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Hunger, Unspoken and Spoken: Nature, Activism, and Terry Tempest Williams

2 Mar

In Tempest Williams country: The Bryce Canyon I beheld in June.

When I hiked through the spectacular desert landscapes of Utah last year, I can remember where I was for so many things. That when the sun rose on my trip’s second day, I was standing on an observation point at Bryce Canyon – absorbing the way the ghostly hoodoo towers materialized from grey shadows into their sandy orange of their daytime selves. I remember that the very next morning, I was working my way along a narrow ledge path, fighting my fear of heights long enough to see the Delicate Arch up close and person, then working my way back down, back to the stone wall. Then there was the third day, the white-water rafting down the Colorado River, reddish cliffs rising in  the distance in almost every direction.

But I don’t remember where, or when, it was that I picked up Terry Tempest Williams and took her along for the ride. I reckon it was some National Park gift shop or the other, either at Zion or Bryce, Arches or Canyonlands. Anyway, somehow, someway, I grabbed An Unspoken Hunger, the fine essay collection that, since I was too busy enjoying Utah through direct experience, I wound up saving for another grey winter in congested Worcester, Massachusetts, clear across the country from the sweepingly open homeland that the author invokes so vividly, I feel like I’m there instead.

I reveled in what I read. Tempest Williams writes of nature with a hypnotic blend of lyricism and practicality, writing about the people of the West – including Abbey and Georgia O’Keefe – with almost as much vividness as she does nature herself. There’s meditativeness and there’s mirth, reverence and irreverence. There is a haunting weaving of mythology – sometimes Native American, sometimes Greek – that suggests a visionary imagination. A biologist by training, she clearly knows her natural science, but her soul feels more like that of a poet.

But I write about Terry Tempest Williams here – in a blog focused on community service and related issues – for still another reason. Even as Dave Eggers – the writer I featured in my last blog – turned to helping start an imaginative tutoring center in San Francisco, Terry Tempest Williams has turned both her words and actions to social issues. Some causes, of course, are painfully personal. Her 1991 memoir – Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place – included the essay “The Clan of One-Breasted Women,” exploring the possibility that the high incidence of cancer in her family is the result of living downwind from nuclear weapon tests in Utah. But she’s journeyed east to D.C. at different times to protest in public and to testify before Congress itself, and – journeying even farther from home – worked as an artist in war-torn Rwanda.

No matter how deep one’s convictions run, the life of the activist and advocate requires spiritual renewal. As Tempest Williams herself puts it, “Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.” If you feel in such a reminder these days, turn to the beauty of nature, and wildness, and art, that I just discovered in An Unspoken Hunger.

Terry Tempest Williams in the land she loves. (Photo: Cheryl Himmelstein.)


Artistic collaboration, arghh!

25 Feb

Dave Eggers, writer and advocate. (Photo from Huffington Post.)

One stereotype of authors is that, more than anything, they want to be left alone. There’s a profoundly individualistic side of the craft – a deep need for the flexibility of schedule that allows them to play out the conversations in their heads, and the exacting work of shaping those conversations into something of lasting creative merit. It creates a fear of distraction that makes each potential commitment to the community seem like a career-ender of a threat to one’s productivity.

Leave it to the ever-original Dave Eggers to find the flip side of the situation – one that turns writers’ need for freedom into an opportunity to serve others.

Eggers burst onto the literary scene as an author with his self-parodying memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a brilliantly self-conscious approach to storytelling in which he recounts the death of his parents within 35 days of each other and how he and his sister moved to San Francisco, where they raised their eight-year-old brother while also pursuing their own dreams as 20-somethings. But after this both moving and frequently hilarious book focused on his own family and friends, his vision expanded far beyond his own relationships or even the United States. You Shall Know Our Velocity! is a novel about two friends traveling the world trying to give away a huge amount of money, What is the What tells the story of an African refugee, Zeitoun focuses on the hardships of an Islamic family from Syria, and Surviving Justice offers interviews with the wrongfully incarcerated.

