Michael Brown and the Dream of Radical Equality

 If Michael Brown had been Michael White, would the still-unfolding tragedy of Ferguson have occurred? When was the last time you heard of a white college student being shot down in cold blood by a police officer? Kent State, maybe? Yeah, it’s been that long.

10547712_1453135431613983_6655587389963374312_nThere is no excuse for the police officers hired to protect the peace using their weapons to kill unarmed citizens on the street.

There is no excuse for the kind of racial profiling that has spawned the bitter joke among Black men that they were stopped for DWB—driving while Black.

For a naturally empathic species, we humans can be remarkably insensitive to the well-being of others. I have realized, through examining my own experience closely, that this is due to cultural conditioning that enjoins us to put ourselves first—as individuals, as members of families and cultures, and as human beings.

We are not encouraged to think of ourselves in relationship to others. And without that sense of relationship, it’s hard to get worked up about what happens to others. It’s their business, their concern, not ours. Michael Brown? He must have been causing trouble.

The riots that came down in the wake of Brown’s killing show us that people of color knew otherwise. They took this murder personally because it could have been any one of them shot down by police. They are standing up for their rights in the way that people without power do: putting their own bodies on the line and raising a ruckus too loud to be ignored by the authorities.

Sometimes smashing storefront windows and setting cars on fire is necessary. It’s the last resort of people pushed beyond the bounds of civility.

There is a song that keeps running around in my head lately, from the Civil Rights Era, called “It Isn’t Nice.” It goes like this:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway

It isn’t nice to go to jail

There are nicer ways to do it

But the nice ways always fail

It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice if you told us once you told us twice

But if that’s freedom’s price

We don’t mind.

Well we tried negotiation

And the token picket line

Mr. Charlie wouldn’t see us

And he might as well be blind

When you deal with men of ice

You can’t deal with ways so nice

But if that’s freedom’s price

We don’t mind.

What about the years of lynchings

And the shot in Evers’ back?

Did you say it wasn’t proper

Did you step out on the track?

You were quiet just like mice

And now you say that we’re not nice.

But if that’s freedom’s price

We don’t mind!

 When yet another unarmed black boy is shot by police for no apparent reason…well, it isn’t nice, and the authorities can’t expect a nice calm response. Further curtailing civil rights by imposing a night curfew won’t help matters either.

What’s needed is first of all an apology; and secondly a real sit-down between the Black and the white communities, a sincere and prolonged effort to come to terms with reasons behind the continuing segregation and impoverishment on the Black side of the tracks, and strategies for making things better.

10600474_1445994419015603_795058456781638434_nBarack Obama’s rhetoric from early in his presidency—we are not Black Americans and white Americans, red Americans or blue Americans, we are all Americans—comes back to haunt me as I think about the killing of Michael Brown. For too long we humans have seen the world in terms of differences and separations, rather than recognizing the ways we are all the same and connected.

One day I hope humans will look back on this period of history and shake their heads, wondering how their ancestors could have been so misguided as to imagine that people with dark skin were any different than people with pale skin. I hope that in this future time, it will be inconceivable that a life could be snuffed out for no reason.

We humans are blessed with incredible powers of creative imagination, and the ability to manifest what we dream. We need to focus our imaginations now on envisioning a safer, saner world, where respect and mutual aid are the highest values—and not just respect for humans, but for all the life forms on the planet.

If we can use the situation in Ferguson as a catalyst for moving forward in the dream of radical equality, then Michael Brown’s tragic death will not have been in vain.

Cosmic Honey for Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

The death of Robin Williams has lain heavily on me since I heard the news. I echo what all my friends are saying: he was so talented, he brought so much brilliance and joy to the world, how could it be that all his laughs and charm hid such deep reservoirs of pain and despair?

People as creative as Williams are often sensitive and discerning; and if you’re sensitive these days, you can hardly help but be overwhelmed by all the pain we are forced to contend with in the world on a daily basis.

I wince every time I listen to the world news, bracing myself for the inevitable onslaught of violence, disease and misery suffered by human beings—not to mention the destruction of the environment, the extinction of millions of innocent animals, insects and plant life and the ever-accelerating pace of climate change. It’s enough to drive anyone to Prozac.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with some 40,000 suicides a year, 70% of them middle-aged white men. Most cultures and religions condemn suicide; we are asked to live our lives to the fullest, going towards death only when our bodies totally give out. Certainly this is true in the U.S., where death has been demonized and medicalized, seen as an ending to be feared and evaded as long as possible.

But what if death is actually more like a transition, mirroring birth—the emergence into another state of being?

What if death is a release, as some religions would have it, where we rejoin our ancestors and our spiritual families in a non-physical realm free of pain?

I don’t believe in the Christian idea of heaven and hell, but I am certainly not willing to rule out the possibility of an afterlife, in the sense of a spiritual reconnection with the Source energy that animates the physical realm on our planet.

