the irish have risen (to the top of nob hill)

Posted in the city, Transformations on April 25, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

This weekend the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising was celebrated with a concert at Grace Cathedral. In that grand space the words rebellion, oppression, socialism – set to a new operatic score – reverberated down the chilly nave, absorbed in the folds of the comfortable flesh of a flush-faced, suburban crowd.

Interspersed with the cantos of high style were some old country laments – pipes, flute, harp, fiddle, drum. Plaintive and joyful at once, unutterably beautiful. The music of exile and loss to which you must dance. Composed by people whose names are gone from our collective memory.

From these heights (the biggest flag you ever saw atop the Mark Hopkins Hotel across the park) Jones Street plunges down the hill to the darkest trough of the meanest city blocks, where the hopes of the new Irish come to grief at the hands of the cops, politicians, and bureaucrats with the lyrical names.

All true human music is the sound of exile. Our comfort surrounds an abyss; our freedom is only an absence. Let us at least keep making music, then. The streets are rivers of music, and rivers flow where they will.

twice-told tales

Posted in Transformations, visions on April 17, 2016 by Christy Rodgers
  1. The little lame boy in the Pied Piper of Hamelin

who gets left behind when the others are led off to their magical fate, weeps and weeps as if his heart were broken. He can never be comforted, because he sees it all; he knows what he has missed. Since he could not follow the music, he will have a long, boring, sated life, without wonder in it, marked mainly by isolation and mild contempt disguised as pity, in which each day is nothing more than a series of moments existed through until there are no more moments left for him. While his lost companions will go singing and dancing wildly into an invisible shining world full of mystery and marvels – even if it seems to the fearful, hesitant, grasping townspeople that they are being led away to bitter death.

  1. The Grandmother in Little Red Riding Hood

What was she doing living out there on her own in the woods? There’s always been something suspect, something louche about her. If she’d just agreed to live in town with her daughter and son-in-law, none of this would have happened. But it may be that the grandmother is a kind of bohemian, an independent-minded sort who doesn’t really get along with her children that well, and her granddaughter loves to visit her because she can’t wait to get away from her oppressive, boring parents, with their chores and nagging. Anyway, as the grandmother knows, sooner or later we’ve all got to face the predators out there; we’ve got to succumb to them or become them; c’est la vie. And it’s a wise child who knows her own grandmother.

  1. The animals in all the tales

The goats, pigs, spiders, geese, cats, donkeys, mice, rabbits, deer, foxes, swans, chickens, crows, eagles, ants, serpents, bears – extras, walk-ons, or stars, they all leave the set each night exhausted, muttering glumly, knowing they’ll never get anything like what they’re worth for their work; they’re just being used for their exotic qualities. But their real lives are never shown, never make it into the tales that light up the big screens. It’s always all about these rich, self-absorbed apes, with their clever tongues, draped bodies, and busy hands. The other animals wonder how it all came to be this way, and how much longer it will go on being this way. They take their meager pay and trudge stoically back to the tattered fields and woodlands at the edge of town, to watch and wait.

ah, wilderness!

Posted in culture shifts, Transformations on April 8, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

I once took a wilderness and transformed it into a garden. But along the way I killed or evicted anything I didn’t want, I radically reduced the biodiversity in whole areas, by poor soil management I created tiny deserts where almost nothing grew. I practiced a kind of ethnic cleansing as I weeded, uprooting and forcibly removing many things that had long established themselves and were happy and thriving – often for no purpose but an aesthetic one. I set up borders where once there were none. I made roads – paths, that is – nothing was allowed to grow where I walked.

As I learned better how to garden, I began to let things back in that I hadn’t planted, as long as I liked the way they looked, and they didn’t compete with my colony of plants, the ones that were for my exclusive use, slaves of my need for food and beauty.

Years went by, and I could relax, now that I was in control and knew how to get what I wanted from the land. I interfered less and less. The plants that had survived my scourges were supple and forgiving. The animals were unobtrusive – they had learned to stay away, to haunt less tended spaces. The more aggressive birds chased the others away, and took advantage of the insects and seeds that were on offer when I disturbed the soil. It all seemed to be in proper equilibrium.

