Mother’s Day Anger

So it’s hard, when my Facebook feed is lighting up with lovely tributes to moms and children, to confess what’s in my heart.

Especially when I too am so blessed—I have such a wonderful mother, such wonderful children!

But there is this stubborn knot, somewhere just above my heart, that will only be untangled if I take the risk of writing my truth.

So here goes.

As a mother, I AM SO ANGRY.

Not at my kids—lord, no.

I am angry at the prevailing culture that makes it so hard to be a mother these days.

I am angry at 12 weeks’ maternity leave being seen as generous.

I am angry at the incredible stupidity of Republicans who can imagine pregnancy as a “pre-existing condition.”

I am angry—no, FURIOUS—at the on-going, accelerating, totally suicidal destruction of our Mother Earth, Gaia, without whose generous beneficence none of us could live for even a moment.

I am angry at our president and first lady—the one an avowed pussy grabber, the other someone who clearly values money over a good relationship.

I am angry that still today, in 2017, women have to choose between career and motherhood—and if we choose motherhood, our earning potential is likely to be forever crippled.

I am angry that my 18-year-old son was forced to register with the US military in case of a draft. The Iroquois Confederacy had it right: no war without the permission of the WOMEN of the tribe.

I am angry that public schooling in America is still tied to the property tax, which means that kids in poor neighborhoods receive significantly poorer schooling than kids in wealthy neighborhoods. Are we not all Americans? Enough of this race/class discrimination!

I am angry that older women, who have put in their time as moms and grandmoms and foster moms and nurturers of all and sundry are at risk of being turned out to pasture without enough social support.

Oh shit! I am angry! And I know that it’s not cool for mothers to be angry. We are supposed to be endless earth-mamas, always nurturing, always forgiving, always sweet, kind and loving.

I am sorry to rain on the lovely parade of adoring mom-and-child social media posts.

But really, my friends, if we look beyond the personal to the political and planetary, can we afford to be complacent?

I want to see a world in which mothering, and parenting, is treated as the most important and well-rewarded job in the world.

I want to see our educational sector doing everything possible to foster creative thinking and self-confidence in our children.

I want to see a world in which people who choose to devote themselves to parenting, when their children are young, are REWARDED for this rather than penalized.

I want to see our steadfast support of GAIA, our beautiful earthly Mother, acknowledged as the most important political stance we could take.

I know this is possible because it is already happening in other countries.

It’s not a crazy idea!

I am sorry to be angry on Mother’s Day.

Please give me a like if you understand why ANGER is an important incubator for CHANGE.

Mothers: yeah, we’ll do anything for our children.

Will you—politicians, business leaders—do something for us?

Grandma Mildred and baby Eric








Yes, we have work to do! Seizing the potential of the borderlands between what is and what is possible

“It is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counter stance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat…both are reduced to a common denominator of violence.

“The counter stance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and for this it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counter stance stems from a problem with authority–outer as well as inner–it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life.

“At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.

“Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.”

–Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La frontera


gloria-anzalsuabWritten by a Chicana queer in 1987, Borderlands/La frontera was always ahead of its time. Or maybe it was just that as an inhabitant of the radically unsafe cultural and literal borderlands, Anzaldua was much more aware than most of her audience of what is at stake in making your home on a border—on, as she put it, “that thin edge of barbed-wire.”

I named this blog Transition Times back in 2011 because even then it felt like we were moving into the liminal, transitional space between the old cultural norms and an as-yet unclear new culture, a new way of relating with each other and our planet. Like Charles Eisenstein, I am searching for new ways of understanding what is happening in the world, and how I can be part of a movement for real, radical social change.

Yet like most everyone I know, I am still going through the motions of the old story, even while trying to get glimpses of something different.

I am still, as Anzaldua puts it, stuck in the counterstance, standing on the opposite side of the river from those I want to change, shouting futilely into the wind.

One of the peculiar challenges of our time is that “the enemy” is not easy to identify, and all too often it turns out that if we really follow the money, the “enemy” is us.

Who created the fossil fuel industry? I did, along with everyone I know, as we enjoyed the convenience of burning oil and gasoline, heedlessly using plastic, leaving the coal-fired-electric lights on.

Who created the so-called Rust Belt and killed the American workers’ unions? I did, preferring to buy my cars from Japan, and cheap goods from China.

Who created the corporate beast, now slouching insouciantly into the highest levels of American governmental power? I did, we all did, allowing corporate money to rule our politicians, allowing corporations to put short-term gain above longterm health and sustainability, rewarding those corporate leaders with ever-higher incomes and status.

Who created the military-industrial complex, along with its henchmen the pharmaceutical-petrochemical-agricultural complex? We all did, going along complacently with industrial agricultural built on chemicals, ignoring how unhealthy it made us, investing in the ever-climbing Big Pharma and Big Insurance industries that got richer in proportion to how unhealthy we became.

I could go on, but you get the drift. To really unpack Anzaldua’s image of enemies locked in a counterstance on opposite sides of the river, you have to admit that we are looking at a scenario we created.

When we look at the oh-so-real image of militarized police spraying unarmed, peaceful water protectors with huge canisters of mace, we are looking at what could be our future, as everywhere across America and the world, precious resources like water are being privatized and threatened by mining, fracking, drilling and all the dirty industries built on fossil fuels.


What would it mean to follow Anzaldua’s advice of moving beyond a simple yes-no opposition, into a “new consciousness” that can see with both eagle and serpent eyes?

In our current situation, it would mean doing a lot of soul-searching as to why so many poor people in America voted against their own interests, for the aggressive, macho reality TV star that even the Republicans weren’t sure they could stand.

Our two political parties were revealed, in this election cycle, to be equally out of touch with conditions on the ground in America. Both parties are split between fat-cat corporate types and rabble-rousing throw-em-out types, and neither party, it seems, is strong enough to unite these two wings.

Neither presidential candidate this year would have had a real mandate, as in a nation united behind them. In truth, it’s the class divide that tripped up Hillary Clinton, and her inability to be convincing when she claimed she’d help the working class.

Trump was just a better liar, knowing that if he could stoke the voters’ anger against the status quo, they wouldn’t care about what specific policies he might or might not be able to enact once in office. Who cares about the fine print when you have a candidate who gives you permission to shout obscenities and have some fun?

Again, to ask where the Trump voters came from is to be led back to the mirror. I place a lot of the blame for voters’ lack of engagement and discernment at the feet of the American public education system, and beyond that, to parents who abandoned their kids to the tutelage of the internet, video games and TV—all of which are run by social elites, let us remember.

Religion is the opiate of the masses, Marx proclaimed in the 19th century. For the 20th century, and to this day, media has become the opiate of the masses. Media has moved into the place of leadership formerly held by education and individual teachers, religion and individual pastors, and even family and individual parents.

How often of late have you seen young people sitting at the table listening to the conversation of their elders? Unless they are forced to, they would much rather be off by themselves with their eyes glued to their screens. Even groups of young people will sit together each one on their own screen, occasionally commenting out loud to each other about what they are seeing on-screen.

We have begun to awaken to the power of media, especially social media, to influence reality, with Facebook now at last taking seriously the disruptive potential of “fake news.” Fake news probably won the election for Trump. And this is the mother’s milk our kids are being raised on, as they are let loose in an internet landscape they have to figure out for themselves.

The question is, now that we’re awake, what will we do about it?

Like everyone I know, I have been signing online petitions, joining online resistance groups, giving money, thinking about joining the street protests.

But this is counterstance politics. It absorbs our energy into fighting against, rather than using that precious resource, our time and energy, into developing an alternative, based on “new consciousness,” in new territory.

What would it mean to fight FOR the world we want to live in, rather than AGAINST the dying gasps of the old order? What would it mean to start telling new stories of what could be possible, rather than endlessly rehashing the fear and loathing of the past?

I’m not talking about sticking my head in the sand or pretending that the bigotry of the Trump people isn’t real and dangerous. It’s real, and it’s very dangerous. We are right to be afraid.

