Team Human, Team Earth

Two days ago, on my way to Earthaven from the Asheville bus station, I told one of my Medicine Wheel comrades about my session with a soul coach, almost two months ago. My intention for that session was to clarify my purpose: How can I best serve the web of life? She said, she’s been hearing that refrain a lot lately – many around her seek their next mission, in light of what the web needs.

Yesterday morning, walking my daily five miles, I imagined myself, and my fellowbeings, as members of Team Human. And I imagined Team Human – our species in its entirety – as members of Team Earth. What can I, and only I, contribute? What role am I called to play? And what role awaits humanity as a whole, in context of the broader community we belong to?

How I answer these questions depends on how I define the project. In baseball, the project is scoring more runs than your opponent. In corporate hell, the project is converting the commons into shareholder cash. In the web of life – what is the project?

It could be staving off climate apocalypse. It could be saving the planet/our asses/our story of our culture as a workable, even beneficial, frame. But I don’t think so. I – like the authors of the Crimethinc book Days of War, Nights of Love, which I (re)read on the bus – believe that it’s just another heap of Puritan bullshit to urge sacrifice in the name of eventual salvation. I believe the project is gobbling joy. Reaching out in love, friendship, revelation. Becoming inordinately greedy for a gorgeous, gripping, wonder-stuffed everyday.

If that’s the project, then what’s my role? Saying yes to the route of relationship, perhaps. Sharing stories of what happens next.

As for humans’ role on Team Earth? The position that we alone can play? What I see in my mind’s eye, when I hold these questions, is a burst of vigor, color, fruit. I see Team Human as rain in a tropical forest, pouring down in great abundance, boisterously boosting growth. Thus far, we’ve mostly dulled and denied the symphonic genii of other species; maybe we’re meant to burnish them, trumpet them, instead.

A Path to What the Soul Knows

I’m thinking about advice-giving; I’m thinking about “should.” Yes, I’ve received good ideas, in conversation, when I’ve mentioned some dilemma I’m wrestling with. Also, ever since reading Parker Palmer’s book, A Hidden Wholeness, about a year ago, I’ve been acutely aware of the violence lurking beneath attempts at swift dispatch of someone else’s problem.

Palmer says that giving advice generates separation. If you share a difficulty with me, and I tell you what you should do to get rid of it, then 1) we needn’t sit with your trouble, or listen for its message, and 2) if you don’t do as I say, and your difficulty persists, I can wash my hands of it – hey, I tried my best. He further explains that our own inner teacher is our surest source of beneficial counsel; friends and others can help us most by asking open, honest questions (questions that can’t be answered yes or no, questions to which the asker truly doesn’t know the answer) that elicit the soul’s wisdom.

It used to be that when my husband spilled his business difficulties, I’d whir through the knowledge I’d accrued over five years working for him (and more years living with him), and spit out a solution – usually in the form of, “Why don’t you do x?” Mostly, this approach shut down his process, which made him angry (and cut him off from his own knowing). Partly I wanted to “help”; partly I wanted to prove I was smart, experienced, useful. Now, I (often) pause to ask if he wants my ideas, before offering them.

Last summer, when I was out picking berries with a friend, he uncoiled a tale of romantic woe, culminating in the raw gash of a recent breakup. When he finished, he asked for my advice. I said I had none – but I could tell him a story.

I recounted how devastated I’d been when I’d lost Zendik, how it had seemed I’d never be whole again, but gradually, as I’d opened to the world, it had opened to me, until, without planning for or even believing in the possibility, I’d burst upon a new horizon far richer in hue, far wider and more forgiving, than the one I’d mourned. My one regret, I said, was that I’d failed to embrace this in-between time, failed to luxuriate in the excruciating joy of shedding my skin. If I could, I’d invite my twenty-seven, twenty-eight-year-old self to revel in everything – even her pain.

So: When you ask how I am, and I don’t say, “Fine,” please don’t tell me how to fix myself. Instead, if you’re willing, explore with me. Tell me stories.

The Greater of Two Goods

“The greater of two goods.”

How often do you hear this phrase? Never? Me neither. Its opposite is so much more familiar.

The presidential circus is not the only context in which we urge self and others to choose “the lesser of two evils.” The trouble is, if you keep choosing the lesser of two evils, you’re still choosing evil. You’re still giving it strength. Which means that next time, the two evils you’re choosing between will be even worse. (Does evil exist? Not really. But I’ll pretend it does, for the sake of this exploration.)

Right now, I’m noticing a “lesser of two evils” frame around my relationship to making money. For the past couple years, I’ve had a gig that pays more per hour than anything I’ve done before. It does not feed my soul. It does not, in any recognizable way, promote a more beautiful world. Also, I can stand it. And, because it pays well per hour and demands my attention only part of the year, it allows me vast swaths of time unchained.

This is part of the strategy Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez suggest, in Your Money or Your Life. They say, take the highest-paying gig you can find (regardless of how it contributes to, or detracts from, your community). Cut your expenses. Save. Invest. At some point, your nest egg will be big enough that the interest therefrom will cover your much reduced expenses, and you’ll be free not to work for money anymore. Meaning, you’ll be able to volunteer. Be an artist. Give back.

I am not fully implementing the YMOYL strategy, in the sense that I have not cut expenses to the bone (this is not how we roll, in our family unit, though it has indeed been how I’ve rolled when I was alone) and I have not invested money in interest-bearing instruments. In fact, the idea of living off interest, while “giving back,” seems perverse – you ride the extraction machine to meet your basic needs, then reverse some of the damage it does through work you do for free (this is the model underlying most philanthropy). However, I do see the use in accepting that you will not make money pursuing your vocation; therefore, you might as well make money at the thing that offers your vocation the greatest support, and the least interference. (It’s not that money never meets vocation – it’s just that insisting on this confluence could cause vocation to flee.)

The other option I see, for making money as a writer (and editor), is to establish my own practice. This would mean lots of time devoted to admin and marketing, in pursuit of opportunities to use my words in ways not necessarily aligned with my vocation. Sure, I’d be free to say no to Coca-Cola or Entergy (should they come knocking, which they would not) – but, most likely, the business of running a business would eat up most, if not all, of my writing energy. And require that I spend many additional hours at a screen. Bye-bye, vocation? Maybe.

At the moment, the option of keeping my current gig seems like the lesser of two evils. However, it may be less secure than I think: the business model of the company I’ve been working for may be changing in a way that doesn’t favor me; I may have done things to plummet my star, as a result of a semi-conscious loss of heart. Crisis may be marching nigh, to make me do what I want to do anyway.

Which is? What are the goods here? What are at least two good scenarios, encompassing this question of money? What are my equivalents of a surprise victory for the Greens, or mass defection from the story of two parties?

Well, I am realizing that most opportunities to contribute (in context of money or not) have reached me through relationships established for other purposes. That is, relationship comes first, opportunity follows; those who know and love me are best able to predict what gigs might fit.

I am also aware that, while I despise work for its own sake, I am in no way averse to work itself. And – as living at Medicine Wheel reminded me – in a healthy collective context there are ample, varied options to contribute, in ways that foster joy, and health, and ties.

So. Two scenarios. One: I build a paying writing practice by extending and strengthening my web of relationships in my community (Beacon and environs). I start that writing group I keep thinking about (and a reading series at the local bookstore); I offer my services to people and businesses within walking distance. My reputation grows quickly, within a fairly tight weave. Two: I move, or partially move, to Earthaven, where cash needs are low and opportunities for meaningful (if not lucrative) work abound.

Truly, though, it seems that the difference between considering evils and imagining goods is that the evils are so much more familiar, so much more easily summoned. It may be that the best I can do, in service of goods, the greater good, the chance to choose the greater of more than one good, is accept that such a world is possible. Open to it. Let go.

The Genius of Crisis

Last night, at dinner with friends, the question arose of how to get people to walk, bike, take the train, when motor-weapon infrastructure is so ubiquitous, so “easy” to access (if your idea of ease is paying thousands of dollars a year to finance, maintain, insure, repair, and store your vehicle; being taxed to fund both the highways themselves and the wars fought for the oil they eat; and spending countless hours locked, nearly immobile, in a metal box that could at any moment become the instrument of your death and/or someone else’s). I said, it’s not gonna happen. “We” are not gonna get “people” to do anything. What brings about big change is our good buddy crisis.

Some communities who value relationship over money generate their own crises – gentle shocks that avert harm.

According to Martín Prechtel, the Tzutujil (among whom he once lived) did this, in part, by using natural materials to build beautiful huts not meant to be permanent: When a family’s hut fell down, the rest of the village would gather – with great enthusiasm – to repair it. “Then,” he said, “the missionaries and the businessmen and the politicians brought in tin and lumber and sturdy houses. Now the houses last, but the relationships don’t.”

The founders of Earthaven invited a kind of crisis, when they chose to settle off grid and honor their land’s water budget. If my water supply, at home in Beacon, were dramatically reduced, such that I couldn’t bathe at will, or flush the toilet – if my Internet cut out at home – if I lost my cell-phone signal – I’d freak. Yet all these conditions were both present for me, at Medicine Wheel, and not a problem. Why? Because the collective weave held them, embraced them. Because each of these conditions promoted interaction.

The genius of crisis is to make us do stuff we want to do anyway but can’t decide to do because we’re bound by hostile patterns. What do I and my fellowbeings want to do anyway? Get the fuck out of our boxes. Reconnect. Relate. Weave a new social fabric whose threads are not financial transactions, but human ties. (Imagine asking your friends for help, when your roof caves in, and laughing with them while you join to make it whole – instead of gnashing your teeth over whom to hire for the job, and the number of arms and legs it’s gonna cost you.)

In the wake of disaster, we marvel at how so many came together, to help each other; we lament returning to “normal,” once the aftershocks have passed. Some of us look ahead with dread to a world of guns and bunkers, brought on by collapse in the face of scarce “resources” (if you were water, if you were soil, if you were air, would you want to be called, considered, a “resource”?). Yet there may also be yearning, among us, for an alternate path out of the bunker we already live in, crafted of lonely rapacity – the path of Getting Back Together (Robert Houriet wrote a book with this title, about the burgeoning commune movement, in the 70s; it’s rare enough that I was not permitted to remove it from the reading room of the library lions guard).

Extraction can’t last. We know it can’t. And deep down, we too value relationship over money. Which means we want out.

We may reclaim the art of generating gentle shocks that lessen harm. We may not. Either way, we will create – we are creating – a healing crisis.

Tunnel to Prairie: Escaping My Story

The perennial pitfall of being human is getting stuck in shitty stories. These stories are like dark tunnels: Once we’ve entered, we see no choice except to keep going, hoping that maybe, if we’re lucky, the chute we’re in will intersect with one that’s a touch taller or wider. We forget that the tunnel roofs are mere sod-clumps, through which we could easily bust, to the fresh air and full sun of the prairie.

I am wondering, this morning, about the tunnel I’m in with respect to book publication, and what the view might be from the prairie.

For years I assumed I’d get an agent, who’d sell my book to the Big Five; all I had to do was write the best query letter ever, and revise my book till it shone. My query must have been pretty good, since it did win me quite a few requests for the manuscript – but none of those reads turned into offers. After an agent who’d given extensive feedback rejected my revision, saying she still didn’t have a vision for the book (meaning, I presume, an idea of how to sell it), I began to doubt its market prospects – maybe it did not have potential for wide appeal, or maybe it had the kind of potential only its author could see.

I revised my expectations. I entered a couple contests, queried a small press seeking Southern stories. One judge said no; the other is set (I believe) to decide by September; the small press has sent my full manuscript out to its panel of reader-advisors and will get back to me sometime.

So, I’m in limbo. I don’t wish to self-publish. I hope for news, every day.

The stock advice, for those shopping manuscripts, is to start something else. I’ve done that; I’ve been writing other things. Still: I wonder what I’d see, if I sought a bigger frame.

Stuck in my tunnel, I’m a lone writer, fighting other writers for limited space on a publisher’s list, on bookstore shelves. I obsess over whether I’ll edge them out, in the races I’ve entered. That light a long way off? Is it brightening? Dimming? Pulsing? Will it flicker out, before I reach it? How far must I trudge? How long must I wait?

Now I’m looking up. I’m seeing that the tunnel roof is matted with roots. I’m raising my hands to touch it, then shove it upwards. I’m surprised to find it gives easily; I glimpse a sliver of light! I push harder. Pop! goes the sod patch. I see sky. I hoist myself through my makeshift hatch onto a sea of grass.

I’d thought I was alone – but the prairie teems with writers, readers, writers who love other writers, writers who love to read. They neither race, nor wait in line; with dancing grace, they – we – interweave.




Cult Stories: Novels vs. Memoirs

Since beginning work on my Zendik book, more than ten years ago, I’ve read dozens of cult memoirs. (In 2008, on a train from New York to Seattle, I binge-read maybe seven or eight.) Many are terrible; some are decent; a few kick butt. The terribles fall into two categories: self-published exposés with a side of catharsis (“You wouldn’t believe what happened to me; listen while I spew it all!”) and corporately published exposés of groups in the news (“Ignore my incoherent narrative and jerry-built sentences; I’m the only source of the inside scoop!”). The decents tend to recount experiences with groups notorious enough to attract investment from a major publisher, either in the form of payment to a ghostwriter, or ample support and editorial help for the ex-cultist. The ones that kick butt? They’re written by writers. Meaning, these authors were going to write anyway, and their cult episodes begged to be stories.

When I first turned to cult memoir, I was eager to gobble down any tale I could find that paralleled mine – and I’d yet to get past the “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me!” stage in my own project. This meant I absorbed many emissions from what Chuck Wendig has hilariously termed “the self-publishing shit volcano” (just saying that phrase makes me giggle). By now, my standards have risen (and I’ve read widely enough that works in certain genres – like the Mormoir, in which the heroine stages a daring escape from the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints – seem repetitive). Plus, the pool of excellent cult memoirs is growing glacially, if at all. So I’ve resorted to reading cult novels – most recently, Josh Emmons’s Prescription for a Superior Existence and Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely.

In Prescription for a Superior Existence, Jack Smith gets kidnapped into a cult, and becomes a believer, only to discover that the organization is a scam started by his biological father. In Woke Up Lonely, Helix founder Thurlow Dan, pining for his estranged wife and child, takes hostages in a bid to re-form his family. He’s just as desperate for love as the throngs who’ve come together, under his aegis, to share their loneliness.

In both cases, I found it hard to rejoice with the characters, or grieve for them; neither book hooked me till maybe a third of the way through. (If not for my addiction to completion, I might have finished neither.) What put me off, I think, was a sense that the authors were observing the cult phenomenon from a distance. Using their characters to play out a plot, instead of stepping into their skins.

Do you need to have been in a cult to render one with heart? I think not. Peter Rock never belonged to the Church Universal and Triumphant (or any other cult, as far as I know), yet his novel, The Shelter Cycle, based on CUT’s construction of an epic bunker, in preparation for the apocalypse, reads like he might have. What’s the difference? Rock interviewed, and befriended, ex-members of an actual group, whereas Maazel and Emmons made their cults up. Maybe those ties tethered him to a deeper form of truth.

Yes, the average novel is probably better written than the average memoir. But when novelists fail fully to inhabit the worlds they create – I dive for the nearest true story.

What Does Water Want?

There’s one spot in Beacon – the sewage treatment plant at Denning’s Point – that usually smells like poop. But Monday morning, out walking after a few days of torrential rain, I scented sewage in a number of places, most of them close to Fishkill Creek. Which makes me wonder if the Creek, like the Gowanus Canal, receives our toilet flushings in times of high water.

Tuesday morning I hiked up the mountain to check on the reservoir. I was pleased to see that it’s fuller now than it’s been in a while – maybe a year? And I realized, as I assessed its level, that I was seeing it instrumentally, that is, seeing it in terms of what it can do for me. How it can help me get what I want. But what does it want? What does the water desire?

My first thought was, it wants not to be shat in. By humans. (And, as my experience with humanure at Earthaven taught me, we truly don’t need to shit in it.) My second thought was, it wants to be used, with gratitude and respect, for purposes that serve life. It doesn’t want to sprinkle lawns, or blast rock to release gas. It wants, maybe, what you and I want: to give, in ways that make sense to us, and be honored for our gifts.

At an event I attended last weekend in Manhattan, Charles Eisenstein mentioned that some indigenous people attribute climate chaos to the human habit of “insulting the waters.” Walking alongside the reservoir, I imagined our waters rising in protest against the insults with which we pelt them. What if a group of people shat on you, shat in you, every single day, and you, rising in one mighty swell, could wash those perps away? What if an entire species misused you, decade after decade, and you, in a long, implacable rise, could force that species to abandon its coastal cities and flee for the heights?

Water wasn’t made for us; it does not exist to do as we please. It has its own beauty, dignity, spirit. Read The Fifth Sacred Thing, by Starhawk. You may find yourself serenading water – with love and grief and penance – rather than dismissing it as your instrument.