A New Year’s Vision for 2014

IMG_4297 copyAs the year wheels slowly to a close, I am distracted and repelled by the frantic pleading coming into my email inbox…it seems that every nonprofit and political organization I have ever expressed the least interest in is desperately vying for a few pennies from my ever-shrinking purse.

I too have been fundraising these last few months, trying to raise enough money to sustain the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, which I founded on a shoe-string and a dream three years ago.  The more successful it becomes, the more time it takes to organize, and the more money is required to keep the wheels turning.

I certainly understand the need to seek funds to support these worthy endeavors, and yet I find myself wishing there was some other way.

Wouldn’t it be a better use of my time, talents and energy to focus on creating the vibrant programs the Festival is known for, rather than constantly having to cast about for financial support?

And what is true for me must be true for the organizers of all these causes that are flooding my inbox with urgent last-minute appeals for funding.

This New Year’s Eve, let me pause to envision a social landscape in which people are encouraged to do what they’re best at doing—whether it’s planting a tree or building a house or writing a poem—without having to worry about whether or not they will be paid in cash for their labor.

What if good ideas could just grow vigorously like weeds in the warm, pungent, nurturing earth of collective human society?

What if instead of all fighting amongst each other to be heard and rewarded for our cleverness, sex appeal and charm, we worked graciously together to create the vast interlocking human machine of collective creative endeavor, each of us contributing the pieces we do best and knowing we’ll be fairly rewarded for work done well?

What if instead of working for dollars and cents, we worked for goods and services that we needed, on a barter system to which everyone could contribute and rely on?

I know this is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy, but on this night, when the Earth wheels around the Sun into a brand new calendar year, I want to allow myself to dream big—to imagine that the impossible could come true.

What a beautiful world it would be.

Happy New Year everyone!

Winter Solstice Reflections: Returning to Light, Swimming Against the Tide

Lately I have been feeling that I am constantly struggling against a strong current pulling me away from the work I want to be doing.

The current is composed of all the day-to-day chores of life, along with all the busyness of the holiday season, and the relentless tide of bad news about the state of our beloved planet and her living communities, from trees to fish to birds and bees.

The more I become aware of the dire ecological state of our planet, the more I want to devote myself to swimming against that current of devastation, trying to bring our planetary systems back into balance.

I want to do that work on the personal level, starting with my own life, and moving out into my community and the broader Earth communities in which we all live.

The climate issue, like no other in human history, has made our planetary connectedness clear. We must work together, from pole to pole, to solve the problem of climate instability that industrial civilization has wrought.

If we don’t get on in immediately, we may very well spiral into another Great Extinction, possibly soon enough for current generations of humans—me and my children and their children—to live and die through.

Faced with a negative reality of this magnitude, many of us tend to just turn away in numbed grief and try to ignore it because, sadly, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”

My own sense of being caught in a tidal current pulling me back from whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing may have a lot to do with the despairing feeling that whatever I try to do will not be enough.

But I have to do it anyway, and so do you.

Winter Solstice is the time of year when I try to retreat from the furious churning of life and recalibrate, retune, reflect.

How can I use the gifts I have been given to make a positive difference, moving outward from myself, my family and local community, to the larger circles of life I love?

My greatest gift and abiding passion has always been writing. As soon as I learned to write, I began writing stories and poems that celebrated the natural world and honored the spirits of the Earth.

As a 21st century writer, I have the ability to project my words and perspectives far beyond the confines of the old spiral-bound notebooks I used to keep as a child. I have the potential to engage in dialogue with people all across the globe, and if you’re reading this, so do you.

As a teacher, I have the ability to begin conversations with students about the difficult ecological crises that are already beginning to unfold, and the social and environmental injustices that they are spawning. I can offer students the tools and strategies for continuing these conversations across the globe through our amazing new digital technologies.

In the past year, without a great deal of focus on my part, my blog has been viewed more than 20,000 times by visitors from more than 130 countries around the world.

My little blog is just a very small drop in the great ocean of digital conversations, but even so, it is possible that some of those 20,000 readers came away with a new idea or an affirmation of their own thinking, or a challenge to their habitual perspectives, that could start a chain reaction among their friends and digital connections that could, seriously, change the world.

Rupert Sheldrake argues that “The fields organizing the activity of the nervous system are inherited through morphic resonance, conveying a collective, instinctive memory. Each individual both draws upon and contributes to the collective memory of the species. This means that new patterns of behaviour can spread more rapidly than would otherwise be possible.”

Sheldrake’s theory is exciting and controversial because if it’s true, it means that none of us has to be bound by the heavy burden of habit and cultural inertia, the industrial tide that seems to sweep us along so inexorably.

We have a choice. We can pick up our heads, think for ourselves, seek out others who also want to preserve the ecological health of the planet, and together use our great digitally connected human brain trust to steward and safeguard this planet, not destroy her.

Working together, we could, within a couple of generations, be swimming together joyously in an entirely different sea.

As the Earth wheels slowly back towards the Sun today, this is my steady vow: to keep my head above water, to reach out a hand to others who share my reverence for our beautiful planet and its magnificent life, and to give myself without reserve to the mission of building a strong interconnected movement dedicated to the shift into a sustainable, ecologically sound, joyful future.

Browdy de Hernandez 2013

c. Browdy de Hernandez 2013

Let’s Face It, Charity is Not Enough

When I was a kid, I didn’t read “the funny pages” of the newspaper; in fact, the only newspaper that came into my parents’ home did not stoop to such trivia.  We read, exclusively, The New York Times.

I remember the first time—it must have been around sixth grade—that I happened upon “The Neediest Cases” articles in The Times.

The stories hit me like a ton of bricks.

Comfortably ensconced in my parents’ Park Avenue apartment, I had no idea—no idea—that just a few blocks away, on the other side of the 96th Street divide between the wealthy Upper East Side and dirt-poor Spanish Harlem, ordinary people just like me and my family were living in abject poverty.

With a kind of morbid fascination, I read about the kids whose parents were locked away in prison; the kids whose parents were drug users; the kids whose parents were homeless, sleeping in the dark, rat-infested recesses of the infamous New York City train tunnels.

Unknown-2Every article ended with the same words: Give to The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

This went on year after year.  Every year there were more “neediest cases,” each one more dire and depressing than the last.

Eventually I began to actively avoid reading those pages in December.  The contrast between the clean, glowing, opulent New York I knew and the dark, dank margins of poverty I was reading about was just too much for me to take.

And it was clear to me, at least on a subliminal level, that giving to the Neediest Cases Fund did not accomplish much—not if every year the need continued, unabated and even growing worse.

 

This week I opened my Ipad while still in bed and found myself drawn, despite myself, into a Neediest Cases article on 21st century media steroids—complete with an elegant magazine presentation and fabulous photographs of the squalor of homelessness.

It was the story of a 12-year-old girl named Dasani (after the bottled water), the oldest child of two methadone-dependent former addicts.  Unemployed and homeless, the parents live in a single room in a mouse-infested city shelter with their seven children, from Dasani on down to an infant.

As with the 19th century New York tenement photographs of Jacob Riis, the pictures themselves tell a powerful story.  Dasani is still full of optimistic determination to succeed at school; she hasn’t yet been beaten down, like her sad-faced mother.

I can just imagine Park Avenue New Yorkers—at least The New York Times readers among them—reaching in droves for their checkbooks to send some relief to Dasani and her family.

It happens every time there is a story about a disaster or a particularly shocking needy case.  Wealthy people open up their wallets and give what they can.

But the need goes on, and on.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

What will happen to Dasani’s little sister, the one who is legally blind?  What will become of her rambunctious little brothers?  What will prevent them from following the same path that ensnared their parents, drug addiction born of desperation?  What will keep them out of prison and make them into the productive citizens our society claims to admire?

 

When I was a girl, I naively believed that the “neediest cases” were an aberration.  I thought that most people lived the way I did, in comfortable security.

In fact, it’s the other way around in our America.  More and more Americans are falling into poverty day by day.  Our minimum wage cannot sustain a family, not even with both parents working.  We don’t have decent health care or child care for lower income working people.  Food pantries are scarcely able to keep up with the need, as food prices continue to rise.

There are 22,000 homeless children in New York City alone, according to The Times.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 1,168,354 homeless students, a figure that many believe to be an underestimate.

It’s outrageous that the richest, most powerful nation on Earth is willing to allow more than a million of its children to go homeless year after year.

We spend billions on nuclear weapons annually, which Lord knows we do not need and cannot use.  This taxpayer money could provide a stellar education for all American children—not just the ones who are fortunate enough to live in a wealthy school district.

Dasani and her siblings have as much right to the American dream as any other American child.

Donating to the charities that hand out teddy bears at Christmastime is just not enough.

The great activist Eve Ensler wrote in her latest memoir that she “despises charity.”

Why?  Because it doesn’t go far enough.

It’s a sop to the consciences of those who give, without addressing the root causes of the need in a way that might actually alleviate it in the longterm.

Structural changes are needed at every level of our society.  For starters, let’s do away with the policy that ties school district funding to property tax revenues.

American public schools should provide a level playing field for all children, regardless of where they live.

Next, don’t just warehouse poor families like Dasani’s in miserable rundown housing.  Give them jobs, give them respect, give them an incentive to work their way out of poverty.

At the very least, they could be organized to clean up their city-run housing, plant gardens and provide services to each other as a way to supplement their welfare checks.

Nothing breeds hopelessness faster than powerlessness, and charity perpetuates the illusion of powerlessness in its recipients.

Dasani’s resilience and determination, as brought to light in the outstanding reporting of Andrea Elliot and her photographer Ruth Fremson, needs no charity.  All Dasani needs is a fair chance.

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Photo by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times

Keeping Mandela’s Dream Alive–Not Just for South Africa, but for the Planet!

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years as a terrorist.

And then he was released and became one of the greatest freedom fighters the world has ever known.

For me, the lesson is clear.

We cannot rely on others for a moral compass.

I am thinking of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Tim DeChristopher and Lord knows how many others who have been exiled or imprisoned for “treason” in the United States.

I believe they will be exonerated in the long run, just as Mandela was, and shown to be on the side of justice.

Nelson Mandela as a young man

Nelson Mandela as a young man

We shake our heads incredulously when we hear that Nelson Mandela was in jail and at hard labor for 27 years.

Twenty-seven years!  He was imprisoned just a few months before I was born, and released a few months before I married.

He came out to have a whole new life, like a butterfly breaking out of an unwanted cocoon.

The news media seems to be playing up the aspect of Nelson Mandela’s story that deals with forgiveness.

He forgave his captors.  He was not vindictive.  He believed in reconciliation.

Yes.

But I do not forgive them.  And the part of Mandela’s story I would like to focus on is his incredible perseverance in achieving his lifework of overcoming the evil of apartheid in South Africa.

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It takes great self-awareness and rock-solid confidence to maintain one’s moral compass in the face of a whole state and social apparatus set up to prove one wrong.

For example, climate activists today, like the Greenpeace 30–locked up in Russia for daring to challenge Russian drilling rights in the Arctic–need to be incredibly resolute in their insistence that we must do what we can to stop the runaway warming of the planet.

Today we have many ways of expressing our solidarity—ways that were not available to sympathizers of Mandela back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.  We need to use these communication channels to send a solid wave of support back to those who dare to challenge today’s rulers—the fossil fuel industry, the National Security Agency, and the like.

Mandela fought the good fight and he won.  Today, our fight is not for justice in one country, but for the very survival of the human race—and so many other species—on this planet.

We owe it to the memory of Nelson Mandela to stand firm and refuse to be bullied or intimidated.  We who are fighting for a sustainable planetary future are on the side of justice and will be vindicated as such, just like Mandela, if we are not all washed away first.

Nelson Mandela was great because he never gave up.  He remained true to his own moral compass and he lived his ideals.

We must do the same today, and then some, to keep Mandela’s flame alive and burning brightly for a new day on this sad beleaguered planet of ours.

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