Where is Heaven?

Where is Heaven?

By Gene Wilburn

“They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth” ~ George R.R. Martin

The mythic concept of heaven varies from culture to culture and religion to religion, as does the concept of hell. Homer gave us a Greek perspective of the Underworld in the Odyssey — a murky kind of place where even the famous Greek heroes end up in residence. The Egyptians, with their sky gods and interest in an afterlife thought of heaven as some kind of physical place beyond the known universe and the Book of the Dead describes the process a soul must go through to reach it. The Assyrians believed the afterlife was located below our world and one of their words for it translates as the “Great Below.” Everyone went there, regardless of status, and it seems to have been more of a handy place to store ghosts than any kind of paradise.

The Christian myth of heaven is the one I grew up knowing about, though “knowing about” is a precarious phrase. It’s a particularly unclear myth. Stereotyped as a place of fluffy clouds and angels playing harps and an entry gate made of pearl, it’s always portrayed as stupefyingly mind-numbing. One thing is clear though: its direction is “up.” Certain Christian religious figures “ascended” into it. The mediaeval view places it beyond the firmament, the known universe. And it’s there that selected believers go and meet all their lost loved ones, who presumably made it as well. A more salubrious place than the Greek underworld, perhaps, or the Assyrian ghost closet, and not as strenuous as the Egyptian journey to the afterlife. A comfort myth if ever there was one.

But the thing about the mediaeval world view is that the “known universe” was a much smaller and modest place than the one we live in today. Earth was the centre of that universe and the firmament was fixed and revolved around the earth — with the exception of “the wanderers,” or planets, and alarming things like comets. Heaven was just beyond the visible firmament and some mediaeval drawings portray an observer lifting the edge of the firmament and peeking out at heaven beyond. Everything in its place and God in his (always masculine) heaven.

This cosmological view took a huge hit with a paradigm shift that started with Copernicus in the 16th Century, with his heliocentric proposal, and was refined and modified through the incredibly accurate naked-eye astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe, and embraced in the writings of astronomer Johannes Kepler. The 17th Century was the time of largest early astronomical breakthroughs through the telescopic observations of Galileo Galilei (Jupiter had “moons”!) and the brilliant insights of Isaac Newton, who provided the laws of physics and mathematics that accurately accounted for observable planetary motions. The Church was not very happy with all of this, of course, and forced Galileo to recant publicly, though he never did so in private.

In one sense, I think of modern science as starting with Galileo because he used a scientific instrument, the telescope, to investigate the night sky. The telescope was followed by the microscope, and extended instrumental observation and measurement gradually became the established norm for exploring the fabric of the universe. It wasn’t even called science at first. It was usually referred to as “natural philosophy.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that astronomers began to suspect that our galaxy, the Milky Way, was not the full extent of the universe and that what was showing as blobs sometimes referred to as “nebulae” on the photographic plates might themselves be galaxies. With better and bigger telescopes and some brilliant analysis, it was not only determined that they were, in fact, galaxies like our own, but we could even measure their distance from ours. The universe turned out to be immensely huge, with, as Carl Sagan used to say, “billions and billions” of galaxies. Not only that, but continued observations indicated that the universe was expanding. And if it was expanding, what was it expanding from? Enter the Big Bang.

The telescope, as both instrument of the scientific revolution, and a symbol thereof, is central to the recent book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, by Toby E. Huff, 2011, a highly readable, well-researched study of why the scientific revolution started in the West, and not in China or the Islamic world.

Telescopes were still at the forefront when I was a kid in the 1950s — the “big” telescope of the day was the huge reflector at Mount Palomar, in California, with its 200-inch mirror Hale telescope. The newspapers frequently printed black-and-white images taken with the famous instrument and there was great ferment over the firmament, so to speak. Exciting times.

It was in regard to this great telescope that I first encountered a fissure between science and religion. I was a run-of-the-mill Protestant kid who attended church with some regularity, but a good friend and classmate of mine came from a more fundamentalist stream of belief. His church, located in a nearby town, was hosting a “revival meeting” that featured two travelling evangelical preachers of fiery words and demeanour, and my friend’s family invited me along to attend one of the evening sermons. I was nervous about this because it was one of those congregations my family referred to as the “Holy Rollers” and its members were prone to burst into tongues and exclamations during the service.

But curiosity, sometimes my friend, sometimes my enemy, overcame my misgivings and I went. At this point we come back to the concept of heaven, for the heaven of this congregation was the “Kingdom of Heaven” returning to create a “New Earth” for the “Chosen,” wrapped up in some kind of event called “the Rapture.” The Christian Bible is an odd thing, at best. Most of it is a disjointed anthology of Hebrew religious writings, some of it dating back from the time of the Egyptians and the Sumerians. Added to that is an appendix called the New Testament, and the appendix to that is a very strange thing called the “Book of Revelation,” that reads like it was composed by a person, or an entire commune, on a very bad acid trip (“don’t take any of the brown acid,” as the Woodstock announcer warned). It’s so weird and vague that you can read into it pretty much whatever you want, but it seems to be the energy source for many fundamentalists.

But the two preachers, in their admittedly riveting, entertaining, and electric theatre, told a blatant lie. They said they had visited the great telescope at Mount Palomar, and that while the “scientists” were called away from the tour for a few minutes, the preachers peeked through the telescope, up into the skies, and they saw, with their own eyes, the Kingdom of Heaven descending toward the earth. The congregation was practically swooning, but I was gobsmacked that a man of religion would lie. I knew that you didn’t look through the telescope at all. You made photographic plates using it and studied the plates. And that started me thinking hard about heaven. If there is such a place, where is it?

There is no physical plane we know of, above or below, that can accommodate such a mythic landscape. Another dimension? That’s pretty science-fictiony and since it offers no method of verification, it’s no better than saying it’s located in some kind of vast, eternal Rubik’s Cube. Or that it fits somehow into Terry Pratchett L-space, though this might be pleasing to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

As an armchair philosopher, I get mentally cranky about things that offer no method of verification, nor any proof of existence. I’m open to evidence, but I don’t see any place in the known universe where a heaven might fit in. So, as a humanist, I can only conclude that heaven, and hell, are actually situated within the living, earthly creatures called humans. The terms represent sublime good times, and ghastly bad times, in the lives of individuals, much of it determined by where we live, our general place in society, and events often beyond our control. To the residents of Aleppo, for instance, any place that’s not being bombed might seem like heaven. The city itself can, without exaggeration, be called a hell.

In the end, I think heaven is a state of mind and that mythic heavens are little more than works of the imagination. And, as many pundits over the years have observed, if there really turns out to be such a place, I doubt many of my friends will be there anyway, so it doesn’t highly attract me.


Of Melancholy I Sing

Of Melancholy I Sing

By Gene Wilburn

“No man amongst us so sound, of so good a constitution, that hath not some impediment of body or mind” ~ Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621

“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced… . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.” ~ J.K. Rowling

Depression is one of the least understood mental afflictions. In my own struggle with clinical depression I’ve met people who don’t know why I can’t just “snap out of it.” They confuse it with the mild version of “being depressed” that everyone experiences from time to time, that a good walk or game of squash can cure. Clinical depression, which I’ll refer to simply to as “depression,” is a different beast altogether. It’s a serious illness of the brain.

It was first written about extensively by Robert Burton in Anatomy of Melancholy in the 17th Century. His term, melancholy, included, among other things, what today we’d call clinical depression, and although his immensely popular book was more of a literary than a scientific masterpiece, he based his observations on real cases. Depression isn’t a modern disease.

Several specialists have pointed out that the problem with depression is that it’s invisible, and because it’s invisible, it’s easily dismissed. If those of us with depression wore a cast on our heads, like a leg or arm cast, it would likely be given more credence.

I was first diagnosed with depression shortly after 9/11 when I couldn’t shake from my mind the ghastly images of the twin towers collapsing. I was also in a difficult work situation where I was caught in the throes of a corporate takeover in which my Internet implementation team was dismantled and all our extensive project work was scrapped, not wanted by the new masters. After my severance package I retired, and within the first year of retirement had a heart attack. That was followed by two separate stent procedures, which didn’t take, followed by double-bypass heart surgery. By this time I fell into a state of depression so severe I didn’t want to get out of bed.

One of the most terrible things about depression is that it can shut down your interest in everything that formerly gave you joy, such as music, socializing, reading, even television. It can shut down your interest in life itself. Some people who experience depression become suicidal, which is why it’s important to keep an eye on family members or friends who you suspect may be depressed.

Chemical Imbalance in the Brain

Today we know more about the anatomy of depression because it’s been studied by specialists with scanning equipment, comparing depressed brains with “normal” brains. The studies indicate that the depressed brain is indeed different, with a different chemistry from a normal brain because it can’t balance its chemistry properly. This understanding has led to the development of antidepressant drugs that try to address these imbalances, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and similar drugs.

There are several variations on a theme with antidepressants because different formulae work better for some people than others. The challenge is finding the one that works for you. It’s not easy to go the course if you’ve had poor luck with the ones you’ve tried and hate the side effects, which can include heavy sweating or being left in a fuzzy state of mind. I don’t remember all the ones I tried, but they have included Celexa, Cipralex, Zoloft, Abilify, Seroquel, and my current combo, Effexor XR and Trintellix.

The problem with antidepressants is that you have to give them several weeks to see if they help, and if they don’t you often have to come off them slowly and carefully in order to prevent an even deeper dive of depression. Another problem is that some of them work for awhile, then, for unknown reasons, no longer work. Matching the right drugs with the right patient is hard work, unless, as sometimes happens, you luck out with the first one you try. Again, if you’re lucky, a period of antidepressants may fix you up to the point where you no longer need the meds.

“We never really beat depression…we just..come to terms with it” ~ Bowdry

I’ve been living with chronic depression for over ten years and have reached a fairly stable state where I’m not entirely depression free but am no longer plummeting the depths, lying in bed incapacitated. After years of altering my dosages and fine tuning them, I accept that, in my case, depression will probably never leave, but that if the drugs keep me level, that’s about as good as it’s going to get, and I just work around it the best I can. And smile in public.


Depression is fairly common among the aged for any number of reasons. Retirement can trigger depression for many who have devoted their lives to their careers and face a void when it’s over because they haven’t developed any outside interests. Death is a trigger — the deaths of friends and family members becomes more frequent as you age. Death of a spouse can bring about depression caused by loneliness. Aging to the point of not being physically active can be a trigger as well. Financial worries can trigger it, as can major diseases such as heart and cancer. And it appears that some of us are simply unlucky in the genes we inherited, for depression can run in families.

For yourself, and others you care about, watch for the signs of depression and don’t attempt to self treat it. Get medical assistance if at all possible. The goal is to try to get back to a state where life is sweet, if imperfect. Or at least bearable, if not always sweet. And if you know someone who’s depressed, be gentle and supporting, and don’t regale that person with pep talks. If you tell a person to buck up, and they can’t, it only deepens their depression.

And should you suspect you’re undergoing depression, hang in there, and be gentle on yourself. Keep up your exercise if you possibly can, and try to eat healthy food. Seek help. Depression can be, if not cured, then at least lessened enough for you to be able to return to the land of the living. And bear in mind that you’re not alone. If you have access to Facebook, you can join MyDepressionTeam which can put you in touch with others nearby who share the affliction, as well as provide information on dealing with depression.

I leave the final word to Susan Sontag:

“Depression is melancholy minus its charms” ~ Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor

Whatever Happened to Ecology?

Whatever Happened to Ecology?

By Gene Wilburn

Words have lifetimes — some very long, some short. Many words are elastic and stretch from their original meanings to wider application or a more specialized meaning. Some words define and encapsulate eras. Think of disco and discotheque. Or flapper and Charleston. Eras gone by, and the only remaining life the words have is to give reference to the pop music of a different time. Another such word that comes to mind, from my earlier years, is ecumenical.

Ecumenical is a fancy word, imported in the late 16th century from Latin which in turn imported it from Greek and meaning, for the most part, “promoting or relating to unity among the world’s Christian churches” in the sense of “belonging to the universal Church.” The original Greek meaning appears to be something like “the (inhabited) earth,” meaning principally the Roman Empire.

The word came to renewed prominence in the mid–1960s and was especially popular on university campuses in the U.S. There were several ecumenical services that I and many others attended to see the ways the various branches of Christianity worshipped. It was the era of Pope John, folk masses, and Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists getting together for pot-luck gatherings — perhaps the last such era of its kind before the echo of the Civil Rights marches and the ever-present war in Vietnam opened the rift that has continued to split the US into two separate, superimposed countries. Goodwill became less fashionable. Nixon was elected President. Goodbye ecumenical. Ceremonies of innocence were drowned.

It was around this time that many young people left the organized churches to find more contemporary ways of exploring their relationships to the universe. Transformations were in the wind — the times they were a-changing’. It rang through in the music, poetry, novels, hairstyles, and lifestyles of the young in what Mexican poet Octavio Paz called “an explosion of the spirit.” Its symbols were seen in peace signs, painted VW vans, concert posters, flowing hair, headbands, dance, and underground newspapers. Marijuana became the new communal sacrament, and LSD, mescaline, peyote, and magic mushrooms were portals to new kinds of perception. It was a heady time, unsustainable of course, and as with all things, tragic for some, but it was also a pretty time that, if experienced, can never be forgotten. Ah, the sunsets… but I digress…

It was in this time period that I first encountered the word ecology. The word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary first entered the language around 1875, in the original, scientific meaning of the term, “The branch of biology that deals with the relationships between living organisms and their environment.” The word grew gradually beyond its more limited definition to a broader sociological definition: “The study of the relationships between people, social groups, and their environment; (also) the system of such relationships in an area of human settlement. Freq. with modifying word, as cultural ecology, social ecology, urban ecology.

In the late 60s and early 70s it took on a more political flavour, meaning “The study of or concern for the effect of human activity on the environment; advocacy of restrictions on industrial and agricultural development as a political movement; (also) a political movement dedicated to this.” By this time ecology had become a buzzword and was frequently featured in such archives of the time as the Whole Earth Catalog, along with geodestic domes.

Ecology wasn’t a new concept — the interrelationship of organisms and their surroundings had been known for centuries — but the word gave clarity and weight to the concept, and in the world of DDT, Agent Orange, inappropriate dams, and urban sprawl, it began to take on an urgency as we learned of more species going extinct due to the clearing or altering of habitats and the encroachment of people.

Yet oddly, it’s a word I only hear now occasionally. One of the natural extensions of ecology is climate change. As the ecological and other studies added up, it became obvious to just about everyone in the world, except for a strange cadre of U.S. Republicans who have, for inscrutable political reasons, chosen to turn their backs on science and knowledge, that Earth, our very planet itself, is headed for a change that will not be good for the human species, much less the rest of the planet’s ecological systems.

Yet the word ecology is getting a new boost in usage, this time for the bacterial communities of our stomachs and intestines. Evidently we, and the bacteria in our bodies, co-evolved to make mammalian life, as we know it, possible. Our insides are literally crawling with them. The good ones help us digest food and contribute to our health. Whatever else our existence means, it is a life that, biologically, is only achieved by committee. Every “I” is literally a “we.” I’m glad to be seeing the word in use again because I always felt, in my gut, that ecology would make something of a comeback.

At a more abstract level, there is an ecology of the mind. The more you learn, ponder, and read, the more complex your mental landscape becomes and the more scope you have for ideas, counter-ideas, imagination, and insights. Who you read — which thinkers you have chosen to help guide you along the neuronal highways and byways of the brain — creates the type of mental ecosystem you live in, and determines whether it’s a rich, varied, healthy ecosystem, or a more limited ecosystem with poor mental soil. So, as the acolyte said to Indy, “Choose wisely.”

A Musical Interlude

A Musical Interlude

By Gene Wilburn

I once described myself as “a loner with friends” — an introvert with broadband connectivity. Through Internet forums and special-interest groups, some of the friends I’ve made have been local enough to meet in person. Nowhere has this been more evident than on the Rangefinder Forum. As we discussed rangefinder cameras and film shooting (frequently trading and buying and selling cameras and lenses to each other), we revelled in the glorious sunset of the film-photography era. As more people began to embrace digital, used film cameras got cheaper and cheaper and even I got to experience the beauty and joy of shooting with a Leica M2 with a Hexanon 50/2, and a Leica CL with Summicron 40/2, not to mention a fine bevy of Bessas.

Some of the members of RFF, as the forum is known, began scheduling local meetings of rangefinder enthusiasts. I think the first was in San Francisco, perhaps New York. Not long after, a Toronto meetup took place, and extended to several subsequent meetups as we got to know one another. We found we had more than just cameras in common, and we developed a network of friends around the city that is still thriving.

One of the people I met this way was my friend Guy Steacy, a US draft dodger from San Francisco who came to Canada a short while before I did. We’re about the same age, both tall and white-haired with Swedish ancestry, both with degrees in English, and we were born across the Bay from each other: he in SF, me in Richmond. We both emerged from the era of Flower Power and shared similar tastes in music.

Guy has a good sound system and a discerning collection of LP and CD recordings, and over the past couple of years we’ve begun having meetings of what we call the Bay-Area Boys Listening Society. On a recent Saturday Guy invited me over for some listening and I was delighted to accept.

These interludes are special for me, because I tend to be a hermit and don’t go out often, except for walks to the harbour. Special not just for the music and amiable conversations, which are always a pleasure, but also for the trip into Toronto then the long trip to the east end via the Queen streetcar. I’ve always liked being in Toronto — all my jobs were in the city — and I especially like seeing the parts that are less upscale than the Bay-Bloor area. Another friend of mine, Stan Smith, who was attending the University of Toronto at the same time I was, went back home to Nelson, BC, one time, for Christmas. When he got back he said he just stood on the corner of Yonge and Bloor, “getting off on the traffic.” Some people love cities. I’m one of them, and I’m a boy at heart when it comes to streetcar rides.

Walking up from Union Station to Queen and Yonge, I got on board the 501 to Neville Park and began my journey east sitting in a single window seat where I could gaze out and take some photos. From there Toronto began to reveal itself. The rusty, abstract statue on Victoria St., St. Michaels Hospital, Henrys camera store, Vistek camera store, the armoury, mannequins on the sidewalk, the bridge over the Don Valley, the Riverdale neighbourhood, the Leslieville neighbourhood. Pedestrians bundled up against the cold winter wind, a thin young Asian woman who began singing aloud as her stop approached and continued to sing as she stepped down to the street. Passengers boarding, most of them nodding or saying hi to the driver. Faces that looked lived in.

We passed pubs, convenience stores, meat shops, tatoo parlours, head shops, art design studios, Indian restaurants, coffee shops, cheese shops, more convenience stores, parkettes, a shop that sells whey products, and a gas station. Streetcars passed us headed the other way, filling with passengers even on a Saturday. The 501 line is said to be the longest streetcar ride in North America. Starting at Long Branch, in the far west end of Toronto, you can ride it all the way to the Beach area in the east end, or vice versa. It carries passengers of all ancestral nationalities, many of them conversing in languages other than English or French. All now Canadian, not in the American “melting pot” way, but in the Canadian “cultural mosaic” way.

I got off at my stop and walked the rest of the way to Guy’s place along a narrow, tree-lined street, each house a little different from its neighbour. Some old, some renovated, some newly replaced — most of them two storeys on narrow, deep lots. Cars, mostly compact models, parked on the street. An older neighbourhood, getting more than a whiff of upscaling in the hot Toronto real-estate market.

Guy greeted me at the door, made us a pot of coffee, and we settled in for an afternoon of listening, at significantly loud volume. We both have eclectic tastes, so we started with some Grateful Dead standards, then followed the Dead on an experimental journey through “Playin’ in the Band” which probed the edges of rock music. From there we cut over to Art Pepper and grooved to some “California Jazz.” Since we both like music that is a little unusual, we finished off with the Diga Rhythm Band, a band that included Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. An excellent afternoon of music, conversation ranging from Old English to current politics, and the consumption of many cups of coffee.

Then the reverse trip home, streetcar to city centre as dusk fell over the city and the lights of the city switched on. Toronto — beautiful in the twilight. Back to Union Station and the GO-train ride home where Marion greeted me with a kiss and a bowl of hot veggie chili.

Mick Jagger had it wrong. Sometimes you can get satisfaction.

Flowers From Algernon

Flowers From Algernon

By Gene Wilburn

“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” ~ Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

I grinned recently at a cartoon of an elderly gentleman standing at the base of his stairway wondering if he had just come down the stairs or if he was about to go upstairs to get something. Welcome to my world: the world of cognitive gaps. Mix natural absent-mindedness with an aging brain and daily life becomes an adventure. It’s only through the grace of automated bank withdrawals that I’m still deemed credit worthy.

Sometimes cognitive gaps are embarrassing. About every two years or so I take a plane flight to the US to visit family. I always book an early morning flight and, due to customs protocols, have to arrive at the airport so early the ticket booths aren’t yet open. I’m not a morning person, so these dawn-tinged adventures require Olympic-level efforts from me, and to have it all shattered when the person I present my ticket to says, “Mr. Wilburn, I’m sorry, but your flight is booked for tomorrow,” is disheartening.

What worries me more is that my ability to concentrate on things is lessening. I’ve been living in the fast lane of Information Tech for years and years and despite the tsunami of new “stuff” coming down the pipe all the time, I think it was a kind of specialized narrowcasting of technical information that I had evolved, mentally, to swim in comfortably. I always kept an outside focus on things that interested me, such as books, music, and photography, but my main focus was tech.

Then retirement, and a gradual drift from computer services creator and provider, to computer services user. From techie to user — I’m left with a vague sense of having been demoted. Not that I miss the fast lane. I still write occasional snippets of code, but for the most part I’ve embraced my new overlords and have plugged myself into the Internet, like a bee into the hive mind.

In this world of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and other social media and news aggregators, information comes shooting at us as Carr said, “in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” It’s intense. And surely it must have consequences for the brain.

Our brains are wondrously adaptable and able to rewire themselves according to need, and as our needs shifts from deep reading to shallow reading, which they have to do to keep up with all the incoming, our brains compensate, perhaps, by borrowing from our deep-reading skills to adjust to our need to devour info in wide swaths. We adapt to quick, intermittent bursts of concentration rather than long sessions of concentration. In photographic terms, we’ve switched from macro lenses to wide angle.

I greatly admire people, like my wife Marion, who can concentrate on something for hours at a time. As I’m sweeping through the Internet with my net cast wide for nuggets of beauty, humour, and maybe even wisdom, she delves deep into genealogical data searching for clues that might provide links to her family tree. To the point where her hot drink grows cold because she forgets it’s there. I’m no longer capable of that kind of concentration.

It feels like a seismic shift, this dwindling ability to study anything hard and long, and a departure from the past when one sat in a favourite nook with a favourite book, savouring the thoughts and words of a voice from another time or place, perhaps in another language. It’s cutting us off from the past. While some people still read Jane Austen, and a handful read Dickens, there are few left who read translations of Homer or Marcus Aurelius, and fewer still who can read them in Greek or Latin.

The main culprit is the sheer volume of contemporary information we must process to adapt to living in an electronic age. We’re like baleen whales sieving for krill. To be a citizen of the Internet one is required to digest all sorts of facts and factoids and issues about everything under the sun and beyond. It’s enough to drive Southern evangelists to the mythic comfort of the Christian Bible (though even fewer of them appear to enjoy the rolling passages and magisterial tones of the King James translation).

Given that much of contemporary information feels like “a tedious argument of insidious intent,” we need more buffer zones — places or activities that shield us, at least temporarily, from the onslaught. Playing a musical instrument, cooking, drawing, having a picnic, walking in the park, meditating, reading for pleasure – all these things help, as long as you’re not on your cell phone.

Undoubtedly my brain is not as agile as it once was — not that I had any intention to read Spencer’s Faerie Queen — but as we head for what Nicolas Carr calls “the Shallows,” it’s apparent to me that age is not the only factor in my gentle demise. The zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, is reductive. Newsbytes, tweets, and click-bait headlines are conditioning us to view the world kaleidoscopically, reacting with “Oooh” or “Oh no” at each passing spark. And it’s not merely reductive. It’s addictive. It may even work as a form of mind control. Clearly there are implications.

Where’s Walden?

Where’s Walden

By Gene Wilburn

“Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let our affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand…Simplify, simplify!” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

There are books we read for pleasure, like mysteries and spy stories; books we read for learning, such as On the Origin of Species; and books we read for philosophical or spiritual enlightenment. A very few books manage to combine all three, and they’re the ones that become lifelong companions. For me, one of these is Walden, by 19th-Century New England philosopher and writer, Henry David Thoreau.

I first read Walden in high school and, as it has for generations of readers, it struck a resonant chord in the very fabric of my being. Why was there so much striving for “things” and so much busyness in daily life –everyone trying to get ahead, scurrying around in an endless cycle of acquisition? As a skinny, gawky intellectually-oriented teenager I was already asking myself the same kinds of questions, and, here in Walden, was somebody asking them in language that was exhilarating and penetrating. For the first time in my life, I encountered an intellectual soul mate.

As an even younger boy I lived in the country, about a mile and a half from the nearest town, which in turn had population of 600. It was a quiet place to live. Being older than my half-siblings, I spent a fair bit of time alone. Often I’d tramp to the slough behind our farm where I would sit and watch the herons fishing for carp and frogs, or try to catch a glimpse of the squirrels that hid on the far side of the shagbark hickories as I approached. I’d listen to the insect and frog chorus, imbibe the sweet smell of water plants, and think about things. That’s about the closest I ever got to Thoreau’s cabin in the woods.

Then life happened. Education, job hunting, marriage, working, parenting, acquiring, paying bills, and sneaking in as much reading, photography, and guitar playing as possible. Hectic at times. At times, frenetic. Especially after the World Wide Web and portable computing devices transformed the planet in profoundly McLuhanistic ways. As a tech worker I did my part to build the information infrastructure that we now take as commonplace. And this, I admit, has led to anything but simplicity. The world has never seemed more complex.

But, if you stay the course and make it to the end of the employment cycle in relatively good health, you reach a new beginning: retirement. Not, of course, that retirement is a piece of cake, or always pleasant, but it presents new possibilities, one of which is the opportunity to regain some simplicity.

For most of us retirees, this starts with downsizing and decluttering. As George Carlin pointed out, we acquire a lot of “stuff” in a lifetime, and you realize you need much less of this “stuff” than you previously did. Do I still need my Canadian Tire ice skates? I’m no longer in a folk-music trio and, face it, I never was a great guitarist anyway so why did I have so many nice guitars? And my Nikon gear, as lovely as it can be, but bulky and heavy to carry around. And did I really need two completely different camera systems with accompanying lenses? Unless you’re a collector or a pro (or advanced amateur), this no longer makes sense so you sell some of it, give a lot of it away, and jettison the bits nobody wants anymore.

But while decluttering is good, and downsizing may be appropriate, neither is the ultimate goal. What Thoreau was getting at in his transcendental meditations was quieting life enough to be able to embrace the spirit. Not meaning spirit in a religious way, though that’s fine too if that’s your inclination, but especially to contemplate nature and your place in it. And part of that spirit is the human spirit, which includes the thoughts and meditations of generations of persons on the planet as passed down to us through the magic of the written word.

Retirement is the ideal time to meditate on and contemplate life, but there’s no reason to try to do this entirely on your own when you can, as Newton said, “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and gaze across a broad vista of astonishing thoughts and knowledge. It’s out there: the writings of the scientists, the mystics, the poets, the historians, the story tellers, the philosophers spanning the present all the way back to the pre-Socratic Greeks. And it’s all easily accessible.

The gift of retirement is the gift of time – time to devote to studies and projects and, above all, growth. You do this to keep your mind supple, to avoid the “hardening of the categories” that lock you into fixed thoughts and opinions. It’s a time to expand the spirit, not shrink it through the lazy thinking of “received opinions.” From what can be gleaned of medical studies, it’s better for your aging brain health as well. Learning new things, languages, ideas, crafts – things that nourish your spirit and keep your brain active – creates new neural pathways in the brain and helps, apparently, to stave off, or at least delay, dementia.

Life will never again be as simple as it was in Thoreau’s time and few of us can retire to the back woods, so it’s upon each of us to create a “Walden of the mind” by simplifying what we can. Complexities will still remain. You still need to somehow remember all your computer passwords. Thus I leave the final word to Professor Einstein.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” ~ Albert Einstein