Sunday, May 1, 2016

Healing Awareness

One of the highlights of my work is that it allows me to meet people from all over the world right here in my hometown. A few days a month I help out with an organization that provides assistance to immigrants and refugees who are new to the St. Louis area. I try not to pry or ask unnecessary questions, but often enough I become privy to stories of great pain and hardship. Youths from Sudan and Somalia, women from war-torn Congo, victims of Bhutanese and Bosnian ethnic cleansing, endangered translators from Iraq and Afghanistan – I feel honored and privileged to be a part of their lives. Hopefully I’m able to provide some measure of hope and healing to them after having experienced far too much of the darkness of this troubled and chaotic world.

The other day I was speaking with a young man whose entire family still remains back in one of the cities most devastated by the Syrian civil war. He fled there without many of the documents that all of us here in the U.S. would just assume will follow us wherever it is we might go. Unfortunately, the simple act of mailing a letter home to request them – to the extent that the postal service might actually succeed in getting a letter through – is in and of itself a potentially life-threatening act. Can you imagine what would happen to his family in Syria if the wrong person found out that they were receiving correspondence from someone in the United States – someone in the bosom of the great Satan?

In the course of our conversation, this young man described having met someone here in the U.S. who was totally unaware of the fact that there is a civil war going on in Syria this very moment that is causing dislocations of people as haven’t been seen since World War II. A combination of disbelief, exasperation, and pain crossed his face in the short time it took to describe the interaction. Yes, I can imagine how difficult it must be to realize that people you know and love are facing possible annihilation back in your hometown even as others go about their lives blissfully unaware.

We cause pain with our lack of awareness. Thankfully, though, our awareness can facilitate healing. This is not merely some squishy spiritual talk, it is reality as evidenced by numerous studies related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), its onset, and its mitigation. It turns out that when trauma is borne by the victim or victims alone, without any social support or acknowledgment, there is an increased likelihood that PTSD will result. Conversely, when trauma is acknowledged in a supportive and non-judgmental way the risk of developing PTSD is diminished.

Compassion fatigue is all too common these days. There is so much heartache in the world that it seems at times as though the only sane course of action is to focus our energy on shutting it all out of our lives as best we can. We stop paying attention to the news. We stop engaging in anything political. We simply focus on what’s going on with our family, our friends, our job, and our spiritual community. Some even try to reframe their purposeful lack of awareness in positive spiritual terms: “I’m changing the world by changing myself.” “I’m trying to be the peace that we need in the world.” “I’m turning my energy toward that which I can actually change.” “I’m just trying to focus on the joy that exists.” Sadly, such self-serving abandonment of that which is in our sphere of influence only helps perpetuate the deep suffering of the world.

Do you wonder what it’s like to be an African-American from a scorned, forgotten, under-resourced, and underserved part of town; to be kept in poverty with aggressive and disparate policing practices that siphon away your money if you have it, or take away your freedom if you don’t; to have your people treated as expendable if they should run afoul of the law – not worthy of even calling for backup in order to keep their blood from being spilled? Do you know what it’s like to live in such a world and then have that reality absolutely and completely ignored by society at large? What if each of us simply let our awareness of this reality be known?

Do you wonder what it’s like to be a Palestinian from one of the ghettos created by the ever-expanding state of Israel; to have your land and your freedom of movement taken from you; to have whatever meager attempts at self-defense some of your people might feel compelled to mount be met with overwhelming and indiscriminate death and destruction; to have your very natural anger and frustration at the inequities of your plight be used against you to justify the very treatment that is so abhorrent. Can you imagine what it’s like to live in such a world where the reality of your circumstances are so absolutely and completely ignored or denied by those who have your fate in their hands – and those who would support them? What if each of us simply let our awareness of this reality be known?

