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    Grow Your Own Furniture

    A British furniture designer has set a high standard for energy conservation and sustainable production: He coaxes trees to grow furniture.

    Chris Cattle produces simple wooden stools and low table frames by planting seedlings in small groups. Using plywood jigs to hold the trees together, he “trains” them to grow into curving S shapes that can be grafted together to make a rigid frame.

    “The nature of growth allows an element of freedom for design during the growth period,” says Cattle. He can adjust his design to achieve the desired size and proportion.

    Cattle, who trained at London’s Royal College of Art and lectures at Buckinghamshire University College in central England, has spent 20 years designing furniture for mass production. His longtime concerns about energy conservation, and the waste of materials that normally results from the furniture-making process, led him to experiment with grow-it-yourself furniture.

    “My first thoughts were aimed at reducing the amount of work the factory would have to do to change the timber from its raw state into finished pieces,” says Cattle. “Quite soon after, I realized that if you could only persuade the tree to grow into the required shape in the first place, the factory itself could be replaced by a sort of furniture orchard.”

    Cattle is now planting larger orchards and thinking about growing furniture as a commercial venture. Furniture orchards might become viable home businesses, especially in rural areas, and could be tailored to fit the amount of land available.

    From The Futurist (Feb. 1999). Subscriptions: $35/yr. (6 issues) from the World Future Society, 7910 Woodmont Av., Suite 450, Bethesda, MD 20814.

    Food Buying Clubs: A Case-by-Case Revolution

    For many of us who came of age politically in the ’60s and ’70s, the grocery list crumpled up in the front pocket of our jeans was as close to a revolutionary manifesto as we had. The goat milk, onions, and bulgar we packed in our canvas bags had to be bought in bulk from local, organic, communal farmers or we were doing ourselves, and the revolution, a mighty disservice. Food is still political 30 years later, of course, but these days a heightened sense of culinary righteousness comes with a pretty hefty price tag.

    The hundreds of consumer-owned food cooperatives that sprouted back then have morphed into a fabulously successful industry serving millions of–dare I say it?–bourgeois yuppies like me. But the high price of good food often leaves even yuppies looking for cheaper alternatives, one of which is the good old-fashioned neighborhood buying club.

    The United States has more than 4,000 food buying clubs, according to a 1995 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, and the idea seems to be gaining new supporters. “We get daily requests from individuals wanting assistance in starting a new group,” says Nick Masullo, general manager of Ozark Cooperative Warehouse in Fayetteville, Arkansas, one of the nation’s half dozen cooperatively owned food warehouses. “People are concerned about the quality of their food and care about such issues as genetic engineering and food irradiation.” Blooming Prairie Natural Foods in Iowa City, which serves Midwest buying clubs, and Northeast Cooperatives in Chelsea, Massachusetts, both report a 10 to 20 percent growth in buying club sales each year, according to Dave Gutknecht, editor of Cooperative Grocer.

    And as Jeff Guntzel and Soyun Kim explain in the Chicago-based cultural/political zine Punk Planet (Sept./Oct. 2000), addressing concerns about food through a buying club, though it’s not as simple as driving to the supermarket and filling up your cart, is not as difficult as it may seem. The regional warehouse provides a catalog with price lists for members’ monthly orders, which are phoned, faxed, or e-mailed to the wholesaler. A designated club member (or members) picks up the order from the distribution site, pays with a single check, and delivers the goods to a central place where the rest of the club can grab their grub.

    The upside to a little more running around is that members can save 10 to 50 percent off retail grocery prices by buying by the case. The downside is that the wholesaler requires large minimum orders–as much as $750. This is an important consideration in organizing a buying club, Guntzel and Kim note. “Find out the minimum each member would be willing to spend each month and base the size of your group on how many people it would take to meet the minimum order,” they suggest. “We recommend seven to ten members, a good number that doesn’t get too unwieldy, and pretty much guarantees that you’ll make your minimum.”

    It’s more than just dollars and cents, though. Buying clubs make a political statement as well. Indeed, Japan’s 35-year-old Seikatsu Club boasts a membership of 230,000 households and has become a powerful voice in the nation’s environmental movement, according to Yes! magazine (Summer 2000). The organization has used its massive political clout to help elect more than 100 members to political office.

    Sadly, we’re not that advanced in the United States, but Guntzel and Kim still argue that buying clubs are “revolutionary.” “You are encouraging cooperative action,” they write, “withdrawing your hard-earned money from corporations and chain stores, supporting organic farmers and other cooperatives, taking a little load off the earth by purchasing pesticide-free foods with less packaging marketed by socially responsible and environmentally conscious companies, and saving money!”

    The Co-op Directory Service www.coopdirectory.org
    Cooperative Grocerwww.cooperativegrocer.com

    Discuss cooperative buying clubs with Utne Reader executive editor Craig Cox, author of Storefront Revolution: Food Co-ops and the Counterculture (Rutgers, 1994), in the Cafe Utne WorkMoney conference: cafe.utne.com

    Steve Earle: A Death in Texas

    HEY, MAN.”

    Jonathan Wayne Nobles grins at me through inch-thick wire-reinforced glass, hunching over to speak in a deep, resonant voice through the steel grate below. A feeble “What’s up?” is the best I can manage. The visiting area in Ellis One Unit is crowded with other folks who have traveled, in some cases thousands of miles, to visit relatives and correspondents on Texas’ Death Row. They sit at intervals in wooden chairs surrounding a cinder block and steel cage that dominates the center of the room. There are cages within the cage as well, reserved for inmates under disciplinary action and “death watch” status. Falling into the latter category, Jon must squeeze his considerable bulk into one of these phone-booth-sized enclosures.

    It’s an awkward moment for both of us. In the 10 years we have corresponded, we have never met face to face. The occasion is auspicious. Jon and I will spend eight hours a day together for the next three days and another three days next week. Then the state of Texas will transport Jon, chained hand and foot, 11 miles to the Walls unit in downtown Huntsville. There he will be pumped full of chemicals that will collapse his lungs and stop his heart forever. This is not a worst-case scenario. It is a certainty. Jonathan Nobles has precisely 10 days to live. And I, at Jon’s request, will attend the execution as one of his witnesses.

