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. 

21 Questions for 2020: #19

#19. How does a bigger-picture understanding of the COVID-19 crisis change the questions we ask and the solutions we are able to perceive? 

Since the “novel coronavirus” burst onto the global scene in the early months of 2020, we’ve been barraged by “experts” telling us how to process the events unfolding before our eyes. Much of what they are saying boils down to common sense: wash your hands. Don’t sneeze in people’s faces. Stay home if you’re sick. 

COVID-19 is a nasty little bug. But it’s a strange bugger, too, because it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Some people host this virus with no symptoms at all, while others get horribly sick and die from it. 

What is the solution to the mystery of why northern Italy was hit so hard, along with Wuhan and New York City, while in other places it is rolling through more or less like the common flu? 

The dominant voices—the experts who are testifying before Congress and sharing their views through major media outlets—don’t really have an answer for this, or at least, I have not heard one. 

But there are a few voices suggesting that the answer may lie not with the virus per se, but with the relative health of individuals’ immune systems. 

To me this perspective makes sense. We live on a planet that is naturally teeming with countless viruses and bacteria. Our immune system enables us to keep all the various viruses and bacteria that enter our system under some kind of balanced control, which we experience as feeling well

The problem we’re facing in 2020, according to researchers and activists like Winona Laduke,  Sandra SteingraberZach Bush and many others, is that for the past 70 years or so we have been systematically attacking and exterminating the natural microbiome of the soil, as well as contaminating our waters and polluting our air. Is it any wonder that so many of us have weakened immune systems, since we’ve been breathing, drinking and eating these toxic chemicals for our entire lives?

It is common sense to correlate those who are getting sick and dying from COVID-19 with what the doctors call “underlying conditions”: 

  • People who are already sick with chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and asthma are more at risk. 
  • People whose immune systems have been weakened by mental health issues like stress, depression and isolation are more at risk.
  • People who live in unhealthy environments are more at risk: cities with major air pollution and crowding; industrial areas, including Big Ag areas where toxic chemicals lace the environment; and possibly, though this is unproven, areas that are being suddenly flooded with 5G electromagnetic frequencies. 
  • Elderly people living in nursing homes are more at risk—no surprise as they are often living in poor conditions, with unhealthy food and lots of medications that disrupt their immune systems. 

Yes, it is true that we are hearing about the occasional young, healthy person who gets sick and even dies of COVID-19. But we are also hearing that doctors are being pressured to write COVID-19 as the cause of death even when they are not sure this is so—something to do with insurance payments. Many of the health care workers who have succumbed were probably stressed, exhausted and frightened—a potentially lethal “underlying condition” that a virus can exploit. 

I certainly don’t have the answers here, but at least, like Socrates, I’m willing to admit how much I don’t know. I want to stay open to a wide range of voices, knowing that in our age of viral fake news, all information has to be parsed very cautiously and with active intelligence. 

As usual, one question leads to another. Why, in the 21st century, have we seen such an explosion of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, auto-immune disorders, autism and mental health issues like depression, anxiety and addiction? Why, in the country that likes to think of itself as the richest and best in all ways (the United States, of course), is the population the sickest and most stressed and unhappy? How does the GNH (gross national happiness) correlate to a population’s ability to fight off “novel” viruses like COVID-19? 

Although I am in no way an anti-vaxxer (I have been getting my flu shot annually for decades, and made sure my children were fully vaccinated), I have to wonder whether a COVID-19 vaccine is going to be the magic savior that people are hoping for. A vaccine is not going to cure the underlying conditions that created the perfect storm from which the COVID-19 crisis emerged.

Curing what ails us means addressing underlying conditions such as: 

  • social inequality, poverty and crowded, unhealthy living conditions, along with the stress and unhealthy behaviors that emerge from despair and anger;
  • debt bondage that keeps people in harness to the system, preventing us from exploring creative forms of living;
  •  massively unhealthy agricultural practices that result in toxic soil, water, air and food; 
  • widespread chemical contamination from fracking and other forms of fossil fuel extraction and consumption; 
  • the relentless destruction of the forests and oceans that give our planet its oxygen and keep the climate system balanced.

None of this can be medicated or vaccinated away. There is no quick, clean, easy fix for any of it. But we do have many good ideas about how to start—visit the websites of Project Drawdown, the Bioneers or Yes! Magazine for lots of excellent ideas and inspiration.

