What Lies Beneath: Of Mushrooms, Mycelia and Interconnection

On these warm, humid days of late summer, I have been walking the woods looking for mushrooms. There are so many to be found, and of such a marvelous variety!

Mushrooms mean more to me since I began to understand them as the visible fruits of the vast underground network known as the mycelium.

From Animate Earth by Stephan Harding: “Mycelia can grow at prodigious speed and explore space with phenomenal density. They can extend several centimeters a day and can infuse a mere gram of soil with over a kilometer of their intensely networked pipe-like cells….Some mycelia can be massive in both age and size. Perhaps the largest organism on Earth is a 2,200-year-old Armillaria root-rot fungus that grows in 2,400 acres of forest soil in eastern Oregon.”

FullSizeRender 3Especially fascinating to me is the symbiotic relationship that has developed between trees (and other plants) and the members of the fungi kingdom. The photo-synthesizers turn sunlight into sugar, which they share with the fungi in return for a functional extension of their roots further and wider than the plant could achieve on its own. The fungi exchange valuable minerals and water for the precious sunlight-sugar, and in a healthy environment all prosper and do well on our rich Mother Earth.

I walk the forest moodily these days, spying mushrooms and thinking about what lies beneath. It seems like an apt metaphor to be exploring in our social landscape as well.

What lies beneath the visible expressions of life that seize our attention day by day?

What lies beneath the constant eruptions of violence in the world, from Orlando to Charlottesville, from Aleppo to Barcelona, from Nice to Mosul?

What lies beneath the visible evidence of climate dysfunction—wildfires, floods—and the inexorable biological die-off known as the Sixth Great Extinction?

What lies beneath the naked greed and egotism polluting the American political system? Where is this ugly cancer of racism and hate coming from?

Humans now have the neurological equivalent of mycelia, the vast extension of our nervous system through the World Wide Web. Information is our sugar, and it seems we are quite dependent on it—even addicted, you might say.

The thing is that our Web has grown up in a spiritually impoverished time, in intellectual, technical soils that are superficial and incapable of providing us with the nourishment we need to turn the sugar of information into harmonious, beautiful, ethically strong philosophies and ways of living.

When soils are constantly bombarded with chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and anti-fungals, they produce plants that are weakly rooted and susceptible to diseases and infections.

So too, when we humans inhabit social landscapes that are constantly saturated with negativity, devoid of hope and inspiration, we are susceptible to being taken over by campaigns of hate and sloganeering. We fall prey to violence, whether self-destructive (the opioid crisis, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, physical illness) or against others (domestic violence, sexual violence, hate crimes, gangs, economic bludgeoning and the brainwashed othering that results in racial profiling).

Our World Wide Web could be, and sometimes is, a nourishing network. The places I go on the Internet are places of reflection, ethical courage, and humility. I strive to dig my roots deep into this rich soil and at times make my own thoughts visible, mushroom-style, as I do in Transition Times.

But we learned in the 2016 American election that the hateful, spiritually empty areas of the Web are growing quickly. It’s like a Roundup Ready crop, fast-growing and seemingly robust, yet devoid of true nourishment for the spirit.

What are those boys who brought hate to Charlottesville doing this week, in the aftermath of their eruption into plain view? What nastiness are they readying for the weeks and months ahead?

Harding: “When ready to reproduce, previously invisible mycelia gather their hyphae together to form fruiting bodies such as mushrooms and moulds that sprout into the air….They can emerge quickly because the underlying mycelium is immensely effective at supplying concentrated hydraulic power to a specific point in the network on very short notice. Fungal fruiting bodies release spores tiny enough to ride on swirling currents of air, and thus they find new places fit for colonization. Vast numbers of spores are released—some bracket fungi growing out of trees can release some 30 thousand million spores each day.”

These days, we who believe in equality and justice for all must work harder to make ourselves visible. We must be outspoken and forceful like never before. We must send the spores of our clear understanding of love and inclusivity far and wide, becoming beacons of hope and monuments to “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein.

The mycelium of our movement must dig down and go far and wide, creating a rich substratum of thought and practice that counters the shallow, hostile soils of hate that have been spreading on the Web.

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It will be important, in the days and years ahead, to consciously work on building our connections in the real world, as well as in our virtual landscapes.

We have to remember, and teach our children, how to enjoy creative collaboration in real life. It can be as simple as sitting in thoughtful conversation or working together to make a good meal.

We all have the potential to create beauty in our lives, and to share what we have created with others.

As we tend to our social landscapes, we must also remember to value the often unheeded planetary systems without which none of us could survive for an instant: the plants that make our air, the clean waters we all depend on, the rich microbial soils and the vast fungal networks that provide the silent steady pulse of harmonious interconnection.

A task for these August eclipse days: pay attention to what lies beneath the surface of your life. Dig your roots down deep, and work with your neighbors, real and virtual, to build a healthy, vibrant community—for all life on Earth. Stand up tall and send out those positive spores.

A Paean for Interdependence

It’s so clear, by the sea, how interdependent every living thing on our planet is. It’s clear in the mountains and forests too, but somehow everything is stripped down to its essentials by the ocean and you can see the remarkably calibrated food chain in all its exquisitely complicated simplicity.

