schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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Giving thanks each day

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Today is just one day before we leave here. We (the 29 of us who have indulged our minds and hearts by spending six weeks studying ecological literacy together) are more challenged, more intensely committed, more vibrantly empowered, and more alive than when we came here over a month ago. I feel as though I should say, “I have been overwhelmed.” (That would be a good reason for having let the blog sleep for so long…) But I have not been overwhelmed. I have been overjoyed and nourished. Today, gratitude and excitement are my primary emotions. On Friday morning, I leave for Switzerland, for the mountains, and for the all-encompassing views that will certainly trigger a process of digestion which has been stalled by the enormous amount of knowledge that’s been transmitted these past weeks. I aim to be inspired by the cows of the mountains: ruminating —digesting, and re-digesting.

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So, for now, I’ll share an exercise from this morning’s class. Who is an ecologically literate person, really? What does he or she do? How does this individual live life? An attempted answer. An ecologically literate person is:

A humble student of the land.

Someone who values interdependence over standing alone.

Someone who sees her-/himself as part of the great and powerful whole.

Someone who values life, and the living, without judgement.

Someone who cares for our plants and our most ancient seeds with love and abandon, and knows that food can heal and bring us home.

Someone who has the clarity of vision and the power of observation needed to see where we have gone wrong.

Someone who is an optimist, though they have considered all the facts.

Someone who can still laugh and cry with passion,

Someone who plants trees for the next seven generations,

Someone who values hard work, and work done by hand, as much as (or more than) any other kind of labor,

Someone who can be still in the presence of plants, animals, and other human beings, and does not shy away from the unknown,

Someone whose curiosity is embedded in kindness and interconnectivity,

Someone who gives thanks each day.

xo

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It’s too late to be a pessimist.

Or maybe I should say, “It’s never too late to be an optimist”? Or maybe, simply, “Count your blessings”? The week has been full of quotes, aphorisms, figures, facts, predictions, moments of reflection. Observation. Concentration. Tears. Laughter. Confusion grabbing clarity’s hand. I’m writing in the evening light of another long day. Three doors are wide open to the bird song outside, warm, humid air streams into the classroom, waning shadows play on the leaves. I can just barely see the lake water, blue-grey, from where I sit. It’s been driven home to me this week that if we intend to do the work of turning around this great ship we call Earth, we need to rest, breathe, fall silent. Put our ear to the ground and listen.

This week, our class was taught by a group of people from the fields of biomimicry (Julie Sammons and Mark Dorfman), ecological design (Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd), soil science (Dan Kittredge), and biodynamic farming (via the keepers of Hawthorne Valley Farm). None of them are pessimists, even though all of them work in direct contact with the destruction and degradation of land, and its people, be it urban, rural, wild, and everything in between. I’m not much of a pessimist myself. Especially not when it comes to the future of our planet. I can’t be: it’s not worth the energy, all that sadness. And what’s more, I can’t stop myself from being an optimist when the earth, as Emerson said, laughs in flowers. When pessimism, or his dour playfellow, hopelessness, come to visit, I do my best, with varying degrees of success, to stop them at the door. It’s too late, pessimism, old friend, we’re on a path of no return. Every one of us who has ever been shaken out of his or her drowsiness by the shriek of a killdeer, the prick of a thorny rose, or a breath of wind on a hot, still day (and that makes every single one of us, I reckon), has been committed to the planet, if only by being born here, now, alive today. Some of us are the lucky ones—I count myself among them—who cross paths with teachers, wayfinders, experiences, opportunities to learn, and are perhaps endowed, through all this, with a powerful  sense of responsibility. There are plenty of reasons I could find to be pessimistic about life. I could make a list, and I might be up all night. But I need a good night’s sleep. It matters more. So tonight, instead of counting sheep, I’ll count my blessings.

xo

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A balancing act.


