Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ghosts of Empire

Walking to the bus stop this morning, I noticed the effort people put forth in cities to contain the growing environment. The streets, sidewalks, alleys, trees circled by grates and other holding devices - all of this to keep things in place which won't stay do so. "When it was completed, fresh weeds appear. Now it's been lived in covered by weeds." Anyone ever heard these lines before? This is like all our building efforts; projects that are destined to decay and be covered over.

Over a hundred and fifty years ago, American artist Thomas Cole painted a series of paintings charting the rise and fall of Empire. I remember first discovering them during a traveling show of 19th century American landscapes several years ago, and being in awe of the grandness of the images. Now, though, they feel like ghosts taunting us "modern Americans," living as we do in a crumbling empire.

I remember grade school discussions of what the world might look like after nuclear war. What would last? Rats. Cockroaches. Twisted up trees perhaps. It's hard to have a real sense of what nuclear bombs can do when you are nine years old, but you're mind is open to possibilities in a way adult minds' rarely are. So, things get strange, very strange. Elephants with rat heads flying through black smoke.

Today, I suppose children are more worried about terrorists destroying their homes than a nuclear war, although the latter is still a lingering possibility. There is an endless array of future specters to haunt us when those of the past don't spook us enough. I've heard people use various Buddhist terms to describe this day and age, but more and more, the Hungry Ghost Realm seems most appropriate.

"Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?" I would. My guess is you would too. Stripping the garden of weeds so others are impressed. Withholding something that needs to be said another in order to avoid discomfort. Researching every last detail of a political issue so I can be right no matter what someone else says. Standing up against injustice by putting those who are injust down. I see all of this as "arranging seats" to entice others to "my side" of life. And this is the mode we're taking too often collectively as well, attached so deeply to what we think this life must be, now and in the future.

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