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
Years ago, I read a little book of philosophy called Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, by Gordon Livingston. It’s organized into thirty pithy and helpful truths. Number fifteen is this: “Only bad things happen quickly.” I have a little game I play with myself whenever I think of this maxim (which is pretty frequently, even over ten years later). I theorize good things that could happen suddenly, as if even one would somehow undermine the truth of it.
The fact is that many bad things do happen suddenly and catastrophically. Earthquakes, for instance. Living in Maryland, that’s not something we have to worry about. Although we actually had one a few years ago, it was small and brief. What would it be like to have this complacency suddenly shaken by new science, as happened with the recent New Yorker article about the Cascadia Subduction Zone? This unstable tectonic plate off the coast of Oregon and Washington is apparently overdue for a major disruption. Both states boast cities and towns burgeoning with hipsters and tech companies, excellent coffee and vital industry, great music, agriculture, wine, and an embarrassment of natural wonders. An entire civilization has sprung up in the quiet interval since the last earthquake-and-tsunami in January of 1700. Continue reading
Two of summer’s greatest pleasures are travel and reading. Immersion into an unfamiliar place or a well-told story offers glimpses of the cultural mood. I just returned from a trip to Oregon, home of the Cascadia Subduction Zone recently featured in a brilliant New Yorker article. I’m incubating a blog post on the power and guises of denial, but it’s not ready yet. On the lighter side, I also read two thrillers: Second Life and Gone Girl. Both are page-turners that linger after dark endings. They also throw some of the more insane aspects of modern life into stark relief. [Spoiler alert: if you plan to read either of these, you might want to stop now.]
Gone Girl, as you likely already know, is a chilling psychological study of a sociopath and the lengths to which our need for love and belonging will drive us. Especially in the first half of the book, the author Gillian Flynn includes well-observed details of the post-recession, post-NAFTA, post-supply-side-economies of Middle America (short version: it’s all in ruins). She also dramatizes the downhill slide of an entire profession—journalism—wasted by computers, the Internet, and the ubiquitous DIY culture. Continue reading
“For Plato, the allegory of the cave implied a journey beyond the realm of the body and the senses to the realm of immaterial ideas. But its meaning has been hijacked. For materialists, objective reality is not the realm of ideas but mathematicized matter. In the modern version of this allegory, scientists alone can step out of the cave, observe reality as it is, and come back into the cave imparting some of this knowledge to the rest of humanity, confused by rival subjectivities. Only scientists can see reality and truth. The philosopher, and later the scientist, have to free themselves from the tyranny of the social dimension—public life, politics, subjective feelings, popular agitation, in short, from the dark cave—if they want to accede to truth. Back within the cave, the rest of humanity is locked into the realm of multiculturalism, conflict, and politics.” ~ Rupert Sheldrake, Science Set Free
Years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with my nuclear physicist uncle, who spent his career on fusion (the way the sun works), rather than fission (which is how commercial nuclear power is produced). I asked him how he could consider nuclear power to be “clean” energy, when it produces radioactive waste that we hardly know what to do with—other than bury it in sacred mountains and saddle future generations with the problem. He stated that President Carter had ruined the purity of the science by agreeing via treaty never to reprocess spent fuel. The way it was designed originally, spent fuel could be recycled virtually ad infinitum and fed back into reactors, thereby creating a closed loop. (This is my own layman’s interpretation.) He was well and truly offended that politicians would meddle in things they don’t understand. Continue reading
“I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kind of things. Also, that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace’s arrival. But no, it’s clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in the silence, in the dark.” ~ Anne Lamott, from Grace, Eventually
Grace is a word you don’t hear much in secular discourse. Last week, President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney was both about grace and full of grace itself. It awakened a memory of a conversation about grace with my father when I was in High School. He was one of those traditional dads who worked and did dad things, so I didn’t have a lot of interactions with him. This conversation about grace was a rarity. Turns out, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, either. I think he spoke of God’s presence or friendship, and we both enjoyed wondering about it together. That in itself was a moment of grace, a precious heart connection to each other and to something bigger than us.
Human affairs are full of flaws, opposition and contradictions. There never seems to be that one right solution that we can all agree on. And so we wrangle. In interactions with friends about the President’s recent successes, they were quick to point out his many failures and betrayals. It’s true he compromised on health care reform, and I can’t say I understand the appeal the Trans Pacific Partnership, which seems to me like a nightmare for workers and the environment. And let’s not forget, these friends say, about the drone strikes and the “Surge.” I get it, I do. And yet, there’s something we are missing when we argue like this. It’s too easy to find these imperfections. Continue reading
With 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
“When you turn to the sun, all shadows fall behind you.” ~ African proverb
I usually visualize the shadow as a dark cavern deep inside me, the kind you have to swim to the bottom of a lake to find, and that leads almost to the center of the earth. I like this proverb because it provides another image. The shadow follows us wherever we go. Maybe it can even take on a life of its own. In the second book of the children’s series, Peter and the Starcatchers, the evil Lord Ombra steals people’s shadows to possess them, read their thoughts and enslave them. The shadow is imagined as a kind of repository for an individual’s essence, but the fact remains that it is ever and always behind me. I never can turn around and face it squarely.
In the Tantric tradition, the back body is aligned with the universal, the front with the individual. This is a wonderful way to imagine wholeness: it’s in our body that we integrate our uniqueness with the wider world. The front is our place of effort, of being who we are in the world. The back is the unknown, the unseen, and yet it is always there, ready to support and help us when needed. This fits nicely with the classic teaching that the shadow is part of our childhood survival toolkit. Continue reading
I’m feeling resistance to delving further into this topic of the shadow. It demands honesty and strips off masks. With nothing to hide behind, I tell myself it’s too hard or it’s all been said before. What can I possibly add to the conversation? And yet this resistance itself is a perfect invitation, a dare to keep going. Shadow is not only a repository of shame and evil. It’s a treasure house of insight for those with the courage to look.
As slippery and tricky as the shadow is to pin down, we encounter it daily just by living life. Whatever shows up to block my way, to challenge and frighten me—that’s showing me my shadow. When a person or situation brings up strong emotion—especially aversion, fear, anger, or shame—that’s revealing something deeply buried. Either I know about it and thought it was safely under lock and key, or it’s been so long ignored, denied, or unacknowledged, I’m taken by surprise. Being blindsided happens less often now, but it does happen. Continue reading
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
~ Mary Oliver, from “Mysteries, Yes”
I am a recovering expert. For many years, I was paid to have answers: to advise clients on the best approach for their project; integrate the work of structural, mechanical and civil engineers; and design details that keep the weather out while looking great, costing little and lasting years with no maintenance. In short, I had to know how to juggle a staggering number of variables, get along with others, and tolerate a high potential for disappointment or even failure. It was stressful.
During his recent online course, “The Space Between Stories,” Charles Eisenstein made the observation that thinking you know anything is a prerequisite for despair. He illustrated with a recognizable litany of things we know: We know the world is doomed because of climate change, species extinction, human trafficking, genocide. We also know how things work and what’s possible, so we know it’s not possible to fix any of this. We’ve tried. Consequently, we know we’re doomed. Continue reading
“I believe that all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share.” ~ Dalai Lama
I am breaking tradition and using a photograph to start this post because it is such a beautiful, heartbreaking image of the pain and fear that keep us separated. There are only a few inches between the faces of these two men, yet it is a wholly unbridgeable gulf. This is a scene from the streets of Baltimore yesterday, a place of constant tension, trauma and hatred, from which those of us living our quiet, privileged lives in other neighborhoods are usually insulated.
Truth be told, I am still insulated, tracking these events, unfolding mere miles away, via social and traditional media. It’s been fascinating to see how people react when our old cultural stories are so blatantly exposed and people act out and behave in ways that shock us. Many are expressing righteous outrage, as when our mayor called the instigators “thugs,” and questioned their intelligence with this comment: “It is idiotic to think that by destroying your city you’re going to make life better for anybody.” Continue reading