Interviewsand Articles


Life Is Real: From the Editor, #29

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 22, 2013



Giving back. The wish to give back. The need for giving back. For each of the individuals featured in this issue, some version of that is at work. With Camille Seaman and James George it might be better framed as an urging for us to wake up—the house is burning. Trying to alert one’s sleeping companions is only natural. Recording the beauty of the Artic and Antarctic, Seaman titles her photographs, “Melting Away” and “The Last Iceberg” and tries to tell us what her Native American grandfather showed her as a child: we are all connected. This earth is our home. Don’t we know that? And look what is happening right now!
     Distinguished Canadian diplomat and environmentalist James George sent us part of a talk he gave at the Toronto Institute of Noetic Science. It could have been called, “Life Is Real!” Does that sound self-evident? Take a moment to remember when you were suddenly present to the smells around you, the sound of a dog barking in the distance, the rustle of leaves, a bird landing in a bush nearby, the sun on your face and the breeze on your skin. How often are we present like that? His is a call to wake up: life is reaL Wake up - but how? The point is, yes: how? Why am I not asking that question? Is it because I’m comfortable enough in this day-to-day world that I take so much for granted? The house is burning? Hadn’t noticed. As in the Lotus Sutra, we’re like children too involved with our toys to notice.

Sculptor Richard Berger spent much of his time in his last years making a scale model of India’s Sun Temple at Konarak. The temple, from the 13th century, is in ruins today. No one knows what it looked like. Berger decided to construct his vision of how the temple might have looked. That undertaking is implicitly related to his view of the role of artists. As he writes: “The makers who we call artists, historically and culturally, constitute a kind of prosthetic activity to address an unforgettable and irreconcilable absence. To forget this absence would be to surrender to incompleteness, an untenable and intolerable state.  This production, the work of the artist, is intended to, however imperfectly, reestablish completeness.”
     Berger’s project of completing the temple, however imperfectly, is a symbolic enactment of the healing function art might properly aspire to. In the world of institutional and academic art, his was a voice in the wilderness.

What would it be to experience wholeness, a life of being? In the midst of having everything, this is what we lack, and it’s an irreconcilable absence. And if we’re all connected, as Camille Seaman’s grandfather taught her, then we need to see others as ourselves. As ServiceSpace’s Pancho Ramos Stierle always says, “Be kind, be humankind.” That brings us to Michelle Esrick and Geoff Nedry and their inspired work of giving back.
     At a ServiceSpace retreat Geoff Nedry was talking about how his young daughter got involved in handing out smile cards. What’s a smile card? In the summer of 2003 a kitchen table conversation between the founder of ServiceSpace and a young college student unleashed what is now known as KindSpring. Discussing the unpleasant ritual of hazing that takes place in frat houses, the two wondered what would happen if, instead of playing mean practical jokes, people started playing kindness pranks on each other? What if they left an anonymous card behind inviting the recipient to pay a kind act forward and keep that spirit going? Where would the ripples of that lead?
     A small team of volunteers immediately set things in motion. Today there are over a million smile cards in circulation. They’ve spread to over 90 countries. Geoff is one of the key volunteers with KindSpring. And he regularly ships smile cards out. His daughter was curious. Listening to Geoff talk about how he responded to her curiosity moved me to ask him for an interview so others could hear about it.

And then there’s Wavy Gravy. Having moved to San Francisco in 1966, of course, I’d heard of him. But I really had very little understanding of who this man is. It was thanks to Michelle Esrick that I met him along with everyone else who has seen her inspiring film Saint Misbehavin’. She spent ten years making it and all that time with Wavy Gravy changed her. As she puts it, “When you hang around certain people like Maya Angelou, like Harry Belafonte, like Odetta, like Ram Das, you feel better, a little more enlightened. Wavy was really affecting me on that level.” Michelle’s film gives us a modern saint. Someone who lives the simple truths one breath at a time, as he puts it. What a gift.   

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 


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