Rain drops drip, drip, splash, plummet earthward soaking into a rotten hollow log covered with lichen and mushrooms. The huge log is quietly decaying on the forest floor. No one notices. The carpenter ants have long since lost interest. Its hollows are too moist, now, for cozy dens for gray foxes or chipmunks. On its north side, a plush covering of luxurious green moss. It’s impossible not to reach out and run the palm of my hand over it, my fingers tickling the softest, greenest gift that nature has to offer me on this dark, rainy equinox morning.
I once had a friend visiting and in the morning as I was grinding coffee, he asked to smell the fragrant, freshly ground beans. I passed him the grinder lid full of fine brown grit, like earth. After several deep inhalations, he grinned, handed the lid back to me, and pronounced the coffee amazing.
It struck me as such a simple thing to do—to inhale the aroma of the source of this favorite morning beverage. To appreciate. To be in the moment.
So ever since, almost every day after I grind my coffee, I pause Time.
I experience the fragrance of the grounds. Sometimes I walk away with coffee dust on my nose, and later chuckle as I see it in a mirror.
But I have added to this ritual, and it has become a ritual of gratitude and far-reaching connection.
First, I simply acknowledge that I am alive. I have risen for yet another day of this mysterious, befuddling, beautiful thing we call life. I did not pass in the night. Which, at 57, is something that is not out of the realm of possibility. Time in this body is fleeting, and my spirit’s leaving could be at any moment. Recognizing this is important. Each day. But as I inhale, my spirit’s leaving is not in this moment, and I am grateful.
Next, I think of the coffee’s growing. I thank the soil, the sun, the wind, and the rain. I thank them for their complex interactions that foster climates in which we can grow things, even as the climate shifts in profound ways. I thank the pollinators. I thank them for doing their daily work, even as we humans challenge them with neonicotinoids and habitat loss.
I thank the coffee planters and the growers. I picture them on a mountainside—a high altitude, subtropical region. I picture the coffee bushes with their shiny green leaves and red berries (who knew the beans were once red?). I picture the harvesters, and am grateful for their hard work and long hours, perhaps for not much pay though I hope they are paid fairly.
After that, I think of the traders—for my coffee brand, a trader who believes in equal exchange. I picture them in conversation with the coffee growers. I picture burlap sacks of beans, money exchanged. I picture the truckers, driving the coffee north. I think of the Vermont company that buys the beans and roasts them. I think of the employees doing the roasting, the sound the beans must make as they turn and slide in the roaster, filling the air with an acrid coffee scent. I think of the coop employees at the store that carries my coffee brand. The people in the coop who receive the shipments and stock the shelves. The person who sold the coffee to me in the checkout line. But … it doesn’t end there. No, the threads of connection travel far.
Trees were felled for the paper bag that holds the coffee, and the paper filter that I will pour the hot water through. I am grateful to those trees. There are mills that process the lumber into paper and many workers there. Then there is the petroleum raised from the ground to go to the plastics factory, and all the workers that make that happen. And of course there are machines that fashion the plastic bag that keeps my coffee fresh while it is in the store, and the little twist-tie that holds the bag closed. I think of the metal that was mined to make those machines that transform petroleum into the plastic bag. The engineers who designed the machines. But it doesn’t stop there.
There was an artist who created the logo on the coffee’s paper bag. And there was stone harvested and ground up to create the ceramic mug into which I will pour the coffee. There was a potter, turning the potter’s wheel. And more metal was mined and fashioned to make my kettle that whistles on the stove. Not to mention the coffee grinder and all its intricate parts. And then there is my well that draws the water to put into the kettle, and all the parts of the well and lines and water pump. Which of course needs electricity, which follows out onto a grid that connects a profound web of more raw materials, people, and equipment. The miners, the transporters, the factories, the machines, the boxes, the store that sells kettles and grinders. It goes on and on. And, well, there is just so much that goes into making a cook stove itself.
By this time, I am in awe. Only a few moments have passed while I have stood inhaling the fragrant grounds from the grinder lid.
Each tiny thing we do is woven into the fabric of all the other tiny things that other people are doing, all over the world. And without that fabric, that weave of interconnecting activities and passions and tasks, I would not have a cup of coffee to drink in the morning. Perhaps only water, sipped from my cupped hands at a streamside.
Was listening to a really interesting podcast—a conversation with Iain McGilchrist, author of the The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In the program he quotes Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”).
To me, this reminds us of the importance of maintaining an open mind and a humbleness when it comes to our understanding of ourselves, each other, nature, the world, and the universe. This quote speaks to Socrates’ belief, one that Albert Einstein shared, that the wisest people admit and understand that they really know next to nothing.
Wise people can see and accept—without feeling inferior or stupid, but rather joyfully curious—that the world, any issue or problem, any person or group of people, and the vastness of nature hold great complexities, most of which lie far beyond our singular understanding.
When we think we know how a thing IS, or how a thing SHOULD be, we stop learning. We are then only espousing our own limited knowledge. Our understanding thus falls far short. We don’t listen. We don’t make good choices.
And, as we are seeing in a very painful way right now in the U.S. and other places around the globe—communication and problem-solving fall apart completely, rendering us inept and powerless. Undesired and negative ramifications usually unfold exponentially as a result of certainty and righteousness.
From an intriguing book I just picked up: Behaving As If the God in All Life Mattered, by Machaelle Small Wright, 1983 (1997):
Overlighting Deva: “By survival, we mean the act of maintaining the fusion and balance between spirit and matter on the physical planet Earth…. The very physical existence of [humans] on Earth has depended upon all kingdoms of nature…. [The dynamic] must shift from being one of distant benevolence, as it has been in the best of past times, to being one of conscious co-creativity…. Humans do not, on the whole, understand the dynamic relationships between spirit and matter. Nature does. It is a dynamic that is inherent within the life force of nature….
But in order for the dynamic to be fully useful to all the other levels of reality within this universe, [this dynamic] must be unlocked from its custodianship within nature and linked with the human tool of intelligence. Only then can it be applied in principle within all realms of life.
If humans continue in their reluctance to join [nature] … then surely out of human ignorance and arrogance, we will all continue to experience difficult challenges to our survival and, eventually, we will be faced with the full separation of spirit from matter on this planet” (xvi–xvii).
Wright says, “ The nature intelligence I speak of contains within it the truth—a truth that has been present and available to us since the beginning of time. It is not available exclusively to the gifted. It is a vast universal truth that is present around us everywhere. Our doorway to this truth is through nature itself” (xiv).
“Okay, this is where I am. How am I going to let that grief alchemize me into something that can listen to life in a different way? …the awakening is so strong, so rich. Because there’s so much loss going on. The love that’s becoming available because of the grief is so huge [so as to] blast through our apathy.” Clare Dubois, interview on Buddha at the Gas Pump, March 9, 2020
These words and this entire interview with Clare Dubois, the intelligent and passionate founder of Tree Sisters, strikes me in this time. Especially when, this morning, I took a bit of time to catch up on the news and saw headline after headline, from PBS to the NRDC, about this heartless U.S. administration destroying one environmental protection after another—migratory birds, old growth forests, trophy hunting on nature preserves with the allowance to kill animals raising young in their dens, industry bypassing environmental impact studies and rules, deregulation of chemicals and pesticides (that go into our food and our homes, by the way), and the frightening list goes on.
This is where the Orange One has been putting his energy (when he is not bolstering his ego and his image with those he has in his thrall) during Covid-19, during a nation uprising in rightful and right-minded protest. He and those focused only on GDP and $$$ would like us so very much to just forget about the protests and especially the coronavirus. I’ve seen politicians and media encouraging us to go out and spend money! Drink at a bar! Go to the beach! To return to “normal” ASAP. It’s a gas-lighting campaign, for anyone who hasn’t figured that out. If you tell folks it is safe and everything is great enough times, they will believe it.
I know we are weary, but racism is a deep, deep societal ill that will require long, sustained energy to change and heal. We need long-range activism to deal with it. And the virus is still here. This novel coronavirus is here to stay. Yes, we will have waves, spikes, and outbreaks for the foreseeable future (aka, years). Yes, case counts and mortality of the First Wave continue to rise, especially in countries led by despots like the U.S., Brazil & Russia. Yes, if you haven’t already, you will know someone who dies of Covid-19 before long. No, they don’t know how herd immunity will look or if it is likely, yet. Or how long immunity will last – a few months, a year, permanent? We just don’t know yet. No, we won’t have a vaccine distributed to 7 billion people by next year. No, a vaccine won’t magically make normal life reappear. Only small pox was eradicated by vaccine and it took a drastic concerted effort and decades upon decades. Eventually, scientists are thinking Covid’s effects upon those who are vulnerable will grow milder over time, but that will take years. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/2020/05/27/coronavirus-en…/)
So we need to build long-range, thoughtful strategies. We need to work together to RETHINK how we live and what we value, to build a new vision. We should not return to the damaging “normal,” to, in the words of Dubois, “kneel at the altar of the current economy that requires the death of nature [and people] to thrive.”
Donald Trump and his administration have made war on us—war on the environment, war on our health through inaction or negligent action concerning the virus and increased pollutants through deregulation, and have incited renewed war on race, color, and difference of any kind.
This is reality. And acceptance of what IS now, not what once WAS, or what we WISH were true, is the only sensible path. Because acceptance allows us to make rational decisions. Like removing this man and those who support him from office as soon as possible, by whatever legal means we can find.
This is no time for apathy, or magical thinking. And we are rising up, no longer apathetic. This is full of heart and is heart-lifting.
All of these “illnesses” above are rooted in dualistic thinking and the ideology/worship of domination. I have said it and will say it again. We are all interconnected. That small snail crawling on the stone wall after the rain? It is no less important than you. It deserves just as much compassion as you. It deserves life, just like you. Clare Dubois goes on to say that “Communion—oh my god, communion! The most exquisite level of belonging!” It is time for communion my friends. The time is NOW. Before it is too late.
The refrain to open up and get back to business as usual, back to “normal” is amplifying. Understandable—being asked to stay mostly in our houses, many not working, and with a tanking economy is not healthy. However, I have a thought: I would like to see a conversation emerge—a loud and pervasive conversation, an unrelenting conversation—that seriously explores the question: “Is ‘normal’ even what we want to or should go back to?”
Initially, of course, we will just need to get up and running, to the extent that we are able, so as to not create a second, more deadly wave of the virus. Just because we have cabin fever does not mean the virus is magically gone. Nor will it be gone for a long while. Nor do we have herd immunity. Researchers are not even certain, at this point (as far as I’ve read) how herd immunity will even play out. But, though I feel we will open too fast and too soon, I get that we need to “open” CAREFULLY so that financially bereft families have income coming in, so they can eat and keep a roof over their heads. I am one of those people. BUT I hope that we will self-reflect for the longer trajectory of “opening.”
Do we really want gridlocked highways? To be sitting in our cars for 2-3 hours a day? To be so harried that we barely get to see our families? To be mindlessly consuming the next shiny thing to quell the existential ache in our hearts?
Do we really want brown air, the same level of noise from traffic and planes, and the machines that bulldoze and carve up our remaining wild spaces? Do we really want a world with so many fewer birds, so many species gone extinct? Do we really want particles of discarded plastic ending up in our food and water, like they are now? Do we really want to eliminate our pollinators with loosely or now unregulated pesticides? (Look sharp to the EPA rules that were suspended and are being drastically eroded.)
Do we want a world of unprecedented droughts, storms, fires and floods due to a dramatically altering climate? Do we really want no ice sheets at our polar caps?? For the permafrost to melt and release large quantities of methane gas and create a runaway warming?
And do we even need to rescue the fossil fuel industry (with price per barrel in the negative)? Let it fall. It is time. It is way past time.
Do we really want to continue a society where some people don’t have a place to get out of danger in the face of a threat like a virus, or a catastrophic weather event? A society where the poorest had the least ability to self-isolate safely, due to crowded living conditions? Where the poorest ran out of food first? Or had the highest mortality rates?
Let’s instead open up to a new idea of “wealth” where the wellbeing of all people, animals, and wild spaces is what is measured, is what drives our decisions, and is the focus of our “work.” Capitalist consumerism is soulless; neoliberalism only works for an elite few and it sucks the life out of Nature and out of us.
Let’s instead pour the recovery energy and money into green technology, into local sustainable living, into buying ourselves more time to do what we love, into more practices of working from home for some of the week, into a new way of living.
Let’s ALL re-envision this, so we can preserve the precious little gifts we’ve discovered while self-isolating.
For those of us privileged enough to have a place to self-isolate, how many people, in the past month, have deepened their relationships with partners and children? How many people made some art for the first time since they could remember? How many people read a really good book? Or several? How many people made amazing food and relished the process? How many people meditated more, walked more, did yoga more? How many people created a much more healthy routine in working from home? How many people did some thoughtful introspection and felt themselves grow consciously and in dedication to live a more compassionate, meaningful life?
Let’s not throw away the silver lining while we chase the gold of the opening up. The reality is that there is no “normal.” We can create a new normal, a better normal.
The other day I went into the staff room of the small college where I teach, and after I punched in the door code that lets faculty and staff in and keeps students out, I encountered a young staffer seated at one of the round lunch tables munching energetically on chips.
“How’s it going?” he asked loudly.
“Pretty good I guess,” I replied. I was lying. I was tired. I had a mountain of portfolios to grade in the upcoming week; each of them would take an hour. My checking account was overdrawn. I was currently working with my TMJ doctor to find the right mouth splint adjustment to relax my jaw joints enough while sleeping to keep me from biting my tongue off in the night.
“Me too!” he said, with seeming enthusiasm. “Pretty busy, which is good I guess.” He crunched another bunch of chips. “Makes the day go by fast,” he said, as I hustled into the bathroom to check my eye makeup and comb my hair. I was late to my learning center mentor shift.
“Agreed,” I called back from the bathroom door.
Inside the bathroom, I looked in the mirror and grimaced. Fluorescent lights always create a ghastly effect, making me look ten years older than I really am. A thought pounced on my mind.
“No you don’t,” the thought said.
“You don’t agree. At all.”
My inner self was right. I didn’t prefer to be busy, or for my day to go by fast.
But, in my “congenial colleague persona,” I had just demonstrated how mindlessly our culture views busyness as a good thing. When did “busy” become the acceptable good? The desired state of being? The best and most successful modus operandi of our species? Sayings of busyness abound:
“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” Walt Disney
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon
“Rarely have I seen a situation where doing less than the other guy is a good strategy.” Jimmy Spithill
Productivity: produce, product, production, gross domestic national product (note the first word is “gross”)
Bottom line. ROI – return on investment
Get a move on. Daylight’s burning. For chrissake, hurry up. Get out of my way.
The early bird catches the worm.
The noise of busyness is ever present.
When I was a kid one of my favorite books was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. Ferdinand does not headbutt, kick, and run about and try to get in good with the other bulls. Nor does he share their aspirations to be selected to go and fight in the bullfights. He just wants to sit under his cork tree and smell the flowers. For this he is viewed as extremely odd. Speaking volumes about this little book, Hitler and Franco banned it, while Gandhi embraced it.
How could I explain to this guy at the lunch table that what I really wanted was to sit in an open field all day long like Ferdinand the bull and simply smell the flowers? My vision of a good day, of success, was slow and quiet. Just being.
I am not advocating a life devoid of purpose, contribution, and meaning. But I wonder how modern society’s current trajectory, which most days seems bent on mass destruction, might change if we just slowed down—the way we talk, walk, breathe, drive, think, and do. What if we sat and listened? What would we see if we just looked at what is really going on all around us? How would it change what we DO?
What are we really accomplishing with all of this busyness? Is it what is best for ourselves, our family and friends, for society, for the planet?
I try to carve out time for slowing down and observing. Interesting words we use – to carve … cutting and slicing as if time were meat on a plate, or a tree to be fashioned into a wood carving statue. Rather violent, this idea of carving time.
When I do slow down and observe, I am often appalled and astounded at some of the awful things we do and say to each other, what we do to fish, birds, plants, oceans, forests. It takes guts to listen and look.
But I am also inspired and hopeful, enlightened. Always I see the most beautiful moments of the natural world. Sometimes I see the tiniest acts of joy and kindness between fellow humans.
I take a long, deep breath. And the fresh air is a delight.