Existential discontent and remembering love.

Over the past few weeks and months I have been deep in the throes of an unsettling, a questioning and questing, an existential discontent.  I frequently find myself frustrated or deeply saddened, a case of weltschmerz embedded in my brain.  Really and truly the work of building community, both in living and vocation, seems too small in comparison to the world’s need, a need created by the unsustainable systems our culture has created that are often thoroughly destructive to both the human and natural world.  Moreover, I’m not sure what I want to do or how I want to live instead, just that my core nugget of hope has been dislodged and something must change in order for it to be reestablished in the center of my being.

After hours of venting with housemates, not a few tears, and imagined letters and journal and blog entries, I finally came across a marvelous piece on The Beauty We Love called Death of Pretense.  The entire thing is worth reading, but this section struck me most of all:
She longed to live, to really live, to no longer suffocate under the weight of the false image. Only one who longed to live could experience such an overwhelming urge to die. She longed with every cell of her body to end the pretense and the falseness and half-lived dreams and to open up to life in all its rawness and beauty – not to die, not to die, but to live in a real way.

Upon reading this then and now, I cannot help but shudder with identification, for I too want to live, truly and deeply, and to shed the pretenses and expectations of not only my own life but society and culture as a whole.  To commit wholly to that which is beautiful and real, to hope, to love.

The day of initial discovery of this piece passed, but this past weekend was spent in the company of some of my very best friends, people I can happily and gratefully call my rocks, trusted and respected wonderful beings that challenge and support me.  Though I didn’t consciously realize it while in their presence, I love these people and many others, and they are what root me to my present path even while I flounder, unable to see the way forward or even where the edges of the journey lie.  It is so easy for love to become a caricature of itself, an empty term of endearment applied only to Disney weddings and long lost family members.  But real love, chosen love, is what is real, what is true, what is beautiful.  It creates and sustains hope.

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My deep world sadness is not yet resolved, and I’m not entirely sure it ever will or should be.  I can easily envision a long spiritual retreat in my not so distant future, as well as many long conversations with friends and family near and far.  But remembering love, and how present it is in my life and relationships, this I think will hold me and keep me until the light of meaning dawns again.

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In and Out in 2012

I’m finally catching up on some of my favorite blogs (and should note that I have an insane 69 blogs in my Google Reader feed, though they don’t all post frequently, and some of them ever anymore), and came across this great piece from Transition Voice on what’s really in and out for 2012.  A few highlights:

Out: Jobs.  In: Free Time.
Out: Lawns.  In: Edible Landscaping.
Out: Seth Godin.  In: Wendell Berry.
Out: Wii.  In: Climbing Trees.

A few I’d add for my own life, some of them reframed from items in the article’s list:

Out: Cell phones.  In: Handwritten letters.
Out: Screen time.  In: Garden time.
Out: Worrying.  In: Creating.

Whether 2012 brings the apocalypse, a dreadful natural disaster, even more political upheaval, or nothing negative of substance at all, I want to live it heartily, in real time, doing what I love and spending time with the many marvelous people I am lucky enough to call kindred spirits.

The Life List.

I find myself in a ‘what is my greater purpose?’ sort of funk (see page 8).  And I recently watched The Bucket List.  So, thanks to the inspiration of Cartoons and Creative Writing, I’m drafting my own.  Bucket list that is, but I’m going to call it my Life List because several things last longer than a one time experience.

1. Visit all seven continents in a meaningful way (ie more than just one city for one conference like I did for South America).
2. Write something worth sharing with the world, and maybe get it published.
3. Raise chickens or ducks.  And bees.
4. Eat locally for a year, a la The 100 Mile Diet.  Afterward, continue the practice as much as possible.
5. Live in a spiritual community (like Plum Village) for a time.  Discover practices that I can bring back to my daily life.
6. See the Northern Lights.
7. Never own a car.
8. Go winter camping.
9. Hike the Appalachian Trail.
10. Bike the Mississippi River Trail.
11. Learn a craft like wood or metal working, and create something beautiful and useful to pass on to the next generation.
12. Find a mentor.  And eventually, be a mentor.
13. Live off the grid, whether it is by building a generator to produce my own power in the city or by eventually living in a rural community that creates its own power.
14. Figure out what kind of diet makes me feel good (ie not eating dairy and/or gluten, more greens, less caffeine, etc), and actually follow it.
15. Write a letter a week to a friend, relative, or person I admire.
16. Climb a mountain.  A big one, like Kilimanjaro or K2.
17. Love deeply and unreservedly.

Words to Live By: Kallistos Ware

“That is what the world needs above all else: not people who “say prayers” with greater or lesser regularity, but people who are prayers.”

Kallistos Ware

How can my whole life be a prayer, a hymn to something greater than myself and any understanding of reality than I will ever truly grasp?

In the midst of the busy work that is often the to-do lists of day to day life as well as my general pessimism about the future of humanity and the planet as we know it, I often forget that even this one life I have to live is something holy.  Beyond any religion, beyond doctrine, beyond language even.  Mere existence is breathtaking, and my thanks should be living as prayer.

To do and to think.

It’s been a whirlwind of a month, and I absolutely cannot believe that tomorrow marks the beginning of the last month of summer.  Incredible.  In the midst of visits home, music festivals, road trips, weddings, and joyful time with friends new and old, I frequently have found myself stumbling across the age old tension between thinking and doing, both in personal practice and in overheard conversations and discovered readings.

A balanced life of action and contemplation is both a virtually impossible achievement and one of the most compelling concepts in modern and ancient philosophy.  It’s the chicken and the egg, really- do we contemplate our actions or do we act out of contemplation?  Nearly every intellectual has something to say on the matter, often taking a side, however inadvertently.

“That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the beautiful.” – Edgar Allan Poe

“Contemplation often makes life miserable. We should act more, think less, and stop watching ourselves live.” -Chamfort

The trouble is (if one can call it that), I find immense truth in both of these statements.  Deep joy comes from contemplating life, the universe, and its many inhabitants, but if I didn’t admit to the deep anguish I’ve driven myself to by allowing a moment to tumble around in my brain for hours/days/weeks, I would be a liar most foul.

We must have both, doing and thinking.  Acting and contemplating.  What balance of the two gives you peace?

How I Became a Bonafide Treehugger (and Other Musings on My Sustainability Journey), Part I

The origins of my propensity toward ‘being green’ should fairly be placed firmly in the lap of my parents.  Though I should really begin by saying that I REALLY DON’T LIKE a lot of the language around caring for and acting in tandem with the planet, it’s ecosystems, and its many beings.  Phrases like ‘steward of the earth’ are sufficiently paternalistic to turn my stomach, while the use of ‘being green’ in present society assumes that environmentalism is the other, ie. the human base state is a thoughtless, selfish existence, while I would argue that acting in a synergistic way with the planet is in fact much more deeply rooted in the human way of being.  But more on that later.

My parents were a certain caliber of environmentalist far before it was a common suburban thing to do.  I grew up eating wheat bread and actual vegetables and fruit with every meal- the plastic components of a Lunchable have never passed my lips- including and especially at school lunches.  No chocolate milk, no soda (until my brother was old enough to demand it, but such is the bane of being the first child), no sugary cereal.  While several friends of mine rebelled against similar dietary upbringings by becoming some of the most unhealthy eaters I know, I enjoyed or at least tolerated the regiment enough to take it on as my own upon reaching adulthood.

