Friday, December 27, 2013

Joy to the World

A few nights before Christmas, a friend and I were riding the subway home, while talking about how to get people on board with saving the world. We only need about 10% of the population for a revolution. I don’t know how to go about gathering people, or how to better galvanize those who get it and hunger for something better than, happier than normal. These were the questions we batted around as the subway shrieked along in the rain. Would it have done anything if we had gone through the moderately full car, asking if anyone thought that things could be better than they are? If we had yelled “Who wants to salvage the world?” loud enough to be heard over the ubiquitous earbuds, loud enough to cut through whatever private worlds all the riders were coming to and from, would that have done good? Would an attempt have been its own success?

I don’t know.

It is the follow up question that stumbles me—imagining one person removing even a single earbud and asking “Yes, of course, but how?”

I don’t really know what to say to that. How we save the world, and from what, are at once extremely personal and universal sentiments. Any one person will have a thousand and one personal and larger challenges between them and a better world. There is, as yet, no practical handbook, no multi-step program or ladder like trajectory that will save the world. We like steps and routines—like the idea that thirteen years of general education plus four years of specialized training in college plus maybe a few years of additional school plus a marriage plus a house plus some babies plus a good paying job with career advancement opportunities plus a lot of possessions and trinketry will make us happy. Anything outside that expected, culturally reinforced path is alternative and we, collectively, cling to those ideas as what is normal.

Normal seems a bit somnambulistic. With all the individual passions beating in each of our hearts, how could we ever think it is possible for one solution to bring us all our own happiness? And, further, how have we allowed ourselves to be robbed of our hearts and minds by some hypnotic vision of how we must be if we want to be happy, if we want to be successful humans?

Wake up, please.

I get particularly cranky in the days after Christmas, when all of the momentum seems to have been forgotten, when the red and green decorations stand over the piles of used wrapping paper and empty cookie plates. Underneath all of the commercial, consumptive clap-trap of Christmas, there is a razor thin sliver of reality, of hope that peace can be on Earth, that goodwill can extend to all, and that joy can come to the world.

I do not like to see that packed away, as if it were just a dream for December. It seems like the closest we come, culturally, to recognizing what needs to be done, and to fully see what we’re saving the world for, rather than the mortally depressing reality of what we’re saving it—and ourselves—from. We come together, we tell people we love them, we make time for all the things we say really matter.

That difference, between how we save the world and why we each, separately and in a loose coalition, hunger to do so is crucial. I believe that the how follows the why. A dear friend of mine from the mountains worked for many years on a farm. You could see the nearest mountains from a few of the fields, and she would cheerfully explain that the farm was because of the mountains—her love of wild places had led her to work in ways that do something, in the long and short term, to maintain the wilds. The less food has to be trucked around the world, the fewer chemicals that are dumped on our food as it grows, all of this is better for ourselves and for the health of wild places. The why leads the how, belief and love and work made a gritty truth out of possibility. And this woman is one of the happiest people I know, living as she does by joy, rather than by the bounds and strictures of normal.

Perhaps the better question of all the people looking like lonely sleepwalkers on the subway that night would have been, “what do you love?” That seems like a the best jumping off point we really have, what is going to drive all of the best of our labors and happiness in working for the better world that is more than possible. It is at once the hardest and easiest question I know of, and you do not have to answer now. Forget, for a moment, the loaded gun of everything that is pressed against the head of the world—forget climate change, forget income inequality, forget health insurance and grocery lists, forget all of the horrible things that keep you awake at night. Take a breath and think of what brings you joy, what makes you come alive, the things you would rather do than anything else on earth.

This revolution, it’ll come from joy or it won’t come at all. And, better, it’ll come with joy.

Now, who wants to salvage the world?

(Snow bunny photo from

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Further Shore

“Human beings suffer,

They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard.

No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong

Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols

Beat on their bars together.

A hunger-striker's father

Stands in the graveyard dumb.

The police widow in veils

Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don't hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that further shore

Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracle

And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:

The utter, self-revealing

Double-take of feeling.

If there's fire on the mountain

Or lightning and storm

And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing

The outcry and the birth-cry

Of new life at its term.”
—Seamus Heaney, from The Cure at Troy

The words have been stuck in my head, going round and round like a tangled rope. Particularly everything from “Believe that a further shore” to “double-take of feeling.” Some mornings, I wake up and have to read the poem before I can do anything else. There is nothing I want more than that further shore, on the far side of revenge, where hope and history rhyme and where we all rise up and turn the tides of endless gaols, visible and invisible. 

And this further shore, it is no new territory to be found on any map. We’ll be using the same land, the same water, navigating by the same stars we always have. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, so this further shore is right here, just waiting for us to see it and treat it—and each other—better. The better world that is possible, the further shore that we hunger for, we’re each all that is standing in our own way.

And, often and increasingly often, I think that we’re going to get there. In our thousand little boats and each building our own bridges and paths, there is a common hunger fueling more people than I can guess, reaching, straining for the further shore. On good days, it’s not that I can almost taste it, but that I can.

They are not all good days. We suffer, we torture one another, we torture ourselves with what we think we want or need or should want and need. We are trapped in unkind systems that judge and rank on metrics that cannot compute heart and soul and the deep keening yen to make this great voyage to the further shore. Student loans, gas prices, credit ratings, carbon levels, salaries, particulate matter, lost acreage of wild lands and home places, annual snowfall, disappearing species, average temperature…there are innumerable numbers to build yourself a jail from. I do, on the dark days.

And then the further shore seems more and more distant. I cry with frustration at the bars of this world, at the corners I’ve got myself into, at the debts I owe for my education, debts that the jobs I work barely touch. And, compared to people who are struggling to shelter and feed themselves and their loved ones, who are stuck in deep ruts of injustice and fear and sad habits and grown-gloomy hopes, my troubles are mortifyingly small. But, I do know the frustration of feeling trapped, the tight-chested anxiety of thinking nothing will ever change, of being too worried to even dream of a further shore. It breaks something deep inside me to think that the pieces of this world, the shards that we cling to and that seem to cling to us, could prevent building something better.

My latest get out of jail card has been this poem. If we believe in something, and act on that belief, it’s far more likely to happen than if we wring our hands in fear and doubt. Of course, belief is no guarantee of success, but here, more than anything else I’ve ever contemplated, the journey is the destination. It’ll take a miracle to storm the castle, to get to the further shore. It is a miracle that anyone believes we can, and that belief is the miracle it’ll take.

This is the linchpin, rocket-fuel, unfoiled gunpowder plot of it all: the miracle is self-healing. The miracle of the further shore both comes from within and heals what is lacking within. Our own belief in change is the change necessary. And no one will save us, except for our own selves. It is hard to own that, but very sweet to realize the power you still have, when the world’s systems beg to crush you and obscure the view of the distant shore.

It can waver, this belief. It will. The toils and snares and traps and jails and hungry, heartless systems…they do not disappear just because you recognize their futility and meanness. But, we are on more solid footing than a cartoon coyote, running off a cliff. We can look down and see real the real ground we walk on, towards the further shore. We can look around and see the others—friends and strangers—who are moving on a tidal wave of knowing better things are possible. They'll hold us up when we need it, we hold them up too. Just by hungering for the further shore, we make it more attainable. Imagine what more belief and more action would do. Will do. 

The double-take of feeling…to me, that is like getting an extra heartbeat, turning hope into belief, thought to action, knowledge to power, anxiety to peace, whatever transition is necessary to crack your particular bars and come along to the further shore. It is reachable from here.

Friday, December 6, 2013


“There will never be another like him.”

This has been said a great deal lately, with the anniversary of JFK’s death, with the passing of Nelson Mandela. The cultural bathwater has been a thickly salted with reminiscences.

Some teachers where I work talked about what JFK’s assassination meant, how—half a century later—they still felt a loss. To me, who can be callous to these things, it seemed as if there was a melancholy and passive game of “What If?” being played in the faculty break room. I heard many things that JFK might have done, had he lived. I was told that I’m the wrong generation to understand that loss of innocence, of inspiration, how it was as if a light went out.

Of course, I don’t fully understand, but what the hell?

First, I’m rather certain that the bombings of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing ten years of war caused something like innocence to break in me, and my generation. If not, then we have the melting planet, the violent income inequality, global corporate dominance and government-for-hire to finish off anything so Bambi-eyed as innocence. I don’t mourn my innocence—it looks a lot like ignorance in hindsight. And, besides, innocence is not the same as hope or joy or perspective or happiness or knowledge or action. Thus far, nothing has threatened the lifetime loss of those qualities. Losing innocence, really, brings all the others to the fore. 

Second, if you are inspired—by anything—get up and do what it calls you towards. It is not enough to elect leaders who will make you feel warm and fuzzy and hopeful and inspired. Good ones, this is their job, of course. But our work is to answer that inspiration with labor, with whatever talents and passions we possess. We must make the world we want. It is in the making that inspiration remains alive and gloriously adaptive to whatever unfolds through our inspired efforts. We must allow ourselves this power, this responsibility. It is scary and we do not know how, but the loss of an inspiring figure cannot be the end of the dreams, of the actions, of the fights. We are here, and life is short. Make it better. Many of those Lost Innocents of Kennedy elected Reagan and begat the rat-race consumption of modern society, which seems like a poor answer to what you can do for your country, your world.

The loss of light I feel softer towards. We love the people who stand and inspire us towards being our better selves. When they go, never with quite enough warning or enough time to thank them, to get one final speech or word of wisdom, to explain the impact of their life on your own, the world feels a little less without their presence in it. When Seamus Heaney died this summer, I felt as if there were a little less poetry in the world. With Nelson Mandela’s death, I feel a little as if we’re missing a rare voice of moral authority, of both fighting and forgiving. I keenly feel we need more, not less of these, qualities on this planet. 

Because of that, because we miss the light of yesterdays’ heroes and demigods and saints and poets, let’s turn the light back on! Never mind the dead going gently into a good night—I’m more concerned about we the living going passively into a good day. I am frightened of over-aired view that there will be no more giants to walk the Earth, that justice and the fierce radicalism of common sense, that inspiration to make the world better and more beautiful have died with the bodies of these, really, mere mortals. Made of the same stuff as each of us. That thought… I feel the weight of all my hopes, and also the thin, goading wing of inspiration. 

We are more like our heroes than we can imagine, if we have the courage to live on. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

On Christmas

An employee at the natural food store was telling another employee about having had a birthday. I eavesdropped.
“Yeah, I just feel like I’m really thirty-four now.”
“What does that mean?” asked the other, presumably younger, woman.
“I can’t explain it,” said the first. And so she asked another, presumably older woman.
“Oh,” said the third, “it’s great! Thirty-four was when I stopped putting up with nine-tenths of the bullshit. I suddenly realized I was juggling, like, sixteen lumpy bags. And, now, I’m only carrying two, one in each hand and evenly balanced.”

Eavesdropping is one of my nasty little habits, and probably the one I’m most unlikely to give up. The words of strangers, flung out into the world, can be as reassuring as a graffiti-poem on a subway wall. Out of the muddy murk of unknown souls, something universal and beautiful rises up.

I don’t think that we need to, any of us, wait for the magic age of—apparently—thirty-four to put a stop to the bullshit, to pare down our baggage. Or, if you're past thirty-four, to think that you can't be freer than you are.

It’s the Christmas season, which I have never looked at the same way since I did relief work in Biloxi, Mississippi, following Hurricane Katrina. The piles of debris, of former possessions, that we removed from houses, that sat black-moldering in the streets of Biloxi were like the desiccated corpses of the bright and shiny bags and boxes that pile up the carts and arms of holiday shoppers. The further knowledge that this rampant over-consumption by a few fuels the horrific loss of many makes my stomach shaky. Perhaps Nero can play some carols as we go up in flames and down in floods and famine. There is a half-price holiday sale on Titanic deck chairs, if you’d like to rearrange them.

I do not mean to sound Grinch-like. I try to love the good parts of the season—the candlelight and the hope that there could be peace on Earth, goodwill to all, that some miracle could make us kinder people. The trouble is that those sentiments have become so fully monetized. It is hard to reconcile the phrase “Peace on Earth” with plastic baubles made in foreign factories staffed by indentured migrants. The more Christmas is a product, rather than the child-like feeling that something great is both expected and possible, the less I like it.

I read a headline this morning that said that the busiest shopping weekend of the year had been slower than expected. This is great news. “It’s the economy, stupid,” but I also believe that more people are setting down their sixteen lumpy bags and rebalancing them, that we’re leaving the unholy economic model we’ve been indoctrinated with (ps—this Pope is great!) I hope and almost trust that the slowing sales are evidence that we’re living out the certain knowledge that no object you can wrap up and give to another will ever, ever, fully convey your love for them. It is absurd to expect that.

I was raised in a loosely Christian environment from which I’ve decidedly wandered, so this isn’t a plea to return to some Biblically accurate holiday. Mangers are no place for newborns, and embalming agents are creepy gifts. But, what I do love about this is a time of the year is that we reach out and hold our loved ones a little more. I fear that we too often lose sight of that being the most, the only, important thing—not the quest for the perfect stocking stuffer or the hipster-est ugly sweater or a soy peppermint mocha latte.

It’s hard to trust yourself on this. Everywhere seems swaddled in red and green bunting and tinsel, everything shiny and new. Tinny and soft rock Christmas carols are almost piped into the air for the month of December. I worry that I’ll vomit up glitter and fake snow and sickly-sweet gingerbread scents. It’s as if the world is actively trying to undermine the truth you know. It’s not the world—it’s the Corporation of Christmas. And they are, like the bad villain in every Christmas movie, trying to steal Christmas, to co-opt that sense you have that there is something fuller of love and better and more magical. That’s what the season suggests, and then there is such disappointment when on December 26, nothing has changed.

So, be the change. Be fuller of love, stretch what seems possible. That would be magical, will be magical. How does this get done? Put a stop to ninety-nine hundredths of the bullshit. Find your priorities among the bags and parcels. If the thought of heading out to Christmas shop stresses you out, don’t go. Call a friend and have them over for dinner instead of wrapping up a trinket. Stay home and play with your children instead of waiting in line for hours for Turbo Elmo. Make cookies and bake bread, knit mittens and scarves, play music and sing songs, go skiing, go to the movies, write long letters, do whatever you do to share your actual joy with your beloved people, rather than feed the beasts that only see our quickening demise as a loss of their consumer base.

For Christ’s sake, we’ve gone along as though we believe in Immaculate Conception and a fat man from the North Pole for quite some time—let’s believe in ourselves for a change.

Monday, November 25, 2013

By the Light of Dreams

“Which size shackles do you want?” asked the policeman in my dream.

It’s unclear exactly what I had done, in my sleep, that I was being presented with two different sizes of ankle shackles. There was an infiltration of some corrupt system, with those of us on the same team knowing, but being unable to communicate in the confines of wherever we were. By nods and winks and the glint of a hidden smile, though, it was clear who was who, who would be rising up when the time came.

I suppose, from the question that remained when I awoke, that the time did come, that we all rose up in some way, from all the corners of our sleeper cells, and wreaked a little havoc. Oops.

When I was caught—I don’t recall how—and asked to size myself for restraint, I said something to the effect of “I didn't do this to break the rules. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I want the water to be clean. I want the air clean. I did this for the mountains and sunlight on the water. I did this because of beauty, because…”

In the half-knowing of some dreams, I remember thinking that these were good words, that the awake-me wishes I fully remembered, or that dream-me could have written down and left on my pillow. What I’ve got here is the closest sense my dream left behind.

But the rationale for whatever I’d done, came from a deep love and longing for something, not against anything. To be for, rather than against, this already feels like slipping the bars of a cage for the wide sky beyond. 

Awake now, after a day of trying to remember more of the particulars of the uprising, that is moment of the dream that remains.

There are a thousand corrupt systems out there. I’ve spend countless hours dissecting current systems of power and organization in various guises—politics and religion and cultural patterns and economic theory and all the messy heritage we are children of—trying to get to the root of it all. I wonder, if we knew the root cause, could we then dig it out and erase all its traces? Because I don’t know that we can or can’t, I know that I’ll spend more hours of my life pounding my fist on tables and howling about the traps and hypocrisies of this world, looking for the roots of evil and sorrow and hoping that the looking makes them a little less.

But, more and more, I find such exploration of the reasons why we act a certain way, what the cultural influences are, to be frustrating and often a distraction from the rising up that is increasingly needed. We’ve talked enough. We know a lot of what is wrong. The challenge becomes, then, to act as we know is right. The systems won’t change unless we do.

