Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A powerful mission statement

I have finished my last chemo treatment for cancer and am now awaiting a scan which will find out if the chemo did what it what supposed to do. I am keeping my fingers crossed for no evidence of disease (NED)!

As is evident from my other postings, my healing journey has been aided and abetted by my interest in alternative and complementary care. A healing that I put at the top of my list in terms of its benefits is the Chinese energy therapy called qigong (or chi kung). Many people will have heard of tai chi, which is related to qigong in terms of its emphasis on working with the human energy field, which flows in meridians through the body. Qigong features simple hand movements, breathing and physical exercises which unblock energy logjams. Chinese medicine teaches that these energy logjams lead to disease.

In late October I went up to Chaska, Minnesota, to take a Level One class at the Spring Forest Qigong Center. Master Chunyi Lin, an international Qigong Master, started this center and offers learning opportunities and healings. Lin has written a book, Born a Healer, that recounts his tumultuous early life in China in the midst of the cultural revolution, how he became a healer, and the miraculous healings (including of cancer) that have resulted from qigong. The book also provides examples of some simple exercises for getting started at qigong. In my own case, these exercises help cure the depression caused by my diagnosis. I now do qigong exercises every day. The exercises help calm my frantically busy mind, and as a result I have been able to get a daily meditation practice going as well.

One of the things that I find most powerful and appealing about Spring Forest Qigong is its mission statement: "A Healer in Every Family and a World Without Pain." In these days when so many of us are facing middle age health issues, when health care costs are rising, and we wish to be more self-sufficient about our own health care, this mission statement really resonates.

Cancer is a disease which effects the total body as a system. In my case, I have thought it best to rely on a multi-faceted approach that combines Western medicine with many other treatment modalities. Qigong has been a positive step in my healing process.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Eckhart Tolle

I certainly have much to be grateful for. Many people have offered advice and resources that have been very helpful in my new life as a cancer survivor. A friend of mine has been going through chemotherapy at the same time as I have. She found that the words of the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle spoke to her powerfully during this difficult period. She loaned me a CD of his latest book, A New Earth. At first I was put out by the Tolle's melancholic tone as he narrated his own audio book. And, I found his voice made me sleepy. But in the moments that I have managed to attend to Tolle's words, I have found much that is worthwhile.

At random, several weeks ago, I opened Tolle's book The Power of Now, to these words: "Observe how the mind labels it [the present moment] and how this labeling process, this continuous sitting in judgment, creates pain and unhappiness... Allow the present moment to be. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life."

Do you need to have a cancer diagnosis to deeply appreciate these words? I don't know how many times I have started to worry about the future, and have found myself returning to Tolle's advice. What is happening in my life right now is mostly good. I feel almost normal, my spirits are good, my attitude is positive. I'm not always in the present moment, and I am still quite interested in strategies and solutions that will support my positive outlook, but Tolle's world view has been a powerful adjunct therapy, day after day.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The problem with fats

I am always thrilled when I find out that someone is actually reading this blog, and when I get an actual request to cover a subject, I feel I should hasten to the task. So when a friend asked me what I had learned about the various fats and how they contribute to health/disease, I thought it would be a good subject for a little research. The more I looked into the topic, however, the more difficult I found it to synthesize a response that could govern my use of fats at home. But here is my attempt.

Our bodies need fats to maintain our skin and hair, to protect cells, to transport vitamins and protect our organs. However, there are three main problems about the types of fats featured in the Standard American Diet (SAD). 1. We eat too much saturated fat. These fats raise our LDL cholesterol and contribute to heart disease, among other things. The fats are found in butter, lard, dairy products, coconut oil, meat, and some prepared foods.

2. Our fat consumption is too skewed towards Omega 6 fats. Check out the Wikipedia definition of Omega 6, which refers to the fatty acid portion of fats. Omega 6 fats are found in nuts, cereals, vegetable oils, eggs, and poultry. High consumption of Omega 6 fats has been linked to cancer, heart attack, high blood pressure, and depression. Over-consumption of Omega 6 fats has an inflammatory effect on the human system, which makes it a culprit in all of these disease conditions. Immunologist Stephen Martin says: "Currently, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 oils in our diet is about 15 to 1. We are drowning in pro-inflammatory oils such as corn, soy and safflower oils. These oils are precursors of arachidonic acid, the substrate for pro-inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes. The high level of omega-6 oils in our diet is killing us...literally. "

Research is showing that Omega 3 fats, the kind found in flax oil, fish and fish oil, green leafy vegetables, and walnuts, can reduce these health risks. Science Daily reported on a terminal cancer patient who reduced his Omega 6 fat consumption to a bare minimum, and took mega-doses of fish oil to shrink his tumors.

Here is a handy table that indicates the mix of omega 6 and omega 3 fats in oils in everyday use. A friend asked if walnut oil was a good oil to use instead of some of the other more popular oils. The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in walnut oil is 5:1, whereas it is 83:1 in corn oil!

Another good resource for investigating the nutritional qualities of foods is Nutrition Data. From this source, I learned that cheddar cheese is high in saturated fats, but has an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of about 1.6 to 1. So organic cheddar cheese in moderation, seems to be a good protein. Also, cottage cheese has some redeeming qualities. We need our healthy calcium for bones, too.

3. We are eating poor quality, chemically modified fats. Many agree that trans fatty acids are the worst type to eat. These are fats that are chemically modified so that they will be solid and have a longer shelf life. They are found in packaged cookies, chips, crackers and margarines. These fats increase your bad cholesterol. We should avoid hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats. In addition to the dangers of trans fatty acids, many of the fats we eat are rancid, genetically modified, and damaged through the cooking process. The refining process we subject oils to uses solvents and high heats, changing their chemical constitution, creating "free radicals" that can cause cancer and other diseases.

So, what does all this mean for our everyday life of preparing food at home or eating out? Here are my suggestions:
  • For cooking or salad dressing, use extra-virgin olive oil, or clarified butter. Better yet, make a simple salad dressing of balsamic vinegar and flax oil.
  • Use less oil for cooking and sauteeing. For example, saute onions in a tablespoon of broth and a tiny amount of olive oil.
  • Eat more foods with high Omega-3's: fresh, deepwater fish, flaxseeds, flax seed oil, and fish oil. Buy water-packed tuna and sardines in tomato sauce.
  • Avoid french fries, deep-fat fried foods, and processed foods.
  • Buy organic milk and dairy products, which are higher in Omega 3's.
  • Eat nuts in moderation. Walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds all have redeeming qualities. I am down on peanuts because I am somewhat allergic to them. Here is what Dr. Andrew Weil says about nuts: "I... prefer almond butter and cashew butter, because they have a better fatty acid profile. And for snacking, I tend to choose raw, unsalted cashews, almonds or walnuts (an omega-3 source). If you do go for peanut butter, look for brands containing only peanuts or peanuts and salt (such as Laura Scudder's and Adams). Avoid those with hydrogenated oils, sugar and other additives."
  • Eat your fruits and vegetables! Consider lowering your animal protein to 4 oz. per day.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Ginger and other good foods and resources

I have been working away to upgrade my diet to support my fight against the cancer beast. I am investigating a broad range of culinary ingredients that will make my taste buds sing and my body get healthy. The latest thing to come to my attention is ginger. Ginger has a long history as a home remedy for nausea. Since chemotherapy and radiation can be nauseating, ginger ale, and ginger tea have been recommended to help sooth the stomach.

There are lots of good sources of information on how to incorporate more ginger in your diet. I buy the big lumpy fresh ginger, and cut a thin coin of ginger off to spice up my green tea in the morning. Go to http://www.recipezaar.com/, and put "ginger tea" into the search engine to find a recipe to your liking.

But it gets even better when you consider that ginger could help kill cancer. The University of Michigan did a study that found powdered ginger caused cell death in human ovarian cancer lines. Here is what the press release says: "Ginger is effective at controlling inflammation, and inflammation contributes to the development of ovarian cancer cells. By halting the inflammatory reaction, the researchers suspect, ginger also stops cancer cells from growing.
“In multiple ovarian cancer cell lines, we found that ginger induced cell death at a similar or better rate than the platinum-based chemotherapy drugs typically used to treat ovarian cancer,” says Jennifer Rhode, M.D., a gynecologic oncology fellow at the U-M Medical School."

Ginger has also been studied as a therapy for Alzheimers, and for colon cancer. I am ramping up my ginger consumption. On the same recipe site I found an awesome recipe for Sesame & Ginger Carrots that I'm going to try tonight with fresh carrots I bought at the farmer's market. It is chok-full of healthy ingredients!

Since I write here so irregularly, I'd like to mention one of my new favorite blogs. It is called Grouppe Kurosawa, written by Stephen Martin, who has 2 Ph.D.'s, at least one in immunology. This is a guy who loves research! The Grouppe Kurosawa Blog is dedicated to a discussion of how natural medicines and easily obtainable over the counter medicines can be used to effectively and inexpensively treat a host of serious acute and chronic diseases, including HIV, hepatitis, asthma, allergy, arthritis, cancer, leukemia and diabetes. What makes me trust this source of information is not only Martin's expertise, but the fact that he is not also hawking supplements and expensive reports. This is truly medicine in the public interest. It is amazing that I have searched around and not found another site that is devoted to such a practical and essential subject. If anyone knows of another one, please let me know.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Some cancer care recipes

The internet exerts a siren call to people like me, so I'm back, despite my last bleak entry vowing not to return until my paradigm shifted. I guess a shift has indeed occurred. I have shifted my focus from changing the world to healing myself. And the results of that process? So far, so good. I am suffering from a rare type of ovarian cancer and am half-way through my chemo treatments. Who knows what the months ahead will bring? All of you, dear readers, are living with uncertainty, but most of you just don't know it yet. I can report that uncertainty is not an impossible thing to live with; there is still time for everyday joys and lots of learning.

I am very grateful to all the people who have communicated with me by phone, email or in person. Changing and healing myself is clearly a group venture, and I have benefited from the wisdom of many. I have been spending a lot of time trying to make sense of this whole new journey, attempting to discern what gives me pleasure and what offers the opportunity for healing. Conventional medicine doesn't have a great deal of experience with my particular form of cancer, and it can be overwhelming sorting through all the information out there on complementary and alternative forms of treatment.

Nutrition and healing has been an interest of mine for at least ten years. This interest has grown since my diagnosis. There are many different cancer diets out there, and I have also discovered at least one good cancer cookbook. Some people have reported great cures from macrobiotic cooking, while others swear by juicing. Cancer diets seem to be long on general principles and short on tasty specific recipes, and tasty and healthful food really contributes to my quality of life. So I am going to share 4 tasty recipes, all of which have potential cancer fighting benefits. I'll share my sources for this assertion. All these recipes have been tested by me and are extremely tasty.

Fettuccini With Shiitake and Garlic Butter

Click on the recipe title to view this recipe on the recipezaar website. This recipe calls for shiitake mushrooms, found fresh in some parts of the country, otherwise available dried in stores with oriental cooking supplies. The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center website has information on the research that has been done on shiitake mushrooms as a cancer cure. These mushrooms are a staple in certain oriental recipes, and substantial research has been done on their healing properties in Japan. If you use dried shiitake mushrooms, I would rehydrate at least 10 of them overnight in water. We found some fresh shiitake mushrooms at an area farmer's market, and thought the flavor in this recipe was out of sight!

Bran Flax Muffins

I found this recipe on the All Recipes site, where it was positively reviewed by 190 different reviewers. It uses an ingredient vital in any cancer fighting arsenal: freshly ground flax seeds. There is lots of discussion in user-oriented cancer groups about cancer preparations using flax seed and flax oil. Sloan Kettering's take on flax is here, but Stephen Martin, blogger at the Grouppe Kurosawa Natural Medicines blog, comes right out and says a flax muffin a day can have wonderful benefits. I'm not capable of sorting out the science on this, but Martin's credentials and orientation are impressive. Most important, these muffins, which I made for the first time today, are delicious!

Add-on note: where to find flax seed? I found flax seed at my local natural foods grocery store. If you don't have something like that nearby, you can check it out at your favorite online store. For example, amazon.com and vitacost.com both carry flax seed. It's best to get organic, and then store what you buy in the freezer until you use it.

Sweet & Sour Red Cabbage Slaw

1/2 C. Cranberry Honey Vinegar (or substitute some other light vinegar)
1/2 C. Olive Oil
1 1/2 tsp. coarely cracked pepper
3/4 tsp. dried thyme
1 medium head red cabbage, cored & thinly sliced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
Directions: Combine vinegar, pepper, thyme, and salt in a large bowl. Mix well. Add cabbage and onion. Toss until coated. Salt to taste.

Cabbage is one of those cruciferous vegetables everyone has been telling you to eat. Cabbage is loaded with anti-oxidants, and red cabbage is loaded with vitamin C. The American Institute for Cancer Research has another red cabbage recipe on their website, which I view as a endorsement for the health benefits of red cabbage.

Lime Sorbet

2 cups sugar
3 ¾ c hot water
2 ¼ c lime juice (abt. 15 limes)
3 t. lemon juice
1 ½ T dark rum
2 drops green food coloring
1 egg white, lightly beaten

Dissolve sugar in hot water, add ingredients .Freeze. Before serving, process in food processor, then put back in freezer. This gives it a nice texture.

This recipe makes a ton of lime sorbet. A couple of days after my surgery, a friend of mine brought some of this stuff over. I swear the sorbet VIBRATED, it had such a dramatic effect on my taste buds. Man, this is good stuff. It is extremely high in vitamin C, and my system must have been calling out for this elixir. There's lots of controversy about whether vitamin C helps cancer; all I know is that my body LOVED it. Here is how Sloan Kettering describes the studies, debates, and some of the evidence about vitamin C.

My opinion is that science is not the answer to everything! Happy eating and abundant love and good health to one and all.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Last blog until my paradigm shifts

When a person receives a life changing health diagnosis, it calls upon them to, well, change their life.

Although I have enjoyed writing this blog, and having the occasional exchange with the reader, my body notices that every time I engage in a lengthy sit at the computer, it is not enjoying itself. So, I am resolved to spend less rather than more time in computer related activities, and more time engaged in enjoying the present moment, and especially relating to nature.

One of the most exciting experiences in the last month was seeing a leucistic crow in my backyard. I know this is a crow, because it was strutting its stuff with 3 other certifiably black crows. I looked up albinism on the internet--although this crow is not white, and discovered there is another condition that can affect birds of a variety of species. Leucistic comes from the root leu, which refers to whiteness. So I had the wonderful experience of viewing an exceptional crow, which spent about 2 hours in my backyard.

I choose to regard the visit from this crow as a positive omen, and hope you do too.

So, my plan is to use my voicebox for its god given purpose, my hands to write, paint and do other good things, and leave the internet for occasional research and email exchanges. I would love to talk with friends who care about me. I can also be reached by a listed phone number in the Winona, Minnesota phone book.

With peace and love, Martha

Monday, July 30, 2007

Jeepers weepers

Since I was diagnosed with cancer, I have been blessed with lots of new communications challenges. With my husband, I've launched into a new phase of constant truth-telling, which is combined with lots of checking back to make sure he isn't overwhelmed with the task of listening to ever-emotional me. Even before cancer, I was a weeper. If I had been born in the time of the Pharoahs, I could have hired myself out for funerals. I'm told this was a real job that was valued by those whose tear ducts were challenged. Tear ducts for hire were just as good as producing a few of your own.

Other family members and friends have to go through their own sense of shock and dismay at the C word. Each person has their own giftedness and quirkiness (just like me) that they bring to the task of communicating with a newly diagnosed cancer patient. They respond variously with avoidance, advice, sympathy, empathy and acceptance. I have to learn myself how to accept the full range of responses, even though there are some I like better than others. Too much sympathy can make me feel angry and weak; too much advice can make me feel resentful. Too much conversation makes my head spin. You would think that everyone is in a "no-win" situation when it comes to communicating with Martha. But I am flabbergasted by the prevailing sense of love and support, and that is truly wonderful.

