CWGI

The Cell: Are They Really Our Friends

It was churchtime Sunday morning. I religiously pulled out my aging Power Book at the Starbucks after puring my brown libation into the receptacle beneath the carved silver goddess of the sea, stirring in just enough cream to take the edge off. There were a few couples, and a handful of solo fellow worshipers. Each of them actively accompanied by their electronic companions ~ looking longingly at them, stroking them gently, like lovers.

My iPhone got jacked out of my car last week. Mistakenly left her alone for one night in my complex’s garage and the evildoers abducted her. They broke the big, expensive window. Is there no honor amongst thieves these days? Called AT&T. No upgrade til June. So I am using this lame flip with a keypad the size of my left thumb. I had to grow nails to be able to push the buttons. All day, I’m missing my friend…

Wow ~ do I really feel like I lost a friend? Answer — Yes. It is crazy.

My daughter, 13, just walked in to meet me. In typical teen style she plops down across from me, without saying hello, pulls out her laptop. 2 minutes later she is leaning her head over our touching laptop screens demanding, at the far boarder of frustration, “I NEED INTERNET”, cause she can’t get her newly purchased Starbucks card to give up the web. Its a beautiful day, and here we sit ~ tethered to these machines.

How did these machines push their way past human relationship for the number one seat?

Michael invited me down to a latin jazz performance the other night. He was with a couple friends ~ grown-ups. Mid conversation, one was texting incessantly under the table like a schoolgirl in her desk as if we couldn’t see, saying, “this is rude, isn’t it?” She didn’t stop.

I heard Larry King once describe the hardest part of quitting his addiction to smoking was that it felt like loosing his best friend. He said butts are right there keeping you company when you want to be alone, they act like your wingman, keeping you feelin’ “Kool” when you are in public, and are the perfect partner for a drink or a cup of coffee. As smoking has been banished from our living and working spaces, our portable d-vices have become the new cigarettes ~ and it seems we are all having click-fits.

I am struggling not to replace my iPhone. Not even because there is a new one coming out in a minute. I don’t like the hold it has on me. I haven’t had a drag in a decade for the same reason. Still love em both.

At the same latin jazz show, the sister with the phone said that she was a “military intelligence” pro, soon to be working in “Northern Virginia”. I asked what she will be doing hoping this would be my first encounter with a real spy ~ at least that I know of. Turns out she will be amongst those to decide which countries get the new 83 Million dollar stealth jet that can take of and land anywhere like a helo.

Wow ~ what goes into a decision like that?

Her proud response ~ “Five years of training.” Comforting. I told her I was glad that a woman was making that decision, particularly one with a 1-year-old child. I asked her to include him, and every other child on the planet, as she parses the equation.

Daniel J Gerstle, founder of Helo Magazine, informed me that helo is what they call choppers in the world of relief work. Not sure if it’s pronounced “hell-o” or “heal-o”. Guess that depends on which application we are referring to. Won’t it be lovely when healing is the only application of our most elegant and efficient technologies.

At what point do machines deserve to be treated as our friends?

My emerging answer: When they give life rather than taking from it. I’m out of this cell ~ going to hang with my beautiful daughter on this lovely day. Leaving you with some peaceful green from the Helo crew…

Balancing Scales

I recently went before a group of folks from a foundation to pitch the idea for The Bench That Gives. The two big push backs were the scale of the endeavor, and the evidence or proof that what we are creating can work. I was told that what is needed is to produce 10s of thousands of jobs, and that it was a nice idea, but what can an handful of folk geared up to produce benches and other products achieve.

My knee-jerk response was defensive ~ trying to show that this is just a start and that as we brought more businesses into partnership to create more of the model, we would eventually reach scale. But this response does not honor what I know to be true, nor the intuitive evidence that underlies this initiative. I tossed around all night. What came to me in the wee hours, was to really listen to what I know ~ the concept that this blog is based upon ~ that it is not only huge efforts that create change, little efforts with big visions and integrity have the power to reach critical mass.

The power of an idea is not in its grandness, it is in its ability to be lifted and carried by many people. Therefore, by design, it must be small, compelling, apprehensible, and able to be transferred by those moved by it.

Seth Stevens, CWGI Advisor, retail genius, and proprietor of the successful Mount Washington Wine Company and Dogma took me out on a selling trip to introduce me to the retail products business. Seth had coached me on producing some stunning leave-behind sales materials including a spec sheet with the color pics of the bench. Our first stop was an up-scale garden center in “The County”. Seth began by saying a couple words about the bench, and I followed with an equally brief description of the project. Seth nodded to me to pull out the spec sheet. When the woman at the shop saw the pics, her head literally snapped back as she noted how beautiful the bench was. When she saw the retail price of the bench was $2500, she said, “Expensive! But we can do expensive here.” The sale wasn’t complete, but the message was clear. We left with a spring in our step. Seth leaned over and said, “That’s the evidence we needed!”

By combining the stunning design of the bench with a project that teaches folks to use their hands to “make good”, she easily got it, and was invested in both the product and the idea ~ little as they both may be. So as the bench moves from the workbench at Gutierrez Studios, out to the garden center. It gives the woman who was sold on the concept a chance to sell the concept repeatedly ~ in her own way. Each of the folks who purchase one for their yard have now been invested. It gives them the opportunity to share this story with each visitor who comments on the bench, and so on… This is in part the vision of this project ~ that each person who is “sold” on the concept of Community becomes an emissary, invested in the idea that we are all responsible for eachother’s well-being. In isiZulu this idea is known as UBUNTU. UBUNTU is the little idea with the power to help change the world to something that is giving and beautiful. Imagine the possibilities!

The Bench that Gives

Nurture Form Community Bench. Photography by Chris Hartlove

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve experienced a rapid reduction in access to vehicles. Last year I lost my car and relied totally on my motorcycle and sharing a vehicle with my girlfriend when it was raining or too icy to ride. This winter’s fury kept me off of the motorcycle for months. When there was a break in the weather, I hopped on to take her out, and for the first time she wouldn’t start. I fiddled and fussed, but nothing. A couple weeks ago the car we shared had a rapid decline. So I pumped up the tires on my bicycle which hadn’t seen the road for a couple years and off I went.

Thank SPIRIT that much of my time is spent at Gutierrez Studios where most of the gents who work there commute by bike, and for those who don’t, sweat is still a way of life. But not every meeting is appropriate for a sweaty, lycra-clad entry. So for those days, and days to rainy to ride, there is Baltimore’s public transportation “system”.

For anyone who has contempt for those who can’t keep a job, I recommend a couple weeks relying on the MTA. Example: I had to get to a place with wifi this morning to get some work done. My iPhone (incidentally, a very useful tool for public trans travel, but also unaccessible to those who can’t swing the buck-eighty per month nut to ATT) told me to walk the mile to get to the bus stop to catch the 33 which was due to pick me up at 10:54. I arrived at the bus stop with 10 minutes to spare, but waited until 11:25 for the next bus to arrive. This waiting is a regular experience for public transit riders. On “good” routes, the schedule tells you there is a half hour to the next bus. If that one doesn’t show, add over an hour to your travel time. I had to get downtown, for my next stop. This is a 7 minute car ride from the coffee shop. My phone informed me that it is a 44 minute bus trip, including one transfer. Now, if even one leg of that trip breaks, it could be an hour and 45 minutes for the three mile commute. My iPhone tells me it would only be a 59 minute walk. Interesting dilemma.

If I was traveling to a job just 10 miles away during rush hour, I would have to plan on a two- to four-hour trip. Simple odds tell you that I would be late at least a couple times a month. How many employers would care to hear my excuse after the second time? Add single parenting and getting kids to school into that mix, and welfare seems about the only viable option.

This morning, after my hour-and-fifteen-minute-long commute to the local coffee shop, I ran into a woman I know. “Oh, that was you walking down the hill. I wasn’t sure if it was you, so I didn’t stop so I wouldn’t have to give a ride to someone I didn’t know.” I wasn’t mad at her. I know that she didn’t know her 3 minute drive would translate to an hour of lost time for me. But I am mad at a system that doesn’t hold people who don’t have resources as a priority. I am mad at a system that has made it unsafe for a woman to see if it is her friend walking. I am mad at a system that doesn’t make it safe for anyone to add people they don’t know to their empty cars to enable them to have any prospect of keeping a job and having a decent life.

Several years ago, artist Samuel Christian Holmes produced ornate sculpted thrones for MTA Lightrail stops on Howard street. He told me that he made them so that when his people were waiting for trains they would at least have a moment of feeling like kings and queens. I know this image moved a little something in my soul. As it turns out that little something had a lot to do with the Nurture Form Community Bench that was recently born.

Since I was very young, I have adored beautiful things. Not flashy things ~ things that exude beauty. I love the craftsmanship of old tools, formed of wood and steel by hand. I love the exquisite lines of instruments whose curved shapes are made to hold, and to make room for the bow to travel. I love the action of the keys of a Steinway Grand, resulting from over 12,000 moving parts. And I love the beauty of a well crafted piece of furniture. I know that the privilege of my upbringing ~ with a Mom who would on occasion pull out her beautifully ancient violin, and who collected things made by hand, and pianist Aunt Elaine, who allowed me to play her Steinways, and older brother Mark, who spent endless hours coaxing historic automobiles to life and beauty ~ I know my experience is rare, particularly for a Black man in America.

Yesterday in preparation for her first photo shoot, I methodically followed the grain of the pink ipe wood, initially with sand paper to pull smooth the surface, then, with penetrating oil to release the rich, brown beauty of her grain. I realized that the little idea of the Nurture Form Community Bench was not only about bringing something of beauty to life. I knew then that what was being born was the sum of all the gifts my life has given me ~ the gift of loving things that were made to continue giving. Although the design for the bench literally came to me one morning in the magical space between dreaming and waking, so many hands have touched and shaped this gift, that it no longer belongs to me alone. From the moment I first learned of Sam’s thrones, to when I first saw a stunning “Guti” bench, to when I handed the drawing to John who smiled his approval as he passed it to Mo the virtual sculptor, to when Mo’s 3D drawings of the bench appeared in my inbox making it no longer just an idea, to when he turned those into shop drawings for craftsman Drew to heat and bend her to life ~ all of these touches created this strong and delicate object. Yesterday, when photographer Chris Hartlove set his lights and lens to share her with the world, I began to feel the true power and movement of this gift.

My Son Grayson, himself an artist ~ a writer ~ and I were musing on the future of art. He was feeling that we had run the full course of art’s current form. We began to imagine where it was headed. I believe that the future is an evolution of the old way. Art will pull free from the rarefied walls of museums and will reconnect with life. I believe art will return to its original collaborative form where many hands bring life to the work, then, bring the work to life. The evolution will drift away from anonymizing or individualizing who gets recognition for the work. The fact that many hands touched the work will no longer decrease its value. This process will create its value. This will become the sign of truly great works.

I am learning that the Community Bench is named for the community of individuals that are behind her inviting lines.  This bench is also gift to the community. She is a fine instrument ~ a Steinway, boiled down to its essence. She was not created to bless hallowed concert halls. She was designed to “give” ~ to yield ~ as she gently holds those who have not been held in the narrow band of esteem traditionally reserved for those of privilege. As we begin to produce the Nurture Form Community Bench, she will continue to give everyday people the skill and artistry to bend and form the steel and wood from which she is constructed. As we place her on the streets of forgotten and neglected communities, she will give hope to those who learn what her lineage represents. She will signal that we as a people no longer will we tolerate the maintenance of an underclass. She will give a people who have for 400 years served an owner, the chance to own their own. She will give those waiting for buses, and change, a loving place to rest. And she will call to others to join the evolution of a society that holds all her people as deserving of the best we have to give. She will become known as “The Bench that Gives“.

Photograph By Chris Hartlove Photograph By Chris Hartlove

Photograph by Chris Hartlove Photograph by Chris Hartlove

Join the Circle of hands who give in support the Community Wealth Generation Initiative

The Master’s Touch

Photograph by Julia Pearson

It was a cold night, three years ago. The fire pit was blazing, spinning and shooting orange embers into the sky, challenging the stars for a moment before they flickered and faded. There were a hundred people huddled close. Some baking the warmth into their clothes, others pressing together in groups in animated exuberance. John had offered his amazing space to yet another friend and admirer in celebration of her birth. Farrah shone, wrapped in her grandmother’s fur like it was the best birthday ever. It was always The Best if it had anything to do with John Kennedy Gutierrez.

The drinks flowed like honeywater, painting soft our consciousness and vision ~ blurring the edges of who we thought we were. I wandered from the outside into the Gutierrez Studio showroom filled with stunning objects, armoires of shining steel and zebrawood, tables and chairs with legs of rust and patina, hanging amber light fixtures, each more simple and elegant than the last. One object captured my imagination. It was an exquisite desk lamp, honed of fine steel, delicate and sturdy ~ a cylindrical counter weight at one end, offsetting a long thin rod tipped with a tiny light. The entire piece was balanced with a polished steel ball sandwiched, well, more like suspended, between to thick steel discs. It looked like something pulled straight out of my dreams ~ the perfect object. It was blue heron-like in its hue and elegance. Like a child in a museum, I couldn’t help but reaching out to touch it. But rather than the metal-on-metal resistance I expected, the weighted rod moved as if it was floating in air. So perfectly balanced was this being from another universe, it stayed, without settling, exactly where I moved it. It was breathtaking.

I wandered around the room in awe ~ then, was overwhelmed by a feeling of deep sadness. I work in the neglected communities of Baltimore. Most people who don’t venture there imagine the pain of poverty. I see the majesty of my people making magic out of nothing. I see my young black teenage brothers in the streets pushing twisted bicycles, front wheels spinning off-kilter like tacos, slack chains, twisted handlebars. A condition that is impossible to ride. Yet, they mount these broken machines and bend the forces of space and time, hoist the front wheel towards the heavens with exquisite ease, and ride impossible wheelies for endless blocks, one hand swinging behind their backs as if to cuss back at the impossibility ~ to say, this ain’t nuthin. I knew in my soul that they deserve vehicles engineered like that lamp, and will never have access. These objects were made for those who can afford the artistry with which they were crafted.

I ran out the door to meet the man who conjured the space that created this magic. As I emerged out of the door, there was a man who towered above my 6 feet of stature, thick as a tree. He looked over at me with, olive skin, brushy brows shading sharp eyes peering through the delicately wrought glasses of an architect. His face broke into an off-kilter, snaggled smile as dimples danced up his right cheek. He stuck out his hand, which swallowed mine as if I were a child. His booming voice announced, John!

“Is that your shit in there?”, unable to pause for formalities. “Yeah, this is my place.” I don’t remember if this is true, but the residue of my memory tells me I didn’t let go of his hand. I pulled him into the showroom directly over to the “heron lamp”.

“Did you make this?”

“It was made here ~ designed by one of the craftsmen at the shop.” He walked me across the room and took me into the darkened space of the shop. He reached to flip a switch that flickered the lights to attention, revealing the caverness, cathedraled ancient space filled with machines, metal, wood, and projects in various stages of completion. It was the first time since childhood that I experienced the feeling I long to feel when I walk into a church. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reminds us, “God is in the details”.

I was standing there. I couldn’t move. “Let me run an idea by you…” I blurted in manic impatience. I sketched the image of the kids hittin wheelies on trashed bikes. I said, “What if we taught folk who can do that, to do this?” His mouth arched into that crooked smile ~ he let go a laugh and said, “Call me Monday.” That was the genesis of what will now be know as the John Kennedy Gutierrez Apprenticeship, the first project of the Community Wealth Generation Initiative.

Last week, three years later, we filmed the bending and welding of the prototype bench that will be the first product of the apprenticeship that will teach men and women in East Baltimore to do just that. The next day, I sat in the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center next to John as he labored to breathe. The next night, I stood in my living room watching the amazing footage of John’s youngest employee, Drew, heating, bending and welding the steel bench as John’s voice powered through the speakers of my stereo. I happened to record a conversation with John 6 months before. I was about to write the curriculum for the initial orientation for the apprenticeship. I asked “what do the folk we are training need to know”? John took the next 22 minutes and 40 seconds to explain what it means to be a craftsman and an entrepreneur.

As I was watching, the wind picked up outside, pushing its way through the still sticky sliding doors of my living room that John once instructed me how to fix when he was there. Moments later I received a text from John’s sister Diana that said simply, “John has left this world.”

If one is truly blessed, one is given a gift of someone with the power to bend time and space ~ to bend your life from something ordinary, into something exquisite. This is the gift that John gave to me. 500 people gathered this Monday, filling the cathedral he calls “The Shop”, that John Kennedy Gutierrez bent into being from the ashes of the Clipper Mill fire. As we pushed close to eachother around the fire pit, still blazing, spinning and shooting orange embers into the sky, challenging the stars before they flickered and faded; I knew that I was not alone.

A man who works with his hands is a laborer;
a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman;
but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.

Louis Nizer

Dancing with Karma

I have been doing a lot of guidance work around a structure that the SpiritBones has taught me about karma, at least my understanding of it. It has brought the idea closer and made it simpler. In an attempt to definie it clearly and simply: Karma is energy. It is neither good nor bad. How we engage the energy determines how that energy engages and surrounds us. It’s not the shit we did when we were X years old, or the mosquito we swatted last week. It is the way we choose to carry the energy or let it go, NOW.

This understanding has been really freeing in so many ways. We can shift our experience instantly if we alter the way we hold what we experience and the story we imbue it with. It is incredibly empowering to realize that we have that power. It’s not like some mistake we made years ago has to haunt us ~ unless of course we give it that power.

The Bones call us to face forward. The past is just that. Nota thing we can do bout it. But we can sculpt our future if we engage the present passionately, and know clearly who we are and what we have come to give to the world. Then everything starts lining up in an exquisite dance.  The reality of karma is that we sculpt our life no matter what.

The dance sometimes is more of a stumble. As we image our circumstances we shape them. When we operate from a place of scarcity, with the assumption that there is not enough of what we need to go around, we at times try to exert control over our conditions that sometimes distorts the karma surrounding them. We have all been there in some circumstance in our life, trying to bend the truth to force our selves into some situation that doesn’t quite fit. A little voice inside tells us that we should not invest in this little lie. If we ignore that little voice, we paradoxically become attached to it. We have to keep engaging that sticky energy because we don’t know how to shake it, we have to maintain the myth. It is like walking with lead weights around our soul. We can do it, but it slows us down and holds our attention ~ even subconsciously. So we begin to self-sabotage to try to compensate for that energy. But that just distances us more from our true dream and entwines us deeper with the karmic stickiness. It runs us down, we feel depressed, and often we don’t know why. So we try to address the depression externally, we drink, we prozac, we shop, to make our selves feel better. But each additional strategy further distances us from our soul’s desire. The cycle is set.

So how do we move beyond that trap? We run the Bones. Level 0: We get in touch with our vision/our dream. Level 1: We begin to tell ourselves the truth of how our choices are impacting our dream. Level 2: We share our truth with others and accept the new karma that rolls out from that. It may mean leaving or even loosing that job. At first glance this might seem like “bad karma”. But it is actually the movement, the hand of the universe aligning us with our true purpose. This is Level 3, the gift that is born out of all truthful relationship. Level 4: We start to build structures, based in truth and transparency, that can support us moving towards our dream. Level 5: We begin to manifest those dreams in the world, and our karma is lightened by the act of being true to our purpose. We also build momentum actualization our true path. Level 6: A community of mutual support begins to form around our vision. The community receives the gifts we came to bring, and we are supported by the community to bring those gifts. We become free of the doubt that initially set the negative spiral in place, and it inverts to a positive, supportive spiral. And Level 7, the new 0, allows us to reflect on our capacity to shape karma, and the energy supporting us lifts our vision to a new place.

The challenge is that it is difficult to even see we are in this spiral. This is where loving guidance is helpful ~ working with someone who can see the patterns of our lives through the telling of our story and opening to the truth or our little choices. This is the gift of the Bones. There are many individuals from many practices that can help with this reflective awareness. If you are interested in the SpiritBones structure to support you through this work, Let Us Know!