It’s Winter on the homestead and aside from plodding through two feet of snow to feed the chickens there’s not much to do on that level. There are many other levels to work on, however. I’ve written about  some personal inner work in the previous blog posts. Our tribe of friends meets often for cooking and eating together, and walking. Transition Wayland has started up an Inner Work group – after our first meeting we agreed: “What took us so long!”  But most of my efforts have gone wider. Last year I helped 350MA start up a Metrowest regional node, and I’ve become very involved in the work, mostly on statewide divestment and the Governor’s climate legacy. I do a lot of outreach and media work for them and am finding my stride. We also pitched in on the national fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline with a local vigil.  Then a friend also put me on to organizing a local action in the Friends of the Earth campaign to ask Home Depot and Lowe’s to stop selling neonicotinoids and neonicotinoid-laced plants, which are killing the bees.

A lot of this work goes on indoors, but I wanted to show you some images of the outdoor events: there is lots of snow in all of them! Like good New Englanders, we don’t let that deter us.

Showing Bees Some Love with Friends of the Earth on February 15:

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Protesting the Salem Gas Plant on February 8:

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Almost 400 came to this rally:

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Vigil against the Keystone Pipeline on February 4:

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Climate Change Act Now (s)

That vigil elicited two letters to the editor in our local newspaper. In the print edition the first one, a pro-letter by my friend on the left  in the picture, was immediately followed by the counter-letter. The contrast between the two can’t be starker! I will add links here as the paper releases them online. They’re definitely worth your reading.

Coming round full circle, in all of this I do not forget:

Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we,

pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year,

are stewards of nothing in the long run.
— Stephen Jay Gould

If you would like some music with this post,  I recommend Isakov’s 3 a.m., from which comes the following lyrics:

even my own self, it just don’t seem mine

give me darkness when i’m dreaming, give me moonlight when i’m leaving
give me mustang horse and muscle, cuz i wont be goin gentle
give me slant-eye looks when i’m lying, give me fingers when i’m crying
and i aint out there to cheat you, see i killed that damn coyote in me…

One of the first papers I wrote for the professor of Kantian philosophy for whom I would eventually try to write a doctoral dissertation involved an attempt to give “the given”  a place in Kant’s idealism. He discouraged me from pursuing this. For Kant the given is always already “the raw sensible manifold of intuitions,” always already in the framework of human perception. Ontology can only be epistemology. That’s all there’s  to it.

I wish I had found Paul Shepard‘s books then. Maybe I would have gone on to question Kant on this matter or to drop him as a subject of study altogether, instead of plodding on for years of growing discouragement and self-doubt to step out of academics in disgust.  But I doubt it. This road along which I found Shepard has been long and hard-won. And even if I had had the maturity to recognize what he was talking about back then, I doubt I would have accepted the consequences, that I had to ditch the entire paradigm in which I was studying and staying in this country. I would have had to take a stand, instead of studying others’ stands as a good student of the history of philosophy.

But, though I am increasingly  of a mind that Always-Already is really Too-Late, in this case it was not too late to come to Shepard’s iconoclasm, to get a second chance at turning the tables and having a turn at dancing on the board.

***

The given is for Shepard the antidote to the cult of relativism – “the incipient abandonment of positions” – that has thrown a pall over science, education, history, and art alike and landed us in this mess. We view ourselves as a special case: biological evolution has ended for/with us and “cultural evolution” is now calling the shots.  Therefore, man is free to make a world according to his desires.  He need not be troubled by the long past, his animal self, or any rules that seem given rather than made. Man makes himself, and nothing is given that cannot be remade to his liking. 

If  nothing of consequence is given, or prior, then there is no absolute. Without such a foundation, all ways of life, all views, all manner of using nature are legitimate in a democratic society. Hence, writes Shepard,  the incapacity of the modern mind to find permanent environmental attachments, the alienation, the destruction.

