a kaddish for disappearing islands

This book caught my attention today and I couldn’t put it down. Plunked down my little piece of plastic and carried the irresistible treasure back to Brooklyn.

It’s called:

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will
by Judith Schalansky. Translated from the German by Christine Lo.

Beautifully illustrated with a topo map of each island on the right, and a blurb about the spot on the left — this book gives us the author’s dreamscape — lands exotic, remote and unattainable, stripped of their political affiliation, roads and nationhood. They are bits of land as they might have appeared to explorers a thousand years ago or more. Except that they were a hell of a lot bigger then.

But rather than being remote and unattainable — islands I have never set foot on and never will — a number of them are classics in the anthropological literature or well known for their roles in world history. Tikopia, for example. Easter Island. Iwo Jima. Feet have trampled them. And stepping on them has been significant to global politics as well as to human understanding.

Schalansky’s book is wistful and romantic. Bound in such a way as to look like a vintage find at the flea market. Bound to appeal when we’ve just climbed out of a bustling overcrowded subway, and walked into a bookshop to escape the sea of humanity scurrying like rats across New York City sidewalks. The book is nothing, if not calming. Almost sepia in its effect on our consciousness (but choosing a light sea blue instead). It presents itself as an antidote to whatever it is we’re needing to escape at the moment.

To tell the truth, I’m not a small, remote island person. I’m not at all lulled by gorgeous calderas surrounded by and slipping into the sea at an alarming rate. I don’t care how white the sand or clear the water, this is a book of fifty islands that I, too, have never set foot on and (with some regret) never will.

I bought the book because these islands are slipping into oblivion through rising sea waters, and some of them are almost gone — and the author doesn’t really go there, ecologically speaking.  But at least she documents them. Once these islands thrived, and were key points in trade routes. Once they were essential stepping stones to creatures in their crossing of the seas. I just keep wondering where their populations will go when their bit of sand slips under the sea.  This part alarms me.  There’s so very much to do.

Sometimes I want to be a disappearing island.

Sometimes I want to be a landmark that endures. Sometimes my dial is set somewhere in the middle. Hoping at least my children think of me a bit after I am gone.  Scale-slipping, Erin calls it.  Islands, humans, fractals —

Topography shifts.

I mean, that’s just how it is.  Should we hold romantic notions for what has slipped away? Cling to the memory? Work hard to save endangered places? Or should we draw new maps and celebrate what is or what will be?  Or at least deal with it head on?  Can we pretend that change is not upon us?

Should we mark our graves or send up human dust into the wind? Or does it matter?

We mourn our dead, and grieve our dying. And feel sometimes unbearable loss for what will disappear. We support ecological programs that try to stave off disappearing shorelines. And dream of stepping foot on delicate islands before their time is up.

And I mourn as well — but I’m just not sure that mourning is a very useful practice. Or if the task of the living is just to be alive.

I vacillate between acceptance, outrage, and forbearance. Used to think being pro-active was what it was all about. Now, I think of unintended consequences of our best intentions.

Should I act? Or should I watch and see what happens?

And if I act — will I place my imprint on the future? And will that bring more harm instead of good? Sometimes I’m caught inside this push-pull of every single action. Sometimes I charge forth without a thought. Sometimes I hide and wait for history to find me.

And history finds me, just as sure as it finds you — and Schalansky’s fifty disappearing islands.

That’s the strangest part. I step back inside my indecision — and someone steps forward and takes action in my place. And the topography of these terribly remote islands — they too are replaced by something somewhere else.

Do we act to preserve what’s familiar and before us? Or accept that oceans rise and we’re the cause? Do we step up to meet the challenge of our actions? And can we love our fellow humans despite our fatal flaws?

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She’s most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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26 Responses to a kaddish for disappearing islands

  1. Reb Deb says:

    This is beautiful. I know these indecisions so well. What Erin apparently calls “scale-slipping” I think of as shifting perspectives; but I love the reference to fractals. Sometimes I use it as an antidote. When my own existence looms too large, I consider galaxies and aeons. When infinity and eternity overwhelm me then I shift to simple human scale — or the intricate network of veins and arteries, nerves and muscles, sinews and tendons, breath and blood.

    In any case, to be alive is to make marks, to affect one’s surroundings. Actually, to move is to do so, animate or not. For that matter, to have mass and be affected by gravity means, in turn affecting the universe. And you know what? It’s permitted. To be, and to do, and to decide.

    Most individual actions aren’t world-shaking; it’s action in the aggregate that adds up. That’s not to say that individual actions don’t matter, but it’s easy to overestimate our importance. Hence the galaxy view.

  2. mira says:

    Hence the galactic view, yes — I prefer contemplating that one. Or the role of bugs and microbes inside the compost pile. The whole range of scale-slipping, or fractals, gives us a unifying field or sense of the familiar. But does it make our actions inevitable or predictable? I find the notion of ‘free will’ less and less interesting or ‘true’ than the constraints of these overarching patterns. All that analytical thinking! And I find that my actions that really count do not come from that rational, analytical place at all.

  3. erin says:

    Deb, I do the same scale-slipping you describe, thinking galactically when petty problems like my bills swarm my brain and hold sleep at bay, or thinking minutely about the miracle of my own organism or my cat’s when the sturm und drang of world politics carries me to despair.

    And you’re right. When I breathe, I disturb the molecules around me, and I change the water in Africa and the wind in Greenland. What to do about that on the planetary scale, though, I can’t understand—so I focus on my cat’s dinner and my sleep, as I lie awake worrying about Mira’s existential angst in the face of providence vs. predestination conundra.

    And I hope that stroking my dog’s ears and nuzzling my cat’s neck will somehow help.

  4. Reb Deb says:

    Erin — What to do on the planetary scale: as they say, think globally, act locally. If stroking your dog’s ears and nuzzling your cat’s neck helps you get up and make the world a better place tomorrow, then it helped.

    Actually, changing the water in Africa and the wind in Greenland — you don’t have to do anything about that. It’s already accounted for, already part of the ordinary path of things.

    And you help Mira’s angst, I’m sure of it.

    So that leaves the sturm und drang of world politics. And there, if you’re not a world-politics-thinking-animal (which I’m not), you act closer to home. Reduce-reuse-recycle. Vote. Simplify. Eat locally. Volunteer. Avoid sweatshop-produced items. Carpool. That sort of thing.

    It adds up. And even if, God forbid, it doesn’t add up enough and soon enough, it’s what we can do. So we do it.

    Mira — Are you surprised that your most important/meaningful actions don’t originate with rational cogitation? Perhaps the things that are most important are so blindingly obvious that we don’t have to take the time to think about them because we’ve already perceived them.

    I agree, figuring out whether or not we have free will isn’t that interesting; it requires deciding how we know anything, and that’s a circular discussion if ever there was one.

    But the lovely thing about the overarching patterns you mention is that Chaos Theory tells us that, even though patterns exist, there are definitely limits to our knowing what’s actually going to happen next. Starting from what looks like the same position, our paths forward can diverge wildly — and still stay within some larger, predictable-but-unpredictable pattern. Overall result, predictable. What one’s own part of it will look like, how it will fit in, what it will contribute — have to live it to find out.

    I think that’s magical and wonderful. It seems like both “free will” and “predestination” all at once. Rabbi Akiva said: “All is forseen, yet free will is given.” I love paradoxes; when I’m in the presence of one, I think I’m nearing the truth. Or at least a truth.

    • erin says:

      You know, when it comes to stroking my dog’s ears or nuzzling my cats’ necks, I figure that if it makes them feel better, that’s probably right up there with any other good I might manage to do in the world.

      Have you and Mira been discussing her angst backstage? 😉 I can hope I help. I do know this collaboration has changed my life for the better in ways I am only beginning to count.

      As for politics, yes; we do both the macro and the micro, and whatever we can in the middle, too. And we hope it adds up. And yes, we do it because it’s what we can do. Pragmatic idealism.

      And I think Mira is asking another question altogether: what do we do when we’re not sure what counts as “good” or “better,” when what we see is change but we wonder whether the change is good or bad or perhaps just change? Should we just perhaps stop all our doing and accept?

      • Reb Deb says:

        No, Mira and I haven’t been; I’m just reading what she wrote here. (And willing to be wrong, Mira, so please correct as necessary.) Much like what I hear changing in Erin’s playing: an openness and vulnerability, more flexibility and gentleness and less stridence .

        In my experience, existential angst is not something that can be mitigated intellectually. Besides good neuro-chemicals, the best thing I know for calming/healing existential angst is being present, comfortable, and positive (joyous, happy, content, curious, involved, whatever) in the here-and-now … which means, for me, being deeply connected to a narrative, which often includes connection to individuals and/or community. (Not necessarily aware of the narrative, but I know it’s part of it for me. My own story, a communal “master story,” the last book I read.)

        So I put all that together and say, I’m sure you’re helping Mira’s existential angst. So now Mira, tell me if I’m reading aright.

      • mira says:

        Discussing my angst backstage: absolutely not. Angst? What angst?

        And being unclear regarding how to proceed, I see as a virtue. It can slow me down enough to consider options others bring to the table. Why would I want to be limited to my own (lack of) imagination?

        • Reb Deb says:

          Very cool idea!

          Erin brought up the angst, not me. I assumed she knew what she was talking about.

  5. mira says:

    My most powerful responses come from both a rational and an emotional place. The rational mind spends an inordinate amount of time trying to understand and analyze. Sometimes years. The emotional mind makes snap decisions — which frequently are different from what the analysis would have predicted or recommended. It’s not that one part of the brain is overriding the other — it’s frequently that the emotional mind knows when to act — and it is that ‘when’ that changes everything.

    As much as I’d like to act from a rational pro-active place, my disposition is such that I wait and see. When a door opens, I walk through. But I do not open that door myself. And I do not lock the door behind me.

  6. mira says:

    My previous response was to Deb. This one is to you, Erin.

    I know it sounds fatalistic — but I’m just finally sick of trying to control everything through rational decision-making and analysis. I’ve decided, finally, just to live and see what happens. Much more fun. Much more surprising. I’ve become a bit sick of saying ‘no’ to just about every experience outside a familiar web (ok, albeit an international familiar web) — and I’m starting to think that maybe saying ‘yes’ to new life experiences is what that word ‘life’ is all about.

    I think what this means is that I’m beginning to heal some of the grief and loss. Maybe give up the shorn hair and other signs of backing away from life and the living. I’m still not sure how to do this. But yes, perhaps stopping all the forced doing and reaching for acceptance is what’s on the agenda. I know too, Erin, that you are a big influence on this healing process. Even if it appears I’m kicking and screaming in resistance the whole way!

    The door is opening. I plan on walking through. I did not open that door. Did you?

    • erin says:

      I think we might have opened up that door together, by joining hands in this project.

      With all that death heaping up on me, along with the multiple anxieties of getting my consultancy to fledge, I had gotten pretty backed up emotionally. Setting off on this “kaddish in two-part harmony” journey with you got me moving again, with blood pumping and emotions flowing and all, and the ways that our collaboration keeps surprising us keeps it fresh, day after day and week after week.

      Thank you.

  7. Reb Deb says:

    That makes perfect sense, and I think it’s what I was trying to say. Emotions are another way of processing information — of “thinking” about things, if you will. Tends to be much faster; and because that kind of processing isn’t done in words, mysterious. It can be more accurate, it can be less accurate; though as you point out, there are times when one has incredible certainty.

    My question is, why would you like to act from a rational pro-active place?

  8. mira says:

    Can I assume that’s a rhetorical question?

    • Reb Deb says:

      No. It’s really not. Why do you privilege rational thought? (I have an idea, but I’d like to hear yours.)

  9. erin says:

    Deb, the first handful of times I read your latest comment, I took it at face value, and it seemed so reasonable! Then I found the part I get stuck on: “Tends to be much faster.” Maybe for you! But for me it often takes a while before I can “figure out” or “understand” [choosing those words deliberately] what it is I’m feeling. Yes, I feel things, but no, it’s not faster. I often need time and thought to recognize what those feelings are and what they mean.

    Thinking is way faster. And proactive thinking? Well, that’s just good practice, right?

  10. mira says:

    That’s it. Exactly! I’ve never heard anyone else ever say it besides me. It can take me years sometimes to know what I feel. It’s not fast at all. Sometimes it’s very fast. I’ve followed each of them where they eventually lead. But first and foremost must come the knowing. I want that certainty. I want to know without a shadow of a doubt what I feel. And I’m willing to wait for that knowledge for as long as it takes.

    • Reb Deb says:

      I’ll ask the parallel question, then: What’s so sacred about certainty?

      • erin says:

        Aren’t we all trying to reach certainty? Whether through rational thought or attention to our emotions, aren’t we all trying to reach a state of confidence about our conclusions, decisions, and actions? Aren’t we all trying to eliminate or at least reduce the doubt?

        We’re none of us getting there most of the time—or we think we are, but that’s only because we’re blocking out competing possibilities—but that doesn’t seem to stop us from trying.

  11. Reb Deb says:

    No, no, you guys missed an important point! My point is that *when* emotions pop up, *then* they are faster. In other words, they’re faster when they’re there. I know exactly what you both mean by not being sure what one feels. That’s normal, for us. Lots of people don’t live like that — their emotions talk to them clearly all the time. For me, too, that clarity (not merely emotional, but often visceral — I process viscerally/somatically as much as anything) is an occasional thing.

    And furthermore, just because the emotions have processed quickly doesn’t mean that they’ve come to an appropriate conclusion! Emotional processing may be like a glance — taking in the broad picture and just enough detail to form a conclusion based on prior knowledge. But one may have missed all sorts of crucial parts that explain why this situation is in fact not analogous to the earlier one.

    In fact, what’s-his-name who wrote the book on Emotional Intelligence suggests that our emotional processing centers haven’t changed a whole lot since they evolved to deal with woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. So their shortcuts may be woefully inadequate. (I admit to not having gotten too far in the book and it was over a decade ago, but I remember that.) I am quite sure they can be trained, though.

    And, I’m quite sure that we can train ourselves and learn how to recognize/tune into/feel our emotions more quickly-accurately-precisely. Emotional intelligence can grow, just as cognitive intelligence can.

    And Erin, the problem with taking so long to figure out or understand (or whatever) one’s emotions is that they’re there, influencing thought and decision-making, without being understood or sometimes even recognized or acknowledged. Which is why it’s worth focussing on learning them/learning about them. Because they’re part of your brain chemistry whether you’re aware of it or not.

    • erin says:

      Yes, they’re definitely there, and they do a real number on my logical processing—darn them! But still, for me, trying to figure out what my emotions are telling me most of the time isn’t going to make them speak clearly any sooner than if I just proceed on my merry rational way and let them catch up with me in their own time.

      Daniel Goleman. I read it, too—pretty good book. Or at least it started out well, and then I got bored and moved on after a few chapters.

      Here’s where I find the emotional cues helpful: Roger Schwarz, the facilitative leadership guru, talks about them in terms of gifts. We might not understand what our emotional responses mean or where they’re coming from, but if we pay attention, we can recognize that we’re having them, and we can notice patterns about what else is going on when those emotional responses drown out our reason.

      For example, for me the sensation of blind panic when I’m leading a group is usually a cue that I’m trying to solve the group’s problem or respond to a hostile member’s challenge. I panic because I don’t know have an answer. The gift of that panic is that it reminds me that having an answer is not my job—in fact, it’s expressly not my job. It’s their job. My job is to guide the conversation—to notice and navigate the problems in their ways of holding the conversation.

  12. mira says:

    Interesting point — and I come from the opposite direction with it. Analysis is what gives me the larger view, while emotions make things small, intimate and personal. I need to step outside myself — or rather, I was raised to step outside myself and focus on the larger picture. See my post here today (the electrical fire — a parable) for a very good example of this. I was raised such that nothing was about me. Born in the Spring of 1948 with a (bio)father who had radiation sickness, the ‘miracle’ of my existence, according to my mother, was merely an eternal reminder of the larger miracle that spring. Kind of like a tattoo. The larger event was stamped upon my body. Everything was like that.

    As far as privileging the rational over the emotional — it’s rooted in part on the above, and in part on a need for some semblance of control. Emotions are nothing I have a handle on. I feel viscerally, but what does it mean? Takes me a while to interpret what the damned emotion is, for starters. And then, once I discover it I don’t want it to take me by surprise. I don’t want to have acted on an emotion I haven’t even understood. Stepping back and observing is such a safer distance. And after all, I’ve made a career of it! For an anthropologist, it’s never about me. As a human being, however, those damned emotions sneak up and do as they please!

    • erin says:

      I should have been an anthropologist, I guess. What was I thinking, going to music school? I could have at least trained to become an astronaut.

      • mira says:

        I wanted to grow up to be a beatnik.
        Then I wanted to be a beatnik and an anthropologist.
        Then I wanted to be a beatnik and an anthropologist and an astronaut.
        Two out of three’s not so bad.

        But I never had the courage to step my toe into the waters of music or dance.
        That’s probably a good very thing.

        • erin says:

          I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. Being as cool as a beatnik was never in the cards for me. Instead, I became a musician and geek. 0 out of 2, but I did end up with a lot of black clothing.

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