Monthly Archives: December 2011
As we turn the page from 2011, the year when the world rose up and said “enough!” and now embark on the journey of 2012, a year arriving with mythic baggage galore, I find myself heartened by big-picture reflections from several writers who often shed fresh light on our society’s struggles and dreams. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen pieces by Alex Steffen, Rebecca Solnit, Starhawk, and Michael Meade that are typically incisive and heartening; each has his or her own deeply resonant perspective on life, society, and engagement, and I recommend them all!
Rebecca Solnit sets the tone with her year-end missive, Compassion is Our New Currency:
Occupy has some of the emotional resonance of a spiritual, as well as a political, movement. Like those other upheavals it’s aligned with in Spain, Greece, Iceland (where they’re actually jailing bankers), Britain, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Chile, and most recently Russia, it wants to ask basic questions: What matters? Who matters? Who decides? On what principles?
Stop for a moment and consider just how unforeseen and unforeseeable all of this was when, on December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, an out-of-the-way, impoverished city, immolated himself. He was protesting the dead-end life that the 1% economy run by Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine Ben Ali and his corrupt family allotted him, and the police brutality that went with it, two things that have remained front and center ever since. Above all, as his mother has since testified, he was for human dignity, for a world, that is, where the primary system of value is not money.
Storyteller of the soul Michael Meade hits the nail on one of its many heads with his recent piece, Occupy vs. Nihilism: All or Nothing at All:
The Occupy movement may be an instinctive response, not just to the greatest disparity of wealth and power in the history of America, but also to the emptying out of institutions and loss of meaning at all levels of life. An underlying instinct to inhabit life more fully may be arising and taking root in different places for different reasons. The message of Occupy may be “all over the place” because the underlying message is about “place,” about reclaiming and more fully inhabiting public places, about being more present to the critical issues in each place, and about taking one’s own place in life more fully.
When mini-Occupy sites appear at individual houses threatened with foreclosure and neighbors set aside typical disagreements in order to protect each other’s homes, the roots of community are trying to resurface. Genuine grass roots movements can cross typical “party lines” and dissolve class distinctions as the deep-rooted connections between people and the underlying dreams of the country rise up from below. The difference and distance between those who inhabit the land and those who rule the nation become revealed. For, it is not simply that government has gotten too big, but that it has become so empty of meaning and devoid of the values that sustain common humanity.
The future that my parents’ generation warned us about forty years ago looks an awful lot like our present. The ice caps are melting, deserts are spreading, the planet is thick with people, most of the world’s primeval forests are gone, the seas are in crisis, and pollution, famine and natural disasters kill millions of people a year. Compared to the world we might have had, had the progress of the early 1970s continued steadily through the following four decades, we live on a half-ruined planet.
That half-ruined planet, though, is our home. People old enough to remember the first Earth Day can well grieve for that other, healthier Earth we might have had if only older generations had made different choices. Kids born today won’t have that luxury. This world is the only one they’ll ever know: they’ll have to make the best of it; life goes on.1970 is the same distance in time away from us now as 2050: that’s how close the future is…In an amount of time about equal to that from the first Earth Day, we have to remake the world.
Starhawk’s most recent missive addresses one of the key human challenges facing those currently engaged in this attempt to remake the world, which involves finding ways to compassionately respond to and provide for the needs of some of our most outcast citizens, the homeless and neglected people who tend to become a major presence at most urban Occupy sites. The inclusiveness and compassion at the heart of the Occupy movement creates social dynamics we’re not used to: the marginalized people are welcomed rather than ostracized, and in most cities have become a significant presence in the social reality of the camps and the General Assembly meetings (rather than being limited to their normal role as a tiny sliver of our daily lives, easily – and unfairly – discounted as merely drunks or freeloaders or lacking in ambition). In the occupy camps, they are seen in their full complexity, as human beings with their own particular backgrounds and perspectives and wounds. It’s manifested in the dynamics between the drum circles and those working to accommodate neighbors living near encampments; it’s also common to hear of General Assemblies being disrupted and pulled far off-topic by verbal outbursts from folks who react badly to any structure, planning, or authority. The challenging dynamics this creates has been the focus of some media features, and crops up in the reflections of most facilitators:
Even more than troubles with the cops and city authorities, the biggest challenges the Occupy movement faces seem to be internal. How do we make decisions together? How do we resolve our own conflicts within our groups? Once we’ve said “We are the 99%”, how do we set standards of behavior and say what is okay and what is not? Once we’ve renounced force and coercion, how do we enforce those standards when we do set them?
