Space Available Essays: September/October 2003
The Lunchtime Gift
By Tara Fay
It was a Tuesday, a work day in cube-land, just like all the others. I found myself eating lunch in the break room looking out at a perfectly gorgeous early summer afternoon. I decided to go for a solo walk around the nearby reservoir. I had been the day before with co-worker on a power walk and everything flashed by. Today was about taking my time, enjoying the weather, and seeing.
About halfway around the gravel marked route I stopped and bent over to feel the freshly cut grass. As I continued my walk, I began a silent thank you for all my gifts. I said thank you for the gift of life, health, for the use of my fingers and toes, legs and arms. Thank you for my friends and family, for the ability to see and hear and smell and taste. In mid-stride I looked up towards the light blue sky, partially clouded by wisps of white and the branches of the trees edging the path, and the fading image of white and the branches of the trees edging the path, and the fading image of a rainbow caught my eye and held my gaze. It was a shocking gift from nature and seemingly a signal that I had been heard. It is this type of moment that I used to wonder about in awe and partial disbelief as I heard or read about them. I was never truly convinced of these stories until I was stopped in my tracks looking at the proof, experiencing it.
Life on the Edge
By Dori Smith
As a kid I was often found sitting, or better lying, on a plot of dusty earth someone else would call a weed patch, my nose right up to the tiniest herbs and grasses, inspecting the flowers’ intimate parts, watching ants run around toting their miniature burdens to important destinations. I’d borrow dad’s hammer to break open the rocks to find the crystals inside.
In these microcosms I developed my sense of wonder at life’s infinite variety and complexity. As a young adult I roamed the West coast, aiming my Nikkon close-up lens at patterns of grasses and spider webs in dawn’s light. Much later, when slaving for The Corporation, I picked bouquets of weedy wildflowers on my lunchtime walks along neglected paths, granting myself a vaseful of beauty at my barren windowless workstation. Bemused, I watched as tiny spiders and buglets climbed down from their perches to wander over my desk.
Today I am sitting in a quarter-acre abandoned lot wedged in behind McDonald’s and my husband’s kidney dialysis center. While I wait for Steven here, I step out of my hectic routine and into a magical experience in my secret garden. I call the garden mine, because surely I am the first person in thirty years to appreciate this place as it is, for what it is.
As I enter, I try not to tread on the red caps of British Soldier lichen, ready to cast spore. My sandaled feet luxuriate on soft mats of pine needles and moss. I wander slowly around in circles, greeting weedy friends and new acquaintances. Clearly this was an old homestead with orchard and meadow; apple and cherry trees still flourish here, along with younger saplings artfully planted by birds. Over there are the graceful, intensely scented multiflora roses brought over by settlers for company, and which are now a terrible scourge as they out-compete and crowd out native New England vegetation. I swear at them elsewhere, but here they are perfect and lovely.
As I near a locust tree, two cardinals chatter loudly. Suspecting that I have intruded on their nesting territory, I retreat. Out in the open again, I spy the first dragonfly and butterfly of my season. Why, oh why, do they prefer this neglected spot to my lushly flowered garden, where I’ve labored so hard to create an inviting habitat for them?
Sitting on a broken concrete block in the late day sun, I am lost in this enchanted world, where musical crickets drown out the traffic raging thirty yards away. It is June, and a tender young mullein plant pushes its furry gray-green leaves toward the sky. Nearby stand the dead husks of its elders from last year. Next to them I spy several beings new to me: slender stalks carrying aloft tiny lavender blossoms with petal ears and noses, reminding me of Minnie Mouse.
Springing up from a bed of moss are a few butter-yellow cinquefoil flowers with their toothy five-finger leaves, the great-aunts of nursery-trade potentillas bred for dense foliage and flowers galore. Everywhere, backlit and glowing auburn, is a haze of red sorrel, my most hated and persistent garden weed. Now, seeing it happily ensconced in its place in nature, I am in love. Carefully, I select a six-inch-tall bunch of individuals from these new and old weedy friends, add an interesting corkscrew grass, and find my collection to be perfect and far more satisfying than any grand bouquet of florist flowers.
All at once I burst into tears, the first tears I have shed since my husband was diagnosed with cancer and since he had grueling surgery to remove three variously malfunctioning organs at once. He is a vital, courageous man yet, right now, as frail as this tiny clump of wildflowers. My secret garden has struck through to my protected heart by wielding its exquisite balance of the same two qualities: intense life force and total vulnerability. Nearby stands the old farmhouse, currently hosting several small businesses. It is for sale, and I smell Wal-Mart-ization in this oasis’ future. This spot is, if not bulldozed away, more interesting and certainly more varied than our barren golf-course-green-turfed and red-dye-bark-mulched suburban landscapes. I long to buy up this semi-wild spot, only to leave it alone for another thirty years and watch its character develop in its own unique way.
Right underneath this longing to preserve is my dread of loss. Suddenly I am face to face with my fear of losing my husband, of losing whole ecosystems, of unraveling the skeins of interdependence of all planet Earth’s life forms. I am learning with my husband’s health that every disruption of his bio-system renders him less able to withstand the next disturbance. So with our Earth’s bio-sphere.
This old homestead is called an “edge habitat” by the ecologists — an extremely productive zone where cleared meadow transitions to future forest. Edges in general are interesting places, and this is the place where the native northeastern forest habitat attempts to re-assert itself after having been completely demolished by the colonists for lumber, grazing land and farms. Hopefully some new, interesting symbiotic plant community will establish itself here, unless the invasive roses continue to drive out all diversity.
This edge particularly interests me for I am now, in my graying years, engaged as an ecological landscape designer, attempting to bring back some of the wild richness into our residential wastelands. My clients and I work together so that the circle of life — so dependent on incredible complexity and diversity — may have a prayer of re-establishing itself in the wake of ruinous real estate development. Ecological landscaping is a curious calling, dancing on the edge between “wild” and “civilized” landscapes. My clients pay me to ensure chemical-free lawns and restore bird and butterfly habitat to their yards, and they are eager to apply ecological sensitivity to their landscaping. But if I were to reproduce my enchanted weed lot in their back yards (which, believe me, no one could do), would they enjoy it as much as I do? I doubt it. They want serene structure, or brilliant color in all seasons, neither of which is easy to achieve with the native New England plant palette alone.
So, after locating as many natives as possible, I scour nursery catalogs for the least-hybridized ornamental versions of native flowering plants, hoping that the local bees and butterflies will still be interested. I gently discourage my clients from planting that weeping-tree-grafted-on-a-stump that has been selected for big fluffy flowers, therefore lacking the energy to produce bird fruit, and that will die of disease or neglect in fifteen years. I talk to them of restoring the forest layers by under-planting big trees with smaller fruiting trees, native berry shrubs, and beneficial ground covers. Can we please put in a small pond somewhere with one shallow muddy edge for the frogs, butterflies, and less-known and less-loved creatures? What about using the rainwater (now rolling down the lawn and driveway to the sewer system and the sea) to create a fecund rain garden brimming with nectar plants for the insects and hummingbirds?
My clients get it, but they — and I!! — are often seduced by that big-blossomed beauty from Asia (that ten years from now may be declared an invasive plant), or that drought-tolerant toughie from South Africa that may take little care but that looks so out of place in this verdant landscape. What is “native” anyway? The continents have collided, inoculating new territories with new species, then drifted apart again. Humans are traveling and mixing as never before, acting as hosts for all sorts of hitchhiking seeds and organisms. Change is beautiful, and awe-full and inevitable. There is no such thing as purely wild wilderness. Humans are a part of the morphing landscape; in so many ways, we have intelligently partnered with nature in creating bucolic vistas and beneficial plant varieties. We have bred plants and animals and altered terrains from the beginning, so why fight it?
We don’t, however, need to be indifferent, or cruel or stupid. We have far too much information available now about the impacts of greed and ignorance on our planet’s life support systems. We can do our part in our own backyards, literally, to stop the accelerating destruction of the web of life before it has time to reweave itself in a new and stronger way.
We can start by stopping. Stop and listen at dawn and dusk to our next-of-kin, the remaining birds and insects. Stop watering those greedy green lawns, so that our children may have water to drink. Stop mowing our lawns, and watch what an incredible diversity of plant and animal life emerges over the years. Stop tinkering with genetic material in ways which will have unforeseen consequences.
Stop, look, listen. That’s what I did today in this charming weedy landscape. I stopped and listened until my frozen heart came alive again with hope for my husband, hope for the planet. We can protect or create our own semi-wild “peace sanctuaries,” havens for honoring the needs of hummingbirds and salamanders and the myriad lifeforms they depend on. These are tranquil havens for ourselves, as well, where we can reflect on the value of life — our lives…all lives.
With all my love to Steven.
Postscript: One month later, Steven is no longer living on the edge. He is recovering well from his surgery, eagerly preparing to get on with the next chapters in his fruitful life. Dori Smith is the owner of Gardens for Life, a garden and landscape design business following ecological and organic land care principles. Dori lives with her husband in New View cohousing community in West Acton, MA. She can be reached at 978-835-5568 or at email@example.com.
Let the Waters Flow
Aug 20, 2003 — In 2003, the Bush administration, effectively stopped completion of a decade long project named Mni Wiconi. The ambitious project was designed to pipe treated water from the Missouri River to the arid Pine Ridge Reservation. Mni Wiconi, which means “water is life,” would have brought water to what has been historically America's most economically depressed county. Many of the 35,000 people on Pine Ridge do not have running water and many of the wells on the reservation are polluted by septic system percolation or contaminated by nitrates. It is not uncommon for many of the Lakota people on Pine Ridge to get their water delivered by truck or transported in jugs. As the pipeline was laid across the arid landscape of South Dakota, it brought water to Indian as well as non-Indian residents.
The project was nearing completion in 2002, an election year. George W. Bush hand-picked John Thune in 2002 to unseat incumbent Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD). Huge amounts of money were pumped into the race, the most expensive in South Dakota history. In an effort to fight the Republican money machine, a grassroots effort to register first-time voters was undertaken that yielded large numbers of new voters in the Indian communities of South Dakota. Pine Ridge voters voted in particularly high numbers and overwhelmingly in favor of Johnson over his Republican opponent. The "Indian vote" propelled Johnson to the slimmest of victories, 524 votes. Thune's loss did not go unnoticed by the Bush White House.
Within months, the Bush administration, breaking previous promises and commitments, cut funding to Mni Wiconi that stopped work on the project just as it was reaching the borders of Pine Ridge. Without access to a dependable supply of fresh water, Pine Ridge has little hope of economic development. Stopping the project just as it nears its destination is a cut of the cruelest sort, one that perpetuates conditions normally associated with third world nations and long suffered by the people of Pine Ridge. George W. Bush wears his Christian faith on his sleeve and proudly describes himself as a "compassionate conservative."
You are urged to call the White House and remind the President that exacting political revenge on America's most impoverished people is neither Christian nor compassionate. Tell the president to turn the water back on. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- National Public Radio 8/8/2003
Heart to Heart Resuscitation
By Ram Dass
It’s evident that we are living in interesting times, and I think we’re feeling that we understand better every day why that was considered a curse by the ancient Chinese. We’re getting hit from every direction. Everything is shaky: social structures, political structures, economic crises, ecological crises — all of it changing, all destabilizing at once. In the presence of human unconsciousness, what is generated by all that change and instability is fear. People get frightened, and when they get frightened, they use certain mechanisms for coping with it. They go into denial — “Global warming is not really happening.” They look for a talisman to ward off the evil, like holding up a cross against a vampire, so they become fundamentalists or they become ultra nationalists. There’s more ethnic prejudice, more racial prejudice.
It’s not just in the U.S. — it’s a worldwide thing. Everybody’s scared. The poor are scared of the rich, and the rich are scared of the poor. Let me share this little sequence of events with you: About 10 years ago, I spent some time in Guatemala doing work with the Seva Foundation. I was working with the Guatemalan women, women who had lost everything — their homes, their villages, their husbands, their sons — to the armies of the Guatemalan government (which was, incidentally, being kept in power by the U.S.). The women were living in constant fear that the armies would come back and kill more of them and drive them off their land; they lived with that fear all the time.
I left Guatemala and flew to Los Angeles. I had a gig in Hollywood, and I was staying in Brentwood, which is a very fancy suburb of Hollywood, where the rich live. I drove down this street in Brentwood, this quiet avenue. In fact, it was too quiet; I realized there were no human beings anywhere in sight. There were little plots of well-tended grass alongside the street, and next to that, big walls and electronic gates, so all you saw from the street was a row of high walls. And on each little plot of grass in front of the wall was a sign that the security company had installed — a very vivid sign, with big black letters on a red background, saying, “ARMED RESPONSE!” Just think about that; I mean, here you are, you’ve finally made it, you’ve got it all — and you have to hide behind a big gate.
It was a strange flip. I’d been in Guatemala, where the poor women were scared that the army, in the service of the rich was going to come and murder them; and I’d flown to a place where the rich were hiding behind their walls, afraid that the poor were going to come and murder them.
Gross economic disparity is a profoundly destabilizing force in the world. It’s been called the “North-South Issue,” because so many countries of the Northern Hemisphere are “haves,” and so many of those in the Southern Hemisphere are “have-nots.” And it’s only getting worse. The disparity between the rich and the poor is growing, and in the meantime we’re taunting people with all the things they see on TV, with all the things they’ve been carefully trained as consumers to want, while at the same time we’re giving them fewer and fewer opportunities to break out of their circumstances, to break out of racial or economic suppression. It’s a recipe for destabilizing things.
Now the interesting question is, “How could a society that is experiencing the pain we’re in not be looking for solutions? How could it not want to do that?” The problem is, when there is worldly power, then there is also a vested interest in preserving that power, in not upsetting the apple cart. So instead of a search for solutions, we see more massive levels of denial. Nobody’s willing to bite the bullet and propose real solutions, because it might mean we’d have to give up something we enjoy, and we don’t quite want to do that.
But try though we might to wish them away, we see the changes happening, we watch the fear being created, and we can’t hide from it all. In the face of all that, the question we need to ask ourselves is whether there is any place we can stand in ourselves where we can look at all that’s happening around us without freaking out, where we can be quiet enough to hear our predicament, and where we can begin to find ways of acting that are at least not contributing to further destabilization. I think that’s a fair request.
That place, that new perspective is what I call the “soul-view.” Let me share with you this little model I’ve worked out about who we are as human beings. I call it the “Three-Plane Consciousness Model.” If I were to take a picture of who I see you to be, the picture would show three “I’s” — three different levels of who you are, planes on which you have an identity.
Number One is what I call ego. That’s the “I” we all know very well, the plane of the body, mind and personality, of all those things we think we are. Number Two I call the soul. The soul measures time not in days and years but in incarnations, and it’s the “I” that was around before we as egos were born and that will be around after we as egos die. And Number Three is…just Number Three. We all have different names for it, and wars are fought over what to call it, so I avoid all that by just calling it Number Three.
I see our task as learning to live on more than one of those planes simultaneously, experiencing ourselves as egos and souls at the same time. And since “you gotta be one to see one,” once we are resting in our souls, then we will see others as souls as well. Then when we look into another person’s we’ll say, “Are you in there? I’m in here. Far out!”
When we are able to look behind even that identity as soul, we’ll see that we have still another identity because we are also Number Three. That’s the mystic “I,” because in Number Three there’s actually only one of us. Your Number Three isn’t merely like my Number Three; they’re the same thing. My guru used to say: “It’s all one.”
When we are creating social action out of that kind of consciousness, it’s coming from a totally different space, a different motivation, than when it’s coming out of our egos with all their conflicting wants and needs.
Now it’s no longer, “I will relieve your suffering,” because it’s all just our suffering. If my right hand is in the fire, my left hand just naturally pulls it out. It goes beyond empathy — it’s the experience of oneness. It’s a different consciousness.
That change in consciousness is what the world needs now. I believe that the basic institution for social change is the individual human heart and that we change hearts one by one through a process I call “heart-to-heart resuscitation.” My guru, Neem Karoli Baba, gave me heart-to-heart resuscitation. He awakened my heart; he kindled that love in me. Larry Brilliant, a guru-brother of mine said, “What astounded me when I was around Maharajji wasn’t that he loved everybody. After all, he was a saint, and saints are supposed to love everybody. What astounded me was that when I was around Maharajji, I loved everybody.” It’s the kind of love that’s contagious; it’s passed from heart to heart to heart, from soul to soul to soul.
And it encompasses everybody. I know — there are certain people around whom it’s very hard to keep your heart open. You probably have your own list; I know I have mine. Nowadays one of the names on my list is Dubya. I find it very hard to keep my heart open to him, to remember that he’s a soul, too. So here’s what I do: I have a Puja table, a little altar, in my home. I take a picture of somebody like Dubya, and I put it on my Puja table. So I have a picture of Christ, and a picture of Buddha, and a picture of my guru — and a picture of Dubya. In the morning I light my candle, and I light my incense, and I greet everybody: “Good morning Christ,” and “Good morning Buddha,” and “Good morning Maharajji” — all so sweet and loving — and then, “Hello, Dubya.” I see how far I have to go in keeping my heart open.
If our actions are to be truly compassionate, that’s the kind of change in consciousness that’s required. If our actions are truly to lessen suffering in the world, and not just shift it around a little, they have to come from the deepest quietest spaces of our hearts. Acting from that deep consciousness is the most profound social change possible, and it’s a change that each one of us, individually, can make. Peace isn’t something “out there.” Peace comes from within and then spreads out into the world. The greatest social action we can accomplish is to dig deep into our hearts until we find that new consciousness, that place of peace. That’s the antidote to terrorism, because as Christ said, “Perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Ram Dass has led the life of seeker and traveler, teacher and social activist for 45 years. He is well known for his experimentation with LSD and his anthem book of the late ‘60s Be Here Now. Early on he created the Prison Ashram Project, introducing deep spiritual work in prison. To the taboo surrounding death & dying in this culture, he responded with the Dying Project, introducing dying people to other planes of consciousness. Noticing the need to combine social action with spiritual motive, Ram Dass co-created the Seva Foundation, working with doctors and activists in India, Nepal, Guatemala and here in the US. He has worked with business people in the Social Venture Network, and with Creating Our Future, a spiritually questing organization for teenagers, among many other causes. The common theme in all of these projects has been the application of spiritual principles to social realities. For more information about Ram Dass’s projects and appearances, please visithttp://www.ramdasstapes.org.