Leadership in the End Times: Feminine Rising

“Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew/Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!/How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!/Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden/That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely. That it should come to this./But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two./So excellent a king, that was to this/Hyperion to a satyr.”

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2”

You may remember Hamlet’s anguished soliloquy as he contemplates the death of his noble father, the rapid remarriage of his mother to his lecherous uncle, and the fact that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

In this male-dominated kingdom, an “unweeded garden,” young Ophelia goes mad and drowns (a possible suicide), the Queen shares a bed with her husband’s brother-turned-killer, murder plots abound and no one is safe, not even the idealistic, intelligent young Hamlet, who cannot unravel the mess of his kingdom without becoming unraveled himself.

Does this sound familiar?

Unknown

Margaret J. Wheatley

It would not be too much of a stretch to compare our own sorry political landscape in the U.S. to the “rank and gross” garden of ancient Denmark. And thus it did not surprise me to find Meg Wheatley, in her latest book on leadership, turning to history to explain our current moment: what she calls, following British historian Sir John Glubb, “The Age of Decadence.”

Here is Wheatley summarizing Glubb:

“Glubb studied thirteen empires in the Middle East, Asia and Europe…from Assyria in 859 BCE to modern Britain in 1950. The pattern of the decline and fall of these superpowers was startlingly clear. It didn’t matter where they were or what technology they had or how they exercised power. They all declined in the same stages and it always took ten generations, about 250 years.

“The logic of this is very clear: each generation matures in better socioeconomic circumstances created by the preceding generation; thus, there is always a march to increasing materialism. In every generation, youth will have higher expectations for comfort than their parents. Improved material conditions create attitudinal changes that insist on still more material changes; and predictably, because of its wealth and erosion of morality, the civilization declines into decadence.” (Who Do We Choose to Be? 34).

The United States is nine years shy of its 250th anniversary. We are deep into our Age of Decadence, which Wheatley (following Glubb) describes as a time when “wealth and power have led to petty and negative behaviors, including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism and high levels of frivolity” (35).

The pattern is clear; the writing is on the wall–even without the added wrench of climate change and environmental destruction, which Glubb, writing in the 1970s, could not foresee.

Wheatley’s questions for our time are essential. Given the stark reality of our epoch, what should we do as leaders? How can we stay centered and grounded in the midst of social turmoil and environmental catastrophe, and work in our own spheres to create “islands of sanity” in our communities?

As I’ve become more acutely aware of the transition times (end times?) we are living through in the 21st century, it’s become important to me to reach out and try to find others who are also aware of what’s happening—those who are not giving in to despair, but who are continuing to work for positive change.

All kinds of resistance and action are needed, from protesting the unholy trinity of Fossil Fuels, Big Pharma and Big Ag; to holding elected officials accountable; to protecting our dwindling wild places and wild creatures; and working to improve quality of life for people with few resources.

It’s all urgent and important, and taken together, it’s overwhelming, which is why, as co-founder Kenny Ausubel said at the Bioneers conference last month, it’s important for activists to come together to imbibe the “good medicine” of sharing our stories and knitting together our hopes and dreams for a better future. It was great to get a strong dose of that good medicine myself at this year’s Bioneers.

IMG_3898.JPG

Nina Simons addresses the Bioneers 2017.

At the Bioneers, it was the women leaders who especially inspired me. It was heartbreaking but galvanizing to listen to Kandi Mosset, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, talk about the horrendous impact of the fossil fuel industry in her home state of North Dakota.

IMG_3881.jpg

Clare Dubois at the Bioneers 2017.

Kandi’s litany of destruction was balanced by the visionary, participatory ritual created by Treesisters founder Clare Dubois, invoking a rise of feminine consciousness to balance each of us as individuals (men as well as women) and enable us to bring our planet back into balance.

IMG_3911.jpg

Nina Simons awakening women leaders. 

Starhawk’s regeneration workshop echoed a theme raised by Bioneers co-founder Nina Simons in her women’s leadership session: the idea of composting what we don’t want, and focusing on generating more of what we do want and need.

But what if it’s not clear what we should compost in our lives, and what we should be growing? The way forward is murky in our times. I was reassured in my uncertainty by Joanna Macy, who ended her Bioneers session with simple but potent advice: “Cherish the questions.”

