Yearly Archives: 2010

My Very Best Piece of New Year’s Advice

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I was explaining to my teenage daughter yesterday what a tough year 2010 was for most people, by way of an example from our own life. Here we were, driving on the freeway in my old Honda, heading down to San Francisco. On the back window of my car was a big white “11” on a pink piece of paper, a temporary registration tag from the DMV. Consequently, the entire way down I was being extra good on the road and keeping an eye out for the CHP, who could reasonably pull me over at any time asking why my registration was out of date.

“You remember that fender-bender you had in my car last January, Jojo?” I asked her. Yes, she replied sheepishly. “Remember how I thought I’d taken care of all the paperwork and repairs and spending a new fortune on your insurance, by the end of May?” Yes, she remembered that too. “And then how in August I found out they were not letting me re-register my car until I had all kinds of other inspections done? And then I paid for all those and sent them their paperwork in September, but here it is the end of December and I am still waiting for the actual registration tags?” Oh yes, she knew all too well about the incredible tide of incompetence that her accident had unleashed.

“Well, that is exactly what 2010 has been like for almost everyone I know. You have setbacks that you expect to move through fairly easily, but instead they take 84 times longer than they normally should, and no matter how hard you try they just grind on, getting worse and worse, until either they are good and ready to be over or you die of exhaustion, whichever comes first. That, my dear, was 2010.” She understood perfectly.

On the radio today I inevitably wound up talking about dreams and predictions, because it was my last show of the year. If I’d had a guest or callers I would have asked for their new year’s predictions, but since it was just me I started talking about what I thought 2011 was really going to be like.

The first thing I thought about was last night, driving home by myself from the City, and coming across the blinking yellow “Flooded” signs blocking the road, because of all the recent rain. I thought that the road was probably passable since it had been clear all day, but wasn’t sure—and it was pitch black and freezing cold out, so I didn’t want to make any tragic mistakes.

There was a car pulled over by the side of the road, and I sidled up to it and lowered my window. Inside were two or three kids, probably Alex’s age, either stoned or just young and stupid. I asked whether they’d tried the road yet, and they said no. Then the guy driving says, “I just saw a shooting star. Do you think that’s a good omen?”

Without even thinking, I said, “Definitely. I’m going to give it a shot.” “I’m following you!” he called as I pulled away from them, squeezed past the signs, and started down the road. Of course, that meant he tailgated me the entire mile-long, slow journey down the road because he didn’t know any better, but that is a minor side point.

The real point of the story is that I didn’t even hesitate before declaring the shooting star a good omen. That is new this year, the unquestioned assumption that all omens are essentially good. It ties into a dream I had 6 years ago that maybe I’ll talk about someday, but was basically about interpreting an omen positively when privately I thought it might go either way and probably involved lots of bad news regardless.

This very difficult year has been full of good omens, and great things have happened, or have started to happen, to lots of people, myself included. The thing I have become most aware of, as I struggled through this year’s challenges, is that everything can change in a second. Luck is basically random, which means that if you’re having lots of what you consider bad luck, the longer you keep going the more likely it is that your luck will change for the better.

It’s not like I knew anything about the shooting star that kid saw, it’s just that I believe our best move is always to accept the omen as a gift. If nothing else, it means we are paying attention, we recognize an omen when we see one, and have the presence of mind to ask what its impact will be in our own lives. Especially in 2011, I think that kind of behavior is the absolute key to success.

The hardships of 2010 will not evaporate on January 1, and the dreadfully slow processes of change will still be with us in 2011, but there will be real opportunities opening up, doors suddenly swinging wide that we have been banging on for months if not years. The ones who will notice, and be able to act, are the ones who keep going because they know it’s just a matter of time before the tide turns. So pay attention, don’t let the bastards (or the DMV) get you down, and remember that the omen is always a gift.

Everything I Needed to Know About Kids I Learned from Sgt. Krupke

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It has been a very difficult month, and my inner and outer dialogues have circled around questions that are essentially unanswerable. Why do some kids make it and others don’t? Some people do stupid stuff for years and survive, others don’t have that kind of luck. It seems entirely random who lives and who dies.

There is no formula to follow: points off for emotional volatility and early hardship, extra credit for talent and having opportunities. That’s an old model of social betterment, from back when there was funding for things like after-school programs, financial aid and the CCC, but it’s not the world we live in today. I grew up believing that with a hand-up anyone could succeed. Right now I think it’s a miracle that anyone survives.

A few nights ago I had a dream about talking with some disadvantaged kids from Alex’s old high school, asking how many had actually gone on to college as they’d planned. Not one of them had, and one was a homeless addict who defended himself by saying, “I’m a really good thinker!” Last night I had a long dream in which my family talks and talks about what to do with his body, meanwhile Alex is lying there waiting to be put to rest. After waking from dreams like these I can’t get back to sleep, and am mired in a swamp of grief all day.

A good friend argues that you can’t separate out the elements, that each person is a complex mixture of family dynamics, psychology, brain chemistry, early parenting, learning styles, education, etc, and there’s not one thing to point to and say, “that’s what went wrong.” I think character has something to do with it too, though I couldn’t say how much and don’t even know what it is.

Very quickly, all these discussions start to feel like less ingenious spin-offs of what was said perfectly by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein in “Officer Krupke.” Is society at fault? The family? Or is it the individual? In the end, you just hope that kids survive long enough to gain the maturity they will need to lead a good life. Often, that effort seems to hinge on random moments of grace, that come out of nowhere and carry us safely to higher ground. I am so sorry my nephew missed that last moment of grace, and that we will never see what his version of “leading a good life” looks like. That would have been such a great show.

The Fruits of Our Labors

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The hardest thing I have ever done ended today with the most difficult phone call I have ever made: telling my niece that her brother, my nephew Alex, died last night of an accidental overdose, at age 27.

Alex’s life was never easy. As an infant, he had a cry that was already raging at the world. I had never heard that kind of cry from a newborn before, and it made a lasting impression on me. So much so, that when he started getting in trouble as a 12-year-old, my partner and I decided to take him into our family to see if we could get him through adolescence in one piece.

Bringing him into our family was hard on everyone. For the entire first year he lived with us, I could not leave him in a room alone with any of my kids for more than five minutes. If I did, someone would be crying, something would be broken, Alex would have hurt someone or completely disrupted the scene. It was like having an infant in distress—a 13-year-old, raging infant in great pain who couldn’t see past himself to think about anyone else. My children suffered a lot so that Alex could have a stable home life for those years.

Raising Alex was where I discovered the greatest coping mantra ever. Much of the time living with him was simply unbearable, and I could not have done it if I’d thought in terms of there being five more years to go, or four more years. Instead I told myself, “It’s only three more months.” Three months was a length of time I could endure, and repeating that every day got me through all six years of his stay with us.

Alex was very bright and could be quite charming—especially if he was the center of attention. He was hyperactive, and we thought about whether to get him tested for ADD. In the end, we thought that with a history of addiction in his family, he would be better off not taking Ritalin as a teenager. Maybe that was the right call, maybe not, but in the end it was the prescription drugs that really kicked him down the stairs.

His middle school principal once told me, “It’s the smart kids that figure it out eventually. The ones who aren’t smart usually don’t make it.” That consoled me for several years, thinking that because Alex was so smart he’d get it together. It turns out that intelligence has very little to do with it, nor does morality. Alex had a very strong sense of right and wrong, but his self-destructive streak was simply stronger, and he didn’t learn to control it in time to really live.

As I finish writing this, it dawns on me that I never sang Alex the song I wrote for him, back when he was 17. In spite of all our struggles, there were times when I felt a deep connection between us, and those moments were like gold. One evening as I returned home late from something or other, the lines of this song came to me in an easy flow. I’d always meant to sing it to Alex when we had a good moment alone together, after he was out of the woods and doing fine. I never did, and now I never will. Here is a recording I made of “Take Wing” four years ago.

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Last night’s may have been the last 2 am call from the Sheriff that I will ever get—may it be so. But this is only the beginning of all the days when I will think I see Alex in town, then realize it’s someone else. Every time I see a bright, handsome kid bouncing down the street like he’s got the world in his pocket, it will always look like Alex to me. There is no good reason that he should be dead today. It’s a damn tragedy, and I don’t know how you live through tragedy like this. Maybe by thinking, “It’s only three more months,” then he’ll be back. Yes, that’s the ticket.

If We Dismantle It, They Will Come

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There we stood in a park in San Francisco, about fifteen of us circled around a large ceramic bowl on the ground in which we had written the things we wanted to see increase: more money for this, more power to that, healing for her, a better job for him. Interspersed among the slips of paper was a collection of seeds, representing the power of growth. Once we had raised energy for our intentions, we took some seeds home with us, to keep focused on the vision we were growing.

Rituals like this one can be inspiring and affirming, and most importantly, show no signs of going away. But at one point it dawned on me: every altar, bookshelf and windowsill in my house was now littered with sacred seeds and pebbles, fragrant bits of greenery, beads, pieces of yarn (cut from webs we’d constructed), half-burned candles signifying something, and other ceremonial souvenirs I had brought home. The thought formed unbidden in my mind: was all that growing and visioning still taking place, if I could no longer remember the point of each stone and leaf as I dusted it?

I kept quiet about my troubling thought, but like all seeds planted in the darkness it just kept growing, eventually making it hard to see what we thought we were doing. Then some unfortunate person posted a comment to an email list, suggesting that in response to the latest egregious corporate land-grab we should all imagine planting a forest of trees so thick it would trap the evildoers and prevent them from carrying out their scheme. It would be like in Macbeth, only with high-speed internet and better candles.

At that point I felt like the Lorax, speaking for all of the trees, seeds, junk and jewels I had collected in my house, none of which I knew what to do with after charging them with hallowed intentions and bringing them home. I spoke up: “I can’t believe you are suggesting planting another damn tree in the collective unconscious. How will we find a clear place to plant, with all the rubbish we’ve left there over the years? Isn’t it about time we found another metaphor for making things happen the way we want—like, for instance, pruning and weeding?”

Unfortunately my reasoning was lost on its intended audience, due to my strong, practically violent language. But thus began my own transformation from a ritual accrualist to someone with a tidier home and a different sensibility about magic altogether. I started thinking that perhaps the best way to get help from the spirits was not to construct a grand, visionary edifice for them á la Field of Dreams, but instead to clean the place up, invite them over, and see what they choose to build.

I didn’t throw out everything all at once. These were ceremonial artifacts after all, and shouldn’t just be swept into the dustbin without any thought at all. And while several items did find their way into the compost and trash, most were eventually set out under bushes and trees in my yard, residing there until they were carted off by activist squirrels in the neighborhood.

With the clutter gone, what remained in my home were things that did have special significance, and that I actually used. It took a while to get used to this new ritual aesthetic, but over time I feel it has streamlined my access to all sorts of worlds, and made my place a destination spot for helpful spirits year-round.

Now there is a comfortable clutter of personalities on my mantle for Samhain. That seems right—this is the ancestral mixer holiday, after all. Day of the Dead figures cavort with pictures of my beloved dead, the recently deceased get the chance to meet my grandparents, and there is plenty of food, music and candles for all.

There is a place for jumble and clutter, especially while everyone is getting along. But sometime in November there will come a day when it feels like the party is over, and it is time for everyone to go away until next time. I will relish emptying the mantle then, and will live comfortably in the silence until the Solstice spirits start knocking on my door and I let them in, one by one, slowly painting my house with colors and lights for a new year.