In addition to having healthy, whole food in the house, my parents bought Seventh Generation recycled toilet paper and cleaning products for everything that couldn’t be cleaned with just vinegar, baking soda, or Borax.  At the time all Seventh Generation meant to seven year old me was a fantastically comfortable, worn in t-shirt that apparently came free with a product at some point.  As I aged, however, and learned the history behind the Seventh Generation name, I was happily surprised by the progressive tendencies of my parents in the me-era that was the late 80s and early 90s ::this is where you give yourself a pat on the back for success in parenting, Mom::

My parents went on to purchase a Community Supported Agriculture share at the only farm anywhere near us in suburban Chicagoland, as well as wind power from the moment it became available on the energy bill.  They’re on their second hybrid Civic, and have installed a pair of sweet dual flush toilets, in spite of the fact that such a retrofit will never save money, only natural resources.  Though there are still many large limitations on my parents’ environmentalism while they still live in the suburbs (most particularly the dependence on a personal vehicle as pretty much the only viable form of transportation), they provided a fertile ground for a treehugger to grow.  And grow I did, into the fervent activism of high school that all started with becoming a vegetarian.

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It started as an experiment.  Really.  I must have been in one of those bored 15 year old funks, because it was a week on a whim; I was an experimental vegetarian.  Then it stuck.  I cheated a couple of times in the first few months, for my mother’s muffaletta and a potroast made by my ordinarily kitchen disinclined brother, but by early sophomore year I was a fervently committed non-meat eater.  This was cemented by my relief after a friend gave a speech on factory farming that I didn’t eat such horribly mistreated animals.  But it didn’t stop there.  Relief turned into evangelism.  I became one of those vegetarians.  The insufferable kind.  The kind that pressure their parents and friends, the kind that are overly moralistic, the kind that turn meat eating into a crime on par with capital punishment.  This lasted pretty much through my freshman year of college, when thankfully I turned to other environmental evangelical pursuits.  But before I fly full speed into my college days, I must pay respects to the writing of Daniel Quinn and a little conference in Richmond, Indiana.

I first encountered Ishmael by Daniel Quinn through my high school sophomore year English class, but blessedly was not in the group that read it then and thus had any mystique ruined by adolescent academic analysis.  It took two more years for me to finally pick up the novel.  When I finally did, I was hooked.  Ishmael was RADICAL.  It looked far beyond the comparatively-minor-verging-on-bandaid-actions of my parents and me to question the very origins of human civilization and how we came to be in the state we’re in.

For those who haven’t had a chance to read this or one of the other novels in the trilogy by Quinn,The Story of B and My Ishmael being the other two, here’s a summary from Wikipedia (hate all you want on Wikipedia as a viable source of information- I support open source information sharing and while citing anything from Wikipedia for academic purposes is silly, it’s a marvelous way to learn basic info about almost anything):
“Ishmael is a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. It examines mythology, its effect on ethics, and how that relates to sustainability. The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the end product, the pinnacle of biological evolution. It posits that human supremacy is a cultural myth, and asserts that modern civilization is enacting that myth.”
My single sentence summary of the novel?  Essentially Quinn posits that humanity has screwed ourselves since the Agricultural Revolution when we started trying to control the natural environment (ie. became Takers) rather than functioning as a piece of it (ie. Leavers).

As I said, I was hooked.  My high school self was on the verge of breakdown due to the stasis and apathy that was high school in suburbia, and the radical ideas of Ishmael were precisely the spark I needed to not lose hope.  Through the internet meandering that was still somewhat new in the early ’00s I discovered IshCon, an online community for discussing the ideas in Quinn’s novels and, most importantly, bringing people together for an annual conference in Richmond, Indiana.  Susan, my partner in activism and quirkiness through all the craziness of high school, and I borrowed my parents’ Civic and headed five hours East to join the conference.

Susan and I were the youngest participants by at least a couple of years, which allowed us to soak in the ideas and conversation rather than need to organize/participate/advocate as we so often had to as two of the very few activists at our 3,500 student high school.  And soak in we did.  We witnessed a remarkable coming together of two very disparate perspectives on the philosophies in Ishmael, an experience that I believe has shaped my love for connection between people and ideas ever since.  At least as far as the participants of the conference were concerned, Quinn’s ideas prompted two responses (that I am now going to oversimplify, so I hope the individuals that held these views will forgive me):

  • relearn survival skills because collapse of civilization is immanent, or
  • find a way to creatively convince the world that a dramatic societal change is essential to continued survival, because if we can teach people we just might save ourselves

These two camps had argued vigorously on the IshCon forums up until the conference, futilely attempting to convince each other that their perspective was the only one.  Within the physical space of the conference, however, and the multitude of skill shares and presentations both formal and informal, the two perspectives realized they needed each other because THE FUTURE IS UNKNOWN.  The survivalist group needed the creative teaching group to provide for them while society still existed, and the creative teaching group needed the survivalist group to, well, help them survive if collapse did indeed come to pass.  Though Susan and I were not deep enough into the culture of IshCon to personally feel this epiphany, witnessing it was enough to dramatically affect my major, activism, and vocational choices for the foreseeable future.

College sustainability to come in Part II, including my evolution into a retreat and conference junkie!

Live Blogging at the Design with Nature Conference- Aldo Leopold and the Return of a Life Thread

Aldo Leopold was actually my initial reason for registering for this conference, so I’m glad we’ve finally arrived at the speaker focusing on his work.

From the first fifteen minutes of Prof Stan Temple’s talk, I’ve already learned that Aldo’s mother required him to keep a daily journal starting at age 8, a practice he continued for the remainder of his life and expanded to include lists of observations in nature, and that he spent 15 years in forest service in residency in the Southwest (sounds like another nature writer I know).  The former fact invokes empathy, the latter desperately makes me want to go to the desert 🙂

The subjects and attendees of this conference have brought a life thread back to the surface: working on and cultivating the immediate, close, and particular, both in time and in physical space, versus big ideas and planning and imagining that transcends time.  In a matter of hours I have met many wonderful, enthusiastic people.  One of the the exhibitors is the owner of a horticulturally-themed bookstore in St. Paul with whom I spent at least ten minutes discussing his storefront garden.  My table mates over lunch were landscape design grad students, a small town resident who started a prairie garden, a country club member who planted prairie plants on the golf course, and a woman interested in native plants in her garden.  All lovely people, all focused on their projects, the specific, small world they have created.  Their stories were marvelous and tender, and I truly hope to cultivate a life and place that I love to a similar degree.  However, when I brought up Transition Towns and bicycle commuting and the big-idea lifestyle change movements I’m so excited about, I was largely met with quizzical stares.  While these individuals love their particular plot of land, the large scale community building and lifestyle changing to address bigger environmental issues is not an aspect of their worldview lens.  I’m sure I’m not giving any particular person nearly enough credit, and likely with time and further conversation many people would prove to be more deeply engaged that I could perceive in a first impression.  But the separation between the big ideas and the direct action is disheartening.

To bring it back to Aldo Leopold…particular projects and big ideas need not be mutually exclusive, and I think nature writers like Aldo, Wendell Berry, and Edward Abbey are perfect evidence of this.  These men (because unfortunately the majority of historic famous nature writers are men, save Rachel Carson) had particular landscapes they loved, hikes and creatures and parks that they protected in both words and body.  However, through their writing their passion for place became a microcosm of passion for the planet, for ideas and change movements that affect the big picture, the WAY WE LIVE.

I am tempted to make excuses for those whose center is their own particular world, a place they cherish while the world at large might go by the wayside.  Tempted to say we need not all be visionaries, that the world needs leaders and followers, etc etc etc.  But the truth is that we all must be visionaries, big thinkers, but we must do it TOGETHER.  In light of the drastic social and environmental changes that have been happening for decades if not centuries, we all need to radically rethink how we live and interact with each other and the world.  But most importantly, we need to write about those visions and talk with each other to move into the future collectively.  Staunch individualism is outdated and, moreover, impossible for holistic health of the individual, community, and ecosystem.  Dream!  Plan!  Discuss!  Do!

This will be my final live blog from the conference.  It would be great to get some feedback on whether or not this is something worth doing again.  Have a great weekend everyone, and keep thinking and talking about your hopes for the future.