Give a damn about something... anything

Last year was a doozy and our prayers for next year are uncommonly humble. Never before has that sentiment ricocheted around the on-line and offline worlds as it does now.

I have never been much for New Year's resolutions, partly because the New Year isn't a great  breaking point for me, but also because my self discipline is strong when it's there and nonexistent when it's not. Trying to manufacture it with a calendar marker isn't much help. 

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Cutting out sweets when I just received my favorite goodies over the holidays--and have been virtuously not devouring them all at once--is decidedly unappealing. The weather makes anything more than my indoor workout unrealistic. And everything else I should be doing, I am already working on. 

But this year there is one thing I have to make a resolution on. I must resolve to care.

I am known for my passionate opinions and passionate work. And having been born under the sun sign of Aries, my passions are near the surface. But there is a downside to that too.. Too hot a fire burns out quickly. 

This past year, my personal life as well as global political and publishing trends have conspired to strip me of much of what I thought made life worth living. The things I cared passionately about have been trampled into the mud by stampeding events. Family crises resulting in escalating stress with no hopeful end in sight derailed my writing career, which was hobbled by the miserable publishing climate as it was, and I'm not even going to start on politics, since you've heard it all before. 

Mostly the things that I still have from last year are the humblest things--a home, some chickens, a duck, two cats, a garden, some members of my family. I am immensely grateful for them. But the thing that has been most dramatically taken away has been my passion. 

I know from watching other people sink into dullness that passion is the key element in life force. The passion of hopes and dreams is lovely. The passion of love and commitment in a relationship is precious. But even the passion of anger or revenge has it's virtues. I don't care much anymore what passions you may have, but I know that having some passion is essential.

All year we heard that this is NOT the time to talk about climate change--after a natural disaster that cost many lives--or about guns in America--after a tragic mass shooting--or it isn't the time to silently kneel for lives lost in your community--during a public and symbolic moment. The core message is that we must curb our passion, stifle the fire because cool heads will make better decisions.

But do they?

I see a first grader playing with trash right outside school and all the adults walking by, picking up kids, going about their business. And the older kids too. I stop and pick up the trash, making a stern note to myself to wash my hands. The older kids stare at me. Why do I care? It isn't my trash--or is it?--they must be thinking. 

I care. In the past I have really and truly cared about picking up the trash in my community. This year I have to choose to care, but I still care.

I disagree with people about a lot of passionate issues. Someone wants to agitate for a political candidate that isn't my cup of tea, though I don't think the candidate is evil. Or they simply care more about gun violence than climate change and I think the priorities should be reversed, if we had to ultimately choose. Or they insist that STAR voting is superior to any other type of voting reform. Others are vehemently trying to build a voice for their marginalized nation or refugee group. 

And you know what? I want to hug every one of those people and say, "You go, human! More power to ya. Have courage and strength. Don't give up."

Because when you get right down to it, these people give a damn and that is far more important than what precisely they give a damn about. 

I invite you to make this resolution with me, if you're struggling. Don't force yourself into a virtuous change of routine that will fizzle out in a couple of weeks. Just resolve to care about something specific. Choose something local and concrete, like your family or your place or your local school. Or choose an issue. But choose something beyond your own person to care about. 

Yes, it's risky. You may well lose that thing or your cause may be lost. That hurts and you may have to choose again.

But what you gain is purpose. If not exactly hope, then at least you gain a temporary antidote to despair. Despair and it's close cousin indifference are the worst destroyers of our world. 

Therefore, I invite you, even if your passion is something I may disagree with. Give a damn this year. Choose and follow your passion. This is how we ensure that we will have a future. 

Why I'm wary of inspirational quotes

According to the going social media trends in inspirational quotes, everyone is responsible for their own actions, you should never put off until tomorrow the fun you could have today, the worst mistakes in life are made by being too cautious and good parents are those who stick around and provide unconditional love.

I get the impression that our western social standards are schizophrenic. 

I sometimes wonder what other cultures think of these western social ideals. Take my Vietnamese relatives and the Vietnamese shop keepers down the street. They would give short shrift to ideals of seizing the day and following your heart's desire for the sake of you-the shining individual.

In fact, women, especially young women, in many cultures seem to get the brunt of collective and long-range modes of thinking. 

In many cultures, it is a person's ultimate duty to stand by their family and create stability. Beauty is found in these cultures, but it is often the beauty of elegance and home. This may be seen as an old-fashioned and oppressive worldview by modern westerners. But it is at least a coherent one.

I'm not actually advocating the oppression of women or the suppression of individuality. But I'm not certain that our own cultural norms offer us the healthiest possible alternative. 

We as western women (and men too actually) are told that we are simply uninspired and lack gumption if we are not out fulfilling our dreams of creative work, travel and romance. But at the same time, in the same culture and often in the next meme, we are told that we bear full and merciless responsibility for our every impulsive action. And heaven forbid, we have children and then decide that our heart's desire and creative passion isn't devoting our every waking moment to molding our children into prodigies. 

The cultural ideals in some places may be restrictive. Ours are crazy-making. And I think we can do better.

I've seen plenty  of these inspirational quotes, but today's rant was sparked by this little gem, "The greatest mistakes we make are the risks we don't take. If you think something will make you happy, go for it, so that you don't live your life asking 'what if" and telling yourself 'If only.'"

Before you nod compulsively to this seemingly wise and motivational statement, take a closer look: "If you think something will make you happy..."

Indeed? Happy for how long? For five minutes? For five days? For as long as it takes to raise the resulting child, break the resulting addiction or pay off the resulting debt? 

Okay, I sound like an overcautious curmudgeon there and I have taken more than my share of hair-brained risks in my day, so I really shouldn't be championing the conservative side of whatever argument might be perceived. 

It isn't even just the poor phrasing, of this quote that got way too many glowing comments and adoring likes on social media for my stomach. It is merely the hypocritical social expectations of our times. 

Creative commons image by Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

Creative commons image by Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

If a friend asked me for advice when weighing whether or not to take a risky leap (though I assure you no one has asked me), this would be my advice or my version of feet-on-the-ground inspiration:

Periodically we come to crossroads in life where we have a choice. In fact, we pass through more crossroads than we usually realize, missing possible turn-offs, detours, dead-ends and short cuts due to forward momentum and habit. Often we don't know how major the crossroads is even when we do stop to take notice. We only know that in retrospect.

I remember one such crossroads I encountered, when I was about to graduate from university. The president of the university called me into his office. I had never personally met him before and had no family connections, so this was really kind of a big deal. I was graduating first in my class, but I didn't know that at the time.

Anyway, he sat me down and tried very hard to convince me to apply for a Rhodes scholarship to do graduate work at Oxford with the backing of my university. I turned the opportunity down on the spot, politely enough I recall, but not really with an understanding of how major it was to be asked to do this by the president of the university. I was twenty-two and pretty darn naive.

Oh, it was tempting. I loved universities and I can get lost in academic inquiry. I had romantic visions about the ivy-covered walls of Oxford. And I did want to travel. 

Still, I turned down the chance to continue my education debt free in a wonderful environment because I wanted to be an international journalist. I saw opportunities slipping through my fingers and I wanted to enter the world of work NOW.

I got on a bus to New York City and from there a plane to Prague and a train over the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Kazakhstan. In the next ten years, I made two shoestring documentaries, wrote for national newspapers and magazines, covered a small war, traveled in 30 countries, lived on 5 continents, led a successful protest movement against a needless military incursion into one small country and wrote my brains out.

After ten years, I was broke, still almost entirely unknown, without any graduate degree and without a stable job or career. I had kids and I'm still without a stable job or career. I write and teach English and have a pretty mundane life. Journalism has changed and the kind of international stringer work I did in 1999 pretty much no longer exists.

If I had taken the Rhodes opportunity, which was more tempting than I wanted to admit at the time, I would have missed the end of a journalism era--a time when freelancers really could go out, grab a story, pitch it and write the national headlines.

And what I did I give up? I really don't know what wonders I might have found on that other road, but I still love research and universities. I probably could have really done something cool at Oxford if I had tried for it and won the scholarship (not a certainty but I had a good shot). I probably would be a lot better off today and have a lot more prospects for my future.

But the experiences and work that made me who I am? How could I give that up? 

This is the thing. If you ask me "what if" or tell me "if only," I can sometimes feel almost sick that I didn't take certain chances or in some cases didn't let other chances lie. Knowing what I know now, I might just go for the Rhodes scholarship. Knowing that journalism as we knew it would be over by 2004. I had only a few years to do that anyway and I had to give up... well, everything else really. My brief journalism career came at the expense of all the glowing opportunities of my twenties.

And if I knew what I would have gained on that other road--which I don't even now--I might well want to go back and change the past. BUT I didn't know those things. I stood at the crossroads and knowing only what I knew then, I still stand by that decision.

You have to take the best shot you can at happiness and a fulfilling life.

Sometimes you can't take certain opportunities. Sometimes being an ethical person means you stay and take care of a sick person or a child and don't pursue your dreams of travel right then. Sometimes caution causes you not to quit your job and sell your house to become an artist and go eat, pray, love for a year. Sometimes the leap of faith you take may land you in a situation much more restrictive than the one you left. And sometimes... just sometimes a completely illogical and incautious risk leads to the most wonderful results.

And you can look back and think "Oh, I should have listened to those inspiration quotes and taken the plunge." (Or if your hardships came from listening to inspirational quotes, you can cry, "Oh, if only I hadn't listened to such drivel and taken such risks?")

Alternatively, you could look back and say "I did the best I could with what I knew at the time."

And if that statement is really true and you weren't making decisions under the twin spells of fear or delusion, you've got nothing to regret. 

You belong on the earth

I doubt there has ever been a time in history when more people in more varied walks of life have been labeled and told they are unwanted or don't belong. 

I know many people are hurting deeply right now for reasons of life and death, separation from family and elimination of basic freedom. It can feel like other groups who have merely been mocked, degraded or threatened are not in the same boat and that they do not understand the gravity of the situation. 

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

We don't all understand every part. We don't all know what it is to stand in one another's shoes. But we do have more in common than we have misunderstandings. 

Your experiences are real and you are not alone. 

And yet it has become unfashionable to have a group identity. We love individuals and we don't like being pigeon-holed. We may be part of one culture, ethnicity, faith, group or class but we are rarely "typical"  of that label and we simultaneously belong to others.

Our media culture idolizes the person who refuses to associate with a group. We have also become educated enough to know that each identity is unique.

I love non-conformity as much as the next person, but too much exceptionalism has its costs. Now when so many of us are truly threatened, we spend precious energy arguing among ourselves and debating who has a greater right to outrage.  We disagree about trivial things or the specific solutions to our problems and thus we don't address immediate threats together. 

At least that's how it has gone down in the past.

Right now there are many groups forming and fluctuating. Membership in both the KKK and the ACLU have skyrocketed. Lines are being drawn and often they are based on an ideology or a particular identity. I personally support the ACLU and other organizations like Greenpeace, the NAACP and Doctors Without Borders. But the point isn't exactly which groups I want to support (as long as it isn't a racist, terrorist or otherwise harmful group)..

We also need broader places where all those who have common interests can belong. 

It isn't so much the strength in numbers that I want. We need a sense of common cause and solidarity. True belonging comes not from the accident of your birth, culture or label, but rather from your choices, values and convictions.

It is time to set down the most basic tenants of what we belong to, the lines which we won't cross and which enclose all of us. This must be at once broad enough for all and clear enough to mean something.

Here are some ideas of where we belong:: 

  • We are open to all races, religions, ability types, sexual orientations, nationalities, ages and appearances.
  • We recognize the right of people to express their identity and culture, to have a voice in public and a connection to their land and people.
  • We know that power entails responsibility.
  • We speak up when we or others are prejudicially attacked or stereotyped.
  • We are concerned about ecological issues and we respect the earth which we depend on for our lives.
  • We take whatever action is feasible and effective in our personal situations to protect the earth, water, air, other species and one another.
  • We recognize that facts exist and can be documented, while context can consist of many facts.
  • We believe that people have a right to true information and that money and incorporation should not accord greater rights to any individual or group. 
  • We insist that the resources of the earth are held in common and must not be exploited for the profit of a few.
  • We believe each person has the right to freedom that does not harm or restrict others.
  • We strive to be kind and welcoming toward newcomers and to work out differences respectfully.
creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

There will necessarily be some who haven't explored all of these issues in-depth. But we should be able to agree on the basic values of inclusion and protection of that which sustains our lives.

Still there will be some who choose to reject these values. I have been part of many ecological or earth-based groups and some of them do not hold the same values of openness toward people of different paths and backgrounds that I demand. On the other hand, there are also many groups that are concerned with social justice but don't take the immediate crisis of climate change seriously.

:Environmental concern and the love of diversity are deal breakers for me--two things I simply cannot do without.

