Wednesday, October 1, 2014

#136 Becoming Experts

Dear all,
    My big news of the month was a week in Nicaragua in early September supporting my son Tim and his family, with the biggest highlight being around 20-month-old Emilio as his language spiked, mostly in Spanish!  And by this week, I'm feeling like all the pieces of my post-summer life have been picked back up, and am hopeful that there might even be room for them all.
    It was a privilege to be at the big climate march in New York City, and it is a delight to be present to our part of the world turning toward the beauty of fall.

Becoming experts

This spring, before my toddler grandson moved to Nicaragua, I loved taking him out to our community garden, and spending time just being present to the world around us.  We smelled the flowers, dug in the dirt, watched the birds flying around, and listened to their songs. He was paying close attention, and the more he looked and listened, the more he took in.  As he started to pick up language, among his first twenty words were bird, flower and smell.
Another toddler I know got interested in cars at an early age.  He noticed, asked questions, took in and sorted new information, asked more, and now, at age three, can name every make and style as he walks down the street.  This phenomenon of people becoming experts at what they pay attention to is everywhere: people who listen to the news each day and know everything about every bad thing that is happening; people who refuse to listen to news, but watch sports instead, and are experts on every team and every player; people who follow the celebrities and know every detail about their movies and their private lives; people who pursue a hobby and become experts in their own little realm.

I think there’s an issue of power here.  In a world awash in information, it’s nice to feel like you have mastery over some little bit of it.  On the other hand, we can easily give up on whole areas where we despair of mastery.  If we don’t know anything about it, don’t have a handle on it, we’re not likely to choose to pay attention to it.

There are areas where we’ve gotten the message that we don’t have aptitude, science for some, arts for others, and areas that we are actually discouraged from investigating. (“Pay no attention to the little man behind the screen,” says Oz the Great and Powerful…) I think of the economists who turn away questions and criticism of their models and policies with proprietary warnings that they must be trusted, that only the experts can be expected to understand.

Yet, despite any obstacle in our path, we can still decide to grow into our own unlikely experts.  The bottom line is that we get to choose where we put our attention.  We can attune our ears and eyes to what we want to become experts on, knowing that it’s possible to get ever better at what we pay attention to.

If time is a limiting factor, we may choose to withdraw attention from one activity in order to put it on another. Since I don’t want to be an expert on despair, I don’t watch the TV news. Since I do want to be an expert on what gives people hope, I have found ever more places to look, and take the time to look attentively.

What if we chose to pay attention to, and become experts on, that which makes us whole?  In choosing to put attention on my place with our neighbors in this ecosystem that we share, I am coming to learn the birds.  I am no expert.  Far from it!  How to pull discreet sounds out of background noise that I often don’t even notice, much less to connect those sounds with a shape and a name, seems like a daunting task.  But I also know that the choice is mine.  If it’s important enough to me to know my neighbors, I can decide to pay attention, and that blur in the background will begin to resolve into recognizable living beings.

I miss taking my toddler to the garden, but I’m glad to have played a role in inviting him to put his attention there.  And the other morning I heard a new bird call, and for the first time in my life, could put a name to that bird.


Eyes idly resting
at the shore
on a vast and changeless scene

A darker gull is crying
another joins it, crying too
and then a third appears in
regulation gray and white

The first two turn
their cries gain purpose.
the scene slips into focus
and I see.

These two are babies
waiting to be fed.
Mama’s throat works
her babes fight for her beak
over and over
till she walks off
to the water line
to peck and eat,

A sight to common to be seen
has resolved into
a family.

Imagine--A new economy is possible!

Thomas Paine, on Property

“There are two kinds of property,” Paine contended. “Firstly, natural property, or that which comes to us from the Creator of the universe—such as the earth, air, water. Secondly, artificial or acquired property—the invention of men.” The latter kind of property must necessarily be distributed unequally, but the first kind rightfully belonged to everyone equally, Paine thought. It was the “legitimate birthright” of every man and woman, “not charity but a right.”

Paine’s genius was to invent a way to distribute income from shared ownership of natural property. He proposed a “National Fund” to pay every man and woman fifteen pounds at age twenty-one and ten pounds a year after age fifty-five. (These sums are roughly equal to $17,500 and $11,667, respectively, today.) Revenue for the fund would come from “ground rent” paid by land-owners, the privatizers of natural wealth. Paine even showed mathematically how this could work. Presciently, Paine recognized that land, air, and water could be monetized, not just for the benefit of a few but for the good of all. Further, he saw that this could be done at a national level. This was a remarkable feat of analysis and imagining.

Excerpted from With Liberty and Dividends for All, by Peter Barnes

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

The doubling of fossil fuel divestment commitments since January 2014, with181 institutions and local governments and 656 individuals representing over $50 billion dollars having pledged to divest to-date, including the $860 million Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which was built on the Standard Oil fortune.

The SoKind registry, an alternative gift registry where instead of giving stuff, people can give more meaningful gifts - of time, of services, etc.

A law signed by the Tennessee governor in May providing two years of tuition at a community college or college of applied technology for any high school graduate who agrees to work with a mentor, complete eight hours of community service, and maintain at least a C average.      

The stories of Israeli soldiers who have refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza.  (Breaking Ranks, Ronit Chacham)

More resources

Recent posts on other web/blog sites:–-deep-outreach-diverse-initiating-groups-–-pace-building-trust

Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:  (or just google the title), a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting writing I've done over the past 20 years. START: a way to study and work together with others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to  I'm currently posting at