“A Year’s Worth” (film review)

Stories of transformation are usually stunning and prescriptive. Scrooge makes a 180 degree turn after the ghosts visit. Self-help gurus prescribe a dozen DVDs to watch before you qualify as enlightened.

Real transformations, however, are recognized only in retrospect, and the steps you climbed to work on yourself are scantily recovered from dreams, casual comments by friends, and other imperfect records.  One never begins a transformation with “Start here.”

Joan’s transformation in A Year’s Worth is neither spectacular nor inspiring.  It is simply believable. As another stand-up comic tells her, he likes comedy because you get to tell the truth. So, also, the camera lovingly lingers on Joan’s boozy solo dance after a break-up, inviting us to watch the unflattering beginning of a pilgrimage from delusion to how things are, from sloppy half-truths to the real article. In this way, Joan moves through the precisely choreographed first steps required to wriggle from an old skin. Played by Sara Roan, a co-writer of this small-scaled production shown today at Richmond’s Byrd Theatre, Joan is an aspiring young writer employed as a dog-walker.  In this, and in another film about dog-walking, Thomas Vincent’s La Nouvelle Vie de Paul Sneijder, featured in the French Film Festival at the Byrd in March, the inner work to be done by the main character is portrayed, as in all spiritual pilgrimages, by a walk.

But Joan’s pilgrimage is not solemn. She wanders through the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and many stores and markets familiar to Richmonders, karaoke parties, and trips to James River Park and Virginia Beach.  Roan, her husband and co-writer, John Randal Reaves, and filmmaker Eric Gilkey have made the city her friendly guide, who shows that a turn of only a few degrees is enough to change your perspective and make it possible to shake off clinging reminders of the old life.

Made from humble local materials, produced with the help of friends, and paid for by the filmmakers, this impressive film captures the life of some of today’s young people, who are often underemployed in several low-paying jobs, burdened by student loans, seeking outlets in alcoholic gatherings, uncertain of where they are going, but skeptical of the advice coming from parents and other real “adults,” as Joan calls them.  As a member of the sententious generation whose advice is suspect, I felt my own frame of reference shift a few degrees closer to Joan’s world.  With minimal verbiage and stage direction, this story advances naturally and concisely, and the worthiness of this Year’s Worth lies, for me, in the encouraging and sensible world revealed.

 

References:  https://ayearsworthmovie.tumblr.com/ .  See also Mary Lee Clark’s review in the Richmond Times Dispatch of 5/31/2017 http://www.pressreader.com/usa/richmond-times-dispatch/20170531/

 

Inspector O, Frontal Messages, and Dr. Bronner’s Toothpaste

 

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Spring arrives with dandelions, cat’s ears, and self-heal. Seems like all we trade with North Korea is insults.  How about more commerce—maybe even more communion? Would we could heal all wounds! It’s hard to commune, however, with an abstraction.

Let’s shift to the world of a Korean soldier returning home after marching behind the missiles in circles around the giant screen of exploding Americans.

What a relief to pull off boots and to detach the strings that the sergeants pull to get that extra kick in every step! Soldier’s rations guarantee her two meals today, maybe rice and kim-chi, and tonight, maybe a fish head.  Put half of the food away, just in case. For an hour at the end of the day, while she is away from the puppeteers, their ideas to think, and their abstractions to hold dear, she thinks about her starving cousins in the country.  Fatigue sweeps over her. The frame, dim as it already is, fades away. And she returns to our abstraction of a North-Korean.

I recall some Korean friends—gentle, kindly folks; mostly Christians. One was a fellow graduate student, a scholar of the Korean alphabet or Hangui. Ho-Tok seemed to approach it with the fervor of a scholar of the Kabbalah.  In 1443 C.E., King Sejong the Great of Choson, sponsored the creation of a syllable-block system of writing that would be easy enough for the lowliest peasant to learn.  Long before general literacy in Europe, Koreans of all social strata were writing and reading stories. Today more than 60% of  Koreans under age 50 are college graduates.  Of course, the aristocrats who used only the elite Hanja or Chinese characters, demeaned the vulgar language efforts of the low classes.  One dynast even banned Hangui for a time. But it returned and is now used in both North and South. Literacy is too important to give up. The Great Script of Sejong, published in The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People, is still the standard for Korean language. Perhaps my friend’s almost mystical attachment to the alphabet was his way of cherishing a talisman of the historic importance of education.  As the Jewish child kisses the honeyed text of scripture, my friend yearned for a sweeter and deeper fulfillment of the dream of King Sejong for his people.

The frame shifts to Inspector O, the famous detective in the stories of Frank Church. No doubt he still stalks the streets of Pyongyang, puzzling over murders and thefts and proceeding cautiously in disregard of  slogans to understand the shadow forces of the intelligence service who often turn out to be at the root of many crimes. Mostly, he has to avoid being himself detained for questioning—or worse—and to make his single servings of tea and rice, if he has them, to last for the whole day.

The frame shifts to Professor Henry Randall (alias “Henson”), my character in Frameshifts, who also was detained and interrogated by a couple of intelligence types at Richmond’s Berkeley Hotel about 200 years from now:

Alvarez: “We saw the photos in your valise. You know, we couldn’t find out what you were doing before coming to the agency.” 

Henson: “No? It wasn’t very exciting. Some consulting in western states.” 

Alvarez: “Places like Santa Fe? The reason I ask is because of the photos.” 

Henson: “From Santa Fe?” 

Alvarez: “Downloads from one of those—what were they called, cellulites?” 

Henson: “Cell phones.”

