Oh, the Earth’s been good to me
and so I thank the Earth
for giving me the things I need
like the Sun and the rain
and the apple seed.
The Earth’s been good to me.
At the local Montessori school, the little grubs sing the above song before tearing into their PBJ’s and apple slices. The Spotted Opossum gets it stuck in her head frequently and – like everything else that comes into her head – shouts it out loud over and over.
I’m fine with that. The Earth has been pretty good to us. Without the Earth, we’d all be having a really tough time right now. I have, of course, provided the wee grrrl with the image of earth-mother/sky-father, among other possible ways of imaging the Great Mystery and that seems to make sense to her, but the culture in general and our local piece of it stresses the sky-father part of that duality to the total exclusion of the earth-mother, so I’m quite happy to have her school provide a little ditty that encourages the sprats to remember the Earth.
One of the many books on my need-to-read-again list is Gaia: The Human Journey From Chaos To Cosmos, by Elisabet Sahtouris, an easily readable little book that explain how our planet became the incredibly complex, life-sustaining place that it is. This is the book that turned me on to the Gaia Hypothesis, in very brief the notion that our planet, Earth, Terra, Gaia, is a living entity and that the many life-forms that live on Earth are parts in a greater whole. Some scientists have criticized that premise because the ability to reproduce is one of the defining characteristics of living things and there is no evidence that our planet has reproduced, i.e. given birth to another life-sustaining planet. To that objection I respond, Go fuck yerseffs, ya literal-minded gits. No sensible person believes that the third rock out from Sol is alive in the same way a person or frog is alive. No one is suggesting that Gaia is floating around in the Kozmic Sea thinking “I think I’ll make it rain in Virginia today.” The Gaia Hypothesis does not suggest that Earth is a conscious being, but that it is a totality which has, factually and demonstrably, evolved from a noxious, violent blob of conflicting forces to the stable, life-sustaining beauty that we now pollute. The Gaia Hypothesis is not a religion; it is a way of thinking about the Earth. I would argue that it is a better way of thinking about the Earth than the old way which held that the Earth was a thing that existed for no other reason than to be conquered, used, exploited and paved by human beings, possibly the only thing that Western science and religion have agreed on in the past five centuries.
Many peoples, probably most, have believed in the life-loving nature of Nature. The exploitive and destructive idea that the Earth is a thing is an idea whose time should never have been and hopefully, people will stop thinking that way soon. It’s bad for the planet and it’s bad for people. As a firm believer in the Gaia Hypothesis, I can assure you that I never feel alone. When I go out into the National Forest, especially, I have the warm and wonderful sense that I am a small part of a magnificent and madly complicated whole.
Some scientists have objected to the Gaia Hypothesis because it’s named for a Greek goddess, Gaia/Gea/Ge, the Earth Mother. Right. All the fucking planets are named after goddesses or gods, you assholes. So are most of the months and days of the week and elements for fuck’s sake. No one is saying that people should start worshipping the Earth, running around naked, singing endless songs whilst twirling around Maypoles like those goofballs in The Wicker Man – well, actually, I would really love to live on Summerisle, especially if I could engage in certain pagantics with a young Britt Ekland – but it isn’t mandatory or anything. Scientists, man. How ‘bout you guys stay in your labs, torturing mice or whatever, and let those of us with creative minds blather on about big picture stuff like how human beings can and should live happily and peaceably in this, the best of all possible worlds.
That is not to say that personifying the Earth is a bad thing. I am 100% in favor of personifying natural processes, emotions, planets and states of being and naming them for ancient gods, goddesses and other beasts and beings. vast pantheons of unseen forces have always populated the Collective Unconscious, giving people inspiration, comfort, strength in times of need and good ol’ healthy fear. When there were monsters in the night, there were reasons to bond together. Fear is fine. I watched Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory with the little girl recently and got to vicariously relive the thrilling terror of the boat ride, which is just as important and wonted as the fantasy of unlimited candy.
All the goddesses, gods, et al. are metaphors, personifications of energies. That only becomes problematic when people start thinking that their metaphors are facts. Yes, I am referring to the big three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Metaphors are not facts. The gods of other people are not devils. Personification is a perfectly good and useful tool for making abstractions intelligible.