But we can’t afford to spend all our energy saying NO. We have to also work in our local communities to live into alternatives, and celebrating our successes loudly and happily at every opportunity.

Alliances and coalitions of all stripes—across the artificial boundaries of race, sex/gender, class, ethnicity, religion, region, nationality—these can and must get stronger, as we all agree to inhabit the borderland spaces together.

We must all be “queer” now, as is beginning when we see people promising to register themselves as Muslims, should such a national registry ever come to pass, or standing in solidarity with the Native American water protectors’ movement, in repudiation of the disgraceful settler-native relations of the past.

We can work on the local level to implement renewable energy alternatives, moving boldly into solar, wind and other democratically available resources and hitting the fossil fuel industries where it matters—their bottom line.

In so many ways, we can use our power as consumers to create the world we want to see. That means understanding the stakes involved in “cheap” Chinese goods or industrial food, and being willing to spend a bit more in the short term, to invest in the long term health of people and the planet.

Buying organic or food produced locally using permaculture agricultural practices may cost a few pennies more, but that small individual investment can have a big impact if many of us are willing to make the shift.

Same with eating less meat, or even no meat. These seemingly small personal choices really can have a big impact if enough of us are making them and talking about them and encouraging each other to see the big picture of why it’s important.

For me, as a parent and a teacher, one of the biggest areas in need of “new consciousness” has to do with rearing the next generations. We must fight the domination of the corporate media by insisting that kids remain connected to their innate creativity.

Seriously, I don’t think kids under the age of 10 should have free-range access to the internet or games. We want our kids to stay connected to the real world—the natural world, their communities, their families, their friends. We want them to develop their own creative voices and visions, to “play make-believe” and dream into the new stories their generation will need. Allowing them to stuff their minds on junk-food media is undermining their potential at the most basic level.

But we must provide exciting alternatives to those screens. School should not be boring. Communication is our greatest strength as a species, and we need to get much better about how we teach, how we parent, and what we offer our kids in the way of stimulation and opportunities for growth. Their needs are not the same as what we current adults needed in our pre-internet time. But abdicating our role to the internet is a dangerous cop-out.


Young people need our guidance more than ever. It will be harder to reach those who have been weaned on internet-milk, but it is possible, and we must go at it with all the creativity and love we possess—and not just for our own kids, but for all kids. Especially those from the angry, disenfranchised families, the poor kids, the Trump kids.

I agree with everyone who is talking about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work in the wake of the election disaster. But what the work is…that is the question we must ponder deeply.

Going to Washington DC to protest the inauguration of Trump the day AFTER doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, in terms of use of our precious energy and time. Why isn’t a big protest being called for December 18, the day BEFORE the Electoral College is to finalize their vote?

We need to be strategic in the coming weeks, months and years. We don’t have the luxury of time to fritter away our energy in non-effective counterstances.

As we move into this uncharted borderland between the familiar old culture and the unknown future hurtling towards us, let’s keep our faces bravely looking ahead—not like Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history, turned backward to the destruction and disappointment of the past.

What family, what community, what world, do you want to live in? Get clear on it and then—go make it so.

Will All The Good Fathers Please Stand Up?!

It’s Father’s Day 2014, and I am distraught when I look out into the world and see the ascendancy of the kind of distorted, testosterone-driven style of masculinity that is antithetical to good fatherhood.

A good father, in my book, uses his strength, wisdom and social capital to protect and empower his own and others’ children. He is rational and clear-thinking, but also not afraid to own his emotional side, to display his loving, nurturing nature. He is constructive in his social engagements, and tries to think ahead to ensure that his family, and by extension his society, will be as safe and prosperous in the future as they are currently, under his wing.

A good father uses his physical strength, or picks up weapons, only in defense of himself and his loved ones.

A good father would never harm a defenseless child, or send one deliberately into harm’s way.

So who are these men and boys who are gang-raping innocent women in Egypt; gang-raping and then lynching teen girls in India; going on mass-murder sprees in the United States; and sending yet another generation of boys into ideologically driven wars in the Middle East?

Who are these men who are kidnapping and brutalizing whole schools full of young girls in Nigeria; shooting in the head girls whose only crime is to want an education; kidnapping and holding as sex slaves innocent teenagers who comply out of terror?

I know, and you know, that there are a lot of good men out there. We all know many good fathers, brothers, husbands, friends.

These good men are the ones who, as New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote recently, need to stand up and insist that the aggressive, punishing, domineering style of masculinity has no place in the 21st century.

Masculine strength, absolutely. But it should be the strength of a benevolent patriarch, using his power to nourish and strengthen others.

Screen-shot-2013-12-16-at-4.18.49-PMAlthough I know President Obama has disappointed many, I still hold him up as an example of a good man: a good father, who works tirelessly to improve the world that his young daughters will be entering in the coming years, and a good leader, who has been doing the best he can to reach out a helping hand to those who need it—students, the elderly, immigrants, women. I doubt any one of us who landed in his shoes in Washington D.C. could do it better, so who are we to criticize?

On this Father’s Day, I salute all the good dads out there, including my own, and I implore you: use your social capital and power to condemn violence and destructiveness; to model and promote the peaceful, nurturing, kind human relations that the world needs now.

Of school shootings, misogyny and the dream of gender equality

The lovely Commencement at my institution this weekend was shadowed, for me at least, by the latest school shooting—the psychotic Californian kid who blew away six other kids in a highly premeditated murderous vendetta against young women who, he claimed, refused to cooperate with his sexual fantasies.

The shootings have prompted millions of social media postings and propelled the issue of misogyny on to the front page of The New York Times and many other staid bastions of male-dominated media, which only pay attention to the most sensationalized of crimes against women.

The latest high-profile cases of campus sexual assault have provoked outrage from women and the men who respect them. Young women are refusing to be muzzled by their colleges, filing lawsuits recently bolstered by the Federal government, which has ordered colleges and universities to get their act together and stop the sexual harassment and assault of women by men—or face Federal Title IX lawsuits.

Yes, imagine that—singling out women for assault on a college campus is actually a Federal crime. That this should come as a surprise is a measure of how very normalized the sexual targeting and bullying of women has become.


Lately I have been thinking a lot about how much one’s physical body matters. In an ideal world, it should not matter what kind of genitalia or hormonal make-up you’re born with. Men and women may be differently abled, but we are certainly equal in our potential for positive contributions to our society and planet.

However, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a highly cultured world where, unfortunately, the dominant messages young people receive about what it means to be masculine and feminine are highly differentiated.

We all know the stereotypes. Manly men are strong, dominant, powerful—leaders, speakers, do-ers in the public sphere of business, government, finance, medicine, media. Womanly men are compliant, nurturing, sweet—homemakers, caregivers, do-ers in the private realm of the home and family.

Kids absorb these messages like sponges, often uncritically, especially when these are the norms they see around them in the real-life environments of their families and schools.

To live the stereotype of the manly man, a man has to distinguish himself from being a “sissy,” “pussy,” or “girl” by putting females in their place. Woman are there to serve, whether it’s mom getting dinner and doing the laundry, or a hook-up partner giving a blow job. Women wear those skimpy clothes because they “want some,” and they like men who are aggressive in “getting some.” They like the attention of catcalls and fondles. After all, the girlie-men are nerds and they never get the pretty girls.

UnknownWelcome to the imaginal landscape of the stereotypical teenage boy, reinforced by thousands of video game sessions played, movies and TV episodes watched, comedy routines and talk radio listened to.  Even in the cartoon world of super-heroes, female heroes have to wear swimsuits and show a lot of skin.

Girls inhabit a parallel universe for the most part, a soft, rosy pink-imbued landscape where romance still takes the form of a gentle, courtly but powerful knight on a white charger who will make everything all right.

Is it any wonder that when these two universes collide on college campuses, mighty rumbles and explosions result?


So to those delightful, earnest young men who keep telling me that gender is just a social construction, that discrimination against women is historical, in the past, and that today women don’t need any special attention or bolstering—I have to shake my head sadly and say simply, “I wish that were the case.”

The casual disrespect of and disregard for women runs deep and wide in our culture. For young women, it often wears the venomous face of sexual assault. For women of child-bearing age, it’s about being culturally encouraged to stay home with the kids in a career environment that is entirely un-family-friendly, resulting in effective career sabotage of women on a society-wide scale. For older women it’s about ageism in a youth-obsessed society, where it’s assumed that if you haven’t “made it” by the time you’re 40, it’s because you’re mediocre and don’t have what it takes.

Women of all ages suffer from the arrogance of the male-dominated cultural oligarchy (otherwise known by that loaded term, “the patriarchy”) that assumes that women are under-represented in Western intellectual history because they never did anything important enough (and weren’t intelligent enough to do anything important enough) to merit representation.

We got a recent example of this unthinking cultural misogyny in the two most recent New York Times columns by David Brooks, entitled “Great Books I & II,” where in all of written history the only female author who made it on to his great books list was the one who forced herself to write under a male pseudonym in order to be taken seriously: George Eliot.


There has never yet been a mass shooting by a woman. Women are far more likely to be self-destructive, turning the razors against their own arms and legs, or starving themselves as anorexics. It’s the boys who turn their rage outward, bringing down innocent people before they turn the gun to their own disturbed heads.

The truth is that both boys and girls in our culture need a lot more support than most of them get. We need to start combating the ugliness of gender stereotyping early, long before the girls start trying to conform to unrealistic body image expectations, and boys start thinking of purchasing the all-too-easy-to-obtain shotguns and pistols.

Because we live in a patriarchy, girls and women still do need extra support and encouragement to raise their voices against discrimination and cultural sabotage, to insist on equal treatment and respect in every social sphere.

We are an imitative species—we learn by observation. Every adult should be conscious of the need to set a good example for the young people in our lives, and that includes the adults—mostly men at the moment—who control that incredibly powerful educational system, the media.

Boys and girls need to see men and women relating to each other in responsible, respectful ways, in the media and in the flesh. If we could accomplish this, then maybe we could cry victory and declare unnecessary the need for Title IX and affirmative action protection of women, as well as the kinds of work I do in support of women and girls through my teaching, writing and activism.

I hope that day does come soon…it’s clearly not here yet.

Generations to Come: Mother’s Day Reflections on the Future

1013976.largeMy son and his girlfriend say they’re going to have a pig instead of a child.  They mean that literally—they’ve fallen in love with the idea of small pet pigs—and they’ve thought long and hard about the issue of whether or not to bring a child into this world.  Both confess to strong maternal/paternal inclinations, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they would make wonderful parents.

But unlike most people, they are hyper-aware of the troubled times humanity is moving into, as we sail along on our spaceship Earth.

“There’s no future for a child today,” my son says with resignation, and goes back to talking about the virtues of pet pigs, leaving me to sadly ponder the prospect of a piglet for a granddaughter.

When I was their age, in my early twenties, I reached for motherhood as a flower reaches toward the sun.  It was only a question of finding the right partner to make a baby with, and I put quite a bit of energy and focus into that search.  I married at 26 and had my first child at 30, the second at 36.  My role as a mother has determined my life choices ever since.

If I had been thinking as rationally as my son and his girlfriend, well, he might never have been born.  By 1992, his birth year, things were already looking grim, though we were all much less aware of the dark trends at work because the feel-good American media filtered out so much.

Now, social media does an incredible job of keeping us constantly informed about everything that’s going on in our world.

A granddaughter is born and Facebook lights up with pictures and congratulations.  Canada starts its seal hunt, and photos of bloody baby seals flood the web, with boos and hisses and calls for change.

When schoolgirls are abducted in Nigeria, or a boatload of teenagers drown in a sinking ferry, or thousands of people die in a landslide, we hear about it instantly, and as instinctively empathetic humans, we sense another portion of our emotional landscape darkening with grief.

It’s true that there is a lot of sadness, fear, pain and darkness in our world today.  It’s true that the future of human civilization as we know it is highly uncertain.  It’s true that we live in transition times.

But as I look around me on this sunny Mother’s Day morning and hear the birds singing and working busily on their nests in the trees around my house, I know it is far too soon to give up on our future.

Every living being in the ecological web of this planet reaches instinctively for the sun and dedicates itself to providing the ground for the next generation to stand on.

I understand that my son is acting out of an altruistic heroism when he thinks about renouncing fatherhood.  He has always wanted to be a father, and known he’d be a good one: he has been a wonderful older brother, and as a teenager quickly became a beloved camp counselor and mentor to younger kids.  He has an easy, charismatic way with children, and as a father he’d raise just the kind of bright, secure, grounded children that will be needed to lead humanity through the transitions ahead.

OK, so in part I just would much rather have a baby than a piglet for a grandchild.  But I also believe that we must resist the tendency to get so caught up in all the negative news that we forget to simply look around and remember that the sun is still shining, the leaves are unfurling, the birds are singing and a new day is here, full of untapped potential.

Maybe the question we need to be asking ourselves is not only “what will we do with our own precious lives,” but “what will we do for the lives of those precious children—of all species—to come?”  How can we spend our days wisely working to help our ever-loving Mother Earth continue providing the nurturing support she has always offered freely to all of her children?


Daring to imagine a brave new post-patriarchal world

When was the last time you uttered the dreaded P-Word?

Patriarchy, that is.

Somehow the word itself comes out sounding like a challenge, even when it’s not meant as one.  Calling attention to the fact that men still rule the world is considered poor taste.

Women who dare to use the P-word in conversation run the risk of being labeled as strident femi-nazi ballbusters, resentful unfortunates to be avoided if at all possible.

Am I exaggerating?  I don’t think so!

What happens when we all agree to participate in the collective delusion that gender equality has been achieved?  Who loses and who gains?  What opportunities are lost and forfeited?

I’m tired of living in a society that calls strong men “leaders” and strong women “bossy.”

I want to encourage more girls and women to step into leadership roles in every public arena, and be applauded for it by both men and women.

I want to see all leaders supported by excellent child care, fabulous schools and reasonable flex time at work.

When women and men take time off to focus on their families, I want to see that time recognized as valuable—indeed, essential—to maintaining a healthy society, and rewarded by Social Security accrual down the road in retirement.

Last week I spent time with two young mother-writers who came to present their work at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.  Both spoke of how hard it is to keep their professional lives going strong while also nurturing their families.  I certainly remember that struggle myself, and it’s not all in the past tense!

Hillary Rodham Clinton, late bloomer?

Hillary Rodham Clinton, late bloomer?

Is there any wonder that women are so often late bloomers when it comes to our professions?

But actually, let’s do away with the term “late bloomer” too, at least when it comes to women who do what makes perfect sense: focus on their families during their 20s and 30s, and get back to their careers when the childcare pressures ease up.

Those women have been blooming all along, or at least they would be if they lived in a society that supported and applauded their efforts, and encouraged men to share the burden of housework and childcare equally.

The patriarchy locked women in the domestic sphere for many long centuries, while devaluing “women’s work” as lower-paid and lower-status.

It’s time for us to celebrate women’s work as essential and invaluable, while also insisting that the whole category of “women’s work” has to be dismantled. We don’t need a gendered division of labor anymore, in the public or the private spheres.

What we need are strong, capable leaders to step up and help us evolve quickly into the resilient, collaborative, respectful human society we know we can be.

Bringing home the bacon and frying it up too: homage to mother-work

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

Jenny Laird reading on opening night of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

The theme of last Saturday’s opening night event at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others, was “What do mothers make?”

The answers provided by the evening’s presenters–all women at various stages of their lives–were various, but there was a common theme: mothers make families, mothers make relationships, mothers make community.

Historically, in most societies this has been the primary role given to women—to serve as the emotional heart of families, to make the meals and make the homes that lead to strong, centered communities.

These days, in American society at least, women are expected to do all this and also be successful in their professional lives.  Only the wealthiest American families can afford to have a stay-at-home parent.

In most households I know, especially among people at mid-life or younger, both parents are working hard at their jobs and also trying to sustain a healthy home life.  And in most families I know, it still falls disproportionately to women to keep those home fires banked and burning bright.

We live in a society that measures personal success by income, but puts no monetary value on homemaking, parenting and elder care.

So all those hours that women put in to keeping our families and communities strong and healthy “don’t count.”  The nation sends a pretty clear message through our Social Security retirement system, for example, telling parents and caregivers that the work we do in our homes is an unacknowledged and unrewarded second shift.

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, "What do mothers make?"

Erika Nelson, Nichole Dupont and Michelle Gillett were among those who read work responding to the question posed by host Suzi Banks Baum, “What do mothers make?”

A recent Pew study showed that 40% of all American households with children under 18 are now headed by women who are the sole or primary breadwinners for the family.  These women are bringing home the bacon and frying it up for their families—and arranging childcare, helping with homework, and doing all the regular home maintenance too, after their “work day” is done.

And then we wonder why so many children and teenagers are struggling with mental health, including ADD, eating disorders, addictions of all kinds, depression and lack of motivation.  We wonder why women are still not gaining equal representation at the highest levels of politics and business.  We wonder why so many women step off the leadership track in their thirties, when the mothering pressure is greatest, or “opt” to choose career paths that give them some precious flex-time.

It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at a society that squeezes everything it can out of mothers as workers and doesn’t recognize or value parenting and homemaking as the essential work it is.  Is this really the kind of society we want to call home?

I end with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Aurora Levins Morales:

“Ours was the work they decided to call unwork.”

Passionate Selfies

Why is it that girls are still being encouraged to take up less space, while boys are encouraged to bulk themselves up?

In my gender studies courses at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, we inevitably spend a fair amount of time talking about the insidious influence of the media on both girls’ and boys’ self-image.

Girls receive the message that the ideal girl is thin and pale, with long blonde hair and big blue eyes.  She’s sexy but not threatening—if she’s smart, she doesn’t flaunt it the way she does her big boobs and shapely legs.

Boys, on the other hand, are rewarded for being assertive and athletic.  It’s a good thing if they take up a lot of space in the room as well as a lot of airtime in any social context.

It is no coincidence that girls are disproportionately affected by eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia—psycho-somatic illnesses marked by a distortion of one’s self-image and a manic desire to become smaller.

Girls with these eating disorders imagine themselves to be fat, a horrible three-letter word, no matter how waif-thin they starve themselves into becoming.  Bulimics binge-eat and then purge, vomiting up their meal before it can be converted to the dreaded fat on their bodies.

Anorexics just starve themselves, and often add demanding exercise regimens to the mix to make good and sure they won’t be fat.

Meanwhile, boys abuse protein powders loaded with steroids to make themselves bigger and more muscular.

Yesterday I went to see a screening of the new short film “Selfie,” made right here in Great Barrington MA by filmmaker Cynthia Wade and photographer Michael Crook, who spent a week in our local high school talking about body image and self esteem with teenage girls.

Unknown-3The girls were encouraged to take “selfies” (ie, smart-phone pictures) of themselves, daring to focus in on the parts of their faces that they liked the least.

One girl complained of the roundness of her face, another of her bushy hair, another of her red cheeks, another of her prominent nose.

But through guided discussions about body image and beauty, and the process of creating a photo show of their “selfies” and video-taped interviews of themselves and their mothers for the film, they were made more aware of how superficial it is to obsess over the places where their own human faces fall short of the air-brushed ideal.

Obviously many agree, since the film is in the process of going viral on You-Tube, with nearly a million views in the past few weeks.  The 3-minute version is up to nearly 5 million views!

Unknown-4Beauty is so much more than what we can see, the girls and the film audience concluded.  It is not about conforming to some pre-established, often totally unrealistic ideal.  How boring would it be if every girl looked like Barbie, and every boy looked like Ken?

Yesterday’s New York Times discussed the “Selfie” film, along with a new trend among adolescent girls to share “uglies,” that is, selfies that are deliberately staged to portray the self-photographer as “ugly.”

The Times seemed to think this was an advance—that girls who were unafraid to show themselves making “ugly faces” into the camera were more liberated, less browbeaten by media stereotypes.

