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February 22 2008

Dear People,

Another big storm is predicted, with likely slides, floods, and outages, but right now the sun is making a surprise appearance. It catches in the drops and drips from last night's rain. The soggy grass I squish across on my way to my cottage is strewn with glitter. The leaves of my winter kale display fat, transparent pearls that, when I lean over and look, reflect the world.

This new year feels like that. Beauty and radiance amidst all the dangers and dire predictions. Even the numbers, 0 and 8, have a comfortable, promising look, round like the shiny globules on the kale. "8 sym-bolizes good fortune in China ," says a travel ad for flights to Beijing . Zero is excellent, too. It's the empty hole in the hub that allows a wheel to turn.

The lightness I feel must have some connection to the primaries. It's like old times, the notion that we might have a real choice, limited as it is. The refrain I sing in my talks and workshops, after all, is the power of intention, the privilege of being choice-makers and channels for change. But I'd about given up on seeing that in electoral politics. When Fran and I were courting fifty-five years ago, we took the NY Times along with our picnic basket and read Adlai Stevenson's campaign speeches aloud to each other. We never tired of his eloquence, wisdom, and wit. Now, watching Obama's speeches, we feel the same excitement. It's all the greater now, because that kind of honesty and intelligence has grown so rare as to be almost extinct, and because I'd thought the American people had gone to sleep. Also, I am deeply stirred by Obama's courage--running for president in a violent and racist nation. Courage is contagious; so every day his campaign continues we'll be braver for it.

The year was bright from the beginning, as I think of our weeks in Vermont last month. I love working at Cobb Hill with its Sustainability Institute and co-housing community founded by Donella Meadows, whose systems teachings I have prized over the years. This time Fran came with me, and we went in January, when the farmers can take more time for our workshops. I grimly braced for wintry weather, forgetting how different dry cold is from the dank cold of the northern California coast. But sunny skies favored us, shining over snowy fields and hamlets, and the air so bracing, each breath is a tonic. Morning, noon, and moonlit night, every chance I got, I strode out into it, filling my lungs and studying the colors of the snow.

While we were there, Beth Sawin of the Sustainability Institute and Jay Meade, who like Beth is a resident of Cobb Hill, tried out their new, double-feature presentation on climate change. Beth, a scientist, is founder of an innovative educational project called Our Climate Ourselves ( Jay is a painter and installation artist, whose street dramas, stage sets, and giant puppets enlist all ages to enliven the Great Turning. Their teamwork grows out of the realization that the challenges of climate change are so vast, and still so remote from our daily lives, they are hard to contemplate. And it expresses their conviction that the scientific data must be accompanied by art in order to engage our imagination and our will. Their double feature consists of a slide show by Beth presenting up-to-the minute information on the crisis, followed by a shadow-puppet drama that looks back from the future on arduous but eventually effective human responses.

The combined show was presented twice, and I noted quite a contrast in the way it was received. The first time, at our Cobb Hill-centered workshop, the shadow puppet show followed directly after the slide presentation with its sobering graphs and timelines. And we all thought the program quite effective. The second performance was scheduled to take place on the Friday evening of a large public weekend. Since it was the overture to a workshop where people came with expectations of experiential work, we decided to interpose an interactive process between the two parts of the show.

Over a hundred were present in the old Sumner Mansion as the lights dimmed for Beth's slide show. She'd brought in some new material. The serial photos of progressive Arctic ice melt and graphs of CO-2 acceleration struck me as even more alarming than before. For the first time I felt physically the grip of fear in my gut, a chill through my body. So I was glad that we had decided to insert an Open Sentence exercise, to help people just be with the information and the feelings it provoked.

Everyone in the audience turned to one other person to work in pairs, and the three Open Sentences were these: (1) Of the facts I just heard about climate change, what strikes me most is… (2) The feelings that come up in me as I hear this information are… (3) What I appreciate about having this information is… That third one made people laugh--which was a nice release; but it was good to take seriously too, and realize that after all we do want to know.

After 15 or so minutes of that process, the shadow puppet show erupted with Jay's antic silhouettes, jazz and marching band music, and a script both earnest and fanciful. It evoked cheers, tears and laughter as it echoed the message of Beth's report--and helped us digest it within a framework allowing for hope in human ingenuity and perseverance. I was struck by how much livelier and more appreciative the response was than at the first performance, when it followed straight after the science. The whole evening was pretty strong medicine, and set the tone for two days of wonderfully determined and high-spirited work.

As I write, Kalli Rose Halvorson stops by for tea. She tells me how auspicious is the year of the Earth Rat, which we are now entering. In San Francisco tomorrow the parades will roll through Chinatown , storms notwithstanding. An astrologer and student of Taoism, Kalli sketches out for me some of the qualities Earth Rat brings forth.

The mantra for an Earth Rat year, she says, is "Break It Down." Break down old habits and obstacles. Break down problems into discrete pieces and tasks. The image: a family of glossy-pelted rats are looking at a large warehouse packed with rice. They know they can take the huge structure down. Each will focus on her own immediate job, her bit of the wood to chew. This is not a time for multi-tasking, Kalli emphasizes, but just working away sequentially, consistently, in the most ordinary fashion--for real change. Politically, she says, entrenched incumbents can forget it. Their defenses crumble; familiar biases get deconstructed; this is the time for a fresh start.

I just discovered a new saint, and the kind of strength he evokes is similar to Earth Rat's. I have been reading about New Orleans as I prepare to leave for a retreat with sixty of its community leaders, and one of the books acquaints me with Saint Expedeet (also called Espidee). I immediately want him in my pantheon and in my life. Finding my daughter Peggy at work in her kitchen, putting final stitches on a stuffed cat, I ask her to make me a little doll of this saint to put on my altar.

To tell you his story, I'll just quote from the book, which is Voodoo Queen by Martha Ward. "As beloved in the city as St. Anthony, St. Roch, the Virgin Mary (and others)…, this saint, however, does not belong to the Catholic church…. It seems that a statue of a Roman foot soldier intended to be part of a crucifixion tableau became separated from its companions. When the missing piece turned up on the levee of the Mississippi in a box marked EXPEDITE, things began to happen quickly. Word spread of a recently arrived saint who could bring things to a rapid conclusion. In New Orleans speedy results are the true miracles…

"St. Expedeet wears the garb of a Roman soldier and crushes a raven beneath his foot. The bird manages to croak Cras! Cras!--Tomorrow, tomorrow--wait, procrastinate, do it later, mañana. Espidee, however, points firmly to a sundial inscribed HODIE. Today. Do it now." There are some fine stories of how the saint, when you call upon him, immediately helps you get things done. I am also glad to know the Latin word for tomorrow and the etymology of procrastinate.

What fine spirit for this year! May Earth Rat's and St. Espidee's blessings abound in your life and mine.