VAST FORWARD

How is this changing you?

Many people are speculating these days about how the coronavirus is going to change the world—not physically but psychologically, philosophically. I’ve heard a wide range of opinions: that countries will become more self-protective and nationalistic, that goddess worship will resurge, that a dawning appreciation among young people of what the skies, waters, and trees look and sound and smell like when they get a break from carbon inundation will result in a new generation of environmentalists.

They’re all interesting speculations. All could be true—and all could be completely off base. We’re less able now than ever to predict the future. I remember doing research in the late-70s for a multimedia production about the future. Experts then predicted that we would all have enormous index fingers, because we’d be pushing buttons for all our tasks. No one imagined that, instead, we’d be typing with our thumbs on tiny screens!

But what we can notice even now is how we ourselves are changing. Forced to live differently than ever before, how are we managing? How are you managing? Do you find you’re more focused, for example, spending less effort on multi-tasking? Have you finally started meditating and discovering that it really does help? If you have children and they’re home all day, how are family relationships shifting?

The biggest change I’ve noticed in myself is that I’ve quit striving, pushing, driving myself. Some friends and I actually had a conversation about striving a few months ago. A few of them wished they could stop doing it, and I said I wouldn’t want to. Yet now, no one can push and strive, because we simply don’t know the future we’re going to be walking into one week from now, let alone six months from now.

I realized this about two and a half weeks ago, when I was busily trying to plan and organize events taking place in June and September of this year and in December 2021. No one was responding to my emails! Instead of getting annoyed and frustrated, as I ordinarily would, I realized that no one finds it possible to plan. So I emailed all the people I’d contacted over the past few days and said as much: Let’s just stay healthy now, I said, find and make as much beauty as possible, and we’ll resume our discussion when this crisis is past. Then I heard from people! They were relieved and said they’re eager to continue planning when we can.

I’ve found that I’m able to concentrate better on one thing at a time. I’m not constantly being plucked and pulled with the worry that I should urgently be taking care of something that I’ve overlooked. My mind isn’t plotting the future, because, truly, all I can do is take care of the moment.

How is this pandemic changing you? Please let us know by writing in the comments box of this blog (below the post) or emailing me.

What I’m reading

Because I haven’t been feeling well for the past week or so (symptoms I would ordinarily just consider the flu; today being tested to see if it’s The Flu), I wanted a good, long, fat, engrossing book to read. The Forsyte Saga! my brain immediately suggested. I read that great tome, about three generations of a family in Victorian London, when I was in my twenties. After quite a search among my books, I found it again (it was on the Russian literature shelf). I am completely engrossed in it as I sit wrapped in a blanket drinking cups of hot tea.

Savory Moment

The savory moments these days often happen online, where all meetings, reunions, and friendly visits occur. I introduce my husband to a new friend from the Holy Land trip I went on in February. I hear that a colleague has gotten free tuition to a meditation training she’d wanted to attend that was full before they decided to offer it online. Someone tells a story about about a flock of seagulls he saw flying down the middle of West 54h Street in Manhattan and then turning the corner en masse onto Eighth Avenue, prompting the firefighters to come out from their station to stand on the street watching.

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.

 

 

 

Greta Thunberg Begins to Dance

On a cold, rainy morning last week, I was on my way home from the gym when I heard a story on “BBC News Hour” that I keep pondering.

It began with a very short conversation between Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough. The young Swedish climate activist and the elderly documentary filmmaker—there are 77 years difference in their ages—express sincere appreciation for each other’s work. [Click here to listen to the interview, which begins at 45 minutes into the program. Note that the link will expire at the end of January.]

But the part of the story that has stuck with me was an interview at the end with Greta’s father, Svante Thunberg. He talks about how, as a child, his daughter had watched Attenborough’s nature films and become very sad about what was happening to the planet. For three or four years she was extremely withdrawn and depressed. She would not speak to anyone outside her family and just one of her teachers, and she would eat only at home.

Then she decided to go and sit outside the Swedish parliament building with her Climate Strike sign and some leaflets she made about the ecological crisis. On her third sit-in, someone approached and gave her a vegan Pad Thai dish from a nearby restaurant—and she ate it.

That was the turning point for her, her father says. In other words, accepting that dish from a stranger and eating it in public while she was in the midst of a kind of activism that she had devised and carried out through her own conviction and will made things begin to shift for her.

She is very famous now, says Svante Thunberg, but “she is an ordinary child.” She dances. “She laughs a lot.”

He described it as a “turning point.” And I wonder: was it Greta’s determination to be public with her outrage and grief that opened her enough to accept that food? And did the acceptance of food, which turned out to be nourishing and safe, then further fuel her activism?

We all encounter such turning points throughout our life, the moment when one small action makes another action possible. And somewhere in the transition between them, consciousness, too, begins to unfold in a new direction. We start to see that our old ways don’t necessarily apply to the future. We realize that certain things are possible that, a day ago, were not possible at all.

Wouldn’t you love to talk about this further with Greta Thunberg herself?

 

What I’m reading

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. This novel is about a young servant girl, Hirut, who becomes a warrior when Italy invades her country of Ethiopia in 1935. The author moves the action back and forward in time, from events that occurred before Hirut’s birth, to snatches of the backgrounds of some of the other characters, to the protagonist’s life as an elderly woman. Hirut is fierce, and part of her fierceness is impelled by the violence done to her physically, sexually, and emotionally. The writing focuses on the inner lives of the characters, even as it makes you feel the dust of the roads, smell the spice and garlic on the cook’s hands, hear the brush crackling on a still night when the enemy is closeby.

Savory Moment

For our Christmas tree this year, I decided not to buy a fir tree or even cut one myself, but instead to go out in the woods and find a dead branch that I could repurpose. I set it up in the living room, then got out the box of ornaments, many of which have been on family trees since I was a child, others hand-made by Andy created and his children before I met him. My eagerly-awaited, savory moment was when I unwrapped the little blue elf that was my favorite ornament when I was small. Seeing him again and placing him in a prominent spot on the tree made me nostalgic, happy, grateful, and sad all at once.

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.

 

 

The Dove in the Snow

We have a bird feeder outside our dining room window, and Andy is a devoted bird-nourisher all year long. In the winter he buys 40 pounds of black sunflower seeds and mixed seed each week, and he pays great attention to the ways and habits of the different species who gather.

The birds used to fly into the big picture window, so Andy hung a string of Tibetan prayer flags across the glass to alert them that woods do not lie this way.

A few days ago, the day after we got about a foot of snow, we were having breakfast when a mourning dove flew into the window and fell heavily into the snow. I pulled on my rubber boots and ran out. She had fallen headfirst into the snow and was lying absolutely still. I lifted her out with both hands, and as soon as her head was free, she flapped her wings and tried to get away. I let her go and she hopped a few feet across the snow and just sat there.

I wasn’t sure whether I should give her something warm to sit on, provide water, or what. Andy said we should just leave her to heal herself in her own way. We had seen a blue jay do that a few years earlier. So we did. The dove sat absolutely still for about ten minutes, although we could see her twitch her head and wings slightly every now and then. And then, quite suddenly, she lifted up and flew off.

It was an extraordinary spectacle of patience as the bird just sat while her body simply did what it had to do to readjust.

I keep thinking about the bird, her accident and recovery. I wonder if humans couldn’t do something like this, not only on a physical, but on a metaphysical level as well. What if, when we suffered a disappointment or had a fall, we simply sat and waited in absolute confidence that the body, with time and patience, would do what was necessary to repair us? Of course, we would have to bring to the situation attentiveness to the moment—no worrying about the future, no looking at our watch and wondering when things were going to start to improve. No self-chastising about our stupidity of flying into a window.

I see the mourning doves gathering at the feeder now and hope very much that the wounded bird is among them.

 

What I’m reading

I finished Farewell to the Horse by Ulrich Raulff and now I’m catching up on an article in The New Yorker  about the horrendous nationalism being practiced in India by the prime minister Narendra Modi and his followers. They are targeting Muslims in ways that are absolutely criminal. America under Donald Trump has not reached these depths of outright hatred and genocide, but we are on the path toward it.

Savory Moment

I spent the weekend selling my books at the annual holiday craft fair at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Binghamton (NY), where I am a member. I was seated by a woman selling soaps with natural scents on my left and a woman selling little pillows with fragrant natural plants on my right. Across from me, in front of the window, was a woman selling small watercolors of flowers and a woman selling hand-made glass ornaments. When the sun was low in the sky in the afternoon it lit up the glass. My books sold pretty well, but the experience of being in the company of people who take time to make lovely and creative things was very touching, and I was glad to be part of them.

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.

 

Terry Tempest Williams Teaches the Pause

In the “Savory Moment” segment of my last blog, I wrote about Terry Tempest Williams’s speech at Bioneers last month, in which she talked about the frequencies that geologists had recorded by placing seismometers on Castleton Tower, a rock formation near Moab, Utah. Williams stood quietly at the podium before three thousand people as she played a three-minute segment of the pulse of the rock. (You can hear the recording  on Outside Magazine’s website.)

That “savory moment” has turned into a savory month for me, partly because I was moved to such tears by the voice of the Earth that I had to leave the auditorium afterwards and miss the next couple of speakers. But it also stays with me because of the way Terry Tempest Williams handles the pause.

I first saw her make this bold on-stage magic in 2014, when I was with Judy Todd at the annual Bioneers satellite conference on Whidbey Island, Washington. Besides offering their own programs and workshops, the organizers streamed many of the speakers at the big national San Rafael conference.

At that event, Williams was talking about the importance of rethinking what we know and allowing fresh creativity to rearrange previous patterns. To illustrate, she explained that the German composer Max Richter had become weary of how the beautiful violin concerto that he loved, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” had been trivialized and sentimentalized. And so, he had recomposed it. With that announcement, Williams played the first short movements of Richter’s piece. (And it is stunning; I ordered it myself that same day.) While it was playing, she just stood there, listening, responding gently with her head and then her whole body, glancing over the audience with penetrating but nonjudgmental curiosity. At an event where most of the speakers are so polished, so well-rehearsed, so in command of every sigh, pause, and tear of their performance, Terry Tempest Williams gave over her time on stage to something beautiful that someone else had made. She took that pause and showed no impatience to reclaim her voice, reclaim the microphone, reclaim attention. She was absolutely comfortable to wait in silence. It was a powerful moment I have never forgotten.

I long to stand with such ease and generosity in a great silence.

 

What I’m reading

When I was living in a little stone cottage in England in 1973-74, I used to check out books from a tiny library in the market town of Farringdon, Berkshire, where I bought my meager supply of groceries. One day I discovered a novel by the Australian writer, Patrick White, who had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973. I fell in love with his work and have read all his eleven novels at least once over the years. Currently I’m rereading an early one, The Living and the Dead. What I love about White is that his writing captures, in a way I’ve never encountered in any other author, the emotional, perceptual field between what’s happening on the outside and what’s experienced on the inside. For example (these are from just two pages I was reading this morning):

A 15-year-old girl feeling misunderstood by her family: “Sometimes she went to her room and cried, the luxurious tears of self-pity, pausing for a moment for a footstep that might prolong the reason for dissatisfaction. Time, she felt, would relieve the tyranny. She looked forward, out of the wilderness of fifteen, to a state of emotional independence.”

Her older brother, visiting Germany before beginning university at Cambridge: “It made Elyot choose his words carefully, a wadding to what he wanted to express, out of pure respect for Frau Fiesel’s sensibility. Both physically and mentally she was soft. You felt if you touched her she would sink in, the outer, unresisting flesh, it would sink and never come out again, remain like the dip in an eiderdown. So it made you go warily.”

Savory Moment

For about a month a crew has been working in our little village to install new waterlines under the street. During the past few days, when the temperatures have been below freezing, they’ve been grinding, digging, and patching in front of our house. Yesterday afternoon, Andy and I spontaneously decided to make cookies for them. Half an hour later we had baked a couple dozen oatmeal cookies, which we put in a paper bag and took out to them. They were really happy!

Upcoming Schedule

I’m so excited that my Bali from Within trip next year (March 2-14, 2020) 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. Ever since our first annual Global Earth Exchange in 2010, our friends in Bali have participated in this day of giving gifts of beauty back to ecologically challenged places. Even in Bali, where art, spirituality, and nature are interwoven, the land is hurting. Next year, we’ll make a pilgrimage of mindfulness to three of those wounded places, 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.

Paul McCartney, Business Mentor

 

A couple of years ago I wrote a Vast Forward blog about how I’d been watching Anthony Bourdain’s show, “Parts Unknown,” and learning how to have meaningful conversations with strangers. Bourdain’s easygoing, genuinely curious way of talking to people in the many countries whose food he explored really did help me to slice through superficial chatter and engage in interesting dialogue.

I often learn from people I’ll never meet. For example, when I was writing my book, Radical Joy for Hard Times, I read a little book on love by the 19thcentury French writer Stendahl. The feisty, urgent tone of the introduction instantly gave the “voice” I had been seeking for my book.

When I was a teenager and an absolutely devoted Beatlemaniac, I learned from their humor, togetherness, and creativity to quit hiding what I thought of as my own unacceptable weirdness. In cahoots with my friend Carrie, I embarked on outlandish escapades that tore down my isolation and opened me up to my own sense of daring.

A few days ago Paul McCartney taught me something. As most Vast Forward readers know, I went to England in September to teach a workshop and took a side trip to Liverpool, where I splurged on a 7-hour private tour of Beatles sites. That trip rekindled my love of the Beatles, and when I got home, I bought Philip Norman’s biography of Paul (see note below in What I’m Reading). I’d forgotten that Paul took such pains to be a good business manager with the Beatles’ Apple Corps and later in his own music business. His insistence on good sense, in fact, was partly what drove the other three away from him; they were content, after Brian Epstein died, to listen to promises instead of reason.

Inspired by Paul, I decided that I, too, could exhibit more business sense than I typically take pains with. Therefore, I drafted an agreement with colleagues with whom I’m about to engage in a big project. I wrote out what I’ll be responsible for and what they’ll be responsible for. I have a tendency to dive into things and figure out the details later, and this approach feels very grounded. Discussions are ongoing, but the first step is most satisfying.

What I’m reading

Paul McCartney: The Life, by Philip Norman. Norman has, fortunately, eliminated all the stories that Beatles fans have heard a hundred times, and more than half of this fat 800-page book is devoted to Paul’s life post-Beatles. Where it misses is in any real attempt to understand its subject’s inner life, which of course is the most interesting.

Savory Moment

At the Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California October 18-20, Terry Tempest Williams was one of the keynote speakers. She talked about a team of geologists who put seismometers on Castleton Tower, a rock formation near Moab, Utah. And, said Williams, “Castleton Tower has a pulse.” She then stood completely still and let the audience hear the frequencies, the voice, of the rock. It was stunning. It turns out that the rock changes its tone depending on temperature, moisture, and the movement of the Earth. The Earth really does speak. I was moved to tears. You can listen to a recording on the Outside Magazine website.

Upcoming Schedule

I’m home for several weeks, for which I’m very glad. It’s been a busy, full, productive summer, and now darkness and winter return. Time to write, think, read, envision, and hang out with Andy.

Stepping into Immran

In his wonderful book, The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane introduces the Celtic word immram, a “wonder-voyage.” These are journeys of passage, “which move easily from the recognizable to the supernatural, fading from known into imagined geographies with minimal indication of transition.”

See What I’m Reading below for more about Macfarlane’s book. What I want to write about now is how captivated I was by this word: immram. At first I thought about the kinds of experiences I and the people I’ve guided have had when we spend time alone in wilderness. At those times, the border between us humans and our busily spinning minds and the natural world around us softens. Our attention is open yet focused, and we can fall easily fall into partnership with the world.

Then I realized that it’s possible to enter the immram at any time, in any place, without any particular preparation. All it takes it the willingness to pause and  fall into fascination.

It happened to me on a walk just this afternoon. I was on the three-mile loop that I often walk. About a third of the walk is on an abandoned railroad bed, now cared for by Rails-to-Trails. There was a lot of work done on the trail last year, and much of the ground is recovering from the interference.

Today, on a patch of gravel and scrub about thirty feet long, I was caught by a dense scattering of mullein plants. These engaging plants live just two years. In the first year they grow a low, sage-green, very fuzzy rosette, and in the second year they send up a single tall stalk dotted with yellow flowers.

The patch of mulleins I encountered today looked like a nursery that someone had carefully planted on chosen ground. They looked like a community of plush beings, cousins to lily pads in a pond. If I’d been a little girl, I would have picked a few leaves and made of them a soft, warm bed for my dolls.

I became engrossed in their singularity, and sat down among them for a while, as they went on living their particular life, soaking up the October late-afternoon sun, their plump leaves resisting most of the breezes the surrounding foliage responded to.

Then I thanked them and left.

Immram.

What I’m reading

As I mentioned above, I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, a marvelous book gifted me by the people who took my workshop in England last month. Macfarlane is a walker in wild landscapes. He walks not to get somewhere, not to notch his belt because he’s attained a certain long distance or a certain high peak. He walks because the places he walks through call to him and then reveal themselves to him in exquisite detail. Here’s a example, from a winter walk through the Wiltshire Downs (very close to where I used to live in the mid-1970s):

“Low light, saturating the landscape with a dull glow that never thickened to a shine but still drew blues from the long-lying snow. Where the chalk showed, it was the yellow of polar-bear fur or an old man’s knees. I found it all bleakly beautiful: the air battened down, the light at its slant. It felt both absurd and wonderful to be moving over this ancient path.”

Sometimes Macfarlane walks with friends, often he walks alone. He hauls out his sleeping bag at night and stretches out among ancient firs, on the peaks of hills, beneath the arc of the sky. He is humble and curious. I love this book. I can’t wait to read his new one, Underland, which Terry Tempest Williams raved about in a New York Times book review last summer.

Savory Moment

The savory moment was Andy’s doctor coming to his hospital bed last Monday and telling us that his surgical biopsy revealed absolutely no malignancy whatsoever. Andy was lying there in the bed, chatting away as if this news was nothing special, while I, standing at his side, could hardly hold myself up on legs rubbery and shimmering with relief.


Upcoming Schedule

October 18-21 is the 30th anniversary of the amazing Bioneers Conference, the event that brings together innovators in the world of planetary sustainability from many different fields. I’m delighted to be doing another workshop there with Polly Howells, The Ground Beneath Our Hearts. In this workshop, we explore how surviving—and actually thriving—in hard times means holding the balance between the two deep and valid emotions of grief and beauty. We’ll offer a simple practice for staying connected with the places we care about during hard times.  I’ll also be doing a signing of my book, Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places.