Saturday, December 30, 2006

What is the beginner's body and mind?

My intention is to bring a beginner's body, mind, enthusiasm and zest to my art, writing, community work, and tennis.

As a middle-aged person, I have neither a beginner's body or mind. But thinking like a beginner, remembering times when I was learning and enjoying as a beginner, brings a different feeling tone to what I can imagine for myself. What we can imagine, we can also make real. A beginner's mind has a thirst for learning, a sense of enthusiasm, and a broad scope for possibilities. You can forgive yourself as a beginner, you know you are learning, you allow yourself to make mistakes, and are excited about the idea of progressing. The beginner is unencumbered by the thick overlay of societal conditioning and expectations.


One of my most joyous beginner's art experiences was participating in the Mayday parade, organized by the Heart of the Beast Theatre in Minneapolis. I made a large papier mache fish for the parade in the only colors available: fuschia, turquoise and lime green. I inserted myself in the fish, and with an assortment of other finned critters, marched in the parade. I loved everything about this, and the creation of this exuberant fish was great fun. What would it really feel like FROM THE INSIDE of my head, to feel as excited about artmaking as I was when I made that fish? I don't have the answer, but the question is a very promising one.


What are my memories of writing? It hasn't concretely felt joyous, but it feels nonetheless like a necessity. I received a diary when I was a young person, and started writing boring things in it--who I talked to that day, what I had for lunch. That never did anything for me. Then, I got the idea of writing about what was important to me, and it made my pen move. In my early 20's, I read the diaries of Anais Nin, and started journaling. I once had a boyfriend who tried to talk me out of journaling. He wanted me to express all those thoughts to him. That was no good. I have been writing continuously for myself, for 30 years. Now my words are being seen by the small audiences that come to this blog. The blogger's world is certainly the world of the beginner's mind, and I think that is a good thing. Many, many people have started blogs. It demonstrates that a large number of people are bringing a beginner's mind of curiosity to the work of writing and communicating with others.


I love the idealism of young people. Sometimes I am able to tap into that beginner's idealism in my own community work. The world is full of people who are eager to explain why something can't be done. But to the beginner, anything is possible. I still naively believe that people can be persuaded to change their transportation habits, not just to save money, not just to reduce air pollution, not just to lose weight, but because it is a good thing to be in physical and visual contact with one another, on the street, on our bicycles, in carpools, and on the bus. So, yes! I still have access to the beginner's mind in my community work.


When we stop thinking like a beginner, we think we know all the answers. Know-It-Alls are afflicted with the disease of wanting to be right. It is extremely difficult for such people to remain open to new knowledge. We have plentiful evidence that there are too many people in high places who suffer from the arrogance of knowing everything. I am sticking my neck out now...I'm going to suggest that adopting a beginner's mind might be a good practice for more than just me.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

To Mom for Christmas

I don't design a Christmas card every year, but this year I did. The image is of a gift tag that reads: "To Mom". The "from" line is hidden by a leaf of garlic mustard, growing here in Minnesota, in the month of December.

I am probably one of the few people to regularly blog about garlic mustard, as I did in this early post. When a friend spent a half hour ranting about her efforts to eradicate garlic mustard from her backyard, it got my attention. The plant had been invisible to me until I started looking for it, then I started to see it everywhere in the woods that I love. The reason that it is currently growing in the woods, even though it is December, is that the plant produces seeds so profusely that they begin to sprout after several days of sunshine. Instead of having our normal cold December, we've had a mild month, with cycles of warm and cool, but not all that cold.

If I was hungry, I could be picking these attractive rosettes, and sauteing them as one would do with other fresh greens you find in the springtime. I haven't tried cooking garlic mustard greens, yet I surely will one of these days. Garlic mustard is an invasive plant that grows rapidly and squeezes out other native species of plants.

The Christmas card is dedicated to moms everywhere, especially Mother Earth, who certainly needs some better gifts from humans than she has received in the last 10,000 years or so. Humans have been doing what comes naturally for a long time. Wherever human populations grow and become successful, soils have declined, and edible and non-edible species have become extinct. We are similar to garlic mustard in that we reduce species diversity. So I would argue that we should regard garlic mustard as something of a kindred spirit. Like humans, garlic mustard flourishes when we have mild winters.

My hope during this holiday season is that the Christian/Christmas message of caring for all creation filters down to members of the Christian flocks. I am somewhat encouraged by the news that congregations around Minnesota have been learning together about the effects of global warming and steps that could be taken to work with local communities to improve ecological health and sustainability. Congregations Caring for Creation is a Minnesota-based coalition of churches who are studying creation care and social justice. My own congregation is inviting others to watch a screening of Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, on January 7. Coincidentally, the screening date coincides with Epiphany, the day the eastern Churches celebrated the birth of Christ.

Here's hoping that parishioners, with or without Al Gore's help, experience some epiphanies about global warming and creation care. All of us, Mother Earth included, could use the spiritual help.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Counting my blessings

A short post today. Like a lot of people, I am planning on kicking back, cooking, spending time with family and friends, counting my blessings.

Yesterday I helped out our local hot food delivery service, delivering meals to about 8 households here in town. It was touching to enter the homes of some of these people. One was a man, I would guess 60+ years old, seated in a wheelchair, with two legs amputated mid-thigh. I presumed he was a military veteran. He had the remains of a stogie in his mouth, and his entire very small, very dark house reeked of smoke. I placed the little containers of pudding, hamburger gravy, mashed potatoes, pudding and peaches on his crowded kitchen table. "Merry Christmas," I said. The corners of this mouth turned up just a little.

I headed out to my next delivery, which was to another elderly lady I'll call Verna. I came to the door and Verna answered. "I'm here to deliver your meal," I said, and pushed the door open. "Oh, I didn't know someone was going to deliver a meal," she said. "Your name Verna?" I asked. "Yes, I'm Verna." I took the liberty of assuming I was to deliver the meal, no matter what, and started unloading the little containers on her spotless kitchen table. "I get a little forgetful at times, " Verna said. She showed me a Christmas card, a picture of her nephew in a pumpkin patch. "Isn't that a great picture?" she said. I agreed it was, wished her a Merry Christmas, and urged her to eat her meal, eat it all up. She seemed amenable to do so.

My dad died of Alzheimer's more than two years ago. It is a heartbreaking disease. I don't know if this woman has relatives who look in on her, or whether she is descending into forgetfulness by herself. I wrote a comment on the volunteer sheet: "Alzheimer's? Forgets she gets meals delivered."

My last delivery was to yet another humble apartment. An elderly man greeted me. A younger woman, I assumed who was his daughter, snuggled on the couch. They were preparing to watch TV and spend some time together. It was a great relief to see that the man had a companion.

I came home saddened by some of what I saw, exalting in homes that demonstrated evidence of people, companionship, serenity, decoration. One woman had a beautiful smile on her face. I am definitely counting my blessings this holiday. I am grateful to the many folks who share their blessings with others.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas lights and sustainability

Now, I’m really setting myself up as a grinch on this topic. It seems Christmas tree lights are something everyone loves. Today’s paper has a story from the Associated Press recounting the lengths that some people will go to ensure their homes are extravagantly illuminated for the holiday. A homeowner in Wisconsin pays $300 in extra electrical bills per month to light their winter wonderland. They start decorating in October and don’t have everything taken down until April.

I’ve already said that I’m not the kind of person who decorates much for Christmas. Okay, I do have two small artificial Christmas trees. They have lights on. They make me happy, much as the more elaborate displays no doubt satisfy their owners.

But this article comes a day after I spent some time on the internet researching facts and figures about a nearby coal-fired power plant, in Alma, Wisconsin. An internet website, www.scorecard.com, provides background information on air, water and chemical pollution for every county in the United States. I went to this site and entered a zip code for Buffalo County, Wisconsin, where the Alma plant is located. From this I learned that between Dairyland Co-op, and Foremost Farms, 415,000 pounds of hydrochloric acid, 117,000 pounds of nitrate compounds, 68,700 pounds of hydrofluoric acid, 349 pounds of mercury, and 202 pounds of lead, along with assorted other heavy metals, were discharged into the Buffalo County environment in 2002.

According to my electrical utility, 52% of my electricity comes from coal. I understand the percentage figures are quite similar in other areas around the United States. We need our coal fired plants for the energy that keeps this computer running, the refrigerator functioning, the Christmas tree lights going, and many other essential and not-so-essential services.

Any time someone talks about global warming, and the need to cut greenhouse gases, a large percentage of the gases they are speaking about come out of the smokestacks of coal fired plants. I understand that new coal-fired plants have been built that are not as dirty as the old plants, like those in Alma.

According to The Earth Policy Institute:
” Particulate matter from coal combustion has long been known to harm the respiratory system. Now recent research has shown that small airborne particulate matter also can cross from the lungs into the bloodstream, leading to cardiac disease, heart attacks, strokes, and premature death.

