We need new stories to help us imagine a new, brighter future

Will someone please do the math on how adding thousands of Americans to the unemployment rolls, thanks to the new “sequester,” is going to save the country money?

Not only will we (as in, we the taxpayers supporting the Federal government) be paying unemployment compensation for those folks, but their communities will also be suffering as they cut back on personal spending…perhaps lose their cars or their homes…and end up needing a lot more in the way of social services.

Sometimes when I check in with American politics, I have to wonder who is writing the scripts.

President Obama sailed into office in 2008 promising that as an outsider to Beltway machinations, he would champion the ordinary American and set the country on a kinder, more humane path.

The Republicans, perhaps rightly, read his conciliatory gestures as weakness, and have taken the bully’s path of stonewalling, denunciation and manipulation of the truth.

Presidential Inauguration, 2013

Presidential Inauguration, 2013

Speaker Boehner’s sour face as he sat behind the President on Inauguration Day this year said it all.  He would not—could not—cooperate in any way with our country’s popularly elected leader.  Not even if his obstinacy brought America to its knees.

The whole scenario was eerily reminiscent of the script from the one-season TV show Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis as the first woman President of the United States.

She too was pitted against a demonic Speaker, who would stop at nothing to discredit, provoke and undermine her, even if his reckless bullying endangered the welfare of the country overall.

Interestingly, Commander in Chief was cancelled after just one season, just as Ms. Davis’s character, President Mackenzie Allen, was gearing up to run for re-election against—of course—her nemesis, the Speaker of the House.

At the time the explanation given for the cancellation was that audiences were not yet ready for a woman President (the show ran in 2005-06).

But watching the first 18 episodes again recently, it was clear that what really did it in was the daring script, which showed a powerful woman POTUS who was a popular Independent determined to stand up for ordinary Americans and to keep her hands clean of the usual muck of party politics.

Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, President of the United States

Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, President of the United States

In the last couple of episodes, President Allen decides to champion the Equal Rights Amendment for women, which still to this day has not been ratified by enough states to make it federal law.

Her political advisor tells her it’s suicidal to touch that hot potato if she’s seriously thinking about running for a second term, but she’ll have none of his cynical advice, and indeed ends up summarily firing him.

Could it be that the TV Gods cancelled Commander in Chief precisely because the show demonstrated that there is no reason why our country has to be held hostage to the Republicans—or the Democrats?

11-geena-davis-commander-in-chief-2005-2006Did they cancel the show because it showed that there is no reason why a woman can’t govern with equal or greater smarts, decisiveness and wisdom as a man—even as she remains a loving mother, wife and daughter?

President Allen was shown in every episode facing down stereotypes, garnering the respect of even her crustiest generals and most ruthless homeland security czars.

And the more she succeeds, the more ordinary people applaud and support her, the more determined her political adversaries become to take her down.

The show didn’t end with a bullet to her head; it didn’t have to.  It just got struck from the airwaves by one wave of a TV executive’s red pen.

So ended the daring career of the nation’s first television representation of a woman President of the United States.


Cronogram-BFWW-ad-webThis week I have been busy preparing for the opening of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, a month-long, grassroots, homegrown Festival that I founded three years ago to give women writers more opportunities to raise our voices in the public sphere.

My whole professional career has been dedicated to this mission of amplifying the voices of women writers, bringing them into classrooms and conference halls, into print and on to stages, because I firmly believe that if women had more power in the world, we would change human society for the better.

Gender is a spectrum: all men and women have both estrogen and testosterone pumping through our hearts, and all of us need to call on both the warrior energy of testosterone and the nurturing energy of estrogen to heal our damaged planet and create a stronger, wiser, more sustainable human civilization.

We cannot afford to wait for our political leaders to grow up and stop playing games with our future, and the future of our children.

We have to each do what we can, in our own spheres, to balance out the bullying and the guns and the lack of compassionate imagination with new stories, different voices speaking a different truth into being.

For me this means shutting out the cacophony of political heckling and sniping and tuning into the voices of the women of my community and our invited guests during this Festival month, as together we change the tenor of public discourse by daring to step out on stage and speak our truths to power.

No matter what happens down in Washington D.C.—no matter if our political representatives continue to lick the boots of the oil and gas industries, build billion-dollar fighter planes instead of mass transit, kick our veterans and young people to the gutter, deny women equal pay for equal work and make young women fight for the right to say no to pregnancy—we still have something they cannot take away from us.

We have our capacity for independent thought and we have our voices.

We must rise to the occasion and write our own scripts, bridges of words and dreams that will carry us into a livable future.

Great Barrington Select Board representative and author Alana Chernila reads her work--an open letter to Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly--on opening night of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers (3-1-13)

Great Barrington Select Board representative and author Alana Chernila reads her work–an open letter to Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly–on opening night of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers (3-1-13). Author Janet Reich Elsbach looks on.

Love Letter to Great Barrington MA

Just this morning in the shower, I was mulling over what I would like to write about for my submission to this year’s Made in the Berkshires Festival, and it came to me that I want to write a kind of love letter to Great Barrington, the dear little town that I call home.

What a surprise to get to my media studies class today and learn from my students that dear little Great Barrington was just named the number one small town in America by no less than Smithsonian Magazine!

Railroad Street, Great Barrington MA

In justifying their choice, Smithsonian writers Susan Spano and Aviva Shen cite the town’s hip cultural scene, its local foodie economy, complete with CSAs and farmers’ markets, denizens of note like W.E.B. DuBois, Arlo Guthrie and Alan Chartock, and the fact that we have our own printed currency, the BerkShare.

Even my own alma mater and current employer, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, gets a mention!  We are, after all, the first and still the only residential four-year college dedicated exclusively to highly motivated students who choose to leave high school early, after 10th or 11th grade, to begin their undergraduate studies.

In my dreamy early-morning shower reflections, I was thinking about celebrating other aspects of Great Barrington.

For instance, the incredible camaraderie of the cultural community here, especially, in my experience, the community of women artists.

Berkshire Festival of Women Writers special presentation of Made in the Berkshires, co-curated by Hilary Somers Deely and Barbara Sims

I have led, participated in and witnessed so many outstanding cultural events here in the Berkshires, many of them centered in Great Barrington, where artists, writers and other creative types have collaborated with such grace and panache, with such incredible generosity and unusual willingness to leave their own personal ego at home.

This doesn’t happen everywhere.  In fact, I’d venture to guess it’s pretty rare.

For instance, almost everyone who participated in this year’s Second Annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers did so pro bono, offering free events at which they shared their passions and talents with all comers.

As one of nearly 100 women who gave a Festival workshop for free, I can tell you that there is tremendous satisfaction to be gained from simply sharing one’s talents and knowledge with an appreciative, receptive audience, without expecting financial reward.

That spirit of generosity is one of the many reasons I love living in Great Barrington.

The Smithsonian article also failed to mention a few other aspects of Great Barrington that I really love.

One: having town leaders, our elected Select Board, who are vibrant creative folks in their own right.  Check out Selectperson Alana Chernila, who just published a wonderful cookbook, or Selectperson Andrew Blechman, editor at our homegrown national environmental publication Orion Magazine, or Selectperson Sean Stanton, part of an extraordinary local family of sustainable farmers and foodie entrepreneurs—and you will see what I mean.

Atop Monument Mountain

Two: the wonderful natural resources at our doorstep in Great Barrington.  The Housatonic River winds through the town, and polluted with PCBs as it may be (thank you General Electric), the Housatonic is still visually beautiful and a lovely, peaceful river to walk beside on our very own Riverwalk.  The town is shadowed by East Mountain, the north side of which houses our ski area, Butternut Basin.  On the north side we are bounded by Monument Mountain, a steep, wooded reserve that got its name from the Mohicans who used to live here, who left their signature on the mountain in piles of stones.  All over town there are beautiful places to walk, hike and meditate.  This kind of open space is quickly vanishing in so much of our country, and should not be taken for granted.

Three: Having a community that truly cares about its young people, and its disadvantaged folks.  The support for wonderful local organizations like Railroad Street Youth ProjectCommunity Access to the Arts, and Volunteers in Medicine is truly heartwarming.  We also have a lively Senior Center, and a weekly Occupy Great Barrington protest and meet-up.  A town that doesn’t forget its kids, its old folks, its most vulnerable citizens and its radical fringe is the kind of town I want to live in.

And not only that, but we have our very own community radio station, WBCR-LP, 97.7 FM, where anyone who makes the effort to get the requisite training can become an autonomous radio broadcaster, subject only to FCC regulations as to what they can or cannot announce.  This year I started a new Citizen Journalism Project, seeking to get local teens involved in producing news for the radio–and it’s been a great success.  We also still have a homegrown local weekly newspaper in Great Barrington, the Berkshire Record–which is pretty rare in the US, as more and more local newspapers are swallowed up by big media clones.

The Smithsonian Magazine description of Great Barrington was right on target, but there is also so much more that goes into being part of a truly outstanding small town.

I will write a longer love letter to Great Barrington in the future, but for today, let me just end with a big smacking kiss.  GB, I am proud to call you home.

Sparking Creativity at the 2012 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers

It’s finally snowing in Massachusetts!  My afternoon meetings were cancelled, and I can settle in by the fire and enjoy the peaceful quiet that always descends when we hunker down under a good New England snowfall.

This gives me a welcome chance to share something positive for a change with my blog readers.

Tomorrow is the opening of the 2012 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, a month-long celebration of the talents of local and regional women writers, taking place at venues from one end of Berkshire County to the other, with nearly 100 women participating.

I’ve been working over the past year with a dedicated local committee on planning and organizing this event, which is sponsored by Bard College at Simon’s Rock with the generous support of 11 Local Cultural Councils and many other donors, businesses and individuals, all listed on our website under “sponsors.”

This will be our second annual Festival, but it’s an event that grows out of the decade of annual conferences I organized at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in observance of International Women’s Day, co-sponsored by Berkshire Women for Women Worldwide, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, the Women’s Interfaith Institute and many other collaborators.

I’ve been at this a while.

Organizing events like these takes an extraordinary amount of energy, focus and commitment.  If you’ve ever organized a wedding, you have some idea of what’s involved–although for our conferences and Festivals, we’ve also had to do a fair amount of fundraising, which hopefully is not the case for wedding planners!

There always comes a point in the process where I bury my face in my hands and feel like crying, out of sheer exhaustion, “Why am I doing this to myself?!!”

After all, no one ever asked me to take on this extra commitment, year after year.

And sometimes I wonder whether anyone would notice if I stopped.

But then that low point passes, the brochure or Program comes back from the printers and starts to make its way in the world, the press inquiries pick up and I start hearing the oohs and ahhs of appreciation from participants and audience members, and I remember what it’s all about.

For women writers, in particular, it can be hard to find opportunities to come together and share our talents and achievements with each other and the larger world.

Hannah Fries

This weekend is the big AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago, and many women writers will be in attendance there, including one of our Festival organizers and participants, Orion Magazine editor Hannah Fries.  But that is a big, competitive event, which can be overwhelming for writers who are just starting out, or who just write for the personal satisfaction of it.

The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is purposefully low-key and non-competitive.  We organizers wanted to create a broad, inclusive platform for all kinds of women writers, of all ages, backgrounds, and stages in their writing careers.  If you browse the Festival listings, you’ll see a few names you’ll probably recognize, like Francine Prose and Ruth Reichl, but many more whose fresh, innovative voices might not be heard publicly this year without the space provided by our Festival.

I also sometimes ask myself why I continue to focus on women writers in my classes, events organizing and in my own writing.

Lately I have been moving from a longstanding focus on global women’s rights to a broader human rights perspective, still with a strong interest in gendered human rights issues.  Although the goal for any social justice activist is to put herself out of business, it still seems important to me to draw attention to voices who might not otherwise be heard–and the 50% of us who are women are disproportionately represented among those quieter voices.

The participants and audiences who will be gathering at the 40 Festival events scheduled daily throughout the month of March will  together generate a host of collaborative creative sparks that will go shooting out like fireworks, energizing all of us and giving us new strength and determination to meet the challenges of the coming year, whether at our writing desks or in other areas of our lives.

I certainly hope that just as women always turn out to listen to and learn from writers who happen to be men, men will also be among the audiences at all of our Festival events.

In these sobering times, we need all the chances we can get to come together and fan the flames of our community and our creativity.  Let the Festival begin!

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