Keeping It Real

A growing number of people are adopting a costumed or uniformed approach to community involvement. Some of us call ourselves Real Life Superheroes. Others go by a different name or see no need to give a name to what they do. It’s convenient to have a unifying term, though, so I tend to use the term RLSH for all of these people who adopt a new name, put on a costume or uniform, and hit the streets in order to make a difference in their communities.

As the movement grows, so does the media coverage. As the media coverage grows, so does the movement. The unusual mix of media hype, secret identities, internet communication, and late-night patrolling makes it almost impossible to determine just how big this movement is, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going. But given the growing forum membership, the increasing prominence in the media, and the profiles collected at the Real Life Super Hero Project, it’s clear that this is a very real and rapidly-growing phenomenon.

So far, my personal experiences as a Real Life Superhero have been very positive. I’ve been a community activist off and on for the past 14 years, so people already had some idea of what to expect when I put on my new superhero costume and declared my intentions to serve our local community. Some people celebrated my decision. Others teased me a bit about it. Others still raised some thoughtful questions about it. But ultimately, no one seemed terribly offended by the idea. I found renewed inspiration, made some new friends, and started doing what I could to make a difference.

Unfortunately, not everyone’s experience has been this smooth.

As the movement grows, so does the controversy. Anyone can dream up a superhero name and throw together a simple costume or uniform, so people in costumes and uniforms are appearing out of nowhere on internet forums, on city streets, and in the media. Some of these are cheery volunteers in brightly colored costumes who feed the homeless, clean up litter, or raise money for charity. Others, however, may dress in black body armor, wear intimidating masks, and creep down dark alleys with batons, stun guns, and other weapons.

On the one hand, this is a somewhat unfair dichotomy. There are plenty of RLSHs who patrol with protective gear but also do homeless outreach or other forms of community service. Their responsible approach to fighting crime is similar to any good neighborhood watch group: keep an eye out, report crimes to the police, be prepared to defend yourself if you are attacked.

On the other hand, based on videos that I’ve seen and firsthand testimony that I’ve read, I’m well aware that there are at least some “superheroes” out there who are just a heartbeat away from becoming dangerous vigilantes. These people study martial arts, carry around deadly weapons, wear masks, and walk the city streets late at night looking for trouble.

Naturally, this raises some questions. Who are these masked, armed, militant individuals who roam our streets and answer to no one for their actions?

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time that the question of masks has come up in my community work. In November of 1999, at a mass demonstration often referred to as the “Battle of Seattle,” a large group of protesters put on black clothes and face masks and went around engaging in militant (and often illegal) protest activities such as breaking through police barricades, “unarresting” fellow protesters, and vandalizing corporate chain stores.

The black clothes and masks of this “black bloc” tactic were adopted for a variety of reasons: to make a statement against what they saw as a repressive police state; to conceal their identities while engaging in controversial and/or illegal activities; to express solidarity with others who are rendered nameless/faceless by the corporate and governmental bureaucracies that arrest them or coerce them into a life of indentured servitude.

Over the next several years, a great debate ensued among various sorts of activists. Was this black bloc a threat to more law-abiding and less aggressive forms of demonstration? Was it an effective tactic for resisting the government’s targeting of certain types of political speech? Even if it was effective, was it ethical?

Eventually, this black bloc debate fizzled out in the U.S., in part because 09/11/01 took our political debates in a whole new direction. The black bloc tactic is still used at some mass demonstrations, but it’s much less prominent (and much less popular) than it used to be.

How does this relate back to Real Life Superheroes?

The black bloc controversy offers an important perspective on masked activism in our society. Many of the people who participated in (or supported) the black bloc tactic were genuinely motivated by an intense desire to do good in the world. They were unwilling to tolerate the actions of transnational organizations like the WTO that actively subvert the democratic process and cause tremendous harm at home and abroad. So they took matters into their own hands — they put on masks, smashed some windows, and set free some of the more passive protesters who had been captured by police.

Were they right? Were they wrong? To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. But what I do know is that they were REALLY not well-received by the mainstream media and the general public. Why? Because regardless of how eloquent and accurate their press releases were, all that most people saw was a bunch of black-clad mask-wearing youth who were at best misguided and at worst a menace to society.

