What Time Is It on the Clock of the World?: Facing Apocalypse with Eloquence

By Jim Perkinson, a sermon for Detroit Unitarian Universalist Church (9-26-21)

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What Time Is It on the Clock of the World?: You Fill In the Blank—What Time Is

It For You!

This title question was a favorite litmus test query any time someone met with the late great Eastside Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs over the last ten years of her extraordinary life.  In vernacular counterpoint to Boggs’ more philosophical probe, garbage-art impresario Tyree Guyton of Heidelberg Project fame—also on the Eastside—festoons many of the trees of his bright throbbing block with clocks whose hands salute the hours every which way.  Each asks outside the politesse of our typical interactions, what hour do you think it is—really?  

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is maintaining its symbolic Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight.  Greta Thunberg insists the house is on fire and there don’t seem to be any adults in the building.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shrieks in charts and data, “Code Red! Code Red!”  And all of these signs beg a simple suspicion: from whose point of view do we count? Whose world is it, anyway?  Most of us think it is our world, the auspicious stage on which human beings clearly strut as creatures extraordinaire, without peer.  And there lies all manner of conundrum and hokum.  But I will go slow.  For the question is really a question of tempo and rhythm, of time outside the clock and the watch.

A sermon is typically a time-bound ritual induction, for those of us who practice at least a modicum of Sabbath-Day slow-down, seeking some measure of haven from our everyday pace and preoccupation.  We gather and listen, once a week.  So, since the last such de-celeration, two dates of note have shown their face on my own calendar of things important: my own mother’s birthdate on the 19th and the planet’s rhythmic declaration of the seasonal shift known as the Autumnal Equinox, the Great, Fall, Equal-Night equivocation of Earth’s relation to the Sun.  The one would appear to be linear, the other cyclical.  But such a differentiation may be merely symptomatic of our modern conceit that history and evolution alike move in a one-way vector privileging progress and greater complexity.  A large part of my own fulminations here will be an attempt to call this into question. 

But first two stories from the Perkinson family line, focused on mother-memories.  My own Womb-Ancestor died on March 19, 2019, at the august age of 105 and ½ years old, lying supine and reduced, in hospice care at the Cincinnati, Ohio, retirement village where she and my dad first settled in, when they were in their late 70s.  She had fallen in her Assisted Living unit on site, two years earlier, broken two ribs, and nearly been drugged into oblivion, once she was released from the hospital back to the Skilled Nursing Care facility in the village, until my wife and I intervened on a quick visit, and convinced the attending staff to lighten the pharmaceutical load.   I had been committed to calling her every few days, for a number of years, but now upped that to nearly once a day, even if only for a few minutes at a time.  Her universe narrowed considerably, to the traffic in and out of her room and the ever-changing tree leaves and play of light outside her window.  But within that narrowness—further constrained by her ever-declining hearing, in spite of the heavy-duty aids plugged into each ear—she remained “all there.”   

And she taught, by example.  What she taught—and teaches still in memory and wonder—is how to wither with style!  Or said another way—how to fly, while lying supine!  She submitted to each new stage of reduction in her later life—from loss of my father at age 80, to moving out of her own independent living cottage and into assisted living in her early 90s, to now a single room and bed, from which she could arise to shower only with help.  No matter.  Her equanimity remained. 

Part of my own interaction with her was to tease her mercilessly—often chiding her sardonically, “You’re just too lazy to get out of bed!”  Or “you just like to have people dote on you!”  She would instantly catch the tone and laugh.  Sometimes on the 2-3 times per year visits by my wife and I, I come would come into her room after just rising from sleep in the morning, or after ducking out for some lunch in the retirement village cafeteria, to find her “thrumming” with her hands up and down on her bed tray. 

What was she doing?  She had been gifted with a small stand-up keyboard by another resident a few months into her hospice care but had not been able to manage sitting in a chair to play.  So, she played in her imagination—day-in and day-out, creating her own cocoon of swelling and falling sound in her mind as her hands mimicked what she otherwise would have been doing on the keyboard.  She would not be deterred from making beauty, no matter how narrow the possibility!

Over the course of her life, she had not been a particularly public persona.  Unusual for her time, she had graduated from college with a commercial engineering degree, but apart from employment for the couple years while my dad was in the army overseas, had otherwise been a housewife, dutifully cooking, washing, running the house, taking care of my brother and me. 

But at midlife, when we became more independent, she had joined a painting class and for years afterwards produced her own body of oil canvases, never exhibited in a show, but given as gifts to friends and family and finally the retirement center itself.  I had grown up in our family, wishing she could have shown more spunk towards my father’s mercurial Irish temperament, telling him where to go when he got too blustery, and tended to think of her as somewhat ‘shrunken” in the face of his fierceness.  But I was wrong.  She just manifested her own self-worth and resolve in a subtler key.   

One other story and then to the bigger point. 

When first we went camping as a family when I was seven, Mom and Dad sat my brother and me down and very soberly gave us the protocols for what to do if we encountered any dangerous wildlife at the campsite.  At first appearance of such, we were immediately to halt whatever we were doing, proceed quickly but without running, to the car, take our respective seats (my brother and me in the back), be sure the windows were up and sit quietly. 

And it just so happened then—on our first morning in Yellowstone National Park on an early June day, as we were sitting down to hot chocolate, eggs and toast whose smells and tastes were all the more tantalizing against the backdrop of pristine mountain air—that a medium-sized brown bear suddenly appeared about 40 yards away out of the bush and began rummaging through a nearby garbage can.  My dad, my brother, and I immediately got up, walked to the station wagon, climbed in, rolled up the windows and then realized Mom was not in her front passenger seat!  We looked around and there she was, ferrying what she had just cooked to the back of the station wagon, shoving it in, quickly going back and retrieving a second load from the picnic table to stash in the car, before finally climbing in herself. 

We sat astonished.  She sat staring silently forward for about 10 seconds before venturing tersely over her shoulder without turning her head, in a voice that brooked no response, “No bear is going to get a breakfast I’ve labored over!” 

It took a large portion of my adult life to get so I could recognize how that ferociousness was quietly embodied by her in everyday life.  But I did learn to see it.  And in that last stretch of time in the hospice room, it would especially show up when her dinner arrived.  Otherwise gently, though attentively, subdued in her supine quietude under the bedsheets, when the food tray was set before her, she roused with great animation.  You did not want to get in the way between her fork and the plate.  You might get stabbed!

And that really is the message for the day.   My mom was not flashy, not boisterous, not bombastic like my dad could be.  She was a soft, caring ordinary presence, underneath which was an irrepressible resilience and fortitude.  And offset by the growing decrepitude and wrinkles and lost teeth (she was gapped-toothed and goofy-smiling those last few years)—was a fierce beauty.   A beauty that did not lose its luster even as the body decayed, and the world collapsed in on her. 

And this is counsel for apocalypse.  Counsel, really, for life!  It is not about “likes” on Facebook.  It is not about Hollywood-aspiring glam and bling!  It is not about trying to appear 18 when you are really 80, as our cosmetics and Botox industries would have it.  It is about embodying fierce beauty inside ordinary littleness.  Be little!  But beautiful!  Like a peacock spider!

The counsel is all around us.  We crossed over from summer to fall this past week.  Summer is dying.  It will go back underground and over the border, south of the equator.  You and I will sooner or later, go over the border as well, and die.  Indeed, somewhere out there a few billion years from now, the Earth Herself will be incinerated inside the Sun, as the nuclear fusion of that Grand Shimmering Lantern of Life weakens and balloons out to engulf our Mother Planet.  Time is in fact riddled with cycles. 

We begin, as all life does, as seed, sprout and blossom into amazing color and definition and diffusion, mature, ripen, shrivel, wrinkle, and die (unless, killed off by untimely violence, as has become more and more ubiquitous over the last 5,000 years).  The issue is whether we can do so with style.   Not by becoming bigger or “other” than we actually “are.”  The question is rather, whether, within those constraints, I can lace the world with a rich gift of irreplaceable medicine, as “me,” in concert with everything else.  

And, like everything else—including honeysuckle scent on a summer morning, decayed leaf scent on a fall afternoon, squirrel acrobatics 60 feet up in the sycamore tree outside my window, spider aerobics wind-riding for a thousand miles at the end of a butt-produced silk tether attached to nothing but oppositely charged electrons in the atmosphere, or an elephant thrust of foot down on the hard earth, “hearing” through the nerve-endings, fellow elephant-trumpeting 9 miles away with enough keenness of discernment of the literal ground-tones to know the exact individual so communicating—like everything else, can I give to the world in however minuscule a form, a heavy toke, a stiff hit, a bright burst of brilliance, even while fading off into disappearance?  It is all we finally have.   And it is enough. 

Why the world is put together that way, nobody knows.  But it is.  And it is finally magnificent—even in its terror and losses and endings.  Understand I am not here parroting some New Age BS about the wondrousness of the oneness of the universe.  There is real trauma going on and escalating—all over the world!  Much of it caused by our species and frankly our country.  And it will come for us.   There is justice to be fought for, lifelong.  I’ve engaged my own little battlefronts—for decades working against inner city poverty, against suburban white supremacy, more recently against Emergency-Management-initiated water shutoffs.  There is so much that needs changing!  So, yes indeed, hunker down, on whatever frontline you are particularly equipped to deal with, and fight!—non-violently, if at all possible! 

But also understand, ultimately, we will not win in any calculable sense that constitutes “winning” in our modern culture measurements.  Instead, lose, with style!  Learn from the seasons—be a season, for a season.  But not beyond your time.  Learn about time from those creatures who have walked its stretches much, much longer than we have.  It is not clear that our species will be much more than a sudden very brief flash of stupendous cleverness on the face of the earth, clothed in tremendous stupidity, followed by a tremendous die-off and disappearance!  If so, it is ultimately (not proximately, but ultimately, given that we are part of this reality called nature) OK. 

The cells in our body did not begin with our body.  I am a strange and very brief coming together of iron and copper and carbon and bone and plant cells and animal fats and chemicals and water and air that have been circulating for millions and millions of years and will go on to be recombined in new forms far beyond their brief tenure as “me.”  That is my past; that is my destiny!  The only question is, will I add to those cell-strands a slight twist of beauty?

My wife and I over the last decade have spent 20 days per year with a half native, half white teacher named Martín Prechtel, whose history I don’t have time to go into here, except to say he is someone who lost most of his family and village relations and kin to Guatemalan civil war violence in the 1980s, who now teaches about indigenous ways to any who will listen.  We are listening as deeply as we know how.  Those ways—the ways of relatively intact indigenous communities, living generation after generation in local ecosystems without needing to aggress on others and elsewheres, because they knew the plants and animals, soils and seasons, weather and waters in their own place of dwelling, may represent the only hope of a future we have.   

As climate change rolls in, as wild nature now bellows in flood and fire and storm and sea rise and heat and viral outleap from winged cave-dwellers to belligerent human city-dwellers—since we have refused to listen, like the elephants I mentioned, to subtler cues—as the non-human world now registers its beg-to-differ opinion of our own species’ vaunted self-importance, we are also faced with an example, a model, a template for behavior, on every side.  Can we blossom and die with beauty? 

In almost every indigenous community culture I am aware of, the prospect of becoming a mature adult inevitably entails passing through an initiation school once the hormones kick in—a rite-of-passage-period of limbo-time enabling youth to leave childhood behind and embrace full adulthood within the short span of that initiation period.   At the heart of almost all such processes one way or another is a carefully orchestrated joust with Death, ritually figured as a Living Creature, who will only at best grant a deferral of the ultimate outcome of loss, but never final avoidance or anything that could be called “winning.” 

What may secure the temporary deferral for the young person in that mortal encounter is a two-fold exchange: agreeing to accept death when the time is right, and not fight against it; and in the meantime, creating beauty which is given away as freely to one’s world as the air that is every millisecond given freely to our own nostrils.  And not just creating beauty but being beauty!  Fiercely!  In an ordinary way! As a response to all the beauty around us!    

All of this is a great big topic I have only been able to barely hint here.  But the substance remains clear and simple.  Take seeds as our models.  Don’t resist the long journey in soil-dark.  When the season is right, sprout, grow, blossom in wild extravagance, and fight unrelentingly for the right to do so—for yourself and everyone else—especially those being denied such!  But then when it is your time, wither with brilliance and without excuse or shame.  And what is true for us as individuals is true for us as communities and nations and species.  

What we call apocalypse is indeed, one of the most damnable creations of those of us who have violently grabbed up power and ruthlessly plundered goods.  For those who look like me, it is something we have visited on People of Color and Indigenous folk for more than 500 years now. And we are now visiting it on the planet itself.  And it is coming for us.  But the message from those we have assaulted is finally irrepressible: “We are beautiful—in spite of you! High time you learned from us!” 

What time is it on the clock of the world?  It may indeed be Rebellion time!  It may be Rise Up and Resist time! It may be fight like Hell for a Livable Future time, Black Lives Matter time, Shut Down Line 3 and Line 5 time!  But whatever time it is in the calculus of justice and struggle—it is always Beauty time.  Be humble.  Be ordinary.  Be little.  But be fiercely beautiful inside that limitation.  Just like the rest of the planet!

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