IMG_3921.jpg

Joanna Macy, wise elder at the Bioneers 2017.

I was also invigorated in my own work of purposeful memoir to find Meg Wheatley ending her new leadership book with a turn to the personal. From the wide historical sweep of her opening sections, she eventually narrows down to the particular center from which each of us operate: the self.

“We see the world through the powerful filters of self. The more we know our filters, the more we can see beyond them….The distinction between self-help and self-knowledge is important. There are thousands of self-help methods available to design a better you. But here, we aspire to high levels of self-awareness, not to help ourselves but to learn to trust ourselves in difficult situations….Our motivation is to be more in control of ourselves so that we don’t get in the way, and don’t give ourselves away, as we work in service to others” (275).

This is precisely the goal of my work of “aligning the personal, political and planetary through purposeful memoir.” In my workshops and online course, following the path I took myself in my memoir and laid out in my writer’s guide to purposeful memoir, we explore how our individual life stories have been shaped by political and environmental forces beyond our control.

As we learn about who we are in our particular time and place, as well as the ancestral baggage we carry, we can begin to “compost” what we don’t want to bring forward into the future, and envision “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein.

Unknown-1

Barbara Marx Hubbard, born the same year as Joanna Macy, 1929.

Yesterday I listened to Clare Dubois’ interview with the visionary thinker Barbara Marx Hubbard, who declared that we are living in the end times of a great evolutionary cycle. But in Nature, all death is also the opportunity for rebirth: compost leads to regeneration.

Ours is a moment of chaos and decay, but also a moment of great potential, when thanks to our enhanced powers of communication (the Internet) those whom Wheatley calls “Warriors for the Human Spirit” can find each other and work together to amplify our signal, increasing our collective ability to be a force for good on the planet.

In my lexicon, our task is to shift the destructive, aggressive Anthropocene to the balanced, harmonious Androgynocene. To do this, feminine leadership must come to the fore—in both men and women.

IMG_3894.jpg

Warrior for the Human Spirit AMY GOODMAN inspires young folks at the Bioneers 2017.

What would feminine leadership look like? Simply put, it is collaborative rather than competitive; nurturing rather than domineering; empathetic rather than arrogant; generous rather than stingy; putting the well-being of the entire system and all its components ahead of the individual striving of a few.

Can we achieve this before human civilization crashes and the entire planetary environment hits the reset button?

We have a ringside seat on the action, my friends. And we don’t have to stay on the sidelines! Each of us has a role to play in nudging our world towards a tipping point, for good or for ill.

If you can get clear on what you want to cultivate—in yourself, your communities, and the planet—you can then act in your own sphere to create an “island of sanity” around you. Once you feel clear, grounded and strong enough, you can reach out to likeminded others and welcome them in to your circle.

And then, let the world know what you’re doing by sending out encouraging messages in bottles (blog posts, tweets, photos) through the Internet. You never know where the ripples will spread and who your message will reach in a time of need.

It’s important that we counter the constant mainstream litany of bad news with positive stories of the better world that is regenerating through the compost of our civilization right now. It’s happening! And the more we share the news of the new shoots and beneficial micorrhizal networks we see, the more vigorously they’ll grow.

 

Joining Humanity’s Immune System: In the Body, in the Classroom, in the World

I had a tough day today in the classroom. I guess I brought it on myself by daring to raise unmentionable issues like violence against women and cancer….daring to follow Eve Ensler’s lead by assigning my students to read her remarkable cancer/incest survivor memoir, In the Body of the World. Unknown I assigned it for my class on “Media Strategies for Social and Environmental Justice.” The first book we read was Bill McKibben’s activist memoir Oil and Honey, about how he founded 350.org in a college classroom and how it grew to be a hugely successful global movement aimed at raising awareness about climate change and pressing for swift transition to renewable energy models.

This week we’ve been looking at Eve Ensler’s trajectory from a theater artist interviewing women about their vaginas and creating the series of monologues that would become “The Vagina Monologues,” to founding the V-Day movement to end violence against women, and now the One Billion Rising for Justice global phenomenon. Eve Ensler TED

But along the way, Eve Ensler got cancer. It arrived, she says in her viral TED Talk “Suddenly My Body,” with the force of a bird smashing into a plate glass window.

