We can't help but transform the world around us—even if no one else can tell.
To look at me on any given day you may not be able to tell, but I am very particular about my clothes. Most of the stuff I wear is secondhand, even the newer, trendier clothes from Forever 21 or H&M, which I’ve most often found in a thrift store or at a yard sale, hanging from the branch of a tree on someone’s front lawn. As approximately fifty percent of you know, the sizing of women’s clothing can vary wildly, and it has changed over the years, which means that when you look at anything made before 1990 the real meaning of “size 4” or “size 14” or whatever is almost impossible to guess. Since this is how I shop, I have developed a good eye for what is likely to fit me. I usually ignore whatever the tag says and if I don’t feel like trying something on, I’ll just hold it out in front of me and squint. For a dollar or five I’m willing to take the risk that a pair of pants or a sweater might not fit me, especially since I know I can alter it if I need to.
I’ve gotten pretty handy with the old sewing machine. I own one, a Brother XL 5600, that my mother gave me as a birthday gift a good few years before I was mature enough to be able to sit down and learn how to use it properly. I used to get so frustrated with it, taking forever to wind the bobbin and thread the needle and somehow always jamming it within the first minute of actually sewing. But over the years I’ve gotten more patient, and my need has grown. I am more interested in clothing now than I used to be, and my interest grew at about the same rate that my cheapness did. I have found that I can afford to have a large and varied wardrobe by doing small alterations to secondhand clothes myself, and occasionally making patterns by tracing my favorite pieces so that I can replace them with something similar after I’ve worn them to shreds. It’s been worth it, taking the time to learn to operate the machine. These days the fabric is less apt to bunch and seize up under the needle. Instead it glides through the machine like a warm knife through butter.
The fixes I’ve come up with are either messy concoctions of my own design—Crop-top? Sure! The scissors are in the kitchen!—or else very simple and common alterations, like taking up a hem. Since I’m not actually any good at this, the quality of my work varies wildly. The first time I tried to turn baggy, high-waisted mom jeans into figure-hugging skinny jeans they came out wrong and ballooned at the hips like jodhpurs. Terrible. But I got the hang of it eventually, and so help me God I will never wear another pair of boot-cut pants for as long as I live.
One of the projects I’m proudest of is the hem I gave to a light green polyester skirt that I liked in every way except for its dowdy length. It has a little bit of comfy elastic at the waist, and its synthetic fabric never wrinkles. But it fell to calf-length and honestly looked dreadful on me, with my bone-white ankles poking out of the bottom. So I hacked about a foot and a half off the bottom of the skirt, turned the edge under, and went to work sewing it up until I saw that my machine was creating a very visible and unattractive hemline. Yipes! That wasn’t how the skirt looked originally, I didn’t think, but I had no idea why. I pulled the thread out with my seam ripper (the tiny, knife-sharp jimmy-jam that’s shaped like a wishbone—such a useful little tool) and called my mom to ask her what I should do. Oh, just make an invisible hem, she said.
Invisible! How magical that sounded. But how do you do it? Turns out it was as simple as slowing down and sewing it by hand, turning the hem under twice and only putting the thread all the way through to the front every several stitches or so. I tried it and it worked. The stitches disappeared. When I wear the skirt now, you can’t tell that it ever looked any different, that it didn’t look this way when I found it hanging in the musty one-dollar room of a thrift shop in south Jersey. It’s not just shorter, it hangs better, and my little calves look way less pitiful now that my curvy behind is a featured player.
The phrase invisible hem has stayed with me. There’s just something so awfully poetic about it. And it gets better. Though I don’t often refer to the sewing instructions in them, I do own a small library of books on fashion and costumes. Paging through one of them not too long ago, I learned that just as there is such a thing as an invisible hem, there is also a job called invisible weaver, also known as invisible mender. This refers to a tailor who can expertly repair a tear in an article of clothing, particularly in something that is hard to mend, like suiting fabric. The task is to make the clothes look like new, and if the mender is completely successful then we never even know he exists.
A few years ago, the University of Pennsylvania hosted a series of public lectures on the theme of change. One of the talks was on something called “The Mysteries of Translation,” and the speaker was Alastair Reid, a Scottish writer who is probably best known for his translations of poetry by Borges and Neruda from Spanish into English. The translation of poetry is a topic that really interests me, so I put the lecture on my calendar and looked forward to it for weeks.
The talk was held in the cozy lecture hall in Penn’s archeology museum, which happens to be one of my favorite places in the world. As kids our parents took us there and I loved standing in the dusky wing of Ancient Egypt, staring at the mummies until I gave myself a proper chill. Years later I went to college at Penn, and I took a few anthropology courses that were held in the classrooms on the Museum’s second floor. Sometimes I’d buy a small lunch at the cafeteria and eat it before class, sitting in the windowed dining room that was surrounded on either side by primordial-looking fern gardens. It felt like such a fucking blessing to be there, I swear.
On the evening of the lecture I settled happily into my bouncy auditorium seat and plopped my shoulder bag into my lap. Alastair Reid came up to the podium and surprised me by being pretty old, but then I realized that he’d have to be, if he had been translating Borges and Neruda when those guys were writing back in the ‘60s. He lived for many years in Latin America, but he grew up speaking his native Scots at home and with his friends. Never in the classroom, though—they had to speak the dominant, “correct” English language there. He told us that Scots developed out of a severe Calvinism, which he thinks is reflected in the language. For him, learning Spanish was an “opening up.” “I had so much more fun in Spanish than I ever did in English,” he said, which made me smile. We all smiled, I think. He said: “When you learn another language deeply you grow another self completely.”
Reid knew Borges. They were friends. Neruda, who Reid also knew personally, once famously placed his hand on Reid’s shoulder and asked him not to simply translate his poems, but to “improve” them. Is it necessary to know the poet whose work you’re translating? I wouldn’t have thought so, but maybe poetry has more to do with human connections than it ever did with theory or PhDs. In The Wild Braid, a book Stanley Kunitz made with a young photographer just before he turned 100, he writes that to properly understand a poem you need to know where it came from: who wrote it, where that person lived, and what their life had been like until the point of writing it. The thing about translating a poem, when it comes down to it, is that you aren’t just bringing it from one language into another. You have to write a new poem, one that gets inside the mind of the first one. “When you translate someone’s work well,” Reid said, “you become them.”
