Sunday, July 26, 2009

Response in Collaboration

'you come from the poor South, where my soul began; in that high sky your mother is still washing clothes with my mother. That's why I chose you, companera.'

pablo neruda

A friend participates in a collaborative blogging project they call The Four. And they are inviting responses to the quotation.

I've thought about the quotation enough to know all I can come up with is a sort of stream of consciousness. Aha! That's all I ever seem to come up with.

I suspect that Neruda was speaking quite clearly about geography, but like many people nowadays my experience and that of my mother were spread out in various locations. So my impulse was to take the meaning as a metaphor for a deep familiarity between persons.

A few words stuck out: mother, soul, companera.

One morning my mother woke up and said she didn't feel right and wanted to go to the hospital. Her complaints weren't very specific. In the hospital emergency room, if I remember properly, the doctors didn't finger anything specific either. She was old and weak. But they admitted her anyway. Within a day it seems clear now in retrospect that she entered a dying period. And, indeed in a week she had died. It was a week my father and I and then later my sister Sharon sat in vigil. Altogether it was an eventful week. There was much happening in my mother's mind, it was obvious to see that, but not so obvious as to what. The stories didn't always make much sense and anyway are too hard to tell because the stories and the feelings so intertwined.

There is something she told me which moved me very much and I like to share. At one point she looked at me and said,
"It's uncanny, when I look at you now, I see you now and as a baby and a child, a handsome teenager; I see you as you have always been at once."
I put quotation marks around it, the words probably weren't exactly that, but those are the words as I recollect. Her vision of me reminds a little of the curiosity that I can look at photographs of me, no matter what age I am in them, and see myself in the photograph. Well, even at my age, it still seems a little odd to look in the mirror and see myself, and that I always do recognize me. Odder still that I'd recognize a wolf looking back at me in the mirror as some people do. The point is that in recognition seems something of a mystery, at least to me.

I loved my mother very much and felt a sense of grief that nobody else would ever see me as she was seeing me then. She knew me before I knew myself and nourished me all along. With all my sadness, there was also a smile, partly a curious one. I couldn't imagine how she was seeing all of the me at once, clearly her sight was physics amended. And a smile because in her telling me what she saw, she made clear to me a cord connecting us together through time.

Neruda also makes such cords visible.

My thoughts turned then to what it means for the invisible to become visible. My mother said what she was seeing, and I'm sure she was seeing what she was saying. But for myself, when I'm saying a cord was made visible, I'm speaking in metaphor, seeing as a way to say something was made plain.

In the bathroom where I shave my face, there is a window that looks out onto the vegetable garden. We don't bother with a fence, so animals do visit the garden and eat there. I often see woodchucks in the garden. They have burrows against the foundation of our house. Really, I'm not sure how many animals occupy these dens, many. I can look out the window at them, but the geometry is such that it's not easy for them to see me in the window. With their backs to me and intently eating, somehow they still know when I'm looking. I imagine that I can tell when someone is looking at me too. I wonder what sense it is that receives the message of someone looking? And how is it that we can sometimes look at a stranger to us and know we share a familiarity? I think sometimes we can.

"Where my soul began" seemed so easily understood that I didn't pause there, instead turning my imaginations to "that high sky." I wonder about places I've never been, and Chile of all places is rich for imagination. My soul seems so specific, objective and precise, but on further reflection I know nothing of souls.

The photograph is of Blind Wille Johnson. I snagged the photo from a page a graduate student in history at San Fransisco State University by the name of Corry Dodson for a course "Computer Methodology For Historians." I like the pages and of course the photograph. What the photograph of Blind Willie Johnson has to do with the meaning of soul, is his haunting song Won't Somebody Tell Me What Is a Soul of a Man (YouTube video). I also like very much Bruce Cockburn's version of the song which can also be heard at YouTube.

The question doesn't have a good answer even when the question makes sense. Something that makes any definition for soul difficult is that I'm rather attached to my soul as you are to yours. Souls are personal and private. Our souls are also entwined with those who've come before us and we'll leave after us in the sense I was suggesting that my mother's vision of me made a cord between us visible.

I very much like the part of the quotation: "in that high sky your mother is still washing clothes with my mother." I don't know whether he wrote this as an old man, whether his mother was dead or alive. It doesn't seem to matter much, in that this entwining of souls seems removed from ordinary time; a relationship not a thing.

Our souls are the root criterion of life and there is a universe of souls. But I can't say what is a soul of a man.

I like the word "companera." Alas, I only speak English and my tongue is so often tied as it is. In a lazy way I render "companera" as "partner." In my imagination, I'm sure Neruda is speaking of his love too.

In my imagination I have my love, but not really. Still my imagination is so vivid that in one who is my love is mutual recognition, like children whose mothers wash clothes in that high sky.

Summer is such a lovely time. Still with steps on ground soft from a summer rain, a chorus of song birds singing vespers in the twilight, the smell of sweet grass in the air, and blossoms everywhere, I can feel melancholy. In the summer it's hard to take such feelings too seriously, if for no other reason than to hear the squeals of children playing in the distance which always raise a smile.

I love the poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. It doesn't take long to read, or you can hear Angelou recite it accompanied by music by Buckshot Le Fonque if you're inclined towards YouTube as I am.

The caged bird sings of freedom. Surely my life is a life of great privilege. But a caged bird sings and in that song is an understanding of soul available to us all, no matter how privileged. Our souls pine and yearn for the unattainable. The slightly bitter quality is necessary as our souls are in creation.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Myopic Visionary

Nothing came of my we20 gathering. The Repower America organizer bailed out which made it easy for me to let the whole thing slide.

On the morning of July 4th my dad topped off the gasoline tank in the car. The gas he got must have been mostly water, in any case the car conked out at the end of the driveway. The car still isn't fixed, so I've been more isolated than usual this month. That's just a cop out for not trying harder to get a group together to talk turkey about what's going on and what we might do together in response. The biggest hurdle I can't seem to leap is a feeling of lacking credibility.

On a different theme, I've been thinking more recently about a generation gap between Baby Boomers like me and younger folks. I like younger folks and it's nice to cross paths on the Internet. Part of the gap as I see it has to do with different approaches to new communications technologies. And then there's how the Internet puts me in touch with things I probably wouldn't have noticed otherwise, like pictures on Facebook.

The daughter of friends put up pictures from a music festival she attended last weekend, and because I'm friends with her at Facebook I get to see sets of pictures of friends of hers where she's been tagged in photos. I don't know the kids in most of the pictures, but I knew some of their parents when I was their age. One of the dads' picture was posted. I haven't seen him in years, in fact seeing his picture made me think of meeting his dad so many years ago. I don't really know what's up in these young lives, but the pictures make me think about when I was young.

Lots of people I knew then have done remarkable things in their lives. For others life descended in a downward spiral. I'm not sure what the report about me looks like. I'm not much more together now than I was back then. That gets to the nub of my credibility problem.

My mailing address now is Freedom, Pennsylvania. Back when I was in my early twenties it was Large, Pennsylvania. I much prefer Freedom. Large was an unfortunate trauma. I was very convinced that the energy crisis required people to find new ways of living. I was very excited about the work of The New Alchemy Institute and the notion of housing as a means for food production. My mother purchased a derelict property in a coal mining company town, a patch town. Some of this time I spent trying to invent a more self-reliant sort of life style with this house. It all went to hell in a hand basket. I feel sure the stories could be told in a hilarious way, failure is after all quite funny, but even now that episode of my life is painful enough that I've never had it in me to tell the stories in a funny way.

One very nice thing about being older is having old friends. Of course my friends know some of the stories from at Large. Because the story of Large had a lot to do with acting on predictions about energy shortages and energy costs, part of the fail has to do with how wrong my predictions turned out. That's not changed my general pessimism about energy today. But some of my friends have heard me spouting off about the energy crisis for over thirty years now. And, well, what have I got to show for it?

Yesterday thinking more or less along these lines I remembered a book I have from the early 1980's called The Integral Urban House. I was nowhere near as systematic as the folks who created that place, but something very much like it was what I was aiming for. It's cool to see the book is still in print. I wondered about the house now. According to this news article from late 2007 the Integral Urban House is just a house now.

In looking for info about the house online I kept running into descriptions of Sim Van der Ryn as a visionary. I really do admire Sim Van der Ryn's accomplishments, but I wondered what it takes to call yourself a visionary? I was feeling a bit snarky about it, given that in an inventory of my life, I never saw what came coming. A visionary, I'm not. Still we're far from coping with energy issues in a constructive way, so maybe I'm a myopic visionary.

I'm being hard on myself, and hard on my generational cohort. Some criticism is well-deserved. We screwed up in so many ways. I'm wonder whether young people know that many of their parents looked towards the future and thought big changes were needed? And I wonder what, if anything useful, we might tell them of our responses to that vision?

Here's what Matt Cantor the author of the news article about the Integral Urban House said of its reversion to just being a house:
The experiment could not sustain itself and I guess we all had to take the blue pill and go back to making believe that everything would continue to be fine no matter how we lived, who we killed or how much oil we burned.
Ouch! That stings! I've never seen The Matrix, but I get the blue and red pills. With age comes wisdom; I'm a bit short on any claim to wisdom myself. There's an irony too that even in selling-out I'm a sad sack. Lots of my age cohort have done pretty well by choosing the blue pill--the choice to go back to a waking sleep. Often the biggest reasons for the choosing blue over red as it were for many of us was a vision of life for our kids. What a mess.

Now the kids are grown and facing their own decisions. I suspect young people see folks my age as cynical. I'm not sure we really are. I feel quite sure we care very much about the world in which our children will live. So why is it so hard to get together to discuss what we might do together about the perilous future? I can't get a coherent story together that might lead to some collaboration among friends. I'm working on it and will try again soon to have a gathering here.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


I live near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is not a particularly large city. It's famous as the Steel City, but iron and steel manufacturing is now so much reduced. Indeed Pittsburgh is part of the Rust Belt, places in the Middle Atlantic region of the USA once the manufacturing hub of the US. The picture was taken from the Spring Hill neighborhood facing more or less in the direction of the city. You can see the hilly terrain. Pittsburgh not a big city, it's also a city of neighborhoods, and the metropolitan area is composed of townships towns and municipalities. There's a small town flavor to the area. And I'm really in love with it.

Pittsburgh will be the setting for a meeting of the G20--Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors--in September. My first reaction was of hometown pride in being selected as the setting for an international event. My second reaction was to think of Seattle 1999. The World Trade Organization held a Ministerial Conference in Seattle. At least 40,000 protesters gathered and it became a watershed moment drawing attention to the issue of globalization.

Pittsburgh is gearing up for its Independence Day celebrations and one of the local papers tells us that the Three Rivers Regatta will be a test of security procedures for the G20 event. Oh joy! Seriously, I want them to get the security right. Partly that desire goes back to my hometown pride--perhaps foolish; I would like Pittsburgh to be seen in a good light. I don't want anyone hurt. But at the same time I believe public voices should have an opportunity to speak and be heard. Peaceful assembly is essential to that, even if I won't be part of it. I probably will avoid the whole Forth of July celebrations downtown too!

I'm not an activist. Saying that doesn't mean that I don't think, nor that I don't understand that in a democracy I have social obligations. It is surely true that the matters discussed at the G20 Meeting have real consequences for me and people all around the Earth. I intend to pay attention as best I can.

If 1999 was a watershed moment for anti-globalization movement, then the 2008 run on the financial markets was a watershed moment too. In 1999 people in developing nations, labor unions, young people and disenfranchised people of all sorts began to deeply question the neo-liberal policies that had dominated world economics since Reagan, Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. Since 2008 even the most dyed-in-the-wool capitalists are raising questions too.

The job numbers for June came out today and nearly a half million more people ;have been forced from their employment; raising the official unemployment rate to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan was president. In 1976 there were about 250,000 people in Allegheny County--where Pittsburgh is--directly engaged in steel manufacture. By 1980 there were less than 5,000. Regionally job numbers have held up better than other areas of the country in this recession. That fact is somewhat tempered by the fact the region has never fully recovered the jobs since the 1980's.

The economy sucks, people are noticing. Even though unemployment is high, there is a perverse situation that the buying power of people who are working actually increased in June. So noticing the economy is a bit more nuanced than we might think. Something working people might notice are things shared in common that are in trouble. The state is cutting arts funding; in the scheme of things a very small budget item, but one which affects many people. This summer the Pennsylvania Governors School was cancelled which for more than 20 years had brought the brightest high school students across the state together to participate in dynamic learning programs during the summer. Regional funds for libraries are being slashed among many other cuts. So even for people working feeling their money goes a little further, they see effects of the poor economy. For most of us the signs are obvious.

What is not so obvious is what to be done. More than ever people are aware of environmental limits. Take the issue of atmospheric carbon. We all know it's a problem and such a big problem that none of us alone can do much about. It's a global issue. But I also think that most Americans look at the promise of "green" jobs suspiciously. We know we take cheap energy for granted so don't know how to think about how to get out of the spin we're in. Building more houses in ever sprawling suburbs doesn't make much sense to us, but neither do all the people who were engaged in construction building them and who are now out of a job. We take it as a given that our economy depends on growth, and to our minds growth is literally fueled by fossil fuels.

In June Jason Bradford put a presentation he made at "The Generation Green Tent" during the Summer Arts and Music Festival at the Benbow Lake State Recreation Area. It's a great presentation that I encourage reading and sharing. One point he made was:
Problems with the environment or natural resources are problems with the economy because human economic systems are a subset of planetary ecological systems. Environmental issues should be the main topics on page 1 of the business section of your local newspaper—assuming you still have one.
He also makes the point that we are about off our rockers because of the cognitive dissonance over what we know and our assumptions about the economy. Perhaps in 1999 there were lots of Americans who interpreted the issues of globalization in familiar frames like: Buy American, or Don't ship our jobs oversees. But now the reality of global climate change has taken hold. The link Bradford makes between economics and environment is very real to us, even if we don't talk together about it much.

The other evening a paid organizer for Repower America called me on telephone. I must have signed a petition or given out my details at some point. My sales resistance isn't so strong, so I try pretty quickly to dispense with such calls. What kept me connected a little longer was the money pitch never began. And that left me with an opportunity to run my mouth, saying I'm not going to do anything if it means my having to go anywhere. This isn't entirely a snot-nosed reaction, transportation is something I have to plan and ration. But Pablo on the other end must have learned well in organizer's school because he came back with an idea for "Green Barbecues." The idea is to invite your friends over to talk about economic/environmental issues. Perhaps together we can do something useful. Then closing the sale, Pablo had me pick a date. The date is July 8, 2009.


In April the G20 met in London. In advance of that meeting I stumbled upon an effort called we20--that's their FaceBook page. The basic idea of we20 is for people all over to create meetings of 20 or so to discuss the dire problems we all face. And the most important part is to try to think of a plan to put actions to our words. The organization is entirely neutral, we20 doesn't take a position. What they have done, however is to create tools so that individual we20 meetings can share with others. That Web site is here. At the time I first discovered we20, I thought how smart that all was, but didn't act on it. Then recently I noticed a Tweet from we20 at Twitter about Pittsburgh and it jogged my memory.

I've committed to try to entice a few friends to my place for a Green Barbecue so that the Repower America organizer can encourage the people who show up to sign their petition. I think that's a good thing.

Almost all of my friends want as little to do with the Internet as possible. We talk about face to face being so important, but I'm not sure how many I can actually attract Wednesday night. Still, I know my friends think they should be doing something about the pickle we're all in. It took Repower America to get me off my duff, but the essential thing for grassroot efforts is for people to get together and share some intention. With these Green Barbecues, Repower America hasn't developed a way to tell the stories online like we20 has. So while my friends might not see anything about it online--including this blog post--I'm still keen on using the Internet to connect. So I've listed the event at the we20 Web site. I'll also try to report on it there and at the FaceBook page.

I maybe missing something essential, but I don't think it matters too much what we call small grassroots efforts to get together to address our challenges. But I do think it important more and more people do get together for that purpose. There are online communication tools, I think they're great and intend to explore them. Still the basic point is to get together and get to work. Our survival and happiness depends on it.