Her cancer memoir, In the Body of the World, is remarkable in its fearless interweaving of the personal and the political, the individual and the global, the violent rape of a daughter (Eve herself) with the violent rape of our Mother Earth by Western capitalist culture.

 ***

My plan for the class was to focus mostly on the cancer issue…to look at the horrifying statistics of cancer in the U.S., to name it as the runaway pandemic it is, and to think with the students about how we might most effectively employ media tactics and tools to raise awareness and push for social change. But I didn’t realize how deeply Eve Ensler’s description of violence against women, as related the violence of our chemical assault on Mother Earth, would resonate with these young people. Some of them were deeply troubled, even to the point of having to leave the class.

With the students who stayed, I had a good discussion about cancer itself. We looked at the most recent statistics of cancer in the U.S. (1.6 million NEW cases projected for 2014 by the American Cancer Society) and discussed the most common media strategies for dealing with the issue of cancer in the U.S.: walks, runs and galas “for the cure.” LivingDownstream_Portrait1

It took some pushing, but eventually I got the students to begin to discuss how activism that only focuses on “the cure” is missing the huge point: we need to focus on preventing cancer, not just curing it once it’s appeared. In Sandra Steingraber’s famous formulation in her cancer memoir Living Downstream, we need to start looking upstream.

What would looking upstream really mean? Buried deep in the American Cancer Society report is a short section on the environmental causes of cancer. This is what it says: “Environmental factors (as opposed to hereditary factors) account for an estimated 75%-80% of cancer cases and deaths in the U.S.”

Let me say that again.

“Environmental factors (as opposed to hereditary factors) account for an estimated 75%-80% of cancer cases and deaths in the U.S.” Environmental factors in the context of this report mean manmade chemicals and toxins present in our environment, from water to air to soils to our bloodstreams and mothers’ milk.

So what would it mean, I asked the students, to really probe this issue with the intent of stopping cancer before it begins—going to the source of the problem? It would mean, of course, we agreed after some discussion, pursuing the mining, chemical, pharmaceutical, atomic energy, fossil fuel and industrial agriculture companies. Oh yes, those—the ones that rule the world. It’s a tall order. Just like stopping violence against women, or reining in the carbon polluters and shifting to renewable energy. These are the major issues of our time, though. If we’re not stepping up to work on these issues, what are we doing with our brief, precious lifetimes?

***

In my next class, “Islamic Women Writing Resistance,” we were talking about violence against women, this time in the geographical context of Afghanistan.

Malalai Joya

Malalai Joya

Since we were reading the autobiography of Malalai Joya, the young woman who was elected a member of the Afghan Loya Jirga and famously called out the mullahs on their oppression of women, I steered the conversation into a discussion of leadership. How was it that despite the horrifically violent Afghan society under the Taliban and the warlords, where 90% of women are subjectd to physical, mental and sexual abuse, Malalai had managed to retain her confidence and bravado, her sense of herself as a leader?

And more importantly, what are the costs to a society that not only doesn’t respect and include the talents of 50% of the population, but actively works to suppress these gifts?

The answer to the first question has everything to do with Malalai’s father, who encouraged her to go to school, to become a teacher, and eventually to become an activist politician. Without his support, she could never have succeeded as she did. Chalk one up to the power of allies.

The second question is the one that really interests me. It seems to me that it takes tremendous energy to oppress half the population. Eventually so much is going into terrorizing the women and their potential male allies that there is nothing left over, in terms of psychic energy, to build a healthy, vibrant society.

It’s a true zombie society, with the powerful preying on the weak and the whole social fabric fraying into oblivion.

Is it an accident that the societies where women are being most savagely oppressed are also the societies that are poorest, most chaotic and most violent? Think Somalia, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia….

There are some countries where wealth has made it possible for strict patriarchal control of women to proceed without terrible violence and disorder: Saudi Arabia and the other Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Egypt. Even, maybe, the U.S., Russia and the E.U., where women tend to self-regulate their own subservience to the patriarchy, conditioned by high doses of media and peer education.

