Choose A Better Story [on Two Artists Tuesday]

Watching an early episode of the Millennial Farmer I was astounded to learn how computerized farming has become. Driving the tractor was far more digital-than-donkey. Even the word “driving” is mostly misplaced, just as the word “telephone” is loosely applied to the magic box in our pockets that searches the internet, takes photographs, measures our step, our heart rate, acts as a calendar, a compass, a flashlight, a newspaper…

Farmers can do more, faster, with greater precision. The seeds are planted to exact depths and meticulously spaced. The temperature of the earth and the minerals in the soil are collected and measured as data points. The farmer monitors the technology and engages the steering only when making a turn. Keeping the machinery in good running order requires an entirely different set of skills than it did twenty – even ten years ago. I wonder what farming will mean to the grandchildren of the people I watched mowing their fields. Like a modern car mechanic, in addition to wrenches and oil, farming demands computer diagnostic skills and a continuous upgrade of software. While the process is different, the basics remain the same. Plant. Nurture. Grow. Harvest. Feed.

To feed. Hands in the soil. Eyes to the horizon gauging the weather. Eyes on the advanced weather forecast technology. Praying for rain. But not too much.

There’s an old black-and-white photograph on the wall of the farmhouse we rented for our family gathering. People assembled on the porch, wearing high collars and long prairie dresses. Horses and wagons populate the foreground. I marveled, standing on the same porch in the old photograph, how close-in-time I am to the people in that picture. Two headstones away. Tom once told a story, when he was a boy, of sitting in the lap of an elderly woman who, as a small child, sat in the lap of Abraham Lincoln. That makes me a mere three headstones from the 16th President. “He smelled of saddle soap and lavender,” she reported.

I hear abundant chatter about rural America being all red and urban America mostly blue. Both colors have to eat. Both are made better by technology. The food is grown in the red while the computers are imagined and made manifest in the blue. A single step back from the chatter reveals how truly interdependent we really are. I am grateful for the easy availability of food at my local grocery store. I imagine the farmer is grateful for the advanced technology that takes some of the guesswork and toil from their lives.

We are, all of us, a single headstone away from passing on a better or lesser world. Both are possible. The choice is ours. Where do we desire to place our focus? What world do we desire to create?

Farmer’s take great pride in feeding the world. Entrepreneurs and software engineers take great pride in making tasks easier for others. Generally, gratitude is not only a much better story than division, it’s also more productive. It’s also more honest. I find that people are highly motivated when helping others. The question is, “Why can’t we see how we are helping and being helped?” Our interdependence is right in front of our faces.

The noisy trappings of our time may seem complicated but the basics remain the same: Plant. Nurture. Grow. Harvest. Feed. We eat what we sow. We choose the thought-seed that we plant. Technology can help us be more effective and efficient. It cannot help us gain wisdom or sort what we lose in our dedicated color-crayon-divide. It cannot help us choose or pass on a better story. Only we can do that.

read Kerri’s blogpost about HAY RAKES IN THE SKY

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Embrace The Accident [on Two Artists Tuesday]

I am a big believer in happy accidents. Kerri didn’t intend to take this photo. A vibrant shock of red thrust into a field of green. I’m tempted to slap a title on it and enter it into a contemporary photography exhibition.

I’ve read that serendipity, an “unplanned fortunate discovery,…is a common occurrence throughout the history of product invention and scientific discovery.” It’s also a common occurrence throughout the history of art. It’s also a common occurrence throughout the history of…history. We have experiences and then we make meaning of them. Not the other way around.

I suppose we pride ourselves on our capacity “to know” so we forget that all knowledge is the result of a stumble, a discovery found at the far end of curiosity, exploration or an outright mistake. The point of a hypothesis (to borrow a term from Quinn) is to cultivate serendipity. Try it and see what happens.

I’ve been following the conversation in the tech-o-sphere about the sudden blossom of the very lucrative job “phrase engineer.” Human beings attempting through trial and error to learn how best to converse with the technology we’ve created. AI. ChatGpt. The unspoken goals are (not surprisingly) efficient and effective communication. There are now several sites with useful phrases, conversational hints, Youtubes abound with guidance for best ways to ask better questions, quickly eliciting the best result: an answer. It’s glorious and reminds me of old 3rd grade language primers or my high school foreign language class – only more enthusiastic.

I am among the millions who hope beyond hope that someone-out-there bumbles into the secret of effective communication. Perhaps if we discover how to communicate with artificial intelligence there will be a profound blowback and we will, serendipitously, discover the secret of easy communication with each other. Generosity. Empathy. Kindness. How-you-say-what-you-say matters.

“AI, tell me what you see and I will listen with an open mind and heart.” I know, I know. More pie-in-the-sky. But as a dedicated believer in happy accidents, I’m given to think that anything is possible.

read Kerri’s blogpost about RED ON GREEN

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Creative Think [on Merely A Thought Monday]

The truth is that I could talk with MM all day. Our calls are few and far between but it always feels as if we’re picking up a conversation from yesterday. His perspective on life is vast, deeply rooted like an oak tree, yet simple enough to play on a banjo. As per usual, he left me with a head-full-of-thoughts-to-think.

One of the thought-rocks he dropped on my head was this: we’ve lost touch with our connection to the humanities. And, we’ve lost that connection, not by accident, but through reckless intention. Years ago I was wide-eyed with disbelief when the local school system stripped history and the humanities from their course offerings to make more room for STEM; science, technology, engineering and math. “Short-sighted and fundamentally stupid,” I said to no one listening. Art was long gone. Music was nowhere to be found.

It’s hard to measure the real worth of the humanities on a test so it was sailed off the edge-of-the-curriculum-world. What , exactly, is the value of kindness, the worth of considering others, the merit of empathy and understanding interconnectivity? How important is it to know where you come from? The origin and cycles of knowledge and the grand mistakes of the past? What might be your intellectual lineage, your moral ancestry? How important is it to consider opposing ideas, to recognize there are many ways of seeing a single event? What happened the last time an out-of-control authoritarian impulse attempted to quash a diversity of opinion? How worthwhile might it be to understand that democracy is nothing more or less than an idea about how humans might create community together? It is not a given. It is not a fact. It is an ongoing relationship. The province of the humanities.

The operative word is “together.”

I laughed aloud the day after my call with MM. Two articles crossed my screen. Because I’m searching for jobs I’m paying attention to articles like The Ten Most Important Skills For Workers. You’ll not be surprised to learn that analytical thinking currently tops the chart but the king is about to be unseated by a new/old champion: creative thinking. Also rising in the top ten are “curiosity and lifelong learning” and “motivation and self-awareness” Of course, “unmotivated and unconscious” have probably never topped the list of desirable skills…though most factory work – and varieties of corporate work – generally produce those qualities in previously motivated human beings.

[I take a moment of silence to recount the multiple times I have, in my life, been told I was un-hire-able because I was too creative. “You’ll see how to improve things and want to make changes,” a manager famously told me. “My job,” he said, “is to keep that from happening. To maintain the status quo.” In another famous jaw-dropping moment, a potential employer told me I was not an attractive hire because I was educated so, “I would want things.”]. A cautionary tale to all those who currently fear exposure to ideas and the other purported horrors of the humanities and a fully educated mind.

Educated = curious = questioning. It’s simple.

Listen to Sir Ken Robinson ask a still-relevant question about whether or not our schools kill creativity. Killing creativity is the same as killing the humanities. Killing our humanity.

Ultimately the horse race between the analytical and the creative is itself symptom of the schooled ignorance. They are not really separate things. The right brain and left brain are only detached for the sake of study and discourse. They are ends of a spectrum and one cannot exist without the other. Like science and art: both are concerned with dancing to the beating heart and movement of the universe. They are two ways of walking at the yet-unknown. They are not oppositional.

Another quote from MM roared into my mind: if you ignore 100,000 years of human evolution, you might-could just miss the fundamentals.

It’s consilience. The unity of knowledge. The whole system. Heart and brain and gut. That’s the loop that MM and I regularly travel. We circle out and return once again to E.O. Wilson.

“One day we’ll figure it out,” posits MM. It’s another reason I adore our conversations: with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, he is, all the same, infinitely hope-full.

read Kerri’s blogpost about CREATIVE THINKING

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Utter Life [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

The theme of the mural is “humanity represented through different stages of life through song.” Past, present, future. The song of Sorrow. The song of Joy. The song of Hope. It’s painted above the proscenium arch of Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, designed by artist Charles Holloway, the words at the apex are “The utterance of life is a song, the symphony of nature.” The symbols of his time.

Even as I write this, the birds this morning are in full-song. The utterance of life. The symphony of nature. Dogga barks to round out the bass section. Yesterday, standing on the bridge over the Des Plaines river, as we watched two deer amble across the trail, the ancient sound of Sandhill cranes croaked from above and two gawky-yet-glorious birds careened in for a landing on the sandbar just to our right. “We’re smack-dab in the middle of a National Geographic special,” Kerri whispered.

Sitting in the auditorium I wondered why the song of the past is Sorrow. Hope, Joy…Sorrow? It seemed a mismatch or, perhaps, a wrong assignment. Most of the people I know are suffering in the present moment. They sand off the rough edges of their memories so they remember their life-walk fondly. The song of warmth.

Honestly, the mural reminded me of another painting, a piece by a master-painter that lived during the same period as Charles Holloway. Gassed by John Singer Sargent. It was not something that sprung from his imagination. He witnessed this moment. A man who’d spent his entire life painting portraits of the elite. A genius artist. He painted his composition from what he sketched that day and it has become a symbol. The suffering of his present moment. The sorrows of the past in a world that had lost its mind. As testaments of the horrors of war, it lives up there with Picasso’s Guernica.

I just took a peek out of the window at the bird feeder. In addition to birds eating the seed, at the base are chipmunks, a squirrel, and the adolescent bunny. The song of Joy is also available in the present moment. I wonder, if I was commissioned to paint a mural over the proscenium arch of an enormous theatre, what would I paint to represent the human condition? The songs of past, present, and future?

It was a National Geographic Live event that brought us to the Auditorium Theatre: Coral Kingdom and Empires of Ice. The brilliant underwater photography and the lifetime exploration of a husband and wife team: David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes. Among other things they’ve documented the impacts of climate change in the oceans. Even amidst the loss of reefs and disappearing ice that sustains life, theirs was a message of Hope. They infused us with their rich hope, drawn directly from their duet with nature. The utterance of life. Interconnected. The song of the future.

read Kerri’s blogpost about THE MURAL

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Meditate On It [on Merely A Thought Monday]

I was struck by how important it felt. How could something so routine seem like such a big deal! We used to do it all the time. Without thought. Nothing special. Now, it felt like a significant passage. A step toward “normal”: we took the train to Chicago.

Covid was the great disrupter. Daily patterns exploded. Social norms obliterated. It changed us in ways that we are only now beginning to comprehend. To this day – without thinking – if someone stands too close to me in the grocery store I adjust, creating distance. A dance of protection. That small adjustment away from someone is a titanic statement about how I approach social situations, about how I feel about being with others. Keep-them-at-arms-length.

In other words, I’m meditating on safety all of the time.

I don’t think I’m alone in my meditation. I believe the central meditation in my nation is safety – rather, our lack of safety. We wouldn’t be arming ourselves to the teeth if we felt safe. We wouldn’t be ripping at the seams or tolerating corrupt bullies or gobbling up conspiracies if we felt secure. People do not willingly plant their heads in the sand when times are good. In good times, people look up, people reach toward each other. Generosity of spirit engenders generosity toward others. A poverty of spirit engenders animosity toward others.

In other words, no one meditates alone. The big meditations are shared.

Of course, it is also true that people rarely make significant change when times are good. The gift of disruption is progress though the first phase is often nasty and necessarily looks precarious. I suppose we are in the nasty stage of change.

It was not so long ago that a gathering with friends began with testing to make sure no one was carrying the virus. Testing became the norm. It was routine. Am I safe? Are you? Do you remember washing your groceries or isolating your mail for 24 hours when we did not yet understand how the virus was passed? It fundamentally reoriented our experience of being with others.

I think about my safety when I enter a crowd. I look for exit routes when I enter the grocery store. And, last weekend, we stepped onto a train for the first time since the great disruption. It felt momentous. A marker in time. Rather than taking a step away, we took an intentional step toward.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and ours was a step onto a train. Each small step toward others, each reach, each moment of listening…matters. It creates the progress borne of the disruption. I look forward to taking many more small steps.

I don’t know about you but I’m more than ready for a different meditation.

read Kerri’s blogpost on THE TRAIN

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Read The Shadow [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

Kerri said, “Look at that shadow! It makes me think of the collar Ruth Bader Ginsburg wore with her robe!”

Ruth’s collar was not my first thought. I went straight for Spirograph. The colorful spiral drawings made possible by the magic of plastic rings and wheels.

I suppose most people would have their moment of shadow association and move on to other topics but not us. Our association led to another association: what might Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s collar and a Spirograph have in common?

The artistry of mathematics. Action scribed from a center of integrity.

The Notorious RBG once said, “I am optimistic in the long run. A great man once said that the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle, it’s the pendulum, and when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it will go back.”

The colorful line scribes an arc all the way to the edge of the ring and then, in perfect pattern form, scribes an arc across the board to the other side. And again. And again. Until a beautiful pattern, a brilliant complex roulette is formed. A single line that, at its inception looked random or out of control, running to the extremes, weaves – in the long run – a unified, inclusive, connected design.

Optimism in the long run. The symbol in a collar. The certainty of tides. The balance point found in all polarities. So much hope! A visit from RBG and a memory of a childhood toy. And, all of this from a single shadow cast on a dresser on an early spring morning.

read Kerri’ blogpost about SHADOWS

Drop The Leaf [on Two Artists Tuesday]

I’ve spent hours of my life in figure drawing classes. There’s nothing more beautiful or complex than the human body. There’s nothing more sacred. When I was very young, I drew people – both naked and clothed, both male and female – from photos in The National Geographic magazines. I drew figures and bits of bodies from plaster casts – both plaster-naked and plaster-clothed. I drew figures from those weird artist wooden mannequins, never clothed, sex-neutral, gender unknown.

A friend just sent a story from The Washington Post. A principal in Florida was forced to resign after sixth grade art students were shown a picture of Michelangelo’s David. Had my eye-roll been any more pronounced my eyeballs would have popped out of my head and rolled across the floor. This principal’s forced resignation: a fig leaf by another name.

It’s true, The David was strapped with a fig leaf by outraged clergy shortly after it was displayed in public in 1504. Humanity has grown-up a bit since then, or so we might have hoped. It’s true: history repeats itself though you’d think with all the bodies sunning on Florida beaches, with the ubiquitous sex in movies, on television, and used to sell everything from automobiles to vacation destinations, that the un-leafed David might be understood as high art rather than an affront to any pretend moral authority.

Don’t look up if you visit the Sistine Chapel; Adam has yet to eat from the tree of knowledge and is naked, naked, naked. Touched by god. It is, after all, a painting of the day he was “born.”

The Greeks-of-yore, those whacky inventors of democracy and critical thinking, understood the body to be virtuous. Michelangelo was drawing from that deep pool of tradition and wisdom rather than the shallow frog pond of pretend-pious-purity. David, a biblical figure, stands naked before the giant Goliath. Virtue with a slingshot. Sacred and beautiful.

It takes a modern-day-Florida to turn virtue to vice while elevating vice as virtue. The cure for their fake-moral-fig-leaf is simple: attend a few figuring drawing classes. Drop the leaf. Or, go to the beach and open their eyes.

read Kerri’s blogpost on LEAF IMPRESSIONS

Lean Into The Questions [on Merely A Thought Monday]

A theme that surfaces in my conversations with Rebecca is how unsafe people feel – especially women – to ask questions. At work. At school. Asking a question is too often misunderstood as a challenge to authority. It’s dangerous. Smile. Be silent.

I suppose authority has always been thin-skinned though the idealist in me wants to believe that we’re all in this together. I know without doubt – as we all know – that the way forward is through the field of questions. The best answers open doors to better and better questions. Anyone afraid to be questioned and insisting that their answers are absolute – full stop – should inspire dread.

After eight years on the job, Kerri was handed a contract with the mandate to sign it. She asked a few questions. The description in the contract didn’t align with the reality of the job she was performing or the previous agreements made with her supervisors. Authority did not respond well to her questions. The ensuing assault was incessant. Bullying. Dangerous. For awhile she tried to comply with the only advice offered her: smile sweetly. I wondered, if a man was being similarly pummeled, would he be offered the same advice? When Kerri finally stopped smiling and stood solidly with her questions, she was branded “belligerent” and “uncooperative.”

I doubt a man would be similarly pummeled. To this day, I wonder at all the men and women in the community who watched the pummeling and said nothing. As witnesses to the danger in asking a question, they held-their-tongues. I suppose they learned their lesson. Ask no questions. See no evil. Hear no evil. Look away. Speak no truth.

And, while they weren’t looking, their community fractured and fell apart. All were diminished. Thugs count on division; it’s their secret sauce for establishing control. They engender silence. It’s how they maintain their authority.

And, isn’t that the true danger. We don’t want to bring the the wrath of the gorilla upon ourselves so we “get on board” or “toe the party line.” Smile sweetly. Pretend the bully isn’t beating the woman into submission. Make the assault her fault. She brought it on herself.

Kerri’s experience is a microcosm. The bullies have the microphone. World-wide, authoritarianism is on the rise.

If ever there was a time to lean into the questions, it is now. If ever there was a time to ask aloud, “What are we doing?” and “Why are we doing it?”, it is now. Together, asking questions capable of leading to answers that open doors to better and better questions. We have no shortage of persecutors beating down questioners while screaming that they have all the answers and their answers are absolute.

Perhaps the questions we need to ask together are simple: Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be?

read Kerri’s blogpost about SMILING

Look In [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” ~Kurt Vonnegut

Yesterday I applied for a job that is all about narratives told from the edges of society. I’m not sure why it surprised me to find such a cool-to-me job; our community seems addicted to shattering so there are plenty of small edges to be found. Small edges are fallacious and serve a myriad of false centers. Our survival will depend upon whether or not we can awaken from the shatter-narrative and make the decision to direct our broken focus toward a common center. No small feat.

It is the role of the shaman, the explorer, the artist, the researcher to stand on the edge and report back to the community what is seen and unseen. The voice from the edge is rarely welcome since the report is capable of popping delusions or pulling the sheep’s clothing from the wolf. Page one of the autocrats’ handbook instructs the elimination of artists and educators. Making an enemy of the eyes-that-see, demonizing educators and thinkers – the people who recognize pattern and metaphor. The game of Us-and-Them necessitates silencing the voices capable of calling out the wolf. Autocrats require blind sheep that follow without question.

Some famous edge sitters: Galileo. Cesar Chavez. Rosa Parks. Nelson Mandela. Susan B. Anthony. Albert Einstein. Frederick Douglass, a former slave and leader of the abolitionist movement, wrote extensively about what we call Critical Race Theory; it was clear in his view from the edge. It’s not a new theory. It’s an old pattern with a new name. I think he might denounce his Republican party affiliation were he alive today; they would certainly silence his voice. He would be fired were he a professor in Florida today. As would Martin Luther King, another famous voice from the edge.

Voices of reason are often voices from the edges. Voices of the future are always voices from the edges. Galileo was silenced for suggesting that the earth circled the sun and not the other way around. Over time, the voices from the edge, when authentic, always make the center better, the community stronger. Susan B. Anthony spent her life on the edge, lobbying the center, to secure for women the right to vote.

Progress. Growth. They are rarely inspired from the tight grip at the center. Silence the edges and the community atrophies. Stop the movement and the body dies. That page was left out of the autocrats’ handbook for obvious reasons.

read Kerri’s blogpost about EDGES

React [on Two Artist’s Tuesday]

The answer is herbicide. That blue coloring sprayed on stumps and shards of stumps along our path is meant to prevent the invasive species from sending up new shoots. Eliminating the invasive species so the native plants might someday make a comeback is the point. It only looks like total plant decimation with performance-art-blue dotting the eradicated forest. It is, in actuality, rejuvenation.

We met a couple walking the path. They were bird watchers and thrilled about the rejuvenation project. They explained how the work would allow the river to return to its natural course. The invasive plants were choking the waterway. With the removal of the invasive plants, the wildlife, like the plants, might have a renaissance. They assured us we’d see the difference when spring returned.

When I lived in the pacific northwest, there was deep concern about the salmon. Damming the rivers interrupted the natural cycle of the salmon’s return to spawn and the entire ecosystem was suffering because of it. Salmon are considered a “keystone” species; without the keystone, the ecosystem falls apart.

As we walked our loop I wondered how the invasive plants were introduced and how long had it taken for the invaders to choke the native plants? What prompted the preserve to act now?

Most likely, the invasive plants were introduced unknowingly by people. We cultivate land. We “utilize” nature as a resource. We study. We explore. We develop. We trade. We migrate. We are a force of nature. We walk well tended paths constructed for our ease and enjoyment. Sometimes conscious and sometimes unconscious of our impact.

I had a great conversation with a forest ranger about the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone. The thought of “managing” nature has always struck me as paradoxical. We eradicated the wolves and then felt the impact. We re-introduced the wolves to try and correct the mistake before the ecosystem collapsed, and set off another chain reaction of unintended consequences that required further intervention. It’s like prescribing a drug to manage the side effects of a medication.

As we walked I wondered if the concept of natural balance is just too hard for us to grok. We generally don’t realize that interdependence applies to us, too. We believe we are nature’s managers rather than part of the chain. That prevents us from seeing ourselves as invasive, responsible, reactive.

We manage. And sometimes that looks like forest-performance-art-devastation with accents of green-shade-blue.

read Kerri’s blogpost about HERBICIDE