Bob Schwartz

If you want to understand 2021 and beyond, keep thinking about World War II and the atomic bomb

Everything you want to know about where we are and where we may be going can be found in a study of World War II and the atomic bomb.

In 1945, we witnessed two phenomena.

We learned about the depths to which an “advanced” society could descend. That human beings in substantial numbers, who pretended to embrace civilized ideals, could endorse and follow a path that can be described as demonic.

We learned that as technological developers, we were capable of threatening the physical well-being of the entire planet. We could literally produce an apocalypse.

Each of those is with us now.  

The ease, for example, with which leaders and followers of certain ideologies seem willing to throw away principles we thought were inviolable for the sake of their ideology, disguised as the greater good.

The threat of technology to the entire physical world, and to all who live in and on it, so that irreparable damage is increasingly inevitable.

Keep thinking about World War II and the atomic bomb. About what 1945 might teach us about ourselves and our possibilities.

Our two missed cultural rescue boats: The 1960s counterculture and the New Age

There’s a joke about a guy trapped in his house during a rising flood. A rescue boat comes along, but he refuses. “God will provide,” he says. A second boat comes. Same story. Same with a third boat. The guy drowns. He meets God and he asks “What happened? Why didn’t you rescue me?” God says, “What do you mean? I sent you three boats.”

The 1960s counterculture is dismissed and derided. “Look at the hypocritical hippies who grew up to be materialistic capitalists. Look at all the cultural dead ends they marched us into.” And so on.

The New Age movement that flourished in the late 1980s and early 1990s is similarly looked down upon in some circles. Movements about peace, love, understanding, soulful transformation, etc., were nothing new. They had centuries of history. It was the 1960s that revived interest, and that interest was grafted onto that longstanding (perennial) philosophy.

There is some acknowledgment that these two birthed or encouraged some good and useful contemporary phenomena. Meditation and yoga are now center stage. The environmental movement has similar backward reaching roots. There are more examples like these.

Both the 1960s counterculture and the New Age movement were much more than a collection of practices and beliefs. They were about different ways of being and tools to get there and tools to use there. That they got close to the mainstream—incorporated in original, transformed or sometimes abused form—was a good thing.

But it could have been more. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have been a mixed bag. The past few years, right up to the moment, count on the lesser side.

History is unknowable and uncontrollable. If the 1960s counterculture and the New Age movement had reached deeper into the mainstream, we can’t know what differences it might have promoted. We could be in a version of the same troubles we are in right now, maybe better, maybe worse, maybe sooner of later.

It is pleasing to think that moments and movements come along carrying the force and possibility of personal and institutional transformation. Boats to rescue us, or at least keep us from drowning. The 1960s counterculture and the New Age movement were two boats we decided not to take. Maybe there will be third.

© 2021 Bob Schwartz

Covid won the war with America. What does “learning to live with the enemy” mean?

America is fortunate compared to many nations. After the Revolution, we never had to live with a foreign occupying force. The last time there was a homeland occupation was after the Civil War, when the victorious North took over the defeated South (an event that still resonates today).

America had the tools to defeat Covid, or at least hold it substantially at bay. Mitigation strategies such as masking, distancing, testing, tracing were available—and ultimately vaccines. But there was insufficient will to use these soon and soundly enough. So now that Covid is endemic and still mutating, the mantra is “learning to live with it.”

It is too darkly smart to say that “living with Covid” doesn’t apply to the 700,000 officially (900,000 unofficially) who have already died from it, or the more than 1,000 a day still dying. That remark aside, we are staring into an unknowable hole of our own digging. Maybe another more pernicious variant. Likely the confluence of Covid and flu. Chronic “long haul” conditions we are just learning about. Along with the certainty that Covid is here to stay, in great part because of what we did or didn’t do.

So the next time you hear or say “learning to live with Covid,” contemplate and discuss exactly what that means. Around the world, people know what it means to live with an evil occupying force intent only on making them suffer and killing them. It is by no means too late to lessen the suffering and death the enemy tries to inflict. But we did have a chance to make things better, and we blew it. Please let us try again.

Merton and the desert fathers and mothers: Our pandemic opportunity to savor less society

Thomas Merton Hermitage

Around the fourth century, a number of Christian contemplatives left society and went into the desert to be alone, quite alone or in small groups. They didn’t stay forever, but while they did they left behind writings about their experience, known generally as the sayings and wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers.

In the 20th century, Thomas Merton left society, of which he had been a brilliant and creative member, joined a Christian order that mostly observed silence, became world famous for, ironically, writing the first of many books about his experience, built a hermitage on the Kentucky monastery grounds to somewhat escape society again, and along the way, not surprisingly, wrote a book about the desert contemplatives.

