Prayers for Standing Rock: Holding the Light

Sitting in my snug house, my thoughts turn constantly to the thousands of people camping at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock, now under its first coating of winter snow.

I am not sure how to think about the 2,000 veterans who are arriving there this weekend with the intention of shielding the civilian water protectors from the brutal attacks of police.

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Although they come unarmed, in peace, it still seems like their presence may up the ante and draw even more violence from so-called “law enforcement.”

Violence is part of the mechanics of justice. Has there ever been a peaceful revolution? Power is never conceded without a demand, and rarely conceded without a breakdown of communication, a descent into the ancient human inclination to settle scores with our fists.

With the camp under an eviction order set for midnight Sunday, and the people there defiantly vowing to stay and resist, to hold their ground to protect the land and the water, it’s hard to know what to expect. Anything could happen. There is a lot of pressure being placed on President Obama to intervene, and he still might. Hope springs eternal.

What I know is that the Standing Rock confrontation is the strongest volley yet in the ongoing struggles to resist the might of the fossil fuel lords.

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Minutes later, these unarmed people, praying in and for the water, would be hit with mace by the police.

 

In Pennsylvania, when the frackers came and began leasing up the forests over the Marcellus Shale, the people there took it as an unexpected bonanza, and began signing eagerly on the dotted line. They couldn’t imagine what would happen next: the logging, the industrial-scale pumping stations, the noise, the tanker trucks, the poisoning of the surface and ground water with toxic chemicals.

Same thing in Oklahoma, where the people who sold their land rights could never have imagined that the fracking would start setting off earthquakes.

Ordinary people took the bait of short-term gains, accepting the fool’s gold of the frackers and drillers. In the Bakken oilfields of the Dakotas, as in the Alberta tar sands, it’s the same story.

But ordinary people are perhaps not quite as stupid as the fossil fuel magnates seem to think.

It may take time, but we do wake up. We are coming to appreciate the inestimable value of clean water, clean air, healthy ecosystems and a stable climate.

we-will-never-forgetBack in the 1990s–when Julia Butterfly Hill sat in Luna, the 1500-year-old redwood tree, to protect her from logging, and Rachel Corrie stood up to the bulldozers in Palestine and paid for her bravery with her life—news of their protests spread mostly through word of mouth. The mainstream media didn’t cover Rachel’s commitment to her cause until she was dead.

But now in the 21st century, we are all connected. I can bring the snowy camp at Standing Rock into bed with me on my smartphone. I can watch the police beating up elders and kids. I can see the exquisite dignity of the water protectors praying at the river bank. I can be with them, virtually, excruciatingly, in real time.

And that makes all the difference.

The days when corporate bosses and their hired goons could ride roughshod over protesters without anyone even knowing—those days are gone. We are all citizen journalists now, and each generation of digital natives is savvier than the last about how to use the communication tools available to us to spread the word and stiffen the spines of the larger circles of resisters and witnesses.

I fear another Wounded Knee could be in the making at Standing Rock. The police are trying to needle the water protectors into “riot” so that it will look justified when they call out the big guns to “keep the peace.” Will “law enforcement” actually take the risk of escalating from rubber bullets to real bullets?

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Water protectors being hit with water cannons in 28-degree (F) temperatures last month.

 

So far it’s been so inspiring to watch the Native leaders steadfastly resisting those incitements, standing firm in their commitment to a movement grounded in non-violent prayer.

This Sunday, December 4, 2016, we have all been called to pray with and for Standing Rock, and for the entire Earth—to pray that we human beings will come to our senses and stop destroying our home and each other.

img_0268Although I was not raised to pray in a formal way, I find myself increasingly drawn to a kind of prayer that borders on channeling: a deep meditation in which I ground my feet in the roots of a tree or a mountain, open up my heart to the high vibrations of the air, and let the streaming energy of the sun and the stars pour down through my head into the rich loam at my feet.

When I shared this practice with my Facebook tribe recently, others chimed in, saying they too had felt a similar call. I found it spelled out again by Sharon McErlane, who channels the “grandmothers of the light.”

We are being called to stand up for the light now, even as the darkness deepens around us, literally and figuratively.

We don’t need the Internet to connect our hearts and minds through the energy flowing down to us from the cosmos. We can do as the trees do, and turn that radiant energy to sweet nourishment.

Like every living thing on this planet, we were born to grow and to flourish. Human beings have been fulfilling that original mission all too well lately.

We need to learn to grow wisely now, in harmony with each other and with the vast pulse of life on the planet.

The protectors of Standing Rock are like the immune system of human civilization, come to fight off the aggressive cancer of short-term corporate profiteers. Let us join together to strengthen that immune system through our love and concern, our prayers and our actions.

I end with words from Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee that I return to over and over for guidance in these dark times:

….The ancient energies of the Earth are still alive and we do not begin to understand how they are responding both to the energy of change and our collective resistance. But rather than attempting any prophecy I would continue to be aware of what each moment is telling us, watching the signs in the inner and outer worlds just as a sailor would read the winds and tides.

