We Choose Life

Gibbous Earth rising over moon
Gibbous Earth rising over moon
Earthrise from Apollo 8. Dec 24th, 1968

Every morning I leave my house before the sun is up. As I walk to work I see the trees leafing out and the good green Earth opening to the rain, the sun, the fog. Our current situation, the spectre of global warming, our separation from each other, the roar of traffic, I see them all as quaint relics of the past. I spend a few minutes in mythic time and see past, present, future. I see this moment in time when we stood at the center of the hourglass, the choices we have made narrowing behind us until we reached this point between past and future. I see the moment when we chose life.

We are living through the beginning of planetary awareness. We are also at the beginning of an extinction event. We exist in wonderful, terrible, pivotal times. The decisions we make now are changing the very face of Gaia.  We are the descendants of those who took the terrible road to dependence on fossil fuels, the stored sunlight of the ages. We are the ancestors of those who will live in the world that we leave them. Will they curse our names, if they have breath to do so? Will they revere us as the ones who changed the course of history and left them this good green Earth to live and grow on? Will the spiral of life and growth continue ever upward as the hourglass fills once again?

As I walk through my neighborhood, I name my blessings. On nearly every city street there are trees. Grass grows in the cracks in the pavement. Gaia clothes herself in green no matter what we put between the soil and the sky and she will not be denied. As I walk through downtown San Francisco and along the base of Telegraph Hill, I do the same. Small trees grow even in the heart of the Financial District, but the steep sides of Telegraph Hill are wild, barely tamed by retaining walls and nets of cabled steel that hold back the falling rock, once mined to ballast the deep holds of ships. Trees cling to the earth, their roots spread like fingers dug deep into soil and rock. Birds sing here and in this wet spring, water sings a song of plenty in the concrete we have set to direct it to the Bay.

I give thanks for my job, my home, my partner. I am thankful for the deep peace of knowing that in all likelihood we will both come home safe tonight. I take that deep peace that pervades my life and spread it over the whole world, thick and green. I take a moment to see what the world might be like if everyone had that peace, if everyone had food, shelter and clothing appropriate to their needs and their creeds. What would it be like if we all realized our connection and that what we do to this world we all share we do to ourselves? What would it be like to live in a world where everyone was doing exactly what they were meant to, giving their unique gift to the whole?

I see a world where we all woke up and realized that we are determining the shape of this planet and what creatures live and which ones die. This knowledge shocked us, saddened us, shamed us. It also can bring out the best in us. We brought the world to this place, where the Great Barrier Reef is dying and the jet stream itself is changing its course. We did this, and we can undo it if we remember and act on our connection. I see a world where we chose life.

We chose life.
We chose to assume responsibility equal to our power.

We chose life.
We chose to count the cost of our actions on all beings before we took them, and to apply that same calculus to the actions we had already taken.

We chose life.
We chose to become the awareness shining out of Gaia’s eyes that we were evolved to be.

We are a sense organ of this planet. We don’t own this world, we give Gaia a way to perceive it in its entirety. We showed Gaia her face for the first time, beamed it across television screens and printed it on paper, then stored it on the internet where you can look at it right now. You are Gaia looking at herself. We are Gaia, aware of past, present, and possible futures. Extinction is bearing down on us and for the first time, Gaia can see it coming. We can work to stop it, or we can let our peculiar line of evolution and awareness be swallowed by it without even trying.

I don’t think we’re going to do that. I think that the ape falling over the cliff is endowed with superhuman powers at that moment and will manage to snag a root or a rock before going over the edge. I think enough of us realize what is happening and are willing to do the work that needs to be done. I can see it happening in this early morning, as I travel across town as my hominin ancestors did, millions of years ago, on two feet, looking with intelligence, memory and awareness at the world around me. Step by step I travel, part of the city of my birth, knowing the path I follow and seeing it change every day.

I see how it could change going forward. What if we chose to walk to our destinations? What if telecommuting replaced the river of metal, each car carrying one passenger, automation being turned to the service of all to free us from the “daily grind” instead of enriching the fortunate few? What if we all walked in our neighborhoods and so reconnected with each other and the place we inhabit? What f we could get the things we need in our neighborhoods, from people we trusted because we see each other every day? Walkable cities are possible, and property values are going up in places with neighborhood restaurants, coffeehouses, grocery stores, parks. The more time we spend outside the healthier and happier we are. As I walk I know that it makes a real difference in my life. I have time to think and I know where the olive trees grow. My body may not fit the ideal, but it is strong and healthy, and the aches and pains of age are manageable, so far.
If we worked fewer hours because we all shared in the gains in productivity, we could do more things for ourselves, things we outsource now. More than that, we could do what we were meant to do. Vocation has been defined as that thing each of us can’t not do. Might the reason that we spend so much time chasing happiness be that we haven’t the time to pursue it? Since most of us must take the job that is offered rather than do the work we love, is it any wonder that so many of us exist in varying degrees of misery?

What if we all knew each other? What if neighborhoods were not empty by day and full of strangers by night? What if we shared meals, and those huge expanses of concrete where we store so many cars were instead our gardens? What if apartments came with garden plots instead of parking spots?

What if we realized that true wealth has nothing to do with money? Clean air, clean water and the living, vital earth are far more important. We cannot live without these things. The wealthiest among us cannot escape the consequences of pollution. We all breathe the same air, after all. When was the last time you looked up at the stars? Even in the city it is possible to see at least some of them. What if we turned down the lights a bit and began to see the phases of the moon and the constellations as they change with the seasons? Our world would be a very different place, one where we would make different choices and where we might find our way past that great narrowing that is the story of Now.
The fresh air of morning, the darkness before dawn is the time for visions. We have so many of them between the covers of books and on screens of all sizes. Our awareness of past, present and future allows us to create and choose which to work toward. I hope enough of us choose life.

Moss-covered standing stone silhouetted against clouds and blue sky
Penrhos Feilw Standing Stone, Anglesey

Peace Begins With Me

Sunburst through a bus window
Illumination

Peace begins with me.
I live in one of “those” neighborhoods where the cops don’t come when called.
I live in a community of all colors, some serene, some desperate, some dangerous.
Love and hate coexist on these streets.

Peace begins with me.
I walk without fear, but with great awareness.
I am small, older, female.
My strength does not lie in physical prowess, but in knowing my surroundings.
I make no apology for avoiding what makes me uneasy.
I am part of the night, and the night protects me.

Peace begins with me.
I don’t have a gun.
I will never get one.
Words are my protection.
I won’t tell you how to live.
I understand that your experience is not mine, and belongs to you alone.
The world is an exciting, strange, and possibly dangerous place.

Peace begins with me.
I believe that the world might kill me, but is always trying to shower me with blessings.
Someday, death might well be one of these.
I try, always, to be part of the solution.

Peace begins with me.
I can’t look away.
I can’t stop it either.

Only *we* can.

 

The Knife Edge of Now

The sidewalk that runs over Hwy. 580
Wild Oakland, high over Hwy 580

It’s the only place we truly live, this moment we spend our whole lives passing through. Try to catch it–no–it’s over. It’s just beginning and ending. We think we have all the time in the world–and here we are, at the end of a life that only seemed long. We want to be young again, though in youth all we wanted was the understanding we thought came with age. Our lives are bounded by the first breath and the last–our lives defined by the cry of agony, or of understanding.

I haven’t really been here in a while. I was busy with my studies. I just finished the Bardic Grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. It was a wonderful ride, but the last bits of it caused me to neglect a few things–like this blog. If you hung in there, thanks. I appreciate your patience. I hope this blog will be the better for the things I’ve learned, and will continue to learn as I move on to the next course in the series.

The knife edge of now has never seemed more important to me than it is at this moment. A referendum in the United Kingdom in a single day has thrown so much into flux. The election coming up in the United States in November looks to be another such moment of decision. I have always believed that we live in a wonderful, terrible, pivotal age, but never have I felt that the threshold of tomorrow is under our feet in quite the way that I do in this year, this moment in time. The choices we make now will be with us for many years to come.

In the morning I grab a moment to stretch this wonderful body I make this journey in, and another of quiet, to find the space between my thoughts. My commute includes a long walk in the cool of morning and I use that space to see the world I wish to live in. In this moment of decision, this might be the most important work that each of us can do. Like it or not, the world is changing and we are, each moment, creating the new world with our actions. Without knowing what we want, we can’t do this work effectively.

As a species, we’ve been blundering through life. Our power has so outstripped our responsibility that we are endangering the very shape of our world. We are driving the bus, drunk, blindfolded, and about to go soaring off the cliff. The world will still be here, but how many wild places and creatures will we take with us?

I see us stopping. Getting off the bus. Sitting down and letting our collective head clear. I see us realizing what we have been doing. Realizing that we are part of this planet. The only place we ever had dominion over it was in our heads. Drunk on power, we were cutting the web of life out from under our own feet.

This knowledge is hard to accept. It will terrify us, and sadden us. This is why we’ve been trying so hard to avoid it, staying high on whatever means we can find, from simple drugs such as alcohol or cocaine, to power, money and celebrity culture. We humans who were meant to be the awareness shining out of Gaia’s eyes have been treating ourselves and our planet like an amusement park, changing our consciousness in as many ways as we can find for fun. Like many teenagers, we may not survive our youthful experimentation, but in my mind, on this lovely morning, I see us doing so.

I see us seeing the big picture. I see us counting the costs of our actions on all beings, on the very planet, before taking them. I see us applying that same calculus to the actions we’ve already taken. I see the feedback loops that are turning towards our destruction slowing…stopping…starting to turn the other way. I see us taking concrete action  that makes a real difference.

This neighborhood I walk through is my testbed. It’s where I live, it’s where I can have an effect. Your mileage may vary–it should, because you live somewhere else, and your two hands are going to be the ones that hammer out your part of the solution wherever you are. It’s going to take all of us, doing what we know to be right and true. We are each going to have to take responsibility for our own actions, and join with the people around us to change what is not serving us, or the planet.

I see these streets I walk along becoming wider. Quieter. Safer. I see us coming out of our houses and walking, as I’m doing right now, up the hill to the bus stop, or to other forms of public transit that are now available. Personal car ownership in my city is one of the things that just doesn’t add up when all its costs are considered, and it is now a quaint relic of the past. The cars that line both sides of every street where I live are gone.

Now don’t be afraid–I’m not coming for your car. You have to make your own decisions, and your mileage may vary, remember? But here in the crowded San Francisco Bay Area. we are spending more money trying to create room for cars than we have. We are making some pretty dumb choices in the name of convenience. Our roads and our public transportation are jam-packed. Our streets aren’t safe to walk on, let alone bicycle or skate on. In my neighborhood we are only just getting around to putting in curb cuts at the corners. I shudder to think what it must be like to try and use a wheelchair around here.

I see us with public transportation that is clean, safe, pleasant, runs frequently and is available 24/7. I see carshares becoming normal, with satellite parking lots in every neighborhood. Most cars are used only a few hours a day. They sit at the curb unused, and everyone only has access to one or two vehicles. We’re either driving a huge, hard to park vehicle or we’re driving something tiny that we can’t fit more than groceries in. With a carshare, we could get a truck if we needed it, or a compact car. We could fit the vehicle to the trip. That would be true freedom–the freedom to travel safely and conveniently in any mode we chose.

I see us walking around our neighborhood instead of getting in our cars and driving through unseeing, intent on nothing but our destinations. I see us meeting each other, being able to put a name to a face. This would give us a lot more than just something to call each other besides “hey you.” It would give us community. Security. It would allow us to know what is going on and who is doing it. What you do would be home before you were, so we’d all behave ourselves. A lot of other things would be quaint relics of the past too. Dumping, for example. I’m very tired of seeing couches without cushions, trash, and broken furniture lying on the side streets. If cars and trucks were rarer, and people identifiable, this wouldn’t be the way we got rid of our unwanted possessions. If people knew each other and walked, we’d have the equivalent of 24 hour security. Without dark, deserted streets, tagging too would be a thing of the past. What if we knew your face as well as your tag? What if, every time it was seen, you were called and required to clean it up? What if all these people who are feeling erased and tagging to show that they exist were given the chance to learn to really use a spray can? What if their skills as artists were nurtured and developed, and they were put to work beautifying our neighborhoods with murals? They might just change their own community, protecting their artwork and, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, working from the gutter, looking at the stars. Just this one change could, at least in my mind, turn my neighborhood around. We’d belong to our neighborhoods in ways we don’t right now. It would give us a home.

This is only some of what I think about as I walk to the bus each morning. I’m at the side of the road, watching the cars scream by, late for something, seeing nothing. I detour into the street at the same places every morning because the same people block the sidewalk with their car. I push the same trash cans off to the side on pickup day because they are in the middle of the sidewalk. I stop and look carefully at the same corners every morning because I know from experience where the traffic will flow and where the stop signs either don’t exist or are treated as suggestions. But I also see the intricate pattern of the ginkgo’s leaves and the cool green of the redwoods reaching for the sky. I hear the birdsong at dawn and feel the cool of morning as the light of the sun makes the world new again. I get on the quiet transbay bus and let it carry me over the Bay Bridge. I have a seat and read for half an hour each morning. I see the shape of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. I see the tall masts of the ships I am going to work aboard silhouetted against the sky and think of what it must have been like when the San Francisco shoreline was a forest of lines and spars, when where I am riding was only empty air. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and in the passage of time, I, too will be a part of the past. My moment will be gone. I hope I leave my bit of the world a little better off for having been here.

Rich on a Poor Wage

Green grass and spring flowers on a trail leading over a mountain
Field of Poppies on Mt. Tamalpais

I went camping on a whim last weekend. Well, a whim and a call from the Universe. I’ve been feeling rather low lately for reasons that are probably familiar to most of us. The forest was calling and I chose to listen.

Dryad made of tree roots sitting on a hillside
Can you see the dryad guy sitting on the hillside?

I packed up my stuff and got on a bus. What we had in the house was what I had with me. I have good, light camping gear but no stove. I stuck a lighter in my pocket. There was some bread and salami in the fridge, and my partner very kindly made me some sandwiches. I threw in a bunch of energy bars and a few herb teabags into my tiny camp kettle because without refrigeration there would be no milk, so no tea or coffee. It would be a weekend with just what I needed, no more.

I felt the layers of insulation come off as I rode bus after bus. It’s a three hour trip up there by transit, and it is a beautiful trip, starting with a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. Two changes got me to the Marin Stage and the winding road up the mountain. The pack was a lot heavier than I was used to, and it isn’t built to carry that kind of load. I had enough food, but only just, and there was no variety to it. I had nothing to cook, and nothing but herb tea. My sleeping bag, pad and bivy sack were easily warm enough, even for a cold night on the mountain and unless it got really cold, my extra layers would be enough if I stayed out of the wind. I would have to do as the environment dictated, which was exactly what I wanted. And to be honest, I could always bail and walk down the mountain if it got to be too much.

I’m almost to the end of a course of Druid study, the bardic grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and I wanted to do some of the work in the grove I’ve been visiting since my teens. It is as close to a spiritual home as I have.  I feel very lucky to have such a powerful and magical place not only accessible by public transit, but with a first come, first served campground available nearby. In the morning I walked up the trail, steep but beautiful. I stopped at the spring to fill my water bottle with cool, clear water and paid with a recently written song before walking on to the grove.

Circle of stones on mossy ground in a grove of Douglas firs.
Grove on Mt. Tamalpais

Few people go here, and I’m just as glad that’s the case. I obviously share it with other Pagans and likely wild children as I had once been. I was first brought here by hippies turned rennies who introduced me to paganism, among other things. I reflected a moment on that. So many of them are now no longer with us. As far as I know, no one in our circle comes here any more. My partner and I were married here, as were other couples in our group. We fought with sword and staff in the clearing beyond the grove, watched sunsets and smoked dope, and dreamed of a better world. Now I come here alone, or with my partner. Others hold rituals here, I see the remains of flowers and other offerings. Once there was a set of fairy houses made from twigs and brightly colored embroidery floss. Things that melted away into the earth after a brief, beautiful season. I sat there for a long time, in open-eyed meditation in the place I go to so often in my daily practice.

Sun over Bolinas from the top of Mt. Tamalpais
Sun over Bolinas from the top of Mt. Tamalpais

From there I walked the short distance to the Bridge of Starship Earth, as I call it. You can see all the way to Point Reyes from there. Stinson Beach and Bolinas shine in the sun and on a clear day you can see the drowned mountaintops of the Farallone Islands. Once, when the ice covered so much of the earth, that was the shoreline. I could hear the roar of the waves from my perch. I watched the hawks and turkey vultures dance on the air currents and felt the clean wind flow over me. From there I walked to other favorite places until sunset, when I went back to that sacred summit.

Sunset from the western side of Mt. Tamalpais
Sunset from the western side of Mt. Tamalpais

I walked back in the dark, down the network of trails to the spring. From there I took the road, knowing the gates were locked and thinking it no harm to take my time. I was caught, and scolded gently by the ranger. Since I, too, work in a public park, I knew the dance and played the opposite part properly. I am to be in the campsite by dusk, “for your own safety.” After seeing my campsite receipt she left me to walk the last mile on my own.

Campfire Fairies to heat my water
Campfire Fairies to heat my water

Someone had left a small pile of firewood and kindling behind that morning, and I had bundled it away into my site. Dividing it in half, I made a small fire that night and a cup of orange spicy tea to drink as I watched the flames. I banked the coals before going to bed and had another cup in the morning. It isn’t really camping without a fire.

I packed up my gear and decided to take the bus from Stinson Beach. The trail was one I hadn’t taken before, and I took my time. I had it mostly to myself–well, myself, the many dryads that peeked in turn of root and branch, the streams and seeping springs that laughed and sang along the way, and the flowers that we are so lucky to have in this year of relatively abundant rainfall.

Poppies and spring grass
True Wealth

I saw an oak embracing a fir, and admit I took some liberties with the colors…

The Oak Loved the Fir and Embraced it...
The Oak Loved the Fir and Embraced It…

And with a spiderweb that was clear to my eye, but not to the camera:

Spiderweb
Spiderweb

I eventually got down to the town and found myself a cup of coffee. It was a very long wait for the next bus, so I bought myself a beer and a burger from the snack stand and reflected on how wealthy I truly am in every way that matters. I have the broad Pacific at my feet and one of the most beautiful mountains in the world to roam on. I am healthy enough, past my fiftieth year, to walk with everything I truly need on my back for a few miles of fairly steep trail. I may not have much money, but it is amazing how a cup of coffee and a burger and a beer can completely change one’s outlook after a long, lovely walk and a night spent under the trees. I took off my shoes and walked with my feet in the water before catching the first bus of many.

Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight
Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight

It Begins With Me

Forest Path
Forest Path, Llyn Tegid, Wales

We live in wonderful, terrible, pivotal times. It’s scary, yes, but I think fear and the anger that often comes from it will be the thing that will destroy us–if we let it. I think awareness is the opposite of fear, and I think it can only come to us from a place of peace. I think we are the ones who are determining the future, and that is a heady bit of knowledge, and a great responsibility.
We are each our own spiritual authority. We are free to believe–or not believe–whatever we choose, and to work in the ways that feel right to us. We are free to put our feet on the path to peace in as many different ways as we can imagine. I believe that our strength lies in this freedom, and the wisdom that comes from it. It’s harder to work in this way. You can’t just show up and do as you’re told. There is no certainty save that which comes from our own hearts, yet we humans cannot create community from those things that we hold in common until we know what we hold in our own hearts.
If I were going to ask us all to do anything, it would be to find out, moment by moment, what lies in your heart. Take a little time every day to hold peace in your heart. How does it feel? What does it look like? It doesn’t have to take very long. It can be done hanging on a strap on public transit, on the walk out to your car at the end of the day, in the morning or the evening, or during your shower. I do mine as I travel through my quiet neighborhood in the early morning, alone on the streets of Oakland. What would the world look like if everyone had this peace I hold within myself, alone among the trees of the urban forest, walking the folded hills? What if everyone knew that they would, more likely than not, come home every night to their home and family? What if everyone knew they had enough to eat, a roof over their head, and clothing appropriate to their needs? What would our world be like if everyone knew that we are all part of the web of life, and that what we do to that web we do to ourselves? What would the place you are standing in right now look like in that world you hold for a moment each day?

Yes, my neighborhood will have people shouting in it later in the day. There will likely be gunshots. Demagogues around the world will inflame their followers to fear those who are different and incite people to violence. There have been bombs and death in Belgium, and there is death daily no matter where we are in the world. But right now, I am at peace, my neighborhood is at peace. It’s hard to remember to spread that peace during the day, but each moment I can keep my mouth shut when something nasty wants to come out, each moment I can avoid dehumanizing someone else because they’re annoying me, because they live in another country doing things in ways different from my own, or have done something I don’t agree with, I’ve made the world a better place. It starts with me, and it starts with you. It isn’t easy, but I think it’s the most important work there is because ideas spread. We all need to make sure there are a lot of good ones in the mix.

I think those of us who live in a bubble of peace, who live in a world where we see our loved ones come home every day, where if they don’t it’s a tragedy and a surprise, rather than something we face the reality of each day, have a duty to send that deep peace out into the world however we can. Let it spread like a cool fog, an inner silence that lets us hear our own inner voices. Let it wrap us in the knowledge of all the tomorrows that wait for us.
What ideas will you spread today? What peace will you create?

Someone Should Do Something

A Bombay Sapphire gin bottle smashed next to a blue curb
Getting Smashed In Berkeley, CA.

Some of the things I do daily are so dead simple they’re almost stupid. Filling the xerox machine with paper when it’s empty. Picking up the chunks of (clean) toilet paper people throw on the bathroom floor. Picking up bits of glass and plastic on trails and sidewalks. None of this is my job–or is it? I see it. I am therefore responsible for it, in some way. I used to go barefoot a lot, and so a long time ago I began picking up the bits of glass that scared me. I’m embarrassed to see the public bathrooms at work in such a state. I wear a uniform, so I am easily identifiable as part of the place. It isn’t my job to clean up the whole world, it isn’t possible for me to do so. However, we can all make this world we are in a little better. At the very least, we can all take care of our own mess. If we all did so, think what this world would be like…

I don’t do this stuff as part of my application for sainthood, and I’m not suggesting that you all run out right now with a trash bag and a mission. I’m just asking you to think about the place you live in, how you make it your own, and what you leave behind. What difference does your presence make each day?

We’re all part of the land. We’re literally made of earth, the food we eat, the minerals in it that are part of us, and the less savory things that we give back to it. We don’t want them any more, but to some other being, they are life itself. Have you thought about what you eat lately, really thought about where it came from, what it was when it was alive? Everything we eat was once alive, and everything that dies is only in the process of becoming someone else. This isn’t cruel, or tragic, it’s the thing that makes us all one.

In my house, we say grace. We thank the beings that grace our table, from the fruiting bodies of mycelium that we call mushrooms to the chicken that gave its very life. Acknowledging this fact brings meaning to my meal, and puts me firmly in the web of life and death. It has put chickens in our backyard and herbs on our back porch. Calling “thank you” out the window when we eat eggs, and knowing that those birds are enjoying their lives is a gift. Cleaning the chicken coop becomes a means of connection as well as a chore. It’s part of the deal of domestication.

Not all animals want to make this deal with us. No one rides zebras, for example. No one keeps seagulls for eggs–though the nineteenth century inhabitants of San Francisco probably ate them. Chickens, however, not only lay for most of the year, they share nests and stay in roughly the same place. They are birds of habit and they don’t mind living with humans. It was actually a fairly good deal for them until quite recently. They allowed humans to take their eggs, and while they didn’t get to live out their entire lifespan, on the average they lived a lot longer than their wild relatives did. In return they got protection, housing, food, and instead of living exclusively in the jungles of Southeast Asia, they now can be found all over the world. Humans got eggs and tasty meat, and the tendency of chickens to scratch and defecate made them useful in the fields as well.

The next paragraph or so is not graphic per se, but if you don’t want to think any more deeply about this subject, you might want to skip past it.

This was a great deal, but as we humans have a tendency to skip out on our chores, we eventually found a way to get out of our end of it. The ways we treat our domestic animals these days are pretty horrific. Since most of us don’t have to watch, we can ignore this, but there are consequences for us as well. It can’t be good for us to be eating creatures that spent their lives in pain, mental and physical, and died horrible deaths. Having eaten animals that I’ve taken out of life quickly and cleanly, I can tell you that a well fed, happy animal just tastes better. Knowing the whole cycle of life is empowering as well. It was an initiation in the truest sense of the word. I felt that at last I could feed my family, and that I can take responsibility for how I live. I’m not planning on giving up eating meat, after all. I also came to realize that I, too, will in the end be eaten, and I don’t fear it. I don’t want to die, of course, but I want to lay a handsome table when I do. I want to give back what I have borrowed and continue the dance of life in some other form.

I started out with trash, and I’m going to end there as well. I’ve found that when a human begins to pick stuff up, we all get three benefits. The first, of course, is simple. There’s less garbage lying around. The second is related to that–a human who picks up trash is a human who doesn’t thoughtlessly throw things around when finished with them. The third is a growing awareness, for the individual human, and for the rest of us.

As I’ve begun to listen to the land, it has gotten downright talkative. I see the most interesting things on the ground.

A stick inscribed
Berkeley Gives Me Wood

The land hands me trash bags. A plastic bag dangles at eye level from a tree trunk in Golden Gate Park. You can’t get any clearer than that. Brightly colored balloons form a fan on the sand in Aquatic Park. What I took for brightly colored red plastic chips on the grass turn out to be rose petals, strewn at my feet. Never let it be said that the planet is not capable of making the grand gesture of appreciation on occasion. My chickens peck bits of glass and broken china from the dirt in the yard. Many of them are quite beautiful. I may get around to making a mosaic out of them someday, but for now I save them in a terra cotta pot in the yard.

We’re all responsible for what we see. But no, we can’t do all of it. I would spend my entire day picking up trash if I tried. So I set limits. I pick up plastic, mainly in the woods and on the beach. Plastic, particularly small bits of it, scares me. It’s on its way into the food web. Sea birds fight for food, and they will eat anything that looks like it might be edible without a second thought. Many of them die with their stomachs choked with the stuff. They’re not the only animals who do this. Plastic on the ground, exposed to sunlight, becomes brittle and falls apart. It remains plastic, but the bits get smaller and smaller, leaching toxins as they do. If plastic ends up in the ocean, it floats on the current or sinks. If there are future archaeologists, I’m betting that this century will be clearly visible as a layer of plastic–or its components. We will be remembered by what we leave behind.

So if you think that somebody ought to do something about it, maybe you, like me, are that someone.

As Close As Your Next Breath

Clouds reflected In Bala Lake
Clouds reflected in Bala Lake, Gwynedd, Wales

Three minutes without air, and your brain begins to die. A first responder will check an unconscious person for breathing even before they look for bleeding. Our breath is our most direct connection to life. So I invite you to take a breath and hold it. How long can you do so? Unless you’re a trained free diver, it’s probably a lot less than three minutes. What does it feel like to hold your breath? How does this feeling change as you continue to do so? And how gooood does that first breath you take afterwards feel?

Our breath is shared with all beings. The proportion of plants to animals determines the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere, and so the temperature of the biosphere and the range of life that can exist. We are directly dependent on all the living things on this planet for the air we breathe and the areas of the planet that we can inhabit. By changing that balance as we have by releasing such large volumes of carbon into the atmosphere, we are reshaping the only home we have. The atmosphere is the thinnest, most vulnerable organ the body of our planet has. We have grown so powerful that we are literally determining who lives, and who dies, and since we are doing it without awareness, or full knowledge of the consequences of our actions, we may well be killing ourselves, cutting the web of life out from under our own feet.

To the Celts, knowledge was carried on the breath. Their culture was an oral one, and for a long time, they believed that to write a thought down was to kill it as the vital spark of life in it was gone. The very word, inspiration, means “to breathe in.” To me, a song is carried on the breath. Music only truly exists in the moment it is being played. Even to remember it, you have to play the tune in your head. Yes, it can be written down, but that is cold storage. A page of sheet music does not sing. It takes a person to do that, to take those markings from the page and transform them into sound again. The invention of recorded music allows us all to hear the greatest performers whenever we please, and–truly amazing–to hear them long after their deaths, but the recording must be played in order to have its full existence.

Even this miracle is a double-edged sword. Most of us don’t sing any more, or at least not nearly as much as we used to. Many of us are literally afraid to open our mouths at all. We can hear virtuoso performances any time we want to, so learning to play an instrument or sing isn’t nearly as vital as it used to be, but the things we could be learning by being able to hear those performances over and over and learning in the process to duplicate them are lost to many of us. We can get some of the pleasure with no more effort than pushing a button but we are losing out on the greater pleasure of making the music ourselves. How many times have you heard someone say “I play the radio,” when asked whether they play an instrument? We’re allowing ourselves to be intimidated by the quality of those performances, instead of being inspired by them. How many times have you heard someone say “I can’t sing”? What was carried on the breath is now carried in the pocket. So maybe the Celts were onto something there. They adopted writing in order to save some of their knowledge because the living libraries known as fili, brehons, druids, were being slaughtered by invaders. While that innovation saved things that would otherwise have been lost, enriching our collective memory and making information that was in the hands of specialists available to a much wider audience, our individual memories are not the well trained muscles that they were. The linkages between knowledge that can only be made by people who have all the information in their minds, readily accessible, are no longer available to us.

Our planet, our lives, are a song being sung by all of us, carried on the collective breath we all share. Each of us has a part to play. Our every action is a note in the larger chorus. The knowledge within every being on the planet is the fabric of which we are all made. From the dance of photosynthesis, the knowledge of the plants of how to capture the energy of sunlight and make it available to all, the planet has built up to the knowledge that allows us to actually leave the surface of our planet, beyond the atmosphere to where we can finally see ourselves as the one living world that we are all part of.

Our knowledge is now the key. When the Celts adopted writing, they allowed us to hear the voices of the dead. They also expanded the range of time they could hold clearly in their collective consciousness, and the depth and breadth of the poetic meters that were available to them.  They had no idea that all this would happen, it was a result of their willingness to adapt and change. We have begun to change our world, true, but we have also targeted the part of it that is the fastest to react to change. What we have done happens at a rate that is slow for us, but within the span of time that we humans are capable of perceiving. We have already done a related experiment on the outermost part of our planet, the ozone layer. Back in the 1970s, we discovered we were “holing the spacesuit” with our indiscriminate use of chlorofluorocarbons, and at that time in our history, we were able to work together, to ban the use of these compounds and reduce their use far enough so that we are able to see the healing happening. If we can do that, we can also do the same with carbon. It will be harder, CFCs are fairly exotic and far more easily replaced than carbon, the basis of life itself, but we are are inventive creatures, never more so than when our lives depend on it.

All that we are is borrowed from the organism we are part of. All of it must be given back, and at the beginning of this post, you had the opportunity to learn just how impossible it is to hold onto the breath, and how vital it is to life. It also can determine the state of our consciousness. Three deep breaths are the quickest way I know to calm down, if they are taken with awareness, and allowed to have their own shape.

Breath is a great wheel. I invite you to breathe in, slowly. Take the air in all the way to your belly, until it stops by itself. There is a natural pause there, and if you just let it, your body will round that curve, and give back the breath it has just taken in. There is a similar pause at the bottom of the breath, and your body will, if you let it, round that curve and breathe in once again. Can you concentrate only on your breath long enough to do that three times? It can be hard at first, but with practice, you can follow your breath, and feel the effect it has on your body and your mind. Three breaths are available to you any time, any place. No one will notice if you do this on the bus, at a meeting, when you are feeling stressed. And it costs you nothing. This is a benefit of our connection to all beings.

If you have the time, and the inclination, can you follow nine of your breaths with complete concentration? Awareness is a muscle, and this is not as easy a task as it sounds. The benefits will only become apparent to you with time and practice, but they will be as close as your next breath, whenever you choose to take it.

Rewilding My Life

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My hands are filthy and I reek of redwood.

I found out about the Rewild Your Life 30 Day Challenge today, and decided to go for it.

Being in the middle of the city as I was at the time, finding a tree to spend 30 minutes of quality time under was definitely the first challenge.
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I ended up going up–literally. I spent half an hour in a small redwood on the grounds of the Oakland Marriott. Being in the middle of a fenced lawn next to a loading dock, they probably didn’t feel they needed to buzz the branches off below the first four feet or so. I was glad I’d dressed in muted colors today, even though I’d had no idea I’d be climbing in the corporate forest today.

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I took a quick look around, grabbed a branch, swung my feet up onto another and disappeared into the tree. Pulling my busking basket through with me was cumbersome, but possible, and I tied it to a branch about ten feet off the ground. I guess there was a reason I had all those ribbons and bits of leather hanging off the sides besides the Renaissance Faire look. Climbing in a skirt was a skill that came back to me in an instant.

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It was like going back to college. I used to climb trees all the time back then. I even lived in one for a time. Why did I stop? It was just as delicious now as it was then to be sitting on a branch, completely alone in the heart of the city. No one looks up, and no one looks for people in trees. Secure among the branches I played my tinwhistle, just as I’d done back then. Then I closed my eyes and felt the tree move with the wind.

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Meanwhile, the birds went about their business and so did the people. The layers of wildness and civilization were clear to see. They were there all along, of course, but we have to stop and settle to see them. As I stood up on the branch, preparing to descend, I saw a birds nest on one of the limbs. It was long empty, but nice to see that another creature had taken advantage of the shelter of the redwoods to do what was needful.

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If you want to join the challenge, or just see what other people have done, follow the link at the top of the post. Look for the hashtags

#rewildyourlife
#wearewildness

 

Wild in the City

Even in the heart of the city there’s wildlife. I’m blessed to live near a bird sanctuary so for me this is even truer than it is for most, but look around you. I’ll bet you find your wild place. I’ve lived in cities most of my life and I’ve always found somewhere to go.

Start with the cracks in the pavement or the parking strips. Even if we humans haven’t planted something there, the planet has done so. Are there squirrels running along the power lines in your neighborhood? They do so in mine. Surely there are pigeons, crows, blackbirds, wrens? We generally don’t notice them because we aren’t looking for them. Do you have a neighborhood park? We don’t seem to realize that we share this planet with other creatures. The hardiest of them make their home in the city, just as we do. Raccoons are adaptable and smart and live everywhere.

In my neck of the woods, things are changing, as they always do. Every tree along the estuary beside E. 10th St. has now been cut. The aspens were only the beginning. It will be interesting to see what the end result is. The walking and bicycle paths will be extended, and all the culverts from Lake Merritt to the highway will be gone. Change isn’t easy, this Saturday there wasn’t a bird to be seen around the estuary or on the campus. Last week I watched triads of egrets walk in the shallows. White pelicans fished farther out and the campus was covered with geese. The quiet this week felt a bit ominous, but when the construction is over the birds will be back.

As usual, all the temporary traffic detouring was focused on the automobile, with the sidewalks unblocked as an afterthought. One day of using the traffic lane was more than enough for me, and I found that my Saturday detour to see the remaining aspens was actually the beginning of a workable temporary route. I can ride directly through the campus, along the estuary to the footbridge, and up the hill on the other side. Of course both paths are blocked at the sidewalk, but I can push my bike up a steeper dirt path between the redwoods and come out in the circle drive in front of the childcare center. From there I only have to deal with the school construction, with the “temporary” diagonal parking and the two blocks of narrowed lanes. That’s not particularly pleasant, but I’ve been dealing with it for over a year now, and the temporary vehicle lane across the estuary has made it so unpleasant for cars that the traffic is considerably lessened.

I have hope, though. Half of what appears to be a bike path has been built from Lake Merritt to E. 10th. I suspect the blocked paths will be the continuation for bike paths on both sides. If so, when they’re done it will be possible to ride along the far side of the estuary to the edge of the lake. Right now that area is wild and enticing, and I can’t get to it… The corridor from the end of the built path to the side streets I currently take home is not exactly pleasant or safe, but I’ll bet I can piece together another route that is, and the project could always surprise me with other improvements. There are already many more riders in that corridor than there were when I moved to this area. Saturday was lovely, though. It’s always the most pleasant ride of the week.

I went and saw the aspens again last Saturday afternoon. I walked through the grove till I came to the right tree. I stood with it awhile and looked closely at the clones walking down from it to the water. They were indeed clones, one was growing straight out of an exposed root. Even shaved away to the heartwood it was growing a shoot. I can see why these trees are so difficult to eradicate. Why did we plant them if we didn’t want them there? I circled around it. Odd, I was mimicking what I’d just read in My Side of the Mountain. I didn’t know it was home, I just knew I had to see the other side.

I found just what Sam Gribley did, in a way. A perfect arch of aspen shoots, growing between the double trunk of this doubled tree. It was of course full of spider webs. They shine silver around the dead branches of shoots from years past like jewelry on the feet of the trees. Brother to the birch, indeed, green leafed, silver trunked beauty who smells sweet in the height of summer and is first to venture into disturbed or fallow ground.

After a moment’s hesitation I sat down between the trees. Yes, I might get bugs, but it was worth it. I spent a few moments weaving branches, dead and alive, around each other. The space between the trees arched around me. I could see another grove of much younger aspens across from me, next to the school garden, framed in dancing green leaves. All I would need would be something to line the space I sat on and this would be perfect.

This Saturday was just as good. My spot awaited me, the campus was even emptier than usual, and I sat in that sweet smelling green cave and let it separate me from the work week. There truly are wild places in the heart of any city. All we have to do is notice when we’re in them.

Finding That Sweet Spot

Setbacks happen to everyone. We all have to ask ourselves each time, “is this a crushing blow, or an opportunity for growth and applied brilliance? For me, the latter wins every time. Overwhelming odds call out my Inner Pixie and really, the other alternative leads nowhere.

Busking every day was one of those decisions that seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but turned out to be a big mistake. I took a break and went to the acupuncturist last Tuesday. Monday’s here and there’s no real change.

This is scary, but I have to turn my back on the spilled cups before me and look at the ones that are still full. I still have a voice, all I have lost is the frame around it. I have tools in the form of a yoga routine, various holistic and allopathic medicines, and body awareness to try and heal myself. Then there are the healthcare options to consider. Step one: If it hurts, don’t do it.

I asked Brighid today, as I do every day, what she wanted of me. As I looked up at her picture, quietly giving her space to speak, I heard a fond, slightly exasperated, “Well you could move my picture down so you didn’t have to crane your neck looking up at me.”

Duh.

Set her as low as I could. I still have to look up, but if I stand up straight and pull my head back–in short, if I stand the way my last physical therapist wanted me to, she comes into focus. Hurray for daily practice, and the gifts a simple devotion, repeated regularly, bring.

We all have a choice. We can do our best to dig our way out of our various holes, or we can let our problems consume us. It’s that simple. What is the first helpful action that can be taken? I’ve found that no matter how bad things are, if I just do that, the next move comes to me. When you’re in a trap, don’t struggle.

I’ve put my frame aside for now. I’ve given my partner a bodhran assignment: learn the drumbeat verbatim for one of the new songs I’ve written, and luckily, have a rough recording of. She’s a great dance drummer, and as a belly dancer I have heard her pick apart what the music “told” her body to do. She understands the basic concepts behind what I do and she’s capable of mastering them. More to the point, she wants to. She suggested this.

I’m going to bring in my small backpack and busking sign tomorrow and see if I can find a spot. How will I do in a BART station as a pure singer? My choice of spots will be more limited, but there are plenty of areas I can use, I think.

I’m going to the open mic at the Freight and Salvage tomorrow night. I’ve done a capella on that stage often enough, nothing much will have changed.

I’m going to continue to rest the stuff that hurts, and call either my healthcare provider or my acupuncturist again. I can’t decide which, I can’t afford to see both of them this paycheck. I’ll see the other one in the next few weeks, though. Daily meditation is also a must. I’ve been falling down on that the last couple of months and I need my subtle superpowers more than ever.

I’m going to continue to learn repertoire. Sadly, two of the three songs I’m working with demand a drum. The third one might stand on its own. Time to pick some others. I’m also going to spend some serious time with my tinwhistles. Damn, but they sound fine in a transit system corridor!

This blog entry was originally about balancing the optimum amount of busking time against the demands of my body. I figured that I could surely go back to one or two days a week no problem. As the week progressed though, I realized that the hole I’d dug for myself was far deeper than I’d imagined. I can still see the light, though. All I have to do is follow it.