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Adult Learners

When inspiration struck and I set out to build a new website for my blog and other writing, I assumed the process would move quickly. I could hardly wait to see the vision in my head become reality. I’m a happy and motivated independent learner and felt certain I could fumble with the design software and master it without much trouble, the way I did when I created Our Daily Crime.

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The software for Our Daily Crime is nearly ten years old now, a tech dinosaur. The new software requires a whole new level of skill.

I needed help. Scheduling a meeting with a professional took time. Then we had to reschedule due to a conflict. More time. I turned my attention to other things and practiced patience (not very successfully!).

In the meantime, we’ve hired a new team member at work to join us in lifeguarding, teaching, and working with patrons and patients in the pools. He’s older than I am, and he’s working hard on refining his swimming skills and learning new techniques. We’re giving him all the support and practice we can.

I admire adults who want to learn new skills. We’ve just begun to teach private swim lessons again after the pandemic, and I have two adult students. When I asked one of them what her goals were for her lessons, she said, “Not to drown,” which made me laugh.

I did eventually meet with my web designer using Zoom, and I spent an intense hour and a half taking notes, asking questions, and watching her use the design software. Since then, I’ve spent several hours working with it, and gradually I’m gaining mastery and shaping the website I dreamed of. I’m elated. Can’t wait to share it with you!

As a lifelong learner and teacher, I notice how varied our learning experience can be.

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Context matters. I was wretched during my public school years. My goals were to achieve good grades to meet the expectations of my family and graduate. Any pleasure in the learning itself, for its own sake, suffocated under the long nightmare of those years. Graduation meant nothing to me, and I would have ignored it if I’d been allowed. My reward was surviving.

College was no better. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t belong there. Once again, I went through the motions of pleasing others and living up to expectations, two hellish years of depression, social isolation, and suicidal ideation before I dropped out.

I still wince when I think of the money wasted.

Somehow the joy of learning has been distorted into competition, capitalism, and perfectionism. Everyone doesn’t have equal access to education and educational tools. Many people don’t complete high school, let alone higher education. We don’t talk about education in terms of enhancing our lives and making us bigger. We talk about getting a good job, making a lot of money (or not), and school loans. Capitalism defines success.

Worst of all, if we happen to be interested in literature, writing, religion, music, theater, philosophy – liberal arts, in other words – we’re steered away from those interests because “they” say we can’t earn a living pursuing them. I’ve got news for you. You can’t make a living as a librarian or medical transcriptionist, either.

Apparently, education is not valuable unless it leads to making a certain amount of money.

Photo by Brandon Wilson on Unsplash

On the other hand, many learners in our communities are in it for the fun of learning something new. Their goals are about real life, as opposed to the construct of consumerism. They don’t want to drown. They want to do a job they’ve never done before and so learn new skills. They want to use technology as a tool to support their passion. Adult learners know learning enhances life. They’re not coerced into learning; they seek it out.

It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach someone who wants to learn than it is someone who’s having learning thrust upon them.

Adult learners have lived long enough to know how to learn. Not how to compete, how to cheat, how to work the system, how to manipulate good grades and references, and how to create their own personal perfectionistic demons, but how to learn. Adult learners also know something about how they best learn, and are able to communicate their needs and goals.

Learning requires time, patience and practice. It takes courage to seek new skills. It’s messy. We make mistakes, flounder, and fail. Good adult learners persist anyway, pursuing their creativity or passion, satisfying their curiosity and desire for mastery.

I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with wonderful teachers who have inspired, encouraged, and challenged me. I’ve also known destructive teachers who permanently damaged my trust, confidence, and sense of self-worth. The difference between them, I’m convinced, has nothing to do with their level of education or training, but rather with their power management. Good teachers seek to empower their students. Destructive teachers not only refuse to share their power, they actively disempower their students.

Healthy communities support learning and teaching, not necessarily as a formal process, but as a natural one. As a teacher, I know my students give me at least as much as I give them. Teaching and learning are collaborative, a sharing of power. To teach is to learn. To learn is to teach. Passing on my love of swimming doesn’t change the world, but it’s a contribution I can make joyfully.

