Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Cranky Buddhist

I should call my blog The Cranky Buddhist. At this rate, I will never attain enlightenment.

On Friday, my husband Tom and I along with our baby daughter. Lila and my sister, Katryna who is my singing partner, got up at the crack of dawn to warm up the biodiesel Jetta and drive to the airport to catch a plane to St. Louis where we were to be performing in the St Louis Folk Festival at the beautiful downtown Sheldon Theatre (an almost perfect replica of Cambridge's Sanders Hall, by the way). On the way, pining for coffee and watching the gorgeous southern sky as the sun began its ascent, we listened to NPR and the latest findings from the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) that assembled in Paris under the aegis of the UN. What they discovered, as you probably know, is that there is almost no doubt anymore that human beings are directly contributing to the rise in temperatures we've been experiencing, along with the unusual number of hurricanes and tsunamis and floods that have been plaguing the world as of late.

"I am a scientist," the woman from the panel said to the NPR interviewer when asked what should be done about this, since sea levels are now expected to rise between 1-2 feet by 2100, which will threaten low lying cities everywhere—what happened in New Orleans might happen in New York by the time Lila is my age. "I am not a policy maker. We are not politicians. Our work is to tell the world what is going on, not how to stop it." She went on to say that global warming may not be stoppable at this point, but it can be arrested and the worst won't happen IF we mobilize now.

I thought, again, about all the work it would take for us humans to save ourselves. We need to do big things and little things. Big things include voting for politicians who fully understand this issue and are willing to pass legislation that will change the way we all live. Politicians with tremendous courage who will raise taxes on the usage of fossil fuels; lawmakers who will fund the exploration of alternate fuels. That will affect our pocketbooks, all of us. We need to be willing to sacrifice, maybe in a big way now so that we’re not perpetrating the ultimate sacrifice on our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren (should the human race survive that long.) And each of us also needs to make small daily sacrifices: I need, for example to give up my love affair with the incandescent lightbulb and switch to the detestable compact fluorescent bulbs that cast my office in a depressing glow. I need to be better about turning off the lights in all the rooms of the house, turning the heat down at night, unplugging unused appliances, not using plastic wrap on leftovers, buying organic fruits, vegetables, meats and yogurt, and even (heaven help me) eschewing my beloved imported mangoes because of the huge amounts of oil and gas it takes to get them here from Haiti. I took a deep sigh and nodded, looking back at my daughter playing in her carseat, slapping the dangling toys that amuse her and babbling her “rah rah’s” and “buh buhs.” Recently, she’s been squealing with delight when her father or I pick her up, kicking those little chubby legs and waving her hands up and down, wriggling her whole body with glee. A little sacrifice never killed anyone.

At the airport, we gratefully unloaded our checkable bags and moved our posse to the coffee bar at the airport hotel, where I breastfed Lila and watched ESPN, which was on the overhanging TV at the bar. Now, as many of you know, I don't usually watch TV. It's not exactly a moral choice; I just don't have time, and once you get out of the habit of watching TV, it loses its appeal. (I used to watch lots of TV, back in the 90's, and I don't have any judgments about those who indulge, and as you will soon see, I am a person replete with judgments.) But now, whenever I turn on the TV, I get the heebeejeebees, and my internal artist, who is an incredibly sensitive 8 year old, freaks out and wants to hide under the covers of her bed with a hunk of cheddar cheese.

On Friday, as I was watching at the airport, a commercial came on for Hooters. Lila pulled off to watch too, fascinated, as a young woman with thin arms and big breasts who apparently works at Hooters, said, "I'm not supposed to tell you this…but you can take me home." She then looks secretively right and left and goes on. "Well, sort of.” You see, she tells us, Hooters is giving away a flat screen TV as some kind of Superbowl promotion. In fact, as the camera pulls out, you could see that the woman was IN the TV! You could see the background of a friendly neighborhood Hooters, both inside and OUTSIDE the TV! How amazing!

The camera then shifted to seductive shots of various kinds of Superbowly Hooters food, like hoagies and cheese fries, the cheese melting luxuriously over the ham. Next frame was a couple of All-American men (by which I mean—and I say this with all due respect-white blond guys with buzz cuts who weigh at least 250 pounds), placing their hoagies in a Hooter’s take-out bag on top of the flat screen TV and then lifting it up with the woman looking back and forth at both of them, pleased and surprised, a la Barbara Eden in the bottle in I Dream of Jeannie. Next frame, they were in their car. The flat screen TV had been placed in the back, with the woman in the TV still looking a bit delighted albeit bewildered, peering back and forth from between the two men who are in the driver’s seat and shotgun, respectively. They opened their bags of Hooters food and took a bite of cheese fries. One of them dangled a fry in front of the woman. She reached for it, but of course couldn’t get to it, being as she was on TV. “Aw, no fair!” she pouted.

