Two years (and counting) of dwelling on the threshold

2001_7.29_620wYesterday marked the two-year anniversary of this blog. For the first anniversary, I appreciated the artist, that denizen of thresholds, dweller of the in-between realms. In this political season, I’m drawn to reflect on the circus that is our Presidential campaign season. After last night’s debate once again elicited waves of despair over the future of our country, veteran newsman Bob Schieffer asked, “How have we come to this?” How, indeed.

At times like this, I can think of only one American capable of approaching, let alone answering, a question like that: Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry. I pull a few of his books off the shelf, feeling better just holding them in my hand. My husband has NPR on in the kitchen downstairs. I hear the cadence of male and female voices hashing over last night’s events, interviewing undecided voters. I cannot hear the substance, only the vibrations of voice. Wendell Berry is all I need now. Continue reading

Replacing every man for himself with everyone for each other

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I recently dreamed this thought: our country’s mantra is every man for himself. In that light, it makes perfect sense that one of our national obsessions is about the economy. Remember It’s the economy, stupid? Of course we care so much about making as much money as we can, making more than the other guy. We are on our own. Nobody is going to help us if we fall on hard times. It’s all about feeding, clothing, and sheltering our families, first and last. Every man for himself.

When I wrote this in my journal in the early pre-dawn, it looked a bit puny on the page. It was momentous when I opened my eyes, as if I’d been mucking around in the secret stuff of life, that realm where answers live. Trying to catch this dream message is like seeing a landscape all sharp and shimmery after a storm, as if for the first time. I’m so immersed, so indoctrinated in this story that I rarely even notice it. It seems so true that it’s boring. Obvious. Hardly worth stating. But our lives are not only about survival and meeting basic needs. Everyone should be able to do at least that in a just world. There’s plenty to go around, but the story of scarcity makes us forget. Continue reading

You have company in the discomfort zone of open-heartedness

Sand_Dalai_compositeThe Dalai Lama was at the White House last week. It was their fourth meeting, held in private with no video cameras or reporters present. This rankled the officials in China, who see the Dalai Lama as “a dangerous separatist.” Obama considers him a friend, and I imagine a trusted advisor and fellow leader. Given the timing of the visit, the Dalai Lama offered his condolences for the many victims of the Orlando shooting.

Last year, the Dalai Lama celebrated his 80th birthday. There is a big photograph of him off to one side of the yoga studio where I practice. He’s laughing and pointing, like he just made a joke or is putting someone at ease. Looking at it yesterday, it struck me that he has been the spiritual leader of Tibet for my entire life. Even when I had no idea who he was. Continue reading

How “The Revenant” falls short: storytelling our way back to belonging

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In his Oscar acceptance speech last February for “The Revenant,” Leonardo DiCaprio goes through the usual list of thank-you’s, then launches into weightier matters:

“Making ‘The Revenant’ was about man’s relationship to the natural world, a world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow.”

DiCaprio has been a passionate and articulate spokesman on climate change for at least ten years, ever since his ponderous narration of the film, “Eleventh Hour,” in which he appears dressed in black, with an overly sober, almost frightening demeanor and message of: “You people are bad; clean up your act.” Continue reading

The Gordian knot of racism in “The New Jim Crow”

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“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke

In the 2007 film, “What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire,” the narrator brings up a phenomenon of environmental books that I’ve noticed, too. They all have about ten chapters of diagnosis, chronicling what’s wrong—species extinction, rainforest decimation, mountaintop removal, toxic chemicals in mother’s milk, melting polar sea ice, on and on. Then, in the 11th chapter, there’s a prescription of what we can do to reverse it, fix everything and restore our right relationship with the living earth. “It’s not too late” is always the message. That it comes at the end of about 200 pages of gloom and doom reflects a lack of sophistication about the human psyche. If you’ve even gotten that far, you’re not going to be convinced by a single chapter of platitudes about the indomitable human spirit. No, the preceding ten chapters will have convinced you that there is no hope. We are screwed.

I am left with a similar feeling after reading Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. I have to admire her for using all 261 pages for the diagnosis, not claiming to have answers or a prescription. Instead, she chooses to ask powerful questions, to spark debate and exploration. This is a huge book, not only for its dense narrative and 33 pages of footnotes. It is nothing short of a reassessment of American history: full of revelations, truth telling, and looking beneath the surface of cause and effect. I wish it could be required reading of every U.S. citizen. From the first pages, I saw just how duped, blind and irresponsibly ignorant I have been about the reality of the so-called War on Drugs. 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

Outsider

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There will be times in your life when you feel like an outsider. When it looks like everyone around you, the people you admire and the ones you dislike, belong somewhere. They have this life thing all figured out. They are needed, respected. They matter. Their opinions and insights matter. And they have their ranking systems, their awards programs, their contests and grants and fellowships. They all seem to know how to work that system and be recognized—whether it’s for years of toil on some obscure invention or a brilliant essay dashed off after a flash of insight.

Don’t fall for it. It’s a trick of the light, a smoke-and-mirrors deception. All of us are outsiders and wanderers. The only real lasting sense of belonging has come from cultivating a strong relationship with my inner world. The degree to which you feel exiled, out of place, shunned, is the degree to which you are estranged from your own core of being, your own heart. Continue reading

We are all blind men describing an elephant

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I had an exchange on social media after the Paris climate talks, a back and forth of articles and videos with an acquaintance who challenged the veracity and conclusions of what’s known as “accepted” climate science. I let myself be annoyed by his posts, dismissing them as straw men. (The book and film, “Merchants of Doubt,” shows that many of them are). Among the challenges to climate science, the one I find most absurd is that scientists are after big government grants, so they’ll say anything. It’s just not persuasive when you consider that it’s usually leveled by those who DO have a financial stake—like the Koch brothers and others in the fossil fuel biz.

Then I had to laugh. Here I was defending science, when I’m more inclined to question its assumption of human exceptionalism and elevation of reason to exalted status over intuition. Rupert Sheldrake’s book, Science Set Free, shows that modern science, for all its value and rigor, has gotten so dogmatic as to be almost fundamentalist in its stridency. Anything that doesn’t fit the accepted paradigm of materialism is ignored, dismissed, and labeled “anti-science.” Data that doesn’t fit the expected outcome is shoved into a file drawer and not published. Continue reading

Beyond cause and effect

11.24.15_Tree-compositeEconomists and statisticians distinguish between correlation and causality. What if, one day a year, those two were switched? What if they switched once a month, or once a week? Maybe in the minds of the desperate, the distinction is meaningless.

Two Swiss researchers found that when plankton levels in the ocean drop 10%, Somalian pirate activity ticks up a corresponding 10%. With the collapse of the fisheries they’ve relied on for generations, they are driven to find other uses for their boats.

Last year, earthquakes over magnitude 3.0 increased in Oklahoma from an average of less than two per year to 585. Bore holes from fracking chewed their lacy patterns into the earth’s mantle like termites under a house.

Years of drought in a country with poverty and ethnic and religious tensions destabilizes an already stressed situation and tilts the people into civil war, as well as making them easy prey for terrorist organizations. If they’re under authoritarian rule, this is even more likely. 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