Sunday, July 19, 2015

#145 Seeing the bones

Dear all,
       What a rich away time we've had--a week at a Quaker gathering in North Carolina, where I had the privilege and challenge of leading a five morning workshop series on faith and economics, followed by three days with our wonderful west coast family who had come east for the same gathering (just what the doctored ordered!), bookended by stunning drives through the southern mountains, volunteer fire-company home cooking in Virginia, and an amazing fossil dig/display of big mammals in Tennessee.
       One of the many gifts of the gathering was hearing from an elderly couple from Oklahoma who have persisted steadily over the years in raising the evils of mass incarceration, and are beginning to see some changes in their state.  I'm reminded of the power we all have...

Seeing the bones

It was the third time I found myself meditating on the importance of being able to see the bones of a situation—and in three totally different contexts.  Clearly there was something here to understand.

The first was about trees.  I always used to think that trees in winter were a sorry sight.  The green fullness of summer, and the bright colors of fall were gone.  Nothing of beauty or use was left.  With all my attention on what was missing, I couldn’t even notice what was there.  Then one day, on a long winter car trip, I started really paying attention.  I could see how the shape of each kind of tree was different.  I could notice their structure, and form a question in my mind about how the branches knew which way to grow and when to stop.  It felt like I could see and think about trees in a new way because I had access to their bones.

The next experience came from reading a book about the melting glaciers, framed by the author’s experience with a tiny village high in the Himalayas.  Since glacial melt was no longer reaching their village, they had made a collective decision to relocate—to land that was now barren but could get water by constructing a long canal to a more reliable source.

They could see the shape of their survival.  Its bones were laid bare in those mountains—water for their crops, yak dung to burn for fuel, and neighbors to help in times of need.  They could see clearly that they were the ones to take responsibility, and then, how to take focused, patient strategic action.  In the west, our vision of what is required for survival has become clouded, and our vistas are cluttered with the accumulated stuff of wealth.  Neither what we need nor what we might lose is in focus for us, and we face the prospect of climate change as individuals, with a combination of denial, arrogance and fear.

I was reminded of the third in a recent conversation with a friend.  We have both followed the amazing work of a small group of passionate and dedicated peacemakers in East Africa—home of genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, war in the Congo, and deep tribal conflicts in Kenya.  They hold workshops called Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities, bringing together people from both sides of the conflict for two or three days of very personal peace-building.

People come out of these workshops with a new understanding of the trauma they have experienced, and a new ability to forgive.  Not only do they often experience what appears to be complete and transformative forgiveness of individuals whom they may have seen kill their loved ones, they go on to rebuild lasting neighbor relationships together.

How could they do this?  We speculated that it had to do with seeing the bones of the conflict.  They knew it as immediate and ugly, as a festering wound that kept one from sleeping at night, or being truly alive during the day.  Their hunger for peace was immediate and pressing, and those who had offended were close at hand.  It was worth it to them to forgive.

For many of us, particularly in the west, the bones of conflict are not so clear.  Actual warfare is far away in time and space.  Much of our social conflict is handled by big impersonal institutions, and we have so many personal options for avoiding what remains—distracting consumption, medication, losing ourselves in cyberspace, leaving and finding new real-time communities—that we rarely have to face it directly.

While the goal can’t be to hold up leafless trees, or the economic conditions of struggling Himalayan villages, or the conflict conditions of East Africa as an ultimate model, we ignore what they have to teach us at our peril.

What are the lessons?  One has to do with clutter.  If our eye is distracted or our sightlines are blocked, we lose our ability to see the shape of things.  Another involves the importance of grasping whole systems and being able to identify our part in feedback loops.  Western industrialized society has become so enormously complex that this is hard to do, but if we don’t see our place in the system, and see how our actions—or lack thereof—impact others, how can we know what to do?  Ultimately it’s about being neighbors.  Setting aside the trees for a moment, who are not confused, and whose dependence on their neighbors happens to a large extent underground, we’re in danger of losing the critical understanding that we need each other.

Cherry blossoms

Pink petals fall.
The stuff of poetry:
delicate beauty
soft caress
drifts and clouds
and gentle intimations
of mortality.

But this is no poem.
It’s a squall
a wall of pink
blowing sideways
fierce and full.

Don’t be fooled
those flying
blossoms say.
Nature at its heart
is rarely

Imagine -- A new economy is possible!
Creating money in the public interest
In 1938 the Canadian government, recognizing that money should be created in the public interest, turned the Bank of Canada into a public institution. The bank was harnessed to finance Canada's war effort, plus infrastructure projects across the country. Mandated to lend not only to the federal government but to provinces and municipalities, this public credit was used to fund social programs like the Old Age Security Act and vocational training for veterans. Repayment on loans simply went back into government coffers.

In 1974, however, under the influence of neo-liberal economic philosophy, the government of Canada stopped borrowing from the Bank of Canada, and started borrowing through private banks, which then charged and kept the interest. Since 1974 the federal government has paid out over $1.5 trillion in interest to private banks that previously would have been available for public programs.

A current lawsuit seeks to restore the Bank of Canada to its original role, arguing that not only may it lend interest-free to the government, it is obliged to do so.  Two courts have now refused to throw the case out, which means that the Bank has to justify charging interest on such loans.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

How the practice in Finland of giving student 15 minutes of free play after every 45 minutes of class helps keep them focused.

An art teacher in Chechnya who used time when children were confined for long hours to wartime shelters to teach them art--resulting in powerful illustrations for a book of stories on non-violent action in the region.

All the honest conversations on race that are happening throughout our country, and the good soil they are finding to grow in.

Pope Francis and his papal encyclical on climate change.

More resources

Recent posts on other web/blog sites:

In, Pamela Haines locates her family's homey DIY celebrations on a class spectrum of different connections to upward mobility.


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.  NOTE THE NEW URL. 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

1 comment:

  1. Knowing nature is rarely delicate is helpful, hopeful. I love the poem.