It is clear what we have to do. We have to accept that

the wild, taken to mean the whole community of species, is the prior question. In fact, it is not a question at all. For there is no alternative to living with wild things… In some part of our skulls there is a wilderness. We call it the unconscious because we cannot cultivate it the way we do a field of grain or a field of thought. In it forces as enduring as climate and bedrock maintain our uniqueness in spite of the works of progress. (Encounters with Nature, 168)

What is given – our ontogeny, to put it simply – is absolute, deterministic. No relativism or Kantian idealism can touch it, not in the sense that it is elsewhere, on some other side of us (and therefore we can still be free of it),  but, on the contrary, in the sense that it bears down on us, body and soul/mind, with millions of years of evolution, and weaves us into the shaggy web of all life.

Some say to be

Is to be perceived

I hope that means

that

Nothing is alone.

(poem 1 in 350 Poems)

But that’s like being flies in a nasty spider web, so we thrash about. For centuries we succeeded in rending the fabric that holds us. Our machinery, our efficiencies, our psychologies and ideologies have reduced it all to resources. Bumping up against limits, we idolize the ever faster change for its own sake (novelties, fashion, restructuring, “New features are coming!” ), progress for progress’ sake.  It can’t last long. Shepard, writing for the most part in the seventies, was innocent of the realization of climate change, but when he writes that “there is no alternative to living with wild things,” his words ring with an untimely echo.

We are at that time, an end-time either way you look at it.

***

Shepard knows full well what we’re up against: “This philosophical antinaturalism now conditions most of modern life–so diffused into the tissues of society as to become a mode of perception.”  Shepard’s most outspoken essay, “Ugly is Better” (1977, you can read the short essay here) is well worth a full and close reading.

The disease has burrowed so deeply that it affects our language and, even worse, our actions. Environmentalism, conservation, recycling, “Keep America Clean,” John Muir and the Audubon Society – all for naught. Worse yet, they have made things worse, “a worse disaster for the American environment than an oil spill.”

Anti-little campaigns and freeway plantings are Airwick and deodorant soap–sensory crutches protecting our own perceptions from unwelcome data… It looks at first like counterculture, and it may have been for some. Mostly it was the system taking over the old landscape aesthetic, one with which it could live, and making illusory options–like the modern soap company that in reality owns its own competition… recycling is the ecological slave in the front office. We seem determined to engage in the most frenetic charades and games to avoid reducing consumption and human numbers. (“Ugly is Better” Encounters with Nature, 177-9)

He wrote that in 1977. Look around you. I think it is fair to say he was right.

***

Then what can we do or think or say?

We cannot formulate a new relationship [with nature] out of air… We cannot achieve a fundamentally different worldview by an act of will alone–some individuals can, perhaps, but not societies.

For the present it is just as well. We have only begun to recognize [the problem].

This is not a cop-out. It is not the curiosity of the inventor and capability of the engineer that have been at fault–but rather the zeal to employ every technological innovation for change and newness as ends in themselves. Changing culture is open to the same mistake.

True, but we are almost forty years later now. That is nothing, from the viewpoint of ontogeny, but it may be everything from the viewpoint of our ontogeny. That is why people like Derrick Jensen and now also the mild David Holmgren are calling for an active overthrow of our culture. Those who are not ready to consider Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand” should read Shepard anno 1977.

***

Of late I have seen a lot of quarreling and downright nasty behavior toward one another among activists/environmentalists. People switch “camps,” carve out new camps, defend and attack (Dave Pollards “New Political Map” is a pretty good approximation) all the time, and that is all fine, but the  personal attacking makes me wonder.

So I was  happy to read Dave’s latest blog post, which directed me to Eric Lindberg’s essay “Agency on Demand”. Dave holds with Eric that

our agency is limited, and that our propensity for beating each other up for our different ideas and proposals for coping with emerging system crises and collapses, stems from an exaggerated sense of our own agency.

Eric urges in his conclusion “Let us be patient and tolerant with ourselves and each other.” That’s hard to do as we grow more and more alarmed about out future and our apparent inability not only to control it, but even to agree on what tactics and strategies are most appropriate to cope with what is coming.