    Over the next few days a routine develops. I arrive at Ellis at 8:30 in the morning. We usually spend the first two hours talking about music, politics, religion–subjects that we have covered thoroughly enough in letters over the years to know that we have widely divergent views and tastes. We fill the long awkward silences that seem inevitable in prison visiting areas with trips to the vending machines for soft drinks, candy, and potato chips. I pass Jon’s goodies to the guard on duty through a small opening in the steel mesh.

    Inevitably, we move on to life behind bars, drugs, and recovery–topics where we share considerably more common ground. We are both recovering addicts who got clean only when we were locked up. Jon began reading about recovery and attending 12-step meetings in prison years ago. I can remember a time, back when I was still using drugs, when the recovery-speak that filled his letters made me extremely uncomfortable. Now it is a language that we share–sort of a spiritual shorthand that cuts through the testosterone and affords us a convenient, if uncomfortable, segue to the business at hand.

    There are arrangements to be made. If Jon’s body were to go unclaimed, as is the case with half of the men executed in Texas, he would be buried in the prison cemetery on the outskirts of Huntsville. Called “Peckerwood Hill” by the locals, it is a lonely space filled with concrete crosses, adorned only with the interred inmates’ prison numbers. Those executed by the state are easily identifiable by the “X” preceding their number. There are no names on the stones. Jon doesn’t want to wind up there.

    Instead, he wants to be buried in Oxford, England–a place he’s never seen. One of his pen pals, a British woman named Pam Thomas, has described it to him in her letters. He likes the picture Pam paints of the springtime there, when the bluebells are in bloom. Jon says that Pam is working on permission from a landowner there. I have Plan B on the back burner. A Dominican community in Galway, Ireland, has offered Jon a final resting place. At some point in the proceedings, it dawns on me that I have spent the past hour helping a living, breathing man plan his own burial.

    One thing Jon and I don’t talk about much is the movement to abolish the death penalty. In fact, Jon is suspicious of abolitionists. We were “introduced” by a pen pal of his and an acquaintance of mine. She had heard that I sometimes corresponded with inmates and asked if she could give Jon my address. I said sure. Within a month, I received my first letter. It was a page and a half long in a beautiful flowing script. It contained a lot of the usual tough rhetoric and dark humor I had learned to expect in letters from inmates. After several readings, I realized that the jailhouse small talk was merely a medium, a vehicle for one pertinent piece of information–that Jonathan Wayne Nobles was guilty of the crimes he was charged with.

    In 1986 Jon was convicted (almost entirely on the strength of his own confession) of stabbing Kelley Farquhar and Mitzi Johnson-Nalley to death. He also admitted stabbing Ron Ross, Nalley’s boyfriend, who lost an eye in the attack. Jon never took the stand during his trial. He sat impassively as the guilty verdict was read and, according to newspaper accounts, only flinched slightly when District Judge Bob Jones sentenced him to death.

    When Jon arrived at Ellis he quickly alienated all of the guards and most of the inmates. He once broke away from guards while returning to his cell from the exercise yard and climbed the exposed pipes and bars in the cell block, kicking down television sets suspended outside on the bottom tier. On another occasion he cut himself with a razor blade, knowing that the guards would have to open his cell to prevent him from bleeding to death. He just wanted to hit one officer before he passed out.

    But somehow, somewhere along the line, in what is arguably the most inhumane environment in the “civilized” world, Jonathan Nobles began to change. He became interested in Catholicism and began to attend Mass. He befriended the Catholic clergy who ministered in the prison system, including members of the Dominican Order of Preachers. He eventually became a lay member of the order and ministered to his fellow inmates, even standing as godfather at inmate Cliff Boggess’ baptism. He later helped officiate at the Mass that was celebrated the night before Boggess’ execution. I watched this transformation in the letters that I received.

    The Jonathan Nobles who sits on the other side of the glass from me in September 1998 is a different man from the one the state of Texas sentenced to die almost 12 years ago. The greatest evidence of this fact is the way Jon is treated by everyone he encounters. A prison clerk, displaying genuine regret, interrupts our visit. She needs Jon to sign some papers. Jon does so and then informs me that the documents allow me to pick up his personal property and distribute it to a list of people detailed in a note the clerk will hand me on my way out. Inmate James Beathard, on his way down the line to visit with a family member, stops to talk and Jon introduces us. The guard patiently waits until the exchange is over before escorting him to his assigned cubicle. Socialization during inmate transfer is a clear violation of policy, but a lot of the rules have relaxed for Jon. He says it’s like the last week of the school year. I believe it’s more likely that he has earned the genuine respect of everyone here.

    I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. The truth is, I simply need a break. On the way back I run into Father Stephen Walsh, a Franciscan friar from Boston who travels regularly to minister to the Catholic inmates at Ellis. He will serve as Jonathan’s spiritual adviser, waiting with Jon in the holding cell over at the Walls until he’s escorted into the death chamber itself. There, he will administer the last rites.

    Every visit ends the same way. A guard gives us a five-minute warning, and Jon hurriedly dictates a list of “things to do” that I must commit to memory, since visitors are not allowed to bring writing instruments and paper into the unit. Then Jon presses his palm against the glass and I mirror his with mine. Jon says, “I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

    OVER THE PAST FEW DAYS

    The other witnesses have arrived in Huntsville. I had dinner with Dona Hucka, Jon’s aunt. She is the only blood relative to make the trip and she has driven all night to be here. Pam Thomas is in from England. Both are already on the unit when I arrive. We take turns leaning close to the glass while a prison employee takes Polaroid snapshots of each of us with Jon. The prison provides this service for the fee of eight dollars each.

    It’s 10 o’clock in the morning. There isn’t much time left. At 12:30 we will be asked to leave the unit and Jon will be transported to the Walls. In the death chamber, we will be able to hear Jon over a speaker in the witness room, but this is our last opportunity to speak to him. Jon divides the remaining time between us more or less equally. I go first. Jon looks tired; the stress is showing for the first time. He leans down and motions me closer. I realize he’s assessing my condition as well. “You all right, man?” I tell him that I’m okay. Jon is not convinced.

    “I’m worried about you. You don’t have to be Superman or nothin’. This is insane shit that’s goin’ on here today. You don’t have to be strong for the women if that’s what you’re thinkin’. They’re big girls. You need to take care of yourself.”

    “I know, Jon. I’m all right. I went to a meeting last night and my manager’s here now. I’ve also got a couple of friends up from Houston who have done this before.”

    “Witnessed?”

    “Yeah.” That seemed to make him feel better. “Okay, but if you need to cry, it’s all right. Go ahead and cry.”