Alastair Reid has lived an incredibly varied and itinerant life, one that seems enviable and impressive and kind of hard to believe to a homebody like me. In his memoir-ish collection of essays, Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner, he writes about the many, many homes of others that he has stayed in and visited throughout his life, even just within New York City, where he bounced around from apartment to apartment and had an office at The New Yorker where he was a staff writer. In that book, he uses the word translation in the most wonderful way, to describe the transformation he underwent simply by changing location. For a time he and his son owned and lived on a houseboat in London that was moored in Chelsea, and they made special arrangements with friends in other parts of that massive city to switch homes for a weekend now and again. (How have I never thought to try this? Let’s all try it! We could have like a dozen pied-a-terres!) Reid seems to have a special understanding for the objects in our lives, and although (or maybe because) he hasn’t tended to settle into any one living space for long stretches, he appreciates the “extremely complex ... act of inhabiting and humanizing a house.” I dearly wish I knew Alastair Reid, and could ask him to share his feelings on clothes, those dwellings and self-made identities we carry with us everywhere.
He seemed to enjoy himself up there that night, talking to us about language and art and the mind. As he spoke I thought about how unusually down to earth he seemed, how warm and honest and happy. It struck me that his unpretentious personality shouldn’t come as any surprise; I mean the job of translating someone else’s work might be the ultimate in not drawing attention to yourself, kind of like a ghost writer. Or an invisible mender, if you will, who makes his work so perfect that he himself disappears.
I get a lot of pleasure out of thinking of this poet as an invisible weaver, and of my altered secondhand clothing like translations, probably because I have such an abiding love for things that are old and new at the same time. Third-rate seamstresses and first-rate poets alike, we all change the things we touch when we imbue them with ourselves. However unimportant our little lives may be, however invisible we may sometimes feel, we create the world around us just by being in it.
Katie Haegele is the author of White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding What Was Missing, and an upcoming book about language. Read more of her blog posts here.
Photo by Luke Nadeau, licensed under Creative Commons.
How a few simple steps could revitalize our bodies and communities.
Researchers have discovered a “wonder drug” for many of today’s most common medical problems, says Dr. Bob Sallis, a family practitioner at a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Fontana, California. It’s been proven to help treat or prevent diabetes, depression, breast and colon cancer, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, anxiety and osteoporosis, Sallis told leaders at the 2013 Walking Summit in Washington, D.C.
“The drug is called walking,” Sallis announced. “Its generic name is physical activity.”
Recommended dosage is 30 minutes a day, five days a week, but children should double that to 60 minutes a day, seven days a week. Side effects may include weight loss, improved mood, improved sleep and bowel habits, stronger muscles and bones as well as looking and feeling better.
Biking, swimming, dancing, gardening, sports, jogging and aerobics work equally well, Sallis said, but he cites three factors that make walking the most effective treatment: 1) Low or no cost; 2) Simple to do for people of all ages, incomes and fitness levels, and 3) Walking is Americans’ favorite physical activity, so you are more likely to stick with a walking program than with other fitness prescriptions.
Sallis urges all physicians to prescribe walking for their patients because “physical inactivity is pandemic today,” as the authoritative British medical journal The Lancet reported last year in a special issue devoted to the benefits of physical activity. Studies published in other leading medical journals show that walking and other physical activity could cut rates of many of these diseases by at least 40 percent, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. This would save Americans more than $100 billion a year in health care costs, according to the American Public Health Association.
Nice Surprise: Walking is Good for Us in Many Ways
Increased levels of walking and physical activity can bring other social benefits too, said authorities from the fields of public health, education, community development, and social policy at the national Walking Summit held October 1–3.
Dr. Regina Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General from 2009-2013, said, “You know that exercise is medicine. It’s also good for the social fabric of our communities.” That’s the reason Benjamin built a walking path on the grounds of a health clinic she founded in Bayou LaBatre, Alabama.
Lower Health Care Costs:
George Halvorson, chairman of Kaiser Permanente, declared, “The only way we can overcome the chronic disease epidemic is to walk,” which will also save billions in health care costs and sustain Medicare for the future. Halvorson noted that diabetes type 2 alone accounts for 34 percent of Medicare costs. Kaiser Permanente, which serves 9.1 million members across the U.S., has made physical activity a vital sign that health care professionals should chart and act on along with a patient’s weight, family health, and blood pressure.
Improved School Performance:
Mary Pat King, director of Programs and Projects for the National PTA, reported that walking to school “supports cognitive performance” in students, which is why the organization passed a resolution pushing for more walkable schools.
Karen Marlo, vice-president of the National Business Group on Health, an alliance of leading companies, explained, “Walking is a business issue. A healthy workforce means a more successful workforce. It’s important for businesses to share effective ways to get employees to walk more.”
Harriet Tregoning, director of the Washington, D.C. Office of Planning, said, “What makes people walk is what makes great places to live. Walkability is the secret sauce that improves the performance of many other things.”
All these examples show why people from different sectors with different missions embrace walking as a solution, explained Tyler Norris, co-chair of Every Body Walk! and Kaiser Permanente vice president. “Police care about walking because it’s good for public safety. Developers are here because walking promotes successful economic development. Environmentalists are here because walking reduces carbon emissions.”
Birth of a Movement
The summit was convened by Kaiser Permanente and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, which includes more than 100 business, government and nonprofit partners. The audience included more than 400 participants from 41 states and Canada representing 235 organizations from AARP, NAACP and the PGA Tour to Marriott Inc., the Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Health Department and Bike Walk Greenville (South Carolina).
The 2013 Walking Summit focused on how to encourage more Americans to walk, and how to make communities across the country more walkable. Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a coalition of 470 organizations nationwide, joked that the ultimate goal was to make “sitting the new smoking.” His ambitious vision for 2020 is that all Americans walk enough each day to enjoy health benefits and that all communities provide a safe, comfortable environment for people to walk.
Vanessa Garrison, co-founder of Girl Trek, which organizes walking groups for African-American women and girls to “improve their health and heal their communities,” opened the summit by announcing, “Neighbor, we’ve got work to do!” Garrison emphasized that walking is not just for folks “in Portland and Boston,” a theme that echoed during the three-day event. Walking is for everyone — no matter if you live in an inner city neighborhood or a suburb without sidewalks or a rural community, no matter whether you are out of shape or a youngster or roll in a wheelchair.
Garrison emphasized that walking should be a natural part of our daily lives, rather than something we add on specifically for exercise, health or recreation. “I have the pleasure of walking every day to the store, the dry cleaners, the post office, to the park with my husband. That’s no accident,” she said. It’s the result of deliberate urban planning that locates important destinations within walking distance —a traditional common-sense idea called walkability, which is at the heart of making our communities more safe, comfortable and convenient for walking.
“Walkable communities are the key to a strong American Third Century,” observed Tyler Norris. "They help protect us from spiraling health care costs in great part driven by preventable chronic disease, while creating vibrant communities that are fonts of equitable prosperity.”
Real estate developer Christopher Leinberger of LOCUS outline how the rise of walkability is good for our economic future. Every point over 70 on Walk Score (the website rating the walkability of any address in America) results in increased rent of 90 cents per square foot for commercial property and a rise in home values of $20 per square foot for residential property.
An unintended consequence of this trend might be a decline in social equity in walkable neighborhoods as housing becomes more expensive for low-income people. Yolanda Savage-Narva, campaign director of America Walks, laid out one of the key goals for the walking movement at a debriefing session after the summit: “Everyone has an inherent right to walk.”
The first event of its kind, the 2013 Walking Summit was sold out more than a month
in advance. “The enthusiasm, energy and excitement for promoting walking and walkability here is contagious,” noted Deb Hubsmith, founder and director of the Safe Routes to Schools Partnership. “This is a movement being born.”
Excerpted from the booklet Walking As a Way of Life: Movement for Health & Happiness. [PDF] Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about creating healthy, lively communities. His website: JayWalljasper.com. Read Jay's tips for starting a walking movement near you.
Photo by Maxwell GS, licensed under Creative Commons.
Katie Haegele on everyday costumes, dressing from the imagination, and Pee-wee Herman.
This old picture of Paul Reubens with Cyndi Lauper rolled past my tumblr dashboard today, prompting me to reflect on him. Reubens lives, in my mind, in the small category of famous people who I really wish I knew. I am not into hero worship. I just think he and I could be friends.
I once listened to an interview he did with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. (You can listen to or read it here.) They talked about his life, and at one point he recalled moving to Florida from upstate New York when he was around nine years old. When his parents told him they were going to Florida he was all excited, thinking they were moving to the tropics. It was important to him to look the part. His mother took him shopping for school clothes and he picked out things that would suit his new look. (Apparently he had more agency in this arena than I did.) He’d be, like, a beachcomber. That’s what you do in Florida, right? Comb beaches? He showed up for the first day of fourth grade wearing clamdiggers and a nautical-themed shirt, “like a total freak.”
I love this story. Picture it: You’re little Paul Reubens, the future Pee-wee Herman, and you wear costumes instead of clothing because costumes make sense to you as a part of everyday life.
He goes on, in his conversation with Terry Gross, to explain how, even though looking back on it he figures most kids would have bowed to the peer pressure to look a little bit less like a total freak, he really thought his classmates were missing something obvious. “I was sort of like, ‘Don’t you get it? You know, I’m a beachcomber.’” And he kept on wearing his get-ups to school.
Well I get it. Don’t you? Thematic outfits. Dressing for the occasion. Or as I have always thought of it, dressing with such absurd appropriateness as to become, inevitably and necessarily, inappropriate.
I once got roped into attending some event at the Art Museum, as we native Philadelphians call the recently rebranded PMA (for Philadephia Museum of Art). It was a cocktail party and I guess I should admit that I wasn’t roped into attending it at all, but actually talked my mom into accepting the invitation so that I could join her. It took place in the evening, after the museum’s normal hours, which is a really thrilling time of day to find yourself in a museum, and it was held in the gallery where a visiting Degas exhibit was hung. Ballerinas and horses, you can picture it. I wanted to go because of the ballerinas. I had a tiny sparkly black dress that I fancied looked like a ballet costume because it was sleeveless, thin and stretchy and tight in the bodice like a leotard, and had a short skirt that twirled out a little when I moved, like a tutu, and I wanted someplace to wear it. I even bought real ballet slippers from a dancewear store in town (“Did you see this in a magazine or somethin hon?”), soft peachy-pink ones, which you cannot wear on the street, as I found out—they are not made for walking anywhere but on a polished dance floor, and the soles will tear and fall apart if you try it. The shoes were what made the outfit a dancer’s costume, but the thick black leg warmers I found at a thrift store turned the look into a joke, which was crucial. I was a dancer at rehearsal, just like Degas’ ballerinas were, except that those young girls were not wearing legwarmers. That was some Fame shit, a reference to my actual storehouse of cultural knowledge: not 19th-century French painters but melodramatic TV shows from the '80s where everyone looked hot. I knew I looked pretty in the dress, but looking pretty on purpose is so embarrassing. You have to foil it somehow. (See this.)
I was 23 or 24 that year. I stood around with my mom all evening, looking at the fingerprinty little sculptures and waiting for someone to get my joke. Toward the end of the evening, over near the dessert table, a mean-looking older lady asked me—perhaps meaning to be kind, actually, now that I think back on it; she couldn’t help what her face looked like—“Are you a real ballerina?” I remember feeling embarrassed but I didn’t show it, I just twirled away. I looked better than all those losers anyway.
. . .
When my sister and I were kids, we watched a recording of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that we’d taped off TV (missing the first five minutes or so, when Pee-wee is still in bed asleep and dreaming of winning the Tour de France) approximately 200 times. The word approximately makes it sound like I’m being facetious but I’m honestly trying to remember. We certainly watched it most days of summer vacation—which is what, like 90 days?—for at least two summers running. We used to be able to do the entire thing by heart, back and forth, each of us taking whatever line of dialogue came next in turn.
I’m not entirely sure I understand why the movie was so important to us. I mean it’s funny as hell, and kids do have a tendency to watch the things they like over and over again, but there must have been something about it that satisfied us on a deeper level. Maybe the coded clothing is what appealed to us, its costumey obviousness a kind of reassurance that you can grow up and become a thing, just like all little kids want to do.
There are so many looks in that movie. There’s the hood who steals Pee-wee’s bike (spoiler alert!), who’s dressed like a greaser from the '50s, oily hair, cuffed t-shirt and all. The fortune teller who tells Pee-wee his bike is at the Alamo looks like a “real” fortune teller, a “gypsy” with coins dangling from the scarf on her head. The hobos wear hobo hats and have hobo beards. You gotta look like the thing you are, otherwise no one will know. When Pee-wee goes to Hollywood in search of his bike, he strolls around the lots of Warner Bros. studios, looking in wonderment at the actors in actual costumes, and there’s a bit of gender bending for good measure: When Pee-wee talks to a showgirl and an intergalactic-lookin’ dude, a man’s voice comes out of her mouth and a woman’s comes from his. The Pee-wee outfit, of course, is the point of the whole thing, the look the entire movie is hung from. The outfit itself is the character, a boy who lives on his own and decorates his house however he wants and is a “grown man” in a suit and bow tie. That’s what grownups wear, right? A bow tie?
This week I’ve been reading the new book by New Yorker critic Hilton Als, his first in 17 years, an extraordinary thing with the arresting and uncomfortable title, spelled out in uncomfortably large white block letters against a black background, of White Girls. (Especially awkward if you are one, and a lot of your neighbors are Black, and you try reading it surreptitiously on the bus.) The book is a collection of essays, some of them a blend of autobiography and cultural criticism, others profiles of complicated public figures like Eminem and Richard Pryor that allow Als to apply his unusual deconstruction of the many-layered cultural meanings of race.
I haven’t finished the book yet but so far, for my money, the most compelling piece in there is the one about André Leon Talley, who is, among many other things, an unusual Black celebrity. Talley is the former creative director at Vogue, and he’s unique for a fashion magazine editor in that he’s become famous because of his role there, and we can picture what he looks like. In fact what he looks like—six foot seven, larger than life, and never not draped in capes or furs or velvet—is pretty important to who he is. I won’t give away Als’ sad ending to the piece, but I can tell you, you’ll come away with your heart slightly crushed by the idea of this man who so needs to believe in the “kindness” (Talley’s word) of fashion.
There are other fashion-world figures who dress in costume all the time, like John Galliano (the one who always looks like either a sailor or a pirate) and Karl Lagerfeld, who wears those stiff high collars and looks like the pope, or an evil overlord stroking an evil cat in his lap. (The categories that come up for him in a Google image search include “glasses” and “cat.”) Galliano looks mean and Lagerfeld looks perverse, but men like Talley dress and talk with an extravagance I find utterly touching and sympathetic. Not because I dress in or aspire to own couture, or whatever, but because their sense of glamour is, if not ironic, totally performative. It’s this idea of always mugging for an invisible audience which does eventually materialize, because when you dress and act in an outrageous way, people are gonna look.
Pee-wee Herman is a side of Paul Reubens that we know is real. We can picture him dressing in Pee-wee’s clothes every day (though we know he doesn’t), so when he shows up to mini-golf in a preposterous and fabulous mismatched but perfectly paired top and pants—and golf shoes! He’s golfing!—we can perceive it as a concession of sorts, a stand-in costume for the Pee-wee one that he can’t actually wear in real life. My sister and I loved Pee-wee because, as a kid-adult, he knew how much fun being an adult would be / was. Of course he was friends with Cyndi Lauper (who is also wearing golf shoes in the picture, btw). Like Talley, both of these people know that you can create yourself with clothing, or at least create a character that is not you but becomes you to all the people looking on, which for some of us is the only self that matters.
Katie Haegele is the author of White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding What Was Missing. Look for her upcoming review of White Girls in the upcoming issue of Utne Reader.
Positive thinking, manifestation, and other new expressions of timeless truths.
This editor’s note originally appeared in issue 125-126 of Both Sides Now: A Journal of Lightworking, Peacemaking, and Consciousness. Both Sides Now is a quarterly journal of spiritual, cultural, and political alternatives.
This is a subject Both Sides Now has touched on before, but it is worth revisiting. As a New Age publication, it is worthwhile for us to keep coming back to “first principles” regarding what this concept means. First, there is the realization that we are really entering a new age with a significant difference in consciousness. Secondly, there is the consciousness itself. Her we find a paradox. Much of what is called New Age thinking has been around for as long as we have had the written word—or even longer in the oral tradition. This is why it is called Ageless Wisdom. Nevertheless, for more than a century there have been new expressions of timeless truths. One strain has been called the New Thought movement, which includes Christian Science, Science of Mind, and Unity. There are also independent books which expound on variations of this theme in both universal and religious context.
The theme, by the way, is that reality resides in the mind. For some time we have heard the cliché that we create our own reality (with our thinking). This has been expounded as Law under such designations as the Law of Attraction and the Law of Manifestation, which can be found lumped together. In other words, as has been said, thoughts are things. Whatever we think will manifest in kind in our physical world. Hence, if we indulge in stinking thinking (negative thoughts), that is what we will experience in our everyday lives. On the other hand, if our thoughts are for the good, we are more likely to see the benefits thereof.
This doesn’t mean that everything will come up roses for sure. Great men like Jesus and Gandhi wound up being martyred. The point is that this is a soul-size matter, and this physical existence is far from all of our life. This calls for a sense of propriety. We incarnate into given situations, and our task is to live with integrity in the circumstance we encounter where we are.
However, we are getting away from our initial theme, which is the power of mind to manifest what we experience in physical reality. A primary motive here is to get people to be aware of their thoughts. We see too many surrendering to the notion that “shit happens” as though the crap was coming out of nowhere. It was just noted here that such thinking will of itself bring about negative results. Therefore it is most important that we pay attention to what is going on in our minds and phrase things in terms that should bring about positive results. The power of positive thinking is not a new idea, but how many are clueless when it comes to applying it in our everyday lives?
This brings us to a couple of considerations that have led to controversy in circles that have dealt with these ideas. One is whether we deserve to receive the goodies that are promised if we think the right thoughts. We need to consider what kind of people we are. Are we loving, fair, generous, caring, liberal-minded? Or are we selfish, judgmental, indifferent to injustice, and always looking out for number one? The world’s great spiritual teachings agree that we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, as expounded in the story of Cain and Abel. In modern terms this is called having a social consciousness. One of the problems of what passes for conservatism today is the lack of caring for our fellow citizens, like blaming the poor for their poverty and dismissing many as “welfare cheats.” This is certainly an anti-Christian attitude in what some would call a “Christian nation.”
As indicated, we have touched on this issue before. In BSN 75-76* there was a two-page feature called “100 Quotes from The Secret” which summarized the principles of manifestation expounded in both a book and movie of the same name, authored by Rhonda Byrne. As BSN stated in a footnote, The Secret drew considerable criticism because so much of its manifestation was illustrated by materialistic examples. This is quite valid, particularly as it could lead readers and viewers into unrealistic expectations. Therefore, it is appropriate that we repeat such warnings here. What are the motives behind one’s desire to manifest certain things in life, and what is the nature of the things one wishes to manifest? Are the answers materialistic or otherwise?
This brings up some interesting paradoxes. In The Secret we see that some righteous people have indeed become prosperous, like Jack Canfield of the Chicken Soup books, and Neale Donald Walsch. We might note that such have done some very good things with their earnings and they have put a lot of energy into making a better world. On the other hand, when I look at those who have been the greatest heroes in my lifetime, I see that they have lived simply and frugally, with little regard for material matters. These include Albert Schweitzer, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther Kind, Jr. Theirs were lives of service. For such people abundance meant simply having their basic needs met.
