The Soul Force We Need Now

When I wrote my last Transition Times piece, imagining the darkness that would descend on America if Trump should win the presidency, I didn’t believe it would happen. I trusted Americans to unite behind Hillary as the better choice; to defeat the bigotry and stupidity represented by Trump.

Hillary did win the popular vote, but she lost the electoral college. Is this a fair system, this winner-take-all system we have inherited? I don’t think so. But with Republicans gleefully about to control all three houses of government, I’m not expecting any changes on that score. We just have to deal with the cards on the table now.

The cards are not good. Not good for people, for animals, for wildlife, for oceans and forests and prairies. The setback is real.

But let’s not kid ourselves that a Clinton presidency would have been a walk in the park. There’s a reason so many of us were unenthusiastic about her candidacy, even while applauding her as a woman with enough grit and backbone to survive a punishing public life and continue in a historic bid for the highest public office in the land.

Yes, Hillary is tough. Yes, she made friends with the wealthy whose money she needed to make her run viable. Yes, she talked the talk and walked the walk that the Democratic Party wanted to hear. Yes, she won the popular vote in the end.

But not by a landslide. Not by enough. In the end, she could not go that final mile to victory.

The pundits are busy parsing out why the pollsters and journalists were so blindsided by the Trump insurgency. No one is talking fraud, but I wonder…all it would have taken is fraud in a couple of key states…say, Florida and Pennsylvania…to tip the electoral scales.

Even if there was no direct vote tampering, there was tampering of hearts…Trump’s empty sloganeering giving people something simple and digestible to hang on to, so much more appealing than Hillary’s endless fine print.

Bernie Sanders understood the profound despair and hopelessness of the American middle-to-lower class (the middle class slip-sliding away into the hanging-by-the-grace-of-a-credit-card class). And unlike Trump, he actually has some ideas about what to do for these suffering millions.

Hillary represented status quo stability, an extension of the relative peace, prosperity and even tentative progressive tiptoes that Obama brought us. That’s nothing to sniff at. But for people who weren’t feeling the benefits, it obviously wasn’t enough.

No use crying over spilt milk. As pundits around the globe are saying this morning, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and recommit ourselves to the struggle for a sane and livable world. People who believe in the ideal of social justice for all, who believe in preserving our environment as the essential pathway to a livable future—we have to come together now as never before.

That old Hopi prophecy about “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” seems to be awakening, both in the Trump camps and now in progressive circles. The good people of Standing Rock are already living it.

Obviously we can’t look to the Federal government for protection or support. But as Bernie proved in defying the Democratic Party last winter and spring, there’s a lot we can do at the state and local levels, with direct appeal to individuals who share our values and want to put their money and energy behind a shared vision of what America would look like if there was really “justice for all”—and I include all living beings in my understanding of that phrase, from the fish in the sea to the trees in the forests to the birds in the sky and on and on, our whole magnificent ecological web.

Mother Earth is in convulsions right now, thanks to the unchecked growth of us, her most successful species yet. We are over-populating like lemmings, and like lemmings we seem to be on track to restore stability by running off a cliff together—powered by our remarkable technology and the fossil fuels required by our machine-based lifestyle.

This is the bigger picture we must keep in our sights on this gloomy morning after the Trump win. It’s not about Democrats and Republicans, red or blue, elites or working class, or any other way of slicing and dicing our differences.

In the face of climate change, we are all the same in our vulnerability to the big shocks that will inevitably come if we don’t succeed in shifting away from fossil fuels. Trump in his faux-gold tower can’t survive long without the farmers of the world producing food, and the farmers can’t do that if the climate gives way to floods and droughts and storms. We are all connected. We are all connected. We are all connected.

As Charles Eistenstein memorably puts it, we are one being looking out at the world through a multitude of eyes.

The sooner we understand this and get beyond old tired habits of separation, the better chance humanity has of evolving into the great steward species we were meant to be.

That old Garden of Eden story was a warning about the dangers of knowledge without wisdom, a warning that we are still struggling to absorb and learn from (and no, it wasn’t Eve’s fault!).

What is the wisdom we can live by in the difficult era that’s now dawning?

We have to acknowledge the deep pain, disappointment and anger that the Trump voters are living. It’s real. Trump didn’t invent it or even cultivate it; he just understood it, and understood, as an entertainer and consummate con man, how to make it work for him.

He will have no balms for the disenfranchised. America won’t return to some mythic “great” past. The anger and bitterness will continue until we can come together as a society to find real solutions that give all people a sense of dignity and purpose; opening up accessible pathways to health and well-being, individually and as communities.

Behind the wish to “make America great again” lies longing for a time when we could believe in and work together towards a brighter future. I know we don’t all agree on what that future could or should look like. But we should be talking about it together, not walling off from each other in distrust and fear.

Can I listen to a man spewing vile hatred over me and my family and everyone I love? Can I try to understand where he’s coming from, as he shoves me under a bus?

I don’t know if I have that in me. But I do know that in these times that are coming, I must stand firm in human decency; stand up for justice and integrity and love; and let that soul force—called forth by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other social change agents from Jesus on down the ages—stream through me out into the world.

If enough of us do this, together we can make that stream a mighty river, and ride that river to a better world.

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Soul force

From Selfies to Withies with Eli Pariser: Who’s In the Frame?

UnknownTis the season of Commencement speeches, and I read one this week with particular attention, because it was by an illustrious alum from Bard College at Simon’s Rock—Eli Pariser, the founder of Moveon.org and Upworthy, two awesome organizations dedicated to using social media technology to shift culture for the better.

There’s a lot to love in Eli’s speech. He tells the graduates that having a sense of self-worth is the foundation of empathy, which is the social glue that holds communities together. He enjoins the young people before him to remember that they matter, citing studies showing “the powerful effect that believing we matter has on the way we behave, especially toward those who are different from us.”

He continues: “When we’re affirmed in who we are, when we believe that we matter, we relax. We’re more open to new ideas, other ways of seeing things. We’re more accepting of each other. We feel safe. Our subconscious bias goes down. Our empathy goes up. Instead of seeing stereotypes, we can see and accept people as individual human beings.”

This leads him to the important question of how we should value ourselves, or what in ourselves we should value. After all, a bigot might look in the mirror and value hir hatred, right?

Eli is clear on this question: “Here’s what I believe: You matter because you contain within you a great capacity to do good. To act with love.”

He concludes his speech by asking the students in front of him to take out their cameras and instead of taking selfies, take “withies”:

“I want you to capture yourself in the context of everyone around, everyone who has travelled this journey with you. Instead of a selfie, let’s call it a “withie.” With your friends. With your classmates. With your professors. With your family. With as many people as you can fit into the frame. The whole context….As you move out into your next chapter, this wild and weird future, remember this. You’re not alone in your frame. You do matter. You have this great power within you to do good and to remind people that they matter too.”

Totally awesome message! There’s just one thing missing here, and that is an acknowledgment that there is much more in the frame of our “withies” than people.

2016 is a year when we desperately need to bring the great green and blue pulse of planetary life into our frames, and remember that our love and empathy must be extended to all living beings, from the plants that produce the oxygen we breathe to the plankton, coral and mangroves that support the ocean food chains, to the bacteria that give us rich earth and the insects that pollinate our crops.

Interestingly, Eli mentions non-human life just once in his speech, a reference to penguins that apparently occurred to him only because the penguin is the mascot of the institution he was addressing. He uses the communitarian nature of penguins to illustrate his idea of “withies”:

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“As any student of “March of the Penguins” knows, penguins are awesome. They can swim faster than a human can run. They can drink ocean water and sneeze out the salt. And when it gets really, really Antarctic cold, they huddle close to one another. They put the kids on the inside. They rotate turns on the outside, absorbing the chill. They come together. And that’s how they make it through the winter.”

“March of the Penguins” came out in 2005, bringing us up close and personal for the first time to the dramatic lives of Antarctic penguins, nesting and raising their young in the harshest environment on Earth. A decade later, a film like that would never be made without acknowledging that penguins are among the many iconic species now being threatened with extinction by the manmade global heating that is causing their ice shelf home to melt into the sea.

The fact that someone as smart and savvy as Eli Pariser could write a Commencement speech in 2016 making no mention of the environmental crisis at all is deeply sobering to me.

It reminds me of the humans in the 2008 movie WALL-E, who have computer screens perpetually fixed right in front of their faces. We have become so entranced by our own reflections in our screens that even our “withies” are all about us.

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Let’s go back to the conclusion of Eli’s speech for a moment. He says:

“As you move out into your next chapter, this wild and weird future, remember this.You’re not alone in your frame. You do matter. You have this great power within you to do good and to remind people that they matter too. If you do that, then truly there’s nothing to be afraid of. Class of 2016, you’re going to do just fine.”

