Weaving and unraveling in black dog times

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Mythic storyteller Michael Meade tells the story of an old woman weaving in a cave. It is as relevant today as it’s been for the hundreds or thousands of years it’s been told around the fire. Here is the story from the White Mountain Apache, adapted from his book, Why the World Doesn’t End.

The old people of the tribes would tell of a special cave where knowledge of the wonders and workings of the world could be found. Even now, some of the native people say that the cave of knowledge exists and might be discovered again. They say it is tucked away in the side of a mountain. “Not too far to go,” they say, yet no one seems to find it anymore. Despite all the highways and byways, all the thoroughfares and back roads that crosscut the face of the earth, despite all the maps that detail and try to define each area, no one seems to find that old cave. That’s too bad, they say, because inside the cave can be found genuine knowledge about how to act when the dark times come around again and the balance of the world tips away from order and slips towards chaos. Continue reading

Money, politics, and the timely reminder to reserve our energy for what matters

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A fellow Baltimorean who has been a tireless and effective advocate for housing policy reform is calling it quits for lack of funding. Driven by her own sense of justice, she has helped countless elderly folks avoid eviction and called attention to the disgusting inequities in Baltimore housing. A wise man said recently that people have long known how to profit off exploiting poor people. He said, when we can figure out how to profit off helping the poor, well, then. Look out.

It disgusts me that these things always come down to money. But this is not a post about the sacred energy of money or the power of intention or of positive thinking or the secrets of manifesting wealth. This is a rant about politics, a topic I normally avoid. I saw Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings speak last night. He considers himself an ordinary man who has had extraordinary experiences by the grace of God and his own hard work. Pity that he is the exception rather than the rule. Continue reading

War is not the answer: anger, fear, love and widening the lens

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I’ve been reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s a perfect illustration of the threshold between stories. The old stories—of law and order, of command and control, of rich versus poor, of white versus black—are exposed through vivid facts, stories, and history as unfair and inadequate, manipulative and destructive.

Everyone has the power to conjure the stories that we so desperately need now, particularly when it comes to the gulf between people of means and those in poverty, white privilege and the oppression of people of color. Alternative stories are recognizable for their humanity, their appeal to empathy, connection, and belonging.

In “Straight Outta Compton,” Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E and their friends are taking a break outside the record studio in Torrance, where they are producing their second album. The police roll up and get to work harassing and humiliating them in a practiced way, assuming they are gang bangers and dope slingers. The musicians’ protests are met not with respect or the benefit of the doubt, but with threats of further harm. It’s a clear dramatization of the power-over dynamic enabled by the war on drugs. The militarized tactics of police rely on the logic of old stories. Continue reading

Does asking ‘when’ distract us from juicier questions?

Old-New-storyWhen I first started giving talks using the lens of “old story – new story,” I would illustrate my points with examples. Old story is factory farms, mountaintop removal coal mining, clear-cutting forests, Peak Oil, suburban sprawl. New story is organic farming, renewable energy, selective logging, urban agriculture, Net-Zero building, intentional community. I tried to tease out the stories behind them, the contrasting worldviews at the core of these choices. I would say that the world we live in is created by stories of who we are and why we are here.

Several years ago after one of these lectures, a student asked a question that I think about often. Students have a knack for this. At my first teaching job in 1988, a freshman architecture student asked me if the Greeks thought of themselves as “modern.” It was a humbling and exciting moment in which I hoped any knowledge I might be able to impart would not interfere with his ability to ask such juicy questions. This time, the student wanted to know when all this begin, this shift to the modern worldview, the Story of Separation that produces the world we live in today. He asked, When did we start thinking this way? Continue reading

Celebrating one year of creating on the threshold

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In the year since starting this blog, I’ve developed an appreciation for the value and joy of creating for its own sake. While I do enjoy interacting with readers, I also benefit from the practice of releasing control of outcomes. This has become a good place for me to keep learning this lesson:

Let yourself be silently drawn
by the strange pull of
what you really love.
It will not lead you astray.
~ Rumi

One of the strangest aspects of life on the threshold is discovering that it’s possible to make room for everything—the beauty and the ugliness, joy and despair, action and passivity, compassion and destruction. Maybe this is why I find myself thinking about urban street art, even while immersed in preparations for an upcoming Restorying retreat in the woods of West Virginia. Continue reading

Owning the story: the seduction of illusion and the power of dreams

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I am fascinated by the power of story to sell or derail an idea. Sometimes I think of storytelling, that ancient and most connecting of arts, like The Force in “Star Wars.” Story can be used for good or for evil. Even with good intentions, it tends to be used as mindless entertainment, or for selling products or launching a mission-driven campaign. A fine example of the Dark Side of Story is found in the documentary, “Merchants of Doubt,” which jumps off from the 2010 book of the same name by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

These are the players who sow doubt in the public’s mind about the credibility or consensus of the scientific community around a specific topic. They do this to stall or scuttle environmental and health regulations. They started with tobacco, then moved on to toxic chemicals like flame retardants, and now are using the same proven techniques on climate change. The film employs imagery in creative ways. A sleight-of-hand magician demonstrates misdirection and murky banks of hidden files signify the “playbook” of confusion and lies. Archival footage of experts is intercut with contemporary interviews of the same people, to dramatize the passage of decades, the sweep of lives dedicated either to scientific study or to its obfuscation. Continue reading

Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech shows the disconnecting effect of naked facts

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Thirty-six years ago, President Carter made a televised speech during prime time. It was a political disaster, and has since been called derisively the “Malaise Speech.” It’s available on YouTube, but I ran across it watching Michael Moore’s 2009 film, “Capitalism: a Love Story.” The speech is fascinating, in an anthropological kind of way. Carter looks so wooden and sincere up there, shaking his fist to occasionally animate his otherwise stiff body.

After telling his fellow Americans how upset he is about the low ebb of our national self-confidence, he launches into his advice. From the perspective of over twenty years in the green movement, his words are eerily familiar. He proposes using energy as a rallying point to renew America’s confidence and spirit, along with our economy. What was it about this bald truth-telling that equated to political suicide? He clearly did not display the gift of rhetoric that several of his successors did, but I think it was a deadly mixture of message and delivery that doomed him. Continue reading

Take two sunsets and call me in the morning

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I made this painting last evening during the sunset. We were in Hawk Cove, just outside Middle River where we keep our boat docked. With only a slight breeze, we were able to poke along with the mainsail instead of going to the trouble of anchoring. I was attracted to an amazing bulge of shockingly white cloud erupting from the bank of blue-gray on the horizon. The tinge of yellow and peach from the descending sun would be interesting to try to capture in watercolor.

As soon as I began, circumstances conspired to annoy me. My husband was feeling too relaxed after a nice picnic dinner to steer, so the boat twisted slowly away from my view. Since the sunset would soon be over, he wanted to start the engine and be on our way. As soon as he made this known, I protested. One of the best things about a sunset on water is the stillness that settles over everything. It’s also almost impossible to capture it in a painting, because the scene is constantly changing. Continue reading

Challenging the Dreamers: Ta’Nehisi Coates on the deadly power of stories

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With the fiercely honest, gorgeous language storm that is Between the World and Me, Ta’Nehisi Coates offers no prescriptions, plans or programs. He simply holds up the chipped, tarnished mirror that we call “civilization” to show us what he calls “the dream.” I love this book. It has broken my heart in a way that few books have. It has cracked me open and turned me upside down. To say that it challenges my assumptions about the state of race relations in this country is as far off the mark as saying that Silent Spring is a book about songbirds.

It’s not a long book and yet it contains everything. Worlds, galaxies, histories, ancestors. Having lived for the past twenty-five years in Baltimore, I enjoyed listening to the recorded version, hearing his words in his Baltimore-tinged voice. Even though I’m well aware that his Baltimore was vastly different from mine, a tiny part of me feels connected. So many thoughts, reactions, fears, despairs, and hopes are swirling in my body in this moment—a sure sign that this is one of those books that changes everything. I will listen again and then read it too and insist that everyone I encounter read it. It’s that important. Continue reading

Portland, Baltimore, denial, disruptive change and the stages of grief

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Years ago, I read a little book of philosophy called Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, by Gordon Livingston. It’s organized into thirty pithy and helpful truths. Number fifteen is this: “Only bad things happen quickly.” I have a little game I play with myself whenever I think of this maxim (which is pretty frequently, even over ten years later). I theorize good things that could happen suddenly, as if even one would somehow undermine the truth of it.

The fact is that many bad things do happen suddenly and catastrophically. Earthquakes, for instance. Living in Maryland, that’s not something we have to worry about. Although we actually had one a few years ago, it was small and brief. What would it be like to have this complacency suddenly shaken by new science, as happened with the recent New Yorker article about the Cascadia Subduction Zone? This unstable tectonic plate off the coast of Oregon and Washington is apparently overdue for a major disruption. Both states boast cities and towns burgeoning with hipsters and tech companies, excellent coffee and vital industry, great music, agriculture, wine, and an embarrassment of natural wonders. An entire civilization has sprung up in the quiet interval since the last earthquake-and-tsunami in January of 1700. Continue reading