Labor Day Weekend already? Back at the Cape, taking stock as I annually do here, gathering from the shimmering beauty on and around Buzzards Bay energies to meet what storms may lie ahead. The imminent end of summer conjures impending storms — a residue of the sturm und drang the academic calendar brings, intertwined with much that is reliably sweet and savory. In the years I led Wellesley, it was to this place I came to seek a fresh insight to inspire and guide me — and others too, I hoped — for the year ahead. Something real, something worthy of our best efforts, worthy of who we might strive to be or become.
The real storm of this summer, the one calling forth our best as Americans who can care for each other, has ravaged the Texas and Louisiana coast in the sort of Paradise Built in Hell Rebecca Solnit captured in her 2009 book. From Hurricane Harvey we have images of selfless volunteers deploying pretty much anything that floats to extricate terrified neighbors — and complete strangers — from rooftops, submerged cars, tippy mattresses, flooded nursing homes, and shoulder-high waters contaminated with god-knows what … snakes, chemicals, crocodiles, a scary toxic brew. The plucky flotilla echoes one of the summer’s few successful movies, Dunkirk, and the heroic race across the English Channel of every kind of boat for the miraculous evacuation of some 300,000 British soldiers to fight again another day against the Nazi threat.
The Nazi threat. The other summer storm we shall not soon forget, must not forget. As the accountants reckon Harvey’s costs in billions of dollars and decades of recovery work, and as Americans dig into our pockets to relieve what suffering we can, we still have reckoning to do with the reality we saw starkly enacted by the militant white supremacists marching the streets of Charlottesville, spewing anti-Semitism, racism, raw hate. The reality of contested monuments to the lingering legacy of slavery stands in stark contrast to the “potential of mercy to redeem us” from a shameful “system of justice” in Bryan Stevenson’s haunting questions about the people, and the nation, we could be and are not … yet. In Just Mercy, he writes:
“Simply punishing the broken — walking away from them or hiding them from sight — only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
About Hurricane Harvey, the question most neglected, other than in the few media outlets dedicated either to science or climate science, is the extent to which the magnitude of this epic catastrophe bears our human signature. Of course it does, writes George Monbiot in The Guardian, and summarizes the scientific evidence. For its “Leading Edge” podcast aired the next day, on August 30, NPR questioned climate scientists who affirmed Monbiot’s conclusion, but he had gone on to pose a further question: Why is the connection being “blotted from the public’s mind?” His answer:
This is not an accident. But nor (with the exception of Fox News) is it likely to be a matter of policy. It reflects a deeply ingrained and scarcely conscious self-censorship. Reporters and editors ignore the subject because they have an instinct for avoiding trouble. To talk about climate breakdown … is to question not only Trump, not only current environmental policy, not only current economic policy — but the entire political and economic system. …
I believe it is the silence that’s political. To report the storm as if it were an entirely natural phenomenon, like last week’s eclipse of the sun, is to take a position. By failing to make the obvious link and talk about climate breakdown, media organisations ensure our greatest challenge goes unanswered. They help push the world towards catastrophe.
Some summer. Laden with tensions, contradictions, and many occasions for gratitude. My husband and I have luxuriated in our time “back east” with friends, family, food, fun, even a nationwide day of science as we joined millions of our fellow Americans marveling at the emotional impact of our private solar eclipse. We had neighbors and houseguests here at the Cape to bring back the singular pleasure of enduring friendship. We traveled through Scotland and Ireland, from castle to battlefield, carried back through centuries of bloody struggle that cast our nation’s current skirmishes in a shorter shadow, as did reading Dorothy Dunnett, my daughter’s favorite author. Through it all we were engaged in what felt like one long, meandering conversation, its threads dropped, picked up again, and woven into ever more intricate tapestries, layer upon layer of questions, followed by more still.
Where are we anyway, this country we used to call home? How do we understand this nation that feels both strangely alien and increasingly in need of our most skillful support? What has brought us to this pass and what do we see ahead? What is ours to do? Who is the “we”? How can I help? And what’s the use of posing these questions, in the end, after all?
In July, a phone conversation with my beloved and brilliant daughter had brought me up short. After reading my blogpost, “Disaster Porn and Composting,” she worried that I was digging myself into a dank hole. Compost can do that to a person, I’ve discovered, in my messy effort to deal with our summer’s garbage. So far it’s a stinky stew swarming with tiny flies. “You had such a great career,” Allison went on. “It seems sad to end on a down note. Why not just enjoy life. You’ve earned that by now.” Questions to ponder. They rested dormant until late August over lunch after golf with my sister, my husband, and a very close friend. I provoked it by mentioning a gift another friend had sent, a short parable titled Vlad the Astrophysicist: An Illustrated Book for Old Souls.
Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the narrator asks Vlad, question one. And, two, if so, why hasn’t it contacted us? Vlad dismisses the first question as an obvious yes and makes of the second a brief lesson in the physics of space-time. We haven’t been contacted and likely won’t, he claims, because the human story on planet Earth is such a tiny blip in the expanse of the Universe that it will almost surely end before a civilization elsewhere has time to develop into its own short blip and find its way to us.
The post-golf conversation went something like this:
My friend: This is what‘s so different about having lunch with you. I was ready to talk about the Red Sox and the Nats and now we’re contemplating the end of life on Earth. So here’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask. You don’t believe in God do you?
Me: I don’t think so
He: I thought so.
He: I’ve been thinking about your conversation with Allison last month, and I think she is right.
Me: How so?
He: Well, if you don’t believe in God, why care about climate change? If there isn’t any kind of Plan, so what if it all ends?
Me: Well, we could try to prevent a whole lot of avoidable suffering along the way. And there’s a whole lot to care about, with or without an ultimate plan …
… so it went, until we returned to the Nats, aided by adroit interventions from my husband and sister.
I am profoundly happy, as happy as I’ve ever been. I wake up every morning here grateful to be alive, glad for my family and friends, my puzzles, projects and passions, so much of life to love. And I am deeply worried about a future I’ll never see. A future that all too soon will be somebody else’s problem, the “SEP” a consultant at Wellesley suggested, as I was preparing to leave, I should learn to recognize and turn over to others. As in, “Yup. That’s a problem. Not mine though. That’s an SEP.”
Maybe I’m just beset by the nostalgia of advancing years, the “old fart syndrome” at its apogee. I did turn 73 this summer after all. But these worries feel more compelling than that. Decades ago, Norman Cousins, editor of a magazine of ideas called The Saturday Review, replied when asked to name the nation’s “number one problem,” that the number two problem was the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The number one problem, he said, was our inability to solve the number two problem, and others like it too complex for the political and social tools we had at our disposal.
The summer of 2017 brought a parade of unsolvable problems: a destructive executive branch, a paralyzed Congress, a polarized nation, a rejection of science, rising militarization on our streets and across the world. Playing to the resentments that fuel its minority base, the administration is hustling to turn back the clock on all things progressive domestically, and all things high-minded internationally. The margin for error narrows as the twin threats of nuclear proliferation and climate change accelerate, a danger the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists signaled last winter by setting its “doomsday clock” to two and a half minutes to midnight.
We are a resilient people, we divided and distracted Americans. We rise to challenges, come together, weather storms, reach out in compassion when reminded who we are and can be. The Summer of 2017 has been a summer to remember, a summer of opening up and of shutting down. The Buddhists teach of an attitude of unlimited gentleness to self and other which, when combined with a disciplined practice, can open us to further growth.
From this summer of contradictions we can take the lesson that we do have resources to cope. We can learn to reman present to one another, to recognize the signals that cut us off from our natural wisdom and the innate connections that make us human, make life worth living. We can bring curiosity, gentle humor, and kindness into relationships, close and distant. We can come to know the destructive emotions that dwell within ourselves so that we don’t have to react in fear when we see them in others. We‘ve done enough building of walls to ward off our fears, erected enough monuments to our battle scars and demons. Now is the season to move beyond all of that.
Originally published at medium.com