AIR, WATER, EARTH, FIRE. Take oxygen, hydrogen and carbon, drench with sunlight, and watch life pour forth.

Death too is a necessary part of the cycle. But not the death of innocent babies caught in the crossfire; not the death of majestic animals shot for greed or sick pleasure; not the cataclysmic death of the Sixth Great Extinction, with billions of life forms, some not even known to humans yet, all being choked out at once.

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say that, because these great extinction events are also part of the natural cycles of this planet. We are moving rapidly into the sixth such event, after all. If you take a longer view, as the Mayans did in predicting that 2012 would be a historic end of one cycle, beginning of another, you can see once again the elegance of the great pulses of life and death on Earth.

Although I have written before about how I believe that “Independence Day” should be converted to “Interdependence Day,” in 2017 this shift seems particularly urgent.

Not just because we need to become more aware of our ecological interdependence with all other life on the planet, from the bacteria and worms to the fish, vultures and wolves, but also because the whole idea of celebrating a colony’s independence from a colonizer seems quaint and outdated today, when the colonization process actually runs so much deeper and is so much more intense.

Nation-states as markers of identity are fading, which may be why we’re seeing a paroxysm of violence from those who want to preserve this failing political form at all costs.

Now people are being organized into two main groups—those who are connected to the World Wide Web, and those who are not. The connected ones belong to a kind of virtual nation, and we are controlled not by physical borders, but by information (aka propaganda).

The current American president got where he is because he understood the power of media to manipulate people. He is doing his best to confuse and discredit the whole idea of a news media dedicated to reporting “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” because he knows that if people can’t tell truth from falsehood, they are all the easier to manipulate. Colonization goes internal, we police ourselves and each other, and the warlords make out like bandits.

This is the sad state of affairs on the Fourth of July, 2017. Ordinary American politics is so diseased that celebration is impossible.

So perhaps it’s time to embrace a bigger vision, going beyond the fiercely contested territories of the nation-state and the Internet to think creatively and positively about our presence on the planet.

This Fourth of July, I celebrate Gaian life in all its diversity and glory. I resist separatism and meaningless violence incited by arbitrary boundaries and manipulative colonizers, whether of the corporate or nation-state variety.

Human beings are just another animal in the vast ecological web of life on the planet—a very successful and destructive invasive species, to be precise.

Because of our ability to remember the past, forecast the future, and use technology to chart and change our environment, our natural role as a species is to tend, steward and manage our planet, for the benefit of all. Not just all humans, but all life, because we cannot thrive unless the entire ecological web is healthy.

This is how it works:

Take a deep breath. You are breathing in the trees, the flowers, the cool seaweed in the ocean and the pale lichens on the rock. Exhale and know that you are sending sweet nourishment to all life on the planet, in a perfectly balanced symbiosis.

Interdependence. So simple, so complex, so profound. There’s nothing better to celebrate today, is there?

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Solstice Dreaming: Detaching from the Nightmare to Feed the Spirit of a Better World

Right now my homeland, the United States, is a very sick place.

It’s a sickness that expresses itself inwardly through epic rates of depression, anxiety, addictions, self-harm and suicide. Outwardly we see it in the constant assault of violence: civilian shootings and trucks driven into crowds; endless wars; and the relentless violence against the natural world, driven by greed and indifference to suffering.

Watching what is happening in American politics is like watching a 21st century version of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Or we could compare it to the French monarchy just before the Revolution: let them eat cake!

It is not clear yet whether the pendulum will swing back towards the center again; whether the electorate–mangled, abused, furious and ill as it is–will summon moderates back to the halls of power in D.C.

With a good half of the electorate tuned out to the political process and millions of trigger-happy armed civilians; with an ever-more-militarized police force, a punitive criminal justice system and the biggest prison system in the world…it’s easy to imagine the U.S. descending into dystopian nightmare in the next decade.

And that’s even without factoring in the wild card of climate change, predicted to disrupt food supplies, cause massive storms and unbearable heat waves, and flood the coastal cities.

The U.S. is like a sick, wounded, colossal monster, thrashing out dangerously in its agony, whipping its barbed tail around in ways that are wrecking everything in its reach—and its reach is vast, encompassing practically the whole world.

Collectively, human civilization is approaching a breaking point on the planet. The scientists warn us blandly that we will exhaust the resources of our Earth in August, living the rest of the year on credit that we can never repay.

It’s easy to feel despairing.

And yet.

Sitting here, on the peaceful windy shores of Nova Scotia, the warmth of the people and the steady rhythms of the elements remind me that the nightmare of the U.S. is not all-encompassing. As Arundhati Roy put it long ago, there is another world…and if we’re quiet, we can hear her calm breathing.

Mother Earth has survived cataclysms before. She will survive humans—even dangerous Americans. She has eons to regenerate, reset and create anew. She’s already doing it, everywhere we look.

We who are alive to bear witness to this extraordinary transition time on Earth must resist the dark pull of despair, with its madness of violence and lethargy of indifference.

Remembering to think in the long term, the way Gaia does, can help us focus on what is beautiful and creative in our world. It’s our task to do what we can, wherever we are, to add to the beauty and to help others to do so too.

This is what I call doing hope together. We resist the dark magnetism of the constant parade of horrors that passes for “news” these days. We turn our attention elsewhere:

  • to the small radiance of a wildflower, lifting its head to the sun for the sheer joy of living;
  • to the delighted laugh of a baby sitting in a strawberry field tasting sunwarmed berries for the first time;
  • to the sweet trill of a bird sitting by its nest, teaching its fledglings to sing.

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Yes, there is darkness, cruelty and suffering in our world, which can’t be ignored and must be addressed. But the danger in our times is that we become so overwhelmed by the darkness that we can no longer summon the light in ourselves. The flames of our own spirits start to gutter.

It is not selfish or uncaring to feed our spirits by focusing on beauty. Just as nursing mothers must remember to eat and drink so that they can better feed their babies, we who are acting as doulas—helping our dying civilization let go so that a better world can be born—must also remember to nourish ourselves, so that we can continue to serve as beacons of hope and positivity for others.

My advice to you on these sunny Solstice days? Turn off your screen, leave your phone behind, and get outside to enjoy the bounty of our Mother Earth. Take some time alone in nature, quieting the blare of the headlines in your mind, and tuning in to the music of the birds and the bees. Find some water to sit beside, and let your mind wander as you stare at the sun glinting on the surface.

We plugged-in humans are in danger of forgetting how very important daydreaming in nature is to our personal, political and planetary well-being. Now is a wonderful time to slow down and remind ourselves to let the dreams back in to our waking lives.

We can’t fix everything that’s wrong with our society if we can’t imagine a better world. And for that, we need to detach ourselves from the nightmare, and create a better dream to live into.

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Science geeks and nature buffs: joining forces to protect the Earth and ensure our future

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This Earth Day I met with a small but fierce group of women writers determined to use our words to defend and protect our Mother Earth.

The grief and love that poured from us was as palpable as the tears and laughter we inspired in each other.

I read some of the scenes from the Childhood section of my memoir, revealing how I was “a strange child,” who was much more comfortable out in the forests and fields than with other human beings. Together we wrote about the natural places or non-human friends who inspired us and kept us company in childhood.

One woman wrote about a beloved cat companion, who, she found out later in life, had been taken from her by her parents and dumped out of a car miles from home. The grief and love that came welling up out of her, decades after this loss and betrayal, had all of us in tears.

Others wrote about remarkable trees who stood sentinel over their childhood homes, and how, all these years later, they can still tap into the solid power and majesty of those childhood tree friends.

Later, led by my friend Jana Laiz, we wrote letters to Mother Earth. This was mine (unedited, just as it came flowing out of my pen into my workshop notebook):

“Mother, I am so sorry that we have been so destructive to you. I am so sorry that we are such a cruel, savage and thoughtless species. I often wonder how a species that can build soaring temples, write magnificent symphonies and fantastically sophisticated computer code—a species that can love with such devotion—can also be capable of such wanton, cruel torture and devastation of the natural world and our fellow species, the plants, animals, insects, birds and fish.

“We could be so much finer than we are. That old story of the Garden of Eden got it right. We were fallen and unworthy—but not because Eve desired a bite of apple, but because we did not know how to live peacefully there with the trees and the snakes and all.

“I wish the Judeo-Christian myth included better instructions on what to do once we were out on our own in the so-called wilderness. The Native Americans got good instructions. The Buddhists understood. But the Europeans, my tribe—we were told “be fruitful and multiply and subdue the Earth and her creatures.” That is what we have done, and as a result we are now 9 billion humans on this planet, close to wiping out the other species and undoing the ecological life support on which all of us depend.

“I know you wished us to prosper, Mother, as you do all your children. But I wouldn’t hold it against you now if you decided that you’d had enough of us humans. I think we’ve had our chance; we’ve blown it; and it’s time for some tough love.

“Time for us to own up to the consequences of our actions. Time for you to push the reset button, perhaps, and start the process of creation anew.”

Viewed soberly, it’s hard to deny that we may very well be living in the end times for the human civilizations that began some 5,000 years ago when Gilgamesh killed Humbaba, the guardian of the forest, and cut down the cedar forest to make his city.

It’s also hard to argue that the end of our destructive era is a bad thing.

On an Earth Day that also featured the biggest Marches for Science ever assembled on the planet, it behooves us to acknowledge that Science has been a mixed blessing for the Earth community.

17991179_10212501290152317_3238751945848981883_nOf course, in so many ways, science, technology and engineering have been amazing boons for humanity. Who wouldn’t be grateful for medical advances that enable us to live longer and better? Who wouldn’t admire the technological prowess that enables us to communicate instantaneously with people on the other side of the world, and to fly there and talk in person if we so desire? Of course, we all love the conveniences of modern engineering: water systems, cars and roads, houses that can be heated with a flick of switch in the winter, and cooled just as easily in the summer.

The benefits of science are too numerous to list. And yet, I have to ask: what price have we paid for all these modern conveniences? What price will our children and grandchildren still be paying, far into the future?

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Robin Wall Kimmerer

I was really grateful to see the wonderful statement by indigenous scientists, including the ever-inspiring Robin Wall Kimmerer, pushing us to remember that “Indigenous science provides a wealth of knowledge and a powerful alternative paradigm by which we understand the natural world and our relation to it. Embedded in cultural frameworks of respect, reciprocity, responsibility and reverence for the earth, Indigenous science lies within a worldview where knowledge is coupled to responsibility and human activity is aligned with ecological principles and natural law, rather than against them.

“We need both ways of knowing,” the statement proclaims—indigenous and western—“if we are to advance knowledge and sustainability.”

This is truly the challenge of our time. Can we wed the simple and uncomplicated love for the natural world that we experienced as children with the ecological sophistication of indigenous science and the technological brilliance of western science?

Can we ensure that new generations of children will get their heads of out of their screens long enough to experience the wonder and magic of face time with the natural world?

Will we all—old and young, indigenous and settler, science geeks and nature buffs—join forces in the common goal of protecting and nurturing our common home, our Mother Earth?

We can—we must—and we will!

ENOUGH: An Eco-Feminist Easter Proclamation

Today is Easter, celebrated in the Christian world as the day that a tortured Jesus ascended from the Cross and was welcomed, reborn, into the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s also the end of the week of Passover, when Jewish people celebrate the miracle that saved their sons from death at the hands of their oppressive Egyptian overlords. And of course, it’s also Spring, when the entire northern hemisphere of Gaia garbs herself in green again and every living being revels in the rebirth of the plants that sustain us.

Note how the Judeo-Christian traditions weave persecution and war into the fabric of their most cherished myths. Christ died to wash away our sins, we are told, and the battles over his legacy have continued ever since. The Jews were reprieved at the original Passover, but hanging over that holiday is the knowledge of how many times in history they did not make it through alive.

In these early days of the 21st century, the peace and compassion that Christ died proclaiming is hard to find. Once again the overlords are engaged brutal power grabs backed by military might, destroying the lives of innocents and battering entire societies, entire ecosystems.

As the keening cries of grieving survivors rise up like smoke over the battlefields everywhere on our planet—and I am not just talking about humans, but about the beleaguered survivors of every species on Earth, all of us under constant assault by the lords of greedy destruction—a loud, deep voice seems to speak through me, proclaiming

ENOUGH.

It’s time to move beyond Abraham and the warring trinity of religions he spawned. It’s time to reconnect with our even more ancient indigenous traditions, which are steeped in a reverence for place—an understanding of the sacredness of the natural world, and our human role as caretakers of life.

It’s time for women to stand up as the bearers of life, for us to recognize our sacred responsibility to temper the aggression that has been ascendant during these past millennia of patriarchy.

Although it’s not fashionable to talk in terms of “the gender binary” these days, this evasion strikes me as yet another patriarchal ruse: when the women start getting strong, undercut them by making it taboo to talk about women and men. We’re all just humans, right?

Right, except that some humans—defined by their genitalia—still have more social and political power than others. And those humans—men—are still the ones who are out there fighting wars, running chemical companies, drilling oil, fracking gas, hunting animals, logging forests. Wherever you look, it’s men calling the shots of human civilization, and their playbook spells destruction for all of us.

I believe gender is a spectrum and our gender identities are fluid. All of us humans—men and women—have the capacity to be nurturers and protectors of life, as well as fierce warriors. Right now, we need a huge upsurge of the feminine, compassionate, gentle energy represented by that famous man, Jesus Christ, and in our time there is no reason why women shouldn’t lead the way.

Women, and men who honor the feminine principle of life, let us dedicate ourselves this Spring to reimagining a new relationship with Gaia, our Mother Earth. We are in a fight for our very existence, and our resistance will, as we saw at Standing Rock, be met with violence.

We will each have to decide how much we are willing to risk; what crosses we are willing to ascend; how much we are willing to make our lives an offering for all Life, as Christ did.

Let us understand that the wars being fought today in Christ’s name do not represent his spirit. Let us understand the true spirit of Resurrection this Easter: the eternal return of Life nurtured by the divine Feminine, our Mother Gaia. Let us vow, as Spring returns once more, to live and die in her service.

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Telling Senator Warren to Shut Up? Hell No! When They Go Low, We Will Too

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The maelstrom over Mitch McConnell’s insulting “shutting up” of Senator Elizabeth Warren has provoked some thoughtful commentary on how very typical it is for women to be silenced in majority-male environments.

“The unpalatable truth is that women encounter this behavior in most professions,” writes Susan Chira in The New York Times. “It often comes from well-intentioned men who are horrified when it is pointed out or oblivious when it is going on, as well as those who are less enlightened.”

I have encountered this kind of behavior many times in my own profession. For example, one man who I’m sure would think of himself as “enlightened,” recently stormed out of a meeting in a rage after a woman colleague, tired of listening to him hold forth interminably, dared to interrupt him in order to insert a thought of her own.

Yes, women still struggle to get a word in edgewise, not only because of the behavior and expectations of others, but also because of our own internalized socialization, which enjoins us to be polite, wait our turn, speak only when we’re very sure of the value of what we have to say.

In the wake of the Women’s March on Washington and all the solidarity marches around the country and around the world…in the wake of the Drumpf administration’s retrograde and quite open attack on women’s rights…in view of the extreme seriousness of our historical moment…

IT IS CLEAR THAT WOMEN CAN NO LONGER AFFORD TO BE QUIET.

For many of us, the idea of speaking up in a meeting or a crowd can be frightening. We may not think of ourselves as community leaders, or want to step outside the comfort zones of our carefully defined personal and professional lives.

But these are not ordinary times.

We stand on the precipice of a future that may well be more cataclysmic as anything the 20th century threw at us.

We are told that Bannon, the evil genius behind the throne of the orange man, is eager to foment World War III. Through his golem, DT, he is provoking and needling our allies, sometimes by making friends with common enemies like Russia; he is weaseling his way into the Vatican and trying to stir up dissension among the Cardinals under the current peaceful, green-minded Pope; he is going out of his way to exacerbate the climate change problem by putting the full weight of the presidency behind fossil fuel extraction and distribution, the hell with environmental impacts.

A new “axis of evil” is being laid out for us, the conditions for war made artificially inexorable, just as they were in 2001 when Bush & Co. lied to America and threw us into the needless Iraq war.

I stand for reproductive rights just as much as the next woman, but American women, I’m telling you, we have even bigger battles to fight right now.

Women’s rights are human rights; critical issues of economics, geopolitics and environment are women’s issues; women need to be seen and heard—loudly, nastily, stubbornly—on every issue of concern to our nation and the world today.

Mitch McConnell is going to find that while he may have silenced U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren on one evening, there are going to be dozens, if not hundreds and thousands of women standing up to take her place. Thought we may not be welcome in the august chambers of Congress, we can barrage members by phone, email, snail mail and social media to make our voices heard.

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We can and must work in our communities to plan the ousting of the idiots in the 2018 elections, when every single House seat will be up for grabs, along with a good number of Senate seats and governorships.

We have to get used to the idea that the Repugs will play dirty, and be willing to fight fire with fire. No more “when they go low we go high.” When they go low, we have to go low too, in the interests of winning!

Women, especially white women, are a key demographic in upcoming elections. Progressive white women need to reach out to the 53% of white women who voted for Drumpf and find out why. What did they see in the slimeball–I mean, the guy? Are we seeing some sad version of Stockholm syndrome here?

This is a time for coalitions across all kinds of borders. We can win the battle for our country and our future, but only if we put aside perceived differences and focus on what unites us.

I am remembering “Me and Bobby McGee,” the Janis Joplin song from the 60s, with the refrain “Freedom’s just another name for nothing left to lose.”

American progressives, we don’t have much to lose now. We have everything—EVERYTHING—to win. Let’s get out there and WIN THIS!!

 

Useful organizing links:

Indivisible Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda

Women’s March on Washington Next Step: Huddles

People’s Climate March on Washington, April 29, 2017

General strikes, including “A Day Without Women”

Guide to the Anti-Trump Movements

Stop Letting the Days Go By!

One of the soundtracks that has been running through my mind these last few days is “Once in a Lifetime,” by David Byrne and the Talking Heads.

The song was a 1980s anthem to the midlife crisis of a suburban man who has just gone with the flow and followed the usual cultural path, only to wake up “behind the wheel of a large automobile…in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife” asking with angst, “How did I get here?”

The answer, sung almost gaily, is: “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down, Letting the days go by, water flowing underground….Same as it ever was, same as it ever was….”

Right now our whole culture seems to be asking with alarm, “How did we get here?” The answer is, as Byrne intuited, about going with the flow.

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In my elemental framework for purposeful memoir, WATER is related to the teenage and young adult years, when we are swept into the cultural stream that surround us, and most of us just let the days go by, letting our culture carry us along.

Every so often we hit some kind of snag that causes us to lift our heads, sputtering, look around as if waking from a dream, and ask how in the world we got here.

img_0014We’re in such a moment now, as individuals and more broadly as a society. In my elemental lexicon, we’re in a FIRE moment now, a time of challenge and trials, but also a time when we can tap most deeply into our passions and beliefs.

The question “How did I/we get here?” is a fundamental one to be asking ourselves at this juncture.

That’s why I’m so passionate about encouraging people to undertake the elemental journey of purposeful memoir.

In looking back over our life experiences, and understanding them more deeply in the context of the political and planetary tapestry into which our personal lives are woven, we not only come to understand “how we got here,” but also to start envisioning where we would like to go next.

wif-cover-ebookIn my memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered, the journey was circular, as I ended up back on the childhood ground of my being (symbolized by the element EARTH) understanding that I had to get back to my original passion for the natural world, which had been worn away by the ceaseless current of the heedless American culture into which I was born.

Here comes the AIR of reflection:

We come into our lives with a purpose that we don’t always understand or fulfill. One thing for sure is that it is never too late to begin, or begin again, to become aware of what it is we are here to do, and move ourselves further along the path towards our destination.