There are times when the causes of the suffering of this world can appear so complex and intractable as to seem unworthy of all but the most quixotic of efforts. And yet at other times it seems that if we would only just bring the full power of our awareness to bear on them, these causes would naturally give way to a much more healthy and just set of circumstances. I’m sure I’ll be thinking often of the young Syrian man that I mentioned earlier. I’ll be thinking of the pain on his face while contemplating that the plight of his people might be unworthy of our attention. I’ll be thinking of the healing power that our awareness can have.

Man carrying child after bombing in Aleppo, Syria via CTV News:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Saturday, April 9, 2016

When Faith in the Earth Betrays Us

Spring has been peeking out of the darkness of winter for a few weeks now; at least here in the city where I live. The occasional warm days have teased us. Hints of green and fleshy buds have enticed us with visions of things to come. The bounty of life is poised to burst forth and grace us with color and fragrance, bird sounds and activity, delicate seedlings and earthy possibility.

I was just a little bit surprised, then, by the relative barrenness of the woods on the outskirts of town during my hike there last weekend. With the exception of the occasional swath of violet where a stand of almost blossoming redbuds seemed to glow, the forest was practically naked. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Urban centers are generally a bit warmer than the surrounding areas on account of the heat stored in the abundant concrete and asphalt. It makes sense that spring would arrive just a little bit later on the outskirts. It’s also the case that I was hiking in a hilly area, with many sheltered draws and hollows where the air stays cooler than elsewhere. Nonetheless, I was taken aback; and more so for reasons that I’m about to relate.

It was a windy day, far windier than seemed the norm for a spring day with no storms in the vicinity. It set the bare trees swaying, and their upper limbs swirling and clunking together like bone wind chimes. Eerier still was the occasional dead tree fallen across the trail, and the not infrequent sounds of limbs crashing to the earth here and there throughout the forest.

I’ve heard of people being killed by falling trees, a possibility that suddenly didn’t seem like all that freakish an occurrence. It seemed more like something that I needed to remain vigilant of as I walked beneath limbs and past trees that could potentially fall across my path – which, in my mind, was every one of them that I passed! Such awareness was necessary, I felt, just in case I needed to take some instinctive action to dodge this way or that based on whether a cracking sound was louder in one ear or the other, or based on how it echoed off the other trees in the vicinity.

The experience conjured up in me an apocalyptic vision. What if this forest wasn’t to wake up after all? What if climate change has already tipped the scale just enough with regards to temperature or moisture such that this woods is destined to become a dead zone until different species can take root and predominate? And what if that scale has already tipped too far? What if this area has already become too hot, too windswept, too dry or too acidic for much of anything at all to grow? What if this area should never again be any semblance of what it has been for me all those times in the past on so many hikes?

Some years ago, I rode my bicycle alone through Yellowstone Park. It was almost nightfall as I pedaled mile after mile through burned up forest stretching as far as the eye could see. The scorched gray remains of the pine trees pointed at various angles like the fallen dead on a vast battlefield. Thankfully, though, the fleshy green of new growth was already poking up out of the earth – less than a meter tall, to be sure, but present nonetheless. So many animals had been killed. So many trees had been killed. I had faith, though, that the earth would rebound.

For so long we’ve had faith in the vastness of the earth and its ability to sustain our numbers, regardless of how selfishly we behave or how wasteful we are. For so long we’ve assumed that we could count on the regularity of nature – the predictability of rainfall and a suitable growing season for our crops, the constancy of the sea level and the coming and going of the seasons, the infrequency of devastating storms such that we can have faith that what we build today will not be blown away tomorrow. Even when we’ve lost faith in just about everything else, our faith in the life-sustaining potential of the earth has remained. Alas, though, are we on the verge of losing even this most fundamental faith that has been with us since human consciousness first arose?

I have no particularly strong fear of death, although I do hope that it is yet many years in the future! I’ve come to feel that my afterlife, to the extent that I have one, is the perpetual right here and right now that I and everyone and everything now living help to create, along with everyone and everything that has ever lived in the past. Any joy that I feel as I pass away will be vicarious joy for those still living in this world that I’ve played a role in creating and nurturing. Any remorse that I feel as I pass away will be remorse that my actions have created or maintained a world still rife with suffering and fear. And I can’t imagine suffering and fear on a grander scale than that of humankind having lost faith in the earth’s ability to sustain it. Those who believe in God might rightly see this as the most Godforsaken of futures that could possibly await those who happen to be alive during such times of tribulation.

So, what is the nature of your faith? Have you placed your faith in an earth so vast that no amount of human negligence can possibly diminish its life-sustaining potential? Have you placed your faith in a God so loving that he or should couldn’t possibly let us destroy the very earth on which our lives depend? Perhaps you’ve placed your faith in humankind’s intellect and ingenuity being so great as to provide us with technological solutions to all the messes we've made and devastation we've caused. And me? Where do I place my faith? I have faith in our ability to wake up and transform ourselves – individually and in community – thereby transforming our relationship with the earth so that we never lose faith in its ability to sustain us.

Aftermath of Yellowstone forest fire by David L. Sifry via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Monday, February 29, 2016

Ideas For Treading More Lightly on the Earth

You may not have had the opportunity yet to see that I’ve totally revamped Crossing Nebraska’s Contents page. Please take a few moments to explore it here if you so choose. The various categories that I’ve created will make it easier to find topics that are of interest to you. I’ll be adding hotlinks shortly in order to make navigation even easier.

In going through this process it occurred to me that I’ve written quite a few posts that in some way encourage the reader to tread more lightly on the earth. Whether more generally related to living simply and sustainably, or more specifically related to the human-caused threat of climate change, these posts all encourage mindful living for the benefit of ourselves and all living beings. For a time I had a separate blog page detailing specific things that I’m doing or have done in order to tread more lightly on the earth. I’m updating that page and republishing it here since the new Contents page will make it so much easier to find. I’m also including things that I’d like to do, or things that others are doing but which I can’t find the time or money or energy for right now. In this way, this post will provide many more suggestions and ideas for possible action. Here goes:

Ideas For Treading More Lightly on the Earth


  • Consider a vegetarian diet. Eating lower on the food chain requires fewer resources, in addition to being healthier and minimizing the suffering caused to animals. If you can’t embrace a totally vegetarian diet at the present time, try minimizing the quantity of meat that you do eat. Our protein needs can be met by eating a lot less meat than is present in the average American diet. If you decide to eat more seafood in lieu of red meat, be mindful of environmental pressures on individual species. If you decide to eat more chicken and turkey instead of red meat, be mindful of the environmental and ethical issues involved in factory farming. Consider free-range chicken and turkey instead.
  • Shop at the local farmer's market in order to support local and regional agriculture. Doing so minimizes fuel-related shipping costs and eschews big agribusiness for the sake of supporting individual growers and small businesses.
  • Purchase unprocessed or less highly processed foods. Doing so makes more intimate our relationship with food and the earth from which it comes. This fosters greater understanding of and appreciation for that which sustains us. Which in turn leads to our making wiser and more sustainable choices. It also requires less energy.
  • Stay away from bottled water if you can. Often there is no appreciable quality difference between bottled and tap water. The manufacture and shipping of bottled water is extremely wasteful, and the plastic may even be unhealthy.


  • Try composting your kitchen waste for use in the garden. In addition to nurturing the soil it is a regular reminder of the processes that sustain us.
  • Forego municipal leaf collection in order to compost on-site, thereby replenishing the soil and decreasing fuel used during the collection process.
  • Consider returning paved areas to the earth. This allows more rainwater to soak back into the earth, in addition to it acting as a carbon sink and providing habitat for local fauna.
  • Plant trees! They can reduce your cooling costs by shading your house, and they also act as a carbon sink.
  • Plant a vegetable garden. It will provide you with healthy food without any shipping costs. And it will give you healthy exercise and a greater appreciation of the earth.
  • Maintain a spiritual practice that keeps you centered, fosters greater awareness, and makes you better able to make healthy decisions for yourself and the planet. Stress prompts us to act in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and the environment – whether by prompting us to eat in unhealthy ways, to act in uncaring ways, or otherwise making it easier to view ourselves as separate from the earth that sustains us.
  • Take time to appreciate the peace and beauty of the natural world around you. You will be reminded of your connection to it.

Organization and Awareness Raising

  • Consider a political candidate's environmental stance when determining how to vote.
  • Become informed about simplicity, sustainability, climate change, deep ecology and other environmental issues. Check out books such as Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin, or the resources offered by the Northwest Earth Institute, for instance.
  • Sign petitions related to environmental ballot initiatives.
  • Support local and national environmental organizations.
  • Lobby your political representatives.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Repurpose

  • Replace incandescent bulbs with higher efficiency ones. Invest in low-wattage LED bulbs for those fixtures you have lit most often – like porch lights.
  • Consider moving towards a simpler lifestyle – one that requires less energy and fewer material goods in order for you to get your necessary chores done and enjoy your leisure time. Do you need all of those electrified gadgets? Does your entertainment and recreation really require you to expend so much energy and resources? What is really necessary for your happiness and fulfillment?
  • Learn of ways that you can donate leftover paint, construction materials, and home maintenance items to charity. For instance, the Habitat for Humanity ReStores are a great place to donate leftover items and help a great cause at the same time.
  • Find a resale shop that will find happy new owners for all of your unnecessary knick-knacks, tchotchke, and underappreciated remembrances.
  • Donate unused clothing in order to help someone else save their hard-earned dollars even as you keep resources from being wasted.
  • Take advantage of your community recycling program. Consider organizing a workplace recycling program if you don’t already have one.
  • Take advantage of special collections for electronics, batteries, chemicals, etc.
  • Consider product life-cycle and packaging waste when making purchasing decisions.
  • Use public transportation when feasible. Walk, bicycle, and share rides. Efficiently plan the running of errands so as to minimize fuel usage.
  • Considering owning your automobile for longer than has been your habit if it is still dependable and reasonably fuel efficient. I strive to get ten or more years out of any new vehicle I buy.
  • Determine what you really need to be comfortable. For instance, in winter I keep the thermostat at 63 F at night and when I am away, and 65 F during the day. I wear a sweater if need be. Sometimes I build a fire in the fireplace in order keep the thermostat lower. I usually have enough firewood from pruning the trees on my own property. I utilize passive solar energy to heat my home by opening the shades of south facing windows during the day.
  • In summer I keep the thermostat at 83 F whenever I have the central AC on – higher if I’ll be away for an extended period. I utilize a window AC unit in my bedroom at night prior to the weather becoming so consistently hot as to require turning on the whole-house unit. I keep the house cooler by closing the shades of south facing windows during the day.
  • Collect the cold bathwater in a bucket prior to it being warm enough to begin showering. This yields enough water to flush the toilet, water a few plants, or fill the birdbath.
  • Think of ways to be more efficient with cooking water. Steam vegetables as you’re boiling potatoes, for instance. Then use the waste water to soak the dishes prior to washing them.
  • Collect tap water in a watering can prior to it getting warm enough for washing dishes. Fill the basin just enough to wash the smaller items and let the rinse water fill it up the rest of the way so that you can wash the larger bowls, pots, etc.
  • Consider installing a rainwater collection system in order to help water the garden.
  • Consider planting perennials that don’t require as much water, and which will reduce the amount of lawn you have to mow.
  • Wash and reuse plastic sandwich bags and utilize bread bags and such for storing produce.
  • Use durable shopping bags. Use any other plastic bags that might accumulate for trashcan liners.

I hope you find this list helpful. Share it with a friend. And add a few more to it when you do!


Earthrise by NASA via:

Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank