I, Wonder

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Lake Hawea, NZ

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Here are some previous e-newsletters, for those not yet on my mailing list.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Here’s a photo of just one of the small things that stopped me in my tracks last week.

Damselfly with iridescent wing on my back door

I left the country for two weeks in April to tour New Zealand, my insane good fortune to have the opportunity to travel through one of most beautiful places in the world.

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Milford Sound. Dolphin at lower left of frame.

(Traveling abroad feels so weirdly privileged and consumerist. I’m so glad I went, but I had mixed feelings about the way we sort of appropriated another country as our playground, with nature as a thing to be snapped up in a photo and taken home. Yes magazine came just after we returned, with a whole issue dedicated to radical travel, summing up all the issues with business-as-usual touring.)

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Rainforest rainbow, Fox Glacier, NZ

Yet I wouldn’t give back the stupefied feeling I had nearly every day, in the presence of these stunning landscapes.

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Sea Lions near Allen’s Beach

Since I’ve been back, I’m cultivating wonder daily. Reminding myself to listen, look, sniff, feel, even taste the world. Especially on my morning outings with Opal the poodle.

Things in nature don’t have to be totally grand or far away to stupefy. This treescape against this Indiana sky is big enough to evoke wonder.

Morning walk, here at home

But in a pinch, any old ant will do. (Not pictured: eye-level ant marching up the tree trunk where I leaned this morning).

Teeny anthill. The littlest creatures can move the earth.

I mostly sit behind a desk, but I love to get up close and personal with the beings that share our world. I recently took part in a bird banding day at Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary, and had a chance to briefly hold and release three different birds. Just a second or two of quivery warmth before opening my hand and watching them sail away into the treetops.

Male indigo bunting. Not my hand (but I did get to do the release.)

Meanwhile here at home, I hear song sparrows trilling every morning, and one sometimes shows himself, toward the tail end of my walk.

Song sparrow preparing to trill

Even while pumping gas, I can find a chickadee taking a dust bath in the dirt of a neglected landscape island.

I believe we all can find wonder wherever we are. We actually contain wonder: Consider the fact that our very cells integrated another coevolving organism. At our core we are symbiotic beings. According to Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes, our mitochondria are descendants of ancient bacteria that became integrated into the type of cells that eventually gave rise to all complex life.

Smallest of all, and most wondrous to contemplate.

Where do you find wonder?

The Importance of Embracing Earnest

I’d like to praise the amateurs out there. The earnest beginners, the ones who dare to create something they’ve never tried before, who risk falling flat, who most certainly fail.

This is all of us, at some time or in some area of our lives. At least, I hope so.

I guess it is hip to be snarky and removed, to know everything already, to mock the earnest. Let me reveal my age, perhaps, by declaring this: Snark is the language of fear. When I use it myself, I feel a brief charge of satisfaction, then deflation. It hides what’s truest in me.

But there’s courage in earnestness—in daring to be a newbie or a total geek. Maybe it’s a gift of midlife (or a gift of the Midwest), but I have come to the conclusion that amateurish enthusiasm is endearing in self and others. I appreciate quality, but I don’t want to stop myself from leaping into the ring by focusing on quality alone. I want to be in the game, not standing on the sidelines.

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I have never seen artifice in my “Earnestina.”

I found a recent local production of Radium Girls to be refreshingly earnest. Community theatre is like that, people putting their hearts into collective art, allowing their neighbors, friends and family to see them in a different light, embodying all kinds of ugly and beautiful things that reflect us back to ourselves to make us think and feel.

This was an amateur production, made powerful by the actors’ passion.

Other recent examples come to mind. An octogenarian friend printed his own chapbook to share the wisdom he’s gained in 80 years. A folk musician came to my St. Patrick’s Day yoga class and performed ballads he’d written himself. A handful of women gathered for an EmbodieDance experience to move our bodies and express our spirits.

Countless others in my circle ply their creativity in poems, paintings, gardens, improv, photography, dance, textiles and more.

We may be experts or we may be newbies, and we may be more or less devoted to craft, but we all do our thing imperfectly, humanly.

Earnest people inspire me. Especially as I embark on the Tim Clare podcast Couch to 80K, a series of writing exercises in search of the Novel Within. It’s a relief to know that my initial (earnest!) efforts will be “amateurish.” To expect it.

See, I’ve stopped thinking of amateur as a bad word. I strive to be professional in my commitment, but I’ll be less lofty, more amateurish, if that means I’m all in—flubs and all.

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Nature is art. And what’s more earnest than a honeybee?

