Friday, December 8, 2017

Coping during the "Great Unraveling"

~ by Margaret Swedish

New wildfires are raging in Southern California, through hills and canyons, burning hundreds of structures in Ventura County and, in Los Angeles, forcing tens of thousands to flee, closing schools, creating chaos and gridlock on freeways and road systems. For the two largest fires, there is only 5% containment, fires continue to spread, and the Santa Ana winds are expected to blow fiercely through Saturday, 50-80 mph. Red flag warnings remain through at least Sunday.

http://abc7news.com/powerful-images-from-the-southern-california-wildfires/2751854/ 

Temperatures in the L.A. area reached the 90s on Thanksgiving Day. The normal for Nov 23 is 70. The drought and record heat of recent months has dried up all the brush from the record spring rains and floods, creating tinder in densely populated areas.

Meanwhile, I took a late afternoon walk along Lake Michigan in Milwaukee on Monday. The temp was 64, normal is 36. And while temperatures have dropped to more reasonable December readings since then, we saw abnormally warm days in October and November, not to mention the unprecedented 90s+ heat wave in September.

Also on Monday, President Trump (still hard to put those two words together) tried by mere order to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, opening them to the possibility of oil and gas drilling, cattle-grazing, and the rampaging of off-road vehicles, an injury beyond comprehension to Indian nations for whom these are sacred lands, full of artifacts and remnants left from the lives of their ancestors - not to mention the breathtaking beauty of this vast wilderness.


The Beauty of Bears Ears - Celebrating the New Monument from Friends of Cedar Mesa on Vimeo.

The move is overwhelmingly opposed by US Americans. But stuff like that doesn't seem to matter anymore. The federal government, taken over by corporate interests, is no longer connected to things like what the vast majority of its citizens want or believe.

A tax bill being negotiated between houses of Congress would amount to one of the greatest transfers of wealth from lower income and middle class earners to the rich in the history of this nation. Next, the same GOP leaders want to go after Social Security and Medicare, two programs largely responsible for why fewer elderly grow old in poverty as they did before the mid-1900s. Also, health care will again move beyond the ability of tens of millions of people to afford it.

In southeastern Wisconsin, with little serious opposition, the Taiwan-based corporation Foxconn has been given the most generous corporate tax gifts in U.S. history ($3 billion in tax breaks) to build a 20,000,000 square foot manufacturing plant for liquid crystal screens for smartphones, LCD TV screens, and computer screens, paving over rich farmland, tapping into Lake Michigan for breathtakingly huge volumes of water, as the state eases regulations regarding protection of wetlands and air pollution standards.

Paving over 1,000 acres of WI farmland for this

Governor Scott Walker also wants to start drug testing for some food stamp recipients.

In Alabama, voters may well put into the Senate an accused molester of teenagers. The said-president, an accused sexual predator, endorses him.

Sen. Lindsay Graham has stated that it is time to remove family members of U.S. soldiers out of South Korea because war with North Korea could break out at any time.

And then, the other day Trump officially declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Prepare for more violence, including terror attacks on U.S. citizens. He just made the world a more dangerous place.

Meanwhile, the Mueller investigation comes closer and closer to the First Family and the president himself, meaning that his wildly unpredictable behavior (some call him "unhinged") poses increasing danger as the psychological pressure builds. This could even explain some of his incredibly reckless foreign policy decisions - distractions in the extreme, and dangerous ones at that.

The Constitutional order is being tested as it has never been perhaps in U.S. history while the nation itself fragments, or sinks into greater and greater incoherence.

Shall I go on? It's hard to believe that this list is only a small part of what we are facing as the pace of what has been called "the Great Unraveling" picks up speed. You could all add to this list. We see the signs of it everywhere.

My local paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, just published a 2-part series, written by John Schmid and Andrew Mollica, about what economic depression and despair have done to rural communities throughout Wisconsin, the impact of childhood trauma and the opioid addiction crisis that has followed. As I was reading it, I was well aware that the series described conditions across much of the country for the reasons described here - the abandonment by the global economy of millions of people who once made a living in farming and manufacturing, and the collapse of the small businesses that once supported these rural communities.
Part One: Impact of Childhood Trauma Reaches Rural Wisconsin
Part Two: Wisconsin Childhood Trauma Data Explodes Myth of 'Not in My Small Town'
Does all this feel too heavy to bear? That is one of the many completely appropriate responses to the unraveling we are all experiencing one way or another. As usual, it is the most vulnerable populations who suffer the worst, who see their life options shrinking, and who have none of the services and access to information that would help them understand what is happening to them and why. But stories like those in the Journal Sentinel are about our social "canaries in the mine," indication of the increasingly toxic nature of the culture.

As the song says, "we gotta get out of this place." We need to start creating a new one, one that is healthy for humans and other living creatures. And we need to get about this with all due deliberation, with focus and commitment, with a clear understanding that we have to break with the world we have known - because it no longer exists.

There are many people who still get upset with me and others who name the process, who state what appears obvious - that an old normal, an old understanding of how life is ordered, of how we find our places within this culture, how we understand ourselves within it, is over.

And there is no going back. What is underway is underway, driven by forces bigger than any of us, an unraveling that has come in its time, as inevitable as that the wildfires driven by drought, record heat, Santa Ana winds, and living completely inappropriately within the eco-communities of this planet would end up devouring hundreds of homes in one of many communities devoured by wildfires in the State of California this year.

Is this the world we want? Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is becoming increasingly hard for me to pretend this is not the case, to ease the message to something more soothing and comforting. Given how slow we are to pick up the pace of our collective understanding, we simply no longer have time for that. We have to deal with reality now, because reality is not a static thing. It is ever-changing, forever in motion, and reality is changing much faster than we want to change.

And so it is changing us - and a lot of that change is occurring by way of trauma, shock, and fear. If we understood what was going on and why, we might do a better job of how we cope with it.

In times of tremendous insecurity and fear, when nothing we know works anymore, when uncertainty is extreme, people often look to some leader who can save them, bring the old order back, ease the uncertainty and relieve us of the fear.

Unfortunately for them (and gratefully for most of us!), the person so many chose is not up to the task, does not have the talents of a brilliant strongman who can command the population. Instead we witness gross incompetence and frightening instability, appeals to the worst in the culture - and not just from the White House, but from legislators at both federal and state levels. Obvious to say, this is not what the nation or the world need right now. And, in any case, this political way of coping isn't working out very well. Instead, it is increasing the chaos of the times, accelerating the pace of social and cultural fragmentation. This does not bode well for our ability to respond in mature, responsible, wise, and compassionate ways to the unraveling. It does not create the conditions for making good decisions.

Times like these are dangerous indeed, and how we live and act as we move through them will have a lot to do with how we emerge from them. And that also means how we cope.

So, how are we going to cope with this whirlwind of disruptive change? We already see some of the more unhealthy or destructive coping mechanisms - constant distraction, those screens we can never quite turn off, fleeing solitude and periods of contemplative silence and reflection, drug addictions or other forms of numbing ourselves, blaming the "other," anger, depression, withdrawal, spiritualities that distance rather than bring us near, various forms of escapism and avoidance, retreat into silos of comfort, hiding our heads under a blanket, refusal to let go what no longer is.

And yet, despite these strategies for coping, they don't make things any better. They don't shift the trajectory. As the magnitude of the changes expands and accelerates, all these strategies do is decrease our capacity for coping with them. Rather than comfort, life just gets scarier, more unstable, as we try to hold together our shakier and shakier ground.

Source: The MIND Unleashed Facebook page
The other possibility is to gather all our courage together and face the situation as it is. But how do we do that and keep our balance, our equanimity - our sanity? How do we do that and remain tender and gentle, patient and kind, generous and free of rage and hate and fear?

Well, we do that, for one thing, in community. We do that together or we won't be able to do it at all. I have repeated this principle in many posts and in many workshops over the years, and it only gets truer and truer by the day, with every intense event that increases the dynamic of rapid change. To isolate ourselves from this reality, either as individuals or in silos of class or culture, will only weaken the bonds that can help keep the web intact enough to hold us as we move through these turbulent times.

What else will we need in order to cope? We could do this list together, yes?
  • A spiritual practice, one that involves meditation, deep inner stillness, restoring balance and equanimity, getting to our core, getting rid of distractions so that we can see and hear clearly what is stirring within us.
  • A practice of compassion and solidarity with the most vulnerable among us. Engaging the sorrows, fears, and joys of the world as partners in the journey - this is essential.
  • A radical simplicity of lifestyle. The Earth cannot support affluence and economic excess any longer, not when half the world is living in profound economic insecurity, poverty, outright hunger and desperation, not when tens of millions are wandering the world fleeing violence, famine, and climate change disasters, seeking shelter, safety, a place to call home.
  • Creating new ways of being. There will be no one way, no one set of directions. This road will only be made by walking it, without any clear view of where we're going. We don't know. And that can be terrifying (another reason we cannot set out alone). It can also be exhilarating, an adventure. It will take courage.
  • Cultural expressions of all kinds - rituals, celebrations, art and music, poetry and story-telling, laughter and lots of play.

Add any additional thoughts by commenting to this post. We could gather them up and share a summary reflection in the New Year.

Look, this is going to be a long journey, beyond the generations alive on the planet right now. We have to find meaning in life not in what we must let go, what we must surrender, and not in what we hope to achieve, but in the very journey itself. Otherwise we will continue to fall into the hope-despair trap that has already robbed us of so much energy. Just stay focused on the next step, and then the next one, and the one after that. Future generations may then look back at us one day and say, hey, those were our pioneers. They done good!

I leave you with this inspiring message from Valerie Kaur. Kaur is the daughter of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man who was murdered at a gas station in Mesa, AZ, on September 15, 2001, four days after the 9/11 attacks - a hate crime perpetrated by a man who mistook him for a Muslim. Such was the atmosphere in those terrible days - and, among many, still to this day. Kaur is an interfaith leader and social justice activist who turned her grief into a witness of love and peace in this sorry world. May this speech lift your spirits as it has mine.


Video: Valerie Kaur -  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQ7QlKG70LE


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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Giving thanks during the great unraveling

Is it possible? Is it possible to look at the times in which we live - and give thanks? Can we embrace gratitude even as all we know begins to collapse beneath and around us?

Sure we can - if we correct the lenses through which we see the unraveling.

Like fish in water, or animals breathing air, we move around in what is an all-encompassing "atmosphere" of western culture and economic life, not noticing the essence of our environment or exactly what it is on which we are completely dependent. Look around you right now. What part of your life in this moment, in whatever space of work or home or coffee shop or wherever is NOT connected to a market economy and the increasingly complex technology on which we have all become dependent for the most basic things in life?

What is always stunning for me when I ponder this reality is how quickly that dependence anchored itself in our lives and in our consciousness, how quickly we are losing some basic skills as we give them over to that technology. I have asked people about what would happen if the satellites went down and they lost their GPS - would they know how to get from here to there?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Resilience as a spiritual practice

We see and hear that word a lot these days - resilient communities, psychological and emotional resilience, spiritual resilience, resilience as an essential ingredient of sustainability (don't like the word "sustainability" because we are living so wildly outside it that the word is no longer meaningful).

It comes up for a reason. It recurs because of the stresses and challenges most of us face every day, starting with the moment we get out of bed in the morning. We're going to need a whole lot of it as we move through these turbulent times.

Nature is a community. Photo: M Swedish
Is nature resilient? Yes, to a point, and depending on whether you mean the old version of "nature," or the one we are moving into rapidly, which is not the old version and never will be again. Resilience has a different meaning when we write of the planet because its resilience is one of the reasons it has been able to evolve life through these billions of years, recovering over and over again from tremendous catastrophes. But sometimes that takes shaking off whole species in order for it to adjust, adapt to new circumstances, and then begin again. What will it do with the human species now?

Monday, October 2, 2017

On the morning of the latest mass-shooting...these thoughts

My God, we are a violent culture. And now we are armed to the teeth. We have among us some of the most unstable people able to get their hands on arsenals of military-style weapons, and we have  deluded ourselves into believing that there is some Constitutional right to this, that arming ourselves with lethal weapons constitutes "freedom," or some such thing - unless you're the one getting shot.

We have people among us ready to carry Tiki Torches into bastions of the old Confederacy to sow fear and to stoke still more violence - which, in a nation violent from its birth, is so easily stoked. We have the hate and the trauma left in the wake of racist violence that goes back to the days of the slavers' ships and from the days of genocide when Europeans used pure savagery to remove millions of indigenous peoples from lands the invaders coveted.

But there is even more going on now, beyond the legacy of these old festering wounds. Because of the way humans have ravaged the planet in this quest for power and wealth, we now have a planetary crisis on our hands and it seems fewer and fewer people are missing its cues as the signals of it grow increasingly dangerous, threatening, and permanent.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Living within reality v living outside of it - as if this is a choice

That was the thought that popped into my brain after I read this AP story this morning:

US coastal growth continues despite lessons of past storms 

GOES-East image of Maria
Here comes Maria - NASA satellite image

This is denialism in the extreme - and I don't just mean the climate science deniers. I mean all of us who continue to live outside the reality of it, which is most of us in this capitalist consumer world of ours.

Everyone who believes that they can live beyond the biocapacity of the Earth and still have a habitable planet, everyone who resists seeing clearly that those who live outside the margins of what is sustainable in a regenerative sense for the ecosystems of the Earth is in denial.

Monday, September 4, 2017

We need some real moral courage now

Where will it come from?

Let's spend a little time assessing the situation. I know this can often amount to overload, but at some point we have to be willing to receive into our heads and hearts the full scope of the turbulent changes underway in order to appreciate the scope of the changes required of us now, with urgency. After all, we are already feeling them in our bodies and psyches, which react to all sorts of trauma with stress, anxiety, fear, and profound disorientation as our familiar world becomes increasingly unfamiliar.

I will do this by way of a couple of overarching themes that point to the gravity of the moment, the larger picture that we could fill in with any number of other crises - war and threats of war, racism and segregation, retreat into tribalism and religious fundamentalism, and other social realities - like addiction, gun violence, the rise of armed, organized militias - exacerbating that crisis. The list is long, and much of this is symptom, not cause, of our predicament. We are a population operating under extreme stress (as is much of the world), but largely unable to articulate the true causes of that stress. "Blame the other" has become the convenient way of coping in a culture that has never understood well the dynamics of the global economy, the breakdown of ecosystems or how they work, and how religion is often a force of social control rather than insight, wisdom, and liberation.

Friday, August 25, 2017

35 inches of rain - and an eclipse

Having trouble taking that in - 35 inches of rain? I am. Hard to comprehend. Hard to comprehend what it means to major population areas. Add to that high winds and a 12-ft storm surge. Add to that the possibility that barrier islands may be inundated. And then that the rain will go on for days.

I'm watching the Weather Channel this early morning. I know they tend to over-dramatize weather, but they are reading statements from the National Weather Service that are about as dire as anything I've ever heard.

Hurricane Katrina struck land as a category 1 storm. This will hit the Texas coast as a category 3.

A disaster like this does not end when the winds calm and the sun returns. A disaster like this destroys in ways that take years for communities to recover. Some of the outcomes will be permanent. Millions of lives could be upended.