BY STEPHANIE BARBÉ HAMMER
March 15, 2017
Friends – a lot of Whidbey denizens call this place “paradise.”
“Welcome to paradise,” my new neighbors (at the time) told us, and “life in paradise” is something that Coupeville acquaintances say to me all the time (of course Coupeville probably IS very close to being paradise, but I digress).
I grimace a little bit whenever I hear this well-meaning phrase. Probably because I am an ex-professor, and so I have to deconstruct and analyze everything.
When I hear “paradise,” I think of my least favorite English author, Milton.
Here is our friend Wikipedia on the etymology of the word:
The word “paradise” entered English from the French paradis, inherited from the Latin paradisus, from Greek parádeisos (παράδεισος), from an Old Iranian paridayda “walled enclosure.” By the 6th/5th century BCE, the Old Iranian word had been adopted as Assyrian pardesu “domain.” It subsequently came to indicate the expansive walled gardens of the First Persian Empire. The term eventually appeared in Greek as parádeisos “park for animals” in the Anabasis of the early 4th century BCE Athenian Xenophon. Aramaic pardaysa similarly reflects “royal park.”
Whenever I investigate something, I always get more than I bargained for — which is awesome. Did you know that “paradise” was connected to Ancient Assyria? I sure didn’t.
But the fact remains that most of us associate “paradise” with “Eden.” Thank goodness Wikipedia bears me out:
Later in Second Temple era Judaism “paradise” came to be associated with the Garden of Eden and prophecies of restoration of Eden, and transferred to heaven. The Septuagint uses the word around 30 times, both of Eden, (Gen.2:7 etc.) and of Eden restored (Ezek. 28:13, 36:35 etc.). In the Apocalypse of Moses, Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise (instead of Eden) after having been tricked by the serpent. Later after the death of Adam, the Archangel Michael carries the body of Adam to be buried in Paradise, which is in the Third Heaven.
My point is that “paradise” for many of us is that place that is lost, either through the Christian notion of original sin or the Jewish notion of humans being dumb and doing dumb things. Or it is the place to be found after we die, as it is in Christian texts such as Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and in the Qur’an, where Wikipedia notes:
In the Qur’an, Paradise is denoted as jannah (garden), with the highest level being called firdaus and used instead of Heaven to describe the ultimate pleasurable place after death, accessible by those who pray, donate to charity, read the Qur’an, believe in: God, the angels, his revealed books, his prophets and messengers, the Day of Judgement and the afterlife, and follow God’s will in their life.
I guess all I’m trying to say is that where we live is not “paradise” because paradise is a perfect place that we either fell out of or haven’t yet gotten into.
“But still,” I can hear you saying. “Shouldn’t we be able to dream of perfection?”
Absolutely. And that’s where I’d like to invite you to think, not about paradise (about the place we lost and/or the place we’ll go after we die (if that’s your belief system), but about utopia.
Utopias are fictional societies that are ideal. Utopia is Greek. It means “nowhere.”
Thomas More coined the term in 1516.
You may remember what happened to Thomas More. He was executed by Henry VIII.
But gosh, he thought big. In his book “Utopia,” there are free hospitals, freedom of religion, and free food for everyone; the equivalents of college dining halls are open to all. His utopia has its flaws — slavery, punishment of pre-marital sex, and the unacceptability of atheism. But considering when it was written, it’s not a bad attempt to think out of the box.
I’d like to invite you to imagine Whidbey Island as a utopia. What would an ideal Whidbey Island society look like?
We already have a free bus service! That’s pretty utopian actually.
What other things would make Whidbey Island a utopia?
I suggest this because we have never needed to think more creatively, more positively, and more utopianly than now. Remember that Voltaire’s Eldorado is set in that horrible mess of a world that is his novel “Candide.” When Voltaire wrote his novel in 1759, women had few rights, Jews were segregated and often set upon violently, and protestants were actively persecuted in France. If you were not white, living in France was dangerous and hard. And forget being gay. Yet Voltaire imagines a perfect democracy where everyone lives in abundance in the middle of his dark satire.
Same for Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She wrote “Herland” in 1915, when women in the U.S. didn’t even have the right to vote. She imagined a technically sophisticated feminist society inhabited only by women, who reproduce through parthenogenesis. Some men crash land in Herland and have quite a learning experience. It’s a pretty interesting book.
So please write a story or a poem about your ideal Whidbey Island. What problems need to be solved? How would you solve them? Have fun! Think big and think positive! Share with friends, and if you like, share in the comments below.
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a published novelist and poet. She is working on a how-to-write-Magical-Realism book, and she is dedicating her blog “Magically Real” to reading seminal 18th century writers who influenced the founding fathers and other key American figures. You can follow her on Twitter or her blog.
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