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WATCH THIS: Ancient Futures – Learning from Ladakh 12/07/2012

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Historical Context.
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This film documents the rapid transition from subsistence lifestyles to a “modern,” developed economy in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. From mutual support freely given to paid employment… from learning “in the field” (literally) to compulsory, militarized schooling… from myriad regional dialects to Urdu and English… from community, family, and relationships to alienation and true human poverty…

What are the real social and cultural consequences of a breakdown of the local in favor of a seductive (but ultimately rather destructive) global?  It’s all here:


If you liked this film, here’s some other posts you might like:

Doing community-level healing RIGHT 11/12/2012

Posted by ALT in Historical Context, Philosophy/Spirituality, Survivor Voices.
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Can you see it? Do you see the gaping soul wound in our society? It has many facets, myriad layers: the valorization of death and abuse,* promulgated through supposedly “light-hearted” entertainment for mass consumption. The unstoppable drive to commodify everything  — let no space remain private, let nothing remain free of a price-tag (the death of the personal, priceless life). The indiscriminate psychiatric drugging (forced, if necessary) of children, adults, anyone who doesn’t quite “fit” into a highly artificial consensual reality designed to free us of any and all moral qualms so that we might give ourselves up fully to the consumerist frenzy, human cost be damned. We wander, drunk on possessions and electric lights, more and more oblivious to the world of the simple, human.

Death, everywhere.

Another example: the “Bodies” Exhibition (circa 2006) displayed human cadavers — several of them executed Chinese political prisoners — stripped down to various organ systems for our collective enjoyment/entertainment.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this country was built on a consciously planned and mercilessly executed genocide spread over several generations. And today we see a significant portion of our economy – our livelihoods, our lives — built on the production of killing machines.

Were we as a society foolish enough to think there would be no consequences for placing death above life?

I believe we are in need of healing. On a vast, societal level (that also acknowledges and encompasses the small, local level – right down to the individual). I think that healing needs to address several centuries’ worth of pent-up, intergenerational trauma sustained by the many peoples of this land, and the land itself. It would also have to address some of the mechanized institutions of ongoing wounding (for private profit, for the advancement of state power, etc.) whose actions are so very widespread these days.

To fully accomplish the level of healing required will likely take something or someone truly extraordinary. Perhaps, as John Perry suggested, we are in need of a visionary or two that can show us the way.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t get started without him!

Getting started: One example of a seriously inspiring community-level healing project


Sand Creek, CO was the site of one of the numerous cold-blooded massacres carried out against Native American peoples. In this case, about 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho women, children, and elders were gunned down by US cavalrymen in what had been designated as a “safe camp” in 1864. As a recent Boulder newspaper article stated, “the gruesome killing and depraved mutilation of people’s bodies that occurred at Sand Creek are unparalleled in U.S. military history. Reports of the slaughter horrified the nation and a Congressional investigation condemned the massacre, but no one was punished. Colorado landmarks honor the perpetrators: Evans, Chivington, Downing, Nichols.”

The Restorative Justice movement teaches us that everyone involved in a crime or injustice (victims, perpetrators, and the community of people whose lives are touched and altered) needs healing and must participate in the healing process.

…How does healing happen? The Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples themselves initiated a process 14 years ago…  Over this month’s Thanksgiving holiday, Cheyenne and Arapaho runners will complete a 170-mile Spiritual Healing Run/Walk from the Sand Creek Massacre site to Denver.

– from a Boulder news article about the event

I love everything about this healing project. First of all, it takes time – they’ve been doing it every year for the past 14 years. And though they’ve made some amazing progress (remains of Sand Creek Massacres victims being held by several museums and national parks were repatriated in 2008), the work is far from over, and each year the healing process is renewed.

This event sets aside the passive identity of “victim” and allows human beings affected by this tragedy to take on agency and work together for healing. There’s a role here for everyone – Native and non-native alike. In 2008, the organizers even chose to stage the event in honor of a non-native, Army Captain Silas Soule who refused to shoot unarmed people at Sand Creek, brought the atrocity to light, and even testified against his commanding officer.

Spiritual healing walkers’ and runners’ triumphal entry into Denver last year.** (photo by: Leah Millis, Denver Post)

This is not some kind of branded marketing scheme, a pink-washed “awareness run” a la Race for the Cure.  It is something much deeper. Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders have stated, “The Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk is a prayer. It is not a race. It is a commemoration for the victims and survivors of the massacre, and for healing ancestral homelands.”  A conscious and intentional effort towards real, spiritual healing.