So we thrash and with each kick and shove we are reminded that the dominant culture, the “cultural evolution” that is supposed to make us free, may be a tighter straightjacket than our ontogeny ever was.

Do I have any agency left to get out of that straighjacket? Can I change my culture, find a new language, find my way back into the landscape? Can I take a stand?

DSCF5854Last Sunday a group of us carpooled into JP to hear Charles Eisenstein speak at the Jamaica Plain Forum. I spotted him standing to the side at the front of the church, waiting for everyone to settle down and the event to begin, and an uneasy feeling grew in me. He looked out of place in that big, cold, stone church. It was packed, but he looked alone, and bone-tired. When the talk began, he explained he had just recovered from the flu and that his voice was last to recover. It was painful listening to his voice.

Yet there he was, giving it his best.

I loved Charles’ talk, his words, his confidence, his humbleness, his answers to questions and criticism, and how he held everyone’s silence for over a minute all the way at the end. After the talk I took my copy of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible for him to sign and thanked him for saying that “sometimes we think we have forgotten how to be human, but we have brought reminders along.” I said he gives me hope that we can come fully alive when it is needed and we need to live up to that more beautiful world. All he did was nod “yes,” and that was enough.

After the talk I read his essay, “2013: A year that pierced me,” in which he writes that the did over a hundred and fifty speeches and longer events in 2013, despite  doubts that he was doing any good. He writes,

I cannot keep doing this work – the exhausting travel, the missing my family, the rejection by social institutions that confer money and status – unless I believe that it is worth it, that I am truly and effectively contributing to a more beautiful world, and that such a world is indeed possible… the case for despair is by far the stronger. No matter. It isn’t evidence or logic that sustains me, nor can it sustain anyone else in a life of service.

A life of service.

Later on I spoke with a friend who was also at the talk. She said she hated it. She hated being cold (it was freezing in the church), and the speaker wasn’t giving it his best, it was like he was just rehashing things from other talks, and she felt that being there was a waste of her time. I expressed surprise, said  I had loved it, then told her that there is this thing I do before walking into events like this, where speakers carry in messages near to my heart: I examine my expectations, then let them go (insofar as I am capable, but I think I’m pretty capable by now). Now this friend is an amazing person and she understood. She asked:

“What do you think I missed because I couldn’t let go of my expectations?”

What an amazing question! I answered all the above (paragraph 3). But this is what I should have said:

“You missed the meal.”

In hindsight, what I see is a man who was offering himself up and being eaten. He was already half-eaten, and yet he had come and was serving himself again, living his life of service. Tired and sick, he came anyway, because people asked him to come, because people needed to be fed.

While shoveling snow after hours of tedious and unappreciated activist work and before cooking dinner, the thought of Charles Eisenstein being eaten by those who love him and those who hate him alike made me angry, then guilty. I had eaten. What had I given him in return? Even when I gave him my thanks, was I taking yet another piece? Then I felt scared for him. There must be a way, I thought, for people of service not to be consumed. A balance of some sort? A protecting ceremony? A cadre of helpers? A way of giving thanks?

Of course that was about me – a little run-down, at that moment, a little resentful for not even being asked to do the work, and the work being anonymous, unnoticed, and the results nothing much to write home about. But after a while when I let go of that, I looked at Charles again. Though I still very much grieve that this is how it seems to have to be, and wish that he will not be fully consumed by our demands on him for a new story, for hope, I come to accept the meal he gave so readily.

As he writes in his essay,

Why am I still doing my work? Much as I would like to say otherwise, it is by no means because of any personal fortitude. It is because of the timely help I receive from people like Joshua, people close to me and strangers from around the world who reflect back at me what I know in my heart and cannot believe without help…  This support answers those who say it is foolish to trust in the generosity of others. It is living proof that we yearn to contribute to something beyond ourselves that is beautiful to us.

