Thursday, January 04, 2018

Musings on the Edges of Darkness



At the time of night-prayer, as the sun slides down,
The route the senses walk on closes,
the route to be invisible opens.
Rumi, Persian poet, 1207-1273

Early January, and the days are lopsided with dark hours.  We have gone through the holidays, when Christmas lights break through the winter darkness.  They stretch as white, blue, and red strings along roofs, adorning fences, rolled in circles around trees of all sizes.  But now they start to fade as people either pull them down or just stop hitting the switch that covered the dark winter night for a few festive weeks.

For some odd reason, I am reading Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night's Journey Into Day during this dark time of year.  It is a collection of essays, poems, and stories about lives during the darkness, written by insomniac writers of the past and present.  They range from Rumi poetry, to Richard Byrd's account of sleep in an Arctic shelter, to the Mohawk native Americans and their origin story from the stars.

Many of the authors speak of the incredible expanse and power of the nighttime sky.  The naturalist Rachel Carson writes of camping on the headland of a bay, where "the horizons were remote and distant rims on the edge of space.  Millions of stars blazed in darkness and on the far shore a few lights burned in cottages.  Otherwise there was no reminder of human life."  She laments how so many people take all this for granted.

It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century, this little headland would be thronged with spectators.  But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead.

Other writers note the power of the night to stir our senses.  The explorer Byrd lived alone in the Arctic for six months, and led a highly routinized existence in order to survive.  "My whole life here in a sense is an experiment in harmony....But a man can live a lifetime in a few half-dreaming moments of introspection between going to bed and falling asleep: a lifetime reordered and edited to satisfy the ever-changing demands of the mind."

I grew up on the edge of a small village, where the night sky was rarely thinned out by light pollution.  The stars were sharp and distinct.  Winter could be the most striking time to scan the heavens, as the air seemed so crisp and clear.  The snow cover created a white expanse underfoot that created a reverse of the dark sky with its millions of white dots.

During other seasons, darkness would arrive later and conjure up other ghosts.  We lived directly next to the village cemetery, bordered by an open field next to our house where we played baseball or kickball. For us neighborhood kids, dusk meant our ballgames would end and we would move to someone else's yard to play kick-the-can or capture-the-flag.  While the cemetery field was great for any type of game, the proximity to hundreds of gravesites at night added a spooky dimension to night games.  Being kids, we would make eerie noises or joke about midnight walks between headstones; but none of us would actually venture there.

Now I am in my 60s, and the darkness has other affects. Nighttime noise comes in different sizes -- the house siding crackling in extreme winter cold, or the train rolling between hills across the valley.  But that's not what makes my sleep restless or keeps me awake at 4:00am.  The darkness limits external vision and seems to enhance the visions or pictures that arise internally in the mind and heart.  Those thoughts start rolling around the internal senses, ranging from angst to hope to wonder.

When the morning light arrives, the darkness is chased.  The night visions no longer seem overwhelming or unmanageable.  I do not blame the darkness, as if it were an evil magician.  Even as a kid, I knew that we could still play in the dark.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Daily Routine

One has to be in the same place every day, watch the dawn from the same house, hear the same birds awake each morning, to realize how inexhaustibly rich and different is sameness. -- Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu   

We humans are habitual.  We perform repetitive routines every day without thinking.  If we had to think about them, we would bury ourselves with detail.  The cognitive part of our brain would overheat. Our focus would ping around our personal space, and we could not get out of our way.  Or move forward. 

We rely on simple algorithms buried in our brains and executed on autopilot. Our parents taught us the steps and we trained for weeks Mom or Dad took their hand off the wheel, we failed a few times, and eventually we memorized. 

Most routines are simple.  The morning rise:  how we brush our teeth, manicure our hair,  hold our breakfast spoon and fork.  The routine in the car: turn a key (or push a button), adjust the mirror, snap the seatbelt, put it in gear.  Write something down:  hold in certain fingers, tilt at certain angle to the paper, push it to form letters. 

After six decades, what if I tried to change a routine?  What if I broke the chain of automated steps and made a cognitive move to alter the steps? What if I snapped one of the brainwaves in mid-route?  Would it matter? 

I remember a scene from the sitcom "All in the Family".  Archie and his son-in-law Mike get into a loud debate about the proper sequence for footware.  Mike dresses one foot with a sock and shoe, and then does the same sequence with the other.  Archie berates him and directs him to do it the right way:  a sock on each foot, then a shoe on each foot.  He explains that if the house caught fire, and Mike was only halfway through with his footware, he would have one totally bare foot when trying to escape. Mike retorts that if it was snowing outside, at least he could hop on one dry foot. [You can find this clip on YouTube; just search 'sock, sock, shoe, shoe' or 'sock, shoe, sock, shoe', whichever you prefer.] 

We all have similar processes we go through each day.  But we probably do them just a little differently. Our habits are individualized.  Humans are one-offs and so are our daily routines. There is no right or wrong, as Mike knew. Our own routines work just fine for us. 

We can also define our habits or routines as rituals.  Rituals reflect deep meaning, even in the smallest of moments.  Our daily walk contains plenty of meaning when we combine the individual steps into a whole Some of that walk may seem the same from day to day because of the sameness of the rituals. The rituals, as a whole, define who we are as people and what we do with our day.  

It is a sameness that can be inexhaustibly rich.  There is nothing mundane about it. 

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Militia of One

Hand grenades are regulated under the National Firearms Act (“NFA”), a federal law first passed in 1934 and amended by the Crime Control Act of 1968. The 1968 amendments made it illegal to possess “destructive devices,” which includes grenades. 

I cannot own a live grenade.  I cannot legally buy one. 

This certainly makes sense.  A single grenade has the power to kill multiple people.  The consequences are deadly. 

So why should it be legal to own an automatic rifle that can kill multiple people in a matter of seconds?  Why should an individual be permitted to own and use a military-style weapon 

Why can an individual accumulate so much weaponry that he becomes a one-man militia? 

The men who carried out the most recent mass murders were sitting on multiple rifles, handguns, automatic pistols, cartridges, and explosives.  They intended to kill as many people as possible in a short burst of violence. The litany of one-person militias is long and violent, with myriad apparent motives: Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Orlando, Virginia Tech, San Bernadino, Sutherland Springs.

Motives are a factor. Mental health is a factor.  Political extremism and terrorism is a factor. 
 
No matter how one stands on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, one fact is clear: the United States has  the largest rate of gun ownership in the world, and the highest rate of deaths due to guns in the world.  A recent article describes the data around gun ownership and crime statistics. 

Regardless of how we interpret our right to arms, we are using guns for destruction of life at an incredibly high rate.

Our country has engaged in a 30-year debate over guns, one of the most polarizing conversations in our society.  We interpret the language of the Second Amendment in ways that buttress our own side of the debate.  Every word and comma gets parsed, even to the point of arguing what a word meant in the English language of the 1790s. 

I have friends who collect guns as a reasonable hobby.  I was raised and live in upstate New York, where hunting is a major part of life for many, particularly during fall hunting seasons.  Weaponry is maintained and kept in safe environments.

But there is a large chasm between "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms" and the ability of an individual to become a militia-of-one who can destroy many lives in seconds.  Common ground can be found.  We need the political will to find it.