Unfinished Business by Eric Francis

Photo by Lanvi Nguyen

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Dear Friend and Reader:

How is your self-actualization project going? Are you feeling the strain of Mars retrograde, pushing on all those planets in Capricorn? Are you noticing it in the world — the stress, the polarization and the chaos?

Are you feeling the pressure? Do you find yourself wishing that people would just wake up? That is exactly when to set your alarm clock for right now.

We are as of this writing at the peak of Mars retrograde, as it takes action (square) on Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto. Among the qualities illustrated is digging into the past. Mars represents the individual, particularly when in Aries. Retrograde, the movement is introspective, self-inquisitive, and soul-searching.

Mars retrograde making friction with Capricorn describes a quest for resolving unfinished business of the past. Or, it can represent that same material seeming to arise on its own and calling for resolution. Much of this will involve family. Right now, at least in the United States, family drama is being projected onto the big screen as political drama. Many are caught in the polarized spectacle of the election, with both factions in this seeming battle convinced that it will be the end of the world if the other side wins.

Underneath all of this is a level of anger that for many descends into rage. I have not spoken much about the anger elements of Mars retrograde, though it is at the core of our experience at this time in history. We have a lot to be angry about, which is a sign of unresolved material. There’s also the part about having the topic about which it is appropriate to be angry be pre-approved by a kind of fashion committee, otherwise the anger is wrong and offensive.

That is not how anger is healed. That is not how past material is resolved. Rather, it’s the sure way to dig oneself in deeper. The anger being expressed toward other people does not merely divide us from one another; it divides us from ourselves.

Planet Waves
Photo by Lanvi Nguyen. All photos by Lanvi in this edition were created Wednesday at the Ashokan Reservoir and on surrounding watershed land in Ulster County, NY.

The Authoritarian Conditioning of Family and Politics

At the heart of the modern opera is unfinished family business. This may seem like an intellectual notion, or something reserved for the stage: the stuff of playwrights. If so, that’s only because the theory has gone untested in our era. However, there is a real issue here of people needing to confront the possibility that their parents betrayed them or failed them in major ways. To heal this takes work, and moreover, it takes courage.

Anyone who understands the authoritarian conditioning of both family and politics can see the connection between the two. Ultimately, the government and its supposed leaders are in loco parentis. That means in place of a parent, such as a teacher responsible for children. And often, those authority figures abuse their power, following on from the traumas created by parents.

Many currently acting in the role of parents are themselves no more mature than petulant children, as evidenced in Tuesday night’s “debate” between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. This is the drama of an abusive household, magnified to the scale of society. It’s complete with perpetrators, enablers, victims, and rescuers in various roles as contestants, moderator, commentators, and spectators throwing money and disgust at the whole thing.

Right behind that is the Covid disaster. And right behind that still exists every problem that the United States and the world had one year ago today, suddenly multiplied many times over. Mars retrograde — the rare person seeking to individuate — is trying with all its might to find itself in the midst of chaos and oppression. It describes struggling to find the confidence to push back against it, and to not take out the anger and abuse on oneself.

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Photo by Lanvi Nguyen.

Learning How Not To Be Infantilized

Yet the far more worthy goal is to dismantle one’s individual conditioning to take abuse. That means learning how not to be infantilized (such as by an “expert” or “authority”), nor to give up one’s power. Part of the internal conditioning is the fear of rejection by the family, which means by society.

Lurking in the back of the Covid mess is what seems to be the fear of death. What we experience and witness as the fear of death is more often the fear of life: of being alive. Death is inevitable; really living is not. Rather than attempting to confront the fear of death, it’s much easier to smother oneself. It’s much more difficult to strive to live fully and courageously.

Part of the problem is that being subjected to this kind of condition means being compelled to accept lies, or otherwise face expulsion (which in the primal sense means death). If you wonder why people are so easy to lie to, and why they accept this so readily, consider that it comes along with a death threat, whether subliminal or overt.

Yet for those determined to live while you are here, there is no choice in the matter. You live because that is the thing to do. Right now, one of the most important aspects of living is to confront unfinished business. Much of that unfinished business means figuring out just how you’ve been lied to, so that you can embrace your personal truth. One must necessarily lead to the other. It is not possible to know what is true, or what truth means, without recognizing what is untrue.

Planet Waves
Photo by Lanvi Nguyen.

Visiting Model City, New York (Love Canal)

This week, I had my own experience of Mars retrograde square Saturn: I dug out my first investigative feature, reported and written in 1983. It was about the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York. Starting in the mid-1940s, a development of about 900 homes was built on top of and around a chemical and nuclear waste dump. It started as a partially-completed canal dug by a guy named William T. Love.

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Abandoned “first ring” home adjacent to the chemical dump at Love Canal. Photo via SUNY Buffalo Digital Archive.

Love actually wanted to build a development called “Model City,” but the idea never caught on. Instead, he sold the land to the Hooker Chemical Company, which used it as a chemical dump. About 21,000 tons of chemical waste (including PCBs and dioxins) and radioactive waste (from the Manhattan Project) was put into the 16-acre canal, and it was filled in with dirt.

The development, now called Love Canal, was built around the dump. The dump site itself was, in turn, sold to the Niagara Falls School District for $1, for use as (of course) a school and schoolyard and school building site.

The neighborhood continued to develop. The residents had no idea where they were living. It had been concealed from them. Can you guess what happened next? People got sick. Illnesses included previously unexplained stillbirths, birth defects, rashes, epilepsy, abdominal pain, asthma, infections, elevated white cell counts (a precursor to leukemia), developmental disabilities and other sicknesses. Thirty-three percent of residents of the neighborhood had chromosomal damage. That is to say, the chemicals that Love Canal residents were subjected to were so toxic that fully one-third experienced genetic damage from toxic exposure.

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Photo by Lanvi Nguyen.

Lois Gibbs: Figuring Out Where She Lived

By 1978, a house mom named Lois Gibbs, who lived right next to the landfill, personally did extensive research and figured out what the governments — local, county, state, federal and, most significantly, the school district — already knew: they were all living on a chemical dump. Dioxin levels in water near the former canal were an astonishing 53,000 parts per trillion, and it was seeping into their basements. [Levels of just 7 parts per trillion in the human body cause serious health problems, which increase with each part per trillion.]

Underground conduits for telephone, electricity, water and sewer services, provided a route for spread of the toxic brew seeping from the dump, which led right to people’s basements.

Planet Waves
Lois Gibbs, center, who organized the evacuation of Love Canal in the late 1970s. With her are Prof. Adeline Gordon Levine, a sociology professor at SUNY Buffalo who stuck by her through the process and ultimately wrote a book, and Steve Lester, her science advisor and later husband and co-founder of the Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste. Photo via SUNY Buffalo Digital Archives.

All of the government agencies involved took the position that everything was fine, and tried to convince homeowners of this. If you are wondering why I don’t trust public health officials on any level of government, you can see this goes back a long way and has a basis in reality.

The job of state “health” officials is not to look after anyone’s health. It is to look after the interests of the state. Get involved with one of them for five minutes and you will see what I mean; you don’t need tons of toxic waste next to your home to prove it.

I encountered Love Canal in 1983 as a 19-year-old reporter for my campus magazine at SUNY-Buffalo. This was about five years after the neighborhood had been evacuated. Perhaps you can imagine what it took to wrap my mind around the reality that nearly a thousand homes had been built on or adjacent to a chemical dump. That fact alone is so insane that it takes adjusting one’s whole reality to accept that it’s true or even possible.

Yet the angle I was covering was even more outrageous: investigating the State of New York’s plans to re-sell the abandoned, contaminated homes. In fact the state did resell many of them, and the scenario repeated all over again.

This is the country we live in. For those who may think this is a rare or one-time occurrence, I give you my word: I have documented such events many times in the course of 37 years covering science and politics. By events, I mean the actual developments and also the values and attitudes that actually do the most damage.

Americans think of themselves as morally superior to the many nations they have conquered. Yet Love Canal is not just the product of the American way of life. It is the American way of life. That is what we do: build homes and a school (two of them, in fact) on and around a massive chemical dump, and call it paradise. Then when it turns into a nightmare, paint it over and do it again in the same place.

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Photo by Lanvi Nguyen.

Speaking Truth to Power: Holding EPA Representatives Hostage

You might be surprised by many facets of the tale of how Lois Gibbs organized the effort to evacuate the development. First of all, many of her neighbors were not interested at first and some actively resisted. Though they, their children and their dogs were sick, it was initially not a popular cause. Getting out meant giving up the American Dream of a beautiful little home.

Planet Waves
Pock marks in the ground above Love’s canal, where toxic waste barrels collapsed after being buried underground for decades, releasing their contents into the surrounding environment and homes. Photo from the SUNY Buffalo Digital Archives.

Gibbs, who with her pigtails and beaming smile, looked like she might have been the host of Romper Room, had to get organized and get tough. She had to convince her neighbors that they were being poisoned, and that they would have to give up their lives as they knew them. Then she had to lead the fight against government structure that was stonewalling their efforts.

She once said that she learned how to go from making her point in 30 minutes to making it in 30 seconds. That is how long you get with a TV camera in your face, then you get edited down to half that much if you make it onto the news at all.

Then, frustrated by the resistance of Pres. Jimmy Carter to declaring a federal emergency and actually getting the people out, she invited two representatives of the nascent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to visit the Love Canal Homeowners Association office.

When they arrived, she greeted them with a neighbor, invited them in, and locked the door, effectively taking them hostage. Then, a crowd gathered around the office, with the plan of not letting the officials leave. It was safer inside, where Gibbs and one of her co-organizers probably made the two men coffee. They had no intention of harming them.

Then she called the White House and informed them of the situation. The standoff continued for five hours, at the end of which Pres. Carter declared an emergency at Love Canal, and committed to the federal government buying out the contaminated homes.

For those who think that “speaking truth to power” means signing a petition on Change.org, please guess again.

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Photo by Lanvi Nguyen.

A Morality Tale of Our Society

To take on this kind of issue, or any modestly serious issue, or to heal one’s own life, one must grow. You have to be willing to take a risk, and much of that risk means having the guts to confront those in authority, and to use your power. Getting results is not about being polite, or about acting “progressive.” It is about being informed, getting organized and being courageous enough to use what you know.

Love Canal is the morality tale of our society. It is the morality tale of the industrial world. It takes many, many forms throughout the world, all of them a consequence of industrialized chemical society.

Planet Waves
Chain-link fence around the land where hundreds of homes, and the 99th Street Elementary School and grounds once stood, on top of a toxic waste dump. Photo from the SUNY Buffalo Digital Archives.

I would remind you that we live in a world where chemicals are presumed innocent and viruses are presumed guilty. Yet nearly all disease comes from some form of environmental insult.

Love Canal is also a personal metaphor for how we are conditioned to deal with unfinished business: to bury it, to live with it ‘unconsciously’, and ultimately have it take over our realities.

To process chemical waste — which fills some 40,000 such sites today in the U.S. alone — would consume the profits of the companies that put it there. That is not acceptable to shareholders.

If anyone thinks chemical, pharmaceutical and nuclear firms, and government health officials who supposedly regulate them, are trustworthy and care about human life, I wonder where Love Canal fits into that worldview.

The spiritual metaphor of Love Canal involves the way that our society addresses emotional and karmic baggage, much of which involves families. This then seeps out into society and infiltrates every level of social interaction, including the most toxic of all, the political level.

There are many reasons for the insanity we are experiencing. We all know, on some level, that very nearly everything is poisoned. We know the planet is heating up. My readers are familiar with the issues surrounding digital immersion. As Eric McLuhan wrote, “The body is everywhere assaulted by all of our new media, a state which has resulted in deep disorientation of intellect and destabilization of culture throughout the world. In the age of disembodied communication, the meaning and significance and experience of the body is utterly transformed and distorted.”

Here, we are not only not resolving unfinished business; we are creating more and more of it.

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Photo by Lanvi Nguyen.

Maintaining the Integrity of Your Body

In the end, this all comes down to bodily integrity. Whether consciousness is being infiltrated and our ideas about our physical existence are being overwritten, or whether our chromosomes are being damaged, or whether someone is suffering from the trauma of physical or sexual abuse, we are talking about the integrity of the body. Whether we are given poisonous drugs or conned into living next to a chemical waste dump, we are talking about the integrity of the body.

As we “ascend” into nonphysical form via the increasing immersion in digital existence, anything related to the body tends to become more confusing and more frightening. It is increasingly easy to shock people into fear associated with their body.

Planet Waves
Children of Love Canal playing next to the toxic dump site in the late 1970s before being evacuated. Remember that we are all subjected to a wide diversity of chemical insults throughout our lives, and must do what we can to be aware of and minimize additional exposures. Photo from SUNY Buffalo Digital Archives.

When we think of the landscape and the oceans decimated by industry, we need to think of our bodies and how we relate to them. Biology is the most beautiful thing ever devised by nature. Whether you spend an hour in a forest or years studying how cells work, there is little that is more beautiful — and that is our truth and our existence on this plane of consciousness.

We are not merely our biology, but we are very close to it, and it is part of the miracle of existence. To the extent that our bodies have been turned into Love Canal, we must stop that process now. I know of nothing that more closely resembles the contents of Love Canal than the chemical and biological brew that is known to come out of the tip of a hypodermic needle.

Part of our unfinished business is learning how to take care of ourselves. That means learning how to nourish our bodies, how to rest, and how to prevent unnecessary damage. If we cannot take care of the landscape we directly inhabit, we will never be able to take care of our planet, nor will we have the motive to. There is an advantage here: most of us reading (and many other people) actually do have the means to take care of ourselves. Doing so is mostly about the willingness.

We are nature in the first instance. Our connection to our bodies is our connection to the Earth. It starts and ends with us: with your physical form. It is not the be-all and end-all; reality is much more than we see here.

However: here is where we are, in bodies and in a world that needs nothing but healing. That means doing your part. That means acting as if to hold the world together for as long as we are here.

With love,

Planet Waves
Photo by Lanvi Nguyen.

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