The Great Turning

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Ellen Rowland. This essay is adapted from her recently published book, Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Living and Learning. 

I sat at the small table by the kitchen window this morning thinking about hope. The news was bad. Again. Acres of majestic trees destroyed by fire, hurricane devastation, floods and loss, missiles and political misfires. So many people in need of each other, divided by both real and imagined borders. Yet in that quiet moment as my children still slept, I felt a strong pull to lean into the beauty around me, the calm, to focus on the small acts of kindness that don’t always get talked about and believe in their power. Did I have a right to be hopeful when the world was so clearly hurting?

If you’re deep ecologist Joanna Macy, and others like her, the answer is yes. Not only do you have a right to be optimistic, but an obligation to unearth that hope, spread it around like topsoil, and help something infinitesimal or resplendent grow. I stumbled upon an article recently by Macy about the book, Stories of the Great Turning, which helped validate my stubborn penchant for hope. It celebrates the ever-growing movement of individual action through a collection of stories about grassroots activism taking place around the world.

A few days later, my family and I watched the French documentary Demain (available with English subtitles as Tomorrow) by Cyril Dion and actress Mélanie Laurent. It takes us all over the world to introduce us to people who are finding creative solutions to the world’s problems and putting them into action on an individual and community level. The film shows us the positive global strides that are being made in the areas of agriculture, energy, economy, democracy, and education. The examples convey the idea that, while we cannot deny the global problems we’re facing, we can choose to focus on the change that is already in motion.

These aren’t merely messages of hope. Neither are they a call to action. Both Stories of the Great Turning and Demain are telling us something we deeply suspect but desperately need to know — that all over the world, in hidden corners and small enclaves, people from all walks of life are already creating lasting positive change.

Because these thinkers and doers of seemingly small acts are not celebrities, politicians, or industry giants; we may not hear about them in the mainstream media. In fact the gentle propagation of these tales usually gets done the old-fashioned way — by word of mouth, or as my daughter says, “on the wings of dragonflies” — which is testament itself to what Macy calls the “remarkable expansion of allegiance beyond personal or group advantage.”

In other words, we lead, or participate, or engage, or invent, or inspire without caring if we ever get recognition or reward. We do it because we feel in our very souls that it’s the right thing to do. Even if our efforts ultimately fail, the lesson lies in the attempt.

Joanna Macy writes in her introduction,

“This wider sense of identity is a moral capacity more often associated with heroes and saints; but it now manifests everywhere on a practical and workaday plane. From children restoring streams for salmon spawning, to inner-city neighbors planting community gardens, from forest defenders perched high in trees marked for illegal logging, to countless climate actions to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, an undreamt-of wave of human endeavor is under way . . . (The Great Turning’s) three main dimensions include actions to slow down the destruction wrought by our political economy and its wars against humanity and Nature; new structures and ways of doing things, from holding land to growing food to generating energy; and a shift in consciousness to new ways of knowing, a new paradigm of our relation to each other and to the sacred living body of Earth.”

All this just makes me want to run outside and whoot with joy! But for most of us it’s hard to dig our teeth into the potential collective outcome of all these scattered individual efforts. Especially when we are bombarded on a daily basis with mindless listicles on one hand and horrific world news on the other. At any moment the global bubble of doom and fear might pop right over our heads. Can we really make a difference?

Well, yes, especially when “we” becomes “WE,” which happens quite naturally when individuals come together to provide support, collaborate, share resources, and work as a unit while maintaining individuality.

The paradigm of positive change taking place isn’t just about the environment. It’s about accepting the notion that in anything in life that’s worthwhile, there exists polarity. It’s about accepting and embracing each other’s differences. It’s about mutual respect and compassion. It’s about taking risks and daring to think differently. And it’s about learning differently. I can’t help making this leap because it’s really only a small stepping stone from one to the other. How can we distinguish between the consciousness we hope to awaken on behalf of a suffering planet and the world we want to open up for our children? They are the same.

Which is why those of us who foster interest-led learning, who have lived through learning and learned through living, need to keep sharing our individual and collective tales as part of this Great Turning. And we don’t need to shout. As it is, many of these stories naturally intertwine children’s exploration with a love and respect for Nature. They demonstrate the innate consciousness that children have toward creatures and the compassion they hold for others. Many homeschooling families are already living with “our sacred living body of Earth” in mind through lifestyle choices. Sharing these tales is not about bashing the institution of school or judging parents and children who choose to attend, and it’s not about imposing or insisting on change.

If I understand it correctly, this movement, which Macy calls “the essential adventure of our time,” is about individuals inspiring change through positive action and example. And sharing our stories of gratitude and hope. The shift may come about slowly. But it’s coming. I can hear the wings beating.

 

Ellen Rowland Ellen Rowland is the author of Everything I Thought I Knew, a collection of essays about living, learning, and parenting outside the status quo.

Her writing has appeared in Life Learning Magazine, The Homeschooler Post, Otherways Magazine, The Washington Post online, More Magazine, and Natural Life Magazine.

After spending 15 years in New York City, where she built a career in art and design and met her French-born husband, she and her family moved to Senegal, West Africa when her children were three and four years old. They built an earth house, lived off-the-grid, grew their own vegetables, and began the journey of learning through living. She and her family currently reside on a small island in Greece where they plan to restore a goat barn and call it home.

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Catalysts

Sometimes in my memoir classes I ask participants to write about catalysts in their lives — small occurrences or choices that, upon reflection, we realize actually fostered a big change in our outlook or circumstances. Often I start out with a poem by Carl Dennis, who is a master at exploring parallel realities. Something like “Candles” or, if the class has been meeting a long time and can withstand it, “The God Who Loves You.”

Some catalysts exist on a large social scale, such as prejudice, rural isolation, poor schools, or economic change. They have all sorts of effects on individual lives. Like the government grant I was awarded to get my masters degree. Before I attended my first class, a newly elected conservative administration didn’t believe the country needed more social workers, so they cancelled the grants. This, coupled with a recession that made it hard for me to get a job with my freshly awarded undergrad degree, led directly to my husband and me having our first child when I was 22.

Some occurrences exist only as possibilities. For example, on a recent weekend I headed toward the highway after teaching a class for Literary Cleveland only to remember I’d left behind my new water bottle. I turned around, parked in the lot, walked back in, searched for the bottle, then realized I’d had it with me the whole time. I’d tucked it in my tote because this new one didn’t leak. I felt silly having gone through all those steps for a memory lapse, only to drive back to the highway entrance ramp where rescue vehicles were just then getting to the scene of a car accident. I have no idea if mine might have been one of those cars had I been there a few minutes earlier.

Some results stem from what seem like, at the time, poor choices. Like the time my friend Kathy and I went to Westgate Mall. We were both 14 years old. We didn’t buy soda or food, but we loved music desperately and considered spending the last of our babysitting money on records. We told ourselves we’d walk the nearly six miles home rather than take the bus. We figured it was good exercise. We were still in the record store when Kathy ran into two guys, Bruce and Mark, who were friends of her older brother. They seemed vastly older, both being 16. They offered us a ride home. I definitely wasn’t allowed to get in cars with boys my parents didn’t know. We shouldn’t have accepted, but we did. I asked to be dropped off at Kathy’s house so I could walk the rest of the way home. That way my parents wouldn’t know I’d broken a rule. I dated Mark all through school and I’m still married to him today.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that small changes can lead to significant results. Theoretically, the flapping wings of a butterfly in Brazil can have an effect on weather patterns thousands of miles away.  Nothing we do is without effect either. That’s true in every moment, in every generation. If your grandfather hadn’t lost his job and moved to another town to take a new one, he wouldn’t have bumped into that smart girl who lived the next street over, the girl who later became your grandmother. If your mother’s high school crush hadn’t broken her heart, she never would have gone on to fall in love with your father. If these and thousands of other circumstances hadn’t unfolded exactly as they did, you wouldn’t be here now.

