My father-in-law at ninety sits in his La-Z-Boy playing rousing music on his iPad, a newfangled device he has grown fond of. It’s vintage Czechoslovakian polka music, he says, and it makes him happy, so it becomes the soundtrack for the morning. My mother-in-law is reading an old dog-eared book on native plants, making plans, enjoying her own notes from years past written in the margins. She propagates oak and sycamore trees and tends to a garden of natives.
Their window looks out onto a creek bed and the canyon road beyond. The cottonwood trees are in their brief season of yellow leaves, and a toyon by the house is a bounty of red berries, and wisps of cloud are rolling above the newly green hills. My daughter is removing her muddy Wellies outside the door, having just returned from the well, and one is tempted to say all is well.
But of course all is emphatically not well. I am trying to stay informed, but the news these days is crushing and infuriating, and the need to do something is accompanied by a sense of helplessness and frustration, even as the dangers of passivity grow.
I happened to run into Yvon Chouinard recently. I thanked him for what Patagonia did on the day after Thanksgiving, donating 100% of their sales to help the environment. His modest response: “It’s only money.” And I said, “Yeah. We’re all going to hell in a hand-basket anyway.” And he said, “That’s right.” He always seems kind of Buddhist about things, or maybe fatalistic. Might as well go down doing something.
Meanwhile, I’ve been having an ongoing dialog with a friend about anger. I admit to anger; my friend either doesn’t feel it or refuses to acknowledge it. HH the Dalai Lama would disapprove, he tells me–anger is just poison, diminishing our credibility and causing only harm. His pious dismissal of my anger makes me me angry, of course. I realize we cannot get swept up into useless drama with each new outrage, but anger is an understandable human response to the daily assaults on our values and the exasperating mentality that brought us to this point. I see it as an alarm, a clarifying energy born of conscience. The trick is to figure out how to channel it constructively.
Yesterday I went into the sweet little town of Los Olivos and stopped by to see my friend Dorothy on Figueroa Mountain Road. We talked about what strengths and resources we have, what strategies we can employ, how to sustain our energy through the long run, using our anger as a fuel but humor too, and love, mostly love. We looked out at the mountains. The world is so beautiful, she said.
California Christmas. A Mexican woman was selling homemade tamales wrapped like presents in foil and brown paper, still warm. A neighbor gave us a bowl of sweet persimmons, the kind you eat like apples. I rode my bicycle when the sandstone cliffs were golden and the green hills luminous, feeling exhilarated and inexplicably strong. There have been low-low tides and a sea as calm and quiet as I have ever seen it. My daughter is curled up on the living room sofa in a shaft of sunlight, reading, and I saw three former students in the course of a week, all good people, all grown up. It makes me feel I mattered a little.
And everything is telling me this: we have no choice but to be better.