The love song of head, heart and hands


At my son’s grade school, there was a conscious engagement of head, heart and hands. Using them together requires a dynamic balance between intuition, reason, and action. These tools of the body enable us to interact with and make our mark on the world.

In a balanced person, the heart and hands have an equal role to play, not only to implement plans that the head comes up with, but in deciding what to do in the world and how to do it. Continue reading

Are we redeemable?


Living under the regime of our current cultural stories gives us an ambiguous relationship with redemption. Take for example the certainty that we’re all going to die. We are so wedded to the material world that any version of an illness or dying story that brings in mystical or supernatural dimensions feels like a forced smiley-face fantasy, hopelessly naïve. The sanctioned story we have of death is that it’s a failure to be avoided, and ultimately, an inevitable slide into nothingness.

This is the aspect of old story that tells us that we are Alone in a Cold Universe. Death is a force greater than us, merciless and impersonal, to which we must inevitably submit. Such powerlessness has no place in a redemption story. Continue reading

How can you balance an elephant on a seesaw with a mouse, and why even try?


My entry into the world of sustainable design came out of an Earth Day talk by the architect William McDonough. For a long time, my why was a reaction against bad news: oil-coated ducks; mountains of trash in landfills; coal mines that leveled living mountains and shoved them into pristine river valleys; climate change; “Cancer Alley,” where they make PVC, a known carcinogen that’s in countless building materials.

I thought, we’ve got to turn this thing around, and we are smart enough: we have the know-how and technology to do it. In my lectures, after pictures of the bad news, I would show a diagram of a circle drawn with arrows, depicting closed loops by recycling materials. I would show case studies of buildings designed to use very little energy, heated and powered by the sun, sheltered by the constant temperature of the earth, roofed with gardens that birds could call home. Continue reading

Being doing dreaming acting


“The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.” Dalai Lama

Sometimes I wonder about the axis that runs between dreaming and action. I seem to gravitate more naturally to the dreamy end of things, for which I feel vaguely guilty, as though I’m not a fully contributing member of society. It’s not enough to dream or imagine; you have to do something, right?

Our culture does seem to be biased towards action, which isn’t surprising as it’s heavily weighted towards masculine values and skewed away from feminine qualities of introversion, open receptivity and non-action. This is not to say “men” versus “women,” since we each have a dynamic balance within ourselves of qualities that are both masculine and feminine. Continue reading

Nostalgia is my body’s cry of longing


In my master’s thesis, I wrote about two properties of the materials we build with: denotative and connotative. Mostly, we think of building materials as themselves – a brick is a brick, a steel beam is a steel beam. But I discovered another, subtler quality – what the material connotes, the assorted cultural values and meanings that are assigned to it.

What I didn’t know at the time – and have been discovering lately – is this is just the tip of the iceberg, the human story about that material. In reality, everything is animate, even bricks and steel beams, and certainly the trees and ore and fire from which they are made. Materials awaken something within us, because our senses reach out to and are seen and touched by them, in ongoing but unacknowledged communication. Continue reading

What can we know about the unseen?


The writer Margaret Atwood spoke in a recent interview about the “Third Man Factor,” which is when a person in an extreme situation feels and hears a spirit-like presence, a sort of guardian angel that encourages, gives guidance, or imparts vital information. The explorer Ernest Shackleton and aviator Charles Lindbergh have both spoken about the experience.

The human imagination is so vast as to seem boundless, and it’s only one tiny part of the dream of the universe that gave birth to us. Many phenomena are simply beyond the reach of rational analysis, but curiosity compels us to study them anyway, using the tools we have available. And, in our culture, science has arguably the highest status among those tools.

In his book on the subject, John Geiger makes the point that, despite scientific study, we don’t know definitively what’s going on. Continue reading

A case for direct experience


I’m in a rain-misted spring forest examining a batch of cheeky green fungus that has flagged me down. In sliding my eyes along the fallen branch it’s growing on, I notice a snail shell and marvel at its size and intricacy, thinking it’s exactly like a shell one might find along a beach. Then I notice a white fungus, same shape as the green, but with wedding-dress frills instead of garden-party apple green flounces. And just like that, metaphors have crashed the party.

This setting teaches me that metaphor is a habit of culture, a way of mediating direct experience and keeping my distance with cleverness. Continue reading

Words to the wise


Recently, I participated in an ambitious community art project called Autumn Leaves. The gatherings celebrated elders and youth, and featured art, performance, and sharing what gives our lives meaning. We were invited to give our response to three questions, one of which was: What would you say to your 21-year-old self?

My first thought was, this young woman needed so much advice! I’m not sure she would have heeded any of it, but here’s what I had planned to say.

First, rely on your heart. Learn to listen to your inner voice, and be a channel for what wants to come through you, because you’re unique and the world needs what you can bring forth. Since your work is bigger than you, you don’t have to worry about whether it’s good enough. Continue reading

In praise of maintenance


A common refrain for clients over the years has been to ask for a “maintenance free” building, which in their mind often meant plastic, vinyl and other space-age materials that promise immunity from aging. Yet the laws of physics (otherwise known as the conditions governing all of life on earth) make that patently absurd. As soon as any building is finished, before the paint is dry, the furniture moved in and the art hung on the walls, the process of decay begins. Certainly, some materials are more durable than others –brick versus wood, for example. But mortar and even brick break down over decades of exposure to sunlight, water and freezing temperatures.

The maintenance-free mantra is another example of our futile attempts to master the forces of eternity. Continue reading

The poetry of thresholds


Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins has quipped that poetry will continue until everything has been compared to everything else. I like to play with that in design and writing, to bring in something seemingly unrelated and let it illuminate a previously invisible aspect of the subject. It’s one of the joys of collaborating with other people – their contributions always open a door into new possibilities.

Comparison reveals hidden connections. The poet Pablo Neruda’s view of art has been described as coming out of a longing for mutuality. Isn’t that what poets do so well? Rilke asks a knight to tell us how, by remaining armored, we miss out on the beauties and joys of the world. Or he erects a bridge to give us a way to move between contrasting (possibly warring) aspects of ourselves, especially to try out our little-used qualities. Continue reading