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October 2011

September 2011

Collective power

Robert-jensen sm
For many, it's hard to imagine working in institutions based on real cooperation because the society in which we live is structured on such a different notion. Yet if we think of experiences when we feel authentically most at home - not just our home with family, but with friends, in political groups, at church, in a community association - we typically feel powerful not because we can force people to do things or can ignore other people's needs in our decisions; we feel powerful when we come together with others to create something we couldn't have created alone. . . 

The most creative force does not come from a power, centralized either in one person or one institution and its bureaucracy, which imposes its will on others and treats people as inputs whose energy can be plugged into a formula for production. The most creative force comes from distributed power that channels the contributions of many into ends that people define collectively. This goes against the cultural icon of the heroic figure, who may enlist the help of thers but, in the end, draws on a power that is individual and ultimately in conflict with other power in the world. Heroic figures typically are overrated, as those who are put in that role often understand. In Brecht's play Galileo, the famed scientist's assistant is devastated when Galileo recants his scientific beliefs under threat from the Inquisition. Andrea confronts Galileo: "Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero." Galileo responds, "No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero." 

 - Robert Jenson in All My Bones Shake

Finally, fall

I love autumn
Too bad fall is not as dramatic here as it is in other places. After this extreme summer of record breaking heat, little rain, and wafting smoke from regional forest fires (a veritable hell on some days), I want it to swoop in like a super-hero to save the day!  But even without the vibrant colors and the dramatic weather changes, it quietly tiptoes in, and things begin to - finally - change: the slant of sunlight as the sun moves its way south, the clearer blue skies as the humidity falls, and the drop in temperature which, while slight, is a welcome relief. High eighties is notably different than high nineties I tell you, and cool sixties weather at night makes me want to sit out on the front steps again. 

I still envy apple-picking northerners and westerners, and real (orange) pumpkins ripening, the blazing trees and the first flurries. But we have some truly good stuff here too: 

  • Magnificent fall gardening. You can grow just about anything in the fall, provided you get warm weather transplants in the ground soon. Many cool weather plants will produce all the way through spring. 
  • Deciduous trees shedding their leaves and providing more sun to gardens and welcome sunlight to our homes (which we tend to shrink from in the summer).
  • Windows open at last. The first day we open the windows and leave them open is such a relief. I love hearing the doves in the morning, the owls at night. The hoopla after  football games downtown not so much…
  • Along with the good gardening comes good eating. Fresh vegetables start rolling in by mid-October and go through till next summer! This is the season for Autumn Salad, Baked Bean Soup, Greens and Beans, Pumpkin Soup, Roasted Autumn Veggies with Polenta, Sweet Potato Chili and Sweet Potato Quesadillas.

Even though it's barely perceptible today, it's FALL. Celebrate!

Make your soul grow

Bill sm
The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created some thing.

- Kurt Vonnegut

{photo - Bill "upcycling" a t-shirt at Art for All}

Holy Days

The End of Summer has become a holy season for me. It's not just the waning of summer heat - although I am apt to fall on my knees in gratitude the first night the temperature dips into the sixties. These weeks have become a time-out-of-time to ponder, reassess, and move forward. It starts around my birthday in late August, which I've often thought of it as a last gasp opportunity (after the New Year and Lent) for "resolutions" and the possibility of actually following through with a few of them. It continues through the early weeks of September. In recent years, the anniversary of my son's cancer diagnosis has added to the pondering, and to its complexity.

A bit of wisdom I feel I've gleaned from this is how perspective shifts over time. This year, Ben called me the day before what is known among a lot of cancer survivors as "D-Day" to confirm that it was indeed that next day - a very good sign that the memory is receding a bit. He was planning on celebrating the six year anniversary with a heroic bike ride up a very steep, 2-mile mountain road near his college - six times (he did it!). He said what I have often thought in recent years: "If I had only known during those years how things were going to turn out, it would have been so much easier."

Yes, indeed. That is what perspective is all about. Six years out, things look different than we saw and lived them at the time. From my own perspective as a mother, I was almost entirely focused at that time on protecting my child,  whatever it took. But the fact that I was also responsible to Ben's three siblings - all young adults at the time: a brother beginning his sophomore year in college, a recently graduated sister starting her first week at work, and another sister who had just become a mother - called me out of that laser beam focus occasionally. My own head and heart would be crumbling with despair at his latest complication and his overall prognosis, but I would gather myself together to explain things to my children in the best light possible, with hope and the details that supported that hope. Ben was strong and young, he was getting the best care possible, we were with him day and night. Telling the story to them helped me reframe it for myself. And it was all true, as true as my fear.

Even in regular day-to-day life, I've found this to be a helpful technique in gaining perspective. During stressful times, telling your story from a different angle - in the third person or from a different time frame can truly help one get a grip on the complex reality of it.  "It was a strange year, full of change and confusion ..." or "She sometimes wonders if she can make it to Friday, much less to old age." A bit dramatic, yes, but somehow seeing myself as a character in an un-folding story, or an actor in the middle of a movie, helps me see that more is coming that I don't know yet, and that I have a hand in shaping at least a part of the tale. 

This is the key, I think. To somehow get yourself to wondering what will happen next, instead of dreading what you most fear. Curiosity instead of cringing. One interesting thing about life is that we never know the ending. And as comforting as it might be to have someone whisper to us what happens next, what kind of life would that be? We need possibility in all its limitlessness - we need the capacity to realize hope, even in the darkest times.

Pema Chodron was one of my guides during that hard time and still. "The gloriousness of life and the wretchedness of life need each other. . . We can become quite arrogant whenever everything is going our way." Wretchedness, and even the depression that sometimes follow, is the muck we work with to create something interesting at least, if not always beautiful. We have to find a way to open up to "the whole thing," she says.

I think we must have an innate capacity to do this. The anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11 falls during these holy weeks too. This tenth anniversary seemed to me to focus less on politics and more on individual and communal loss, and love for one another. Watching footage from that time and listening to the immediate commentaries, what you heard from the "(wo)man on the street" is not the rhetoric we heard from our leaders justifying retaliation. What we heard was heartbroken grief at the immensity of the loss of human life and wondrous gratitude and love toward the people who reached out to one another that day. You hear deep pride in our resiliency, and in our ability to suffer great loss and open up instead of shut down. A glass of water to a stranger, a held hand, and "are you okay" echoing all over the blasted cities and rippling outward.

Because it is possible to let sorrow and grief and shocking twists of fate soften us, I want to believe in it as a way forward. It is hard to stay there, as we saw post-9/11 and as we witness in other tragedies. There is choice in there someplace - to cringe and harden or to reach out and wonder. From my current vantage point in middle-age, I can tell you that on a personal level it is an ongoing struggle that does not get easier. But it does get interesting, more so with each year. And that is why all anniversaries are worth celebrating, or at least observing - the ones obviously life-giving like a birthday, and the ones that continue to shape a life, which are often hugely difficult at the time. It is so big, so complex, so difficult, and so beautiful. C'est la vie. In late summer, I am reminded to keep my eyes open wide, seeking wonder, giving gratitude.  


The Word

Sunlit lilypad
Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between "green thread"
and "broccoli," you find
that you have penciled "sunlight."

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,

but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,
the king and queen alive, 
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

- Tony Hoagland, from Sweet Ruin. © University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. Found on the Writer's Almanac, one of my favorite sites for inspiration. 

Buoyancy and a good book

  Anne lamott

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

Anne Lamott - Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

{photo: here}


Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

This is the end-game summer pasta - for when it is too hot and miserable for even good old basil to grow, and you are too crabby and depressed to walk through the brittle, shriveled, neglected mass of plant matter and insects that was once your garden. If you still have the will to eat, and the energy to turn on a food processor - and the thought of of boiling water (the only heat you have to produce for this recipe) does not have you staggering to the refrigerator to open the door and just stand there with your eyes closed dreaming of the north shore of glistening Lake Superior or someplace where tomatoes might actually be growing on the first day of September - well, this is the dish for you. 


1/4 cup almonds, chopped
1 package soft sun-dried tomatoes
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
some red pepper flakes (to taste)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Put everything but the cheese into a food processor and whirl till it's thick and grainy. Mix with one pound of cooked pasta (we like penne). 

* I rarely use a food processor, but a friend gave us a small-batch one and it works great. Prior to this, I burned out the motors to two blenders making pesto.