Thursday, September 23, 2010

More Wendell (repost due to technical difficulties).

The Want of Peace
wendell berry
All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman's silence
receiving the river's grace,
the gardener's musing on rows.
I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

wendell berry
Sometimes he thinks the earth
might be better without humans.
He's ashamed of that.
It worries him,
him being human, and needing
to think well of the others
in order to think well of himself.
And there are
a few he thinks well of,
a few he loves
as well as himself almost,
and he would like to say
better.  But history
is so largely unforgivable.
And now his mighty government
wants to help everybody
even if it has to kill them
to do it—like the fellow in the story
who helped his neighbor to Heaven:
"I heard the Lord calling him,
Judge, and I sent him on."
According to the government
everybody is just waiting
to be given a chance
to be like us.  He can't
go along with that.
Here is a thing, flesh of his flesh,
that he hates.  He would like
a little assurance
that no one will destroy the world
for some good cause.
Until he dies, he would like his life
to pertain to the earth.
But there is something in him
that will wait, even
while he protests,
for things to turn out as they will.
Out his window this morning
he saw nine ducks in flight,
and a hawk dive at his mate
in delight.
The day stands apart
from the calendar.  There is a will
that receives it as enough.
He is given a fragment of time
in this fragment of the world.
He likes it pretty well.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Greetings and Good Tidings to the Autumnal Equinox

[NB: All the pics in this post have disappeared. Figuring out which ones they were and getting them back in may take awhile. Their absence significantly detracts from the post.]

Yesterday was one of those unbelievably perfect fall days--skies so blue they make you feel like an M80 went off in your chest, sun shining, warm, but not too hot.  With a day like that, I couldn't go to my windowless gym and spend time 'walking' on a machine.  I went home, grabbed my camera and my bike and headed into the park.  It amazes me sometimes how much time can pass between my visits.  I live a block away, yet sometimes weeks can pass without me finding myself in the forest or down in the holler.

Summer has been winding down in valley for some time now, even if it seems less obvious in the concrete jungle above where the pavement still cooks in the sun and it feels every bit like summer is still doing keg stands at 3 AM, oblivious that last call was hours ago.  (For tomorrow, the first official day of fall, the weather forecast is calling for a high of 88F.)  I headed out through the playground and began my descent along the hillside.  I came around a bend to find this beauty shining in the canopy--hello Fall!

I got down to the valley floor, and rode straight into the unrelenting sun for a bit before looping around to have it at my back as I poked up the single-track next to the stream. I love this light and the glass-like surface of the slow moving water.  After uploading these photos to my computer, I flipped through my folder of pictures from the park and noted at how the deep, lush green of June and July had faded to these muted yellows and light greens.  It happens every year, yet never fails to captivate me and fill me with wonder.  These small, gradual changes occur before our eyes every day, yet only when flipping through a collection of these moments captured in time does the profound contrast really strike me.

I like fall. I like to watch the world gradually wind down, pulling its energy inward, slowly closing up shop in preparation for the approaching long days of winter. I like to see the cycle of life in action at each of its stages, savoring the flavors, colors, and textures of each one.  I don't want to live in a perpetual summer (or spring or winter or fall) because it is only in the movement between the seasons that each fully comes into its own, and we are able to fully appreciate its gifts.

This way.
Tonight at 11:09, we mark one of the two days of the year when the day of light and the darkness of night will be perfectly balanced.  Perhaps we can use this moment to reflect on achieving balance in our own lives, or as a point at which to rest and look back across our busy, active summer lives and forward to cooling temperatures, shorter days, sweaters, and returning to life on the inside of our homes. Taking time to appreciate the days of hot skin, bright light, kinetic energy, and time spent with puffy white clouds as our ceiling and towering tree trunks for walls, and anticipating the spicy, earthy flavors of fall--the smell of cinnamon, apples, pumpkin pie, and warm, dry leaves; the soft texture of wool and well-worn denim; and the way the world becomes smaller, gathered around points of light and warmth as we work our way into the heavy hibernation of winter.

Ragged butterfly rests at the end of a long, hot summer.
Of course, modern life works against us, but tens of thousands of years of evolution don't give up without a fight.  The tides of our bodies still move with the ebb and flow of the earth around us--its light, its warmth, its abundance, its dearth.

So no matter what the electric lights, alarm clocks, central heating systems, and work schedules tell you, remember that. Remember that you are a native child of the universe, and its intimate movements move within you.
There is beauty in every stage of life.
Despair not as summer's bounty fades and dies--for it is nourishing its resurrection.  In one half turn of the earth, we'll be back at this point of balance, gathering our energy once again to spring forth again--flinging open the doors and windows, welcoming the return of the life-giving sun, ready to uncurl dormant seeds from the earth once more.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"The Pittsburgher's Creed" by James G. Connell, Jr.

I was looking for an old note that I had put up on facebook, and I came across this quote by James G. Connell, Jr. that I had posted last year. I initially found it on the Carnegie Library's Pittsburgh history website, and  think it is sufficiently awesome to archive here.
I believe in Pittsburgh the powerful--the progressive. I believe in the past of Pittsburgh and in the future founded on the heritage of that past; of clean living, frugal, industrious men and women of poise, power, purity, genius and courage. I believe that her dominant spirit is, has been and always will be for uplift and betterment. I believe that my neighbor stands for the same faith in Pittsburgh, although his expression may vary from mine. I believe in Pittsburgh of the present and her people--possessing the virtues of all nations--fused through the melting pot to a greater potency for good. I believe in taking pride in our city, its institutions, its people, its habits.

I believe in the great plans born of initiative, foresight and civic patriotism in the minds of the great men of to-day; here--now. I believe that the Pittsburghers who truly represent her are those of God-fearing lives, scorning ostentation and the seats of the ungodly, building surely, quietly and permanently.

I believe that those who know Pittsburgh love her, "her rocks and rills, templed hills." I believe that Pittsburgh's mighty forces are reproduced in a mighty people, staunch like the hills--true like steel. [See note at end for attribution.]
"I believe that her dominant spirit is, has been and always will be for uplift and betterment." 

One might contest such a statement now by pointing to the many whom we hear despair and disparage our fair city. I am, however, more inclined to agree with Mr. Connell. This City built the world. This City was one of the mightiest industrial capitals on earth. From those towering heights, we crashed with an equally resounding bust. Pittsburgh has been abandoned, kicked, and left for dead. Many who left did so with heavy hearts and empty wallets. Those who have stayed, come back, or ventured in for the first time, saw the diamond under the soot, and have set about cutting and polishing it.

Despite it all, still we rise, the phoenix out of the ashes (but unlike Phoenix, we have water). 

I believe that my neighbor stands for the same faith in Pittsburgh, although his expression may vary from mine. I believe in Pittsburgh of the present and her people--possessing the virtues of all nations--fused through the melting pot to a greater potency for good.

Pittsburgh is not well-known as a town of cosmopolitan, avant-garde living (though those elements are certainly here, and have been so historically). We are, in fact, reputed to be a bit xenophobic, content to remain nestled in our hollers and on our hilltops, unwilling to pass over a bridge or through a tunnel to see the other side of town. I can speak personally of the Pittsburgh Gene that renders natives constitutionally incapable of living more than 3 miles from the house in which they grew up. 

This tendency to hole up in one's own part of town has made Pittsburgh a profoundly racist and segregated town. But this manifests itself, or, I guess more accurately, fails to manifest itself in some odd ways. Pittsburghers are notoriously nice people. Of course, this is not universally true--we have plenty of jagoffs and racists running around these parts, but often you'll see bigoted bluster contradicted by compassionate action. A neighbor in need is a neighbor in need, even if you are someone who falls into an abstract category of people they allegedly dislike. This in no way excuses myopic and misinformed bigotry against people of color, immigrants, foreigners, or people of different religions or sexual orientations. As one on the receiving end of such confusing treatment, I do not enjoy the cognitive dissonance to which the experience gives rise. I only mention it because the phenomenon reveals a Pittsburgh tendency to dislike "them," but erase the dividing lines if you are one of "us."

Despite these more unfortunate tendencies, many Pittsburghers can and do come together as one under the black and gold flag, and not just the one with the yellow, red, and blue stars. As parochial as we may be, we actually do love the ethnic flavors of this town. I consider myself part Italian, Jew, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern by association. I don't care that "my" people didn't make pirohi, polkas, accordians, latkes, or baklava--the ethnic foods, music, dancing, and celebrations that have woven the beautiful tapestry of this town, are also a thread in the tapestry of me. And yes, I believe that the fusion of all of our ancestries have come together to create something better and stronger.  There are pieces of the originals throughout, but together they have woven a new story, a Pittsburgh story, of which we are all a part.
I believe that those who know Pittsburgh love her, "her rocks and rills, templed hills." I believe that Pittsburgh's mighty forces are reproduced in a mighty people, staunch like the hills--true like steel.

Let us hope that this is true.  We've got some vexing problems to deal with, and it's going to take a lot of love for this place and a lot of "mighty people, staunch like the hills--true like steel" to have the fortitude to right the ship.

From Pittsburgh "Promotes Progress": Presenting a Brief Story of the Country's Greatest Industrial Center, a City Powerful and Progressive; Emphasizing Its Unique Position in Reference to the Nation's Population; An Omen of a Mighty Future, Dominant Like Steel. Pittsburgh: R. L. Polk & Company, [1924], 62.

Mr. Connell was the son of Dr. James G. Connell, an East Liberty physician. In 1905 James Jr. was a "clerk" at Penn Paper Box Co. at 302 Ross St. Within five years he had risen to manager. In 1913 he became manager and vice-president of West Penn Paper Co. at 300-304 Penn Ave. He died 9 October 1914. His grave is in Chartier's Cemetery.
-- Sources: The Pittsburgh Press, no date; and, George T. Fleming. Pittsburgh: How To See It.
n.p.: William G. Johnston Company, 1916. p. 5.
updated May 23, 2013

Thursday, September 16, 2010

National Chronic Invisible Illness Awareness Week

Some of you know that I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2007. Few of you, or anyone else for that matter, including me, really know what that means.  I know what it means to live with fibromyalgia.  I've read articles, books, and medical journal pieces about it, but there is no clear, definitive answer as to why this family of symptoms seem to hang out together.  No one fibro case is exactly like another.  The medical community is even considering changing the diagnostic criteria (specifically the 11 pairs of "tender points") because they're not as definitive a marker as they are oft made out to be.

For an introduction to the syndrome, see the National Fibromyalgia Association's webpage.While I would never downplay the utterly devastating effect that chronic lack of sleep and exhaustion and pain have on my life, one of the worst things about having an invisible condition, let alone a very poorly misunderstood one, is that if I want people to understand what I'm experiencing, I have to tell them, lay it all out. And that can be annoying and frustrating in itself--I'm tired, I feel like I've been beaten with a mallet and someone filled my bones with liquid lead and my brain with fog. The last thing I want to do is to try to explain that to someone at the time. If I don't, however, I'm viewed as inexplicably "grouchy," "negative," "unhappy," "insert your favorite unpropitious adjective here."

I just want to be "normal" (whatever that means)--I want to be able to have full, filling, days, come home at night, take care of what I need to do at home, go to bed and blissfully slip into sleep. I would like it to not take 20 times more energy to deal with basic interactions because I'm fighting the desire to just put my head down on my desk and sleep, or trying to ignore the sharp pains and dull aches in my arms, hips, shoulders, neck, back, legs... I would like living to take less effort so that I could have more patience with others.  As it is, I'm so frustrated with myself, that extending patience to others becomes doubly difficult. I realize that that still makes me suck as a human being--that's why its on the list of things that I would like to change. I also know that there is no miracle cure, that drugs have limited application, and that I have to be committed to maintaining a lifestyle that allows me to function at the highest level I can, which, as anyone who has tried to make any positive lifestyle changes knows, is much easier said than done, especially when you are lonely, ambitious, and have a wide-range of interests.

I also don't much like talking about living with fibromyalgia because I know that a) I sound like a whiner, and b) even if I don't, people don't much like hearing endless negative crap. Yet, this goes back to the beginning of this post--I have to talk about it if I want the people in my life to understand me...and to be able to help me.  I don't just mean in the sense of helping me do tasks that need to get done, but to support me with the lifestyle  I have to maintain (exercise, meditation, relaxation, sleep, healthy eating) and help me sort out all the crap in my head and heart that hurts. If I want them to understand that I'm not just a miserable, angry, negative person, but that I'm miserable, angry, and negative for a reason. I don't want to be pitied, and I certainly don't want my anger and negativity validated--they don't serve me and they don't help me serve others. I need to lay them down, but part of getting to that place is feeling heard, connected, understood; feeling like I can ask for and receive help without feeling like a burden or useless or ashamed.

To that end, I'm posting this as part of National Chronic Invisible Awareness Week.  I've also included their meme:

30 Things About My Invisible Illness You May Not Know
  1. The illness I live with is: fibromyalgia
  2. I was diagnosed with it in the year: 2007
  3. But I've had symptoms since: the mid-1980s.
  4. The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is: trying to pace myself to avoid sprints and crashes. Asking for help.
  5. Most people assume: that I'm young and in great health and/or that I'm "just" a grouchy person.
  6. The hardest part about mornings are: getting up at all. Fighting through the exhaustion and stiffness.
  7. My favorite medical TV show is: House
  8. A gadget I couldn’t live without is: iPhone
  9. The hardest part about nights is: getting to sleep, especially when I can't get comfortable either from pain or hypersensitivity.
  10. Each day I take 1 pill & vitamins. (No comments, please) <-- Too bad. I currently take no medication for fibromyalgia. I recently weaned off the two I was taking because I wanted to see where my body is on its own and determine if non-pharmacological treatments could improve my situation as, if not more, effectively.
  11. Regarding alternative treatments I: am pursuing chiropractic, massage, meditation, and therapy.
  12. If I had to choose between an invisible illness or visible: I would choose: visible, and better understood.
  13. Regarding working and career: It is a daily struggle to function, focus, and be productive. I could do so much more if I were well-rested and not in pain.
  14. People would be surprised to know: how truly miserable I really am, and how hard it is for me to function.
  15. The hardest thing to accept about my new reality has been: the isolation, the loneliness, and the mounting despair.
  16. Something I never thought I could do with my illness that I did was: go to grad school and work full-time and maintain my 4.0.
  17. The commercials about my illness:  make me want to punch things. Instead, I mute them.
  18. Something I really miss doing since I was diagnosed is: I've been living with pain and exhaustion for so long that the diagnosis didn't really change anything.
  19. It was really hard to have to give up:  It is hard to say no to things I want to do. It is hard for me to accept not being able to do things, so I push too hard and then fail.
  20. A new hobby I have taken up since my diagnosis is: biking.
  21. If I could have one day of feeling normal again I would: Heh - I do have good days, but one day doesn't really help much overall. In fact, they're almost depressing because I realize that a) if I act on the energy I feel, I'll have a flare, and b) what I could do if I could sustain that level of energy.
  22. My illness has taught me:  This should read " teaching me," because I definitely have not completed my lesson. My illness is teaching me patience, compassion, and to ask for help.
  23. Want to know a secret? One thing people say that gets under my skin is:  "You're too young to know about pain." Yeah, jagoff, only old people know what it feels like to feel like you've been hit all over with a mallet and someone filled your bones with lead and your brain with fog... How could I possibly know anything about pain?
  24. But I love it when people:  Just help without me having to ask, making a production about it, or asking how I'm doing. When people neither treat me like an invalid, nor as though I'm "well." When they just understand that I always hurt and I'm usually exhausted, and a little help getting through the day is nice.
  25. My favorite motto, scripture, quote that gets me through tough times is: "When you find yourself going through hell, keep going." -- Winston Churchill.  "Be not afraid of growing slowly. Be only afraid of standing still." --Chinese proverb
  26. When someone is diagnosed I’d like to tell them: Take care of yourself, even when it's hard and exhausting. If you don't make it your #1 priority, you will not achieve anything.
  27. Something that has surprised me about living with an illness is: how having a name for it doesn't make it any less frustrating at all because fibromyalgia is so poorly understood--even by the medical professionals who specialize in it.
  28. The nicest thing someone did for me when I wasn’t feeling well was: give me a hug and clean some of my house for me so I wouldn't be annoyed by the dirt and doubly angry because I was too tired and frazzled to take care of it.
  29. I’m involved with Invisible Illness Week because: I get tired of feeling alone and misunderstood.
  30. The fact that you read this list makes me feel: like someone is paying attention.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010



Images of you, of us
flood through my mind
like a requiem.
Your body,
the body I once worshiped,
lays next to me
like a carcass.
My hands run over
dead flesh,
rotting meat
falling from bone.
I can feel the decay
in my heart,
the death of which
we never do speak.

8/96 -|kxm|-

Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.