A year ago today ten men in jeans and black t-shirts took ten minutes to hijack Mumbai, a cosmopolitan city that everyone here in India compares to New York. With guns and grenades and bombs in backpacks, they killed 164 people and left the city in flames. Most of the attackers were killed in the process, but one of the men made it through alive.
Last week on Killing the Buddha, I got all righteous and asked you to get off your fanny and do something about climate change. Today’s the day. 350.org has helped orchestrate something like 5,000 events from the Maldives to Mississippi as part of a Global Day of Climate Action. Up here at the Blue Mountain Center, we created an ice sculpture and proceeded to melt it in front of a flaming carbon-spewing fire. The final resulting video is the time lapse image in reverse. Keep the flames down. Bring the ice back. Aim for 350 — the quantity of carbon dioxide in parts per million that our atmosphere can handle before being significantly altered. We’re at 386 now. Check out the one-minute video and get the catchy tune stuck in your head, and then wander around and check out all the other, ahem, cool stuff that’s happening all around the globe.
From today’s post on Killing the Buddha…
In Denver last month, an association of interfaith clergy became advocates for action in the climate change debate. “Our thirst to consume the earth’s natural resources, and our reliance on old energy sources which emit greenhouse gases, has led us to a crisis both spiritual and environmental,” read the statement published in the Denver Post. “In view of this, for us as spiritual leaders to remain silent would be an abdication of our responsibilities.”
Statements from churches, kind of like statements from any organized entity or elected official, often tend to weigh heavy on the verbiage and grand statements and come in a little short on substance and action. But the Colorado men and women of the cloth are just one small manifestation of religious groups around the world that are becoming more engaged, through words and action both, in promoting ways to minimize the impact on a rapidly-changing atmosphere. They’re standing behind scientists, pressuring their lawmakers, making changes in their own lives and congregations, and connecting with those outside of their denominations in this new challenge that defies boundaries of any kind. The godly and the godless are all now in the same boat, and the waters are rising.
The fact that religious groups are standing up and speaking out about the climate shouldn’t be such a stretch, really. The questions that the prospect of climate change raise—from the percentage of impact that hinges on human behavior to what we should do about it—are fundamentally questions of responsibility. What, ultimately, falls within our job descriptions as inhabitants of the earth? Survival? Pursuit of happiness? Something in between? Answering these questions by drawing the lines (or erasing them) between self, community and God has long been the realm of religion. I, for one, am encouraged by the shift, the involvement that alters the focus to this life and our surroundings, that moves away from the short timer’s syndrome demonstrated by an all-to-recent administration.
One little group with great big ideas is helping to bring many of these ecologically aware religious groups together, from the Evangelical Environmental Network to the World Council of Churches to the Dalai Lama himself. All these groups and more are signing on with the newly-formed organization 350.org, started by Bill McKibben, a long-time environmental author and activist and energized by a determined and impossibly optimistic group of recent Middlebury College graduates who are traveling the world in an organizing ambush. The editors of Killing the Buddha were honored to share a mountain retreat space with McKibben and his 350.org crew during the summer as they sketched out and strategized ways to get the whole world involved in fighting for the protection of something as vital yet amorphous as our atmosphere, that thin shell of inhabitability that surrounds us.
To spread awareness and garner commitment from the global community about climate change, 350.org has organized an International Day of Climate Action taking place a week from today on October 24th. The goal is to set the stage for Copenhagen in December, when the United Nations will be meeting to hammer out a new global climate treaty. The hope is that grassroots pressure will result in an agreement that has teeth and legitimate support from the big players, including the recalcitrant US, while also encouraging sustainable development for the Southern Hemisphere countries that are still working on the survival end of the job description spectrum. Reaching out to communities of faith worldwide has been an integral part of the 350 campaign, which is doing everything from rousing swamis to plant trees in Nepal to inspiring Jews to read the story of Noah in a new light in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And that endorsement from the World Council of Churches, which represents 560 million Christians across 349 denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries and territories…dare we mention the word movement?
Why 350? Scientists, including leading climatologist Jim Hansen, determined that the atmosphere can handle 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide before undergoing major changes that, while not ending all life on earth (although some of it), will alter it in incredibly troublesome ways. Hansen put it this way, presenting us with a choice: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted,” we need to bring the number down to 350. We’re just shy of 386 at the moment. Because there is a delayed reaction within the atmosphere to the carbon dioxide that we’ve been pumping out ever since we cleverly discovered how to transform ancient buried life forms into fuel for an industrial age, bringing the number down requires a decisive and rapid response. Like, yesterday
So dear senators, pleaded our Colorado reverends, pass the legislation that will support alternative energies so that someday soon they won’t seem so alternative. Help lead us wayward sheep—with grace and economy—away from our fossil-fuel dependent lifestyles that we think we can’t live without. Legislation is powerful. It can, in a moment, act out some higher aspect of our collective selves in a way that can last for generations. Global legislation even more so. It is changing your light bulbs times seven billion, and counting.
