Books That Change Lives

I have 4 broad cubbyholes for experience titled “Distraction”, “Entertainment”, “Useful” and “Inspirational”. This is not a system of judgment, simply an organizational game that my homo sapiens brain finds oddly relaxing. I can truly laud events in any of those categories, but sorting them is something that satisfies in a strange way, like the way I play Solitaire on the computer before bed. When I thought of all of the books in my life (and since our home is an online book-selling business, I literally have tens of thousands of books in my daily life!), I wondered how to pick which to write about. These categories are going to help me navigate this topic. Books that change lives can fall under any of these headings.

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I have to start with Children’s Books because I was a child when books began to influence me. Certain Children’s Books can fit under each of those labels. Did you ever try to distract a child in tears by offering to read a story? Sure. Did you ever pick up your jacketless copy of Ferdinand and flip to the illustration of the contented bull under the tree smelling flowers because you were seeking escape? Yes! So maybe “Distraction” is a place where some of my favorites can be filed.

“Entertainment” is a fine role for a Children’s Book. Pure imagination (Roald Dahl), puzzle-solving (Graeme Base, I Spy…), and song and dance (Priscilla Superstar, Eloise) come to mind. Rhyming books by Dr. Seuss and Bill Peet were always fun to read aloud to my kids. Of course, I do voices. (After all, I was a Voice Performance major in college and a theater teacher!) Books can serve up silliness in all shapes and sizes.

1996b

A child’s book becomes “Useful” when it has a gentle way of teaching a very important lesson. I loved Babar immediately, and slept with a plush version each night, thumbing the yellow felt of his crown until its softness lulled me to sleep. I learned to respect animals and humans, that responsibility can bring anxiety, and that belonging to a community helps you to feel secure and peaceful.

When I think of books that are “Inspirational”, I think of them as initiating changes that transcend mood and feeling and circumstance. Perhaps you can call them “paradigm-shifters”. Every so often, a Children’s Book has that kind of impact, too. They defy the age-ism of the Children’s or Young Adult section. The Lorax, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Little Prince, A Wrinkle In Time. These books introduced me to the realms of mysticism and philosophy that I began to explore in greater depth as an adult. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Poems by Hafiz.

There are iconic books that have shaped my life that I think I would put in a separate cubbyhole, perhaps shaped and decorated more like a shrine. These are sacred texts: The Bible. The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn. They became almost monolithic in my life journey at certain points.

Most of the goods manufactured by human beings are problematic to me. Luxury items strike me as senseless and leave me completely cold. Clothing is necessary but has a seamy underbelly in Fashion. You don’t even want to get me started on Plastic! But Books – well, they could be the veritable justification of civilization itself, as far as I’m concerned. I cannot imagine my life without them.

This essay is featured in this month’s issue of  The Be Zine. To see the entire blogazine, click HERE.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Swans at Half Light

hero

warmth

When I was a little girl, my father read to me from E.B. White’s story “The Trumpet of the Swan”. I was 8 years old when that book was published, and I can imagine my father buying it to read to me and my 3 older sisters with his own great curiosity about that remarkable writer neatly disguised as paternal generosity. I had a fascination with the part where the young swan stays at the Ritz Carlton in Boston and eats watercress sandwiches provided by room service, probably in part because I was born in Massachusetts. We had moved to the Midwest when I was 4 years old. When I was 14, we moved to California. When I was 29 and had 4 kids of my own, I moved back to Illinois. Five years ago, I moved up to Wisconsin. In the north woods, and the edge of designated Wilderness, I saw my first wild swans in the half light of evening as I was setting up camp with Steve. I thought of Louis the swan and of finding your true wild voice. I heard the deep silence of that Place and felt the tender understanding of my father, who loved the outdoors. I stood on the soft, summer pine forest floor and took these pictures. To me, the world is poetry – in moment and memory. 

Half-Light

I Love This Place!

This month, I was honored to be the Associate Editor of The Be Zine, and the theme of the issue is “The Joys of Nature: Wilderness, Gardens and Green Spaces”.  Browse the entire blogazine here

What exactly is our relationship with Earth, its wilderness, its gardens and its green spaces?  

steve sturgeon river feet

Of course we all value this place in some way. I won’t call it our home, although we all live here; we can live nowhere else. To me, the idea of ownership seems inappropriate at least and inaccurate at best. This place may be closer to owning me, in fact.  And ‘home’ makes it seem so domesticated. Is that what it is? Or is it unapologetically wild and autonomous? I have decided to approach this place as I would an equal: with humility and respect for both of us. That seems to be the best moral decision I can make.

Others don’t agree. They consider this place a servant in need of stewardship. They talk of ‘eco-system services’ and measure the value of this place by the benefits it provides to one species, a single leaf on the great Tree of Life – Humans. They extract the elements that serve them, but they are not producers, like plants; they are consumers. They talk in economic terms, like ‘board feet’, but the only thing they truly produce is waste, of which only a minimal amount can be absorbed and re-used. They concern themselves with ‘management’, imagining a parental responsibility for the growth and training of this place. It’s ironic to me that the child they attend is billions of years their senior. the gorge wilderness

This place is often valued for its beauty, prized for delicate and powerful sensual elements that fill the soul and spark the imagination.  Many who praise it lift it far up on a pedestal of mysticism but decline to offer it their understanding or their presence. To them, it can become remote, surreal and alien, a romantic fantasy on an epic canvas.

Some view this place with disinterest, perturbation, or downright disgust. Standing on it just means that it’s beneath them; they will not allow themselves to be grounded. It takes a great expenditure of energy to maintain this separation, but they achieve this distance by employing every distraction and applying every veneer currently available.P1040782

This has been called the “Athropocene Era”, the geological epoch of Humans. We are the dominant species at the moment and the major force impacting the Earth. We’re no longer a hunter-gatherer society, and our advancing technology is always at the expense of natural resources, even if our intention is to use it for conservation efforts.  For example, the ‘progress’ we have made in recycling plastic still uses tremendous energy to break down the material and still results in the production of waste and toxins. The unchecked growth of our species has effected the climate of the entire planet and threatens a mass extinction.  

It stands to reason that the only way to lessen our impact is to become less numerous, consume less, and produce less waste. We must slow down and live simpler, more sustainable lifestyles in order to stop this growth mentality that has become a global menace. Then we can begin to nurture an equal relationship to this place and its inhabitants.

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Let us spend time with this place, pay a lover’s attention to its moods, its responses. Let’s be careful what we take and what we leave behind. Let’s respect this place in every detail and not dismiss the nuances in its character. Let us champion its autonomy and dignity, seeking to understand but not using that understanding for our own advancement and growth. Let’s explore to gain wisdom, not to invade. And let us celebrate our love for this place! Teach it! Demonstrate it in song, story, art and work!

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I hope we will not grow weary or discouraged in this love. There will certainly come a new age of geography yet, whether our species is included or not. In our own lifetimes, though, living a loving relationship to this place is its own reward. It is a love to fill the heart, soul, mind and body and bless the world.

All That Matters

(this is a featured article in this month’s issue of The Be Zine. Click here to see the whole thing.)

Once upon a time, there were a bunch of Big Brains who decided that living things (which they rarely called ‘living beings’) needed to be neatly organized. Grouping things together based on similarity was important to them for some reason. So they made up categories and named them Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, in succession from broad to specific. Then they had to remember these categories, so they memorized “Kindly Professors Cannot Often Fail Good Students” – apropos of nothing much. (Personally, I think “Kindly People Courageously Offer Fauna/Flora General Sympathy” might make better sense.)

 Meanwhile, some other Big Brains decided that everything in the Universe was made by one Creator and that He gave humans dominion over all the other animal species on Earth and gave every plant for human use. That made them feel they were Most Important among the creatures on the planet. They felt very comfortable with that and valued themselves, and those that looked and acted most like them, very highly. 

As for those creatures who were terribly different from them, well, they were kind of “icky”.

 Well, these Big Brains were very clever. They prospered and multiplied (and divided and conjugated and came up with quantum physics). They learned how to make a Big Impact on the Earth, making things they liked out of the raw materials Earth had. And every year, there were more of them. They liked to be comfortable, so they tried to eliminate things that bothered them. Like locusts. grasshopperAnd dandelions. Dandelion

They liked to be powerful, so they claimed victories over other living things that had power. Like lions. StoryAnd giant sequoias. 

Sequoia sempervirens

Gradually, they noticed that some of the other living things (or Living Beings) were disappearing completely. buffalo Some people thought that was a shame, especially if the thing was useful or furry or had a face. badger Others noticed that when one type of thing was gone, things began to change for the rest as well. bee happy A few Big Brains began to ask some really Tough Questions about why things on the Earth were changing so quickly and whether the Big Impact of humans had anything to do with it.

I can’t tell you the ending of this story. Perhaps the Big Brains will disappear like so many other Living Beings did, scale 2 and Earth will go on without them. intricate 2 Perhaps the Big Brains will become less numerous, less dominant, and Earth will go on with them. horse and rider Perhaps something altogether different will happen. It doesn’t really matter how I tell the story.

What does matter?

Well, here on Earth, ‘matter’ can also mean every Living Being boxy frown and every non-Living Thing.

What we Big Brains decide to do with all matter will matter and will help tell the end of the story. migration stop

© 2016, essay and all photographs by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved


Mankind: The Modern Mystery and Myth

This piece is featured in this month’s issue of the BeZine. For a link to the complete issue, click here.

The hero’s journey is a deeply challenging topic for an amateur writer and philosopher. What a great invitation to read and research, to tie strands together and squint to see a pattern! Typically, I submit essays to this forum, as I am much more comfortable in prose. This time, however, I decided that an essay on this topic would be way too ambitious. What I have is Swiss cheese and spiderwebs, full of holes and only loosely connected, so I thought a poem would be more appropriate.  However, I will preface this one with a bibliography.  I began with the final chapter of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, where I read this:

“Today all of these mysteries [“the great pantomime of the sacred moon-king, the sacred sun-king, the hieratic, planetary state, and the symbolic festivals of the world-regulating spheres”] have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental science from the the heavens to the earth (from 17th century astronomy to 19th century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in 20th century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the force of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.” (emphasis mine)

That reading led me to recall lectures I heard from Dave Foreman at the Wilderness 50 conference. His essay on “The Anthropocene and Ozymandius” can be found in several online posts. From there, I considered Nietzsche’s Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra. And always underlying my thoughts is my admiration for Buddhist practice and The Middle Way. So, with all that as the primordial soup, this emerged:

Homo sapiens sapiens
Oh most separate, separating
Anthropocene anthropocentric
The Egoid egotist
Ozymandius, great Wizard of Man
Eyes on screen
Fingertips fiddling

Journey who will
That
Über undertaking
Condescend to transcend
Dare to die in darkness,
Awake in wilderness
At one, atoned
In mystic Middle

Cosmic consumption
Preposterous presumption
Unsustainable usurpation
Deplorable devastation

Parading Nero
Begs a humbler hero

hero

© 2015 – poem, essay and photograph, copyright Priscilla Galasso.  All rights reserved.

 

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

Oscar Wilde and “The Critical Spirit”

This article is my submission to the July edition of The BeZine.  For the  table of contents with links to my colleague’s work, click here.

“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly.  Here are some key quotes from that piece:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.  That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”

“When man acts he is a puppet.  When he describes he is a poet.”

I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”.  However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.

First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’?  I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning.  What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into 3 categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.

Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling.  It is how we know we are alive.

And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us.  We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history.  That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values.  We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out.  These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well.  It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories.  Civilization is a story.  Religion is a story.  Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories.  There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones.  (a Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous.  There is no ‘right’ story.  Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.

This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well.  The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning.  In some ways, we want that.  We find it exciting.  But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative.  To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace.  Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning.  When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego.  Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out.  My energy is renewed, and I am at peace.  (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ.  Awareness is the first step!)

“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.”  We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times.  Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others.  For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity.  May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!

Vivid

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