It is but one piece of giving true thanks to the one who serves us: not to decline it, to accept and thus value it fully, and make the giving of it everything. There is another piece: to then pass it on.

I am enrolling  in Stephen Jenkinson’s Orphan Wisdom School, which begins in April.

The Orphan Wisdom School is crafted specifically for all those people who will fail to live forever, who have come to the idea – or been driven there – that their yearning for a deep life must be tethered to the plough of labour and learning to harrow the hardened field of sorrows and solitary, grey news that has become our corner of this beautiful world, so that children can one day soon be born into to a real, detailed, laboured over Better Day that we ourselves might not live to see.

There I hope to learn how to serve the meal as well as eat it, all of it, with deep gratitude for the giving.

{UPdate} I just discovered this on Stephen’s blog. In this five-minute video he actually talks about eating:


OLD HANDS Stephen Jenkinson from Tim Wilson on Vimeo.

 

Our group has been discussing the starting up of a co-op for local food, goods and services. One of the major bones of contention in our conversations is the problem that the food, etc. at small co-ops and local stores are usually more expensive.

But why is the price at the co-op higher? And (just as revealing), why is the price at the supermarket lower? Everyone knows the answers by now. The real question is: why, even among a group of committed local activists, doesn’t that knowledge translate into action? The action being to put one’s money where one’s mouth is by paying the extra cost of doing ethical business?

Personally, I have no problem with paying the extra cost of food that is grown by local business that treat their employees, the community and the earth well.

At Whole Foods, the only non-local place where I shop, mostly for milk (most of my food is from a CSA box, my garden and coop, and foraging), a store manager once asked me why I was buying the Organic Valley instead of the organic Whole Foods milk. He said, it’s the same milk and you save $1.50. I told him that that may well be, but they’re not the same business: Organic Valley is a farmers co-op. WF by far is not (he should know). I’ll gladly pay extra for that.

You might say: well, you can afford it! Why yes, I can… but is that a reason why I shouldn’t? You might say: well others can’t afford that. To which I say exactly the same: is that a reason why I shouldn’t?

(These reactions always surprise me but I see where they’re coming from, same as the accusation “but you’re nevertheless shopping at Whole Foods, and you drove your car there, and, o my, are you also buying a bag of cookies??” They are the reactions of people driven into false corners of the culture’s devising, where they are told their last resort is to lash out with guilt and judgment in the form of the poison of purity… But, back to the issue at hand.)

We have to accept that, as Rafter writes in a recent blog post on Liberation Ecology, we are…

faced with the formidable task of regenerating ecosystems and communities, while surviving in a system that rewards the destruction of the same systems. Permaculture projects have to compete with degenerative enterprises and institutions that are happy to take the efficiency ‘bonus’ from unsustainable and exploitative practices.

Our local regenerative efforts are set in a widespread and deep-rooted, global degenerative context. That’s why local is more expensive than global and that’s why most of us can’t afford it. But let’s be clear that the first doesn’t mean that paying a little extra isn’t worth it (or actually the true cost of living), and the second doesn’t mean that those who can afford it, shouldn’t. In fact, it makes perfect economic sense: by paying that little extra, I make the co-op milk cheaper, so more people can start affording it.

And that’s how we get the ball rolling, not just economically, but ethically as well. As Rafter points out:

worker cooperatives in production, community development financial institutions in finance, and community land trusts in consumption/ownership [...] All of these models can mesh in straightforward ways with the existing economic system, while at the same time undermining it. Substituting collective ownership for private ownership has a cascade of effects that make it possible for enterprises to optimize for multiple functions – including ecological and social health – instead of simply maximizing profit.

When I think about starting a co-op, I’m aiming for that cascade. I’m not thinking to save some money. I’m hoping to save (a tiny bit) of the world, but changing it from the inside out.

