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Posts published in “Ruminations”

Things I think about besides poetry. Ruminations, confessions, observations, and other twaddle.

Instead of Claws

David Ruekberg 0
Deer tracks mark the powdery snow out back and in front. They don’t often come up so close to the house, but it was cold outside last night, 15 degrees. A stretch of cold after a stretch of unusual warm for February. How do they keep warm? Worse is when it's freezing rain, and they huddle under any shelter they can find—bare thorn trees down by the creek, hemlocks on the hill, the cold wet soaking their backs, layers of fat still no match for the soak that mats their fur. Birds fluff up their feathers to create a down coat. Some huddle in nests with others, trading places through the night from the cold outer shell of the ball of bird they make in towards the toasty interior. Shivering warms them, the vibrations making friction between their own tissues, but it burns up a lot of energy. They wait until late morning to flock to our feeders, until it’s a few degrees warmer and they can wait no longer to restock their stores. Evolution has done the best it could to help them survive, but evolution is not intelligent, not purposeful. It works by subtraction: if your genes haven’t delivered the right combination of attributes to get you through cold nights and long droughts, you're done, you’re dropped from the equation. The ones who happen to survive through some lucky combination of alleles or mutation make it. People mistake Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest” for “survival of the most brutal." Fit doesn’t necessarily mean physically strong. The human species, like other apes, like dogs, have succeeded through cooperation, language being one of the most important tools of that function. Elephants can run faster, hear better, and rip up big trees out of the ground way more easily than we can. Bears have claws and bats have echolocation. But we have advanced language skills and ingenuity. We get farther as a group of people, a tribe, a town, a civilization, by collecting, preserving, and passing down a set of instructions for how to survive: what foods to eat and which to avoid, how to build a better shelter, how to make a cart move easier with wheels than by dragging, how to burn material to run engines that can do the work of a hundred men. We collect that wisdom in books and libraries and now the Internet. Now we’re at the crisis point of our civilization. We’ve consumed so many materials and burned so much of them that we’ve created the conditions for cataclysmic change that threaten us and all species, in addition to the privations we’ve perpetrated on nature to cause the extinction of almost nine-hundred species in the last five hundred years. That rate is due to increase fantastically—between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the background rate—if we don’t change the way we live. We can make that change the same way we got to this point, by cooperation and ingenuity. I don’t believe people are strong-willed enough to do what we need to do on an individual basis. Look at the trouble people have sticking to a diet. But we can use one of the best tools of civilization, government, to guide us towards the behavior required to succeed. A government can say, “You can’t dump toxic waste in a canal that runs next to people’s homes.” It can create the conditions for businesses to build and manufacture in a way that supports health, rather than the wealth of a few mercenary capitalists who care mainly about power rather than health, about their own well-being over the well-being of those they live among. We already have the technology to swiftly make a transition away from a fossil fuel economy and towards one that runs clean and cheap. Government is the parent who can restrain the unruly child who threatens to burn down the whole house. It is the ultimate mechanism of cooperation. [caption id="attachment_2514" align="alignright" width="300"] One of several decorated rocks that appeared in my neighborhood during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown. (Click to enlarge.)[/caption] That’s not the perfect analogy, as we are the ones who empower government, which isn’t the same relationship as children have to their parents. In reality, it’s up to us to tell government how we should be governed. Unlike some who see government as an interference (except when they want government to make it more profitable to run a business), I have always seen the primary purpose of government to be to save us from ourselves. We use it to act as the prefrontal cortex to rein us in when the amygdala is screaming at us to fight or flee. Instead, the message from the forebrain is, “We can do this.” My way of accomplishing both goals—working to save life on earth as we know it, and to enlist the help of government to accomplish that, is to be an active member of Citizens' Climate Lobby. But there are many ways. What's yours?      

Waiting for the Bus

David Ruekberg 0
Today I want to complain about moms and dads who drive their kids from the house to the end of the driveway to wait for the bus in the morning.  I see this every day when I drive to work.  I’m a teacher and I live 25 miles from where I teach, and I take back roads for the first half of the commute, so I get to see a good variety of houses and neighborhoods on my way.  I wouldn’t say these cases are the majority, or numerous, or ubiquitous, but they are regular enough that I have to take notice, and my sense is that their numbers are increasing. My first question is, of course, What the hell? Before I slice these people up, I want to try to understand what might be legitimate about their practice.  First of all, it’s possible that in the winter, on a morning when all the kids (and their teachers) are praying for a snow day, because the flakes have been falling all night, or the temperature is below zero at five a.m. and the wind chill has knocked that down ten or twenty degrees more, that mom or dad would be truly concerned about their kid and sit with them in their mobile shelter with the motor running to keep them from getting frostbite on their fingers and noses which would make doing math problems and writing compositions and sniffing out the bullies difficult. I was going to include to keep their hair from freezing, as I remember mine doing after sports on winter afternoons as I walked home from the gym, but then I realized most of these kids are blow-drying their hair. But that doesn’t explain the other 170 or days of the school year. This past spring I drove by, and there they were, sealed up on a blessedly balmy morning, the sun rising outside their tinted windows, exhaust placidly streaming out of the tailpipe. This image leads me to my second forgiving supposition: that mom or dad and junior are sharing a few moments together, talking about the day ahead or just past, or about grandma’s upcoming operation, or the reason for fog, or any number of other intimacies that I have found have transpired between my step-son and me when both of us were sitting facing forward looking at the world through the screen of a car windshield. Like TV without the commercials, or the idiocy. But in that case, I think, why not have that conversation standing on the good earth, and be able to include in the experience the twittering of birds, the breeze on your cheeks, the changing light, and – if you love machines that much – the sound of cars, mine and others, whizzing by on their ways to work? Maybe mom or dad is on the way to work, and so is just taking the opportunity to warm up the car and spend a few precious moments with her or his child? But often enough I’ve seen the bus come and, as I’m waiting for the child to slowly, slowly board and the stop sign attached to the side of the yellow hulk to fold back and the red lights to stop flashing, the parental vehicle – usually an SUV or at least a minivan – backs down the driveway towards the garage, there to shut itself down and the parent to slide back into the warm cave of the home. In many cases these homes are newly built on what was just a few years ago active farm land.  In some cases the driveway between the road and garage is long, sometimes very long: ranging from  a hundred yards to a quarter mile.  These are no doubt people who have fled the dangers and noise of the city to build their 4,800 square foot dream home in the country amid the wonders of nature (the teeming goldenrod and sumac, the polecats and falcons safely distant beyond their five acre lawns), so they can expend fossils fuels at the rate of a gallon a week to drive their kids down to the road to wait for the bus. Later, to keep their kids from joining the growing epidemic of obesity and drugs and afternoon re-runs, they shuttle them off to the soccer league after school, then swing by the local supermarket to pick up some frozen oven-fried chicken, a quart of coleslaw, and a couple of two-liter Cokes to shovel in at the kitchen breakfast bar that suffices for a dining table as they hurry off to do homework or catch the latest installment of Survivor. Unfortunately, the floods of climate change won’t come to their front lawns, which are well-above sea-level. If the drought comes they won’t be affected, because the county recently ran a water line out to their house so they wouldn’t have to depend on a well anymore.  (They didn’t run the line specifically for their sakes, but as side effect of construction out to the little town on the edge of the county where the new landfill sits, a deal the town council, though not its constituents, thought was a bargain.) If Lake Ontario dried up, they might be in some trouble, but that isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes. And, if, as predicted, this particular region becomes wetter than it already is (and grayer, which many already complain about), there will certainly be no shortage of water, and they can rely on their sump pump to keep the basement dry, and advanced artificial playing surfaces to keep the soccer fields playable. Though, Where to? would be the question. The deserts of the west are due to become dryer, and all the rain we’re expected to get here won’t help that – though there are plans afoot to pipe some on Ontario’s water out west, or even ship it to our friends in the Saudi Arabia in exchange for, you guessed it, oil to keep mom’s and dad’s motors purring. (That could shorten Ontario's useful life.) Can they make a driveway long enough or a window glass tinted enough to shut out all those contingencies?  
This rant was originally posted on my blog "Ruekblog" at (now defunct) on July 5, 2007.  