None of these are easy questions to answer, (and) the Occupy movement poses them in a form more stark than I’ve ever encountered before, in four decades of horizontal organizing. Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together.
After the break: Steffen’s insightful breakdown of the heartfelt worldviews pulling against each other in this time, Starhawk on questions of strategy and the need for linear thinking guidance in horizontal consensus process, Solnit on the depth of the movement’s heart, and Meade’s evocation of the soul of the movement, of America, and of each of our lives. (Thanks to Riyana’s always-compelling Wild Serenity blog for the three color images in the strip above, and to Alex Steffen’s post for the black and white one.)
Go stand by the fence.
Keep quiet. The horses will come –
thirty, forty of them,
however many live and dine there.
They will put their long, narrow noses
one or two at a time
over the fence to nuzzle you,
maybe nibble on your shirt
or suck your finger.
They are watching you
with full attention.
You look curious to them:
docile and harmless.
They want to touch you, pet you,
see what skin feels like.
Don’t disappoint them.
From Chain Letter of the Soul, a volume of his New and Selected Works published near the time of his death in 2009. I just ordered it – never heard of him until moments ago when I read four of his poems in Wildness and Captivity, an online journal edited by Mary Davis (of the Wildlands Project and Wild Earth fame, at least for me; oops: that Mary Davis died in early 2011) on a website new to me, Mythic Imagination. Here’s one more from Bill:
This morning no sound but the loud
breathing of the sea. Suppose that under
all that salt water lived the god
that humans have spent ten thousand years
trawling the heavens for.
We caught the wrong metaphor.
Real space is wet and underneath,
the church of shark and whale and cod.
The noise of those vast lungs
exhaling: the plain chanting of monkfish choirs.
Heaven’s not up but down, and hell
is to evaporate in air. Salvation,
to drown and breathe
forever with the sea.
To be loved.
To never forget your own insignificance,
To never get used to the unspeakable violence
and the vulgar disparity of life around you.
To seek joy in the saddest places.
To pursue beauty in its lair.
To never simplify what is complicated
or complicate what is simple.
To respect strength, never power.
Above all, to watch.
To try and understand.
To never look away.
And never, never to forget.
Arundhati Roy, from The End of Imagination
Something amazing happened tonight: a tiny comet skimmed just above the surface of the sun. Yeah, this happens pretty regularly, as we noted awhile back, but this one was special: an amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy of Australia spotted the inbound comet about 2 weeks ago, giving astronomers worldwide plenty of time to train their sites on it as it blew ’round the sun. No one knew if it would survive its closest approach, which occurred at about sunset here in New Mexico.
SOHO, the space-based solar observatory, caught this sequence of its approach (the video covers almost 4 days):
While the brightness might make you think this is a giant comet, what you’re seeing is a cometary glow that blows out the sensitive CCD sensors, which are meant to help resolve the subtle, faint structures in the sun’s corona (which you can see dancing around in the images). The actual sun diameter is the inner circle; the outer circle blocks the brightest corona so the cameras can watch the outer corona. This comet was about 200m in diameter; while it’s the largest of over 2000 sun-grazing comets seen since SOHO launched in 1996, this is still puny by cometary standards – the small but very close Hyakutake was about 2km (2000m) in diameter, Halley’s is about 15km, and Hale-Bopp about 40km. Still, late this afternoon, the comet was brighter than the brightest stars or planets, though too close to the sun to be seen with the naked eye.
And tonight, this amazing video came in from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, showing the comet apparently surviving perihelion, whizzing through the solar corona. It passed only 140,000km above the sun’s surface: that’s just ten or so earth-diameter! Yoswa. (the video loops three times, each time in slower motion)
I tell ya, we’ve got some pretty darn amazing eyes on the skies these days! (Here’s another view of the closest passage, offering a wider perspective, and here’s the SOHO view from the next morning, showing the tail left behind as the comet emerges and heads back out away from its hairy close encounter with our star.)
For more images and a complete run-down on the approach and passage of Comet Lovejoy, check out AstroBob’s day-of coverage and his posts in the few days before and after.
UPDATE, 12/22/11: Not only did our little hero survive, but it’s putting on a nice, though subtle, morning show in the southern hemisphere. The tail is 15 degrees long, about half of which is visible to the naked eye just before sunrise; as always, cameras bring out the detail with slightly longer exposure times. Here’s one from Colin Legg of Mandurah, Western Australia, recently posted on SpaceWeather.com:
Well, it’s been a couple months of dabbling in this new creative/vision/writing outlet, and I find that I’m having a hard time getting started with one of the key themes I want to be addressing here: facing the future that we’ve made for ourselves. We’ve seen it coming for decades, but haven’t managed to turn the wheel. Yet still, and always, there are glimmers of hope, light shining through the cracks, viable paths to a future that is more caring, balanced, and connected to the greater pulses of love and truth and beauty from which all this emerged. This is a era at’s been described as The Great (economic) Unravelling, The Great (environmental) Disruption, and The Great (social) Turning; all of these hinge on the question of whether we’ll allow the present course to continue relatively unchecked, or find our way toward a new set of priorities in greater balance with natural systems and with a deeper sense of shared responsibility for the wellbeing of all.
But can be hard, so hard, to find our way through the sorrow, the fear, the anger and despair about where we’ve gotten ourselves to. It’s just as hard to even acknowledge the sorrow and its brethren that lurk there, in each and every breath we take as we walk through our days in this troubled world. Yet once we do, once we allow the emotional and soul-level responses that follow from all the horrors that we see and know and imagine, we then have a ground from which we can move in a way that’s more able to engage both the wounded world and the widespread efforts to lift each other up in the midst of this time of such great uncertainty.
This aspect of Bright Blue Ball won’t be detailing the troubles; there’s plenty of places for that. Instead, I’ll share here some of the voices that speak from the heart in ways that acknowledge our dire situation while holding a larger perspective in which there’s room to move and act and care and engage. For starters, I want to share fairly recent messages from two of the great elders of our time, Wendell Berry and Joanna Macy.
Here’s a snippet of Joanna, about embracing the uncertainty of our time:
We’ll hear more from Joanna here, in the weeks to come. If you can’t wait, check out this video of a passionate presentation at Bioneers in 2009, which will be featured here before long.
And now to Wendell, voice of the rural soul. This is one of his “sabbath poems,” written in 2007, and published in his most recent collection, Leavings.
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself.
On the occasion of his final BBC series, here’s to Sir David:
My favorite comment on the YouTube page: “David Attenborough should narrate my life.”
Thanks to Andrew Sullivan’s indispensably rich and diverse blog (politics, science, religion, society, wonder), The Dish, for the heads-up!
This morning I rose during first light and was in my chair with a cup of Earl Grey when sunlight brushed the eastern edge of the hill across the canyon above Thor’s. Once the sun cleared the ridge and so began streaming across the front yard – which is practically an extension of my living room, thanks to six large windows – I picked up the binoculars to take an Enhanced Vision look at the sparkling snow.
And spent the next fifteen minutes lost-found-exploring-endazzled in a bejeweled beauty. Sprinkled along my line of sight, in an area about ten feet around between the bird feeders and piñon trees (with a second patch further out the same line past the trees), were hundreds of tiny gemstones, vividly alight in all the colors of the rainbow, along with a few fancy colors for good measure (deep teal, bright carnelian). One little foot-wide hummock of sun-splashed snow sported dozens of just-visible specks of color, a dense scattering of tiny pixie-dust flackes; while beyond across a wider expanse of several feet, larger electric-bright confetti chips glared in brilliant red, vivid blue, warm orange, and piercing green, while just occasionally, a gramma-grass head shone with a spot of attention-grabbing violet, seemingly the rarest of the ice-prism’s children in this dance of color. (The most evocative of very few pictures online, shown here courtesy of AstroBob’s astronomy blog, is less than half the density and intensity of color that I was seeing, and seems to lack the larger pieces.)
I’m puzzled as to why this dazzlingly magical yet really rather common wintry delight isn’t more widely celebrated, commented on, or just plain noticed. Maybe there’s an unspoken pact in the Natural Wonder Society to not speak of this and other similarly subtle-yet-revelatory cracks between the worlds; are some small openings such as this more powerful when they come as a total surprise?
I surely remember the soul-shaking delight I felt on that December morning at El Morro when Jack and I crawled from our tent into a frost-enrobed landscape sparkling briliiant white in the low sun, and walked slowly around the edge of the campground, laughing inside at the raw amazingness of the way the grasses, rocks, and trees all pulsed in a dance of light, individual flakes of ice and snow blinking on and off as we wandered this crystalline world.
This fall, I was psyched to go with Rosa to see Conor Oberst with his long-time main band, Bright Eyes. I got turned on to him thanks to an NPR online concert, and he became a common musical ground for Rosa and I, a good and rare thing for an 18 and 54 year old pair of music lovers.
But little did I know how amazing it would be! By the time it was over, this show had popped into the Top 10 Concerts of All (my) Time list, not something that happens very often any more (three of my Top 10 have come in the new millennium).