A call to Boulder residents puts it this way:

Through ceremony, remembrance, prayer, honoring, and running, the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples seek healing. Will we meet them on this healing path? We cannot change history, but we can seek to build honest, healthy relationships in our time, in this place.

*more on that here.

**more pictures from last year’s event can be viewed here.

A culture unaware of itself 09/17/2012

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Historical Context, Philosophy/Spirituality.
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I recently came across a book entitled Learning Native Wisdom: What Traditional Cultures Teach Us about Subsistence, Sustainability, and Spirituality, by Gary Holthaus.  Did you ever spend years of your life unknowingly waiting for someone to come along, the person who had the key in his pocket and would effortlessly open doors long closed to you, just by being himself? 

That’s what this book is to me. 

Here’s a little bit of what I’ve learned:
[excerpts from the book in italics]

We are a subsistence culture

We [Americans] are as dependent on the land as any traditional people ever were. We may not see ourselves as such, but our frantic hunt for the last barrel of oil is not a metaphor but is very real hunting and very real gathering… Our culture is a subsistence culture unaware of itself.

…we all live in a subsistence relationship to the land, every economy regardless of cash, credit, stocks, or other media for the exchange of goods and values, is but one part of a subsistence life based upon what the land has to offer.

Subsistence – far more than economics

Subsistence is not an economic system, mere “hunting, fishing, and berry picking.”  It is not a somehow inferior “level” that others (unlike our superior selves) live on — the poverty level, the subsistence level.  Subsistence is a complete, holistic way of life. 

Native people see subsistence as a base upon which an entire culture establishes its identity: philosophy, ethics, religious belief and practice, art, ritual, ceremony, and celebration, law, the development and adaptation of a variety of technologies, and an educational system that will ensure the survival of the people.  All fall within the realm of subsistence…  Subsistence, then, is not an economic system, nor a matter of numbers of fish and game harvested in the course of a season; it is a matter of worldview.

A fundamental understanding of the relationship and reciprocity between humans and the natural world (all my relations), explored through ritual, art, and philosophy.  A subsistence lifestyle is a life filled with meaning.

It is my right to choose my own meaning, no matter what the various institutions hoping to profit off my life’s blood have to say about it.  Endless consumption as the means and the end?  If I can resist it, in part or in whole, then NO!

Here is the meaning I seek – two feet planted firmly on the ground, the Earth, and a heart that beats in concert with others.  Simplicity, frugality, wholesomeness, from the moment I awaken to endless possibility, to the moment I close my eyes on a day-well-done. 

No more pollution!  The actual pollution of the Earth, yes, but there is so much more.  Genetic manipulation of our food (are there any pure landraces of maize left?).  The pollution of our language, a thousand new Orwellian words to make beautiful vagaries out of what is clearly hypocrisy and lies. The pollution of basic moral and ethical codes, until there is nothing under the sun which has not been blasphemed.  Even our wants, desires, choices – is there a spare second of the day when we’re free from advertising? We have to fight for it, build a fortress around every a moment of pure, real silence.  Will our defenses hold? I think the armed forces of mass consumption will not rest until the walls are breached, and privacy and all space for meditative introspection is gone for good.

Does anyone care to own a part of me? Much of it is for sale to the highest bidder – my emails, keystrokes, purchases.  Who my friends are, what we talk about.  What books I read, what movies I watch.  Every prescription written (and whether or not it was filled), every lab test, every medical procedure.

My body, my mind, my time.  This so-called culture claims them all as products, “human resources,” to be bartered for, stolen, bought, traded, prostituted. But there are some things that simply aren’t for sale. 

An older way, a better way…

Holthaus makes a compelling comparison between a culture like ours (which he calls a “structural culture”), where all is for sale and most things are done for supposed individual gain, where science is seen as somehow “other” than art and personal experience, and data is valued much more highly than wisdom, and another, older, more sustainable model, which he calls “functional cultures.”  He takes his time and builds his case exceedingly well.  Here are a few extracts from this beautiful idea: 

Functional cultures are complex, balancing and holding together a huge web of information, intuition, ritual, spirituality, arts, humanities, and science to create a whole cultural system that operates within greater natural systems… Structural cultures tend to put their faith in a harder, more structured knowledge called “science.”  Structural cultures tend to suppress the disorder of intuition and to create order in the structure of their ritual or religious systems; they are based on hierarchies, including codes.

The aim of education in a functional culture is wisdom that will ensure the survival of the people.  The means of education are storytelling, dance, experience, imitation of elders, and careful observation of the natural world and of the human, social world that is included in it… The aim of education in a structural culture is knowledge that will lead to personal advancement or advantage.  The means are “facts,” acquired via books or computers.

Functional cultures have members who belong, all of whom are enfranchised to participate in public life.  These are members in the sense of family members, recognized as such by the community.  Structural cultures have citizens who may or may not participate in public life, and some have no role in civic life because they are disenfranchised by poverty or lack of education, race or sexual orientation [ALT: or a label of so-called “mental illness,” an unwillingness to conform to consensual reality!].  Those who live in a structural culture become citizens by various kinds of legal certification rather than recognition…

Both cultures seek power.  Functional cultures seek the power inherent in good relationships.  They try to find their place in a system in which they live.  They want to stand in right relationship not only to the human community but to all the creatures in the natural system.  They are horizontally integrated: their own structures are part of the larger system and the other natural cultures that surround them, everything connected and reaching out to affect and include everything else… Structural cultures seek the power inherent in dominion.  They try to create a place in the system that will give them what they want from other cultures and from Nature, both of which are seen as resources.  They want to maintain a more powerful stance than other human societies and to be vertically integrated in the highest positions in their own system, regardless of what that may mean to other cultures, human or otherwise, around them…

The healing that functional cultures seek to employ is aimed at restoring balance and harmony in relationships… Structural cultures aim at healing the self first.  Psychiatrists assume that if individuals get themselves together, their relationships with other humans will automatically improve. 

Read the rest here if this comparison speaks to you, as it did to me.

The Girls Who Went Away — the unbelievable power of unconditional love 06/21/2011

Posted by ALT in Historical Context, Survivor Voices.
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A mother’s unconditional love for her child, denied systemically, but springing forth in all its glory despite numerous institutional/institutionalized attempts to quell it – this is the story told over and over in The Girls Who Went Away: The hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the decades before Roe v. Wade.*

And it has moved me deeply.

The book is about pregnant teens from the 60s who were sent to institutional homes for unwed mothers to have their babies quietly, and then pressured (or downright forced) to put them up for adoption.  At this time, out of wedlock, teenage pregnancies were an unspeakable shame to the family and simply anathema to the social order (though in another decade that would change completely) –  and this was seen as the only possible course of action: go far away, have the baby, and then forget it ever happened, move on.  When the mother returned home, the subjects of her pregnancy and the birth were so taboo that many were not allowed to speak of it (or their feelings about the experience) ever again.

Until now.  This book is about these mothers, and what’s more – it is told by them.  The author (Ann Fessler) interviewed over 100 birth mothers, and includes many of their first person retellings of the pregnancy, birth, and the lifelong impact these events had for them.  Fessler also shares her own personal story – she is one of the children that was “given up” during this time period, and it is breathtaking to follow her questioning of the dominant adoption story, ultimately finding deeper meaning and her own biological mother’s love.

The dominant frame story in our culture about teen birth mothers being that they:

  • Aren’t prepared/ready for their babies and don’t have the capacity to take care of them
  • Don’t want their babies

But this doesn’t begin to express the complicated emotions and stories of birth mothers.  It is truly powerful to hear their retellings of the unbreakable bond, the love, they carried for their surrendered children throughout their lives – children they carried for nine months and then perhaps never even saw again.  Nearly every woman reports being told that she would “forget,” move on with her life to have other children and not remember the relinquished child.  But they could not forget.  Take this letter, which Fessler received after the publication of the first edition, for example:

Professor Fessler,

I went out today at lunch to buy your book, hoping it will give me some insight as to what my mother went through.  She died a few years ago on her 70th birthday.  When she was in the hospital, delirious and hallucinating from a serious infection, I learned that my mother was one of the women you write about.  She spent hours crying and begging, “Bring me my baby.”  When she regained consciousness she did not recall telling anything but I spoke with her about it and she did—in very few words – confirm her ordeal.  She was weak and very sick.  I was never able to get more information before she passed. 

