Finding Your Tree—Taking a Stand—on Thanksgiving 2016

When asked by young activists where they should direct their energies, Julia Butterfly Hill responds simply, “Everyone has to find their own tree.”

2049891Julia, you may remember, is the woman who in 1997, at the age of 23, camped out at the top of a thousand-year-old, 180-foot-high California redwood named Luna, to save her and others in her grove from death by logging. She stayed up there for two solid years, through winter snowstorms, attacks by helicopter and constant harassment from the company goons holding siege below.

She eventually returned to the ground when her mission was accomplished—she had persuaded the logging company to leave Luna and her stand of old-growth trees alone. It was an important battle on the way to having the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest protected as an ecological preserve.

This week we witnessed another brave young woman warrior, Sophia Wilansky, standing up to the attackers at Standing Rock and getting her lower arm blown off by a grenade.

Compared to the scale of the harm inflicted by the U.S. military in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, a young woman losing her arm seems relatively minor. The water protectors are being hit with water cannons and mace, not cluster bombs.

But by the standards of what is considered acceptable behavior for American law enforcement against unarmed citizens, what’s been going on at Standing Rock is totally outrageous.

Without in any way undercutting the incredible sacrifice that young Sophia Wilansky has made, I want us to notice that when one white woman gets hurt, suddenly the outrage of the onlookers jumps up several notches.

Native people have been getting injured with rubber bullets fired at close range; elders are being beaten up; water protectors have been thrown into dog kennel cages and kept there in inhumane conditions; they’ve been attacked by drenching water cannons in 20-degree temperatures, with no way to get warm.

And there has been outrage and solidarity from onlookers: marches and rallies in many cities and towns, an outpouring of donations of food, warm clothing, camping supplies and money for legal fees and other expenses. The indie media and social media have been out in force, covering the scene.

But still, here we are on Thanksgiving, 2016, and Native Americans are being forced to fight, David vs. Goliath style, to defend their land and water from the rapacious appetites of the colonizers.

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On this Thanksgiving Day, please take a moment to say a prayer for the water protectors of Standing Rock, who are standing up for the right of every American to clean water.

And please take a moment to think about Julia Butterfly Hill’s advice.

What is your tree? What is the cause that is calling to you with such passion that your heart leaps in response? Where will you stubbornly take up a stand, vowing not to give ground until the battle is won?

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Yes, we have work to do! Seizing the potential of the borderlands between what is and what is possible

“It is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counter stance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat…both are reduced to a common denominator of violence.

“The counter stance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and for this it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counter stance stems from a problem with authority–outer as well as inner–it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life.

“At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.

“Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.”

–Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La frontera

 

gloria-anzalsuabWritten by a Chicana queer in 1987, Borderlands/La frontera was always ahead of its time. Or maybe it was just that as an inhabitant of the radically unsafe cultural and literal borderlands, Anzaldua was much more aware than most of her audience of what is at stake in making your home on a border—on, as she put it, “that thin edge of barbed-wire.”

I named this blog Transition Times back in 2011 because even then it felt like we were moving into the liminal, transitional space between the old cultural norms and an as-yet unclear new culture, a new way of relating with each other and our planet. Like Charles Eisenstein, I am searching for new ways of understanding what is happening in the world, and how I can be part of a movement for real, radical social change.

Yet like most everyone I know, I am still going through the motions of the old story, even while trying to get glimpses of something different.

I am still, as Anzaldua puts it, stuck in the counterstance, standing on the opposite side of the river from those I want to change, shouting futilely into the wind.

One of the peculiar challenges of our time is that “the enemy” is not easy to identify, and all too often it turns out that if we really follow the money, the “enemy” is us.

Who created the fossil fuel industry? I did, along with everyone I know, as we enjoyed the convenience of burning oil and gasoline, heedlessly using plastic, leaving the coal-fired-electric lights on.

Who created the so-called Rust Belt and killed the American workers’ unions? I did, preferring to buy my cars from Japan, and cheap goods from China.

Who created the corporate beast, now slouching insouciantly into the highest levels of American governmental power? I did, we all did, allowing corporate money to rule our politicians, allowing corporations to put short-term gain above longterm health and sustainability, rewarding those corporate leaders with ever-higher incomes and status.

Who created the military-industrial complex, along with its henchmen the pharmaceutical-petrochemical-agricultural complex? We all did, going along complacently with industrial agricultural built on chemicals, ignoring how unhealthy it made us, investing in the ever-climbing Big Pharma and Big Insurance industries that got richer in proportion to how unhealthy we became.

I could go on, but you get the drift. To really unpack Anzaldua’s image of enemies locked in a counterstance on opposite sides of the river, you have to admit that we are looking at a scenario we created.

When we look at the oh-so-real image of militarized police spraying unarmed, peaceful water protectors with huge canisters of mace, we are looking at what could be our future, as everywhere across America and the world, precious resources like water are being privatized and threatened by mining, fracking, drilling and all the dirty industries built on fossil fuels.

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What would it mean to follow Anzaldua’s advice of moving beyond a simple yes-no opposition, into a “new consciousness” that can see with both eagle and serpent eyes?

In our current situation, it would mean doing a lot of soul-searching as to why so many poor people in America voted against their own interests, for the aggressive, macho reality TV star that even the Republicans weren’t sure they could stand.

Our two political parties were revealed, in this election cycle, to be equally out of touch with conditions on the ground in America. Both parties are split between fat-cat corporate types and rabble-rousing throw-em-out types, and neither party, it seems, is strong enough to unite these two wings.

Neither presidential candidate this year would have had a real mandate, as in a nation united behind them. In truth, it’s the class divide that tripped up Hillary Clinton, and her inability to be convincing when she claimed she’d help the working class.

Trump was just a better liar, knowing that if he could stoke the voters’ anger against the status quo, they wouldn’t care about what specific policies he might or might not be able to enact once in office. Who cares about the fine print when you have a candidate who gives you permission to shout obscenities and have some fun?

Again, to ask where the Trump voters came from is to be led back to the mirror. I place a lot of the blame for voters’ lack of engagement and discernment at the feet of the American public education system, and beyond that, to parents who abandoned their kids to the tutelage of the internet, video games and TV—all of which are run by social elites, let us remember.

Religion is the opiate of the masses, Marx proclaimed in the 19th century. For the 20th century, and to this day, media has become the opiate of the masses. Media has moved into the place of leadership formerly held by education and individual teachers, religion and individual pastors, and even family and individual parents.

How often of late have you seen young people sitting at the table listening to the conversation of their elders? Unless they are forced to, they would much rather be off by themselves with their eyes glued to their screens. Even groups of young people will sit together each one on their own screen, occasionally commenting out loud to each other about what they are seeing on-screen.

We have begun to awaken to the power of media, especially social media, to influence reality, with Facebook now at last taking seriously the disruptive potential of “fake news.” Fake news probably won the election for Trump. And this is the mother’s milk our kids are being raised on, as they are let loose in an internet landscape they have to figure out for themselves.

The question is, now that we’re awake, what will we do about it?

Like everyone I know, I have been signing online petitions, joining online resistance groups, giving money, thinking about joining the street protests.

But this is counterstance politics. It absorbs our energy into fighting against, rather than using that precious resource, our time and energy, into developing an alternative, based on “new consciousness,” in new territory.

What would it mean to fight FOR the world we want to live in, rather than AGAINST the dying gasps of the old order? What would it mean to start telling new stories of what could be possible, rather than endlessly rehashing the fear and loathing of the past?

I’m not talking about sticking my head in the sand or pretending that the bigotry of the Trump people isn’t real and dangerous. It’s real, and it’s very dangerous. We are right to be afraid.

But we can’t afford to spend all our energy saying NO. We have to also work in our local communities to live into alternatives, and celebrating our successes loudly and happily at every opportunity.

Alliances and coalitions of all stripes—across the artificial boundaries of race, sex/gender, class, ethnicity, religion, region, nationality—these can and must get stronger, as we all agree to inhabit the borderland spaces together.

We must all be “queer” now, as is beginning when we see people promising to register themselves as Muslims, should such a national registry ever come to pass, or standing in solidarity with the Native American water protectors’ movement, in repudiation of the disgraceful settler-native relations of the past.

We can work on the local level to implement renewable energy alternatives, moving boldly into solar, wind and other democratically available resources and hitting the fossil fuel industries where it matters—their bottom line.

In so many ways, we can use our power as consumers to create the world we want to see. That means understanding the stakes involved in “cheap” Chinese goods or industrial food, and being willing to spend a bit more in the short term, to invest in the long term health of people and the planet.

Buying organic or food produced locally using permaculture agricultural practices may cost a few pennies more, but that small individual investment can have a big impact if many of us are willing to make the shift.

Same with eating less meat, or even no meat. These seemingly small personal choices really can have a big impact if enough of us are making them and talking about them and encouraging each other to see the big picture of why it’s important.

For me, as a parent and a teacher, one of the biggest areas in need of “new consciousness” has to do with rearing the next generations. We must fight the domination of the corporate media by insisting that kids remain connected to their innate creativity.

Seriously, I don’t think kids under the age of 10 should have free-range access to the internet or games. We want our kids to stay connected to the real world—the natural world, their communities, their families, their friends. We want them to develop their own creative voices and visions, to “play make-believe” and dream into the new stories their generation will need. Allowing them to stuff their minds on junk-food media is undermining their potential at the most basic level.

But we must provide exciting alternatives to those screens. School should not be boring. Communication is our greatest strength as a species, and we need to get much better about how we teach, how we parent, and what we offer our kids in the way of stimulation and opportunities for growth. Their needs are not the same as what we current adults needed in our pre-internet time. But abdicating our role to the internet is a dangerous cop-out.

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Young people need our guidance more than ever. It will be harder to reach those who have been weaned on internet-milk, but it is possible, and we must go at it with all the creativity and love we possess—and not just for our own kids, but for all kids. Especially those from the angry, disenfranchised families, the poor kids, the Trump kids.

I agree with everyone who is talking about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work in the wake of the election disaster. But what the work is…that is the question we must ponder deeply.

Going to Washington DC to protest the inauguration of Trump the day AFTER doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, in terms of use of our precious energy and time. Why isn’t a big protest being called for December 18, the day BEFORE the Electoral College is to finalize their vote?

We need to be strategic in the coming weeks, months and years. We don’t have the luxury of time to fritter away our energy in non-effective counterstances.

As we move into this uncharted borderland between the familiar old culture and the unknown future hurtling towards us, let’s keep our faces bravely looking ahead—not like Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history, turned backward to the destruction and disappointment of the past.

What family, what community, what world, do you want to live in? Get clear on it and then—go make it so.

Writing to Right the World

“I’m coming out with two books next year,” I announce, with pride but unable to keep a touch of defiance from my voice, in automatic anticipation of my interlocutor’s next question: “Who is your publisher?”

I’ve got my response down: “I’m pulling a Virginia Woolf—I’m publishing with my own press, Green Fire Press.”

Raised eyebrows, a nod that implies surprise and a touch of disdain. “Oh, so you’re self-publishing.”

No, not really. With a partner, I have created a publishing company that publishes high-quality work in alignment with its mission of encouraging positive sGreenFirePress-LOGO-vert-pen copyocial change and well-being. We have three titles in print so far, and my two books will bring our total to five.

Self-publishing has a bad reputation for a few good reasons.

First of all, self-publishing is often seen as self-indulgent, arrogant and vain (hence the old name, vanity publishing).

