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.

surfing

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!

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.

amazing-sunset

Nova Scotia sunset, 2016

Writing to Right the World

“I’m coming out with two books next year,” I announce, with pride but unable to keep a touch of defiance from my voice, in automatic anticipation of my interlocutor’s next question: “Who is your publisher?”

I’ve got my response down: “I’m pulling a Virginia Woolf—I’m publishing with my own press, Green Fire Press.”

Raised eyebrows, a nod that implies surprise and a touch of disdain. “Oh, so you’re self-publishing.”

No, not really. With a partner, I have created a publishing company that publishes high-quality work in alignment with its mission of encouraging positive sGreenFirePress-LOGO-vert-pen copyocial change and well-being. We have three titles in print so far, and my two books will bring our total to five.

Self-publishing has a bad reputation for a few good reasons.

First of all, self-publishing is often seen as self-indulgent, arrogant and vain (hence the old name, vanity publishing).

“Just who do you think you are, bypassing us?” the agents and big-publisher editors snap. “You know your book won’t pass muster with us, that’s why you’re not taking the traditional route.”

To which I would reply: I have the highest standards of anyone I know—as a publisher and an editor as well as a writer. Yes, it’s true a lot of dreck gets self-published, but that is not the case at Green Fire Press, where we will only publish books we believe in and work hard to make as perfect as possible.

The truth is that I have declined to explore traditional publishing because:

  • I don’t have time or energy to go through the whole get-rejected-by-25-agents game;
  •  I want control of the production of my book;
  • I know I will have to do most of the marketing myself anyway, so
  • I might as well reap the rewards of the hard work I’ve put in, by actually making some money every time I sell a book.

I published my first two books through traditional publishers. Neither paid any kind of advance. On the first, I literally never made a dime in royalties, even though the book sold fairly well (several thousand copies). On the second, the royalties were meager in the first couple of years, and soon stopped coming altogether, although the book remains in print and in frequent circulation in college courses.

Unlike Virginia Woolf, I do not have a husband or a trust fund income. I need to make money with the work I put in to my writing. With my next two books, if the books make money, I will too.

Creating a good book takes tremendously hard work and careful attention to detail, not only by the author but by the editor, proofer, designer, marketer and distributor. It’s a team project, and there are very few authors—maybe none!—who can successfully fulfill all these roles. Even Virginia Woolf had the faithful Leonard by her side, along with the whole Bloomsbury Group functioning as her marketing team.

At Green Fire Press, we have an outstanding team of publishing professionals working together to create polished, professional books. We’re part of the new “gig economy,” in that all the services offered by traditional publishers in-house are being performed at GFP by freelance specialists.

We could no doubt debate for a while whether this trend towards freelance publishing services is positive or negative—for the authors, for the publishing companies, for the freelancers, for the economy overall. As someone who has worked off and on as a freelancer or “independent contractor,” I know that it’s a precarious way to make a living, and I strongly believe that our tax structure and social safety net (ie, health care, unemployment, disability, etc) should be amended to support the millions of players in the new “gig economy” (for more on this, see the current issue of YES! Magazine).

But that’s a topic for another day’s column. Today I simply want to thank and acknowledge the excellent work of our Green Fire Press team in producing my two forthcoming books, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered: A Journey to Environmental Awareness and Activism Through Purposeful Memoir and The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir: A Writer’s Companion. As an author I feel in such good hands, and I am excited to roll up my sleeves and work on getting my new books out strongly into the world.

Not just to make money, although that would be nice. My memoir and writer’s companion book are both aimed at fulfilling my mission of “writing to right the world.” I write “purposeful memoir,” and I want to get more people doing that too, through my workshops, online writing circles, author coaching and editing and yes, through Green Fire Press itself.

Books-Postcard_5x7-FRONT-BOLD

As I say in the Writer’s Companion, purposeful memoir asks us to look back at our lives in order to understand where we are now and to envision the future we want to create, not just for ourselves but also for human society and our beautiful, beleaguered planet.

If that sounds like something you want to do too, join me! In sharing our own experiences, we can help light the way for others, and come together to write our way towards the positive changes we want to see in the world.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: Cultivating Creative Community

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Virginia Woolf famously said that women writers need a room of their own. True enough, but that’s not all we need. We also need a community to nourish and support us and cheer us on through the challenges of the creative life.

