The Alchemy of Privilege

Nancy Slonim Aronie

Nancy Slonim Aronie

At the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers last night, Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping into the Power of Your Inner Voice, declared that every powerful writer must be an alchemist: “every writer must turn shit into gold.”

She told the story of the life and death of her angry, terminally ill son, Dan, as an example of how the bad stuff that happens to you can be turned into gold—in her case, a documentary film about her son, whose death, she says, taught her so much about life.

Aronie said that the video editor working with her on the movie decided at one point to cut out a scene where Dan’s girlfriend struggles with his urine bag, which had gotten snagged on a bedpost.

“No!” she roared.  “Don’t cut out the urine bag!  Don’t try to protect us from the tough stuff!  Go ahead and make us uncomfortable!  That’s the stuff we most need to hear and learn from.”

She led a short writing exercise, in which she told the group to “start with your brain, drop into your heart, then your gut, and let it out onto the page.”  Writing from your brain alone, she said, will not get you into the zone of authentic, powerful expression that every writer seeks.

She gave us the starting prompt: “Dinner at our house was…” and told us to go back to our childhood dinner table.

When people stood up to read their pieces afterwards, I was astonished how most of them reported dinner tables that were frightening and painful.  One woman remembered how no one listened to her at the dinner table, leading to a lifetime of wondering whether she had anything valuable to say.  Another wrote about how she couldn’t wait for dinner to be over so she could get away from her threatening, angry father.

Nancy Aronie applauded them all, and kept insisting that powerful writing needs to write out of that “core wound.”

But what if you don’t have a core wound?

What if you grew up in a happy, peaceful household, with kind, productive, harmonious parents who did not wound you in any way?

Can your writing still be powerful?

In the memoir that I am working on, I recognize that I had an almost magically privileged childhood.  No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty damned good, and my good fortune continued well into my adulthood.  I sum it up in the memoir by describing the feeling I got in my twenties, when I was working as a journalist in Manhattan, of a “red carpet rolling out in front of me wherever I went.”

It didn’t last forever, of course, but it is that early experience of privilege that I am interrogating in my book, not just in my own personal experience, but also in our general culture as Americans in my lifespan of the past 50 years.

For all the bumps in the road we’ve had, we have still been extraordinarily privileged and comfortable as Americans, relative to so many of the other billions on the planet.  While we’ve been riding around in our air-conditioned Cadillacs, figuratively speaking at least, so many others have been living and dying precariously on the garbage heaps and slums, the brothels and the prisons of tough, violent cities.

As a scholar of comparative literature, I’ve made a career of studying texts by women from all over the world that tell stories of suffering and oppression in order shine a light in dark corners, raise awareness among the more privileged, and act as catalysts for political action and positive change.

In introducing these stories to generations of students, and editing the related anthologies that have made their way out into the world, I have felt myself to be working on the side of justice, doing my small part to help make things right.

Now, in my memoir, I want to shine the light in a different direction: back at myself, as someone who grew up in privilege yet did not become inured and deaf to the suffering cries of others.

I am certainly not alone. I believe that most people of privilege do have a social conscience; do care about how the other half live; and are willing to be part of a movement for positive change if they can see a clear, trustworthy channel through which to pour their energies.

The “shit” that I need to alchemize in my memoir is precisely the lovely bubble of privilege itself, which protected me–and others who grew up like me–from setting foot outside of our comfort zones.

We enjoyed ourselves poolside and planned our next vacation; got married and had children; bought houses and cars and ever-faster computers and gadgets; and had no clue at all how our lifestyles were contributing to the accelerating disaster of global heating and climate change.

In my case, the “shit” I need to write about is as squeaky clean and wide-eyed as my own innocence as a young woman seeing Third World poverty for the first time and having no clue, none at all, of the role of my country in creating and sustaining it.

