VAST FORWARD

My Relationships with Things

Years ago, when I was guiding a wilderness rites of passage program in the Utah Canyonlands, our assistant, Joe, became distraught because he had lost his favorite pen after spending the afternoon writing in his journal in some scenic spot. The participants were out on their three-day solos in the wilderness, and Joe spent hours the following day searching for his pen. “It’s out there somewhere,” he worried, “alone and afraid in the dark.” Finally, after one search, he returned to base camp holding the pen aloft before him like a flag of triumph. He had rescued it from a sad fate, and both were happy again.

I could so relate to his woe and his jubilation. I’m the same way with Things. They are personalities, all of them. Some are friendly and graceful, some stubborn and uncooperative. Some are sweet, others unforgiving. The other day I was afraid I’d given away my favorite spoon when I took a whole drawer of Andy’s and my flatware to Goodwill. When I found it, I greeted it and, yes, kissed it hello.

These days, as I get settled into my new home in Ithaca, New York, two weeks after moving from rural northeastern Pennsylvania, I am also thinking about the Things of mine, and especially of Andy’s, that I chose to bring with me and the ones I gave away. My husband was an artist, a lover of tools, and a saver of just about everything. He knew my conviction about the personality of Things, but he didn’t share it. He did have a fondness for his Things, but he saved them because he thought he might need them one day. This was especially true of his tools. He also loved the aesthetics of tools—how they were shaped, especially the old ones, to do what was required and to be held comfortably in the hand. There were many times when something broke, and he would go into his large, messy studio and come up with exactly the right little screw or piece of molding or tiny screwdriver to fix it.

In the many months that led up to my move, even before I started looking at houses, I spent countless painful hours going through Andy’s things—giving some away to friends or his kids, passing some along to a friend who is trying to sell them on eBay, dispersing others to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, the recycling center, the paper shredder… or the trash. The tools were the most stern and critical of my packing angst; they would be treated with respect and taken to my new home.

Now I am in my new, much smaller house and the basement is filled with tools. I don’t know the purpose of half of them, and I’ll likely never use most. Seven screwdrivers? Nine kinds of files? I took them with me not just because the tools insisted, but, really, because my brain was operating under a faulty equation:

Andy loved his tools.
I love Andy.
Therefore I must love his tools.

In their new location, the tools do not seem nearly as bossy and demanding as they did in Andy’s studio. There they insisted on being cared for by me for the rest of my life. Here they seem, frankly, like unwelcome guests. So, after I get my home arranged for me, I must see about arranging a new home for them.

(Photo above: a few of Andy’s tools, awaiting their positions in my new home.)

Pilgrimage

Recently I was asked to write a testimonial for a book about pilgrimage. It’s by James E. Mills, and it’s called Pilgrimage Pathways for the United States. The author contacted me because he had read my most recent book, but what he didn’t know is that I am a major believer in and conjurer of pilgrimage opportunities.

Mills includes many definitions of pilgrimage, but doesn’t narrow it down to one. Personally, I’d say it’s a journey one makes to a place that has special meaning unto itself and, so the journeyer expects, will have meaning also for her.

One important pilgrimage I made was to Greece in 1981. I was writing a novel about Medea (not very good; fortunately never published), and I wanted to visit all the places she and Jason and the Argonauts had spent time in. My guidebook was Pausanius’ Guide to Greece, written in the second century AD. That book actually did work in Greece, where so much of what’s ancient remains.

In 2019 I made a pilgrimage I’d looked forward to for more than fifty years. I went to Liverpool. I spent several hours in the Beatles Museum and the following day took a seven-hour private tour to all the boys’ homes, schools, and hangouts. The photo above is me at St. Peter’s Church, where John’s group, the Quarrymen, was playing for a village fete in 1957. Paul’s friend Ivan Vaughn brought him along especially to meet John. For me going to Liverpool was like going to Lourdes would be to a religious person. It was an opportunity to walk the sidewalks of those individuals, and the four of them collectively, who had changed my life—to see the bricks and trees and shops, the Penny Lane roundabout, and even the drainpipe that teenaged Paul used to shimmy up when he returned home late at night after a gig.

 

A pilgrimage makes a place real in a new way. You go with intent, but the pilgrimage demands that you leave your intent in the wings and just wait and see what’s going to happen. When you reach a pilgrimage site, you don’t just glance and leave. You gaze. You attend. You listen. You remember and envision.

My organization, Radical Joy for Hard Times, also recommends visits that are a bit like pilgrimages. We urge people to go places they love that have been damaged and spend time there, sharing stories, getting to know the place as it is now, and making a simple gift of beauty for it. This simple practice reminds people that they remain profoundly connected with the places in their lives, even when something drastic has happened to those places. Usually, they leave loving the place in an entirely new way and feeling empowered themselves.

What pilgrimages have you made—or want to make?

 

 

Fighting with the Storm

It’s been months since I last wrote this blog. In that time, coronavirus has made us all realize the immediacy of our mortality. In the U.S., we’ve witnessed millions of followers of the President of the United States so convinced that a fair election had been unfair to him that they followed his bidding to storm the Capitol Building and deny the rightful transition of power.

For me, the greatest loss of all has been the death of my husband, Andy Gardner, from cancer on August 12.

But I like writing this blog. It helps me to think clearly and, I’ve been told, it helps others to think clearly as well. So—I’m returning. Thank you for being here. Really. I promise to post more regularly.

Rilke writes:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Man Watching,” trans. Robert Bly)

After my husband’s death, I, too, was beaten back into life by a storm.

Andy and I always used to say that, if the other one died, we wouldn’t want to keep on living. But about a week and a half after he died I realized that I did want to live. Desperately.

I was out mowing the lawn when the sky darkened and the wind began to blow furiously. Leaves and twigs hurled themselves out of the trees to twirl in the air. Since our house is the last one in the village before the countryside opens up, we often lose power in severe storms, and it seemed likely that that could happen in the storm now shaping up. I finished mowing the lawn and had just gone inside when, sure enough, the lights flickered and faded, the old refrigerator gave a last choking gasp, and the house settled into premature silence and darkness. I went upstairs to take a shower before the hot water cooled, and afterwards I went into the bedroom and sat on the bed. Through the windows I could see the rain driving almost horizontally from the west, the wind whipping the tops of the trees back and forth. And suddenly, the violence of the tempest mirrored my own violent anguish so sharply that I felt I must be on the verge of death myself, for I could not possibly live much longer with such pain. It seemed that grief itself was about to extinguish my own life, just as the storm had shut off the power in our house.

I realized that I didn’t want to go. “I want to live!” I wailed. “I want to live! Show me,” I pleaded with whatever greater force might hear and intervene, “show me how to survive this!”

I think that at that moment my grief was so intense that I felt it was trying to kill me. And I rebelled! The grief did not diminish after that unexpected rendezvous with my own fierce consciousness, but I did realize that I would survive. And that I would be okay, even while in the midst of the grief. My declaration to the cosmos that I wanted to live gave me the courage to stick with the suffering as much I had to in order to come out on the other side.

Six months have now passed. I still can’t say the grief has abated, but it is less violent now. Less like a storm, more like a drought. Life is filled with amazing teachers. I am grateful to the storm for forcing me to choose life.

(Photo by Greg Redfern, WTOP News)

 

What are We Smiling for?


In my last blog, I wrote about Andi Olsen’s short video, Where the Smiling Ends,” and how it made me feel as if I had been granted the brief, momentary gift of seeing people’s souls shimmering within their anonymous bodies.

Ever since I wrote that, I’ve been thinking about smiling in other contexts. For example, in February, I was part of an extraordinary delegation of spiritual leaders, peace activists, and ecologists traveling in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Whenever we reached a new stop, people would gather together in small groups and have somebody take their picture. Throughout the journey and afterward these photos kept popping up on social media.

Over and over I found myself baffled by this impulse to group and smile. Sometimes it actually seemed inappropriate. Why, for instance, were we organizing ourselves in this way as soon as we stepped out of the bus at Mt. Nebo, the legendary summit from which Moses is said to have stared out over the valley and the Jordan River to see the Promised Land that God had forbidden him ever to enter? Wouldn’t simply gazing in sympathy or even bending down to touch the soil be a more heartfelt response for us?

Why, when you came to think of it, would we even want to pose for a photograph at such a place? To show people at home that we had spent time at a famous place with likable people? We were a very diverse and compatible group. Maybe our photo-ops were an unconscious way of indicating that these places, some associated with all three Abrahamic religions, some of special importance to either Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, could be touched and honored by people of diverse faiths? Or is having your picture taken at a famous place and smiling happily for it simply an act so engrained in our psyches that we don’t question it? (Not that I didn’t participate. Here’s a group photo I myself happily joined at Mt. Nebo.)

I’m still wondering.

What do you think?

What I’m reading—and more about smiling

After finishing Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody, I picked up her second memoir, Almost There. It’s shorter and more loosely organized and, frankly, I’m finding it a little thin, as books authors write as follow-ups to their previous bestsellers often are. Nevertheless, I perked up when I read what she had to say about smiling when she visited the September 11 shrine at the site of the World Trade Towers and looked at the photographs of those who had been killed:

“…[H]ow happy the missing looked. No one had ever posed for a photo appropriate to being missing. Ordinary people are photographed when they are rejoicing, and here they were, beaming in tuxedos from behind littered restaurant tables, poised in bathing suits to dive from a jetty, standing proudly behind a bar mitzvah boy, coy in a bridesmaid’s satin dress. Every single one of them was smiling.”

Which photo of you or of me will be the one to depict our life after we’re dead? 

Savory Moment

I love to dance. Not having any dance opportunities available where I live, or even within a reasonable drive’s distance, has been one of the hardest things about leaving New York. A few days ago a friend of mine told me about Soul Motion, an on-line dance session with Michael Skelton that she participates in every Sunday. I joined for the first time last week, and it was a dream come true—an hour and a half of dance to great music with lots of variation, occasional gentle but deep guidance by the facilitator, and time afterwards for sharing responses. Cost is your choice, from $5-$20. You dance in your own home with more than a hundred people from around the world dancing in their own homes. And it’s live. I hope that other dancing fools among my readers will join me! Here’s the link:

 

 

When the smiling ends

In Baltimore’s American Museum of Visionary Art I once saw a video about the soul. It’s called “Where the Smiling Ends,” and it’s about seven minutes long. It made me realize something about human beings that I have never forgotten.

No one paid any attention to filmmaker Andi Olsen when she positioned her camera in front of the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome. She was just one person among thousands who visited the fountain that day and took photos. Probably few people lingered long enough after having had their own presence there memorialized to notice how one woman came and stayed.

All around the fountain people positioned themselves—singly, in pairs, in family groups—and brought up their smiles. That is what you do when you are before a camera; everyone knows that. You demonstrate your gladness to be where you are and with the people you’re with. The photographers aimed, focused, clicked, and the moment belonged to the posterity of albums all over the world. Someone had been to Trevi Fountain and here was the evidence to prove it. The subject of Olsen’s video, however, was not the smiling face of a particular loved one. What she was interested in was what happened to all those people right after the camera was lowered.

Set to the music of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” the short black-and-white video shows in slow motion how one posed face after another releases the enthusiasm they have ratcheted up for the camera. At first, the vanishing of the smile strikes the viewer as little more than an individual quirk. But as the video spools on, something more becomes evident. Olsen has offered her viewers an  intimate glimpse into that instant in which authenticity fills the space carved out by public expectation. Over and over again, the falling of the smile reveals each face dissolving into its own private and unfulfilled world. Husbands and wives, teenagers, lovers, grandparents, friends—one after another, they stop smiling, and what replaces the smile is the person we are when we assume we are safely unwitnessed. When the smile fades, it is often with a bow of the head, as if the very effort of manufacturing that expression was tiring. These faces, supposedly unobserved, settle into their private wells of sorrow, envy, boredom, resignation, and relief. The people in Olsen’s film were saying something much different from what they assumed their photos would later say. They weren’t saying, “This is me in front of Trevi Fountain!” They were saying, “I stood in front of Trevi Fountain, and now I must go home knowing it has fixed absolutely nothing in my life.”

I stood there in the museum and watched this film three times. And when I turned away, it was as if I could see in every person I encountered that place where the smiling ends. I saw that they had struggled, that on this particular day, when hundreds of people would pass them by as if they hardly existed, there was something each was worried about. I saw that they loved and that sometimes love hurt. That they couldn’t help feeling that if just one particular thing would go their way—a job, a new beloved, a raise—then everything would be so much better. I fell in love with all of them. Andi Olsen reminds us of how quickly, if we pay attention, we can catch a glimpse of the soul of people.

What I’m reading

I finally finished The Forsyte Saga and so missed all those characters that I caught up on magazine articles for a couple of days before picking up another book. I’d bought Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody at a local used bookstore several months ago, and it seemed like just the antidote to the Forsytes: from Victorian England to Ireland in the 1950s and 60s, from upper class to working class, from a male-dominated world to a woman making her independent way in the world.  Here’s what O’Faolain has to say about reading:

“I would prefer to read something I don’t enjoy than do almost anything else. I like the act of reading in itself. Following the line of something—not just the story but the rhythm, the tone, the feel of what has accumulated from before and what is beginning to impend—becoming surefooted on the high-wire of the author’s intention. I liked everything to do with English as a school subject.”

Yes! Me too!

Savory Moment

My savory moment occurred a few days ago. We woke up to see about six inches of heavy, wet snow on the ground. “At least we don’t have to shovel the driveway,” I said to Andy, “since we can’t go anywhere.” Much of the snow had melted by afternoon, and I went outside. I wanted to check on the daffodils that I’d planted in the meadow and on the trail leading to it when we first bought our house 32 years ago. Daffodils are my favorite flower, and I was sad to see them all bent over, their yellow blossoms pressed to the ground by snow, the green stalks flattened. I set to work liberating each daffodil everywhere I found them. Finally, my gloves soaked, I picked a bunch of them and walked back to the house. I realized I had never before picked daffodils after freeing them from snow. They have survived beautifully and continue to bloom.

Going (to the inner) home

We’re all staying at home these days, unless you’re—depending on your point of view—lucky or unlucky enough to have a job that still needs your presence. We’re keeping our distance, socializing only through Zoom, pirouetting around people who get too close in the supermarket.

It’s an opportunity to think about what it means not just to stay home, but to go home. And not just to go to an outer home, but to our own inner home.

At home you take off your coat and hang it in the closet among those other familiar jackets and raincoats you’ve known and worn. At home you have a favorite chair. You know where the vegetable steamer and the good china are kept. The floor creaks familiarly beneath your feet, and you can anticipate just how many seconds it takes for the hot water in the bathroom sink to reach the temperature you like. Home, both inner and outer, says philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, is a feeling of belonging. Home is an interior sanctuary in the mind as well as an interior refuge in the physical world.

The coronavirus is forcing us to think about what it means to go home and then stay home, physically, mentally, and spiritually. In our isolation, we find ourselves super-conscious of our behavior. We lose patience with our partners or roommates. We stay in our pajamas all day. We note in ourselves an increase or a decrease in compassion for  others. We realize how much money we typically spent on expensive coffee drinks and, having no idea where the money will come from now, we cut back. Or we fill our anxious moments by shopping on line for things we really don’t need. Having to live with ourselves, we discover how restless or content or creative or pessimistic we really are. We have to face ourselves without the mirror of others to build us up or cast us down.

What are you coming home to in yourself. As for me, I’ve found that I’ve quit striving and pushing in the way I’ve been doing since I was a freshman in college. Since no one is able to plan these days, I’ve discovered a surprising new faith that things will unfold in some creative, unhurried way when they need to—that I, personally, don’t need to foresee, predict, plan for all outcomes, and fret that others aren’t striving and foreseeing with the same intensity.

For another thing, I’ve been pondering mortality. There have been days when I’ve been in an utter panic about my own death, that of my husband, and those of the people I love. There have been days when I’ve been preoccupied with the sacrifices of the trash collectors who come to our town on Thursday, the nurses and doctors who risk their lives every day, the women who live with alcoholic abusive husbands. There are also days when, introvert that I am, I really enjoy the opportunity to read, write, and think more. And there are days when I realize that, simple as it sounds, I will survive until I don’t, and I feel enormous comfort about that.

What are you coming home to?

What I’m reading

Of course, I’m still reading The Forsyte Saga! It’s almost 900 pages long, and I only have about a hundred pages left to read. I will miss it!

Savory Moment

My savory moment occurred last Monday. We woke up that morning to see about eight inches of heavy, wet snow on the ground. “At least we don’t have to shovel the driveway,” I said to Andy, “since we can’t go anywhere.” Much of the snow had melted by afternoon, and I went outside. I wanted to check on the daffodils that I’d planted in the meadow and on the trail leading to it when we first bought our house 32 years ago. Daffodils are my favorite flower, and I was sad to see them all bent over, their yellow blossoms pressed to the ground by snow, the green stalks flattened. I set to work liberating each daffodil everywhere I found them. Finally, my gloves soaked, I picked a bunch of them and walked back to the house. I realized I had never before picked daffodils after freeing them from snow. They have survived beautifully and continue to bloom.

Is There a Lesson in All This?

My philosophically minded friends and I have can’t help talking about whether the coronavirus has some kind of lesson to teach us. By “us” I mean us-personally and us-as-humans.

A few people think there may be some cosmic overall plan meant to help us evolve to a higher level of consciousness. Others believe it’s all just random—physics at work in the physical world. As for me, I think that, whereas there’s no meaning for why this virus is rampaging the world, there may be something we can seize upon later, as we look back and ask ourselves, How have we changed?

Because we will certainly change. Never before has every single person in the world faced the same lethal threat at the same time. The virus does not discriminate among genders, religions, or races. We are all worried. At some point in the future, right now yearned-for but unimaginable, we will be sitting in the sunlight in cafés, laughing with friends, browsing inches from one another in a crowded bookstore. We will be exuberant and we will be sad, for we will have suffered through the disease and many will have lost someone because of it.

How will we change? Will we become more polarized as a country? Or will we become more generous and compassionate? Will we realize that we don’t need to rush out and shop whenever we realize we’ve forgotten one or two things at the supermarket? Will we become more patient? Or will be become more impatient, more greedy to reward ourselves with all the little indulgences we had to forsake during our self-enforced isolation? Will we realize how much we could do without—celebrate the clearing of the skies when so many planes are grounded, the return of dolphins to the canals in Venice, the bubbling once more of springs in Bali when thousands of tourists are no longer luxuriating in spas and taking long American showers?

Sometimes I feel optimistic. Today, for example, I was moved by a video of musicians from Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, playing their instruments from the homes where they’re isolated, so that we, isolating in our own homes around the world, might hear a beautifully rendered “Ode to Joy”. People can be wonderfully kind and creative, I thought.

And then, less than an hour later, I read a the Facebook post of a Florida friend of Puerto Rican heritage that his daughter is afraid that kids in her neighborhood will mistake her for a Chinese person and beat her up because they blame the Chinese for causing the coronavirus. People can be very cruel and unfair, I thought.

The mission of the organization I founded, Radical Joy for Hard Times, is to find and make beauty for wounded places. The whole Earth is a very scared and wounded place right now. The only thing we can possibly do is to be excessively generous and patient and grateful for as long as we can—and then a little longer.

 

What I’m reading

I’m now reading Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien.  It’s the story of a woman who was a child during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s. Her father is killed, her mother dies of weakness and mental confusion, her younger brother decides that the only way he can survive is to become a merciless child soldier himself. The girl, who goes by several names during the course of the narrative, eventually escapes and creates a life in Canada, but her past keeps wreaking havoc on her life.

My husband Andy asked, “Why are you reading such a depressing book at this time, when the whole world is falling apart?” I asked myself the same question and realized that in some way it just makes sense. Often, when I read books or hear news stories about tragedies and tumult that other people are experiencing, I feel like it could have been me—or even that I actually have lived that life somehow, in some region of my being or past life or very active imagination. So now, during the time of the coronavirus, when I feel like I’m connected to everyone on Earth in a new way, it’s the perfect time to read a story about fear, survival, and small acts of rebellion, because on some level that’s where we’re all living now.

 

Savory Moment

On a recent cold, gloomy day, after negotiating the untrafficked aisles of the supermarket and feeling both grateful for the staff unpacking boxes of yogurt, arranging apples in the bin, checking people out, and unsettled by the sparse number of shoppers resolutely keeping our distance from one another, I felt so sad and vulnerable and moved. Then Andy and I went to Home Depot to stock up on birdseed, and while we were there, I was captivated by little flats of pansies in beautiful sunset colors. I loved that there can be flowers blooming at a time like this, as if everything is right and normal with the world, as if the soil will always be glad to receive little roots that know exactly how to behave in it, and as if flowers are possible at a time like this. I bought some of the pansies and put them on a little table in my office. Together we await spring.

Seeking Signs of Balance in a Time of Chaos

A couple of nights ago I woke up at 3:00 AM with this thought: These days I am connected emotionally with everyone on Earth. I’m connected with Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry, my second cousins in Sweden whom I’ve never met, my cousin Terri in Texas whom I haven’t seen in 60 years, the first baseman for the NY Yankees, writers Joy Harjo and Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, the woman who cleans rooms in the Holiday Inn in Orlando, my friends from high school, the bus driver in Las Vegas, Paul McCartney, the man who took me on a Beatles tour in Liverpool last September, my Balinese “sister” in North Bali, and the six-year-old boy whose grandmother lives across the street from me. To all of them and billions more I am connected… because we are all concerned about the coronavirus.

Pondering those connections softened the boundaries of isolation that this disease pierces me with two or three times a day, as do—if I allow myself to indulge in them—all the reactions to the disease, its constant updates, its advice and retractions of advice, its mortality rates and status on toilet paper availability. I’m trying to figure out what we can learn from the coronavirus, how we can actually become more connected as a result rather than more isolated… more generous and compassionate rather than more selfish and self-obsessed. Here are a few ways these positive signs have arisen through the dark times in the past few days:

    • Neighbors under quarantine in Italy are building community by singing on their balconies.
    • A small group I’ve been part of for thirty years was going to have only four people in attendance in May. But then we canceled the in-person meeting and decided to hold it on Zoom, and now all seven of us can be together.
    • I live in the country and it takes 45 minutes to drive to either Binghamton or Scranton, where everything I do and shop for is located. Because so much is being canceled or closed, I’ve been spending lots of time outside in the woods and the garden.
    • I started writing a new piece I’ve had in mind for several weeks.
    • A Facebook friend posted that she’s calling people she hasn’t talked to in years.
    • When the New York Electrical Contractor’s Association cancelled its gala event in New York City because of the virus, they donated thousands of dollars of floral decorations to area nursing homes. 
    • Our minister at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Binghamton is offering not only on-line services on Sunday, but also a Monday morning meditation, a Tuesday evening discussion about spirituality in a time of crisis, and a couple of lunchtime check-ins.
    • A butcher in England sent out a notice to members of the community that, if anyone had to self-quarantine, he would put together a two-week supply of food that he would deliver to their door.
    • I talk to at least one friend every day, either on the phone, on Skype, on Zoom, or on FaceTime. I always feel better afterward.

To be perfectly honest, sometimes I plunge into immense fear about this disease and what it could mean for me and my husband, who is ten years older than I. I try to pull myself back from that precipice. But I also try not to shape my attitudes around excessive positivity and urgings to pray. I’m trying to reach out to others, stay calm, look for beauty, and spend my time doing what I love.

It all changes daily. But trying to maintain a balance is always a worthy pursuit.
 

What I’m reading

I’m rereading Ian Frazier’s most wonderful book, Great Plains, a nonfiction rumination on the plains of the U.S. and the strange, ordinary, sad, historic, and comical people and events that have taken place on them over the past couple hundred years, and take place still. Frazier visits Sitting Bull’s cabin and pokes around a gigantic military construction meant to outlast nuclear war. He sits in his van and looks at what’s happening in the town where Lawrence Welk got hit in the head with a brick. He picks up hitchhikers, chats with gas station attendants about the name of the local team, and wanders up dusty, deserted driveways to peer in the windows of abandoned houses—and then he describes the patterns on the wallpaper. He’s funny, observant, interested in people, and open to learning all kinds of things.

And his writing is wonderful. Describing his trek out to a Plains Indians buffalo run, where the animals were chased off a cliff edge to their death, he looks down and notes, “On the spot where so many buffalo would have landed and died, almost no grass grows, maybe out of tact.” About strip-mining he writes: “Strip-mined land is land thrown away. Usually, trash exists in a larger landscape; after strip-mining the large landscape is trash.” He writes about why he thinks Crazy Horse’s insistence on lying on the floor to die rather than on a bed in the adjutant’s office where he was stabbed was such a great act of defiance: “With his body, he demonstrated that the floor of an Army office was part of the land, and that the land was still his.”

This is a great book.

Savory Moment

Yesterday I escaped from my computer for a couple of hours to work on the land around our house. We live in a rural county in northeastern Pennsylvania, at the far eastern corner of a small (pop. 283) diamond-shaped village. We have five and a half acres of mixed woodland, garden, meadow, and orchard. When my husband Andy prunes trees, I collect the branches and twigs and weave them into a brush fence around one whole side and a few partial sides of the land. Yesterday I was on my way back to the tree pile after working on the fence at the highest part of the land. I could hear the wood frogs gabbling in the little pond, two ravens discussing something in the trees. I saw the spectacularly emerald moss on an old dead Scotch pine lying on the ground and a place in the soil nearby where turkeys had scratched looking for food. The sky was clear and blue and the scent of spring was in the air. And suddenly I knew that, no matter whether my loved ones and I survived the virus or not, the Earth would be beautiful and would endure.

Confronting Our Very Own Plague

My introduction to existentialism occurred in my senior year in high school, when my advanced French class read La Peste (The Plague) by Albert Camus. The novel explores the various ways in which people respond to crisis, specifically a plague that engulfs the coastal city of Oran in northern Algeria. At first, despite growing evidence that the illness is spreading, many people act as if the trouble is nothing much to worry about and will soon pass. They “disbelieved in the plague,” Camus writes. “They thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.” Eventually, the disease takes over and the gates of the city shut. By that time, the question of belief or disbelief has become absurd.

For the past few months I’ve been writing about Camus’s plague as a metaphor for how society is dealing with climate change. Now, all of a sudden, we have a real plague of our own as the world confronts the coronavirus. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb would say that the coronavirus is a “black swan event.” That’s an event that comes very suddenly and unexpectedly and has a major impact, either positive or negative. Black swan events surprise you, throw you off balance, and often freak you out. In retrospect, pundits have plenty of opinions about why they happened, but while they’re occurring they have the power to knock our sensible responses aside, for it seems that all we can do is react.

So, now that the coronavirus has killed (at this writing) four people in the United States and more than 3,100 worldwide, how can we deal with this existential threat? How can we deal with this scary black swan? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Moderate your portions of the news. How many times a day do you really need to update yourself on the latest morbidity numbers?
  2. Wash your hands.
  3. Don’t touch your face. (Turns out that’s a really difficult thing to do.)
  4. Never ignore an impulse to do something generous and unexpected for someone. You could be a little mini black swan, a most welcome one, in somebody’s day.
  5. Replace panic with curiosity. Notice how people are behaving in response to the virus and determine how you, personally, want to act.
  6. Laugh when you can. Here’s one slice of humor from outabouter.com—a comment from a pangolin, the animal from which the coronavirus apparently came… because some people want to eat it.

What I’m reading

After about thirty people told me I need to read The Overstory by Richard Powers, I finally started it on the long plane ride from Tel Aviv to Newark a couple of weeks ago. And, truly, it is wonderful, this novel about several people whose lives are shaped in one way or another by trees, such as art, science, activism, video game design, and a near-death experience. All these individual stories eventually intertwine. What is most amazing of all to me is that this book, which is:

  • about how extraordinary trees are
  • and in what complex ways they communicate with one another
  • and are so beloved by humans
  • and is a book written in language laced with poetry in every line

that such a book is a such a huge best-seller. That gives me more faith in humankind than just about anything I’ve experienced this year.

Savory Moment

During the first week of February, I was traveling in Jordan, Palestine, and Israel with a group of 91 other ecologists; spiritual leaders from many faiths, including indigenous spiritual traditions; social entrepreneurs; the prince of Ethiopia; ambassadors; filmmakers; and musicians. A hundred moments were memorable. One that continues to rise to the top is our stop on the border between Jordan and Palestine, before crossing the Jordan River into the ancient city of Jericho. We were detained for a couple of hours, and during that time, Pato Banton and Antoinette Rootsdawtah led some of us in making a music video about ending nuclear weapons. There we were in such a desolate place, where everyone who arrives is regarded with some suspicion, and as twilight fell over the land on both sides of the river, we were joyfully singing and moving in spirit!

 

 

Walking Backwards

When I started having trouble with my knee a few months ago, a CAT scan showed that it was “only” a little arthritis. I asked my chiropractor if he could recommend any exercises, and he immediately suggested one I found quite surprising. “Walk backwards,” he said, “especially up hills.”

I’ve been following his advice, and I must say, my knee feels completely better. Now, I’m lucky to live in a rural area with a lot of hills, so following this counsel is easy for me. But it’s not the benefit of the exercise that I want to write about here; it’s the benefit of looking back where you came from.

Considering geographically where I’ve been as a clue to enlightenment is something I’ve actually been interested in for a long time. In an essay a couple of years ago, “You Are Now Entering the Environment,”I wrote this about kneeling in the back seat of the family car when I was a little girl:

It was fascinating to consider the meaning of always having just been someplace and being on the verge of entering someplace else. Passing through a small town, for instance, I could see the houses, trees, and dogs, the people walking along the sidewalk, the flower boxes and fire hydrants in a configuration that, just seconds before, had contained my family and me, bundled into our car. Now they had all been returned once again to their familiar world, a world without us, ignorant even that we had briefly shared a space. And already, even as I formed the thought, we were slipping through another place and another, like a string passing through and connecting colorful beads. Taking in what was behind me, I saw how each linked niche got along perfectly well without me, but would willingly open up to receive me. I found this a satisfying arrangement.

The satisfaction remains even now. When I turn around to walk backwards, I encounter the world anew, as if I have suddenly snuck up on it and caught it unawares. The world had presented itself to me moments ago as I approached it… and then it let down its guard, assuming it would no longer be under my forward-aimed surveillance. Now it rests after my passage and allows itself to be perceived in a new, more relaxed, less rehearsed way.

Also, when I contemplate where I have come from—the hill I’ve climbed, the slight bend of the path that I scarcely noticed before, and simply the distance I’ve covered—my whole life seems to make more sense. We never know, after all, where we’re headed when we’re in the present. But when we review our life in retrospect, we see the patterns and how everything fits together and one thing leads to another.

Give it a try. At the worst, someone might drive by and say to themselves, “I’m pretty sure that person is walking backwards.” Or you can do what I sometimes do and fool them. When I walk backwards, I walk on the right side of the road. If a car approaches, I just stay facing in that direction and walk forward, as if I were a normal person just heading somewhere, until they pass. Then I cover the same ground backwards again.

What I’m reading

I’m rereading the extraordinary novel by Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony. It’s about a young Native American man from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico (like Silko) who returns home after World War II, entangled in post-traumatic stress syndrome—which at the time was simply considered craziness. He drinks, he fights, he sleeps, he grieves. A traditional ceremony with a Navajo medicine man starts to bring him back to himself and to his tribal traditions, but he still has a lot to figure out and dare on his own. The book is a combination of novel and poetry, realism and the kind of between-worlds mystery that a meaningful ceremony can plunge one into.

 

Savory Moment

My dear friend and colleague, Eugene Hughes, with whom I co-guide the Lead Like a River program in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains each year, came to visit for a couple of days last week. We took a long walk that I often take (I didn’t walk backwards that time), and it was wonderful to witness him noticing many things I myself notice and many things I do not and probably would not notice. While we were walking, a sudden snowstorm blew up, and the flakes whirled around us. Then the squall stopped and the sky turned blue and then pink with sunset. I was then, as I so often am, wildly grateful for my most amazing friends.

Upcoming Schedule

Next year my Bali from Within trip (March 2-14, 2020), which I’ve been offering since 2008, will include three stops to find and make beauty at wounded places, which is the focus of my newest book and the organization Radical Joy for Hard Times. Even in Bali, where art, spirituality, and nature are interwoven, the land is hurting. Next year, we’ll visit some of these places with our Balinese guides to bring attention and beauty, for example:

  • a river that’s drying up because of tourist development for hotels and spas
  • a clove forest that has been damaged by the excessive rains of climate change
  • Tanah Lot, one of Bali’s most sacred and scenic temples, slated to be in view of a multi-million dollar hotel and golf course proposed by Donald Trump

Click the link to read more about Bali from Within and download an itinerary.