So many people seem to think that the playing field has been leveled for women; that the feminist movement can just pack it up now and go home.

It’s not true, not yet.

For most women, a writing study of one’s own is not an achievable reality. We’re lucky if we can set up a desk of our own in a corner of our own…and get to it at least once a week.

Let’s face it, most women who become mothers must juggle the demands of pregnancy, child-rearing and home-making with the pressure to contribute to the family income—and for writers, that often means having a “day job” that necessitates doing the writing on the side of everything else.

At the other end of our lives, we’re the ones taking care of our own parents, too. There’s just never enough time to fit everything in, and often our writing slips down to the bottom of the endless to-do list.

cfed82894ce77d5eb912cd5c3fe77346My mentor Gloria Anzaldua urged her working-class sisters to “Forget the room of one’s own—write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or on the welfare line, on the job or during meals….When you wash the floor or the clothes, listen to the chanting in your body,” she says. Write “when you’re depressed, angry, hurt, when compassion and love possess you. When you cannot help but write” (“Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers”).

Before she died–too young–of diabetes complications, Gloria published several influential anthologies of women’s writing and worked hard to build a community that bridged all kinds of identities and differences.

She was a great inspiration for me, and when I founded the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers in 2011, I felt like I was carrying on her work, in my own corner of the world.

The sixth season of the Festival presents nine full days of readings, workshops, talks, discussions and performances featuring talented women writers from the Berkshire region and beyond.

BFWW-ad-FULL-Artful-Mind-WEB

For me, this is not about art for art’s sake. It’s about activating women to recognize that we all have important stories to share, which we can cultivate by developing the confidence to speak our truths, and the community that will encourage us to write, write and keep on writing.

11010606_934650809911488_2830181057542873053_nAt last year’s Festival, Dani Shapiro shared what she considered to be the essential ingredient of a successful writing career like her own, and it was surprisingly simple. You have to put your butt in the chair and write, she said. Just do it.

Having this discipline is much easier when you begin to trust that there are people out there in the world who care what you have to say; who will listen and applaud and come back for more.

That’s why it’s important, even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, to turn out at community-building events like the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Come to show your support of the writers on the stage; come to be inspired; come to share in the camaraderie of lunching and brunching with a roomful of writers and the people who love them.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers happens but once a year, in March. That’s Women’s History Month, and also the month, in New England, when the sap starts to rise. Come take a taste of our creativity and feel your own creative vision rise in response.

Check out our schedule of events, and mark your calendar. See you at the Festival!

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The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: A Big Tent for Honoring and Encouraging Women’s Creative Voices

Stockbridge, MA.  Photo J. Browdy 2015

Stockbridge, MA. Photo J. Browdy 2015

We’re still in the deep-freeze here in the Berkshires weather-wise, but the bright sunshine is telling us that underneath the ice and snow the buds and shoots of spring are stirring.

And we creative women of the Berkshires are stirring too, as we launch ourselves today into the big beautiful Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, the biggest celebration of Women’s History Month happening under one banner anywhere in the U.S.A.

Do you know of any other grassroots Festival that spreads itself out across the whole month of March, with an event celebrating women’s creative expression and unique perspectives every single day from March 1 – 31?

We can do it here in the Berkshires because of the generous talent of our creative women, who are willing to step up and out into the spotlight to share who they are and what they know with our appreciative audiences; and because of the generosity of our sponsors and donors, who know that when more women and girls share their ideas and talents in the public sphere, the whole community benefits.

Mary Pipher used the figure of Shakespeare’s Ophelia to describe the loss of confidence and self-esteem that can often undermine teenage girls, just as teen boys are becoming louder and more self-confident. More recently, research has shown that while many boys have a socially reinforced tendency to take risks, many girls tend to keep their hands down, literally and figuratively, unless they’re absolutely sure they have the right answer.

This means that teen girls and young adults often have less practice in taking the risk of speaking out in public settings, and over time, they tend to fall into the habit of observing rather than participating, following rather than taking the lead.

I know, because I was that girl. As a child, my mother describes me as being a chatterbox who loved to show off my knowledge—for example, I had an encyclopedic knowledge of the names of local birds and flowers, which were taught to me by my grandmother, a biologist and nature lover. I could rattle off the names and characteristics of a hundred birds, and I knew where to find dozens of different native plants that grew in the woods and fields around our home.