And from within this darkening there arises a cry that we hold the light that is left, the light that is within our self and within the spiritual body of the world. So much as been lost, so much has been desecrated by our endless desires, but those of us who are aware of the sacred need to hold what is left, hold it in our hearts and real awareness. The light of the sacred needs our care and protection. Maybe at some time it will give birth to the child with stars in its eyes, to the future whose seeds are still all around us. Without our relationship to this light nothing can be born, and the darkness will devour any real hope. Those of us who are aware of what we were given, of the oneness that was awakening, are needed to hold true to life’s deeper purpose, the unfolding of the soul of the world. We need to stay attuned to the heart of the world and life’s essential message of love, however the drama in the outer world unfolds.

–from Darkening of the Light (Golden Sufi Center, 2013)

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Nova Scotia, Winter 2015

 

Luna Rising: Calling on Women to Rise for Our Communities, and for Mother Earth

A lot of women I know are taking the knock-down of Hillary Clinton personally. It’s as if she is standing in for all the women who have ever tried to climb the male-dominated career ladder, no matter the field, and found themselves finally up at the top only to realize that that ladder is teetering…so that we all found ourselves looking at each other through Hillary’s eyes on election night, with that sickening realization dawning that…we are going DOWN.

Yes, she won the popular vote, we remind ourselves, clutching at straws of self-respect. Petitions are circulating demanding that the Electoral College represent the will of the people and split its vote accordingly, state by state. Many women are writing letters to Hillary, thanking her for fighting the good fight, and vowing to keep it up, to fight all the harder for this disappointment.

Meanwhile the frat-boy bully, our worst nightmare of the sleazy underbelly of America, is now slithering into the White House.

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How different is this guy from George W. Bush, another frat-boy bully, an entitled scion of a rich family? Bush Jr. had more of a patina; he had the patrician Kennebunkport charm, even though it masked a profound idiocy that kept him dependent on scheming advisors like Cheney.

Trump is the brash New Yorker, the kid from the boroughs whose family ran a real estate mafia, getting rich one gouged rent at a time. Although he has a lot of sycophants and wanna-be besties around him, Trump follows his own counsel. I don’t think he’ll be as easy to manipulate as Bush Jr. was. That just makes him all the more dangerous.

Yes, he’s dangerous. He represents the ascendancy of the worst forms of hyper-masculine arrogance—the kind of guy who throws his weight around, shouts down any dissenter, insists on having his own way all the time. He will glory in uniforms and lust in the power of legions of men saluting and doing his bidding. He will raze forests just for the fun of it like a modern-day Gilgamesh. He will rape and pillage and laugh about the humiliation of the women he leaves behind moaning in the dust.

This man—our soon-to-be President of the United States—is as bad as any petty warlord. Although we can think of dozens of similar dictators and tyrants like him, I don’t believe we’ve ever had a man this bad in our White House. Not this unapologetically, energetically, gleefully BAD.

President Obama is calmly talking about passing the baton, sitting down with the President-elect to talk about the nuclear codes and other key levers of government. His preternatural calm, like Hillary’s unemotional concession speech, baffles and frightens me. Don’t they fear for our country? Is it forbidden for them to express rage and frustration? Or do they know, in some insiders’ way that ordinary folks like us can’t, that it doesn’t really matter who is in the White House, they’re all, as Obama put it, “on the same team”?

What team is that, pray tell?

The team of the rapers and pillagers of women and of the planet? The corporate-finance team that is hell-bent on enriching the richest while hitting up ordinary folks with usurious interest rates on the loans and credit cards we need to survive; casting our children into perpetual debt bondage in return for the education they need to find the jobs that don’t pay enough to live on; drilling and fracking and scraping and bulldozing the Earth to make her pay her way in fossil fuels, no matter that the burning of those fuels will send our climate to Kingdom Come….

Yes, I am angry. If Obama really thinks that he and Trump are on the same team, then that is not a team I want any part of. I don’t want the “peaceful transition of power” if it means power will now reside in the small fat hands of that hateful would-be dictator.

Deep breath. Deep breath.

There is value in anger, I think. We can’t go quietly into the night. We have to fight this menace, and I am glad to see Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Bill McKibben and Van Jones, Naomi Klein and Michael Brune and so many other good folks rallying for the fight.

But we have been fighting for a long time, and now to have this sudden loss of ground is disheartening, to say the least. It’s exhausting and demoralizing to see all those old bullies rallying around Trump—Giuliani, Gingrich and Christie, to name just a few—and know that this time around, with the power to appoint federal judges and justices, the way forward will be even harder.

I am wondering if there’s another way to fight this time. Yes, the street demonstrations are important; being visible is essential. The social media shares and livestreams are also key.

I’m just asking myself, what would it look like to launch a feminine response to Trump’s hyper-masculinity? Sort of like what Code Pink was doing in the Bush years or what One Billion Rising has done with dance flash mobs: meeting the gray sobriety of our corporate-militarized American “team” with the vibrant color and gay creativity of generative, nurturing freedom and joy.

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I think about the patience of Mother Nature, giving endlessly to all of her children, asking nothing in return but our success. I think about how no matter how fast we chop down her forests, she simply starts growing them again, even if the growth starts with the tiniest layer of lichen or moss. I think about the rhizomatic underground networks that support and nourish everything visible; the ones that persist and regrow no matter how much the aboveground targets are hit.

The Treesisters movement is promoting nature-based feminine leadership, specifically focusing on climate change as the global issue that unites all humanity. Climate change knows no national boundaries and it affects everyone—even the richest tyrant in his castle will eventually be starved out by the droughts and floods that will come once the warming has gone totally out of control.

With climate-change-denier Trump and his henchmen holding power in the White House and the US Congress, the whole world is in grave danger.

Feminine energy is needed now; the energy of nurturing and cultivating, the energy that is present in all humans but strongest in those whose bodies are made to bear life: women who are flooded with the loving, nurturing hormone estrogen before they leave their own mother’s wombs, and throughout their entire lives.

Women, now is not the time to shrink back in horror, to curl up and hide for four years hoping for a better champion the next time around.

Now is the time to look at our world through the eyes of Mother Earth, with compassion and benevolence, but also with the fierce love that can move mountains.

We have to rise for our daughters and sons, modeling for them not the passive acceptance of Barack and Hillary “passing the baton” to the bully, but proud and forceful independence that knows no humiliation and will not be intimidated.

There is a lot of talk right now in elite circles about trying to understand the Trump supporter better. I don’t think there’s a lot of mystery to why people in the rust belt are angry, frustrated and ready for change. The public education system is lousy, turning out people who are docile enough to follow a liar and a cheat over the cliff; and if you’re unhealthy from toxic chemicals, in debt up to your ears from huckster lenders, without decent jobs or any hope of improvement—well, it’s revolution time, and we know that people who have nothing to lose will often follow a charismatic leader, no matter what false prophets he is preaching.

A feminine-inspired leader, taking her cue from Mother Earth, will embrace these children along with all her children, trying her best to give them what they need to flourish and grow well. That means good nutrition, good education, healthy communities, a sense of purpose and ways to contribute productively to the common well-being. It’s not too much to ask. It’s what every American and every human being deserves.

At the same time, we know now that we would need six Earths to support the vaunted American lifestyle in its current incarnation, for all the billions of humans on Earth. We are going to have to shift away from the old idea of limitless economic growth, into a new steady state that consumes much less of Earth’s resources, much more efficiently, in ways that make more of us truly happy.

This can be done.

It must be done.

I am calling on women to lead the way here and now—to use the galvanizing push of this horrendous election to inspire us to rise up in our communities, everywhere in the world, to insist that the bullies will NOT have their way this time.

Not on their lives…and not on ours.

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PS: On Monday November 14 the Moon, whose magnetic pull sweeps the tides and the menstrual cycles of all mammals, will be as close to Earth as she’ll be until 2034. Women, let’s all honor Luna that day. Go out and gaze at her. Take her feminine energy into your hearts and then send it out into the world, bathing your communities in that peaceful pulse of pure white light. If we come together, our feminine power knows no bounds. We can do this. We must!

The Soul Force We Need Now

When I wrote my last Transition Times piece, imagining the darkness that would descend on America if Trump should win the presidency, I didn’t believe it would happen. I trusted Americans to unite behind Hillary as the better choice; to defeat the bigotry and stupidity represented by Trump.

Hillary did win the popular vote, but she lost the electoral college. Is this a fair system, this winner-take-all system we have inherited? I don’t think so. But with Republicans gleefully about to control all three houses of government, I’m not expecting any changes on that score. We just have to deal with the cards on the table now.

The cards are not good. Not good for people, for animals, for wildlife, for oceans and forests and prairies. The setback is real.

But let’s not kid ourselves that a Clinton presidency would have been a walk in the park. There’s a reason so many of us were unenthusiastic about her candidacy, even while applauding her as a woman with enough grit and backbone to survive a punishing public life and continue in a historic bid for the highest public office in the land.

Yes, Hillary is tough. Yes, she made friends with the wealthy whose money she needed to make her run viable. Yes, she talked the talk and walked the walk that the Democratic Party wanted to hear. Yes, she won the popular vote in the end.

But not by a landslide. Not by enough. In the end, she could not go that final mile to victory.

The pundits are busy parsing out why the pollsters and journalists were so blindsided by the Trump insurgency. No one is talking fraud, but I wonder…all it would have taken is fraud in a couple of key states…say, Florida and Pennsylvania…to tip the electoral scales.

Even if there was no direct vote tampering, there was tampering of hearts…Trump’s empty sloganeering giving people something simple and digestible to hang on to, so much more appealing than Hillary’s endless fine print.

Bernie Sanders understood the profound despair and hopelessness of the American middle-to-lower class (the middle class slip-sliding away into the hanging-by-the-grace-of-a-credit-card class). And unlike Trump, he actually has some ideas about what to do for these suffering millions.

Hillary represented status quo stability, an extension of the relative peace, prosperity and even tentative progressive tiptoes that Obama brought us. That’s nothing to sniff at. But for people who weren’t feeling the benefits, it obviously wasn’t enough.

No use crying over spilt milk. As pundits around the globe are saying this morning, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and recommit ourselves to the struggle for a sane and livable world. People who believe in the ideal of social justice for all, who believe in preserving our environment as the essential pathway to a livable future—we have to come together now as never before.

That old Hopi prophecy about “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” seems to be awakening, both in the Trump camps and now in progressive circles. The good people of Standing Rock are already living it.

Obviously we can’t look to the Federal government for protection or support. But as Bernie proved in defying the Democratic Party last winter and spring, there’s a lot we can do at the state and local levels, with direct appeal to individuals who share our values and want to put their money and energy behind a shared vision of what America would look like if there was really “justice for all”—and I include all living beings in my understanding of that phrase, from the fish in the sea to the trees in the forests to the birds in the sky and on and on, our whole magnificent ecological web.

Mother Earth is in convulsions right now, thanks to the unchecked growth of us, her most successful species yet. We are over-populating like lemmings, and like lemmings we seem to be on track to restore stability by running off a cliff together—powered by our remarkable technology and the fossil fuels required by our machine-based lifestyle.

This is the bigger picture we must keep in our sights on this gloomy morning after the Trump win. It’s not about Democrats and Republicans, red or blue, elites or working class, or any other way of slicing and dicing our differences.

In the face of climate change, we are all the same in our vulnerability to the big shocks that will inevitably come if we don’t succeed in shifting away from fossil fuels. Trump in his faux-gold tower can’t survive long without the farmers of the world producing food, and the farmers can’t do that if the climate gives way to floods and droughts and storms. We are all connected. We are all connected. We are all connected.

As Charles Eistenstein memorably puts it, we are one being looking out at the world through a multitude of eyes.

The sooner we understand this and get beyond old tired habits of separation, the better chance humanity has of evolving into the great steward species we were meant to be.

That old Garden of Eden story was a warning about the dangers of knowledge without wisdom, a warning that we are still struggling to absorb and learn from (and no, it wasn’t Eve’s fault!).

What is the wisdom we can live by in the difficult era that’s now dawning?

We have to acknowledge the deep pain, disappointment and anger that the Trump voters are living. It’s real. Trump didn’t invent it or even cultivate it; he just understood it, and understood, as an entertainer and consummate con man, how to make it work for him.

He will have no balms for the disenfranchised. America won’t return to some mythic “great” past. The anger and bitterness will continue until we can come together as a society to find real solutions that give all people a sense of dignity and purpose; opening up accessible pathways to health and well-being, individually and as communities.

Behind the wish to “make America great again” lies longing for a time when we could believe in and work together towards a brighter future. I know we don’t all agree on what that future could or should look like. But we should be talking about it together, not walling off from each other in distrust and fear.

Can I listen to a man spewing vile hatred over me and my family and everyone I love? Can I try to understand where he’s coming from, as he shoves me under a bus?

I don’t know if I have that in me. But I do know that in these times that are coming, I must stand firm in human decency; stand up for justice and integrity and love; and let that soul force—called forth by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other social change agents from Jesus on down the ages—stream through me out into the world.

If enough of us do this, together we can make that stream a mighty river, and ride that river to a better world.

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Soul force

Love is not a luxury

I am not one to be prone to panic attacks, but I do admit to often being in a low-level state of foreboding, that sometimes elevates itself to full-on dread. It’s not a mystery; I know what my triggers are:

  • the latest news of human activity destroying life or making our planet unlivable, whether by warfare, industrial agriculture, chemical contamination, deforestation, fracking and drilling, leaking and spilling or simply burning fossil fuels;
  • the insanity of a vapid, rapacious, evildoer like Drumpf coming so close to setting up his vampire camp in the White House;
  • the horror of the violence inflicted over and over again on African Americans, Native Americans, undocumented Americans, female, trans and gay Americans;
  • violence and cruelty to the vulnerable, in whatever form.

The dread comes when it seems like this filthy tide of misery is rising, threatening to engulf all the beauty that still exists, day and night, moment to moment, on our precious planet.

I have realized over time that I cannot be an effective activist for positive social change if I let myself be overtaken by sorrow, anger, disgust and despair. If I allow myself to sink under the weight of all the injustice and horror of human “civilization,” I will simply lose it—it will be crawl-under-the-covers time, time to check out of the real world into the dream world, time maybe to never come back.

So I have to practice this strange form of double vision, where part of me remains open, aware and enraged by the suffering, while another part of me goes about her daily life drinking deep of the beauty of the newly risen sun shining through the dew-dropped spider web strung up among the brilliant blue morning glory flowers, mainlining this beauty like an elixir capable of granting me the strength I need to keep the dread at bay and go back out into battle.

It’s almost as if by giving my attention to beauty and good I can strengthen those forces in the world, whereas if I steep myself too long in fury and horror those negative emotions begin to take hold in me and drag me down into a sinkhole of despair that only gets bigger when I struggle to escape.

This is a difficult thing for me to articulate, because I have never been someone who believed in sitting on a meditation cushion and focusing on “the light” as a way to combat the darkness of the real world. Even the ivory tower of academia has always felt too removed for me, although lately, thanks to the activism of the current generation of college students, the lofty impermeability of the tower is wearing thin.

I’m not advocating retreating and withdrawing and pulling up the drawbridge against the dread of the real world. I’m just admitting that for me, and maybe for others as well, it’s essential to restore my energies for the good fight by giving myself permission to savor and spend time immersed in what it is I love and value: deep emotional connections with humans, animals and the natural world.

The key words there might be “deep” and “emotion”: I have to allow myself to really feel deeply my love for specific people, places and animals in my life. I have to take the time to honor and appreciate how much these connections feed me.

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It may be one of the unheralded sicknesses of our era that we no longer feel entitled to the time to simply hang out enjoying each other’s company in real time (as opposed to screen time): cooking and eating a delicious weekday meal with family or friends; spending a couple of hours brushing and romping with a beloved pet; going for a long walk to a special patch of forest and sitting on a rock until the woodland animals forget you’re there and accept you as a harmless part of the landscape. These things take time, and time is what we seem not to have these days, or to deny ourselves.

At our peril. The sense of not having time, of time being regimented by the clock and occupied by a never-ending to-do list, is peculiar to the 21st century experience of being human, and it’s not a good thing, because that constant rushing from one task to the next keeps us living life at a superficial level—surfing through our lives, you might say, as though we were flitting from one website to the next. You can’t develop the capacity for deep emotional connections when you’re surfing…and without that capacity, you won’t be able to commit yourself passionately to any cause—or indeed, to anything at all.

So there seems to be a necessity of living “as if”—giving yourself permission to laugh, to love, to drink deep of the beauty of nature, as if innocent people were not being murdered by bombs and guns every day, as if the polar caps were not melting, as if the forests were not burning, as if the sixth great extinction were not advancing daily, as if the oceans were not being poisoned and warmed, as if the coral were not dying off, as if the bulldozers were not still grinding through the tar sands that will just accelerate all this death and destruction of everything we love….

It’s not easy to hold the awareness of all of this horror—and so much more—at bay. But we who care and want to work for positive change have to focus on love—on our deep, abiding love for this beautiful world and all the precious beings in it that we want to protect.

It sounds simple, like the Beatles line: All you need is love. But on a day to day basis, barraged as we are constantly by all the bad news and evildoers of the world, it’s hard to remember, and can feel like a cop-out or a self-indulgent escape from reality. It’s not.

It’s what “being the change” means. Live the change you want to see in the world, at a deep emotional level, and be part of a rising tide of hope and love that can sweep away the misery.

img_3727This is such an exciting time to be alive. There is so much potential for human beings to take an evolutionary leap away from the tribal competitiveness and heedless destructive ignorance of the past, stepping at last into our full potential as the sacred guardians of the complex ecological web of this planet, which we are finally beginning to understand. The leap won’t happen without our giving ourselves permission to honor our deep connections with each other and with Gaia; without our giving ourselves permission to love.

Hence the need to live, at least part of the time, as if loving was the most important thing we could possibly be doing with our precious time.

Because it is.

 

audre_lordeNOTE: My title is a take-off on Audre Lorde’s famous essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” Poetry, as she lived and practiced it, was love. A few lines from the essay that I go back to again and again: Poetry “forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought….Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”

–from Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press, 1984, 37-38.

Star showers

These past few days I have been aware of how overhead the meteors are sizzling, though we can’t see or hear them. Apparently this year’s Perseid meteor shower is especially intense, with some 200 shooting stars an hour at the peak, instead of merely 80 per hour, the norm.

Here in New England it’s been cloudy in the evenings, so I have not been able to see the shooting stars…but I’ve been thinking about how the meteor showers happen 24 hours a day, whether or not we see them. Just because they’re blotted out by the brilliance of the Sun doesn’t mean they’re not happening.

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Somehow I have been able to sense the whoosh of the meteors during the day, as the Sun burns mercilessly overhead; as well as at night, through the blankness of my ceiling, despite the grind of the air conditioner that is the only thing making this heat wave bearable.

Every few seconds: whoosh, there goes another one!

Even though I know the shooting stars are meteors, it still seems, when I see one, like I am watching a “star” detach itself from the dark heavens and fling itself across the blackness of space.

Lately I have been restless, wanting that freedom, the ability to detach myself from the background and streak forwards towards an unknown destination. This is strange for me, as I have been someone who has hung on firmly to my corner of the universe for my whole life, very rarely venturing beyond the borders of what I know and love.

I have the sense that maybe I’m not alone in this.

It seems like we are once again entering a time to “let our freak flags fly,” as Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young put it during the tumultuous 1960s. Time to let go of the customs and habits we’ve accepted as normal, and held on to as if they were the answer to the question we were never taught to ask.

Question: If you’re born as a human being, what is your life all about? Why are you here? What are you meant to be doing with your “one precious life” (Mary Oliver)?

To some degree, I think the answer is both simpler and more complex than we might expect.

We are here to be the soul of the Earth, the anima mundi, the means by which the planet can see, hear, touch, feel and understand herself. The other living beings perform this function too, of course. But only Homo sapiens, so far, has the ability to see into the future and evaluate the past. Through our amazing technological ability, we can foresee when the meteor shower will come, not just this year but for the years to come as well. And we can record the beauty of these showers, in writing and in images, preserving the present moment for posterity in a way that was never possible before we showed up on the planet.

We have a unique capacity to manipulate time, we humans. For better or worse, we are aware of the past and the future as well as the present moment.

I am not sure that this is really a blessing. I might be happier if I could simply detach myself and fly, like a meteor, without worrying about everything leading up to this moment, and everything that will result from my choice to let go.

In my memoir I wrote about an August night long ago when I went to watch shooting stars with a friend up on a dark hillside, just the two of us lying on a tarp, under a blanket, our warm bodies a counterpoint to the cold brilliance of the shooting stars overhead.

That night I chose not to become the lover of my companion; we went our separate ways. Does the memory of that August meteor shower haunt him as it does me? Does he feel the soul connection we made that night, still firm and unshakeable despite more than 30 years gone by?

I feel the meteors shooting across the sky all day, all night, though I cannot see them. Does that make them any less real?

Maybe it is time to detach ourselves from the tyranny of believing only what we see. Maybe it is time, despite our media obsessions, to give more credit to what we feel with our mind’s eye, with our hearts and souls.

Whoosh, there goes another one! Did you see it? Did you feel it?  There it goes!

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.

My Mother, An Earth Mother: A Mother’s Day Tribute

I was blessed to have been born to an Earth Mother, a woman who loves nothing more than to get her hands in the earth. In honor of her, and in the spirit of Mother’s Day, I share a passage from the childhood section of my forthcoming memoir, about learning how to love the Earth through watching my mother in action.

“That first summer [in our new house], my mother began tending and shaping the land around the house, following her own instincts of landscaping and working almost entirely with hand tools. In front of the house, she raked out a big pile of topsoil and planted a small lawn. Beyond the lawn was an expansive swamp dogwood thicket, laced with black raspberries and bordered by a young maple forest on one side, and a few barely visible pine trees on the other, which had been planted as fingerlings by the previous owner of the property. Armed only with loppers, my mom began cutting down the thicket, a project that my brother and I joined in on when we were old enough to handle our own tools.

“Once the thicket was gone, and grass had been seeded in its place, it became apparent that the house had been sited next to a huge limestone ledge, part of which was visible as outcroppings. My mother set to work with her shovel, hand rake and trowel, determined to create a rock garden out of that long, sloping rock ledge. That project provided a focus for many long summers to come, summers which she spent with me and my brother in the country while my father went back to the city to work during the weeks.

“I can see her standing, sweaty and red-faced at the end of a hot morning’s work, with a fine layer of black earth coating her bare shoulders, drinking iced tea out of a tall green glass and surveying the ledge with a squinted sculptor’s eye. She would be quietly exultant as her shovel and trowel gradually revealed new curves or deep, smooth walls of rock, a small, determined woman with a strong back and great patience, tracing out the rock with hand tools and as much love as if she were carving out the sweet, benevolent face and voluptuous body of the Earth Mother herself.

“With the help of her parents, my Grandma Mildred and Grandpa Vic, my mom also dug out a vegetable garden, in which she planted her morning coffee grounds and eggshells. The garden yielded crunchy sugar snap peas, big shiny zucchinis, and a tangle of tomato plants loaded down with plum, cherry and huge oxheart tomatoes. She also helped me create my own garden, a shady woodland garden under my climbing tree, Cricket, which I planted with columbine, ferns, may-apple and wild geranium, all carefully transplanted from the dappled woods around our property.

“In time, every contour of the ten acres or so around the houses had felt the gentle touch of my mother’s hands and yielded to the influence of her spades and trowels. Every young maple or oak grew there because she had judiciously allowed it to advance past sapling-hood. What had once been a rocky, harum-scarum cow pasture became, over the course of many years, an orderly oasis of verdant green lawns, perennial flower beds and raised vegetable gardens, with the long ridge of the rock garden sloping down through the middle of it all to the elegantly landscaped pool. This transformation formed one of the most intimate and persistent narratives of my childhood.”

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The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: Cultivating Creative Community

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Virginia Woolf famously said that women writers need a room of their own. True enough, but that’s not all we need. We also need a community to nourish and support us and cheer us on through the challenges of the creative life.

So many people seem to think that the playing field has been leveled for women; that the feminist movement can just pack it up now and go home.

It’s not true, not yet.

For most women, a writing study of one’s own is not an achievable reality. We’re lucky if we can set up a desk of our own in a corner of our own…and get to it at least once a week.

Let’s face it, most women who become mothers must juggle the demands of pregnancy, child-rearing and home-making with the pressure to contribute to the family income—and for writers, that often means having a “day job” that necessitates doing the writing on the side of everything else.

At the other end of our lives, we’re the ones taking care of our own parents, too. There’s just never enough time to fit everything in, and often our writing slips down to the bottom of the endless to-do list.

cfed82894ce77d5eb912cd5c3fe77346My mentor Gloria Anzaldua urged her working-class sisters to “Forget the room of one’s own—write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or on the welfare line, on the job or during meals….When you wash the floor or the clothes, listen to the chanting in your body,” she says. Write “when you’re depressed, angry, hurt, when compassion and love possess you. When you cannot help but write” (“Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”).

Before she died–too young–of diabetes complications, Gloria published several influential anthologies of women’s writing and worked hard to build a community that bridged all kinds of identities and differences.

