Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Soul in Service: Ruts or Privy Holes?

Unless you seek to be a channel of service to your fellow man, what kind of a channel will you be? Perhaps a ditch, a trough, or a rut; but these are not creative things!
--Edgar Cayce

There are probably as many answers to the question, What does the soul want? as there are living beings. But one universal requirement of the soul, it seems, is to be of service. Apparently it doesn’t matter to what or whom one is of service, as long as the connection is heartfelt and sincere.

In last night’s newspaper, for example, there was a wonderful story about a young man, 27-year old Derrick Logan, a native of our county, who went to sea on his uncle’s tall ship and discovered not just the world, but his own soul’s calling, as well. In the island nation of Vanuatu, on the island of Erromango, 22 miles inland on overgrown trails, he came upon the village of South River. A community of only twelve families who live mostly on bananas, coconuts and roots, they lack even the simplest of civilization’s offerings: basic sanitation, clean water, education and medical attention.
Even though, until the 1970s, Erromango's NeVan people were cannibals, they welcomed Derrick hospitably and he stayed with them for three months, and then again, for a second month-long visit. Clearly, these people had much to teach him about life, and especially the life of the soul: “They taught me how to take pleasure in the small things in life, like how to open and enjoy a coconut on a hot day, under the shade of a tree. This experience has changed my life forever, and for the better.”

Desiring to return something to the NeVan for all that he had received, Derrick asked them what he could do to help them. Their reply was surprising: he could supply a toilet. The current system of sanitation, simple holes in the ground, creates a high risk situation in which ground water is polluted and hepatitis A, giardia, typhoid fever and shigellosis flourish. Many people die of dehydration due to lack of clean drinking water.

Derrick is taking on the problem, single-handed. “When living in a privileged and modernized nation, we seldom give thought to the poor and developing communities around the world, and how even the simplest of every day necessities seem like impossibilities,” Derrick states in a grant proposal.

He is in the process of raising $20,000 that will enable him to install twelve Ventilation Improved Pit toilets, one for each of South River’s families. The VIP toilet is basically a concrete-lined hole, much like a septic tank, with ventilation pipes and a slanted roof. It is low-cost, keeps contamination out of ground water, prevents the spread of disease, stops flies and insects from breeding, is low-maintenance and promotes natural decomposition. In addition, Derrick plans to teach basic hygiene practices like hand-washing, lye- and soap-making, and methods for harvesting, conserving and purifying rainwater.

Who would imagine that what the soul wants is to build pit toilets on a South Sea island? And yet Derrick Logan is living proof that the needs and longings of the soul may be very far from what our ego-selves imagine or desire. So, if we’re going to dig in the soul’s realm for buried treasure, why dig a rut, when we can dig a privy pit, instead?!

Signs of Life:

Anyone interested in contacting Derrick Logan regarding his Modern Assistance, Knowledge and Education Project (MAKE) can do so by sending an e-mail to makeproject2011@gmail.com. Also, share this link with others on Facebook and other social media. Get the word out, so that Derrick’s project becomes the soul business of the world.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Cycling Seasons of the Soul

Two days ago, I was out tramping in the woods with my little dog Maclovio, taking photographs of the signs of the season. I’m fascinated by the changes that take place, month to month, week to week, even day to day, out there in a world unfettered by modern notions of how things should be done.

The cycling of the seasons is subtle. You have to watch for it or one morning, as if it happened overnight, you wake up and all the fruit trees are blooming, birds are darting amorously and spring has replaced winter as if by magic.  But if you’re watching on a daily basis, you’ll find this isn’t the case. The limbs of trees may be bare of leaves but each day, even the coldest, snowiest ones, buds are forming and slowly beginning to swell; birds arrive in little flocks, first, and begin their wooing dips and bobs, far in advance of actual pairing; and spring interpenetrates winter like a slow fire running under the roots of the grass, bursting buried seeds and pushing up little puffs of leaves like green smoke.

When I think about yesterday’s question, What does the soul want? this kind of cyclic living comes first to mind. Driven by the needs of job, family and societal expectations, we have largely abandoned cyclical living in favor of 365 days a year of frenetic work, fun and upward mobility. If any tender buds are forming during the long stretches of winter, they may well be abraded off, by spring. If the soul is bobbing, fluttering and hopping toward a new love object, we may well be too busy to notice. We may sense the gradual transition from one season to the next in the kinds of clothing we put on or discard, or in the  improvement of driving conditions on the way to work – all while the soul remains frozen in the eternal ice fields of a soulless society.

It takes real dedication to the soul’s needs to tear oneself away from the daily grind. The whispers we hear from our own inner reaches can be confounding, like dreams that come bringing strange imagery and plots that unfold in ways we’ll never see on TV. The soul’s desire may be simple cessation – to be alone and quiet for a spell; or it may ask for more movement – maybe learning to dance the rumba in flamenco shoes; or to study Mandarin Chinese; or to spend time in a retirement home, talking to another generation about their life experiences and their needs.

What is always surprising to me is that, if I take the time to tune in, the soul is always ready with an answer. Like a child with a Christmas wish list, there’s always a part of me that keeps a running tally of all the things that the soul desires for this incarnation; that heralds the soul's own seasons. It’s easy to ignore that soft, wishful voice. But if we do so long enough, we find ourselves as was suggested yesterday, with our backs to an abyss, our heels over the edge, wondering how we ever came to such a vertiginous place.

There’s a dangerous stretch of highway that I sometimes travel. There have been so many accidents there that the roads department has erected big signs that say, simply, SLOW DOWN AND LIVE! That’s not bad advice, even when not behind the wheel, and if you take a moment and listen, you’ll probably find that your soul is in agreement.  

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Cry of the Heart

 It is the edge, with the abyss just behind one’s back, that evokes the cri de coeur cutting through every balanced presentation.
--James Hillman

We are hearing the cri de coeur, or cry of the heart, far too often these days. There is not a direction to which one can turn nor a life into which one can probe, without hearing this primal wail. It comes in daily emails from organizations seeking to right the balance in the environment or in the realms of social justice or political accountability. We are confronted with this cry from neighbors suffering foreclosure or struggling with bankruptcy or a child with a drug problem. We see the cry in the haunted eyes of Somali refugees half a world away or of the homeless on our own streets.

We would like to pretend that it is business as usual, to give a “balanced presentation,” but in truth, we are deeply disturbed by a world out of balance. This is the world of “Koyaanisquatsi: Life Out of Balance,” a film by Godfrey Reggio, created between 1975 and 1982, presenting an apocalyptic vision of technology and its impact on the natural world. Created at a time when many of us were just awakening to the abyss at our backs, it remains a somber and poetic vision for the present day and the future.

Is there a remedy to this perilous, vertiginous position, with our heels hanging over the edge, while a keening wail arises from our hearts? Hillman says, “the new opposition, the real one in this generation, is between the soul and all that would butcher or purchase it.” Hillman asks what may be the most important question for any human being to ask: “What does the soul want?” This tiny 5-word question is a portal to an immense panorama of personal inquiry that can last a lifetime – or perhaps several. One thing is sure: we all are fairly certain the soul does not want to plummet into the abyss! And yet, it is this very peril that opens our own authenticity to us.

In the next few days, we will consider here just what the soul’s longing might look like and how we might avoid a personal or communal plunge into black and unconscious realms where war hatches its ugly brood and life loses both value and meaning. Until then, let’s meditate on this essential question: what does my soul want? The answers may surprise us!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Being True

Be true to your work, your word, and your friend.
--Henry David Thoreau

Many thanks to all who attended yesterday's reading of Commune of Women at Columbia College, to the college librarian Wendy Griffiths-Bender for inviting me, to Gail Segerstrom for designing such a beautiful poster for the event and especially to my husband, David Roberson, for his constant and loving support which included, in this case, lugging a bag full of books from car to library. Fortunately, it was a sell-out and the bag was empty on the return journey. To the many friends who took time out of their busy lives to be there for me -- there are no words! You are the gold standard among friends and a deep and true blessing in my life. And to "all my friends who I don't even know," as my mother used to say, I was delighted to make your acquaintance and hope to cross paths with you again, soon. It was a joy, after being as true to the voices of the women of Commune of Women as I could possibly be, and the work of bringing them into the world, to have them received with such rapt attention and so warmly. My heartfelt thanks to all!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Author's Talk, Today

Today, at 3 PM, I will give a talk on Commune of Women at the Columbia College library. I plan to read a few pages, explain some of the reasoning and inspiration behind the story and structure, and answer questions. I hope some of you will be able to attend. If you have questions about Commune of Women, this is the time to ask them! I hope to see you there.

For those of you at a distance, I'm always available to answer questions, at sstill@gmail.com.

Have a great day, everyone!  SS

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Virginity of the World

I want to paint the virginity of the world.
--Paul Cezanne

After the rain of two days ago, this mountain is aglow with the conjunction of light and moisture. Moss is plumped up and radiantly green, tree bark has relinquished its thirsty, scratchy texture for a softer, spongier one, and even the soil, having opened its infinitude of throats and drunk deep, is a lustrous terra cotta spiked with the first green blades of grass. Such renewal does feel like a return to the virginity of the world; a soothing of the abrasions caused by its interactions with humankind. In this quiet winter season, when energies are tamped down, slumbering deep in roots and seeds, we can all find this kind of refreshment in the simple but profound restorations occurring outside our doors. Put on a coat and some sturdy shoes and go tramping through a park or woods and see what I mean. This restoration is meant for us, too!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Voices Least Heard

The voices least heard are the ones most essential to cultural understanding.
--Mary Watkins

One of the tenets of depth psychology is that cultural growth and transformation come from the margins of society. Think of the French Impressionists and their Salon des Refusés, or of the way black slave music transformed into jazz that moves the world, or the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s or the peace marches of the '70s. Today, we again are witnessing uprisings of ordinary, everyday people against repression all over the world, including in our own country.

In Commune of Women, it is Pearl, the ancient bag lady, who is most prepared to survive under difficult circumstances and whose wisdom sustains the others. It can be instructive and useful to listen to the voices of the marginalized, possibly even life saving. When the center of society is paralyzed in a rictus of outmoded ideas and criminal practices (think Washington D. C.) draw hope from the margins, where the frothy and explosive cultural cell division of new growth is brewing. Turn away from the ludicrous spectacle of an old order going smash, and focus your eyes on who and what in your area and your world is really accomplishing the changes you would like to see. Go there. Join that. Then you, too, will be part of the transformation.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rejoice In the Things That Are Present

Rejoice in the things that are present; all else is beyond thee.
--Lord Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

Sometimes, the adorableness of life just bowls me over! Then, if it’s within reach, I’ll grab my camera and start clicking, trying to capture the ineffable as it flies past. Like this little bird who perched right on the tip of a weed in my garden. She was just beyond the reach of my camera’s zoom lens and I knew the pictures would be out of focus, but I kept clicking away anyway, just wanting a memory, even a fuzzy one, of that little bird swaying away on her precarious perch, without a worry in the world.

Other times, I’m so caught in the moment that I forget all about the camera. Today would have been my mother’s 95th birthday. She’s been gone eight years now, but I vividly remember her last visit to my house. She sat on the end of the couch, a Limoges teacup in hand, her gorgeous silver hair freshly styled, wearing a gray and white awning striped silk blouse and silver earrings. “Mother!” I exclaimed, “You look like an old French film star!” Maybe the word old offended her, even at 87. She deigned to smile, very slightly. At that moment, it was my heart that had eyes and it was loving her beauty. There’s no need for a photograph – that image is etched on my pericardium for life.

It’s the same with my husband, David. Sometimes he strikes me as so dear that I just want to preserve his every moment in amber. I take photos of him holding the dog on his lap; covered in mud from the garden; raking; cooking – I don’t care. He’s there. He’s adorable. I capture the little moments, with camera, without; it doesn’t matter. Each image is a piece of the complexity that is he and that is never truly knowable, but always worthy of trying, nevertheless.

I sometimes rummage through my photo files, thinking I should tidy up and toss out about three-quarters of them. But then some really insignificant little image will call up the day, the hour, the weather, the mood, in which I snapped it, and I find a piece of myself – I, who also am truly unknowable. I ponder, then, the absolute oddness of being human, incarnate, conscious. There seems to be no remedy for this, except to rejoice in the things that are present, including myself, and to keep on treasuring each moment, any way I can.

Monday, January 23, 2012


I snitched this lovely Water Dragon image from Tarot.com. He's just too handsome to resist! This should be a year full of wonderful changes and bold adventures. Growth and change in all areas of our lives should be part of this transformative year. I wish each of you a rip-snortin' Dragon of a year, fired by energy, enthusiasm and love!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Taking Down the Tree

Yesterday, I finally took down the Christmas tree, which is always a nostalgic activity. So many memories are wrapped in tissue- or newspaper and returned to boxes, now battered with age, marked Wooden Ornaments, Glass Birds, or Mercury Glass Pinecones. I see my mother’s magical eye everywhere, in the heaps of feathered red birds, now slightly scruffy looking, with beady eyes askew, or in the Scandinavian wooden trolls who stand in familial groupings around the kitchen, awaiting mummification in last week’s Union Democrat. Every Christmas from my earliest childhood until her death, she gave me wooden ornaments from Germany, and since her passing, I’ve inherited her own collection of holiday delights: yards of German tinsel ribbons two inches wide, striped red and green; Swedish tablecloths printed with rings of dancing children; a collection of tiny gold and cloissoné Chinese teapots.

And then there is the Dragon Egg, a huge dark green emu egg bonded with some kind of material into which my father could carve. Wrapped around the egg is the scaly body of a wide-eyed, ferocious dragon, his talons sunk deep into egg shell. Every Christmas I bring it out of its padded silk box and wonder what to do with it. It’s too heavy to hang on the tree and scarcely thematic, anyway. It seems to anticipate the month after Christmas, when the Chinese celebrate their New Year. But it’s a thing of such cunning craftsmanship and so redolent of my father’s powerful character, that I always make a place for it somewhere close to the tree.

Thus, my parents seem to be present with us, all through the holiday season and when it’s time to put things away for another year, I feel like I’m tucking them away, too, carefully swaddled in webs of memory in a battered box marked Loved Ones. Down the stairs go the packing-taped boxes and plastic storage cases, through the studio, through the library and into a big pantry off the laundry room. One after another I hoist them onto the highest shelf, where they will wait for another year, quiet and unobtrusive.

This time, though, as I was hefting a long flat box, its corner caught a bottle that had been stored on a lower shelf. With a terrible SMASH, it hit the tile floor and exploded! Instantly, a strange and wonderful smell pervaded the room. I knew immediately what it was: a bottle of El Tequileño Blanco tequila that I’d bought in the town of Tequila, in Jalisco state, on one of my adventures in Mexico. I was saving it until I could find a recipe for tequila lime chicken that approximated what I’d experienced in that shabby Mexican town surrounded by sensual hills and hills and hills of blue agave.

The smell of tequila wafted through the library, through the studio and up the stairs into the living room – a sweet, feral, slightly medicinal scent that stirs the blood. It expunged the shadows of nostalgia like a good solvent. In this season hanging between western and Chinese New Years, it was like the bottle of champagne that launches a ship, showering its wild blessings and sending me voyaging onward, away from what is past, into a bright and mysterious future. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Good news!

To know oneself, one should assert oneself.
--Albert Camus

I awoke this morning to two blessings. The first is:
' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ''' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' '' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' ' '''' ' '''' ' ''  '''''  '' ' ' '' ' '' ' ' ' ''' ' ' ' '' ' ' '' ' '' '' '''' ' ' ' ''''' ' ' ' ' ' ''' '' ' ' ' ''' '''''' '''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''' ''' ''' ''' '''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''!
After 37 days without a drop from the skies, we had a deluge in the night. One of the sweetest sounds on earth is rain falling on the corrugated metal roof. All the trees are dancing with delight, this morning!

The second blessing is this message that I received from my publisher, Lou Aronica of Fiction Studio Books, right at the top of my morning emails:

Congratulations. You've been in the top 100 of the two biggest accounts.

I have to tell you, it's kind of an eerie thing to publish a book and to know that thousands of people whom you will never know are reading your deepest thoughts and feelings. I sometimes liken this to having a beloved child go off to college. You no longer have control over his or her welfare. You don't know where s/he is, with what people, in which circumstances. You have to trust that what you've inculcated from the very beginning will serve as a structure to sustain that child from harm and also lead him or her on to a successful life. It's that way with a book, too, only moreso, because it can't write home to tell you when it's in trouble or to ask advice or to tell you that its doing fine, is happy and eagerly making its way in the world.

By asserting myself in the literary world, I've certainly come to know myself better, just as Camus predicted. Not all of what I've learned is good: I'm more prone to nervousness than I realized; it's hard to hear negative criticism; and I've come face-to-face with my own workaholic tendencies. But I've also met a bolder and more optimistic side of myself who really thrills me, one who welcomes positive reviews with gratitude, and the pro who works hard to get it right, to let it sing, and to let it fly when it's ready. Publishing a book has taught me more than many hours of analysis ever could. It's that old adage come to pass, the child is the father of the man. Or, in this case, of the woman.

So, dear child of my heart, wherever you are, and with whomever you are spending time, remember that your mother loves you and wants you to give your best to all whom you encounter.  I love you and have faith in you.

Friday, January 20, 2012

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY to Fiction Studio Books!

Vocation is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.
--Frederich Bruchner

Today is the first anniversary of Fiction Studio Books, the publisher of my novel Commune of Women. It was started by Lou Aronica, who has over thirty years in the publishing industry and has worked with some amazing writers over the years. When he wanted to publish his own novel Blue, he knew just how he wanted to do it and set up the entire publication, distribution and marketing process. Then, in a great leap of imagination and faith, he made the decision to open this now-established pathway to other authors.

When I think of Lou, I imagine one of those Indian deities with multiple arms. Somehow, he manages to juggle his own writing career while focusing his discriminating mind on new manuscripts, dealing with the publication and distribution of those he approves, communicating graciously with their authors who doubtlessly range from grateful to testy, and managing the nuts and bolts of business. Did I mention he also has a wife and children? Where does he find time and energy for it all? Does he live on pots of black coffee? Have some special genetic dispensation that allows him to sleep only two to three hours a night? Possibly he’s had himself cloned? However he does it, he works magic.

And he’s certainly worked that magic in my life. The publication of Commune of Women represents a profound turning point where my psyche swung toward its own True North. I’ve always known that in the second half of my life I would turn to writing as my authentic vocation. I had no idea how that would come about but the intuition was strong and so I followed it – right to Lou Aronica’s doorstep. Since it’s publication last July Commune of Women has been on Kindle’s top 100 bestseller list and has generated dozens of enthusiastic reviews. Readers from all over the country write me to say that Commune of Women moved them. That validation has spurred me on to finish my next book, Fiesta of Smoke, which will be published next July, one year after the publication of Commune of Women.

None of this would have happened without Lou Aronica and Fiction Studio Books. Lou showed great courage in launching his venture into the face of the worst national financial crisis since the Great Depression. His boldness has paid off and his belief in the reading public is validated. Fiction Studio Books is bringing high quality fiction to the people who are hungry for it and opening the door to authors who are glad to provide it. And if that’s not a felicitous confluence, I don’t know what is!

Signs of Life:

To see Lou's own comments about establishing Fiction Studio Books, here's a link to today's Fiction Studio blog, which happens to be about the first anniversary of the imprint:


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Quote of the Day

Books lie in wait for our readiness.
--Bruno Bettelheim

I had the pleasure, on Tuesday, to meet with Carolyn Marsh and her book club, the Dust Jacket Divas, of Des Moines, by telephone for a Q&A regarding Commune of Women. What a fun and lively group! I was pleased, as well, by their intelligent reading of Commune of Women, their insightful comments and penetrating questions, during our all-too-brief hour together. I admire groups like this one which, for 8 years, has been reading and considering and questioning. This kind of intellectual curiosity and sense of community represents a true commune of women.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Famine Among the Tarahumara

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
--Edith Wharton

By synchronicity, the very day after I posted my account of the Tarahumara in Copper Canyon, I found the following article from MSNBC, which I quote in its entirety:

Famine sparks suicide rumors among Mexico's Tarahumara
By msnbc.com staff and news services

Mexicans are rushing aid to Tarahumara communities in the remote northern mountains after a local official announced — apparently falsely — that dozens of the Indians had killed themselves because they couldn't feed their children due to severe cold weather.

