#Metoo is Complex


“As long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive. I will survive.” Gloria Gaynor (Lyrics by Dino Fekaris) Photo: Arvid Qwarfordt


The week the #metoo story became a cultural tsunami my husband posted a photo of us kissing, sweetly, and with passionate love. This image was the single most potent message he could have delivered.

In my life I have been harassed, abused, raped at gunpoint, ripped off and underestimated. I have also been loved.

There are too many landmines in this subject for me to ever address them all, but I would like to contribute a few ideas to the ongoing conversation.

Colonial Ghosts: We live in a world that celebrates “takers.” We call it ambition, leadership, victory. The gentle and the careful get trampled, while the aggressive rise to the top. Takers take. Now, exploitation in all its forms is on trial. The entire ­ecology, including all but a few wealthy humans, is disenfranchised. Our bodies have been taken without our permission. I would argue that the survival of our species and 1000’s of others is hinged to a violence that stems from the same blind spot as rape and abuse.

Getting out of this destructive pattern is not about untangling the mess we are in, it is about arching above it. I am not sure we can undo it, or solve it, or fix it. We don’t have time. Rapid transformation is at hand.

The cells in my body that know the pain of abuse reach back to my mother, her mother, her mother before her, and countless generations. I have waited at least a thousand years for this moment to come. I don’t want to see it get lost in a polarized display of us v. them.

To all those who have found the sensitivity to see each other and love each other beyond the limits of stereotypes, I say, “thank you.” Show us the way.

#Metoo is complex. On behalf of all the generations that came before and those yet to arrive, I would like to give this moment its due complexity. The lens through which we view this opportunity requires a zoom-in-zoom-out toggle between concentrating on individuals’ behavior and societal, cultural, systemic patterns that we are all trapped in. If the discussion gets lost in the crimes of individuals we will lose the opportunity to address the systemic changes needed. But, if we get lost in the systemic we will lose the vital sense of personal responsibility that is also needed. Both are imperative.

Let me state at the outset of this message that the opposite of complexity is not simplicity, it is reductionism.

As an aside, I want to say that short circuiting complexity is never a good idea. It makes life complicated. Complicated and complex are not the same thing. Complex looks like an ocean; whole and alive with a vitality that is generated through interrelational, interdependent processes. Complicated is what happens when you break those relationships into parts and try to control them, like: pesticides on our food and the medical and ecological consequences of consequences that pesticides have created.

It takes complexity to meet complexity. If we go looking for quick-fix answers and binary memes, we will find them, and they will not suffice to build new ways of life upon. But, if we can begin to recognize the complexity in our own identities we may be able to recognize that of others, and thereby humbly enter another level of mutual respect.

As an illustration, consider the complexity of systemic abuse in society in its similarity to the ecological characteristics of an ocean or forest. Ask: “Where is the forest?” Is it in the soil, insects, plants, animals, bacteria, or creeks? The forest exists in the relationships between all of these living things. Likewise, the patterns of abuse in our society are vitalized by a combination of interwoven aspects of culture that hold it in place– and hold us in its grasp.

In order to deal with the mess that has become our gender battleground, an understanding of its complexity is needed. It is not possible to extract these patterns of behavior from the mixed brew of history, of culture, of media, economics, politics or even medicine and psychology. These institutional contexts ferment and fuse into what we call society. As individuals we have learned to make sense of our world within the limits they define. Now, it is difficult to know where our understanding of our own identities begin and how they are informed by our societal contexts.

#Metoo has the potential to bring a formative shift in the conditions of life for us all, and to open the possibility for learning to respect ourselves and others with a wider, deeper comprehension. To begin this is to recognize how important identity is to this moment. And, that identity forms through multiple contexts including language, education, finance, culture, politics, religion, law, race, generation, gender…

Consequently, neither gender nor consent are binary. Both of these are factors in the #metoo discussion. In order to bring another arc of discussion to this important opening in the world today, this complexity needs to be considered.

Gender:  First of all, gender is complex. To reduce gender to a simple male/female binary is nonsense. I am being redundant because I cannot say that often or loud enough. Each of the 7 billion human beings on this orb have different ratios of chromosomes. Each of us experiences different aspects of ourselves when we are in interaction with different people. This is obvious. We all know that with some people we may feel more confident, or beautiful, or feminine, or curious… and with others we are shy, or intelligent, or … When someone asks, “Who are you?”—The answer really should be based upon who you are with, where you are, at what point in your life, in what context. For me, gender too depends on a mysterious combination of visible and invisible contextual processes. I can be assertive, and vulnerable. Sometimes I am a perfect flower in the strong arms of my beloved, other times he is small vessel on the waves of my ocean. In my experience, nothing about this business of gender is static or predictable.

Let it be thus. Let us be complex in our gender. Let us find our way into each interaction of our day and learn to be more attuned to the shifting forms of our own landscapes. The sensitivity we explore will serve us toward a better perception of those around us. To learn even a little more about how to read our own changing selves is an asset to apply to our understanding of the world.

