I’ve been reading an amazing book — Desert Notebooks: A Road Map for the End of Time by Ben Ehrenreich — from which one idea has been framing a lot of my recent thoughts (not that this is his main idea, and, admittedly, I might not have even understood him as he intended). The idea is that our pervasive belief in progress — that it has been and that it will continue to be the general course of things — is false, and, frankly, an excuse for all sorts of horrible human endeavors. That might be hard to hear, and it is painful for me to challenge the words commonly attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. — “The arc of human history … bends toward justice” — and I admit that in my lifetime my country has seen what I consider “progress” on some human rights issues, and I love many of the “advances” of “civilization” like indoor hot running water and interlibrary loans and pizza delivery and ice cream … but … to believe in the inevitability of progress is to excuse the extermination of peoples and cultures and forgotten heroes and lost libraries and culinary delights and other species and sustainable ways of living in harmony with the Earth, as if our contemporary existence is justification for past genocides, as if our current wasteful ways and inhumanities will be righted by the future.
We hear a lot of Americans — especially our elected representatives — across the political spectrum sing praises to the ideal of democracy, by which they tend to mean (or claim to mean) a system of government in which every governed individual has a voice — specifically, a vote — in how they are governed. Regardless of that rhetoric, we see that one of the two major political parties is especially keen to limit the ability of many governed individuals to be able to vote for their elected representatives. Frankly, if we believed in democracy then we would make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to vote: we would automatically register people; we would allow early voting; we would enfranchise inmates; we would make Election Day a national holiday.
It is reasonable that people attempt to move to where they think there are more resources for their well-being. Frankly, it is greedy and cruel and arbitrary to deny that movement of people as they aspire to what they think will be a better life.
Humans are animals. For some, this fact may ruffle their mammalian feathers, so to speak, but what is the benefit of separating ourselves from others rather than acknowledging our kinship? Frankly, the human claim to being humane is merely aspirational.
The United States Senate just barely passed another relief bill, despite every member of one of the two dominant political parties voting against it because they consider the bill too generous. Frankly, I’m glad the bill passed. I’ve been looking back at my 40+ years of life, trying to think of the times I’ve regretted someone being too generous to me; I can’t think of a single instance.
You see that star? It wasn’t always a star. In the days before we left the trees, it was a story.
I’ll try to tell you in a way you can understand.
Imagine being in a very tall building, and you wake up in the middle of the night, and you’re hungry. Now take away everything that you know, except for the hunger that is just enough to keep you awake, and the darkness of night.
The story takes us many stories in the air … but before stories were measured and constructed the way they are today, with contracts and spreadsheets and profit margins ….
Many stories in the air, in the tip-top of the tree canopy of a world dense with life and possibility and mystery, a young ape yearned for their mother’s milk. Like you, the ape was old enough that they no longer suckled, and young enough that they knew the comfort of a mother on a moonless night.
As they sat there hungry for something, there was a sound they hadn’t heard before. Like you, the ape was old enough to know many sounds of the world, and young enough to be afraid of the unknown. The sound, or maybe their age—just on the cusp of the age of knowing that there would always be unknowns and that the unknowns were worth paying attention to—or maybe their hunger, made them listen closely.
The sound was beyond them.
The night was relatively still.
The sound sounded.
With the branches below and the darkness about, the tide was in, or maybe out, and there was no sun nor moon to witness the scene, just our young ape, who closed their eyes, as you might when the world gets overwhelming, and they listened.
It wasn’t the sound of their stomach or their heart. It was neither predator nor prey that they knew, neither friend nor foe that they’d met before. It wasn’t the leaves nor the waves nor an iteration of the elements that they could recognize. It was deep, yet held aloft on the night air without a breeze, without the breath of a living creature as far as they could hear or see or tell. It was a sound that was there for the listening to.
They opened their eyes so you could see them gazing into the void of space and time, where they pointed as if to say, ‘The sound was a story to sate hunger, and the story became a star, that star, right there.’
Norman’s credo was, “The only thing we shouldn’t tolerate is intolerance.” It seemed right to him, although he recognized it was problematic to say that intolerance was intolerable, but he thought we were cacpable of holding some complexity like that, and also like the fact that he was both a liberal progressive and a church-going man, which his acquaintances on both sides of all contemporary conflicts liked to, as some of them said, give him shit about. The most politically conservative church-goers in his social circle would often imply that church-goers had a Christian imperative to vote in particular ways that Norman disagreed with, while on the other side of the spetrum, the most politically liberal in his circle were the most anti-church, and they would often imply that church-goers were morally bankrupt and politically suspect (“All church-goers?” he wanted to ask them). He was a church-goer because he liked church. Period. Full stop. He shouldn’t have to defend, he felt, his habits and preferences and affiliations. He loved Jesus, and he’d love you, too, if you’d let him. Live and let live. “The only thing we shouldn’t tolerate is intolerance.”
But in time, in this time, anyway, his credo, which he thought nice and balanced, and which he thought should place him right in the middle of things, politically and socially, poised to be friend to all, instead Norman’s centrist credo isolated him. He heard the hate, and he felt the fear, from those to his left and those to his right … misundertandings, mostly … but that was only part of it, he had been reluctant to admit: there was also maliciousness, and when Norman saw too much of that he finally started to break. That’s when he started to religiously watch the stuffed bear on the TV on his neighbor’s porch across the street, perhas as if the bear were a real bear, or perhaps as if there was no difference.
It was hard to tell, these days, what was real and what wasn’t, and it was another matter altogether to figure out what mattered. He had reason to doubt it all: the news, which had been a national uniter in eras past, was now a fractured and fracturing force, a capitalist cabal of big companiees profiting from paranoia until our bubbles became walled enclaves and we bought whatever news was sold to us at whatever price; and the so-called “good news,” the gospel of his church, he had reason to doubt, as well: there were only so many times that he could hear scripture used to justify inequality before he looked at his religious institution with less inspiration and more incredulity. A world of lies was laid bare.
And the bear? It sat on the TV, unmoving, impassive. And the question Norman asked himself as he stared through his front window and across the street was whether that bear was a good model to him in these trying times, or not. In his lifetime, Norman had tried prayer and prophets, profits and non-profits, poetry and prose, politics and pundits, professors and pedagogy, even psychologists with their silent Ps, and none of it brought peace, so now he was trying the bear.
It remained there, on the TV, all winter for him to watch, and in the spring it was still there, but by then Norman was barely there—a pair of eyes in sunken sockets, a pair of cold hands hanging limply at the end of long arms, a pair of bare feet that had forgotten warm comfort—everything had become more bare for Norman, who had just enough sense left to wonder, “What is that resilient bear stuffed with?”
We know the story of the man in the moon—
Jebediah Smith, grandson of the famous Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Jebediah was sent on his Mormon mission to the moon, and, in the first act of rebellion of his life, he decided to stay. He hadn’t converted a single person on his mission, but he had gained a certain self-assuredness. His religious faith increased, sure, as did his devotion to his God, but whereas before he attributed everything to his God, after his mission to the moon he realized that he was worthy of respect, too, as an independent person … albeit within his omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent God’s universe. Jebediah admitted that cosmology and faith and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle were complex concepts, and, likewise, he believed in the complexity that his God controlled everything and also that he, Jebediah Smith, had free choice. And in a radical declaration of free choice he decided to stay—
Yes, we know the story of the man in the moon, but what about the woman? Classic patriarchal storytelling, and reporting, and history (you see? why not herstory?) to neglect the story of the woman in the moon, and that’s where the real drama is, not in the tale of Jebediah, traditional white male who uses his privilege to declare independence, meanwhile living at the taxpayers’ expense—typical. No, the real story is herstory, a mystery: Where did she come from? How did she get there? Was she there all along? When Jebediah looked up from a day-and-a-half-long video-game binge, there she was, Starla, naked and shameless and owner of her own identity independent of some man’s narrative. But all we have are his self-obsessed reports (“her presence engorges my manhood as if I’m the devil’s dog”), his queries (“is she God’s gift to me? did I invent her? to what purpose should I use her?”), and our guesses about who the woman in the moon is.
No one knew why he kept 27 loose crocodile teeth in his left front pocket at all times.
On Election Day 2020 he woke up feeling surprisingly elated. Care-free. The election of his lifetime, so far, was at hand on this day. With the too-close potentials of overt violence from an authoritarian regime in training, or revolution, or civil war, a coup … who knows … and that utter unknowability is perhaps what allowed him to feel so free on a day of historical import. “Good,” he thought, “if I can feel calm on the cusp of calamity,” and he liked the alliteration of it, and he realized he was not a revolutionary.
No one knew why he kept 27 loose crocodile teeth in his left front pocket at all times.
From across the street, he watched the bear on the TV. The bear wasn’t moving. The TV wasn’t moving, either—it hadn’t moved, he was quite sure, in months. One wouldn’t normally expect a TV to move much, but this one was outside, unplugged, on his neighbor’s porch, and he had assumed when he first saw it that it was in the process of being moved—to a thrift store, perhaps, or to the electronics recycling site, or maybe to a trash pile; but it didn’t move. It became a fixture on the porch, the star of a tableaux around which orbited an array of domestic detritus: a box of Christmas decorations, it looked like, that escaped the gravitational pull of the TV when they were taken somewhere else, like the old garden tools that were there temporarily, and the packages that sometimes arrived from UPS or Fed-Ex, seen on the TV one day and gone the next.
“What’s on the TV today” she asked.
“A stuffed bear.”
And so it went, day by day and week by week. They never knew what would be on the TV, and for how long.
The bear captivated him in a way he didn’t understand. It was more engaging than Superman, which had been on the TV last week, and which he had to get out his binoculars to identify, an action figurine with articulated limbs that someone had propped on top of the TV and arranged in a heroic pose; he was bored by that after a day, but he was somehow addicted to watching the bear, as if he was waiting for some kind of action, or as if he was learning something from the bear—how to be still? how to be patient? how to be satisfied? how to abandon expectations…? He wasn’t sure, but he felt confident that he could learn something from watching what was on the TV.