Sparking Creativity at the 2012 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

It’s finally snowing in Massachusetts!  My afternoon meetings were cancelled, and I can settle in by the fire and enjoy the peaceful quiet that always descends when we hunker down under a good New England snowfall.

This gives me a welcome chance to share something positive for a change with my blog readers.

Tomorrow is the opening of the 2012 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, a month-long celebration of the talents of local and regional women writers, taking place at venues from one end of Berkshire County to the other, with nearly 100 women participating.

I’ve been working over the past year with a dedicated local committee on planning and organizing this event, which is sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock with the generous support of 11 Local Cultural Councils and many other donors, businesses and individuals, all listed on our website under “sponsors.”

This will be our second annual Festival, but it’s an event that grows out of the decade of annual conferences I organized at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in observance of International Women’s Day, co-sponsored by Berkshire Women for Women Worldwide, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, the Women’s Interfaith Institute and many other collaborators.

I’ve been at this a while.

Organizing events like these takes an extraordinary amount of energy, focus and commitment.  If you’ve ever organized a wedding, you have some idea of what’s involved–although for our conferences and Festivals, we’ve also had to do a fair amount of fundraising, which hopefully is not the case for wedding planners!

There always comes a point in the process where I bury my face in my hands and feel like crying, out of sheer exhaustion, “Why am I doing this to myself?!!”

After all, no one ever asked me to take on this extra commitment, year after year.

And sometimes I wonder whether anyone would notice if I stopped.

But then that low point passes, the brochure or Program comes back from the printers and starts to make its way in the world, the press inquiries pick up and I start hearing the oohs and ahhs of appreciation from participants and audience members, and I remember what it’s all about.

For women writers, in particular, it can be hard to find opportunities to come together and share our talents and achievements with each other and the larger world.

Hannah Fries

This weekend is the big AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago, and many women writers will be in attendance there, including one of our Festival organizers and participants, Orion Magazine editor Hannah Fries.  But that is a big, competitive event, which can be overwhelming for writers who are just starting out, or who just write for the personal satisfaction of it.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is purposefully low-key and non-competitive.  We organizers wanted to create a broad, inclusive platform for all kinds of women writers, of all ages, backgrounds, and stages in their writing careers.  If you browse the Festival listings, you’ll see a few names you’ll probably recognize, like Francine Prose and Ruth Reichl, but many more whose fresh, innovative voices might not be heard publicly this year without the space provided by our Festival.

I also sometimes ask myself why I continue to focus on women writers in my classes, events organizing and in my own writing.

Lately I have been moving from a longstanding focus on global women’s rights to a broader human rights perspective, still with a strong interest in gendered human rights issues.  Although the goal for any social justice activist is to put herself out of business, it still seems important to me to draw attention to voices who might not otherwise be heard–and the 50% of us who are women are disproportionately represented among those quieter voices.

The participants and audiences who will be gathering at the 40 Festival events scheduled daily throughout the month of March will  together generate a host of collaborative creative sparks that will go shooting out like fireworks, energizing all of us and giving us new strength and determination to meet the challenges of the coming year, whether at our writing desks or in other areas of our lives.

I certainly hope that just as women always turn out to listen to and learn from writers who happen to be men, men will also be among the audiences at all of our Festival events.

In these sobering times, we need all the chances we can get to come together and fan the flames of our community and our creativity.  Let the Festival begin!

Starving women, American chic style

Barely have the baubles of the Oscars faded into Hollywood history, when the bleak news of the real world comes flooding back in.

School shooting in a high school cafeteria in Ohio.

Keystone XL pipeline permit back on the table.

Rick Santorum is arguing against the separation of church and state, and thumbing his nose at the idea that young people should go to college.

And in case you haven’t noticed, the snowdrops are blooming now in New England–about a month ahead of schedule.

But you know what I found most truly disturbing in my cursory glance at the NY Times homepage today?

The prominent Giorgio Armani ad campaign, depicting two different women, each one more pitifully emaciated than the other.

Look at those protruding collar bones!  The jutting cheek and jawbones!  The stick-thin arms and legs!

If this young woman was in Darfur or Ethiopia, we’d be wondering, with compassion, when she last had a meal.

But because she’s a highly paid model, we relax that compassionate muscle and not only don’t worry about her, but actively admire her beauty.