I do not want to be relegated to anyone’s binary. And, even if I am defined by that binary, I cannot stay in it. The context of the relationship matters more than the label. I do not want to hear about how “males are” or how “females are”, there is no such thing. Gender is what happens between people in each interaction and encounter.

Consent is also complex. What makes us want each other? Is it chemistry? Is it cultural? Is it economic? Is it political? Is it… natural? What does natural mean?

Consent has been sold as a simple distinction between “yes” and “no.” This is a mistake. Any “yes” has context. Any “no” has context. The context matters.

By saying that consent is complex I am in no way implying that it is unnecessary. Nor am I implicating victims as culpable. Not at all. I am saying that consent is more than “yes” and “no,” and that without some deeper understanding of the contexts of consent justifications will be made that hurt everyone. Additionally reducing consent to a binary leaves a vast horizon of loopholes that can and have been used against each other. The rigidity of the consent binary forces the vastness of our interactions into narrowed stories and statistics that cannot hold the water of larger truth.

How many women have had sex with their husbands when they did not really want to (and vice versa) because they felt that they needed to keep him satisfied in order to keep the family together? Is that consent? Well, legally yes. But, in the reality of that bedroom, no. The question of consent seeps into economic survival which is a murky brew of culture and history lingering in explicit and non-verbal, non-conscious ways. I am not sure how to know when yes is yes, and no is no. Without consideration of context the differences between mutual desire and transaction are blurred.

How many people have been seduced by the sparkling hormones of a student or employee whose rise in the system was contingent upon this affection? Was that seduction consensual?

The pulls of cultural and economic context are many, and they are messy. Finding a clear definition or rule book for consent is not something that can be standardized. Rather, consent is something that needs to be determined carefully, between potential partners who are aware of the multitudes of influences that contribute to the situation.

How to know when consent is there? What are the guidelines for respectful interaction between people?

In this moment, when our hearts are broken by the endless stories of sexual abuse we have witnessed with #metoo, it is imperative that we admit that we do not have a clear rule book. There is no standard. Some people cannot be told “no” strongly enough, and others seem to be at ease reading the signals of mutual desire, or the lack thereof. For all the invasions to my privacy I have experienced, there have also been people who honored the communication, verbal and non-verbal.

The history we all carry is contaminated with old poisonous habits. Our appetites are unintelligent. We are in free-fall across a canyon of unwritten scripts.

Sensitivity:  Sensitivity to the complexity of one another is respect. Recognition that we are all in this together, that the old lines are bogus, and the new ones are still almost invisible is what is needed. We simply do not know how to know. But we do know that the abuse is intolerable.

Our future generations do not need to carry any more trauma than we are already saddling them with. The “taking” must stop. The disrespect must end. Consent is more than yes and no. It takes communication, and sincerity toward mutually learning to express respect in new ways.

There will be no formula.

No guidelines will suffice.

Each person is called now to pay attention to each relationship and interaction.

Create new language.

Attune. Carefully.

It’s possible.

Satiating ravenous sexual pleasure is wonderful… but in this moment the ‘right’ to do so carries the transformative moment of a new era of sexuality. The ground is shifting, hopefully toward a better world in which sexuality will bring more joy and less damage.

The responsibility to change our systemic cultural pathology around sexual abuse resides in each of us, in every moment of every day. We are all carrying the scars of our mothers and fathers. Likewise we are all contributing to the conditions in which the next generation will make sense of these things. We are damaged. Somehow through our damage and our blind spots we have to find new ways to respect each other, to enjoy each other, to find and to give sweetness, love, and passion to one another.

To deny the socio-cultural and economic contexts in which there is need for this mutual learning and discovery is dangerous. To defy these contextual traps is (r)evolution.

**Addendum to my own healing.

(This is a post from my facebook page: Systers Thinking)

What is sexy? “I am thinking of a photo shoot I did 21 years ago while I was 8 months pregnant, and the photographer I was working with was playing with notions of sexuality… He asked me to make a sexy pose, big belly, over-stretched lingerie and all. Without noticing, I brought the existing images of “sexy women” in our culture into my pose. He asked, “Is that sexy for you? Or is that what you think people want you to think of as sexy?” I love him for that question. Is it possible for me to know what is sexy for me, uninfluenced by my culture? The eye of the world is on women today. And what does that mean? Having women on panels, boards, and equal representation is nowhere close to what I hope for my daughter. I think there is a long way to go before the tokenism is eclipsed. I think it has to be a larger paradigm shift that includes reaching for authority in another way. I am tired of celebrating the women and other disenfranchised groups who have mastered the game set within the patterns of white male colonialism. Yes it takes strength to succeed, but… What does it mean to be “equal” when the measuring stick is the reach of the oppression? The experience of perceiving and describing complexity requires a congruent complexity of voices and transcontextual inquiry. It takes the richness of ways of knowing that do not shy from rigor, but do not apply to the limits of authorized knowledge. The expression of sexy juiciness of pregnancy, my own pregnancy, was an exploration of my own complexity, in my body, in motherhood, in my culture, in my own language. To find that juiciness is to abandon the reductionism of anybody else’s idea of my woman-ness, of sexy, of motherhood… and to play with the blurry intermixed expression of being my own syster. With love, Nora.”