In the United States, 23,600 deaths each year can be attributed to air pollution from power plants. Those dying prematurely due to exposure to particulate matter lose, on average, 14 years of life. Burning coal also is responsible for some 554,000 asthma attacks, 16,200 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks each year. Atmospheric power plant pollution in the United States racks up an estimated annual health care bill of over $160 billion.”

I was curious to see if I could find data that suggested that the health of Buffalo County citizens was being adversely affected by the power plant. Could it have been a fluke that in 2004, Buffalo County had the highest mortality rate in Wisconsin? Could it be a coincidence that mortality in all Wisconsin Counties but six are declining, and that Buffalo is one of the six? These figures are despite the fact that Buffalo County is in the top one-third in Wisconsin in terms of available health care, health behaviors, and socio-economic figures.

If global warming isn’t enough of an incentive to encourage us to conserve our use of all forms of energy, let’s think of doing it for our health, for everyone’s health. People need to know that our electrical expenditures have costs that are not limited to those that come out of our own pocketbooks.
Footnote: The good news is that some households are turning to LED Christmas lights. This technology uses 95% less energy, and lasts 10 times longer.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A new intention for the turn of the year

More than two weeks after a Heartland Institute leader asked members of a group to answer: what is your intention? I have come up with one, and it isn't what I thought it would be. My intention is to bring a beginner's mind, body and enthusiasm to my art, writing, tennis and community work.

For years I've been walking around thinking that there was some One Special Thing I was meant to do, and once I identified what that thing was, I would be filled with the energy of clarity on up to glory and fame. The problem with this notion is that I am a curious and idealistic person. If you look at the decisions I have made in the course of my life, I have always twisted and turned away whenever One Special Thing threatened to dominate my time. I began to think there was something seriously wrong with me because I couldn't settle in to that One Special Thing.

Several ideas got me to think differently about this. First, I started reading The Life We are Given, by George Leonard and Michael Murphy, two pioneers in the human potential movement. Leonard and Murphy developed an Integral Transformative Practice (ITP), a disciplined system of meditation, exercise and affirmations for helping people realize their potential. The power of affirmations--short, positive statements that describe a positive change as a present condition--has been demonstrated to me many times in my life. I knew I needed some new affirmations.

Then I attend the Heartland Institute event and was challenged to state my intention. My response to this question took me backward to the myth of One Special Thing, and I felt all the pain and disappointment with myself for not having One. I tried to reconcile the tension I felt between creating an intention and Meister Eckhart's statement that we should "work without a why." Theologian Matthew Fox wonderfully interprets this Eckhart statement in his book, The Reinvention of Work. He suggests we look at the various roles we play in life in a freer way, and consider, from within those roles, what feels like love, freedom, compassion and spontaneity from the inside.

The next step in my learning cycle was to attend a talk by the Catholic motivational speaker Matthew Kelly. Kelly said that we are called by the divine to be the best version of ourselves possible. This seemed clear and inspiring, yet had nothing to do with the straight-jacket of thinking I had to do One Special Thing. I followed up Kelly's talk with yet another dose of affirmative thinking from Louise Hay, whose book You Can Heal Your Life, I have read several times. Hay says we create our reality by the mental messages we program into our thoughts.

What finally pushed me to the clarity of my intention, which inspires me without being One Special Thing, was viewing the DVD The Secret. I share the criticism some have made of this movie that it focuses too much on helping people achieve blatantly materialistic goals. However, there are still some good ideas to be considered. The essence of "the secret" is that the universe is organized through the power of attraction, and we create our reality by asking for, and visualizing what we want to feel. This emphasis on the power of feeling tied everything together for me. I realized that a coherent intention could be framed around feeling, rather than a rationally discerned One Special Thing.

I realized that what I want to feel is the beginner's mind of excitement I first felt when I started volunteering for a community group at the beginning of my career, that urged citizens to save water, recycle, and conserve energy. I want to feel the beginner's mind of enthusiasm I first felt when I started silk painting, and was amazed by the creatures that started to flow out of my brush. I want physically to feel the rush of enthusiasm I experienced in all four corners of my body when my tennis skills were just starting to develop. It seems to me that the intention to cultivate a beginner's way of feeling, with all the zest, enthusiasm, hope and idealism that implies, could be a very good thing.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Tis the season for...self pity

I admit it, when I'm under the weather, I crave a care giver, and even though my cold is receding, I built up a little resentment for the lack of the perfect care my Mom used to give me when I was sick.

I recognize the forlorn feeling that bubbles up in this situation as something very old in my repertoire of mental habits. When I was trying to get in touch with my personal demons a decade ago, one of the recognizable creatures I visualized, came to life in a painting I called Aunt Pity, named after an aunt of mine who lived a most forlorn life.

I've worked with Aunt Pity long enough to recognize that a sense of entitlement lies underneath her behavior. She believes she is entitled to be treated well. The sense of entitlement may be a particular vice of those with middle class upbringings. We are used to getting what we want, and when we don't, we may respond with self-pity, anger, resentment or even outrage.

It's true that we may have indeed been the victims of some sort of injustice, unfairness, or inconsideration, when we feel self-pity or resentment. We may feel aggrieved at being denied our rights. A founding document in our nation was the Bill of Rights, and we pay lots of attention to the ongoing process of extending these rights to everyone. I think as a nation we have a hyper-active sensitivity to injustice, and can easily perceive ourselves as victimized. Our collective sensitivity makes the holiday season a particularly vulnerable time.

The upside of the holiday season is the spirit of gratitude that flows from many who recognize that their lives have been manifestly blessed, and seek ways to share those blessings with others. Many also experience the dark moist or hot emotions of self-pity, anger or loneliness. We want Christmas with all the trimmings: material gifts, family harmony, festive celebrations, great food, perfect churches, and wonderful decorations. If too many elements are missing from this perfect picture, we can engage in our habitual form of dismay or despair.

This is why for me, the sustainable Christmas is the simplest one. A simple holiday makes me realize how much I have to be grateful for. This good feeling carries me through the short, darkened days, to the birth of something new.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The recovery process

I've been recovering from a cold and have consequently wanted to rest and relax a lot lately. I find that the internet sites that interest me when I'm healthy seem irrelevant when I'm healing. Is there a message there?

The stages of home treatment for a cold seems to follow a natural progression:
1. Denial: the cold doesn't seem bad, and I try to fight it off through aspirin, zinc lozenges, and affirmations, continuing my regular daily activities.
2. Engagement: the cold starts to settle in. In engage in a more pitched battle, combining cold remedies, fighting off the inevitable need to slow down and rest.
3. Acceptance: I'm sick. I spend an entire day in bed, sleeping and reading, following all the rules, taking cold remedies as advised.
4. Entrenchment: this happens when I try to resume my normal activity level. The cold finds a place to get entrenched. In my case, it produces a persistent chest cough.
5. Reassessment: Because the cold is persisting, I begin to get suspicious of all the pill-based remedies I've been using thus far. I begin to explore healing on a deeper level. Out come the stashed home remedy books. I stop taking everything, and go back to the basics: rest, copious amounts of water, raw garlic 3 times a day, and reading.

This last step begins to have some salutary effects. One of the books that has had enduring value to me in my health-restoring efforts over the years is Home Remedies: Hydrotherapy, Massage, Charcoal and other Simple Treatments, by Agatha Thrash, MD. It's out of print but you may be able to find used copies out there.

The simple remedies Thrash offers come from simpler times, when the patient didn't have quite so many options to consider, and there was less expectation of a quick fix. Thrash says:
"...it becomes obvious that almost anything that is done merely to alleviate symptoms cannot effect a cure, but actually interferes with the genuine healing processes of the body itself."

The human body is a thing of remarkable beauty and complexity. This fact was driven home by my recent visit to the Body Worlds exhibit, the amazing result of a German anatomist's efforts to display what goes on underneath the skin of real human beings--corpses whose bodies and body parts were injected with a plasticizing substance to become permanent. The Body Worlds exhibits have been seen by 20 million people around the world. It has been interesting to visualize my congested lungs, for example, now that I can see their shape and location in the body so clearly.

There is no denying the power of complex interventions to cure our medical ailments. But the healing process must begin on a simple foundation: rest, patience, and the establishment of a relationship with the dis-ease. Without this foundation, the search for a cure can lead us to counter-productively suppress the symptoms, or to overdose on the myriad choices offered by conventional and alternative medicine.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Dinner party conversation

Recently I went to a dinner party, attended by some seemingly good folks who I am just getting to know on a superficial basis. It's always difficult deciding how I am going to describe myself to people I meet for the first time. You'd think by the time I arrived at middle age, that there would be more of a fixed quality about me, rather than an ambiguous shifting between artist, writer and environmental advocate with dubious means of support.

The long and the short of it is that if you have half an intention of being a practicing mystic, there's very little way to speak the truth about it at a dinner party, unless you want to grind the conversation to an immediate halt.

So instead, the conversation is predicated on a fiction--that I am an artist (presumably trying to make, sell and show art of a certain defined type); or a writer, writing for clients--for who would write from themselves? So I told a questioner that I had recently written a piece on communicating about global warming, which is true--what I didn't mention is that the publication commissioning my work is "The Carp", a free newspaper out of rural Red Wing, Minnesota.

Perhaps mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart was able to avoid the problem I've been facing by completely avoiding dinner parties. His challenges were greater. As a theologian and monk within the Dominican order, he was condemned by Pope John XXII of heresy in the 1320's, a charge that could have resulted in his execution by burning. Eckhart's heresy was to believe that we each could "give birth to Christ in our souls." A people centered theology like this certainly contradicted the orthodox views.

I've written before on Eckhart's statement that we should "work without a why." Another verse of Eckhart's, translated by Matthew Fox (another theologian who was censured by the Vatican) takes this concept even father:

All works are dead
If anything from the outside
compels you to work.
Even if it were God himself compelling you to work
from the outside,
your works would be dead.
If your works are to live,
then God must move you from the inside
from the innermost region of the soul--
then they will really live.
There is your life
and there alone you live
and your works live.

So let's imagine a dinner party of all mystics, a delightful thing to imagine. Perhaps the subjects of conversation would proceed along the lines of Bohmian dialogue, a form of communication devised by physicist (and mystic) David Bohm. The mystical dinner party would begin with a silence that was broken when someone had a revelation. In this dinner party, the non-mystic who blundered in with a typical dinner party question like "what do you do for a living?" would be met with profound acceptance and quite possibly more silence.

Anyway, it could be that I am a professional mystic, or a mystical blunderer, because I seem to teeter-totter between purposeful, intentional action and directionless wondering about how to "work without a why."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A randomly beautiful thing

I went into Pier I imports, a home furnishings store in St. Paul, after my workshop was over. I was in the mood to find a little gift for myself. Twenty-three years ago I used to come to this very neighborhood to visit my Jungian analyst. I would tell her my dreams, weep a copious amount of tears, and head off to the nearest Haagen Daz store to lick my wounds and an ice cream cone. I was feeling a little forlorn on this day as well, a little raw from my lack of clarity about what my intention was.

My eyes landed on a vase of holiday "thingies"- little bouquets of shiny disks, randomly collected in a nosegay of beads and wires and splashes of white, red and pink. They captured this little ray of hope I was carrying inside, the hope that beauty had some redemptive value. I particularly liked the fact that they were cheap and asymmetric. I knew at once that I would put these flashy nosegays in the branches of my artificial Christmas tree, and when I got home, that is what I did. I just looked at that tree and felt irrationally pleased.


I have been enjoying Beauty Dialogues with Amy, check out her website. I thought I would share a manifesto on beauty, written by the Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral. It is helpful to the artist trying to think about beauty:


Decalogue of the Artist

I. You shall love beauty, which is the shadow of God over the Universe.
II.There is no godless art. Although you love not the Creator, you shall bear witness to Him creating His likeness.
III.You shall create beauty not to excite the senses but to give sustenance to the soul.
IV. You shall never use beauty as a pretext for luxury and vanity but as a spiritual devotion.
V. You shall not seek beauty at carnival or fair or offer your work there, for beauty is virginal and is not to be found at carnival or fair.
VI. Beauty shall rise from your heart in song, and you shall be the first to be purified.
VII.The beauty you create shall be known as compassion and shall console the hearts of men.
VIII.You shall bring forth your work as a mother brings forth her child: out of the blood of your heart.
IX. Beauty shall not be an opiate that puts you to sleep but a strong wine that fires you to action, for if you fail to be a true man or a true woman, you will fail to be an artist.
X. Each act of creation shall leave you humble, for it is never as great as your dream and always inferior to that most marvelous dream of God which is Nature.

- Gabriela Mistral Translated by Doris Dana

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Initial thoughts about beauty

In conversations over the past few days, I noticed some statements people made about beauty.

  • An interior designer said that beauty can improve the world.
  • A teacher said that exposure to beauty could reliably do more good than acts of social action.
  • A priest quoted Pope John Paul as saying: "It is...necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine...choices..."

Digging a little into my remembered store of aphorisms from the sufi poet Rumi, I remember one in particular: "Let the beauty you love be what you do." It's a particularly apt aphorism for an artist, who is presumably charged with creating beauty. But I need more proofs.

I see nature as being able to create beauty that is so exquisite in its detail. The beautiful array of colors and variety of pattern on a beach far exceed what an artist could create. I look at what nature has created, and feel the inadequacy of what I can create with paint and brush.

Another problem is the tendency in our culture to turn beauty into a commodity. The artist may enjoy the creation of beauty as a process--but the commodification of that created thing is not lovely. A philanthropist in our town is spending millions of dollars buying art which is loaned out to a local museum. The paintings being purchased have an intrinsic value because of their beauty, and an extrinsic value as investments. I calculated that one of the paintings on recent exhibit, a Monet, was purchased for about $2 million. As I gazed at this painting, was I engaged in worship of beauty or wealth?

Beauty is a subjective thing. History and commerce elevate beautiful people, beautiful destinations, and beautiful art. But when the philosophers speak of pursuing truth, beauty and goodness, what they really must be referring to is the human capacity to appreciate beauty in many contexts. When we can see the beauty in the face of an elderly friend, in the pattern of worn paint on the side of a building, and in a teenager's quirky sense of humor, we feel love, interest and connection. When we make a choice to focus on ugliness: political corruption, pollution, people's shortcomings, we disempower our goodness. An aphorism that I know to be true from my work as an artist is: we are what we pay attention to. It must be that by paying attention to beauty we awaken love and connectedness to others.

This is the first time I have tried to understand why beauty must be important. I still remain unconvinced that the beauty I have the capacity to create can actually serve others.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

What is your intention?

I think I've mentioned before that I am interested in good conversations about topics that matter. This desire is what drew me to a Thought Leader gathering in St. Paul, Minnesota, a guided conversation designed by the Heartland Circle, an organization devoted to leadership development through thoughtful inquiry.

The discussion around the circle was started by Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland. She told the story of being left a widow with four children, 13 years ago after her husband died of a massive heart attack. Her desire to construct a meaningful life on the ruins of this shock led her to create an innovative environmental education program in the Apple Valley schools, and later to foster community development, innovation, and a "green" municipal center when she became Mayor of this suburban community. All of the accomplishments emanated from an intention she developed as a new widow: to create a positive legacy in Apply Valley. The question she asked those gathering around the circle was: what is your intention?

It was an interesting, and for me, extraordinarily difficult question. It's not as if I've never asked myself that question before. Indeed, I've asked it during my entire work life. The question: what is your intention?- asks you to think in a planful, purpose-filled way about how your direct your life. The question for me seemed to go beyond--what do you want to do?--asking me to think about the outcome, the results, in visionary terms.

Of course, the response to such a question varies infinitely from person to person. For one, it could be to provide support and loving care to your family. For another, it could be to continue learning. Still another could have a very specific focused intention, such as, "to be the best possible 3rd grade teacher I can be." There is no right or wrong answer to the question. I suspect that most people live without a clear intention, fulfilling the roles they have found themselves in and trying to do the best they can.

Why was this such a difficult question for me to answer? It is because the answer implies an ability to make clear choices, to commit to action in support of the intention. I am far more at home in the world of possibility than in the world of choice. I accuse myself of being something of a dilettante, moving from being an artist to a writer to an environmental advocate based on the way the winds blow in my corner of the world.

When you make a choice, declare an intention, decide that something is important, your work is just starting. For example, when I made a choice to start writing a blog, I felt a sense of responsibility to my choice. When I decided to take a break from making art, I anguished over dropping this commitment. Yesterday, after the Heartland event, I spoke with a musician who asked my why I stopped making art. Maybe I'm living in an either-or world, that says, you can make art, or you can try to contribute to the world, but you can't do both. I would love it if I could believe my art really did make the world a better place, or if I could find an approach to working on art and sustainability simultaneously.

Fourteen years of work at artmaking has given me much in the way of personal enjoyment. Even when I succeed in bringing this work to the world, via exhibits, websites, and art sales, I find it hard to convince myself that the work is contributing as much as I would hope for. Something has to change. While I wait to discern how my gifts and own deep needs can mesh with the situation in my community and the world, the only clear intention I can express is to remain open, and to surrender to the next step when I sense some spaciousness and excitement there.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What are your rituals for the season?

I've been reading a book written by Human Potential Movement leader Jean Houston more than 25 years ago. It's called Life Force: The Psycho-Historical Recovery of the Self. Houston, who was mentored by such seminal figures as Margaret Mead and Teilhard de Chardin, acquired a very broad view of history and culture from a young age. Throughout her career she has been interested in the use of ritual to tap into our connections to our historical roots.

Houston says: "The word rite comes from the same root as art and order. Like all real art, like the movements of sacred dances, ritual provides organic order, a pattern of dynamic expression through which the energy of an event or series of events can flow in an evolutionary process toward a larger meaning or a new stage or level of life. It offers us ways in which our transitions may be illuminated." Houston believes that rituals can help illuminate cultures, evoking hope during a time of societal transition. As the year 2006 wanes without the characteristic cold and snow of other late Novembers, I long for a ritual awakening of hope and possibility.

Our seasonal transition in late November is towards the holidays, Christmas for Christians, Hanukkah for the Jews, Kwanzaa for African Americans, secular celebrations for others. What are the rituals that we use to commemorate this seasonal transition, with shortening days as we approach the winter solstice?

Many people engage in the rituals of house decoration, decorating their yards with pumpkins and scarey figures during Halloween, turkeys during Thanksgiving, and myriad lights, sculptures, and creches during Christmas. Good rituals are rich in sensory detail. Are they doing so because they crave more sensory participation in the seasonal transition? It seems as though there are 2 kinds of people, those who decorate, and those who don't. I am of the second type. Those who throw themselves most whole-heartedly into the trappings of the holiday may be putting a great deal of emphasis on the externals, in the hope that they will be echoed by inner feelings of happiness and peace. We approach this time of year with a great desire for illumination, and similarly try to fill it with rituals of holiday parties, shopping, gift-giving, travel and decorating.

What I hunger for during this time of year is a sense of mystery, and I don't get it through the external trappings. My most memorable Christmas eve was a quiet walk at night with a friend through snow, out to a bridge over a river. Our path was illumined by moonlight. As we approached the river, which appeared to be frozen over, we heard a thundering sound in the water. Was it a beaver, signalling alarm, or a very large fish jumping? It was too dark to see, but it didn't matter. Our walk was a ritual made us feel connected to some deep and beautiful mystery.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Talk in a Box

On Thanksgiving, our family spent a little time playing with a game I discovered in a magazine. It's called Talk in a Box, and it is simply a box with a series of questions on cards that can be used to inspire conversation. Around the table, there is plenty of random chatter about family and food: where my sister-in-law got the recipe for the Bourbon sweet potatoes, how Uncle Vic is doing, and memories of Thanksgivings past. Conversations tend to fall in familiar patterns, and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that.

But I like to mix things up a little, and Talk in a Box is a method that allow for that. I asked my mother to go through the box and pick some questions that she thought would be interesting for dicussion on Thanksgiving Day. Learning what questions excite people is part of what fosters good conversation. The questions I find intriguing might leave someone else flat.

The most memorable question (to me) around our table was: If you could spend a day with anyone (unknown to you) of your choosing, who would it be? Some of the answers around the table were: the comedian Robin Williams, human potential movement figure Jean Houston, and investor Warren Buffett. From the conversation that ensued I learned that in addition to being a comic genius, Williams does a lot of charity work.

Conversational skills are said to be declining, due to our busy lifestyles, dispersed families, and the large amount of time we spend watching TV or surfing the internet (my vice). My own thirst for conversation is affected by a somewhat isolated lifestyle. As a self-employed artist and writer I don't have a lot of work colleagues. Writing this blog is one attempt to start a conversation. I'm not forcing myself on anyone, however. I like the randomness that might bring a conversant here.

I'm going to keep looking for flesh-and-blood conversants on topics of interest to me. In the meantime, I'll pick a Talk in the Box question each day, and think about it. Today's question: "What sounds do I find soothing? Troubling or disturbing?" I enjoy the chatter of birds in the morning. As a child, the sound of my mother ironing, the soft thud of the iron combined with the hiss of steam, signaled comfort to me. Troubling sounds are usually harsh mechanical sounds, chainsaws, motorcycles or lawn-mowers. We do seem to have a lot of noise pollution in our lives. But I'll leave that subject for another conversation.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Breaking out of the old molds

I am spending much of my time getting ready for Thanksgiving, family arriving and the holiday season. My sister and I agreed that we would make gifts for one another this Christmas, rather than going out buying something that we weren’t sure the other person needed. So, I have been trying to think about what aspects of my life, my experience, or the work of my hands are really worth sharing with my sister’s family. It is a challenge to break out of the old Christmas mold.

A friend said: “oh, you’re an artist, that will be easy.” But it isn’t, because my artistic side seems to be resting right now, waiting for a new sense of meaning to animate it. I consider the situation of my fellow artists in this corner of the state. Most of them are getting ready for Christmas sales, making things large and small to take a guess at what the Christmas consumer would like. They need to make a living, and many enjoy the sense of conversation and appreciation that is aroused in their exchange with potential buyers. In previous years I would have been doing the same thing, applying for Christmas shows, getting things framed, making cards to sell, and so on. It just doesn’t make sense to me anymore, however.

As I was engaged in my preparations I listened to a talk by David Bohm, recorded and in the archives of New Dimensions radio. The talk is titled: “Creativity, Natural Philosophy and Science.” Bohm was a leading theoretical physicist who was also deeply interested in the human condition. In his radio conversation, Bohm said that the sense of rewards and punishments kills creativity. This immediately seemed true to my particular situation. The art world is a rewards and punishments system that has its own internal logic, but it’s often very different from whatever motivates the individual artist.

An artist in touch with her muse can create work that is commercially successful. I started my career as an artist making silk paintings. To my surprise, they started selling. After about five years as a silk painter I wanted to try some different forms of expression. My awkward new works were not welcomed in the small pools in which I introduced them. I kept working away, finding a voice and expression that made sense to me. Trying to take some of these creations and fit them into the rewards and punishment system of the art world felt like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. The system itself loomed as a seemingly insurmountable barrier to my moving forward.

Bohm said that the principal barrier to creativity is the mechanicalness which comes out of excessive thought. We keep thinking, thinking we can find solutions to the problems, but because of the mechanical quality of our thinking, we only encounter more problems. Bohm created a system of dialogue, which he saw as a way of breaking out of our rigidity. The point of dialogue is to look at our own assumptions as well as those of other people—and actually to find a way to suspend your own assumptions. Every once in a while I stumble into such a dialogue with another person, but it is rare indeed. It would be a creative act in itself, to hold our assumptions lightly enough to see them, and let them go in conversation. These kinds of conversations, whether through Bohmian dialogue, or a World CafĂ©, a Thought Leader Gathering or some other system, seem very attractive to me right now. I do see some new form of dialogue as being necessary to my creative process.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

How well do environmental groups work?

What’s the biggest issue for me right now? Effective action, and how to work with others. Recently, 3 members of our local sustainability group met to talk informally about future directions for the organization. Although all 3 of us are interested in sustainable development, we had 3 very disparate views about how an organization goes about carrying out a mission.

One wanted to focus on leadership development, helping people learn about systems thinking. Another wanted the organization to continue operating on an informal, adnoc basis, investigating the potential for various renewable energy projects. I expressed an interest in relocalization planning, an effort that has been launced in a number of communities around the world to respond to the ramifications of peak oil.

In a previous blog I discussed spiral dynamics and how it explains some of the variations in value orientations among people. Our sustainability committee members clearly have a Green value orientation. According to Spiral Dynamics, people with a Green value orientation:

  • Explore the inner beings of self and others
  • Promote a sense of community and unity
  • Share society’s resources among all
  • Liberate humans from greed and dogma
  • Reach decisions through consensus
  • Refresh spirituality and bring harmony

Sounds like sweetness and light, doesn’t it? However, 25 years ago I worked for another organization that clearly had a Green profile. All decisions were made by consensus, including the very difficult decisions of who to fire, due to the loss of a substantial amount of funds. The decision-making process was agonizing and inefficient. When I became director of the organization I knew we could not survive if we continued in our egalitarian decision-making mode.

Now, 25 years later I am again connected to an issue that I have long cared about. In the absence of meaningful action on the federal level, voluntary organizations are sprouting up around the country to work on community responses to sustainability. Renewable energy development, tree planting, and sustainable transportation are some of the initiatives that local folks are taking on. If we are to be successful, we must learn to capitalize on the strengths and overcome the inherent weaknesses of Green thinkers. On the strength side, Greens will be inclusive, welcome the expression of feelings, and idealistic about what can be accomplished. On the weakness side, the Green’s desire to please all people will make it difficult to move to action.

Despite these worries about the weaknesses of groups, there are positive things coming from some of the internet models. The development of Wikipedia is an example of distributed intelligence, where a large and diverse group of people come together to create a constructive resource. I am very curious whether the benefits of distributed intelligence can somehow be marshaled for community-based sustainability solutions. Stay tuned, I’ll report what I find out.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Value Orientations and an Introduction to Spiral Dynamics

Several years ago I first was introduced to a developmental theory called Spiral Dynamics, by a woman who was herself a dynamo. EJ Niles, then a 70 year old Unity minister, had first become attracted to the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, paleontologist and philosopher who died in 1955. Teilhard theorized that consciousness has been continually evolving from cell to organism, and that mankind might perfect itself by degrees over time. Her interest in evolution was further piqued by her exposure to the thought of psychologist Clare Graves, as elucidated by Don Beck and Chris Cowan in their book Spiral Dynamics.

The theory of Spiral Dynamics states that consciousness evolves in a somewhat linear manner, from early stages, as for example when babies are solely interested in survival, to more complex stages, as when the individual focuses primarily on protecting and extending their power, to later stages characterized by orientations towards order, progress, and communitarian interests. Niles went on to engage in extensive bible scholarship that revealed how the contents of the bible itself, with its multiple authors and dates of authorship, demonstrated the evolution of consciousness in its expressed world views. You can read more about EJ Niles work at www.etbible.org.

A good summary of Spiral Dynamics is available at the Wiki site, or at www.spiraldynamics.net. When I first learned about Spiral Dynamics I felt a glimmer of hope about the human condition, a sense of possibility instead of the pessimism I saw all around me. The idea that humans could evolve to a more advanced state meant that we were not condemned as to remain in stages of consciousness that fostered only conflict and gridlock. Perhaps we could as a species evolve to a place where we would begin to have greater understanding of and compassion for others point of view. In the several years since I learned about Spiral Dynamics I have concluded it is a useful tool for understanding the diverse human value orientations that inform a whole range of human actions.

Recently, I have been thinking and writing about the value orientations that Americans bring to the conversation over global warming. Learning how to meet people where their values are, rather than convert them to our view of the world, is the new task of communicators about global warming. Although it is nearly impossible to dislodge people from their fundamental value orientations, you can speak to them in terms they understand, bringing them to understand global warming in their own language.

Our persuasive messages need to reflect an understanding of three main value orientations in America, which affect everything from attitudes towards global warming to gay marriage and war. My understanding of these three groups comes from Spiral Dynamics (SD). The stable center, which I would call the “Order” group (designated as the blue meme in SD) is represented loosely by patriotic, church attending citizens who largely trust figures of authority. Some prominent figures in the evangelical Christian group, which is a subset of this group, became educated about global warming and are now actively promoting behavior change from a stewardship perspective. The term “creation care” resonates with this group. Most of the major Christian denominations have surprisingly progressive language about global warming in their national policy statements. There is a growing opportunity to get these folks enlisted in constructive action as long as you avoid attacking religion, the country, or figures of authority.

The second major group, the “Progess” group (designated as the orange meme in SD), is primarily business or entrepreneurially oriented, believes in progress, and holds optimistic views about the prospects of technology. These are the groups that will figure out how to construct and finance wind turbines, that will put together ethanol plants, that will be the sources of innovation and the designers of the Kyoto accords. Both the Democrats and Republicans have been aiming at this group with a message that says: “our nation’s energy policy is behind the times and needs a new, 21st century approach.” The implication is that technology, innovation, and business will construct rational solutions to the problems posed by global warming. You can alienate this group by suggesting that progress or profits are evil.

The third major group, the “Green” group (also known as the green meme in SD), consists of cultural creatives, feminists, deep ecologists, animal rights advocates, believers in group consensus, teamwork, and social justice. People who call themselves environmentalists belong to this group. Most of the Earth Day celebrations have their appeal here, and the major environmental organizations, Greenpeace, Audobon, Sierra Club and so on draw their support from the Greens. Despite their good intentions, many have argued that this group has lately been unsuccessful in gaining converts to their cause, due in part to communication strategies that are alienating rather than empowering. Greens sometimes express a surplus of outrage and pessimism over global warming, which tends to overwhelm listeners and make them feel that little can be done. On the positive side, Greens are some of the most passionate advocates for environmental restoration.

I am idealistic enough to believe that knowledge about these value differences can help us overcome the conflicts we generate when we disagree with people who have different value orientations. I am also pragmatic enough to recognize that only a small percentage of the population has the ability to step outside of their own values enough to see this big picture.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Coping with speed and complexity

Last night we were scurrying around to eat, get some errands done, and get to the theater on time. I felt an unpleasant amount of tension around this hurrying. And yet the choices I have made make my life a lot less complicated than others. I picture people with full time jobs, kids, demands of school, and I just can’t imagine how it’s done.

I tried to remember if my parents had hectic schedules. I don’t remember them hurrying, I don’t remember a mad rush to get out the door. My father came home for a relaxed lunch. At night, when work was over, it was over. The TV was in the basement and we didn’t spend a lot of time watching it (I watched it more than my parents did). Instead, we read, or puttered around the house.

One thing I am most nostalgic about from my summer vacations as a child is the sense of boredom. I used to whine about it a little, but I was stuck coming up with ways to entertain myself. That amount of free and open time seems like an incomparable luxury today. Somehow I’ve bought into a lot of the cultural messages about accomplishment and activity—I deeply disapprove of myself when I am not doing something productive.

The world is becoming more and more complex. Change is occurring so rapidly in so many systems, there is no way we can keep up with it. A German business magazine, brand eins, gave 8 ways to avoid complexity:
1. Do not do business
2. Reduce your activities to zero
3. Don't leave the house
4. Don't call
5. Don't talk to anybody
6. Stay in bed
7. Close your eyes
8. Stop breathing

I don’t want to avoid complexity, but I am very interested right now in trying to make sense of the way things are unfolding now, the combination of problems and opportunities hitting our communities and our world. If I try to simultaneously consider things like peak oil, global warming, and political changes, the amount of complexity rapidly exceeds my ability to make sense of it all. The only way I seem to be able to continue my sense-making activity is to reduce the stimuli, in some of the ways mentioned on the list above.

Those who are unable to periodically reduce the stimuli, to slow down time just a little, are doomed I fear, to understand things simplistically, or not at all. Art making has a healing quality in this overloaded world of stimulus in which we live. If we can focus our attention on sensory areas: visual information, music, touch or taste, we can cut through the mental clutter. I offer this as a hope for those who want to remain in the world, yet not be totally controlled or overwhelmed by the speed and complexity of these times.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A small town tackles sustainable transportation

I am working on a report about my week promoting sustainable transportation, from October 4-11. We sought to persuade the public to try out walking, bicycling, carpooling, or taking the bus. The campaign involved public relations, strategizing and framing issues, and working with others.

One of the biggest challenges was finding partners with passion or commitment to the vision of the project, which was described as follows:
Our vision is of a community with a multi-faceted transportation system that provides alternatives to driving alone. Reducing the number of vehicles on the road cuts vehicle emissions and noise, decreases congestion, extends the life cycle of existing roadways, promotes a healthier community, reduces need for parking lots, and saves money spent on fuel.

In order to find effective partners for the project, we had to find frames of meaning they would connect to. These were invariably different from my own motivational frames—which were centered around worries about global warming, peak oil, and a personal ethic of thrift, which made me passionate about carpooling. Although there is wide concern about global warming and peak oil, there still is a lot of uncertainty about these issues in many people’s minds. Moreover, the negative effects of these trends will ripple out over decades, and it is difficult to capture attention and action with such a time frame.

The issue of transportation is complex and there is no single group, either public or private that seems inclined to look at it from a systemic basis. For example, the local Chamber of Commerce is very interested in transportation from an infrastructure development perspective, i.e. more roads, more bridges, better airports, etc. The Chamber does not have members clamoring for more carpooling or bicycling however. So creating partnerships with the business community was another challenge.

We were counting on rising fuel prices to create a teachable moment, spurring citizens to consider transportation options from an economic perspective. Unfortunately, fuel prices fell rapidly by $.75 from August to October, alleviating some of the economic worries that had been more intense during the peak summer driving months.

A frame of meaning that ultimately resonated with many people was health and obesity. Many different groups and individuals are worried about the rising health care costs and the epidemic of obesity. Baby boomers are entering early retirement, and their preoccupation with health is causing some of them to get more physically active through walking and bicycling. Businesses are dealing with rising health care bills and see walking and bicycling programs as helping their bottom-line from the prevention perspective.

We learned much about the complexity of this topic and the perspectives of the diverse potential partners. We learned that the reasons that people will try alternatives to the single occupancy vehicle are diverse. These motivations will probably remain in flux based on events beyond our control. Health is probably a good unifying theme for future events: focus on the health of people and health of the planet.

Transportation accounts for about 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to concerns about global warming, a parallel discussion is occurring in energy circles over prospect of peak oil. Proponents of peak oil argue that petroleum is the fundamental linchpin of our present democratic society. As cheap oil/energy/gas quietly fades into history, lives around the world will change. Sustainability is about building resilience. Our community, like every other city in North America, needs to build more resilience into its people and transportation systems.

Sustainable transportation is a concern for everyone. Leaders in government and business need to speak out about the disadvantages of our reliance on the single occupancy vehicle. Greater use of all the transportation options will help businesses and individuals save money, prevent obesity and therefore lower health care costs, reduce demand for parking structures, and lower air emissions. Walking, bicycling, carpooling, taking the bus and tellecommuting are the new common sense.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election results, what is behind the door?

I contributed my share to the mess that is American elections, supporting the candidates of my choice financially, with letters to the editor, an afternoon of telephone calling, and this morning, 4 hours of getting out the vote. My efforts were replicated by thousands of people like me, sincere, well-intentioned, convinced in our beliefs, holding opposing views. All of our grass roots efforts were further multiplied by the mega contributions of the monied, the celebrities who loaned their names to candidates, the corporations who contributed to political action committees, the political operatives, campaign strategists, public servants and crass political opportunists, all of us generating a tremendous din of campaign noise aimed at convincing that small percentage of Americans who are independents, undecided, swing voters, people whose views wavered and moved with the winds of scandal, political fortune, attention and attention-suppression.

During my two hours of telephoning, I felt pure relief every time I got an answering machine or a busy signal. I felt chagrin when a woman would answer the phone, run to get her husband, and then have to give him the bad news that I was calling about politics. The friendly calls were like little oases, the people who didn’t need to be convinced, the saintly few who didn’t melt down with impatience over another political telephone call. I suppose it could be argued that we have to do it because the other side is doing the same thing. But there certainly HAS to be a better way. Couldn’t we find a political genius who instead of applying her skills to manipulating the public, could actually find a way to help us have real conversations with one another about what’s important? Is there no way to put any limits on the senseless political advertising, the sound bites cluttering our mailboxes, emails, and television screens with negative, simplistic argument?

The current election system is an affront to anyone who cares about sustainability. The process of voting is cumbersome, time-consuming and difficult, especially for those who must work a visit to the voting booth into a complicated and busy life. I don’t have too many worries about voting irregularities in Minnesota, but I think the Oregon style mail-in voting process is worth considering.

As I wait like everyone else for the election results, I’ve been working on my painting project. I finished the first layer of decoration for the 3 part screen, settling on a feathery leaf design for the background. I’m not sure yet what additions I will make to this basic design. The process and gesture of painting provided a welcome break from politics.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Images of sustainability

My desire to paint has been dormant for a couple of months, until I came up with another pretext to paint. The pretext was the prospect of family visiting during the month of November, and an old screen room divider that desperately needs to be turned into a lovely thing. So I have spent a day sanding and priming the divider, and am now faced with the prospect of 6 new blank surfaces, each measuring 17” x 63”, that need to be filled with living imagery.

This prospect is sending me back to favorite art books. The idea of two panels of 3 each suggests a narrative framework for the paintings. An internet search on the subject of Japanese screens led me to an exhibit done by the Asia Society of New York in 2004 on Japanese folding screens created from the mid-sixteenth century through the late seventeenth century. These screens were apparently created with themes depicting the social and cultural ideals of the time.

This is just a little exciting because I have been thinking about issues of sustainability, paying special attention to how we communicate about such topics as global warming, transportation sustainability, and food system sustainability. I have noticed how rare it is to hear or see anyone with a visionary perspective about the kind of sustainable society we would like to create. I am inclined to believe that people who could think in this way would be highly useful to all of us. Artists can try to create visions of a sustainable society, in the same way as the screen painters of 16th century Japan. Writers and community organizers, techies, inventors, teachers, homemakers and engineers can also describe and try to live out such visions.

I think we all need to engage in as much positive visionary thinking as we can. The planet is going to continue, regardless of how much destruction we humans wreak on it and one another. It seems likely to me that future generations will be living in a world that is hotter, drier, with less biodiversity and greatly reduced fisheries. We could rely a lot less on single occupancy vehicles. Central cities could become more viable and the expansion of automobile dependent suburbs could slow. As the cost of transporting finished goods increases, local and regional farming and manufacturing could regenerate.

The environmental doom and gloomers have their role. It would be great if elected officials and leaders would pay attention to their warnings. I think it is counter-productive for those of us who can see some positives in our future changed world to spend too much time listening to the pessimists. This is not to say the pessimists are incorrect in their assessments. I hope that some people will be inspired to great constructive action when they learn that the fisheries will be depleted by 2048.

For most of us, however, this news is disempowering. The street level activists in Minnesota and Oklahoma who want to do something about the oceans will be left depressed and wringing our hands at the future prospects. Those who are already tuning out the news will turn away more emphatically. Strategically, if we really want to change the world, we need to give much more voice to the positive visions. This gives the activists something concrete to do, it lures the disempowered back into engagement, it gets more of us creatively involved in the continued unfolding of our evolution.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Central themes in America's culture codes

I just finished reading “The Culture Code” by Clotaire Rapaille. Rapaille is a Frenchman who developed expertise in learning how ideas become imprinted in humans based on their cultural upbringing. He has shared his expertise with leading companies to help them market products around the world, based on the distinctive national “culture codes.”

A culture code is an idea-set that emotionally animates people when they are making crucial decisions. The most well-known American culture code is belief in the American dream. Anyone with something to sell to an American would do well to make sure that the message is “on-code”, that is, it resonates strongly with American idea-sets. This applies to everyone from political candidates, to automobile manufacturers, to community activists.

American culture codes present formidable challenges to anyone who might question the standard American way of doing things. Rapaille says that America is an adolescent culture, and exhibits this quality in many ways: “intense focus on the “now,” dramatic mood swings, a constant need for exploration and challenge to authority, a fascination with extremes, openness to change and reinvention, and a strong belief that mistakes warrant second chances.” As a young culture, we are prone to all the mistakes and enthusiasms of adolescents. We don’t ask our elders (other countries, for example) for advice. We are attracted to figures with adolescent qualities: Bill Clinton, for example, or Michael Jackson.

Our adolescent qualities as a nation can help and hinder us. Jungian psychologist James Hillman says America’s innocence is what gets us into trouble: “…that's our American addiction: the addiction to innocence. That's our only addiction. It's not drugs and it's not marijuana and so on. It's the addiction to not knowing. Not wanting to know.” He says America has an ability to plan, but the Iraq war, and the failure in New Orleans to respond to hurricane Katrina, reflect a failure of imagination: we couldn’t imagine what would happen if the plans didn’t work out.

Rapaille’s insights about American culture codes helps us understand verbal and pictorial frames that will resonate with Americans. His code-work provides information to advertisers and others who would like to shape our response to our experience in the marketplace of things and ideas.

Hillman is puzzling over the more difficult task: how do we rescue the American people from our own immaturity? These are useful questions to ponder as we look at a world of increased complexity. The next generation of global changes may call on us to link our youthful capacity for innovation with a more mature ability to envision and imagine the consequences of the actions we take.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Work without a why

I seem to be going through a phase in my life where everything is up to question. For the past twelve years, I've been calling myself an artist. Yesterday, someone asked me what I do for a living, and I was confused. I told her I was an artist, but it seemed like a lie.

I've thought of myself as a spiritual person. I go to church regularly. I sing the hymns with gusto and recite the creed. But ask me what I think about God, and suddenly I'm unsure. I used to think of God as a friend, a cosmic energy, an eternal listener, but now, the God-buddy system doesn't compute for me any longer. I miss the relationship but the old way just doesn't work anymore.

So I stopped painting and picked up the pen and the telephone. I started to organize, cajole and persuade, around environmental issues that are important to me. But not much later, I had new doubts about it all. As the campaign season heats up to a fever pitch, I wonder whether anyone can really convince anyone else of anything.

I'm now inhabiting a writer persona, but in a culture that is drowning in information, who would want to read one more thing? At least no trees died to bring these words to light (or not more than one notebook page worth).

The good news is, I'm not depressed. I go through my appointed rounds with kind of an edgy energy. One moment I'm researching immigration policy, the next I am writing a letter to the editor, and the next I am looking for a recipe with feta cheese. Something seems to hold it all together. I've read enough of the mystics to think that the way of unknowing is what's next. The mystic's brains must not have been as cluttered as mine, though.

From Matthew Fox's rendering of Meister Eckhart:
"As long as we perform our works in order to go to heaven
we are simply on the wrong track.
And until we learn to work
without a why or wherefore,
we have not learned to to work
or live or why."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Minnesota state senate candidate evokes fears about immigrants

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately about how issues are framed, focusing primarily on environmental issues.

Yesterday I received an inflammatory mass mailing from friends of Minnesota State Senate candidate Brenda Johnson, raising fear and confusion about foreign immigrant workers. The campaign literature relied on language and images of fear, criminality and otherness, showing hazy images of people climbing over walls or through the holes in fences. It got me to thinking about how central framing, the use and misuse of language, is to what passes for political discourse.

Of course, the mailer is misleading. Here, far from the southern border, is a state level candidate focusing on issues of immigration that are primarily set by the federal government. The literature creates a climate of fear about foreign immigrants, many of whom provide their labor at rates that make it possible for area farmers and other businesses to prosper. The images on the mailer evoke dark skinned people; there’s no danger of confusing these with illegal Canadians, for example.

The United States has been debating who to let into our country since the mid 1800s, and those of us who have been comfortable here for many generations have forgotten our roots. Johnson’s own Scandinavian ancestors probably came here for the same reason today’s immigrants do: to escape political or religious oppression and poverty. Norwegian Einar Haugen wrote a ballad about immigration in the 1880s. A verse in his ballad says: “We desired to show we were grateful, And were anxious to be of some use; We took hold of the roughest of jobs here, Just to show them what we could produce.”

The political world right now is being run by the undecideds. In 2005 GOP pollster and strategist Frank Luntz traveled to the UK to examine voter’s moods. Luntz discovered that "nothing riles the undecideds ... more than immigration." It is very distressing to see political talking points developed in a national context, being used to manipulate responses at a local level.

Another verse from good ole Einar says: “We were not in the ranks of the wealthy, And our homes took a long time to build, We sought work that would earn us some money, For our youngsters were hungry and chilled.” Who are these people, who move out of the undecided column only when motivated by fear? And why haven’t we found a way to make the humanitarian issues posed by immigrants part of the frame?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A cloudy crystal ball

I’ve spent the day processing a flock of pessimistic outlooks. Yesterday I received a year 2007 forecast from business coach Mike Jay, who sees a number of converging crises, both geopolitical and economic, as likely to trigger a global recession in the next 18 months. I heard Jay speak recently at a workshop in Madison, Wisconsin.

The forecast sent me out on the internet looking for corroboration. One link led to another pessimist, the economist Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University. Roubini sees the collapse of the housing bubble, the decline of oil and other commodity prices, and falling demand for durable goods as triggering a recession in 2007. Roubini’s alarm about declining oil prices is contrary to the mainstream economic views that lower energy costs are good news for the consumer.

I also found it difficult to mesh his views with those of the peak oil theorists, who argue that oil prices will be increasingly volatile as world oil production reaches its peak levels of production, within the next decade or so. These pessimists argue that increasing oil commodity prices will start to have catastrophic effects on the economy, as consumers and businesses struggle to adapt too late.

The more I read about any of these issues, the more I am aware of my own limits as a consumer of information. It is tantalizing to think that one could scope out the future blossoming or unraveling of the economy, and make decisions to protect yourself and your family. There is too much uncertainty in the system. Mike Jay says the level of complexity in our systems has gone beyond the ability of most of us to make sense of it all. As peak oil, global warming, the housing bubble, high levels personal and governmental debt converge in my mind with global tensions and insecurities, I tend to fall on the side of the pessimists.

We are all prisoners of our own points of view. I called the painting at the top of this blog the fortune teller demon, and I painted it about 9 years ago to become aware of my habit of making predictions about the future based on the past. We all do this, but very few of us truly have the skill of precognition. Most of our crystal balls are cloudy. Perhaps I am a prisoner of my own tendency for pessimism, but the optimists could be similarly deluded.

So what is a person to do? The crystal ball is cloudy, but it’s a good idea to be prepared. We need to prepare ourselves and be committed to creating the kind of community we want to live in. The strategy I find most convincing was expressed by permaculture activist Rob Hopkins. Hopkins said: “I deeply question the morality of responding to a crisis by running in the opposite direction and leaving everyone else to stew. For me, peak oil and climate change, and the challenge that they present, are a call to return to society, to rebuild society, and to engage society in a process that can offer an oil free world as a step forward and an improved quality of life.”

***
About the fortune teller demon:

This creature frets about the future, staring in a crystal ball where the worst things are sure to unfold. Its pessimism comes from its curious evolution in the desert, far from the watery habitat in which more viable species usually flourish.

From the Facing the Beasts book project.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Some Thoughts on Ordinary Heroism

I took several days off from blogging in order to attend the Bioneers Conference in Minneapolis. The conference, ending Sunday, October 22 in San Rafael California and 18 satellite communities, brings together a diverse crowd of speakers and attendees from every walk of life. The common thread is an interest in “the restoration of the Earth’s imperiled ecosystems and the healing of our human communities.”

The Bioneers conference offers a one-stop shopping experience for people who are interested in learning about everything from electric cars, to solar energy, to community activism, leadership, local foods, organics, global warming, alternative currencies, to mushrooms and biomimicry. We left the conference yesterday, midway through the second day, overwhelmed with information and the weight of the alternately stirring and depressing assessments of the state of earth.

When I last wrote about communicating about global warming, I was filled with enthusiasm for an assessment done by the Institute for Public Policy Research, in the UK, which concluded that a discourse about “ordinary heroism” could capture the imagination of a subset of citizens who have yet to engage with the issue of global warming. The argument was that the groups framing messages about global warming should engage the public with the meme of being ordinary heroes who would help save the environment.

In the wake of the Bioneers Conference, I am less enamored with the ordinary hero strategy. On one hand, a speaker who heroically challenges us to question our lives of complacency and ease, can trouble our thoughts and inspire us to change. All too often, however, I find the outrage drains my energy. I fear the tendency of all too many people to heroically elevate their points of view contributes too much to the gridlock and divisiveness that seems so prominent a feature of our everyday discourse. I respect what the advocates have done, but it doesn't seem to energize my own desire for action.

James Hillman, scholar, Jungian analyst, and one of the national keynote speakers, said that a great many of us suffer from thinking disorders. We think we know what is wrong, and we can be paralyzed by this critical knowing. Every positive proposition meets immediate criticism; the wrongness of others grows in dimension as we focus on it. As a result, Hillman said, everything and everyone divides into opposing positions. The cure, the basic therapeutic move, is to search out the meaning of the symptom.

If our society suffers from too much superficiality, too much certainty, too much independence, the answer, Hillman argues is in “doubt, disorder, deviance and dependency.” It’s already too easy for us to think we are special, ordinary heroes, because of what we buy or wear, the solar collector we put on our house, or the raw food diet we so virtuously adopt. It’s a lot harder to hold our positions lightly, to be open to learn from others, or to question our basic assumptions. But these practices may be precisely the form of ordinary heroism most called for these days.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Why isn't global warming a political issue?

Yesterday’s newsletter from Open Democracy writer James Crabtree is on the subject of global warming. It asks the question: why is discussion about such an important issue missing in the American elections? One of the reasons, Crabtree says, is that views about global warming are split along partisan lines. “Only 23% of Republicans think it's important, but more than half of Democrats do.” Do Democrat message framers reason that they need Republican votes to win, and decide to avoid focusing on this issue for fear of alienating them? Or is it simply the fact that other issues are currently better at motivating political change?

Both parties have access to the same focus group information, indicating that volatile gas prices and hurricanes have attracted people’s attention. Most of the campaigns are about reinforcing the frames people already have around the global warming issue, with slight tweaks using code words their target groups will respond to. Many people, particularly men, don’t believe in global warming, but think that temperature extremes are a natural cycle. You can see the current frames-in-use by comparing the issue statements of Democrat Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, who says “I will fight to reduce global warming by adopting legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions,” to her Republican opponent Mark Kennedy, who makes no mention at all of either global warming or climate change, but instead speaks of protecting the environment and reducing dependence on foreign oil.

GOP Pollster Frank Luntz says, “nearly all Americans agree that our nation’s current energy policy is behind the times and needs a new, 21st century approach.” You can review the Luntz memo here: it outlines how Republicans should address the issue. Several days after I learned about the Luntz memo from a media organization called Action Media, my own Republican congressman, Gil Gutknecht, hit his constituents with a glossy mailer that hit all the Luntz talking points. The talking points that many partisans agree on is advocating renewable energy and decreasing dependence on foreign oil. Neither global warming nor climate change are part of the Republican pitch.

Those of us who would like to be effective advocates for change on a national, state and local level face some of the same dilemmas as the politicians. If we say it’s a crisis, people will tune us out. They won’t respond to messages blaming them for their destructive, consumptive habits, and they may feel insufficiently compelled to action by messages urging them to do “one small thing”. Here it is important to acknowledge the contribution made by Al Gore in his movie documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Gore found a way to communicate effectively about the science behind global warming. His movie may prove to be the tipping point that moves Americans to a new attitude.

Many thinkers are trying out new frames that will capitalize on this new attention. George Lakoff, who is best known for his examination of the stern father frame that informs the Republican message, says that people who hope to change attitudes about global warming would do well to cast the issue in terms of health and security. Jeffrey Feldman, a frequent blogger on the subject of frames, says that progressives need a larger frame than global warming. He cites Thom Hartmann, arguing that the gradualism implied in global warming fails to capture the magnitude of the response needed. Instead, he says, we should talk about parts of the planet “shutting down,” which is a big story that will elicit greater response.

I thought this was an interesting approach until I read the more lengthy and nuanced background information on communicating about climate change, put together by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. I was particularly impressed by some recommendations developed by the Institute for Public Policy Research in the UK. The academics, policy experts, and media advisors seem to agree on several keys points:
*We need to treat the argument over global warming as won. The deniers will make lots of noise, but the weight of scientific information will make these folks increasingly irrelevant.
*Quiet down the rhetoric; instead make efforts to show people exactly how patterns of climate have changed, so that acceptance of global warming becomes the new common sense. Use visual images and stories wherever possible.
*Treat climate friendly activity as a brand that can be sold. Highlight stories of “ordinary heroes” who are achieving success in battling global warming through purchases or new behaviors.

This blog entry is a distillation of information from a variety of sources. Obviously, any particular communications campaign about global warming or its constituent solutions needs to be targeted to the learning curve of a variety of different audiences. A one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work.

Action Media makes a very important point about advocacy and persuasion on environmental issues in their booklet, “Defining We in Environmental Advocacy,” which you can download. For too many years, caring about the environment has been the province of environmentalists. This has allowed an entire movement to be pigeon-holed and marginalized. Instead, we should realize that we are all environmentalists: mothers, writers, artists, accountants, car dealers, teachers and entrepreneurs. Concern about global warming is something that affects us all, and calls forth our engagement whatever our position is in life. The stories we use to engage with others around the issue should reflect the commonality we experience within this diversity.

Moving beyond our efforts to become ordinary heroes with our behaviors around global warming, it sure would be wonderful to have visible political leaders making use of their policy powers and the bully pulpit to push the issue into a new dimension.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Garlic mustard, deer and people

A friend who loves to garden got me to thinking about garlic mustard. With great frustration, she described her efforts to eradicate this invasive plant from her property, located on the edge of an urban woodland, including multiple applications of Round-up, and zealous scrutiny of every inch of her land, to prevent plants from getting re-established from seed. Garlic mustard, a plant native to Europe, has rapidly naturalized from its introduction in New York throughout the northeast and also is common here in the Upper Midwest. The plant has a two year life cycle. First year plants are rosettes of leaves growing close to the ground, while the second year plants flower and produce profuse numbers of seeds. The plant in both stages crowds out many native plants.

Deer prefer native plants and do not browse on garlic mustard. However, they spread the small seeds, which get caught in their coats and dispersed throughout the woods. In our neighborhood, deer are also over-abundant. Our house similarly sits on the edge of an urban forest. Some of my neighbors think feeding the deer is a lovely thing to do. They have trained the deer to associate our neighborhood with LUNCH. Not only do we have large number of deer, but the deer have gotten used to munching on just about anything we plant. In our yard, this has included baby rhubarb (and I thought those leaves were toxic!), tomato plants, a spruce tree, and a newly planted cherry tree. As a result, I have developed a certain level of hostility toward deer. I even had a dream in which I was inciting my spouse to the murder of baby deer.

If you think about it, deer, garlic mustard and people have something in common. We are flora and fauna that are extraordinarily good at adapting to this environment. All of us are responding to the biological imperative to be all we can be. Garlic mustard plants are opportunists who have found a biological advantage, and played it for all that it is worth. Deer populations have roared back from their low point in the 1930s, when there were only about 300,000, to approximately 30 million at present. Motor vehicle collisions and crop damage are some of the problems associated with our high deer numbers.

We could go on at great length about the problems associated with the adaptable success of humans. Pollution, global warming, extinctions, war and violence are a few of the issues that come immediately to mind. Like deer and garlic mustard, we humans also have some redeeming qualities. Unlike deer and garlic mustard, we have the capacity to be aware of our role in the ecosystem. When I get discouraged about damage we humans have done, I think about the deer and garlic mustard too. All of us are living out our biological imperative. Unfortunately, the fittest and most adaptable survive, and then we must all deal with the consequences of their success.

I try to look for the silver linings. On November 4th, hunting season begins in these parts. The style of hunters varies greatly from one person to the next, but the season reinforces a habit of attention to nature, which is not a bad thing. The hunters need to do their work, or deer numbers around here would be unmanageable. Many hunters donate their venison to food shelves and feeding programs, which is a good thing. Venison is a lean, healthy meat and is not raised in industrial conditions, unlike most of our other meats. I have acquired a taste for it, benefiting from the gifts of hunters I have known.

Garlic mustard is certainly a pest, but Wildman Steve Brill, a well-known naturalist and forager, has identified it as a tasty edible plant. The infant plants, mustard sprouts, taste like garlic. The rosette-shaped leaves are an edible green that tastes best in the early spring or the late fall. During a time of the year when there is little left to forage in the woods, the garlic mustard is still there.

I guess there are some silver linings associated with humans too. I’ll leave you to think about those.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Insights about cars

Yesterday I spent an hour with Chris Schneider, owner of a Honda dealership in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Every Saturday morning Schneider offers a free clinic about hybrid cars. Not only does he have a passion for educating the public about Honda hybrids, but he makes common cause with individuals and groups that are promoting wind, solar and geothermal energy. Schneider proves you can be an environmentalist and capitalist at the same time.

In addition to fuel efficiency, one of the big benefits of a hybrid car is its ultra low hydrocarbon emissions, those gases that promote global warming. Honda has plans to bring a cleaner burning diesel engine to market in 2009. The advanced engine design will have a catalytic converter that runs as clean as conventional gasoline vehicles. Diesel cars are about 30% more fuel efficient than gasoline engines.

I am the happy owner of a Honda Insight, and hope the designers at Honda and other car companies have success in bring less polluting and more fuel efficient cars to market. I fear that the rate of technological innovation and consumer acceptance won’t happen fast enough, however. As reported on World Changing, many observers share my pessimism. The climate is catching up to the reality of increased carbon levels with alarming speed. Meanwhile, less than 1% of the cars on the road in North America are hybrids.

We are starting to wake up to the reality of global warming; the question is, how long will it take to translate this awareness into action? In August 2006 Zogby International surveyed American voters and found that 74% are convinced that global warming is happening. Furthermore, 72% say that industries should be required to reduce their emissions to improve the environment. A growing number of opinion leaders also believe in the concept of peak oil, which states that the era of cheap oil is over and our economies will have a hard time coping with higher and more volatile prices.

Regions with the highest level of social capital may be in the best position to cope with the uncertainties that ripple through our lives as a result of global warming and peak oil. Social capital is a term that refers to our willingness to help each other out during times of crisis. Hurricane Katrina exposed the low levels of social capital in Louisiana, as thousands of individuals were stranded without help when the levees broke. Communities with high levels of social capital may be early adopters of practical conservation strategies such as carpooling. What does this mean for you and me? We need to reach out and create relationships with neighbors, building the basis for trust and hence greater social capital. Last weekend my spouse carpooled to a conference in northern Minnesota with someone from the same town. Two others from our town also attended, driving alone on the 600 mile roundtrip journey. My hope is that we alter our habits at least as rapidly as the car companies do, developing enough social capital to make such individual-centered decisions increasingly rare.

Friday, October 13, 2006

If you must travel, buy Green Tags

This summer, high gasoline prices got our attention, but did we change our driving behaviors? The author of an article in Business Week examined the data and observed that Americans “Can’t Stop Guzzling. ” Gasoline consumption on July 4, 2006, was 2% higher than in the previous year. Now, three months later, gasoline prices have declined, further reducing any incentive to change our fuel consumption habits. Moreover, demand for oil in India and China continues to grow.

With the levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere already at record highs, and no sign of change in consumer habits, the planetary science experiment called global warming continues on its roll.

Even motivated advocates at first find it challenging to change driving habits. We unloaded my father’s station wagon earlier this summer and bought a used hybrid car at a premium price. Then, we struggled to change our household driving habits, carpooling on our trips downtown. We continue to come to terms with the fact that family members live at some distance away, and long travel is sometimes necessary to keep in contact. Moreover, we are finding it difficult to let go of the lure of the road. A stay-at-home lifestyle, parsimoniously avoiding any energy expenditure, is unappealing.

A transitional solution is now available to those who need or want to travel: purchase Green Tags. Green Tags are an exchange mechanism that function like carbon credits. You can analyze your household carbon expenditures by entering your household and travel information into a calculator that will determine how much carbon you generated during the year. There are many carbon calculators online; one is found on the Inconvenient Truth website. We did the calculations on this site, and found that our household contributed 8 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere last year.

Then, we purchased Green Tags from Native Energy to provide financial support to this privately held Native American energy company that is involved in wind energy. Another popular Green Tag organization is called Terra Pass. A search on Google or Wikipedia will reveal additional Green Tag providers.

We need to continue doing the hard work of changing our travel habits, but until we get there, Green Tags are a constructive approach.