Authorities say that even though suicide rumors are false, the food crisis is real.

The indigenous Tarahumara, famed for their long-distance running ability, have been hit by a long drought and record freeze.

Rafael Gonzalez, spokesman for the Mexican Red Cross, said "we consider this a food emergency." Last year, the Red Cross made two expeditions into the mountains to bring food, but this year there will be three, the latest delivery consisting of 270 metric tons of food and 5,000 blankets. The government says it has also sent millions of dollars in aid.

Gonzalez shares most Mexicans' respect for the Tarahumara, noting "these are people who walk five or six hours to get to aid deliveries." But he has not heard of a single report of any of the estimated 250,000 Tarahumara committing suicide because of famine.

Nor has the Rev. Guadalupe Gasca, a Jesuit priest whose oversees the Clinica Teresita in the Tarahumara mountain town of Creel, Chihuahua. The Indians, whose life is a constant struggle to wring food out of scraggly corn plots on steep mountain slopes, don't give up easily.

"We (Jesuits) have a history of almost 400 years working in this area, and we can say that in the Tarahumaras' world view, suicide is not an option."

But Gasca notes that in 2011, his clinic did treat 250 Tarahumara children for malnutrition, including 25 severe cases. One 3-year-old girl died of it.

Gasca also blames the food crisis on the drought and cold.

"There has always been hunger in these hills," Gasca said. "There have always been climate cycles, but these cycles are getting more frequent and more severe."

 There is something that each one of us can do to save the world. Find it! Do it! You will become both the candle and the mirror that reflects your own inner flame.


Monday, January 16, 2012

World Hunger and the Inescapable Network of Mutuality

This is the text of a talk I gave as keynote speaker at the 2009 Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, in my hometown of Sonora, California:

 World Hunger and the Inescapable Network of Mutuality 

All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
--Martin Luther King Jr.

We are gathered here, this afternoon, at a critical moment in history. When Martin Luther King was leading the civil rights movement in the middle of the last century, the United States was a prosperous country, confident of its primary position in the world. While many who participated in the movement had known what it means to go without food, the country, by and large, was well-fed. Grinding poverty was being addressed by any number of programs. Collectively, we were in an optimistic mood reflected by the notion of the Great Society.

Today, we sit in this auditorium in a much more sober frame of mind. Many of us have concerns about investments and pension funds, about the security of our jobs, or about simply meeting each month’s bills. And despite optimism about the new Obama administration, there is a realization, encouraged by the President-elect himself, that things may become increasingly difficult, before they improve.

This economic change was gradual, as the plenty of five decades ago became excess, then, ultimately, Titanic greed. Like the captain of that “unsinkable” ship, the Titanic, our leadership has made disastrous choices, and now, we find ourselves standing on a tilting deck, wondering what to do next, as the economy of the country seems poised to slip beneath the waves.

One of the hallmarks of a great leader is that he speaks to particulars, but sets an example that is far-reaching. Martin Luther King was such a leader. His particular focus was civil rights, but he addressed other issues and his egalitarian interests were global.

What, do you suppose, would Dr. King tell us, now, if he were alive to witness our present financial, ecological, and ethical disasters?

I think the answer might be contained in his statement, “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

The network has become an important concept in our times. There’s networking among people, the electronic Web of the Internet, the philosophical notion of the development of “hive mind,” and the Gaia Hypothesis that exposes the essential interconnectedness of all life. Given this notion of a universal network of interlocking and interacting parts, Dr. King’s declaration that all men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality is very current, indeed.

So, given our present state of affairs, what does it mean to us, to be mutually interdependent? Of what does human mutuality actually consist? And how might we justify such interdependence with Dr. King’s other great passion, for human freedom?

Such questions can form the basis of a critical analysis that investigates who is served by the present situation, and who is marginalized. Critical analysis can provide more inclusive accounts of how the world is organized, and how that organization can be changed toward more democracy and equity. This is important because, as Dr. King wrote in a letter from Birmingham jail, in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

We have been, of late, a society dominated by another kind of network, of the super-rich. This network is in its turn tied into, and draws its sustenance from, a web of multi-national corporations that now spans the globe. What’s more, many of us who are not among the super-wealthy still derive income from stocks and various investment funds that are tied into multi-national businesses.

This form of investment has given many in the developed nations a very comfortable lifestyle.  But the alarming fact is that the world's wealthiest 16 percent uses 80 percent of the world’s natural resources. In the US, alone, every man, woman and child is responsible for the consumption of about 25 tons of raw materials each year.

So, we can clearly see that the human race is living far beyond its means – the developed nations in particular. A recent report by over thirteen hundred international scientists warns that "Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted."

So, in our critical analysis, one of the assumptions that we’ve always taken for granted, that “Earth abides,” as the Bible puts it -- that the natural underpinnings of human wellbeing are ever-normal -- must be relinquished. We are destroying the very foundations of our own survival, and that of future generations, not to mention the survival of species other than our own. We are, indeed, enmeshed in Dr. King’s “inescapable network of mutuality,” and there is not one of us here today who could exist for long without that network of natural and cultural assets.

Yet, the fact of the matter is, the on-going incursions of multinational corporations deep into the natural infrastructure are causing ecological disruption that threatens cultural coherence everywhere. For the peoples of the developing nations, especially, the situation is stark. Their basic needs are going unmet and the cultures that previously have sustained them are collapsing.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. For the last twenty-five years, I’ve been traveling in Mexico, in the area known as Barrancas de Cobre, Copper Canyon, or the Tarahumara Sierra, after the indigenous people who, for hundreds of years, have lived in caves in the canyon’s cliffs. Today, they lead a barely-sustainable existence of marginal agriculture on ejido land.

The ejido is a system of communal land ownership that was instituted after the Mexican Revolution to restore lands stolen from indigenous peoples, during Spanish colonization. Ejidos are the cornerstone of a subsistence economy, and have enabled many of Mexico's indigenous groups to preserve their cultural identities. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1992, however, has destabilized the ejido system, by paving the way for the privatization of ejido lands, and now there is outside pressure to sell.
When I first went to the Sierra twenty-five years ago, it was common to see the little log or adobe cabins, or cave and rock shelters, of the Tarahumara nestled into creek and river basins. Each would have its small field planted in scraggly corn, and its little collection of scrawny chickens and goats. The fields were tilled with wooden plows, sometimes drawn by a burro or horse, but as often as not, pushed by the landholder, himself. Deeper in the canyon, the cave dwellers still carried on their ages-old subsistence existence of marginal agriculture, hunting, and fishing from the Rio Batopilas.

On one early trip, I was amazed to see that a huge industrial plant had erupted outside of one of the tiny mountain towns, ten times larger than the town, itself.  I learned that it was a paper mill, funded by the World Bank.
 On subsequent trips, it became clear that the mountain ejidos were becoming economically dependent on the logging industry that feeds the paper mill. It became less common to see men out doing field work and much more common to meet trucks loaded with pine logs, bound for the mill.

Soon, in the northern entrance port of Juarez, and in the state capital, Chihuahua City, Tarahumara women and children began appearing in droves, begging. Vast shantytowns sprang up on the outskirts. Clear-cutting in the mountains was causing erosion and drought, which was driving the people from their lands.

Up in the Sierra, the situation is worsening. Logging has led to new road construction, so that areas that formerly could be reached only by ancient Tarahumara trails have suddenly been opened to mainstream economy. Modern goods are flooding in and now, children who formerly have eaten scant but nutritious foods, are wandering along, toting liter bottles of Coke. The incidence of dental caries is dramatically on the rise, as is alcoholism among the adults.

Far more serious is the rising dominance of drug cartels that have followed the new roads into the Canyon. The illegal drug economy is a destabilizing force in any culture, and in the marijuana growing canyons of the Sierra, young Tarahumara have abandoned their traditions, adopting the lifestyle and values of the mestizo culture, which is also being transformed by drug culture and profits. As the cartels move into the area, violence and bloodshed follow.

Drug cartels, corrupt officials and police, and big-time logging businesses are working hand-in-hand to exploit the resources of the Sierra, through illegal extraction of timber and large numbers of questionable logging permits. Meanwhile, the rich forests of the Tarahumara Sierra are noticeably thinner, and the remaining trees, smaller.

Rio Batopilas and its tributary creeks are filling with run-off mud, endangering the fisheries of the Tarahumara. And the men who formerly tilled the fields are pulled away to other work, both legal and illegal.

One government report speaks optimistically of “speeding the process of assimilation into the global economy for the Tarahumara and other indigenous groups,” which is euphemistic language for the sale of native lands, and the increasing cultural disruption and economic and nutritional impoverishment, to which I have been witness.

For me, the iconic image of the “process of assimilation into the global economy for the Tarahumara,” is a young man whom I saw a couple of years ago in Creel, a town on the edge of Copper Canyon. Obviously, he recently had come up from one of the cave dwellings deep in the canyon. Despite the cold weather, he was clothed only in the white cotton loincloth traditional to his people. He was about six feet tall, but must have weighed only about 120 pounds. His long, runner’s legs were stick thin; his coppery chest displayed every rib.

He was leaning against the adobe wall of the mission, looking both dazed and exhausted. Someone in the mission had given him a man’s Polyester suit coat, which he wore draped over his shoulders. Beside him, on the ground, was a bottle of Coke.

Welcome to the assimilation process into the global economy, my friend!

This man is just one of tens of thousands disrupted from their traditional lives by the coming of one paper mill.

Mexico has a paper production deficit, but the nation's food deficit is far graver. Forty percent of the population suffers from some degree of malnutrition, and for the 23 million Mexicans who now live in extreme poverty, the nutritional gap is widening. Taking food-growing land out of production is bad policy. Not only does it deprive the poorest of the poor -- mostly rural indigenous peoples -- of sustenance, but it increases dependency on global grain cartels like Cargill, Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland.

As one man said, who had been approached about selling his forest,  “They'll take up our water and dry out the soil and we'll never grow anything on it again. Then what are we supposed to eat, paper?"

Mine is not an isolated story that I am simply indulging myself by telling, but an eyewitness account of a phenomenon occurring, not just in Mexico, but all over the globe today, as multinational corporations, often funded by the World Bank, sink deeper and deeper into the wilderness areas of the earth, in the relentless search for resources. In the process, the rich are getting richer, we citizens of the developed nations live quite comfortably – so far -- and the poor are devastated, often slipping over the margins into violence, starvation, and death.

Rural people the world over, despite many differences, share one profound thing in common. By and large, they have been neglected by their own governments and by an international community that continues to ignore the catastrophic consequences of both inaction, and complicity with multi-national interests.

The World Bank is the single biggest source of finance for international development, and its policies have a critical impact on more than 110 borrowing nations. The Bank has become a seemingly unstoppable and often destructive environmental and political force, with life-and-death impact around the world, such as huge dams that have forced the resettlement of millions of the poorest people on earth, and road building and jungle colonization in Brazil, Indonesia, and Africa that have left vast deforestation and social conflict in their wake.

Nevertheless, senior Bank officials continue to fund projects with disastrous ecological and human rights consequences, and repeatedly, and without political accountability, have increased the Bank’s support for regimes that torture and murder their subjects. While governments of developed nations back the play of the World Bank for their own purposes, millions of the world’s poor suffer and die.

923 million people were undernourished in 2007, of which 907 million live in developing countries. The number of hungry people in the world has increased by 75 million. Rising food prices have hit Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and the Pacific the hardest, where the number of hungry people has increased by 65 million.

Lest hunger appear to be an issue that takes place only in remote, underdeveloped lands, however, it’s important to stress that hunger persists in the U.S., as well. 35.5 million people live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger. This represents more than one in ten households in the United States. Right here in Tuolumne County, 12 to 17 percent of families face the daily trauma of hunger. With the present recession, these statistics are surely becoming more grave, with each passing day.

 Dr. King once said that “we must all learn to live together as brothers. Or we will all perish together as fools.” Nothing could be truer of the global hunger crisis. Already, because of human demand for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel, more land has been claimed for agriculture in the last 60 years than in the 18th and 19th centuries combined.  An estimated 24% of the Earth's land surface is now cultivated.

Water withdrawals from lakes and rivers have doubled in the last 40 years. Flow from rivers has been reduced dramatically. For parts of the year, the Yellow River in China, the Nile in Africa, and the Colorado in North America, dry up before they reach the ocean. Humans now use between 40% and 50% of all available freshwater running off the land.

At least a quarter of all fish stocks are over-harvested. In some areas, the catch is now less than a hundredth of that before industrial fishing. An estimated 90% of the total weight of the ocean's large predators - tuna, swordfish and sharks - has disappeared in recent years.

Grim as these statistics are, hunger does not exist because the world does not produce enough food. We have the experience and the technology right now to end the problem. What it would take to end hunger and malnutrition worldwide is a concerted effort and more equitable distribution.

Hunger is a political condition exacerbated by global economics. And so the key to overcoming hunger is to change the politics of hunger. And it is urgent that we do so. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes -- one child every five seconds. In the 20 minutes that it’s taken me to deliver this talk, 240 children have died from hunger.

Dr. King addressed the mutuality of humankind when he said that we find ourselves “a rather bewildered human race. . . Our world is sick . . . If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves. . . . And so, if we assume that life is worth living, if we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative . . . Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone . . . Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent. . . .”

Speaking of a trip to India, King continued, “How can one avoid being depressed when one sees . . . evidence of millions of people going to bed hungry at night? . . . More than a million people sleep on the sidewalks of Bombay every night; more than half a million . . . on the sidewalks of Calcutta. . . They have no houses to go into. They have no beds to sleep in. . . And I started thinking  . . . that right here in our country we spend millions of dollars every day to store surplus food; and I said to myself: “I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even in our own nation, who go to bed hungry at night.”

“It really boils down to this:” he said, “that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King claimed that “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” Thus, it behooves each one of us to educate ourselves, and to consider in what ways our own comfort is paid for by the sweat of another’s brow and by the degradation of the natural world. What we must come to realize is that we are all implicated in this global humanitarian crisis. Whether it is evident or not, as citizens of the wealthiest nation on earth our stability is built on the backs of disenfranchised peoples the world over.

Today, I’ve addressed but one of the causes of world poverty and hunger. Obviously, there are others. I have chosen to speak of an issue about which we can do something. I did not come here with answers, but to raise questions. How can we best serve our fellow humans, now, and the earth that supports us? As we reorganize the U.S. economy, what must we rethink, in our critical analysis of the situation, or re-legislate, or reinvest? As we begin the restructuring of our economy, what institutions must be lent our support, and from which must we withdraw support, if we are to practice “non-cooperation with evil”? These are the critical questions of our moment in history that we ignore at our peril.

I want to close this afternoon with words Dr. King spoke at the end of his Christmas sermon to the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in 1967:

“Today I still have a dream.

“I have a dream that one day men will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers. I still have a dream this morning that one day every Negro in this country, every colored person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

“I still have a dream that one day . . . the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda.

“I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

“I still have dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God.

“I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. . .

“I still have dream today that one day . . . every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. . .

“I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.”

Thus ended my 2009 speech, but of course the situations I described have not ended, but only gotten worse. It is incumbent upon each one of us to choose some small part of some huge problem and begin to gnaw away at it with determination. Like King, we may not get there, but such actions will at least give us a glimpse of the Promised Land.



Sunday, January 15, 2012

I Have A Dream

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. . . .

From every mountainside, let freedom ring. When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'
--Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have A Dream, 1963

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Acting On Principle

Acting on principle is, we're told, good in itself. But it is still a political act, in the sense that you're not doing it for yourself. You don't do it just to be in the right, or to appease your own conscience; much less because you are confident your action will achieve its aim. You resist as an act of solidarity with communities of the principled and the disobedient: here, elsewhere. In the present. In the future.
--Susan Sontag

As we approach the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Sunday,  let's all ponder how one determined person, propelled by his passion and sense of justice, changed the course of our nation. If you're anything like me, it's easy to fall into despair over the present state of our country. In the present presidential field we are asked to choose from among racists, homophobes, misogynists, criminals and buffoons. Some are all of the above. All, as far as any of us can tell, are morally lapsed. It would take an historian to ferret out a time when either party presented more dismally. Nevertheless, MLK challenges us to find within ourselves those qualities that lead to transformation, in ourselves, our families, our locale, our country, our world. We can have a dream, too, but only if we are willing to awaken from numbed slumber.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Challenge of Proper Criticism

The only proper criticism of a work of art is another work of art.
--Charles Baudelaire

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Under the Roof of Your Dream

The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.
--Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

David received a load of used bricks for Christmas, from our son Eric. In a matter of days, he had laid out a new path, using 100-year old redwood from an old water tank for edging and a beautifully crowned bed of sand to receive the bricks. Once he locks onto a project, David sticks to it with pitbull intensity. He started laying brick in the morning and by afternoon . . . well, see for yourself. He's definitely a guy who lives right under the roof of his dreams! I hope this day finds each of you doing the same!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Art and Soul

                                                    Woman, 2005

Art exists to prepare the soul for tenderness.
--Anton Chekov

Signs of Life:
My friend Hope discovered this wonderfully odd and delightful site, yesterday, and I'll share it with you. Artists are an unpredictable lot, which is part of their charm. The Wildgoose Museum seems archetypal, in that regard. Enjoy!

                                                     Shakti, 1994

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Words and Magic

Words and magic were in the beginning one and the same thing, and even today words retain much of their magical power.
--Sigmund Freud

It's important to acknowledge the truth of Freud's insight. Think of the times when negative and hurtful words have been directed at you. They're like a black magic curse that sticks to you, burns your brain and weakens every bodily strength. Then, recall times when someone reached out to you with affirmation. Suddenly, you are infused with resolve, and joy tickles along all your nerve tracts. Odd as it sounds, we each are magicians, every single day. We can weaken the fiber of our relationships and our world with careless and hurtful speech, or choose the self-discipline of strengthening them, through careful and affirmative words. Even criticism can be spoken in such a way as to constitute encouragement. It's a small but potent way to transform the world, one word at a time.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Road of Excess

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
--William Blake

I'm hoping this is true, because the Moroccan lamb stew David made last night, with 7 different spices, dried apricots and my friend Carol's preserved lemons was so outrageously delicious that we all stuffed ourselves, and should be very wise, now, indeed! And the little dog chewed on the bones-o!

Maybe it's the full moon that makes it so easy to explore excesses of all kinds, right now, including excess of beauty. As I write this, that wondrous orb sits in the predawn darkness, about a half hour above the western horizon, glowing a marvelous Naples yellow, snagged in the black branches of a pine tree. I hope it brings each of you some excess today, be it of delight, inspiration or wisdom, with an extra dollop of full-fat heavy whipped cream happiness, on top!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Prologue to FIESTA of SMOKE

         The story I am about to tell you is true. I myself witnessed parts of it, as a participant. Some comes from the accounts of my contemporaries, as alive and vivid as a basket of eels. The rest, rising from the dust of centuries, is open to conjecture only to those among you who lack a certain kind of faith that we, who made this story by our doing, held as our deepest fiber. To participate with us, you must know that illusion is the veriest truth, and reality can play you false in a heartbeat. There is nothing more you need to know except that, in matters of this world -- and, no doubt, the next -- the only real thing is love.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Quote of the Day

Who's not sat tense before his own heart's curtain?
--Rainer Maria Rilke

 Yesterday, I finished the 4 pages I'm requiring of myself, each day. Which puts me up to page 712 of Fiesta of Smoke. Slowly but surely, I've built a plot that seems, at this point, a lot like these Jackson Pollock-esque branches -- a big tangle. I know where the trunk and root of each branch ends, though, so it's just a matter of getting there. Excelsior!

Blessings and strength to all who are awaiting the parting of the heart's curtain.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Quote of the Day

The work will teach you how to do it.
--Estonian proverb

It's a writing day, today. I'm already falling behind in my determination to do at least 4 pages a day. At least I'm getting a lot of walks in and windows washed, as I ponder the next paragraph!

A joyous, creative day to all!