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

Stories are a starting point, not the literal answer

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In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, two themes on social media have caught my attention. One goes along the lines that eradication of all evil by violent means is the only possible response to restore safety and normalcy. The other chastises people for identifying with and feeling compassion for Parisians, but ignoring Lebanese, Syrians, and refugees of other ethnicities.

One is dangerously myopic; the other tips too far the other way by insisting that without a worldcentric perspective, your compassion falls woefully short of what is needed right now. I don’t mind having my awareness tweaked. I do object to holier-than-thou snarkiness that judges what I care about. And yet, maybe my discomfort stems from the sudden recognition that I, too, am guilty of looking down on those who don’t share my views or meet my expectations. 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

Aldous Huxley’s “Island” invites us to imagine the best of all worlds

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I’m not in the same league of erudition and wisdom as Aldous Huxley, nor as full in experience (not yet, anyway). I don’t have his masterful wit, nor have I taken mescaline, about which he wrote beautifully in 1954’s The Doors of Perception. In an odd way, his final novel, 1962’s Island, is the book I was trying to write for three years. And would have written, had I not found wise teachers of Story craft and other guides and critics who came along at just the right time to ask questions like, “Do you want other people to read this?”

For all its density, I did love Island as an intellectual exercise. I learned a great deal about Eastern philosophy, especially appreciating the mash-up concocted by Huxley with the best of modern Western scientific inquiry and intellectual rigor. In his fictional island of Pala, over 100 years, the residents have built their culture out of the best of all worlds, picking and choosing from Buddhism, Tantric philosophy, Enlightenment skepticism, and scientific method to name a few of the influences that go into the Pala stew. 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

Tragedy of the study of the tragedy of the commons

2014_7.14_620wWith the summer heat comes an uptick of articles about the continuing, perhaps accelerating, breakdown of our social fabric. Whether it’s the arrest of children’s parents for letting them play alone outside or for camping with them, or the absurdity of drinking bottled water, the cracks in what we like to call civilization are growing wider. The public good has gotten so muddied that we are left to argue over semantics: whether a headline was too hyped or a date was cited incorrectly. Or we turn it over to the sociologists to tell us what we’re missing and what it all means.

There’s more to this than the decline of community, as Charles Eisenstein succinctly points out in this essay. He cites our inclination to surrender to authority, our need for control, our obsession with safety, and tendency to self-preservation. He laments the inevitable slide from avoidance of danger and uncertainty to the prison of “consequence-free zones” like video games. All of this is to the detriment of creativity, play, exploration, and risk-taking—everything we so desperately need in order to navigate this threshold time between stories. Continue reading

Does shining light have value beyond avoiding darkness?

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I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
Yeah but the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet

Let it be me . . .
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light

I love these lines by the Indigo Girls. They say something important on my behalf, something I wasn’t even aware of until I heard this song for the first time. One reason I decided to explore the shadow now is that my tendency to light candles rather than curse the darkness can become a crutch, an attempt to shortcut or avoid the unknown. In a recent conversation, a friend made the comment that focusing too much on the positive leaves out a whole rich aspect of reality: the shadow. What can this wild, mad, evil, naughty, unpredictable, untamed, uncontrollable part of us teach us about ourselves, and—more ambitiously—about our culture? The way we approach it makes a difference. I believe that way involves contrast, balance, artifice, and time-honored art forms.

The British actor, David Oyelowo, played Rev. Martin Luther King in the recent film, “Selma,” and a Black Panther member in “The Butler.” (There’s a wonderfully awkward dinner scene in the latter, in which Oyelowo’s character disses his real-life hero: Sidney Poitier. It’s the most difficult line he’s ever had to say as an actor.) In an interview with Terry Gross, Mr. Oyelowo said that he always turns down stereotypical afterthought roles like the “black best friend.” When she asked if there are other roles he declines, he said something very interesting: Continue reading

A simple way to reconnect: experience awe

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It’s been a busy week of writing deadlines, so I’m taking a shortcut today to share this wonderful article, “Why Do We Experience Awe?” from last Sunday’s New York Times. I love their suggestion, based on years of social psychological research, for how we can feel more connected to each other and the world around us. It’s simple: experience awe on a daily basis.

“ . . . awe is the ultimate “collective” emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. Through many activities that give us goose bumps — collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship — awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.”

The world we’ve created for ourselves is so complicated, fast-paced, hyper competitive, and stressful. It’s a profound relief to encounter a couple of scientists who’ve taken the time to test, and prove, this simple hypothesis: Continue reading

Does “Nature” need a new pronoun or do we need a new story?

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This guest post is by Duane Marcus. You can read a bit about him on the “Denizens” page.

I saw a meme on social media that suggested we need a new pronoun for “Nature,” a pronoun other than “it.” This got me thinking about “Nature.” Is nature an entity? Is there a thing we have named “Nature”? When we suggest someone spend some time in “Nature” what do we mean? Most would agree that canoeing through the Everglades or hiking the Appalachian Trail would constitute spending time in “Nature.”  Is an urban park “Nature”? Is the beach in front of a wall of million dollar condos “Nature”? Are fields of corn and soybeans “Nature”? How about a street full of weedy abandoned lots in Detroit?

Nature Deficit Disorder is a hot topic these days. Wikipedia describes it thusly.

Nature deficit disorder refers to a hypothesis by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. So would walking down Madison Avenue help alleviate this? Don’t let your kids do this without adult supervision though because you might get arrested for neglect and child endangerment. Continue reading

Pardoning helps us experience interconnection

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It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

Under the influence of the Judeo-Christian values of modern culture, I have the habit of believing the story that we are all flawed, that part of my task in this life is to work on myself, to fix my failings, and try to be less bad. While it’s certainly rewarding to grow and learn and increase my awareness and equanimity, there is a big difference when I come at it with the intent of discovering innate capacities, rather than purging unwanted ones, or rooting out evil and unworthiness.

Forgiveness and blame are two sides of the coin of pardon. When I forgive another, I forgive myself, because pardoning comes from a sense of worthiness—my own and another’s. We are all worthy of empathy and understanding, and therefore pardon. Blame is the opposite of pardon. Blame directs anger outward, making an object out of a subject, creating separation and “othering.” Through empathy and compassion, pardon draws both subject and object together through a shared understanding that we are all connected. Continue reading