The Steps We Take Now

“We can indeed transform the world, and we are each called to take part in this sacred work.”

—Desmond Tutu, from the Foreword of Random Kindness

It seems that every day brings news of another horrific act of violence. The level of cruelty reaches appalling levels. Where are we going and why are we in a handbasket, as my mother would say?

But recently I got my hands on the reissue of this beautiful book, and it is like an inoculation against hopelessness.

Are we moving “closer and closer to a world where everyone is dead for no reason,” as the book describes one possible scenario? Or are we waking up to the fact that “we’re all making the soup we’re all eating?”

I first learned of this fabulously illustrated work from my sister Mesa Refuge resident Paloma Pavel, who is a total powerhouse. Years ago she started working in the anti-nuclear movement with Joanna Macy (my idol!), and she hasn’t stopped advocating since.*

Paloma coauthored the lovely little book expanding on the saying Practice Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty. Her coauthor, Anne Herbert, originated this statement, and the two originally collaborated on Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty in response to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

An artist named Mayumi Oda (the “Matisse of Japan”) illustrated the book in a traditional folk art style based on 12th century Japanese picture scrolls. Frogs, cats, monkeys, birds, and rabbits play the part of humans on a dual path—will they (we) choose destruction, or delight?

Historically in Japan, this type of folk art used animal representations to spread subversive messages. It seems an apt medium for a book that proclaims, “We are all leaders now.”

The 20th anniversary edition has just been published. I had the thrill of hearing Paloma read its lyrical text on our last night at Mesa Refuge, a full year before the book was reissued.

Myself, Sierra Murdoch,  Jerry and Gail Needleman, and Paloma Pavel at Mesa Refuge

Myself, Sierra Murdoch, Jerry and Gail Needleman, and Paloma Pavel at Mesa Refuge

So beautiful:

“The steps we take now
Make new earth grow beneath our feet.”

“In every moment we live
We have the choice
To find the fight
Or make delight
We have power.

To hear Paloma read the full text aloud was just magic.

I borrowed the book from the library for now, but I plan to purchase my own copy. All royalties will be donated to antinuclear advocacy and community resilience across boundaries.

*Check out more of Paloma’s work at Earth House Center and Breakthrough Communities.

How I Spent my Summer Vacation

After traveling for nearly a month, this homebody is glad to be back to my little haven of domesticity. This time I visited Washington State with a side trip to British Columbia.

If you follow the blog, you know a little bit about my adventures, but here are some more highlights.

In Bellingham I learned about Sustainable Connections’ Think Local First campaign. This ingenious program rewards local businesses for earth-friendly business practices by raising their profile in the community.

We decided to experience this local biz thing for ourselves.

Checking out goat cheese options (that's our old friend Laurie in the foreground.)

Checking out goat cheese options at the Bellingham Farmers Market (that’s our old friend Laurie in the foreground.)

Craft beer, ice cream made from local berries, a killer bookstore, and a festive Saturday farmers market showed us a bit of the region’s specialties.

Biggest raspberry evah

Biggest raspberry evah

From Bellingham we ventured north to Denman Island in British Columbia for the Mudgirls workshop.

My new friend Millie, tamping slip straw at the Mudgirls workshop.

My new friend Millie, tamping slip straw at the Mudgirls workshop.

Then it was back to the U.S. for a two-week writing residency at Hypatia-in-the-Woods in Shelton, WA. This experience was a bit different from previous residencies which I shared with other artist types: I was the sole resident of a lovely cottage nested deep in the cedar forest.

The labyrinth on the grounds, a magical place

The labyrinth on the grounds, a magical place to commune with deer, birds, trees, and insects

The solitude gave me lots of focused time to write. I also learned how much I value having someone within hollering distance, as I had a few challenging moments in the intense isolation. I was thankful for the board, who kindly made sure I had some conviviality to balance out the quiet.

Other people's dogs, such as the director's Sheltie, Ceela, helped me deal with the lonesomeness of not having my dog with me.

Other people’s dogs, such as the director’s Sheltie, Ceela, helped me deal with the lonesomeness of not having my dog with me.

A high point: connecting with Olympia Mycelial Network, a group I’ve admired from afar. I helped them with an installation of bioluminescent mushroom mycelium, which was a thrill.