Alvarez: “Yes. From the cell phones people used before frontal messaging. See this picture? It looks like you without a beard.” 

Henson: “Good likeness.” 

Alvarez: “He looks like your twin. See? Here you are at home with your wife and another lady.” 

Henson: “Dr. Irene Brooks.” 

Alvarez: “The same woman who was kidnapped by the North Region cult. You know anything about that?” 

Henson: “Quite a bit, actually. And not what’s in the newspapers.” 

Smythe: “How about telling us what you know?” 

Henson: “I see that you finished your call, Agent Smythe. Can’t say that I ever wanted voices wired to my head, but I’m sure you don’t mind.”

—from the chapter “Agents Smythe & Alvarez” in Primary Sources, in the third part of Frameshifts (2011).

The idea of having direct wireless service to the frontal lobes of the citizenry would be attractive to any autocrat—a great step forward into communion of thoughts and purity of purpose, no doubt. Better even than the literacy needed to read slogans. It’s also the kind of ideal toward which marketing has aspired for decades—the ultimate in branding.  When I wrote about “frontal messaging,” however, I didn’t explain how it worked because I only wanted a plausible bit of science fiction to advance the plot. But as the Cloud, Big Data, wearable technology, and AI converge, our civilization has moved closer to the technology and the kind of unity and communion it may offer. Consider the recent remarks by Mark Zuckerberg at the ominously titled “Fate” (F8) conference.

Asked to respond to the murder of Mr. Robert Godwin, which was broadcast by Facebook in real time, Mr. Zuckerberg said, “we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this.” He then quickly turned to the vibrant three-dimensional imaginary worlds soon to be available through augmented reality.  What if you could give your child the birthday gift of a virtual reality trip to Hogwarts where she would become Harry Potter? What indeed? While it is unclear what Facebook could do to prevent random killings, even with 3000 more employees dedicated to filtering images bad for the brand, it is clear that to control the publishing of such content or to confront any  tragedies that might follow viewing it are minor issues to be resolved on the path to platform perfection.

It’s hard to commune with abstractions. Certainly my uncle had no such intention as he parachuted from Army airplanes, always having his spine snapped in the propellers’ back-draft.  In 1952, troops had many names for the enemy who resisted them at every hill, just as my Army buddies did for a different enemy less than two decades later. The epithets, like the grenades on their utility belts, were part of the job—whether they were capturing a hill or recapturing it.  The lower back pain and the epithets stuck with my uncle even after fifty years. Communion was out.

Great distractions are made of abstractions.  The autocrat creates Us and Them to miscue citizens during his plunder-magic. The marketer abstracts the wishes of consumers to create brands that “tattoo the brain,” in Karen Post’s phrase. Better to think of benevolent products than of environmental damage or disease.  Better to know that a politician follows the People’s Platform than to be concerned with consequences of policies—what Brian Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, calls “proximate knowledge.” As he says,

When you get close to a problem, you see the detail, you see the nuances.  And until we get proximate to communities where there’s poverty and suffering and violence and despair, until we get proximate to the incarcerated, until we get proximate to people who are dealing with the trauma and neglect, we’re not going to be able to change the world.

Proximate knowledge comes from the cultivation of attention.  I am skeptical that branding in commerce, media, or politics will ever seek to cultivate attention as long as distraction is handy.  Communion through branding seems illusory.

But maybe there are exceptions. Consider Dr. Bronner’s Toothpaste.  The motto for the brand is “All One.” The simple meaning of this is explained on the label and apparently is central to the company’s business practices:

In all we do, let us be generous, fair, and loving to Spaceship Earth and all its inhabitants. For we’re all-one or none!  All one! 

From a German-Jewish family in the soap-making industry since 1858, Emanuel Bronner arrived in the United States in 1948.  After his death in 1997, the family continued to operate along the lines he had developed:

He used the labels on his ecological soaps to spread the message that we must realize our transcendent unity across religious and ethnic divides or perish.

This marketing plan incorporated what Karen Post has called a “self-reinvention” in which a company “picks a lane with its own distinct assets—things that they could do over and over again.” Like brushing teeth. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the product is something everyone can use, and that it’s nontoxic.

But like the product itself, which must come into contact with real teeth in order to function properly, the messages on every label, do their work by making us attend to our real “unity across . . . divides” rather than by the usual tactics of sloganeering—that is,  creating miscues, epithets, vague abstractions, and comforting distractions to direct our attention away from reality. If acts of attention were to become as habitual as brushing teeth, then communion might be possible. Therefore, if I were to recommend a marketing path to communion based on proximate rather than virtual reality, it would be to follow the lead of Bronner’s toothpaste.

As mentioned in the previous blog, frame-shifting is the practice of frequently setting up your studio in different worlds to see where your work will lead. A final shift on the topics of brands, communion, and abstractions leads me to three poems:

          Main Bullets

Some try to confound knowledge

by creating confusion,

netting a debit.

Some love hands, clouds, trees and faces

more than abstractions & social graces,

to their credit.

 

Abstractions

like twelve gauge shot splintering the wall

that hides the runaway, or Tom, the man

who was a thing, or lesson Epictetus

gave the master twisting leg from hip,

or Constitution automatically

assuring reason, are our very selves

reconstituted, meant to carry on

calmly and impartially without us.

 

Step aside to find a name or image

easier to clasp than vanished sob

or stripped heart banished to the dream

that will not stop. At a remove, a code

transforms or mechanism supplants rage.

The winding scream becomes a channeled race

flowing indifferently to turn a stone

that grinds down grief and sweeps the passage clean.