I know frustrated academics, non-profit workers who have their passion sapped in various ways, educators who are hemmed in from teaching, broken-hearted politicians, friends who are searching for ways to give their gifts to the world and still afford to eat and a whole world of people who are, in various ways, trapped within the belly of the beast. And, I more than trust there are thousands upon thousands of people I don’t know who’s best intentions, who’s hearts, are trampled on daily by the machinations of the systems of the man-made world. I love these strangers, and suspect they—in the abstract—love me too. I find this beautiful and comforting, somehow. When people say they’re saving the world for the children and grandchildren in the future, for “us” in the present—this includes you.

We all know that better ways of being in the world are possible.

But something is preventing us from pulling together and bringing down the system. Fear of the unknown, of the world we will be making after the revolution, of being responsible and accountable for this grand experiment, of failure at this after so many years of complaining. These are real concerns, of course. It’s fine to be afraid—it means something good is at stake, I think. But we cannot be so paralyzed by fear that we stay with what does not work, what we know is not right.

I think we also underestimate how many there are of us who know that the emperor has no clothes. We all know this, even the emperor, I suspect. No one wants to be the lone crazy person. Not only is it ineffective, we desperately need to know and support each other as we revolt, in our own and braided ways. And, we’re none of us insane for wanting different than what we’re told to want.

In my dream, there were winks and nods by which my rebel cell knew ourselves, knew we were not alone for the crucial moment. We have such signals in the awoken world, or something like them. I keep meeting more and more people who seem to have these same deepest wishes for a better world. I find such words coming from people I did not suspect of such passions. There are conversations that serve as a secret handshake. And the thought that we’re winning becomes a deeper knowledge—one I’m unafraid to say aloud some days.

Because I do not—awake or asleep—want a violent uprising, the best thing I know to do is to send off flashes and flares to let the rest of the rebels know they are not alone, and for us all to find each other in the dark.

Our wishes, our actions, our living out of dreams, these are the sparks by which we know each other, the light by which we’ll make ever better of this infinitely lovely world. By which we already are.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


We’re still going to win. It is slow, it is painful, and the lightness I increasingly feel about the state of the world and our abilities to make it ever kinder and better, is suffering a deep ache following Typhoon Haiyan. It seems wrong to chirp about the world becoming a better place while tens of thousands are living in grief and squalor.

But, simply, I do not wish to live in a world where such grim horror is, increasingly, the reality. If you are reading this, I doubt that you do either. Or that you are willing to take the lives of strangers as the price of progress, the inevitable cost of consuming what, living how you are told and sold you should.

I am not willing to do this.

And I’m trying to take the white-hot rage that flutters at my nostrils at these times and turn it within, to forge something like flexible steel from my heart and my bones. Rage and sadness, these alone are not good tools or materials for building a better world, for joining a revolution. They are not enough—rage covers sadness, sadness covers fear. If we admit we are afraid, then, we’re part way there. It is fine to be afraid. I am. I do not want to lose the world I know and love.

But, in order to win, in order to have the revolution we need, we need to believe it is possible. This revolution cannot be thought out by students in dirty garrets, singing the songs of angry men. Nor do I look for protests in the streets, violence against anyone. Please, let no one else set themselves on fire. Onlookers, grab the matches, bring water and aloe and bandages. Wrap your arms around the singed, tell them they are worth more alive.

I do not deny the crimes committed against our world, against our selves. There are many. If you start to list everything that is wrong, the weight of it all will crush your heart. I spend long days struggling with all the wrongs—student loans and carbon emissions and violent political theater to secure oil and a representative government that does not and a broken education system and all the sadness this life of overconsumption breeds—and I’m sick of it all. The Wrongs collide into a many-headed Hydra and I am tired of feeling constantly bitten.

I do not ask for an uprising, peasants with torches and pitchforks. Nor do I seek peace with the powers that be. Instead, I wish to walk away, to refuse to play this game anymore. The revolution I want is not against anything, explicitly. If we’re demonstrating against something, protesting against the many things, those things still have power. We need to deny them their power over us.

We’re each stuck in our own version of the rat-trap of the world. Expectations and commitments, lies we’re told of what we need, who we need to be and how we should look if we want to be loved, milestones “they” expect us to each tick off, a narrow and inflexible definition of success, and an abyss of doubt and failure if we do not follow along. This all is what we, each and collectively, need to help each other escape. Our escape from these fanged—entirely invented—specters, this is our revolution. It is, merely, zigging where our hearts and feet want to go, instead of zagging where we “should.”

I don’t pretend it’s easy. Hearts and feet want different things, different days of the week, hours of the day. But give yourself a little time to see what stays constant. You will know. Build off those littlest stones of certainty.

Last weekend, a dear friend handed me a copy of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crowe. “Here,” he said, “read this. It is one of my favorites.” Indeed, he has built his life in that book’s image as much as possible. I started to read and, less than ten pages in, was teary-eyed with wanting to change my life to something more like the barber of a small town along a big river. That feeling only grew stronger as the sunlight shifted outside the windows and we read and read, stopping now and again to feed the woodstove, refresh our mugs of tea, or to watch the geese pause in their migration. It was the sort of beauty where I’m tempted to say my heart stopped, when really, it was restarted, recalibrated, rerouted.

It may not stop hurricanes or typhoons, this yen of mine to become a librarian in Port William or Grover’s Corners. And those towns are hard to find on most maps, I know. But I’ll take those fictions in place of the ones I’m usually offered. Regardless, I find my reassurance that we’re going to win from the steel-strong piece in my heart that is awake and wanting to live quietly among good people, growing things, and wildness. That is my revolution. 

Please, join.

(Photo is of the mountains, my "come to Wendell" moment was on the ocean, but there is a resonance  between the places. The grasses are the same color and the wind feels similar and that is more than enough for me.)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Earth and Sustainability

  1. One doesn’t like to quibble with the leading environmentalists of today, but this isn’t Eaarth.
    1. This is Earth. We get no other planet. To recognize it as our only chance, as the same familiar home we’re had for so long, is crucial. If there are answers, they are here, on Earth and within our own selves.
  2. “GEa + GEn ≤ GRa + GRn = The Sustainability Equation.” At a conference recently, a man from the International Appalachian Trail stood proudly before a slide with this information. “Oh,” I muttered, “that’s it? Now that it’s been made so simple, we’ll be able to save the planet by lunch.”
  3. We didn’t. I doubt such clean numbers and equations are real solutions.
  4. “Thousands Feared Dead After Typhoon Haiyan.” NPR headline, November 10, 2103. Thousands aren’t feared dead this morning, while I’m writing this with my sore heart and radio both turned up. Thousands are known dead. Wishing otherwise while waiting for facts we know will not change the reality. And no one should be surprised by these storms any more. Horror, pity, relief that it wasn’t your home this time, feel that. But do not insult yourself with pretending to be shocked anymore.
5.         First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.
—Martin Niemoller
Speak up. Act up. Don’t pretend you have no power to prevent disasters. And don't let anyone deny you that power or convince you that you have none. 

  1. As always, there are reports of local people heading to the site of this latest devastation, as if they were angels. Perhaps they are. But, they are not the only souls who can work against climatic destruction.
  2. Why is disaster clean-up both as altruistic as Mother Theresa and as sexy as Indiana Jones, but people trying to prevent such events are called hippies and weirdos who want to freeze to death in the dark, who hate jobs and the economy, who are out of touch Luddites?
  3. Is it too much to ask that we all use less?
  4. There are hundreds of disaster and emergency management graduate programs. I applaud their efforts. I cannot find a program in disaster prevention. We need to work on the root of the problem, the cause rather than just the effect.
  5. Is it too personal to look deeply for that root?
  6. At work, we go through reams of paper every week. As a member of the Sustainability Committee, I ask if we can demand that all paper be printed double-sided. My boss says that depends on how militant I want to be about “all this sustainability stuff.”
  7. It isn’t militant. It’s passionate.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Shipbuilding, Whitman, and Science

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea,” wrote Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

I long for the immense, endless and eternal nature of all things beautiful. Sunrises and sunsets, mountain ranges, oceans, the night sky, the links of love and blood and bone and skin that connect humans across time and space. And I think of what boat we might build as something that will hold us as we sail out to live in ways that will make us more worthy of the company of such boundless beauty.

This weekend I attended a gathering of scientists and conservationists and un-quantifiable “ists” who love the mountains and alpine zones of New England and the world with a rare passion. It was splendid to be in such company—to know that in a room of mostly strangers, there is something bone-deep held in common. And, in light of that shared spirit, I sat through numerous presentations by various scientists explaining their technical work in the name of research and conservation and preservation.

But, like Walt Whitman at an astronomy lecture, I found myself growing foggy. In the facts and figures and PowerPoint slides, I felt that the perfect wonder of these places was going unsung. I trust that those who do science find it their best way to decipher the wild wonder and ragged glee that beauty leaves on our hearts. That they take their “Rite in the Rain” notebooks out into the hills and tabulate the columns, charts and diagrams because the endless immensity of what they find begs to be brought forth in the language they speak. I hope so, that their numbers are the same as my words, and we all understand that these tools can only gesture towards the unspeakable immensity of such things. 

I say “they.” Because I am not a scientist. When I read nature guidebooks, when I listen to presentations of scientific findings, my poetic imagination pulls up image after image and I am lost in a sea of stories. That alpine zones are like small islands, scattered across the mountainsides and far northern reaches of the globe—a terrestrial constellation of small beauty amid the snows and harsh winds of the world—this is more poetic psalm than science. Read the Latin names of plants, the descriptions of their habitat and abilities to survive, and the poetry is as real as your beating heart and the breath that catches in your lungs. Diapensia lapponica. Stellaria borealis. Silen acaulis. Betula glandulosa.

It rankles more than a bit to see the wonder and poetry squeezed out of sight by science and research. For one, this makes it harder for anyone with an unscientific approach to crack into conservation—it makes the world salvation solely the province of the scientists, which is a lot of weight for all those good, geeky Atlases to hold up on their own. I struggled for years against my better-suited nature because all the obvious avenues towards conservation, preservation, and world salvaging went through the sciences. And, when you, like I do, find the Periodic Table, the food chain and the water cycle fascinating as proof of the holy connectedness of all things, it makes it a challenge to fill in the right numbers on all your charts and graphs, your tasks and the available work for building this ship we need.

Science and logic, they have their place. But, if what we are out to do here is save the world, it is truly a battle for hearts and bodies, not minds. We need to allow ourselves to long for the immensity and unknowable things out there, and, if we must measure that, then we must weigh all that wonder equally with the numbers and graphs of science. Research has limits, the heart has none.

Like any other good liberal, I have a canvas tote bag with a quote from Thoreau on it: “Things do not change; we change.” All that research and science, this is only saying that change is happening in the world, change that we the humans are largely responsible for. The world will not get better without our changing our own ways of being. And, so the question we are left with, at the end of the science is what will make us change into the sort of deeper-thinking, humbler, happier and kinder-to-each-other-and-the-wider-world people we might still become?

I don’t know. But I suspect that the answer must be wilder and more immense than can fit on any box-and-whisker plot, that our individual and collective passions for the world will overwhelm any scientific model. Perhaps the good science being done—the tasks and wood gathering for this ship—can drive policies that will shape us into a better-being society. I hope so. But I think that the for these actions responsibility and honor lies more fully in our own hearts, in recognizing the reality and longings for beauty, and acting on that in whatever way is right for each of us, scientists and poets and astronomers and shipbuilders and humans all.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Of Potatoes

“Well,” said my friend the poet, “we need to dig up the potatoes.” I was visiting one of my oldest friends and her husband over the weekend and this autumnal chore, and making dinner, comprised our plan for the afternoon.

There is a particular strain of sweetness in people who fold you into their lives, who welcome you to their to-do lists and chores. I find the ordinary to be more beautiful than words and it is a high compliment to be put in service to the chores of my friends’ lives. Ceremony and formality and the hiding of the gears of what makes a life work, this makes me nervous and uncomfortable, like starched clothes and stiff shoes.

And, so nothing could have made me happier than being handed a bowl and a trowel and heading to their garden. The potatoes we dug up looked like bulbous lumps of clay, all nodes and knobs. They were nothing like one might expect a potato to be, and much more fun to unearth for being a surprise.

In the course of a few days with these friends, I saw their jars of applesauce, their cords and cords of neatly chopped, split, and stacked wood from the trees in their yard. We walked on nature trails and dusty gravel roads, past hay fields and a therapeutic farm with solar panels on the barn roof. We stopped to scratch the ears of some pigs, on our way home from eating the sausage of their kin at a local café. Our dogs dug up and ate a dead rabbit, covering themselves with the terrible scent of rotten death to their great doggy delight, and our horror. And, without much fuss, we washed and walked and induced vomiting until the dogs were fine, if confused and damp. There was talk of hunting deer and picking blueberries, of clearing land to build, of the peculiar problems of being young and vibrant in old and rural places, where too many of the jobs depend on tourists who come, hungry to see a softened version of the past in this landscape. My friends fed me from their garden, on tomatoes the size of brains and cheese from the goats down the road and the syrup from their maple trees.

I like this way of being, where labor is part of a normal day, where life and death are omnipresent and gloriously visible. While we sat around a fire in their yard, I could almost taste their hours in the garden, growing the food we ate, splitting the wood that we burned. I was touched to be the beneficiary of their efforts.

It is the fall, when the world seems to shudder to a contented slumber. There is enormous contentment in recognizing the cycles of seasons, in digging out the potatoes before the winter comes in, in putting gardens to bed before the first snowflakes. The distinct difference of seasons is one reason that I love New England—the changes call attention to the time, force my eyes open to appreciate what is real and present before me, and that the particular joys of each season are in hibernation for much of the year make them each all the sweeter.

Beside the joy of living closer to the natural give and take of our spinning planet, dancing unevenly around the sun, there is also a sweet rebellion in these lives of greater self-reliance, of eating the food you grow and being warm through dint of your labor among the trees. I do not know anyone, yet, who is entirely divorced from the horrors of the global economy, who lives entirely unslaved by fossil fuels and unclean power sources and the bloody wreck of capitalism. But, today I don’t feel much like railing against all those things, or our cultural complicity and culpability. Besides, I know an increasing many who try to live away from these dangerous ways of being.

I’d rather speak more for the way of life that renders such anger and frustration unnecessary. Just beyond the surface of ordinary, there are better ways of being than what most of us know. Let’s go dig them up, and allow ourselves to be surprised and delighted by what we might find.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

What is Possible

The truth is, we don’t know what is possible. Which is why the pushers of envelopes, the stretchers of bodies and minds, the pioneers, the prophets, poets, and weirdoes are so vitally important.

My older sister ran a marathon over the weekend. That is her medal. As I said to my younger sister after, “I’m so impressed by what she just did. I’ll never do that. It’s like watching a trapeze artist, and just admiring someone’s ability to do that.”

I love to see any articulation of passion and dedication and imagination writ out through physicality and labor. Nearly 3,000 runners took off for the BayState Marathon and Half-Marathon at eight o’clock in the morning. Each individual, all their hours of training and days of hoping, all this melted into a river of neon colors, pouring up the street in the sunlight rising up through the canyons of old red-brick mills.

Nothing compares to seeing someone you love do something they love. I am so proud of my sister, for her physical stamina and determination, for being courageous enough to do something she loves on such a scale.

In all things, I am increasingly sure that we should do more of what we each love. It is, truly, the most effective path I can think of for any thing resembling a better world that what we’ve got now.

I think of my sister, running for years on her own because it was right for her. And how, in the end, she is so very much not alone. As much as a marathon is a race and people will lose sleep over seconds, I found the whole day more of a celebration of the running these people all love.

Demographically, I am perfectly primed to be a fan of the singer Josh Ritter, and am particularly enamored of the line in his song Lantern: “So throw away those lamentations / We both know them all too well / If there's a book of jubilations / We'll have to write it for ourselves.”

Writing or running or living or doing anything out of jubilation sounds both unstoppable and possible.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Little Wind and Sunshine

I write a lot here, too much perhaps, about what is wrong with the world. Here are some words about what is right.

Sunday, I raced north to meet my father for a sail on the Gundalow out of Portsmouth. He was bringing lunch; I was in charge of cookies. Which didn’t get made, so I decided to hunt up some apple cider donuts en route. And so I got lost looking for the orchard, then was running too late to wait in the donut line at the scary Disney-like orchard. I sped off, worrying that I’d miss the boat, feeling badly that I had neither donuts nor cookies in hand, and mostly upset that here was something important to my dad and I was going to blow it.

Because it’s autumn in New England, I soon passed a no-frills tent in a parking lot that sold me six donuts in less than four minutes. The day was looking up.

When I rounded the last corner onto Marcy Street, I saw my dad jump out of the parking spot he’d been physically saving for me. I parked while he fed all his quarters to the meter. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father run, but he picked up his canvas L.L.Bean bag and I strapped on my backpack and we ran down the street, through the park, and down the gangway.

We weren’t even the last folks on board, but it was close enough to laugh and to feel like we’d won.

I’m partial to certain slants of sunlight. There is a clarity of light on fall afternoons—the air being colder, seems thinner, and so the light cuts deeper. That was the sun that came out as the gundalow maneuvered, via a discreet engine, away from its dock in Prescott Park. Being a smart-ass, I asked if the motor was historically accurate. Dad, who has molded and put up with my sense of humor for over thirty years, replied that, historically, they would have waited for the right tide and good wind, but that the Gundalow Company—which runs sailing tours of the Piscataqua River and does on-board education programs—needs the motor in order to run on a schedule compatible with paying for itself.

Once we were out on wider water, the captain cut the motor and passengers were invited to help hoist the sail. I’m not naturally nautical, but am fascinated by systems—that a line is pulled here, run through a pulley there, hoists up a triangular sail, which is connected by lines and  to a yard, which is then connected to the mast in a way that allows the yard to drop horizontal, and by some rhythm unfamiliar to me, lines are held in way that keeps the sail taut with wind, and the boat goes forward. It is an impressive display of tactile knowledge, somehow timeless. Gundalows were used around the Piscataqua, in the Great Bay watershed from pre-Colonial through Industrial Revolution times. They’re flat-bottomed sailing barges, essentially, and are not designed for anything other than hauling stuff from place to place. The onboard guide said to think of them as the tractor-trailers of this place, in those times. The total lack of traditional romance, of simple and functional and sturdy, this is a singular kind of beauty. It is one of my favorites—this largely unsung beauty of doing the unglamorous work of the world. The sunlight on the water, the orange and yellow maple and beech trees amid the pines on shore, these would make anything look good. But maybe it does already, if you remember to look.

While not looking through binoculars or listening to my dad’s stories about his various adventures—from the Coast Guard to mistaking a lobster pot for a shark while out rowing—I was thinking about what it would be like to live with nature. To live not by a calendar and a watch but by what the tides determined, by what wind did or did not come your way.  There are times when, in the mountains mostly, I have come close to this. There is something at once companionable and adventurous about not maintaining the illusion of human control. I’ve found this in the mountains, mostly, with finding that the mountains and the weather do not care about my plans or preparations. There is loveliness is in giving up control to the forces of nature. A strong wind anywhere almost always reminds me of this, and it seems that the windier it gets hiking, the happier I am. 

I live in search of some combination of this happy-companionable-adventurousness-not-full-controlled state and of being rooted in a home place.

We sailed back, docking just as the setting sun force of nature were making it a little chillier than comfortable on board. After a good wander around Portsmouth in the deepening gold light of the late afternoon, Dad and I drove our separate ways. I headed down Route 1-A, hugging the rocky few miles that are New Hampshire’s coastline, and thinking only about the sunlight and the wind and the water, not rushing for a clock. I forget about the ocean sometimes, having spent so long and owing so much to the mountains. And so, when I pulled off the road and sat for a while on the rocks, listening to the waves and smelling the salt air, I was surprised to find that the wind on my face feels the same sort of wonderful.

That thing I'm looking for, it's already, always here, I think. And, I forget to look, there are gorgeous sunrises and sunsets every day, better than clockwork.

(Photo by David J. Murray of, taken from highly recommend checking it out and taking a sail next season.)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

How to Celebrate Success

Being an environmentalist is a lot of hoping in the dark, against the dark, feeling as if the dark is clubbing you over the head and stealing your skin. Maybe we like baby seals so much because their plight feel terribly familiar.

But, last week, news came out that the Brayton Point Power Station will close in 2017. 

Such success is rare. The outpouring of relief, of congratulations, of celebration regarding the foreseeable shuttering of a coal burning power plant that burns up the beauty of one landscape to spew pollution onto another, all the while heating the planet up and hurting us all in pursuit of cheap energy is cathartic and wonderful. We need to hold these good things as tight as we can, squirrel them away into our hearts as proof that all we work towards can become real.

It is a greatness that there will be one less coal burning power plant, almost soon enough to say that it is soon. Three and a half years, though, that’s not tomorrow. And, further, this power plant was an easy obvious target, a synecdoche for the larger issue of cultural reliance on unsustainable fuel sources supporting a ridiculously consumptive lifestyle. I hope, that with our relief at the end of Brayton Point’s coal, we don’t lose sight of the larger fight. As Winston Churchill allegedly said when a woman noticed he was drunk, “yes, madam, but in the morning, I’ll be sober and you’ll still be ugly.” Our celebratory euphoria will end, but the power industry will still be ugly. Capitalism never sleeps. 

And yet, this is somewhat the dawning of another era, Churchill’s "end of the beginning, rather than beginning of the end." The time of coal is dying out. And a lot of people poured a lot of passion and human-energy into working towards the closure of Brayton Point. Think of all the wonderful ways that energy and that focus can now be re-purposed into the world! This is what I am excited to see, what I am excited to be part of, where I see the true success of this outcome.

With all due respect to those who put their lives in service to the human and environmental angle of the closure, it is fairly obvious that the decision was an economic one, although the environmental push for regulations that contribute to the expense of running a power plant are pretty awesome unsung heroes here. And, it was never the coal itself that was stupid. It is the corporate forces behind the coal industry that were (are) willfully, dangerously cruel and stupid. They endanger human health and ecological well-being and exacerbate climate change and hide these costs under the blanket of cheap energy, while making a profit. There are now cheaper ways to make power, cheaper ways for power companies to make power, and to make their profits, which is what they care about in the first and last place. And, any time a company finds a way to do something cheaper, I am highly suspicious. It means they’re screwing someone over, abusing power somewhere, making a profit off of someone’s loss. Bastards.

Regardless of the element at stake, we’re always fighting against the nebulous, shape-shifting, powerful power industries of the world. And, if we’re fighting against coal and against, say, fracking and natural gas, then we’ve divided ourselves, halved our energy and voices of righteous dissent. The more coal recedes into the grime of history the more we can unite against an enemy that grows ever clearer.

It is a cathartic illusion that the cumulative weight of the environmentalist’s actions shut down the plant, but it is cathartic and good nonetheless. “Once upon a time, passionate people spoke out against the evil in their community, and then the evil left.” This is the narrative echo of every good fairy tale, these are the stories written into our DNA. Even knowing the less poetic economic truth, there is a certain amount of useful inspiration in the story we tell ourselves. Because it reminds us that things can change, allows for Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers to fly in, encourages us to think what we would do, what we can do against the darkness and the ogres. What we will do.

I know this is exhausting. I wish we could save the world by tomorrow and get on with the business of living good lives, baking bread in stoves that run on compressed cow manure and riding bikes to train stations and reading great books in bed at midnight by an electric light connected to solar panels. I'm just sick, some days, of making the world better always feeling Sisyphean. 

On the other hand, what better way to show our hope in the world than by working towards those goals? I watch Amy Poehler’s show “Parks and Recreation” sometimes. In one episode, her character has a totally minor win—another character has removed some opposition to her proposed city park. Rather than do anything that looks like a traditional celebration or take a full minute to appreciate her success, Poehler jumps right back into work mode. To her, continuing work for what she loves is the celebration.

Let’s get to work! 

(Churchill's mugshot comes from the Nobel Prize website; Amy Poehler, preening as Leslie Knope, from

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Long Game

(photo from:
My housemate grew up in the GDR. We talked recently about freedom and government leadership—swinging from climate change to vaccinations to consumer choices, ending with brain-drain, and how the Berlin Wall was built to prevent State educated people from crossing over to West Germany in search of better jobs and more diverse opportunities. “But you can sort of see their point, no?” she asked. “It’s a stupid and short-sighted action, though. If they’d waited ten years or looked at the problem more or something…”

We all want to do something. We want to solve the problems now, or yesterday. In our search for solutions there are a lot of quick actions, a lot of settling for any port in a storm, any horse in the race, of joining and doing because it is something, anything that feels like we’re regaining control. “There,” we can say, drying our tears and anxiety sweaty brows, “I donated to a climate action group, I bought beets from the Farmer’s Market, I wrote my Senators strongly worded letters, I work 50 hours a week at a place with a mission I believe in, I voted for the most electable candidate who didn’t make me nauseous, I biked to work, I’m only having one child…c’mon, World, I’m doing my part! Get better!”

We’re good at this, good at plugging ourselves into existing frameworks of solution pieces. And it is, perhaps, slowly working on some level, but I’ll admit find it all a bit rote and hollow at times. What keeps me awake at night—and I was up at one o’clock this morning, wide awake, eating toast, and looking out the window into the grayness at it all—is trying to figure out what is bigger or smaller, what is a deeper solution. There are things in this world I love to be point of breathless laughter. None of the easy solutions require anything equal to that depth of feeling.

The Berlin Wall was the clearest example of locking the barn doors after the horses run away. And, if I were a horse in the USSR, I would have bolted from that barn at the first chance I got, lest I be devoured by starving peasants. It was a quick and relatively easy solution—the people are leaving, let’s build a wall to keep the rest of them inside. It does solve one aspect of the problem, but creates quiet a few more. A deeper approach, potentially a more effective way to solve the same problem would be to ask people why they were leaving, and to adapt the barn accordingly, to make it a place where people would want to stay. However, that community-driven approach does not seem to have been something that the Communists went in for, which is a bloody irony.

The solutions we have for saving the world were thought up by hippy-types, also known as effective environmentalists. None of these are quite as draconian, as Stalin-esque, thankfully. But we’re still playing catch-up, solving the immediate and obvious, rather than looking deeper at the causes of the problems. Without doing some deep soul-searching on a personal level about our complicity in the forces that ravage our lovely planet, that abuse our fellow humans, we’ll only be throwing up walls and covering our cavernous wounds with Band-aids, and, maybe some arnica from the health food store.

We need to look deeper for the sources of the problems, and begin building the solutions from that point.  I believe that our over-consumption is a huge source the problems of the world. Deeper, the forces of media and corporate control that thrive on our mindless gluttony, that hypnotize us into believing that we need more cheap stuff to be happy, to be whole. And, the source of that is perhaps the breakdown of social structures that allow such stupid and cheap thoughts to gain ground in our beliefs and to shape our lives. But these are what I see as the sources, and I daily struggle with how to overcome them personally. They may not be your same seen sources, and so our paths to solution will be different.

And, regardless, this looking deeper and harder at both ourselves and the problems of the world, of trying to make the barn nice and treat the horses well so they’ll stay, this will take time. We’re not a nation of patient people. Most of all, we’re not patient with ourselves. We want to save the world, and we want to do it next week, and we suspect that if we maintain a certain routine and regime, if we follow the rules and push each other to be greener and kinder every day, then we’ll get there fast. Following anyone else’s dictum for as long as this will take becomes a trudge, not a long walk, we come down with guilt and “should” and “supposed to.” To me, as long as this problem is going to solve, as long as this world is going to need warriors and stewards, then we’re going to need to take time to rest and to enjoy ourselves, to fail and to lie fallow now and then. The urgency of the threats to our planet not withstanding, we must be more patient with ourselves.

If you aren’t familiar with the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, I suggest you find it, and harness it to your soul. It allows for patience, it recommends happiness, it guides to the joy of finding that what you love best is actually the best path forward for you. It allows for your humanity within this long game we must play.

Do the same, if you’d like.

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.