WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO DIE A NATURAL DEATH?

BY PAUL M. LEWIS

How best to care for elderly relatives is an issue many people are struggling with these days. It’s a subject close to home for my partner and me, as well, given that his mother is in hospice care and has been for the past six months. In addition, we know at least half a dozen others, good friends, who are struggling in their own ways with taking care of elderly parents, whether they live close by or at a greater distance. We are, ourselves, some 500 miles away from my partner’s mother and make the nine-hour trip there at least once a month. Another friend undertakes a seven-hour drive to see his mother every week, arranging to work a full-time schedule in four days and compacting Mom’s care, plus the 14-hour round-trip, into his Friday-to-Sunday weekends. Yet another has his 93 year old mother living in his home, with him as 24 hour-a-day caregiver. And one other close friend is overseeing the care of both of his parents simultaneously, one of whom is in a skilled nursing facility, while the other still lives, at least technically, on her own, but needs almost constant care. Additionally, there are still others who have it much worse, those who have to combine eldercare with raising small children, for example, or those who are struggling with their own physical ailments, while attempting to deal with the illnesses of aged parents.

In one sense, this is not entirely new. To an extent, families have always dealt with taking care of the elderly. At one point in our history, it was not at all uncommon for grandma or granddad to live in the same home with a grown daughter or son and their family. People simply contrived to take care of the older person, as he or she got sicker and closer to death. What has changed, however, and changed dramatically, in the last few decades is the length of time that people have been living. Not so long ago—certainly within my lifetime and in the lifetimes of many of my contemporaries—common diseases would have caused the death of many an elderly relative. In my own family, both of my grandfathers had died before I was born, and neither of my grandmothers lived much beyond their mid 70’s. During the 1950’s and 60’s, when they died, that was relatively common, and simply seen as part of the rhythm of life that comes to its expected end. I am not suggesting that the loss of a loved one was any easier, or less traumatic, in those years. The point is only that it often happened earlier in that person’s lifespan, and consequently in the lives of their offspring and caregivers.

Today, diseases and other ailments that, only a few decades ago, might well have carried off an individual are now regularly treated by modern medicine in such a way as to prolong the lives of those suffering from them. I am speaking of afflictions such as heart disease, stroke, pneumonia, even some forms of cancer, to say nothing of helping those seriously injured in devastating accidents that at one time might have very well brought about death. Again, I want to make it clear I’m not at all suggesting that this is bad. Of course, we all want those whom we love to go on living. What I am saying is that the longer a person lives, especially into what we now think of as extreme old age, that is, the nineties and beyond, the more difficult it becomes not only for them, but for those whose lot it falls to to care for them, particularly as their quality of life becomes more and more compromised. And the burden of this care can be a heavy one, physically, financially, emotionally, and simply in terms of time and energy.

Ultimately, the larger and more overriding question may be this: What does it mean to die a natural death? Many people have decided that they do not wish to live on life support and have issued what is commonly referred to as a DNR—a Do Not Resuscitate order. Both my partner and I have done so, as has his mother. Even so, the question is not as clear-cut as it may at first seem. There are endless gradations involved, gray areas, in between places when it falls to the person who is acting for another to decide if “this is really it.” If an elderly mother, for example, has a stroke, who is to say if she can come back from it and regain much of her strength and mobility? Or if a father in his 80’s has an abdominal aneurysm, should he be operated on in order to relieve the potentiality of it rupturing? Of course he should, many of us would say. And yet, this was exactly the case for a good friend of mine. It turned out his daughters decided for him, as his mind was already somewhat compromised and he had difficulty fully understanding the ramifications of decisions. Yet, after the operation, he slipped more and more into a world inaccessible to anyone, and lingered for another year in that twilight state. This is not to blame his daughters, who did what they thought right, but was it what my friend really wanted?

At what point do we decide, either for ourselves or for those we are looking after, that no more medical help ought to be given, other than palliative, non-curative care? And what of people who have decided that the time has come, choose hospice care, and yet somehow still cling to life, in essence forgetting that they may have made such a decision? And if they made that decision while in sound mind, but now appear to no longer be capable of making fully informed, rational judgments, what then? What are we to do if, having made one decision, they change their mind again, back and forth sometimes even from day to day, or from week to week? These are questions that cry out for answers that we do not always have at the ready.

Could we even say that the very notion of a natural death has been so changed by the advances of modern medicine that we no longer exactly understand what we mean by it? I can offer myself as an example. Nine years ago, after having had a second heart attack, I underwent angioplasty. The doctors miraculously inserted two stents into the arteries of my heart, and I seem to be fine today. If they had not done so, there is every possibility that I might well have died long ago of a heart attack, as my mother did in 1970, at age 50, much before such things as stents were even dreamed of. It could be said she died a natural death. Or did she? But what of the fact that she smoked for most of her life, that she worried constantly about everyone, her children in particular, and that she worked hard in a factory much of her adult life? Didn’t all this contribute to her early demise, and if so, how “natural” is that?

Still bigger, in a sense more global, questions could be asked. What about poverty and its consequences, such as lack of access to medical care, living in overcrowded conditions and susceptibility to infectious diseases, the inability to buy healthy food and have clean water to drink. Even lack of education can affect a person’s lifespan, as we have seen when women tend to have fewer babies the more education they get. Is it natural to die while having an eighth or ninth child?