Everyone succeeds when we teach and learn together. My daily crime.

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Holistic Management 5: Ecosystem Processes

After defining the whole we want to manage and our holistic context, and recognizing the necessity of planning for failure, the next part of holistic management planning is looking at ecosystem processes and the tools we use to manage them.

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Savory’s expertise is focused on land management, and at this point in his book, Holistic Management, he spends some time educating the reader about water and mineral cycles, community dynamics and energy flow as they pertain to the soil.

Ecosystem, however, is defined by Oxford Online Dictionary as “a complex network or interconnected system” of “interacting organisms and their physical environment.” If we’re seeking to manage a family unit, a work team, a business, a job, or any other kind of organization not directly connected to the land (remembering all human activities are ultimately rooted in Planet Earth), ecosystem processes remain an important component to consider.

Community dynamics include the whole community. If we have done an effective job of defining our whole, we’ve already broadly defined our community. In my case, my community context includes the human and animals I live with; those people I work with, who are also my community of friends; my family, because we are always working out of our family context; and the plants and animals we share our 26 acres with. I also include a future team of writing support professionals, such as an editor, agent, and publisher.

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This seems sufficiently complex, but it’s not even half the story, because most of the life around us is invisible to our eyes. We have just spent a year being reminded at every turn how powerful the world of microbes is. Our bodies are inhabited by uncountable microscopic organisms without which we could not live. We teem with viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and every living being we’re in contact with carries a universe of life with them, too.

We are just now beginning to understand how essential these microbes are to our health and the health of the planet. Healthy soil is full of complex microbial life that helps it retain water, cycle minerals, and provide plants with what they need to thrive. Without healthy soil, mineral and water cycles fail and ecosystems collapse.

Community dynamics are hugely complex and often chaotic. We don’t know enough to see the full scope of them, but we can observe the difference between healthy and unhealthy communities. A flock of chickens, an orchard, a garden, a team, a family, a marriage, all reflect their degree of health in obvious ways.

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Energy flow is part of any ecosystem process. For land management, energy flow is obviously driven by sunlight, climate, weather, and the activities of members of the community.

Energy is “strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity (Oxford Online Dictionary). You might notice that definition does not reference money, but the health of our finances has become closely tied to our perceived strength and vitality, as well as our position of power.

Our current political context is a stark example of what happens when the energy flow of money is dammed. Flow implies movement and cycles, an open hand out of which resource is both given and received. When water or mineral cycles are interrupted, the ecosystem suffers. Energy becomes stagnant and the whole system falters. Interconnection breaks down. The system dies, including the organism that withheld energy from everyone else.

This doesn’t occur in natural ecosystems that are not interfered with, but humans do it all the time. It’s the end result of a power-over culture. Some thrive at the expense of the impoverished majority, creating an unsustainable situation that eventually collapses and allows energy to be redistributed.

Any management plan will include us, the planner, as well as other living organisms, and all those living organisms, from a human being to the complex creature we call a cat or a cow to the tiniest soil microbes, need appropriate energy to thrive.

At this point I feel overwhelmed. Some days I can barely take care of myself, let alone anyone or anything else. How can I possibly worry about the soil microbes next to our front steps when I feel too tired or rushed to prepare and eat a good meal? And what does any of it have to do with earning a living through my writing?

Holistic planning is a dance between the tension of the big picture, or holistic context, and discerning where our power lies within that picture. If I prepare and eat a meal that provides good fuel for my physical needs and the needs of the whole community of viruses and bacteria that lives with me, I’m maintaining a good energy flow in my personal ecosystem, which supports my holistic management plan.

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There is no writing if there is no me. Nobody else can write my stories. I’m the only one.

If I choose to implement a compost toilet and/or grey water system, the wastes that my body produces (in collaboration with billions of microbes) as a result of energy flow can then be properly managed and returned to the soil ecosystem, which can break it down and use it to enhance water and mineral cycles and the production of more food for my next meal.

If I feed my cats (which greatly enhance my health and happiness) an appropriate diet that meets their physical energy needs, as well as the needs of their living biomes of viruses and bacteria, and compost the waste and wood pellets from their litter boxes, I’m once again supporting a healthy energy flow. Nothing is wasted. One organism’s excretions feed other organisms in the community.