In every case, though, what we’re talking about is the same. We’re losing millions of bright, talented, gifted people to cancer every year. We’re losing millions of bright, talented, gifted women to violence and self-sabotage every year. And at the same time, this is happening against the backdrop that Eve Ensler describes so movingly in her book: the interweaving of the violence against women, the violence against individual bodies, and the violence human civilization is perpetuating against the Earth.

“Cancer is essentially built into our DNA, our self-destruction programmed into our original design—biologically, psychologically,” she says. “We spend our days, most of us consciously or unconsciously doing ourselves in. Think building a nuclear power plant on a fault line close to the water. Think poisoning the Earth that feeds us, the air that lets us breathe. Think smoking, drugging. Think abusing our children who are meant to care for us in old age, think mass raping women who carry the future in their bodies, think overeating or starving ourselves to look a certain way, think unprotected sex in the age of AIDS. We are a suicidal lot, propelled toward self-eradication” (194).

??????????????????????It doesn’t have to be this way. I am so glad to be reading the new edition of Joanna Macy’s classic work Coming Back to Life, as an antidote to the darkness described by Ensler and Joya. Macy quotes Paul Hawken, who refers to activists and activist organizations as “humanity’s immune system to toxins like political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation.”

This immune system, Hawken continues, “can best be understood as intelligence, a living, learning, self-regulating system—almost another mind. Its function does not depend on its firepower but on the quality of its connectedness….The immune system depends on its diversity to maintain resiliency, with which it can maintain homeostasis, respond to surprises, learn from pathogens and adapt to sudden changes” (qtd in Macy, 55).

A current example of such an immune system in action is Sandra Steingraber’s anti-fracking movement in upstate New York. She and her Seneca Lake defenders have come to the rescue of the fragile environment of the Finger Lake region and its jewel, Seneca Lake, putting their own bodies on the line just like Eve Ensler did when she allied herself with the women of the Congo, vowing to stop the violence. 10470955_854714074549076_2405675760464249402_n Any one of us has the power to become a defender of life. All we have to do is to pay attention to what’s happening, start asking the hard questions, stop going along with the flow. We need to do this is in a proactive way. We’re not looking for a cure to violence against women/against the Earth—we want to address the underlying causes of the violence, to look upstream and stop it at the source.

This necessitates a willingness to spend some time outside of our own comfort zones of denial and voluntary blindness. It involves looking at painful, messy, upsetting aspects of human existence, and taking responsibility for the ways in which each of us contribute to the status quo, if only by looking away. It will be personal as well as political in ways that will often hit entirely too close to home.

We need to open our eyes and really look at what our Industrial Growth Economy and the society it has created is doing to our bodies and the body of the world. We need to look at the way women’s bodies, in particular, are forced to bear the brunt of the pain, even though women account for just a fraction of inflicted violence in the world.

Don’t look away. Take it in. And then think about what you can do to join “humanity’s immune system.” Look for me on the front lines—I’ll meet you there. Dandelion_seeds_Computer_backgrounds

Reconnecting with the Earth…with Joanna Macy

images

Joanna Macy

At 85, Joanna Macy is still a beautiful tiger of a woman: fierce, focused, passionate. At a recent weekend workshop at Rowe on her signature Work That Reconnects, she was a keen and generous leader, with an impeccable sense of when to speak and when to be silent, when to share the microphone with younger leaders, when to get out in front and show the way.

Joanna has been refining the Work That Reconnects since the 1980s, when it grew out of her engaged Buddhist practice and her anti-nuclear activism. Its premise is simple: that we are integral parts of the Earth, having emerged out of carbon and water billions of years ago just like everything else on the planet; but we humans, having caused the near-collapse of the current epoch with our fixation on industrial growth run on chemicals and fossil fuels, have a special role to play in shifting our civilization to a sustainable footing.

To step into our power as change agents, we must first undo the social conditioning that has alienated us from our primary relationship with the Earth. The Work That Reconnects accomplishes this through a series of exercises and meditations, which can take a day or a week or much longer to accomplish, depending on how much time you have and how deep you want to go.

In the weekend version of the workshop, we spent a three-hour session on each of the three stations on Joanna’s Spiral of the Great Turning, led through a series of interactive activities designed to get us thinking about ourselves as bodhisattvas, awakened ones willing to give our lives in service to the higher good of all life.

tree

In the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

First came Gratitude: appreciating and giving thanks for being alive in this beautiful place, alongside myriad other complex and beautiful creatures who call the Earth home; and also giving thanks for our own strengths and capacities to become active warriors on behalf of the planet.

Then there was the grief and despair work for which Joanna is justly famous: she calls it Honoring Our Pain for the World, and it is a radical, counter-cultural push to sit with and confront all the sadness, despair, anger and pain we feel when we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of the destruction and devastation human beings are wreaking on the planet. Grief for individual loved ones lost to cancer mingles with grief and anger at the loss of the Great Blue Herons and the paved-over forests, in a powerful and galvanizing outpouring of rage and pain.

After an evening break that featured song and dance around the warmth of community, we turned the next morning to the last two stations on the spiral: Seeing with New Eyes and Going Forth.

Joanna talked about the necessary shift from the alienated form of seeing our relationship to the Earth as “our supply house and our sewer” to a new form of seeing, an understanding that we are embedded in the sacred living body of the Earth, and what we do to her we do to ourselves.

leaves

A closer look. Photo by J. Browdy

One of the reasons I love Joanna’s approach to activism is because she is unafraid to call on the imagination as one of our primary tools for social change. In a powerful closing exercise, she arranged us in pairs and asked one person to take the role of a descendant seven generations in the future—about 200 years hence, in 2214. The other person remained herself, in 2014.

The future being, prompted by Joanna, asked a series of questions of the ancestor, and then listened to the answers—this was not a conversation or a dialogue, but a witnessing of the struggles of this ancestor—you and me, in our time—to bequeath a livable world to our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

After listening to three different present-day people talk about their work for the planet—what makes it hard, what makes it rewarding, what keeps them going day to day—the future being had a chance to respond, and it was an incredibly powerful experience to imaginatively inhabit the spirit of the future encouraging us embattled ones in today’s world to find the strength to persevere.

Joanna at Rowe

Joanna signs books and talks with workshop participants. Photo by J. Browdy

In the call to Go Forth, the final turn on the spiral, Joanna reminded the gathering that this work is impossible to do alone—“it’s impossible to even take it in alone,” she said. We need to create communities of “Shambala warriors for the planet,” who can function like “the immune system of the Earth,” a potent metaphor she attributed to Paul Hawken.

In the Shambala prophecy that Joanna has been sharing ever since she heard it from one of her Tibetan Buddhist teachers back in the 1970s, it is said that great courage is required of those who work for the good of the world, because we must go right to the heart of the “barbarian empire,” armed only with two critical weapons: compassion for all living beings, and the radical insight of interbeing—that everything in this biosphere is intricately and integrally interdependent and connected.

And of course the truth is that the “barbarians” who inhabit this destructive empire are not strangers. They are, quite simply, us.

At the very end of the workshop, Joanna led us through a series of affirmations honoring our perceived enemies as our most important teachers.

Through our awareness of what we don’t want, we learn what we care about most. And through our caring—what Joanna calls the awakening of our “heart-mind”—we find the courage, passion and commitment to do the most important work of our time: transitioning from our current dead-end, greed-based, exploitative society to a society that honors the sacred in all life and works respectfully for the well-being of each participant in the dance of planetary life.

old tree

An elder maple in the forest at Rowe. Photo by J. Browdy

As I walked out under the ancient maples and hemlocks in the forests around Rowe, lit up in all their autumnal glory on this beautiful September weekend, I could feel the warrior spirit rising in me and in all of us who came from near and far to learn from Joanna.

Now is our time, and time is precious: there is none to waste as the forces unleashed by the industrial growth of the past 300 years threaten so many life forms on the planet with extinction.

Will we succeed in transitioning to a sustainable future? Will we humans grow into our potential as stewards and nurturers of our beautiful garden, this Earth? Or will we all slip away into the history of the planet, as the march of evolution and transformation continues on to the next era?

All we can do is go forth with good heart and brave spirit into our own communities and carry on the work that reconnects in our own spheres. I am so grateful to Joanna Macy for continuing to lead the way and for so generously sharing the powerful tools and practices she has developed over a lifetime, for others to take up and carry forward into the Great Turning.

