Growing Up

Sailing on Hudson River. Photo by Eric Francis.

By Eric Francis

IT MUST BE terrifying finding out you live in a dormitory contaminated with dioxins. Imagine: you’re 18 years old and you’re having a great time at college. Then one day at the end of the year, you find out that your building had an electrical fire so long ago that nobody remembers, but not so long ago that the toxins are any better than the day of the event. Nobody told you. You feel betrayed. You learn that the chemicals involved will affect you for life; that your children and even your grandchildren may be affected; that you were lied to; and that there is nothing you can do about it except prevent future exposures, if you can.

We always talk about life on a college campus being a microcosm of the “real” world, and New Paltz, with its inconvenient toxic truth — four contaminated residence halls — surely qualifies. When I get back to town, sometimes after many months away, I inevitably get involved in this issue again, 16 years after the toxic fires that spread contamination through Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder halls, Parker Theater and the Coykendall Sciences Building. Writing about this issue has not made me John Grisham. More accurately, I sometimes feel like the Grim Reaper himself paying a friendly little visit, reminding people of the inevitable.

This has always been a tense relationship for me. Most of you know me as an astrologer who helps light up the inner human world of growth and the personal choices we face. In this role, I can be a bit circumspect and less conclusive. When I slip into my role as a dioxins journalist and community organizer, I need to shift into higher-contrast language and ideology. I must apply my talent for confrontation, and bring up a subject that most people would rather forget about. Yet that Grim Reaper thing has another side, which is by raising these issues, we push people to confront their personal issues and to grow.

As I continue with this work, not entirely voluntarily, it becomes ever easier to see why so much goes unaddressed in the world. Initiating the discussion takes so much energy, and the messenger is often blamed for the message.

Nobody really wants to have that role. Those of us who take it on usually do so grudgingly, often as a matter of survival, and at least as a painful matter of ethics. We are never prepared for it, when the time arrives. Nobody who becomes a community antitoxins activist is a scientist, a politician or a lawyer. It’s more often people like housewives (Lois Gibbs of Love Canal comes to mind) or in the case of Erin Brockovich, a secretary.

My life is often thrust into chaos as a result of getting re-involved. My business typically suffers, my energy runs low, and along the way, I have to face my own fears and inner demons. I have to be honest with myself about what it means to be alive at this time in history, particularly in the human environment, which rarely seems willing to stand for too much reality. I have to be willing to have many conversations that people would rather not have, when there are plenty of things I would rather be doing.

When we ask why the global environmental crisis (and the associated corporate responsibility crisis) is not being addressed more directly or more quickly, I think we really need to look at these personal-level issues. With the situation in New Paltz, we have a fairly typical community crisis in our world, but one that is at least workable. Shutting down four buildings is possible, and it’s probably going to be easier than stopping Greenland from melting. Yet the task is daunting enough: challenging a massive, inhuman and deceptive state bureaucracy to care about people.

One thing that’s different about the contamination issue as it exists in the spring of 2007 is that there are both students and local political leaders involved in taking action. Interestingly, they are almost all women, and the leadership is entirely composed of women. In wonder if this has something to do with their taking the reproductive issues associated with dioxin-like compounds more seriously. I have no other way to explain it.

One aspect of my work has been as a teacher, passing the torch, passing along information, and also carrying forward an environmental tradition that has its roots in the anti-pesticide movement of the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest, which has provided 90% of my education in these matters. In this role, I convey history, knowledge, information about key players and perpetrators, documents, contacts and a general sense of awareness. I bring people into a larger tradition.

That other part of me who is the astrologer, the student of relationships, the observer and the participant in synchronicity, is watching myself and others as I do this. I am watching my connections with people and how they evolve, and also noticing the themes that emerge in the discussions. Participating with others who are new to these issues, I have a chance to see what it’s like to encounter them for the first time.

I don’t feel ready to write about the people who are involved. I am ready to say I’ve been truly impressed by what I’ve seen (they probably don’t know this, because I push people pretty hard to know their stuff and be firm in their actions, and I probably give the impression that I’m impossible to impress), but that is the truth. I do feel ready to talk about some of the growth issues involved in taking action on the environment.

To take action means to fully admit to the reality of a situation. When it comes to dioxins and their chemical cousins, the first thing you learn is that we are constantly exposed. According to Dr. William Farland, who supervised the reassessment of the toxicity of dioxins for the EPA in the 1990s, the current body burden of seven parts per trillion is, by itself, enough to cause serious disease in one out of 100 people. Learning about dioxin-like compounds is terrifying.

Yet students who are organizing have another layer, which is the necessity to explain this to other people. There is always that fine line to walk between being alarmist and being straightforward. Denial runs thick; you can be laughed at, your friends can give you a hard time and you run the risk of being kicked off campus.

There is also fear of surveillance by government agencies, who seem to be back in the mode of their 1970s actions against the Black Panthers. Yes, it’s possible to get an FBI file doing this work; people may mess with you; we know the stories of activists who have had their houses burned down and their cars blown up. Nobody that I know of is obsessing over these things, but they are lurking around in the back of our minds.

Confrontation Issues
This is closely related to fear. To do environmental work involves a confrontation. Many people feel that they have to avoid confrontation at all costs. This is just not possible in a situation where you have public officials participating in poisoning students, or any similar issue. To confront someone, you need to get in touch with your power on some level: your anger, your sense of entitlement to be alive, your sense of justice — something.

Feeling powerful, even for a moment, tends to evoke fear and guilt. This can manifest as being afraid to make people angry, which is an essential thing to get over. You don’t need to proceed with the intent to piss people off, but if you’re scared of doing so, you’re going to get crushed.

All of this involves what we typically call parental issues. Taking on authority is a metaphor for challenging one’s parents. College administrators are in loco parentis, which means they are in the role of parent. Usually, people are much older than 19 or 20 when they do this. Often, people allow their parents to run their lives long after their parents have made their bodily exit from this lifetime.

Toxic Emotions
I am indebted to Lorna Tychostup for first making this astute observation. Students who are put in toxic dormitories sometimes come from toxic home environments, including those who have a history of being abused. Because their homes were toxic, a few things are possible. They may not notice the state of their building being contaminated, or may not care; or, even a contaminated place feels great, because it is less toxic than where they came from. Their attackers are not there. They can live in relative peace. But they may still carry the fear of rising up against the people who hurt them or who held them down. In addition, they may be afraid to get out of their dormitories, fearing that they will be sent someplace worse. There is indeed a close relationship between emotional toxicity and physical poisoning, and both work on the body in similar ways. As we attempt to clean up our world, we need to start with our mental and emotional environments first, which will help us make room for the attention we need to give our planet.

Reproductive Issues
Most environmental issues involve reproduction. dioxin-like compounds (which include dioxins, dibenzofurans, PCBs, many pesticides and herbicides, and many heavy metals) mimic estrogen. In other words, they act like extremely durable, synthetic estrogen. Basically, they wreak hormone chaos, causing or being associated with a large array of issues from endometriosis to birth defects. Men are affected by being feminized; their sperm counts go down, boys born to PCB exposure victims are known to have smaller penises, and there may be many other effects caused by living in an environment of extremely durable female sex hormones.

To find out about this, and to learn that you may have been exposed, is to be confronted with reproductive issues, including negative (as in terrifying) ones, a lot younger than it would normally happen. The entire subject is sensitive. Though people may have been sexually active for a while, that is different than being sexually aware. However, learning that your dormitory is contaminated with dioxins is a truly unfortunate way to become sexually aware.

But it’s an issue that we need to face. PCBs, dioxins and heavy metals are ubiquitous. They are in everyone’s blood; it’s a matter of at what level, and what level in an individual causes a response. The only way to control this, in the long run, is by diet, and as a young adult you still have a lot of eating ahead of you. It’s actually not a bad time to find out about these issues.

I’ve heard people say that young adults feel immortal. I never had that feeling, so I’m not sure I can relate, but I believe all the people who tell me it’s true. Encountering this issue of the deadly quality of toxins, or pushing others to do so, is a kind of meeting with death: the idea of death, and a shared reality that we all face collectively. Most people don’t want to do this at all, much less between the ages of 18 and 22, when they are in college.

All of this makes a good case for offering extra counseling services to New Paltz students, as well as for closing down Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder halls. The students need a therapist on their team. Are there any volunteers?

Brittany and Malachi on Rondout Creek, Kingston, NY. Photo by Eric Francis.




Weekly Horoscope for Friday, May 18, 2007, #663 – By ERIC FRANCIS

Aries (March 20-April 19)
What was all the fuss about? It is odd to think that in this world, we can forget who we are. You are remembering with a vengeance. Just don’t be too vengeful about it. Mars in your sign over the next few weeks has the power to spur all your darker emotions as well as your more impassioned and creative ones. What I recommend is that you allow this unusual enough factor to push you in the direction of your freedom. Freedom takes guts, and Mars will at least offer you some confidence. Make sure it’s the kind of confidence that comes from your heart, not your head. This will likely be a two-step process, done consciously. Consciously is the key. Remember. Okay?

Taurus (April 19-May 20)
Lately you have tread the mirrored path. It is a road where you see yourself, and where your self sees you; a phase of life where the experiences of others are highly instructive in what you are learning about yourself, or rather, where they can be if you will allow the wisdom into your spirit. At times that wisdom may come in the form of what initially feels like fear, then you use that fear like a lever. That fear may involve passion, or desire, or aggression. More to the point, it’s going to seem a lot bigger than it is, all while you would love nothing more than to settle into the comforts of home. It will be an odd mix, but you can have it all.

Gemini (May 20-June 21)
Big ideas. They are likely to arrive in a storm over the next few days, and you are likely to have the focusing power to do something about them. I just don’t suggest you talk about them too freely; rather, work your plans out silently, collecting information wherever you go, and allowing the most pointed questions to gather. You may feel compelled to speak up, but I propose instead that you take action of some kind, and if you want to discuss your idea or ambition, make sure the person is as impartial as possible, not directly involved, and basically someone who will let the subject go as quickly as he or she heard about it. Unlikely events will ensue from the right meeting or discussion, and these are likely to shift your whole orientation.

Cancer (June 21-July 22)
You’re in one of those moods where you can read your own mind. This is a feat of which not too many people are capable. It would be nice, right? It would be the cure for cluelessness. Anyway, you have it at the moment, and you wear it well. It’s a subtle kind of intelligence, arriving with the actual sense of being beautiful or at least attractive; of prosperity, or at least guidance in the right direction; and of the unusual freedom that comes from knowing your own mind. Now, if you can do this and at the same time remember all that you’re wanting to accomplish, you will most likely find that it seems to just happen. You are not being passive; you’re being aware, and your awareness has a most unusual kind of influence.

Leo (July 22-Aug. 23)
Success requires change, and it compels us to change. The two proceed in parallel, often with a good deal of tension between them and you in the middle. There’s plenty of energy contained in this equation, and it may be exerting a perfectly balanced pull in two different directions. At some point you’re going to need to yield to one of those directions, perhaps experiencing the fear that you have to give up something crucial in the process. I don’t think you will have to. But I do think you’ll need to feel and fully experience the pressure to be in some way out of balance, specifically in order to get the creative result or the holistic benefit of dealing with making an important, if uncomfortable, adjustment.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sep. 22)
A relative, perhaps an uncle or close older male friend, may provide precisely the help you need to turn a professional dream into a practical reality. Remember, though, that manifesting one’s dreams rarely follows an orderly plan. In your particular situation, you can expect some factor to change your thinking somewhat suddenly, perhaps radically. The bigger the revision, the better the development. If this factor causes you to digress from a carefully laid plan or strategy, I suggest you welcome this with an open mind. Let’s put it this way: you are likely to think at some point soon you have a discovery on your hands; but that sense is merely the harbinger of the real development.

Libra (Sep. 22-Oct. 23)
Take steps now to foster cooperation and open the channels of communication. Then, prepare to use them. In a similar way, prepare your mental space and your physical space for creative expression, then make sure you put actual energy into using the space you prepare. The process you’re in now will not proceed automatically, and the opportunities that are coming are fairly easy to squander. Yet I am sure you’ll discover that what you put in, you get back, maybe many times over. The greater ease with which you seem to be proceeding, the greater investment of energy I suggest you make. This is the time to turn potential into reality.

Scorpio (Oct. 23-Nov. 22)
A partner, close friend or loved one holds the key to an issue with which you’ve been struggling. For them, it’s easy; for you, it’s a challenge, but what you’re here to learn is how to accept the factor of ease and flow. This is about the movement of ideas, and that requires fluidity rather than fixity; it calls for asserting yourself rather than being passive. Given all you’ve been through the past few weeks, you may be feeling a little cautious about pushing too hard — and I don’t propose you do so. Rather, what you’re about to learn is the correct proportion of push energy, flow energy and receive energy is involved in a highly productive creative situation. You are a student right now, and you’re learning through direct experience.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 22)
Someone is ready to meet you face to face, and as you know, the encounter will be profoundly influential. If you are in the mood to hold back key information, or to package it in a more acceptable form, I don’t recommend that course of action. Just don’t exaggerate or be dramatic; direct and clear will suffice. Bear in mind that what this person is grappling with is a sense that they must sacrifice something important to them. Your role is to guide them away from that idea, and in the direction of receiving a blessing, an initiation, or an enhanced level of awareness. Propose the idea of a win-win situation, and such will become more real as a possibility for you as well.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 20)
You continue to fumble with the key in the lock, or to tinker with the formula. More power to you. I suggest, however, that you track your work, so you don’t go in circles. Even if this effort has gone on a long time and you fear you’ve lost weeks or months of precious observations, don’t worry. If you record your ideas and experiences for a few days, you will immediately see a pattern, and this happens to be the same pattern you’ve been following all along. From this point, the solution you’re looking for cannot be far away, but it’s likely to come in a very different form than the one you’re expecting. This is the nature of discovery.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 19)
Behold the messenger, and be nice to her. The news may be a little odd, and the prediction may seem to suggest you will have to alter the course of your life radically. This is not exactly the case; what you need to do is change your mind about something, and then allow your environment to change. Usually we forget that the main environment in which we live is precisely our mind, and we are carefully trained to think that our mind holds no influence at all over any other kind of environment, physical, emotional or whatever. We live in unusual times at the moment, when much that visionaries and mystics have suspected is possible is actually available to us. Listen carefully.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20)
You are having a greater influence over a close partner or loved one than you may yet recognize. At the same time, their experience of opening up, of demonstrating their authentic flexibility, and of their stunning ability to grow and change, is teaching you something about life that you may once have learned but seem to have forgotten. Now is a brilliant time to remember, because the knack you’re picking up is a skill that you can apply to every situation in your world. You are at this stage of your life working to influence your world in ways large and small, and there are easier and more difficult ways to do it. Pay attention to what happens this week and you will discover, or remember, the easier ones.

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