The Annual Summer Revamp

Wahey–things seem a bit different around the old Plan B headquarters now, don’t they? Well, as WordPress so kindly informed me the other day, I’ve now had this blog for two years.  It’s no surprise that its purpose has changed over that period of time: it started as a way for me to share my shenanigans with family and friends while I was in Morocco, then became more of an outlet for my thoughts on topics I care about, most of which center (at least indirectly) on social justice and social change. Maybe it’s the anticipation of a big transitional period in my life, maybe it’s the soft summer breezes, but something has compelled me to totally restructure it in order to accommodate some exciting and newfound clarity.

So why The Lighthouse? Plan B has served as a name on this blog for so long for two reasons:

  1. The world needs one. We are confronted with dwindling resources, unprecedented destructive power, a skyrocketing population, and countless other threats to the stability of human life and societies. Any way you slice it, we’re going to have to adapt to a changing planet. We might as well create sustainable ways of doing so now, before circumstances become critical enough to circumvent thoughtful execution of solutions.
  2. It acted as one for me. I started this blog right after getting rejected from a pre-college boarding school that, at the time, seemed to be the only way I could become equipped to make the world a better place. Now, I see only immeasurable value in that–the two years I would have spent there have brought me together with people from whom I have learned so much about life, the universe, and the human condition (not to mention obscure musical genres), and have helped me realize how much more meaningful it is to forge my own path. All my gratitude, love, and wonderment goes to the phenomenal people I’ve encountered and gotten to know (also to that admissions committee) (no hard feelings, eh?). 

Now, though, I’m about to embark on something new. Plan B is no longer accurate, as this is effectively my Plan A. This body of work aspires instead to be a lighthouse. It is but one of many beacons on our collective path towards lasting change, but I hope the glimmer it provides can one day help steer our vessel safely home.

Stay tuned for a tour of the new layout and an attempt to venture into the world of video-blogging!

Oodles of thanks, love, and summery good vibrations to all. 

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From Chicago to Boston

We were driving down a rural road in Connecticut on a sullen, grey day while the Boston Police searched tirelessly for the remaining boy behind the Marathon Bombings. Conversation lulled as Sufjan Stevens’ gut-wrenching song  “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” came up on my iPod. 

His father was a drinker / and his mother cried in bed

Folding John Wayne’s t-shirts / when the swingset hit his head

Three years ago, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s citizenship came between him and realizing his potential as a champion boxer. In 2009, he told photographer Johannes Hirn “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.”

Three weeks ago, he and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, planted homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston marathon. Dzhokhar had failed seven classes over the past three semesters and was $20,000 in debt to UMass Dartmouth.

The neighbors they adored him / for his humor and his conversation

Dzhokhar’s classmates spoke well of him, painting a picture of a laid-back, studious teen with little interest in ideological conflict. “When Dzhokhar used to come home on Friday night from the dormitory, Tamerlan used to hug him and kiss him,” the boys’ mother recalls. Tamerlan is survived by his wife and three-year-old daughter.

Look underneath the house there

Find the few living things / rotting fast / in their sleep

Oh, the dead

Festering alienation and disappointment cannot excuse the Tsarnaev’s actions.

Twenty-seven people

Even more / they were boys

With their cars / summer jobs

Oh my God

Nor can an understanding of the Tsarnaevs’ suffering justify the deaths of Lu Lingzi, Krystle Campbell, and Martin Richard.

Are you one of them?

We must react to a violent display of pain and anger. And if we don’t do so with compassion, what do we have left to heal with? Many of us reduced the week of April 15 to simple statements that are easier to digest than the confusing, sad mess of reality: we projected issues of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia onto the perpetrators’ ethnicities even before there was cause, revealing both searing ignorance and an impulse towards greater understanding. We peppered the internet with a poignantly salient quote from Mister Rogers, urging us to “look for the helpers.” As news of the search for the Tsarnaevs spread, we glued ourselves to redundant television reports with their deceptive “BREAKING NEWS” tickers and found ways of listening in to the Boston Police scanners so we could doggedly follow the manhunt that shut down the city.

And these, these are all safer choices than unflinching grief, both for the victims and the bombers.

And in my best behavior / I am really just like him

Look beneath the floor boards / for the secrets I have hid

Sufjan Stevens posits that we, as humans, are all capable of the greatest good and the most wretched evil. He shows us the formative incidents in the life of John Wayne Gacy, Jr., who took the lives of over 30 young men in the 1970s. He implores us to take in the horrific scenes of these deaths alongside the infliction of Gacy’s psychic wounds. Stevens’ gentle voice, both disturbing and compelling, reaches out to offer us solace, at the price of being with our deepest fear and pain.

P.S. Really brilliant examples of:

1. Compassionate, fuller-picture reporting,

2. Placing the Boston Marathon tragedy into the global scheme of things, and

3. Actually taking the Mister Rogers quote somewhere.

P.P.S. Special thanks to Sufjan Stevens, whose lyrics illustrate this concept so perfectly. Everything in italics belongs to him.

Of Childish Things

Every once in a while I get into this pseudo-manic state where I think that everything is awesome and the world is beautiful and I feel compelled to go around telling everybody how great I think they are. I love these feelings. I love the energy this emotional swing lends, and I love experiencing that fervent wonder at things like the way the sky, alight with a magenta sunset, looks reflected on my open window. I’ll impulsively buy a compilation of poetry, or a novel I’ve never heard of, or a 400-page book on the history of Chechnya that I’ll probably never finish (true story), and the possibility contained within those soft pages leaves me elated. I’ll sing within earshot of other people, make ridiculous faces for absolutely no reason, and constantly interrupt my own sentences with inane-but-occasionally-humorous half-thoughts. It’s impossible to not smile or dance or fidget somehow, even in public. 

Sustaining this whimsy is impractical and perhaps even impossible—it is, without fail, interrupted by the same flow of ordinary activities and emotional shifts that engendered it to begin with. That aside, I think it’s an essential and very powerful facet of a wholehearted life. Capriciousness and spontaneity lead you to recognize what is awe-inspiring about our surroundings, the people we encounter and know, even the base materials of our existence. Acknowledging this unexpected luminosity is the first step towards gratitude (I would just like to point out that I accidentally started typing “greatitude” right there, which is surely a sign of something), which is kind of the crux of becoming a happier, healthier, more productive and resilient person (science says so). One of my favorite things to do is write lists of things that have made me happy on a given day, and I love that those can range from “my mum” to “the Nernst equation” to “things that smell like strawberries.” That childlike admiration is a fantastically important component of life: it makes you feel good, yes, and though to some extent that should be enough, I really believe it can make you better at navigating through the parts of life that require you to act like a grown-up.

And yet a lot of us live in a culture where accessing that optimistic part of our worldview is perceived as weak. Cynicism, we think, is the same as intelligence. Our bumper stickers insist that “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” We belittle both people and fictional characters who let the world see their inner child, sometimes erroneously reducing them to such labels as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. So what would happen if we vocally cultivated spontaneity, creativity, and laughter alongside confidence and intellect?

Well, I can tell you right now, there’d be a lot more people in the world wearing dinosaurs in their hair. 

Paschal Clarity

It’s Easter, and I’m thinking about—surprise, surprise—God. In part, that’s because various things keep reminding me of how much I am intimidated by certain atheists. I mean, they’ve got science on their side, they make totally valid points about the damage inflicted by religious institutions…they’ve got the eyeliner-sporting snarkmaster Tim Minchin as a quasi-spokesman, for crying out loud. And I guess I find it a little bit difficult to describe where I stand when confronted with the view that rationality supersedes religion, because I do acknowledge and agree with much of its basis. But I’m done with being a passive participant in conversations about faith. I don’t want to silence myself because I’m afraid of sounding ignorant or simple-minded anymore. I’m done with thinking that atheism and secularism are automatically more intelligent ideologies, and that I have to continually justify my attachment to religious practices and spirituality. A year ago, I said: “I couldn’t articulately tell you where I stand in terms of religion right now,” and I’m happy to say that that’s no longer true. So let’s start.

1. What’s the purpose of religion? Why do we, er, relige? According to the syllabus for IB World Religions, a class I really wish I had access to, there are three fundamental questions addressed in every religion: what is the human condition? Where are we going? And how do we get there? These can be further broken down and translated: where do we come from? Why are we here? What is the future of the universe? What happens after we die, and what impact do our lives have on that outcome? You get the idea. These are all questions that humans gravitate towards naturally, and every belief system—including the secular ones, like atheism and rationalism—puts forth theories and musings about them.

2. But wait, if we’re going to think about those core questions regardless, doesn’t that mean we don’t need organized religion to facilitate? Well, we don’t need it, per se, but its facilitation provides valuable bonuses. What’s awesome and beneficial about religious institutions is that they foster the formation of communities of faith and give you the opportunity to bond, argue, and celebrate with people who are also struggling to make sense of such fundamentally unanswerable questions. One of my favorite quotes about the religion I’ve had the most experience with describes just that: “As Episcopalians/Christians, God does not call us to agree. God calls us to Communion.”* The importance of human relationships is right there! In the etymology of that word! Communion: with oneness. It’s superficially about the sharing of bread and wine, but at its root it’s about fellowship.

3. You can find fellowship outside of religious communities, though. So why all of the silly dresses and strings of beads and opulent places of worship? The way I see it, the ritual involved in organized religion gives seekers very concrete ways of accessing the spirit of the universe (what we sometimes like to call “God”), which has a tendency to be elusive and difficult to wrap your head around. I know this varies on a pretty personal level, but I love the way tangible symbols of faith make me really think about God and my values. One of my favorite church services is the one on Ash Wednesday because you get to walk around with a smudge on your forehead all day, which forces you to explain the significance of the day and the Lenten season to perplexed bystanders. Even though that’s a uniquely Christian practice, at its heart is something universally human: a reminder of mortality and the impact its spectre should perhaps have on our priorities and life philosophy. I find that, some days, wearing a crucifix makes me feel stronger, and that holding a set of prayer beads during meditation instantly helps me feel more grounded. And although saint worship isn’t a major tenet of Episcopalianism, I’m very much drawn to religious iconography. I use it more as a rosary-holder than as an altar, but I still find great comfort in the seashell-and-dollar-store-candle shrine to San Judas Tadeo (the patron saint of lost causes) on my dresser.

4. Okay, fine, maybe religion does some good things for people. But it has such a terrible legacy, and continues to uphold that—how can an educated person in today’s world still follow the scriptures put forth by antiquated institutions with so much blood on their hands? Yep, a lot of oppressive legislation is promoted by interest groups with “religion” at their centers. But I’d argue that these particular institutions are stepping out of line in trying to merge government and faith, and that there are plenty of religious people and groups out there who would prefer an America (or Iran or Somalia or France) that isn’t theocratic. And it’s absolutely true that wars and genocides committed in the name of religion have killed millions over the years. But I would argue that this is because religious institutions are run by humans, and humans are really good at making mistakes. We can’t forget that atrocities have been carried out by institutions that reject religion, too: an estimated 85 to 100 million people died in mass killings perpetrated by the leaders of various Soviet regimes in the 20th century. The Soviet system was made of institutions built on an ideology that held atheism as a critically important tenet. It would be absurd to say that atheism is a force of evil because it played a role in these crimes against humanity, and I think that extends to theism with regards to its role in past and current bloodshed.

5. But…you know that all of your beliefs are scientifically inaccurate, right? And there’s no integrity in accepting some teachings but ignoring others. Lots of people advocate science over religion because it adjusts its “doctrine” in response to new observations and data. I’m all for science, and I admire its adaptability (though I do think scientific paradigm shifts happen more slowly than people sometimes imagine). It strikes me as funny that proponents of pure rationalism hold this up as one of the most important and distinctive practices in their belief system, yet don’t seem to allow for the same type of thinking in religion. It’s pretty crucial to recognize that religious texts were written at a certain time, in a certain place, by certain people in a certain cultural climate, and that changes how one can interpret them. I think it’s completely legitimate to identify as a member of a particular religion but disregard parts of scripture that no longer make sense in the modern world, or to acknowledge the use of metaphor and allegory, or to care more about principles than specific commandments or practices. It’s not so much selective ignorance as the evolution of perspectives on those big, scary questions, which is what we want anyway, right? It’s unfair to say that a group’s views are destructive and antiquated and then follow that up with “but you’re not allowed to contextualize or update them because that invalidates your faith.” If you’ve got a problem with “cafeterianism,” think about it this way: it’s a sign that people who want to be connected with God and a community that shares their belief system are also thinking critically about their spirituality and values rather than blindly trying to follow every single rule in their faith (which, since both people and belief systems are chock full of contradictions, would probably result in a lot of very stressed out and confused believers).

6. Hold up. You never got to explaining this whole “God” thing. Aaand that’s ‘cause you’ve got Wikipedia. I jest, I jest—Wikipedia is useless here. You can define God as a deity (or maybe deities) that you’re held accountable to and who lives somewhere in the sky, protecting you. But that doesn’t fly with me so much. There’s this phrase I learned in Sunday school ages ago that was the only thing I felt sure about spiritually for quite some time: “God is love, and love is God.” Love, in this context, could also be described as compassion, and I’ve gradually realized that transcendence could fit there, too.

I experience God through wonderment at nature, and through meaningful connection with other people. I experience God through Bob Dylan and violet sunsets that crown the mountaintops. I experience God when I go running in the graveyard next door, and hear “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes drifting from the top of the hill there. I’ve felt God while watching the moon rise over red rock carved by ages of rushing water. Whatever God is, it’s in the birdsong and the strains of forlorn violin music emanating from my neighbor’s house. It’s in thunder, bonfires, and the moss that grows on perpetually wet Oregonian logs.

That spirit of life is in the outdoor chapel at church camp, the crunch of twigs beneath your feet and the old cracked alarum bell. There, a gaggle of adolescents just entering the slightly-too-cool-for-God-and-authority phase pack into a stone church each night to act out Bible stories and take Communion. We roll our eyes at the skits featuring Sam Samaritan, but there’s something inside us that secretly smiles. One of my most memorable spiritual experiences unfolded there just a few years ago.

It’s an ordinary evening as we gather, and by the time we reach Communion, I feel affectionate enough for this community not to scoff at the choice of hymn: Kumbayah. “Somebody’s prayin’, Lord, kumbayah, whoa-oa-oa, somebody’s prayin’, Lord, kumbayah,” it starts, at first sung only by our diligent counselors. But the voices and vitality crescendo with each repetition until our oneness fills the high ceiling. Each verse gets a new verb, some unremarkable action in which maybe, just maybe, we can find transcendence and receive the spirit of life. “Somebody’s singin’, Lord, come by here.” I’m sitting next to two sisters I’ve known longer than most of my friends, and whose family I feel totally comfortable with. One rests her head on my shoulder, brunette locks cascading gently across her face, and I can tell from the strength of her voice that she feels this sense of divine unity, too. I lock eyes with someone I’ve never spoken to before, and it feels like in this moment—“…somebody’s laughin’, Lord, kumbayah,”—we know each other. God is in that cracked acoustic guitar, that warmth and companionship with both stranger and kin.

Happy Easter, y’all.

*Thanks, Rev. Kirk A. Woodliff, whoever you are.

Macro

When it comes to social justice, I’m a commitmentphobe. There is no one issue that I’d be comfortable dedicating my life to. But the environment is at the top of the list in terms of severity and urgency. The earth is beautiful, delicate, and irreplaceable, and I think we should put some dedicated effort into not mucking it up entirely.

If you have a spare 19 minutes, I’d recommend this video (it’s relevant, I swear). If you don’t have time, here’s the bottom line: for many astronauts, looking at the earth from space elicits a sense of unity with the planet and other living beings. The impact of that experience on one’s perspective is vast, and it acts as a striking reminder of humanity’s responsibility to our planet.

A web of delicate systems created the environmental challenges we face, and a web of delicate systems will respond to them.  This makes trade-offs inevitable. Say a mining company wants to begin an operation: there’s demand for the resources they’ll acquire, and there’s support from the target country’s government. The mine will be lucrative enough to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure and improve the quality of life for its people, many of whom live in abject poverty. But, as with all extractive industries, mining poses risks: sacred land and water may be irrevocably altered or polluted. Though the operation will create jobs, workers risk injury and even death.

It’s difficult to make judgment calls in situations like this even when you’re distanced from them, but the potential repercussions are much more immediate to someone experiencing such circumstances first-hand. Would you work in an operation that will destroy a culturally sacrosanct landmark because you want there to be good schools for your young daughter? Would you sacrifice the money you’ve invested in a company because you know it’s at the root of violent political upheaval in the target country?

That’s why all of this talk about unity and spirituality is important: in order for us to make the best decisions about environmental policy, we have to reconnect to that big-picture perspective while not losing sight of the pragmatism of our day-to-day reality.

Everyone is affected by the conditions on Earth, and consequently, there’s a place for everyone in the process of improving them. We need scientists to develop sustainable technologies. We need economists and sociologists to examine and improve behavioral trends. We need entrepreneurs to make eco-friendly buying, building, and living habits the norm. We need to, as both consumers and producers, make responsible decisions with our resources.

But most of all, we need to collaborate compassionately and innovate realistically. (And bask in the splendor of the cosmos every once in a while.)

A Glance Backwards

As you may have noticed, it’s winter here in the northern hemisphere. Though the  holiday season lends winter the illusion of being a cohesively evocative time, the emotions wrapped up in winter traditions are more tangled and ambiguous than corporate window displays would lead you to believe. Especially so close to the start of the new year, the warm fuzzies sometimes give way to darker–or at least deeper–thoughts on one’s own personal path and the trajectory of the human race at large.

Here at Plan B headquarters, it’s a little cold, a little dark, a little contemplative. It probably wasn’t a smart move on my part to listen to multiple iterations of “Hallelujah” on repeat and think about how unfair it is that Leonard Cohen isn’t more well-known and that Jeff Buckley died so young and that Bono ever thought it was a good idea to record a trip-hop version of that song. The weight of this atmosphere blurs my view of the path to world-saving, and scrolling through the things I’ve written this year makes me wonder if I’m even in the right vicinity.

Of the 37 pieces I’ve written on this blog this year, 12 were about education. 10 were miscellaneous: a few boring updates and some attempts at arranging words in a pretty way to convey certain feelings or describe places. The weird realization, though: I wrote 12 pieces about art and culture. That’s a full 3 times as many as I wrote directly about social change.

Gloomy, day-before-New-Year’s me: “Wait a second. I’m supposed to be serious about making the world a better place. What’s all this nonsense about art?”

And then I thought about it.

During the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler led a campaign against “degenerate” art: paintings that had been produced by artists not of acceptably Aryan stock, works created in vulgar, modern styles, all pieces that failed to extol the virtues of Germanic blood and soil. The offending sculptures and canvases were pawned off at insultingly low prices and secreted away by valiant art collectors, leaving some 4,000 unlucky works to the greedy tongues of a bonfire stoked by Berlin’s Fire Brigade.

Less than half a century later, the South African government found folk singer Sixto Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact in opposition to their apartheid-era aims. Lyrics like “Silver magic ships you carry / Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane” and songs like “The Establishment Blues” enticed masses of young Afrikaners to unite in the midst of an oppressive state of emergency, so government officials scratched out such deviant tracks on Rodriguez’s records.

The creation and distribution of art is often trivialized, its perceived role limited to being a weapon in thinly-veiled status wars between bored blue-bloods and Ivy-educated gadabouts. But if art really means so little, why have repressive regimes been so consistently afraid of its power?

Perhaps that’s just a clever rationalization that will allow me to continue fawning over my favorite bands on this platform, but I rather like it.

See you in 2013, wonderful readers! May you be doggedly pursued by prosperity, serendipity, love, and charming companions.

Connecticut

I should know better than to go on Facebook after a big news story like Friday’s shooting. The phrase “emotional rollercoaster” is a grave understatement of the mess the Internet becomes in the wake of calamity. One vocal friend who responds to current events with an impressive balance of authority and humanity posted several half-commentaries on gun control. But their merit was buried under a shield of snark. Another one focused her thoughts on the victims of the attack, but what might have been an expression of grief or respect was muddled with anger.

This atrocity seems impossible to understand. It is heartbreaking. And that emotional intensity urges people into a cycle of confusion, assertion, and stagnation. Part of what makes this such an overwhelming and frustrating experience rather than the true dialogue it needs to be is that people want to have their say about an issue, they want to have “done” something about it, and they want something concrete and definite. So they repeat things that have already been said, or they make definitive statements about how this is an issue of gun control or it’s an issue of mental health care or it’s an issue of the world being irrevocably broken or it’s about the children and teachers who lost their lives. It is in part all of those things and more (except the brokenness one), but grasping that ambiguity is difficult and scary.

And it’s no wonder that people want to take a stand, vent emotion, and feel like they’re in control of something. It’s documented that in the weeks following an attack like this one, attempts at similar ones will crop up. There have been multiple reports of attempted or planned shootings since Friday. These all coincide with the predicted apocalypse, with the dregs of sympathy and fear attached to Hurricane Sandy, with post-election energy, with Hannukah, Christmas, Solstice…it feels like an unsustainable amount of chaos manifesting at once. It feels like we should act now.  

But the fact remains if you really want to change something at its root, you can’t start with the doing. You have to understand it, be with it, be with other people who want to understand how to fix it. You can’t hide behind half-answers and then forget until the next time it happens. Yes, there is urgency. There is immediacy. There is danger. But sustainable change comes from being brave about that ugly reality until you understand why it is the way it is and can do something with that.

It is perhaps the most important thing at this moment to support the families of the victims – in whatever way you can – and your own family, friends, and acquaintances. But that is not the end of it. It will not be enough to be there, and then to move on. This tragedy is part of a trend in violent crime in the United States, one that will continue to not change in response to this ritual of finding false comfort and expressing certainty that isn’t there.

I don’t have a complete answer. I don’t think any of you do, either (ring me up if you do). But I know that there has to be another way, and we have to find it together. 

A continuation:

I know what some of you are thinking. “This is just the easy way out, brushing off something so seemingly incomprehensible and making people feel like they’re off the hook for actually doing anything.” I think that all the time. There’s this feeling of overwhelming guilt—“If only I’d done something, or done it better,”—personal responsibility for the whole world, and fear that there isn’t a better answer out there. For those of you who can’t stand to sit idly by right now, there are a few direct actions you can take (lovingly compiled by the staff of Rookie), but know that they will not result in instant change.

I urge you to do what you need to do to work through this barrage of conflicting emotions and perceived demands on your time and talent. Be extra nice to strangers, tell people you care about that you love them, whatever it is that will help you rediscover compassion and patience. But don’t forget that this happened. Return to it in a week or so, and think about the things that you are scarily good at. Do those things, and apply them to what we are all afraid of.