Going to Work

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.

Toni Morrison
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Reading Poetry

I go to a fair number of poetry readings by visiting poets, Open Mics, and poetry festivals (AIPF, Waco WordFest, Georgetown Poetry). Austin gets a modest number of famous poets reading (e.g., Naomi Shihab Nye several times this year). Most just read their poetry (not Naomi). The Spoken Word people are an obvious exception. “The Word That is a Prayer” by Ellery Akers appears in “Healing the Divide” (review coming when I finish it). My wife says it “caught her heart.” Ellery isn’t a poet that’s known to us. I looked her up. On her Website is the poem and Ellery reading it. When a man on a street corner says, “Please”, I can hear his voice. Nice.

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Mid-Course Corrections

Out beyond ideas of right and wrong there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
– Rumi

There are several models of spiritual/social/emotional development, e.g Fowler’s Stage of Faith, Ken Wilbur’s Integral Psychology, and Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God. The number of stages, names, and focus may vary, but by and large they agree. Fowler’s Stages of Faith is one of the earliest descriptions and the canonical text later writers worked to improve on. Ken Wilbur talks in terms of earlier and later stages, avoiding the implied value judgement in higher and lower stages. Chopra’s How to Know God gives the most approachable descriptions of the later stages.

Comparing their stages and my own experience, I find stages in adults earlier than my own appear naive and simplistic. Stages later than my own appear radical, even crazy, and naive in a different way, usually prefaced by, “in the real world.” Jesus’ Beatitudes is this way. It’s so out radical that the institutional church’s interpretation rarely does it justice.

Wilbur is an academic and writes for a very educated, literate audience. Chopra writes for a broader audience, a more “low church” audience.

The usual path through stages in childhood result in the bulk of the population in one of two stages. The earlier stage is focused on fear, safety, security, the past, tradition. The later stage is more focused on hope, improvement, and the future. Generally, people have a home stage. Stress and hard times can move them temporarily into an earlier stage. Good times can push them into a later stage.

Most people stop developing as adults. Some continue on their own. Others are pushed by circumstances to resume development. Transitions between stages are painful. The “old” rules no longer apply.

Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.

Tony Robbins

The earlier of the two stages most adults end up in is usually rule or “law” based. To these people, the Rumi quote is nonsense, criminal, anarchy, and chaos. Right and Wrong they understand, live by, and rebel against. Thousands of years ago, the Rule of Law was a great advance over Might Makes Right. Too often the Law is taken too literally and too legalisticaly. It has become an idol to worship and an obstacle to seeing your suffering neighbor. This is what the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures rail against. They hold the powerful and privileged accountable for not living the teachings on charity and restorative justice.

The Good Samaritan parable is an example of this in Jesus’ teachings. Samaritans were the Jews left behind in the Babylonian Exile. They were the least and the last, not even worth taking as slaves. When the Jews returned 60 years later with new ideas and rituals adopted and adapted from and in Babylon, the new orthodoxy declared apostates, worse than even non-believers (pagans). A Samaritan is the hero of Jesus’ parable, someone beyond legalistic notions of right and wrong.

In moving to the later stages, right and wrong (binary or dualistic thought) becomes less helpful. A more nuanced approach is like steering a car or ship. Where am I? Where do I want to be? What course corrections are needed? A ship at sea doesn’t have landmarks to go by, so direction replaces location. While steering corrections are frequent (changes in direction caused by waves and wind, needed for curves, debris, and other cars in the road), all require course corrections. Right and wrong aren’t helpful.

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Community vs. Clubhouse

José Luis Vilson writes a blog on education, specifically middle school math education. He emphasizes how much of education is supporting past and present injustice. A recent post, Where We Belong, captures a key aspect of current society and education in the United States. He contrasts clubhouses with secrets handshakes and communities that are welcoming to all interested. Clubhouses often focus in who is excluded (e.g. Calvin and Hobbs’ “No Girls” treehouse).

The clubhouse is so easy to do. Welcoming communities requires care, attention, and stewardship from a big heart.

There is a second important point in his post, including the people doing the work, asking their opinions and experience, and giving them the power to help manage the system. The Toyota Production System gave the factory floor workers the power to stop production when something wasn’t working and get it corrected. José Luis Vilson was the first working math educator to give the keynote address. To put a point on it, all previous addresses were largely untested hypotheses presented by academic as if they were proven laws. People have been suggesting including the workers (factories) and users (buildings) for years. Progress is being made and it’s slow.

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Policing by Consent

Most police departments in the United Kingdom use the 9 Principles of Policing (authorship attributed to Robert Peel without evidence). It is about policing by consent. In the United States, many police departments have been moving towards the military model in dress and equipment. In many minority communities, the police look more like an occupying army.

In Consent, Policing, and School Safety the differences between police in the two countries is contrasted. As the post author says about a frequent appearence of police, “They were dressed for war—not to serve and protect.” US police kill 15 times as many people per capita as the next developed country and 20 times the third. This is not serving the nation, the population, or the police well.

Most of the point are things I had read here and there. Seeing it all in one place made it clear this is policy to move away from. The heavy gun ownership in the US (more than one per person) makes change difficult.

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Decency in Politics

I read David Brooks’ column in the New York Times because he brings a new slant to the conversation. I know almost nothing about Marianne Williamson, a Democratic candidate for President. She is not one of the front runners. Just trying to track the top three and have a life is a challenge. Brooks’ recent column entitled “Marianne Williamson Knows How to Beat Trump” got my attention. It’s a take down of Trump for his corrupting influence on traditional American values. His take on the Democrats is they are a party of economics for the middle class and poor, i.e. materialism. They have no clue how to counter Trump’s emotional appeal. “It is no accident that the Democratic candidate with the best grasp of this election is the one running a spiritual crusade, not an economic redistribution effort.”

His solution? “We need an uprising of decency.” I agree.

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Poetry and Politics

Poetry has always had a connection to politics. Much of the Hebrew prophets are recorded in poetry. In an interview with poet Michael Astrue, politically conservative, who goes by the pen name “A.M. Juster” he cites “For the Student Strikers” by Richard Wilbur, 60s poet of the left.

For the Student Strikers

Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you,
And whom, it is said, you are so unlike.
Stand on the stoops of their houses and tell them why
You are out on strike.
It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.
Let the new sound in our streets be the patient sound
Of your discourse.
Doors will be shut in your faces, I do not doubt.
Yet here or there, it may be, there will start,
Much as the lights blink on in a block at evening,
Changes of heart.
They are your houses; the people are not unlike you;
Talk with them, then, and let it be done
Even for the grey wife of your nightmare sheriff
And the guardsman’s son.

by Richard Wilbur

We across the political spectrum need to push ourselves and the nation to a return to civility and decency. Democracy requires it. Dictatorship is almost inevitable without it. Read the whole interview here.

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My Daily Cup of Coffee

It’s not just my daily cup of coffee. In the early days of chemo, I promised my wife I would tell her that I loved her, she was beautiful, that I’d make her coffee, and be silly everyday. The first two promises I have always kept, though not necessarily first thing in the morning. The third promise I kept every day we were at home. While traveling, I brought her coffee from the hotel. Being silly was often beyond me at first. My record has gotten better to the point where neither of us pay much attention to the promise and how I’m doing.

Coffee has gotten more serious. We joke about doing the American Coffee Ceremony, each night being sure the “ritual utensils” are clean, making it a ritual, exactly the same each time so I can “do it in my sleep”. The chemo messed with my adrenal and thyroid hormones, so being fully awake first thing in the morning is a challenge.

Problems with Austin water, bad batches of coffee, have led to us using spring and/or filtered water, changing bean suppliers and roasts. Problems with head aches and stomach upsets have led us to switch from Melitta cones, to the Clever Coffee Dripper, to a DeLonghi espresso machine. Along the way I’ve searched coffee blogs for how hot to steam almond milk which led us to using oat milk for our lattes.

The upshot is thinking a lot about coffee from our end and about the coffee growers, roasters, distributors, and retailers. Most coffee beans we use on a regular basis cost around $1 per ounce (e.g. $11.99 for a 12 ounce bag of whole beans). I tried some Allegro Vienna Roast that was cheaper and it tasted like it. How much of that goes to each link in the chain.

Changing Challenges & Solutions for Guatemalan Coffee Producers gave me an eye-opening look into what it’s like at the other end of the chain. Challenging. There are three areas in the US that grow coffee: Hawai’i, California, and Puerto Rico. I’ve toured a boutique coffee plantation in Hawai’i near where my sister lives. Very good coffee in the tasting room. Never could duplicate it with the bag I bought ($25 for a half pound) at home. The owners kept their hands clean. The workers didn’t have it so good. The coffee in Puerto Rico is fairly good coffee, but doing the dirty work of picking and processing the coffee beans doesn’t pay a living wage. She now sends me a bag of Ka’u varietal every Christmas from a more reputable grower. California is doing super-boutique coffee that can sell for as much as $600 per pound. The production amount is tiny compared even to Hawai’i. Where I can, I buy Fair Trade coffee. I will find more way to do so. Doing Justice.

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The Second Mountain

David Brooks writes a column for the New York Times. He describes himself as a conservative and a Republican. Here in Texas, those labels in the news have been co-opted by small-minded, mean-spirited, xenophobes trying to out do each other in how far they can push on the less privileged. Brooks does the opposite. He is broad minded, inclusive, and thoughtful. I don’t always agree with him, but he gives me new things to think about and new ways to think about them. In a world of polarities trying to shout each other down, he finds a third way. He’s a gentle radical. Like other true radicals, he knows his traditions and history. While being respectful of the spirit of those traditions, he will suggest ways to re-implement them in modern contexts.

“The Second Mountain” is about what C.G. Jung calls the second half of life problems when success, achievement, positions, and possessions (the first mountain) no longer have the appeal they once did. The second mountain is about the search and embodiment of deeper, more satisfying values that the world’s great spiritual teachers talk about.

You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer the first mountain. You identify the summit, and claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.

p. xvi

Between the first and second mountain, there is a valley. The descent can be voluntary, e.g., the rat race no longer seems worth winning. Or involuntary: a divorce, a life threatening illness or accident, or financial (e.g., layoff, bankruptcy). Brooks lays out the terrain of the two mountains, the valley, and ways to navigate them.

The first purpose of this book is to show how individuals move from the first to the second mountain, to show what that kind of deeper and more joyful life looks like, step-by-step and in concrete detail. Everyone says you should serve a cause larger than yourself, but nobody tells you how.

The second purpose is to show how societies can move from the first to the second mountain. This is ultimately a book about renewal, how things that are divided and alienated can find a new wholeness.

p. xvii

The section on marriage I found the weakest. The preceding chapters on intimacy, I’m fine with. I’ve known my wife for nearly forty years. We lived together for over 35 years and have been married for 25. As one of our mentors said, “You’ve worked on it.” Much of Brooks’ ideas rang true, but several sections didn’t match up with my experience and Brooks didn’t leave himself much wiggle room or diversity of path. I’m not comfortable recommending his recommendations in the marriage chapters.

In many ways, the most intriguing chapter is “A Most Unusual Turn of Events”. As a child Brooks attended Hebrew school. In college and later, he distanced himself from the Hebrew stories as sacred scripture, but read them as secular stories on how to live life. It is his journey back to a faith that includes the Jewish culture, the Hebrew scriptures. and the New Testament (much of his education was in Episcopal schools) that I find fascinating. As a Buddhist-Christian trying to reconcile contradictions between and within the teachings from two traditions and many teachers far apart in time and space, I’m interested in his process and his conclusions. Also the differing Hebrew and Christian interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures is informative. For example, the Exodus story:

The trek through the wilderness is not only an ordeal that gives them strength. They are living out a narrative that gives them identity. Before long, they are singing. They are crossing the Red Sea, and Miriam and the other women are leading them in song. Soon, they are able to trust again. People who have been betrayed and oppressed cannot trust and therefore cannot have faith. But eventually, the Jews, even with all their constant kvetching and whining, do learn that sometimes promises are kept, that God abides. They become a people capable of faith, capable of receiving law, obeying law, and upholding their end of the covenant.

p. 214-215

Not an interpretation I’ve ever heard preached from a Christian pulpit.

After setting the background at the level of the individual, he goes for the larger message, “Community Building”.

On day in the late 1950s, Jane Jacobs was looking out her second-story window at her Greenwich Village street below. She noticed a man struggling with a young girl. The girl went rigid, as if she didn’t want to go wherever the man was leading her. The thought crossed Jacob’s mind the maybe she was witnessing a kidnapping. She was preparing to go downstairs to intervene when she noticed that the couple that owned the butcher shop had emerged from their store. Then the fruit man walked out from behind his stand, as did the locksmith, and a few people from the laundry “That man did not know it, but he was surrounded,” Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

It turned out to be nothing, just a struggle between father and daughter. But from it, Jacobs drew the right conclusion: that safety on the street is an healthy neighborhood not kept mostly by the police. It is kept by the “intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, enforced by the people themselves.”

p. 265

I have moved over forty times in my 68 years. As an adult, I’ve lived in apartments all but six of those years. I knew few of my neighbors and none of us stayed very long. That’s unlikely to build the commitment to the neighborhood necessary for the above scenario. Jacobs was probably living in an apartment in the above story. I’m unclear how an apartment complex like I live in can become a neighborhood. The management is trying and not succeeding.

There are physical neighborhoods and there are communities of like-minded people. I’m doing better being a community member: choir at church, part of the Austin area poets community (open mic participant, newsletter editor), and clergy spouse (e.g. pastoral visits).

The last chapter is “The Relationalist Manifesto,” outlining Hyper-Individualism and the problems it solves and how it has overshot its goal and become the problem. One thing that has emerged in my reading in both Christianity and Buddhism is the importance of relationships with other humans, with other life on this planet, and with the sacred (e.g., God, the dharma, Buddha nature). This is challenging material, both to individuals and to Western society.

Initially, I checked this book out of the library without problem. When it was due 3 weeks later, there were 7 people waiting for it. Increasingly, my wife and I are buying the books of living authors to support them, from small, independent book stores to support them. This is a book that is going to take several readings to digest and the rest of our lives to consider and implement. It needs to always be within reach.

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Original vs. Unique

Annie Neugebauer does such a wonderful job of explaining the difference between original and unique, I’m going to just link to her post of the same name, Original vs. Unique. They are not the same and the distinction is important to artists of all kinds.

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