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.

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.

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.

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