Interview with Linda Wolf, Founder and Executive Director of Teen Talking Circles

In early May, three 8th graders from Hyla Middle School, an independent private school on Bainbridge Island, asked to interview Linda Wolf, TTC Founder and Executive Director in support of their final project for their Global Communities class. The culmination of this class project is scheduled to be presented at the Living Futures unconference in Seattle on May 18th.

At Hyla Middle School, 8th grade students have the opportunity to explore issues that impact their lives through the Living Futures Global Education curriculum. This year, students have focused their energies on a wide array of issues including environmental and inclusivity issues of the Puget Sound area, and building community for youth. This particular group focused on inclusivity and community building for youth on Bainbridge Island, WA. Their goal is to bring attention to strategies and solutions that can serve as potential models for other communities. As teens, they understand the need for change and see themselves as active agents in that change.

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Hyla Middle School 8th Graders

In this interview, Linda Wolf touches on poignant topics such as connection, empowerment, activism, substance abuse, grief, self-love and compassion and how TTC builds vibrant and authentic relationships that support and empower us in our personal growth which informs our capacity to affect social change.

On a personal note, as assistant to the Directors of TTC, I was deeply moved by the reactions of the teens listening to Linda speak. Their faces softened, their voices relaxed, and their eyes seemed to fill with relief. They were nodding their heads, saying, “Yes! Yes! This makes sense!”

It was an honor for me to witness this connection and I believe the true strength of our organization is that it allows us to see each other and connect in this deep way, listening from the heart and being heard and witnessed profoundly heals our wounds and this positively impact everything from our personal relationships to deep divisions in the political and social climates. Please let us know your thoughts and take-aways from this interview.

To listen to this interview on Soundcloud, click here.

Thanks for reading,

Jeny Rae Vidal
Assistant to Directors at TTC

 

Olivia: How long have you been on the Island?

LW: Since 1990

Olivia: How long have you been with TTC?

LW: Since 1993

Olivia: So, do you feel like you are pretty tapped in to the community of youth, ages middle age to high school?

LW: I have a lot of experience in the past but I haven’t worked directly in circle with teens on the Island for a few years; I run a middle school aged circle in Seattle, now. But, we look forward to offering multiple local circles on the island, starting this Fall.

Olivia: How would you describe the youth community on Bainbridge?

LW: I would say, in general the youth on Bainbridge are pretty privileged, mostly white, upper to middle class – they have mostly college-educated parents who are either stay-at-home parents or business people. The kids here have a lot of opportunities to be in nature versus growing up in the city. Being on Bainbridge is sort of like living in a gated community. I think there is a lot that young people on Bainbridge are missing out on though – one of the most obvious is a connection with youth from Suquamish. There is a whole diverse culture that is only 5 minutes away that this community has not merged with… and you don’t get that in cities where there tends to be much more diversity. I do see youth on this Island going through the exact same things that youth go through all over the world go through in general as adolescents and teens, though I think many youth on this island are perhaps more conscious about alternative ways of living.

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Dock Jumping on Bainbridge Island, WA

Jacqueline: Do you see patterns in middle school or high school that lead to drug use, alcohol use, failing classes or school?

LW: Yeah, I do. The way I would describe the biggest problem for all of us in this world, including teens, is that we live in a toxic system – an unhealthy paradigm of dominance versus partnership. The larger paradigm is one of power-OVER instead of power-WITH. For example, white men over everyone, men over women, adults over children, people over animals, people over the planet. It’s dominating and controlling power versus cooperative partnering and collaboration. We live in a system that doesn’t honor compassion, cooperation, sharing, communication, true friendship, equality, and respect as primary principles to live by, even if we espouse it as a value. We live in a system of power over. “You are less important than me because I am an adult.  You are less important to me because you’re brown. You’re less important because you’re Jewish. You’re less important because you’re a woman. You’re less important because you’re gay.” It’s all about domineering over people, the planet, animals. How can we be well when we live in a system where the paradigm is dominance?

We need a system of power-with, a paradigm of cooperation and partnership. I think that is the biggest problem we all have. Every single solitary one of us world-wide. The most important thing for me is to create something that holds us all in partnership, in cooperation, and respect – that has been the overriding value of the Teen Talking Circles Project. TTC is not about an adult coming in to a circle and lording over you. We are not going to try to mentor you, fix you, or tell you how to live.

TTCs are about listening and having the answers and wisdom come from you. What is it that you are longing for? What is it that you want out of life? As a facilitator we’re saying I was once a teenager, and even though I am 67 I have the teenager in me just like every adult has the teenager in her. Your parents have a teenager still inside of them. You happen to be teenagers. It’s co-mentoring that is most important to us. What do you know that you can teach me? What do I know that I can teach you? This creates a space where we can be truthful with each other.

Alcohol and drugs are a complex issue. What drugs are we talking about? Are we talking about marijuana? Are we talking about MDMA, acid, heroin, cocaine, meth?

Olivia: We are talking about substance abuse in general… It could be anything, like sugar.

LW: That’s a complex subject. Much of it has to do with wanting to escape our feelings. When we want to escape our feelings, we could do it in a number of destructive ways, as you say, through sugar, overeating, alcohol, cutting, sex –all kind of ways to distract ourselves and numb ourselves to real life and our feelings. The opportunity that life affords us is to feel grief – and joy. When we feel grief, our hearts break open and that is where the compassion comes in, the self-love comes in. If we are trying to avoid feeling pain, we’re going to use all kind of methods to avoid the wound, the pain, the grief, the shame.

What Teen Talking Circles gives us an opportunity to do is to share those feelings and find out that for goodness sakes, we are not alone. We all feel the exact same things. We all bleed red blood. We all have hurt. We all have shame. We all have wounds… so what?! That doesn’t mean that’s who you are; who you are is so much bigger. To see who you are is also a great healing and helps us to not want to divert, numb ourselves, leave the room, avoid people, not be real, or not be authentic. Right?

Olivia, Jacqueline, Keenan: Yeah! Yeah!

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen Expansion: Sculpture by Paige Bradley

LW: See, these are things you already know… Young people have their ear to the world like listening with a stethoscope. Someone just said to me recently, “We radio out what we are feeling, seeing, imaging.” We radio it to each other energetically. That’s why we can feel what’s going on with other people at school. You know when someone’s giving you the eye. They don’t have to say a thing. You know when you feel safe – you know when you don’t. How are you to trust an adult if you feel an adult is not walking their talk? If you feel an adult isn’t facing themselves? How are you going to trust an adult if you know an adult isn’t really going to listen to you? How do you know when you are really being heard? Being heard is one of the greatest gifts you can give each other. Being heard heals us.

For years, I couldn’t say what I thought about “drugs,” like pot. I’ve wanted to just say to adults, ‘Look, there is going to be experimentation in the teen years, face it. Why? Mostly because they just want to know what is it already!’ Young people just don’t want to feel dumb around other young people who have done it and have to say they don’t know what it’s like. Now, there is religion, wisdom, parental advice that young people need to hear, no doubt about that … of course the advice I gave to my daughters was “don’t do it!” but the reality is that there is going to be experimentation. I experimented as a teen and almost everyone I know has experimented as a teen.

But, there is a real difference between experimenting safely and abuse, self-harm, or lack of self-esteem. I would bet that teenagers have been experimenting in every generation since there was ever a group called “teenagers” and adults haven’t liked it because we know that it can cause so much pain and worse. We know the pain that can happen but sometimes we have to let our kids find that pain, otherwise they will never learn – never make their own choices. They need to ask themselves what is a boundary that I don’t want to cross? How do I create a happy life? What is a healthy life? Balance. Balance.

TTC is an extraordinary place for young people to come together and be heard wherever they are at. We stand by the idea that if we as facilitators hear you or feel that you are hurting yourself with drugs or anything or being hurt by anyone, we are first going to encourage you to talk about it – and if we feel it is dangerous to you or others, we’re going to stand with you to get help outside of circle. But young people who are experimenting with something like pot and talking about it and showing up consistently to circle every week… we’re going to think you’re pretty much doing ok, most likely. But we’re going to ask you to dig into what is behind what you’re doing and the choices you’re making. It is all about balance and well-being and our facilitators are trained to be conscious about all this.  As a circle, we all agree to this on day one. This is talking circle – this isn’t psychotherapy, although it is very therapeutic. The thing about TTCs is that one of the basic agreements that we make with youth in circle from the get-go is that we are all coming to circle to become healthier, wiser, and more self-loving and self-accepting as well as caring about each other and others in general. So we assume that is what you want if you are committed to coming to circle each week.

Also, you young ones are the ones who become activated the quickest if you see or hear that one of your circle mates is hurting themselves or being harmed. Often in circle you would be the ones to ask permission from Joe to talk about it with him. We’ve seen this many times in circle. You develop real care for your brother or sister in circle and it becomes another opportunity to become co-mentors to each other, which is really a beautiful thing. This is part of the empowerment and growth young people develop and practice in themselves and with each other in circle.

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TTC on Bainbridge Island

Olivia: What kind of social changes have you seen over your time here on Bainbridge Island?

LW: I think change is cyclic. Things change but then they come back to be dealt with again and again but from a new place. It’s the same in our personal lives. We make changes and then time goes on and we have to learn the lessons all over again, each time growing and evolving.

Over the last 20 years,  circle has stopped being such an odd, unusual thing. It’s more common to have a “Gender Talks” group or guy’s circle, where guys are looking at the cost of sexism to them. I would say that activism is a lot more normal. Sexual identification is more gender fluid. But, it seems to me, from a larger perspective we’re back to a starting point on some of the same issues we had 20 years ago, especially right now with our current president, his administration, many of those who voted for him and a general political climate in the world right now. For us in the US, the rug has been lifted up and the stuff that has been swept underneath it for a long time is coming out again. Many of these issues came up when I was 16 and I was working against nuclear power, war, sexism, homophobia, racism – working for civil rights, for environmental issues, for women’s empowerment. I think this is coming back up to the forefront and young people and adults are going to have to awaken on a whole new level.

Keenan: How did TTC come about?

LW: TTC started because a friend and I wanted to write a book for teens, telling them everything we had learned that could help them navigate the teen years. We brought together 21 teens from Bainbridge and Suquamish ages 13-21 and we met for 10-weeks and created safe space to find out what the issues were for each one of the teens in the room and what they wanted the book to be about. We called our first circle a focus group – to focus on the issues — and a safe space to tell the truth. After 10-weeks, we thought we would write this book on teenagers for teenagers. We didn’t want to write another book for adults that would make adults feel comfortable about teens. We wanted to write one teens would pass to teens. Just so we’re clear — adults aren’t ever, usually, going to feel comfortable about your teen years, especially parents; it’s scary for them. They know what can go wrong. It’s scary and it’s exciting, and sometimes you live out what your parents did or didn’t do or what they wished they could have done and it’s crazy – very complex.

Anyway, after 10-weeks was up the girls in circle said, “Please! Please don’t stop, we have nowhere else to tell the truth like this! We have no place where we can totally be real and tell people what’s going on with us without being judged, labeled, punished, or where we are vulnerable to gossip or it being used against us.” So, we kept the circle going for two years and then we wrote the first book, “Daughters of the Moon, Sisters of the Sun: Young People and Mentors on the Transition to Womanhood.” Afterwards, we kept meeting every week. Actually a lot of kids from Hyla were part of our first circles. We held circle outside of school so none of the kids would get in trouble from the teachers or administrators if they talked about the more edgy stuff. The book ended up selling over 50,000 copies and was so successful people helped us start the nonprofit so that we could train other adults to lead circles in their communities.

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First Teen Talking Circles with Co-Founders Wind Hughes and Linda Wolf

Years later, we wrote a second book called Global Uprising: Confronting the Tyrannies of the 21st Century – Stories of a New Generation of Activists. The idea being that each of our personal issues are connected to global issues. For example, one of my personal issues as a teen was over-eating, which is how I tried to escape my feelings of insecurity and lack of self-esteem, I just ate and ate. I didn’t know how to throw up, I would just stuff myself with food and eventually cry. It was a paradox.

So where does that come from? I felt too fat. Why did I feel too fat? My mother was a fashion model and I compared myself to her. Where else was I getting the message that I was ugly if I was fat? Magazines, TV, movies. Who was selling me those magazines? Men and corporations interested only in exploiting me though promoting cultural norms around what a woman should look like and though ads in those media sources. How did I come to feel so objectified? Sexist messages were coming in from all sides. So, we once I started identifying and connecting my personal issues to global issues and started seeing all of the tentacles that interwove in creating my thinking that I was not good enough, I could start to take some action. I could become an activist. Once we can identify with our power to take action, we no longer have to be muted or overwhelmed by our personal issues.

Global Uprising came about because we were inspired by the WTO protests in Seattle that happened in 1999, where young people came together from around the world protesting these very things – Advertising messages, sweatshop labor, animal cruelty, the prison industrial complex, institutionalized racism, etc. Global Uprising is a book for teens, your age, that will teach you what’s wrong and why are we are behaving this way.

Olivia: So, what you are really saying is that we need empowerment?

LW: Again, a very deep question with many answers, empowerment. What is true empowerment? What I learned recently was that there is a real difference between force and power. True power can be very graceful, something I have to learn myself because I fought so hard in the 60s and still feel like I have to fight hard what’s going on in our country today. One of the greatest ways to have true power is through self-knowing, to cultivate self-respect and respect for others. To see your elders and the authority figures around you as human beings. To understand what it means to change the paradigm from power-over to power-with. There are many ways we can nurture our own agency. Being around people who support and uplift you is also so important, which is what circle offers.

Who are you? See yourself. You’re not this little thing that’s been labeled you. You are this enormous consciousness, you are not limited. You’re everything. What happens with a lot with young people is that someone will say to them, “Who do you think you are?” That’s disempowering beyond belief.

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“Girl in the Tree” Protest on Bainbridge Island. Driven by a deep sadness that her home town was developing unsustainably, teen activist, Chiara Rose protests 800+ trees being cut down for shopping center build. Hundreds of people show up in support of her. Great example of bringing the personal issues to external action.

TTC: Let’s turn the tables for a minute and ask you teens something. What one thing do you wish adults knew about the teen community?

Keenan: I would like them to know that we are mature and if we show that we are mature they need to know that we can handle more. Sometimes, say they are mature and their parents still treat them that they are not

Jaqueline: Here at Hyla, adults trust us that we are going to do the right thing… maybe a few of us need a steer in the right direction every once in a while. I think adults should know that we can make the right decision but nobody can always make the right decision.

Olivia: I want them to know that we are ready. With Internet and everything, there isn’t a time in our lives that we don’t know. There is no use crying about it, it’s done – you can’t stop it. You have to stop protecting us from things we already know because it’s counter-productive and annoying. All of that effort can be used to teaching us knew things. Of course, we are going to make our stupid jokes and goof around but we are mature, we just don’t act like it because aren’t expected to and it’s kind of fun to not be… but we still have it in us.

LW: It sounds like you don’t feel like adults are giving you credit for having a much broader understanding of the world. And that you do have a much broader understanding of the world even though you are still “kids”… and you are still kids in some ways because you aren’t working or having to work for your living – you’re still dependent. It sounds like you want adults to jump levels and treat you as more mature — perhaps they aren’t ready themselves to do that. It’s hard to let go of our children into an adult world that has so many pit-falls.

Olivia, Jacqueline, Keenan:  Yeah! Yeah! Exactly!

Olivia: Thank you for meeting with us. You have been so apt at hitting all of our questions. We would love to have you come in to our class and speak about this more! We would love to have TTC in our class next school year if possible!

LW: Yes of course! We would love to!

Thank you, Olivia, Jacqueline, Keenan, for inviting us to sit down and chat with you. We look forward to more opportunities to talk with you and see what we can learn from each other.

If you are interested in learning how to start at Teen Talking Circle in your community, please contact us at info@teentalkingcircles.com.

Interview has been edited slightly for clarification.

Freedom ; Love ; Belonging ; Trusting ; Knowing …

We have a great discounted TTC Facilitator’s Training coming up this Fall! Check the link.

I CHOOSE LIFE

I CHOOSE LIFE

Choose Life! I leaned recently the this symbol ; means a lot more than I ever thought. It means continuity; it means there is more to be said; more to learn and know and do – it means ongoing! Isn’t that what we all want from all our relationships — an ongoing quality that realizes the meaning and power of process? A period means full stop. No fun in that!, Especially when you’ve loved someone.

So, how do we love ourselves enough to keep going; keep loving; keep staying present in the process of living life; in the process of relationships?

How do we connect with our greatest self which exists in infinite space, connected to the infinite spirit of life blossoming  anew every millisecond?

And how do we connect with that great self in another?  Because surely, then the flow of our mutual lives remains unbroken.

Teen Talking Circles is not about one single circle on Bainbridge Island. It is about a philosophy and way of being that reaches across the planet and unites us in compassion and love, in acceptance, belonging, agency, and courage.

Teen Talking Circles are not just for teenagers. But to begin doing them at 12 years old makes an enormous difference in one’s life. To do them with kids on the street, in schools, in neighborhoods, everywhere is a great gift to give young people.

Homeless youth in Seattle

Homeless youth in Seattle

Teen Talking Circles are not panaceas – they don’t clear up all issues and problems we face, but they give us a strong opportunity to become responsible for our lives —  to tell the truth, to figure out our lives in healthy and conscious ways, and that surely frees us to find our ways in this world of so much pain and delight.

So, we have an offer for you  — we have been given a special gift of scholarship money in order to gift our next TTC Facilitator Training at cost. We have 9 spaces out of 11 to fill. Would you love to join us and experience TTC?

We’d love to have you come be with us for this positive experience.

Check out the registration page for more information. Love, linda

Pathway to Paris: An Interview with Jesse Paris Smith & Rebecca Foon

ttcflowerApril 2015

Hello dear friends,

So far, the TTC year ahead looks like it will be a sweet and potent one. This week nine women are on our way from around the US to Yelapa, Mexico for the 11th annual Women’s Sacred Circle Retreat – “a secret treasure”… And just last month we started a new Seattle Tween Girl’s Circle, which will be led by a collective of outstanding TTC facilitators, including Heather Wolf, Christine Castigliano, and Nora Harrington. We are planning a regional facilitator training in Oregon, and looking ahead to TTC trainings here at home and a super fundraiser in November again. It is hard to believe this is our 21st year!

In January, we were invited to support the annual benefit concert for Tibet House US, in NYC, by donating 38 handbooks to the stellar line-up of presenters, and 500 brochures went to audience members. In March, we were honored with a $1000 award from the Bainbridge Island Women’s Club, which will be augmented by the funds we will receive from One Call for All. If you’ve wanted to donate to TTC, doing it through One Call nearly doubles what we receive. It’s easy. Just click here. All funds go to scholarships.

In this blog post, I’m honored to be able to introduce Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon, who are clearly doing exactly this. They are on fire, giving themselves fully to the world in myriad creative ways. In the interview below, you’ll learn about their important project, Pathway to Paris — a powerful movement to bring together art, music, and attention to what Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, says is THE most important world issue we face daily — climate change.

Recently, Christen Lien sent me a link to a powerful video on Youtube, which has gone viral — I want to share it with you.

This video is evidence of why TTC exists. We need each other. We need to hear ourselves being heard. We need to know that we are not alone and not the only ones who go through all these things that come with being alive. This is the way to solve conflicts and work together to create ingenious ways to address the many issues we face on the planet. Together, we can shift the paradigm and bring attention to what needs attention in order to evolve in the most conscious ways.

plum trees blossoming in our yard

plum trees blossoming in our yard

The evidence of climate change is clear. Even here, in the Pacific Northwest, in my own backyard, spring sprung in  early February. Our plum trees were in full bloom, while the bees slept on dreaming of the honey nectar they were not going to find this year in our trees. Another example of climate change’s “inconvenient truth?” Everywhere we look we see an intensification of weather and climate extremes. Climate change is making hot days hotter, flooding heavier, hurricanes stronger and droughts more severe. It’s causing dangerous and damaging changes to the landscape of our world, affecting wildlife, and it is increasingly getting worse.

In Paris, this year in December, the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference will be focused on achieving a legally binding and universal agreement between all nations to cut carbon emissions due to burning fossil fuels, which is a big part of the cause of greenhouse gases and climate change.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben in Beijing             Photo: Linda Wolf

I remember meeting Bill McKibben in Bejing while on a sustainability tour with Global Exchange in 2005. He was briefing a packed room of Chinese journalists about this crisis back then. Today he says, “The future is bleak and there is no room for speculation, wishful thinking, or doubt.” Manuel Maqueda, co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and founder and director of Kumu, says it is more correct to call this the climate catastrophe or climate crisis.

IT IS TIME TO TOTALLY SPEAK OUT

In 2005, with Kevin Danaher, co-founder of Global Exchange, I went on a Sustainability Tour of China. While in Beijing, I visited the Graveyard of Extinction at The Milu Park.  What a chilling experience. There were approximately 145 tombstones in the cemetery, toppled over on each other like dominoes that cover a space of 100 meters. I wonder if the hand has been moved further back towards us, at the end of the line, before rats?

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Graveyard of Extinction, Milu Deer Park, Beijing China                                      Photo: Linda Wolf 2005

It’s crazy serious and yet we can’t allow ourselves to be flattened by a conclusion that we are all doomed. Over a decade ago, I interviewed Maya Angelou and asked her what she would tell young people who were scared that things were so bad there was nothing that would fix them. Here’s what she said,

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Maya Angelou handing the world to girls, Seattle 1998. From Daughters of the Moon, Sisters of the Sun: Young Women and Mentors on the Transition to Womanhood, by K. Wind Hughes and Linda Wolf                                  Photo: Linda Wolf

“It seems terrible. There’s racism and sexism and ageism and all sorts of idiocies. But bad news is not news. We’ve had bad news as a species for a long time. We’ve had slavery and human sacrifice and the holocaust and brutalities of such measure. We can’t imagine what Attila the Hun did or the cruelties of the period when the church, the great Inquisition, sliced people open from their heads to their groin and gutted them. And women were burned at the stake and stoned to death, as were men. We can’t imagine it. Today we say, “Ah, how horrible.” But the truth is, we have had bad news a long time. Yet, amazingly, we have survived. And while on the one hand we have the brutes, the bigots, and the bullies, at the same time we have had men and women who dreamed great dreams. We’ve had Galileo and Aesop, Paul Laurence Dunbar and W.E.B. DuBois. We’ve had Sholem Asch, and Shalom Aleichem – great dreamers. We’ve had women who stood alone, whether it was Harriet Tubman or Mother Jones. We’ve had Margaret Sanger. We’ve had women who have stood in the gap and said, “I’m here to try to save the world.” You have to think who we are. If you made a map five miles long and five miles wide of the universe, Earth would be smaller than a pin-head. I think it may have been Durant who said if you make a model the size of the Empire State Building, and flat on the top of the spire you put a postage stamp, the model would represent how long Earth has been here, the spire would represent how long life has been here, the thickness of the stamp would represent how long human beings have been here, and the thickness of the ink would represent how long we’ve been sentient. So we’re the newest group on this little blob of spit and sand. This is what young women and men should know. They should know that we are carnivorous, yet we have decided somehow not only to not eat our brothers and sisters, who may be delicious, but to accord them some rights and to try to love them and look after them. I don’t want young men and women looking around and saying, “Oh my God, oh mea culpa, it’s so awful.” It’s bad but it’s also good, and it’s up to each one of us to make it better. Every one of us. We deserve our future.”

I feel deeply honored each month to write these posts and share the people who inspire me and help me make it through the hard times and the painful thoughts. I am so grateful to my friends who give me space to grieve and to return to love that much more deeply. Thank you for being part of my world.

Love, linda

photo: Chris Jordan

photography by Chris Jordan, used with permission

“…The interconnected network in an old-growth forest is thousands of millions of times larger and more complex than any human brain. Isn’t it strange how we mow those forests down, calling them “overburden,” so we can get to the coal underneath to burn for electricity so we can chill our beer by a few degrees and watch “the game” on our plastic television screens. We are collectively missing the real game so badly that anyone watching from a distance would have to be laughing hysterically. Or crying their eyes out for the tragedy of it…” Chris Jordan

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Rebecca Foon & Jesse Paris Smith                                                                Photo: Bobby Singh

The following interview took place on Skype, February 12, 2015.

Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon are world-renown musicians, who are deeply passionate about conservation, climate change, and social justice issues.They are currently focused on the project they founded, Pathway to Paris, which is a series of concerts and events to draw attention to the lead up of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris in December, 2015. They are planning two nights of concerts during the talks in Paris, to help build awareness and dialogue around the importance of coming up with a legally binding agreement. The concerts will also serve as fundraisers for 350.org, the leading organization dedicating to building a global movement of climate change.

189140_1599548273092_7972737_nJesse Paris Smith is a composer, pianist, and multi instrumentalist. She performs globally in multiple configurations, and her compositions have been commissioned for art installations, book soundtracks, and live film score performances. She is a graduate of the Sound and Music Institute, trained in integrative practices of music and sound therapy. She is on the Associate Board at Tibet House US, curating a weekly event called Mindful Music and Sound Series and is a regular participant of the Tibet House US Annual Benefit Concert at Carnegie Hall. She also co-curates and hosts Talkingstick, a monthly true storytelling and music event at the Rubin Museum of Art. In September 2014, with cellist, Rebecca Foon, she launched Pathway to Paris, a year long event series and online portal, focused on innovative solutions for climate change.

beckRebecca Foon is a Canadian cellist, vocalist, and composer originally from Vancouver, BC. She currently records under the alias Saltland and is a member and co-founder of the Juno Award-winning modern chamber ensemble Esmerine. She is an environmental and social activist, yoga teacher, produces musical and artistic events, and performs and records with many world-renown musicians, artists, and poets. She is a member of Sustainability Solutions Group, a sustainability cooperative that works with cities and municipalities to create climate change action plans.

Linda Wolf: So, how did the two of you actually meet?

Rebecca Foon: We met in London at Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown Festival. Both of us were playing there and got talking. I was living full time in Montréal and Jesse in New York. It was clear to us both that we had a lot in common and we stayed in touch. We both care deeply about environmental and social justice issues, as well as being musicians ourselves and loving world music. I could tell that Jesse was a very open person with a vision and passion for making positive contributions to this planet. That kind of vision, positivity and inspiration to create on-the-ground change through art and hard work is so important to me. I was very grateful when we began to imagine weaving art and music together for Pathways to Paris.

Linda: What exactly is Pathway to Paris?

Rebecca: Pathway to Paris is about building a movement of thinkers, academics, activists, artists, NGOs, and government people who come together to imagine ways to bring attention to climate change issues, especially now in the wake of the UN Climate Change Conference happening at the end of this year in Paris.

Linda: How are you doing this?

11150249_431001670406982_7657141607190801584_nJesse Paris Smith: We’ve been producing events leading up to our final concerts which will be in Paris during the first weekend of the climate conference in December.  We just had our second event at The Greene Space in NYC on April 8th. The event was live streamed so anyone in the world could watch and the link is still live to watch, and the show will also be aired this month on David Garland’s WNYC/WQXR radio show, Spinning On Air.

http://www.thegreenespace.org/events/thegreenespace/2015/apr/08/spinning-on-earth/

It was such an incredible evening of speakers, poets, musicians, all sharing in this discussion of climate change under the umbrella of this theme of April, which is Earth month and Poetry month. We had May Boeve, the Executive Director of 350, and it was such a wonderful evening of positive energy, with education, activism, and celebration.

Rebecca: The objective of the conference is to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement between all the nations of the world. The overarching goal of the talks is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. There are a lot of people and organizations also working to bring attention to the conference. We are working in partnership with 350.org as well as other sustainability organizations and groups.

Linda: The whole issue of climate change or climate crisis is hard to get our minds around. It’s so huge. I read on your site, Pathways to Paris, about the lead up and what’s at stake. I also read on the 350.org site that a big part of the crisis is that right now we’re at 400 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and we add 2 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere every year. According to 350.org, unless we are able to rapidly turn that around and get back to below 350 ppm this century, we risk triggering irreversible impacts (tipping points) that could send climate change spinning truly out of control.

Recently, in my interview with Noam Chomsky, I asked him whether objectively he had any hope for us. He said, “No.” I said, “Really? Wow, that’s terrifying.” He said, “You asked the question objectively do I think there’s hope. Objectively, probably not. But it doesn’t follow that we have to give up hope, we don’t know.”

Rebecca: It’s something I think about a lot. It’s something I think about when I imagine having children. I have to ask myself, do I want to bring a child into this world? What’s going to happen to the next generation and the generation after that? What will this world look like in 100 years? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to these questions. Science speaks volumes and says a lot but nobody really knows what’s going to happen and what the impacts of climate change are really going to be, so, yes, it is terrifying for sure. But I think what keeps me inspired is that I really believe in humanity, and I believe in this planet, and I believe in beauty, and there’s so much beauty in this world in every moment, and when you can tap into that — really living moment to moment, being awake in that moment as fully as you can, life is truly spectacular. The more love you can bring to your relationships and the way you interact with your environment is what’s important. I think for me living each moment fully gives me the courage to take in the next moment. I can’t really think too far beyond each moment in terms of the impacts of climate change.

Right now, red alert lights are flashing emergency with regards to the future of our lives and all life on this planet. There’s an enormous amount of urgency to take action now.  It is incumbent upon the united nations of the world to come up with a binding agreement that will impact behavior changes, by-laws, policies and best practices. For sure, I’m terrified of the future when I think about the long-term possibilities if we don’t act fast, and yet we can’t live in that fear. For me to stay inspired and keep allowing myself to enjoy this life as much as possible with the people that I love means I can’t allow myself to live in paralyzing fear.

groupshotwindLinda: Working with young people in teen talking circles, I’ve seen countless times how when we share the ways we feel, especially what hurts, we are reminded that we are not alone. We can also map how the issues we face are inextricably tied to global issues and vice-verse. Then, the feelings of despair go away and our life force returns so that we become empowered to make a difference by taking action on what matters to us. The more we allow ourselves to grieve the more capacity we have to love and the more energy we have to give.

Jesse: The first time I learned about climate change, I was in high school. I was in 10th or 11th grade and I was in a history class where we had to do a current event assignment. It was very late, the night before school, and I hadn’t done my homework, so I went to the deli to buy a newspaper. I was looking through the paper for something to do my homework assignment on and I found an article and read the words ‘global warming’, ‘fossil fuels’, and ‘greenhouse gasses.’  I didn’t know what any of these phrases meant but being a lover of nature and earth science, I was intrigued by the words ‘greenhouse’ and ‘fossil.’ But the tone of the article wasn’t a lighthearted article about gardening, or an archeological dig. I had AOL instant messenger up on my computer, and since it was very late, there was only one classmate online who I barely knew, and I wrote to him, asking what these phrases meant. He explained everything to me about global warming, as it was  commonly called back then. I became very panicked also very upset that I hadn’t been taught about this in school. For hours I wrote back and forth with this classmate, as I delved deeper into the subject, reading more about it online, and quickly looking for books and articles to brush up with. I really couldn’t believe we hadn’t learned about all this in school, and was upset about that, as if they had been hiding the topic from us.

So, I wrote my paper and the next morning turned it into class. After that, climate change was it for me. At that time, I wanted to abandon music and any artistic endeavors, because suddenly they felt to me to be so self centered when the planet was in so much trouble. So, I ended up writing hundreds of letters and signing petitions, and for the last year of high school I volunteered and worked with environmental organizations based in NYC and also with Ralph Nader.

But like any other vocation, there is a dark side to activism. Working with activists and politicians I saw so many people completely rundown, feeling defeated by these overwhelming topics so much bigger than themselves, that I actually did my final project in 12th grade on activist burnout. I realized I didn’t want to feel that way. I wanted to find some sort of balance between the passions of music and the arts, and environmental activism.

Linda: You’re one of the busiest people I know, Jesse. How do you deal with that kind of stuff now?

CandlesJesse: The most important thing is self care. Before you can successfully tackle climate change or any environmental or social injustice issue, you have to take care of yourself first. You need to make sure you’re okay first. If everyone just took better care of themselves, the world would be a better place. Find different things that work for you, and make them habits. Eating healthy, drinking healthy drinks. Things you do every day that keep you feeling your best. Whether its a sport, or meditation, talking walks, yoga, playing an instrument, listening to a certain kind of music, reading a book of inspiring quotes, any rituals or routines you can have that help you to feel good.  And last resort things too for when you feel stressed or overwhelmed. A teacher of mine taught us to have a ‘safety kit’ for moments when we feel overwhelmed. Like a box you have in your room where you keep different things that make you feel calm and happy, like some music you love, or a tea you like to drink, a book that makes you smile, photos, anything. The second thing after self care, is talking to and connecting regularly with other people, and connecting with others when you feel overwhelmed. It is so important to have people around you that are your tribe, that relate to you, are of like mind, share in your passions, inspire you, and help you to feel encouraged and hopeful. And people who you believe in, and want to help in the same way. People of all walks of life and ages.

For example, I live next door to a family of creative and socially conscious artists, including Anne Waldman, a poet, activist, and amazing role model and inspiration. She always seems to be full of so much hope and optimism, always looking towards the future. It’s so important to be surrounded by that kind of energy. She is so supportive of Pathway to Paris, and so encouraging to younger generations.

Rebecca: One way I take care of myself is through yoga and meditation. Personally, I’ve felt somewhat sad and depressed, and I knew I needed to talk to somebody about how I was feeling. I knew it would have to be someone who inspires me. I found out Julia Butterfly Hill does life coaching and contacted her. She’s the woman who lived in a tree for two years to draw attention to the destruction of the Redwoods through cutting down the forest.

bookcoverLinda: Yes, Julie wrote one of the stories in my second book, Global Uprising: Confronting the Tyrannies of the 21st Century – Stories from a New Generation of Activists.

Rebecca: One thing I got out of all our wonderful conversations is her philosophy around problem solving, which is what I’m all about — creative problem solving, innovation and doing things that haven’t been done before — rethinking approaches to messy problems. Now, I see problems as awesome opportunities and get excited instead of seeing them as huge weights that take all the life force out of me. Instead, I can dig into the problem and try to figure it out and brainstorm it with others, which is so important. I’m a big believer that one person doesn’t have all the answers. It’s about collective brainstorming to come up with the best solutions. That takes the weight off you as an individual.

Jesse: It’s difficult to imagine being 14 right now and being able to go on the smart phone or computer and see all the overwhelming information and news this is constantly being put up. That’s another thing I think is super important for young people – not to be on the internet so much. Not to live in this world of screens where its hard to know whats reality and what is false information. Get out in nature, go on a little hike, go to the woods, go to the beach, go outside and be with your friends. It’s so important even as an adult, to alternate between being in the city, being on the computer, and on the phone and getting away from all that stuff to be in nature, be creative. It’s so important to make sure you’re paying attention to balancing it out.

Linda: Speaking of inspiration, how have your families inspired you? What qualities have your parents instilled in you?

Rebecca:  I’ve grown up in a political arts family. My dad and my mom started Green Thumb Theater, a theater company known for political children’s theater in Canada and the US. After leaving Green Thumb, my mother ran a number of arts festivals and over the last 20 years has been the director of Inner-City Angels, which is an innovative arts education organization that brings artists and musicians into inner city schools to work with mostly immigrant kids.

innercityangels-photo-1My mom’s passion and devotion to these kids and commitment to bringing the critical issues of our time into the public education system through art has been very inspiring to me. And as a person, my mom is an incredibly generous, compassionate person and cares deeply about her family and the people around her. I try to emulate all those values that she has, of compassion, love, and generosity.

Linda: And how has your father inspired you?

Rebecca: My father is quite brilliant as a writer, has a very creative

Becky & Dad

Becky & Dad (Dennis Foon)

mind and his writing alone has definitely been the source of inspiration for me. He is completely supportive of me and loves and adores his family. I think of him as my best friend. He, too, weaves critical issues into his art to make change and that has been very inspiring for me.

Linda: Jesse?

trio

Jesse, mom (Patti Smith), and brother (Jackson Smith)

Jesse: One thing that is inspiring about my mom is that she’s 100% true to herself. If she wants to do something, she just does it. She lives her path and her purpose 100%, so everything she puts her energy into and devotes herself to is coming from a genuine place. I think she just is herself and can’t imagine being any other way. She knows who she is and she follows her own path. She doesn’t act out of a place of fear, or because anyone else convinced her of what to do. She’s not driven by money, success, or fame, and I think she has probably always been that way. It is inspiring to see her follow through with everything she wants to do, with anything she thinks is worth seeing through.

Linda: I have so much respect for your mother, Jesse, and her work. I knew her when I was young. We met in NYC when I was on the Joe Cocker Tour. And you have a very talented brother, Jackson. All three of you play music together. What fortune! What a family! What about your father, Jesse, I know he died when you were young?

Jesse: He died when I was seven. He was a musician; a guitarist and songwriter. Throughout my life I have had times of getting upset when I wished I could play music with him, or wondered what he would think about me, and if he would approve of my life choices. Most of what I know about him is pieced together from listening to his music, talking with my mom and brother, hearing stories from others over the years, and doing my own research. The other day, a friend was reading a book about the Black Panther party and I told him that my dad was involved with the White Panther Party in the 1960’s in Detroit. I pulled up some videos of him on the computer. Watching the videos, I was reminded how eloquently he spoke, and how politically active he was when he was very young.  As a teenager, his band was deeply involved with political issues. They were very radical. I was watching an interview, and he was speaking so clearly and passionately about the political problems of the 60s. His band was using music as a way to communicate with the people. They were doing what they loved, and using their talents as a vehicle to spread awareness and to increase the power of their voices. That’s very inspiring, and similar to what we are trying to accomplish with Pathway to Paris.

Linda: Listening to you two, I’m just in awe of your gifts and your beauty. I just want to have you two come here and live in my little cabin and work in my veggie garden with me; introduce you to everyone I love, and play music together!

Jesse & Rebecca

Jesse & Rebecca

So, what words of advice would you give a young person?

Rebecca: Dive in and learn about the issues. Challenge yourself to find ways of exploring the issues, whether it be talking about them at school or building movements inside or outside school with your friends or community to raise awareness and foster dialogues and imagine solutions.  Create concerts or café sessions, getting speakers to talk or starting petitions, writing letters or measuring your ecological footprint and challenging your friends to measure theirs. There are tons of really great ecological footprint calendars online, so just getting a sense of your own impact on the planet and creating fun ways of trying to reduce it, and inspiring others to reduce theirs. Thinking about the modes of transportation that you use and ways to move towards the end of fossil fuels because that’s basically what we’re trying to do  — to move to the end of using fossil fuels by mid-century. Find out what that means and brainstorm creative ways to get there.

Jesse:  I would say to take the time the find your passions, and then seek out and create opportunities to explore them. For me, two of my passions are music and environmental activism specifically focused on climate change. These are things I discovered as a teenager. When I was a teenager and I got interested in this stuff, I found both the internet and actually meeting up with people in real life to be equally important. My favorite environmental organizations had websites with petitions and letters, articles and book suggestions, and sections that listed meet ups or group activities and easy ways to get involved. It can be overwhelming, because there is so much out there, and seemingly endless possibilities. My advice is to identify what matters to you and do what you love, because if you’re doing that, you’ll be able to do a great job. I also want to say how important it is to find and identify mentors and older more experienced people in the field you are passionate about who you can learn from.

Rebecca Foon & Jesse Paris Smith

Rebecca Foon & Jesse Paris Smith        Photo: Bobby Singh

Rebecca: I’m so happy to have been able to do this with you guys and to share the story and so grateful to be a part of this with Jesse. I feel like it’s just such a beautiful time for Jesse and me to link different parts of our passion — our music and our love for the world and our passion for climate change solutions and to bring all this together. That’s the most inspiring thing — being able to reach out to people that inspire us and see their reactions as we share Pathway to Paris with them. Being tapped into a common mission and vision with others is such a powerful transformational tool. If anything gives me hope, it’s that. And so my advice for young people is to band together and tap into a collective power, because there is so much opportunity for action when you’re part of a powerful energy committed to creating positive change.

Linda: Thank you so much for this interview, both of you.

“It’s not that we need to save the Earth, we need to save the systems that make the Earth compatible with human existence and the existence of other life forms” Naomi Klein, Author

“What if there were just one being looking out through all the eyes in the world, what would that being be seeing? There is a challenge to try to wrap your mind around.” Chris Jordan, Artist

Each day, we still turn at warp speed around the sun and the seasons follow one by one. We have no idea what our best thinking can achieve, what possibilities we can imagine and manifest, when each of us is willing to face and frame the crisis we’re in as an opportunity. The fact that we love is miracle enough to keep on a path with heart. Choose one and all the rest intersect. There are many organizations with helpful websites. Here are a few more links to follow:
350.org

The Nature Conservancy
The Union of Concerned Scientists

Pathway to Paris – Click here to learn much more and get involved!

Pathway to Paris on Facebook – LIKE!!! LOVE!!!

The Owl, The Dawn Chorus, Music for Bathing: It’s Cosmo Sheldrake, of course

2/1/15

Good February morning to you each and all. Crispy Hot Buttered Sour Dough Toast and Earl Grey Tea with 1/2 and 1/2 made me joyfully ready to begin this day, the first of February. Normally, I only eat seeds and nuts and dried fruit in the morning with my tea, but today I gave myself the delight of toast.This is going to be a powerful year, I feel it. My world of photography has taken a leap with a new commitment, a new friend (I’ve graduated to an Epson 7890), and a new photography website, and studio/office coming in this week.

Heather Wolf, Kellie Shannon Elliott and I are gearing up for The Yelapa Women’s Retreat in April; a TTC Facilitator Training is scheduled for July, and Teen Circles are in the planning; March & April blog interviews are scheduled with Jill Purce, Jesse Paris Smith & Rebecca Foon. Exciting!!! And way off in December, something important is brewing. Outside, the veggie garden is already sprouting garlic, planted in the rain last Fall. The world is a crazy painful beautiful place in need of all our love, positive vibrations, and good deeds. Spirit is calling us to breath deeply, slowly, stand with good posture and walk tall. We are called to be here now and live until our last story is writ. Blessings like red petals thrown from on high — dare to laugh, cry, hug, be — and live life fully. This month, we have the pleasure of introducing you to a most beautiful young man:

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Before you read our new blog post here, click on the image above; then, come on back. Trying to describe Cosmo Sheldrake requires a lot of adjectives, and that will save me some, because it will be super apparent to you from the get-go who Cosmo is, and what talent he has!

cosmo header

Cosmo Sheldrake is a 25 year-old multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, producer, performer, teacher, singer, improviser – a kind of a Puck-like spirit crossed with a romantic English gentleman crossed with a beat-box, hip hop artist crossed with a poet! Cosmo is simply someone you have to experience and thankfully you can do just that online and at his concerts and workshops, and sometimes even on Bainbridge Island at our very own family’s Iggy’s Brew House where he and his brother, Merlin, are part of the early story. (I fondly remember Heather & Sean (my daughter & son-in-law) and the Sheldrake boys brewing up some of their first experimental brews in our backyard.)

Based in London and Brighton, Cosmo also sings and performs with Merlin in their band the Gentle Mystics, OH YEAH! More of this please! In this crazy beautiful dangerous world, we need more gentle mystics.

But back to Cosmo. From the first moment I met him, I wished he were my rich uncle and I could go live with him in his castle in the British countryside. I was taken by his joyful spirit, his obvious talent and sonic gifts of music and song, which are infused with poetry, art, nature, history, and culture. His sounds are old and new all at once. He just made life more fun.

Cosmo is on his way up and out into the world, and I am so glad to be able to introduce him to the Teen Talking Circle world. Follow the golden crumbs and enjoy learning about, watching and listening to Cosmo Sheldrake.

All this said, we must remember every one of us starts at 0 with a drive or a passion, calling or vision and Cosmo is the first to say, if you have a vision, follow it –you must! — and hopefully you will be unfettered. I’ll quote William Blake here since Cosmo did him the honor of making a song from his poem, The Fly.

 “Poetry fettered, fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry,
painting, and music are destroyed or flourish.”
William Blake

Cosmo is a reminder to us all to trust ourselves, and just plunge in and stick with it.

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Linda Wolf: Cosmo, hello! So, tell me, what’s up?

Cosmo: As of today, I’ve just started to record a new album. I don’t have any idea quite yet where it’s going. I’m just starting to write it. It’s open-ended, actually.

Linda: How great. Where do you get your inspiration?

Cosmo: All sorts of places. I go on sound-foraging missions. I do a lot of field recording so a lot of the sounds or impetuses will become origins of tunes.

Sometimes, I’ll hear a tune on the radio and a tiny fragment will just stick in my head. Today, I was listening to Leonard Cohen on the train, and there was a tiny turn of phrase in The Partisan that stuck with me – a style of guitar plucking that ended up influencing the tune I’m making today. One time I was lying in India and there was a power cut and when it came back on there was this fan that started making this incredible noise and I recorded it, and made a tune out of the rhythm.

Linda: What a beautiful song.

Linda: Do personal relationships enter into your writing?

Cosmo: Yes, I’ve written a lot of songs for my girlfriend, Flora, and I write a lot of songs for family so yes, I love to write music specifically for certain people — and for specific times of day for those people. For Flora, for example, I’ve been making a series that starts with a lullaby — a piece of music that was made out of Owl songs for the night time, and then one of the dawn chorus for waking up, and one with whale songs called Music for Bathtubs.

Linda: Wow, a series of pieces that includes music for her baths. That is so beautiful. I love it. How old were you when you started making music?

Cosmo: I was four when I started taking lessons on the piano.

Cosmo Sheldrake, photo given to me by his mother for inclusion here

Before that, my parents packed me off to various classes that try to get young people clapping and playing glockenspiel and such. My brother, Merlin, had already started lessons and I was a bit jealous. My father made us practice, which I’m actually grateful for. Often young musicians quit if nobody is holding them accountable. It requires either a lot of personal will power or a structure to help them keep practicing. I was made to practice for 20 minutes a day and rewarded with dried fruit at the end. But when I was about thirteen I decided I wanted to stop lessons. It was a bit of a struggle because my dad was invested as he used to sit with us while we practiced. To him it was quite heart breaking that I wanted to quit. I both regret and don’t regret stopping lessons. I learned a lot from them. I never stopped playing. I carried on improvising.

Linda: Were other members of your family also playing?

Cosmo: My father always played piano and my mom was teaching workshops around the voice and chanting. And there were always musicians around the house. I was playing and listening to a lot of jazz, blues, and boogie-woogie when I was seven. When I was twelve, my mom gave me a recording of Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert, and Miles Davis’s, Sketches in Spain. I fell in love with both of them; they were very influential.

Linda: Would you say the music you play today is in a genre of it’s own? Or is it a combination of forms?

Cosmo: When I first started, I was making hip-hop beats. I like to bring a lot of different sounds and styles together. I can trace in hindsight the influences on my music. I always struggle when people ask me what kind of music I make. What I’ve started saying is it’s sort of a collage, sort of cut and pasting, because I take bits and pieces from so many styles and places.

Linda: That idea of cut-ups was something William S Burroughs did quite a bit with his writing. Would you be wiling to play a little for me right now?

Cosmo: Sure

Linda: Can you support yourself with music?

Cosmo: I’ve had to just so I can carry on making it so that I don’t have to sacrifice my time by finding another way to make money and squash music into spare time. The ideal state is that an artist can live off their art. It’s never the primary goal. As long as I can use my time to make music and earn enough to keep it going, for the time being that’s all I want.

Linda: Do you worry about your future?

DSC09567Cosmo: Financially? Or just in general?

Linda: Both:

Cosmo: I have worried in the past but I have this sense of trust that things will work out. In the beginning, I had all this energy and motivation but no real way of getting it out. My music hadn’t realized itself yet, and I felt like I was smashing my head against a wall. But now, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. I have a sense of trust and faith.

Linda: Do you have a spiritual life or religious life that you draw upon?

Cosmo: Well, I guess, both. Musically, I sang in the Church choir when I was younger and I’d been brought up going to Church. But, some of my most profound connections to music have been in ceremony. The power of music in that kind of sacred space is an awesome thing and has definitely had a profound impact on me. I’ve also been inspired by poets like William Blake, who is a visionary and a mythical force. I’ve put some of his poems to music.

I did a workshop with Bobby McFerrin in New York once. He’s a deeply religious and spiritual man and the way he led improvisation circles was extraordinary. People would get in states of complete frenzy, and have huge awakenings. He frames it as being a vessel or channel — these are my words, not his. There are many sorts of devotional forms of music – Sufi devotional music, for example.

There is so much power in it and is amazing how it can move people. I definitely aspire to that and am interested in the question as to what the contemporary meaning of devotional music looks like for us Western Europeans and North Americans. The Christian tradition has hymns, but when I’m in Church singing hymns, I’m not profoundly moved by the music. Some of the most powerful musical experiences I’ve have, have been singing — mainly improvising — late at night with groups of people, somewhere.

Linda: How you deal with the present realities of the world situation, which seem to be pretty much out of control? Like global warming, over-population, terrorism, hunger, the economy, the environment, beheading, etc.

Cosmo: I go in cycles, I suppose. Sometimes, I feel despair and other times I feel much more optimistic. When I was younger, I was more proactive and angry and I protested. When I got older, I was more involved with working with people than just stamping my feet.

Linda: You just got off the road with Johnny Flynn and have been more and more in the public eye.

How does it feel performing in front of hundreds or thousands of people? Do you ever feel insecure?

Cosmo: Yes, sometimes insecurity worms its way up. Performing in front of people has been a journey. I remember my first performance; I was unable to even look up. I just kept my head down, staring at my feet, but slowly I got more comfortable. I grew up learning Suzuki Piano, where everyone plays and performs to other people, very multigenerational. I think what I get the most uncomfortable about or nervous or shy about are people’s reactions afterwards, after I’ve performed. People put performers in general on pedestals – I’ve done it myself to people, it’s something we do.

Linda: I understand. It’s so human. You have a powerful family that has had its share of being in the public eye. Your mother, Jill Purce, is well known as a pioneer in the sound healing movement, your father, Rupert Sheldrake, is a well-known intellectual, scientist, and a controversial figure, and your brother, Merlin has won the highest praise and awards at Cambridge. Have you felt competitive?

Cosmo: With Merlin? Yes, certainly, at points, but not generally. We’re very different. There were periods of time when I didn’t really care about school, wasn’t really engaged or working, and he was doing fantastically well. And I think just generally the younger/older thing in sibling relationships often have these patterns, which are very easy to slip into, but no, I wouldn’t say our relationship is a competitive one.

I’m inspired by Merlin; by his ability to frame huge concepts, structures or narratives in tiny details. He has a powerful eye for detail without ever losing sight of the bigger picture. And the sense of discipline and rigorousness he has. When he gets his mind going on something he’ll completely zone in. My general disposition is quite the opposite – its big broad-brush strokes and less about the details.

Linda: How have you been inspired by your father?

Cosmo: In lots of ways. His resilience and ability to stay completely grounded, focused, positive and light in the face of some very severe opposition. He’s had to put up with a lot of personal attacks. When I was about a boy, I watched a BBC piece about his new book, A New Science of Life, that had just come out. The opening shot was a shocking picture of his face being set alight. So the first or second time I ever saw him on TV was his face burning and he was being branded as a heretic. They called his book a book for burning. I’m very inspired by him being able to see the bigger picture and not get dragged down by the personal attacks he’s gotten and just carry on being positive.

Linda: I remember when he was stabbed while doing a speaking engagement. That was something. And your mother? How does your mother inspire you?

Cosmo: Lots of ways. Of course, her work with overtone chanting has led me towards my fascination with Mongolian music. But watching her in the space she holds in workshops as she’s facilitating; some of the stuff that comes up is so intense especially in the family workshops. And it’s intense from 10am till 11pm and sometimes she does week-long ones. She never loses focus. She has remarkable ability and concentration. She holds so many people in intense situations so calmly and in such a safe way that the whole group has great trust and faith. It mystifies me where she gets that concentration.

Linda: Your mother pioneered Family Constellations, where people work with others in the room who sort of take on the persona of deceased family members. What do you believe happens when we die?

Cosmo: There is a sheer wealth and thousands of accounts of near-death experiences where people say they experience a sort of bliss state. I think death would be similar to dreaming, an extended dream.

Linda: I remember thinking death and old age were so far away when I was young. I smoked and did dangerous things, but now I marvel at young people who take massive risks, even just still smoking cigarettes when they know they’re cancer causing.

Cosmo: I don’t think young people have changed that much since you were a young person. Young people feel they need to learn their own lessons. That’s part of the problem with the general education system. Young people will always be slightly self-destructive, I think. That may be a huge generalization. Generally, people are more wild when they are young and get more domesticated when they’re older. And I think that’s probably a good thing.

Linda: Death is much more present for us older folks, I think. If we live long enough, if we are lucky to live into old age, we have to make end of life plans and talk about them with our adult children. Hard subjects. Do you talk about these things as a family? Do you know what your parents want?

Cosmo: They’ve never gone through it all with us, but I know that my dad is very strong that he hates the idea of it all being some super medicalized environment.. I’m fairly sure both of them would not want that. I’m sure they would like to be at home and have it be a peaceful and organic experience. I think they’re very much against the idea of spending some exceptional amount of money trying to keep people alive in their last week, and leaving their next of kin in vast debt. Death is treated like some kind of failure of medicine.

