I accept being uncomfortable

At a dinner party recently I was hit with yet another blinding flash of the obvious about white privilege. I was talking to the man siting next to me about how we choose to exercise. He said he likes to work out on the treadmill in his home. I said I prefer talking walks. I mentioned that the neighborhood he lives in has lots of interesting places to walk.

“That’s true. But I have to be a little bit careful,” he said, “because I’m black.”

Oh. I got it. White privilege is assuming you can walk safely and unchallenged through your neighborhood.

When I first heard of white privilege a few years ago, I misunderstood it. I thought it had to do with believing that, as a white person, you’re superior in some way. But then I began to see that what it really means is taking for granted that you will, in very many circumstances, be assumed to be harmless, whereas, if  you’re black in the same circumstances, you could easily be assumed to be dangerous.

I’m eager to learn about white privilege and what it’s meant in my life, because I realize that until white people recognize the advantages they’ve taken for granted about how they’re perceived, the deep racial scars of this country can never be healed. That means I have to be open to being teachable. I can’t hold onto any old ideas I might have that my attitudes and behavior are unimpeachable. I have to be okay with being uncomfortable now and then as I grasp realities I’ve taken for granted—and that a person of color has rarely had the privilege of taking for granted. I have to imagine how my world and my life would be different if my soul inhabited skin of a different color.

What I’m reading

Speaking of white privilege… I am also noticing it more in things I read and watch. I’ve been reading John McPhee’s new book, The Patch, a collection of pieces he’s written over the years but never published. One story is about a time when he locked his keys in his car in New York City. He rummaged around in a trash can until he found a piece of wire, which he then stuck through the siding in the door and maneuvered around in an effort to pull up the lock (it was in the time when doors locked with buttons you pushed down). Two police officers came by and actually helped him get into his own car. McPhee marveled at that assumption of his innocence. And I thought, Well, it would have been a lot different if he’d been black.

That aside, I recommend this book. I love McPhee’s writing, which I discovered when he used to write very long articles for The New Yorker about geology. I’ve read McPhee on topics I don’t much care about like oranges and golf, whereas I’d skip lesser authors covering subjects that enthrall me.

Savory Moment

I was in England last month to lead a workshop in Kent, near London. Before that, I spent a couple of days in Liverpool, making a pilgrimage to the hallowed ground of The Beatles, whom I have wildly loved for 55 years. I took a 7-hour private tour of all the great Beatles sites, and the most outstanding of all was the Woolton Church Hall, where John and Paul met in 1956. Here history was made!

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.

Oh, to run out of gas

Last weekend, six members of our nature preserve stewardship committee met at the preserve to do some trail grooming. We split off into three separate groups, each heading off to a different trail. One woman, Dorrie, and I took what’s called the White Trail. She had a weed-whacker for trimming the trail, and I had a small can of white paint to brighten up the markers on the trees.

Marking thin white stripes on trees, so the next mark is visible from the one you’re at is a lot less time-consuming than swinging a heavy, gas-powered machine back and forth to cut low vegetation. I got to the place where the White Trail meets the Blue Trail, which is where Dorrie and I had agreed to stop. And then, because I had long since ceased to hear the roar of her weed-whacker, I decided not to wait for her, but to turn around and paint the other side of the trees as well, for anyone hiking from the opposite direction.

After several minutes, I met up with Dorrie. (She was covered in flecks of grass, and she told me I was covered in paint.) She told me she was going to have to stop soon, because she was just about out of gas. But, since I was far from running out of paint, I went ahead and marked trees all the way up to the trailhead.

When I met up with Dorrie again, I told her I couldn’t help wishing that there were more tasks in life when you knew you were finished simply because you ran out of gas or some other obvious sign of conclusion. As someone who’s been self-employed for more than forty years, I never know when to stop. When one thing is finished, I plunge on to the next one.

I wish my computer would run out of gas now and then.


What I’m reading

I’m almost finished rereading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. which I read enthusiastically when I was sixteen. It really is a man’s book, something I didn’t know when I was a teenager, because so much literature was written by men about men. I’m looking forward to reading Glenn Albrecht’s new book, Earth Emotions, about the human response to nature in its wholeness and its brokenness.

Savory Moment

I was enchanted during a walk the other day by the behavior of animals in a large pasture at a neighboring farm. The cows munched and stared at me. Two horses ignored me and one came trotting over to say hello. A donkey was making its way along a patch of grass and couldn’t be bothered with anything else. And a flock of sandpiper-ish birds rattled up from a bordering bush and screamed chu-chu-chu across the sky.

Upcoming Schedule

July 12-14 I’ll once again be part of an incredible literary event in this rural corner of Pennsylvania. It’s called The Gathering and in the past 12 it’s featured writers like Diane Ackerman, Tracy K. Smith, and Salman Rushdie. This year the theme is “Refugees and Immigrants” Who are They and Who am I?” I’ll be leading an experiential (writing and solo walking) called “Moving with the Ancestors.”

“How to end a friendship.” Really?

In an article in the New York Times Review section last Sunday, Lauren Mechling wrote about “How to End a Friendship.” In it she describes the day she was having a phone conversation with her best friend of many years. Suddenly the friend interrupted to say that she had to take another call and would ring right back. She didn’t. Not then, not ever. Mechling was hurt and baffled and tried repeatedly to find out what was wrong, but was never able to.

As I was reading this, I was feeling sympathy for Mechling. I’ve had that experience of a friend suddenly disappearing, and I’ve taken it hard.

But then she comes to this startling conclusion: “[O]ften, there’s no accounting for a friendship’s demise. The atmosphere changes; a sense of duty creeps in. Conversations that were once freewheeling shift into that less than enjoyable territory of ‘catching up.’ Soon you realize social media is the only thing keeping a no-longer-friendship on life support.”

Really? It’s okay for a close friendship to simply wither and die because one of the friends wants it to? In my opinion, Mechling’s friend acted cruelly by shutting her out without any explanation. That boredom or just a yen to move could be justifiable grounds for severing a friendship seems horrible to me.

But I’ve been aware that I take friendships personally, maybe too personally. If someone is a friend at one point in my life, she or he is a friend forever. And when someone suddenly drops out of my life, I’ve tried—at times to excess—to wrest them back. Once I tried for three years to repair a friendship, convinced that if my friend and I could only sit down together and each take responsibility for what had gone wrong, we could resolve a minor (in my opinion) rift. Nope. He never reciprocated and I finally gave up. Recently, a woman who’s been my friend for almost forty years and who has a chronic illness failed to return my phone calls and emails. Increasingly afraid that she might be in the last stage of illness, I made increasingly urgent efforts to get in touch with her. Finally, she wrote a curt email saying that there was a lot going on in her life right now and “you’re not at the top of my things to deal with.” I felt deeply wounded.

But as time went on, I realized that I’ve got to be more accepting of my friends’ view of friendship. I think Lauren Mechling’s friend should have been honest enough to tell her why she didn’t want to stay in touch. But I realize not everyone can do that. I also have to accept that that, when the signs are clear that the other person is simply no longer interested, I need to let go, and a lot sooner than I have in the past.

I’d love to know about your experiences with friendship and I’ll bet other readers of this blog would too. Please post in the COMMENTS section below.

What I’m reading

I’m rereading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I saw it in the Strand Bookstore recently and decided to buy it. I remember my experience of reading it the first time much more vividly than I remember the novel itself. I was 16 and living in Omaha. It was summertime. Thanks to my wonderful English teacher of the year before, I was beginning to distinguish real literature from simply reading, which I had done avidly all my life. And now I finally had my own room. I would sit up there on my bed for hours during that summer, reading Steinbeck and feeling extremely proud of myself that I was able to grasp the mythological and biblical themes he was recasting. Now I find the book sexist and a bit obvious in its symbolism. But it’s summertime and it’s still a good story.

Savory Moment

The young man who is painting our house came over in the rain last week to start washing it with the power washer. There was a nest of baby catbirds in a bush by one corner and I asked Mike to cover it with a tarp before he started spraying in that area. An hour or so later, I looked out to see him very gently and conscientiously arranging the tarp over the busy, leaving space on one side for the mother to fly in and out. There is something so moving about catching a person unawares when they are in the midst of doing something kindly.

Upcoming Schedule

July 12-14 I’ll once again be part of an incredible literary event in this rural corner of Pennsylvania. It’s called The Gathering and in the past 12 it’s featured writers like Diane Ackerman, Tracy K. Smith, and Salman Rushdie. This year the theme is “Refugees and Immigrants” Who are They and Who am I?” I’ll be leading an experiential (writing and solo walking) called “Moving with the Ancestors.”



Go ahead and say it!

I grew up in an alcoholic household, which meant that promises were suspicious and expressions of opinion often unwelcome. When my father, sunk in remorse for the breakage, the violence against my mother, the shouting and blaming he’d caused the night before, swore he would never drink again, I knew, by the time I was nine or ten, that the future was likely to be as bad as, or worse than, the past. I told myself that I would hold onto the truth about my family, even though no one else seemed able to.

Though I grew up trusting myself, it took me many years before I had any confidence that what I saw or believed would be of any value to others. For much of that time, I was afraid that what I perceived might be considered rude, risky, or crazy.

So, the other day in the supermarket, when I saw a striking woman whose appearance gave away something of her recent experience, I wondered if I should speak. She was probably in her mid-fifties, and she wore leggings, a tunic, a colorful scarf, and long, dangling earrings. She was distinctive, and not just because of how she dressed or how erect was her bearing. Her head was bald, and she had no eyebrows. I’ve known enough friends and loved ones with that look to know it probably meant cancer and its awful treatment.

I also know that many people, including close friends, are often reluctant to ask questions of someone who is ill or even to suggest in any way that they’re aware that  illness is a huge, constantly looming presence in the other person’s life. Would it be rude, I thought, to say something to this woman that would acknowledge, indeed blatantly refer to, the fact that she was probably having chemotherapy? Should I dare?

I walked up to her and said, “It’s not everyone who manages to look gorgeous and elegant when she has no hair, but you’ve managed to pull it off!”

She told me it was her first day out without a hat, and that this was her second experience with chemotherapy. She said she was trying to get out into the world and not hide away. And she was grateful for what I had told her.

This small connection affirms for me a tenet of life I try to act on: If it even just slightly occurs to you to do something kind for someone… act on the impulse!


What about Easter?

Today is Easter and I am thinking not so much about what that holiday/holy day means as about what religious symbolism in general can mean.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a good friend who has a remarkable sense of ceremony and symbolism. Although she doesn’t identify herself as a Christian, and in fact regularly meditates at a Buddhist zendo, she is intrigued with the Christian mystery stories. Yesterday, she was telling me how she observes the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, a time she finds deeply meaningful on both the psychological and spiritual levels. For example, on the night of Good Friday, she attends a vigil at a cathedral, sitting in the contemplative silence of waiting during the threshold time after Jesus is killed and before he rises. On Easter, she invites friends to join her in celebrating the new life that is the promise of this day by making small animals and other figures out of clay and natural materials and creating a little village by the brook that runs through her back garden.

Many people who profess to be spiritual seekers and who enthusiastically study Buddhism and indigenous spirituality reject Christianity. I suppose that’s partly because evangelical proselytizing is so annoying—the people who stop you on the street or come to your door and try to convince you you’re going to hell if you don’t embrace Jesus. But, really, that’s condemning the many for the few.

I don’t consider myself a Christian either, though I was brought up in the Episcopal Church. However, I’ve always been a seeker after paths of mystery, transcendence, and connection with the potent and animistic world beyond the world of the everyday. For that reason I love the ceremonies and the search for meaning in many religions, from Navajo to Yoruba, Hindu to Aboriginal. When I was in elementary school, I envied my Jewish friend Marilyn because of all the rich and meaningful ceremonies her family participated in at holidays. To me, my church services were pale and dull compared to Judaism.

And I confess that I have tended to ignore Christianity for years—taking a sort of, Yeah, yeah, I know all about that already attitude. My friend’s description of her deep and personal observance of Easter touched me and I’ve been thinking all day about how I might get reacquainted with Christianity on a different, more meaningful level. individual and culture psyche.

What not to say to loved ones if they’re ill. What to forgive if it’s you who’s ill.

About fifteen years ago, some colleagues and I created a program called Facing the Mystery, for people with life-altering illnesses. The people who participated  were living with all kinds of illnesses, from cancer to MS to a rare bone disease. But they all had in common two complaints:

  1. You’re always waiting—for tests, for diagnoses, for results.
  2. Your friends sometimes abandon you. Often they don’t know how to treat you.

Here are some other things I’ve learned about being ill and being the friend of someone who’s ill.

If your loved one or friend is ill: The people in our program and others I know who have struggled with serious illnesses really dislike it when their friends, in innocence, say certain things that only made them feel worse. Just the other day, for example, a friend of mine, in remission from breast cancer, was explaining how irritating it was when, during the time she was going through treatment, people would whisper to her as if she were a child, asking her with exaggerated tenderness how she was doing. As if the very question would harm her. Your friends who are ill also really dislike being told they don’t look sick or hearing stories about other friends of yours who have died from what they have. Take a look at this Guardian article for other suggestions for how not to talk to sick friends.

If you’re ill. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that people who are ill don’t treat their well-meaning if occasionally clueless friends very compassionately. If you’re ill and one of your friends makes a remark that annoys you, keep this in mind: Some people are merely being polite and want to get away from the direness of your situation as fast as they can. But there are others who really love you. They recognize that you’re standing on a threshold between life and death that so far, fortunately, has eluded them, and they know they’re going to be miserable in conversing in that language of the threshold. They feel awkward. But, yes, they really care about you, so please don’t be harsh with them if they make a mistake.

What I’m reading

Rereading Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. Originally published in 1947, it is a novel in which alcoholism rules one man’s marriage, his career, his friendship—more specifically, it rules his moments. He argues with alcoholism, tries to convince himself he’s on top of it, falls prey to it. Lowry himself died of alcoholism. The brilliance of the book is in the prose, which is less about alcohol than an expression, line by line, of a mind entrapped by it. Makes me very glad to be a non-drinker for many years.

Savory Moment

The first snowdrops have arrived. Every year, every time I see them I am amazed by their stamina, their ability to hold out for another year of all kinds of weather, only to push through the dried leaves. When I first see them I conduct a ritual, begun in the spring of 1974, when I was living alone in an old stone cottage in England. I get down on my hands and knees and inhale their cool, sweet scent.

Other News

(If you read my Facebook post the other day, forgive me, this is a repeat!) My new book has come out as an audiobook! This would be good news for any author, but for me it has special meaning. From 1985 to about 2010, I abridged hundreds of audiobooks for top publishers. I abridged a book by the Dalai Lama while waiting in a super-secure car park at the Edinburgh airport a few days after the September 11 attacks. I abridged a bio of Andrew Jackson while sitting on the rim of a remote canyon in Utah, guiding a wilderness program. I abridged a book by Salman Rushdie who didn’t want to be abridged… and got a message from the producer that “Trebbe, Salman loved the abridgment!” I abridged about a dozen Star Wars books. I abridged good books, awful books, and lots of forgettable books. It was great work and my clients at the publishing houses were wonderful. So I am super thrilled to have an audiobook of my own!!


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?