Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Benefits of Failure

Don’t worry. I’m not about to start quoting Nietzsche about what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, or pulling stoic inspiration out from the hard lives of the March girls, or Anne Frank’s diary regarding people being truly good at heart.

Those lessons and pick-me-ups are all readily available. You can get coffee mugs and tee shirts of most of them, which is a little gross. And some days, I go to those sources of recalibration and perspective and come away clean. Bolstered by those words, I dry my eyes, pull on my big girl panties and go fiercely, joyfully, out into the world believing in and doing the great things that I love.

But not always, and in the not always times, when you’re feeling like the lowest of the low, like you’re the biggest failure that ever was, chirpy little quotations and slightly banal scraps of wisdom don’t help. In fact, they’re just irritating. I personally want to garrote whoever said “don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.”

Here is the only thing I’ve ever found that works to combat the hideous, unfair curveballs that life throws at you: people who have been there, or been worse than wherever you find yourself with your broken heart, dashed hopes, lost aspiration, whatever it is that has made you feel like the world doesn’t want you to contribute your best verse.

It’s not putting your grief and fear and sadness and self-doubt in perspective that is important here. I’ve found that, on the whole, thinking about the often-tragic state of various parts of the world and society doesn’t make me feel better when I’m low. Because then I just add spoiled and self-indulgent to my list of flaws and, really, that doesn’t improve the situation. If you’ve just lost your job, say, thinking about Romanian orphanages or California crop failures is not a good pick-me up strategy. (Actually, Anne Frank’s diary does have some good wisdom on this point: she’s pissed about being in hiding, spending her adolescence locked in an annex with her family. Her mother tells her to think of people who have it worse. Anne, essentially, responds “yeah, but that doesn’t mean I have things so hot right now.” I love that.)

Because, when you’re in the shit—whatever the reason that got you there and whatever hue your hard times are—you’re just in the shit. I can’t recommend a long wallow, but I can recommend finding good, honest people who have been in similar straits. The people who know where you are, what devastation and self-recrimination and uncertainties are raking across your heart and soul. The good ones, the best ones, the kindest ones, they do not ask questions. They offer empathy, rather than advice. They ask no questions, just open their hearts and let you crawl inside. In doing so, you know you are not alone and you remember that, although the slings and arrows can find you, so can the sweetness and the love. That sometimes, life is just hard. And, while your grief and fear and messy response to that truth is utterly personal, often the cause is not. 

The scariest truth about the universe rejecting your best effort and intent is feeling passed by, as if you are somehow not “enough.” And, when you’ve given yourself to something, coming up short eviscerates your sense of self.

Aside from heartbreak, which is as unique as it is universal in its horrific catalyst for feelings of failure and doubt, the biggest sense of failure I see my dear ones grapple with is finding a means of feeding themselves and using their brains and hearts. Our job market and economy and education system are failing us all and, yet, we blame ourselves.

Far too many brilliant people I know and love are finding themselves flailing in the current job market on all levels and in too many fields. I know this kind of failure-feeling too well. I spent last winter applying to scores of jobs in the environmental-social justice field that I went to college and graduate school for. And I waitressed, part-time, all winter. It was hard and awful to feel so ignored and as if the world didn’t want what I most dearly long to give. All of the passion I have for trying to make little corners of the world better was always the wrong color for what the job market wanted. It is a hard and bitter pill to swallow again and again, to receive a rejection and then brightly return to the search as if your heart were still whole and hopeful. Fielding calls from my student loan officers at this time was particularly raw—a reminder that I was failing to uphold my end of an educational bargain from a different world.

I cried a lot. And, then, with the help of my incredible support network of dear people, I began to see that I wasn’t the failure. It is a violently evil system, the job market and economy. I am particularly disgusted by the ways in which the education system has an utterly unholy alliance with the economic system. I wouldn’t say that I’m exactly winning at the employment sector of my life, but I have learned to temper my expectations, and to as much as I can, step away from the evil parts of the system. The most truly evil piece is the idea culturally implanted in our brains that our self-worth is the same as our salary. As one of my brilliant sisters reminded me last winter: “They will never pay you what you are worth.” Where I am now, I don’t think I’d much like my self-worth to be counted up at all in the same nasty system that makes so many of us doubt our worth and efforts. It is not kind. To be kind to ourselves, I think we must accept that the system is a bully and distance our hearts from it.

We are all going to fail. We'll lose jobs, misplace love, try our best and be a little short. It’s part of life. When I learned to ski, the mantra was “if you’re not falling, you’re not learning.” I had numerous snow-scoured welts and deep plum bruises. But I learned. And, then, whenever I’ve got the chance since, I’ve tried to help others ski. I encourage trying so hard you must fall. And then I pick them up.

That is the benefit of failure. After we ourselves have fallen and eventually come back, we have the choice, the power, to open our hearts to the newly fallen. The benefit of failure is that you can become kinder. Reach out, say you’ve been there too, and let the heartbroken cry about the unfair world. What we fear most is to be alone and unloved, this is the deep doubt that unfairness sows. Be kind and those fears begin to evaporate as the ghostly untruths they are.

And, that undercurrent of kindness and empathy at failures, this is what will erode the nasty systems and narrow definitions of success that cause us such doubt. This is how we win. 

(Image is from the Zen Ox-herding pictures. The little kid is asking where wisdom might be found and the old man is saying "I don't know for you, but I found it over there...".)

Sunday, February 23, 2014


“And we thought, why out of all the options out there, would anyone chose conformity?” So asked one of my wonderful friends, reporting a dinner conversation with her equally amazing husband.

It’s a great question. The answer, I think, is that many people don’t know what else is out there. The power of “should” is enormous in our cultural bathwater. We should be early to bed, early to rise, should study hard and get good grades, should go to the best schools we can, should get reliable jobs with increasing levels of responsibility and salary, in the fields we studied in school, should buy a house not too far from our jobs, should get married, should have children, should own a certain amount of stuff and live within the bounds of a certain way, and should and supposed to from cradle to grave.

I take no issue with any of those actions as long as they are the heartfelt choice and decision of any person or people. The friends who had this dinner conversation about conformity, for example, got married because it was the most interesting way they could imagine their lives to be—hitched with some idea of dynamic permanence to the wonderful creative uncertainty of their now spouse. It was their very intentional and considered choice, not a rote filling in of anyone’s expectation.

But, I work daily with high school students who seem disturbingly brainwashed to believe that conforming and giving the “right” answer is the only way that life can ever be. And, outside of work, I live in this world where the shoulds and supposed-tos, seem to cause a great deal of emotional turmoil and foment a great deal of over-consumption that is causing the landscapes of our worlds equal upheaval.

I live sort tucked by ethics and education and choice and belief into a certain niche. Marketing, would probably label me “alternative” because I don’t buy most of the bullshit that I believe mainstream culture is selling. My dream house is a small cabin, my ideal paid work at the moment would to be a part-time small town librarian and part-time farmer, the beauty industry has yet to make me hate and “need to fix” my face or body, I’d rather live where I don’t need one than have a fancy car, and so on.

And yet, even within “alternative” subcultures, there is a certain amount of conformity. Try telling the hippies you shave your legs and adore bacon. Or the hipster intellectuals that you love musicals, non-ironically. Or telling pro-choice people that you might choose to have a baby. Or telling an intentionally open-minded globally, racially, and culturally diverse community that you’d like to pray a specifically Christian prayer. Knowing folks who have done most of those things, it seems about as strained to break from community expectations as to cross to another community.

We need to broaden all understandings of normal in all corners. It’ll makes things less predictable, but also much more exciting. There are such possibilities in living more fully as the complex paradoxes we all are.

I’d like to get further and further from all our even vague definitions and sub-cultural norms. Or not further away—that implies distance when what we need is depth and variety within the words, the ways. I don’t want to do away with definitions, I want to multiply them, to have more people belonging to more communities, finding more and more common ground.

Plainly, it is just more fun to be surprising, to upend the expectations that are unconsciously put on all of us, that we put upon ourselves. I heard last week that Pandora is going to start selling political ad space, and that the ads will be based on the music you listen to. I find this disturbing, but also a delightful opportunity to broaden my musical selections so I can't be defined by advertisers. Or to just quit Pandora entirely and pick up the various instruments that gather dust around my house. Or to continue doing my own research about candidates for various offices.

I worry about how ubiquitous conformity is, how the slightly sickening lull of something agreed upon as normal is everywhere. Mostly, it seems like non-conformity is the choice, rather than conformity. There are some things I choose to do out of almost pure contrariness, just because I don’t like being told what to do. And then there are things that I do because they make me purely happy and choosing do anything else is just foolish. The difference isn’t really that important or decisive, as actively not conforming just for the hell of it makes me pretty happy anyway.

Subverting normal and just going towards what you choose is certainly not as secure as conforming. But, when I think of the allegedly secure systems of support that conformity requires—expensive education with loans “needed” to enter a craptastic job market, expectations that you can’t do what you love because you need to earn a certain amount of money, heartbreakingly false and limited ideas of what love is, destruction of ecosystems to fuel our lives, wars for oil, much of our “necessary” stuff made in unkind sweatshops—none of it seems either good or solid.

And so, in the acts of not conforming to that way to life, in making our own choices and living out what feels clean and true—regardless of who’s norms we’ve been conforming to—has a lot of freedom to offer. I’ll take creative possibility over destructive conformity any day, every day.

The trick, I think, is how to be a functioning society of shiny happy non-conformists following our hearts and happinesses all over the place in a potential fog of selfishness. It’s a possibility that we might all implode in pursuit of our individual ways. One of the biggest ideas of American-brand conformity that gets to me is that lie of being able to do anything and everything alone, that the individual is utterly free and independent. The truth, as I know it, is that we need each other. However, we can’t make anyone conform to our own choices and ideas of happiness. That’s the sort of selfishness that gets people in to lonesome trouble, I think. Our choices and actions have reactions and repercussions in those around us. To know that as deeply as we know our own choices, is the best way I can think to subvert the expectation, not conform to the idea that self-aware is the same as selfish.

At least, that’s what I’m trying to do. Feel free to find your own way. Or not. As you wish, please.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Civil Disobedience

Eighty-four year old Sister Megan Rice, the nun who was, just today, sentenced to jail for trespassing onto and defacing a nuclear weapons complex in Tennessee has just made my hero list. Her sentence is for thirty-five months, which takes on a different tone of time when you are at an age where “you don’t buy green bananas,” as my own grandmother says. Rice told the judge: “To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me.”

I love civil disobedience, anything that shakes up the stodgy cement of “normal” and injects a little light and inspiration and hope into the grim, dirty, and out right criminal patterns of the powerful. As former Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas said, before founding the Fulbright Program: “Criticism is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism—a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar ritual of national adulation. All of us have the responsibility to act upon the higher patriotism, which is to love our country less for what it is than for what we would like it to be.”

If that doesn’t make you want to rise up and speak and live truth to power with a righteous grin on your face, I don’t know what will.

There are many great examples of civil disobedience. Pick any movement of social change and there’s going to be someone who spoke up and did and led, tugged the people towards building a kinder, fairer, cleaner, most just world. Some of my other personal heroes, say Emma Goldman, were defiant rabble-rousers. Goldman got beat up by police and went to jail a lot for speaking up about worker’s rights, birth control, human freedoms, anarchy, and peace. She got deported to Russia, spoke against Lenin to his face, snuck out of Russia, and lived in a sort of roving international exile for the rest of her life.

We—or I, I don’t know who your gods are—idolize these fervent martyrs. People who give up their lives, or their freedoms, for great causes, this stirs up some reality of what greatness is possible, what effect a single person can have if they crack their heart open like an egg, live and die for ideals. I admire the passion, am drawn to it like a magnet to the North, a moth to the flame.

And, I find, acts that would require the loss of my life or long stints in jail are not for me. What I can do with freedom is more important to me than any act of public civil disobedience I have yet encountered.

Kahlil Gibran’s essay On Friendship rings in my ears, “For what is your friend that you seek him with hours to kill? Seek him always with hours to live.”

In conversation a few months back, I tried to articulate an idea of fomenting change based on the opposite or reverse of martyrdom. I’m still struggling for the right words. Gibran’s words are closest I can come. Reverse martyrdom comes in how we and our heroes live, not in how we die, in how we are arrested or imprisoned for living out the unwritten laws of love and faith and hope, of the patriotism of active criticism. I like the thought of going into the world with the hours of my life to live out, as I choose.

To live simply, to smile at strangers and give change to homeless people and be your own vision of happiness, these are not in anyone’s handbook of civil disobedience or anarchist cookbook. But, thinking of how self-involved and isolated and consumptive our mainstream civilization pushes us to become, even such small things feel like pushing back against something larger. Anything that slips outside “normal,” anything that is done rightly and truly, rather out of blind obedience to “supposed to” and “should,” these are, as far as I’m concerned, sweetly civil and beautifully disobedient.

It is, also, I think, a little harder than we expect. At the Keystone XL vigil I attended a few weeks ago, folks were talking about how much is going to be asked of the gathered community. People will be asked to be arrested, will be asked to lay down their very bodies, to be shackled and willingly accept a curtailing of freedom to stop this pipeline. Again, for those who are called to make their mark this way and who have done, are doing, and will do so, my deepest thanks and admiration. We need that kind of courage and certainty and morality demonstrated. 

And, yet. I like the unpredictable. The truth is that acts of civil disobedience leading to arrests leading to good change for a civil society are still part of a known drama and script and pattern. There are other kinds of disobedience, other kinds of actions and other kinds of courage to be demonstrated, other expressions of morality to be lived out. We are told that some of us will be asked to get arrested. We are not asked to give up an iota of our destructive life patterns, to make different choices and truer balances with the natural world and all the downtrodden we live at the expense of. How we live, unquestioned and unquestioning, is at the root of nuclear stockpiles and filthy pipelines. 

I’ll light a candle of gratitude and inspiration for Sister Megan Rice. I’ll go to vigils and rallies and actions and events and trials for the causes I believe in. Chances are pretty good that I’ll get myself arrested quite intentionally some day for following my critical and world-loving heart into the world of traditional civil disobedience. But, to remain free to live a full life of my choosing—disobedient to laws and mores that have no place in this world—that is the greatest honor I can dream of. And, best, no judge but my own heart can sentence me to this.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fire and Ice and Tenderness

I overheard some students yesterday talking about the death of the universe, whether it would be an explosion or a freezing event. They proceeded—with the earnest distance of high school debaters—to discuss the physics and astronomy and all the rest of the science of the end of the universe.

I went and re-read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.”

I don’t want the world to end, fire or ice, or flood or drought. This world is where I live, where the people I love are. I do not want that ecosystem gone. And so, I’ve been blinking back tears all week as I hear more about the floods in London and the ice storm predicted for Georgia. Suddenly, to me, everything feels frayed. The unpredictability of the world’s weather frightens me. Georgia should not have any, let alone multiple, ice storms in a winter. London should not be receiving more rain than it has in 284 years.

Like so many people, I’ve thought with deep, but distant, empathy about the low-lying island nations of Micronesia that are already bearing the brunt of rising sea levels and erratic weather. I’ve imagined the loss of a defining landscape—these were my childhood nightmares. Much of my reason for writing is because even the imagined loss of my home—my forests and mountains and my beloved people of these places—is so utterly shattering that I want no person on earth to come close to losing their own home lands and community in reality.

I suppose I thought that it was a bargain of some sort. That my actions here and there, that if I put my heart solidly in the camp of straining for a better world, perhaps someone’s beloved acres will be saved. And, ideally, before the cataclysmic changes come closer to my own home. I know this is unlikely, that there is neither destiny nor karma, that the wishes of our deepest hearts cannot control the weather.

Unless they can. Not control the weather, but better dictate our own actions, our own responses and reactions in the changing world. To continue as we have, the same tired and damaging patterns of behavior, this will only pull us deeper into the dangerous and terrifying quagmire. I had a professor in college who did about a decade’s worth of damage on my sense of environmental efficacy and hope—he just said, again and again and frequently with a sorrowful tone of blame, that we needed to change the shape of the culture. Now, I don’t disagree with that statement, but it’s an awfully tall and unspecific order. I’ve spent a long dark time struggling to figure out how to do that, how to save the world.

As things get worse, I also see them getting better. After the fears and the tears, I find myself more concentrated. When I look within and determine what I am most afraid of, it becomes a little clearer what I must do. I’m no longer, really, trying to save the world. I’m trying to make a better one, or, even more specifically, make the world around me better. I think my efforts are best spent on the people and pieces of the world I can touch. I cannot throw my body down as a sandbag in the Thames. I cannot wrap my arms around the state of Georgia and melt the ice. If we could fix things so easily, we would have, long ago.

The solutions though, are in what we can do, not in what we cannot. We can, for example, make our own lives simpler, truly simpler. We can learn to need less. And we will likely be happier for the change. I know some of the arrogance in this statement: the choice to live simply is a privilege unto itself. People in poverty live simply by necessity, not by choice the way a rich person takes up yoga or cleans out their closet every season to simplify their life. That is a larger problem, but not, as I see it, unrelated to this making the world better program. I was told today that I sound like a Communist. I prefer Socialist, but the comment didn’t come from someone it was important to split hairs with.

To me, making my life simpler entails focusing more on what is important to me in making the world I can touch a kinder and more equal place. A good friend shared a line of Amiri Baraka’s poem "A Short Speech to My Friends" with me recently: “A political art, let it be/tenderness…” 

I love that. 

This is the realm of the political that I prefer to move in, letting acts of kindness and tenderness between people soften the ice and cool the fires of the world I live in. It breaks the challenge of world salvation into the human scale it warrants. Begin with your own heart and work out from there. And, when there is need—as there is now—for large and small acts of resistance and resilience and restructuring around the ever and quickening changing climate, I hope that we all rise up out of that deeper, personal tenderness to guide the larger political structures of the world. It is a frightening place, this new world. It requires the bravery of tenderness to go forward into the unknown.

I am not ready to sentence all that I love to fire or ice or flood. That knowledge is my own most treasured tool in building this better world.

(Photo was taken in a place of fire, ice, hard labor, tenderness and great beauty.)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

On the Olympics

Until last night, it had been I don’t know how long since I’ve watched Olympic Opening Ceremonies. By turns, I’ve found the Games in general to be inspiring, sweetly tense, beautiful, overly consumptive, silly, distracting, irrelevant, irritating, and, in the pageantry, an over arching exercise in the willfully ignorant things we tell ourselves about who we are as humans, nations, and the world.

And, yet, the kernel of goodness at the heart of it all—the raw intention of people vying for the honor of representing their homes with their best talents—brings me to tears, despite all my objections. That is maybe the sweetest motivation I can think of, one I wish was cleaved to more cleanly in all things.

These Olympics in particular, with their multitudes of crimes against the human heart being pushed aside with palm trees and Go-Go boots, bother me. I am thrilled that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot have been released and are speaking out for the unheard in Russia. I love that the creepy patronizing paternalism of Putin releasing them from prison to, seemingly, smooth over the Russian ban on homosexuality and other attendant criticisms of the Olympic host, has not resulted in a grateful silence from these strong loud women.

And yet, Russia is the current abode of Edward Snowden, who also spoke truth to power about a repressive and secretive government. The picking and choosing of what free speech we in the United States love and what we find treasonous, this bothers me. How we cannot see ourselves truly, we cannot see beyond the comfortably myth of who we would like to continue to see ourselves as.

The Opening Ceremonies, with their artistic and industrially intricate portrayals of Russian history and national mythos were gorgeous. Parts, the little girl flying and the coalescing islands and the ever shifting floor that was by turns sea and streets and sky—these are fables I could get lost in. I would love to lose myself in a fairy tale, or rather, find my way through the myth and live it into reality. I believe in the power of fiction to offer us better ways of being, to pull like the North Star on our hearts and best intentions.

Such stories are not an end unto themselves. The happily ever after, the red balloons of promise, rising into the future, this is on us to create.

I want to believe that the rituals we re-enact, the stories we tell and retell, still have some possibility to offer if we learn to re-read them. Something like the old choose your own adventure books, where you got to start again. I want to find that underneath the McDonalds commercials and the glitz and all the sickening Potemkin Village aspects of these and other Olympics, there is enough goodness to rebuild from. I want to refind, rekindle that good core of intent and learn to live out the story more cleanly and honestly.

It is work to bring out the goodness at the heart of this whole show. What is wonderful is people loving what they do and being incredibly strong and graceful and true to their understanding of themselves and what they do with their lives. What is wonderful is that no one really represents their country—countries are mostly just lines on maps, concepts. I believe that everyone there represents what they do know, where they do live, who they know and love. On the very slim chance that I will ever be an Olympian, I’m quite sure that the American flag on my sweater and the letters USA would signify the mountains and forests of New England, the stonewalls and maple trees, rocky coasts and gnarled pines, but mostly the people who got me to where I was. I would be, as I am any day, a representative of all their belief in me. I like to imagine that the athletes are there for similar reasons—because their parents took them to practice at odd hours, because their friends loaned them gear and brought them food, because their coach mentored the fire of their need, because their sister held their hair back when they vomited after a ski race, and all the rest. Our identities are in the shape and shapers of our hearts, not on flags or maps or passports.

If we can return to these powerful loves at the core of the games, then I think they’re lovely examples of human possibility. It is when the seeds of people pouring their hearts into what they love, deeply believing that what they do is a truth that needs to be brought into the world, when this gets lost that I can’t be party to the grotesquely lurching spectacle of it all.

I’ve been nervously watching these Games unfold. I want so much for them to be the pure, politically free, showcase of heart and body and drive that I believe they should be. I want to believe that most of the athletes deserve this, as anyone deserves the goals along their chosen path. Watching the Ceremonies, whenever they cut to Putin, I found myself thinking how he isn’t fooling anyone.

Instead, I worry that we’re all fooling ourselves. Climate change, economic disparity, war, famine, repression of the human need to love, inability to understand that religion is larger than one faith, terrorism, silenced dissenters to power, corporate takeover of our lives, fake snow, euthanized dogs, Olympians who bought second country citizenship in order to compete, peasants banned from harvesting garlic near Sochi, struggling Peace Talks for Syria that are simultaneous to these Games, all of these weigh heavily on my heart thinking of the Olympics, these in particular.

I do not want all of this wrongness to continue to be the story we live out, Olympic or otherwise. There is another way. There are many other ways. Here is where the athletes come in, the ones who are there out of love for their sport, their homes, their people—great feats are possible when we look within and bring our best into being. We are yet capable of such greatness, every day, not just every four years.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Escaping To

“Forget what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety instead for what you are escaping to.” So says the master escape artist in Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”

This has been my mantra today.

Last night, in solidarity with an encouraging number of people across the country, I went to a Keystone XL vigil. Wonderful as it was to stand beside other people who also feel their souls shredded when they contemplate the future if we do not change our ways, I found it a hard place to be. To be honest, I didn’t feel better about the future of the world when I left, walking home through the snow with a friend.

What lies ahead is enormously daunting. To hear that again and again is wearing on the hope of something different, even as the presence of others does buoy me up a bit. But, truly and culturally and practically and personally, how we wrench away from the cliff we’re careening towards…I can barely contemplate how or where to begin. My heart hurts, my palms break out in cold sweat, and I cry easily about all that seems to dangle by a thread. Even among others, even as comforted as I always am to see that I am not alone in my ragged hope of a different future, I felt as if I was standing in a sea of disappointment and anxiety. The first man I spoke to was blusteringly peeved because “more people should have come to this.” A woman got snippy with me when the pen I handed her wasn’t working on the snow-dampened sign-in sheet: "This is broken, completely useless, I can't use this..." These small acts, where blinders of disappointment remain glued on and blame must be meted out, even among a group of people who clearly have some of the deepest passions in common, this is perhaps the most daunting. We must look deeply at what we do have in these moments, rather than being sharp and angry at each other. We are all we have.

We are all scared and many of us worn thin in places with the overwhelming reality of what must be done. Let this fear be something that unites us, rather than something that divides us.

It was a huge comfort when the crowd turned inward, when we faced each other as a group, rather than facing the street and waving signs at the passing cars. We can hear each other, we must hear each other first. Even the structure of this was a huge step, looking across a circle and seeing the eyes of the people who showed up, showing them my own. Things got even better, closer to the galvanizing solace I sought, when regular people in the crowd were invited to speak, rather than just to listen to leaders and organizers. It is vitally important to remember our own voices, and the power we ordinary people possess. I have boundless gratitude for the organizers knowing this, and for those who spoke up.

But still, it was maybe 200 people on a street corner, all chanting “No” into the streetlights and snowflakes and traffic sounds last night. No being what we must urge our elected leaders to say about the Keystone XL pipeline. We want to stop the pipeline. We want to stop climate change. We want to escape from the sickening cycle of destruction and dependence. I want this better world as deeply as I can think, but I found myself unable to chant “no” with the fervor and passion that seemed to come so easily to so wonderfully many standing there with me. To think in terms of no and stop and against—it hurt my battered little heart and tears kept welling up when I tried to join in.

I am struck again and again by the uselessness of anger in all of this. I do not even know the right word for what we are doing, because I do not want to say that we are fighting climate change, that we are engaged in a battle against fossil fuel dependency. It is not that I am a dewy-eyed Pollyanna, thinking that we can all just get along. I simply do not find words of war and anger to be constructive. I have been angry, so full of rage and hurt and frustration that I barely speak. I have slammed doors, punched walls, yelled and whispered and written things that were momentarily true, but regretted for all the days that have followed. Even thinking in anger and opposition, my chest tightens, I close up, my mouth goes hard and my fists clench. Besides, in terms of building a good community of people to labor on this world saving with, to be howling “no” into the night sky—there are more welcoming, constructive ways to rally people.

I want to say yes. I want to start a simpler future. I want to be for a healthy world. I think of why I showed up, of what I was there for. I was there because I love too much on this planet to do anything other than labor for its healthy continuation. The grounding force of that, what I was there for, in support of, is larger and grander and deeper than anything I am against. Never mind, really, what we are escaping from—let us focus on choosing to live as we are escaping to.

The two go hand in hand, of course. But, I feel sad and small and scared when I think in terms of no and stop and against. When I can remember the sweetness of yes and start and for, the white hot righteous anger resolves into a much more sustainable and useful fuel—love.

How this translates to a movement to build a world where we are kinder to each other and to the planet, I find it easier to contemplate in those terms. How shall we make life better for ourselves, our friends, and our world?

By doing just that, by being better and kinder and truer. What brings you the greatest joy, the times and places and people whom your bones say “yes” to and where a sense of rightness and joy washes over all else—this is where we start. This is what we are escaping to. This is Yes.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Just Show Up

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know or care a great deal about the particulars of the Keystone XL Pipeline. There is an enormous amount of information available from pretty much every angle—you can get your scientific statistics, your political wonk numbers, your geographic and geologic jollies, your social justice qualitative data sets, and all the rest. And if that’s your thing, go for it and godspeed. But if you are looking to bolster your resistance to Keystone by marshaling some numbers to throw like flaming arrows at anyone who still believes this horror is a viable energy source, my words will not help you.

I’m not a scientist or a politician. I’m a writer. As such all I’m concerned about here is the state of our souls, and how that relates to the health of the world we live in. Thank whatever you call holy that these ethereal and vitally necessary pieces of our hearts cannot be counted, bought and sold as stocks or votes.

I just drove from Marblehead, Mass. back to my home in Somerville. Yes, I was driving and yes it was just me in the car—any grief that causes you, be aware I already own in spades. But the road cuts along the ocean, by salt marshes and tidal zones. In one place, between Lynn and Revere, a fairly large pipeline or penstock runs beside the road, barely over the water. In some lights, nothing is more heartbreakingly beautiful than this juxtaposition of industry and nature. I feel that enough heartbreak finds us all without looking for, without actively creating, building more.

Perhaps that pipe is harmless. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps its function is crucial to the running of the world. I doubt that, very much. But the idea that the machination and infrastructure of our way of life requires such intensive alteration, such violation, of the natural and beautiful systems and structures of the world makes me nauseous. I don’t wish to live as a Neanderthal, but we must find a healthier balance, rather than asking and taking and pulling out all the Jenga blocks of an ecosystem, rather than leaching poisons and toxic air into everything we touch in our ever expanding quest for something mysteriously known as “enough.” And telling ourselves, over and over, that it is a balance, that with our growing conservation movement and embrace of “green” and “sustainable” choices, we are giving back to the earth. We must also stop being so surprised that the world cannot give and give and give without eventually recoiling with hot and cold spells, with droughts and storms and floods and famines. We are afraid because we did not think and now we are unsure how to proceed, now that sureties are evaporating. It is fine to be frightened. It is not fine to cling to a broken system in hopes it will heal.

Let us then, start at the beginning. Our opposable thumbs, our large brains, our various divine mandates of world domination, they do not entitle us to constantly degrade the health of everything else on earth. If hurting fewer things requires my own life to be smaller and more circumscribed, if my freedoms and purchasing power and very geography can be curtailed for the betterment of anything—songbird egg density to coal miners' lungs to tribal sovereignty to reliable seasons—then I will gladly begin that process.

I am trying to find the practical ways to begin that process, to live out the simpler life that the world I love, the world I want, requires.

At the moment, part of that does require showing up to support a Presidential veto of Keystone XL. I am wary of any one “cause” that people can rally around. Yes, of course, we need a place to start, something concrete to come together over before flying off in our thousand love-netted ways. But here is what irks me—this pipeline, as bad as it is, will not make or break the climate movement. Our carbon levels are already too high, and we cannot seem to marry our knowledge of that, our revulsion of that, with our own actual lives. That is the real cause and effect that needs to be drastically addressed. Keystone will be a watershed moment in terms of Federal, Presidential recognition of climate change and fossil fuel dependence as realities that demand new and diverse solutions, but that, alone is not enough for me. The larger solutions, the effective ones come in how we live, in how we lead, not in how we are lead.

Monday evening is being organized as a rally/solidarity date to demonstrate how much support there is in this country for a future without the dirty tar sands oil of Keystone and all the incorporated evils. I don’t hold much with sign waving and hippy chanting, and I hope that the rally I attend will have neither. But, even so, I’ll still go. I show up for what I love. I don't know what else to do. And like nothing else, I love the knowledge that life doesn’t have to be how it is, killing the planet. There are better ways and we all know this. We can escape the dangerous patterns, but we cannot do this passively.

A vigil, a rally, a whatever brings people together to build the kinder future we want is a chance to see that we are all in this together. We want something better than what we’ve got with aging pipes running over tidal grasses and transmission lines through our beautiful mountains. We need leaders in powerful places, and this includes our own selves and our own hearts. has a whole bunch of these rallies and gatherings. Find one near you, and make the effort to show up. All the logistical details of why you can’t…think of the most lovely place you know and balance what matters most to your heart and soul.

Or make your own event. Light a candle tomorrow night, hug someone you love, start spring seedlings, go for a long walk, pray, make bread, play your favorite song, whatever. But let, for this one night to start, your actions be in service and solidarity to the smaller and kinder future the world requires, that in all its beauty and all your hopes, this place we live deserves.

The other days will follow, as we choose them to be.