Monday, March 28, 2005

Musings on community and meaning

Faced with the task of trying to infuse meaning into the celebrations of the past two weekends, amid the clutter of faded and broken traditions and the pressure and chaos of our lives right now, I found myself musing about what these celebrations might have looked and felt like in a pre-Industrial community. Amidst the rosy-hued, warm-fuzzy daydreams of rolicking and frolicking spring festivities, I sensed a thread of something deeper that needed to be followed.

Stepping back a moment to the definitions of community that I have most recently encountered...that of proximity on the one hand and coherence of values on the other...I recognized another aspect that I hadn't appreciated before. In a pre-Industrial community, there was proximity of geography and often also a proximity/coherence of values, but there was also an intimacy, a knowledge of individuals and a precise history of the artifacts of daily living. You not only recognized your fellow community members, you knew what they did--ate the oats they grew, the wheat they ground; wore the clothes they wove, the shoes they made; wiped their kids noses, helped at the birthing and dying of their kin. They were more than what we think of as friends and neighbours--they were more like extended family...

Most of us have never had this experience of the world. Of knowing intimately where all the things of daily living originated...of whom they originated with...The concept of belonging--of one's place and meaning in the world--would have been very different. The concept of the stranger, much more clearly defined, absolute. How would this affect one's basic psychology? What implications does it have for those of us working to create meaningful communities today?

I live on a small island. I know most of my neighbours and many of my fellow islanders. But when I thought of the intimacy of the pre-Industrial community--I found myself thinking that my neighbours were more like friendly strangers--that even parts of my extended family could be placed in the stranger sphere. What does it mean to live in a world populated mostly by (even friendly) strangers? What does it do to my sense of where I fit? Of how I contribute? To my sense of safety and belonging?

How much harder is it to create meaning when that meaning is not shared with a group that also shares the other aspects of our daily experience? What am I gaining/losing by not knowing the history of the artifacts of my daily life? How can we compensate for the lack of this multilayered experience of community? How much of modern angst, depression, anxiety is rooted in this constant dwelling among friendly strangers?

I also thought about all of the tools, methods and techniques we are busily inventing to cope and compensate for this deep loss. I thought about how often I feel that we are reinventing the wheel. That a lot of the mechanisms we need for cooperative living and learning are present (if perhaps buried) in the cultural practices of extant tribal cultures. (Is this the ugly head of colonialism rearing up again? Just wondering...)

Which leads me to the idea put forth by Shoshana Zuboff in her latest book, The Support Economy, that we most often only look for our new ideas in the light cast by the lamp standard of our current thinking--and that truly new ways of being are out there in the dark.'s to foraging under the salal in the dark of the moon....

Merry Spring and Happy Easter to you all!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

parenting, nature and the virtures of rawness

An image and a quote have been dwelling in my mind since last night. The image is a bit of (I think) Catholic iconography that when I encountered it as a young woman I never could understand. I'm sure you've seen image of the Christ with his chest opened up and a bleeding heart visible. It always both intrigued and repelled me. I could not figure it out. Until many years later when I was reading a book by Chogyam Trungpa (I apologize here, I have looked, but I can't find the book in the current disarray of our library.) He was talking about what happens when we open up to compassion and become truly present. He was dispelling the myth that peace is comfortable and he referenced the very image of the Christ with the bleeding heart. When we achieve undefendedness it feels as if our heart is raw and bleeding--open and vulnerable to any and all.

This sentiment was echoed in a quote (again, I can't find it) that I read about ten years ago...before I became a parent. To paraphrase: 'Being a parent is a courageous act. For being a parent is to forever have your heart dwell outside of your own body.'
I believed those words when I read them...I live them now. It is the rawness and vulnerability of unconditional love that lends it such power to transform us and lift us beyond what we could ever have expected of ourselves. It is painful--and the more we can learn to lean into that pain, the more beauty and expansiveness the universe unveils for us.

Rawness. It's how we know we are making progress. It is why peace and mutuality can be so hard to find sometimes. To open up our hearts--to offer them to the world without knowing who, or if anyone, will respond--is a raw and discomforting act. But, I will assert, an essential act for those of us who want to create change in our lives and in the world. Our bodies give us the signals we need to know when we are in the place we need to be. If we are feeling vulnerable, rootless, raw, and uncertain, we are on the path--we are doing our work.

A poem, posted by a new friend, Chris Corrigan, caught this sentiment and connected it with the topic of work. I will retype it here, as I want to make sure I don't lose it.

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

-- Wendell Berry

A last word...for all the parents out there and for anyone else who loves a child and who loves nature...check out the writing and work of Joseph Cornell. It's beautiful and strong and fun.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

openess, peace, and vulnerability

Today I want to spend some time reflecting on openness and peace. I have been re-reading a keynote address by one of my true benefactors in this life--K. Louise Schmidt, author of Transforming Abuse: Non-violent resistance and recovery (New Society; now out of print, sadly--try the library or Amazon). It has been an honour and blessing to work with K.--most of what I know about living peacefully, about the practices of an open heart, I have learned from her.

Here are a few little snippets from the keynote:
"When we forget the wish for unwounded connection and the beauty of harmless possibility that waits in each of us--no matter our circumstances, then our pain will often begin to impoverish us rather than be a source of outrage, insight and transformation. To be free of destructive suffering requires, in part, that we understand our own possibility. Possibility is indestructable. Yet possibility is only an idea if it lacks energy, movement and purpose. The possibility of nonviolence in my life, for an unwounded connection to the world, becomes more tangible when I not only define what I am against in my life, but more powerfully, what I am for."

"...Each living act that opens the prevailing definition of relationship as property and rewrites it as harmless, fluid, and unfixed process. A subversive solidarity of love that surprises through its grace and tenacity by daily embodying creative expressions of difference, wholeness, and balance.

"I am talking about a conspiracy of love that cannot be bought, controlled or regulated. With each other, between our closest co-worker or friend this calls for a boundless openess. It is learning by heart the potential of an undivided self. Can we begin again and again by looking for a spaciousness of self wherever we can find it? That spaciousness of heart which dissolves the enemy-based consciousness internalized in our own political movement?"

Obviously there is a lot more woven around and between these words...but, wow, eh?

The act of choosing what we are powerfully for. I think this is such an important idea. We can waste so much energy and opportunity by engaging with all that is wrong. A primary practice of non-violence is non-engagement, but we so often forget this in our discussions, political actions, and protests. I've often wondered throughout the BC Liberals term of office, how much better off we would have been if we had held think-ins and support-ins and created action cells to ensure the well-being of our neighbours--if we had done all this not on the doorstep of the Legislature, but at a location of power and sacredness--a location that spoke of their utter irrelevance--(because that is certainly how they saw us). I could never be fully convinced that shouting and waving signs at people who absolutely KNEW they were right and who sat comfortably behind locked doors and barricades and who had no reason (other than upholding those silly old basic tenets of democracy and all) to care to listen...was a fruitful endeavour or use of time. I guess I have never been very comfortable with protests...they seem too closely connected to the trappings of war culture. Marching, shouting, fist waving. And because of this they are so often and easily subverted to violence by outside agents or to misrepresentation by media. I had these daydreams of a sea of tents springing up on the fields of Beacon Hill Park, packed with thousands of people all talking about how to create a better quality of life for all BC'ers--with space for children and meditation/prayer and councils of elders and cultural celebration. Four years ago I didn't know how to make this happen. I think I might know now....

A conspiracy of love...Ever since I learned that the roots of the word conspiracy mean 'to breathe together', it has been one of my favourites. Breathing together with love...there is such softness and deepness, rawness and vulnerability, power and possibility in this idea. What could we do if we could come together, undefended, undivided, and breathe into the place of love? That expansive place of heart-spirit where courage and miracles are born?

Words I am powerfully for:

Monday, March 21, 2005

big spike, long-tail, and redress

To continue tracing where this all came from....I had just finished with the Sherene Razack article (see Saturday's post) when I zoomed into the Northern Voice conference and encountered the mind of Stephen Downes. In the midst of his talk on community blogging he took on the issue of the big spike and long tail effect created by the architecture and influence of search engines and technorati tagging. What I realized as I listened was that the very technology we are using is mirroring and perpetuating the status quo--never mind the digital divide...I won't even start on that. I began seeing the effects of colonialization and dominance thinking underlying the creation of the very tools we are hoping will open up the world and democratize information. (I am becoming suspicious of the word democracy...but I need to think a lot more about it...)

It seems to have been one of those enlightening moments...the kind you can't shake and colour everything you think and see afterwards. The pervasiveness of the dominance meme appeared to me to be deeply embedded, functioning unconsciously, and defining much of what we take for mere reality/fact. It was a bit staggering and depressing. But I was uplifted by the fact that Stephen presented a solution (for the blogging problem at least)--technically simply he says, and totally workable and possible. To create associations of context for blog entries that could then be used when searching. I liked that his ideas require increasing the level of chaos in the system, require communities to implement, and lead to a self-organizing system. Go Stephen, Go!

As I begin to unravel the dominance meme, as I'm calling it, I'm so appreciative of my growing connections with a community of thinkers and activists who are challenging its manifestations in other ways and other places. Without a community, the ideas would be less rich, the thinking less exciting, and the fear much larger. Thank you all!

On another note: today's word -- redress.
It's not possible to read about colonialism without encountering the term 'redress'. I am not taking issue with the principle or the process here, just the word itself and its gravity. There are two associations that concern me when I think about redress. First, that redress suggests a fulfillment of obligation and an end of responsibility. I can see how a government or institution could easily exploit this association after redress has been negotiated and paid out. Can you hear it? "It's over now. We've made good on it. We've paid for our actions..." I guess I am feeling that current compensation shouldn't preclude future claim ( I know this is politically difficult thinking.). We still don't understand all of the affects of can current compensation...based only on what we currently know made to stand for all time against what we may learn in future? Just a question.....

Secondly, that redress suggests that the harm has ended. That it is about something that happened in the past, that is no longer happening in the present--creating a fixed end-point from which to evaluate the damage done--upon which redress can be calculated. It is blazingly clear, that colonization is still active, that it is being perpetrated now, daily.

When Taiaiake Alfred suggests that First Nations people are on the verge of extinction, I find myself agreeing. We know how many individuals it takes to keep a race alive, but how many does take to keep a culture or a meme alive? I think it is not so much about genetic preservation (which is what we currently measure), as cultural preservation. Without a cogent, living, vital culture, what does mere genetic survival mean? Colonialization is no longer just about war and is about the colonization of the mind, heart and spirit of all those who are different from the power culture--through media, consumerism, education, science, and religion. And what does it take to maintain a cogent culture? Is continuity essential? Because if it may already be too late. How many elders are alive today whose memory stretches back far enough or who hold directly the stories of those whose did? And who is listening over the din? My guess is very few...It is my fervent prayer that I am wrong--that at least one culture will escape the tightening net.

Some light for the road:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save, so much has been lost … so much has been destroyed. I must cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power … reconstitute the world.
Adrienne Rich

Saturday, March 19, 2005

vulnerability, seeds, and memes

Ouch! I'm feeling really vulnerable about yesterday's post. I'm so aware of its shortcomings. There is a rawness to opening up the thought process at such an early stage--exposing my process as it were in all its unwieldly, uncomfortable, gawky, newness...ah, well...this is an Gide said, "If you want to discover new lands, you have to be willing to lose sight of the shore for a long time."

I want to backtrack a bit and revisit some of the insights of the last couple of months that lead to yesterday's post. I want more clarity and precision. I am on the scent of a seed. I can feel it in the back of my mind, buried under a very big haystack of thoughts and an unhealthy dollop of exhaustion. Time to do a little excavating...

The first idea I encountered was in a piece by Sherene Razack that I had the privilege of reviewing for one of my editing jobs. This article is not yet available online (there are plans for this, so I will update when it becomes available) so I will excerpt the bits I found most exciting here.

"We identified three reasons why women don’t feel complicit in each other’s oppression. One is that if we acknowledge out loud that we are oppressors, it diminishes our claims of being oppressed. The second reason is that we know very well that if we don’t keep mentioning our own specific oppression, it will not be put on the table. Finally, precisely because we are implicated in another woman’s oppression, we think of her situation the way that dominant groups do. Believing ourselves innocent, we fall into a politics of rescue in which feelings of pity and compassion, feelings of doing good, work to convince us that what we are doing is the right thing and good politics. The challenge is how to move from pity, which is after all an imperial position based automatically on a hierarchy, to respect and from rescue to responsibility. How do we get to the analysis that these examples seem to demand? How do we get to complicity bearing in mind the speed with which we race to innocence?"

This is where I began to get excited...and to feel a little vindicated...because many years ago in my undergraduate misadventures I was censored and derided by a feminist women's studies professor after making a presention that attempted to use an intersecting oppressions model--to include racialized violence, child abuse, and colonialism--in my analysis of the assigned readings (as opposed to a strictly feminist interpretation). I knew I was onto something challenging and important, but I didn't have the confidence or the tools to communicate it.

In the context of refugee hearings:--"Pathologizing the victim is a short-hand means of communicating gender-based harm and racism is a handy tool in this endeavour. Discussing the battered women's defence in North America, Elizabeth Schneider notes that when lawyers use the victimized aspects of battered women's experience, it reconfirms female incapacity.9In refugee hearings both female incapacity and Third World dysfunction are reconfirmed and the cycle of imperialism continues uninterrupted."
9. Elizabeth M. Schneider, "Describing and Changing: Women's Self-Defense Work and the Problem of Expert Testimony on Battering" Women's Rights Law Reporter 14 (1992): 226 (originally published 1986).

This spoke clearly to my own discomfort around the ways clients were seen (by their counsellors) to be in need of constant protection (by their counsellors). I often secretly wondered what need this was fulfilling in the counsellors. In my gut, I did not believe that these women were being served well by this attitude. It felt elitist, professionalized, and disrespectful of the women's own capacity to care for themselves and make good decisions. Even though we were so careful not to quantify them as victims, I often felt they were thought of and treated as such.

This passage also connected for me to the aphorism, "You can't dismantle the master's house using the master's tools." The fact that refugee hearing lawyers can routinely use the unquestioned and indwelling racism in panel members to win cases for claimants is depressing.

"We must of course begin by acknowledging that the refugee hearing has a very specific racial text, a place where the fantasy of imperialist as saviour (Spivak) is given free rein. It is here that the West indulges itself in the fantasy that it is merely saving people from themselves and that it has had nothing to do with the production of refugees in the first place. When people from the Third World come knocking on our doors we are able to view them as supplicants begging to be saved from the mysterious barbarism of their cultures and countries."

Well said! I loved the clarity of this. Nails the whole sick little opera doesn't it?

"Women's Rights As Human Rights" represents the apotheosis of what has been called dehistoricized and deterritorialized "mappings of Otherized communities and their worlds.". 19 As a formula, it can be simplistic or complex, but in either case, what is difficult to introduce into "women's rights as human rights" is the notion of First World domination.
19. Robert Carr, "Crossing the First World/Third World Divides: Testimonial, Transnational Feminisms and the Postmodern Condition," in Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan, eds., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 155.

Once again, I have always felt uncomfortable with the often self-righteous and superior attitude of Western feminists. One academic, when I challenged her on her attitude towards honour burings in India, defended herself by claiming, "But they asked us to help them." I'm sure they did--but did they mean that denigrating their culture and religious beliefs would constitute a big part of that help? Sheesh...

"...when women are defined by what is done to them, rather than as social actors, it becomes difficult to see the social construction of race and the more complex realities of who is doing what to whom.28 In the case of gender persecution, what is difficult to see is the totality of relations in women's lives and particularly the complicity of First World men and women in sustaining these conditions."
28. Mahoney, "Whiteness and Women," 227.

This is where I began to see the deeper and ongoing nature of colonialism. The fact that it is our complicity--in allowing and benefitting from the continuing colonization of non-white Western European cultures (and perhaps more currently simply non-American)--that deprives individuals in these cultures of their usual means of redress and resistance.

"I would suggest, an unmasking of the trope of pity and compassion and a move towards a more political understanding of why women flee and what our responsibilities are to them. They flee from domestic violence but they also flee from the conditions that inhibit their regular means of resistance."

The only further clarification I could want here, would be a quantification of the term compassion. I believe that the compassion referred to here is probably the shallow, feel-good, paternalistic kind of compassion, rather than the deep spiritual compassion that underpins relationships of interconnectedness, mutuality and respect.

So, one further colonialism a potent and persistent meme or is it a gene?

I am asking these questions and following this seed, because I believe, that just as in the quest for peace, the solution to the quest for freedom from oppression will be found in the identification of a set of competencies required to live that way. In my writing and thinking on violence and peace, I began to understand that most people think of peace as merely an absence of violence and war. It is not. Peace is an active and challenging choice that requires tremendous skills and a community of support to achieve. Most of us do not have these skills and we are poor at teaching them to our children. We should not expect people to behave peacefully when they actually don't know how. We need to identify the skills and create ways and supports for teaching and learning them. I feel the same way about oppression. Until we can identify what skills, attitudes and understandings are needed to live freely (my working definition of freedom at the moment is the capacity to follow one's own heart without causing harm to another) we won't be able to make a lot of progress towards it. We can't continue to define freedom in contrast to oppression. It is not merely the lack of oppression. We need to create a meme that is as potent and persistent as the one we wish to out-evolve. Then we need to start living it and teaching it.

nose prints

There are nose prints on my office window. They belong to a baby deer who dropped by this afternoon for a commune and a huddle away out of the rain. It cuddled up to the window and I went over and sat down in the chair. Cheek to muzzle with only the pane of glass between us. What a splendid life!

We had a little conversation about perhaps leaving a few of the rose shoots that it loves so much on the plants. We've had this conversation before. The little deer is very polite about listening, but thus far has not been swayed.

Friday, March 18, 2005

open space, colonization, the written word and freedom

My mind has been singing with all the wonderful ideas and words I have encountered this week. It began with a friend sending along a link to Chris Corrigan's site, Parking Lot. I was immediately taken by the content--seeing links to my own work with Angeles Arrien's four-fold way and so I eagerly began reading back until I came to this, which if you follow all the links at the end will begin to give you an idea of why I haven't slept much since encountering it. There are so many deep and rich practices here I won't even try to talk about them now. As they unfold more specifically in my work and life they will find their way into words. I took Chris up on his invitation to contribute to a conversation on designing an Appreciative Inquiry Summit for Aboriginal Youth suicide prevention and was honoured to have a wonderful conversation last night that will lead to many more I'm sure. Thanks Chris!

The thoughts I want to capture at the moment came from a website posted as a comment to Chris's blog . This article is an excerpt from Taiaiake Alfred's, Wasáse: indigenous pathways of action and freedom, to be published later this year. This is a provocative and brilliant paper that I found connected to my current thinking on the deep influence of colonialism on our individual and communal capacity for freedom and effective action.

I found the comparison of our languages particularly sparking. The idea that English is a language of nouns--the concept of naming a thing as static--versus languages that use verbs for naming--preserving the idea of a manifesting process. (I have always maintained that I am not a manifestation that has processes, but rather that I am a process that has manifested.) This has led my thinking in a radical the potential roots of the colonial mindset...the advent of written language...Let me build the thought bridges...

The British, and their successors the Americans, have been only the most recent purveyors of global colonization. The Brits were themselves colonized by the Normans and before them the Romans. We could look at the Romans as the inventors of colonization, but they inherited much of their thought, culture and practice from the Greeks. The Greeks, who are credited with the invention of democracy--a form of government that is currently upheld as superior and most protective of individual freedom--based their democracy on the concept of citizenship which was most often defined as ownership of land (which can, I suggest, be seen as the colonization of the natural world). The Greeks were inheritors of the traditions of the ancient near eastern cultures...(the ancient Egyptians being particularly xenophobic). This leads me back to the edges of recorded human history. To the cradle of the Near East, where scholarship points to as the birthplace of Western writing. Writing in the ancient world was a mysterious practice, often imbued with magical properties. To name a thing, was to conjure it, to control it, to own it. This concept lives on still in our collective unconscious.

One of the theories advanced for the initial development of writing, ties it to the concurrent 'discovery' of agriculture and the need to track trade in agricultural products. Let's look at agriculture for a minute--the domestication of animals could be seen as the colonization of the animal kingdom--some of the earliest extant texts describe humanity's god-given right to dominate the other species. The domestication of grain could be seen as the colonization of the plant world. I have not studied the evolution of Asian cultures, so I cannot speak to the differences or similarities that may be found there.

I am tracing this back, because I think it is important to get a sense of how deep this practice and process is rooted in the indo-european cultural traditions. This is at least a ten-thousand year legacy and if I am on track, it is buried and entwined in our language and self-concept at the deepest levels. It is no wonder we white folks can't seem to stop ourselves splattering all over everybody else. Our very language connects our individual egos to everything we see and do. I am hungry. I am here. I am Canadian. We are unconsciously attaching ourselves to everything around us. Unwitting mental colonization of all we survey. In my exposure to Gaelic, one of the first differences I noticed was that the verb 'to be' was used in a very different way--to truly denote being. A Gaelic speaker says "I stand here," not "I am here." Subtle, but I will argue, profound.

Our language shapes our world. It is the filter through which we encounter life. To truly uproot colonialism and begin to find a way to truth and freedom and positive action, those of us who would act as allies and workers for equality and justice must examine our words closely, keeping in mind McLuhan's mantra, that the medium IS the message. It may even be that humanity's 'success' as a species is directly tied to the concept of colonization and the beliefs that underlie it (which could push this heritage back hundreds of thousands of years).

I guess I really want to hang on to the concept that even though I love words and the crafting of them, they may not always be my friends. They may betray me, blind me, and mislead me in places that matter to me. There is a Buddhist concept that once you have named a thing you no longer can experience its see only the mental construct. Proper nouns as signifiers lead us away from reality; they reduce the chaos in the system, lowering the quality of the information and prevent us from engaging in a rich self-organizing system of connection. They also promote the illusion of solidity. It's been nearly 100 years since Einstein presented his theory of relativity and mass culture is still resisting integrating it into our worldview. Things are verbs--processes, ever-changing, context-rich, relative...Let's try some thought-experiments on what a relativistic, non-colonial, chaordic language might look our spare time....

I apologize for the rough nature of the thinking here. These are emergent thoughts and many strands are pulling and weaving together.

Friday, March 11, 2005

why word gravity?

Well, I had to call it something...and this was a phrase that came to me while listening to Stephen Downes talk about community blogging at the Northern Voice conference last month. He was talking about how words actually distort meaning--that words pull the pattern (idea/context) into themselves. I sort of spun off on my own little reverie at that point seeing words as planets or suns exerting a field of gravity on our ideas and on our ability to communicate them to each other--each of us having our own galaxy of word systems, whose gravity pulls and warps the ideas we hear and the ideas we wish to express.

So this blog...for now...will be about words and ideas and conversations, about community and freedom and courage, about compassion and mindfulness and creativity, about the big ideas that excite and uplift us and the minutiae of daily experience that grounds us and brings us joy.

a first post, a little post

My first post...just to see what it all looks like and learn to use the basics.