21st Century Leadership: Learning to Love in the Digisphere

Life in the digital age is accelerated up to speeds that previous generations (say, anyone born before 1900) would have found incomprehensible. The demands on our time are more intense than ever before, and decisions made in the blink of an eye or the tap of a finger can continue to reverberate for months or years, spinning out of control if caught up in the wild eddies of cyberspace.

We all know about cyber-bullying by this time—how it can drive some people, especially vulnerable young people, to despair and suicide.

We’ve also learned how dangerous random tweets and photo messages can be in a digital world where nothing on the Internet is really private.

This environment calls for leaders of tremendous personal strength and integrity—but it is not an environment that creates such people. Digital life–with its endless distractions, easy avatars and a million ways to cheat–seems to breed a kind of aimless cynicism. Even people who are motivated enough to attend retreats on “finding your purpose” are likely to be surfing through their lives, perpetually seeking the next answer or thrill or coveted consumer item.

In such an environment, how can we mentor people of all ages to become the leaders the world so desperately needs now?

We might begin by discussing the qualities we’d like to see in our leaders, and thus in ourselves. Although we still cling to a heroic ideal of leadership, enjoying the feeling of following a charismatic, forceful and self-confident leader, the truth is that leadership in our time is becoming much more decentralized.

The saying “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” attributed to the Hopi, has never seemed more apt than now, when each of us has the potential to assume a leadership role in our digital and real-world lives.

For example, are we going to join a digital mob assault of someone who is vulnerable? Or will we refuse to join in the feeding frenzy, or even take a stand in defense of the person who’s down?

How can we use the power of the World Wide Web to enhance thoughtful, in-depth communication, rather than allowing it to serve as a platform for name-calling and threats?


There is a world of difference between movement-building through the media, as in the #BlackLivesMatter movement or One Billion Rising, and vicious personal attacks on individuals that can quickly escalate into the digital equivalent of terrorist attacks.

The technology that enables this behavior is so new that we have not yet had time to establish codes of conduct or to fully weigh the ethical considerations of a Twitterized world.

Giving children access to the Web without the guidance of their parents or teachers is the equivalent of letting a teenager get behind the wheel of a car without having any learner’s permit or driver’s ed.

We have a whole structure for training young people about the dangers of alcohol, drugs & sex…but next to nothing in place that mentors and supports them–or us older folk either–in becoming responsible citizens of the digisphere.

And since this is where all of us spend a vast proportion of our waking lives, and where, increasingly, the collective human consciousness is being developed, it certainly seems like an essential place to begin a discussion of ethical, responsible, and purposeful leadership.

Ironically, to understand the digisphere and our place in it, we need to take the time to disconnect. Like a mental cleanse or fast, time spent untethered to the Web is time that allows us to reconnect with our own internal voice, our own inner guidance that has always been there for us, since we were the tiniest of infants.

IMG_9158Human babies know instinctively that they like warmth, gentle touch, smiling faces, eye contact and gentle, friendly voices. These human preferences do not go away as we age. Humans, like other mammals, are hard-wired to love and to enjoy being loved.

This is the kind of experience that it’s very hard for the digisphere to conjure up. For all the online dating services, the Skypes and Google hang-outs, the endless news feeds, there is still nothing that beats personal, real-world human connection.

Of course, any leader today is going to have to be an adept user of the media. But the primary values behind the use of media by a leader worthy of that title must be true to the ancient and ageless human value of love.

Leadership, in essence, is putting oneself forward in loving service to others and the broader community. There is no formula for it, and it will look different in every specific context. But at the base, at the bedrock, a good leader acts out of love.

Can loving leadership be taught and practiced in the digisphere? In the 21st century, this is seeming like an increasingly urgent question.

Reconnecting with the Earth…with Joanna Macy


Joanna Macy

At 85, Joanna Macy is still a beautiful tiger of a woman: fierce, focused, passionate. At a recent weekend workshop at Rowe on her signature Work That Reconnects, she was a keen and generous leader, with an impeccable sense of when to speak and when to be silent, when to share the microphone with younger leaders, when to get out in front and show the way.

Joanna has been refining the Work That Reconnects since the 1980s, when it grew out of her engaged Buddhist practice and her anti-nuclear activism. Its premise is simple: that we are integral parts of the Earth, having emerged out of carbon and water billions of years ago just like everything else on the planet; but we humans, having caused the near-collapse of the current epoch with our fixation on industrial growth run on chemicals and fossil fuels, have a special role to play in shifting our civilization to a sustainable footing.

To step into our power as change agents, we must first undo the social conditioning that has alienated us from our primary relationship with the Earth. The Work That Reconnects accomplishes this through a series of exercises and meditations, which can take a day or a week or much longer to accomplish, depending on how much time you have and how deep you want to go.

In the weekend version of the workshop, we spent a three-hour session on each of the three stations on Joanna’s Spiral of the Great Turning, led through a series of interactive activities designed to get us thinking about ourselves as bodhisattvas, awakened ones willing to give our lives in service to the higher good of all life.


In the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

First came Gratitude: appreciating and giving thanks for being alive in this beautiful place, alongside myriad other complex and beautiful creatures who call the Earth home; and also giving thanks for our own strengths and capacities to become active warriors on behalf of the planet.

Then there was the grief and despair work for which Joanna is justly famous: she calls it Honoring Our Pain for the World, and it is a radical, counter-cultural push to sit with and confront all the sadness, despair, anger and pain we feel when we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of the destruction and devastation human beings are wreaking on the planet. Grief for individual loved ones lost to cancer mingles with grief and anger at the loss of the Great Blue Herons and the paved-over forests, in a powerful and galvanizing outpouring of rage and pain.

After an evening break that featured song and dance around the warmth of community, we turned the next morning to the last two stations on the spiral: Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forth.

Joanna talked about the necessary shift from the alienated form of seeing our relationship to the Earth as “our supply house and our sewer” to a new form of seeing, an understanding that we are embedded in the sacred living body of the Earth, and what we do to her we do to ourselves.


A closer look. Photo by J. Browdy

One of the reasons I love Joanna’s approach to activism is because she is unafraid to call on the imagination as one of our primary tools for social change. In a powerful closing exercise, she arranged us in pairs and asked one person to take the role of a descendant seven generations in the future—about 200 years hence, in 2214. The other person remained herself, in 2014.

The future being, prompted by Joanna, asked a series of questions of the ancestor, and then listened to the answers—this was not a conversation or a dialogue, but a witnessing of the struggles of this ancestor—you and me, in our time—to bequeath a livable world to our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

After listening to three different present-day people talk about their work for the planet—what makes it hard, what makes it rewarding, what keeps them going day to day—the future being had a chance to respond, and it was an incredibly powerful experience to imaginatively inhabit the spirit of the future encouraging us embattled ones in today’s world to find the strength to persevere.

Joanna at Rowe

Joanna signs books and talks with workshop participants. Photo by J. Browdy

In the call to Go Forth, the final turn on the spiral, Joanna reminded the gathering that this work is impossible to do alone—“it’s impossible to even take it in alone,” she said. We need to create communities of “Shambala warriors for the planet,” who can function like “the immune system of the Earth,” a potent metaphor she attributed to Paul Hawken.

In the Shambala prophecy that Joanna has been sharing ever since she heard it from one of her Tibetan Buddhist teachers back in the 1970s, it is said that great courage is required of those who work for the good of the world, because we must go right to the heart of the “barbarian empire,” armed only with two critical weapons: compassion for all living beings, and the radical insight of interbeing—that everything in this biosphere is intricately and integrally interdependent and connected.

And of course the truth is that the “barbarians” who inhabit this destructive empire are not strangers. They are, quite simply, us.

At the very end of the workshop, Joanna led us through a series of affirmations honoring our perceived enemies as our most important teachers.

Through our awareness of what we don’t want, we learn what we care about most. And through our caring—what Joanna calls the awakening of our “heart-mind”—we find the courage, passion and commitment to do the most important work of our time: transitioning from our current dead-end, greed-based, exploitative society to a society that honors the sacred in all life and works respectfully for the well-being of each participant in the dance of planetary life.

old tree

An elder maple in the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

As I walked out under the ancient maples and hemlocks in the forests around Rowe, lit up in all their autumnal glory on this beautiful September weekend, I could feel the warrior spirit rising in me and in all of us who came from near and far to learn from Joanna.

Now is our time, and time is precious: there is none to waste as the forces unleashed by the industrial growth of the past 300 years threaten so many life forms on the planet with extinction.

Will we succeed in transitioning to a sustainable future? Will we humans grow into our potential as stewards and nurturers of our beautiful garden, this Earth? Or will we all slip away into the history of the planet, as the march of evolution and transformation continues on to the next era?

All we can do is go forth with good heart and brave spirit into our own communities and carry on the work that reconnects in our own spheres. I am so grateful to Joanna Macy for continuing to lead the way and for so generously sharing the powerful tools and practices she has developed over a lifetime, for others to take up and carry forward into the Great Turning.

JB & Joanna Macy

Joanna and Jennifer

N.B. Joanna’s classic book Coming Back to Life, a guidebook for doing the Work That Reconects by yourself or (preferably) with groups, has just been re-issued by New Society Publishers in a revised and updated edition. Joanna is hoping that people will gather in schools and church basements, in Transition Towns and activist organizations, to do the inner work that can sustain and fuel the outer work we must all undertake to transition to a life-enhancing human relationship to Earth.

With Starhawk: Dreaming the Dark and the Light

The night I returned home from an intense weekend workshop at Rowe with Starhawk, I had a disturbing dream.

A little girl, dressed in a pink jumper, was crying that she was lost, she had to find her father. So I took her by the hand and we started looking for her father in an urban landscape—first on the street, then in an apartment hallway with many doors. I said to her, do you remember what the floor of your home looked like? Was it wooden? Black and white tile? We stopped at several doors but they weren’t the right one. Then we came to the one with the blue-green patterned tiles, and her father was in the doorway.

As soon as I saw him I was afraid…he seemed like a devil, a mean, cruel man, although he smiled (leered, more like) as he came forward in the doorway to receive her. And she went to him, whimpering. There were people gathered in the apartment behind him, all dressed creepily in black, watching something on a screen in a darkened room. He thanked me for bringing her back, and I turned away, with a sick feeling, thinking she was going to be hurt or punished for “running away.”

As I turned away I heard her whimpering turn to full-out crying, a terrible keening sound, and I felt paralyzed—what should I do? Should I call Child Protective Services? Clearly this little child needed my help, but I was afraid that if I called the police or other authorities, the “father” would know who called and would come after me.

So I did what any dreamer does when paralyzed by fear—I woke up.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this dream, especially as it seems to be a kind of psychological bridge between Starhawk’s remarkable rituals honoring Mother Earth, and my own upcoming writing workshop on “purposeful memoir,” which uses the elements as a way to frame and explore parts of one’s life journey.

I feel sure that I was both the small child in the dream, and the adult who was trying to help her find her way “home.” The problem was that “home” was a dangerous, confusing, love-and-hate kind of place, ruled over by a “father” who was punitive, frightening and loving in a controlling kind of way. The adults sitting in the dark background passively watching the screen are human society writ large, especially our Western, technology-obsessed society. The little child with her bright pink outfit and fearful, wanting-to-trust eyes, stood out here as a wholly other kind of being, but one which would, in the pinching hands of her “father,” be formed and molded into just another one of these pale, eerie, zombified adults.

We talked a lot last weekend about how frightening it is that we Westernized humans have become so very disconnected from the natural world. As Starhawk gathered us in circles to ritually salute the four elements and the four directions (Earth/North, Fire/South, Water/West, Air/East), as well as the Center/Spirit, it seemed like a dream of an older way of being that I dimly remembered, from a time before I had taken my seat among all the other adults sitting before screens in darkened rooms.

After the last circle

After the last circle

We listened to the birds singing and the wind blowing through the new spring leaves; marveled at how the veins of the leaves mirrored the veins in our own bodies and the bigger veins of river waters on the body of the Earth; and let our combined voices, chanting around a sparking fire in praise of the elemental unity of all Life, blur together into a wordless ringing sound that cast our intention to be of service to Mother Earth high up into the starry sky.

Following Starhawk along a labyrinth made of stones lined with vivid purple violets, I thought about my desire to help others explore their own lives in elemental terms, looking back at where we’ve come from in order to see more clearly who we are and who we wish to become. In writing my own memoir, the elemental structure emerged organically from the trajectory of my life: Earth the childhood ground of my being; Water the stream of culture I’d been sucked into as an adolescent and young adult; Fire the years of adulthood, being tested on many fronts; and Air running through it all as reflections from my current perch, back on the Earth of middle age, trying to recover my grounding in order to move more intentionally into the next stage of my life.

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

My dream, in which I was both the crying little girl who felt compelled to find her way back “home” and the concerned adult who could see just how damaging and hostile that “home” was, seems to represent my awareness these past few years of how destructive our American “home culture” is to the sweet, sensitive Earth-centered children who are born into this harsh, techno-dominated world and cleave to it with innocent fidelity.

We are instinctively loyal to our families and our birth cultures, even when on some level we are aware that they are not always healthy for us. And the adult “me” in my dream, anguished about handing over the child to this destructive “father” figure, was like any bystander in a negative scenario, desperately choosing to remain silent out of fear of retribution, fear of bringing the hostility down on myself.

In my memoir workshop next week, I want to guide others to explore how thinking about our lives in elemental terms can help us make sense of our past, and give us a firm footing from which to overcome our conditioning and our fears and take the full measure of our life’s purpose.

Three generations

Three generations

We all came into this life wide-eyed and open-hearted, looking for love and warmth. It’s fascinating to explore what happens as we are received by our families and our home cultures, and swept along into the fast-moving currents of life, heading towards the fires of adulthood.

But what really matters is what comes next. What will we do with our one precious life, as Mary Oliver put it so poignantly? Can we step back from our loyalties and conditioning and figure out what it is we care about enough to stand up for and give our lives to?

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk has moved in the past decade or so from a focus on a largely metaphorical, feminine-inflected Earth-based spirituality to a much more grounded practice in permaculture, “a multi-disciplinary art form, drawing from the physical sciences, architecture, nutrition, the healing arts, traditional ecological knowledge, and spirituality. The ethical underpinnings that guide permaculture are simple yet powerful: take care of earth, take care of the people, and share the surplus.”

In her Earth Activist Trainings, she seeks to help us reimagine a new kind of culture, one in which nature and human society are seamlessly intertwined. “EAT is practical earth healing with a magical base of ritual and nature awareness, teaching you to integrate mind and heart, with lots of hands-on practice and plenty of time to laugh,” she says on her website.

We need to create a new kind of culture that will comfort and nourish both the caring adult and the crying child in my dream. Our culture has to be supported by a sustainable relationship to our Mother Earth, a relationship in which we give back as much as we take, in an endlessly regenerative circle of life.

mossy rockAs I look ahead purposefully in my life, I hope that the adult I want to become would not leave the innocent child I was in the treacherous hands of a culture that has forgotten how to love. If I could replay that dream, I would guide that small, pink-clad child away from her malevolent “father” and his techno-obsessed tribe. I would take her away from that urban landscape, out into the warm green gloom of the forest, where we would sit together on a mossy rock and listen to the wind in the leaves and the birds in the sky. Together we would look up to see Starhawk approaching along the path, roots sprouting from her feet and branches from the top of her head.

We would sing together, in the words of poet Kristin Knowles, with whom I shared the Starhawk weekend:

Our mother,

in art and nature,

passionate burns thy flame.

Thy strength is one

with moon and sun

on Earth as up in the heavens.

Teach us the way to lightly tread

And relieve us our distress as

we receive those who would prefer our silence.

And lead us not into frustration

but deliver us from ill will.

For thine is the freedom, power and glory,

her story,

now and forever.

Blessed be.

Writing of Disaster, Writing of Hope

As a professor of literature, I tend to pay special attention to what my son is reading in school.  I wish I could say I paid attention to what he reads at home, for pleasure, but the truth is that he does not read for pleasure.  He reads on assignment, and that’s it.

So what is he reading, in his typical 9th grade American public high school?

So far this year he’s read 1984, Lord of the Flies, and Night. Now he’s reading a contemporary novel, How the Light Gets In, by a British author, M.J. Hyland, billed as a 21st century girls’ version of Catcher in the Rye.

In short, it’s been one depressing, upsetting book after another.  Thought-provoking would be the kind term to use, but it saddens me to recognize that generally speaking, “serious” literature is about the things that frighten us.

And it’s not just in literature that this is true.  In pop culture too, the violence that plays out over and over in every form of media entertainment is catering to what seems to be a human need to imagine and play out in fantasy our deepest fears.

Almost all science fiction series and movies that try to imagine the future show us disasters and social dystopias.  These are considered “realistic” (a positive attribute), as distinct from “utopian” scenarios (dismissed as unrealistic, hence not to be taken seriously).

As a parent, a teacher, and a member, like you, of the transitional generation on this planet, I worry about our apparent addiction to what 20th century philosopher Maurice Blanchot called “the writing of disaster.”

Certainly I have not shied away, in my own career, from making myself aware of the ugly side of human experience.  I have studied human rights abuses of every stripe and geographic origin, including sexual abuse, torture, war and genocide.

I have confronted the grotesque truth of the devastation we humans are wreaking on non-human animals and on our planetary environment—the chemical poisoning of air, waters, earth, along with the life forms that inhabit these strata; the factory farms; the mountaintop removal, clear-cutting and strip-mining; the plastics pollution of the oceans; and on and on.

I don’t bury my head in the sand, by any means.

But I question the wisdom of inundating our imaginations, especially those of young people, with violent stories.

Whether they’re historical like Night or futuristic fiction like 1984; whether they’re video game scenarios like GTA or Call of Duty; or TV series, movies, or the daily news—if all we see in virtual reality is human beings being violent, doesn’t this begin to affect the way we understand ordinary reality?

Doesn’t it make us more guarded with each other, less likely to trust, less likely to build community and bring out the best in each other?

Mary Pipher

Mary Pipher

In preparation for my new class this spring, “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice,” I’ve been re-reading Mary Pipher’s 2006 book Writing to Change the World. Mary Pipher, you may remember, is the psychologist who wrote Reviving Ophelia, a book from the late 1980s that provoked a major surge of attention to the way American girls self-sabotage as young teens, and what societal factors made their swan-dive of self-esteem more likely to occur.

In recent years, Pipher has become an environmentalist, leading the charge in her home state of Nebraska against the Keystone XL.  Although the pipeline is not dead yet, it has at least been re-routed away from the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region.

In Writing to Change the World, she offers a how-to book for those, like me, who see writing as one of the best tools to raise awareness about the issues that matter most.

Pipher writes: “The finest thing we can do in life is to grow a soul and then use it in the service of humankind.  Writers foster the growth of readers’ souls, and the best soil for growth is love.  Writing can be love made visible….This is our challenge: to cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy and still manage to do our share for this beautiful broken planet of ours” (241-2).

However, it seems to me that the kinds of writing we are consuming as a culture, and especially what we’re feeding to our young people, will neither “cultivate lives of reflection, love and joy” nor inspire us to take arms against the sea of troubles that is our planet today.

On the contrary, the dominant narratives I see, at least in American culture, are violent, cynical and despairing, showing us the worst of humanity rather than enticing us forward with dreams of what could be.

I’d like to see the start of a new global literary movement of change narratives in every genre aimed at holding a positive mirror up to human nature, giving us examples of the good we have done and the good we are capable of doing if we draw on our positive qualities—our ability to love, to nurture, to steward, to protect.

Even our oh-so-human violence has a place, if it is used to protect rather than to abuse and wreak wanton havoc.

I would like school curricula to stop replaying the horrific stories of our past—or at least, to balance these negative stories with narratives that give students some positive, hopeful models of human beings as well.

Trying to “grow a soul” in today’s social climate is like trying to grow a plant without sunshine.

Writers, let’s take on the challenge of using our gift with words to change the world for the better.  Let’s be the sunshine, not the shadow.


Mother’s Day Salute to my Mom

Throughout my childhood, my mother always spent a lot of time and energy tending and shaping the land around the house, following her own instincts of landscaping and working almost entirely with hand tools.

The little house; I am standing where the big thicket was

The little house; I am standing where the big thicket was

She started just outside the sliding glass doors in the living room, where she planted a small lawn, beyond which was an expansive swamp dogwood thicket, laced with black raspberries and bordered by a young maple forest on one side, and a few barely visible pine trees on the other.  Armed only with loppers, my mother began cutting down the thicket stalk by stalk, a project that took a couple of years of slow, patient labor.

Once the thicket was gone, and grass had been seeded in its place, my mom turned her attention to the huge limestone ledge that ran down alongside the house, part of it visible as mossy, grassy outcroppings, but most of it underground.  She set to work with her shovel, hand rake and trowel, her intention to create a rock garden out of that long, sloping rock ledge.  That project provided a focus for the long summers she spent with me and my brother in the country while my father went back to the city to work during the weeks.

The rock garden runs up the whole length of the lawn beside the house.  It's hard to see the rocks here, as they've been covered with plants, which my mom regularly scrapes off to reveal the contours of the rock again.   This big rock garden took years to accomplish.

The rock garden runs up the whole length of the lawn beside the house. It’s hard to see the rocks here, as they’ve been covered with plants, which my mom regularly scrapes off to reveal the contours of the rock again. This big rock garden took years to accomplish.

I can see her standing, sweaty and red-faced at the end of a hot morning’s work, with a fine layer of black earth coating her bare shoulders, drinking iced tea out of a tall green glass and surveying the ledge with a squinted sculptor’s eye.  She would be quietly exultant as her shovel and trowel gradually revealed new curves or deep, smooth walls of rock, a small, determined woman with a strong back and great patience, tracing out the rock with hand tools and as much love as if she were carving out the sweet, benevolent face and voluptuous body of the Earth Mother herself.

IMG_2168 copy

She also dug out a vegetable garden, in which she planted her morning coffee grounds and eggshells, which yielded crunchy sugar snap peas and big shiny zucchinis and a tangle of tomato plants loaded down with plum, cherry and huge oxheart tomatoes.  In time, every contour of the ten acres or so around the houses on the property had felt the gentle touch of her hands, and yielded to the influence of her spades and trowels.  Every young maple or oak grew there because she had judiciously allowed it to advance past sapling-hood.

This was my favorite climbing tree in childhood; a sugar maple named Cricket

This was my favorite climbing tree in childhood; a sugar maple named Cricket

What had once been a rocky, harum-scarum cow pasture became, over the course of many years, an orderly oasis of verdant green lawns, perennial flower beds and raised vegetable gardens, with the long ridge of the rock garden sloping down through the middle of it all to the elegantly landscaped pool.  Now, more than forty years later, she’s still out there with her shovel, trowel and hand tools, tending and stroking her gardens into ever more radiant beauty.

The view from the "new" house (c. 1989), down towards the pool

The view from the “new” house (c. 1989), down towards the pool

This Mother’s Day, I salute my mother, whose outstanding gardening talents I have admired and learned from all my life.  I can only hope that in some small way her greenest of thumbs has rubbed off on me.

Jenny and Sue 1

Did I mention that my mom is an outstanding potter?

Did I mention that my mom is an outstanding potter?

She is as talented at architectural design as she is at landscape design

She is as talented at architectural design as she is at landscape design


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Innumerable shrubs, trees and fruit trees have been planted over the years, most often by my mom and her trusty spade.


Making plans for the next project with grandson Eric.  The work of a gardener is never done....

Making plans for the next project with grandson Eric. The work of a gardener is never done….


This is one of the most recent gardens, just outside the pottery studio, next to the oldest tree on the property, a venerable sugar maple

This is one of the most recent gardens, just outside the pottery studio, next to the oldest tree on the property, a venerable sugar maple



Homage to Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich has just died at 82 years of age.  That is a good long life, and it is truly inspiring how active she remained until the end, publishing and mentoring so many of us who follow in her path.

Although she was primarily a poet, there is an essay of hers that has remained very powerful for me, being the autobiography junkie that I am.  It’s “Notes Towards a Politics of Location,” the one where she talks about growing up as a Jew in the American South, and how she always felt like such an outsider.  It connects very much with her general recommendation for women, that we consider our outsider status a blessing, rather than a curse.  That we continue to see things with outsider’s eyes, rather than assimilating to the dominant mode of seeing and being.

This message has resonated strongly with me because I have always felt myself to be an outsider.  It doesn’t seem to matter which group I am with, or how long I have been affiliated with them, or even if I am, in name at least, the principal of that group.

I am the perennial outsider.

And thanks to Adrienne Rich, I no longer feel that as a handicap or a slur.  Rather, I wear it as a badge of pride.

Rich was someone who could have chosen to take her privileged status as a white American Jew and spend her life comfortably at the country club.

Instead, she chose to ally herself with Black Americans (notably Audre Lorde), gay Americans, and anyone who needed a powerful and articulate ally.

Alliance is a tricky business. A would-be ally from a more powerful social class needs to be very careful to offer help without coming on too strong; to use one’s power to open up spaces for one’s allies to speak and act independently. It’s not about us—it’s about them. Adrienne Rich made it look easy, but it’s not.

Three of my most important mentors have now passed on: Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua and now Adrienne Rich.

Such a huge legacy to try to continue and move forward.

Sisters, I promise each of you that I will do my best to keep your spirits alive.

Leadership revisited: from ruthless and reckless to thoughtful and wise

This week I finally had a chance to see the new documentary film that has a lot of people buzzing, MISSREPRESENTATION, written and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom.  The film clearly and graphically makes the argument that women are systematically objectified and dumbed down in the media, and that this is connected to the on-going gender disparity between men and women professionals.

Having taught women’s and gender studies classes for more than a decade, the film didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. But it presented the information in a slick, well-argued way that had the audience gasping, nodding and cringing by turns.

I was somewhat disappointed with the conclusion of the film, however, which mostly urged the audience to take personal action to challenge the misrepresentation of women in the media and in business and politics, and to personally resist social pressure on women to focus on how they look rather than how smart they are and what they do.

Yes, raising personal awareness and mounting personal resistance is important.  But what’s really needed is systemic change.

A great illustration of what I mean by systemic change came my way this morning through a New York Times reprint of a Reuters piece by Chrystia Freeland, “Cultural Constraints on Women Leaders.”

Freeland discusses a new study by University of Toronto business professors Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli, who asked a simple question: Why aren’t there more female leaders?

You can read the article yourself to find out more about how they answered the question.  What interested me most was the author’s conclusion: that even in societies that have been relatively open to women’s advancement, “the one thing women around the world have failed to do is create paradigm-shifting companies.

“None of the great technology start-ups — for example, Google, Apple and Facebook — were founded by a woman. Nor were any of the leading hedge funds, the innovators in the world of money, established by a women. Women are not just underrepresented in this space of transformative entrepreneurs — they are entirely absent.”

Freeland concludes that “the final frontier for women, even in societies that allow them to lead established institutions, is to be ruthless and to take big risks, essential qualities in world-changing entrepreneurs. Instead, as the authors found of female entrepreneurs in Malaysia, women often have to “lead as if they were mothers or teachers.”

This conclusion just demonstrates the extent to which even a very intelligent woman like Chrystia Freeland is still a prisoner of her social indoctrination.

Because the point is that it’s those risk-taking, world-changing entrepreneurs–all men–whose reckless leadership has so endangered our planet that we live in constant fear of the “sixth great extinction event.

It would be a profoundly GOOD THING for our planet and human civilization if our leaders guided us “as if they were mothers or teachers.”

Yes, I am writing this on an Apple laptop which I love, with my iphone on the desk beside me. Yes, I use Google and visit Facebook daily.

But is my attachment to these gadgets and conveniences more important to me, or the world, than our very survival as a species?

What good will my iphone do me when global heating goes out of control, leading to food shortages, storms of biblical proportion, and general lawlessness and fear?

The mother and teacher in me knows that those who look to me for guidance depend on me to choose a safe, wise path.  I will not lead them over a cliff.  I will weigh the risks and benefits and make the decision that benefits the group as a whole.

That is not true of the risk-taking cowboys who have led us to the brink of environmental, financial and social collapse as the 21st century dawns.

We need more men and women to come forward as responsible leaders and tell old-school folks like Freeland, in no uncertain terms, that her ideas of leadership are profoundly flawed.

It will do us no good if women achieve leadership success in the same old masculine terms.  If we are to survive the challenges that await us in the coming years, we need to change the paradigm of successful leadership.

Lead as if you were a mother or a teacher.  Let’s try that on for size.

Pleasure plus meaning equals happiness: homage to my mom

Maria Sirois

Yesterday I went to a Berkshire Festival of Women Writers workshop facilitated by psychologist and inspirational speaker Maria Sirois.  The workshop was called “Happiness: Writing as a Path to Positive Transformation,” and since I am always looking for ways to link all those terms—happiness, writing, path, positive, transformation—I was eager to see how Maria would lay it out for us.

I was not disappointed.  She quickly got the group writing about happiness, and not surprisingly, when I started freewriting about joy, it wasn’t long before I began writing about my childhood summers spent at my family’s country house…long, endless, happy weeks where my brother and I seemed to be perfectly in synch with our mother’s rhythm, where life was peaceful, idyllic and beautiful…the epitome of joy.

Later, when we went around the room and everyone shared a short bit of their freewriting, I was struck by how many of the women present (we were all women that day) associated joy with childhood, and with nature.

Many people shared moments of joy connected with childhood memories of trees—climbing trees, wandering in the forest, listening to the wind in the trees.  Others had written about communion with animals, or remembered ecstatic time spent by the ocean in childhood.

A small corner of my mother's garden

What I remembered was watching my mother dig a rock garden out of the cow pasture in which she and my father had built their small country house when I was 5 years old.  Here are the two sentences I wrote during the workshop, and shared aloud:

“My mother would be quietly exultant as her shovel and trowel revealed new curves or deep, smooth walls of rock, and at the end of a hot morning’s work she would stand, sweaty and red-faced with a fine layer of black earth coating her bare shoulders, drinking iced tea out of a tall green glass and surveying her landscape with a squinted sculptor’s eye.  The work progressed slowly, since it was all done by hand, just one small, determined woman with a strong back and great patience, tracing out the rock with hand tools and as much love as if she were carving out the sweet, benevolent face and voluptuous body of the Earth Mother herself.”


Later in the workshop, Maria shared with us a memorable formula for happiness.

Happiness, she said, is the balance of pleasure and meaning.

If life is all pleasure, it can feel empty and meaningless.  If it’s all meaning, then you’re working too hard.

But if you can find the right balance of pleasure and meaning, you can hit that sweet spot of joy, in which you thrive and grow like a well-cultivated garden.

Maria suggested that there is something about creativity itself that brings us to this sweet spot.

My mother, spending her summers relaxing with her children and turning her surroundings into a beautiful landscape sculpture, was drinking from that creative well.

For me there are various creative taps I draw from: writing, teaching, creating programs like the Festival, bringing people together in harmonious, productive alliances.

Platter and dinner by my mom!

My brother recently observed that our mother has always been a wonderful model of someone who is completely focused, passionate about and committed to her art—whether that art is tonight’s dinner, or her magnificent pottery, or her lovingly tended garden.

Since earliest childhood, it has always been clear to me that she put every ounce of creativity she possessed into everything she did—not for external recognition or praise, but just because it was the right way—the most pleasurable way—to approach any task at hand.

Pleasure plus meaning equals happiness.

It strikes me that although my mom has had her share of ups and downs, hers has been by and large a very happy life.

No wonder when Maria asked me to write about joy, I went straight to my primary teacher: Sue Browdy, my mom.

Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 – NYTimes.com

Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 – NYTimes.com.

Truly a great leader, I can’t believe she is gone.  So fast!  I can’t help but think that had she been living in the West, the cancer would have been caught earlier and she would still be with us.  A great loss for the world.  More later.

Is College Worth Its Salt? Hint: It’s Worth More For Men…

My friend Audrey (with whom, it should be noted, I went to college) raises an interesting question.  Is college worthwhile at all?  Particularly for families for whom it’s a huge financial stretch, often involving bigtime loans that take many years to pay off–is it really worth it?

For most of us, I think the answer would be yes.  College is not just about a nice shiny credential to paste at the top of your resume, although I have seen many students, especially during my time at SUNY Albany, for whom the goal seemed to be little more than that.  For these students, the B.A. might prove to be simply a rubber stamp, a certification of having successfully jumped some hoops, scored some goals and not messed up too badly.

That is not the kind of education that’s worth much in the way of sacrifice and effort.

The kind of college education that is worth a young person’s time, effort and financial investment is the kind that opens up new pathways which they might very well never have found any other way.  For instance, I don’t think I would have ever sat down and read all of the novels of Virginia Woolf if Jamie Hutchinson hadn’t led me with passion and enthusiasm through my first one, To the Lighthouse.  His obvious delight at Woolf’s language and the way she structured her novel inspired me to go down into the musty stacks of the library and find some more of her books, and I’ll never forget the magic I felt reading Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves and Orlando for the first time.  Her books cast a spell on me from which I never wanted to wake up.

For my son, now a senior at Simon’s Rock, it was the world of science that opened up for him in college.  He had been bored in all his classes in the 10th grade, and had no idea what he was interested in focusing on for a potential career path, other than his original dream, first expressed when he was two years old, of being “an underwater photographer.”  A college class in marine biology showed him that his dream could become a reality, and started him off on a scientific journey that led him to study eels in the Hudson River as an intern on a faculty summer project; take a junior semester in Baja California studying octopi and other marine life there; win a summer fellowship to work as a paid intern at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, working on a faculty project on eelgrass habitat; and now to do his senior thesis project on a major riverfront restoration project.  None of these doors would have been open to him, or would even have been visible to him, had he not been enrolled in college.

And of course, there’s the social side of college too.  From the social networking with like-minded peers to the ecstatic meeting of kindred souls, the late teens/early twenties are when the most sparks fly, socially speaking, and college is the best place to meet the kind of people who are likely to be focused, goal-oriented and at least relatively stable.  This is not to say that there aren’t all kinds of flakes and basket cases in college.  But even those people are there because their families care enough to make sure they have the best chances in life, and are willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to help them over the difficult shoals of early adulthood.  Having a peer group like that counts for a lot.

Much is always made of the value of a college degree in terms of increased earnings.  Interestingly, in looking at the census data, earnings still remain skewed by gender.

Even though more women are now finishing college than men, still, college-educated women earn significantly less than college-educated men:  “women earned 67 percent of what men earned overall and earned 76 percent of what men earned when working full-time, year-round. At the lowest attainment level (not a high school graduate), the difference was 63 percent overall and 75 percent within the full-time, year-round worker population. At the highest attainment level (advanced degree), the difference was 66 percent for the total worker population and 69 percent for the full-time, year-round worker population.”

Is it worth it to go to college? Yes.  But we women have got to learn to be more forceful in advocating for ourselves with our bosses!  There is no reason why in this day and age women should still be earning only 70 cents on the man’s dollar.  Could it be that our vaunted education has the subtle effect of making us reluctant to question authority and speak up for ourselves?  Why doesn’t it have the same effect on men?

Dr. Leonard Sax has proposed some interesting hypotheses in answer to these questions, namely that boys are socialized to show off and act aggressive in school, while girls are socialized to be demure and wait for recognition.  These behavior patterns can get boys into a lot of trouble in the early years of school, and may turn some off from school entirely.  But at the higher levels of schooling, being aggressive is often rewarded, just as it is in the marketplace.  Boys and men tend to exaggerate their strengths, while girls and women tend to exaggerate their own weaknesses.

These are complex socialization processes for which there is no quick fix.  We’re all only human.  But it’s important, particularly for young women, to be aware of the likelihood that we will not receive equal pay for equal work unless we step up and demand it.

If their college education was worth its salt, it would give young women the skills and confidence to do just that.  And it might just teach young men some humility along the way too.

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