God and the Slingshot

God and the Slingshot

By Gene Wilburn

My main passion as a kid was baseball. In Rock Falls, Illinois, in the early 1950s, we lived in a mixed blue-collar white-hispanic neighourhood and my best buddy, Felipe Gallegos and I pored over the box scores and the statistics of the Chicago White Sox every day in the daily newspaper. His parents took a paper and mine didn’t so I spent a lot of time at his house. What intrigued me about Felipe’s bedroom, where we lay sprawled on the carpet with the sports page spread out under our faces, was that he had a little chapel sort of thing in the corner.

It housed a small statue of the Virgin Mary, a rosary crucifix hanging from it, and a lit flickering votive candle in a red glass container. It was rather beautiful and I’d never seen anything like it. I knew that it was Catholic, though, and because I’d occasionally overheard white Protestant grownups mumble disparagingly about Catholics and their statues and symbols, it seemed slightly illicit. It was also the first time I had seen religious objects in a home, rather than in a church, and that felt a little spooky.

I can’t remember ever being especially drawn to religion as a youngster but one day some of my mom’s faith rubbed off on me. She was a first-generation Swedish-American who didn’t speak a word of English until she went to her one-room country schoolhouse. Unto her last she was Lutheran, which she always pronounced Luteran. She was quietly but deeply religious and I respected her for it. My step-dad, I think he was vaguely religious, more to please my mom than anything else. There was no Lutheran church near us though so we went to a local non-denominational Protestant church that was relatively mild, plain, and homespun.

On that day mom got talking to me about God, and how through the power of prayer, if you had sufficient faith, God could make your prayers come true. She quoted a Bible verse to the effect of if you had as much faith as the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains, or some such.

I thought it marvellous that He (always referred to as masculine) would grant your prayers, so I decided to put it into practice because there was nothing I wanted more than a slingshot. Some of the neighbour boys had made them from a red-rubber inner tube found in a vacant lot, and they let me try it out. The sheer joy of finding a good stone, aiming it at a fence post, and watching it arc through the air toward the target was one of the greatest pleasures I had yet encountered, and I desperately wanted to be member of the slingshot club.

So I went outside to a shady spot in the back yard where I sat down to pray. In the history of Christendom, I’m certain no little boy ever prayed harder or more innocently. I concentrated on praying so hard I got dizzy from the effort. Just deliver it to the side door step, I requested, as politely and believingly as can be. I prayed so hard that if I were to do that at my age today I’d likely have a stroke. I rose from prayer feeling holy and I just knew that slingshot was sitting on the porch waiting for me.

I was already plunking fence posts in my mind as I went to retrieve my miraculous slingshot. I was stunned, and confused, when I didn’t find it there. I checked on the ground around it in case God missed the step itself. He must have to hurry to make all his rounds of prayers, I thought, ot maybe he put it on the wrong step, so I checked the step at the front of the house and the back of the house, and all the yards, but no slingshot could I find.

I distinctly remember thinking “well … that didn’t work” and shrugging my shoulders. It was nearly time to visit Felipe anyway, and I wondered how the Sox had fared against the Orioles. Maybe Minnie Minoso had driven in Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox again. Or hit one of his occasional home runs.

Trump as a Religious Phenomenon

Trump as a Religious Phenomenon

By Gene Wilburn

“We are going to have an unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout for the inauguration” ~ Donald Trump

The world’s free press have analyzed the actions of Donald Trump as president of the U.S. and found him wanting. Most of the Canadians I know are still in disbelief that the Americans would vote such an inadequate man into high office, much less applaud his actions. The Dan Rathers of the world, bless them, do their best to report on a phenomenon that doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t even acknowledge the difference between fact and fiction. How do you deal logically with something so illogical?

Logic, and for the most part reason itself, are casualties of this election. To understand what happened, and is still happening, it’s useful to dispense with the logic of reason and examine the phenomenon from a different angle, to see it as a fundamentally religious event.

Let’s back up a bit. A lot of people in the United States were in psychic turmoil prior to the election. Although the usual indicators showed that the economy was doing not badly, unemployment was down a bit, and the U.S. dollar was strong, there was a deep unrest among the people and a sense that life was changing, and not for the better. Millennials were having a tough time finding meaningful work. Blue-collar workers could see, first-hand, that their incomes were shrinking and that the future of their children looked shaky. University education had become too costly. Retirement got harder. Many of the manufacturing businesses had packed up and gone offshore. Yet everywhere they looked, they could see conspicuous consumption on the part of the very rich. The American Dream that anyone, through hard work and dedication, could achieve wealth enough to buy a house and raise a family, and finance their kids’ further education looked tarnished.

There are two ways this could be addressed. One way, championed by Bernie Sanders, was through economic logic. America is a country of enormous wealth, but the majority of the wealth belongs to the few, not to the many. The economic system created by giant corporations siphons most of the profits upward, to the 1%, as they’re called. So greedy are the corporations and the people profiting from them that they even oppose raising the minimum wage for its lowest-end workers. So, says the logic, what should happen is that corporations, who live off the workers of the country, should give back more to country’s upkeep and care. In other words, they should pay a fairer share of their taxes.

The other way to address the situation is not through logic, but through fear, repression, and scapegoats. The first scapegoats are the progressives, who with their support for civil rights, women’s rights (including the right to abortions), LGBQT rights, and concerns for the environment, represent, to some, “everything that is wrong with America.” How so? you ask, especially if you’re Canadian and take these issues as “normal,” rather than radical. By linking them to religion. Condemning these things because they’re abominations warned about in the Christian Bible, despite the fact that many progressives are also Christians, and that seeking morality from the Christian Bible amounts to little more than cherry picking passages that support what you want to believe, despite being contradicted by other passages in the Bible.

For conservatives, progressives have been tacitly tagged as “enemies of the state.” Add to that the fear of ISIS and Islamic terrorism, and the patently false idea that America was just destroyed by a black president, and you begin to see a channel though which ferment can flow.

What was obvious was that the populace was fed up with the status quo. Unfortunately, the Democratic party leadership turned a deaf ear to this and simply dropped Bernie Sanders, accepting none of his ideas or finding a way to appeal to his millions of followers. Instead they ran the most status-quo candidate possible, the uncharismatic and, frankly, uninspiring Hillary Clinton. The election was theirs to win, but they lost, if only by a whisker. The disappointed Sanders followers who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton likely tipped the scale for Trump, yet it’s difficult to blame them. She was certainly not the witch portrayed in the alt-press, but it’s doubtful she would have been more than adequate. Looking back, I think many of us would now be satisfied with adequate.

You lose the context of the election if you don’t realize that the religious right, fanned by Fox Media — the very people Barry Goldwater warned the Republicans about decades ago — have developed into a powerful political force. As Christianity dwindles as a force in most first-world countries and nearly all cities, it has flared up in the US, particularly in the South and in other rural areas. Not only has it flared up, but it has brought with it a kind of Messianic fervour replete with “end of days” thinking and a “God on their side” mentality. At base it has shown itself to be a White movement, racist, misogynistic, and puffed up with a sense of moral outrage. And the God of Islam, Allah? Not our God. Separation of Religion and State? Not on our watch. Mexicans? Deport them.

Trump read the landscape perfectly. He plugged himself into a seeming Christianity (anyone else remember him quoting from “Two Corinthians”?) and gave the movement its leader. It’s a conservative jihad. Destroy anything the enemy left behind, like the Affordable Care Act. ISIS? Don’t allow any Muslims into the country. Bomb them back into the stone age if necessary. Rip up international agreements. Alienate historical allies. “Make America Great Again.” And never, ever tell the truth. Just call the lies “alternative facts.”

And so, in the end, you look at a phenomenon that is inherently illogical, but fired with emotional intensity. Again, it’s difficult for Canadians to understand why the people, after seeing Trump in office, can idly stand by and allow him to try to defy the US Constitution itself. In fact, if you visit conservative websites and social media, you’ll find they’re actually cheering him on.

This isn’t politics folks. It’s religion. Even more, it’s the swan song of the American White majority starting to realize they’re not going to be the majority for much longer. These are people who are culturally and intellectually unequipped for life in a pluralistic society. Such people are dangerous.

It’s possible some good could come of this. As the majority of Americans watch this train wreck happen, and their resistance to it picks up momentum, I wouldn’t be surprised if their chant in the next election will be “Never Again!”

Where is Heaven?

Where is Heaven?

By Gene Wilburn

“They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth” ~ George R.R. Martin

The mythic concept of heaven varies from culture to culture and religion to religion, as does the concept of hell. Homer gave us a Greek perspective of the Underworld in the Odyssey — a murky kind of place where even the famous Greek heroes end up in residence. The Egyptians, with their sky gods and interest in an afterlife thought of heaven as some kind of physical place beyond the known universe and the Book of the Dead describes the process a soul must go through to reach it. The Assyrians believed the afterlife was located below our world and one of their words for it translates as the “Great Below.” Everyone went there, regardless of status, and it seems to have been more of a handy place to store ghosts than any kind of paradise.

The Christian myth of heaven is the one I grew up knowing about, though “knowing about” is a precarious phrase. It’s a particularly unclear myth. Stereotyped as a place of fluffy clouds and angels playing harps and an entry gate made of pearl, it’s always portrayed as stupefyingly mind-numbing. One thing is clear though: its direction is “up.” Certain Christian religious figures “ascended” into it. The mediaeval view places it beyond the firmament, the known universe. And it’s there that selected believers go and meet all their lost loved ones, who presumably made it as well. A more salubrious place than the Greek underworld, perhaps, or the Assyrian ghost closet, and not as strenuous as the Egyptian journey to the afterlife. A comfort myth if ever there was one.

But the thing about the mediaeval world view is that the “known universe” was a much smaller and modest place than the one we live in today. Earth was the centre of that universe and the firmament was fixed and revolved around the earth — with the exception of “the wanderers,” or planets, and alarming things like comets. Heaven was just beyond the visible firmament and some mediaeval drawings portray an observer lifting the edge of the firmament and peeking out at heaven beyond. Everything in its place and God in his (always masculine) heaven.

This cosmological view took a huge hit with a paradigm shift that started with Copernicus in the 16th Century, with his heliocentric proposal, and was refined and modified through the incredibly accurate naked-eye astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe, and embraced in the writings of astronomer Johannes Kepler. The 17th Century was the time of largest early astronomical breakthroughs through the telescopic observations of Galileo Galilei (Jupiter had “moons”!) and the brilliant insights of Isaac Newton, who provided the laws of physics and mathematics that accurately accounted for observable planetary motions. The Church was not very happy with all of this, of course, and forced Galileo to recant publicly, though he never did so in private.

In one sense, I think of modern science as starting with Galileo because he used a scientific instrument, the telescope, to investigate the night sky. The telescope was followed by the microscope, and extended instrumental observation and measurement gradually became the established norm for exploring the fabric of the universe. It wasn’t even called science at first. It was usually referred to as “natural philosophy.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that astronomers began to suspect that our galaxy, the Milky Way, was not the full extent of the universe and that what was showing as blobs sometimes referred to as “nebulae” on the photographic plates might themselves be galaxies. With better and bigger telescopes and some brilliant analysis, it was not only determined that they were, in fact, galaxies like our own, but we could even measure their distance from ours. The universe turned out to be immensely huge, with, as Carl Sagan used to say, “billions and billions” of galaxies. Not only that, but continued observations indicated that the universe was expanding. And if it was expanding, what was it expanding from? Enter the Big Bang.

The telescope, as both instrument of the scientific revolution, and a symbol thereof, is central to the recent book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, by Toby E. Huff, 2011, a highly readable, well-researched study of why the scientific revolution started in the West, and not in China or the Islamic world.

Telescopes were still at the forefront when I was a kid in the 1950s — the “big” telescope of the day was the huge reflector at Mount Palomar, in California, with its 200-inch mirror Hale telescope. The newspapers frequently printed black-and-white images taken with the famous instrument and there was great ferment over the firmament, so to speak. Exciting times.

It was in regard to this great telescope that I first encountered a fissure between science and religion. I was a run-of-the-mill Protestant kid who attended church with some regularity, but a good friend and classmate of mine came from a more fundamentalist stream of belief. His church, located in a nearby town, was hosting a “revival meeting” that featured two travelling evangelical preachers of fiery words and demeanour, and my friend’s family invited me along to attend one of the evening sermons. I was nervous about this because it was one of those congregations my family referred to as the “Holy Rollers” and its members were prone to burst into tongues and exclamations during the service.

But curiosity, sometimes my friend, sometimes my enemy, overcame my misgivings and I went. At this point we come back to the concept of heaven, for the heaven of this congregation was the “Kingdom of Heaven” returning to create a “New Earth” for the “Chosen,” wrapped up in some kind of event called “the Rapture.” The Christian Bible is an odd thing, at best. Most of it is a disjointed anthology of Hebrew religious writings, some of it dating back from the time of the Egyptians and the Sumerians. Added to that is an appendix called the New Testament, and the appendix to that is a very strange thing called the “Book of Revelation,” that reads like it was composed by a person, or an entire commune, on a very bad acid trip (“don’t take any of the brown acid,” as the Woodstock announcer warned). It’s so weird and vague that you can read into it pretty much whatever you want, but it seems to be the energy source for many fundamentalists.

But the two preachers, in their admittedly riveting, entertaining, and electric theatre, told a blatant lie. They said they had visited the great telescope at Mount Palomar, and that while the “scientists” were called away from the tour for a few minutes, the preachers peeked through the telescope, up into the skies, and they saw, with their own eyes, the Kingdom of Heaven descending toward the earth. The congregation was practically swooning, but I was gobsmacked that a man of religion would lie. I knew that you didn’t look through the telescope at all. You made photographic plates using it and studied the plates. And that started me thinking hard about heaven. If there is such a place, where is it?

There is no physical plane we know of, above or below, that can accommodate such a mythic landscape. Another dimension? That’s pretty science-fictiony and since it offers no method of verification, it’s no better than saying it’s located in some kind of vast, eternal Rubik’s Cube. Or that it fits somehow into Terry Pratchett L-space, though this might be pleasing to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

As an armchair philosopher, I get mentally cranky about things that offer no method of verification, nor any proof of existence. I’m open to evidence, but I don’t see any place in the known universe where a heaven might fit in. So, as a humanist, I can only conclude that heaven, and hell, are actually situated within the living, earthly creatures called humans. The terms represent sublime good times, and ghastly bad times, in the lives of individuals, much of it determined by where we live, our general place in society, and events often beyond our control. To the residents of Aleppo, for instance, any place that’s not being bombed might seem like heaven. The city itself can, without exaggeration, be called a hell.

In the end, I think heaven is a state of mind and that mythic heavens are little more than works of the imagination. And, as many pundits over the years have observed, if there really turns out to be such a place, I doubt many of my friends will be there anyway, so it doesn’t highly attract me.

 

Paradoxes and Temporal Displacements

Paradoxes and Temporal Displacements

By Gene Wilburn

“Your thoughts, feelings, memories, attention, what you experience in this subjective world is part of mind” ~ Dan Siegel, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human

“Seems like only yesterday I left my mind behind” ~ Bob Dylan

Like Autolicus, I too was littered under Mercury and am likewise a snapper up of unconsidered trifles. I don’t believe in astrology, of course, but I can’t help noting that I’m Geminian as hell. Sun, Moon, Mercury, Uranus in Gemini (with Mercury and Uranus in conjunction in the 11th house and Sun and Moon in conjunction as well). Life loves paradoxes. I’m not only Geminian, but an aging Gemini, embarked, as I write this, on my seventh decade of life.

Ah life. “Don’t talk to me about life,” quipped Marvin, the depressed robot, but I have no choice. It’s a Geminian imperative to talk, write, think, and otherwise communicate about things like “life, the universe and everything.” Or sometimes nothing at all. “Nothing will come of nothing,” spake Lear, but I’ve noticed it’s ofttimes the little nothings that add up to something.

So let’s set the scene: I’m an aging writer, photographer, and amateur folksinger, and I have a final goal: to convey some of what it’s like to be old and getting older, living in an aging mind, and to present this in a way that may solicit from you, as reader, a sense of camaraderie. Not that I expect us to get all Three-Musketeery—“One for all and all for one”—but I hope my thoughts will elicit some resonance in you as a fellow traveller on the road of life. We’re like the travellers in Canterbury Tales, each with a story or more to tell as we pass the scenery of time. These essays are some of my stories.

Time itself (“What is time? Does it really exist?”) plays a role in these stories. Especially temporal displacement. As I age I find that past and present often merge in startling, sometimes bizarre, ways. The news tells of the launch of a new communications satellite, and I remember the day Sputnik I was launched. I read about the American Civil War, and recall a current newspaper picture showing the last four Civil War veterans riding in an open limousine in a Southern U.S. Fourth of July parade. We experience an electrical outage and I’m suddenly back living in a farmhouse with no electricity or indoor plumbing. I once sat on Hopalong Cassidy’s lap to have my picture taken. In a post-television era, I  still sprawl on the floor with my buddies watching the test pattern on our neighbour’s TV, waiting for the Howdy Doody Show. Things get mixed together and jumbled. Not yet in a failing brain kind of way but in an enriched tapestry of tales in which time doesn’t exist. In the present.

So, you say, what does this have to do with squirrels, and why “Retired Squirrel” anyway?

I’ll come back to my buddies, the local grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), from time to time. They live in three large leaf nests, or “dreys,” in the trees overlooking our back yard–an oak, a birch, and a pine tree. I feed them roasted peanuts in the shell, tossing them to the base of a large maple tree, then watch and study them from the kitchen window as I eat breakfast. They’ve become my totem animal. I identify with their greed for peanuts, their alert perkiness, their bushy tails, and their three-dimensional acrobatics. They’re as at home in the trees as I am in my thoughts, and as they leap from branch to branch, I find in this a metaphor for connectedness and alternate pathways. They don’t obey property borders in the same way I don’t always respect intellectual borders. Also, I’ve been a longtime fan of Rocky, the Flying Squirrel and his pal Bullwinkle, and that’s sufficient to warp anyone’s mind.

I’ve now been retired for over a decade, yet am only just beginning to get the hang of it. It’s a mental whammy to have led a life based on the delivery deadlines of computing services suddenly to find yourself free, dead stop. Freedom may be liberating, but it’s also frightening. Your support infrastructure is gone and you have to create one to take its place. But what should it be? Old habits from work days spill over into retirement, such as a ceaseless need to keep up with technology and tame it to serve current projects. Then you realize, slowly and gradually, that you don’t have to do this anymore—unless your really want to. But do you?

And that’s where it gets existential. What you make of retirement is partly based on your health, and partly on what you can create from your free time. I once considered signing up for the shuffleboard period at our local senior centre, in order to expand my now-depleted social life, but I came to my senses. So I’ve turned to other ways of connecting with people, such as photo-buddy lunches, outings with good friends, song circles, and, not least, social media. Facebook owns me, but only because I allow it to. I’ll come back to Facebook from time to time as well.

And so, as I age, I have learned to concentrate on those things that bring me the greatest joy and creativity: reading, writing, photography, and music. And on my friends and relatives, for we never know when any of us will disappear from the fabric of life.

This is the saddest part of aging—the deaths of those around us and of the cultural icons we grew up with. Think Leonard Cohen as a single example. And my dear Uncle Cliff who took me fishing on Lake of the Woods. Life is emptier now and will continue to get more empty. That’s the end cycle of life. As I face my own demise, life gets more synoptic. I have been granted the luxury to contemplate my life as a whole, in the way I watch the squirrels bound from limb to limb, and it is in this spirit that I begin this series of essays.

What about religion? Does it have any place in my thoughts? All the time. I’ve thought hard about religion since I was a child. Organized name-brand religion is something I outgrew, but the religious spirit, the longing to be part of a whole, to resonate with the whole, stripped of the supernatural, is something that has stayed with me. I’m scientifically an atheist with a Jungian religious awe of the universe and all that is in it. Life loves paradoxes.

If you think you’d be interested in following this series, which I hope to write with some regularity, do me a favour and add yourself to the notification list so you receive an email alerting you to each posted essay. If you’d like to start a dialogue on any of these topics, feel free to do so. I enjoy the exchange of ideas, but know in advance I may not be able to keep up with you. I’m moderately bright, but am more poet than pundit (though not opposed to puns), and I’ll probably fail to respond as intellectually as you’d like. But that’s okay. Even Geminis have their merits, though, as I say, I don’t believe in astrology.