Think Continually of Those At Risk

I wrote this article for The Be Zine whose November issue was dedicated to “At-Risk Youth”.

Under the light of the half moon, David Attenborough speaks to the camera on Christmas Island, surrounded by a moving mass of red crabs. Tens of thousands of crawling females, heavy-laden with hundreds of fertilized eggs, are approaching the high tide in order to release their burdens into the surf. The water turns reddish brown as a surge of life heads out to sea. Millions, no, billions of little babies are set adrift. Enormous whale sharks cruise the waters nearby, ready to feed. Sir David explains that the hatchlings will spend one month in the water before returning to land to move into the forests and begin their lives as adults.

That’s probably not the first picture you conjure when you hear the phrase “at-risk youth”, but it’s the one that came to my mind. It may not be popular to approach this topic from a biological standpoint, but there is a meaningful truth in this perspective. If the “risk” you are referring to is death, that is something that youths face as much as anyone. Death is certain for all of us, and no one is guaranteed adulthood. The human species, however, is far from the threat of extinction. Our population is dominating the globe, in fact. So, “at-risk youth” is not about the peril of the demise of our race. I believe it is much more about social and behavioral dangers than biological ones. This is where we can be optimistic. We can create and control our societies and our behaviors much more readily than we can our biological tendencies.

What does it mean to “survive” to adulthood in our society? How do we measure the success of childhood? Certainly benchmarks in health, education, safety, justice, self-reliance and freedom come to mind. We set standards and often cast about for whom to blame if they are not met. Aren’t our children entitled to these milestones? Are they goals to strive toward if not guaranteed rights? And what about the risk of “merely” surviving?

My youngest child is now an adult. She has survived the death of her father. She has survived self-destructive behavior due to depression. She has survived being institutionalized in the mental health care system. She has survived living in the third largest city in this nation, finding a job and supporting herself. She has survived coming out as queer and has proudly announced her engagement to another wonderful young woman. Her survival of everyday panic, anxiety and body-image crises is chronicled in her Facebook updates. While all of this is great success that I do not mean to diminish, I keep wondering, “Is the mere survival of the hazards of our society the best our young people can hope for?” My daughter is highly intelligent. She is a naturally talented singer and dancer. She is passionate about history and poetry and science. I fear there is a great risk that these traits may remain embryonic throughout her lifetime because she is so focused on navigating social pressures – in a culture that is probably the most economically and socially privileged one on the planet!

That our systems erect road-blocks to social survival and detour our young people from paths of true greatness is a profound risk, I believe. Read the poem “The Truly Great” by Stephen Spender. I get to this stanza, and I am openly weeping.

“What is precious is…

…Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.”

We can so easily provide food, shelter, and opportunity to our youth with the systems we have devised, but those systems have become mine fields where kids are sabotaged on the journey. We have become so enamored of control that we have hobbled love and freedom and self-worth, and our young people will always be the most vulnerable to that constriction. Their symptoms are obvious. They are fighting to survive amid an abundance that mocks spiritual destitution. The Dalai Lama commented on his first visit to America that the thing that surprised him the most about Westerners was that so many suffered from a sense of low self-esteem. He’d never heard the term up until then, but everyone he asked agreed that it effected them.

Our young people have the best advantage for living long biological lives. If they are to live good, happy lives as well, we all must take responsibility for creating caring social space within our psyches and our communities. We need to nurture and model the spirit of social justice from the ground up AND from the top down. We need to encourage and not criticize; we need to live as models, not as victims. One of my favorite examples of a person who dispels social danger with kind communication is Fred Rogers. He takes time; he is present; he sees truth and speaks love. Here is an excellent illustration of that.  And a great example of modeling fairness and social progress from the top down can be found in this video about the new Prime Minister of Canada.

We will never be finished addressing the social risks facing our youth. They will be new every moment. If we take up the challenge to face each of those moments with awareness and a commitment to justice and kindness, though, we can be confident that we are living out the remedies even as problems continue to arise.

Farming a Dancing Landscape

Some Thoughts on Poverty – Spiritual Lessons from Nature Series

This article appears in this month’s issue of The BeZine.  To read the entire issue, click HERE.

Raising a child is not rocket science. It is more complex than that. Rocket science is merely complicated. What’s the difference? The Latin root for complicated means “folded,” like pleats. There are hidden surfaces, but you can unfold them and draw an iron straight across it. Rocket science requires a long series of problems to solve, but with enough time and effort, you can get through them all and even repeat the entire process with very similar and predictable results. (Any one with more than one kid knows this is not the case in parenting!) In the same way, you can determine which peak is the tallest one in the Appalachian Mountains. You probably can’t guess correctly just by looking out over the landscape from a single overview, but get enough people with GPS tools to climb the hundreds of peaks on the horizon and take measurements, and eventually, you can figure out which one is the tallest. Complicated, but do-able.

Guadalupe rangeComplex is a whole different story. The root of that word means “inter-woven,” like a spider’s web, where each fine thread is connected to another. And they’re all sticky except for the ones the spider uses to climb directly over to her stuck prey. But can you tell which is which? Can you tell that the one you just stepped into is sending a ripple right over to where the spider is sitting? She now knows exactly where you’re stuck, but she doesn’t know that you harbor a parasite that will kill her and make its way to yet another host when yonder sparrow snaps up her dead carcass. That’s complex.

spider web

Raising a child is complex. Trying to tell which peak in the Appalachian range is the tallest is complex, too, if the landscape is dancing: changing in an unpredictable pattern , moving to the rhythm of an imperceptible music. Which peak is tallest now? And NOW? And why are we even trying to find the answer to that question while watching this mysterious dance?

Poverty is complex. It is not something that is solved by simply devoting more time and effort to the problem. If it were, we would not be looking at thousands of years of history on the subject. We give in to the temptation to simplify poverty into a matter of dollars over time, reducing it to something measurable, predictable, and controlled, a mere graphic—the poverty line. But poverty is an inter-woven network of relationships and concepts—self worth, social justice, resources and their extraction, economic policies and global politics. It is as complex as our planet’s environment.

the shack

So how do you engage with a complex issue like poverty?

Aldo Leopold arrived at a Land Ethic after years of developing and recording a relationship to a particular place in Wisconsin. In the book A Sand County Almanac, he writes: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Making personal decisions about right and wrong based on your relationship to the community is the responsibility of every individual. Applying that ethic rigorously and non-dogmatically is the work of love. How do you love your neighbor? How do you preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community on this planet of inestimable and finite resources? How do you alleviate the suffering caused by poverty?  These are complex questions. 

“We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.”  —Aldo Leopold

Maybe a more accessible question is this: How shall we strive to end poverty?  To that question, I can imagine simple answers.  Start early in your learning. Teach children about sharing and portion, not dogmatically, but in relationship. Strive toward understanding basic needs and toward a sense of what is enough.  Build trust and hope and compassion.  Be flexible, changing with the land and its resources. Be present with the multiple factors involved; do not look away, diminish or dismiss what is real.  Be authentic and honest and diligent, and finally, believe that even on a dancing landscape, food is growing underfoot.

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Weekly Photo Challenge: Signs

Some signs are meant to be helpful, but come across as completely confusing.  Like this one in the Milwaukee airport, just past the security checkpoint. 

RecombobIt took me a while to think through this one.  I had just been stripped of my shoes, my jacket, my purse and my backpack, been x-rayed, patted down, swiped and wiped, and I felt….discombobulated.  So there, with a few chairs underneath, was the designated area for getting recombobulated.  See, spell check doesn’t even recognize that word!  Helpful, sort of, but mostly not.  But amusing, definitely.  And absurd. 

Another sign I found on my travels.  A possible answer to the question, “Can you handle this?”

handling bats

Turns out, you can’t handle this.  114They never said I couldn’t photograph it, though.

Some signs need translation. The town of Embarrass, Wisconsin on the Embarrass River is nothing to be ashamed of.

I wanted to go into the Post Office and ask about their deep, dark secret.  Instead, I went home and looked up the history of the town.  Turns out, it was settled by French Canadian loggers who found it difficult to get their floating logs past this point on the river because of snags and debris.  In French, “embarrass” means to impede, obstruct or entangle.  Oh. 

Will you recognize the signs of the times?  Well, the times, they are a changin’. 

leaves

By this time next week, I will be unemployed and heading toward New Mexico for the Wilderness 50 Conference.  Yes, the signs are telling me that it’s time for a change. 

Media and Mania

My laptop perches on my warmly-wrapped lap. Sunshine covers the foot of the bed. Outside my window, sparrows twitter in the snow-dusted branches. Steve and I tap our separate keyboards, sending muffled punctuations from our two upstairs rooms into the tranquil space of our “treehouse” among the maples. It’s Monday morning, and we’re back at work, like so many others in this nation and unlike them at the same time.

 Last night, in a nod toward the culture around us, we watched half of the Super Bowl – not on a TV because we don’t own one. Oddly enough, we were able to view it on this screen. It’s been a while since I looked through that window. I recognized a lot of faces from my past encounters with the media, decades aged. (Mary Lou Retton, is that you? Kevins – Bacon and Costner, still recognizable, but changed.) The atmosphere seemed a lot more frenetic, more violent, and more stressful.

 Stress. It occurs quite naturally, of course, in physics, biology and chemistry as resistance and instability. Gravity and PMS are phenomena with which I’m quite familiar. They don’t surprise me much anymore, nor do my reactions to them. But stress occurs unnaturally in lifestyles as well, as Distress or Eustress. Philip Seymour Hoffman, found dead at 46 with a needle in his arm. Manufacturing stress, manufacturing responses – does this give us an edge? If we are “hardwired for struggle” (as Brene Brown says), can we maximize that adaptation and produce a super response? Will that response be healthy or unhealthy? Eustress, according to Wikipedia, “refers to a positive response one has to a stressor, which can depend on one’s current feelings of control, desirability, location, and timing of the stressor.” If it feels “good” to react with anger, aggression or violence to a stressor, is this healthy? If it feels “good” to respond to a stressor by self-medicating, numbing or repressing, is this healthy? If it feels “good” to elevate our molehills into mountains and complain about the weather, our weight and how busy we are, is this healthy? Are we doing ourselves a favor by pouring more stress into our system and developing collateral pathways that will make us more resilient? Or are we taxing our capacity to the point of rupture?

 My husband died from coronary artery disease, brought on by undiagnosed diabetes. Stress did help him develop a collateral artery system in his heart that made it possible for him to survive a heart attack at age 31, but he only lived 16 more years. Beware, America. Look closely at your stress levels. Make your choices wisely.

 That is all.

© 2014 essay by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Family

This photo challenge is one of those too-easy ones.  What photographer doesn’t have a picture of his/her family? So, how do I do it uniquely?  Well, the simple answer is that every family is unique, so any photo of my particular family will be unique.  Having already stretched my little gray cells in composing another post this morning (Model Behavior), I’m going to take a pretty direct route on this one.  “My family” could be my family of origin or the one that I built and raised.  In this case, though, I’m going to show you 3 generations of my family.  Three women, to be more specific.  Three brown-eyed eldest daughters.  Three highly intelligent, brown-eyed eldest daughters.  Three creative, well-educated, highly intelligent, brown-eyed eldest daughters…who can cook and knit and make music and converse about practically anything under the sun.  Their accomplishments and credentials are staggering.  I am in awe of them.  And very proud.   May I present: my sister Sarah, my mother, and my daughter Susan.  Sarah’s got a Master’s degree in Anthropology and Museum studies.  My mother has an undergrad degree in English from Radcliffe (now merged with Harvard) and a Master’s in church music (or nearly…not sure if she completed that).  My daughter has a Master’s degree in Linguistics.  They are voracious readers and always have been.  I listen to threads of shared knowledge dance and weave through their conversations, and I marvel at the connections that bridge the generations.  And I realize that even if they weren’t related by blood, they would be related by the experience and consciousness of their humanity.  And THAT is something that makes us all…..FAMILY.

Family

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home

Home

Home.  A weighty concept in some ways, but also tending toward the sentimental.  It can connote fortification, shelter….and yet, homey can be quaint and trivial.  We invent and reinvent our relationship to home throughout our lives.  A place to go to, a place to run from, a place without, a place within.  Maybe the truth about ‘home’ is that it is changing and fluid.  That’s what I want to illustrate. 

This photo was taken out of my bedroom window, from within the warm nest where I find safety, comfort, and respite.  And yet, the window is transparent.  It doesn’t completely shield me from the cold visually, nor does it keep me from feeling it (it’s an old drafty house, not well insulated at all!).  It lets me come face to face with the physical realities of frost and even pulls me beyond the immediate perimeter of my house, across the street, up into the trees, and all the way out of the Earth’s atmosphere to the Moon.  And still, this is all my home, too.  The Universe is where I live.   Home is near as well as far.  And why should I not feel safety and belonging in all of the world’s manifestations?  Cold and death and distance and infinity do not annihilate me, nor do they exalt me.  They are familiar and comforting, too.  I do not control my home as I do not control the weather…I live in it.  And life is bigger than most of us imagine.  

For another picture of home, mundane and temporal but nevertheless real and interesting, my last post was about our home business, Scholar and Poet Books.   Please click here and take a look!

 

Mensch sighting!

In my post a few days ago, (Oh!  The Humanity!) I sent out a plea for examples of admirable human beings as an antidote to the kind of internet sensations who fail to inspire and instead make me nauseated.   You know what I’m talking about, right?  The rampant  dumbing-down of our species, “urgent” stories of greed and fear and violence and stupidity and pettiness and the like are probably a dangerous toxin to our culture.  Where are the role models who will help us do better and why aren’t we using our advanced media to promote them more often?  For every “Who Wore It Better?”, we could be viewing 5 “Who Lived It Better?” stories.  Why not?

I have enjoyed a morning at work in the kitchen and with the book business while listening to the music of my Mensch of the Day.  This is an artist who has inspired me since my pre-adolescent days, and I’ve only just discovered this live recording from 2 years before his death.  He is the recipient of the 1993 Albert Schweitzer Music Award and the only non-classical musician to be so distinguished.  His humanitarian efforts supported the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, The Cousteau Society, and the Windstar Foundation.  The CD I have was a concert for The Wildlife Conservation Society’s 100th anniversary.  Ladies and gentleman…….John Denver: a singer and songwriter whose lyrics ring with authenticity and passion, whose music spans genres from country to pop to blues to rock, and whose commitment to peace and preservation permeated his career.  As a cultural ambassador for the U. S., he visited China, Viet Nam and the Soviet Union and recorded a duet with a Soviet artist, becoming the first American to do so.  In my mind, he follows in the footsteps of another hero of mine, Pete Seeger, who, at 93, is still active in the same kind of musical ambassadorship that promotes cultural tolerance and environmental responsibility.  I did have the privilege of hearing him give a concert for children when I was in my single digits. 

Who will carry the torch when he passes away?

To read more about the Schweitzer Award, see http://www.anchor-international.org/07.html.  For more about John Denver’s career, see http://learningtogive.org/papers/paper349.html.  For a good listen, go to “You Say the Battle Is Over”.