What Matters Now?

Dear Friends,

When older people greet each other from six feet away, I’ve heard them say: “I’d like a younger person to get the ventilator.”

But ventilators are no panacea for COVID-19, reports National Public Radio:

Most coronavirus patients who end up on ventilators go on to die, according to several small studies from the U.S., China and Europe. And many of the patients who continue to live can’t be taken off the mechanical breathing machines.

“It’s very concerning to see how many patients who require ventilation do not make it out of the hospital,” says Dr. Tiffany Osborn, a critical care specialist at Washington University in St. Louis who has been caring for coronavirus patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Continue reading

Love in the Pandemic of Loneliness

Loneliness, Mother Teresa said, is the poverty of the West.

Never has that been more true. We are urged to “shelter in place,” away from our work, schools, friends, family, lovers, and all the places we love.

Not everyone listens. The young are in the streets enjoying themselves. Many in midlife and beyond as well.

Many can’t shelter in place. They have to work in health care, food markets, and other essential services. Continue reading

Resilience: Living Beyond Fear with the Coronavirus

Dear Friends,

The first thing to overcome with the coronavirus is fear. The virus is certainly dangerous. The likelihood is we will need to learn to live with it. A “new normal” will emerge with its own protocols for traveling, meeting, caring for each other, grieving those we lose, and living our lives. Perhaps there will be a vaccine. Certainly we should do everything we can to protect ourselves. But that is different from living in fear. Hafiz said it well:

Fear is the cheapest room in the house.
I’d like to see you in better living conditions.

The coronavirus is a poster child for the world we are living in now. Many think that climate change is the only existential threat. In fact the greatest threat of all is the Global Challenge—the completely unpredictable interaction of several dozen global stressors—environmental, social, and technological.

The coronavirus illustrates how perfectly predictable threats (viral pandemics) disrupt  profoundly interconnected and fragile global systems. Financial markets, supply chains, consumer behavior, tourism, healthcare, and both national and global events are all affected by the virus. Continue reading

How Walter Murch Counts Sheep

Dear New School Friends:

Walter Murch is a film editor and sound designer. His work includes Apocalypse Now, the Godfather series, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has won three Academy Awards from nine nominations. Roger Ebert called him “the most respected film editor and sound designer in the modern cinema.” For me, the most interesting thing about Walter is the quality of his mind.

We have had Walter to the New School for five conversations, including one of my favorites, Waves Passing in the Night: Walter Murch in the Land of the Astrophysicists,
the title of a book about Walter by his friend Lawrence Weschler.

So it was with considerable joy that I received this email from Walter, which I pass on to you with his permission. Continue reading

January Newsletter

Leonardo Da Vinci, The Annnuciation

Dear New School Friends:

I am reading poetry.  A friend sent me this poem by Denise Levertov:

Denise Levertov

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.

       Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions

       The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.

       God waited. Continue reading

Fall Letter from Commonweal

December 15, 2019

Dear Commonweal Friends:

I hope my personal Winter Letter finds you well. You have already received the winter edition of our Commonweal News . Commonweal has never been stronger. Our 20 + programs in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice are thriving.

Oren Slozberg, our Executive Director, Arlene Allsman, our Managing Director, and Vanessa Marcotte, our Chief Financial Officer, join me in guiding our work. Our program directors and our program and administrative staff work with uncommon effectiveness and kindness.

Oren and I work closely in what he calls “intergenerational leadership.” He has a deep passion for our work. With this leadership team, I know Commonweal will be in good hands for the decades ahead.

The five projects I work on—the Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies, The New School at Commonweal, and The Resilience Project—are thriving. Continue reading

Bay Area Border Relief


Former Commonweal Program Director Heather Sarantis is just returning from doing humanitarian relief work for asylum seekers near the Texas-Mexico border through Bay Area Border Relief. Heather shares her story here:

I had been accepted to do support at Annunciation House, a respite center in El Paso, and was waiting to hear the dates they needed me. But with President Trump’s changes in asylum laws (barring nearly all asylum seekers from entering the US to await their hearing) the respite center no longer needed volunteers, so my trip was cancelled. There was simply no one to serve in the US. Everyone was just sitting in Mexico waiting to get asylum appointments.

At the last minute I was invited to go with Bay Area Border Relief (BABR) (a project of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation) and University of San Francisco (USF) (School of Education as well as the School of Nursing, International and Multicultural Education and Migration Studies). Together they have done several trips to McAllen, TX where there is another well-established respite center, the Humanitarian Respite Center, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (run by Sister Norma Seni Pimentel). Again, the change in asylum policies meant that this center that once served hundreds of people (maybe even up to a thousand) a day with food, shelter, clothing, a shower and a safe place was no longer able to provide these much needed services. They were getting about 7 people a day at the time of our trip. Continue reading

Fires and Blackouts are the New Normal. Are we ready?

From Stanley Wu, Commonweal Resilience Project Coordinator


When Pacific Gas and Energy (PGE) was determined to be responsible for the devastating Camp Fire that killed at least 86 people and resulted in tens of billions in damage, they filed for bankruptcy and changed their tactics. The public outrage over their recent CEO bonuses, lobbying, and political investments rather than fixing old and accident-prone infrastructure, was swift and accurate.

That was last year. Today as I write this in the dark at home, 185,000 people are being evacuated just north of San Francisco, and PGE has shut off electrical power to 1.3 million people. Potentially historic winds and low humidity at the end of a dry summer can develop almost any spark into a life-threatening fire that can spread faster than you can run. PGE has calculated that dealing with the public and political outrage, and plummeting stock, is cheaper than being responsible for another catastrophic fire. Continue reading

Why The New School Needs Your Help

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Dear TNS Friends:

We authentically need your help. For many years we have managed our modest TNS budget with the support of a few core funders and generous small contributions from many of you. Over the past few years, our wonderful core funders (deep gratitude to them!) have moved on to other interests, and the small contributions thus far aren’t filling the gap.

So we either need a few more core funders to show up–or we need an army of small contributors to keep TNS afloat–or some combination of the two.

We fully intend to stay afloat. But you need to know our situation. Continue reading

Fall 2019: Where Are We?

Dear Friends,

As summer ends, as the fall of 2019 begins, where are we?

The world is on fire: the Amazon, Siberia, Indonesia, and much more. Some fires are deliberately lit to clear land for grazing and agriculture. Many more are accidental or spontaneous. Global Watch Forest Fires gives you the picture.

Fire and climate change are only one of several dozen global vectors creating the “perfect storm” for humans and the biosphere. They include biosphere stressors, social stressors, and technological stressors. Most people focus almost exclusively on climate change. But there are many more stressors, and their interactions and feedback loops are entirely unpredictable. Check our new Resilience Project website.

Informed opinion is divided on whether we will (on the whole) move into a phase of global civilizational collapse or whether we will “bend, not break.” At the recent Resilience gathering at Commonweal, Nate Hagens made a powerful argument that we will bend but not break. His keynote talk is worth watching.

We can see “bend” and “break” as different points on a single continuum. Many places in the world have already inalterably broken. I love science fiction writer William Gibson’s observation: “The future is already here. It is just not very evenly distributed.”

One very real question is whether liberal democracy will collapse under the weight of the Global Challenge. Here is a powerful set of slides, “How liberal democracy can die on our watch,” from the brilliant United Kingdom thinker Jeremy Leggett.

Where are we as summer (in the Northern hemisphere) ends and fall begins? We face the greatest turning point in human history. There have been formidable turning points before, no doubt. But they did not take place in the Anthropocene, when humanity is changing the earth not only for ourselves but for all life.

The great questions are:

1. How do we understand what is happening?
2. How do we hold what is happening?
3. How do we live now in ourselves, in our families, and in our communities?
4. How can we act in concert to bend the perilous arc of our history toward life and justice?

Those are the great questions. Like all great questions, they have no single answers. But let us close with the great Sufi poet Hafiz: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”