On gender, power, being an outsider, and inhabiting the “other”

2.15.15_Winter woods_620w2

It’s not hard to notice that a lot of the people on the frontiers of “alternative” health, justice, education, [fill-in-the-blank], those helping to write the new stories, are women and what is known as “minorities.” (Which, just think about it, is a horrible word in so many ways.) Why is that? We have less to lose, for one thing. We’ve lived our entire lives on the outside of a system that, we can see from here, makes little sense. For starters, whoever heard of a functioning natural system that excludes whole swaths of reality?

Being on the outside does have its upside. From here, it’s easier to a) spot the flaws, inconsistencies, and insanity of the dominant system; b) see alternatives, and c) shift sideways, away from the mess and towards something better.

The disadvantages are many as well: a) lower status, in the eyes of the white men inside the system, means b) difficulty having much influence on the system itself, and c) risk of being disregarded or downright ignored by those in power, and consequently, d) preaching only to the choir without effecting much change. Continue reading

Snowflake Bentley’s passion for the beauty and wonder of nature


The snow this morning has me thinking about beauty, which always reminds me of Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley. I had never heard of him until about twelve years ago when I was taking a break at a cross-country ski lodge. Someone had made a poster of his photographs, which are distinctly striking: glowing white crystals on a black background. Cross-country skiers tend to worship the snow with a reverence and humility that is more rare among downhillers, who can rely on snow machines and lifts to ensure a good ski day.

Bentley was born during the Civil War in Jericho, a remote farming community in the Vermont mountains. Largely self-educated, he became fascinated as a teen with looking at natural objects through a microscope. He spent hours studying drops of water, fragments of stone, feathers, and flower petals. But snowflakes captured his heart early on: Continue reading

It’s all sacred, so give up control and enjoy the ride


“There are no non-sacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” ~ Wendell Berry

Towards the end of Maureen Murdock’s book, “The Heroine’s Journey,” she brings up Matthew Fox’s observation that the sin behind all sin is dualism, that force behind all separations: from the self, from other people, from nature, from the sacred. When blinded by dualism, we see everything and everyone outside of ourselves as “other,” as object, a thing we can control, manipulate, dominate, or own.

It seems to me that the way back from this separation is to see everything in terms of “both/and,” a grand dance of opposites, a constantly shifting, dynamic paradox that we navigate with humility and imagination. In a given situation, when I jump to a particular conclusion that causes or contributes to conflict, I would do well to take a breather and imagine the opposite being just as true. Continue reading

A daily practice to experience and live in abundance


I’ve been researching the watermen of the Chesapeake Bay, particularly the residents of Smith Island, one of only two inhabited islands in the Bay. These men toil long hours — 3:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the height of summer — doing backbreaking work for what we in cities might call a subsistence living. They work six days a week and attend church meetings and services on Sunday. Their only time off is the month of April, after the oyster season and before the crabs return. That’s the month when they get to sleep in till dawn, overhaul their boats and swap stories at the general store.

People like this, who work the water or the land, have profound and hard-won knowledge of the cycles of the seasons, of weather, of periods of abundance and of scarcity. They’ve been around long enough to recognize patterns and trends, and also to hold such insights lightly, because nature always surprises you. One thing is certain: these people know what it feels like to do a good day’s work. Continue reading

Encountering the secret presence at the heart of nature


It’s one thing to name the stories that are replacing damaging ones like superiority and scarcity, and it’s quite another to bypass description and go straight to a sensory, emotional response to an experience. In recent years, I’ve been learning and experimenting with practices that cultivate embodied connection.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that I had been communing with places for many years through my watercolor paintings. Beaches, coves, and trees have called to me with their colors and light. The act of paying attention, of looking and deciding what to paint is the beginning of a conversation. Mixing paints and working them on the paper is akin to choosing words and putting them together in a sentence. It is no small thing that painting outdoors feels good and gives me peace, that I love doing it. Continue reading

Could psilocybin be a shortcut to new stories?

2.15.15_Winter woods_620w1

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

The source and craft of “always more”

2.14.15_still life_620w

A friend recently began working with a new writing mentor, a well-known author who has been at it for over twenty years and has much to teach. It is humbling to be reminded that there is always more to learn, and yet I am aware that it works both ways. There is always more from the source of ideas, of images and words and revelation; I experience it daily in writing this blog. The creative source is boundless and endless, a reliable example of abundance. I have only to tune in, listen carefully and let myself be taken for a ride.

That there is always more I can do to hone my craft is at times inspiring, at times frustrating and depleting. It helps that I started in architecture, which is sometimes called an old man’s profession; it takes a good twenty or more years of practice before you begin to be any good at it. With writing, it’s said that you have to write 500 bad poems before you can write a good one. I’ve heard the same thing about drawing. Both refer to the requisite 10,000 hours of practice before mastery of anything that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in “Blink.” Continue reading

In the terrain between stories, trust that maps do exist

2.15.15_Two pines_620w

I am a framework junkie. I love the satisfaction of seeing a complex process or perspective distilled into diagrams, able to be grasped at a glance. Sure, some detail is omitted, but the best frameworks capture essence and convey key information to guide understanding and/or action. A good map is one example, or an infographic about, say, the growth in income disparity over the last decade.

I keep hearing it said that, in this time between stories, we’re wandering in unknown territory without a map. And that is how it feels much of the time. Yet, there are workable maps and frameworks that can inform both personal and cultural choices, if not direction. I’m thinking particularly of various takes on developmental psychology, like Spiral Dynamics, or Rudolph Steiner’s seven-year cycles, or Bill Plotkin’s map of the human psyche. I find it comforting to have a picture of where I’ve been and to see possible routes on my continuing quest for wholeness and belonging. Continue reading

Overlook the evidence and let yourself imagine


This guest post is by Lindsay McLaughlin. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page

It’s snowing, and the temperature is hanging just below freezing. The flakes are light and small and fast, almost sleety; but they don’t amount to much, a dusting of powder over the brown leaves and fallen twigs. Still, the sky is sunless, a blanket of soft gray. The elegantly arching branches of the tulip poplar and the robust, sinewy branches of the oak are dusky brown against the pale sky. Evidently, a winter landscape.

Evidence, though, is a poor foundation on which to make a case. Evidence is about surfaces and edges and boundaries. This planet, this earth, this life is blurry and messy and uncontained. Things like times and seasons bleed into one another. Continue reading

Holding complexity in community


This guest post is by Lindsay McLaughlin. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page

It is cold. The mud on the path to the Meditation Shelter has frozen up in small bubbles and lumps. It crunches and crackles underfoot. The tree trunks and tangled branches are etched crisply against a pale sky, the high contour of the ridge clearly visible through the dry air. There are long pauses in the conversations of the forest creatures: a woodpecker’s thunk- thunk, silence, a blackbird’s caw, silence. The water in Deer Spring creek has stopped in icy patterns against the stones. I am reminded of the phrase we use when calling on the directions at the beginning of Restorying retreats: “Let us turn to the North, place of frozen stillness and quiet waiting, home of wolf and the season of winter…” Continue reading