Late Night Thoughts on Love, Loss and the Urgent Need for Action

I had a rough night last night. I went to bed thinking about the April 15 “Blood Moon” lunar eclipse; unfortunately we could not see it here in the Northeast, but we certainly could feel the extra-intense full moon energy these past few days.

At some point in the wee hours I woke up to strong winds battering the house, and peering out the window I could see that our long-awaited springtime had been overrun by Old Man Winter again. Driving snow, accumulating steadily on the ground.

Shit. Yet another manifestation of the new normal of our wrecked climate.

After that I tossed and turned and couldn’t fall back asleep. Eventually, bored with my own churning thoughts, I fired up my tablet and started reading The New York Times in bed. Bad move. The first article that caught my attention was about how hazardous materials, particularly heavy crude and gas from the Bakken Fields in North Dakota, are being sent by rail to ports in the Northeast in exponentially increasing quantities, with virtually no regulatory oversight.

The map below shows the rail lines from North Dakota to the Hudson River, where tankers take the oil up to the refinery at St. John, New Brunswick, on the magnificent Bay of Fundy.

I live just two blocks from a train line, and I see the tanker cars that rumble past twice a day.

The tracks go right through downtown Pittsfield, the largest town in Berkshire County, and they go through many of our most lovely wilderness areas too.

But compared to cities like Albany, where schools are apparently sited right along the railroad tracks, or Philadelphia, which narrowly averted a major hazmat rail accident just recently, we have it good here in the Berkshires.

The point is, we are kidding ourselves if we think that nasty crude oil spills and explosions only happen somewhere else, like Ecuador or Nigeria.

We are kidding ourselves if we try to imagine ourselves as innocent bystanders in the nightmare of industrial devastation of our land, waters and air, and the destruction of our planet’s biospheric life support systems.

If Humans Are So Smart, Why Are We Destroying Our Home?

Surface of Mars

Surface of Mars

Surfing around the web bleakly in the middle of the night, I found myself reading articles speculating about how the dead, dry planet Mars lost its ability to support life.

The most likely scientific guess right now seems to be a catastrophic asteroid hit that changed the climate. Somehow the magnetic field of the planet was damaged, which allowed its atmosphere to literally blow away into space.

On Earth, our undoing will be the result of our own relentless industriousness and intelligence.

Human beings are so smart, we figured out how to split atoms and make atomic explosions! Too bad we haven’t got a clue what to do about the residual radiation and radioactive waste—waste with a half-life measured in the billions of years.

We’re so smart, we figured out how to harness the carbon energy buried deep in the ground in the form of coal, gas and oil. We even figured out how to turn oil into a different kind of substance that’s virtually indestructible—plastic! We just somehow overlooked the fact that we might quickly bury ourselves in plastic garbage, and choke ourselves in exhaust fumes.

We’re the smartest species on Earth. But like the Grinch, it appears that we have one fatal flaw—our hearts are many sizes too small for our outsized minds.

If we were guided by heart energy—that is, LOVE—in the application of our amazing technological abilities, what a very different world it would be.

It’s Time For Those With Loving Hearts to Speak in Many Tongues, Translating Love into Action

If future beings ever look back, shaking their heads at the demise of Homo sapiens on Earth and wondering how this once lush green and blue planet turned dead and brown, I wonder if they will be aware of the anguish of some of us living through these bitter transition times.

Will they know that some of us tossed and turned through the night, seeking futilely for a chink in the armor of the corporate stranglehold on our planet? Will they see that many of us, in these end times, tried to stand up for our values; tried to put into action the love we feel for the living creatures that share our beautiful Earth?

Always, it comes back to the question that keeps me up at night. What can we do to make a difference, now while there’s still time?

For a wordsmith like me, the obvious answer seems to be to learn to speak more tongues.

Since the corporations who are so bound and determined to keep fracking and mining and bulldozing their way to Kingdom Come only understand the language of quarterly profit and loss, this is the way we must speak to them.

The almighty priests of the Bottom Line and their henchmen the politicians could care less about emotional blather of love and respect for life and leaving a livable planet for future generations. So let’s speak to them in terms of losses.

The insurance company guys understand already how irreversible climate change will lead to losses on a Biblical scale. The fossil fuel magnates must also be made to understand that they are driving us all down a rapid road to ruin—and no gates will be high enough to keep the floods, fires and starving displaced populations out. We’re all in this together—rich and poor alike will go down with our sinking Mothership Earth.

To the church-going folks, we can speak the language of moral commitment and social responsibility. This weekend is a holy time in the Jewish and Christian calendars. When we’re thinking about the Resurrection and the miracle of Passover, let’s remember how these ancient holidays celebrate LIFE. For those who are religious, how can you claim to follow the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus and allow the destruction of our planet to proceed unopposed?

To the ordinary folks who are just trying to keep their own lives on track, we must speak in a very pragmatic voice. It’s time to begin to pull together as communities and insist on re-localizing energy production (solar, wind, geothermal) and agricultural production in order to build resilience at the state and town level.

It’s time to insist on regulations that will put the safety of people and environmental ecosystems above the profit margins of corporations, and if the federal government won’t do it, the states and towns must step up.

Lying awake at night worrying and mourning is a poor use of my energy. I want to spend whatever time we have left raising my voice to motivate all of us who care to work tirelessly and passionately on behalf of the voiceless: the trees and the bees, the birds and the whales, the frogs, elephants and farm animals, and especially on behalf of the human children as yet unborn, who may never be born—or may be born into a nightmarish, unlivable world gone mad.

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014--western Massachusetts

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014–western Massachusetts

21st Century Leadership: On Overcoming Fear and Negativity to Work for a Livable Future

This week, coming off the exhilarating high of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I started teaching a brand-new class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, “Leadership and Public Speaking for Social and Environmental Justice.”

We spent the first day just working with the concept of Leadership—thinking about great leaders and what qualities they possessed that helped them achieve their goals and bring so many others along with them.

And then we thought about what might hold us back from stepping into our own potential as leaders.

The number one obstacle to becoming a great leader, at least from the perspective of the dozen or so students in the room that day, is FEAR.

They quickly generated a long list of very specific paralyzing fears, and as each fear was voiced, the nodding and comments in the room made it clear that it was widely shared.

I certainly recognized many of my own fears on their list, which I will append at the bottom of this post, along with our list of the qualities necessary for great leadership.

A big part of my motivation for offering this class is simply to help students face and learn to work with their fears and insecurities, rather than doing what I did at their age, which was to allow my fears to push me back onto the sidelines, an observer rather than someone who felt empowered to be out in front leading others.

It’s been a long journey for me to learn that, as Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins put it in their excellent little book You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear, “Fear is pure energy. It’s a signal. It might mean stop. It could mean go.”

Frances Moore Lappe

Frances Moore Lappe

I remember when I invited Frances Moore Lappé to speak at Simon’s Rock a few years ago, she began her talk acknowledging that being up alone on the stage, in the spotlight, made her nervous. But, she said, she has learned to recognize that fluttery, jittery feeling as a sign that she is doing something important, something that matters—and to let the nerves (what some might call the adrenaline rush) work for her rather than against her.

As someone who for many years was overcome with stage fright every time I had to speak in front of an audience, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

JBH 2014 Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

JBH 2014
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

It wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that the multitudinous fears I had been carrying around with me all those years began to melt away, and I can’t say I know for sure what did it, other than forcing myself, over and over again, to get up there in front of audiences and DO IT ANYWAY, because I knew that a) the work I was being called to do was important, and not just for myself; b) if I didn’t speak about the issues I wanted to focus on in that particular time and place, no one else would; and c) there was absolutely no good rational reason for me to be afraid of speaking to the audiences I was addressing.

Clearly, one necessary ingredient of leadership is a willingness to walk with the fears, risking encounters with whatever devils those fears represent.

We’re out of time: climate change demands extraordinary leadership, now

If I am propelled now into doing all I can to catalyze leadership in my community, whether in the classroom or through the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, it is because I know that we no longer have the luxury of time to stand silently on the sidelines observing, as I did for a good part of my life.

There is simply too much at stake now, and things are happening too fast.

There are some signs that the American political and intellectual establishment is finally shaking off its lethargy and beginning to at least recognize that yes, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report pulled no punches in documenting and describing just how dire our immediate global future looks, thanks to human-induced climate change. And for a change, this “old news” was immediately carried on the front page of The New York Times, which has been ignoring and downplaying the climate change issue for years—and strongly echoed by its editorial page as well.

melting-polar-ice-caps

Yes, it’s true—climate change is real, it’s already happening, and there is no telling where it will lead us. If governments immediately start to act with furious speed and concentration, there is a chance we could backpedal our way into a precarious new normal, keeping our climate about as it is now.

If this kind of leadership is not shown, then all bets are off for the future—and we’re not talking about a hundred years from now, we’re talking about the future we and our children and grandchildren will be living through in the coming decades.

In short, we are living through extraordinary times, times that demand extraordinary leadership. And not just from politicians and heads of state, but from each and every one of us.

As global citizens with a stake in our future, each one of us is now being called to turn off the TV, get up off the couch, step out of the shadows, and SHOW UP to do whatever we can do, to offer our skills and talents to the greater good.

For some that will mean showing up at the 350.org climate change rally in Washington DC this month, demanding that our Congress and President represent the interests of we the people, not just the fossil fuel industry.

Teachers like me can start to offer students the tools and skills they will need to become the 21st century leaders humanity needs—leaders who see the big picture, respond empathetically to the plight not just of humans but of all living beings on the planet, and have the resolve, drive and courage to stand up and lead the way towards implementing the solutions that already exist, and innovating the solutions that have not yet been imagined.

Our media likes to bombard us daily with all the bad news on the planet: wars and random violence, natural disasters, corruption and greed, unemployment and health crises, environmental degradation…the list goes on and on. The cumulative effect of this constant negative litany is a feeling of hopelessness, despair, powerlessness and paralysis—the antithesis of what is needed for energetic, forward-looking, positive leadership.

Simply becoming aware of the extent to which your daily absorption of bad news depresses your spirit is a step on the road to switching the channel, metaphorically speaking, and beginning to focus on what can be done to make things better.

This is not pie-in-the-sky rainbow thinking, this is about doing what is necessary to ensure a livable future. One of the most important qualities of good leaders, my students and I agreed, is positive thinking and a can-do spirit.

If there was ever a time these qualities were needed, it is now—and in each and every one of us.

 

NOTES FROM Leaderhip & Public Speaking class, Day One

Great leaders are:

Charismatic / magnetic

Trustworthy

Change agents

Have something to say that resonates with others

Have a unique/original/relatable idea

Tenacious

Resilient

Creative

Empathetic/loving/caring

Passionate

Fearlessness/being able to embrace your fears

Engaging

Good organizers of people

Able to motivate & energize people

Good collaborators

Good at building teams; good team captains

Good at delegating

Synergizers

Convincing & persuasive

Unswayed by negative feedback & challenges

Self-confident

Able to overcome adversity

Able to share vulnerabilities

Focused/single-minded

Evangelical

Able to attract other strong people

Able to withstand criticism; thick-skinned

Good models: “be the change you want to see”

Articulate

Able to communicate with different groups of people & in different forms of media

Chameleons–able to get along with different kinds of people

Diligent/hardworking

Initiative-takers

Visionary innovators

Able to be humble and stay strategically under the radar

Good at self-promotion

Have good decision-making skills; decisiveness

Understanding of sacrifice/self-sacrifice

Generous

Assertive; firm but not attacking—“real power doesn’t need to attack”

Clear on what they want; clear goals

Intuitive

Considerate

Have common sense

Have a strong moral compass

Have a sense of justice

Want to be of service to the greater good

Want to build merit

Cautious when necessary/ not impulsive

Thoughtful

Resistant to corruption

 

JBH rainbow treeWhat holds us back from becoming leaders?

Fear

Fear of responsibility

Fear of judgment

Fear of failure

Shyness

Fear of being seen/heard

Fear of not being seen/heard

Fear of letting people down

Fear of being replaceable

Fear of fulfilling certain negative stereotypes (“Ban Bossy”)

Fear of being perceived as manly (if you’re a woman)

Fear of not being “man enough” (if you’re a man)

Fear of not being feminine enough

Fear of not being a good role model

Fear of having the minority opinion (saying something unpopular, not being able to

convince people)

Fear of being part of a marginalized group & expecting not to be heard/respected

Fear of leaving someone behind / a voice behind / not hearing other issues (ranking & hierarchy)

Fear of neglecting other issues

Fear of not being taken seriously

Fear of being too passionate

Fear of creating conflict

Fear of wading into controversy

Fear of taking a stand

Fear of changing your opinion/selling out for success

Fear of losing your authenticity

Fear of being politically incorrect

Fear of being perceived incompetent

Fear of not having what it takes

Fear of not being ready / not knowing what your “issue” is

Fear of being seen

 

Negative Qualities that may hold us back

Closemindedness

Righteousness

Malleability

Empathy—taking things too personally

Numbness/alienation

Staying under the radar

Aggression

Defensiveness

Being gullible, believing what you hear, not being discerning

 

What Systemic/Structural Circumstances Hold Us Back?

Acting to save others instead of trying to achieve your own goals/authentic mission

Youth

Education

Social upbringing

Poverty

Not having access to audience—tools to connect

Race/class/gender/sexuality/etc—social categories

Location (geographic)

Language

Filial piety—not wanting to go against expectations & will of family & society

Influence of media on self-esteem

 

Sharing and Seeking New Stories, Moving from Silence to Language, Action and Hope

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez; photo by L. Najimy

Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez; photo by L. Najimy

Yesterday, for the first time, I gave a public reading from my memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered.  It was a powerful experience, offering me a personal taste of what the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers has been giving to other women writers all month.

We met at the Friends Meeting House in Great Barrington, in a meeting room imbued with incredibly peaceful energy and beautiful light, with big windows opening up to the trees, mountains and sky off to the West.  I stood with my back to the view, wanting the audience to see me as I see myself, a small human nestling up to the flank of our great Mother Earth.  The reading started at 4 p.m., so as I talked and read the sun sank slowly behind me, and I was told afterwards that hawks cruised by casually a few times, riding the strong March winds.

Earth, water, fire and air…those are the elements that compose each of us, literally and figuratively.  We are simply emanations of our planet, like the flowers of the field and the fish of the sea.  Remembering that, it becomes easier to see how insane it is to poison and destroy our planet.  It is, quite simply, suicidal.

Last week a beloved member of my local community, a young woman, took her own life and set off a storm of grief.

How powerful it would be if that kind of deeply felt emotional response could be aroused in relation to the slow-moving suicidal ecocide that we are all currently participating in!

Of course, first we have to recognize what’s happening.  As I say in my memoir, most of us are still sleep-walking when it comes to seeing the great tragedy of our times.  We’ll still be sleep-walking, mumbling numbly that “everything is fine,” right off that cliff, unless we can be woken up in time and aroused to channel our emotions into positive change.

It’s not scientific facts and figures that will wake people up to the reality of the Sixth Great Extinction and the human-induced ending of the stable climate we’ve enjoyed for many thousands of years.

It’s hearts, not minds, that must be moved. And for that, it’s stories, not charts, that are called for.

It’s in this spirit that I offer my story in my memoir. Here is a quote that I read yesterday:

“My story is the story of a generation of Americans who grew up with tremendous privilege, so comfortable and coddled that we were not even aware of how very privileged we were.  It is the story of many generations of people who grew up believing that they had the right to take endlessly from the natural world, without fear of exhausting the planet’s resources, and without ever giving anything back. It is the story of my generation’s tremendous alienation from Nature, our reliance on technology and engineering to solve all problems, to the point where we could delude ourselves that we did not need the natural world to make us happy, only our own representations of her, and the resources we could extract at the push of a button.

“My story is the story of how finally, at midlife, I came back to my senses and woke up to the impending disaster that my generation had presided over unthinkingly.  I could share this story in the hopes that the very ordinariness of it would help my peers to wake up as well, and join the great struggle of our time, the struggle to turn our tremendous intelligence to the good work of creating a livable future for ourselves, our children and the billions of innocents condemned to extinction by our thoughtlessness.”

I also read a quote from Audre Lorde, who has been so important in encouraging me to overcome my social conditioning to be quiet, to be polite, to go with the flow, to suck it up, to keep my head down…which women, in particular, get a heavy dose of all our lives.

This is what Lorde has to say about that conditioning, from her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, in the Sister Outsider collection:

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you….What are the words you do not yet have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?…

“In the cause of silence, each one of us draws the face of her own fear—fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation.  But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live….

“And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which is also the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.  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 in the same way that 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.”

Truly we no longer have the luxury of waiting for the time to be right to speak up, to take action, to admit to ourselves and others that everything is NOT FINE, not at all.

All of our stories are important. The more we open up and share with one another, the greater the potential that we’ll be able to find the connecting points that will enable us to work together to create a new story, a bridge of a story to carry us forward into the future and help us create the structures we will need to weather the storms that are coming.

Bypassing the Old Boys’ Club

As we move exuberantly into the second half of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, my mind is sparkling with memories of the powerful, indeed heart-stopping moments that have already taken place at Festival events this season.

DSCN4609Grace Rossman extending a powerful poetic hand to the drowning Ophelia in so many girls today; Ruth Sanabria impersonating both her mother and the fascist regime that unjustly imprisoned her in a fierce poem about the impossibility of stamping out the love between mother and daughter; Kate Abbott celebrating the cultural diversity of the Berkshire hills as she works quietly and steadily to make it more visible; Barbara Bonner eloquently describing the spirit of generosity that seeks and needs no recompense.

The list could go on, and it will, as the Festival continues to unfold day by day this month, and throughout the year in the on-going readings, workshops and writers’ circles that will be taking place under the Festival banner.

This is important work we’re doing together at the Festival—creating multiple entry points and platforms for women writers to step into the spotlight and shine.

The truth is, such opportunities are still all too rare for women writers, and creative women more generally.

Overall17-316x173At the end of February, just in time for Women’s History Month, the non-profit, all-volunteer group VIDA published its annual Count, revealing the continuing disparity between men’s and women’s voices in literary and upscale magazines and journals.

Overall14-316x173I invite you to take a look for yourself: the results show clearly that in literary circles (think The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, The Atlantic, the London Review of Books, The Nation and the New York Review of Books), the old boys’ club is alive, well and holding steady at an average of 75% male voices represented in their pages over the past year.

The same is true in the film industry, the theater industry, and in the television industry. 

It’s the same in book publishing, which may be one reason why women are so interested in exploring new opportunities for self-publishing and self-promotion.

publishing_quadrant1222These days in publishing, it’s like the Berlin wall coming down—gates thought to be invincible are simply crumbling away, with their keepers revealed in all their flabby ordinariness.

Having spent far too much of my life not even trying to take myself seriously as a writer because I knew exactly how high the odds were stacked against my success, I’m excited about the DIY spirit of the new publishing landscape.

I’ve got a book that’s almost ready to launch, and buoyed by the lively, can-do spirit of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I’m thinking seriously about bypassing the old boys’ club entirely and taking responsibility myself for getting my words out into the world.

No more sitting on the sidelines complaining that “they won’t let us in!”  No more waiting to be asked to dance.  No more hiding my light for fear it won’t be appreciated.

BFWW-square-logo-2014If all of us women started supporting each other and working collaboratively to create the opportunities we all need to shine, we could change the creative cultural landscape for the better, turning those red and blue pie charts a lovely shade of purple.

What a beautiful world it would be!

Daring to imagine a brave new post-patriarchal world

When was the last time you uttered the dreaded P-Word?

Patriarchy, that is.

Somehow the word itself comes out sounding like a challenge, even when it’s not meant as one.  Calling attention to the fact that men still rule the world is considered poor taste.

Women who dare to use the P-word in conversation run the risk of being labeled as strident femi-nazi ballbusters, resentful unfortunates to be avoided if at all possible.

Am I exaggerating?  I don’t think so!

What happens when we all agree to participate in the collective delusion that gender equality has been achieved?  Who loses and who gains?  What opportunities are lost and forfeited?

I’m tired of living in a society that calls strong men “leaders” and strong women “bossy.”

I want to encourage more girls and women to step into leadership roles in every public arena, and be applauded for it by both men and women.

I want to see all leaders supported by excellent child care, fabulous schools and reasonable flex time at work.

When women and men take time off to focus on their families, I want to see that time recognized as valuable—indeed, essential—to maintaining a healthy society, and rewarded by Social Security accrual down the road in retirement.

Last week I spent time with two young mother-writers who came to present their work at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.  Both spoke of how hard it is to keep their professional lives going strong while also nurturing their families.  I certainly remember that struggle myself, and it’s not all in the past tense!

Hillary Rodham Clinton, late bloomer?

Hillary Rodham Clinton, late bloomer?

Is there any wonder that women are so often late bloomers when it comes to our professions?

But actually, let’s do away with the term “late bloomer” too, at least when it comes to women who do what makes perfect sense: focus on their families during their 20s and 30s, and get back to their careers when the childcare pressures ease up.

Those women have been blooming all along, or at least they would be if they lived in a society that supported and applauded their efforts, and encouraged men to share the burden of housework and childcare equally.

The patriarchy locked women in the domestic sphere for many long centuries, while devaluing “women’s work” as lower-paid and lower-status.

It’s time for us to celebrate women’s work as essential and invaluable, while also insisting that the whole category of “women’s work” has to be dismantled. We don’t need a gendered division of labor anymore, in the public or the private spheres.

What we need are strong, capable leaders to step up and help us evolve quickly into the resilient, collaborative, respectful human society we know we can be.

Bringing home the bacon and frying it up too: homage to mother-work

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

The theme of last Saturday’s opening night event at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others, was “What do mothers make?”

The answers provided by the evening’s presenters–all women at various stages of their lives–were various, but there was a common theme: mothers make families, mothers make relationships, mothers make community.

Historically, in most societies this has been the primary role given to women—to serve as the emotional heart of families, to make the meals and make the homes that lead to strong, centered communities.

These days, in American society at least, women are expected to do all this and also be successful in their professional lives.  Only the wealthiest American families can afford to have a stay-at-home parent.

In most households I know, especially among people at mid-life or younger, both parents are working hard at their jobs and also trying to sustain a healthy home life.  And in most families I know, it still falls disproportionately to women to keep those home fires banked and burning bright.

We live in a society that measures personal success by income, but puts no monetary value on homemaking, parenting and elder care.

So all those hours that women put in to keeping our families and communities strong and healthy “don’t count.”  The nation sends a pretty clear message through our Social Security retirement system, for example, telling parents and caregivers that the work we do in our homes is an unacknowledged and unrewarded second shift.

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, "What do mothers make?"

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, “What do mothers make?”

A recent Pew study showed that 40% of all American households with children under 18 are now headed by women who are the sole or primary breadwinners for the family.  These women are bringing home the bacon and frying it up for their families—and arranging childcare, helping with homework, and doing all the regular home maintenance too, after their “work day” is done.

And then we wonder why so many children and teenagers are struggling with mental health, including ADD, eating disorders, addictions of all kinds, depression and lack of motivation.  We wonder why women are still not gaining equal representation at the highest levels of politics and business.  We wonder why so many women step off the leadership track in their thirties, when the mothering pressure is greatest, or “opt” to choose career paths that give them some precious flex-time.

It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at a society that squeezes everything it can out of mothers as workers and doesn’t recognize or value parenting and homemaking as the essential work it is.  Is this really the kind of society we want to call home?

I end with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Aurora Levins Morales:

“Ours was the work they decided to call unwork.”

Against Mono-cropping, both Agricultural and Cultural

Did you know that there are more living organisms in a cup of healthy soil than there are humans on this blessed planet of ours?

This week I’ve been reading Judith Schwartz’s book Cows Save the Planet with my classes (“Women Write the World” and “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice”); the book makes a strong case for the importance of maintaining biodiversity not just in the plants and animals we can see (big ones like trees and polar bears) but also in all the infinitesimal life that crowds into every square inch of our Tierra Madre, Mother Earth.

As I think about the teeming life in a teaspoon of soil, what really strikes me is how biological loss of diversity is a mirror of cultural diversity loss.

Human beings are relentlessly narrowing the sphere of possibility for many life forms on the planet.  And at the same time, our global culture is becoming more homogenous and limited.

Take the consolidation of the media, whether it be in publishing, TV and radio channels, or newspapers.  Where a thousand different voices used to sound, now there are only the monolithic behemoths: Comcast, TimeWarner, Random House, Bloomberg.

UnknownWhere there used to be a thousand different ideals of female beauty, now there is just this.

How different is this from the reduction of thousands of different varieties of corn, rice, wheat and other seeds, to just the One Great GMO Variety?

Well, as hard as the intellectual property lawyers try to clamp down on diversity, the unauthorized weeds spring up anew.

I feel like the work I’m doing to create the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is part of the resistance to cultural mono-cropping.

Instead of bowing to conventional celebrity culture, where the only important voices are the ones that have been anointed by the media gatekeepers, the Festival insists that every woman who writes from the heart has a story to tell that matters.

Conventional media dictates that anyone who gets a microphone must be media-pretty, articulate under pressure, and non-threatening to the political and cultural status quo.

Those who don’t fit this mold are consigned to the margins.

At the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, the margins come to the center, with spectacular results!

The Festival aims to provide platforms for those would not otherwise be heard—teenage women alongside older women, women who have never published before alongside seasoned published authors in a wide variety of genres.

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Festival presenter Amber Chand

While few of the 150 women presenting in the Festival have celebrity status or “name recognition,” they have something more special: they are women who write and present from their hearts, not for financial gain but for the pleasure and the power of sharing their perspectives and ideas with others.

The Festival aims to change the world one woman at a time by shifting from a celebrity-based mono-crop cultural landscape dominated by centralized media, to a diverse, vibrant, locally grown environment in which women are celebrated not for how they look but for what they think and write about the most important issues of our time.

Could it be that as more women speak from outside the mold of popular culture, the external world will change as well?

Coming your way: the first-ever Sustainable Civilization Olympics

I know I’m exposing myself to hailstorms of rotten tomatoes and eggs, but I’m going to say it anyway: I don’t care about the Super Bowl, or the Winter Olympics either!

Every time one of these big annual sports events come around, all I can think about is if only people would put the same energy and enthusiasm into sustainable living on our planet, what a beautiful world it would be!

It’s fine that people want to spend all their time and energy toning up their bodies and becoming world-class athletes.  Hey, whatever floats your boat!

But if you’re going to become a badass athlete, why don’t you put your strength and prowess to work for the planet, super-hero style, rather than settling for winning medals and giving your ego some strokes?

The bare truth is that if we human beings put our collective minds to it, we can solve any problem.

Melting-Glaciers_in_Himalayas_top-10-list.org_-300x198Global warming, water shortages, acidification of the oceans, clean energy, you name it, we can handle it—if we just focus our time, resources and energies behind being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Here’s an idea: why don’t we have a Sustainable Civilization Olympics, complete with livestreams in the labs and testing grounds so that we can all follow along as various teams make progress on solving our global problems?

For those who can’t get excited about anything unless competition is involved, well, go for it!  We can have teams, play-offs, Super Bowls, you name it!

Just let’s get the job done, for heaven and earth’s sake!

And then, once we’re back on an even planetary keel, maybe we can spare the time for the kind of mindless entertainment that floods our airwaves each year on SuperBowl Sunday.

It’s Up to Us Now: Carrying on the Work of Pete Seeger

Unknown-1When I heard the news that Pete Seeger had died, my first thought was “oh no!” and my second thought was “now there goes a man who lived a good life.”

At 94, he had accomplished so much and lived so fully.  Even during his final months and weeks on the planet, he was still playing concerts to packed houses and inspiring people everywhere with his unwavering dedication to using music as a means of raising awareness and fomenting social change.

The New York Times obituary quotes him as saying in 2009 (the year he sang at President Obama’s Inauguration): “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Pete’s gift was for making music and getting others to sing along with him, and he used it not for fame, fortune or glory, but for the good of those who most needed him.

Whether he was singing in support of the Civil Rights Movement or the anti-war movement, singing for freedom against the red-baiting of the McCarthy era, singing against apartheid or singing for the environmental movement, he was always out in front leading the charge and showing others what true courage and conviction looked like—in a joyous register.

Image: File photo of Pete Seeger and his grandson Tao attending the We Are One - Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington

That upbeat, “we-shall-overcome” personality probably played a big role in Pete’s longetivity—research shows that people who think positively tend to live longer, happier lives than those who tend to see the glass half-empty.

When I saw Pete play, at one of his last concerts last fall, there was a joyous glow about him that lit up the whole stage, and those of us in the audience would have followed him anywhere.

Well, it’s up to us now.  Pete has moved on, and we are left to carry on his legacy—to keep singing his songs and working for the positive social change he believed in and created.

Unknown-2Pete was so deeply engaged with humanity during his lifetime that in death he will still stay lodged in our hearts.

His is the kind of soul that will rise into heaven showering sparks and spores of bright beckoning energy, encouraging us to carry his tune, to keep his good spirit alive.

Today I start a new semester of classes, and I am excited to be teaching two classes that will enable me to do just that: “Women Write the World” and “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice.”

Pete, I’ll be thinking of you with love and admiration as I go to greet my students this morning.  I hope a little of your sweet, positive, hardworking energy will carry us forward this year, and forever.

 

If you get there before I do

Comin’ for to carry me home

Tell all my friends I’m comin’ too

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

Writing of Disaster, Writing of Hope

As a professor of literature, I tend to pay special attention to what my son is reading in school.  I wish I could say I paid attention to what he reads at home, for pleasure, but the truth is that he does not read for pleasure.  He reads on assignment, and that’s it.

So what is he reading, in his typical 9th grade American public high school?

So far this year he’s read 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Night. Now he’s reading a contemporary novel, How the Light Gets In, by a British author, M.J. Hyland, billed as a 21st century girls’ version of Catcher in the Rye.

In short, it’s been one depressing, upsetting book after another.  Thought-provoking would be the kind term to use, but it saddens me to recognize that generally speaking, “serious” literature is about the things that frighten us.

And it’s not just in literature that this is true.  In pop culture too, the violence that plays out over and over in every form of media entertainment is catering to what seems to be a human need to imagine and play out in fantasy our deepest fears.

Almost all science fiction series and movies that try to imagine the future show us disasters and social dystopias.  These are considered “realistic” (a positive attribute), as distinct from “utopian” scenarios (dismissed as unrealistic, hence not to be taken seriously).

As a parent, a teacher, and a member, like you, of the transitional generation on this planet, I worry about our apparent addiction to what 20th century philosopher Maurice Blanchot called “the writing of disaster.”

Certainly I have not shied away, in my own career, from making myself aware of the ugly side of human experience.  I have studied human rights abuses of every stripe and geographic origin, including sexual abuse, torture, war and genocide.

I have confronted the grotesque truth of the devastation we humans are wreaking on non-human animals and on our planetary environment—the chemical poisoning of air, waters, earth, along with the life forms that inhabit these strata; the factory farms; the mountaintop removal, clear-cutting and strip-mining; the plastics pollution of the oceans; and on and on.

I don’t bury my head in the sand, by any means.

But I question the wisdom of inundating our imaginations, especially those of young people, with violent stories.

Whether they’re historical like Night or futuristic fiction like 1984; whether they’re video game scenarios like GTA or Call of Duty; or TV series, movies, or the daily news—if all we see in virtual reality is human beings being violent, doesn’t this begin to affect the way we understand ordinary reality?

Doesn’t it make us more guarded with each other, less likely to trust, less likely to build community and bring out the best in each other?

Mary Pipher

Mary Pipher

In preparation for my new class this spring, “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice,” I’ve been re-reading Mary Pipher’s 2006 book Writing to Change the World. Mary Pipher, you may remember, is the psychologist who wrote Reviving Ophelia, a book from the late 1980s that provoked a major surge of attention to the way American girls self-sabotage as young teens, and what societal factors made their swan-dive of self-esteem more likely to occur.

In recent years, Pipher has become an environmentalist, leading the charge in her home state of Nebraska against the Keystone XL.  Although the pipeline is not dead yet, it has at least been re-routed away from the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region.

In Writing to Change the World, she offers a how-to book for those, like me, who see writing as one of the best tools to raise awareness about the issues that matter most.

Pipher writes: “The finest thing we can do in life is to grow a soul and then use it in the service of humankind.  Writers foster the growth of readers’ souls, and the best soil for growth is love.  Writing can be love made visible….This is our challenge: to cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy and still manage to do our share for this beautiful broken planet of ours” (241-2).

However, it seems to me that the kinds of writing we are consuming as a culture, and especially what we’re feeding to our young people, will neither “cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy” nor inspire us to take arms against the sea of troubles that is our planet today.

On the contrary, the dominant narratives I see, at least in American culture, are violent, cynical and despairing, showing us the worst of humanity rather than enticing us forward with dreams of what could be.

I’d like to see the start of a new global literary movement of change narratives in every genre aimed at holding a positive mirror up to human nature, giving us examples of the good we have done and the good we are capable of doing if we draw on our positive qualities—our ability to love, to nurture, to steward, to protect.

Even our oh-so-human violence has a place, if it is used to protect rather than to abuse and wreak wanton havoc.

I would like school curricula to stop replaying the horrific stories of our past—or at least, to balance these negative stories with narratives that give students some positive, hopeful models of human beings as well.

Trying to “grow a soul” in today’s social climate is like trying to grow a plant without sunshine.

Writers, let’s take on the challenge of using our gift with words to change the world for the better.  Let’s be the sunshine, not the shadow.

Spiderweb

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