Purposeful Memoir as a Tool for Earth Activists

Recently I presented a slide lecture called “Navigating Climate Change in Uncertain Times: Cultivating Personal and Political Resilience for a Thriving Future.” But as often happens, I had to come up with the title months before I actually sat down to write the lecture, and in the interim my understanding of what I wanted to say shifted.

If I had to write the title now, it would be more like this: “Aligning the Personal, Political and Planetary Through Purposeful Memoir: Exploring the Past to Understand the Present and Envision the Thriving Future We Yearn For.”

It’s too wordy, but so far I have been unable to simplify these big ideas into a more succinct wording.

Truly, what I’m after is something big here, something potentially transformative on a grand scale.

And yet it starts very simply, very close to home: sitting down, preferably with others, to explore one’s own life experience and how it has been shaped and impacted, whether we’ve realized it along the way or not, by the political and planetary landscape of our time and place.

In the lecture, I used my own life experience as an example, exploring the years between 1962, my birth year, and 2011, the year I woke up to climate change and the Sixth Great Extinction—which, not coincidentally, was also the year that I started writing Transition Times.

The political events of those 50 years in America include several wars, from Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; the Civil Rights and feminist movements; the stealing of the election by Bush Jr. in 2000; and the complicated ups and downs of Congressional politics in relation to the environment.

The planetary events are perhaps less familiar, especially to those who, like me before 2011, were not paying much attention to the planetary backdrop against which we foregrounded our lives.

But put together, decade by decade, that “backdrop” loomed large. Each decade since the 1960s, the population of the Earth’s most successful invasive species, Homo sapiens, has increased by one billion people. We went from 3 billion or so when I was born, to 7 billion in the early 21stcentury, and we’re on track to reach 8 billion by 2020.

Data from the EPA and NASA show the steady rise in global atmospheric carbon over these decades, accompanied by rising air and sea temperatures and melting polar ice.

And in these decades since the first American endangered species list was created in 1967, hundreds of species have been added to the list of those threatened by extinction. It turns out that 1994, the year I earned my Ph.D., was the worst single year on the list, with 129 species added. Of course, I wasn’t paying attention at the time.

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Source: World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/08/endangered-species-wait-an-average-of-12-years-to-get-on-the-list

The power of aligning the personal, political and planetary through purposeful memoir is precisely that it focuses our attention in a new way.

It’s not just for those who want to write a full-fledged memoir. It’s also a valuable tool for anyone who is ready to understand their lives as part of the broader story of the relationship between human society and our planet.

It’s a way of understanding more deeply how we got to our present crisis moment on the planet, individually and as a society; a way of taking stock of the past and present in order to gird ourselves for the challenging work ahead.

Too often, people take up activism only in the political realm. They go out to fight politically for the planet without having done the deep inner work of understanding who they are, where they come from and how they were socialized and educated by their family and culture.

This inner work of purposeful memoir can be difficult because almost everyone alive today will have to confront their own complicity in the steady destruction of the global ecosystem—the swift and inexorable erosion, over the past 50-plus years, of the health and wellbeing of all life on the planet, including of course ourselves, human beings.

What-I-Forgot-Cover-draft-NEW-smAs I worked on my own memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, I went through all the classic stages of grief as I realized the full extent of the loss that has unfolded during my lifetime.

Allowing ourselves to feel the grief is important, as Joanna Macy has been telling us for a long time; and we can channel the anger that arises from the tragic, relentless loss of life into a powerful force for Earth activism.

When we gather together to write and share how our personal stories have intertwined with the political and planetary happenings of our time and place, we are strengthening ourselves as a collective force for positive transformation of self, society and world.

We are, as I put it in my memoir, “doing hope together.”

Emily Dickinson famously described hope as:

“the thing with feathers –
that perches in the soul –
and sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”

As we navigate through our perilous moment of climate change, political disruption and environmental destruction, we can use purposeful memoir as a way of tuning into to our own inner resilience while listening for the never-ending song of hope that pulses through all life on Earth.

It’s easy to hear it on these beautiful days of spring renewal. It’s what sets the leaves unfurling and the flowers turning their faces to the sun. It’s what animates the birds to build their nests and the bees to gather pollen to make their honey season after season.

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Photo J. Browdy 2018

As we work through purposeful memoir to align the personal, political and planetary, we can clearly see the preciousness and the fragility of life on Earth, and we come to understand our own potential to be stewards for the planet, and active guardians of other species.

We tap into the strong current of hope and life that constantly encircles this planet and begin to cultivate the deep awareness and resilience to become a beacon for others, each of us a little light in the vast global shift towards, as Charles Eisenstein puts it, “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

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Terry Tempest Williams

At a recent climate change panel discussion in Albany NY, purposeful memoirist Terry Tempest Williams talked poetically about our responsibility to the generations still to come.

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying we will see beyond our own time and act accordingly,” she said.

Purposeful memoir can help us locate ourselves as a strong link in the chain between past and future, understanding our individual lives as part of the broader political and planetary landscape of our time and place.

Doing hope together, we can engage in the joyful, sacred task of building bridges, plank by plank, into the thriving future we yearn for—not just for ourselves and other human beings, but for all life on Earth.

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Photo J. Browdy 2017

After a Bloody Valentine’s Day, A Meditation on the Human Heart

Many times before in human history violence and mayhem have prevailed, people have wailed and groaned with fear and pain as anger and hatred have roiled society. We’re in such a time now, of personal and political suffering, compounded by the planetary environmental imbalance that threatens, tsunami-like, to blow us all away.

Literally and figuratively, this is a bleak, frightening time to be alive, and everyone I know is feeling the weight of everything that is going wrong. The daily news of mass shootings, civil wars, refugee crises, xenophobia and hatred writ large and small—not to mention the extinctions, polluted landscapes and waterways, and continued unbridled greed of the captains of the industries that are destroying our individual and ecological health—well, it’s overwhelming.

It’s been a while since I posted on Transition Times, and overwhelm is part of the reason I’ve been quiet lately. Another reason is because I try to resist being purely reactionary in my TT writing. Lately the outrages and calamities have come so fast and furious that if I tried to keep up, I’d spend all my time denouncing the bad guys and bewailing the latest tragedy. That’s not how I want to spend my precious time, or yours.

Sages like Margaret Wheatley are counseling now that we try to move beyond hope and despair, to the realm of what she calls “faith.” I think she means that when we take the longer view, and give up our fear of change, we can rest assured that no matter how things unfold in the short term, in the long run everything will be OK.

Well, in the long run you and I will be dead, and there is a release in that, no matter what you believe about the afterlife or rebirth. In the long run, our Mother Earth will regenerate and new, marvelous life will flourish here on the planet, the DNA spiraling on as it did when some of the dinosaurs became our present-day birds.

So in that sense, yes, eventually all will be well. But that still doesn’t absolve us of responsibility now, in our own time, to do what we can to alleviate suffering and cultivate individual and ecological health, harmony and balance.

One thing I can do is try not to be a mirror for the violence I abhor. It doesn’t mean I’m putting my head in the sand, it just means that, as with the ancient Buddhist practice of tong-len­, I can try to breathe it in and transmute it, in my own being, to compassion that I breathe out.

For example, with the most recent horrific school shooting, in Parkland, Florida, I feel the suffering like a rain of fire. The suffering of the victims, and also the suffering of the shooter, alone in the world, evidently left to his own violent, mentally disturbed devices. Now he will spend the rest of his life in prison, and that will be no real atonement for the innocent lives he snuffed out.

I breathe in the horror of that scenario, and although my first thought is of gun control, and rage that the politicians who could make things better continue to sit on their hands and mouth sanctimonious prayers—I try to breathe through that too, and think about how all of us are caught in webs of fear, greed and power-lust not of our own making, unhealthy systems that hold most of us fast, no matter how we try to struggle free.