It’s going to take slow, careful, loving regeneration to remember how to farm in healthy, sustainable ways, weaning ourselves away from the cheap industrial food that has been so damaging to both our internal and our external biomes. 

The way we educate our children has to change—no more sitting for hours at desks under fluorescent lights, learning how to take tests. To meet the challenges of the 21st century, we need creative, active, lively young people, who understand the importance of respect for the natural world, and who are not afraid to challenge orthodoxies and lead the way towards deep systemic changes in every aspect of life. 

A healthy Earth = a healthy human. I know people are imagining future scenarios where the health of the Earth becomes irrelevant, as human beings take off for Mars, or live on space stations, or transition into virtual reality—but is that really the kind of future we want to create and leave for descendants? 

I am a living cell in the great body of Mother Gaia. There is no boundary between us: every particle of my body is part of the woof and weave of her grand living tapestry, and every moment of my life she and I share breath. In death, I will return my body to her flanks to be regenerated in new forms. 

How could I not wish with every fiber of my being for the health of this grand system of which I am a tiny part? How could I not do whatever I can, with the intelligence and creativity I’ve been given, to ensure that the vitality of this system is regenerated, for the benefit of all life on Earth?

Solving the COVID-19 crisis is not about attacking a novel virus. There will always be more where those came from. It’s about restoring the well-being of the Gaian environmental and social systems—starting with lovingly tending our own individual immune systems, realizing that as we do so, we will also be tending the wider world that is our larger Being. 

21 Questions for 2020: #18

18.  What is the message of Gaia’s call? Mother’s Day reflections, 2020.

The other day I read a lament on Facebook by a woman who was in despair over the horrendous state of life in 2020 America. If she didn’t have loving family and friends, she said, including her children and grandchildren, she would be seriously contemplating suicide.

As she worked through her complicated grief and horror, cathartically retelling the tragedy we are all living through, I heard the persistent pulse of Life beating through it all….Life, that impels us to endure and persist, to rise and do it all again under tomorrow’s Sun, no matter how difficult or impossible the way forward seems.

We humans thrive on Love; we wither and fade away in despair. We are fundamentally loving, social animals, though far too many humans have become pathologically twisted these days, seemingly incapable of the empathy and altruism that is our birthright.

Our loving nature is not just a matter of psychology; it is also biochemically wired into us, evident in the hormones that flood our body when we feel love, whether romantic love or the love of a mother for her baby. Every living being on the planet, whether or not it has an emotional nature, is similarly wired to thrive. 

This is especially easy to see in the plant kingdom: seeds crack and send tendrils up towards the Sun, while tiny roots are impelled to anchor themselves in the Earth. Figuratively, each of us begins life as just such a seed, reaching for love and light as instinctively as any other new growth.

Many cultures anthropomorphize Mother Earth and Father Sun as the lifegivers, to whom great gratitude is due. I don’t think we need to humanize our planet and our star to understand that they are our everything; each of us is just a small cell in the vast planetary body of the Earth, which itself exists as a speck in the unimaginably huge galaxy and cosmos. 

Each of us may be small, but we are far from insignificant. Just as every blob of algae and blade of grass has a role to play in creating the life-giving oxygen of our planet, every precious Gaian manifestation, from rock to raindrop, from earthworm to human, contributes to the overall vitality of the system as a whole.

Human beings, over the past 500 years or so, have been flourishing so well that we have been edging out the conditions of life for other species. We are, as I’ve noted before, Earth’s most successful invasive species. From the perspective of other life forms, we humans have been a deadly viral pandemic, relentlessly invading and destroying.

Humans have been on a suicidal path as a species, poisoning our own nest, and in the process rendering vast swaths of land and sea uninhabitable for other species as well. This cannot go on. Humans have over-populated ourselves by using up more than our share of Earth’s resources. This is unsustainable. 

Now, at the tipping point, we are faced with a truly momentous question: 

Will we use our tremendous intelligence to find ways to work with Mother Earth, to restabilize her life-support systems in a regenerative and sustainable way, understanding that we can only thrive in a thriving system? 

Mother Earth has her own ways of restoring balance to her life systems—for example, viruses and climate changes. Earth seeks to maintain the conditions most conducive for the thriving life of every Gaian. She does not play favorites, she loves all her creations equally. We humans are only just waking up to what such impartial mother-love truly means.

Mother Earth, on this Mother’s Day I give you honor and praise as the Life-giver of us all. You create the myriad beautiful forms into which Spirit pours. Each new baby that opens her eyes to meet the loving gaze of her mother repeats the miracle of life that you reanimate again and again. And at the end of life you receive each of us back again, in a ceaseless spiral dance of matter and energy. 

Mother Gaia, I know you are calling each of us to bring our strength, courage and intelligence to the task now at hand: restoring the balance of your systems so as to maximize the potential for Life to flourish. Not just human life; all life.

As we reach and grow towards conscious evolution, we humans are beginning to become aware of the harmonic dance of all beings, the great positive vibration of Life begetting Life, of Life flourishing. If we can tune in and calibrate our own beings to the great Hum of Mother Earth, we will find it impossible to do anything but join in that great swelling chorus—the choir of Angels (Spirit) singing in harmony with Gaia (Matter). 

Mother Gaia, my voice may be soft, I may be very small: but such as I am and such as I have, I offer to you. May I make the best use of the life you have gifted me. May my flourishing contribute to the vitality of all Life, in an endless reciprocal dance. 

Namaste, Mother Earth, and thank you. 

21 Questions for 2020: #17

17. What can we learn from the shining example of Joanna Macy, bodhisattva for the Earth?

It was Joanna Macy’s 91st birthday on May 2, 2020. Ever gracious and generous, she came by Zoom to a gathering organized for her new book, A Wild Love for the World, itself a festschrift chorus of many voices from around the world who have taken up The Work That Reconnects and spread its transformative practices far and wide. 

When asked about the significance of bringing out this book in this moment, Joanna spoke (and I am paraphrasing from my notes here) about the root meaning of the word apocalypse, which is unveiling, revelation

COVID-19, she said, has unveiled the fact that western society is based on greed, prejudice and inequality. In the harsh light of the pandemic, we see the rotten foundations of our society—and we are better able to envision the better society that we could create. 

We also see, Joanna added, that there is more goodwill among people than we could have imagined. We might almost call this the Karuna-virus, she said, because of how it opens our heart-minds to compassion. 

In Joanna’s teaching that there is a revelation in the apocalypse of this moment, I am reminded of the deeper meaning of another Greek word, crisis: it refers to a critical decision point, and was first used in the context of illness. When a patient is in crisis, life-or-death decisions must be made, and depending on these there will be recovery, or there will be decline and death.

Such is the moment we are living through, with the patient being human civilization, as it currently exists on Earth.

I am not vainglorious enough to imagine that human beings could irrevocably harm Earth. As John Perkins mentioned in a recent Touching the Jaguar  presentation, we are just fleas on the back of our great Mother Earth. If we get irksome enough, she will shake us off. The coronavirus is one of the many rebalancing tools in her medicine bag; climate change is another. 

The Earth has persisted through the eons with countless species rising and falling, and there have already been many human civilizations that have risen, flourished, and collapsed for various reasons. We who live now have emerged from the rich compost of our ancestors’ successes–and failures.

In order to live with equanimity but also efficacy in this apocalyptic moment of crisis, we have to simultaneously maintain the serenity that comes with knowing that in “deep time,” as Joanna Macy puts it, all will be well; while also realizing that we bear responsibility for making life-and-death decisions that will affect not only ourselves but also future generations of humans and all the more-than-humans who call this planet home. 


To close her birthday celebration, Joanna read from Rainer Maria Rilke’s 9th Duino Elegy, which she translated with Anita Barrows. This brief stanza expresses the grief and hope of a mortal being who exults in life even while painfully aware of what a “brief candle” it is (Shakespeare, “Macbeth”). 

Earth, isn’t this what you want? To arise in us, invisible?
Is it not your dream, to enter us so wholly
there’s nothing left outside us to see?
What, if not transformation,
is your deepest purpose? Earth, my love,
I want that too. Believe me,
no more of your springtimes are needed
to win me over – even one flower
is more than enough. Before I was named
I belonged to you. I seek no other law
but yours, and know I can trust
the death you will bring.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, from In Praise of Mortality, trans. and edited by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was brought to tears while listening to this poem recited by a 91-year-old woman who has made such contributions to the world and touched the heart-minds of so many. 

Dear Joanna Macy, I know you will go with graceful acceptance back to the bosom of the Earth when you are called, but we will miss you so! 

As an elder, Joanna models for us how to live in our present moment of crisis: as vigorously and fully as possible, and yet also with the awareness that all things must pass, that transformation is Earth’s deepest purpose. 

Looking around at the Gaian web of life, “seeing with new and ancient eyes,” we know that every atom of our being has been through countless transformations in the billions of years that our planet has served as an alembic vessel for physical manifestation. 

Ashes to dust and arise again…our Mother Earth is a ceaseless regenerator, and she knows no grief, as for her, death is just transformation. 

Only humans and a few other animals and birds grieve our lost loved ones. That is our distinction: we love, we grow attached, and we grieve. 

Joanna has always encouraged us to dig down into our grief, seeing it as a source of the loving-kindness that we need to be fully engaged with Life. 

As so many environmental activists have come to realize, we will only act to save what we love. Joanna’s book is so well titled: we need “a wild love for the world” now.

Our passion to restore our Mother Earth to health must come from our heart-mind, from our intellectual and emotional awareness that the health and well-being of each one of us depends on the health and well-being of the whole. That is what it means to be part of the Gaian system we call Earth. 


“Earth, my love…before I was named I belonged to you.”

In this apocalyptic moment of crisis, as the transformative processes of Earth are accelerating and we are crossing the lines of multiple tipping points, I steady myself in the calm rhythms of the planet and the cosmos: the greening of Spring, the busy activity of the nesting birds, the majestic progression of the Sun, the Moon, and the other planets and stars that wheel overhead day and night. 

Earth, my love, I came from you and to you I will return when my time comes. In the interval, may my life be of service to you.

May my heart-mind show me how best to serve, and may my brief presence, in this incarnation now, be a dancing paean to your shining beauty and your mighty powers of alchemy. Namaste.

21 Questions for 2020: #16

#16. Whither education in the time of the pandemic, and after?

This is a question that cuts close to my bone, since education has been my calling and profession for my whole life: as a college professor, I am the perpetual student, always wanting to explore my own cutting edge, never content to simply offer again what I already know. 

In recent years, as you might have guessed if you’ve been reading this series, I have become far more interested in questions than in answers. In the Internet age, we can find 100 expert answers to any research question we might pose, and students are always whipping out their phones in class to consult their pocket oracles.

But the kinds of questions that interest me cannot be easily answered by a Google search, or even a virtual trip to the library database. 

I want to explore the questions that have not been answered yet. Big ones that I ponder regularly include: 

  • What happens to the spirit after death? 
  • How can we access the energetic and material realms that scientists say compose 98% or more of the knowable universe, the so-called “dark matter” and “dark energy” fields? 
  • How can we engage in more frequent, widespread and reliable communication with the mysterious voices that a few open channels among us have been blessed to receive? 
  • How can we make more intentional and regular use of the potential of the dream world as a portal for telepathic communication, healing and guidance?

Answers to these questions lie tantalizingly out of reach of my rational mind, and yet my intuition continues to circle them, probing for a way in to understanding. Especially at this juncture in history, when the systems that uphold our physical world and our social structures are under such strain, a better understanding of the non-physical realm beckons urgently. 

If we knew that death was a gentle return to a dazzling energetic sea, a chance to reset and renew in the company of our loved ones, with whom we have returned to physical form over and over again, beyond time…how differently we might live our lives and contemplate our deaths. 

I have been thinking about Socrates lately; how he insisted that the job of a serious student of philosophy was to prepare for death. A well-educated person is a person who is able, ready and willing to make that ultimate journey into the unknown. And the method of education, for Socrates, was asking questions. 

My students and I frequently get annoyed with Socrates for asking leading questions and tangling his interlocutors up in sticky spiderwebs of nuance that never lead to any clear answers.

But the example he set in his own death, as recorded by his devoted student Plato, was crystal clear. Death for Socrates was a blessed release, for which he had spent his life preparing. In his own calm, peaceful death, he gave his weeping students the greatest lesson of all. 

Enjoy life. Be a lifelong student. And be not afraid of death.

***

As an educator, I am always questioning my own goals and methods. With a PhD in Comparative Literature and an expertise in personal narrative by women from different parts of the world, for many years I offered classes where we used the course texts to open windows into complex identities, social structures, and dynamic communities. In particular, I have been interested in patterns of resistance across cultures—how women found their way and claimed their voices and their power despite individual and societal barriers. 

But now it seems that resistance is no longer the right thread to be following in exploring the ever-shifting tapestry of life.

I don’t want to push angrily against what is; I want to explore, eagerly and with an open heart-mind, what might be. 

Young people today do need to learn the real, unvarnished history of the centuries of pain and injustice inflicted by the powerful on whomever they could subordinate and dominate in the service of their greedy goals.

But having learned what was, students today need to turn their bright minds and spirits to imagining what could be

How can education focus itself around the urgent task of creating a happier world where people live well in harmony with the flourishing more-than-human denizens of our planet? 

Shifting the questions we’re asking seems key. 

If we were to ask not “how can we maximize profits” but “how can we maximize happiness,” as Bhutan did in establishing its Gross National Happiness index, the goals of every field of education would shift. 

Instead of applying our intelligence to domination and extraction, the black magic of turning exploited workers and natural resources into money in the bank, we would be looking at how to make an entire system thrive, from the tiniest microbe in the soil on up.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to trigger massive social and economic shifts that we can’t yet measure, one question keeps surfacing for me urgently:  What do today’s young people need to know? 

What talismans of knowledge and rites of initiation can educators offer that will light young people’s paths on the shrouded road ahead?

I am pondering this question, with no sure answers to offer yet. I would be grateful for your thoughts. Whither education now?

21 Questions for 2020: #15

15. Question for Earth Day: Will humans seize the potential of this corona-induced “time-out” to move towards “conscious evolution”?

For some time I’ve been writing with grief and shame about the way humans, particularly my Euro-descended people, have been battering our beautiful Earth. I have been not only a bystander to the violence, but complicit as well—burning fossil fuels, consuming food and products produced in violence. 

I sit in judgment on myself, and shame myself for all the ways I have not done enough to stand up to the prevailing culture, every single day. 

But I also know that this way of looking at the human-Earth relationship is fundamentally human. Mother Earth doesn’t blame or shame. She doesn’t waste time and energy in grief and rage. Her entire Being is dedicated to Life; Life is her business, pleasure and purpose.

For Gaia, if humans are flourishing, all well and good. If humans are flourishing so much that they are consuming more than their share of the Earth’s bounty, then a correction will be made. Not with anger; it’s not a punishment. It’s just a rebalancing to restore Earth to her optimum conditions for the flourishing of life. 

A pandemic is a perfect example of such a correction. 

Climate disruption is a bit different; more long-lasting, more transformative. 

Past episodes of climate disruption on Earth have been caused suddenly by seemingly external, random events—a meteor hitting the Earth, a volcano erupting. 

Human-induced climate change, accompanied by deforestation, the acidification of the oceans and the rapid decline of all species on Earth, is not happening overnight, but it is happening very quickly in geologic time. As Mother Earth seeks to reestablish her steady state, optimum for bringing forth and nourishing life, those who can’t adapt to current conditions will have to give way to those who can, just as the Dinosaurs long ago succumbed and made way for the Mammals. 

I am thinking about this as I contemplate Earth Day, 2020. In the 50 years since Americans began to celebrate Earth Day, there have been some advances in protecting the health of Earth and all her denizens. But mostly it’s been a steady slide into human over-population, toxic contamination, climate destabilization, and the loss of so many of the sweet species with whom we were born to share the planet.

The greatest human misconception is that we have total control in our abusive relationship with Mother Earth.

In fact, Gaia is much stronger than we are. She will take our battering the way a mother tolerantly submits to the pummeling of a small child—for just so long. 

Gaia continues to go about her business of turning the oxygen, water and carbon into Life, in partnership with the Sun. She does not favor one of her children more than the others; she knows that the health of any one individual depends on the health of the entire system. 

On Earth Day 2020 humans are coming face to face, as never before, with the boomeranging consequences of our heedless fouling, despoliation and exploitation of our planetary home. 

It’s hard to say right now what the longterm effects of the pandemic will be. Will we become ever more fearful, technologized and controlling? Or will we seize the opening of this worldwide “time-out” to begin to envision and create a harmonious, non-violent relationship with our Mother Earth?

In 2020 we can’t use the excuse that we don’t know how to improve conditions for current life forms on Earth, humans included. 

We know how to limit population; how to create regenerative agriculture; how to deploy renewable energy; how to develop social systems that maximize and reward the creation of quality of life for the majority. We are so smart. We know how to do this.

In 2020, there is no more time to waste. The urgency is real and present. If those alive don’t get into a right relationship with Mother Earth, she will do it for us—without rancor, without shame or blame, but with the efficiency borne of millions of years of ceaseless rebalancing. 

This may be the first time in history that a species has had the luxury of a brief window of time to actively adjust in order to change course and avoid a lemming-like dive over the cliff. 

We have the possibility of “conscious evolution,” now. 

Will we take it?   

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