Zombies and Hitchhikers (selected from my book: Small Arcs of Larger Circles)


Zombies and the Hitchhiker

(context produces possibility)

I have two stories to share here, seemingly unrelated at first glance; they form their own duet. Together they illustrate almost everything I hold true. They are theory in action; they are what happens when there is another way of looking at the world that allows for the back-swirl of contingencies to be authorized. When the script we have hard-wired inside us is upended in favor of a wider affection for life, something else happens. The context produces possibility. Unforeseen options emerge. It takes courage to meet the hard moments in this spirit. I know I am mostly misunderstood in my attempts at making a case for this approach. Stories help. I offer you zombies and the hitchhiker.

Dignity Vanquishes Zombies

For me, this story is about mutual learning between generations; it is also about how to make change in a stuck system. It is about the blinders of western culture. It is about how acute situations make complexity difficult to advocate for. This story is about the disaster of the education system, and a young man trying to survive it. This story is about my love for that young man (my own son), and the unexpected treasure we found together, which helped get him through the maze of hypocrisy that middle school epitomizes. This is a story about zombies, actors, and the openings to realms of communication between parents and children that are often missed. There are paths through our culture that have been worn in so completely that it is nearly impossible to see past the prescribed, pre-scripted versions of how to navigate them. This is one example where we, my son and I, found a trapdoor that led to a systemic shift for both of us. My son Trevor has given me permission to put it in this book; it’s our story, and this is my version of it.

Trevor was about 12 years old. On a typical suburban evening, in our atypical home, we were unloading the dishwasher. With a sly eye he removed the food-processor blade, showed it to me and said, “Mom, if there is ever a zombie invasion, you could, like, totally use this.”

What? Trevor is a funny guy, and I was amused by this fantastical observation. I did notice though that Trevor had been talking about zombies quite a bit that autumn. At that time teenagers were just finishing a trendy vampire craze. I assumed that perhaps zombies were the next fixation. Trevor’s comments were not yet registering as particularly relevant. We carried on without notice of the zombies.

Meanwhile, the emails from school started coming in. In this era, in contrast to the one I grew up in, parents receive emails whenever there is an issue at school. I suppose the practice is well intentioned, but receiving those emails is irritating. My parents never got emails. But I sure did. Emails from teachers, counselors, and administrators began to pop into my inbox. They each arrived with a tone of both blame and concern. “Trevor is being disruptive.” “Trevor is being disrespectful.” “Trevor is not listening.” “Trevor is horsing around in class and causing distraction.” And then, after a few weeks, “We would like to meet with you about Trevor’s behavior.” “Trevor will be scheduled to see a school counselor.” “The principal would like to discuss a plan for what do to about Trevor’s behavior with you and Trevor’s teachers.” “Have you considered that Trevor may have ADHD, and may require medication?” And so on.

The underlying message I was being given through these emails was that my kid needed more discipline, and that if discipline was not ‘effective,’ perhaps it would be necessary to consider medication. While I cannot speak for other parents and their children, I knew in my bones that neither discipline nor medication were going to be ‘effective’ remedies in Trevor’s case.

Something was going on with him, and I had no idea what. I also had no idea how to deal with it. I knew there had to be another layer of information that I was not seeing. And, more importantly, my boy was dimming down his effervescence.

For several more weeks this continued. Trevor had to go to detention, and he began to wear the reputation of a ‘bad-boy’ at school. He even began to believe he was a ‘bad-boy’. The subtle and not-so-subtle body language of his teachers underscored their view of him and in time Trevor was willing to identify himself as they did. He carried this new identity heavily. Both physically and emotionally I could see the change in him. His focus was on the floor; his ire was on a hair-trigger. He had always been a beaming bright boy who had gradually become cloudy over the course of only a few months. It is hard not to panic seeing a child carry such shadows. Of course I wanted to do everything I could to help him.

As a parent there were paths before me that I was expected to follow. The school had identified Trevor as a behavior project, and had suggested what they considered to be ‘normal’ procedures to deal with such students. Ahead of us lay the paths of counseling, increasing discipline at home, and possible diagnosis and/or treatment for attention disorders. These are the options. But, are they the only options?

Meanwhile, Trevor kept talking about zombies. Not in a gruesome way, but in jest, and in his metaphors. Guys his age often say things that are vivid with the images of their fantasy world. I thought nothing of it. Until, finally one night Trevor came into my room at four in the morning in tears; he had had a nightmare. It was still dark, I was very asleep, and for some unknown reason in my half-awake state I accidently produced what was perhaps my best possible moment of parenting. I cannot claim that I had a plan, or a doctrine that I was abiding by. I was just sleepy.

I asked Trevor what the nightmare was about. Of course he said, “Zombies.”

The great teleprompter of our culture that delivers the script for mommies says that at that moment the appropriate line is: “Don’t worry honey, there is no such thing as Zombies. I am here, everything is ok.” The programming to deliver these lines is strong.