The third group of people I need to communicate with is the health care provider, from the oncologist, to the nurse, to the receptionist. Here is where my weeping qualities become problematic. I am a continuously expressive person living in a culture that does not generally value feeling and expression. For some people, tears call forth a sense of calamity, for others fear or contempt, for others, the need to fix. Here is my dilemma: I am a weeper and I can't change that. Pharmacologist Candace Pert says, in Molecules of Emotion, "I belive all emotions are healthy, because emotions are what united the mind and the body. Anger, fear, and sadness, the so-called negative emotions, are as healthy as peace, courage, and joy. To repress these emotions and not let them flow freely is to set up a dis-integrity in the system, causing it to act at cross-purposes rather than as a unified whole. The stress this creates, which takes the form of blockages and insufficient flow of peptide signals to maintain function at a cellular level, is what sets up the weakened conditions that can lead to disease. All honest emotions are positive emotions."

I am not criticizing my health care providers. In the midst of all the negativity in the press about the health care system, I have to say that the health care providers I have worked with have been wonderful.

The fourth level of communication is with oneself. If anyone is at home with Martha the weeper, I am. Fortunately, I have been keeping a journal since 1978. My journaling habit is a wonderful resource and offers a location for no-holds-barred communication of every type. It is one of the assets I bring to my illness. I also have ample communication with my imagination and can express it through visual work. This is another wonderful gift that has become clear to me through my illness. The painting on today's blog is by me.

The fifth level of communication is between the self and the universe. Here I am blessed too. Signals keep pouring in from all quarters, synchronistic communications with crows, fox, trees, wind, and the universal divine force, not to mention the prayers that many people say they are whispering on my behalf. In the midst of such trials, such personal challenge, I experience so many gifts! Jeepers weepers!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

When the shit hits the fan

Since my last entry here, my life has been turned upside down. It recently became necessary for me to have surgery, and the surgeons discovered a tricky cancer inside. They removed as much of it as possible. Now, however, I am faced with the necessity of chemotherapy, and my mind is suddenly a swirling brew of feelings, reactions, ideas, hopes and fears about the healing process.

Today I talked to a friend of mine who has had cancer 4 times. She is one of the most positive thinkers I have ever met. She emphasized the importance of getting exercise, continuing your normal life, laughter, and maintaining a good attitude.

As readers of this blog might have observed, I am very interested in sustainability issues. Everyone has read about global warming, some people are aware of the possibilities that peak oil could drastically change our lifestyles; and there are many other limiting, unbalanced areas of our lives that can make one feel very pessimistic. Many people are thinking about what we will all do when the shit hits the fan.

Then, bingo, life intervenes, and the shit indeed hits the fan, and suddenly you want to shut out all the news, all the popular culture, and you want to jettison all of the difficult or uncomfortable areas of your life. Suddenly, all I can think about is healing, about prayer, about poetry, about beauty and beautiful music, about gratitude, and all those other former preoccupations are burned off in a new resolve to live in a better, more pure, optimistic way.

What I am wondering is, if this new attitude I am bringing to life is the one I should have adopted all along? If we all prayed unceasingly, created beauty unceasingly, strove for compassion, what kind of world would we be creating? Change may be happening one person at a time, one cell at a time, it could even be starting with me.

All for now. Thanks to those of you who have told me you check in from time to time.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Getting better

I haven't been writing here much because I've been on vacation, and while there, developed a medical condition that put me out of commission for a while. It still isn't totally resolved, but being back home, learning more about my condition, taking a hand in my own healing, and getting some good support finally gave me the first good night sleep in about a week.

I have always been quite focused on health issues and remaining healthy, but when this one came up, specifically, I have enlarged and painful uterine fibroids, I didn't cope well with the increased pain and bloating. Pain tends to make everything else in life irrelevant for awhile. It's hard to socialize with others because during this past week I have been pretty self-absorbed.

One of several turning points came last night, when our Nonviolent Communications Group met at our house, as it regularly does. NVC, as we call it, is all about compassionate communications. Our bi-weekly group has focused on things like observing without evaluating, taking responsibility for our feelings, making requests, and giving and receiving empathy. The leader last night took a good chunk of time demonstrating empathy (with me as the grateful receiver), continually digging deeper into my emotions, needs and responses. Like a thirsty puppy, I lapped it up.

The ability to engage in empathetic dialogue is a beautiful thing that requires skills many of us lack. The more normal response, when someone tells you something like: "I'm suffering from painful fibroid tumors," is to say something like "that reminds me of when my daughter had a similar condition, " or "why don't you consider treatment X?" or "I'm sure you'll feel better soon." None of these are empathic responses, but are rather self-referential, problem solving, or politeness, which is not the same thing as empathy. True empathy actually provides a feeling of relief in the sufferer, which is what happened last night. I slept well, and woke up this morning feeling drowsy and grateful.

If these skills of empathetic listening could be taught, volunteers could go into hospitals and hospices, and bring lots of relief to sufferers. Maybe some of this training is already happening.

Last night before I slept I opened a book of quotes from Rumi to the following:
"When you feel pain, ask pardon of God;
this pain has its uses.
When he pleases, pain becomes joy;
bondage itself becomes freedom.
When you take a clear look,
you'll see that from God
are both the water of mercy and the fire of anger."

Some of this mystifies me a little, especially the anger part. Then in this morning's paper, I learn that blues musician James Armstrong is coming to our community tonight to perform. Armstrong recovered from a senseless assault by a stranger 10 years ago. He now plays the guitar without all the feeling in his fingers. In the paper, he is quoted as saying: "I believe part of the reason it happened was to slow me down and look at life in another way," Armstrong said. "Everything happens for a reason."

I am looking for the uses and learning's from this pain

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Creating a complaint-free zone

Several years ago, my spouse contributed some funds to a Unity minister who was doing wonderful work charting the evolution of consciousness from a Christian perspective. As a result, we began to receive Unity Magazine, the publication of Unity Church, which seems to be all about positive spirituality.

The magazine that arrived today had an article that was made for my current situation. It explained the Purple Bracelet campaign, that started in a Kansas City church and has spread like wildfire around the country. The pastor of that church handed out 250 purple bracelets, and encouraged members to put one on either wrist. "He said that every time someone engaged in complaining, criticizing or gossiping, he or she was to move the bracelet to the other wrist. The goal was to avoid negative talk for 21 straight days--long enough, says experts,to change or form a habit."

Today I went to the website and ordered several of these free bracelets. If I could stop complaining and criticizing, if I could really stop it, I am sure it would have a transformative effect. I am all in favor of any practices that could dethrown the culture of criticism--both the quiet critical conversation that goes on in my own head, and the verbalized criticism of others.
I am a self-described expert on criticism. I have led several workshops on the topic, and have written a short booklet about the topic, which you can access for free on the link provided. Eleven years ago, my consciousness about the pervasive role of criticism in my life came upon me like a great awakening. I did a series of paintings on criticism and a host of other mental habits; the face of the chewing critic that initiated the series is at the top of today's blog. The entire process has been wonderful, but it did not cure me of criticism. I regard criticism, complaint and perfectionism as qualities that I struggle with, on an on-going basis, more than anything else.
For me, complaint and criticism is like a tumor that grows and grows until I aim the beam of awareness at it. Like a tumor, it periodically seems to grow for no particular reason, as has been the case of the last few weeks. So, I am delighted to experiment with, and tell others about yet another tool that may aid in shrinking the tumor of criticism and complaint.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

How the world spirals

Blogging, by its nature, is a form of commentary. My internal commentary has been a bit quiet lately, and I've reasoned that you shouldn't say anything unless you have something of substance to say.

So, I will speak with paint. This is a work in progress. There are some things I like about it, but I am not sure about the black. That could easily be changed. I am inspired by the view from my window, and this mandala was an attempt to capture some of those colors.

Perhaps I am trying to capture the colors of the world as I walk through it. There is a summertime mellowness in Minnesota right now, despite all the rain we have had lately. School is getting out, graduations have been celebrated, and Garrison Keillor came to Lanesboro, Minnesota to perform at the rhubarb festival.

It is our nature to proceed forward with our lives in a business-as-usual manner, despite the fact that spring is at least two weeks ahead of where it was last year, despite the worldwide reports of erratic weather, despite the fact that business-as-usual desperately needs to be challenged in our politics, our schools, our businesses, and our social and consuming life.

I've listened to two interesting and sobering radio shows recently. The first features scientist David Fridley, of Lawrence-Berkely National Laboratory, speaking on energy, China and globalization. He explains why biofuels will fail to solve our energy problem, and explains how the growth orientation of China and the U.S. prevents us from taking the hard measures that we must to deal with declining fuel resources.