An interesting item to bring into this discussion is the career of movie director Tom Shadyac. He is especially famous for such comedy hits as Bruce Almighty, The Nutty Professor, and Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. In 2007 Shadyac suffered from a life-threatening post-concussion syndrome, which led him to examine the meaning of life. His movies had brought great prosperity and he had an extravagant lifestyle, living in a luxurious mansion. The new thinking led to a re-examination of his values. He scaled back his lifestyle and made a documentary movie of his quest for the real meaning of life. Entitled I Am, the movie includes interviews with some of the foremost scientists, religious leaders, environmentalists, and philosophers, including Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Lynne McTaggart, Elisabet Sahtouris, David Suzuki, Howard Zinn, and Thom Hartmann. The film asks two central questions: What’s wrong with the world? and What can we do about it? It is about “human connectedness, happiness, and the human spirit,” and explores themes including Darwinism, Western mores, loneliness, the economy, and the drive to war. In short, it goes far beyond material concerns.
BSN does not claim or pretend to have the answers to these fundamental questions. The editor himself lives a simple but cluttered life, mainly on the disability pension he receives from traumas suffered in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. From this income he is able to support his interests in fine art and the publication of BSN. He hopes the world is a somewhat better place because of these modest contributions.
The point is that we do not need to come up with great or heroic deeds or acts of charity to be an asset to the world. Being a good family member may be the role one has been assigned in this lifetime. What matters in spirit is the consciousness with which we act. A Course in Miracles puts this most profoundly. The miracle is anything motivated by love, and there is no order of miracles. A random act of kindness can carry as much weight as a heroic deed or work of charity. In spirit, it is the energy, or thought, that counts.
And so we come full circle from where we started. Everything takes place according to law, and a main law is cause and effect. Are we motivated by love or contempt? What fruits will come from our thoughts and deeds? Do we think things through, or do we muddle cluelessly through unexamined lives? (I often need to remind myself of these things.) I may well be that the main purpose of Earth life is to wrestle with these questions. We should all be seekers.
* BSN 75-76, like most fairly recent back issues, is available for $2. That issue also contains our most in-depth feature on The New Humans, also known as Indigo Children. There is also quite a bit of literature on using our thoughts positively and the laws of attraction and manifestation. It should be noted that these principles of mind application are also very effective in healing. A Google search can lead to a wealth of material, such as the Abraham/Hicks books and the classic As a Man Thinketh, which is available online. In As a Man’s forward, James Allen writes:
The object of As a Man Thinketh is to stimulate men and women to the discovery and perception of the truth that they themselves are makers of themselves by virtue of the thoughts that they choose to encourage; that mind is the master weaver, both of the inner garment of character and the outer garment of circumstance, and that, as they may hitherto woven in ignorance and pain they may now weave in enlightenment and happiness.
As far back as 1975 David Spangler (whose column appears in BSN) published a book called The Laws of Manifestation based on his experiences at the magical Findhorn community in Scotland. The book has recently been reissued and BSN looks forward to reading and reporting on it. More recent books on the subject are by Jack Canfield and Napoleon Hill, as well as a number of lesser-known authors.
Banksy graffiti photo by Lord Jim, licensed under Creative Commons.
Why leave the city and join the village people, you may wonder? Are you tired of stress, anxiety, unhealthy food, chlorinated water, traffic jams, air and noise pollution, paying rent, not having time to pursue your real interests and passions?
Do you want to live a life more in balance with nature? Are you looking for more meaning in your daily life? More real connections with people, time in nature, time to pursue your interests and dreams, fresh food straight from the ground around you, deep sleep at night, bubbling streams, and cooing birds?
Living in an ecovillage may just be the antidote to many of the ills of modern urban life. Humans have lived in small settlements with close kin and extended tribal family in tandem with the cycles of nature for hundreds of thousands of years, and some psychologists say that current unprecedented levels of depression, stress, anxiety, drug addiction, and suicide are due to this fundamental disconnect from our past close relationships with each other and with nature.
An ecovillage is an intentional community committed to becoming more sustainable. In practice, this means that the resource inputs for the necessities of living come from local sources and are by and are by and large derived directly from nature in a way that allows nature to perpetually replenish itself and continually supply the needed materials. Ecovillages are also designed using whole systems design principles, to maximize overall quality of life for humans.
Here’s a 10-step guide to help you get started making the shift.
Community of Emerald Village Ecovillage in Vista, CA milking goats. Photo by Bryan Arturo.
1. Grow your community
- The most important thing you can do to prepare is grow your community, your connections, your network. Solidifying relationships with an extended community of like-minded people is going to pay you back in a multitude of ways, opening up endless possibilities. The more you see other people living out their dreams, the more you will realize that yours are possible. Community can inspire and support you to live your dreams.
2. Join the Project Nuevo Mundo movement
● Connect with selected impact centers around the world matched to fit your interests and needs, and like-minded people on a search for transformation.
● Starting this winter, you’ll be able to participate by using the PNM network to find ecovillages and impact centers for work-exchange, trainings, and events.
● You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, or get a ticket to one of the events by supporting the Earth Odyssey 2013 IndieGoGo Campaign.
Project Nuevo Mundo’s Earth Odyssey Logo
3. Acquire skills to use and share
● Get involved in the production of the food you eat: Learn how to grow your own food by connecting to a local community garden or building your own, meet other local gardeners, and put in hours to get experience and vegetables. Check out national community garden databases like American Community Garden Association. Some cities, like San Francisco, have urban garden maps. Or find a guide, like Shareable’s “How to Share a Vegetable Garden.”
● Go to local skill shares and connect to your local tool library. Check out http://www.skillshare.com/. Check Meetup’s skill-sharing section or Wikipedia’s global list of tool libraries. Live in a sharing desert? Learn How to Start Your Own Skillshare or Tool Library from Shareable.
● Experiment with making your own clothing and access opensource sewing on Burdastyle.com or trade clothes in a clothes swap.
● Attend a primitive skills gathering and acquire traditional indigenous skills. Check Meetup’s Primitive Skills section, with over 30,000 members.
● Make your own bike or buy a used one, and eliminate gas-fueled transportation locally. A simple “DIY bicycle” search will yield hundreds of results for interesting projects such as Bike Kitchens!
● Start working with your community by sharing resources.
An Introduction to Permaculture course at West Lexham, Photo courtesy of West Lexham.
4. Start using sharing economy networks
● Use Couchsurfing, Warm Showers (for cyclists), AirBnB when staying in new places. Use mealsharing platforms whenever possible, or share your left-overs.
● Use WWOOF, GrowFood, and soon Project Nuevo Mundo to exchange time for meaningful experiences, new skills, room, and board.
