The fires are coming in closer, surrounding us on three sides, not quite here yet, but close enough. As I watch the winds pick up, die down and then pick up again, I feel my stress level rise, relax and then rise again. “Is this the end?” I wonder, straining to breathe against the sooty air. Having already lived much of my allotted time here, the situation is not so tragic for me, but what about the young ones who have not yet had their chance in the sun?
“No Fair!” I want to shout. “No fair to all the creatures fleeing and the burning forests laid waste. No fair to the homeless people and the babies just being born!”
No fair to missourchance to love one another, to live our share of the human drama, to tell the ongoing story of the world. Please! I want to shout at the elements, Please give me at least another week to get this all sorted out!
Two weeks, maybe?
Then, last night, at a house concert of musicians from North India singing to the ecstatic poetry of Kabir, I ran into a man I have loved in the past and not seen in years. We’d gotten tangled up at the time, had a big fight and haven’t spoken to each other since.
Softened by the spell of the music and the joy in the room, I found myself pulled back into our old affection, and time was erased. The smoke and debris of our story was burned off now, and the air free of the past. We could breathe again, and find one another in a new season, despite the fact that we are aging and not so adorable as we once were.
A clearing of the air.
I have watched this kind of clearing process happen on the ground and in real time in rural Vermont, where farmers pile up the non-compostable debris of the year in a back field until, one day before winter comes on, the pile gets torched and goes up in blazing flames and smoke. Watching the pile burn into the night, seeing that brilliant orange fire roar and crackle up towards a black sky massed with stars is one of my favorite things to do in the world. Big heat, big drums playing in my ears, a hot and pounding music of the elements. We take turns watching through the night, making sure the flames don’t get out of control, and swap stories and songs, wrapping potatoes in tinfoil to roast in the fire, and eating them piping hot in the cold night.
By daylight, nothing but a smoldering patch of scorched earth betrays the wildness of the fiery night, and the next spring the black patch has disappeared into the green buckwheat grass of the field.
I think the world must do that too, periodically burn and recycle everything in it, from microbes to people to mountains. Eventually, everything must cycle back into its constituent parts and evolve into its next form of life.
On the level of people, we call it ‘death.’
I suspect even whole civilizations do that too – fall back into the earth like Humpty Dumpty, making space for whatever comes next. I wonder if that is not what we are seeing right now as our society falls apart at the seams, and we are swept over by fires and floods and high winds as the earth attempts to cleanse itself of old debris?
In the moment, it feels like an Apocalypse! Of course nobody waxes philosophical when the family home burns down, but looking up the word ‘apocalypse’ I see that it means uncovering or revealing, rather than disaster.
I take these fires seriously as a forewarning because it’s more than time we prepare for the inevitable big changes coming down the pike. We’d do well to rid ourselves of some old debris we’ve been carrying around with us for way too long now, too – all those fearful habits of mind and personality that narrow our perceptions of what is real, what is useful and what is family.
I have to cringe at some of my own – like my habit of looking for someone to blame when something goes wrong – say my favorite cup goes missing and I know who took it… until it shows up where I’d left it myself. And you should hear me on the subject of two-party politics!
Seeing my old friend the other night, I remembered what had gone awry for us those many years ago, and how certain I had been that it was his fault. But because I was so hurt I never asked him what happened that day, and our relationship ended with a sorry bang. For years we’ve rarely crossed paths, which is probably a loss for both of us.
Now, all these years later the story no longer matters but our old connection does, and I wonder if we both feel regret for those lost years of friendship? I do, at least. As elders now, we know very well how brief our lives on earth are, and that time and love are too precious to be squandered.
Lately, I’ve been reading the ancient myths about floods and fires, comets and volcanos, trying to understand about global warming and climate change in the past. Mythologies from all over the ancient world tell of devastating fires followed by raging floods that essentially sweep the earth clean of everything. Noah and the Ark is only the tip of the iceberg (pun intended.) I read of sun flares melting huge glaciers and the resulting floods that cover the lands, turning whole continents into chains of islands. I read stories of survivors paddling their canoes into new, uncharted waters, bringing their old Gods with them. I read of angry mountain gods spewing thunderbolts of fire and swords of ice onto the land, and wise men appearing in longboats to help the people find their way again.
These great destructions have apparently happened many times before to perhaps even more advanced civilizations than ours! We may not be the only ones at all! Others have apparently arisen, flourished and then disappeared beneath soil and waves and ages of ice, leaving few hints of their passage. We humans may have been around for way longer than we thought, inhabiting this place that, at this moment in Time, we happen to call ‘home.’
I’ve also learned that ice cores drilled deep down in the Antarctic ice sheets show that climate change and global warming are not a new phenomenon of our time, but have happened many times before in the long history of the planet.
Which means that global warming is probably not our fault! Or not entirely our fault. Yes, we’ve helped it along with our ignorance and naked greed, but we’re not the sole cause! I’d guess we’re neither smart enough, nor stupid enough for that!
Somehow, I find that a relief. So now what do we do?
Yesterday, one-year old Lucas was at my house, full of beans! He chuckled and pointed and drooled as babies do, taking off at a fast waddle to climb the stairs. There he went, his Mom close behind, playing the ‘catch-me’ game and giggling and squealing while his Grandma and I melted with adoration and pride. We were four totally happy people!
It seems that what-to-do is that simple – we just need to play! Playfulness is born into us, but we get so caught up in being serious that we forget to loosen up and have fun. And adore.
By the end of the afternoon, Lucas was making it up a full flight of stairs, his Mom was exhausted and the two grandmas were bouncing him on our knees.
So, again, what do we do now? I still don’t know, but here is what I do know: that the world is a wonder, and I am still alive in it. I’d rather not miss my chance to know it in all its weathers, to try out new ideas and create beauty where I can. In my time left, I want to love who I love and learn what there is to learn, no matter the circumstance or the heartbreak. Before I fall asleep and dream each night, I want one new revelation to come unbidden into my imagination and one idea for a possible new piece to share with you.
I want my time here to be not dulled, but enriched by the edge of danger we are living through. We don’t have to keep repeating an old pattern that no longer works!
The other day, at a building site on the farm I’ll be soon living at, Darles and Kenya were preparing a fresh batch of clay-mud for plastering the walls of the house. The humming cement mixer was tossing it round and round, its motor sounding as clear a tonic note as I’ve ever heard. So I hummed along with it, improvising harmonies. One by one, the others joined in until our voices were blending in a brand new song that had never before been heard in the history of the world.
We were such a beautiful choir, singing to the bass note of a cement mixer…
And whyever not?