Saturday, November 26, 2011

Adaptation: aging populations, youth culture and extreme events

My house mate, an older woman who has, in her day, bossed around quite a number of organisations, is loosing her sight.

It's come suddenly: in the past six months, she has gone from 'not so great' to barely able to read.

She's been quite chipper about the whole thing - a stolid approach that says much about her strength of character: in life, things happen, we get older, things change, best to make the best of it. She's been quite proactive: bright white lines on the steps, orange tabs on the stove and microwave so you can see when it is turned off, carefully going through her cookbooks and putting to memory her favourite recipes, visiting the local constellation of folks who are responding to blindness.

Slowly, though, the anger, resentment and grief is coming to the fore. Today she told me she wanted to break china pieces, she was so angry - but then she'd have to buy new ones.

I recommended throwing potatoes against (external) walls. She liked that idea.

I also asked if she was reaching out to her children. She says they are not really aware of the extent of the problem. When she said this, her voice sighed - she did not want to bother them, and, I suspect, wondered at how well they could really cope with this. She's one of those strong single mothers who carved a career for herself and her family of four at a time when that was not the social norm: her dignity - and perhaps her pride - demand that she stay 'independent' as long as possible.

Today, though, she asked me to read the gas and electricity meters and enter them into the online payment system. There are a hundred small things like that that need to be done, and when everything takes three times as much concentration, it's exhausting.

Meanwhile, the up and coming generation (those currently in their late teens) are going to be inheriting a climate-changed world where adaptation is critical: last week included a lengthy conversation on the state of London and adaptation with one of the experts in urban adaptation. Short story: London isn't doing much. Why not? It's not exactly on the agenda. Getting people to take action on mitigation is hard enough. Are the young people prepared? Will current cuts in the University system enable them to be prepared - not scientifically, but socially, to deal with the physical and social changes that come with an increase in extreme weather events?

My spider senses are wondering about these perking conditions: an older woman too stubborn to fully reach out to her family; a young generation that may not be getting the mentoring it needs to learn how to share the expensive burden of changing and caring for one another left by those who have come before. Both are and will continue to adapt - but will their adaptations be successful? Will they turn closer to one another or further away? Will the younger generations (including my own) be able - and willing - to pay for the needs of those who are retiring and those who are loosing their abilities in such a way that can maintain all of our dignity?

Adaptation has (at least) three components. One is having a diversity of options. Even as her sight decreases, can she get help in some other way? As Universities close their doors, will others pick up the training and mentoring needs of young people, especially for the politcally sensitive tasks before us? Another is flexibility - being able to move between the options. If she has the option to get support, does she have the flexibility to do so, or is she locked into her current pattern? And the third is agency - the perceived belief and the actual ability that you can, indeed, move. That change is, indeed, possible. Is she constrained by her mindset that her children can not or are not interested in helping her, that this would be a burden instead of a gift?

All of these are important. But it is the agency - both perceived and real - that makes the difference. Perhaps that is why all this talk about entrepeneurs is so popular at the moment: a general recognition that we need people who believe they can make a difference and then do the hard work of doing it - preferably in a way that is fun, interesting, and innovative. I've known a lot of entrepeneurs, both inside and outside of institutions - the good ones are patient and careful as well as fast and, at times, furious. They have something else that often isn't talked about in the discussions of agency: teleos. That is, purpose. And maybe it is that which is missing - not just a vision, but a sense of collective and shared purpose - not in some vague strategic statement, but in that, we are here to live fully, and to support one another to do so - now what? kind of way that gets to the depth of our soul. The kind of purpose that is both 'good enough' to keep going and stirring enough to move towards transformation.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sustainability, Faith and Overwhelm

In 2011, Britain Yearly Meeting agreed to become a low carbon society. In doing so, Quakers in Britain are joining a host of other faiths who are taking leadership throughout Great Britain for their dioceses and communities. For example, Muslims are working on greening the hajj (sacred pilgrimedge to Mecca) and the Church of England has agreed to a 42% cut in emissions and has a created an ambitious 7 year plan to do so. Pope Benedictus recently said that the ‘emergence of the ecological movement was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored; the earth has a dignity of its own…we must follow its directives…the importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and answer accordingly.”

The recent upswelling of protests manifest in Occupy London at St Paul’s Church in London has focused attention on the inter-twining of climate change and the relative failure of the financial and monetary system to deliver the promises of security and well being. The inherent interconnection of these major crises, both in their origin of injustice and their impact on people’s lives, especially poor people’s lives, can no longer be ignored as a fundamental violation of the values of all the major faith traditions. Quakers are experiencing the call of creating the Beloved Community, which we recognize requires collective action. We recognize that this means that we need to change our own lives and become living examples of what we want to see in the world. This is a process of mutual learning, love and support.

As we learn to respond, we need to respond not simply from our ‘heads’ but from our hearts and our spirits. These crises will require us to lean upon a Light older, longer and stronger than any of us, a Light best experienced together.

But what does that really mean? How can the Area Meeting support the local meetings in engaging with these issues? What is standing in our way of becoming clearer about what needs to be done and then actually doing it to become a spiritually joyful, low carbon society?

Prior to the Brighton Area Meeting gather, I spoke with several local Friends, asking not only about sustainability but about the general spiritual state of the Meeting. Believing that this is, at its heart, a spiritual question means that we can actively use all of our spiritual selves, traditions, resources, literature, poetry, practices and processes - as well as creating new ones.

What became evident is that as we try to understand what we need to be doing, what's 'right there' is, simply, Overwhelm.

People are overwhelmed with the enormity of climate change and the apocalyptic visions that frequently come with it. The challenge between the need for global, national, regional, local and individual responses to both mitigate and adapt to climate change is experienced as overwhelming for many meetings. Plus, there are the ‘normal’ issues facing British Quakers: a dwindling membership, challenges with finances, the running of meeting houses, aligning ourselves with the regulations for charitable organisations. Thus, this session was organized not around the ‘technical’ aspects (creating baselines for carbon footprinting) or the ‘theological’ aspects (why the Creation is an integral part of our Testimonies) but the ‘softer’ and at the same time harder side of ‘how we deal with Overwhelm’. In preparation, I was aware of how much I am very much a 'student' in this regard, and knew I needed an elder.

Indeed, an elder did appear. We sat in worship before the workshop. It became clear to me that I needed to trust that it was OK that I did not know what the second half of the workshop should look like before we started it; that it would be revealed and that I could trust that we had enough time to do what needed to be done. The real point was to get closer to the Spirit, and trust that all else could come from there. With that, I felt permission to take a decidedly explorative approach (and remembering that one of my mentors, Joanna Macy, frequently did that).

Pam Lunn’s Swarthmore Lecture encourages us to conceptualise our current breakdowns as a training ground for a time of increasing crises and dynamic situations. Thus, when I discovered that ‘overwhelm’ was likely to be experienced at Area Meeting, as we had a remarkably large amount of business to go through in a very short period of time, I invited the members to just watch their feelings and experiences during the morning. Due to some highly efficient Clerking, an immensely long agenda was sped through and the Quaker Life representative decided to bring her work down to the local-meeting level. This was met with strong approval by the Meeting.

In the first half of the workshop we discussed what we were learning from the ‘practice’ of dealing with overwhelm during the morning meeting. We acknowledged that the challenge that we faced during our business meeting – a lot to do (people were dying, getting married, moving, transferring membership, and there is an economic crisis to attend to) and not much time to do it in – is a perfect symbol of what we are facing in the world: we need to reduce our carbon footprint - fast. Some of the fears experienced by our Clerk were common amongst us: a fear of disappointing people, cutting people off, and not ‘doing things right’ under the seemingly oppressing clock. We had a frank discussion about how we often do not prioritise the important things but instead focus on the less-important issues. We talked about how we feel trapped by time, and often loose track of the sense of ‘right order’ and doing things in ‘Gods time’. We recognized that there is a lot we don’t know – and a lot we do know. We know we must take small actions, but that we must also act collectively at the policy and ‘macro’ level. And yet we do not know – we can not know – exactly which actions will lead to which results. And so we must go through a process of discernment; we must lean upon God to help direct our actions. Yet too often, we did not give ourselves the time to do that.

Thus, the second half of the workshop became an experimentive space to explore where God was leading us – how can we deal with overwhelm in our meetings? Where is God nudging us? It quickly became apparent to me, as people explored these questions, that I needed to support each group in finding the question that was right for them: I went around to each group and helped them discern what question was arising.

It was very clear that the challenge of becoming a low carbon society forces Friends to think beyond their monthly and Area Meetings into the wider community. They discovered through experience the importance of letting themselves be with confusion, overwhelm, fear and grief – and then working through it. They found that on the other side they could, indeed, find meaningful and powerful actions to take.

I reminded people that there is a well-practiced cycle (based on the work of Joanna Macy) that they can work through:

Start with Gratitude
What’s really There: the reality of the situation.
Face the Despair: together.
Seeing with New eyes – what else is there?
Take action.
Gratitude – and repeating the cycle.

In the end, people were greatly appreciative of the chance to have some time and space to explore these issues. They found the exercises challenging but fruitful. Importantly, people realized they were wandering together and felt less alone in their search. They wanted to continue the process. Later conversations emphasised this point: we need to keep these conversations and experiences alive - which means evolving.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Isaac Pennington written in 1661 it's QF&P 26.70:

"Give over
thine own willing,
give over
thy own running
give over
thine own desiring
to know or be anything and
down to the seed which
sows in the heart,
and let that grow in thee
and be in thee
and breathe in thee
and act in thee;
and thou shalt find by
sweet experience
that the
knows that and loves and owns that,
and will lead it
to the inheritance of
which is its portion"

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Resting with the Occupiers

Walking out of my evening meeting at 10.15pm last night, the London air was fresh and a bit on the chilly side – and I was more than ready for a warm comfortable bed. Instead I headed across town to St Paul’s, trying to trust that my desire to substantiate my ‘clickivism’ by spending the night on the streets of London before an early morning start to Wales was actually a good one. Last week I had given a Sermon. This week I did not go to preach but to listen. As the Occupation entered it’s 3rd week with the careful support of Bishop Williams, what was it actually like?

The tents that had seemed so hopeful and bright in the day seemed flimsy and cold at 11pm on a Thursday night in November. My predictament: no tent, no connections, no sleeping bag (I was going to a conference the next day!) was solved quite quickly: a few sofa-cushions lined up next to one another in the communal ‘lecture’ tent behind the library and a spare mostly-dry blanket. Much better than the thin soaked tent city nearby. A hot cup of tea and plenty of smiling faces (most of whom were not drunk) and I was ‘settled’. The kitchen was closed but there were still chunks of bread, fruit, peanut butter and jam.

It was the music that surprised me. Almost every corner had a guitar or a flute or a violin or a drum with various degrees of expertise. And in the supply tent, sitting on top of a pile of blankets, was a collection of twenty-something male musicians/producers/rappers/song-writers, free-stylin’. I had arrived at the first night of live streaming of their ‘occupy our future’ jam session – so I joined in. I was struck by the pure quality of the rhymes they were spitting in a tent that was burdgeoning on dripping and a violinist who turned his heart-breaking music to accompany a professional producer-musician. It was, in short, beautiful. We had a regular audience of about 100 people, and at one point we were put on the global feed to an audience of 1000. This online audience asked for suggestions and, we were told, quite a number of them were free-styling along with us. The songs were recorded, and the producer amongst us is keen to do some remixing, a bit of fine-tuning and put them out ‘there’. And, really, that ‘there’ might end up being anywhere.

For those participating, creating and listening, it was this creative global play, where a bunch of guys sitting in a tent in front of St Paul’s on a wet and cold night can sing about the need to change the face of capitalism and get resonance from Egypt and Greece and Oakland, California, that was so important. They talked about continuing the trend of occupation, and what I heard they really wanted was to continue the sense of creative togetherness. Here the play was the protest.

Eventually the reality of that early morning train got to me and I headed back to ‘my’ set of cushions (ownership is so temporary in life, anyways) only to find them, well, occupied. I recognized one of the men – he had been wandering around earlier, following a very drunk lady out of a pub and trying to help her find her way home. His noble good deed to a (I learned) total stranger cost him his train home, and he looked on the verge of a break down. The tent was warm, and after a few jokes, he told me his story – a young nurse-in-training, he was working 80 hour-weeks on wards where he wasn’t sure if anyone was getting better. He was listening to some horrible stories of illness and individual collapse, and confronting on a daily basis his own limitations in making a difference. I listened. He kept saying what a ‘dick’ he was for sharing all these stories with me. I wasn’t so sure that was the most helpful narration and tried reframing it for him – which he resisted.

Eventually, he thanked me, brought me tea, and went on his way, still embarrassed for having spilled his guts to a stranger. I cuddled into my blanket. Before long the stones around me were filled with a few homeless men – men so used to sleeping rough they didn’t seem perturbed for not having a blanket. I realized that I had never slept next to a homeless man before. When the rain began to pour down, I was grateful that we were both dry.

So there, in a protest site, under a church, in the middle of london, I found music, play, warm tea, lost souls, friendship, and the knowledge that for that night - which is really as much as we can hope for - we could all rest - dry, safe, and together.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sermoning on the Steps: Standing on Sacred Ground

The 'Sermon on the Steps' did not, actually, take place on the Steps of St Paul's Cathedral. Nor was it just one 'sermon'. The people giving the Sermons - pastors, reverends, bishops, priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis, agnostics, and quite a few Quakers - stood at the bottom of the steps, near a statue of Her Majesty. They faced those gathered - perhaps about 200. It was the people who were on the Steps, facing out. Facing, in fact, the direction of The City where some of the '1%' played their particular part in creating, trading, re-creatin, loosing, gaining and in other ways moving the trillions of digital money around the global financial system that even now teeters on the edge of yet another collapse. Those gathered were part of the dynamic Occupiers, who claimed to speak for the 99% of humanity whose voices and vitalities are being lost, squandered and splintered from one another. And so those gathered gathered in what is left of the public commons, on a piece of property where it is unclear who, exactly, owns it.

It was a cold and blustery day in London; I was sick, irritable and behind on a pressing deadline, but I knew from the moment I found out about it that I had to go. I had, afterall, spent a great deal of time writing and thinking about global finance and climate change. As soon as I got there, I knew I had to speak, though the list was long. I do, afterall, continue to hear a call to be a minister, especially around these issues. Eventually, en-sh'allah, the lady orchestrating us put me on the list.

I would say that afternoon was one of hte most extraordinary ones I've had in months. There was something about having person after person from different faiths say, again and again and again, how much they stood with the occupiers that was far more powerful if it had been just one or two particularly 'powerful' voices. Every Christian who spoke said with conviction that if Jesus were here he'd be right there on the Steps (not inside the Church, but with those sleeping in tents outside). There were at least 5 quakers out of possibly 20 or 25 speakers - fitting, given that it was members of our faith who founded Lloyds, Barclays, and some of the others. And fitting because it is partly due to a strong Quaker influence that this movement has been operating on consensus - which might well be one of its greatest contributions (or so I've been told).

A Unitarian Minister my parent's age said she often lost hope for the future. Then she took out her camera, pointed it at those of us gathered, and said, I shall take this picture and put it in my office at my church. and every time I look at it I will have hope. You are so beautiful.

A rabbi sang the first line of the blessing of shabbat. He said, many of my fellow Rabbis wanted to be here tonight. But it is Shabbat so they are lighting candles with their congregations. I said I would come here for them, and in being with you I know I am fulfilling the covenant we made with Abraham.

A member of the humanitarian society said, look, its about our common human values. we are in this together. It is too one another we must turn.

An agnostic said, I am proud to be a critical and questioning agnostic. And I am proud to be part of a movement of such faith.

An older Anglican priest, now retired, said, I am ashamed of my Church. I want to apologise for the way we have treated you. We should have welcomed you. We should have opened our Church to you. We should have given you pastoral care. We should be giving you blankets, for you are doing the work of God.

A Quaker read from Faith and Practice, Kenneth Boulding - something about getting to the heart of the economic, financial and monetary system that is causing so much of injustice in the world - and the environmental destruction.

A minister read from Martin Luther King.

Someone from India led us in a simple breathing meditation.

A Baptist-Quaker-vegetarian-queer-man read from the Sermon on the Mount. He made a few other brilliant comments, but

An older nun led us in singing Amazing Grace.

A priest sang the english version of He had missed his calling as an opera singer.

A veteran said, with more conviction and power than I have heard from anyone in a long time: I am calling you, fellow Veterans, to fulfill your sworn duty to protect your queen and country by joining the 99%, who are gathered here, at the base of this Church. Do not follow the orders of the 1%, who will not feed you, will not care for your families and will not care for their own people when you return from war. You are needed here, by the 99.

I knew, then, that this movement is not about finance. It's not really about the money. Of course, anyone who knows much about money knows it is really, never, actually, about the money. It's about a much deeper issue. It's about identity. Part of the brilliance is the very simple notion: 99 against 1. That notion breaks through the siloization and isolation of past identity-based-movements. But it is not as overwhelming as 'we are all 1'. It maintains the diversity even as it speaks of unity. It allows people to enter the 'movement' without knowing too much about finance - which, for most of the people I met, is probably necessary. It taps into the deep-seated fears, anger and angst that has grown in populations who are more or less 'comfortable' for decades. It lumps the poor in finance with the poor in spirit and the poor in relationships with, well, pretty much everyone. In doing so, it invites people back into the commons.

And I? What did I say? As always, my memory of my 'sermon' is fuzzy. I'm sure it is somewhere on the internet. I am grateful that my Baptist-Quaker friend, Symon Hill, said it was truly Spirit-Led. I was certainly Quaking enough. I know I started by letting myself ground in silence. I doesn't read as well as it was said. But I think it went something like this:

I came to this country to study about climate change and international development. And then the financial crisis happened. And I discovered that you cannot try to understand and work for climate justice and human rights without understanding not just economics but the financial system and the monetary system upon which it is based. I am so grateful that I am no longer alone in trying to understand what is often passed off as complicated: standing here today, I know that you are with me. But when I first heard that Occupy London had occupied St Paul's, I was, as I often am in this little island, confused. Why not just occupy the stock exchange? This isn't about the Church! But then I thought, once, a long time ago, we all gathered here, in common areas where we could work out how to govern the common good. We gathered in places where we shared a common faith in a power greater than ourselves that could lift us out of the despair we feel when we are isolated from one another. But then some of those who had more started making hefty profits out of those who had too little. And they, protected by their numbers and their computer programmes and their common identity of 'too smart to fail' in a world where we all hate to be idiots and a veneration for supposed rationalisation moved across the street, to rule the 'private space' of the 'free and open market'.

Ever since then I feel we have been searching. We have looked to fill that god-shaped hole in drink and drugs, consumption and special foods from exotic parts of the world, new shoes and far-off-holidays, poor relationships and broken families. We have put our faith in financiers to have omniscent knowledge power and control - though any financier will tell you the market has her own pulse, her own rhythms and her own invisible hands which they keep reaching out for; they know they too are powerless over her. But they still walk with certainty down the halls of power and take actions that ignore the complexity of our interwoven eco-nomics.

Well, you can read from your Bible, and you can read from your King, and you can read from the words written at another time by another man. But this is what I can say: that today, here, we are a people who have been found. Here, at the base of these steps, on this most holy of grounds, we have re-found our faith. I don't mean faith in a building. I mean faith in one another. We have been found in the 99: in finding one another. And wherever we find one another, we are standing on holy ground. All around the world, as we rise up to occupy, what we occupy becomes sacred, because this whole earth is sacred. Every day, every loaf of bread, every human being - every one of us 99 - and even the 1 - we with our bones and our flesh and our imperfect and incomplete knowledge - we are sacred. And these are holy times.

And then I sang that song - This is holy ground.

As it is.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

clarity - and avoidance

Us Quakers like to talk about the miraculous power of the 'light' - as in, the Light will set you free.

Buddhists say something along the lines of, if you shine enough light onto a problem, the solution will present itself.

And in my experience, real clarity quickly translates into 'action' (or, on ocasion, non-action as a form of action), which would imply that freedom is a combination of the two.

There's some great experiences out there about how groups, when they collectively achieve clarity, have no need for 'leadership' - they simply move. Indeed, that seems to be one of the things we look for in a 'movement' - enough shared clarity that action is taken.

Of course, we can take a lot of action without clarity. Often, that action leads nowhere - fast.

Clarity - real clarity - is something I find precious. There was the clarity when I chose my first job. There was the clarity when I said 'yes' to going to Africa without knowing where the finances would come from.There was the clarity when I ended my 6 year relationship: a clarity so sharp and profound that it shook me to my core. In each of those cases, I took immediate, swift action leaving no room for doubt. All those who have known me in those times saw me as decisive - and with that came strength, power and abundance.

Recently, clarity has been harder to reach. This evening, I had an honest discussion about this, and distinguished for myself two things around clarity. One, that clarity enables responsibility. Not being clear means you don't have to be responsible. And two, because clarity leads to action, and action leads to commitment and fully being in the world, it can be terrifying.

Of course, there is a more difficult, in between space - the space between people. How do we find clarity in inherently muddy and messy situations? Most of social science literature, especially around climate change adaptation, encourages us to embrace the 'messy' solutions that are not black and white but instead shades of grey. Politics is filled with a lack of clear-cut, easy solutions - its a hodgepodge of different ideas and personalities, histories, ideas, and values coming together. Does it even make sense to attempt clarity? Or is that just avoiding responsibility - and action?

For now, today, I'm going to say yes. First we can be clear about what we are unclear about, and discern if it is 'ok' to be unclear. And then - and then often the really important things we really can reach collective clarity around. It might take time - and a lot of trust and honesty. But even though the world is filled with wicked, complex problems, and humans are seething creatures of complications, contradictions and paradoxes, today, I'm going to say, we are also continually striving for simplicity. Not the simplicity of blue print designs or of winner-takes-all answers that leave too many people poor and disenfranchised and too few becoming too fat on too much. Yes, it is possible to find collective responses. It is possible to find collective clarity - and with it, responsibility and action. And do we, collectively, avoid it? All the time. As if by avoiding it, we are going to get anywhere.

Avoiding clarity may lead to survival. Maybe. In a changing climate, I'm not sure. It won't lead to human development - much less human flourishing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Safety and possibilities

There is such talk of collaboration at the moment it seems to be infiltrating the zeitgeist: business leaders, climate change specialists, artists, scientists - everyone is talking about it.

If everyone was doing it - and doing it well - then I would not have had the priviledge of facilitating a workshop on collaboration the other day. But I did - 18 stellar collaborators from around the UK, and because London tends towards the cosmopolitan, that included accents from South Africa, India and America. For me, the highlight was in providing an enabling container for people to go broad and deep into both complexity and their own personal experiences. What do we collaborators do, how can we understand it and how can we do it better?

But beyond my personal professional satisfaction of space-holding, I was struck by the relationship between trust, emergence and spaces of possibility. We were grounding the discussion in complexity science, holding that complexity science provides a useful scientific framework for illuminating what most anthropologists have known for decades: relationships matter. A lot.

Complexity reminds us that complex systems (any human system is complex) emerge and co-evolve. There is this delightful notion of the 'space of possibility' - where something - anything - can occur. Preferably something new and different. At the workshop, we talked about the 'sense' of collaboration. indeed, to survive and thrive an entity needs to explore its space of possibility. to survive and thrive, an organism needs to explore its space of possibility. this includes generating variety.

This requires safety. For an organisation, it might look like a team being given the permission to fail.

For a group of collaborative practitioners at a workshop - it looked like people taking small risks of making themselves vulnerable, discovering that they were still accepted, and then being able to move into the next phase of their work.

For one woman, that 'small risk' was making a verbal but non-language expression of how she was feeling. For another woman, it was putting the word 'spirituality' on the collection of 'elements of collaboration'. For another person, it was sharing what a bad state their organisation's finances actually were in.

"Risk" was different for everyone. But safety was paramount. Safety, here, was an emergent property: it could only come through people taking risks, discovering that yes, it was safe, and then moving into an exploration of the 'space' that they were in.

Sometimes, we act as if we can create possibilities and visions without first taking care of ourselves. But I walked away from the workshop remembering that visions are only possible once your feet are planted on the ground. And that in order to create safety and security, we have to let ourselves be at least a little bit unsafe - to step away from our own personal 'normal behavior' just enough so that we can find who we are with one another.

Because this takes time and effort, and each person needs to do it their own way, its not necessarily a fast process. But the slow co-evolution provides the network for collaboration - regardless of the goal.

Indeed, for a group of people whose work requires a fair amount of goal-focus, not having a precise goal and instead meandering towards one another was, for many, a real delight.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

monkey work

I returned from a wonderful kayaking adventure around a small island off the coast of France to, well, work.

Great work, mind you. A collaboration workshop, a review on aid effectiveness, a conference on new ways of working in development, complexity, 'how change happens', preparing a talk on sustainability for some local Quakers.

My response: damn. After sending out a flurry of emails, I sank into bed last night and watched Downton Abbey - my current favorite TV series. For three hours. Which is excessive.

In other words, I didn't really want to deal with it. The whole 'work' thing.

But what if work is play? Certainly all of my work is an incredible blessing - I get paid to think and to write while living in a foreign country - without having a phd. Not too bad. (Even if I occasionally feel like an intellectual slut.)

My work is inherently about communication and knowledge-brokering. Which I think of as rather playful - what is this whole language business if not something we can play with, creating new meanings (if not new words) with the ease with which a babe creates a new relationship with everyone she meets - simply because she herself is participating in that relationship?

Apparently, monkeys play peek-a-boo. And we really aren't much more than monkeys - just a wee bit more sophisticated and quite a bit taller.

So what if this whole transition stuff is just play? what if this whole new world thing isn't more than playing peek-a-boo - now you see me and now you dont? My favorite leaders in the field certainly approach it that way - a creative try try and try again approach.

I look at my diary. Blank pages I know are not really blank. the future is yet to be written yet it is already there, somehow, i've put things in place long before I ever wake up that day. And yet, it is always moveable, always changeable. There's that boat in the harbor we can board and just leave. If we've got money for fuel, that is. If there is fuel. Or at least a working sail. And then there's that neighbor whom we never talk to but who has got secrets we can barely imagine and all it takes is a little game - baking them cookies, inviting them to the local farmers market - and a whole new dimension of this thing called reality suddenly exists where it did not exist before.

I increasingly think that play and creativity are fundamental aspects of our being. Not just stage II developmentally - but intertwined with our capacity to survive. If children under the age of 6 months can play peek a boo, a rather sophisticated game, then there must be something about us primates that means that we are inherently creatures of play. If we are social creatures, and if we learn our social interactions largely through our play - as we do - then we are, indeed, creatures of play and delight. If development is about wellbeing, then maybe wellbeing is also about play.

So then why is all this 'work' on development and wellbeing so, well, unplayful? What is it about becoming adults that we forget that the world is ours to play with - with others? and that we need the other - the monkey, the child - in order to play that most basic of games that says, we are here, you are there, yes, I see you, I recognise you, we can have fun together.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Simplicity and Sustainability

The song, ‘Tis a gift to be simple’ closes its’ final refrain with, “Only by turning, turning do we turn ‘round right”. In this song, to be ‘turned round right’ is the gift of living simply. From here, one may consider that our Testimony of Simplicity is about returning – returning to Truth.

This year’s Epistle from Britain Yearly Meeting suggested that British Friends are embracing a fundamental truth: that we live on a finite planet where the only way to survive, much less thrive during a changing climate is to transform our relationships to one another and the earth – from production to consumption to governance. Truth: that this work is about justice, love, and reconciliation.

George Fox warned to ‘keep your testimony against the world’s vast fashions’ and to be ‘plain.’ Sometimes ‘green’ feels like a fashion, more talk than action. But it is much more than that.

Curious to explore the connections between sustainability and simplicity, a small group of Quakers gathered in Brighton Friends Meeting house to discuss the relationship between our testimony to simplicity and sustainability. We had a simple meal where Friends brought food they felt qualified as ‘simple’. We started the dinner discussing our reflection process for this: in our experience, what made a particular dish ‘simple’? For most of us, ‘sustainability’ was an automatic: we wanted food that was organic, local and fresh. We wanted things that were easy, too: I decided against a soup that required a lot of preparation time. ‘Simple’, we found, meant something we made ourselves – and something that had meaning to us. I (an American) brought cornbread and a fresh tomato-and-avocado salad. (The avocados were not local.) It was food that reminded me of my childhood which, for some reason, I associate with the Testimony – perhaps because ‘truth’, ‘simplicity,’ ‘depth of self’ and ‘history’ somehow go together – though, really, my family rarely ate cornbread. There was some delicious dahl, an excellent mushroom risotto, homemade chutney, yams with rice, local cheese, local apples and grapes. And extra rosemary. In short, it was a delicious, nutritious meal - if a bit on the stodgey side.

In our discussion, we found that the difference between ‘easy’ and simple’ was particularly important – and challenging. Today’s fashion has it that ‘simple’ equates ‘easy’ – easy food, easy relationships, easy work. Easy come – and easy go. But does that provide the nourishment and the groundedness that the Testimony of Simplicity calls us towards? No. We found that a ‘simple life’ is one of ‘good order’ – which means putting that which is most profound at the centre.

What does that mean for our relationship with food? If we know that are going to come home tired and hungry at the end of the day, then we need to make a big vat of stew on the weekend to last us through the week so we don’t rely upon packaged foods. If we want to have ‘right relations’ of ‘good order’ with the market-economy, then can we grow as much food as we can ourselves, shop at our local butcher and farmers market (which necessitates planning our week appropriately) and not at Tescos, and investing in higher quality, ethically reared-and-butchered meats (if we eat meat)? This wasn’t always easy – but those of us who lived that way assured the others that it is substantially more enjoyable - and delicious.

We talked about simplicity in terms of life’s every day, ‘simple joys’ – the pleasure of enjoying a bowl full of grapes, rather than a particularly fancy chocolate cake, was like the pleasure of watching the evening sun enliven colorful leaves. Such simple pleasures in a world where ‘entertainment’ so often seems to be about going to the cinema or the opera, felt, to some, like an act of radical protest. Perhaps joy – real joy – is deeply radical whenever it comes from the root of our Source.

And what is sustainability if not getting to the Root? To sustain – to make last – requires a clear sense of the essence of what it is we are trying to make last. In reverse, getting to the ‘root’, to the ‘essence’ of our material and spiritual world opens up the necessity of ‘sustainability’. For how can we experience joy when we are aware of the pain that our actions (such as burning carbon) does to the planet, to other people and to future generations? What is sustainability, if not a joy shared by all, not just those who can afford it? “Sustainability’ has a rather negative reputation. Awash in the nightmares of floods, droughts, disease and sinking islands despair is easy to come by for anyone reading scientific reports on the changing climate. While we need to face this despair, it is particularly important to come out the other side.

We vented on overeating, over-consuming and the vast quantities of waste that the UK and the US puts out. In our personal lives we have learned what foods do and do not work for our body and find that doing so is ultimately about alignment with that of god in the world as well as that of god in ourselves. God may be in all things, but in our inner selves, that of god does not necessarily align with processed white sugar. We felt that simplicity was about alignment. Self-discovery, as a process of uncovering alignment, becomes tantamount to the practice of simplicity.

A word that had particular resonance with the group was ‘essence’. It stemmed from a yearning to refrain from the host of actions that can so easily lead to scattered thoughts, diluted meaning and the reduction into mediocre lives.

I find Simplicity the hardest testimony. Considering sustainability and simplicity, I feel I come up far short of what is necessary. Sure - I shop at farmers markets (when I can afford it), refrain from driving, share housing, turn off lights, recycle and compost, air-dry my laundry and spend as much work-time as I can on the issues that I’m passionate about – climate change. But my mind and actions are hardly in ‘good order’. If I consider ‘sustainability’ about ‘simplicity’ which is about turning towards ‘rightness’ and ‘good order’, informed by truth – the truths of what my actions do and do not cost me and others, and that there is a Light that infinitely accepts and infinitely transforms, it brings a level of depth and meaning to sustainability far beyond changing lightbulbs. It makes me think of the real purpose and impact of our lives. And for anything that deep, I need to be in continual conversation with others about this. Sustainability is impossible for any individual to realize alone. Living joyful low-carbon lives requires a significant level of collective support and collective action – ie, community. And, as always, the testimonies lead each into the other: simplicity leads to integrity leading to community ….

It seems there was some agreement about the need for this to be a collective process: we all want to meet again. To share food and to take the discussion of this testimony deeper. We felt that while we only scratched the surface what we found was almost surprisingly nurturing. Our meal was filled with talk and powerful quotations, but it was also seasoned well with occasional, spontaneous moments of silence. And in those moments, I knew we were traversing much further than the limits of our physical selves. Perhaps, here, is the irony: that in turning towards the truth of the limits to growth, we are also turning towards the truth of the limitless depth of fellowship that we can discover through collectively delving deeper into ourselves in the world.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Our world: facing complex, hydra-headed crises needing complex, integrated responses. Institutions and ideas no longer fit for purpose. The desparate cry for human flourishing within planetary – and human – limitations. In this time and space (wherever we are and are not), we travel through unprecedented destruction and opportunities for renewal (for self, for other, for us). It is at once ancient, familiar and new, this turning – a Great Turning, a Great Transition - transformation. Development. Recovery from addiction (to oil, to growth, to debt, to the future, to substance, to compulsive behavior), a chance, a hope of a new way of living. Recovery and Renewal. Charting navigating adapting seeking: the Beloved Community.

This blog attempts to speak to those who are seeking, experiencing, creating such a world. A blog for the Beloved – and its many manifestations in the textures, movements and music of this world – as we come to know one another in that which is eternal.