Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Socks and Underwear, Perspective and Solutions

A man I met in Biloxi, Mississippi in 2005 told me, gravely, that in times of disaster, people always needed more socks and underwear, that those little things did more than anything else to “make a body feel human again.” I thought of him this morning with my nose prickling and my fists clenching as I read news and saw photos of damaging tornados and floods.

Hurricane Katrina was eight and a half years ago. The puppy I adopted down there now eats senior citizen dog food and naps a lot. But, in some ways, time doesn't seem to have passed at all. I hear a lot about disaster preparedness, but not as much about prevention. I’ve tried on and off and with moderate success to talk and write about what I experienced for the few months I worked with Hands On Disaster Relief in Biloxi. Once, in grad school, my attempt came back marked with the comments that “you don’t seem to have reflective distance on this yet.”

I doubt I ever will. Reflective distance seems to imply that I should have come to some sort of peace and perspective about disasters, that I should be able to get beyond the horror and find the silver linings, the lessons, that it is time, past time, to pack up the pieces of my broken heart and carry on. Until these disasters stop, I’m not going to have reflective distance and my perspective on the impacts and truth of climate change will always be more passionate than scientific. Knowing the causes of such events, knowing my role in these causes, peace is hard to come by.

The news today is full of tornados and flooding in the South, along the Gulf Coast. Washed out roads, flattened houses, debris that were treasures all scattered to the winds, carried away on strange currents. I find myself just as passionate angry and afraid as I ever have been—like all disaster footage, these seem like just another replay of stock photos of disasters.

We’re seeing these images more and more often, as our confused lifestyles exacerbate natural cycles and systems. Lost coastlines, fracking-caused earthquakes, forest fires, hurricanes, temperatures that vary like a demon is playing roulette, floods and droughts in disparate lands as if the water got lost like airline luggage…all of these images and news stories have become as ubiquitous and ignored as the wars and military operations that we are—as a country if not as individuals—engaged in. I’m almost more appalled by our cultural coma about these horrors as the reality of the horrors themselves.

I’m pretty sure that to the people who have lost their houses, who cannot find their loved ones, that this is all too real, like a nightmare with no dawn.

Here is a piece of my journal from my time in Biloxi: “I am taking a break from the real world where you can change your socks and underwear, where your food comes from the grocery store, if not your garden, not from the Salvation Army truck touring your neighborhood three times a day…Hands On has been concentrating their efforts in East Biloxi, Mississippi, where an alternate reality has, out of emergency and necessity, become the norm. Those mundane daily activities mentioned above have become visceral needs. Tears, hugs, and blessings tumble out of the survivors when they receive a blanket, when someone takes the time to listen to their story, when a crew of workers guts their house down to bare joists. There are people who have lost everything, family, friends, house,'s all gone. Homes, entire neighborhoods are reduced to piles of rubble that more resemble graveyards than anything else…The residue of interrupted lives, the teddy bears in the muddy streets, the cracked and moldy photo albums, the bowling trophies, the sofas, beds, all of it, lies in the streets.

The water lines vary from house to house, but usually the storm surge (not a flood, there is a difference as more and more people are being told by the insurance companies as they try to collect flood insurance and rebuild their homes and lives) crept up past the doorknobs, nearly to the ceiling on the first story in many other cases. Hearing the stories on the news of people riding out the storm in their attics, I had foolishly imagined something like the New England farmhouse attics, something dusty and probably leaking, but certainly big enough to settle in comfortably for a few days. I had imagined windows. I have yet to see a house with anything more than a crawl space beneath the ridgepole. There are no windows, no way out except down into the house, or, during the hurricane, down into the water rising around the house. One man I spoke to stayed in his attic, and could hear, but do nothing for his neighbors crying for help in their attic. They all died, except for one. The man I spoke with had pulled his last neighbor out of the eaves of the house after the water went down. “

When I saw the pictures of the tornado and flooding, all of this came back as if it were yesterday. It could well be tomorrow in too many places.

The saying goes that “if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.” I’m furiously trying to be more one than the other, because it makes it hard to sleep at night when I think that the ways in which I live my life—how my food is kept cold, how I type this on my own computer and post it to the internet for anyone else to read from whatever device their heart desires, how I don’t really know where or how most of my clothes were made—are contributing to the sorts of “natural” disasters which continue to pepper the globe like buckshot.

By continuing to live as if nothing is wrong, or as if we do not know what to do, we are making many things much worse. We are remaining the problem, when solutions are as clear as what we do upon waking each morning. How we live is killing the planet, devastating the lives of our fellow humans and countless other living things with big news-footage disasters and smaller untold stories of loss.

Certainly, we are not enough as individuals to change it—our own lives are drops in the bucket of the bigger changes that need to happen. I believe that our personal choices and actions and ways of being can lead the charge, can open hearts to change.

So, how do we live?

As best and simply and with as much kind awareness as we can, always striving for a better. And, send socks and underwear to disaster stricken areas.    

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Happiness v. Consumption

A few times in recent months, I have watched movies on television, resplendent with commercials. One of the movies has been “The Silence of the Lambs,” and the aggressive messaging of commercials and pop culture were far, far more frightening than the horror movie.

The glorification of stuff and the reduction of humanity's complex variety is beyond me. What I see, beneath all the sales and deals and shiny appliances and beautiful people living fantastical lives in a rotating series of cookie-cutter paradises, is the message that whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you do, it is not enough. Simply, you are not enough without everything they are selling.

I cannot seem to get past the cruelty of this message, and its cultural ubiquity. Who are “they” to imply that my life is unfulfilled without that blender, this engine, or that I have physical flaws to be hidden, or that the correct direction for my life is to become the tiny, long-suffering, wise, eternally hot wife to a schlubby looking man—who has the intelligence of an inbred puppy—and a beatific mother to a few messy children in an unbearably beige home? As a lady, I will also require a very large gaudy diamond ring to get that whole show on the road if my life is going to count as successful. And Dude-man is going to need a spiffy car and a good aftershave and I’m going to need some eyelash implants, a Brazilian wax, and the “right” outfit if we’re even going to get past a first date—we all are inadequate and incompetent without the vast assistance (abetting?) of consumer products to make us lovable. We will also need boring, soul-sucking but well paying jobs to accomplish this life, and expensive educations to get those jobs. (Lesser paying passions and interests be damned!) If I believe commercials, then this is what everyone is doing—worrying about stain removers, if the neighbors’ grass really is greener, which international retailer will give me the best deal on grotesque quantities of the necessities of life, and how much I hate my job, but how worth it all is to have fulfilled The American Dream.

This is absurd. I get by, pretty contentedly most days, without any of this and without agreeing that my life would be better with any of those “solutions.” And I can only hope that most people see all of this as a ridiculous parody of life, not an instruction manual on how to live. I can’t imagine believing the underlying message of personal inadequacy. I am as, if not more, insecure than the next person. I am regularly wracked with doubt, with worry, with fear, with the sense that I am barely holding things together. And, given all that, I still look at commercials, at most television shows, and popular movies with hysterical, horrified disbelief. Simply, I am certain that the life they are selling, the attitudes and mores on display is the antithesis of happy and healthy.

What makes me happy cannot be bought, cannot be sold, or marketed. Happiness isn’t a product. This must drive product development firms crazy. From my experience—which I’m happy to say is frequently emotionally if not physically outside mainstream anything—happiness comes in how you live, how you treat the people around you, how close you can hew to the truth of your heart. Life and logistics and that the people around you are as gloriously irregular and complex as you, are not hollow characters and puzzle pieces in your story, all of this will impact how well your visions of happiness can practically play out. It’s not exactly as if you can make up your mind to be happy, and nothing bad will ever happen to you again. Life is going to hurt, sometimes. Nothing you can buy will stop that. Life is also more beautiful and brilliant and soaring than any of us can imagine or articulate. Nothing you can buy can come close to that. Thank whatever is holy that this remains the stubborn truth.

I am not patient, and not always fully empathetic to people who are still trying to buy their way to happy, who haven’t learned that there are ways of being beyond the banal versions of life on big and little screens, on ads, in magazines and bad novels. It used to be that I just hated them for killing the planet, for buying all that stuff that will not last, will end up in a landfill, or floating out to the plastic island in the Pacific Ocean. I’ve gotten so angry and sad and scared that I’ve burst into tears thinking about all the pollution spewed into the world to make the trinketry, the abuse of people and land and resources that go into a cheap tee-shirt or new cell phone.

I’m not saying I don’t have those moments still.

Lately, though, I’m trying to look at why we live as we do, what are the underlying reasons for it all, what hunger are we trying to assuage? I don’t know. My suspicion, after watching a few hours of television and coming away feeling unclean and tinged with self-loathing, is that many people may have come to believe that they are not good enough, in some way. With so many “solutions” being sold, we must have an equal number of problems.

And, as a culture, I believe we do have problems. Lots. But, as people, as individuals, I believe that we have more solutions than problems. The key is to step away from the molds, the expecteds, the shoulds and supposed-tos, and examine fully where your happiness comes from, and what you truly need to sustain that. Do not let “them” make you fear and doubt and undermine your unique joys and talents. The mainstream cultural bathwater is dirty and stagnant—I feel gross having even dipped my toes in briefly.

My suggestion is to pull the plug, and go skinny-dipping. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Where I Went and What I Went For

“And for many,” says the man I presume to be a tour guide of some sorts, pointing to a freelanced cairn, “this site is even more meaningful than his grave.”

I overheard this when one of my sisters and I went to visit Walden Pond on this last Patriots’ Day, Marathon Monday. We were standing at the cabin site, thinking our own thoughts and watching other groups and pairs and individuals do the same and stroll around where Henry David Thoreau lived for those two years.

That also others find his life and living place more powerful than where his bones were laid to rest makes sense to me, that life outshines death. Particularly for a man who was so deliberate in how he lived, where he lived, and what he lived for, it seems the deeper tribute. Bones decay, but if you bend down and touch the stones around the cabin site, something powerful remains or has been created.

My understanding of Thoreau has evolved about as my entire ethos of how to be in the world has done the same. When I was nineteen and living in yurt on the edge of a lake, I wanted to be like Thoreau and Edward Abbey, a maverick living in wild places, in being alone and apart and independent from the world. I was living in the yurts in the fall of 2001, a particularly poignant time to wish to disconnect from mainstream culture and find balm, equilibrium, and solace in the patterns of woods and wild places.

First, Abbey burst that blindly idealistic bubble when I learned he was not, in fact, solitary in the desert—his wife and young son were present for much of the seasons that became “Desert Solitaire.” Some part of me—much as I admire that he complemented his wilderness work with being a social worker in Hoboken—cannot quite forgive that omission of his family. It just seems rude.

And then there was Thoreau, with his pesky walks into town, with his mother doing his laundry, with Emerson having him over for dinner, and all the rest of his interactions with Concord. My sister pointed out that, as an 1840s bachelor, Thoreau's mom would have been doing his laundry regardless of his living in the woods or no. A valid point. But, at nineteen and for many years between now and then, I wanted Thoreau to be a paragon of isolated and wilderness and wildness, and there he was, leaving the woods more than I thought seemed appropriate.

I hadn’t yet come to realize that wildness was more the point than wilderness, and that can be found anywhere once you learn to look. Or that paragons are not as rewarding to love as the contradictory symphonies of human beings.

As I spend more and more of my time these days trying to figure out how to live more like I do in the woods when I am out of the woods, I am newly struck by Thoreau’s genius. That, yes, it is an isolation of sorts, but it is also an intentional, deliberate way of being in the world. I find that when I go into the woods or the mountains or along the ocean, anywhere that is different and away from clocks and cell phone coverage and constant connection and demands for my time, there is a difference in how I am, how I perceive the world and how I engage with everything that lays before me. Those open eyes and heart are what I keep trying to bring to better life away from those places. By walking to town, by not isolating himself, Thoreau made the boundary of nature and culture porous, irrelevant. How he lived, there could be only one way of being.

I don’t say “one way” like a one-way street, there are as many paths to whatever this good balance, further shore, sustainable lifestyle, happiness, human-erred enlightenment, etc. may be as there are walkers of these ways. But only one way of being in his own skin—that he didn’t have different hats or costumes for who he was playing his flute alone the woods and who he was talking to his mother and sisters about abolition. That constancy is what I am after. I doubt I am alone in scrabbling towards this, and we all make, as Wendell Berry says “more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.”

Mistakes are allowed, wandering and sauntering encouraged, but the intention of getting somewhere—and enjoying the journey—more whole and less splintered is as good a beacon as any I know to go towards.

