Bittersweet sadness fills me this morning as I read an excerpt at Women’s E-News from Eve Ensler’s new memoir, In the Body of the World, about her long, determined, agonizing battle with uterine cancer.
Her TED talk, “Suddenly, My Body” is one that I have returned to watch several times over, and have recommended to many friends as a pulsating, powerful performance that makes perfectly clear what many of us are coming to realize: that there is no separation between our bodies and the world around us.
Not only is it true, as Joanna Macy and Brian Swimme tell us, that we are the most recent emanations of the stardust that created the life on our planet eons ago, it is also true that our fragile bodies are porous and open, made of the air, earth and water that we move through each day.
If we poison our environment, we poison ourselves.
So many of us are learning that the hard way.
Warrior lionesses like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Wangari Maathai and Eve Ensler—each one snared by her own body’s encounter with the internal malignancy of cancer.
How many powerful, active, full-of-life people do you know who are no longer with us, felled by cancer?
A quick look at the cancer statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control shows cancer rates soaring, especially for Americans 50 and older, and especially in the South, Midwest and Northeast of the country.
In the South and Midwest, they make and use those toxic chemicals—the ones that lace our food supply and flow into our waters, creating a dead zone the size of the state of New Jersey at the mouth of the Mississippi River; the ones that ride the prevailing winds east to fill the skies of the eastern United States and Canada with sooty particulates and airborne toxins.
None of us is immune from this. No matter how careful we are to buy organic produce or grow our own, to keep BPA plastics out of our kitchens, even to pull up stakes and move to an area of the country that appears to be cleaner—we cannot hide from the reality that we live in a contaminated country, on a planet that is crazily out of balance and on the verge of a major correction.
When the colonizers came to the Americas, they were careful to try to pick off the leaders among the native peoples they encountered, knowing that if you deprive people of their most charismatic, powerful leaders, you will demoralize them and leave them open to takeover.
Although there is no devilish intelligence at work in the cancer epidemic, this dynamic still applies: when cancer takes from us leaders like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Eve Ensler or Wangari Maathai, it leaves the rest of us stricken and reeling, spinning like a rudderless boat.
There are those, like Sandra Steingraber, who have been fighting cancer for a long, long time, and using it as a spur to work harder to save our planet/ourselves.
Steingraber was recently put behind bars for two weeks as punishment for her protest of the fossil fuel companies’ plan to hydrofrack for gas in her home territory of upstate New York.
She wrote from prison that it was her love, for her children and for all livings beings on the planet, that drove her to civil disobedience:
“It was love that brought me to this jail cell.
“My children need a world with pollinators and plankton stocks and a stable climate. “They need lake shores that do not have explosive hydrocarbon gases buried underneath.
“The fossil fuel party must come to an end. I am shouting at an iron door. Can you hear me now?”
Yes, we hear you Sandra, and we’re with you!
And yet, so many of us do not act on what we hear and know.
A low-level depression seems to afflict a great swath of the American public, and I would wager that the feelings of powerlessness that come with being unable to control the health of our environment or our selves may have something to do with it.
No matter how many times we go down to Washington D.C. to protest, it seems that the fossil fuel and chemical industries have the U.S. Congress sewn up tight.
Even someone like me, living in what appears to be a clean, leafy rural place, has to contend with farmers who still spray Roundup on their cornfields every spring, or rivers, including the Housatonic, just blocks from my home, heavily contaminated with PCBs from the upstream General Electric plant.
Since there is no way to play it safe, what we need to do is forget about safety now, in these end times, and play hard.
It’s time to give everything we’ve got to the fight to preserve the capacity of our planet to support life on down the generations into the future.
If humans are to be part of that future, we have to rise to the challenges we face now.
Like Eve Ensler, wracked with cancer and yet still leading the charge of One Billion Rising to fight violence against women this spring, we cannot afford to take time out.
Like Kenyan Wangari Maathai, felled so quickly by cancer even as she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in preventing the desertification of her country by teaching ordinary women to raise and plant trees, we have to be creative in our approaches, working at the grassroots when those at the top won’t listen.
Like Sandra Steingraber and so many other activists, we have to be willing to face the consequences of our disobedience to those in power.
Playing nice, following the rules, being polite—where has that gotten us? When the polluters of the planet are playing hardball, we have to respond in kind—although our life-affirming version of hardball might involve planting trees, or raising flash mobs of dancers, or forming human chains of resistance at the boundaries of old-growth forests.
Rachel, Audre, Wangari, Eve, Sandra…we’re right behind you. Fighting all the way.