Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dark Mountain vs. Hearts Possible

I recently read an article about an environmental group in England that embraces despair. After dedicating themselves to decades of work to prevent climate change and to preserve the environment, these environmentalists have made a conscious decision to accept the fact that we have gone past the tipping point for CO2 emissions, that the polar ice caps are melting, that many lovely species of organisms have permanently died out, in short, that many of the things they fought to prevent and warned about and wrote about and spent their lives trying to stop, that these things have come to pass. And they have given themselves permission to mourn the losses and to prepare practically and psychologically for global collapse.

These folks view the future as bleak and they have decided to stop kicking and screaming and to accept this future and to cope. They create spaces and places where they can join with other like-minded, resigned individuals and, as Adrienne Rich once wrote, “sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.” If you want to read more about this group, google Dark Mountain Project. One of these Dark Mountain environmentalists, Paul Kingsnorth, quit his job and moved to rural England with his wife and two young children so that he could raise his children in a manner and location conducive to teaching them how to grow their own food, build shelter, heat with wood, hunt, and, basically, how to survive in the altered world Kingsnorth envisions coming.

I feel in many ways connected to the Dark Mountaineers, who strive to grasp what has been lost and find a way forward through their grief. I am tempted to follow in their footsteps and face the reality of the looming environmental collapse, to prepare for it, to take the time to grieve for what we have lost. The next novel I will write is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi that explores the possibilities of life after a systems collapse. I have started writing that book, but put it on hold to attend to other pressing matters in my life this year. So I have spent a great deal of time pondering this issue and imagining (rehearsing?) this eventuality. I have, at times, fallen into despair and mourned our losses. But that story of despair is not the story I want to put out into the world. I choose to resist that story. No one has a greater belief in the power of the stories we tell to impact real events and the unfolding of our future than I. See my blog post from December 2011 entitled The Stories We Tell. In that blog post I wrote:
In the 1970s, a motivation theorist named David McClelland wrote about his theory that the development of societies, the rise and fall of nations, and the progress of humans on the planet are impacted by the stories that humans tell. Our folktales, children’s stories, myths, legends, and fairytales influence history, culture, and (according to McClelland) economic systems. Our stories create the patterns of our world; not just the stories we tell our children, but all the stories we send forth, create our world.
Thus I ask myself if I want to put the story of global death and human extinction into the world. What if I can change the future with my stories? What if I impact the survival of species and the continuation of forests, the flight of birds and the patterns of evolution, the lives of bees and roses with the stories I believe and tell and promote?

A delightfully optimistic young houseguest who stayed with me last week introduced me to a book with the preposterously zippity-doo-da title of The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible by Charles Eisenstein. According to the publicist (who wrote this blurb), this is what the book is about: 
This inspirational and thought-provoking book serves as an empowering antidote to the cynicism, frustration, paralysis, and overwhelm so many of us are feeling, replacing it with a grounding reminder of what’s true:  we are all connected, and our small, personal choices bear unsuspected transformational power. By fully embracing and practicing this principle of interconnectedness—called interbeing—we become more effective agents of change and have a stronger positive influence on the world.
Eisenstein is so eager to share his worldview that he has provided his book in open commons format online for free and here is the link if you are interested in reading it.

I bring up Eisenstein’s book because I have gone back and forth in my mind between the Dark Mountain approach (accept reality, grieve, make a plan to deal with the impending disaster) and the Hearts Possible approach (transform, connect, be positive, create miracles). There is a place in my heart where I will always grieve for the natural beauty and ecosystems that we have lost. But I don’t want to let these losses compromise the possibility of a viable future for my children and grandchildren in spite of the overwhelming extent of the collapse of our world under an avalanche of impossible destructive factors and toxic load. In the event that the stories that I tell and put into the world can impact the very physics of evolution and planetary survival, I want to tell the positive story, the optimistic story, the story of metamorphosis.

Are the Dark Mountain people practical and realistic or has despair drained them of all hope? Are the Hearts Possible people Pollyannas living in a fantasy of denial in the face of scientific fact or are they onto something earth-changing? I have decided that the sign that I will carry to the parade of global upheaval and cataclysmic crash of life-as-we-know-it will say The Beginning Is Near.

This is the Mt. Diablo buckwheat, a pale pink flower that was declared extinct about 70 years ago 
and was subsequently found growing in a little park East of San Francisco a few years ago.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Unto the Next Generation

In my youth I traveled to many distant places and I lived all over this country as well as in Europe. I became friends with people who remained in my life through letters and then email and then Facebook even though we never or rarely saw each other again. They married and had children, raised children, worked an entire career, and all this far away from me. Our lives continued to touch, but did not intersect in such a way that we remained a part of one another’s daily lives, that we were present in person. One of the greatest regrets of my life (alas, I told myself when I was young that I would live a life with no regrets, but it happens to the best of us) is that I have not had the opportunity to be engaged and present during the childhoods and growing-up years of these distant children; children of parents whose friendship I cherish. There are so many splendid children out there who were raised by or are right now being raised by people close to my heart and they don’t know me and I don’t know them.

Once in a while, I have the opportunity to meet some of these young people all grown up. How I love these encounters. This weekend the son of dear friends whom I met when I lived in Ann Arbor (where I earned my master’s degree) is visiting me with his girlfriend. I saw this young man once when he was two years old and otherwise I was completely absent from his childhood. But here he is today in my house, speaking passionately about his dreams and his work. I was at the wedding of his parents. I know them well. Every year at the holidays they sent me photos of this man and his siblings as they were growing up. How I studied the photos to get a taste of their family life, the personalities of these children, everything I was missing because of geography. What a treat to get to know him and be a small part of his life now that he is an adult.

Spending time with the children of my friends is its own small miracle. There is also the other type of miraculous in the relationships that my children have with my contemporaries, the friends in my life who have been here for me and for my children while they were growing up. Akili and Tina have asked my dear friend Jim to preside at their wedding. Jim has obtained the proper certification to officially “marry” people through the Universal Life Church. (Pretty much anyone can become “ordained” to perform a wedding this way; Ron has done it and has “married” a few people.) Jim was the best man at our wedding and was present at Akili’s birth. When Akili told us that he and Tina were going to ask Jim to marry them, it filled my heart with gladness. When they asked Jim if he would do it, he cried.

It is not just our own children whom we have watched grow up, but so many others, from near or from afar. I see my friends, my contemporaries reflected in this next generation. I hear this young man visiting me today talking in his father’s voice while expressing opinions that I recognize as his mother’s. I see the beauty of these spirits that we have cultivated and nurtured. My friend Helen, who lives in Scotland, is a poet and her daughter Dorothy, with whom I communicate on Facebook, is also a poet. Dorothy reminds me so much of her mother back in the day when we wrote haiku together. I have not seen Helen since 1980 (we communicate on Facebook often). My friend Karen, who is Chinese-American, married an Englishman and emigrated to England where she lives in Cambridge. I have not seen her since she left California with her husband. She posts photos of her creative and beautiful multicultural daughter Xo on Facebook. I feast on those photos of this child, who just turned nine. I communicate regularly about parenting with my dear friend Jessica’s daughter Callie, who has two little daughters of her own (Jessica’s beloved granddaughters) and who works so hard to be a great mom. I also enjoy hearing from my children and my friends about the ways in which my contemporaries and my children interact. 

A new dimension of relationship opens before me as my friends, who have traveled through this life with me, carry friendships forward and bring them to bear on the next generation. I find this more than merely comforting, I find that it brings me tremendous joy and a sense of pervasive peace. It is exceptional. It was worth waiting for.

Here is the photo of my goddaughter Stella sent to me this morning for Easter Sunday. 
Her mom Gayla went to college with Ron. We have known Gayla since she was 19 years old. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Tomorrow is the first night of Pesach and I’m thinking today about people who fled a dangerous homeland to find a better life in a foreign country. My Grandpa Sidney left Poland at the age of 17 and never saw his parents or most of his family again. He traveled to New York on a ship with his older brother. It is a typical Jewish story; a typical American story. My Jewish people have millions of them. My American people have millions of them. And some of those stories (now lost) are those of the people of Exodus who walked out of Egypt into the desert in ancient times. Not all of those people, by-the-way, were Jewish. There were many non-Jews who fled Egypt when Pharaoh gave permission to leave. And once they left, the lives of those who joined the Exodus were not daisies and happy endings. Sure, they were freed from slavery, but they wandered in the desert for 40 years before settling in the land that would later become Israel.

My husband Ron left his home on the Southside of Chicago at the age of 17 to escape the gang culture that permeated his community. He fled, certain that had he stayed he would have been killed by gang members because he refused to join a gang. He enlisted in the Navy. It was his ticket to a new life, filled with different challenges. He never lived in Chicago again. Sometimes it has been especially hard for him to be far from his family, like when his mother passed away and it took us a couple of days to get there. But contemporary telecommunications make it easier now since he is able to stay in touch with loved ones daily.

There is a story in the old testament about God coming to Abraham and telling him to pack up and go to a new land unknown to him that God would show him. The portion of the bible with this story is called in Hebrew “Lech Lecha” and the Jewish musician Debbie Friedman wrote a song about it that was one of my mother’s favorite songs. The words go “Lech lecha to a land that I will show you; l’chee lach to a place you do not know” – God’s words to Abraham instructing him to go forth on faith. How many have fled oppression, an impossible life, and struck out into the unknown on faith?

How painful for those forced to leave behind family, friends, community, and a beloved geography, a land of heart-connection. I think of the families of Fukushima in Japan, whose home is now deadlanded because of the radiation spill. Fukushima means Good Fortune Island in Japanese. Someone must have felt lucky to live in that beautiful place by the ocean to give it that name. No longer a place of beauty or good fortune. I think of the Native people made to walk for miles along a Trail of Tears away from the land their people had lived on for thousands of years. I think of the multitudes of exiles who fled horror and certain death in their home countries, who traveled to America not just for a better life but to survive.

Once I had a conversation with Sudi when he was a teenager, not much younger than my grandfather was when he came to this country, about leaving home and going into exile to survive. He said he would not have been able to flee Eastern Europe to escape the rise of Nazism because he would miss me and Ron too much. He would not have been able to leave his parents behind, like so many people did in that time. Imagine facing that decision. The anguish of those good-byes. I think of refugees from around the world who have torn themselves up at the roots and started over in an alien place. My parents once befriended a Russian physicist who works as a waiter. A few weeks ago I met a Mexican doctor who works cleaning houses while taking night classes in English with the dream that she will eventually practice medicine again.

It would break my heart to leave Mendocino County. I come from a wandering tribe and I have found a home here. Finding a home is one of the themes of my life because for so long I felt uprooted, restless, exiled. I am a Jew in diaspora, but I am one of the lucky ones because I found a place that speaks to my spirit; not just a home, but a place where I dwell; a slice of paradise that is not far from the ocean that I love. Fortunately, I did not have to leave everyone behind in the process. I still communicate with those I love across the distance. I feel grateful to have found Mendocino, and especially so right now in the spring when the flowers are dancing in the streets, the exquisite dogwoods in bloom, the wild iris beginning to appear, all the bulb plants running riot. Well, to be honest, also especially so in the fragrant winter rain and the blistering heat of summer when the garden is bursting with vegetables and in the autumn when the grapevines are lit up in orange, gold, and red. This beautiful landscape holds me in embrace. And yet if I had not stepped out on faith, believing that something miraculous and beautiful awaited me, I would never have traveled here and found my true heartland. Exodus.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


I recently read about how the medical researcher Hans Seyle got started on his life’s work in the area of stress and the impact that chronic stress has on the human body. His research findings about how stress impacts the body are fascinating and form the basis for an enormous chunk of preventive medicine. I could say a lot about that, but instead I want to share the story of how he wound up researching stress in the first place. There’s a terrific lesson in it about finding direction.

For those of you who have not heard of Seyle, he was a Hungarian doctor and chemist born in Hungary in 1907. He went to McGill University in Montreal in the 1930s, where he worked as an assistant professor and began doing research in his chosen field of endocrinology (the study of hormones). One of his colleagues in a lab down the hall from Seyle isolated a substance made by the ovaries and was wondering what the heck it was used for in the body. Curious, Seyle decided to run some tests with the mysterious substance on rats. But here’s the thing:  Seyle was not so hot at dealing with rodents. When he attempted to inject them with the substance, he would miss with the needle or drop them or generally mishandle them. They often escaped, and he would wind up chasing them around the lab, trying to herd them with a broom, trying to catch them and put them back in their cages, and generally terrorizing the heck out of the beasts.

After a few months of this, Seyle ran tests on his hapless subjects and discovered that all of them, both the rats injected with the odd ovarian substance as well as those not injected with it (in the control group), had ulcers, enlarged adrenal glands, and compromised immune systems. The one significant factor that all the rats had in common was being mishandled by Seyle. Long-story-short, Seyle realized that he had stressed the rats out and that stress had resulted in detrimental physical consequences for the rats. He was the first to use the term “stress” in this context and is thus often credited with “inventing stress.” (Nothing is said about the stress he experienced chasing the rata around his lab. I wonder if he developed adrenal fatigue as well.)

His next set of tests took him into the realm of what would become his life’s work. He purposely placed some of the rats in unpleasant situations, like putting their cages in the basement next to the noisy boiler or on the roof where it was cold, while leaving other rats in comfort. It didn’t take long for Seyle to start coming up with research findings about the impact of chronic stress on the rats and to translate his findings to apply to the impact of chronic stress on people. He developed his now-famous General Adaptation Syndrome Theory of stress, which states that the effect of stress on the body has three stages:  alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. He proved with his research that the human body is not designed for prolonged periods of stress (lingering “fight or flight” mode for months or years). When stress continues over time, and the body continues to respond over time, biochemical processes take place that cause disease. The adrenal system eventually becomes exhausted and simply can’t function effectively. You can read more about adrenal fatigue and the negative impact of prolonged stress on your body if you are interested. The bottom line is that it’s important to relax – just let things go.

I don’t want to get into the problem of chronic stress right now, that’s not what prompted me to write about Seyle today. What prompted me to write is that I love the fact that he found his calling because he was not good at handling lab rats. I imagine him trying to coax an escaped rat out from behind a desk or a refrigerator with that broom, thinking how hopeless he was at managing his subjects, wishing he could do a better job, realizing that he was spending too much time re-capturing his rats, all of that. And while he was struggling with his personal challenges as a medical researcher, little did he know that he was setting the stage for the most important work of his life. Although he never won a Nobel, he was nominated more than once. His contribution to the medical field was enormous.

Basically, Seyle thought he was going in one direction, when in fact he was going in another. He discovered himself and the contribution he could make as a result of recognizing his flaws, headed down the trail of success by starting out on the trailhead of his failings. It reminds me that when we fall short of the mark, that’s a good time to step back and look to see where life might be taking us because it could be so completely not what we had thought. And hey, don’t stress about it.

Hans Seyle (without the rodents).