Finding Refuge

Some days you wake up thinking, What is the point of any of this? Why do I self-inflict all this work, all these expectations? Your writing feels stale, your tasks stretch before you like so much drudgery, your paperwork piles to the ceiling.

And you think: I will never, ever catch up. I will never move through the world without this exhaustion. I will never be able to fully focus on my writing the way I need to.

Then a note appears in your inbox from a woman you contacted months ago. You mailed her your application in slim hope of gaining entry to a selective writers’ retreat miles away. The first words in this email are “I am delighted to inform you…” You read the note again. And again.

And the whole sky can’t contain your gratitude.

By Frank Schulenburg, via Wikimedia Commons

Tomales Bay, which is overlooked by Mesa Refuge from its bluff. Photo by Frank Schulenburg, via Wikimedia Commons.

For two weeks in October, I will reside with two other writers at Mesa Refuge, a retreat for people exploring the intersections of nature, economics, and social equity.

It’s a precious gift—a chance to dive deep.

“The landscape of sky, marsh, and bay flowing to the sea helped concentrate my mind. I loved the quiet. I loved the wild garden overlooking the wetlands below and the hundreds of birds circling above. It is rare and wonderful to feel so quietly cared for—so completely supported and encouraged.”

—former resident Chris Desser

Some of the authors I admire most have found the solitude and focus here to create their transformative books: Michael Pollan. Terry Tempest Williams. Frances Moore Lappé. Natalie Goldberg.

These are writers whose work has changed my life. There are no words adequate to express how honored I am to gain a place in this residency program.

And what a thrill to get this tweet from an alumna today:

Already I feel renewed by a beneficent universe.

Their Courage Becomes our Courage

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently devoured Frances Moore Lappe’s brilliant new book EcoMind. I now have a clearer sense of the risk people are taking when they first begin to step off Status Quo Railways and change the way they live.

It’s deeply ingrained in each of us as humans to to look and act like everyone else in our tribe. This has been a matter of survival since Day One of our species: Stay with the pack, or perish!

No wonder so many are hesitant to follow a different drumbeat than the dominant culture’s. Lappe cites experiments showing that subjects went along with the wider group’s opinion–even when it went against what they could see with their own eyes.

It can be quite powerful to join a movement, but what if the movement looks fringy and wrong to the people closest to us? It’s a big risk.

That’s where the power of relationship comes in.

Because those same experiments showed that “all it took was one truth-teller to enable people to be true to themselves.”

“Knowing this,” Lappe writes, “we can choose to seek out those who share our passion, those who encourage us to risk for what we believe in.”

In fact, there are neurological changes that take place when we observe others’ actions. “Mirror neurons” in our brains start firing–as if we ourselves were taking those same actions!

In this way the courage of others becomes our courage.

I have had several such exemplars in my life, people who showed me what it means to live a life of passion and integrity, with the lightest of footprints. Here is a photo of one of them, Keith Johnson of Renaissance Farm.

Keith Johnson, sharing the beauty and abundance of Renaissance Farm

Keith Johnson, sharing the beauty and abundance of Renaissance Farm

Keith and his partner Peter Bane (who gave me my introduction to Permaculture) model a generous, resourceful, earth-sustaining way of life. It’s a way of life that will be ever more essential as we face the uncertainties of the future.

The photo above was taken in May when a friend and I drove down to Bloomington for Renaissance Farm’s plant sale. Though it was raining, Keith delighted in showing us the glories of spring on the suburban farmstead. The unveiling of a fig tree was particularly thrilling. As I recall, Keith insisted we take some of his surplus bok choy harvest, and when I swooned over the taste of chocolate mint, he pulled a clump right out of the ground and gave it to me to plant at home.

People like Peter and Keith give us all more faith in our own ability to heal the earth, to live in such abundance that we just have to share.

They offer me (and others like me) the assurance that Deepak Chopra talks about in this quote:

The famous adage is wrong: The journey of a thousand miles doesn’t begin with the first step. It begins with the assurance that you can take the first step. 

Critical Mass

I was talking with a friend recently about the climate crisis. He’s one of the creators of Apocadocs, every day curating news of the major fix(es) we are in, so he’s understandably gloomy much of the time. But for a moment, his usual despairing tone took a different bent.

“I take comfort in flocking behavior,” he said, stating that a flock of birds doesn’t depend on some alpha male to make a decision about which way everyone will move. No: The flock flies in concert, each bird maintaining alignment with each other as they wheel across the sky.

Chris Upson, via Wikimedia Commons

Chris Upson, via Wikimedia Commons

My friend takes this as a hopeful sign that perhaps humans can make a much-needed shift by simply reaching critical mass. “And maybe it’s just 51 percent of us who need to get it, rather than 80 or 90 percent of us.”

Gaining critical mass at 51 percent certainly sounds possible. And perhaps we’re at 50.99 right now.

I’m further encouraged after reading EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, by the incomparable Frances Moore Lappe. This intensely inspiring (and mindblowing) book deserves its own post. But for now let me just quote this passage that jumped out at me, as it reinforces my friend’s view:

“While animal-behavior experts used to think that it was the dominant leader who made decisions for the whole herd, they’re discovering that it doesn’t always work that way. For instance, red deer, native to Britain, move only when 60 percent of the adults stand up. Whooper swans of northern Europe ‘vote’ by moving their heads, and African buffalo do so by the direction of the females’ gaze.”

By Stefan Ehrbar (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

By Stefan Ehrbar (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

How about it? Which way are we looking?