    “When this is all over, I’ll cry.”

    “Promise?”

    “I promise.”

    Jon shifts gears suddenly. Back to business. He looks both ways to make sure the guard isn’t watching. “Take this.” With much effort he pushes a tiny slip of tightly rolled paper, the diameter of a toothpick, through the impossibly tight mesh. Somehow he pulls it off. “That’s my daughter’s phone number in California. My sister read it to me over the phone last night. They’re going to strip search me and I can’t take anything to the Walls and I’m afraid I’ll forget it. Give it to Father Walsh. Then I’ll have it when I make my last phone calls.”

    I poke the paper in the watch pocket of my Levi’s. There are a few other requests. He wants me to call his foster mother and his sister after the execution, and send flowers to two women who worked for the prison who were kind to him over the years. I promise that I won’t forget. “All right, bro. Take care of yourself and your kids. Tell Dona to come back.” Hands against the glass one last time.

    “I love you, Jonathan.”

    “I love you too, bro.”

    NOON I head back into Huntsville. My manager, Dan Gillis, arrived last night and not a moment too soon. Suddenly, driving has become difficult. The world has taken on a kind of surrealistic patina. I need someone to drive for the rest of the day. Also waiting at the hotel are two friends from the abolition movement, Karen Sebung and Ward Larkin. Both have witnessed executions, and they have made the trip to assist in any way they can. We talk over arrangements for the transportation and cremation of Jon’s body, which, as it turns out, Dan has already taken care of. I make a couple of phone calls and check my messages. Then I shower, shave, and put on a pair of black jeans, a blue short-sleeve shirt, and a black linen sport coat.

    4:00 We leave the hotel. Dan drives us to Hospitality House, a guest residence operated by the Baptist Church for the families of in-mates. Dona and Pam, as well as Pam’s friend Caroline, are staying there. The two other witnesses, Bishop Carmody of the East Texas diocese and the Reverend Richard Lopez of the Texas Department of Corrections, are already there when we arrive. We are assembled here for an orientation session to be conducted by the Reverend Jim Brazzil, the chaplain at the Walls unit. He and the warden will be the only two people inside the chamber with Jon when he dies. He goes through the execution process step-by-step so that we will know what to expect and, though it’s obvious he speaks with authority, I’m not listening. I can’t concentrate, so I just nod a lot. It doesn’t matter. No matter how well or poorly the witnesses are prepared, they are going to kill Jon anyway.

    5:05 Reverend Brazzil answers his cell phone. It’s Father Walsh, who’s over at the Walls with Jon and wants the phone number, the one that Jon passed me through the . . . oh my God. I can’t find it. I was sure that I transferred the slip from my other jeans into my wallet when I changed clothes, but it’s simply not there. Dan runs to the motel and checks my room, but it’s hopeless. Reverend Brazzil relays the bad news to Father Walsh. I feel awful.

    5:30 We arrive at the visitors’ center across the street from the Walls unit. Karen Sebung accompanies me as far as the waiting area, where we witnesses are searched, then Dona and Pam are escorted to another room by a female officer. When they return, a large man enters the room and introduces himself as an officer of the prison’s internal affairs division. If we should feel faint, he says, medical attention is available. He also warns us that anyone who in any way attempts to disrupt the “process,” as he calls it, will be removed from the witness area immediately. Nothing about my body is working right. My feet and hands are cold and the side of my neck is numb.

    5:55 The corrections officer returns. “Follow me, please.” We walk across the street and through the front door of the old Gothic prison administration building. We turn left as soon as we enter and find ourselves in the waiting area of the governor’s office, where we are asked to wait once again. There are two reporters there. The other three members of the press pool, along with the victims’ family members, have already been escorted to the witness area, which is divided by a cinder block wall. The two sets of witnesses will never come in contact with each other.

    6:00 We’re led through a visiting area similar to the one at Ellis, then out into the bright evening sun for a moment and turn left down a short sidewalk. Another left and we enter a small brick building built into the side of the perimeter wall. We enter the tiny room in single file. Father Walsh appears from somewhere inside the death chamber to join us. The reporters enter last, and the door is locked behind us. I can hear the reporters scratching on their notepads with their pencils. There is only room for three of us–Dona, me, and Pam–in the front row. Dona grabs my left hand and squeezes it hard. She already has tears in her eyes.

    Jon is strapped to a hospital gurney with heavy leather restraints across his chest, hips, thighs, ankles, and wrists.

    His arms are wrapped in Ace bandages and extended at his sides on boards. At either wrist, clear plastic tubes protrude from the wrappings, snaking back under the gurney and disappearing through a plastic tube set in a bright blue cinder block wall. I think I see movement behind the one-way glass mirror on the opposite wall–the executioner getting into position. Jon is smiling at us, his great neck twisted uncomfortably sideways. A microphone suspended from the ceiling hangs a few inches above his head. The speaker above our heads crackles to life and Jon speaks, craning his head around to see the victims’ witnesses in the room next door.

    “I know some of you won’t believe me, but I am truly sorry for what I have done. I wish that I could undo what happened back then and bring back your loved ones, but I can’t.” Jon begins to sob as he addresses Mitzi Nalley’s mother. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wish I could bring her back to you. And Ron . . . I took so much from you. I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t want my love, but you have it.”

    Turning to me, he seems to regain his composure somewhat. He even manages to smile again. “Steve, I can’t believe that I had to go through all this to see you in a suit coat. Hey man, don’t worry about the phone number, bro. You’ve done so much. I love you. Dona, thank you for being here. I know it was hard for you. I love you. Pam, thank you for coming from so far away. Thanks for all you have done. I love you. Bishop Carmody, thank you so much. Reverend Lopez and you, Father Walsh, I love you all. I have something I want to say. It comes from I Corinthians. It goes . . . ” and Jon recites the lengthy piece of scripture that he agonized over for weeks, afraid he would forget when the time came. He remembers every word.

    When he finishes reciting he takes a deep breath and says, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The warden, recognizing the prearranged signal he and Jon had agreed on, nods toward the unseen executioner and Jon begins to sing.

    “Silent night / Holy night . . . “

    He gets as far as “mother and child” and suddenly the air explodes from his lungs with a loud barking noise, deep and incongruous, like

    a child with whooping cough–“HUH!!!” His head pitches forward with such force that his heavy, prison-issue glasses fly off his face, bouncing from his chest and falling to the green tile floor below.