It’s the systems that need changing, but change always starts with the personal and radiates outward. The question is always, how can I touch the heart of another human being and melt its hardness with compassion and love?

We live in a time of hard-heartedness. Callousness and indifference reign, nowhere more evident than in the U.S. government.

listening for Gaia copyBut I won’t let them harden me. I will continue to cup my hands around the fragile flame of loving-kindness that burns indomitably at my core.

We human beings are born loving. Every infant turns its head blindly towards its mother, searching for love and comfort. Our entire ecosystem runs on the pure positive energy of the Sun, which shines its love down on all equally, warming the seeds and nourishing the plants without which we humans could not live a moment.

Yes, the circle of life includes pain and suffering. Predators have to eat, but when the system is in harmony, death feeds life.

tree heart copyRight now Western civilization is in a death-frenzy that is not life-giving. Let us admit that to ourselves, and imagine the many ways that we could seize the opportunity now in front of us to transition to a healthier system.

It all starts with the human heart. In the wake of this bloody Valentine’s Day, I want to use my heart to send love out into the world, and meditate deeply on what I have to give that is positive and life-affirming.

That is the only way we can be the change we want to see in the world.

Will the Real Hillary (Rodham, Clinton) Please Stand Up?

Today’s New York Times features an article by Amy Chozick about the fading away of Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the wake of her electoral college (though not popular) defeat to a known sexual predator.

The article regrets the fact that Mrs. Clinton, after so many decades of leading the way for women in politics, has now been forced to the sidelines. “On issues of sexual assault, Mrs. Clinton has remained mostly muted, her hands tied as liberals rethink how President Bill Clinton’s accusers were dismissed and shamed in the 1990s. Even the #StillWithHer crowd seems to agree that the #MeToo movement cannot feature Mrs. Clinton.”

And therein lies the rub for Mrs. Clinton.

To fully step into her power as a feminist leader, she has to account for her hubby. This is where the personal meets the political and things get complicated.

Chozick asks whether Mrs. Clinton should “be held responsible for the badly behaving men around her.” The answer is no, we are only responsible for our own behavior.

But her behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal was not okay. For years she determinedly looked the other way as Bill had his trysts. This was known when they were on the campaign trail in the 1990s, and the Lewinsky affair revealed just how deeply entrenched Bill’s proclivity to sexual predation had become.

All through that scandal, Hillary stood by her man.

Pres. Clinton Denies Lewinsky Affair

Even after they left the White House, when she could have divorced him without any political blowback, she continued to stand by her man.

We don’t know if he continued his sexually loose ways after retirement. I for one don’t care, as long as the encounters were consensual. Let him eat cake. Let her eat cake too, for that matter! I’m not one to argue sententiously for the sanctity of marriage.

But if Hillary wants to be an icon for women, she should help us understand what was in her mind as she stood by Bill, even knowing that he was getting young Monica to jack him off in the Oval Office.

I wish Hillary would write a real memoir digging into the full complexity of the calculus for women seeking power and success in a world still so overwhelmingly patriarchal.

frida-dvdSalma Hayek’s brilliant essay, revealing how she had to demean herself to Harvey Weinstein in order to achieve her creative masterpiece Frida, opens a lurid window into the contortions required of ambitious, talented women in this man’s world. Whether they are seeking success in science, religion, education, politics, the arts, or business, as feminists have been documenting for years, there is no level playing field for women.

These days, feminist critique is finally coming out of women’s studies classrooms and journals and into the mainstream. The whole nation saw the glass ceiling in action in all its glory, holding fast against the first woman who actually might have been POTUS.

At the very least, when all is said and done, Hillary deserves a good biography of her life, maybe a dramatic bio-pic made by someone who gets it, like Salma Hayek.

We need to understand what pressures women like her to put up with “bad behavior from those around her” in the quest to achieve higher goals.

We need to understand why she has stuck by Bill all these years. Hollywood celebrities get to marry and divorce with abandon, but not politicians, particularly women politicians. Why not? Why do we insist that women stand by their men, no matter what? Other countries are relaxing this standard—look at France, or Chile.

We will never know if Hillary would have been a stronger, better candidate had she divorced Bill after their shabby reign in the White House ended. All these years, she stuck by her man. Maybe she loves him. Maybe he’s changed with age and become a good companion for her.

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Hillary and Bill in 2016

The bedroom does influence the boardroom, for women as well as men. Hillary Clinton is someone who could tell us just how much this is so. But she’d have to take the risk of standing on her own two feet, as Hillary Rodham, Clinton be damned.

Imagine 2018: Dreaming a Better Future

Although there have been countless other dark periods in human history, the particular darkness of our moment is unique in its alignment of the political and planetary.

Politically, human societies around the world are under pressure—religious, economic, social—and are more easily manipulated by dark forces than ever before, thanks to our networked global Hive Mind.

On a planetary level, all life forms, including humans, are under unprecedented pressure due to the human destruction of healthy ecosystems by over-population, climate change, chemical assault and the deadly practices of mining, fracking, logging, agriculture, fishing, etc.

Even while on a personal level many of us here in the heart of Empire are still relatively comfortable, we feel these political and planetary pressures deeply. Each day’s bad news can feel like an assault, and after a year like 2017, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty bruised and aching.

These dark solstice days, as the earth begins to swing back towards the sun, are a good time to go deep and try to fortify ourselves, intellectually and spiritually, for the new year ahead. Given a personal awareness of the frighteningly out-of-control political and planetary dimensions of our time, how can we keep ourselves centered and steady, awake and aware yet not depressed, despairing or panicked?

In terms of negotiating the Hive Mind, I try to share as much good news as I can find, and bad news only sparingly. I’ve noticed that whatever we share on social media comes back to us amplified, so if I share bad news—the Arctic is melting! the polar bears are going extinct!—the negative emotions of fear, anger and grief that come back to me simply get me more upset, without offering any constructive approach to solving the original problem.

If I share good news, even if it only offers a ray of hope, that ray is brightened by all the “likes” that others add, and our collective mood may be lightened just a little bit.

And brightness this is what the world needs from us now. Those of us who are aware and awake to the slow-motion disaster we’re living through are being called to be the beacons and the anchors for others—and not just for humans, but for all the beautiful life on earth that is under constant assault these days.

It won’t help the polar bears on their melting ice floes or the hordes of animals fleeing the wildfires to have us humans staring at screens expressing our outrage with finger taps. It may make us feel a little better in the moment to virtually scream our anguish, but it’s a howl in the wind that will do no one any good.

Instead of getting lost in the dystopian present, with which the media keeps battering our psyches day after day, the trick to staying centered and spirited in these dark times is to keep burnishing our dreams of a better future.

This requires resisting the prevailing tendency today for dreaming to be dismissed as an unproductive waste of time; for visionaries to be mocked as escapist fantasizers.

I fear that what may doom us in the end is the loss of our capacity for creative daydreaming.

We are all so accustomed to constant media stimulation that it takes real effort to simply quiet our minds and become open to whatever creative thoughts may come. I’m not talking about meditation, which aims to “think nothing.” I’m talking about creative imagination, flashes of insight, lucid dreaming, the kind of thinking that has propelled human ingenuity all through the ages.

We can’t allow our imaginations to be dominated by the “masters of the universe” who control our media. This is a particular challenge with children and young people, the smartphone generations who have grown up as consumers of other people’s fantasies and representations, rather than practicing our human birthright of creative imagination.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” sang John Lennon.

We who are aware of what’s happening around us have to allow ourselves the creative pleasure of dreaming our own utopian dreams, and sharing these visions of a better future with others, so that together we add detail and strength to the positive dream of what could be.