Linda: Do you have any advice for young people?

Cosmo: This may sound cheesy but one thing that has benefited me is not compromising. There were many points when I’d be asked, maybe my mom or others would ask how are you going to make money. I think it’s important to have a sense of trust, I guess.

Linda: Yes, a friend of mine recently said to me that when we venture out and risk in order to reach a goal, it’s like walking a tight rope – we have to keep our eyes on the distance, and not look down at the rope. She said it was like not over-thinking things, giving ourselves a chance to find all the reasons we might fail in out attempts.

Cosmo: Yeah, if someone has a vision of something they want to do, so many things like that get compromised because of pressures to be realistic. They get questions like, ‘how are you going to do that? How are you going to make that happen?’ So, for me, I think it’s really important to just dive headfirst and give it a go because unless they do, how is it ever going to happen? And generally speaking, it gets harder and harder as people get older and more entrenched in social and familial responsibilities. So, I’d say, and maybe it’s not my place to say it, but carry on charging through, and don’t listen to anyone if you’ve got a creative vision; follow it through.

Linda: I totally agree with you.

Cosmo’s upcoming schedule is listed on his website. You can also join him through his FB page. Follow this guy – he is a true Pied Piper! I just love him!

What Makes us Human? An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer

scarb&W

October 6, 2014

Dear Friends,

Greetings from the Pacific Northwest, where apple cider and harvest festivals are making the last rays of summer sweeter.

We at TTC are gearing up for our annual partay – our fundraiser, which takes place November 16th in Seattle. Please come if you can. Our friends Chris Jordan, Christen Lien and Kate Goldston will be speaking about subjects close to our hearts. Heather Wolf, who has been co-leading the women’s retreats in Yelapa with me and Kellie Shannon Elliott, will be our emcee for the evening. Please click here for more information. We will be sending invitations later this month and would love to know if you would like to receive one, email us back.

This month we have the honor to present an interview with filmmaker, MacArthur Genius Award winner, and Academy Award nominee Joshua Oppenheimer. He is the director of The Act of Killing, which will be shown on Point of View (PBS) October 6th, and streaming from October 7 – 21st. Don’t miss it. Afterwards, watch interviews with Joshua online, and read interviews  in addition to ours below. When it’s released, go see  The Look of Silence, his award-winning companion film,  making the rounds of major film festivals currently, and getting top honors. Focusing on Indonesia, the two films present an intimate and unprecedented look into the aftermath of genocide in Indonesia, more than forty years later, for both the perpetrators and the survivors in a society where the perpetrators have maintained continuous power. The film making itself represents an act of courage in the face of a power structure where the threat of violence is omnipresent.

But, you must be wondering, why Calypso instead of Josh is our cover shot? In August, just after I interviewed Joshua, our kitty was shot at close range with a pellet gun, shattering her leg. The bullet didn’t sever her nerves so with surgery, she’s mending, thankfully. When I discovered she’d been shot, I felt so violated, so angry and hurt for her that I went house to house asking people if they owned a pellet gun –and posted flyers about it on every telephone pole as well as community FB page. The shot to Calypso felt like a shot to me. It left me feeling shaken, fearful, and vulnerable. I’d like to feel it was an accident, but most likely someone did it on purpose — and was able to act with impunity, for in all likelihood this person will never be caught and may never come forward. A man I told about the shooting said, “It was most likely an adolescent boy, a kind of rite of passage.” “A rite of passage,” I said, “Are you kidding? An example of the crisis of manhood, more like it.” Whoever did this was certainly dissociated from his heart.

All this was going on while I was transcribing my interview with Joshua. Listening to him humanize the murderers in his film (not condone what they did or suggest that justice should not be done, but simply humanize them), while concurrently going through my own intense feelings of shock, anger and sadness about Calypso was illuminating for me. Listening to him reminded me what I stand for and what we teach youth through Teen Talking Circles. I kept seeing the parallels between the heartlessness of shooting a pet cat, the horror of discovering that someone had smeared fecal matter on the flyers I put around the neighborhood, and the dissociated barbarity of the murderers in Joshua’s films. When Josh said in the interview that the act of killing is a fundamentally human act, I had to expand my understanding of what is human. I began to understand that what we call evil is human, and in order to prevent these acts in the future, we have to be able to look at the humanity of people who perpetrate them. As Joshua says, “It’s not so we can forgive and forget — by all means no. And not because there shouldn’t be justice — again, by all means no. But we need to be able to look at how and why human beings do these things to each other. It’s simply self-serving reassurance to say these people are monsters and have nothing to do with me. That is a reckless attempt to reassure oneself, because it closes down the possibility of understanding, and prevention.”

Cover of the March 10, 1958 issue of Time, featuring Sukarno, leAs a movie, The Act of Killing is art, history, and most importantly it is a blueprint for how to hold each of us accountable for our actions. It finally allowed the truth and lies of the genocide in 1965/1966 to be seen and grappled with by the Indonesian people as well as by us, in the US, who are also complicit. Our CIA gave a list of names to the Indonesian government to target. The film was shown many times privately in Indonesia before it was released to the public. Having initially ignored it, the authorities were finally forced to make a statement after the film was nominated for an Oscar in January of 2014.“They released an admission that basically said that what had happened [during the anti-communist purges] was wrong, but that they would deal with it in their own time,” Oppenheimer said in an interview. “That was a huge change, even if it was reluctantly done.”

I didn’t want to watch The Act of Killing. I was afraid it would be too violent and disturbing. Then, I watched Joshua being interviewed on The Daily Show. That is when I realized how much I wanted to talk with him, ask him what he learned, and what inspired him to do this work in the first place.

      

Joshua Oppenheimer
The Look of Silence Official Website
         The Act of Killing Website

Background: Before we get into the interview, which sums up the title question above at the end, let me give you a little history. On September 30, 1965, a small group of Indonesian junior military officers loyal to left-wing nationalist President Ahmed Sukarno kidnaps and kills six senior army generals and announces the creation of a revolutionary council to rule the country. The officers, led by one of Sukarno’s bodyguards, Colonel Untung, claim the killings were necessary to thwart an imminent, US CIA-backed coup against the Sukarno government. The next day, October 1, 1965, Indonesian General Suharto takes control of Jakarta and claims the killings were part of a Communist plan to take over Indonesia. For the next five months, he oversees the slaughter of between 500,000 and 1 million people, many of them targeted because of their affiliation with the PKI, Indonesia’s Communist party.

images-1During this period, Suharto is backed by the US, Britain, and Australia. The US embassy in Indonesia provides the Indonesian army with a list compiled by the CIA consisting of the names of thousands of Communist Party leaders who the Indonesian military hunts down and executes. To do his dirty work, Suharto employs thugs and small time gangsters–the perpetrators in Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion films, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. With US approval, the following day, Indonesia invades East Timor. As a teenager, I remember protesting this action along with other peace activists, in 1965.

President of Indonesia Sukarno (center)
shakes hands with Vice President Lyndon Johnson
as President John F. Kennedy smiles,
Washington, D.C., April 25, 1961

  Joshua Oppenheimer Interview, Skype, August 21, 2014

josh

  Linda Wolf: Good morning,  Josh.

  Joshua Oppenheimer: Good evening, Linda!

  LW: Oh, that’s right, you’re in Denmark!

  JO: Yes, it’s nice to meet you, finally.

  LW: You, too. I just have to say I love you!

  JO: Thank you! I’m absolutely sure I love you, too.

  LW: Speaking of love, you were born and raised in the US but have lived overseas a while, did you leave for love?

JO: No, but indirectly it’s why I left the states and didn’t come back. I met my partner, who is Japanese, in 1998, in London; we were both studying there, and we realized that because of the Defense of Marriage act, I couldn’t bring him to the United States and he couldn’t bring me to Japan for similar reasons. So we clung to England, and eventually became British Citizens, which was a big relief. Then we moved to Denmark in the beginning of 2011 to edit The Act of Killing, and found that we liked it so much more than London.

LW: I have to tell you, I think The Act of Killing is one of the most important films ever made. It wasn’t as hard to watch as I imagined.

images-3JO: I think the film is emotionally impactful, but not viscerally impactful. To the extent that there is gore in the film it’s so ridiculously fake, and that’s almost the point. But, of course some people get so drawn into it they think we’ve burned down a real village and attacked families of survivors

LW: But of course, it was a movie set.

JO: We built three huts in a corn field and all the children in the movie are the grandchildren of the perpetrators and indeed they were never told what the scene was about. We auditioned them for their ability to cry when we call action. There was a woman on the set who fainted. Indonesians will say she is possessed and they very tenderly try to send home the ghost that came over her. She’s not a survivor or the daughter of someone who was killed. Her husband was a high-ranking organizer of the death squads and is now a high ranking military leader. She might have been expressing the trauma of being the wife of such a man and not being able to talk about it. The film-making process was a safe space for her to explore that and give voice to that.

images-2It’s interesting when we show the film in Japan, audiences there see the film for what it is, which is a film about a man who’s façade is collapsing. The film is about a personal lie and a national lie.

LW: The lie that is told by the winners. I imagine that this film is making history by allowing the people of Indonesia to begin to live with the repercussions of the truth finally getting aired — the truth that the survivors always have known but never been able to talk about considering that the perpetrators are still in power.

JO: When I started my work in 2003 with the survivors they would come together and tell me stories about what they remembered from the killings. They would tell their stories in tears because they were so afraid they could be found out for telling and be arrested and made to do forced labor, because that was what used to happen throughout the Suharto dictatorship for the first thirty-five years.

LW: These lies and punishments have gone on for nearly 50 years. That’s a long time to live with the knowledge of the truth untold.

JO: As we would sit and talk,  every time we would hear a moped passing, even in the distance, everyone would go quiet and stop. The survivors, who were universally poor, could only afford bicycles — the people on mopeds were outsiders, wealthy enough to be on the side of power. So, everyone would go quiet and be afraid. If we could hide the film equipment we would. So, to gather the stories of what happened in 1965 and to focus on the historical account of what happened felt somehow to ignore the immediate, present tense reality of what was happening in front of my camera, which was fear. The question became, what was it like to live with killers all around you, still in power, with the fear they could do this to you again at anytime? That’s what we tried to address.

LW: Did the government know what you were doing?

JO: The army did indeed find out what we were doing. At that point the survivors suggested we try to film the perpetrators to see if they would tell us what they did to the relatives of the survivors. I approached the perpetrators, unsure if it was safe to do so, afraid in fact, but would find to my astonishment and horror that every single one of them was immediately willing to talk. They were boastful about what they had done. I felt that I had wondered into Germany forty years after the Holocaust with the killers still in power and the Nazi’s have never having been overthrown. That’s what it felt like, this is what it would be like.

As I interviewed the perpetrators, I started getting the details of how the killers killed, where they brought them, where the prisons were, how they gathered people. But the elephant in the living room, the real thing that was happening was their boasting. I thought, why are they boasting? How do they expect me to see them? How do they expect you, via my camera, to see them? And that is about impunity — the fact the killers win and the whole country is built on a lie.

What happens when a whole generation of young people is raised up on a lie, and the second generation is raised on a lie? What happens when everyone knows it’s a lie and is too afraid to talk about it? And that story, which was the present tense thing happening, was overshadowing the details of the historical account — that’s the story I think most Indonesian artists and activists who try to address these issues have been afraid to address, because that story involves standing up to power. And I think Indonesians can’t really address that on their own, or couldn’t. An Indonesian could not have made The Act of Killing, safely. I had an Indonesian crew that made it with me…

TAoK-creditsLW: Everyone of them listed as “anonymous” in the credits.

JO: …and an Indonesian co-director who’s anonymous who made it with me, but on his own he couldn’t have done it.

It was just that, holding up a mirror to a whole society, exposing the genocide that happened fifty years ago. We committed atrocities fifty years ago, too. We still commit atrocities, all the time. It’s not about exposing the atrocities, it’s about holding up a mirror to what we have become because of impunity. That’s what’s forced people to talk about the thugery, corruption, the use of gangs in politics, the legacy, the fact of the power of the killer today. That’s what’s opened up the space for the country to finally talk about their past and present in a new way. The reality you see in The Act of Killing is our underbelly. Every piece of clothing we own is haunted by the suffering of the people who make it for us. They’re all working in factories located in places where political violence has taken place. The human cost is incorporated into the price tag we pay for it.

LW: Sweatshop labor. So, what happened after your film was shown in Indonesia? Were you in danger for speaking truth to power, so to speak? Are you still close with any of the people from the movie? Do they fear for their lives?

JO: Indonesia is not like the Nazi regime where everyone has to sing from the same hymn sheet. Anwar, the main character, is still close to me and has seen the film and been very moved by it. He’s said to me, “This film shows me what it’s like to be me.” And he also said, “I am relieved to finally be able to show what all this has meant for me and for everybody in Indonesia, and not just to talk about what I did, which is what we have always done as perpetrators.” He and I keep in touch regularly.

He’s, however, only very slowly started to lose the favor of the paramilitary leaders for making the film. I know the paramilitary leaders and military establishment hate me and for that reason it’s unsafe for me to go back, and that’s why I shot the new film, The Look of Silence after finishing editing The Act of Killing, before it premiered. I knew once it premiered, I could no longer return safely.

There’s real hope the new president, Joko Widodo, represents a new chapter in Indonesia. But to be elected as president in Indonesia involves  huge amounts of money and the people with money are universally cleptocrats, universally thugs, and universally criminals who have become rich by stealing the national wealth, resources, purging rainforests, and just stealing it basically with the protection of the military and the Suharto regime. That’s how everyone in Indonesia with a lot of money got that way.

A lot of people are hoping that Joko will embrace The Look of Silence and host the premiere, and that would make it safe for me to go back. I think it’s quite unlikely that he will host the premier of the new film while his vice president is appearing in such an unfavorable light in the Act of Killing. But, I can’t safely go back because the paramilitaries and the military are still so powerful and still enjoying impunity. If  you are in the military and you committed a crime, you can’t be tried in a civilian court. You can only be tried at the military court, which means Commanders will always go after and sacrifice their underlings, because they are the ones that are organizing the military justice. So there’s total official impunity for the military and the paramilitary still can get away with murder.

LW: I can’t imagine what your mother feels!

JO: My mom would be really upset if I told her I was going back at the moment. But at the same time I can’t forget the fact that my crew is there. Ok, they’re protected to some extent by remaining anonymous, and we’ve managed to keep them out of the spotlight. But they live in Indonesia, and they face this risk every day. The main character in my new film, his face is in the film. We’ve had to move his whole family to another part of the country, find schools for the kids and support them to build a home and a new life, and that’s a sign that an awful lot still needs to change.

LW: You must feel very responsible.

JO: I see my films as an expression, a translation of 10 years of accumulated insight and also, blindness and ignorance, but ten years of life there. I remember when I first saw the film come together, it was exhilarating to feel something so condensed but it was also disappointing. 2 hours, 40 minutes of a movie is never going to encompass 10 years of living and this film is just the tip of the iceberg of a huge process that makes it possible to create safely. I’m proud that nobody involved with me to make the film, including Anwar, has come to any harm, or been arrested, or beaten up. There was one newspaper editor who was beaten up for publishing a story, The World Condemns Pancasila Youth (the group that ran the death squads for the army). That made me heartsick to think that something I created could have triggered this. But, luckily, the rest of the press complained aggressively about that whole thing and the police reaction, so that has not been repeated.

LW: What gave you the courage to do all this? Did you grow up an activist? Were you influenced by your Jewish heritage, have nightmares about the Nazis? How did you grow up?

JO: When they were young, both my parents were radicalized by the civil rights movement in the US and then the anti-war movement. My mother and step-father were labor activists, union organizers, originally they were labor lawyers and gradually left practicing law to become activists. In fact, it was a globalization related labor project that first lead me to Indonesia, to help a community of plantation workers make a film to document their struggles in organizing a union. I was 26 when I did that. It was transformative for me.

My father’s family, his parents, narrowly escaped the holocaust and my step-mother’s family, most of her family, was killed in the holocaust and I grew up with this sense that the aim of all politics and even the aim of all culture and morality is to prevent these things from ever happening again, and not in the parochial sense of never again to us, but never again. It was with anguish, I remember growing up, that my father would watch these things happening again and again and again all over the world.

When I came out, when I realized I was gay, I befriended a man who was older than me. All his friends had died of aids, his partner had died. It was the early 90s/late 80s and there was so much discrimination – there is still discrimination –  it was really intense. They were beating us up and calling us fags. We were afraid to walk home at night. I remember thinking that this is a community, and half of the community (in San Francisco and in New York) were affected by HIV and are going to die. So, I got involved with fighting against the stigma in the fight against HIV and AIDS, and then started to fight for treatment access in developing countries, once affective treatments became available. We made sure those medicines were available to poor people, particularly in Africa.

Banner hangAround that time the anti-globalization movement – the movement against corporate globalization was awakening me to a class analysis which was really missing among my peers and I started to realize there are a lot of people for who the American Dream is simply a lie. And it’s a lie that divides us from each other. I was always political and always caring about the underdog. In Indonesia, I was living in a very poor village with people who were being poisoned by a very successful Belgium multinational company — and murdered. All these things made very big impressions on me.

When I was traveling with The Act of Killing, I would say, look, everything that touches our bodies is haunted by the suffering of the people who made it. In the sense that everyone who makes everything that we buy comes from the Global South or China, where people are being kept afraid and oppressed by men like Anwar and his friends. So, in that sense we all depend on Anwar and his friends doing our dirty work for us all over the world, whether we like it or not. In that sense, we depend on them and so if Anwar and his friends are monsters, what are we?

Just as Anwar is damaged by the act of killing –you see at the end of film that he escaped justice but not punishment — he is somehow destroyed by what he has done as human being, and so are we. We are all damaged by living lives that depend on the suffering of others. We’re able to live these lives because we escape in fantasy, television, slick media images, gaming and social media, in part because we feel that there is nothing we can do about it anyway.

LW: That is what many young people feel until they realize that they can do something, anything…

JO: That sense of powerlessness is something we should not accept because when you accept that, you are accepting that you have no control over the conditions of your life and become some kind of zombie, some kind of robot. You are saying, ok I am not fully human because I am not having any control over my existence, or doing the work necessary to have control over the world I have inherited.

To do the work, you can’t do the work by yourself. You have to build communities and movements and to do that is work– it’s really hard work. But if you don’t do it you are surrendering your humanity. You are saying, ok I am just going to go escape into movies, entertainment, shopping and consumerism because I can’t do anything about the world anyway –which is saying I can’t live and I can’t actually make a difference because I have no control over my world. That sense of powerlessness is like surrendering to the slave movement somehow.

images-4LW: The thugs in your films were influenced by Hollywood, violent movies, and such. They acted like they were movie stars themselves! Do you think that the media has that much influence on causing them to be so violent? Many young women in our programs hate and hurt themselves due to comparing themselves to media images.

JO: I think it’s very complicated, just like it’s more complicated than seeing images of impossibly thin women, with impossible to attain physiques that causes us to become anorexic. It probably involves the way we cope with anxiety, the way we’re taught, loved, held or not held, the way we’re there for or not there for each other. Those images are also a symptom of that. That we objectify each other.

I think we all create ourselves and are created by stories, images, sometimes they’re second hand, third rate, usually third rate, half-remembered, borrowed from the media, and I think they operate effectively because we’re not aware of them. When we become aware of them, their hold on us doesn’t entirely go away, but it loosens. If I know I’m anxious because I don’t live up to this particularly image, if you know that consciously, the hold starts to loosen.

renc3a9-magritte-la-reproduction-interditeWhat’s most frightening is the way we tell ourselves stories to not see, to kind of avoid dealing with the most painful things. Because maybe we’re afraid and we don’t know how to deal with that. We’re afraid we can’t deal with it. We’re afraid of the consequences and so we switch off or give up on making change, on dealing with things, or maybe we simply feel totally disempowered and feel incorrectly that individually we can’t make the change we would like to see. The consequences are that we retreat into escapist reality. I think that is a terrible shame for the reason Socrates made awfully plain, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

I don’t think because the movies Anwar watched were violent movies that he became a violent man. On the contrary, the Hollywood movie that Anwar describes most vividly, that was helping him kill, was an Elvis Presley musical. It was the escapist fantasy that made it possible for him to be absent, dissociated from himself, and from the person he was that has a very intimate and tragic interaction with when he was taking peoples lives. It enabled him to become numb. That’s the real risk. That is the real danger, the ethical danger of escapism. We disappear in that. It’s the alienation we have from ourselves and each other, even inside our families –maybe especially inside our families and from our neighbors, in school, etc. that is so damaged and so damaging to all of us.

We have only one chance to live and be present mindfully, to notice when we are being swept up by a kind of kaleidoscope of glitter and shit, a kaleidoscope of beautified ugliness. Swept up away from ourselves, away from each other. To become mindful of that is to actually reclaim yourself and to reclaim your relationships with people. I think there’s a lot to just stepping down out of all things that we’re encouraged to escape into, and that are so seductive to escape into, that feel so good to escape into, in the moment — step down from that into just the present and be little bit more still.

LW: That is why we do teen circles. It is all about human connection, having a safe place and people who accept us as we tell them our truths, and who listen with compassion. It is all about coming back into our wholeness, our stillness as you say – just being present with ourselves and each other.  It’s been great talking with you, Josh. I can’t wait to see The Look of Silence when it is released. I am so happy we’ve had a chance to get to know each other a little. I have so much respect for you. Please come have dinner with us, when you are in Seattle.

JO: With pleasure! Thank you, Linda.

For more information about the issues and the work of Joshua Oppenheimer, check his website

Watch the interview with Joshua Oppenheimer on The Daily Show

Join us for the TTC party and better fundraiser. We are honored to have Chris Jordan, Christen Lien, and Kate Goldston presenting. Check the interviews here with Chris and Kate, and find out more information at our event registration page: Here

 

Wait! What? I had no idea! Well, how would you? An Interview with Dr. Seth T. Pardo, conducted by Linda Wolf

Seth Pardo color peace

Who am I? Isn’t that the life-long question we all face over and over again and in myriad ways? I do. I know, I’m Linda –whoever that is. Star stuff, for sure! Same as the elements that make up the trees and grasses outside my window. But as for who others think I am, well, I can’t control that, much. I can write up my bio declaring that I’m this and that, and I can somewhat arrange how people perceive me simply by what I decide to post about myself on Facebook! But, I don’t fool myself by my posts — I am still the person who wakes up each day knowing I am still becoming who I am.

But, one thing I am clear about is that I am a woman, in a woman’s body, and I am self-defining and self-identifying what this means to me all the time. I’ve learned over the span of my 64 years that my body does not lie. If I feel it in my body, it’s my truth. This knowing is one of the most important aspects of my being. It informs every decision I make, as long as I’m listening to myself.

It takes courage to listen to oneself, and to be true to oneself, to be honest first and foremost with oneself. My mama quoted Shakespear often when I was growing up. “To Thine Own Self Be True.”  It takes courage to dig deep and figure out who we are and who we want to be. It also takes courage to let go of being someone that we know we’re not — or to let go of continuing to do something that no longer fulfills us. To change takes such courage.

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be” Lao Tzu said that…

Seth T. Pardo is a man of courage. I met Seth at the secret waterfall in Mexico we go to every year with our women’s retreats. He and his partner, a clinical psychologist, and a couple other friends of theirs joined us for the hike through the jungle where at the end of the trail most of us stripped down naked and dove into the water. I’d met Seth the day prior to our jungle adventure, when he came by our Palapa to talk about the trip. I learned then that he lived in San Francisco, and was teaching at a university there. I had no idea then that he did his doctoral studies in the Department of Human Development at Cornell, with concentrations in Cognitive and Developmental Psychology and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, or that he was a Lead Evaluator at the San Francisco Department of Public Health or an Adjunct Instructor at Alliant International University. All I knew was that he was a nice guy with a beautiful partner and seemed really cool.

At the waterfall, the next day, I noticed that he didn’t seem comfortable to take off his all his clothes. I notice those kinds of things because I guess I don’t want to be the only one going naked and I’m just not willing to wear a bathing suit at a place like the secret waterfall! But, when he took off his shirt I was standing next to him and saw he had two scars across his chest. I blurted out, “what happened?” thinking he had an accident or something. He said, “I had an operation.” I can only explain that it was something like cognitive dissonance for me, because I still had not put it together that Seth was a guy, who was a girl in the past. He must have liked me and felt that I was truly being authentic and naive, because at that point, Seth decided to explain things to me. And suddenly, I felt like a complete idiot. BUT, OF COURSE! Oh… I get it. Duh!

But, did I really get it. No! It was the first time I ever saw the scars of an operation that someone chose to have, to remove their breasts. Cancer causes, I understood…but by choice? Inside, even though I still related to Seth as a guy, and what a beautiful guy at that, underneath I kept thinking, but why take such a drastic course — surgically modifying one’s body. Ouch! So, I was thrilled when I got a chance to interview Seth a couple weeks ago. I had a lot of questions I’d never had anyone to ask.

seth 1

I highly recommend you repost this interview because it is so important, and also read Seth’s study, Research, Facts and Findings: Growing up Transgender by clicking the above link. Thanks to Seth for agreeing to do this Skype interview for Teen Talking Circles, and thanks to Lilly for transcribing. Lilly came to work today saying she had just finished reading Middlesex, and wished it had not ended. She was thrilled to be able to work on this transcription.

So…Welcome to June everyone.

 423033_10150657384322170_1874742785_n

Linda Wolf: When we met, I thought you were a guy, Seth.

Seth Pardo: I am.

LW: I mean I thought you were born a guy. I never imagined that you might have been born a female. Does this happen to you a lot, perhaps it’s something you enjoy—that people don’t know?

SP: Yes, it’s definitely something that I enjoy, that I have the option to come out if I want to. However, there are plenty of individuals within and around the trans community who make it a point to always be out. They wear their trans history and their narrative on their skin, out loud, and up front. I do that in certain contexts; I don’t do that in every context. Within the community its called “going stealth.” What it means is, somebody doesn’t have to be outed or out their trans history if they don’t want to– they can roam around in this world and no one will ever know. Their partners might not even know, though that’s rare these days. Some of their friends don’t know. Some of my friends don’t know. It is important to me, though, that people know what it means to be trans and that I am trans, that I have a trans history, and my history informs what I know about gender, and it informs what I know about being a man, and it informs what I know about being in a female body.

I’m picky about who I disclose to because there is a lot of discrimination. People lose their lives because they’re trans. Human beings can do such cruel things to each other based on things like gender.

seth b&w

LW: It seems to me like you have a very unusual capacity for compassion and understanding of both genders, having lived in two skins, so to speak.

“How unhappy is unhappy enough before we do something about it?”

SP: Yes, I lived twenty-eight years of my life in a female body and I tried for a very long time to explore my identity and my experience in that body. But, I was depressed and unhappy — not to the point where it interfered with my life—I was in graduate school, had completed a master’s degree, and was on my way to getting a doctorate in developmental psychology. I’d graduated top of my class in high school—I was high functioning. But, I thought to myself, how unhappy is unhappy enough before I would do something about it? When I imagined the future, I could not imagine having the rest of my life in the body I then lived in. It was like I was constantly waiting for it to change on its own. But, I’m a developmental psychologist! I know that’s not going to happen. I went through puberty already and that was it. The decision to transition was a very difficult one and also a monumental one.

Before I transitioned, I went through a deep exploration of Self in a female body, really trying to make it work, really challenging myself to see if this was a way I could envision my future and having the answer always come back “No.” I started seeing a therapist when I was fifteen—that was encouraged in my family—and I have been seeing different therapists ever since. Those conversations allowed me to do the kind of exploration, the kind of soul searching, the kind of work that is required, as a human being, to have that empathy and self insight and self-awareness that you’re talking about — empathic and insightful and emotionally intelligent. I’ve had those skills my whole life; being trans is not what made that so. But it is having those qualities and having a trans-lived experienced that makes me able to communicate to others. It matters to me that I was in female body for twenty-eight years, but it also matters to me that I am seen as male in society, today. That is how I feel most comfortable and consistent with myself. I spent so much time trying to inhabit my life in a female body. It wasn’t that long ago. I deeply appreciate how supportive my family was and is, and am grateful for what I was able to learn about communication, interpersonal relating, over the course of my life. I don’t ignore my history in the female body. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I was not who I was then.

LW: So, you must have more compassion for men, and a more complex understanding of the pros and cons of being male, in a still male-dominant world? It’s clearly changing, but not fast enough…

SP: Patriarchy and male dominance really did a number on our society and throughout the world, when a system run by men declared women a piece of property, and as such devalued the authentic contributions of women to our society…fsdrfdsfsd

LW: …Riane Eisler identified it as dominance verses partnership or power-over instead of power-with – the violence towards women and girls, which continues and continues today, and the power differential that harms everyone, nature, even the health of our planet… So, I’m wondering if you feel you have more personal power as a male now, than you would have if you were perceived as a female?

SP: Yes, in our society, in the world, the way it’s set up, absolutely. As someone who is recognized in society as a white male, I have perhaps the pinnacle of privilege. It’s the recognition of that privilege that allows me to wield it smartly, or gently, for things that I believe will do good and not harm. I have experienced acting from a place of privilege myself, but I learned from those experiences and try not to repeat them. I try to increase my humility at every opportunity I get. I’ve experienced my share of violent affronts.

Before my transition was complete, before my voice dropped into a normal male range, before I had facial hair, I could pass as a young teenage boy. But when you get to graduate school, it’s unusual that a seventeen year old is in a master’s degree program, you know? Whenever I opened my mouth, people knew I wasn’t male. I had people yell at me things like, “Dyke” as well as “Fag” or various expressions of derogation that were meant to hurt and discriminate. I learned to ignore it. If I were going to bathroom and people were following me, yelling at me that I was in the wrong bathroom, despite having just called me a dyke, that felt very threatening, and unsafe. It happens every day to people, sometimes all the time, at school, even at home, on the sidewalk, at parties, and if I had that experience all the time, that would be traumatic. But I don’t.

LW: I heard the suicide rate for transgendered people is nine times higher than the rate for non-trans people. Do you see that as well?

SP: Yes, they’re disproportionately higher. If you take a group of individuals that are already upset, depressed, anxious, struggling with something so fundamental as a sense of self, and you throw on top of that stigma and discrimination, and you throw on top of that public health issues like HIV or hepatitis-C, and you throw on top of that socioeconomic issues, like getting kicked out of the house at a young age, not being able to get a job because you’re different, having to work on the streets just to make ends meet, getting wrapped up in drugs or having to sell your body, doing whatever you can to achieve the body that you think is going to solve your problems…you’ve now compounded many of the world’s biggest public health, socioeconomic and mental health issues at once.

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LW: You had breast removal surgery, I’m wondering if you have ever regretted it? Do you know people who regret it later?

SP: Absolutely not, for myself. The only tales of regret I’m familiar with are case studies in academic literature. Amongst my friends I don’t know a single person who regrets embarking on their transition. I will say that one of the growing considerations amongst the trans community, though, are issues of fertility. A lot of doctors don’t talk to them about their fertility options, like freezing eggs or sperm, in case someone fifteen years, twenty years later, is like, “Wait a second, what if I want to have a family with my own kids?” I think fertility consultation is one of the most important conversations that needs to happen for someone who is considering transition.

LW: Did you opt to surgically change your genitals? You don’t need to answer if you don’t want to reveal that.

SP: It’s ok –  No, I have not had any surgery below the belt. That’s a personal choice I made. In my personal opinion, the technology is not where I’d like it to be for me to feel safe volunteering my genitals to that kind of procedure. I’m not judging anyone else’s decision. This is the way I view it for myself. Each of us is very different.

LW: Right, there is no one transgendered person who speaks for all transgendered people.

SP: Right, I’m very grateful to the medical community for inventing those techniques and the doctors and surgeons for improving those techniques, and for the benefits that those medical advances have afforded my trans brothers. But it’s complicated, it’s expensive, it’s painful, and I have a very loving partner and our lives work the way it does. Right now I don’t feel the need to do that to be happy and healthy.

Also, I did not have a hysterectomy. For me, it’s healthier to keep the reproductive system than it is to get rid of it. I still have to go to the doctor’s to get regular pap smears. As long as a transman still has his uterus, and a transwoman has her prostate, we’ve got to get checked. It’s awkward sitting in the OBGYN office as a man and having them call my name.

LW: That must be awkward.

SP: I always get anxious when I’m sitting there with the lab tech and that person is about to do the pap, or the exam. I dread having to go to the doctor. I still get a little uncomfortable when I walk around in my speedo. I still don’t like to get naked in public. If I go to a hot spring or a massage or a sauna I don’t walk around naked, I don’t feel comfortable.

LW: After you transitioned, starting taking hormones, and had breast surgery, did you feel differently sexually? Did what turns you on change?

SP: Sexuality is far more complicated and far more diverse and far more complex than we assume – Same with gender. I published a research study with a colleague where we found that following gender transition, even three to six months into a transition, partner preferences changed. Yet, what our data show is not that the transition causes sexuality changes; some people switch and others don’t. Part of me thinks, and this is a hypothesis I need to test, that when a person is finally able to self-authenticate and live their life fully in their own skin, they stop restricting themselves, and they go through a second developmental exploration process—[pioneering sexologist], Aaron Devor said this. There’s a second puberty, a second hormone surge, a second emotional rush, a heightened sexual appetite. A lot more things become possible, because you’re starting to figure out “Who am I now? And who am I now? And who am I now? And what do I like now?” We are such diverse, sentient beings. It would be a shame for us to limit ourselves to boxes.

LW: We have a teenage family friend who identifies as male. He’s not yet eighteen yet but is clear he wants to transition physically. He wants to go from female to male, and has been identifying as male for about five years. What advice would you suggest for the parents as well as the youth?

SP: Well, given that this person has been identifying as male for that many years, he has made it very clear what his identity is. I don’t know this individual and I’m not a clinical psychologist, so I’m not in position to advise, but I think that this is teen is old enough to know who he is for himself. I think this person is also brave, really brave, for coming out and telling his family about how he feels. The fact that the parents are willing to listen is huge. It’s a scary thing whenever a family member, especially a child, comes out and says, “I am trans. This is what I’m going to do.” It’s a scary process, and there’s a usually a grieving process when that happens. Parents are going to grieve the loss of their daughter. I came out to my parents, that I was trans, when I was fifteen. I told them that I wish I had been born a boy, and that I would rather live my life as male.

An important resource for parents and concerned adults who want more information from a supportive network of families of transyouth is the TransYouth Allies website. I’m part of their research team.

LW: This young man is very lucky. His parents are very supportive and very understanding.

 SP: I suggest having a supportive therapist to talk to. If he wants to transition medically, find a therapist who will help guide him through the administrative process of getting a letter, finding a doctor who will prescribe hormones, making sure he has his labs are checked regularly, and that his body is responding well to the hormones. This is no different from a patient with pre-diabetes going to his or her doctor and talking about changes in diet or medicine. This is someone saying, “I need to do this to be a well-balanced individual.” It’s like identifying a health issue, a medical issue, and it needs to be addressed. You have conversations [with your doctor] to make sure that you’re informed of all of your options for treatment, and for moving on with one’s life, and go with the best option for you. Everybody’s different.

There’s a quote by Hillel — personally,  if I were brave enough to get a tattoo I’d probably tattoo it on my body somewhere — its, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” I think about this quote often. It reminds me to practice self-love, it reminds me to have love for my neighbor, it reminds me to remain compassionate for others, especially those who are different from me and who make different choices than I do.

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LW: Do you want ever want to have children?

SP: I’m not interested in birthing a child. I could physically still, but I’m not interested. In general, if a trans-man has a uterus, and their genitals have not been surgically modified, that person can come off testosterone, wait six months after starting their menstrual cycle again and yes, get pregnant and carry the baby to term and have a healthy, happy child!

LW: Seth, I really thank you for the work you do and for speaking so openly and honestly with me today. Thank you for who you are, thank you for being in the public realm, for being in school systems, for being so bright, intelligent, aware, educated, deep…I’m so glad you are a spokesperson in the world.

SP: It’s a pleasure, and anything I can do to educate the world about trans people, to show that we’re just like everybody else, is a privilege.

More References:

Measures of Clinical Health among Female-to-Male Transgender Persons as a Function of Sexual Orientation: S. Colton Meier, Seth T Pardo, Christine Labuski & Julia Babcock

Transgender Experience and Identity: Lisa M. Diamond, Seth T. Pardo and Molly R. Butterworth, Handbook of Identity Theory and Research

The Genderbread Person v2.0, It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, a one-man comedy

The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender, Sam Killermann

EPSON DSC pictureSPEAK OUT!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buy Nothing Project: A paradigm shift to a gift economy – An Interview with founders, Liesl Clark & Rebecca Rockefeller

ttcflowerApril 2014 TTC Newsletter

Hello All, Welcome to Spring!

The veggie garden is reviving, the Robins are singing in the mornings, our family is healthy, and we have a Women’s Retreat in Yelapa starting in 3 weeks, and a Teen Talking Circle Facilitator’s Training coming up July 10th – 13th. Speaking of which, we have a few more spots in that training, so check in here for more info and to get signed up. The Early Bird Special lasts for 2 more days!!! If you’ve been wanting to take the training, now is a perfect time. These super cool people from Marin County can attest!!!

Marin County Training Group

Marin County Training Group

I don’t know about you but I’m thrilled to have Spring sprung! Even our aches and pains around here are minimized by the sunnier days. I can’t complain myself, though, because I just got back from Oaxaca Mexico, where I was taking a 10 day photography workshop with Mary Ellen Mark, and working for the MacArthur Foundation doing photos in the women’s prison (powerful), with midwives (amazing) and believe it or not I even addressed about 400 people at the state Justice Department’s morning meeting! I got to say to the riot police, “Hey, guys, machismo is dead! Listening from the heart is the only way forward…” I hope they heard me! I think they did. As they piled out in their trucks they were waving at me like old friends! Here’s a shot I did of some of the guys.

Oaxaca State Justice Department, photo by Linda Wolf; copyright MacArthur Foundation 2014,  CC-NC-ND

Oaxaca State Justice Department, photo by Linda Wolf; copyright MacArthur Foundation 2014, CC-NC-ND

 

Rebecca Rockefeller, Liesl Clark & Sailor

Rebecca Rockefeller, Liesl Clark & Sailor

This month we have a great interview on tap with Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, founders of Trash Backwards, and the Buy Nothing Project (BNP). Buy Nothing Project is an “experimental, hyper-local gift economy,” founded last July on Bainbridge Island, WA. The first group formed was called Buy Nothing Bainbridge (BNB). I was one of the first 50 members. Since then it’s spread like wildfire. As of today, April 9th, there are more than 159 community specific Buy Nothing groups in 5 countries, hosting 29,084 members with 215 volunteers administering it. And each day this number is growing. The great thing is, you can easily start a Buy Nothing Project in your own community — all you need is have a Facebook account. Once you’re a member of a BNP FB group, you simply post a warm request for something you’re wanting, or respond politely to someone who has posted what you’d love to take off their hands, or post something you have to gift — a thing or a service or whatever! It’s that simple. Today, I posted that I had a philodendron plant that needs a new home, and got a response from a member saying she’d love it. So, now I PM her my address and she’ll come pick it up. Yesterday, I posted that I needed a clothes dryer for my mom, and someone posted that they had one to gift.