JB at 15But that generous volubility did not accompany me out of childhood. As a teenager I was the girl who got an A on every paper, but almost never spoke in class. When I did take the risk to speak, I was overcome with a fear that set my voice trembling and a flush rising uncomfortably to my face. It was much easier to just stay silent.

It took me many years of forcing myself, as an adult, to step into the spotlight to teach, give presentations and lead community groups, before that unwarranted stage fright dissipated. For many other women, who don’t have opportunities in their professional life to speak up, the habit of silence and hanging back persists.

I would like to believe that with more and more women entering the workforce and doing well in their careers, this gender imbalance is fading, but I know that’s not yet true. Even the fabulously successful Sheryl Sandberg is aware of how important it is that women and girls are encouraged to take the risk of speaking their minds, and to do so with poise and confidence.

That is my underlying goal with organizing the big Berkshire Festival of Women Writers: to open up multiple opportunities for women and girls in my home community to inspire each other and their audiences with their creative voices, in order to build a momentum that will continue to grow and develop year-round, flowing out into our communities in ways that we can’t entirely predict.

Amber Chand performing her one-woman show, "Searching for the Moon: A Heroine's Journey" in a BFWW event

Amber Chand performing her one-woman show, “Searching for the Moon: A Heroine’s Journey” in a BFWW event

Men and women may be equal, in theory at least, but we are not the same. We have different sensibilities, born of our different biological composition and our different experiences—differences that should be celebrated and honored.

I am looking forward to a joyful month of celebrating women’s creativity in the Berkshires with many friends, neighbors and visitors. The momentum we build, event by event, will send us soaring into our much-anticipated springtime.

Changing the storyline: from limitless growth to sustainable planetary happiness

Today in my Writing for Social and Environmental Justice class we began to talk about the power of storytelling.

The challenge for the students in my class is to figure out the best narrative strategy, the best rhetorical approach, the best genre and format to inspire others to work with them for positive social change.

To get people’s attention, especially in the media-saturated social landscapes many of us inhabit, the story has to be well-narrated, fast-paced and compelling.  It has to deliver information succinctly and have a memorable “take-away” line.  It has to give us interesting, admirable protagonists and a complex plot, complete with tragedy, catharsis and antagonists we can love to hate.

It’s a pretty tall order!

The first step, of course, is being clear on your own values—what you think is important, what issue is the one that most grabs your own heart and mind.  Great change writing speaks out of a place of passionate commitment.

Great change writing says: “I believe this so deeply I am going to open my heart and let you see how this great injustice or destructive practice is tearing me apart.  I am going to let you see me in all the vulnerability of my rage, grief and passion…and I am going to convince you to care about this issue too—enough to be willing to stand up and take action.”

That’s the second part of great change writing—you have to give people a clear call to action, and at least show them the starting point of a path towards change.

It’s not enough to wail and point blaming fingers at all the injustices of the world.  You have to point the way towards remedies, solutions, action.

I ended both my classes today declaring my feeling of optimism in the future. I feel more optimistic today than I have in a long time that we will be able to solve all the many problems human civilization has created in its childhood—the past 500 years or so.

The tremendous challenges that beset us, particularly the environmental challenges which have the potential to completely wipe us out, can be solved.

We already know what we have to do.  Reduce emissions, yes, but also restore the ability of the planet to absorb the emissions we do produce.

Judith D. Schwartz

Judith D. Schwartz

We are reading Judith Schwartz’s book Cows Save the Planet this week, which is all about the potential of soil to become an incredibly effective carbon sink, if we just stop our bad agricultural practices and let the billions of microbes that inhabit each teaspoon of healthy soil do their work.

If we were to stop killing our soil, plants and forests with herbicides, fungicides, fertilizer-dependent agriculture and clear-cutting, it is possible that we could radically shift the whole disaster-scenario of climate change—fast enough to make a difference.

What we need is to start telling a new story, to which the broadest possible base of people can hear and respond.

It will be a story about how a beleaguered, tired, hungry, thirsty, oppressed people—that is, the majority of people on this Earth—realized that with just a few adjustments, they could live a much richer, happier life in harmony with the natural world.

It will be a story about how the economics of endlessly growing national product gave way to the economics of sustainable planetary happiness. How competition gave way to collaboration, with the recognition that we have the capacity to give everyone on this planet a good life if we shift our focus from rising profits for the few to steady well-being for the many.

If we were to start telling this story loud and clear, in beautiful, compelling, persuasive and well-researched ways, broadcast over the billion megaphones of the World Wide Web, how could people fail to listen?

Especially if we backed up the vision with concrete strategies for making it happen down on the ground.

345570804_640I am heartened by initiatives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a working group of mayors from the major cities of the world who have decided not to wait around for the United Nations to get its act together, but to start working together independently towards a sustainable future.

C40 is changing the dominant narrative of gridlock and impossibility with its muscular can-do insurgency.

We can’t wait around for others to do it for us.  Each one of us has the power to be the starting point for ripples of change that can reach further than ever before in our brave new interconnected world.

What story will you tell?  What life will you lead?  What are you waiting for?

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.

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Drinking Deep from the Elixir of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

BFWW-vertical-logoJanuary is the season when I must work like mad to get the Program for the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers out to the printers, so that it will be ready to distribute in February.

For months now, program coordinator Jan Hutchinson and I have been finalizing all the details, gathering the descriptions and bios and photos for no fewer than 58 separate events, featuring more than 150 women and girls at some thirty different venues throughout Berkshire County, including of course our principal sponsor Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

We’ve also been soliciting advertising and sponsors with the help of our hard-working Miss Hall’s School Horizons interns, supervised by organizing committee volunteers Judy Nardacci and Lorrin Krouss.

And committee members Maureen Hickey, Joanne Cooney, Vera Kalm and Johanna Janssen have been helping to generate the funds necessary to sustain a growing Festival like this one, with considerable success—we have dozens of contributors to thank this year.

Once I finish my part of the Program, I’ll send the copy over to Festival graphic designers Alice and Anna Myers, who will work their magic and send it off to our fabulous printer, John DiSantis at Quality Printing, who always does such a stellar job for us.

Then we’ll turn out attention to getting the website up to speed, and getting out our own publicity in local and regional publications and calendars, aided by the very capable and calm Lynnette Lucy Najimy of Beansprout Productions.

In short, our Festival is a huge effort, representing the combined forces of so many talented people in the Berkshires, all coming together to brighten up the often drab month of March with readings, workshops, performances and discussions highlighting the creative energy of women and girls.

I may be grumbling about the frenetic workload now, but I know once March 1 rolls around and our Festival starts to gather steam, the delicious vitality of women’s words will carry me along to inspirational highs I could never have conjured on my own.

1528653_548356822534_515979881_nThat’s what the Festival is all about—it’s a grand collaborative gift that we give to our community, and not only in March.  This year we’ve begun to offer year-round programming as well: the monthly Lean In group for women writers, co-hosted by Lesley Ann Beck and yours truly at the Berkshire Museum; the Writing from the Heart readings, which we’ll be offering next on February 13 at The Mount; a special Mother’s Day event planned for May at the Sandisfield Arts Center; and the new weeklong Writing Workshops for Women, going on right now and again in June.

The energy of so many creative women and girls coming together to share their ideas and perspectives in the public sphere ignites an alchemical combustion that produces a heady, exhilarating kind of mental/emotional elixir.

We all feel it, presenters and audiences alike—the sheer joy of coming together to shine our creative lanterns at each other, beckoning and inspiring each other on to new heights.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call what we do in the Festival “displaying the lantern of the soul.”  In a recent blog post she said that “to display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.”

Meet us out on deck at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and bring your lantern!  Let’s create beacons bright enough to illuminate the way forward, together.

Cherry Hill Beach copy

Winter Solstice Reflections: Returning to Light, Swimming Against the Tide

Lately I have been feeling that I am constantly struggling against a strong current pulling me away from the work I want to be doing.

The current is composed of all the day-to-day chores of life, along with all the busyness of the holiday season, and the relentless tide of bad news about the state of our beloved planet and her living communities, from trees to fish to birds and bees.

The more I become aware of the dire ecological state of our planet, the more I want to devote myself to swimming against that current of devastation, trying to bring our planetary systems back into balance.

I want to do that work on the personal level, starting with my own life, and moving out into my community and the broader Earth communities in which we all live.

The climate issue, like no other in human history, has made our planetary connectedness clear. We must work together, from pole to pole, to solve the problem of climate instability that industrial civilization has wrought.

If we don’t get on in immediately, we may very well spiral into another Great Extinction, possibly soon enough for current generations of humans—me and my children and their children—to live and die through.

Faced with a negative reality of this magnitude, many of us tend to just turn away in numbed grief and try to ignore it because, sadly, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”

My own sense of being caught in a tidal current pulling me back from whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing may have a lot to do with the despairing feeling that whatever I try to do will not be enough.

But I have to do it anyway, and so do you.

Winter Solstice is the time of year when I try to retreat from the furious churning of life and recalibrate, retune, reflect.

How can I use the gifts I have been given to make a positive difference, moving outward from myself, my family and local community, to the larger circles of life I love?

My greatest gift and abiding passion has always been writing. As soon as I learned to write, I began writing stories and poems that celebrated the natural world and honored the spirits of the Earth.

As a 21st century writer, I have the ability to project my words and perspectives far beyond the confines of the old spiral-bound notebooks I used to keep as a child. I have the potential to engage in dialogue with people all across the globe, and if you’re reading this, so do you.

As a teacher, I have the ability to begin conversations with students about the difficult ecological crises that are already beginning to unfold, and the social and environmental injustices that they are spawning. I can offer students the tools and strategies for continuing these conversations across the globe through our amazing new digital technologies.

In the past year, without a great deal of focus on my part, my blog has been viewed more than 20,000 times by visitors from more than 130 countries around the world.

My little blog is just a very small drop in the great ocean of digital conversations, but even so, it is possible that some of those 20,000 readers came away with a new idea or an affirmation of their own thinking, or a challenge to their habitual perspectives, that could start a chain reaction among their friends and digital connections that could, seriously, change the world.

Rupert Sheldrake argues that “The fields organizing the activity of the nervous system are inherited through morphic resonance, conveying a collective, instinctive memory. Each individual both draws upon and contributes to the collective memory of the species. This means that new patterns of behaviour can spread more rapidly than would otherwise be possible.”

Sheldrake’s theory is exciting and controversial because if it’s true, it means that none of us has to be bound by the heavy burden of habit and cultural inertia, the industrial tide that seems to sweep us along so inexorably.

We have a choice. We can pick up our heads, think for ourselves, seek out others who also want to preserve the ecological health of the planet, and together use our great digitally connected human brain trust to steward and safeguard this planet, not destroy her.

Working together, we could, within a couple of generations, be swimming together joyously in an entirely different sea.

As the Earth wheels slowly back towards the Sun today, this is my steady vow: to keep my head above water, to reach out a hand to others who share my reverence for our beautiful planet and its magnificent life, and to give myself without reserve to the mission of building a strong interconnected movement dedicated to the shift into a sustainable, ecologically sound, joyful future.

Browdy de Hernandez 2013

c. Browdy de Hernandez 2013

Time for change

Jen light 3 copyIf my blog posts have been a bit few and far between lately, it’s because I’ve been focusing my writing efforts this summer on the bigger project I have underway, the personal/political memoir I’ve been working on for some years now.

The political subtext will be somewhat familiar to followers of my blog these past two years: the necessity for more ordinary folks like me to wake up to the realities of climate change and environmental destruction, and begin to take action in both the personal and the political spheres.

The personal narrative will be somewhat familiar to friends and family who have followed my life, or pieces of my journey, these past 50 years.  Good moments and bad, easy stretches when everything seemed to be going right, followed by inevitable patches of heartache and turmoil.

In the course of charting my experiences in depth through this memoir project, I’ve realized that I have two qualities that have often led me into troubled waters.

One, probably because I grew up in a family with strong values of caring, respect and integrity, I have tended to be very trusting—to believe that people mean well and want to do the right thing by others.

And two, I have been slow to respond to situations that make me unhappy.  I tend to try to stick with whatever I’ve started or gotten myself into, to try make it work even when it’s become quite obvious—even to me!—that things are never going to change for the better.

I’m trying to make some connections between these personal traits of mine, and the larger social landscape that I inhabit.

For example, it seems to me that we have all tended to be too trusting of authority figures like politicians and business leaders, expecting that they have our best interests at heart.

As a kid growing up, it would never have occurred to me that corporations would produce, package and market products aimed to appeal to children, that would, over time at least, make us seriously sick.

I remember begging my mom to buy me Froot Loops and Lucky Charms breakfast cereal, which looked so yummy and appealing on TV.

I wanted Ring Dings, too, and Yodels, and Twinkies.  I wanted Coke, of course, and Dr. Pepper.  I wanted McDonald’s hamburgers, fries, and McMuffins.

I was lucky that my mom was not swayed by the seductive advertising, and went her own way with food, raising my brother and me on fresh fruits and vegetables (often grown in our own garden), premium meats, and homemade, preservative-free desserts.

Others, who bought the advertising and fell for the products, are finding themselves now, at midlife, with diabetes, cancer, asthma, arthritis and all the rest of our common American ailments.  To some degree at least, the explosion of health problems in the developed world can be directly traced back to our societal trust that Big Business, Big Agriculture and Big Government were doing their best to safeguard our health.

Turns out we needed to be more discerning—a theme that runs through both my private and public spheres.

Likewise, I can relate my own slowness to realize and respond to untenable situations in my personal life to our broader social reluctance, as human beings, to go against the flow.

Let’s face it, we humans are herd animals, as Nietzsche saw clearly more than a century ago. We run in packs, and we fear nothing so much as social isolation and disapproval.

For me personally, the kinds of situations that I’ve been slow to wake up to and act upon have been ones in which taking action means going against the grain of social expectations.

For example, my marriage.  It was very hard for me to let go of my own attachment to being married.  There are so many positive perceptions surrounding married people, while divorced people, on the other hand, are perceived as unstable, difficult, dissatisfied, disloyal, probably neurotic, bad parents, bad partners, bad lovers—in short, failures overall.

Even though some 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, these stigmas still hold a great deal of power, and for me it was hard to finally concede that I could go no further in my marriage.  After more than 20 years, I had to cry uncle and admit that yes, I had failed.  I could not make it work.

The thing is that once I got to that nadir, I didn’t care anymore what people thought, and I came to see the major life change of divorce as a positive liberation, not a failure at all.

Once I’d made the leap and let go of my inertia and fear of change, I discovered that it wasn’t nearly as hard as I’d imagined, nor were the repercussions as severe.

It turns out that most of the fears I’d had around becoming single—and a single parent—at midlife had much more to do with my own perceptions than with any reality out there in the world.

I believe that these kinds of fears in the personal realm apply just as much in the political realm.

CWindmillhome

Wind turbines on the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia

For instance, we know that our longterm relationship to fossil fuels is, in the words of JT, “driving us down the road to ruin,” but so many of us feel stuck, afraid to go against the tribe in seeking out new, more positive relations to energy use on the planet.

We tend to just go with the flow, running our AC on hot days, driving our cars, using our oil furnaces for heat in the winter.  Even though we’re beginning to see that this makes us unhappy—who, after all, enjoys prolonged heat waves, out-of-control wildfires, destructive storms and raging floods?—we still stick to what’s familiar, what appears to be socially acceptable, what everyone else is doing.

It’s time for each one of us to stiffen our backbones and be honest with ourselves about the situation we’re in now.

Climate change is upon us.  It’s past time to start working hard to cut carbon emissions by reducing use and switching to cleaner energy like wind, solar and geothermal.  We need to stand with 350.org and other environmental groups to pressure our government to do the right thing—to put the health and welfare of we, the people, ahead of the profits of them, the corporations.

On a personal level, too, we can also make changes.  We can use bicycles more, and AC less.  We can hang out our laundry to dry.  We can start weaning ourselves off disposable plastics, and put some raised beds in our backyards or on our rooftops.

It used to be that only “granola people” did things like this—“granola people” pronounced with a dismissive smirk.

It turns out that those crunchy folks had it right, and we’re the ones who have stayed in our unhappy fossil fuel-based relationship too long.

We may imagine that breaking with the herd and striking out alone on the path of ecological sanity is going to earn us smirks and sneers.  But a) this is probably just in our heads; and b) who cares, if it makes us happier in the long run?

Here’s what I’ve finally realized, at midlife, on both the personal and the political levels: life is way too short to waste time being unhappy if a path toward happiness is available.

Letting go of our attachment to the status quo is the crucial first step on that path, and it’s not easy.  But it is necessary now, given the critical juncture we’re at as a planet and a human civilization.

Think about it.  And then—act.

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