The second, from Minnesota Public Radio, features political philosopher Benjamin Barber, who has written a book about how consumerism is keeping us in a state of perpetual adolescence. Why are so many adults reading Harry Potter books? Do we just want to escape from everyday stresses and strains? And why are we in such a state of perpetually aroused desire for things that we not only don't need, but may be harmful for the planet?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Trying to see the big picture

Last week I went to a session on scenario planning, sponsored by a University group that is interested in sustainability. We were asked to imagine what southeastern Minnesota would look like in 2050, across a range of areas: natural resources, social environment, politics, economics, culture and technology. I found that I enjoyed projecting my speculations out to the future, and equally appreciated hearing versions of the future from others with different perspectives.

Scenario planning seems to be something my brain is eager to do right now. Several years ago I became attracted to mind mapping; I think I've blogged on this topic before. This morning I sat down and started to think about what I might put on a current Martha map, based on what I see happening in my own life and in the world around me. The easy conclusions about personal priorities are those I arrived at some time ago: 1) do all I can to invest in a sustainable home landscape right now; and 2) work to create a supportive and resilient community and especially neighborhood around me.

Some of the actions that are unfolding from the first priority have included: planting asparagus, a cherry tree, an apple tree, rhubarb, and more plantings to come; and home improvements aimed at reducing the solar exposure of our house in the summer. This is because I believe that local permaculture (or permanent agriculture) will be increasingly important in the years ahead, and because I believe rising energy costs and average temperatures will make it expensive to cool our house. Currently, larger savings can be experienced in terms of reducing our carbon footprint through conservation measures. Technology may make solar and wind more affordable on a household basis in the future, but it is not practical now.

The actions unfolding from the second priority have included: being an active participant in a local sustainability group, and starting a sustainability effort in my local church. This is slow community building stuff but it has some long-term promise.

The more difficult questions that I keep coming back to are: how does art fit into this whole scheme? and: am I called to be a leader in any different or new ways? Perhaps the questions are unanswerable and simply need to continue to be asked. My art is clearly a gift to myself and to certain others, but for a broad group it is simply irrelevant. This is not any self-criticism of its quality (although I do think higher quality work will demand attention in ways that average work does not), but rather an assessment of the quality of attention that people have available these days. If we think of attention itself--the ability to be present and take information in--as a finite resource and therefore an attribute of sustainability, I think we would have to conclude that most of us have our attention strained beyond sustainable levels. There's far more information and visual material available than we have the capacity to take in. If attention is an aspect of sustainability, most of us should be trying to gather back our attention from where it is scattered, often uselessly and even wastefully. Yet that is easier said than done, because one still has to make some decisions about where the attention will be focused.

Many people feel called to take up some form of art these days, whether it is visual art or music or writing. I think this is a good thing, because these art forms are a way of focusing our attention. Many others are being drawn to meditation, which I see as a form of clearing the slate of the mind so that we can think more clearly. I'm not a virtuoso meditator but have been trying to get some minutes in every day. The wisdom traditions assert that this is a good thing and I am taking it on some faith, because I find it difficult. I also have some faith that the continued attention I place on my art will help me in my ongoing efforts to try to see the big picture.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A short conversation with a CEO about sustainable transportation

This morning I accompanied an friend of mine on a visit to meet with a former CEO of a major corporation in the town where I live. The company shall remain nameless, because my arrival in his office was a surprise and I respect this CEO as an individual. My friend is the director of an environmental resource center in a beautiful and ecologically diverse rural area. He is seeking funds for improvements to the center, designed to make it self-sufficient in energy terms, and neutral in terms of carbon footprint. These improvements include installation of a geothermal heating system, a solar energy demonstration project, and a biomass electrical generation project. He was seeking financial support from the CEO.

The two of us had been participants in a day and a half long program on scenario planning, that asked participants to consider the natural, social, political, economic, cultural and technological future of southeastern Minnesota. The effect of all this long-term thinking was to make me see more clearly the how much hard work there is to do if we are to get off our currently destructive course.

Anyway, I went along on this friend's visit to the CEO to listen, and to make a short pitch for this man to play more of a leadership role in persuading businesses to consider more sustainable transportation for their employees. "What is sustainable transportation?" the CEO asked. We get so caught up in our own jargon that we forget how to communicate with people who work in wholly different realms of work. I explained that sustainable transportation was transportation that conserved the resource (gas, and energy), such as walking, bicycling, carpooling, and taking the bus. It could also include trains and other transit forms, and it could include employee benefits like a guaranteed ride home for the carpooling employee who has an emergency. I didn't want the CEO's money, I wanted his leadership in our community.

This man has the reputation as an ethical and visionary leader, but he admitted that he had never thought about taking any special steps to encourage employees to travel more sustainably, even though there are demonstrable bottom line benefits both for the business and the employee. For the business, the benefits are improved health (oh yeah, we have an obesity crisis!), improved employee retention (employees like to work at places that demonstrate transportation flexibility), relief of parking problems, and access to a more diverse labor force. For the employee, the benefits are saving money, building community within the company, improving health, and oh yeah, saving the environment.

Last fall when I organized a sustainable transportation campaign in our town, I called the executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce, to see if I could secure business participation in the campaign, for example through bike to work programs and so on. She stated that the Chamber was a membership organization, and its members weren't asking for this kind of program. As a community organizer, I guess I need to be willing to cold call one business at a time, and start to educate them about these transportation issues.

I don't know why I should be distressed or surprised by this reality: those of us who are outraged, inspired, or energized by the global warming situation, who feel moved to action by peak oil, the loss of migratory songbirds, the relentless march of invasive species, the loss of agricultural topsoil--operate from a different set of basic assumptions from the CEO and the great mainstream. Perhaps most people have never become intimate enough with a woods to recognize that they are changing and are under threat. Too many people are living in a state of distraction, whether it comes from video games, television, the everyday demands of family and work, the seductive cascade of music emanating from their Ipods, or the exciting sale on now at Target. They can't see the woods or the trees.

So yes, I am disappointed that the CEO was didn't share my engagement with these issues, didn't seem persuaded that promoting sustainable transportation had a monetary and moral value. Maybe it's better to assume that we won't be bailed out of the coming crisis by big government, big business, the media or elected officials. Perhaps if I had received a glib or insincere response to my request, I'd go back to my comfortable little cocoon. The leader that is most needed at the present moment is the one I see in my own mirror, and I guess I should come to terms with that.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Leaderless Groups

I've been thinking a little lately about how groups operate, based on my own participation in a number of voluntary organizations.

A couple of things moved this to my mind. First, I read an article by environmental entrepreneur Paul Hawken about the emerging environmental movement, which he says "is the largest social movement in all of history," adding that, "no one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye." What's mysterious about these groups, Hawken observes, in that they are fluid, atomized, arising spontaneously, and bound by ideas rather than ideologies. For example, he says, "we read that organic agriculture is the fastest-growing sector of farming in America, Japan, Mexico, and Europe, but no connection is made to the more than three thousand organizations that educate farmers, customers, and legislators about sustainable agriculture."

I happen to be involved in two of these groups, and what is interesting about them to me is their resistance to traditional models of leadership. One of them has been meeting continuously for at least three years. We do accept the rather loose control of having someone facilitate meetings, but everyone has resisted designating an individual as a leader. This does not mean there is an absence of leadership, but rather it means that leadership moves more fluidly from one individual to another based on the demands of the situation and the interests of our various members. We have succeeded in pulling off a World Cafe on global warming, have launched a Low Carbon Diet group, have educated electrical contractors about opportunities for electrical energy improvement rebates, organized a sustainable transportation week, and have hosted numerous small forums and meetings on sustainability topics. We have a website, a blog, and are collaborating with others on developing an environmental mailing list. All this has been done without the traditional apparatus of an organization: we have no budget, no board of directors, no staff, no meetings minutes, no dues, and no "Roberts Rules of Order."

When a group operates in this manner, things can get done easily and rapidly as group interests coalesce around an issue or approach to matters. Because most of the group members are responding based on their own internally generated priorities, actions that don't meet these needs simply whither on the vine. For example, the sustainable transportation week, which was one of my top priorities, failed to generate resonance with other group members. The project needed allies to be successful, and it failed to find these. In contrast, the World Cafe on global warming resonated strongly with enough members to make it a collective effort worth pursuing.

