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.


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.


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?


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.


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.



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.”


The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: Cultivating Creative Community


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Pope Francis Shows Us the Way

The Encyclical on climate change and the environment released by Pope Francis this week has all the magic of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. Back then, the antagonism between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. seemed implacable and unresolvable, a fight to the death. And then suddenly the wall came down and the world walked through, marveling, into a new era.

Now we have another abrupt shift, this time of a religious order. The leaders of the Catholic Church can hardly be accused of being “radical tree-huggers.” And yet here is Pope Francis, solemnly exhorting his flock of a billion Catholics worldwide to be respectful to Mother Earth and all the living beings she supports. In the blink of an eye, the language of Native American spirituality has been taken up by the same Catholic Church that once tortured and executed indigenous peoples precisely because of their different religious beliefs.

I urge you to read the entire Encyclical for yourself. It is a truly remarkable document, worth serious study. Of many passages I’d like to underline, here are two:

  1. Care for nature is part of a lifestyle which includes the capacity for living together and communion. Jesus reminded us that we have God as our common Father and that this makes us brothers and sisters. Fraternal love can only be gratuitous; it can never be a means of repaying others for what they have done or will do for us. That is why it is possible to love our enemies. This same gratuitousness inspires us to love and accept the wind, the sun and the clouds, even though we cannot control them. In this sense, we can speak of a “universal fraternity”.
  1. We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.

Here we find spiritual ecology enshrined as Catholic doctrine. And one thing about the Catholic Church—it is big on obedience. For believers, to ignore the Pope is to risk hellfire and damnation. In this case, though, the hellfire and damnation will be earthly, if we do not listen to the wise advice of Pope Francis and curb the insanity of industrial growth that goes beyond the limits of the planet to support.

Scientists appeal to our sense of reason, presenting compelling evidence that if we continue on our present path of wasteful consumption of the Earth’s resources, we will destroy our own future as a flourishing species. Religious leaders appeal to human beings’ moral conscience in invoking the responsibility of current parents and grandparents to leave a livable world to our descendants. It is up to the politicians, though, to translate vision into practice.

For too long, Christian conservatives in the U.S. have played the role of the ideological wing of Big Business, using money, manipulation and scare tactics to buy politicians and votes. In the face of the new Papal Encyclical, can American Christians really continue in good conscience to support the worst of the planet’s polluters and plunderers? Can they continue to elect mercenary politicians who hold our country hostage to the highest bidder?

If all good people who love our Earth and its creatures were to translate our love into action, as Pope Francis has just done so forcefully, I have no doubt the seemingly invincible wall of the industrial growth society we’ve been living with these past 200 years would melt away, revealing the path into a green, prosperous future.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” the saying goes. Pope Francis has just shown us the will, and the way. It is now the task of us ordinary citizens to break the stranglehold of Big Business on politics and insist that our politicians follow his lead.

I close with an excerpt from the Pope’s “Christian Prayer in Union with Creation,” a vision of ecological interdependence if ever there was one:

“Triune Lord, wondrous community of infinite love,

teach us to contemplate you

in the beauty of the universe,

for all things speak of you.

“Awaken our praise and thankfulness

for every being that you have made.

Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is.

God of love, show us our place in this world

as channels of your love

for all the creatures of this earth,

for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.

Enlighten those who possess power and money

that they may avoid the sin of indifference,

that they may love the common good, advance the weak,

and care for this world in which we live.”


And the meek shall inherit the Earth....

And the meek shall inherit the Earth…. Photo by J. Browdy, 2015

Imagining Peace on Memorial Day 2015: Thinking Beyond Our Gated Communities

We American civilians live peacefully and comfortably in a gated community the size of our country, guarded by our military and law enforcement officials. But would we have to maintain this guarded posture, at huge taxpayer expense, if we did more to wage peace in the world, instead of waging war?

It’s been well-documented that it costs much less to educate a young person than to imprison him or her. And yet we still continue to pour resources into prisons, and starve our educational system.

Wars are fought for the rich and powerful, but those who die, whether as combatants or as bystanders, are usually drawn from the ranks of the poor. In war zones across the globe, we find young men (and sometimes women) drawn into combat because they lack educational and economic opportunities at home, and thus are easily lured into becoming pawns in the ideological war games of the elite. A recent Rand survey of enlisted U.S. Army personnel found that more than half joined the Army because there were no jobs to be found at home.

Summer Solstice 2014 Photo by Eric Hernandez

Summer Solstice 2014
Photo by Eric Hernandez

Imagine what would happen if instead of bringing guns and chemicals to poor regions around the world, we brought libraries and laptops and laboratories. Imagine what would happen if instead of throwing our young people into the maw of poverty and violence, we cultivated them lovingly and raised them to be productive contributors to their hometowns and homelands.

Imagine if this loving mindset could be extended not just to human beings but to every living being on our planet.

This Memorial Day, I am grieving not just for humans, but for all the birds, fish, mammals and plants that have been sacrificed to human aggression and greed.

The “collateral damage” of war is vast and too often unseen, at least by those of us fortunate enough to live far from the battlefields. Once in a while we catch a glimpse of what those on the frontlines are living through—for example, this week the beaches in one of the wealthiest enclaves on Earth, Santa Barbara, California, are being fouled by an oil pipe rupture. Maybe when the privileged denizens of Santa Barbara see wildlife washing up on shore in pitiful oily carcasses, they will begin to understand the havoc caused by our heedless American addiction to oil.

Photo c. Kenneth Song / The News-Press Mike Harris, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, prepares to rescue a pelican covered in oil on the beach about a mile west of Refugio State Beach, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015.

Photo c. Kenneth Song / The News-Press
Mike Harris, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, prepares to rescue a pelican covered in oil on the beach about a mile west of Refugio State Beach, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015.

The truth is that the rich and powerful get behind movements for change only when they are directly negatively affected.

Witness what happened back in the Vietnam era, when America began drafting the sons of the wealthy elites, and those boys started coming home in coffins or maimed for life. Suddenly there was an anti-war movement with real teeth, and that war was soon ended, along with the draft.

To end the fossil fuel era it is going to take a similar punch to the power centers of the fossil fuel industry, and the Oil Kings won’t give up without a fight.

What’s called for here is not a fist-fight, but a moral battle, an appeal to the powerful to do what’s right for all of us, before we all topple over the edge of environmental destruction.

This Memorial Day, I honor the fallen—soldiers and civilians, birds and trees, mammals and bees and butterflies—and call on the living to step up to the immense challenge of our time: taking a giant leap forward in human evolution, beyond tribalism, beyond shortsighted greed and aggression, towards the loving, compassionate and wise species we are meant to become.

old tree

Elder tree. Photo by J. Browdy 2014

21st Century Leadership: Learning to Love in the Digisphere

Life in the digital age is accelerated up to speeds that previous generations (say, anyone born before 1900) would have found incomprehensible. The demands on our time are more intense than ever before, and decisions made in the blink of an eye or the tap of a finger can continue to reverberate for months or years, spinning out of control if caught up in the wild eddies of cyberspace.

We all know about cyber-bullying by this time—how it can drive some people, especially vulnerable young people, to despair and suicide.

We’ve also learned how dangerous random tweets and photo messages can be in a digital world where nothing on the Internet is really private.

This environment calls for leaders of tremendous personal strength and integrity—but it is not an environment that creates such people. Digital life–with its endless distractions, easy avatars and a million ways to cheat–seems to breed a kind of aimless cynicism. Even people who are motivated enough to attend retreats on “finding your purpose” are likely to be surfing through their lives, perpetually seeking the next answer or thrill or coveted consumer item.

In such an environment, how can we mentor people of all ages to become the leaders the world so desperately needs now?

We might begin by discussing the qualities we’d like to see in our leaders, and thus in ourselves. Although we still cling to a heroic ideal of leadership, enjoying the feeling of following a charismatic, forceful and self-confident leader, the truth is that leadership in our time is becoming much more decentralized.

The saying “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” attributed to the Hopi, has never seemed more apt than now, when each of us has the potential to assume a leadership role in our digital and real-world lives.

For example, are we going to join a digital mob assault of someone who is vulnerable? Or will we refuse to join in the feeding frenzy, or even take a stand in defense of the person who’s down?

How can we use the power of the World Wide Web to enhance thoughtful, in-depth communication, rather than allowing it to serve as a platform for name-calling and threats?


There is a world of difference between movement-building through the media, as in the #BlackLivesMatter movement or One Billion Rising, and vicious personal attacks on individuals that can quickly escalate into the digital equivalent of terrorist attacks.

The technology that enables this behavior is so new that we have not yet had time to establish codes of conduct or to fully weigh the ethical considerations of a Twitterized world.

Giving children access to the Web without the guidance of their parents or teachers is the equivalent of letting a teenager get behind the wheel of a car without having any learner’s permit or driver’s ed.

We have a whole structure for training young people about the dangers of alcohol, drugs & sex…but next to nothing in place that mentors and supports them–or us older folk either–in becoming responsible citizens of the digisphere.

And since this is where all of us spend a vast proportion of our waking lives, and where, increasingly, the collective human consciousness is being developed, it certainly seems like an essential place to begin a discussion of ethical, responsible, and purposeful leadership.

Ironically, to understand the digisphere and our place in it, we need to take the time to disconnect. Like a mental cleanse or fast, time spent untethered to the Web is time that allows us to reconnect with our own internal voice, our own inner guidance that has always been there for us, since we were the tiniest of infants.

IMG_9158Human babies know instinctively that they like warmth, gentle touch, smiling faces, eye contact and gentle, friendly voices. These human preferences do not go away as we age. Humans, like other mammals, are hard-wired to love and to enjoy being loved.

This is the kind of experience that it’s very hard for the digisphere to conjure up. For all the online dating services, the Skypes and Google hang-outs, the endless news feeds, there is still nothing that beats personal, real-world human connection.

Of course, any leader today is going to have to be an adept user of the media. But the primary values behind the use of media by a leader worthy of that title must be true to the ancient and ageless human value of love.

Leadership, in essence, is putting oneself forward in loving service to others and the broader community. There is no formula for it, and it will look different in every specific context. But at the base, at the bedrock, a good leader acts out of love.

Can loving leadership be taught and practiced in the digisphere? In the 21st century, this is seeming like an increasingly urgent question.

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