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Watching Bill Moyers’  recent interview with Wendell Berry, it was hard not to tear up, because of the sheer beauty of this man, his poetry, his speaking, and his holding both grief and joy in equal measure and balance:

It’s hard to think of any thing that’s precious that isn’t endangered. But maybe that’s an advantage. The poet William Butler Yeats said, somewhere, “Things reveal themselves passing away.” And it may be that the danger we’ve now inflicted upon every precious thing reveals the preciousness of it and shows us our duty.

There’s a terrible kind of hope there that makes one hold one’s breath. There’s also the caution not to hold it for too long, and to just get going.

We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is: What’s the right thing to do? What does this Earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it.

Just breathe, and do what’s right. But do it!

And what is that? The question, “what is right?” pervades my whole person: the morality plays  in my mind (the judgments of myself and others, the dreaming and wishing), daily household acts (what to put the thermostat at), the gathering of the tribe for a meal and conversation, my activism in the community (a letter to the editor, a call for a meeting), my forays beyond the local (usually by “voting with my wallet”). The question rarely gets answered beyond a gut feeling. Surprisingly, for someone who had to relearn the layout of her hometown when learning to drive, in this moral landscape I am satisfied with that gut feeling, just as I love getting lost for a bit before grabbing the unreliable ten-year-old road atlas. Still, sometimes I wish I could nail it down into some sort of “manifesto,” not so much to rationalize it or even to make it more trustworthy, but to make it more accessible when I feel off course and need some reminding.

*

*                 *

Feeling a little adrift is not a bad thing, of course. But after a while, it calls for action.

I had been feeling  most adrift with Transition Wayland, the group I am most involved with, to the point that I’d say it’s my part-time job (unpaid). I felt we weren’t going anywhere, accomplishing anything. I read about Transition and other such groups starting food co-ops, putting up community solar, getting a seat on the town council and rezoning for local agriculture, holding unleashings with half the townsfolk in Open Space. With the urgency of reports and bulletins in my back I was in a hurry to “put systems in place for when they’re needed.” I saw deep rifts in my community and felt that, even if I am helpless as an individual, I should still have influence through this Transition group that promises to act in the middle between the individual and the global.

The crisis came when I realized that all of our latest meetings happened not as Transition Wayland – working on our town’s resilience in the face of climate change, etc. – but as the tribe several of us found through it: satisfying, heartening days full of canning, sharing books and tools, gardening together, in our private homes, unannounced on the website or in the local newspaper. Tribal, closed, self-sufficient: the opposite of Transition.

My compass went berserk, as if you had dropped me at the magnetic pole. There is nothing there, you know, at the pole,  and it keeps moving!

I went a little crazy, inspired by trainings and books on effective groups, open space and how to design one’s group culture.  My first opportunity to put us to work was at a meeting about Eisenstein’s Sacred Economy scheduled a while back. The idea was to present the book, which no one else had read, and then to discuss the long-held idea for a co-op. Though I had announced this on the site and in the local media, only the core group showed up and just one new person, making ten of us. It confirmed my suspicion that most people think of us as a finished, closed tribe. I lectured on Eisenstein, rigid with ambition even though the conversation wanted to go more deeply into more personal stories of giving and receiving. I skipped my carefully prepared segway into the co-op idea, instead projecting it onto the wall in all its powerpoint glory: the goods and services it would ideally offer, its legal underpinnings, how the board would be chosen, dividend paid out…

The others couldn’t believe it. “You want to go into business?! Why sully our good intentions with money? Even I don’t feel the need for this.”  In all my years in Transition, I had never felt so at odds. Even those in the group who had also held dear the co-op, could not  recognize it, let alone come to its defense. We did find our messy way to the bottom of the issue, “Why do you feel we need this?” But by then it was too late, and late. People had already drifted away without saying goodbye, the group unraveled.

Driving home, I told myself: Well, this was good, this was something different, this was Storming, right on cue after Forming and before Norming. I lost a night’s sleep over it. When we came back to it in many good individuals conversations, I managed to explain my intention better: to set the group on track again, find our direction. I billed the meeting two weeks later, on our site and in the local media, as a “General Meeting” where we would do a visioning exercise and a find-your-mission game to re-invent our group culture. I thoroughly prepared for this. People and Permaculture, The Empowerment Manual and the resources on the Transition Network site are wonderfully empowering and a lot of fun. I studied, then wrote out an entire script for the evening. A problem was that I didn’t know who would come. I’d done a lot of promotion and was hoping for some new people. The goal was that they’d get to answer the question, “What is Transition Wayland,” themselves. I packed twenty clipboards.

*

*                 *

My first clue to what was really going on came on the day of the meeting, when I ran the agenda by a friend, over the phone. I went over the visioning exercise: “How can we work for a better future if we can’t even imagine it? So let’s imagine it! Get comfortable, close your eyes if you want to. Imagine a world, ten years, twenty, fifty years from now, where our community is transformed to satisfy your deepest wishes for it. It is a beautiful world you feel safe in. Find yourself in your home. Look around: what does it look? Smell like? Who built it? Where is everybody? The children? The elders? The sick? You’re about to have a midday meal. Who is there with you? Where do they live? What do you eat? Who cooked the meal? Where did the food grow, and who grew it? How did it come to you? How is the land taken care of?” Etc.

It brought my friend to tears. How stark the contrast between this longed-for world and reality, where teachers are murdered by fourteen-year-old students. The exercise did exactly the opposite of what it was meant to do: it thrust her into a feeling of profound powerlessness. My suggestion that with Transition we get to expand our power from the individual circle to the community circle and start the work sounded empty to my own ears. I thanked her profoundly for reminding me of the courage that is needed to imagine a better world.

At the meeting there were eight of us, just the tight core-group (minus one, who couldn’t make it). We did a fun round circle, sharing our moods as weather reports. I introduced group culture and its two domains, vision/mission/goal and process (how meetings are run, decisions taken, etc.), and asked:  Are you happy with our group culture? Is it transparent to you? I explained how I felt adrift.

We never got to do the visioning or any of that.  The fact that it was “just us,”  which had alarmed me at first, turned out to be a blessing: I could put my five-page script away.  We talked freely about what we already do and it was good to hear it. We build trust in our community, by simply walking the trails, for instance, and that gives meaning to our place for everyone in it. We make connections, all the time, like fingers of a hand reaching into the community, and we have to trust that the spaces in between the fingers fill up in unexpected ways often unknown by us. We model compassionate living, friendliness and everyday courage. We counter the dominant culture of fear and distrust. We are more organic and “opportunistic” than prepared and “on track”…

We talked about Wayland Walks, our most successful running program, which had just lead a walk to which twenty people came: twenty people deeply present in the landscape, in search of wild edibles. We gathered around the Master Map that will come out of all this walking for the town’s 375th Anniversary. The crisis had brought me right there, where I needed to be: to this map of our town with these people standing around.

*

*                 *

It’s not true, what I wrote, that there is nothing there, at the pole.  It is true that it keeps moving. In fact, it could be anywhere.

It is the place where you get to question your compass, shake it a little to see if the needle is stuck, and be reminded that you cannot, once and for all, “nail down” that needle.  What is there is the satisfaction that you should just trust your gut feeling.  Just breathe, and do what’s right.

The writing of this entry was inspired by my reading today of Charlotte DuCann’ s latest blog post about the walks she takes her community on, and especially these lines:

So having followed the Transition ethos of relocalisation and community resilience in these five years,  I realise what I have really been doing within its well-managed civic remit is fostering a culture that cherishes all these  wayward,  earth-loving  actions.  Paying attention to things that civilisation has scant time for, or has forgotten in its pursuit of power. I have come to see that return and regeneration - of soil, neighbourhoods, people, places - is the wild card in the pack, the card all of us have up our sleeves.

So it is for me as well. We will work on local energy, local food, continue the hard awareness-raising, and put systems in place. We will  “go places.” But the compass that guides us there will be the precious things: compassion with one who is face-to-face, courage in small actions, the grief and joy of standing in a field together. They show us our duty.

The idea for this weekend was for us to go the Amherst, MA, for me to do a three-day training in Effective Groups while DH and Amie did some sightseeing and goat research – lots of people with goats in Amherst! However, DH fell sick and we had to cancel the whole thing. So Amie and I got to go to the 350 Draw the Line rally in Newton, against the Tar Sands. We stuffed one car with people and signs and carpooled there. Amie finally got to use her sign. Here she is showing it off.

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Like that it looks like she was almost by herself, but this is what was going on across the road:

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As we were early and she was the only kid there for a bit, she was very popular for group pictures!

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She had a blast!

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Today Amie and I had planned to go on the first leg of the Energy Exodus march, but a nasty and (f0r me) unusual allergy attack had me up till 4 am, when I caved and finally took that Benadryl. I never take those because they knock me out completely. I woke up late, still drowsy, and told Amie we wouldn’t be going. She was disappointed. She really wanted to march and say her piece. We had made a great sign for her to hold:

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The Exodus is a five-day walk, though, so we’ll try to hop on in the middle, or meet them at the end.

In between sniffles, relishing the cleansing sweat in the hot sun, I watered the thirsty garden (by hand; the irrigating tote has been empty for a while now). I also put the two poor pullets back into their little coop. The poor things were exhausted from hiding in dear and being pecked on, and then when one broke an egg they were so hungry – the hens hadn’t allowed them to eat much – they went for it. Not a good thing! Maybe I set them back to square one by pulling them out, but perhaps they just need to put on a little more weight. We’ll see.

Back inside Amie and I turned to her old school backpack. It’s the one she used the year before last year, a hand-me-down that is still in very good shape. Amie wanted “something new,” though, so we decided to decorate it. She made the designs and we applied our considerable sewing skills (ahem) to it. At first she wanted to keep the brand name visible, but when we talked about how it is now really her backpack, she asked to cover it up. Voila, debranded!

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She is so proud of it. As she sewed, she kept chattering about how her friends will be SO AMAZED. They’d better be!

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That day, several months ago when my friend R and I got the IBC totes, I was part of two conversations, one with the man who arranged the sale, the second with R afterward, on the way home.

1. Bleakness

I’ll call him L. We chatted in his factory’s yard, surrounded by totes stacked like a badly built lego wall. Once L and a colleague of his had helped us load the totes into the truck, L was keen to talk transition. He had seen Transition Wayland mentioned in my email signature. He started out by congratulating us on the initiative, but soon he became upset with the human race, with his family and friends who ran from him whenever he “got this way,” and with himself. Everything he tried – like grow a little garden – fell apart. He didn’t like his job, taking care of fossil-fuel guzzling machinery. He asked how many are “doing transition” in Wayland and when I gave him the numbers he scoffed. “It won’t happen. People won’t get it until it’s too late.”  He called himself an “emotional nutcase” over this.

It was bleak, bleak, bleak. R drifted in an out, reminding me  that we were on a schedule (and boy, we were!). But I couldn’t interrupt L. First, because I I couldn’t get a word in edgewise and secondly, because he wasn’t really talking with us but at us. His was a sermon he had rehearsed often in his head, and now it was proclaimed in that defensive, blinkered oration style of someone laughed at or ignored too many times. His colleague made his escape the moment L began.

But I also understood that this is what he needed: to say this stuff out loud to someone who wasn’t running away, who was really listening. I made sure to affirm his feelings in such a way that he understood that I was sincere and knew what I was talking about, by rephrasing what he was saying and adding some references (“Have you read Derrick Jensen?” and “you should check out Dark Mountain”). As he came to the end, my only small bit of advice I was that he shouldn’t be alone with his anger and grief, but that he’d have to make an effort to find the others.

A manager appeared at the door and beckoned for him to come back in. He obviously didn’t want to, but R and I had to make a move on too. I thanked him. That evening he sent me his personal email address and I hope we can talk more.

