Synchronized Chaos January 2022: Sources of Solace

I remember that I am here not because of the path that lies before me but because of the path that lies behind me. I remember that which matters most… We are still here!

Photo c/o Gerd Altmann

Morpheus, character in the Matrix movies, spoke these words to inspire the resistance force during one of the darkest times in their long battle with oppressive machine overlords. He encouraged them to keep fighting not because they were sure to win that night, but because they had withstood many other obstacles in the past.

This quote, and the release of a new Matrix movie, makes me think of the world surviving injustice and a pandemic for the past two years. I acknowledge and mourn that not everyone has survived, and some have been left with lasting scars. That said, sometimes just living through a global crisis and remaining a person with the capacity for love, courage, kindness, humor and creativity, even without any other visible achievements, can be a serious accomplishment. Sometimes being ‘still here’ is all we can do, and we can be very proud of that.

Contributors to this month’s very large issue are all asserting that they are all ‘still here,’ and referencing the different sources of strength that have gotten them through these seasons.

Image c/o Vera Katochvil

Abigail George describes her psychological struggles and the medication, books and creative writing practice that keep her sane. Chimezie Ihekuna and Dave Douglas take refuge in their Christian faith, where God’s love expands their perspective on life and comforts them during loneliness and regret. Hongri Yuan, in works translated by Yuanbing Zhang, talks of stepping outside of our human experience to find spiritual transcendence.

Michael Robinson reflects on having made it through very dark times and come out the other side, while Mahbub’s speakers seek rest and solace on land or at sea.

Abdulloh Abdumominov urges us to make the most of the time we have, while Scott Kaestner shares pieces about being okay with living the life in front of you and not shackling yourself to unrealistic expectations. Duane Vorhees reminds us to ‘count the cost,’ to think of what’s involved when we seek revolution, spirituality, or wisdom.

Laura Stamps describes lives and relationships that have fallen short of our dreams, and the surprising ways we care for each other, and ourselves, at crisis points. Ashley Wang’s piece affirms relentless hope, always asserting that tomorrow will be better. Christopher Bernard resolves to take action to preserve the environment and inspire the rest of the planet to do the same. To him, we can kick our carbon addiction the same way he quit smoking.

Photo c/o Ken Kistler

Katrina Kaye reminisces about love and the memory of love, about small tokens of others’ presence and care. John Thomas Allen seeks to capture and personalize a bit of his abstract love, to have a token in his hand as well as in his heart. John Edward Culp compares the creativity required to adorn a canvas with the imagination required to understand another person.

Some writers bear witness to difficult times. Christine Tabaka speaks of mothers’ empty arms, the death of relationships, and other human griefs. Bruce Mundhenke captures the fear and dread of a planet under attack. Howie Good relates death and destruction in a more surrealist, darkly humorous manner while J.J. Campbell conveys the loneliness and quiet dignity of caregiving and the end of life. Ahmad Al-Khatat longs for love in a landscape depopulated after war while Nguyen Thanh Hai mourns a missing companion. Karen Boswell writes of a random memory made sweet through loss.

Susie Gharib also writes of relationships hurtling towards inevitable ends. In subsequent pieces she celebrates the life enrichment brought through travel, as Robert Thomas does with his extensive depiction of Marrakesh’s street markets. Sterling Warner’s poems incorporate more ordinary venues (cities at dawn, carousels) along with the exotic locales. Ian C. Smith’s speakers sail into maritime adventures of strength, bravery, and beauty.

Abby Ripley describes the power of thought and ideas in shaping prehistoric human lives. Far from being a luxury, imagination helped our ancestors find food and water and shelter on the savanna. Saurav Ranjan Datta also references history, celebrating the lives of powerful women leaders in a new book, Goddesses of Fury: History’s Most Daring Queens. In the spirit of the Matrix films, Andrew Dibble’s short story probes the linguistic systems created by humans versus intelligent machine-learning algorithms.

Photo c/o Circe Denyer

Mark Young’s impressionist literary pieces reference art, creativity, and learning by experience. Vernon Frazer’s work elides the ordinary rules of syntax, creating its own world of sound and syllable arrayed on the page. Patrick Sweeney arranges phrases on the page in a semblance of meaning. Michael Todd Steffen’s words paint canvases in homage to visual artists’ work, while Norman J. Olson reflects on his legacy of art based on the nude human figure.

James Thurgood crafts pieces that seem simple but encapsulate deeper thoughts and truths. A boy’s unevenly tied shoelaces evoke parents’ inability to ensure children’s lives will be free from risk, a teen’s romantic gesture becomes a meditation on the passing of youth.

Peter Cherches also references ordinary life, sharing the thoughts and memories coming to his mind when he thinks of formerly popular songs and TV shows.

Ike Boat promotes the writing of a children’s author and literacy advocate, Dennis Mann, while John Grey ponders what items we collect and what knowledge we seek, as some facts inevitably slip out of our grasp with time, like water evaporating from a thirsty land.

We hope that you will take comfort and find strength within these submissions and join in the literary exchange of ideas.

Essay from Christopher Bernard

How to Save the World: A New Year’s Resolution

By Christopher Bernard

It took me far longer than I wished to win my personal war against tobacco. It took weeks, then months, then years, with many relapses. Several of my principal weaknesses – a blind stubbornness, a willful pride, an almost mystical subjectivity – were at war with each other as much as with my strengths – a fairly clear-eyed honesty with myself and an obstinate common sense. I almost didn’t succeed. But I did, finally. I kicked cigarettes for good. I am profoundly grateful for that. I might not be here if I hadn’t.

And what has that to do with saving the world? I admit it’s a stretch, but let me see if I can show how it might.

I have been following theories of climate change since I first heard the term “global warming” in the mid-1970s. The science seemed compelling, the logic impeccable. Living alone at the time, I cooked most dinners at home: almost every night I would watch a saucepan as the water in it simmered to a rolling boil; it usually took a while, and I soon understood the old saying, “A watched kettle don’t boil.” The example of a frog going to sleep in a kettle of warm water and then being slowly boiled to death before he even noticed what was happening was something I could imagine vividly.

My concerns about the “environment” (I object to this painfully misleading term, since nature does not “environ” us – it is us, down to the marrow of our bones and the thoughts in our minds; I use the word for convenience, but under protest) seemed to be shared by the country at large. The news media reported regularly on pollution and similar issues. The governments of the world seemed to take “environmental matters” seriously, making vague statements of high-minded intent and even passing cautiously worded – some might say, too cautiously worded – laws. Even corporations began advertising something like a sincere concern for something other than their next quarter’s profit. I began to feel what I had not felt in a very long time for our public institutions: hope, even giddy moments of optimism.

After all (I thought, reasonably enough, surely), despite psychopaths and mass murderers galore, many of them in positions of highest leadership, humanity as a whole is not evil, is not suicidal. If I myself ever became aware I was doing something I knew would kill or seriously injure me and those around me, I would stop what I was doing – or I would at least modify it. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I was once addicted to cigarettes; I knew the dangers and, during that same decade, I had reduced my smoking, over many months, from two packs to six modest cigarettes a day. I had not stopped, true, but it was a beginning.

I had no difficulty understanding or accepting the recent theories of global warming (“recent” only for us, of course; the first such theories went back to the nineteenth century, so the “novelty” of our “discoveries” seemed painfully ridiculous). They were among the reasons I have never owned an automobile. I was also persuaded that the human population was dangerously near the earth’s carrying capacity; this is one reason I never had children.

We all know what has happened since the 1970s. I watched with sickening alarm as the fossil fuel companies, with the connivance of members of state and federal governments, began to sow self-serving doubts about the scientific evidence for global warming, much as tobacco companies had done in the 1960s against the evidence for health conditions – lung cancer, emphysema, heart conditions – being caused or worsened by tobacco use.

I recognized the playbook instantly and with a feeling of bitterness. A teenager in the 1960s, I had learned the same lesson over and over: to take anything the government or corporations state with the greatest possible suspicion. I was sick to my soul with an awareness of how profoundly corrupt American society, at least in appearance, had become: if an economic activity made some group of people very wealthy, even though that activity was actively fatal to many, the American political system made it extraordinarily difficult, and sometimes impossible, to stop them.

I was at the same time horrified and unshocked at the turn of events. America was playing a game it has been playing since the founding: rhetorical hypocrisy, proactive rapacity, pragmatic nihilism, murderous effects. Lay waste, transmute, consume, accumulate; repeat.

At the darkening heart of the world we were entering during those decades of Thatcher, Reagan, and the theorists of the University of Chicago school of economics, I saw the ravaging effects of a capitalism without limits being unleashed across our globe. I had no illusions as to where we were heading, though I kept to my private mantra: “We must come around, we must face reality, we must, we will, act. After all, we aren’t suicidal.”

But many of my fears were becoming realities. We now know we were deliberately blinded; going back to the 1950s, when fossil fuel companies first became aware that, as long as global society was powered principally by oil and coal, “global warming” was a likely consequence and might have catastrophic consequences for human society and other life forms on earth, it has been corporate policy to obscure and deny what they already knew, and to keep the rest of us ignorant and blind. Greed, hubris, and a pathological contempt for the rest of humanity, and of life itself, drove them: the sociopathy of the corporation, the psychopathology of the drive for increasing profits at any price, drove the rest. A typically human blend of complacency, selfishness, and denial – something of which we are all, alas, guilty – would work its poison throughout the human system.

It took a long time before I discovered that there was one weak link – indeed it was the weakest link of all – in the chain that binds human society to the capitalist Juggernaut. What drives the psychopathology of capitalism? The need to feed the beast with ever greater profits. But what drives those profits?

We do: you who read this, and I who write it. The most powerful drivers of capitalism are the twin steeds of avaritia et gula – greed and gluttony. But the greed would not be successful if gluttony did not reward it.

Or, to use a more modern word for the latter: “consumerism” – or its humbler name: buying – whether of things or experiences – going to a movie, taking a trip, “going shopping.” Whenever we make an economic transaction – of any kind whatsoever – we feed the beast. Whenever we avoid one, we deprive the beast of food, water, air. We contribute to its conquest, perhaps even to its end.

Is it really so simple? Indeed. And like many a simple thing, it may be impossible to change. Because the cruel and bitter truth is that we are addicted to the paradise of consumption – the mirage of an endless satisfaction of every desire – that capitalism has made possible, and as long as we remain subject to it, we are condemning ourselves to a horrible fate. Because we know that the grip of an addiction is ruthless and relentless; once a person is in that grip, it is only a matter of time before they will destroy themselves and any who come near them.

We are that addict. And our addiction is buying. It is an addiction that is encouraged, even demanded, by our entire society, by our governments, by friends, cohorts, colleagues, family. We don’t even call our society, our culture by those names anymore – we call it “the American economy.” We are buyers and sellers, producers and consumers, and not, really, anything else – at least, anything that really matters. We are, as a whole, unable even to imagine any other way of life; even many of our putative solutions to the climate crisis are based on an illusion that our economies will save us; we must consume differently, but we still will, we still must consume. We make uneasy jokes about it: “Shop till you drop!” But that is because we know it is true, and we can’t stop ourselves. We are in its grip. It flatters us, intoxicates us, makes us always desire more. “Don’t you just love Amazon Prime!” It seems to have us by the throat.

And yet – the one thing we also know is that we are never entirely in the grip of anything. And that tiny corner of sanity at the far back of our minds can, at any moment, be accessed and made to prevail; can be used to conquer the beast that seeks to control, enslave, and ultimately destroy us. It is neither easy nor simple nor quick to do this. But human beings are self-directing, self-generating, “self-programming,” though it is in the interests of the powers that be to prove to us otherwise: that we are helpless, strengthless, hopeless, pawns of need, drives, and power. But you and I belong to the species that nature, in her infinite wisdom, or her folly, made free. And that freedom makes us ultimately in control of, and responsible for, our lives. We can conquer even an addiction as deep as this one.

Here is my proposal for a New Year’s resolution for myself and for all of us: to reduce buying in 2022.

Not to end buying. Merely to reduce it.

I have no intention of living like an ascetic, because I know trying to do that will fail. I will rebel against my own good intentions, I will backslide, defiantly. It will even make my bad habits worse.

Did I tell you how I kicked cigarettes? I started small. I was smoking, as I said, two packs a day. For the first month of this experiment in stopping smoking, I actually made myself smoke those two packs a day every single day, even when I didn’t want to,

Then I gradually, over the next year, cut down, one or two cigarettes a month at a time, to one pack a day. Afterward I continued, using the same method of reducing by one cigarette a day each month, till I was down to six cigarettes a day, and at that number I stayed for years.

I hold that everyone should have at least one vice – it keeps you from committing far worse evils. Human beings are not saints, and those who try to become saints often become the worst monsters of all. So I kept smoking, moderately; even my doctor agreed I was not endangering myself too much.

But then, over the years I noticed how the costs of cigarettes, thanks to “sin taxes” (of which my conscience heartily approved) kept creeping up, up, up, until a single pack cost more than twice as much as my daily lunch. This was ridiculous! It was high time to cut back to zero. I concocted a new plan: ease myself off via the vile toxin nicotine itself. I started using various kind of nicotine gum; a cigarette, a piece of gum, a cigarette, a piece of gum, alternating, every day. Another year passed.

Then, one late afternoon, a miracle happened.

I was smoking the fourth or fifth cigarette from a recently purchased pack, and I was struck by an overwhelming sense of disgust at the taste of the tobacco smoke. I crushed the cig, threw it out, and tossed the freshly opened pack into the same trash basket without a qualm. Except for a handful of weakenings over the next few years (I would be struck, out of the blue, by an overwhelming desire for a smoke, purchase a pack, sneak it home, open it (peel off the see-through plastic wrapper, flip open the seductively designed box, unfold the mottled gold sealing paper), pull out the fresh, deliciously smelling cig, then light it up with the serene yellow and blue flame of my old lighter, and voluptuously take a deep inhale – and gag on that same disgust at the awful taste filling mouth, sinuses, throat, lungs, and, with an enormously disappointed shrug, throw both it and pack away into the trash with all the force of bitter disillusionment), since that moment I have not returned to my cigarette addiction since.

Once every few years I still get an urge for a smoke, but I have learned that cigarettes are a waste of time and money; I have learned that smoking a cigar, or the single bowl of a pipe, does the trick, a quarter hour of sybaritic bliss. Then I am free for the next several years.

I have a cigar I bought the other day that I plan to smoke on New Year’s Eve.

The next day, January 1, 2022, I will begin my new resolution: to reduce my buying in 2022. Not painfully, not ascetically. Just a little bit for now. Then, next year, I will reduce it a little more. Again, not too much. I’ll never reduce it entirely till they bury me! And hopefully that won’t be for a long time to come.

And, while thinking of the good work I intend to do in 2022, I’ll be thoroughly enjoying my cigar.

After all, I must have one vice.

Anyway, that’s how I connect quitting cigarettes with saving the world. Because the one way we know the world we live in will end is if we don’t solve the climate crisis.

And both quitting cigarettes and solving the climate crisis are about ending addictions.

So, kind reader: what is your resolution?

Poetry from Patrick Sweeney

odyssey of glee and throb    leaving behind stones









our Lady of Akita    violating the laws of physics









mugwort fulfilling its destiny in a cinder strewn lot









bazooka deaf    Uncle Jimmy rolled dead cats under his tongue









offering rhubarb to the woman from another world









tzimtzum    in the breakdown lane of the Cosmos









it's like asking if the Comet Moth will live through the winter









all this way to find a snowflake in the hair of the girl made of stone









she soaks whelk shells as I write in Prussian blue









they're all asleep while I'm running water   running water   running water









after the Chelyabinsk meteor I was back listening to Yes









nearing Mount Unzen I point to where the ropeway should be









this morning I'm dealing with the rapid dialect of sparrows









beginning to understand Ugarte's need for the letters of transit









leaning on a bolt of dyed cloth the Ryukyuan girl checks her messages




Poetry from Ian C. Smith

Daft

Skint of wisdom I strained to capture,
push-ups propelled my fitness regime.
I worked my six-pack, women’s rapture,
skint of wisdom.   I strained to capture
zest when I suffered a contracture
earning male respect for self-esteem.
Skint of wisdom I strained to capture,
push-ups propelled my fitness regime.
Clouds Racing Overhead

Through binoculars I spot a yacht,
a man, his woman, hair streaming free.
Horizon stretched, these yearning hours hot,
through binoculars I spot a yacht,
Mitty-like, spray on deck now my lot.
Exploring leagues of fathomless sea
through binoculars, I spot a yacht,
a man, his woman, hair streaming free.
Bones Beneath Us

Hoping lights like low-slung stars appear
dappling the harbour, a warm hotel,
late in, we faced massed waves, black walls sheer.
Hoping lights like low-slung stars appear,
we hold our course, shark jokes a veneer.
Wreck charts curled, awash, we share this shell
hoping lights like low-slung stars appear
dappling the harbour, a warm hotel.
Biog:  Ian C Smith’s work has been published in Antipodes, BBC Radio 4 Sounds,The Dalhousie Review, Griffith Review, San Pedro River Review , Southword, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.

Short story from Karen Boswell

A Moment of Ecstasy

I was seven when Dad died. I didn’t really know him well. He was in the Army and always away on some adventure or other. After a long tour in Afghanistan, he came home for good. I was a shy boy. Dad was built like a barn door. A fraught combination. Not long after coming home he took me to my first football match. The local derby at Anfield.

I remember standing on The Kop in-between his legs, hands like shovels holding my shoulders firmly as the raucous throng swayed and sung. It felt as if the humongous heaving body was going to swallow me. I looked up anxiously, tugging on the bottom of his jacket. He registered the fear in my eyes. I expected him to scoff at my cowardice.

Instead, he grinned. ‘C’mon lad, climb up here.’

He swung me up onto his wide shoulders. Cupping my hands under his chin, I could feel the scratchy stubble on his jaw, the beat of the pulse in his neck and the weight of those giant hands holding my skinny knees. Behind us, someone threw a plastic cup full of urine across the crowd. The golden liquid arced through the air, dispersing into a drizzle of dozens of drops that showered the unsuspecting audience below.

A chant from the crowd spontaneously rose, ‘You dirty bastards.’

Dad looked up at me. I could see droplets marking a trail down his temple. We both started to laugh. We laughed and laughed, tears mingling with the precipitation present.

The next morning Dad was found dead in the front seat of our Toyota Rav4. He had chosen to leave me by hooking up a hose to the exhaust. The doctor said it was Post Traumatic Stress. Mum said he was a selfish sod. I didn’t believe that because he had taped a note to the garage door.

 DO NOT ENTER. CALL POLICE.

Now, when I think of him, I mostly just remember sitting on his mighty shoulders, both of us laughing hysterically, his life blood pulsing under my fingertips. It was a moment of ecstasy, and it tasted of piss.

Poetry from John Edward Culp

The part in all
         of us We Share 

             Well Being
       Sets Foot on Every
             Beach on a
       Warm Breezy Day 

       I'm being an Idealist.

 I'll Back down 
               When You're Back up,

      and that's a Condescending 
                   Style   I know.

         You Know Better
  the Greatest Joy 
       than I could    ever find 
                                   for You 

The presence of LOVE 
     is ,   You You You Are  .

       I studder for good 
             Reason 
   It  Bears  Repeating 

Sit Here and I promise 
      not to look at your shell.

    The guarded Soul 
makes its own 
        And your presence has 
my Heart 
              on a Rock slain 
      Before and after the time 
                 of Danger   But no precision 
                                     can threaten my
                                           Eternity 
For size and mass are 
     Part & Parcel to the canvas 
           that, "What's it called?",
              always Rises the caller to 
                   Bring more Fresh Ideas. 

        What You Like 
                  is Already 
                          known
           Faster than time to 
                                 Savor the 
                                       passing Brush. 



By John Edward Culp

         All Rights Reserved 
first drafted on  December 2, 2021
In a Castro Valley CA coffee shop ♡

Essay from Nguyen Thanh Hai

Nguyen Thanh Hai
Christmas Monologue

Will you come back this Christmas?
When the December sun pulls together through the alley 
the bamboo bank swings and
calls to the wind
swallows call the flock to the
spring ball...

I'm still looking forward to this
Christmas
the day is still long...still a lonely
garden.
The girl from the past is no
longer a baby
Why does the rose flower quickly fade?

My heart will be close to each
other
like flowers and butterflies on a
busy spring day
Christmas is here...why are you
so far away
in the middle of Christmas, my heart suddenly ached

Nguyen Thanh Hai
(Vietnam)