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.

Who’s Got the Balls to Take the Porn Industry On?

Could it be that the pornography industry has something to do with women’s continuing struggle for equality and respect?

Brig. General Jeffrey Sinclair

Brig. General Jeffrey Sinclair

So it would seem from the case of Brig. General Jeffrey Sinclair.

It was not surprising to learn that a military judge accepted General Sinclair’s strategy of pleading guilty to lesser charges in exchange for the dismissal of far more serious counts, including violent sexual assault, that could have put him behind bars for life.

According to the New York Times,  “General Sinclair formally pleaded guilty to mistreating his former mistress — an Army captain — as well as disobeying a commander’s order not to contact her, misusing his government charge card, and using demeaning and derogatory language about female staff officers.”

In exchange, military prosecutors dropped the more serious charges that “General Sinclair twice sexually assaulted his former mistress by forcing her to have oral sex, threatened to kill her and her family if she revealed their affair, and engaged in consensual but “open and notorious” sex with her in a parking lot in Germany and on a hotel balcony in Arizona. Those charges could have led to life in prison for and registration as a sex offender, if convicted.”

You have to dig deeper into this unsavory story to discover that General Sinclair learned his technique for violent fellatio from the thousands of violent pornographic photographs and videos he had stored—against military orders—on his computers and other devices in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors initially tried to get that nasty porn admitted as evidence in court, but the judge refused to allow it, saying it could “taint the jury’s outlook on the trial.”  The jury, let it be noted, consisted of five generals.  All men.

In the Army, it’s illegal to possess pornography while on deployment.  It’s illegal to engage in adultery.  It’s certainly illegal for a superior officer to force a soldier to have sex.  According to the Captain, whose identity is being withheld, General Sinclair “grabbed her by her neck and shoulder and forced her to perform fellatio….It happened again some days later, she said. This time, he stopped only when she threatened to scream.”

This is precisely the kind of case that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s landmark legislation, which aimed to take the trying of sexual assault cases out of the hands of the military, was designed to address.

Imagine how this case would be different if instead of a colonel as judge and five generals as jury (judge and jury all-male), the court case was tried by a civilian judge and a jury composed of 12 men and women who were not in any way beholden to the military.

Illustration by Jerry McJunkins; fayobserver.com

Illustration by Jerry McJunkins; fayobserver.com

Of course, even civilian rape and sexual assault cases are notoriously hard to successfully prosecute.  Men still get away with minimal sentences as victims are blamed with “leading him on” or “asking for it.”  Some 97% of rapists never even spend a day in jail.

In the Sinclair case, the Captain is being caricatured as a typical “jealous mistress” who blew the whistle on the General as revenge for his inability to make any commitment to her.

But really—would any woman, let alone an Army Captain, put herself through the torments of a sexual assault trial merely for revenge?

She may not realize it now, but in refusing to be browbeaten into silence she is standing up for every military woman and every civilian woman who has had to bite her tongue and comply with abusive behavior from men with greater social status and privilege.

But the deeper question that deserves to be asked here is why it’s OK for violence againt women to be represented through violent pornography, such as that possessed by the General.

Defenders of the porn industry insist that: a) a penchant for watching violent porn doesn’t imply a desire to carry it out in real life and b) porn is just acting—it’s not real.

Tell that to the porn starlet whose throat has been bruised and battered through violent fellatio.  Tell that to the girl who is forced to have sex from behind while her head is dunked repeatedly in a toilet.  Tell that to the girl whose anus is torn apart as three men gang-bang her—“only acting,” of course.

Is this too harsh for you to read?  Does it offend your sensibilities?

I’m sorry, but I am of the opinion that if something is too horrible for us to read about, it’s too horrible for us to permit to go on in actuality.

From violent porn to factory farming, from mountaintop removal to sex slavery and lab animal torture—if it’s so bad we have to avert our eyes, then it’s so bad we have to do something about it.

I salute the tearful Captain who testified valiantly in that military courtroom, knowing that every man in the room hated her for daring to tell the truth.

Our military women deserve better.  All women deserve better!  The violent porn industry is a pus-filled abscess seething below the sight lines of society.

If we want to get a handle on why women continue to be disrespected, the multi-billion dollar porn industry would be a good place to start an inquiry.  Who’s got the balls to take those bastards on?

**The upshot, 3-20-14: the General got a very gentle slap on the wrist.  Are we surprised?  Hell no!  It is almost impossible to convict on sexual assault, at least as long as the judges and juries are all-male, with the opinion that “boys will be boys” and “she led him on….”  GRRRR!!!!!

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.”

The Solutions are Hidden in Plain Sight–if you look through 21st century eyes

IMG_4806A lot of us in the Northeast are doing our share of grumbling this year about the Arctic air that just won’t go away.  Usually March is the time when the winds start to blow, the sap starts to rise, the snow melts into the thawing earth and our thoughts turn to snowdrops and crocus.

This year, we’re still in the deep freeze with a hardpack of snow on the ground, and no end in sight.

It’s all part of the erratic weather of our climate change era.  The question for all of us now is, how, beyond bitching and moaning, are we going to respond?

Most of us just shrug and turn the dial on the heater up a little higher, not thinking about what that very small, ordinary act really entails.

If your thermostat is wired into an oil burner or a natural gas furnace, like most homes and apartment buildings in the Northeast, then when you turn up the dial in response to the bitter cold you are, perhaps unwittingly, enabling, supporting and becoming an integral part of the very industry that is relentlessly destroying our climate.

The fossil fuel industry is not some demonic force outside of our control.  It’s just a human business that is responding to human needs for energy—lots and lots of energy.

We Americans are used to getting what we want, and what we’ve wanted, in the 50 years I’ve been on the planet, is ease.  What could be easier than turning a dial to make your house warmer in the winter or cooler in the summer, or gassing up your comfy car before you get on the freeway?

1_RussetLikewise in terms of agricultural production—we like to get our vegetables pre-washed and sometimes even pre-cut, all even-sized, no blemishes, laid out attractively in faux crates under spotlights in our upscale grocery stores.

When we buy that bag of potatoes or carrots, we’re not thinking about the tons of pesticide, herbicide, fungicide and fossil fuels that went into making it easy for us to throw these items in our shopping cart.

We’re not thinking about the bees, butterflies and other valuable insects that have been driven to population collapse by industrial agricultural practices; or the huge dead zones in the ocean at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where fertilizer and chemical run-off from the Midwest runs down to the sea; or the millions of birds that are affected each year by the toxic chemicals we spread over the landscape.

We’re just throwing that bag of veggies into the cart, or turning up that dial.

Well, the time of such oblivious innocence is over.

The curtain has been pulled back, and the Wizard of Industrial Capitalism has been revealed—and lo and behold, he wears the ordinary face of each one of us.

Every step we take on this beautiful, battered planet of ours matters.

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

I am heartened to know that this very weekend, one year after the big climate change rally in Washington DC that I attended in the hopes of pressuring the Obama Administration to block the Keystone XL pipeline, thousands of activists, most of them college students, will be raising a ruckus at the White House gates to insist that the politicians stop gambling away their future.

Here in my backyard, in the Massachusetts-New York region, people have woken up to the fact that mile-long trains of crude oil and gas are being run through heavily populated neighborhoods.

We’re moving to block gas fracking in western Massachusetts as the sight of contaminated tap water in fracking regions brings the dangers right home.

We’re also starting to get serious about making solar energy accessible to homeowners and businesses.

UnknownThis week’s New Yorker magazine has a fascinating article about a little-known scientific program to create a controlled thermonuclear fusion power plant.  Unlike the current fission plants, which burn radioactive fuel and generate dangerous waste, the fusion plant, if it were successful, would run indefinitely on seawater and lithium, with no waste.  It would be ten times hotter than the core of the Sun.

Talk about an audacious plan!  You have to hand it to human beings, we are nothing if not hubristic.  It is our greatest strength and our most glaring weakness.

Why spend billions on creating an artificial sun here on earth?  Why not just learn from our cousins the plants, and start to use the sunlight we have more efficiently?

It’s time to take off our grimy 20th century glasses and start looking at the world and ourselves through 21st century eyes.  When we do, we’re going to find that the solutions to all the problems that beset us have been hidden in plain sight all along.

Ronan Farrow’s Beacon of Hope

“One of the most difficult things to do is to infuse in young people a sense of empathy and a larger world…to give them a perspective that is more macro and less narcissistic,” Jon Stewart said in his recent interview with Ronan Farrow.

Ronan Farrow

Ronan Farrow

Farrow, when asked how he came by his desire to make a positive difference in the world, replied that it was growing up in a “mini-United Nations” sort of family (many of his 13 siblings were adopted from all over the world, some with serious physical or mental disabilities) that gave him the desire to become an agent for positive change on a worldwide scale.

Mia did something right to have set such a force in motion!

Ronan Farrow was a prodigy, going to college at my home institution, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, at the tender age of 11.  Although I never had him in class, I remember seeing him on campus, his bright blond hair always a stand-out, his small frame bent beneath a heavy backpack of books.

He went on to Yale Law School at 18, after serving a two-year stint as a youth ambassador at the United Nations; then became a Rhodes Scholar, worked at the State Department, and is now about to launch his own cable news show.

At 26, he’s done more than most of us will ever do.

I am quite impressed by the agenda he’s set for his show.  It will be news aimed at a youth audience, specifically designed to spark the empathy Stewart referred to, and not only that but to give his audience concrete options for taking action on the issues and situations presented.

Every show will have a “call to action,” Farrow said, and “a menu of things to do”; ways “to move the needle” on important issues.

I have noticed from my years of working with young people on social and environmental justice issues that they get very impatient and turned-off by discussions of problems that don’t also include solutions, preferably along with ways that they can get involved in moving the solutions forward.

It must be his twenty-something instinct that is prompting Ronan Farrow to put his talents and connections to work in creating just the kind of show his own generation is longing for.

It will have the celebrity pizzazz that his handsome face and famous name brings; the erudition and seriousness of purpose that his education and professional experience has provided; and with any luck, it will be a real beacon of active hope for millions of potential young change agents.

Go Ronan!  It is great to see a young person who is so clearly in the flow of living his purpose.

Infectious Hope

One of the things we are thinking about in my classes on social and environmental justice is whether it’s better, as an activist, to put your energies into a top-down or a bottom-up strategy.

Should we be trying to pressure governments, politicians and international organizations to do the right thing when it comes to, say, climate change policies?

Or should we be trying to ignite a whole series of grassroots, local, community-based changes?

Obviously it’s not an either-or proposition—it’s important to work at all levels.

But I notice that when I think about the big picture, I feel impotent and despairing.  Who is going to stop the massive deforestation of the planet?  How are we going to get the fat cats in corporations, governments and the United Nations to understand how critical it is to maintain forests and healthy agricultural soils so that they can function as the effective carbon sinks they are meant to be in our delicately balanced terrestrial eco-system?

It’s remarkable to note how my despair turns to hope when I turn my attention to the many local initiatives that I know are going on all over the globe.

When I think about how my hometown, Great Barrington MA, will be one of the first in the world to actually BAN PLASTIC BAGS in stores, my heart swells with pride.

Hope fills me to learn that Seattle is creating an innovative “Food Forest” in a city park, aiming to improve public health by regenerating public land into an edible forest ecosystem created using permaculture principles to reduce agricultural climate impact, improve local food security, provide educational opportunities, and celebrate growing food for the benefit of all species.

And when I hear that some of the incredibly powerful billionaires on the planet are using their money to try to turn the climate change juggernaut around—for example, Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson—it makes me believe that all is not lost.

Both despair and hope are highly contagious.

It is easy to pay attention to the constant stream of depressing news and believe that the game is over, so there’s no point in trying anymore.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

imagesJust as green plants poke their way stubbornly through asphalt and even the most blighted landscapes are always striving to regenerate, our Earth always tends towards life.

Every single species alive on the planet today, from humans to microbes, has survived many cataclysms and tough times in the past.  Just as we have before, we can rise to the challenges that face us today.

It really doesn’t matter whether your preferred approach is lobbying Washington DC or starting a Transition movement in your town.

The important thing is to stay alert, stay active and engage with others who understand that the choices we make day by day can, cumulatively, have a critical impact on our planetary future.

We cannot afford to be complacent or ignorant, and neither can we afford the luxury of despair.

Put your hope into action, one day at a time.  I truly believe that the bridge of hope we build together can take us over these dangerous times, into a future bright with promise.

Changing the storyline: from limitless growth to sustainable planetary happiness

Today in my Writing for Social and Environmental Justice class we began to talk about the power of storytelling.

The challenge for the students in my class is to figure out the best narrative strategy, the best rhetorical approach, the best genre and format to inspire others to work with them for positive social change.

To get people’s attention, especially in the media-saturated social landscapes many of us inhabit, the story has to be well-narrated, fast-paced and compelling.  It has to deliver information succinctly and have a memorable “take-away” line.  It has to give us interesting, admirable protagonists and a complex plot, complete with tragedy, catharsis and antagonists we can love to hate.

It’s a pretty tall order!

The first step, of course, is being clear on your own values—what you think is important, what issue is the one that most grabs your own heart and mind.  Great change writing speaks out of a place of passionate commitment.

Great change writing says: “I believe this so deeply I am going to open my heart and let you see how this great injustice or destructive practice is tearing me apart.  I am going to let you see me in all the vulnerability of my rage, grief and passion…and I am going to convince you to care about this issue too—enough to be willing to stand up and take action.”

That’s the second part of great change writing—you have to give people a clear call to action, and at least show them the starting point of a path towards change.

It’s not enough to wail and point blaming fingers at all the injustices of the world.  You have to point the way towards remedies, solutions, action.

I ended both my classes today declaring my feeling of optimism in the future. I feel more optimistic today than I have in a long time that we will be able to solve all the many problems human civilization has created in its childhood—the past 500 years or so.

The tremendous challenges that beset us, particularly the environmental challenges which have the potential to completely wipe us out, can be solved.

We already know what we have to do.  Reduce emissions, yes, but also restore the ability of the planet to absorb the emissions we do produce.

Judith D. Schwartz

Judith D. Schwartz

We are reading Judith Schwartz’s book Cows Save the Planet this week, which is all about the potential of soil to become an incredibly effective carbon sink, if we just stop our bad agricultural practices and let the billions of microbes that inhabit each teaspoon of healthy soil do their work.

If we were to stop killing our soil, plants and forests with herbicides, fungicides, fertilizer-dependent agriculture and clear-cutting, it is possible that we could radically shift the whole disaster-scenario of climate change—fast enough to make a difference.

What we need is to start telling a new story, to which the broadest possible base of people can hear and respond.

It will be a story about how a beleaguered, tired, hungry, thirsty, oppressed people—that is, the majority of people on this Earth—realized that with just a few adjustments, they could live a much richer, happier life in harmony with the natural world.

It will be a story about how the economics of endlessly growing national product gave way to the economics of sustainable planetary happiness. How competition gave way to collaboration, with the recognition that we have the capacity to give everyone on this planet a good life if we shift our focus from rising profits for the few to steady well-being for the many.

If we were to start telling this story loud and clear, in beautiful, compelling, persuasive and well-researched ways, broadcast over the billion megaphones of the World Wide Web, how could people fail to listen?

Especially if we backed up the vision with concrete strategies for making it happen down on the ground.

345570804_640I am heartened by initiatives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a working group of mayors from the major cities of the world who have decided not to wait around for the United Nations to get its act together, but to start working together independently towards a sustainable future.

C40 is changing the dominant narrative of gridlock and impossibility with its muscular can-do insurgency.

We can’t wait around for others to do it for us.  Each one of us has the power to be the starting point for ripples of change that can reach further than ever before in our brave new interconnected world.

What story will you tell?  What life will you lead?  What are you waiting for?

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

%d bloggers like this: