A LABOR DAY’S WORK

By Paul

Most of us would probably reply in the negative if asked whether there is a difference between the words “work” and “labor.”  If pressed, we might remember that one word or the other gets used in specific circumstances.  A woman “in labor” is very different from a woman “at work,” for example, and a “workhouse,” at least as that term was used in the 19th century, was a place where the poor and petty criminals were lodged. Who does not recall Scrouge’s famous line from “A Christmas Carol”: “Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?” 

To a certain extent, the two words have come down to us in modern English in accordance with the normal distinctions often seen between words of Latin and Anglo-Saxon origin.  Work is, of course, from the Germanic, or the Anglo-Saxon, weorc or worc.  At one time, in Old English, it referred to the act of fornication.  Later on, in Middle English, it widened its reference to mean any sort of deed or action done.  Labor, on the other hand, finds its original root in the Latin word labare, which meant to totter or to be unsteady on one’s feet, as may happen, for example, while tilling the soil.  In fact, even today the French word labourer maintains that part of the original denotation, and means to plow the fields.  

Looking at the word labor from another point of view, back in 6th century Italy St. Benedict took the original Latin meaning to heart when he founded his famous monastery at Montecassino, just south of Rome.  In so doing, he created the Benedictine order and gave them their famous motto, that of Ora et Labora, prayer and work, (or as it is stated in the Rule, Laborare est orare, “to work is to pray”).  And his monks, indeed, tilled the fields, just as some of their contemporary monastic descendants still do to this very day, the Trappists in particular.  

Still, most of us in a contemporary setting tend to think of the two words as being relatively interchangeable in meaning, if not in usage.  To work is the more common everyday term, whereas labor may sometimes carry something of a more high fluting feel.  People work in the factory, or in the office, or in the beauty parlor, or the grocery store, or on the farm, or in the classroom for that matter; they do not normally labor in any of these places.  And we call the holiday at the beginning of September that celebrates work “Labor Day,” not “Work Day,” for two reasons.  One is because we are speaking in a more formal register.  We are naming and identifying a special day set aside to celebrate the concept, the very idea of what it means to work.  The second is that the word labor can still carry its original connotation of hard physical work, of toiling in the factory or the fields.   We see this, too, in the use of the term “management and labor,” (i.e. those who oversee or direct, and those who actually do the work).    

In fact, if we recall for a moment the history of Labor Day, it is clear that it was originally set aside to celebrate “working men and women.”  Even today that very term, “working men and women,” has something about it that suggests the notion of laboring with one’s hands.  The first Labor Day took place actually on the first Tuesday of September in the year 1882.  It was only a few years later that the holiday became fixed on the first Monday of the month.  There is confusion, and some degree of disagreement as well, regarding who actually first came up with the idea for the celebration, but in the end many believe that a machinist by the name of Mathew McGuire proposed it to the Central Labor Union in New York City, as a day to celebrate “workingmen.”  The notion soon spread to other cities and states, but it didn’t become a national holiday until several years later, after the Pullman strike, when US marshals shot and killed a number of protesting workers.  The federal government, afraid of further wide-spread rioting, rushed to make Labor Day a nationally recognized holiday, in part to appease working men (and women), angry at how they were being treated by the barons of industry. 

I come from what is called a “working class” family myself.  Both my father and my mother worked in factories, as did my brother.  He was a proud member of the United Auto Workers’ Union, and labored (if you will) in a Ford Company plant, first in upstate New York, then in Michigan, for more than 30 years.  But I often wonder if he ever thought of what I wound up doing in my life in the field of education as “actual work.”  In that same vein, I will long remember an instance that took place many years ago now, when I happened to be eating lunch in a diner in the town where I grew up (a “working class” place if ever there was one).  I couldn’t help but overhear a loud conversation at a table nearby.  There, two “working men” were complaining, one to the other, about local teachers, and the fact that these teachers had the audacity to agitate for higher wages.  One particular phrase spoken that lunch hour still resounds in my ears to this day, when one of the disgusted men said to the other: “Why, goddamn, pretty soon them teachers are gonna be makin’ as much as workin’ people!” 

That implied question, asked probably some 45 years ago, still resonates today.  What do we, in fact, mean when we say “work,” and who are “working people?”  Are they only those who work with their hands?  Or can we expand the term to also mean those who work primarily with the mind, and less with the hands (surely no one works only with their hands).   Is it as simple as saying that some people get dirty while working, and some do not?  Indeed, it seems to me that to some extent at least Labor Day still holds on to that old-fashioned connotation of a day meant to honor those who do a “hard day’s labor,” and to celebrate those who work primarily with their hands.  When, for example, was the last time you saw a group of office workers, bankers, accountants, university professors, lawyers, doctors, or artists for that matter, marching in a Labor Day parade?  And if that is the case, does this mean that these people actually work, or not? 

The answer to the above question has to be a resounding “yes, of course they work!”  In fact, if we look back, it becomes obvious that, throughout this whole discussion, what we have mostly been talking about are notions of class.  And whoever thinks that the United States is not stratified through and through with multiple layers of class distinction had better think again.  The factory workers I overheard decades ago, my brother’s colleagues (even that term itself, “colleague,” I recognize as a kind of class-distinguishing word – my brother might simply have said: “those guys I work with”) believed in the class system.  In the 1960’s, factory workers could, and did, make more money than teachers, and they had better benefits, too, although that may no longer be the case today (that is, if either of the two can still find jobs).        

I think that most people, no matter what they do, no matter what job they perform, somehow feel as though they work hard.  To be frank, though, it has been my experience over the course of some 45 plus years of work that certain people do in fact work harder than others.  For many years, I oversaw an office of 15 to 16 people.  I noted that some worked very hard, and some did not.  Some carried the load for others, who for whatever reason did not shoulder the burden as readily.  Why one individual might have such a strong “work ethic,” while another appears to feel fine about surfing the web, coming in late and leaving early, or just generally not putting out much effort has always been something of a mystery to me.   

I think I will not arrive at answers to such questions today.  But these are some of the thoughts that occupy me, as we approach this Labor Day.  I may not march in parades, and during my time as a university administrator, I may not have gotten even particularly dirty. Still, I salute labor, I look upon work as a most honorable thing, and I applaud the celebration of a holiday that recognizes that work, at best, can and should be for each of us a great labor of love.

NO LOOKING BACK

Forma aucta  fuga, Ovid’s Metamorphosis

By Paul

Memory is a funny thing.  It can be fiction every bit as much as fact.  We sometimes use it to create in ways similar to the creation of the future.  In fact, it may be more accurate to say that we participate in the creation and the actualization of each of these phases of our lives, rather than that we actually create them. 

In Ovid’s story of Apollo and Daphne, Phoebus (Apollo) kills the great snake Python, and then, filled with pride, speaks dismissively to Cupid, that wanton boy, who possesses only what appears to Apollo as a toy bow, nothing compared to his bow of a true man.  As so often happens, the smaller winds up triumphing over the larger, and in the end Cupid shoots his dart of undying love and attraction into the great god, while Daphne he pierces with the arrow of eternal aversion.  She then flees Apollo’s advances, running breathless through the wood with the god just behind her in hot pursuit.  Forma aucta est fuga – “beauty is enhanced by flight,” Ovid tells us.  And who indeed has not experienced that in life?  It is the very definition of unrequited love.  In the end, the great deity of light manages just to touch the object of his love, but she prays to her father for deliverance and is immediately turned into a laurel tree, ever and forever more the favorite of great, grieving Apollo.

Not only does beauty flee from us, as in the story (our own as well as that of others), no matter how breathlessly we pursue it, but so does the span of our very lives.  I have been reminded of this lately, having recently received an invitation to a 50th high school class reunion.  How pedestrian and prosaic such an invitation seems, you may say, compared to the great stories of undying mythology!  But such stories are themselves the very narratives of our lives, are they not?  And a reunion is in essence no more than an opportunity to look back on our own personal life’s chronicle.  In youth, for example, we think ourselves to be invincible, or if not invincible, at least we are convinced that the tale of our life is an eternal one.  We believe we will be capable of ceaselessly pursuing the object of our attraction, however we define it.  And to be sure, that object is never merely one thing, but is instead a constellation of goals, of imagined prizes, that changes continually in accord with the various stages of our lives. 

For those still in the youthful stage, the figure of Daphne might well equate to an actual glorious young woman, or to a handsome man, someone whom we think we must possess at all cost.  Dream-like, we often find that the figure of this person changes as we ourselves change, and if we are lucky, it will metamorphose from the unattainable into the attainable.  We will seize upon it, that is, upon him or her.   Having found at last the object of our love, he or she is ours, and if fortune smiles, the attraction and the love will be fully mutual.  Even so, no sooner have we attained it than we realize that this, too, is actually no longer enough.  I am speaking here not of some never-ending search for a new and “better lover”, although some do get lost in the dizzying round of that endless circle.  More often, and more to the point, the new conquest, the new object of our desire is within the world of work, where each of us feels we must make our mark.  We have achieved one goal and found it wanting, that is, we have seen that it is not enough only to be a lover, or only to be an object of love.  No, we humans are an insatiable lot.  Always wanting more, we relentlessly pursue all of our needs and desires.  We also wish to be something in the world.  To make our life count, as we may think of it.  And if we fail at this, often we are faced with a mid-life crisis.  No one has written more eloquently, or at greater length, about midlife crises, than Dante Alighieri.  The very opening lines of his magnum opus, the Inferno, begin with this declaration:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi retrouvai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.   

(Mid way on the path of our life

I found myself in a dark wood,

The true way having been lost.)

Note in this clumsy translation of my own devising that Dante uses the term in the middle of “OUR life” – nostra vita – not “my life.”  He is speaking here not merely of his own journey, but of the one each of us takes in our life.  And a journey implies a destination, does it not?  In Dante’s case, accompanied by his mentor, Aeneas, he must travel through hell itself before he is capable of climbing the heights and merging with Beatrice, and ultimately with the Beatific Vision Itself.  We may quibble (as I do) in regard to some of the “sinners” with whom Dante, with his medieval sense of propriety and morality, populates hell.  But still, can any of us conceive of a greater personal voyage?

Not that anyone now, or even 700 years ago when it first appeared, takes the Inferno literally.  Of course, we are talking here about a dreamscape, a mythological landscape, a great fiction, which attempts to tell an even greater truth about ourselves.  Hell is populated by Dante himself, as well as by all of us.  Each of us carries within both our greatest dreams and our greatest failings.  Looking back on 50 years of one’s life can be a daunting challenge.  Who does not see things he or she might have changed, roads not taken, opportunities passed by, treasures left by the wayside?  These are beauties we may still occasionally chase, however much we know that the chase itself only makes them more desirable, and as much as we may never attain them.  As in the story of Daphne and Apollo, they metamorphose at the very touch.  But neither is life always and only about what might have been.  My own life, the life of any of us (again, remember, we are talking about “nostra vita) is also filled with real events, real people, real accomplishments.  For me, there are things I would never change, and for which I can feel only the greatest of gratitude.  My life with my partner is fisrt and foremost among these, as is the great gift of friendship with those most cherished by me.  Each person, no doubt, similarly cherishes certain things in life, whether it be the choice of a mate, the birth of a child, the selection of a career path that has actually brought us what we hoped we might have achieved.  Or it may be something as simple as a move from one place to another, which then opened doors we never even knew were there. 

Memory, never iron clad, may help us regulate and modulate the past.  But as for regrets, there is no point, as regrets only steal from us the joy of the present.  They are the darkened woods of Dante (he goes on later to describe those woods as “selvaggia e aspra e forte, savage, bitter, and strong), just as they are Apollo’s fleeting dream, which disappears at the very touch. And so, I will attend my reunion as planned in late October, but more to see whom we have all become, whom I have become, than to recall who we were.  That was a kind of fiction anyway, a creation of dreams and desires both fulfilled and unfulfilled.  Better by far to live in the present, with an occasional nod and a grin to the past, and a wish and a plan for an ever more present present in a future we dream we create for ourselves.

My Cup Runneth Over

by Kevin

Beyond the dead end of our dirt road seen in this photo, is a trail beside the stream. The half-hour walk through state gameland to the river, beneath towering poplar trees and beside high rock cliffs is beautiful and renewing.

Living at the dead-end of an humble dirt road deep in the woods, where cell phones don’t ring and we must have satellite dishes to receive TV and Internet, every day is Thanksgiving. Gratitude for this life of peace in nature’s beauty frequently overwhelms me, and I can’t help thinking of the 23rd Psalm – especially the part about how my cup runneth over.

Take yesterday, for instance: I drove up the road three miles to David and Lena King’s Amish farm store – just a little shed by the road — to buy something for dinner. Wearing her long dress and bonnet, their daughter Mary greeted me with her “Dutchy” accent, musically asking, “What will ya be wanting tuhdaaay then?” I looked around the little room, dimly lit only by a few small windows, and spied fresh corn on the cob and onions. I knew she had farmer’s cheese, raw milk, and eggs in the ice box. All of those were very appealing, but I asked if they had any green beans and beets. Mary said her parents were picking green beans right now and she would go quickly to fetch those and pull up some beets for me. I paid $16 for a big box of fresh food and a boost for my soul.

We are surrounded by farms that look a lot like this one, less than a two-mile walk from our house up the paved road.

When Robert got home from his job as a USPS clerk, it looked like rain, so we quickly took our five dogs out of their indoor/outdoor dog run for a walk down to our half-acre pond. When we moved here after selling our big house in the suburbs almost 7 years ago, there were already lots of bass, blue gill, green gill, catfish, big carp, and other creatures in the spring-fed pond. We have added about 90 large koi over the years. Some of them are over three feet long. We hold each colorful fish and give it a name as we put it in our pond. They all look very different from each other and have individual personalities. Yellow Submarine is the queen of her domain at almost four feet long, and she often spends a good deal of time orienting newcomers to her realm. Homey is quite a clown and likes to show off and leap out of the water many times whenever he sees us nearby.

I made two signs for the pond years ago: “NO FISHING! These fish are family pets, and they have names!” Those signs rotted away years ago and I didn’t replace them. People in these parts know now that we do not hunt or fish, although they cannot understand why, since our 12 acres, pond and stream would be perfect for those activities. We are surrounded by 78 acres of state gameland that lies mainly between our property and the river. We like to hike by the stream to the river and back whenever we can, and we are happy that the woodland animals seem to be realizing that they are safe on our land. Native Americans used to live in this wooded ravine, not all that long ago, and we often sense their presence in the majestic rock cliffs and among giant poplar trees. We know that we are just temporary custodians of this land. We are humbled.

In the spring our half-acre pond is surrounded by irises. Our koi are happy and healthy living in pure spring water.

Our dog-people are two black pugs, Snorky and Randy; a long-haired black fox-like puppy that a friend rescued when a speeding car threw him out in the middle of a busy city intersection – we call him Wardell, after the hero in that wonderful trailer trash movie “Sordid Lives;” a beagle who was lost in the woods, dying of hunger, and adopted us at 3am one morning years ago – we tried other names, but only “Dumb-Dumb” stuck, because he is dumber than broccoli; and then there is our white Cairn Terrier, Scrappy — aka King Crappy — because he is so smart and resourceful that he now rules the whole kingdom here at Sawmill Run. We also have 17 tropical birds, including four big talking parrots, but I’ll introduce them to you another day.

For our five dog-people, “Family Time by the Pond” is their favorite part of each day. It is full of ritual. Wardell must be released at the front door to run at top speed down to our tree house deck that we built on Buddha Hill by the pond under three towering pine trees. Randy jumps up on one particular bench to be cuddled on our way to the deck. Scrappy likes to leap into the pond and chase the koi around. They tease him, circle back and bump him in the butt! For a whole week recently, one particular big bass would come right up to the shallow edge of the pond, following Scrappy back and forth as he would pace at the water’s edge. Eventually every visit to the pond ended up in a nose-to-nose stare-down. Fascinating interspecies communication abounds here in the woods. Meanwhile, Dumb-Dumb just smiles and gazes devotedly into our eyes. He’s happy.

Our 150-year-old barn was collapsing because the main support rafter beam had been removed long ago, and the full timber floor joists had been turned to powder by termites. Robert and I rebuilt the barn floor and inside front support wall, put on a new roof, added three dormers and turned the barn into a private art gallery. There is a view of the stream and pond from the glass back door.

It started to rain while Snorky was doing her rituals – bringing me mud from the nearby bogs and puddles and rubbing it all over me to share its cooling and soothing pleasures. Then she brings sticks to place on my shoes. She puts her paws on my shoes and chews the sticks. We both find these rituals lovingly meaningful, and they enrich our relationship. It began to rain hard. Snorky was in her element. Homey leapt out of the pond for joy and for insects. Wardell cuddled on Robert’s lap as we sat in adjacent hand-made Amish wooden gliders and sighed deeply. It rained harder. Thunder shook the Earth. We murmured, “Beautiful… Wonderful!” We could have gone inside our barn art gallery, beside the stream and pond, to enjoy the thunderstorm, but since living here we have preferred to be outside, if the rain is not too cold. Summer rains are such a pleasure!

Our barn art gallery is quite comfortable and inviting, but we almost never sit there unless we have visitors, because the allure of the outdoor hillside deck under the pine trees by the pond always wins. Besides, our dogs don’t seem to care that much for our art. They prefer to play by the pond.

Finally, King Crappy and Randy and Dumb-Dumb, who had been playing and relaxing by the pond, told us that it was time to go in. They said, “Are you crazy? It’s raining and thundering!” so we walked back up the hill to the trailerhouse art studio where the dogs and birds live and where I work, paint and write during the day. We lived there for six years while finishing the half-done construction on our little cottage deeper in the woods – beyond the end of the dirt road – beside a majestic wall of rock. My dear old dad named our new home “The Cliffs.”

We sold our 5-bedroom, 3-bath show home in the suburbs and lived for six years in this 30-year-old collapsing trailerhouse with additions and a vast 6-car, drive-in, dirt-floor basement. Now that we have moved to our cottage by The Cliffs, we use the trailerhouse as our art studios and offices. We hope to gut it eventually and rebuild it from the inside as a standard-construction studio, but we plan to leave the ouside looking exactly like it does now — a sad, dilapidated old trailerhouse. We don’t want to put on pretentious airs, after all.

King Crappy had escaped the dog run, as he often does, and had been out running around in the woods all day. He was muddy and exhausted, but clearly exhilarated and happy. We put him in a snazzy black harness that we call his “tuxedo,” and loaded him into my 4wd SUV along with some fresh Amish corn and green beans for dinner. We drove to the barricade of boulders at the dead-end of our dirt road. I got out and unlocked the heavy logging chain that secures our 250 lb cattle gate mounted on two telephone poles, drove the SUV through, and locked the gate behind us. I remember when we used to have a garage door opener and never got wet… But there are subtler luxuries in the woods.

It was still raining as we four-wheeled down the bumpy hill, through the stream and up to our new cottage – two big 15 ft x 15 ft rooms – one a many-windowed livingroom, and the other our future kitchen, with a bed in one corner and a lacquer black baby grand piano in another. There’s a crystal chandelier in the middle of the vaulted knotty pine livingroom ceiling, between the two ceiling fans. Every knotty pine cottage in the woods needs a baby grand piano and a crystal chandelier, of course! Robert washed Scrappy in our big new half-finished shower while I fixed the corn-on-the-cob and green beans in the electric skillet and 50-cent microwave that Robert bought at a garage sale. That’s how we cook now, and mysteriously our dinners have become better! Some day we will have a proper stove and oven. If we ever have a dishwasher again, I will think I have died and gone to heaven.

Old neighbors who have lived in this valley for 70 years or more tell us that the houses that used to sit on the site of our trailerhouse art studio and on the site shown above, burned down because their stills exploded. Our ravine was famous for illegal moonshine production and their were private dance and booz clubs hidden away in these woods. The wing with an arched window above was framed in but not completed when we bought this property. It had just three tiny windows. We finished the construction and installed big second hand windows. We like to use salvaged construction materials when we can.

After dinner in the screened porch, we sat in the livingroom listening to the rain and thunder, and watching the lightning show. Scrappy was asleep on Robert’s lap. It was so peaceful and beautiful and wonderful. I was overwhelmed by another one of those moments of thanksgiving, and said to Robert, “We are so incredibly lucky. How many people get to live like this?” Robert smiled knowingly and whispered, “Very few.” I found myself thinking of the 23rd Psalm again as the rain fell softly outside:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

WHAT CAN YOU AND I DO TO SAVE THE EARTH?

by Kevin

What can you and I do to save the earth? No pressure… but humanity is destroying the Earth as a habitat for life and we only have a few years to fix the problem. If we don’t, most life forms will be extinct by the end of this century and the planet will be largely a vast wasteland. All traces of human existence and history will disappear very quickly.
 
It’s not every day that we are asked to save a planet and all life forms. In the face of such a daunting task, one is tempted to feel small and powerless, and become depressed or paralyzed. I felt that way 12 years ago after hearing that both polar ice caps were melting. I knew what that meant and I was nauseated with eco-anxiety for a year. It’s a natural reaction when anyone learns that our home planet is dying. But depression is a luxury we cannot afford anymore.
 
We can and must do everything in our power to save the Earth. It is the greatest moral imperative that humanity has ever faced. We are the reason our home planet is in peril. So, let’s get to it. The time has come to ask ourselves three questions:

1. “What can I do?”

2. “What am I willing to do,” and

3. “What am I qualified to do?”

If each of us answers those three questions and commits to taking three different kinds of action, we can turn this disaster around. It would take a superhero to do it alone, but if we all do it together we will reach critical mass, and I promise you that we can save the Earth. Human beings are resilient, resourceful, creative and made in the image of God. We are capable of miracles. This isn’t over until the last one of us is gone.
 
Why do WE have to be the ones to save the earth?
 
Why us? Well… if not us, then who? Almost everyone is waiting for someone else to do it, and the clock is ticking perilously close to midnight. Times up! What finally kicked my butt into high gear was Bill McKibben’s July 19, 2012 article in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” His message can be summed up in three numbers backed by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. Many scientists believe that, if anything these numbers are too optimistic. Together they spell “Time to act!”

“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” — 3 Important Numbers:

1.) 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F.) = Maximum global warming permitted before utter disaster. The Earth’s temperature has already risen .8 degrees Celsius, and there is enough additional warming inertia in the system to guarantee another .8 degree Celsius rise even if we stop all greenhouse gas emissions. That means we are already 3/4 of the way to the maximum warming the Earth can sustain.

2.) 565 Gigatons of CO2 = Maximum allowed release by 2050. At the current rate of CO2 emissions, we’d reach 565 Gigatons by 2028, in just 16 years — 22 years before mid-century.

3.) 2,795 Gigatons of CO2 = 5 times the allowed 565 Gigatons of CO2 release, currently held in proven coal and oil reserves that fossil fuel companies and countries are planning to burn.

Read “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” by Bill McKibben, in Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719#ixzz21StVZEer

What can I do?… What am I willing to do?… What am I qualified to do?
 
Each individual’s answers to these three questions will be different. I offer my own humble set only as an example of what one person’s thoughts look like. Yours responses will be uniquely your own:
 
What can I do? I am an artist. So I can call attention to the plight of the earth in my paintings and artwork, and I can exhibit that art and talk and write about it. We can all join an environmental organization like Bill McKibben’s 350.org. We can decide not to shrink away from talking about global climate change as a major issue of our time, when the occasion arises. Each person has something s/he can do.

What am I willing to do? I’ve always enjoyed writing about life and human issues. My very good friend Paul and I had written long letters to each other for decades about all sorts of things, so we decided to partner to write and illustrate this blog, when we realized that we could actually manage the required technology. Now we both write about the plight of the earth frequently on “Two Old Liberals.” All of us might be willing to write to our friends about this issue. We might discuss it at church or in other organizations and meetings we attend. Some of us could write poetry about it or become social media activists.
 
What am I qualified to do? It only occurred to me recently that I have been facilitating high-speed, productive brainstorming sessions for 22 years in the corporate world, to help work groups invent new products or solutions to strategic problems. Why did it take me so long to realize that those processes could be employed to get humanity out of our worst pickel ever? Now I’m working with a diverse group of environmentally concerned citizens in this region to invent strategies to save the planet. We have met twice and produced 31 illustrated concepts so far. Next weekend we will meet again to create a few more concepts and select the most compelling ones to act upon. We call our group a “HIVE of earth-loving activity,” and we mean business.
 
How to create a “HIVE of earth-loving activity” in your region
 
Because the moral imperative to save the Earth as a life-supporting habitat is such a daunting task, it helps to form a HIVE. One bee may not be able to make honey, but a whole HIVE can do it. Again, your approach to forming a HIVE of earth-loving activity will be unique, but here is how we did it:     

  1. Identify two or more committed people to begin the HIVE.
  2. One of those people must be the convenor and task owner — a thought leader in the community around this daunting task. In our case that is Jerry, who has worked hard to recruit earth-loving bees into our hive. He is also a musician and brings us to music!
  3. Another member of that Core Team needs to be willing to serve the group as a facilitator who lists their ideas in their own words, and stays out of content to make the process run smoothly. It helps if that person can write legibly and quickly at a flip chart. In our group I facilitate process and record what everyone says.
  4. Gather your HIVE for three hours at a time when everyone is available. Encourage people to bring food, coffee, and drinks. Give everyone paper and pens. Put out some toys to play with. Invite all participants to introduce themselves and express a goal for their participation in the group. The facilitator writes everyone’s goals (and then their ideas,) numbered on a flipchart.
  5. Offer Rules of the Road for brainstorming: A.) Say your ideas in 5 – 10 words starting with “I wish…” or “We could…” or “How to…” B.) Suspend judgement and keep an open mind, C.) Suspend ego and be willing to offer bad, illegal, absurd ideas and let the group fix them. D.) Build on each other’s ideas, E.) Be willing to walk away from good ideas to implement even better ones.
  6. The facilitator invites everyone to offer ideas for action and numbers and writes them on a flip chart as they are spoken.
  7. After 30 to 90 minutes of listing everyone’s ideas, the facilitator invites each individual to circle and initial the number of one or more ideas they are willing to write up in a little more detail.
  8. Each participant writes one or more Concept Sheets including four elements: A.) A short title for the concept, B.) The name(s) of the author(s,) C.) “What is the idea?” — you may take the words right off the flip chart or write new words, D. “How would the idea work?” — write more details about what, when, where, why, and how the idea would work.
  9. The facilitator invites each person to read their Concept Sheet(s) — one minute each — and tapes them up, numbered, on a wall display. If there is an artist in the group who can write the Concept title and draw a quick rapid image sketch on a separate page to go with each written concept, it will help bring them to life, and help participants recall the concepts and differentiate among them.
  10. Ask everyone to place a stick-on dot next to each of their favorite concepts. Give people enough dots to vote for 10% to 30% of the concepts.
  11. The facilitator opens the floor to nominations of individual concepts or clusters of similar concepts for action. It is a good idea to get a “second.” Ask and write responses to “Who would champion this idea?” and “Who would help?” and “What and when are the next steps to action?”
  12. The group may agree upon regularly scheduled “HIVE Support Meetings” to report progress on the various projects, invent new projects, solve any problems that arise for specific endeavors, and keep up each other’s enthusiasm and energy. Cohesiveness is important. Accept different approaches to activism within your HIVE, and don’t waste time arguing about those. Just act!

“But I’m a hypocrite! How can I save the Earth when I’m part of the problem?”
 
Welcome to the club! We’re all hypocrites in this particular game. If we are breathing we are part of the problem, because we consume oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide — the chief greenhouse gas causing global warming. I’m a bigger hypocrite than you. Okay… we did sell our big 5-bedroom/ 3-bath house in the suburbs nearly seven years ago and moved into a trailerhouse deep in the woods next to a pond and stream, while building a small cottage. We live much more simply now — partly off the grid. But we are consuming massive amounts of fossil fuels and I still jet around the country helping corporations invent new products — more junk that nobody really needs — stuff that requires oil and natural gas and coal to produce.
 
So, see?… I’m a bigger hypocrite than you. Does that mean I shouldn’t fight like hell to save the Earth? No! Until we can bring enough economic, political and social pressure to bear upon the fossil fuel industry and governments to force them to switch to clean renewable energy forms like solar, wind, tidal and geothermal energy, we will all be hypocrites. So, let’s redeem ourselves, join forces, and create HIVES of earth-loving activity everywhere. When we reach critical mass, the economic scales will tip, and it will become much more profitable for the fossil fuel industry and governments to provide clean energy than to kill the planet with carbon. (Extinction is not good for profits anyway…) Then our lives will change radically and we can all move together, quickly, into an era of integrity and ethical planetary stewardship with clean energy and clear consciences. Become part of the critical mass that demands radical change to save the Earth. Then be ready to ride that wave of change into a new style of living.

FEELING ANTSY

By Paul

I don’t mean to mislead you by the title. I’m not feeling antsy in the sense that I’m restless, or eager to move on to something new and different.  I’m not fidgety, or edgy, or restive, or jittery, but I am ill-at-ease.  And in this case, it’s all about ants!

I guess I ought to be used to it by now. It’s a reoccurring problem here in Southern California.  Every August, during those dreaded dog-days of summer, we have to deal with ant attacks.  They often start in the bathroom, but in the end they invariably migrate out into the kitchen, which is where they really want to be.  Sometimes they make a stop along the way in the pantry, too, but as often as not they pass completely by that larder of plenty, and head straight for what they’re really after, namely, water!  Yes, it’s water that draws them, even when I, for one, cannot see any water standing around.  Sometimes it’s enough that you’ve left a damp sponge on the rim of the sink, and they’re at it, like flies on honey.  As a matter of fact, I think I’ll drop that tired old cliché entirely from my vocabulary from this moment forward, and instead substitute the far more apt, and more immediately useful, phrase: “like ants to water!” 

The cause of it all is the heat.  And not only the heat, but the dryness.  These past couple of weeks have seen temperatures rise to the upper 80’s, and even into the low 90’s, with no particular cooling trend in the offing in anything like the immediate future.  And of course, no rain, ever.  Not that this is something unexpected here in California at this time of year, nor – it would seem – for many in other parts of the country, where they have been suffering far more than we.  But even the Romans had to deal with something similar every year, which in fact is where we get the name dog-days, as you may already know.  They associated these miserable, oppressive, sultry days of boiling, broiling, stifling heat with the so-called Dog Star, Sirius.  It’s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, which itself means Greater Dog.  And for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it appears most prominently from July to early September, making all living things on this part of the planet as wretchedly uncomfortable as possible. 

Still, I’m not yet ready to attempt the principal cure of the Romans, which they tried repeatedly with, one has to think, unfailing lack of success, namely, the sacrifice of a brown dog to mollify and appease the sparkling magnificence of the dreaded Dog Star.  Truth be told, I don’t even really like killing the ants.  And there’s the rub, or at least part of it.  I look at these creatures, tiny as they are, and I think that each one is an almost incredibly perfect being in its own right.  It amazes me that these minuscule insects are so astonishingly well made, each with its own kind of life force that generates movement and intention (of a sort anyway, maybe more chemical in this case, rather than volitional, as we might think of it), but with a head and eyes and six legs that allow it to cover every conceivable kind of terrain, including up walls and across ceilings, with antennae waving which they use to communicate mysterious messages to others of their kind, far removed from all human understanding.

In addition, on a somewhat different, though I hope related note, I happen to have been reading recently about the Jain religion of India.  I have learned, for example, that Mahavira, the last in the line of the great Jain gurus (a contemporary of the Lord Buddha, by the way), taught utter non-violence toward every creature on the planet.  It goes without saying, of course, that not only do observant Jains refrain from eating animals, nor do they wear animal products of any kind, but the most serious among their practicing monks walk about with gauze draped over the mouth and the nose, so as avoid any inadvertent breathing in of insect or other life forms.  They can also be seen walking slowly along with small, soft brooms in their hands, gently brushing the path in front of them, lest unsuspecting, though nonetheless deadly, trampling feet may bring an untimely end to the life of a tiny creature in their way.  They do not even eat fruit which has to be cut from trees, but wait instead for it to fall to the ground, rather than taking knife to a living branch.  The ultimate goal of such ne plus ultra non-violence, just as with the Buddhists, is the complete annihilation of the ego, and thus the cessation of the cycle of endless births and deaths and rebirths, so as to avoid the pain (and the potential destruction) involved with being born yet one more time in yet one more body.  For to be in a body, almost by definition, is to murder other living beings. 

Thus, I stand before you here today, accused, judged, condemned.  Un-Jain-like, indeed un-Buddha-like in the extreme, I am a killer.  I have destroyed hundreds, perhaps thousands of ants, living creatures with rights of their own, merely in the last three days.  How far is that, I ask myself, from walking along with a broom, sweeping the path in front of me, lest I inadvertently step on one of these, the least of God’s creatures?  I am not even a very good vegetarian, truth be told.  I used to be better, when I was at least “ovo-lacto,” that is, when I ate only eggs and milk products for protein.  These days, however, I kill fish, as well (or at least I participate in the killing by buying it).  Some odd doctor or other convinced me years ago that I was eating too many eggs and too much cheese, and thus contributing to higher levels of cholesterol in my body, which itself then contributed to at least two heart attacks.  So, I decided to sacrifice fish – brown dog like? – on the altar of what I call my health.  Just as I have made the decision to kill ants, as many as possible, in the name of living in a home free of the intrusion of creatures constantly creeping about over sponges and glasses and whatever other dish or implement we may have inadvertently been left about on the counter near the sink. 

And so, I admit to you my imperfections, and I accept that, if the Jains and the Buddhists and the Hindus are right, I will have to reincarnate yet once again, having sadly failed at that one killing allowed even to the greatest of the sages, that is, of the ego itself.  For now though, it seems that I must muddle along in my murderous ways.  I will do it, though, as much as I am able to, without anger, without malice, and with whatever honoring in my heart I can muster for the perfection of other living beings, all the while taking heart from the words of the Lord Krishna himself to Arjuna, his reluctant warrior of a disciple, in that great book of war and killing, the Bhagavad Gita:

Thou grievest where no grief should be!  Thou speakest words lacking in wisdom, for the wise in heart mourn not for those that live, nor those that die.  Nor I, nor thou, nor any one of these ever was not, nor ever will not be, forever and forever afterwards…Life cannot slay. Life is not slain!  Never the spirit was born; the spirit shall cease to be never; never was time it was not; End and Beginning are dreams!  Birthless and deathless and changeless the spirit forever; and Death hath not touched it at all, dead though the house of it may seem!

 

THE LANGUAGE OF MYTHOLOGY, AS VITAL TODAY AS EVER

By Paul

The Blackfeet Indians have an old legend about a man and his two wives, who were living off by themselves.  The younger of the two wives wonders off one day on her daily rounds and meets a handsome young man, who invites her to his lodge.  Now in those “far-back days,” animals could, and sometimes did, change themselves back and forth from animal into human form.  As it turned out, the handsome young man who met the young woman was the son of Beaver Chief.  He invites her to go and meet his parents, and she does so, although with some amount of fear and misgiving.  She stays with them the requisite four nights, during which time Beaver Chief, through his magic, can see that the husband of the young woman, while worried, does not give in to anger.  Beaver Chief then allows her to return to her husband, but she goes off yet one more time back to Beaver Chief’s lodge.  Yet, sensing something “bigger,” something spiritual here, still the husband is not moved to anger.  In return, Beaver Chief finally allows the young woman to return to her human family for good, but this time laden with great gifts.  First of all, she has learned the sacred song of the Beaver Clan, very powerful medicine, and secondly she is given a beaver skin roll filled with sacred objects inside, which she presents to her husband and to the entire tribe.  These songs, and these sacred objects, save the tribe more than once in the ensuing generations, and the people rejoice that their ancestors were able to connect with such great spiritual power.

What are we to make of such a story?  It no doubt sounds quaint, even strange to our modern ears, until we begin to remember some of the dreams we, ourselves, or someone close to us, has had just the night before. It is no more strange, for example, than the dream my good friend and fellow blogger, Kevin, told me of recently in which he and Al and Tipper Gore were wondering about on gorgeous, intricately woven, gossamer bridges, hung high in the stratosphere.  Nor is it any more odd than a dream I myself once had in which I escaped from a contingent of policemen (it wasn’t clear what I had done to cause their pursuit) by becoming invisible and flying up to a higher astral plane.  I could not sustain myself there for too long, however, and when I came back, the police were there waiting to arrest me.  When they asked where I had gone to, I figured it was best just to tell the truth, and told them I’d flown to a higher plane, which was invisible to them, even though I knew it was unlikely they would ever believe me. 

What this Blackfeet story, and thousands like it from every conceivable culture in the world, and these dreams (and millions of others like them) all have in common is the language of mythology, which is another way of saying, the language of symbols.  In each case, that is, both of mythology properly so called, and of personal dreams, there is an attempt on the part of fallible human beings to deal with themselves as they take their place in society, and with the harsh world of what we blithely call “reality.”   If there is a difference between the two, that is, between myth and dreams, it is that mythology is a kind of collective dream.  It is a world which uses archetypal imagery designed for and channeled through the experience of an entire people, a culturally similar group that can, as it were, read and understand the particular language of symbols used in any given story. 

If we return for just a moment to the Blackfeet legend, we note that it is set in a world of animals and people.  This was, in fact, the world of the tribe before the onslaught of what is called western civilization ripped apart the traditional life of these hunting peoples.  In those “far-back” times, that is, in the land of symbols and generally accepted archetypes, when animals could speak and when they were recognized as having power of their own, such creatures came to represent highly powerful parts of the psyche of the people.  In this particular story, the man also had two wives, one who helped him with his everyday needs, but the other of whom helped him spiritually.  It was the latter who brought him the sacred song and the sacred Beaver Roll, filled with powerful magic (we think, too, of the Biblical story of Martha and Mary in this instance, where Martha chooses to busy herself with food preperation, instead of listening to the words of the Master, as does Mary).  The man, for his part, does not give way to anger at her.  In other words, at some level of his consciousness, he recognizes her as a spiritual helper.  The symbolism here is one in which a person has evolved to the point where he (or she – the actual gender of a “real person” makes no difference) has accepted and is open to Wholeness, that is, to a combination of both the male and female sides of one’s personality, and so, as a “whole person,” he (or again, she) has access to great spiritual power.  

The entire Blackfeet nation, not just one individual, was able to benefit from this story, to use it to understand their place in the world.  It, and many other stories like it, served them very well for a long time (until that world essentially ceased to exist), precisely because it used a set of symbols known to and understood by an entire people.  The language of dream, on the other hand, is highly personalized, and as such is normally only readily understood by and meant for the individual who is dreaming the dream. 

In the case of my own dream, which took place some years ago by the way, the symbolism is equally clear to me.  The police are those parts of my psyche which demand adherence to the law, that is, to daily duty, or to the conventions and regulations of culture and society, even of religion, which in the course of my personal life history I have internalized and made my own (for better or for worse!).  There is another part of me, however (as there is of each one of us), which yearns to escape these policing rules that hem us in and “arrest us” (i.e. they stunt our spiritual growth, tethering us to the physical world of everyday living in ways similar to the elder wife in the Blackfeet legend, or to Martha in the Biblical story).  Through personal spiritual effort we can eventually become invisible to these policing parts of our psyche, that is, we can escape them and “fly to a higher plane,” one not bound by the Law of Opposites.  This higher plane is, of course, spiritual not physical; it is one of expanded consciousness, which has no use, no need for the laws and regulations required in day-to-day living.  In the dream, unfortunately, I was unable to sustain this elevated level of consciousness, but in the end I did “tell the truth” to these enforcers of rules.  In other words, I was able to incorporate some of the “spiritual power” of a higher level of consciousness into my daily activities.  Not perfect, to be sure, but at least something.  And that is the key to any so-called spiritual power.  We have to be able to “bring it back”, and it has to make a difference in our every day lives.

The same was true for the Blackfeet story.  It infused spiritual power into an entire people.  It is an example of the archetype of the Great Hero who journeys to a “far off place,” but who returns after various trials and tribulations with a tremendous gift for his or her people.  And the people rejoice, because they understand at some level that they have been touched by something beyond the toil and labor of their everyday lives.  They have, to an extent, seen Spirit, at least in symbol, and are the better for it. 

So, what mythologies do we possess today?  That is a good, if a disturbing, question.  My own view, though not one shared by everybody, is that the great myths of the established religions are slowly sinking into the sands of time, no longer full of the life-sustaining energy that once infused them.  Of course, with enough will and enough personal power, they may occasionally still once more overflow with energy.  We continually see images of the Virgin Mary, for example, popping up here and there in trees, or even in food, and people flock to them, as to an apparition.  The archetype of the Great Virgin Mother of the Universe, who does not need sex to procreate (i.e. again, She is already Whole, fully embodying both male and female sides), can use any medium to communicate to Her people.  Still, for the most part, I believe that modern humans are desperately searching for some new and vital set of symbols needed to energize and inspire them, to help them through the tremendous challenges of potential nuclear war, of the ever more apparent ravages of global climate change, and of out-of-control pandemics, to enumerate but a few of the frightening problems facing us in the 21st century.

This is perhaps to some extent what helps give the world of space exploration such tremendous emotional power and energy for so many people today.  It is an attempt on the part of human beings to “fly up and beyond” the endless challenges of living our daily lives on this planet.  It could be interpreted as a kind of collective waking dream, a semi-conscious mythologizing, which we are living both actually and symbolically, and one which – like all good myths – also brings something useful back to earth, something that helps and makes a real difference in our workaday lives

I am not suggesting that NASA is the myth of the New Age, but I might go so far as to say that science in general is beginning to replace some of the old stories of “far off times,” when gods and saints and great heroes traveled to other worlds and then returned, Bodhisattva-like, to aid struggling humanity.  One way or another, people still need such stories to sustain them.  Life is hard; we all struggle not only for our daily bread, but also in hope of a greater, a better, time when all will be well.  We may know in our hearts that such a time will never come, at least not on the physical plane of existence, but without such hopes and dreams, without art, which at it highest is a materialization of these longings, and without science, which embodies at some profound level what it means to best understand today’s world, everyday life on the planet can be a sad and dreary affair indeed. With it, on the other hand, with these great stories, whatever they may be and wherever they come from, we feel some measure of hopefulness, our lives are energized, and once again we feel as though we have something to live for.

THE MARS LANDING: LONG MAY WE BE CURIOUS

By Paul

The team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has done it again.  This time they have succeeded in landing a highly sophisticated, roving mobile science lab the size of a compact car on a planet located some 154 million miles away from home.  And what a landing it was!  Fraught with complication to a degree that even a tiny error could have put a killer kibosh on the entire multi-year effort, they were nonetheless successful down to the smallest detail.  By chance, coming at a time when millions are simultaneously celebrating great athletic achievement in London right now, it could equally be said that this in its own right is part of the Olympics of American space discovery.   It is a Gold Medal for science, engineering, and generally for intellectual – dare I even say, spiritual? – achievement. 

Even so, the question remains, why (literally) in heaven’s name ought we even to want to send machines, let alone (at a later date) humans, to another planet?  Isn’t it enough that we have messed things up royally here on Earth, and wouldn’t it be wiser if we were to put all our resources and efforts into making things better not just for the life forms residing here (ourselves included, surely), but for the magnificent planet as a whole that we call home?  Indeed, I confess that I was exactly of this opinion in the past, and I will, with your patience, attempt to explain in brief how and why I changed my mind.

I still vividly recall July 20th, 1969.  It was a warm summer evening on Earth when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon.  A Sunday, in fact, if memory serves me correctly.  I was living and teaching high school in a rural part of upstate New York, not far from the Massachusetts border.  Still drinking alcohol in those days (too much, to be sure), I happened to stop at a favorite watering hole of mine, as chance would have it, more or less as Commander Armstrong was stepping onto the surface of the moon.  The first human ever to have done so.  And what were my thoughts in that bar as he spoke his famous words high above?  Was I proud of this great human achievement?  Was I excited that people had used their great intelligence, not to create weapons of destruction designed to kill one another, but instead to invent a technology that channeled our energy and creativity into reaching out to the universe around us?  I greatly regret to say that was not the case.  My thoughts were entirely earth-bound on that day. I felt nothing but criticism that we had chosen to spend so much money sending men to another celestial body, when there was so much pain and suffering on the one we currently inhabited.  I remember thinking: “We spend millions sending men to the Moon, and next to nothing on the homeless and the dispossessed, on education, or on trying to cure humans of the diseases that kill us in the hundreds of thousands.”  None of which, of course, was any more true in those years than it is now.

If I look back even further into my own personal history, I recognize that I was equally critical of earlier human achievements, those great soaring cathedrals of Europe, for example.  Were they not the Medieval equivalent, in terms of technology and the great expansion of human imagination, to a space flight of the 20th (or the 21st) century?  Instead, all I could think when I first saw them was: how many people suffered and died, while these temples were being created?  And wouldn’t it have been better to spend that money on food for the poor and the dispossessed, on education, or on attempts, however halting they may have been in those days, to cure humans of killer diseases? 

The answer to these questions, I think, can be divided into at least two parts.  First of all, neither can, nor should, humans ever do only one thing.  As a race, we are big enough to attempt multiple creative feats, and we are more than capable of both working on those never-ending quotidian problems that plague us day to day, and have always plagued us, while at the same time setting our sights and our minds on the bigger, the higher, the grander.  Even the Olympics, that great paean to the physicality of the body (and to the mind, as well, it has to be said), uses as its motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” Faster, Higher, Stronger.  These words themselves point to the second part of the answer to our original question of why do any of this “other stuff, beyond our daily needs?   The second part of that answer is, in fact, deceptively simple: it is because human beings not only can do it, but in fact we ought to do it.  It is part of what it means for us to be human not only to take care of the business of everyday life, not only to help others in need, feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless, work for the cure to diseases and to eliminate poverty, all vital and unquestionably great and worthy goals, but it also to strive for what is, if I can call it so, “beyond the merely human.”

And what do I mean by the beyond merely human?   I mean all those things that take us outside of ourselves, that show us that we are capable of dreaming, of imagining, of conjuring not just what has to do with our “daily bread,” the sustenance of our bodies and our immediate physical needs, but that which feeds the spirit as well.  Every age, and every culture, has done this, so why not ours, as well?  What else is art for, except in some way, however imperfectly, to actively participate in the Great Creativity of Life Itself, and in so doing to express in a highly individualized and personalized way what is beyond the life of any one human being?   Science, too, at its best, does the same thing.  Physicists look into the very Mystery of Being, they use their intelligence and their practical know-how to delve into questions such as where do we come from, what is the origin of life, and why is there something rather than nothing?  

Whether I knew it at the time or not, Apollo 11 was following in the giant footsteps of such great thinkers, and so is the aptly named Curiosity, which landed last night (Earth time) on Mars.  This latest attempt is designed to research the origins of life in the universe.  It is an attempt to help us understand where and how life came about.  It is taking us beyond the cares and the duties of our everyday lives, as important and as crucial as they may be, and it is literally lifting our spirits.  We can look up at the sky and, in a sense, see that we, too, are there.  Mystics have known this for millennia, that we are part of the Greater Universe.  But for most of us, it may be enough to realize that some real part of our (intellectual) selves is actually roaming about on the Red Planet high above us.  What better way than this to express our need to look higher, to see farther, to go beyond, to focus our attention on what is greater than any one of us, and to give voice to that curiosity by which we realize we are human, and at the same time, hope that we are also far, far more than that?