A Thanksgiving Invitation

I’m not gonna lie, this Thanksgiving Day post has been really hard to write. 

I don’t want to write platitudes about how we should remember how much we have to be thankful for. 

I don’t want to remind my readers, as I have in the past, about how Thanksgiving is a corrupt and dysfunctional holiday anyway. 

I don’t want to indulge in self-pity as I contemplate my first EVER solo Thanksgiving Day. 

I want to say something that will be of comfort to others who, like me, are wrestling with the reality of the “cancellation” of the whole winter holiday season. 

Let’s see, I could say something like: “Thanksgiving was such a hassle anyway! Did you really enjoy the pressure of producing a memorable meal and festive occasion for all those friends and family?”

Or: “Just think of how the planet is thanking us for staying home and not polluting the air with our cars and airplanes. Now we can all just visit by Zoom!”

These bright Zoloft thought bubbles waft away dismally, bursting as soon as I write them down. 

The bottom line is that despite the problems baked into this holiday, there is some ancient and fundamental impulse at the root of it: the desire to gather together with loved ones as the season turns cold and dark, meeting in circle around a warm hearth and a good meal to share the love that will sustain us through the winter days to come. 

But this year, for so many of us, that impulse will die on the vine, because gathering together is precisely what we should NOT do this pandemic holiday season.

As the gloom of this Thanksgiving Day has come into focus, I’ve caught myself trying to push away nostalgia for all the wonderful holidays in my pre-pandemic life. I chide myself: What use does nostalgia serve, for myself or for anyone else?

But mulling it over, I’ve realized that there is an important distinction to be made between self-indulgent nostalgia and purposeful remembering.

Self-indulgent nostalgia runs an endless loop of fixed, Technicolor memories, through which you remind yourself in a self-flagellating way of those good old happy days—now lamentably over and gone. At its most basic, it’s an unprocessed form of grief.

Purposeful remembering is a loving reanimation of the special people, places and circumstances of your life, which composts nostalgia into a loving tribute to the past. 

While nostalgia invites commiseration, the purposeful sharing of happy memories is an offering of nourishing nuggets of inspiration, an invitation to warm your spirit with the glow of past happiness. 

This strange pandemic Thanksgiving, I invite you to join me in creating a virtual pot luck smorgasbord, a warm and welcoming circle at which we can offer each other little tidbits of remembered joy.

I’ll go first—here’s my “covered dish”:

I remember how after Thanksgiving at my parents’ house, as the last dishes were being washed and the delicious food packed away for the next day’s leftovers, one of us would open up a guitar case, sit down by the fireplace, and strike up a song. The music would bring the rest of us gravitating to the fire, humming along, grabbing more instruments, breaking out the old folk songs that my brother and I learned from my parents as babies, and have been singing together over all these decades. One song would lead to another, from the blues to the union songs, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly and Odetta…at some point the Cognac would appear to whet our whistles and we’d keep singing, our faces flushed and happy in the warmth of the fire, until finally the music we’d been carrying around unexpressed since our last family jam had all been released, leaving us sated and soothed, in the companionable, open-hearted quiet before bedtime. 

Browdy family jam, a scene oft-repeated through the years.

Your turn next. I’d love for you to share a happy, nourishing memory from a Thanksgiving past.

Share it in the spirit of a gift to the circle, knowing that even from afar, even when we’re sitting alone, we can touch each other lovingly by sharing the warmth of the happy stories we carry in our memories and in our hearts. 

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. 

Don’t let their blood red tarnish your vision

In the wake of the 2020 US election, I’m sitting with the sinking feeling, lodged like a stone in my gut, that there is not going to be any easy exit from the social quagmire that now exists in the United States. The ideological lines between red and blue have deepened into chasms between people who apparently disagree about pretty much everything. 

The red side is ready and willing to take up guns to settle such disagreements. In 2020 America, violence is always only a hair’s breath away, with millions of guns in civilian circulation, combined with militarized police forces everywhere. 

On the red side are autocrats who liked the original Constitution just fine—the one that gave rights only to landowning white men. It’s been especially disturbing to see how many white women support their own oppression, voting for the Handmaid’s Tale-esque party of “grab’em by the pussy.” 

I’ve seen some social media posts blaming the robust red turn-out on a poor public education system. It’s true that the red autocrats have been battling for years for ideological control of the common curriculum, with considerable success. I’m always struck by the starkly different narratives offered by American students from various parts of the country, when I ask them what they were taught about key topics like Native American history, the Civil War, slavery and women’s rights. 