● Use Dhamma, a Vipassana meditation network of globally linked centers and volunteers, to attend “pay-it-forward” 10-day long meditation courses that teach valuable techniques in understanding your fears, desires, and consumer impulses, and eliminating them by finding internal peace and satisfaction. After attending your first course, volunteer in selfless service for the next retreat.
● Sign up and trade with or create a local timebank or local currency. Exchanges use different websites and systems so search for your town’s name plus the keywords timebank, time exchange, LETS, barter or local currency.
● Create or join a gift circle. Start a Really Really Free Market.
Colleen Cary and others meditated during a retreat last month for those 18 to 32 years old at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre. Photo by Christine Peterson for The Boston Globe.
5. Imagine your dream village
- What would it look like? Who would live there? How would you spend your day? Start talking to other people, and see if there are others out there who share a similar vision. Sustainable Ecovillages is a social network to bring people together who have similar visions for building communities. Joining Facebook groups like Evolver and Visionary Culture can help you find others who share the same vision. Find a Meetup group near you that shares your interest.
6. Connect to local permaculture and sustainability projects, and DIY/maker spaces
● Use Wiser Earth to connect with local projects and Transition Network to check if your local community has a Transition Town movement, a community led response to climate change. If not, you can start one!
● Search the global database Makerspace and connect with local, DIY projects and the people who make them happen.
● Visit Permies.com and join a conversation about permaculture.
7. Live it
Take at least one month to live in a remote indigenous community or an ecovillage where local production and consumption is still the norm, and understand closed-loop living systems first-hand. Check out organizations like Ecuador’s Yanapuma.
● Decide what kind of skills you would like to learn, and do your own research to find indigenous communities where those skills are prevalent (example: traditional healing with medicinal plants, crafting, hunting). There is currently no single database of indigenous communities that accept homestay, but Project Nuevo Mundo is working on one.
● Explore Living Routes, a program to “Study Abroad in Sustainable Communities.”
Annual Wisdom Kepper & Youth Council held at Deer Mountain. Photo by: Earth People’s United.
8. Focus on a trade or master craft
● Discover your passion in life. What makes you energized and enthusiastic? What brings out your creative burst? Gain experience by doing, and by apprenticing with a master or teacher who has successfully based their livelihood on the craft you desire to master, preferably something a community might need or want.
9. Learn and practice communication skills
● Practice “holding space”—the idea is to allow someone to express themselves without the pressures of being judged or being told that they need to improve. This might run contrary to the labels we give to the “conscious” or “sharing” movement—we often believe that we need to change people in order to bring them into the movement.
● Set aside our personal desires and our need to “improve” those around us. We may find ourselves guided by our collective purpose.
● Holacracy or Non-Violent Communication provide structures for good communication. Check out Holacracy.org’s post on “Differentiating Organization & Tribe.” According to the article, focusing on the collective purpose rather than individual needs allows a circle “to be more driven by its own unique purpose in life, like a child developing its own identity and goals beyond those of its parents.”
● Find a local circle to participate in that brings intention to communication, in non-violent communication circles or gifting circles, for instance.
● Identify yourself as an impartial “facilitator” during a house meeting with your roommates.
● Read more about collective decision-making in “How to Make Better Decisions Together,” on Shareable.
Getting ready for a community meeting at Atlantida Ecovillage in Cajibio, Columbia. Photo courtesey of Ecoatlandia.
10. Check out PNM’s recommended reading list, and dive in!
● Permaculture: An Introduction to Permaculture, Bill Mollison. Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway. The Backyard Homestead, Carleen Madigan.
● Natural Building: The Hand-Sculpted House, Ianto Evans. Earthbag Building, Kaki Hunter & Donald Kiffmeyer.
● Ecological Economics: Small is Beautiful, EF Schumacher. The Steady State Economy, Herman Daly. Natural Capitalism, Amory Lovins. Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein.
● The Fifth Sacred Thing, Starhawk.
● Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin.
● Ishmael, Daniel Quinn.
Want to know more about Project Nuevo Mundo? Email contact(at)projectnuevomundo.org to find out how we will support your transition into the regenerative villages movement.
[This essay, which we found at Tom Dispatch, will appear in "Death," the Fall 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]
It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
-- Woody Allen
I admire the stoic fortitude, but at the age of 78 I know I won’t be skipping out on the appointment, and I notice that it gets harder to remember just why it is that I’m not afraid to die. My body routinely produces fresh and insistent signs of its mortality, and within the surrounding biosphere of the news and entertainment media it is the fear of death -- 24/7 in every shade of hospital white and doomsday black -- that sells the pharmaceutical, political, financial, film, and food products promising to make good the wish to live forever. The latest issue of my magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, therefore comes with an admission of self-interest as well as an apology for the un-American activity, death, that is its topic. The taking time to resurrect the body of its thought in LQ offered a chance to remember that the leading cause of death is birth.
I count it a lucky break to have been born in a day and age when answers to the question “Why do I have to die?” were still looked for in the experimental laboratories of art and literature as well as in the teachings of religion. The problem hadn’t yet been referred to the drug and weapons industries, to the cosmetic surgeons and the neuroscientists, and as a grammar-school boy in San Francisco during the Second World War, I was fortunate to be placed in the custody of Mr. Charles Mulholland. A history teacher trained in the philosophies of classical antiquity, Mr. Mulholland was fond of posting on his blackboard long lists of noteworthy last words, among them those of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas More, and Stonewall Jackson.
The messages furnished need-to-know background on the news bulletins from Guadalcanal and Omaha Beach, and they made a greater impression on me than probably was expected or intended. By the age of 10, raised in a family unincorporated into the body of Christ, it never once had occurred to me to entertain the prospect of an afterlife. Eternal life may have been granted to the Christian martyrs delivered to the lions in the Roman Colosseum, possibly also to the Muslim faithful butchered in Jerusalem by Richard the Lionheart, but without the favor of Allah or early admission to a Calvinist state of grace, how was one to formulate a closing remark worthy of Mr. Mulholland’s blackboard?
The question came up in the winter of 1953 during my freshman year at Yale College, when I contracted a rare and particularly virulent form of meningitis. The doctors in the emergency room at Grace-New Haven Hospital rated the odds of my survival at no better than a hundred to one. To the surprise of all present, I responded to the infusion of several new drugs never before tested in combination. For two days, drifting in and out of consciousness in a ward reserved for patients without hope of recovery, I had ample chance to think a great thought or turn a noble phrase, possibly to dream of the wizard Merlin in an oak tree or behold a vision of the Virgin Mary. Nothing came to mind.
