Thriving on the threshold



The threshold between stories is the point of no return. From it, I have caught glimpses of many futures, but have yet to fully commit to the path of belonging, connection, and mystery. Not ruling out occasional lapses of courage, the main reason is that I have not finished making my peace with the false beliefs and broken promises that raised me.

Earlier this month, I launched the blog, Thriving on the Threshold, as a place of practice. It is a place to light candles in the darkness and take an honest look at the habits that separate me from the story of abundance, of my kinship and reciprocity with the world beyond the confines of human-made environments and culture. Mostly, it serves to remind me of what I’m here for: to experience joy. Stop by and join the conversation.

Bridging the Gulf from Other to Brother

Milwaukee-art-museumMy  friend, Laurel Peltier, sent me an essay by West Virginia anti-fracking activist S. Tom Bond, published 2.12.14, called “The Wide Divide: Financial Interests vs. Local Adverse Impacts.” He opens with a statement and a provocative question: “One of the things I have been thinking about lately is the division between those who recognize the damage done by shale drilling (and by extension other extreme hydrocarbon extraction, particularly mountain top removal) and those who ignore it.  What is the psychology involved?”

As a possible explanation, he cites the “dark triad,” a potent mix of narcissism, Machiavellianism and sub-clinical psychopathy, throwing in detachment and rationalization for good measure. No one is spared: not the industry executives, the self-serving politicians, workers caught between the rock and hard place of the Great Recession, the landmen who pitch leases to property owners, the media bosses, not even “innocent” individuals who swallow propaganda without so much as a burp.

He was so persuasive, the despair that I can usually keep at bay raised its gnarly head. With so many folks on that side of the divide, so many in the “other” category, who is left to bring down shale gas drilling? I always wonder, after reading something like this, now what? Sure, there are plenty of bad actors out there pushing this evil stuff on the unsuspecting, brainwashed masses. And — ?

I don’t mean to be ornery. This sort of truth-telling is critically important. Donella Meadows, in her brilliant piece, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” gives a concise recipe:

“So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power.  You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.”

Or, as Gandhi put it even more succinctly: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

It leaves me wondering about this word, “they”. Doesn’t dividing the world into good guys and bad guys perpetuate the mindset that got us into this mess in the first place? When we unconsciously think of ourselves as isolated individuals, it’s natural to “other” people whose behavior appears to us as destructive and self-serving. Yet, that keeps us stuck in an adversarial relationship, one that insists on winners and losers. One that divides us up into powerful and powerless, exploiters and exploited, evil and good.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that this project of building a future that’s fair to all and honors the living world requires us to think differently about who we are and why we’re here. We’re on the threshold between stories – the old, crumbling story of domination and control, scarcity, and fear, and the emerging awareness of our interconnection with the whole web of life. That “interbeing” comes with very different ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the natural world.

While we are on this threshold, things all around us may look crazy. We know the old ways are insane and damaging. We feel the tremendous precariousness and danger of lingering on the threshold itself, a place where anything can (and does) happen. We catch glimpses of the emerging story, but they seem either too good to be possible on a grand scale or teasing mirages, tricks played on our tired minds.

There are endless possibilities for where and how to cultivate the emerging story. One is to imagine that there’s really a bridge over that chasm where “they” stand on the other side. If I can see my dog, a stately cedar tree or a mountain stream as my sister or brother, instead of a separate, alien “other,” why not a gas industry executive or a roughneck? When we have the courage to examine, honestly, the stories we live by, it opens up a creative space of possibility where anything is possible.

Monumental Irony

Monuments_Men_Places-068a3My 12-year-old son and I recently saw George Clooney’s film, “The Monuments Men.” What’s not to like about a gang of aging art curators and conservators snatching Europe’s cultural treasures from the evil Nazis? It’s based on Robert Edsel’s 2009 book of the same name.

Edsel’s research and writing project was a labor of love, funded by a $37 million nest egg from selling his Texas-based oil-and-gas exploration business in 1997.  He became fascinated with the story of the men and women from thirteen nations who stopped Hitler and his cronies from pillaging cultural capital at the expense of present and future generations. Ironically, Edsel’s work in the fossil fuel industry was similar: pillaging natural capital at the expense of present and future generations, human and otherwise.

It’s a potent illustration of how anthropocentric we are. We think the human story is all there is. World War 2 is a great illustration of our myopia. War is an enactment on a grand scale of the Story of Separation, the belief that we are the Chosen, the superior, the more deserving. Who “we” are depends on your perspective. For the Nazis, it was the Aryan race, but the Allies saw it differently, and thankfully, our side won.

Winning the war didn’t change our unconscious allegiance to the Story of Separation. Industries quickly retooled from bomb-making to pumping out fertilizer and pesticides using the same ingredients. An undeclared war was waged on the natural fertility of the land during the so-called “green revolution” that boosted agricultural productivity at the expense of soil, water, and the small family farmer.

The Story of Separation also drives our use of fossil fuels, starting with how they are found and extracted. Our belief that humans are the superior animal in the great web of life allows us to justify our actions, no matter the cost to the living planet or to present and future generations.

Wouldn’t it be something if we had a posse of Monuments Men working on behalf of natural capital? The heroes of Edsel’s story knew that winning the war would be diminished by every piece of art and sculpture lost, every church destroyed by bombing. These treasures stood for something far greater than their physical, material reality. Our planetary Monuments Men would have the same passion and zeal, the knowledge of true connoisseurs. Even the backing of their countries’ leaders, who, while admittedly focused on human lives, sense there is an even greater purpose at stake.

Can’t you just see George Clooney and Matt Damon, riding herd on the Koch Brothers, seizing their propaganda and influence promoting oil and gas drilling and spreading lies about renewable energy? What’s the equivalent of Michaelangelo’s “Bruges Madonna” or the Ghent Altarpiece? The Great Barrier Reef? The Chesapeake Bay? The receding glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro? There are too many to contemplate.



Dancing with spirit and matter

Im Montage

“Seek the real practical life,
but seek it in a way that does not blind you
to the Spirit working in it.
“Seek the Spirit, but do not seek it
in Spiritual greed, from Spiritual egoism,
but look for it because you want to apply it unselfishly
in practical life in the material world.
“Make use of the ancient principle:
Spirit is never without matter, matter never without Spirit.”

Rudolf Steiner, 9.24.19

Recently, I had occasion to consider what matters most to me as an architect, and this was my answer: I like to play with the balance of spirit and matter. The Steiner verse above has been my guiding light for the past three years or so, helping me to navigate our overly materialistic culture so it doesn’t drive me absolutely crazy. By “materialistic,” I don’t mean only that we Americans buy and have a lot of stuff and spend more time shopping than reading with our kids. I also mean that our dominant cultural story is that something is only “real” if it can be measured, scientifically described, and known by the rational mind.

I have come to accept that one of my roles – and this is not easy to admit – is to challenge that assumption and to put forth my own version of the reintegration of spirit and matter. So far, I’ve worked with this as an architect and professor. Lately, I’m also exploring other media, including writing essays and fiction and offering Restorying workshops.

In my architecture master’s thesis, I identified three aspects or stages of designing a building: idea, form, and material. In the diagram below, idea belongs in the “spirit” circle and materials (wood, brick, stone, metal) in the “matter” circle. In the overlap is “form,” which refers to all aspects of the shape of the building, including orientation, windows, heights of rooms, roofline.


Idea is not bound by time or budget because spirit is free: it is everywhere. Form is partly bound by time and budget. A little forethought will give you the window that frames a view to the garden or lets in the sunrise. That’s what I get paid to think about. Builders are necessarily focused on material – and thank god for that. They also have input on form, because being human they too have insight and ideas.

To get a delightful result, my role is to balance out spirit. If we focus only on matter, the resulting building tends to be rather soulless. We can all recognize it when we are in a good place. It is beautiful and uplifting and moving. It makes us smile, dance, sing. As Mrs. Leighey, who lived in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey house in northern Virginia, said to my friend during a tour: “Living here has made me a better person.”

I always ask my clients what they want for their project. If anything poetic or cryptic is part of the answer, that’s a good sign I can be helpful. Even if it’s not overt, if it’s just a feeling or a collection of photographs, I know what questions to ask to tease out the vision and court delightful solutions.

Designing a building, whether a new church or a house remodel, depends on the participation and trust of everyone involved. It’s an iterative process, which sometimes feels like one step forward and two steps back. There is ambiguity and paradox – which is always a good sign, because it means that Spirit is in the room.

Since we all live in the real world of schedules and budgets, it’s helpful to remember that budget and delight are NOT mutually exclusive. It’s all in the intention and the forethought.

Are you an Apprentice or a Controller?

The recent post, Shifting from Control to Apprenticeship, suggested one of those “hot – not” lists. See if you can recognize yourself here.

Apprentices (new story)Masters (old story)
Backcountry skiHelicopter ski
Approach with humilityLead with hubris
Seek understandingAcquire knowledge
Value imaginationValue intelligence
Eat at farmer’s marketsEat Powerbars
VisionVideo game

Shifting from Control to Apprenticeship

I had a great conversation last evening with creativity consultant / Renaissance man Jack Ricchiuto, who asked why the old energy barons – who have considerable money and resources at their disposal – have mostly stayed out of the renewable energy game. Tom Friedman, in “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” made a compelling case for the enormous potential for innovation and profitability of these emerging industries – and a persuasive argument for America to seize competitive advantage on the world stage.

Having thought long about this, I see it as more a question of who-we-are rather than what-we-do. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about humanity’s purpose and role on this planet. Jack’s insight was this: “Old energy can be dominated and new energy cannot. No one can conquer and control the sun, wind, and waves. If you live by a domination narrative, the old energy of oil and coal serve your story.”

It may be an oversimplification, but sometimes that’s what it takes to rise above the entanglements that keep us stuck in an old exploitative system. I have heard many critiques of renewable energy’s unreliability — wind is intermittent and the sun doesn’t always shine — that make a difficult fit with old energy’s infrastructure. That doesn’t mean renewable is a bad option – it’s simply a different design problem.

Good design always begins with an examination of assumptions and possibilities. What if we challenge the assumption that we are masters of the natural world and instead apprentice ourselves to these great, mysterious forces? Our days of extracting, refining and burning fossil fuels are numbered – and good riddance. Let the downslope of peak oil also be the waning of our determination to dominate.

A new story of apprenticeship opens up an abundance of design possibilities that make a transition from fossils to sun and wind ripe with possibility, innovation and creativity. One man who has apprenticed himself to renewable energy is Craig Shields, author of “Is Renewable Really Doable?” and other books. He is always learning and shares his insights here.

A great image of this is surfing. Surfers master their technique, but would laugh at the sheer absurdity of mastery over the medium. They know that a wave must be met with humility, awe, respect, daring, courage and crazy love. Maybe that’s why so many surfers are spiritual mystics. They get knocked down at least as many times as they ride waves, so they know both sides of it. They can feel the mysterious power that drives a wave, even become one with it momentarily. Guess what? That power is the sun. It can be borrowed and ridden, harnessed, but never controlled.

PS – Check out the addendum to this post – Are you an apprentice or a controller?

The Shortsightedness of Eco-Guilt

Last evening, as left my friend’s neighborhood, a young man stopped me to ask if my car really gets 51 MPG. (Answer: yes, on the highway.) We had a long conversation through my passenger window about cars and engines, fuel types, automotive design. He indicated his 34-year-old Jeep Cherokee Chief, an orange behemoth that crouched behind him. He said, provocatively, My car is greener than yours; want to know why? With an impish gleam in his eye, standing there between our cars, he balanced one foot on his main mode of transport – his skateboard. He gave a brief dissertation on Lithium Ion, how environmentally damaging the mining is, how it can’t be recycled. (To be verified, I thought to myself. See below for more links.)

I said I wanted my next car to be no car and he said, yeah, get a bike. Smiling, he flipped the skateboard up and held it aloft. This is my other car.

Our conversation continued several minutes longer, touching on dual catalytic converters, combustion engines and fuel types. The exchange got me thinking again about the things our eco-guilt drives us to do or buy. Even though sometimes we unknowingly make choices that have an even worse impact, we go on thinking – at least in this one area – our hands are clean. I already have the fate / impact of my car’s original hybrid battery, replaced at 92,000 miles courtesy of Honda, on my scorecard. How do I know whether that offsets or even overshadows the gas efficiency and avoided emissions over the eight years I’ve driven it?

I wonder if this sort of dilemma (which we are usually unaware of) plays out with more frequency than we realize. We are so ensnared in modern industrial systems, it’s possible that purchasing a certain type of car hasn’t made much, or any, difference. It’s only by thinking up and up the stream, to get as close to the source as possible, we can start to unravel some of these entanglements.

For instance, wouldn’t it be better simply to walk my son to school, less than two miles away, rather than drive? I already work from home, so that’s done. We buy food locally as much as possible, especially in spring, summer and fall. We eat very little meat. As I understand it, these choices are meaningful.

Taking care when making substitutes can be a daunting responsibility. I recently ran across a discussion about the many forms of vinyl in building materials. The trick is, some alternatives may carry greater environmental penalties, if one factors in raw materials, manufacture, longevity, end-of-life recycling, and other life-cycle considerations. For example, PVC pipe for waste lines is far more long-lived than cast iron, which itself requires a coke furnace to forge (with attendant climate-changing emissions). The choices aren’t always as black and white as we might hope. In the case of pipe, there are fortunately other plastics that have a lighter environmental impact – ABS and HDPE, for example.

I’ve known for a while that our family’s next big hurdle is the energy use of our house, which was built in 1948 and is sorely in need of a good weatherizing. I’m more motivated by inspiring big-picture goals, such as weaning ourselves off fossil fuel altogether. Sure, we purchase 100% wind power through our electric utility, but what about the natural gas we use to heat our house and cook our food? For an anti-fracking girl, this is a rather sticky situation.

I felt a burst of excitement this morning when I used Hildy Gottlieb’s technique of a big vision plus reverse-engineering. From a no-fossil-fuel household, how do we get there, working backwards? The steps are clear: solar hot water panels, an electric induction cooktop, and – yes – weatherizing to minimize heat loss in winter. Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get started.

Fossil Fuel weaning diagram

And those additional articles about lithium mining: “Cleaner than coal, but. . . .” and “Salt of the Earth,” about Bolivia’s lithium extraction industry.

Trapped Moth

Moth in amber

Today’s lesson:

a moth fluttering inside the milky back-up light

of the car stopped in front of mine.

Its motion catches my eye:

the wings flap valiantly,

then stop.

And again, flap and stop.

Never mind how it got there,

attracted no doubt by the beckoning light.

It will never leave alive.

A miracle of organic order,

trapped forever inside a round plastic prism.

It will end as dust,

severed from the mysterious cycle of life.


I am that moth,

stuck in the modern world of cars and taillights.

Seized by the same primitive impulse

to be one with the flame.

Now using the same conserving strategy:

flap, then rest.

Flap, rest.

Yet I still believe I can escape the prison of plastic perfection,

when I am meant to leave my own humble smudge of dust behind.



Soft, feminine,

it tickles my ears and

alights in my mind

like a sparrow looking for sugar.


I am a leaf catching single drops,

drinking again after a long, dry week.


The symphony of slippery sliding down tree trunks

picks up in a crescendo of crowding

increases in tempo and pitch

as a building wind.


I spill the extra over the edges of my cupped surface.

I have thirsted for so long and

let them go with ease, knowing

more will come when I need to drink again.


Rain is silent

with no need of aural expression.

The sound emits from its meeting myriad surfaces,

alive and inert.


Silver threads of drops at speed

chase one another on their journey to earth,

gravity the glue between the drop and

the leaf it is bound to.


Each drop is promised to its Beloved.

It falls, falls, drunk with attraction,

landing on a slightly tilted surface and silently sliding,

caressing a path, leaving behind its own substance,

a silver glow of wet.


That sound is not the rain.

It is the rejoicing of each surface

welcoming home its lover,

the piece of water that annihilates itself gladly.


It has thrown itself out of the sky,

fallen into the unknown,

trusting that it will land in the perfect place

as always.


Upon landing, it is finished.

The taught surface explodes and

water fuses with leaf, enters, integrated, merges

cell to cell, molecule to molecule in a holy union.

The sound of rain is the sound of Life’s longing for itself.


Fallen Soldiers

photo by Julie Gabrielli

During the direcho that struck Baltimore recently, I peered in awe from a second-floor window and saw majestic trees transform in an instant from wild pendulum arcs to – snap! – roof-crushers and firewood.

I’m amazed at how rapidly the strewn tree parts have surrendered their vitality, leaves turning brown within days. One moment, they are a fixed, integral part of a living organism that evolved over many decades. The next, a violent wind severs that intimacy and shoves them into a new earthbound state.

Our idea of the natural order of things is shaken by such events. We see these fallen soldiers as trash, waste, part of all that is wrong with weird weather and slow-to-respond public utilities and overwhelmed cable companies. They are a glaring reminder that nature is as much tooth and claw as she is blue skies and bountiful tree canopies.

Yet, in our rush to pull out chain saws and chipper-shredders, we miss this miracle demonstration of the life cycle. In less time than it took for BGE to restore everyone’s power, the tree limbs were well on their underworld journey, right where they fell, summoned by a mysterious force that will eventually claim us all.

In the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest, fallen trees take over a hundred years to decay. During their slow-motion decline, they can harbor more life than they did when standing upright. Colonnades in these forests are mature trees that grow in a line using the fallen tree as a “nurse log.”

It would be interesting to see how long it takes this tree to fully decay and become soil again, but a cleanup crew will eventually come and remove the debris. Such trees accept their fate with grace and even beauty. Nature has designed it so that, even in death, they will nurture new life. Their very substance is ingested and dissolved by myriad creatures, visible and invisible. They may be dead, but they are far from lifeless.

photo by Julie Gabrielli