Pioneering

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.

 

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.

Following Orders

I was told to close my eyes and write. As family happenstance glides by, I resolve to let my fingerprints leave their mark on the page. Ears are working fine: our dog lies down heavy and Rio just asked Annie for some food. He’s been sick and we’ve been faithful. It’s been warm, and when we watched the Beasts of the Southern Wild last night, I understood that apocalyptic weather is now our canvas, and that we can either read stories on it or rewrite the script.

Yes, sigh. But then: a blue wildflower sprouting early looking beautiful in yesterday’s mid January bake. 77 degrees in winter here in North Carolina: the farmer’s almanac is shuddering.

For a moment here, fear took over, me not believing that I could see this through. It’s not performance anxiety so much as disbelieving my own intuition: the layers have gotten good at chiming in, their silly chorus so loud and ostentatious. Because really when I let myself feel the creative, the funny, the irreverent, the erotic, the joyful: I bounce. Why do mental stories outnumber the communal ones and then squawk so riotously? I’d rather be a vagabond on a bench.

I question the notion of heaven: that each of our choices is tallied somewhere in some thick record book. That’s too much pressure on the passing second. And who is really going to judge us when we die?

I’m not sure what lives under my skin; with gray days like today, I sometimes forget all the falling petals, bright origami with messages inside.

Divinity is actually no story at all.

River Repartee

A few days ago my seven-year-old son Rio and I walked down to the river for our daily summer swimming ritual. We passed a few guys chatting by their cars in the parking lot and made our way to our favorite swimming hole. There, Rio spied a fishing tackle box and asked me whose it was.

“It probably belongs to those guys we just walked by,” I said as I took off my shirt.

Just then Rio spied two men upriver and called out, “Hey guys! Is this your tackle box?”

“Yeah,” one of them yelled back. “Thank you!”

Rio turned his attention toward me. “You said it belonged to those guys in the parking lot. You were wrong.”

“You’re right, bud. I don’t know everything. I’m a human being just like anyone else.”

He eyed me and nodded. “Yeah, you don’t know everything. I mean, you don’t know, for example, very much about . . . bunnies.”

Shoes

I was in fifth grade and had just moved from one side of Los Angeles to the other with my mom and sister following my parents’ divorce. It was November, so I arrived at Cleveland Elementary as the “new kid,” an identity I couldn’t shake the entire year.

I’d noticed in my first week that slip-on Vans shoes were popular among the cool kids, and I was convinced that a new pair would help me fit in. My mom conceded and went to the shoe store, where I eyed the light blue/dark blue two-tones that everyone was wearing.

“Yes, those are popular, but there are also these; they’ve just come in,” the salesman said, pointing to a pair of Vans with a  blue-green Hawaiian print.

At first I said no; I just wanted what everyone else had. I knew that conformity was the quickest way to acceptance.

“But those are so good-looking!” my mom piped in. “You should definitely get them.”

I remember my stomach clenching in the face of the decision. I didn’t want to be the new kid: the one who was living in a new house with a newly single mother and a new latchkey that burned in his pocket. I wanted to be the kid who hadn’t moved, the one with old friends in the neighborhood and two parents at home. Or at least the kid with the same shoes as everyone else.

And yet: the allure of the exotic, the different, the beautiful. They beckoned from the shelf, those Hawaiian-print shoes.

“Let’s get them,” I said impulsively.

The next morning, I was even more nervous than usual. The shoes looked so new I kicked them against my bedroom door a few times to create scuffs. I rode the bus feeling like my feet were covered in flashing lights. Would anyone notice? Would everyone?

I got off and found my new crew of friends who appeared to reluctantly be accepting me into their crowd.

“Look at those shoes!” one of them commented, and immediately they all looked down and laughed. “Those are lame!”

I put those shoes away after school that day and never wore them again. Not once. I think of them every now and then and feel an ache above my ribcage: at how sad those unworn shoes looked in my closet; at the thought of my mom, how little spare money she had and how much the new pair of shoes must have cost her; at the kindness of my mother wanting me to have that particular pair because she could tell I liked them and she wanted me to have beautiful things; at the salesman, who was probably just trying to do his job (what did he know of fifth-grade fashion politics?); and at my twelve-year-old self, who wanted so badly to fit in that he regretted for months that fateful moment when he’d strayed and listened to the louder voice that told him to choose the bold, relegating him even farther to the school’s margins. How long it took him to find solid ground.

And yet I simultaneously feel relief that I am no longer that child, the one so prone to doubt and insecurity, a boat with a broken rudder with no way to navigate the channel. I inhale and exhale something sweet knowing that that need to fit in, and the loneliness of not, gave way to a stronger calling to honor my quest for the exquisite; that as I write this, I’m wearing a shirt that has bold green and blue designs on it that look abstractly Hawaiian. I’m grateful that I have learned to leave the port of safety and push forward even when convention yells at me to turn back.

When I Grow Up, I Want to Be Big

Annie’s older sister Mary just died a few weeks ago. She was 55 and a key part of the family. She was the one who remembered birthdays, dawned on holiday earrings, raised an amazing son, and who had a unique relationship with all of her nieces and nephews. Rio really loved his Aunt Mary. Accepting her death, even though Annie’s family provided a beautiful container for so doing, has been a gradual and teary experience.

Annie was gone for a month caring for her sister in the hospital, and it was a trying but beautiful few weeks for me and Rio at home. Our friend Dre was staying with us, and she stepped up admirably as I wrangled work, preschool, and child care. A local friend stepped up at a critical moment and facilitated me taking a solo weekend retreat in a NC mountain cabin. Sy my boss was cool as I flexed my schedule out, but there was no doubt we were all worse off without our Annie. But she was care-giving elsewhere.

My life feels thin right now; I can count up the various positive realms and do exercises in gratitude, which I do most days. But there’s no doubt this is one of those crucible moments where hope seems thinly linked to a strand that is fraying.

But then Rio says, “When I grow up, I want to be big but also have a kid inside like you.”

“Thanks,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you like to tell stories and play around and go out for adventures. A lot of times you’re a big kid.”

And I recall then in a flash to the heart my own goodness — I am less “teaching” Rio than being an example for him — but again I fall so quickly off that pedestal. I seem drawn to the edges, where I equate small gashes with bold living. Other times I am fatter with the moment, content to stay on the saddle no matter where the bucking horse leads me.

Holding a high standard is important, but it can get me into trouble. I forgive myself easily in some realms — I apologize quickly when I hurt someone usually; I do a stellar, essential job at work — but in other arenas I drop down the ladder quickly when things go awry. With parenthood, especially, I can focus too much on not “traumatizing” Rio, in part for valid reasons, for I can readily recall those wounding moments in my own life.

But really won’t he remember that afternoon not long ago when we lolled about the river as the cicadas hummed and humid North Carolina hot air threatened but did not strike as we ducked into the water? Even today, I swam with him in the lake, but only until he found a friend who he wordlessly played with in aquatic circles. The kid’s father and I just smiled, aware suddenly that we were no longer needed.

I experience joy through Rio’s experience; as his father I see readily through his eyes. He buoys me with his “is-ness,” barely inconvenienced and at this age sometimes pissed off at adult pseudo-business. The kid forces me back to reality with a command or question that demands a present reply. He goes into his mind, sure, but more for fantastic reverie of the imagination than for cyclical analysis, that place where I get caught in and hide.

A friend of mine talks about the spiral, how we never escape our primary wounds, but that, if we work, we continue to hit it at higher evolutionary points. At first, when I strike against it, I’m like, “Damn, I thought I got rid of you,” and there can be a period of disbelief and powerlessness. ‘I’m here again?!” But she says that if we continue to confront that wound and try to heal it every cycle, even if it’s with a myriad of different medicines and treatments, that when we return to that painful spot it will be with more awareness. We may find that the spot itself has shifted. I believe in that idea, because I can only believe pain is evolutionary.

Two Hands Clapping

The dogs are panting. My house is empty except for three overheated canines. It is their nature to breathe these chants. Some days I want to curse them and say, “Leave me be! My partner and son are gone; let me float totally free.” But then I find the walk with them brings clarity: above creek I hear the crickets and see the fireflies. Their joy, free of leash on country road, makes me feel beneficent. If I were worthless they would get no freedom: floor-bound chez moi. But here we are, a veritable clan of creatures, trotting and smiling, a sniff here and there to investigate what the path has to offer.

But then the dogs fade to the background. I stumble into the nougat of me, unfiltered through duty and company, the twisting crawling snail that I must celebrate: see; see through; see into. Inside is an emptiness that wants to fill up — some nascent piece of me that still wonders about those breaking moments from childhood and fantasizes about replaying them. But rerun can’t provide the inflate — I must find air in these very moments.

One day I found my voice. It was wavering at first, but I spoke up and ears turned because I had something to say. Part of me was afraid of this light; I’d developed an innate instinct to self-dim. But then I met Jack Hirschman. He had a peculiar habit: after he finished a poem at a public reading, he’d back away from the mic, raise his hands, and join them in resolute claps. A casual observer might have thought it tacky for him to celebrate his own poems. But if you looked closely, you saw that Jack wore a slightly surprised expression in these moments, as if shocked but delighted by what had come out of him, by what his words had done to the night. It was not egoic: he was honoring what was moving through him. Jack taught me that getting out of our own way is sometimes the most noble act.

After one reading in North Beach, I watched Jack slip out of the bar. The crowd and praise is just too much, I thought. I peeked out to the window to see where he was going. I found him on Kerouac alley, throwing a tennis ball against the mural  — his own little game of toss and catch. He seemed so enraptured and childlike then, as if inhabiting his truest self and thereby transcending constructed ones.