 

Step inside the passage we are making.

Proceed by grasps and dwelling on each step,

each turn; by slipstreams pulling us along;

by finding terms to turn aside the movement

that will not stop. Each level of remove

imagined well transfers us into things

moving on without us—arrows, flames,

pumps, books, lines of code, and names of names.

 

 

A Clean Sweep

 

Most heroes had a gift

for sweeping vermin out.

Was it a calling, rage,

or holy disposition

to smash the infant heads

of sullen opposition?

 

Ages upon ages

wealth and wisdom went

to cure the innocent

like fresh-flayed meat.

 

An evil agency,

perhaps, its distant seat

a star, intends this hurt,

these wounds, this carefree strafing;

gangs cornering young girls,

their lawful prey and safe

to use and throw away.

 

Come, welcome all the heroes

in our name. Welcome!

Ever be the same!

 

All who decimate

for an abstraction

never underestimate.

 

Their purity of action

is simply a subtraction

of what offends the mind.

Look on no distant star.

The Evil Agency

is easier to find.

 

Quick Links (Paste url to search when you can’t click directly.)

To Korean Alphabet: See entry on Hangui in Wikipedia.

To Mark Zuckerberg at F8: http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2017/04/19/524643659/facebooks-new-grand-plan-to-draw-you-in

See also:  https://twitter.com/search?q=%23F8%20%23stevestephens%20&src=typd

To another essay on Inspector O entitled “Target, Teepees, and Inspector O”: http://marginalnotesinwordsandmusic.org/Content/TargetTepeesAndInspectorO.pdf

and more on the work of James Church: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=inspector+O

References to Frameshifts can be found in hardcopy and Kindle ebook at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=frameshifts+rose   and in original manuscript public access at https://frameshifts.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/2001916_frameshift1-2011-version.pdf

To Karen Post on Brain Tattoos & branding: https://brandingdiva.com/

To Dr. Bronner’s products & messages:  https://twitter.com/MoralABC_Label

The quotation from Brian Stevenson comes from M.P. Williams’ column in The Richmond Times Dispatch of April 14, 2017.

Frameshifts: Six Years Later

  frontcover   If you have been following this blog, you know that it began shortly after Frameshifts was published in 2011. In the next few blogs, I will revisit both the book and the writing of it.

     In the genre of “frame books” about travelers or pilgrims telling stories as they go on a journey, Frameshifts consists of poems and stories into which I poured my life and observations over 50 years.  Six years after publication, the “frameshifts project” continues with other related books, poems, music, and this blog, but before Frameshifts was a book or a project, it was a life practice, or way to move through the world. 

     I consider it a kind of divine walk.  Frame-shifting is zooming in and zooming out. To understand this, consider time, because the practice of frameshifts begins with changing how you think about time. We talk about time as if it were a commodity, but what is it?

      Say you’re running, or maybe walking along the street as I do every day. Speed is change of distance divided by time, measured in miles per hour or millimeters per second, or some other appropriate measure of displacement over a duration of time. But what is it that is being used up as you cover the distance? We call it “time,” but I say that time is a fiction. All fiction has its uses, but the fiction of time is like a dangerous explosive, useful in its own way, but personally devastating unless used correctly or defused. 

       Now, the correct way to use it is as a convenience in solving problems in the physical world. A mile per hour is a slow walk, because in the same hour the Earth has rotated through 15 degrees, a twenty-fourth of its daily twirl, and much greater than a mile. My walk of a mile is carried in the twirl and sway and orbit of the Earth around our Sun, and in the swift movement of the solar system, and in the flight of our galaxy from its distant origin in space thirteen billion years ago.  And of course, carried within the Earth and even within me are the movements of animals, plants, microbes, tissues, cells, and organic molecules, all of them taking steps at their own rates as all of their journeys are carried in the journeys of the others.  The idea of time, or duration, seems admirably to account for all of this movement in standard units. But outside its proper use, duration is a dangerous thing until defused. 

            In fact, for our personal lives, duration is a distraction. This is no news to mystics, poets, writers, inventors or anyone else who has ever been passionately and creatively engaged in the life of another person or in the life of a special work, project, or inquiry. In such endeavors we speak of time stopping, dilating, or flowing, but what we are really talking about is not time but the sense of having slipped into a different scale of being. That is,  in moments of intense engagement, we discover that the carefully calibrated steps of clocks are not in scale with our experience. Clocks are fine for managing train service (which is why people originally used them), but clocking is yet another example of an automated convenience which has been allowed to transgress our nature. We are living beings, not inert things. We mistake shifting frames for time.  But time is only a convenient fiction. Time is only one of countless other scales which are available to us. Devotion to it, like devotion to any false ultimate concern, leads to pitfalls,  tripwires, and detonations.To defuse it, make your divine walk as a living being across frames of reference,  not time. This is the practice: Move by zooming in and zooming out.                                                                      (my Mother)

           pix-at-viewing-fifty-glances-back-etc-120 Every human arrives on Earth into a pre-made world that he or she must transform. One receives what comes as given and unbidden and only slowly realizes the need for change and discovers the resolve to make changes. But in your personal studio, where you take steps to transform yourself and the world, you must first master your own materials, one step at a time. 

         This divine walk is not displacement over time. It is a displacement over change of scale. Shall I frame this walk in terms of the twirl of the Earth and talk about “days” and “hours?” Or shall I frame it in terms of the swift movement of the galaxy and talk about “parsecs per eon?” Within one frame, I hurry; within the other, I am immobile. Indeed, the busy, buzzing world of molecules in constant motion all around us seems to stand still because we watch it from such a large frame of reference.

     But we are humans, the beings with imaginations.  Time is not part of us. We may freely choose other frames of reference, other scales with respect to our own steps of transformation. And we may shift frames of reference.  This zooming in and out is the practice of frameshifts. Let me put it another way, in a poem called  “Zoom in and out.”       

By countless steps

and endlessly

coming and going,

all things make their way

at different strides.

 

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All things pass away,

return, step fully

in and fully out,

turn inside out,

and make their way.

 

Time is not part of this.

Its hours and minutes

are surrogates for framing

stride to stride,

or scale to scale.

 

No, in your walk,

your divine walk,

keep shifting frames.

Let steps leap nebulae

at solar strides;

 

or carve nucleotides

at enzymatic clip;

or lift, piece by piece,

at art’s deft pulse,

fragments the conservator

 

restores. You choose.

I implore you: choose.

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 By countless steps

and endlessly,

coming and going,

all things make their way

at different strides,

 

and that your walk

may be divine,

please choose the scales

your steps define.

Do not defer to time,

 

for time is not part of this.

Walk by the trickle of blood,

shudder of leaf,

lope of the moon.

Time has no part in you,

 

being only a convenience

(close to an illusion),

a standard walk

with cesium strides,

for calculations;

 

but you, a concatenation

of countless chains

of strides, inside and out,

you, you divine thing,

are nothing standard.

 

 

Measure your heart

upon gasps of solar flares.

Frame your pulse

within the sudden bolt

of wildebeests.

 

Shift frames, zoom

in and out. Leave your room.

 

By countless steps

and endlessly,

coming and going,

all things make their way

at different strides.

 

healingbreaths

Frameshifts, a practice

before it was a fiction,

is zooming in and out,

displacements over scale,

Not Time.

 

Duration is the thought

of years spent, time left,

time saved, and dreary

time that dribbles on,

but time has no part of you.

 

You who always are,

make your way,

your divine way,

with countless steps

endlessly becoming,

 

and join the stream,

matching hearts to hearts,

gifts to gifts—not inert,

walled by routine.

Choose what you make:

 Step out, and lose your hurt.

Step out,  and lose your heart.

So, welcome again to Frameshifts! A book which embodies this practice of the divine walk. A book of stories and poems in forms and genres continually re-framed. A frame book of stories about the journeys of many characters and about Fairall, the strange community in Northern Virginia where all of their inward and outward journeys come together. Why a “divine” walk? Because frame-shifting is a practice of sustained attention and creative engagement in life-fostering concerns, the concerns closest to making our ways through the world as whole beings.

So,  I offer Frameshifts,  a book of stories and poems, but also a book for you about choosing your own frames of reference rather than  taking the explosively fragmenting idea of time to heart.

But before it was a book, it was a practice.

Earth Day 2016 sermon preview

A Display for the Inauguration Stand

A Display for the Inauguration Stand

January 20, 2017

 

Slips sickled fresh,

a bouquet of Akrasias (

none longstem, of course,

the long of it always

being short-changed

like comma to coma)

tang of ozone. Hyacinth,

Ergot, Echinacea, Elecampane

are none so fatal flowers,

even Eclampsias,

as these parentheses

zoned for none to inhabit.

Find them growing

on blurry appetite

(often mistaken for forever),

under facts, or in the melting head

of a grieving comet.

 

A little commentary on this poem: I don’t usually release a poem immediately after writing it. Too risky. But these are risky times. I’ll leave “akrasias” to your googling. The sickle-shaped parentheses are just where I want them to be. (Not a typo.) Various trite phrases are recycled & regifted. That’s the long and short of it. Oh, and an empty pair of parentheses remind me of an “O” or a uterus missing an ovum, a room for a beginning that never began. The Zoning Authority never cleared it for habitation. Then, of course, I make “tang” a verb and play with “coma” and the etymology of the other kind of appetite. More like clues than commentary, I guess. These are times to watch your P’s and clues.

Ambush your soul

 

p1020406Ambush Your Soul

Choose your own interruptions in the new year

             Interruptions are now a way of life. From link to link and app to app, we interrupt ourselves and forget where we were going. By the way, are you still with me?

             So maybe interruptions can be put to better use. 

First, something about the soul. Since I mentioned it in the last newsletter, I decided to offer an operational definition: The soul is one’s complete and creatively engaged self. Think of any time that you were giving your sustained attention to something which suited you so well that time didn’t matter. Eating, drinking, and most forms of fun—whether self-imposed or imposed by a group—are time-limited. One gets enough of them. Soul-work is different. It generates energy. 

See it in the glad-handing politician who mingles tirelessly with supporters into the early morning hours. See it in the pianist who practices on the same piece for a day. See it in the caregiver who works around the clock for a smile from the beloved. Or in the video-game artist creating images by coding polygons. Energy comes from doing the work which suits you. It is your current calling.

Back to ambushes. 

We often slip into soul-work in strange circumstances. A pair of Mormon missionaries ask you if you know Jesus Christ. You feel like asking them where they see Jesus. A yard crew blows leaves and clippings into a storm sewer. You try to recall Spanish words for water protection. A friend says that the most important task for her to do after the last election is to register new voters. You realize this isn’t for you. You read in E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth that the rate of species extinction is perhaps one thousand times the pre-human rate. What can be done about it? You are strangely and uncomfortably moved by a performance of Verdi’s Requiem or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Handel’s Messiah or of Woody Guthrie singing the original version of This Land is Your Land or of   Jonathan Edwards singing This Island Earth.

            Such moments come and go, presenting more interruptions than we can ever manage. We move on. 

But often we do have the time to think about it—say, for the time it takes to breathe.

  1. Take in the energy you’ve felt from the encounter.
  2. Hold the breath. Reflect on why you feel strengthened or disturbed enough to do something.
  3. Release yourself to imagine what you would do.
  4. Hold the emptiness before taking another breath.

 In the time it takes to turn a gulp of air into a healing breath, you have ambushed your soul.

The fourth step is a reminder that we are spacious creatures. Our bodies are mostly empty space, as is the universe, as is any unfulfilled calling. The breath fills it, reflection informs it, action transforms us even as we seek to make or change something in our worlds.

I call it an ambush. It’s a sideways-kind of path, perhaps more easily followed by some of us than others. If you’re focused on a task, you may dismiss these soul-moments as distractions. If you’re accustomed to being unplanned and spontaneous and “following your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell advised, you face a different problem. You may recognize the moment for soul-work but, because of the many paths you are trying to follow simultaneously, you cannot decide what to do about it. 

Either way, take a minute for a healing breath. Give it that much time. And when the opportunity comes again—and it will—take another healing breath. The breaths will give it life. In time, they will give it substance. In time, you will be doing whole-hearted soul work that suits you and gives you energy, instead of half-hearted work that depletes your energy. You will find your current calling, alignment, and a source of renewal like a spring of water welling up within you. 

“. . . whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

( The quotation is from the gospel according to John 4:14. Currently, my own meditation on this is taking the form of an opera, Monte & Pinky, which I hope to produce in Richmond in 2017. More information will be posted on this site in coming months.)

 

A microslice of sustainability

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December 26, 2016

The world is always ending. The Earth remains. Every death is the end of a world. That we cannot feel the catastrophes of others makes them no less real. The despair of an Indian farmer or fear felt by a mother in Rio’s favella are not our despair and fear. An “enlightened society of health, sustainability, peace and prosperity,” as Stephen Dinan describes it, is a world, but it is not the Earth.

Worlds are patterns for understanding. The world of the day-laborer in Florida exposed to the sprayed teratogen metrabuzin because her employer tells her to return to work before the end of the prescribed restricted entry interval is not the world of the 28,258 people viewing internet pornography every second. The world that some of us want to sustain includes building on flood plains and beach fronts, spending $300 million on Hallowe’en pet costumes, deploying subdivisions, air conditioning, and water lines as reservoirs sink, urging eight year olds to tackle hard, and importing food from distant suppliers who prepare it for shipment and storage by adding harmful preservatives and taste-enhancers, using monoculture to make vegetables and fruits of standardized size and diminished quality, and processes like desiccation with glyphosate to give wheat a uniform appearance.

Others want to sustain a world of uninhibited consumption and unfettered production in which the industries of energy, financial speculation, medicine, food, media, and military contracting receive both public support and freedom from blame for any economic, environmental, or health consequences of their activities. Others, more technically minded, sustained by the idea of the world as an engineering challenge, plan using mirrors to deflect the sun’s rays, geothermal and solar energy projects , and nanoelectronics, and are confident of a Solution. Granting that “sustainability” properly refers to a world where the well-being of humans and their habitats out-ranks the idea of progress, it is not clear that we agree upon what sustainability is or upon the deeper assumptions it might require.

The world is always ending but the Earth remains. After the collapses of the Anasazi, Babylonians, and Harappans, the habitats of their civilizations were physically altered and unable to support them but were transformed by ecological succession into habitats for other organisms. The omnivorous australopithecines from whom we descend used pebble tools and lived in balance with their habitat for several million years without benefit of civilization before their world ended and our species emerged from an evolutionary bottleneck. Do we assume that permaculture, sacred economics, and LEED building codes will give us a million-year run? Do we assume that last-minute stewardship, farmers’ markets, smaller energy footprints, Berkshares, spiritual convergences, aid-concerts—or even our wearing hemp and thrift-store hair-shirts and going off the grid—will suffice to change the world for enough of the young, exponentially growing population to make a statistically significant difference before we intersect the first limit to growth? Perhaps it helps to remind ourselves that the world is not the same as the Earth.

There is no doubt that humanity is in a crucial transitional period. Skewed distribution of wealth, depletion of resources, and the alteration of climate by creating our current civilization from fossil fuels are processes which have not yet run their course, but the results are highly predictable. Our species will pass through another evolutionary bottleneck. Our website, sewage system, electrical grid, legal system, highways, stock market, malls, and consumer goods will be left behind. Humans will carry what they can in their hands and heads, as always. Perhaps they will bring a new world with them.

In that world, they will want what they have, cherish what they imagine, value learning, sustained attention and creative engagement, and yet avoid the infliction of expertise and power upon each other and their habitat. Entering that world, they will have made the transitions from ignoring nature and their own natures to understanding, from grasping to acceptance, from waste to salvage, from fatalism to action, from fear to hope, from opportunism to compassion, from exclusion to inclusion, and from partial efforts to whole-hearted soul work. I use the word “soul” in the old sense of a harmonious systemic dynamic balance requiring continual attention.

From such reconsidered assumptions, perhaps still connected to each other in a decentralized world-quilt of small blessed communities over the habitable Earth, our descendants will value anything we can send them that will be of help, even if only a microslice at a time. What is the image of Virgin and Child if not a reminder that human life and civilization begin and depend upon caring for one another?

Conducting: Outside & Inside

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2015 Celebration of a gentle conductor, Martha Burford

Conducting: Outside & Inside

A meditation during election season

            Preparing to perform at the birthday of a dear friend has led me to think that my life has been made of performances. When I write or compose, I want to compress into performances such understandings, favorite words, beloved faces, and lifelong talks with the vocal dead as have meant the most to me. I move from expressions of cadence to words, from words to music, from music to narrative line, and then, going back over everything, from narrative to form and production values. I seem to sink more securely into what I’m suited to do as the expression becomes complete. And of course, what one is suited to do is a calling.

Teaching was once  my calling. It required daily preparation—a script, a role, and props. Improvisation was always needed because the audience was always changing. I found that I learned more through performance than I had through academic training. This did not come as a surprise because whenever I’d had difficulty learning something, I could learn it by portraying and performing it to myself. (This was my key to organic chemistry.) But I did not understand what I was doing until I became a teacher. One of the first books I read at that time was Stanislavki’s An Actor Prepares, a text familiar to young actors. For me, it was about my own way of learning and producing.

Even as early as 1948, I sang and danced to “I’m looking over a four-leaf clover” for the customers gathered in a diner from a cold, snowy night in Rome, New York. For me, performance, learning, and production are the same process. Call it rehearsal—or call it worship. It is through performance that one shows what matters, whatever the calling may be.

Related to this is conduct. All the thinking and effort of production and performance is a conduct of moderation. One moderates between faculties of sensation, action, and cognition. Moderations are little agreements under the guidance of an honest broker or conductor. (Sometimes this is called metacognition. ) Production, learning, and performance also moderate and modulate transactions between ideas, actions, hopes, and achievements. Such moderation is a rehearsal-process fundamental to ethical conduct. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Heb. 11:1) because it is the firm and dutiful kind of conduct we must have in order to realize our aspirations—to turn hopes into substance and things not seen into things in good evidence—matters that we have “seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and touched with our hands.” (I John 1:1)

The sustained attention, creative engagement, and compassion in this conduct result in invention, understanding, artistic expressions of all kinds, and mutually compassionate relationships. Again, I am reminded of my generous friend and of my father, whose life was a sustained performance of generosity and devotion.

The moderating, modulating, and transformative processes of rehearsal are exemplified by the give-and-take of performers in a small ensemble. Rehearsal requires the acceptance of limitations and an understanding of context. Whether the performers are other people or the agents of one’s own mind, the role of the conductor is the same. She listens to the whole sound.  If I try to evaluate feelings or other thoughts without a conductor, moderation is not possible. Instead, I will accept only my own experience as valid. I will exaggerate my own perspective and preferences. I will forget that knowledge is provisional and, whether between people, fields, or cultures, not easily translated. Permit the conductor to work and transformations can begin.

Different voicings and thematic emphases can emerge. New patterns of understanding can appear. Then the search is on again for ways to bind hearts to human fundamentals. I’d have to say that I prefer the path of creative engagement and expression to the path of groupthink, self-promotion, and self-confirming assertions, by the way. The way of conducted rehearsals and moderation differs from reducing other views to a version of our own. Just as an actor allows herself to feel and become the person she portrays—just as one who tries to help a learner or another person must do so in a heart-felt, non-manipulative way—so also, one who seeks to moderate the dialogue between different concepts, political views, systems, and cultures must work to grasp and understand all of the voices in the ensemble.  This kind of conducting, whether external or internal, begins with an acceptance of limitations.           

            All of the true conductors in us and among us follow the path to help, to foster life, and to promote growth, learning, and creative imagination. This is the path of moderation: the work that we do by strengthening conductors in our inner worlds and by finding good conductors for the ensembles in our social world. Conductors persist in making little agreements between their struggling performers in order to lead them away from what they have always done to a new work that they can do together, a work of wisdom.  As Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “Wisdom lies in engaging the life you have been given as fully and courageously as possible, and not letting go until you find the unknown blessing that is in everything.”

 

           

Earth Day 2016

April 25, 2016

Earth Day 2016 sermon preview

(From my guest sermon on Sunday 4/24/2016.  A recorded version is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/The-Church-of-The-Holy-Comforter-Episcopal-115569038465619/?fref=ts )

 Stayed on Jesus

“Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we might be cleansed of our sins to serve thee with a quiet mind. Amen.” 

            This is a centering prayer which Hilary taught us. Centering prayers quiet us in God’s presence; that is, they direct us to attend to how things are, not how we want or imagine them to be.

            Mary C. Richards, the artist, compared centering to making a clay pot. You work the ball of clay until it is warm and soft. You work around it and push into the top of it and as the wheel spins, a column rises between your hands. One hand shapes the outside while the other explores the inside. The outward and inward journeys are both on the same infolded surface. It’s also the way an embryo develops. A single cell becomes a berry of many cells, then hollows itself, lengthens into a tube, and wraps around the environment. The outside becomes the inside. This is how things are. Humans develop in the same way as other animals. We share the ancient evolutionary inward and outward journeys of all creatures.  But when the clay pot goes off the center of the wheel, it collapses. Any vase is the result of many transformations on the wheel of creation and destruction. So is any species.

            In worship, we use liturgy, hymns, readings and prayers to nudge ourselves back into the quiet center of the spinning wheel of creation and destruction. 

            The centering prayer begins, “Lord, grant us  pardon . . .” The word “grant” is peculiar. Are we asking God for a favor? It’s like other words we use:  “Incline thine ear,” “Hear us, O Lord,” “Look down upon thy servant,” “Kum bay yah.”  These words seem to be addressed to someone who is inattentive and frequently absent, but this is not what we believe about God. We sing, “thou are giving and forgiving, ever-blessing, ever-blessed/ Well-spring of the joy of living . . .”  So why would we be asking for a gift that we have already received ? I think that the word “grant” is a centering word. It is we who are inattentive and frequently absent from relationships. We seek to be nudged back into the right relationship with creator and creation.

            And we ask for pardon because Christ taught us to petition God. He said to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” And in those few words he provided the right orientation for us. If humans spoke differential equations to each other, Jesus would have given a different kind of prayer. But what humans know is the family. They understand family relationships. So Jesus tells us to pray as if we were infants crying for a parent. The infant does not know the meaning of the universe or of existence; it does not understand suffering or what is in the parent’s mind or even know a language. What it does understand is its helplessness and dependence on the parent. And this is our centered framework of relationship with the unnameable, holy ground of being and deep integrity of all that is: We are in a family relationship with the creator and the creation, dependent on the creator and interdependent with the creation. Pope Francis has recently said that we are not stewards of the Earth but brothers and sisters with the Earth. We are not lords and masters of creation, but elder brothers and sisters. Ray Bradbury once referred to us as “the emissaries of consciousness in the universe.”

            So when we ask for pardon we are centering ourselves on the pardon that has already been given, the eternal resurrection that releases all creation for abundant life. Pardon is all that frees and releases the creatures to praise God by their full existence, the “sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost,” the hawk rising on a thermal, the tree spreading its crown of leaves in the sun, the cloud of marine larvae of oysters, clams, crabs and copepods riding a wedge of ocean water into the Bay to begin their journeys to adulthood. Pardon is the release of joy we feel in creative engagement and sustained attention when we do the work we are suited to do.  This is the abundant life of how things are. 

            “Lord grant us pardon and peace . . .” After the resurrection, the disciples went upstairs to a familiar room, shut the door, and locked themselves in. We like to lock ourselves away from fear, risk, threat, the other, and from strange challenges.  Once locked in, we pursue our personal journeys without concern for consequences, costs and externalities. In these gated communities of the heart we can believe whatever we want, but our world is off-center and collapsing because it’s not how things are. It’s just something we built. Our locked door hangs in the last standing wall of a demolished building. Paul said that Christ’s peace forever changed the divisions of humanity. He made a new humanity, unified in his body.

            Just as the members of a loving family work through problems together, reciprocate, and avoid violence, so the family of creation is sustained by reverence for life, life-fostering concern, and giving without expectation of reward. However much we trap ourselves behind negligence, violence, grudges, and greed, Christ comes through locked doors bringing peace. It’s how things are. 

            “Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we may be cleansed of our sins. . .” Sin is separation from the creator and creation. It’s not how things are because we know that the Christ who was, and is, and is to come showed us a different way. After Peter’s dream of the unclean foods, he undoubtedly recalled how many lepers, foreigners, beggars, thieves, and assorted other unsavory characters Jesus had touched. “What God has called clean, do not call unclean.” Peter was not separate.  Neither are we. We imagine ourselves as free agents unbeholden to any, but we are interdependent with all creation, sharing the inward and outward journeys of all living things and of the Earth itself. All are transformed together on the wheel of creation and destruction. We align with the center of how things are or we collapse and fly off the wheel.  “Cleansing” is a centering word. It directs us to Christ’s forgiveness that is always available. Repentance is turning away from delusion to forgiveness. Albert Einstein once said that humans’ belief that they were separate from nature was the great “self-delusion” that religions must change. It’s simply not how things are. We are not separate.  What is done to the least of us–the crowds in Bangladesh, the forests of Brazil, the Great Barrier reef of Australia, or the fisheries of our continental shelves–is done to Christ.           

            “Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we might be cleansed of our sins to serve thee . . .” In today’s gospel, Christ commands the disciples to love each other as he loved them. In the family of creation this is mutual compassion, avoiding what Albert Schweitzer called “gratuitous destruction,” and it means working in cooperation and collaboration with other people and creatures. This means having different values than profit, progress, market share, convenience, comfort, and recreation. To work for the abundant life of all creation is to realize that “in pardoning we are pardoned, in consoling we are consoled, in giving we receive, in understanding we are understood, and in loving we are loved,” as St. Francis said. In other words, compassion and life-fostering concern transform our experience into a “new heaven and Earth” in right relationship with how things are by giving pardon, making peace, and helping in the work of salvation. 

            “Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we might be cleansed of our sins to serve thee with a quiet mind.”  This new heaven and earth will be quietly centered on our dependence on the creator and our interdependence with other creatures. It will not be the kind of life we have now. We live in a noisy and confusing time. I could have added to the noise by telling you about the alarming threats to the future of our planet. Rocketing population growth will fill the Earth with 9 to 12 Billion people within the next 30 years. These people will want more cars, fuel, grain, meat, electronics, houses, water, cities, jobs, pets, amusements, weapons, and products of all kinds. These wants will make deserts, famines, plagues, wars, shortages, extinctions, vast migrations, more  injustices coming to people who are already suffering from disease and deprivation, and irreversible changes in climate, coastlands, and habitats. This is truly how things are. Pursuing our inward journeys as if they were not shared with outward journeys of all other living things is locking the door of denial. It is, in fact, a kind of violence. To open our hearts to cooperation with each other and with the natural geochemical cycles of our planet is to act as elder brothers and sisters of creation and emissaries of consciousness and conscience to the universe. In the words of the old hymn, let us “stay our minds on Jesus.”

 Let us pray. O God, whose love is greater than the measure of our minds and who make even our wrath and violence to serve thee, we give thanks for this island Earth, “in a starry ocean/ Poetry in motion/ this island Earth./ A beautiful oasis/ for all human races,/ the only home that we know,/ this island Earth.” Lord, grant us pardon and peace that we may be cleansed of our sins to serve thee with a quiet mind, a mind stayed on Jesus.  AMEN

 

“This Island Earth” is a song by Jonathan Edwards. Other quotations come fromPsalm 148  (Let all creation praise thee.), Acts 11:1-18 (Peter’s Vision), Rev 21:1-6 (New heavens & earth), and  Jn 13: 31-35 (A new commandment), and the hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee.”

 

 

Of spring, trees, grass and wounds

As a poet, I should probably be thinking of the spring, particularly since few springs lie ahead. Maybe re-read Leaves of Grass.  Maybe think about trees–like the one I saw today. A tree-cutter hung from the side of an oak eighty feet from the ground as the branch snapped free, swung behind him to the notch where the rope was anchored, and calmly settled to the ground like a conclusion reached with finality.

 

Not loose yet

The arborist shins down and writes,

“Dead from the top, but you could wait a year.”

Wait for knots to loosen,

roots to lose their pulse;

witness to the latest light

braying for her brand

to wrap her spot and bum a light;

the flame past names out or in

fallible and ever malleable,

its light that salves all wounds

rising at high meridian

salvation, untiringly entire

in deep integrity a palliative fire

unfaceable, unborn, untraceable

to warm the bundled branches of our hearts

in ways surprisingly quotidien.

Wait. Wait. Wait.

 

**  ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **

Given that you and I have little time—only a few springs left, perhaps—what about salving some wounds as we wait at the exit? Let spring guide us.  As a step on my daily divine path, I walk through the neighborhood and discover that spring means it’s time for lawn treatment. This is a hard wound to heal, but let’s have a tussle on the turf.

AS SPRING APPROACHES, MAYBE WE SHOULD RE-THINK THE IDEA OF TURNING THE YARD INTO A GREEN CARPET.  WHAT’S A WEED, ANYWAY?  A DANDELION HAS EDIBLE GREENS AND A ROOT THAT CAN BE MADE INTO A COFFEE-LIKE BEVERAGE.  CLOVER IS BEE FOOD. MILKWEEDS ARE BUTTERFLY FOOD.

BASICALLY, I GUESS THAT A WEED IS A PLANT YOU DON’T WANT.  SO I’M ASKING YOU. WHY IS A CREWCUT LAWN BETTER THAN MOSS, PIPSISEWA, SORREL, HEAL-ALL, AND CAT’S EAR?  DON’T YOU GET JUST THE TINIEST BIT BORED WITH ALL THAT TURF OR FESCUE? DO WE REALLY WANT TO EMULATE GOLF COURSES?

CERTAINLY A VARIETY OF GRASSES CAN BE INTERESTING—PARTICULARLY IF THEY ARE ACCOMPANIED BY NATIVE PLANTS AND MUSHROOMS THAT ACTUALLY THRIVE IN OUR PART OF THE COUNTRY WITHOUT WATERING OR OTHER EXTRAORDINARY EFFORT S, BUT WHAT ABOUT PUTTING IN A SMALL WORKING HERB, VEGETABLE, OR GARDEN, A HAZELNUT BUSH, A FIGTREE TO LOWER YOUR FOOD BILL AND WEIGHT AT THE SAME TIME?  AND PLEASE CONSIDER THIS:

Commercial  lawn treatments typically contain herbicides like Pre-emergents like Halts Pro (prodiamine) against grasses like crabgrass, and broadleaf weed herbicides like Defendor (Florasulam) &  general weed killers like Ortho Weed-B-Gone (2,4-D MCPP Dicamba) against plants like plantain, milkweed, clover and dandelions, and treatment with fertilizers (Nitrogen 17: Phosphate 0: Potash 5) enhanced with additives like Water Smart (a Scotts formulation) to increase absorption.  Quantities used for a 3000 square foot lawn would typically be in 6 gallon batches (3 gallons for Weed-B-Gone), combined and brought up to 3000 gallons of solution with water, and sprayed over the entire lawn. As the growing goes on, it is also customary for homeowners to hire yet other contractors to spray Roundup (Glyphosphate) on every pavement crack.

CAN WE THINK ABOUT THIS IN TERMS OF THE LONG TERM EFFECTS OF THESE PRACTICES ON THE HABITAT , WATER SUPPLY, AND OUR OWN HEALTH? YOUR CELLS AND THE CELLS OF PLANTS AND OTHER ANIMALS HAVE A LOT IN COMMON. WOULD IT BE A SURPRISE OR IRRATIONAL  TO THINK THAT WHAT AFFECTS THE CELLS OF ANOTHER ORGANISM CAN AFFECT YOU TOO?

And what about the persistent organic pollutants?  For example 2,4-D and organophosphates  pass  from lawn to storm drain to Jordan’s Branch to the James River and on to the Bay, continental shelf and and on to the ocean—entering thousands of lives on their way. The 2,4-D is also a persistent air pollutant in and around your home (and the homes of neighbors who don’t have commercial lawn care.) There is ample information available about the issues , as well as many good suggestions. (See, for example: http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/dark-side-lawns ).  We are connected to all life by what we do and fail to do. PLEASE GIVE IT A THOUGHT.

THANKS & PEACE TO YOU. –rlr