Purposeful memoir is a tool that can help you on that journey of self-awareness, particularly when you investigate your personal life in its full political and planetary dimensions.

elemental-journey-cover-new-smI am excited and honored to be offering my new Writer’s Companion guide for purposeful memoirists, along with in-person classes that will provide the space for shared reflection and insights about the elemental journey.

Neither my book nor my classes are prescriptive. My aim is to open up possible avenues of inquiry, and to get the creative juices flowing, helping you put together the jigsaw pieces of your own life to find your own unique sense of purpose.

Here in the Berkshires I’ll be offering a monthly class, following the book, aimed at cultivating creativity and building community while sharing highlights from our life journeys. You can find out more about those Saturday afternoon classes, offered under the banner of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, here.

Soon I’ll be announcing an online writers’ circle for purposeful memoirists, for those who can’t get to the Berkshires for an in-person class.

I also have various readings and other kinds of workshops coming up, which you can find out about on my website.

And though I’m certainly no Meryl Streep, here is a little video my son and I made, where I talk about what purposeful memoir means to me, and why it matters.

Truly, now is the time, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Are you ready? Let’s go!

“Tales from the Grassy Bank”: Day One of the New Resistance

What an exciting day it was! Today was a day when once again, people all over America and the world took to the streets to stand up for justice.

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This time it was a “women’s march,” but lots of men came along in solidarity, and I was glad to hear Senator Kamala Harris, in her speech to the crowd in Washington DC, sassily point out that the economy and jobs are “women’s issues.” Women’s rights are human rights, as the saying goes, and no society can be successful if half their population is left behind.

It’s frustrating that we are still fighting for the same rights that our mothers and grandmothers sought decades ago. How could women’s right to control their own reproductive health be threatened once again? Why do we still not have pay equity? Why is “women’s work” like housework and childcare (or teaching) not respected or rewarded? Why don’t parents accrue social security for time spent doing the hard work of raising the next generation?

I flip between moments of truculent hope, when I look at that sea of energized women and men in the streets of our nation and believe that We the People Have the Power—and moments when I see in my mind’s eye the pink bulbous faces of the Republicans who dominate our Congress, as well as hold most of the Governors’ seats in our country, and despair that our side will be able to overcome their political stranglehold.

They have their hands on our throats now, and they’re squeezing hard.

c2uaqf6xuaesylaBut we are many; they are few. They can’t choke all of us; they can’t cut our mikes or silence our social media feeds.

We’ve burst through the old gates that used to keep the people in their place—outside of the halls of power. They may be able to drag protestors out of the Chambers of Congress, but they can’t drown out the howls of protest we can put up on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram walls.

Let’s see them try to take away our health care rights, like access to family planning. Let’s see them try to put the bogus “pre-existing condition” obstructions back in place. Let’s see them try to throw the poor and the elderly and the sick off the health care rolls.

Let’s see them try to expand fracking into every suburban neighborhood, with pipelines criss-crossing state parks and town squares. Let’s see them start pushing Big Oil again at the expense of our precious oceans and forests.

Let’s see them try to divide and conquer us by fanning the flames of inter-group rivalry, a classic “master’s tool” from colonial times: white against black, religion against religion, men against women, straight against gay and on and on.

You know what Congressboys? We’re too smart for that shit now.

We see right through you, Mr. Emperor-with-no-clothes Drumpf. You’re an embarrassment. You only got where you are by lying, cheating, and kicking your opponents in the balls (or the pussy, as the case may be).

As many of the speakers said today, this is only the beginning of our resistance. We’re going to have to stay focused and be willing to give time, energy and treasure to this fight, which is truly shaping up to be THE fight of our time, the fight that will determine the future of our planet for—well, perhaps forever.

If that sounds like hyperbole, I assure you it is not. The stakes are HIGH. The going will be TOUGH. We must stick together and keep our spirits up for the long haul.

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Capacity crowd at the Colonial Theater for the Berkshire Sister March event (this is just half the theater, taken from backstage)

Today in my little corner of the world, a group of talented creative women made it possible for some 1,650 people to get together in our biggest local theater, the Colonial, and watch the livestream of Democracy Now! reporting from the march in Washington DC. In the afternoon, a few of us presented a staged reading we had prepared—six writers reading their own powerful responses to the election, and six actors reading highlights of the U.S. Constitution. I wish I could share it all with you, because it was totally amazing!

I only have the short piece I presented, which I called “Tales from the Grassy Bank.” As I say in the piece, I decided I didn’t want to do what most of the speakers in Washington were doing: getting people all riled up about everything they hate about the way our political system malfunctioned this year.

Instead, I wanted to get the audience to slow down and get beyond the personal and political, reminding ourselves about the planetary, our Mother Earth who has been so patient with our misbehavior as a species, and who is always there for us to turn to for solace when the going gets too rough.

So this is what I presented, January 21, 2017 at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield MA, at the Berkshire sister march event.

Tales from the Grassy Bank

by Jennifer Browdy

            Although I have a lot I could say about how much I disagree with the people taking charge of our government right now, and the policies they stand for, I’ve decided that I don’t want to spend my precious time on this stage strutting and fretting and repeating the tales told by the idiots now in power.

After all, Shakespeare reminds us that in the end all that posturing is only sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I want to take us to a different place.