BNP is a paradigm shifter. Its about gifting, not trading or bartering. It’s about practicing the art of creating community relationships and about sharing things, time, energy, kindness, and compassion. Personally, I’ve made many new friendships with people in my own community I never would have met. If I got stranded on the road, all I would have to do is post, “help” and a dozen people would respond immediately.Being part of BNB, I’ve witnessed innumerable acts of generosity by BNB members. Like the teenage boy, housebound from the effects of Lyme Disease, who posted for anyone who wanted to come by and play board games with him – he got a bunch of responses; and the woman whose husband was suddenly hospitalized who posted for help to feed her dog and clean up her house left a mess when they quickly left for the hospital. That story got even more complex when the dog got out and was lost and dozens of people from BNB got involved looking for him in the middle of the night and posting sightings of him, until he eventually came home of his own accord! I’ll never forget the woman with cancer who couldn’t get back into her house due to mold making her sicker. She couldn’t take anything out of it as it was permeated by the smell of mold, not even her furniture. She posted that she basically needed to fill an entire rental house with new things. No problem, BNB members fixed her up!

quince2

Then, there’s the various other experiments, offshoots of BNP, like the group of us who gleaned fruit to keep it from rotting, and turned it into jams and preserves to give away, and the family of 12 where the dad lost his job and the mom had to care for all the kids, plus an aging mother – they decided see if they could go for a year buying nothing; just posting their needs. No problem. And, the two women who decided to wear the same black dress for a year. They received lots of gifts of cool slips, shoes, under garments, coats, scarves, sweaters and other goodies to augment that one dress! One man has been posting for at least 4 months, asking for kilos of banana bread ingredients and I think at last count he’s made at least 300 loaves and given them away, even driving across the island to deliver them! He’s the same man who asked homeless people in Seattle what they needed and posted for stuff for them. Then there are the people who post that they made too much dinner and would anyone like to come by and join them at their table! The stories are simply endless. For me, I’ve received so many things and graces! There was the sweethearted woman who came by and helped me weed my garden for 6 hours, just out of the kindness of her heart, and Janet Billenstein, who answered my post for help to transcribe this interview because I was overwhelmed with other work.

Linda Wolf and Teen Talking Circle participants - NHK filming

Linda Wolf and Teen Talking Circle participants – NHK filming

Last year, the members of BNB came to the rescue for me when I was approached by producers at NHK, Japan’s public television station, asking if I could put together a day-long Teen Talking Circle for a series on cell biology and teen emotions. I needed to form a group of about 16 teens who would be willing to speak honestly and intimately on camera. And I needed them fast! So, I posted a request on Buy Nothing Bainbridge. In hours, I had parents and teens responding, and within two weeks I not only had the group filled, but Liesl Clark offered her home for us to film in, and another BNB member offered home-baked breads and cookies. I also got posts from parents volunteering to help carpool the kids to and from the circle.

Masatoshi Kaneko, Director, Science & Environmental Program Department and youth from Bainbridge Island & Suquamish, WA.

Masatoshi Kaneko, Director, NHK and youth from Buy Nothing Bainbridge

So how does the Buy Nothing Project work? Simple. First off, it uses the free platform provided by Facebook Groups and the rules are simple: “Join your local community group, post anything you’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Be courteous. Don’t post anything to trade, barter or sell.” BNP is NOT about discontinuing to purchase goods from local businesses that depend and thrive on all of us continuing to buy stuff. We all still spend our money! It’s not about money, really, or as I said above, about stuff. At least 1/3 of everything offered on BNB is stuff home-made! If you’re interested in starting a group, just contact Liesl or Rebecca through the BNP WEBSITE. The following is my interview:

Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller

Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller

March 2014

Linda Wolf: Hi Liesl & Rebecca, let’s start by you describing what the Buy Nothing Project is about, and what motivated you to start it?

Liesl Clark: The Buy Nothing Project is about setting the scarcity model of our cash economy aside in favor of creatively and collaboratively sharing the abundance of the real wealth around us, and in us. We’re using social media to offer random acts of kindness to neighbors day-in and day-out. There’s no limit to what you can give or receive. It’s the services offered and off-beat requests that are perhaps the most touching, enabling people to give in the most precious personal ways. What motivated Rebecca and I to start this project comes from a lot of different seeds.

Rebecca Rockefeller: Yeah, we both have a deep desire to rethink our interactions with material lifecycles – the materials we all use and live with. We are presenting a different view of ownership and status that isn’t so hinged on personal possessions and defining wealth and ourselves by the things we own, by ourselves. The BNP stems from the work we have been doing for the past few years where we started looking at the plastic waste on our beaches and in our watersheds, and tracking where that waste comes from — which is not from people far away, but us. We are literally drowning in our own waste, and a lot of it is single-use products and silly consumer goods that are designed to be obsolete almost immediately, and that break down or next week will be new and improved. We are taught in our culture that we are defined by our stuff. That is crazy. It’s crazy from a waste perspective, from a social perspective, and none of these things have any lasting meaningful value. What’s really important is who we are, what sort of people we are.

Also, we wanted to change the model of community groups bartering or trading, to one of pure gifting because, the most important aspect of BNP is not the stuff, it’s the people. We wanted to give people a platform where they could to communicate – where they could tell tell stories about the things they were offering, and not just offering more stuff. We wanted to give people a place where they could offer their time, their services, their wisdom, their caring, themselves –A place where people could see that we all have so much wealth in common and we can just share it, communally and collectively. For example, if I need a new couch, I don’t need to get a brand new one from a store, I might see a post from someone in the community and discover someone’s aunt is giving one away – one that she has great stories about it. So, I’m not just getting a couch; I’m getting a couch with stories that suddenly make that couch more than just a couch, but one I can talk about! We’re sharing a new way of looking at stuff that allows us to build a new value system, where it becomes cooler to share stuff with a story, not just get brand new stuff and throw the old stuff in the dump.

HappyChallah.VikiWalaskay                  august-22-2011-1424.janawalker[1]                  Dress.SandraFortierVisnack[1]

Much of where BNP comes from was influenced by Charles Eisenstein’s writings and the idea of sacred economics that gained attention during the Occupy Movement and that whole ground swell of thinking about sustainability. We’re asking the questions, who are we, who do we want to be, how do we want to live on this planet, and what do we think is important? BNP is part of that reappraisal.

Linda: Liesl, how does this connect to your work in Nepal?

Liesl: Well, all of the above matters to me, of course, as well. Plus, for me I’ve spent a lot of time witnessing the social commons in practice in places that are really remote. My husband, children, and I go to Nepal yearly to do archeological work and film making. We visit remote villages 13,000 feet above sea level where there is no “shop” in the village, so people have to share – they have to care about each other. We’re engaged in researching the question, who were the first people to settle in these last places on Earth? Among these last places are these high altitude regions. We’re questioning, were they pushed there or pulled there because of some reason? Probably both, but all we can look at is the archeological evidence, and what we have been able to uncover in these hill cliff caves are human remains that date back 3,000 years. What we’re looking for in the DNA of these remains and evidence of early adaptation is, did this happen over a long amount of time or not? How does this relate to a gift economy? Well, if these people were pushed up into these high altitude areas, if they migrated due to religious reasons for example, what kind of social system did they have and do they have now that keeps them sustainable? The remains we are unearthing show that the population was very healthy – and the people who live in these villages today are very healthy. The question is how are they doing it? How are they able to sustain themselves at the topmost ceiling of what human beings can survive? What we’re observing is that they take care of their each other. They are communal. They have built into their communities systems that work communally. What we asked ourselves is can this type of communal system, or something similar, work where here, back home, where we live? Can we create systems that sustain us in healthy ways? It is a very important question for us at this time.

Linda: You did a beautiful juxtaposition about this in your recent BNP short video, which I would love everyone reading this to see. Click here…

Children in Nepal with books from Buy Nothing Bainbridge founder, Leisl Clark

Children in Nepal with books from Buy Nothing Bainbridge founder, Leisl Clark

Liesl: The BNP works without using cash. It makes you think and be creative in how you are going to achieve your goals, and get your needs met, through your own community (BN group). We are about, as Rebecca said, connecting people. We’re about showing that true wealth is the strength of our connections. We believe that the more tangled the network of connecting gets, the stronger it gets. We’ve seen this in our work in the Himalayas. Interdependence, trusting and having everything be of equal value means everyone profits. Everyone profits from giving where no money is involved. What we have been co-creating is the purest gifting economy I have seen [in this country.] You not only need to give but you need to ask for what you want.

Linda Wolf and Myra Zocher

Linda Wolf and Myra Zocher with her homemade breads and cookies for our filming

Rebecca: We’re not saying, don’t buy anything anywhere – we’re not asking people not to buy from their local stores. We’re saying that in this one group, nothing is for sale. It is focused on giving. Giving in our local communities. Where we live, where we need help in the middle of the night, our home communities. Really lovely things start to happen when we are connected this way. This is about building different kinds of connections. And seeing this is the true wealth.

Linda: What you’re doing is shifting the stigma around shame; the shame of not having or looking good because you don’t have xyz – you’re shifting a lot of stigmas. To put ourselves out there and ask for something shows that we don’t have everything…it’s vulnerable!   You’re shifting this to have it be one of our strengths.

Rebecca: We’re so used to judging each other and ourselves by what we own and what we don’t own. We’re saying, that is not what makes us who we are! We are trying to encourage giving no matter what the gift is and to get out of holding onto stuff. As we said earlier, we’re drowning in our stuff.We are trained to hold onto stuff as if it defines us – what about human kindness and generosity?

drowning

drowning

Liesl: Every single person on this planet needs human kindness and generosity and that is what is at the heart of this project. What we have discovered is that people haven’t really been given the opportunity to simply give without expecting something in return or receive without giving something in return. The BNP is simply an alternative experience of giving where there is no unequal power differential.

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Love is all there is!

Linda: What are some of the surprises that have been the offshoots of the BNP?

Liesl: So many. We have lending libraries stored at certain people’s homes with party supplies so if you need 200 wine glasses for a wedding you don’t need to go out and purchase them! We have tool libraries, and people get together at a local pub for “Books and Beer,” and there’s a group of people who call themselves Crochet Madness, and there’s the group that goes mushroom foraging together. We have a bike share program, and lately we have flags at the ferry terminal which indicate to people who need rides to different parts of the Island – the North End, or South End, etc – that someone is going that way. We have round robin helpers who each take a day to get everyone together to clean one person’s house, or make a community dinner, and then switch around. There are people offering their professional services for free, or just companionship. Once we saw a post for someone who was working on a deadline and needed a coffee, and someone responded that they’d be there right away with a latte. People are asking and receiving all kinds of things, and non-things! And what comes out of it is that we are valuing each other, not the things.

Linda: In someway BN is readdressing this idea of loneliness. The fact that you can go to a restaurant and post from your cell phone that you’d love company and then have someone respond that they’d love to join you. That’s pretty wonderful.

Rebecca: I see people who didn’t know each other before Buy Nothing Bainbridge now know each other and are spending time together in the same environments where they were before, but didn’t ever connect. It took this online connection to connect them!  In our society everything is seen as a commodity — there is a price on everything. Money makes it possible to have this surgically clean transaction between people. A gift economy fosters connection. It’s messy. Not always perfect. But, it’s human to human connection. And that matters. It is kind of revolutionary here, but as Liesl is seeing so clearly in her work in the Himalayas it is ancient. In my way of thinking, we are not going back to the old ways, we are bringing the old ways forward.

Linda: How are children involved in the BNP? Your daughter, Cleo and son, Finn, and your children, Rebecca, are all involved, aren’t they? Finn and Cleo, since you’re right here, can I ask  you some questions? How does BNP affect you? I know you’ve gone on various rides to give things away or pick things up and have even posted your own things to share.

Finn: It feels really good to see pictures of other kids who have received my things.

Cleo Athans Clark & Leisl Clark

Cleo Athans Clark & Leisl Clark

Cleo: I go into my room and I see I have too many things, and it feels yucky. I freak out just because I have way too much stuff. There are some things that I don’t want that I give to BNB and stuff I don’t feel is good enough, which I give to Goodwill.

Linda: What do you mean by yucky?

Cleo: I just get this feeling inside like I just want to get rid of all this stuff. I am wondering why I got it in the first place.

Linda: Wow, we adults think that giving stuff to kids will make them happy. I can see by what you say we need to rethink this a lot. Have you met new friends through this Project?

Cleo: Yes. We had a clothing swap here and a girl came that I played with. Her mom was there. We played dress up and make believe.

Linda: Liesl, Rebecca, what are some of the downsides of this Project? The times when you think, I just want to quit, I just can’t stand it any more?

Rebecca: The thing for me is most people are used to participating in models where they are marginalized, where they are being taken advantage of, and sometimes someone questions our motives or says unpleasant things online to us, and it hurts. The other thing that is painful is when people really do think its all about the stuff and get mad at us because they want to join a group they see as having better or more stuff instead of belonging to their own community. They don’t want to join their local group because they think it isn’t as valuable. That makes me feel sad. There have been disgruntled members, which is painful.

Liesl: It’s hard on some of the administrators, but we’ve gotten used to it. It can be frustrating to know that you are offering something which at its core is about joy, compassion, connection, and community and is really building strength of relationship to self and others, and then to have it inevitably misunderstood by some people.

Linda: One of the concerns I heard expressed almost six months ago is that when a group gets so big that dozens of people respond to an offer, it can get embarrassing. Even for me, if I see something I’d love, but I see that someone much more in need is asking for it, I simply can’t put my name out there to be in the running. So, in many ways, it is another example of how compassion is engendered in this community.

Liesl: Also, a common thing is realizing that if you post that you want something and get it and you’ve been posting all week long and received all week long, you still have to drive all over the island and get it! It teaches us that we have to decide how important is that “thing” to me, because even though it’s free, I still have to put out the energy and time to go get it!

Rebecca: Even with all the frustrations, this process of changing our value system is so completely worth it.

Linda: Thanks for doing this interview with me.

Muuuhhhh and hugs to Lilly Schneider for editing and posting, and thanks again to Janet Billenstein for answering my post on BNB and doing the transcribing.

For more about the National Geographic films by Liesl Clark, see this link.
For more about Trash Backwards, see this link.