Does changing the world require high-minded, top down solutions, or can regular, ordinary people make a difference? Is it possible to envision and begin working towards eliminating war, inequality, or at the very least, bad television, from our realities?
While that first paragraph certainly has a high-minded tone and a certain liberal arrogance to some, that’s not my intention at all. Rather, I wanted to highlight a couple of people—one whose book I recently read—the other, a speaker I happened to catch briefly, on NPR’s Cambridge Forum. Both offered a perspective and some practical ways of coping that parallel shifts in my own way of thinking about issues and the world I live in.
My life has been really busy of late. This is an exciting period for me on several fronts. I am being pushed to prioritize my time and be very protective of it, almost to the point of being selfish. At the same time, I’ve become more conscious of the value of time. One of my challenges has been finding pockets of opportunity to read. One thing I’ve been doing is waking up ½ hour earlier and reading for 30 minutes when I get up, rather than waiting until the end of the day, when I’m much more likely to fall asleep, with the book resting on my chest. I have also become more selective of what I read. I’m moving beyond negative screeds and trying to find books that help me to vision, or see things in a new way I also am seeking books that reinforce values that are central to who I am. Anne Lamott’s Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, is one of those books.
For those who’ve never read Lamott, you’ve missed out on one of America’s special writers. This 50-year-old, dreaded (as in d-locks) and irreverent to the core, stays firmly grounded in the 21st century, but is not afraid to carry her readers back to a time like the 60s, when people still dared to dream and imagine a better way. Not so full of herself as to deny the hopelessness of living in the time of Bush, when at any moment, our dictator of a president could bring a hard rain down on the heads of all Americans on the basis of his “Left Behind” eschatology, Lamott still finds a way to invoke hope and laughter and sometimes tears and honestly shares her life and own unique brand of spirituality with her readers.
In talking about living at such a time as this (the beginning of the second Bush term, when the book was being written), Lamott writes about being at her rope’s end with the thought of four more years of GW. Here is an example of her style and tenor of writing.
“Hadn’t the men in the White House ever heard of the word karma? They lied their way into taking our country to war, crossing another country’s borders with ferocious military might, trying to impose our form of government on a sovereign nation, without any international agreement or legal justification, and set about killing the desperately poor on behalf of the obscenely rich. Then we’re instructed, like naughty teenagers, to refrain from saying it was an immoral war that set a disastrous precedent—because to do so is to offer aid and comfort to the enemy.”
Then her Jesuit friend, Father Tom, whom Lamott describes as a “scruffy, aging, Birkenstock type” calls her to wish her “Happy Birthday” and Lamott “unloads the truck” on poor Father Tom lamenting, “How are we going to get through this craziness?” And like so much of the book, which dispenses with sermonizing and holier-than-thou pontificating and instead, offers grounded advice and old-fashioned common sense, well-written with heavy dollops of gallows humor, the advice coming from Lamott’s friend and spiritual advisor, Father Tom is simple and yet, profound:
“Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe,” says Father Tom.
Sometimes, Father Tom’s type of advice is all we can get our minds around in our crazy world.
Later in the book, she writes about a trip she made to San Quentin, that hellhole of a prison that epitomizes our nation’s “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” brand of prisoner rehabilitation. She’s been invited to come and teach the prisoners how to tell stories and decides to bring along a friend and fellow storyteller.
Anne recounts the experience of she and Neshama, a grandmotherly woman and most unlikely of candidates to connect with maximum security prisoners, yet these men, many of them hardened by doing time in the bowels of the prison-industrial complex, end up giving Neshama a standing ovation, as she wins them over with her stories and honest delivery, much to Lamott’s amazement. Using this story to drive home her points, Lamott powerfully illustrates Jesus’ injunction to care for the poor, without coming off as moralizing or condescending to her reader. By making it obvious that when Jesus spoke about the poor, he was including America’s prisoners. As she does throughout the book, Lamott shows why writers also need to be readers, because she quotes other writers in the context of her vignettes from her life and weaves them seamlessly into her prose. In this particular case, she quotes Reverend James Forbes, who was fond of saying that “Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”
Lester Brown is the founder of WorldWatch Institute, an independent research organization that works for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society. Their mission is geared towards the meeting the needs of all people and accomplishing this without threatening the health of the natural environment or the well-being of future generations. While this sounds lofty and some might say, impossible, to someone like Brown, it’s achievable, if we can break the bigger issue, down into smaller, “bite-sized” pieces.
In a media age that offers mostly right-wing blowhards, drug addled hosts and talking heads that prefer to spew anger and venom, rather than offer solutions, its rare to hear someone as measured and downright optimistic as Brown was, yesterday, on NPR’s Cambridge Forum.
Speaking on topics addressed in his recent book, Plan B 2.0 (which I’ve just added to my list of “must read books”), Brown convinced me, as I’m sure countless others within the sound of his voice that while global warming is important—maybe in the top five, as far as global issues are concerned—it is something that we can take positive steps towards addressing. Rather than assume the role of crazy-eyed prophet in burlap clothing, chewing on locusts, Brown was soft-spoken, yet forceful and led me to believe that we can alter the course we’re on to, marching towards environmental perdition. I’m not opposed to prophetic voices and at times, they’re necessary. On the issue of the environment, however, I don’t think people are frozen about what to do because they can’t recognize the dire consequences of maintaining the status quo. In my opinion, most people want to take positive steps and move in the direction of earth-friendliness, but they honestly don’t know what to do.
He clearly painted a realistic picture of what an environmental sustainable economy might look like. Unlike so many doom-and-gloom types, Brown talked about simple steps that Americans can take to make a profound difference. He discussed the conversion of our car to gas/electric hybrids. In places like Maine, where the reality of public transportation is so far into the future for most, to think about alternatives to our cars is “pie in the sky.” We can talk about sprawl all we want (and I have), Mainers aren’t giving up their cars. However, as Brown carefully explained, gas/electric hybrids could, even if everyone didn’t change their driving habits one iota, dramatically lessen the amount of oil we consume as a nation. If we could lessen our dependency on foreign oil, it might move us away from always feeling the need to solve every geopolitical problem by flexing our military muscles.
Brown said that if you took the average gas/electric hybrid, added an extra storage battery, local commuting (which is what most of us do, Monday-Friday) could be accomplished entirely with electricity. By adding wind power to our energy mix (and getting the NIMBY crowd to play along), Brown made a compelling case that we could eliminate our need for oil from the Middle East. The military-industrial scenarios were getting downright rosy in my mind, at that moment.
Here’s an interview I found, from Grist, conducted last March. I think it gives people a sense of this man’s ability to cut through the rhetoric, politics and not scare the bejesus out of people, which only causes hopelessness and paralysis, fueled by the fear. (maybe it's the bowtie?)
As I start to taste small successes in my own life, I find that trying to find a local way of seeing the issues helps me to later put things into a wider context. I know that it is helping me to more optimistic than I’ve ever been before. Now don’t start thinking I’ve joined some new cult of positive thinking, or anything like that. In fact, I may be back here in a day, a week, or a month ranting at the world, or some newfound enemy. Still, I’m finding personal empowerment fulfilling and discovering new ways to move even the tiniest projects forward. This truth and utilization of the skills and abilities I’ve always had, have given me a new sense of possibility and I’m not succumbing to negative energy like I have in the past. This energy can act as a cloud that tends to overwhelm and keep many feeling powerless and unable to use their gifts and unique talents for the benefit of others. Not to mention it makes us miserable to be around, most of the time.