Gratitude is good. We are entirely dependent for everything on forces that we did not create and cannot maintain. We should, humbly, appreciate the planet that allows us to live. We should act as stewards of the planet, not as destroyers. Certainly, we must have as much information about our Earth in order to be good stewards, to balance our own needs and desires with the needs and desires of other species and with those of the Earth itself/herself. I was kidding earlier about scientists. We do need them to learn all that can be learned about the Earth, so we can thrive. I stand by my assertion that there are people better suited for big picture abstractions than microbiologists and chemists, but I should add that religious folk, especially those who are partisans of the Big Three, have no business making claims about natural processes. Where I live, the Creation vs. Evolution debate continues to be debated in public forums. That’s just dumb.
So. We live on a living world. Or it is as if we live on a living world.
I highly recommend Dr. Sahtouris’ book. I also recommend watching Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory again, especially if you can share it with a child who has never seen it. And I recommend The Wicker Man, the 1973 original, not that fucking abortion from 2006, but I wouldn't advise sharing that one with a minor.
And yes, the song is wrong: the Earth did not give us the Sun. It was the other way ‘round.
I was at the grocery store with the Spotted Opossum t’other day, getting bread, peanut butter, bananas and other essentials and I didn’t have enough cash on me so I pulled out the debit card.
So I wiped the card on my shirt and swiped it again.
I was pretty sure there was money in the account so I asked the cashier if there was an ATM. She pointed it out and I was about to take my cranky, hungry kid over there to withdrawal cash when a woman in line behind us stepped up and said “I got it.”
“I’ll just pay for it. You don’t have any beer or anything in there, do you?”
“No, we have peanut butter and bananas.” I was kinda surprised and not catching on.
She swiped her card and whispered “God says ‘hi’.”
“Oh. Hi.” That was a really lame response, but I did thank her and then I took the grrrl out to the car and gave her a banana. We went downtown so I could check my balance and I realized that I’d forgotten to account for the insurance on my vehicles which comes out automatically every month. I wasn’t overdrawn and I got paid by one of my jobs the next day so it all worked out that way. And I got to explain to my daughter that other people also commit random acts of kindness and that, in this case, the beneficiaries were us.
Friends, what that woman in the check-out line did was about as fine an example of the positive power of religion as you can get. She had on scrubs, so she works in medicine, which ain’t bad money. She had a bit to give to strangers. Her hair and complexion indicated a recent round of chemotherapy, so she understood a bit about suffering. She let me know, in a small and simple way, that she was motivated to kindness by her faith. Bam. That’s a fine thing, right there.
Of course, that woman was almost certainly a Christian, which means that she and I don’t see eye to eye on some matters, but no matter. Whether we share common views on such piddling details as the exclusive divinity of Christ or the Triune nature of the Almighty is trifling bullshit. The important thing is that kindness was done. A small, spontaneous goodness happened, not enough to get anybody into Heaven or significantly improve anyone’s karma or secure anyone a seat in an open lotus in Amitabha’s Pure Land or anything.
God – by any name – appreciates kindnesses. I try to help other people and to teach my child to do the same. As we reap, we sow.
A fellow was obliged to take in his aged father, who couldn’t take of himself anymore. There wasn’t any room in the house, so he gave the old man an empty stall in the barn to sleep in. The father asked for a blanket to wrap up in at night. The man went and found a raggedy old blanket that the dog had been sleeping on. It was worn most of the way through. The man ripped it in two and went and gave half to his old dad, meaning to use the other half for rags. When he came back from the barn, he found his little boy folding up the other half of the blanket.
“What’re ya doin’?” he asked.
The boy said “I’m saving this half blanket so’s I can give it to you when you’re old.”
The man went and got his old father and brought him into the house. He made room for the old man to live.
That story, which I’ve told in a sorta Southern hillbilly voice, is actually Chinese and somewhat ancient. The basic idea – the ungrateful son who realizes that his own son will treat him as he treats his father – can be found in various forms all over the world. There may be versions in which the characters are female, but I don’t know of any and it’s probably more likely not. Traditionally, in almost all cultures, women became members of their husbands’ families when they married and therefore had no, or less, obligations to their parents. It is the duty of the sons to care for the parents.
Filial piety, the respect one has or is expected to have for one’s family members, especially the older ones, is part of every culture. I was thinking about the “Half Blanket” story this morning while painting my grandparents’ kitchen. I paint. That’s one of my jobs. My grandparents wanted their kitchen painted. I could hardly say no. I haven’t always been a very good grandson and I’ve never been the hunting, fishing, go to church every Sunday and then fall asleep on the sofa watching Nascar grandson they wanted and expected. For the past dozen years or so, I’ve showed up pretty regularly and participated in family get-togethers so I’m not a total loss. Of course, I have provided them with the most intelligent, vivacious and utterly adorable great-grandchild they’re ever gonna get, so that’s a point in my favor.
When Gramma started talking about painting the kitchen, it was obvious she meant me. It was equally obvious I would take the job. They’re paying me, of course. Gramma threw out a figure, a third less than what I normally get paid to paint, and I said “That’ll be fine”. I would do it for free, but she wants to pay me so I’m not going to get into a stupid and awkward argument and insist on not getting paid.
It’s a simple job. One coat on the ceiling, two on the walls. The trouble is, and I should’ve seen it coming, my Grandad.
Grandad was born way back in some dark holler in West-By-God-Virginia. He learned to hunt as a means of putting food on the table. He was an electrician on a Destroyer in World War II. He had a truck, a ’78 Ranger-Explorer, that didn’t have factory cruise control so he jerry-rigged a ball-chain necklace to a valve on the carburetor, ran it through a hole under the dash and held it in place with a clothespin: cruise control. He has always fixed, maintained and modified things. He was probably a better painter than me once upon a time, but that time is over. Grandad is eighty-eight or so. He spaces out frequently, falls asleep at random times. When he starts talking at the dinner table, it might be about something he read in National Geographic, something that happened on shore leave in Hawaii, the neighbors’ cats or anything other than what everybody else is talking about. Nothing wrong with that. If I’m not senile at eighty-eight, I’ll pretend I am.
The trouble is, he can’t fucking paint. I started rolling the ceiling this morning and the next thing I knew, Grandad was standing on a stool, cutting in, slopping paint on the walls, which wasn’t a problem since I was doing the walls too, but then he got a brush and started cutting in around the kitchen counters and saying shit like “I keep messing up over here”, “The more I paint, the worse it looks”, while I was rolling the walls and hearing “Half Blanket” on repeat in my head. I knew why that story was in there and I got the moral right off the bat. There was simply no way I could do anything about the situation. There is no kind way of saying “Grandad, you suck at painting because you’re old. Go away.”
You know how old people fuck, right? Slow and sloppy? That’s how my grandfather paints. It sucks. It’s an awful thing to say, but it’s true.
When I got clean and sober and started living a spiritual life, I had to evaluate my beliefs. I had to ask myself what I believed as opposed to what I had been taught to believe by other people – the society I live in, the church I grew up in, the schools I went to &c. I whole heartedly believe in living a life based on beliefs as long as they’re truly felt, not imposed by outside influences and accepted without evaluation of their worth. Of course, I agree with most people that murder, rape and theft are bad, with some possible exceptions in the case of theft. Honesty strikes me as a better policy than dishonesty. Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s seems like a reasonable way of doing things. There are many social and religious tenets that I don’t agree with, but I really do believe in family. The people I’m related to are my kin, whether I like then or not, whether I share their interests or not, whether I find it easier to just not mention the vast majority of what goes on in my life because a) I don’t feel like explaining what the difference between “noisy” and “Noise” is or that one can do anything with a banjo other than play songs made popular by Granpa Jones, and b) they’re all too busy yapping at each other about who wore what to church and who has cancer to hear anything I have to say anyway, or not. I appreciate and value my blood-kin simply because they are my blood-kin. The fact that I have nothing in common with them other than DNA and an affinity for pie is irrelevant.
Of course, now that I’m a father myself, family is even more important. I want the Spotted Opossum to know where she comes from, what her roots are, who her people are. I want her to remember playing with cousins in the yard, sneaking candy from the dish on her great-grammaw’s side table, sitting on her great-grandaddy’s lap. I’m sure families are the same all over, but I’m from the South, so that all seems Southern to me, like picking squash out of the garden, which we did last Sunday. The Spotted Opossum really enjoyed picking squash, though she swears she’ll never eat it.
“Half Blanket” uses self-interest to make its point. The father in the story is motivated to treat his father better when he realizes that he is setting the example his son will follow. He doesn’t want to end up in the barn with a half a blanket. Self-interest is fine as far as it goes. The point is well made. I believe it is possible to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. That’s a little harder to convey in a short story, but it’s worth striving for. Always.
So tomorrow I’ll do the second coat on the walls and try to fix all the shit my Grandad fucked up. It actually shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe he’ll fall asleep.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.