With the advent of quantum physics and the recognition that 95% of the universe is made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy”—i.e., with stuff we know absolutely nothing about—science is beginning to make friends with metaphysics.

You won’t find many scientists willing to go as far as Jungian philosophers like Anne Baring, who talks about “the soul of the cosmos” as a kind of divine intelligence immanent in everything—but at least scientists are beginning to admit how much they don’t know about the way our universe works. And in that opening of humility lies the possibility that there could be a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to one of the greatest unknowns: death.

For Baring (writing with co-author Scilla Elworthy), “The life we know is an excitation on the surface of an immeasurable sea of cosmic energy that is continually surging, dancing, flowing into being. In every galaxy, every star, every planet, every cell of our being the universe is bursting into existence from this womb or sea of being.

“What does this mean for us? It means that when we are in touch with this incredible idea, each one of us becomes a co-creator with that mysterious process, at one with our starry source” and conscious “the sacredness, oneness and divinity of life.”

HubbleSpaceTelescope_N90

Baring and Elworthy offer the image of a fully conscious human as “a cell in a limitless honeycomb of golden light. Imagine,” they say, “this luminous network of honeycomb cells connecting people in every part of the world who are trying to lift humanity out of the dark place we are in now. Imagine that through this powerful network of relationships a new consciousness is coming into being.”

The new collective and individual consciousness they imagine would be one that respects all life, generating a mode of living in which humans act as the stewards of our planet, rather than as the greedy, destructive despots we have become in the past few centuries.

“When we are prepared to become but a humble servant of life, devoted to caring for it and healing it, we become free from all fear,” they say. “We are then able to resonate with life, harmoniously and ecstatically.”

I wish Robin Williams had been able to receive this message; to see himself as a bright spark tossed out by the loving flame of our cosmos. I wish he had been able to read Baring and Elworthy’s small gem of a book, Soul Power, which ends with this striking injunction:

“Live life as an opportunity to transform the nectar of experience into the honey that can heal the world.”

As a creative genius, Robin Williams surely was making that honey for us. He just needed to hold more of it back to heal and salve his own sensitive, wounded soul.

Warriors for the Planet

Another summer, another war. I wonder how many summers there have been in the last 5,000 years when human beings were not occupied with killing each other?

Correction: not “human beings,” “men.”

Let’s be frank: even though there may be women in the armed forces of many countries now, war still remains a masculine activity and preoccupation. The women who serve as soldiers must adhere to the masculine warrior code and become honorary “bros,” for whom the worst insult is still be called a “girl” or a “pussy.”

AnneBaring_A_lgI have been reading Anne Baring’s magisterial book The Dream of the Cosmos, in which she gives a detailed account of the shift, around the time of Gilgamesh, from the ancient, goddess- and nature-worshipping “lunar cultures” to the contemporary era of solar, monotheistic, warrior-worshipping cultures.

In her elaboration of this shift, I read the tragedy of our time, enacted over and over again all over the planet, and not just by humans against humans, but also by humans against the other living beings with whom we share our world. I quote at length from Baring’s remarkable book:

Gilgamesh-187x300“The archetype of the solar hero as warrior still exerts immense unconscious influence on the modern male psyche, in the battlefield of politics as well as that of corporate business and even the world of science and academia: the primary aim of the male is to achieve, to win and, if necessary, to defeat other males. The ideal of the warrior has become an unconscious part of every man’s identity from the time he is a small child.

“With the mythic theme of the cosmic battle between good and evil and the indoctrination of the warrior went the focus on war and territorial conquest. War has been endemic throughout the 4000 years of the solar era. The glorification of war and conquest and the exaltation of the warrior is a major theme of the solar era—still with us today in George W. Bush’s words in 2005: ‘We will accept no outcome except victory.’ This call to victory echoes down the centuries, ensuring that hecatombs of young warriors were sacrificed to the god of war, countless millions led into captivity and slavery, countless women raped and widows left destitute. It has sanctioned an ethos that strives for victory at no matter what cost in human lives and even today glorifies war and admires the warrior leader. This archaic model of tribal dominance and conquest has inflicted untold suffering on humanity and now threatens our very survival as a species.

2014-06-15-Mission

“The cosmic battle between light and darkness was increasingly projected into the world and a fascination with territorial conquest gripped the imagination and led to the creation of vast empires. It is as if the heroic human ego, identified with the solar hero, had to seek out new territories to conquer, had to embody the myth in a literal sense and as it did so, channel the primitive territorial drives of the psyche into a Dionysian orgy of unbridled conquest, slaughter and destruction. We hear very little about the suffering generated by these conquests: the weeping widows, the mothers who lost sons, the orphaned children and the crops and patterns of sowing and harvesting devastated and disrupted by the foraging armies passing over them, the exquisite works of art pillaged and looted….The long chronicle of conquest and human sacrifice, of exultation in power and the subjugation of enemies might truly be named the dark shadow of the solar age” (118;124).

Like Baring, I see our time as a critical era in the long history of homo sapiens on the planet. There is still hope that enough of us will be able to detach ourselves from the pressures and busyness of our lives—will become conscious of what is happening to the planet and human civilization writ large—will understand that there are other ways to relate to each other and to the Earth, ways that will seem increasingly possible and obvious once we focus on them and begin to put our energies into manifesting our visions of a creative, collaborative, respectful mode of being.

Baring ends her disturbing chapter on the ascendancy of the solar warrior culture with a hopeful quote from The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas, from which she springs into her own positive vision of the potential of our time.

“’We stand at the threshold of a revelation of the nature of reality that could shatter our most established beliefs about ourselves and the world. The very constriction we are experiencing is part of the dynamic of our imminent release. For the deepest passion of the Western mind has been to reunite with the ground of its being. The driving impulse of the West’s masculine consciousness has been its quest not only to realize itself, to forge its own autonomy, but also, finally, to recover its connection with the whole, to come to terms with the great feminine principle in life; to differentiate itself from but then rediscover and reunite with the feminine, with the mystery of life, of nature, of soul. And that reunion can now occur on a new and profoundly different level from that of the primordial unconscious unity, for the long evolution of human consciousness has prepared it to be capable at last of embracing the ground and matrix of its own being freely and consciously.’

“As this deep soul-impulse gathers momentum, the ‘marriage’ of the re-emerging lunar consciousness with the dominant solar one is beginning to change our perception of reality. This gives us hope for the future. If we can recover the values intrinsic to the ancient participatory way of knowing without losing the priceless evolutionary attainment of a strong and focused ego, together with all the discoveries we have made and the skills we have developed, we could heal both the fissure in our soul and our raped and vandalized planet” (130-131).

My heart aches for the suffering of the innocent civilians trapped in the crossfire in Gaza this summer, and for the grieving families of the passenger plane heinously shot down by warriors who were either poorly trained or just plain evil.

I am heartsick when I think about the holocaust that is overtaking living beings on every quadrant of our planet as humans continue to ravage the forests and seas, to melt the poles with our greenhouse gases, and to poison the aquifers and soil with our chemicals.

The last Polar Bear

This is where the solar cultures, with their “great” warrior kings, have led us. And yet, as Baring says, they have also presided over the most amazing advances in science and technology that humans have ever known in our long history on the planet.

We don’t need or want to go back to the simple innocence of ancient lunar societies. We don’t have to bomb ourselves back into the Stone Age.

What we need is to go forward, wisely and joyously, into a new phase of consciousness, in which the masculine warrior spirit is used for protection and stewardship rather than destruction, and the Earth is honored as the Mother of all that she is.

Never let anyone tell you it can’t be done. It is already happening.

Unplugged

I’m now in the middle of my annual summer retreat to the LaHave Islands in Nova Scotia, Canada, and it’s no exaggeration to say I feel like a different person than the harried, exhausted woman who packed up and headed north on the highway three weeks ago.

I am sleeping better—my dreams are lucid and intriguing, with elaborate narrative plots that I enjoy following even if I lose the thread when I wake up.

moonrise

I am writing again—going back to the manuscript of my memoir with fresh eyes and tightening, tweaking, reworking the introduction over and over until (I think) I get it right.

I am reading for pleasure—yes, you heard right! After a long school year in which, as a professor of literature and media studies, I could read only to prep classes, I am indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading mystery novels—Donna Leon’s Brunetti series, with their wonderful descriptions of Venice and Italian food.

I am spending long hours walking the empty beaches and cliffside trails, drinking in the natural beauty and letting the soothing sound of the waves banish all my worries and cares.

Gaff Point

I am enjoying adapting to the rhythm of my parents’ life, which takes me right back to my peaceful childhood, where each day was spent in a judicious measure of work, conversation, meal preparation and relaxed eating. My parents sit together at their lovely dining room table—here in Nova Scotia, with the dramatic view of the bay outside their windows, and the constant sound of the waves on the rocks in their ears—and eat three beautifully prepared and served meals a day, a routine few Americans still maintain.

frittataWhen I first arrived here three weeks ago, I thought this focus on meals took an awful lot of time and effort. But once I slowed down enough, I remembered something that my own grab-and-go existence had made me forget—just how worthwhile it is to take the time to prepare delicious meals, set a lovely table and eat in leisurely fashion, talking quietly over the day’s events. My entire body, aching and stressed when I arrived in Nova Scotia three weeks ago, is grateful.

Here on the island, where the most important questions are whether the tide is up or down and whether the fog is expected to blow out by lunchtime, life returns to its elemental rhythm, and it’s possible to feel how much is lost by the speed of our technology-dominated 21st century existence.

It’s possible to take a deep breath and remember that only 20 years ago, there was no Internet. There was no email. There were no cell phones, no smart phones, no texting. There were no digital music or video files, no VCRs or ipods, let alone streaming capabilities.

Remember what that was like? Everything moved a heck of a lot slower, that much is for sure. We wrote letters on paper and mailed them. We read books and big print newspapers that we had to schlep around with us in knapsacks. When we needed to look up a fact, we had to go to the library and look in the—get ready for it—card catalogue.

This was only twenty years ago, a mere flicker of time in the scale of human history. Imagine what a strain it is on our poor homo sapiens brains and bodies to keep up with the breakneck pace of modern digitized life, especially for those of us born and bred before the Great Digital Coming of the 1990s.

gorgeous NS copy

The brains of children born into this brave new technologized world are being wired differently. For many it is pure torture to slow down to ordinary time. Life without a screen and a wifi connection is unthinkable.

As we advance into the 21st century, I can see in my students the signs of smartphone addiction—the same nervousness and agitation, halfway through a 90-minute class, that smokers used to display in a previous generation. They have to get up and wander off to the bathroom as a pretext for checking in with the virtual world they crave.

I too get addicted during the course of the school year. I check email constantly and Facebook several times a day; I spend more time on the screen than I do out in the garden or walking in the woods or preparing meals and eating them with friends and family.
Only now, when I’m on a media holiday with my email vacation message set, can I appreciate the toll this society-wide digital addiction takes on each of us as individuals, and on human society writ large.

Yes, I love the power and reach of the Internet as much as the next person. I love being able to write my blog, send it out over wifi and have people all across the world reading it in a moment’s time. When my blog readership surpassed 100,000 visitors from more than 200 countries last month, I was thrilled.

But for deep thinking and sustained writing, I need to get away from that kaleidoscopic virtual reality and get in tune with the more primal rhythms of sunset and moonrise, tides flowing in and out again, seagulls soaring over the mermaid dive of a seal fishing quietly by the rocks.

eye of the hurricane 2014

Even if the closest thing to nature you can get is a city park, try spending a couple of hours there without your smart phone, and see what you notice. Watch how your breathing slows down and your tired, overworked brain relaxes when all it has to focus on is trees and bushes, maybe a sparrow or pigeon or two.

We don’t need expensive meditation retreats, yoga classes or far-flung vacations. We just need to give ourselves permission to unplug for a while.

Help Wanted: Willing Ring Bearer Seeks Quest

All week the energy of the summer solstice seemed to build in me. After a week of rain, the sun burst through and we had a whole week of clear, low-humidity days in which it appeared that you could see the plants growing happily, stretching their roots down into the soil and their leaves up towards the bright sky.

My peaceful backyard in the Shire

My peaceful backyard in the Shire

In anticipation of several weeks away (I’ll be making my annual pilgrimage to Nova Scotia soon) I spent a lot of time out in the garden, planting vegetables and annuals, weeding flower beds, mulching and staking and tending.

morning lettuce

morning lettuce

pumpkins

pumpkins

Garlic; note the gas tank in the background

Garlic; note the gas tank in the background

It’s always hard to leave a garden in the summer, when you know the minute your back is turned the invasive weeds will grow with vindictive vigor, the slugs will multiply and munch away at the lettuce, and the Japanese beetles will arrive to decimate the roses.

However, I must get away from the confines of my little corner of the world to clear my head and ready myself for another year—for me, as a lifelong academic, the year always starts with the fall semester of school.

Last night, in honor of the longest day of the year, my son and I took an evening hike up a local mountain, and sat on a rock ledge facing west as the sun slowly and majestically dropped towards the horizon.

Eric in woods

We were happy to find some friends up there—a caterpillar with beautiful markings, making its way up an oak sapling, and a pair of orange-and-black butterflies, sunning themselves just like we were.

caterpillar

butterfly

solstice sunset

As we walked down again in the last rays of sunshine, I couldn’t help thinking about the strong contrast between the peaceful, lovely landscape of my home ground, where for many of us the most urgent question of the day is “what shall we have for dinner?” or “what movie shall we watch tonight?” and the social landscapes that cry out to me every day when I read the news headlines—arid, violent, rigid, harsh.

Reuters photo taken June 11, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq

Reuters photo taken June 11, 2014 in Mosul, Iraq

 

This summer solstice, as I sit in my peaceful green American haven, Iraq is again descending into crazed sectarian violence. The news reports that “militias are organizing” or “Mosul was taken” focus on the politicians playing the mad chess game of war, and the young men drawn into the armies as battlefield pawns. There is no mention of the mothers, sisters and grandmothers of those politicians and young men. The women rarely surface in the headlines, and when they do, the news is not good: a woman who dared to go out to a rally stripped and gang-raped, for example.

We hear about women obliquely in the reporting about the incredible surge of refugees living in camps this year: of the 51 million people living in refugee camps under U.N. supervision, half are children—which means that a high percentage of the other half are probably mothers and grandmothers. But that is in inference I am making by reading between the lines; those women are invisible in the official story.

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, now Jordan's fifth largest city

Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, now Jordan’s fifth largest city

jammas.hussain20130212012158677

I have to recognize the incredible privilege I have as an American woman, living in the heart of the heavily guarded gated community that this country has become.

Other people around the world are paying the price for the peace and plenty I have here in my home. And not just people—the animals and insects and birds and forests are paying the hugest price of all to maintain my privileged lifestyle.

How long can I continue to live comfortably with this knowledge?

The more time goes on, the more I see how prescient J.R.R. Tolkien was with his Lord of the Rings series. Berkshire County, where I live, is indeed “the Shire” of legend—peaceful, productive, green and jolly. Outside our borders, far, far away, the armies of Mordor are mobilizing in the midst of lands laid waste by the industries of the Dark Lord. Few in the Shire are worried; the chance of those nasty people and industries actually coming here seem remote indeed.

JRR Tolkien

JRR Tolkien

In Lord of the Rings, it is Gandalf the wizard who serves as the bridge between these two very different landscapes. He gives Bilbo, and later Frodo, the charge of becoming the change agents who can make all the difference. The fight against the Dark Lord is fought on many fronts, but the quest to destroy the Ring of Power is paramount, and in order to destroy the ring Frodo must journey to the heart of the dark Empire itself.

I can’t escape the feeling that here in the quiet Shire where I live, ordinary people like me are being called upon, as Bilbo and Frodo were, to step up to the immense and dangerous challenge of resisting the darkness that is brewing on our borders.

But in our case there does not seem to be a Gandalf who can give us a mission and guide us as we set off on the quest. Not even the wisest leaders of the environmental and peace movements seem to be able to provide that kind of leadership. Worldwide, those leaders who claim to know with absolute certainty what is right and what to do are precisely the ones who are fomenting war and leading us down the path to environmental, civilizational suicide.

That must be why I am drawn to study with those who are exploring other epistemologies, outside of the normative range of politics, science, philosophy and religion.

Right now my bedside reading includes Anne Baring, Pam Montgomery and Pamela Eakins, along with Brian SwimmeMartin Prechtel, Bill Plotkin,  and Daniel Pinchbeck.

spring meadowWhen I look out into the green world stretching up towards our beneficent Sun, or glowing brightly under our sweet white Moon, I can see and hear the harmony that life on Earth evolved to sing. Put water and sunlight together, wait a few billion years, and you get this incredible lush planet, pulsating with life.

Human beings have flourished so well that now we have become overpopulated, an invasive species that is destructively taking over every last environmental niche on the planet. In a normal terrestrial cycle, we would go bust, our civilization would collapse, and with time the earth and the sun would gradually rebuild life in endlessly new creative forms.

Is that what is coming? Or will we be able to be the Gandalfs of our own generation, waking ourselves up out of our complacency here in the beautiful American Shire, and conquering the inner and outer Dark Lords that are laying waste to the planet?

What is the quest that is mine to carry out? What is yours? If we at least start asking these questions, with the greater good of the Earth in mind, perhaps the answers will emerge in time to set humanity on a better path.

solstice sunset dark

Will All The Good Fathers Please Stand Up?!

It’s Father’s Day 2014, and I am distraught when I look out into the world and see the ascendancy of the kind of distorted, testosterone-driven style of masculinity that is antithetical to good fatherhood.

A good father, in my book, uses his strength, wisdom and social capital to protect and empower his own and others’ children. He is rational and clear-thinking, but also not afraid to own his emotional side, to display his loving, nurturing nature. He is constructive in his social engagements, and tries to think ahead to ensure that his family, and by extension his society, will be as safe and prosperous in the future as they are currently, under his wing.

A good father uses his physical strength, or picks up weapons, only in defense of himself and his loved ones.

A good father would never harm a defenseless child, or send one deliberately into harm’s way.

So who are these men and boys who are gang-raping innocent women in Egypt; gang-raping and then lynching teen girls in India; going on mass-murder sprees in the United States; and sending yet another generation of boys into ideologically driven wars in the Middle East?

Who are these men who are kidnapping and brutalizing whole schools full of young girls in Nigeria; shooting in the head girls whose only crime is to want an education; kidnapping and holding as sex slaves innocent teenagers who comply out of terror?

I know, and you know, that there are a lot of good men out there. We all know many good fathers, brothers, husbands, friends.

These good men are the ones who, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote recently, need to stand up and insist that the aggressive, punishing, domineering style of masculinity has no place in the 21st century.

Masculine strength, absolutely. But it should be the strength of a benevolent patriarch, using his power to nourish and strengthen others.

Screen-shot-2013-12-16-at-4.18.49-PMAlthough I know President Obama has disappointed many, I still hold him up as an example of a good man: a good father, who works tirelessly to improve the world that his young daughters will be entering in the coming years, and a good leader, who has been doing the best he can to reach out a helping hand to those who need it—students, the elderly, immigrants, women. I doubt any one of us who landed in his shoes in Washington D.C. could do it better, so who are we to criticize?

On this Father’s Day, I salute all the good dads out there, including my own, and I implore you: use your social capital and power to condemn violence and destructiveness; to model and promote the peaceful, nurturing, kind human relations that the world needs now.

With Starhawk: Dreaming the Dark and the Light

The night I returned home from an intense weekend workshop at Rowe with Starhawk, I had a disturbing dream.

A little girl, dressed in a pink jumper, was crying that she was lost, she had to find her father. So I took her by the hand and we started looking for her father in an urban landscape—first on the street, then in an apartment hallway with many doors. I said to her, do you remember what the floor of your home looked like? Was it wooden? Black and white tile? We stopped at several doors but they weren’t the right one. Then we came to the one with the blue-green patterned tiles, and her father was in the doorway.

As soon as I saw him I was afraid…he seemed like a devil, a mean, cruel man, although he smiled (leered, more like) as he came forward in the doorway to receive her. And she went to him, whimpering. There were people gathered in the apartment behind him, all dressed creepily in black, watching something on a screen in a darkened room. He thanked me for bringing her back, and I turned away, with a sick feeling, thinking she was going to be hurt or punished for “running away.”

As I turned away I heard her whimpering turn to full-out crying, a terrible keening sound, and I felt paralyzed—what should I do? Should I call Child Protective Services? Clearly this little child needed my help, but I was afraid that if I called the police or other authorities, the “father” would know who called and would come after me.

So I did what any dreamer does when paralyzed by fear—I woke up.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this dream, especially as it seems to be a kind of psychological bridge between Starhawk’s remarkable rituals honoring Mother Earth, and my own upcoming writing workshop on “purposeful memoir,” which uses the elements as a way to frame and explore parts of one’s life journey.

I feel sure that I was both the small child in the dream, and the adult who was trying to help her find her way “home.” The problem was that “home” was a dangerous, confusing, love-and-hate kind of place, ruled over by a “father” who was punitive, frightening and loving in a controlling kind of way. The adults sitting in the dark background passively watching the screen are human society writ large, especially our Western, technology-obsessed society. The little child with her bright pink outfit and fearful, wanting-to-trust eyes, stood out here as a wholly other kind of being, but one which would, in the pinching hands of her “father,” be formed and molded into just another one of these pale, eerie, zombified adults.

We talked a lot last weekend about how frightening it is that we Westernized humans have become so very disconnected from the natural world. As Starhawk gathered us in circles to ritually salute the four elements and the four directions (Earth/North, Fire/South, Water/West, Air/East), as well as the Center/Spirit, it seemed like a dream of an older way of being that I dimly remembered, from a time before I had taken my seat among all the other adults sitting before screens in darkened rooms.

After the last circle

After the last circle

We listened to the birds singing and the wind blowing through the new spring leaves; marveled at how the veins of the leaves mirrored the veins in our own bodies and the bigger veins of river waters on the body of the Earth; and let our combined voices, chanting around a sparking fire in praise of the elemental unity of all Life, blur together into a wordless ringing sound that cast our intention to be of service to Mother Earth high up into the starry sky.

Following Starhawk along a labyrinth made of stones lined with vivid purple violets, I thought about my desire to help others explore their own lives in elemental terms, looking back at where we’ve come from in order to see more clearly who we are and who we wish to become. In writing my own memoir, the elemental structure emerged organically from the trajectory of my life: Earth the childhood ground of my being; Water the stream of culture I’d been sucked into as an adolescent and young adult; Fire the years of adulthood, being tested on many fronts; and Air running through it all as reflections from my current perch, back on the Earth of middle age, trying to recover my grounding in order to move more intentionally into the next stage of my life.

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

My dream, in which I was both the crying little girl who felt compelled to find her way back “home” and the concerned adult who could see just how damaging and hostile that “home” was, seems to represent my awareness these past few years of how destructive our American “home culture” is to the sweet, sensitive Earth-centered children who are born into this harsh, techno-dominated world and cleave to it with innocent fidelity.

We are instinctively loyal to our families and our birth cultures, even when on some level we are aware that they are not always healthy for us. And the adult “me” in my dream, anguished about handing over the child to this destructive “father” figure, was like any bystander in a negative scenario, desperately choosing to remain silent out of fear of retribution, fear of bringing the hostility down on myself.

In my memoir workshop next week, I want to guide others to explore how thinking about our lives in elemental terms can help us make sense of our past, and give us a firm footing from which to overcome our conditioning and our fears and take the full measure of our life’s purpose.

Three generations

Three generations

We all came into this life wide-eyed and open-hearted, looking for love and warmth. It’s fascinating to explore what happens as we are received by our families and our home cultures, and swept along into the fast-moving currents of life, heading towards the fires of adulthood.

But what really matters is what comes next. What will we do with our one precious life, as Mary Oliver put it so poignantly? Can we step back from our loyalties and conditioning and figure out what it is we care about enough to stand up for and give our lives to?

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk has moved in the past decade or so from a focus on a largely metaphorical, feminine-inflected Earth-based spirituality to a much more grounded practice in permaculture, “a multi-disciplinary art form, drawing from the physical sciences, architecture, nutrition, the healing arts, traditional ecological knowledge, and spirituality. The ethical underpinnings that guide permaculture are simple yet powerful: take care of earth, take care of the people, and share the surplus.”

In her Earth Activist Trainings, she seeks to help us reimagine a new kind of culture, one in which nature and human society are seamlessly intertwined. “EAT is practical earth healing with a magical base of ritual and nature awareness, teaching you to integrate mind and heart, with lots of hands-on practice and plenty of time to laugh,” she says on her website.

We need to create a new kind of culture that will comfort and nourish both the caring adult and the crying child in my dream. Our culture has to be supported by a sustainable relationship to our Mother Earth, a relationship in which we give back as much as we take, in an endlessly regenerative circle of life.

mossy rockAs I look ahead purposefully in my life, I hope that the adult I want to become would not leave the innocent child I was in the treacherous hands of a culture that has forgotten how to love. If I could replay that dream, I would guide that small, pink-clad child away from her malevolent “father” and his techno-obsessed tribe. I would take her away from that urban landscape, out into the warm green gloom of the forest, where we would sit together on a mossy rock and listen to the wind in the leaves and the birds in the sky. Together we would look up to see Starhawk approaching along the path, roots sprouting from her feet and branches from the top of her head.

We would sing together, in the words of poet Kristin Knowles, with whom I shared the Starhawk weekend:

Our mother,

in art and nature,

passionate burns thy flame.

Thy strength is one

with moon and sun

on Earth as up in the heavens.

Teach us the way to lightly tread

And relieve us our distress as

we receive those who would prefer our silence.

And lead us not into frustration

but deliver us from ill will.

For thine is the freedom, power and glory,

her story,

now and forever.

Blessed be.

Of school shootings, misogyny and the dream of gender equality

The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.

The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.

The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.

Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.

 ***

Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.

However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.

We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.

Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.

To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.

UnknownWelcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to.  Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.

Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.

Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?

 ***

So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”

The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.

Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.

We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.

 ***

There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.

The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.

Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.

We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.

Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.

I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.

Taking the risk to feel the pain of the world, and the love that can change it

Sometimes I wish I just taught math or physics—something dry and formulaic that would not require wading publicly into the messy, unclear, painful areas of life and interpersonal relations.

My current mantra is “the personal is planetary.” If this is so, what does it mean for the planet that such a high percentage of my students this semester have revealed such terrible pain and suffering in the classroom over and over again?

I have students whose parents are dying or have just died from cancer; students suffering from a wide range of mental and somatic illnesses, from depression and anxiety to anorexia and self-cutting; students whose non-standard gender identity has been so severely punished that they are so terrified or so angry that they cannot give themselves the luxury of trusting their classmates or teacher with their true selves.

I have students who have been wounded in trying to fit themselves into the boxes demanded by an insensitive, crude education system; for some of them the resulting anxiety has been so paralyzing that they shut down every time they walk into a classroom and are literally unable to speak in the presence of a teacher, even a nice friendly one like me.

Lately I’ve been reading Bill Plotkin’s magisterial work Nature and the Human Soul, in which he argues that human civilization has been stuck for too long (since Gilgamesh, I’d say) in an adolescent stage of development, where young men are encouraged in their shallow enjoyment of violence, sex and glory, and young women are encouraged to be pretty, compliant and deferent to authority.

The students at my institution are generally trying very hard to resist this overwhelming cultural message.  They try to think outside the box.  They have an earnest desire to be politically correct and intellectually sophisticated.

It’s all very well on the purely academic front.  But what happens when the cracks in that academic façade appear and reveal deep emotions—anger, grief, fear, desire—that go way beyond the bounds of the merely academic?  Sometimes these emotions can be so frightening that the only sane response seems to be to numb out on drugs (licit & illicit) or get distracted by media entertainment & competition & the race to keep one’s economic head above water.

Somehow in my classes these tumultuous, unruly emotions often come leaping into the foreground.  I allow and sometimes even encourage our class discussions to “go there,” to go into that dangerous gray zone between the purely intellectual/theoretical and the deeply personal lived experience.

I believe that this is the zone where the most productive new thinking happens, the kind that can shift paradigms and change worlds.  So I’m willing to risk the discomfort of venturing outside our collective comfort zones, in the hopes that a spark set off in one of our class discussions or activities will ignite a fiery passion that goes well beyond the narrow confines of this class, this semester, or any one student’s career.

But in the aftermath, as I think back on the tears shed, the furrowed brows of the listeners, the potential for aftershocks to occur outside the relatively safe space of the classroom, I can’t rest easy.  I feel deeply, myself, the responsibility of leadership, even in the relatively small scale of the classroom.  As I said to one student today, thanking him for his honesty in class, the ripples of his remarks today may spread out for many years, affecting those of us who listened and bore witness to his pain in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Some believe that we human beings are the consciousness of the planet. If the personal is planetary and vice versa, then it could be that these young people are in some sense channeling the pain of our planet itself.

We owe it to our youth, to ourselves, and to the great planet we call home, to—at minimum—listen with respect, try to understand, and consider how our choices and actions can contribute to or lessen the pain.

It’s risky to do this active listening and thinking aloud, in the moment, rather than waiting until we are sure we “have it right,” “understand it all,” or “know what to do.”  But we don’t have the luxury of time now to get it all perfect.  The best we can do is continually check in with our own emotions, and try to be sure that whatever we say or do is rooted in compassion, concern and a sincere desire to make things better.

“In a voiced community we all flourish,” says Terry Tempest Williams.  Blowing with love on the shaky fires of these suffering voices, bringing them into a nourishing, respectful community, will help ease not only human suffering, but also, potentially, as the ripples spread out, the suffering of so many living beings on the planet.

LOVE—the one emotion that trumps all others, on both the personal and the planetary scale.  The one emotion we can never have too much of, and the one out of which new potentialities continually spring.

6a00d83451c79e69e2015432a3f0e2970c-253x300May the tears of the student who wept in class today over the untimely loss of her mother to cancer water the dry, numbed-out hearts of those of us who listened in shocked silence as she made a profound, sobbing link between the health of humans and of the natural world.

May we take her pain, born of love, and channel it into personal and planetary healing.  May we be wise enough to see the connections between our actions and their ripple effects in human society and the planet writ large.

May we learn to feel all the love we’re capable of as humans and to act out of that deep wellspring of emotion.

Let it be so.  Let’s make it so.

Generations to Come: Mother’s Day Reflections on the Future

1013976.largeMy son and his girlfriend say they’re going to have a pig instead of a child.  They mean that literally—they’ve fallen in love with the idea of small pet pigs—and they’ve thought long and hard about the issue of whether or not to bring a child into this world.  Both confess to strong maternal/paternal inclinations, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they would make wonderful parents.

But unlike most people, they are hyper-aware of the troubled times humanity is moving into, as we sail along on our spaceship Earth.

“There’s no future for a child today,” my son says with resignation, and goes back to talking about the virtues of pet pigs, leaving me to sadly ponder the prospect of a piglet for a granddaughter.

When I was their age, in my early twenties, I reached for motherhood as a flower reaches toward the sun.  It was only a question of finding the right partner to make a baby with, and I put quite a bit of energy and focus into that search.  I married at 26 and had my first child at 30, the second at 36.  My role as a mother has determined my life choices ever since.

If I had been thinking as rationally as my son and his girlfriend, well, he might never have been born.  By 1992, his birth year, things were already looking grim, though we were all much less aware of the dark trends at work because the feel-good American media filtered out so much.

Now, social media does an incredible job of keeping us constantly informed about everything that’s going on in our world.

A granddaughter is born and Facebook lights up with pictures and congratulations.  Canada starts its seal hunt, and photos of bloody baby seals flood the web, with boos and hisses and calls for change.

When schoolgirls are abducted in Nigeria, or a boatload of teenagers drown in a sinking ferry, or thousands of people die in a landslide, we hear about it instantly, and as instinctively empathetic humans, we sense another portion of our emotional landscape darkening with grief.

It’s true that there is a lot of sadness, fear, pain and darkness in our world today.  It’s true that the future of human civilization as we know it is highly uncertain.  It’s true that we live in transition times.

But as I look around me on this sunny Mother’s Day morning and hear the birds singing and working busily on their nests in the trees around my house, I know it is far too soon to give up on our future.

Every living being in the ecological web of this planet reaches instinctively for the sun and dedicates itself to providing the ground for the next generation to stand on.

I understand that my son is acting out of an altruistic heroism when he thinks about renouncing fatherhood.  He has always wanted to be a father, and known he’d be a good one: he has been a wonderful older brother, and as a teenager quickly became a beloved camp counselor and mentor to younger kids.  He has an easy, charismatic way with children, and as a father he’d raise just the kind of bright, secure, grounded children that will be needed to lead humanity through the transitions ahead.

OK, so in part I just would much rather have a baby than a piglet for a grandchild.  But I also believe that we must resist the tendency to get so caught up in all the negative news that we forget to simply look around and remember that the sun is still shining, the leaves are unfurling, the birds are singing and a new day is here, full of untapped potential.

Maybe the question we need to be asking ourselves is not only “what will we do with our own precious lives,” but “what will we do for the lives of those precious children—of all species—to come?”  How can we spend our days wisely working to help our ever-loving Mother Earth continue providing the nurturing support she has always offered freely to all of her children?

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