Origin stories

Recent conversations

I’ve had recent conversations with two friends my age. These have led me back to the big 5W’s: Who are we? What is our purpose? Where did we come from? When did the universe, life, and consciousness arise? Why are we here?

One writes

One of my more embarrassing memories from high school was a discussion in which two friends revealed that they were atheists.  I was beyond shocked.  I had never met an atheist before.  I was made to go to church every Sunday.  I couldn’t believe that these excellent friends had gone to the dark side and emphatically told them that the fact that we exist PROVED that there was a god.  I remember one just smiling tolerantly.

Halfway through my freshman year I had an epiphany while reading John Bailey’s Gods and Men: Myths and Legends from the World’s Religions. All that religious nonsense just collapsed in my mind.  What a relief!  I still have the book.

Both of these friends had expressed concern for my recent cancer. But the second one took that concern in an opposite direction. He recommended Sickness, by J. C. Ryle. It answers the question, “How can there be sickness in a world with an omniscient and omnipotent God,” by saying that all sickness arises from sin, a turning away from God.

The friend also recommended re-reading the Gospel of John as a source of solace and inspiration. He suggested that I ask “Is it possible that Jesus is who He said He was?”

I like and respect both of these friends, especially when they let me express my own muddled views.

Asking important questions

I think of philosophy as the process of asking the important questions in life. In that sense, the scientist fascinated by cosmology, but seeking an explanation other than its divine origin, or the evangelical seeking to understand Jesus through studying the Bible are each practicing philosophy in their own way. The same is true of the Daoist trying to understand the nature of reality or to find a moral order to life, the Hindu seeing God in every aspect of life, the follower of Madhyamaka Buddhism focusing on the “middle way,” and the evolutionist exploring Darwin’s “tangled bank.”

Fibonacci spiral

When these paths become dogmatic, their value for philosophical inquiry is diminished. This is essentially the argument of James Carse in The Religious Case Against Belief. Carse is a religion professor at NYU who argues that religion’s greatest value is exactly in those areas where we are uncertain. When it degenerates into fixed beliefs it loses precisely what makes it essential.

On the other hand, when religion stays open to questions, calls forth awe about life and the universe, and helps us understand our common humanity, it becomes our way of making sense of a complex, ever-changing world. Both militant atheism and dogmatic religious beliefs fall short. John Dewey lays out this argument well in A Common Faith.

Seeking new ways of understanding

I may ask each of my conversants to read Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. As a botanist, she has a beautiful way of integrating scientific and indigenous ways of knowing. That integration goes a step beyond Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria” (in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.)

Another source of insight could come from the Confucius-Mozi debates in early China. Confucius laid out a case for starting with what’s close at hand, e.g., “honor thy father and thy mother.” He imagined ever expanding circles of love. Mozi and his followers challenged the Confucian view. They saw that adherence to family, village, local beliefs, and so on could lead to misunderstanding and disrespecting the cultures of others, and ultimately, violence and war. 

Mozi taught that everyone is equal in the eyes of heaven. Mohists questioned Confucianism’s over-attachment to family and clan structures, arguing instead for the concept of “universal love.” That implies acceptance and valuing of others’ belief systems, and not placing one’s own beliefs above those of others. That could be extended to love of all things in nature.

Confucianists thought that Mozi overestimated what was humanly possible. They said that we always put our own families and culture first. The debate continues today and can unfortunately recurs in endless strife between Christians and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists, atheists and believers.

The answer

So, I’m not sure how to answer the 5W’s. Spinoza said it was “God or Nature” in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. He was condemned by many for this work, but it made a lot of sense to me when I first encountered it in Humanities 100 at Rice.

In favor of Spinoza’s formula is the fact that nature is all around us inviting engagement, astonishment, and enlightenment. There is meaning in the journey. We need but open ourselves to its wonders and accept that our understanding can never be more than partial.

Herring on the run

Blueback herring on the Herring River, Wellfleet

The lilacs are blooming and the buttercups brighten the river banks, so the blueback herring are swimming upstream to spawn. We counted 89 in one ten-minute stretch this week, thus honoring World Fish Migration Day.

The herring do surprisingly well, despite the constricted tidal flow in the river. Their biggest problem comes at the culverts. Fortunately for them, the one near our count site did not have a snapping turtle, raccoon, or crow waiting on the upstream side.

Culvert on the Herring River, to be enlarged as part of the project to restore the Herring River estuary.

We love seeing the herring. They tell us that the river, although damaged, is not dead.

A friend and neighbor says that she loves the herring, too, especially when they’re pickled with peppercorns and bay leaves, then served with onions. That was possible in the days when the river flowed freely. Our hope is that fishing, shellfishing, birdwatching, boating, and more can return when the river is restored.

