Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Losing focus - then trying to get it back

I imagine this is the plague of many a writer whose work addresses the times in which we live. I imagine it is also impact of the rapidity of change in our world right now, the intensity of events, and the intense connectivity and exchange of information with which most of us engage on a daily basis now as we try to understand our human predicament.

I've struggled as a writer this year - not because of who is in the White House (though that adds a measure to it) - but because of how clear it has become that we are facing a mixture of crises that are unfolding rapidly and which we humans do not seem to have the capacity to address, at least not in a way commensurate with the scale of the crises.

I've been working around themes of ecology, spirituality, and culture for some years now. But clearly they are not differentiated "themes" anymore. They are a nexus, a point of connection at which the true nature of the crisis is revealed - or so it seems to me. We humans are managing to destroy the web of life that is our home, from which we evolved and which has made possible these hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. We U.S. Americans are in the process of cultural decline, becoming fragmented, incoherent as a polity, all the worst of our historical sins coming home to roost, as they say. The global economy is consolidating into the control of small but powerful elites of corporations and investors whose wealth has become disconnected, or abstracted, from the planet and the living reality of most human beings (pure delusion as this is impossible).

The crises we face are real, they are existential, and they have come upon us so quickly over the past few decades of industrial-technological growth, the explosion of population, the shredding of habitats, and a long, long list of demographic, climate, cultural, and other changes, that we barely have had time to breathe, to take them in, to reflect on what they mean, what they tell us about the times in which we live.

All of this is interrelated, of course. The crises feed upon one another. And I, for one, have been left feeling a bit overwhelmed, and often discouraged, when it comes to sitting with my pen and journal, or at a keyboard, to attempt to write. Often, I am left with the blank page unable to focus. Where to start? Does it matter? Is there any point to it? Does what I write make any difference at all?

I have a feeling I am not alone in any of this. I can't blame the November election because it was and is all symptom, not cause, and the point is to try to get the diagnosis right so that the crisis can be treated correctly and effectively.

Except that we don't want to go there as a culture. Because the diagnosis is that the culture itself has been the disease and, like incurable cancer, you can keep trying to treat the symptoms but eventually the disease will overshoot the treatments and you will die. The cancer cells: individualism, self-interest as a value, capitalism which always concentrates wealth and demeans labor, capitalism and western economic thought which sees nature as one big resource to be tapped for economic exploitation, cancer cells that spread into and destroy things like a shared sense of the common good and the good of the commons.

As I write this, I feel a renewed sense of mission as a writer rising with passion, restlessness, some hidden rage, a fierce sense that truth above all is what writers need to write. This cancer is out of control and it is eating us from within, destroying vital organs, metastasizing to our brains so that our thinking is muddled and confused.

To mark his passing, I have been reading Brian Doyle's "Mink River," and find myself gasping out loud at times by his lyrical brilliance, weeping at times at his tender compassion for his characters, for this community of absolutely no importance to the world of this nation and its economic and political culture, but how the humanity of the people in it, however broken - at times literally -  puts pols and pundits and many religious and cultural "leaders" to shame.

This is us - all tender and broken, struggling with, or avoiding as much as we can, this question of whether there is any meaning at all - except in the place of tender connection, or at the spot amidst the tall grasses on the hill where one can see the waves of the ocean breaking over the rocky shore of the Oregon Coast, the sound of the Mink River as it meets the sea, the sound of the bicycle wheels as Daniel and the bike go over the cliff, the view of the ocean from the doctor's porch.

The humans, the salt wind, the wet earth, the cedar trees and hemlocks, the feel of bodies wrapped around each other in passion or sleep, the hangovers, the fear, the comfort, the despair, the simplicity, the violence - the all-too-human things that make up our real lives (including our mortality), but that this culture hates seeing within itself, covering over weakness and vulnerability in all ways possible, and these days with noise, frantic activity, "success," distractions on little screens and big screens, and constant texting and connectivity via satellite (rather than directly), storing up in barns, and our constant restless mobility - anything that helps prevent us from having to face the vulnerability of who we are in the way the people in the fictional village of Neawanaka see themselves - because they do not have the economic means to hide from who they, we, really are. They are raw, exposed, and they are the neglected parts of ourselves, shunted to the margins, even in a place of stunning beauty.

Doyle gives us this mirror - as any true writer should do.

I don't write fiction, but I have grown increasingly attached to the "creative" part of creative non-fiction. I do write essays on the blog for the website that sponsors that "nexus" work I do, the Center for New Creation. Maybe you would have a look.

But the other writing stalled in recent months, and now it is urging me back to it, as if some transition had to be gone through, some transformation from one way of seeing the world to another (and it is quite profound, also freeing), before I could sit again in front of the screen (first, of course, I had to sit with the journal and scribble things by hand so the muse had a path from heart to paper). It needed time, including time to get over the panic of not writing and not submitting, time to let go some expectations, time to discover that I am not the only one who thinks it too late to save us from real catastrophe, and that the chaos time is upon us and it is necessary to go through it. One of the essential missions of culture workers now is to tell the truth about that - what it is and why it is necessary - and to point out how stripping this era away, letting it go, and returning to the truth about ourselves can be our salvation on this planet - while it is still able to hold us and ultimately to heal, and we along with it. Stories, poetry, creative writing, many forms of art and music - this will all help us now. We need all of it to help us see the collective path opening for us, not despite the tumult and chaos, but because of it.

So this is what it feels like to get my focus back - a sharper view, and therefore a clearer rendering of the true state of things. The stripping away of both hope and despair leaves a space for more creative expression without trying to promote or cling to either one. I have a much better sense not only of what is being stripped away, but also what is emerging.

As we descend into the fog, we feel our way, step by step. I don't know any other way to move through darkness, but to put one foot ahead of the other and listen for the exact sound of our footsteps. If we have to drop to our knees sometimes and press our hands against the duff and damp of the earth, then that is what we will do.

~ Kathleen Dean Moore, from the essay, "Overnight Fog in the Valley," in Wild Comfort - the Solace of Nature

Photos & essay: Margaret Swedish

Friday, April 7, 2017

Threshold or Precipice

A bit of a thrill ride, isn't it - the circumstances that lead to that headline?

Because we don't know which one it is. We don't know if we are on the verge of a major breakthrough or a complete collapse. I don't know if we have lived in such an unpredictable time, at least not since World War II.

I feel the uncertainty. Many, many do. Many feel it without knowing what it is they feel, and that, too is scary, makes the times even more unpredictable, because people don't always act rationally when they are both afraid and not clear about what it is they fear exactly. Easy to project onto "the other," then. Easy for the moment to sink into chaos and more violence.

Also to seek simple solutions and a savior, a strongman, to make their world coherent again.

We are sinking into a period of incoherence. The chaos cannot be resolved by anything we have known in the past. What we have known and done in the past, our way of understanding the world, the planet, our cultural and economic frameworks - there is nothing there we can reach into to find a way through this chaos time, to put pieces of old familiar worlds together again.

We are entering a period of extreme unknowingness. People don't tend to act rationally in a time of extreme unknowingness. They are looking for something familiar to hold onto, and it's the familiar that is becoming incoherent, that is in a state of collapse.

Threshold or precipice. You can walk over a threshold. You can walk over a precipice, but the result is different.

Are there words for this? Are there words that can help us see clearly what it is we face, what our choices are? Are there words, stories, essays, poems, that can help people realize, without completely falling apart, that an old world construct based on economic growth and white privilege (along with a lot of philosophical and religious belief systems made to uphold that dying order) is over forever, that it is destroying us - our planet, our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our ability to survive as a species - and that trying to hold on to that culture of white western economic domination of the world, trying to hold onto the ways of life we have constructed from that paradigm, will only finish the job?

I struggle with this now every single day. It's the work I do to make a living (my "work" is presenting on the nexus among ecology, culture, and spirituality, offering workshops and facilitated conversations, also writing for a project website on these themes, see: www.centerfornewcreation.org).

But the writing... the creative writing... Lately it has been paralyzing - not because I can't write but because when I go to the journal or the computer it feels too much to open, to encounter in its fullness. And when I write, I open to the flood, to the fullness. It stops me. It overwhelms. It brings up strong feelings. I try to work through them. But sometimes the words just can't match, or release, those feelings.

I welcome thoughts from other writers on how you are dealing with this. Now, with the bombing in Syria, the incompetence and corruption of our governing institutions, the lack of competence among these flamethrowers in the White House (or Mar-a-Lago), this feeling of unraveling is pretty profound, yes?

It seems we have to be more courageous than ever in telling some truth, in breaking free of the collapsing culture, in offering lenses that help our people to SEE, to help us all become less afraid.

More and more I believe that the cultural work - that work that shapes meaning and purpose, that creates visions and new ways of seeing - is some of the most important work humans can do right now.
To break the spell of an industrial society, an economic mode of being, this profound separation of the human from the real life of the planet, that is leading us to a precipice.

To offer the vision, the conviction, the courage that can help transform what looks like precipice to threshold, a crossing over from what is old, dead, destructive, to...something else.

Sunwapta Falls, Alberta
Think of a waterfall - the mighty river comes to the precipice, it crashes over the edge with tremendous power and beauty. Resisting it will crush you. So you go with it. You may get smashed to pieces, but eventually the river eases, its fury spent. At some point, you can put your canoe in the water again and go with the flow. Maybe you will have learned something. Maybe you will find out how simple we must become.

~ Margaret Swedish

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Distraction, suppression, repression - curses of our times

I don't mean that kind where you have a tough time concentrating, lots of little things to do, restlessness, email and social media, oil changes, paying bills, daily life that becomes excuse for avoiding the blank page.

No, this is a deeper plague, a stress on the psyche, near daily trauma. For me, to sit down to write, to look at that page and get set to begin the words - I am almost afraid at times of the volcano of emotion within, of what might pour out - grief, rage, fear, profound disappointment and disillusionment - I fear the truth within me.

Also the danger of penetrating, life-altering insight, the kind that disturbs, that something huge is about to shift. And this is not your own singular volcano. It is bigger than you, a force in the field, something trying to break through. And the fear it could therefore shatter.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A writer confronting these tumultuous times

As you can see from the date of my last post, I've had a little trouble finding the inner space to write about writing as I, like so many culture workers these days, grapple with the tumult of our cultural moment. I am not surprised by it. I've been writing and speaking of "The Great Unraveling," as some call it, for quite a while now. But to see it actually unfold...and so fast...

The great Buddhist scholar and deep ecologist, Joanna Macy, speaks of this decisive moment when how we humans choose to proceed has existential consequences unlike any we have faced before as a species. That is not a comfortable place to find ourselves. And this decisive moment comes just as the culture of this nation in which I live has gone into steep decline. Even if our former paradigm of constitutional order based on capitalist western democracy was still dominant, we would have (and have had) grave cultural challenges in addressing this time of crisis, but even that paradigm itself is now unraveling.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Just a bit of sun's glitter on the surfaces of what it means to be alive

That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. There is not any part of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surfaces of the water.   ~ D. H. Lawrence

Last night I was out with my brother driving in the Wisconsin countryside on a crisp, clear October night - deep night, about 1:30 in the morning. The half moon - so bright and orange, its roundness palpable, and so near it felt like I could reach out and touch it - was setting in the western sky freeing up the light of the Milky Way. We stopped on a dark rural road and got out of the car to get a little dose of awe and wonder.

Home. My home galaxy. These days I find this so comforting, to gaze up into the swirl of billions upon billions of stars and who-knows-what-is-out-there and recognize it as my "place" in the universe.

Sometimes it feels crucial to enlarge