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 ExupĂ©ry.

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.