Searching for Moral Imagination

canstockphoto9973547.jpgI spent part of Earth Day last Friday at a lecture given by Terry Tempest Williams. She was not a natural speaker and began by saying that she was nervous. At first, I felt a little impatient, trying to understand her flow and taking notes of various names she mentioned. She continued to speak haltingly, but something else happened. I was moved by her sincerity and her passion for our wild spaces.

I’ve always been environmentally aware, doing the simple things like not treating our yard with chemicals, growing produce organically, recycling. We gave up two cars and now drive a hybrid. We inconsistently try to be better humans. Her lecture really shook me up, though. What we miss in all this picayune environmentalism, is the bigger picture. We are distracted by the minutiae when all around us, companies (complicit with our consumerism and population growth) are polluting the air and water and destroying the land, acre by acre.

canstockphoto17612177.jpgMs. Williams talked about fueling moral imagination. I’ve been thinking about those words over the last few days. I’ve always believed in human ingenuity, growing up in a time of vaccines, exploding technology and a media that churns out daily new stories about this invention or that. It seems like we could really solve some of these problems.

Being change, rather than just wanting it, is overwhelming these days. I am not a mover and shaker. I am an unpublished writer, having crept my way from poverty into the middle class. The sense of not belonging, of always waiting for the other shoe to drop, has me holding my breath constantly. The problem with holding one’s breath, biding one’s time, expecting the worst, while hoping for the best, is that it becomes about place holding, feeling victory in the status quo.

canstockphoto20070383With news of the world and politics always at boiling temperature these days, one feels lucky just to have a job and health insurance and to not fall into a random sinkhole while walking down the street. You feel lucky if you get through the day not getting shot or being diagnosed with a fatal disease. Holding your breath and sighing as you sink into bed at night.

What I heard when Terry Tempest Williams spoke, was this: I am afraid, but there are bigger things than fear.

Some people seem like seers. They take the long view early on in their lives and they stick to the path. I have never found that path. I am a product of unrealized opportunities and ideas. I am a product of the information age – never sure that I have enough information to make informed commitments to causes. We watch heroes fall and causes become corrupt with self-importance. What is there to believe in, that won’t be wrong tomorrow?

canstockphoto5925912Whenever I go through checkout lines, I like to think about aliens perusing our magazines. Maybe they have. Maybe it was this that keeps them hidden. We are apparently a species intent on making money, high fat foods and having indiscriminate sex, but only for the six-packed and large-breasted among us. Our royalty is comprised of pimply 17-year-olds who sing falsetto and Amazon women with eyelashes which weigh slightly less than their entire body.

Yes, I’m the old broad out on her front lawn shaking her fist at popular culture and the dearth of ethics it espouses. We are saturated with inanities and Tweets and consumerism. I’m not immune, nor an innocent in all this. I am a privileged bystander, able to stand a little apart. Enough distance to mock and criticize and get up on my soapbox and my high horse, but close enough to enjoy the spectacle.

Ms. Williams did not entertain me with polished words and slick salesmanship. She cut through it all and gouged into my self-satisfaction. I lack courage of conviction and moral imagination and the right to feel smug about anything at all. I’ve felt the weight of that this week – the sense that my life is so small and that I’ve wasted much of it just trying to stay afloat.

Perhaps there’s a certain recklessness of youth that comes around again in middle age. A second chance to be passionate and outspoken. An opportunity to decide what matters to you and pursue it with abandon. Like novels, our lives have emerging themes – the things that we think are important, show up again and again.

canstockphoto9307772.jpgShe spoke of her friend and fellow conservationist, Doug Peacock. When the battle was being lost to have the wolverine listed as endangered by the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, he said “You lose nothing by loving”. To me, this is such a simple, but profound statement. You lose nothing by loving.