Instead of reacting negatively to the day’s news, amplifying the outrage and discord, we can share our proactive dreams of what could and should be.

My mantra word for 2018 is: Imagine.

Imagine what could be if your dream of how you want to live, personally, were extended into a collective dream of well-being for all life on Earth, and for the planet herself?

Imagine if the “world could be as one”—and imagine yourself doing one small thing each day to extend your dream of personal well-being out further to touch others in the world. Even small acts like filling a bird feeder, donating to a food pantry or smiling at a neighbor will ripple goodness out into a world starving for kindness.

The media hurls countless “micro-aggressions” at us every day. In your own personal sphere, imagine 2018 as a year of micro-kindnesses, and try to consciously make kindness, warmth and goodness a habit.

The more of us practice this kind of radical kindness, the more it will come back to warm and encourage us, in a positive feedback loop that really can change the world.

Imagine.

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Stop the world, I want to get off! Reflections from the runaway train of 2017

The train wreck in Washington state this week gave visual reality to the feeling I’ve had lately of being a passenger on a runaway train, bound for disaster. I’m in that eerie slo-mo stage where everyone is screaming, we know we’re screwed, but there is nothing anyone can do to change the inevitable horrific outcome.

I’m talking about the Great Tax Scam of 2017, in which ultra-wealthy individuals and mega-corporations played a nasty shell game with everyone else–now you see it, now you don’t!—throwing some crumbs to the masses, while slashing funding for public education, health care, infrastructure and the social safety net for the most vulnerable, including the elderly and children.

I’m also talking about the environment: even as the pace of mining, logging, fracking and drilling continues to increase, the Arctic is melting, the forests and coral reefs are dying, and every day brings new tidings of floods, fires, droughts, famines.

To use another disaster metaphor, the US government and the corporations continue to party while the great Titantic of human civilization maintains a collision course for those now-melting ice bergs.

I can foresee the wreck, but I seem to be frozen and helpless to act to avert it.

Part of my inertia comes from the fact that I, like all of us living in the heart of the Empire, benefit from what the corporations offer. I’m complicit: I drive with gas, I heat with oil, I use banks and computers, I eat industrially produced food and expect drugs to be there when I need them. I pay my taxes.

While I don’t want to make excuses or let myself off the hook for my complicity, I also recognize the way my choices have been warped and limited by the same forces that are now ramming “tax reform” through Congress.

Because my funds are limited, it is difficult for me to buck the pressures of industrial capitalism—the policies that make gas cars cheaper than hybrids, oil burners cheaper than solar panels, and industrial food cheaper than organic.

For the most part, I have allowed myself to be shaped (maybe contorted would be a better word) into another of the obedient, ever-desiring consumers required by the corporate finance titans—a capitalist automaton who will shop till they drop on plastic fumes and go into debt bondage to keep up with the American dream.

But even as I reach for my plastic and do my holiday shopping, I am aware that I am not as helpless as the corporations and government want me to believe. I do have choices, even on this crazy runaway train that’s taking us all for a terrifying ride in these early years of the 21st century.

In a long-ago dispute over taxes, Henry Thoreau went to debtors’ jail to protest how taxpayer money was being spent on war. He wrote his famous letter on civil disobedience from prison, with the line that always echoes in my ears: “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth–certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

If I were to stop “lending myself to the wrong which I condemn,” I would have to stop contributing my tax dollars to the maw of U.S. corporate capitalism. I would have to get rid of my credit card and start working individually and in my community to become more independent and resilient: investing in local agriculture, decentralized energy, local credit unions and currencies, building up community networks to ensure a social safety net on the local level.

One way federal/corporate interests keep us in line is by mesmerizing us with global news. We know more about the latest disaster on the other side of the country or the world than we know about how our neighbors are living down the street.

We can’t stop climate change, but we can begin to work in our own communities to prepare for it. We may not be able to overcome the stranglehold of corporate capitalism on our economy and our government, but we can do things differently on the local level.

It’s time to walk the talk of living as awake, aware, socially and environmentally responsible human beings. I can’t do it alone, but I can reach out to you, and together we can begin to bring our personal, political and planetary values into alignment. It’s never too late to start, and it’s certainly not too soon.

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What is being asked of us now? Gaian death doulas for a world in transition

Memorial Day, by design, is focused on death. This year, it seems like the tide of death has become a roaring tsunami. You know what I mean; I don’t have to list it.

As I try to cope with my grief and anger over the state of our world today, it’s becoming clear to me that those of us who are aware are being called to become death doulas for our dying world: Gaian death doulas.

It’s an odd juxtaposition: death doula. Doulas are usually all about birth: they assist midwives, mothers and families to warmly usher babies into life.

Death doulas are more like hospice workers, trying to help smooth the passage for those who are dying, and their families. Amid a growing awareness of the lack of graciousness in the medicalization of death, the idea of death doulas is catching on.

As I look for ways that the personal, political and planetary align, I see that just as personal death doulas can help dying individuals with their transition, and ease the grief of those who love them, Gaian death doulas can bring a political and planetary perspective to help communities in transition, helping us balance our grief over what is being lost with a quickening awareness of the potential of the new era now emerging.

Western civilization understands life and death in too linear and finite a way. Death and life are part of a great spiral dance, as Starhawk put it long ago; a dance in which each living being has a role to play, from the tiniest insect or plankton to the human, the whale and the great baobab tree.

In beginning to understand my own role as that of a Gaian death doula, I am indebted not only to Starhawk but also to Joanna Macy, both of whom have long been leading the way.

The work begins with looking back to understand the great dying we humans have presided over and contributed to over the past 5,000 years, since Gilgamesh so symbolically killed the guardian of the forest and starting cutting trees to build his city.

We have to look unflinchingly at the steady increase in destruction caused by industrial capitalism, in order to understand our personal and political role in the system we were born into.

How have we been socialized into a callous acceptance of constant unnecessary death and destruction? How have we acquiesced and contributed to this? Have we ever tried to imagine a better, more life-affirming relationship to our planet?

These are the kinds of questions I raise in my memoir, and in my purposeful memoir workshops, where we consciously consider how the personal, political and planetary have aligned in our lives.

But it’s not all about sadness and guilt. Even as we bear witness to “the sixth great extinction” that is unfolding in our time, we can also celebrate our planet’s endless potential for regeneration and rebirth.

Yes, we may lose many of the iconic species we love, our dear elephants and sweet polar bears.

But let’s remember that other wonderful species have been lost before, on the road to our present moment, and not all of them due to human aggression: from the dinosaurs to the saber-toothed tiger or the mammoth, many species have had their heyday and spiraled back into the birth-death-rebirth dance of Gaian evolutionary history.

We can learn from Mother Earth’s endlessly creative and abundant example. She doesn’t waste time mourning; she immediately gets to work regenerating, using the building blocks available—we can see this plainly in the way green grass shoots right up to take the place of trees that are cut down.

Gaian death doulas can help us understand the transition process we’re in now, so that we can support Mother Earth in her important work of regeneration. Yes, we can and must grieve those lost, but we must also cultivate and support the new life rising.

For me this is as much about standing up for a nurturing Gaian education for our young humans as it as about insisting on humane treatment of farm animals and properly regenerative agricultural and logging practices.

This Memorial Day, I grieve the tremendous dying-off of our time. And through my tears, I smile and extend a hand to those grieving with me, and to the young ones who are just coming in to this story.

The next chapters are ours to imagine, ours to dream and to manifest. What role will you create for yourself? Let’s work together to craft a story we can live into with joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robin Wall Kimmerer

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

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

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

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

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

We can—we must—and we will!

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!

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.

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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.

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