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.