We're New Here

Reading the news this morning gives a perspective that we humans still have a lot to learn about our behaviour. Whether it is government officials who have elements in their past that have come to light or whether the world’s richest man can be blackmailed, human stories are gripping the morning in print and online. News about the state of climate change takes a back seat.

For all that, we are rather recent arrivals as this graphic shows. Individual stories pale beside the changes that we are making to the planet.

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A New Story

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On a November morning, the sunrise can be spectacular, arousing a sense of awe.  It’s rare to take in the beauty of the natural world and the environment designed and built by humans from the same vantage point.  City dwellers may still enjoy seeing natural beauty during the day, but the bright lights have masked the visible stars of the night sky.  Those living in less populated areas may still have that advantage.

A recent exhibit, Anthropocene, on display at both the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, highlights what we humans have done to plunder and devastate our natural environment. This show is not the first to focus on this tragedy. More than thirty years ago, a Roman Catholic priest and cultural historian, Thomas Berry, expressed a need for a new story expanding on the one we find in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  He reminds us that earlier theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas placed equal importance on learning from the Book of Nature.  What scientists now know about cosmology – the origin and nature of the universe - is astounding.

 Berry inspired colleagues to present this story in an award-winning film called Journey of the Universe. Since its release in 2014, the film and accompanying book have caused responses from a variety of Christian communities supporting Berry’s argument of the need for reassessment. This challenge is both complicated and contentious.  When Copernicus discovered that we were not the centre of the universe, his news was not well received. Nor were Darwin’s findings. Science has discovered that our milky way is only one among billions of galaxies.  The writers of the early books of the Bible had a lesser sense of history and it was limited to a very small part of planet earth.

 Journey and the first Genesis story share common elements.  Both start in darkness.  Light emerges, then water, then earth, then plants, then birds and animals and finally human beings.  In the Genesis story, creation is complete and humans become the focus of history.   In Journey, creation evolves in stages through billions of years and continues to do so.

 At the recent consecration of our new bishop in the Diocese of Toronto, we acknowledged that we are settlers.  What we celebrate less is indigenous peoples’ reverence for the earth - they see themselves as subjects alongside animals, vegetation and stars.  In contrast, we live in a world where anything other than ourselves is viewed as an object for our use and exploitation. The last 65 billion years of the Cenozoic geological period were the earth’s most creative and flourishing.  But in the last four hundred years we’ve managed to reverse the process of creative evolution - eliminating forests and species, polluting rivers and oceans, and robbing the earth of its resources.  And even as we put humans at the centre, we are selective about which humans, preferring those nearest and dearest and most like ourselves.

 Putting humans at the centre has a history and takes us back through 19th and 20th century industrialism and the earlier writings of Newton and Descartes, who proclaimed that everything that was not human was merely matter.  But we can also go further back to the two biblical creation stories, noting that the redemption story, where the world is dangerous and tempting, has prevailed over the creation account.  Within this context, we have taken the directive to have dominion over the earth and turned it into domination.

 People of faith now have an opportunity to learn.  Thomas Berry proposed more than 15 years ago that Christian and other religious communities can join with modern science communities to become part of a new Ecozoic era, where we return to intimacy with the earth and our place in the universe. When the earth itself becomes sacred to us, we recover both a sense of our miniscule presence as individuals – and at the same time, our sacred responsibility for it, owing to our gift of human consciousness.  It means rethinking the frameworks of theology and its implications - for liturgies, formation, stewardship, laws, governance, and for the challenges of our time – climate change, technology and the threat of annihilation by nuclear war. Meanwhile we have obsessed about gender and sexuality – not expressing with gratitude the wonder of the cosmos and our proper place in it.

 The first step is awareness.  Go to see Anthropocene.  Watch Journey of the Universe on YouTube.  Visit the associated websites: www.journeyoftheuniverse.org and

  www.theanthropocene.org. .  You will experience the universe and our small planet in new ways. These are first steps that may lead to increased understanding and commitment.

 

 

Continuous Learning

The 2018 Parliament of World Religions was a life changing experience - even for someone who was simply serving as a volunteer on the extensive exhibit floor. This presentation was one of them:

I have been exploring people and organizations within my own community. My own parish encouraged our children to help raise funds for clean water in first nations communities. While the difficulties in providing good systems for small and remote communities are substantial, the reality is still shameful.

In the process of exploration, I have asked for help and received good advice and contacts. One resulted in an invitation to a recent book launch. Now I have another one and at the bottom of it is a notice about a WaterDocs Festival. Its founder was someone I knew well 30 years ago when I was an arts administrator - but I never knew her with this connection.

There are so many awful uses of technology - but the good ones redeem them.

Roots and Wings

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I’ve come upon Margaret Silf’s book, Roots and Wings, a series of short meditations which explores life from the Big Bang to the present. She sees the possibilities of an evolution from a world of fear and survival to one where love and discerning choice is our guide. No pie in-the-sky idealist, she is not convinced that a better would will automatically evolve unless we individually play our part in making it happen.

She notes some positives that we should be grateful for:

  • There is more awareness that we are a global family, and that decisions we make here and now have an impact on everyone else on the planet

  • More people are protesting that military force is not the answer

  • More people are seeking a spiritual dimension to their lives, including many who would not describe themselves as religious

  • More people care about the environment

  • More people seek balance in their lives

  • More people are seeking peace and justice in specific contexts

But lest we be euphoric, she also reminds us:

  • There is a breakdown in trust – in companies, in institutions, in professions that leaves people isolated, fearful and defensive

  • Our lives are shaped by the consumer markets of multinational corporations who think they control what is good for us – and that often merely means profitable for them

  • Despair drives too many to addictive behaviour and compulsions

  • Fear makes us very willing to sacrifice our personal freedom and restrict that of others

  • There are dark forces of anger and frustration that are unleashed in destructive and negative ways

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I read this book long before I developed my current interest in writer Thomas Berry and they are unlikely to have ever met. But her Jesuit roots intersect well with his Passionist ones in love of and concern for the environment.

Orientation - for Better or Worse

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(I’ve been moving articles from a previous site - interesting to see how dated many are and they are being trashed. But a few still seem to have legs. Here is another published originally in 2016)

You may hope I didn’t really mean Bored Orientation. For better or worse many of us who sit on volunteer boards have experienced an orientation session recently. There are some things I really like about the process — and some that I would prefer were handled differently.

A changeover in volunteer personnel can be exciting and there are many ways to accomplish integrating new and continuing members of boards. One way that happened last year was to be taken to a posh club’s private dining room for breakfast and to get the lowdown on how everything works. The more recent session was more conventional. It went somewhat better than I anticipated. At least this actual one was not as bizarre as the one depicted in BBC’s wonderful spoof, W1A.

The first plus on entering the room was the setup. The meetings regularly take place in a large room to accommodate the more than forty participants. Usually the room configuration looks something like this:

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People can neither see each other nor much on the screen above the heads of the chairman. So perhaps a good start for any orientation meeting would respond to this preference:

Does the room setup work relate to the meeting’s purpose? Can the participants all see and hear one another?

But instead, this time the room looked something like this:

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There were actually two large tables to seat four people on both sides of the room with a large aisle in the middle. Welcome back to high school. We were in a classroom with the teacher up front — to be instructed as newcomers — even though some of us had been actively involved in the organization for two to four years; fewer than a third were coming for the first time. But there was little likelihood that there would be an attempt to find out what anyone already knew. My preference :

Does this meeting require my presence and what is my role? Am I a new learner or a mentor? What do people know already?

The introductions at least rated an A. The facilitator asked us to rise from our chairs. We then learned about the geographic areas we represented by walking along a continuum or treating the room’s four corners like a map — moving around based on the color of our socks, or where we lived, or where we were born, or where we lived the longest, and what we saw as our highest priority for the organization. This gave us a quick orientation to the diversity. It met my preference:

For introductions, do something to see the range and diversity of participants that makes a visual impression. Just saying names won’t work for most of us.

Another introduction trick I like for a smaller group is to ask people to state two lies and one truth about themselves and let others guess which is correct.

My own would be:

a) I jumped out of an airplane.

b) A Zulu chief spilled coffee on my living room carpet.

c) I sang a solo on the stage of a national arts centre.

(if you read to the end you can find out the real answers!).

The next time you meet the person introduced in this way, it will be easier to remember their true fact than their first and last names.Therefore my preference:

Whether you have a large or small group, make introductions entertaining and fun.

But then things went downhill as we started what is known in a orientation as a “read-along” — rather like a sing-along but without the noise. There was text on the screen with a heading like “Significant Decisions”. Knowing the history of any organization is vital. But we don’t agree to serve on volunteer boards just to make significant decisions. We serve to change the world for the better. My preference:

In an orientation session a passionate story of changed lives encourages us to dream of a better future. Text headings or summaries combined with reading aloud assumes participants are illiterate. If the text is too dense or too small, perhaps we are.

There was a good exception to this format when a lawyer introduced us to the organization’s statutes. The wording was on the screen in a typeface actually large enough to read. She commented on the content very briefly and told us where to look for it later if we needed to: My preference:

Keep the focus on the big picture that you want people to take away and provide the detailed references in a handout. And don’t let the handout compete for attention in the session iteself.

Then we received a diagram explaining the organizational structure. Here is its shape with the titles slightly amended.

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I found this very puzzling. The organization’s members seem to have some ability to push up — or back. Top down is probably accurate. It’s the slanted line that I don’t understand. But no one questioned what the diagram meant — including me. The next slide contained a suggestion that both the two should work collaboratively. But this diagram has a line that divides the two and it looks as though we are on a teeter-totter. My preference:

Test a diagram in advance to see if it conveys the meaning you intend.

Next came the expected org charts. The images on one of them didn’t match the handout and it must have been a last minute inspiration to do something graphic — it was the only thing vaguely ressembling a picture all day. Parts of the chart were colored and they flew in on the screen but the words were too small to read. So was the text on the handout without a high powered magnifying glass. My preference.

Check anything mounted on a big screen or handout for readability. And forget special effects, which distract from your message.

Next — Departmental presentations. What we saw on the big screen were personnel names — and telephone extensions. I didn’t need to phone anyone right then and I was not likely to use the handout in the future as a telephone book. My preference:

Avoid cutting and pasting something from a staff directory and calling it a presentation.

Here was another opportunity missed for the directors to speak passionately about the importance of the work they do — and to tell their stories. It’s the classic case of sharing features when what we need to hear about is benefits.And how about a quick online visit to Facebook and Twitter rather than being told that the organization has these sites ? My preference:

Show — instead of tell — whenever possible.

The last section before lunch dealt with our role as members of the board. That seemed promising. Were we going to hear from a continuing member about the satisfaction and opportunities in this kind of volunteer work? But no. Instead we had another read-along about current organizational mission, vision and values.

The topic might have been the most important reason for the day — so its agenda placement was puzzling. The graphics assigned roles of leadership, implementation and governance — in that order — to leader, staff and board members respectively.

While a leader has a role to play — presumably leading those who are already keen to follow because they have a stake in the outome — it raises the question of what governance really is. Are board members simply keepers of the flame or do they have a larger role to play in determining the organization’s future? My preference:

Explore what organizational leadership really involves. It’s something for a leaders, board members and staff to determine collaborativelyThe orientation meeting could begin that conversation. Every meeting that follows needs to have it on the agenda.

I have served on volunteer boards of various sizes for more than twenty years. Sorting out these three issues is the most important thing we do — working on the business as opposed to working in the business. But we were moved onward to more mundane suggestions about how we were to behave — “show up, read the background materials, vote”. We then saw the meeting schedule for the year. My preference:

If the right people get elected or appointed — and that does mean “if “— these expectations are so basic to the process that we should assume they are there already. We need to leave commited and inspired!

Time for lunch. . . .

(a) FALSE I didn’t jump out of an airplane — but one of my sons did. b) TRUE. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a Zulu Chief, visited Canada in 1963 for an international conference and was also photographed by the famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh; the coffee spill was totally accidental. b) FALSE. I sang in a massed choir.)

Death By PowerPoint

This was originally published on a previous website in 2006

I was reminded of my dislike of standard PowerPoint presentations while reading a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal by Jared Sandberg. I have always wanted to participate in the question periods at the end of presentations by asking “How many of you actually could read what was on the screen and did you even bother?

Years ago when I was a teacher, PowerPoint was not an option. Not a single university professor would have dreamed of using it. The best teachers never even distributed course outlines. They actually expected us to take notes. Most of us did – albeit putting too much down in linear fashion rather than trying to distill the essence of what was said.

If you are speaking and your whole text is on the PowerPoint screen, your audience members may rightly assume that you think they are illiterate. The dual presentation has well earned the phrase, “Death By PowerPoint”. Jared Sandberg estimates there are 30 million such presentations a day.

At the beginning of an introduction to visual mapping and before I get to the maps themselves, I limit myself to the equivalent of one bullet point and make sure that there is also a graphic – and if it makes the point in a funny way, so much the better. The danger in teaching and learning is to assume that our essence is mind. We are also people with feelings and passions. Both have to be engaged before real learning takes place.

Edward Tufte, arguably one of the most important thinkers on visual presentation, is also against PowerPoint. He notes that the tendency to reduce everything to convenience trivializes the meaning. The speaker has lost content with the audience and is usually peering into the laptop instead of making eye contact with those who have come to hear and learn.

I have to admit that I have enjoyed making slides and transparencies in PowerPoint – always from a blank screen. But when I traveled to speak in South Africa I didn’t want to carry a computer so I simply used transparencies and a projector. The presentation were on the site of the International Hotel and Restaurant Association.. The first conference speaker’s computer failed in the middle of his opening PowerPoint presentation on the benefits of technology – not an ideal situation.

The best example of how not to use PowerPoint is this presentation of the Gettysburg Address. So if you use it, do so with great care. There are some healthier ways to use it – and to study – referred to in my ebook, See What You Think!

Practise, Practise Practise

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(This article previously appeared on Medium and a previous website in 2016)

I’m sitting in the Boyd Neel Room of University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music along with 25 other people waiting for an open rehearsal to begin. Five young men enter the room — two violinists, a violist, a cellist and a pianist — three Americans from Evanston, Chicago, and Seattle, a Canadian from British Columbia and a Russian. They are about to start their second rehearsal of a work new to all but one. Until a week ago, the five had probably never met let alone played together. They are participants in the Academy ReGeneration program, part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. The program matches emerging professionals aged 18 to 34 with more experienced mentors for coaching, rehearsals and performance of a high order.

Why am I here? A little more than a week ago I read a book review of Peak,How to Master Almost Anything— and ordered it. The book arrived a few days later and it was a quick and easy read. It describes and illustrates how deliberate practice actually works for a variety of professionals: memory competitors, chess players, athletes and musicians. So attending an open rehearsal was a way to understand and explore how deliberate practice works.

The ensemble, oblivious of the audience, sat down and got to work. They played a bit and then stopped when something fell apart. The first violin. Joel Link of the Dover String Quartet, was the professional mentor; he knew the work and led the rehearsing sensitively, frequently phrasing his remarks as questions starting with “I wonder if”. The others responded comfortably and presented various musical ideas. Joel demonstrated possible bowings to produce finely differentiated options. The musicians tried out some of them out and then stopped to evaluate. The played more. When things fell apart again, they smiled and went back. The second violinist helpfully jumped up now and then to turn the page of the pianist when his score had a break of a few bars, and the pianist had a demanding passage.

They spent time on fine points — repeating the same passage, correcting, trying options and mastering their intention. The audience started to share the ability to listen. The pianist, who had waited a while to join the conversation, though his smile and attentiveness revealed his continuing involvement, now made comments about the quality of the string sound. The mentor noted that the tempo was slowing and a phone app metronome checked that out — they played absolutely on the beat with little loss of expressiveness. They then moved on. The ensemble sound started to take shape. They continued until they hit another problematic passage. Again all the players suggested how to interpret and play and there was absolutely no tension or disagreement about the options. Time went quickly. The second movement of the work had a different mood and the early effort brought them together in a more playful and unified way.

The rehearsal lasted an hour and a half. After such intense focus, the players they knew it was time to take a break. At that moment, it was almost as though they woke up to see us as an audience, when we spontaneously applauded. They thanked us for coming but it was our privilege to be there and experience the creation of a performance in the making.

Brits and Canadians, unlike Americans, use two spellings of the same sounding word — practice when we are use a noun — practise when we use a verb. We say that a person becomes a partner in a law practice where the practitioners practise law. It’s a good distinction. In professions like law or medicine, you join a practice when you have reached a certain level of proficiency. But there is also the implication that you are going to do something with your expertise. It’s not just the knowledge that we ask for when we hire a surgeon or a specialist in family law — it’s the ability to use skills to deliver results. In our age where knowledge has grown exponentially, how will we use what we know to full advantage?

There is the old adage about how to get to Carnegie Hall — practise, practise, practise. The idea of the 10,000 hours formula has been around and popularized even more in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers. Some propose that creative genius just combines practice and the right genes. When you read the bios of the young musicians of the Academy you might think that time and talent do it all — and for good or ill, the rest of us are on the outside looking in. It’s true that these musicians have put in more than 10,000 hours already and they continue to do so right before our eyes. So have the young athletes heading off to the Rio Olympics. We can see their competence, talent and skill. So should we just settle in just as music listeners, knowing that we will never match their performance no matter how many hours we put in?

The authors of Peak spend time de-mythologizing the assumptions about great performance. Yes, time and practice are necessary. Artists and athletes practise for years before reaching high levels and they continue to do so. Yes there is evidence it is good to start as early as possible for competence is grow. Yes, some have the right body structure or perfect musical pitch, qualities making it easier to succeed from the beginning. But all three explanations have shortcomings in explaining great performance.

It’s not just the quantity of practice that matters, they say. The differentiation relates to quality. Much of success depends on the right teacher. A beginner in music can work with just about anybody — some figure out how to play a melody on a piano with one finger or accompany with three main chords on a ukulele — but real progress depends on what teacher knows — how to impart strategies for the right kind of practising. Playing the same piece over and over for an hour won’t cut it. Neither will swimming endless strokes in the same way.

Can we incorporate deliberate practice in our own work or life? Both words matter. We have to put in the time. We have to focus on incremental steps intentionally — and then receive feedback from others or ourselves. The right teacher may be an acknowledged expert available to most of us only through a book or a video. But it’s not about reading or watching, it’s about doing. Then we have to stop and ask, How am I doing? How could I do it better? What should I leave out? What is habitual that is neither needed nor wanted? What’s the right way to do it?

It’s not that practice makes perfect — it’s the right practice that counts. And for those who mentor and help others, it’s not “Practise what you preach”. It’s preach what you practise”. How can we share snippets of what we know in ways that help others incorporate and embody them?

Will it be fun? It’s tempting in watching the open rehearsal and the later performance to see the pure joy of the musicians as they bring demanding musical works to life. It looks so effortless. As for fun in solo practising — probably not. It will more likely be sometimes painful, discouraging, tiring and even boring. But like these talented musicians, when the rest of us push beyond our usual level of comfort we build capability we never knew we had. Maybe we won’t end up on the podium or stage. What matters is to explore our own potential and dwell in that possibility. The right kind of deliberate practice has a hand in that.

Whither spirituality?

A friend recently passed on an article from the Toronto Star published on December 26, 2018 entitled “A New Type of Church for the Community”.  This kind of article turns up infrequently – usually in a slow news period – in which the reporter presumably tries to find a new thread of hope in what is generally seen as a declining religious presence.  In this case, it’s a storefront church, with white plastic chairs, a row of computers against a wall lined with Bible verses – an example of a concept called a church plant.  Interestingly the concept is supported and funded by existing denominations as the answer to their failing numbers and impact.

 The writer goes on predictably to report the decline in numbers in religious affiliation and the storefront pastor’s seeing this as an opportunity to meet local needs for faith in a neighborhood setting.  Like more conventional denominations, the storefront already has programs, services at times other than Sunday, and responses to other immediate social needs. We also learn that this plant is supported by an organization called Church Planting Canada which is using modern marketing methodology with Facebook video ads and expensively designed websites free from denominational affiliation.  All this is totally predicable based on what the late writer Phyllis Tickle told the book publishing industry and the traditional denominations twenty years ago.  Her book, The Great Emergence outlined the cultural changes affecting religious life in Europe and the United States that were happening decades earlier.

 Among these changes is the reality that science and technology are the primary cultural forces - but there are others.  The doubts of Albert Schweitzer that the Jesus of Nazareth was the the Christ of history led to new scholarship.  Pentecostalism is a new and growing religion – and incidentally forms the base of Church Planting Canada. Alcoholics Anonymous is a strong healing ministry that calls on a nameless higher power and anticipated the rebirth of the small group movement – and more often than not meets in Church basements. Self-help dominates as a literary form.  While immigration is front-and-centre of the news today – with the misguided narrative that immigrants are all terrorists - except that we ourselves are mostly descendants of  immigrants who destroyed the habitats and spirituality of our native people. We now live in multicultural environments where the teachings of other religions have seeped into our consciousness.  And I find it fascinating that most of these profound changes have occurred in my own lifetime since the end of the second world war.

 While the planters are hopeful, it is instructive that their projects cost $50, 000 to $100,000 in grants in their initial year and considerable additional ones in the years following – ending up with exactly the same challenges that conventional churches face. Leaders often burn out quickly like those of any start-up in the arts or technology and the next set of leaders institutionalize the project.

Tickle in her essay also talks about the three strands of any religion – the approach to spirituality and recognition of the divine - the institutional framework and how it deals with leadership, formation, property, statutes, governance - and the approach to morality. In a recent article in the New York Times, the writer Donna Freitas notes an interesting feature of formation that I should pay more attention to – the fact that writers are discouraged by their editors for writing on the subject of religion for their young adult readers.  Sex is fine – and so are LGBTQ topics - but faith is off limits unless you lampoon it.  And I find in my own experience of working with young people from toddlers to teens - from learning to be nice, to learning the intricacies of liturgy, denominational history and pretty literal reading of scripture - that the one thing we hardly ever talk about is spirituality.

 Donna Frietas talks about her own reading as a young Catholic and my own mirrors it to some extent.  God talk at this stage and later in the early years of University were informed by books we read – more often metaphorical readings of authors like Lewis and Tolkien which also helped us deal with the stories of religion and how to ground their truth.  I have to wonder whether Bible verses on a wall above computers is going to do the job.  But what Ms Frietas does point out is that spirituality is immensely important to young people.  How many meaningful articles about religious traditions of spirituality do we see in the press about that?  Understanding that, of course takes much more preparatory work and research than interviewing a storefront pastor.

 Someone I met at the 2018 Parliament of World Religions does get it.  In response to the young people interested in spirituality and wanting to know more, he has created a very impressive website,   What he said when we met was, “I’m not an expert on spirituality, but I know who some of the experts are – and I am trying to direct young people to them – and I try to help them avoid the too many quick fix answers that are out there.”

 If mainstream denominations took this quest for spirituality more seriously, they might focus on their spiritual traditions rather than their historic denominational ones. That culture leaves them fighting old battles wearing new clothes.  The old stories have frequently lost their context, leaving the young adrift on a planet with its own cosmology that is not being addressed for them.  The young know that and they want better answers than the ones we are giving them.

Resolutions for the Planet

I’m often concerned about how little I am doing to combat the climate crisis and I’m reminded by a column today in Fast Company of a few practicail things. One that it doesn’t mention but one that should always be central is that we are not the only species on the planet . As writer and theologian Sally McFague observes, animals and plants were here long before us - and would survive much better without us.

But here are a few I can try.

  1. Watch the number of bottles containing cleaning fluids - keep the sizes that fit on the counter and buy future ones in bulk sizes to refill them. I’ve already been using a concentrated detergent and one large bottle from Method will last a year. It doesn’t hurt that the laundry machines specify using less.

  2. Washable bags for storage - I haven’t found any yet, but I do reuse the ones I have.

  3. Recycled paper in every room in the house - I could do batter on that one.

  4. More meatless meals - because of the crops that are needed to produce meat. It probably means looking at the vegetarian cookbook or the sections of the cookbook that I tend to avoid.

  5. Buy things locally that don’t require more shipping whenever possible.

  6. Never leave the house without a reusable bag to carry stuff home in - I’ve also stopped driving to the grocery store and buying more food than I need. The walking is doing me good and I’ve buying less and saving - since carrying it becomes an issue.

  7. Wear the clothes I already have - fortunately most of them are from materials that have lasted well

    These are easy and doable. Now to get on thinking about how to be an advocate.

What if . . . ?

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What if we just stopped tweeting - all of us.? What if it became as unfashionable as smoking? What if we found it rather pathetic and childlike and turned the other way when someone does it in the early morning, as we do when a child has a tantrum in the supermarket and we smile sympathetically at the mother, knowing we were once in the same position with our own kid?

We cringe at the image of a president demeaning other people. But aren’t we totally complicit in the game and actually reinforcing it when we strike back? Why do the newspapers and the media present the information more than once - telling us what someone said - then quoting it verbatim and then complaining about it? We are amplifying every word several times over. We are retweeting, sharing and adding our own fuel to the fire. In a “Lord of the Flies” mode we are falling into the very trap that we deplore.

What if we just went silent - and reflected a bit rather than reacting? It might not help - but it might hurt less.

A New Sense of Place

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How do we situate ourselves?  Where are you from, we ask?  Where are we going? Where is our world going, we ask even more in the midst of political turmoil, war and environmental destruction? How do traditional powers and patterns of continuity collide with cultural changes of all kinds?

Thomas Berry (1914-2009) Photo by Lou Niznik 10–6–1999

Thomas Berry (1914-2009)
Photo by Lou Niznik 10–6–1999

Academic institutions used to provide forums for such questions and some still do. It’s interesting to review the life of religious and cultural historian Thomas Berry, who taught at Fordham University and later founded the Riverdale Centre which used to present lecture series twice in the academic year and workshops in the summer. Now his ideas and practice is now conveyed several years after his death though film, books websites with rich resources well as online courses and social media.  The ideas haven’t lost the relevance that first came to light in the seventies of the previous century.

 Starting from his own religion and culture, Berry studied others searched to find their wisdom and points of comparison.  This big picture thinking inevitably led him to focus on the earth itself as our common home and develop new questions with a new framing based on all the disciplines that were involved. These were not just religion also but geology anthropology, archaeology, biology, paleontology, and astronomy,   We live in the world where all these play a role. Their combined role in industrial development and technology became a subject of concern for Berry as well as the lack of response to them of religion.  Two world wars and subsequent ones were part of his life experience too. Most of us, in contrast, have specialized knowledge and lack a broader understanding of these multiple fields. One place to start to remedy our shortcoming is this resource for kids to learn some basics of “ologies”

Did the teachings of the world’s religions have anything to say to these scientific fields of knowledge?  Did religions themselves need to get to know one another better as well as well as examining new developments and discoveries from their own perspectives? 

The environment I where grew up in the thirties and forties was a comforting but basically limited world of a street, a neighborhood, a city, a province and a country. It reminds me of a scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town a play where the dramatist ponders life and mortality in a scene where a young girl meditates on this fact even more widely.

REBECCA: 
I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America. 

GEORGE: 
What's funny about that? 

REBECCA: 
But listen, it's not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God--that's what it said on the envelope. 

GEORGE: 
What do you know! 
REBECCA: 
And the postman brought it just the same. 
GEORGE: 
What do you know!

Now my family and I travel and communicate in a world more like the second part of the letter whether we go the entire distance or not. But I still start from the ideas of my original spiritual background, cosmology, music, literature, painting, sculpture and dance. I now encounter those of others - including my own family’s digital natives’ world on an equally superficial and introductory level at the start. How am I going to go beyond that? More on that soon.