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.”


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.

Fracking Quilts

When I heard that my friend, Virginia “Gina” Kellogg, a life coach, co-founder of Leadership That Works, and quilt artist, is starting a new project called Journal Quilting, I decided to repost an article I wrote several years ago in my previous newsletter. Quilting your fears, your longing, your visions is a powerful way to clarify and sync with your own emotions, and in the process you create something meaningful and beautiful.

Gina began quilting in 2006, as a way of expressing her deep grief after her brother died. Since then she has created dozens of what she calls “journal quilts,” works in fabric that are creative responses to emotional states. A few years ago, when gas fracking came to northeastern Pennsylvania, she decided to share what she has learned with others.

As most people know by now, fracking is short for hydrofracking, a technique that entails blasting a mixture of sand, water, and chemicals deep into the Earth to release natural gas. In 2008, the industry invaded our quiet, rural area with noise, light pollution, contaminated water wells, exploding gas wells, fissured roads, and leaks in pipelines. It has also caused physical, psychological, and social damage to individuals, families, and communities. Five women accepted Gina’s offer to explore their feelings through the process of making a small quilt.

Meeting on a Friday night at Gina’s house, we began by choosing a square of fabric from one of the antique quilts that Gina collects. We used that piece as the seed for the rest of the quilt. In my quilt, pictured above, the seed pieces are the jagged green shapes that represent the fracking penetrating the land.

Gina has an enormous collection of fabrics that we could choose from to build our quilts. As we worked, she was there to answer questions and provide guidance, but as she frequently emphasized, the point was not to make a “good” quilt, but to express our deep feelings . When we got stuck, she urged us to pick a fabric we “hated or would never consider using.” An essential part of the process was to “frack” our quilts themselves—cut them up—after we had gotten the design just the way we wanted it. Although most of us felt some reluctance to do so, slicing through the design helped us to realize that we did not have to hold on to what we were attached to.

My quilt is called, “They are Piercing the Earth, and All, All, All Is Falling into the Cracks.” The yellow and orange shapes represent the hilly landscape in this area and the towns and farms nestled in it. The fracking is cutting deep into the Earth, and the villages are collapsing. The large striped “crack” that runs from top to bottom symbolizes the extent of the fracking, which fractures not only the Earth but families and communities as well. The circular part on the lower right is still a bit of a mystery. It seems to token life and growth and wholeness, even at the depths, when everything around you seems to be irreparably broken.

All of us felt transformed by this experience. We were able to express feelings about the gas drilling that we had been unable to articulate in any other way. Sharing our stories about both our experiences with the gas drilling and, as we moved through the process, the design of our quilts, made each of us feel less alone. And by transforming fear, grief, and anger into a creative act, we became empowered and ceased to be victims of an overpowering force.

I am looking forward to Gina’s upcoming Journal Quilting project.

Bobbing and Sinking with Everyone Else

While meditating the other day, I had an image of all us humans in the world bobbing like tiny corks in an immense ocean. Sometimes stormy skies loured overhead and a sudden wave would sweep in and shove some of the corks under the water. Sometimes the sun shone, the surf was gentle, and the little corks floated easily on the surface of the sea. At any given time, some corks would be inundated, while others would be lofted up.

And, really, so it is. Think of the bobbing and sinking going on these days among your own circle of loved ones and friends. Right now I know a woman who is likely to die within the next year of a malignant brain tumor. I have another friend who’s feeling on top of the world because he has a best-selling book and lots of invitations from prestigious places to speak and present. I know one couple who had a healthy baby a few months ago and another couple whose baby was born with significant disabilities. Sometimes whole communities are swept under—the Rohinga in Burma, the residents of Flint who are still struggling to get clean water, the many people in the western U.S. who have lost their homes to wildfire.

At any given time, some of us are bobbing happily in the sun and some of us are barely managing to stay afloat. And it can all change tomorrow.

There are those who believe that “whatever happens is for the best.” Others claim that everything occurs according to God’s will. Or they tell you that, if you’re having difficulty doing something, it’s because the universe doesn’t want you to do it.

I don’t believe it. Stuff happens. Calamity strikes and you either get in the way or you don’t. One person in the stadium catches the fly ball and another person gets conked in the head with it. Of course, to a certain extent my behavior dictates what happens to me (I’m more likely to get into a car accident if I’m texting than if I keep my full attention on the road), but often I simply get in the crossfire of chance forces.

