Jerry Needleman: Seeking the Questions

Third in a Series on my Mesa Refuge Cohorts

It is a rare privilege to have sustained contact with a deeply reflective person, someone capable of nurturing reflection in others. Today I am remembering this feeling of spaciousness as I hold a book called An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth, given to me by the author at Mesa Refuge. A philosopher and educator, Jacob Needleman (Jerry, he prefers to be called) enriched my time at the residency enormously.

Jacob (Jerry) Needleman

Jacob (Jerry) Needleman

Jerry was there to work on his next book, and he’s written many. In fact, An Unknown World was penned during an earlier Mesa Refuge residency. I enjoyed getting to know the man behind the bibliography, finding him to be engagingly kind, curious, and funny.

As our senior resident, he occupied a place of honor at our dinner table. I think he enjoyed being the only man among four women who doted on him (and sometimes ribbed him as well).

Jerry’s brand of philosophy is practical, compassionate, accessible, incisive—and quite applicable to the times we are living. Instead of right answers, he seeks the right questions, a refreshing tactic.

In one of our many thought-provoking conversations, he invited us to live the question only we ourselves can answer, which is: “Who am I?” He said that when caught up in a destructive habit, it’s helpful to ask, “Who is the person doing that? Who am I?”

“This question is like a companion throughout your life; it becomes an energy,” he said.

I first opened An Unknown World in my writing shed, with water birds swimming the wind over the marshy expanse outside my window. Jerry had read aloud from this book the previous night—and what he read, his normally quiet voice turning sonorous, riveted me. That passage suggested that humans are channels for “higher influences” that need to be expressed on earth. That without our evolution, “Earth herself could not evolve toward her own greater possibility.”

Photo by Heikenwaelder Hugo, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Heikenwaelder Hugo, via Wikimedia Commons

And so I read more, hungrily:

“What we and our Mother Earth need, and what has been needed since Man first appeared, is the energy of awakened and awakening men and women…”

“We can hardly imagine what the Earth will offer us in return for its being seen and understood by the whole being of Man. Earth and Nature need this from us more than anything else. And only from this inner transformation of the mind can right action toward nature and the Earth be pursued without ultimately resulting in ‘the same old story’—that is, division, conflict, and violence.”

After I finished this illuminating book, I asked Jerry which of his works to read next, and he suggested Time and the Soul. I asked Bookmamas to order a copy for me. I’m looking forward to diving in. It’s about allowing time to “breathe” in our lives. (Jerry was right in divining that I need to learn this!)

I feel so blessed to have met Jerry. I probably wouldn’t have encountered his work if not for our time together at Mesa Refuge.

Gail Needleman: We Are Not Monads

Second in a Series on my Mesa Refuge Cohorts

Gail Needleman came to Mesa Refuge to sort through years of notes.

Photo by Brandon Geisbrecht, via flickr Commons

Photo by Brandon Geisbrecht, via flickr Commons

A pianist and university professor, Gail was working on a book based on her musings and observations about music. Music not as some optional add-on, or the product of a professional, but absolutely essential to our souls. She sequestered herself in the upper room and got to it.

I have to say I was itching to be a mouse in her pocket, because I love sorting through tidbits and insights.

Her advice to writers: Do not make notes in tiny notebooks; you will regret it later. (She teasingly scolded me for my habit of scribbling in a little notebook, but I love my wee notebooks!)

An interview she gave to Works and Conversations magazine is called Music is Something You Do. In it she mourns the trend toward music as performance instead of communal expression—effectively cutting us off from the healing power of our own voices.

She says it’s quite a modern idea to experience the self as a “monad,” a self-contained unit, separate from others. “And music, the most communal of human activities or arts, becomes those billboards with the person with the iPod dancing to music that no one else can hear.”

Photo by Thomas Neilsen, via flickr Commons

Photo by Thomas Nielsen, via flickr Commons

I love her story of the children’s game “Lemonade,” a call and response song-game. It includes the line “Give us some—don’t be afraid” before the child in the middle pretends to pour lemonade, and the others gather around and hold up their cups. Gail thinks this is about breaking the barrier between individual and group.

“It was just a very simple example of how in making music together, the barriers between people go down…We’re armored most of the time, even to ourselves, but certainly to others.”

Gail brought a dry wit and down-to-earth sensibility to our dinner table conversations. Her warmth and wisdom made me treasure her presence. One evening she advised us younger women, all prone to burnout from taking on too much, that “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you must.” She told of a time when she was in charge of an event and had many demands on her. The line she used, which I intend to borrow, was “Is this a question only I can answer?”

One night when we gathered by the woodstove, she sang a beautiful song that had us all mesmerized, especially her smitten husband.

Jerry and Gail Needleman on our last evening as Mesa Refuge residents

Jerry and Gail Needleman on our last evening as Mesa Refuge residents

It’s almost impossible to write about Gail without mentioning husband Jerry (philosophy professor Jacob Needleman, also in residence), and vice versa. The two are so clearly and completely meant for each other. It’s beautiful to see the love and trust between them—not to mention their lively sense of fun. Each seems to be the other’s biggest fan.

