Thursday, October 30, 2008

A two-way conversation

Voices like that of the Greek poet Sappho that speak across the millennia affirm that no era has a monopoly on love or sorrow . The implication is that we can listen to those voices and hear echoes of our own. Does it work the other way as well? Can we speak to Sappho of our own trials and joys? Let me try: "A hidden egg the color of hyacinths": in spring, I've seen a child find such a thing and giggle with delight. Dear poet of Lesbos, tell Leda that children here in the future are just as beautiful as Helen -- and just as terrifying in their destinies. "The tortoise lyre": alas, we cannot spare our tortoises for song, for they are too few; we forgot to cherish them. Sappho, can you set aside some stanzas to remind us of such lowly creatures? Ah, thank you, dear, I hear that verse now: "The hearts in the pigeons grew cold / and their wings dropped to their sides": How did you know that we use gigawatts to power our technology, but have allowed our heart-fires to die down? Were you in our mean streets when you wrote: "We in the city feel its sharpness, boldness of a man." Did you feel the pain of alienation? We can read on to your prophecy that we may also "remember a fine small voice" and "remember one day those things we did in our youth, many and beautiful" when the world was new and bright. Dear Sappho, take your "saffron blouse and violet tunic from your chest" and set them in the sky that we might look up not with two arms that "could not hope / to touch the sky" by themselves but with billions, interlocked to lift us toward "beauty and light ... for me the same as desire for the sun."

Quotations are from Barnstone, W. (Trans.) (1988). Sappho and the Greek lyric poets. New York: Schocken.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Explore sacred spaces with me

I've just created a new Meetup group, the DC Metro Labyrinths & Sacred Spaces Exploration Group, to visit labyrinths and other spiritually renewing spaces, especially outdoor spaces, in the Washington, DC, area.

Our first Meetup will be indoors, though, on Tuesday, October 28, at the Washington National Cathedral, which has a monthly labyrinth evening.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tips for email discussion lists

In the process of helping my Pacifica Graduate Institute classmates start an email discussion list, I collected some what I've learned over the past decade as a participant in and moderator of several such lists and thought those insights would be worth sharing with a wider audience.

Each list should have a "mission statement" that explains the list's purpose and, by extension, who the potential list members are and what discussion topics are welcome. It doesn't need to be anything elaborate, and it will likely change over time. Such a statement serves two purposes: It provides is a standard against which to measure whether the list is doing well as a whole. It also gives list members a benchmark to help them decide whether a message should be posted to the whole list or sent to an individual.

Many discussion lists have rules that are enforced, sometimes arbitrarily, by a mysterious unseen entity ("the moderator"). If the list's rules and moderation policy are something beyond common sense standards like no spam, no profanity, and no off-topic posts, they should be posted somewhere so that all list members can refer to them easily.

Almost no one reads every word of every message. The chances of your message being read all the way through are inverse proportional to its length. Also, you should not assume that someone understands the context if you refer to some other message, unless you quote the text that you're referring to. Furthermore, if your message requests some response or other action, you might want to put that in the first paragraph, because fewer people will see your request if it appears farther down.

From time to time, someone will send a reply to the list that contains personal material that probably should have gone directly to the original sender. It's embarrassing, but it happens. If you're taking someone to task over their opinion on an issue, for example, think about whether you want that conflict to play out where everyone on the list can watch or whether you want to make it a private conversation. Remember that, when you reply, you can change the To address to reply to an individual, rather than to the entire list.

It can take quite a while for a discussion list to find its collective voice. It's less a matter of making rules than experimenting to see what "fits" – what kinds of messages develop into the kinds of discussions that list members enjoy enough to engage in. The one list in which I've participated for 10 years has been successful, I think, because it found the right balance of subject-matter content (questions, comments, and answers on the topic around which the list was organized) and personal content. We've supported each other through job losses, house moves, divorce, death, serious illness, children with problems, and children getting married – and at the same time, we've ranted and raged with great passion about technical topics.

Finally, Richard Tarnas, author of The Passion of the Western Mind and Cosmos and Psyche, has some very useful things to say about email that, I think, apply particularly to discussion lists. He urges anyone who is serious about their writing to make every email message count: Proofread it, and examine it for feeling tone and possible misinterpretation. That discipline, he says, will make your "important" writing (what you write besides email) come that much easier. In my opinion, such care also shows how much you honor the recipients. In the context of discussion lists, I would add one other thing – consider how your message contributes to the purpose of the list.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

All the love in the world

I’m finishing up my 5th quarter in Pacific Graduate Institute’s program leading to an M.A. in what they’re now calling “engaged humanities.” The most difficult class this quarter has been “The Psychology of Compassion and Tolerance.” My final discussion post reflects how it has expanded my understanding:

This quote from Marie-Louise von Franz (1978/1980) sums up the meaning of this course for me: “In this world created by the Self we meet all those many to whom we belong, whose hearts we touch” (p. 177). Here is the true goal of individuation: The drive toward wholeness is not a selfishly motivated desire to attain whatever heights our fate might have in store, but the longing to join at the deepest possible level with our eternal companions. I understand now so much better what Jerry Wennstrom said at our residential session, “True individuality is a one-on-one relationship with that mystery.... Marilyn [Jerry’s wife] and I were nothing, and in that nothing, we could be together.” In the ego’s surrender to the Self, we find not only our true selves but all the love in the world.

Franz, M.-L. von. (1980). Projection and re-collection in Jungian psychology: Reflections of the soul. Peru, IL: Open Court. (Original work published 1978)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

End of Quarter 4

I am now halfway done with my M.A. Humanities degree at Pacifica Graduate Institute and figure it's way past time to post synopses of some of the work I've been doing. For the quarter just finished, I did research into cultural misappropriation and drew a mandala representing my process of responding to social justice issues. I also wrote these two final papers:

Finding Grace in the Concrete: Little Marlene Redeemed

Joseph Campbell once observed, “Eternity is in love with the forms of time.” In the strange fairy tale “The Juniper Tree,” concrete objects are crucial to the transcendent experience that redeems a little girl from following in her mother’s overly materialistic footsteps.

Making Room for Domestic Ritual

Because the home is such an integral reflection of the Self and its path to individuation, transition events within a dwelling deserve as much attention as other life events, with rituals of healing, belonging, and celebration. Ritual can also honor domestic space as a collection of rooms where the soul grows, through everyday activities such as family meals. When designing a ritual for home use, begin by framing the purpose of the ritual. Then, find a suitable space and meaningful objects. Call for the participation of whatever deities, spirits, or values are most meaningful to the occasion, in recognition of the unifying story that brings the participants together. As an example, I present the house farewell conducted for my parents before they moved from their home of 51 years into a senior complex.


The secret of breath is so simple. In that natural act, what is outside comes inside, and what is inside goes outside. The transfer sustains life and creates a liminal moment in which anything can happen.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Does BookMooch need more rules?

I've been using BookMooch for about a year now and have found it invaluable in making the switch from desktop software guru to mythology & psychology grad student in preparation for whatever comes next. BookMooch works very simply: You post a list of books you want to give away and search or browse other people's inventories to find books that you want to "mooch." The transactions use a point system. The only out-of-pocket cost is the postage required to mail a book to a moocher.

BookMooch founder John Buchman asks in his blog whether the site needs more rules to define acceptable reasons for rejecting a mooch. He cites three recent incidents -- an author who rejected mooches of copies of her new book because she thought the moochers were selling it and two members who rejected mooches for political reasons related to the moocher or the moocher's country. Explaining why he and the other administrators have come up with a short list of acceptable reasons for rejections, John says:

I didn’t want BookMooch to become a free-for-all, where anyone could make up any personal reasons for accepting or rejecting a mooch. That could get nasty.

That's the point where I decided that I needed to respond, and so I've posted this response on the BookMooch discussion forum (or at least I've tried to; I don't see it yet):

John, BookMooch *is* a free-for-all, whether you want it to be or not, and that's what makes it so lovable. One of its most appealing features is that it is a simple concept that requires very few rules because of its overall transparency. The offer of a book and the acceptance of a mooch take place in an environment where both sender and moocher can see each other's transaction history. A sender who engages in a lot of unexplained rejections (or rejections for purely personal reasons) is eventually going to find that they're no longer getting mooches. I believe that the values embodied in the principle of free exchange of ideas will win out over those of repression, without the need to impose any detailed code of conduct.

That said, I would like to offer two action items for you to consider. There's no reason not to try to guide people toward the type of behavior that will further the free exchange of books. Therefore, I like the suggestion that another person made to add a drop-down list of rejection reasons, just as we have a simple drop-down list of ratings for a mooch. The rejection drop-down could include:

  • I can't afford to pay to ship that book to you
  • I can no longer locate that book (which should automatically remove it from inventory)
  • Other
The Other choice should have a box for entering an explanation, and the explanation should be required. That would end the issue of unexplained rejections.

I would not put "bad behavior" on the drop-down list, because that's a subjective judgment by one person of another. It deserves more of an explanation than a drop-down list choice would allow.

The second action item would be for you to consider publishing synopses of any instances in which a BookMooch member's account was terminated. The Terms of Service already allow you to do this with or without cause. If you want to highlight what abuse looks like in an objective fashion, providing information on these (hopefully rare) cases, would be one way to do that.

For the record, feel free to read my BookMooch history. I've rejected three mooches -- two because I did a bad job of managing my inventory and couldn't find the books when it came time to send them and one because the moocher had a lot of pending books to send. In the latter instance, I invited the moocher to try again when he'd cleared his backlog. You can see by reading the history details that he later did so. That's what I mean by transparency.

While you're there, maybe you should check out my inventory and mooch some of those old Microsoft Exchange books from me.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Coffee for a cause

In my Leadership Skills for Social Justice class this quarter, we were asked to respond to the question, “How do my consumer practices contribute to oppression?” It would be na├»ve for me to answer with a simple “They don’t,” because it is impossible to know who makes each product, how it is transported, and what other factors go into getting it to my doorstep. Therefore, any honest answer to that question must reflect at least the possibility that I contribute to oppression every day, through almost everything that I eat, wear, read, and otherwise consume.

But, if my every act as a consumer contributes to oppression, then doesn’t the term oppression itself become meaningless or at least less potent? That’s the problem I have with this question—that it is too like the proverbial “When did you stop beating your wife?” in its inescapable accusation. So what if I am an oppressive consumer? How am I supposed to eat, etc. in the middle of a major metropolitan area without depending on the unseen industrial, agricultural, and transportation workers who make my lifestyle possible?

Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from the environmental movement, which has also been plagued with similar problems of scale—complex issues that seem too big for any one person to mitigate. In the face of such issues, it is all too easy to complain that there’s nothing to be done, that things simply are they way they are.

However, I am a child of the environmental movement. I participated in the first Earth Day, following in the footsteps of my mother, who is still an active conservationist at age 80. One thing I’ve learned in watching the environmental movement evolve over the past 35+ years is that it is possible for individuals to make a difference. They can do it in two ways—band together with like-minded others to effect specific changes or, at the personal level, start making conscious choices about consumption and lifestyle. We’ve seen in just the past few years how a small group of people buying organic products has led to the wider availability of such products. The same goes for products made from recycled plastic and glass. The latest trend, at least here in the Washington, DC, area, is people choosing to bring their own shopping bags to the store. A few people do it, and then suddenly many more people perceive that it’s a good idea.

My current understanding of the issues surrounding oppression and social justice is such that I’m not ready to join any movements, but I am capable of thinking more about what I buy. Given the interconnections between social justice issues and environmental issues, it makes a lot of sense to learn about what goes into the creation and transportation of the products I use, especially those I purchase frequently.

Let’s start with coffee. It fuels my day. It’s not so much the buzz as the fragrance, flavor, and warmth that help me set a good pace for my work or study. I am fortunate to live in an area where not only is shade-grown coffee readily available, but I’ve even heard fair trade coffee advertised on the radio. That doesn’t avoid the possible oppression of the people who ship the coffee and build the boats that carry the coffee, but if I worry about the entire production and transportation chain, I will quickly find myself paralyzed. What I can do is choose fair trade, shade-grown, organic coffee as often as I feel I can afford it. It is heartening to read that such a choice may have a definite positive effect.:

If coffee sells as a complexly marketed specialty beverage like wine rather than an anonymous, price-driven commodity like branded supermarket coffee, and if some of the premium paid for those complexly marketed specialty coffees actually makes it back to the pockets of subsistence growers rather than staying in the hands of marketers and dealers, then specialty coffee becomes part of a self-regulating, market-oriented solution to the rural poverty that haunts many parts of the tropics.

Right now, my biggest quandary is about decaffeinated coffee. One of the ways I manage to drink coffee all day without getting the jitters is that I mix regular and decaffeinated beans. I visited a coffee plantation in Costa Rica about six years ago and was shocked to learn that the decaf coffee they sold on site was actually shipped to Germany to be decaffeinated and then shipped back to the plantation to be sold to tourists. What extra economic “inputs” go into the making of my decaf coffee? This may be more of an environmental issue of which process is the least harmful than it is a social justice issue, but it illustrates the complexity of the consumer’s dilemmas.

What’s next? Well, it’s winter, so maybe it’s a good time to think about buying fruits and vegetables appropriate to the season, rather than eating strawberries from South America. Parsnips, anyone?