I actually find that unbidden image of the corks comforting. It reminds me that I’m just one among many trying to stay afloat and keep an eye on those I love in hopes that they’ll keep floating, too. The cork image reminds me that hazard and delight can push us under the ocean or lob us up to the top of the wave. It reminds me of the fickleness of life and the amazing stubbornness and beauty of people and all of nature.


What I’m Reading

I first read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, when I was 23 years old. Here the French philosopher digs beneath the surface of all kinds of things we typically take for granted, like why magazine articles about professional women always have to mention how many children they have or what travel guides are really trying to get you to see and do when you’re on vacation. I was fascinated with it. Those short pieces, usually just three or four pages each, made me look anew at the ordinary things in my life. Recently I decided to read the book again, and I find it just as fascinating now, more than forty years later. The essays were written in the 1950s, and many of the subjects Barthes deconstructs will be either unknown or but vaguely familiar to modern readers. However, the phenomena Barthes probes remind you of all kinds of contemporary things where you might find meaning and intention if you’re willing to look. You might ponder, for example, how drivers behave when they wait in traffic, the patterns newscasters employ to relate different kinds of stories, and how tourists regard themselves and their place in the world when they travel. It’s not easy reading, but it’s deeply engaging and thought provoking.

A Savory Moment

Since my husband’s back pain and, recently, recovery from back surgery has prevented him from doing a lot of the work on our 5 ½-acres of land, I’ve taken over many of the tasks. One of them is mowing the lawn. I’ve discovered that I really like this job. It’s aerobic, it requires force and pushing (forms of exertion I find satisfying), and as I do it I see clear evidence behind and around me that it’s working. The grass is getting cut. After I’ve finished mowing, I put the lawn mower away, and then I like to sit outside on a chair. At first my body is like the lawn mower: revved up and on the move even though it’s now at rest. Gradually I start to cool down. My heartrate slows. The slightest breeze soothes like a silk cloth. The sounds of the birds, the crickets, the windchimes begin to reassert themselves. I cease to be a hot engine pushing through the world and become instead a piece of life that the world gently brushes.

The antlered man and the beautiful animals


This beautiful image is from a silver cauldron, the Gudestrup Cauldron, found at the end of the 19thcentury in a peat bog in Denmark. I discovered it on the internet a few days ago when I was researching the Underworld for an article I’m writing, and I’m captivated by it.

One side of the cauldron shows a man, sitting cross-legged. He has antlers on his head, just like those of the stag to his right (our left). Also to his right is a long-horned sheep. To his left right are a boar, a dog, a snake, and an unidentifiable other animal departing to another side of the cauldron. The man and animals seem to be allies, or at least they inhabit the same realm comfortably together.

Though it was found in Denmark, the cauldron, dating from about 150 BCE, is believed not to have been made there, but in a Gallic land, possibly Ireland, where silversmiths, artists, and believers in the World beyond the known world would have been familiar with this imagery. In Irish myths Cernunnos, horned like the figure in this cauldron, was the god of fertility, animals, life, wealth, and the underworld.

Most of us think of death and the Underworld being the end of life and fertility. But in the myths of many cultures, the goddess was associated with both the moist, black, mysterious chasms of fertility and with death, for the Earth both took life and gave life, seemingly at random. It’s interesting that this figure is masculine, for men are not typically associated with fertility. When the Greek god of the Underworld, Hades, wanted life beside him, he abducted the young woman Persephone. (She was picking flowers when he grabbed her.) He could not generate that life, that blossoming on his own.

In modern psychology, the Underworld and fertility are passionate, if uneasy, partners. The Jungian writer Christine Downing, among others, has written that a descent to the psychic underworld can result in new openings of creativity.

In my own life, I find that times of chaos so thoroughly rip me open that I see the world in a new way. I have more compassion for other people. My actions become more significant; nothing seems accidental or unimportant.

What I’m Reading

Ever since I started reading Look at Me by Jennifer Egan a few days ago, I have been grabbing every conceivable available moment to open it and read it. Breakfast! My heart leaps with anticipation! I can get in maybe 10 minutes of reading! A visit to the lawyer’s office: maybe he’ll be late and I can read for a few minutes. This book is about four interwoven characters: a model whose face is changed by a terrible car accident, a teenage girl who misunderstands the clues of the world as she looks for depth and connection, a private eye trying to stay sober, and a mysterious man of many disguises with a massive grudge against America. It’s about identity, secrets, need, and appearance. And Egan is a powerful writer.