On the last evening she read from her work in progress, which she had been so reticent about discussing, and again held us spellbound. Her handwritten pages were pure poetry. I can’t wait for her book.

Sierra Murdoch, Writing the Gritty Truth

First in a Series on my Mesa Refuge Cohorts

Here’s a young writer to watch: Sierra Murdoch.

I met Sierra at Mesa Refuge, where we shared meals, stories, laughs, and a love of tea trays. We commiserated about the perils of writing, and encouraged each other to keep going. She inspired me with her focus and stamina—often the first one to get to work in the morning and last one still at it after supper.

Sierra Murdoch. Photo taken at writing residency, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2012.

Sierra Murdoch. Photo taken at writing residency, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2012.

Her project was a long article about a childhood cancer cluster in a small Nevada town. She conducted extensive research in the months leading up to our time at Mesa Refuge.

Sierra’s first foray into journalism was as a 2009-10 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. For a little over a year, she lived in Wise County, VA, where more than a third of the county had been stripped by mountaintop removal coal mining. Sierra wrote about retired union coal miners fighting mountaintop removal, which was polluting wells, causing flooding, and destroying forests and streams.

Mountaintop Removal, Wise County, VA, via flickr Commons. Photo by David Hoffman

Mountaintop Removal, Wise County, VA, via flickr Commons. Photo by David Hoffman

Since 2011, she’s been on staff at High Country News, a well-respected magazine about the environment of the American West. Her biggest project there, and also for The Atlantic, chronicled the economic and social impacts of oil development on a Native American tribe living in the middle of the Bakken oil field—and a growing culture of violence against women there.

“I’m most drawn to communities living in extracted landscapes,” she says.

We had many conversations, but one in particular stands out. I told Sierra how much I admire activists who hold the line against things like mountaintop removal. The same goes for journalists like her who write about tough stuff, the gritty truth.

I sometimes feel guilty that I write feel-good stories of people building the new world while corporate giants prey on vulnerable communities and ecosystems. Aren’t I sort of slacking, happily profiling what’s going right, when there are so many wrongdoings to be exposed? Do I need to spend more time on a bullhorn instead of a cozy little blog?

But Sierra had a different take on it. She pointed out that the feel-good stories are nourishing not only to “the movement,” but also to people deeply invested in the status quo. These folks are usually turned off by angry protests. They might associate corporate actions with jobs and a way of life. So they feel threatened by protesters, disgusted with media attention.

Photo by D.D. Meighen, via flickr Commons

Photo by D.D. Meighen, via flickr Commons

“But the coal miner’s wife might like to go to the farmers market,” Sierra said. “She might want to garden, and she might like to be involved in community projects too.” Perhaps hearing about a group quietly working toward greater community resilience will bring her into the tribe. (Surely we need all stripes of people in this tribe now.)

This made me feel better.

Sierra is thoughtful, disciplined, kind, and curious—traits that make an excellent journalist. She radiates integrity. I can imagine that her subjects would trust her implicitly.

I look forward to watching her accomplish great things in years to come.

Respite

I’m back from Mesa Refuge,* where I had 10 days to write, read, reflect, and draw inward. It was heavenly to leave the smartphone in a drawer for most of that time, and to let my social media accounts languish.

It was a time of exploration. I explored through my writing every day, starting early in the morning and working late into the night in my private writing shed. From this window I spied deer, quail, rabbits, hummingbirds, juncos, redtailed hawks, vultures, egrets, white pelicans, and many other waterbirds and songbirds I couldn’t identify.

My writing shed  overlooked a Tomales Bay tidal estuary, where San Andreas fault lies.

The shed overlooks a Tomales Bay tidal estuary. San Andreas fault runs through this wetland. Mesa Refuge is “a place for writing on the edge”–and this shed is situated on the edge of the North American Plate, looking across to the Pacific Plate.

I explored the nearby town of Point Reyes Station. Not one but two yoga studios serve the tiny populace, and the farmers market brings everyone out each Saturday.

Point Reyes Station Farmers Market

Point Reyes Station Farmers Market

And once I ventured out in a borrowed pickup truck to one of the many wild places near the refuge.

Path to Abbott's Lagoon, Point Reyes National Seashore

Path to Abbott’s Lagoon, Point Reyes National Seashore

This was one of my favorite days.

Abbott's Lagoon

Abbott’s Lagoon

I relished the solitude and quiet that are so rare in workaday life. It felt like a privilege.

Beyond Abbott's Lagoon: The Pacific.

Beyond Abbott’s Lagoon: The Pacific.

But there was conviviality along with the solitude. I spent many of the evenings in conversation with the brilliant writers who were in residence with me. In coming weeks I plan to feature each of these writers and their crucial work.

I also decided to spend some time sitting in nature each day, now that I’m home. Here in my city, the hummingbirds are long gone and there are no dramatic cliffs or hypnotic ocean waves, but the leaves are turning and the songbirds are still as vociferous as ever. Heartland beauty may be subtler than West Coast beauty, but it still fills me.

*Are you a nonfiction writer whose work touches on nature, economics, and social justice? I would encourage you to apply for a residency at Mesa Refuge. It is a phenomenal place to write.