Keeping The Smoke Hole Open

June 12, 2021


We may have to seek some solitude,
but let’s not isolate from the marvelous.
Martin Shaw


I first saw Martin a couple of years ago when he spoke at Tor Ballylee, the ancient stone tower where WB Yeats wrote much of his work, which is just down the road from the cottage in Ireland. I was enchanted. An artist, writer, and mythologists he is an amazing storyteller. Yesterday I was on a zoom cast offered by Emergence Magazine and listened to Martin share the story of his pandemic time journey and his new book. The resonance with what I’ve been writing and thinking was profound and inspiring.

The writing below is an op-ed he wrote last March when the world went into lockdown. It was the seed of the book, Smokehole, he would write for his teenage daughter – and clearly the rest of us. Yet he didn’t write the book until it was right time. The book landed last fall and Martin wrote it in five days. Profound insights on these times we are still navigating because now, as it was in the beginning of the lockdown, it’s still important to keep the smoke hole open. 

In Siberian myth, when you want to hurt someone, you crawl into their tent
     and close the smoke hole.
That way God can’t see them.
Close the smoke hole and you break connection to the divine world.
Mountains, rivers, trees.
Close the smoke hole and we become mad.
Close the smoke hole and we are possessed by ourselves and only ourselves.
Close the smoke hole and you have only your neurosis for company.
Well, enough of that. Really, c’mon. We’re grown-ups. Let’s take a breath.
We may have to seek some solitude, but let’s not isolate from the marvelous.
High alert is the nature of the moment, and rightly so, but I do not intend to lose
     the reality that as a culture we are entering deeply mythic ground.
I am forgetting business as usual. No great story begins like that.
What needs to change? Deepen? What kindness in me have I so abandoned
     that I could seek relationship with again?
It is useful to inspect my ruin.
Could I strike up an old relationship with my soul again?
You don’t need me to tell you how to keep the smoke hole open.
You have a myriad of ways.
We are awash with the power of words—virus, isolate, pandemic—and they point
     toward very real things. To some degree we need the organizational harassment
     of them.
But do they grow corn on your tongue when you speak them?
Where is the beauty-making in all of this?
That is part—part—of the correct response. The absolute heft of grief may well be
     the weave to such a prayer mat.
Before we burn the whole world down in the wider rage of Climate Emergency, of
     which this current moment is just a hint, could we collectively seek vigil in this moment?
Cry for a vision?
It’s what we’ve always done.
We need to do it now.
Martin Shaw

So many of us are crying for a vision. So many of us are aware that we are indeed entering deeply mythic ground. And we know instinctively that we must keep the smoke holes open and make beauty in all of this. Let’s continue to embrace the marvelous!

Judith –

Artwork by Martin Shaw

Natural Allies

June 11, 2021


Filmed through a complete cycle of the Earth’s seasons, the Bakhta documentary painted a vivid image of the villagers’ profound and intimate relationship with the rhythms of the natural world. For them it’s an alliance and in that subarctic landscape it is literally a matter of life and death. I would argue the same is true for all of us. We just don’t choose to acknowledge it and we look away at our peril.

The natural world has thrived and flourished through all time without creating a toxic wasteland. Of course humans are part of the natural world but when we evolved to see ourselves separate from and superior to the natural world everything changed and now the natural world is struggling to flourish. Landscapes are devastated. Species are decimated. Toxic wastelands are becoming ubiquitous.

There is something to learn here. And for those of us who are horrified by the current trajectory of human impact, the Earth is a source of wisdom, resilience, and power. She is, as she has always been, our teacher if we are willing to attend the lessons. And if we continue to embrace our willful and arrogant ignorance she will restore the balance even if it means humans are expelled from the natural world.

Is covid19 part of this balancing and purging? I don’t know. It’s plausible. It is certainly a wake up call and it is time to wake up. Long past time.

When I feel powerless in the face of this trajectory of devastation, I turn to the Earth. I turn to the power and harmony of the natural world for there is tremendous power to inform and inspire. I choose to step into alliance with Earth energies and live in resonance with the Earth song, the music of all life in harmony. I am just beginning to experience the possibilities and they are both amazing and mystical. 

Our natural allies are all around us if we are willing to see them. If we are willing to embrace the beauty and power and mystery of them. It begins with seeing, truly seeing, the natural world and knowing that we are not separate from it but one thread in it.

Judith –

Note: I understand that since the 2010 documentary the village of Bakhta has become a tourist destination. I can only hope that the very short summer tourist season will minimize the impact on village life and culture.

A Cold Reality

June 10, 2021


He lost me at 30 degrees below zero. There was no consolation in learning this was a warming trend. However I imagine others would have been equally horrified not by the temperatures but by the fact that this subarctic village has no electricity, running water, or cell phone and internet service. How on earth do they cope?

Watching this documentary I remembered taking photos at the Boulder graduation celebration when one of my sister’s friends leaned over and told me, “Ah, I miss my small phone”, adding that she was forced to get a newer and bigger iPhone. My small phone is one I finally purchased years ago for Ireland. Folks who know I have one are often frustrated that I hardly ever use it here in the States, frustrated because having and using the latest technology is embedded in our cultural narrative and implicit in our story of entitlement. I want it. I need it. I have to have it. I can’t live or function without it. Even though it’s become a shared reality, it’s an illusion.  

The Werner Herzog documentary is titled Happy People for a reason. Those who live in this small village of Bakhta in northern Russia are completely happy with their life and lifestyle. It’s a life not at all hindered by the fact that they are so isolated the village is only accessible by boat and helicopter during the short summer months. The rest of the year they are completely on their own, thriving with the customs and traditions that have been passed down through generations, thriving in absolute harmony with the seasons and cycles of nature. Beyond the addition of ski mobiles and chain saws, daily life has changed little in over a century.

Although Dennis and I lived in a tipi for a year and then for eight years in the house we built without running water and electricity, I find the Bakhta village experience daunting. While we believe in living lightly on the Earth, over the years we’ve accumulated a lot of stuff. Stuff, I’m reminded by this documentary, that we really don’t need. 

No. I’m not advocating that we all give up our stuff and aspire to the Bakhta lifestyle. But it is a reminder of the vast chasm between what we think we need and what we really need to thrive. Considering this chasm and the impact our consumer lifestyle is having on our planet can be a cold and sobering reality. And it’s a reality we can change – without moving to Bakhta.

Judith –

Happy People Documentary Trailer

Titantic Times

June 9, 2021


Dramatic, perhaps. But I think it’s the perfect metaphor for these pandemic times. The extent of our collision with COVID was the result of inept and arrogant navigation. It was malfeasance and many people died while the administration focused on rearranging the deck chairs and playing music no one was dancing to.

In the US the pandemic killed more than half a million people and traumatized millions more. It will take time to work through that trauma. And although I’ve been less
traumatized living here in the forest, I appreciate that it’s very real for so many. After I
wrote about the Boulder graduation event, I dear friend who teaches high school sent me this video, Numb, created by student Liv McNeil who welcomes this being shared with credit to her and M83, the band who made the music. It’s really well done and powerful. Here’s the link: Numb

So yes, the Titanic was sunk by in competent navigation and an iceberg which was seen too late. And they only saw the tip of it. What was underwater was much more dangerous. Such is the nature of icebergs and such is the nature of our relationship with the pandemic.

Entitlement is the iceberg that has traumatized us. I will step around issues of gender and race because this is far more pervasive. We didn’t choose this entitled attitude. It’s a consequence of our cultural conditioning. But here we are. 

We believe we are entitled to lives and lifestyles of our own choosing and making, lifestyles we’ve become comfortable with and accustomed to. And we are not happy when that entitlement is challenged by change. Change is generally not popular, especially when it is beyond our control like the whole world being slammed into pandemic isolation. The problem is that change happens and if our entitled perspective drives us to rail against the change and focus only on returning to the way things were, we miss the opportunity to navigate the change with resilience. We miss the opportunity to evaluate the-way-it-was and whether that really served us well, as individuals and a global community. We miss the opportunity to work with change rather than against it.

These are Titanic times. The question I sit with is whether we will be able to navigate these waters and avoid more collisions with entitlement. 

Judith –

Dancing With The Moral Questions

June 8, 2021


We only protect and preserve what we value. We only value what we know.

This philosophy was fundamental to the one guiding principle in our graphic design business of only working for organizations that were doing good things for our planet and people. Our two early forays into working with car dealerships only galvanized this for us. Our clients were government and nonprofit organizations working with issues of public transportation, social justice, parks & trails, and the arts. Then there was the zoo.

We told ourselves that it was important for people to see and experience animals in order to appreciate them. I’ve since changed my mind. We have all manner of opportunities to understand the natural world without caging animals in un-natural environments where species become specimens. In her book, Communicating With Orcas: The Whales’ Perspective author Mary J. Getten shares the experiences of orcas in captivity and it’s heartbreaking. 

Tomfoolery. I’m a huge fan of what this man creates and so am inviting you to take a few moments to watch this piece, Dancing Dolphins, which explores the moral questions that are so important to consider in our relationship with the natural world. It’s both charming and challenging, as is often the case when we dance with the important moral questions.

Here is the link. Enjoy!
Dancing Dolphins

Judith –

Through The Veil

June 7, 2021


Universal consciousness. The understanding that we are woven in the web of all life and, in the words of Chief Sealth, the understanding that Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.

Expanding consciousness. For some of us it involved psychedelics, an effective if ultimately not sustainable approach. For others like Suzanne Simard who wrote Finding The Mother Tree, it was a decades-long journey of scientific rigor. We all get there, or can, in our own way. Yet once that door has opened, once the veil is pierced, there is no turning back. Universal consciousness lands and awakens a knowing embedded in our DNA, a knowing at a soul level. 

No matter how we get there, navigating the veils to universal consciousness is essential. It’s how we come home to our sacred nature. It’s how we ensure the health of Mother Earth.

Judith –

One Apart

June 4, 2021


Sitting here in the forest apart from human beings for these many months, it’s compelling to stay apart. Here there is the knowing of no separation. Even though the truth of creation is within everyone, this knowing is not. Yet I risk being an outside observer to the human experience and so I begin to again fill my calendar.

Judith –

A Potter Tale

June 3, 2021


Ah, Beatrix. This could be the inspiration for one of your stories for, like all good children’s stories, it holds the magic and imagination possible when the veil is lifted between worlds. And, if this was one of your stories, I imagine you would name it The Tale Of Sam Squirrel.

Dennis had returned to the house to find our beloved cat, Annie, doing her dinner dance. She was pacing between the refrigerator and the counter in the alcove off the kitchen where she eats. This message is clear. I would like tuna with my kibble tonight, thank you.

When Dennis walked over to get Annie’s empty dish it took him a second to register that the lump of fur next to the dish was an animal and another second to realize it was a squirrel and yet another second to see it was alive well, and absolutely nonplussed. It was just asleep. Taking a nap next to Annie’s dish. Waiting for dinner to be served? 

Annie, still pacing on the floor not three feet below Sam (because this squirrel absolutely deserves a name), seemed oblivious. Her focus was entirely on tunafish. Perhaps she knew Sam was there and either she didn’t care or had invited Sam to dinner. Cats. They keep their own counsel. After Dennis escorted Sam back to the woods we found ourselves sitting with a few questions.  

We assume Sam got in through an open upstairs window. But just how did Sam decide to go down to the kitchen and take a snooze next to the empty food dish? And how did Sam do that without attracting Annie’s attention? Did Annie in fact invite Sam to dinner? Who knows? There is a charming story here. If only Beatrix were alive to lend it her charming narrative and transform it into one of her Potter tales.

On another note. Over these last months I’ve been deepening my connection and relationship with the animal nations, especially those who live here at MossTerra. Dennis wondered if perhaps I’ve taken these meditations a bit too far. Well…the veils are thin here. 

Judith –

If I Had A Hammer

June 2, 2021

There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

And perhaps that’s also how the light gets out.