Don't get me wrong. Groups can specialize. Not every parenting group must be focused on environmental issues as well as parenting. But I can't feel truly loyal to a group that openly expresses their disregard for environmental concerns, anymore than I can feel welcome in a group with borderline racist statements, no matter how good they are on something else. These are life and death issues that can't be compromised. 

I have no problem with the fact that Facebook groups connected to Black Lives Matter are unlikely to be regularly posting about climate change. Many groups accept these values but focus on one particular need.

I don't demand that environmental groups spend time and attention on anti-racism stuff. However, I could not very well put my loyalty in a multicultural group that irrelevantly professed disdain for tree-huggers and climate scientists, anymore than I can feel comfortable in an earth-centered group that occasionally throws up closet racist posts.

This isn't to say that I will only join groups that agree with all of my opinions. Far from it.

I have an abundance of opinions. I still love Star Trek after all these years, my favorite pizza involves lots of really hot peppers and seared garlic, I think J. K. Rowling is a damned good writer but the seventh book had some issues, And I think dish rags should be changed about every three days.

Those are opinions. And I don't expect members of a group I'm in to agree with them. And that extends to more relevant opinions too. I have my views on economic systems, health care and electoral processes. But these are things we can work out. What level of gun regulation we should have is debatable. I can and have had informative discussions with people who disagree on things like that. 

Therein lies the distinction perhaps. I don't think there is room to casually debate whether or not we'll believe in science and facts or whether we will accept all people of every religion and color. Those who agree on these things need a place to belong where we can learn from the rest of our differences without being constantly bogged down by an inability to agree on ground rules.

That is why I have founded a group called Belonging on the Earth. It is small and not diverse enough as of yet. I hope you will join and find it a welcoming community. Currently the group is starting on Facebook. You can join it here. I am the administrator for now and I can ensure that it is a safe and respectful place. This is a group for those who agree on fundamental values but may not agree on many other things. As the group grows other administrators will be added who can help to foster the openness of the group.

Not everyone is into Facebook and eventually there will be other ways to belong to this community. If you can't join the Facebook group, I encourage yo to join my hearth-side email circles below and keep in touch through the comments on this webpage.

You belong on the earth. Your experiences are real and you are not alone.

Smrak: the techno-social malaise that makes rational living next to impossible

We know what is healthy and responsible. Why then is everything in our society engineered to undermine our attempts to live a healthy life?

I’m fed up with conflicting messages. 

“Everyone should exercise at least one hour every day; get eight hours of sleep; spend at least four hours with their children doing homework, having family meals and authentically connecting; you have to work and commute at least ten hours to have any chance at a successful career; and cook homemade food, for heaven’s sake, unless you want to doom your children to early death by cancer.” Sociologists and scientists give dire warnings of the consequences of a slip in any of those departments. 

Creative Commons image by Riley of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Riley of Flickr.com

Then they add, “And it is essential that you make time to take care of yourself because otherwise you will be ineffective at all other tasks.”

Now wait just a blessed minute! 

You already used up every single hour in every single day with the first sentence. There are no more hours left for taking care of yourself--let alone taking care of an older relative, cleaning, keeping up social relationships, paying taxes or bills or even shopping for food (unless you count that as “time with the kids,” which we all know is hypocrisy.)

And those are just the bare basics. What about sending holiday cards? Are you nuts?
It isn’t just about time. But that’s often the crux when the issue is the adult lifestyle. You should exercise. REALLY! It’s essential. And if you want any chance at success in that competitive career, you had better devote more time to it. 

Got kids? Tough. If you can’t keep up a high-powered career because you insist on a bit of time for exercise or family, you’re making minimum wage. Your kids are eligible for the free lunch program! 

And it’s full of carcinogens. 

"Shame on you for being a leach on society!"

It’s hard enough to live a healthy and responsible lifestyle in this day and age. Exercise, healthy eating, meaningful work, being kind to others, pitching in for your community, doing your duty in recycling and responsible shopping, taking care of yourself… These things are often contradictory. 

Creative Commons image by Abigail G of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Abigail G of Flickr.com

Add being a parent to that and the struggle becomes a war. It’s like Mama against the world—TV, video games, preservative-infused packaged food, the latest fashions, advertising… You name it, it’s lined up to produce parent-child battles and undermine your efforts for basic health and sanity. 

I’m going to coin a term here—smrak.

It’s like smog, except of the techno-social variety. The word “smrak” comes from two Czech words—”smrad” meaning stench and “mrak” meaning cloud. That’s how the technological and social environment feels to a parent trying to bring up kids with health and conscience. It's all the contradictory messages about what you must do and it's the plethora of obstacles put in your path--largely by other humans or by machines made by humans.

I’m going to devote a couple of posts to the different aspects of smrak--not to depress you, but rather to acknowledge what we’re all dealing with. 

The basic elements of srmak for parents are:

Smrak 1: Screen addiction and its pushers
Smrak 2: Junk food and people who give it to my kids
Smrak 3: Gender specific toys and media that promote either ditsy or violent
Smrak 4: The disconnect from nature
Smrak 5: A generation living in bubbles of bland sameness

(I’ll add links as the posts are done, so you click on them once they’re highlighted. You can also give suggestions for other aspects of smrak in the comments.)

When fellow parents are struggling to live in a healthy and responsible way, let’s support one another without so much judgment. None of us is perfect and we can do much better if we know we’re all battling smrak of one kind or another.

What a billionaire can do and missed opportunities

I was recently asked to answer the following question on online forum: "What can billionaires do that multimillionaires cannot do?" And my answer was possibly the most controversial thing I think I've ever written. It has been debated, slammed, erased, defended, banned and promoted in various quarters. And given that my blog is called "A Rebel with a Pen" it's time I posted it here. 

Some people were angry that I answered this question at all because I'm nowhere close to a billionaire or even a millionaire (let's face it, I'm not even a hundred-thousandaire--if that were a word). What could I contribute to such a discussion? 

My answer is that I didn't fail math and I even have a calculator. There are things a billionaire could do that a multimillionaire couldn't and I don't need to be one to do the numbers. It's astounding what a controversy a little logic can turn up. Here it is then.

What can billionaires do?

They can...

Destroy democracy, cause a whole nation to starve, spoil a huge swath of the earth without ever realizing it, pick your war. Have not a friend or real relationship in the world and yet be surrounded by smiles and beautiful acts that resemble relationships. Be born, grow up, live to be old and die without ever learning the basic ABCs of ordinary life.

There are plenty of things a billionaire can do. It isn't that millionaires can't come close to some of these things, but their impacts are a bit more local, less global and they usually have to work harder at the psychological denial part because they don't have as many people paid to please them.

Another person who answered this question was Omar Sayed and he primarily explained the mind-blowing difference between a millionaire and a billionaire with this simple statement, "One million seconds is approximately 12 days. One billion seconds amounts to 32 years!  Just imagine what you can you do in 32 years vs. 12 days."

And it's true. For many of us time is money, but wealth beyond the level of the comfortable survival of one's family is no longer time. It is most concisely the ability work one's own will.

A family can live comfortably in the United States on $100,000 a year, including the high-quality education and healthcare which are out of reach for most of the population. Given that, everything beyond $100,000 lies in the realm of what a person "can do" voluntarily. And a billionaire has A LOT of money beyond that first $100,000.

Yes, a billionaire can do fun things like buy a private island or a couple of private jets. A billionaire can have candlelight dinners on a platform far out in a lagoon with just one special person and servants in rowboats to bring them whatever they desire. A billionaire can spend years sailing or bungee jumping or golfing without having to work. And possibly a billionaire can do these things and avoid those terrible things that they could do that I mentioned earlier.

But there are even more things that a billionaire can do.

A billionaire can stop a famine in a particular country, invest in the process and regain most of the money and do it again in another country. Sure, it's a risk and it is unlikely to be as high of return on investment as businesses that cause famines, but it can be done.

There are things that might not even cost too much money that a billionaire can do that others cannot. A billionaire could make true democracy possible again simply by speaking out and telling what billionaires are doing with financing candidates and media. At least a billionaire could have a huge impact on that and be remembered as a hero for generations. 

A billionaire could turn an entire economy to green energy, creating countless high quality jobs and making an impact to combat climate change that the billionaire's grandchildren would be able to equate with the actions of Oskar Schindler. And the billionaire probably wouldn't even lose money.

Some things a billionaire can do might lose money, but they might be worth it anyway. A billionaire could buy a large enough piece of the Amazon rain forest to make sure that there still is an Amazon rain forest in 100 years. 

A billionaire could live a normal, modest life with no private jets and be remembered forever as the person who funded anti-cancer research and kept the price of the resulting medicines affordable or who made possible the nation-wide switch to effective solar power. A billionaire could make it impossible to ever again claim poverty as a reason you couldn't get a college education. 

A billionaire can't do all of these things all at once. Like all of us a billionaire would have to choose. Money is choice.

In researching for my latest book, I had to ask in wealthy circles what sort of shenanigans the children of billionaires get up to. The answers were confusing and sad. The list of common self-destructive behaviors among the children of the very rich are no less horrific than among the children of the very poor. Rampant drug use, extremely risky behaviors, racing expensive cars--a statistically high probability of tragedy. 

And why is this?

It's often blamed on the stifling lack of challenges and a mistrust in relationships that are often more about money than about heart. People who have that much wealth somehow cannot find something to fulfill them, something worthwhile and full of passion. It isn't my place to judge others, and I don't. It is more with compassion that I offer this. 

There are many things a billionaire cannot do. A billionaire cannot stop all wars or all hunger. A billionaire cannot make people just be kind to each other. A billionaire cannot make their own parents or siblings or children stop bickering. A billionaire may not even be able to save someone they love.

But there are things a billionaire can do. Worthwhile things, full of passion, challenge and risk. Things that would do a person honor.

I can easily see where a life without challenge can become empty--even with private jets and prestigious islands. I can see where it would get old knowing that many of the people who befriend you only want a piece of the pie, rather than real friendship. Trying to identify a real friend could be hard.

But there is a choice a billionaire can make that others cannot. A billionaire can become a real life hero for millions--not coincidentally or by dying heroically but simply by making a choice about what to do with their money.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

Of apathy and corn sex

I'm out at dusk every night these days, winding my way through the corn stalks, a small pile of golden dust and husks in my palm. I find the luscious, moist bunches of silk, open to the sky and waiting--smelling of sex and life. And I sprinkle the gold between the glistening strands.

Corn silk - Creative Commons image by Heather Kaiser

Corn silk - Creative Commons image by Heather Kaiser

I am the handmaiden of corn sex. 

Despite the connotations, it is actually disappointingly non-erotic. I do this because my sweet corn patch is to small to rely on wind-born pollination alone. I do it because I believe childhood without sweetcorn is a crime and you can't buy it in the Czech Republic. I do it because I want my kids to grow old and watch their grandchildren playing in the shade of a tree. I want there to be children in a seventy or eighty years... and trees. 

The result of corn sex, whether facilitated by me or by the wind, are little bulges of bright yellow flesh, sweet and heady. They can be left to harden into the seeds of new life, brewed into intoxicating alcohol, ground into flour to sustain life or slurped fresh from the cob in ecstasy. Without corn sex, the cobs come out thin and pale, bare or with just a few lonely kernels to show what might have been.

Those anemic cobs remind me of so many faces I meet in the street, online or in my school room where I teach English as a second language to work-weary adults and school-weary teenagers. Sallow and lost, robbed of the golden bulges of life. And I wonder if that answers some of the questions that keep plopping down in my path these past few weeks.

Corn silk - Creative commons image by Mary Hutchison

Corn silk - Creative commons image by Mary Hutchison

Human beings are missing something? Certainly we're crowded enough for pollination, but the right wind hasn't been blowing.

What can awaken the passion and life in these faces? Even the desire for survival?

Is it that we need more sex?

Pop culture certainly seems to hint that people crave sex. As soon as I dove into the book selling game I encountered an uncomfortable truth. Nothing sells like erotica. I'm not just talking about all the authors who wish they had written Fifty Shades of Gray. One author told me, "I have three different pen names. One of them publishes erotica and it's so much easier to sell. There's no comparison. With anything else you have write technicaly perfect, emotionally gripping, truly life-changing stories and even then you might be buried. With erotica, you can have all the typos you want and plot holes as big as the Grand Canyon and it still sells reasonably well." 

My friends laugh and tell me my career path is clear. Corn sex and word sex. 

But people keep reading the stuff with sex, whether it's erotica or teenage romances with love triangles and sexual tension. And the readers remain pale and flaccid themselves. The sex isn't helping. Possibly it is even draining more of their life force. 

That's what sex is after all. Life force. Something happens between the pollen and the kernel, something called "life" that science has not yet been able to entirely explain. Each kernel has the potential to become a whole new plant, a new life. The bursting, juicy, musky bulges are the expression of passion.

And it's passion that I find is missing in so many faces. My students come fresh from summer break, their heads down and feet dragging.

Creative commons image by Alan Levine

Creative commons image by Alan Levine

"What do you want to do?" I ask.

"I don't know," they mumble.

"Let's just talk awhile," I suggest. "What did you do over the summer?"

"Nothing." 

I don't give up. I press them for details and the answer finally comes.

"We went to the beach in Italy. Good ice cream. Okay pizza. Otherwise boring. "

I am momentarily stunned. If this gets no enthusiasm, what hope is there for these kids?

"What would you rather be doing instead of English class?" I ask.

"Video games," most answer.

"Which computer game would you play?" 

"I don't know." 

That's how it goes day after day. I am charged to get them talking in English and make sure their grades stay up. It's how I keep clothes on my own children. But my goal is really to find some spark of passion in these kids. Anything they care about. A passion can always be nurtured and grown, brought into the lesson, made relevant. Even if it's video games.

Corn tassels - Creative commons image by Nic McPhee

Corn tassels - Creative commons image by Nic McPhee

And these are the children, the ones who should be full of energy and new life. It's even worse with adults. After I wrote about our family struggles in combating climate change, the response was remarkable... in a depressing sort of way. The most common responses mirrored this:

"We're all trying but it's hopeless. The damage has already been done. Our children are doomed." 

or even this:

"We have to keep going, keep working for a better world. I'll take out the recycling today. At least I do my bit."

But most were silent. No one in my vicinity actually doubts climate change is a huge threat or that it is caused by our actions. But there are plenty who are so sapped of life force that they have forcefully put it out of their minds.

In one political and intellectual forum which is usually a hot place for environmental and social justice discussions, the most "liked" comment on my article about climate change was this: "Meh, and if we all stopped enjoying life, staying home with the lights off, think how much energy we might save. But I'll pass, OK?"

Other people commenting on the article approved of this comment more than anything else. (Oh, the wonders of modern opinion polling.) These aren't climate change deniers but those who otherwise are essentially on the same side. They talk about the horrible facts and bemoan the lack of political and corporate action. But when it comes to their own passion and life force, there's, "Meh."  

Creative commons image by Tamara of Flickr.com

Creative commons image by Tamara of Flickr.com

And I know this for a fact, whether I'm striving for a future for my child or fighting climate change or even just growing corn, life force is crucial. Without the passion there are no golden bulges. Results remain pale and wan. 

And this is where my post diverges from your standard inspirational fair. At this point I am supposed to say, "So, find your passion. Go out and make something of your life. Live the ordinary life in an extraordinary way." And so forth. 

But I'm not going to. Because I don't think passion or life force is something we manufacture at will. We can force ourselves to do hard work, even when we don't have the energy. But the drive to push past exhaustion? That comes from life force. Without passion such a message is nothing but a guilt trip.

Instead of forcing or manufacturing passion. I simply want to ask the question. Where does life force come from? Where do we get it? 

I have seen it blossom where there is need. The needs of one's children, the need for food and shelter. Those things spur people to heroic levels of action, coming from life force far beyond what you'd expect from the tired worn-out face. But many people have great passion without urgent need and many of those who do have great need fail most miserably to summon it. So need cannot be the primary key.

Creative commons image by hthrd of flickr.com

Creative commons image by hthrd of flickr.com

There have been years of my life when I felt little passion beyond sadness and frustration. Some of that was true depression, based on difficult circumstances and a harsh social environment. But also based on my own lack of life force. And yet that time of inaction today feels oddly like a well of deep cool water, something I draw on for passionate writing or loving or ecstatic gardening.

Is depression always the enemy? Are we all born with the same level of life force? Can one really go out and find passion? 

What I have seen for myself is that life force is built over time. It is funded like a reservoir of water deep under the ground. And just like a land in drought, that aquifer can nourish life long after the rains have dried up in great need. But by the same token it can be exhausted.

What fills the reservoir? It may be different for each person but things that feed the soul will most likely help. Rest and time to heal, contact with nature, children and elders, animal and plant companions, kindness from another, the acceptance of a friend or even a stranger, creative expression and authentic hope. These things have the potential to ill the reservoir if there is enough time to wait.

Time is not in great supply these days and the life force reservoir of humanity is running at drought levels. May I learn to withhold judgment. 

Do you have any personal ideas about the questions in this post? Where do you find passion? Have you ever felt that times of depression had a use? What can we do to replenish our life force, so we can do things that matter?