Purposeful Memoir as a Tool for Earth Activists

Recently I presented a slide lecture called “Navigating Climate Change in Uncertain Times: Cultivating Personal and Political Resilience for a Thriving Future.” But as often happens, I had to come up with the title months before I actually sat down to write the lecture, and in the interim my understanding of what I wanted to say shifted.

If I had to write the title now, it would be more like this: “Aligning the Personal, Political and Planetary Through Purposeful Memoir: Exploring the Past to Understand the Present and Envision the Thriving Future We Yearn For.”

It’s too wordy, but so far I have been unable to simplify these big ideas into a more succinct wording.

Truly, what I’m after is something big here, something potentially transformative on a grand scale.

And yet it starts very simply, very close to home: sitting down, preferably with others, to explore one’s own life experience and how it has been shaped and impacted, whether we’ve realized it along the way or not, by the political and planetary landscape of our time and place.

In the lecture, I used my own life experience as an example, exploring the years between 1962, my birth year, and 2011, the year I woke up to climate change and the Sixth Great Extinction—which, not coincidentally, was also the year that I started writing Transition Times.

The political events of those 50 years in America include several wars, from Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; the Civil Rights and feminist movements; the stealing of the election by Bush Jr. in 2000; and the complicated ups and downs of Congressional politics in relation to the environment.

The planetary events are perhaps less familiar, especially to those who, like me before 2011, were not paying much attention to the planetary backdrop against which we foregrounded our lives.

But put together, decade by decade, that “backdrop” loomed large. Each decade since the 1960s, the population of the Earth’s most successful invasive species, Homo sapiens, has increased by one billion people. We went from 3 billion or so when I was born, to 7 billion in the early 21stcentury, and we’re on track to reach 8 billion by 2020.

Data from the EPA and NASA show the steady rise in global atmospheric carbon over these decades, accompanied by rising air and sea temperatures and melting polar ice.

And in these decades since the first American endangered species list was created in 1967, hundreds of species have been added to the list of those threatened by extinction. It turns out that 1994, the year I earned my Ph.D., was the worst single year on the list, with 129 species added. Of course, I wasn’t paying attention at the time.

H0IAyQ9ok8y--lIOqv24M93X8iYDqQj0LbdSKaVvKY4

Source: World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/08/endangered-species-wait-an-average-of-12-years-to-get-on-the-list

The power of aligning the personal, political and planetary through purposeful memoir is precisely that it focuses our attention in a new way.

It’s not just for those who want to write a full-fledged memoir. It’s also a valuable tool for anyone who is ready to understand their lives as part of the broader story of the relationship between human society and our planet.

It’s a way of understanding more deeply how we got to our present crisis moment on the planet, individually and as a society; a way of taking stock of the past and present in order to gird ourselves for the challenging work ahead.

Too often, people take up activism only in the political realm. They go out to fight politically for the planet without having done the deep inner work of understanding who they are, where they come from and how they were socialized and educated by their family and culture.

This inner work of purposeful memoir can be difficult because almost everyone alive today will have to confront their own complicity in the steady destruction of the global ecosystem—the swift and inexorable erosion, over the past 50-plus years, of the health and wellbeing of all life on the planet, including of course ourselves, human beings.

What-I-Forgot-Cover-draft-NEW-smAs I worked on my own memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, I went through all the classic stages of grief as I realized the full extent of the loss that has unfolded during my lifetime.

Allowing ourselves to feel the grief is important, as Joanna Macy has been telling us for a long time; and we can channel the anger that arises from the tragic, relentless loss of life into a powerful force for Earth activism.

When we gather together to write and share how our personal stories have intertwined with the political and planetary happenings of our time and place, we are strengthening ourselves as a collective force for positive transformation of self, society and world.

We are, as I put it in my memoir, “doing hope together.”

Emily Dickinson famously described hope as:

“the thing with feathers –
that perches in the soul –
and sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”

As we navigate through our perilous moment of climate change, political disruption and environmental destruction, we can use purposeful memoir as a way of tuning into to our own inner resilience while listening for the never-ending song of hope that pulses through all life on Earth.

It’s easy to hear it on these beautiful days of spring renewal. It’s what sets the leaves unfurling and the flowers turning their faces to the sun. It’s what animates the birds to build their nests and the bees to gather pollen to make their honey season after season.

32072788_634642051244_576629338359726080_n

Photo J. Browdy 2018

As we work through purposeful memoir to align the personal, political and planetary, we can clearly see the preciousness and the fragility of life on Earth, and we come to understand our own potential to be stewards for the planet, and active guardians of other species.

We tap into the strong current of hope and life that constantly encircles this planet and begin to cultivate the deep awareness and resilience to become a beacon for others, each of us a little light in the vast global shift towards, as Charles Eisenstein puts it, “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

Terry-Tempest-Williams-in-canyonlands-72dpi

Terry Tempest Williams

At a recent climate change panel discussion in Albany NY, purposeful memoirist Terry Tempest Williams talked poetically about our responsibility to the generations still to come.

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying we will see beyond our own time and act accordingly,” she said.

Purposeful memoir can help us locate ourselves as a strong link in the chain between past and future, understanding our individual lives as part of the broader political and planetary landscape of our time and place.

Doing hope together, we can engage in the joyful, sacred task of building bridges, plank by plank, into the thriving future we yearn for—not just for ourselves and other human beings, but for all life on Earth.

IMG_2793

Photo J. Browdy 2017

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: