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

Skirmishes in the Gaian Wars

I’m trying—I really am—to comprehend all the skirmishes that make up our current Fossil Fuel Wars. Does anyone else find it dizzying to keep up with all the simultaneous fronts? For every piece of good news there’s a downer; for every ray of hope, there’s a big dose of icy cold water to keep us sputtering.

To review just some of what I’ve been aware of these past few days:

President Obama acted to preserve a big area of Alaskan wildlife refuge from oil drilling—Hooray! But he also, at the same time, opened up a huge area of the ocean off the eastern seaboard of the Atlantic for oil drillers—BOO!!

In the same week, President Obama took the opportunity of a state visit to India to push that country to work on lowering its carbon emissions. As reported by The New York Times, the President told his Indian hosts: “I know the argument made by some — that it’s unfair for countries like the United States to ask developing nations and emerging economies like India to reduce your dependence on the same fossil fuels that helped power our growth for more than a century…But here’s the truth: Even if countries like the United States curb our emissions, if countries that are growing rapidly, like India, with soaring energy needs don’t also embrace cleaner fuels, then we don’t stand a chance against climate change.”

I thank President Obama for raising awareness in India about the global importance of reducing dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

But then his next stop was Saudi Arabia, the epicenter of the international oil extraction empire (otherwise known as OPEC), where he and whole passel of American officials kowtowed to the new Saudi King in an all-too-obvious display of how important the fabulously wealthy Saudi monarchy is to American interests, both in the Middle East and at home.

saudi-arabia-oilDoes anyone else notice the immense Sun shining down on the Arabian desert, as well as the Indian subcontinent? How different it would be if President Obama were to use his bully pulpit to urge a transition to solar power, even in the Arabian desert, leaving all those reserves of dirty oil in the ground!

Then there’s the fracking front. Sandra Steingraber and her hardy band of upstate New York resisters are standing firm against a nefarious plan to store volatile gas in unlined salt chambers below the water line in Seneca Lake. Hooray!

But at the same time, the transnational gas giant Kinder Morgan is surveying the forested hills in my own Berkshire backyard, preparing to run a new pipeline through our neighborhood to carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania out to the coast. Supporters argue that the pipeline will make gas in our corner of the world more affordable, but I am not convinced, especially given that I have not heard of any plans to make some of this pipeline gas available here in Berkshire County.

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I just filled my propane tank this month and was shocked to be charged almost $5 a gallon for the gas. Are they price gouging us now to soften us up so we’ll bow down and let their pipeline go through our territory without resistance?

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am.

tpp-protestThen there is the Transpacific Partnership front, which has been chugging along largely under the radar of media and public scrutiny for several years now. For all President Obama’s heartwarming rhetoric (and action) to support more vulnerable Americans, his administration is at the same time engaged in negotiating a trade agreement that has been described as “NAFTA on steroids.”

As Lori Wallach puts it, writing in The Nation, “Think of the TPP as a stealthy delivery mechanism for policies that could not survive public scrutiny. Indeed, only two of the twenty-six chapters of this corporate Trojan horse cover traditional trade matters. The rest embody the most florid dreams of the 1 percent—grandiose new rights and privileges for corporations and permanent constraints on government regulation. They include new investor safeguards to ease job offshoring and assert control over natural resources, and severely limit the regulation of financial services, land use, food safety, natural resources, energy, tobacco, healthcare and more.”

The worst part is that if the pact goes through, signatories “would be obliged to conform all their domestic laws and regulations to the TPP’s rules—in effect, a corporate coup d’état. The proposed pact would limit even how governments can spend their tax dollars. Buy America and other Buy Local procurement preferences that invest in the US economy would be banned, and “sweat-free,” human rights or environmental conditions on government contracts could be challenged. If the TPP comes to fruition, its retrograde rules could be altered only if all countries agreed, regardless of domestic election outcomes or changes in public opinion. And unlike much domestic legislation, the TPP would have no expiration date.”

A resistance movement to the TPP is beginning to stir. A modest protest was held earlier this week in New York City by representatives from Doctors Without Borders and the Health Global Access Project, among other groups, focusing specifically on the provisions in the TPP that “will undermine efforts to ensure access to affordable, life-saving medicines in both the United States and abroad,” according to an article in Common Dreams.

The fact that this trade agreement has gotten so far without public oversight—not even Congressional oversight!—is truly frightening. 1984/Brave New World, here we come!

When even Democrats oppose the President’s agenda, risking a public disagreement with the President to stand by their principles, you know something big is at stake.

Whether the issue is oil drilling in the ocean, pipelines over land, or noxious trade deals favoring corporations’ rights above the rights of ordinary Earthlings, human and non-human, we can’t afford to passively assume that our elected representatives are going to look out for our best interests.

We can’t assume that anyone else is going to fight our battles. We have to stand up for what we believe.

No, we can’t fight every skirmish in this interminable battle for a sustainable future. But we have to keep our eyes and our hearts open, and stand ready to take a stand in alignment with our highest values and the better world we know is possible.

Gaia is depending on us. We can’t afford to fail her now.

New Year’s Resolution 2015: Re-entering Sacred Communion with Gaia

What would the world be like if the majority of us humans began to align our personal and political values with the ecological ethos of our Mother Earth?

Gaia believes in abundance. When she is in balance, each living being has its niche, and lives out its life in grace, receiving all the sustenance it needs, and taking no more than it requires to be healthy and fulfilled.

Gaia believes in equality. Every single aspect of the planet, from the needles on the fir tree to the whales in the sea, is essential and valuable. The rocks and the water and the bacteria in the soil are all equally beloved, and equally tended.

Gaia believes in synergy. Each element of the planet is seamlessly wound in to the whole, the web of life that functions simply and elegantly, nothing wasted, nothing forgotten, nothing in excess.

Gaia believes in communion. She lives in the present moment, eon after eon, entirely immersed in the creative beauty which she expresses in her every pore. She doesn’t live for the future, ambitiously, or dwell in the past, nostalgically. She focuses on the present and knows that in walking a path of balance and harmony now, she is unfurling a solid, loving bridge to the future for all time.

How hard could it be to bring our personal and political modes of being into alignment with the vast, pulsating beauty of Gaia’s model?

If we could rise above the narrow confines of the political and personal labyrinths in which we’re habituated to spend our time, we would see, with the sudden clarity of a lightening flash on a dark night, how simple and obvious it is. The Earth is our Mother, and she is showing us the way every second of every day. All we have to do is pay attention.

This New Year’s, I resolve to listen to my Mother and do my best to heed her call and follow her example.

This will not be work; it’s as natural as breathing. I just need to re-learn what I knew as a baby: that my primary relationship with my Mother is paramount. There is nothing more important than the sacred, reciprocal communion of our love.

New Year's Day 2015 Nova Scotia Photo J. Browdy

New Year’s Day 2015
Nova Scotia
Photo J. Browdy

Embracing the Darkness: A Solstice Reflection

Winter solstice is finally upon us.

As the days grow shorter and shorter, I know I’m not alone in feeling like following the bears and the toads into hibernation. Can’t I stay in bed today? Can’t I just pull the covers up and let the world pass me by for a while?

Surely for most of human history, the answer would have been a resounding yes.

In the summer months when the light is strong, we are pulled to steady, sustained activity, just like all the other animals and plants. And then in the winter, we have always been allowed to rest.

Now, in the 21st century, we must labor under the fiction that it doesn’t matter what’s happening outside our windows. As long as the power stays on, the cell phones are charged and the gas pumps keep running, we need to keep working at the same frenetic rate, month in and month out, all year round.

IMG_8536Here on the eve of a Winter Solstice combined with a New Moon, I want to take a stand for adjusting our rhythms according to the wheeling of our planet around its sun.

It’s dark now, here in the northern hemisphere; dark, cold and gray. In this weather, we humans have always lounged around our campfires and told each other the stories that keep our creative genius alive.

The advent of writing changed this, of course. With written texts, we could read any time, summer or winter, without waiting for the bard to be in residence and ready to recite.

In these dark days of winter, we need to return to the storytelling traditions of our forefathers and foremothers, but at the same time we should take care about what kinds of stories we’re listening to. Are we listening to stories that can inspire courage, hope, and greatness in ourselves and our young people? Or are we wasting our time with mindless, repetitive horror and nihilism?

What stories are you and your children listening to in these darkest days of winter? What stories are you living? What are you doing with these precious dark dreaming days?

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My suggestion is to dive down deep into the darkness. Don’t hide from it. Don’t let the mind games of electricity persuade you to pretend that the Solstice doesn’t matter.

Sun and moon, earth and stars, cold and ice, bare branches and still boulders. Now is your time, and our time to get to know you.

Slowly, slowly, the days will grow longer.

For now, let us give the dark its due. Let us embrace the quiet, introspective time the Solstice encourages. Let us meet with like-minded souls to raise a glass to the joys of darkness—and the eventual return of the light.

Photos c. J. Browdy 2014

Storytelling and Resistance: Whose Narratives Are You Listening To? What Stories Are You Telling?

Generally when I turn on the radio or open up The New York Times or other media sources, I am immediately assaulted by the SAME OLD BAD NEWS.

Another hundred children gunned down by fundamentalist militants.

Another police brutality case.

Another round of insane Republican shenanigans in Congress, hijacking the taxpayers, the environment or the nation itself with greedy, mean, shortsighted policies.

The list goes on and you know it as well as I do. We live in a time when stories do not have happy endings and even the heroes get shafted.

Although I think it’s still pretty clear who’s right and who’s wrong, being wrong doesn’t mean you are necessarily unsuccessful. Mysteriously, the bad guys often win in contemporary news narratives. Even when a scapegoat is chosen to die on his sword, the game goes on, and since the media loves to cover the most powerful, most colorful players, it can often seem like there’s no glory in being good or right. Only in being powerful.

President Obama announces policy shift on Cuba

President Obama announces policy shift on Cuba

I’m happy to see our quiet, serious President finally starting to flex his muscles a little and learn how to play this game.

Re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, well it’s about time! So what if the Cold Warriors complain, let them grumble into their mothballed cups.

Shake hands with China’s President and make some progress on global climate treaties, hell yeah! Where I come from, that’s called leadership—the kind of leadership that’s aimed at the future, not digging in its heels and trying to hold us all back in a carbon age that has outlived its usefulness.

Now I want to see President Obama reject that Keystone XL pipeline once and for all. Falling oil prices are the perfect excuse for saying what we all know to be true: tar sands oil is an abomination that, if extracted, will incinerate our planet. For the sake of all our children and the generations to come, we must leave that dirty oil in the ground and move on to a clean energy future.

Yes, this means that the bad-guy oil moguls must reinvent themselves as good-guy renewable energy czars. We’ll keep giving them our money…if they show themselves to be the planetary stewards we’ve been waiting for.

I keep thinking about the slogan I read somewhere (I believe it is a Chinese proverb): Crisis = Danger + Opportunity.

There is no doubt that these early years of the 21st century are a dangerous, crisis-ridden time. But they are also a time of great opportunity.

We have the chance to wake up and start telling some new stories, in which Good and Right actually do prevail; in which Greed and Vindictiveness are punished; in which deeds are measured not in dollars generated, but by how much they will benefit the greater good of the planet and all her denizens.

I suggest you pay attention to the stories you’re hearing; to who’s telling them; and who benefits from the version that hits the media fan.

Me, I like to pay attention to some of the storytellers who may not make it into prime time (as in, the front page of The New York Times), but surely merit a place there.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

For example, Bill McKibben, winner of the 2014 Right Livelihood Award for inventing 350.org and working tirelessly to raise awareness about climate change; Vandana Shiva, a relentless opponent of Monsanto’s assault on biodiversity and a champion of small farmers and their heirloom seeds and organic farming practices; and Sandra Steingraber, who is leading a most inspiring movement against a huge corporate conglomerate seeking to store pressurized natural gas beneath the floor of Seneca Lake in upstate New York.

These are the heroes and heroines of our time. In these cold, dark days of the Winter Equinox, human beings have always gathered around the fire to listen to stories. I say, don’t waste your time listening to the canned stories our news media prepare. Find and tell your own stories, and make sure they’re stories that inspire hope.

Here’s a good story, if you’re looking for one: how the citizen resistance to tracking gas in New York State triumphed, with Governor Andrew Cuomo backing away from this highly risky practice in the wake of intense negative pressure.

Stories matter. Words have power. Let’s make sure we are telling each other stories that will serve as bridges into the future we want to live.

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Finding Hope in Hard Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

Student divestment activists at Tufts University

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

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

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

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

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

Chief Oren Lyons

Chief Oren Lyons

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

Artists' rendering of the Plantagon

Artists’ rendering of the Plantagon

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

The U.S. Pentagon

The U.S. Pentagon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reconnecting with the Earth…with Joanna Macy

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Joanna Macy

At 85, Joanna Macy is still a beautiful tiger of a woman: fierce, focused, passionate. At a recent weekend workshop at Rowe on her signature Work That Reconnects, she was a keen and generous leader, with an impeccable sense of when to speak and when to be silent, when to share the microphone with younger leaders, when to get out in front and show the way.

Joanna has been refining the Work That Reconnects since the 1980s, when it grew out of her engaged Buddhist practice and her anti-nuclear activism. Its premise is simple: that we are integral parts of the Earth, having emerged out of carbon and water billions of years ago just like everything else on the planet; but we humans, having caused the near-collapse of the current epoch with our fixation on industrial growth run on chemicals and fossil fuels, have a special role to play in shifting our civilization to a sustainable footing.

To step into our power as change agents, we must first undo the social conditioning that has alienated us from our primary relationship with the Earth. The Work That Reconnects accomplishes this through a series of exercises and meditations, which can take a day or a week or much longer to accomplish, depending on how much time you have and how deep you want to go.

In the weekend version of the workshop, we spent a three-hour session on each of the three stations on Joanna’s Spiral of the Great Turning, led through a series of interactive activities designed to get us thinking about ourselves as bodhisattvas, awakened ones willing to give our lives in service to the higher good of all life.

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In the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

First came Gratitude: appreciating and giving thanks for being alive in this beautiful place, alongside myriad other complex and beautiful creatures who call the Earth home; and also giving thanks for our own strengths and capacities to become active warriors on behalf of the planet.

Then there was the grief and despair work for which Joanna is justly famous: she calls it Honoring Our Pain for the World, and it is a radical, counter-cultural push to sit with and confront all the sadness, despair, anger and pain we feel when we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of the destruction and devastation human beings are wreaking on the planet. Grief for individual loved ones lost to cancer mingles with grief and anger at the loss of the Great Blue Herons and the paved-over forests, in a powerful and galvanizing outpouring of rage and pain.

After an evening break that featured song and dance around the warmth of community, we turned the next morning to the last two stations on the spiral: Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forth.

Joanna talked about the necessary shift from the alienated form of seeing our relationship to the Earth as “our supply house and our sewer” to a new form of seeing, an understanding that we are embedded in the sacred living body of the Earth, and what we do to her we do to ourselves.

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A closer look. Photo by J. Browdy

One of the reasons I love Joanna’s approach to activism is because she is unafraid to call on the imagination as one of our primary tools for social change. In a powerful closing exercise, she arranged us in pairs and asked one person to take the role of a descendant seven generations in the future—about 200 years hence, in 2214. The other person remained herself, in 2014.

The future being, prompted by Joanna, asked a series of questions of the ancestor, and then listened to the answers—this was not a conversation or a dialogue, but a witnessing of the struggles of this ancestor—you and me, in our time—to bequeath a livable world to our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

After listening to three different present-day people talk about their work for the planet—what makes it hard, what makes it rewarding, what keeps them going day to day—the future being had a chance to respond, and it was an incredibly powerful experience to imaginatively inhabit the spirit of the future encouraging us embattled ones in today’s world to find the strength to persevere.

Joanna at Rowe

Joanna signs books and talks with workshop participants. Photo by J. Browdy

In the call to Go Forth, the final turn on the spiral, Joanna reminded the gathering that this work is impossible to do alone—“it’s impossible to even take it in alone,” she said. We need to create communities of “Shambala warriors for the planet,” who can function like “the immune system of the Earth,” a potent metaphor she attributed to Paul Hawken.

In the Shambala prophecy that Joanna has been sharing ever since she heard it from one of her Tibetan Buddhist teachers back in the 1970s, it is said that great courage is required of those who work for the good of the world, because we must go right to the heart of the “barbarian empire,” armed only with two critical weapons: compassion for all living beings, and the radical insight of interbeing—that everything in this biosphere is intricately and integrally interdependent and connected.

And of course the truth is that the “barbarians” who inhabit this destructive empire are not strangers. They are, quite simply, us.

At the very end of the workshop, Joanna led us through a series of affirmations honoring our perceived enemies as our most important teachers.

Through our awareness of what we don’t want, we learn what we care about most. And through our caring—what Joanna calls the awakening of our “heart-mind”—we find the courage, passion and commitment to do the most important work of our time: transitioning from our current dead-end, greed-based, exploitative society to a society that honors the sacred in all life and works respectfully for the well-being of each participant in the dance of planetary life.

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An elder maple in the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

As I walked out under the ancient maples and hemlocks in the forests around Rowe, lit up in all their autumnal glory on this beautiful September weekend, I could feel the warrior spirit rising in me and in all of us who came from near and far to learn from Joanna.

Now is our time, and time is precious: there is none to waste as the forces unleashed by the industrial growth of the past 300 years threaten so many life forms on the planet with extinction.

Will we succeed in transitioning to a sustainable future? Will we humans grow into our potential as stewards and nurturers of our beautiful garden, this Earth? Or will we all slip away into the history of the planet, as the march of evolution and transformation continues on to the next era?

All we can do is go forth with good heart and brave spirit into our own communities and carry on the work that reconnects in our own spheres. I am so grateful to Joanna Macy for continuing to lead the way and for so generously sharing the powerful tools and practices she has developed over a lifetime, for others to take up and carry forward into the Great Turning.

JB & Joanna Macy

Joanna and Jennifer

N.B. Joanna’s classic book Coming Back to Life, a guidebook for doing the Work That Reconects by yourself or (preferably) with groups, has just been re-issued by New Society Publishers in a revised and updated edition. Joanna is hoping that people will gather in schools and church basements, in Transition Towns and activist organizations, to do the inner work that can sustain and fuel the outer work we must all undertake to transition to a life-enhancing human relationship to Earth.

Are We Going to Stand By Silently in the Face of Ecocide? Hell no!

In my talk the other night, “The Personal is Planetary,” which I gave as the opening lecture of the Berkshire Human Rights Speaker Series, I set out to point to climate stabilization as the most important issue of our time, the one that dwarfs all the other social and environmental struggles we may be engaged with.

candian-oil-sands-615Most people know by now that if we don’t shift to renewable sources of energy like solar and wind, the greenhouse gases caused by the profligate burning of fossil fuels are going to wreck our planetary environment so badly that our beautiful Earth will become unlivable for most of her current inhabitants, including humans.

“We know and we don’t know,” I told the audience. “We know but we see no role for ourselves as change agents. We know but we’re afraid of the consequences of protest. We know but we don’t want to know. Life is comfortable; why rock the boat?”

I wondered aloud how bad things would have to get before we sunpower_maincomfortable Americans finally understand that it is past time for our active engagement in forcing our government and our corporations to do what needs to be done to ensure a livable future for us all.

Shocks can be necessary, and we’ve already had a few: Hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy, along with regional droughts, floods and wildfires in many parts of the country, all weather-related events exacerbated by global warming.

But Americans are still pretty cushioned from the full effects of climate change. Around the world, for people of other nationalities and for millions of non-human species, things are already reaching a tipping point beyond which recovery will be difficult, even impossible.

We Americans, privileged and coddled as we are, need to open up our eyes and take in the full enormity of the crisis that confronts us.

This is bigger than any individual war, even against evil empires like the Islamic State. It’s bigger than any individual social justice issue, even the ones I’ve spent a good part of my life fighting for, like women’s equality and anti-racism.

As I said in my talk, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to compare our role as bystanders to the destruction of the forests and oceans and all their inhabitants to the role of the ‘good Germans’ who watched the trains full of Jews roll into the concentration camps and professed to not know what was going on behind those walls.”

Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, some of them my distant relatives. I’ve been taught all my life that we must remember this genocide, and others like it, so that it will never happen again.