As my mother used to say, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Trace back changes in your life to some small precipitating factor — a pivotal conversation, a left instead of right turn, a friend’s comment, a lost opportunity, a new dream. Please, share the story of a catalyst. We’d love to hear it.

 

Hands Shaping the Song

Thomas Merton wrote, “The things that we love tell us what we are.” I’ve seen this idea inspire beautiful remembrances twice recently, both times when family members gave eulogies consisting entirely of what the recently departed person loved.

One funeral was for a woman who raised her own children as well as two of her great-grandchildren. Her great-granddaughter stood in front of a crowded church and listed what her granny loved. Here’s part of that list.

  • Sweet tea without ice cubes in her insulated Browns cup.
  • Fancy hats for church.
  • Calling babies “Boo Boo.”
  • Family photos she organized in shoeboxes. These were stacked in the front hall closet so they could be saved if there was a fire.
  • Her friend Rita and her friend Marlene and her friend Louanne and everyone at her senior luncheon, her Bible study, and her card club.
  • Holding her hand up like a traffic cop when she didn’t want to hear another word.
  • Saying “give Gran a little sugar” when she wanted a hug and “that’s all you got?” when the hug didn’t meet her standards.
  • Telling people what buildings and businesses used to be on different streets “back in my day” whether the listener wanted to know or not.
  • Window boxes, because they made a house look happy.
  • Turning troubles over to God.
  • Waving to whoever walked down her street and asking the names of kids she didn’t know so she could greet them by name next time they walked by.
  • Her family, every single person, every single day.

I never had the honor of meeting my friend’s grandmother, but felt I’d gotten a better glimpse of her than any platitudes could have revealed, simply through what she loved.

The same week I read a remarkable book, The Wet Engine by Brian Doyle (thanks to a recommendation by my wise friend Kim Langley).  In wonder-stretched words, Doyle writes about the human heart as something functional, yet transcendent. The whole book is marvelous, but having just attended a funeral, his passage about a eulogy he’d given for an 80-year-old friend lingered in my mind.

At the funeral I said a prayer in Gaelic, so that the language of his parents would wash over his body one last time, and then I held up my hands and talked about the way his huge strong bony gaunt gentle hands had cradled a football and hammered his brothers and tickled his sister and cupped his mother’s face and clapped his father on the shoulder and wielded a shovel and pumped saws through firs and cedars and skimmed over the supple sweet skin of his wife and cupped his children and worked concrete and stone and wood and plaster and paint and were plunged in sand and sliced through the ocean and cleaned and washed and folded and dried and cooked and prayed, and weren’t his hands the story of the man? Weren’t his hands always shaping the song of his heart?

Both eulogies remind me of Annie Dillard’s wise words, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Although the world around us is constantly awe-inspiring,  many of us learn from our earliest days to look at ourselves with judgment, to measure ourselves by where we’ve fallen short.

Maybe meaning is far more simple. Maybe it lies in what we do and what we love. Maybe we can let those two things be the same thing.

Candlelight Vigil

Last night I located old taper candles and my husband cut circles of cardboard with star-shaped openings to be used as drip sleeves. I was leaving for a candlelight peace vigil in Oberlin, a response to what happened in Charlottesville, and didn’t want to go without bringing candles extras to share.

Before I left my husband told me to be careful. “What worries me,” he said, “is you believe everyone is a good person.”

That’s true. I just believe the core of humanity is a great deal harder to find in some people.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t worried about what’s going on in the U.S. The weekend’s mayhem was a microcosm of the whole. While white nationalists and neo-Nazis wreaked havoc in a beautifully diverse southern city, state troopers and police watched but did not intervene.   Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said the majority of white supremacists were carrying semiautomatic weapons, so officers couldn’t engage without escalating the situation. Although dozens of people were badly injured and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed, the governor commented on the success of police inaction, saying, “And yet not a shot was fired, zero property damage.”

As I headed from our little township to Oberlin, I drove through a rural community even smaller than ours. And there in an open field I saw several pickup trucks parked nose to nose, sporting large Confederate flags upright in the beds. Men were outside the trucks talking.

This was a shocking sight.

It’s sometimes hard for a quiet progressive like me to live in an area that voted resoundingly for Mr. Trump, but it’s also a see-both-sides gift because I have many conservative friends and neighbors who are caring, dedicated people. I have literally not heard a bigoted attitude expressed by people in my township for well over a decade.  (Perhaps the peace flags on my porch are the magic charm.)

I slowed down. My first impulse was to pull over and talk to these men. I wanted to establish some kind of rapport, a few moments of innocuous conversation, then ask in a confused way, “So what’s up with the flags?” I’ve found asking an innocent question in an innocent way can spark a moment of genuine discussion. And I was honestly curious about what they’d say. After all, it’s not as if northerners can claim any historic fondness for such a flag. These guys were standing in a field less than 20 miles away from our country’s northern border of Lake Erie. Our area is rich with Underground Railroad sites and abolitionist history.

I thought, maybe my excuse to stop could be asking for directions. Or maybe where the nearest gas station might be. I had an initial presumption that I’d be protected by my white skin and nonthreatening middle aged-lady self.  But then I remembered my husband’s concern. And I remembered a report that the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer posted a crude celebration of Heather Heyer’s death, writing that she “deserved” to die. So I drove on.

The vigil in Oberlin was quiet and respectful. We walked, we sang, we listened to speakers like Peace Community Church pastor Mary Hammond who said “We need to offer a public response to what has happened, not just the last few days but the last few centuries. It is on us…” and to professor A.G. Miller who said, “The forces of evil have been unleashed. We have to stand strong with love and tenacity and courage, and we have to push back.”

I know the practice of nonviolence asks us to get involved and to do so using time-honored tactics.  Nonviolence asks us to recognize and deal with hate speech before it escalates.  It asks us to look for ways to find the humanity in people like those men with their Confederate flags before acts of hate happen. Open dialogue with the very people she condemned is what inspired Megan Phelps-Roper to renounce her membership in the extremist Westboro Baptist Church.  It’s what led neo-Nazi skinhead Christian Picciolini to stop spreading hate and work to lead others away from such ideologies. It’s how Daryl Davis, as an African American, befriends Ku Klux Klan members in hopes they will have a change of heart.

Yes, I realize it was best that I didn’t stop for a chat with strangers displaying Confederate flags. Not the right moment for a lone woman driving a rusty Honda with a Bernie sticker.

But I know we have to look for ways to speak up and when we do, to speak up for all of us. That means people who don’t look like us, pray like us, think like us, live like us, or vote like us. After all, that’s what allegiance to “liberty and justice for all” really means.

I encourage you to read and share this Southern Poverty Law Center information:  “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.”

 

Stop, Reboot

Bad Start

to the day, what with finding

feathers, then bodies

of two hens killed by hawks.

And power out, so I can’t

work despite glaring deadlines.

 

Picking tomatoes and chard

for breakfast, I step on a bee

whose final act is to heave

her brave sword in my sole.

Startled, I skid on dew-wet grass,

fall sharply, my face whirling

a breath’s distance from roses

prickled with scarifying thorns,

 

and laugh.

 

I’d been soggy

cereal in the bowl,

mail dropped in a ditch,

a garden wizened by blight,

 

but now,

foot in lap, I pinch

out the stinger,

stabbed by gratitude

for an insect’s

venomous antidote.

Now all I see is a shining

curtain of light pulled open

to the third act of a comedy

performed as it

is lived.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Gyroscope Review  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Permission Slip

I’ve carried this piece of paper in my wallet for 7 years.  My father, an inveterate list maker, wrote it for me a few months before he died. On it, he suggested ways I might take care of myself, spend money on myself, and enjoy myself.

He’d spent his entire life denying himself and pushing himself to do more, but it troubled him to think his daughter might be doing the same thing. Late in life he gave in to new “extravagances,” mostly things he’d read about in health articles. This included grocery purchases more upscale than his usual canned vegetables and oatmeal, things like nuts, pomegranate juice, fish, berries, and fresh vegetables. These ideas topped his list of suggestions for me.

He’d always straightened nails to re-use and made do with worn out tools. He stapled scrap paper together to make daily planners for himself. But his list encouraged me to buy these things brand new. Even to buy myself an exercise bike!

He wore old clothes, even wore shoes he’d owned since college. He never bought new books. He skipped social engagements (whenever he could) in order to get more work done around the house or yard. He considered electronic gadgets unnecessary, although he was intrigued by new technology. Yet he wanted me to spend more time with friends, go to restaurants, buy books, invest in gadgets.

I’ve never been as starkly frugal or deeply self-critical as my father, but I understand what his list was trying to say —- to himself as much as to me. When we chronically push ourselves, judge ourselves harshly, or deny ourselves we are often unaware that we serve as examples to our children (as well as to our partners, co-workers, and friends).  We reinforce a social template that makes it normal to treat ourselves this way. Too late we realize we need treat ourselves as we’d like our loved ones to treat themselves.

Last Saturday would have been my dad’s birthday.  After a lovely stroll through the farmer’s market with my daughter where we bought grassfed cheeses, perfect tree-ripened peaches, and other delights I spent a few glorious hours listening to podcasts while cooking to prepare for our usual Sunday family get-together. Then, after a walk and some writing time, I sat on the porch with a book. It was another wonderful day in a life full of wonderful days. Thanks for the reminder, Dad.

Translating Intolerance

Ceiling in Cardiff Castle (If Google translate is correct: Nenfwd yng Nghastell Caerdydd)

“This place tried to turn my words into stones,” Seren says. She moved to rural Ohio less than six months ago with her husband and three daughters. Her oldest is a college freshman, the younger girls are in 3rd and 5th grade.

Seren grew up in New York City, an only child of busy parents who traveled often for business. Her Welsh-speaking grandmother lived with them and raised Seren on the stories, songs, and traditions of her homeland.  In her teens, Seren finally  visited Wales with her grandmother.  Soon after, her grandmother passed away but the language she imparted to her granddaughter thrived. Seren went on to get an undergraduate degree in history and a graduate degree in Welsh studies.

She and her husband agreed they would raise their children in a dual-language home. Seren speaks Welsh to her children exclusively, her husband speaks to them in English. This is true both at home and in public. They know the benefits of being bilingual. Here are just a few:

  • Bilingual kids have enhanced social skills and communication abilities. In part this has to do with more experience understanding the perspective of the person speaking. This involves determining social cues and what’s called “theory of mind” — the ability to recognize one’s own motivations (intentions, beliefs, desires, knowledge, etc) and the understanding that others have their own motivations.
  • Dual-language students, in one study,  were a full grade level ahead of their monolingual peers in English-reading skills by the end of middle school. Some children in the study were just learning English, yet they outperformed monolingual native English speakers on tests. Chances are this has to do with the way learning two languages enhances executive function (working memory, impulse control, focus, and attention). Studies continue to show bilingual children have stronger executive function.
  • Early exposure to a second language affects how the brain organizes languages and improves its ability to learn a new language later in life, even if the first language is forgotten.
  • Bilingual people continue to benefit into old age if they continue to use both languages frequently. Brain scans indicate that bilingual people develop greater cognitive reserves. This extra gray matter makes a big difference. In people whose brains show similar levels of dementia, bilingual people show symptoms on average four years later than a monolingual person experiences them. This also may be true in stroke recovery. One study showed cognitive recovery was twice as likely for dual language speakers as for monolinguals after a stroke. Overall, using one’s brain to speak two languages actually delays cognitive decline.

Growing up, Seren says she remembers being a little worried each time a new friend met her grandmother because she and her grandmother spoke to each other in another language. But without fail her friends thought her grandmother was cool. Many of her friends incorporated a few Welsh words into their conversations in a way that became their own informal slang.

Seren’s older daughter also struggled a bit with a bilingual home when she was a teenager. But she’s also known from the time she was a small child that fewer and fewer people speak Welsh. Only 11 percent of people living in Wales speak it fluently, a little over 300,000 people in total. When their daughter is home, she quite naturally speaks in one language to her mother and another to her father.