    And then he doesn’t move at all. I watch his eyes fix and glaze over, my heart pounding in my chest and Dona squeezing my hand. Dead men look

    . . . well, dead. Vacant. No longer human. But there is a protocol to be satisfied. The warden checks his watch several times during the longest five minutes of my life. When the time is up, he walks across the room and knocks on the door. The doctor enters, his stethoscope earpieces already in place. He listens first at Jon’s neck, then at his chest, then at his side. He shines a small flashlight into Jon’s eyes for an instant and then, glancing up at the clock on his way out, intones, “6:18.”

    We are ushered out the same way we came, but I don’t think any of us are the same people who crossed the street to the prison that day. I know I’m not. I can’t help but wonder what happens to the people who work at the Walls, who see this horrific thing happen as often as four times a week. What do they see when they turn out the lights? I can’t imagine.

    I do know that Jonathan Nobles changed profoundly while he was in prison. I know that the lives of people he came in contact with changed as well, including mine. Our criminal justice system isn’t known for rehabilitation. I’m not sure that, as a society, we are even interested in that concept anymore. The problem is that most people who go to prison get out one day and walk among us. Given as many people as we lock up, we better learn to rehabilitate someone. I believe Jon might have been able to teach us how. Now we’ll never know.

    Jonathan Nobles was buried in Oxford, England. From Tikkun (Sept./Oct. 2000). Subscriptions: $29/yr. (6 issues) from Box 460926, Escondido, CA

    Is Digital Culture Damaging Us? Ask a Technoskeptic Techie.

    There have always been dissenters from the digital revolution: technoskeptics who have raised red flags about the degree to which computer technology rules our lives. Arrayed against them have been the geeks who have mostly been cheerleaders for a fully digital future. But these days, voices of dissent are beginning to emerge from the computer industry itself. Some high-level techies are questioning the value of the very genies whose lamps they’ve rubbed.

    One skeptic is David Levy, a Stanford-trained computer scientist who’s coined the term information environmentalism to describe his desire to at least stop and think about the consequences of pervasive computing. He worked at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the Vatican of digital technology, from 1984 to 1999. If you work on a computer, you’re using technology developed at PARC: personal workstations, laser printing, networking, and much more. Though Levy hasn’t trashed his laptop–he’s on the digital grid “six days out of seven”–he’s articulate about the ill effects of computer-centric living.

    Part of the problem, he says, is personal overload. “We’re feeling that we’re not on top of our lives,” he explains. “We’re trying to do more and more to stay ahead. Instead, it’s getting worse.” It is: A University of California-Berkeley study cited in The Economist (Dec. 6, 2003) estimates that we created a mind-boggling 5 billion gigabytes of new information in 2002–the equivalent of 500,000 Libraries of Congress. We’re losing our ability to focus, Levy feels, as well as our sense of our physical bodies. And, he adds, “our workload and speed [do] not leave room for thoughtful reflection.”

    But Levy’s critique goes a lot deeper than this relatively familiar harried-and-buried scenario. He believes that computing is destabilizing the forms in which we have traditionally received information, and that this process is destabilizing us. He cites philosopher Ernest Becker, who wrote The Denial of Death in 1974. Faced with the literal senselessness of our own mortality, Becker believed, we construct “immortality projects” designed to fend off the inevitable. One of these projects is the creation of culture. And for Levy, one of the most important and stable products of culture is the document: the clay tablet, the papyrus, the sheet of paper covered with information.

    When he was at PARC, Levy (who is a trained calligrapher) worked on the concept of the computer document–that thing on our screens that looks like a sheet of paper, and that we read or write on. This concept of documents became an important way that Levy and his colleagues translated the tumultuous, invisible streams of code that really run computers into stable forms that computer users could manipulate.

    But in the past 20 years, and with the growth of the Internet, the idea of a stable digital document has grown much stranger. Can something as ephemeral as a blog be a document, even though it might look like one? What about a series of hyperlinks leading us “into” an interactive fiction site? What about a series of interrelated tables in a database?

    One measure of the instability of digital environments is the rate at which we hit the print button. Levy believes that printing documents represents an attempt to turn volatile and mutable digital forms into something more stable and long-lasting. As the editors of New Scientist point out (Nov. 22, 2003), citing the same Berkeley study, the world’s offices consumed 43 percent more paper in 2002 than they did in 1999.

    This effort at stability (and its failure) is at the heart of the anxiety we’re feeling in an overloaded society. If Becker and Levy are right–if culture is an “immortality project” we use to combat our existential angst, and if documents are one of the primary, stable products of that culture–then our anxiety is understandable. And just as environmental degradation disrupts our ability to rejuvenate, Thoreau-style, our psychic selves, information instability and excess short-circuit our ability to cope with our own mortality.

    Levy recently organized a conference at the University of Washington-Seattle on “information pollution.” John Seely Brown, former director at Xerox PARC, and Bill Hill, a software developer from Microsoft, were among those who spoke at the event. The mere fact that techies of Levy and Brown’s stature are acknowledging the issue marks a shift in our relationship with technology, Levy believes. “There’s a growing sense that something is out of whack,” he says. “I have the feeling that we’re right on the verge of perceiving the extent of the problem.” He hopes that, just as we’ve taken steps to improve the physical environment, this awareness will impel us to mend our mental environment in the digital age.

    Are We Overwhelmed by Too Many Choices?

    Americans are often told that we are the world’s freest people–and our government claims to be on a crusade to extend that freedom to nations afflicted by “evil” regimes. Freedom is an inspiring ideal, but in the real world it’s a matter of choices–where to live, how to love, whom to vote for. And even in America, choices get tangled up in problems. Why does limitless consumer choice end up exhausting us? What does it mean that many things that used to be facts of life–from sexuality to religion–are choices today? And where’s the balance between the unchosen realities that anchor us (race, geography, history) and choices that liberate us?–The Editors

    Americans today are the guinea pigs in one of the world’s boldest social experiments. For the first time in history “the freedom to choose” has become a national ideal–and rallying cry–overriding nearly all other values grounded in moral, religious, or ethnic traditions. Middle-class Americans born since World War II enjoy a range of possibilities that earlier generations couldn’t have dreamed of. I know that having choices is supposed to be a good thing. Certainly it’s an indication of living in comfort rather than poverty. But I, for one, am feeling a little overwhelmed.

