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           Mississippi River Reflections:  An Ode to a Lost Friend

                                                                                                           December 31, 2007

A good friend of mine died of cancer last month.  She was an enthusiastic and energetic New Jersey gal who died only a few years after the young age of 50.  She had a great many friends who loved her vivacious energy, her generosity of being, her bubbly persona and her nearly indomitable spirit.

A kind of solidarity of souls emerges in the wake of the death of a friend.  A memorial service allows us to come together with others who cared about the one who died, and it gives us pause to recognize our own mortality and to realize that the good we do lives beyond us.  Memorial services can be an emotional time of reflection, and can cause a subtle shifting and reordering of our perspectives, purposes and priorities. 

Every culture has its own methods of mourning death, and I personally think that an approach that celebrates the life of the person who has died is the healthiest way to honor the deceased.  It seems more appropriate than being crippled by grief or repressed by stoicism or feeling overwhelmed and depressed. 

I dedicate these words to my ‘dear departed’ friend from New Jersey, and I apologize to her for allowing these reflections to transition into a stream of consciousness that explores my deeper inner thoughts.  My friend was not overly philosophical or political, but she had a beautiful spirit and a warm authenticity, and she was alert to the important things in life.  I think she would have applauded me for choosing to honor her memory with ideas that focus on capturing Big Picture understandings, and of expressing ecological awareness and concern. 

Each of us has our own personal qualities, abilities, propensities, curious idiosyncrasies, petty (or great) failings, and ways of mourning loss and striving to heal.  My gal friend is now in the ‘land’ beyond death toward which we all are inevitably proceeding.  She probably would have appreciated this observation that I find in an eclectic collection of my thoughts from years ago:

There are beautiful moments in life, moments so lovely that one wishes that time could be suspended while the conscious enjoyment of the moment continues.  (Yes!)

Ironically, in actuality the closest we get to attaining such a suspension of time is to reverse the situation;  to wit, we suspend consciousness while the passage of time continues!  (Ha!  Perhaps this is what W.C. Fields was referring to when he said, “A man’s gotta believe in something -- and I believe I’ll have another drink.”)

The human race has always been driven by the need to understand and explain the world in which we find ourselves.  A primary motivation for this has been to find meaning and purpose in our lives.  The earliest explanations were superstitious, attributing even the weather to supernatural forces.  This evolved naturally into the embodiment of these forces in mythological beings and gods and goddesses.  Later, a monotheistic concept formed that there is just one God.

Philosophy began when humankind grew bold enough to attempt to find natural explanations for processes and events, instead of earlier explanations attributed to supernatural agencies and powers.  As Will Durant wrote in The Story of Philosophy, referring to the French philosopher Auguste Comte: 

“In each field of thought the historian of ideas could observe a Law of Three Stages:  at first the subject was conceived in the theological fashion, and all problems were explained by the will of some deity;  later, the same subject reached the metaphysical stage, and was explained by metaphysical abstractions;  and finally the subject was reduced to positive science by precise observation, hypothesis and experiment, and its phenomena were explained through the regularities of natural cause and effect.”

In the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza insightfully wrote:  “So much of man’s thinking is an anthropocentric delusion.  The root of the greatest errors in philosophy lies in projecting our human purposes, criteria, preferences, hopes and fears into the objective universe.”  He was also famed for having astutely observed, “Instincts and passion are magnificent as driving forces, but dangerous as guides.” 

These understandings are important to us in today’s world, because instinctive drives, passions and conflicts are growing, and we can begin to see that this constitutes an overarching threat to the very survival of our species.  This recognition should provide us with renewed zeal in trying to find new ways to control these emotions and their attendant domineering doctrines and strategies.

“Truth generally lies in the coordination of antagonistic opinions.  Let science admit that its ‘laws’ apply only to phenomena and the relative;  let religion admit that its theology is a rationalizing myth for a belief that defies conception.  Let religion cease to picture the Absolute as a magnified man;  much worse, as a cruel and blood-thirsty and treacherous monster afflicted with “a love of adulation such as would be despised in a human being”.      

                                                         --- Of Herbert Spencer in The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

Voltaire, one of the greatest intellectual energies in all of history, fought superstition and corruption and the centuries-long domination of ‘thought’ in the Dark Ages by the dogmatic Church, famously declaring that we must “crush the infamy”.  The Golden Rule, and the First Amendment to our Constitution, both hold that anyone should be allowed to believe whatever they like, but that no one should be allowed to force their beliefs on others.  Unfortunately, there is an evangelical nature to impulses that lead people to try to control and dominate others, and fundamentalism of belief drives faithful believers to injustice and even violence because of the tendency of believers to be ethnocentric and intolerant of others in their convictions that their beliefs alone are the absolute truth and that all others are not only wrong, but ‘evil’ to boot.  Throughout history, many of the most terrible genocides and wars and Inquisitions and pogroms and persecutions have taken place in the name of religion.

Astrophysicists tell us that almost 14 billion years have elapsed since a Big Bang of creation took place at the beginning of the observable Universe.  It could hardly be otherwise that, after each of our ephemeral individual lives comes to its inevitable end, the Universe will continue to exist for an indeterminate and endless number of billions of years into the future.

We are mortals;  like all organisms, we eventually will perish.  The natural world, in contrast, is ever-changing but eternal.  All matter consists of elements like hydrogen, helium, carbon, oxygen, calcium, iron, silicon, sodium, copper and gold.  The lightest elements were created in a process that astrophysicists call ‘Big Bang nucleosynthesis’.  Heavier elements formed later, through processes of nuclear fusion in the hot interiors of stars and in supernova explosions. 

Our telescopes and other scientific instruments reveal that matter is catapulting through space at incomprehensible speeds, most of it burning hot or freezing cold.  Almost all of it lies unfathomably far away from our solar system.  An entire snapshot of evidence of the physical evolution of the Universe is shown in every moment, because when we look at the night sky, we see light arriving from countless numbers of stars, each of them at a different distance from us.  Thus, the light we see emanated from its various sources at vastly differing periods of cosmic history.  Light left the closest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, just over 4 years ago, and it left the most distant stars ever detected almost 14 billion years ago.  How astonishing and luminary, if only we could understand the true implications of what we see!

The most fundamental observation that we can make about the world in which we exist is that everything changes.  The sun appears to rise and set, clouds form and dissipate, rain falls at times in every locale and the sun shines brightly at other times, seasons come and go, streams erode mountains, waves erode rocks into sand on beaches, children are born, people age and die.  From our observations, we see that the cumulative impact of these changes can be tracked from the distant past to the present, and that these changes can be described as the physical evolution of our planet and life and the Universe.

As these thoughts drift onto the page, I realize that a deeply-felt respect wells up within me for our great ancestor, the estimable Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who was born on November 30, 1835.  Clemens adopted the nom de plume Mark Twain, a sobriquet which had its genesis in a nautical term.  One of the crucial responsibilities of a riverboat pilot in Clemens’ day was to ensure that steamboats on the Mississippi did not run aground.  A deckhand was charged with making measurements of the depth of the river, using a sounding line.  The deckhand would call out the water depths to the pilot of the vessel.  A safe depth for steamboats was two fathoms (about 12 feet), at which depth the deckhand would call out ‘mark twain’!

I salute Mark Twain today in commemoration of the 172nd anniversary of his birth.  He deserves recognition for many reasons.  He was the creator of novels that humorously and irreverently explored grand themes of adventure, friendship, conscience, racism, and freedom from conformity.  His books and letters and speeches contain a clear view of human foibles, and far more than two fathoms’ worth of philosophical insights. 

Mark Twain was a social critic during the ‘Gilded Age’ (he even invented this term), when economic and political corruption ran rampant.  He gave us valuable perspectives that are highly relevant to our societies today.  The inequalities of our current day societies are in some ways even more sensational than they were during the Gilded Age about which Mark Twain wrote more than a century ago.

Mark Twain used satire and irony in his exploration of moral complexities throughout his writings.  His reflections on Catholic immigration and the backlash against the tripling of the Catholic population in the United States between 1860 and 1890 gives us pause to consider the strident voices that speak out against immigrants today.  Mark Twain was also a visionary, and his outspoken views against ruthless imperialism as a member of the Anti-Imperialist League provide us with an important context for understanding our nation’s current domestic and foreign policies.  The Anti-Imperialist League was the first national American peace movement.

I believe that we are in great need today of a rational, humorous, and powerful new voice that cautions us about the risks that our ship of state faces -- risks of figuratively running aground in increasingly treacherous waters.  Using Mark Twain’s ideas, and the metaphor of close attention to true soundings, I aspire to provide that voice in the writings of the Earth Manifesto.

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”   

                                            --- Mark Twain, in response to newspaper reports in 1897 that he had died

At the time Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, Halley’s comet was visible in the night sky.  By a curious coincidence, when he died on April 21, 1910, this was the same year that the periodic comet made its return.  Coincidence is often used as a literary device, so this coincidence in the life of one of America’s greatest authors is quite marvelous.

   “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. 

        A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

                                                                                  --- Mark Twain

Notions of freedom of spirit and the escape from conforming influences are contained in Mark Twain’s most famous novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Huck Finn and the former slave Jim escape down the Mississippi River on a raft, and they drift downstream in a reverie of adventure, friendship, discovery, subterfuge and conundrum.  Anyone who has spent time along the banks of the Mississippi River watching the water slide steadily past will understand how mesmerizing the flow of a river can be.  It can give the mind a feeling of equanimity similar to that which follows pleasurably exhaustive exertions.  It can even provide a relaxed consciousness like the feeling one gets after gazing for an hour into the glowing embers of a well-appreciated campfire.

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as

   simply messing about in boats.” 

                               --- The Water Rat, rapturous with enthusiasm, speaking to the Mole, in Kenneth 

                                        Grahame’s wonderful book, The Wind in the Willows. 

I want to conclude these observations with an update of an Ode that I penned many years ago.  It captures the most significant ideas that are contained in the Soliloquies of the Earth Manifesto.  Thanks for reading!

       Yours Truly,

            Dr. Tiffany B. Twain

An Ode to Sanity in Humanity

A balanced perspective and calm equanimity are valuable

In understanding existence, as well as in wisdom and in health

And so too are vigor, vitality and enthusiasm, for we are alive only once

And openness and passion are a free expression of a true inner wealth.

Existence.  Life.  Birth, death.  Birth, death.  Biological evolution. 

We each and all assuredly have but a relatively short time alive

In the context of the eons and eons and eons that have passed

So, to the goal of making the best of life, we should strive.

We are losing track of seeing what Qualities are important

Possessed by our possessions, seduced by our desires

Unalert to true values, personal growth and spiritual needs

Overwhelmed, unaware, confused, blinded by stoked fires.

How more succinctly can it be stated and understood

More people, more pollution, more trash, more traffic and strife

Worser environmental impacts, more conflict and less security

More danger to peace, more threats, a lesser quality of life.

Existence is precarious, like a proverbial house of cards

Appearing stable, yet also vulnerable to sudden collapse

As we humans build our civilizations higher and higher

Gambling with the future, as if in a giant game of craps.

We consume resources unsustainably, faster and faster

Unwilling to limit our rapid human population growth

Destroying ecosystem habitats, sprawling across the landscape

Exploiting, using up, damaging and polluting, upon my oath.

The forests, the topsoil, the oceans, streams and lakes

Even the atmosphere we inflict with dangerous impacts,

Denying to ourselves responsibility or probable consequence

Hurtling pell-mell towards calamity, obtuse to the facts.

Fossil fuels are clearly limited, but we’re like addicts to drugs

Selfishly unwilling to conserve, burning oil as fast as we can

As if there will be no tomorrow, no future generations to come

No others to care about -- and instead every impulse we fan.

Where, oh where, we ask, shall we go from here?

Choices abound and simplicity of decisions is elusive.

And instead of letting philosophies guide our lives, obsessions drive them

And our challenge is to balance what we take and what we give.

Positive and salubrious solutions to our challenges actually abound

And it would be wisest for us to institute smart incentives and disincentives

To transform our societies in the direction of moderation and sanity

Instead of figuratively puncturing our life rafts so that they leak like sieves.

Special Interests and selfish motivations drive our aggregate demands

And our perspectives are myopic, with short-term thinking so much in vogue

While the need for far-sighted visionary action grows by the day

And business-as-usual clearly becomes ever more irresponsibly rogue.

Humanity has tripled in number from two billion to more than six

In just the past seventy years, with no end to this increase in sight

Yet right-wing puritanical Stern Father arrogance intensifies

As if our race will be immune to balancing forces and blight.

We unravel the fabric of Nature upon which we depend

And ignore the obvious completeness of our dependence,

Acting as if it were not our species’ inevitably certain fate

To die in greater numbers due to starvation, disease or war without sense.

We imagine our intelligence and technology will save us

We think we are not animals, that we are not subject to a fall

We pretend our impact on planetary ecosystems is slight

Or perhaps more accurately, we don’t consider it at all.

The ‘Lessons of History’ give us a context to mend our ways

To be proactive in protecting ourselves and our offspring

To seize the initiative in redesigning our nations and economies

To make them sustainable, and restorative --- and to contain our fling.

There is reason to be optimistic, hopeful, and enthusiastic

For life can be rich, fulfilling, beautiful and profound

But we must embrace conservation and sensible planning

And strive to choose wisely, formulating policies that are sound.

Let us commit ourselves, both personally and collectively

To open-mindedness, to visionary planning, to positive change

To a new Bill of Rights protecting our children and theirs,

Helping ensure a healthier world for all in exchange.

We are here, now, for an uncertain while longer

Aware of the days running past like wild horses over the hill,

At times alert and at times oblivious to the wonders of Nature

And to the potential richness of existence, as we try to get our fill.

The very nature of life includes adversities and eventual death

Yet within this context, the potential for joy and beauty is great.

There can be profound meaning, compassion and connection

And we may regard existence with Appreciation, no matter what our fate.

Sing out the praises of the feminine

Oh, Muses of inspiration and softness and love

Salute the stance of cooperation and eagerness to relate

The mystery, the allure, the quality of affection in acting like a dove.

Thanks to males for encouraging their feminine side

For relaxing their macho selves, for coming out of their cave and letting it be.

Rejoicing and respecting the enticing beauty of the female form

And celebrating nurturing qualities, feminine wisdom, and loveliness for all to see.

Confidence may be absurd in the context of uncertainty and calamity

But since we all choose our own Reality to a certain extent,

It behooves us to choose a perspective we love and relish and enjoy

And whatever our lot, take heart, breathe deep, and appreciate the moment!

Buddhist philosophy recognizes clearly that all things pass

Wisely counseling detachment from outcome and moderation in all things

So let us practice philosophical equanimity and strive to manage gracefully

And let go of fears and delusion, giving thanks for the goodness life brings.

Let bygones be bygones, and celebrate the Here and Now

Simplifying our spirituality and having an open mind

Being aware, and yearning for achievable and wholesome pleasures

Enjoying family, friendship and Nature, and making the best of all we find.

        Imagine Peace!

          Yours Truly,

               Dr. Tiffany B. Twain                    

                 December 31, 2007

P.S.  Many other Odes are sprinkled throughout these writings.  “An Introductory Ode” is among the best;  it can be found at the beginning of the lengthy Comprehensive Global Perspective: An Illuminating Worldview.  In Part Six online, the Evolutionary Understandings contain the following:

   13.  An Ode to Liberty and Justice for All

   22.  An Ode to Visionary Practicality

   32.  An Ode to Meaning

Many other Odes hide shyly in my files, hoping that someday someone may find them valuable, curious, amusing or tenderly important.

“What exactly is an Ode?”, one may wonder.

  Oh, you Ode, I sing exuberant praises of thee

   An inspired form of expression thou art, allowing creativity

    Encouraging thoughtful perspective and commemoration

     And recognizing and exploring our selves and our nativity.

  An Ode is a rhymed lyrical poem of sorts

   Often addressed to a praised object, person or quality

    And generally characterized by exalted style --- so Yabba Dabba Doo!

     Let ideas fly freely and provide greater significance than a mere ditty.

                                                                                                              --- From “An Ode to Odes”