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.