieve any of this, that the possibility of further evolution (for us) may be destroyed by our own decisions.

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Blind date with a book

The local Georgetown library has a program this month to get people reading and talking about books we may not otherwise choose. The librarian put out a selection, wrapped in gift bags, to take without looking. Then there will be a book discussion and tea on a Saturday afternoon- which I will sadly miss because I will have left for England. Great program idea.

I chose my book (by feel in the package) as being hardback (which lies open easier when knitting) and big. I now discover I could have picked (but didn’t) a bag containing “One Few over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a thought provoking but less time consuming pick.

Big it was though. Encyclopedic. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

 Sherlock Holmes (the original) said in the case involving five orange pips, That ” it is necessary that the reasoner should be able to utilise all the facts which have come to his knowledge; and this in itself implies, as you will readily see, a possession of all knowledge, which, even in these days of free education and encyclopaedias, is a somewhat rare accomplishment.” The new Sherlock’s Mind Palace.

And yet once, not so long ago, people thought they could do this! Possess all knowledge, and understand everything. Not so long ago many scientists thought that we pretty much understood the way the world worked and just needed to fill in some details in the great plan.

Bryson has summary chapters about many topics, including for example, the sub-atomic world, the origins of the universe, DNA, and human origins.But I am sure that, careful as he and his editors and advisers are, there are mistakes, ideas glossed over or  given too much weight, and necessarily, statements that will be discovered to be in error as years and studies go on.

When my middle daughter was young she loved dinosaurs (no surprise there) and had some children’s books about dinosaurs. When she was six,  the  idea that their extinction was caused by a meteor collision with earth was first suggested (as Bryson mentions.) A few years later in a children’s science class at UC Berkeley, one of her assignments was to take one of those books and correct its details; though being the person she is, and my daughter, I think that she had already done so! And now her son knows things that were still not corrected, feathers for example, and knows about dinosaurs whose existence was then still  undiscovered. He tells me that a dinosaur in the Science Museum is mounted with an incorrect stance, propped on its tail,  “because that’s what they used to think.” My other granddaughter is being given by her parents a series of children’s books on the theme of “Boy, were we  we  wrong about…” (including dinosaurs) That granddaughter’s mother, my youngest daughter, went on a dino dig with Robert Bakker who was espousing the heretical view that dinosaurs were not slow-moving and cold blooded, but warm blooded.  And that is just one field!

We can’t know everything. And we can’t even get it right in fields we study! So is it all a waste of time? I hear people say “Everyone has a right to their opinion.”  Yet there are facts: they cannot be ignored. There are experts who devote a lifetime to researching, studying and understanding: a top-of-the-head or gut-feeling comment does not carry weight like their statements do. So I will save my “opinion” for issues like whether I prefer cider or beer (cider, as any who know me already know) and I will defer to experts in their own field, on matters as important as Climate Change or as immediately relevant to our family as the stupid and uninformed backlash against life-saving vaccines because of fear of autism (which, at least for our family, has been something to enjoy not fear, though needing accommodations to the neuro-typical world.)  Opinions are not all equal. And I will continue to read as much as I can follow of at least the outlines of modern study and the reasons for experts’ consensus.

Bryson’s summary gives an overview of several fascinating areas of human exploration. Like popularizers, he can help us see what we want to explore further and help us to have an educated person’s awareness of modern thought. I thank the librarian, Gillian, for choosing this book for my Blind Date.



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