Sound familiar, anyone?

On the one hand, crimefighting RLSHs have a much better chance of being accepted by mainstream society because they are usually fighting to uphold the law rather than challenge the power structure. Most Americans are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who stops their car from being stolen or chases away drug dealers on the corner, especially if they’re good at communicating their mission with some combination of symbolism and interviews.

But on the other hand, masks, body armor, weapons, and dark clothing on dark nights often make people uncomfortable. So if you’re going to be running around in a mask and body armor with weapons in hand, you’d better be prepared to receive intense oversight from the people around you. Your fellow costumed and uniformed activists will urge you to work closely with experienced crimefighters who they know and trust, and the people of your community may urge you to reveal your identity to the police or some other authority figure so that they feel safer about your presence in their community.

My advice? Even if you’re a crimefighting RLSH, start with the assumption that you shouldn’t wear a mask in public and shouldn’t carry any weapons. Then, think carefully about what your mission is, what your strategy for pursuing that mission is, and what tactics are most suited for fulfilling that strategy. If you ultimately decide to wear a mask, then fine, wear a mask. But think carefully about this decision, and talk with others who share your passion for crimefighting to ensure that you’re making the best choice for the right reasons. Some people really do seem to be able to pull off the whole masked crimefighter approach with the support of their local community, so I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t give it a try. But if it’s going to create needless problems, why even bother with it? You can do a costumed neighborhood watch without a mask — and some Real Life Superheroes do just that.

Since my focus is on ecological advocacy and community involvement rather than crimefighting, I won’t be surprised if some people take this message as a negative statement about Real Life Superheroes who fight crime. But that’s not my intention at all. Really, my intention here is to SUPPORT Real Life Superheroes who fight crime. Crime is a matter of life or death in many communities, and anyone who conducts a neighborhood watch or patrol may be protecting personal property or saving lives simply by being out on the streets. However, in order to achieve that good for the community, it must be done in a reasonable, responsible, and strategic manner. I would hate to see people getting hurt or getting in trouble simply because someone new to the Real Life Superhero movement didn’t think through the implications and consequences of their actions.

Many thanks to those of you who are doing the crimefighting and neighborhood watch work well. Hopefully those who are stumbling at it, or making a menace of themselves with their aggressive attitude and actions, will be able to learn from your good example. Many thanks also to the numerous Real Life Superheroes (including the crimefighters) who devote their time and energy to a wide variety of community service projects. Your steady, consistent, and fruitful volunteerism in these more widely accepted areas will help the world understand the good work that all of us are trying to do in our communities.

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Plans for This Year

I look at the end of the year in terms of my spiritual calendar rather than the secular calendar. The old year ends at Samhain (October 31) and the time between Samhain and Yule (Winter Solstice) is a time for reflection, recuperation, and inner work rather than starting new projects. Therefore, the time between Yule and Imbolc (February 1) is a good time to start articulating plans for the remainder of the year from Imbolc to Samhain.

For better or worse, my plans are very much in flux right now. My biggest focus right now is sheer economic survival. Currently, I only have part time employment and my income still isn’t enough to cover my expenses on a consistent basis. On the one hand, I’m very grateful for the support of friends and loved ones at this time in my life, and I feel very secure in the knowledge that I will continue to have access to the basics of food, shelter, and utilities, regardless of my financial situation. However, one of my major goals in life is to be source of funding for the ecological and social justice projects that I support, not a drain on my friends and loved ones. As long as my income is this low, that simply isn’t possible.

Therefore, I’ve cut back on some of my Real Life Superhero work in order to focus on researching and pursuing various job offers and other projects that may generate income. I still do the radio show, and I still work with the Big Muddy IMC when I can, and I still go to other events here and there when time permits. But other projects I have in mind have been put on hold until I get my finances in order.

I’m hoping that within the next month or two, one or two of my ideas for part-time income will pay off and I’ll be able to return my attention to expanding my RLSH work. I like to believe in my capacity to succeed, so I’ve already started considering what RLSH projects I’ll be working on when the time comes.