Creativity belongs to everyone. The word “art” shouldn’t be reserved for the museum or the canon. (I think of a visual artist friend who created a marvelous pictorial history of my neighborhood. Painting it on a signal box on a busy street corner, she often had people stop to admire her work. One impressed young boy told her, “You could be an artist!”)

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What my friend painted on a signal box

I’d love for that boy to understand that artmaking capacity belongs to everyone. To see this neighbor as artist, and honor her bravery, and take inspiration for his own self-expression.

The earnest artist says, This matters, at least to me. This is what I see. This is how I see.

And we’re all the richer for it.

Three Hours North

I was born the same year as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

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Oh of course, we both were in existence long before this birth, but 1966 was when our current recognized incarnation began: When my soul consolidated into this body, and the Dunes were designated as National Lakeshore.

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I’m only three hours south of this incredible place, something I allowed myself to forget for way too long. Recently we became reacquainted. Exploring the trails and shores for a couple days, I felt restored.

Walking the beach you might see trees pressing down across the sand and into the water. The brushy ones make it look like you can’t get past, till you arrive and find: Here you can walk under the tree, or here you can go up higher on the sand, or here just hoist yourself over. Or go a little deeper than you mean to, out in the water.

Or here maybe you just want to savor standing on a downed tree and feeling its smooth skin with your feet. The water doing its dauntless polishing, tempting a toe.

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To the east or west from the beaches lie the trappings of industry. Lakeshore and I were both born under the shadow of human folly, which continues still to this day.

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But there is peace even in the smokestacked encroached-upon existence. (Not-so-fun fact: Lead pollution, like that of the steel mill described here, fed into my health problems a dozen years ago, when high levels of both lead and mercury were found in my body.)

Still: These waves. Their power feels truer than anything. Sitting here you can’t hear industry, you can’t hear vehicular hum, or any of the ubiquitous noises of civilization that just.never.stop.

The waves are like breaths—sometimes slowing, sometimes racing each other but constant, the sound of moist, fluid, rhythmic life. Every single wave and breath its own experience.

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The answers are within, say the sages. Sit still long enough and you will find your answer. Or at least find a newer more pregnant more potent version of the question.

Sit still long enough and you contact something like eternity, the thing that goes on long before and long after this small understanding of a life.

Healers for the Culture

After yesterday’s proceedings, I passed a bad night, my body tensed as if against physical blows. To be a woman in this culture is to know that at any moment your body might be violated, and your voice dismissed.

Back in college, I remember a women’s studies professor saying something like: “If you take a man and a woman and strip them of all status, till they’re homeless on the street, the man will still be in a more privileged and protected position than the woman, just by virtue of his gender. He’d have to wear a sign that says, ‘Don’t take anything I say seriously,’ to even come close to her experience, and even then….”

Angry? Yes. Scared and sad too. A bad night.

I realize that this is nothing new to people who are less insulated by the things that usually cushion me from our culture’s violence. My race and class, my monogamy, my savings account—all these mitigate the full impact, even as a lesbian woman, of hatred of the “other.” So when I dip into this space, I know that I am just tasting a hint of the animosity that others swim in every day.

A woman-hating culture is a racist culture. Is a transphobic, ecocidal, xenophobic, heterosexist culture.

I write these words and stop to read them. I am part of the culture. People create the culture. I create the culture. My actions, thoughts, words form the story we live by. What do I choose? I choose otherwise.

In search of sustenance I take my dog for our usual morning walk on the golf course. I am one of the privileged who can walk at dawn in relative safety—my skin color (if not my gender) ensuring that I won’t be targeted for being in the wrong place, potentially risking my life.

The sun comes up and lights steam rising from the creek. A heron flies through my field of vision. My bleary eyes open to the beauty of a sycamore.

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A few clover plants bloom at my feet despite the groundskeepers’ daily efforts to maintain a monoculture of turf.

I’m looking at you, clover. They try to cut you down, chemicalize you out of existence. They say you don’t belong in this white-boys’ club. Yet you persist. And I see your sisters there with you. You’re not alone.

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Further on a small colony of mushrooms pushes up, also defying the chemical onslaught and furious mowing that are business as usual here. This fruiting body is just the part of the organism that we see. The mycelium under the earth may be in mysterious communication with nearby trees, according to Michael Pollan. Trading nutrients.

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I see you, fungi, and I thank you.

Leaning against a big hackberry tree, I can finally take in a deep breath, and think about what I want to create.

Let us find ways to nourish each other, recognizing that we are not alone in the pain being wrought these days. Let us seek underground communicative pathways inaccessible to those rolling along on the surface, blithely reaping the benefits of inequity and exploitation.

Let our outrage/fear/grief lend itself to deep listening and empathy, as we imagine ourselves as each other—whether that be a different race, immigrant experience, or a different life path altogether. Or even a different species. We are not alone on this planet, threatened by destructive rules made by men drunk with greed.

Let us be healers for each other, through our listening, and healers for our fractured culture, through our words and deeds. Because a culture built on other-hatred cannot stand. Its failure is assured, one way or another. How it fails is ultimately up to us.

Letting the Carapace Go

In San Diego I learned about sheep crabs, the largest California spider crab and impressive as can be, with a knobbily bluish shell.

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Photo by Eva Funderburgh, via Flickr Creative Commons

I learned that crustaceans molt several times over their lifespan: backing out of their carapace after first growing a soft new shell. They pull water into the new shell to expand it to allow for growth. It soon hardens and they go on their merry way in this roomier carapace (until it, in turn, becomes too cramped).

I’ve been taken with this image, thinking: What if we, too, could back out of our shells and emerge with a new watery skin? Though extending the metaphor requires a shell to harden, the expansion is what intrigues me.

We have the power to expand beyond what we think is possible. (And maybe we can be different from crustaceans, and choose to retain that soft, wet outer skin, instead of armoring up.)

What if the world, itself, could molt like that? What if it is in the process of molting right now? I use “world” here to mean consciousness, the stories that guide us, the collective agreements we have all upheld.

Can we make way for something that has yet to take its full form but that gives room for all of us to grow into the fullness of who we are?

In that personal and collective growth, we can look clearly at the shell of what is passing away. Perhaps it protected us, for a time. Or some of us anyway—those who have been privileged enough to be considered normative through race, gender, orientation, etc.

But: It’s time. We don’t have to buy into a story that makes no sense anymore.

We don’t have to agree to a dominant (but dying) cultural myth that diminishes someone else to make ME bigger. We don’t have to purchase (literally) the trappings of a culture that relies on what amounts to slave labor and massive inequity. We don’t have to buy into oppression, exploitation, racism, fear, war.

What if we all just walked away from that old defunct thing, just backed on out and moseyed on our happy way with something much softer surrounding us?

It isn’t easy, I’m not saying that—we white people in particular feel safe in our habits, in our business-as-usual. And the sweep of change encounters tremendous resistance in the form of the nation’s leadership (as Michelle Alexander brilliantly writes in her New York Times Op Ed today). But in the immortal words of Arundhati Roy:

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

To get quiet enough to feel the newness beckon, that feels crucial. To allow the call of the new to bolster us as we get out from under the old.

For me, this exploration lends itself to a simple inquiry: What can I let go of in this moment? Maybe it’s a breath I’ve been holding, a grip in my eyeballs, a resentment, a knee-jerk defensiveness, a fear of speaking up… or a habitual dissing and dismissing of whatever I need to feel, as emotion washes through me.

Acknowledging, allowing, and melting any rigidity… That is where I want to place my attention this first day of autumn, and in the coming season of letting go.

What about you: How do you conceive of the old constrictive shell, whether for yourself or the world? Can you envision a new, slippery, softer shell? What you would like to fill it with as you create more spaciousness?

In backing out from under the carapace, we join countless others in an expansion that can’t be stopped.

Who Makes the Sun Rise?

Have you seen the gorgeous children’s book Who Makes the Sun Rise, by writer/painter Lois Main Templeton? The concept: A rooster takes credit for daybreak because his call precedes it.

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Photo by Kamweti Mutu, via Flickr Creative Commons

We saw the artist’s work last weekend at the Indiana State Museum. Her abstract paintings often incorporate handwritten verbiage into intriguing and beautiful images. (Her story is inspiring—she started creating at the age of 51 and hasn’t stopped, though that was nearly 40 years ago.)

But to that rooster, and his question. I’ve been thinking about how the thing I want to grasp is always just a little farther on. I’m not talking only situations or possessions. I mean: How I want to be is how I am not now. I’d like to be braver, physically hardier, more sure of myself, more centered, more incisive, more evolved. Better.

But: Who makes the day break onto this ideal future self? My present self, with her choice to turn toward everything that is in the present.

I always have the choice to come closer to acceptance, or to distance myself from what is and fixate on some ideal I can’t possibly match.

So who is that elusive future self? The one who will clear out enough mental and physical and schedule space to finish her feckin book. That’s who. The one who will always work to dismantle oppressive structures, who will be properly assertive without alienating, who will see all projects to stunning completion and never get the least bit snippy.

Who will always match inner and outer.

Who will let go of perfectionism once and for all.

See how this future self is so great (embodying all opposing ideals) that she keeps me from loving the flawed being that I am, and will surely remain?

But if I can remember to sink into compassion just for one short moment, I might find that I have just enough courage, and can let go of just enough perfectionism, to do one small thing. Like write for 15 minutes nonstop about something that scares me. Or lift a small free weight. Or say no to one thing I really don’t want to do, so I can turn back to the book. Or say the uncomfortable thing that needs to be said, awkwardly but willingly.

Who makes the sun rise? Into that new dawn, shining bright? My present flawed self, with her choice to act—even if the action is less than well executed, even if she doesn’t know for sure what the hell she’s doing.

Agency, isn’t that what we all need? A sense that we are somehow making life roll on, creating the future. Which we are. We make the day break anew every day. Through the smallest of choices.

So I’ll join that rooster and say without apology: I make the sun rise.

The Shape of Redemption

Have you seen The Shape of Water, that marvelously innovative film with atmosphere that just won’t quit? Mostly I loved it. So lush and creative!

The film has been lauded as a modern fairy tale about embracing the “other”—with characters who are all outsiders (monster, mute woman, gay man, African American woman) banding together in the name of love.

But: I was disappointed in the ending.

Spoiler alert. I’m going to reveal the ending.

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Here’s my thinking: The monster/amphibian man/Amazonian river god could have emerged as a true hero if the last five minutes of the film had gone differently. Sure, the Hollywood ending works—he slashes the throat of the man who shot him and his beloved. He exacts revenge for torture and imprisonment as well as the final insult of murder. He gets the girl and even brings her back to life in a dreamy underwater scene.

Satisfying, on one level.

But I was rooting for something really innovative. The god-man’s foil is the heartless Colonel, who throughout the film jabs the “asset” with a cattle prod. Faced with the “other,” this white man persists in cynically disbelieving that he might have anything to learn.

Throughout the film I watched the villain suffer both emotionally and physically—while the river god-man turned out to have bona fide healing powers. And I thought that maybe, just this once, Hollywood might surprise me.

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Amazon River photo by Mariusz Kluzniak, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Maybe it didn’t have to be all “kill the bad guy” this time. Maybe the river-god would turn out to be a true healer. He could turn to the man who had made his life hell, recognize his suffering, and show him something different, reveal a whole new worldview.

The transformative power of love—real love, not just the limited “I-need-you-you’re-mine” romantic variety—would surely alter the Colonel. The fingers the river-god had bitten off could be regrown. Healing and forgiveness would pack even more punch than a vengeful, justifiable slash to the throat.

It sounds sappy, maybe, or wispy. But compassion doesn’t equate weakness in my mind. And it doesn’t have to be exercised without muscle. Say the villain, fingers restored, still lashes out in violence instead of bowing down to the greater power of love. The river-god could contain him, without hurting him physically, understanding that his suffering is of a different sort. The kind that takes longer to heal.

I’m aware that it’s largely my privileged and coddled life that allows me to think this way: Never having confronted true evil, I am free to look for the sliver of light I believe everyone possesses. To watch for the wounds beneath the villainy. To consider the villain as more than just the sum total of evil acts.

I am free to call for transformation, never having been on the receiving end of violence.
But there are people who’ve been there. People like Immaculee Ilibagiza, who survived genocide in Rwanda and brings a message of forgiveness now.

Or Phan Thi Kim Phuc, Vietnam’s “napalm girl” who, years later, embraced the man who ordered the bombing of her village.

Their courageous example tells me that this impulse toward healing over vengeance is possible, and that I’m not wrong in seeking it. And maybe it isn’t only about effecting change in a “villain”—change that may or may not happen. Maybe it’s about the transformation arising in the one who holds compassion.

It’s just a movie, you might say (back to Shape of Water). Let the ending stand unquestioned. It’s what we’ve come to expect. After all, the same theme turns up in countless novels, song cycles, video games, operas, paintings, on and on. It’s the theme that’s driven Western society for eons: that we overcome by force and domination.

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Not the Amazon. A river I’ve visited, with its own transformative healing power.

But the cultural myth we live by is shifting, and needs to shift, and it’s time for our cultural expressions to reflect that. Who better but the artists to explore and embody a new Story of Reunion, as Charles Eisenstein puts it?

Note: For more on the transformative power of compassion, check out the Forgiveness Project, a powerful collection of stories from all over the world.