While in Boulder I talked with several graduates who were planning to take this next year as a gap year. It was remarkable given the expected trajectory of heading directly to university. The graduates spoke of it enthusiastically, the parents not so much. I gave my voice to enthusiasm. After this time of pandemic isolation and hibernation it would be good for them to discover a new grounding for themselves and their place in the world.

I reflected back to my time in university. I didn’t take a gap year but I did take a gap summer. It certainly wasn’t what my parents thought would happen. They had me safely ensconced in a sorority, or so they thought, and determined it would be good for me to spend a summer back in Washington DC working for a congressman. Through university connections it was all arranged.

That summer the light poured in through cracks in the vessel of our democracy. I experienced the reality of how our legislative branch works and it shattered any idealistic illusions I held. Beyond the rampant infidelity and excessive drinking, there was the shock of how decisions are really made and how those decisions often have nothing to do with what the people want. One example. I was in charge of a poll that asked constituents their opinion on the raging war in Vietnam. Even in the congressman’s rural and conservative district, three quarters of the responses indicated they wanted us out of that war. I thought the congressman would vote against any further war appropriations. But he didn’t. He aligned himself with powerful senate hawks from our state and voted to continue the war. 

That summer the light also poured in through cracks in my cultural vessel when I saw my first performance of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. I will leave it there as I imagine no further detail or example is really necessary.

That summer changed everything. I would leave the sorority and soon lead the anti-war movement on campus. No, that is not at all what my parents thought would happen yet it seems that’s both the nature and possibility of cracks and light. 

In a way gap years are another crack in the vessel of life. Sometimes those cracks occur naturally. Sometimes it takes a hammer, even the soft hammer of supportive enthusiasm. And that can be a good thing.

Judith –

Step On The Train

May 29, 2021


It’s a brilliant graduation message. Although it wasn’t wasn’t among the speeches I heard last Sunday, it would have been perfect. It’s a piece written by historian, author and teacher Heather Cox Richardson that was published that same day the twins walked across the stage. It’s the story of Frederick Douglass’ escape from slavery.

A free black man with similar physical features gave his papers to Douglass so he could travel north to freedom. It was an act that risked the lives of both men. Here is part of what Heather wrote and there’s a link below to the rest.

To escape from slavery, all Douglass had to do was board a train. That’s it: he just had to step on a train. If he were lucky, and the railroad conductor didn’t catch him, and no one recognized him and called him out, he could be free. But if he were caught, he would be sold down river, almost certainly to his death.

Tomorrow, my students will graduate, and every year, students ask me if I have any advice for them as they leave college or university, advice I wish I had had at their age. The answer is yes, after all these years of living and of studying history, I have one piece of advice: When the day comes that you have to choose between what is just good enough and what is right… find the courage to step on the train.

The story I heard in Boulder was one of my niece Jaimi stepping on the train.

Jaimi is an accomplished musician, especially proficient in clarinet and saxophone. And her love is marching band. She had been chosen by her peers and the faculty to be the band’s drum major when the pandemic hit. Her dream of leading the band in her senior year would not be realized. However she continued to bring the band members together through zoom, encouraging them to do their best and inspiring them with her humor and optimism. She would be recognized for her leadership with awards from both the band and faculty. 

Then on the last day of school when they were actually in person and in the band room together again, Jaimi was in tears. Tears of joy for once again playing together, tears of grief for all the playing that had been lost to them. That’s when the band teacher turned to her and held out the baton. “Here, Jaimi, you conduct today.”

She was reluctant, fearing she wouldn’t be good enough. But he insisted. “Jaimi, it’s your band. Lead them.”

And so she did with tears streaming down her face the whole time. When she got emotionally choked up, the band cheered her on. She overcame her fear of not conducting well enough and her horror of crying in front of her peers and teacher. Sitting among the band members and crying would have been good enough for her but she chose what was right in that moment. She stepped on the train. No. For Jaimi it wasn’t a matter of life and death but it was life changing. She found a piece of courage she didn’t know was in her. Resilience. 

When faced with adversity and challenge, no matter the size and nature of it, may we all find the resilience and courage to step on the train.

Step On The Train Full Transcript

Judith – judith