2. Work

The conversation with R, before we rolled into that yard, had been mostly about  gardening. But after J’s tirade we had something else to talk about. I said to R that I see many others like him, and I know there are many more and their numbers will only grow as time wears on. R confessed she hadn’t known what to say to him and hadn’t even wanted to say anything to him. She was put off by his negativity, his egocentrism, and disapproved of how he hadn’t let me speak.

I said that that hadn’t bothered me. But how to help people like L, who are embattled in bitterness, fear, guilt and self-hatred (“I am an emotional nutcase,” “the way I live, I’m just as bad”). They feel misunderstood, become more and more isolated (“my friends run away when they see me coming”), paralyzed (“it makes no difference what I do”) and they could become depressed (“I’m terribly depressed in this hell”), or violent (“sometimes I want to wreck all that machinery in there”).  So perhaps my instinct had been correct: L just needed us to listen to him.

But my listening to him was only the first step, a getting-it-all-out, before reaching what really could help him: an understanding of what this “hell”  is really about. Grief.  Not once in his 30-40 minute unburdening were the words “grief,” “sadness” or “miserable” mentioned, except when I said them. Grief failed to surface because, as Stephen Jenkinson never fails to remind us, the dominant culture that L and I are part of is profoundly grief-illiterate. Our cultural bias will twist grief into guilt, and I’ve written about this many times now. L was doing it too, like his own worst enemy: to himself.

If I had had more time, if I had had the skill, could I have drawn it out of him? Could I have given him a glimpse of something enriching because lovable and not a “hell” at all, but a “companion”? I write skill, because I trust Jenkinson, who by using the word “illiterate”  indicates that grief is a skill that needs to be learned and that, like so many old skills, is getting lost fast. He sees it as one of his callings in life, to train “grief teachers” (not grief “counselors”). I see it now as my calling, to become a grief teacher, to be what so many people like L need and yes, to be what I need.

 

I just read another great post by fellow blogger and Transition worker Charlotte Du Cann (in UK) in which she writes about our need to listen to our ancestors. She writes:

Because you realise we have put the best of ourselves out with the trash, and what we have now is the life of a dog and a cockroach. A subservient and a scavenger existence in a technological cityworld.

This has come at a cost: it has cost us gratitude.

We haven’t paid for a long time and the debt is long, stretching back through history. Our dreams tell us this. What we have forgotten, what we have thrown away, what we have become. A pack of English hounds thirsting for the wild red fox, a thousand cockroaches ravening in a New York larder.

No one has said thank you for a very long time.

When I read that I immediately thought, “No one has said sorry either.”

And suddenly I got it.

I have been working on a short story, a letter from a healer and mother in the end days, when her community has failed to listen, failed to adapt and is, as a result, rapidly declining. Though it is often on my mind, I have never set down a word of this story because I could never grasp her voice. Imagining her, I knew she was trying to tell me something but I just wasn’t getting it. For instance, her central monologue goes like this:

Now that we’re here, people still don’t say “I’m sorry.” Instead they still say “I didn’t know.”

I always knew that this is the heart of the story, of the character, but I could never imagine what goes around it. It seemed too bitter, a dead end, a vacuum. It was not me - I admit it, who else could this woman in my story be?

But now I get it. And now here’s also a little test, a surprise for you, reader, as well.

By “I’m sorry” she doesn’t mean mea culpa, “I am to blame”. She means “I grieve with you.” By lamenting that others are still not saying “I’m sorry,” she is not accusing them of shirking blame. She is lamenting that they are still not grieving. By saying, basically, that they should be sorry, she is not putting blame on them. She is wishing on them a gift.

Do you see? How often have you said “I’m sorry” to someone and have that person respond with “oh, it wasn’t your fault”? How often have you said (or thought) that when someone said it to you? When you read her monologue – “they should be sorry” – did you too see only bitterness, hatred, revenge?

If so, it’s your culture, which acknowledges only blame and turns grief into guilt.

If so, I’m sorry.

I hear her now. She rings true.