But I did not say any of those things. Instead I took his hand, gave it a kiss and told him we would talk about it in the morning.

Why did I do that? To this day I do not know. I can only say that something gave me pause. The simple platitude of reassurance felt disrespectful to Trevor’s struggle. I did not know what to say or do, so I postponed the conversation until morning.

As a mom, I find that setting my internal alarms to go off when these pre-scripted moments surface is a good idea. In my experience these are precious opportunities for substantive evolutionary communication change between the generations. The way in which culture directs our parenting is almost invisible, and profoundly pernicious. Cultural scripts are tricky, they sneak up on you. Suddenly I notice that I have said one of those things that parents say, “Clean up your room—I don’t know how you live like this.” Or “Don’t talk to me with that tone of voice.” I like to tag those tiny micro moments and expand them. I usually find there is something more there, and that had I gone along with the script I would have set another course of interaction into play. Avoid parental autopilot, that is my motto.

I woke the next day wondering what sort of zombies were haunting my kid. My zombies are inane; they’re the ones from the Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ music video: gory and groovy. Or, sometimes my zombies are like the ones from ‘The Night Of the Living Dead’ which attack and eat people’s brains. They are impressive in their costumes and spooky music, but do not shake life’s foundations.

I know my son, and neither of those types of zombies would frighten him in the way that he was clearly frightened when he came to my room that night. He was scared—deep down.

I became curious to find out more about his zombies. The following morning I asked him, “Trevor what is a zombie for you, because I have a feeling that the zombies in your head are not the same as the ones in my head?”

I will never forget his answer. Trevor at age 12 said:

“Zombies are people who cannot think for themselves, they want you to be like them. …And, if you do what they say, your dignity flies out the window.”

I have never heard a more succinct description of the cultural stranglehold of western civilization. In that moment I realized with tears in my eyes that there were thousands of Trevors out there derailing classroom activities with disrespect, disruption, not listening, and—in their own way—they were fighting the zombies. These kids are engaged in perhaps the noblest battle there is: the battle to protect one’s dignity. They are willing to risk everything for this cause. They get in trouble, they lose privileges, they are labeled ‘bad-boys’ and ‘bad-girls’, they spend hours with counselors, they are given medication, they sabotage their college entry, they even lose the proud love of their parents. But, they will not submit to the zombies. I have to respect that.

“Yes,” I said to Trevor, “We live in a full tilt zombie invasion. I live in it too. I struggle every day. What shall we do?”

I went on to explain that, of course, his teachers meant no harm. No one meant any real disrespect, but to keep the class organized and on task they felt they had to control the kids. Trevor was not accustomed to being controlled.

In truth when Trevor delivered his description of his zombies I knew immediately that he was going to be fine. He had touched upon one of the great challenges that anyone inclined toward critical thinking slams into. He was asking the right question. He was taking the right risk. I knew I did not have to worry about Trevor losing himself. But, I still needed to help him get through the 5th grade without burning his future bridges to university and a successful life. Honestly, being a parent is a demanding job.

Trevor and I were now off script. The counselors and the diagnoses were no longer on the table as remotely relevant. Now an entirely unwritten conversation lay in front of us. Clearly he needed to do something to reclaim his dignity. Changing schools was one option. But there were sure to be zombies at the next school too. So it was my turn; I took a risk and made a deal with Trevor.

Trevor is an actor, and he was already studying performance at that time. So I offered him his first paid acting job. I promised him 100 dollars to play the part of the Straight-A student until the end of the school year, (it was already February). If he could play that part the zombies would be fooled into thinking that they could stop trying to control him. Hopefully he would have some peace. But, I had one caveat; that he never, ever, ever believe that he actually was that Straight-A student the world wanted him to be. I said, “Play the part, but I want my Trevor for a son, not a zombie.”

I wanted him to know that he had an advocate. It was important to me for him to see that there are times in life when we do not have a prefabricated answer or solution. And that I would be there to experiment with him until we found a way through, together. I wanted him to know that even parents do not know how to deal with people trying to control them. Besides that, I only wanted him to know that his fear was real and beautifully articulated.

The school administrators would never have discovered that particular medicine for my son. I do not blame them. But I do want to shatter the accepted normalcy of their response. To ‘fix’ a child’s expression of anger or fear is a horrible thing to do. They are not broken; they are navigating cultural, physical, emotional, and intellectual terrains that are overpopulated with false authority and hypocrisy. We adults are tour guides of these realms, bestowed with the highest possible trust by the coming generations. Let them see us learn. Complexity is surprising, multi-causal, ruled by overtones, and not systemize-able. The only tactics I can advise are respectful patience, affection, and playfulness.

For his 17th birthday I had his iPod engraved with the words: “Dignity Vanquishes Zombies.”

Trevor is a good actor, and a very good student. At university he made the dean’s list several times. He wrote to tell me: “I made a 3.9 grade point average this term, but don’t worry Mom, I am not a zombie.”

Representation is something to be careful with. Mutual respect requires careful jurisdiction on the habit of portraying another person’s experience. I do not lightly offer this story.

