Love and questions for Hard Times

“Curiosity is your best weapon.”

-Peter Bresner

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Dear Friends,

I have  gathered you all here today to take a hard look at the state of our community. What is up with us? I’m watching arguments happen daily, watching people in left-of-center, activist and alternative health circles, and I am wondering.

Why do we tear each other apart?

Why do we burn out, why do we implode?

(And we do, yes, and there is no debate about this.)

We game-i-fy our activism. Who is the most radical? Who has the most up-to-date language?

And here we are, currently faced with a challenge that literally threatens to end our community, our country and our planet. Seriously. It’s time to get our shit together.

And to start, may I please present a question:

What if, when faced with something, an idea, some words, that challenges us, emotionally, that pokes at our sense of self, that riles up our privilege, that causes our heart to itch and our digestive system to rumble, when faced with REALLY BIG QUESTIONS, when faced with others’ pain, our own complicity, systemic ISMs, structural inequities we just S-T-O-P.

We don’t talk.

We don’t immediately jump to offering our “opinion”.

We don’t get all defensive.

We inquire within.

We delve, we read, we listen, we breathe.

What. If. We. Asked. Good. Questions????

Questions of ourselves, questions of history, questions of who controls the narrative.

Questions of WHOSE story are we identifying with?

Questions of WHAT is behind this feeling?

Especially vital when a marginalized person is attempting to share the story of their own marginalization.

And I am not saying, don’t eviscerate rape apologists. I am NOT saying don’t punch Nazis, don’t talk back to racists, don’t shut down mansplainers.

Boundaries are good.

I am not saying don’t all strive to be better at our inclusive language, better at outreach, better at performing activism.

But Christ on a cracker, my dears, look at how we are hurting each other!

Perhaps, in our frustrations with hearing other sides, with hearing others’ truths, we could just say “OK, I will think about this. Thank you for sharing this.”

(Perhaps, we can stop with the whole “both sides”, too, and move to a word beyond “both”.)

Perhaps we can stop seeing social media as the best outlet for these conversations. It’s too easy to hit send, too easy to verbally destroy the faceless other. Remember when we wrote on paper? When we journalled about things, made first drafts, thought it through?

Go for a walk. Meditate. See where inquiry takes you, and THEN share.

Let’s crack the information bubbles, bridge the feedback rivers, connect the identity silos.

And let’s, when faced with the critiques of our communities, whether we are white people, the middle class, cis-gendered, straight, Americans, men, the gainfully employed, whatever the heck you identify with, for fuck’s sake let’s just say I HEAR YOU. I see you, you matter. We don’t have to agree on everything. We don’t have to fix it all, now. We don’t have to immediately convert to queer-poly-pagan-gender-warriors to prove our loyalty.

But we can listen.

We can say “I was wrong”. We can say “I didn’t think of that” or “thanks for sharing”.

We can stop pushing people away.

And we can love.

“We need a love that starts out in tenderness and moves outward until it manifests as justice.”

-Omid Safi

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Urban raptors, brain food and rebellion

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Lately I’ve noticed an increased pattern of people taking a social media break. Why?
Don’t we want to be connected? To hear the news? Well. I do.
But I don’t just want to connect with people. I don’t just want news of the election or the latest celebrity deaths. I want news of my place, news of the land. It’s a felt news rooted in observation and interaction.
We may hear a lot about how humans are feeling disconnected, dissatisfied, emotionally unwell. Perhaps you can relate—I can, too. I have a practice that helps support me, though—I’ve set the goal of trying to spot at least one urban raptor every day.
It’s not about “power animals”. It’s not about absorbing some mystical “hawk medicine”. And it’s certainly not about projecting my ideas of mystical powers onto birds who don’t really give a shit about this stuff.
It’s just about participating in the life of a place.

Many of us have assigned our experiences with animals, especially majestic animals, to the realm of the magical. And there may be a certain healing power in myths which call upon the natural world to tell us things. But going out and observing the world around us is deep food for the mind, just the most basic, practical and ancient interaction I know of.

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So how can we use this practice to address disengagement?

Wellness, especially mental wellness, is not just the absence of active illness. It’s a feeling of connection, a sense of belonging. It’s being grounded, knowing where we are in the world. Historically, when humans wanted to punish someone, we’ve banished them. Taken them out of this belonging, out of this connection.

We have always looked to our surroundings for messages and clues, literally reading our landscape, even before words, to tell us whether or not we were safe. What’s going on? Where are we? Who else is here? What time is it? Do we need to wear a beaver fur? Are we near water? (This used to be extremely vital information)
What’s the altitude? How far into the distance can we see? What’s the deal with prey here?

Birdwatching was part of this process.

What are the birds doing? Stocking up? Acting nervous? Birds and their behavior are a natural prediction system, an original, natural app. Want to know if there is a hawk around? Find some pigeons and watch how they act.
It has now become a hobby often thought of as best for dorky older people with knee socks and too much free time, but maybe we are ready to reclaim this as a super-badass accessible urban wellness practice.

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Birdwatching is a game-any foraging behavior is, really. The natural rewards system gives us a nice, juicy ping every time we spot a Peregrine Falcon, a Maitake mushroom or a Giant Land Snail—whatever it is that we’ve chosen to “hunt” for. This ping is part of how we build our mental health. The process can be participatory and fun, connecting us to our community or solitary and meditative, giving us the space we need to recharge.
It’s like receiving a text, but from the Universe—although arguably texts from humans are also “from the Universe”. But anyway it’s like an ancestral booty call from deep within your neurology that supports a sense of bonding with our surroundings. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

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And it’s just fun!
Fun that can motivate us to get off our asses and go outside, to feel the elements, driving curiosity to explore and to wonder about things. It creates interactions. Looking at birds is also a great lesson about inhabiting space-watching how they use things in our built environment, challenging our ideas of what these things are “for”.
To me they symbolize a casual rebellion against our acceptance of single-use structures, performing an Avian Parkour on our streetlamps and exit signs, eating a Pigeon atop our places of worship and scanning the harbor from electrical poles and bridges. Urban raptors are a bit of an F you to our architectural plans, to our perceptions, even to our opinions of gravity.
They’re looking at anything, and regardless of its intended (by humans) use they’re making it their own.
Maybe I’m getting a little too romantic now, but I like to think that their perching on whatever the heck they want is a tiny message of resistance to domestication, a message that not all beings are going to relate to this object or situation with the same preconceptions.

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We can learn from them. Maybe we’ll get curious about the food chain, about our own neuroscience, about anatomy and ecology, about animal’s experience of mapping and territories, about observation and patience.
Urban raptors also address our human binary ideas about city and country, and who belongs where. Land is just land, and some animals don’t worry about population density—even preferring prey-rich environments full of dumpsters and Pigeon perches. Cities are stimulating, and some birds like that. Environmentally, we think of rural areas as “clean” and “pure” and cities as “dirty”, but this is not necesarrily true and reflects some of our human biases and our misunderstanding of risk.
Rural areas can be full of hazards, from oil spills to power plants, from planes spraying pesticides to hunters and other large predators. Cities do have dangers, but they also have laws which restrict certain environmental pollutants and may have less competition for prey.

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It’s exciting for me to share this practice that can give us so much joy for such little work. It’s not about possessing anything, it’s not about owning things or shopping. It’s just about scanning the landscape. It’s about feeding a part of our brain which is hungry for input. It’s a little reminder: If they can make it here, so can I. And it’s just about going out and noticing, getting to know your place and building a habit of looking around. It sounds so basic that it can’t possibly be as great as I’ve said, but I encourage you to just go find out for yourself. Get a bird book if you want to, get a pair of binoculars if you’re really fancy, but all you really need is yourself and the sky.