Since moving to Ohio, however, this bilingual family met with difficulties they never expected. While at a school function for her younger daughter, a classmate’s mother overheard Seren speaking to her daughter in Welsh. That girl later spread the word that she wasn’t allowed to play with Seren’s child because she “wasn’t American.” (Every member of Seren’s family is an American-born citizen, although that’s not the point.)

Another time her middle daughter had a friend over. When Seren and her two younger daughters exchanged a few amused Welsh words about the snack being put on the table, the 10-year-old friend accused them of laughing about her and said she wanted to go home.

And waiting in line at a grocery store, Seren and her daughters spoke to each other in Welsh while the woman in front of them was being checked out. The woman said loudly to the cashier, “It’s disgusting the way people come to this country and can’t even learn the language. Makes me sick.”

Seren says she can’t imagine what other people must be enduring to keep their culture and language alive in a time when frightening acts of intolerance are on the rise.

After her daughters pleaded with her, she made a concession. For the first time in 18 years, Seren changed the way she speaks to her daughters. They now keep Welsh to themselves. Speaking only English around others, she says, “is like losing Nain all over again.”

But she hasn’t given up. She is working with the elementary school to put on an annual international fair where the world’s diversity will be celebrated in song, story, art, and food. She’s also planning to invite new friends and neighbors to a traditional Welsh Christmas party at her home this year.

Translation: Adversity brings knowledge and knowledge wisdom
Approximate pronunciation: Ad-vid ah thoog wibod-eyth ah gwibod-eyth doy-theen-eb

Waking the Spirit

Waking the Spirit, Andrew Schulman

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Andrew Schulman was born so ugly that his grandmother refused to believe he belonged to their family. She insisted the hospital investigate to make sure there wasn’t a baby mix-up.  Many years later, his cousin Miriam told him the nurses felt sorry for that disputed lone baby in the nursery, so they held him and sang to him all day. “Show tunes,” she said. “I heard them when I was there. It was so lovely.”

He writes in his new book, Waking the Spirit, “I like to think that my brain was wired in the nursery by the healing power of music.”

Andrew grew up to become a successful musician. He plays Carnegie Hall, the White House, and throughout Europe. He has three CD’s, an active performance schedule, and an enjoyable life with his wife in NYC.  His life, however, changed when he went in for surgery.

The operation was a success but on the way to recovery he suffered a rare reaction and was clinically dead by the time they rushed his gurney out of the elevator. Although they managed to resuscitate him in surgical intensive care, they couldn’t stabilize him. Doctors put him in a medically induced coma for several days, but his organs began to fail. He was not expected to live. His wife, desperate, asked permission to play music for him. His favorite piece, Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” popped up on his iPod. After a half hour, still apparently unresponsive, his vital signs began to stabilize. Confounding doctors, he recovered quickly over the next few days.

As Oliver Sacks once said, “Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music.” Andrew explains in his book, “Music reaches neural networks, including some of the most primary…. such as the brain stem, the cerebellum, and the amygdala. Music then initiates brain stem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, and muscle tension…. ”

We know that music chosen by parents and performed for premature babies for a few minutes at a time helps to calm them, resulting in longer quiet-alert states and easing pain.  Music sung by parents has a beneficial effect throughout infancy. Babies respond to music, even regular drumbeats, with increased smiling. In fact research shows that babies correlate their movements with the tempo and rhythm. They dance! And music gets a much greater response than spoken words. No wonder adults all over the world naturally engage babies in a sort of singsong-like call and response. We’re translating our language into one that is more evocative to mind and body.

Music makes a difference at the other end of life too. Studies of music in hospice care show  it can reduce anxiety, pain, and fatigue while enhancing mood, energy, and sense of spiritual comfort.

After Andrew fully recovered he made his way back to the same surgical intensive care ward at the same hospital. This time as a musician. Three times a week, every week, he enters the SICU, walks through the ward guided by intuition as much as beeping monitors, then sits at a bedside and begins to play.

People on this ward are very ill. They’re likely in pain and afraid. They may be in and out of consciousness, even comatose as he was. He plays all sorts of music for them, happy to honor requests by patients, family members, and staff. But he’s found music by certain composers has the greatest healing effect — Bach, Gershwin, the Beatles, along with Franz Schubert’s “Ständchen” and, strangely enough, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Freddy Mercury.

In his experience, Bach’s music is the gold standard.  It almost magically seems to increase alertness, reduce pain, and stabilize vital signs. Neuromusicologist Arthur W. Harvey agrees. Andrew quotes Dr. Harvey, “Of all the music we tested in medical school with patients, colleagues, and others, Bach’s music consistently made the brain work in a balanced way better than any other genre.”

Dr. Harvey and students studied the effect of music on the body using brain scans, focusing on seven genres: chant, Baroque, classical, gospel, new age, jazz, and folk. After two years they concluded Baroque era music most effectively “…stabilized the different rhythms of the body and mind — mental, physical, and emotional — which allowed for greater concentration and focus. Bach’s music consistently showed the best results in this regard.”

Andrew tries to unlock what it is about Bach.  “…Bach’s music utilizes both chordal music (music characterized by harmony) and contrapuntal textures (the interweaving melodies) somewhat equally, which provides for music processing in both left and right hemispheres of the human brain. A descriptive characteristic of his music and music of his time is the significance of balance… You hear sounds that are soft and loud, high and low, short and long. Rhythms that are slow and fast, simple and complex. Melodies and harmonies that have enormous stylistic variety.”  Such music stimulates brain functions without overload.

Andrew goes on to note that healing music often comes from composers who themselves suffered from depression and other forms of mental illness. Perhaps despair transmuted into beauty more profoundly eases other people’s suffering.

I can’t help but consider all that troubles our beautiful world. When music helps to lift the individual mind from unconsciousness to consciousness, surely music helps to lift our collective awareness as well.

After all, music is used to lull small ones to sleep, rouse teams to victory, woo lovers, deepen worship, commemorate solemn occasions, and celebrate joy. Throughout history, music has been a traditional way  to bring peace and justice. Through music we more fully grasp that all of us feel grief, love, fear, injustice, delight, and moments of transcendence. Let’s play one another into a more loving world.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” ~Leonard Bernstein

The Queen’s Gift

beginning beekeeping

This is a throwback post, first published in the winter 2009 edition of Farming Magazine. 

It’s human nature to look for signs. Easy success appears to be a portent of even better things to come. Too much bad luck seems to tell us to change direction. Give up. Run away.

My husband, Mark, and I have had plenty of practice warding off naysayers who think we’re foolhardy to hang on to our small farm. A few years ago Mark’s neck was broken in a car accident and he’s still dealing with some chronic health problems. Then we lost our home business and were left with heavy debt.  After that, Mark was downsized from several jobs due to the floundering economy.

Although bills mount as we repair ancient tractors and pay vet bills, living here keeps our spirits up. Tending the land with our four children bonds our family together in ways we couldn’t have imagined before we moved here. Baling hay, stacking firewood, learning about animal husbandry —these are living memories for us all. And the beauty of living closer to nature provides spiritual depth beyond measure.

We enjoy simple pleasures,  all the while hoping the next farm venture will turn our fortunes around. Our newest project has been beekeeping.

Mark, and our 13-year-old, Sam, took beekeeping classes last winter.  After each session they came home excited about the intricate world of these insects.  Mark and the kids built hives together. I copied poems on the wooden boxes. We read about the science, mythology, and practical keeping of bees.

On the first warm day of spring we chose a clearing near wild blackberry bushes and clover-filled pastures to set the hives.  We hauled them there under the inquiring gaze of our cows. I couldn’t help think of our land as one flowing with milk and honey.

The project became expensive as costs for equipment and the price of bees exceeded our estimates. The week before the bees were due to arrive both our vehicles broke down.  A dozen chickens were killed by a marauding dog. The bridge over our creek washed out in a storm. The omens didn’t seem promising.

Finally boxes teeming with thousands of insects arrived. Prepared as any novices could be, we walked out back carrying these humming packages over the creek, past chickens and cows, blessed by blue skies.

There’s a careful procedure to follow when ‘hiving’ bees. Each queen, along with a few insect attendants, is enclosed in a tiny lightweight wooden box called a queen chamber. This is sealed two ways. Inside there’s an edible barrier called a candy plug and outside of that is a cork.  The beekeeper pulls the cork, puts the whole queen chamber into the new hive, shakes the bees loose around the queen chamber, then puts the hive lid on.  The bees become acquainted with the queen’s pheromones and accept her as their own.  In a few days’ time the attendants have eaten through the candy plug and the queen is loose in the hive but at home enough to stay.

There we were, ready at our lovingly constructed new beehives. We started on the first hive. Mark followed the procedure— easing out the cork plug on the queen chamber as planned and lowering it into the hive.

Without warning, the queen flew out.

Apparently the wooden chamber wasn’t sealed with a candy plug. Now we had several thousand bees for that hive but no queen. After months of preparation, our sparse funds pulled together for this project, our very first hiving had failed. Mark, Sam and I stood in silent disbelief.

Then we realized we could see the queen circling around us, a dot against the bright spring sun.  I talked aloud to her, saying we needed her to stay near her new home. Sam tried to gently trap her in some spare netting. All to no avail. What’s the chance an insect will do what we want her to? Characteristically, Mark started working on another hive, focusing on what needed to be done next.

Right then, unbelievably, the queen landed next to Mark’s hand. And there she stayed, offering her presence like a gift. He reached out and covered her with his other hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  I put the wooden chamber near his fingers and improbably the queen crawled back into the tiny opening. He placed the chamber in the hive, then Sam shook in the bees and closed the lid. All of us felt goodness and mercy descend on us in that clearing.

Later Mark asked several apiary experts about the likelihood of new beekeepers recapturing an escaped queen.  They all said there was no chance at all.  But we know better.  Hope is always within reach, even when you least expect it. On our farm we savor that sweetness every day.

This article is old, but we’re still here and it’s still sweet. 

Beauty. Danger. Confusion.

Look where you're going.

One of my favorite ways to start the day is an hour-long walk with my friend Christie. We meet up a little after sunrise. It is quiet then, just birdsong and our conversation. We may start out discussing work or family but tend to veer off in all sorts of directions, typically on to the Deeper Meaning of things. Okay, we talk about aging too. We’re both in our 50’s and more than a tad annoyed at various body systems that aren’t in great operating order. We usually manage to verbally rummage around until we find a jot of wisdom we can gain from these problems.

A few weeks ago on a misty morning, we were walking and talking full tilt when I suddenly spotted something ahead of us. I gasped. I flung my arm out to stop Christie. I suspect we came to such an abrupt halt that we both wavered like cartoon characters.

“A buck!” I whispered.

There, beyond a rise in the road, was a huge deer. Christie and I looked at it for what may have been a full minute. She saw its white chest. I saw its upright posture, unmoving and alert. We both wondered if it would even be safe to continue in that direction.

That is, until we simultaneously realized we were not looking at a magnificent animal. There was no deer in the road. There never had been a deer in the road. What we were looking at was a mailbox.

Yes, we laughed ourselves silly. One more step and the dark silhouette ahead easily resolved into the outline of a simple roadside mailbox. We laughed some more.

Normally I’d go on to write about some insight I gained from this experience. And I’d probably tuck in some piece of research to demonstrate how easily we humans believe what isn’t verified. But I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I gained even a molecule of wisdom. That’s because my most recent walk with Christie took place on a similarly foggy morning. We approached the same rise in the road. And just for a moment, I gasped aloud again when I spotted the same buck-impersonating-mailbox.

Clearly I have no insight to share. Just a warning if you might ever find yourself taking a walk with me. My delusions are so contagious that Christie gasped that second time too.