Earth Day: The light flickers

Sammy (age five), who knows about layers of the ocean

For a hundred fathoms the sun rays penetrate
The sea is warm and full of life
Phytoplankton turn the sun’s energy into food.

The sunlight zone is what we know
Where the dolphins play
It’s the ocean blue.

Varying by season and latitude
Fish and seagulls, squids and jellyfish
Tiny copepods feed giant whales.

Below is the twilight zone
Worthy of Rod Serling
It’s dimly lit and cold, but still supports life.

Bioluminescence
Fish eyes are large, directed upwards
Food silhouettes.

Then there is the deep, the midnight zone
Constant darkness, except what creatures themselves provide
Crushing, almost freezing.

Thousands of feet down
The water’s weight presses down
Yet the sperm whale can dive here.

He searches for food
At depths we can’t imagine
He recycles and moves nutrients.

His carcass stores carbon
Providing habitat and food for others
He’s an ecosystem engineer.

He lights up our life
When he leaves the page
We discover the real darkness and cold.

Section hiking the Appalachian Trail

Section hiking the Appalachian Trail means doing a segment at a time, whenever it’s convenient. It’s not as glamorous as a thru-hike, but it’s still a great way to experience the “footpath for the people.”

Unfortunately, my cancer recovery segments are very short. I may need 21,800 segments to complete the 2,180 miles. That’s going to take a while.

But I’ve accomplished a few already. The photo above was taken two days ago near Great Barrington, MA. The one below is near Becket, MA in January.

Video: Fulbright Specialist in Nepal, 2019

The Frames film program has produced a short video of my work in Nepal, focusing on the Fulbright Specialist trip in 2019. I hope you enjoy it.

The Frames Film Program provides opportunities for multi-barriered youth (ages 16 to 30) to learn the basics of filmmaking — at no cost.​ It is an off-site program of Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House. As a Vancouver-based film production and life skills program, it provides opportunities for youth to learn the basics of filmmaking in a supportive, safe and fun environment.

Reading my own writing

This morning at breakfast, faced with a large stack of unread magazines and newspapers, I realized that I really wanted to go upstairs to my office to work on my own book project instead.

Although my own writing is clumsy and inarticulate, it’s never on a topic that doesn’t interest me. Also, if I don’t like a word choice or phrasing, if an important side point seems left out, I can just fix it right then and there.

It’s never perfect; there’s always some way to improve it.

In contrast, in this great collection of magazines––New Scientist, The Nation, Mother Jones, Natural History, Texas Monthly, Mad, The New Yorker, and more––there are occasionally topics of only minor interest; some articles are too long, some too short.

What can I do if I disagree with a word choice or think an argument is unsupported? Fume? Write a letter to the editor? It feels very passive compared to what I can do with my book project. For me the life of the writer seems far superior, not in a moral sense, but simply in the sense of attracting my time and attention.

But then I flipped through an issue of The New York Review of Books (August 19, 2021). For a reader, that’s always intimidating. Faced with hundreds of interesting new books, my write now strategy looks even more attractive.

I came across an excerpt from a new book by Wisława Szymborska, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop). It’s a collection of the advice columns that she wrote anonymously in the Polish journal Życie literackie (Literary Life) from 1960 to 1981.

My musings about writing over reading stopped cold when I read one letter in which Szymborska decides to console a writer rather than to give him/her some hope of publication.

A splendid fate awaits you, the fate of a reader, and a reader of the highest caliber, that is to say, disinterested—the fate of a lover of literature, who will always be its steadiest companion, the conquest, not the conqueror. You will read it all for the pleasure of reading. Not spotting “tricks,” not wondering if this or that passage might be better written, or just as well, but differently. No envy, no dejection, no attacks of spleen, none of the sensations accompanying the reader who also writes.

She goes on to describe the many benefits of being a reader, rather than a writer:

And there is also this not inconsiderable benefit: people speak of incompetent writers, but never of incompetent readers. There are of course hordes of failed readers—needless to say, we do not include you among them—but somehow they get away with it, whereas anyone who writes without success will instantly be deluged in winks and sighs. Not even girlfriends are to be relied upon in such cases.

So, where to go from here?

I decided that I had read enough; the cantaloupe was finished and the oatmeal was cold. I could still pour some more coffee and return to my writer’s garret. Like the Ancient Mariner:

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.

Democratic Education in the 21st Century

A Call for Papers

Guest Editor: Bertram (Chip) Bruce

Editor of Schools: Studies in Education: Andy Kaplan

In an age of climate disasters, extreme income inequality, conspiracy theories, anti-democratic movements, segregated schooling, pandemic, and more, the need for democratic education has never been greater, but it may also seem less viable than ever. Classics such as John Dewey’s Democracy and Education are still relevant but invite us to re-invent education for today.

Schools: Studies in Education, published by the University of Chicago Press, plans to host a symposium on this topic to celebrate Schools’ twentieth anniversary of publication. The mission of Schools is to present inquiry into the subjective experience of school life. Unique among academic journals of education, Schools features articles by and about the daily life of classrooms, descriptions and reflections on the meaning of what happens when learning actually occurs. 

To celebrate our twentieth year of publication, we propose a symposium on how to think about democratic education in today’s world, and how we should plan for the future. How should issues such as indigenous people’s rights, racism, women’s rights, authoritarian governments, the concentration of wealth, and more make us analyze, discuss, and work to create democratic education?

We highly encourage submissions from classroom educators at all levels, from educators outside the United States, and from educators associated with alternative schools or informal learning.

Interested authors should submit a one-page prospectus describing what their project entails. This is to determine appropriateness and balance for the special issue. Completed manuscripts will undergo the usual Schools: Studies in Education review process before final acceptance. There is a possibility of a follow-on book publication based on revised versions of the articles, once the symposium has been published in Schools. 

Articles should be a maximum of 8000 words (25 double-spaced pages). We anticipate a mix of empirical and theoretical contributions.

Send a one-page prospectus describing your proposed article for the symposium to chipbruce@mac.com by November 15, 2021.

First draft: July 15, 2022

Final draft: December 15, 2022

Manuscript preparation: Please follow the Schools style guide.

Why cancer makes me happy

OK, quick disclaimer: Cancer only makes me happy in some ways at some times, but that’s a better score than from many other activities I know about. At other times cancer/chemo varies from unpleasant to horrible. Along that line, it has at least given me a better, embodied understanding of what other people with cancer and chemo go through.

But let me say what those “some ways at some times” actually are. How could they emerge through the fog of fear, pain, loneliness, uncertainty, and the literal mental fog of cancer/chemo, not to mention little things like nausea, constipation, loss of hair, appetite, sleep, swimming, and social life?

Look to this day

Well, one huge happiness making of all this is that it puts the rest of life in a good perspective. The great Sanskrit dramatist Kalidasa wrote that we should

Look to this day for it is life
the very life of life.

In its brief course lie all
the realities and truths of existence the joy of growth
the splendor of action
the glory of power.

For yesterday is but a memory And tomorrow is only a vision. But today well lived
makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day….

I memorized that poem long ago, and tried at times to live its precepts. But it took cancer to teach me what it really means. All of those minor annoyances and anxieties that used to clutter my days now dissolve into the mist.

It’s like the drama on a Netflix show: While I’m watching it can seem incredibly important, but the pause button puts it in its place.

Connection

Another thing I’ve long known, but not absorbed (too many examples of this to count) is the importance of connection to family, friends, acquaintances, even strangers. John Donne’s Meditations contains another passage which I memorized, but failed to understand fully:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The cancer has caused me to reconnect with old friends and family. I’ve learned about weddings, births, and deaths, new jobs and houses. Let me be clear: I could have reconnected with any of those people anytime. But I didn’t.

It took cancer/chemo to wake me up to one of life’s simple truths. So much for reading many books and getting a PhD!

Courage

I never thought of myself as timid. Awkward yes, and fumbling, but often more fool hardy than frightened. (There was that time when my partner and I canoed over a dam backwards. She sensibly thought we should turn back and I wanted to push ahead. That led us to turn sideways, then go in full reverse. But that’s another story.)

Cancer/chemo has taken away needless fears. I have a relaxed attitude about many things now and a willingness to take risks that I didn’t have before. But it’s not in an aggressive way. I’d actually be less likely to want to go over a dam backwards, but I’d be less fretful about it if I thought it were necessary.

Learning

It’s almost embarrassing to says this, but cancer/chemo is a great learning opportunity.

The experience certainly concentrates the attention and there is so much to learn about cancer, therapy, the body, chemicals, new technologies, the medical system, and more. Each new side effect, as unpleasant as it might be, also opens up doors to new ways of understanding the body and world I live in.

Priorities

Echoing Kalidasa, cancer/chemo has helped me prioritize what I do, in a way that makes happier.

I used to play piano to get ready for a lesson, or because I somehow thought I should. Now i do it because I love the music and love bringing my fingers into that. Like David Sudnow, I see that the “ways of the hand” are a miracle to savor.

Moreover, I make the time for piano that I want. I’ve stopped doing many things that once seemed necessary––they weren’t really.

Peace

A major concern for cancer is depression. The fear, the pain, the loneliness, are a recipe for getting depressed or anxious. But I’ve oddly been less so than I was pre-cancer.

I’m not in denial. That would be hard to do anyway. What I think is going on is that cancer/chemo has helped me do what I ought to have been doing all along. I’m focusing on things that matter and shoving aside the rest.

Patience

Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet says this well:

Patience is not sitting and waiting. It is foreseeing. It is looking at the thorn and seeing the rose, looking at the night and seeing the day. Lovers are patient and know that the moon needs time to become full.