Talking with strangers

I was raised by two gregarious parents who felt entirely comfortable engaging total strangers in conversation, thereby changing them from strangers into acquaintances, and sometimes, into friends. I have no particular memory of this as a child, no moments of great embarrassment, no squirming in agony wishing they would just “come on…” I assume this social pattern was deeply engrained in my childhood into a sense of normalcy, because I am often in the company of these two vibrant people, now aged 92, and they are still talking with strangers. And there are very few “strangers” within earshot of wherever they are.

Their social ease gave me a sense that I could create an engaged and friendly environment around myself. As a girl, despite a certain shyness, I also had enough confidence to reach out to someone I didn’t know, ascertain their basic friendliness or not and ask for help navigating my world—getting to piano lessons and back on the city bus, finding my way to a new classroom, etc. This is a skill that has carried me in good stead for many years, and around the world. As we travel and work, Ann Linnea often remarks to me, “You only know a bit of German and French, but you are so willing to just get in there and try to communicate… and people respond to you favorably because you are so genuinely interested in communicating.”

“Thank you, yes,” I say, “I am interested. And I’m willing to play, to be the fool, to mispronounce and muck up the grammar and let myself be corrected… just to keep the story going until I figure out what we’re saying to each other.”

Ann and I are just home from our latest working trip—three weeks in eastern Australia: Melbourne, Port Arlington, and Warrambool, in Victoria, Townsville, in Queensland, Cradle Mountain, in Tasmania. And it occurs to me that Ozzie society is like my family: constantly playing with one another in public. People tending verbally to one another in public space is the social norm.

Here are some benefits as I see them:

Much less social offense: people are more likely to break into a grin when interrupted by someone else, instead of scowling or walking away. Curiosity replaces judgment.

Children, elders, and unescorted women seem to move about with greater sense of safety: chatting with one another, chatting with others around them, inquiring: Where are you from? How is your hike? Do you understand which train to get on? Would you like a coffee? Need a bit of help, there?

(Even their usual greeting relates to this casual tending of the social field: “How going?”—they ask one another, and so everyone has the chance to say over and over throughout the day, “Going good…”)

A consistent compilation of stories emerges from this gregariousness that reminds me of decades ago when people chatted over the back fence and on the front porch rather than spending time texting, Facebooking, blogging, and wired into our private sound systems. And instead of being chuffed to have this private techno-isolation intruded on, they constantly reassured me, “No worries.”

Even a wombat comes up to say "g'day..."

Even a wombat comes up to say “g’day…”

Hand-held technology is happening in Australia’s cities and towns, but they have not lost their cultural extravagance for public check-in. I hope they can retain it because it offers them, and we who visit, an experience that feels supportive, a bit watched over, noticed. And it was a delight, American accent and all, to reach out and offer all this back.

In the coming weeks, I will continue to hear the lilt of the Ozzie accent in my head and to see an array of faces in my mind’s eye: people we walked with, talked with, called into circle, and passed along the Overland Track.

I put this out to remind us that talking with strangers is perhaps a really good thing—especially when we pause long enough to listen to strangers.  That having social radar for one another is a skill we don’t want to lose. That we can all take little social risks that re-knit the safety net inside which we wish to conduct our days.

“How going with you today, mate?”

Maybe it’s not just vernacular: maybe it’s an admittance of interdependence that we’d all be wise to tend to.

Hosting team in Queensville--all good mates

Hosting team in Queensville–all good mates


A tango of methodologies

We have a handout we often use when introducing Circle to new folks: it shows a tree whose roots are marked “Circle” and whose branches illustrate the modern adaptations of this ancient social form. We are more and more making sure in our training and consulting work that we introduce people to several of these circle-based methodologies, and we speak with excitement and hope about the uprising of “a global culture of conversation.”

Welcoming sign

Welcoming sign

In our recent time with Eileen Fisher company in NY, we used World Café with 70+ people to gather ideas between the company and the newly developing Eileen Fisher Community Foundation which focuses on leadership development for women and girls and promotes the understanding of ethical and collaborative business practices as a movement for social good. A great afternoon… and it prompts me to write a bit about the adaptations we are experimenting with to enhance the harvest of the Café form.

We offered 3 rounds of conversation and two questions. In a World Café round, a table group of four participants addresses the question for (in this case) 25 minutes. Then one person volunteers to stay at the table and host the space, the others leave and look for a new match to seed the conversation widely throughout the room.  In October, I had done this with 120+ people at the Sage-ing International Conference and had the joy of having Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, designers of the World Café, in the room doing it with us. Early on, I overheard Juanita make a comment  about looking at aging from a multi-generational perspective. Ninety minutes later, when we harvested the insights of the café, a variation of her comment showed up at 9 out of 24 tables. Discovering both diversity and cross-pollination is the genius of World Café.

Excited participants taking a break between rounds 2 & 3

Excited participants taking a break between rounds 2 & 3

You can also imagine that clearly capturing essential, statements can be a challenge. People are talking, doodling, listening, and moving on with their excitement or interest… How to  build something coherent from the rounds and each table? Our current experiment is to place blank sheets at each table asking for three essence statements from each round. So before a group disbands they spend the last 5 minutes in a circle check-out process deciding what was most significant for them and writing it down. Then when 3 new people cluster for the next round, the host has talking points, so do all the new voices at the table.

This seems such a little adjustment, but we have found it immensely helpful in focusing the harvest of the conversation. The bigger the group, the more this is needed.

Rest Stop

Grey winter’s day, driving down the Interstate between Seattle and Portland, on our way to a consulting job. Temperature hanging in the low-40’s F, (about 6-7 Centigrade), yet a high sky, so we were catching glimpses of big mountains running along the eastern horizon. After a few hours driving and a latte, we needed a stop near Vancouver, WA at the Columbia River Rest Stop. Pulled off the road into the parking area. A young woman, maybe early-30’s was sitting on the hood of her car holding a sign, “Family in need. Any help gratefully accepted.” As we were parking I saw a man hand her a folded dollar. She smiled wanly, thanked him, and started to cry just as I was walking by. “Would you like a hug?” Oh the privilege of being a graying 60-something year old woman who can offer such a gesture to a person in hurt.

Nodded yes. I took her in my arms and she started to sob. “This is not what God has in mind for me and my children,” she said… “I just don’t know what else to do.” Out tumbles the story that she was laid off, and has applied for every job she can think of and while she’s waiting for her pay-by-the-minute cell-phone to ring in response to these applications, while her 3 boys are in school, released from their one small room at Motel Six, she has come to the rest stop to beg in the rain. “It’s hard,” she says. “This isn’t how I was raised… but my unemployment insurance just doesn’t give us enough to both sleep somewhere and eat.”

I hand her all the food we’ve got along in the car—almonds, apples, and some cheddar cheese. I give her $20.00, “Are you sure?” she says. “Yes, I’m sure… It takes courage to do what you are doing. How are you inside?”

The more that pieces of her story come pouring forth, the more I am sure she is the real deal: really who she says she is, really trying to take care of herself and her children, really capable of doing a good job for somebody, somewhere…and really brave.

She is practicing one of the basic PeerSpirit Circle agreements, and one of The Seven Whispers, to Ask for what you need and offer what you can. She is practicing it with strangers, in public, without protection or community around her. She is learning, she says, how much her need makes people uncomfortable, and how many people are kind to her anyway.

I say to her, “America is in a huge learning curve… more and more people are getting dropped into the cracks, and we all as a collective are being asked to get creative in our responses to one another and to change our ideas of what we can offer in these times. You are having this hard time now… next year it could be me. It’s hard to be the point person. I wish I lived closer. Tell me your name…”

“Leia,” she says.

“Like the Princess in Star Wars?” She nods shyly. Obi Wan Kenobi is not coming to this rest stop along the Interstate… There is only us—two strangers asking for what we need and offering what we can. I pray it is enough.

She is not there when we head north a few days later.

A little love goes a long way

My friend Harriet is 86 the end of this month. She’s a member of a group of women friends who support one another’s spiritual journeys, stay in various levels of connection during busy schedules, and meet once a year for a week of council, informal conversation, great eating, hiking, and late night videos. We are women at camp in a large shared house, reflecting on where we’ve been and setting intention for the coming months.

That’s where I am this week, tucked into Willow Pond Lodge with this sisterhood. The first day is always consumed with hours of checking-in… one by one choosing what to say about how we are. As what is said in circle is confidential, I have Harriet’s permission to share this moment and her story and thoughts.

One woman had finished and self-published a novel, another had completed a first draft of her memoir; some women were busy at work, busy traveling, busy mothering and grandmothering. Harriet checked-in near the end of the round. “I don’t work anymore,” she said with a tone of contrition, “I don’t know what good I’m doing. I go down to Coffee Talk every day and just try to be friendly, make sure everyone gets a welcome as they come in the door.

“There was this young mother with a crying baby, came in for coffee. I could see she was at her wit’s end. We have a rocking chair by the fire and after a bit I convinced her it was safe to hand over the fussing child and she could just sit down and sip. Little Henry and I rocked and rocked and soon he was asleep in my arms. … She still comes in, bringing Henry, finding community.

“You know, people just need to be seen. Just need someone to look up and say hi; glad you walked into the room. Mother Teresa said the greatest disease in the world is loneliness, that if she could heal anything about being human, it would be to cure loneliness with love. I try to be like that, to bring a little love into the space around me. But I feel old. I don’t have the hearing, the energy, or the big ideas I used to. That’s all I got to say.” She passed the talking piece; we rang a chime to signify a space in the speaking.

Harriet is white-haired, vigorous, and humble. She was raised on a farm in Minnesota, worked for 3M in its early years, did graphic design and rode the wave from the drafting table to the computer, had a successful real estate career. She is the gentle matriarch to 3 children, 10 grandchildren, and 5 great-grandchildren, including a 3 year-old spitfire girl named Harriet junior. The deepest formation of Harriet senior’s character and the source of her stories, values, and wisdom remains her childhood grounding on the earth and how it helped her tap into spirituality. She carries a personal blend of Lutheranism, Catholicism, practicality and mysticism leading to the motherhood of God. And here she sat at the edge of the circle looking disappointed in herself, seemingly unsure how to take her place among other, mostly younger women, whom she assumed were doing more than she to earn their space in the scheme of things.

I asked permission to comment on her check-in and she nodded. “Harriet, you are doing exactly what the elder in the village is supposed to do! You are tending what’s right in front of you. This is the fulfillment of your days—the capacity to slow down, to see what needs to happen next, right here, right now—with the young mother, with the baby, with the barrista, with the regulars from town, with us in the circle.”

Christina and Harriet

Christina and Harriet

“Through these gestures of kindly attention offered into your daily surroundings you are a messenger of your deepest values. Every one of us who is moving faster, who is busy beyond managing, who is hooked into the necessities of technology, is counting on you being here amongst us moving at the pace of guidance and paying attention in the ways that you do.” We rang the chimes again—sat in the reverberating stillness.

In this moment Harriet saw her elder place validated and took it into her heart, and I saw my own elder place being prepared for me by Harriet and took it into my heart. Gift and magic. Sweetness among friends.

Wintergreen: New Year’s Day on Whidbey Island

I have a friend who tells me, “What you do on your birthday sets the tone for the year.” It’s not my personal birthday, but it is the first day of a New Year… so happy birthday 2013… and here’s the tone of what I did today.

Mountains in morning light

Mountains in morning light

I woke and wrote in my journal—thinking deeply about the many events and adventures planned for the next 6 months, sort of a Solstice-to-Solstice awareness.

I prayed for guidance, for wisdom, for help bringing all this work together in good ways and for understanding “what is mine to do now.”

I did home-based self-care: yoga stretches, dog petting, laying out vitamins, eating a healthy breakfast…  Commonsense remembering to take care of myself and encouraging those around me to take care in commonsense ways.

I spent an hour in telephone council with a beloved colleague. With ease and facility we followed circle protocols by voice, a thousand miles apart, with candles lit in each of our spaces. Truth and compassion without holding back: we were peer spirits.

Ann on the roof

Ann on the roof

I worked outdoors alongside Ann. Our island handyman is replacing the garden fence, which leads us to clearing last year’s growth from side gardens, raking, pruning, emptying the autumn fir needles from the gutters.

I noticed little signs of growth already emerging on this first day of January. Buds are hiding in the primroses, the Hellebore blooming under the bedroom window, green grass and sweet carrots pulled from the ground to the plate.

I checked emails when I had time to answer them, not just flag them.

I wrote this blog, reaching out for you, whether you are far and near.

Soon, I will cook dinner, eat by the fire, work with Ann on our annual scrapbook.

This is a tone for the year I can imagine sustaining. It’s complex and strenuous at times, yet grounded in returning home again and again to the realities of Nature, the physical work of gardening, the non-tasky pleasures of dog-loving (play ball, play more ball, take me to the beach!), a sense of community that crops up everywhere—from travel, teaching, telephone calls, and post-hole digging in the rocky soil.

Gracie and me on beach stairs

Gracie and me on beach stairs

I am aware of the incredible privilege all this represents: a safe and beautiful place to live, enough of everything, a healthy body and resilient spirit, the opportunity to offer meaningful work to the world.

I am grateful. Profoundly great/full.

What are you doing to set the tone of the year?

Angel in the woods

Madrone in Whidbey woods

Madrone in Whidbey woods

The day was gloomy and these woods in particular, standing on the north side of the hill, do not get sun in winter and were muted into half-light. The trees grow tall or snake through one another, reaching for light. Winds blow off Puget Sound and all those that stand are strong trunked.

We—my beloved and I and our perky paced corgi—are making our way through this loveliness—polished green shine of salal bushes, the last yellow leaves falling off the salmonberry bushes, grey skeletons of alder and maple mixed among fir and hemlock and Madrone. Alone. Such stillness when we come to rest, only the forest breathes. We are not drawn to talk much, just finding our way, with occasional exclamations of wonder at the mushrooms or pointing out the flight of small grey bush birds.

IMG_7419Our dog’s head goes up, attention on the path ahead, and here come a man and woman wandering our way. They turn out to be dear island acquaintances Mary and Robert, and we are all happy to stop, to make a little circle in the middle of the path and inquire into this happenstance of intersection. We plunge into the heart of conversation—about our travels, dreams, health, work, and families. Like boring through the growth rings of the tree, we tap into story-glimpses of our lives. After awhile we release each other with another round of hugs and move on our ways through the meandering afternoon.

A question then rises in me: What got transferred between us in the guise of a “chance” meeting on the trail that is, in fact, exactly the message Spirit was trying to transmit this afternoon into our minds and hearts?

With this inquiry in mind, I drift back over the conversation. “Just do something for 30 days—make a month commitment and see what happens…” They are reporting on a seminar they attended, a challenge from a webinar—I don’t remember the source, just the message. This is what I needed to hear: to choose one thing in the New Year that I commit to, and give it a chance to become integrated into my life.

In the week between Christmas and New Year’s we have made a commitment to walk the woods, trails, and beaches of our island every day—to get re-grounded in our home after a year busy with travel.  And on these walks I formulate a vow to write in my journal every day in January— to re-establish connection to my own life narrative as we head into 2012 and all it portends.

This encounter on the trail leads me to consider how often  “spiritual guidance” seems to come through the apparently chance remarks of other people. We are, indeed, angels in the woods to one another—delivering insight, challenge, guidance, inspiration, often without knowing it, or even meaning to.  Everything is reciprocal—for we have mutual impact on each other in these exchanges. A niece calls for “advice”—and what we say to her, we say also to ourselves; what she says to us is meaningful across the generations and different situations.

With Gracie on the trail

With Gracie on the trail

In this portal time—when contemplating the year past and the year coming, I practice listening for guidance in ordinary conversations: to set out into the day with a question and to notice how, in the jumble of the day’s big and little events, a hint, or even an answer, emerges from the patter of our lives.  One day at a time—for 30 days.

Rebirth of the Village

Upon our arrival in New York on November 1, our friend Nancy Fritsche Eagan, a circle and Art of Hosting colleague, took us over to visit Occupy Wall Street. It was a stunning experience, particularly from a group process perspective.

Zucotti Park, now dubbed Liberty Park, was doing its best to operate as a self-organizing “village.” It was a tent city, one block long, 100 feet wide, with council-based governance, a multi-faith chapel (Sikhs were chanting there when we walked past), their own security team, library with hundreds of books organized in plastic tubs that could be closed up in rain, a cook-tent for serving the community free food (which had just gotten an A-rating from the NY Health Department), and wired for the world of the Internet.  The local “newspaper” was cell phone tweets. At that time police presence had pulled back to a presence that seemed nearly normal for a big city neighborhood.

This statement, from their website states their sense of identity: Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”

There was a general assembly starting. The person hosting a topic stands on the steps that rise up at the end of the park, anyone attending gathers either behind the speaker (think very eclectic and randomly organized choir) and others gather in the clearing—the commons space—in front of the speaker. No amplification is allowed so the speaker says a line, “We need to talk about (whatever real topic is being brought forward)…” The chorus, known as the “Human Microphone” repeats the sentence and, if needed, another line of speakers about 50 feet deep into the crowd passes it back down the block.

Hand signals were employed to show approval/question/disapproval—and voices of dissent invited to speak first, along with women and minorities—white males, even these disenfranchised versions of often scruffy and dread-locked young men—spoke last. There were signals for question, and point of clarity. Someone was making a “stack”—taking names and order for speaking… We were watching the next generation of group process come into being. And this level of radical democratization has been common in the Occupy Movement in all the major cities I’ve been hearing about.

With Nancy, we walked over to an indoor courtyard, during the day the kind of place that, ringed with deli stalls, provides affordable lunch options for office workers. This evening, about a dozen small circles of quiet and intent conversations were occurring. Working groups seated on the floor or around planters, were engaged in developing structures to keep the movement evolving and the “village” organized.

In our PeerSpirit work, Ann and I often find ourselves proclaiming that circle is the basic unit of democracy. It is a great treat to actually witness this so clearly. Circles. Self-organizing. Civility in public group process. Earnest young and mixed ages, mixed races—doing the hard work of discovering what to be “for,” not just what to be “against.” We were standing in the midst of evolution. In the midst of something happening—the determination to OCCUPY our lives in radical ways. I’m for that!

Is it clear? No, but becoming more so.

Is there a plan? Only for the next step, then sitting down and understanding the implications and complications and deciding what the next step is, and then the next.

At 1:00 AM on the morning of November 15, the neighborhood cops turned back into storm troopers and cleared Liberty Park, 2 days before a large protest march commemorating the two months anniversary of the movement was planned. The reports are varied as to what will happen next. In terms of the physical requirements, the “villages” in New York, Portland, Oakland, Seattle, and other major cities is not yet sustainable—deliberately so, with authorities refusing to install sanitation sites, and other basic necessities of human habitation. Winter is coming—and living in tents without heat is nearly impossible. Police have said that protestors may gather in the area, but not live in the park. It’s complicated… and it’s too late to stop it. OCCUPY has gone global, gone viral, and become a marker in time, in action, that we will look back on and say, “finally—we the people got going again…”

I heard a young man speaking from within the Seattle group on the radio. He was preparing to meet about their reaction to potential eviction from Seattle Central Community College and said, “Well, we’re a leaderless group… so we’ll have a meeting, listen to each other, take a vote, and decide what’s next. That’s how we are—“ I’d only change one thing—it’s not a leaderless movement, it’s an ALL LEADER movement, with every participant taking responsibility for their own interactions.

If you’re not tracking—get online and start reading. Go to Google around the mainstream media. Look at the BBC. Read the progressive articles on and watch the Livestream videos.

Does it make sense? Sometimes—and perhaps that is how a new world begins.

Now, collectively, it’s our work to believe that OCCUPY is an emergent action whose time has come.  Now, collectively, it’s our work to figure out our ways to engage and support and challenge and shape the conversation.

The circle invites us to sit down, share the stories, clarify the patterns that emerge, and rise to take up wise action. Let’s go.

The wisdom we need is in the room!

I wake at 4:30 AM from a dream in which a film crew is taking down the Europe “set”— dismantling canvas facades of the streets of Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam, carefully putting the architecture into storage.

Ann and I have just come home from three weeks teaching circle practice within the European Commission, the Art of Hosting and community leadership groups, and German consultant network. The dream seems to be my mind’s way of letting go of “there” and getting “here,” though those are concepts that blur in the midst of our current teaching schedule. “Here” is wherever the circle is, wherever people sit down and gather around a question and a form that fosters speaking and listening from heart-integrated space.

While I watch the film crew in my mind dismantle the cityscape, I am remembering the people of this trip and the delights and challenges of language and culture in the global circle.

Working first in Brussels, with internal facilitators at the European Commission, and then with a broader group, we often had people from 8 or 9 countries in the room, each of us filtering our learning and conversation through the common language of English. Because English is the official tongue of the European Commission, and Belgium is a country with two resident languages and now thousands of people working at the EC, those who came to the Circle Intensive expressed gratitude that we could learn together and hear each other’s stories.

Brussels circle

Brussels circle

We detoured by Paris—just to enjoy ourselves a few days and to visit Ann’s cousin and her husband—and Paris shone in the late summer weather. Then we went off to Oberusel, a small town outside of Frankfurt, Germany, where we spent a week at the Akademie Gesundes Leben (School for Healthy Living).  It was our second visit to this very pleasant retreat and conference centre, and the second time we have worked with Matthias zur Bonsen and Jutta Herzog who called in a group of 20 German and Swiss consultants—all native German speakers—except us.

When we checked in with the first round of talking piece at the beginning of our 4.5 day practicum, two things were obvious: one, that we had a marvelous, competent, sophisticated group of facilitators with a broad range of experience hosting circle and other collaborative processes; two, that we had about 1/3 of the group not very facile in English, and another 1/3 managing, and the final 1/3 able to offer some translation, at least to speak the essence of what was being said from English to German or German to English.

Forty years ago, Ann took German in college, as it was a standard in her botany major. She can still read and spell at a rudimentary level, but not speak. Forty-two years ago, I lived in southern Germany with an American professor and his family serving as research assistant to him and au pair to their children and picking up enough aural German to get around the village, shop at the local stores, trade a few pleasantries. Very slowly, and clearly, we spoke to their waiting faces. “It is wonderful that every one of you is here. We are honored at your courage and trust to enter this learning time. We will work together with the challenges of the language.”

World cafe notes in German

World cafe notes in German

That night my mind swirled for hours in a verbal jigsaw puzzle, piecing together every bit of German phrasing I could recall from the life of my 24-year-old self. And somewhere pre-dawn I realized that even if I recalled my entire vocabulary, it wouldn’t help. Knowing how to ask the vegetable stall frau, “How much costs the cauliflower?” is not useful when trying to explain the subtleties of circle energetics, the teamwork between host and guardian, the creative responses to shadow—all topics that deeply inform the practicum.

What we needed—and what we created—was an energetic field within the orb of the circle that helped us have insight and learning in whatever language that could occur. We simultaneously struggled with the challenges of the language, and bypassed language with a sense of direct transmission that was awesome. The practicum became “tri-lingual”—German, English, and energetic.

Ann and I taught in English, corralling our vocabulary into a narrow bandwidth that honored the sophistication in the room (we didn’t want to sound simplistic, to ourselves or others). People listened, helped each other with translation as needed, and when we turned the group into small practice Circles, World Café, and Open Space, Ann and I stayed out of the process so everyone could dive into learning in German. These small sessions were dynamic, thought provoking, hugely insightful. And we didn’t understand a word that was said.

Small groups speaking in German

Small groups speaking in German

On the third night of the practicum, once we are deep into the process of learning and experience, we traditionally hold an evening Story Council. The lights are low, the guardian rings the bell after every speaking, and the talking piece goes around three times. The purpose is to experience directly the power of story when it is offered in the listening container of circle and community. This night, half the stories were in German, half in English. Ann and I didn’t understand all that was said, and neither did some of the others. And it only intensified the sense of “ultimate reliance is on wholeness,” our third principle of PeerSpirit Circle.

Weeks later, we are still processing this experience: the balance of holding space and letting go of managing content, the chance to practice our belief that “the wisdom is in the room,” and our work is to help unleash it. We hear that the participants in this work, both the Belgian and the German sessions, are remaining in deep dialogue, supporting one another in opportunities to use what they learned. We move on in our autumn schedule with a profound sense of ongoing harvest.

Ecology & Travel: Thoughts from the Beach

A week after the earthquake and tsunami, in the midst of the nuclear crisis at Fukushima power plant, we left for vacation, an exotic trip funded almost a year earlier by a little financial windfall.

As it came time to pack we were still glued to video images of destruction nearly beyond comprehension and the possibility of nuclear meltdown hung in precarious balance. We found it decidedly difficult to pull out of the story and head into a week of isolation and relaxation. We were headed to a small island—more of a sandbar, really, 35 miles off the coast of Belize at the point where the atolls of coral fall away to 2000+ feet (610+ meters).  It took us two days to get there and two days to get home: we bid the last CNN feed goodbye in the Houston airport, and let go…

It was impossible, upon arriving, to avoid thinking of our vulnerability—the high point of land being about one meter above current sea level. And it was gorgeous… azure waters, amazing fish swimming around coral patch reefs, and lots of athletic opportunities we could practice at whatever level of competence we brought.  And, we were completely unplugged: didn’t think about filling seminars, book-sales, or who wants to “friend me” all week! I prayed for the people of Japan, for the people of Libya, for safety to prevail in the world, and surrendered to a week of awesome fun in nature.

The last day of our visit, the camp staff gave everyone a large capacity garbage bag and the challenge to walk around the edges of the island and collect whatever needed picking up. There would be contests for “most useful, most unusual,” etc.  As a group of about 20, this meant we filled 20 bags with gifts from the sea—Styrofoam of every shape and size, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic picnic forks, fast-food containers, more plastic water bottles, old running shoes, ruined snorkel gear, fishing line, more plastic bags. Prize for most useful, a condom, still sealed in its packet; prize for most unusual, a front grill for a Honda car. And then what?

What do they do with 20 bags of plastic garbage? Well—they burn it in a tucked away clearing in the midst of the sea grape and coco-palm trees, down near the Osprey nest.  They will send the Honda grill back to mainland, where it may be tossed into a landfill—or just into a ditch on the road into Belize City. We’re not talking about high-tech incineration with careful gasification and attempts to neutralize noxious and poisonous off-gases (still a debatable success): we’re talking about a campfire of unsorted chemical formulas, minus the marshmallows, lit when most the guests are off frolicking in kayaks and snorkeling over a nearby reef—grateful that the coral is still alive and the fishes seem healthy.


I loved the week away: and realized—there is no away. We are always “here,” living with the problems we have created for ourselves and our little blue planet.

So, back home, and back on the Internet, I have spent some time this week trying to understand a bit more about the challenges to the use, mis-use, recycling, and attempts to unmake plastic. One good source is the site: This site declares that, “More than a hundred billion pounds of plastic were produced in 2000. Their increased use has resulted in concern with (1) the consumption of natural resources such as oil, (2) the toxicity associated with their manufacture and use, and (3) the environmental impact arising from discarded plastics.”

One can presume that this is an annual production amount—enough to make reefs of plastic off the shores of many countries—as well as the floating islands of plastic now viewable from space. Look for plastic heaps on Google Earth—they are everywhere.

The point is: every gesture in our daily lives matters. Everything is connected to everything.  The radioactive seawater that was pumped into the reactors to prevent one disaster is now back in the sea where it will create some other kind of disaster.  We are facing a huge learning curve concerning the consequences of what we have “made”—plastic, nuclear waste, the ingredients to face cream and over the counter drugs. “Better living through chemistry,” a DuPont corporation advertising slogan from the 1950s, is absolutely embedded in modern life.

The difference between Whidbey Island where I live and Glover’s Reef in Belize is that we have more systems in place that make our attempts to put our garbage “someplace else” appear to work. We recycle, there is garbage truck pick-up, we take cloth bags to the grocery store, my own cup to the coffee shop– and it’s all still here. Somewhere around here…

I have increased my awareness of what I bring into my house, how I treat it once here, and where I put it when done. And I’m talking about garbage, thanking every restaurant and public place that serves food on cardboard or china—practicing as radically as I can little slogans, such as, “Just say NO to Styrofoam…” and refusing to accept things offered to me in plastic—foam, bottles, non-recyclable containers. For efficient—and entertaining– education about this, go out to Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff Project. Her cartoon videos make great family, neighborhood, and church conversation starters and her science, based on 20 years working in environmental health, is sound.

We talk a lot about making a new story… part of that story is what we will do with all the stuff that sustains and threatens modern life. So, let’s be bold and talk about garbage: what to do with what’s already here and how to prevent more and more garbage being made. Raise awareness in the social networks and media in your lives–and share some of your stories here.

And thank you!

Question of the week: What Just Happened Here?

Japan. We watch the ordinary present disappear in moments.  Whole towns become archeological digs–not pretty, not yet historical. Real people wandering through real-time chaos, horror and displacement. Earthquake. Tsunami. Radiation. The character of a people is shown to the world through the words and images streaming out of Japan. I bow a bow of deep respect. We are being given many lessons here–the world watching itself learning something.

And this evening comes this email–from someone I don’t know, my name on a list among names I don’t recognize, and the writer identified only as “…from a friend of a friend – from my cousin in Sendai, Japan where she has lived for the past decade teaching English.” This letter from the heart of a stranger says it all: the boldface emphasis comes from me–as I am so struck by the universality of the message the writer is sending.

Hello My Lovely Family and Friends,

First I want to thank you so very much for your concern for me. I am very touched. I also wish to apologize for a generic message to you all. But it seems the best way at the moment to get my message to you.?? Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to ?have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even ?more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend’s home. We share ?supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful. During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up their jugs ?and buckets.

Utterly amazingly where I am there has been no looting, no pushing in ?lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an ?earthquake strikes. People keep saying, “Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another.” Quakes keep coming. Last night they struck about every 15 minutes. Sirens ?are constant and helicopters pass overhead often.??We got water for a few hours in our homes last night, and now it is for ?half a day. Electricity came on this afternoon. Gas has not yet come on. ??But all of this is by area. Some people have these things, others do not.

No one has washed for several days. We feel grubby, but there are so much ?more important concerns than that for us now. I love this peeling away of ?non-essentials. Living fully on the level of instinct, of intuition, of caring, of what is needed for survival, not just of me, but of the entire group. There are strange parallel universes happening. Houses a mess in some ?places, yet then a house with futons or laundry out drying in the sun. ??People lining up for water and food, and yet a few people out walking ?their dogs. All happening at the same time.

Other unexpected touches of beauty are first, the silence at night. No ?cars. No one out on the streets. And the heavens at night are scattered ?with stars. I usually can see about two, but now the whole sky is filled. ??The mountains are Sendai are solid and with the crisp air we can see them ?silhouetted against the sky magnificently.??And the Japanese themselves are so wonderful. I come back to my shack to ?check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, ?and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from ?whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking?to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they ?need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, ?no.

They tell us we can expect aftershocks, and even other major quakes, for another month or more. And we are getting constant tremors, rolls, shaking, rumbling. I am blessed in that I live in a part of Sendai that is ?a bit elevated, a bit more solid than other parts. So, so far this area is ?better off than others.  Last night my friend’s husband came in from the ?country, bringing food and water. Blessed again. ??Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed? an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world ?right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now ?in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I ?felt so small because of all that is happening. I don’t. Rather, I feel a ?part of something happening that much larger than myself. This wave of ?birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent. Thank you again for your care and Love of me. With Love in return, to you all,

I don’t know who this writer is: the gender, nationality, or any particular of his/her life: but I know our connection. I know s/he is living through something with awareness on behalf of us all. For those of us watching from our relative comfort, it is our job to receive, to mirror, to bear witness, and to celebrate this wave of birthing. It is our job to prepare ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually for when it is our turn to be “the teacher” stumbling through the media eye of the world, stunned with chaos and starlight and the kindness we set out for one another like food and water.

What just happened here?

I cannot even name it yet, but my vow to Japan is to stay awake to what their suffering teaches, and to stay connected to our common needs. This is not fast recovery and the tale is not fully told.