Of Towers and Silos

IMG_2588

Tour Barberousse. Robin L. Chandler, 2019

After the Flood, all of Noah’s descendants spoke the same language. And since it was easy for everyone to share their thoughts and ideas because they used the same words, they decided to build a city with a tower that reached to the heavens so they could make a name for themselves and not be scattered throughout the earth. And the Lord came from heaven and inspected the city and the tower and found humans overreaching and thinking far too much of themselves and too little of God. So the Lord acted, confusing human speech so they could no longer understand one another and scattered them all over the earth, leaving behind the Tower of Babel half-built.

While there are great lessons to take from this story about guarding against hubris and arrogance in our individual actions, ironically, it serves as an origin story for the silos in which we now live. Increasingly isolated, we seem unable to communicate with each other; we are fearful, on the defensive, not seeing a human, only seeing the other. And when we do communicate, it is often blunt, harsh, angry and sometimes anonymous protected by walls of technology. Communication has become “H” speech. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers insists that love is stronger than the “H” word even after the October 2018 tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue. In the Southern Poverty Law Center Summer 2019 magazine article Stop ‘H’ Speech, and Let Goodness Prevail, Rabbi Myers writes “we all want the same things for ourselves and our families…upon closer examination, we are far more alike than different…when we work together, we demonstrate capacity for greatness that would make any generation immensely proud…we need to find ways to continue to focus on the flowers – the good people – and the wondrous, selfless acts that they perform routinely and automatically to improve our society…it must start by choosing our words carefully…I choose to eliminate the “H” word. What do you choose to do?”

legendarium

Middle-earth deluged by Sauron

Middle-earth. Robin L. Chandler, 2019.

Sitting in an Oakland coffee shop, on a gray morning, savoring a cup of coffee…one of life’s precious moments. I am reading, and I am loving this time, when my imagination can soar, inspired by a good book, before I must return to work.

A few weeks ago, I saw Tolkiena film seeking to capture key moments in J.R. R. Tolkien’s life that inspired his epic novels The Lord of the Rings. In his May 2019 New Yorker article, Anthony Lane described Director Dome Karukoski as “determined to map Middle-earth onto the life of its creator. Thus, the club of school comrades foretells the brotherhood of Frodo and his fellow-hobbits; flamethrowers, in the trenches, turn to dragons in Tolkien’s fevered eyes; mustard gas slithers and drifts like the Ringwraiths.” Being a fan of Tolkien’s books, Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and now intrigued to learn more about Tolkien the author (after seeing the literary bio-picture),  I found Joseph Laconte’s A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War.  Sometimes you can judge a book by its’ cover because I quickly moved from browse to buy inspired by the book’s synopsis: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis enjoyed one of the most consequential friendships of the twentieth century – a friendship that emerged from the suffering and sorrow of the war. Both men fought on the front lines during the First World War…influencing the life of each writer and subsequently shaped the nature and character of their respective towering achievements, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.” Laconte’s book has given me a greater understanding of how a writer can draw upon their deepest experiences to produce works of art inspiring audiences to reflect upon humanity’s greatest strengths and most egregious tragedies.

 Although the Great War ended over a century ago, some of us continue to live on in its’ shadow. Most Americans paid scant attention to Europe’s 100thyear commemoration of the end of the Great War’s on November 11, 2019, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The names of battles (Ypres, Somme and Verdun) mean little to many. But millions of humans perished in the Great War and the Belgian and French countryside was so drastically decimated and scarred that the landscape quickly became a known as “no man’s land.” Western Leaders in the years leading up to WWI ascribed to the Myth of Progress believing in the benefits of technology and that ever greater days lay ahead. “Railway engines, steam engines, blast furnaces, textile plants, coal and iron mines were turning nature into the handmaiden of humanity…technology was improving life for ordinary people.” Tolkien’s “love of the English countryside, his attachment to nature, rebelled against the chaotic industrialization of his day…the over reliance on technology, ‘the Machine,’ as a step towards dominating others.” Tolkien believed “the act of bulldozing the real world involves coercing other wills.” World War I was chaotic industrialization for Tolkien, and he wrote novels cherishing nature and the human spirit’s ability to rise above the tragedy of misguided industrialization.

fragments

Fragments

Fragments. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

 

“…experience has fallen in value…in every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel  for his readers…counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”*

“It is not the object of the story to convey a happening per se, which is the purpose of information; rather it embeds it in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the marks of the storyteller much as the earthen vessel bears the marks of the potter’s hand…

[we] hold in our hands the scattered fragments of historical experience.” **

excerpts taken from Illuminations Walter Benjamin: Essays and Reflections, Edited and with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt

*The Storyteller

**On Some Motifs in Baudelaire

 

given by the stars

whitewash

Whitewash. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Borders deserve respect, but respect for asylum and respect for due process is deserved too. Danger lurks when we label others; people are not labels, they are human beings deserving dignity and respect. Human rights cannot be merely an abstraction, they must be the values by which we truly live every day. Human rights must be our primary colors; human rights cannot be whitewash. “The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”[1]

“Every man has a name

Given by the stars

Given by his neighbors.”

Zelda Mishkovsky, 1974

[1]Snyder, Timothy. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015.

awaken at the beach

Limantour Beach

Limantour Beach. Robin L. Chandler, 2018.

Winter is my favorite time of year; I love the journey to the year’s shortest day and the new pilgrimage for the year’s longest day. Precious the light of day and the warmth of the sun; most welcome is the night when blessed with a good book by the fire and my cat curled sleeping in my lap.

On Christmas Eve, I walked the landscape of Drakes Estero and Limantour Beach with my beloved wife and dear friend. Just a few days past the solstice the day remained short, and to commemorate the day, I made a watercolor sketch and reflected on darkness and light asking myself what can well-meaning souls do to make the world a better place?

And by a better place I mean: end the rapacious exploitation of the earth’s flora and fauna; take measures to resolve the increasing disparity between rich and poor; respect the diversity of global cultures; and stop the egregious use of violence. No small challenge. No simple answer. In fact, it sounds so impossible to resolve, I might as well give up and run away. Run as far away as possible from the suffering and the death, building tall strong walls to protect me from the pain.

It takes great courage to sit and listen to the suffering, the death, and the pain: within yourself and in others. Many of us feel compelled to fix the problems, and when we can’t we give up and salve our pain with whatever money can buy. Not knowing what to do or how to fix a problem is impossibly hard. But through my Buddhist studies, I have learned that there is a place to begin: listen, stay open minded and be generous. This is how the suffering ends and the healing starts. We are not born knowing all things, and will never learn all there is to know. Mitchell Thomashow writes in his essay Nature. Love. Medicine. Reciprocity. Generosity. “…we can cultivate generosity, open-mindedness, graciousness, and humility in the space of that glorious unknowing. I don’t have the capacity to love every species and every person, but I can develop the capacity to be more generous with those people and species that I do encounter.” Blessings on us all for this New Year!

A long way from home

Long way from home

A long way from home. Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

We live in an era where many people have ready access to technology able to track our current position in time and space. No doubt it took a long time and we travelled a long distance to reach this particular spot. We know where we are; we have the coordinates. But does this precise knowledge of when and where we currently “be” satisfy our soul? Do we long for a home, a home of memory or a vision of the future? If we are lucky enough to “be” at home are we shouldering our responsibility to care for and sustain it?

Claude McKay, Jamaican born, living in New York City, and writing during the Harlem Renaissance penned these words in his poem The Tropics of New York:

“My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;

A wave of longing through my body swept,

And hungry for the old familiar ways

I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.”

Watching 24/7 news coverage of the destruction wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, I despair at the loss of home, community and livelihoods for millions of people in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean Islands. For many, life will never be the same. Lives will be measured in increments of time and space: before and after the hurricane.

In June 2017, the scientists from thirteen federal agencies released a report revealing U.S. Citizens are feeling the results of Climate Change now. The reports states “the last few years have seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes, the three warmest years on record for the globe, and continued decline in arctic sea ice. These trends are expected to continue in the future over climate (multidecadal) timescales. Significant advances have also been made in our understanding of extreme weather events and how they relate to increasing global temperatures and associated climate changes. Since 1980, the cost of extreme events for the United States has exceeded $ 1.1 trillion, there better understanding of the frequency and severity of these events in the context of a changing climate is warranted.”

In a recent New York Times op-ed, London School of Economics Professor Rebecca Elliot asked “in a world of more Harveys, rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts, what do we owe each other? The political trajectory we have been on suggests that the answer is, “Very little.” Elliott urges us to develop a new social contract, a Green New Deal, calling for public investment in science and education to train the next generation of engineers to build new homes and infrastructure that will help ordinary Americans adapt to climate change, retrofit their homes, move to safer ground and at the same time address issues of local poverty as well as invest in clean energy, and public transportation. Elliott makes a strong economic case for wise use of our public funds.

Beautiful orb: Earth, the perfect gift – spinning and moving through time and space. I pray we do not find ourselves longing for a remembered home; a home squandered through our negligence and our failure to shoulder our responsibility to care and sustain this special planet.

 

a shadow crosses the land

Chalk Hill summer

Chalk Hill Summer, Robin L. Chandler, 2017.

On a recent trip to paint the landscape of Chalk Hill, Sonoma County, I had the great fortune of encountering a coyote, a flock of crows and a rattlesnake. The summer grasses were golden and red with just a few hints of winter’s green. Sketching in an oak tree’s shade, I could see the sun drenched heat rising from the land. As afternoon became evening, I walked amongst the new grapes and vines and met coyote, crow and rattlesnake. We, all of us, were not immune to our physical presence and we each, gave the other, a respectful berth, content to observe from a distance. I reflected on their spiritual meaning, because forms and symbols are the essence by which many live and breath. Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest consider coyote, a trickster or the one who brings gifts but sometimes takes those gifts back; crow, the one who warns of attack or is the harbinger of change; and rattlesnake, a messenger carrying prayers for life-sustaining rain and one whose dens are portals to the spirit world. As the evening shadows deepened, I packed up my paints, and headed home, considering the meaning of these encounters.

This week’s total solar eclipse brought a great shadow to our land, both literally and metaphorically. It was a magical experience; a reminder of our planet’s dance within the universe and a chance to participate in an event that has captured the imagination of humankind for thousands of years. But for many of us the shadow brought by the solar eclipse, served as metaphor. We see trickster roaming our land spreading lies and hate and laughing at the results, causing a shadow now darkening our democracy. We see the warning signs; and soberly we know the situation will worsen before it gets better. But we must be strong and have resolve. We must act and make our voices heard to sustain the social and environmental justice principles we hold dear in our communities, in our county, and on our planet.