And while this may seem to have led us relatively far afield from the topic of eldercare, what I am suggesting is that it all contributes to our understanding of the overarching question of what it means to die a natural death. Indeed, in the world of the 21st century, it is more of a conundrum than ever. Do not resuscitate, yes, of course! Few of us would wish to linger on life support, while living essentially in a coma (although even here there are exceptions, as many of us may remember from the Terri Schiavo case).

All too often, the choices are not cut and dry. It is difficult enough for each of us to make choices when it comes to our own lives. Do we opt for chemotherapy, for example, if diagnosed with cancer, given its terrible side effects and the likelihood, or not, of its working? And it is even less clear when needing to make such decisions for someone else. Should we have told the emergency room doctor to do everything possible for Mom or Dad after that stroke? Is their current quality of life enough to have justified that decision, even though a DNR was on record? And add to this the fact that such decisions must often be made on the spot, amid the terrible haze of emotional trauma, when one’s own judgment may not be as clear and dispassionate as we might otherwise wish.

There are few clear paths through the maze of such questions. It may be that the best any of us can wish for in taking care of others is to follow our hearts, with the hope of an informed intellect and, with luck, perhaps even some clarity and wisdom. We all wish that, when the time comes to shuffle off “this mortal coil,” as they used to say in my Catholic youth, we may not linger, and instead exit with a measure of grace and dignity. Yet, no one is assured of what might be called a clean and clear-cut ending. Do we get the death we deserve, or the one that we need? Should it be conscious; or do we hope for a silent slipping away while asleep?

Maybe the best preparation for a natural death is for us to not be so concerned about it at all. In Hindu thought, there exists the notion of God’s “Lila,” the idea that all of creation, including life and death, is part of the divine play, with Spirit being the only true Reality. There is comfort in this view, and perhaps even great wisdom. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Mourn not for those that live, nor those that die. Nor I, nor thou, nor any one of these ever was not, nor ever will not be, forever and forever more.” And if that is the case, then, in the end, maybe death itself ought not to matter so much.

 

THE BIG CON

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Living deep in the woods of South Central PA offers some respite against the constant onslaught of “The Big Con,” which is so all-encompassing that it is hard to see until we step back, become still, and gain some quiet perspective.

by Kevin L Miller

Maria Konnikova’s book “The Confidence Game” is right up my alley. It’s all about how con artists succeed and the ways in which all of us are susceptible to their manipulations. It dovetails very neatly with a big topic that I have been mulling over for months now — how we all get schnookered into the biggest confidence game of them all: “The Social Order.” Back in the ’60s, we counterculture types used to call it “The System,” and we looked for ways to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” It took me 50 years to get there, but I am finally a hermit in the woods, turning on, tuning in and dropping out of what I consider to be an enormous, elaborate LIE — “The Grand Social Contract.” It isn’t real. It’s a con, designed by wealthy, powerful sociopaths at the top of the corporate/ military/ industrial complex to persuade us to give our lives to their even greater enrichment and aggrandizement. And for my money, you may as well throw in organized religion as well. God! I wish I had figured it out 40 or 50 years ago. But I’m a slow study and a late bloomer, I guess. Now, at age 66, I’m finally waking up.

For me, one of the key passages in “The Confidence Game” is: “Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply — and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.

The “Social Contract” is the comforting narrative that assures our anxious hearts that if we play by the rules of “The System” everything will seem real, right, and secure… as it should be. If we behave in school and don’t question our teachers and all the assumptions behind our education, we will position ourselves for a good career in a respected profession. During those professional years, if we buy all the corporate/ military/ industrial and organized religion cons, and promise to be good team players who question nothing, we will achieve the “American Dream” of material comfort. Never mind that the 20 richest Americans hold more of the wealth than the lowest 50% of the population. We are told that we should not mind that the top 1% are getting exponentially wealthier and more powerful while the middle class is disappearing. After all… We have our home, car, TV, digital gadgets, appliances and credit cards. We should be satisfied. What’s good for the wealthiest will trickle down to us. A lie.

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“The System” promises us that if we put away a lot of money for “security in old age” and buy into one of a million “Disneylands of Death” that dot the American landscape like a pox, we will have a fulfilling old age and a pleasant death, especially if we invest in long-term care insurance. Instead, we wake up one morning to discover, as my 91-year-old Dad says, that we have “fallen into a trap from which there is no escape.” We are prisoners with no rights or freedoms in a beautifully landscaped and well-appointed death camp that offers very few comforts or joys in life. I know. I am living half of each week in one of those death camps now, trying to make life bearable for my captive parents, who, like the rest of the world playing the game by all the rules, will give up their entire excruciatingly saved fortune to pay exorbitant prices for this lack of sufficient care and profoundly low quality of life. It’s all a LIE!

The system is a LIE — a con game — a charade, and we have all been taken in by it. One of the clearest proofs that it is a con is what happens when you try to drop out. People around you get very angry. They tell you that you CANNOT do that. They feel rejected and criticized because you are choosing not to play the game anymore — the game to which they have given everything. Ultimately many of them reject you, because you are so threatening to their belief that “The System” is real and worthy of the sacrifice of every life. They shake their heads and whisper amongst themselves that you have lost your mind. You have become unbalanced. If you try to tell them that the Emperor is wearing no clothes — that they are working for the benefit of sociopathic con artists — they turn away and vote against their own best interests, for all the candidates of “The System” — Trump, Cruz, Hillary, Bush. And when the fabric of “The System” seems about to unravel, they do what G W Bush told us to do. They “go shopping” and give all their money to “The Man” (another term we had for the perpetrators of the big con back in the ’60s.) Worst of all, the materialistic con game in which we have all invested our lives, has poisoned the Earth and insured our ultimate destruction. We have sold our children’s future, their birthright, to the highest bidders, and they are exercising their option to cash it in.

So what’s the answer? Well, there IS no answer ultimately except what is Ultimate — Spirit. But when it comes to daily life on this mud ball the answers are always within the questions. And until we become willing to endure our own anxiety and insecurity and dive into the process of questioning everything every day, we will live a lie and perpetuate the con. Unless we become willing very soon to turn away from “The System” as it currently operates, and create an entirely new kind of lifestyle in harmony with the Earth and Spirit, humanity will become victims of The 6th Mass Extinction and the massive con that we call our “Social Contract.”

I’m as susceptible as anyone to the seductive lie of materialism, if not more so. After all, I worked for over 25 years as a facilitator, artist, and consultant to Fortune 500 companies seeking to invent new products and strategies to perpetuate “The System” of omnivorous materialism. When I get hungry enough, I still do some of that, if the specific project is not too heinous. The big con still takes me in, now and then, in all sorts of ways. It’s hard to divorce myself from the ubiquitous “Social Order.” That’s why I’ve chosen the life of a hermit in the woods. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a million times… maybe I ought to consider a different way of life and a new system of “reality” that doesn’t surrender all my treasure and blood to the sociopathic con artist hierarchy. Yes, this choice has left me floating alone in space. But I can see things more clearly from here, and the stillness is exquisite.

I encountered a friend the other day who was wearing a T-shirt that said, “If I’m not moving, I’m dead.” I looked at him in his T-shirt and said, “That’s the difference between you and me. I’m not fully alive until I become still.” We are opposites. I don’t know what the answers are, but I am finding life lived amongst the questions more and more compelling and rewarding. The deeper the questions, the more profound and beautiful the stillness.

Peace, -k

TRYING TO KEEP AN EYE ON THINGS

By Paul M. Lewis

You know you’re getting old when… I suppose there’s an endless string of completions that could be made to that sad beginning.

I was faced with one of my own the other morning when I woke up, opened my eyes, and saw a weird kind of amorphous, squiggly, circular outline dancing in the center of my vision. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t think that was there yesterday, was it?” As if some other person, other than the I of the dancing squiggle, might have been there to answer. The reply came back swiftly enough as a fairly definite “no, not that I recall!”

So, what to do, I wondered. Should I just ignore it and hope really hard that it would go away? This is a strategy that has worked for me in the past, sometimes with better results than others, to be sure. Or should I mention it to my partner? That, I knew, could have only one consequence: he would insist that I call the eye doctor as soon as his office opened up and try to get an appointment. And not that he wouldn’t have been right about it. Sometimes I may have the tiniest tendency to procrastinate, especially when it comes to dealing with doctors.

In this case, however, it was clear even to me that I really had to act. The background is that, for whatever reasons of genetics, or karma, or just the simplest of unfortunate happenstances, I was born with amblyopia in one eye. Sometimes called “lazy eye,” amblyopia is a condition wherein the brain favors the stronger eye over the weaker one. It can be corrected, if caught in childhood, which mine unfortunately was not. This means that my vision today mostly relies on my one good eye. I’m more or less legally blind in the other, and it was of course the good eye that now displayed the wavy lines.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the visit to the doctor’s office. Suffice it to say that I did get in the same day, and he told me that this is just something that happens as people get older. Something about the vitreous humour, the clear gel between the lens and the retina, pulling away from the back of the eye. Most of the time, the moving circle that results eventually goes away, but you never know how long it may take, and if there are other symptoms, worse ones (e.g., exploding lights, whole darkened areas), then I needed to call him anytime, night or day, which I have to admit got my attention. I pictured myself no longer able to drive a car, maybe even not able to go to the gym anymore because I couldn’t make out the machines, or at least the buttons and levers you need to make the machines operate. I imagined bumping into grumbling people, while I stood there mumbling, “Oh, very sorry, but I can’t see a damn thing.” And what about reading? My God, what about reading?

The good news is that my worst fears have not come true, at least not yet. The darkened outline of the jostling circle seems to be diminishing. As a result, I’m having fewer fantasies about running into people while attempting to get on the treadmill. Still, all this makes me wonder: Is the body beginning to fall apart? In one sense, I suppose the answer is as simple and direct as, yes, absolutely! It could be said that the body begins to fall apart as soon as we’re born. It’s just that the process starts to get more apparent when you enter into your 70’s. Who ever called these the golden years?

All of this made me reflect further about the whole notion of what it means to fall apart. There’s a scientific term referring to this sort of thing that I have long been fascinated by. It’s called “entropy.” Stephen Hawking defines entropy as “a measure of the disorder of a physical system.” He goes on to talk about entropy as it relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he defines as “the law stating that entropy always increases and can never decrease.”

That’s technical speak, of course, but here’s my take, using less scientific verbiage. What we’re talking about is the increasing unavailability of a system’s energy source and the gradual decline of that system into disorder. In other words, the demise of the body’s physical energy, the slow and steady contracting of the circle of life, ending in the diminution of our physical abilities as we age. When we’re young and full of energy, we’re eager to explore the world, to make our mark, to do something that makes a difference. With age, the energy it takes to do such things becomes less available. In extreme old age, or catastrophic illness (whichever comes first), we no longer have any energy at all to expand outwardly. Everything becomes focused inward.

This is what it means for a body when entropy begins to set in. At first, the gel of the eye pulls away from the back of the socket, creating peculiar shadowy shapes. If we’re lucky, that eventually dissipates. If not, it pulls away, tearing the retina and causing permanent damage to your ability to see and interact with the world out there. But note the part about being lucky. Is it really true, does chance, or random happening, have anything to do with entropy? It might in the detail of it, that is, in terms of how things happen (such as wavy lines in front of your eyes, or something else), but not in terms of its ultimate eventuality. As Hawking says, entropy always has its way.

Even so, the bigger issue isn’t so much about it simply happening, but about whether or not there is a larger, a greater scheme of things, a plan that our lives follow that has a meaning we can point to, beyond the stark imposition of natural law in our lives. These are questions that science has nothing to do with. Does religion, or philosophy, or even mysticism? That’s a question only each of us can answer on his or her own.

Who knew that waking up one fine day and seeing zigzaggy, undulating lines could bring about such thoughts? Even if the lines do go away, as I think mine are, or eventually will, it leaves me to wonder when some other morning will come when I might wake up and something is there that won’t go away. When will entropy finally catch up with my personal system, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics begin to exert its final, inexorable effects? As in physics, so in life, there are no reprieves from such laws.

Steven Hawking comes to mind yet again while reflecting on all of this. There’s someone who really understands entropy, not just in the abstract, scientific sense, but in terms of what it has done to his body. Talk about disorder and the break down of a physical system! How has he handled it? How has he managed to hold things together all these years? I don’t know him, but I can only imagine that it is surely with determination, definitely with dignity, and probably even with a measure of humor.

To me, this raises the question of whether there’s an even more fundamental law of the universe, one that charges us with facing our inevitable disbanding, the failing of our personal physical universe, and the release of the atoms of our bodies into the cosmos; in other words, the dissolution of our bodies. Human laws can be broken, even if there may be consequences to pay. The physical laws of the universe cannot be. They are inexorable, fixed forever, inevitable, utterly inescapable.

Whether there are yet other laws still, higher ones if you will, that require us to face ultimate questions of meaning, of purpose, or of cosmic design, is again up to each of us to answer on our own. But in the end, what could be more worth our time to look into? My own hope is that, maybe someday, I will get to see beyond the entropy of physical systems, past the universal laws of dissolution and disintegration into something higher and grander, something permanent and unmoving, beyond questions of unwinding or decay. Call these laws what you will, the word matters little, but this is what I would like to catch a glimpse of, wonky eye and all.

ICON AND MASK: WHEN IS AN OBJECT SACRED AND WHEN IS IT ART?

By Paul M. Lewis

Forty or more years ago, I purchased a late 17th century Russian icon of the type commonly referred to as the Mother of God of Kazan (Kazanskaya Bogomater). It depicts the Virgin Mother, holding her infant son, Jesus, who is facing directly outward, with His right hand lifted in a gesture of blessing. I have no idea as to the provenance (i.e. the exact origin and history) of this particular piece, how it left Russia (in the hastily thrown-together luggage of a wealthy aristocrat fleeing the Bolsheviks?), or how it eventually wound up in Chicago, where I bought it. But it’s not a stretch to think that it may have originally resided in a church somewhere in central Russia. Whatever its exact origins, it was undoubtedly an object of worship. People would typically come before such an icon, stand there in silent prayer, imploring the Mother of God for help or favors, or thanking her for gifts already bestowed. Nor would it have been uncommon for devout parishioners to bow low before the icon, reverently crossing themselves in the Russian manner. People did so especially before beginning a journey, sometimes a perilous undertaking in the late sixteen hundreds in Russia, asking for protection along the way.

Today, hung on a wall in our home here in Long Beach, California, it is no longer an object of worship. At least, I do not bow low before the Virgin, nor do I ask her for protection before leaving the house to go on a trip. And no one lights candles in front of it. Instead, anyone who visits us and sees the painting surely assumes that it is displayed as a piece of art. As such, it does have its own great beauty. The expression on the face of the Holy Mother is one of sublime quietude, exuding a kind of peace that comes only from the inner certainty of knowing who one is and of being unfailingly comfortable with that knowledge. The Child Jesus, on the other hand, looks more like a miniature adult than a young boy. Was this because the icon painter was depicting Him as born mature and fully developed, mentally, emotionally and of course spiritually, or was it a simple issue of artists of his day not knowing how to portray children, as children? Icons, at any rate, are always painted in a highly stylized manner; that is their nature, their greatest beauty and, to some, their greatest drawback. People sometimes complain that they do not look realistic—of course not, they were never intended to! Icon painters meant to portray the figures they painted as beings who reside on a far higher and more elevated plane of consciousness, well above the tediousness and pettiness of the quotidian.

But the principal question that concerns me here is not icons per se. Rather, it is this: When is something a sacred object, and when is it merely (unless that word is thought to be offensive in this context) a piece of art? Just last week, an auction took place in Paris in which a number of sacred masks of the Hopi Nation were on offer. The sale took place in spite of pleas by tribal elders, as well as on the part of US embassy officials, not to allow it to happen. Traditional Hopis consider such masks not mere representations of spiritual beings, but as the actual embodiment of them. Even taking photos of them is considered highly questionable. When under tribal control, they are never displayed casually, only ceremonially, at a time when these sacred beings are experienced as actually visiting the people and offering assistance. No self-respecting Hopi would ever dream of hanging such a mask on the wall, as a piece of art. Yet, there is little doubt that most buyers intend to do just that. Nor is this the first time such an auction has taken place in Paris.

So, are these masks, which undoubtedly possess a profundity and an utterly mysterious beauty all their own, to be considered as art (merely), or as sacred objects that should be returned to the tribe, where they are part of millennia-old cultural and religious traditions? The government of France ruled that they could be sold as art, to the great disappointment of the Hopi. Again, the question remains, when is an object sacred and when is it a piece of art? And, if I’m being frank about it, I suppose another similar question might also be asked: How do the Hopi masks differ in any substantive way from the icon of the Holy Mother of God, displayed on the dining room wall of our house? Are my partner and I guilty, too, of religious and cultural insensitivity?

In a very interesting article in the June 25, 2015 edition of the New York Review of Books, Julian Bell discusses a recent work depicting a long conversation about the nature of art between Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford. De Montebello was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for thirty-one years, and Gayford is a well-known British art critic. In the book, entitled Rendez-vous with Art, the director of the Met makes this provocative statement: “I don’t believe art has redemptive qualities.”

What can be made of such a statement, and what connection, if any, does it have to the question of distinguishing between the sacred and the artistic? The concept of redemption certainly sounds religious. It would seem to imply the need for, or the act of, being saved from something. Sin and evil are the usual suspects. Or did de Montebello mean to make reference more to ignorance than to sin? But if art saves nothing and no one, sacred objects, on the other hand, are purported to have redemptive power, at least for those who believe in their transcendental efficacy. I remember once reading that the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, said he had been asked if a picture of a particular Indian saint would be a protection for an individual who held it. His reply was: “If you believe it is a protection, it is a protection. If not, it’s only a simple photo.” Should this suggest to us that the sacredness of an object is not inherent within the object itself, but rather within the consciousness of the person coming into contact with it? Perhaps so. Or is it too much to think that art in and of itself, at its best, really ought to be considered sacred? In fact, can an object ever be both sacred and artistic, or must we think of them as one or the other?

We are conditioned, most of us anyway (ISIS fighters not withstanding), to have at very least a special kind of reverence for art. This is so whether we think of it literally as sacred or not. The Giotto altarpiece on the wall of a museum in Florence, the seated statue of the Lord Buddha taken from Angkor Wat by French explorers, and the Maya bas-relief of Quetzalcoatl ripped from the wall of a temple in the Yucatán all were once considered to be sacred objects. Displayed in museums today, or in the homes of wealthy art collectors, they appear to have lost that connection to the sacred. Or have they, and does it matter how the viewer perceives the objects, how she or he thinks of and interacts with them?

To most modern people, the answer may be as simple as knowing that once an object is in a museum, it is—more or less by definition—considered to be art, and therefore, not sacred, at least not in the normal meaning of that term. Although that still may depend on one’s religious beliefs. Devout Christians might consider the Giotto altarpiece sacred no matter where it is displayed, though probably not the Buddha, and certainly not Quetzalcoatl. Even so, if we think back to the original etymology of the term “sacred,” it refers to a thing that possesses power, and this power could be considered either as holy or as accursed. In this sense, who is to say that art, as we think of it today, doesn’t have its own kind of secular sacredness?

I know that I still think of the icon of the Holy Mother of God of Kazan as having its own brand of power. I don’t necessarily think of it as a depiction of the Virgin Mary of Christian lore. But I do think of it as a kind of illustration of the feminine aspect of the Divine Spirit. And if even that is too much, why not as a representation of universal motherhood, or the enormous mystery and power of creation itself?

Sacred or not, if art is to be felt at all, it surely has to have power, that is, a numinous kind of mystery about it that cannot ever be fully explained by the things of the intellect. Otherwise, what potency, and what effect, does it have? This is not in any way meant to argue against the Hopi, who I believe have every right to sue the French government for infringement of their rights. But it does speak to the question of whether or not there is a clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the artistic. Depending on your point of view, in the end, that may truly be a thing that resides in the mind of the beholder.

CHRISTMAS — THEN AND NOW

By Paul M. Lewis

Not everyone likes Christmas. Certainly not the way I do. And I’m not just talking about those who weren’t raised within the yuletide tradition. Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, atheist, et al. all have different feelings about the holiday. I get that, and of course, respect it. It even sometimes surprises me that I like the season as much as I do, given the fact that I no longer consider myself a Catholic, or even a Christian, or a member of any organized religion, for that matter.

Even so, I don’t deny that the memories are still there. Childhood in upstate New York with its snow swirling, cold biting, the wind howling. Inside was warm and cozy, or it was supposed to be anyway. And sometimes it was, except when my parents were consumed with worry about money, as they almost always were, or when Dad was drunk, as he was every night, or Mom had to work evenings, as she usually did, at the local department store over in Troy, selling undergarments to ladies much richer than she. Yet there was a tree, and somehow presents under the tree, and always turkey for dinner on the big day itself. So, things could have been much worse, and were for some.