Let the statements keep coming, with their grandiose proclamations. “Right now our greatest responsibility is to undo the damage done by the introduction of fossil carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and climate system during the rise of human civilization…,” writes the Dalai Lama. “Buddhists, concerned people of the world and all people of good heart should be aware of this and act upon it.” We need grandiosity. And good hearts.
Let us draw from the old texts, reading them anew. Allah loveth not wasters, says the Qur’an, Let there be no change in the work wrought by Allah.
I think Allah wills it! And what about the Pope? Caritas in veritate, love in truth, says Pope Benedict XVI, when he reminds his followers that the Church has a responsibility towards creation, that to pollute is to sin
Like the statements, words can be weak, breathed to life only through belief and action. So act. Find your faith. Believe in something. Make a difference. Enact change. Don’t do anything, in the words of poet Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer, that would disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth. Find your faith in the mustard seed, the acorn, the buffalo of the plain or the eagle of the sky, the singular God you love or the one who fears you into acts of goodness, the multiple gods that take the form of elephant or monkey or ten-headed deity. Find it in science and rationalism, in the void between the spinning atoms, the space between the double helix, the heliotropic reaching of the tendril towards the sun. Find it in the holy words written in the flowing script of Arabic or the staccato lines of Hebrew or the good King James English. Just find it, believe in something, and act on the belief. Every day, do something that takes you outside of your skin. Make do with less. Give of yourself. Maybe you go to 350.org and find an action near you to join next week, standing should-to-shoulder with someone else who is fumbling through this world and wants to make a difference, too. But whatever you do, abdicate not.
It’s been a rough day, full of dismal news and mashed up hopes, and my brother suggests I curl up with a book I love and a glass of wine. A book I love…. I scan my bookshelf, see that too many of these titles are still unread, jewels waiting to be discovered. But this, Wallace Stegner, yes, this I’ve read. This I’ve loved. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. I am flipping to page 207, to the Letter to Wendell Berry, when something breaks the rhythm of the passing pages. I turn back, pull it out. A boarding pass stub. I have no memory of where I got this book. It is just familiar, like I have always had it, though I haven’t. A United flight from Chicago O’Hare to Norfolk, Virginia on July 7. There is no year. Passenger’s name: BENEVILLE / CRAIG. He sat in 10F. An exit row.
Craig. Thudercraig. Many days have gone by, and I have not thought of him. My first lover after the big breakup. He reminded me how to laugh, pulled longing from my bones under the Christmas lights that twinkled from the roof of the bus he lived in. I’d never seen anything as sexy as his vas deferens in a bottle of formaldehyde on the shelf. When I asked, he said he’d been 80% sure. He stashed his boots under the defunct driver’s seat and the floor was covered with camping gear in a steady state of packing or unpacking, always coming and going as he went deeper into the Oregon woods to do forestry work.
There was a time when I couldn’t think of Craig without crumbling. We were lovers for two months, maybe three, until a hard conversation over a picnic by the river, when I told him I wanted someone whom he wasn’t. It was an honest conversation. And cruel, I know now. I have never been good at separating the two. It was a perfect sunny summer day, yet there was no wide Southern California smile. His eyes were clouded behind his thick glasses as he got up to go, the food I’d brought from my garden untouched. Six months later he was dead. He was a hundred feet up a tree on a government contract, using a chainsaw to make the softwood friendlier for woodpeckers when his best friend Mick heard his cry. There wasn’t anything they could do. So far out in the Oregon woods, the grand length of rope, intact, that had come spinning down with him lost in the ferns and huckleberries around his body. A knot that slipped. An oversight. A mistake that can’t be undone.
I am staring at the ticket stub, like some tap on the shoulder taking me back to a time of kisses and campfires, mud and big trees, broken guitar strings and PBRs, rivers and rafts, cider and song and sex and stars. Nobody gave a fuck about ambition. Work was what one did to cover the most basic expenses: beer and rent, the latter to be avoided if at all possible. Life was for play and touching and exploring and changing the way we inhabit the world. It was for experiencing vertical cliff faces at Joshua Tree and class five rapids from Idaho to New Mexico. I held onto his sleeping bag for a year before I could bear to wash out the smell of it – smoke and earth and delicious man – and pass it along as the donation it was supposed to be.
And Stegner’s book, now I remember. I picked it up from among his shelves, an appropriate taking, though I really wanted the little bottle that contained a piece of him. But it wasn’t mine to take, such a new friend, a recent lover who had kissed and run, a woman who still troubled him enough that he wasn’t speaking to me when he died. The weight I carry is heavier than gravity; it’s just that there’s no ground below to make it matter. That I have nearly forgotten, lost in a new life so far from the mud and fir trees, makes the breach as bad as the one on the banks of the river.
