Sunday, December 28, 2008

15 Things I Learned in 2008*

  1. I don't always want what I think I want. For some reason I keep learning this one over and over.
  2. Buying a house is like renting a house. You just have a different landlord.
  3. Even with a reel mower I don't like mowing the yard in August.
  4. Traveling by train could be awesome. I hear it's awesome elsewhere. The Amtrak from Flagstaff, Arizona to St. Louis? Meh.
  5. Gas at four dollars a gallon will still get me where I need to go. Turns out I need to go to far fewer places than I thought I did.
  6. I'm a lazy gardener.
  7. Scottsdale, Arizona, has an amazing Art Walk.
  8. You can make a great tomato sauce by roasting canned tomatoes with onions, garlic, olive oil and basil. Toss everything in a glass baking dish. Be generous with the olive oil. Leave it uncovered. Put it in the oven at 300 degrees or so. Give it a couple hours. Stir it once in awhile. Puree it in a blender when it's done. Delicious.
  9. Meeting cool people -- online and in real life -- is one of the best things about unschooling.
  10. It's also one of the best things about blogging.
  11. I miss working in community radio.
  12. Sometimes problems are so intrinsic, or so intransigent, they're not problems anymore, they're just facts.
  13. Sometimes I'm the problem.
  14. Sometimes there is no problem, just a set of mind-forg'd manacles.
  15. Whoopie cushions make outstanding Christmas gifts.
* with a tip of the winter-weather sock cap to the awesome Communicatrix, who posts her list of 100 (!!) such things at the end of each year, and has been doing it since 2004, and puts my meager attempt to shame...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On the Longest Night

The world needs you to go where you want to go and be who you are meant to be.

The world needs you to shine as you were born to shine.

The world needs you as you stumble and fall, it needs you as you rise up, it needs your hands to hold on tight, it needs you to let go.

The world needs your laughter and your power and your grief.

On the longest night of the year, the world needs you to be the light.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


In The Original Affluent Society, anthropologist Marshall Sahlins proposed that members of hunter-gatherer cultures worked far less than members of our own culture, making their living in only three to five hours a day. The rest of their time was leisure. Hours upon hours of farting around.

Can you imagine being that free?

What would happen if making your living took only a few hours a day instead of 40, 50, 60 hours a week? What if you could earn enough money to live well in only three to five hours? What would you do with the rest of your time?

What would enough money look like? Would it be twice as much as you have?

Can you imagine it being half as much?

Or less?

I'm wondering these things as I read the dire forecasts for our economy, resonant with the drumbeat of retail woes and massive job layoffs. The latest figures for unemployment are unnerving. How can there be so many people without jobs when there is so much important work to be done?

Do you feel the disconnect? We're trained to make money and spend money. Everything depends on it. But the cat is out of the bag, the secret's revealed, the emperor is buck-naked. Our capacity to earn money is largely beyond our control, and our ability to spend is problematic. Shopping itself has become a moral issue. We know we can't continue to consume the planet, but what happens when we stop consuming? Our economy falls to pieces.

Well, sooner or later the economy has to fall to pieces. It's inevitable. Nature bats last.

Still, there is plenty of shopping going on this holiday season. Parking lots around town are full. Maybe we can't help ourselves. Maybe it's vestigial, a leftover from those hunter-gatherer days. We're born to glean, drawn to shiny.

I just wonder how we'll take to the paleolithic work day, once nature has her ups.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig wrote something to the effect that the Buddha can be found in the workings of a motorcycle as surely as on the mountaintop.

By the same logic, is the Buddha present in the guts of my dvd player? Can the Buddha be found in a cluster bomb? In a land mine?

Is the skyscraper as natural as the beehive?

The guts of my dvd player are unlovely, but I've seen the guts of deer spread out on the highway, and they are not particularly lovely, either.

What makes something holy? Is this a quantum question, the answer residing as much in the observer as in the thing observed?

What does it mean to be broken? Are we broken? Are we in need of redemption? And why does salvation, if needed, come not in this life -- where it might actually be useful -- but only after one is dead? Of what use is that?

We have a new dvd player. The old one is now salvage. Copper wire, resistors, circuit boards. Ashes to ashes.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

That One Small Thing

When you find that one (small) thing that you do really, really well, don't think of it as one small thing. Think of it as your perfectly jigged piece of an infinite puzzle.

When you fit your piece into the whole, the whole becomes seamless, and your part of the universe becomes part of the Great Art of life.

If your piece is missing, the empty space where you belong is the only thing you notice.

The powerful play goes on, says Whitman. Show up. Make your mark. Contribute.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Five Things (Including Spoons)

The artful and talented Mary Buek asked me to play tag and share with you five unusual things about me. My blog posting has been limited while I work toward completing my Big Writing Project offline, so I'm happy to play, if only for a change of pace.

I don't know how unusual any of these things really are, but here goes:
  • None of my spoons match. When Dragonstar was younger (and really, even now) she would use the spoons in the flatware drawer as digging implements. Out the door they'd go, never to return. So I began buying handfuls of assorted spoons at the thrift store. Now we all have our favorites, which is really much more fun than having every spoon the same. Maybe I could encourage her to dig with our forks next.
  • I played the role of Hamlet in a school play. Alas, poor Yorrick.
  • I used to be on the radio. I did morning shows in Southern California and played cowboy music in Phoenix.
  • I was president of my junior high student council. One of my campaign promises was to get the doors on the women's restroom stalls re-installed. They had all been removed years before, in a rude display of administrative authority. I was a notorious student, a known pot smoker and class-skipper whose locker was searched on a regular basis. The students didn't care about that. I won the election and got those restroom stall doors replaced. (Can you tell this is still a point of pride for me?)
  • I like the smell of gasoline and the smell of old tires. There's a story there. I'll share it sometime.
Since this is a game of tag, if you' d like to play, consider yourself tagged, and link back so I can visit you and see just how unusual you are.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Dragonstar's Dragon

I meant to put this up sooner. She's been 13 for almost three weeks now, and we're just getting around to sending out the thank-you notes to her two grandmas (yeah, we've been remiss in many areas) and I put a copy of this picture into the notecards and remembered I wanted to show it to you, too.

We didn't arrange the candles in any particular way, we just stuck them willynilly into the cake, lit them, and took the picture. The flames and the camera did the rest.

Pretty cool.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

How to Get What You Want

Most people aren't thinking about what you want. No, really. It's not that they don't care about you, or don't like what you do. It's that they're busy. Like you. Or preoccupied. Like you. Or in their own private Idaho. (Maybe also like you.)

If you want people to do something, it's good to ask. In big letters. Right up front.

The BBPiT reports that tips are up since we made this sign for him. He lights it with a little battery-powered lamp, sets it up right in front of the band. People are happy to oblige.

When you want something, don't assume people can read your mind. Ask.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Let Them Fall

I don't know diddly about investment banking, but I know when I've been handed a shit sandwich.

The "economy" they want to stabilize with an ever-growing government bailout? It's a mirage.

The "credit" they insist we need to keep the thing afloat? It's dirty magic.

Can we "afford" to let these lunatic financial institutions fail?

Yes we can.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On Fear

Years ago, in the days of LISTSERVs, I participated in an email discussion that focused on the intersection of feminism and ecology. The posts were intense. We were writing about matters close to our hearts, and things would get very heated.

I got to the point where I dreaded opening my email because the criticisms that landed in my inbox felt so personal. And sometimes they were personal. After a few weeks I quit the list. It was too much for me.

Maybe you’ve gone through something similar.

I live an unconventional life. I hold some unconventional opinions, and sometimes I like to write about them. I don’t want my fear of harsh judgment to stop me from writing.

I know that fear can't be conquered, not really, that all I can do as a writer is put fear in my pocket and carry it along with me. But sometimes I don’t do that. Sometimes I let fear stop me in my tracks.

Maybe you do that, too.

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a piece of writing that scares me.
The subject matter is, again, close to my heart, and again I hear the harsh voice of criticism every time I sit down to work. But this time it’s not in my inbox, it’s in my head.

The voice demands to know who the hell I think I am, tackling this subject. The voice tells me I’m no expert, that I lack credentials, that I have no business expressing an opinion. The voice is like a shadow on the wall that swells to monster size the more I duck my head and try to ignore it.

I don’t know how to silence that voice, how to vanquish that shadow. So I’m writing about it here, in the hope that by shining a light on it, it will shrink back to a manageable size, and I can get some work done.

And maybe, knowing you’re not alone in feeling similar fears, you can take heart, and get some work done, too.

Okay, then. Thanks for your indulgence. Carry on.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Fine Print

This arrived in my mailbox today, tucked in with the rest of the flotsam accompanying my phone bill.The page measures 14" x 7," folded to create four panels of 3.5"x 7" each. It's printed front and back in a point size approaching nil. It is nigh impossible to read, which is, of course, intended as well as ironic, coming as it does from a communications company.

Its purported purpose is to inform me of my privacy rights with respect to my telephone and internet accounts. It's actual purpose is to obfuscate, frustrate, and irritate. So far it's succeeding wildly.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change is Good

Leaves were falling just like embers
in colors red and gold they set us on fire

~Roly Saly, Killing the Blues

Sometime in the middle of the night, the leaves on the trees turned from green to gold, and Indiana turned from red to blue.

Not since voting for Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election has this state awarded its electoral votes to a Democrat. I had to change my blog profile. I'm no longer blue in a red state.

I think the citizens of the United States surprised the world yesterday. I think we may have even surprised ourselves.

It's good to know we can still do that.

Friday, October 31, 2008


I bought candy for the tricksters but I forgot to turn my porch light on, so I was bypassed, and now I have a bowl of Kitkats to keep me company this evening. I've put them out of reach in the kitchen, but I know where the step stool is. We'll see how I do.

We're still a couple hours shy of the midnight hour so I'm jumping the gun just a little but I can't wait any longer to wish my daughter a Happy 13th birthday. The cake is cooling on the rack (more chocolate!) and there will be pizza tomorrow. Tonight she's celebrating with her dad. When she comes home she'll be a teenager.

We colored her hair a vibrant red. If I'm lucky tomorrow she'll let me take her picture.

The image above is of a mask she created for me at this year's Live & Learn conference. I wore it to the Masquerade Ball on the last night of the conference, when we all gathered in the big hall to dance to Abba and the Village People.

I miss my unschooler buds. As the nights grow chilly I long for autumn bonfires and stargazing with my tribe. Some of them are gathering in Tennessee this weekend. We're there in spirit.

Tomorrow the BBPiT and I are up early to attend a campaign event with Joe and Jill Biden. Apparently the Democrats believe this traditionally Red State is still up for grabs. We haven't gone blue in these parts since 1964. I remember feeling hopeful on the eve of the '92 election, and silly me, I'm hopeful once more. We'll see.

Have a spirit-filled weekend.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Post-it Post

I've got a Holiday Art Sale coming up, along with two shows to hang in the next several weeks, so my work has involved more needle and thread these days than keyboard. But I've got a goal I'm bearing down on in the word-works department, a little book I hope to have finished by that Significant Birthday I mentioned in my last post. (There, now I've told you, so I really need to get it finished or I'll have you to answer to.)

Meanwhile I have a dear friend who has been in and out of the hospital for a month, another who is neck-deep in family issues, a third who is caught by a restlessness of spirit for which she can find no release. Send them your good thoughts, would you? We need to raise each other up right now. Today. Always.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Dreadful Selfish Crime

I am guilty of a dreadful, selfish crime.

I have wasted all my precious time.

Robert Earl Keen

On a recent weekend I wandered around the house with my tea mug in hand, looking for a place to alight and do nothing. I found several suitable locations: the comfy chair in the living room, the comfy chair in my bedroom, the comfy chair in front of the desktop computer. I spent considerable time in each of them.

I watched The West Wing on dvd. I re-read Artemis Fowl: the Opal Deception (a young-adult fantasy novel of great creativity and little depth. The perfect choice.) I played computer games. I browsed the web. I found Sheboygan, Wisconsin and decided I had to go there. They have a beautiful art center, which is a good enough reason to make the trip, but really, I just want to tell people I’m going to Sheboygan. I like saying the name. Sheboygan.

Anyway, I’m approaching a Significant Birthday. A milestone birthday. And I’m wondering if maybe I’ve allowed myself a few too many weekends like that one. It’s the kind of thing you wonder as birthdays like this roll around. Am I doing enough? Am I contributing enough? Have I accomplished anything? Am I making a difference? Or am I spinning my wheels, idling, wasting my (all of a sudden very) precious time?

Luckily for me, this past Friday I performed with my guitar at a local Peace with Justice event at a church across the river. I heard the hostess introduce me with words like “published poet” and “artist” and “unschooler.” None of those words applied to me ten years ago, when I first started performing. All of them took some work -- and some time -- to achieve. Now they're a part of who I am, and what I've done. What I do. So really, I have been busy. It just doesn’t seem that way – or feel that way – on a day-to-day basis.

On a day-to-day basis the grass doesn’t appear to grow, either.

Lots of people never have the good fortune of being introduced to an audience and hearing their accomplishments enumerated. But we can enumerate them ourselves. And we should. Even if you’re not staring down a Significant Birthday, you can still take stock. Maybe you’ll realize that you are indeed wasting your precious time -- and you'll get up and get going. And maybe you’ve done a lot more than you give yourself credit for, even as you know there’s so much more to do. If that's the case, maybe you can give yourself a wee bit of a break, already.

Consider: if I hadn’t been wasting time that weekend, I wouldn’t have discovered (here it comes again) Sheboygan. I’m thinking road trip. I hear it’s pretty there this time of year.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day

Jesus was a man who traveled through the land,
A hard-working man and brave.
He said to the rich, "Give your goods to the poor."
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Woody Guthrie

Today is Blog Action Day. This year's theme is Poverty. Given the focus of the news media and the world's governments these past few weeks, all I can think is, how ironic.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Okay, Now We're Awake

We were late. Rushing out the door to get downtown for an unscheduled appointment. Dragonstar wasn't even quite awake. Eyes at half-mast, bagel in hand. She ducked her head and climbed into the back seat of my little two-door compact car.

And shrieked. And flew back out of the car, pale, tripping over the seat belt in her frantic haste.

The eyes were wide now. Very wide. I thought a bee had gotten into the car. She is frightened of bees. No, it wasn't a bee.

"It's the spider."

Not a spider. The spider. This one, who has been sharing our back porch for weeks.

She is perhaps three inches long from tip to toe. Black body, striped and dotted with white and green and red. A garden spider. Her web is large, 18" across, with the characteristic zig-zag down the center. She had originally spun it between two tall bamboo sticks on the porch. But sometime during the night she had left the bamboo, crawled across the carport, climbed into my open car window and made a new web, suspended from the rear window, crossing to the headrest of the passenger seat in front.

Yeah. I would have backed out double time, too. And shrieked twice, just for good measure.

Dragonstar and I exchanged looks. We were late. We had to get the spider out. How was this going to happen?

I had no net handy, but I did have two badminton rackets nearby. Of all things. I grabbed them and was puzzling out how to put them to use when the BBPiT chose that moment (oh, happy day!) to come out on the porch to see what all the ruckus was about. I pointed into the car, handed him the badminton rackets, and prayed. He reached in and carefully caged the spider between the two rackets, brought her out and set her back in the bamboo.

"Roll up your window from now on," he said.

Will do, bucko.

Monday, October 6, 2008

What's Done

Sometimes the Big Picture gets away from me. I lose my place in line, forget what the point was, digress into the minutia that is my daily life: the spilled ink, the stray bits of thread, the distraction of national drama and dishes piled in the sink. What is all this? I ask, and where did my Big Life go?

I had this Grand Idea a few weeks back, and it was Exciting and Important (well, to me, anyway), and I called upon the winds of Imagination and Visualization to fill my sails and get me out of harbor, and now, a few short weeks into it, I'm back to using my oars and feeling silly out here in the middle of the ocean, bobbing like a cork, no land in sight.

Artists don't dream of making great art, say the authors of Art & Fear, they dream of having made great art. Or, as Dorothy Parker put it, I hate to write. I love having written.

I visualize the end product, but not the daily process. That's my error. Because one page at a time, one sentence at a time, it's the doing that matters. What's done is just... done.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Truly Gifted Blogger

.... knows how to keep you coming back for more. Or is that Moore?

(Go ahead and click. I promise it's not the Moore that makes some of you crazy...)

Tip of the hat to Lisa Hoffman for the link.

Credit: sculpture by Kelly Moore

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Thoughts on the Bailout, Interrupted by a Walk

Thoughts before walking:

What's up with this $700 billion bailout?

* * *

Thoughts while walking:

Aren't you glad your legs work?
Yes. Very glad.
It's warm already. The sun feels good.
I think that bird just wolf-whistled at me.
Can a bird actually wolf-whistle?

Look at that great sunporch.
I would love to have a sunporch.

Perfect blue sky.

Those coffee trees aren't pretty, exactly. More like distinctive.
This is where we saw the bats the other night.
Car coming up behind me. Okay, now I'm self-conscious.
Does my butt look big?
Oh, never mind. Just walk.
That's really loud music coming from that Hummer. Really loud.
Why is it so loud?
Never mind. Let it be. Just walk. And breathe. Breathe big.

Look how they keep their Asian dayflowers from taking over the yard.
They cut them. Smart.
Halloween stuff out already. I like the skulls.
What a funny way to do a sidewalk, ending it in the middle of the yard like that.
Did they do that on purpose?

One more hill. Legs still working.

Oh, that was a bluejay! Where did it go? I thought it flew right into this bush, but now I don't see it.
I hear it, though. It's in there somewhere.

* * *

Thoughts after walking:

So... what's really up with this $700 billion bailout?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This is The Show

My signed copy of Patti Digh's Life is a Verb showed up in the mail last week, and I've been keeping it close at hand on my writing desk where I can open it at random throughout the day to read a few pages at a time. I'm savoring the art, the wisdom, and, most especially, the stories. One favorite: the tale of 10-year-old Emma at her first auction. (No, sorry, I'll say no more. Go grab your own copy and turn to page 22. If you don't yet have a copy, for goodness' sake get one.)

In the back of her wonderful book, Patti has left us a reading list for further illumination. As if her book didn't offer illumination enough. On the list were many things I hadn't read. Never one to read one book at a time when I could be immersed in half a dozen, it was off to the library for me.

In my defense, look at these titles. They're irresistible.

I've already read through Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, which is 120 pages of kind and practical thoughts about art and art making. Here's one insight I love:

"Art is made by ordinary people."

Yes. Moreover, say the authors, the ideal artist is ordinary, too. Human, flawed. Just like you. Just like me. Here's another:

"What's really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprise along the way."

These guys aren't just writing about art, are they. They're writing about life.

Speaking of which... in the midst of this influx of bountiful wisdom courtesy of Patti, I had what is probably the most obvious of epiphanies, and I'll share it if only to show you that you're never too old to begin to get this stuff. It dawned on me that this thing we're all doing, this daily showing up, this is it. I mean, This is It. This is not preamble, prelude, rehearsal, introduction. This is not training, preparation, rough draft. This is Life. Yours, mine. We're in it. This is The Show.

I told you it was obvious. So how is it I've managed to go so long without really getting it?

This is The Show.

I wrote that in big letters in my morning pages journal. THIS IS THE SHOW. And then, strange things started to happen.

I got a check in the mail for six pieces of art I sold.

I got a call to teach a class.

I got a request to perform with my guitar at a Peace & Justice event, where I will sing some of my own songs and get paid for it.

And I realized that these things, and a million other small things like them, are the substance of my life. They're not what I do while I wait for my life to begin. They're not side jobs. They are IT. They are The Show.

Reader, it is as though I've been dancing around the narrow edge of a great empty space that I've been holding open for the day my life arrives. Suddenly the empty space is full of what was always there. It's solid ground, and I'm free to dance across its entire surface. Has my life finally arrived? You could say that. Has it been there all along? Well, what do you think?

I said yes to the performance, yes to the class. I deposited the check and sent my thanks to the Universe (and to the sender.) And now I send them to Patti, whose book has started something. I'm not sure what, exactly, but it looks like life to me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


It happens every year. At the first hint of fall -- the first time I notice the changing light in my workroom, the first night the temperatures drop below 60 degrees -- I start to feel a little edgy, even a little crazy. I have to remind myself: it's September, the ninth month, the birthing month. Whatever has been gestating this year is getting ready to emerge.

Gather yourself, I say. You've done this before. Breathe, breathe.

In childbirth lingo this period of crazy intensity that comes at the peak of labor is called transition. Such a gentle word. Such an out-of-control experience.

So what is it I've been gestating this year?

The other day I dragged out my ambitious projects and works-in-progress that have languished for much of the summer in the recesses of my heat-enfeebled mind. I shook them out in the crisp air of autumn and tried them on for size. Are they still comfortable? Are they too small? Do they feel constricting, or are they so baggy and ill-defined I can't find myself for all the shapelessness?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. (I know: crazy.)

For the past two years this transitional ritual of mine has come on the heels of a five-day unschoolers conference in North Carolina, which has made the process of transition all the more challenging. Both times Dragonstar and I have returned from Live & Learn, I've stumbled through a period during which nothing from before seems to quite align with my returning self. Time spent among a tribe of like-minded souls clarifies my perspective: it's like getting a new pair of glasses after making do for too long with an out-of-date prescription. When I get back home, things look different.

So I'm fumbling along, carried on that wave of transitional momentum, feeling a little out of my element. Like the last few weeks of pregnancy, nothing really fits. My world is suddenly very big, and my work feels far too small in relation.

How did this happen?

As Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes said, day by day nothing seems to change, but pretty soon everything's different.

Including us.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Between Here and Home

I've been back for days, but I'm not really here. I'm still up there in the mountains... still on that porch, in one of those green rocking chairs, tucked behind the tall trees, listening to the sound of the creek below, and the kids and the crickets and cicadas.

My thoughts have run wild and refuse to coalesce. I trust they'll come together sooner or later. They always do. In the meantime, I'm attending to chores, weeding the overgrown herb beds in my yard, preparing meals. Washing dishes. Drinking tea and more tea. Humming a tune.

Do these things with care, say the trees and the creek and the cicadas, and let that be enough.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Unschoolers are Coming

My emailbox has been unusually full this past week, not so much because I’m suddenly popular, but because I’m on an email list of unschoolers who are planning to attend the Live & Learn Unschoolers Conference that gets underway this Wednesday in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Several hundred of us are about to converge on the Blue Ridge Assembly in the mountains above Asheville, moms and dads and babies and teens and grandparents and life partners and all manner of folk in between. Many are seasoned unschoolers. Others will be new to the whole idea. Some will leave baffled. Others will leave as new members of a joyful tribe.

My daughter has always been an unschooler. I was conventionally schooled. As she learns, I unlearn, relearn. The longer we do it, the greater its implications in our lives, and the greater our influence on those around us. We have changed minds, just by being who we are and doing what we do. And our lives have changed, just by being among other unschoolers.

In the early days, I carried a lot of schooly thoughts in my head. I embraced the essence of natural learning – that we learn what we learn in our own time, in our own way – but I didn’t know at first what would replace the workbooks and curriculum and schooly stuff. I still thought in the language of school: subjects, semesters, “What Every x-Grader Should Know.”

So for a while I measured our lives against the artificial construct of institutionalized schooling, and tried to find ways to wedge our activities into their appropriate “subject” categories. Even though we were quite free of school in many ways, in the beginning I thought in terms of the world as our classroom. Dragonstar -- and other unschoolers -- taught me that, as Grace Llewellyn writes, the world is not a classroom, the world is the world.

What replaces the workbooks and curriculum? Absolutely nothing. And absolutely everything. The world is the world.

At the conference there will be lectures and roundtable discussions. There will be (somewhat) organized activities known as funshops. There will be a picnic. There will be a masquerade ball. There will be kids with painted hair and faces and grandmoms with tattoos. There will be trails to walk and a creek to wade in.There will be five sweet days of letting someone else do the cooking.

The unschoolers are coming to Black Mountain. Dragonstar and I head out on Tuesday.

credit: "Embryo" original pen & ink by ps pirro

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Living on Purpose

Social networking sites on the internet are worlds beyond my ken. And yet in the past several weeks I’ve joined three. What’s up with that?

I’m still not participating very much on any of them, having barely gone beyond introductions and posting a suitable photo. I find them a wee bit daunting, and I’m not sure why I’m there. Yet there I am.

Is that not the question of our time -- why we're doing what we do?

Last week on How to Save the World Dave Pollard had a great list of seventeen questions to consider when pondering one’s life purpose. I love this kind of exercise. And over at Steve Pavlina’s site I found a similar tool in the archives. So many of us are looking for answers, for insight, for guidance, all of which suggest still another question: why do we puzzle so much over why we’re here?

Why is our purpose such a mystery?

I once told a friend that you know you’re living on purpose when time disappears. I no longer completely trust that answer. Yes, time disappears when I’m writing, when I’m making art, when I’m wandering in the woods, when I’m engrossed in conversation, whenever I’m fully present and paying attention. Alas, time also disappears when I sit in front of the television and watch episode after episode of the West Wing. Or play yet another round of whatever computer game has captured my fancy.

It could be that Kurt Vonnegut was right when he said we’re here to fart around. Yet for all his farting around he published fourteen novels and nine collections of stories and essays. That sounds to me like a life lived on purpose.

After all the exercises and all the contemplation, I remain a little baffled by the whole subject. And I’m beginning to think that maybe purpose is like happiness. Like love. Maybe my real task is to become fully at home in my skin and porous to my surroundings, staying attentive and curious and open, so that purpose can reveal itself as I go, and so that I might recognize it when it does. Maybe the recognition isn’t even important. I’m here to Be Here. Could it be that simple?

I spend a lot of time pondering. I wonder as much as anyone about the meaning of life, mine in particular. But I also know that too much thinking about life -- the point, the purpose -- interferes with the living of it.

I suspect that discovering our purpose – if indeed we have one, or even many– is less a matter of figuring it out than of letting it find us. And maybe that's why I’m wandering around in three new social networking sites, and saying yes to new work, and to new opportunities. I’m making myself a little more visible, so purpose will at least have an easier time of it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Everyday Influence

Sometimes the doomsday prognostications of peak oil and climate change and the end of civilization as we know it make me crazy, not because I don’t believe them, but because I do, and I don’t know how to act in light of so many seemingly intractable problems.

So I’m grateful to Chris Corrigan at Parking Lot for posting a thoughtful what-to-do list for those of us who are sometimes unsure of our relevance – let alone our influence – in the world beyond our doorstep. And for reminding me that how I respond to everyday things is at least as important as any other single influence I might have.

Do I freak out when the power goes out (to use Chris's example)? I don’t. I'm actually good in a crisis, and I handle most inconveniences pretty well. But when the grass keeps growing and I have to mow yet again, when the food gets eaten and I have to grocery shop and cook once more, when the house won’t stay clean and the laundry won’t stay done, I can get a little testy. Yes, I can. And getting testy does me no good and doesn’t get the mowing, the cleaning, or the laundry any closer to done. Plus it makes those around me testy, and that’s no fun.

So I guess there are a few things I need to work on.

I’m grateful, too, for the link in Chris’s post to an essay by George Monbiot that just about sums up the arc of my entire life as a working girl: do what you love, but don’t expect the money – or the power, or the prestige – to follow. Because it probably won’t. And you have to be okay with that.

If your dreams are leading you down an unconventional path, by all means pursue them. They are leading you toward what makes you come alive, and as Howard Thurman famously said, the world needs people who have come alive. Ignore the advice of those who try to steer you along a more acceptable path. Most of all, beware the velvet handcuffs of the corporate job. Never forget that no matter how loyal you may be to a corporation, a corporation can never be loyal to you in return. It exists to serve its shareholders, and if you work for it, so do you.

So follow your heart. Just be prepared to live frugally. Our society desperately needs radicals and activists and artists and dreamers – it always has – but it doesn’t reward them, financially or otherwise – and it never did. Those of us who are devoted to doing what makes us come alive have to find our rewards elsewhere. We have to recognize our “nested spheres of influence and connection,” to use Corrigan’s lovely phrase, and serve those connections, and draw our strength, and our rewards, from them.

There is great and good work to be done. Yours, mine, and ours. I'll do what's in front of me. And whatever it may be -- writing this essay, folding the clothes -- I have to trust that it will be enough, at least for today.

Credit: Dragonstar in a t-shirt from our old coffeehouse.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

(Not) Back to School

School began this week in our southern Indiana town, the yellow bus rolling down our street at 7:45, the kids pulling their wobbly wheeled packs down the alley.

Dragonstar and I wave at the bus, and continue with our summer. We're not smug (really, we're not) but we truly do love not going back to school.

About a month ago we met some other local unschoolers, which was a godsend for us. For the ten or so years we’ve lived in this area, we’ve known only one other unschooling family, though we know lots of homeschoolers. Now we have the makings of a tribe of our own, a small group of honest-to-goodness radical unschoolers who live as if school doesn’t exist. We don’t use curricula. We don’t follow grades. We don’t break the world down into subjects for study. We don’t want a broken world; we want a whole one, a holy one: intact, interconnected, complex, mysterious, miraculous.

For many years Dragonstar and I have sought communion with unschoolers online, via email lists and web forums. Last year we went to the Live & Learn Conference in North Carolina, the largest gathering of unschoolers and prospective unschoolers in the country. We’re going again this year, in less than a month, and we’re looking forward to being among so many like-minded people once again.

But here at home, finding others like us has been a lean search. And that takes a toll. When you don’t see much of yourself reflected in the world, it’s easy to pick up doubt, to question your path, to second-guess your decisions. And every year, as we see the first yellow school bus roll by, I do question, and I do second-guess.

But I no longer doubt.

Unschooling is a lot like faith – any faith, religious, metaphysical, political. (And if you don’t think politics is based on faith and a belief in things unseen, you probably haven’t thought much about politics, let alone about faith.) If we never probe our beliefs, if we never look deeper into the what and why and how come and who says, our convictions will be thin and brittle, dogmatic, received wisdom at best. Our faith – not to mention our lives – will not be our own. We will not grow. We will not thrive. It isn’t a betrayal of faith to question it; it’s essential.

Dragonstar and I have been unschoolers for many years, and we think differently today than we did a year ago, five years ago, ten. Don’t you? And while we answer criticism and queries about our lives with confidence born of experience, we can’t be afraid to reconsider our path from time to time, to check in with our hearts and hold some open space for new and different choices to emerge. Very little in life is ever really decided “once and for all.” Few truths are whole truths. The world is still big, and we know a lot less than we think we do.

We’re always learning. And we love not going back to school.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

You Know You Have Friends in High Places

…when the owner of John Brown Melons, fourth generation (since 1876) melon growers from Carmi, Illinois, personally delivers a watermelon the size of a suckling pig to the BBPiT on a gig.

You know you have a good man when he hauls the giant thing home to share, cuts it open with a knife the size of a machete and cleans up the whole delicious mess afterward. Sweet sweet sweet.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

What if I Had Just 37 Days?

(Please visit Patti Digh at 37 Days to read what others have written in answer to this question, and to learn of its origins, and of course to read Patti's own wonderful work.)

Here is what I think: that I would have to wade in the ocean one more time. Here is what I cannot know: that I won’t be stung by a jellyfish or step on something sharp. Or eat a bad bit of fish and spend Days 6 through 9 in serious gastric distress.

I would call my favorite people in from near and far, to gather them around me one more time. Here is what I cannot know: that they may all be away for the summer, or not answering email, or on sabbatical, or enjoying radio silence.

Or they may be too broke to travel. I can’t know.

And more:

I can’t know that the basement won’t flood on Day 22, or the dying elm in the back yard won’t pick Day 9 to collapse across the garage.

I can’t know that Mom may die on Day 14, her own 37 days begun two weeks before mine.

The best poem I will ever write may emerge on Day 4. Or it might have been written last year, and sits now in a notebook, awaiting rediscovery. It may wait forever.

I can’t know.

On Day 31 I may drive to the store for cat litter, and wait through two traffic light cycles in order to make my left turn. I may try to not be annoyed at the delay, the ever-so-slight delay that results in my crossing paths with an old friend – someone I had forgotten about, someone I had not called to gather around me. She is coming out of the store as I am going in, and she is delighted to see me, and we stop to talk.

Thirty minutes later, we are still talking.

The encounter fills my heart with great joy. Had I not sat so long at the traffic light, I might have missed her. Had I sent someone else for cat litter – how mundane a chore, with only one week to live! – I would have missed her for sure.

I can’t know.

The ants may ruin my picnic. A hummingbird may grace it. Day 26. The car may get a flat. The car may get me to a Patti Griffin concert. Day 13.

There is a fat check in the mail for me. It will arrive on Day 38.

There is a shape in the clouds: it looks like a bunny. Do you see it? Look now, before it’s gone.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Work of Local Affection

One of the best pieces of advice I ever read came from Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry, who wrote in numerous essays of the importance of living in a place we love. Unfortunately for me – and for all those places I’ve lived -- I interpreted that advice to mean I needed to search for my ideal home, my one best place in the world. I needed to find it and go there. Then and only then would I be able to live fully, deeply, and intimately connected – which is what I craved.

Until I found that place, everywhere I lived was a waystation: large cities, small cities, rural enclaves, suburban bedroom communities. None of them was my ideal place. When there were things to like, I enjoyed them, but not too much, because I knew I would be leaving. When there were things I didn’t like, I ignored them, because there was little point in working for change in a place I didn’t intend to stay, a place that just didn’t feel right.

Do you see the problem? After many years and many moves, I saw it, too. I was a lazy seeker. I didn’t want to do the work of developing a relationship to a place, learning its nature and giving myself to it with real affection. I valued reciprocity – or thought I did -- but I wanted the place to give to me first. I wanted an off-the-rack experience of home, but love – true affection – doesn't come ready-made. It's a tailored response. It's always specific. It comes with a definitive article: not a home, but this home, beside this road, along this river, on this patch of Earth. I’ve come to understand – belatedly, but finally -- that loving where you are has less to do with finding a place than with staying put long enough to allow a place to know you’re there, to let it grow comfortable with your presence and begin – slowly, and with great patience -- to love you back.

I think it was the character of Phineas, in John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace, who said, “When you love something, it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love.” You care for it, and it cares for you, usually in ways you never anticipated.

That’s true reciprocity.

Loving where you are means relinquishing all those comforting contingency plans that spare you the work of local affection – those plans that allow you to leave half your life packed in boxes in the garage or the attic, half your heart tucked away, and half your imagination wandering the map in search of a better place. Loving where you are means calling your imagination home and putting it to work right where you are: learning the names of the people and trees and plants and birds and creeks and flowers, and letting them speak to your heart – your whole heart -- and show you what needs to be done, right here, right now.

photo: backyard berries, ripening daily by the handful.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bedside Reading

Once again evidence surfaces that the Bush administration has censored yet another report on global warming -- this one by the EPA -- deleting references to the health and environmental consequences of climate change. As if erasing the words would erase the problem.

Meanwhile, those of us in my little patch of the Reality-Based Community are getting on with the process of adapting to a changing world, sharing our homegrown vegetables, watching the skies for rain and considering life beyond the automobile.

Dragonstar is traveling with her father this week, leaving me lots of time to read -- which I'm coming to believe is a very mixed blessing. Reading leads to thinking, after all, and thinking too much is not good for one's happiness, or so reports Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. I like that Weiner used the plural, places, and most of the ones he visits are unexpected. We've heard of the happy residents of Denmark, and Sweden, and Holland. Who would have suspected Bhutan?

Apropos of the EPA story cited above and the recent testimony of Dr. James Hansen, NASA's preeminent climatologist, to Congress on the 20th anniversary of his 1988 address to that same governing body, I picked up Mark Bowen's Censoring Science and read it in a day. My take-away: the citizens of the U.S. are living under an administration of thugs and apparachiks. Not exactly breaking news, that.

To put an even finer point on it, I read Robert Scheer's The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America. Which put me in mind of the recent movie Ironman, only without the superhero. Or the cute assistant. Or the happy ending.

Mind, Life and Universe is a collection of short conversations with scientists in a variety of fields, edited by MIT professor Lynn Margulis and Eduardo Punset, who hosts a weekly science TV show broadcast throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Never mind the complexity of subjects covered -- from the lifestyles of termites to the obliteration of time. This book is a perfect place to rest one's weary mind after the disheartening assault from Scheer and Bowen.

As is the encyclopedic Back to Basics from Skyhorse Publishing, a compendium of self- sufficiency edited by Abigail Gehring. In it you'll find instructions on raising chickens, building a log cabin, brewing beer, tanning leather, spinning wool and milking cows, along with a whole lot of other stuff you didn't even know you wanted to know how to do. Even if you never actually do it. I like books like this in the same way I like Machu Picchu and the United Nations: I may never visit either one, but I feel better just knowing that they exist.

Happy reading.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Creating Space

Back in January I wrote about my 12-18 Months of Artful Intentions, describing how I created three pages of dreams and desires neatly categorized and committed to paper to see me though the coming year and a half. This past week I went back through that list and crossed off nearly half of the items. I’d either done them (a small number) or was no longer interested in doing them (the greater number).

As I went through with my pen and lined out one thing after another, it occurred to me that maybe I was cheating by summarily dumping all these items I was so sure belonged on my list back in January. Was it okay to just give up wanting this or that? Suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

So I set up a test.

For each item I asked myself how I would feel if I knew my life was ending and I hadn’t done this one thing. And for about half the items, the gut-check answer was, “I’d feel just fine not having done that.” Those things got crossed out.

For the other half, I got that tingle in my gut that told me this is important. Those things could stay. And for one thing in particular I actually felt heartsick imagining that this one thing had gone undone. That thing had to be addressed NOW.

I suppose it was a good lesson for me to realize that even when I think I’m being very clear with myself, I can still get tripped up. I can still work up a desire for things – experiences and accomplishments -- that I don’t really, really want. And I can spend a lot of time pursuing those things while the real stuff sits off in the corner, waiting for me to get a clue.

Anyway, after I reviewed my list, I went out to my garage/studio (another work in progress) and cleared off a small pine desk I’d stored out there since closing my gallery last year. I carried it into the house and hauled it up the narrow stairs to my (very small, kind of crowded) bedroom. I was determined to find a spot for that desk. For years my place to write has been in a comfy old chair in the corner of the room. It's a fine chair for reading, but as a writing space it's never been adequate. So I shoved my bed over and moved the dresser and cleared a space behind the bedroom door, and I gave myself what I really, really wanted: a place to write.

Once I got things set up, I remembered a stack of notes I’d kept from a Big Writing Project I’d begun awhile back but set aside when it became overwhelming and I didn’t have the space to spread it out without having to pick it all up again when it was time to make dinner and we needed the table. I dug out those notes and brought them upstairs and picked up where I left off, all the while knocking myself for not doing it all much sooner.

Well, I know why I didn’t do it sooner, and I know why all that other junk was cluttering up my list: following a heart’s desire is very scary stuff. It’s so much easier and so much less risky to spend your hours doing things that don’t really matter, to pursue lesser goals, to do the work that others think is important.

When I clear space in my thinking -- and in my physical environment -- and then hold that space open for my own real and true desires, my heart recognizes the opportunity, and slips right in. And the next thing I know, I’m elbow deep in paper and notes and yes, I'm scared, but I'm also full of gratitude. My heart says thank you, thank you.

Somehow I keep learning this lesson, over and over.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

My (Latest) Favorite Thing

Bicycles are not very welcome on the narrow country roads surrounding my little town. Motorists will indulge you as you peddle through our charming downtown, where the speed limit is 20 mph, but beyond downtown, you are an impediment to their motoring progress. There are a few brave souls who will hold their own against an onslaught of SUVs and one-ton pickups, but I am not one of them. Nor is my 12-year-old.

But just down the road, in the next town over, they are in the process of putting in a bikepath along a greenway where no motorists are allowed. The path runs along the Ohio riverfront, then turns to follow Pigeon Creek through town. The section to the north has been in place for several years. The section to the southwest is in the planning and clearing stage. All the sections should all meet up in a couple years, not nearly as soon as we'd like, but never mind our impatience. We're happy to have it, even in its current piecemeal state.

Yesterday we loaded the bikes, drove to that next town over, and rode the greenway. The completed section by the river is a bit too short to make a satisfying ride, so we looped a certain part of it where it crosses the train tracks, rounds a bit of grassiness, and dips under the cross-town expressway. (We did that part four times, whooping each time as we went under the expressway. Can you say fun?)

We're a long way from seeing bikes as transportation in this area. It's not (yet) practical and it's not (yet) safe. But not everything is about getting from Point A to Point B. Not everything has to have a point. Sometimes it's enough to load up the bikes and just go for a ride.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Five Minutes with Mirabelle on a Saturday Afternoon (a poem in prose)

Mirabelle, I say, come look at this.

She is at my side in an instant, standing tip-toe to squint through the screen. What? What?

I point, and she sees them: two birds hopping across the narrow strip of grass (low weeds) separating one overgrown bed of flowers (tall weeds) from the next.

The first bird, the one in front, pecks at the ground with its sunflower beak, while the one behind waits, impatient for an offering, rushing the first with a flap of wings and an outstretched neck.

Starlings, Mirabelle informs me. Parent and fledgling.

We watch for long slow minutes, the smaller black parent and the fat mud-brown juvenile, one pecking, one open-mawed and in constant twitter: hurry hurry more now more.

Do you think it can fly? I ask, and right then the two are up and gone, disappearing into the neighbor’s tall trees, as if the factory whistle had just sounded to call them back from lunch.

It can fly, says Mirabelle, and she lingers for a moment, then returns to her play, leaving me to stand at the screen, watching the yard, waiting for the next thing to happen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Not Too Big Garden

We're a few days shy of solstice but I know it's summer because we picked our first ripe tomato yesterday. Dragonstar brought it inside and ceremoniously sliced it in half to share. This took some finesse, since it was a cherry tomato, and a small one at that.

She handed me a tiny wedge. We ate. It was delicious.

Pictured on the right: small plum tomatoes, also just coming into ripe red perfection.

We don't grow a large vegetable garden. It's really just a "pick and eat" kind of garden. A snack garden. Four tomato plants, fifteen snap pea vines, and a small section of lettuces I nurse through warm weather by letting the larger varieties bolt and shade the rest of the plants. That's it. Oh, and all our herbs: culinary ones and magical ones. We grow those, too. And blackberries, but we can hardly take credit for those, since they appeared out of nowhere last year and have graciously returned this year bearing loads of fruit.

Ours is not a very efficient way to garden, and hardly puts us on the path of sustainability. But it gives us pleasure for many months, and it's small enough to not become a chore. Which is Very Important. There is no joy in being overwhelmed by bushels of tomatoes or zucchini, or weeding for an hour in the August heat. Where joy is concerned, scale is everything.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Little Good, A Little Bad

At the restaurant where we had dinner last night, the man at the table behind me was holding forth on Christians and Muslims and the infallibility of the Bible and the need to bring all the peoples of the world into the Christian family.

At one point he lectured his tablemates on the importance of Christians taking the “orphan Muslim” into their homes, treating said orphan “as one of your own.” It wasn’t enough for Christians to love only their own children. “Even Pagans do that,” he said. Christians had to love the children of their enemies.

No word on loving the enemies themselves.

My Pagan-ish daughter and I exchanged looks. I didn’t know whether to laugh or request a change of table. I almost wish I had turned to ask him who or what he thought was creating these “orphan Muslims” in the first place.

I don’t know how to deal with people like this, people who are so certain they have the answers to all the important questions. They know what is sacred, what is holy, what is good, what is evil. Their moral code is binary: Christian/Muslim, right/wrong, us/them. And their thinking rattles my skull. I prefer the wisdom of people who are not at all certain of anything.

Chris Hedges, in his new book, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, is certain of at least a few things, but I like him – and his book – anyway. He finds the binary code of good and evil to be a childish conceit, simplistic and essentially unhelpful, and I agree: people are far too complex, and much in life requires us to wade into morally ambiguous waters where nothing is certain.

Ambiguity is a concept I can appreciate, being somewhat steeped in it these days.

Here’s an example, one that has been troubling my mind lately: I live in an area that relies on coal for energy. In choosing to live here, I am complicit in – among other things – the ecologically devastating practice of mountaintop mining. I can assuage my conscience to some degree with contributions to the proper organizations and calls to my representatives in Congress to pass laws that would stop the coal companies from blowing up Appalachia, but every time I flip on a switch, I renew my complicity.

Another example: I love animals, and I eat them. Even when I maintained a vegetarian diet, wild animals died and habitat was lost so that fields could be plowed to grow my vegetables. As this blogger writes, farmers are in constant battle with other living things. Which is good, which is evil?

Unlike certainty, ambiguity offers no balm for the ego. You can’t really be righteously ambiguous, and therein lies its value: it’s not the last word, it’s an unfinished conversation. Ambiguity means a little this, a little that. Depending. It leaves things open for continued questions and fresh perspective. Instead of ossified belief, it provides opportunities to ask and ask again, What matters now? And why? And it offers the chance to ask and ask again, Are you really my enemy? And why?

I don’t think that man in the restaurant would get it. But I think you do.

credit: folk art sculpture by southern artist Chris Hubbard

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Unmowed, Untidy and Overgrown (and a Link)

The heat has come early to our Ohio River valley town, humid days in the 90s and nights hovering above 70 degrees. We've turned on the air conditioner, much to my dismay; we can usually postpone that event until we're closing in on the 4th of July, spending the months of May and June in the warm but endurable breezes created by lots of fans and open windows.

Not this year.

This year it's already too hot to mow the yard, unless I choose to mow by moonlight. So things are a little shaggy around here. A little overgrown. The old roses are spilling onto my backyard bench, the mulberry branches are all low and heavy with berries. The honeysuckle has gone rampant. It's getting very woodsy out there. I love it.

I've been house- and pet-sitting for a friend these past two hot and humid weeks, making liberal use of her family's lovely backyard pool while keeping company with an enormous golden retriever and a sweet speckled cat. The house is perhaps 15 years old, handsome and stately, situated in a quiet, manicured subdivision a couple miles from my own (much less manicured) neighborhood. It's a nice house. It has nice features. It's very clean. After a few days there I went on an active search for dust bunnies. Crumbs. Grime. Water spots on bathroom mirrors. Dirt.

Did I find any of these? I did not. As I said, it's a very clean house.

My own little house is not so clean. It's also not 15 but rather 150 years old (yes.) It holds our lives, plus a century and a half of life prior to us (swept out on occasion, of course.) I imagine I could scrub for days and not eradicate all the visible dirt.

I like the contrast.

Which is a long way to lead up to the link I'm leaving you with, a post that stands in stark contrast to my mundane musings on flora and dirt: a book excerpt and commentary on American slavery that will wrench your heart and perhaps move you to action. I fear we could scrub for years and not eradicate this stain. But sunshine is the great disinfectant, is it not? A tip of the hat to Maryscott O'Connor at My Left Wing for shining the light. Please go read.