A New Chapter

Here’s what’s been on my mind lately. Stewardship. What is the best use of my time, money, and energy? I work this problem all the time, attempting to follow my soul’s leading and my body’s wisdom.

Which brings me to a new development: A dozen years after leaving corporate life, I’m reentering the workforce. This time around, no pharmaceutical company. This time, my work will completely align with who I am. In fact, I was inspired to apply for a part-time communications position at the nonprofit Central Indiana Land Trust largely because of its stewardship mission. (I start at CILTI May 1!)

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Tulip poplar, Indiana’s state tree because it was used for so many log cabins, stands straight and tall on land protected in perpetuity.

“Stewardship of the kingdom” is a Christian value I absorbed from a young age. In Mennonite circles, stewardship ranks pretty high on an unwritten list of What Makes a Good Mennonite. We don’t discard things lightly at my house, even though I’m years away from my Mennonite upbringing.

I had the example of my parents: Mom who hated to waste air-conditioned air on a wide-open doorway, Dad who contrived creative ways to get the last drip of salad dressing from the bottle. Dad also volunteered extensively with CILTI, finding its vision a match for his passions. So it’s sort of in my blood—this impulse to conserve, tend, preserve.

(These days, I wouldn’t call it “stewarding the kingdom.” That phrase denotes a dominion mindset that no longer rings true. Here in my state, some controversial logging invokes stewardship as a rationale.)

Back to my new workplace: Sunday, I joined a CILTI-led guided hike of the Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve, a portion of which is old growth forest. Old growth means it has been forest for thousands of years.

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Love the color of this fungus, which I can’t ID. Anyone?

The preserve was donated to the Nature Conservancy before it was even the Nature Conservancy, and given to the DNR under the 1967 Nature Preserves Act, protecting it from development forever. It’s the site of tons of studies, along with scads of spring wildflowers and ginormous trees.

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Trout lily in bloom at Shrader-Weaver Nature Preserve.

It was downright moving to hear executive director Cliff Chapman give the wider perspective on CILTI’s work. And it has everything to do with seeing a tree as an organism, not an economic commodity.

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One of many fallen trees left to decompose as “nurse logs” for other species.

The goal is to buffer the 28-acre old growth forest with new trees, spanning hundreds of acres. Cliff pointed out a nearby field that will soon be planted with trees and monitored extensively.

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A field beyond the border of Shrader-Weaver will be put into trees.

Why undertake such a task? Well, consider the birds. Brown-headed cowbirds thrive in the edges of natural woodlands. They lay their eggs in the nests of warblers and other migrating birds. That wouldn’t significantly affect warbler population if habitats weren’t so fragmented. But warblers fly into places like Shrader-Weaver, and cowbirds fly out. These little underdog birds need to reproduce, or their numbers will dwindle away.

The answer is to unfragment the wild. Bigger patches of habitat give migrating birds more cover.

Beetles, spiders, fungus, all manner of rare plants all thrive in such a place as well. And in what sometimes seems like the last days of biodiversity (how many bugs went splat on your windshield on your last road trip?)—protecting them becomes even more critical.

How do we imagine that humans can thrive when our kin—winged, petaled, myceliated, rooted, scaled—collapse all around us? And who would want to live in that kind of world anyway?

We’ve got to start embracing other species not as “resources” but as organisms. Each has its own life and its own role intrinsic to its being. It doesn’t exist to serve us.

And knowing this can heal some of the painful loneliness of modern life, where we walk around feeling like nonbelongers on the land that sustains us whether we acknowledge it or not.

Speaking of embracing: When Cliff gave a one-armed bro-hug to a big old Shumard Red Oak, I thought: I am joining the right team.

More info: See the CILTI website to learn all about their stellar work (soon to be our stellar work!) Here’s a blog post I wrote about Dad’s volunteer work with this organization.

The Alchemy of Yoga

Sometimes, looking at the horrors of our present age, my thoughts run to “what is the ever-loving point of any of this?”