My garden was beautiful, and I was happy. But the wilderness was gone for good. As long as I lived, it would not return.

baucis and philemon in the 21st century: notes on living small

Posted in Essays on February 22, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on The Dark Mountain Project blog. It was republished on Resilience.

I live in the nation with the highest rates of personal consumption and energy use ever seen on earth, and I live small. But it isn’t an intentional experiment, like no-impact, no-plastic, all-local, Tiny House, zero-waste, or any of the others that periodically make waves now. I didn’t decide to start living small one day and rearrange my life to fit a program. It happened because, as the memoirist Vivian Gornick says of living alone, “I said yes to this and no to that” and at some point found myself in this situation.

Even though I’ve adopted a number of now-familiar lifestyle habits to limit my consumption of goods and energy, that’s somewhat incidental. I’ve also made some “small” choices less trumpeted by sustainability advocates: I have stayed in one place for a long time, which requires far fewer resources than the constant uprooting common here in the US (where we change our homes on average once every four years). My place happens to be urban, so I’m lucky that, at least in this country, it’s easier to be resource-efficient in the city than the suburbs or the countryside. I should say that this is not to be confused with “self-sufficient” (whatever that actually means – there’s a whole other essay there). The vast infrastructure that sustains me is profoundly wasteful; I’ve just limited my demands upon it somewhat.

I also own no real estate, no home or land. (Individual property tenure is possibly the most anti-ecological type of tenure ever invented, notwithstanding the hash some societies have made of attempts at large-scale collective tenure.) I live in a rented flat; the same flat I’ve lived in for over twenty years. I live with my husband, who had been there for fifteen years before I met him, in the city where he was born. We have two rooms, a kitchen, and bath. We have no yard, laundry machines, or dishwasher, no children, no pets, and no car.

In fact, outside of this country our lifestyle isn’t particularly exceptional. To this day, millions of people live as we do in urban areas around the world, although it’s somewhat rare to be our age and not to have children. At the same time many others, urban or rural, have even fewer possessions than we and have had to work harder for those they have.

And to be honest, none of this really came about because of an ecological awareness on our part. It had more to do with a lack of personal ambition, and a feeling of alienation toward the drivers of what is called ambition. So what does living small really mean, in this context?

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the end of the enlightenment: a fable for our times

Posted in Essays on January 29, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines.

Literary scholar and critic Walter Benjamin said that for human social progress to occur it was necessary to “dissolve myth into the space of history” but he was wrong. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, myth is back, and badder than ever. It is the ultimate Ghost in the Machine of the Scientific Revolution. And I’m going to suggest that not only will we not rid ourselves of the mythic worldview in any conceivable social formation that might actually be thought of as progress, but that it has been a great mistake even to try.

Benjamin applied a profoundly poetic insight to the critical appreciation of imaginative literature, one of the major narrative traditions that emerged from ancient myth. But he was also a follower of Marx and thus a materialist. As such he was a late product of the European Enlightenment. If any records or scholars to analyze them survive in, say, three hundred years, I believe they will determine that the Enlightenment ended sometime around the turn of the 21st century (and Benjamin’s quixotic life and death under the shadow of European fascism may provide an interesting sidelight to its demise).

The Enlightenment was thoroughly and inevitably Trumped (a term that – for now – has the resonance of a fable) largely by the unintended consequences of the work of three of its final, and greatest, heroes. Perhaps a Ragnarök analogy is not out of place here.

What I’m about to do is present our recent history to you as a mythic fable. Bear with me, and at the end I will tell you why.

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the messengers

Posted in the city, Transformations on January 27, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

I went to Ocean Beach and it was gone. In twenty years i had never seen this: the surf line crashed directly against the base of the great dunes that buffer the shore, behind which the Great Highway runs. The shoreline road was empty for as far as i could see, preternaturally so at midday, until i realized that it might have been closed because of flood risk from the king tide, or blowing sand from the wild winds.

I stood atop the dunes, where one or two other solitary persons pensively regarded a deep, multilayered line of storm clouds roiling landward, a study in pattern formation. The wind exhilarated me; it was full of high portent. This is only the beginning, it said. Go and hide inside a world of pixilated screens for as long as you think you can: put on those chintzy goggles, strap computers to your wrists, stuff headphones in your ears, or infuse the physical world before you with algorithmic animation projected onto a piece of expensive eyewear – but I will be howling outside through every crack in your shoddy sand castle walls, and you haven’t yet seen the least of what I can do.

It wasn’t speaking to me personally of course. (That’s madness.) It was speaking to the ages to come; I’d be long gone before the prophecy it whispered was fulfilled:

When the wind blows
The cradle will rock
When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall

How well everything works now! I thought as I rode back on the streetcar docile and omnipotent. The massive cranes moving up and down atop the new high-rises. The lights come on, go off, in sequence, as other machines tell them to. My credit card! Food, medicine, plants for my garden – i got all these with a promise made upon a small piece of plastic-covered circuitry. All these people i’ve never met from all over the globe are providing me with everything i need for a comfortable life, instead of storming the gates of their rulers’ palaces, to get back some of the wealth they are hoarding, most of which exists only as two digits, zero and one, in a dimensionless realm of similarly insubstantial promises. The Emperor’s New Stock Options…

The faces along the bar
Cling to their average day
The lights must never go out
The music must always play –

Lest we should see where we are
Lost in a haunted wood
Children afraid of the dark
Who have never been happy or good.

But i was happy walking home in the soft rain. It felt like a blessing – rather this gentle, dark rain is what priestly blessings were invented to imitate and supersede. Then across the street and a little way behind me i heard a shriek – an unearthly sound. I glanced back and a man stood there with something strange in his stance. I couldn’t see him well, half hidden behind a parked car. But as i looked he turned his face towards me and it was young and impish, filled with a hideous, staring grin, the eyes wide and white as boiled eggs on a brown plate. He seemed possessed of a dreadful joy. He shrieked again, an indescribable sound. And then he began to cross the street toward me, in the midst of the roaring traffic. He loped as if his uncontainable joy were forcing him to dance. Cars swerved to avoid him.

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy…

I turned and walked on as fast as i could, breathing in panicked gasps. I heard his shrieks intermittently behind me; no matter how quickly i moved, I couldn’t get them to sound any farther away. I was almost running, scrambling up the steep hill. I didn’t dare to look back.

I was nearly home before i couldn’t hear the shrieks anymore. I kept thinking i would turn around and see him loping after me, desperate to give me the message with which his madness filled him. Here, this is for you.

The next day a mild sun shone; i went out to take a walk. I walked down the hill, stopped at the store, came out and there he was at the bus stop. He beamed with joy, and shrieked.

only the beginning.

listening to the radio in the garden

Posted in culture shifts, Transformations on January 24, 2016 by Christy Rodgers

The neuroscientist is talking about the difference between default perception – a kind of cognitive shorthand, a convenient fiction provided by the brain, using a mental construct built from previous experience (on a sunny day the sky is [fill in blank]) in order to deal efficiently with the constant stream of sensory information the brain is receiving without having to analyze each element individually – and the enhanced perception experienced at moments when a fuller awareness is required. In such enhanced perception, moments seem to extend beyond the constraints of measurable time, and minute details are revealed to have previously unperceived levels of complexity and connection to other elements of perception. Perception acquires capabilities of recognition that are almost incommensurable to the default mode. There is clearly a survival benefit to having both types of awareness.

And as i am working in the garden, i am thinking of the people who know plants well enough, after many instances of enhanced perception perhaps, to understand them as sentient beings. And therefore move through a garden or grove as you or i would move through a room crowded with people we recognized and knew intimately, most of whom we truly loved, all of whom we respected (i suppose most people’s rooms today would be quite small) hearing each one speaking to you of its current condition of life in its very particular voice.

And for just a moment – but it feels capacious – in the spangled sunlight of the quiet green space, enriched by all the beneficent molecules these speechless, unambulatory but not immobile beings are releasing invisibly but not imperceptibly into the air around me, i feel as if it might be possible to be who and what we are only and yet come to know a thing worth knowing.

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