Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Humans Don't Desire Like Bettongs Desire

One of the most fascinating sessions I attended at the Parliament of the World’s Religions was called “Enabling Response: Contributions of the Ecological Humanities toward an Environmental Culture.” Freya Mathews, Associate Professor in the Philosophy Program at Melbourne’s La Trobe University and author of several books, including one I particularly admire, The Ecological Self, talked about the problem environmentalists run into when they try to persuade people to rein in their desires for the sake of a sustainable planet.

“We have to want what the biosphere needs us to want,” Mathews said. Unfortunately, humans have the capacity to want in much bigger, more creative ways than their biology demands. Unlike the bettong, for example, a small Australian mammal also known as the rat kangaroo, “which only wants to eat truffles,” humans have very complicated desires, desires that are fed by fantasy, ego, envy, and many other enticements. “Can we imagine a synergy between humans and nature?” Mathews queried.

In my book, The World Is a Waiting Lover, I unfold an arc of desire from raw, potent physical attraction to the longing to transcend and become intimately united with the great mystery of being. The force I explore is the archetypal Beloved, the inner flame of passion that allures us all our lives to connect with the people, ideas, and acts that will bring out our higher self. This path can be a joyful one and very rewarding, but it is basically solitary.

We all have an inner Beloved, but how can we get those Beloveds together on behalf of the Earth?

Mathews discussed the need for activities that would create meaning for people through what she calls onto-poetics (ontos is the Greek word for being), since “the language of the world is the language of poetics and symbol.” Examples would be festivals, pilgrimages, invocations expressed in language that plumbs below the surface and stirs what a colleague of mine calls the indigenous-mind.

The outcome of such practices? “We are sure to be ravished,” Mathews concluded.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Street Arts for the Earth

The Balinese barong has been described as a cross between a lion and a caterpillar. With a carved wooden head worn by one dancer and a long body made of raffia or palm fiber, the far end of which is worn by another dancer, the barong is a benevolent creature that appears at Balinese sacred dance performances to bring peace and well-being.

On Sunday, December 6, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, a different kind of barong came to life, and in a way that well suited this particular gathering, whose theme is “Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth.”

The World Peace Barong was conceived in 2003 at an international gathering called "Sharing Art & Religiosity," held in the vicinity of the temple Pura Samuan Tiga in Bedulu, Bali. Painter I Wayan Sudiarta from the village of Peliatan got the idea of creating a barong made of materials offered by people from any culture and faith. The mask of the barong was carved by Tjok Alit, a maskmaker in Singapadu, Bali. Elements that arrived from twenty-three other lands to adorn it included prayer bells from Japan, cow bells from Switzerland, feathers from India, and fabric from Assisi, Italy.

As the barong prepared to journey to Australia, parliament officials became concerned that its many natural materials would prevent it from clearing customs smoothly. As a result the World Peace Barong traveled with new black velvet garments. Garuda Airlines designated it executive class. At Melbourne's airport, customs officials greeted it graciously, charmed by its gentle, smiling face. But once the seventeen-kilo barong arrived at the Melbourne convention center, there was no place to put it. The sacred barong actually spent one night in the kitchen convention center, laughed Suprato Suyodarmo, Indonesian movement artist and founder of the Padepokan Lemah Putih school in Solo, Central Java.

The barong danced "Tri Yoni Saraswati" with eight artists from Bali and South Sulawesi for the International Plenary of sacred music. Although it was scheduled for an interactive session with parliament participants in one of the meeting rooms of the convention center, Suprato conceived of another idea.

He had noticed a strange figure, dressed in black and bearing a dire warning, who stood all day every day at the entrance to the convention center. Benny Zable, of Nimbun, New South Wales, and Woodstock, New York, wore a gas mask and a long black cloak on which were painted the words, FOSSIL FOOLS and THERE ARE NO JOBS ON A DEAD PLANET. Day after day he stood there, his hands rising and falling in mute supplication or despair. A few people stopped to look at him, but most rushed past.

Because Suprato Suryodarmo is interested in the relationship of sacred theatre and the natural environment, he asked Zable if the World Peace Barong could join him on the plaza. Late on the afternoon of the 6th, when most of the parliament participants were attending sessions inside the convention center, Suryodarmo and Diane Butler, an American dancer who has lived and danced in Bali for many years, carried the barong out to the front of the convention center and arranged it with offerings on the pavement. After sitting on the ground and praying softly, Suryodarmo rose and began to dance. His feet moved with slow-motion precision, turning in perfect balance. His hands and long fingers created mudras, formal patterns of meaning. Then Benny Zable began to move in response. Both the Indonesian dancer and the Australian street artist moved in harmony, their movements reflected in the tall plate glass windows of the convention center as the barong stared benignly out at the passing crowd.

One dancer brought a message of peace through the form of a figure from an ancient religious tradition; the other delivered a message of environmental urgency through artistic improvisation. One was dressed in traditional ceremonial clothing, one in a hand-made costume. Together they wove a message that religious leaders of many faiths were attempting to spread inside the convention center all week: in matters of environmental stewardship and peace among nations, it is only through creative collaboration, the willingness to listen to others, and the invention of new forms of expression that change can occur.

Monday, December 7, 2009

World Religions Get Down to Earth

"Welcome to country" is how the Aboriginal Australians greet visitors, and it was the greeting of "Aunty" Joy Murphy Wandin, a senior Aboriginal leader of the Wurundgeri people, to participants in the Parliament of the World's Religions, currently being held in Melbourne, Australia. The theme of the parliament, which was first held in 1893, is the environment: "Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth."

It would be hard to find one of the world's religions NOT represented at this gathering. The Aboriginal people of Australia are here, of course, as are other indigenous people from Scandinavia, America, Africa, and other lands; Christians of different denominations; Jews; Hindus; Muslims; Buddhists; Zoroastrians; Sikhs; Pagans. What is even more extraordinary than the diversity, however, is the willingness of people of different faiths to listen to and learn from one another. Those who have attended previous parliaments claim that there is an openness and honesty here that has not been seen before, from the native Australians' expressions of sorrow and distress over the failure of the government to recognize them to the admission of several religious leaders that they have not always been mindful of holding the earth in respect.

My own particular interest is in finding ways to reconcile people and wounded places, and I'm curious how people of different religious traditions view that challenge. A few responses:

Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin: "My people know that the pavement all over Melbourne is not the real surface of the Earth. It's a covering over the hills, the rivers. There is a cemetery that now has buildings over it. But we remember what is really here."

John Grim
, Senior Lecturer and Scholar, Yale University (at a panel on the work of Thomas Berry): "Thomas was very concerned about the degradation of the environment, but then as he got older, he wanted to turn away from a negative view. He wanted to be more hopeful, especially for the sake of the younger generations."

Leo Killsback
, Northern Cheyenne: "They said that the killing at Virginia Tech was the worst mass murder ever in the U.S. The [1864] massacre at Sand Creek that killed 250 of my people was even worse."

Vidya Sarveswaran, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Deep Ecologist: "We must work to heal what is broken on the inside, as we heal what is broken on the outside."

H.H. Swami Sandeep Chaitanya
, Hindu, founder of the School of the Bhagavad Gita, India: "Become a vegetarian. Meditate. You cannot change what is already done. You can only improve yourself."

Chris Peters
, Yurok, director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, Arcata, CA: "It's a good question. Indian people never used to have to worry about this. If the forest burned, you knew it would grow back."

Freya Mathews
, Associate Professor, LaTrobe University, Melbourne, and author of The Ecological Self and other books: "That's what the Kingfisher Festival is all about. It's finding revelation in the midst of a fallen state."

The concept of "wounded places" obviously has a lot of different connotations for people. Religious people have the capacity for awe, which means they can see the beauty of the Earth and be transported, can see the Earth either as sacred or as a manifestation of the sacred that is the Creator. However, many religions also tend to focus on teaching people to live today in ways that will make the next life (or after-life) better. Can both these perspectives be merged to help us solve the problems of living on our wounded and ailing planet today?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

In My Back Yard

For many years I have been searching for some way to bring attention, personal stories, and beauty to ecologically damaged places. In a way, I think this way of approaching life and death, joy and sorrow, and the strange beauty that can be found when we gaze at that which we least want to look at has been pursuing me all my life.

Over the years I've held small gatherings and longer programs in several wounded places, from a clearcut forest in British Columbia to Ground Zero in New York City to a coal-fired power plant for 350: the International Day of Climate Action last month. When I founded Radical Joy for Hard Times, I joined others who shared the vision of finding and creating beauty in wounded places.

And now, by strange fate or synchronicity, this long search is becoming very personal.

The Marcellus shale beneath the earth in Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania, where I live, has been found to have one of the largest reserves of natural gas anywhere in the world. In the past two years, the momentum has been building to tap this source of energy with new technology. Unlike more affluent counties in New York, just north of us, where people are fighting this encroachment, here in rural, low-income Pennsylvania, poor farmers are eagerly leasing their lands... and many are already regretting it.

The problems, not surprisingly, have begun: polluted wells; damage to the hilly, winding, rural roads by heavy trucks; and even the recent discovery that the water that has been used to shatter, or "frack," the shale thousands of feet in the Earth, may be radioactive after it is pumped back out.

Two months ago, to my surprise, my husband and I were offered $5,700 an acre for our five and a half acres, plus 20% royalties for a portion of a larger consolidated leasing area.

For weeks Andy and I were immersed in long, tearful discussions together and with friends about our options. Neither of us has much money, and we have lost much of what we did have in the current recession. If we leased, we would not only get a settlement up front, but a regular income. For me, however, there was never any dilemma. I knew I could not live with myself if I were to condone, and even profit from, the exploitation of the Earth.

We finally have reached a decision. As my husband said, "You founded Radical Joy for Hard Times to bring beauty to wounded places, and now the wounded place is coming to your own backyard." So we will be staying, at least for now, and we will not be signing a lease.

Some people we know, including a good friend, think we have made a very foolish choice. And as I look at the rolling hills, the long expanses of woods and fields near my home, my heart aches for the ugliness and scarring that is probably inevitable. But I also am seeing new opportunities for exercising the principles of Radical Joy for Hard Times—the main goal of which is to reconcile people and wounded places through storytelling, bearing witness, and creating beauty. As seekers have known for millennia, you never have to go far from home to find the revelation you so long for.

On Monday I leave for Melbourne, Australia to attend the Parliament of World Religions. Watch for more blogs from there.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Message to a Power Plant: 350!

On October 24, Radical Joy for Hard Times chose to take part in 350: The International Day of Climate Action in a very direct way. We went right to a power plant to present our message.

Nine people braved heavy rain to gather in front of AES Westover, a coal-fired power plant in Johnson City, NY and a major supplier of the electricity in our area. The message we conveyed to them and to coal-fired power plants around the world: We demand a planet where 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the absolute maximum!

The 350 event was organized over the internet by Bill McKibben, the environmental activist and author of The End of Nature and other books. 350 is the parts per million of carbon dioxide that climate scientists have determined to be the maximum level for a healthy environment. Currently, levels are at 389 ppm. McKibben urged people around the world gather together to demand that policy makers take drastic steps to bring carbon levels to 350 ppm. All people had to do was somehow depict the number 350, take a photo, and send it to the website.

As of this posting, two days later, it is estimated that more than 5,400 events were held in 181 countries around the world. Looking at the website or at the photo stream on Flickr is an amazing and moving experience. Soldiers in Iraq, children in an orphanage in Bali, large groups of people forming the magic number with their bodies and being photographed from a height, small groups with hand-painted signs, people in front of historic buildings, ancient temples, glaciers, and mountains.

Radical Joy for Hard Times chose to take the message right to the source of the problem: the coal-fired power plant. Although AES Westover recently installed $50 million of new equipment to reduce emissions, “power plants are the nation’s biggest producer of toxic waste, surpassing industries like plastics and paint manufacturing and chemicals,” according to a recent report in The New York Times.

What we had in mind, however, was not protesting or blaming, but simply giving people the opportunity to reflect, up close, on the source of power that, as much as we want to hate it, we are all complicit in using.

I had called the plant a couple of weeks earlier to ask their permission for a small group to sit in front of the gate for two hours. I also invited Westover employees to join us. However, plant manager Jim Mulligan denied my request.

Nine of us showed up anyway. After we had introduced ourselves, Dick Rehberg, a member of the Radical Joy for Hard Times board, gave an introduction to coal and coal use. Coal provides 22% of energy use, and 91% of coal goes into firing power plants. Among the toxins emitted by coal plants are sulphur dioxide, arsenic, aluminum, and mercury.

Before long, a young security guard, on his first day on the job, approached us and told us we had to leave. We simply went across the street and stood under a bridge—after first snapping a photo with our 350 sign (made by local school students and recycled to other 350 events during the day). Under the bridge, we still had a good view of the power plant, and we were out of the rain as well. Over our heads, a steady stream of invisible traffic provided an audio accompaniment to our reflections on energy use.

Then, as is the practice on all our Earth Exchanges, each person took some time to be alone and reflect on the power plant, on energy use, coal, and whatever else in that immediate environment struck their attention—while also paying attention to how what they noticed sparked emotions, memories, thoughts, and ideas.

Here are some of the fascinating comments, each reflecting a completely different sensibility, experience, and perspective that people made as we sat under the bridge only half an hour later:

“While I was standing across the street looking at the power plant, I was struck by how, from this perspective, this maple tree towers over the smokestacks. It affirmed for me that nature will prevail.”

“Until recently I didn’t pay that much attention to global warming. Now I feel I’ve lost my innocence. Part of me wants to go back to that innocence, climb that tree like a little kid and pretend everything is all right. But I know I can’t do that.”

“I was standing at the entrance staring at the plant, and the guard saw me. For a moment our eyes met. He seemed like a nice young man. I wondered what he is making of all this.”

“I’m a nurse. I take care of people with deep wounds. I feel I’m now being called to take care of the wounds of the Earth as well.”

“I was thinking about the shrubbery in front of the plant. When I was young and growing up in Chicago, you never thought twice about power plants. Now, with this shrubbery, it’s like they’re trying to hide what they are, what they do, to make it seem more ‘natural.’”

Besides calling attention to the urgency of bringing CO2 levels down to 350, our group had a personal encounter with the predominant force that suffuses the air with this planet-altering chemical. We all have a more personal understanding of what we’re dealing with and how, in matters of the environment, we are all deeply and personally involved in countless ways.

Message to Coal: 350!

Saturday October 24 was designated 350: The International Day of Climate Action. As of this posting, two days later, it is estimated that more than 5,400 events were held in 181 countries around the world to call attention to the urgency of attaining this number.

350 is the parts per million of carbon dioxide that climate scientists have determined to be the maximum level for a healthy environment. Currently, levels are at 389 ppm. The United States Congress, considering legislation on energy efficiency that won't

Friday, August 28, 2009

Seeking Pearls in the Waste

Old Persian legends relate the trials of Majnun, a man who devotes his life to searching for his beloved Layla. Majnun wanders endlessly in the desert. His clothes are ragged, his hair matted and filthy, and he becomes so exiled physically and spiritually from the niceties of human society that finally it is the wild animals who become his companions. Humans shun him and laugh at him, even though many of them recognize deep down that his search, dedicated to love, oblivious to external concerns, has actually brought him closer to the divine.

One day, a man noted for his piety came upon Majnun sifting through dirt in the middle of the road. “You claim such devotion to your beloved,” the holy man scoffed. “How can you say that and then grovel here, searching for such a pearl in the midst of all this rubbish?”

“Ah,” Majnun explained, “I seek Layla everywhere, so that one day I may find her somewhere.”

In his tireless search for his beloved, Majnun has discovered something extraordinary: the effort to become closer to what we love takes us to many places and puts us through many tasks, and in this process each encounter and event becomes beloved as well. Some events that sweep us up may be difficult, painful, and hard to bear. Yet, far from degrading our search, and especially the object of our search, they actually ennoble them. When the heart is filled with passion, with conviction that what it loves is wholly worth loving, protecting, and engaging ourselves with, then we see that every place that the search takes us to is part of that esteemed quest as well. Searching for what we love and abandoning judgment about what is good and bad and worthy and unworthy, we find worth and beauty in abundance. Even what has been used up and tossed out is valuable, since our hands and hearts sort through it mindfully and compassionately.

Radical Joy for Hard Times finds much to admire in Manjun. We are aim to seek out the lost, clearcut, damaged places, the endangered species, the waste places, and approach them with curiosity, community, and creativity, that we may find treasure there.

And so we do.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Magic Phragic Wands

In my blog for July 18, I described the Radical Joy for Hard Times retreat I led at the World Healing Institute at Cobb Island Station, Virginia on June 19-21. We spent one day considering the invasive common reed, phragmites, from different perspectives, the most startling and personal of which were the ones that emerged after each of us spent an hour sitting alone with the plant without any expectations or judgments about its place in the biosphere. As a result of what we gleaned from that exercise, we created a meandering path through the tall grasses as a way of interacting in a more personal way with their rampant, stubborn beauty.

A few days ago I had an email from Annie Hess, the WHI administrator. She wrote that they had held a program for children a couple of weeks after the Radical Joy for Hard Times event. In one project the children made magic fairy wands out of the dried phragmites stalks. They called them phragic wands.

This is how we can remake the world we live in: by having the willingness to enter into relationship with it, listen to what it has to tell us, and respond with creative acts that come from the heart. And we can invite our children and grandchildren to explore with us, and perhaps teach us a whole new way of perceiving beauty—and even magic—in what we have formerly considered waste.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Touch the Monster

At first the prospect of confronting a place that has been damaged by toxic waste, clearcutting, urban sprawl, industry or some other cause can seem daunting. Why would we deliberately choose to engage with some awful situation we would much rather turn our backs on? Because sometimes it is necessary to touch the monster we fear and hate.

Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, the United Nations representative in Rwanda during the genocide that took place in that country in 1994, writes in his book of a meeting he had with leaders of Interahamwe, the death squad organization that would ultimately be responsible for the death of more than 800,000 people. At that meeting Dallaire was introduced to, and shook hands with, a man whose arm and white shirt were spattered with dried blood. “I felt I had shaken hands with the devil,” Dallaire wrote, noting that afterwards he felt disgusted with himself for having automatically used that customary form of greeting with a genocidal murderer.

Dallaire fought for the people of Rwanda even when no one else in the world would come to their aid. So what did it mean that he shook hands with a man he equated with the devil? Perhaps, on some level, he had to find out who this devil of an enemy really was. The man with the bloody hand and shirt, an agent of torture, rape, and murder, may have seemed like a force of pure evil, but when Dallaire shook his hand, that hand turned out to be simply human flesh. Perhaps by shaking that hand and then freeing himself from the grip, Dallaire realized on some level that the perpetrators of the grotesque war he was fighting were indeed human and perhaps in that instant, too, he recognized an even stronger reason to keep fighting: because there was something to fight, and it was human and tangible, and human enemies can and must be resisted.

The great contemporary scholar of myth, Roberto Calasso, has remarked that the big mistake Oedipus makes is that he fights the Sphinx with words alone. He doesn’t get down and dirty with her. “The monster can pardon the hero who has killed him,” writes Calasso in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. “But he will never pardon the hero who would not deign to touch him.” Touching a piece of the monster in Rwanda and finding in his grasp the shape of a human hand may have empowered Dallaire to keep up the fight.

Similarly, because those of us who love the earth know in our deepest hearts and most compassionate souls that we must confront the reality of the Earth’s degradation, we decide that we will shake hands with the monster: we will confront the reality of what has already degraded and endangered lands and species that matter to us, so that we may gain strength to love what remains to us and fight it for its survival.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Life Lessons from a Pest Plant

Guests at the World Healing Institute at Cobb Island Station, on Virginia's beautiful eastern shore helped launch the first-ever Radical Joy for Hard Times retreat on June 19-21. It was a particularly diverse and inquisitive group, composed of two Methodist ministers, an architect, a biologist, an artist, and WHI center coordinator Annie Hess.

Plans for the weekend included a walk on Sunday with a biologist to visit and perhaps do ceremony on a stretch of endangered beach. However, on Saturday our attention was repeatedly drawn to an environmental problem closer at hand. This was the common reed that grew abundantly between the institute's front lawn and the bay. Phragmites (frag might eez) has become a reviled plant along the eastern shore, even though it grows on spoils, such as dredged land, where no other plants can survive. The Nature Conservancy, which owns the land at WHI, has tried repeatedly to poison it, but it keeps coming stubbornly back.

The mission of Radical Joy for Hard Times is to bring attention and beauty to wounded places. Gradually our group came to realize that phragmites itself is one of nature's wounded. We discussed the plant at length, getting the facts about how it grows and where, then each person spent an hour sitting alone among these tall grasses with their round stalks and sandpapery leaves. Afterwards, everyone came together to tell the story of what had happened. All the comments were striking in their individuality and in the precision of the way observations of the plant all around had dovetailed with inner experiences and reflections. I was particularly moved by what one of the ministers had to say:

"I was thinking about inclusivity and exclusivity. There's a movement in our church these days to exclude gay people from worship services. I think this is wrong. Everyone should have a right to worship God and His creation. And every plant should have a right to grow, because it, too is a part of creation."

As in any Radical Joy for Hard Times event, we ended this excursion with an Act of Beauty. This one had two parts. First we all made a path through a long stretch of phragmites, a kind of meandering ramble that might serve as a counterpart to the beautiful Chartres-style labyrinth cut into the grass between the building and the (phragmite-lined) bay. Finally, when the path was complete, we cut stalks of phragmites, arranged them in a glass vase, and placed them on our dinner table.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Parallel Pilgrimages

On April 25, from 10:00 to 11:00 AM Eastern Daylight Time, eleven people from western California to London, England went to places that had been ecologically damaged and did a short vigil there.

The point of this pilgrimage was simply to be present in a place that is usually avoided: those waste places or generators of waste, those hidden places under bridges or behind industrial sites. Where we chose to go ranged from a coal plant in Colorado to a quarry in upstate New York, from a beach in California to a bay filled with lovely, bobbing boats in Annapolis, Maryland.

A few days later, we checked in with one another via a telephone conference call. The woman who visited the coal plant said she was surprised by her own reaction. She had expected to feel despair as she contemplated how this gigantic generator of energy was poisoning the land and air. Instead, considering the town’s recycling plant, which is situated right across the street, she was struck by the ways that we humans are at least making an effort to clean up our messes and change our ways. The man who visited the California beach with three of his friends said that by the end of the hour, the place had become so personalized to each of them that they didn’t want to leave.

I myself sat by the Susquehanna River, nine miles from my home in northeastern Pennsylvania. In 2005 the Susquehanna was designated the Most Endangered River in America. Where I live, about fifty miles from the river’s source in Cooperstown, NY, it is relatively clear. Mallards were swimming peaceably, and several Canada geese came in for a landing. But, like so much of the wounded environment all over the world, the damage remains largely hidden. As the Susquehanna continues along its path, past Binghamton, Scranton, and Harrisburg, it picks up industrial, farm, and domestic waste and pollutants and is filled with toxins by the time it empties into Chesapeake Bay.

At the end of the hour, I made an altar to the Susquehanna using trash washed up in one area. The altar was inspired by a small cloth doll covered in sand and mud and that happened to be made of eco-green felt. It now stands on a piece of driftwood: the beaming Guardian of the Susquehanna River.

When we step outside the boundaries of the familiar, we are amazed at what we encounter. As one of the pilgrims said of her experience the other day, “Now I want to visit more wounded places to see what they have to tell me.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Playing In Traffic

A friend of mine who lives in Boulder, Colorado recently bought a small house in a new neighborhood. Shortly after Mary and her two daughters moved in, they had a rude awakening. It turns out they are much closer to the freeway than Mary had realized when she was first looking at the house, and now she can hear the distant hum of the traffic all the time.

She has thought a lot about how to deal with this situation. In moments of extreme frustration, she has considered moving. Yet she likes the house and the neighborhood, and she finally has enough space for a garden. She’s shared her concern with her neighbors. One woman told her that she tries to ignore the noise and pretend it’s the sound of the sea, and she advised my friend to do the same. “But this is Colorado!” Mary exclaimed. “The sea is nowhere near here.”

Instead she has chosen a third alternative: she is exploring ways to live with the situation. When she gets distressed by that relentless assault on her stillness, she adjusts her thinking and considers what the noise says about the society we live in—how insistent we Americans are on our right to be mobile, how constant is the outpouring of carbon gases into the atmosphere.

Consequently, she is also adapting her behavior. She has started riding a bike wherever she goes, so she herself does not contribute to the problem. As she works in her small yard, she focuses on paying mindful attention to the beauty there instead of feeling that it is sullied by the noise.

Mary’s approach to living peacefully with the stream of traffic is a model for how we can live in a mindful, soulful way with many of the environmental problems that surround, challenge, and frustrate us. We can’t fix everything. Sometimes we must learn to co-exist. One way of doing so is simply to acknowledge what is happening and refuse either to turn our backs on it in denial or confront it in rage. We can love the nature that is before us and allow ourselves to be captivated by its persistent thriving. We can devote attention and discussion to determining how we want to be in relation to our changing Earth. And wherever we go we can look for—and find—beauty on that Earth.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Uninvited Fairy

Remember the thirteenth fairy in the story of Sleeping Beauty? At the christening of the baby princess, Brier Rose, twelve gold plates were set out for twelve fairies in the realm, but the queen and king forgot to invite the thirteenth fairy. The forgotten fairy showed up anyway and proclaimed a vengeful promise: before the girl’s sixteenth birthday, she would prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. Horrified, one of the other fairies lightened the curse: the girl would fall asleep until a prince came to kiss her awake.

That thirteenth fairy refused to be forgotten. She would have her say. She would make sure she received her due honor, just like the other fairies.

The damaged places of the Earth are like that uninvited fairy. We try to forget them, but we can’t. Our hearts ache when we hear about animals dying because they can no longer find food. Our sense of beauty is assaulted when we confront clearcut forests. Outrage floods us when we read about toxic debris from mountaintop mining cascading down hillsides to clog valleys and streams and turn people out of their homes. Because the state of the planet pains us, many of us just try to ignore it.

But those places keep hovering in our awareness, just like that forgotten fairy. They remind us that all is not well in the land. They force us to consider what kind of world we’ll be leaving to our grandchildren. And they remain a part of us. We loved them once and we cannot now forget them, even though they are damaged.

After Brier Rose pricked her finger on the spindle she fell asleep, along with all the people in the realm. During the scores of years of collective unconsciousness that followed, many princes tried to make their way through the thickets that surrounded the palace to rescue her. Yet it was not until one particular prince, motivated by love, determined and persistent, managed the difficult journey and kissed her gently that Sleeping Beauty awoke.

Radical Joy for Hard Times recognizes that our neglected lands, waters, and communities are part of the whole living Earth. They demand restitution—not just with projects to restore them in measurable ways, but also with acts and attitudes that acknowledge that they are part of the whole community of the living Earth. In other words, the future of global ecology requires a kiss! We must forgive one another for our previous neglect of the earth, and we must reawaken those damaged places with acceptance, love, and beauty.

Then no part of the Earth will be left out of the story.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Prayers for Beauty in Hard Times

When I was a child growing up in the Episcopal church, I never understood the iconography of Jesus dying on the cross. To me it was a morbid image, and I stopped going to church in my early teens.

As an adult pondering the intersection between despair and beauty, however, I have come to see that this dominant image of Christianity does what Radical Joy for Hard Times does: it invites us to ponder for a while what is painful and sorrowful, that our hearts may be opened to love and compassion.

Therefore, when my friend Liz Maxwell, a rector at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City, invited me to lead a Radical Joy for Hard Times program for Lent, I accepted eagerly. Last Saturday, March 14, a small group of participants gathered in a little chapel just off the main sanctuary of this church, which is transformed five days a week into soup kitchen that has been operating for thirty years and now serves meals to 1,200 guests a day. Today, we sat in a circle as sun wafted through the stained glass windows and people talked about personal concerns in their own lives and about their wider concerns for oppressed peoples, damaged places, sick friends, and the ravages of the economic crisis.

Grief opens us up to compassion. As the Sufis, the mystical sect of Islam say, when your heart is broken, there is space for God to move through the cracks. The liturgical season of Lent, when Jesus died, precedes Easter, the springtime celebration of new life and shared joy. Suffering heightens our perception, too. In a state of sorrow, we perceive beauty with extra clarity, whether it is the beauty of nature determined to thrive or the generous act of another person— friend or stranger.

Our group witnessed beauty thriving when we went outside to the church’s small garden, right at the intersection of two busy streets in Chelsea. Crocus and daffodil buds struggled up through the hard soil, despite scraps of litter that had blown in during the winter. Birds sang in the trees, their songs muffling the noise of traffic. We concluded the gathering by writing prayers on white ribbons and tying them to the tree in the garden.

Many people are afraid to tap the well of sorrow that pervades life on earth. Why bother, we ask? What can any one individual do? And yet, merely by willing to see what is true and, even better, then to share that with others, we touch the reality of humanity. That simple act can infuse us with the determination to see more beauty and to act with more compassion.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cross Bones Graveyard

The goal of Radical Joy for Hard Times is to bring beauty to orphaned places, that they may once again become part of the cycle of life. The story of Cross Bones Graveyard in southeast London is a remarkable example of how giving that kind of attention to a place and its people satisfies a deep human need to sooth old injuries.

Near a London Underground station a metal gate in the midst of a brick wall is adorned with ivy, colorful ribbons, some with prayers written on them, flowers, feathers, bundles of dried grass, and other gifts. Inside the enclosure a small garden features a heart-shaped topiary and carefully tended flower beds.

This is Cross Bones, a graveyard where prostitutes were buried for hundreds of years beginning in medieval times. The women, known as “Winchester Geese” because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work in legalized brothels, could not be buried in hallowed ground.

The land was sold as a building site in the 1880s, but nothing was erected there until more than a hundred years later when the London Underground built a power sub-station on the land in 1990. It was when they began excavating that they unearthed a few of the old skeletons, which they estimated to total approximately 15,000.

Since then this place of anonymity and ignominy has been beautified and commemorated inside and out, informally and formally, through gardening and ceremony and simply through respectful attention.

John Constable, author of a series of poems and plays, The Southwark Mysteries, based on the imagined life of one of the women, writes:

“We've conducted many rituals and community events at the graveyard. The rituals are simple, inclusive and non-dogmatic, emphasising respect for ‘the Ancestors’, and honouring the spirit of this particular place. The Halloween of Cross Bones has been observed every Halloween night since 1998, with hundreds of people making the candlelit procession to the site, to honour 'the outcast dead' with candles, incense, songs and offerings.”

Members of the community pick up trash and replenish the impromptu shrine on the gate with fresh flowers. They are currently working to get permission to dedicate at least part of the burial ground as a memorial garden.

What is most remarkable about the attention and care given to Cross Bones is that it is ongoing. Because people in the community have cared for a wasteland and for forgotten women in simple, beautiful ways, the place has become what it never was in the past: hallowed ground.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


In 1987, when I was living in New York, writing scripts and producing soundtracks for multimedia productions, I read an article about an Oneida Indian engineer, David Powless, who had received a National Foundation grant to research and develop a process for recycling hazardous waste from steel mills. Along with a small group of co-colleagues I made a short video about David, funded by IBM and later shown to international IBM employees at a conference in Miami Beach. (The photo at the left was taken at that event.) The video explored David’s work, both as an engineer and as an Oneida man dedicated to fostering the traditional ways of his people. While we were working together, he told this story:

When he learned that he had received the grant, David said, he drove out to an enormous mound of steel waste and scrambled to the top. Triumphantly, he declared, “I’m going to conquer you!” Almost immediately, however, he knew that this approach was all wrong. “I realized that the waste was an orphan,” he said. “It had been lost from the cycle of life. My job was to bring it back to the cycle of life.”

I never forgot this story, which seemed to me to offer a new perspective on ecological crisis: a way loving parts of the earth that were, by most standards, unlovable, and even unlivable.

Ten years later, in 1997, I was guiding a vision quest in the Utah Canyonlands with Bill Plotkin when I had a vision of my own. That day the questers had come back to base camp after their three-day solo. In council they had told the stories of their journey, and in the morning we would hike out of the canyon and head back to Durango.

All that night, I remained suspended in a chaotic, uneasy state of half-sleep/half-wakefulness. As I lay in my sleeping bag under the stars I kept hearing someone walking around me, perhaps twenty or thirty feet away. Surprisingly, this constant movement in the dark did not worry me. I felt only a vague curiosity about it.

Toward dawn I became alert enough to ask, “Who’s there?” In that instant I had a vision of a young Anasazi man. He paused, approached, and said to me, in effect, that my task was to take people to the wounded places on the earth and give them beauty and compassion.

I was deeply touched by this vision, and for years afterwards tried to figure out how I might carry it out. I led a weeklong vigil in a clearcut forest in British Columbia; worked with a small group to make a mandala out of trash on a Pensacola, Florida beach; and presented a ceremony at New York’s Ground Zero shortly after September 11. However, I found that most people weren’t interested in going to troubled places; they preferred to visit pristine, beautiful nature. I often grieved that I could not enact the task that had been given to me. Then, over the past eight or nine years, I became very involved in writing and teaching about the path of the inner lover, the Beloved, and put the vision of troubled places temporarily aside.

Recently, however, it has become clear to me that the time is now right to bring forth a new way of looking at and being in the company of the troubled places on earth, what David Powless called “the orphans from the cycle of life.” With serious attention now being devoted to global climate change and other ecological challenges, and a new willingness on the part of so many people to examine their behavior on and toward the earth, it feels as if what I now Radical Joy for Hard Times is ready to unfold.