Some of my RLSH work will depend on the exact nature of my new income. I’m currently applying for a part-time position with a local non-profit, so the outcome of that application process will surely affect what direction I go with my community involvement. One of my long-term goals is to create an increasing amount of synergy between my paid employment and my Real Life Superhero work, so I will focus on RLSH efforts that are related to my paid work. That way, the organizations that employ me will benefit from my extra volunteer hours, and I will benefit from extra job security in the process.

In addition to any RLSH projects related to my paid work, I also have a few ideas in mind for entirely new or independent efforts.

First of all, there’s the second annual Hero Fest. Last September, with the help of several friends, I organized an event called Hero Fest to celebrate local community service organizations. The first Hero Fest was small and simple, but I’d like to expand upon the idea and hold another one this September. This time, I’ll have a good 6 months or so of lead time to recruit more volunteers, involve more community groups, and do more promotion and outreach. I plan on starting on this sometime in February, so if you’d like to get involved, feel free to contact me today.

Beyond that, I can think of dozens of assorted community service projects that I would like to see take shape in the next ten and a half months. Sometime in the next few weeks, I plan on brainstorming a list of potential RLSH projects, picking one or two to focus on myself, and then presenting a few of the others online in order to see if I can find any fellow community members who want to take the lead on these projects.

One of my goals in being a Real Life Superhero is to inspire other people to action — so if you’re looking for ideas about how you can make a difference in our community, our region, and our world, I’ll be happy to share my thoughts and advice. As a philosopher and teacher, I see this sharing of ideas and facilitation of communication as a whole Real Life Superhero project unto itself.

Of course, there’s more to life than being a Real Life Superhero! I do have other goals and interests in life too.

My physical fitness regimen started with yoga and has now expanded to include jogging once a day and other forms of exercise three times a week. I started this daily jogging on November 2nd and plan to continue it until at least November 2nd of this year. As my health and fitness levels continue to improve, I may alter or expand this plan — but I’m making sure not to push myself too far in too short of a time.

I’d also like to travel outside of Southern Illinois at least two or three times in the coming year. I love having deep roots here in Southern Illinois, but I also love seeing new places, meeting new people (and old friends), and having new experiences.

Finally, I have a few other ideas for the new year in mind that are still in their infancy. Some of these relate to my spirituality; some relate to my professional life; some relate to my community life; some cross these boundaries to address several aspects of my life at once. I don’t want to go into any detail on these, though, until I give them some more thought and talk them over with a few close friends. I’ve got about a hundred ideas on my mind right now, and I know I’ll only be able to act on a dozen or so in the coming year, so I don’t want to put too much energy into random brainstorming thoughts until I’ve taken the time to sort through them and refine them.

So, that’s what I’ve got planned for 2011. Wish me luck, and let me know if you have any thoughts on my plans and visions for the new year.

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Cache Girl Saves the World

Cache Girl Saves the World (DVD cover): This is the cover art of Cache Girl Saves the World, a "novel in visions" produced by author Adam E. Stone and musician and storyteller Thirza Defoe.Cache Girl Saves the World is a pioneering experiment in film and literature produced by author Adam E. Stone and musician and storyteller Thirza Defoe. This project explores an innovative new approach to storytelling, combining audio of the novel’s text with music and still photographs of the story’s action to create a “novel in visions.” The images, words, and songs of this visual novel tell the tale of Ta’li, a young woman on a physical and spiritual journey in search of healing for herself and a way to awaken empathy in the hearts of her fellow humans.

If someone picks up this DVD expecting it to be a conventional film, they may initially find themselves disappointed. There are no moving pictures here, only still photographs combined with the voices of several characters and the music and background audio of the story. There’s also none of the hectic rush through an action-packed plot that the average American viewer may expect from a mainstream film. But a viewer who enjoys the nuances of character development and is patient enough to let the plot unfold at its own pace will be greatly rewarded for their effort.

In terms of the experiment in medium that the producers are exploring, Cache Girl Saves the World is by and large a resounding success. The images chosen serve to compliment and expand upon the character dialog and narrative of the story, enhancing the literary content with visual beauty while not distracting from the audio. As someone who has lived in Southern Illinois for over a decade, I found this combination of audio commentary and still photography to be especially effective when used to reveal the majesty and history of the Cache River and Southern Illinois at large. The text was poetic, and the photographs were stunning — but when combined, they expressed the beauty of the land far better than either could have done separately. Much like a graphic novel, this “novel in visions” format allows for a synergy between the literary and visual arts that is rarely captured in other media, including film.

The story told through this medium is equally compelling. Again, if the viewer picks up this DVD expecting a conventional tale, they may find themselves disappointed. The narrative of Cache Girl Saves the World focuses heavily on a combination of gradual character development, an examination of indigenous and imperial culture, and an exploration of spiritual themes such as empathy, empowerment, individual versus community interests, and learning to live in harmony with each other and the land. This is no simple Hollywood tale, and some viewers may not be ready or willing to explore such philosophical topics, especially without the dazzle of Hollywood special effects to keep them occupied. But anyone who appreciates a good book, or a good campfire tale about a vision quest and nature spirits and real people trying to find their way in an unreal world, will be delighted to set aside Hollywood’s conventions for a while and walk with Ta’li through the swamps and woods and prairies of Southern Illinois and beyond.

As with any production, there were a few minor shortcomings. At a few points toward the middle and end, there were a few images that were repeated more often than they needed to be. Sometimes, the repetition added visual continuity, artfully marking a return to a previous plot thread or emphasizing a recurring theme of the narrative. At a few points, however, it seemed like this thematic emphasis may have been better served by a new image rather than repetition of an old one.

On the whole, however, I would describe Cache Girl Saves the World as a resounding success, both in terms of its pioneering exploration of a new medium and in terms of the creativity, relevance, and dramatic appeal of the literary narrative. It drew me in from the very first few moments of dialog, narrative, and imagery, and it kept me involved in the story and concepts right up to the conclusion — and beyond.

This experimental “novel in visions” is well worth experience. I’m confident that anyone who gives it a chance will find it compelling, thought-provoking, entertaining, and perhaps even inspiring in their own journey of self-healing and healing of humanity.

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Inner Fire

Yule, also known as Winter Solstice, is the longest and darkest night of the year. This is a time to look inward — a time to make our peace with the dark of the year. At this time, we gather with loved ones, warming our cold hands over the hearthfire and reflecting on what we truly value in life as we look to the East and await the return of the Sun.

In theory, this is a time of festive celebration and quiet contemplation, pausing after a hectic harvest season to relax, collect our thoughts, and prepare for the coming Spring. This year, however, my Yule has been a little different. Yes, I’ve been turning inward — but instead of simply basking in the warmth of my inner fire, I’ve been stoking it.

Samhain, the holiday celebrated at the threshold between October 31 and November 1, is considered by many Neo-Pagans to be the end of the old year and the start of the new. It is the Final Harvest, a time to honor ancestors, harvest what is going well in our lives, and cull what no longer serves us.

The day after Samhain, I decided to start jogging. I didn’t really have a plan at first — simply an urge, an impulse, an intuitive desire to follow through on improving my health and fitness. My yoga practice has been a wonderful tool in this process, and I couldn’t have made it this far without it. But it dawned on me that I need to build up my inner fire right now, and I don’t have the strength and flexibility yet to do the forms of yoga most suited for building my inner fire.

And so, as the old year died away, I started to jog.

When I started, I could barely jog at all. I’m not afraid to admit this. The moment I started jogging, I felt stiffness and resistance in my hips and back, and my heart and lungs almost immediately went into overdrive, insisting that I stop this madness immediately. But somehow, I managed to complete a single lap around the block — and that was good enough for my first day.

Every day since then, I’ve been jogging once a day. Through the snow, through the rain, I’ve jogged without fail. As one lap turned into two laps, and two laps turned into three, I realized I was onto something. My body warmed; my muscles strengthened; my fascia (connective tissues) started to soften. In essence, my body started to rebuild itself at the cellular level, restructuring my flesh for activity rather than inactivity.

My inner fire is rekindling, and my whole body is transforming in the process.

My goal now is to jog every day for a year and a day, taking a break on any days when I’m too sick or sore to jog. Once a week, I also go to the gym with friends for jogging and weight lifting and some time on the rowing machines. So far, it’s been going well, leading me to believe that if I continue to get plenty of food and rest, I’ll be able to keep up this pace indefinitely.

Of course, this doesn’t take the place of my yoga practice! Yoga is still at the center of my approach to self-healing. This dramatic shift in activity level would probably be tearing me apart if it weren’t for the fact that I’m continuing to go to yoga class once or twice per week and doing more yoga at home on most of my days away from class. The jogging stokes my inner fire, and the yoga allows me to smooth out the kinks and work on the long-term goal of improving my strength, flexibility, and overall body alignment.

So now, 49 days later, I find myself sitting at home on Yule after a day of jogging, walking, talking, working, and philosophizing. My recent focus on rekindling my inner fire has in some way drawn me away from other pursuits in the community, if only temporarily. But as the Sun rests at its lowest point in the sky, and I sink fully into this inner work that lies ahead of me, I’m starting to wonder if I may once again be reaching a turning point.

The celestial turning point we observe at Yule is very subtle. To the naked eye, it may seem at first as if nothing has changed. But ultimately, everything has changed. Nights that were getting longer will soon be getting shorter. The arc of the Sun will soon rise higher and higher in the sky. We still have some of the coldest days of Winter ahead of us — but tonight is the darkest night, and our days will only get brighter from this point forward.

This doesn’t mean that we should put too much energy into looking forward. We should be here, now, on the darkest of nights, and sit for a while with the fact that our lives are often shrouded in shadow, buried in cold soil, cloaked in impenetrable mysteries that our conscious mind may never grasp.

But as I sit here in this place — a place of doubt, a place of uncertainty, a moment when I wonder if the light outside will ever return — I find peace in the silence and the stillness. For even on the coldest, darkest night, there are seeds sleeping in the soil. And even in the dead of winter, there is still life in my flesh, my heart, my soul.

I don’t know what the future holds. Maybe I won’t find the success I’m hoping for, and maybe humanity as a whole will never emerge from the dark night of the soul that we find ourselves in these days. But what I do know is that here, now, in this place, in this moment, I feel a light and a life within me that can never be extinguished, never be killed, never be lost even on the longest, darkest night.

I’ve felt this inner fire in my heart for a long time. But for years, I’ve had trouble bringing it out of the world of spirit and into the world of flesh. Now, with each lap that I run, each asana I perform, each prayer that I pray to my Goddess and God, I feel that fire more fully in my body. This fire is no longer just something that I know, or I see, or I speak about, or feel in my heart. It’s something *I AM* — a passion that I live, breathe, eat, sleep, experience in every cell of my body.

Drawing this fire into my body isn’t a simple or easy process. There have already been kinks along the way, and there will surely be more to come. But it’s better to be fully alive in a place of creative chaos than to be trapped forever in an unchanging world of separation between flesh and spirit.

I’m experiencing a great awakening, the full effects of which won’t be outwardly visible for some time to come. If my life path follows the Wheel of the Year, as it sometimes does, then each of the coming Sabbats will bring with it a new stage in this journey.

At Imbolc, some new glimmer of hope will become apparent, even though times still seem dark. At Ostara, something new and colorful will blossom in my life. At Bealtaine, the power of my passion will be readily apparent, a tangible creative force to be reckoned with. At Litha, I will experience the fullness of this new creative force. And over the course of Lughnasadh, Mabon, and Samhain, I will harvest the fruit of this creativity.

Of course, this is all conjecture. Maybe I’ll crash and burn tomorrow, or maybe it’ll take years for me to come closer to achieving my dreams. But today, I feel the power of the moment deep within me, and I have high hopes that this power will become manifest over the course of the remaining seasons of the year.

As the light grows brighter, so will I. As the Sun rises, so will I. As the Wheel of the Year turns, my life will turn around, and I will shine more brightly than I ever have before.

Here’s hoping, eh? If all goes well, my good fortune will be your good fortune. I’ve been keeping my community work to a minimum during this time of inner work — but as the seasons change, I hope to have more time, more money, and more energy, both for my own sake and for the service I long to offer to my community.

Hopefully, then, we all have a bountiful harvest to look forward to in the coming months. In the meantime, I am content to sit in the cold, in the dark, stoking the Yule fires through the longest night of the year, stirring the hope that in due time, the light will return.

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My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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