Saturday, December 30, 2006
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
Sunday, December 03, 2006
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
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.