It’s book club day at From Left To Write, and I’ve been scrambling to get far enough into this book, J, to write something informed about it (full disclosure, I haven’t finished reading it, but it’s definitely grabbed my attention!).

And, as I read, I find that my reading is being informed by podcasts that I’m catching up on listening to, and also by the current events of the day – most notably, the dreadful murders in a synagogue in Jerusalem. Achh! How can such tragic events happen? And, another American has been beheaded by ISIS… It seems like history is spiraling out of control.

And, we’ve been here before.  So many times.

I got such a vivid reminder of that as I listened to the November 6 episode of the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett, interviewing Joanna Macy – eco-philosopher – scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology.  This interview was first broadcast in 2010, and I don’t recall whether I listened to the unedited interview at that time, or only the produced program.  This time, I listened to the unedited interview, and what a lovely and complex conversation it was!  Dr. Macy speaks of our current historical state as being a decision point where we can either move into a Great Unraveling, or a Great Turning – and we have no idea which outcome it will be.  I’m mindful of the many times in history that humankind (or a subset of humanity) has predicted the end of everything, and yet, we survive – we’re still here.

I think that things must have felt this way, at least for the West, in the 1930’s, as WWII was winding up.  And, I remember it feeling this way in the decades of my childhood and adolescence, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when many of us feared that a nuclear holocaust was imminent.

And, then the 80’s, and the 90’s, seemed to lull many of us into a sense of “everything’s OK”.  The wall had come down separating Berlin into East and West, and with it, the Soviet Union was a memory of the past.  It was interesting to listen to Joanna Macy, who worked for the CIA in Germany, as was Krista Tippett, and both experienced on a personal level, the before and after of the end of the Eastern Bloc.

Listening to this interview, I am reminded that I want to dive into the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (preferably in the original German, but I may have to suffice with the translations of Joanna Macy, vouched for by Ms. Tippett!).  Here’s one that caught my imagination, in the context of this book which addresses the post-apocalyptic Utopia (or maybe dys-Utopia).

“Onto a Vast Plain” by Rainer Maria Rilke

translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows

You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit:
now it becomes a riddle again
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you know
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

Book of Hours, II 1

J-Howard-Jacobson-Book-Club-Banner-FL2W1This post was inspired by the novel J by Howard Jacobson, about a world where collective memory has vanished and the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited. Join From Left to Write on November 20th as we discuss J. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.