She was a great inspiration for me, and when I founded the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers in 2011, I felt like I was carrying on her work, in my own corner of the world.

The sixth season of the Festival presents nine full days of readings, workshops, talks, discussions and performances featuring talented women writers from the Berkshire region and beyond.

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For me, this is not about art for art’s sake. It’s about activating women to recognize that we all have important stories to share, which we can cultivate by developing the confidence to speak our truths, and the community that will encourage us to write, write and keep on writing.

11010606_934650809911488_2830181057542873053_nAt last year’s Festival, Dani Shapiro shared what she considered to be the essential ingredient of a successful writing career like her own, and it was surprisingly simple. You have to put your butt in the chair and write, she said. Just do it.

Having this discipline is much easier when you begin to trust that there are people out there in the world who care what you have to say; who will listen and applaud and come back for more.

That’s why it’s important, even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, to turn out at community-building events like the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Come to show your support of the writers on the stage; come to be inspired; come to share in the camaraderie of lunching and brunching with a roomful of writers and the people who love them.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers happens but once a year, in March. That’s Women’s History Month, and also the month, in New England, when the sap starts to rise. Come take a taste of our creativity and feel your own creative vision rise in response.

Check out our schedule of events, and mark your calendar. See you at the Festival!

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The Power of Black and White Thinking or Why I Love Bernie Sanders

Teenagers, it is said, see everything in black and white. Something is wonderful or it’s awful. I hate you or I love you. Part of coming to maturity, common wisdom has it, is learning to see in shades of gray, the glass half-full as well as half-empty.

If that is so, I am amused to note in my middle-aged self a return to black-and-white tendencies. Could it be that part of the socialization that enables us to see in gray is also a schooling in the fine art of compromise and settling for “good-enough”? If so, it seems that I am less and less willing to settle. My standards are high, for myself and others, and I don’t want to aim lower.

What does that mean? Well, take Love, for instance, since Valentine’s Day is nigh. I have learned, over years of trial and error, that the most important relationship we have is with ourselves. No, that doesn’t mean I’m an egotistical navel-gazer. It means that in order for me to give love to others—whether people or causes—I must love myself first. I must believe that what I have to give is important, and worth sharing.

And I really have to love myself completely, warts and all. That’s where the absolute thinking comes in. If I were thinking about myself in shades of gray, I’d be picking apart what I like about myself from what I dislike about myself. I’d be doing a daily self-critical dance, castigating myself when I don’t live up to my own expectations.

Here’s what I’ve learned in middle age: doing that dance is a huge drain of time and psychic energy. It’s so much better to say, definitely (and maybe a little defiantly): I know I’m not perfect but I do the best I can and I love myself for trying. I love myself, faults and all, because I know that it’s through failure, hurt and disappointment that I learn to be stronger, better, and more lovable.

How Can We Love Ourselves?

In so many ways it seems that we live in a disposable society. It’s not just diapers and plastic cups we’re throwing away; it’s people and places too. It’s life itself we trash without even noticing. Thinking in black and white, I’d say that’s just not acceptable.

The litany of suffering caused by modern industrial human civilization is long and grievous. You know what I’m talking about, I don’t even have to get into the ugly specifics of species extinctions, animal torture, human-on-human brutality, environmental devastation, disease and anthropogenic famine.

This is the thing: can I know this about human society, my society, and still find it in myself to love us? To love us enough to want to spend my life working to make us better?

I suppose this is why the Christ story has had such a hold on human civilization for so long. Christ died for our sins; he loved us enough to sacrifice himself willingly to remind us to try to live up to a higher expectation of ourselves.

But I am not talking about sacrifice, violence, pain and death, the language of Christianity. I’m talking about love for oneself and everything in the world around us—the language of animism and Buddhism, seeing the world as Gaia, an intricate living organism to be cherished, cultivated and loved deeply and absolutely.

We humans are Gaia’s children. We sprang from her and have been one of her most fabulously successful creations. It is a marker of our success that we are now severely over-populated, to the point where we must either discover new, more harmonious ways to sustain our society, or face species collapse.

I want to believe that we can love ourselves enough to recognize our tremendous potential as a species, and work hard to move ourselves to the next level of awareness.

This is not the time to do the self-castigating dance of “I love me, I love me not.” We need to acknowledge our failures and weaknesses but use them to enhance our awareness of what is good and positive in us. Knowing what we don’t like or want enables us to understand more powerfully what we like and want. That’s the power of black and white thinking.

How Much Do We Love? Revolution vs. Reform

There’s a reason most revolutions in human history have been carried out by young people who have not yet settled into the complacency or despair of “shades of gray” thinking.

Although modern education, in America at least, does its best to indoctrinate children to be compliant and docile, still there are always young people who insist on thinking for themselves and pushing the adults around them to wake up and do what must be done to make the world better. We saw that in the Occupy movement, we’re seeing in now in the Black Lives Matter protests, and, in a very destructive way, we see it in the young jihadists and school shooters who take up arms in violent protest of the way things are.

There’s a reason Bernie Sanders is building such runaway support among young people, and among the young-at-heart older folks too. He’s appealing to our idealism—our stubborn belief that we don’t have to compromise, that we can reach towards creating the world that should be, rather than settling for the fallen and corrupted world that is.

When Hillary Clinton says “I know how to compromise and get things done,” that’s shades-of-gray, middle-aged thinking. Barack Obama went into the White House repeating that refrain, and tried repeatedly in his early years as President to reach out to Republicans for compromise. He has been resoundingly rejected—the Republicans, school-boys that they are, insist on seeing the world in black and white, their way or the highway.

Maybe it’s time for the Democrats to do the same. Maybe it’s time for us to love and believe in ourselves enough to allow our own brand of black-and-white thinking free rein. Bernie Sanders, with his uncompromising social justice platform, his refusal to play the usual political PAC money game, his defiant, teenage idealism packaged in an unlikely middle-aged body, is showing us the way.

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Casting the Spell of the Solstice Season

There is a passage in my memoir where I describe the sense of gleeful abundance that the Christmas season brought to my childhood. It was a magical spell created through the transformation of bringing a fragrant pine tree into the living room and decorating it with lights and ornaments; the joyful anticipation of presents; the sweet and savory scents and tastes of my mother’s special holiday meals and treats.

Outside our home, the whole world was transformed by millions of lights, Christmas trees and decorations, the landscape glittering with lights on the ground and bright stars overhead. The cumulative effect of all of this was that for the holiday season, we seemed to have stepped over some kind of threshold into a magical fairyland, complete with talking reindeer that could fly and jolly elves that delivered presents down the chimney.

Nowadays, as an adult with children of my own, the external trappings remain the same, but it’s harder to recapture that sense of magic. The setting up and taking down of the Christmas tree, lights and decorations are chores, though there is pleasure in the outcome. The presents must be chosen, obtained and wrapped. The cooking must be planned and executed. My mother, on whom most of the burden of all of this activity fell in my childhood, made it look easy and fun, and I followed in her footsteps while my children were small, which is why they too have developed a magical attraction to celebrating this holiday in an all-out way.

As I grow older, it is harder to banish the persistent doubt…the feeling that rather than celebrating the birth of a sacred child representing love, mercy and compassion, or even the simple return to light of the Solstice, we in modern America have been charmed into celebrating the great God of Consumption, who we worship through the rituals of shopping, cooking and eating to excess.

Oh, I know I will be branded a Scrooge or a Grinch for this thought. My children will cringe, embarrassed that their mother would be willing to publicly deviate from the established tradition, the script. And I can’t deny that I still enjoy the chance to escape into fairyland for a day or two, through a door that only opens at Christmastime.

But while we fortunate few are enjoying ourselves with feasting and gifts, the unpleasant reality continues for the majority on our planet. Humans continue to kill and persecute other humans. We  continue to kill and exterminate other species. The roasting of the planet through carbon combustion continues unabated, with weird, dangerous weather becoming more commonplace every day.

Oh Grinch, stop it, they will cry. Where is your sense of fun and joy? Why is your heart ten sizes too small?

No, I will reply sadly. The problem is that my heart is ten sizes too large, and I cannot relax in fairyland knowing that there is so much misery going on just outside our charmed circle.

This holiday season I have not been able to evade the thought that maybe what I need is a little dose of Zoloft to keep my mood suitably elevated and banish the darkness to the margins of my consciousness. Oh brave new world, in which we cannot function without a dose of manufactured, pharmaceutical good cheer!

If I were to change this holiday so that I could truly be happy celebrating, what would I change? I would still want to eat and drink and exchange presents with my family. But I would want to increase the dose of spiritual energy running throughout all the rituals. Instead of buying presents, we would take the time to make them for each other, putting love into every stroke of creation. Or at least choose and purchase gifts that are made by hand, with love.

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We would take the time to appreciate the slow return to light that happens after the Winter Solstice, the sun going down just a few minutes later each day. We would go outside under the stars and moon and send our own intense lovelights into the universe, seeking consciously to increase the network of loving connection across the planet. We would affirm to each other our commitment for the coming year to each do what we can, in our own sphere, to make this world a better place for all.

We would take it all slow, as is appropriate for this dark, cold time of year. We would sleep in and go to bed early, allowing plenty of time for dreams. We would linger long at the table and by the fireside, enjoying each other’s conversation and company.

So much of contemporary life is about maintaining our robotic rhythms without any heed for the change of seasons. In the summer we air condition so we can keep working without the indolence of heat and humidity. In the winter we have the bright glare of electric lighting to keep the darkness of the season at bay, so we can keep working and playing without interruption.

These artificial rhythms are not good for our spirits—or for our mental health. As we are drawn into marching to the beat of the machine world, the bright living aura that tunes us into the pulse of life on our planet is diminished, dimmed.

It is no accident that our time has seen a resurgence of fascination with zombies, the walking dead. We play out in our imaginations what we fear in reality. Sometimes fantasy anticipates or spells out a frightening reality we do not want to acknowledge.

We must blow gently on the embers of our humanity, still alive and glowing despite all those artificial lights. In these Solstice days of dramatic darkness and light, let us cast the spell of the season by reaching out in love to each other and all life on the planet. That is where the true magic lies.

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