To me, a much more profound advance would be represented by girls whose “selfies” were not about their physical appearance at all.

What if women and girls channeled all that nervous energy over how we look into our work in the world instead?

Following the screening of “Selfies,” Berkshire International Film Festival Director Kelley Vickery presented the short film SEPIDEH, which created quite a buzz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.  Made by Danish director Berit Madsen, the film is a documentary that follows the life of the titular teenager, an Iranian girl who grows from a young girl obsessed with Albert Einstein into a woman engaged to be married and heading to university to study astronomy.

Unknown-2In the film, Sepideh wears a hijab and no make-up.  She’s much more interested in studying and star-gazing than in making herself attractive in conformity with some pre-established ideal.

Her passion for learning and her determination to achieve her goals are paramount.  And in the end, these shining characteristics succeed in attracting to her a suitor who has every intention of helping her become the outstanding woman she is meant to be.

So should it be for every young woman.  Teenage girls should be focused on zeroing in on their passions, defining their goals, and going after them.

What could be more beautiful than a girl who knows what she wants, is fully ignited with a sense of purpose, and is pursuing her dreams at full tilt?

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.


Solstice dreams–an endangered resource!

So we’ve turned the corner on Thanksgiving, and now we’re going full-throttle into “the holiday season.”

Christmas-lights-on-Fiedler-HouseHere in the Northeast, that means the dwindling hours of daylight are aggressively bolstered with burgeoning strings of Christmas lights, endless shopping trips to the mall and so many holiday parties that they all begin to blur into one long month of compulsive merrymaking, carefully manufactured to cancel out the intrinsic darkness of the shortest days of the year.

I suggest that we consider actually focusing on that quiet solstice darkness, instead of working so hard to hold it at bay with our artificial lights and nonstop motion.

It worries me to see the way kids today, including my own two sons, have a hard time relaxing enough to simply space out and enjoy the quiet of a long winter evening.

They hardly even notice the festive lights that are twinkling all around us, much less the cold, distant glitter of the stars, because their eyes are so consistently trained on the soul-less white light of their smart phone screens.


My younger son, age 15, never leaves home without his i-phone gripped in his hand.  When we drive together I have to prompt him to look up and take in the lovely sunset, or the crescent moon hanging low on the horizon.

If I weren’t there to nag him about looking up and taking a break from his phone, it’s possible to imagine that he might literally be glued to it all day, playing shoot-em-up games or sports games, watching mainstream TV shows and movies, or texting with his friends.

When he does take a break, he often bounces around restlessly, not sure how to amuse himself.

Just sitting and staring into space—allowing oneself the luxury of quiet unfocused space-out time—doesn’t even occur to him, so accustomed is he to constantly consuming the pre-packaged ideas of others.

Fuego del HogarI know for myself that my most creative ideas come when my brain is most relaxed and open…when I am walking in the woods, or staring aimlessly into a fire, or curled up in bed with my purring cat on my chest.

If I didn’t allow myself those unfocused moments—if I was incessantly plugged into the collective internet brain that was constantly feeding me pre-packaged stimulation—I might never have an original thought.

How sad would that be!  And multiplied out across millions of others like me, how impoverishing for humanity!  Do we really want to turn into a kind of collective species like ants, bees or termites, where the creativity of the individual is completely irrelevant?

This solstice season, I suggest you detach yourself from the busy-ness and the artificial lights for a bit, take your loved ones by the hand and see if you can all slow down for a good long while.  A whole weekend would be good, or at least a long winter’s night.

IMG_3811Find a fire to stare at.  Bundle up well and find a dark hillside from which to watch the constellations wheeling overhead.  Banish those smart phones and tablets, at least for a night, and try making some music together.  Try telling some stories, or reading a good book out loud.

Everything great that human beings have achieved has come out of the freedom of our creative dreams.  We can’t afford to let that precious dreamtime be taken away from us by our own addiction to the constant stimulation of virtual reality.

Give your overworked, over-stimulated computer brain a break this solstice and enjoy the season of darkness.  Go to bed early!  Dream!

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