But the most potent ideological education seems to be happening via the media these days. The red/blue divide is also a Fox/NPR divide. The Fox side lies with impunity and calls anyone who disagrees with their point of view a liar. How can you argue logically with people like that? 

Both sides speak to their own choirs, in a cacophony that boils over in every election cycle, when we are forced to hold our noses and listen briefly to each other. 

I have found myself pondering how a red/blue secession might work, logistically: is a bicoastal country possible? Or would the Pacific Coast and New England/Atlantic Coast each form their own federations? 

The fact that I am thinking about this is profoundly disturbing.

But given the Democrats’ failure to secure a majority in the Senate or mobilize a presidential landslide, in a year where at least apparently this was not because of “Russian interference” or any nasty “October surprise”—in a year when the red leadership seemed to be bending over backward to show its heinous true colors—blood red, we might call it—well, there is just no way to sweet-talk myself into believing that sane heads will prevail in American government going forward, even if, as I hope, Biden takes the White House.

The meanness and gridlock will continue, with the most vulnerable people being continually sacrificed on the altar of greed and xenophobia. Racism and sexism will continue to worsen, with a Fox-driven hysteria around “socialism” and “elitism” that whips poor white people up to do the bidding of the masters. 

As a woman of Jewish heritage, I am aware of my family’s privilege, these past few decades, of “passing for white” in the racist USA. But any Jew in this country has to be triggered by the Nazi rhetoric and symbolism coming out of the White House lately. What are Jews like Mnuchin, Miller, Kushner and Adelson but the kapos greasing the wheels of bigotry, hoping to profit off the downfall of others? Attorney Cohen saw how well that went. 

And yet—and yet, all the sages of the world tell us to respond to such evil with love, not fear. Meet hatred with forgiveness. Melt oppression by turning the other cheek. 

I don’t like the feeling of my heart hardening. I know it’s the work of fear, throwing up walls, finding enemies, closing down compassion. 

I have compassion for the millions of people who have been duped by the Fox oligarchy into voting against their own interests.; those who have been persuaded to harden their own hearts, not only against their perceived enemies, but also to the vulnerable within their own ranks. 

I do not have compassion or love for the ones who are doing the manipulating, in such a cynical, open way. They may be thinking that it worked for Hitler, but we know how many paid the price. 

Is the US heading for a civil war? Is there anyone on the horizon with the uniting vision of Lincoln who can pull us back from the brink and remind us what “these United States” are supposed to stand for?

I know it’s a mistake to rely on charismatic leaders. We should be looking within ourselves for that leadership, those answers. 

Vision is all. Vibration is powerful. We cannot allow their dark visions to prevail. 

Perhaps this is what is meant by “coming from love, not fear”:

Continuing to hold a bright vision of “equality and justice for all”; to animate that vision with personal integrity, making it so at least within our own limited spheres; trusting that the positive vibrations we put out into the world can and will make a difference, growing into a mighty chorus affirming the human potential for kindness, respect, beauty and right relations among all beings on this Earth. 

Join me in this, the least we can each do: don’t let the blood red of their vision tarnish yours. Keep your vibration high. 

Photo by J. Browdy, October 2020.

Split Screen

These days I feel like I am in some kind of weird split screen zone. On one side of the screen are the crazy, upsetting and nerve-wracking events taking place in human public sphere. On the other side are the beautiful autumn days unfurling serenely in the more-than-human landscape. 

Autumn jewels. Photo by J. Browdy, 2020.

As we count down the days to the Nov. 3 election and the turmoil that will undoubtedly follow that watershed day, I am inevitably drawn to focusing my attention on the natural world, where I can find tranquility that nourishes and soothes my soul. 

Is this a cop-out? Should I be spending my every waking hour following the US election, the COVID-19 spikes, the latest outrages of the Trump administration? Should I be focusing on the wildfires and hurricanes happening on the other side of the continent, instead of the peaceful sunrise taking place before my eyes?

Here’s the thing. Each of us is an individual expression of the same psychic landscape. It’s like there is a psychic mycelium to which we are all connected; an energetic matrix, which acts as a substrate for our embodied experience. 

Just as we are herd creatures in our physical experience, susceptible to peer influence and persuasion, we are also herd creatures when it comes to our collective consciousness. 

The more people there are in distress, the more that distress will continue to spread and grow. 

So when I focus on the tranquil side of my mental split screen, I am not copping out.  By calming myself, I am actually serving the collective, trying to send a positive, beneficial vibration out into the world. 

I am not always successful at this, as my social media feed will attest. Sometimes I share upsetting news just because I need some commiseration—I need to feel I am not alone in my outrage, distress and anxiety. 

When I do this, though, I am aware that I am being self-indulgent. It’s not like people need my social media feed as a source of news. We are all swimming in an information sea all the time, no one needs me to be the town crier. 

As we move through this intense Full Moon/Halloween/US election and spiral down into the darkest days of the year, let’s all try to at least give equal attention to both sides of the split screen. 

Soak up all the positive vibrations you can find, whether in the natural world or in the human community, and then do your best to share that positivity with others. 

It doesn’t mean you are being a Pollyanna; it doesn’t mean you don’t care about all the horrors going down in the world. 

It means that you are doing your best not to add to them. 

Autumn sunrise. Photo by J. Browdy, 2020.

Stop letting the days go by

An invitation, from my heart to yours

It’s been several years since I woke up to the fact that we live our lives at the nexus of the personal, political and planetary. By this I mean that our individual lives are enmeshed in and shaped by the collective experience around us, and the wider backdrop of the physical environment in which we live. 

This may seem obvious, but when it comes to thinking about our lives, very often we tend to place all our emphasis on the personal story, giving only the barest of nods to the role of the political and planetary systems that are, whether or not we acknowledge it, the scaffolding that enables (and sometimes constrains) our individual possibilities. 

Suddenly, in the post-COVID world, many more people are coming to understand the essential role played by the political and planetary in our personal lives. The importance of health, in the personal, political and planetary sense, is now foremost in the minds of almost all of us, it seems. We see clearly how impossible it is to be healthy as individuals if our political systems are corrupt and our environment is diseased. 

The invitation of this dire year, 2020, is to dig deep into the question made famous by David ByrneHow did I get here? 

His answer: Letting the days go by….

To some extent, all of us have drifted heedlessly to this watershed moment, letting the days go by, letting the political system rot, letting the generals, finance wizards and corporate masters rule, letting the racism and bigotry go on, letting our planet be poisoned and our fellow Earth beings go extinct, letting ourselves be carried in the fierce undertow of the 20th century to finally hit up against the stark realization that this cannot go on. 

The despair that allows us to tap into and express this deep, heartfelt insight is also the potent seedbed of the vision that comes next, of the world that could be, if we begin to align the personal, political and planetary in ways that are healthy for all. 

If you are fortunate enough to have the time and space for reflection now—as the wildfires and floods rage, as the political and economic systems crack, as the winds of collective and planetary change sweep over us all—then I invite you to inquire into how you, as an individual, got to this particularly fraught moment in time. 

This inquiry is not about guilt or regret; it’s not about blame or anger, although aspects of these strong emotions may show up as your excavation deepens. 

It’s about seeing how the threads of your personal experience are woven tightly into the tapestry of the larger collective social and environmental reality in which you have lived. It’s about taking stock of how your experience has been shaped by the circumstances into which you were born and in which your individual life played out. And about how you, in turn, contributed to the warp and woof of that larger tapestry of collective experience.

Once we are able to see the past clearly, we can begin to understand the present more fully. And from this place of understanding, we can move into the future more intentionally, more responsibly, with greater awareness of the power each of us has, as an individual, to make choices that affect the collective experience not only of other humans, but of the entire world system in which we live. 

There is much we cannot control about our world. But we can choose where to put our focus each day. We can choose to focus on the positive that continues to resound in our experience: the beautiful colors of the sunrise and sunset, the stubborn persistence of the weeds that flower in the sidewalk cracks, the cool touch of wind and rain after a long hot day. 

This is not a matter of denying the horrors and injustices of our time. It is a matter of tuning our own awareness to a positive, harmonious, resonant pitch that gives us the strength to stand up and fight, each in our own way, for a better world.

This is what I call “aligning the personal, political and planetary for a thriving future.” Once we understand how we got here, on all levels, we can take the next step of envisioning the brighter future we want to live into, and roll up our sleeves to work actively towards bringing that bright vision into reality. 

I invite you to join me on this journey of introspection, embarking on the inner, personal work that leads to action in the outer, political and planetary world.  

You don’t have to be interested in writing a memoir to enjoy and benefit from this contemplative practice. 

This inquiry is for anyone who wants to understand how we got here. It’s for anyone who wants to stop drifting, letting the days go by. It’s for everyone who is ready to start working actively to align the personal, political and planetary in service to the thriving future we all so deeply desire. 

This invitation is for you; from my heart to yours. 

Namaste.

The sun always rises. Photo by J. Browdy, October 2020.

Next online purposeful memoir workshop:

October 18, 2 – 4 pm EST.

Join me on the journey…more information here.

Just remember to breathe

We knew what to expect, didn’t we? Donald Trump is a street brawler from Queens, turned Manhattan mobster, and he certainly acted the part in the first so-called presidential debate. It was, as everyone bemoaned on the morning after, a disgrace, a national embarrassment, a total sh*t-show.

Well, I have a bright idea. 

The media should stop enabling Trump’s bullying. If he can’t participate in a civilized exchange, fine! Let him and Biden each have their own 90-minute slot to discuss their vision for the country with a moderator (or a panel). 

Let Trump stand in the spotlight all by himself, and put his incoherent, racist, misogynist, arrogant, moronic self on full display. 

And then let Biden do the same. He may not be the sharpest tool in the box, but he looks like an angel next to the orange demon. We’ll take him!

I am straining to reach for a thread of positivity to catch hold of today. I’ve been awake for almost 12 hours, and I’m still straining. 

One thing I know is that for us human herd animals, emotions are contagious and self-reinforcing. One smile leads to another; but the same is true for frowns too. 

When we are constantly bombarded with negative emotions, via the media and each other, the negativity quickly builds into a vortex of toxic energy that whips over the entire psychic landscape like a tornado, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

We have to resist this! This is what Meg Wheatley means when she calls on us to become “warriors for the human spirit,” creating “islands of sanity and calm” in the midst of all the chaos of our time.

This morning I was distressed as I settled on to my yoga mat, in need of the able physical/mental/emotional massage of Jurian Hughes’ gentle yoga class. 

Come back to your breath, Jurian reminded the 80+ people who joined the virtual class. No matter how out of control things seem, one thing you can control is your breath.

And by the end of the hour of deep breathing and slow deliberate movement, I was calm again. Not happy; not buoyant; but calm and ready to face my day.

We can’t control what others do. We can make suggestions, and here’s mine: next time give each man his own stage, or at least turn off the damn microphone so they can only be heard one at a time! 

But on a day-to-day basis all we can do is to try to remain anchored in the present moment of our ordinary, physical lives, which for most of us continue on their own rhythms no matter what the clowns on stage are doing. 

Try not to let your active imagination trigger your fight-or-flight fear reflex over something that is happening far away, or that might happen in the uncertain future. 

When you resist the tornado of fear that threatens to send you spinning into panic or depression over something you can’t control, you are doing your part as a “warrior of the human spirit,” holding your positive vibration steady for everyone.

This matters. It matters for you, and it matters for everyone around you. It matters for the psychic energy of our whole human tribe, and by extension for the health and wellbeing of our entire Gaian web of life. 

For all of our sakes, please—remember to breathe.

In memory of RBG, we must stand up for justice

Moments after the NPR notification appeared on my phone—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died—my social media feeds also lit up with shock and distress. Dear Ruth, so beloved by so many! She tried so hard to stay alive until after the election, and she came close…dying on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. 

As is often the case with Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah has a serious tone to it. The day RBG died is the first of 10 days of introspection, culminating in Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for one’s mistakes over the past year, along with a vow to do better in the coming year. 

Although I am not a practicing Jew, this ritual of taking stock of one’s transgressions at the start of the New Year seems like a wise one to me. I think many Americans are asking ourselves these days: how did it come to this? How did we let it come to this?

Well, my fellow Americans, it came to this because we were not paying close enough attention. We were not willing to rock the boat. We were not willing to give up our comforts. 

Justice Ginsburg was a shining example of a woman who paid attention. She repeatedly rocked the boat to stand up for her principles, and was beyond stoic in her willingness to sacrifice her personal comfort in order to serve her country. 

Imagine, at 87, after several battles with cancer, still working out at the gym to stay fit enough to keep going to work every day at an exhausting, demanding job. 

Gail Collins, in an admiring eulogy column, offered this summary of RBG’s trail-blazing legacy and her legendary grit:

“She came up as part of that first generation of women who proved they could mix families and careers, who stunned the authority figures in even the most demanding parts of their profession with their determination. While she was in law school at Harvard, her husband came down with testicular cancer. She went to his classes, brought him back notes, took care of their little girl … and made the law review.”

So many hard-working professional women today stand on the shoulders of women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thanks to her, the doors to power have been cracked open a little wider, allowing more women to step through more easily. 

But we still have a long way to go, and without RBG at the Supreme Court, or someone like her, America will continue its backslide towards what I can only call patriarchal fascism. 

Thanks to the social and economic devastation of the coronavirus, the wildfires and the hurricanes, coupled with the open train wreck of Republican “leadership” and the twin threats of militarized police forces and death-dealing vigilantism, Americans are finally paying attention. 