I contrast the behavior of this group to several more traditional groups that I have been invited to join. AAUW, the American Association of University Women, has an active chapter in my community. The organization has a long and storied history of good works and community building. Unfortunately, I found I was not attracted to the group based on both its more traditional form (membership dues, designated leaders, minutes, and so on), and to its less fluid content.

Despite the fluid content of these newer untraditional organizations, they still must develop an organizational culture. Stresses and strains arise not only to leadership failures, colliding values and patterns of domination, but due to the multiple levels of maturity and consciousness of group members. It takes real wizardry for leaders within these groups--self acknowledged ones rather than designated leaders--to navigate through these layers of ambiguity, harnessing the potential collective energies for good group work.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

A springtime sustainable soup

This weekend the farmer's market will open in our town. I don't anticipate there will be many fresh vegetables yet, but I'll be there to purchase a few plants, to greet the organic meat man, and perhaps to buy some good cheese.

I feel a tremendous rush of optimism this time of year; spring is definitely my favorite season.

With the sunshine comes all the little spring wildflowers, morel mushrooms, and dreams of garden bounty to come. Not that I am a skilled gardener. I am trying to learn as much as I can about permaculture, a term coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, referring to permanent agriculture--growing practices adapted to the unique growing conditions and mix of plants found in the existing landscape. Our backyard is populated chiefly by black locust trees, considered a pest in many parts of the country. Our trees are about 70 years old. They wait until June to leaf out, have small leaves that do not need to be raked, and delightfully fragrant flowers. To implement permaculture in our yard, I'll be gradually adding perennial plants, especially edibles, that take advantage of the unique qualities of our particular site.

Last year I planted some asparagus on the edge of our yard, theorizing that the late leafing black locust would permit the asparagus to get the early sun it needs. This year, I am trying to nurture an apple tree that also grows beneath the canopy of the black locust. I pruned the apple tree, and hung a homemade moth catcher in its branches. The following ingredient are mixed in a plastic milk jug: 2 cups of water, a banana peel, 1 cup vinegar, and 1/3 cup black molasses. I cut a 2" hole in the jug and hung it in the tree. This brew is supposed to have a fermented smell that will attract the moths that afflict the early blossoming apples.

The other thing that is coming up all over is garlic mustard. I've written about garlic mustard before. It is another invasive plant that has millions of seeds. The spring seedlings grow quickly and crowd out the native plants. It is very difficult to eradicate once it gets established. The plant has gained a foothold in our neighborhood, the seeds no doubt carried by the prolific deer who live around here.

I think about garlic mustard a lot; for some reason it seems to capture the dilemmas of the changes we humans have wrought on the landscape. I had heard that garlic mustard was edible but found the raw leaves bitter. This afternoon I boiled some garlic mustard leaves in chicken broth for 15 minutes, and found the taste quite palatable.

So, I present herewith a recipe for Kielbasa and garlic mustard soup, which we will have tonight. I'll update this blog with our reactions to the recipe. As I picked the leaves for my garlic mustard I went through the field of growing plants with my grass clippers and snipped off the little white flowers. Next year's crop of garlic mustard will be prolific enough without letting all the plants blossom.

A Springtime Sustainable Soup

Kielbasa & Garlic Mustard Soup

1 19 oz. can Cannellini beans
1 14 oz. can chicken broth
12 ounces turkey kielbasa
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp. hot chili sauce
½ lb. potatoes, sliced
½ lb. cabbage, thinly sliced
3 cups fresh garlic mustard leaves, washed and sliced coarsely

Place chicken broth, beans, onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and chili sauce in a pot. Simmer covered, for 25 minutes. Add to the pot the potatoes, cabbage and garlic mustard. Simmer, covered for 25 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Options: substitute kale, spinach or collard greens for the garlic mustard.

Here are some more recipes for garlic mustard, which I found on a website called Prodigal Gardens. I would like to see a nutritional analysis of garlic mustard. According to Wisconsin herbalist Rose Barlow, "Mustards provide lots of calcium, potassium, and vitamin B & B2. Research has shown that all mustards, even commercial ones like broccoli, contain concentrated substances which help prevent cancer, including isothiocynates, beta carotene, vitamin C, and fiber."

Happy spring!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How One Thing Leads to Another

This piece of artwork went through a considerable metamorphosis from its early beginning, illustrated in my April 9 post. I seem to be launched on a new series of paintings, and am feeling good about making art once again.

It is easier to explain why I stopped making art for six months, than to explain why I started again. I stopped because of the commercialism and superficiality of the whole art-making enterprise, because of the difficulty of finding audiences who actually take the time to look at one's work, and because art-making seemed fundamentally less important compared to the other things one could do, such as respond in a communitarian fashion to the big issues of the day: global warming, violence, and public health.

I stopped making art for long enough to remember that doing good is a lot trickier than it looks. People don't respond to pious lectures about what they ought to do, they don't do things that the times seem logically to demand, such as conserve energy, carpool, and start managing their land according to the principles of permaculture. Moreover, the community of do-gooders, the 150 people in town who can be counted to show up at the same music events, fundraisers, and lectures--are too pressured for time to engage deeply and collectively with the issues. My need for community and depth around sustainability is unmet.

What really made artmaking possible again was an appreciation of the gift aspect of art. I remembered that the process of making art was a gift to me. We all have our critiques of how society is. It is healing and affirming for the creator of art, to use artistic forms and media to visualize and bring into existence a version what beauty and wholeness could look like.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Giraffes sighted in Minnesota

Four African giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) were recently sighted in southeastern Minnesota this Saturday, surely a sign that the planetary ecosystems are profoundly out of whack. There is much speculation about how the creatures, native to tropical zones, wandered onto a local university campus.

One theory is that the creatures are not actually true giraffes, but are a local mutation of the burgeoning white tailed deer population, a close relative to the giraffe. Vince Gray, a local biologist, suggested that a small band of Odocoileus virginianus (white tailed deer) mutated through natural selection to have much longer necks than normal. He theorized that deer populations have grown so huge that the low lying shrubs and trees normally consumed by the voracious mammals have all but disappeared, leading to mass starvation in some districts, and favoring those creatures whose necks allow them to find more food within reach.

Another more laughable theory, offered by environmental extremists, is that increases in planetary temperatures drove the animals to a more temperate climate, as is available in southeastern Minnesota, the region's "banana belt". Observors were unable to explain how the furry ungulates showed up in Minnesota, but Odin Skukrud, retired Marine Corps officer, speculated that Greenpeace orchestrated the kidnapping of the giraffes and their subsequent release in Minnesota in order to further the vast media-entertainment-environmental conspiracy of global warming.

A more practical concern aroused by the giraffe's visit was the damage a few of them could wreak on the university landscape. Giraffes eat 140 pounds of leaves and twigs per day, and the potential destruction to an urban forest is a matter of concern. Darrell Hedges, landscape supervisor at the University, was frantically looking for a trailer large enough to pick up and transport the four animals to an area where the effects of their tree-top browsing would be less pernicious.

Myra Earnest, member of a local pagan meditation group, said the visit from the giraffes was "a good sign." A giraffe's heart is about two feet long and weighs 25 pounds, making this the biggest hearted mammal in existence. Earnest said "the giraffes were lured to Minnesota through the power of attraction to the many good hearted people living in this area of the state." Her group planned a celebratory ritual which included the construction of a sculptural "Green Man" out of buckthorn bushes. She said the Green Man would then be thrown into the Mississippi River. Her group planned to seek a location for a permanent, year-round giraffe refuge/ritual center.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What to listen to?

I've been engaged in multiple house projects, and also working on a painting, so my head has not been in blog-land. That doesn't mean I've weaned myself from the internet, however. These activities involve physical and manual labor, but not necessarily mental fire-power, so I've been wearing my Sennheiser wireless headset, while I walk all over the house listening to internet radio. It's a great product, by the way. Our house has an open floor plan, and I can listen to whatever I want without disturbing my spouse.

In between painting, I scan some favorite aggregator sites to find good things to listen to. Here's my top ten list of listening sites, one costs subscription $$ and the others are totally free.

1. Public Radio Fan. This is a directory of public radio sites from around the world; you can find out what is playing in music or non-music right now. I have become particularly addicted to Dig Radio in Australia, an eclectic radio station that has introduced me to some new musicians I like. I just ordered a CD by Joanna Newsome, for example, that seems very interesting.

2. New Dimensions Radio. We pay $9.95 a month for a listening club membership to this service, whose purpose is "to deliver life-affirming, socially and spiritually relevant information, practical knowledge and perennial wisdom through the voices and visions of those who are asking new questions and are looking at the world in positive and inspiring ways." When we first joined the club we spent hours listening to some of the best minds in the world, including David Bohm, Krishnamurti, Natalie Goldberg, A.H. Almaas, Larry Dossey, and on and on. Their offerings in the area of spirituality are extremely strong.

3. Global Public Media. This service features readable and listenable article on a "post-carbon world, " aggregating radio programs such as Canada's "Deconstructing Dinner," and covering a wide range of sustainability topics. Great place to learn about peak oil.

4. On Point Radio. This is public affairs programming on a broad range of topics, including the current news, science, arts and culture, and much more. Well organized and accessible radio archives.

5. Speaking of Faith: A program on religion, ethics and ideas, with host Krista Tippett. Her most recent interview of evangelical Christian Richard Cizik explodes conventional ideas of what evangelical Christians think. This program is the cure for stereotypical thinking about the major religions.

6. TED Talks. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, and it features some of the big thinkers featured at the annual TED conference in California. Most of the presentations are short, maximum 1/2 hour, and video is provided, but I usually find it easy to listen without attending to the video. Most thought-provoking recent experience on TED was listening to Bjorn Lomborg explain which of the major world problems should be tackled first.

7. The Infinite Mind. Exploring topics like, Place, Laughter, and Bullying, among a host of others. Programs are available for free for a limited period after their first broadcast, but after awhile you may have to purchase to listen.

8. Learn Out Loud. Hundreds of audio and video broadcasts; politics, history, religion and spirituality are some of the best represented topic areas.

9. A-Infos Radio Project. This site aggregates offerings from a host of independent radio programs, a lot of them left of center. The quality of the shows is very mixed, and it can take a long time for the requested radio program to boot up, but this is a great place to search for info on obscure topics.

10. Democracy Now. I have to confess I have only listened to a couple of recent programs, but I invariably find host Amy Goodman well-informed and provocative. I plan to spend some more time here in the future. If you think the mainstream media is missing a lot of important information about the world, you are right. Listen to what's falling beneath the cracks here.

What are your favorite internet radio sources? I'm always looking for new finds. If I have any complaint about the current state of internet radio, it is that is strength is in breadth, not depth. If you have a topic you'd like to explore deeply, you still need books and other print media. For example, I'm looking for extensive information on permaculture, and a host of introductory programs are available but there is very little that lends itself to my practical "what's next?" focus.

Friday, April 13, 2007

In praise of carpooling

I get a little discouraged from time to time that fuzzy green minded activists give so little thought to the real potentials of carpooling, as a way to save time, money, help the planet, and get to where you need to go. About a year ago I put a rideshare board up at the local natural foods store, and although there were a few people who used the board, 99.9% of the population never looked at it and never gave it any thought. In the basis of more than 20 person surveys, I have found that liberals and conservatives alike are reluctant to carpool.

I posted a card on the board that said the following: "Older lady in Hertown, Wisconsin periodically needs rides to Ourtown. Time and dates flexible, " including my name and contact information. It goes without saying that there is no bus, train or plane service between Hertown and Ourtown. And the older lady is quite sprightly but nervous about driving 185 miles across the state. She is sensible about this. One man saw my card and responded to it, saying that indeed he periodically made trips between Ourtown and Hertown and would be willing to help out. It finally worked out that I was able to take advantage of his offer. I understood that he was planning on leaving Ourtown on Thursday, and could drop me in Hertown. I was planning on returning with my husband, who had a related trip planned to visit elderly relatives, so this was a one-way carpool.

Steve and I talked on the telephone several times, and then exchanged emails so we could work out the details of the carpool. We must have both decided we could trust one another, because the way the carpool worked was this: Steve's son came to my house with the car and the dog. I dropped Steve's son off in Ourtown, and headed for LaCrosse in his car (with trusting dog observing it all in the back seat), where Steve works. We planned to meet at 3:30 in a parking lot near his place of work. For about 15 minutes I was worried that something had gone wrong with our arrangement, when I didn't see Steve. What I didn't realize was that he was going to arrive on roller blades--instead I was looking for a driver to drop him off. We eventually found each other in the large parking lot and headed for Hertown, a 3 hour drive away.

We found lots of talk about, but what I was most interested in was the socio-demographic background of someone who was willing to go to great efforts to carpool. The two of us must share a certain number of traits in common. So, following my conversation with Steve, I discovered where to look for enthusiastic carpoolers: people who are involved in mentoring children (we both are); people who are thrifty; people who are sociable; people who place a high value on civic responsibility; people who value the simple life; people who are practical problem solvers; people who have had enough good experiences in Midwestern small towns to be basically trusting of strangers; people who are physically active.

I paid Steve $20 to cover some of his gas costs, and gave him a bag of homemade scones. I hope this was sufficient payback for him. One thing we never did was agree on what I would contribute beforehand. But things appeared to have turned out well.

Our civic celebration of Earth Day is coming up soon. I hope to continue my carpooling advocacy by surveying people about their attitudes toward carpooling, in the hopes of learning the formula that will make people accept this practical solution to so many transportation issues. I am perfectly willing to develop a reputation as a carpooling fanatic, even though I all too often drive around by myself.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Art: product or gift?

I visited family over Easter, and while I was there, I went shopping, not because I needed anything, but I thought I would be interested in the novelty of stores that we don't have in our town.

I visited a major label store with employees who were gifted at chatting with customers. I rapidly discerned that I didn't need the green slacks that were on sale, so I sat in a chair to wait while my mother tried on hers. Stacked next to a display of marked down purses were 4 hand-painted canvases, all by an artist named Parker, featuring decorative floral patterns. Like the clothing in the back of the store, all four canvases were 70% Off The Original Price, once $142, now $42. What a bargain! I could hardly resist, but I did. Seeing these paintings gave me the clearest possible example of art as a product, something that has always been difficult for me.

Here's the dilemma of my creative process: my art-making skills are a gift. When I say that, I'm not claiming that I am a genius, but just that the process of making a painting is a gift to me, and the result is a gift for some people, but clearly not all. The problem is, I often feel uncomfortable about showing my work to others. I regard my work as a gift, but most viewers regard it as a product, and I can't stand having it assessed as a product. There is something about turning a painting into a commodity that feels horrible to me. And I felt a little horrible when I saw those canvases in the store, stacked neatly, marked down, firmly in the commodity category.

I wandered up to the store entry-way and a cheery employee asked me whether I had found anything. I confessed that I hadn't, but that my problem was, I didn't really need anything. She backed away with an awkward smile--the stores depend on people who keep shopping, whether they need anything or not.

As I watched the hordes of women bringing their purchases to the busy cash registers, I thought about all these people eager to give a gift to themselves--buying something, forking over their capital for a little emotional lift. But shopping is a dysfunctional form of gifting; its satisfactions are transitory and for the most part it tends to be wasteful and unnecessary. Jonathan Porritt, "environmental guru" and advisor to the U.K. government, says that our shopping is killing the planet, and we need to shop much less.

Perhaps what is needed is to start becoming aware of the function of the products that we buy: are they necessary commodities, like food or shelter, or are they gifts--an expression of gratitude? We are drowning in our piles of goods, transitory and shallow products that we don't need, that are no gift to ourselves and others. What is needed is a more imaginative way at looking at the gifts of our time and labor. I am re-reading a book that examines the role of creative works like art and poetry in a commodified society. It's called The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde. Like the just-begun painting at the top of today's thoughts, this book is helping me begin to re-imagine my work and my life as a gift, an expression of beauty and gratitude that has the potential of contributing to sustainability.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Mapping a positive future

I spent some time today constructing a map for myself. Mapping is a wonderful process for anyone who periodically feels unclear about things. I was introduced to the Mind Mapping process through The MindMap Book, by Tony Buzan. I’ve kept a journal of my thoughts and activities for the past 30 years, but Mind Mapping helped me overcome the weaknesses of the linear thinking that prevails in most journal writing. I learned that the structure of our cognitive, sense-making process is radiant, that is, radiating out from multiple nodes and centers. The kind of writing I am doing here is linear, and its plodding, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other format makes it difficult to see the connections between different ideas. Mapping allows us to tap into insights from multiple directions.

I have had several breakthrough insights as a result of being able to make maps. In November of 2005 I was feeling oppressed and discouraged by what I had recently learned about some of the challenges our world faces, including: bird flus and other pandemics; economic meltdown caused by high debt levels; global warming; peak oil collapse; and on-going violence in the Middle East. I spent a month or so feeling depressed about it all, but then I realized that my gloom and depression served no constructive purpose. I needed to visualize some positive outcomes that represented a response to the life changing conditions that were going on. This consisted of some future-oriented statements that reflected what I would like to see happening in my own community:

1. Community Builds with a greater sharing of time & resources. People will be thrown back on the resources of other people. Those who thrive will be those with the greatest connections to community.
2. People spend more of their time creating, rather than spending. If money is in short supply, goods and services will still need to be offered and shared. As an example, if imported fruit is no longer available, people will need to garden and get creative with local food production.
3. People learn about and focus on healthy foods. Once we realize that the old industrial agriculture system is contributing to lower immunity and resilience, we will need to learn about the healthy alternatives.
4. People walk and use sustainable forms of transit to get around, resulting in healthier bodies. Too many of us are now obese, so if we use the car less, it would be a good thing. We can visualize a positive outcome of “imagining the future without cars" as peak oil pessimist James Kunstler predicts, or even much less car use.
5. People start looking at themselves as producers of something of value apart from the money economy. Economic collapse could be a great equalizer. Suddenly, the unique gifts of each person would come to the fore. We would need the community builders, the people with knowledge of plants and animals, the people with knowledge of practical health.
6. People become inventive on a local and personal level. Innovation flourishes. With the old systems breaking down, new solutions will be cobbled together, using the resources and materials at hand.
7. The creation of beauty is not limited to the specialists but becomes the province of many. The economy supporting the arts could collapse. The creation of things of beauty, art or music will be freed from its economic straight-jacket. All who wish to create will be able to do so.

This list could be dismissed as being too optimistic. However, the writers of the gloom and doom scenarios have no crystal balls. None of us know how events will unfold. My preference is to work on things will have positive effects, regardless of how events unfold. Keeping a vision like this in mind brings more resilience and power to my individual efforts to cope with whatever comes. Mind maps helped me bring it all into focus.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Real vs. virtual conversation

I finally finished the book: Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, by Stephen Miller. The last pages of the book came just after a day spent in conversation. Yesterday, I took off to visit friends in a small town where I lived for 15 years, and spent from about 10:30am to 4:30pm in continuous, almost nonstop conversation. Then, when I returned home I needed to share the gleanings of the conversation with my husband.

It was an exhausting feat for an introvert, but at the beginning of my first conversation I felt almost a giddy feeling of happiness, at being in the presence of intelligent, conversible friends. I engaged 3 different conversational groups; each friend has particular gifts that I delight in, and each conversation had a totally different quality. I felt tired, but wonderfully rewarded at the end of the day, as I returned home.

What I harvested from the book Conversation was a sense of how the nature of conversation has changed over time. Miller posits that good conversation is composed of a felicitous mix of politeness, good humor, raillery and substance. Conversation is as good a lens as any with which to view our American culture. We have a great number of people who are tuning out of real conversation with any of the myriad conversation substitutes available: Ipods, TVs, video games, cell phones, email, and blogging, for example. We also have many visible examples of unproductive or violent conversation (e.g. Jerry Springer).

In my own life, I relish the opportunities for conversation that arise in my book club, in the course of my tennis games, in our nonviolent communication group (in which conversation itself is the subject of conversation), and in our dinner club. Fortunately, I have a partner who is interested in many different topics and is willing to discuss them with me. I am thankful for the conversations that I do have. I seem to be thirsty for much more.

It is possible to learn a great deal even from the virtual conversations that one has on the internet. But I celebrate the benefits of real face-to-face conversation, which yesterday allowed me to ponder aloud some of the following topics: who is to blame in our dysfunctional agriculture system? How does an artist who thinks of her work as a gift cope with a world in which art is primarily viewed as a product? How will we baby boomers care for one another when so many of us get old together? In the world of global warming, will it be possible to grow peach trees in Minnesota? Should we fear the melt-down of society in a post peak oil world? Is there anything wrong with us when we crave solitude?

Real conversation on these topics tires and satisfies; virtual conversation leaves one hungry. I love the evidence that from time to time someone reads these words. One step at a time, however, I hope to find more and more real (flesh and blood, conversations. I'm convinced it is essential to a sustainable world.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Group mind and the speed of change

Not too long ago I finally got pissed off enough about the insanity of the ethanol situation that I posted a blog about it here, and also made some posts and diaries on other blogs. Not too long after that, I started to see negative news reports about ethanol in lots of places, including an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. It seems as though a whole group of us are having our minds made up at the same time. One year ago, the issue was on the radar of only a few people; now it is getting attention from many different sources and a new (not necessarily conventional) wisdom is in the process of being shaped.

What we see arising, in more powerful forms than before, is group mind. The internet is continuing to make massive changes in the way we think about things. I don't see it as bad; we need the wisdom of groups to tackle the complexity of the problems we will be facing. But it is an eerie feeling to sense that you are operating in the midst of a group mind.

Blogger Dave Pollard is concerned with the costs of group mind, suggesting that we are so affected by what others think that we are in danger of losing contact with our essential self. He says: "unless we are extraordinarily diligent and extremely self-aware and self-competent, we give up everything that make us us – we give up being nobody-but-ourselves and we become everybody else."

I think that the notion that we are separate from everyone else is an illusion. A statement like that demands proof from someone older, wiser, more well-read than I am. So many different mystics, philosophers, poets and theologians have already come to this point of view, I am hard pressed to find only one to confirm this statement. More than 60 years ago, Teilhard de Chardin hypothesized the development of a global nervous system, fueled by the communication which has now been made possible by the internet. "A world network on economic and psychic affiliations is being woven at increasing speed, " Chardin said, in The Phenomenon of Man. "It constantly penetrates more deeply within each of us. With every passing day it become more impossible for us to act or think otherwise than collectively."

For some, this statement may evoke the fear of being caught in a collective trap. But for me, it is hopeful, because the more we can inform one another's point of view, the better decisions we can make for all of us. The painting that I have been working on illustrates my notion of the self within the whole. I am a speck within one of the small circles, which is itself in the midst of a larger circle, which overlaps with other circles and is itself encompassed by a larger circle and square, and so on. When I see my emerging views about ethanol, or any other topic, begin to merge with, and be informed by those of others, I feel hopeful. In the past year, the discussion about global warming and its consequences has begun to move at a very fast rate. Will it be fast enough to make a difference? Who knows? At the very least, it will be very interesting to see how our collective consciousness grapples with, and addresses this reality.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Continuing the search for balance

One of Murphy's Laws that operates in my life is a law of attention: the more focused attention I give to a particular project, the more attractive contrary activities become. For example, the more effort I put into blogging, expressing my opinions, researching topics, and so on, the more attractive free time and unproductive play become. The more time I spend on an introverted activity like making art, the more I crave sociable community action. The more time I spend on sociable community actions, the more I crave quiet walks in the woods. The more time I spend with heady intellectual people, the more I crave the company of expressive feeling types. And so on. In me at least, there is a constant search for balance, the balance between inner and outer, introvert and extrovert, action and contemplation.

In the North American culture, productive, external action is highly valued. The search for balance receives little external support. The cost of tuning into the prevailing norms is that we feel a constant pressure for MORE: more money, more happiness, more time, more play, more possessions, more activism, etc. I did a painting several years ago on this topic, illustrated in today's blog entry. It is called "Thick and Thin," and it portrays the two sides of a duality. I called this a family portrait of a ravenous cat who constantly wants more, despite her corpulent body; with her opposite who, by refusing sustenance, has reached a certain skeletal perfection.

