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

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 Awards.

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 15, 2009

Marcus Aurelius, Sacaton Mesa, the meaning of evil, the night sky...

For the first half of this chapter, see the previous post.

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 Peter would understand.
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No one is perfect. Despite his virtues, Marcus Aurelius reflected the prejudices of a brutal age. The life expectancy of a Roman citizen was about twenty-five years, with most people dying of poor nutrition, disease, or violence. Slaves were abused as a matter of course and required a professional—the tortur—to punish them when the master got tired. Unwanted infants, especially girls, were commonly exposed at the local garbage dump. In some areas, the Emperor tried to help, strengthening the rights of orphan children. But he could only do so much, and he only did so much. If we define evil as the extreme and needless suffering that human beings inflict on each other (and on other living creatures) then Marcus Aurelius tolerated a great deal of evil.


He also unleashed evil on the world. For surely he must have known that his son Commodus was unstable and should never be named heir to an empire that included one-fifth of the world’s population. Perhaps the Emperor was blinded by fatherly love, or perhaps he felt he had no choice. In any case, the results were disastrous. Commodus was a cruel and neglectful ruler who became obsessed with killing people and animals in the gladiatorial arena. Within two years of his reign, the eldest daughter of Marcus Aurelius would try to assassinate her twenty-one-year-old brother, a crime for which she was executed. This was the little girl--running about the room in high spirits and good health--of whom the fond father had written to Fronto. This was the new family scene, murderous and vengeful.


By 192 A.D. Commodus was referring to himself as a god, Hercules Romanus. In one public performance, he dressed a group of crippled men in snake costumes and beat them to death with a club. By now he had already ordered the massacre of numerous Roman officials and their families, and no one knew who would be next. At another spectacle in which a hundred leopards and lions were slaughtered over the course of fourteen days, the senator Cassius Dio recorded how Commodus approached him carrying the head of an ostrich and a bloody sword. The Emperor said nothing but grinned meaningfully. Dio believed that “Many of us would have been killed on the spot for laughing at him—for it was laughter rather than fear that took hold of us—if I had not chewed some laurel leaves that I took from my garland and persuaded those sitting next to me to do likewise.” Moving their jaws steadily, the men concealed their nervous amusement.


Commodus died after he drank poisoned wine--and after an assassin was sent in to strangle him. The next Emperor lasted three months, followed by four years of civil war, more civil unrest, more assassinations, and a collapse of central authority as the military tried to seize control. Between 235-284 A.D., twenty Emperors rose and fell, with another thirty pretenders. Taxes increased. Commerce declined. The poor suffered the most. In the end, the Golden Age of Marcus Aurelius would be admired partly or mainly in contrast to what came next.


One group who had never much appreciated the Stoic Emperor were the Christians. Early in his rule, Marcus Aurelius issued a decree allowing officials to use criminals condemned to death as part of the gladiatorial spectacle. At this time, to declare oneself a Christian--to refuse to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods and obedience to the Roman state--was a capital offense. In an infamous case, when bodies were needed for a public entertainment, officials duly rounded up some Christians, offered them the chance to recant their faith, were conveniently refused, tried, and condemned them. Animals tore apart the old men and boys. The woman Blandina hung on a stake the entire day.


Christianity thrived on such martyrdom. And Christianity offered an eternal life of comfort and bliss that nothing else—certainly not Stoicism—could compete with. For those Romans born to die early of disease or violence; born a slave flogged by the tortur, born a woman married at the age of twelve, born a laborer half-dead from work and little food, Christianity provided an intimate relationship with a loving Father, a community of fellow Christians on earth, and a Heaven and Hell afterward. In that Heaven and Hell, all wrongs would be righted--the tortur punished and the slave freed. Divine justice would prevail, and that justice would not be abstract or impersonal.


By 313 A.D., Emperor Constantine was legalizing Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. An estimated tenth of the population had already converted. Sixty-four years later, Christianity became the official religion, and suddenly the world was full of an evil newly defined and newly dangerous. It existed in people who did not believe what the Church believed. It existed supernaturally in Satan, the fallen angel who had rebelled against God.


For the first Christians, evil must have been puzzling. Why would an all-powerful and omnipresent God allow evil in the world? The early clergy were intellectuals who had no problem turning to Greek philosophy for help. Some of their answers could be found in a revision of Stoicism. What a man might perceive as bad or evil might really be God’s will, and thus a hidden good. Also, bad things didn’t really matter; what mattered was our response to them, our inner virtue—for which, as a Christian, we would be later rewarded. Importantly, the temptation of evil allowed us free will. We were responsible for our actions even in a universe ruled by God. Eventually, the Christian St Augustine would argue that evil was not really included in the Creation but experienced only when a man separated himself from God. Similarly, the Stoics had believed that evil occurred when we failed to follow the logos within us; evil was omission rather than an active presence.


Christianity could borrow so much from Stoicism because the two religions already had so much in common. Both believed in a divine Providence interested in humanity and requiring certain moral behavior. The Stoic version of Providence was an impersonal, pervasive intelligence that was matter interpenetrated with pneuma. The Christian version was a loving, personal, transcendent Creator who existed outside matter. In both viewpoints, man was made in God’s image; the logos in us reflected the logos of the universe. Thus all men were brothers or, as Marcus Aurelius would have it, citizens in a great city.


Rather, for Christians, all men who believed in Christ were brothers, and there was actually a lot more to it than that. The devil was in the details. The Church in Rome had very specific ideas about what Christians or anyone else should believe, and they enforced their religious view as the only one possible. After a fairly decent run, from the sixth century B.C.E. to the fourth century A.D, pantheism in the West was about to disappear, or virtually so, for some twelve hundred years.
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Because I do not like being cold and am already sleepy by ten o’clock, I have to force myself outside at night. I take blankets. I whine. Then I am on a lawn chair in the Gila Valley looking up at a blaze of stars, the entire sky filled with glittering points of light, nothing here but darkness and light, stars and me.


At first, the Milky Way looks like a long thin cloud. But this milky whiteness is really an extra-density of stars, that cloudiness the edge of an arm in the spiraled disk which is our galaxy. I know that our sun and earth formed in one of these arms and that I am now looking across space at another arm, both of us far from the galaxy’s center which is a turbulent maelstrom with a massive black hole. What I know about the night sky is actually more confusing than helpful. The heart reels. The head spins. The tiny part of the universe I can see is so big and chaotic that I immediately seek order. In so much beauty, I have to admire something small.


My favorite constellation is the Big Dipper because it is easy to find. But in February that would be behind me, on the north side of the house. Too cold to move the lawn chair, I look instead for the belt of Orion or the Pleiades, a star cluster named for the seven daughters of Atlas who was condemned by Zeus to hold up the heavens on his broad shoulders.
Oh, the beauty of stars! I exclaim.


But my thoughts wander to the problem of evil. Like the Stoics, I do not believe in evil as a supernatural force outside nature. I do not believe that any part of nature is evil. I could even say that I do not believe evil exists in a divine universe.
Yet I have no problem using the word evil to describe the pain that humans deliberately and gratuitously cause each other. Let’s take a worst-case scenario. Your child is tortured and killed just like on all those television shows, and all those movies and best-selling thrillers. Someone’s child is tortured and dies screaming.


At this point, any belief I have in serenity or reason is long gone. At the extreme edge of human suffering, Stoicism breaks down. For surely it would be inhuman now to be stoical in your response—to say that this was unimportant or a false value judgment. In some profound way, that would not be virtuous but a betrayal of who we are.


I hope to never personally see the face of evil. If I do, I will not—I am certain—behave like a Stoic. I will not accept my fate with cheerful affection or remotely want to. Instead I expect to wail and protest, curl up and die, or buy a gun. Maybe I will abandon all my pantheistic beliefs and become a Christian just so I can have some divine justice—so someone will go to Hell and someone be saved in Heaven. I expect to behave shamelessly. Regarding evil, shamelessness might be the most reasonable response.


For the moment, I do not believe in the Christian Heaven. I cannot imagine an afterlife designed for just a few people. I cannot imagine where this place would be or what we would do there. Nor do I believe in the Stoic’s intelligent and benign Providence. Looking up at the Milky Way, I do not think the stars care for me or my husband or son or daughter, for any of my family and friends. I do not think humans are at the center of fate or even fated.


Still, we are here. I am here. Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy. Surprisingly, still, that makes sense.


I imagine the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius awake and restless, also leaving his tent on the battlefield and going out to look at the night sky, more brilliant and beautiful in the darker unpolluted world of two thousand years ago. I know he thought about the vastness of space and described Europe and Asia as distant recesses, miniscule and insignificant. He thought of time as a turbulent river. The present was a fleeting split-second. Yet he also believed that the present was all we had--and all we needed: “If you’ve seen the present then you’ve seen everything—as it’s been since the beginning, as it will be forever. The same substance, the same form. All of it.”


It is another good spiritual exercise, looking up at the stars. But there are limits to how much vastness a human being can stand. Perhaps the Emperor thought next about his wife. Or the war. Or the governor of Syria. Then he went back inside his tent and took his regular dose of opium, desperate for a good night’s sleep.


Above me, the same stars glitter and one begins to move. Most likely, it is an airplane, a group of people sitting obediently in their seats as they travel through the air in a large heavy object. Perhaps it is something even stranger than that. Aliens. Gods. An interstellar event.


Sometimes you just have to shake your head. You have to stop analyzing. How can the part know the sum? Sometimes you have to let the questions go. Let go of evil. Let go of fear. Let go even of self-improvement. Be kind. Be grateful. Stretch your legs under the warm blanket. For this moment, my family is safe, the night is peaceful, and I am staring up at the Milky Way, another arm of our spiraled galaxy. The present contains everything, all I have, all I need.

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