Back in the 60s when we were a young family starting out, we could just about afford a small house in the flats of Berkeley for $28,500, near downtown and just a bike ride away from Herb’s office at the University.  We brought up our three children there, I wrote several books there and now after 50 years—Herb gone, the children all grown and myself moved onto a farm in El Sobrante—our ramshackle brown-shingle house in Berkeley is worth close to two million dollars in the “real-estate market!”

What?

Shocked to the core by this “new normal,” I chose to donate our house to a non-profit instead of selling it. It is now owned by an organization devoted to affordable housing, and I requested that it be rented to local performing artists from minority communities, partly to be sure my dance studio remained a rehearsal space and not another bedroom, but even more to make it possible for local artists to afford to live in the Bay Area! 

It took two years of hard work to make this happen, but at last our house is home to two young actresses and one 10 year-old daughter, who are apparently making it their own and enjoying keeping up the garden, which is essentially all I get to see when I come to pick up errant mail.

To my disappointment, they have been less than welcoming to me. When I need to come by for mail or to visit with my old neighbors, they disappear into the house; when I’ve rung the bell, I’ve been asked to call first. Not quite what I’d had in mind when I dreamed up this unusual scheme, for sure, but I do have a tendency to come on stronger than I’d like to, so I know I can sometimes scare people away. Anyhow, I wouldn’t be surprised if they might feel threatened by an older woman so privileged she can give away her house, and they’d worry about unswept floors and dishes in the sink if she just dropped in!  

Most likely, I figure, it’s that they are as frightened by our unstable world as we all are, uncertain about who we can trust, and who not. We all live under threat as governments go awry and the climate is dangerous; as people die of pandemics and starvation, war and poverty and crime; of so many people homeless and others living one paycheck away from being homeless; of guns being in the hands of too many people, including children, and the world’s economy based on profit, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

But it still shocked me to be identified as part of the threat just because I had lived long enough for property values to have risen obscenely in the short span of my lifetime! 

If that is what ‘back-to-normal’ means, I don’t want it! I opt for a whole new normal that starts with a philosophy of inclusion and balance and reverence for a natural world treated as gift rather than commodity. My chosen world would be based upon kindness and respect, mutuality and rich diversity of everything we see and everyone we are. Ridiculous wars would be replaced by fabulous parties, and love and sex would be not only harmless, but a treat for all concerned! In my world, schools would teach creativity, both individual and group, and art-making would be encouraged for everyone, along with laughter, and we would all be taught how to apologize, rather than fight, when we’ve made a mistake!

By some synchronicity, just as I typed out the word “apologize,” I received a call from one of the women living in my old house. “Please forgive us for being so cold to you,” she began. “We were so afraid when we first moved in because we didn’t know we’d be welcome in the neighborhood and we weren’t taking chances. It’s such a scary time. But please, this is your home, please feel welcome to come anytime you wish, use the house, take a nap in the garden, teach in your studio, eat in your kitchen…!” 

Stunned and reassured that the world knew how to right itself, I burst into tears. This feels like the new normal I’ve been waiting for, and have renewed hope that we will all make it through, even though nobody ever said it would be easy.

Here on the farm, as we clean up the land after a winter in lockdown, I find myself busily making hügels, which are essentially layered mounds of biodegradable debris: old wood and soggy straw; fallen leaves and grass clippings; wood chips, dirt and weeds. It’s a matter of creating something new from the ashes of the old, re-cycling the leavings of the past to make good soil for the future. Once the mound has enough layers and is high enough, it is ready for planting—here we’ve learned it is important to put in plants the gophers don’t like—and over time the new roots break up the remnants of dead wood down in the layers and create a mound of rich soil. But before you can gather the makings of a hügekkultur mound, its component parts have to die as “tree” and “grass” and become litter on the ground. Then you’ve got what my kids used to call a “two-double” situation in which you both clean up the place and use the junk-litter for a garden bed!

I’ve learned that things in general have to fall apart before they can be recycled to make new fertile ground. Same with our changing world, I wager. I suspect the big breakdown is necessary before we can re-build a more stable structure. Maybe we should honor this precipitous process, even encourage it by dreaming up new ways of doing everything, new ways of living with one another and learning to find the joy in the everyday. Whyever not? Our current ways are certainly not working very well for most of us, not to mention the planet, and the ideas behind them are at the very least, clunky and self-serving. We can do better than that!

Given that this is indeed an intense time of transformation, unstable and scary, where the old paradigm does everything it can to terrorize us as it makes every kind of mess for us to trip over, we can get together and figure out how to get creative as we clear up the old mess in new ways.

This era of transformation has been a long time a-coming, and I believe we’re lucky to be in the world now for the adventure of our lives, learning how to let go of what cannot be saved, honoring what can be saved, and allowing creative new opportunities to emerge that serve ourselves and all of life better than we had presumed was possible. Actually, we already know how to do it because our bodies transform the food we eat into energy, and the air we breathe into life. And our hearts transform attraction into love and love transforms our ordinary experience of the world into joy. The process of transformation is built in. No?