That’s when I almost lost my mind. What hope can the planet possibly have when we have this to contend with? I am expecting something as flimsy and feeble as a Democracy to vote their conscience? Just as the Bush administration responded to the findings of the IPCC by rejecting unilateral limits on emission, saying, “We are a small contributor to the overall, when you look at the rest of the world, so it’s really got to be a global solution,” so I thought, “Why should I give up my mangoes when there’s no chance in hell this culture will ever look up from its rampant addiction to soft porn, big cars, mindless television and junk food to make the necessary changes to prolong our species? I give up. Until they change, why should I? I want a dictatorship!”

Then, as I covered Lila’s eyes, I had this other thought, from the other side of my pinbally ricocheting mind: “I am way to serious. Why can’t I relax and join the Superbowl culture and not be so judgmental and angry and self-righteous and all those other words they throw at liberals? By judging (prejudging) everyone I am just as close-minded and contemptible as those I wish would change. Hypocrite! Cranky Buddhist!”

As a Buddhist, I am supposed to be embracing the four brahma viharas; loving kindness, compassion, equanimity and sympathetic joy. I’m pretty sure that precludes my indulging in detesting white blond football-loving Hooter patrons. Also, I think it precludes my wishing that we had a dictatorship that would tax the usage of fossil fuels at a rate of 200%, and while at it, ban football, Hooters, cheese fries and flat screen TVs. I’m pretty sure that falls under the category of “worshiping a God who hates all the same people you do probably means you have created God in your own image,” as Father Tom Weston says, by way of Anne Lamott.

Rats. And I don’t really want to live in a dictatorship, by the way. Even if (especially if) I were the dictator.

Humor is a torch we bring with us down into the darkness, into hell itself. Without humor, we are damned, even as we try to damn others. And there can be no peace when the peacemakers are so angry their faces and hearts are as contorted as those of their oppressors. These are serious times, and sometimes I need someone a little more rational to explain to me that when someone is joking about how global warming will give them beachfront property in a few years, I shouldn’t react by screaming at them about how my daughter will never see a play on Broadway because it will be underwater by the year 2026.

We are now entering a new phase of life on this planet, one in which we can no longer pretend that what John Donne said isn’t true, about no man being an island entire of itself. We are all a piece of the continent, just as many of us are already integrally a part of a family, either the one we were born into or the one we are creating with a partner and children, or a creative family of our own choosing, or a mix of these. And just as I work to bring balance to the individual me and the me who is a wife/mother/daughter and sister, so we need to work at bringing a balance between the self with her unique needs and the citizen of the world who is a giving and taking part, one who breathes CO2 out and takes O2 in. How can we bring our awareness of these roles to our daily practices? What did we do for the Earth today? Did we take too much? Did we dance lightly? Did we pass on our understanding to another?

And yet we need to do this gently, if we are going to break what President Bush has called our “addiction” to fossil fuel. Jane Aikin, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis gave the keynote speech at our Arts and Activism panel yesterday. In speaking about violence against women, she made the point that there is a lot of ignorance out there. “Never assume that your friends know what you know,” she said. “Don’t be shy about educating them. Share what you know! That’s how we learn.” The same is true for us. We need to create a climate of support, of modeling good stewardship of the earth. I ask my husband to remind me to pack the canvas bags when I am making the weekly trip to the supermarket. (In Ireland, and perhaps in other European countries, they charge you if you don’t bring your own bags back). He asks me to nag him if he’s spaced out in the shower and overusing the hot water.

If my experience as a veteran dieter teaches me anything, it’s that you have to do it with love, patience, compassion, gentleness, humor and tolerance for others. Just as I couldn’t give up junk food because someone told me too—it had to come from a deep inner desire—so I won’t give up driving the mile to the Stop & Shop because someone’s trying to shame me into walking. I will walk to the Stop & Shop because I want to do my part for the earth, out of love and not out of guilt. Feeling like I am an environmentalist, that this is my issue, that I have a relationship with the earth that is personal and private will make me walk instead of drive, buy organic rather than saving 75¢, and yes, changing my incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent. As always, the solution starts with us, and part of that solution is seeing the greedy Hummer-loving, energy wasting, junk food consumer in ourselves and forgiving that someone.

*If you want to see a really funny piece on how to respond to global warming, check out this link from Monday’s New York Times: