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.

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.”

Amen.

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.

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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?

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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.

Justice is the Public Face of Love

“Justice is the public face of love.”

I read this on Facebook a few days ago and it’s been resonating with me ever since.

Yes, how true: collectively, as a society or a world, we show our love by granting justice. But what do we mean by justice? This is a question that always comes up quickly in the classes I teach on social and environmental justice. Justice for whom? By whom? Says who?

What may look like “justice” to an ISIS operative intent on burning “heretics” in cages may look like gruesome barbarity to me. What may look like justice to me—say, the imposition of a hefty fine on Chevron for polluting pristine rainforest in Ecuador—may play quite differently in a U.S. court of law.

Justice is slippery. It has more shades of gray than clear blacks and whites. But I think we can agree that when justice is invoked, it is called upon with passion, with love, with commitment.

I want to imagine a world in which it would be inconceivable that justice would not align with a powerful commitment to the flourishing life our planet has always provided. Think about it. Gaia, our planet, is totally invested in abundance. Using the incredible energy provided by our Sun, Gaia gaily makes life in a million billion different guises.

Photo c. Jennifer Browdy 2015

Photo c. Jennifer Browdy 2015

Even death is just fodder for more life, the death of one living component of the Earth providing a fecund ground for the production of a million more living beings.

In a court of Gaian justice, love and life would be synonymous. I know that on Valentine’s Day, most people just think about bringing roses to their sweetie. But how about thinking a little bigger this year? How about bringing some roses, symbolically speaking at least, to the sweet planet that gives us her all, year after year?

Justice for Gaia would mean love, commitment and care for all of the life on our incredible planet. Is that too much to ask? Planet_Earth_by_saker10

Pay Attention! Listening to Angels on Superbowl Sunday

On Superbowl weekend, I was visited by an Angel.

Or rather, an Angel appeared to me in a dream, a fragment of which I remembered upon awakening. In the dream, the Angel stood on a soapbox in a darkening, rush-hour city street, surrounded by hurrying streams of people moving with determined strides, heads bowed against the cold wind and shoulders hunched beneath heavy coats. The Angel was trying to say something important to the people, but nobody was listening, or even aware she was there. As I awoke, I felt the Angel’s sense of dejection, failure and sorrow. It was as if her wings were broken.

Later that day, in a writing workshop with playwright Winter Miller, the Angel surfaced again. I saw her standing on her box in the midst of the hurrying, unthinking masses, aware of the darkness engulfing them and trying to summon up enough strength and power to shine a bright light, a beacon that would make them pick up their heads and see.

But the Angel does not have enough force, enough spark to reach these people. Despairing at having failed in her mission, she steps down off the box, her wings dragging in the dirty water in the street gutter, and immediately begins to be buffeted by all the impatient passersby, who are focused on catching their trains or buses, not wanting to be bothered with a crippled Angel slinking off.

Then suddenly a piercing blue-green ray of light shines out, as a little girl turns around and sees the Angel. She tugs on her mother’s hand, shouting, “Mommy! Stop! Look! An Angel!”

“You’re the only one who has been able to see me,” the Angel says, looking at the girl’s bright blue eyes in wonder.

The girl succeeds in stopping her mother’s dash across the street, and while they wait for the light to change, she and the Angel have a wordless communion, souls mingling through the beams of their shared gaze, each taking courage from the other.

When the street light changes, the girl is jerked almost off her feet by her mother, who is intent on catching the express bus she can see waiting on the corner. She throws one last eye beam over her shoulder, a flash of blue as brilliant as the gleaming wing of a quetzal bird in flight.

The Angel drinks it in like nectar, feeling its pulse traveling through her like a tonic. She straightens up, pulling her wings up off the ground, and suddenly she has no need of a soapbox any longer. She towers above the crowd like an alabaster statue illuminated by clear white light.

Without having to say anything—no more pleading for attention—suddenly her intention and meaning permeate the entire scene with the resonance of a gong that the people can feel vibrating in their bodies, penetrating the thick layers of clothing, the dense wrappings of habit, the brittle armor of indifference.

“Did you hear something?” one man asks another.

“I felt something,” he replies. “It was like an earthquake, maybe, or a tremor. I felt something shake.”

“We need to slow down,” the first man says. “Everyone needs to slow down and pay attention.”

The Angel gives her wings a shake and then, tentatively at first, gives a few powerful thrusts. Whatever had been hampering them is gone now; they are miraculously whole and powerful enough to take her up into the sky. As she wheels up and away, she smiles to hear the little girl say to her mother, “Mommy, look! Up there! It’s the Angel! She can fly again now!”

This time, instead of tugging her daughter on, the mother pauses and follows the direction of her daughter’s pointing finger. “I see it! I see it!” she cries. “Bless us all, we have been visited by an Angel! Pay attention, everyone!”

As if on cue, the last rays of sunshine suddenly break through the thick dark clouds, down low by the horizon line over the river. The dirty gray water glitters with gold.

angelic sky

Photo J. Browdy

Pay Attention! It’s interesting that this message emerged for me on the very weekend when America’s attention was so powerfully focused on one thing, and one thing only: the Superbowl.

I have often thought, if only a fraction of the energy, creativity and money that we spend on our sports programs and events could be diverted to developing new ways of living sustainably, healthily and harmoniously on Earth, what a wonderful world it could be.

I imagine that the meaning of the Angel’s gong would be slightly different for each individual hearing it. What I heard was this: it is time to pay attention, and look to the youngest among us for direction.

Children are often far more open than adults to a broader range of perception and awareness. I worry, though, that even childhood is being polluted with mindless media, as I see little children with their eyes constantly glued to a screen, instead of looking up and about them at the big beautiful world.

The mother in me wants to slow down and drink in the gold glittering on the river, together with my children. The Angels may be among us more often than we can imagine. We just need to pay attention.

Photo J. Browdy

Photo J. Browdy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Berry

Thomas Berry

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

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

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

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

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

Tree spirits.  Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

Tree spirits. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

tree heart

Tree heart. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

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

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

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

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

“Dear Mother Earth,

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

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

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

Northern lights, photographed from space

Northern lights, photographed from space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orionid-shooting-star

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

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

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

Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth

Parallax Press, 2013

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