Lonely Planet

Backpackers be warned. The planet has just gotten a little lonelier today.

Remember the days of yesteryear? When “Lonely Planet” stood for that dog-earred guide that led dusty travelers to the farthest corners of the Earth? To places of discovery and wonder? To waterfalls and arid deserts? To exotic temples and camel rides?

The Paris Agreement, an accord signed by 195 parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020. The whole world, which is clearly impacted by climate change, came together under the agreement to combat its effects. To do something about it. To move from denial to definite action. It was a monumental decision and recognition that we are in this together. The environment does not recognize titles or boundaries or politics. It only knows how to do what it is designed to do.

Nature has unbounded intelligence. It can adapt. It will survive.

We may not.

The only exceptions to the signatories? The Holy See (Vatican) as it is an observer state; Nicaragua, whose emissary claims they are doing climate change on their own; and Syria, a country embattled in a civil war.

148 of those parties have ratified or acceded to the Agreement, even China and India, the countries with three of the four largest greenhouse gas emissions of the signatories’ total (about 42% together).

Where is the United States on the scale of greenhouse gas emissions? The country spews out 17.8% of the world’s greenhouse gas. And yet it represents only 4.34% of the world’s population. Hmmm….

And yet Trump, whose delusions of grandeur as he peers from his perch at the top of his world seem to grow with each passing tweet, has decided to poop in the world’s sandbox by withdrawing the United States from the agreement. He wants to push the coal industry and “save American jobs”. What he is doing is not only short-sighted, it also won’t work. The clean energy industry has surpassed traditional sources in jobs and innovation. China is spreading its green technology throughout Africa, for instance, a profitable opportunity the United States is missing completely.

According to a recent Sierra Club report based on the Department of Energy 2017 jobs data, “[c]lean energy jobs, including those from solar, wind, energy efficiency, smart grid technology and battery storage, vastly outnumber all fossil fuel jobs nationwide from the coal, oil and gas sectors. That includes jobs in power generation, mining, and other forms of fossil fuel extraction.”

The US President claims he works for the people of Pittsburgh, not the people of Paris. For starters, Paris was the location of the conference where the agreement was adopted on December 12, 2015, then entered into force November 4, 2016, just four days before the tragedy that is US politics unfurled with his election win. The best part is it was actually signed at the UN headquarters in New York City, just paces away from his place of residence.  If the man would take just a moment to cursorily review the document, and I mean just the title, he would see that it pertains to the whole world, which includes Pittsburgh, unless the city decides to secede from the planet, which could get interesting. Perhaps Trump would join them then. And we can finally put this whole thing to bed.

In other worlds, Trump is speaking to a handful of constituents at the expense of 7 billion other people.

It is yet another demonstration of the perils this fine nation intends to inflict upon the rest of the planet. And the deep, deep selfishness that fosters hatred in the hearts of those who despise his ignorance.

Yes, Trump, it’s lonely at the top. And as you alienate the country you claim to lead from everyone else, your fall will be even harder.

The Search for Simplicity

The sweet, satisfied sigh that ensues a Sudoku puzzle accomplished.

The chubby rolls of a baby’s leg.

The quickly abated tragedy put aside with ice cream and a game of catch.

The nightly news that speaks of a neighborhood robbery, not the salacious stealing of our souls.

Counting on the World Order.

Counting on World Leaders.

Counting our blessings.

These are the days I miss.

As I looked about the lush, green lawn on a self-imposed smartphone sabbatical amidst hundreds of fellow bathers today, I recognized how complicated our lives have become. Admittedly, everyone appears on the same level when they show up in bathing suits. Fat or thin, mal- or well-nourished, dark skinned or light skinned, freckled or frowning. Nothing smacks of grassroots democracy more than a day at the community pool.

My children are no longer small or even medium-sized kids. They are in their mid- and late-teens. The intricate web of complication called growing up has begun as they navigate this world under very different circumstances than I did at their age.

They have to battle the constant onslaught of (mis)information. Of competitive Instagram appearances. Of snap-chat that and oh, please this. We can never start a meal until someone has photographed it first to share with the universe.

Simply put: Life has gotten complicated.

So I recognized, even as I put away my phone last night with no excuse that I needed it on my nightstand to serve as an alarm clock, that I struggle with my habitual need to be needed. Or to be needy. Or to be — simply put — on.

On what? God knows. On much of social media, I’ve witnessed rampaging rants and rude thrusts of opinion; excusing misbehavior and playground bullying.

Only the world stage is not a playground. And it is hard with each passing day not to succumb to equally ruthless wickedness that has besieged us since November.

But the hopeful are the last to die. And I shall not perish without a good fight. It is time to find pockets of simplicity.

You can find it

  • in the dusty pages of that Sudoku puzzle book at the foot of your nightstand
  • in the gloriousness of homemade lemonade on a bright sunny summer morning
  • in the accomplishment you feel when you walk 10,000 daily steps (FitBit fans unite!)
  • in the sweet smell of your loved one’s neck that says “I am here for you. Because I am here.”
  • in re-watching that old movie from the late 1980s that reminds you of the times when you knew less and it didn’t matter
  • in the kindness you show every single day to those you know and to those you don’t simply because the world deserves your care
  • in the absence of malice when you could have chosen otherwise
  • in the words “I am thinking of you”.

The search for simplicity may never end as we combat the avalanche of our modern world. I vote for its pursuit anyway.

In my view it is a battle worth attempting. Yes, indeed. It’s that simple.

Uprooted, upended, upside down

Change. The thing you find lying randomly on the sidewalk. And that other thing that defines what being alive means.

My one and only daughter turned eighteen the other day. I experienced a mixture of sadness and elation. Sad that her childhood is slowly coming to a close. And elated that she is now responsible (at least legally) for the actions she takes.

“I can shop online now!” she said.

“You can do your own paperwork now.” I said.

“I can drive a car now.” she said.

“You can look into how much it will cost. And pay for (most of) it.” I said.

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Her younger brother congratulated her and said in the same breath, “Now you are no longer under Mom’s thumb. You can do whatever you want!” he said.

“I’m still under her thumb,” she said. “You’ll see.”

Ah yes. That pesky financial dependence thingy.

This past week we looked at a one-year college prep program. It is as far away as she could possibly get and still be in a German-speaking country. I duly took note of it, but then realized how perfect it all seemed for her. She will attend for a year, then see if she might apply elsewhere.

And when her birthday — in the midst of our college tour — came around, I felt the swirl of her roots, the tangle and gentle sprouts, twirling in a new direction, branching out farther away than I felt comfortable with and yet so appropriate to gain the nourishment they need to sustain themselves away from the Mother Tree.

I felt upended and it wasn’t only the grueling 1,000 mile drive that did it. It was the sense that freedom comes with a cost. She may not know it yet. But she will. And, speaking from experience: living in a different country will indeed be the best thing for her to experience what being on her own is really like.

I may never get over it. Neither will she. And that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Even when the tree topples.

Upside down and all.

When Great isn’t Good Enough

Even when we create miracles, sometimes the people who have asked for them aren’t able to receive them.

Life can be like that. And it’s frustrating. And somehow nearly amusing.

The smile hasn’t left my face in over an hour. It is an odd reaction, really, having just learned my major client will no longer be in need of my services.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Need and ability are too different things.

The client is no longer able to be in need of my services.

Despite the miracles created. Despite the level of effort. Despite the best foot put forward. Over. And over. And over again.

blueberrypieMy mama never told me life could be like that. She alluded to it with the “Did I ever say life was fair?” adage. But if you tried really hard, knocked things out of the park, did your very, very best, people were bound to reward you for it, right?

It turns out life is not about fairness at all. It is about the events and the moments to which we respond.

And my response is this:

Causality in this instance is misleading. You may do exactly what people ask and then they change their minds. Just like that. You did not cause their reaction. Something else did. And there you stand holding a steaming hot pie, that you thought might be blueberry, wafting a delicious aroma throughout the room that suddenly no one wants. Even though you strapped on your boots and hiked to the Andes to retrieve the berries. And then harvested the wheat to make flour until your hands bled. And ground the flax seeds until they turned to oil. And chopped down a tree to fire up the wood stove. And bent the iron cast to shape it into a pie form.

And you baked it and tended to it and stood proudly as it bubbled syrupy to the top.

The pie is burning my hands now. And yet my smile lingers, as if an inner knowing said: “You’ve been set free. You never wanted to be a baker anyway.”

When great isn’t good enough. Yes, life can be just like that.

Truth downtrodden, not dead

If I were to look at the world from a teen’s perspective, life is pretty black and white. It’s either hot or it’s cold. It’s good or it’s bad. It is right or it is wrong. Despite the backdrop of this simplicity, life is pretty complicated as emotions swell beyond the youngster’s comprehension.

As we grow older and our emotions stabilize, truth takes on shade. Grey areas emerge. Shadows lurk behind the meaning of things. And we grow accustomed to truth’s dimming shine. Our indignation weakens as adult life distracts us. We are lulled into a quiet sleep, fact-checking less, digesting garbage without thought and passing on recycled beliefs we’ve stopped questioning.

During some moments in history, the light switches back on. Our eyelids peel back, our backs straighten. We start paying attention with an intensity long forgotten in those high school hallways of yesteryear.

Now is one of those moments. When truth is on the witness stand. When what is said is scrutinized more closely. When the litmus test of reality races to the forefront.

Bildschirmfoto 2017-03-25 um 11.47.02Time magazine put three words and a question mark on its front cover this week.

Is truth dead?

The very fact that the editors pose the question tells me it is not. If we truly lived in a post-fact world, we would have no mind to engage in the inquiry.

In Trump’s attempt at weakening what is real, at his outright inability to withstand truth’s might, at his blaming and slandering and pouting and thrashing comes truth’s ultimate power. He is inadvertently strengthening the very thing he cannot stand: groups who disagree with him.

You cannot fight against forces stronger than you. No tower so high, no wife so beautiful, no pocket so deep, no office so revered will ever make an honest man out of a liar. A cheater. A profane example of human impotence.

The truth may be downtrodden, but it lives on. We are ever vigilant now. The tempest is gathering its gale force winds. The greatest revenge is our own success.

The truth will prevail. And so will we.

 

How Great (Thou) Art

These are bewildering times. As I follow the growing dis-ease on the international political stage, I retreat to the theatrical one, from which I draw endless strength. In the shadows behind the curtains, I can smell the mystery and anticipation of that golden moment the performing arts can carry.

But it isn’t easy,” said Pooh. “Because poetry and hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

Indeed, the beauty of art is a magnificence to behold. After a week in the Swiss Alps near the Matterhorn, observing and interviewing over a dozen artists whose bodies are their art form, I have come to realize two things:

  1. Art is like air. We need it to breathe.
  2. Nature heals and holds us high.

Sometimes we forget in the rush of things how important the simple aspects of life are to nurture us and make us whole again. Then, with a gentle nudge from happenstance, we become transformed as we stumble upon a magical moment. Maybe we pay an unexpected visit to an art gallery or attend a performance that moves us so deeply as we witness the connection between artist on stage and the audience below.

In my case it was Viktor Kee, the world’s best juggler whose act has been featured in Cirque du Soleil numerousIMG_6290 times. He is a mild-mannered fellow who likes to laugh. He told me he is always nervous before every performance, which is a good thing. “The moment I am no longer nervous is the moment I must stop doing this.” Adrenaline gives you a laser-like focus. You can’t be distracted, thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner when you do circus arts. Keep your eye on the ball. At all times.

Elayne Kramer, a world-class contortionist and a sixth generation member of an Argentinian circus family, told me she has no regrets. “The road is my home. When I arrive to my house in Florida, I am IMG_6300on vacation. But I can’t stand it there for long. I was born to do what I do.” She has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Good Morning America. Her charm, grace and balance will knock your socks off.

The commitment these acrobats have for their art is remarkable. A couple from Colombia told me when they perform time stands still. They lose all sense of pain and feel like they ‘are floating in the air. By the looks of their performance, they are!

And so, when poetry does not come to us, we must go to the place where it can find us again. Where we can put the pieces back together of our shattered hearts and remember that these times too shall pass.

And the show? Well, yes. The show will go on.

 

 

Slow Culture, Fast World

The honeymoon is over. The bubble has popped. Reality slammed me in the face at 6 am this morning.

That tender space of suspending thinking, in which you float between the time you return from vacation and the return to the day-to-day, is filled with wonder. Your brain has emptied. Your thoughts are fluid. Your consciousness is elevated. You are on a cloud, feet barely scraping the ground. You wonder how long you can keep up the feeling. You hope it lasts far longer than it will. But you hope nonetheless.

2017-02-23 13.49.05“Maybe it will be different. This time.”

And then Monday morning comes. You wake up before the alarm with a startled thought. It’s nothing really. You made a less than optimal decision about something so banal that it’s not even worth thinking about. But you do. And then you get mad that your bliss has been disrupted by something so meaningless.

Just yesterday I chat with my neighbor, revealing I had just returned from the most life-changing trip to Nepal and India. His eyes lit up and he began his tirade about what’s wrong with Western civilization.

“Why do we keep running? Toward what?”

He summed it up beautifully.

“We are distracting ourselves from the thought of death.”

Perhaps he is right, I thought. But I wasn’t ready to take on those thoughts just yet. I guarded my bubble carefully, going on to my yoga class for a moment of “Om”.

In the evening I wasn’t feeling particularly fearful or distracted or worried or annoyed. I drank lots of water and went to bed early. And then morning came with the reality that I had some even harder decisions to make that might rattle even the most Zen-like person. I watched my age-old fear awaken from its slumber, stilled only for the time it took me to realize it is alive and well.

Stay in your center, stay in your center, I told myself as I brushed my teeth, feeling like Julia Robert’s character, Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat, Pray, Love.

Momentarily, I have regained ground on myself. Filled with Slow Culture, I cannot deny that it feels strange to be back in a fast, fast world.

The feeling is slipping slightly. I have lost a noticeable grip on the ephemeral sensation of alignment. But I know where to get it when I really need it.

Deep within in the archives of my memory of what has been, what is and what shall be.

 

Why I deleted Facebook

Sometimes self-control is not enough. Sometimes you have to carefully position your own roadblocks to force saner living.

With the press of an “x”, I dismissed the vitriol that had become my daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only have I found myself pining for past Republic administrations that now don’t “seem that bad”, I have also started missing those adorable cat videos and those pumped-up versions of themselves that people like to have us believe is true about their fabulous Facebooked lives.

no facebookI miss the tinge of envy I’d feel at pictures of palm trees in places I definitely was not.

I miss the giggles elicited from videos of furry animals, preferably baby ones, tumbling on top of each other.

I miss hoping someone will “like” my post because they like me.

I miss the Facebook I used to know that I’d sometimes playfully call “Fakebook” because we often use it to look better than we are.

But we have entered a new era now. Many of us have become activists, something I truly applaud. And what better way to broadcast sensible causes than the world’s largest online platform?

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to it. Facebook, in my view, has turned into a shouting match, a place of posturing and yes, at times, a platform to share invaluable information. But the more I’ve tried to digest the unfathomable messages, especially from politicians vying for fame and glory, the less I began to trust it as a source for anything real or true or good about this world.

What motivated me to finally hit the delete button on my iPhone app came after reading a post by a Kentucky Senator who mocked the women’s march, calling women “cute” in the most patronizing way possible.

In his eagerness to earn likes and commentary (at any cost, I might add), he has joined the legions of people who will do and say anything to attract attention. It is so sad.

A like is even more short-lived than a soap bubble on a hot July afternoon. It is meaningless if there are only words without positive action behind them.

It broke my heart to see how broken our system truly is.

Fighting against virtual reality is like trying to capture wind in your hands.

What could I possible do then, in the face of such powerlessness, to make a difference?

Then it hit me. I have invested so much time in conversations with people I don’t even know. What if I were to start conversations with the ones I do know? What if I were to reach out to someone in need, right here, right now, in front of my very eyes? What if I were to dedicate all the time I have spent clucking at the injustice online to a cause in my very own town? Not only would I feel better, but that person would too.

So that decides it. Less Facebook. More face time. In real life.

Yes, a new era has dawned and I am ready to take on the challenge. Will you join me?

 

And you thought we weren’t listening

Be pretty. Be smart. Be strong. But please, please, please, won’t you be quiet too?

Hell no.

The slumbering beast has been stirred. In the foggy distance you hear a groan, a lurching movement, a rumbling that draws closer. Ever closer.

Sixty countries. 600 cities. Seven continents. Even Antarctica has stood up for human rights.

We are not alone.

(c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

(c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

This evening I attended my first French demonstration. In the rumbling of our rage, my tenth grade French was awakened. Suddenly, on the slippery wintery steps of Place Kléber in Strasbourg, I understood every word of French that was spoken.

On est là. On est toujours là. Notre diversité est notre force.

And as some people try to temper my anger with their stalwart online glances, I laugh in their faces. No longer pretty. But very smart. And no, no, no, not quiet.

For an hour I cheered with my mom on the phone who, by a force of synchronicity, marched simultaneously and across six time zones, for the very same purpose.

For those of you who are uncomfortable with my rage and for those of you who claim I spew hatred, I will tell you this: I stand for love. For understanding. For dialogue. For truth. I have learned ever so much on this journey. And will continue to do so. Thank you for those who have corrected me when I have been wrong. I appreciate your patience and your desire to make a difference. You have. And so will I.

I would rather risk failing in the name of humanity than grasping for the power you cannot attain. You will never, ever gain strength over me or my brethren. We are stronger than you could ever imagine.

Your money does not impress me. Neither does your attempt to control that which you cannot.

The world is watching. Your influence is shrinking. It might be time to think about Plan B. Which, under the scrutiny of a billion, will B ours.

 

Why I choose to march

It is time to put on those Big Girl pants and act. I have comfortably, and often not so quietly, lashed out at the state of the world. While it may have felt good for the moment, I knew my days as self-important, indignant complainer were numbered.

The moment we lose the will to do something about an issue is the moment we lose our right to complain about it. We need to take action now.

Remarkably, I have come to terms with the fate of our nation, at least for the moment. But that does not mean I have resigned myself to it. Like many of you, I experienced the five stages of grief as I realized how much power we were handing off to a man filled with vitriol, viciousness and vindictiveness. I oscillated between anger and despair, practicing the utmost restraint (and failing miserably) to not be swept up in the online venting we have witnessed since November 8th. Every day we were fed new fodder from well-meaning celebrities or Senators or reporters. It seems to fan the flame of hatred, catapulting so many of us into a new level of confusion.

Not all of my online interactions have been bad. Many of you have helped me see what I can do to make a difference. I have called my senator, signed numerous online petitions, voluntarily watched C-Span (!) and shared information with people far and wide. It may have budged the conversation only a millimeter for a nanosecond, but doing something felt like a better choice than doing nothing at all while saying even less with a ton of empty words.

It seemed, for a while, that if I fed facts to the faltering followers of the PEOTUS, I would gain new ground. I would, in some hapless way, save the world from its self-inflicted insanity.

It may appear arrogant, and perhaps you are right. I see now that I was wrong. We all have our entrenched ways of thinking. Words alone will not do it. For a writer, it is a hard pill to swallow. After all, don’t we shape the world with the words we share?

Talk without action, words without movement, will do little to sway the hearts we so desperately wish to reach.

And so I will march. On January 21, 2017 I will join the marching million on this planet who care deeply about the future of our world. Places as far as Tblisi, Georgia, Calcutta, India and Dublin, Ireland, Lima, Peru and Nairobi, Kenya are joining together to show their support. To show they care.

This is not just an American issue.

The nearest march to me is taking place in France. It seems appropriate — no essential — as an American living in Germany to participate in an act of peaceful demonstration in France to support all that I have said I care about. While it is easy to cackle at the mean memes circulating on Facebook, it will do nothing to solve the issues we face.

And so I will march.

My son, who is a budding photographer, will join me. My love and his kids will too. We will stand on an historic place in Strasbourg that has showcased many a demonstration in the city’s long history. We will unite to show that action can speak louder than words.

And so we will march.

We will build bridges, not walls, dialogue, not diatribe. We will stand up for what we believe in.

And that is saying a lot.