Raising fists in salute; rising to ovation; feeling tears roll down the cheek; shaking hips to a universal beat: this was how I spent this past weekend at the 26th annual Bioneers Conference.

Although I was there nominally to represent North Atlantic Books and work our tent, in a truer sense I was present to witness and participate in one of the world’s most integrative interfaces for visionary thinking, planetary caretaking, and progressive politics.

Botanists have long talked about how ripe life is where one environment meets another; travel across a river mouth greeting the ocean and you will see the churn of species colliding, of fresh-water fish meeting salt-water creatures and even some species, like salmon, navigating both. This is what Bioneers felt like: a convergence of indigenous cosmovision, pragmatic environmentalism, racial justice, feminism, and youth empowerment all spiked with the spice of the eloquent spoken word. “Is-m” became “Is-ness.”

Not to say all was easy. There were challenges thrown down: from the indigenous to follow their vision instead of merely incorporating it; from African American leaders to investigate and unlearn the deep racism mainlining our systems and psyches; from young people asking elders to sometimes step aside and listen.

I had the great privilege of hearing some of the great orators of our time: Long-time civil-rights and racial-justice advocate Fania Davis talking about the indigenous practice of restorative justice as the key to ending the school-to-prison pipeline (“our species is so good at causing harm,” she said, “but history is asking us to be healers”); storyteller Michael Meade speaking of the power that lurks in our blackness and in the dark soil of this earth, the transformation that can come when we put aside our shiny masks and infatuation with the white and the bright and instead reveal our true faces; Canadian indigenous-rights activist Eriel Deranger asking the hundreds of listeners to consider that environmentalism is less a politics and more a view of the world rooted in the wisdom of our indigenous people, who at this critical juncture most hold the answers; open-source activist Shannon Dosemagen imploring us to share wisdom in a non-proprietary way and to use our intelligence to design a new commons; food-justice advocate Malik Yakini from Detroit reminding us that social justice is a prerequisite of food sovereignty, and that social justice can only come if we dismantle white supremacy, which sadly lives in all of us; and finally veteran civil-rights activist Tom Hayden, speaking via video due a recent stroke, retelling history, emphasizing that the “New Deal” our country is so famous for was not a program outlined by a pen but a movement that slowly coalesced because enough people worked toward collective solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Hope was served, but in a hard-earned way.

There were many more speakers, but these are the ones I saw — I had to tend the shop with my colleagues between these visionary holes poked through the shawl. By the end I imagine the collective tent was peppered with shafts of light; there we are in the shadows, pausing for a heavy, grateful moment before traveling down our respective roads with new life.

The Overnighters

baseballcolumntrophy1I recently watched the documentary “The Overnighters,” a brilliant chronicle of the itinerant workers flooding a tiny North Dakota town where fracking has just begun. The laborers are from a wide variance of ethnicities and US cities; what they have in common is desperation, hope, and good hands. But few find work and most end up finding shelter at the local Lutheran church. The film focuses on the charismatic and renegade pastor who extends the roof over their heads much to the town’s chagrin.

At the end of the film, watching the credits, I happened to notice that the director’s name was Jesse Moss.

“Jesse Moss!” I exclaimed to Annie. “There was a Jesse Moss on my little league team in Los Angeles. I wonder if it is the same guy.”

“You should write him,” Annie suggested.

The next day I took a moment to look Jesse up online. It’s so hard to tell if someone at age 45 is the grown-up version of the kid you have in your mind, but I couldn’t say it didn’t look like him. And so I jotted him off a note, subject line “small world?” and told him about my shot in the dark. Was he on the 1978 Cardinals?

That night I told Annie and our son Rio the story: Jesse Moss had been a great shortstop on our team. My dad was the coach, and we ended up winning the championship that year. I remember that when we had our party for the whole team, everyone came except Jesse. He never picked up his trophy. I recall my Dad letting me bring Jesse’s home, adding it to mine.

The next day Jesse wrote back:

Yeah – that’s me.  Great memories of the Cardinals and the year we spent in LA.  In fact, I recall the coach – was it your father – or the father of a teammate  – arranging to fly me back for the playoffs on a private plane, from the Bay Area, where I was then living.   That was pretty memorable for an eight year old.

This was amazing. I’d remembered the missing Jesse but never recalled (or even heard of?) the part about my father flying him down. My father was not a wealthy man, but he was an employee of a private corporation that did in fact employ private jets. That my father would have maneuvered to get our star shortstop down spoke both to his resourcefulness and his utter drive to win. He was (in truth) a gambler, and this fit his tendency to play with life’s poker: he used corporate chips to fly the kid down.

The next day I wrote Jesse back:

After we won the championship, we all got trophies with our name etched on. I remember you weren’t there to get your trophy, and so my Dad let me take yours home. I was quite proud of my trophy collection, and I remember trying to decide the ethics of adding your trophy to my coffers. I think I put it in there for a while, but then I put it away in a closet somewhere, maybe out of guilt. It may actually still be in my mom’s garage…

What’s tragically sweet about this story is that my dad was known to me and most of my family as quite a grumpy man. He trended toward sorrow and an overall alienation with the world. He died two years ago to no one in particular; there was no service and for about a year I knew not what to do with his ashes. I ended up releasing them on a beautiful day among friends and family down the river and swimming with my son among them like dolphins as they floated down the rapids.

But my father — the one I carried with such grief — he made the grandest of gestures for this boy who grew into a filmmaker who made a movie about another man of grand gestures.

Jesse wrote one final note back:

If you still had the trophy it would be epic! I never missed it. I think having it on your shelf was a good place. That plane ride was one of my most memorable childhood experiences. So incredible of your dad to arrange that. Let me know if you dig up that trophy and I’ll buy you a drink.


Not Scared, Just Different

the-dark-tunnelA few weeks ago I heard the theologian Matthew Fox discuss the different paths we walk in life; in his parlance, the different vias. I was particularly struck by the way he talked about the via negativa, which he characterized as periods when we experience suffering, darkness, silence, and solitude.

Fox posited that our discomfort with the difficult is mirrored by our avoidance of literal darkness: “Everything Is Illuminated” is not just a book title — from nightlights in kid’s bedrooms to flashlights on smartphones we tend to enlighten our worlds rather than face the dark in them. How breathtaking the night sky is when we are away from the city and really see the stars! And how ghoulish a face at night looks when bathed in the blue light of a computer screen. Perhaps there is something almost sinister about light if we overuse it.

For a good stretch my sister and brother in law held weekly “Blackout Tuesdays” in their home: when the sun went down, no machines were used until morning. This was inconvenient for sure — candles instead of lights; meals without ovens; questions without the easy answers found in computers. But by their reports, both parents and children went to bed with satisfaction deep in their bones — proud that they’d gone off the grid and made it, and also enlivened by the experience of living in the dark.

A few weeks ago my son Rio and I were walking in Dimond Park in Oakland, where the grass and playground eventually give way to a dirt trail that winds up the canyon. At one point, the stream we were following led to a dark tunnel. The path weaved around and over it, but Rio wanted to go straight ahead. It was a warm day, the kind when you can lift your face to the sun and find its warmth filling you up  until worry has no room. The tunnel, on the other hand, looked cold and foreboding. But I followed Rio’s lead, and we began walking in a tunnel so long we could not see daylight. As the creek trickled by and my hands groped their way along the walls, I started to feel strange. At first irrational thoughts shot through me: Could a train be coming? Could there be no exit at the end? Could the entire tunnel spontaneously collapse and trap us inside? Would I lose Rio forever to the dark? But then another feeling came — without the gift of sight, my other senses were more acute: the feel of the hard granite; the soft sound of water over rock. I suddenly felt like a monk walking back to his hermitage at night, the town’s creek and the walls of the monastery my only guides home.

After about five minutes, I finally saw a pinhole of light in the distance. As we reached the exit, I asked Rio if he had felt scared.

“Not scared,” he replied. “Just different.”

A few days later my father had a catastrophic stroke and fell into a deep coma. I flew down immediately and arrived at the post-acute care center to find him in what I can best describe as a deep sleep. The nurse told me she was shocked he was still breathing on his own, as if he were waiting for someone. “His lungs are strong,” she observed. “Was he a runner?”

“Nope,” I responded. “Just stubborn as hell.”

Even though my father showed no response when I shouted his name in his ear, I told him everything I needed to tell him. I caressed his cheekbone as I told him how much I loved him. How much I always had. I thanked him for coaching my little league baseball team for so many years. I forgave him for being such a difficult man. I stroked his earlobes. Other than the occasional awkward hug, I hadn’t been physically intimate with him in 70 years. How sad that only his imminent death was allowing that kind of contact. And yet how alive I felt bestowing it upon him. I told him I would return the next morning and would be happy to see him. But I also whispered, “You don’t have to hold on anymore. Maybe you should just go.”

When the nurse called me at 5 am the next morning to tell me my father had simply stopped breathing, I was not surprised. I returned to the center and stood next to my father’s dead body. I had never been so close to one. I touched him as I had the night before, although of course it was completely different now. I now truly understand that the skin is an organ. And yet I continued to graze his stiff cheekbone with my knuckle and did the only thing I could think of to ease his spirit into whatever realm it reaches next: I made a circle with my fingers around my own beating heart and sprinkled whatever they found there onto his corpse. I stood there in silence for a long time. Then I said goodbye.

I’ve tended to walk around life’s dark tunnels, or hold my breath through them. End, End, End seems to be my mantra. But on that morning, I was content to touch life’s cold stone.




three generations




Dropping the Mask

Much of what keeps me from the page is an uncertainty of what I will write there, almost as if I must have the tale cut and trimmed to even sidle up. It’s as if waiting for perfection is an excuse for inaction. As a friend once told me about someone we both knew: “She’s no perfectionist — a perfectionist would get things done.”

And so I must wade into imperfection if I am going to put letters down, which I’ve found I must do or risk stultification; if I’m not doing it, be wary of my practiced smile.

So what story would I tell if I let myself slip into it? If I didn’t let precognition destroy my mission? I’d probably write about the joy I felt last night just throwing the football with Rio in the park as Stella sprinted circles around us, the early nightfall no reason to hem ourselves in. I’d probably write about a young friend I just made, his earnest curiosity so inspiring because he’s letting everything in; the way he described his parents, how truly loved he felt growing up. I’d probably write too of learning that an old acquaintance took his own life last week, how I sat there at the computer crying bitter tears of frustration and loss; not for me, because I scarcely knew him really, and not even for him, because I do believe that solution might have brought him some relief. No, I was really crying for his son, who in my heart was my son, and how losing a father like that would make no sense. No matter how flawed my friend was, he was surely still his young son’s hero. I never imagined as a child the pain of adulthood, and so adults’ odd behaviors often baffled me. Rio has seen me cry, but he most likely knows little of the ugly movies that sometimes run loops in my head. How are children supposed to understand when those internal cycles negatively affect our external actions? They will, in their own time, but meanwhile isn’t one of my duties to shield Rio from the sad math that never adds up?

And yet how fake this can be. It’s so rare to see authenticity, as if exposing weakness is not in fact a strength, as if life is not something we stumble through but rather a red carpet we must glide down.

Enough with the pretty pictures.

And mine is no sob story; the little I knew about my acquaintance is that his demons were louder and meaner than mine. A wise person I know recently said that the best he could do with his demons was to study them as though they were teachers. To imagine honing this skill such that what we learned could even be shared with the people around us! Talk about a service. But I tend to duck and hide when my demons show up — almost an adult version of what I did with my blankets as a child when I’d imagine scary monsters in my bedroom. It’s almost as if I have an isolationalist foreign policy with myself: don’t worry about those dark cells operating overseas. I dream of an alchemy where I meet those forces, not to conquer them, but to engage them in some diplomacy. At least then I would have something to show for my grapplings — not shadow-infused irritation masquerading as communication but some real stories from my trip behind the curtain.

I surely didn’t see this much in the men I grew up around, and I think that’s part of what made me so sad about my friend’s passing. There seemed something so male about it: his feelings of failure in a world of pressure; his dark pleasures in a world of prescription. There were a few times where he shared openly with me about his shadows, but I’m not sure he found a steady way to integrate these into his life, and so he locked them up so tightly he took away his own life. I cried both for his son’s pain and the way this lineage seems to be passed on so easily from male to male.

And so this all swirled as the ball sailed through the air between me and Rio. I can surface my painful stories in an instant, but unless I can transmute them into something useful they are really my own burden to carry. Not to say they should never be shared — in fact, to be trusted with another’s tribulations (and vice versa) can be an exquisite feeling — but I don’t think we should take this kind of downloading lightly. It’s instructive to hear body workers talk about the care they must take to avoid internalizing the pain they encounter in patients; it’s a fine, learned art to both share and receive our dark sides. We can give up the costume, but this doesn’t mean throwing our clothes on the floor. Or hitting kids with our shoes.

After Rio went to bed, I shared with Annie some difficult feelings I’d been carrying. She listened and offered comfort. My arms found her more than usual in our sleep.

On the Road

The trip so far has been grand. Filled the old moving truck up to 21 feet, me in the Carolina heat huffing and puffing and pushing those bulkhead doors closed, the neighbor kid Dalton’s big hand squeezing around a metal lock to seal it.

And then off, just us three and Stella in the car, suddenly divorced from our possessions save the few in the back. We motored through beautiful West Virginia and puttered into Columbus to visit Zeus and Lora and their playful cat who chased wadded-up paper that Rio threw joyfully. The next morning Rio got to ride on the back of Zeus’s motorcycle and wanted it so badly to extend to a loop around the city.

And then up and over to Chicago to see family: cousins and great aunts and we took the El and mingled with the Lollapolooza crowd who inkily strutted across Millennium Park while Rio and his cousin Nathan ran across water in the fountain.

Next more family: this time in Minneapolis, us taking the ridiculously nonlinear Northern route, past dairy farms and friendlies. We took in a play our young niece starred in and then bolted to South Dakota to some time without friends. We found a motel in Sioux Falls, and after Rio and Annie went to bed I drove to a “cool bar” Yelp found me and it was sad: loud televisions and huge tables and lonely drunk people. I was reading so I was fine with the gloomy environs, although I was disheartened by all the wasted space: big but empty. But the bartender was friendly and gave a good pour.

Then the Badlands: there were so many motorcyclists in Dakota because of a national rally in Sturgis that it was like the air was buzzing with flies. It’s funny, those tattooed big-necked guys on iron horses with jean-clad hair-teased women on the back: so rebellious and quintessentially American. I ended up digging their freedom on the roads. The Badlands was other planetary, those brown spires rising from naught, the grasslands where buffalo still roam, literally. We ended up finding a free campsite in the park and set up nice, us befriending our neighbor Chris and Rio finding the resident ten year old across the field. Chris had outfitted his car for him to sleep in by removing one of the back seats, and he’d been traveling for 111 days across America taking back roads only and spending just $7 once on accommodation, the rest of those nights in his car.

The evening ended gracefully but then the torrential storm started. The lighting and thunder spoke their rumble crackle and the rain soaked our 20-year-old tent until we were laughing at how wet we were at 3 in the morning. Annie took the hit for all of us, sopping up the moisture as Rio snoozed across her belly.

“Take the back roads!” Chris had enjoined us, and we woke early the next day, shook the cold off our bones and followed his finger across northern Wyoming, cruising over Rockies on a one-laner and resting our heads finally in an overpriced motel in Cody, Wyoming.

