Listening to the song of the Chesapeake

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As a resident for the last 25 years of Baltimore, Maryland, I have spent many days on the Bay, usually in a sailboat. I, like many Marylanders, am acutely aware of the state of the Chesapeake Bay and her many tributaries. My son has been studying water quality in his 7th grade geography class, which included a trip to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s study center on Smith Island—a truly special place, one of only two inhabited islands in the Bay. Tom Horton’s wonderful book about his time living on Smith, An Island Out of Time, is aptly titled.

The recent Report Card issued in late 2014 by CBF gives the state of the Bay a D+, the same grade as in 2012. Hard-won improvements in water quality were offset by losses in other areas, the impression of no progress defying the efforts of thousands of people and the expense of millions of dollars. The Bay is a complex ecosystem, its watershed sprawling over parts of six states, including major urban areas, two shipping ports, intense suburban development, industry and farmland. As the Report Card says: Continue reading

Working past limits to learn from a wise teacher: my body

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Part of living into new stories of connection and belonging is to recognize that our body is an incredible gift, an ally in this life, and a teacher. Recently, in the middle of a particularly grueling interval training class at the gym, this thought hit me: the only way to become the sort of person who can do these exercises is to do them. In one of the cruelly brief breaks between stations, I mentioned it to the class leader. Joking as I struggled to catch my breath that it’s a good lesson for life. She said, not only that, but you’re not supposed to get good at the exercises. It works this way: as soon as you can do them, you have to find a way to challenge yourself again. You always want to be reaching to the point of failure.

Reaching to the point of failure is the opposite of how I was raised. I was taught that whatever you do, at all costs, never, never, ever fail. Play it safe, go easy, don’t make waves, toe the line, do what you’re told. Oh, and excel at things. At everything you try, preferably. Bonus points for making it look easy. If you can’t excel, don’t try it. If this sounds unfamiliar and sadly neurotic to you, congratulations. You’re probably better equipped to live in these crazy times than I am. My inherited aversion to risk seems related to my disconnection from my body. Both come from and engender a lack of trust. Continue reading

Our voices, our power: women’s paradigm-shifting work

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“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.” ~ Audre Lorde, 1984

The resonance of our inner callings with needs and trends in the outer world seems to be gathering momentum lately. In this time between stories, I am being urged, by both interior and exterior promptings, to value my unique voice and speak up more. The signs I get range from encouragement like Audre Lorde’s 1984 speech, to learning from Priscilla Ward’s eye-opening essay about her experience as a black woman, to the fierce witnessing of Nell Bernstein in this interview about her book on juvenile incarceration, Burning Down the House.

At the time of Audre Lorde’s speech, I was just graduating from college, looking to work a year in a firm before grad school. Very much playing the game by the rules. Ronald Reagan as President was busy dismantling the social safety net so carefully woven over the last decades. The Soviet Bloc countries boycotted the summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Feminism had been around for a couple of decades. Though I did not identify as a feminist, I was entering a traditionally male profession, slipping noiselessly if unconsciously through the access hard-won by my sisters before me. Continue reading

The essential questions at the heart of our lives

Still-Life_620wLately, I keep bumping up against that old saw, The older I get, the less I know. I have more questions than answers, and while it is an invitation to humility and surrender, I find myself getting frustrated too. Looking for signs and affirmations that I am on the right track. And suspecting that the signs are everywhere, if only I would notice them. Sometimes I think maybe the questions themselves are the sign.

I recently heard Ricardo Semler speaking on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. In 1980, he took over his father’s company, Semco, and redesigned it to be a corporate democracy, where people design their own jobs, define pay levels, and select and evaluate their supervisors. During his 2014 TED talk, Semler recounts his discovery of the power of asking “Three whys in a row” to access deeper wisdom. Continue reading

Jumping out of a moving car is ill-advised, but I did it anyway

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I am not by nature a patient person. Back when I was working with organizations to design and launch sustainability initiatives, we had a metaphor that I liked very much. I borrowed it from one of the early thought leaders of green architecture, William McDonough. He was fond of pointing out that a fundamental problem with sustainable design as defined and implemented is that so much of it was about “being less bad.” He would say, if you’re driving to Canada at 70 miles an hour and you realize you really need to be going to Mexico, you won’t get there by driving to Canada more slowly. You have to turn the car around.

I’m all about turning the car around. Why use all this energy when technology and craft exist to cut our energy use in buildings by 70% right now, today? Yet, clients seemed always to be dragging their feet, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. One day, when I was voicing my frustration with how long all this change stuff was taking, my colleague accused me of wanting to bail out of the car altogether, while it’s still going 50 mph. And he was right! Continue reading

Choosing joy while allowing room for sadness

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Where there is sadness, joy.

Of the four temperaments, I tend to swing between choleric and melancholic. Think Rabbit and Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories. I find it difficult to be around gloomy, negative people because they tend to awaken a deep sadness within me, and pull me down into their misery. Early on, probably through parental influence, I developed a coping strategy of talking myself out of my sadness. After all, what do I have to be sad about? I have a roof over my head, clothing, food, a good education . . . . The list is quite long, yet this exercise often just makes me feel guilty when I am sad, even so.

A child has no idea of the burdens or shadows a parent or family or culture is asking her to carry. I was always a sensitive child, absorbing the emotions of others, too thin-skinned to resist. In the face of all that pain, it felt selfish and uncaring to be joyful. At any rate, when confronted by the sadness of others, it seemed an insurmountable challenge to summon joy. Sadness felt like an anchor, dragging down any momentum to joy, preventing even full sails from driving the boat of my life forward towards the distant horizon. Continue reading

Inhabiting the threshold between injury and pardon

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Where there is injury, pardon;

This third line of St. Francis’ prayer is a difficult one for me, although it does depend on whom I’ve injured. I don’t seem to have as much trouble apologizing when I’ve overreacted or said something unkind to my son as with my husband. This is likely because my ego is less invested in hardened stories about our relationship, the sort of stories that begin with “It’s not fair. . . ,” or “You always. . . ,” or “You never. . . .”

When my son was little, I studied Marshall Rosenthal’s Nonviolent Communication, which appealed to me for its methodical approach and lack of judgment. He teaches that conflict arises from someone’s needs not being met. We can diagnose that in ourselves when an encounter creates a strong emotional response. A feeling of sadness, frustration or anger, then, isn’t wrong or selfish, as I was taught as a child. It is, rather, an entirely natural and reliable guide to one’s inner state, which is produced by an unmet need. Continue reading

Cultivating our ability to balance opposites and heal separation

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This wonderful five-minute talk by Llewellyn Vaughn-Lee about women and the mystery of creation appeals to the great potential of the sacred feminine to help shift our cultural stories. When you think about it, how miraculous it is that women have this ability to bring a new person into the world, to give a soul the experience of this physical plane. Spirit and matter are literally united within a woman’s body.

Throughout most of human history, women, therefore, were the guardians of the spiritual life of the people. Their connection to the earth’s cycles and seasons, as well as its great Creative power, made this connection natural and enduring. Anything we can do to align with the cyclical and the non-linear, the intuitive and the more-than-rational, will feed into this connection. Continue reading

Accept the muse’s assignment

 

2.15.15_Winter woods_620w3“Don’t forget to let it do its work on you.” These words were spoken by a retreat leader in response to my telling him I was eager to get back to work on my novel after the inspiring experiences of the week. It was a beautiful piece of advice, one that I knew immediately to be true on many levels. I was reminded of it again yesterday, reading Steven Pressfield’s blog post on how he healed his self-doubt by working for two years on a book about Alexander the Great, arguably the most confident man in history, one who knew and embraced his destiny even as a child.

Pressfield’s advice on overcoming Resistance in his book The War of Art, fueled me through my novel’s first draft, so I tend to listen to him. His point in yesterday’s post is that the muse gave him the Alexander the Great assignment for his own good, and that all art is a soul contract. What that says to me is: don’t question the inspiration too analytically, just answer the call, put in your best work, and let it do its work on you. Continue reading

Could psilocybin be a shortcut to new stories?

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I’m by turns curious about and frustrated by the way modern culture insists on scientific proof before an experience or phenomenon can be considered “real.” And while absence of proof is hardly proof of absence, there is considerable resistance to believing the unmeasured. This instrumentalism is one of our civilization’s dominant stories, part of the operating system behind our rationality-soaked worship of science.

And so we are driven to shine light on the unseen, to reduce mystery to chemistry, biology or psychology. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the 2014 book, Living With a Wild God, is a good champion of the idea that faith is intellectually lazy, and prefers the question, “Why believe when you can know?” And yet, her book and John Geiger’s The Third Man Factor both admit that certain numinous and mystical experiences elude fully rational explanations. Michael Pollan’s recent piece in The New Yorker, “The Trip Treatment,” is another intriguing foray into the science of human spirituality. Continue reading