That cluelessness seems to be the “core wound” that I have to interrogate in my memoir, recognizing how very comfortable it has been to be so protected, and yet how destructive it has been too, as generations of elite young people like me have been raised to take our place in established social frameworks without questioning the underpinnings of social and environmental injustice on which we stand.

It is not easy to call out your tribe, to criticize a way of life that has been so easy and sweet. I have only gratitude for the gentle, loving upbringing my parents gave me, and the support they provided that made it possible for me to step out into the world on a strong footing. I am not being glib when I say that everyone should be so lucky.

It’s the bigger picture that I am questioning: how all of us privileged Americans, without realizing it, have contributed to the twin crises of social inequality and environmental holocaust that we now must face today.

It’s not about casting blame; it’s about accepting responsibility and putting our shoulders to the wheel of the enormous task of making things right again on our planet.

That is the alchemy I seek as a writer in these dark transition times.

Becoming part of Gaia’s cure, instead of what ails her

Milkweed-with-Monarch-ButterflyI will never forget one hot summer day when I was about eight years old, and a Monarch butterfly took it into its head to land on my arm and delicately lick up my sweat with its long, probing tongue.

I froze, wanting the Monarch to stay with me as long as possible, and watched with total fascination and delight as it balanced on my warm brown skin and enjoyed the salty treat I had to offer.

Eventually, with a graceful swish of its elegant wings, it rose up in the air and twirled off to land on a nearby stand of sweet-smelling pink milkweed flowers.

I felt blessed by the encounter, and ever after, when I see a Monarch I approach cautiously and respectfully proffer my arm, hoping to feel again the light touch of those fragile black legs and tiny tongue.

My childhood connection with Monarchs came to mind this week as I read the deeply disturbing news that “the number of monarch butterflies that completed an annual migration to their winter home in a Mexican forest sank this year to its lowest level in at least two decades, due mostly to extreme weather and changed farming practices in North America.”

Mexican conservation authorities report that “The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December,” which is “a 59 percent decline from the 7.14 acres of butterflies measured in December 2011.”

So now, along with the bats and the goldfinches and so many other species that I have known and loved in my 50 years on the planet, I must bid farewell to the Monarch butterflies too?

Carolyn Baker

Carolyn Baker

Trying to find a way to cope with the pervasive sense of grief I feel on a daily basis, I turned this week to the works of Carolyn Baker, who has self-published two books that have been striking a chord with thousands of people.

In 2009, she published Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, followed in 2011 by Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.

Baker comes out of a psychology background, having served as a consulting psychotherapist for many years, but she draws on a wide range of sources that I too have been poring over in recent years, from Joanna Macy to Derrick Jensen to James Lovelock and many more.  Andrew Harvey, author of two books on “spiritual activism,” wrote the forward to her second book.

What all these folks have in common is the strong, level-headed recognition that human civilization is headed for a collapse.

The butterflies and the bats may be going first into the void, but we will not be far behind.

The current noise and controversy over questions like “to frack or not to frack,” “to build wind turbine generators or deep-sea oil rigs in the Arctic,” or “to erect solar arrays or thousand-mile oil pipelines” are just that—so much noise, which obscures our ability to focus on what is driving the debate on all these issues: the fact that our planet cannot and will not support 7 billion people at current levels of consumption.

James Lovelock

James Lovelock

The eminent eco-scientist James Lovelock, who, with Lynne Margulis, developed the theory of Earth as a complex living system he calls Gaia, has just published what may be his final book (he was born in 1919, making him now just seven years short of 100 years old).

Grimly titled The Vanishing Face of Gaia, Lovelock sadly predicts that global heating will force the die-off of much of humanity, and a retreat of the survivors to “lifeboat” places on the planet that will remain habitable on a subsistence basis for those able to live close to the land.

