Runcible Blog

put forward what threatens you

At the meeting, the message came:
“Put forward whatever threatens you”
So I put forward in my hands, nothing.
The voice said, “that's right, NOTHING
And between my hands became a void.

The meeting was a Quaker meeting, sitting in silence on a chair for an hour, surrounded by other people doing likewise. One can experience the various states of consciousness: distraction, daydreaming, sleepiness, but also stretches of total quiescence and meditative absorption. I found it interesting that "friends" (as they're called) are allowed to break the silence to speak messages that they feel are worth speaking. Beforehand, I'd wondered what these messages could be, but it turned out that nobody had anything to say at this particular meeting. It occurred to me that I could've spoken my message at the time. It came to mind within a hypnagogic state, on the cusp of sleep and wakefulness. It didn't seem worth mentioning because hypnagogic hallucinations are usually gibberish and quickly forgotten. Although this one had a different character, I don't currently see the value of announcing a message while other people are experiencing the quiet. I also think it's unwise to attribute to God whatever rumbling comes to mind -- even if messages do emanate from Spirit, the announcement as such suggests a kind of definitiveness, when perhaps a better attitude should be unknowing.

But, put forward whatever threatens you seems apt for this anniversary of a day that felt quite threatening and confusing. I remember hearing the news when my sister called me while I was reading a book by the Charles River -- only my second week of college. (I still regret, later on, when she asked me why somebody would commit such a heinous act, explaining that it must've been their religion. Well, what did I know at 18?) In a way, the events of that day and the nation's response changed the course of my life, opening my eyes to a world outside of the hermetic bubble of Boston University and awakening an activist side of me. After the mourning period ended and it was time to resume the busy work of academia, I couldn't close the venetian blinds which had been opened. Out there, the suffering, confused world felt more pressing and significant than pointless introductory physics experiments and Riemann sums. I had to drop out and change course, though I didn't have an alternative in mind. The course continues to course...

Nowadays, what's threatening to most people is economic uncertainty rather than terrorist sleeper cells next door. Whether it's the prospect of suddenly being blown to smithereens or not being able to pay the mortgage, living in fear constrains a person, isolates one from another. We accept unequivocally what our bosses -- political or economic -- tell us, in order to latch onto a sense of security. It's obvious that living in fear stunts growth and eliminates intimacy, yet we do it again and again, in a million different, subtle ways.

How can we live where nothing threatens? All I can say is that it's an inversion -- to remake oneself inside-out, to expose the nerves and "go into" the idea of threatening things -- with absolute questioning and curiosity -- and thus see their unreality. If one can find a way to live without the psychological protections, somehow the threats vaporize, along with the accumulated ideas about an entity called "me" who stands to be threatened. Then, what is left between the hands? Unknowing!

Incidentally, the message at the start has a funny double meaning, which might be a topic for a subsequent post. :)

how many tigers should there be?

How many tigers should there be? This hilarious question came to mind when I read that many tiger species are becoming extinct, and the remaining numbers are very small -- only hundreds or thousands left in the world. So I wondered, "well then, how many ought there be?”

When I walk out my door, somehow I'm not tripping over rabbits or encountering a pack of hundreds of wolves. Even the insects, as numerous and diverse as they are here, are not taking over the place. The remarkable thing is that every creature fits into the ecosystem, and it's through the cooperation of the ecosystem that there is any kind of balance. I'm often struck when seeing some relatively rare insect, like a praying mantis the other day. In fact, I had never seen one previously. The ecosystem doesn't support millions of praying mantises -- there's no need for them. I hear coyotes calling nearly every night, but I've yet to see one. They're out there, doing their thing, and there's a limit to how many coyotes can survive in any one place.

Humans aren't like that. We just run roughshod over almost any ecosystem, growing until we chase everything away and ruin the environment. Sure, there are some limits -- people want to have enough space to fit all the crap they accumulate, and they want to have a spot of grass to remind them what the earth looks like. But if given the opportunity, we'll eagerly wipe out huge swaths of ecology for our pleasure. I wish I could imagine what pre-colonial New England looked like, covered with dense old growth forests. Europeans arrived and said “we'll take it!” and proceeded to clear cut the whole countryside, first for lumber, then to make pastures for raising sheep so that they could have a steady supply of thneeds socks. At what point can we step back and say, “oops!”?

finback whale

How many whales should there be? After seeing a whale in person for the first time, I wondered what their lives are like. Imagine having 100 million square miles to make your home, with very few natural predators (except, of course, humans). Females live in small groups and raise their young collectively. Adult males spend their lives in solitude, hundreds or thousands of miles away from another whale, until it’s time to mate -- then they use their enormously loud voices to call females across the ocean. There might be a million whales left in the world, but it's impossible to know for sure.

What is the passage of time like for sperm whales, who possess the largest brains on earth and live past 70 (or, for baleen whales, past 120 -- no one knows)? What do they experience and think, as they spend day after day alone, in the icy polar waters? Do they lust for more giant squid than they could possibly eat? Do they plan war against other whales or maybe dolphins?

No, whales are the living saints of the sea. In our history, we've martyred millions of them, so that we could have makeup, transmission fluid, and margarine. And we're the intelligent ones?

So, how many tigers, how many whales? The answer seems to be: "as many as humanity accepts." We loved the Passenger Pigeon so much that we reduced their numbers from billions to zero. Nowadays, we love putting palm oil in everything we eat; as a result, we just can't accept any more Orangutans on this planet. Sorry, cousins -- get your own planet! After all, we're trying to give ourselves heart disease, here!

quechee woods

I wish it weren't so depressing. When I drove into Vermont recently, the first thought was, "this is how it's supposed to be" -- where people are outmatched, outnumbered, and outclassed by trees. It's a reassuring, if hopelessly naive thought. There's no virgin land here. The trees can speak to our clear-cutting even in verdant Vermont. It's only a difference of degree between suburbia and Quechee gorge and between a toxic dump and Manhattan. But there's a point when differences of degree become differences of kind; my hope is that we don't bulldoze past that point in the pursuit of happiness, growth, and progress.

looking into the abyss
the tree submerged, beneath the shadow of man -- a glimpse into the future


this time
when the marigold butterflies arrive,
resting on the ground
gently opening and closing wings
with grace, without purpose
or else the purpose is to bestow it upon me,
most-honored guest

at night
the sound of a moth's wings flitter above my head,
searching along the edge of the wall
desperate for an exit.
he belongs outside,
but his instincts have enslaved him
to a floor lamp.

Girl With Portfolio

guillaume lethiere portrait

This was the most beautiful portrait I found at the Worcester Art Museum today. It's a painting by Guillaume Guillon Lethière from 1799.

For the most part, I don't like art museums. They're usually about the lifestyles of the rich and dead. And only the major art museums end up with the good stuff – the rest are filled with odd trinkets, portraits of long-forgotten inbred royalty, and whatever crap on a canvas passes for contemporary art this month.

More seriously, it's the obsession with objects plucked out of the world and preserved indefinitely that seems most unhealthy. I walk briskly through the exhibits on furniture and pottery – what good is a chair that will never again see a rump? Or an ancient ceramic piece that may have been useful 500 years ago but now just sits behind glass, inert as a stone? It's almost as heartbreaking as visiting a zoo filled with dying animals.

I also feel that curators probably have no taste. Because they're in love with art as a concept, they have to be fair to the various genres and epochs of art, even the really crappy stuff. The alternative – that they actually appreciate everything hanging on the walls – strains belief.

As I strolled through the museum, it was plain to see how much of the art is an expression of a limited ego. Whether it's a representation of some pasty royal with an inflated ego, or it's a postmodern blob of goo on top of an advertisement, either case portrays an extremely constrained view of things. Then, to go ahead and enshrine these expressions of ego by hanging them on a wall (sometimes next to an insufferable artist statement) in an elaborate building, makes the whole endeavor seem like farce. There's very little to see that moves the soul; it's an almost purely intellectual exercise, which, in my view, misses the mark of what art ought to do.

But then again, sometimes I come across something like The Girl With Portfolio, and I'm stopped in my tracks. Maybe those museums are worth keeping open, just in case...

oak and maple

under the Red Oak
Maple tickles its neighbor
true intimacy