I turn the thick paper over. A black scanner bar is smeared across the top and below, it advises:
Please retain this stub and your ticket receipt as evidence of your journey.
The brothers were racing for the sun. What brothers don’t create such fantastic games of competition and daring, even when they are gods? Especially if they are gods. Jatayu and Sampati were the vulture gods, soaring upon seven-foot wings higher and higher. Jatayu was winning. But the sun was hot, and Jatayu too determined to see the danger. Sampati saw his brother heading for his demise, and pressed his wings harder against the air until he could overtake his brother, hold his wings aloft, and shelter him protectively. He paid for his kindness, Sampati’s wings singed beyond the point of healing. The brothers returned to the earth, where Sampati lived the rest of his life wingless, and Jatayu was remembered as the vulture god.
This tale is from the ancient Indian text the Ramayana and has—like all good stories—many versions. Jatayu’s later feat, when he was an old but noble bird, was to try to save Sita from the kidnapping Ravana, but like his childhood ventures, his desire was greater than his ability, and Ravana used his dagger to sever the wings from Jatayu’s avian body. He lives on in our words, a feather here, a feather there.
The vultures in India are in trouble. Today, September 5th, marks International Vulture Awareness Day. The list of organizations and individuals that have joined in efforts to raise awareness about the troubled scavengers span from Bangladesh to Belgium. In Jatayu’s region of the world, the three dominant species of South Asian vultures—white-backed (Gyps bengalensis), long-billed (Gyps indicus), and slender-billed (Gyps tenuerostris)—are dying in record numbers from ingesting livestock carcasses treated with diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug used on both livestock and humans. It is a mild painkiller, akin to aspirin. Seemingly harmless.
No one noticed at first. They’re vultures, clumsy massive beasts seen roadside with their bare heads buried in the flesh of rotten carcasses. Instinctively, we turn our heads. We look away. And then, when they begin to vanish, we don’t notice. Forgetting to look can become a habit. But their numbers, from a once estimated 80 million across the subcontinent, are down 97-99%. It is one of the greatest avian collapses on record.
Biologists and naturalists and birdwatchers and rural folk wondering how to clean up the dead the vultures took care of so efficiently for so many eons are noticing the vultures’ absence. The drug that was killing them by turning their organs into a fantastic sculpture of salt crystals has been banned, and a replacement drug invented. Some farmers are even using it. And in breeding centers in remote parts of India, they try to teach these grand soaring wild animals to survive and procreate in a contained environment that is protecting them from the world we have unwittingly tainted.
You can read more about the vultures in a piece by Susan McGrath in Smithsonian or one I wrote for Search, (a magazine that has gone the way of other dying publishing creatures in the last year, a wave of extinction of another sort), and I touch on them in this piece for Killing the Buddha. And what more can you do? Besides sending a check to the Bombay Natural History Society or the Peregrine Fund or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, how about this…be aware. Spend the next day paying attention to something ugly, something hideous and alive in your world that you usually turn your head away from in an unconscious move of aversion. Let your eyes rest on the sight, soak it in, remember that gods come in many forms. Tell me what you see.
Emails from my ex-boyfriend rarely include any of his own words. Instead, he forwards messages that originate from another friend of ours without so much as a word of introduction. The communiques appear like unidentified birds—words, or images or rants against the right-wing—flying in from the high desert valley of Washington where our mutual friend resides. Jim is about the same age as my mother, but it is as though they lived in a different era or country altogether, Jim inhabiting a radical landscape of which my mother knew nothing about. When S. and I were a couple, and we drove over the mountains to see him, we’d invariably stay up til dawn, drinking and smoking and listening to LPs in his old drafty house, finally falling asleep in the small side room, wallpapered with water-stained covers from old New Yorkers. In the morning, we’d drink coffee and see what was growing in the garden. Jim has fought the good fight all his life, keeping it simple and getting into trouble with his bosses or the law every now and again because of his acts of rebellion, large and small. Was it him or another of that group that we used to call the Unagardener, a lá Kaczynski? The years have slipped away and I can’t remember now, but it was good to read his words this morning, reminisces sent along with a bunch of striking photos from the Great Depression. He wrote:
I recently watched a very well done American Masters documentary on Woody Guthrie and a couple of days later these pictures were sent to me by a friend. I’m old enough to have experienced the tail end of this period as a small child riding around the West and Southwest in the backseat of the old Studebaker which was pulling a small trailer which was our only home. One moment that stands out through the ancient childhood haze is of soft summer air flowing in through open windows and over my face as we cruise across the panhandle of Texas late at night , the radio playing Deep in the Heart of Texas with mom and dad singing along quietly as I nod off. My dad was a construction worker and the jobs lasted anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and you found out about them through the grapevine. Sometimes you got there and there was no job and it was a moment of reevaluation before heading out on the trail of the next lead. Of course I was just along for the ride and protected from the harshest aspects of the situation, but I tasted that old world that came before the affluence that WW II and the ’50s brought. It was a very different place and it stamped those conditioned in it in ways that are essentially incomprehensible today. Without romanticizing the terrible hardship involved during the worst of those times, it seems important to me to acknowledge that the bubble of excess in which most of us have lived out our lives has devalued and abandoned some important qualities of fundamental value. Now, it is looking like we’re going to have to go through a difficult process of rediscovering them.
It’s still hard for me to imagine things getting as bad as they were then, when Fortune magazine sent James Agee and Walker Evans off to document the hollow, humble faces of Southern tenant farmers. That’s me talking from the bubble of a semi-employed New Yorker, surrounded by friends who are still upgrading to the new cell phone. It’s also me after watching Jim, (ok, and S. and me too a little bit), heartily stock up reserves for a Y2K that never came (along with the hoped-for back-to-the-land ludditism that would make everything simple and romantic again). It’s me who thought, on the streets of Seattle in 1999, that something was about to change, then didn’t. The WTO just moved their meeting to places like Qatar.
But the jobs are still vanishing. The foreclosures keep coming. Cars become home, and sometimes even that slips away. One study approximated that 3.5 million people experienced homelessness in 2007, 1.35 million of them children, long before the multiple crashes of the last year. Will the the haunted look in those Depression-era images, the same startled scowl I see on the streets of India, return to American faces? Will the megachurches and McDonalds that support our nation now be there when and if things get really ugly? We’re multiple generations removed from having grandmothers who can remind us how to can our food, and we can’t eat Wii. How long will our abundant collective fat reserves last before the bones press tight against the skin?
Jeff Sharlet has been in the media a lot lately, talking about the covert operations of the Family in response to the recent Republican sex scandals. But he reminds us that it is not about who the Family members are sleeping with in private because they consider themselves above some moral law that should be concerning us so. We should be more interested in pants-up negotiations with the powerful (and those they want to be powerful) because they consider themselves above legal laws as well. They believe in what they’re doing (who wouldn’t if all your activities, right down to cheating on your wife, were sanctioned by God, and your friends?). The assurance gives them the ability to dismiss the pesky rules put on paper during the messy process of democracy because some of us missed the fact that we are ruled by One, and only One.
Stuff like this roils Jim’s blood. Mine too, I admit. Remember that the Family arose to knock down unions that were organizing in response to the devastation from the Great Depression. Union busting brought to you by Jesus, care of the elite. Let’s hope my friend Jim’s prognostication of economic collapse helping us to rediscover our fundamental values can come without the photo opportunities provided to Walker Evans and the memory imprints of little boy Jim in the back of the Studebaker.
Also posted on KillingTheBuddha.com
What do you get when a Buddhist raconteur, a junior high Jewish messiah, and a transsexual cowboy for Christ walk into a bar?
Find out at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on June 29th when Killing the Buddha, the award-winning online magazine of god for the godless, releases its new anthology, Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith. This is the first time my writing gets pinned between the pages of a bound book. For a sneak preview, you can read the story here. In the anthology the title has transformed, as all things must, to Banana Slug Psalm.
The evening will feature an open bar, door prizes, and stories by Paul Morris of BOMB Magazine, Irina Reyn, author of What Happened to Anna K., and horse wrangler Quince Mountain.
Drawn from the website created by Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau in 2000, Believer, Beware is a collection of true confessions, skeptical testimonies, and personal revelations of religion lost, found and then lost again. Library Journal in a starred review, says Believer, Beware is “shocking, exhilarating, and never dull…. Highly recommended.” Publishers Weekly describes it as “smart, candid, and insightful…. The voices are refreshingly honest.”
Just the facts, ma’am…
Where: Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker, New York City
When: Monday, June 29, 2009
Time: 6:00 – 9:00 pm
Cost: Free, with open bar
Somewhere there is a vagabond gene in the DNA, and my brother and I both seem to have gotten it. In case you want to follow his travels through India, Thailand Cambodia, and — soon — Laos, check out the Salsamanian blog. I alas, am settled back in NYC.
Just in case you’re cruising around Brooklyn looking for the perfect wedding present or something, you should know about fork & pencil. All profits go to cool charities like the Open Space Institute. Wouldn’t it be nice if all businesses ran on such a model? The more you make, the more you give to the community. Imagine that.
For those of you anywhere near the New York area, mark your calendars for the book launch party for Believer, Beware: First-person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith. This anthology from Beacon Press features the best of the first eight years of Killing the Buddha, inlcuding something by me. Join us for drinks, readings, revelry and more. Be there!
Monday, June 29, 2009
6 -9 pm
Le Poisson Rouge
158 Bleecker St, New York City