The Echthros In the Mirror

9 03 2017

“She tried to pull herself together. “Remember, Mr. Jenkins, you’re great on Benjamin Franklin’s saying, ‘We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.’ That’s how it is with human beings and mitochondria and farandolae – and our planet, too, I guess, and the solar system. We have to live together in — in harmony, or we won’t live at all. ..”             –Meg Murray in A Wind In The Door by Madeleine L’Engle

The first time I read the “Wrinkle In Time” series, it was a trilogy – now it is a quintet. I began re-reading the series recently, primarily because there is a quote from the third book that has always stuck with me. In that book (A Swiftly Tilting Planet) the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Mr. Murry, an eminent physicist, tells his family that to live in a peaceful and reasonable world, they must first create a peaceful and reasonable world within themselves and their own family.

Lately, I haven’t felt that I am living in a peaceful and reasonable world.

In response, I found myself returning to these books I read decades ago. In my initial reading, I liked the middle book, A Wind In The Door, least. While I have yet to read the last two in the series, published years after the first three, I am surprised to find that this middle book is my current adult favorite. I would try to explain the plot, but I read the synopsis on Wikipedia and I am convinced that I would make a hash of it. So, without getting into too many of the story details, here’s my attempt to explain why I love this book now, as a middle-aged adult.

The story is cosmic in it’s scope, while taking the characters into the tiniest of microcosmic space – the mitochondria within a human body’s cells. Meg Murry, the protagonist, learns that literally everything in the Universe is connected, and that while we feel separate, that is an illusion. Once inside the mitochondria, Meg can’t communicate in the same way she would normally – words and sounds. Meg learns, instead, that “communion” (intimate fellowship or rapport) can happen, though, because of the very connectedness of everything. She is able to commune with other people, other sentient beings, even with the mitochondria in her brother’s body’s cells – and it is through this communion that she saves the day.

Meg saves her brother, and by extension human existence, from the Echthroi: the enemy that threatens to X things out of existence. X-terminte them. Cause them to cease to exist. When I was a kid, I often thought that ideas in books were solely the imaginal offspring of the author. Now I know that L’Engle didn’t make up the concept of the Echthroi – in fact, Echthroi (Ἐχθροί) is a Greek plural meaning “The Enemy”. The singular form of the word is Echthros (Ἐχθρός). L’Engle’s explanation of their purpose, a quest to erase things from existence, speaks to me on a deep level.

Just last week, I heard a story on NPR about the last three remaining Northern White Rhinos: Sudan, Najin and Fatu by name. They are currently living in Kenya, guarded by armed protectors around the clock. Scientists are striving to discover ways to prevent them from finally being X-ed out of existence. These rhinos have been hunted for their horns, believed by some to have magical properties, and depleted as well by the decimation of their habitats. When they are gone, somewhere in this universe the song of nature will hit a dischordant note, and a beautiful part of the whole will cease to exist. This fills me with dread and grief, for in that moment, the Echthroi will have been successful.

I can see the handiwork of the Echthroi all over this world: in North Korea, where the quest to deliver nuclear payloads halfway around the globe is progressing; in Syria and elsewhere, when we fail to prevent genocide; in the US, when we choose name calling and finger pointing over substantive dialogue.

In A Wind In The Door, one way Meg must fight the Echthroi is by seeking within and finding/summoning love for her nemesis, Mr. Jenkins. In our very real world, fighting the echthroi is often an inside job as well. I increasingly believe that we cannot change the world around us if we do not seek first to change ourselves. When I stop to think about this, I must admit that the echthroi reside in me. In fact, when I rage, when I hate, when I name-call or finger-point the echthros IS me.

It may sound strange that I would love a book that reminds me that I am responsible for the world at such a deep level; that I would love a story that bluntly suggests that the fight between good and evil in the world is real, and the battleground is my own self. But Meg Murry reads a lot like my insecure teen self – and she does, eventually, successfully embody love for Mr. Jenkins, despite the numerous ways he failed her. Meg helps me believe that I am up to finding this kind of courage in my own heart.

More important, the book gives us one imaginative interpretation of what we know in our hearts to be true and science is rapidly proving – namely, that we live in a connected universe. We are part of a vast web of life that is interdependent, born from the stardust of Creation. And our purpose is compassion.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have absolute faith so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.                                   –1 Corinthians 13:1-2

 

 





Changing Climates

5 05 2016

“The world has been abnormal for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate. If there is to be any peace or reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.” —Madeleine L’Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet

I don’t remember when I first read A Swiftly Tilting Planet. As with so many of the books that have stayed with me, what I can remember is the feeling of my mind expanding as I flew through the pages. So much happens in the story line that I wouldn’t attempt a synopsis of the book here. However, in the story the world is on the brink of nuclear annihilation. In this tense and terrifying moment, Meg (our heroine) learns that everything is connected. Everything is connected. Therefore, it matters what she does – even if it is something so seemingly insignificant as what she allows to live within her own heart.

I copied down the quote, above, and have kept it easily to hand for many years. It is said by Meg’s father to remind his family that, in the fateful hour in which they find themselves, they each have something to contribute to the good. I have used the quote, over the years, to remind myself that creating peace and reason in my own heart is crucial to finding it in the world beyond me.

Peaceful and reasonable. These are qualities I strive for, values (peace and reason) I hold deeply. But we humans don’t start there – we get there through intention and effort. And not by overvaluing our intellectual selves at the expense of our emotional selves. We have emotions; we feel things deeply because if we did not, we would always maintain the status quo. Growth – whether on a personal or global scale – only happens with the emotional impetus to change.

However, if we operate only at the feeling stage, we spend our energies expressing but not creating. Don’t misunderstand me: expression of our emotions is a powerful thing – and when we’re coming to terms with hurtful experiences or attempting to find/use our voices despite repression, suppression, or oppression it is an absolutely necessary thing.

And then what?

I’ve watched the news throughout this political season with interest and horror. All my life, I’ve believed many of the things Bernie Sanders stands for, and found abhorrent most of what Donald Trump espouses. But as I see shouting matches devolving into violence and entrenchment, I am reminded that we are living in an abnormal climate. How am I, one person, supposed to have an effect on that?

And then I remember that I do and I can have an effect on it – because everything is connected. Madeleine L’Engle was the first to introduce me to quantum theory, but she certainly wasn’t the last. In college theology courses, I studied Teilhard de Chardin and first learned about the concept of the noosphere. And in recent decades, science has been proving, with break-through after break-through, that what I think and feel does, indeed, have an impact that reaches far beyond my own self.

With that in mind, you will not see me throwing my hands up in an act of surrender. You will not hear me declaring that I give up – or that if things don’t go the way I want them to I will wash my hands of responsibility and leave it for others to take the blame. But neither will you see me engaging in shouting or shoving matches. My most intense struggles will be internal – attempting to quiet my agitation long enough to experience a peaceful heart and a reasonable mind. Whenever I can reach that place internally, I will do my best to project it outward. Because of all the things I think I know, the one I believe with every fiber of my being is that everything is connected. EveryONE is connected.





50 about 50: Books

21 07 2011
“This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way – startled –
I find I have heard you. When I need
it, a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand…
 
…Your spirits relax, —
now she is looking, you say to each
other, now she begins to see.                                                             
 
 –Denise Levertov

Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life – also, one of the most important means for personal growth. The simple truth is, I am who I am today partly because of the books I’ve read. In how they’ve touched me at the right moment, how I’ve been open to them when I needed to learn something, books have enriched my life immeasurably.

I have read widely and constantly. In second grade, I got in trouble for reading (a novel) in class. In junior high, my mother nearly flat-lined when she discovered me reading Jacqueline Susann’s  Once Is Not Enough. In high school, I read every Barbara Cartland regency romance I could find, as well as all of Thomas Hardy. When people comment about the strange, esoteric bits of trivia in my brain, I often secretly laugh – because I know what low-brow piece of literature I gleaned that tidbit from!

It would be impossible to make a list either of my favorite books or of all the authors whose ideas or themes have instructed me. Instead, today’s list is of books which have become integrated into my own psyche in some important way. I’ve cheated (a little) because there are more than ten books in this list. I could easily have expanded the list far beyond these ten items – it makes me sad, for example, that there are no John Irvings, no poetry, none of my beloved “books that became movies starring Shirley Temple” on the list. Someday perhaps I’ll write a definitive list of the best books I’ve read. Today is not that day! (PS – the list is in chronological order)

1. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney

I believe I’ve shared this before, but The Five Little Peppers taught me what reading is for. I learned to read with phonics and the Dick and Jane readers. “Run, Dick, Run.”, does not inspire one to develop a life-long love of reading. Story can, though. And this was the first true, long, emotionally satisfying story I ever read. The rest is, as they say, history!

2. Trixie Belden Series by  Julie Campbell Tatham et. al. /Madeline L’Engle’s Books

Trixie Belden and Vicky Austen showed me two young women struggling with a variety of difficult issues: annoying brothers, shady characters with nefarious intent, mysteries and logic puzzles, the death of loved ones, crushes on boys. I loved that both girls worked hard and thought hard about what it meant to be her best self. I never minded that Trixie used exclamations such as, “Gleeps!” She and her friends the Bob-Whites of the Glen, as well as L’Engle’s characters, helped me maintain a moral grounding at times when it could easily have crumbled away.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For many years, this was the only novel I read more than once. And by more than once, I mean 20+ times. Admittedly, on one level it could be read as a longer romance novel, and that is probably why I read it the first few times. Gradually, though, I began to appreciate its finer qualities. It has been many years now that I have considered it one of the finest novels ever written. If you have read it without laughing out loud, you have missed just how clever Jane Austen is as an observer and commenter on personalities and social mores. She is witty and on point, without straying into mean and snarky (most of the time) – definitely qualities I aspire to in myself.

4. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

A word that is currently so overused as to make it practically meaningless – EPIC – is the best word to describe both these books and their impact on the trajectory of my reading life. For one, I have remained a true fan of the fantasy genre. In addition:  history, linguistics, folklore, metaphor – my appreciation for each has grown significantly as a result of these books. More importantly, the idea that even the humblest of hobbits has a role to play in the great and dramatic events of the world, has informed my worldview and cemented my temperament as idealist.

5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The structure of this novel hooked me: the Joads’ story interspersed with chapters describing the injustices (such as produce being allowed to rot rather than feed people) occurring in that turbulent time. My parents were politically involved and aware in the 60’s and 70’s, and while I soaked up that ambience during my childhood, until I read The Grapes of Wrath, I hadn’t understood how powerfully the written word could move me in service to a just cause.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Viktor Frankl

The first time I read this memoir, I was young and more inspired by the fact of his survival in the death camps than I was by how Frankl survived. As I have matured, I have worked hard to remember the truth quoted above. Unhappy at work? Bored with your life? Feel like someone is oppressing you? Use your freedom to choose – beginning with how you respond to the person(s) or events involved. I gravitate toward people in my life who intuitively understand and model how to do this.

7. Earthrise: A Personal Responsibility by David Thatcher

I was spending a leisurely morning in the 1990s browsing at my favorite shops on the pedestrian mall in Iowa City. At The Vortex, I lingered in the books section, flipping through whatever caught my eye. Underneath a pile of New Age magazines, I spied a thin, quite worn-looking little book. It appeared to have been read by many, though this was not a used book store. It was so strange, nestled among the many shiny new items – and we all know I cannot resist something strange or unusual. So I sat down to read it on the padded little bench in the store. And literally felt my mind and my worldview expanding as I read. I’ve never met anyone else who has read this book. For a long time, I almost believed only my copy existed, I almost believed it was magically produced just for me to find at that exact moment in my life when I would be most open to it. Basic premise: the human capacity for affecting our world is exponentially greater at the individual level than any of us typically realize, and it is time for us to take responsibility for what we create.

8. Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris/Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I read these two novels back-to-back. They were both beautiful and powerful stories, widely different from one another in subject and tone. What struck me, though, was a similar central concept: that perception is reality. In Yellow Raft, the story is told through the perspectives of several generations of women in the same family. Each perceives the events through her own lens, and each responds accordingly. The reader develops a very full picture of what happened, while each character must make choices based on her own, limited, knowledge. In Animal Dreams, a woman returns to her childhood community, having left in late adolescence feeling outcast and incapable of being accepted by those around her. Returning, she discovers that children don’t see or understand very much – in part, because their parents and the other adults around them provide shelter from the more difficult to comprehend things in life. The view she constructed of her family, community, and self was based on this incomplete understanding – and incredibly flawed. Together, these two novels have helped me develop a more sanguine approach to familial relationships – yes, we shared experiences, but there are sound reasons for our differing responses and/or feelings about them. What an eye-opening thought – someone else’s perception of reality, while different than mine, can be equally valid.

9. Desert Pilgrim by Mary Swander

I shared the story of the powerful retreat experience that helped change the course of my life previously in this blog, here. This book was the basis for the retreat, written by the author who served as our retreat leader. One of the many things I loved about Desert Pilgrim, was the strange synchronicity between Swander’s life and mine – the people, communities, places we both know and love. Other than the retreat, our paths had never crossed. But our lives share some quirky people and experiences. As a result of the book, the retreat, and a few other connections in my life, I have adopted San Rafael as my patron saint (along with St. Cecilia, whose name I took at confirmation). While I won’t attempt to articulate what this has meant to me (because it would make this post unbelievably long), suffice it to say that I take hope and comfort from this.

10. Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer

This book was rain on my parched soul, and came to me at a moment of great need. If you are ever at a crisis point regarding your vocation or life purpose, this book is a wonderful companion – especially (though not only) if you have been working in higher education.

Well. It turns out that I am incapable of “short and pithy” when sharing books I love. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and learning about some of the books that have shaped me. I am particularly interested in hearing about those that have touched you – please share!