Voices from the threshold: listening for and telling other-than-human stories

2014_8.28_620w-2In his 2009 book about climate change, Down to the Wire, environmental science professor and visionary green building pioneer, David Orr, describes a thought experiment he once gave to his students. He asked them to act as lawyers representing Homo sapiens before a congress of all beings. The charges read like this:

“Over many thousands of years humans have proved themselves incapable of living as citizens and members of the community of life, and in recent centuries have become so numerous and so hazardous to other members of the community and the biosphere that they should be banished from the Earth forever.” ~ David Orr, Down to the Wire, p. 138

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Dr. King and the here-there-everywhere magic of listening

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“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” ~ Winston Churchill

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” ~ Epictetus

In acting or Improv, accurate listening comes from the heart. The great actor Alan Rickman went so far as to say, ““Acting is about accurate listening.” As an expression of deep connection, listening goes so deep that boundaries and agendas are forgotten. The action, the emotion, the words between two or more people take on a fluid quality that erases individual egos. You turn yourself over to the moment, surrendering to it and to your scene partners with complete trust. You are an instrument being played by a mysterious force, a gong rung by the wind. Continue reading

The farmer, the artist and the light and dark side of creativity

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Why don’t we go to the American Visionary Art Museum more often? It’s so full of energy and inspiration. The artist biographies alone contain worlds: stories of modest lives, of strange and average families, of being marginalized or anonymous or defying odds. And the art! Inspiration, desperation, madness, direct divine download, obsessive detail, love, beauty and hope. The human condition and human potential laid bare—and then bedazzled with mirror fragments, ceramics, jewels, beads, day-glo paint, and silver balloons. The whole messy reality of life as an embodied human.

AVAM is a funhouse of play and whimsy and joy-in-the-face-of . . . . I used to naively believe that such playfulness and inspired creativity was the reserve of a select few Chosen, and that they get to shine more brightly and be more loved than the rest of us. Of course, such artists experience the other extremes of despair, darkness, and depression more acutely too. There is no free lunch. Continue reading

Ask Edith: feeding the wolf

Dear Edith,

I’m shocked that in this day and age you’re actually advising people to send their kids outside. Continue reading

“Grayson” models wonder and humility

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In her book, Grayson, author Lynne Cox looks back to a March morning in her 17th year when she was out training in the ocean off Santa Cruz. By then she had already swum the English Channel and the Catalina Island channel. Some of her descriptions of the sea life she encounters are mesmerizing. She takes you there: the ache and tingle of the 55-degree Pacific, the glitter of phosphorescent algae in the pre-dawn darkness, the rain of 35-pound tuna leaping to feed on smaller fish, the glory of the sunrise over land.

The story wraps around her encounter with a baby grey whale, a male, 18-feet in length, who has just been separated from his mother. Cox is on her way back to shore after her long workout, looking forward to hot chocolate and a warm croissant when her friend, the bait shop owner, comes to the end of the pier to warn her. If she swims to shore, the baby whale will follow and beach himself, which would be fatal. Continue reading

Be a prism: let color have its way with you

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The vibration of energy, of waves, color and sound is the secret signature of all things. Both science and spirituality say this. Artists, musicians and poets have understood it for millennia. I’ve been working with a friend to produce a set of meditation cards based on the chakra system. It has heightened my awareness of color in so many ways, from simple mood shifts to the resonance in my body of a particular color. How much do we really see of the colors we encounter as we move through our day?

Different colors and sounds vibrate at different wavelengths. Being a part of this system, our body acts as a prism, connecting to the White Light of All Consciousness, and refracting it into the individual colors of the spectrum. When you delighted by a rainbow or the dancing colors of a crystal hanging in a sunny window, your body is recognizing its kindred. When I pay attention to the color red or violet or green, I feel an immediate pull of connection. Continue reading

Knowing what stories are for and how to use them

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It is perhaps timely that today’s post concerns Shakespeare’s great play, “Hamlet.” It is, after all, a ghost story. The British mythic storyteller Martin Shaw says the stories we most need now are here; they arrived right on schedule, three thousand years ago. “Hamlet” debuted in 1600, a mere 415 years ago, but Shakespeare drew from the much older medieval story of Amleth, which itself may have derived from an Old Icelandic poem.

While I’m fascinated by the impressively diverse sources of Shakespeare’s plays, I’m even more interested in how they are presented to modern audiences. I recently saw a production of my favorite play, “Hamlet,” that revealed far more of the director’s wish to be “relevant” to a modern audience than of the timeless themes and lessons inherent in the play itself. Her loyalty to our current cultural fascinations eclipsed the mythic struggle of the Prince of Denmark to live up to the pledge his father’s ghost forced from him. Continue reading

Capitalism’s dark side: propaganda is not a story to live by

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In politics and advertising, there’s an old saying: Whoever controls the story, wins. Campaign advisors speak of “framing” a story, of “getting ahead of” stories, “firing the first shot” against their opponent. This appropriation of Story to sell things—whether face cream or a financial bailout or a candidate—is a debasement of the magic and power of storytelling. One favored tactic is to reduce individuals to cartoonish generalizations, as some Presidential candidates are currently doing with immigration.

Michael Moore’s 2009 film about the financial crisis uses just the opposite technique, weaving a story from honest conversations with real people. “Capitalism: a Love Story,” is told in his signature quirky, gloves-off style. In the opening sequence, he intercuts an old classroom film about the Roman Empire with contemporary images of poverty, homelessness, backbreaking labor, and entertainments used to divert the people’s attention from the true state of things. It’s a brilliant commentary not only on how far we have fallen, but on where we might be headed if we don’t take an honest look at the stories we live by. Continue reading

At play in the field between imagination, fantasy, and reality

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“Logic only gives man what he needs… Magic gives him what he wants.” ~ Tom Robbins

When you steep a while in the world of Story, everything starts to seem a little less “real.” The line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Even when I work with clients, their businesses and buildings can feel a bit staged, like a game we are all playing. I am aware that few—if any—of them see it that way, so I’m careful about what I say. The truth is, though, that I’ve always had a rather loose hold on reality, feeling more at home in a world of fantasy and imagination than in the hyper-competitive, fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world out there.

This may account for my proficiency at writing proposals and designing buildings. I can cast forward and imagine the shining whole, complete and beautiful. It’s the in-between stages that are more of a slog, with their constraints of budgets and code officials and physics. Slogging is what I was taught—what we were all taught—about turning ideas into reality. In recent years, I’ve been encountering and learning about other ways to do it, ways that reach me on an intuitive level but that mostly elude me on a practical level. These are ancient ways of relating to the world and tapping our human faculties that we moderns can learn even today. Continue reading

Creative play is key to resilience and possibility

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“The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.” ~ Julia Cameron

I’ve been following my heart more and paying attention to a) what it guides me to do, b) how it feels to do it, and c) what the aftereffects are. Yesterday I was reminded that I have more resources in potentially frustrating situations when I’ve been creative at some point in the day. Yesterday morning, inspired by Nina Katchadourian’s “Sorted Books Series,” I played with arranging random but interestingly-titled books in stacks to form poetic phrases. Later, I spent maybe twenty minutes doing a quick watercolor of clouds over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge while at the after party for the annual Bay Swim.

That evening, when faced with a cranky, most unpleasant teenager, I seemed to have endless patience with him. Instead of the usual reactionary “who do you think you are” inner voice goading me to say things I’ll regret, I kept trying different tactics to reach him and bring him back to his usual sunny self. I stayed calm and nimble, creative instead of triggered. What’s behind this magic? My first thought is that creative play inoculates me. It puts me in a good mood, so I can face challenges with resilience. And, while that’s true to a degree, there’s something deeper at work here. Continue reading