The following was written before Election Day, 2016. Now, its mention of concerns about 3rd party voting seems almost quaint, just 3 days after the result, given that Trump won.
15 some-odd years ago, before I become a father, before I move to Switzerland from Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, I pick up two Octavia Butler novels, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. Two ideas that Butler weaves through her novels are: God is change; and that it is human destiny to take root and flower on other worlds. According to these truths, observed and put forth by Butler’s protagonist, Lauren Olamina, God is not a protean super-being, but change itself — the only enduring and ultimate reality. This struck me as truth, not fiction, and still does. And the second idea, that humans, Earthseed, are destined to take root on distant planets, seems true also: a distant, almost fanciful truth, but true nonetheless.
I put those books down 15 years ago, and since that time I have married, fathered two children, moved an ocean away from my hometown, and my other attempts at making a home of my own, to lay down new roots in Lausanne – yet, I’m still tangling with the ideas seeded by Butler’s parables.
∞ = Δ
One of my FB friends, someone I’ve known since grade school, is a committed Green Party member — running for local office himself, even. In the little left-leaning bubble that constitutes my FB milieu, I, among others from our grade school circles, have tangled with my Green Friend over the ethics of voting for Jill Stein, when the electoral reality is that the decision is actually between Hillary Clinton (the prudent choice) or Donald Trump (an impulsive, self-serving, reckless, racist, sexist, and much more if he gets his way). It’s kind of like the election that Butler imagines in Parable of the Talents – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I won’t rehash the argument amongst my friends in its entirety, you’ve likely considered all the angles yourself — but, among more worthy arguments my Green Friend put forth, he offered one opinion that still strikes me as particularly noteworthy, as well as foolhardy: he said, « The worst of Trumpism is already out of the bag », Reflexively, in response, I thought, « No. It can always get worse than we expect ». And suddenly my long dormant intention to re-read Butler’s dystopian parables seemed urgent.
∞ = Δ
There it is, in the first few pages of Parable of the Talents, nearly two decades ahead of schedule, Trump’s campaign slogan coming out of the mouth of President Jarrett, Butler’s imagined Christian-fascist tyrant: « Make America Great Again ». Coincidence?, (but Butler seems to be one who was good at sensing what’s coming ‘round the bend). Coincidence or not, reading it on the page makes Trump’s video come to mind: the one of him being anointed by various huckster clergymen, a stunt that would have likely destroyed any other candidacy in recent memory. In light of Butler’s fiction and the current polls, the video seems less like a comically off-key ploy and more like a shrewd, banal gambit. The leitmotif of this electoral cycle has been almost everyone’s underestimation of how high a price base political motives can fetch in the free market of ideas, especially when the buyers are an economically compromised citizenry, and the ideas feature feigned anger, gilded with trappings of the nouveaux riche. If the market will bear Trump, it will bear anything. It used to bear slavery and indentured servitude, and still does in many places. The USA included.
After re-reading Butler, my reflexive « No », in response to my Green Friend’s opinion concerning the worst of Trumpism seems less to me like a paranoid tic and more like common sense.
∞ = Δ
What brings me back to Butler isn’t her scintillating craftsmanship as a writer: her exposition can be clunky, and her supporting characters can often sound like mere echoes of the protagonists of her novels, but the plotting can grab you, and the ideas – Wow, the ideas! The way she knits together the present day with what-might-be – her imaginings are as spooky and riveting as your first glimpse of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come. For me, this quality above all, eclipses whatever flaws are in her prose and set her stories soaring.
∞ = Δ
Her stories inspire wonder:
The deep paradox of Earthseed’s God – force without self, selfless implacable force, signifying constant change. How does a person harmonize with such a force?
Butler’s text-within-a text, the verses that make up Lauren Olamina’s The Books of the Living, the bedrock of Earthseed, elaborates answers to that question. Yet the verses do not resort to mysticism, but rather satisfy the rational yearning to erase it. In its place Earthseed counsels kindness, ritual, partnership, work and imagination.
∞ = Δ
How might we project ourselves and our children into a future that is almost fantastic ? Into a life beyond Earth, leaving home, leaving Gaia, growing into ever renewing childhoods as we mature as a species? How do we learn to regard Earthly history as a rich pageant that has merely been our kindergarten?
Or, maybe the metaphor of individual development shatters? It becomes tangled up in the development of now alien environments and lives, in ways we wouldn’t recognize as human, as Butler imagines in other novels and stories…?
∞ = Δ
In The Religious Case Against Belief, James Carse observes that the great religions – Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam – have been offering answers for millennia, while other belief systems have waned and died. Whether or not a belief system is a religion, he posits, must be measured against this thousand-year yardstick. By that standard, I would hazard that only science and the art of storytelling itself could pass the test, and they make no claims to being religions. Can Earthseed, with its neologistic name and banishing of the supernatural, grow into something that people lean on, even shelter under? Is it something that people can light the way with? How will it distinguish itself from a bland acceptance of science? Will it grow from a belief system into something that assuages pangs, nourishes, delights, inspires…will it be something that puts us back together again, as other religions have failed? Can it become a way of life? If we take the great religions as our measure, we will only be certain of the answers in a thousand years time.
And in the meantime?
∞ = Δ
…Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
∞ = Δ
The question that presses on me now is could it hold me together? Will it connect me to others? What shape will it take? What shape am I taking? Can I change?
As I pass through the most common of changes, middle age, I doubt my own force to shape my own ends. On bad days I doubt the significance of trying. Is this sense of my own stasis, a mirror image that seems frozen but aging, an accurate sense? Couldn’t I just peel my reflection off the mirror, as the poet suggests, and shake it fresh like a sheet too long rolled up?
Is reaching out for an Earthseed community just a sign of middle age desperation? The recrudescence of an instinct for faith after too many disappointments in others and myself? Or is it an invitation to a feast?
∞ = Δ
I argue and reason with my Green Friend, among others, with renewed vigor and curiosity. I am not convinced by his claim that voting idealistically is an effective « long game » that will project us into a more progressive future, in subsequent elections. I can accept this as a valid moral stance, but regard it more as a « consummation devoutly to be wished» than as an effective strategy. Casting that vote certainly isn’t prudential and won’t prevent or remedy whatever havoc Trump has in store for us in the short-term. I get his point, but I’m not buying. God is Change and Trickster – Beware.
∞ = Δ
You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow…
« 24 Frames », Jason Isbell
∞ = Δ
My Green Friend yearns for positive change as much as I do. I would have to concede that he’s working harder than me to effect change by running for office. But he can’t effect change more than I can. He has faith that his protest vote now will bend the arc of the universe toward justice later. His faith resembles another kind of architecture, if you’ll permit the pun: his protest seems to me a tower mounted too high, or a house built on sand. It’s either hubris or the innocence of idealism. I have a different faith, drawn in part, from my practice as an actor. Acting prompts me to focus on my every day, moment-to-moment, experiences of failure and success. They tell me that the only time I have to shape is now.
I drop my end of the thread of argument between me and my Green Friend. This is not a change I can shape.
∞ = Δ
What can I shape?
Not my children’s future – but their now.
Not my nation’s future, but its now.
I can try to shape the arc of now. I can try to bend it to justice by my lights. I can shape today, in all its imperfection, and I can take faith in the worthiness, the necessity, and the urgency of shaping now; the fierce urgency of shaping the now that is always at my fingertips: Malleable; Flowing; Divine. I cannot take faith in results, which are always beyond my grasp. I may shape my intents and my ends, but not my results.
∞ = Δ
Worse may come to worse even as we’re here, vigilant, bending things as we would. The arc may snap after we’re gone, and all of us none the wiser. And our children, and our descendants, will be left to mend our broken intentions as they can and as they will. Not as I would.
∞ = Δ
O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would…?
∞ = Δ
Is the world misshapen because we are so awed, so cowed by the present, that we do not lift ourselves, and each other, to our full stature, and dare to partner God? Because we are waiting for some higher being to set things straight? Or because others believe they act on behalf of a higher mind, and will not see that Change alone is mindless?
∞ = Δ
I shape my children as they shape me – nature shapes nurture that shapes their characters. And their spirits « dwell in a place of tomorrow », that I can only visit in my dreams; they move along an arc that bends vanishingly fast away from my scope.
I shape my partner as she shapes me – each of us distinct forms when we met, still learning to guard, with tenderness, each other’s borders. Gardening in each other’s solitude. Our shared future taking root in our today.
Some days it’s more than I can handle.
Many days it buoys my spirit, gives me form and purpose.
God is change. Shape God.
∞ = Δ
Coincidences, looked at from a certain angle, give a comforting face to change. With coincidences, our minds knit together contingencies, and we feel swaddled in a quilt of grand design. We see things « mindwise » , to borrow Nicholas Epley’s book title, by perceiving minds in things and events that are mindless. If we’re not careful, we can forget that God is Trickster, showing us our own mind in the mirror of circumstances and events, though it feels like we’re deciphering the intentions of some mythic higher mind out there somewhere. But coincidence can be comforting, nonetheless, and pleases with its symmetries. For instance:
I live now in a house that used to belong to a minister in Swiss government; During his tenure, he had an idea, an initiative for a new consular function to prevent « brain drain » and encourage Swiss working and studying abroad to maintain their connections to Switzerland; These new meeting places came to be referred to as Swiss House; And it was at Swiss House, Cambridge, MA, USA, where I met a Swiss academic, a doctor named Nelly, now my wife.
Come to think of it, it’s kind of like how Lauren Olamina meets and falls in love with the doctor Bankole in Parable of the Sower – minus the dystopian chaos of a disintegrating United States. Rather, it was a celebratory open house, and I was mostly hungry for the free food, until I saw her…but that’s another story.
∞ = Δ
Nelly, from Helen, meaning light.
Iman, my elder seed, meaning faith.
Zahra, my younger, meaning blossom,
Or sparkling light, like star light.
These coincidences, these meanings
I mean to shape them
And to let them shape me in their turn.
Shape God, Shape Self;
Shape Self and Partner Change;
For Change prevails.