On the Necessity of Prayer and Art

David Ruekberg 0
I am thinking this morning about prayer. I had tried to meditate for the first time in a long time, and encountered the same old problem: an inability to really shut off the chatter of talk and image in my mind. It’s what frustrated me when I was twenty and seeking connection with a higher power in meditation. Perhaps it was that frustration that led me to stop seeking. Recently, I have been forced back because I had lost control over some aspects of my life. At any rate, this morning I gave up as quickly as ever trying to ignore the chatter, and tried something I have avoided since I was little: I prayed. I used words. This had the immediate effect of making me feel some of that contact which I have again, at forty, realized I need. I am not sure why this works better for me than for others; I still envy those who can clear their minds, and maybe someday I will be able to as well. Maybe it is just the way my mind works; since I am a writer, words wash through my mental landscape relentlessly. I think it must also have something to do with how everyone’s mind works. Perhaps the clearing of the mind is unnatural, though like several unnatural practices—such as writing—great benefits are derived from it. Or perhaps it is just a different mode, because certainly I have caught myself meditating without intending to. (I am referring to the Eastern idea of meditation, not the Western, in which a subject is actively explored mentally.)  There have been times when I have looked out over a landscape and puzzled about the wonder of trees, or fussed about the hunger of humankind. But there have been moments when my mind has just cleared, and I have simply looked, or better yet, been a part of the landscape, without comment, judgment, or drawing conclusions. But this phenomenon of prayer took me by surprise, until I realized that it is really a close neighbor to storying, as well as to dreaming. By storying, I mean not just the reading or telling or stories, but the constant stream of stories we create in our minds throughout the day. We are either recalling an old story, something that happened to us, or revising it (either more to our liking or less, depending on the flux of our mental health). Or we are inventing a story that has not happened, perhaps one that we wish would happen (a happy relationship), or one that we wish would not (getting mangled in a car wreck). Our imagination functions through storying. Dreams, of course, are the most obvious place in which stories come to life in our minds, and though some doubt that these are any meaningful kind of stories, others live by them. In my experience, understanding my dreams has certainly helped me understand parts of my life that were otherwise incomprehensible. I was hiding something from myself which the dream presented to me, either to my pleasure or chagrin. I think that everything we do, every decision we make must, by the nature of the structure of our thinking process, be drawn through the wash of the storymaker inside. That is why it is essential that we understand and revere that part of ourselves. It is the intermediary between ourselves and that higher power within us. Some call that higher power God or by any other assortments of names. Some believe that it exists only within as a psychological construct, others that it exists everywhere, in every object and force of nature, and still others that it exists as a King on a throne somewhere in the sky. It is impossible to prove where it exists, but whichever metaphor serves each of us in a healthy way is appropriate. I think we can never really know it directly, but only through this intermediary. The Hopis have a ceremonial figure named a kachina who acts as this sort of intermediary. In their dances are figures who represent beings on the other side of consciousness—gods, demons, unconscious elements, however you want to call it. These are sometimes frightening and always mysterious. It is the job of the kachina to mediate between those members of the shadow world, of heaven or hell, of the unconscious, and our world. To bring us rain and maybe the news from the other side. Any decision we make without consulting this helper, kachina, storyteller, or whoever, is at best a gamble. We might win or lose. The purpose of consulting with a higher power is not to ensure we win. That is why bringing myself to prayer felt at first so odd, so corny, so shallow. Too often prayer is used to ask for special favors from God, as though higher power were a kind of Santa Claus. Likewise, I was never satisfied with religious justifications for not having one’s prayer’s answered: “God works in mysterious ways.”  It is hard for me to believe that there is a divine figure playing dice at my expense, or taking time out from managing supernovas to make sure I get the Christmas present I asked for. I will take a chance here an theorize that higher power is not interested in my personal success, but in the success of life. Thus, if we consult higher power and the decision ends up going “against us,” it is not a loss. In this case we are prepared to use the experience as a learning experience because we are connected to what matters, to the core of life. If we are not so connected and we are disappointed by our “luck” then we are open to confusion, bitterness, and doubt. God is not so much a part of me as I am a part of God. Higher power is not stooping to help me; I am reaching for it. But this dichotomy is unnecessary. There is a design that I am a part of; the energy flows both ways. Therefore, getting right with myself is not only necessary for my own health, but contributes to the health of all life. This is not a grandiose sentiment, though it could lead to that. It is more like voting. My vote alone means little but, combined with the votes of all around me, can make a difference. I do my part, at the same time encouraging others to do theirs. This is another way in which the life of the imagination is critical, though it is often downplayed by our culture. Whether it is through story, poetry, art, theater, dance, or other forms of purely imaginative play, we strengthen our contact with the essential core of our being. Art is not fluff, therefore, but one of the most important endeavors of our daily living. It is our way of ensuring that our contact with God is strong. It is also important that all expressions of art be honored. Not all news from the other world comes in a bright sunny form. Sometimes things in our lives or our society are out of sync, are unhealthy, and as with nightmares we need the disturbing expressions of art to help point this out, to help amend whatever is unhealthy. Of course, some art may truly be only for shock value; perhaps this is akin to the addict abusing whatever substance or behavior that once inspired to now do harm. Alcohol may have helped someone break out of his shell, but then the sensitive personality retreated into the drug, rather than using it merely as a catalyst; or the sex addict fell into the sensual abyss, mistaking the hormonal hit for the boost of feeling connected to life. It’s hard to determine, though, if a work of art is done merely for shock value or other personal gratification only, or from the legitimate need of society to hear the cry of pain from the artist, or what degree of each. Even the artist may not be a reliable source of help on this question, though I think each of us knows when we are acting out of the self or out of communion with higher power. And maybe it doesn’t matter, since even the most legitimate expression of art will shock or dismay some while it enlightens others. Ultimately, the purpose of art is not to please, but to elevate (though it may please some to be so elevated). Thus, art becomes a kind of prayer (or whatever method of contacting the life-source one uses), a social prayer, through which a group of people may be able to contact what is best in them, in each other, in the life around them. The kachina dances. We watch, listen, join the dance. At the end of the festivities, at the end of the day we return to ourselves alone, and must ask ourselves if we are satisfied with who we are. The need to contact the power that can make us so is a daily necessity, one which we are reminded of through our social experience, our contact with others and art, through our own behavior, and through our thoughts and dreams. It is hard to avoid some kind of feedback about how we are doing, yet we often avoid it well every day. So, it can come as a shock that we have been living a life out of balance. If the shock does not come in the form of an artifact, still it will come. Nevertheless, when it does there is a force which can help us survive it.  
This piece was originally written on August 28, 2000