Close your eyes, if you want to, and imagine we’re sitting outside on a summer day, on a grassy bank by a rushing stream, shaded by a big old willow tree. The sun is warm but in the shade of the willow it’s cool and calm. An occasional bee drones by, and you can see the blue dragonflies darting above the water. A cardinal is singing his heart out in the tree high above us.

Sitting here in this peaceful place, you can feel the strong, massive roots of the willow holding up the bank, and holding you up with it. The power of the intertwined mat of roots rises up through your tailbone, up your spine, and reaches out through the top of your head towards the sun—the brilliant sun without which the green bounty of this special place could not exist.

This is the place from which my activism springs. Everything I do in the world can be traced back to my love for and deep connection to the natural world, and my awareness my life has no meaning—and indeed, I could not exist for a moment—apart from this connection.

This is true of all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

The important thing to understand is that we belong to the Earth, and we have a deeper purpose here than being poor players on the superficial stages created by others’ political agendas.

What we are here to do transcends the tumult of our particular time and place, which is why it’s so important to take the time to turn off our screens, disconnect from the mad rush of the 24/7 news cycle, and focus on doing the inner work that is a necessary prologue to effective activism out in the world. Slowly and patiently we must cultivate our capacity to become the fierce defenders of this Earth we so love.

When we work at this together, our lone quiet voices will swell to become a mighty river, a roaring torrent that will sweep away the tales told by idiots and replace them with a deep understanding of ourselves–as individuals, as members of our society, and as integral parts of the entire ecological web of our planet.

Whenever you start to feel lost in the sound and the fury, in the superficial madness of our time, remember that the grassy bank is always waiting there for you.

You can always retreat to your own special willow tree, and do the slow, timeless work of aligning the personal, political and planetary, remembering and honoring the elemental sources—Earth, Water, Fire and Air—from which we all spring.

Truly it’s a hellish landscape we’re walking through these days. But if we persevere, with the spirit of Mother Earth as our guide, we’ll be able to find our way out to the place where we can look up together, and see the stars.

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Stockbridge MA, Sunset and Moonrise. November 2016. Photo by J. Browdy

With thanks to my sister writers, performers and organizers of this inspiring event, “Rock the Constitution!”: Kristen van Ginhoven, Jayne Benjulian, Jana Laiz, Barbara Newman, Lara Tupper, Sheela Clary, Rachel Siegel, Grace Rossman, MaConnia Chesser, Corinna May, Lori Evans, Joan Coombs, Ariel Bock, Brenny Rabine.

Marching with Words into the Light of a New Era: Time to Rise!

My friend Barbara Newman described the staged reading she and I will be participating in on January 21 as a “march with words,” and this resonates with what I see so many of us doing these days as we rally together in our homes and community centers, our town halls and places of worship, and of course in the great 21st century town square, social media.

MEXICO - ZAPATISTAS ANNIVERSARYI am reminded of Subcomandante Marcos, who said “words are our weapons,” while fighting what appeared to be a hopelessly lopsided fight in the southern jungles of Mexico–Indians with rusty rifles and bandanas standing up to soldiers with helicopters and bombs. Marcos was one of the very first resistance fighters to use the power of the Internet as a way to sway the hearts and minds of ordinary onlookers, the world over, against local oppressors.

On the other side of the political spectrum, we see the man about to become the 45th president of the United States deploying the same tactics, his every tweet as powerful as any bombshell.

This is a dark time, and yet it’s also a time shot through with the light of the new age that is cracking open before us. Let us be candid and admit that while it would have been a symbolic victory for women to have Hillary Clinton sworn in as President today, her political bent was conservative, in the sense of maintaining the status quo.

What is familiar is comforting, we’re all children that way. Some of us are more adventurous than others. Some of us have nothing left to lose, and so we’re willing to place our bets on a total dark horse like Mr. Drumpf. If Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic candidate, he would probably have won for the same reason (barring major interference from Moscow).

But no use looking backward now. Let’s squint and look directly into the light of the future. Has there ever been a human revolution that has happened without struggle? Have people ever been willing to embrace radical change without having their backs pushed to whatever the wall of the moment might be?

Today in Washington DC a charlatan will take the oath of office as President of the United States. No, it’s not a reality TV show, it’s reality.

But it’s also reality that millions of Americans are energized and activated as never before, as a direct result of the crazy events of 2016. We are “tuned in, turned on, tapped in,” to use the favorite saying of a certain psychic I know.

That same psychic often reminds us that sometimes it takes a strong dose of WHAT WE DON’T WANT to jar us into an appreciation and understanding of WHAT WE DO WANT.

You can see that happening in the outpouring of love for the departing Obamas, in our entreaties to them to stay engaged in public life.

DEM 2016 ConventionBoth Barack and Michelle Obama are powerful orators. So is Bernie Sanders. We will need the power of their words more than ever in the bleak months ahead. We will need words to keep our spirits high, to remind us of the stakes and why we must fight for what we value, even putting our bodies on the line if need be.

It is surely no accident that in the very week that saw a parade of military-industrial complex billionaires coming to Washington hoping to ride Trump’s wave into political power, we got word from the scientists that 2016 was officially the hottest year on Earth since record-keeping began in the 19th century. It topped 2014 and 2015, which were also the hottest years ever in their time.

When I align the personal, political, and planetary in this moment, I see an amazing crystallization taking place. The Earth herself rumbles and roars her discontent and imbalance; political systems that have held for centuries crack and fall apart; and in so many human psyches a deep sense of uneasiness registers, an intuitive sense that something is not right.

Change is not just coming…it’s here. We are living, day by day, through extraordinary times.

I call on all of us to rise and meet the light of change with a strong spine and a resolute spirit.

We cannot go back, we can only go forward. There is a huge opportunity now to go forward into a more perfect union—not just among Americans, but among all peoples on Earth, and to reimagine our role as humans to become the caretakers of our planet, rather than its pirate plunderer-destroyers.

As we cry out against what we don’t want, let’s also use our words to envision and describe the contours of what we stand for.

Peace. Harmony. Generosity. Love.

How would each of these ideals look to you, brought down to the level of your community, your family, your life?

Look boldly into the light of this new era we’re entering, and use your words and your actions to make it so.

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Nova Scotia sunset, 2016

Only Connect! Urgent Questions for our time

Social ecologist Nora Bateson published an urgent blog post this morning, a list of the questions she believes need to be posed in order for global society to shift from our current careen toward chaos towards a sustainable future.

Her excellent questions are (and I quote):

“Education: How can we best cultivate curiosity, information, and learning between generations to prepare ourselves to perceive and respond to the complexity of our world with less destruction than centuries past?

“Health: How can we support health in human beings by making it possible for each person to eat healthy food, sleep well, know that their families are supported, be respected in their community, have relevant contributions (education and employment), breathe clean air, and drink clean water?

“Ecology: How can we interface with the complexity of our natural world so as to create less harm to the interdependence of all living things?

“Economy: How can we shift the economic system so that it is not based upon exploitation of nature and humanity –without crashing the globe into chaos? (note: no one gets rich on this version of economy)

“Politics: How do we get the policy makers of our world to mandate cross-sector information for their decision making processes so that they have the possibility of taking into account complexity?

“Media: How do we get a moratorium on binaries? How do we support public understanding, not trained in perceiving complexity, to become accustomed to it and demand communications institutions deliver cross-contextual information?

“Culture: What is the approach to open the global discussion about the pending fate of humanity? What matters? What are we willing change? How can we survive together?”

She specifies, “The danger we are in is woven across these contexts, so the questions posed must correspond to that transcontextual process,” and “All of the questions…scale from personal, to institutional, to global concern.”

I so agree that ours is a time of questions. In my classes these days, I spend a lot of time working with my students on formulating their questions about whatever material we’re reading/viewing/discussing. The old answers no longer suffice, and the old ways of framing questions are often too simplistic to address the full scope of the complexity and multi-dimensionality of our time.

I tell my students that I care more about the questions they raise in their humanities papers than about their “thesis statements”; and that the goal of their work is all about process: tracing a new thought path by getting into conversation with others about possible answers that can help us all to refine our questions, sharpen our vision, and build sturdier bridges into our uncertain future.

I believe that there is an important category/ context missing from Nora’s list of questions: the sacred.

I have been thinking a lot about the 95% of the cosmos that is made up of “dark energy” and “dark matter”—“dark” meaning that we don’t know what in the world it is. Everything we can perceive represents only 5% of the universe. What is the rest?

My guess is that the vast 95% is related to what humans have been referring to for millennia as the metaphysical, the psychic, the spiritual, the divine.

That divinity is the big “context,” the sacred connective tissue shining through the cracks between each of Nora’s questions. Science has only just realized it’s there, though our mystics and shamans have always been able to access it (sometimes with a little help from the fungi and plant world).

I see Nora’s first and last questions as related, closing a circle. Education must encourage curiosity and questioning about what matters most: the survival of our species and all of our companion life forms on Earth, including the elemental building blocks of life and the vast, largely invisible-to-us micro-biomes that support and enable life on the planet.

If we shift our vision from the foreground represented by Nora’s rightly urgent questions to the background—the vast “dark” energy and matter that we might call the spiritual interconnections of self and cosmos, immanent in every speck of the familiar 5% confines of the universe we know so far—suddenly the questions shift too, crystallizing into a mighty clarion call that can reach around our little planet and unite us all:

How can we live in sacred harmony? How can we most firmly, most productively, most lovingly connect with each other and with All That Is?

I am reminded of the famous quote from E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, when Margaret Schlegel reflects on the “incomplete asceticism” that rules her would-be lover, Henry Wilcox. Margaret believes that:

“She might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire….Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die” (Chapter 22).

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At this moment, in the early 21st century, we are poised on Forster’s “rainbow bridge.” We have the potential to “connect the prose in us with the passion,” to leave the beast and the monk in us behind.

It’s time for Benjamin’s Angel of History to turn around, snap out of the trance of the past and look bravely into the glowing, as-yet-unlived future, asking the question that reverberates through the “dark” realms of our cosmos:

How can we connect and truly progress?

 

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