    I’m a pretty calm sort, and I try to make choices in an informed, deliberate way. But from simple decisions at the hardware store to bigger life questions, I’m often reeling from the sheer volume of options I face each day. In fact, many people I know are caught in a similar love/hate relationship with choices–reveling in all the opportunities available, but also feeling downright oppressed by them.

    Our choices seem especially fraught with anxiety now as the clothes, schools, jobs, food, homes, and cars we select are more than ever declarations of who we are. You are not just buying shoes or wine or gifts for the kids; with each decision you are constructing an identity for all the world to see and judge you by. This raises the pressure on making the right decision. You may feel increasingly frustrated by how little time you have to sort through all the options. You may continually question whether you’ve made the best decisions. Knowing what you really want can sometimes seem impossible.

    Even taking all this into account, it’s still easy for me to blame myself for having a hard time making up my mind. The inability to act decisively, after all, has always been seen in American culture as a sign of moral weakness, poor character, or just plain wishy-washyness. But through the years I have learned that if I take one step back from my anxiety about making decisions, I find there’s something bigger than my own inadequacies at play. While personally I might fear making the wrong choice, being incorrectly stereotyped, or missing out on one thing if I choose another, larger questions loom. If everyone is increasingly consumed by a barrage of choices (multiply “paper or plastic” by 100), who has a clear enough mind and sufficient blocks of time to consider the important issues that affect us all? I doubt that I am the only person, in this war-filled, malnourished world who feels a sense of moral quandary upon finding myself in a ridiculously overstuffed cereal aisle at the supermarket.

    Margaret Mead warned 75 years ago in her anthropological classic Coming of Age in Samoa that “a society which is clamoring for choice, which is filled with many articulate groups, each urging its own brand of salvation, its own variety of economic philosophy, will give each new generation no peace until all have chosen or gone under, unable to bear the condition of choice. The stress is in our civilization.”

    Think how common it is to feel lost these days, wondering if you’re making the right purchases, living in the right place, hanging out with the right people, and doing the right work. You can see further signs of confusion in the news every day. Most of the discussion about issues like the economy, environmental protection, social justice, and homeland security end up as questions about choice: How do we expand our options? When do we set limits? Who has been left out of the decision making? These questions, of course, play a pivotal role in international affairs, setting our policies in Iraq, North Korea, Palestine, and Israel, among other places.

    Whether we’re aware of it or not, these large concerns are likely affecting our personal abilities to make simple choices. If you find that you are frequently changing your mind these days, or endlessly postponing making decisions in order to seek more information, it may help to remember that such anxiety may come from cultural, rather than our personal, bewilderment over the role of choice in our lives.

    Or it may be because of fear.

    With September 11, a steep economic downturn, bioterrorism threats, a steady stream of government security warnings, the possibility of successive wars, and growing international hatred for the United States, the new century has ushered in an Age of Fear, observes Phillip Moffitt in Yoga Journal (March/April 2003).

    “Living in a fear-based culture inevitably affects your state of mind and the decisions you make,” Moffitt writes. “As a citizen you may become more compliant, more willing to surrender your rights for vague promises of safety. As an employee you are less demanding, less willing to take risks. And in your personal life you are more security oriented, and thus less open to new possibilities.” When not acknowledged, he continues, “fear narrows your vision, shuts down intuition as well as common-sense reflection, and promotes violent actions.” To help us sort out the reasons behind our choices, Moffitt calls on us to recognize fear as “a phenomenon that is predominant in this particular moment, not the ultimate decision maker in your life.”

    We live in complicated times, where it’s hard to tell whether our anxiety comes from inside or out. It’s difficult to make clear, meaningful decisions when the world is in a state of huge flux. Fundamentalism–Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu–and its accompanying codes of strict behavior and enforced decision making, is one response to such ever-changing conditions. But psychologist Robert Jay Lifton has been saying for years that there’s another, opposite, reaction that is underway all around us.

    Lifton, who made a name for himself studying the psychological condition of Hiroshima survivors, claims that human beings are in a state of transformation, entering a new mode of being that will help us navigate this world of multiple choice. Rather than seeing ourselves as “unsteady, neurotic, or worse” in a world that seems inconstant and unpredictable, “We are becoming fluid and many sided. . . . This mode of being differs radically from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment,” he wrote in The Protean Self (Basic, 1993).

    Embodying only one aspect of your self when making decisions–as a successful business person, say, but not the role as daughter of a working-class family, or resident of a community afflicted by poverty or pollution–may make decisions more cut and dried, but will not address one’s underlying struggles and anxieties. Embracing one’s multiple sides often takes more time, but it is a more honest and ultimately more valuable way to make important choices. Decisions may come with less certainty, but more connection to life and humanity.

    Lifton named this new mode of being the “protean self” based on the shape-shifting Greek sea god Proteus. The story goes that if you could hold onto Proteus long enough as he went through his changing forms–from lion, to dragon, to tree–he would eventually tell you all that you need to know. Lifton sees such evolution as a positive sign of human resilience. “My conviction is that certain manifestations of proteanism are not only desirable but necessary for the human future,” he writes.

    This way of thinking has inspired me. I’m planning to call on Proteus the next time I’m feeling anxious when faced with a choice, large or small. I’m not quite sure how it will work yet, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to watch myself as I go through questions and contortions, considering my choices, and the potential ramifications of my decisions, from many points of view, paying particular attention to identifying pressures coming from outside myself. I’m hoping that instead of choosing a familiar route, I’ll be more flexible and more patient as I take the time to sift through my options until my body tells me what I need to know to make a good–and less anxiety-ridden–decision.

    Karen Olson is a senior editor at Utne.

    Aggressively Unconventional: An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut

    Few American writers since World War II have engaged the political issues of the times quite like Kurt Vonnegut, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the author of such gems as Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions is still challenging conventional wisdom at the age of 80. In this interview, Vonnegut holds forth on a variety of topics, from the “psychopathic personalities” who have conquered modern America to the role that satire might play in stopping them.

    Asked how he’s doing, Kurt Vonnegut says, “I’m mad about being old and I’m mad about being American. Apart from that, OK.” Vonnegut just turned 80. Although the beloved novelist claims he’s retired from writing, he continues to be a cultural presence, speaking out against war with Iraq to protesters at a rally in New York’s Central Park and making a spoken-word contribution to the new multimedia world music production One Giant Leap.

    As extraordinarily popular as Vonnegut’s work has been–virtually everything he’s written is still in print–he’s hardly a bringer of reassuring tidings. History, he seems to suggest, is important not as the philosopher George Santayana claimed, so that we can avoid the mistakes of the past, but as a predictor of what we corrupt souls are likely to do to one another in the future.

    Vonnegut, after all, is an avant-garde artist, whose “aggressively unconventional” (his words) approach to storytelling probably would put readers off if it weren’t for the wryly aphoristic, conversational tone of his novels. Born in Indianapolis and a veteran of World War II, he has said he learned to write the way he talks by having to phone in stories during his days as a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago.

    Vonnegut recently took time to talk about how he thinks things are going these days:

    Right after the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, you remarked on television footage you’d seen of Iraqi soldiers who had been taken prisoner, saying, “Those men are my brothers.”

    All soldiers are.

    And here we are on the brink of another war with Iraq.

    I don’t want to belong to a country that attacks little countries. I wrote a piece for Seven Stories Press here in New York. They’re about to publish a book of anti-war posters by a guy nobody’s heard of before. He’s a pretty good artist and so I was asked to write a piece for it. Would you like me to read it?

    Please.

    (Reading) “These anti-war posters by Micah Ian Wright are reminiscent in spirit of works by artists like Kathe Kollwitz and Georg Grosz during the 1920s, when it was becoming ever more evident that the infant German democracy was about to be murdered by psychopathic personalities–hereinafter P.P.s–the medical term for smart, personable people who have no conscience. P.P.s are fully aware of how much suffering their actions will inflict on others but do not care. They cannot care.

    “The classic medical text about how such attractive leaders bring us into unspeakable calamities is The Mask of Sanity by Hervey Cleckley. An American P.P. at the head of a corporation, for example, could enrich himself by ruining his employees and investors and still feel as pure as the driven snow. A P.P., should he attain a post near the top of our federal government, might feel that taking the country into an endless war with casualties in the millions was simply something decisive to do today.”

    What’s become of conscience?

    Again, as Cleckley says, these people are around and do rise. Women are attracted to them. I mean, this is a defect, but women are attracted to them because they are so confident. They really don’t give a fuck what happens–not even to themselves. But this is a serious defect and, no, we haven’t been invaded and conquered by Martians. We have been conquered by psychopathic personalities who are attractive.

    Has television played a part in this?

    We have no idea what technology has done to us. Last night I went to a party for Gordon Parks, a black genius. Walter Cronkite was there. Cronkite’s an old friend. I said to him, “You know, the country you did so much to shape seems so shapeless now.” One thing about TV is you don’t have to do anything.

    We become spectators.

    Yes. And that’s enough. We’re thanked for that: “Thank you for watching . . .” (laughs)

    Ratings are becoming more important than votes.

    Well, technology has fucked us up in many ways. The computer revolution has allowed white-collar criminals to do what the Mob would have loved to do–put a pawnshop and a loan shark in every home!

    You’ve talked about how the Bush administration seems driven by revenge.

    It’s a story to tell. He’s in the same business I’m in. He’s telling stories. It turns out this is the simplest of all stories to tell. I mean, I want to hold attention when I write something. What he wants to be is interesting. And revenge is interesting. Two radical ideas have been introduced into human thought. One of them is that energy and matter are pretty much the same sort of stuff. That’s Einstein. The other is that revenge is a bad idea. Revenge is an enormously popular idea but, of course, Jesus came along with the radical idea of forgiveness. If you’re insulted, you have to square accounts. So this invention by Jesus is as radical as Einstein’s.

    You’ve placed a high premium on what you call decency.

    One kid said he had the key to all my books and he put it in a sentence. He said, “Love may fail but courtesy will prevail.” Love does fail all the time, you know, and it makes people vicious.

    That’s interesting because it seems that psychopathic personalities tend to give courtesy a bad rap. They find it weak.

    They are decisive. They are gonna do something every fuckin’ day and they are not afraid.

    Powers Hapgood was an internationally known Indianapolis radical and socialist. You met him, didn’t you?

    Oh, yes. He was an official of the CIO then. He was a typical Hoosier idealist. Socialism is idealistic. Think of [Socialist Party leader] Eugene Debs from Terre Haute. What Debs said echoes the Sermon on the Mount: “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

    Now why can’t the religious right recognize that as a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount? Hapgood and Debs were both middle-class people who thought there could be more economic justice in this country. They wanted a better country, that’s all. Hapgood was testifying in court in Indianapolis about some picket-line dust-up connected with the CIO and the judge stopped everything. He said, “Mr. Hapgood, here you are; you’re a graduate of Harvard and you own a successful business. Why would anyone with your advantages choose to live as you have?” Powers Hapgood actually became a coal miner for a while. His answer to the judge was great: “The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

    My God, the religious right will not acknowledge what a merciful person Jesus was.

    You’ve used satire as a tool to defend against the world’s insanity. Can it also work to change things?

    I guess it works some. Just telling people, “You are not alone. There are a lot of others who feel as you do.” We’re a terribly lonesome society. For all I know, all societies are. You can make a few new friends, that’s all. You can’t change history. History is happening to us now. George Bush has hydrogen bombs if he needs them. It really matters who’s around and who’s holding attention. I don’t think television will let anybody else hold attention.

    Why is that?

    During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we’ve ever been in–and which we lost–every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.

    David Hoppe is associate/arts editor of Nuvo, an alternative weekly newspaper in Indianapolis. Excerpted from Nuvo. Subscriptions: $52/yr. (52 issues) from 3951 N. Meridian St., Suite 200, Indianapolis, IN 46208.

    How to Organize Like the Right

    Van Jones sees nothing to applaud in the rise of the political right. But the 34-year-old founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco, which focuses on reforming the criminal justice system, thinks that progressives response to recent events–gloom and doom interspersed with bouts of anger–is not helpful in envisioning the next step forward. Instead, Jones says, we must acknowledge that when it comes to reaching and organizing people today, the right simply does a better job–sometimes using methods that actually originated on the left.

    Here, according to Jones, are a few lessons–historical and contemporary–that progressives need to embrace:

    Think Long-Term

    “Starting in 1964, with the collapse of Barry Goldwater’s [presidential] campaign, a relatively small number of conservatives got together and took the mailing lists from the Goldwater campaign and essentially reinvented the right. And, from 1964 to 1994, you see a 30-year effort to develop the institutions, the think tanks, the policy ideas, the writers, the political leaders, to seize power.

    “Progressives have a history of this kind of planning and foresight. If you look at the pre-civil rights movement in the ’40s and ’50s, you see people concerned about civil rights at the Highlander Center [an organizing institute in Tennessee] and other places investing a lot of time really thinking through questions of strategy and tactics. At Howard University Law School in the ’20s and ’30s, for example, people planned step by step how to dismantle segregation and prepared lawyers to do that from the time they were law students. That kind of long-term patience and strategic planning is no longer a feature or function of progressive social change work.”

    Be Populist, Not Elitist

    From the early 1960s to the late 1990s, the left went from a populist movement to an elite movement. The right during the same period put much more money and attention into building up their mass-media capabilities, their grassroots organizations, and their capacity to mobilize people.

    “Progressives, on the other hand, put almost all their effort into litigation, lobbying efforts, highly fragmented paper-membership organizations that were basically check-gathering operations, and less and less energy into bottom-up mass organization building.”

    Embrace Institutions

    “While the religious right has had a great deal of success, progressives have failed to invest in a religious left. The best strategy for failure is to decide that our relationship to major institutions of faith, of the government and business is going to be total opposition, opposition to all of them.

    “You have to get a toehold somewhere; some parts of the left don’t even want to deal with labor. I think the time has come for us to reinvent and reimagine a left politics that is willing to engage much more broadly and use not just radical tactics like protest, but also more mainstream tactics like running people for office and taking responsibility for job creation in our communities.

    “The anti-globalization movement’s energies, for instance, are not tied to any electoral strategy, any job creation strategy, any strategy that would root it in the lives of normal people.”

    Support What’s Working

    “If a progressive organization starts to raise a lot of money and get a lot of attention, the response of other progressives is resentment and undermining, as opposed to celebration and giving more support to what’s actually working.

    “A left that is not serious prepares to protest; a left that’s serious prepares to govern. Telling these long, depressing stories about how bad everything is what I call ‘the litany’ is not helpful. What’s helpful is: Here’s what’s working. Here’s what’s doing well. Here’s who’s been able to overcome this. Here?s who has innovated that. Here’s who’s able to solve this problem.

    “A major barrier to the left reinventing itself and being effective is that we enjoy the cheap unity of critiquing the country and do not take responsibility for inspiring the country.”

    Court Unlikely Allies

    “I think the willingness of conservative forces to establish beachheads in communities of color is telling. It’s really, really clear that we have to be able to go into conservative strongholds and organize there as well. What I’ve found is that working-class white people are not served well by this government either. And a lot of people in the business community are very concerned that the government is not investing properly in everything from public education to environmental cleanup. Those people should be in the left camp.”

    Anjula Razdan is assistant editor of Utne.

    Death and Dying: Fuck You, Cancer

    Rick Fields, poet, writer, and editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 1995 at the age of 53. Fields, a student of Tibetan Buddhism, and his partner, Marcia Cohen, were suddenly forced to deal pragmatically with such lofty issues as impermanence, suffering, and the disunity of body and spirit–questions that most of us dwell upon only hypothetically, if at all. “You’re lucky, because it’s good for your practice,” his teachers told him. Maybe so, Fields tells Tricycle editor-in-chief Helen Tworkov in this wide-ranging discussion of death and dying, but “this idea that dying is a wonderful experience is a sort of double-edged sword: It is, or can be, but most of us want to stay alive as long as possible. Certainly I do.”

    What was your reaction when you were diagnosed with cancer?

    My first reaction was ‘all hands on deck’ because this cancer had been misdiagnosed for over a year and had become very dangerous, so I had to do something pretty aggressive and drastic.

    Are you interested in your prognosis?

    No. My attitude is ‘I’m going to live until I die.’ Which is all anyone can do. I don’t see the value of having someone say ‘You have four months to live.’ And I don’t want to give that weight to any one person’s opinion, whether it is seemingly an enlightened spiritual person or a super Ph.D. or M.D. Fortune-telling has never interested me.

    How do you walk between acceptance of death and trying to stop or heal a so-called terminal illness?

    Eventually all of us will die. Death is real, it comes without warning. And this body, this particular body, will be a corpse. Buddhism has always been very consistent about that. The first doctors told me the statistics for stage-four metastatic lung cancer, which is what I have, are not very good. Once I found that out, I told the doctors that I’m not interested in hearing about them. What good would it do me? I’m going to live until I die. Whether the doctor tells me I have four months to live or five years, I’m going to live until I die. And the doctor is going to live until he dies. He thinks he knows when I’m going to die but he doesn’t even know when he’s going to die. If I die fighting it, fine. I’m going to die sooner or later anyhow.

    What does ‘fighting it’ mean?

    There are different levels. It’s more of a philosophical than a medical question: whether to emphasize quality of life or very aggressive treatment. My first decision with the oncologist was to fight this as aggressively as possible. The second was to do radiation and chemotherapy together, which is stronger. But the side effects are more serious. I said, ‘Well, it seems that if I don’t do something drastic the cancer is likely to kill me, so let’s do both.’ Both he and the radiologist advised me against doing it because they believed the side effects were not worth what might be a slight advantage. My Chinese-Jewish doctor who has been my adviser through this whole process thought it was worth doing. So I was in an odd situation where my so-called alternative practitioner was recommending pulling out all the stops of conventional medicine, and my conventional doctors were acting more like ‘We don’t know if it’ll work.’ They were being much more cautious. So that’s one way that I mean fighting.

    When you fight cancer, does cancer become something separate from you? Does it become like an alien part of your body that you are fighting?

    At first, it felt like something had invaded me. Of course it’s my own cells that are doing that so there’s also the idea that it’s part of you. But my first response was definitely a kind of a warrior energy. I had to fight. After I had my first radiation treatment I would use mantra and visualization–particularly a wrathful deity visualization–to help destroy the cancer cells during the treatment itself.

    Has it affected your behavior? Do you get caught up less in the petty, ignorant, and innocent ways in which we create suffering for ourselves and others around us?

    Maybe. But I still have habitual patterns and delusions and illusions, and I get sucked up into life. The deeper question then becomes what does it mean that I am going ‘to live until I die’? What does living mean? There seem to be at least two different ways of approaching this: either going into seclusion or continuing to be engaged in this so-called samsaric world. I keep working at my job. I keep up relationships. I keep a certain amount of writing going. I just keep on living. And part of living is very silly. There were times when I thought that I should just go into retreat and try to attain perfect, unsurpassable enlightenment before I die. But at the same time, I felt like, ‘Wait a minute, if the whole idea is to live and I’m fighting this in order to live, then live fully.’ And that’s what I chose to do. Whatever that means.

    What do you do with self-pity?

    I think self-pity comes along with self. When this first happened, it felt like all my karma was coming and perching right on the tip of my nose, looking me straight in the eyes, staring right at me. And I was staring right back. That’s the warrior aspect. Shortly after I was diagnosed, Allen Ginsberg called and reminded me of something that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche had said to Billy Burroughs [William Burroughs’ son], who had had a really hard life and was having a liver transplant. Rinpoche said, ‘You will live or you will die. Both are good.’ I don’t want to make my death into the enemy. Death is not the enemy. Death is part of us, it’s part of our life. Cancer can be seen as the enemy–at different stages. But death itself, however it comes or whenever it comes, is not the enemy. That’s something to be embraced. And that’s the true warrior’s stance as far as I understand it. For the warrior, death is not the enemy. When the samurai went into battle, they brought little purses that contained money for their funerals. If you go into a battle fearlessly accepting the possibility of death you have a much better chance of fighting well–and, in fact, of winning–than if you go in scared. A lot of Buddhist and spiritual practice in general is aimed at removing the fear of our own deaths. The fear of our own deaths is the fear of our own births or the fear of our own lives.

    I’m alive, you’re alive. We’re both living and we’re both dying. You have a diagnosis of cancer and I haven’t. What’s the difference? Are you dying more than I am? Does your situation make you more aware of dying while I am probably still functioning under the delusion that I am going to live forever?

    Not that you are going to live forever, but the timing would seem somewhat different. I’ve been told that I’m in immediate danger. The exact timing is always in question. But when I saw a doctor at Stanford for a second opinion, I said, ‘Everybody has said this is incurable.’ And he said, ‘Has anybody said to you that incurable does not necessarily mean terminal?’ Lots of diseases are incurable or chronic but can be managed and are not necessarily terminal. But I’m living much more with a constant question mark. When I was in remission, the cancer was like a rhinoceros. Off in your peripheral vision, there’s this rhinoceros with beady, ugly eyes and leathery skin and tsetse flies buzzing around it, like an evil unicorn. And that rhinoceros is more or less peacefully chomping on the swamp grass. And as long as the rhinoceros is chomping away, not noticing you, you’re fine and you’re in remission. But at any moment the rhinoceros could look around, go crazy, and come at you. You are always living with this rhinoceros, even when the cancer is supposedly gone or is in remission. So one difference is that I have this rhinoceros around.

    What are your fantasies about the end of your life?

    I think I want to be as conscious as possible at the end. Realization becomes possible then because you have fewer external distractions and the intrinsically pure nature of mind daunts luminously at that point–supposedly. And the way to train is really no different than to train with your own meditation now. It’s not like there’s some big secret complicated yogic thing when you die, but when you practice meditation now, then you’ll be continuing to practice at the moment during death. I asked Lama Tharchin Rinpoche about painkillers, and he laughed and said that they aren’t a problem. For one thing, if you are feeling a lot of bodily pain it’s harder to practice and concentrate. And when the body and mind separate there is so much general confusion and chaos at that moment that it would be very difficult and not even very useful to keep your consciousness. And anyhow, your Buddha-nature has survived through countless lifetimes–the fires of hell, of drowning, God knows what. Buddha knows what. It’s survived. So a little morphine isn’t really going to affect your Buddha-nature; don’t worry about it. The idea that Buddha-nature is unborn and therefore undying has been very helpful. So to practice with that as the ground, that as the path, and that as the fruition seems to me the best thing to do. As for having fear, that’s just being a fearful Buddha.

    Do you ever imagine the specifics of your death?

    I’ve instructed Marcia about which particular teachers or spiritual friends or gurus I would like to have notified. Some yogic teachings say the best way is to die alone, because there is less distraction and fewer people projecting their fears and making a big circus out of the whole thing and trying to hold on to you. Go to a cave by yourself and die like a deer in the forest. That has a certain attraction. But if it happens some other way, then it happens that way.

    In what way do you deal with anger or frustration about your condition?

    There is no one way. It changes. One time as I was driving back by myself from a retreat, I just started weeping. And that gave way to this tremendous explosion of anger and rage. I started screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘Fuck you, cancer! Fuck you, cancer! Cancer, fuck you!’ Later, I wrote a poem called ‘Fuck You, Cancer.’ That was a very powerful moment for me, just to be able to express that feeling.

    It was anger at this thing that has come and tried to take over my life. It has to be kept in perspective, otherwise the disease has won in a completely underhanded way by taking over your life–by being what your life revolves around–when what you are fighting for is a life that is flexible and can respond in different ways. The central organizing principle is what you make it. It’s awareness of Buddha-nature, and certainly cancer can put that in sharp relief. But my rage was about realizing how much it had usurped my life.

    What is the role of the caregiver?

    In some ways, being the caregiver is more difficult than being the person who has cancer. The caregiver is like your shield bearer. I have been very lucky with Marcia. She made a vow to help me through this. She has accompanied me to every doctor appointment, taken notes, asked the tough questions, and organized what is really a complicated military operation. Helping someone fight cancer is a really hard practice.

    And helping someone die?

    Trungpa Rinpoche talked about just being with the person in a genuine way and not laying a big trip on them. This is the most helpful thing that you can do. One of the most common trips that get laid on people is this idea that death is the enemy. If death is the enemy, then everybody is ultimately a failure, because they lose that battle if they see it that way. And particularly people battling with cancer or with any disease. If they see death as the enemy, then they feel that they have failed in this fight. It is a tragedy for people to have that put on top of all the suffering and the struggle that they are going throughóto feel that they have failed. The fact is that no matter what we do, how much we do, as the Buddha said, everything that is put together will come apart. Everything that is born will die. Meditation is partly about realizing that the mind is beginningless and therefore endless, open and luminous and deathless. But that has nothing to do with what happens to the physical body. The physical body does die. And that death is not in any way a failure. It’s a logical culmination of each life.

    Interview with Rick Fields by Helen Tworkov

    From Tricycle (Fall 1997). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from TRI, Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.

    Published on Mar 1, 1998

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