Archive for the ‘Curiosity’ Category

I have a couple New Year’s Day rituals that have served me well the past few years, but one that consistently hits the mark is pulling one card from a deck of Native American animal medicine cards. The pasts few years have turned up the spider, dolphin and antelope. In retrospect, all quite appropriate for what the years brought to me.

Today, Jan. 1, 2013, I pulled the Badger. Well la-de-da. The meanest, baddest little animal around. I read the history, the symbolism, the lessons to be learned and tried to see how this might fit into the life situations facing me in the new year. badger24

Badger Symbolism and Power (excerpted from purespirit.com and whats-your-sign.com)

  • The white stripe is symbolic of how open it is, providing knowledge and enlightenment to other animals and the earth.
  • The strong jaws tie the badger to the mysteries of the “word” – in particular the magic of storytelling. Badger reminds us to remember stories and give them away to people when they are needed.
  • The remarkable digger hints at the ability to see beneath the surface of all things and people. Also, the closeness to herbs and roots make badger dynamic healers.
  • Loners and solitary, badgers teach us to be self-reliant and comfortable with ourselves.
  • Bold and ferocious when cornered, badger reminds us to never surrender.
  • Connected to the earth, so a grounding totem.
  • The symbolism of the badger also includes individuality. The badger is a unique creature, well equipped to meet all the challenges it faces. It lives its life quite effectively. And although its methods might seem unorthodox, the badger doesn’t care what the rest of the animal kingdom thinks about them. This is perhaps the greatest lesson the badger imparts to us. In short, the badger tell us to “walk your own path at your own pace.” Nevermind what others may say. Have faith in your own abilities and know that you are well-equipped to take on whatever challenge faces you.

And then the irreverent (don’t watch if you are easily offended) “Honey Badger” viral video came to mind. Is 2013 my “Honey Badger Don’t Care” year? You never can tell.  There’s something to be said for boldly going for it. Mixed with a healthy dose of compassionate action,  the badger attitude might just make 2013 a break-out year.


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Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.
Samuel Johnson

I discovered this curious creature on my mimosa tree one spring day a few years ago.  At first I thought it might be a pod, a nest or a cocoon of some sort.  In the years I have spent exploring nature both in the woods and in the confines of my garden I have seen many ingenious delivery mechanisms for seed and larvae.  Something told me not to touch this furry little bubble though, in spite of it looking rather soft and inviting. Upon carefully twisting the branch to look at the underside, it revealed itself to be a caterpillar.

When I investigated the critter further, I determined it was the caterpillar of the Southern Flannel Moth Caterpillar – Megalopyge opercularis, also known as a Puss Cat or Flannel Cat.  It’s a variety of stinging caterpillars that can leave a nasty rash and painful sting, or even cause a dangerous reaction in people with histories of asthma or allergies.

So when I read the quote from Johnson about curiosity being the first and last passion, I thought of the dangers and rewards of being a curious soul.  Where does curiosity take us?  To the peaks and valleys, to places that test and reward, to new understandings and painful dead ends.  It stretches our perceptions in every direction.

Would this “cat” have killed my curiosity about him if I had touched him?  Probably not, but I dare say it would have been one of those painful stretches of perception!

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I’ve been following the work of David Eagleman for some time, partly because of the content and partly because this guy combines curiosity, creativity and the scientific method so enthusiastically.  A neuroscientist who tackles everything from how to avert the collapse of civilization, law, time, the afterlife and now getting “under the hood of conscious awareness,”  Eagleman digs into how our brains really affect our behaviors, our decisions and our experience of the world.  He’s entertaining and fearless, but what I like most about him is he is always willing to reveal his ongoing discomfort with not knowing and be an advocate of the philosophy of uncertainty.

Robert Jensen’s terrific interview with Eagleman, “The Struggle for the (Possible) Soul of David Eagleman”   illustrates Eagleman’s struggle “… between the confidence-bordering-on-hubris of a neuroscientist and the humility-that-produces-doubt of a writer who knows he’s chewing on questions that won’t be solved in this or any other age,” and reminds me why maintaining humility and a  “not-knowing”or “beginner’s” mind  is so essential to creativity AND the scientific process.   Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal describes “not-knowing” this way:

“Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not.”

“An expert may know a subject deeply, yet be blinded to new possibilities by his or her preconceived ideas. In contrast, a beginner may see with fresh, unbiased eyes. The practice of beginner’s mind is to cultivate an ability to meet life without preconceived ideas, interpretations, or judgments.”

Do you ascribe to the philosophy of uncertainty and a not-knowing mind when you create?

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Strangely enough, Google, and now maybe a new software application called Evernote, may help me age a little more gracefully.   I’ve always been an information geek–not in a “I know a lot of shit” way–but in the “I can find it” research librarian way.  I like digging for answers to obscure and curious questions and finding applications for the info in my life.

What my brain doesn’t do well is file that information.  This is not a new dilemma, it’s been with me all my life.   If I don’t handle information in a very specific hands-on way, I have a terrible time finding it again.  I made my way through school as a copious note-taker, chapter out-liner and chart-maker.  In my personal life I don’t remember the names of books or plots or songs or bands I like.  I can’t remember a movie I saw a week ago, nor can I retell a story or joke.  In my work life, I have learned to adapt with maps and charts and lists.  Sometimes I am required to write or do things over and over to make them stick in my memory.  And now as I age, I’m noticing the time it takes to manage my memory is increasing. It’s worrisome.

So how have Google, and now possibly Evernote revolutionized my memory challenges and eased my mind?    I have stopped worrying that information found is immediately lost without having to make charts and lists and maps for finding it again.  With Google, I know that I can get to what I need to remember with just a snippet of information.

But what about all the personal details of my life, my work? Managing personal information has become more and more overwhelming.  I have huge lists of bookmarked websites, emails with links, piles of materials filed/stashed in my office, notes on calendars and on my phone.   Now what?

Enter Evernote, a software application geared to help with filing bits of personal information so it can be found again.  Author and journalist David Freedman,  takes an in-depth look at Inc.’s Company of the Year, their amazing rise to the top in “Say Hello to Your New Brain on Evernote”. 

Will Evernote help me with my personal information struggles?  I’m downloading it now.  I’ll let you know how it goes, that is if I can remember to make a note of that.

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A group of researchers at Harvard are on a quest to crack the puzzle of the human genome and build a full map, or connectome, of the brain.   Austin Allen wonders in his article “Will Neuroscience Kill the Novel?”  if knowing our brains so well will change our literature, or for that matter, all the arts?   Does a glut of the literal “sharpen our appetite for the metaphorical?”  or will it be a cultural shift from which there’s no turning back?

Read the article and decide for yourself, but I’m with Allen when he says “the day the brain in fully mapped, writers will find a way to turn it into a foreign country.”   LIKE.

This discussion reminds me of Ian McEwan’s take on technology killing the novel.  He says that there’s something in us that “…needs to examine the fine print of human behavior and human relationships.”   Seems to me neither technology nor neuroscience can replace that need.  Ever.

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A proposed change to the guidelines monitoring noise levels in the small downtown where I live and work has stirred up a controversy no doubt common to other vibrant main streets .  How does a city balance the rights of downtown residents and visitors with that of late-night entertainment venues?

Staunton is somewhat unique in the Shenandoah Valley of VA in that it made specific concessions years ago to support a more lenient noise cap within its downtown service district, allowing a higher decibel reading than most other towns.   The proposed change calls for outdoor music to be banned after 11:30pm.  The trouble  stems from an ongoing disagreement primarily between one restaurant with a patio, one inn and one residential building located in a corner of the downtown.

As a downtown resident and advocate of a thriving tourist industry, I don’t disagree that some compromise between downtown revelry and peaceful coexistence is required.  There are a number of possible solutions.  But the way this proposed change has been handled here has stirred up a much deeper issue.   How does a community decide how to regulate a downtown environment?  Is it purely economically based or do the people who contribute labor and energy and flavor have an equal stake?

The answer seems pretty obvious to me, but public comments by City Council members referencing the economic contributions of the people they are hoping to protect from the “noise” versus the venues and clientele they attract has set the tone for the standoff.  And whether these Council members meant it to sound elitist and anti-arts or not, that’s how it has come off.

Now I’m pretty sure that our elected officials understand that an active, clustered and yes, sometimes late-night arts and culture scene, particularly one offering diverse restaurant and entertainment opportunities, is an attractive draw for visitors.   This group of tourists stay longer and spend more if there’s a booming cultural scene.  And if some members of this demographic visit, like what they see and then choose to relocate here, they buy property, open businesses and raise families.

An active night-life nourishes a local economy in non-tangible ways too.  It provides quality of life for the front-line of the tourism industry, many whom are just getting off work when others are going to bed.  These are people who own businesses and homes.  They are professionals who have families and care about the community. They are the entertainers, attraction and hotel employees and restaurant workers that keep our visitors coming back.  If they are excited about where they live and work, it shows.

The end result is a sustainable cycle of visitors and residents fueling a local economy that encourages diversity, respect and cooperation.   Engaging and alive main streets matter to small towns, and they happen from the inside out.

Yes, downtown residents and visitors should voice their opinions about late-night music and be heard.   But the workers and consumers of late-night music also deserve to be recognized as the valuable, tax-paying and invested members of the community that they are.  Every piece of the downtown matrix is important.

This may have started as a long-running dispute between a small cluster of businesses and residents in the downtown district and digressed into name-calling from both sides, but the positive side is that it daylights an important issue.  No matter what Council decides about late-night outdoor music in this specific case, I hope the conversation about managing the downtown environment continues.   It’s more complicated than whether music or sleep matters most on main street.  It’s about supporting a sustainable community based on awareness, diversity and mutual respect.

And THAT, dear City Councils everywhere,  matters a great deal to a lot of voters these days.

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Seems I’ve spent a lot of  time thinking and discussing the importance of living locally, supporting local economies, shoring up local culture this past year.   Being a cheerleader of all things local is part of my job as an advocate for the downtown district in our small town.  But I deeply believe this stuff too.  I believe that if we invest our energies where we live and make sure we pay attention to the things that are closest to us, it makes a difference that ripples out into the world.  If our local culture is strong, we have a foundation that can and will support us through just about anything.

Yet identifying what local culture really IS rather than imposing some philosophical wish for what we think community and culture SHOULD BE is something to continually balance, especially in a world where people move about so much.  “What is a community?” Mark Mitchell asks in his in-depth article  Wendell Berry and the New Urbanism: Agrarian Remedies, Urban Prospects.     Can an ever-changing melting pot of a society like America even have “local cultures?”

After a detailed trek through the pitfalls of a society centered on specialization,  Mitchell concludes that community, true community that “facilitates human flourishing rather than urban efficiency,” is precisely the preservation of all that is “local.”  Mitchell says,   “If we hope to create a context within which human lives can be lived with dignity and joy, then we must turn our attention to preserving local culture, local customs, local beauty, local economies, families, and memories.”

So to answer my own question,  local culture is not something we need to describe, and it’s definitely not something to impose.  It’s something you FEEL when you’re in it.  It’s history and family and politics and landscape and art and music and values and people melded into a sense of place that feels vibrant and cohesive and firmly rooted.  Local culture is where and how one is connected to life and each other; it’s the soil from which everything grows.  It can BE  just about anything.  We don’t need to define it, we just need to connect to it and keep it alive.   Local culture is the collective memory of a community.

Perhaps  Wendell Berry himself says it best…

“A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself–in lore and story and song–and that will be its culture. These two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.”  –Wendell Berry, “The Work of Local Culture

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