If we want food sustainability, this is the kind of flow we must commit to. Animals and plants evolved together in order to maintain this kind of a sustainable energy cycle, but human activity has broken that elegant flow. We can repair it, if we’re willing to learn and can muster the political will.

At first glance, community dynamics and energy flow seem to have nothing to do with a business plan, but that only demonstrates how unskilled we are at holistic problem solving. We can’t expect a sustainable and effective plan if we don’t use energy of all kinds effectively and recycle it back into the ecosystem with as little waste as possible. The healthy whole is the last level, not the first.

To be alive is to be part of a community. None of us can escape community dynamics and energy flow. None of us can escape dependence on healthy mineral and water cycles. We are now beginning to experience the consequences of centuries of refusal to consider or take responsibility for ecosystem processes.

As I seek sustainability and security for myself, I must also understand my personal whole as part of a larger whole, which in turn forms part of a larger whole, and so on. I am both the center of my whole and a community member for countless other forms of life. I bear responsibility on two fronts: my own power and needs and choosing a position of power in regard to other members of the community. Will I enhance power for others or undermine it? Will I enhance energy flow or block it? Will I work cooperatively with my community or ignore it?

This balance between self and others is the dynamic tension of life. Holistic management planning and decision making put it center stage. Complex systems are by their nature dynamic, nonlinear, and both regaining lost balance and maintaining it require resilience and presence, a commitment to living more mindfully and with a wider awareness of the life around us in all its forms.

We can no longer afford to benefit ourselves at the cost of others.

Going with the flow — acknowledging ecosystem processes. My daily crime.

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Life’s Light

Mary Oliver writes about “the light that can shine out of a life.” I’ve been resting in that phrase over the holiday weekend.

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When I think of “life” the first things that come to mind are not human lives, but those rooted in the green world, the world that sustains me. I thought of light shining out of lives as I deadheaded and watered velvety purple petunias in their hanging basket, leggy now but still blooming richly, as though the first frost is not around the corner. I thought of it as I diced fresh sage, thyme, parsley, and garlic chives from my garden with our sharpest knife to make herbed bread. On my low-carb diet I eat a half a piece a day and these two loaves will last me for weeks. The scent of baking bread with herbs and onion fills the house like late summer incense.

I think of human life, too — strangers, friends and family, all kinds of people, a great tidal wave of humanity that’s straining the planet’s resources to the uttermost limits, but each individual a soul with hopes, dreams, history, wounds, and memories. Each with potential to be a light. Each with equal potential to be darkness.

The thing about light is that it’s meaningless unless we know darkness.

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I want to be a source of light in the world. More than that, I want to be a specific kind and intensity of light for specific people in specific ways. I’m pleased if my light illuminates a step or two for others, or provides some comfort, but the light I’m choosing to shine is really directed at a small handful of people.

Appreciate my light, dammit! Open your eyes! I’m shining for you!

I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that allowing light to shine from my life is where my power ends. The intensity and quality of my particular light is not in my power. I can’t control the eyes that see it or the steps it guides or companions.

This morning I took an early walk at dawn. The sky was orange and pink, and as I was heading home with the sun rising behind me that light glowed in the trees, which are just beginning to turn the same colors. It was so lovely my eyes burned with tears.

That light wasn’t for me. It wasn’t mine. Birds and animals and yes, people too, all had their being under that morning sky. The trees bathed in it as though they loved it. I just happened to be one of many awake and about, and I saw. I saw and I was blessed.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Another thing about light is that we can’t see it if we don’t look.

I wonder sometimes if we’re losing our ability to see lights that can shine from lives. Are our eyes too weary and distracted by a world full of visual noise and endless screens to find starlight or firefly light? If we light a candle in our soul can we find our way back to it when we’re lost in darkness? Are we able to value only the glaring light of sun or spotlight?

We were cleaning out a storage area under the attic eaves this weekend, and I crawled on my hands and knees with a flashlight, noting wiring that needs attention, dust, the desiccated bodies of wasps, and signs of mice. It struck me that holding a flashlight in a dark place provides illumination in the direction it’s pointed, but the holder can’t actually see the light source itself. Can we ever know the quality and brightness of our own light? Are we able to judge its value or where it’s most needed? Can we control which direction it shines in?

“The light that can shine out of a life.” Light that nourishes. Light that guides. Light that connects us to the web of life that is community. Light that inspires. Yet the value and outcomes of allowing our light to shine is beyond our control, beyond our knowledge.

Letting light shine out of our lives is an offering we can choose to make, and then we’re done. Perhaps the rest is none of our business.

Allowing light to shine out of my life. My daily crime.

Jenny’s attic is waiting for her. Fall, 2014

After Breaking

I am blessed in my friends.

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I don’t mean Facebook “friends.” I mean real people with whom I frequently spend time talking, working, laughing and crying. These people honor my life with their presence. They inspire me.

One of my friends responded to last week’s post with depth and wisdom, opening me still further to the value and beauty of brokenness. Here is her comment, lightly edited:

I too felt broken, but stronger for it. Because of your “broken pieces” I’m stronger throughout. And as I piece back together into something different, I too take my “broken pieces” and try to help others as you did me. So maybe all our little broken pieces don’t fit together anymore, but we can give those pieces to the next person and it helps start a foundation to put them back together in their new beautiful masterpiece.

What my friend is describing here is the heart of any community: contribution. If we decide to value our brokenness as well as our wholeness, we can offer ourselves without reservation to others. We can contribute everything we are without shame.

We can be authentic.

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In my own life, I’ve found more healing and support in the broken pieces others offer me than the shiny new ones. I’m chipped and frayed myself in so many ways, it’s hard to connect with someone who maintains a perfect façade and admits to no flaw, mistake or weakness.

We all know people who hoard every bit of their damage jealously in order to use it as justification for destructive choices and behavior. We also see people taking terrible experiences and making an offering of them to others through example, service or art.

Once again, it boils down to a chocolate-or-vanilla choice. We will certainly experience wear and tear in our lives. What will we do with the fragments? In that respect we have complete power.

The idea of offering our shreds and scraps to one another delights me. Not only am I inspired to greater creative and spiritual possibilities for my own reshaping with broken pieces from others, I can offer remnants that no longer serve me to my community. We can all build and repair foundations together, creating a network of grace, wisdom, and strength.

Perhaps we each have a broken piece someone is looking for, and some stranger we have yet to meet has a piece we need.

Last week’s post was one of my broken pieces, offered with a slight shudder, as always. I still, after more than 200 posts, have a hard time pushing the “publish” button. There’s still a small voice in my head that tells me I’m worthless, I have nothing to offer, and everything I think, feel, say, do and write is wildly inappropriate, inadequate, or (worst of all) is displeasing someone I love.

I do it anyway, because writing is what I do.

But when someone steps forward and fits one of their jagged, ragged, splintered edges against one of mine, I’m touched to the heart and my faith in myself and the enduring power of the human spirit is renewed.

Broken? Not at all. Repaired.

My daily crime.

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Reciprocity Again

It’s no secret that many small businesses are feeling devastating impacts from coronavirus. There’s a general push to support local small businesses, which are the lifeblood of neighborhoods and communities. In rural areas, many of us are also doing our best to support local farmers.

Before the pandemic, my partner and I had a weekly breakfast date at a local diner. We enjoyed the food. We enjoyed the people, both employees and other patrons, and we often met friends there for a leisurely, friendly, old-fashioned diner breakfast. The diner is a small, family-run place, and was an important part of my community and routine.

As the pandemic swept over the country, the diner closed, and we stopped eating out altogether. We did get take-out from them a few times, but we found that the food alone did not satisfy our desire for connection and community, and it seemed a chore to make the rather lengthy round trip when we could more easily, cheaply and safely cook for ourselves at home.

As the summer wanes, conspiracy theories abound, and the election approaches, fear, frustration, hostility and division are everywhere. I heard that the diner has reopened, but I’m not comfortable eating in a restaurant right now, although I do frequently support a local sandwich shop that provides take-out, has CDC recommendations posted, and is staffed by employees with masks.

Yesterday I heard that the diner is heavily advertising the owners’ political allegiance and the employees are not wearing masks.

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I felt upset by this and chewed on it yesterday and last night. My initial reaction was loss and sadness, followed quickly by the feeling that I’m being intolerant and unsupportive of my community. I took a walk at dawn this morning, listening to a couple of owls carrying on a lengthy conversation at the same time the birds were waking, and it occurred to me that community support is a two-way street.

I’ve written about reciprocity before on this blog. At the time of that writing it was a fairly new concept to me. This was no surprise, as I realized most of my relationships, past and present, were remarkable for the absence of reciprocity. It was a relief to be given language and concept for my recurring feeling of giving every bit I had to give to a relationship and getting nothing in return.

Now I recognize the lack of reciprocity in interpersonal relationships much more quickly and take steps to limit or exit from those connections.

This idea of community support, however, is a new angle on reciprocity, and it took me a while to see it.

Small businesses are valuable and it’s hard work to make a success out of them, mostly because giants like Amazon and Wal-Mart undercut them so easily. One of the things I love about living in rural communities is getting to know the artisans, farmers, and others engaged in unique and high-quality arts, crafts and food production. I’ve never owned a small business, but it seems to me if I did I’d work hard to provide my customers with the best product and experience possible. In return, I’d be grateful for those who patronized me and told others about me, as I’d want to attract all the customers I possibly could.

Photo by Sven Scheuermeier on Unsplash

This is reciprocity.

As a customer, it doesn’t occur to me to wonder about the political views or underwear color of a small business owner. My interest is in the business’s product or service, not the owner’s personal choices.

I have no need or desire to control whether or not people wear masks or social distance, unless I’m at work and it’s my responsibility to do so. If I’m uncomfortable with lack of masking and social distancing out in the world, I leave rather than making a scene. I also feel no need to lead in any situation with my politics or ideology. Neither are the most important things about me.

I still patronize most of the places I visited and bought from before the coronavirus, although I go a little further out of my way now, even if it does take extra time or an extra dollar or two, to support small businesses. I have encountered some hostility and glares in various local businesses that I assume are about me masking, but nobody has said anything to me about it, and (being an adult) I know how to ignore dirty looks.

However, the diner is a different proposition. Plastering a small business with political signs and posters feels to me like a Keep Out, as their presidential pick is not mine. It feels hostile and hurtful. As I said, we aren’t in a hurry to eat in anywhere just now, but it was my intention to return to the diner and resume our weekly habit one day.

Photo by Joseph Gonzalez on Unsplash

Except now I don’t feel welcome.

I also don’t feel safe. I can only assume people who refuse to mask in their business feel no need to take other precautions, and I don’t want eat food prepared and served by those who don’t follow CDC guidelines, both at work and in their private lives.

I’m sad about this. It’s hard to feel like a part of a community and then suddenly feel I don’t belong, after all. My affection for the diner, the people there, and the food is real, and I wish them all well. I thought we were friendly acquaintances and it never occurred to me that differing political views would disconnect us.

But I wasn’t responsible for the disconnection. I’ve missed the diner all these long weeks, and looked forward to the day we could resume going. I want to support this particular small business, and I feel unable to. I won’t go out into the community and bad mouth them, but I won’t be giving them my business, either, or recommending them to others.

Maybe they don’t want support from people with my politics and coronavirus concerns. Maybe their choice is to support the false equivalency of the two. Maybe we as a culture are deciding that divisiveness and politics are more important than good will and community, but that’s not and never will be my choice.

During these times and all times, we need to support one another. The best support is mutual, reciprocal. Communities need small businesses, and small local businesses need communities. I want to be a part of that, but I need some support as a customer in order to show up and buy.

My conclusion about all this is that breakfast at the diner is yet another sad loss. I’m not going to compound that by distorting my efforts to stay as healthy and safe as possible into intolerance and lack of support. Neither are true of me. Both might be true of others, but I can’t do anything about that.

Supporting businesses that support me. My daily crime.

(This is the fourth post in a series on reciprocity. See also Parts 1, 2, and 3.)

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash