Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Zoo Logic

My daughter was born on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when the veil between the worlds is thin and all the ancestors can mingle in the here and now, in their spirited, diaphanous sort of way. Or so I like to think.

We wanted an outdoor outing to celebrate the day. I suggested we go to the zoo. Dragonstar happily agreed. There were new exhibits to see since we’d last gone, new habitats to admire. It would be a pleasant way to spend a fall afternoon. The zoo. Perfect. It was settled.

And then I got my November issue of The Sun, that remarkable magazine out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Its featured piece – a long essay in place of the usual interview – was by one of my favorite authors, Derrick Jensen. This was the title of the essay:

"Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos. "

Well, then. Not so settled, after all. And now I was faced with a dilemma. I could read the essay and let it ruin our plans -- for I know the power of Jensen's writings -- or I could set the magazine aside for a few days, take my daughter to the zoo, and read the essay sometime later, when it would no longer hold sway over my behavior.

Of course I sat down and read the essay. And of course it utterly ruined our plans.

If you see an animal in a zoo, you are in control. You can come, and you can go. The animal cannot. She is at your mercy; the animal is on display for you. In the wild, the creature is there for her own purposes. She can come, and she can go. So can you. Both of you can display as much of yourselves to the other as you wish. It is a meeting of equals. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Two pages later:

Zoos, like pornography, offer superficial relationships based on hierarchy, dominance, and submission. They depend on a detached consumer willing to observe another who may or may not have given permission to be the object of this gaze.

Yes, Jensen is provocative. And no, it wasn’t the first time I’d found myself troubled by the idea of zoos and what Jensen calls their “world in a box” approach. No matter how pleasant the new “rainforest habitat” at our local zoo may appear, it isn’t real, it has borders, it holds its creatures captive. And no one who loves animals can really enjoy seeing them in cages.

But here's the thing: in reading Jensen’s essay when I did, I was able to consider all this before I actually paid our money and went inside our local zoo, whereas I am usually struck by sadness only after arriving and walking around and seeing all the creatures who would never be free. Call me a slow learner, call me self-absorbed, but at least this time I got the information I needed when I needed it: when it could actually influence my actions.

That is progress.

Will our going or not going to the zoo affect the lives of those creatures? Of course it will, in the same way the departed ancestors can affect us, if we’re willing to pay attention when they slip through the veil and join us for tea and sugar cookies. (Or birthday cake. ) When we withdraw our support from the things that hurt our souls – be it zoos or compulsory schools or the Bush administration – those things eventually lose their potency. And when we redirect our energies toward what is life-affirming and free, the world is enlivened, re-enchanted.

Dragonstar has decided she wants to go letterboxing instead. That’s more like it. We love a good treasure hunt. I just hope all the ancestors will fit in the car with us, and that at least one of them is good at reading a map.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My Gazebo, My Church

Yesterday I sat under a gazebo beside a small pond in the middle of a church parking lot, writing in my journal and listening to the rain while my daughter attended art and drama classes offered at the church by our homeschool co-op.

We live in church-going country, and all the homeschool groups here are church-based to some degree. We are not church people, and so have chosen the least-churchy of the groups to participate in. It’s worked out well enough. My daughter likes the classes, and no one has questioned our spiritual beliefs or practices, or tried to convert us, or made us feel unwelcome.

Still, I prefer to sit outside in the gazebo by the pond, rather than in one of the rooms made available to us inside: the fluorescent-lit lunchroom where toddlers play, or a classroom set aside for quiet study, where other moms pore over curriculum while their kids scribble away on worksheets. Outside, I can listen to the frogs in the pond, and offer up a few sun salutations in between paragraphs, and I have the gazebo all to myself.
But yesterday it got chilly, and windy, and rainy, and it occurred to me that I might be more comfortable inside, if only I could find a quiet place to work. So I gathered my things and went into the church.

Let me just say that they don’t build churches like they used to, which is a terrible shame, even for those of us who are not church people. The churches of the past are truly soulful places, built with reverence out of soulful materials: stone and brick and wood. They are lit through tall windows, and stained glass; they contain and transform the elements of the natural world, they do not try to exclude them.

The church I wandered through yesterday was a steel-frame mega-structure wrapped in vinyl cladding, hospital-clean and cavernous and corporate, and about as soulful as the food court at the mall. I wandered down hallways marked by overhead signs: gymnasium this way, restrooms here, classrooms to the left, offices to the right. I passed the main worship center, which occupies the central section of the building. All three sets of doors were locked. I looked through the narrow windows in the doors. It was pitch dark in there. No natural light whatsoever. That wouldn’t do, even if it the doors hadn’t been locked.

I finally found a room called a chapel. It, too, was locked, but as it was on the periphery of the building, and had windows along one outside wall, I could see inside. This was a chapel? If not for the trio of narrow wooden crosses on the wall, it could have been a corporate board room. There was even a plastic bottle of water, half-consumed, sitting on the edge of a “media booth” designed for power point presentations. I mean, really.

I don’t mean to pick on this particular church, because the mega-church a mile away is just like it, as is the mega-church across town. I just can’t understand the sort of spirituality that would lead one to embrace this sort of house of worship, any more than I can understand the desire to eat at the mall food court.

I went back outside and sat beneath the gazebo, watching the drops of rain hit the surface of the pond and the trees swaying in the wind. Even in the grey, the world looked illuminated, while inside that church, the worship center would remain as dark as pitch until someone thought to turn on a light. And maybe even after.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Mass Transit is Just Not Profitable!

At a mass transit meeting in Indianapolis recently, a representative from the Reason Foundation declared that the automobile would remain our mode of transportation for the "foreseeable future" and that mass transit options ran a distant second in addressing traffic congestion and corollary problems of sprawl and smog.

His argument went something like this: mass transit is just not profitable. It generally requires large expenditures of public funds to operate and maintain. And the Reason Foundation, as a libertarian think tank, holds to the ideology that public funds ought never be spent for things that private enterprise would otherwise handle if only there were sufficient profit in it. No profit to be made? That must mean people don't want it -- and if people don't want it, why build it?

I find this kind of reasoning circular and unhelpful, and more than a little disingenuous. The supporting infrastructure that made the automobile industry possible in the first place has been so heavily subsidized by public spending it ought to qualify as a branch of government. The interstate highway system was created with public funds. Local roads are built and maintained with public funds. Driver's licenses and vehicle registrations are administered by government agencies. Roads are patrolled by government workers -- police, sheriffs, state troopers.

It should come as no surprise that the Reason Foundation supports the status quo. It has produced studies and reports that claim that sprawl is not a problem and air pollution is not getting worse and that any difficulties that arise from global warming ought to be dealt with as they emerge, not taken as evidence of a need to change behaviors to ameliorate the trend itself. It's one approach, I suppose -- akin to the "race for the cure" rather than a "race for the cause" -- and it's reminiscent of Daniel Quinn's example of positioning ambulances at the bottom of a cliff to take the injured to the hospital, rather than installing a good barrier at the top to keep people from falling off in the first place.

The ambulance is profitable, you see. The hospital, ditto. The barrier, not so much.

The Reason Foundation argues that mass-transit ridership is simply insufficient to support a system economically. But here's a news flash: those interstates were pretty empty at first. And as anyone who's ever driven I-90 knows, a lot of them remain pretty empty for long, desolate stretches even now.

The simple truth is, if we believe there can be no alternative to the automobile "in the foreseeable future" then we will have no alternative. Rather than invest our imaginative efforts into developing a new transportation paradigm, we will simply drive ourselves over the cliff again and again, and wage wars over oil to perpetuate our lifestyle, and pretend that all is as it must be.

When I lived in Los Angeles I sometimes took the train to my job in San Bernardino, some 70 miles inland. That train ride was often the best part of my day. When I lived in Boulder I commuted by Express bus to Denver to work downtown, and it was a pleasure. A pleasure!

Imagine that.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Only Affirmation You Need

About twenty years ago I began working with Affirmations and Intentions and the Law of Attraction, with the concepts of thoughts as things, and the collective consciousness of the universe -- all the stuff that's recently re-emerged into the general awareness through books like The Secret and authors like Byron Katie and Eckhart Tolle.

