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?   

21 Questions for 2020: #14

#14. How will World War III, the Coronavirus edition, play out?

World leaders are comparing the global crisis of 2020 to a war, requiring a mobilization not of guns and soldiers, but of ventilators and medical personnel. The fact that most of us are just civilians on the sidelines, watching the action unfold from afar, has added to the sense of surreality that has engulfed us this spring. All the majority of us can do is stay home, wash our hands, and try to stave off panic. 

I know there are those, myself included, who have tried to see the opportunity in this moment. Look at how the pollution clears up as soon as all the planes are grounded! Maybe now people will see the folly of the industrial capitalist machine and embrace new forms of eco-social community! At the very least, this crisis should upend the regime of the destructive parasite that got us here, Donald J. Trump! 

Maybe. Or maybe it will go the other way entirely. The EPA has already used the crisis to suspend pollution regulations, and Native Americans, the frontline environmental defenders, are getting sick in record numbers. The logging of the Amazon is expected to reach a record high in 2020, and despite the wildfires of January, the giant Adani Carmichael coal mine in Australia is going full steam ahead

On the societal front, we are all forced to submit to a “lockdown” that takes away our civil liberties in the name of “staying safe.” The U.S. Treasury is working overtime to come up with trillions of bailout money, but who is in charge of making sure the money is allocated fairly? 

Meanwhile, the Trump political machine has pivoted nicely to take advantage of this new twist in the reality show presidency. On principle, I don’t watch his news conferences any more than I’d watch Fox News, but his usual crowd of supporters continues to cheer him on. What will happen when they all come down with coronavirus? That chapter remains to be written.

To be fair, there are also some positive developments to track. Communities are coming together to help each other out. People are, good-naturedly, staying home even when they feel perfectly fine. The work of newly recognized “essential workers”—from farmers and truckers to meat packers and grocery clerks—is being appreciated and lauded more than ever (if still not fairly remunerated). 

In the absence of Federal leadership in the US, some of the state governors are stepping up—Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsome, I salute you. Globally, biotech scientists have been truly amazing in springing into collaborative action to understand and find treatment and a vaccine for this “novel” virus. 

We will come through this war wiser and warier. As with 9/11, which left us with permanent security check-lines in airports, I foresee that new standards of transportation hygiene and border health screenings will be a lasting result of the pandemic of 2020. 

It seems ironic that the ultimate border-crossing bug, a virus, should have the effect of solidifying the artificial and imaginary lines we call national borders. My optimistic side hopes that the lesson of COVID-19 is that we are all one—everything is interconnected and any tear in the web of life hurts us all. 

It sounds good in theory, but in practice, the war metaphor continues to dominate, and we are all hunkered down in our bunkers, hoarding TP and hogging the wifi, waiting for the all-clear signal. 

Who could have predicted that our civilization would end with such a whimper? Sometimes I think I’d prefer a bang.

21 Questions for 2020: #13

#13. How can we strengthen our individual and collective immune system in the face of radical destabilization, uncertainty and fear? 

We are living through one of those moments in human history that will—if we survive—become a treasure trove of material for historians to parse, seeking answers to the big question: how the hell did we get here? 

One observational point that seems incontrovertible for the moment: the virus has taken hold most quickly in the cities of the most developed countries: from Wuhan to New York City, with stops in northern Iran, Italy and Spain. What do these places have in common? 

Obviously, cities have high concentrations of people who use public transportation and/or spend a lot of time in public places (houses of worship, restaurants, crowded markets). Some of these places, though not all, are international travel hubs—but then so are many other population centers that have not been hit as hard so far, like California. 

There are theories circulating on the fringes of the Web about the impact of 5G on people’s immune systems. Wuhan and New York City were early 5G adopters, as you can see on this map. Of course I’m not suggesting that 5G causes the virus. But perhaps it added a tipping point of pressure on our already-weakened immune systems?

As Charles Eisenstein says in his recent essay on the coronavirus situation, “For a long time we, as a collective, have stood helpless in the face of an ever-sickening society. Whether it is declining health, decaying infrastructure, depression, suicide, addiction, ecological degradation, or concentration of wealth, the symptoms of civilizational malaise in the developed world are plain to see, but we have been stuck in the systems and patterns that cause them.”

Like me, Eisenstein sees both the heartbreak and the opportunity of our global health and financial crisis. “The crisis could usher in totalitarianism or solidarity; medical martial law or a holistic renaissance; greater fear of the microbial world, or greater resiliency in participation in it; permanent norms of social distancing, or a renewed desire to come together.”

Which way will we go? No one knows at this point, as the crisis unfolds with astonishing, mind-blowing speed from day to day. 

A few things do seem clear to me. 

1. We have to stop ignoring the toll the current capitalist economy is taking on the vast majority of ordinary people. How long did we imagine we could go with stress, unhappiness, uncertainty, lack of purpose, loneliness and fear dominating our individual psyches and collective social climate? In such a social landscape, combined with the constant barrage of toxins on our physical bodies, of course we are all getting sick. 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu said it beautifully, in a memorable quote from her book Crossing Borders (I am paraphrasing): ‘we are all kernels on the cob of humanity. If one of us is sick, the whole cob is unwell.’ 

And this is not just about humanity. All life on Earth is struggling now, after a century of assault from the extractivist corporate capitalist economy. If things don’t change radically, the entire unsustainable structure created by global corporate capitalism is going down, and will pull a good portion of humanity and our fellow Gaians on the planet down with it. Planetary events like the coronavirus pandemic, the Australian wildfires and the heightened Atlantic hurricane seasons show us in no uncertain terms that this is already happening

2. Like cancer, the marauding coronavirus is a symptom of the real illness besetting human individuals and society, which is imbalance. Humans are both the cause and the victims of the multiple imbalances currently destabilizing our planet. 

For starters, there are too many humans. As Jeremy Lent points out in a recent article, humans regularly overshoot the carrying capacity of Gaia by 40% each year, and yet the human population continues to grow. Perhaps, if we began to live in a more consciously sustainable way (ie, eating crickets instead of cows, using solar instead of oil, etc), we could bring our burgeoning population into harmony with Gaian support systems. If we continue on our current trajectory, the planet will have to take her own rebalancing measures—like pandemics, or natural disasters. We still possibly have time to choose: will we shift towards what David Korten calls an “ecological civilization,” or will we continue to march blindly towards the lemming cliff of planetary reset?

3. In the absence of trustworthy leaders, each of us has to reach within for guidance on how to proceed in this moment of radical uncertainty. In what may perhaps be the most important point of his long essay, Charles Eisenstein invites us to recognize the danger of succumbing not to COVID-19, but to fear

 “The virus we face here is fear, whether it is fear of Covid-19, or fear of the totalitarian response to it, and this virus too has its terrain. Fear, along with addiction, depression, and a host of physical ills, flourishes in a terrain of separation and trauma: inherited trauma, childhood trauma, violence, war, abuse, neglect, shame, punishment, poverty, and the muted, normalized trauma that affects nearly everyone who lives in a monetized economy, undergoes modern schooling, or lives without community or connection to place. This terrain can be changed, by trauma healing on a personal level, by systemic change toward a more compassionate society, and by transforming the basic narrative of separation: the separate self in a world of other, me separate from you, humanity separate from nature. To be alone is a primal fear, and modern society has rendered us more and more alone. But the time of Reunion is here. Every act of compassion, kindness, courage, or generosity heals us from the story of separation, because is assures both actor and witness that we are in this together.”

We face a choice: will we retreat into what Jeremy Lent calls “Fortress Earth,” based on trauma, fear and scarcity? Or will we work actively, in our own backyards, to build an ecological civilization based on generosity, kindness and cooperation?

I am reminded of Starhawk’s prophetic novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, which imagined a future America as a bleak militarized industrial wasteland, with a small pocket of ecological and social wellbeing remaining in the former San Francisco: a beautiful, happy garden society led by wise women. 

Which way will we go? Can we transform this terrain of uncertainty into a seedbed for positive radical change? Will we succeed, each in our own sphere and with our neighbors, in choosing love over fear? 

4. Managing our own fear is essential now. Remember, our animal bodies are wired for fight or flight. Living in a state of constant anxiety about something we can neither fight nor flee from saps our strength and weakens our individual and collective immune system. 

To manage fear and anxiety over the uncertain future, work on living in the present moment, focusing on gratitude for whatever makes you a little happier now. Rather than obsessing over everything you can’t control, focus on what you can do today to make life a little better for yourself and those around you. 

In this way, one step at a time in an ever-unfolding present, we will build a positive psychic and physical bridge to a better future for us all.

21 Questions for 2020: #12

#12. What guidance is being offered to us by the Coronavirus about how to live as Gaians?

The little RNA packet of Coronavirus comes with a critical message for us: we are integral members of the Gaian community, and with Gaia we sink or swim. 

To our capitalist economic system, which has been running most human beings and all non-human beings ragged, Coronavirus raps out a forceful, inescapable directive: STOP. 

Stop the fast-flying, hard-driving, super-destructive lifestyle of industrial civilization. Stop the planes and cars, the production of trinkets and baubles, industrial agriculture, the endless maws of the pulp factories and the pumping of fossil fuels. 

To each of us as individual Coronavirus says sternly: Stop running the rat race of school and jobs. Slow down, breathe and remember who you are and what’s truly important to you. 

In my life I have often gotten sick (with a cold or flu) when I am tired and harried and need to take it easy. My body will only take so much of being driven forward before it rebels, accepts a virus, and forces me to stay in bed for a few days.

That’s what is happening now, on a global scale. Coronavirus is forcing us all to slow down, maybe even to stop. 

In this great, worldwide slowdown there is an opportunity to deeply reassess how we have been living—individually and as communities, as countries and as a global human society. 

There is an opportunity to recognize the interconnectedness of the Gaian system; to make new personal, political and planetary choices according to our growing awareness that our own health and well-being depends on the health and well-being of the entire system

Your body is a microcosm of the planetary body. We are all made from the same stardust, animated by the same cosmic energy. The Coronavirus is another form of that same animated matter, with an operating system that impels it to exuberant life and reproduction. In its whirling dance from person to person it taps out a clear message for us, its unwilling hosts: slow down, take care, or return to the matrix to be born anew. 

Today, as I slow down and ponder, I cannot offer answers, only more questions. 

  • How can we put the guidance of the Coronavirus—to slow down and take care—into practice through social policies and institutions? 
  • How can we transform education, work, human relations and Gaian relations to reflect the wisdom of the Coronavirus? 

Your thoughts most cordially welcome and most urgently needed.

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