We gathered by the cob oven on the Commons at Fertile Ground. After a quick tutorial, we created a path from wood chips inoculated with panellis (bitter oyster) mycelium. The hope is that this path will glow in the dark as the mycelium gets established.

Peter McCoy, who blogged here about starting the Radical Mycology project, walked us newbies through the process for growing mycelium.

Peter showing me grain spawn and mycelium sugar that he propagated at home. Now I want to try it!

Peter showing me grain spawn and mycelium sugar that he propagated at home. Now I want to try it!

After that inspiring evening, I had to visit Olympia Food Coop, where the group earlier helped install mycelium that consumes petrochemicals.

I feel so lucky to have had the chance to learn from such innovative people and projects. I’m glad to be back to my laundry-hanging, solar-cooking, dog-walking routine though. I have several fun writing assignments coming up that I’ll tell you about later.

Note: Speaking of solar cooking: We’re offering a workshop this Sunday from 2-3pm at Pogue’s Run Grocer on that very topic. RSVP here if you can make it!

Stories and Sustenance

I’ve been wanting to tell you about some of my creative cohorts at Playa, but first I think I need to speak about ART.

A chair made of pebbles, created by a prior resident on the dry lakebed.

A chair made of pebbles, created by an earlier Playa resident on the dry lakebed.

Art plays a critical role in the world’s remaking. I don’t mean just literary nonfiction depicting stories of people pulling together to build resilience (though that happens to be my particular project).

I mean novels that show us how to be authentic people, teach us to feel deeper into ourselves, open a side of humanity we don’t normally see, or introduce a culture we’ve never encountered.

I mean visual art that cracks the heart wide open for its beauty. I mean performance art that rearranges something inside us. I mean music that connects with something buried deep within.

Art moves us, and movement is much needed—now more than ever.

I once read a book about the state of the world that laid out the problems in great detail, and then listed the titanic changes needed. The author recommended eschewing novels and other “distractions” in favor of educational books addressing the many issues we face.

But I return again and again to the Barbara Kingsolver character who asked, “What is the use of saving a world that has no soul left in it?”

Clothesline poetry in the high desert.

Clothesline poetry in the high desert.

Art is the soul, and artists its keepers. Without this vital work, we are diminished.

As author Barry Lopez has written, “Sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive.”

During my two weeks at Playa, visual artists, performance artists, poets, and writers of fiction and nonfiction all fed each other stories and sustenance. We gathered around the table to talk about topics great and small. We took in each others’ work, and drew inspiration from it. Just a few who inspired me:

Belle’s poetry brought the world into sharp focus—like her poem “Sacred Cows,” exploring questions of ethics and culture around beef consumption. Hailing from Hong Kong, Belle taught a few of us chi gong one night in the Commons.

Belle after leading us in chi gong.

Belle after leading us in chi gong.

Portland-based poet Jen created innovative sound recordings and poetry whose shape mirrored landscape. She works for an environmental nonprofit, and her writing possesses a keen eye and ear for the natural world.

That same reverence for life is captured in the visual artists’ work. Susan’s small drawings depict The Ten Thousand Things. In the Tao te Ching, The Ten Thousand Things refers to all of creation. She remembered me snapping a photo of this bird drawing, and kindly gave it to me before we parted. I treasure it.

Susan's exquisite drawing on rice paper. She makes one a day after walking and observing.

Susan’s exquisite drawing on rice paper. She makes one a day after walking and observing.

Emily’s watercolors evoke wild desert beauty in both postcard-sized landscapes and largescale topographical representations. She gave me one of her postcard pieces, the view of Playa from her balcony. I can look up from my desk and see that blue sky anytime I want.

Emily and a few of her gorgeous topographical representations, based on Oregon's Summer Lake and environs.

Emily and a few of her gorgeous topographical representations, based on Oregon’s Summer Lake and environs.

All of these and more blessed my stay and affirmed for me yet again that art is not a luxury.

The Biggest Sky

I’m back from living under the biggest sky ever. Playa,* a retreat for artists, writers, and other creatives, granted me precious time in silence in the midst of a stunning landscape. I have to say, Oregon is my new favorite state (next to Indiana, of course).

My first morning at Playa, I walked this mown path through the grass.

Morning walk in the high desert.

Morning walk in the high desert.

To my left was Summer Lake, the “playa” (defined as “a temporary lake, or its dry often salty bed, in a desert basin“). To my right, beyond the road, was a smallish mountain range known as Winter Ridge. The vistas pretty much gobsmacked this Midwestern girl.

This was the view from my deck. I ate, read, wrote, and practiced yoga outside, shaded by two friendly trees.

My deck looked out over a pond. Who needs TV when you've got birds, dragonflies, jumping fish, and the occasional muskrat to watch?

Who needs TV or Internet when you’ve got birds, dragonflies, jumping fish, and the occasional muskrat to watch?

Pond life provided constant diversion, fodder, and entertainment. The jingles of my avian companions kept me humming all day. (I decided the redwing blackbird says, in French, Bon, vas-y! and in English, Look at meee, yeah!)

Every day I explored my interior and exterior worlds.

Walking on the mud flats.

Walking on the mud flats.

I was (and still am) overwhelmed with gratitude for such a gift.

An unexpected bonus  was connecting with so many incredible people, all in love with the natural world, all devoted to seeking, listening, experimenting, creating. In an upcoming post I will share a little bit about my co-residents, who inspired me almost as much as the wide-open space.

*Are you a writer, artist, naturalist, or researcher who would benefit from time away from routine demands? I would encourage you to apply for a residency at Playa. The program offers a combination of seclusion and conviviality in an absolutely gorgeous desert landscape. You won’t regret it, if you have the chance to go.

Small Respite

Final in a series

Author Rebecca Solnit writes about how we have changed in the last 20 years, mainly due to online connectivity. We have shorter attention spans. Our time is chopped into bits. We indulge our need for constant updates and check-ins.

She wrote that all this makes deep thinking and reading very difficult to sustain.

And often the habit of seeking external input subverts our inner knowing.

With that in mind, I conducted an experiment in the last weeks of 2013. I took a break from Facebook. I found it instructive—not always comfortable, but interesting.

I find that a quality of inner silence arises when I’m not hooked into an external source of connection. I’m not distracting myself through the random bits of pathos, trivia, deep thoughts, outrage, and silliness that constitute my Facebook feed—so I can face more easily the stuff that needs to be addressed, whether a stuck emotion or a dreaded task.

Back to my conversation with my friend Kate Boyd: She told me she had seen the film Inside Llewyn Davis and was struck by the pace of life pre-Internet. The breathing space of that age.

I had the same experience, and a sadness at what is lost, when I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which takes place post-World War II. The story unfolds in letters. I mourn the loss of letters.

Photo by Cas, via Flickr Commons

Photo by Cas, via Flickr Commons

Much of the story happens on an island, and the main character has long spacious hours in nature. I mourn the loss of time unfettered, disconnected from constant inputs.

There’s no going back, of course. But it helps me to put rules around my Facebooking, even bendable ones: No checking after 9pm. No checking before I get some work done. One day a week cold turkey.

Each Sunday I strive for an Internet-free day, but one day really isn’t enough to touch that sense of quiet. During my self-imposed “FaceBreak” and also during last October’s writing residency at Mesa Refuge, I came closer.

The hours at Mesa Refuge were largely Internet-free. There was no expectation to track anything other than my own thoughts and the work of my cohorts. The main questions were: “Did you break through that block you had last night, did you write your scene, did you get to the place you need to be?”

My writing shed at Mesa Refuge

My writing shed at Mesa Refuge

My time there was about ideas and creativity—and connection to something slower and sweeter than the latest argument or article posted online. Something, dare I say, eternal.

I’m looking forward to two writing retreats this summer that I hope will offer the same sense of spaciousness. And in the meantime, I manage as best I can—carving out Screen-free Sunday as a small respite, bringing some awareness into the mix when I remember to.

I hope this keeps me from having to file “social bankruptcy,” as in this very funny Portlandia clip (that a friend shared on Facebook).

What about you: Do you have techniques that help you deal with information overload? Have you ever taken a break from social media, by choice or necessity? Tell us about it in the comments!

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.


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.