In between playwriting and screenwriting, I spent twelve years in ministry. In that liminal space and time I accompanied people through every kind of life crisis and up to the threshold of every kind of transition from birth to death. There is something about—— blessing a stillborn, bracing up a courageous grandfather into the viewing room to say goodbye to his two year old grandson, talking a despairing teenager down from the roof, plotting an octogenarian's escape from the nursing home, and having someone whisper in my ear before surgery that they plan to outsmart their doctor who intends to keep her body alive in whatever condition, and having baptized, married and buried a hundred people—— that gave me experience and insight into nature and the human condition that I couldn't have gotten had I merely sat at my desk looking out the window dreaming up characters and their challenges.
You might think any writer would emerge from all that a full blown realist. But my experience confirmed the cliche that reality is stranger than fiction. No one in the room had to be any sort of religious or mystic to see the iridescent ball of light in the corner the moment their aunt exhaled her last breath or to smell their grandfather's tobacco fill the room moments before he died. The gathering of geeks supporting their friends burying their newborn saw the black butterfly land, out of season, on his tombstone—as if hired to accentuate the metaphor I'd used in his eulogy. Old New England salts hobbled out into the darkness and saw the shooting star play the same role for their old friend. None of these out-of-the-ordinaries needed to mean anything fancy. In fact, trying to give them meaning after the fact demeaned grief and diminished awe.
And so I re-emerge into full time professional writing, having acquired a crunchy-reality sensibility and deeper respect for nature, knowing that the key to keeping my storytelling real is magic.
You encounter it most blatantly in the courtroom when the lawyer demands a yes or no answer. You can sense the “but” in the witness’ squirm or eyebrow raise or lip bite. That “but” holds all the subtleties of some truth that a yes or no answer will obscure. The forced “yes” or “no” gets recorded. The squirm gets negated. The law is a brute force between two stories collectively agreed upon as competing truths.
Many people see nature’s law in the same light. Survival of the fittest leaves no room for subtle ifs, ands or buts. The law, human or nature, is based on brute facts: life or death without the possibility of liminality; black or white without the muddiness of gray. We equate brute facts with the truth and the truth with reality.
It’s unnerving, in our hyper-charged political atmosphere, to see reality called into question with accusations of fake news and alternative facts. Ironically, I find myself longing for the law to step in and clear the air with brute facts. With the stakes this high, with lives and life itself in the balance, we need truth more than ever. We need facts. We need reality to prevent some myth from blowing us all up.
So suddenly, people who never gave it a thought, are marching for science. Why? Science is the keeper of those facts that we need. Science is the antidote to myth and the stories that religion tells. The current attack on facts has catapulted us right back to Descartes’s dichotomy that drew a solid line between two categories: truth and belief. The truth column holds facts, science and mathematics. The belief side holds belief, religion and art.
Here’s one of the ironies: we built the industrial revolution on this dichotomy. Science was used to create processes and products and factories that industrialized the landscape and polluted air, water, and soil. Science and technology’s facts, as Einstein lamented, can do more damage than a whole coven’s curse. Unlike in a court of law, a rule of truth in science is: they’re facts when they work. And when they work, they create a new reality for better or worse.
Christianity, on the other side of science in that dichotomy, contributed to the environmental destruction by fostering the belief that the soul is meant to transcend its earthly bonds until the Apocalypse when God will destroy the earth and create a new one unbridled by brute law. In the new creation, the lions are tame and the lambs are safe.
Today, the felt experience of threat to facts as the basis of life and integral to the balance of nature is so strong, even Christians are marching for science. Not all. The fight between evolution and creation continues to rage in some courtrooms where the question is asked, “Is evolution a theory? Yes or no?”
One truth that seems to get overlooked is the fact that institutions are created by human beings. We are, by nature, fallible. Research scientists believe they’re acting for some greater good by experimenting on animals and primates. Religious leaders believe they’re acting for some greater good by inciting their followers to violence. We’re not going to find solutions to our deepest problems in science only or religion only.
Sitting here contemplating my plum tree’s buds in various degrees of opening in the rain, observing the proportionality between them and among them and the invisible reality I call nothing and all the visible somethings around them, I’m thinking there’s a possibility that we don’t know what we’re doing. Quantum physicists are not afraid of the subtleties that stretch science’s “truth” to new questions. Zen masters live in the subtleties that stretch religious belief to new questions. Do we have the sensibility and the courage to resist the categories that contain our brute facts or fairy-flitted realities and come to our senses with new questions…turning to nature’s subtleties as if life depended on it?
Spring arrives in New England every April bringing relief from winter’s weight. Even the hardiest skiers who long to head for the mountains or evergreen forests to shush along deep shaded paths brighten at the first sight of the crocus blossom. Even after the mildest winter, when the kaleidoscope turns and the crocus curls into view, there is a collective sense of relief. The crocus heralds in the daffodils and narcissus that will give way to tulips just before the silent explosion of green.
Some lesser part of me resents my surprise. I know the crocus will come up like clockwork. That same part of me resents the obvious symbolism: life from death, joy from sorrow, renewal from stagnation. We squeeze more out of the crocus than an early nectar thief can suck. And think of the insult to the hydrangea. So it hasn’t blossomed yet. Is that any reason to denigrate it in cheap comparison to the crocus whose time has simply come?
Perhaps it’s just a mood. Perhaps it’s just entering a new season one year older. Perhaps it’s the humiliation of being human in the face of innocence. Will the crocus notice how different the atmosphere at first breath? The delicate crocus is a poignant reminder of what a brutal race we must seem to it. This spring I find myself wondering how to assure the crocus of hope. A nod to our mutual being? Yes, that, and something equally ecstatic. I hope I won’t sound too defensive when I remind the crocus that the poets are not all dead. I’ll have to word it carefully.
A walking onion popping up through the cobbled path made me a little uneasy. I thought it was a weed and almost plucked it out. But a naturalist friend told me I’d regret it if I didn’t wait to see what it would do. Even though it was an eyesore and smelled weird, I trusted him and left it. At the end of the season it buckled and fell over. Unimpressed, I was about to pull it up again. But my friend said I needed to be patient. What happened was, when the first one fell over, it planted itself next cobble over, and sprouted into a second, and then a third. That’s what walking onions do. Now the three musketeers, or magi, or more likely, Huck, Jim, and Tom are headed my way.
Mark Twain would have something to say about these onions, I thought. Sure enough, a little sleuthing revealed a poem (Those Annual Bills) Twain wrote about having been skinned by the tax man when he was down and out from bad investments and a greedy publisher. Still harboring prejudice, I expected his antagonist to be the stinky onion peeling him and making him cry. Instead, he pines:
"Those joyous beans are passed away; Those onions blithe, O where are they?"
Are these the blithe onions that walked away? If these truly are Mark Twain’s onions, what message would they bear? Seems to me they’d have something to say about what we humans are doing here in civilization, especially concerning how we're treating each other and everything else.
Is anything more freeing than believing in ethics’ relativity? When wracked with guilt over some insurrection, I can bend over, plant my head in another belief system, and just keep walking. Or I can start peeling it and take heart that someone has done something worse, and worse than that, and worse than that. As I peel back the layers, flaking off my flimsy wrongdoing, my tears disconnect from my emotions. My guilt eases the closer I get to the basest stinking core of the worst humanity has to offer. Compared to that, truly, I’m as innocent as a bean in Thoreau’s garden. Relatively speaking, I’m blithe as an onion and sweet as a pea.
A believer in ethical absolutism peels layers of cultural differences and finds at its core one unifying ought. If I peel the onion this way, I discover under all the differences that separate us, one absolute principle that defines right and wrong for all human beings. Most if not all the world religions have some version of the Golden Rule, or the ethics of reciprocity: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” The ethical nihilist peels layer after layer of the absolutist's refuse and finds at the core, nothing. And so the ethics of reciprocity skews: “Do unto others before they have a chance to do it unto you.”
But Mark Twain’s onions have come all this way to deliver a different message. We’re sick of being used as metaphors, they say. Ain’t it enough that we feed and nourish you? Ain’t it enough that we bring sweet harmony to your frying pan? Ain’t it enough that our puff-headed cousins bring poetry to your gardens? Ain’t it enough that we move you to tears when you peel at us? But you have to go and metaphorize us. What for? You peel us to get to the heart of the matter ‘cause you feel like something’s the matter with your heart. To get to the real you ‘cause the one you is you guess ain’t good enough. To bring you in deeper with one another ‘cause some book Tom probably would’ve wrote says you should.
We come to tell you you got it backwards! To our ethical relative: just because we’re different don’t mean we mean different. You don’t believe an onion can teach you something? Ain’t no matter. Mark Twain told the truth, he even said so himself - stretched it maybe, but mainly speaking…. He’d say to your ethical absolutionist: it’s way hard to go against what you been taught but the core can’t teach you nothing if you can’t read the subtle like layers around it. And to our ethical nihilist, he’d say: if there weren’t no core, there wouldn’t be nothing to peel and ain't no sense peeling nothing. There ain’t nobody need tell even us onions that if there weren’t no core - family and friendship and fellow feeling like that - that’s an awful bad sign. Quit peeling. Look at us. We start at the core and grow layer by layer till we are what we’re supposed to be – good for somebody beside ourselves.
Emily Dickinson’s poem 260 begins, “I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody, too?” The words of this great 19th C New England poet make me wonder who is out there now writing or painting in obscurity – just because it gives them joy, or hope, or because they’re pregnant with an idea that has to be born, or because it's something they have to do so that their heads won’t explode, or because they can’t find a portal to the outside world but keep creating despite.
The caricature of Dickinson as the eccentric, isolated spinster writing poems and shoving them in her drawer for no one to see is dashed when you visit her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. The stern expression emitting joylessness from her portrait doesn’t give away her playful spirit. You can look out the window in her bedroom near her writing desk where she would lower treasures down on a rope to young neighborhood pirates. You can walk through her gardens and catch a glimpse of her kaleidoscopic vision, seeing the whole wild universe in a humble blade of grass. Dickinson was privy to something that seems much more valuable than had she succumbed to fame in her lifetime. Her secret was herself discovering and expressing the fine art of being through her direct experience of nature.
As we scramble to brand and sell ourselves as Somebodies, as the media scrambles to sell us and our kids the line that we can all achieve Somebodiness by buying/wearing/using this thing, I wonder if Emily Dickinson doesn’t have a more potently creative message? I just wonder, if we weren’t so intent on trumpeting the special unique snowflakes we think we're supposed to be, if we’re depriving the world of the special unique snowflakes that we are and the creative work that only we can do?