JB & Joanna Macy

Joanna and Jennifer

N.B. Joanna’s classic book Coming Back to Life, a guidebook for doing the Work That Reconects by yourself or (preferably) with groups, has just been re-issued by New Society Publishers in a revised and updated edition. Joanna is hoping that people will gather in schools and church basements, in Transition Towns and activist organizations, to do the inner work that can sustain and fuel the outer work we must all undertake to transition to a life-enhancing human relationship to Earth.

In the Body of the World: Cancer as Catalyst for Revolution

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

I have been reading Eve Ensler’s incredibly powerful cancer memoir, In the Body of the World, with my students this week.  We watched Ensler’s 2010 TED Talk, “Suddenly My Body,” given while she was still practically bald from the chemo treatments; and you could have heard a pin drop in the room, everyone was so swept away by Ensler’s passionately delivered paean to the intricate interconnections between the individual body and what she later came to call “the body of the world.”

This is a concept I have most often heard expressed in Buddhist circles.  Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama talk about “inter-being,” and how it is egotistical, arrogant, androcentric and just plain wrong for human beings to imagine that we are somehow separate, over and above other livings beings on the planet.

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy, extending Arne Naess’ concept of the “ecological self,” uses the body as a metaphor to describe the futility of imagining ourselves as immune from the destruction we are wreaking on our planet.

The concept of the “ecological self,” Macy says, is important now because “moral exhortation does not work.  Sermons seldom hinder us from following our self-interest as we conceive it.

“The obvious choice, then, is to extend our notions of self-interest.  For example, it would not occur to me to plead with you, ‘Don’t saw off your leg.  That would be an act of violence.’ It wouldn’t occur to me (or to you) because your leg is part of your body.  Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin.  They are our external lungs.  We are beginning to realize that the world is our body” (World as Lover, World as Self, 157).

Eve Ensler has spent much of her life recovering from violence (she was a sexually assaulted and battered by her father as a child), bearing witness to violence against other women and girls, and creating powerful creative works, organizations and movements to end violence against women and girls.

And yet, she says, it was not until the jolt of realizing that her body had been invaded by cancer that she was able to overcome her ingrained alienation from her own body, born of the dissociation that was a survival tactic in her childhood.

Once she allowed herself to become fully connected with her body, it was but a short step to see the cancer in her uterus as symbolic of the much greater cancers of over-consumption and unsustainable growth afflicting the body of the world.

“Cancer is essentially built in our DNA, our self-destruction programmed into our original design—biologically, psychologically.  We spend our days, most of us consciously or unconsciously doing ourselves in.  Think building a nuclear power plant on a fault line, close to the water.  Think poisoning the Earth that feeds us, the air that lets us breathe….We are a suicidal lot, propelled toward self-eradication” (194).

But as Ensler discovers how fiercely she wants to live, to survive the cancer, she realizes that human beings are propelled as much toward life as toward death.  In a further twist of Freud’s insight into the immortal battle between Eros and Thanatos, she realizes that love is the answer—a fierce, unstoppable love for the battered, assaulted but still beautiful Earth, our mother, our home, our self.

Like Eve Ensler, I have spent much of my life focusing on the stories of women, and working to empower women to speak our truths and change the world for the better.

As I ponder the way forward now, in these end times of environmental tragedy, I am wondering whether women have a special role to play in bringing about the kind of radical social change that we need to survive into the future.

City of Joy openingEnsler uses the City of Joy, which she worked so hard to build in Bukavu, DRC (with the help of women all over the world contributing through the V-Day infrastructure), as a model for the kind of new life-giving, life-enhancing community that the world needs now.

It’s a City of Women, founded on the following ten principles:

1. TELL THE TRUTH

2. STOP WAITING TO BE RESCUED; TAKE INITIATIVE

3. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

4. RAISE YOUR VOICE

5. SHARE WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED

6. GIVE WHAT YOU WANT THE MOST

7.  FEEL AND TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH

8. USE IT TO FUEL A REVOLUTION

9. PRACTICE KINDNESS

10. TREAT YOUR SISTER’S LIFE AS IF IT WERE YOUR OWN

These seem like sound principles on which to base any human community, and particularly one founded on ashes, corpses and pain, as is the case in the Congo (but isn’t almost every human society founded, as Marx said, on blood?).

Women stay for six months at the City of Joy, during which they recover their physical and mental health with all kinds of therapies, participate in skills training, and get ready to return to their homes as leaders who can become change agents for peace and sanity in one of the most brutal and brutalized regions of the planet.

I know that there can be no lasting change that doesn’t also include men.  There can be no “City of Women” that survives past a single generation.

Eve Ensler, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Christine Deschryver, co-founders of the City of Joy.  Dr. Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who has operated on hundreds of women and girls left incontinent by tears in their vaginas due to violent rape.

Eve Ensler, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Christine Deschryver, co-founders of the City of Joy. Dr. Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who has operated on hundreds of women and girls left incontinent by tears in their vaginas (fistulas) due to violent rape.

I also know that it is important to recognize and acknowledge righteous anger at those responsible for all the destruction and violence.

We have to speak the truth that in the Congo, as on Earth overall, it has been men, acting with the blessing of our patriarchal religious, political, legal and social structures, who have been responsible for the machines, technologies and brutalities that have been so destructive to individual women and men, as well as to the environment without which we cannot live.

Women have often been complicit and have enjoyed the fruits of industrialization.  Women, especially privileged women, have gone along for the ride.

But it was never the vision of women that created the weapons and bulldozers, the chain saws and cars, the nuclear power plants and oil rigs.  All of those implements were envisioned, created and deployed by the men in charge of human society—especially the Europeans and their colonized offshoots—these last few centuries.

We can’t know now whether it would have been different if women had been allowed education and access to the board rooms and laboratories and congressional chambers where society-changing decisions got made, particularly during the crucial two centuries of industrialization.

We can’t change the past.  We can only look forward and, as mandated in the City of Joy’s Guiding Principles, “stop waiting to be rescued, tell the truth, and use it to fuel a revolution.”

eve-ensler-approved-photo_193x290[1]At death’s door, Eve Ensler realized that human beings and the world we have so profoundly altered are now at the threshold of a new era.

“What is coming is not like anything we have known before,” she says. “Your dying, my dying, is necessary and irrelevant and inevitable.  Do not be afraid, no, death will not be our end.  Indifference will be, disassociation will be, collateral damage, polar caps melting, endless hunger, mass rapes, grotesque wealth.

“The change will come from those who know they do not exist separately but as part of the river….You worry about germs and stockpile your herbs, but they will not save you, nor will your fancy house or gated villages.  The only salvation is kindness.  The only way out is care” (214).

I would like to quote the entire last chapter of Ensler’s remarkable memoir, but I won’t—just go buy the book and read it for yourself.  And then, as she says, “let us turn our pain to power, our victimhood to fire, our self-hatred to action, our self-obsession to service” (216).

Unknown-1Women, it’s time for us to rise and give birth to a new human relationship with the planet and with each other.  It’s past time.

Men are most welcome to join us in this life-saving mission, as long as they are men in touch with their feminine side, their life-giving, nurturing, relational side.

All of us humans possess both masculine and feminine energies and traits.  What we need now is balance.  Balance within each one of us that can become a catalyst for the balance our planet so desperately needs.

1billion-home-india

PS: Check out this TED Talk by Eve from just before she came down with cancer, talking, miraculously, about the importance of the “girl cell” in both men and women.

Finding Hope in Heartbreak

There has been a steady beat of heart-breaking news lately from various fronts.  Did you hear that the flame retardants required by law to be sprayed on American sofas are highly toxic chemicals that continue to break down in your living room? And those sofas, by the way, if they’re the nice wood-framed ones from Ikea, are being made from irreplaceable 600-year-old trees.  When you lie on your sofa to breast-feed your baby, you’re getting a whopping dose of PCB-type chemicals, and your infant is too, since toxic chemicals pass right into breast milk.

Or maybe you caught the long article in the New York Times the other day about American zoos becoming Arks for modern-day Noahs, who have to choose which species to try to preserve and which to let go into extinction.  This was one of the most candid acknowledgements I’ve seen in the mainstream media of the explosive pace of extinctions occurring around the world, partly due to the loss of those ancient trees to logging.

And meanwhile, in my corner of the world, there was more bad weather—record heat in May, followed by violent electric storms, complete with hail and the threat of twisters, which knocked out my power last night, including permanent damage to my DSL box, leaving me without internet access this morning.

The relentlessness of this kind of information, combined with the evidence I can see before my eyes of climate change and the contamination of our landscapes, is like a steady drag on my spirit, a weight around my neck.

Even when I’m enjoying myself with friends and family, as I did this past weekend, I have one mental foot in the future, imagining a time when such happy, peaceful and bountiful gatherings will exist only in memory.

I am always giving myself silent pep talks, hanging on to the hope that we will accomplish the switch to renewable energy sources; that we will stop the deforestation and the industrial agriculture; that we will become responsible stewards of our home planet, rather than the armed pirates and chemical warriors that we have come to be in the last hundred years or so.

Joanna Macy

Lately I have been finding some comfort in Joanna Macy’s 1991 volume World as Lover, World as Self, reissued in 2007 by Parallax Press.  When I think of how oblivious I was back in 1991 about global heating and toxic contamination, I am amazed at Macy’s prescience.

Rather than simply bemoaning, or even exhorting her readers to change their ways before it’s too late, Macy offers us a way to understand and process what is happening to our world, principally through coming to the recognition that the traditional human individualist view of the self is a misconception.

“The crisis that threatens our planet, whether seen in its military, ecological or social aspect, derives from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of the self,” she says.  “It derives from a mistake about our place in the order of things.  It is the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries; that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume; and that as individuals, corporations, nation-states or a species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings.”

In place of this, Macy draws on the work of systems theorists and ecological philosophers like Arne Naess, as well as the Buddhist notion of “inter-being,” to argue for a “greening of the self,” a way of self-understanding that recognizes our essential connectedness with all other life forms on our planet.

Arne Naess

Once we have understood that we are integrals parts in the living system of Earth, we should no longer have to appeal to human beings’ dubious moral sense to prompt a shift to a more sustainable way of living.  We can simply appeal to self-interest, Macy says.

“For example, it would not occur to me to plead with you, “Don’t cut off your leg.  That would be an act of violence.” It wouldn’t occur to me (or to you) because your leg is a part of your body.  Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin.  They are our external lungs.  We are beginning to realize that the world is our body.”

One of the ideas I find most exciting about this part of Macy’s work is her application of the concept of “inter-being” to temporality.

“By expanding our self-interest to include other beings in the body of Earth, the ecological self also widens our window on time.  It enlarges our temporal context, freeing us from identifying our goals and rewards solely in terms of our present lifetime.  The life pouring through us, pumping our heart and breathing through our lungs, did not begin at our birth or conception.  Like every particle in every atom and molecule of our bodies, it goes back through time to the first spinning and splitting of the stars.

“Thus the greening of the self helps us to re-inhabit time and own our story as life on Earth.  We were present in the primal flaring forth, and in the rains that streamed down on this still-molten planet, and in the primordial seas. In our mother’s womb we remembered that journey wearing vestigial gills and tail and fins for hands. Beneath the outer layers of our neocortex and what we learned at school, that story is in us—the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined.  When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us survive.”

When I think of my place in time and space in these terms, I do feel that gladness.  It is true that we are living through the sixth great extinction on the planet now.  It is true that we are producing and spreading contaminants in the air, water and soils that will last, some of them, for billions of years.

But the Earth has time.  And who knows, perhaps what we think of today as toxic waste can in time become the building blocks of new forms of life.  Our planet has shown itself to be remarkably adaptive.

Macy is unusual in working across disciplines and discourses that are generally kept apart, speaking fluently and persuasively in the tongues of sociology, systems theory, psychology, neurology, geology, ecology, theology, and even spirituality.  We are going to need the wisdom from all of these avenues of inquiry to begin to understand what will be happening to us in the coming years, as individuals, as a species, and as a part of the living fabric of Earth.

Perhaps that is what most distinguishes us most as human beings.  We want to understand.

And perhaps there is still a chance that if we can understand in time, we can, as Macy says, survive.

%d bloggers like this: