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Poetry and Place: Listening to Your Neighborhood’s Voice (Part 2)

April 9, 2014

Last fall I spent a week in the Mission District of San Francisco and spent time exploring and listening to that neighborhood. Part of that week was spent learning to

hear the sounds of the streets

listen to the voices of the people

taste the city’s flavor

see the sights of everyday life

feel the sidewalks, the fabrics, textures, the pain and the beauty of a place

recreate the voice of the neighborhood with a bit of poetry.

The product of that experience was a poem - the colors scream – but also a desire to recreate the experience and invite others to listen to their neighborhood’s voice in all its beauty and brokenness.

This month, I’ve been meeting together with a group of friends who are exploring and experimenting with our neighborhoods and our role as a neighbor in that place. Our “homework” the first week was to map our neighborhood/place and spend time listening, exploring, and creating some kind of artistic response to what we heard/saw/tasted/smelled in that place.

Here’s a poem I wrote inspired by my place:


walk up, time to see the day
the neighborhood awaits our presence
in its beauty and in its pain

vacant lots, echo chambers
locked up toys and runners
runners in pink, runners in green
big runners, small runners
costumed runners, laughing runners
all just passing through

‘the spirit of God is upon me’
her voice cuts through
the runner’s drone and the drum’s resound
her words call out, I am recognized
‘be careful,’ a Siren sounds

to protect my child or 
protect this stranger?
the cruelest of choice
a Siren sounds, ‘be careful’
our wheels roll on
my heart lingers

the lilies of the field
the lilies of the field
and the birds in the air
will they be okay?
will she be okay?
will we be okay?
a Siren sounds

East Hollywood, California // April 2014


11 Local Practices to Address the Global Climate Crisis

April 3, 2014

My father-in-law is a scientist – a very good scientist at a large research university – whose research and work focuses on the intersection of plant/insect responses to changing climate conditions. He will occasionally send an email about his work or about a recent headline regarding global climate change, and this past week he sent a few alarming articles along with some of his own comments:

I’m very sorry to be such a downer; I wish as much as anyone that this would all go away. But the science is undeniable. And the choices before us now are to “mitigate, adapt, or suffer.” Human society will do all three, but the sooner and more effectively we do the former, the less we will experience the latter. And not so much us, but those with few resources around us (it’s a matter of social justice) and those who follow us (it’s a matter of intergenerational justice).

I’m a localist. I believe that how we perceive reality is primarily shaped by what lies within walking distance of us. I believe relationships develop when real people gather around a real table and share real food with each other. Isimpleearth believe change happens when real people in real places address a real problem with real shared action.

Yes, we live in a globalizing world and I don’t deny the necessity of global awareness.

Yes, we live in a digital age and I don’t deny the impact of technology on every aspect of our lives.

Yet…we’re bodied creatures that occupy real space in local places. So I’m with Wendell Berry when he writes:

Global thinking can only be statistical…Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground.

On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.

As a localist, it’s difficult to hear about massive global issues – especially a crisis like global climate change. Our own individual contributions (to both the problem and the solution) seem so small and insignificant. And whether we want to believe it or not, the problem is enormous.

NBC writes on the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, specifically noting that:

  • the issue is not global warming, but climate change.

“Some places will have too much water, some not enough, including drinking water. Other risks mentioned in the report involve the price and availability of food, and to a lesser and more qualified extent some diseases, financial costs and even world peace.”

  • global climate change is getting worse.

“We are going to see more and more impacts, faster and sooner than we had anticipated.”

  • the hardest and first hit are those already most vulnerable.

“Climate change will worsen problems that society already has, such as poverty, sickness, violence and refugees, according to the report…While the problems from global warming will hit everyone in some way, the magnitude of the harm won’t be equal, coming down harder on people who can least afford it, the report says. It will increase the gaps between the rich and poor, healthy and sick, young and old, and men and women.”

  • the window for constructive correction is quickly closing.

“We have a closing window of opportunity,” she said. “We do have choices. We need to act now.”

In light of a massive global crisis, what are we to do, especially if (like me) you think real solutions must originate locally?

Here are 11 local practices that, directly and indirectly, can serve as a starting place for addressing the global climate crisis:

  • Know your neighbors.
  • Know your neighborhood businesses.
  • Spend more time outside than you spend online.
  • Spend time connecting to people in your place rather than placeless pixels.
  • Minimize the distance your food travels to get on your plate. (You can eat kale, carrots, and onions but you cannot eat grass.)
  • Choose a lower rung on the food chain.
  • Maximize the life cycle of all products you use.
  • Wherever possible, begin your use of a product in the middle of its life cycle (i.e. buy used).
  • Dread driving; love biking or walking.
  • Control your climate through your wardrobe, not central air/heating.
  • Because real sustainability can only happen through community, invite others into all of the above.

Thoughts? Pushbacks? Other local practices you’d suggest?

There Are Some Hills We Cannot Climb Alone

February 11, 2014

I don’t understand it and much of the time I don’t like it, but it’s true.

There are some hills that we cannot climb alone.

Although first glance may tell you otherwise, what follows is not really about cycling.

Near the end of my bike commute are two hills.

The first is on San Pascual, with a short but steep climb from the base of the Arroyo in Highland Park to the road that winds along into Pasadena. The second is another steep climb from the bottom of the Colorado Street Bridge to the top of Orange Grove.

Neither hill is that steep or that long, but near the end of a 14 mile commute, my legs feel like jelly and when I’m commuting solo I’ve never made it all the way up both hills in one day. I end up being that moron-on-the-side-of-the-road pushing his bike up a hill wishing I could tell all the cars passing by that I’ve been on my bike for over an hour, that I’ve only been riding this much for a few months, that I’m not a total lightweight.

It’s not that I don’t try. I start out determined to make it all the way up. This time will be different, I tell myself. I do that little winding-back-and-forth trick cyclists do. I stand up a bit to give myself a bit more leverage. I take advantage of any chance to get a little momentum. I even have some breath prayers I occasionally use to focus my energy and efforts.

But it’s not enough. There are some hills that we cannot climb alone.

The crazy thing is, though, some hills that we cannot climb alone we can climb together.

Most of the time I cyclo-commute with another guy, and when we ride together I always make it to the top of the hills. He’s confessed that he’s found the same rule to be true for him. When he rides alone, he’ll often end up hoofing it up to the top. When we ride together, we ride to the top.

It is a difficult, slow, and straining push to the top, but, together, we make it. Every time. 

I don’t ride differently. I don’t breathe or pray differently. I don’t have less weight on my pack. I do everything exactly the same except

…I have someone else climbing the hill with me. That’s it and that’s enough.

I don’t understand it and I don’t always like it, but there are some hills that must be climbed together.

Have Flappy Bird. Will Trade for Bitcoin. Meet at Dumb Starbucks. (and Other Musings on The Weird Things We Value)

February 10, 2014

It’s a strange world we live in.

Yesterday, I was walking to the library with my son to drop off a book we had borrowed (one of Mo Willems’ Pigeon books – the boy loves that pigeon). As we walked up Hillhurst, we came across a line of people.

Now, lines of people are not that unusual where I live in northeast Los Angeles.

People wait in line for movies at our single screen theater.
People wait in line for restaurant openings.
People wait in line for the morning express bus to Pasadena.
People wait in line to get into a trendy Hollywood club.

Photo Feb 09, 2 30 19 PMBut these people were lined up in front of a pop-up storefront called Dumb Starbucks. This art installation/coffee shop started by no-one-knows-who had gone viral on the web and on the sidewalk so for two+ hours, people waited in line to get inside and get a free cup of bad coffee.

And, now, one day later, people are selling their Dumb Starbucks cups on eBay.

It’s a strange world we live in. 

And it’s not just a Dumb Starbucks kind of world.

It’s the kind of world where Flappy Bird rakes in over $50,000 a day in ad revenue.

It’s the kind of world where people pay for condos and sports cars with Bitcoin.

In the world of Harry Potter, Dumbledore’s family tomb is inscribed with this quote:

Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.

Jesus said that, too, as he taught thousands who gathered on a hillside to hear him teach about a new way of living in the world as human beings.

On that mound of dirt in the middle eastern hillside, he invited the crowd gathered to consider what was truly valuable, what was worth sacrificing and laying down their life for.

I’m not sure, if we lived two thousand years ago, we’d even show up to hear that lunatic teach.

Our world – or at least my neighborhood (which includes me) – longs for and treasures Dumb Starbucks, Flappy Bird, and Bitcoin.

There, also, our bare hearts lie.

How to Save Your Church (By Letting it Be Something Other Than a Church)

February 10, 2014

This is a repost from The Burner Blog. I wrote this a few weeks ago and am now sharing it here!

On my commute to work, I bike past three church buildings that no longer function as churches.

Each of these buildings was once home to a congregation – Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Methodist – but each was unable to sustain their faithful presence through the rapid and extensive transitions taking place in their neighborhood. For years, these churches sat abandoned on desirable property in desirable neighborhoods that have no desire for a church.

Each of these properties has recently been purchased or leased by entrepreneurs. One has been converted into a beautiful single-family home, complete with the original steeple and bell. One is used as a gallery and performance space in the trendiest up-and-coming neighborhoods of Los Angeles. One is currently in the process of being transitioned into a boutique hotel and bar in one of LA’s hipster havens.

I love each of these ideas. The spaces, each with their preservationist conversions, are beautiful. Those taking the lead on the conversions have done their homework, creating business plans that take into account their neighborhood context and demographics.

I love each of these ideas but they make me sad.

• Why did the pastors, committees, or denominations representing these congregations hold so tightly to the single-use they had in mind for their space that they allowed these beautiful buildings to sit unused for years?

• Why did they allow their financial reserves to drain away as they maintained the status quo even as the pews grew increasingly empty?

• Why was it only an outside entrepreneur that saw through the years of neglect and abandonment to envision these buildings as beautiful spaces for the good of the neighborhood?

• Why do we still train pastors in the preservation of stagnant church buildings and congregational legacies while the needs of their community – needs which could be met, in part at least, through creative use of physical properties and structures – go unnoticed or ignored?

Even with the missional conversation trickling down into older, established congregations, too much of our “missional talk” gets stuck in sermons and service projects, never actually igniting an imagination for how the resources of our churches – property, buildings, finances, people – could be used to serve those who are not interested in walking into a church – but would be interested in an art gallery, performance space, warming center, speakeasy, community space, or tutoring center.

When will we recognize that the way of the cross might involve offering our property and buildings as multi-use community space that might happen to also host a worshipping congregation a few times a week?

When will we anoint, bless, and commission pastors to serve as landlords, community developers and entrepreneurs rather than pulpit-and-pew preservers?

When will we allow the expectations of the past to be buried in order to see a resurrection of imagination for our cities and neighborhoods?

How Much Do Superbowl Commercials Cost? And What Do They Cost Us?

January 31, 2014

I wrote this post in 2011 before the Super Bowl and, because it’s still relevant, it has become my annual pre-Superbowl blog post. As you watch the Superbowl (or any television, especially with kids around), please consider the ways that you are being shaped by the media and advertisements you allow ourselves to be exposed to.

I don’t care about the game…

I just watch it for the commercials

One of my pet peeves is how many times I hear that phrase in the weeks preceding the Super Bowl. I have a guttural reaction because it is such an honest sign of our culture’s addiction to entertainment.  We watch “for the commercials” even though we know that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to cloak powerful messages about cravings, sexuality, consumerism, fulfillment and identity in a 30-second charade of funny, provocative, and/or racy images and dialogue.  I am not saying there is anything inherently wrong with entertainment but hope we start asking better questions about what we are entertained by.

The average American is exposed to hundreds or thousands of commercial advertisements each day.  On TV or Hulu, on the train, bus, or subway, on the highway, on the radio, on Facebook or Google, on the street corners. The amount of TV our culture watches is out of control, just as the amount of time we spend on Facebook as a culture is out of  control. We are swimming – no, drowning – in a sea of not-so-subliminal messages vying for our attention and our allegiance.

In the midst of a world filled with poverty, violence, injustice, and disease – in a world where we are so normalized to receiving messages - what messages are we sending about what is important, valuable, beneficial, noble, true, excellent, or praiseworthy?

I saw this video today (yes, yes, I recognize the irony) and would encourage everyone watch it.  Or, better yet, watch it with your friends before you watch the Super Bowl - not to make you or anyone else feel guilty, but to bring some desperately needed perspective to our media- and advertising-saturated lives.


What do you think?

What is the REAL cost of Super Bowl commercials?

On Being Tiny in an Enormous World

January 22, 2014
Richard Serra, "Band"

Richard Serra, “Band”

Yesterday I stood with my son before this massive work of art – Band by the sculptor Richard Serra.

Band stands 13 feet tall and stretches 70 feet long and about 40 feet wide. Band weighs about 366,000 pounds.

The room containing Band is massive with no distractions – white walls and ceiling, focused lighting and a brushed concrete floor. And yet you do not notice the size of the room. The only thing you see is Band.

Serra comments on the enormous scale of his piece:

You might find yourself in a space where you think you have been before, but you realize it is different and you don’t know quite why. And then you find yourself in another space, and you think it’s the outside of the space you have just been in, but it’s not. Or you think it’s the inside of the space that you just left, but it’s not. If you continuously walk the piece, what you anticipate and what your memory allows you to foresee don’t always conclude to be what you suspect.

What is true for the experience of Band is true for my experience of the world.

Being tiny in the presence of an enormous world results in “what you anticipate and what your memory allows you to foresee” coming up short. We just cannot suspect and conclude and predict what will transpire or unfold around us.

That is the mystery of being human in the world we inhabit.


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