Nor do I remember being horrified. Astonished, but not horrified. Here was death making routine rounds, not to be seen wearing a Halloween costume but clearly in attendance. The man in the next bed died on the first night, the woman to his left on the second. Apparently an old story, but before being admitted to the hospital as a corpse in all but name, it was not one that I had guessed was also my own. I hadn’t been planning any foreign travel, and yet here I was, waiting for my passport to be stamped at the once-in-a-lifetime tourist destination that doesn’t sell postcards and from whose museum galleries no traveler returns.
Minus three toes destroyed by the disease, I left the hospital four months later knowing that my reprieve was temporary, subject to cancellation on short notice. Blessed by what I took to be the smile and gift of fortune, I resolved to spend as much time as possible in the present tense, to rejoice in the wonders of the world, chase the rainbows of the spirit, indulge the pleasures of the flesh, defy the foul fiend, go and catch a falling star.
I had been outfitted with a modus vivendi but no string of words with which to account for it, and so for the next three years at college I searched out writers who had drawn from their looking into the face of death a line of poetry or the bulwark of a philosophy. I don’t now remember how accurately or in what sequence I first read, but I know that with several of them -- Michel de Montaigne and Seneca the Younger, Plutarch, W.H. Auden, and John Donne -- I’ve stayed in touch.
Their collective counsel continues to confirm me in the opinion reached in Athens by Epicurus in the fourth century B.C., transmuted into verse by the Roman poet Lucretius at about the same time that Caesar invaded Gaul, and rendered as equations in the twentieth century by Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr. If it’s true that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else, then everything that exists -- the sun and the moon, mother and the flag, Beethoven’s string quartets and da Vinci’s decomposing flesh -- is made of the elementary particles of nature in fervent and constant motion, colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustibly abundant variety of form and substance. No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction. Plants and animals become the stuff of human beings, the stuff of human beings food for fish. Men die not because they are sick but because they are alive.
“Death… the most awful of evils,” says Epicurus, “is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not.” My experience in the New Haven hospital demonstrated the worth of the hypothesis; the books I read in college formed the thought as precept; my paternal grandfather, Roger D. Lapham, taught the lesson by example.
In the summer of 1918, then a captain of infantry with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, he had been reported missing and presumed dead after his battalion had been overwhelmed by German poison gas during the Oise-Aisne offensive. Nearly everybody else in the battalion had been promptly killed, and it was six weeks before the Army found him in the hayloft of a French barn. A farmer had retrieved him, unconscious but otherwise more or less intact, from the pigsty into which he had fallen, by happy accident, on the day of what had been planned as a swift and sure advance.
The farmer’s wife nursed him back to life with soup and soap and Calvados, and by the time he was strong enough to walk, he had lost half his body weight and undergone a change in outlook. He had been born in 1883, descended from a family of New England Quakers, and before going to Europe in the spring of 1918 was said to have been almost solemnly conservative in both his thought and his behavior, shy in conversation, cautious in his dealings with money. He returned from France reconfigured in a character akin to Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, extravagant in his consumption of wine and roses, passionate in his love of high-stakes gambling on the golf course and at the card table, persuaded that the object of life was nothing other than its fierce and close embrace.
Which is how I found him in the autumn of 1957, when I returned to San Francisco to look for work on a newspaper. He was then a man in his middle seventies (i.e., of an age that now surprises me to discover as my own), but he was the same vivid presence (round red face like Santa Claus, boisterous sense of humor, unable to contain his emotions) that I had known as a boy growing up in the 1940s in the city of which he was then the mayor.
A guest in his house on Jackson Street for three months before finding a room of my own, most mornings I sat with him while he presided over his breakfast (one scrambled egg, two scraps of Melba toast, pot of coffee, glass of Scotch) listening to him talk about what he had seen of a world in which he knew that all present (committee chairman, lettuce leaf, and Norfolk terrier) were granted a very short stay. Although beset by a good many biological systems failures, he regarded them as nuisances not worth mention in dispatches. He thought it inadvisable to quit drinking brandy, much less the whiskey, the rum punch, and the gin. At the bridge table he continued to think it unsporting to look at his cards before bidding the hand.
My grandfather’s refusal to consult doctors no doubt shortened his length of days on Earth, but he didn’t think the Fates were doing him an injustice. He died in 1966 at the age of 82 on terms that he would have considered sporting. The grand staircase in his house on Jackson Street was curved in a semicircle rising 30 feet from the entrance hall to a second-floor landing framed by a decorative wooden railing. Having climbed the long flight of stairs after a morning in the office and the afternoon on a golf course, Roger Dearborn Lapham paused to catch his breath. It wasn’t forthcoming. He plunged head first through the railing and was dead -- so said the autopsy -- before his body collided and combined with the potted palm at the base of the stairwell. He had suffered a massive heart attack, and his death had come to him in a way he would have hoped it would, as a surprise.
An Immortal Human Head in the Clouds
About the presence of death and dying I don’t remember the society in the 1950s being so skittish as it has since become. People still died at home, among relatives and friends, often in the care of a family physician. Death was still to be seen sitting in the parlor, hanging in a butcher shop, sometimes lying in the street. By the generations antecedent to my own, survivors of the Great Depression or one of the nation’s foreign wars, it seemed to be more or less well understood, as it had been by Montaigne that one’s own death “was a part of the order of the universe… a part of the life of the world.”
For the last 60 or 70 years, the consensus of decent American opinion (cultural, political, and existential) has begged to differ, making no such outlandish concession. To do so would be weak-minded, offensive, and wrong, contrary to the doctrine of American exceptionalism that entered the nation’s bloodstream subsequent to its emergence from the Second World War crowned in victory, draped in virtue.
Military and economic command on the world stage fostered the belief that America was therefore exempt from the laws of nature, held harmless against the evils, death chief among them, inflicted on the lesser peoples of the Earth. The wonders of medical science raked from the ashes of the war gave notice of the likelihood that soon, maybe next month but probably no later than next year, death would be reclassified as a preventable disease.
That article of faith sustained the bright hopes and fond expectations of both the 1960s countercultural revolution (incited by a generation that didn’t wish to grow up) and the Republican Risorgimento of the 1980s (sponsored by a generation that didn’t choose to grow old). Joint signatories to the manifesto of Peter Pan, both generations shifted the question from “Why do I have to die?” to the more upbeat “Why can’t I live forever?”
The substituting of the promise of technology for the consolations of philosophy had been foreseen by John Stuart Mill as the inevitable consequence of the nineteenth century’s marching ever upward on the roads of social and political reform. Suffering in 1854 from a severe pulmonary disease, Mill noted in his diary on April 15, “The remedies for all our diseases will be discovered long after we are dead, and the world will be made a fit place to live in after the death of most of those by whose exertions have been made so.”
His premonition is now the just-over-the-horizon prospect of life everlasting bankrolled by Dmitry Itskov, a Russian multimillionaire, vouched for by the Dalai Lama and a synod of Silicon Valley visionaries, among them Hiroshi Ishiguro and Ray Kurzweil. As presented to the Global Future 2045 conference at Lincoln Center in New York City in June 2013, Itskov’s Avatar Project proposes to reproduce the functions of human life and mind on “nonbiological substrates,” do away with the “limited mortal protein-based carrier” and replace it with cybernetic bodies and holograms, a “neohumanity” that will “change the bodily nature of a human being, and make them immortal, free, playful, independent of limitations of space and time.” In plain English, lifelike human heads to which digital copies of the contents of a human brain can be downloaded from the cloud.
The question “Why must I die?” and its implied follow-up, “How then do I live my life?,” both admit of an answer by and for and of oneself. Learning how to die, as Montaigne goes on to rightly say, is unlearning how to be a slave. The question “Why can’t I live forever?” assigns the custody of one’s death to powers that make it their business to promote and instill the fear of it -- to church or state, to an alchemist or an engineer.
For 40 years during the Cold War, the American government, both Democrat and Republican, deployed the shadow of death (i.e., the constant threat of nuclear annihilation) to limit the freedoms and quiet the voices of the American people. The surveillance apparatus now waging the perpetual war on terror is geared to control a herd of trembling obedience.
The settled opinion that Americans don’t deserve to die -- not their kind of thing -- protects the profits of the insurance, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and media industries, puts the money on the table for the cruise missile, the personal trainer, and the American Express card that nobody can afford to leave home without.
“I Am Ready to Depart”
My grandfather didn’t shop the markets in immortality. Neither did my father. Although markedly different in character and temperament (his turn of mind was contemplative, his sense of humor skeptical), he shared my grandfather’s scorn for the wish to live forever. What for? To do what? To suffer the trauma of modern medicine and endure the mortifications of the flesh in order to eat another season of oysters, go south for one more winter in the sun?
He had earned his living as the president of a steamship company and the vice chairman of a bank; he had devoted his leisure to the study of history and the reading of literature. He didn’t believe in miracles or magicians, as wary of divine revelation as he was of economic forecasts and predictions.
In his late seventies he wrote a will stating that his life was not to be artificially prolonged. The hospital machinery he regarded as sophisticated instruments of torture, up to the standard of the Spanish Inquisition. He would have agreed with film director Luis Buñuel that “respect for human life becomes absurd when it leads to unlimited suffering, not only for the one who’s dying but for those he leaves behind.” He also understood, as had Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1811, that “there is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have a right to advance.”
During the last three years of his life, my father began to show signs of bodily malfunction (arthritis in his hands, forgetting where he put a letter or his hat), but on the weekends when I drove up from New York to his home in Connecticut, he never once complained of his afflictions. He spent his time planting the property with the seedlings of white oak and red maple trees and rereading the authors who had been his lifelong boon companions, many of them the ones whom I had met in college.
Our conversation was lighthearted and anecdotal, my own reference to Aeschylus having been killed by a turtle dropped on his head by a clumsy eagle topped by my father being reminded of Seneca’s observation that “death is a punishment to some, to some a gift, and to many a favor.” It wasn’t hard to know in which categories he placed himself. Among the poems he admired was the one composed by Walter Savage Landor on the occasion of his 75th birthday:
I strove with none for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved, and next to nature, art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life.
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
And so was Lewis Abbot Lapham on the night he died in December 1995 at the age of 86. A snowstorm had delayed my usual time of arrival in Connecticut, and when I sat down in the chair next to his bed, he greeted me with what proved to be his final remark, “It’s a hard life, Doc, and not many of us make it out alive.” For the next two hours I sat there holding his hand, neither of us saying anything, listening to wind play upon the windowpanes. He had packed his bags, checked out of the hotel, and was waiting in the lobby for the car to take him to the airport.
I neither hope nor expect to be among the chosen few who make good their escape from the wheel of fortune and the teeth of time. Or that having been granted a 60-year extension on the deadline for a last noteworthy thought or phrase I’ll have reached the serenity of soul to which Thomas More gave a last and living proof while mounting the scaffold to his execution and saying to the headsman with the axe, “See me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself.”
If my luck holds true to its so far winning form, death will drop by uninvited and unannounced, and I’ll be taken, as was my grandfather, by surprise, maybe in the throes of trying to write a stronger sentence or play a perfect golf shot. If not, I’ll hope to show at least a semblance of the composure to which many of the authors in the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly bear immortal witness. Certain only that the cause of my death is one that I can neither foresee nor forestall, I’m content, at least for the time being, to let the sleeping dog lie.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces "Death," the Fall 2013 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, soon to be released at that website.
Copyright 2013 Lewis Lapham
Still-Life with a Skull (c. 1671) by Philippe Champaigne is in the public domain. The images symbolize life, death, and time.
Corporations are pushing fast and processed foods, but our nation’s health still stands a chance.
Fast food. We all know it’s bad for us, but somehow the lines outside drive-thru windows never seem to dwindle. Must be the delicious fries, right?
Maybe not, says Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet. While food corporations pile on sugar, salt, and fat to make fast and processed foods addictive, for many people these foods aren’t a choice as much as the only option. Aside from the $2 billion a year food corporations spend on ads enticing kids to nag parents for kids’ meals and sugar cereals, in communities where wholesome foods are unavailable or unaffordable, healthful options take a backseat to whatever parents can get.
The food is cheap, but Americans pay in another way, says Lappé in her latest video for Food MythBusters: with our health. By their mid-teens, one in three American kids is developing diabetes or already has it. Is it mere coincidence that a similar percentage of kids—almost one in three—eat fast food every day?
In exposing the dire toll corporate-controlled food has taken on Americans’ health, Lappé hopes to incite us to act. “This is a battle parents can’t and shouldn’t have to fight alone,” she says. “The food industry has spent millions lobbying to take away the government’s ability to regulate them. And what do we get? A national epidemic among our children.”
“The Myth of Choice” premieres September 24 at foodmyths.org, followed by a live question-and-answer session with Lappé.
Food MythBusters is a collaboration between Lappé and non-profit watchdog group Corporate Accountability International. The MythBusters videos expose how corporations benefit by spreading misleading or distracting information about the food they’d like us to eat. The first video in the series gave the lie to agribusinesses’ claim that genetic engineering, fertilizer, and pesticides are the only way to feed the world.
Image: Still from "The Myth of Choice."