Does Florida Have A Poet Laureate?

Happily, surprisingly, yes!  As of June 15, after a gap of three years, Peter Meinke, 82, was appointed to the position.  As it happens, I am familiar with Meinke’s work via his second volume of poems, Trying to Surprise God, gifted to me by one of his students at Eckerd College, a sister writer and friend.  Who knew then I would come to live in the home state of this poet, whose Lines from Key West, inspired both curiosity and a sense of foreboding? I’ve been feeling as optimistic about the state of poetry in this country as I do about the State of Florida, which is to say not very. But this news is somewhat encouraging on both counts, if only because Meinke’s four year term also coincides with a critical window of opportunity for Florida to get its act together about sea level rise and the rising demand for solar energy. There is, as the title of one new collection of climate-related poetry puts it, So Little Time: Words and Images For a World in Climate Crisis.  

Poets were once the rock stars of their generation, able to speak truth to power through their art. They got it, and did not fear to take a stand. Here’s T.S. Eliot, writing in 1939:  “For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life. It would be well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet.”

The good news: poetry is persistent enough, even in our social media, texting-crazed, wired culture — perhaps even because of it —  for questions about its demise to crop up every so often.  The latest iteration comes in a CNN report on the appointment of Juan Felipe Herrera as the next poet laureate of the United States.  Notwithstanding The Writers Almanac, and popularity of poets like Billy Collins (a former U.S. laureate) and Mary Oliver, it is clear that the number of people who read poetry is shrinking to cult status. And yet, undeniably, as the surge of interest in poetry after 9/11 indicates:

In times of national crisis, when ordinary language fails us, we still turn to poetry to express the inexpressible.  Brandon Griggs, CNN

I believe poetry can — and must — show up whenever and wherever it can make the strongest impact, where it takes us by surprise, shakes us out of our lethargy, and makes us care about what truly matters. And for that, we need more than the printed page; we need spoken word poetry, delivered at open mics, popup events, or even through campaigns such as the voicemail poetry created by poet and professor, Major Jackson, for his students at the University of Vermont.  It goes like this: you call a friend and, without any explanation, recite a poem on their voicemail. If they answer, you tell them to hang up and let your next call go to voicemail.

spoken word micThe other reason I see a future for spoken word poetry is Eve Ensler. With her launch of The Vagina Monologues in a tiny theater on the Westside of New York City, Ensler demonstrated the power of spoken word to touch people deeply. She not only shook up gender politics, she also launched an ongoing international campaign to call attention to violence against women and girls. Performing her material and the formation of a troupe that grew from that experience (Women Aloud) has me asking some new questions. What if a campaign based on spoken word poetry (or monologues) could do for climate justice activism what Ensler did for the women’s movement? And if so, what better place than Florida, climate ground zero, to test it out? When you think about it, critiques of the status quo and prophetic warning are by no means a new role for poetry through the ages. Think Shelley’s Ozymandias. I especially love Wendell Berry’s savage wit and quiet anger in Questionnaire and Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front from which one of my favorite quotes: Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

Beside So Little Time, this year, the UK’s Guardian launched a series of 20 original poems on climate curated by British poet laureate, Carol Duffy, because (as she wrote): If information was all we needed, we’d have solved climate change by now. The scientific position has been clear for decades. Researchers have been waving a big red flag that has been impossible for our politicians to miss.”  Her goal for the collection: “… to reach parts of the Guardian readers’ hearts and minds that the reporting, investigations, videos, podcasts and the rest had failed to reach.”  

Poets grieve, rage, and pull no punches.  An example:

Extinction

We closed the borders, folks, we nailed it.
No trees, no plants, no immigrants.
No foreign nurses, no Doctors; we smashed it.
We took control of our affairs. No fresh air.
No birds, no bees, no HIV, no Poles, no pollen
No pandas, no polar bears, no ice, no dice.
No rainforests, no foraging, no France.
No frogs, no golden toads, no Harlequins.
No Greens, no Brussels, no vegetarians, no lesbians.
No carbon curbed emissions, no Co2 questions.
No lions, no tigers, no bears. No BBC picked audience.
No loony lefties, please. No politically correct classes.
No classes. No Guardian readers. No readers.
No emus, no EUs, no Eco warriors, no Euros,
No rhinos, no zebras, no burnt bras, no elephants.
We shut it down! No immigrants, no immigrants.
No sniveling-recycling-global-warming nutters.
Little man, little woman, the world is a dangerous place.
Now, pour me a pint, dear. Get out of my fracking face.

~ Jackie Kay

More to think about:

The Dark Mountain project, a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature.

Poetry Outloud — an annual contest for the spoken word that offers school-age performers cash prizes include $20,000 toward a college scholarship.

Consider supporting the poetry/climate effort by your purchase of So Little Time: Words and Images for a World in Climate Crisis, by Greg Delanty and other poets and photographers.  (Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont).  I am not affiliated with the authors or publisher.

The Gift Economy*

The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

~ Sweet Darkness, David Whyte

For those who make their livelihood in the financial markets or follow their own investments closely, this week will require seat belts, low and tight across your laps.  If you believe things are going to return to ‘normal’ for the dominant energy sector any time soon, read this from the Post Carbon Institute. It certainly calls into question whether Shell’s proposed Arctic drilling is anything but pure political theater. Although we divested from fossil fuels a while back, I have vowed not to look at our portfolio until the end of the day, but maybe end of the week is even better. I am not a fan of volatility in money matters or in human behavior (perhaps that’s redundant).

So, I’m turning my attention to what I can do When Things Fall Apart, to cite a favorite book from a favorite author.  I’m reading more poetry and attempting to write it better because, well, if not now, when?  I’m also making plans to put up a crock of sauerkraut in the hour formerly known as Sunday service because at least it will leave me with something that nourishes me for a few days.  I’m beginning to explore life in the gift economy*, the realm that exists apart from getting and spending, (although I will have to acquire about 5 lbs. of cabbage and some Kosher salt for my project) and I invite you to join me there.

Let me begin with a riff on these lines lifted from David Whyte’s poem for a few bars, and feel free to hum along (here is the complete poem from Whyte’s collection, The House of Belonging, ©1996 Many Rivers Press, and long a favorite of mine). First, I’m more than a little tickled that Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat. Pray. Love) chose this quote for her poem of the day. While I would argue against a purpose for something as impractical as a poem, David Whyte is well-known for his work with corporations and organizations to help employees break old habits of mind and ‘come alive’ on the job. Having done time myself in some stagnant workplaces, I cannot help but wonder how many people rose up from one of Whyte’s workshops and kept right on walking.

This poem, and others of his most loved verse, are an invitation, an enticement, to be more alive, moment to moment, to simply be. I read these lines as a call to free ourselves from all the boxes we put ourselves into, often unwittingly: our roles, relationships, titles, possessions, self-delusions, anything that makes us dead to the world ‘to which we belong.’ For this kind of breakthrough, Whyte suggests, we need our own ‘sweet darkness’ of meditation or reflection, so we may learn who we are, where we belong, and with whom. Discovering whatever brings us alive is the great uncompensated work of a lifetime. My short list: my long, ever-surprising marriage; poetry, especially read aloud; music, especially making it, however inexpertly; real conversations with friends and strangers; walking with no particular destination; slow food; slower everything. What’s on yours?

Of course, poetry is part of the gift economy, in the sense that it is available and of benefit to all. With very few exceptions, no one lives on poetry alone, or the making of art of any kind, for that matter. The U.S. Poet Laureate gets a stipend of $35,000, plus $5,000 travel expenses, paid by a private grant. And yet, “It is difficult,” said William Carlos Williams, “to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

The library system is another such enduring gift (thank you, Andrew Carnegie). It’s anyone’s guess how many lives have been changed, lifted-up, by the simple act of reading. Some libraries have added tools and equipment.  Speaking of free access, you should be able to download an e-book version of Pema Chodron’s best-seller by clicking on When Things Fall Apart. You might consider this giveaway a smart marketing move to sell more of her books generally,  But I consider it another example of the gift economy, made possible by the Internet. In fact, one could argue that the entire Internet fits the description of gift, albeit one needs tools and access.  In one of my favorite visions of a future worth having, small farmers in the developing world generate local energy via solar panels and use technology like affordable cell phones and/or rollup computers to download necessary information, while their children logon to (free) Khan Academy.

freecycle-300x141Other gifts: the National Parks System, including the incomparable Florida Everglades, when last I checked. Public beaches, mandated by law. Public spaces, as long as you’re not breaking a local ordinance on size of group or activity.  Let’s also include, Free-cycling. Blogs, from the mighty HuffPo to this one (although you must tolerate some ads — sorry.) My favorite: foraged foods — berries, mushrooms, wild greens.  Then, the obvious freebies: trees, wild pollinators, along with clean air, water, soil, and sun, rain, wind — anything we consider held in common, available to be used and enjoyed by all. In other words, all that brings — and keeps us alive. For these gifts, may we be sufficiently grateful to pass them forward.

_______

*I am using ‘gift economy’ is a broader sense than this definition, and more akin to that suggested by Charles Eisenstein’s book: Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition.

What We Can Know

Like transplants from elsewhere, we go to Florida’s beautiful, relatively uncrowded beaches in summer to fill our lungs with salt air, press our bare feet into the sand, and look for turtle tracks. It turns out that 2015 has been a record year for turtle nesting in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.  Sure enough, there were plenty of fresh tracks in evidence on a recent Sunday morning, many new nests, and a researcher on dune buggy taking his morning tally.

Preserving life other than our own is for many people an instinctive response, one that affirms our interconnection with and interdependence on all living things, including the Earth itself.  Some years ago on this same stretch of beach, we rescued about 20 turtle hatchlings by keeping hungry seagulls in the air while the young made a dash for the waves. This race that relatively few actually win, apparently also hones the turtles’ survival skills and increases their chance of living into adulthood and reproducing. We were giddy with joy that morning, though none the wiser about the way of turtles, e.g. how do they know which way the water is? Or how is it that their mothers, and some day these newly hatched females grown to adulthood, catch a ride on the Gulf Stream and return to this very beach to lay their eggs? Loggerheads, Leatherbacks and green turtles are (unlike urban trees, alas) protected by law, so evidence that they are thriving is reason for celebration. But more than that, I’m curious about how significant this shift, if indeed it is a lasting one, could be in big picture terms. What might it suggest about the future health of our world if turtles, like bald eagles, any life form for that matter, do well enough to be removed from the endangered list? Or when damage can be reversed as we step back and let nature takes its course. We don’t always know what will work until we see what happens.

You have to be encouraged about the most recent news about bees, too, as well as for ‘a new breed of bee keepers‘ who are swelling the ranks, according to a recent story in the Palm Beach Post’s business section. The newcomers are entering the business as a sideline, drawn by the high demand for honey, but what if they could become part of a citizen movement to preserve and strengthen bee colonies? An associate professor of entomology is quoted as saying that CCD (colony collapse disorder) is “gone or pretty minimal,” which suggests that a turnaround via human intervention is possible. And bees are kind of important to our food security.

Whatever drives us to discovery, anyone of us can only know a small fraction about our world relative to what there is to know, and most of what we discover is through hands-on experience, experimentation and observation. But I believe we are obligated to engage with and learn whatever we can, and in that process come to love the world and want to save it. In that context, here’s a photo of one of our grandsons, an incoming high school senior who aspires to become an aeronautical engineer, Shaw harnesses the winddoing an experiment of his own with wind power on Mousam Lake, Maine. Earlier, he and his youngest brother successfully ‘sailed’ their canoe across this same lake using this same outsize umbrella. When you recall that before the discovery and rapid implementation of fossil fuels, humans explored the known — and unknown — world entirely under sail, perhaps this augers well for the great re-skilling, a back-to-the-future, intergenerational strategy I believe is inevitable for our survival as a species. I am glad to leave speculating on origins and causation to scientists, philosophers and those of religious persuasion. And when we need a little humility to prick our 21st century techno-arrogance bubble, we might channel rock star astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who reminds us that something called Dark Matter is accelerating the expansion of our universe, but we don’t even know what it is. I highly recommend his terrific on-demand StarTalk Radio Show, a combination of Car Talk (a lot of joking and boisterous laughter) with great interviews and razor sharp observations. In the recent edition that included snippets of deGrasse Tyson’s interview with Ariana Huffington, she noted that far from being in opposition, scientists and people of faith are united by a sense of wonder. One cool woman. The show ended with a call for greater scientific literacy for everyone. May it be so, and may it begin in the home, in schools, and the House.

Unplug Yourself

Here’s a tip for a healthier, more resilient future: get outdoors more and leave your smart phone at home when you do. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests we need what nature gives us for free: refreshment, relaxation, and a sense that we are part of something larger than the manmade environment in which we spend most of our waking hours. In South Florida, indoors automatically means air-conditioning 24/7, breathing recirculated air. Like being on an endless plane ride. Children who spend time playing outdoors every day are not only less likely to become obese, they do better in school. Even elderly shut-ins benefit from being near some green plants, particularly if they care for them. High touch.

Indoor living, whether at work or home, or at a popular restaurant like Duffy’s, is screen time, all the time.  I love to cook but increasingly go to the Internet for a recipe rather than consult one of the many cookbooks I own. Lately, I find myself checking the weather on my smartphone instead of opening a window or going outside to sniff the air. I confess I am hopelessly addicted to The Skimm for my quick dose of news, about all I can take. Most bedtimes, the urge to check email or Facebook one last time is all but irresistible. In wakeful periods during the night, I’m on my tablet reading a novel or catching up on one of the blogs I follow. At least I notice how these habits are changing me in ways I don’t like, stoking impatience and compulsive behavior. You have no doubt realized that Big Brother Internet is watching your searches and online shopping.

Here’s something else I find worrying, for myself and even more for my grandchildren who already exhibit serious dependency on screens (don’t even get me started on video gaming!). We are learning to depend on our visual, and to some extent auditory, senses at the cost of other senses that make us complete human beings. Since touch and smell are more connected to the emotions, is it possible that our addiction to screens themselves — not to mention our compulsion to miss nothing — is changing our relationships with each other as well as with our life support system.

Screen Addiction is Taking a Toll on Children writes personal health columnist, Jane Brody, in a report that is sure to resonate with grandparents and add to our concerns for their future. Perhaps you, too, have witnessed your grandchildren gradually change from affectionate, engaging pre-schoolers who were delighted to see you, always ready to play a game or share a joke, into Tweens or Teens who are so captivated by their devices, they barely acknowledge your presence. To be sure, adolescence is hard on everyone including the ones going through it, but this feels different from familiar teen angst, much more invasive and scary and with ramifications we may not fully comprehend. “Many come to view the real world as fake,” writes Brody. For those of us concerned about the effect of violent video games on children, this is chilling news indeed. Brody’s not letting adults off the hook either.  Her advice is sound: How to Cut Children’s Screen Time: Say No to Yourself First. 

Screens also interfere with our experience with the actual.  Ever noticed how many parents at a recital or school play are making a video of the event as opposed to just experiencing it?  So can they be said to be truly present, or to put it another way, what exactly were they present for? Pixels on a tiny screen?  And what will they remember later: being there, or just what the video tells them they saw? Comic and social critic, Louis CK, does a riff on this subject that is typical of his style: you’re laughing and feeling a chill down your spine at the same time.

kids walkingHey, I love my smartphone. I love texting and sharing photos. I love the built-in GPS that gets me places, the restaurant reviews that save me time and money, being able to leave the heavier equipment at home when I’m on the go and still stay in touch. But we all need to give it a rest. Screen addiction is not healthy for children and other living things and it is not healthy for the Earth. The good news — and there has been more of this lately, from Pope Francis’ encyclical to the rise of solar power through unlikely alliances (see Green Tea Coalition) — is that we can do something about it.  We won’t save the world and our own skins by changing our lightbulbs and shopping greener, but a re-engagement — all senses open — with what we have and what we stand to lose: the only home we have, just might. Turn off, unplug, go hug a tree or a friend.

Bye-Bye Indie Movies

The closing of the Mos’Art Theater in Lake Park this past week is a small, personal tragedy for those of us who loved the great selection of independent and foreign films found there for the last five years. We’ve seen Oscar-nominated documentaries, animated films and features, and even got to vote on them. We’ve attended benefits at the Mos’Art like the showing of The Vessel, co-sponsored by the local National Organization for Women and Emergency Medical Assistance.  Most recently, the 2015 Oscar-nominee for Foreign Language Film, Wild Tales, drew an appreciative audience. To catch films of this caliber now, means driving at least 20 minutes on a hair-raising stretch of I-95 to the only other cinema of its kind in northern Palm Beach County. But even more than the inconvenience, it saddens me to see this promising venue, on the same block as our other favorite local hangout, The Brewhouse Gallery, go dark. A vibrant community needs more thriving small businesses, not fewer, more foot traffic, not less.

indie_logoLake Park has a more diverse population than our home town, and just like the other artsy, colorful, interesting town of Lake Worth, diversity also brings with it more security issues and various defensive strategies.  I notice, for example, that Saigon Market where we shop for a terrific array of Asian ingredients, and the Vietnamese pho/hot-pot restaurant its owners opened last year, pull down metal shutters over their display windows and door at night.  It’s common practice in fringe neighborhoods in any urban area, and one choice retailers can make to protect themselves. But a fortress does not a community make. More venues like The Brewhouse Gallery and its neighbor, Art on Park, both of which cater to emerging artists, are a better way to go. I say this even while recognizing that today’s artists’ haven is tomorrow’s high-rent district. Hello Miami’s Wynnwood.

We live less than 5 miles from Lake Park, in a family oriented town we landed in more than a decade ago, following one set of grandchildren to the sunshine of South Florida. It has its virtues — low crime rate, good schools, two excellent community centers with pools and other sports facilities, more large shade trees, a Whole Foods Market, the Gardens Mall, and of course, a multiplex theater featuring the usual fare of blockbusters. Developers of Downtown, and the newer Midtown, have tried to infuse a sense of community around the collection of shops and restaurants, with comfortable public seating, periodic art shows and free music on the weekends in the season (that is, not the hotter summer months).  Downtown features a carousel and a train for tots that also goes round and round each evening, clanging bell and all. But the design approach doesn’t seem to be moving us in the direction of a real town center as a community gathering place. The farmers market is somewhat better, but without some effort, it’s too easy to be ships that pass in the night. Even the kids don’t seem to be having much fun, except occasionally when they cut loose from their parents and play with other kids. They set a fine example.

I’ve made the point here before that as shoppers, diners or spectators, we’re more likely to stick to our companions. Mingling or chatting with people we don’t know would be an exception rather than the rule, and that’s a seriously bad trend for community life, let alone the kind of resilience the future may demand of us. I don’t think our little corner of Palm Beach County is an isolated example (but I’d be delighted to have that view challenged).  If we aren’t comfortable with the people we meet in the commons, how can we become better at talking with each other in community meetings where an issue of mutual interest is being discussed, let alone in a more politically charged gathering?  Shouldn’t we all be concerned about the silo lifestyles and bland conformity so many of us have adopted, and adapted to, without understanding what and whom we are sacrificing?  I think so, and the indie-minded among you might agree. I’ll leave you with some links worth checking out:

Transition Streets  — just launched website

Strong Towns

Walkable WPB

Where’s the Beef?

The answer is: not in my diet, for reasons ethical, environmental, and health-related.  If you share this preference, you already know it can make you a problematic dinner guest, not quite of the gluten-free or raw food variety (no offense to either), but close.  But recently I made an exception for my meat-loving family, a special birthday celebration — my first born’s 50th! — in a recipe for buffalo chili from an Andrew Weil cookbook.  I am fortunate to have a local source for verified grass-fed meat thanks to Farriss Farm, a small farmers-market-based enterprise run by Robert and Paula Farriss who have seen their business turn around by a burgeoning demand.

ChiliBut the Where’s the Beef line that everyone over a certain age remembers from a Burger King commercial, is a good question for all of us Americans.  Our habits of consumption,  including but not limited to a diet high in meat, means each of us needs approximately 5 times the resources — food, water, energy — the Earth can provide for each human now alive. Our allowable ‘personal planetoid’ is about 4.5 acres. You don’t need to be a math whiz to figure that someone somewhere is getting the short end of the stick now, and with the population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, something is going to give.  From Pope Francis’ encyclical published today: “… a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.” You and I know this, and even so, it’s difficult to accept personal responsibility for a problem so complex it took Pope Francis 184 pages to cover.

If you are a fan of small, specific tasks, you may also be cheered by an elevator speech (love them!), How to Fix America’s Beef Problem in Under 2 Minutes, by co-author, Denis Hayes, of  Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and EnvironmentUnlike the daunting title, this video (thank you, Grist!) is upbeat and accessible like The Story of Stuff series and others of its ilk, and inspiring on multiple levels. Hayes, whose bona fides as an environmentalist are impeccable, isn’t trying to do the impossible: turn 317 million burger-chomping Americans into vegans overnight. Like Michael Pollan (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), he offers a reasonable goal of 50% reduction in meat usage, still way beyond what the average citizen in the developing parts of the world consumes.

You may also enjoy the case made by Small Footprint Family for returning to pastured livestock because, among other things, it helps improve soil depleted by agribusiness mono-cropping and sequesters carbon. The article references Alan Savory’s sensational TED Talk  How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change (over 3 million views).  Savory’s experiment has since drawn fire for being unscalable and for promoting more rather than less meat in the diet. If you can get your hands on a copy of the DVD, Symphony of the Soil, a film it was my pleasure to help introduce in my area, offers a balanced view.

More mindful food choices seem like one of the easier things we can all do to trim our ecological footprint as well as preserve our well-being (which considering the cost of healthcare, is itself a public good). Transition’s 10% local food challenge is a great place to start, whether you are an omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, or raw food enthusiast. Switch 10% of your food purchases to what is produced nearby and keep your small farmer in business.

We aren’t looking to increase the intake of meat in our household, but I must admit that the buffalo chili, flavored with Ancho chili, cumin and dark chocolate, was worth the wait. Glad to share the recipe. Just ask in the comment section.

Small FootPrint Family

What Would Happen If The Entire World Lived Like Americans

http://www.radicalsimplicity.org/footprint.html

Where’s the Beef? Everywhere

Local Food Shift

Losing/Finding My Voice

Based on my albeit short career in climate activism, I believe too many of us are struggling with massive, relentless stress that takes a toll on our relationships with each other, the quality of our work, and inevitably, and on our own body-minds.  We want change but our methodology is missing the mark. We preach to the choir in deadly, PowerPoint, fact-filled meetings, replete with pressure to sign away our free time to various on-going actions. Given this is South Florida, the list is long. When we keep pounding away with the facts, the values, our values, the humanity of our words and actions, remain off the table. We must replace finger wagging with a vision of life so compelling, people will want to create it. We need, as Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement insists, new stories to inspire and model change, and the ability to tell them well. Moreover, we need Marketing 101, because those who are fighting just as hard for business as usual are employing it more effectively. See George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant).

Last week, a climate activist buddy and I both found ourselves stricken with an upper bronchial infection that is making the rounds and rendered speechless with laryngitis, ah the irony.  When we found our voices again, we had a chat about the work we do and its impact on our health and that of those in our circle. We are on the same wavelength that new approaches are sorely needed, a lightness of being.  I think of Wendell Berry’s great quote: Be joyful, although you have considered the facts. She is, as are others, often able to ‘push through’ fatigue and illness, even to the point of offering comment on the Regional Climate Action Plan of 2009, at last on the West Palm Beach commissioners’ agenda.  The good news and kudos to my colleagues: RCAP was signed. But I can’t help wondering why it took this long, and why only three municipalities in Palm Beach County have signed it so far.

When I feel unwell I tend to want to tough it out, but when I woke up one morning unable to so much as whisper, it seems a good time to save my vocal chords, hold my peace, and see what might happen. Teaching my yoga classes was impossible, but I did some gentle, restorative yoga at home. And thanks to my mindfulness meditation practice, I noticed how it felt to be without a voice.  I allowed myself to enquire, become curious about whether this lack had anything to teach me. Curiosity, says Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chödrön, is “A much more interesting, kind and joyful approach to life … whether the object of our curiosity is bitter or sweet.”

conversationWhile I was sans voice, I happened to be reading a great book … about talking! Living Room Revolution:A Handbook for Conversation, Community and the Common Good by Cecile Andrews is both a convincing case for the need for civil discourse and a manual for the same. It argues that nothing less than our democracy depends on our reclaiming of the lost art of conversation, an exchange of equals in a respectful, convivial atmosphere, pub, salon or living room. Public spaces where people could gather spawned revolutions in the past, including that of our nation.  Today, many of us rely on other means, e.g. email, texting and social media, to stay in touch, usually with our friends, real or virtual. Texting can be great for refining a plan as you go, a lesson we can learn from the young. But these techniques don’t help us widen our circles of association or get practice talking with people with whom we might not agree on everything. And that does not promote the common good.

Andrews’ formula is deceptively simple: a study circle that gathers “a small group of people talking about three questions, the first being about personal experience, the second about cultural forces that defeat your goals, and the third about actions you can take to accomplish your goals.”  Other suggestions: Enlist commitments to meet weekly for eight weeks.  Get consensus about what makes a good conversation.  Use a timer to limit each speaker to 3 minutes.  Done right, these study circles encourage every participant to become a storyteller and possibly a change maker.  I love these three beginning questions:

1. When in your life have you experienced supportive community and a sense of belonging?

2. What forces in society make it difficult for you to have community?

3. What short-term and long-term actions can you take to introduce more community into your life?

My spouse is naturally gregarious, always the one who will strike up a conversation with a seat mate at the theater or on public transportation while my head is buried in a program or book, or worse, checking my smart phone.  But I’m determined to break these habits.  So at last Sunday’s Farmers Market, while he was getting us coffee, I sat down at a picnic table next to a someone I didn’t know. Because we smiled at each other, I took the plunge and asked his opinion about the various breakfast vendors, and he was delighted to make some recommendations. That opening was enough to spark a conversation of about 30 minutes, as my spouse arrived with the coffee and the two men quickly bonded as fellow New Yorkers from different boroughs. By the time we had covered some family and work history — he was a subway driver for the #7 line — I realized that we were on the same page about some hot topics: the disappearance of the middle class and the sorry state of education, with some ideas on how to address both. When was the last time that happened to you? As we shook hands, exchanged names, and went our separate ways, I felt the afterglow of having made a human connection at what has become another shopping opportunity, albeit with better vegetables and sometimes decent live music. Much as I enjoy social media, it doesn’t do it for me.  The art of conversation — let’s bring it back.