I had wanted to go to Walden on Monday not just as an escape from the city to a beautiful lake with my sister, but to go there as a pilgrimage on a day when there was so much remembrance of a freshly dark and strange time in Boston’s history. I wanted to be in a place where the infallible salve of nature and the peaceful bravery of human justice merged seamlessly. I’ve read that the Concord Ladies’ Antislavery Society met at the cabin at Walden Pond. At the recreated cabin by the parking lot and gift shop, there is a quote that “I have had twenty-five or thirty souls, with their bodies, at once under my roof,” and I like to think that some of those gatherings of bodied souls were working for justice, talking about the great horrors of an unjust, unsustainable system and the yawning need for personal actions when the powerful were sitting on their hands, orchestrating who was bringing snacks for  the next meeting and who was guiding and guarding the former slave towards freedom. All of those actions have a sort of mundane holiness, a brilliant humility about them. 

This was a place where the beauty of the world met the challenges of the world head on, with courage and action and joy, and where there were no boundaries between such things. I wanted to be reminded of that the way some folks go to church—sometimes the choir wants to hear the words again, to be preached at, to rekindle the faith they sing out with.

Anywhere, I believe, can be that boundless place yet if in your head and heart you deliberately live it into being.

Although, Walden Pond itself is particularly lovely for a reminder and renewal.
My sister, requesting entrance to Henry's cabin (and life).

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Oil Addiction

As I walked into the grocery store this weekend, I came upon a group of women gathered around a woman who lay on the ground. She was mumbling and shaking a little. It didn’t look good.

I’ve seen two people have seizures, and witnessed a few other emergencies. I don’t like this, seeing someone at an awful, if not the worst, moment in their life. But, at the same time, I’ve been helped out of some dark corners, am trained to respond to emergencies and can’t or don't walk away. In the pain, in the confusion, in the reptile-brain, or stupor—there is a human in there, hoping and trying to be better than the presenting symptoms.

One lady had her phone out and was calling for an ambulance. I crouched down to talk to the woman on the ground. She didn’t seem to hear me, or notice that I was there. I didn’t want to touch her, not knowing if she’d seized or was going to get violent out of hallucinations or fear or nausea.

A plastic bag lay near her on the ground, with a Pepsi bottle poking out. Water, of course, would have been better, but I pulled the bottle out and offered it to the woman. She tried to drink and flailing, missed her mouth completely and sloshed the soda into her hair, before falling back to the ground and mumbling about being in pain and needing to get to a psych hospital.

Five of us stood and knelt in a ring around her, shielding her as much as we could to save a little dignity. Another woman arrived, announcing she was a nurse, and stepped right in, finding a paper bag for a pillow, rubbing the downed woman’s back, calling her “sweetheart” and promising that help was on the way. With her other hand, she dug into the plastic bag and pulled out a mostly empty bottle of gin.

I was impressed that the tenor of our ad hoc response team didn’t change. There was no talk of how she’d brought this on herself, no blame, just steady empathy at how awful a situation it must be, how sad it would be to be so incapacitated by an addiction, how frightening it would be to live a life that leaves you semi-conscious in the care of strangers.

The ambulance arrived and we dispersed. The nurse talked to the ambulance, the woman with the phone left, another lady went home to nurse her baby after raising her eyebrow at me and saying: “interesting that only women stopped, eh?”

Not quite true—one homeless-seeming man stopped to tell us how to get to the nearest shelter, and what time to get there by—but maybe women are more empathetically responsive, or just more apt to go to the grocery store that day.

I had started off my errands that afternoon feeling the slight traces of smug that come with biking to the grocery store. That morning, I’d finally and proudly bolted carrier baskets to my bike and so felt like a capable one-woman station wagon loading up with organic milk and beets and kale and yogurt.

I am trying to, one choice at a time, break from my participation in our cultural addiction to fossil fuels.

To see someone, laid so clearly low by addiction and tenacious demons, humbled me—how lucky I am to have these choices to make, to be free from biochemical imbalances and aggressive psychological turmoil—but also reinforced my thinking of climate change in terms of a chemical addiction.

I am not the only to think this. I watched Bill McKibben’s uplifting and clarifying sermon “God’s Taunt” and heard of his experiences in that church with addicts and sheltering the homeless. (Take the 20 minutes and watch the whole thing.) He points out how little difference there is between a drug addict needing their fix and the fossil fuel industry’s addiction to profits, regardless of the harm their disease causes others, causes the planet we all live and the society that touches us all.

I’ll go one step farther to say I believe that we normal folk are also dangerous and sad addicts. Examine our fossil fuel dependent lifestyle, our lashing out at anyone who suggests perhaps we are killing ourselves, destroying our lives and the lives of our loved ones, with this insatiable hunger, this miserable selfishness, and so on. Certainly, those who profit from this destruction are horrible—but they are predatory drug dealers, we are the addicts. They need censure, we need help.

Addiction scares me. The loss of being able to be fully independent, to make choices based on what the demons demand, not on the best intentions of our hearts. But, having lived in a terrible pattern for so long, we do not know anything else and to leave the security—even the sad and toxic security of addiction—is enormously hard to contemplate, to undertake.

It sounds familiar. I think of the patterns of normal life in America. We are indoctrinated with “needs,” with expectation of what to do, what we should do, how we should live, what a good life and success look like. There are a lot of Joneses to keep up with, veneers and structures to maintain, and we are—as per The Lorax—bent always on biggering and biggering. To grow, to expand, we require more resources, we need more electricity for all the new technologies we need, we need bigger cars and houses, we need more plastic devices filled with precious metals mined in horrific conditions, we need to go everywhere—farther, faster, frequently—at the drop of a hat. I could go on, but you know the limits that you are reaching for which you find silly, superfluous.

And yet, we all keep on, drinking the Kool-Aid, building up our tolerance of this lifestyle until we are so stepped in oil so far that, should we wade no more, returning were so tedious as to go over, to borrow from Macbeth in his bloody, deadly quest for security and satisfaction.

I think that’s how we view this sometimes. That, basically, we and our beautiful earth are beyond salvage, so what is the point of trying to change our life now? We’re in too deep to get back out, so may just ride through with the status quo until the nearing end. The planet is heating up, the land is eroding, the weather is terrifyingly erratic, the seas are rising, homelands are disappearing, species are going extinct, and so, we’ve lost, so let’s just make ourselves comfortable and go resignedly into this good-enough-for-gloomy-addicts night.

I will not go this way.

The most recent IPCC report about climate change, I think, puts us humans pretty squarely on the ground with the lady outside the grocery store—we are almost overcome by our addictions and seem to teeter on the brink of unhappy self-destruction.

And so, what do we do? The self-depreciating thing to do here is to say that I don’t know. That I am as overwhelmed and addicted as the next person. And parts of that are true. But there are things that I do know we can do, the things that are working for me in trying to make mental and physical breaks with the substances and systems that seek to shape my life. These may not be right choices for you, but it'd be cruel to not share my budding solutions for how to live clean. Namely, pare down to what you truly need in your life—own only what is useful and/or beautiful to you. Reshuffle your life priorities so you can spend the most time on the parts of your life that bring the greatest joy, satisfaction, and sense of happy efficacy. Develop an allergic reaction to bullshit. Enjoy your paid work, but do not let it rule your life, lest you come to resent your passion. Be kind. Open your eyes to what is possible, and do not resent what is, even as you work to bring what is possible to life. Trying to do and doing these things brings me joy, allows me to be hopeful about the future of the world, to forge merrily into the bleak facts and imagine something better.

There is so much more, so many more ways to beat this addiction. We humans are extraordinary at pulling together in times of crisis. This is a crisis. Pull. We are better than our addictions and our demons, but we must help each other get out of this pattern, solve this problem we know in our bones we have.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Being the Change

For the record, I do enormously admire the work that many non-profit organizations, NGOs, and kind government programs do. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but in so many ways, the roads to clean water, safe housing, healthy ecosystems, full-bellied people, respected forbearers and just, informed, societies are also cobbled with all of the sweet best hopes, prayers, actions and intentions. Great things are being done, being planned, and good people are finding various ways to grow, graft, and transplant truly helpful and exciting ideas in the gaps and gulfs of life on our miraculous planet.

Yet, in the last week alone, I have had three different exchanges with three different people about the problems with non-profit organizations. One person finds it impossible to make a living wage in environmental education and with a graduate degree. One takes issue with their effectiveness in carrying out their purported missions, as if their backbones got lost in compromises. One has found them to treat their employees worse than corporate companies, with public face replacing private kindness out of financial desperation. When I mentioned this trio of chats to others, more folks chimed in that they, too, had come to question the overall efficacy of the non-profit sector. (A lot of these critiques apply to the wild world of education as well, I believe.)

My overall concern is that these systems are built on the idea that altruism and the journey of doing the “right” thing will be reward enough. One goes into work in nonprofits or education because, generally, one wants to make a difference, one wants to inspire students to be creative and engaged thinkers, one wants to save elephants or stop domestic violence or make alternative energy more accessible.

We do this work because we love the world and want it to be better. We hunger to put our shoulders, blood, sweat, tears, and waking hours into the salvation and celebration of what we love and the prevention of what we fear. We, in our bones, hope to be the change we want to see in the world by doing these jobs.

And so, we find ourselves sitting in cubicles in office buildings, working on presentations and spreadsheets and donor lists. We find ourselves pumped full of expensive education and working seasonal jobs at just barely above poverty level in order to gain experience in the field, to later be funneled into some management position where too much will be asked of any human who doesn’t wish to give their full life to their employment. We find that we are enmeshed in politics, clicking across marble floors in high heels or being choked by neckties as we lobby for the beliefs of our heart in the halls of government. We work buried under feathery mountains of file folders and bound reports, inside in tiny rooms with groaning bookshelves, trying to keep tar sands oil out of drinking water, protect endangered species of tree frogs, or stop genital mutilation a world away from this office.

Before we got to these places, there was a why. Something or some things happened to us—moments when the bonfires within us were first lit by small sparks. We all have moments where, after, nothing was ever the same. Personally, I came back from the mountains, from islands, from the woods, from the beauty and the slums of Kenya, from post-Katrina Biloxi, with pieces of my soul seeming to keen ever more urgently with Ghandi’s advice. 

I have been trained as an ecologist. I can recognize a system, the inputs and the outputs, the need for all things to work in even unconscious concert with each other for maximum functioning. And yet, when I have found myself confronted the sort of work that many non-profits provide, I am left cold. Plugging data into a spreadsheet, tweaking a mission statement to qualify for grants, doing community outreach, researching liability insurance, lobbying against groups with deeper, more nefarious pockets…these, often, are not the change I wish to see in the world. With the offices and the computers and the pettiness and the indoors and the business trips and the tedious power-struggle meetings, it seems too much like the world we are trying to build away from with our deep-buried “whys,” with our hearts and our loves and fears. But we don’t know how to build, except to follow traditional business models, only we substitute adherence to mission for profit. Truly, I believe that adherence to mission is a better bottom line to strive for, but in that we are caught in such similar structures and dynamics and priorities, I fear it is not a much changed world we make and remake.

I am idealistic and I am impatient. My skin is thin, my heart is ever on my sleeve and I cannot seem to hide a single emotion. I am passionately opinionated. I do not play the political-power games of bureaucracy. This has all burnt me many times, and will continue to do so in all facets of life, I imagine. I am also selfish—I want to be able to see that I am having some impact on the challenges I seek, that I am protecting some of what I love from some of what I fear. That comes from a sense of gratitude—I feel I owe the world the best I can give in thanks for all that I have seen.

While I have sweetly witnessed it a few times, I do not often see that efficacy in much of the non-profit world. We are there because we love something, but that love is exploited, hardened, by the tenor of the work itself, by the lack of effect we personally have, or, many of us, have not. We burn out, we get cynical, we lose the spark that drew us in. It is emotional work, giving work, but the reward of being part of the solution grows very thin on the ground sometimes. I have frequently felt like a supplementary cog in part of a large and sluggish machine, slowly churning towards a compromise that might be effective.

What I love deserves better. I suspected I could feel more connected to and satisfied by other labors of love in service to my hopes for a better world. I am willing to make many alterations and sacrifices to an expected and traditional life in pursuit of my ideals, but I refuse to give up on feeling useful and connected to what I love.

Non-profits are a step between the world as it is and the world as we’re working to make it. The pay is often low, the hours almost always the wrong number to sustain life, and the tasks can be tedious as often as they are magnificent. We must divorce our identities and our understanding of what it means to be the change from our non-profit jobs. Certainly, we must continue the good work of these organizations—I do believe in the work—but we must stop expecting so much from the work. The job is not what will change the world, the job is not the change the world needs.

What the world needs is us to truly and honestly be the change—in how we live, in what we value, in how we spend our time and our far less precious currencies. To expect all our impact on and satisfaction in the world to come from one place—our job—is to ask too much and to ask too easily. We must be the change. How we each and together do this, that is the harder question.

But I suspect the answers we become will be more satisfying, more effective than any other.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Emperor Has No Clothes. Now What?

On Sunday, I saw on the NPR website that Peter Matthiesen had died. I have read excerpts and scraps of his writing for many years, and my understanding of the man—East Coast WASP Zen Buddhist priest environmental writer—is more than enough to keep his works in my orbit. I'll probably skip the LSD, but all else seems quite applicable.

Koan-cidentally (had to), the New York Times Magazine on Sunday carried a brief profile of Matthiesen. I hadn't known that he had been a Cold World spy, or that he had co-founded The Paris Review in part as a cover for his espionage on potentially Communist activities in 1950s Paris. 

For all that Matthiesen wrote and did, it was the small kernels of his exit from the C.I.A. that struck me most—he became “disillusioned by the C.I.A., which in his estimation was filled mostly with Ivy League stuffed shirts who didn’t know or care anything about the poor people whom the communists were trying to reach.”

Disillusion implies that there was a time of illusion, a time when the status quo was an unquestioned goal. My Pantheon of personal saints, poets, writers, prophets and worthy humans have this moment of disillusion in common. They find the powerful to be unjust, the accepted codes of conduct untruthful. They go to the woods, they go to jail, they burn at the stake for their truth, they speak truth past power and to anyone who will listen, they make salt, plant trees, dance for revolutions, love intimately and widely and well, and live well amid their landscapes and loved ones. They refuse to pretend to see the Emperor’s clothes, and live their lives joyfully—messily—in making this honesty manifest.

Kindly, through their lives and words and actions, they pulled down the curtain for me before I knew there was one.

There are a lot of us who grew up or have come to a point where we sort of skip the sort of ultimate disillusion, Crisis of Faith in Veracity of the American Dream. I can’t remember a time when I believed that world powers were altruistic, that politics were clean, that companies had any interest beyond their own profits, and that Norman Rockwell painted from life. We who’ve read a lot, traveled a lot, and most of all, keep our eyes open as we go through our own brief lives, we make adjustments to our aspirations based on this knowledge. Many of us were born into and bred on the realizations of our forerunners that there is a lot of unkind, unjust hypocrisy and violence woven into the fabric of our cultural way of being.

Personally, horrible things no longer surprise me. I’m not at peace with them, certainly, but it seems disrespectful and willfully ignorant to be continually surprised by poverty, racism, sexism, violence, political corruption, corporate greed, environmental devastation, economic inequality, advertising promising you can buy your way to happiness and all the rest of the rather grotesque aspects of current life.

If we are surprised by such living nightmares, it is because we expected, wanted something else. I believe that as long as we know such things, and find them morally unjust, we retain the power and responsibility to change what is wrong. We can and must make a better world. 

I don’t believe that it is cynical to find flaws in the system, and to point them out. There is nothing, I think, more joyous in and celebratory of the world than to tell the truth. I was raised reading Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius thousands of times—the charge to make the world even more beautiful is the weightiest heritage I carry. Combined with what my education has allowed me to see and learn and witness and process, I’ll happily spend my life burnishing the endangered beauty of this world.

We can’t rest on the crumbs of our heroes’ disillusions, and we cannot wallow in our own recognition of hypocrisy and injustice. Because it is not enough to be disillusioned—that alone is just a self-aggrandizing cynicism, a cheap ticket to avoid engaging with the world. Abandoning an illusion allows for embracing reality. If you are disillusioned, it is because you know more than a built system can contain. The world in all its beauty and multitudes contains more than any of us will ever know. I'd rather spend a life exploring the limitless than bound to limits.

In making the world clean and just for all, we the hopeful disillusioned are all in this together. It’s a ragged relay across time and space. Those who came before—the Matthiesens and Thoreaus and Parks and Joans of Arcs—their task was to crack things open, to start the whispers that become words that become voices that become actions.

We, who would tattoo the words and wisdom of these people on our bodies, our task is to further the actions. The canon of knowledge that has come before, the lives lived and died for these truths, these are our catapult, our springboard, the giants’ shoulders we might fly from.

I don’t know exactly where we’re headed. In going off the script and off the map, it gets a little unclear. But, if we wanted only certainty and security, we would have stuck with the status quo. However, there are more of us in this uncharted leg of the relay, I believe, than ever before. It is going to take many sweet combinations of rising up and stepping away from the norm to find each other, but I have utter faith that we’ll get where we long to be. At times, it is enough know the variety of ways our co-runners are carrying the baton forward, towards where this goes. In fact, I believe we are there even as we are en route, in the thousand different ways in which we each know what is Right and what is not in how we live and what we live for, in how we make the world ever more truly beautiful.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Stones from the Sea

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

In Montana, I had a job teaching kids about the Clark Fork River and the Milltown Dam. Milltown is the western terminus of the largest Superfund complex in the country. For a hundred years, the dam of Milltown held back the free flow of the Clark Fork River, which flows out of Butte, which is as boom and bust a town as anyone will ever need to see. Butte was built by copper mining. The tailings of the mining operations were thrown away, flushed downstream.

A lot of the tailings got stuck in and as sludge, building up a pretty solid toxic load behind the Milltown Dam. In the 1980s, the town tested its water and found poisonous levels of arsenic—so much had built up behind the damn that it was seeping into the water supply.

By the time I got to Montana and began teaching the local youth about their backyards, history and rivers as fast as I could learn it all myself, the Dam itself had already come down and the river clean up was well underway. Toxic sludge was removed daily from the land that had been the bottom of the reservoir, and the water was beginning to flush away the residue of a century of pent up toxins.

I am wary of claiming anything as a success. And yet, I uselessly carry a small chunk of pavement with me that I hauled out of the Clark Fork while looking at macroinvertebrates with fifth-graders. The pavement—clearly a human construct of geology with various colors and makes of rocks poking through blacktop—is almost heart-shaped. It is not as quite as smooth or even as a riverstone, but the edges are rounded off—the river tried its best, just doing as it does, to reform the alien invaders of paving stones and concrete.

Once, I found one of these river-refurbished stones covered in tiles, like a chunk of a bathroom floor had fallen into the river and been churned smooth.

Recently, feeling that I have been spending too much time and energy trying to change the world and not enough having a hell of a good time, I went to the beach. While mountains have a more familiar claim on my heart, the ocean in not far behind in its pull. There was a time when I could have gone either way, but the paths that opened first led me to mountains. However, as a friend says often, “I am a polygamist of place.”

It is very early April. The sunlight seems thin still, but so full of summery promises that it is hard to realize how lovely it is now, as the world wakes up from winter. The dogs ran up and down the beaches, climbing on the rocks and chasing driftwood and each other into the cold waves.

I sat, and tried to absorb the dynamic peace. One of my most favorite sounds in the entire world is the cobbling rattle of round stones pulled in and out by crashing and ebbing waves. Ceramic burble? Billards? Frozen blueberries in a china bowl? John Irving’s Undertoad gargling marbles?

All and none of this, it is enough to be the sound of exactly what it is.

And so I watched the rocks. The red ones stuck out amid the shades of gray that are New England in earliest spring.

Bricks. Tumbled round like sea glass and the pavement and lavatory river stones of Montana.

We know sins have been and are still intentionally and unintentionally committed in this world. Against each other, against the natural world we forget we are part of. Where from and why man-made bricks have fallen into the sea, I do not know. It is not the point source of this sort of naturalized pollution that is important in this instance.

What I do find is the incredible ability of these systems to forgive and heal from what we’ve done, to as much as naturally possible, ignore, absorb, and move forward. As with any gift of forgiveness, it is crucial to not ask too much, to recognize and respect the boundaries of what may be recoverable.

There are things that we humans have done to each other and the rest of the world that are permanent, past the point of return. In taking inspiration and hope from—essentially—industrial waste as represented by sea-smoothed brick in the Atlantic, I do not forget the Texas-sized island of trash floating in the Pacific, or that the ocean temperatures are rising and salinity changing or that migratory birds are flying into oil spills or any of the host of other changes that underpin our present reality.

Yet I am reminded by the bricks of the power of change. Healing of a sort can and will and does occur. That the natural world itself is fully on board with survival, with creative resistance and adaptations, that it abhors vacuums and imbalance. Nature flushes and washes and cleanses and dilutes and will do what it can to return to a balanced functioning, dynamic stasis. The ocean rounds off sharp corners, birds line their nests with discarded ribbons and ropes. It is not enough—toxins pour into the ocean, the air, our bodies and species beyond us are struggling entirely unfairly to recover from our actions and errors. We know all this, too well. What we lose and forget is that the world we want to help is rising up and doing what it can.

So can we. By the healing, morphing forgiveness that is possible, is demonstrated, in these forces larger than ourselves, we may do better. By it’s immense beauty, we must.