What kind of beauty standard is it when a young woman has to be literally wasting away to make the grade of approbation?

It would be one thing if the male models were similarly emaciated.

But no.  Look at the male Armani models and you find something else entirely.

These guys are solid, well-muscled, athletic hunks.  Nothing underfed or waiflike about them.

In fact, they’re star athletes!  That’s David Beckham on the left, and a couple of tennis stars below.

The point is that attractive men are strong, athletic and powerful, while attractive women are starvation-thin, and even if they’ve got some attitude, their jutting collarbones give them away.

You know they go and gag themselves to throw up their breakfasts every day.

When they eat breakfast, that is.

Meanwhile, Giorgio Armani himself looks quite hale and hearty.

Does he have a clue of the kinds of destructive stereotypes he is reinforcing by presenting his models the way he does?

There is nothing beautiful about skin and bones. Ask any concentration camp or famine victim.

It would be one thing if our society projected its thin beauty fetish equally on both men and women.

By presenting women as vanishingly thin, weak, waiflike creatures, while men are robust and muscular, the fashion industry sends an unmistakeable message: beautiful women are weak, admirable men are strong.

Don’t like it?  Who cares, you’re ugly anyway!

Well, Mr. Bones and Sixpacks Armani, since when are you the arbiter of beauty and strength on this planet?  I’ll take a strong woman over a waif any day, and I hope those hunky athletes would do the same.

From war games to peace games, it’s time to stop playing games

I am having an uncomfortable feeling of déjà-vu as the winds of March come up, blowing us headlong into an uncertain spring.

Ten years ago we were reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  Governments and the media were howling for retaliation, and the massive U.S./NATO war machine was gearing up for a fight, first with Iraq, and then with Afghanistan.

Now it’s an Iranian president who is talking tough and daring the U.S. and Israel to bring it on.

Have we learned anything from our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan?

We have a different, much more cautious and diplomatically-minded president minding the store.

But what can he do when American troops are so stupid—even ten years after being embroiled in on-going nation-building efforts in the Islamic world—as to defame the holy Koran?

How can he possibly convince potential Islamic allies that the US means well when it’s so glaringly obvious that we are insensitive, boorish bullies?

It’s shocking that the troops were so mismanaged that such a huge mistake could have been made.

First there was a report from some remote province in Afghanistan that a few Marines had urinated on dead Taliban fighters.  That was bad enough, but no—the US military had to take it further and actually start BURNING A WHOLE TRUCKLOAD of Korans.

WTF?

I mean really!  How would we like it if a bunch of Muslim soldiers came to one of our states and starting burning Bibles and Torahs?  It smacks of unbelievable cultural arrogance, coupled with unbelievable tactical stupidity.

So now two American officers have died in the ensuing protests in Kabul, along with two other American soldiers killed in one of the outlying provinces.

Killing an American military officer in Afghanistan is like killing a police lieutenant in New York City.  Do that and you’re asking for it.

Sparks are flying everywhere these days, and there’s way too much dry tinder sitting around.  It’s impossible to see exactly where all this is heading, but it sure isn’t in a “and they all lived happily ever after” kind of direction.

Once again, it’s necessary for ordinary American citizens to stand up and be the friction that stops this war machine from advancing.

Occupy has gone underground for the winter, it seems, but it’s time for all of us Americans to start sending messages to our leaders, in no uncertain terms.

We do not want war.  We want peace.  We want to live harmoniously with our neighbors and fellow global citizens on this planet and we demand that our military representatives respect other cultures, as we would want to be respected ourselves.

I know I will be patted on the head and told that it’s more complicated than this.

But it’s not.  It’s very simple.  This is how it is:

Human beings have over-populated the planet.  We are now fighting over limited resources like water, arable land, fossil fuels and natural resources.  That is what the fuss over Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran has been about.  That is what is going on with Syria, Sudan and Libya as well.

It’s all about the dangerous and difficult demise of the premise of unlimited growth and a globalized economy.

We now face the prospect of more war for two reasons:

1) so that we can burn up a lot more resources and have to rebuild them, thus cranking up our military-industrial complex and giving a boost to the economy in an election year;

2) so that we or our allies can gain control of valuable and strategic resources.

High-minded ideals like democracy, human rights and humanitarian aid have nothing to do with it.  They are what you bring in to mop up when the resisters are lying belly-up in despair.

And meanwhile climate change looms over us all.  All these little diversions are just so many more irrelevant goose chases that keep us from focusing on what’s really important: working feverishly to mitigate and adapt to climate change before we are swept away.

World leaders are playing a dangerously, devilishly simple zero sum game.  But we need to change the rules of the game now so that all of us can win.  Because if we don’t, one thing is certain: we will all lose, even those who currently seem invincible.

It’s that simple.

Taking responsibility for the violence

Marie Colvin

I have to admit that I was not paying much attention to the bombardment of the city of Homs, Syria—now in its 20th day—before the deaths of two Western journalists there this week.

That is completely typical of me as a Western observer sitting comfortably at my desk, far from the tumult and terror of war.

I sat complacently at my desk during the bombardments of Sarajevo in the 1990s, and Baghdad in 2003-4.  I was hardly aware of what was going on in Rwanda during the genocide there in 1994.  Glimmers of awareness come and go about the current violence in the Congo, or in Burma.

For the most part, I go about my business like any animal would, focusing on what’s in front of me.  As long as my belly is full and my personal security is not threatened, I can give a big yawn at the evening news, and go peacefully to sleep.

The attitude of the Western public—especially among Americans—rides the border between ignorance and indifference.  We’d rather not know—so we focus our attention elsewhere, on news that either appears to concern us more directly, or has a more soporific effect.

Oscars, anyone?

Death of Whitney Houston—OMG what a tragedy!

And let’s check in with the Republican horse race, shall we?  Will it be Santorum or Romney this week?  Ho-hum….

Sarajevo, 1994

Meanwhile, innocent civilians, many of them women, children and elders, are dying every day in Syria, just as they did in Sarajevo, Baghdad, Sudan, Libya…the list goes on and on.

This list concerns us Americans for one very good reason: our country is the biggest arms supplier in the world.

That means we enable all these bloody wars.  We build up dictators by selling them arms.  Then when they misbehave and start killing civilians, we wring our hands and act as if we had nothing to do with their rise to power, hence no responsibility for their misdeeds.

If Americans were serious about wanting a peaceful world, we would start by converting our weapons manufacturing plants to peaceful purposes.

Instead of machine guns, let’s make solar panels and sell them to world leaders.  Instead of tanks and jets, let’s export educational software and lightening-fast hardware.

Instead of sending military personnel to deal with civilians in other countries (as they did so ably this week, burning Korans in Afghanistan), let’s send teachers and doctors and enthusiastic, open-minded young people in every profession.

Americans need to understand that we bear a responsibility for the death of every child who dies as a result of a US-made weapon, no matter who wields it.

Giving up violence has to start with giving up the weapons that enable it.

Let’s dare to think outside the box, and put our hearts, minds and bodies in the service of peace.

Calling on President Obama: Be Our Warrior for Peace

Although most Americans think of Presidents’ Day mainly in terms of sales on home appliances and electronics, as well as a welcome mid-winter day off, it’s worth stopping to think for a moment about what we are actually celebrating on this day.

Why take a day out of the national calendar to honor Washington and Lincoln?  What is there about these two heroic figures to inspire us today?

Both Washington and Lincoln were warriors.  They took our nation into bloody wars fought on idealistic principles.

Washington led an insurgency against British troops, an outrageous act of treason against the powerful British Crown.

Lincoln led American troops into battle against our own Southern states, which were threatening to secede from the Union.

In both cases, wars were fought and many lives were lost but survivors agreed that the cause had been just, and the sacrifices necessary.

Both Washington and Lincoln were able to build political coalitions and persuade Americans of the rightness of the course of action they were about to undertake.  They did not lie to the people about the dangers or the costs; they appealed to Americans to support the Revolutionary and Civil Wars on the basis of the moral justice of the cause.

What a contrast this presents to the most recent time America mobilized for war, in 2002-03, when our president relied on smoke, mirrors, propaganda and outright lies to manipulate Americans to support the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

A president should never lie to the people, especially when lives are at stake.

On Presidents’ Day, 2012, we face another round of saber-rattling, this time with Iran.  The regional politics of this conflict are deep, complex and ancient, dating back to pre-modern quarrels among the Jews, Sunnis and Shias.  They are of concern to us, way over here in America, mainly because of our reliance on Middle East oil, and secondarily because of our ideological support of the state of Israel.

Today, our President is weighing the possibility of an escalation of this conflict. Pakistan has just made a defiant announcement that it will stand with Iran in the event of war.  Pakistan is a nuclear power; Iran may be too.

We have not teetered so close to the brink of nuclear war since the scary days of the 1980s, before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union was revealed as just a small Wizard projecting a big image from behind a screen.  Unlike the harmless Wizard of Oz, however, these generals are armed with nuclear warheads, and they may be prepared to use them.

When nuclear weapons are used, civilians suffer.  Innocent civilians; innocent animals, birds and flora.  Surely the recent release of radiation in Japan should serve as a reminder of just how obscenely dangerous even peaceful applications of nuclear technology can be.

What we need in our President today is that he be a warrior, yes, but a warrior for peace, not war.

Just as Washington had the courage to risk treason to break away from the established bond with Britain, and Lincoln had the courage to stand up to the South to end the established reliance on slave labor, today we need our President to take a stand against the addiction to fossil fuels that is proving so destabilizing to human  civilization and our entire planetary environment.

On Presidents’ Day 2012 I call on President Obama to restore America’s role in the world as a beacon of “liberty and justice for all,” but now with a new, 21st century inflection.

When Washington thought of liberty and justice for all, he did not include women or enslaved Africans in that “all.”  Lincoln turned a corner, demanding liberty and justice for the slaves, but ignoring the disenfranchisement of women.

As we enter the 21st century, we need to again rethink the “all” for whom we intend liberty and justice.  Every living being on this planet deserves to live its life peacefully, without undue suffering.

It is now abundantly clear that the path America has laid down since the 1940s—a path littered with spent shells and warheads, paved with an oily slick of asphalt, and reeking with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical treatments of all kinds—has proven to be a disaster for us, and for the world that has followed along behind us.

Industrial civilization and a consumer-based society has proven to be a disaster to every living being on this planet, and the planetary ecosystem as a whole.

We need our President to stand up to the oil barons, the merchant princes and the corporate bankers and insist that they now funnel all of their resources into creating a new path into a different kind of future.

We need our President to rally the sick, bewildered, overburdened populace and lead us not into another insane war, but into a vast new Americorps project to restore education and health to our communities.  We need America to become once again a model and a support for the rest of the world.

President Obama, when we elected you we believed you would be a different kind of president. Yes we can was your motto, and we believed you would be able to lead us out of the nightmares of the 20th century, into a cleaner, healthier, kinder  21st century.

There is still time for you to make this vision a reality, Mr. President. On Presidents’ Day, I challenge you to live up to the best aspects of Washington and Lincoln, and lead us out of danger…lead us home.

Cancer blues

This is a post about cancer.

This is a post in honor of all the men, women and children who have died from cancer in the post-industrial age.

This is a post that acknowledges, fully, the extent to which American society has led the way in the extermination of these people–these cancer victims.

How many cancer victims do you know?  According to the World Health Organization, cancer accounts for millions of deaths worldwide each year (7.6 million deaths in 2008, more than died from the Nazi Holocaust).

Cancer is a Holocaust.  It is a disease, or disorder, that cuts across every economic boundary.  It is just as prevalent among the 1% as among the 99%.  It is just as prevalent among the highly educated as among the working class, although of course certain professions are more risky: industrial agriculture, factory work, anything involving radiation.

The truth is that most of the technologies we Americans love the most–cell phones, smart phones, wireless, for starters–are hazardous to our health.  Just like junk food, which we also love.  Or the wanton burning of fossil fuels in our beloved SUVs.

When climate change activists tell us we have to give up our fossil fuels to save the planet, we act like spoiled toddlers.  NO! We will NOT give up our toys!  NO!  We will NOT turn down our themostats, or buy smaller cars, or make a concerted effort to switch to solar.

As parents, we Americans are generally pretty permissive.  We let our kids have what they want, unless it is dangerous for them, or detrimental to their health.

I never let my kids drink Kool-Aid or eat Cheetos, because I knew very well that the junky chemicals in those products were harmful.

But I have let them have cell phones. We have wireless throughout our house.  From what I understand, smart meters, which communicate wirelessly, via electro-magnetic radio frequencies, are in the process of being installed on every home in America.

We can’t afford to eat exclusively organic in my home.  We live near a river polluted with PCBs by GE.  We breathe air labeled “hazardous” on many summer days.

And as a result, we are at risk for cancer, just like everyone else in the developed world.  Everywhere that chemicals are dumped into the environment, everywhere that the ozone layer is thinning, everywhere that the winds blow radiation around, living organisms, including human beings, are dying of cancer at elevated rates.

Last week my Human Rights, Activism and the Arts class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock watched a TED Talk by Eve Ensler, who has (so far) survived a run-in with cancer.  Eve brilliantly makes the point that the inner landscape of cancer mirrors the outer landscape.  What we do to the environment comes back to haunt us in our own bodies.

If we humans, of every class background, are now falling sick in record numbers, it’s a reflection of our sick our environment is.  How sick we have made our environment.

Heal our world, heal ourselves.

Eve Ensler has spent years fighting against the violence that men perpetrate on women’s bodies.  A survivor of an abusive father herself, she has waged a heroic battle against her own demons, and the demons that beset patriarchal cultures worldwide.

She is gearing up now for her biggest effort ever, One Billion Rising, a campaign by V-Day to galvanize men and women to stand up against violence, especially violence against women.

I salute Eve Ensler’s ground-breaking efforts to put her art in the service of social justice, and to link the quest for social justice to environmental health.

If we can’t heal our planet, we will not be able to heal ourselves.

We are the cancer on our planet.

Our own treatment approaches would dictate our eradication.  Radiation therapy: burn it out.  Chemotherapy: poison it to death.

But there is another way.

Look upstream, as Sandra Steingraber has been telling us for the past 20 years.

Find out what is causing the cancer, and CHANGE IT.

Find out why so many women are suffering from violence, and CHANGE IT.

CHANGE.

Where there is a will there is a way.  How sick do we have to become, how sick does our world have to become, before we find the will to change our ways?

Out of the mouths of babes….

One of the most interesting aspects to me of Carol Gilligan’s research on childhood psychological development is her finding that as girls and boys mature, they lose touch with the instinctive, joyful, totally honest voice they were born with.

To some extent, this is necessary.  No one would want to live in a chaotic society of adult two-year-olds all shouting and crying and singing at the top of their lungs whenever they felt like it!

But it’s the loss of honesty that I find troubling, because it appears that when we lose touch with our own honest assessment of people and situations, we also lose the belief in our power to effect change.

***

When I was a young girl I was very sensitive to others’ pain, and it didn’t matter to me whether I was witnessing a tree being cut or a seal being tortured by a fishing net, I felt the pain so deeply that it became a wound in the innermost recesses of my own soul.

I’ll never forget one beautiful spring morning, when I was about nine years old. My family lived in the city, and we always arrived at our country house on Friday nights, in the dark.  On Saturday mornings it was my habit to get up early and go out for a walk by myself, reveling in the woods and fields and birdsong that I had missed during the week in the concrete canyons of New York.

On this particular May morning, full of sunshine and the fresh, moist air of spring, my buoyant good cheer was suddenly shattered by a shocking sight by the side of our driveway.  The telephone company had come during the week while we were away and cut down a big swath of young trees underneath the cables that ran along the road, leaving behind heaps of dying limbs and saplings, heavy with oozing sap and shriveling new leaves.

A gut-wrenching feeling of horror clutched at me; I began crying, crooning to the trees, overwhelmed with a feeling of shame and guilt—why were my people, humans, so destructive, so wanton, so careless and thoughtless? I was outraged, upset, furious, and went running back up the driveway to tell my parents, assuming they would share my reaction.

But instead they shrugged, resigned—it was too bad, but there was nothing to be done about it.

***

And of course now, as an adult, my reaction would be the same.  I witness road crews cutting back perfectly healthy trees all the time, and think nothing of it.

As we grow up, we get inured to the pain and suffering we visit on the natural world day after day.  We learn to tolerate injustice with casual lack of attention.  We lose the moral sensitivity with which we are born, and with it the fire within that impels little children to speak their truths and demand that the adults in their lives listen.

Told that it doesn’t matter whether some trees are cut, or a cell tower goes up, or a dam is built, or that there is so much artificial light at night that we can no longer see the stars, we are gradually lulled, as adults, into complacency, from which it takes a lot to dislodge us.

This is no accident.  Most educational practices consist of training the young to conform to authority and feed back the right answers to the questions asked.

It’s not about learning how to ask the questions that haven’t yet been formulated; the questions that come from one’s deepest reservoirs of knowledge.

Socrates believed that human beings enter the world already knowing everything we need to know, but we forget it in the first weeks of life.  We spend the rest of our lives, he believed, trying to remember.

As children, we know that we humans were born to live in harmony with the other living beings on this planet; to be a productive and positive part of the web of life that surrounds and sustains us.

Adults, I’m speaking to you: this is crucial knowledge that we need to remember, and act upon.

Coming to Voice, Saving the Planet

Yesterday acclaimed psychologist Carol Gilligan paid a visit to the class I am currently co-teaching at Bard College at Simon’s Rock with theater professor Karen Beaumont, “Human Rights, Activism and the Arts.”

Gilligan’s ground-breaking book, In A Different Voice, was the first to examine the psychological development of girls.

Yes, you read that right.  Before Carol Gilligan, American psychologists who studied child development based their model of the stages of human psychological development on their studies of boys.  Not until Carol came along in the early 1980s did anyone think to point out that girls and boys develop differently.

In her new book, Joining the Resistance, Gilligan explains that while girls start to silence their own voices in their early teen years, in conformity with social dictates about proper behavior for “good girls,” boys go through this self-regulation much earlier, around 5 or 6, when they learn that “crying is for sissies.”

Boys learn to suppress their caring, nurturing side because it’s too “feminine,” while girls learn to suppress their active, aggressive side because it’s too “masculine.”  In the process, both genders lose something crucial to their humanity, and our society as a whole is impoverished as a result.

Lately, Gilligan has been relating boys’ and girls’ resistance to the suppression of their natural androgynous voices to adults’ resistance to what she sees as a very destructive patriarchal culture.

She defines patriarchy as “those attitudes and values, moral codes and institutions, that separate men from men as well as from women and divide women into the good and the bad,” and argues that “as long as human qualities are divided into masculine and feminine, we will be alienated from one another and from ourselves.  The aspirations we hold in common, for love and for freedom, will continue to elude us.”

So much depends on whether we can come to voice.  And how we do so.  In the context of my human rights seminar, coming to voice may mean being able to speak out in an informed, passionate way about justice and injustice in specific circumstances, both here in the U.S. and abroad.

In the personal sphere too, we need to learn to express our needs clearly, without apology.  We women need to learn to value ourselves and insist on being treated fairly and with respect whether in the home or in the workplace.  Men need to demand that their emotional, nurturing sides be honored.

If it is hard for men to express emotions, it is hard for women to speak with authority.  As sociologist Michael Kimmel has shown, boys and men tend to over-estimate their own abilities while girls and women tend to have less self-confidence than their skills and talents warrant.

Boys and men need to learn to listen, to others and to their own innermost voices, the voices of compassion that were shut down when they were just little guys and learned that boys don’t cry.

Girls need to learn to speak up, to let their innermost voices out, to share freely what they know and what they imagine with the world.

My mother reminded me recently that when I was a young girl of 9 or 10, she considered me a “know-it-all.”  I used to read Ranger Rick and the National Wildlife magazines with voracious attention, and apparently I had a lot to say about the natural world and human beings’ role in it.

As I shared with my class yesterday, sometime around age 14, just as Carol Gilligan saw with her research subjects, I lost my voice.  I became the quiet girl in class.  I earned A’s on every literature paper I wrote, straight through grad school; but it was so hard for me to say out loud what I knew.  It’s taken me years to overcome that self-silencing and begin to recover the spunky, feisty voice that came pouring out of me naturally when I was a child.

As adults, knowing what we now know about the importance of voice to healthy psychological development, we should be working hard to encourage the boys in our lives to stay in touch with their emotional, caring, listening side; and the girls in our lives to continue to speak their truths even when they enter the maelstrom of puberty.

As Audre Lorde wrote long ago, “My silences had not protected me.  Your silence will not protect you…. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid….

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.  For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

You got that right, Audre.  If anything, the dangers that you perceived back then–before you, like so many others, succumbed to cancer–have gotten worse.

If we care about our children, if we care about our Earth, we cannot afford to stay silent.  Indeed, there is more risk to staying quiet than to speaking out, with all the passion, emotion and authority we can muster as men and as women.

Cat got your tongue? Not mine.  Not any longer.

There’s More to Love Than Cupid and his Arrows

One of the reasons I was unhappy in the last five years or so of my marriage—which lasted 21 years—was because my husband, who had been so apparently social and outgoing when I fell in love with him, had become taciturn and isolationist.  He scorned Valentine’s Day as a commercial holiday, and considered buying me flowers or taking me out to dinner on February 14 as a distasteful concession to marketing pressure.

While I can’t deny that Valentine’s Day is seized upon as a marketing ploy by all kinds of industries, I also think that it’s wonderful that we take a day of the year to celebrate love.  It doesn’t have to be romantic love between sexual partners, or would-be sexual partners—that’s where I think our American capitalist version of Love Day has taken a wrong turn.

Valentine’s Day should be a time to celebrate love in all its guises.

Today I celebrate the great love I feel for my parents, who gave me life and have always been so thoughtful and unreserved in their nurturing, from the time when I was an infant to right now, as I contemplate my 50th year.   My parents have taught me so much about being loving as a parent—which is not the same thing at all as being permissive or indulgent.

Today I celebrate the love that flows both ways between parents and children.  After my parents, it is my sons who have taught me at every step along the road about what they needed from me as a loving parent.

Sometimes they needed to be enfolded in my arms, and sometimes they needed me to step back and pretend we were strangers, but always they needed that firm, unbreakable assurance that no matter what they did, I would always be there for them.  That is the bottom line love that I learned from my parents, and no doubt they learned from theirs.

Today in my Art of Autobiography class we wrote and talked about the legacies of love that are passed down through generations in a family.  Even though there are other, less positive legacies that are also passed down, I asked the students to focus on the positive, loving side today, in honor of Valentine’s Day, and to think about how each generation gives a loving gift to those who come next.

It may not always be a gift parents or grandparents recognize that they’re giving, because it may come from such a place of automatic second nature.  For instance, I wrote in class about how my father’s family placed such a high value on education, and that is certainly a legacy that I received, put to good use, and am in the process of handing down to my children.

Who knows how long into the past that chain of valuing education goes, or how far into the future it will penetrate as my sons begin to have children of their own?

I come from loving people who have always wanted the best for their children, even if they didn’t always know how to make it happen.  Even the most loving parents don’t always succeed in doing right by our children. For example, my older son will always regret that he did not have a chance to play soccer earlier in his childhood—his father and I did not realize how important that was to him and did not make it happen for him.  But I have no doubt that he will correct that failing when it comes his turn to parent.

Each generation is imprinted by their parents and grandparents, and then goes on to add a few new tricks of their own, often responding to the exigencies of the time or to what they’ve learned in their own process of coming to maturity.

But what runs through, like molten gold at the core of a happy family like mine, is love.  Deep, abiding love, untainted by self-interest or vanity.

This Valentine’s Day, I celebrate family love.  Maybe another year I’ll be beckoning to Cupid and his arrows, but right now that bright red heart, ancient symbol of the yoni that welcomes us all into life on this planet, needs no romantic glitz or glitter.  It’s calling me home.

Yoni, My Lustful Heart, by Eva Waldauf, Vancouver BC

 

An Unlikely Environmental Evangelist

There were two reasons, many years ago, why I ended up choosing literature as my field of study rather than environmental studies or law.

I was turned off from environmental studies, my initial choice for an undergraduate major, by a scary required statistics class and no options for getting remedial help to bring my weak math skills up to speed.  I ended up with a B.A. in English and Journalism.

I briefly flirted with the idea of law school after college, but could not fathom spending the rest of my life reading and writing legalese.

So I gravitated towards literature, comparative literature, literature of the world, and my dissertation focused on testimonials and political personal narratives of the Americas.  I knew early on that what interested me most about literature was opportunity it presents for passionate narratives about the intersections of the personal and the political.

That has remained my interest all these years later.  But it has finally become clear to me, over the longer arc of my life, that my early, instinctive connection to the natural world, my recognition of the importance of law, and my duck-in-water ease with the discourses of both journalism and personal narrative, are all finally coming together in what I see as the imperative task to which I must dedicate the last third of my life: awakening my fellow and sister human beings to the urgency of heading off climate catastrophe.

If this sounds like a moral crusade, well, so be it.