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Let the beauty we love be what we do

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Hiya friends,

It’s been a little while since my last post (all about student debt), and here’s why: since last Sunday, I have been sequestered away on the campus of a beautiful center for holistic learning with a group of twenty-eight brilliant minds, delving into a six-week course of study ranging from permaculture, agriculture, and resilient design all the way to biomimicry and forest mapping. Life on campus is slowly setting into a routine, which includes daily yoga classes, swimming, journalling, work, and maybe some ice cream, too—and our 9am-5pm class, of course! Our first days were spent working with architect-turned-green builder Bill Reed. With Bill, the over-used, misunderstood concept “sustainability” was on the chopping block. I’m still digesting many aspects of our examinations from those days, so I won’t say much here. Just a few tidbits I picked up, to jog the memory and maybe spark some ideas:

  • The major problems of the world are based on the difference between how nature works and how people think (or are taught to think).
  • Resilience is the threshold of sustainability.
  • When designing, remember: the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.
  • All life can be seen as a balance of activating and restraining forces. When the two meet, we face an option: compromise (and loose something on both sides) or reconcile (and identify potential).
  • Life is exchange.
  • Become a tracker: look for patterns everywhere.

Bill’s time with us was brimming with information, stories, examples, and design guidelines. It was rich and nuanced and colourful. His classes left me exhausted and curious, inspired, and tired. 🙂

Ethan Roland, of Appleseed Permaculture in Stone Ridge, NY, was our next teacher. Ethan’s focus, of course, was permaculture design. The groundwork we had done with Bill suddenly gained dimensionality. With Ethan, we spent time outside (phew! finally!), sitting and walking in the woods, and examining the minutia of our classroom building, which is nested inside a living machine (check it out) that processes about 50,000 gallons of  wastewater per day—oh, and no, it doesn’t smell. Again, I’ll leave you with a few tidbits from my notebook:

  • “Permaculture emerged as an immune defense to the degradation of the land.” —Bill Mollison (one of the first permaculture designers and teacher in Australia)
  • (Bill Mollison also said, “Permaculture is the art of not shitting where we sleep.” So there.)
  • A simple exercise you can do: draw a map of your personal needs and yields. Remember that your yields include things like creativity, ideas, love, toenail clippings, manure, and carbon dioxide.
  • What you design and plant should yield more than it needs.
  • Remember: humans can be positive co-creators of their eco-systems!
  • Understand the patterns of place. (Aka. Become a tracker: look for patterns everywhere.)

All that is just a tiny glimpse I wanted to share. More will come! The title of the post is quoted from a poem by Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. One of the magical things about being here is the convergence of seemingly unrelated streams—becoming a tracker reveals worlds hiding in plain sight. Last night, for example, I attended a reading: Coleman Barks reading and reciting Rumi poems, accompanied by David Darling on cello and Glen Velez on hand drums. So many of the poems I heard last night struck me right at my core: design is just another word, but life, that process of becoming, has the potential to be a real masterpiece. So, let the beauty we love be what we do.

I want to leave you with a short video showing Bill Mollison in his Australian garden. Maybe you’ll be charmed, too.

xo


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The Borrowers: Student Debt

For a big chunk of my childhood and teenage years I lived in a mid-sized university town in Canada. My mother taught at the university, and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around libraries, student lounges, and green spaces on campus, pretending to be a mini-student. I remember that there was a popular cafe, run by grad students, right in the middle of campus. It was an old brick house with a patio. Sometimes, I would meet my mum there, and we would have a bite to eat on the patio. One of the exterior brick walls of the cafe, abutting the patio, was covered in numbers written in chalk, many of them running into multiple-digit lengths that were beyond the comprehension of my twelve year-old math skills. I kind of admired their colourfulness. It was neat that students wrote stuff on walls. (I’ve always had a thing for graffiti.) At some point, when I was older, maybe fifteen or so, I realised what those numbers actually were. Written way up high, above the scribbled, colourful digits, were the words: Wall of Debt.

The numbers represented individual students’ debts and loans, accrued over their years as undergraduate and graduate university students. I don’t remember any exact figures from the wall, but, looking at current student debt stats, I’m sure many of them floated around, and even more above, the $20,000 mark. And that’s just Canada. In the US, undergraduates who finance their education wholly via loans can expect at least this much debt in just three or four years, let alone tacking on two or more years of graduate studies. As a young person planning to enroll in a graduate degree program next year (and excited about it), these numbers turn my stomach.

Let me take a step back, though. I’m a twenty-four year old woman without a high school diploma. I homeschooled/unschooled the last two years of high school (actually, I spent most of those years either travelling or working on biodynamic farms). I don’t have a lot of money. In 2008, I applied and was accepted to a small, private American college based on a portfolio, rather than a GED, SAT, or high school transcript. Thanks to this portfolio, I received a full scholarship. I now have a B.A.—and, more importantly, I received an absolutely superbe, enlightening four years of intensive study. And all that for the cost of room and board (which isn’t negligible, but also doesn’t add up to a $20,000-$40,000 debt). I graduated with zero debt. Most of my fellow students didn’t share this experience. During my time at college, I didn’t generally stop to consider how much money I wasn’t spending on my education; I couldn’t hang a price-tag on my experiences, no matter how many zeros I tacked onto the figure. Nevertheless, debt was real: at the beginning of every semester, most of the other students were summoned up to the financial aid office to figure out their loan and grant packages. Figures were floated by me at the dinner table. I felt lucky, and relieved. I also felt increasingly angry that my friends were being faced with enormous financial burdens that might just slow them down on their way to pursuing their dreams. Financial burdens that would follow at least some of them into their fifties and sixties. Because yes, 2.2 million Americans over sixty still owe money on their student loans.

The debate about student loans is pretty wrung out. It’s not a useless debate by any means, but the fact is that as the conversation carries on, millions of students go further and further into debt. It sucks. I’ve been slow to wake up to this reality. It’s easy to set it aside when you’re “getting a free ride.” I feel deeply thankful to my alma mater, and when the time comes that I can give back financially (more than the tiny amount I send to the annual fundraiser), I will, without a doubt. You might wonder why I say that, since all the student debt might look like the college’s fault to begin with. I think in many cases that’s true: the quality of the education isn’t on par with the cost. But I went to a school that did its best with what it had: minimal endowment, a tiny student body, and no big-name corporate sponsors. Every on-campus student was guaranteed a work-study job, and those with higher need were eligible for actual pay-checks. That’s quite a feat, for a small school, especially one that’s geographically located in the most “inconvenient” place (when it comes to finding work as a student, anyway). And have you heard about schools divesting their fossil fuel stock holdings? They did that, too, and they were the third college in the U.S. to do so. All that is something I believe in. (Though all the while I wish the college had had more scholarships, grants, and alternative funding available.)

But for now, I get to plunge into the experience of financing my graduate degree head first, with no experience, and no thick skin, whatsoever. Oftentimes, in the conversation about student debt, the example of free education in Europe is brought up. I was born in Germany, and spent part of my childhood there. I’m an EU citizen, which means that I could take advantage of free education in the old world. There are plenty of reasons why I probably won’t do that, which include that the education I am seeking just isn’t available in Europe. It’s a longish story… But back to free post-secondary education. It’s great, right? Well, I’m not sure. It’s a tough call to make, especially because I seem to be arguing against tuition. The thing is, though, that a university education isn’t right for everyone. It’s not a class thing (or, it shouldn’t be), or a judgement call on my part. I know plenty of people who were much happier, and more successful, learning outside of the university environment—in some ways, I am, too. The problem with free education is that while some people who should have access to post-secondary ed. really can’t afford it, some people can. There is value to this kind of learning, and as much as some of us would like to avoid putting a price-tag on it, there is one. It’s inevitable, since we live in an economy based on, um, yes, sadly, cold, hard, cash. And so, those who can pay, should. In my opinion, the best way for universities and colleges to handle the gap is to adopt the work-college model that is used by some schools in the U.S. There are only seven registered work-colleges in the U.S. Really? Come on, right? I know most schools offer some work-study positions, but these colleges take it to a whole new level. At some schools, like Berea College in KY, all (ALL!) students work 10-15 hours/week, and thus are able to pay off all their tuition as they study. This translates to zero, or very little, debt. I went to one of those work colleges, and while we only worked 4-8 hours/week, it was an interesting, enriching, and educational component of my time at school. Yup, working taught me stuff! I love the fact that we basically had to work while we studied. I think this is smart in an obvious kind of way. (Oh, and by the way, I had to work even though I had a scholarship. I think work should be part of everyone’s education.)

Now that I’m looking at grad programs in the U.S. and Canada, I’m saddened to see that, from the small handful that offer the degree I’m interested in, a number suggest that first year M.A. students not work. The course-load is too heavy, they write, to make time for part- or full-time work on the side. This is just wrong. The course-load should accomodate work. I’d gladly add an extra six months or a year onto my degree if it meant graduating without debt and, even better, working in my field of study and earning money while pursuing my degree. I’m not interested in an insular education that demands I detach myself from the rest of the world and live in temporary and unrealistic stasis, dependent on a fake income that will later come back to haunt me. I love learning, and I love the concentrated amalgamation of resources and experience that is a university. But I also love to work. And I don’t believe that I should experience undue stress (and pressure from faculty who believe that working students cannot focus fully on their studies) because of this. For now, I am trying to be optimistic about the process. I’m excited about the prospect of doing an M.A. (M.L.A., actually, for those who might ask), and I’m trusting that the details of financing my education will come together without too many hiccoughs.

I’d be curious to know about other people’s experiences with the big Wall of Debt. Do share, if you feel so inclined. And thanks for reading! xo

Enter at your own risk.

Enter at your own risk.


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Are You Twenty-Something?

Is it the Yellow Brick Road?

Are you walking the Yellow Brick Road?

I came across psychologist Meg Jay’s TED Talk  (Why 30 is not the new 20) a while back and didn’t watch it. Instead, I started reading the comments viewers had posted after watching the talk. I was intrigued. Mostly because, being a twenty-something myself, I am always curious to see how other members of my generation view themselves, their roles in society, what they do or do not take responsibility for, what they dream about, who they want to be, how they see the world. Responses ranged from absolute enthusiasm for Jay’s message, to complete disappointment at her apparent oversimplification of life’s struggles and challenges and her status-quo attitude. I went ahead and watched the talk, and found myself agreeing with a lot of what Jay had to say—at least on some level. I suggest watching the video, but I’ll give you a short recap here: Jay urges twenty-somethings to “reclaim adulthood in the defining decade of their lives.” She goes through the list of post-secondary education, work, relationships/marriage/kids, geographic location, social life, and so forth. She suggests that my generation stop waiting around for some decisive push toward getting a life, and instead, start living it now. And anyway, it seems that, from her perspective, that decisive push (to commit to a career one doesn’t even want, or stay with someone one isn’t even sure about, or settle somewhere one doesn’t even want to be) is often a misconstrued fear of “hitting thirty” and having “nothing” to show for it.

Yes: she oversimplifies. But something about her oversimplifications is refreshing; she is frank and practical, and speaks from personal experiences and encounters. And still, she omits and ignores some big topics. Her twenty-something life plan leaves out the myriad alternative paths many of us are taking. Of course, I don’t expect her to give an overview of options that run the gamut from (insert fabulous dream job here) to (insert another one here). Right? But still, it’s important for us to remember that these paths exist, and that they are just as valid as a so-called traditional path. Because any of us, no matter what age, could end up doing one of those  bracketed things, or, most likely, even a few. And many of us will do so successfully. We shouldn’t have to measure ourselves purely against the success of that imaginary traditional life that many of us can’t or don’t want to live.

The debate about twenty-somethings has been a ongoing one. It hits home with many of us who, at the age in question, are equally elated and energized by the options we seek for ourselves, and frightened by all the possibilities we get to choose from. Are we lucky to have so many options? Or is much of the inherent twenty-something energy being burned off in an aimless search for meaning? Do we have so much time to find our purpose that we somehow actually get more lost along the way? Or does the unhurried development of our dreams and plans actually fuel them toward manifestation? I don’t know. What I do know is that it is a huge privilege to be able to stop and ask those questions at all. And, in a sense, knowing this is enough of an answer for me.

I get an immense sense of satisfaction from the successes of my twenty-something friends. Sometimes I feel like gloating a little bit, because they are so brilliant and talented. Sometimes I feel like waving the 2012 Time Magazine cover (which yes, refers specifically to the millenial generation) in someone’s face and telling them about all the great and selfless things twenty-somethings have done. (And why they’ll save us…!)

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But of course, a lot of people my age are wasting their time and those resources they are lucky to have. I don’t want to make apologies for them. I know a few myself; most of them have never made any big decision in their lives. Most of them grew up with people who made decisions for them. I guess I could say, “Who’s to blame here?”, but I don’t want to go down that road. Part of growing up (yup, it’s unavoidable) is learning to take responsibility. And learning it is, I know that for sure. As for choosing what to do with ones life, I like what Aristotle apparently said on the subject:

Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.

PS— Quite a few people have written very eloquent, thoughtful responses to Meg Jay’s TED Talk. They explore all the angles I haven’t touched on above, and there are many, and they are all worth taking a look at. Here are a few that stood out:


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On Looking Ahead

Looking inside.

Looking inside.

One of the childhood memories that comes back to me most frequently is the memory of declaring, to my mother, that what I wanted above all in my life was to be good. This replaced a previous need to be famous, which I thought was essential to changing the world. “Define world,” I might say to my younger self now, “Define change.” But it doesn’t matter, anyway. What I realised, somehow, provoked by an insight I can’t remember, was that what I really wanted was to be a happy person, with enough happiness to go around to anyone and everyone. Yup, it’s a vague goal (but noble, right?!).

I’ve been thinking a lot about plans, lately. A small handful of my friends are excellent planners. They seem to be blessed with an intensely clear vision of what their lives should look like, and, most importantly, what they must do for it all to fall into place. I always thought I wasn’t like them. What I thought about myself was this: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know! And when I occasionally felt that I did know (know what to do, what I wanted, where I wanted to be, etc.), I frequently found myself in a situation where the universe/fate/circumstance seemed to have something else in mind. I have never really suffered the existential boredom that lots of people I know swim into at some point in their lives—which leads them to make unexpected decisions and journeys. Even as a kid, I don’t recall being bored much (I’ll have to ask my mother to confirm this). I wasn’t like the writer Joseph Epstein, whose mother replies to a complaint of boredom that a person ought to, “[…] knock your head against the wall. It’ll take your mind off your boredom.” (An apt metaphorical epithet for what some people might characterise as the problem of my generation…) Ok, so knocking your head against a wall won’t get you anywhere—though it might shake loose some more productive ideas a few seconds before a self-inflicted concussion is suffered.

I guess the main thing to pull out of the jumble above is this: I wasn’t bored, because there was always something to do. But I didn’t think I was a planner, because I rarely sat myself down and considered what I really wanted to do with my life.  (On an explanatory side note I’d add this: one of my regular dreams is to have a house with a large garden to call my own, and large amounts of time to spend turning that garden into something magical, and then spending the next years, decades, watching it grow. It hasn’t happened, yet, and maybe the reason why this wish is so strong is that I want to feel settled, and stop feeling as though time is always at my heels.)

And still, all the while, plans and ideas and visions and dreams have been fermenting away somewhere inside of me. I clearly wasn’t letting life just “happen” to me.

I’m an extremely, frequently irritatingly, impatient person. I am impatient with others, with the pace of change, with the change of the seasons, and above all, with myself. I often find myself falling into the trap of believing that something I want to do won’t ever happen if it doesn’t happen right now. That’s why running has been such an achievement in my eyes: I always wanted to run, but the initial pain and discomfort always dissuaded me. I wanted to feel good! Now! But now I realise that good things are often slow to materialise. Especially those good things that are made to last, or those that bring changes that leave lasting impressions. Sometimes, I remind myself now, I just need to wait and wait some more.

Making plans for my life (even though, as they say, “Humans plan and god laughs”) and working toward them, and enjoying the journey, is a stronghold against impatience and frustration. Both of those are inevitable in my life, I know this for sure—but maybe the strength of the journey will help overcome the fear of not knowing.

One more thought on impatience and boredom (again via Joseph Epstein’s essay on the subject): ‘”I have discovered that all evil comes from this,” wrote Pascal, “man’s being unable to sit still in a room.”‘ Not sit still forever, I might add, but just for a moment, just while the dust settles. xo

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Looking back.