Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Certified: Chapter Seventeen: Audacious

Soon enough it was time for the first residency for my final class: Theories and Practices of Socio-Environmental Change. I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit for this course, but I was glad to get away to Seattle. It had been raining where we lived almost every day since we returned from Tucson in early February. Then Mario had gotten sick, and not long after, I was ill, too.

I was hoping a change of scenery would do us both good, and the class was merely the excuse for going to Seattle.

It didn't rain for our trip to Seattle, and we encountered no crazy drivers. We drove into town around 9:30 p.m. The city was dark and lit up all at the same time: Some floors of the skyscrapers were black, on other floors fluorescent lights created an eerie glow.

As we drove by the tall downtown buildings, I wondered how many fish were dying in some dam to light this city. The salmon were already on their last legs (proverbially speaking, of course) in large part to the dams that sluiced through our rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

Ah well, nothing I could do about dams this night.

We found our way to our little hotel and went right to bed. I had asked for a larger room this time, and my request got us a room with two twin beds instead of one queen. The room wasn't any bigger, as far as I could tell. At first I was grumpy about Mario and me having to sleep apart, but then I realized that I might be able to sleep better if I didn't have to worry about waking Mario up with my tossing and turning. And that was exactly what happened. I got the best sleep I'd had on any of my trips to Seattle.

The next morning, Mario dropped me off at school. I had no expectations for this class. How different I felt from the first class last summer, taught by this same teacher. I had been certain that that class, the permaculture class, would change my life. I was going to make lifelong connections and alliances. I was going to learn how to be more self-reliant (in a communal way).

I had not connected with anyone. In particular I had not connected with the teacher. (Not because he was a bad teacher or an unkind person. It was more that I felt invisible in the class. Probably didn't have anything to do with him.) And during every class, if you'll remember, something went wrong. We went on field trips every residency and I got lost every time. On the last class, I never did find where everyone was, even after driving around for an hour and a half. During one of the residencies, I locked my keys in the car--at my teacher's house. His parents had to lend me their AAA card to get a locksmith to come in.

It had been appallingly embarrassing.

I almost hoped the teacher would not remember that he had ever met me.

Anyway, I went to the first class with no expectations. I had already read through one of the assigned texts, How to Re-imagine the World: a pocket guide for practical Visionaries by Anthony Weston, and I loved it. His first sentence is "This book is a guide to creative thinking in service of radical social transformation."

Before he begins his first chapter, he writes, "Radical imagination begins with a move beyond compliance and resistance, beyond reactive tinkering or hunkering down or cynical accommodation. The first big move is to an alternative picture of how things could be instead." Yes, yes, and yes. He writes about vision. For me this was so important. I sometimes got lost and dragged down by all that I knew: or thought I knew. By all the impossibilities. So I was ready for some visionary thinking in this class, but I was not expecting it.

I probably knew about half of the students in this class of twelve. Two of the other students I had had in nearly all of my classes, and I gave them each a big hug. It was nice to see two friendly faces, and I was happy they were in class with me.

After we all checked in, we watched part of a video with the artist Andy Goldsworthy. Mario told me later we had seen the film, but I didn't remember it. This time I was entranced. We watched him try to build a huge cone (or egg) out of stone at the beach. He got partway done four different times and each time the stones collapsed.

He decided he didn't understand the stone enough. He needed to learn more. Instead of doing the same thing over and over, with the same results, he listened to feedback from his environment. For some reason, this reminded me of all the politicians who seem so proud of never changing their minds and always sticking to their dogma as though that was something to be proud of. Instead, wasn't that a little insane? Goldsworthy observed and listened to feedback and he changed what he was doing and ultimately he created his new cone.

The tide came in and covered the cone. Goldsworthy said he was giving it to the sea as a gift and he knew the sea would make more of it than he could ever hope for.

It was fascinating watching his process. He was incorporating some of the principles of permaculture we had learned: To observe and interact; to catch and store energy. And he had a vision that he didn't try to control.

We broke into groups and discussed the film, from a permaculture viewpoint.

Then it was lunch. Mario picked me up, and we went back to the hotel where I ate. The rest of the class was walking to downtown Seattle for our field trip that afternoon. Since I was just getting over the flu and I was still trying to hack up a lung every few minutes, I decided I wasn't going to walk on such a cold day. After lunch, Mario dropped me off at Pioneer Square near the Pergola, where we had all agreed to meet.

I stood in the cold and in the welcome sunlight and waited for the class. How interesting that once again I was alone and separated from the class. Briefly, I wondered if it would turn out like the time we went to the Medicinal Herb Garden. I ended up in the wrong place and waited for everyone else for about an hour. More or less. I had felt stupid and alone.

Today I felt none of those things. I knew if I somehow missed the class, I could just keep walking to the building where we were going to be for part of the afternoon.

I watched several tour groups gather at various spots around the square. This was the place where the underground tours began and ended. I pulled my scarf up closer to my mouth and huddled down into my jacket as I listened to the indistinguishable murmuring all around me. I felt strangely comfortable standing in middle of this bustling city.

I was no longer a stranger in a strange land.

At least not completely.

At the International Sustainability Institute, Todd Vogel talked to us about greening Seattle's alleyways. Alleys were always supposed to be a vital part of the cityscape, yet so many of them were now used only for service vehicles, criminal activities, and as dumping grounds for garbage and drug paraphernalia.

ISI cleaned up their own alley and collaborated in creating a city wide "green alley" design contest. During the World Cup, they showed the games in the alley and got huge crowds.

I enjoyed the tour of the green alley immensely. It looked like any other alleyway, only it was clean, and no windows or doors were boarded up. A wrought iron table and chairs were situated near one door. A hanging garden was in medias res (the metal container had just recently been added to the side of the building).

After we looked over the green alley, we all headed back toward school. I only got about half way. I was having trouble breathing, so I called Mario and he drove me the rest of the way.

For most of the afternoon, we discussed the big project for this class. We were supposed to "identify and design a collaborative connection involving two organizations which, to your knowledge and/or intuition, do not interact, collaborate or consider one another as allied resources toward social and environmental change."

I had been thinking about this project for over a month, since I had first heard about it, and I hadn't come up with anything. I kept thinking of connections that had already been made: Having the hops from the brew pub be used as compost for a mushroom grower, using grease from restaurants for biofuel. Things like that. I knew so many of the players in my little part of the world, and I knew (or thought I knew) that they would never collaborate or help one another.

My brain hurt from trying to figure it out.

The teacher told us that this project should be fun. If it wasn't fun, we were doing it wrong. He encouraged us to be audacious. Come up with an audacious idea where two entities would cooperate for the benefit of all.

I loved the idea of being audacious.

I loved that word.

I had to be visionary.

I always said I was a visionary!

I had to be audacious.

I had to have fun!

I was on board with all of that.

By the end of the day, I was flagging and didn't feel well. I was glad when it was time to to quit for the day. Apparently I wasn't completely over the flu. Mario and I had planned on having dinner with a friend, but we weren't able to get a hold of her so we decided to skip it; besides, I wasn't feeling well.

Mario got take-out from an Indian restaurant next door instead. It was not very good. We ate it all.

By the end of the evening, Mario had developed a cough, usually a sign that he was coming down with something.

The next morning it was cold and rainy. We didn't go anywhere to eat. We didn't even stop at the Medicinal Herb Garden. We left town about 8:00 a.m. and headed south.

On the four and a half hour drive home, I kept trying to think of a project. I couldn't. Every idea I came up with provoked only exhaustion. That was how I could usually tell something wasn't for me. If I had a novel idea and then I got tired, that was a clue that I shouldn't write the book.

Our teacher had suggested that we think about our project as though we were designing a job for ourselves. I tried to think about what kind of job I wanted.

I didn't want a job. I wanted to write.

Beyond that: What?

I didn't want to manage a library or an organization any more. I wondered out loud if that was a sign of depression. I didn't get excited about working for an organization and making change on a local level. Why not? Was I giving up?

I was interested in writing.

But I had gone back to school so that I could get a job. I had spent all this money and gone through all this stress to decide I didn't want a job?

No. I always knew I didn't want a job. I always knew I wanted to make my living by writing.

But absent that: What?

Maybe it wasn't depression. Maybe I wasn't giving up. Maybe I had just changed. I couldn't get excited about running a business or a nonprofit. I no longer looked at famous activists and thought of myself as a failure because I wasn't one. I didn't want fame and never had (but I wanted to be useful). I didn't want to be a speaker on a circuit. I didn't want to be a teacher.

Yes, those were all the things I didn't want to be.

What did I want to do?

I wanted to write.

I loved writing novels. That was my passion. I enjoyed nonfiction, too, although it was much more difficult for me. When I was working on the Carrot Cake book, I enjoyed the research. It was an amazing amount of work, doing the research, tracking down leads, getting people to talk to me. It was especially difficult for me because I didn't like talking on the phone. But still I enjoyed the research. I was good at it.

Recently the local food network had sent me their research on food security in our area, and they told me they were always looking for researchers and writers. My heart had done a little jump when I read that. I felt excited by the prospect of delving into all that data. Page after page after page.

I thought of myself as a wild child, out wandering the forest or getting down and dirty in my community making change. Yet in true life, I didn't actually enjoy community building processes. I wanted to. I wanted to be a part of a vibrant community. But I wasn't particularly good at building relationships--or I wasn't comfortable doing it. I was always pushing myself to go beyond my comfort level. Hell, that was why I was in school.

But I was tired of being uncomfortable. Maybe it was acceptable--maybe even thrilling--to work at something that didn't make me uncomfortable all the time. Maybe I would end up doing research on food systems and then writing about them.

I didn't know.

As we drove down Highway 5 discussing what I would do for a project, I realized I was being too parochial. Who said I had to work with one of the organizations in the gorge where I lived?

I thought about my vision of a sustainable community: It was a place where the people were connected to each other and the environment. We didn't hurt Nature or each other. We had meaningful ceremonies and celebrations. We didn't waste. We didn't want. We had meaningful livelihoods. We grew, harvested, and cooked local foods. Our buildings were livable, beautiful, nontoxic...

I could see all of this in my mind's eye. So how could I walk backward from that to see how my vision could come into being? What kind of organizations would have to collaborate to make my vision a reality?

Now this way of thinking I liked. I was sure I could come up with something now.

In the first chapter of Weston's book, he writes, "Affirmative vision is crucial. Be emphatically, visibly, clear-headedly for something, and something that is worked out, widely compelling, and beautiful--not just against the problems or the powers-that-be of the moment."

It was so much more liberating thinking about what was possible instead of being weighed down by what felt impossible. It felt audacious to contemplate what kind of work I actually enjoyed now, at this time in my life, instead of trying to find something I thought I should do.

The word audacious comes from a Latin word meaning "to dare," to be bold. I was ready to be audacious again.

Or maybe for the first time?

1 comment:

kerrdelune said...

Dearest Kim, you are one of the most audacious, creative and courageous women I know. Three cheers for you!

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