It’s a heaviness that gives despair the reins. In the wee hours, my brain chatter runs to the bleakest possible things. Teachers I admire and love, young people I care about are attempting to teach and learn… while fearing they might be the next victims of a school shooter? Devastating, terrifying. Unthinkable.

And what of the shooter, of shooters-in-the-making? How deep does our alienation go, that we continue to look away while people tumble into darkness? Would a life-affirming culture continue to produce people with little respect for life?

Yoga is where I get a visceral sense of alienation’s opposite. Yoga means union. In yoga practice, I alchemize my despair, and hold space for the collective to heal. The dysfunctional culture plants its stunted seeds into me, waiting for me to curl inward, grow cynical, turn my back. Yoga grows a new plant entirely.

I go to yoga class to be with my people. My yoga studio welcomes people of all body types, ethnicities, ages, and orientations. (My teacher is one of a new vanguard of instructors extending yoga to populations that might not gravitate to it: veterans, people with addictions, older folks, people with disabilities.)

We roll out our mats, sometimes josh and tease, sometimes get serious right away. Our teacher guides us into quietness through simple breath awareness.

We don’t have to stop the mind from its prattling. Just notice where it’s gone and take another conscious breath.

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The movements may be slow and easy, slow and challenging, or flowy and strenuous, depending on the class. But always there’s the pairing of breath with motion, the sensation of really inhabiting the body that so often goes ignored. Union.

If tears threaten, we let them come. It’s all OK.

We are here to challenge our habitual patterns of mind. We are here for community and communion. We are here to find some silence in the fray. We are here to refill our wells. We are here to stretch bodies that sit too much, or ease bodies that work too hard. We are here to touch into timelessness.

By the end of class we’ve been rearranged a little bit. We might leave class kinder than we went in. We will go back to the fractious world, the intractable problems, contributing in whatever way we do, letting go of “what’s the point,” at least temporarily.

The closing invocation might fall into the much-maligned “thoughts and prayers” category, but for me it is a powerful statement of connection that does not preclude action. It invokes what can be, what must be if we want to survive and thrive as a collective.

“May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy. May all beings know peace, be free from all delusion, and walk through their lives with ease.”

And the light within each of us grows brighter, so we can continue to hold others in Light.

Prairie Skies

I wanted to be Laura Ingalls for a fairly long period in my childhood. If there could have been a buck-toothed, four-eyed Halfpint, it would have been me. I went so far as to wear my hair in two braids for the entirety of third grade. I also begged for a yellow sunbonnet that (if memory serves) my mother hand-sewed for me.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder

In a nostalgic mood, I recently read the eye-opening Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Today happens to be Wilder’s birthday. Happy 151st to an icon of my youth.

My passion pre-dated the TV version of Little House on the Prairie, which debuted in 1974. I was 6 when my Grandma Miller gave my older brother the first volume of the series for Christmas in 1972. I can’t remember when I first got my mitts on Little House on the Big Woods, but safe to say it was my cup of tea.

Big Woods was likely the first chapter book I read on my own. Before long I had read the entire series through. I’m guessing I promptly started over again at the beginning. Throughout my bookwormish girlhood I read them too many times to count, and they’re on my bookshelf still.

My early writing efforts owe a debt to these books. I remember matching the name on the spine with the character in the book. I’m not sure if I knew that writing was an actual profession carried out by real people until that moment.

If I get quiet enough, I can almost slide back into the wonder of first opening those books and living in their pages. The magic of a world where everything was handmade, down to leather hinges on the smokehouse door.

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My beloved and battered 1972 copy of the first volume.

 

My favorite was On the Banks of Plum Creek. Living in a dugout sounded so sensible and yet romantic. Wilder left out the scorpions and spiders. The privy was somewhere offscreen.

(Also unmentioned: the fact that Pa was a squatter in at least one of the homesites he chose for his family—claiming land legally still in Native American hands.)

The sweep of those stories riveted me—and my friends, who used to join me in pretend-harvesting “wheat” by pulling the seedheads from weedy grasses growing in untended corners of our city block.

Memory made these books, and now they are tied up in my memories (and millions others’). I’m nostalgic for something that was originally an act of nostalgia: Wilder wrote her books a half century after her own childhood, in a sometimes-painful look back at a time and place lost to her.

Her Pa was one of the homesteaders settling the West, cutting down trees in the Big Woods, plowing up native grasses on the Prairie that later would become the Dust Bowl. The wilderness that both he and Laura loved was imperiled by just this impulse to settle and farm.

Nostalgia aside, I wouldn’t want to turn back time, to the days in the 1970s when I lost myself for hours on end in these books. Or to the days when pioneers staked claims on land wheedled away from its original inhabitants.

We were sold a line in the opening paragraphs of Big Woods, in which Wilder wrote that to the north of their log cabin, for miles and miles, “There were no people…only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.” Of course there were people: the first people, the ones who knew the Big Woods better than any white settler.

Prairie Fires sets the stage for the Ingalls’ westward migration by recounting the Dakota people’s fight for their territory along the Mississippi. The Homestead Act had just offered free land to every American citizen over 21. If a homesteader lasted five years, they would receive a deed to the property. Though scientists cautioned the government against encouraging farming in the arid west, the bureaucrats didn’t listen, and so began America’s ill-fated “sodbusting” fervor.

What’s clear to me now as an adult is that Wilder’s cozy familial scenes masked real privation, not to mention deep injustice and dubious land practices.

So much of what majority Americans have comfortably assumed as truth is in revision these days, as we learn the hidden stories behind our assumptions.

When we look back at this time in Western history, if we survive it, one name for it could be The Great Unveiling. A time of necessary awakening, innocence lost (in long overdue fashion, we might venture to say).

We don’t need to cling to the illusions of our youth. We’re strong enough to contain all of these truths: our childhood selves and the simple wonders we first opened to, and our adolescent selves who only wanted to be right and unchallenged, and our (may it be so) growing adult consciousness of the hurts and injustices inextricably tied to this country’s origins.

For me, cracking these books today, for just a second I can still vibrate with the same enthrallment as I did when I first devoured them. I never wanted to come to end of the last book. When the TV show proved to be a sad imitation, it didn’t stop me watching week after week—and it wasn’t Michael Landon’s locks and dimples that kept me coming back. I suspect that already in 1974, I wanted to recapture the thrill of discovering that world for the first time.

Prairie Fires traces the arc of Wilder’s adult life, showing the hardship of losing everything with her husband shortly after their marriage, and later a troubled relationship with her daughter. Most of it was hard to read. But I am coming to the conclusion that knowing more about their author, or the complexities in her life and work, can never dim my love for her books.

Because I still carry that wide-eyed girl inside me, the one who wished for Laura’s pluck and strength (yes, even her chores)—and neverending prairie skies.

Integrity

Integrity: noun

1. adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
2. the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished: to preserve the integrity of the empire.
3. a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition: the integrity of a ship’s hull.

In the documentary* Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, a health worker talks about the integrity of traditional people who inhabit the high Himalayan desert. The villagers, she says, take care of the land and water. They know not to throw rubbish in their waterways. In fact, there is no such thing as rubbish, because everything they gather is used to the fullest.

“See how good the villagers are?” she says, contrasting their lives with the decline of values (along with air and water quality) after this remote region of India was developed.

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Ladakhi woman, photo via Pixabay, Creative Commons license

The film shows how the Ladakhis’ quality of life deteriorated after roads linked pristine “Little Tibet,” as the region is called, with the Indian plains. Ladakh had been a cooperative, sustainable society, based on traditional Buddhist values and the principles of interdependence. But once subsidized products, Western ideas/images, and tourism hit the region? It all changed rapidly.

Small farmers struggled to compete with lower-priced items trucked in from elsewhere. Villages dwindled as young people left their ancestral lands for paid employment. People began competing for scarce resources, where before there had been plenty for all, even with a brief four-month growing season and precious little rainfall.

With competition came enmity for “the other,” as insecurity became the new normal. Ethnic tensions, crime, and poverty, which had never before been an issue, began to taint the larger culture.

Then there were those waterways, which all became polluted around the cities and towns (where more and more people lived in housing developments completely disconnected from water sources.)

You could say it became harder to have integrity, both in terms of ethics and in terms of wholeness/soundness. And this is the state of much of the world, wherever global consumer culture has taken over.

What struck me about the film—even more than the clear contrast of Before and After documented by the venerable Helena Norberg-Hodge—was its demonstration of what human nature really is.

Were the villagers “good”—as in “better than” westernized society with its throwaway mentality and penchant for soiling everything worth protecting? Thinking this way puts such behavior on a pedestal.

But integrity is not some snooty, hard-to-reach thing involving self-sacrifice and personal pain. It is about wholeness, about choosing to act in ways that are aligned with our highest path and purpose.

Looking at footage of Ladakhi villagers laughing and singing as they help their neighbors harvest grain, you don’t get the sense that they are having hard time adhering to lofty principles. They’re simply acting in a way that makes total sense, that preserves life.

In other words, they live in a culture that nurtures alignment with true human nature, which wants to express itself through collaboration and interdependence—with other human beings and with the entire natural world.

Our culture is skewed to greed and self-interest, but this is not “human nature.” How hard is it to approach wholeness in a fractured culture? Really damn hard. You have to be willing to swim upstream, to pay attention, to make countercultural choices.

We have been taught to think that humans are inherently selfish. But voices like Norberg-Hodge challenge that notion, and tell us that we’re looking at humans in an artificially warped setting. Take away the subsidies, the dehumanizing images, the denigration of simple life with its wholesome collaboration, and something else might have a chance to emerge. Something based on a sense of belonging.

Until that day, we have to nurture a consciousness shift within ourselves and each other, toward alignment with our truest integrity.

*Note: See my earlier post about Norberg-Hodge and the need for relocalization.

A New Framework

Over the last number of years, I’ve noticed that my usual driven way of attacking my life has not worked well for me. If I were a car, I would have had my engine set to rev even at idle.

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Photo by proby458 (Paul), via Flickr Commons

At some point I realized that the goal-oriented way I was socialized—that all of us in the Western world have been socialized—actually made things harder. As someone with many projects/passions/interests, I got a rush from setting goals and planning out steps. I loved putting target dates on my calendar and making out lists. (Still do!)

But when it came right down to it, being fueled by adrenaline was not good for my health.

Then there were all the times I fell short and beat myself up, or ended up needing to move all my targets around because I missed one.

That old system started to seem incredibly wasteful, as I got in touch with its cost, and looked at the results. Could I get to the same place with greater efficiency, ease, and joy?

I couldn’t figure out exactly what to do differently, but I knew the word “goal” had become tainted for me. Even “setting intentions” seemed dicey. I started to lean toward words like “commitment” or “pledge” to define what I had decided to do. And yes, I still wanted take action in service of a commitment to myself or others. (I still have many many things I want to put out into the world.)

What to do? I didn’t have a new framework in place that worked.

Penney Peirce’s book Leap of Perception has given me fresh perspective and an alternative path to explore. Willpower, she says (the heavy foot on the gas pedal) is old school, because it assumes that we are outside of All That Is, outside of what we want to bring into our lives. She calls intention “attention with willpower added,” and declares the addition unnecessary, a defunct habit.

But if we experience ourselves enfolded in with everything, part of a holographic universe, creation is a matter of soft attention. Our next right action emerges based on moment-to-moment nudges that invite a resource/experience/project/etc. to form. It happens not through force, but through connection.

Others have talked about this, including Martha Beck—how aligning with what wants to be born allows it to emerge in effortless partnership with you. But I never quite got it till now: How resting in the present moment, paying attention, holding a vision gently, taking inspired action—all come together in bringing something into form.

In my recent Full Attentional Living series, we did an experiment to feel the physical difference between applying force and universal love. As Martha Beck demonstrates in this video, the latter is monumentally stronger.

 

It may seem like Jedi-level stuff—connect to Flow and melt your “opponent’s” resistance!—but anyone can experience it by tapping into a sense of unconditional love, perhaps for an animal companion.