The Problem With Loving Nature

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I always appreciate a chance to refine my thinking in areas where I have a lot of strong opinions, and the confluence of spirituality, nature, and politics is one such place. Reading Bron Taylor’s excellent new book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, has given me that chance.

I read most of this book while in British Columbia, teaching a group of 90+ people at a Reclaiming camp, the theme of which included “listening to the land, to sense the coming shift.” In spite of my misgivings about the theme, I thoroughly enjoyed the camp and the friends I was teaching with, and in our planning process we had several lively discussions that helped me refine even further my thoughts on the issues raised in Dark Green Religion.

As soon as I got back from all that travel I interviewed Bron on Dream Talk Radio, so I pretty much unloaded onto him all the thoughts I’d had throughout the previous week. Whether you have read the book or not, I would love to hear your comments about our discussion, so without further ado here is the podcast.

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If You Won’t Vote, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution

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Memo to all progressives, activists, eco-warriors and Lefty paradigm shifters: I get it, I get it. Obama is a wimp. The Senate is completely dysfunctional, and your congressperson isn’t doing nearly enough. Right. Check. Now get over yourselves and vote.

I agree that the stimulus bill should have been much larger and financial reform much stronger. Yes, Democrats have shown a troubling lack of political will, and have not heeded their base on many important issues. But do you really think this will get better if Republicans gain seats in Congress this November? Are you willing to sit back and let that happen?

The standard-issue excuse that “there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans, so why bother,” just doesn’t cut it this year. It is not a question of Democrat versus Republican in this election, it is a choice between those who are capable of governing at all, versus those who are not. Today’s right-wing candidates make no bones about it: they would happily cede the entire act of governing to the likes of Charles and David Koch’s favorite charities.

That is how bad things are in this country right now. And it is never, ever a reason to stop exercising your right to vote. In college in the 1980s, my activist friends and I were horrified at how ineffectual the Democratic candidates for president were. But every election we would jokingly call ourselves “Anarchists for Mondale,” or “Anarchists for Dukakis,” and would get our radical behinds down to the polls and vote.

Here in California, this election is even more critical than usual. Our state government is broken, our roads and schools are crumbling, and the economy sucks. But if you thought things got worse on Schwarzenegger’s watch, just wait till Meg Whitman, the $100 million Stepford candidate, buys her way into the governor’s office. Do you really want to experience what will happen as she auctions off the rest of the state to corporate bidders? Will that forward your principles in some way?

I lived here under Governor Moonbeam. I can’t say I’m a big fan. But Jerry Brown cares about governing, and understands how to get an economy working. So does Senator Barbara Boxer, who is battling yet another candidate financed by her private fortune, one who can’t even run a business let alone a government. If you care about the environment and want to keep our beaches free of oil for your children and grandchildren, why on earth would you risk displacing Barbara Boxer for an utter disaster like Carly Fiorina? Why even take that chance?

Other Huffington Post bloggers have written in much greater detail about why this election is important. But here’s the thing: if you choose to sit this one out and the Democrats lose control of Congress, you probably don’t want to hit me up for a contribution anytime soon. Even if you catch me with some change in my pocket coming out of Whole Foods and ask for a donation to your pet cause, my first question will be, “Did you vote in the midterms?”

If the answer is no, count me out as a supporter. Because no matter how important your issue is, it is small change compared to what we are challenged with right now as a nation. By choosing apathy over engagement this November, you will be making all of our efforts way more difficult, and in the process demonstrating how incomplete your grasp is of the big picture. In that context, how can anyone take you or your activism seriously?

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

Mugwort Harvest!

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Fall fell with a thunk today, as the air turned from summer-fog-wet to winter-is-coming-cold. You have to live here for a couple years at least to feel the shift, but California does have four seasons, and they change roughly at the cross-quarter days: May 1 for Summer, Aug 1 for Fall, Nov 1 for Winter, and Feb 1 for Spring.

We have been socked-in all summer here, with only occasional glimpses of sun. This has been fine with me, since I find the quality of light under cloud cover to be extremely conducive to creativity, and besides, all you need to do is travel 10 miles inland to be in the hot sun again.

As weather anomalies go, I think the California coast got the better part of the deal compared to the rest of the country this summer. It has been a prolific season in the garden; all the flowers and herbs are going out of their way to celebrate the cool greenhouse-like conditions, and the colors have been extravagant. Here is just one bouquet I picked last month.

Everybody warned me that planting mugwort was akin to saying I wanted my entire property covered in mugwort. With some extreme pruning and digging up of runners over the winter months, I am happy to say that so far it is staying put in its bed—but it has taken over the entire bed, crowding out the other artemisias planted there and providing me with a lifetime supply of mugwort in just one season.

Last summer I made the mistake of harvesting the mugwort too soon; only afterward did I read that you’re supposed to wait till it flowers to pick it. This year I have been much more patient, but even now, late in the summer, it is not quite ready to harvest. The cool weather has delayed its ripening, but it is the most amazing slow-motion transformation. As the buds develop, the stalks and leaves turn a burnished purple-red and the plant gets strongly fragrant, reminding me of another common psychoactive plant (one that is much more lucrative to grow, sadly for me).

My friend Corey came over and asked what I was going to do with all this bounty, but I haven’t quite gotten that far. After hanging it to dry, I will use some of it to make dream pillows, but that still leaves about 90% unspoken for.

Mugwort tincture seems excessive; it is such a strong plant already that putting it into tincture form could be more harmful than helpful. Mugwort oil sounds like a good choice, but I would love to hear from others on what works best. Are there any dreamers and/or herbalists out there with great suggestions to share? Meanwhile, here is another view of the garden, where Pacific mugwort, yarrow and rosemary all mingle and kvetch, overheard by a nosy strand of passion flower.

The Art of Getting Up Again

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I had a great conversation with Dr. Joan Borysenko this morning on Dream Talk Radio. We talked about dreams and mind-body healing, and at one point discussed the limits of what can be taught in a workshop. I commented that there should be a workshop titled “The Art of Getting Up Again,” since that is the summation of pretty much every piece of advice ever given to anyone, in any context. She laughed and we went on, but the idea has stayed with me all day.

By definition, life hands us tough knocks from which we have to recover, regroup, and press on. Getting up again is what we do after we’ve been knocked down, or have lain down to rest. It is standard business advice that getting up again is what determines whether you will actually achieve your goals. It is equally true for everything else.

Everything we try to do, whether it be meditating in the mornings, remembering our dreams, quitting smoking, eating better, marketing our business, being nice to contentious people—everything comes pre-loaded with about a hundred ways it might not work. The secret to making it work is getting up and trying again that 101st time.

In aikido the art of falling, called ukemi, is very important, because getting thrown is inevitable. Falling allows us to flow with the movement of the incoming energy. It lessens the physical impact of a throw on our bodies, and gives us several strategic options for getting up again, which we decide on as we hit the ground.

How we get up from a fall in aikido is one of the subtleties of the art that most shows a person’s skill level. It can be fluid and graceful, as though it were a seamless weaving of the last fall and the next strike. When you see two people training and they show no energetic separation between one throw and the next, you are watching true aikido in action.

Getting up again in real life does not always demand this level of skill from us, thankfully. But we do need to keep in mind that falling is an art, not a failure. If we relax into it, our bodies can use that energy to find the best way to come back up again.

Metaphorically speaking, we make the fall hurt more by berating ourselves for falling, blaming others for our fall, or denying that we are indeed about to hit the ground. How much more sensible it would be to let the fall help us organize ourselves for rising again—to make getting up as effortless as possible, a seamless part of trying something until we eventually succeed.

Business is Magic

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I am not happy about publishing only one post in June, but while not writing I have been very busy mulling over how to make the best use of this space, and all the other spaces I have on the web. Some of you may have seen Jason’s post about the changes at Serpentine Music this summer, to which I would only add that if you want great deals on great music, the albums are going fast so order now!

Serpentine Music was my first business, a start-up back in the home-based business craze of the 1990s. It has been my do-it-yourself MBA, a crash course in music production, publishing, distribution, planning, niche marketing, sales, web design, direct mail, customer service, database management, and small business ownership. Winding it down has taught me a ton about how to carefully assess which pieces of a business should be tossed out for the useful stuff to thrive. Having an objective eye for something that you’ve poured your heart and soul into, and not being afraid to kill things that don’t work—that is tough, and it is also exactly where transformation happens.

This summer I have also undertaken the birth of a new business, Creative Content Coaching, which combines my experience as an educator and writer with everything I have learned about small business, consulting, and building a public presence. Shifting in such a short time from one business model to a completely new one, while not really shifting the essence of what I do at all, has taught me the biggest diy-MBA lesson yet: business is magic.

Allow me to explain. I have spent years helping people understand the spiritual messages in their dreams, while my dreams were advising me to make all sorts of changes in my professional life (which I followed). Eventually, the spiritual and practical streams in dreams merged for me, and I began doing dream seminars for businesses, while clients came to me looking for career guidance in their own dreams. (It is easy to find once you know how to look.)

Similarly, I started this blog on a whim five years ago, mostly to write on spiritual and personal topics. By hanging in there month after month, I’ve built up a large readership, leveraged it into writing for the Huffington Post, and now know more than most business coaches about the different kinds of web-based writing and how to do it well.

Magic is the art of sensing patterns, following the energy, and doing it all while staying centered and tapped into your creativity. What emerges is total transformation. What can also emerge is a very practical application of all that esoteric stuff, a vehicle through which we can use our whole skill set to bring positive change to the greatest number of people, while living by our core values. In other words, a very cool business. I hope to blog more about magic and commerce in the near future, and meanwhile I welcome your thoughts.

Like Dropping a Stone in a Very Deep Well

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A few days ago I woke with a vivid dream: I am watching someone skim the surface of the pool I swim in, running the big blue net back and forth across the calm water. Suddenly the net picks up something other than leaves and bugs: a big black tar ball appears in the net and is scooped out of the water. But how did it get there in the first place?

In the Gulf, tar balls appear on the beach sand in advance of the spreading crude. It is a gruesome, sickening sight from a disaster that continues to grow and spread and affect millions of lives both in the water and out. Not even a lap swimming pool on the opposite side of the continent is out of harm’s way.

Three weeks ago I was out enjoying our local Friday happy hour in Bodega Bay, and struck up a conversation with some weekend tourists from inland. One couple was nice and chatty, but another woman kept her sunglasses on and an aloof expression on her face, barely managing an occasional smile as she sipped her wine and looked out over the bay.

After a while the other couple left and she and I sat next to each other in silence. I was racking my brain for something to say to this obviously reserved, conservative person, when all of a sudden she spoke up. “I keep imagining what this would look like if the oil spill was here,” she said.

What could I say to that? It sank into the heart of what every person there was thinking, what I myself had been thinking all day and was at the moment trying to forget. She didn’t want to talk about the politics of offshore drilling bans, she was in shock, and was sitting there trying to grasp the magnitude of what has happened to the ocean.

People come out here from all over the country to recharge. The ocean has a powerful psychic pull, along with the lure of physical beauty, recreation, great food, and fresh air. It exists in the collective imagination as our ancestral home, source of dreams, origin of all life.

This was not the first conversation I’ve had with a total stranger who is soul-stricken about what is happening to the Gulf of Mexico. It is not a laughing matter to anyone. People know how bad this is, and they are taking it very personally. This alone gives me hope.

Oil has already reached Barataria Bay, and is just a hurricane’s breath away from destroying New Orleans for good. The mighty Gulf fisheries are gone, as are the beaches, the nesting grounds, and all deep sea life, for the foreseeable future.

The news sinks like a stone to the depths of our psyches. What will we do when the tar balls stir the waters of our dreams as well?