I can also still see our parish church, St. Patrick’s, just across the street from the house: poinsettias, Midnight Mass, and a lovely manger scene set up just in front of the altar in honor of the Blessed Mother. She was, after all, the real star of the show. At least, that’s how the story came down to me back in those years. She and Joseph, who was pretty much a silent partner without a lot of clout, were the ones who had to go searching for a place to stay after Caesar Augustus came forth with his decree about paying taxes, and the two had to travel all the way to Bethlehem and wound up in a stable, when there were no rooms available in the inn. I always figured the stable couldn’t have been a very comfortable place, especially for Mary. But the infant Jesus didn’t know much at that point anyway, except we were always taught that He knew everything, so wouldn’t He have known how hard it was on his mother? And yet, he didn’t do anything about it; He didn’t find a nice warm room for her, even though He could have, being all-powerful and all. We were never told why He didn’t get a nicer room for her, but then I was a kid, and there were lots of things about the adult world that I didn’t get, and even feared I might never understand, so I just accepted things as a sort of given. The Church wasn’t big on being asked too many probing questions anyway, and the nuns could be pretty brutal, so best to keep you head down and your mouth shut. Silence was golden, as my 8th grade teacher, Sister Mary Barbara, was fond of reminding us, and the empty barrel makes the most noise. And who wants to be an empty barrel?

In those years, it seemed natural to believe everything I was told, and I did take things literally. In that, I was no exception. Pretty much everyone I knew did the same thing, and I’m not just talking about the kids. Most of the adults I knew did, too. Some people still do. Remember all of those Christmas cards people used to send with idealized scenes of the manger and the stable, ironically, contradictorily depicting it as simultaneously both ethereal and shoddy? Broken down, open to the weather. Usually a nighttime snowy scene with shepherds, and sheep, and lavishly berobed Magi in flowing garments, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, even though the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi actually were supposed to have arrived, didn’t take place until January 6th. Oddly, I thought, nobody ever looked cold, or uncomfortable, or particularly concerned that this young woman was giving birth surrounded by a bunch of farm animals. Not the most hygienic of places to give birth to the Savior of the world.

So, that was then. But what of now? I live in a different world at this point. It’s true that my partner and I still have a tree, one actually more elaborately decorated than any I ever knew as a kid. And there’s lots of good food, which I eat too much of, and try to burn the calories off at the gym each day. My partner is a terrific cook, so it’s hard to resist. We give gifts, and we make dinner for friends, some of whom we only get to visit with once a year, and we generally have a really nice time. Admittedly, there’s no snow here in Southern California, but we consider ourselves lucky if we have cool, rainy weather, which we’ve had a good amount of so far this season. And of course, there’s music. I love all the singing (well, except for some of the really inane songs that were so popular back in the 50’s and the 60’s that they still play: “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – really?). No, I’m much more attracted to the old standbys, by which I mostly mean the traditional carols.

But I don’t take them literally anymore. I don’t take much of anything related to spirituality literally. The point is it’s all symbolic, and to imagine a God-child born to an earthly mother (in a stable or not), who had conceived Him immaculately, which is to say, asexually, impregnated by the word of a visiting angel, all this seems a little much. Far better to think of it as referencing a kind of beginning, a new birth if you will, of higher consciousness within each person. The angels we have heard on high are our own higher power speaking to us, implanting notions of elevated awareness within ourselves. That’s the birth we ought to be celebrating, since it’s an actual possibility, one that each of us can work to bring about in our own lives.

It doesn’t matter who we are. Whatever our race may be, or our gender, our religious affiliation (if any), our sexual orientation, our nationality, our age, our looks, our degree of material wealth, our state of health, et cetera, we’re all capable of elevating our consciousness. I understand that this doesn’t accord very well what lots of religious teachers preach, but then I don’t listen to them anymore. The birth of our own higher consciousness ought to tell us that the rigidity of the do’s and don’ts of organized religions are too often excuses for manipulating people, making them feel guilty of transgressions (sins, so-called), with the ultimate goal of controlling both how people think and how they act. Glory to the newborn King! Yes, definitely. Except the king is our own elevated understanding of what it means to be both fully human, and more than human. As the Irish poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, says so beautifully: “Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best; but uncumberèd.”

And I’m not even saying I have anything against people taking these stories literally either, if they wish. Why not? If people find comfort in them, and if belief in the virgin birth of Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger puts joy in their hearts, who am I to say it shouldn’t be? I just wish that some of those people who believe these things in a literal way would give those of us who don’t a little room to make that all right, too

It’s true that not everyone celebrates Christmas. But whether we think of Chanukah, the birth of the Infant Jesus, the symbolic birth of Christ Consciousness, or just the turning of the year at the Winter Solstice, there really does seem to be an atmosphere of peace and joy around at this time. Longfellow once famously wrote: “The holiest of all holidays are those/Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;/The secret anniversaries of the heart.”

So, I say, it’s an excellent time for quiet reflection. Dare I even mention meditation? And if, for whatever reason, you still don’t feel some special presence this season, that’s fine, too. What’s maybe most important is that we act properly, treat others with respect, and would it kill any of us to smile a little more? Who knows? As actors discovered long ago, if you play the part right, it could well be you’ll begin to feel it, too. And in the end, that just may be the best holiday present any of us could give to those we love.

THE QUESTION OF THE DECADES

By Paul M. Lewis

There’s something about turning 70, as I did not so long ago, that gets your attention in a way that turning 69 did not. One day, you’re still in your 60’s, and the next morning suddenly you’ve arrived at what sounds like a whole new level of agedness. Of course, these are just numbers, numerals that have their life on a page, or in a computer, or while otherwise calculating something that can be counted up. This momentous moving from one ten-year spacing of numbers to the next that startles us so is what I think of as the question of the decades.   But it’s not the numbers per se that matter; it’s more what they remind us of. They seem to say: What have I done with my life; see how fleeting it all is; and what ought I to do with what remains? Ultimately, it’s the question of mortality that we all must face. How many more of these numberings will I attach to my life’s span before this particular series runs its course? The 17th century English poet, Andrew Marvell, put it this way: “But at my back I always hear/Times winged chariot hurrying near.”

Time – more to the point, fleeting time – is like that. It brings with it questions of meaning, of what we have done with what has been given to us. No wonder it’s a common topic in art of all kinds, since art at its finest puts us in touch with the ultimate questions. Art can make us ask ourselves, using whatever devices and conventions are specific to its particular expression, what is most important in life. We see it in theater, in novels and stories of all kinds, in painting (note the heartbreakingly beautiful and almost too painfully truthful self-portraits of the aging Rembrandt, for example), and as noted above in poetry. William Butler Yeats is one of those poets who spoke movingly of getting older. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of the great seminal poems of the early part of the 20th century, he says: “An aged man is a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick”. But he doesn’t stop at such a simple lament. The whole remainder of the poem speaks of what to do with our lives as we age: “unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress,/Nor is there singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence.”

Soul clap its hands and sing. What an interesting image; and what a wonderful thing to do as the body grows older, to make one’s own music, to choreograph one’s own life with a dance that incorporates the ages into it. How each person does that remains forever his or her own personal expression. And it is no one else’s place or right to dictate how that particular manifestation reveals and articulates itself. It is, after all, the reason for the journey in the first place, to give each of us the opportunity to create that most personal revelation of the ultimate magic of who we are. I am, as you no doubt have already noted, speaking here about nothing less than the meaning of life. And not just in some general philosophical sort of way, but specifically and most personally the meaning of one’s own life. That is the thing that no one can tell you, because as life unfolds, as we put foot in front of foot and make our way along its sometimes torturous path, our life slowly reveals itself to us, even as we create it ourselves. It could even be said that it reveals us, ourselves, as we most truly are. That’s why art is such a fine metaphor for life, because art too unveils itself through the artist’s use of what is within and without, all the while creating something utterly unique, a thing the world has never seen before, and which it will never again see the likes of.

What is it that the world sees? And in that ultimate sense, what do we see, as we both create and reveal our lives? Each day presents its own high and low points, its own opportunities for triumph and failure. Yes, of course, there are times in everyone’s life, critically divergent moments, when the choices we make set us along a certain course that veers this way or that. This also means that there were other paths that were presented, but which were not taken. Such are the decisions we all have to make, and we make them to the best of our abilities at the time. There is no room, no time later for regret, for the way we have chosen reflects who and what we were at the moment of the choice.

Still, it must be said, most of life is not so dramatic. We go about our business according to the diurnal patterns we all create for ourselves. We work each day, or we otherwise spend our time according to frameworks that have become familiar to us. And there is nothing wrong with that. Or, I correct myself, there is only something wrong with that if we do so unconsciously. Because the job of life must be to live as consciously as we can, in order to participate as fully as possible in its blossoming possibilities. It is exactly these steps we take each day, each moment, one following after the next that finally makes the fabric of the life we are weaving. Wisdom does not necessarily come with age. How many older people do we all know who have not achieved wisdom? No, it is not physically surviving for a certain number of years that counts, but the quality of the life that we have created. How to go about that? The best way I know is through reflection, dare I say meditation, that deepest form of introspection. Which one of us was born wise, and who has gone through childhood unscathed?   These are the givens that we must deal with. What we make of it all is what is ultimately important. Life never skimps in giving us opportunity after opportunity to test ourselves, to grow, to flourish and blossom, or else to wither and fade away. The highest inner qualities, peace and joy and wisdom, do not always come at first invitation. They are shy and diffident visitors; they must be coaxed and cajoled, lured even into the warm hearth of the soul.

These are some of the things I think of as I turn 70. It seems natural that one should think about them at this stage of life, but we all do well to think of them at every stage. Who we are at any moment in life is the end creation of what we have thought and done, what our hopes and aspirations are, how we treat ourselves and others in the wider world. That is as much true at age 20 as it is at 70. And we can only hope that with 50 years in between we might have learned something about what is important and what is not.

In Yeats’s symbology, Byzantium represents the goal, the hoped-for end of life’s journey. It is a mystical place that can never be fully explained, only experienced, because it is not a thing of the intellect. And that perhaps is a good part of ultimate wisdom, the acceptance of the fact that we cannot explain any of life’s final verities, only strive to achieve what a human being can never fully achieve, left to his or her own devices. In the last stanza of the poem, Yeats likens the soul, the human spirit, to a bird “set upon a golden bough to sing/To the lords and ladies of Byzantium/Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

It is a great metaphor. In the end, what more can any of us do but sing our song, work to understand the past, fully embrace each passing moment, and look with hope and trust for what is to come? Good advice to myself, as I enter into this next decade, and maybe not such bad advice at any age.

WRITING “AFTER THE DEVASTATION”

By Paul M. Lewis

It has been some time since I have written on this blog, and to those who read it on anything like a regular basis, I offer my apologies. What has been keeping me otherwise occupied is working on a novel that I originally wrote several years ago

The history of writing the novel goes something like this. Just before I retired at the end of the year 2006, I had a strikingly vivid dream. It was so powerful, and imposed itself so on me, that it woke me from sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning. I sat up and thought about it, but not wanting to awaken my partner, I went into another room and wrote it down. Basically, the dream gave me the broad outline of the book that I came to write. There are three parts to it, and each part was vividly laid out for me. This is what came directly from my subconscious mind. The characters described come, I suppose, from a combination of my conscious mind and the parts of my subconscious that leak out in ways that are both known and unknown to me. The “I” that speaks its name, that is, this amalgam of the aware and the unaware, the mindful and the slumberous, the cognizant and the incognizant that I normally think of and refer to as “me” is responsible for the detail of the story.

But the question that may legitimately pose itself is this: if I wrote the novel several years ago, why am I only now publishing it? That requires some small bit of explanation. The original writing of it took eighteen months. I wrote every day, and was utterly engrossed in it. The story followed the main outline of the original dream, but I had to create individuals to populate this superstructure, as well as plot, and of course conflict. The conflict was both easy and difficult for me. On the one hand, I have always been hyper-aware of conflict, both in my immediate surroundings and in the wider world. There is never, it seems, surcease of conflict. On the other hand, I have also never liked conflict, and my natural tendency is to shy away from it. Yet, you cannot write a novel without embedding discord, dissension and strife of various kinds within it. So, there is that aplenty in the novel. As an aside, all this reminds me of a story I once read about the great Bengali writer and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. He was spinning a story for his granddaughter, who loved to listen to the various tales he would create just for her. But in this one instance, his story was going on and on, and he was elderly and getting tired. So he began bringing it to an end. However, the granddaughter had other ideas, and each time he would make a move toward an ending, she would say to her grandfather that this or that then happened to the heroine, and so it couldn’t be the end yet. As Tagore later noted, there is no ending a story until the conflict is resolved. Or, I suppose, another way of thinking of it is, the story goes on and on, and it never fully ends. Whatever end we come up with is always a temporary one.

Once the novel was finished, with lots of help from friends, I attempted to find an agent and get it published. However, as an unknown author with an untested novel, no one was willing to take me on. I cannot say that I blame them. The publishing world has changed drastically in the last several years, and continues to change. As a result, I put the novel away for the next few years. It literally sat in a drawer, or in a file on the computer (some of both, actually), until just recently. What happened then was that I was about to turn 70 years old. As that birthday approached, I said to myself that if I am ever going to publish this, to give it a chance to be seen by a wider world than my own eyes, or only by my partner and a few willing friends, I had no choice but to self-publish. And this has been what I have been in the process of doing

Fortuitously, all of this coincided with my partner’s retirement from work. As such, I coopted him (he was more than willing) to make use of his excellent editorial services. We both read through the novel three or four times, depending on how you count, and in the process he made many extremely useful suggestions. I will not say that I took every one, but I did incorporate many of them. And I think, or at least it is my hope, that the novel is the better as a result.

So, I have now submitted the work to the publisher (Lulu.com), and they have just begun to work their own magic. I want to add here too that my old friend and blog-partner, Kevin, who is one of the finest artists I know, was kind enough to agree to create cover art for the novel. I cannot yet say exactly when the novel will be ready, but I am hopeful that sometime in the next couple of months, six at the outside, it will be available.

The novel itself is called After the Devastation, and a brief description of it goes something like this: The year is 2024, and the world is teetering on the brink of global environmental disaster and nuclear war. Nora tells her husband, Aden, she’s leaving to report on a crucial meeting at the new Chicago headquarters of the UN. With the world about to fall apart, this is the last thing he wants to hear. A professor and environmental specialist, Aden understands all too well the risks and dangers involved. But the worst does happen, and the two become lost to each other. In the ensuing years, they lead lives apart in isolated communities without modern technology or the conveniences once taken for granted. Separated and still longing for each other, they both rise to positions of power and leadership in fragments of civilization torn by their own brand of conflict based on religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and race. They meet traditionalists, doctrinal zealots, outrageous individualists, as well as shamans and those wise in the ways of the world. In the process, each discovers their own intuitive awakening and comes to know and rely on their personal spirit guides. It is a story of political intrigue and magical mysticism, as well as a tale of post-apocalyptic crisis and uncertain future for humanity, riven by its ever-present flaws, but bolstered by its greatest attributes. It poses the questions we ultimately all need to ask ourselves: can we learn from our past mistakes, and are we capable of building a new and better world, even after the devastation?

I have learned a great deal throughout this entire process, and again am enormously grateful for all of the help I have gotten along the way. I can only hope that the novel will live up to my own expectations, as a work that dramatizes and gives life to the enormous environmental issues of our day, to say nothing of the ageless human questions that challenge us all, and that it may serve to remind everyone who reads it of one essential truth – that the earth is not some senseless, inert thing, but has its own kind of consciousness, one that is both other, and greater than, our own.