Conor’s an intense and inspired songwriter, exploring with a voracious honesty the dark corners of experience (his, those he encounters, all of ours), as well as casting light on our hopes (ragged as they may be these days), always coming from a place of raw and exposed heart and soul, reaching deep. A totally charismatic stage presence, as well, by far the most compelling front man I’ve ever seen up close in a small club. Add Mike Mogis, who’s been his guitar-slinging sidekick for over a decade, and a way-tight-yet-explosive band of two keyboards, two drummers, bass, and occasional trumpet, and you’ve got a recipe for a good time! I don’t know nearly his whole catalog, but got easily caught up even in totally unknown songs whose words I could only catch snatches of: a riveting couplet would reach out and grab me while my body was carried along by the churning band and then sent soaring by a burst of grand rock’n’roll cacophony.
Though scouring YouTube to try to recreate something remotely representative of being there in the midst of it all is a fool’s errand (count me as foolish for the past couple of hours or so), I managed to come up with a solid hour-long video playlist that gives a decent sense of why I feel really lucky to have caught this band in what’s said to be their final tour. There’s a good chance Conor and Mike will continue to do things together; Mogis was the non-singing “fourth man” and producer for the supergroup Monsters of Folk, which brought together three of the top 30-something songwriters into the CSN of their generation; check Conor, Jim James, and M Ward out on this Austin City Limits show. (oops; expires on Christmas! Bah humbug. Here’s a 3-song NPR session.)
Okay, on with the show!
We’ll dive right in at maximum impact, with the final song of most of the shows on this tour, and the final song on Bright Eyes’ final album, The People’s Key. One for You, One for Me:
And a taste of his gentler songwriting, in Bowl of Oranges:
For a bunch more, click on through!
On a recent evening, as the canyon was settling into the stillness of our first real snow of the year, I stepped outside to take in the last shades-of-grey light of the day. The snow was falling at just the right pace to let the far hills almost a mile up-canyon be just barely visible through the diffuse white filter of the falling flakes. From this barely-there backdrop, each closer ridge and hill was a bit more solidly “here” – the ridge across from us half-obscured, the one next door above Jim’s a quarter less present than normal. And in the near foreground, the steady fall of visible flakes, turning the yard’s air into a filled three-dimensional matrix of activity, rather than “empty space” between me and the piñons, or me and the bird-feeder tree.
Snow somehow connects sky and earth in a way rain doesn’t quite evoke. Perhaps it’s the slower falling: we can clearly perceive each flake passing by on its journey from cloud to ground. Perhaps also snow invites us into its presence more readily; even without hat or coat, I lingered long and easily. Rain fills the space and leaves no room for us without succumbing to its moisture, while snow occupies the space while allowing us to enter without hunkering down. (Well, at least a still snowfall…biting winds create quite a different moment!)
So, there I am, drinking in the canyon’s body around me, appreciating the dimensionality provided by the flake-filled air. A neighbor’s voice from across the way – surprisingly clear. Then an odd creaking noise, just a couple of pulses of it, from up the canyon. A strange sound: not quite mechanical, yet neither vocal (coyote? cat? human? No…) The raspy sounds come again, a few more, maybe four or five pulses jumbled together, a totally out of place artifact. What where who why?
And suddenly, I realize: cranes! Will I see them through the snow? The calls come closer, and yes!, a broad curved V – call it a very wide U – glides down the canyon. Just a few voices (maybe a half dozen or so) from thirty-ish birds, wings pumping. Now, just briefly as they pass by, the soft whir of three score feathered arms…and almost as soon as I can revel in this magnificently gentle touch being passed through the space between them and I, the subtle sound is lost, this expansive visitation sliding along silently once more, down over Thor’s and into the snowy distance.
Late! Caught in the storm en route to the Bosque del Apache? Most of the thousands of winter residents arrive there in November; this is either some cold-hearty crew that enjoys dancing the edge of winter on their way south, or a bunch of stragglers who reveled a bit too long in the late fall of their summer home, or perhaps relaxed into a spell of Indian Summer along the way….
They must have been winging their way down the eastern slope of the Rockies, swinging down over Las Vegas (NM) and Glorieta Pass, now picking up the Galisteo valley as they head for the Rio Grande. For the time-stopping forty seconds that they passed through my snow revelry, they soared directly over the river, winging intently along the watercourse, which travels southwest here; interesting that they weren’t taking a southernly beeline to the Bosque, which would have taken them far south of this point.
No doubt my human speculations about where from and why now and which way are as far off base as they can possibly be; what do I know of the ways of cranes? And so I ask forgiveness for my indulgence, and return to that fleeting, extended moment when a fleet of wings passed through this wintry calm, and I say: carry on, wild ones!