We had a mild autumn that seemed to stretch longer than usual. Today, a dusting of snow and temperatures not much above freezing, gray sky, a meadow in beige-brown hues and the trees mostly leafless. According to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, the next few weeks are 小雪 xiǎoxuě, or “minor snow;” it is already winter. The jiéqì seasons follow the agriculture of northern China’s plains, and it’s striking to me how closely they resemble the agricultural seasons here in eastern Pennsylvania.
Lately, I feel the seasonal transitions physically. My body responds to the changing weather–not always a good thing, but not necessarily a bad thing, either. It connects me with the environment, reminds me of my necessary relationship with the world and its many beings and aspects: seasons, weather, water, plants, insects, bacteria, trees, other humans…
More than ever, I recognize the value in those relationships and treasure how varied they are. And I am just another part of the things I love and experience.
I also recognize my humanness as being “part of the problem” here. I use energy systems, I drive a gas-powered car, my house pumps water from the aquifer, I cleanse my house with disinfectants, my trash goes to a landfill, my income’s derived from an elite system of higher-education institutions. All that stuff that has materially altered the Earth for the worse and been unequally distributed among people? Responsible for my part in it. Trying to make changes.
I went out, wearing my robe and slippers, to the porch this morning to appreciate the barely-frosted landscape and breathe in the scent of minor snow. Sparrows and finches flitted through the bare shrubs, alive with activity. Tonight is the dark of the moon and soon the solstice will arrive. Times of transition. What will they bring?
My mother has vascular dementia, which renders her more and more aphasic, though in her case–so far–her “emotional tone” (as philosopher Arne Naess calls it) has remained intact. I visited my mother on a recent occasion when I wasn’t feeling my best and had had a week of less-than-good health. It was not a matter of duty. The time I spend with my mother is beautiful. But it had been a tough week. Let’s leave it at that.
We sat in her apartment in the assisted-living wing and arranged the flowers I’d brought. Then we spent 20 minutes in a kind of conversation, to which I’ve become accustomed, during which she tries to convey information about something she needs to have done. In this case, after much of the usual (really, rather humorous at times) confusion, I deciphered that she wanted some sweaters taken to the dry cleaner.
Such minutia. And yet, so difficult to get across, across that divide of language and cognition. The incredible concentration and effort it takes her just to dial a phone number to call her ailing sister. To tell the nurse aide that she needs more yogurt. Anything.
Then she surprised me. She pointed to my forehead and then to her own. “This,” she said. “Is wrong. For you. What?”
Was she reading a crease in my brow? I told her I had not been feeling great. She wanted to know, so I told her details, the way one tells one’s mother. Even though I am never sure quite how much gets through.
“Lie down. Take off the peaks.” By which she meant shoes. Why not comply? We both took off our shoes and spent the visit relaxing. We even indulged in a glass of wine because she loves to offer wine to her guests. Never mind it was 11 am. My mother has lost that rigid cognitive sense of time that the rest of us spend our lives obsessing over. There’s something valuable in that loss, though it is a loss.
She’s still teaching me things. Other ways to live with loss (my dad, her “normal” brain, mobility, words…).
The next evening, she called me. She wanted to know how I was feeling. I’m 63 years old and my mother is 88, and she’s still worried about me.
I first encountered Arne Naess’ work in 2012 (see this post), and I regret that I failed to follow up by reading more of his “ecosophy T” (deep ecology) and philosophy. I am finally getting around to his very late book Life’s Philosophy, and I love how it speaks to me on many levels. His claim that human emotions can and should be components of human reason makes so much sense that I wonder why so few researchers look into it; some folks on the edges of neuroscience and psychology seem to venture there, but few others. The concept of “relationism” resonates for me, too. It reminds me of the Dali Lama’s teachings that all things in the world are intertwined and valuable, even non-sentient beings.
Relationism, as Naess uses it, acknowledges the vast and impossibly infinite complexity of the universe, more strictly life on earth, and–can I use the word “celebrates”?–the interwoven strands of animal, vegetable, mineral, bacterial, cosmological, emotional, rational aspects of a life in the world: ecology on steroids (he would not have phrased it like that). My urge for balance in my own life makes this philosophy relevant: the opportunities for play and for imagination as well as for seriously abstract concepts, for the importance of emotions as felt in the human body and as interpreted or contained in the human intellect; the necessity of listening to even the tiniest sounds, of savoring the small moments, of not needing to be big or grand or successful but to be mature in how one feels with the world.
The incredible difficulty of saying any of this. Which Naess also acknowledges, saying the difficult job of conveying being felt in the world leads to music, to art, to sitting with the natural and sensing beauty. I might add: Poetry. Though poems are made of words, they often operate through images and felt moments rather than intellectual logic.
The wonderful paradoxes of this book delight me, but then, I always have enjoyed paradoxes. Naess was, indeed, a philosopher, a mathematician, a person who valued logic, reason, and analysis, an analysand himself and briefly a psychological researcher, a mountaineer, a teacher. What to do with the inherently analytical side of himself? Treasure and use it to find wonder! That’s what makes him different from so many thinkers. Wonder. He writes, “To me, the ability to analyze the experiences of the moment is a source of wonder: wonder at human creativity and the result of evolution during hundreds of millions of years. That which happens within us–in our minds and hearts–is so complicated that the psychoanalytical instruction to express everything that occurs to one becomes…and exhortation to to the impossible.”
He opposes Cartesian mind-body separation not just within the body itself (as medical science has proven) but in terms of landscape, natural environment, places. He posits that people need deep thinking about values that move us emotionally just as much as we need to think about rational, pragmatic, socially-pressured values that are based on intellect or the empirical. Place matters, and we need to consider our fundamental place, Earth. Naess’ oppositional stances are, however, never a fight. Instead, discourse, compassion, patience with what is complex. A sound life philosophy requires stillness sometimes, and listening, even–especially–to the “tiny, tiny things,” he urges: “The art of living is to be able to work with small things in a big way.”
How do you feel yourself and the world? is the title of one chapter. I read the question with emphasis on different words and began to realize what a complicated and interesting question it is, though it seems (at first) so simple. Naess says that humans have hewed to the idea that there’s a gap between reason and emotion, and that the gap is an artificial one; a change in perspective, and an understanding that the mind and the body live in a physical world where emotions play a huge role in human communication, might help us to enjoy our lives more–and maybe, while we are at it, treat the earth one which we depend with more love and respect. But we have to feel we are not just ourselves but the world: of it, from it, in it.