VAST FORWARD

W.S. Merwin’s Poetry of the Breeze

The great poet, W.S. Merwin, has died at age 91. He was the author of scores of books—mostly poetry, but also prose, and translations. He was dictating poems to his wife Paula even after he lost his eyesight a few years ago.

I remember discovering Merwin’s poetry in the college bookstore when I was 20 years old. I stood there, leaning against the bookcase, stunned and awed as I read one poem after another, and then reread them. Although I had very little money in those days, I had to buy that book.

What struck me then and continues to pull me back over and over to his work is that Merwin’s poems don’t hit you over the head with their messages, like those of some contemporary poets. You don’t read a Merwin poem once, then nod your head: Yes, I get it, I know about that. Rather, a Merwin poem wafts over your skin and your sensibility like a breeze. You can’t catch the fragrance in that verbal breeze right away, but have to turn back into it again and yet again to be stroked alluringly into greater awareness.

I met Merwin a few years after my first encounter with his work, when I attended a poetry reading he gave at Wesleyan College in Connecticut. We stayed in touch on and off throughout all these years. The last time I saw him was at a reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York about five years ago. Last year I wrote to him at his home in Hawaii to ask if he would write a blurb for my new book. Knowing that he was 90 years old and now blind, I didn’t even expect to hear back and was so very honored that he agreed. Here’s what he wrote:

“It’s a great vision that Trebbe Johnson is sending out into the world, and it is very much her own. The great central truth of what she is doing is the very hard lesson for all of us in our lives, and yet it is our blessing.”
—W.S. Merwin, Former Poet Laureate of the United States

Merwin is gone, but his poems will live on and on and on, because they are timeless.

 

 

Learning how to fight

The other day I had a conflict with a colleague. The details don’t matter. I’ll just say that I was unhappy with something that the other person—let’s call him or her Z—had done. I expressed my displeasure somewhat peevishly. Z had less generous terms for my tone of voice and got defensive and—in my opinion—a bit mean with their retort.

So now what?

For most of my life, whenever I was involved in an argument, I tended to assume it was my fault. I always envied those people who could smoothly blame others and boldly deny any responsibility of their own. There were even a couple of times when I was younger when someone accused me of doing something I knew I hadn’t done, and yet I actually wondered for a moment if had done it.

I’ve definitely come a long way since then, but conflict does make me uncomfortable. So, I asked myself, what should I do in this situation? It came down to four things I’ve learned over the years.

  1. I recognized where I’d made my first mistake. A friend told me once that she made it a rule never to express emotions over email. She’s right. I should have called Z and had a conversation instead of spouting off over the internet, which invited Z to spout further.
  2. I cooled off before leaping to further action. If I’d responded immediately to Z’s email, the situation would only have escalated.
  3. I asked myself what part of this disagreement was mine to shoulder and what wasn’t. I’ve learned this practice over the years, especially in some good friendships where we’ve been able to share personal hurt or anger. We speak honestly to each other about our feelings. Then we acknowledge where we’ve each made a mistake, yet we don’t take the blame for what isn’t ours to take. In this case, I acknowledged my unfortunate means of communication and my annoying tone, but not the motive behind that tone that Z accused me of.
  4. I contacted Z—yes, by email, but this time it seemed urgent and Z lives half a world out of my time zone—and apologized for my tone. When we spoke on the phone the next day, I immediately asked if we needed to say anything else to each other. We each accepted some responsibility for the problem. I would say our working relationship is even stronger.

For many of us, it’s difficult to have an argument. I’m always afraid that the friendship or working relationship will end forever if we disagree, and sometimes it has. There’s an added problem if you’re the kind of person who takes all the blame and the other person is the kind who blames others. Maybe arguing never gets completely easy. But for me, I felt I’d evolved with this one! 

What I’m reading

Finally I’m reading The Kiterunner by Khaled Hosseini, a best-seller years ago and highly recommended by a lot of people whose literary opinions I trust. It takes place in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and then again in the summer of 2001. It’s a novel of how class, race, and the very personality you’re born with can stamp your life forever. It’s about how a moment of pride or an urge to please the unpleasable can destroy something precious. It’s about redemption the hard way. And it makes you, the reader realize that the ways Afghanis suffer, in the pages of novel, under siege by the Russians and the Taliban is only going to get worse with the war launched by the U.S.

Savory Moment

When my husband and I got out of our car at the supermarket today, I glanced into the window of the car parked next to us. The motor was running. A man and woman sat in the front seat. The man held in his lap a small vase containing a variety of colorful flowers, perhaps just purchased from the florist inside the store. He had a huge grin on his face.

Other News

Unless the government shutdown shuts down airports or blizzards ice over the eastern U.S. and Britain, I leave for England on January 29thto do a program with artgym. It’s a mix of all the things that have preoccupied me and that I’ve written about over many years and I’m honored for the opportunity.

And—again—if you’ve read my new book, will you write a review of it for Amazon or Goodreads? I would really appreciate it!

 

Who’s looking at me?

When I was in Bangkok a couple of years ago I went to visit Wat Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha. The Buddha is 150 feet long and gold-plated. He rests with his head on his hand and he is smiling slightly, as if he were basking in the very same divine radiance that lent him his own golden color.

At the Buddha’s head a young woman was taking a selfie. She had positioned her own head and hand like his and arranged her face in her best Buddha smile.

I started asking myself the purpose of selfies. If you feel there’s a moment in your life that you need to capture and no one else is there to do the job, the smart phone makes it possible to prove your moment was real.

But what moments of our life do we choose to record? And why? And, perhaps most important of all, who are they for? What we are saying with our selfies is, in effect, I am living a meaningful life, and here’s proof. It’s almost as if our experiences have no relevance if we only see and hear and touch them, and then they just slip away. We pass through our moments. They may remain forever in our memories, but without the selfie, only we ourselves are witness to the fact that those experiences touched us as we touched them, that they enfolded us. By inserting ourselves in the photo, we offer evidence that we are full participants in our own life.

Confession: On that same trip in which I saw the women pose like a Buddha, I took a selfie in Bali with my Indonesian language teacher (above). Honestly, the reason I did so was because I was proud of myself for learning how to speak Indonesian and I wanted to show my friends my teacher and me together, as if that were proof that I had learned well.

Do you ever take selfies? And if so, of what? When? Why?


What I’m reading

I’m reading Reporter by Seymour Hersh. I read an excerpt of this book by America’s foremost investigative reporter in Harper’s. The article described how he tracked down Lt. William Calley, who was responsible for perpetrating the disaster in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in 1968. I had imagined that the whole book would be about Hersh’s clever ruses to find people who would give him information, but the more the book went along, the more it was about U.S. policy outrages themselves, rather than how he learned and wrote about them. It also got a little tiresome that, according to Hersh, anyone who edited him or questioned his tactics or fact-checked him too thoroughly was a coward or nitpicker. Get the Harper’s article and read the story about Calley instead.

 

Other News

I have a new calendar for 2019, illustrated with Japanese woodblock prints, and I look forward to filling it in. I’ll be home till the end of January and looking forward to beginning work with a new Radical Joy for Hard Times  board. At the end of the month I’ll be going to England to do a workshop with ArtGym in Kent.

Finding a place for your message in the future

Yesterday I spent some time in the Rubin Museum in New York. This intimate, tranquil place is devoted to the art of the Himalayas, and I love it, because the exhibitions are both classical and traditional, contemporary and innovative. The goal of the curators is to make you think in unconventional ways… and it works for me.

Recently the museum has been exploring the story of Padmasambhava, sometimes called the “Second Buddha”. Padmasambhava was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century and interweaving it with the indigenous spirituality of the land. However, this great teacher knew that the world was not ready to receive all his lessons at the time of his own life. Therefore, he hid some of these “treasure teachings” throughout the Tibetan landscape and even in the minds of people who would not be born for many hundreds of years. According to the Rubin, “His legends carry universal relevance about triumph over obstacles, the power of human emotions, transformation, impermanence, achieving liberation from life and death, and notions of time—all of which transcend specific cultures and eras.”

However, what fascinates me about this story—and seems to carry a lesson about what’s possible in our own time and what will reach fruition in a time to come—is this idea that you can create a message for the future. I started to think: What if each of us had a message that the current world was not quite ready for, but that we knew a future generation would urgently need? 

Just considering this possibility—that each of us holds some wisdom, some gift that is valuable and necessary for the future—can ignite our curiosity. If we allow ourselves to believe that the future awaits what we and only we have to give it, how will that knowledge shift how we live today?

What is the one true thing that you want the world to know? What would you write out and hide in the landscape, that just the right person would discover it many scores of years from now?

Hope is not a step in a strategic plan

Just behind the woods in back of my house is a long-abandoned railroad grade. The tracks are gone, and it’s part of the Rails-to-Trails system that extends for many miles. I often follow it on my walks and bike rides.

A few weeks ago, I was appalled to discover that many trees along the sides had been cut down and the path widened to more than twice its former size. My first thought was that a gas company had taken it over, so I called the head of the regional Rails-to-Trails to ask. She assured me that they were just re-grading the trail to solve some of the problems of seasonal flooding.

Shortly after that, my husband Andy and I noticed that our little pond was higher than it had ever been and our garden beds were surrounded by water. We attributed the overflow to all the heavy rain we’d had this fall. But on my walk one day I noticed that a large ditch had been dug perpendicular to the trail into our woods and a drainage culvert placed into it. I told Andy about it, and he went out to investigate.

The man who was operating all the heavy machinery turned off the motor to speak to Andy. “Well,” he said, “I was hoping nobody would complain about it.”

Now, at that particular time, I was working with the board of directors of Radical Joy for Hard Times to create a 3-year plan for our organization. Strategic thinking is not my forte, so I was devoting a lot of attention not just to the plan itself but to the philosophical and behavioral adjustments that have to go into making a plan that really works.

And I realized that this man’s thinking about his own project was flawed. He had made hope part of it.

Hope says, I can’t foresee how this thing I’m doing is going to affect others, so I’ll just do what I can and merge my desire that things work out as I want with the expectation that somebody else will make it happen. When you make a plan, you have to imagine its successful conclusion and take all the steps you can to assure that what you envision comes to pass. Also, before enacting your plan, you must consult with anyone whose participation is crucial to its success.

Andy explained to the guy that the culvert, which he had never consulted us about, was flooding our gardens. Eventually, somewhat grudgingly, he dug out the pipe.

Hope is not an item to include in your strategic plan.


My new book…

…is doing well, I’m happy to say. Here are a couple recent interviews.

Future Primitive (interviewer Joanna Harcourt-Smith was amazing)
Yale Climate Connections (short audio excerpt and discussion of the book)

If you’ve read my book, I’d love it if you were to write a review on Amazon or Goodreads!


What I’m reading

I’m indulging these recent days in a big, thick novel I first read about 20 years ago—Gail Godwin’s A Mother and Two Daughters. I’ve read all Godwin’s novels and reread a few. This one is my favorite. The characters stand out so uniquely, the writing is great, the story unfolds in a way that feel real and timely and plausible, there’s no sentimentality, and it’s full of surprises. Heartily recommended if you just want to forget the world and be swept away.

A huge small act of generosity

A little over a week ago, I attended the annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California. Among the slate of amazing keynote speakers we heard each morning for three days were author Michael Pollen and Patrisse Cullors, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. But for me, the outstanding moment on that much-coveted stage was actually a moment when the speaker said nothing at all.

Lyla June Johnston, a poet, songwriter, and activistof Diné (Navajo) and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) lineages, was the last speaker on the third and last day of the conference. The story she told was personal, inspirational. It was about how it’s possible to turn a hard life around and live in a way that sizzles with meaning. Her story, however, came about a third of the way through her time before the audience.

When she first walked out and faced the large Bioneers audience, Lyla said that, whenever she’s invited to speak in a new place, she asks permission to do so from the people whose indigenous land it is. The area around what is now San Rafael is not her land, so she had done that here as well. And then she invited three women from the Coastal Miwok and Ohlone tribes to come out and join her on stage.

Each women spoke a few words, primarily in their native language. As they did, Lyla stood to the side, head down. She was fully present to what they were saying, in no hurry for them to get finished and get off the stage so she could seize her time to shine. Hundreds of people apply every year to spend a few minutes commandeering this prestigious Bioneers stage, and she gave her time over to others. She did so not so she would be praised, not so she’d get a standing ovation, but because it was, to her, the wholly right thing to do.

I found it an extraordinary act of generosity. For the past nine days it has made me a more generous person as well.

And I’m more excited than ever that Lyla will be one of the panelists at my Sacred Arts: Creative Expressions of Faith to Heal a Threatened Earth panel at the Parliament of the World’s Religions… starting Thursday in Toronto.

If you’ve read my new book (or are reading it), I would be very happy if you would write a review of it on Amazon or Goodreads. Just a few sentences about your genuine reaction are fine!

What I’m reading
I’ve been meaning to read David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order ever since the cosmologist Brian Swimme told me about it years ago. I think it must have a fascinating and important way of looking at matter and consciousness. However, the maths and Greek symbols have me flummoxed. Tonight I skipped ahead to the chapter written for the lay person.

 

Shatteringly Aware

The other day, a good friend of mine whom I have never met except on Facebook said something in a Facebook Live video that captivated me. She was talking about how, even though people are becoming more and more health conscious, they seem to be growing less and less aware of the precarious health of the environment. She believes that we have a limitless capacity for love and compassion for the planet, and her goal, through her Conscious Yoga classes, is to bring people to awareness of the marvels of the Earth and the ability each of us has to make all kinds of differences.

“Just because you weren’t aware of something yesterday,” Harriet Sams says in her video, “doesn’t mean you can’t be shatteringly aware of it today.”

Imagine being open to “shattering awareness”! What if you know that, somewhere in the course of every single day, there was at least one thing lying in wait to spring out at you and bring you a blast of shattering awareness?

The very notion inspires me to pay extra close attention to whatever I do and wherever I am, so I won’t miss it!

Thank you, Harriet.
 

What I’m Reading

Like most people I listened to the testimony last week of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Many commentators remarked on how composed Ford was, how eager she was to be cooperative or, as she herself put it at one point, “collegial” and how angry, indignant, and pugilistic toward his questioners Kavanaugh was. In Sunday’s New York Times, Rebecca Traister had an interesting take on this emotional phenomenon in an editorial called “Fury Is a Political Weapon. And Women Need to Wield It.” Women need to get angry—and they need to quit apologizing for their anger or trying to tone it down, Traister writes. “If you are angry today, or if you have been angry for a while, and you’re wondering whether you’re allowed to be as angry as you feel, let me say: Yes. Yes, you are allowed. You are, in fact, compelled.”

Yes.


News & Links

My new book is out! You can order it here from the publisher or on Amazon, or you can buy it in your favorite bookstore. Next week, I leave for a book tour on the west coast that will include: Seattle, Corvallis, Ashland, Humboldt State University, Sebastopol, CIIS in San Francisco, and three events at the always energizing Bioneers Conference in San Rafael. Click for the schedule. And do please join me at one of these events. If you can’t make it, tell your friend to meet me there! I want to do more than just talk and read at these events; I want to find out what places in their communities and wild areas people are feeling worried about—and how they think and feel and love these places.

Grabbing the Great Now from the tiny now

I was in Shanghai last week, leading a module for the Advanced Diploma Course for the China office of Eugene Hughes’s London business, artgym. On the rainy first day I was there, my host for the event and I wanted to find the venue where the workshop would be held and get everything set up for the following morning. We had been told that it was close to my hotel, so he picked me up at 5:00 and we figured we could find it in 10 minutes or so. It took us one hour and 15 minutes, walking up and down the same street times—15 minutes in one direction, 20 minutes in the other direction, back again 20 minutes in the first direction. The light drizzle turned to a heavy downpour. Late afternoon turned to dusk, which turned to night. People with umbrellas were hurrying all around us as we gaped and paused and retraced our steps yet again. We stopped, we looked at the maps on our phones, we showed our phones to people who did not speak English and who nonetheless tried to help us, we peered into alleys, we took temporary refuge in a department store. My raincoat turned out to have lost its waterproofing.

Finally, we stopped at a tiny coffee shop, cheerfully lit up in the dark and drizzly night, and again showed our phones. The young woman working there looked, looked up the address, consulted in Chinese with her colleague, then promptly picked up her umbrella and motioned us to follow. Although we didn’t speak one another’s language, she led us right to the door (which we had already twice walked right past). We smiled our gratitude, and she went off. Kindness abounds in people! (We found out the next day that the address is easy to find in Chinese, but the English translation of it is very misleading.)

En route

Tomorrow morning I leave for Shanghai, where I’ll be leading a workshop for the China office of ArtGym, a company founded by my good friend and colleague, Eugene Hughes—all about developing real creativity in the business world and taking the plunge not just to rise in the corporation, but to make a real difference in the world.

It’s a long flight—15+ hours. Fortunately, I love to fly. I regard plane trips as marvelous adventures that have the added benefit of landing you in a place away from the familiar (or else back home) that you then get to explore. When I get on a plane, I’m equipped with a good book, a crossword puzzle or two, a Parabola Magazine, a cashmere shawl for comfort, and my own down travel pillow. I always get a window seat, and I spend at least as much time looking out as looking down (or across at the screen).

Here are just a few of the amazing things I’ve seen from the window of a plane:

  • the ice of Greenland
  • a full moon shining on the snowy Himalayan Mountains
  • an aurora borealis that waved and rippled for almost an hour
  • the Gobi Desert
  • the Black and Caspian Seas looking exactly as they did in the geography books I had as a kid
  • the place where Ganges and Yamana River meet.

See you when I get back!


What I’m Reading

Instead of writing about what I’m reading, I want to recommend a “This American Life” show that I listened to the other day. This episode is called “How I Got Into College,” and the story that captivated me is “My Ames is True.” It’s about a young Bosnian boy who steals a library book when he and his family flee to the U.S. during the 1990s war. He credits this book and what happens to him because of it with changing his life. The story is not just about the book and the boy but about his particular outlook on life. Fascinating.

 

News & Links

My new book comes is officially out a week from tomorrow! You can pre-order here. Today did a great interview with Dean Spillane Walker of Living Resilience, colleague of those fierce gazers into grief, Carolyn Baker and Francis Weller. It was a great conversation, not an interview that follows a prepared list of questions. Will post the link when it’s available.

 

 A Savory Moment

I live about 45 minutes north of the city of Scranton and have always viewed it as a rather tired place. It had its greatness in the beginning of the 20thcentury, but with the decline of coal mining in surrounding areas, it, too, has declined. The other night, my husband and I met friends of ours there to try a new restaurant. The restaurant was mediocre and the noise level was torturous, so we decided to walk over to a coffee shop and clear our minds and have a real conversation. It was a gorgeous night, perfect late-summer weather, and as we walked the several blocks to the coffee shop, twilight was just turning to night. There were pink balloons and pink items in storefronts because the city had just that morning sponsored a run to support breast cancer research. Andy and our friend Jake walked ahead, while Jo and I ambled behind with her old dog, who was enjoying sniffing her way along the sidewalks. We paused to look across a public square at the rear facades of a whole row of lovely old buildings. At that moment, in that spell of evening and gentle weather and a city that did some good work that morning, I kind of fell in love with Scranton. It was as if I had never really seen her before. The next day Jo sent me a photo she took of those buildings. I told her about my falling-in-love, and she said that had happened for her, too.

 

Extraordinary, Unusual, Mad, Etc: Great Gifts

The literary deconstructionist Jacques Derrida once defined the best gifts as “the extraordinary, the unusual, the strange, the extravagant, the absurd, the mad.”

I love that! Gifts are not supposed to be practical. They’re supposed to say something special about the giver, the recipient, and the relationship between them. They speak—both loudly and intimately—of something those two people share. Some people are really hard to give gifts to; nothing ever seems right for them. Others are easy. My brother, for example, loved presents I’d make for him, and his wish for such gifts always inspired me to create all kinds of special things for his birthday and Christmas.

One of the best, most extravagant, maddest gifts I ever received was from Carrie Pandis, a woman I’ve been friends with since we were sophomores in high school and both in love with the Beatles and English literature. Several times when we were in high school, we gave each other the newest Beatles album for Christmas. But a few years ago, she gave me a great gift I myself never even came close to.

She told me about it later on. She had gone to a Paul McCartney concert in Omaha, where we both grew up and where she still lives. The audience was much different now, she said, than it had been in the 60s, when we saw the Beatles perform live. Now, you could actually hear the music. Moreover, between songs, Paul would chat with the audience, and then, too, the theatre was quiet enough so people could hear.

When Paul paused in his comments, Carrie saw her opportunity.

“I love you, Paul!” she shouted.

And then, she added, “Trebbe Johnson loves you, too!”

What a gift was that! She not only shared her own feelings in a space that not many people would dare to intrude upon, but she further commandeered that space to include me as well.

What extraordinary, unusual, strange, extravagant, absurd, mad gift that you’ve received has made a lasting impression? If you describe it a bit in the Comments below, others will be able to share in your delight!

(Photo above: Carrie & Trebbe, senior year, Brownell Hall, Omaha, 1966)

I meet the monster trucks

Last week, I entered a strange world and had some fun there.

The setting was the Harford Fair, held annually in my county. I had completed one of my stints at our booth for SCAN (Susquehanna Clean Air Network), a citizens action group I’ve been actively involved with for the past two years.

After my replacement arrived, I spent some time wandering around the fair. I did the kinds of things I’d usually do: ate some homemade fudge, admired the rabbits, got engaged with the mysterious lives of goats and sheep, listened to a bluegrass band.

Then I became curious about some mega-noise emanating from the arena and went over to see what was going on. It was a monster truck rally.

I’d never been to one. I’d never even heard of monster trucks. But there they were: the bodies of pick-up trucks and even one school bus mounted with elevated suspension on enormous tires. One at a time, these bizarre vehicles roared out from their place among a line of others. At full speed they careened over the tops of ordinary cars, flattened on purpose or from repeated batterings, to land with a great bounce on their mammoth tires. With an excess of engine noise, they also had to round a hairpin turn. Some of them almost tipped over at this point, to the anxious delight of the crowd.

Looking around at the audience, I thought: I really don’t belong here. I imagined standing in front of the crowd and telling them a bit about myself: liberal, mystic atheist, literary snob, enthusiastic communicator with the natural world. No doubt they would laugh.

But I didn’t want to leave. The spectacle gripped me. Watching those amped-up trucks bounce and teeter on their huge tires was a sport whose rules clarified with each melodramatic run. The crowd knew all the innuendos of the game, but even I, after a while, could judge which trucks performed best.

My feeling of being an interloper never left. I remembered the time I spent in the late 80s and early 90s on Navajo-Hopi lands, writing about a land issue that was affecting both tribes. I got used to feeling strange and out of place there—an Anglo who showed up in all kinds of places and asked a lot of questions. I got comfortable being an outsider.

That’s how I felt at the rally. I was a stranger but, like everyone else, I was immersed in the thing. I won’t go so far as to say I was cheering or groaning with the way things were going, but I was part of the crowd of monster truck watchers. I was a stranger in a land that didn’t mind having me there at all.

What I’m Reading

I have to admit I gave up on the last chapter of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. I love philosophy, but semiology and deconstructionism, the endless paring down of something into infinitely small parts, frustrates me. I picked up a book of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose alliteration and onomatopoeia make you want to sing each poem like a song. For example (from “Inversnaid”):

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

A Savory Moment

A young girl at the fair, about 14, sitting in a pen with three of her goats at about 8:00 at night. One of the goats rests its head on her lap. She stares dreamily into the distance as she strokes it behind the ears.

News & Links

An excerpt from my new book, in the Bioneers blog.