“Just who do you think you are, bypassing us?” the agents and big-publisher editors snap. “You know your book won’t pass muster with us, that’s why you’re not taking the traditional route.”

To which I would reply: I have the highest standards of anyone I know—as a publisher and an editor as well as a writer. Yes, it’s true a lot of dreck gets self-published, but that is not the case at Green Fire Press, where we will only publish books we believe in and work hard to make as perfect as possible.

The truth is that I have declined to explore traditional publishing because:

  • I don’t have time or energy to go through the whole get-rejected-by-25-agents game;
  •  I want control of the production of my book;
  • I know I will have to do most of the marketing myself anyway, so
  • I might as well reap the rewards of the hard work I’ve put in, by actually making some money every time I sell a book.

I published my first two books through traditional publishers. Neither paid any kind of advance. On the first, I literally never made a dime in royalties, even though the book sold fairly well (several thousand copies). On the second, the royalties were meager in the first couple of years, and soon stopped coming altogether, although the book remains in print and in frequent circulation in college courses.

Unlike Virginia Woolf, I do not have a husband or a trust fund income. I need to make money with the work I put in to my writing. With my next two books, if the books make money, I will too.

Creating a good book takes tremendously hard work and careful attention to detail, not only by the author but by the editor, proofer, designer, marketer and distributor. It’s a team project, and there are very few authors—maybe none!—who can successfully fulfill all these roles. Even Virginia Woolf had the faithful Leonard by her side, along with the whole Bloomsbury Group functioning as her marketing team.

At Green Fire Press, we have an outstanding team of publishing professionals working together to create polished, professional books. We’re part of the new “gig economy,” in that all the services offered by traditional publishers in-house are being performed at GFP by freelance specialists.

We could no doubt debate for a while whether this trend towards freelance publishing services is positive or negative—for the authors, for the publishing companies, for the freelancers, for the economy overall. As someone who has worked off and on as a freelancer or “independent contractor,” I know that it’s a precarious way to make a living, and I strongly believe that our tax structure and social safety net (ie, health care, unemployment, disability, etc) should be amended to support the millions of players in the new “gig economy” (for more on this, see the current issue of YES! Magazine).

But that’s a topic for another day’s column. Today I simply want to thank and acknowledge the excellent work of our Green Fire Press team in producing my two forthcoming books, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered: A Journey to Environmental Awareness and Activism Through Purposeful Memoir and The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir: A Writer’s Companion. As an author I feel in such good hands, and I am excited to roll up my sleeves and work on getting my new books out strongly into the world.

Not just to make money, although that would be nice. My memoir and writer’s companion book are both aimed at fulfilling my mission of “writing to right the world.” I write “purposeful memoir,” and I want to get more people doing that too, through my workshops, online writing circles, author coaching and editing and yes, through Green Fire Press itself.

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As I say in the Writer’s Companion, purposeful memoir asks us to look back at our lives in order to understand where we are now and to envision the future we want to create, not just for ourselves but also for human society and our beautiful, beleaguered planet.

If that sounds like something you want to do too, join me! In sharing our own experiences, we can help light the way for others, and come together to write our way towards the positive changes we want to see in the world.

Another Day, Another Mass Killing: Confronting the Causes of Young Men’s Rage

As we wake up to yet another spasm of hideous violence in the world—this time more than 75 innocent Bastille Day revelers mowed down by a truck driven at high speed along a packed sidewalk—I can feel myself reeling off into that terrified little-girl mindset, a cellular memory of always being afraid in crowds, always being afraid of violence lurking around the corner, always seeking the safety of my own little room, my own little bed, hiding under the covers.

But I am well into midlife now, and I can’t hide under the covers anymore. I have to accept adult responsibility for the violent world we live in. If young men are angry enough to risk their own lives to kill gay Latinos in a nightclub—to kill Parisian youth at a rock concert—to kill police officers—to kill young men of color—to kill, kill, kill—what does that say about the society they grew up in? Whether they grew up in Tunisia or Florida, they are part of the same global society that I live in too, and the anger that leads to the killing is real and must be addressed. Adding more anti-terrorist squads, sending out more drones—these are tactics aimed at the symptoms, but do nothing for the causes of the violence.

Virtually nothing is ever said about causes of these young men’s anger and fear and how/why it prompts them to actions of violent hatred. And yes, I am putting racist police who kill innocent people in the same boat as the racist terrorists. Difference of ideology, difference of scale, but same result: innocent people dying.

I’m also being deliberate here in my use of pronouns. Every single mass shooting in the U.S. has been perpetrated by young men, and I have yet to hear of a woman cop being charged with an unjust killing, although there have been some young women coerced into becoming suicide bombers in other places in the world. For the most part the terrorists have other uses for the women—as sex slaves. The question that seems primary to me is a simple one: what is causing so many young men to become so violent?

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I believe that every baby comes into this world with the capacity to become a loving human being. We may have different propensities to kindness or cruelty, but these can be worked on in the nurturing process. Bloodthirstiness and criminal violence is not genetically programmed, at least not yet. But it seems to be overtaking more and more of our young men, worldwide. What’s up with that? Where is it coming from?

Social indoctrination. Boys are being trained to love violence and to see themselves in the role of the aggressor. This is happening everywhere a boy has access to a violent video game, and with guidance from adults in places like radical Islamic madrassahs and radical gun-rights enclaves in the US. It’s happening all over the Internet, wherever violent fanatics hang their hats. The result: a steady beat of mass killings by fanatical young men with guns, acting out of a perceived sense of righteousness.

Ready availability of weapons. Ours is a world awash with weapons. The countries that manufacture the weapons decry the violence at the same time as they gloat over the profits of selling the arms—to their own people and abroad. The violence won’t stop until we deal with this contradiction and restrict weapons to the hands of trained peacekeepers, turning the giant factories to manufacturing implements of peace instead of weapons of war.