And yet all of us are willing to stand by, deaf, blind and mute, as millions upon millions of innocent living beings on the planet are sacrificed to the maw of human industry in its current greedy, profit-driven guise.

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Tens of thousands of albatross are dying from eating plastic out of the Pacific Ocean

Fossil fuel extraction, from fracking to tar sands to deep-sea drilling; industrialized agriculture, with its chemical poisoning of the earth and waters; mining and deforestation; plastic garbage on land and sea; endless urban and suburban sprawl—all this is driving what scientists now refer to as the Sixth Great Extinction, which will only intensify as the planet continues to heat up.

Eventually, if we stand by and do nothing, we humans too will join the long death march to extinction, or at least to a total collapse of our ruinous global civilization.

Are we going to stand by and do nothing while the planet burns? Are we going to allow our government and our corporations to commit planetary ecocide? Are we going to continue to pretend that we don’t know what’s going on?

10453020_1454513064799672_5914704337046021387_oThis Sunday there will be an opportunity to take to the streets to demand effective action on climate change. Tens of thousands of Americans from all over the country will be converging on midtown Manhattan for the People’s Climate March to show the world that we care about our future and we know that our destiny is bound up in the health and welfare of the entire planetary ecosystem.

It is truly a legendary moment in the history of humanity. We have the grand opportunity to be the generation that succeeds in abandoning the deadly playbook of industrialized capitalism, and opens up a new epoch based on caring, balance and good stewardship of the Earth.

Endless growth of human industry is not possible on our finite planet—not without driving us all to ruin. The sooner we can adjust our economies and industries to this new worldview, the sooner we will all begin to learn how to recalibrate human activity accordingly, and redistribute the current massive imbalances of wealth so that everyone has enough—including all the non-human species that we must also learn to value and protect.

As I concluded in my talk the other night, “The future of so many living beings on this planet depends on our ability to overcome our fear, move beyond our silences and step into the power of our own transformative visions. Opportunities to work for positive change will open up as we begin to look for them. Now is the time for action, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Let’s not wait any longer.”

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PS: I was glad to see an excellent op-ed piece by Mark Bittman in The New York Times about the importance of the People’s Climate March. The Times is also providing a “Countdown to the Climate March” this week: here’s a story that goes behind the scenes with the organizers, featuring an interview with Bill McKibben.

Also, if you haven’t seen the new film DISRUPTION yet, here is the You-Tube link.  It begins with a quote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” –Frederick Douglass.  Check it out!

Cosmic Honey for Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

The death of Robin Williams has lain heavily on me since I heard the news. I echo what all my friends are saying: he was so talented, he brought so much brilliance and joy to the world, how could it be that all his laughs and charm hid such deep reservoirs of pain and despair?

People as creative as Williams are often sensitive and discerning; and if you’re sensitive these days, you can hardly help but be overwhelmed by all the pain we are forced to contend with in the world on a daily basis.

I wince every time I listen to the world news, bracing myself for the inevitable onslaught of violence, disease and misery suffered by human beings—not to mention the destruction of the environment, the extinction of millions of innocent animals, insects and plant life and the ever-accelerating pace of climate change. It’s enough to drive anyone to Prozac.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with some 40,000 suicides a year, 70% of them middle-aged white men. Most cultures and religions condemn suicide; we are asked to live our lives to the fullest, going towards death only when our bodies totally give out. Certainly this is true in the U.S., where death has been demonized and medicalized, seen as an ending to be feared and evaded as long as possible.

But what if death is actually more like a transition, mirroring birth—the emergence into another state of being?

What if death is a release, as some religions would have it, where we rejoin our ancestors and our spiritual families in a non-physical realm free of pain?

I don’t believe in the Christian idea of heaven and hell, but I am certainly not willing to rule out the possibility of an afterlife, in the sense of a spiritual reconnection with the Source energy that animates the physical realm on our planet.

With the advent of quantum physics and the recognition that 95% of the universe is made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy”—i.e., with stuff we know absolutely nothing about—science is beginning to make friends with metaphysics.

You won’t find many scientists willing to go as far as Jungian philosophers like Anne Baring, who talks about “the soul of the cosmos” as a kind of divine intelligence immanent in everything—but at least scientists are beginning to admit how much they don’t know about the way our universe works. And in that opening of humility lies the possibility that there could be a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to one of the greatest unknowns: death.

For Baring (writing with co-author Scilla Elworthy), “The life we know is an excitation on the surface of an immeasurable sea of cosmic energy that is continually surging, dancing, flowing into being. In every galaxy, every star, every planet, every cell of our being the universe is bursting into existence from this womb or sea of being.

“What does this mean for us? It means that when we are in touch with this incredible idea, each one of us becomes a co-creator with that mysterious process, at one with our starry source” and conscious “the sacredness, oneness and divinity of life.”

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Baring and Elworthy offer the image of a fully conscious human as “a cell in a limitless honeycomb of golden light. Imagine,” they say, “this luminous network of honeycomb cells connecting people in every part of the world who are trying to lift humanity out of the dark place we are in now. Imagine that through this powerful network of relationships a new consciousness is coming into being.”

The new collective and individual consciousness they imagine would be one that respects all life, generating a mode of living in which humans act as the stewards of our planet, rather than as the greedy, destructive despots we have become in the past few centuries.

“When we are prepared to become but a humble servant of life, devoted to caring for it and healing it, we become free from all fear,” they say. “We are then able to resonate with life, harmoniously and ecstatically.”

I wish Robin Williams had been able to receive this message; to see himself as a bright spark tossed out by the loving flame of our cosmos. I wish he had been able to read Baring and Elworthy’s small gem of a book, Soul Power, which ends with this striking injunction:

“Live life as an opportunity to transform the nectar of experience into the honey that can heal the world.”

As a creative genius, Robin Williams surely was making that honey for us. He just needed to hold more of it back to heal and salve his own sensitive, wounded soul.

With Starhawk: Dreaming the Dark and the Light

The night I returned home from an intense weekend workshop at Rowe with Starhawk, I had a disturbing dream.

A little girl, dressed in a pink jumper, was crying that she was lost, she had to find her father. So I took her by the hand and we started looking for her father in an urban landscape—first on the street, then in an apartment hallway with many doors. I said to her, do you remember what the floor of your home looked like? Was it wooden? Black and white tile? We stopped at several doors but they weren’t the right one. Then we came to the one with the blue-green patterned tiles, and her father was in the doorway.

As soon as I saw him I was afraid…he seemed like a devil, a mean, cruel man, although he smiled (leered, more like) as he came forward in the doorway to receive her. And she went to him, whimpering. There were people gathered in the apartment behind him, all dressed creepily in black, watching something on a screen in a darkened room. He thanked me for bringing her back, and I turned away, with a sick feeling, thinking she was going to be hurt or punished for “running away.”

As I turned away I heard her whimpering turn to full-out crying, a terrible keening sound, and I felt paralyzed—what should I do? Should I call Child Protective Services? Clearly this little child needed my help, but I was afraid that if I called the police or other authorities, the “father” would know who called and would come after me.

So I did what any dreamer does when paralyzed by fear—I woke up.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this dream, especially as it seems to be a kind of psychological bridge between Starhawk’s remarkable rituals honoring Mother Earth, and my own upcoming writing workshop on “purposeful memoir,” which uses the elements as a way to frame and explore parts of one’s life journey.

I feel sure that I was both the small child in the dream, and the adult who was trying to help her find her way “home.” The problem was that “home” was a dangerous, confusing, love-and-hate kind of place, ruled over by a “father” who was punitive, frightening and loving in a controlling kind of way. The adults sitting in the dark background passively watching the screen are human society writ large, especially our Western, technology-obsessed society. The little child with her bright pink outfit and fearful, wanting-to-trust eyes, stood out here as a wholly other kind of being, but one which would, in the pinching hands of her “father,” be formed and molded into just another one of these pale, eerie, zombified adults.

We talked a lot last weekend about how frightening it is that we Westernized humans have become so very disconnected from the natural world. As Starhawk gathered us in circles to ritually salute the four elements and the four directions (Earth/North, Fire/South, Water/West, Air/East), as well as the Center/Spirit, it seemed like a dream of an older way of being that I dimly remembered, from a time before I had taken my seat among all the other adults sitting before screens in darkened rooms.

After the last circle

After the last circle

We listened to the birds singing and the wind blowing through the new spring leaves; marveled at how the veins of the leaves mirrored the veins in our own bodies and the bigger veins of river waters on the body of the Earth; and let our combined voices, chanting around a sparking fire in praise of the elemental unity of all Life, blur together into a wordless ringing sound that cast our intention to be of service to Mother Earth high up into the starry sky.

Following Starhawk along a labyrinth made of stones lined with vivid purple violets, I thought about my desire to help others explore their own lives in elemental terms, looking back at where we’ve come from in order to see more clearly who we are and who we wish to become. In writing my own memoir, the elemental structure emerged organically from the trajectory of my life: Earth the childhood ground of my being; Water the stream of culture I’d been sucked into as an adolescent and young adult; Fire the years of adulthood, being tested on many fronts; and Air running through it all as reflections from my current perch, back on the Earth of middle age, trying to recover my grounding in order to move more intentionally into the next stage of my life.

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

My dream, in which I was both the crying little girl who felt compelled to find her way back “home” and the concerned adult who could see just how damaging and hostile that “home” was, seems to represent my awareness these past few years of how destructive our American “home culture” is to the sweet, sensitive Earth-centered children who are born into this harsh, techno-dominated world and cleave to it with innocent fidelity.

We are instinctively loyal to our families and our birth cultures, even when on some level we are aware that they are not always healthy for us. And the adult “me” in my dream, anguished about handing over the child to this destructive “father” figure, was like any bystander in a negative scenario, desperately choosing to remain silent out of fear of retribution, fear of bringing the hostility down on myself.

In my memoir workshop next week, I want to guide others to explore how thinking about our lives in elemental terms can help us make sense of our past, and give us a firm footing from which to overcome our conditioning and our fears and take the full measure of our life’s purpose.

Three generations

Three generations

We all came into this life wide-eyed and open-hearted, looking for love and warmth. It’s fascinating to explore what happens as we are received by our families and our home cultures, and swept along into the fast-moving currents of life, heading towards the fires of adulthood.

But what really matters is what comes next. What will we do with our one precious life, as Mary Oliver put it so poignantly? Can we step back from our loyalties and conditioning and figure out what it is we care about enough to stand up for and give our lives to?

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk has moved in the past decade or so from a focus on a largely metaphorical, feminine-inflected Earth-based spirituality to a much more grounded practice in permaculture, “a multi-disciplinary art form, drawing from the physical sciences, architecture, nutrition, the healing arts, traditional ecological knowledge, and spirituality. The ethical underpinnings that guide permaculture are simple yet powerful: take care of earth, take care of the people, and share the surplus.”

In her Earth Activist Trainings, she seeks to help us reimagine a new kind of culture, one in which nature and human society are seamlessly intertwined. “EAT is practical earth healing with a magical base of ritual and nature awareness, teaching you to integrate mind and heart, with lots of hands-on practice and plenty of time to laugh,” she says on her website.

We need to create a new kind of culture that will comfort and nourish both the caring adult and the crying child in my dream. Our culture has to be supported by a sustainable relationship to our Mother Earth, a relationship in which we give back as much as we take, in an endlessly regenerative circle of life.

mossy rockAs I look ahead purposefully in my life, I hope that the adult I want to become would not leave the innocent child I was in the treacherous hands of a culture that has forgotten how to love. If I could replay that dream, I would guide that small, pink-clad child away from her malevolent “father” and his techno-obsessed tribe. I would take her away from that urban landscape, out into the warm green gloom of the forest, where we would sit together on a mossy rock and listen to the wind in the leaves and the birds in the sky. Together we would look up to see Starhawk approaching along the path, roots sprouting from her feet and branches from the top of her head.

We would sing together, in the words of poet Kristin Knowles, with whom I shared the Starhawk weekend:

Our mother,

in art and nature,

passionate burns thy flame.

Thy strength is one

with moon and sun

on Earth as up in the heavens.

Teach us the way to lightly tread

And relieve us our distress as

we receive those who would prefer our silence.

And lead us not into frustration

but deliver us from ill will.

For thine is the freedom, power and glory,

her story,

now and forever.

Blessed be.

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