Living in this World

Monday, August 20, 2007

#58 The Big Addiction

Imagine the old temperance fighters, denouncing drink in the strongest
language they could find: There is a great evil abroad in our land. It
coarsens the spirit, deadens the soul. It threatens the health and
stability of the family and leads our youth astray. As surely as night
follows day, it will destroy the lives of all who give over their will and
succumb to its lures.

There is indeed a great evil abroad in our land. More dangerous by far than
alcohol, it is the evil of materialism. The meaning and power are being
sucked out of countless lives and replaced with stuff. Our loved ones are
being snatched away into some kind of a demonic cult, being brainwashed into
worshiping Mammon, blindly seeking salvation through the latest fashion or
newest model. Yet there are more people in this cult than outside of it.
Like the worst horror movie, our whole society is becoming possessed.

Consumption is running amok. Many of us identify as consumers because it’s
hard to find meaning in our role as producers. But an empty substitute is a
dangerous thing. Just as fascination with pornography is a passive,
addictive, and ultimately unfulfilling substitute for intimacy, so is
fascination with consumption a passive, addictive, and ultimately
unfulfilling substitute for being present to the challenges and
opportunities of the world around us. We’re stuffing ourselves, and keep
reaching for more, because we’re starving for the real thing.

It is true that alcohol and drugs do more immediate and visible damage.
They can destroy lives more quickly and completely. And the solution is
simpler: you just stop. This addiction to stuff is tricky, because some
amount of material goods, like some amount of food, and some amount of work,
actually make life better. We can’t go completely cold turkey, the way you
can with alcohol and drugs, and be hopeful that beyond the pain of
withdrawal a better world is waiting.

This is an addiction that gets into our blood without us even realizing. So
just starting to notice the signs is an important first step toward
regaining control.
--When that little rush of good feeling that comes with buying something
makes me want more, I am addicted.
--When shopping or consuming entertainment seem like the best solution to a
certain flatness in life, when nothing else seems interesting, I am duped
and deluded.
--When a clever advertisement has me reaching for my wallet, I am
--When being without a certain item makes me feel vulnerable, isolated, less
sure of myself, or left behind, I am imprisoned.
--When I feel compelled to acquire or consume, I am enslaved.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. This is not just a harmless habit or an
occasional lapse of judgment. It is certainly not rational and free choice.
We’re talking about our whole society being duped and deluded, manipulated,
drugged and addicted, imprisoned and enslaved—-and most of us don’t even
know it.

While not all purchases are a sign of addiction, we need to start thinking
of any place that sells things as a place of seduction. To armor yourself
against its siren call, before entering any supermarket, mall, home
improvement store, on-line shopping site, box office, or entertainment
center, take the time to remember:

I am completely beautiful in the eyes of God.

Nothing this place sells has the power to change who I am.

The soul cannot be fed by snacks, clothing or gadgets.

The comfort that comes from things is fleeting at best.

It’s possible to play and relax without professional help.

Precious moments cannot be bought or sold.

Enough is enough.

It’s time for a new Declaration of Independence—-independence from anything
that somebody makes a buck off of trying to sell us. It’s time to take back
control of our choices, time to assert that enough is better than more, time
to reclaim the value of activity outside the marketplace, time to decide for
ourselves what gives life meaning.

July, 2007

Some things that have given me hope recently:
Chinese citizens of a coastal city circumventing a media blackout by using
cell phones that generated a million text messages around the country, and
successfully forced the government to put plans for a polluting
petro-chemical plant on hold.
A group of inner city youth who have been turned on to energy conservation
and constructing solar panels.
300 people listening intently to one member with a severe speech
impediment--and a good point.
The sense of hope and unity, however fleeting, that came from Iraq's soccer
win in the Asia Cup.

#57 To John Woolman

To John Woolman

Friend John,
pacing your apple orchard
a hundred years and more
before the Civil War,
pondering the evil
that grows from love of money,
the plight of the poor,
how they connect,
where we fit in

Opening your heart
to the oppressed—
field workers, beasts of burden—-
all who labor painfully
that others might indulge
in that which only separates
them from God

Traveling long hours on horseback
or on foot
to visit those who still hold slaves,
taking time to center first in love—-
love for all God’s creatures,
the least and the great,
the harmed and those who harm
(perhaps unknowingly)
then searching for the words
to open clouded hearts

I feel you near.
I read those quiet, careful words
and hear the great passion
that rings behind,
your keen mind revealed,
undaunted by truth
unflinching in the task
of bringing it to light.

Your mind’s alive in me—
the choice to look and think,
make sense of our economy,
who works, who gains, how money flows,
puzzle out connections, patterns,
probe for roots,
sure that life together here on earth
can somehow be made right.

Your single-minded quest
sounds the depths of courage
and of faith.
I glimpse
where you in hard-won steadfastness believe:
we cannot be at peace
until our lives are stripped
down to our share.

Your task is laid upon my heart.
If only you can find the words to say
how sweet it is
to live as we were meant,
while willing us to look, clear-eyed
at all the facets of
our unconsidered lives—
the excesses that weigh us down
the ease that rubs another raw—

If only you can stand before us one by one
invite us
through hard truth
and through great love
to lay those burdens down—-
then we will change.

so it would seem--
or maybe not.

Some things that have given me hope recently:

A forklift owner who, when asked his price, asked the customer's hourly wage
then pegged his a few dollars higher.

The power of laying aside agendas and seeking together for the truth.

Wetlands being reestablished along the Mississippi River.

The first new synagogue since the Holocaust opening in Estonia's capital to
serve its Jewish community.

#56 Loving Our Mother

A group of us were talking about what we love about this world we live in:
the soil and the magic of seeds growing, the way we feel when we’re in the
water, moonlight, the smells at the beach, spring peepers and fresh breezes.
There was a sense of eagerness and relief in getting to share this love so
fully and openly.

We don’t do it very much. There is so much to be afraid of about what’s
going on these days, so much to worry about. It feels hard to imagine that
any single person could make a difference in the face of the vastness of the
earth and all its natural systems. It’s terrifying to imagine that we might
be destroying the environment that is critical to our survival. Most of us
cope by trying to not think about it, by numbing off.

But what we don’t face, we can’t pay attention to. And where we don’t pay
attention, we can’t notice our connection. It’s a terrible irony. Many of
us don’t know how to face the environmental crisis because it matters to us.
And to the extent that we don’t face it, we can’t tell that we are
connected, that we care.

Connection is so important. A lot of the hurts that we carry from our
childhood have to do with loss of connection with people we were born to
love. It is similarly hurtful to lose connection with the environment, with
our mother earth. Being in touch with what we love will provide the best
leverage for moving the numbness, fears and feelings of hopelessness that
stand in our way and keep us from acting. Getting back to that birthright
of connection gets us to the solid ground we need to stand on if we really
are going to play a role in saving the planet.

As we love more openly, we may be more able to grieve. This can be about
the tiniest thing: a single tree that is cut down, a dolphin that dies, one
moment that’s hard for our children. We may be more in touch with our
rage. We may find cracks in a pervasive feeling of numbed terror, and be
able to start loosening our fears. Imagining the possibility that one tiny
little thing might change for the better can nourish our hope.

So our first job and most important job is doing whatever we can to open up
our access to those deep wells of love for this mother of ours. How can we
hope to make any bigger change if our own personal relationship with the
environment is distant or tentative or defended? In that group we talked
about what it would mean to just keep paying attention to what we love in
the natural world around us. It doesn’t have to be hard, or take a lot of
time. I thought about the ever-changing beauty of the sky—-a part of the
environment that is always available to me just by looking up. I thought
about the pleasure I get when my hands are in the soil, helping in its
incredible capacity to sustain us. As more of us remember to pay attention,
as we regain that sense of connection, our lives will be better for sure,
and more of our love and intelligence will be available to act on. This,
more than anything, is what our mother needs.

Pamela Haines

Things that give me hope:
--The little organization, Global Response, that mobilizes letter writers to
shine the light on and support environmental struggles of poor communities
around the world--and often wins.
--Women from Rwanda who have participated in conflict resolution and trauma
healing from their country's genocide, helping Burmese freedom fighters
learn the importance of peace building.
--Teenagers from an urban community center and an affluent private school
spending a weekend together, doing the hard work of reaching across lines of
class and race to find each other.
--A new campaign finance law in Philadelphia that effectively prevented
moneyed interests from controlling the outcome, so that the next mayor will
be beholden only to the voters.

#55 Turning the Soil

Turning the Soil

This soil is hard and sour
no place for living things--
Yet living things would grow
despite all odds.
Stunted, spindly
starved for proper food
we reach and strive.

The soil has been degraded over time--
Fat promises run dry,
Earth’s patient bills come due.
Hatreds stirred by fears
yield searing flame and bitter ash,
A nightly dose of horror
blares out from our screens--
a culture drawn to shock
consumed by greed.
We do not thrive.

But things can change.
With patient work a soil can be renewed
rich life-supporting nutrients worked in--
tales of generosity, good news,
stories that renew our faith, give hope
allow cramped roots the space to move
reach out, take in good food
give strength to stem, leaf, flower.
With inner health restored,
in upright vigor, reaching toward the sun
the task is not so bleak--
To claim our common future,
do the work we get to do
when we’re alive.

#54 Kitchen Commons

Where is the peeler?
Not where I always put it
Nor in the second or third most likely spot.
I understand why people
don’t want strangers
messing in the kitchen.

Yet I feel a great freedom
in sharing this room
that I designed
when we stripped it
down to the brick
and built it back up again
when all of us were young.

It is capacious
well worn,
Has housed people from all over,
Filled up with flavors and conversations
I could never create,
Been midwife
to friendships I treasure.

Those who live, visit and cook with us
are generous in return,
Clean at time with gusto
Put vegetable peelers
who knows where--

A price
I am willing to pay.

#53 Weather Dance

After a hard rain that wreaked havoc with a local fair, it was easy to wish
that we could mandate good weather. But I remembered a cautionary tale from
my childhood about a prince and his magic rain cloud. He could produce a
storm at any time, but there was always somebody who pleaded for sunshine,
he heeded their pleas, and the land got dryer and dryer (though of course
the story ended up with a good rainstorm). It's probably just as well that
the government doesn't manage the weather, but we do chafe at not having
more control.

I guess it's because we've figured out so much about controlling the
weather, at least indoors. We've mastered so much that we feel entitled to
mastery-so life can go on every day just as we've planned it. It's
shocking, somehow, not to be in control of the weather. Surely an advanced,
technological affluent county such as ours shouldn't still be subject to
something so primitive and elemental. It just doesn't seem right. So we
compensate, by proving how cold we can make it in the summer, how hot in the
winter. It would be more rational (and way more fuel-efficient) to find an
indoor temperature that everyone would agree on for all seasons. But I'd go
even farther. I'd advocate for some of the pleasures of difference that
we've lost in our drive for uniformity of comfort.

This would mean rebuilding our relationship with the weather. It would mean
rediscovering the cycles of the day and of the year: getting up earlier in
the heat to enjoy the cool mornings, slowing down in the afternoons,
drinking in hot summer evenings filled with crickets and fireflies, filling
up the house with cool night air. It would mean learning the art of
dressing in layers, looking forward to the joys of snow, warming chilled
hands in front of a fire (or a space heater), eating hearty soups, really
appreciating the heat in a cup of hot tea or cocoa. It would mean
tolerating some discomfort. There may be times to insulate ourselves in
climate-controlled cocoons, but if that becomes our world, we lose one
that's so much bigger.

It would mean rediscovering our niche in different regions. I think of the
"salt box" houses that developed in New England. The north-facing side had
a steeply sloping roof, no windows and plantings of coniferous trees to hold
insulating snow and keep out cold winds. The south side had space to
accommodate many windows, and deciduous trees to provide leafy shade in the
summer and let in lots of winter sun when their leaves were gone. Yet now,
houses of that shape are put up all over the country, facing every which
way, and trees are purely for show. We have strayed so far from our roots
that we don't even notice. Interchangeable styles have replaced the
elegance of function and relation to place-and it is a loss.

Of course, weather is not totally benign. There will be periods of
oppressive heat and cold, tragic weather disasters. But if we're in
opposition and vying for control, the effect of these occasions will likely
be bigger. We need to learn to be a partner, leading sometimes perhaps, but
many times just following-getting into the rhythm and learning the pleasures
of the dance.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 2/07


Encountering a ramp so clogged
it warns of endless crawl,
I sheer off, heading for another route
north out of town.

Pursuing a diagonal
I find myself not lost
but where I’ve never been--
vacant lots, row houses past their prime,
worn-down survival up against the tracks.

I jog onto a narrow street,
am struck--by horses--
a tiny stable yard wedged into the row
an old man with his horse amid the cars
others chatting on their stoops--
a farm scene overlaid upon
this dense packed city street.

A glimpse and then it’s gone.
In seconds I am headed north
on roads I’ve known for years.
Yet that block stays with me--
a prize for traveling the unknown
a jewel on the diagonal.

#52 Criminal Youth Redeemed

Ronnie and Elena could have been anybody’s children. But they happened to
have absent and abusive parents and grow up in drug- and gang-infested
families and communities. The arcs of their lives, and of so many others
like them, were hauntingly similar—-seeking protection and belonging with
those who appeared most strong, getting caught up in gangs, gradually
abusing and brutalizing as was done to them, and ending up in jail.

They pose a terrible question for society: what to do with damaged young
people who have become a threat to their communities? The easy answer these
days, signaling a deep failure of morality and faith, is to lock them up and
throw away the key. But Ronnie and Elena got a second chance. They ended
up at a Texas youth correction facility that not only believes in
rehabilitation, but succeeds at it. Their story is the heart of John
Hubner’s Last Chance in Texas; the Redemption of Criminal Youth.

This is a powerful book about what can be done to change the trajectory of
violent young lives. The Giddings State School is very tough--with lots of
structure and limits to keep people safe. But each year they select one
group of young men and one of young women who have already been there for
years and demonstrate some promise, to go through a process of deep
reflection together. Each person tells his or her life story, taking at
least six hours and often more, with probing questions from peers and
therapists to get them to look at the pain they have buried under anger and
not-caring. Then the key incidents in those life stories are acted out.
Later each crime story is told and acted out--both from the perspective of
the young person committing it, then from that of the victim. The goal is
self-reflection, empathy--and redemption.

The stakes are high for these young people because the alternative is
decades in the regular adult prison system. There are those who don't
succeed, who can't find the strength to look deeply within themselves and
feel the pain that allows for transformation--and that is the ultimate
tragedy of this book. But most of them do--and that is what offers such
hope. Recidivism is reported as just 10% in three years.

Last Chance moves seamlessly between the life stories of Ronnie, Elena and
others, as told in their group, vivid descriptions of the program they are
engaged in, stories of the people who are working with them at the school,
and a larger overview of juvenile crime and correctional policies. It is a
compelling read, a page-turner that invites us deep into the lives of
troubled youth and the gritty day-to-day work of transformation. Answering
that question about the fate of damaged young people, it offers a working
model that could be replicated all over the country, with enormous savings
in both dollars and human potential. While sobering, its central theme of
love and redemption leaves us with renewed hope for the human condition.



4 old ladies two by two
4 different hats
(sensible on this brisk October morning)
4 bags on laps
hands folded on top
4 stories to tell.

Their faces are attentive, kind--
lively talk and laughter
flow between the pairs.

They have troubles
I’m sure--and flaws
and yet, and yet
this sturdy foursome
shouts out
(in their old sensible way)
all that is right
on this October morning.