Meanwhile, during a 2014 road trip – in which I volunteered my way across the country in search of my own next cause – I came across Eggers again, in the form of his preface to a book about San Francisco’s famously activist Glide Memorial Methodist Church, where I volunteered myself. Eggers introduced Beyond the Possible by focusing on what seems impossible – living up to the church’s goal of “unconditional love” for any person who walks in the door.

In that preface, Eggers writes: “Could an individual person keep his or her own lights on, their arms and doors open, at all times?”

“It’s hard, that’s for sure. It’s really damned hard. There’s always someone who annoys us. … Wherever you are, there is someone who is unwelcome.”

Particularly, you might add, when you’re trying to write.


Yet Eggers and his fellow writers at McSweeney’s found a remarkable way to keep their own doors open to all – by opening the literary magazine’s office to children in need of tutoring. Eggers tells the story of the tutoring organization, 826 Valencia, in a TED talk that, like so much of his writing, uses his quirky imagination and outright hilarity to move and inspire. Of course, the subject matter is intrinsically amusing and inspiring: 826 Valencia combines a tutoring center and the magazine office with a pirate supply store “for the working buccaneer.” (The latter because, as it turned out, real estate zoning required them to sell something.)

Since its start, 826 Valencia has inspired similar centers from coast to coast – the Brooklyn version includes a crime-fighters supply store with a “capery”, and the Los Angeles version offers a time travel quickie mart. Eggers stresses the local leadership of all these places, but what they all have in common is the merging of the adult writer and school children, who even generate their own books. Underlying the entire project seems to be a deep and abiding belief in the power of the imagination. Ironically, one of the things that make it possible is that due to their flexible schedules, creative types locked into individualistic pursuits are the most available to help future generations of writers and artists.

I urge anyone interested in education or community-building – or anyone who loves the life of the imagination or even just a good laugh – to check out Eggers’ TED talk, as well as my previous blog on Eggers and Glide As well as deeply consider the challenge Eggers makes to his audience at the end of his TED talk – to reach out to our own local schools and ask how we can help.

Storm Dogs

9 Feb

Once you embark on any endeavor to serve others, there are almost always unexpected opportunities to make a difference for some people – or, in the case of a dozen state troopers from Massachusetts sent to Puerto Rico, some dogs.

Some storm-surviving canines were fed by the state troopers, and eventually found their way to a Sterling animal shelter recently for adoption. See the story – and of course plenty of dog pictures in the Worcester Telegram.

Meanwhile, even as this commendable act of kindness unfolded, a more sobering article details the recent federal aid package for Puerto Rico, as well as how far it falls short, in the February 8th The New York Times.

The fact that, 12 years after Hurricane Katrina, we’re still paying aid in Louisiana is just one indication that we can’t afford to forget these disasters once they fall out of our daily news cycle.

When A Game Is More Than A Game

6 Oct

Source: When A Game Is More Than A Game

When A Game Is More Than A Game

6 Oct

CETS stops ACE defender at Worcester World Cup 2017.

On a sunny Saturday in August, I find myself totally absorbed as Togo wins a thrilling soccer – OK, real football ­– match over Myanmar on the second day of an international competition featuring teams from five continents. Only this showdown isn’t the World Cup most of us know, but the Worcester World Cup, now in its 12th year. And as clichéd as it sounds, the winners won’t be limited to Togo, or eventual champion Italy – victory at Foley Stadium could be found even in the youth exhibition game.

Which, in fact, is what I’ve come to see. African Community Education, where I’ve often volunteered, was playing the kids from Cultural Exchange Through Soccer – which, in the spirit of Cultural Exchange, also featured some ACE kids. Therence, my friend and mentoring partner at ACE, is defending for CETS, while Jemal, the adoptive son of my friends Joanne and Chris, is his normal fleet self at the opposite end of the field, putting pressure on the ACE defenders.

One of the hidden victories, of course, was that they are there at all. As refugees, they have seen their share of impoverishment and danger in Africa, as well as all the hurdles of adapting to life in a new country. Much of the work of their young lives lies simply in closing the gap between themselves and native English speakers. Often kids I meet at ACE came to the U.S. knowing more languages than I ­– who didn’t even take a foreign language course until I was 36 years old – and many a day I feel linguistically inadequate by comparison with the students I’m supposedly helping. But English isn’t one of the languages most of the ACE kids happened to know before they arrive here. Every day offers challenges in both doing written work and in decoding the language and culture swirling around them.

Therence stop

Terence thwarts a shot on goal.

But this is soccer, a physical language they know by reflex regardless of whether they speak the verbal languages of their opponents – a poetry of physicality offering its own richness of rhythm and rhyme. Here their actions are fluid and easy as they work the ball back and forth toward a common goal.

Which is a lot like Cultural Exchange Through Soccer itself – an organization that, from the beginning, was about much more than a sport.

“The original CETS vision was to unite neighbors in a diverse and seemingly divided neighborhood,” one of the organizers, Laura Suroviak, will tell me later via email. “Soccer came first for some of us. Community organizing/building for others. We found the perfect balance.”

Over the years, the program has evolved in surprising ways, with plenty of success stories along the way, according to Suroviak. One surprise was the emergence of a youth program to go along with the adult competition.

“CETS has become a successful youth leadership development organization over the years, without that having been an original intention. Our evolution has been very organic, which makes it successful to the core.

“Every time a young person who had joined simply to belong or to play soccer takes on a leadership role in our organization, it’s a success in the eyes of CETS. The success stories are innumerable.”


If success stories ­are measured by lives changed for the better, they extend beyond all of the immigrants on the field  to the fans in the stands. I’m a mere mentor to Therence, a strong and confident student who is blessed to have both parents and all his siblings with him here in Worcester, but when he shuts out the opposition for his entire half as a goalie, I still feel a surge of pride and joy as I click away with the camera on the sidelines. I can’t help but feel blessed – as if undeservingly invited to be part of a community, and a world, so much larger than myself.

Meanwhile, I’m lucky enough to be sitting with Joanne and Chris when Jemal, nimble and intuitive, take a shot from the side.

Sitting almost directly behind him, we follow the seemingly impossible arc of the ball he kicks – looping by first a clump of defenders, then the desperately reaching goalie twice Jemal’s size, before curling into the far top corner of the goal. We exclaim our disbelief over the sheer physics of the shot while teammates congratulate Jemal – who flashes his quick smile, then immerses himself again in the flow of the game, patrolling the field where he is, as much as any soccer player, a master of his own destiny.

Jemal kick

Playing for CETS against his ACE friends, Jemal takes a shot.

The African Community Education Fall Fundraiser is coming up Thursday, October 12th; learn more at (Or consider volunteering at either ACE or any of the other wide range of non-profits working with immigrant populations in the diverse community that is Worcester, among them Ascentria, Southeast Asian Coalition, Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, Training Resources of America, and more. To learn more about CETS, including a list of high school matches involving athletes in the program, click here.

Marching With Pride

12 Sep

Marching down Salisbury on a Saturday morning.

I’ve never been much of a marcher.

Sure, I like to WALK. I’ve even been known to HIKE. In extreme situations, such as when meeting with one student made me late to teach a whole classroom of them, I might even RUN. But this business of massing with other humans to march, to call out the same chants that have been used for decades – only plugging in the names of the latest enemies, who are just the faces of the same enemy (our general inhumanity to other humans, our selfish indifference to the impact of our actions on the most vulnerable, human and otherwise – is something I’ve avoided, partly out of despair.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always admired the people who do march – at least, the ones on my side, and even the ones who aren’t. For one thing, they clearly get up earlier on a Saturday morning than I do. They are better at the arts and crafts aspect of the banner and costume-making process.

They know where to park.


On a much deeper level, I’ve always admired marchers for the way they value the communal connection of walking side by side with fellow believers, and the faith they place in the power of public statement, even when the protested injustice does not disappear overnight. My call to community participation has been more result-oriented. For years, it was Habitat for Humanity, which gives volunteers the gratification of a physically tangible product, a home for someone who needs one. Now it’s tutoring with African Community Education, where I can at least see that kid has finished his/her homework.

Marching, though, is something I’ve been sneaking up on. I almost pulled it off last year in San Francisco. I returned there to attend the Pride Sunday service at Glide Memorial Methodist Church – a radically inclusive church with deep roots in the LGBTQ community, as well as the homeless and a wide range of other people who often have been marginalized by churches. I rode the buoyant emotion of Glide’s blend of pass-the-mike personal testimonials and soulful gospel and R&B music, congregation swaying and holding hands during a prayer that openly explored the grief after the Orlando shootings less than two weeks earlier.

Moved by particular passion after the Florida tragedy, the defiantly joyful congregation then flowed out across downtown to the staging area of the parade – while I blew it by going back to the hotel to check out, only to succumb to the temptation of the computer, my need to pour out of mind all the observations sweeping over me from the service. By the time I got down to the route, the parade had commenced. I told myself it was easier to take in the spectacle of the parade if I weren’t in it. So I stuck to the sidewalk on Market, taking notes and photos as the very people I’d just met with went by – once again I was the stereotypical observer, one step removed from the action.


“Y’all means all” – the peddlers of Pride must’ve known I was coming.

So last Saturday in Worcester, I set out to remedy the situation at Worcester Pride. I overcame the practical obstacles – rummaging for the one shirt colorful enough to be Pride-worthy, trusting that someone would be selling on-site merch to make up for my distinct lack of rainbow clothing, that I’d find a group to insinuate myself with even though I was going alone, and that the eternal question that defines our lives in Worcester (“Where to park?”) would work itself out.

And, of course, it did. I made it to the staging area near Institute Park plenty early. There I mingled with a broad range of people from different eras and zones of my life, drawn to the parade by a variety of institutions and causes – united by the need, in these often intolerant times, to make a stand for kindness and inclusiveness, for love and grace, for a commitment to open-heartedness and open-mindedness that transcends human reflexes to the contrary. Plus, for the same reason I love New Orleans, I delighted in all the goofy colors and costumes of Pride – the Corgi-corn, a dog wearing a unicorn outfit – was one of the winners.

It was overpoweringly positive – friends and strangers defiantly making a serious statement while daring to laugh and to love. Meanwhile, others gathered along the route – in front of churches and one restaurant/bar, Armsby Abbey, that I attend more often than church – and cheered. I saw a half-dozen students and ex-students, and, in the spirit of the occasion, the professional handshake was discarded for the affectionate half-hug. Despite my 6-foot-5 height, as hugged at eye-level – for they were on the curb and, for once, I was not.

See the Worcester Telegram story and photos about Worcester Pride 2017 by going to this link.



Awe, Altruism, and Close Encounters

4 Sep

I think they’re actually standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Alabama in Mobile Bay, but in my heart they will always be at Devil’s Tower.

After an up-and-down first week back at work, followed by more ups and downs in my attempts at interior re-decorating, I slipped off to the movie theater Sunday. But the movie I chose won’t be up for any Oscars this year. It was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Stephen Spielberg classic, now back in theaters to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release in 1977 – when I was a 19-year-old absolutely enthralled by what I saw, heard, and felt unfolding in the theater.

Of course, I could never feel the same way now, I cautioned myself as I drove to the theater. For one thing, I’ve seen the film, or parts of it, on television dozens of times in the four decades since. For another, I’ve made the mistake of teaching film, and as anyone who has taught anything they love knows, that’s always a threat to ruin the entire damn genre. You can become so hyper-aware of aesthetic criteria, dramatic conceivability, filmic technique, and other haughty intellectual concerns, you’re about as likely to enter the experience with an open heart as an atheist at a tent revival.

To make matters worse, the showing began with a short documentary interviewing Spielberg, his younger current-day counterpart J.J. Abrams, and Denis Villeneuve, the director of the deeply intelligent Arrival – so deeply intelligent and profound, it’s practically Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind. But several things were pointed out that actually enhanced the viewing. One was that Spielberg, for all his tendencies to overdo emotional manipulation in some films, genuinely had yearned to make just the connection his characters do in the film – to the point of repeatedly driving out to the desert to study the clear night sky, hoping to see a UFO. But that yearning in the film – so optimistic and idealistic in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate – is juxtaposed with ordinary people leading ordinary lives, raising children in modest and cluttered homes, with all of the normal family tensions and conflicts – as J.J. Abrams points out, the reality of those households immediately resonated with the people sitting in the theater. We were all invited to follow the characters played by Richard Dreyfus and Melinda Dillon into not one, but a series of close encounters that had to disrupt their lives before transforming them.

Such is the soundness of Spielberg’s psychological progression, I found I was still able to override the cognitive dissonance of the dozen or so times things happen that make no damn sense. Such quibbles, after all, are beside the point. I found myself moved almost to tears, even as I was the first time, sitting with my friend Joyce – who, after drying her eyes, said that Richard Dreyfus’s boarding of the alien spaceship made her “want to go with him.”

How can four decades of well-earned curmudgeon-hood be wiped away so easily? I pondered this afterward, while getting in a quick power walk on a paved hike-bike path next to the intersection of three highways.

The first thing that came to mind was a blog I had read only two days earlier. Friend and author Sarah Cavanagh, whose own research centers on positive psychology, had suggested that my essay about hiking in the Utah desert would be enhanced by checking out the “awe research” done at Cal-Berkley by Michele Shiota and Dacher Keltner. That led me, eventually, to Keltner’s essay on awe and altruism in Slate.


Seeing as a child sees.

Keltner defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” He notes that the attempt to articulate is “at the center of the world’s great spiritual traditions” (as well as, I’ll go ahead and add, some great films, or even some so-so ones).

Nothing surprising there. But then he cited Berkley studies that suggest that when people are exposed to awe, they’re more likely to show altruistic tendencies. In one experiment, subjects were asked to complete the sentence, “I am ________”; those who did so while facing an awe-imposing replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton were more likely “to define their individual selves in collectivist terms.” In another experiment, subjects asked to face a grove of Eucalyptus trees – the tallest in North America – were more likely to help a passerby who dropped his or her pens.

The implication?

In Keltner’s words, it’s this: “… being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.”


As I walked, I wondered if the causal relationship works in reverse. Can our acts of kindness lead to connections that produce awe, that affirmation of being part of something larger you must respect? I don’t know the answer. But on my post-film stroll, I saw something for the first time. Forty years later, one of Close Encounters’ most defining traits – one that separates it from any other cinematic human-alien encounter before or sense – is the movie’s complete lack of physical violence. It’s an amazing trait for a film with plenty of wide-open chase scenes, conflicts, and visual spectacle. But there’s not a gunshot, not a stab, not a punch. (Sure, the aliens have this habit of borrowing one’s children without permission, but, hey, they have the manners to return them.) The only living things to come to a violent end are the shrubbery.

Not a soul in the film – even the mysterious network of scientists and military men who are often the villains in these stories – expresses any desire to presume some malicious attention, to pre-emptively attack those they don’t understand. Instead, they long to understand, and to be understood – and as a result they emerge with a different perception of their place in the universe. In the hate-ridden and violence-torn times in which we live, in so many ways mired in dichotomies that disrespect the deeper possibilities of connection, perhaps what we could all use are a few more Close Encounters with those different from ourselves – and more shared experiences of awe and altruism are good places to start.

And it doesn’t take a flying saucer to get you there. Amidst my power-walk reveries, two deer bounded onto my path, then disappeared into the foliage. I followed them through the rain-soaked brush, grass and reeds, fumbling after the deer with my iPhone camera at the ready, craving another dose of awe.

These days, we need all we can get.

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