I think about the shadow of perfectionism that follows me. I tend to embark on sure things. As a writer, this has been crippling. As a human, this has stunted my full potential. Any human who is successful, truly realized, is someone who has failed repeatedly. They believe that they have nothing to lose in loving, whether it be the land or animals or their art or other humans.

canstockphoto5614534.jpgThere should be a happy ending here, like I’ve decided to abandon my suburban life to live in the wilderness or camp on the steps of Congress; that I’ve somehow realized what it is that calls to me. Instead, I sit here uneasily, feeling a subtle shift in my perspective that will either help me find what fuels me, what fuels my imagination or it will leave me in the desolate land between watching and acting.

Environmental and Conservation Writing:

At the end of her lecture, Ms. Williams stood stock still at the podium while Max Richter’s re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons played over the speakers. If you’re a Vivaldi purist, this might not be your cup of tea, but I enjoyed it:

50 Comments on “Searching for Moral Imagination

    • Thanks. This feels like a ragged post – so many unpolished thoughts flying around my head. I think that’s something that happens when you come into contact with human inspiration. So much to process!

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  1. Wow, sounds like an amazing lecture! I have to say I am one of those people who is not afraid of failing. Which is not to say I take unnecessary risks or that I’m never cautious. I just know that every mistake comes with a lesson and as long as I come away from that experience having learned something than that’s a good thing. A gift really, because it made me better in some way — smarter, stronger, more resilient, more aware, whatever. The key, for me, is not to repeat the same mistake.

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    • I think it was less the content of the lecture than the passion beneath it. I just really admire people who pursue meaningful purposes.

      I used to say that I embraced failure, but the qualifier is that I embrace safe failure – when there really isn’t much on the line or the outcome of failure is a known quantity. I’ve really been thinking about how to be less secure, less safe, less risk-averse. I think real progress and creativity can only come with great risk – whether it be physical or emotional. I’m at the point where I’m still coloring between the proverbial lines.

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      • I agree passion is inspiring and compelling and it took courage for that woman to stand up and speak in front of an audience. I know that because it’s never been my favourite thing to do either. I had to get over that fear because in advertising we are expected to present our work to groups large and small, friendly and hostile. But you are much more courageous than you give yourself credit for. You are one of the most honest writers I’ve read. You continually examine yourself, bare your soul and give yourself no free passes. You stare down fear and doubt every time you write. Your writing is so honest, powerful and profound, that’s why I’ve been following your blog for as long as I have. It’s why you’ve been Freshly Pressed as often as you have been. And every time you share something out here in the WordPress world you are taking risks. I agree that innovation and creativity require taking risks, but I disagree that they must be “great.” “Great” is different for everyone. Just like how each of us defines “taking a risk.” That, too, is different for all of us.

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  2. This is such a thoughtful and well-written post, Michelle. You said it all very well. So often I have felt the way you describe, just feeling lucky not to have fallen in a sinkhole or diagnosed with a fatal disease. The lecture sounds life-changing. :/

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    • Thanks, Carla. I think too, that sense that anything can go wrong at any minute has a curative which I need at the moment – a news and media fast for a bit. It seems like silence plays a crucial role in figuring out what is really important to us.

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      • Yes, Michelle, I agree with you about that. I once went to an Episcopalian retreat center in Santa Barbara (they are still there, called Mt. Calvary), where they have a code of silence from after dinner until after breakfast, and I found it to be healing and soothing. After reading your post this morning, I heard from a friend who was feeling down (she lost her only daughter, who was thirty years old at the time of her death, several years ago, and today is her daughter’s birthday), and then I went on to interview a writer (who will be the subject of my next blog) who has just written a book about the redemptive aspects of suffering and tragedy. Interesting day, all with the same kind of theme — how to navigate loss, pain, and suffering.

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        • That’s a heavy duty day. I think so much of how we cope with loss is about resiliency. I’ve learned that some people are born with it, some learn it and some people will never have it. It seems that both nature and nurture play a role. I’ll be interested to read your post.

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  3. So many thoughts here to ponder. Your lecture sounds informative and inspiring. My Earth Day pales in comparison.

    [Not that you asked but a book about nature + environment that spoke to me is: The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, Art, and Spirit by Ellen Meloy. I found her words profound. Her message has stayed with me for years.]

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    • I hadn’t even realized it was Earth Day until the introductory speaker mentioned it. I was attending an author lecture series and didn’t make the connection until then. Although when it comes to arbitrary holidays, I give myself a pass. Thanks for the book mention – I’ll add it to my list!

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  4. After harvest, we will be returning 160 acres to ponds and native prairie. For some that may seem like a lot but in the scope of things, it is not. Still, it is what we will do.

    I have seen a lot of change in my lifetime.

    I remember when geese were rare, turkeys none existent and roadside ditches overflowed with trash. I recall every time it rained, raw sewage flowed into the Mississippi because there was no separation between storm and sewage systems. These changes tilt me toward optimism.

    But I have also seen the environmental movement degrade into shrill partisan politics as well as money grubbing hysteria punctuated by Emily Litella moments – and that tilts me toward pessimism.

    Like nature, societies has its cycles. Our tastes change, our desires change and in that there is hope.

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    • I think that 160 acres is fantastic, Greg! While I don’t want to rely on anecdotal evidence for my opinions, I do sense that the reason we are seeing more wildlife (and in the cities as well), is that we are displacing so many animals from their habitats in pursuit of progress, as well as destabilizing ecosystems. I know change will happen, but I keep hoping human ingenuity will lessen its damage and impact on the life around us.

      I’ve found practically any movement, even those that espouse values I support, eventually gets taken over by loud, self-righteous assholes. It makes it hard to say one is committed to a group cause without a lot of disclaimers. I think the true path is leading by example, which suits my introvert self very well. Perhaps that’s what all these angsty posts are for – sorting out how to truly live one’s values. It’s pretty easy to get distracted by all the noise.

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      • “I do sense that the reason we are seeing more wildlife (and in the cities as well), is that we are displacing so many animals from their habitats in pursuit of progress”

        It all depends on how you look at it. From an environmental standpoint, where the model is the pristine, development is a horrible thing – from an animal’s point of view, not so much.

        Keep in mind that a farmer’s field is an ecological desert for ten months of the year. Walk out into any field and listen. You will hear nothing. Now stand on any street in a mature suburb or city and listen to the cacophony of bird sounds. Big difference.

        But beyond that, think of a mature suburb like deer, raccoons, coyotes, turkeys, eagles or geese do. To them it is an ecological daydream. Where you see development, they see cover and a buffet of delicious shrubs and garbage cans – and by golly, there might be traffic but there is no hunting.

        Even the local governments and suburban residents have gotten into the act, building settlement ponds (everywhere) as well as walking paths, buffer strips and parks. Developers know that they get a premium on lots bordering the ponds or stands of trees, so they are much more careful to work these into their plans.

        Wildlife is not migrating into developed areas, it growing there as the areas mature and migrating out.

        Having said that… there certainly is always room for improvement

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  5. Thanks for sharing your experience and very personal thoughts on this Michelle. Terry Tempest Williams is one of my favorite authors and my hero. She’s like the voice of my conscience speaking to me about my environmental ethos. Your words today cut right to my heart. So do hers. I’m not sure you do lack moral imagination. I see it in your posts. And I do think that past middle age is when we finally feel like we can flex some moral muscle. Still, the Big Guys seem so much bigger than us, with super pacs and Campaign Managers and PR and Legal Departments …sometimes we let them intimidate us. I’ve never been more outspoken about things I believe and I’ve never been more aware of my own short comings. Maybe that is the age we are at. I’m definitely more of an arm chair activist than a get out and chain myself to the rail road tracks kind. Part of that is the fear of upsetting my family and the legal costs!!! But of course part of it is just being lazy and smug. Ahhh, you did get under my skin with this post, but that isn’t a bad thing. We are all works in progress. Thanks for the nudge to my conscience.

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    • I think, too, what might key to all of this, is learning how to leverage our skills to support our values. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. It’s thinking about what we, as individuals, have to offer. And that, perhaps, is where moral imagination comes into play – thinking creatively about what we can do to positively impact our community (easier than thinking globally!). My conscience has been working overtime lately, but it’s a noisy bugger!

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      • Yes. I am living in a small town with some interesting changes in demographics going on and it’s good to see people working to make it better. Right now it’s just about getting a real Farmer’s Market up and going but that tells me there are people here who value more than just open space and a place to shoot their noisy guns off, lol! The young people here are really inspiring me. I just came out as a Democrat and caucused this year, having been an Independent for years, and I’m pleased with all the thoughtful young people I am meeting. They give me hope Michelle.

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        • It seems to me that there’s a generation of people coming who have grown up with an awareness of environmental and social issues. I’d like to think I’m raising one of them and the talk among my daughter’s friends is inspiring. Every time I get irritated by the adult flibberty-gibbets and their Facebooking ad nauseum, I get to hear a serious discussion from kids about equality and ecological issues. I have hope too, Ilona.

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  6. Really you shouldn’t be an unpublished writer, because you are a very good writer. You obviously think deeply about life – you’re not just spinning stuff out of thin air – and that’s what held my interest.

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    • Thanks for the kind words about the writing. I do tend to lack courage, hence the unpublished descriptor. I’m working on that, though! I’m glad this held your interest. It was one of the harder posts I’ve written, since so many issues are muddling my head at the moment. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  7. This loving thing – I try to do that as much as possible, which means not judging, and especially not judging the madness and insanity.
    Alison

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    • Whenever I feel myself getting tight and angry, I envision wide open landscape and it reminds me of love and I relax. The connection between nature and love is apparently a strong one for me.
      Lately, I tend to bristle whenever someone talks about not judging. Perhaps because judgment has taken on a definition of knee-jerk condemnation, instead of its most basic meaning: an opinion or decision that is based on careful thought. Careful is the word that gets most forgotten and carries mindfulness away with it.
      Good to hear from you, Alison.

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      • I think judging for me is simply labelling something “bad and wrong” and yes obviously there is much going on in the world that deserves that description. And then there’s the feelings attached to the description. If I focus on what’s “bad and wrong”, evil if you like, then I become distressed, angry, resentful, frustrated, which does nobody any good. If I take a giant step back out into outer space, I can see that it all just is, and my becoming distressed about it is not only not helpful, it’s actually counterproductive. So I focus on what’s good and love that, and send that energy out into the world. It’s very pollyanna-ish, but it keeps me sane, and I do actually believe thoughts and feelings have enormous power so I might as well add as much to the “good” as I can.
        Alison

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        • Your explanation makes a lot of sense for peace of mind. I’m torn between two mindsets. While I think it’s important to maintain good mental health, I also feel compelled to pay attention to that which is unjust and actionable. It’s really a tough balance and I don’t know how activists do it.
          Anger and frustration can be used to fuel action, but only if it is borne out of love and becomes about love, I think. I don’t know any answers for myself at the moment, but it’s good to hear how other people approach life for themselves. Thanks for sharing that Alison.

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        • I also don’t know how activists do it. There must surely be a certain amount of burnout.
          I think any action must be fuelled by love, and be about love, otherwise it’s more of the same – fighting hatred with hatred, and there seems to be a lot of that going on. I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Seth: You’ll never create peace by hating war. You’ll only create peace by loving peace.
          Alison

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  8. Really great amd brave article, feel achievement in what you’ve written

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  9. At my age, I feel like I’m starting over in a way. Letting go of all that stuff I thought was important, trying to be someone I’m not for somebody else. I’m trying to find the true me again (does that make any sense??) I guess what I’m saying is I’m starting to embrace my failures as beautiful in a way. I’ve certainly had my share in life! I think the point is to try, try, try and never give up.

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    • It’s an interesting exercise at midlife to look back at one’s life and see themes emerge. I think the starting over bit is, as you point out, shedding the useless baggage, traveling lighter with the things that matter.

      It also feels like a bit of a crossroads for me – do I push ahead or do I fall back into a pattern and habit of underachievement and self-repression? This is my millstone to haul – I’m sure everyone has their own “thing”.

      I’ve been a huge proponent of never giving up, but at this point, I have to admit that I need imagination more than ever. The same kind of persistence yields the same results, which usually leaves me right where I started. It is, however, progress that I even realize that!

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  10. Your openness to attend and learn at an Earth Day lecture was action and commitment. I would bet you participated in the way the speaker hoped. This entire piece was thoughtfully rendered. That last paragraph was tremendous.

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    • Thanks, Kim. I attended for the author portion, so the inspiration was an extra bonus, less about writing than about conservation issues. It’s certainly given me a lot to ponder!

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  11. I have never heard Terry Tempest Williams speak, but I do know her writing is comprehensive, understandable and beautifully crafted. I’m currently savoring her ‘When Women Were Birds’…

    And: I love Max Richter’s stuff, thanks for reminding me about him.

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    • I’ve got a copy of When Women Were Birds on my reading table. I was hoping to read it before hearing her speak, but I ran out of time. I did read Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. It was an enjoyable read. I’d never heard of Max Richter, but do now!

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  12. This one is a grand slam, Michelle–bottom of the ninth, two outs. It would take a post to list all the points I think you get just right. The best moment for me was when you described me perfectly: “Some people seem like seers. They take the long view early on in their lives and they stick to the path. I have never found that path.” As always, peace, John

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    • Thanks, John. I think of this as one of my uneasy posts – like an empty epiphany, if I don’t actually DO something. And that path, wow, is it tough to find sometimes. I think, too, I have to learn to see patterns in my own life more easily. Perhaps I have been on a path, but just can’t discern it.

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  13. I can feel how this poked the bear. And I heard another speaker last week use those words: You lose nothing by loving. That seems to be the mantra–maybe for both of us–to whisper in our own ears as well as let it lead us.

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    • Bear is considerably poked – by just about anything these days. Loving seems a far cry from my current demeanor, but we can always be better by reaching for an ideal, if only slightly less acerbic.

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  14. As a perfectionist myself, when I heard the saying “progress not perfection,” it helped me immensely! I have learned to say good enough and move on so I can get more done. I have learned to start a project even if I know I won’t be able to finish in one take. I have learned the difference between the quest for excellence and the crippling need to achieve perfection. I have a boss that doesn’t recognize pefectionism as the disease that it is. I’m glad that I’ve grown past mine (for the most part!)

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    • One of the books in my current reading pile is “Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding the Key to Balance and Self-Acceptance” by Ann Smith. It has been a lifelong struggle for me to be more rational in my expectations of myself. It’s all part and parcel of never feeling “good enough”. Always a work in progress…

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  15. I’m a violinist; I’ve played and performed parts of the Vivaldi Four Seasons, and I had not heard this recomposition before. Thanks for introducing me to it. It’s powerful on many levels, and so appropriate for the subject of this blog.

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    • I liked hearing little phrases from the original in Richter’s version – it makes it a little bit of a puzzle. It was an awkward moment after Ms. Williams’ talk, when the music began to play. You could tell the audience wasn’t sure what to do. But she just stood there steadily, forcing us to pause. I liked it and I liked the music.

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  16. “I am afraid, but there are bigger things than fear.” ❤

    So much that you wrote here resonated with me. I too have spent a life feeling small, and without courage, and wishing…I couldn't even have said what for, many days. Just WISHING to be somehow different. More assembled, put together. More clear in my convictions and desires — and in my willingness to pursue them.

    What I am finding in my own middle age is not something I'd call "reckless" exactly. But certainly an inability to stay feeling small anymore — because that never protected me either.

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    • This is kind of a continuation of my response to your comment on the last post, because so much of my life was spent trying to stay afloat and now that I feel like I’ve gotten to a certain stability and sense of self, I’ve gotten restless and perhaps greedy – there should be more right?

      You make such a good point in your last paragraph, Alice. I’ve lived as a rule follower most of my life. It didn’t protect me, but it gave me something to cling to in the middle of chaos. But there haven’t been great rewards for following the rules – just maintenance. I feel more compelled these days to challenge rules – especially those that are cultural or familial (things that get hardwired early on no matter how nonsensical).

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