Dec 042019
 

Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the End Times. When I was a child and a teen in the 1960s and ‘70s, I encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus freaks who insisted that the time was nigh. I vaguely figured that, if they were right, human existence would come to an end (via thermonuclear war or the rapture or an asteroid or …. ) probably right around the year 2000.

Now that particular due date has expired. Nonetheless, we are threatened with runaway climate change, diminishing fresh water supplies (and other impending resource crises), and, yes, nuclear war. It’s terrifying. I would never choose to bring a child into such a world as this.

Then again, when I was in my 20s during the Reagan administration back in the 80s, I made a similar calculation regarding the practical implications of fathering a child. I wasn’t at all sure a child born then would grow up into a livable world. Today, as it turns out, many of my favorite people were born during that decade or even later.

I was born in 1958. The Russians had recently obtained the bomb. Fascists ruled all over the planet: Mao, Kruschev, Franco, Batista, Mobuto. Mainstream American culture was oppressively conformist, racist, narrow minded, spiritless. The future would not have looked promising to a guy like me and I would NEVER have chosen to bring a child into the world back in ’58.

Lately I’m observing that amazing stuff continues to happen, some of it very good, and that by and large, the young people I meet are far wiser than I and my peers were when we were their age.  At the Beloved Festival in OR a few summers ago, I said to a young man of about 23 that I was so sorry not to be leaving him and his friends a better world, and I only wished I could serve them in some way with the time I have left. He clasped my hands to his heart, and said, “You’re doing it now, brother, just by walking your path.”

Dec 042019
 

Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I loved pop music, but my stepdad, a big band musician who had entertained presidents, detested rock and roll. He explained why the music I liked was bad music. Besides being too loud, it was too simple. It lacked depth and complexity. Sometimes my stepdad’s sophisticated musical friends piled on. One of them put it to me like this: “See—you know what you like; but I know what’s good.”

That staggered me. I think I was 17 at the time. When the guy said that, he looked so satisfied with himself. I knew I was looking into the face of a peculiar (yet common) type of insanity.

  ***

Music, for me, is the easiest zone of life in which to know what I really like.

But I actually can’t think of a single other zone of life where it comes quite so naturally to know what I really like. Not even reading. Definitely not conversation.

Have you ever tried to stay really mindful in a conversation, noticing how your body feels, noticing if you’re happy? Noticing those moments where—oof!—something didn’t feel right, something triggered you? Or something mellowed you, warmed you, made you smile?

Social conversation, like music, like sex, like sleep, should never be a ground of struggle.

What are some of the things we do to make conversation as easy and pleasing to move with as music?

Dec 042019
 

I was listening to some beautiful music in my house, and it felt so sacred that I did not want to leave the room, but it was time to get ready for bed and brush my teeth.

I left the music playing as I did my nightly ablutions. I felt so calm. I realized that in the proper frame of mind, even the humming of the electric toothbrush may be received as a sacred sound.

I release control and surrender to the flow of love that will heal me.

– Alexa Sunshine Rose

Dec 042019
 

On the sidewalk outside New Seasons grocery store sat a man with leather-like skin, his cheeks and mouth a maze of wrinkles, leaning against his backpack. His crude cardboard sign said “Anything helps” on one side “Do something kind” on the other. The sign was fairly small; it too leaned against his backpack (at a kind of side angle so both sides could be visible … if you looked).

The man did not actively seek eye contact; he let his sign and appearance speak for him.

I gave him a dollar. I was a little arrested by the light of spirit in his eyes.

I remembered that I also had some loose change I wanted to get rid of – pennies and such – so I gave him that too, maybe 60 cents. He thanked me and we had a short conversation during which he alluded to putting away enough spare change to get himself some mac and cheese. I told him I’d bring him mac and cheese from inside the store, which I did. (Cost me $3.51.) When I gave it to him, I told him I’d come back for the plate when I was done shopping, but when I got back out again, the plate was gone. He had brought it back inside himself.

I had a modest dessert for him – a bite of cheesecake in a tiny paper cup. (They were giving out free samples in the store).

We shook hands and exchanged first names and said goodbye, but it took me a minute or two to load my bike baskets, during which he continued to talk to me a little. He thought I had dropped a key. (I had not; the key in question belonged to someone else.) As I was folding my jacket to stuff on top of my groceries, he made a comment about summer being here now and I replied, without much thought, “Yeah, but this crazy Portland weather … I left from my house on my bike at about 4:30 (it was now slightly after 6) and I had on THREE LAYERS then … and now I’m down to this t-shirt.”

He offered a pained grin. “Yeah, I’m down to my basics,” he replied casually.

I said, well, it was nice meeting him, hopped on my bike and pedaled away.

As I rode, it occurred to me that I had not wanted to ask the obvious question, which was “What exactly are your basics?” I hadn’t even noticed that that question had hung in the air.

I wonder how many other obvious questions I do not ask, because my mind blocks them from my sight, for various reasons.

Dec 042019
 

On a recent hike, I saw a lady walking her dog, and the dog was busy sniffing at everything in sight, completely immersed in the present moment, and I thought, “That dog is lucky he knows nothing about global warming and could never understand it, much less worry about it.”

But then I realized that from a universal standpoint – say, a god’s-eye-view – there really isn’t too much evolutionary distance between me and the dog. Our DNA is probably about 90% similar, or more.  

Who knows what a truly higher intelligence might perceive, looking at ME? 

So maybe, instead of envying the dog, I could be grateful for all the things I can’t possibly conceive to worry about.

Dec 042019
 

Recently I started reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Following Kondo’s program of discarding clothes, books, papers and other objects I don’t love, I can testify that LESS IS CERTAINLY MORE in this realm too. Getting rid of stuff (mostly by giving it away) that I don’t need or love affords me more peace of mind, precision of thought, ease of movement, productivity and comfort. (And of course it’s fun to do stoned.)

I depopulated my clothes closet by more than 30 percent. Freeing up zones of the closet floor, where I’d stacked shoeboxes of photographs, old cassette tapes and, yes, some shoes, I uncovered impertinently thick, bold dust bunnies that apparently thought they’d established dominion. Vacuuming them up felt like airing out the corners of my soul. An explosion of energy and clarity!

So I’ve been thinking about this whole “less is more” concept. I’m in big grief and fear about climate change, species extinction, the decimation of the world’s forests, the depleted aquifers, the diminishing topsoil, the fouling of the oceans. What’s driving all this pollution and destruction? Human consumption, right?

I’ve often wondered why the words “sacrifice” and “conservation” have all but disappeared from our cultural conversation. They do feel a bit like old, dead words, I guess, and yet we DO have to conserve, and we WILL have to give up a lot of stuff if the next generation is to stand a chance of inheriting a livable world.

So maybe LESS IS MORE should be the new eco-slogan and political rallying cry. It’s got a sexier ring to it than “sacrifice,” doesn’t it? It’s a flinty and energetic little meme. And it’s really true! Less IS more! Just try getting rid of stuff, and you’ll see.

Just maybe, “less is more” can save the (human) world. Who knows? Worth a try.

Dec 042019
 

I was walking up a hill recently in Tabor Park, near sunset time, toward a bench where I like to sit. I saw that someone was already seated there as I approached, and then the sun got in my eyes.

Normally I look away (right?) when the sun’s in my eyes, but for some reason I chose not to this time. I let the brightness overwhelm my vision. It somehow wasn’t quite bright enough to hurt; it was a magnificent orange-ish, pre-sundown glow.

I attained the top of the hill and I commented to the person on the bunch, whom I hadn’t even really been able to see up to the moment, “Something blinded me just now. Maybe it was you.” 

I meant it, of course, as a joke. 

The person came into focus, a young man, matted hair, clothes just soiled enough to signal to me that he was homeless. In response to my words, he summoned a brave, cringing grin. (Can you picture this?) He nodded sheepishly and said, “All right, sir.” This was his effort to respond with an appropriate spirit to what he (I believe) understood to be an attempt at humor, though I’m sure he really had no idea what on earth I was talking about, or that my nonchalant jest even contained kind of an obscure compliment – the suggestion that he could have been the source of that majestic light. I’m quite sure none of that computed, and in fact, I sensed he was a little frightened, in the way that helpless, hungry, physically weak, needy people will occasionally be intimidated by well-fed, large, confident-looking people who stride through the world with accustomed privilege.

Had it not been for the sun that had obscured my sight, I believe I would have read his body language during my approach, and perceived that he would have preferred to have been left alone. 

After our momentary interaction, the image of his pained expression did haunt me for a dozen steps or so, during which time I had the following sequence of thoughts:

What if I just offered this one man a place to stay for a night? No, I didn’t really want to invite him into my house. But what if I had an ADU in my backyard, where I could occasionally invite homeless people to stay? Oh no, then the word would get out. There’d be a line every night! Maybe I’d eventually have to make my ADU a “certified” homeless shelter, whatever that might involve and … jeez, what a headache. I certainly don’t have time for such a project in my life. 

And so I walked on with a largely untroubled heart. 

That entire thought sequence had taken about seven seconds. 

Dec 042019
 

Here is how I went slightly out of my way recently to accept a small gesture of kindness.

I had just bought a little chocolate fudge cupcake at the cupcake shop next to my bank. A postal worker, toting his sack, bought a cupcake right after I did. I thought he looked harried and hurried.

I ate most of my cupcake as I strolled leisurely out of the shop, heading first to the trash receptacle to deposit my little paper cupcake holder (you know, those things they serve cupcakes in). The mail carrier – who was clearly in a hurry, as I said – was already ahead of me on his way out, but he paused momentarily to hold the door open for me.

So I skipped my little detour to the trash receptacle in order to step through the door he held open, and to thank him. He nodded, and walked quickly away.

I sat down at a little table outside the cupcake shop, finished the final bite or two of my cupcake, wrote down this little account, and then stepped quickly back inside the cupcake shop to throw away my little paper cupcake holder.

Dec 032019
 

I recently picked up a book of essays by Portland, OR writer Wendy Willis, and I was moved to quote her on Facebook:

I grieve over the fact that an entire generation, including me, has been so careless and greedy and addicted to convenience that we have likely doomed the planet and all of its inhabitants to a bleak and catastrophic future. At this point, I am awash in grief that could, and sometimes does, overwhelm all other emotions.” — Wendy Willis

 

In these lines, Willis speaks for me and for, I imagine, many people.

A friend of mine responded in a comment below my post:

This is not one but many generations in the making.”

I replied: “Agreed. Perhaps even millennia in the making. Good point.”

 

Does “millennia” sound like hyperbole? On the one hand, the Industrial Age is only a few hundred years old, but I think the essential human mistake predates technology. I think the collective human heart went badly astray a very long time ago, when the dominant cultures of the world bit down hard on the dream of separation, on the illusion of life as a zero sum gain, on your-loss-is-my-gain, with concepts like land ownership and evil institutions such as slavery. I believe the seeds of catastrophic climate change were sown even during the building of the pyramids.

 

So maybe I can take a Taoist or Zen-like attitude toward the whole thing and accept that this apparently tragic ending to the human experiment was baked in the cake from the start, because there was really no avoiding all of us having the experience of separation, of being individual egos trapped in discrete bags of skin and bones, seeing through just this one pair of eyes, touching the world through only this particular pair of hands, and so on. It’s an extremely compelling illusion and it’s only natural that most of us have fallen for it pretty hard (as have entire societies, including our own), with the exception perhaps of mystics throughout the ages, and maybe the occasional revelatory altered state or serendipitous moment of awakening.

 

I walk in grief every single day. It is no use trying to change that. I am not clinically depressed. I have good moments, even happy ones, but there is a shadow over everything and that shadow is climate change and environmental destruction, and all the attendant ramifications. I also grieve the fact that torture exists and injustice persists, but nothing destroys my heart and cripples my sense of hope like the relentless, furious decimation of our ecosphere and apparently inevitable miseries to come, though perhaps I’ll die before the worst of them hit.

 

Here is a question I was presented with recently:

Is human nature still evolving. If so, how?

 

I think human nature had better be still evolving because it’s our only hope. And I do believe it is evolving, though I’m not sure it’s evolving fast enough to save us.

 

As for what evolution looks like, I believe that the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg offers a clue. When she came, with a group of fellow teenage activists, to speak about climate change recently to the French parliament, right-wing politicians boycotted her presentation and mocked her as “a prophetess in shorts” and the “Joan of Arc of climate change.” Her response:

 

Some people have chosen not to come here today, some have chosen not to listen to us and that is fine, we are after all just children, you don’t have to listen to us. But you do have to listen to the scientists, that is all we ask.”

 

Note the simple, irrefutable clarity of her words. Note the egolessness. Read the story.

 

Incidentally, the scientists are also having a difficult time emotionally.

 

Meanwhile, one very hot day last summer, I was in a dentist’s office, a coffee shop, a FedEx outlet, a bank and a grocery store, all of which had air conditioning, which felt heavenly. I think AC is probably needed at the dentist’s office; they’re doing precision work there and they probably need to be comfortable to perform at their best.

 
But I could do with at least a little less AC in New Seasons and the other places. At least somewhat less. I might be less comfortable, but I could look in the eyes of all the other shoppers (or coffee shop patrons or what-have-you) with the shared understanding and knowledge that we care about the future of the world and we are in the midst of an extraordinary crisis that threatens the future of human civilization (and perhaps the human species) and we will have to give up things if we are to have even a remote chance of heading off the worst consequences of climate change for our children and their children, and we’ll be comforted by the certainty that in our discomfort and fear we are at least not alone and our hearts can grow bigger and softer and more generous as we get more and more real with ourselves and each other about this, yeah? Like every single day, walking within the grief, but not alone.

 

What miracles we enjoy right now! Access to drinkable water everywhere, grocery stores packed with huge arrays of food from all over the world, a convenient medium of exchange (cash) … so many complex systems chugging along constantly that make our lives so convenient. What could conceivably make this way of living sustainable? Probably nothing. We’re on a crash course with disaster, even absent air conditioning. But we have to start somewhere. How do we attune our hearts to the possibility of a sustainable world for our babies … and start putting into place the requirements of that world?

 

What will we need to give up and what adaptations will we have to make, if we’re serious?

Dec 032019
 

I was at East Portland Coffee Roasters café, having a late-night dish of chocolate-peanut butter ice cream and a dark chocolate medallion and reading THE SUN magazine which featured an interview with Bill McKibben and an excerpt from his latest book Falter which described the inexorable changes that are to come as the spaces fit for human habitation on this planet steadily shrink over the decades to come and some days will be so hot in various population centers that just the heat alone will kill people, as it has begun to do already, and the jellyfish will proliferate in the warming oceans, and … well, the café was playing some Spotify station that featured 60s and 70s classic rock and the woman who was staffing the café is only 35 but she was rocking out to “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Weight” and “Can’t You See?” (by Marshall Tucker Band) and “Me and Bobby McGee” (Janis version of course) and “The Chain” (Fleetwood  Mac) and though I was sitting there reading about this crisis we’re all in, this impending horror, this massive change to come, this certainty of food and water scarcity in the world to come, this certainty of something I don’t really want to live to see (and I’m so sorry I didn’t stop it for everyone who’s younger than me), I was simultaneously moving my body back and forth, kind of rocking out in my chair and putting on a harmony to some of the song lyrics playing over the café speaker system, and before I left I had to ask the woman how she knew all this music that was from my time, not hers, and did she really love it? And ohhh she  loves it, she knows all of it, she grew up with it, and we agreed that music is by far our deepest pleasure, better than sex or food.

Dec 032019
 

I was going through a little rough patch emotionally. My friend and I were enumerating all our blessings, so that we would remember and so that I could keep my own little troubles in context. We covered the usual and the most obvious blessings: access to drinkable water all the time, everywhere. Food and shelter. All the amenities of white privilege in modern day America.

 

And then my friend said, “Connection. We’re connected. We have people who know us well, who care about us, whom we can turn to when we’re in trouble. That may be the biggest blessing of all.”

 

I remembered how, the previous night, two friends and I had seen the new Linda Ronstadt documentary at a Portland cinema, and afterward I gave a guy a dollar outside the theater. He asked me what movie I’d just seen and I told him, and then he wanted to talk about Linda Ronstadt. He started naming songs, and he wanted to sing them with me, and we sang a few snatches of song together. My friends were walking away without me up the sidewalk and this man just wanted to hang on to my company as long as he could, sharing old Linda Ronstadt hits. He was so hungry for connection.