Lovelock uses the metaphor of disease to describe what is happening to our planet these days.  This passage is worth quoting in full:

“When we are first infected by fatal disease organisms, they grow in our bodies without our noticing.  We call this the incubation period, and it can be as long as several weeks.  Then at some stage in their growth, or in our bodily reaction to it, we feel unwell, with fever and pain.  Soon, a matter of hours with the most virulent influenza, homeostasis starts to fail and we collapse and die.  This is when physicians speak of massive organ failure.  In the whole course of fatal disease there is no tipping point but instead a downslide that starts imperceptibly and then grows ever steeper until we fall.

“We became the Earth’s infection a long and uncertain time ago when we first used fire and tools purposefully.  But it was not until about two hundred years ago that the long incubation period ended and the Industrial Revolution began; then the infection of the Earth became irreversible….

“The disease that afflicts the Earth is not just climate change—manifest by drought, heat, and an ever-rising sea.  Added to this there is the changing chemistry of the air and the oceans, and the way the sea grows acidic.  Then there is the shortage of food for all consumers of the animal kingdom.  As important is the loss of that vital biodiversity that enables the working of an ecosystem.  All these affect the working of the Earth’s operating system and are the consequences of too many people.  Individuals occasionally suffer a disease called polycythanemia, an overpopulation of red blood cells.  By analogy, Gaia’s illness could be called polyanthroponemia, where humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good” (232-33).

Lovelock sees the demise of the current terrestrial epoch as inevitable.  But he also reminds us that Gaia is a tough old planet, who has survived many other total collapses of biodiversity in her past.  “After every one of these catastrophes Gaia recovered, taking her own time—sometimes as long as millions of years,” Lovelock says.  “During these periods of convalescence there was always somewhere on Earth a refuge for living organisms, a place where the climate and the chemistry still favored life.  And so it surely will be when polyanthroponemia resolves” (235).

Lovelock faults our human tribalism and the selfish, competitive shortsightedness of a predator species for our current predicament, quoting the biologist E.O. Wilson, who said towards the end of his life, “How unfortunate that the Earth’s first intelligent social animal is a tribal carnivore” (239).

This is “our agonizing condition,” Lovelock says; “we have the intelligence to begin to expand our minds to understand life, the universe and ourselves; we can communicate and exchange our deep thoughts and keep them outside our minds as a permanent record.  We have all this but are quite unable to live with one another or with our living planet.  Our inherited urge to be fruitful and multiply and to ensure that our own tribe rules the Earth thwarts our best intentions” (240).

Lovelock ends his book by looking ahead to a mythical time in the future, when the survivors of the collapse of human civilization “evolve to become as beneficial a part of Gaia as were the photosynthesizers and the methanogens,” who “might serve within her as our brains do in each of us.  We would be an important part of what had become in effect an intelligent planet better able to sustain habitability” (248).

It is our duty, he says, as human beings living through these great Transition Times to ensure that enough of us survive to pass on our genes to the future, in the hopes that future iterations of human beings will overcome our tribalism and selfishness and put our remarkable creative intelligence to work for the good of the planet and all her denizens.

The question becomes then, what should we be doing now to prepare for the future that awaits?

This is where Carolyn Baker’s work becomes so important.  Navigating the Coming Chaos is nothing less than a workbook for inner and outer transition where the focus is on strengthening one’s resilience and connection with a sense of purpose and meaning in a world gone increasingly mad.

“I am not a survivalist,” Baker says.  “I have never believed that the prime objective in preparing for the Long Emergency is to remain alive.  None of us is enthusiastic about death, but we will all die.  To deny this fact and focus primarily on survival is to embrace the heroic perspective and, in my opinion, to miss the point….

“I believe that navigating a collapsing world will entail constant observation of various forms of death—the death of infrastructure, the death of abundance, the increasing absence of goods and services that we now take for granted, the death of institutions, the disappearance of employment and shelter, the increased scarcity of food and water, the death of landscapes and yes, the literal deaths of people and animals.  The collapse of industrial civilization and the lifestyle it has provided is a catastrophic death of a paradigm and a way of life.  While we may look ahead to the ultimate blessings unleashed by this death, it will nevertheless be traumatic to live through the magnitude of losses it will manifest.

“If, however, we can begin now to make friends with death, as the Buddhist tradition has taught for thousands of years, we may be better prepared emotionally and spiritually to navigate a civilization dying on myriad levels….

“Simply put, the essential question is not: How can I survive the collapse of industrial civilization?  But rather: Why am I here, right now, in this place, at this time, experiencing the end of the world as I and my species have known it? (166).

Much of Baker’s book, like Starhawk’s most recent book The Empowerment Manual, is dedicated to prompting self-reflection leading to the recognition of what we are here on this Earth to do—and how we can successfully work with other awakened humans to accomplish our purpose.

The biggest challenge seems to be how to learn to work together harmoniously with each other and with the other living elements of our planetary home.

Gaia callingFor me, it seems clear that what I need to be doing now is to rekindle the instinctive sense of kinship I had with the natural world as a little girl; to find ways to become a channel for the love I felt, and still feel, for the gaudy Monarch butterflies who sailed regally through the fields of my childhood.

Sooner or later I will be following them into oblivion. But let it not be before I’ve had a chance to do my utmost to wake up my fellow travelers on this planet to the state of emergency we now face, and to help create the community structures that will enable at least a critical few of us to survive into the distant future.

Morning pages for humanity…and the Earth

Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron

This week, in preparation for Julia Cameron’s presentation at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about creativity.

Cameron’s great insight, back in the late 1980s when she was doing the teaching that led to her blockbuster creativity self-help guide The Artist’s Way, was that human beings are all naturally creative.  We just tend to get “blocked” by our upbringing, and need to work on ourselves in a systematic way to unlearn bad habits of self-doubt and defeatism, so that our creative juices can flow freely out into the world.

One question I wish I’d asked Julia at her lecture last night at Kripalu is this: I wonder whether women have any particular creative challenges, different from those faced by men?

The Artist’s Way does not seem to draw any distinction. Cameron uses the gender-neutral term “creatives” and her examples are drawn from the experiences of both men and women.

And yet it seems to me that women are particularly susceptible to the kind of distraction, hyperactive multi-tasking and withering self-doubt that Cameron says are anathema to artists.

One woman in the audience at Cameron’s lecture described herself as “frantic,” or maybe she said “panicked,” facing such a huge to-do list of projects she’d like to accomplish that she was paralyzed by the enormity of it all.

Julia’s response was characteristically calm and pragmatic: slow down, write your morning pages faithfully, ask for guidance from your higher self, and be patient—it will come.

This is certainly good advice for anyone who wants to accomplish creative goals, but it seems especially relevant for me, and all the busy women like me who so often do not take the time out for ourselves, to recharge our own creative batteries.

Cameron’s “morning pages” are deliberately unfocused.  They are not meant to be a to-do list, or an outline for a project, or a mission statement.  They are simply meant to provide a regular, rhythmic opening for the creative spirit, which Cameron clearly conceptualizes as coming from a higher source.

“I learned to turn my creativity over to the only god I could believe in, the god of creativity,” she says in The Artist’s Way, “the life force Dylan Thomas called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

By allowing ourselves the time and space to be open to the creative life force that gave birth to us, we are allowing ourselves to become channels through which those creative juices can flow out into the world, manifesting all in kinds of ways, depending on our particular gifts.

As Cameron said last night, this can sound a bit “woo-woo.”

But the life force is in a way the final frontier for human understanding, the one mystery we still have not been able to penetrate via science.

We argue about when life begins—at conception?  in utero?  at birth?—and we recognize that there seems to be much more to the universe than we can measure with our physical senses or scientific instruments.

We know in an intuitive way that when we are “in the flow,” allowing ourselves to be creative channels, things can start happening that seem entirely beyond our control, and not at all coincidental.

Julia Cameron calls this synchronicity: “we change, and the universe furthers and expands that change….It is my experience both as an artist and as a teacher that when we move out on faith into the act of creation,” she says, “the universe is able to advance.”

The thing is that not all creations are equal.

Human creativity is not always a good thing.

It’s fair to say that over the past 500 years, since the Catholic Inquisition began its war on the older, nature-based religions and the European powers began their colonial assault on the rest of the world, the dominant paradigm of human creativity on the planet has been materialistic, channeled by our rulers into paths shaped by greed and lust.

Domination and aggression have driven the leading edges of human invention: we have proven very adept at creating guns, machinery and synthetic chemicals, haven’t we?

We have also created a might-makes-right philosophy that has literally bulldozed away any impediments to the harnessing of the natural resources of our planet, including the vast majority of humankind, in the service of short-term gain for the elite.

But at the same time, human creativity has always flowered anew, with each new generation having the potential to choose a different way of channeling that divine universal flow.

We stand at a juncture in history when it seems that the planet is poised to hit the evolutionary reset button, sweeping human beings away to make room for the emergence of new physical vessels for its irrepressible life force.

I believe there is still time for human beings to come to our collective senses and begin to shape our creative output into inventions and ethical paradigms that support and enhance life, rather than torture and destroy it.

I worry about the role the media plays today in limiting and predefining children’s creative imagination.  Little children who used to spend hours playing pretend games, making up elaborate stories complete with visualizations and acting, now spend those same hours playing violent video games or passively watching commercial television, with its monotonous message that consumption equals happiness.

But I take heart from the teenagers I teach, who continually show themselves able to see through the mesmerizing power of the media and think creatively for themselves.

We human beings all need to be doing our “morning pages” in these crucial final years of the modern era, seeking to tap into the “pure positive energy of the universe” and open ourselves to the possibility of different, more harmonious and balanced creative forms.

Because I believe that women have an important role to play in this shift, I am totally dedicated to the work I’m undertaking in this month’s Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, opening up lots of opportunities for women to share their creative visions.

Women sharing their creative visions at the Deb Koffman open mic in Housatonic, MA

Women sharing their creative visions at the Deb Koffman open mic in Housatonic, MA

This is not just about women writers patting each other on the back and trying to advance our individual careers.

This is about women forming what Julia Cameron unabashedly calls “Sacred Circles” to propel humanity beyond the destructive domination-and-extraction model of the human relationship to our Mother Earth.

Next year’s Festival will have a special focus on women, creativity and environmental sustainability, to help us train our focus on the most urgent matter at hand: the destruction and contamination of the planet, with the resulting drastic climate change shifts that are coming in this century no matter what we do now.

Women and men worldwide need to rise to this challenge with every ounce of our creative energies.  On this International Women’s Day, 2013, I call on women, especially, to make a commitment to using our creative power for the good of the planet and all her denizens.

We need new stories to help us imagine a new, brighter future

Will someone please do the math on how adding thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls, thanks to the new “sequester,” is going to save the country money?

Not only will we (as in, we the taxpayers supporting the Federal government) be paying unemployment compensation for those folks, but their communities will also be suffering as they cut back on personal spending…perhaps lose their cars or their homes…and end up needing a lot more in the way of social services.

Sometimes when I check in with American politics, I have to wonder who is writing the scripts.

President Obama sailed into office in 2008 promising that as an outsider to Beltway machinations, he would champion the ordinary American and set the country on a kinder, more humane path.

The Republicans, perhaps rightly, read his conciliatory gestures as weakness, and have taken the bully’s path of stonewalling, denunciation and manipulation of the truth.

Presidential Inauguration, 2013

Presidential Inauguration, 2013

Speaker Boehner’s sour face as he sat behind the President on Inauguration Day this year said it all.  He would not—could not—cooperate in any way with our country’s popularly elected leader.  Not even if his obstinacy brought America to its knees.

The whole scenario was eerily reminiscent of the script from the one-season TV show Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis as the first woman President of the United States.

She too was pitted against a demonic Speaker, who would stop at nothing to discredit, provoke and undermine her, even if his reckless bullying endangered the welfare of the country overall.

Interestingly, Commander in Chief was cancelled after just one season, just as Ms. Davis’s character, President Mackenzie Allen, was gearing up to run for re-election against—of course—her nemesis, the Speaker of the House.

At the time the explanation given for the cancellation was that audiences were not yet ready for a woman President (the show ran in 2005-06).

But watching the first 18 episodes again recently, it was clear that what really did it in was the daring script, which showed a powerful woman POTUS who was a popular Independent determined to stand up for ordinary Americans and to keep her hands clean of the usual muck of party politics.

Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, President of the United States

Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, President of the United States

In the last couple of episodes, President Allen decides to champion the Equal Rights Amendment for women, which still to this day has not been ratified by enough states to make it federal law.

Her political advisor tells her it’s suicidal to touch that hot potato if she’s seriously thinking about running for a second term, but she’ll have none of his cynical advice, and indeed ends up summarily firing him.

Could it be that the TV Gods cancelled Commander in Chief precisely because the show demonstrated that there is no reason why our country has to be held hostage to the Republicans—or the Democrats?

11-geena-davis-commander-in-chief-2005-2006Did they cancel the show because it showed that there is no reason why a woman can’t govern with equal or greater smarts, decisiveness and wisdom as a man—even as she remains a loving mother, wife and daughter?

President Allen was shown in every episode facing down stereotypes, garnering the respect of even her crustiest generals and most ruthless homeland security czars.

And the more she succeeds, the more ordinary people applaud and support her, the more determined her political adversaries become to take her down.

The show didn’t end with a bullet to her head; it didn’t have to.  It just got struck from the airwaves by one wave of a TV executive’s red pen.

So ended the daring career of the nation’s first television representation of a woman President of the United States.

***

Cronogram-BFWW-ad-webThis week I have been busy preparing for the opening of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, a month-long, grassroots, homegrown Festival that I founded three years ago to give women writers more opportunities to raise our voices in the public sphere.

My whole professional career has been dedicated to this mission of amplifying the voices of women writers, bringing them into classrooms and conference halls, into print and on to stages, because I firmly believe that if women had more power in the world, we would change human society for the better.

Gender is a spectrum: all men and women have both estrogen and testosterone pumping through our hearts, and all of us need to call on both the warrior energy of testosterone and the nurturing energy of estrogen to heal our damaged planet and create a stronger, wiser, more sustainable human civilization.

We cannot afford to wait for our political leaders to grow up and stop playing games with our future, and the future of our children.

We have to each do what we can, in our own spheres, to balance out the bullying and the guns and the lack of compassionate imagination with new stories, different voices speaking a different truth into being.

For me this means shutting out the cacophony of political heckling and sniping and tuning into the voices of the women of my community and our invited guests during this Festival month, as together we change the tenor of public discourse by daring to step out on stage and speak our truths to power.

No matter what happens down in Washington D.C.—no matter if our political representatives continue to lick the boots of the oil and gas industries, build billion-dollar fighter planes instead of mass transit, kick our veterans and young people to the gutter, deny women equal pay for equal work and make young women fight for the right to say no to pregnancy—we still have something they cannot take away from us.

We have our capacity for independent thought and we have our voices.

We must rise to the occasion and write our own scripts, bridges of words and dreams that will carry us into a livable future.

Great Barrington Select Board representative and author Alana Chernila reads her work--an open letter to Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly--on opening night of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers (3-1-13)

Great Barrington Select Board representative and author Alana Chernila reads her work–an open letter to Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly–on opening night of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers (3-1-13). Author Janet Reich Elsbach looks on.

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