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Poor education and lack of opportunities for young men. Young men need challenge. They need opportunities to shine and excel and receive the admiration of their peers. These days too many young men must make do with vicarious pleasures: rooting for sports teams, playing video games. In the end they have to pull away from the screen and confront the fact that their lives are going nowhere. They don’t have the education or skills to get satisfying work. They’d rather be unemployed than work in demeaning jobs. They take out their frustrations on their girlfriends or on each other…and end up in prison, or dead. A few break that general mold and go out in flames, taking a handful of innocent bystanders with them.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There is so much good work to be done in the world. We need to improve education, offering retraining to young men who need it, and develop a new international public works program like Roosevelt’s post-Depression Civilian Conservation Corps, which put thousands of young men to productive, society-building work. It doesn’t have to be just manual labor, although the strong backs and firm muscles of young men would be welcome on myriads of civilian projects. We also need young men to write and sing and dance and entertain. We need young men to develop better video games that are about the human power to create, rather than our compulsion to destroy. We need loving young men to guide our boys.

Nothing I’m saying here is new, or rocket science. I’m just so frustrated at our current way of responding to violence with fear, dread and retaliation, instead of with resolve to get to the bottom of what is causing young men to act out in this deadly way, over and over and over. I’m frustrated with the political deadlocks in the U.S. that make it easier for a young man to buy an assault weapon than to get a driver’s license. I’m frustrated with the kneejerk responses to terrorism that blame entire communities for the rage of a few individuals.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said so many times, in so many ways: Violence will not be stopped by more violence. It can only be stopped by loving attention to the sources of the rage.

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Loving people, we can’t hide under the covers. We have to connect and communicate with each other across all the artificial barriers that divide us, and resolve to do everything we can to confront the problems we face as local communities and on a global level. This just can’t go on.

Jesus Christ, Thomas Berry, and the New Shamanism: What the World Needs Now

Christmas Eve. The night of the year that we celebrate the birth of a baby who would grow up to reveal himself as a seer, a man with a direct connection to the Divine.

I believe that we all have the potential to have such a connection. In fact, I think it’s our birthright as humans, and it’s an ability we share with other animals as well.

All of us animals sleep and dream, and during our dreams we experience the same non-ordinary reality that the prophets and mystics have been telling us about—men like Socrates, Jesus or Mohammed who heard the voices of divine spirits.

For the past two thousand years or so, Western philosophy has been working steadily to wall off the connections between the natural world, including other animals, and human beings.

But in our dreams, those walls come tumbling down, as we visit landscapes and mingle with animals whose messages we strive to remember and interpret when we awake.

Thomas Berry

Thomas Berry

I am very intrigued by the recognition of religious scholar and eco-philosopher Thomas Berry that what human civilization urgently needs, in this time of ecological crisis, is to re-open the psychic channels connecting us to our planetary home.

He calls for a revalidation of the “shamanic personality”; shaman referring to a human being who can enter non-ordinary reality at will, and access valuable wisdom from the spirit world (or the Divine, as Western tradition would call it).

Berry argues that every human being is “genetically coded” to have access to the wisdom of the dreamland, whether in sleep or in the trance of deliberate shamanic journeying. And, he says, this is where we are going to find the solutions to the ecological crises we face today.

Change is not going to come from politics and protests, Berry says. It’s going to come through a psychic shift in which “we awaken to the numinous powers ever present in the phenomenal world around us,” which manifest themselves in human beings in our most creative moments. “Poets and artists continually invoke these spirit powers, which function less through words than through symbolic forms,” he says, continuing:

“In moments of confusion such as the present, we are not left simply to our own rational contrivances. We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our own beings. We need only become sensitized to these spontaneities, not with a naïve simplicity, but with critical appreciation. This intimacy with our genetic endowment, and through this endowment with the larger cosmic process, is not primarily the role of the philosopher, priest, prophet or professor. It is the role of the shamanic personality, a type that is emerging once again in our society.

Tree spirits.  Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

Tree spirits. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

“More than any other of the human types concerned with the sacred, the shamanic personality journeys into the far regions of the cosmic mystery and brings back the vision and the power needed by the human community….

“The shamanic personality speaks and best understands the language of the various creatures of the earth….This shamanic insight is especially important just now when history is being made not primarily within nations or between nations, but between humans and the earth, with all its living creatures….

“If the supreme disaster in the comprehensive story of the earth is our present closing down of the major life systems of the planet, then the supreme need of our times is to bring about a healing of the earth through this mutually enhancing human presence to the earth community.

“To achieve this mode of pressure, a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural world, a sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other lifeforms might flourish.”

Another way to name the “sensitivity” Berry is talking about here is, quite simply LOVE.

The same love practiced and preached by Jesus Christ, but expanded to include the entire earth community, not just the human branch.

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Tree heart. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

I am continually amazed by the generosity with which the natural world gives and gives to support the cause of a flourishing earth community. Death comes that life may continue. A clearcut forest patiently begins the work of recreating itself, from the soil bacteria on up. There is no such thing as guilt or blame in the natural world, only endless patience and a resilient creativity, always seeking better paths towards the goal of abundance and teeming myriad forms of life.

Thomas Berry says that we humans, as part and parcel of the earth community, are genetically coded to participate in this great unfolding of exuberant life.

For a long time (at least since the time of Gilgamesh, who harshly slew Humbaba, the guardian of the forests, and cut down an entire cedar forest just because he could) human culture has been working tirelessly to sever our connection to the divinity immanent in the natural world.

“In relation to the earth,” Berry says, “we have been autistic for centuries.”

seeingBut now, “the planet Earth and the life communities of the earth are speaking to us through the deepest elements of our nature, through our genetic coding….Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth’s demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe” (Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 210-215).

There is a lot to ponder here. Berry seems to be proposing that in our genetic make-up is an ability to communicate on a deep level with the earth, including other animals and life forms. Under the spell of Western civilization, we have allowed ourselves to become alienated not only from the natural world, but also from our own innate ability to commune with “the dream of the earth,” through our inherent shamanic/psychic powers. We have been content to delegate the connection to the Divine to others—prophets, seers, priests—rather than to cultivate within ourselves that “sensitivity” to divine inspiration and that access to the powerful creative pulse of the universe which we all experience in dreams.

This alienation has led us inexorably to the hairline edge upon which human civilization now perches. After 10,000 years of a stable climate, warmly conducive to the development of prosperous human communities, we are on the brink of another great break in planetary history, this one brought on by our own insensitivity and inability to listen and understand the many cues the natural world has been giving us.

If a new Messiah is to arise and lead us to safety, it must be one who can reawaken in us the loving ethical responsibility that all humans are born with.

I believe that the potential to become this leader lies dormant in each one of us. My question this Christmas, which is really a question for myself above all: how are you going to manifest, in your own life and in the larger earth community in which we all live, the divine LOVE that Jesus Christ, in his purest form, represents?

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On Building Solidarity in Social Justice Movements: Reflections on Ferguson and Beyond

As a scholar of personal narratives by marginalized women activists from around the world, I have been studying the dynamics of privilege and oppression at close range for many years.

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde

For those on the receiving end of repressive treatment, an essential strategy of resistance is one voiced by the poet-activist Audre Lorde years ago: “the transformation of silence into language and action.”

We’ve been seeing this transformation since the murder of Michael Brown last summer. The people of Ferguson refused to take this outrage silently, and others, of all ethnicities and from all across the country, have rallied to their cause. Since the moment the grand jury decision letting the police off the hook—again—was handed down, my social media feeds have been on fire with declarations of sympathy and anger, along with demands for positive social change.

It has been heartening to see so many Americans marching together in cities all across the country in support of racial justice. Lots of white faces mixed in with the black and brown ones, all united in demanding that our government and legal system protect the rights of all Americans, not just the ones with privilege and power granted by a discriminatory system.

Unknown-1An oppressive system will try to protect those in power and maintain its status quo by discouraging dissent, sometimes silencing its critics by force (as in, for example, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X) or longterm imprisonment (think Leonard Peltier or Nelson Mandela).

Sometimes the silencing is imposed by shaming (think how women are often made to feel embarrassed and “unfeminine” when we dare to speak out against oppression by men); sometimes by peer pressure and the judicious distribution of rewards to those who go with the flow (for instance, young men can be rewarded by fraternity membership or sports glory when they go along with oppressive treatment of women or younger recruits).

One aspect of privilege I have been especially struck by is this formulation, which I learned from the gender studies scholar Michael Kimmel: “privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

Too often, those in power don’t realize how they participate in the oppression of others. Or maybe they choose to turn a blind eye, because acknowledging the effects of privilege would make them feel uncomfortable about themselves.

Privilege and oppression are relative terms, and very few people fit entirely into one category or another. In other words, I might be privileged by my white skin, but disadvantaged by my gender. I might be privileged by my gender, but disadvantaged by being born into poverty. And so on.

Those of us who believe in justice and want to live in a country that protects the rights of all its citizens equally need to understand how important it is to use our privileges, whatever they may be, to fight oppression in all of its guises.

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Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, NY, early 20th century

For example, immigration reform: Americans who remember that just a few generations back their families were fortunate enough to be able to enter this country legally need to stand up for the rights of today’s immigrants.

Or women’s rights: we need to cheer on men like Nick Kristof, who consistently serves as an ally for oppressed women, using his privilege as a New York Times columnist to call attention to violations of women’s human rights worldwide.

In the environmentalist and animal rights movements, we see human beings using our privilege to advocate for the rights of wild animals and farmed animals to a life well lived.

And so on. Social movements are strongest and most successful when they draw their power from solidarity between the privileged and the oppressed.

History shows us that when a social system veers too far into an oppressive dynamic, it becomes weak and liable to fall. Social revolutions occur when enough people are fed up and have little to lose by challenging the status quo.

Americans know that we’re in a precarious state right now, with our politicians being bought and paid for by industry, the super-rich growing ever wealthier while the vaunted American middle class slips down into the ranks of the struggling working poor.

We are living through a dangerous time, but a time of opportunity too: a time when those of us who are awake to the dangers can speak out against oppression, stand up for justice, and insist on the structural changes needed to make our country live up to its own ideals.

I’m not talking about riots here, although those are sometimes the only way the system can be made to focus on the rage of the oppressed.

I’m talking about recognizing the dynamics of privilege and oppression, understanding our own place in the system, and using whatever privileges we have to support those with less power.

Only this kind of broad-based solidarity, based in our own communities but with a nation-wide reach, can shift the oppressive system that was stacked against Michael Brown in Ferguson. When to start? Now.

Moving from Anger and Cynicism to Gratitude: Thanksgiving in Dark Times

It’s Thanksgiving time, the time when we’re supposed to be counting our blessings and giving thanks. Given the current bombardment of bad news, it’s hard not to feel cynical.

Do I give thanks for the American justice system, which once again has valued the rights of a white man over the rights of a (dead) Black man?

Should I give thanks that a growing roster of universities are finally being pushed to take fraternity gang rape seriously, after years of turning a blind eye?

Maybe I should be giving thanks that the Kinder Morgan fossil fuel group, responding to public outcry, is thinking about routing its gas pipeline through “an existing utility corridor” rather than through backyards and recreational areas in the heart of Berkshire County, the tourist-friendly resort area where I live.

It’s easy to get angry about the injustice and casual brutality of our world. And one of the problems of modern existence is that when something bad happens, we know about it almost instantaneously, and have to grapple in our own hearts and minds with its disturbing reverberations.

Any wonder why so many people in media-saturated modern societies turn to drugs (prescription and recreational) or alcohol to get some relief?

I don’t think we should insulate ourselves from the reality of what’s happening in our world, even when the news is very bad. But we do need to find ways to retain our own sense of balance and inner resilience in the face of the constant heartbreak that characterizes contemporary life.

I try to remind myself, at Thanksgiving time and all year round, of all the things I do truly have to be thankful for.

I give thanks for the protesters who have been standing up to the fracking and drilling industry giants all over North America, and indeed all over the world. I am thankful that Sandra Steingraber has been released early from jail, so she can spend Thanksgiving with her family.

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

Sandra Steingraber by Seneca Lake

I give thanks for the many innovative scientists who are working hard to develop viable alternative forms of energy, from better solar panels to clean battery cells to geothermal, tidal and wind generators. I am thankful for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of Tesla, leading the way towards a clean-energy future.

I give thanks for the health workers who are at this very moment risking their own lives in order to bring the Ebola epidemic under control. I thank all the health workers, worldwide, who give so much to others day in and day out.

I give thanks for my family, friends and comrades—for all the good people who are working in their own spheres to be sources of love and compassion.

On dark days like this one, it can be hard to feel confident that the human capacity for love and empathy will prevail over the less admirable side of our nature; that our ethical intelligence and social creativity will succeed in tempering our greedy self-interest and destructiveness.

Every day presents opportunities to live in ways that elevate the human condition and spirit. Even the greatest events in human history always depend on the actions of individuals, each within our own sphere. All we can do, as human beings alive on the planet in these frightening transition times, is strive to embody love.

We won’t always succeed; no one of us is perfect. But as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let us place ourselves on that arc, with gratitude for being able to help it bend towards justice now, in our own time.

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Envisioning a Cosmic Religion, Rooted in Mother Earth: Homage to Thich Nhat Hanh

It must have something to do with reaching midlife. The beat of elders moving on out of this lifetime has picked up for me, and it’s so hard to let them go, knowing that as each life ends, those of us remaining are called ever more strongly to step into their shoes and become the elders leading our society.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Few people alive today could step easily into the humble, powerful shoes of Thich Nhat Hanh. Like the Dalai Lama, he is a Buddhist monk who has been so generous and warm in inviting others into his orbit. Whether or not you practice Buddhism, whether or not you follow any religious tradition at all, there is so much wisdom and guidance in Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, so much to learn and gain from listening to him.

I regret that I never had the chance to be physically in his presence, but as with so many of the other great leaders I admire, I know him through the writings he has shared and through his public persona and the good works he has accomplished.

At 88 years old, Thich Nhat Hanh is in the hospital with a brain hemorrhage from which he may still recover. He is still with us today but even after he is gone, I know his spirit will be showering us with the lovingkindness he knows we need to overcome the negativity that besets so many of us as individuals and as societies.

Today, in homage to Thay (as his students call him lovingly), I want to quote at some length from one of his last books, the beautiful Love Letter to the Earth. I urge you to buy a copy of this small bright gem of a book, and use it as a guide and inspiration—maybe you will be moved to write some love letters of your own to our dear battered planet.

“Dear Mother Earth,

“The human species is but one of your many children. Unfortunately, many of us have been blinded by greed, pride, and delusion, and only a few of us have been able to recognize you as our Mother. Not realizing this, we have done you great harm, compromising both your health and your beauty. Our deluded minds push us to exploit you and create more and more discord, putting you and all your forms of life under stress and strain. Looking deeply, we also recognize that you have enough patience, endurance and energy to embrace and transform all the damage we have caused, even if it takes you hundreds of millions of years.

“When greed and pride overtake our basic survival needs, the result is always violence and unnecessary devastation. We know that whenever one species develops too rapidly, exceeding its natural limit, there is great loss and damage, and the lives of other species are endangered. For equilibrium to be restored, causes and conditions naturally arise to bring about the destruction and annihilation of that species. Often these causes and conditions originate from within the destructive species itself. We have learned that when we perpetrate violence toward our own and other species, we are violent toward ourselves. When we know how to protect all beings, we are protecting ourselves.

“We understand that all things are impermanent and without a separate self-nature. You and Father Sun, like everything else in the cosmos, are constantly changing, and you are only made of non-you elements. That is why we know that, in the ultimate dimension, you transcend birth and death, being and nonbeing. Nonetheless, we need to protect you and restore balance, so that you can continue for a long time in this beautiful and precious form, not just for our children and their children but for five hundred million years and beyond. We want to protect you so you can remain a glorious jewel within our solar system for eons to come.

Northern lights, photographed from space

Northern lights, photographed from space

We know that you want us to live in such a way that in each moment of our daily lives we can cherish life and generate the energies of mindfulness, peace, solidity, compassion and love. We vow to fulfill your wish and respond to your love. We have the deep conviction that generating these wholesome energies, we will help reduce the suffering on Earth and contribute to alleviating the suffering caused by violence, war, hunger and illness. In alleviating our suffering, we alleviate yours.

“Dear Mother, there have been times when we suffered greatly as a result of natural disasters. We know that whenever we suffer, you suffer through us. The floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis aren’t punishments or manifestations of your anger, but are phenomena that must occur on occasion, so that balance can be restored. The same is true of a shooting star. For balance in nature to be achieved, at times some species have to endure loss. In those moments, we have turned to you, dear Mother, and asked whether or not we could count on you, on your stability and compassion. You didn’t answer us right away. Then, beholding us with great compassion, you replied, “Yes, of course you can count on your Mother. I will always be here for you.” But then you said, “Dear children, you must ask yourselves, can your Mother Earth count on you?”

“Dear Mother, today we offer you our solemn reply, “Yes, Mother, you can count on us.””

Love Letter to the Earth concludes on a vision of a new kind of spirituality, a new kind of religion, founded on the Buddhist principle of interbeing—which, like deep ecology, understands that every form of life on earth, and indeed every element of our planetary biosphere is profoundly interconnected and interdependent, not in a hierarchy but in a rhizomatic web. Every strand in that web must be honored and tended, and this is the work that human beings, especially, are called upon to take up.

If Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision of a new religion for the 21st century could be realized, what a wonderful world it could be. Listen:

“We can build a deep spiritual practice based not on dogmas or beliefs in things we can’t verify, but entirely on evidence. To say that the Earth is a great being is not just an idea; each of us can see this for ourselves. Each of us can see that the Earth has the qualities of endurance, stability and inclusiveness. We can observe the Earth embracing everyone and everything without discrimination. When we say that the Earth has given birth to many great beings, including buddhas, bodhisattvas and saints, we are not exaggerating. The Buddha, Jesus Christ, Moses and Mohammed are all children of the Earth. How can we describe the Earth as mere matter when she has given birth to so many great beings?

“When we say the Earth has created life, we know it’s only possible because she contains within herself the whole cosmos. Just as the Earth is not only the Earth, so too are we not only humans. We have the Earth and the whole cosmos within us. We are made of the sun. We are made of stars. Touching the true nature of reality, we can transcend the dualistic view that the cosmos is something greater than ourselves or different from ourselves. Getting deeply in touch with the phenomenal realm, the historical dimension, we can realize our true nature of no-birth and no-death. We can transcend all fear and touch eternity.

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“Every advance in our understanding of ourselves, our nature and our place in the cosmos deepens our reverence and love. To understand and to love are fundamental desires. Understanding has some kind of connection with love. Understanding can take us in the direction of love. When we understand and become aware of the great harmony, elegance and beauty of the cosmos, we may feel great admiration and love. This is the most basic kind of religious feeling: it is based on evidence and our own experience. Humanity needs a kind of spirituality that we can all practice together.

“Dogmatism and fanaticism have been the cause of great separation and war. Misunderstanding and irreverence have been the cause of enormous injustice and destruction. In the twenty-first century it should be possible for us to come together and offer ourselves the kind of religion that can help unite all peoples and all nations, and remove all separation and discrimination. If existing religions and philosophies, as well as science, can make an effort to go in this direction, it will be possible to establish a cosmic religion based not on myth, belief or dogma, but on evidence and the insights of interbeing. And that would be a giant leap for humankind.”

Amen, Thay. Go lightly.  We will carry on.

Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth

Parallax Press, 2013

As We Dance the Spiral Dance of Life, Death and Rebirth, We Build Bridges to the Future Every Step of the Way; What Future Do You Choose?

We’re now going into the darkest time of the year, the time when many cultural traditions contend that the veils between the living and the dead grow thinnest, most penetrable.

In San Francisco tonight, Starhawk and her Reclaiming coven will be dancing a grand spiral dance with thousands of people, all united under this banner: “2014 Intention: With the help of ancestors, descendants, and the great powers of nature, we weave magic and action to save our home! A ritual to honor our beloved dead and dance the spiral of rebirth.”

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Having participated in one of Starhawk’s circle dances, focused on raising energy through the power of collective intention, I can begin to imagine what a spiral dance on this scale will accomplish.

We Americans too often ignore the significance of energetics in our lives.

We imagine that it doesn’t matter that we spend more and more of our time bathed in low-level radiation from all our electronic devices, from computers to cell phones to electric meters and on.

We don’t pay attention to the way we are similarly taking in steady doses of negative information day after day, from Ebola and cancer to corruption, violence and poverty.

In these dark days of the year, at least in my gloomy northern corner of the world, I can feel my own energy levels sinking, my will to rise and dance on behalf of my ancestors, descendants and Nature wavering.

Morning clouds over Stockbridge Bowl. Photo J. Browdy, 2014

Morning clouds over Stockbridge Bowl. Photo J. Browdy, 2014

So I give myself pep talks. I remind myself that the dark days of the year are among the most powerful times for focusing inward and setting new intentions for what will be accomplished with the return of the light.

I get out the photos of my grandparents and my children and remind myself that I must be a strong link on the hereditary chain that stretches back untold generations, if my descendants are to have the good fortune of enjoying the kind of safe, happy, fulfilled lives on Earth that I have had.

Fannie Ashe Browdy and Philip Browdy, my paternal grandparents, around the time of their marriage.

Fannie Ashe Browdy and Philip Browdy, my paternal grandparents, around the time of their marriage.

I remember that I came to this lifetime full of the rising sap of positive energy, loving nothing more than to rise early to watch the dawn, and stay up late to look for shooting stars.

Rooted like the trees that shelter and inspire me

Rooted like the trees that shelter and inspire me

Like the great old trees I love, I have rooted myself deeply in the glacial rocks and rich soil of my life, and now have a wide network of students, friends, colleagues and relatives that I help to nourish with my ideas and initiatives.

And I am not only connected to human friends and relatives, but also to the intricately woven biosphere, with which I interact on a cellular level with every breath I take, every ray of sunshine I absorb, every drop of water I drink.

We are all dancing a great spiral dance together on this planet, weaving our intentions and our gifts into the actions that will build a bridge into our collective future.

Every step we take matters. Will we work day by day towards aligning our love for the planet with our individual actions?

For example, will we invest in fossil fuels or solar panels this year? Will we support local farmers, or buy packaged food that’s trucked in from far away? Will we take a break from eating fish to allow the wild fish stocks to recover? Will we lend our political and financial support to those working to make the human relationship to the planet life-enhancing, rather than destructive?

Reminding ourselves that literally or metaphorically speaking, our ancestors and descendants are relying on us to do the best we can to keep the chain of life strong and unbroken into the future, can help us to make decisions that are forward-looking and mature.

My maternal grandmother, Mildred Louis Rubenstein, with my younger son, Eric

My maternal grandmother, Mildred Louis Rubenstein, with my younger son, Eric

The dance we weave today and every day is about much more than just our own individual lives. We can be and do much more than we imagine, if we resist the downward pressures of negative thinking, and keep the channels of positive energy open to the cosmic flow.

Remember that the Earth and the Cosmos are one and the same, and we humans are just another manifestation of that endlessly circulating energy.  Photo J. Browdy 2014

Remember that the Earth and the Cosmos are one and the same, and we humans are just another manifestation of that endlessly circulating energy. Photo J. Browdy 2014

Finding Hope in Hard Times

Amid all the darkness and chaos overtaking our world—the beheadings of journalists and the enslavement of women, the bloody flux of Ebola, the melting of the poles and the relentless advance of the bulldozers and chain saws into the forests—amid and despite all that, I am still seeing the frail but determined light of hope burning.

And the best thing is, I see this light growing in places that surprise me.

In recent weeks some huge financial players have announced their intention to fight the stranglehold of fossil fuel companies over our political economy.

Stephen Heintz, left, with Valerie Rockefeller Wayne and Steven Rockefeller.  Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Stephen Heintz, left, with Valerie Rockefeller Wayne and Steven Rockefeller. Photo: Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Right after the dramatically successful People’s Climate March in September 2014, the Rockefeller family declared it would join forces with the nascent fossil fuel divestment movement. John D. Rockefeller built a vast fortune on oil. Now his heirs are abandoning fossil fuels,” trumpeted the lede in the New York Times article by John Schwartz.

“The family whose legendary wealth flowed from Standard Oil… [announced] that its $860 million philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, is joining the divestment movement that began a couple years ago on college campuses.”

This is big news indeed! In a society where money rules, the people with the most privilege are the ones with the most social power to create change, and the Rockefeller family can catalyze other wealthy philanthropists to start to think outside their parents’ box.

Not that the rest of us have no power. It’s only because college students and their adult mentors dreamed up the divestment movement and pushed vigorously for it that the Rockefellers made this move.

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

We ordinary folks—those of us who are awake to the critical state of our planet and human civilization today—can and must apply pressure to the rich and powerful in our society to shift their resources from our current death-dealing economic model to a life-giving, ecologically sound human relationship to the planet that sustains us.

timthumb.phpWhen current economic top dogs start to pay attention at last, we know we’re making progress. It was heartening to hear that the Women Donors Network is focusing its 2014 annual conference on strategic visioning of future scenarios for the year 2030.

At this year’s annual conference, the organizers state, “we will get the chance to step out of the urgent demands of the present to think big and strategize for the long term. What kind of future do we want to create? How can we work with the major trends we know are going to shape the future? And what can a powerful group of progressive women philanthropists do together to make the most of this critical moment?”

I find hope in the fact that this big group of wealthy women will be spending their valuable time not at a spa or a vacation in Paris, but at a conference where they’ll be, according to the conference Program, “’transported’ to 2030 to experience what our collective future could look like based on the decisions we make now, in this critical moment….We will participate in three “future scenarios” that are designed to help us clarify the role we hope WDN and all of us as individual philanthropists can play in helping strengthen the progressive social change movement.”

Go women go! The more of us become aware of the extent to which our choices today affect the futures that await us, the more we can act to create the green and glowing future we want.

Chief Oren Lyons

Chief Oren Lyons

I find hope too in the news that Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation will be making a special visit to the Bioneers conference this month to talk about the new international initiative, the Plantagon urban agriculture system. A joint venture of the Onondaga Nation, Sweden and several East Asian investors, the Plantagon aims to revolutionize urban agriculture by making it possible for cities to feed themselves locally—a shift that will have enormous benefits in relieving pressure on rural water and land, reducing dependence on fossil-fuel transportation of produce, and also reducing or eliminating the need for harmful chemical inputs.

Artists' rendering of the Plantagon

Artists’ rendering of the Plantagon

To me, the word “Plantagon” summons up a word that has very different connotations, “Pentagon.” When we Americans hear the word Pentagon, we think immediately of military force and the way American military might has most often been called upon to defend “American interests”—politico-speak for access to resources, principally oil and precious minerals, often at great cost to local people and environments.

The U.S. Pentagon

The U.S. Pentagon

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, I find hope in the recent announcement that the Pentagon is now taking climate change into account in its strategic planning, not just for the distant future, but for next week.

In a new report, the Pentagon asserts unequivocally that “climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, with increased risks from terrorism, infectious disease, global poverty and food shortages,” reported Coral Davenport in The New York Times. Whereas “before, the Pentagon’s response to climate change focused chiefly on preparing military installations to adapt to its effects, like protecting coastal naval bases from rising sea levels,” Davenport writes, “the new report…calls on the military to incorporate climate change into broader strategic thinking about high-risk regions — for example, the ways in which drought and food shortages might set off political unrest in the Middle East and Africa.

“Experts said that the broadened approach would include considering the role that climate change might have played in contributing to the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State.”

Well hallelujah! At last the most powerful force in the world is recognizing that climate change is here, it’s real, and it’s already a major destabilizing factor in world politics.

The challenge now will be to see if civil society can exert enough pressure on the military to get them thinking in proactive ways, rather than being a reactionary, often highly destabilizing force in the world.

Why can’t we use the wealth and resources of the U.S. military-industrial complex to support and sustain life on the planet?

Let’s get those military planners, along with the big boys at the World Bank, IMF and the U.S. Congress to understand that building schools and investing in sustainable agriculture and distributed energy networks is a far smarter and saner use of funds than blowing things up and rebuilding them (which has been our strategy in the Middle East over the past decade).

I see glimmers of hopeful light behind many of the dire stories in the news right now. We need to focus on those flickers of consciousness, blow on them gently and encourage them to grow brighter and stronger.

Hope is a verb, and we do it together. I’m working on it; how about you?

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