This painting is one of a series of 15 I did, beginning more than 10 years ago, documenting my effort to overcome my fear of depression and identify limiting patterns in my life. The book on the topic is written, but my search for balance meant that I eventually abandoned the single-minded quest to find a publisher. You can read a little more about the topic here.

The image of Thick and Thin reflects a human habit that includes but also extends beyond the material realm. Whether we feel there is not enough money, not enough stuff, not enough time, not enough attention, not enough love—whatever our fundamental lack is, all these cravings blind us to the abundance that is potentially available to us at every moment. Our relationships with money, matter, and the body have an impact beyond our own corpus. Becoming conscious of our habits of consumption and attention can provide respite from the restless and relentless desire for more, that is destructive to us and to the world.

A balanced life: what can be more sustainable? I feel a little sheepish about encouraging visitors to come to my blog, and then disappearing for a week. On the other hand (and with me, there's always another hand), it reflects my healthy and necessary search for balance.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The saturday mess

I was going to call this post, "The Saturday Gestalt", but then I looked the word up and found that gestalt means: "A collection of physical, biological, psychological or symbolic entities that creates a unified concept, configuration or pattern which is greater than the sum of its parts, " from Wiktionary, and its hard to see what unified concept I can make out of this particular Saturday. In addition, why use a complicated word like "gestalt", when "mess" comes a lot closer?

Maybe this is what happens when a crowd of blog ideas meets a multi-tasking Saturday. The hardest thing to fit into the whole mess was my central project this afternoon: the creation of Potato and Cabbage Bundles, for my Irish-themed dinner group which meets this evening. Since my dinner group members do not read my blog, I can confess that this must have been the most complicated cabbage dish anyone could possibly envision, that is, for a normal culinary human being. It involved steaming the cabbage, mashing potatoes with a whole host of yummy ingredients, burning the oil on the stove and filling the entire house with smoke while I searched for new radio goodies to listen to on the internet, cutting up parchment paper... and on and on, more steps than is necessary or sustainable--to stay connected to one of my central themes.

Anyway, the cabbage bundles are assembled and ready to bake, and I thought it might be interesting, to me at least, to list the other ideas, worries and funny things crowding into my brain on this particular Saturday. My last blog entry was on the theme of conversation, and the book, Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, arrived and is beckoning to me right now. Author Stephen Miller provides a fascinating introduction to the role of conversation in ancient times, whetting my interest with this description of Socrates by the politician Alcibiades: "Whenever anyone hears you [Socrates] speak or hears your words reported by someone else...whoever we are--woman, man or boy--we're overwhelmed and spellbound." Socrates was reportedly an excellent listener, and treated his fellow conversationalists with respect, urging them to examine their assumptions. If I were to meet such a conversationalist, would I be capable of examining my own worldviews, or am I totally bound up in my current positions?

I love to consider a range of ideas around a theme, so I particularly enjoyed Stewart Staniford's entry, "Innovation in Hard Times", posted on The Oil Drum, one of my favorite blogs. Staniford ponders how humans will respond to the coming challenges of peak oil, the melt-down in the housing market, and the damage caused by the Iraq war, to name the major crises de jour, by examining the number of patents granted each year, and analyzing the perspectives of the gloom and doomers like Jim Kunstler(author of the Long Emergency, which argues that peak oil will destroy life as we know it) to the optimists like futurist Ray Kurzweil, a computer visionary who foresees a future time when artificial intelligence will create technological innovations far beyond our current level of knowledge or imagination. This got me to thinking about whether I am fundamentally a pessimist or an optimist. I think I must fall on the side of the pessimists, mostly because of the ability of a small number of people--disaffected and angry--to make life extremely difficult for the peace-loving majority. So if the number of people whose lives go into crisis mode increases, it could trouble the comfort of many. And it certainly does seem as though a number of crises could come together and start to have spiraling impacts in ways that we cannot now foresee.

The melt-down in the housing market is beginning to receive more attention. Mainstream economic observers, such as Merrill Lynch, are now saying that housing troubles could cause a recession in 2007, and economic bears like Noureil Roubini say that we will have an economic hard-landing making waves throughout the world economy. After reading some of these assessments, I went for a walk through the new subdivision adjacent to my neighborhood. I saw that 4 McMansions, built on speculation by area builders, still remained unsold. At least two of these have been for sale for at least 2 years. This kind of information is not being reported in our local media, which usually rely on local Realtors for the predictable sound byte: "we are having a market correction but the turn-around is right around the corner." When you realize the level of inertia that supports mainstream economic optimism, you begin to worry about how people will cope when the difficult times do come.

As an antidote to all this pessimism, you might want to listen to Radio Canada International's audio feed on the topic: "Laughter is the Best Medicine," featuring about 6 minutes of hilarity with Surjit Lalli from Vancouver. It got me laughing.

The other recent humor source came from a paper sent to me by a group called Sustainable Belmont (SB), from Belmont, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. It described efforts of SB to persuade community residents to cut down the amount of time spent in idling cars. SB received a grant that allowed them to obtain anti-idling signage, handouts and stickers, the Board of Selectman granted permission to hang the signs, the police agreed to issue complaints, and city staff was enlisted to distribute some of the signs. They must not have believed in the whole idea, though, because staff were observed idling their vehicles while hanging anti-idling signs. Somehow, this just hit my funny bone, especially since I also am involved in an all volunteer local sustainability group that has faced this kind of bureaucratic intransigence. I need to look further into the problem of car idling. I did find at least one case study that started to suggest some aspects of the problem.

So that's the Saturday Mess.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

World Cafe, how to have a conversation

Last night our local sustainability group hosted a World Cafe on the subject of global warming.

About seventy-five people came together to discuss the question: “How can we meet the needs of current and future generations in the face of global warming?” Our assembly included students from local K-12 schools, university students, educators, elected officials, community activists, health care professionals, entrepreneurs, business managers, and people who question the reality of global warming.

The positive aspects of the experience included an extremely diverse group, who seemed to want to continue the conversation (we didn't lose people to breaks), and some truly phenomenal ideas that were reported at the end of the event. Many people said they enjoyed the experience...I hope they weren't just trying to make us feel good.

The challenges: our conversation patterns are pretty ingrained...in many cases the quality of conversation didn't meet the ideals I imagined. The World Cafe process is supposed to help people build on each other's knowledge, and I got the sense that many people found this difficult or counter-intuitive. It is much easier to hang onto our own ideas than to actively examine, respond to, and develop the ideas of others.

What constitutes good conversation? I suspect that our hyper-technological, fast-paced, individualist world gives us few good opportunities to really learn what good conversation is like. Every once in a while I have a really great conversation with someone: I listen, I learn, and I feel heard, and I can think of few more satisfying experiences. But it's rare. I have the same bad habits as others do. Joe states his opinion, I state mine. We think we're having a conversation, but in reality we are two people speaking into our own bubbles.

The next book I want to read is Conversation, a History of a Declining Art, by Stephen Miller. I just listened to a radio conversation on his book, and learned some succinct critiques on the state of conversation in the United States: first, we have a fear of offending people, so we shy away from in-depth conversation on the topics that divide us. Second, we are suffering from an epidemic of opinionatedness--we are not really interested in listening to others but instead believe we must hang onto and express our opinions as a way of being authentic. In other words, we wear our opinions on our sleeves as if they were essential to our identity. Third, most of our conversations are functional in nature: we want something from someone. The best conversations are purposeless in terms of outcome or accomplishment.

America has a history of seeing conversation as a means for getting ahead. Books like Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking with the Stakes are High, express the purposefulness behind many of our conversations. I had a great deal of enthusiasm for this book and even received training in Crucial Conversations, but I can't say it made me a better conversationalist. The implied aim of conversation in Crucial Conversations is to work things out, to promote harmony, to help a company or organization advance its purpose. But these conversations may lack the beauty, humor, and good natured disagreement which Stephen Miller says is one of the hallmarks of a good conversation.

Our World Cafe was purposeful, because we were interested in learning what insights people might have on a complex topic. I did learn from some of the viewpoints expressed at our event, even as sound bite summaries. But I long for something more. As one caller to the radio show above said, "conversation is an end in itself--it is part of being a healthy human being. You've got to be willing to have your mind changed." I continue to want to have this kind of conversation, both for the pure joy of it, and also for the way it sustains the human community.