Getting and Spending

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

A long time ago, when I worked in a corporation, I kept this William Wordsworth quote on my cubicle wall to remind me of what I knew—that my life was about more than producing and consuming.

Now I see that this statement doesn’t go far enough. Not only does endless productivity and consumerism crush our personal power, it destroys our planet.

Witness the fires devastating the Amazon. Deliberately set, left to burn until God knows what point of no return. Why is Brazil’s rainforest burning? In part, to feed consumer demand for paper, lumber, soy, and beef. (That’s not even taking into account the impact of mining minerals like copper, tin, gold, iron ore.)

We could blame the people who set the fires, but the more we buy into capitalism, the more complicit we are. Not to say that we don’t need to hold companies and governments responsible for the greedy policies that encourage slash-and-burn deforestation. But when something “out there” disturbs me, I try to to look within to see what is being reflected back to me. 

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Photo by Katja Schulz, via Flickr Commons “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Curiously, I started this blog post wanting to talk about doing nothing. In her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell reframes doing nothing as a potent form of resistance.

I have yet to read the book, but a review of it in Yes magazine piqued my interest. It is not a call to passivity, but an invitation to true transformation.

Odell writes that our constant activity and stimulus-addiction keep us from imagining the bold action that would truly change the world.

If we keep trying to feed a bottomless hole with products or busyness or information, we just heat the globe more. But if we step back and get quiet, allow ourselves to feel, we might get in touch with radically different possibilities. Like undoing capitalism.

The master’s tools will never bring down the master’s house, as Audre Lorde put it decades ago. We’ve got to make new tools, and to do that, we’ve got to dive deep.

What of the need for urgent action, to fight the powers that be? Charles Eisenstein has suggested that our urgent scurrying from problem to problem (along with our shame-and-blame culture) are symptomatic of a bigger cultural story driving the intertwined problems of our age. Not only symptomatic, but propping up that story, which is one of alienation, separateness.

We are part of this world. By getting quiet, concentrating ourselves, choosing to stop doing from time to time, we heal a little corner of it. We don’t always know the extent of that healing’s reverberation, but it’s real.

Now, if I stop there, I could use this truth as an excuse to never make a move that feels scary. Worse, as license to let injustices ride and exploitation continue unabated.

Without some measure of self-awareness—and a willingness to act when needed—“doing nothing” becomes self-indulgent. But sitting still, without input from screens or other media—isn’t that the cradle of self-awareness and compassion, a place that can spur inspired action?

A friend posted this quote yesterday along with her rainforest-inspired commitment to a vegan diet: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Where does it arise from, the deeply committed, maybe-small-but-world-changing action? From a spacious, quiet place, in touch with the deep pain of our time, and in touch with infinite possibility.

How to help the situation in Brazil: This Newsweek article lists some action items and organizations to support.

The Uses of Joy

Yesterday morning, I met my dear neighbor on the sidewalk as she came out of her house to go to work. I was walking my dog home from a little golf course jaunt, in a sunny mood having seen a bit of sunrise and heard the birds’ voices.

“I am so glad to see you,” she said, in tones that told me something was wrong. I hugged her and asked what was up. Her beloved cat has been sick, but that was just the start of it. She had gone into a sort of panic fed by news stories of imminent global food shortages, water crises, violence–on top of the suffering of one adored creature who depends on her utterly. She cares so deeply, my neighbor-friend.

“It’s a lot,” I said in sympathy, knowing my own despairing times.

“It’s real,” she said of the bad news.

“And yet,” I said, “life is so good.”

She smiled at me with great affection, perhaps a bit of wonderment, saying, “And that is why I’m so glad to see you this morning.”

“See how beautiful?” I said, gesturing to the day at large: birdsong, sycamores, blue sky, happy poodle winding the leash around us. I admired her shirt, which was emblazoned with Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.

She had not known the identity of this elephant-man and was pleased to learn that he’s the Hindu god responsible for removing obstacles. (Also, he “creates obstructions in the path of those whose ambition has become destructive,” which seems like a timely duty given the “leadership” we currently endure in this country.)

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Ganesha, by Craig Moe, via Flickr Creative Commons

She hugged me again before heading off to the office where she counsels people in ill health and financial peril, people no one else listens to.

I could never do the supremely important work she does, but perhaps by fortifying her in this way that comes naturally to me, I have made a small indirect difference with her clients.

Possibly my privilege makes it easier for me to hang onto my joy (despite being rather anxiety-prone myself). Possibly I’m just extremely sheltered and unwilling to fully face up to the bad stuff. Yet it seems radiating joy can be of use to someone in pain, if it flips the script in some small way.

Now, did this encounter change the fact that later that same day someone was shot at a nearby gas station? Did it change the fact that mass shootings have become horrifyingly commonplace in my country? Did it change any dire predictions about the world’s future?

No. Still: I believe that the more inner resilience we cultivate, the better equipped we are to be there fully for each other, to anchor the shift, to hold a higher vibration, and to act from that expansive state, instead of out of fear and contraction.

I could fret about recent mass shootings, localized violence, or future projections, and go down a rabbit hole of information/commentary/outrage/worry. Or I could allow all my emotions to flow and shift, attending to them gently, and return to a steady place, in touch with my fierce joy if possible. Then I take whatever action calls me. (I used this script to call my Senators and demand universal background checks for gun purchases. I donated to Everytown for Gun Safety.)

Some resources: Rick Hanson’s lovely “Take Heart” post is all about cultivating inner resilience in troubled times. Jen Louden’s recent “When You Feel Powerless” speaks to the feeling of “what I do is a drop in the bucket,” specifically in the face of mass shootings. Also see my “Tips for the Anxiety-Prone.”

Rock Will Wear Away*

I find it helpful, in such fraught times, to consider the largest frame possible. Last week in the desert of southwestern Utah, I learned about erosion, about the effect of water and wind on rock.

From time to time erosion is sudden and dramatic: a rock calves from a cliff and crashes down.

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Erosion made this arch in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Mostly we don’t see anything happening. The snowmelt in the crevasse, the wind whistling through a canyon, the creek wearing a groove deeper and wider. These forces go about their work of remaking the landscape, without our taking much notice.

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Virgin River continues to shape Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.

There is much we don’t see. The news fixates on big tragedies. The commentators argue their points. The politicos fluff their feathers and brandish their big sticks. Watching, we develop a picture of humanity warped by our brain’s negativity bias and strengthened by the media’s wish to hook us hard.

We don’t see the kitchen table conversations, the neighbors organizing, the hands touching earth that might tell a different story.

It is a function of my extraordinary and undeserved privilege that I am able to go on vacation at all, let alone visit national parks and be at peace in nature. When I think of the inequity that my life is predicated on, it makes me squirm. I don’t think I’m complacent or lazy, yet I have the choice to turn it off, turn away, where others don’t. What does this say about me and my life, my work?

Specifically: Is it OK to pursue creative projects that seem to take eons, at least for me (as we speak I’ve just gotten my manuscript back from my editor and am preparing to dive in again) while social activism goes wanting?

Stephanie Smart’s Dragon Mystic stone reading recently gave me a clue to how to think about this. She uses stones as allies and sources of wisdom. For my mini-reading, I chose a blue purple jasper stone. Her interpretation, in part:

You are like the water in the river bed. You are powerful enough to change the shape of a stone. Yet, you do it in your subtle calm nature. Just as the water slowly flows along in the stream bed…

Trust your calm powerful nature. You are just as much of a change maker as the person on the stage. Yes, YOU ARE A POWERFUL CHANGE MAKER. You, who can change the shape of a stone. You may not ever see the effect of your words or actions, but trust that you are changing the world.

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Water in the streambed of Taylor Creek, Kolob Canyon.

Here’s what I know for sure: I want to shine a light as bright as possible. Because where does the balance tip? If I feed anger and violence even in my own soul, by ripping into this one small being, I fuel the violence in the world.

In the desert I took photos of lichen, that curious symbiotic amalgam of fungi and algae. Lichen is small and unobtrusive, yet it has the power to turn stone into soil, over time. Here is a collaboration among species, quietly altering The Way Things Are.

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Lichen, Kolob Canyon

*The title is borrowed from an old song by Meg Christian and Holly Near.

Ruminations on Reverence

I almost did it again. I almost got caught in an old thought pattern, the one that goes: Foolish child, gazing at birds, loving up trees, singing to streams. Have you seen the news? There’s work to do! Wrongs to right! 

Woops, I forgot for a minute. I forgot that wonder and reverence are the very things that bring the old story of separation—source of all the wrongs—to its knees.

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Echinacea photo by Sara Long

The last few nights I’ve watched a little bit of a DVD series loaned to me, called Journey of the Universe: Conversations. I didn’t know that reflecting on the grandeur of the universe would be the antidote to this old thought pattern. But when the late Paula Gonzalez (rad scientist nun!) spoke of “falling in love with the world” and how this changes us, I thought, YES.

Here’s a quote from cosmologist Thomas Berry, whose work inspired the series:

“Our relationship with the earth involves something more than pragmatic use, academic understanding, or aesthetic appreciation. A truly human intimacy with the earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live.”

—From The Dream of the Earth

I am of the ilk of those who can no longer call a companion animal a “pet,” nor a forest “natural resources.” I don’t see the planet as something outside of myself, to be appropriated. That intimacy Berry speaks of…I feel it developing between me and the spaces I love, and by extension the entirety of the world.

In his portion of the series, poet/activist Drew Dellinger says that reverence for the planet extends to all its people (and ourselves). If we begin to sense our place in the unfolding story of the universe, we gain a sense of wholeness and connectedness that forecloses any idea of exploitation or misuse.

Because make no mistake, the injustices perpetrated on indigenous people and people of color are part and parcel of the same old story that “thingifies” a tree or a waterway.

Yes, much work to be done. And where to start? What thread do I follow if I want to untangle some part of the mess? It’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed, lost in despair or anger.

So I go back to the heart of the matter: the story I want to live.

I bow to reverence once more, and give myself over to wonder.

Photo courtesy of Sara Long. Check her photography website out, or follow her on Instagram at @longacres.

The Water We Swim

One of the few places where people of different races and ages gather to converse about difficult topics is Kheprw Institute. In the atrium where public meetings take place under smudged skylights, we circle folding chairs and introduce ourselves.

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We’re discussing How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. An eye-opening book for those of us privileged enough not to be affected (so far) by gentrification.

A quote from the book:

“The ignorance of the lives of others is what allows gentrification to happen. … If you ignore the destruction of the lives of the people who’s always mattered the least, things are going great. If you acknowledge that their lives exist and that they matter, then it becomes immediately obvious something is terribly wrong. So what does it mean that we are not only ignoring these people but increasingly erasing their narratives in the name of progress?”

—Peter Moskowitz

To open the discussion, we listen to an interview with Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, as he lays out the most egregious historic housing policies that sidelined African-Americans. Three things stand out in this brief clip:

1) When public housing was initiated in the mid-20th century, integrated neighborhoods were destroyed to make room for segregated spaces. 2) Meanwhile the federal government subsidized suburb development on the condition of these neighborhoods being open to whites-only. 3) Then black neighborhoods were rezoned to allow toxic and industrial uses, so that African-Americans were living next to waste disposal and industrial facilities.

Stories like these, and books like How to Kill a City, make it harder for white Americans like me to ignore something that we never consider: Our comfort, our security, our privilege, our inherited wealth—is built on a rigged game, on money stolen, housing denied, opportunities refused.

***

In junior high Language Arts class I wrote a paper for a unit on Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. I remember including a sentence like: “It’s amazing to think about how well we’ve put racism behind us.” My teacher, who was African-American, put a ^ next to the sentence and wrote in something like “and it’s sad to think about how much racism remains.”

I remember feeling shocked, even a little offended, at my teacher’s insertion, in her authoritative red-penned handwriting. What racism? I tried to think what she might be talking about. But when I looked around, I didn’t see any “Whites only” signs or German shepherds barking meanly at protestors like in the films we were shown. Could she be exaggerating?

That should have been my first inkling that my reality as a white person differed from the African-American reality in fundamental ways. That I might be swimming in water and never even feel it—but they did.

Several years later, a Goshen College classmate from Africa spoke of her hurt when a library clerk rudely flung coins onto the counter rather than hand them to her. Though she fingered racism, I couldn’t believe someone at my liberal arts school would still—in 1987!—harbor prejudicial attitudes. I thought, There must be some other explanation than racism. Maybe she misinterpreted what happened…

Again, I shrugged off another woman’s experience.

I’d learned about systemic racism in my Liberation Theologies class. I understood some things, or thought I did. Still there was so much I didn’t want to see.

***

Recently I heard an NPR story about affordable housing. In Dallas, a black mother sought to use a Section 8 housing voucher but was repeatedly denied housing by potential landlords. She said, “Even though we’re financially less capable, we still love our children the same.” Tears in her voice.

A broken heart, reverberating out from the radio waves straight into mine.

***

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It’s hard to look squarely at things we don’t want to think about. Like our country’s genocidal, avaricious origins, and its continued betrayal of large swaths of its people, and the way the legacy of slavery still plays out in devastating ways.

But it’s even harder, these days, to remain blind. The water we swim in is more and more obvious.

I can no longer deny, dismiss, invalidate my brothers’ and sisters’ realities. I can no longer say that my family enjoys a tidy nest egg simply because “we work hard and we save our pennies” when that’s only part of the picture. Our people (going back generations) also were given opportunities to take jobs, buy homes, enjoy tax breaks, receive enriched education. The wealth-generation capacity that we take for granted has been repeatedly denied to people of color, through shameful policies and practices at every level.

It’s angering, horrifying, embarrassing, painful business. The system has consistently rigged itself in white people’s favor.

When facing painful things, it helps to be in community, to hear different voices and experiences, to listen, to accept and feel acceptance in a circle. That’s what happens in Kheprw’s book club and other public forums. Actions grow out of hearing each other and building relationships.

And I know that the black participants in this circle are the authorities on racism, and how that gets expressed through gentrification and so many other ways. All along they’ve been tasting the water we swim in, that I am so late to see as any kind of fluid at all.

Kheprw is a place that both models and works for change—in the hearts of people and in the halls of power. The organization holds its doors open to all willing to create community and serve justice, knowing that who we are on the inside—and how we show up for each other—is as crucial as any external advocacy.

 

 

In a few weeks, youngsters ages 10 to 15 will take part in Kheprw’s three-week boot camp. It’s called eSTEAM, an acronym for Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math. Participants will learn everything from 3D printing and game animation to aquaponics and soil science.

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This innovative program has far-reaching effects, like everything this nimble grassroots organization does. Judy and I decided to allocate some of our resources in support of the scholarship fund. Will you join us in sponsoring a summer camper?

Note: The author of How to Kill a City will join Kheprw’s upcoming book discussion via Skype at 6pm Thursday, June 22. Check out the event page for more ground-breaking gatherings.

Photos courtesy of Kheprw Institute.

The Calder Conundrum, or Lack Thereof

Artist Alexander Calder is the subject of a homegrown musical—written, choreographed, designed and directed by local talent. Calder was an artist who played with movement—in wire figures, sculptures, and mobiles. His whimsical work brought joy and wonder to people in troubled times, particularly during the Depression.

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By Alexander Calder via Wikimedia Commons

I absolutely loved the uplift of the musical, which was fun and campy as well as inspiring. The show offered a celebration of artistic commitment.

Here’s something that struck me as I watched the show: Calder (as depicted onstage) feared his work was juvenile, and at times he internalized other people’s disdain. Self-doubt, the enemy of creativity. A state familiar to many of us.

What struck me also was the way the co-directors of this musical framed our evening as an “escape” from today’s tense times. When I thought about it later, this felt like an extension of the “juvenile” indictment.

I felt that by connecting Calder—and this gorgeous production—to escapism, we did him and his art an injustice. I thought to myself: Joy is not an escape. Joy is fuel. And wonder is not distraction. Wonder is an engine.

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By Caracas1830 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to declare that art is not optional, nor is wonder, nor is joy, nor is love. That these are essential pieces in an activated human’s soul.

The next morning I read Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Poets” in Chasing Utopia. It says in part:

Poets shouldn’t commit suicide. That would leave the world to those without imaginations or hearts. That would bequeath to the world a mangled syntax and no love of champagne…

I thought, yes! For a poet, certain activities are suicide.

My mind went to a sentiment I’ve seen expressed: “People need to stop complaining and run for office if they are serious about change.” For some of us, running for office—let alone holding an office—would be death.

My inner argument ended up here: There are many ways to make change, and we all have our part to play. Some of us will create art that brings joy, or show people a different way of living. Let’s respect and praise and enjoy each other for the countless ways our souls shine while we do our best work, whatever that may be.

Postscript
Interestingly, after I drafted this argument, I mentioned my thoughts to my spouse on the dismissiveness of the term “escape.” (“Escapist drivel” is what I judgmentally “heard.”)

She responded that she doesn’t think of escape in that vein at all. To her, it evokes a pleasant place to go in one’s mind. Nothing negative or demeaning about it.

Apparently I got all up in arms over something that was in my own head. There I go again, doing battle when there’s nothing to battle.

Now, of course,  I realize that this internal argument has everything to do with feeling OK about myself and the level of activism I choose to undertake. With the new administration in the White House, every day there are new actions that pain me. And I want to take part in righting wrongs.

The many requests to call decision-makers…flat out drain me. It’s been tricky to figure out where to direct my time and energy. And I’m constantly judging and pressuring myself.

An underlying story informs my need to prove that I’m good enough through activism. It’s what Charles Eisenstein calls the cultural myth of Separation. The story that says I’m separate from you (whether better—if I make more calls than you!—or worse—if you are one of my many super-engaged friends whose activism goes beyond a mere phone call).

This idea of “I’m bad/wrong for not doing x” leads to …

“I’ll force myself and then I will be worthwhile” which leads to…

“I’m better than you because I care more, and look at what I forced myself to do.”

Basically, I’ve been using the master’s tools (of domination, control, force, separation) in an attempt to bring down the master’s house, to paraphrase Audre Lorde.

This underlying Story of Separation, Eisenstein would say, gets to the root of the interlocked problems we face. It’s the same root that underlies the very problems I do or don’t call about. A sense of humanity as separate from nature, from each other, from the magic of an intelligent cosmos. Which we know now isn’t true.

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re talking about a cultural shift from old story to new story.

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By Manuelarosi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s funny how keying into this bigger picture brings me back to a place of joy, wonder, and activation. So that even if I choose do the exact same actions I previously forced myself to do, the energy behind the tasks feels different. More spacious.

The Impossible

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

—Nelson Mandela

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Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for 18 years of his 27 years of captivity. This is his jail cell on Robben Island, Cape Town, South  Africa. When he stretched out on the floor, he could touch both walls. Photo by Judy Hostetler.