Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Feeling One's Age

If you tell me, coyly, that you are 70 (or however many) years 'young',(which women frequently do) I cannot help but infer that you regard the word 'old' as at worst an insult or at best, something to be avoided. And that, I must remind you, is an ageist attitude. Same with " …but I am young at heart". Rubbish. Your heart is the same age as the rest of your internal organs. It may beat strongly and you may be full of joy and zest and enthusiasm for living, but that doesn't make you young. It simply means you are full of joy and zest and enthusiasm for living, and so we should all be, whether we are 5 or 50 or 93 or any other age.

But I don’t feel 70”, you protest. Wait a minute. Stop and think about that. How do you know what 70 – or any other age – feels like till you get to it? I am 72. So the way I feel now must be what 72 feels like. How could it be any other way? “I don’t feel (insert the number)...” is a totally daft statement, in any context whatsoever. Yet one hears it all the time. So where does all this daftness come from?

I was thinking about that this morning, the last day of the year. 2008 is about to be archived.

The years that have already passed lie flat, now, like pressed flowers. They have lost their roundness, their yearness. The are stacked on the shelf of memory, each flat year on top of the last flat year, like a deck of cards. Each lasted fifty-two big, fat, juicy weeks, yet each takes only a few seconds to recall, now. All we remember are the highlights – the few, special moments that make that year distinguishable from all the others.

Not just years are like this but months, weeks, days, individual moments; once they are over they become all flat and thin, too. Unless, like the dried wakame I put in my soup, we soak them a while, plump them out with tears of grief or laughter. Even then, it’s not like the real thing. We are only fully alive when we remain in this moment. The one that’s happening right now.

As soon as moments have passed, they start to desiccate, flatten, turn into thin leaves of memory that can easily blow away in the breeze like tissue paper. So maybe it is because they require so little room in storage that when we look back on all our years of living they don’t seem to take up enough space. Have I really lived 72 (and a half, actually) full, round, action-packed years? And is this latest one really ending - so soon?


Here goes another one into the pile on the shelf.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Turning Point

I love the yin/yang symbol. And I love the fact that it describes a dynamic principle. Each half of the pattern contains the seed of the other. Yin contains the kernel of yang, yang contains the kernel of yin. Each seed ripens, enlarges and eventually gives birth to its opposite. I wrote a whole article on that, which you can read here if you are interested. It’s all about balance and how balance of any kind, whether on a personal or planetary scale, is based on this same dynamic principle.

I am writing this at the solstice, as we reach that tiny, still moment when light and dark begin to change places. It is a beautiful moment. Imagine our Earth, as it reaches the Solstice point and just for that tiny moment it touches the limit of its tilt in one direction, pauses for, what? a millisecond? … and then begins its six-month journey towards the other.

Our Earth has reached such a moment in more ways than one. The latest news about the speed and intensity of climate change is such that if we do not act now – right now – to reduce our carbon emissions and to pour all our energies and resources into setting up alternative, clean, green energy systems, there will be no way to halt the processes that will bring an end to our species and most others.

Ever the optimist, I still think we’ll pull it off, even if only by the tiniest, scariest margin. Humans are like that. Push almost always has to come to shove before we act.Remember how, when we were at college, after messing around for weeks we pulled an all-nighter to get a paper written and handed just in time for the deadline? The deadlines of climate change are providing the impetus finally to get us off our backsides and into action.

Not just big actions – billions of tiny ones as well. Billions of small hesitations as we remember the effect of every purchase, every choice we make in our everyday lives and then decide on the greener alternative.

Because the majority of us, I believe, really do care about our world. The spectacular result of the recent US election proves that things are moving, times are changing. A groundswell is happening. I just read, in Orion Magazine, an excellent essay about all this by Auden Schendler, the ‘Sustainability Director’ for a ski resort in Colorado, USA. He says “Climate change doesn’t have to scare us. It can inspire us; it is a singular opportunity to remake society in the image of our greatest dreams.”

Yes. That’s our project. And at this Solstice moment, as we pause to honour the eternal and ever-reversing dance of light and darkness, what better time to remember it?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

That Other World Wide Web

Economist David Korten commented, six years ago, that the language of economic dysfunction has become so common that when he uses the term “the global suicide economy” in his talks, he doesn’t need to spend much time explaining what he means. For as he says “Most people are now aware that rule by global corporations and financial speculators engaged in the single-minded pursuit of money is destroying communities, cultures, and natural systems everywhere on the planet. Until recently, however, most people responded with polite but resigned skepticism to my message that economic transformation is possible.”

But that is changing. We are starting to wake up to the fact that economic transformation is possible. All it needs is for enough people to believe that it is possible. And to take a step further by acting on that belief. To put Main Street before Wall Street.

Because the way to deal with the global suicide economy is not to try to destroy it – it is so powerful that not even governments can do that. (In fact, they are up to their necks in it). The way to deal with it is to starve it out. Replace it with something healthy. And we can do that. The means to do it are right here, in everybody’s hands, in everybody’s purses, and we can work on it right now, today, every one of us.

All over the globe, there already exists a spider’s web of local enterprises. Farmers’ markets, small businesses, local co-operatives, local tradespeople, village stores, artisans, craftspeople, artists, CSAs (community supported farms), roadside fruit stands … Local economies have been in decline for a long time – probably since the Industrial Revolution – but they are coming back. There is evidence of it everywhere you look, nowadays. I find this really exciting. Another world really is possible.

No matter where we live, every need we have can theoretically be supplied without a penny of our money going directly into the hands of multi-national corporations. Sure, some might find its way there indirectly. (Our local dressmaker may have bought her thread from Wal-Mart). But that’s OK. We can't accomplish everything at once. What we are speaking of here is just the first step. Think local. Buy local. Support local. Even if it costs more money. (It only costs more money because the global suicide economy hides the true cost of its products, i.e. the cost to the planet). Anyway, it will only cost more money in the short-term. Eventually, it will be cheaper. And even if, right now, it costs a bit more money, is it not worth it, for the Earth’s sake? For the sake of all life?

If you live in an area where there simply are no local alternatives whatsoever to the global suicide economy, well at least you can avoid supporting the worst offenders. Click here for a list of companies NOT to buy from – and why. (Some of the entries may surprise you).

But if you can, even if only in part, try to buy local. The more we support Main Street instead of Wall Street, the thicker and sturdier that web of local enterprise becomes. And the stronger it gets, the faster the global suicide economy will wither. The wealth that right now flows into the pockets of greedy CEOs needs to be redirected into the pockets of the people who truly deserve it – the people in our own localities who are working to supply the needs of their communities.

True wealth, David Korten points out, is “… a sense of belonging, contribution, beauty, joy, relationship, and spiritual connection. … a world of locally rooted living economies that meet the material needs of all people everywhere, while providing meaning, building community, and connecting us to a place on the Earth.”

That’s the world author Arudhati Roy was referring to when she said: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

One for the Jungians

Like millions of other people I wept with joy and relief last night too. And I'm not even American. I had to stay up till 4 am GMT in order to watch history get made.
I also laughed, early this morning. Because I suddenly remembered something the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson once said about the importance of honouring the Shadow.

Johnson pointed out that we can often prevent the Shadow’s tendency to mess up our lives and plans and projects if we can ‘get in first’ and find creative, symbolic ways of honouring it. Kind of like bringing offerings to a tricky god.
And I had a funny vision. I thought how splendidly auspicious it would be if the new puppy were to wee right in the middle of the carpet in the oval office on the very first day.
What do you think of that idea, you Jungians out there? Taking on the Presidency in these troubled times is going to be one helluva challenge. Do you think a propitiation like that might be good insurance? If so, I'm sure it could be arranged.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

On Being - and Not Being - a Gypsy

I spent most of October travelling.

I don’t usually blog when I’m travelling. For me, the time to talk about my travels is after I return. Travel is like breathing-in; writing is like breathing-out. I find it impossible to do both at the same time.

And even when I do talk about the places I have been, the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, I usually don’t do it all at once. All I write, at first, is a brief account of the trip. Like the one I just wrote about this October trip (which you are welcome to read if you are interested; you'll find it here). The rest – the impressions, the feelings, the sights and sounds and smells of my journeying – gets put away for future use as needed. Like herbs hung to dry. So I guess I am not cut out to be a travel writer.

But I would make a hopeless travel writer anyway. I am always too busy having fun and taking pictures to go around collecting the sort of important, factual information that travel magazines need for their sidebars.

Right now, I am feeling unsettled. I always feel unsettled, for a while after I come back from a trip. Getting me away from my home needs an emotional tyre lever. But then getting me settled back into home again needs a tyre lever also. Crazy, isn’t it? I think being a Cancerian with wanderlust is probably quite a difficult sort of person to be. Two opposing forces facing each other like football teams on the field of my poor old psyche!

Neither side can ever win, of course. The answer to such inner dilemmas, as we all know, is always fully to accept and honour all the disparate and sometimes conflicting parts of who we are.

OK, I’m trying, I’m trying…….!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Apologia for a Surname

I never liked my maiden name. So when I got married I enthusiastically took my husband’s name. He was a Dutchman and his name was van Eijk, which, in Dutch, means ‘of oak’. By the time I met him, he had anglicized it to Van Eyk.

I loved that name. The oak is my favourite of all trees and I felt proud to wear it as part of my name.

Twenty-three years later we had an amicable divorce, but I still, with his blessing, kept the name because I loved it and because it was so much a part of me by then.

Then I remarried.

For a while, I considered changing my name altogether, to something of my own choosing, just like other women sometimes do. After all, why walk around with a name just because it was the name of a father or a husband? But when I thought and felt more deeply into that idea, it dawned on me that all our surnames – in this culture anyway – are the property of men. So if I switched to a different surname I would simply be taking on the name of yet another man. Not my father, this time, or my husband, but somebody else’s father or husband. And the other alternative – calling myself by some daft, New Agey sort of name like Rainbow Dolphin or something – just wasn’t my style. So in the end I gave up trying to figure out a more suitable name.

It seemed a bit unfair to my new husband to keep walking around with the name of his predecessor, yet I didn’t want to lose the name I loved. So the way I resolved it was to tack the new surname on to the end of my existing one. And for this past twenty-two years I have worn both names together. It was a bit of a mouthful at first, but it started to seemed fine to me, after a while. Two marriages, two names – there was a whole lot of life experience all bound up in that. And since I had an extra given name that I disliked, after a while I dropped that off and made Van Eyk my official middle name. That felt good. Together with my given name – which I have always liked – my full name came to express, for me, the complexity of all I am and all I have been. And by now I have published four books and countless articles, essays, stories and poems under that name. So it is really too late to try and change it now anyway. It is a fixture.

But lately, people have started taking notice. Almost daily, this past few weeks, I have been reminded that nowadays I find myself carrying a surname with associations that make me cringe. And that has become really, really embarrassing. People are sniggering. Friends are poking me in the ribs and saying “Better change your name, gal!!”

Oh if only my second husband had been called Obama instead!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Time to Climb the Steps

I’ve noticed myself getting a bit strident and judgmental lately, both in conversations and online and I don’t like it. Moreover, it is stupid. It doesn’t achieve anything except to alienate people.

Oops! Time to climb the steps to where I can get a better view.

Yes, I know the world around me is achingly beautiful and it makes me burst into tears every time I think about how we are poised on the edge of ecological collapse - a crisis every bit as devastating as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs and extinguished more than 90% of the life forms existing at that time. I know that there almost certainly are no ‘techno-fixes’, since every techno-fix we have ever tried has created its own problems. I know that our human numbers are expanding exponentially and using up far more resources than the planet can possibly accommodate. So unless some powerful virus comes along to cull us, we are probably going to destroy the living tissue of our planet altogether, just the way cancer eventually kills its host. And that is incredibly, heartbreakingly sad.

I know that the only hope of avoiding this is for every single human being on the Earth who is using more than his or her fair share of resources (and that is most of us in the West) to scale down, stop consuming non-essentials, reduce, re-use, repair, recycle, and simplify, simplify, simplify …

Yes I know all that – only too well. That’s why I try to reduce the size of my own eco-footprint. It is why I wrote The Lilypad List: 7 steps to the simple life, in the hope of gently encouraging others to do the same. And telling them how much more joy and delight there really truly is in a life of voluntary simplicity than there is in a life of consumerism.

But ‘gently encouraging’ is the operative phrase here. In that book I didn’t harangue people. I didn’t lecture them or preach at them. I didn’t get cross or impatient with them. Because I understood – and still do – how hard it can be to make changes to the way we are used to living.

After all, I am not blameless, by any means. I feel guilty, often, about the amount of carbon I use to travel, even if it is mostly to see loved ones. For flying is one of the most ecologically damaging things humans do. So I have no right whatsoever to walk around being all self-righteous. No right to preach.

I really do know that scaling down can be hard – or can even feel impossible sometimes.

I know that when I get all strident and judgmental it simply puts people off. In other words, it is counter-productive. That’s why I shouldn’t do it, no matter how impatient I feel, no matter how urgent the problem is, no matter how risky it is that so many people are still fiddling while Rome burns, while the Greenland icecap melts much, must faster than anyone thought it would, while the oil is fast running out.

What I need to remember is this: life in some form may well go on, even if we don’t. After all, it survived the cataclysmic changes that wiped out the dinosaurs. The life force is strong. Evolution is a long-term project and will probably go on regardless. Humans may have been just a blip, anyway. The Earth will do even better, I expect, without us to mess things up. This is the Big Picture.

When I remember to climb the steps to where I can start to see the Big Picture, I immediately feel myself calming down. Whatever happens is OK.

Once I get to that point, all the stridency just melts away.
(Note to self: must do that more often. Like every day).

Oh I can still talk about simplicity and all of that. But gently.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coasting Along On My Birthday

I spent my seventy-second birthday doing one of the things I love best, which is walking on the SouthWest Peninsula Coast Path. This, as you may know, is the longest long-distance trail in England, stretching 631 miles around the south-west peninsula, from Minehead (Somerset) in the north, right around Devon and Cornwall to Poole (Dorset) on the south coast.

It passes along clifftops, down into valleys, along beaches, up hills, around harbours, through villages, over fields, between walls, around river estuaries, in and out of woods, over bridges and stiles, through gates, past waterfalls … and every inch of it is interesting. Mind you, I have only walked a fraction of it to date, though I do hope to have covered the entire path before I die.

One of the things about walking the path that I love the most – especially in some of the wilder stretches – is being out on my own, miles from anywhere, with just the sea and the breeze and the birds for company. I can talk to myself out loud, sing if I feel like it, and stop and rest when I am tired.

Another thing I love about it is being surrounded by beauty in all directions. So much beauty, at times, that I almost explode with sheer joy at being there. There is something totally wonderful about being able to see things that can only be seen by those who are prepared to walk for miles along the path. It feels like being one of only a handful of privileged people at a special, private banquet.

And something else I love about walking the path is the discovery of unexpected treasures. Funny-shaped houses for example, built for some ancient purpose long forgotten. Like this one:

And this one, which was once a mill of some kind.

Or a tunnel, suddenly appearing in the middle of a wood.

Or a holy well. I’ve visited a number of holy wells over the years – in fact there is one just down the road from where we live. But the more visited they are, the more they seem sapped of whatever energy it was that first made them sacred places. As though the hundreds of people who visit them all take away something but leave nothing in return, until the vitality of the place is somehow drained.

But this one is different. It is hidden deep in a wood and very few people pass that way. Legend has it that Jesus came with Joseph of Arimathea to visit England and when they came by here on their way to Glastonbury they stopped to drink at this well. It’s a lovely legend and though I am not a Christian, standing next to the well I could almost believe it to be true. In fact there is such a lovely feeling there, it brought tears to my eyes.

All that – and the sunshine, the purple heather, the smell of the sea … there is no better way I could possibly have found to celebrate my birthday. It is the second time I have spent my birthday on the Coast Path and I think it is what I shall do every year from now on – at least as long as I can still place one foot in front of the other.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Words for Honeysuckle

It is mid-June, and along with the foxgloves and campions and the froth of white cow parsley, there is honeysuckle everywhere. Its scent fills the lanes. Every morning walk I take is a feast for the nose as well as for the eyes.

The honeysuckle bloomed early this year. On the first day of the month I noticed it already in flower in several places. Excited by my discovery, I was looking forward to getting home and sharing the news.

A few moments later, I saw a pleasant-looking couple coming around the corner, striding briskly towards me in in their hiking boots, knapsacks on their backs, almost certainly heading for the Coast Path that runs along the clifftops close to here. They smiled as we drew close. And as is the custom in these parts, wished me a polite "Good morning". I responded in kind, adding eagerly that it was a lovely morning and "Look, the honeysuckle is already coming out, just up there."

The man and woman had not broken their stride till then, so were almost past me before they paused and the man said "I beg your pardon?"

I re-burbled my happy news item. At which they smiled again, albeit tentatively, nodded slightly and went on their way.

Only after I was well around the next corner did it dawn on me that they obviously had not understood a word. And only then did I connect that with the careful, phrase-book English of the "Good morning" and the "I beg your pardon?"

As I walked on, I began to think about how easily I could have conveyed the message about the honeysuckle in a just a few simple, wordless gestures: my hand as an unfolding flower, held to the nose, a sniff, an expression of delight, a finger pointing towards the hedge they were soon to pass. Clear. effortless. They would have understood perfectly and watched out, perhaps, for the sight and scent of those first flowers. It would have been a shared moment, a moment of relationship, bypassing the artificial boundaries of language.

It had never occurred to me not to use words. It rarely does. I am a writer. Each day of my life is crammed to the ceiling with words. So that morning's encounter reminded me that although words can build bridges of understanding to connect minds and hearts, they can also build walls of bafflement to separate them.

Watching a young mother whose child was crying so hard he could not tell her what the problem was, I heard her say "Use your words, Joe. Use your words." That wise young woman knew that only by learning to name his chaotic feelings would Joe ever be able to control and understand them.

But there are so many things - like the development of the ego itself - that once learned and mastered need then to be unlearned. Or at least labelled 'optional'. Our automatic turning to the use of words may possibly be one of them.

I hope that couple noticed the honeysuckle anyway, and stopped to smell it. Even if they never did connect it with my message in a foreign language.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Is It Me, Or Are You Gabbling?

I walk in the door, change into my slippers and check the voicemail. Two messages. I play them both and they sound like gobbledygook. I play them again. I still can hardly catch a word of either of them. Perhaps it is because I am tired. I check my email, then make myself a cup of tea and relax in the chair for a while. Some time later, I play the messages again. I can sort of half make out the names and a word here or there if I concentrate really hard. But whoever these people are, they sound like a couple of hyperactive marmosets on speed.

My partner comes home. He listens to the messages. One of them appears to be for him. He can’t understand most of it either.

It is not just voicemail. I called our bank with a query and after a few moments I had to stop the young man who answered me and ask him please to slow down and stop talking at fast forward. Then a pleasant-sounding young woman called us to ask if we would like to buy some advertising space in her magazine. At least, I eventually found out that’s what she wanted. It took me three or four ‘I beg your pardon?’s and, when that didn’t work, a polite request to slow down from the speed of light to something approaching the normal speed of sound.

I was asked to do a radio interview a couple of months ago and it was a real struggle. I felt as though I, too, had to talk faster and faster till I was breathless in order to keep up with the manic pace of the interviewer. I came away from the interview feeling totally exhausted and vowing never to do another. It is just not comfortable any more.

Even some of the people I know are starting to talk faster than they used to.

Or is it just that I am old? Or the fact that I live a quiet life down a quiet country lane, don’t own a TV set, rarely watch movies and usually travel at the speed of my legs or of the local bus (which is almost as slow).

No, I suspect that the frenetic pace at which so many people seem to live their lives nowadays is causing them to speak at twice normal speed. And I suspect that video games, TV and fashions in film editing all have something to do with it as well. Everything has revved up without anybody really noticing that what they are now doing is gabbling, rather than talking.

Anyway, if you are going to leave a message on my answering machine, please speak slowly enough for me to understand what you want. Otherwise I’ll simply click the ‘erase’ button.

Better still, send me an email. Then I can answer you in my own time – and at my own speed. Which I don’t think is slower than it ever was, despite my age. (Oh and by the way, I’ve noticed that the birds around here don’t seem to be singing any faster than they ever did. Thank goodness).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Need of Mountains

To my surprise, the other morning, I found myself suddenly longing for the sight of mountains. I mean real mountains. And forest. Wilderness. Wildness. The sort of landscape you might get seriously lost in. Just for a change. I don’t feel this often, but every now and then it pops up and surprises me.

It would be impossible to get lost here. In most parts of England, you can’t walk for more than eight or ten miles in a straight line without ending up in a place where you can fill up your water bottle, buy (or beg) a sandwich, or catch a ride to somewhere where you could. And in a way I love that. I love the safety of it, the feeling of being held and cherished by the funny little patchwork island that gave me birth.

And yet, just to be contrary, sometimes I long to be able to turn a corner in the road and glimpse high mountains in the distance. Or to stand somewhere high up, where I can see for a hundred miles without my eye lighting on one single sign of human habitation.

Not to see it on film, either, but to be there and stand in it and breathe it in. To feel the heat coming from the rocks. To catch the green flash of a lizard as it scuttles past my feet and then to lift my eyes and feel them straining to see all the way to the farthest horizon, just as my mind strains to encompass the greatness of it all.

I guess what I want is to be reminded, every now and then, that the Earth is bigger and older and wiser and a zillion times more vast and unknowable than humans seem to think She is. I need to have it pointed out to me, by the massiveness of mountains and the endlessness of forests, how small and insignificant I am compared to the entirety of this planet. I want to be visibly reminded of my puniness and of the stupidity of believing that anything I do or say or write can have more than a pinprick of significance in the great scheme of things. A homeopathic dose of anti-arrogance. That’s what I like. Every once in a while.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Our Need of Woods

In the woods nearby, the bluebells are starting to come out.

In another couple of weeks, I shall be able to walk into the depths of the wood, see a sight like the one above (that picture was taken last year) and breathe in the gentle fragrance of what must surely be at least a million flowers. It is a treat I look forward to every April.

I read the other day that at least eighty percent of people in the British Isles do not live within walking distance of a wood. That felt to me like a sad and very disturbing statistic. Disturbing not just because it reminds us that the destruction of native woodland – which in these islands began with the Romans and continues to this day – is a factor in climate change, but because we really need woods. We need them in all sorts of ways, not only for the carbon they sequester.

To stand alone in the middle of a wood is to be outnumbered. To be one solitary human organism, less than ankle-high to any one of several thousand other living organisms around you is to be, just for a little while, back in the right importance ratio of human to planet. It cannot but make you feel humble. And we all need to feel humble and outnumbered, often.

It was not by accident that Dante chose to begin his journey of mid-life self-discovery at the time and place that he did:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi retrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.

("In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost").

Mid-life is like that – or can be, if we allow ourselves to let go of the heroic phase, the ‘outward arc’ of our existence and start along the ‘inward arc’, the deeper journey of exploration that, as Jung, explained, is the true task of our later lives.

I like to imagine, too, that as a species we are coming close to that same point in the evolutionary cycle. Lost in the woods, with no ‘diritta via’ in sight, we are challenged to look within, to examine ourselves, our lifestyles, our priorities and to face the murky shadows of our exploitative, hubristic history. We are challenged to learn, to grow in consciousness, to find a new way out of the wood and into the clear light of a simple, peaceful, co-operative and sustainable way of living in harmony with the rest of creation.

If we don’t succeed in this, then eventually some April day will come that my woods are bare of bluebells and no human eye will ever see a glorious sight like this one, ever again.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


This morning there were clouds and the sun was coming out for only a few moments at a time. But as I walked along I heard a sound I had not hear since last summer. It was the first skylark of the year. Instantly my heart swelled, as it always does, at the sound of that exuberant cascade of notes falling from somewhere in the early morning sky.

As I searched for the small, dark dot I knew would be up there somewhere, against the background of grey-white cumulus and small patches of blue, I found myself wondering: what must it feel like to flutter up and up and up like that, singing as you go?

Would you look down, delighted to find that as you gained height you could see more and more of the landscape beneath you? Would you look up, wondering how much higher you could go before your breath began to come less easily in the thinning air? Or would you just concentrate on singing?

And if you sang, would it be because of your passionate intention to make your voice heard, especially by certain others to whom it seemed especially important to convey your message? Or would it be because the song came bursting from the depths of your soul, out into the cool, morning air and there was nothing you could possibly do but give voice to it?

I believe that the reason many committed people – especially environmental activists and those who work for social justice – end up suffering from burnout, is that although they care deeply about issues, their caring grows out of indignation and anger rather than out of a sheer, full-hearted love of the Earth and everything in it. It is only when our passion is infused with spirituality and when our anguish is shot through with joy that we are able to fly high enough above the world’s problems to see the larger landscape. That’s when the goal-seeking, the understanding, the passion, the message and the joyous celebration of life on this lovely planet all merge together in one outpouring.

And that’s how we can keep coming back, season after season, down to the ground where the hard work happens and then up again into the sky. Not to escape from our groundedness into some imagined heaven but to see more clearly the heaven that is right here, all around us, and to which, with every atom of our being, we belong.

That’s the secret power that powers our wings and keeps us singing. Even on days when the sun is not shining.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Turning Green - Part 3

(Photo by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

In Part 1 of this series, I posed the rhetorical question 'Why hasn't everybody turned green yet?' My conclusion was that although most people by now know that our planet is in serious danger of ecological collapse, they haven't yet understood where they, as individuals, fit into the picture. They have not joined the dots. In other words, they don't yet fully realize that dozens of the small decisions they make, every day, make a difference. Each decision, even if it is as tiny a decision as turning off a light switch, either adds to the problem or helps to ameliorate it.

In Part 2, I said that it's hard to join the dots because of all those so-called 'market forces' that have a strong vested interest in preventing us from doing so.

As we know, our national and global economic systems are all based on a growth model rather than a sustainability model. And since every one of us is part of both a national and a global economic system, the systems need us to keep consuming so that the growth can continue. Even though, like cancer, it is growth that's slowly killing us.

The trouble is, if too many of us were to jump off our consumer treadmills, profits would go down. The companies would start laying off their workers. The workers would complain – and of course the workers are US. Ourselves, our partners, our children, our relatives, our friends … As Pogo said, 'I have met the enemy, and it is us.'

Most loggers don't personally want to chop down the rainforest; they just want to keep their jobs in order to feed their families. Fishermen have absolutely no desire or intention to reduce the world's fish populations to zero, they just need to keep catching fish in order to survive. People who work in offices and stores and on factory floors all want to keep their jobs too. So round and around it goes and life on Earth keeps heading towards catastrophe. Even if it is not your job that would be at risk if everybody stopped buying what they didn't really need, it might be your father's or your daughter-in-law's or your cousin's. And even if nobody you know would be affected, (which is highly unlikely) somebody would, somewhere. Lots of somebodies. The farmer in Kenya who stopped producing vegetables to feed his family (plus a bit more to sell in the market) and switched to producing cash crops for export so he could afford to send his kids to school needs me to keep on buying his carnations or his green beans or his cocoa and if I don't, his kids will starve because they can't eat carnations. We are all tangled in this together. So however can we possibly unpick it?

Well, I guess we unpick it slowly, carefully, one little piece at a time. The first step is to start setting up parallel, alternative systems and supporting the ones that already exist. Dig up the lawn and grow veggies, just like we did in World War Two. Stay out of supermarkets and support local stores whenever and wherever you can find them. Patronise farmers' markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture schemes) and local box schemes. Join a co-op. Switch to green energy suppliers, install a solar water heater, insulate your loft, lower the thermostat, compost your waste. If you live in the country, consider building a composting toilet. Leave your car at home whenever you can and use public transport or walk or ride a bike. Or at least carpool or consider sharing car ownership with other families like they do in Germany. Dry your washing in the sun and wind. Borrow books and videos from the library instead of buying them. Sign up to the 'compact' (challenge yourself to buy nothing for a year except food and other necessities). Stay out of the air as much as you possibly can. Reduce, repair, re-use, recycle, de-clutter, downsize ….
When we learn to differentiate between our needs and our wants, we can get sober (i.e. heal from our addiction to unnecessary stuff). We can stop being 'users' of consumerism's drugs. How could you reduce your needs so that you could spend more time with your family or in doing the things you love? How could you be fitter, healthier, more active, more creative?

Maybe we can also stop being dealers in consumerism's drugs, too. Think about your work: is it what the Buddha called 'Right Livelihood'. If not, would it be possible to use your skills in something more benign and better for the planet and still earn enough money to survive on?

Like relay runners, the two systems need to run side by side for a while until the new one can take over completely. Slowly, gradually, we are setting up alternative systems and at present these are running parallel with the mainstream ones. Little by little, the alternative systems are getting bigger and stronger. Compared to the vast system they are intended eventually to replace, they seem almost laughably tiny. Like a mosquito trying to replace an elephant. Yet on almost every graph you look at, they are growing. There are heaps more farmers' markets than there were ten years ago, lots more veg box schemes, more LETS schemes, more towns climbing on the 'transition town' bandwagon, more wind farms, more solar panels, more hybrid cars, more recycling schemes, more intelligent minds turning to research in alternative technology, more businesses trying to 'out-green' each other, and more and more people turning green.

When I was born, plastic had not yet been invented. When I was in high school there was no TV, no PCs, no Internet, no mobile phones, no iPods, no fax machines, no jumbo jets, no microwave ovens. A lot can change in a short time. We need big changes now. And as fast as possible. So how can we bring them about? Well firstly, by doing as Gandhi exhorted us to do and being the change we want to see. And secondly by visualizing a green, sustainable world. The more people who visualize it, the sooner it can come to pass, for thoughts have energy.

See the change and be the change. Those are our twin tasks.

This may be a mosquito-sized movement now, but as Gandhi also pointed out, if you think a mosquito is too small to matter, you have never had one in your tent.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why hasn't everybody turned green yet? (Part 2)

The wind was blowing hard this morning as I set off for my walk. I heard it whistling round the chimneys and sighing in the wires, even before I left the house. It was blowing from the west, as it often does around here. In fact it blows so often and so hard from the west that it has sculpted the trees in all the exposed places into eastward-leaning shapes.

As I set off down the lane, I was thinking again about the rhetorical question I posed in my previous post, about why it is that everybody has not yet turned green.

One of the conclusions I came to was that lots of people have not yet grasped the connection between the way we live our individual lives and the problems we as a species are collectively facing. But why are we all so slow to make those connections?

I turned westwards, and one answer seemed obvious. The market forces driving our consumer society are so strong and all-pervasive that it takes an enormous amount of effort to resist and defy them. As Anne O said in her comment on my previous post, " …it's like swimming against Niagara Falls to Do The Right Thing." Yes, that's how it feels. Or walking into a really strong and persistent headwind as I was doing now, on my walk. The wind was so strong that I had to push really hard to move forward, even when I was walking downhill.

So we have to give a tremendous amount of deliberate thought to the ways in which our own behaviour, our own lifestyles and all the small choices we make, day by day, affect what is happening in the wider world. Where does our rubbish end up? How much carbon are we putting into the air when we take that 'short break' flight to Lanzarote? When we take antibiotics and hormone pills and various other pharmaceutical products and some of that is excreted and goes down the drain, what effect might that have on the watercourses and the creatures that live in them? When we buy those cheap, chemical-sprayed supermarket bananas or that cheap, sweatshop-made T-shirt, whose life are we helping to damage in some other part of the world? How long before the plastic toys we bought for the kids' Christmas stockings end up in the landfill and how many centuries will it be before they break down – if ever? How much fossil fuel did it take to make that new, shiny gadget that we didn't really need and have managed for forty years without? (And on and on ....)

No TV commercials are ever going to remind us of these questions. They are geared to our forgetting, not to our remembering. The headwind of commerce blows relentlessly, day in and day out. Buy, buy, buy. Spend, spend, spend. Use, use, use. Pushing against it takes effort and persistence. Like the trees round here, our own shapes are by now so sculpted and stunted by the forces of consumerism that we no longer stand free and tall. But we are still alive. And we can still resist. If we do, we and all we love can still survive and thrive, and maybe eventually grow straight.

In the third post of this three-post series, I am going to look some of the ways we can resist – and bring greater contentment into our lives at the same time.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Why hasn't everybody turned green yet? (Part 1)

You'd think every one of us would have turned at least light green by now, wouldn't you? So why haven't we?

Is it that despite all the publicity about climate change, peak oil and environmental crisis there are still lots of people who still have not realized that the human species is wrecking the planet it lives on, endangering its own survival and that of many other life forms?

Is that they have heard about it but they are assuming that someone else – the Government, the technological experts, the United Nations, God – will fix all the problems?

Is it that they know about the problems and know that nobody else is going to fix them but the whole thing is so big and awful to contemplate that they stick their heads in the sand and pretend it is just not true?

Is it that they know about the problems and that nobody else is going to fix them and have decided that since the problems are unfixable and everything is going down the tube anyway they may as well just have a good time and to hell with tomorrow?

I suppose the answer to my question is 'all of the above'.

It would be surprising if there really was anybody left in total ignorance of the environmental crisis since the media are full of stories about it these days. But your average daily newspaper is quite likely to run a story about global warming, another about some species of furry creature that has just joined the endangered species list and a third about how disappointed the retailers are because the Christmas sales figures were down a notch. And not a word about the deep connection between these three stories. No joining of the dots.

A neighbour sitting near me on the bus the other day was loudly lamenting the closure of yet another little local food store. And even as she did so, she was clutching on her lap a plastic bag full of food from the supermarket she had just been shopping at. A highly intelligent woman, but obviously not good at joining dots.

I think this is one of the main reasons why there are so many people who have not yet turned green. It is not that they don't know about the problems our species is facing. It is not that they are in denial. It is not that they know but don't care. It is that they haven't really joined all the dots together yet. They have not really got it that it is we ordinary folk who hold in our hands the power to change things, to live differently, to turn green and to create a new, sustainable way of life for everyone on the planet before it is too late.

The newspapers and radio and TV programs are not going to join the dots for us because their existence depends on our continuing to buy stuff from the companies whose advertising keeps them in business. We have to do our own dot-joining.

So why don't we do more of it, and faster? I have some thoughts about that, too. Watch for the next post.

Meanwhile, if you haven't yet seen that wonderful little video
'The Story of Stuff', click on the title to do so.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Land, Sea and Sky

As a child, my favourite story was one about a bunch of animals who lived in a wood. I loved that story. And I used to think that one day I too would like to live in a little house right in the middle of a wood.

I was over fifty before I tried to realise that dream. The first time I went to look at an actual house for sale in an actual wood I knew for absolutely certain sure that I didn't want to live in a wood after all.

I realised, that day, that what I now wanted was to live where the sun shone. I wanted to live where I could see the sky. And I wanted to live near the sea because I knew I could not bear to be too far away from the shore.

As we age, we change. And it is good to keep track of those changes. It is as well never to say "I am a person who …". Because we might not be that sort of a person any more. Better to check within and ask "Who am I right now?"

And right now, although I love to walk through the woods, my favourite place to be is that place where land, sea and sky all come together.

I don't live precisely in a spot like that, 'tis true. I live a couple of hundred yards below the lip of a small valley. At the bottom, there are woods and a stream, but at the top, where I walk most days, the countryside is open, patchwork farmland and I can see for miles. The sky is big. And in the distance, I get a glimpse of the ocean. A forty-five minute walk will take me to one of those magic, land/sea/sky places. The sort of place where I could stand for hours, just watching the waves rolling endlessly into the shore, the seabirds circling, the land sloping down to meet the water, the ever-changing pattern of the clouds.

How wonderfully small and insignificant I am, this dot of living tissue called a human being, standing knee-deep in the heather with the salty sea-wind whipping my hair. Who am I right now? A speck of life, smaller than a grain of sand in the mighty and mysterious scheme of things.