Academics have probably developed measures of how social we are at any time. The non-expert conclusion is that up until the pandemic we had grown massively social, especially but not only with the predominance of digital media. The pandemic changed that quite a bit, though social media filled in many gaps.

Almost universally, and often not inappropriately, this retreat from society was viewed as a detriment to be remedied as soon as possible. But we shouldn’t be too quick.

Those who are by nature, need, practice or joy social miss the company, and should pursue and embrace it. But give a thought to the desert fathers and mothers, and to Merton.

Merton spent his life struggling with the tension between the unique value of removing from society and the unique value of being in it with your whole body, heart and mind. The pandemic has offered an opportunity to contemplate—to live—that tension. It is easy to ignore, rushing to fill the social void as much and as soon as possible. Still there is still something in the hermitage, in the desert or in Kentucky or in your life, to commend a little alone.

Readings:

The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks by Benedicta Ward

Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings by Christine Valters Paintner  

The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers by Henry L. Carrigan

Emptying your mind is a good idea

Emptying the mind is not a total solution to problems, yours or the world’s. But it is beneficial enough to mention.

Emptying the mind is exactly what it sounds like. The techniques and practices, such as meditations and concentrations, are many. There are some that are more explicit about that outcome of empty mind. There are others that seem to be about filling your mind with a particular image or thought—visualizations, for example—but they are actually part of a two-step process. Whatever you concentrate on, however concrete, you are first letting go whatever is already there. If we assume that what is already there may be problematic, that first step is helpful.

What after emptying? This is where the particular traditions seem to diverge: what do you try to fill an empty mind with? Is it some high-minded thought about this principle or that, about this master or that?

This is to say ideally that it doesn’t matter. (Ideally because this is an imperfect world.) The empty mind is there not to make room for other stuff, like a room emptied of clutter only to be filled with even more clutter.

Most basically, whatever traditional particulars you read or are told, is seeing clear down and through yourself and all else. Without judgment, since while judgment has a place in the day to day, judgment has no place in an empty mind. There you find the thing and the person as they are. You find that each thing and each person—including yourself—is a text and a teaching different than the one you read before. With that, the particulars offered by the traditions also take on a new light.

Are the problems solved with an empty mind? Of course not. Are the problems different in the light of an empty mind? Of course.

The Galilee Hitch-Hiker

Following are all nine parts of Richard Brautigan’s work The Galilee Hitch-Hiker. You do not know that you need Richard Brautigan, this and his other works, but you do. Serious, sentimental, silly and sad, he responded to strange times and a strange life (aren’t they all?) in ways that would do any writer proud. Open hearts are the most vulnerable.

More about these poems and Richard Brautigan here.


The Galilee Hitch-Hiker

The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
Part 1

Baudelaire was
driving a Model A
across Galilee.
He picked up a
hitch-hiker named
Jesus who had
been standing among
a school of fish,
feeding them
pieces of bread.
“Where are you
going?” asked
Jesus, getting
into the front
seat.
“Anywhere, anywhere
out of this world!”
shouted
Baudelaire.
“I’ll go with you
as far as
Golgotha,”
said Jesus.
“I have a
concession
at the carnival
there, and I
must not be
late.”

The American Hotel
Part 2

Baudelaire was sitting
in a doorway with a wino
on San Fransisco’s skid row.
The wino was a million
years old and could remember
dinosaurs.
Baudelaire and the wino
were drinking Petri Muscatel.
“One must always be drunk,”
 said Baudelaire.
“I live in the American Hotel,”
said the wino. “And I can
 remember dinosaurs.”
“Be you drunken ceaselessly,”
 said Baudelaire.

1939
Part 3

Baudelaire used to come
to our house and watch
me grind coffee.
That was in 1939
and we lived in the slums
of Tacoma.
My mother would put
the coffee beans in the grinder.
I was a child
and would turn the handle,
pretending that it was
 a hurdy-gurdy,
and Baudelaire would pretend
that he was a monkey,
hopping up and down
and holding out
a tin cup.

The Flowerburgers
Part 4

Baudelaire opened
up a hamburger stand
in San Fransisco,
but he put flowers
between the buns.
People would come in
and say, “Give me a
hamburger with plenty
of onions on it.”
Baudelaire would give
them a flowerburger
instead and the people
would say, “What kind
of a hamburger stand
is this?”

The Hour of Eternity

Part 5

“The Chinese
read the time
in the eyes
of cats,”
said Baudelaire
and went into
a jewelry store
on Market Street.
He came out
a few moments
later carrying
a twenty-one
jewel Siamese
cat that he
wore on the
end of a
golden chain.

Salvador Dali
Part 6

“Are you
or aren’t you
going to eat
your soup,
you bloody odd
cloud merchant?”
Jeanne Duval
shouted,
hitting Baudelaire
on the back
as he sat
daydreaming
out the window.
Baudelaire was
startled.
Then he laughed
like hell,
waving his spoon
in the air
like a wand
changing the room
into a painting
by Salvador
Dali, changing
the room
into a painting
by Van Gogh.

A Baseball Game
Part 7

Baudelaire went
to a baseball game
and bought a hot dog
and lit up a pipe
of opium.
The New York Yankees
were playing
the Detroit Tigers.
In the fourth inning
an angel committed
suicide by jumping
off a low cloud.
The angel landed
on second base,
causing the
whole infield
to crack like
a huge mirror.
The game was
called on
account of
fear.

Insane Asylum
Part 8

Baudelaire went
to the insane asylum
disguised as a
psychiatrist.
He stayed there
for two months
and when he left,
the insane asylum
loved him so much
that it followed
him all over
California,
and Baudelaire
laughed when the
insane asylum
rubbed itself
up against his
leg like a
strange cat.

My Insect Funeral
Part 9

When I was a child
I had a graveyard
where I buried insects
and dead birds under
a rose tree.
I would bury the insects
in tin foil and match boxes.
I would bury the birds
in pieces of red cloth.
It was all very sad
and I would cry
as I scooped the dirt
into their small graves
with a spoon.
Baudelaire would come
and join in
my insect funerals,
saying little prayers
the size of
dead birds.

San Francisco
February 1958

Repair

For K

Repair

Unbroken broken repaired
which is stronger?
The story of making
breaking
remaking
all of a piece.
The hands that remade
hold the hands that made
all of a family.

© 2021 Bob Schwartz

Holy Day Butterflies (Rosh Hashanah 5782)

Holy Day Butterflies (Rosh Hashanah 5782)

The butterflies don’t know
that creatures sitting high
on the evolution tree
have set this day aside
counting calendars
and years by the thousands.
Don’t know exaltation.
Light appeared after dark
time to flutter
to decorate the seen
without yesterday or tomorrow.
Just another holy day.

© 2021 Bob Schwartz

Rosh Hashanah: The Birthday of the World

Hayom harat olam. Hayom ya’amid ba-mishpat, kol y’tzurei olamim.

Today is the birthday of the world. Today will stand in judgment all the beings of the cosmos.



The Birthday of the World: Audio story narrated by Leonard Nimoy
https://beta.prx.org/stories/20145


The birthday of the world
by Marge Piercy

On the birthday of the world
I begin to contemplate
what I have done and left
undone, but this year
not so much rebuilding

of my perennially damaged
psyche, shoring up eroding
friendships, digging out
stumps of old resentments
that refuse to rot on their own.

No, this year I want to call
myself to task for what
I have done and not done
for peace. How much have
I dared in opposition?

How much have I put
on the line for freedom?
For mine and others?
As these freedoms are pared,
sliced and diced, where

have I spoken out? Who
have I tried to move? In
this holy season, I stand
self-convicted of sloth
in a time when lies choke

the mind and rhetoric
bends reason to slithering
choking pythons. Here
I stand before the gates
opening, the fire dazzling

my eyes, and as I approach
what judges me, I judge
myself. Give me weapons
of minute destruction. Let
my words turn into sparks.

Copyright © 2006 by Marge Piercy

Covid, Seat Belts and Cigarettes

If you watch old movies, you notice that nearly everybody smokes—sometimes one cigarette after another, sometimes two at a time—and that nobody wears seat belts in cars.

Around the 1960s, the link between smoking and cancer was being accepted and the movement to add seat belts to cars was ramping up. Smoking was never banned, but social pressure and evidence reduced it substantially. Seat belts became required.

Loud liberty activists then and now are quick to say that they are free to smoke 24/7 and are free to drive without restraint, and while we are at it, without speed limits.

One obvious comment is that if you live totally alone, and nothing that happens to you involves other people, that would be fine. But you don’t live alone and your choices do affect other people. Whether they are the people you care about and who care about you, whether they are the people you share the highway with, and those who rescue you and treat your bleeding body or bury it.

To make it more direct:

People you know, people you love, have been saved by the reduction in smoking and the use of seat belts. You may have been saved by the reduction in smoking and the use of seat belts.

That isn’t hard to understand. Advocates of Covid personal freedom can go ahead and write their erudite essays on the philosophy of liberty, if they can. They might not finish it before they take to their beds or end up in the hospital, or someone they know or love does.

Maybe they can’t write that essay, but I know someone who can. Kris Kristofferson is a great songwriter and performer. He was also an Oxford University scholar. Maybe the lyrics to his famous song aren’t Oxford worthy, but they are true:

Freedom’s just another word
For nothing left to lose
Nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free