After reading my version Trevor added a couple of paragraphs:

I can recall a time in my life when no matter what I did, I felt as though I had to appeal to an authority outside of my own. Whether that was teachers, parents, peers, or even just the preset social standards did not matter. Failing to please meant some form of punishment. I knew then that educational institutions have no vigor for those of us who question them. Can they not see that emails home, alienation, and categorization are not solutions to ‘behavioral issues’ but rather triggers that drive small boys to draw penises on desks? If you put a twelve-year-old student under constant surveillance, and write home about his progress or lack thereof, do you think he will feel at peace? Or alienated? If the schools suggest medication and control tactics they presume that will improve the students’ relationship with school. Will it? No. For those of us who see the zombie world it will just hasten the realization that the educational system is a front for a large-scale colonization project, ridding us of our right to personal perspective.

Yes, I am Trevor, and to this day I can see the zombies, walk with the zombies, talk with the zombies, but I know in my bones that I believe none of it. My mother, a very gracious, nurturing, and unorthodox mother, taught me everything I know. She helped me access my potential, and never gave me a fabricated answer. When I went to my mom that night in tears, having just dreamed of a classroom in which everyone was just mindlessly performing their tasks, no individuality, no talking, no freedom, I thought “Oh no, my mom’s going to just tell me to go back to bed and that it’s nothing.” But, of course, my mom is a Bateson, so she said, “Let’s talk about this in the morning.” We eventually understood that both our lives are filled with conformity, but our minds have to remain free. My mother implored me to find my way to find peace in both, by giving me my first job, in which I would get a real introduction to the process of living in two worlds at the same time. One where authority is defined as mutual respect, and the other where it is merely deference. The latter just requires a smile, a nod, and an answer, but never, ever an opinion.

—Trevor Brubeck

Hitchhiker Emergency

Someone asked me once if I had ever seen my father in an emergency situation, and if I might describe how he dealt with it. At the time I replied that I had never witnessed him in any danger, or in an emergency. But later I remembered that I had. The fact of my not recalling the emergency is significant.

We were in the car. Driving to my riding lesson. At that time we lived in Big Sur, California. If you have ever had the pleasure or terror of driving the Big Sur coastline on Highway One, you will know that the two-lane road is characterized by majestic mountains on one side and steep, death-defying cliffs that plummet down to the Pacific Ocean on the other. We had an old dirty white Volkswagen Van. It was the ’70s, we were a hippy family and I was a long-legged, scraggly, mountain child, about 10 years old. I was in the backseat, free to roam around as there were no seat belts back then. My father was driving, and while it is not part of this story let me just say he was one of the worst drivers ever. He was always busy looking at the whales in the sea, or spotting hawks. Terrible.

As we drove up the coast, we passed a hitchhiker on the side of the road who had his thumb out. He was a young man with a big backpack. A traveler. My father, ever the anthropologist, was interested in travelers, and in people in general. He liked to pick up hitchhikers. He liked to have conversations with strangers. So we picked up this fellow.

A few minutes later as we were driving along the man suddenly had a knife in my father’s side. He was demanding money; he was pumping with adrenaline.

I think this qualifies as an emergency. A two-lane road with nowhere to pull over. A kid in the back seat, and it would be another 30 years before the invention of the mobile telephone.

But I never noticed. I did not see the emergency because my father’s response was to cheerfully look down at the knife and then into the eyes of the hitchhiker and say in his most droll Englishness, “Well hello, what have we here?”

He was authentically calm and amused. His interest in the desperate young man had actually increased several fold by this communication, (i.e. a knife and monetary demands). My father began to ask him questions. How had he come to be in Big Sur? How had he found himself in such a muddle? Through these questions and, more importantly, the tone of the questions, my father was listening and learning about how someone can get in such a twist. He was not applying a psychological trick or a technique. This was not a manipulation. He was not ‘trying’ to calm the guy down. He was just interested, one human being to another. His curiosity in the young man was piqued, and his inquiry reflected that. He did not see a knife… he saw a person with a story.

How would most people react? Would they fight, would they try to get the money to him right away? Would they try to trick him? What are the scenarios that immediately play out? For most of us, a knife in our side would be a moment of panic. This was an emergency. But somehow it was not. As a passenger in the back seat of the van I watched their interaction and never for one second felt fear in the car. There was no spike in the drama, no flutter of breath, no indication of danger at all. I still do not think of that afternoon as being life-threatening, though surely it was.

After driving another half an hour we came to a place where we would have to drop off our hitchhiker and deliver me to my horseback-riding lesson. When we pulled off the road my father opened his wallet and gave the young man a $20 bill. He wrote our home phone number on a scrap piece of paper from the floor of the car and gave the guy a hug. My father suggested that the man call if he found himself in trouble. These were not idle generosities to suggest good will. He was not faking it. The warmth and the care he felt for the traveler was genuine. I could feel that, and so, apparently, could the hitchhiker. All three of us learned a great deal from that half an hour in the VW van.

As I look back now at that situation I can only say that I hope one day to be able to see context as well as my father did. He was not young when this story took place. He was maybe 74 years along in his practice of seeing more than just the tip of the knife. I suppose it takes time to be able to respond to an acute situation with love that stems from complexity… or is it the other way around: complexity that stems from love?

Perhaps there is no beginning to that loop. I will start by noticing my reactions, and searching for wider, deeper edges to the complexity I am reacting to, responding to—and shift that into mutual learning.

The solution expected, the way predicted, is so far removed from the options that surface when viewed from a wider angle, that they are entirely unplannable. I have spent long hours defending the possibility that attempting to solve a problem by going at it directly is only occasionally effective. I usually receive lost looks of bewilderment and a plea for a map, a method, and a technique. But, so often we make more of a mess than we ever imagined possible by seeking direct solutions. The problems we see are nested in contexts with particular alchemies that produce the ‘issue’ we want to solve. Identifying and strategizing our way through becomes short-circuiting which is often destructive. The consequences go spiraling off into further confusion, more issues, and more problems. Sometimes the way through is at an entirely unseen angle.

If you would like to buy this book here is the amazon link:

Small Arcs on Amazon press here

Without Shields (the voice of change is changing)


There are ancestries and ecologies that are speaking. I am honored when their voices run through me. Only when my integrity is clean is the frequency audible. Simplicity is complexity with grace.
To be their vessel: to hold the nourishment, to wear the breath of any possible future…is to cast aside the costumes and scripts of excuses for the damage. The exploitation that has been justified has bled through now. The language, the status and the authority once wielded to make the vulnerable quiver, now makes cuckolds of anyone who would stand in for the way things have been. Time’s up.
So I stand naked, in the fire, alone in the dark night. Warrior-ready to simply disavow the matrix of materialism. Eyes rolling in disbelief. Once again the presumption… the nerve is remarkable. Taking, tricking, claiming is the perverse providence of anyone who would adopt the stance of the oppressor. The sociopathic eagerness for wealth, influence, at any cost, is such a small shoe. No voice of life will speak through that craving mess.
I see now that this work is not daytime. I am walking barefoot through the glass of broken worlds. I have been training for generations for this. Do not try to shelter me, my soft tissues hold the fluid of forever. I can hold this pain with joy, and wash each day with the wholeness of great-great grandchildren who will one day play here. May they have soil under their fingernails.
(n.bateson 2017)

Most Problems Today Were Once Solutions.



The time has come
The walrus said
To talk of many things:
Of shoes- and ships-
And sealing wax-
Of cabbages and kings-
And why the sea is boiling hot-
And whether pigs have wings.”
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland


Time has come and gone, and sits now at the window —watching. When I was a child I sat at tables of concerned and brilliant people who discussed the fate of the world with great passion. It was the early 70’s and publications were springing up around the globe to announce the need to change the way humanity was living with each other and the biosphere. The radical revolutionaries were penning beautiful texts on systems theory, cybernetics, ecology, new forms of education, steady state economics, and exploratory versions of non-violent democracies. It was quite clear at my dinner table in 1976 that there were a few basic steps to be taken immediately to save mankind and the planet. They were: be respectful to all cultures, save the ecology, offer equal opportunity to all, resist runaway capitalism, and stop building nuclear weapons. More than 40 years later, whatever measures have been taken, no matter how well intended, we must admit that they have not been enough. While we may be ready now to embrace some of the criteria for survival from the mid-seventies – it is no longer the seventies. While still viable, these criteria appear quaint and insufficient now. Fixing economies, making civil rights laws, or developing sustainable architecture seems now to have been merely a form of prolongation of the epistemology that defaults to exploitation. Incremental change, it would appear, was an idea that ate decades. So, from this beginning point, (which is really a middle point), we sit today, with father time, by the window, watching.

I will not mention an end point. There is no indication that there has ever been any leverage in the threat of apocalypse, and anyway, complex systems are not linear; this much is basic. The moment that we share now, here, today, reaches both backward and forward in human experience within the biosphere. We are rolling up our sleeves, getting dirtier, braver, and more anxious as we ask our questions. The stakes are higher now. Will our conversations, our contributions, our combined discoveries and our dedication be worthwhile? There is history that is dripping with poetic connection to a possible future beyond the ubiquitous epistemological default to exploitation.

Generations of ideas are folding now, fidgeting and fumbling toward the warm hands of the future’s doers, makers, thinkers and beautifiers.

Knitting history to future is an evolutionary poetry that is precarious, and edges tragedy with a wry smile. This text is a pause. This is a stepping back from the manic doing and changing that we may feel the impulse to engage in to “save the planet”. There are mechanistic metaphors whispering constantly into the cultural zeitgeist of “solutions”. Those parts and wholes metaphors infect the process of meeting and responding to complex problems with reductionist habits –habits that are not easy to break.

The excuse that to survive we must all take part in the socio-economic systems that are going to kill us is what my father, Gregory Bateson, called a double bind. Knowing that the way we are living is actually destroying not only our health but that of future generations, but doing it anyway, is very nearly a definition of addiction. These are a couple of theories and processes that we are dipping into. Another concept we are lifting into the lexicon is “transcontextual description”. Transcontextual is more than transdisciplinary, it is looking into the multiple contexts that any complex system exists within. And doing so with the understanding that the vitality of any system is not locatable in any particular context but rather in the relationships between them. Life after all, does not happen in disciplines, it happens in contexts. To meet complexity it takes complexity. Illustrating transcontextual processes is a way to better recognize interdependency.

These are subjects, questions and processes that are the fruits of three years of the International Bateson Institute inquiry. We as a group have been grappling and playing with creating an approach to research that generates information about the contextual relationships of our studies. We call this information Warm Data. We started out asking about how systems get unstuck, and this course of research brought us deeply into subjects that Gregory had been alerting his students to for decades, addiction and double binds.

Now more than ever these topics are necessary to open. It is with honor and gratitude that we of the International Bateson Institute, have gathered to explore a context of mutual learning (Symmathesy), about where and how to better form the questions that will bring the more elegant inquiry into view. We do this with hearts open, soft to the sensitizing necessary, and minds nimble and rigorous, ready to meet the intensity of the hours of theoretical exploration necessary. As we sit with time now, not on our side, but by our side, we remind each other to steer clear of habituated comfort zones that make lazy learners of us. Evolution, after all is a harsh nanny, not tolerant of excuses and feeble justifications for not making change.

Hope & Horror, Parts & Wholes.


This is a chapter from my book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles. It is a story of my discovery and confusion around the emergence of a widespread global grouping of people concerned for the survival of “indigenous Europeans” — white people. It is important to note that a peephole into this parallel world began for me in 2013 (maybe 2012?), and by then as an internet phenomenon of community it was already in full swing. This white supremacy question is not about the USA, it is not about Trump, it has nothing to do with Making America Great Again (MAGA), this situation runs much much deeper. In my considerations of how and where to take action, I am finding that an oversimplified, or decontextualized view of these social divisions only helps to fuel the fire. I am not suggesting that I have the deeper view necessary, only that I am ready to grope in the darkness to expand my understanding. I get that I don’t get it. We are on the brink of either epiphany or war, or maybe both.

Confusion is blooming into a vitriol of finger pointing, and violence. This moment is profound — a call for urgent action. But, before we jump in with action, it is imperative that there be a moment of pause. Polarity breeds polarity; by default it is an escalating process. Enter carefully. The cultural fissures are not as clear as they seem at first glance. Memes make it seem too easy.

The institutionalized exploitation of both humanity and our habitat manifests as racism, manifests as sexism — as capitalistic greed that puts human luxury above ecological survival. Exploitation is a long narrative of “deadly.” As illusions of democracy as immune to corruption are crumbling, the world is becoming less like I wish it was… Each day seems to be a further reveal of the violence that has always been there. The dreams of the 60’s and 70’s are fading fast. Now, as the battlefield of identity is drawn up, each grouping of ideologies is ossifying in their own particular frequency and becoming less able to hear the others. But the lines are moving. The incoherence is louder than the polarity. I offer this chapter as perhaps a useful contribution to the moment.

Hope and Horror, Parts and Wholes.

Here is the link to the chapter: Small Arcs Hope & Horror (1)

Yes, Together. Intergenerational learning.


Though many will say that the future is in the hands of the children, in fact the future lies in the relationship between the generations. What kind of education will they need? And how can we as adults open our minds to thinking in new ways with them? Intergenerational learning is NOT a new project, it’s as ancient as time. Ask instead about what is being learned?

These questions go well beyond the school yard. Schools have been formed by silo-ed thinking, and therefore produce silo-ed knowledge of the world that fits the demands of silo-ed workforce and all those silos violate the interdependency of our world — generating ecological and human rights destruction. There was a time when the dream of colonial exploitation thrived off this model and developed countries got rich off this epistemology. It supported objectification of absolutely everything from people to ecologies. This thinking built great nations, and great inventions… and it is now destroying the world.

Let’s be frank, the hold up on educational systems change is the adults’ fault, not the kids’. Students are by definition recipients of the system of education delivered to them. It is of no comfort to show our battle scars and consider the gauntlet of education to be a kind of coming of age test for youth. The education system as it is now is as toxic to teachers, parents, counselors, as it is to students.

-To help prepare coming generations to thrive in their lives is to prepare them to perceive, and respond to complexity far beyond what previous generations were taught.

-To teach complexity is to be a tour guide into a world of beautiful and messy interrelationships that defy the old school of right/wrong binaries. Education, as a system, must adapt and evolve to the changing world.

The systems we live within are in constant interaction, from social systems to economic systems, to biological systems and ecological systems. Our challenge in this era is to become familiar with the living complexity of our lives and avoid the destructive habits of reductionism. I have said this a hundred times…But when it comes to intergenerational interaction this change is not so easy. It is much easier to take up meditation, or a new diet, become expert in an new technology or get a degree, than to change the way adults interact with children. The habits are hardwired to repeat what we have experienced, the good, the bad and the ugly. With some attention and cultural support a good deal of “progressive” parenting and classroom interaction has increased adult sensitivity to children’s sensitivity. But this is only the beginning. The next horizon is one of authentic mutual respect between generations, patience, humility, and care. We are headed into rough seas, together. Yes, together.

Horizons we face together. (me and my kids at sea)

The more pressing issue is that the future is going to be so different from the past that a great many of the skills and habits, and “truths” that were in the landscape even a few years ago, are becoming obsolete. The weather, food production, addiction, medicine, ecology, economy, politics and cultural volatility are all in first place for the next tipping point of global and societal shake down. Their world, to put it most simply, will be, and already is, dependent on another approach to co-existence. Children of today are facing a world in which the basics are in transformation.

The education system is a story. And, like many stories it is  woven between so many variables that it often feels ungraspable. If the employment sector is a foot, the education system is a shoe that is designed around it and vice versa. We might think then of economy as the path upon which the shoe and foot must have traction. The interdependency is what I am getting at with this metaphor. The issue is that to fix the education system requires a profound study of employment, culture, media, ideas of success and so on. While the complexity is hard work, a deeper understanding can reveal possibilities we did not previously see. Patterns of linear thinking can blind us to the vital interrelationships and our own innate ability to respond with greater sensitivity to the complexity of our lives. As the adults in the room, in this moment in time, we owe at least this much to the coming generations whose world is in such pain. I say this not to cast blame, but to recognize that the ancestors, and elders have let these kids down. For whatever reasons our parents did not manage to stop the madness, their parents did not stop the madness, and neither have we.  The road to this moment reaches way back in history, it took centuries to get this lost, but we only have one generation to pop through arrested development of our species. They need all the help they can get.

When it comes to the intergenerational relationships called “education”, the notion of mutual learning (Symmathesy) is absolutely essential for me. The way we listen is given a good deal of lip-service these days. I have personally no idea how it is that one can listen with full mind/body/imagination without learning.

The wall of “adults know best” between the generations must be overcome and instead curate an environment of intergenerational mutual-learning. My father, Gregory Bateson, gave me a most precious gift by showing me that he was learning with me when I was a child. The gift was “learning to learn”. I grew up in an unusual household in which what was important was not who was right or wrong, but what had been discovered. From the very beginning of my life my parents did not hesitate to show me the world as they saw it, through a lens of interrelationship. The education they provided me was inherently ecological, introducing me to the patterns and processes that together create complex living systems, like forests, like oceans, like cultures, like families, and like my own body and ideas.

On the shoulders of my father. (G. Bateson and me age 10) Photo Kai De Fontenay

We, the adults, the so-called authorities, will have to shift the form of our customs of intergenerational interaction to model the humility of revealing our own learning. These shifts include: revealing subjectivity, exploring the necessary inconsistencies in complex systems, and practicing zooming in and out from detail to context. The patronizing humiliation of “tough love” and the attitude of “teach that kid a lesson” are two of the most deformed and poisonous ways to infect the potential of interaction between generations. I cannot express that strongly enough. Authority is not diminished by revealing learning. It is increased.

Three Useful Terms:

Transcontextual Description: This term refers to the ways in which multiple contexts come together to form complex systems. It allows for a concentration on the interdependency between contexts that give resilience to both living and non-living systems. Transcontextual description offers insight into where contextual overlap is reinforcing and where it is loose enough to initiate shifts.


Noun: An entity formed by contextual mutual learning though interaction.

Verb: To generate mutual learning contexts through the process of interaction between multiple variables in a living entity.

*(for more on Symmathesy please read the article written by Nora Bateson in Small Arcs of Larger Circles or online in numerous journals)

Warm Data:

“Warm Data” is information about the interrelationships that integrate elements of a complex system.

Here is a link to the idea of warm data.: https://norabateson.wordpress.com/2017/05/28/warm-data/

Review of Small Arcs of Larger Circles in Cybernetics and Human Knowing Journal

Here is the link to read the whole review in Cybernetics and Human Knowing Journal:  Cybernetics and Human Knowing, review of Small Arcs written by Pille Bunnell

Bunnell writes:

An Invitation to Creative Reflection

“This is a book for the adventuresome, prepared to travel, relying on their own resources. It is a little book, but it is dense conceptually. The chapters are both independent Arcs and parts of the whole, which indeed does circle around. If I were to name a orientation for this circling, it would be something like a desire for a more fluid and dimensional way of doing things such that ethical behavior can more readily be realized in any relationship, including our relation with the biosphere. The book is realized in various forms ranging from essays, to poems, from conference presentations to personal reflections, including an email to a friend. The style of writing varies, not only between chapters, but often within a chapter. One needs to be nimble to follow the shifts, much like travelling through a highly varied landscape with attention ranging from delight at distant views, concerns about safety of river crossings, to investigations of odd scratches on a tree or delight in a frail flower nestled among rocks. The landscape includes wetlands with floating islands that can be connected through making leaps, or trusting to metaphoric bridges. Sometimes the shift from a solid ground to mid air happens in midsentence; so one must be alert.

The Book as a Work of Art”