Welcome to Love of Place. Most of my work celebrates our connection to the natural world.

Most recently, my Knocking on Heaven's Door is the winner in the category of science fiction in the 2016 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards and in the category of fiction in the 2016 Arizona Authors Association Awards. A number of reviewers have been enthusiastic, including the website Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom! But I am happy to embrace the complexity of my personality.

I'm also so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World has been awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, as well as the 2014 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West.

My historical fantasy Teresa of the New World won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association Award for best Children's Literature and was a finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award for Children's Literature, the WILLA Award for Children's Literature, and the May Sarton Award for Children's Literature.

These are nice landmarks in a writer's life. I would be writing regardless--but, still, whew. It's good to have some encouragement.

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com or through my author Facebook page, Sharman Apt Russell.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The great pantheist Roman Emporer...from Chapter Four of Standing in the Light...connecting this history to my own place.

Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire for almost twenty years in the second century A.D., a time that would later be called the Golden Age for its relative prosperity. Born into an aristocratic and wealthy Roman family, the boy lost his father when he was three years old. By the age of eleven, this unusually serious and dutiful child was already being groomed for high office. In 136 A.D., the childless Emperor Hadrian adopted Marcus’s maternal uncle as his heir, with the provision that the uncle adopt Marcus as his heir in turn. At this time, too, Marcus met Apollonius the Stoic, with whom he would eventually study and thank for having taught him to “pay attention to nothing, no matter how fleetingly, except the logos.”

According to a biography written many years later, Marcus was unhappy with his new role as the future Emperor. When asked why, the teenager spoke of the corruptible nature of power and burden of responsibility. He dreamed he had shoulders of ivory. How could they support such a weight? A bust of that time shows a beardless boy with firm chin, wide-apart eyes, a solemn expression, and abundant curly hair. He was said to have loved hunting, wrestling, and ball games. But he was also studious and a bit odd, in the habit of reading at the gladiatorial spectacles instead of watching them. He would never be physically strong. Even when young, he complained of chest and stomach pain. As an adult, he took opium, possibly for ulcers.
In 138 A.D., Emperor Hadrian died, the uncle became Emperor Pius, and Marcus (with another adopted younger brother) the heir-apparent. Marcus Aurelius later wrote of his debt to Pius and the lessons his new father taught him about compassion, hard work, and indifference to pomp. It was from Pius that Marcus learned not to be arrogant and to live simply at court, without bodyguards, expensive clothes, or ostentatious furniture—“the whole charade.”

The future Emperor seemed to be growing up in a surprisingly warm and affectionate household. Letters between Marcus Aurelius and his tutor Fronto are intimate and detailed, a lively, literary correspondence. In a typical note to Fronto, Marcus mentions his own mother and the wife of Fronto, Gratia, as well as Fronto’s baby daughter. The heir-apparent is now in his early twenties. He is self-conscious, self-deprecating, eager to please, and smug:

We are well. I slept somewhat late owing to my slight cold, which seems now to have subsided. So from five a.m. till nine I spent the time partly in reading some of Cato’s Agriculture and partly in writing not quite such wretched stuff, by heavens, as yesterday…Then we went to luncheon. What do you think I ate? A little bit of bread, although I saw others devouring beans, onions, and herrings full of roe. We then worked hard at grape-gathering and had a good sweat and were merry and, as the poet says, still left some clusters hanging high as gleanings of the vintage. After six o’clock we came home. I did but little work and that to no purpose. Then I had a long chat with my little mother as she sat on the bed. My talk was this. What do you think my Fronto is now doing? Then she: And what do you think my Gratia is doing? Then I: And what do you think our little sparrow, the wee Gratia, is doing? While we were chattering in this way and disputing which of us two loved the one or other of you two the better, the gong sounded….After coming back here, before I turn over and snore, I get my task done and give my dearest of masters an account of the day’s doings, and if I could miss him more, I would not grudge wasting away a little more. Farewell, my Fronto, wherever you are, most honey-sweet, my love, my delight. How is it between you and me? I love you and you are away.

Such tender exchanges would continue until Fronto’s death twenty-six years later. In almost every aspect of life, Marcus Aurelius seemed to be a man in touch with his feelings--a devoted son to his mother, grateful to his adopted father, an excessively loving and demonstrative friend. At twenty-four, he married and his wife immediately started bearing children, one after another, and on occasion two at a time. In further letters to Fronto, Marcus fussed over them. Concerning his first child, a daughter, “Thank the Gods we seem to have some hope of recovery. The diarrhea is stopped, the feverish attacks got rid of; but the emaciation is extreme and there is still some cough.” Within two years, he had twin sons, who died as infants, and then another daughter, “We are still experiencing summer heat. But since our little girls—we mustn’t boast—are quite well, we think that we are enjoying the healthiest of weather and the balmy temperature of spring.” Too soon the oldest girl would also be dead, and another newborn son. It is easy to imagine the anxious father, listening for a cough, delighting in a laugh, tickling his youngest child, exulting and then weeping.

Yet at some point, despite his emotional nature, Marcus Aurelius became a Stoic. Rome had conquered Greece centuries earlier, adopting much of its culture, including its schools of philosophy. In an ecumenical age, Stoicism was one belief among many. Foreign gods filled the marketplace, even as everyone worshipped the Roman gods--as much to demonstrate their alliance with the state as anything else. Some scholars like the tutor Fronto scorned all religion and philosophy as inferior to literary study. Powerful and well-educated, Marcus Aurelius had a choice, and he chose—like many of the Roman elite—a Stoic pantheism that emphasized virtue combined with duty and service.

As an amateur philosopher, Marcus Aurelius did not pursue much original thought but repeated those of earlier Stoics, as well as men like Democritus, Epicurus, and Heraclitus. His pantheism could be expressed in a single sentence: “Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy.” The universe was a unified body, what some Stoics saw as a living organism. All its parts formed a whole; all its parts were divine. Nature was guided by the rational principle, the logos. Our job was to live in harmony with nature, which our inner virtue or logos naturally reflected. Inner virtue was all that mattered. Unruly emotions were to be avoided, although Marcus Aurelius made a nice distinction when he asked “to be free of passion, but not love.” At the same time, our interconnectedness meant that “In a sense, people are our proper occupation.”

In some areas, the Emperor was agnostic. Did the gods exist, too? What happened after death? He didn’t know, and stoically, tried not to worry about it.

He had a lot of other things to worry about. The reputation of Marcus Aurelius as a philosopher-king, a poster-boy for Stoicism--accepting his fate, grateful for his existence--is enhanced by the fact that his fate included so many problems, so many occasions to put philosophy into practice. At age thirty-nine, he became ruler of a kingdom whose borders were dangerously extended to include Britain in the west, Germany in the north, Syria in the east, and North Africa in the south. Both the previous Emperors Hadrian and Pius had neglected their military responsibilities and though the center of Rome held, its edges were crumbling. In 161 A.D, the Parthians invaded in the east and Roman legions had to be sent from as far away as the Danube, weakening the empire’s defense against the Germanic tribes. That same year, in the city of Rome, the River Tiber flooded, setting off a wide-spread famine. It would take five years to subdue the Parthians, and when the troops returned home, they brought with them plague, probably smallpox. At this point, the northern borders erupted, with heavy fighting on the Hungarian Plain. More barbarians attacked the Balkans. The Grecian provinces of Thrace and Macedonia were invaded, with the city of Athens spared only by luck. Finally the enemy entered Italy herself, something that had not happened for hundreds of years. A contemporary account notes, “Among the barbarian dead were found even the bodies of women wearing armor.” This was telling. The barbarians did not want plunder so much as a new home.

Meanwhile in his personal life, the children of Marcus Aurelius kept dying--a four-year-old son, a seven-year-old son, another infant, so that he seemed to illumine the Stoic caution that as you kissed your child at night, you should say in your heart, “Tomorrow, perhaps, you will be taken from me.” Altogether, only five of the Emperor’s fourteen children would survive. His adopted brother and co-ruler also died. His wife was rumored to be unfaithful (when did she find the time?) with a fondness for ballet-dancers and gladiators. His health was bad. Often, he had trouble sleeping and eating.

Yet he could not rest. From 169 to 176 A.D., the Emperor was mostly in the battlefield commanding his troops, fighting the barbarians, defending his borders, and making the administrative decisions of an empire. During this time, he began to write Meditations, a book of spiritual reflection that still sells in bookstores today.

I read Marcus Aurelius on Sacaton Mesa, a twenty minute walk from my little yellow house. A dirt road climbs to the top of this plateau and stretches for twelve miles, with a 360 degree view. Once an ancient lake bed, Sacaton Mesa now defines and overlooks the Gila Valley. Directly north are the red striated cliffs and peaks of the Mogollon Mountains, solid, commanding, irregular, with gray rock formations that erupt like giant’s teeth from the lower slopes of juniper and yellow grass. To the east, Bear Mountain and Telephone Mountain stand like sentinels above the Gila River. The rumpled Black Hills run south. Low massive shapes like sleeping animals lie further west.

The mesa itself is desert, a rolling plain covered with prickly-pear and snakeweed, a small bush which typically replaces blue grama grass and dominates ranges overgrazed by cows. Last fall, after the summer rains, the leaves of the snakeweed were a luminous lime-green, a brilliant chartreuse sea lapping at the base of the Mogollon Mountains. Now, in winter, they are olive-green, slowly turning brown. Yucca stalks punctuate the landscape like exclamation points, rising six-feet high from a spiky rosette of leaves.

Ever since I was a child, I have cultivated the ability to walk and read at the same time. It is a simple matter of peripheral vision and the confidence that this is the right thing to do. I walk and read now on Sacaton Mesa’s long dirt road, passed rarely by a rancher’s truck. When I hear the sound of an engine, I put down my reading to save both the rancher and myself the embarrassment of thinking me dangerously eccentric. Every few pages I look up to an enormous space filled with sky, mountains, and desert. This is perfection. I have a good book, and I have a good view.

Meditations is divided into twelve sections, some only a few pages long, with many of the entries a paragraph or single sentence. They are the thoughts of a man who could snatch only minutes between ruling on a judicial case, meeting with diplomats, or attacking the enemy. These things called for public decisiveness. The ruminative Meditations was an antidote to that, supremely private, at times uncertain, melancholic, pessimistic, then rallying. They expressed a vaguely hopeful pantheistic creed: “One world, made up of all things. One divinity, present in them all. One substance and one law—the logos that all rational beings share.” They were also exhortations to the rational self. Be more rational. Work harder. Don’t show-off. Focus on what is important. Be grateful for what you have. Fight for equanimity. Fight your flaws. Stop being afraid of death. Stop being afraid of pain. Stop being afraid of sorrow. Stop whining.

The tone is familiar. Reading Marcus Aurelius is like reading the diary of an earnest seventeen-year-old bent on self-improvement. It is so hard to be good--so hard to be a Stoic! The Emperor scolded himself incessantly, “Yes, keep on degrading yourself, soul. But soon your chance at dignity will be gone. Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up.”
By now, Marcus Aurelius was in his early fifties, perhaps my age exactly. I also find myself thinking and feeling like a seventeen-year-old, a spiral return to the anxieties of adolescence. No doubt, hormones are involved, a chemical rearrangement both for the teenager and the man or woman nearing menopause. What is this new life ahead of me—old age rather than adulthood—and what does it mean that I am here now surrounded by existence and the beauty of snakeweed and yucca? What does it mean that we all must die and we all must suffer? Nothing I have learned has prepared me for this, and in any case I keep forgetting. What is the point again?

Everyone gets one life. That’s a chilling thought, even more chilling when you have already lived over half yours. Soon my chance at dignity will be gone. It is not simply that I have not accomplished all I wanted to accomplish. It is that I still want to accomplish these things. I want fame and fortune. I want to write a New York Times Notable Book and then be on their best-seller list. I want more friends--invitations to parties, fun times I want to be popular. I want to be admired. I know these things have nothing to do with my inner virtue. They won’t really make me happy. Like Marcus Aurelius, I know how I degrade myself.

Like Marcus Aurelius, I have deeper disappointments. My generation came out of the 1960s, protesting the Vietnam War, promoting civil rights and the rights of women. We would end racism and poverty in America. We would end world hunger. We would make the world a better place, and I would be a part of that.

This didn’t happen.

Like Marcus Aurelius, what I really want is to be wise and serene. Stop whining. Stop being distracted. Accept what I have. Accept who I am.

I read a few more pages of Meditations and look up at the view of mountains and sky, immeasurably pleased. The Roman Emperor has written, “Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as the capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us.” Yes, exactly. This has always been my favorite approach to a problem. How can I analyze myself into wisdom? How can I reach serenity through logic?

Like all Stoics, Marcus Aurelius admired logic and reason as reflections of the larger logos of a rational universe. He believed the most logical and reasonable thing he could do as a Stoic was not to desire what he could not control. The list of things he could not control was long and included his body, other people, his reputation, and his property. What he did control was his inner virtue which could also be described as his will to be in harmony with nature. When he welcomed with affection whatever happened to him in life, he acknowledged a beneficent universe and understood his role in that universe. The fact that this role was fated seemed to negate free will--yet desiring only the logos could be seen as an act of free will, as well as a kind of freedom from pettiness, ambition, lust, and greed.

Reason could be used to examine every troublesome event that arose in daily life. The Emperor agreed with Epicurus that impressions of the world came through the senses and were generally accurate. But emotions could also distort that information with a false value judgment. I might perceive something as bad: an insult, a theft, a death. A closer look using the intellectual power of logos would allow me to analyze the situation with more dispassion.

“What is it,” Marcus Aurelius asked himself rhetorically, “this thing that now forces itself on my notice? What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last? And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it—tranquility, courage, honesty, trustworthiness, straightforwardness, independence or what?” Was this thing from God or fate? Was it a coincidence? Was it chance? Was it due to the ignorance of another human being? If so, treat that person as nature required—with compassion and justice.

Reason required a cold clear perspective. Marcus Aurelius had to keep reminding himself, just as I do: you are not the center of the universe. This event is not really about you. You have to stay focused. The nature of the world is flux and change. Why would you expect anything else?

Reason often led a Stoic to take action, for that was also the nature of the world. Being human meant participating in human affairs, not withdrawing from them. We were social animals, fundamentally cooperative and unselfish. Sometimes, true, a Stoic had to kill or hurt people in self-defense or for some larger good. Certainly the Roman armies led by Marcus Aurelius caused considerable suffering as the Emperor did what he felt he had to do to protect his empire. Yet in Meditations he warned repeatedly against showing anger or unmanly rage. It was “courtesy and kindness” that defined his real self. He was here to serve others.

Marcus Aurelius would repeat these ideas over and over in his notes from the battlefield. They were difficult ideas to absorb. They seemed to get stuck somewhere. Being a wordy animal as well as a rational one, the Emperor thought: perhaps if I say it differently? If I use a metaphor? If I use a different metaphor? If I say it tomorrow, and the day after? Meditations is a repetitive book, a technique of writing that reinforced and rekindled, variations on a theme: how to be better.

Marcus Aurelius, Marcus Aurelius. On Sacaton Mesa, I clutch your work to my chest like a seventeen-year-old girl. You examine yourself ruthlessly and chase your own tail. You think you can be perfect but know you can’t. You celebrate the beauty in nature, the ripeness of figs and bending stalks of wheat; yet you are often bleak beyond despair. You want to serve others but you don’t really like people. Sometimes, you have a wit that makes me laugh out loud. “The best revenge is not to be like that.” More often, you sadden yourself. You are saddened by the world.
I understand your contradictions. And the connection is exhilarating. How is it that we that we can be so alike? How can someone like you--ruler of Rome, the most powerful human being in your time--be anything like me, a middle-aged woman, ruler of nothing? How can I possibly feel a kinship across this expanse of time, gender, culture, and status?
Some of this, I know, has to do with language. I happen to be reading an excellent translation by Gregory Hays, a man not afraid to extract from the original Greek colloquialisms like “from the bottom of my heart” and “Don’t gussy up your thoughts.”

But mostly, Marcus Aurelius, I think I can see you so clearly because you have stripped yourself so bare. You choose to talk only of the essentials. You don’t gussy up your thoughts. From reading Meditations, I would not know that you command hundreds of thousands of soldiers or that you lost miserably your first encounter with the barbarians or that the war keeps dragging on and on with too many small but exhausting battles. I would not know that in the year 172 A.D. you were said to have magically summoned a thunderbolt to destroy an enemy’s siege weapon, an event commemorated on the Aurelian column in the Piazza Colonna at Rome. I would not know that your own people slander and mock your wife, that your son and heir Commodus troubles you deeply, that your old friend, the Roman governor of Syria, plots rebellion and has just proclaimed himself the true Emperor of Rome. In response, you have the right and the power to kill his entire family--sister, parents, wife, and child. Of course, you do not.

You are not interested in talking about your personal troubles or your power, even though they are the background to every page. I watch CSI. You stand with the physician Galen and watch the autopsies of your soldiers. You accept the heads of prisoners (also recorded on the Aurelian column) with that same world-weary expression. Writing your spiritual reflections, you can’t help but use the images of gangrene, suppuration, and abscess. A severed hand is what we do to ourselves when we separate from nature by rebelling against fate. Lancets should be kept close by. The word gore comes up often. From you, the Pollyanna chirp of Stoicism—ain’t life grand!—is free of ignorance or hypocrisy. You have seen too much gore to be naive.

This February, as winter slides into a period of cold grey days, I take you with me everywhere. In Silver City, during the middle of the week when Peter and I are not in the Gila Valley, I read you as I walk to the local cemetery. I can start at my house and in fifteen minutes be at the edge of town. To my left, the mostly Protestant graves seem dull in shades of brown and gray. To my right, the Catholic cemetery is alive and shocking with bright color—red and orange plastic flowers, American flags, blue statues of the Virgin. Instead of cement, one grave has green astro turf and lawn ornaments. A bunny, a squirrel, a pink flamingo. Over another patch of dirt sits a bed frame. Rest in peace. On the graves of children, some families put toys under a small tree decorated for Christmas. This month I see Valentine presents, banners spelling MOM, and balloons with hearts. Once I found a letter blowing in the wind: dear grandma, I miss you very, very much….

This all seems natural to me. I was also a child in a cemetery and spent Sunday afternoons sitting on my father’s grave, watching my Methodist grandmother put white chrysanthemums in a Folgers’s can covered with tin foil. The cut-flowers were from her Kansas garden where they were grown as a useful crop for graves, weddings, anniversaries, hospital visits, and church. It is obvious to me now that my grandmother was a Stoic--practical, hard-working, distrustful of emotion. She accepted her son’s death in a way my mother never did. She accepted her life as a good one despite its hardships. She knew her place in the world, a farmer’s wife, with all the narrow prejudices of the Midwest. At the same time, she was part of something larger and beneficent.

It is also natural to read Marcus Aurelius surrounded by the dead, for death was often on his mind. He believed his own would come sooner rather than later, a reflection of his poor health. He worried about what people would think of his imperial legacy, and he devised spiritual exercises to put things in perspective. Remember the ancient courts and rulers--all gone, ashes and dust. Remember that Alexander the Great and his mule-driver both died and the same thing happened to them both, dissolved into the life force or dissolved into atoms. We are all One and we all go back to the One. (More than once, the Emperor contemplated suicide but rejected it as unnecessary.)

In 175 A.D., after seven years in the north fighting the barbarians, the Emperor decided to go home to Rome. First he visited the East, where the Syrian governor had threatened rebellion, to confirm his rule over these territories. His wife and son accompanied him. Enroute, the forty-five-year-old Empress died, possibly in her fifteenth pregnancy. Back in Rome, Marcus Aurelius mourned his wife’s death and prepared a celebration of his return. In a scene of paternal devotion, he did not ride in the triumphal chariot but ran beside it while his teenage son controlled the horses. Soon after, Commodus was elevated to co-ruler, the succession assured. In 178 A.D., father and son went north again to conquer more land for the empire. In the spring of 180, Marcus Aurelius fell ill at the age of fifty-nine and died.

I grieve. He was so young. I am in love with this man. If I could travel back in time, I would go to his tent on the River Danube near present-day Vienna and try to cheer him up. I would tell him he mustn’t be so hard on himself. Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy. I would stroke his cheek, pat his brow. Somehow I think my husband Peter would understand.

(To be continued...)

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