The Black Lives Matter movement showed that when people get angry enough to take to the streets en masse, change happens. 

No political tyrants have ever been able to withstand the will of the people when they refuse to go along with oppression. 

Americans above all should know this, coming from a country that proudly celebrates its birth in revolution. 

But revolution, or civil war, is always a tool of last resort. America has prospered as a law-abiding country, with good people like Justice Ginsburg working to bend the moral arc towards justice through the legal system. 

However, if the Republicans have their way, it is quite possible that RBG’s seat on the Supreme Court will be filled by someone who wants to bend the law towards oppression.

Americans have to pay attention, and refuse to let this happen. 

I still can’t understand how we all stood by and let Bush Jr. steal the election from Gore in 2000. 

How have we stood by while the Republicans gerrymandered the districts to give themselves the advantage in the state legislatures?

For that matter, how have we allowed the injustice of the Electoral College to stand for so long?

How have we stood by and allowed police brutality against people of color to continue with impunity?

How have we stood by and allowed women to be hobbled by the expectation that they will do unpaid housework and child care while also working jobs for which they are paid less than their male counterparts?

How have we stood by and allowed the corporate chieftains to throw the planet into the maw of industry, with the resulting extinction of millions of species?

How have we stood by and allowed America to thumb its nose at the rest of the world’s efforts to get a grip on climate disruption?

This long list could be much longer. The point is that in my lifetime, Americans have just stood by as our supposed shining city on the hill became ever more tarnished and corrupted. And now, in our networked, globalized human civilization, we are dragging the rest of the world down with us into the pits. 

Each of us bears some responsibility for the way things are now. And each of us has the power to act to make things better.

Of course, we all have to go vote. That goes without saying. 

But like so many Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, I find it hard to trust that we will have a just electoral process this year. 

And if the vote is stolen, if the election is rigged…then what? Are we going to stand by, like we did in 2000, and let the Supreme Court decide? Of course, that is why the Senate Republicans are suddenly slavering to appoint a Justice now, before the election.

How hard will they have to push Americans before a critical mass decides it’s time to stop standing by and letting the Republicans get away with the murder and mayhem they have inflicted on the country?

No one wants to see civil war erupt in the United States, and yet the conditions are ripe for it: a bitterly polarized citizenry, vast wealth disparity, and the powder keg potential of armed vigilantes and militarized police. 

The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg brings us closer to this nightmare vision. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one tossing and turning last night, unable to sleep. 

I have no words of comfort to offer. 

We are in a transition time and the contractions have started. The pain will be real, the suffering immense. We can only hope that our collective labor will bring a better world into being. 

This morning, I am grateful for the shining example of RBG, who never, ever, gave up. 

Be the prayer

This week has felt hard. It’s reminded me of being in a plane going through stiff turbulence, being bumped around, in possible danger, and without any way to control the outcome of the flight. You just have to hold on tight and pray that the plane is sturdy, the pilots know what they’re doing and all will be well. 

But in this case, we are in the midst of political and planetary upheavals that promise no smooth landing. 

I don’t have confidence in our pilots, a.k.a. world leaders, to carry us safely through the turbulence of climate disruption, pandemic, economic crisis and all the rest of it. 

I know that the rivets are loosening on our “plane,” a.k.a. our planet.

We are in for a rough ride.

All we can do is continue to hold on tight…and pray.

For me, prayer is not about appealing to some all-powerful higher being that can step in to save us. Rather, I think of prayer in the way Mary Oliver described it in her wonderful poem from happier times, “The Summer Day,” when she describes prayer as the act of paying attention to the beauty of the world around her. In this case, it’s a grasshopper she’s watching:

This grasshopper, I mean—

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

The grasshopper invites Oliver’s meditation on prayer:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, 

how to fall downinto the grass, 

how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed

how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

This is indeed the powerful pulsing question of our turbulent time, isn’t it? What are we going to do with the precious time we have left, before we are swept away into the maelstrom of suffering and death?

Glimmers. Photo by J. Browdy

Like Oliver, I believe that the other radiant Gaian beings with whom we share this planet have so much to teach us, if only we take the time to pay attention. 

The biggest difference between humans and other animals is in our vivid imaginations. We humans tell ourselves and each other stories all the time, and sometimes we get so caught up in the stories that they become our reality. 

For example, there I am up in the plane, imagining that any minute the turbulence is going to knock us out of the sky. We’re going to fall, flaming, to the ground! We’re all going to die! I start hyperventilating with terror, even though this is not what is actually happening…in point of fact, we are flying steadily on through the turbulence toward our destination, where, as the pilot has just informed us calmly, we’ll soon be landing.

There is no other animal that expends so much energy on worrying about imaginary future scenarios. Our Gaian relations model for us the equanimity that comes with living tranquilly in the present moment. 

We humans have the capacity to make ourselves sick, physically and mentally, with our neurotic imaginary anxieties.

To counter this tendency, we need to pray, in Mary Oliver’s sense: to ground ourselves in the calm of the natural world around us, and remember to breathe. 

This is probably not possible in the fire lands of the Pacific Coast of the USA right now. It’s not possible when one’s body has been invaded by the coronavirus. In such dire moments, any animal would be rightly terrified and suffering, as so many are at this very moment.

But you who are sitting in some quiet place reading these words…if you are still healthy and well-fed, able to breathe deep and listen to the birds chirping and the wind in the trees…your job is to ground yourself in that beauty and let yourself become not only a receiver but a transmitter for it. 

Send the beauty you inhale out into this turbulent suffering world. Let your attention to the beauty of what surrounds you be your prayer, for yourself and for others.

May our focused gratitude for this precious moment be a balm and a beacon of active hope in a world so desperately in need of the solace of prayer. 

Glory. Photo by J. Browdy

Labor Day 2020: Honoring the labor of birthing in a time of transition

This Labor Day, when I turn the word “labor” over in my mind, the image that comes to me insistently is that of a pregnant woman, laboring to give birth.  

Having been through it twice myself, I can attest that birth is the most miraculous form of labor. There is some kind of intense non-rational knowing that occurs in those final days of pregnancy, an impulsion to go with the mysterious, hormone-driven instinct that comes over a woman as she goes into labor and surrenders herself to the body’s wisdom. 

In my first pregnancy, this inner knowing was marred by the hospital system to which I surrendered my laboring self. I was summarily strapped onto a gurney, hooked up to a fetal monitor, given an epidural and then an episiotomy—all things I had said I did not want when I made up my birth plan with my woman obstetrician, who did not show that day, leaving me in the hands of a male colleague I’d never met. 

Although becoming a mother was the greatest joy of my life, that first experience of labor and delivery was terrible. The anesthesia given in advance of the episiotomy put my legs to sleep, which meant I was sent to the recovery ward  without my baby after the birth. I will never recover from the frantic misery of being separated from my baby in his first hour of life. Of course, he was frantic as well, and it took him weeks, if not months, to fully settle down from the violence of his entrance into the world. 

Therefore I was much more careful in my second pregnancy, making sure I had both a midwife and a birth doula in attendance, with a doctor to be called only if needed. 

I was on my feet or on my knees during the labor, the midwife loosening my birth canal with warm oils, the doula rubbing my back, both of them talking me through the contractions reassuringly. Within a remarkably short time, six hours from start to finish, my second baby came slithering peacefully into the air. He nestled in my arms and latched right on to my breast, looking up at me contentedly.

My two sons, c. 1998

So here I am on Labor Day 2020, more than 25 years after my first pregnancy and labor, thinking about the parallels between the everyday wonder of a woman giving birth, and the great shuddering contractions of this Gaian transition time, as we strain to give birth to a better world.

This Labor Day, as I celebrate all the women who have or will be giving birth, I also want to recognize the hard work all of us are doing as we strive, each in our own sphere, to bring to birth the new, better society that is gestating actively now in our dreams and visions. 

Whether we realize it or not, we are all in labor now. My two very different experiences of birth have taught me that we cannot do this work alone. We need to plan for it with care and make sure we have allies who understand how the hard work can be made easier in community, even if in the end we must fly solo. 

This Labor Day, let’s honor the work of birthing, literal and metaphorical, and offer each other what nourishment and support we can. 

If you are interested in exploring writing as a means of inquiry and discovery, check out my upcoming workshops, including the 9-month Birth Your Truest Story By Nourishing Your Most Tender Voice series, as well as the monthly drop-in Purposeful Memoir for a Thriving Future series.

I’ve got workshops in both series coming up Sept. 13 and 20, and you are most welcome to join! Find out more in my latest WRITING LIFE newsletter, here.

Happy Labor Day, everyone. 

Whatever your work is now, may your efforts bear good fruit.

21 Questions for 2020: #21

#21. How can we turn the straw of these difficult times into some kind of gold? 

Well, friends, when I started this “21 Questions” series back in January 2020, I had no idea that COVID-19 was going to hijack our lives—yet I knew full well that there was a lot of ill health (personal, political, planetary) and weak health care and social safety net systems worldwide. 

I did not know that George Floyd would be murdered and that his death would be the last straw, touching off sustained Black Lives Matter protests—but I knew that systemic racism and police brutality against people of color, especially African Americans, was a longstanding stain on the American social landscape. 

I could not have predicted, and yet it was no surprise when Trump started to undermine the scientists and government officials tasked with keeping Americans safe, or when he began experimenting with the use of the Department of Homeland Security as a private goon squad.  

I knew 2020 would be an important year, particularly from an American standpoint as it’s an extremely important presidential election year. But I could not have imagined just what a watershed year it would turn out to be. 

When those of us who survive 2020 look back on this year, we will see a clear turning point, the moment when it became unmistakable that change was upon us, like it or not. 

It is sinking in now, in this distressing summer, that we will be wearing our masks for a long time to come. The handshake and hug are going to seem like quaint customs from times gone by. Will we ever feel safe and natural about gathering together in groups of semi-strangers? Will we ever go back to our sports games, concerts, theatrical performances, street fairs; not to mention classrooms, offices, airplanes and other forms of public transportation?

Yes, our amazing online infrastructure is a huge asset. We can watch concerts, go to classes, visit with friends and family, even travel virtually online. 

In some cases this is a real improvement! I was able to teach a class this summer with students from several different countries, each of us clicking into the classroom from the comfort of our own home. 

We also know that Mother Earth has been heaving a great sigh of relief, as air traffic lessens and places like national parks and refuges, ordinarily over-crowded in the summer, have some peace and quiet for a change. 

I wish I had a crystal ball to see what will happen in the second half of 2020. Or what further changes will be rushing up to meet us in the coming decade. 

I can’t foresee the specifics, but it’s clear that we are at a crossroads of a year. 

2020 could be the year we finally got our priorities straight and began a concerted, concentrated effort to build local resilience all over the world, shifting from an extractive, destructive economy to a regenerative, life-enhancing economic relation with each other and our planet. 

Or 2020 could be the year when things started to seriously spiral out of control. 

Depending where you look, you can see both of these options playing out now in real time. Which will be ascendant? 

The answer to that question depends on you and me and the choices we make each and every day. We can’t always control the options in front of us, but we always have choices about how we respond. 

What I know is that the more we give into our fear, the more frightening our reality will become.  Conversely, the more we can sound notes of positivity in our day-to-day lives, the more joy we’ll be able to discover. 

I could keep this series going with a million and one questions, because there’s just so much we still don’t know or understand about all the things we’re experiencing in this crazy 2020 year. 

I’ll be writing more in Transition Times, for sure. But I want to end this “21 Questions” series by inviting you to try a simple but powerful practice that I have discovered through my work with purposeful memoir. 

In your daily life, through writing or other forms of creative expression, “salute the positive” by amplifying the qualities you want to see more of in yourself and the world. At the same time, “transmute the negative,” using the transformative power of your creative imagination. 

If you want to come give this a try, check out my upcoming workshop series, “Purposeful Memoir as a Path to a Thriving Future,” running live online August 2020 through May 2021. 

You don’t have to be writing a memoir, or even consider yourself a “writer,” to benefit from the contemplative journey of this series. 

Just come with an open heart, prepared to reflect on how we got to where we are today, individually and collectively; and how we can each work in our own lives to co-create the thriving future we want to live into.

I close with the famous quote by Rev. Howard Thurman: 

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what brings you alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

Sunrise over the islands. Photo by J. Browdy, 2020. This is the full picture–the first 20 images illustrating this series were snippets of this one.

21 Questions for 2020: #20

#20. How will we find the inner fortitude to make it through this time?

I am writing today with a heavy heart, as I look out into a social landscape that seems to be ever-darkening. “I can’t breathe” has come to be the anguished whisper of our time, whether it comes from yet another Black man being criminally choked to death by supposed “law enforcement officers,” or from one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fatally succumbed to COVID-19. 

Watching the contagion of violence spreading across the U.S. while the immoral  “commander in chief” twiddles his thumbs, seeming to maliciously relish the ensuing chaos, it’s impossible to see where this will end. The November election is still far away, with a lot of turbulence before us. 

How will we find the inner fortitude to make it through this time?

Each of us will find their own answers to this question, day by day. Here is what I am coming up with today.

Despair serves no one.

If we respond to the darkness of our time with a darkening of our souls, then the world will quickly become a very dark place indeed. Light has many gradations. I am not talking about “sunny optimism” that refuses to process reality. Nor am I talking about the pyromaniacs who take pleasure in setting the world on fire. 

I am thinking of the inner light that beams steadily within every living being on the planet, an inner flame that that connects us to the world soul, the anima mundi. This soul light is fueled by the same life-giving energy that turns our whole planet green in the spring, that for untold millennia has welcomed new life with joy and abundance. We humans are part and parcel of that cosmic dance, and we serve no one by letting our inner light gutter and dim. 

On the contrary, as revolutionary leaders throughout human history have shown, we take the first step towards a better world by standing firmly in the light of our own ideals and sharing our positive visions with others. 

Take our cues from Nature, and the Gaians around us. 

We are drawn to Nature in times of trouble because she models for us, without fail, the potential of positive energy manifested into form. In doing so, she gives us a glimpse of the full glory of a world suffused with the sacred: that sense of rightness that we call divine. 

All around us, in the natural world, we see enacted the principle of equality. The sun shines down equally on every particle of this world. The raindrops fall equally on both sides of every artificial border humans try to impose. 

We see Gaia providing, free of charge and with no strings attached, the conditions of flourishing life for every last member of her glorious Being. We see the tenderness of new life being nourished by the graceful death of the previous generation, a spiraling of life and death without end. 

Looking around us in the natural world, we see our relatives, our sister and brother Gaians of every shape and size, pursuing their life purpose with a fierce joy that knows no bounds. Despair is a uniquely human condition, which we sometimes force on animals we cage—but in Nature, all beings go at their lives with a fearless intensity that makes each new day an unfurling blessing. Death may come any moment, but a being who is tuned into Mother Gaia knows she is held in a secure, loving embrace at all times and does not live in fear. 

Embrace the light—and the darkness. 

The essence of Gaia is not only material, it is spiritual. Gaia is positive energy made manifest by the collective activity of each and every particle of her being. Spirit is the light that shines in and through each of us, and it is our task, each day, to tend our inner flame so that we shine out brightly into the world. This is all the more true when it seems like darkness is threatening. 

Just as there are different gradations of light, all animated by the great Light that gives this planet life, there are different gradations of darkness. The sweet darkness of the womb time, the dreaming darkness of a still, starry night, are not the same as the miasmic darkness of a world set upon by the demons of greed and cruelty. 

Knowing this, we must be discerning, rejecting the manmade darkness that we often call “evil,” while welcoming the blessed darkness of night-time, which we need, just as we need sleep, to nourish the creative power of the Light. 

Living as we do in a time of artificial light and manipulated darkness, we find ourselves under the thrall of artificers who have made us dependent on their spells. We must take care to use our magical technologies to enhance life, not to detract from it. This is not always easy: for example, we can see clearly these days how the connective fibers of social media can be used for good or for ill. 

That is where choice comes in. When we are fully connected to the positive life-giving energy of the anima mundi, we know instinctively, by our inner emotional gauge, when our actions contribute to the Light. 

Yes, there are sadists among us who take delight in others’ suffering. But those are the outliers. I believe that the vast majority of humans come into this world as light-bearers, ready to love and be loved. 

If only we could make society into a welcoming, nourishing garden in which every new soul could grow to its full potential….what a beautiful world it would be. 

Approach adversity with steadfast love and light. 

It’s always been true that we make history with each of our daily choices, but in times of great pressure and sorrow, like now, how we live each day becomes especially momentous. We each have a role to play in creating this great collective tapestry we call Life.

If adversity is the mother of invention, then we are surely in for some adventurous new twists and turns in human history, which afford us unprecedented opportunities for innovation. The specifics are up to each one of us, but the basic task is clear: Whatever you do, do it with love. 

Let your light shine out like a loving beacon on a darkening shore. As each of us kindles our inner light, our connection with each other and with the Gaian world grows stronger, our little lives becoming a prayer rising in a chorus of celebration of the fierce, fearless, unquenchable soul force of Life. 

Let every breath be a prayer. 

Even as we grieve for the unjust deaths of those whose lives have been harshly cut off too soon, life continues to surge through each one of us. 

With each breath, we have the opportunity to offer gratitude for the Gaian world that sustains us. 

And more: with each respiration we can offer inspiration, following the ancient Buddhist practice of tonglen: breathing in suffering, breathing out love. 

Breathe out the light that shines within you; or if you feel your light guttering, breathe in the restorative light of all the bright souls that are dancing beside you, visibly and invisibly. 

Just as Fire needs Air to kindle, we can blow on the embers of our spirits as we breathe, igniting the passion of our soul’s purpose in each cycle of breath. 

Let your breath be a song of love and gratitude, a quiet but mighty offering of the light that you are. 

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