My introduction to these ideas and concepts came when a friend and I stumbled into a Science of Mind church in Glendale, California, where they happened to be at the beginning of an eight-week course in Manifesting Abundance. Since my friend and I were both a bit impoverished at the time, it seemed like a good idea to stay and see what unfolded.

So we stayed, and for eight weeks at that church we wrote things down on pads of paper, we made lists, we meditated on our purpose, we affirmed our desires, we visualized achieving our goals. We were told to go home and practice our affirmations and visualizations, to come back the following Sunday for another booster shot of positive thinking, and we did. And I'm glad we did, because twenty years later I'm here to testify: this stuff works.

But let me add one caveat: it doesn't necessarily work the way you think it does.

The basic idea of affirmations, and setting intention, and visualization, is to figure out what you want, commit yourself to your goal, and let the universe help guide you wherever it is you want to go. You name the "what" and let the universe handle the "how." Simple? Yes. Easy? Hardly.

Here are some things I've learned in the past twenty years about getting what you want.

1. You don't always know what you want, and you don't always want what you think you want. From the time you were born, you have been receiving all kinds of messages telling you what it is you should want, what you're good for, what you can expect for yourself, what you deserve. You have been trained to want things that might not have anything to do with what you really want.

2. You can get what you think you want, and still not have what you really want. See #1.

3. Other people often want things for you that you confuse for what you want for you. Parents and spouses are sometimes guilty of laying their own desires onto your shoulders. You can waste an awful lot of time going after someone else's dream.

4. If you examine your life it will be clear what you've been programmed to want because your life will be full of it. It may not be what you really want, but if you've been operating on default, what you have is indeed what you've been asking for. If what you have is not what you really want, it's time to ask for something else.

5. The hardest part about Affirmations and Setting Intention is figuring out what you really want. Sometimes the search to uncover our deepest desires seems overwhelming. If you've been operating on default for a long time, you may have to sift through a lot of programming to find out what makes your heart sing. But the answer is in there. For a clue, try to recall what you wanted out of life when you were nine or ten and go from there.

But remember the caveat. When I was ten, I thought I wanted a horse. What I really wanted was to be free. It's taken me a lot of years to recognize that the one was actually a symbol for the other. This is why I say that Affirmations, Intentions, and the Law of Attraction don't work the way you might think they do. The process is less linear than it may appear, and more dream-like, more Jungian.

Once you get clear about what you really (really, really!) want -- the only affirmation you need is the one that says "Yes." But getting free and clear of all that other stuff, now that is probably the work of a lifetime.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A Wee Bit Random Tonight

September ended with a crash of cymbals, a drum solo, and a long slow fade into the cricket-chirp of a new month. The BBPiT returned from Denmark and proclaimed that the Danes have it all over us in so many ways. No billboards! Universal health care! Windmills! Traffic circles! Extra letters in their alphabet!

I fear they will be under water when the polar ice caps melt, though, considering they are a country not even half the size of Ohio -- for now -- surrounded on three sides by water, barely more than a land bridge between Germany and Sweden. Apparently they did not have a winter this past year, if weather is what makes a winter. It's warmer there than it used to be, in other words, but at least no brain-eating amoeba have been discovered on the Baltic shores yet, one more point for their side.

Dragonstar has been immersed in Tamora Pierce, and I've been reading Ursula LeGuin's Tales from Earthsea and Seth Godin's blog, learning about wind mages from the one and zip cars from the other. For some reason my library shelves most of LeGuin's work in the Young Adult section (along with Tamora Pierce). Not sure why this is, though I have noticed that most of the fantasy genre fiction in the adult stacks centers on wars and medieval-esque social arrangements, two elements which are largely absent in LeGuin's work. Draw conclusions as you will. For those who are interested in tracking it down, Tales was made into an anime feature film in 2006.

And the zip car thing is a great idea, never mind the likelihood that we will all be riding horseback again (in the brave new post-petroleum world of the future) by the time they make it to my fair city.