A Savory Moment

The west is burning. The rainy season in Bali has lasted for over a year. Europe’s in a heat wave. And here in Pennsylvania, we have been having torrential rains all summer. Creeks are flooding, stones racing over the road on the backs of muddy streams. The other day, when one of those storms ended, I went to the nature preserve a mile from our house. It’s a wetland area, and the sound of water rushing was everywhere: deep, shallow, trickles, roars. The trails had turned into rivulets. After sloshing and exploring around for a while, I sat on a damp log and just waited for the world around me to assert itself. A spider crawled down the trunk of a sapling beech tree. The waters kept running. Breezes shook raindrops off the trees. And gradually, the late summer insects started chirring and cheeping after they had fallen silent at my approach. The place had forgotten about me. What a relief to be there for that!

Forcing myself to look

Our little village of 283 people has been having a big problem this year with feral cats. Now, I am a cat lover, but these wild cats poop in the garden, kill the birds, and breed more cats that do the same. Recently, they’ve broken several of the pots in Andy’s kiln shed. At first, we tried to give some of them to the Humane Society, but the woman who answered the phone said they have a waiting list.

So last week Andy and I bought a Havahart trap, and so far we have relocated four cats to a woodland area on the other side of the Susquehanna River 9 miles away.

It’s hard to do. I have to remind myself that they’re already wild. They are not housecats. They fend for themselves and eat only what they catch. We’re only moving them from one outdoor habitat to another. But I always make sure I really look at each cat sitting there in the cage, allowing myself to take in how cute and appealing it is. When Andy advised me to quit torturing myself by doing that, I told him I have to. I have to do it, so I don’t override my compassion for these animals with a blunt sense of necessity.

This morning, as we delivered yet another cat to its new wilderness, I thought about a conversation I had with my friend Alison, when we met for brunch last Saturday morning. We were talking about the immense heartache that America is perpetrating by separating children and parents who try to cross into this country over the Mexican border.

“They are shutting down their own ability to feel compassion,” Alison said. “They say they have to do it because it’s the law, but they refuse to look into their own hearts and see that it’s wrong—and that they themselves might have feelings of sadness and regret for what they’re doing. They are causing trauma for these children for the rest of their lives, even if they do end up being reunited with their parents—and that’s not at all guaranteed.”

It’s as tough to see (a) some sweetness in that which is painful as it is to see (b) what’s painful in something sweet. Examples: (a)—taking a good look at the caged pussycat you’re about to cart off to a strange location and (b)—acknowledging that you’re abetting in the release of a big load of carbon into the air when you go off on your dream vacation to Venice.

However, if we can hold the balance between the sweet and the sour, the beautiful and the ugly, the sad and the joyous, as if they were two fragile bowls we can hold, one in the palm of each hand, then we uphold our own humanity, our ability to feel, to be real. By being as honest with ourselves as possible about what we do and experience in the world, we can make decisions with our eyes wide open.

What I’m Reading

“Losing Earth,” an investigative report by Nathaniel Rich that fills the entire New York Times magazine of Sunday, August 5. It’s a heartbreaking story that focuses on the decade between 1979 and 1989, when politicians, scientists, and activists recognized the immensity of the problem of a warming planet and tried to do something to halt it before it was too late. It shows that we as a nation did not just slide mindlessly into the calamity that is now upon us—but how greed and self-interest prevented the right thing from being done. With aerial photos by George Steinmetz of how climate change is wreaking havoc on several areas around the world.

A Savory Moment

Sunday afternoon. A hot day. I am in the backyard with a large plastic container, picking blueberries from the bushes. Occasionally I eat one, and if I space the tastes out just right, I get a serial flavor from each that begins with tartness and then turns sweet. On the grass at my feet is a piece of paper I’ve printed out. “Are those your instructions?” Andy teases, coming outside. I tell him it’s a sonnet of Shakespeare that I’m memorizing. It begins:

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, mur’drous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight….

Why this poem? Simply because the language is hot, fruity, and delicious.