In that moment at the hospital, her entire life made sense to me.  She was a woman who had a sense of sadness and longing her whole life.  It burdens me beyond comprehension to think of her sadness and despair and of her never being able to speak of it or share it with anyone.


Many years later, on her deathbed, this woman was calling for that long lost child, who she had not even spoken of to her family!  Ah, love is amazing.

A few excerpts

The love the new mother felt for the child, despite her best efforts to follow the social worker’s advice and not form an attachment:

It’s funny.  The whole time I was carrying my daughter, I told myself that I wasn’t her real mother.  I really believed that.  I knew that I was carrying her but, you know, that was the party line, that’s what they told you.  The social workers said that you were carrying the child for someone else.  And I really went along with that in my head.  I guess in a way I was less tormented because most birth mothers didn’t have that kind of detachment. They knew that they were their child’s mother.  They knew what they were losing, and I was just totally out to lunch in that department.  Until my daughter was born.  I realized at that moment, that’s not the way it works.  She was my daughter.  I realized that fully, in every way, she was my daughter.


A young mother questions the trope that the child is given away to someone who can care for him better:

I want to make the point that he was taken from me.  I never gave him away.  He was never meant to be a gift.  If anything, the gift was that I thought I gave him the parents he needed.  They were the gift.  They were the gift to him.  My son was not a gift.


Mothers reflect on the role of trained professionals and institutions in their stories:

I wasn’t supposed to see him [my son] at all.  They said, “You shouldn’t see him, because you’re going to forget and have other children.”  They said, “Write down on this side of the paper what you can give your baby.  Write down on the other side what the adoptive parents have to offer.” … They said, “Well, just picture what he’s going to look like.  You know, he’ll not have the nice clothes that the other children are going to have and on the playground, they’ll call him a bastard.”  And I believed that.  I remember writing down they had money, they had a father, they had a house, and they had clothes and food.  And on my side I only put down love.  That’s all I did have.

What’s shocking to me is sitting with other birth mothers and hearing them tell the same story.  I thought, “My God, there must have been a textbook.”  You looked up how to get babies away from their mother, and this is how to do it.  There must have been, because we were all told the same thing.  Even the story about the playground.  I’ve heard it from other people and I’m thinking, “Oh my God.  It was a script.  It affected me so much, and here it was just a script.”


I feel as though I was preyed upon by this system, by these people that I was surrounded by.  Not some nebulous thing but real human beings, real people had a hand in taking my son away… I was not able to ever mourn my loss of him or be able to express how sad I was.  Nobody ever said, “Oh, I’m sorry…”

All of that came to a head when I realized that this wasn’t a good thing.  It was in everyone else’s best interests.  It was the convenient, expedient thing to do at the time, but it wasn’t really in our best interests.  It was not a win-win situation.  In my opinion, it was a loss for him, too.  He didn’t get to know his mother and father.  We didn’t get to know our son, and be with our son, which we should rightfully have been able to do.  The winners were the … social workers who got to do their job in the way that they thought they should do it.  We lost and we lost big.  I mean, we lost the most precious thing in our lives that ever was or ever will be – our baby.  Nothing can ever make up for that.


 The feeling of worthlessness instilled traumatically in the mother via this experience:

Then they [caseworkers] would say things about the baby.  It’s always “the baby,” never “your baby.”  And they were not talking about adoption except to say, “This experience will end.  You will forget that you were here.  You will forget that you went through this.  It will all be in the past.  Given time, it will fade.  You will get over it.  You know what you did was wrong?  You know that you are not really worthy of keeping your child?  You can’t provide a home for that child.  You can’t provide anything that child needs.  That child needs a mother and a father, and the things that they can give that child.” 

I remember feeling almost not deserving of having or keeping my child, but also feeling I don’t have the right to be a mom.  I don’t have the right to be a mother.  So we really heard that on almost a daily basis [at the group home]…


And on the indescribable joy of finding the relinquished child again, after all those years:

I got to the agency and they put me in this little room, an interview room, and the social worker said, “It will probably be about ten minutes and then I’ll come to the door and I’ll knock and I’ll let her [your daughter] in.”  So I sat there waiting.  And I was totally shut down.  I mean, devoid of any worry, of any fear, of anything.   And I remember thinking to myself, “You know what, this is it.  This is it.  You get one shot at feeling this feeling.  You can put it away, you can shut it down, but you know what, this moment will never come again and if you stay shut down you’re not going to show your daughter who you really are and what you’re really about.”  It was a physical thing I had to do.  I mean, I physically had to get in the moment.  And I did.  I mean, when the knock on the door came my daughter got to see who I really am.  Not a fake, not a phony, but somebody who really was in that moment for her.  The social worker opened the door and she said, “I want you to meet your mom.  This is Sue.  Sue, this is your daughter.”  And this beautiful young woman walked through the door.

We looked at each other.  I mean, we were both stunned, because she looks just like me.  We were totally stunned.  We hugged each other, that wonderful sustaining hug, and then we leaned back and the tears were streaming and we started to laugh.  I mean, how could you not laugh? It was like looking at yourself. 

(Susan II)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  there’s just no replacement for the not-of-this-world, truly unconditional love that a parent has for his/her children. 


A few more goodies:

Ann Fessler, the author, is interviewed by Diane Rehm, along with two birth mothers who contributed their stories to the book.

An excerpt (one woman’s story, from beginning to end) from the book.


* The mention of “Roe vs. Wade” in the title is more to imply that abortion was illegal and therefore not an option during this time period, than to indicate an ideological stance.  The author expresses no opinion about the abortion issue, which I greatly appreciate.  This book is not about proving a point politically; it is about letting these women – who have been silenced for so long – tell their stories.  Hurrah for survivor voices!

Phlox Peniculatum: A parable 05/06/2011

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Historical Context.
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Phlox peniculatum.  Perennial, they stand about three feet tall, flower all summer long, and are incredibly hardy.  You can’t really buy them in the store nowadays, but back around the turn of the century, they were a favorite.  You see them growing alongside old farmhouses, in cemeteries, in overgrown vacant lots, the only remaining survivors of long abandoned garden plots; they stand as a last testament to the skill of some unknown gardener of a different age, a living heirloom. 

When I was a little girl, I lived in what was then the country (now – suburbia, in all its shallow, vinyl glory).  There was a particular field near my house, probably once a pasture, whose back treeline was lined with a host of Phlox peniculatum.  My mother would eye them enviously every time we drove by.  “Someone must have had a garden there once.” 

One day, we saw bulldozers in that field.  It was an early victim of the tide of “development” that was sweeping our township (in time, nearly all the fields would be similarly converted into something “useful”).  They were going to build a strip mall, or a dentist’s office.  Or was it a KFC?  I can’t remember now.

My mother just couldn’t bear the thought of those flowers from a garden long gone being bulldozed.  It was time to go guerilla!

She put a shovel in the trunk, and some cardboard boxes.  She parked the car alongside the road, and in a matter of 10 minutes or less, had efficiently transferred most of the phlox into the boxes and placed them carefully in the backseat of the car.  [A young ALT admiringly thinking, “my mom is like a secret agent!”]  They were happily settled in their new home – the front flower bed – in a few hours more. 

We used to tease her, accusing her of stealing those flowers.  But she always proudly proclaims that she rescued them. 

She’s right – the very next day they began tearing up that treeline.  The phlox that were left behind did not survive.

This was many years ago.  True to form, the Phlox peniculatum have prospered, multiplied.  There are so many now that my mom has to give some away every year [in fact, I just transplanted some in my garden, a few hours ago]. 

An heirloom that stood forgotten and was nearly bulldozed over by the forces of “development” and “modernization,” given new life by someone who saw its value and fought to preserve it. 

What other heirlooms of a past age, representing a different value system or way of life, stand waiting for us to discover them?

“This I Believe” 04/15/2011

Posted by ALT in Historical Context.
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The 1950s in booming, post-war America was a different time.  Maybe some of you were alive then – but for me that period is one of many historical eras (the fall of the Roman Empire, the French Revolution) that I have experienced only through textbooks and Hollywood representations. 

I think we all know how accurate these historical dramas can be.


And here’s the funny thing about history books and Hollywood: somehow, by conveying only the “important” events, the “relevant” information, they cut the trajectory of time into chunks (eras/epochs) that seem rather unconnected, making it almost impossible to answer the question “how did we get here [the present day]?”  They tell you almost nothing about the lived experienceof that time, what it meant to be human – and how that translates to the now.

This disagreeable feeling of isolation and ahistorical existence in an epoch preceded by other bounded, objectively defined “epochs” – cut off from the wisdom and slowly stockpiled intellectual stores of generations and forced to rediscover it all, independently, in one lifetime — contributes, at times, to the grayed out feeling of industrialized depression that plagues my “modern” consciousness. 

Which explains, in part, why I find This I Believe so very compelling.

The basic premise: from 1951 to 1955, famed radio journalist Edward R. Murrow hosted a CBS radio program called This I Believe.  Each show featured one person’s 300-500 word essay, a positive statement of an individual (as opposed to dogmatic) belief that formed the basis of that person’s life.  Essayists were celebrities, sometimes [like Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller, Maria Von Trapp] – but more often they were just folk; taxi drivers, high school teachers, homemakers. 

The original call for essays asked explicitly for personal and affirmative statements of belief, “the values which rule your thought and action.”  The historical importance of the project was anticipated and understood from the very beginning:

We are sure the statement we ask from you can have wide and lasting influence. Never has the need for personal philosophies of this kind been so urgent. Your belief, simply and sincerely spoken, is sure to stimulate and help those who hear it. We are confident it will enrich them. May we have your contribution?

(from the original invitation for This I Believe)

The show was a huge success – it was syndicated on air and in print around the world, and a 1952 book containing 100 of the show’s most popular essays was outsold only by The Bible.

Though how many housewives bought the book just for the picture of a very foxy-looking Edward R. Murrow on the inside cover -- we'll never know.


But after four brief years, that window into the philosophical lives and lived experience of Americans closed.  Time passed; one bounded epoch ended and a few more came and went.  The original voices of This I Believe found themselves relegated to the pages of history books and museum glass.

And then, in 2005, the window opened again.  NPR [National Public Radio] revived the program, using a modified version of the original prompt.  Again, the responses came from all walks of life, and all ages, too.  From first graders to folks old enough to remember the original program well.  Best of all, every response – from the 50s and more recently – is stored on the project’s website.

GO.  You may get lost (I know I did!), but what a privelege to wander there, and in such good company.  What a wealth of wisdom, experience!  I can’t stop reading them, each one a priceless snapshot of one, individual human.  Part of what makes them so personal is the real voice of the author speaking directly to you (any of the essays that made the show were read by their authors, and these recordings are saved on the site, too).  But mostly it’s the content: a human being with some years of life on this earth is expressing – in 500 words or less – the single most elemental, important piece of wisdom they’ve gained thus far.

I loved this one.  I found this one to be wise and compelling in its simplicity.  This one was downright inspirational, in an old-fashioned, “American Dream” kind of way (and I believed I had fallen to complete and utter cynicism about such things long ago!).

It feels unbelievably good to partake of a history that’s not a boot in your face (a lá Orwell); that’s not particularly epic or grand but is magnificent just the same.  Magnificently ordinary, a relatable history of folk.  Wholesome, nourishing, and strangely rare in this modern world, like fresh-picked garden vegetables on a summer evening.  It reminds me of what we’ve lost, and how — just by scattering a few seeds and letting nature do the rest — we could claim it again as ours; and righftully so!

When it took a village to raise a child, we didn’t need institutions 02/18/2011

Posted by ALT in Alternative Lifestyles, Children's Mental Health, Historical Context.
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“It takes a village to raise a child” seems to be the official slogan of social workers and children’s mental health professionals everywhere.  They chant it from the podium at their national conferences and write it in bold, ALL CAPS on the tops of position papers and task force reports.

It’s an old African proverb, though it seems to apply to traditional cultures worldwide.  The idea was – and in a few places, still is – that the village is a combination playground/one-room schoolhouse, and each villager a potential mentor, teacher, or caregiver.  Everybody has a stake in providing support, love, and kindness to children, because, as the old cliché goes, the children are our future. 

[I always say that a cliché is someone else’s epiphany that you just haven’t had yet…]

But, again, we see that the language has been changed to suit the purposes of an industrialized society.  What the proverb seems to mean today is that it takes a cadre of certified professionals and a good amount of restrictive, institutionalized settings to get the job of raising children up to be “productive members of society” done.

A great way to insure job security – but is it a great way to raise a child?  I’ve seen the children with said “village” watching their every move… they don’t seem too happy about it. 

There was a time in this country when it did take a village to raise a child, in the traditional sense.  Back then, they didn’t have compulsory schooling, Child Protective Services, hospitalized birthing, child psychiatrists.  Below is a slideshow of some images from those days.  For me, these photographs evoke a wistfulness, a curious longing…

They make me wonder:  What have we done?

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Beware the Vampyre! For he is an archetypal representation of abuse 02/17/2011

Posted by ALT in Children's Mental Health, Historical Context.
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Vampires are so in right now.

If you spend much time around pre-teen/tween/teen/young adult women, you’re likely aware of the Twilight phenomenon: quite possibly the most poorly constructed, badly written novels ever, the author’s disturbing pulp vampire fantasies barely hidden behind one dimensional, mostly Mary Sue characters (Stephanie Meyer should’ve just gone ahead and named the main character “Stephanie;” it would’ve saved us all a lot of trouble).

The cover should've looked more like this.

For today’s teenagers, this is basically the love story of their generation—or so it’s been marketed.  T-shirts, full-size posters, figurines, teen pop magazine pictures you can kiss before you go to bed at night proclaim the supreme love of Bella (human) and Edward (vampire).  [For some of the weirder Twi-fan stuff out there, check this out.  Also, this.]

Also, it's apparently not just for teenagers...

Young people want to learn about love, and these days they’re learning it from the media, as the topic has successfully become taboo in many families and certainly in school.  I can just imagine a young person, not really knowing too much about romance, reading the book (or seeing the movie) and thinking “That’s it… that’s love.”

Folks—that’s an entire generation being taught that abuse is the ultimate in romance, that love is dark, desperate, controlling, that the man of your dreams ought to be a threat to your soul.

Let me explain…

Vampire as the archetypal abuser/abused

As most literary figures and themes, vampires are a symbol; I’d go so far as to say that they are an archetype (IE, an ancient and nearly universal symbol recognized by many human cultures across time).  The vampire represents the victim of abuse who, having lost his soul, is transformed into an “undead” creature victimizing and therefore condemning other humans to the same fate.

Here are some common characteristics of the vampire archetype:

  • A reanimated corpse, “undead”
  • Vampires only travel at night (in darkness)
  • Maintains its immortality by drinking the blood of humans
  • The vampire’s need for blood destroys the victim
  • The victim of a vampire will become a vampire

It’s easy to see how these traits align very well with those of a victim of abuse/abuser…

[But first, a quick aside: my use of the “victim of abuse/abuser” construct may be a bit confusing—is the abuser the vampire? Or is the victim?  But as we shall see the symbolic relationship between the two is complex… it is commonly understood that the victim often identifies with, or retains a piece of, the abuser as part of the traumatic experience.  They bleed together… and so the symbolic representation of their relationship (the vampire) is a single entity from this perspective.]

Reanimated Corpse, undead

This represents the disassociation or severe depersonalization that a trauma victim experiences; many have described it as feeling “like a zombie.”  Victims say they have “lost a part of themselves,” and repressed traumatic material in the unconscious can contribute to this feeling.

Immortality by drinking the blood of others

Many (though not all) abusers are victims of abuse themselves.  It’s called “intergenerational trauma,” and it’s a phenomenon that’s quite well-known; childhood abuse inhibits the development of coping skills in a young person.  When that person becomes a parent, he does not have a positive example of parenting and has few skills to find one for himself.  She may also have developed a dependence on a chemical substance as a false coping skill, making it extremely difficult to care for children (addiction gets in the way).  Thus the cycle of abuse is perpetuated.


Drinking the blood of the victim can be equated with the act of abuse itself.  Like the vampire drinking the blood of its victim for food, the abuser seeks a kind of perverted nourishment from the abusive situation.  Some therapists maintain that the abuser is recapitulating an earlier trauma in order to master it… Tragically, the desired fulfillment, if achieved at all, is temporary and the abuser, like the vampire, is once again tormented.  For both vampire and abuser, there is no lasting security or resolution from the act.  Abusers often report that they experience the abuse as a regrettable and empty situation, and that they act on impulse, as the vampire acts on instinct.
(Micahel Butz, “The Vampire as a Metaphor for Working with Childhood Abuse” — read the entire article here.)

From here it is easy to carry on the metaphor… the vampire destroys the victim’s humanity be drinking his blood.  Likewise, a survivor of a traumatic experience may feel that his humanity was destroyed or severely injured.  If the trauma is not properly dealt with, this victim may find inappropriate ways of releasing the negative energy that was passed on to him by the abuser; in short he may become an abuser himself.

It doesn't get much more obvious than this: the apple, his hand on her neck, her posture, the exposed skin and "sacrificial victim" look of the dress, the bracelets - or are they handcuffs? ... (actual press photo for Twilight film)

The vampire in literature

This interpretation of the vampire archetype (as abuser) is one that is quite evident in the first modern literary appearance of the vampire: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The classic reading of the novel is that the Count Dracula, in his interactions with both Lucy and Mina, represents Victorian ideas about rape, feminine victimry, and abuse.

Not so today.  In Twilight (and I think we can safely assume all of the knockoff literature that has followed), vampire love is something to be embraced.  A love of this kind is as inevitable as the that of Romeo and Juliet, and in some way more alluring, seductive and desirable.

The symbology of abuse is barely hidden beneath the veneer of “true love,” as several bloggers have already pointed out.

The language of symbols is a mostly sub/unconscious one… readers of the novels are learning to valorize abusive love, whether they know it or not. What are the connotations for the millions of teenage readers who embrace this “love story” as the pattern upon which a relationship should be based?

Agoraphobia: Reaction to the true tragedy of the commons? 02/12/2011

Posted by ALT in Historical Context, Philosophy/Spirituality.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

Economists describe a theoretical “tragedy of the commons” as the supposed tendency individual humans have to exploit commonly held resources until they are all used up (so selfish!).  As usual, economists’ opinions of humans are pretty low.

"Yup, that's a typical human all right."

Really, this theory is historically dishonest; there are numerous examples of societies peacefully and agreeably maintaining common resources (such as a grazing area for cattle) but only a few of the common resources being eaten up by selfishness – and most occur after the advent of industrialization (and are brought about not by the commoners, but by an oppulent business class).

No, the true disappearance of the commons was precipitated by the industrial revolution.  Common lands once open to all were “enclosed,” ie fenced in, to push peasant workers away from rural agriculture and towards urban centers where their labor could be utilized in factories.  It began in Britain (fearless leader of the industrial revolution that it was) and then continued on in any other place that chose, or was forced, to follow their “shining example.”

A little closer to home, you can look at the invention of barbed wire and the great enclosing of the West as the last step in deleting the tradition of commonly held land that the Native peoples of this continent had been carrying on for centuries.

Thus the great process of isolation and individuation (brought about in part by the Industrial Revolution) –what I call the true tragedy of the commons– began.

Now to be in a public space, such as a coffeeshop or a town plaza, buying something (anything!) is a necessary first step — it justifies your existence in a private, consumerism-driven place.  What are the consequences for the mental health of people who no longer have a common place to just be, without feeling compelled to buy anything?

In pre-industrial societies, common land between houses and workshops existed automatically — so it was never neccessary to make a point of it… But in a society with cars and trucks, the common land which can play an effective social role in knitting people together no longer happens automatically.  Those streets which carry cars and trucks at more than crawling speeds, definitely do not function as common land… The common land has two specific social functions.  First, the land makes it possible for people to feel comfortable outside their buildings and their private territory, and therefore allows them to feel connected to the larger social system–though not necessarily to any specific neighbor.  And second, common land acts as a meeting place for people…

The common land between buildings may have a deeper psychological function, which remains important, even when people have no relation to their neighbors.  In order to portray this function, imagine that your house is separated from the city by a gaping chasm, and that you have to pass across this chasm every time you leave your house, or enter it.  The house would be disturbingly isolated; and you, in the house, would be isolated from society, merely by this physical fact.  In psychological terms, we believe that a building without common land in front of it is as isolated from society as if it had just such a chasm there.

There is a new emotional disorder — a type of agoraphobia — making its appearance in today’s cities.  Victims of this disorder are afraid to go out of their houses for any reason… We speculate… that this disorder may be reinforced by the absence of common land, by an enviornment in which people feel they have no ‘right’ to be outside their own front doors.  If this is so, agoraphobia would be the most concrete manifestation of the breakdown of common land. 

(from A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, p 337-338)


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