And knowing that, why would I think I need to continue exercising my willpower to power through my tasks?

More Kinds of Beauty

I’m happy being a little bit behind-the-times when it comes to pop culture. OK, I’m really really out of it. There are times when friends’ Facebook posts completely mystify me. Most current films, shows, games, musical groups etc. are not really on my radar. I don’t have cable, or Netflix, or Spotify. I rarely go to the movies.

For entertainment we get DVDs from the library, and we watch our favorite PBS shows on the membership passport website thingy. With subtitles. I might be a little bit old in that regard, though I like to think I’m a woman in my prime.

I guess I sort of live under a rock? A rock made of writing and yoga, home life and books, plus a certain fringy kind of work that totally charges my battery. Weird kid rides again.

But now Pink. Pink is on my radar. Pink, I know and love.

Come to think of it, I know none of her latest stuff. No matter. Here she is talking (to her daughter and all of us) about courage, and art, and opening people’s eyes to more kinds of beauty. A sister Weird Kid. Have a listen if you’ve ever felt like you’re swimming upstream.

 

From “Me too” to “We All”

Last week a flood of “Me too” posts dominated Facebook as women (and a few men) declared ourselves among the recipients of sexual violence.

If some were surprised at the numbers, I’m betting they were men. My guess is that few women have never been sexually harassed, and if we haven’t ourselves been sexually assaulted, someone dear to us has.

One of the heartening and difficult things of this time in our history is the unveiling of the ugly sickness at the core of western industrial society. What’s revealed is the shadow side of the masculine principle—so far out of balance that it assumes ownership of women’s bodies.

We women know what it’s like to feel unsafe just because we walk around in these bodies. At any moment we could be humiliated, coerced, split open.

I wanted to write about a time in my life when this was not the case. The first time I went to a women’s music festival in the woods of western Michigan, where men were not allowed to enter, I walked at night alone for the first time feeling absolutely safe. The sense of freedom and relief overwhelmed me and contrasted sharply with the way I had lived my life up to that day.

Constantly warned by my mother to watch my back—even on the short walk from garage to house. Constantly aware that I could be interfered with on the street. Monitoring where I put my eyes, how I moved my body. Making myself small so as not to be noticed, or faking badassery so as not to be targeted.

Is this how we want our daughters to grow up?

What is the psychic toll?

And, can we white women translate our experience into empathy for people of color? who also by dint of their bodies move through the world imperiled, subject to daily humiliations and threat of violence?

(The leader of a local African-American grassroots group, questioned by security while waiting for his wife outside a public restroom. The young black man who told me he and his friends hear car locks ka-chunking when they walk past a white-driven car. The teenager at the park who left his bike in the bushes because he had no bike lock, prompting white passersby to report him for suspicious activity. The rampant police brutality, and continuing lack of justice in a stacked-deck system.)

My big question is: Can we take our painful experiences and use them as a way to feel into the lives of others we might think of as different from ourselves—the Muslim immigrant, the transgender person, the poor family?

What if we could also feel into the lives of the terrorist, the abuser, the white supremacist, the greedy corporate titan? Is this a bridge too far? I think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writing of his anger, many decades ago, on hearing how pirates victimized Vietnamese refugees escaping their country by flimsy boat. The pirates had raped a young girl and brutalized entire families.

Sitting with his anger, Thich Nhat Hanh eventually imagined his way into the life of a boy growing up in a country with no opportunity. He imagined the circumstances that might lead up to the teenager joining a pirate band where for the first time he felt a sense of belonging. And so on…until through his imaginings, Thich Nhat Hanh felt his heart open again.

Of course, this is a Buddhist monk we’re talking about, but I wonder how we regular mortals could broaden our sense of compassion to include more than we ever thought possible.

Compassion might be like a muscle that gets worked, gradually getting stronger.

It might be like a tree that grows where such a thing seems impossible.

20170928_095742 (768x1024)I believe that there is no separation between us. That I am you and you are me. That everything in me mirrors you and everything in you reflects me.

And as more of the darkness is revealed, it’s just more opportunity to heal.