On Being Human

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I have been thinking lately about the idea of daily practice. And by daily practice I mean the simple and habitual actions we take everyday with some degree of commitment and awareness (as opposed to empty habit or stupor). We all have several of these practices, don’t we? If I were to list my own, they might, on a good day, include: writing, reading, yoga, cooking, mothering, et cetera. But lately I’ve been realizing that all these mini-actions are really just subsets of a canopy practice, and by this I mean, the meta-practice of being human. (How to exist? Where to begin each new day?)

Excerpted from The Beauty is Relentless. To read my complete text, please order a copy here. The book is a great introduction to the art of Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby—two very brave and creative humans.

The Art of Gleaning

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Several mornings a week, a woman comes by our house to go through our recycling bin. She is hunting for bottles that can be turned into cash that can be turned into food. Her rattling cart and carrier bags are full of salvaged scraps. Seeing this woman, I often wonder if it’s possible to live on the leftovers of others.

This question was at the front of my mind today. For several summers now we have been lucky to have a group of wonderful men and women drop by our house to harvest our giant cherry tree. Not Far From The Tree has built a community around the activity of gleaning and distributing fruit in our city. The harvest is shared three-ways: between the tree owner, the volunteers, and local food banks/community kitchens. This morning after an hour or more of picking, they left us with this magical yield of luscious fruit.

I am so inspired by our city’s gleaners. As a model of creativity, gleaning is humble and practical, ephemeral and generous. It gives value to what is not considered valuable. It is a reminder of our fundamental interdependence. All it takes is the sight of a person foraging through a bin, a glimpse of a “dumpster diver,” “trash picker,” or “freegan,” to illustrate our cycles of waste and surplus. Scarcity is a lie. There is enough to go around. More is not always better.

“If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then the next day you probably do much the same again—if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time….[T]he proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things.”— Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

Click here to read some gleaning stories, and here to watch Agnès Varda’s brilliant film on the subject.

A Wild Rumpus

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The Little City Festival (formerly “Totstock”) is celebrating Maurice Sendak on June 17th. Come roar your terrible roars and gnash your terrible teeth—and maybe say “hi” while you’re at it. I’ll be reading at 2 p.m.-ish.


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Ezra Keats and Gyo Fujikawa, who blazed a trail for diversity in picture books in the early 1960s, made it look so easy. Why is it still a struggle in publishing to acknowledge the full spectrum of children who read and adore books?

I found this dismaying: “[D]ata analyzed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2010 found that only nine per cent of the three thousand four hundred children’s books published that year contained significant cultural or ethnic diversity…[T]he white default—in books, as in other forms of mass media—is learned and internalized early, including by children of color.”

Read the full article here.

Agnes Martin’s Hands

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Thinking about hands that make things, thinking about Agnes Martin’s hands. Martin (1912-2004) was a Canadian-born American painter who spent the second half of her life living alone on a remote mesa in New Mexico, who consciously distanced herself from the social life and social events that brought other artists into the public eye, who used her hands for the rough work of building houses in the desert and the refined work of minimalist drawing. Is it my knowledge of her life and art that renders her hands so mysterious and riveting?

Thinking about the shyness of her hands, if it isn’t the same understatement I detect in her spare and ethereal canvasses, the same lonesomeness I imagine in her hand-drawn pencil lines. Thinking about this and what happens to hands when they are suddenly placed in the camera’s frame after years of working unwatched; that this is how hands sit (stoic and apprehensive) when, after years of working vigorously and reclusively, happily and self-reliantly, they are suddenly asked to be idle and observed.

Moments of Being

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Are the mental habits of the memoirist conducive to happiness? Do we risk distancing ourselves from our experiences by writing about them? Is it possible to abstain from self-narrativization?

We all self-tell to varying degrees. Literature would be nothing without the great generosity of writers who have divulged, examined, and dissected their lives in the hopes of sharing some tangled and illuminating insight. But is there a price to pay for standing back, for mining slivers of meaning from the residue of an experience?

Patti Smith, author of the memoir Just Kids, argues that the writer can never enjoy the equanimity of the non-writer. “You never can be normal,” she says. “You go into church to pray, and you start writing a story about being in a church praying. You’re always observing what you do. I noticed that when I was young going to parties. I could never lose myself in a party unless I was on the dance floor because I was always observing—observing or creating a mental scenario.”

Woolf was a writer whose work epitomized this state of perpetual self-examination. From The Waves to On Being Ill, everything she wrote feels like a flood of revelation and reflection. It is rare to encounter such fierce intelligence and, yet, almost pathological self-awareness. I know of few other writers who have put as much faith in writing as the path to self-understanding, who have so bravely explored the writer’s consciousness and the “violent moods” of the soul. As her biographer Hermione Lee noted: “She is always trying to work out what happens to that ‘myself’—the ‘damned egotistical self’—when it is alone, when it is with other people, when it is contented, excited, anxious, ill, when it is asleep or eating or walking, when it is writing.”

While it may be true that in telling stories we risk objectifying our experiences, I think Woolf’s most significant legacy was to show that, at its best, writing could also re-immerse us in our lives. The very phrase “moments of being” emerged from her belief that there are moments in which an individual experiences something intensely and with awareness, in contrast to the states of “non-being” that dominate most of an individual’s life, in which life is “not lived consciously,” but instead is embedded in “a kind of nondescript cotton wool.” For Woolf, it was the quality of attention and wakefulness intrinsic to a conscious writing life that could take a mundane activity (such as walking in the woods) and make it extraordinary.

Click here to read the full blog post.

Degrading Our Children

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Given how much of their waking life our children spend at school, shouldn’t it be an impossibly magical and wonderful place? You might have your own ideas about what would make a school great (more green space, sustainable architecture, free nutritious lunch programs), and I would readily agree, but to my mind a crucial aspect would be this: a redefinition of merit.

Where I live, the public schools assign letter grades at the end of each term. By grade one most kids are being ranked and filed into categories of lesser or greater achievement, sorted, as education writer Alfie Kohn has described, “like so many potatoes.” These detailed report cards, the ministry of education contends, are necessary for “growing success.” After all, don’t grades motivate students to work harder and hence learn more?

I appreciate that for some people this fixation on goals and evaluation may seem benign or even desirable, but not in my family’s experience. I have never witnessed anything more distorting of my children’s learning and self-esteem.

Excerpted from an essay that appears in the May 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun.

(Drawing by Patrick Dunaway)

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

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I have always wondered about the left-over
energy, the way water goes rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped

or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting long after midnight

—Adrienne Rich (from “For the Dead”)