Earth’s Bright Future

I clicked on an article titled, “Study finds our galaxy may be full of dead alien civilisations,” thinking, Wow, a career in space archeology would be fascinating.

Researchers used an extended version of the Drake Equation, which determines the odds of extraterrestrial intelligence existing in our galaxy, to consider factors necessary for a habitable environment. They speculated that intelligent life may have emerged in our galaxy about 8 billion years after it was formed. (Here on Earth, humans emerged 13.5 billion years after the Milky Way was formed.)

Neat!

And then I got to the passage about “the tendency for intelligent life to self-annihilate…”

What? We know about the fall of empires but did we know science says our species’ selfishly destructive ways are likely take us all out? According to the article,

“While no evidence explicitly suggests that intelligent life will eventually annihilate themselves, we cannot a priori preclude the possibility of self-annihilation,” the study reads.

“As early as 1961, Hoerner suggests that the progress of science and technology will inevitably lead to complete destruction and biological degeneration, similar to the proposal by Sagan and Shklovskii (1966).

“This is further supported by many previous studies arguing that self-annihilation of humans is highly possible via various scenarios, including but not limited to war, climate change and the development of biotechnology.”

This is staggering to consider, especially while we are living through (well, hopefully living through) a tangled knot of crises including a pandemic, climate change, widening inequality, and political unrest. I’m pretty sure we don’t want to leave a dead planet relevant only to space archeologists, even if we currently seem to be heading that way.

I take refuge in hope. Here are a few of the many reasons why.

  1. Crisis has saved us in the past. After all, the Renaissance followed the Black Plague. And there’s much earlier evidence that crisis leads humanity forward. It appears a near-cataclysmic moment in the Upper Paleolithic period led to the preeminence of modern humans. Environmental degradation reduced our kind to near-annihilation. We emerged from this crisis only because we developed new collaborative practices such as trading with strangers and loyalty initiation rituals, engendered to create grudging trust. It took a near-extinction level events for humanity to socially evolve in the Paleolithic. Imagine how our response to this pandemic might move us forward.
  2. Nonviolent action is not only an ethical choice, it is actually the most powerful way to shape world politics. Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, examined hundreds of social/political change movements over the last century, Chenoweth found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.
  3. A recent survey by World Economic Forum indicates an overwhelming desire for change. Out of the more than 21,000 adults from 27 countries who were questioned, 86% would prefer to see the world change significantly – becoming more sustainable and equitable – rather than revert to the status quo. Even on an individual level,  72% say they prefer their life to change significantly rather than go back to how it was before the COVID-19 crisis started. Numbers are somewhat lower for the U.S., but a majority support initiatives to combat climate change.

How to bring about real change? That’s a huge topic, but here are a few hopeful glimpses.

Increasing momentum for positive social change is happening around the world, especially among young people. Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT, points out these movements differ from earlier student moments because they emphasize a change in consciousness, collaboration with people of all ages, and using technology in new ways to shift awareness toward solutions. Dr. Scharmer explains that this activates an axial shift in learning and human development, moving away from closed to open presence.

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Cooperative behavior is not only natural, it’s contagious. When people benefit from the kindness of others they go on to spread the compassion. The tendency to “pay it forward’ influences dozens more in an enlarging network of kindness. And even more heartening, the effect persists. Kindness begats more kindness, blotting out previously selfish behavior. It doesn’t seem to matter how people are exposed to kindness. They might read about altruistic behavior, see it in a video, or witness it in person. It also doesn’t seem to matter if the person offering kindness was similar to them, or if the help was material (like money) or non-material (like comfort). We are influenced not only by the people around us but also what we’re exposed to online and in the media. Time to pay closer attention to our influences, amplifying the kindness that’s so intrinsic to our human nature.

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Social justice makes us happier. Interviews with nearly 170,000 individuals across 28 countries show people whose countries emphasize social justice are happier, more pleased with their lives, and show greater trust in one another. Greater social justice demonstrates that people have value, which is crucial to psychological well-being. It also builds confidence in communities which, in turn, improves our relationships with others. It may help reduce prejudice as well. Social justice is shown to benefit the economy, including its gross national product. Countries with higher social justice showed higher GDP. To build a stronger economy plus a happier, healthier population, countries need to prioritize social justice policies. (Studies in the United States also show people experience greater happiness in states that spend more to promote the public good such as parks, libraries, public safety, and infrastructure.)

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Covid-19 as well as climate change brings into sharp focus what we need to do to restore the environment. Emergency physician James Maskalyk and Dave Courchene, founder of the Turtle Lodge International Centre for Indigenous Education and Wellness and chair of its National Knowledge Keepers’ Council, explain.

“The answer is already here, and has been known for thousands of years. It is in the wisdom and sacred teachings of Indigenous people across the world. They have the deepest connection to the spirit of the Earth and its history, and from this intimacy, healing can occur.

This is neither speculation nor fantasy. A 2019 study from the University of British Columbia, looking at biodiversity in Canada, Australia and Brazil, found more species of birds, animals and amphibians on land managed by Indigenous people, even greater than in national parks. In the same year, a collaboration involving 50 countries and more than 500 scientists, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), concluded that human activity and the resultant lack of biodiversity allowed for five new diseases to emerge every year with the potential to infect humans. They noticed that Indigenous land, though it faced the same pressures, was eroding less quickly. Capturing their knowledge, and expanding their stewardship, was cited as necessary for a healthier world.

No one created the problems that threaten to overwhelm us from malice. Not the plagues, nor climate change, nor extinctions. They have occurred as side effects of a system whose rapid growth is both encouraged at all costs, and blind to natural limits.”

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Creating a truly regenerative economy means moving into transformative change. Back in 1973, E.F. Schumacher, author of the influential book Small Is Beautiful, wrote about the importance of people and place-based economics built around relationship, craft, and environmental stewardship. While some of Schumacher’s observations don’t stand up nearly 50 years later, he would be pleased with today’s increasing focus on local food movements, ethical investment, worker-owned companies, and regenerative business models.  We are becoming more aware that we must shift our way of being on the planet from an exploitative to a regenerative presence. There are many inspiring paths to explore. I particularly appreciate Daniel Christian Wahl‘s book, Designing Regenerative Cultures, as well as Charles Eisenstein’s body of work including Climate: A New Story, The Ascent of Humanity, and Sacred Economics. For the most immediate collaborative solutions, I’m impressed by (and have written for) Shareable. Among other things, they offer 300 free home and neighborhood sharing guides. Here’s a bit about the sharing revolution, from their “about” page.

New and resurgent solutions are democratizing how we produce, consume, govern, and solve social problems. The maker movement, collaborative consumption, the solidarity economy, open source software, transition towns, open government, and social enterprise are just a sample of the movements showing a way forward based on sharing.

The sharing transformation shows that it’s possible to govern ourselves, build a green economy that serves everyone, and create meaningful lives together. It also suggests that we can solve the world’s biggest challenges — like poverty and global warming — by unleashing the power of collaboration. At the core of the sharing transformation is timeless wisdom updated for today — that it’s only through sharing, cooperation, and contribution to the common good that it’s possible to create lives and a world worth having.

And herein lay the engine of the sharing transformation: When individuals embrace sharing as a worldview and practice, they experience a new, enlivening way to be in the world. Sharing heals the painful disconnect we feel within ourselves, with each other, and the places we love. Sharing opens a channel to our creative potential. Sharing is fun, practical, and perhaps most of all, it’s empowering. 

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You may be activating change right now by the content of your conversations, the ideas you see taking hold around you, the way you stay informed, the way you raise your children and treat other children, how you interact with others, how you choose to spend your money as well as not spend your money, the way you earn money, the causes you advocate and believe in, and how you interact with our living planet. You, like so many change-makers, may already be living through deeply felt, personally lived ethics. That itself causes rippling change. Torchbearers of the last century who brought about so much good could do so because awareness shifted and deepened. A side benefit is depriving alien archeologists of the chance to explore a ruined planet!

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. ~Arundhati Roy

Favorite Books Read In 2020

“A book does not beep at you, spy on you, sell you out to marketers, interrupt with breaking news, suck you into a doomscrolling vortex, cease to function in a nor’easter, flood your eyes with melatonin-suppressing blue light or otherwise interrupt your already troubled sleep.”  ~Margaret Renkl

In 2019 I wrote a summary of the year’s joys, including titles of the best books I read. I have fewer things to celebrate this year but I am grateful for many blessings, among them wonderful books which are a welcome distraction from the ongoing horrors of 2020.

My budget doesn’t have much space for book purchases, but that’s okay, I’ve found a lifelong refuge in libraries. Many people have felt threatened by shortages of toilet paper and sanitizing wipes but I worry instead that the complete library lockdowns we experienced in the spring might recur. I’m one of those library patrons who regularly reserves a slew of books, from children’s picture books to those most recently reviewed in literary journals. Thanks to the extra hours insomnia gives me, I get through at least four books a week, often more. It’s impossible to imagine my life without books. Our rural county’s library system recently closed again due to increased pandemic risk but thankfully we can continue to get our books curbside. Every day a new pile of books comes in feels like a birthday to me. 

Among those I’ve got on order!

Here’s a shortlist of the best fiction and nonfiction I’ve read this year, along with my hope that you’ll share some of your own favorites in the comments.

 

Nonfiction

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake. You know that feeling when you encounter someone filled with awe? You can’t help but be captivated right along with them. That’s how I experience Merlin Sheldrake’s fascination with fungi. Neither plant nor animal, fungi are found everywhere and sustain nearly all living systems. Fungi connect plants in vitally necessary underground networks. They are influence the way we think, feel, and behave. They can also break down plastic, explosives, pesticides, and crude oil. Yet over ninety percent of their species remain undocumented. Sheldrake writes, “Without this fungal web my tree would not exist. Without similar fungal webs no plant would exist anywhere. All life on land, including my own, depended on these networks.”   library link

 

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature by J. Drew Lanham is a memoir, a reckoning with history, and a love letter to nature. Reading it, I am with the author as he explores the woods, minds his Mamatha, works to please his father, and discovers what he values. The writing soars in places, especially in descriptions of wilderness. J. Drew Lanham writes, “I eventually realized that to make a difference I had to step outside, into creation, and refocus on the roots of my passion. If an ounce of soil, a sparrow, or an acre of forest is to remain then we must all push things forward. To save wildlife and wild places the traction has to come not from the regurgitation of bad-news data but from the poets, prophets, preachers, professors, and presidents who have always dared to inspire. Heart and mind cannot be exclusive of one another in the fight to save anything. To help others understand nature is to make it breathe like some giant: a revolving, evolving, celestial being with ecosystems acting as organs and the living things within those places — humans included — as cells vital to its survival.”   library link

 

See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur. The author is a civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, and Sikh activist who describes how her experiences with personal and collective suffering led her to reclaim love as a world-changing force. She writes, “Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love.”  library link

 

To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the
Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger. When the author was orphaned as a child, elders took her in as the last ward under the Brehon Law. She was taught the ways of Celtic healing, the laws of the trees, Brehon wisdom, and the Ogham alphabet; all of it rooted the belief that forests are essential. Beresford-Kroeger grew up to became a botanist whose understanding of ancient ways brought her to new scientific breakthroughs. These include the discovery of mother trees, the chemical language of trees, the recognition that trees heal living creatures through the aerosols they release, and more. Beresford-Kroeger writes, “The elders versed in the mores of the Celtic culture instructed me in the meaning of a special word, buíochas. It means, as best I can render it, tender gratitude. The buíochas should be very high in each person, like a glass that is full. Buíochas is also a self-protection. You should carry gratitude in your heart for everything inside and outside your life and all the small things that impinge on your consciousness. The feeling of buíochas is like a medicine of the mind that holds your life together.”   library link

 

Field of Compassion: How the New Cosmology is Transforming Spiritual Life by Judy Canato. I’m in a study group diving deep into cosmologist Brian Swimme’s Powers of the Universe and Canato’s book is a good companion volume (along with those by Thomas Berry, David Bohm, Teilhard de Chardin, and Cynthia Bourgeault). Canato encourages us to create a “field of compassion” by practicing four attitudes: spaciousness, contemplation, commitment, and imagination. She writes, “Compassion changes everything. Compassion heals. Compassion mends the broken and restores what has been lost. Compassion draws together those who have been estranged or never even dreamed they were connected. Compassion pulls us out of ourselves and into the heart of another, placing us on holy ground where we instinctively take off our shoes and walk in reverence. Compassion springs out of vulnerability and triumphs in unity.”   library link

 

Divergent Mind: Thriving in a World That Wasn’t Designed For You by Jenara Nerenberg. This was a groundbreaking read for me. In several sections I nearly cried from the sheer relief of feeling understood. I am, by the standards of this book, neurodivergent. That includes my diagnosed ADHD, my sensory issues, and what’s left of my synesthesia.  Nerenberg reveals the ways girls and women’s sensory processing differences are overlooked or masked. We blame ourselves rather than learn to celebrate diversity’s gifts. She writes, “The world will benefit significantly from talents such as empathy, emotional intensity, certitude, sensitivity, ability to detect details, depth of thought, will to embrace, and many other things that we need in a time where alienation, coldness, superficiality, and emotional hardness are predominating.”  library link

 

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Written with precise and courageous prose, Trethewey shares the story of her mother’s life as well as her own early years. Despite the violence of her mother’s death, this memoir contains the sort of calm that comes of going deep to understand more fully. She writes, “What matters is the transformative power of metaphor and the stories we tell ourselves about the arc and meaning of our lives.” This book is an extraordinary example of that arc and meaning.   library link

 

Thin Places: Essays from In Between  by Jordan Kisner. Throughout these intelligent and always engaging essays, Kisner, who describes herself as “naturally reverent,” considers evangelical churches, neurosurgery, reality television, autopsies, and much more. Her search for meaning resonates strongly with me, as in this passage.  “Because thin places involve an encounter with the ineffable, they’re hard to talk about. You know something has happened, some dissolution or expansion, but like most things that feel holy and a little dangerous, it just sounds weird in post-factum description…  But then, the thin places I’ve known aren’t always places, per se. Sometimes a thin place appears between people. Sometimes it happens only inside you.”   library link

 

The Oldest Story In The World  by Phil Cousineau. My (own!) copy is underlined, starred, and littered with margin notes. Cousineau is a polymath whose love of story takes him (and us) on a journey from ancient Aboriginal tales to modern parables to the power of sharing our own stories. He writes, “Stories strangify experiences and estrange the world so we can rise above it like smoke, if even for a moment, to catch a glimpse not only of what is happening – but what it all might mean. That’s the beauty of it. That’s why stories are a means to an end, and the end is meaning, a meaning that emerges slowly with every daring glimpse into your own inward life.”   library link

 

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt  is an improbable tale about the redemptive powers of social media and the rewards of fandom. This memoir, anonymously written by a reclusive working writer, takes us with her as she creates the fictional character Duchess Goldblatt. I’ve enjoyed the wit and kindness of Her Grace on Twitter, enjoy it even more in this charming memoir. As the Duchess writes, “Sometimes I tie your words in linen with a little lavender and mint and use them as a poultice for my weary old heart.”   library link

 

 

Fiction

The Overstory by Richard Powers is a magnificent accomplishment. Very human stories converge with the natural world in wonder-inducing ways.  I loved everything about it and couldn’t help but read sections aloud to my mostly-patient spouse. I also understand fellow readers who got bogged down by its complexity. My booksmart friend Laurie gave me two helpful hints before I started. She said she made quick notes to help her remember the main character in each chapter. She also said it was not a book to read over a long period of time, instead it’s best to keep reading to fully absorb the impact over a series of days. I totally agree. Here’s a sample. “But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.”   library link

 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn. I was swept up away this remarkable book, especially where it steeps in the numinous. It’s a modern-day story of a struggling family whose lives shudder to the pulsing heartbeat of Hawaiian gods. Each family member’s gifts and burdens come across in pitch-perfect prose as they move ahead carrying the past’s shadows. Here’s a sample of Washburn’s writing. “But that’s the problem with the present, it’s never the thing you’re holding, only the thing you’re watching, later, from a distance so great the memory might as well be a spill of stars outside a window at twilight.”  library link

 

A Burning by Megha Majumdar is set in modern-day India. It connects the lives of an impoverished Muslim girl accused of terrorism, a coach willing to do anything for an extreme political party, and an outcast with dreams of glory. It has parallels to life in the U.S. and is so engrossing that I stayed up much of the night reading it start to finish. Here’s a sample, “I stand tall, though colors appear bright in my eyes, the greens of trees luminous as a mineral seam, the ground beneath my feet composed of distinct particles. My legs buckle, and the policewoman catches me. A shout goes up among the crowd.”   library link  

 

Hamnet  by Maggie O’Farrell twists a tiny bit of Shakespeare’s life into a tale of motherhood, grief, and determination in a time of plague. She effortlessly brings the reader into the daily lives of women in Elizabethan England with lucid prose, like this passage. “The trick is never to let down your guard. Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”   library link

 

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami is the tale of an immigrant family caught up in a murder mystery. It’s also a love story and a stark example of how much the personal is also political. Here’s a sample. “Perhaps memory is not merely the preservation of a moment in the mind, but the process of repeatedly returning to it, carefully breaking it up in parts and assembling them again until we can make sense of what we remember.”    library link

 

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich brings us into the lives of distinctly memorable characters, one based on her Chippewa grandfather. We can feel the cold night air, the omen in an owl’s call, the warm stew, the pencil scratching across paper, the long history honored within traditions. The story takes place in the early 1950’s yet feels entirely relevant today. Here’s a bit of Erdrich’s prose. “Things started going wrong, as far as Zhaanat was concerned, when places everywhere were named for people—political figures, priests, explorers—and not for the real things that happened in these places—the dreaming, the eating, the death, the appearance of animals. This confusion of the chimookomaanag between the timelessness of the earth and the short span here of mortals was typical of their arrogance.”  library link

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a singular tale. Twin sisters from a small, all-Black community run away from home in their teens only to follow very different paths. Bennett’s meditation on race, identity, and family is both timely and timeless. As she writes, “That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone. That was what had captured her in the charm shop, all those years ago. Then adulthood came, your choices solidifying, and you realize that everything you are had been set in motion years before. The rest was aftermath.” library link

 

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel is inspired by the author’s ancestors. This painful coming-of-age story is riddled with poverty, racism, and abuse. At the same time, it’s a transcendent read. Somehow McDaniel makes each beautifully written paragraph seem effortless, as she does in this passage. “My father’s hands were soil. My mother’s were rain. No wonder they could not hold one another without causing enough mud for two. And yet out of that mud, they built us a house that became a home.”  library link

 

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey.  This is an observant and captivating book centered around siblings whose lives are forever changed after finding a victim of a violent crime. Livesey is a master at creating authentic characters. I’d have happily followed them through any plot. Here’s a glimpse. “If Zoe was the one who found things, their little brother was the one who noticed them: the different yellows of two eggs yolks, the way a person’s lips twitched when they met him, the first snowdrops pushing up through the frosty grass, the curve of a dog’s eyebrows.”    library link

 

Stars of Alabama by Sean Dietrich actually reminds me of a Steinbeck novel. Dietrich is a gifted storyteller who makes this saga sing. His characters’ broken hopes and strange yearnings are imbued with hope. Here’s a sample: “Their lives weren’t beautiful. In fact, their lives were hard. And whenever they settled into a routine, along came something that changed it. They always seemed to be a few meals away from starvation, and they seemed to have less each month than they had the month before. But life doesn’t have to be beautiful to be pretty, Paul thought. All it needs is red hair.”   library link

 

“I have always loved the feel of books, the way they give a literal weight to words and make of them a sacred object.”   ~Natasha Trethewey

 

 

Holding Up

“Hope sleeps in our bones like a bear waiting for spring to rise and walk.”   ~Marge Piercy

People used to ask “what’s new?” or “how’s work?” or “what’s the family up to?” but this year’s standard inquiry seems to be “how are you holding up?”

I don’t know about you, but the holding and the up both are pretty tenuous. Every day seems to pose a more serious threat to democracy, the environment, to justice. This week we are breaking records for Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths, with experts warning of a “dire winter.” I know people who are currently suffering with Covid-19. I know people who have died. I also know people who say concern over the virus is “overblown” and continue to go to the gym and to large gatherings although we’ve now hit daily death tolls exceeding those on 9/11.

Sometimes it feels like I’m polishing every splinter of hope I can find. But when I pay closer attention to what’s holding me up, I find a vast scaffolding. Here are a few rungs on this month’s ladder.

An ash tree in our yard continues to thrive despite invasive ash borers. I greet this tree every time I walk past. Like the sycamore, dogwood, hawthorn, and maple trees around our house I consider this tree a friend. It’s the first tree I see when I look out our back windows, its branches almost always full of twittering birds. I know ash trees are in serious decline. Millions of U.S. ash trees have already died due to the invasive ash borer, including hundreds of trees in the woodland part of our property. But some trees continue to thrive. They’re called “lingering ash.” Somehow these trees, untreated by insecticides, carry on. Their genes seem to resist predation. Science hopes resistant ash can perpetuate the species. This tree’s resistance to annihilation can’t help but inspire me. Let’s hope we can be the lingering best versions of our own species.

Although I’m getting less accomplished overall, I am honored to have recent work published in One Art, Feral: A Journal of Poetry & Art, Revolution Relaunch, Friend’s Journal, and Channel Magazine. I’m also surprised and honored to be one of the winners of Cultural Weekly‘s Jack Grapes Poetry Prize.

Out here, although you can’t see him, Boris the Duck and his unnamed friend paddle around in peace. Boris is flightless due to a healed broken wing. I look for him many times a day and each time his presence amplifies the peace I feel here. Whether making coffee near dawn or washing dishes near dusk, seeing Boris settles something in me.

I love teaching, even via Zoom. I never thought we could achieve a strong sense of connection by screen, but it’s possible. The magic of writing and sharing our work isn’t as high wattage as in-person classes but it’s remarkable. I come away from each class entirely nourished.

And of course there’s the new puppy. Imagine the joy Festus feels right now. Despite his considerable shortness, he discovered the magic of unrolling, carrying, and decorating. May your day hold at least that much happiness.

It May Happen For You

Here in the Midwest we say, “You won’t meet a nicer person” and that perfectly describes Sam Richards. Sam is married to my cousin Becky (another one of those truly kind people). The geographical distance separating us means we only see each other every decade or so, but nearly two years ago Becky and Sam came from Missouri to stay with us for a few days. Sam had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and because his symptoms were worsening they wanted to cross off as many bucket list items as possible before travel became too difficult. They went to parks, museums, visited extended family in the area, and walked around the tree-lined streets of Oberlin College where Becky’s father had graduated. It was an absolute delight to spend time with them, even though shadowed by our concern for Sam’s health. It was gutting to think this supremely capable and generous man was facing decline.  

Sam served in the U.S. Marine Corp for 23 years. He continued a life of public service as a police officer and code enforcement officer. His commitment didn’t end there. He served a total of eight years on two different city councils, nearly 20 years on a regional EMS board of directors, as well ongoing work on the executive council of their Methodist church.  He was asked to run for mayor of their city, Festus, but couldn’t consider it due to his health.

Later that year, Becky called with the most amazing news. It was discovered that Sam didn’t have Parkinson’s after all. A medication he was taking for another condition caused side effects that mimicked the disease. With a change of medication, his future was once again wide open. I could have laughed and cried at the same time. With everything going on in the country and the world, this was the best news we’d heard in a very long time.

It got better.

Last year, on April 2nd, Sam Richards was sworn in as mayor of Festus, Missouri.

                                                                     ~~~

Which brings me to today. Our new puppy arrived this afternoon. Many of the dogs we’ve had over the years came to us already named – among them Jedi, Winston, and Cocoa. But this little guy was ours to name. In these difficult times, I want a daily reminder that extraordinarily wonderful things are possible. That a good thing happened to a good man. That a town got a fine mayor. That there’s always hope. So of course, our new dog’s name is Festus.

He is an affectionate, playful, constant tail-wagging fluff ball. First nap of the afternoon.

SOMETIMES

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
fom bad to worse.  Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
That seemed hard frozen: it may happen for you.

~Sheenagh Pugh  

Gratitude via Mental Subtraction

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” ~Thornton Wilder

Edible flowers as well as chard, basil, chives, and other tender plants grow on my front and back porches. I water them each day, aware a killing frost will arrive soon. I’ve been succession planting lettuces and globe carrots, but missed replanting one pot. That explains its proud crop of weeds. When I water, I water those weeds too. They might as well enjoy what time they have left.

This is my favorite season. Gorgeous autumn leaves, vivid blue skies, and a certain slant of light in late afternoon illuminating everything with a stained glass glow. Each one a reminder that what flourishes must also die. As I can, freeze, and dry our produce each fall I can’t help but think of my ancestors, yours too, whose preparations for winter were about survival.   

We are living in difficult times. Unprecedented times. Rampant disease, devastating injustice, and a climate teetering toward ever-worsening disaster. Somehow it helps me to remember our ancestors endured famine, floods, war, ill health, and oppression. Our existence is the direct consequence of ancestors who persevered despite the odds. We carry their resilience and courage in our genes.     

Thinking of my ancestors’ stories magnifies my sense of gratitude. Unlike nearly everyone who came before me I have a safe home, enough food, and access to medical care. I can connect with people anywhere in the world. I have rights, including the right to make my own choices, something that would astonish my foremothers. The very desk where I’m sitting is filled with writing and art projects as well as stacks of library books. This is true wealth.

I’m reminded of a concept called mental subtraction. It’s a version of the old school “count your blessings” approach. My mother and grandmother used it often by telling us we were lucky to have what we had, whether food on our plates or clothes on our backs, especially compared to those who had much less. (Typically in response to a child balking at yucky food or dorky outfits.)  It’s not helpful to reply to others’ misery with “it could be worse” but choosing to reflect on our own good fortune can be helpful. When we take the time to savor people and experiences we tend to be happier.

Here’s how mental subtraction works.

  • Pick something positive in your life – say a good relationship or a personal achievement or a friendly neighborhood.
  • Take a few minutes to imagine your life without it. What would be different right now?
  • Write down how you would be impacted, including emotional impact.
  • Refocus on the present moment. How do you feel now?

Research shows many benefits to regularly expressing gratitude for the positives in our lives, but the effect is even stronger when people reflect on the potential absence of these good things. It’s one thing to think, “I’m glad Jada is in my life.” It’s another to consider, “Imagine if I’d never met Jada!” Seems negative doesn’t it? But the brain’s workings habituate us to our blessings. We get used to a supportive friend or a good job. They inevitably become familiar, even when we try our best to be grateful.

But considering our lives without these positives can bring them into better focus. It’s sort of like the classic 1946 movie It’s A Wonderful Life. The main character, George Bailey, is in despair and considers suicide. An angel intervenes. He doesn’t ask George to be grateful. Instead he shows him what the world would be like if he’d never been born and those blessings never occurred. It’s a sugar-sweet movie version of mental subtraction.

In studies, people who practiced mental subtraction were happier and expressed greater appreciation than those who did not try the practice. It also boosted satisfaction with relationships and offered more positive self-reflection. Sort of like thinking back on our ancestors’ trials, a few moments of mental subtraction every now and then can reawaken us to the good in our lives.  

Image by Olcay Ertem

Empty Calendar

“We have surface time, which is the time we move through every day, but we need to reach the rhythms of deep time. Like the ocean is all waves and movement on the surface, we need to sink through time to the depths where the true rhythm lies.”    ~John O’Donohue

I stopped using online calendars years ago, preferring the inconvenience of art-rich wall calendars. On January first I perform an annual calendar ritual. I go through the previous year’s written-on pages, using a colored pen to transcribe birthdays and anniversaries on the new year’s clean, optimistic squares. Then I add regular gatherings —  second Saturday for book group, third Monday for women’s spiritual group, every Wednesday for focused meditation, and so on. As I do, I can’t help but reflect on the past year. All those days filled with classes, meetings, deadlines. All the celebrations, house concerts, potlucks, and family gatherings. All the trembly courage it took to give a talk or lead a meeting, now comfortably in the past. I always write an overly optimistic list of the ways I’ll challenge myself in the next year. I rarely do more than a few.  

The calendar I picked for 2020 offers beautiful tree-themed art for each month. And like everyone else’s calendar, it lies. I no longer even cross off what’s cancelled. Why bother, when there’s nothing to add in its place? Looking at it I imagine another me, in a parallel universe, doing those scheduled things. My other self doesn’t appreciate them nearly enough. She complains about being rushed, about traffic, about long lines. She vows to slow down and appreciate the moment. When she does she notices new things while stuck in traffic, enjoys the faces of people standing in line, savors more fully the pleasure of a porch chair after a long day. But she’s not always so mindful.

None of us could have imagined the year we’re in. Time takes on a different dimension when so many people have died and so many are suffering. We can’t help but sink more deeply into these hours of ours.

My calendar hangs by my desk, beautiful and useless. Time’s measure no longer fits on its pages. 

Reframing the Story

 

Dr. Bertice Berry is a sociologist, author, storyteller, and inveterate volunteer who is currently devoting herself to making and donating masks. She and her family have made 9,000 so far.  She also records a daily story each morning, sharing it both on YouTube and Facebook.

In this recent story she talks about reframing the negative narratives we carry,  which can change what we see in others and what we see in ourselves. It’s a way of making peace in our lives, but it takes practice.

That video brought to mind something my family used to do years ago, when the kids were little. If someone cut us off in traffic or was rude in public we’d say, “What is her story?” and then everyone would volunteer random possibilities. Her baby was up all night or a stone was stuck in her shoe or she’s late for work (or as one of my sons liked to contribute) “her butt itches but she can’t scratch it.”  It didn’t just distract us from our annoyance, it was a playful way to consider other people’s perspectives. I hoped this practice let us feel closer, for a moment, to the oneness underlying all life on this planet.

We need to remember to apply empathy to our own troubles too. The stories we hold about ourselves and the world around us, often subconsciously, can drag us down. These tend to be stories about unworthiness. We live in a culture where worth has to do with wealth, status, followers, beauty, youth, and power. We live in a culture where the worth of others is denied by those who benefit from us versus them thinking. Get enough people to believe less of those who don’t share their skin color, religion, ethnic background, or political leaning and you’ve got a powerful diversion from real issues that affect us all. Instead of acting on climate, healthcare reform, systemic racism, and public health we’re baited to fear and mistrust one another.

Which reminds me of another Dr. Berry story about comic books, old china, and a man’s insistence on acting with honor even while his family was being evicted. His plea, “Please don’t take my integrity,” will stay with me the way good stories often do. Give yourself a few minutes to listen.

 

When I make time to watch Dr. Berry’s daily story I am always improved by her wisdom, her smile, and her closing “I love you.” She says it like she means it. Is it hard to believe someone means “I love you” when they don’t know you?  It’s not hard to believe some people hate people they don’t know, even express hate for every individual who looks, acts, believes, or votes differently than they do. Dr. Berry’s choice to love is so much better. So much healthier, wiser, and kinder. I love you all too.

Elf Trouble

My husband does not admit to disposing of the body.

I have just realized our resident house elf has a problem. Somehow its body is missing. This creature has lived on the tops of various picture frames ever since one of our sons wanted an elf-themed 7th birthday party. Although no one knew quite how our elf moved from picture frame to picture frame, we all knew then and know now that this isn’t a real elf, like the elves who (when it’s very quiet here) can be heard snickering and scuffling through the pages of their teeny tiny books and living their best house elf lives. Still, I’m shocked to notice only its decapitated head now rests on a picture frame.

I ask the spouse in a casual non-interrogating way:

“Where is the elf’s body?”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“How long has he been broken?”

Even under repeated (casual!) questioning he claims no involvement in disposing of the body. Says it’s no big deal. Says it has likely been broken for a few years.

A few years?

The last few years in this family have been rough, health wise. Far be it from me to fess up to more magical thinking than is psychologically normal. (None is normal, I’m told. That can’t be right.) But if there is a ever a time to indulge in some elf-sized superstition, it’s now. Why piss off the Elm Realm if you can avoid it?

But I’m not sure how to deal with this decapitated head. I consider a respectful burial. Consider letting it rest in a box with other sentimental things. And then I consult the son who had that elf birthday party many years ago. “Put it back on a picture frame,” he advised. “He’s still our elf.”

Maybe I need to redirect my superstitions toward the chipped-wing gargoyle in our flower bed.

 

 

First Time You Felt Brave*

 

I am fifteen. I do my best to avoid being noticed. I don’t dress provocatively or wear makeup other than mascara, barely even see other faces because I don’t wear my glasses. I do my schoolwork, work an afterschool job, date a boy who makes me feel safe. But inside I have large, loud opinions about social conditions, politics, religion. I don’t know anyone who talks about such things. My boyfriend wisely listens and agrees with the fervent opinions I share only with him.

I don’t know how to get along with my boyfriend’s family so I smile and stay quiet. I’m pretty sure something about me disgusts his older brother because he won’t even look at me. If I call and he answers, he drops the phone on the counter to yell for his brother. He’s never once said my name. My boyfriend’s father is 6 foot 5 inches, towering 14 inches over me. I’m not familiar with adult sarcasm so I wilt around him. I don’t like that my wilting makes me seem like my boyfriend’s mother, who expresses no opinions, not even on her face, making herself small and subservient.

One afternoon my boyfriend and I are out together. We stop at his house for a brief interlude with his proudly Irish great uncle who is visiting from out of state for the first time in decades. He is thin and whiskery as a stalk of wheat. I smile at him whenever he looks my way. He brings up a work-related incident that still angers him, quickly devolving into racist comments  He is the first person I’ve ever heard deride Black people. In the next sentence he uses the n-word. I bristle. My boyfriend looks at me with an expression I interpret as let it go. The great uncle continues, his mouth in a strange smirk. I have been taught to be polite. I’ve kept quiet to my detriment many times and will do so many more times. But this time I speak up.

My boyfriend’s family looks shocked as the quiet little blonde girl, the one who obsessively reads history, spews out all the Irish slurs she can think of. I say Mick and Paddy and drunken Irish, asking if he wants his people spoken about that way.  I ask if he knows what prejudice his ancestors endured when signs were posted outside buildings reading No Irish need apply or No Irish, no dogs, or, more commonly, No Irish, no dogs, no Blacks just a few generations ago.

There’s an awful pause.

I want to run out of the room but, unexpectedly, he agrees such terms are unfair. Then starts to justify his biases. I say it’s the exact same thing. He says no it’s not, I say yes it is. Prejudice is prejudice.

A longer pause.

Neither one of us knows how to extricate ourselves from the situation. Right about then, my boyfriend invents a reason we have to leave. We hustle out of the house. Once we get in the car, I laugh although I’m shaking. I say I have no delusion I’ve made any difference. I have no idea how to make a difference. The real me wants very much to know what can.

~

Now I live in a world where young people, everywhere, advocate loudly and persistently for a sustainable, equitable, compassionate future. They’re not standing up to one racist man, they are standing up to an entrenched history of brutality and greed. They are reshaping the future. I can feel it happening. I hope you can too.

*I’ve worked on an exhaustively hyperlinked post about ways to reimagine education during the pandemic but just can’t seem to muster up what it takes to finish it. So I’m posting this response to the writing prompt “the first time you felt brave.” I think our world needs a great deal more bravery (and love) than it ever has in my lifetime. Please respond with a story of when YOU felt brave. 

 

Compassion By Design

The weight of other people’s suffering can be palpable, whether someone weeping in the next room or someone in agony across the globe. How do we go about our own lives knowing others are in anguish at the same moment? This question has haunted me, especially in my growing up years. I suspect such questions weigh more on children than we imagine.

By the time I was eight or nine years old, my parents had cancelled their subscriptions to news magazines because they couldn’t deal with repeated questions like, “Why is that village burning? Who hurt that man? Why isn’t someone helping that baby?” Even the most well-intentioned adult would rather not think about such questions, let alone answer them. Try to explain war to a child. No matter how you skew it, the answer comes down to whoever destroys more property and kills more people, wins. Try explaining poverty or prejudice to a child. It’s impossible to morally justify the indifference and greed that helps to prop up “normal” life in the face of truly open, honest questions.

Starting in babyhood, most children express empathy as well as a sense of connection to the natural world.  Many children, including some we call “gifted” and some we call “neurodiverse” are more strongly motivated by the search for justice, mercy, equality, and truth than by more superficial adult concerns like polite behavior.

Even new arrivals to the planet demonstrate this. By six months of age, babies show empathy for those who have been treated unfairly. Concern for others starts on day one. When hearing recorded cries, one-day old newborns are more likely to cry when hearing a recording of another baby crying than their own cries. Newborns also show more intense and longer-lasting distress when listening to others’ cries. This effect doesn’t diminish. Studies show babies continue to react with distress to other’s cries at one, three, six, and nine months.

As children show us, this is quite naturally who we are. Kindness is the way our species evolved. According to anthropologist Douglas Fry, author of Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace,  for 98 percent of our human existence on earth we lived in small nomadic bands that did not make war, thriving precisely because our kind relied on cooperation and collaboration. The oldest and most longstanding child-rearing practices still support this way of being.

Historian Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind: A Hopeful History, says in a recent interview, “If I say most people are pretty decent that may sound nice and warm but actually it’s really radical and subversive and that’s why, all throughout history, those who have advocated a more hopeful view of human nature – often the anarchists – have been persecuted.”

Greed, and violence are not “human nature.”  We flourish best with gentle nurturance and ongoing cooperation.  Even our bodies are cued for compassion. In fact, research tells us our bodies pump out oxytocin when we’re stressed. Normally we think of it as a love hormone. It is. It prompts us to connect with and support one another. As we reach out, our bodies react with more oxytocin, helping us recover while strengthening relationships.

We are in a time of intense reexamination brought about by an unchecked global pandemic, systemic oppression, and ecosystem destruction.When we wall off our feelings of outrage, shame, and despair we’re walled off from ourselves.  It’s time to recognize the collective weight of suffering. Time to truly to listen to each other. This starts with the questions children ask, often the largest questions.

As Tobin Hart writes in The Secret Spiritual World of Children, our wide-awake presence in the lives of children “reminds us to listen for inner wisdom, find wonder in the day, see through the eye of the heart, live the big questions, and peer into the invisible. “