Such soaring prices and congestion around Yellowstone had me temporarily cursing Chris, but then that corner of the Northwest, heading out of Yellowstone and along the Grand Tetons; surely one of the most beautiful places in the world.

And then, finally, tonight; a word of mouth arrangement grants us a home in Salt Lake, the owner gone, her hospitality ours.

Last time I drove across the country was probably 20 years ago. It’s different this time, doing it with a family, but the vastness of America still surprises me, as does her rugged splendor and open hand. Even the highways sometimes extended themselves to me, the ribbon of the road like the next chapter unfurling.

Wondering about Tonight

I wonder sometimes if modern communication has alienated me. I have leftover goodness that doesn’t know where to go. But then I take stock: my son is beautiful and thriving, my love and I are solid, I sit all right on life’s saddle. And so I count my blessings. Last night my friend told me of “cuddle puddles” she found at some weekend festival and how liberating it felt to be affectionate and warm with like-minded people: safe-space freedom. I reckon it’s possible to build that all around and on a multitude of dimensions.

Humid as Hades here. The crickets and cicadas are singing, I’ve got two dogs in the house. Rio is talking downstairs about some character. Annie is out with girlfriends, and I’m finding a sweet spot in a rough patch.

Kali sometimes she has her way. But she also prepared me by breaking me, opening up a new alleyway that wasn’t there before. A portal in the rubble. Some way out, or in, or both. So even though there’s been chaos amid the change, I enter there. Rather than curse the sky I bring my hand to my heart, take a step, and on the bridge with the river below and the fireflies flickering I see that my world, with its blessings and its cursings, its exquisiteness and wretchedness, is only met by the wider world’s version of the same. Our narcissism is laughable because the plight is so widely shared; the individual sob story is in truth a universal transformational one. I wish there was a better word for transformational but I haven’t found it yet.

I can wait for a rescue or instead see that my mustang is something I can ride even while feeling like I’m falling off. The mane of life is reachable, and when I sit with acceptance of wildness I find myself more agile with its intemperance. “Flow like the river,” we tell Rio when he gets caught on the rocks. This could be a cliche except that a river is ever changing, second by second, so any assumption about what a river  is is contradicted a moment later. Life like water moves through rapids and stagnation, at times a muddy sluggard and then suddenly a clear agent. It’s tempting to use cheap tricks to bring existence back to some neutral point, neither ecstatic nor despondent, but really what’s so hard about being joyful? I understand the difficult part but not why we make the easy part hard — fear sometimes shows up even among goodness and steals the beauty away. I don’t understand this and probably never will.

But I am also not entranced by it. At times I can fold that up into a tiny paper football that my finger boots out the door.

Anatomy of Change

The shift was long in happening. There were many nights along the bridge with my fist upheld to the sky. “Why are you making it so hard to find the next step?” I cursed.

“Relax, give us a little time,” the gods said.

I held on to the ficklest of faiths as one foot sought landing while the other lifted off the rock that was my life in Bynum and at The Sun.

For some reason I had to live in that reaching. And it hurt! Dark stories plummeted toward me: economic insecurity, depression, crises of self-worth. I convinced myself I was walking the right path, and yet the road was blocked.

I considered the purpose of suffering. The fear of ending one job and not knowing the next  made me taste a sliver of the financial fear so many live with every day. Instead of cursing my suffering could I see it as opening to a broader understanding of what suffering actually is?

And the depression: situational, not chronic. I am lucky like that. Still, the symptoms were there: Why get up? Numb my free time. Shudder at the shiver that crept up the back of my neck whispering, “This is it?” Around me, people struggling regularly with the darkness. They live in the pool while I normally dance around it, serving them snacks and cocktails but never stepping in. I’ve always known that when the wind finally blows the doors open, satisfaction sidles up.

Could the blues in my bones be welcomed because of the wider compassion I gain?

And then the doors did open: the job, back in Oakland. The road unwound before my eyes. As I drove down the hills, the bay in front of me, tears of gratitude dripped down a face that was smiling. And my dogged faith that the time it took had divine purpose was not in vain.