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There's No Vermont in the Bad Reality

In science fiction, the Bad Reality is a treasure-trove of plot. By virus, war, alien invasion, drug craze or collective mania, civilization has crashed. The story begins in nightmare and usually gets worse.

But almost all such stories (the published ones, anyway) include at least the idea of the Good Place. Safety. Haven. Sanctuary. The survivors long for it, dream of it, journey toward it, die in sight of it, or achieve it at last. It’s Vermont, too cold for contagion, in “I Am Legend,”[1] Dryland in “Waterworld,”[2] Canada in The Handmaid’s Tale,[3] men living wild downriver who have memorized whole books, in Fahrenheit 451.[4] Apparently we’re willing to slog through these fictional dystopic horrors as long as we believe that there’ll be a Good Place by the end. Or maybe this kind of entertainment is like a vaccine made of a killed virus — we may sicken, but we don’t die.

In this century, the disasters most likely to befall our species are no respecters of state lines or high ground. Borders don’t stop Ebola, AIDS, or bird flu. Hiding under a desk doesn’t protect a child from a nuclear bomb. Loving our neighbors doesn’t protect us from religious war. Yet some people are immune, some lucky, some aware of the moment to leave the neighborhood. The Good Place is still possible, though fate, chance, or magic may determine who reaches that place.

Irena Klepfisz’ brilliant poem, “Bashert,” captures this reality:

… These words are dedicated to those who died
because a card was lost and a number was skipped
because a bed was denied
because a place was filled and no other place was left …
These words are dedicated to those who survived
because their second grade teacher gave them books
because they did not draw attention to themselves and got lost in the shuffle
because they knew someone who knew someone else who could
help them and bumped into them on a corner on a Thursday afternoon
because they played it safe
because they were lucky …[5]

Klepfisz is writing about the holocaust of the Nazi era. Like thousands of other survivors and artists over the intervening years, she makes and remakes the story, trying to make sense of it, why an individual was survivor or statistic, hero or betrayer, sane or broken. It’s both a philosopher’s touchstone and a desperately personal midnight question. After all, we’re a species of confabulators – the constant makers of stories to explain our perceptions. No wonder young novelists learn to inject hope to deepen tragedy, and vice versa.

No wonder we humans are so resistant to the nonfictional troubles we’re facing. They don’t make a good story. An ice age, a fetid worldsoup or a desert. No clean water anywhere. There’s no Vermont that’s magically safe from glacier-melt or the inexorable ocean or the choice to die from tainted water or from thirst.

The real world, Gaia or planet or real estate, doesn’t have an escape hatch, except maybe the fictions we create — books and movies, music, churches, hedonism, a future in space — to distract ourselves, to provide the mental escape hatch and not the suicide bomber’s solution.

TV and blog news, oddly, both take us into reality and protect us from it. That moment when the tidal wave overran Phuket in 2004 — I won’t forget it. In my imagination, though not my body, I drown again and again. That empathy is what moves the world to send money and food and emergency specialists to strangers… because we’re part of it. But also because we have money and food enough, because the tidal wave didn’t destroy our towns, our families, our lives. Because we didn’t drown. Because we’re not part of it.

feathery seed pod clinging to a twig, with the Keith Urban quotation: "Life is a balance of hanging on and letting go."

So the distant tragedies that bring us closer to each other also separate us into a fatalistic us and them. Making “us” feel safer… until the dustbowl, tornado, virus, civil war, or financial crash reaches us.

Whew. Even a few paragraphs of the Bad Reality wear me out. (You too, I expect.) I’m only human: I reach for the Good Place, and it isn’t far: Woodsmoke at dawn. The sun-washed brilliant leaves on the driveway. A red-tailed hawk ten feet overhead. The Adagio for Strings[6] on the radio. Memory, self-questioning, letting go — the cauldron of change in the electric dark of Hallows.

For many people, the really Good Place is elsewhere: Heaven, Nirvana, Paradise. For me it’s here, the Earth, and there’ve been a lot of catastrophes in my “heaven” in the last couple of years. So many catastrophes that all kinds of people — even the people whose off-planet heaven awaits them — have become concerned about what they’ll be leaving behind for the grandkids. These days you never know whom you’ll meet on this precious common ground.

Oil-based candidates are actually speaking of energy from wind, water, and solar (always in the same order, for some reason, and always in a single sentence). Still, it’s astonishing that they’re convinced they have to go there. Is it possible that the world has changed under their feet and set them dancing for balance?

The haters are flourishing, it’s an election year in the U.S., and uncivil war goes on and on and on. Bad news comes at us 24/7. But we’re only human; we can’t help it: we persist in reaching for the Good Place. It isn't far.

Notes

  1. “I am Legend”, film directed by Francis Lawrence, released by Warner Brothers Pictures in 2007, based on the book of the same name by Richard Matheson, Walker and Company, 1970.
  2. “Waterworld”, film directed by Kevin Reynolds, released by Universal Pictures, 1995, based on a script by Peter Rader and David Twohy.
  3. The Handmaid’s Tale, novel by Margaret Atwood. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
  4. Fahrenheit 451, novel by Ray Bradbury. Random House, 1953.
  5. Bashert,” poem by Irena Klepfisz, first published in Keeper of Accounts, Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1082. The poem is available as of 10/31/2008 at http://web.library.emory.edu/libraries/schatten/previous/memorysites/loss/1klepfisz.pdf.
  6. The Adagio for Strings composed by Samuel Barber, 1936. Available as of 10/31/2008 at http://www.goear.com/listen.php?v=9cdcfbc.

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MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
is a seasonal web journal (zine) for Goddess Women and others interested in Goddess Lore and Scholarship, Goddess Religion (ancient and contemporary), Feminist Spirituality, Women's Mysteries, Paganism and Neopaganism, Earth-based Religions, Witchcraft, Dianic Wicca and other Wiccan Traditions, the Priestess Path, Goddess Art, Women's Culture, Women's Health, Natural Healing, Mythology, Female Shamanism, Consciousness, Community, Cosmology, and Women's Creativity.

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