I was not raised in any religion, nor do I follow any religious practices now.  I don’t believe in God as a benevolent white man in the sky, nor do I believe that one needs to sit in a particular building, listening to a particular preacher, to reach out to the divine.

But I have always felt a deep spiritual connection to the natural world.  When I was 8 or 9, I used to go out into the woods and sit alone in my “spot,” which was a circle of mossy stones at the top of a big stone ridge, ringed by maples and centered around a grassy glade.  It was a small circle, no bigger than 10 feet in diameter.  I would just sit there and look and listen to the birds in the trees above me, the small insects on patrol in the grass, feeling the wind ruffling against my face and a kind of inner exultation and delight that I can only describe as religious ecstasy.

No one taught me to do this, and it wasn’t until much later, reading personal narratives by indigenous elders, that I was able to put this early spiritual connection with nature into a broader polytheistic cultural framework.

I believe that everything in our world is tinged with spiritual significance.  And I believe that human beings, because we are unique among animals in being able to see the effects of our actions on the larger landscape of the planet, and to both predict and alter the future, have a special moral imperative to do what we can to be the responsible stewards of the natural world of which we are a part.

I have never said that out loud.

But thanks to environmental activist educator Eban Goodstein, I now recognize that this is exactly what I should be doing, whenever I can, as urgently and passionately as possible.

Goodstein, who founded the national organization Focus the Nation and now heads up the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College, writes in his 2007 book Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction that it is crucial that people who understand the seriousness of the pivotal moment at which we stand begin to speak up—not in legalese or scientific jargon, but in the clear, ringing tones of moral conviction.

“The real problem that nontheistic environmentaists face is not a depth of passion, but a failure of moral language with which to cultivate and nuture that passion,” Goodstein says.  “Unless passion about life on Earth is nurtured, and mass extinction is understood clearly in terms of good and evil, then political opposition to the great extinction wave of our generation will be weak and it will sweep across the next century unabated.”

Goodstein recommends that each of us “develop a thirty-second ‘elevator speech’ that is a response to the question: ‘Why do you care about global heating?’” What you say won’t be convincing or memorable to people unless you can quickly tell them why this issue is deeply important to you, and why they should also care.

It can’t be a laundry list of words that have been so often used they’ve become clichés: sustainability, clean energy, even droughts or wildfires.  Goodstein suggests that when it comes right down to it, we should care about global heating because it is “just plain MORALLY WRONG” to ignore the prospect of the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, when we not only know it’s coming, but have a pretty good idea of how to head it off.

Given my non-religious upbringing, I’m not that comfortable with the language of good and evil or moral righteousness.  And yet it is no accident that all human religions do codify a moral code that seems to be hardwired into our species.

Goodstein refers to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s 1984 book Biophilia, which set the stage for evolutionary psychology in arguing that human beings have evolved to love life and work to extend life by interacting positively with our environment.

Whether we come at the issue of climate change from a religious perspective (God made us the stewards of life on Earth, we have a moral injunction to protect all God’s creatures) or a nontheistic but nevertheless spiritual reverence for the natural world, or even a simple scientific recognition that the current fabric of our ecosystem will live or die depending on human choices now, there is no doubt at all that each of us needs to get our elevator speech nailed down and go out to become evangelists for the natural world.

I don’t use the term evangelist lightly.  Christian evangelists have a reputation for single-mindedness bordering on fanaticism.  They believe deeply, and they are willing to take the risk of expressing their beliefs out loud, and actively trying to convert others.

I am someone who has been known to hide in my own house when the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked at the door.  I have never followed any preacher or religious dictate, nor have I ever considered trying to persuade others to any given point of view.

But the situation we face now is unprecedented in my lifetime, or human history as a whole.  It demands an unprecedented degree of commitment.  It demands taking the risk of climbing up on a soapbox and speaking out loudly and passionately enough to draw a crowd.

Those of us who are awake to the gravity of the coming environmental catastrophe need to be getting out there trying to instigate change through every possible channel: electoral politics, grassroots activism, legal challenges, moral persuasion, standing on our heads–whatever it takes to wake people up and get them moving.

So what’s your elevator speech about?  Mine, I think, is about love.

Whether we call it love for God’s green earth, or the love for the natural world, what we mean is the same: love for our children and future generations, who should not be denied the pleasure of listening to birdsong in the trees on a peaceful spring morning, knowing that their world is stable and secure.

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