Yes, I totally agree, with this essential caveat: the Class of 2016, and all of us who are in the service of love on this planet, must become aware of the gravest challenge of our “wild and weird future”—climate change and environmental destruction—and begin to direct our energies towards creating a livable future, not just for us but for life as we know it on this planet.

That means coming out from behind our screens and reconnecting with the elemental life on this planet—earth and water, fire and air. We need to feel the wind on our faces, to smell the fresh scent of damp earth, to remember what it’s like to swim in a clean river and sit around a fire on a starry night, telling stories.

Penguins are not just mascots. They are living beings with every right to continue their march into the future. Let’s put them, and the polar bears, elephants, whales and all other life on Earth, into our “withies” too.

The Power of Black and White Thinking or Why I Love Bernie Sanders

Teenagers, it is said, see everything in black and white. Something is wonderful or it’s awful. I hate you or I love you. Part of coming to maturity, common wisdom has it, is learning to see in shades of gray, the glass half-full as well as half-empty.

If that is so, I am amused to note in my middle-aged self a return to black-and-white tendencies. Could it be that part of the socialization that enables us to see in gray is also a schooling in the fine art of compromise and settling for “good-enough”? If so, it seems that I am less and less willing to settle. My standards are high, for myself and others, and I don’t want to aim lower.

What does that mean? Well, take Love, for instance, since Valentine’s Day is nigh. I have learned, over years of trial and error, that the most important relationship we have is with ourselves. No, that doesn’t mean I’m an egotistical navel-gazer. It means that in order for me to give love to others—whether people or causes—I must love myself first. I must believe that what I have to give is important, and worth sharing.

And I really have to love myself completely, warts and all. That’s where the absolute thinking comes in. If I were thinking about myself in shades of gray, I’d be picking apart what I like about myself from what I dislike about myself. I’d be doing a daily self-critical dance, castigating myself when I don’t live up to my own expectations.

Here’s what I’ve learned in middle age: doing that dance is a huge drain of time and psychic energy. It’s so much better to say, definitely (and maybe a little defiantly): I know I’m not perfect but I do the best I can and I love myself for trying. I love myself, faults and all, because I know that it’s through failure, hurt and disappointment that I learn to be stronger, better, and more lovable.

How Can We Love Ourselves?

In so many ways it seems that we live in a disposable society. It’s not just diapers and plastic cups we’re throwing away; it’s people and places too. It’s life itself we trash without even noticing. Thinking in black and white, I’d say that’s just not acceptable.

The litany of suffering caused by modern industrial human civilization is long and grievous. You know what I’m talking about, I don’t even have to get into the ugly specifics of species extinctions, animal torture, human-on-human brutality, environmental devastation, disease and anthropogenic famine.

This is the thing: can I know this about human society, my society, and still find it in myself to love us? To love us enough to want to spend my life working to make us better?

I suppose this is why the Christ story has had such a hold on human civilization for so long. Christ died for our sins; he loved us enough to sacrifice himself willingly to remind us to try to live up to a higher expectation of ourselves.

But I am not talking about sacrifice, violence, pain and death, the language of Christianity. I’m talking about love for oneself and everything in the world around us—the language of animism and Buddhism, seeing the world as Gaia, an intricate living organism to be cherished, cultivated and loved deeply and absolutely.

We humans are Gaia’s children. We sprang from her and have been one of her most fabulously successful creations. It is a marker of our success that we are now severely over-populated, to the point where we must either discover new, more harmonious ways to sustain our society, or face species collapse.

I want to believe that we can love ourselves enough to recognize our tremendous potential as a species, and work hard to move ourselves to the next level of awareness.

This is not the time to do the self-castigating dance of “I love me, I love me not.” We need to acknowledge our failures and weaknesses but use them to enhance our awareness of what is good and positive in us. Knowing what we don’t like or want enables us to understand more powerfully what we like and want. That’s the power of black and white thinking.

How Much Do We Love? Revolution vs. Reform

There’s a reason most revolutions in human history have been carried out by young people who have not yet settled into the complacency or despair of “shades of gray” thinking.

Although modern education, in America at least, does its best to indoctrinate children to be compliant and docile, still there are always young people who insist on thinking for themselves and pushing the adults around them to wake up and do what must be done to make the world better. We saw that in the Occupy movement, we’re seeing in now in the Black Lives Matter protests, and, in a very destructive way, we see it in the young jihadists and school shooters who take up arms in violent protest of the way things are.

There’s a reason Bernie Sanders is building such runaway support among young people, and among the young-at-heart older folks too. He’s appealing to our idealism—our stubborn belief that we don’t have to compromise, that we can reach towards creating the world that should be, rather than settling for the fallen and corrupted world that is.

When Hillary Clinton says “I know how to compromise and get things done,” that’s shades-of-gray, middle-aged thinking. Barack Obama went into the White House repeating that refrain, and tried repeatedly in his early years as President to reach out to Republicans for compromise. He has been resoundingly rejected—the Republicans, school-boys that they are, insist on seeing the world in black and white, their way or the highway.

Maybe it’s time for the Democrats to do the same. Maybe it’s time for us to love and believe in ourselves enough to allow our own brand of black-and-white thinking free rein. Bernie Sanders, with his uncompromising social justice platform, his refusal to play the usual political PAC money game, his defiant, teenage idealism packaged in an unlikely middle-aged body, is showing us the way.

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Jesus Christ, Thomas Berry, and the New Shamanism: What the World Needs Now

Christmas Eve. The night of the year that we celebrate the birth of a baby who would grow up to reveal himself as a seer, a man with a direct connection to the Divine.

I believe that we all have the potential to have such a connection. In fact, I think it’s our birthright as humans, and it’s an ability we share with other animals as well.

All of us animals sleep and dream, and during our dreams we experience the same non-ordinary reality that the prophets and mystics have been telling us about—men like Socrates, Jesus or Mohammed who heard the voices of divine spirits.

For the past two thousand years or so, Western philosophy has been working steadily to wall off the connections between the natural world, including other animals, and human beings.

But in our dreams, those walls come tumbling down, as we visit landscapes and mingle with animals whose messages we strive to remember and interpret when we awake.

Thomas Berry

Thomas Berry

I am very intrigued by the recognition of religious scholar and eco-philosopher Thomas Berry that what human civilization urgently needs, in this time of ecological crisis, is to re-open the psychic channels connecting us to our planetary home.

He calls for a revalidation of the “shamanic personality”; shaman referring to a human being who can enter non-ordinary reality at will, and access valuable wisdom from the spirit world (or the Divine, as Western tradition would call it).

Berry argues that every human being is “genetically coded” to have access to the wisdom of the dreamland, whether in sleep or in the trance of deliberate shamanic journeying. And, he says, this is where we are going to find the solutions to the ecological crises we face today.

Change is not going to come from politics and protests, Berry says. It’s going to come through a psychic shift in which “we awaken to the numinous powers ever present in the phenomenal world around us,” which manifest themselves in human beings in our most creative moments. “Poets and artists continually invoke these spirit powers, which function less through words than through symbolic forms,” he says, continuing:

“In moments of confusion such as the present, we are not left simply to our own rational contrivances. We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our own beings. We need only become sensitized to these spontaneities, not with a naïve simplicity, but with critical appreciation. This intimacy with our genetic endowment, and through this endowment with the larger cosmic process, is not primarily the role of the philosopher, priest, prophet or professor. It is the role of the shamanic personality, a type that is emerging once again in our society.

Tree spirits.  Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

Tree spirits. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

“More than any other of the human types concerned with the sacred, the shamanic personality journeys into the far regions of the cosmic mystery and brings back the vision and the power needed by the human community….

“The shamanic personality speaks and best understands the language of the various creatures of the earth….This shamanic insight is especially important just now when history is being made not primarily within nations or between nations, but between humans and the earth, with all its living creatures….

“If the supreme disaster in the comprehensive story of the earth is our present closing down of the major life systems of the planet, then the supreme need of our times is to bring about a healing of the earth through this mutually enhancing human presence to the earth community.

“To achieve this mode of pressure, a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural world, a sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other lifeforms might flourish.”

Another way to name the “sensitivity” Berry is talking about here is, quite simply LOVE.

The same love practiced and preached by Jesus Christ, but expanded to include the entire earth community, not just the human branch.

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Tree heart. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

I am continually amazed by the generosity with which the natural world gives and gives to support the cause of a flourishing earth community. Death comes that life may continue. A clearcut forest patiently begins the work of recreating itself, from the soil bacteria on up. There is no such thing as guilt or blame in the natural world, only endless patience and a resilient creativity, always seeking better paths towards the goal of abundance and teeming myriad forms of life.

Thomas Berry says that we humans, as part and parcel of the earth community, are genetically coded to participate in this great unfolding of exuberant life.

For a long time (at least since the time of Gilgamesh, who harshly slew Humbaba, the guardian of the forests, and cut down an entire cedar forest just because he could) human culture has been working tirelessly to sever our connection to the divinity immanent in the natural world.

“In relation to the earth,” Berry says, “we have been autistic for centuries.”

seeingBut now, “the planet Earth and the life communities of the earth are speaking to us through the deepest elements of our nature, through our genetic coding….Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth’s demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe” (Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 210-215).

There is a lot to ponder here. Berry seems to be proposing that in our genetic make-up is an ability to communicate on a deep level with the earth, including other animals and life forms. Under the spell of Western civilization, we have allowed ourselves to become alienated not only from the natural world, but also from our own innate ability to commune with “the dream of the earth,” through our inherent shamanic/psychic powers. We have been content to delegate the connection to the Divine to others—prophets, seers, priests—rather than to cultivate within ourselves that “sensitivity” to divine inspiration and that access to the powerful creative pulse of the universe which we all experience in dreams.

This alienation has led us inexorably to the hairline edge upon which human civilization now perches. After 10,000 years of a stable climate, warmly conducive to the development of prosperous human communities, we are on the brink of another great break in planetary history, this one brought on by our own insensitivity and inability to listen and understand the many cues the natural world has been giving us.

If a new Messiah is to arise and lead us to safety, it must be one who can reawaken in us the loving ethical responsibility that all humans are born with.

I believe that the potential to become this leader lies dormant in each one of us. My question this Christmas, which is really a question for myself above all: how are you going to manifest, in your own life and in the larger earth community in which we all live, the divine LOVE that Jesus Christ, in his purest form, represents?

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Taking the risk to feel the pain of the world, and the love that can change it

Sometimes I wish I just taught math or physics—something dry and formulaic that would not require wading publicly into the messy, unclear, painful areas of life and interpersonal relations. My current mantra is “the personal is planetary.” If this is so, what does it mean for the planet that such a high percentage of my students over the years have revealed such terrible pain and suffering in the classroom over and over again?

Lately I’ve been reading Bill Plotkin’s magisterial work Nature and the Human Soul, in which he argues that human civilization has been stuck for too long (since Gilgamesh, I’d say) in an adolescent stage of development, where young men are encouraged in their shallow enjoyment of violence, sex and glory, and young women are encouraged to be pretty, compliant and deferent to authority.

The students at my institution are generally trying very hard to resist this overwhelming cultural message.  They try to think outside the box.  They have an earnest desire to be politically correct and intellectually sophisticated. It’s all very well on the purely academic front.  But what happens when the cracks in that academic façade appear and reveal deep emotions—anger, grief, fear, desire—that go way beyond the bounds of the merely academic?

Sometimes these emotions can be so frightening that the only sane response seems to be to numb out on drugs (licit & illicit) or get distracted by media entertainment & competition & the race to keep one’s economic head above water. Somehow in my classes these tumultuous, unruly emotions often come leaping into the foreground.  I allow and sometimes even encourage our class discussions to “go there,” to go into that dangerous gray zone between the purely intellectual/theoretical and the deeply personal lived experience. I believe that this is the zone where the most productive new thinking happens, the kind that can shift paradigms and change worlds.  So I’m willing to risk the discomfort of venturing outside our collective comfort zones, in the hopes that a spark set off in one of our class discussions or activities will ignite a fiery passion that goes well beyond the narrow confines of this class, this semester, or any one student’s career.

But in the aftermath, as I think back on the tears shed, the furrowed brows of the listeners, the potential for aftershocks to occur outside the relatively safe space of the classroom, I can’t rest easy.  I feel deeply, myself, the responsibility of leadership, even in the relatively small scale of the classroom.  The ripples of our conversations on any given day may spread out for many years, affecting those of us who listened and bore witness to his pain in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Some believe that we human beings are the consciousness of the planet. If the personal is planetary and vice versa, then it could be that these young people are in some sense channeling the pain of our planet itself. We owe it to our youth, to ourselves, and to the great planet we call home, to—at minimum—listen with respect, try to understand, and consider how our choices and actions can contribute to or lessen the pain.

It’s risky to do this active listening and thinking aloud, in the moment, rather than waiting until we are sure we “have it right,” “understand it all,” or “know what to do.”  But we don’t have the luxury of time now to get it all perfect.  The best we can do is continually check in with our own emotions, and try to be sure that whatever we say or do is rooted in compassion, concern and a sincere desire to make things better.

“In a voiced community we all flourish,” says Terry Tempest Williams.  Blowing with love on the shaky fires of these suffering voices, bringing them into a nourishing, respectful community, will help ease not only human suffering, but also, potentially, as the ripples spread out, the suffering of so many living beings on the planet.

LOVE—the one emotion that trumps all others, on both the personal and the planetary scale.  The one emotion we can never have too much of, and the one out of which new potentialities continually spring. 6a00d83451c79e69e2015432a3f0e2970c-253x300May the tears we shed as we think about the pain of the world water the dry, numbed-out hearts of those who profess not to care about the links between the health of humans and of the natural world.

May we take the pain born of love, and channel it into personal and planetary healing.  May we be wise enough to see the connections between our actions and their ripple effects in human society and the planet writ large. May we learn to feel all the love we’re capable of as humans and to act out of that deep wellspring of emotion. Let it be so.  Let’s make it so.

Love is all we need

Most people I know don’t pay a whole lot of attention to Valentine’s Day.

In its pop culture guise, it’s pretty trite, after all—candy, flowers, champagne perhaps, aimed at seducing the beloved into bed at the end of the evening….

Eve Ensler has tried hard to put a harder, more political edge on V-Day.  She’s got thousands of women dancing for freedom—rejecting the pervasive violence against women that forms the backdrop of so many of our lives.

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But for most of us, well, we’re just here in the trenches, and we may or may not have a loved one to honor as a Valentine this year.

Me, I’ve got no particular human Valentine at present. Such love as I have to give, I want to dedicate to the forests and the birds, the butterflies and the flowers that are, to me, the most beautiful manifestations of LOVE on this planet.

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Any expression of love is far and away more potent than expressions of hatred and violence.

If you love someone, you should, by all means, shower them with kisses and caresses.  You should be extravagant in your appreciation.

Likewise, if the object of your affection is a tree or a landscape or a bright, joyful living thing—say, a tadpole or a fish or a magnificent coral—go ahead and shower that being with the love it deserves.

The only meaningful counter to the hatred, disrespect and violence that has become the norm in Western culture is the intentional distribution of LOVE.

Love is all you need, crooned the Beatles.  Maybe they were on to something.

Looking for Valentinaville….

So far, my number one, all-time most popular blog post on Transition Times has been my 2012 Valentine’s Day post, “There’s More to Love than Cupid and His Arrows,” which was read by nearly 30,000 people worldwide in the past year.

In that post, I reflected on how the Valentine’s Day celebration of love could and should extend to more than just romantic love—we should celebrate family love, I said, the kind of love that runs “like molten gold at the core of a happy family like mine.”

A year later, and still without a romantic attachment this Valentine’s Day, I feel no different—but my thoughts on this issue are more defined.

marilyn-monroe-diamonds-gentlemen-prefer-blondes-blonde-movieIn American culture, and I am sure in many other cultures around the world, it is viewed as a shortcoming to be without a romantic partner.

To be alone, without a significant other on Valentine’s Day, is a source of shame.

Well to hell with that, especially for mature women!

I see so many women my age, midlife or older, without partners.

Is this just an American phenomenon?  I wish my non-American friends would chime in and let me know.

Here in the States, the divorce rate is astronomical, and we seem to have a surfeit of single women—either the 30- to 40-something put-career-first-and-never-married cohort, or the 40- to 50-something just-couldn’t-take-it-anymore divorced group.

And then at the upper edge of the age scale, there are the 70-something widows, too.

For men in all of these age groups, there are plenty of women to choose from.

After all, it’s not unusual for a man of 60 to take up with a woman 20 years his junior.

But when was the last time you heard of a woman of 60 partnering with a 40-year-old man?

For heterosexual women, the field narrows considerably as we age.

And the risks grow.  Why would I, as a 50-year-old, really want to take up with a man twenty years my senior?

If I were to enter the dating market now, I’d be lucky to find a guy my age to partner with.  Most guys my age are looking for younger women, and they don’t seem to have any trouble finding a match.

On Valentine’s Day, 2013, I’d like to affirm the fact that women don’t need romantic love to be happy.

I’d like to suggest that women be more appreciative of the love and support we get from each other, and from all kinds of non-romantic attachments.

In the old days, women who sought to avoid marriage ensconced themselves in nunneries, and had a pretty good life there (check out the life of Sor Juana for an example).

I am wondering if today we need a modern form of the nunnery, a place where women of a certain age could go to live full, empowered, mutually supportive lives free from the pressure of romantic attachments.

Maybe we should found such an institution, and call it Valentinaville.  Just for us.

Why waste away in Margaritaville when we can be happy in Valentinaville?

Loving Earth

To save the Earth, we must fall in love with her, writes Robert Koehler, taking his inspiration from the work of Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics.

Koehler and Eisenstein say that in the trajectory of human evolution, we have been locked in the selfish adolescent phase for a long, long time, just seeking to take what we need from our Earth mother, without thought of giving much in return, or of the reality of finite limits.

When we fall in love, Eisenstein says, “perfect selfishness falls apart as the self expands to include the beloved within its bounds.”

I remember falling in love like that as an adolescent, and as a young adult too.

It’s true that when you’re in love, the boundaries between the self and other dissolve, and you exist in a harmonious utopia of mutual beneficence.

But at least for most of us fallen humans, that kind of all-encompassing love doesn’t last forever.

It can’t.  It’s too intense.  Eventually the first ecstatic glow fades and the angelic beloved assumes normal, human proportions, with all the associated warts and odors and quirks of behavior and thought that our human bodies and minds possess.

What happens to love then?

If we are compatible for the longterm, the initial heady crush transforms into a much more solid platform of respect, shared interests, and deep concern for each other.  We care about each other, we enjoy being together no matter what we’re doing, and we respect each other’s views, goals, and talents.

We become partners in the truest sense of the word.

Is it necessary to go through the romantic, boundary-dissolving “falling in love” stage to get to the mature relationship of partnership?

In our culture, we believe it to be.  Our young people, tutored by every aspect of media and pop culture, assume that being swept away with love is a pre-requisite to successful marriage.

And yet how many of their parents, who followed that same script, ended up in bitter divorce fights?

Although I understand the intent behind Koehler’s and Eisenstein’s valorization of “falling in love” as a model for the depth of passion needed to fuel successful environmental action on behalf of the Earth, I am not convinced that this is the right message to be sending.

Young people today may still harbor romantic dreams, but they live day-to-day in a casual hook-up culture that prides itself on separating sexual enjoyment from commitment.

Fifty percent of their parents have made the journey from early romance to disillusioned divorce.

Another 25% or so of adults are either unhappily married, or unhappily single.

The “falling in love” model thus hits home with too few Americans to be effective as a rallying call for environmental action, and it is too limited a metaphor for the depth and breadth of passion that we must summon now to be effective Earth stewards and activists.

Instead we must love with the unconditional devotion of a mother for her child, with the sincere, selfless wish to see that new life grow and prosper and move forward beyond us.

We must love the Earth with the intensity of devotion that recognizes that for her to thrive, it may be necessary for us to part.

Earth has loved us with this kind of pure altruism all these many years of human emergence.  Now, as in the terrifying story of The Giving Tree, she has given so much that she has practically sacrificed herself entirely.

Nothing we can do to the Earth will wreck her forever.  Forever is a long, long time, in geologic terms.

But there is still time to shift from heedless destruction to the kind of loving tending that the Earth herself has modeled for us all these years.

There is still time to develop the kind of deeply caring reciprocal partnership that will last a lifetime, and beyond.

Cupid, you devil–go home!

I find it really poignant that so many people are Googling “love” and turning up my Valentine’s Day blog post on how I was very happy, last February, to be awash in family love, even though romantic love was absent from my life.

That my Valentine’s Day post is the single most popular post on Transition Times is just evidence of how many people are yearning for love, and happy to find affirmations that there are alternatives to the stereotypical “and they lived happily ever after.”

As the 50% divorce rate in the U.S. attests, very few of us live happily ever after.

For the other 50% who stay married, well—I would like to know how many of you folks consider yourselves truly happy.

My guess is that something like 25% of the people who dutifully marry in their twenties find themselves compatible enough to live happily ever after.

So what does that mean for the institution of marriage?

Is it good enough that a quarter of those who marry in their prime child-bearing years are likely to stay together through the rigors of raising children?

What are the alternatives?

Unfortunately, in our society, there are few alternatives.  Women of means can choose to have children via artificial insemination or surrogate motherhood, without needing the fathers in the picture.

But this is the exception, not the norm.

For most mothers, having the financial, emotional and practical support of fathers (or co-parents, in the case of lesbian couples) is essential.

Raising children is hard.  Raising them alone is much harder.  I can say this with conviction since I’ve been a single mother since 2009, and going it unofficially on my own for longer than that.

For the most part, divorcing women tend to argue hard for custody of our children. We can’t imagine being separated from the little ones we once carried in our bellies—even when they’ve become big hulking teenagers.  They are ours in a way that must be honored.

And yet…they are their father’s children too.  It never ceases to amaze me how fathers can be so casual about their offspring.  They will insist on custody to stick it to their divorcing spouses, but for the most part they don’t have the emotional attachment to their children that we women have.  Or if they do, it is something they are willing and able to forego if need be.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, guys—this is just what I’ve perceived from very unofficial observations of my own family and friends.

All this to say that those who are avidly reading my Valentine’s Day post should be aware that my feelings about love are very complicated indeed.

I love my children.  I love my parents.  I love my brother and his family.  My ex-spouse?  Well, I am grateful to him for the good times we shared, including bringing our two boys into the world.

I wish we could have survived as a couple.

And I am ready to move on.

Ode to my firstborn, on his 20th birthday

Twenty years ago tonight I was going into labor with my firstborn son.  I was 29 years old and had been married to his dad for four years.  We were living in Manhattan, and the plan was to give birth at New York Hospital.

When the labor pains started, around midnight, I felt an odd sense of calm.  It was like having some kind of ocean tide within me, pulsing with the ebb and flow of the contractions.

All through the morning they continued, getting very gradually stronger and more painful, until I would gasp when the full cramp bore down on me.  My husband left for work; my mother wanted to take me to the hospital right away, but I knew it wasn’t time yet.  I asked her to make me the filling for stuffed grape leaves, and I sat, pushed away from the edge of the kitchen table by my huge belly, methodically stuffing and rolling the grape leaves, training my mind and hands on that simple task as the great rolling breakers of contractions surged through my body.

Eventually, my mother and I got into a yellow cab to go to the hospital, and she called my husband to meet us there.  I was admitted, but there was apparently a fair amount of dilation yet to go.  Despite my plan not to have an epidural, the waves of pain became so great, as I lay there on my back on the gurney, strapped to a fetal monitor, that I quickly accepted one when it was offered.  Thereafter, it was quite surreal: I could watch the contractions on the monitor, each one higher and more intense than the last, but I could not feel anything.

For hours, I lay on the gurney in that disassociated, semi-vegetal state. A nurse came and went, giving me a catheter when I could not manage to pee on my own, and coaching me about pushing when the epidural started to wear off and it was time to begin serious labor.  “Push like you’re really constipated!” she urged, and soon I was bearing down like a pro, like my life depended on it.

Then all of a sudden the doctor was there telling me to stop pushing, because the baby was coming and the operating room wasn’t ready for me.

Stop pushing?  He had to be kidding.  My body had taken on a life of its own, quite independent of my rational will.  There was no way I could stop pushing.

So there I was, groaning and pushing, as they rolled me down the hall on the gurney to the operating room.

No, this was not 1952.  It was 1992.  But I had the misfortune to be giving birth at New York Hospital just a year or two before the maternity ward was renovated to allow for modern birthing rooms.  I gave birth in a dark, windowless operating room painted a dismal hospital green, without a trace of softness or warmth anywhere.

When my son appeared, they showed him to me and my husband and then quickly whisked him off for tests or treatments.  I was left on the operating table waiting for the anesthesiologist, who took his time getting there.  The doctor had done an episiotomy (without consulting me; this was something else I did not intend to have done) and now we had to wait for anesthesia so he could sew me up.

The anesthesiologist, a cocky young man, must have given me too much, because afterwards I could not feel my legs at all, and I was not allowed out of the recovery room until I could feel my legs.  My son was not allowed to stay with me in the recovery room.

So there I was, sobbing my heart out because I had lost my baby—he was off on another floor somewhere by himself, screaming his head off, with my husband running back and forth between us, distraught.

Finally, after a couple of hours, I began to feel prickles in my legs, and was allowed out of the recovery room.  I got into a bed in a communal nursery room, and at last could hold my newborn baby in my arms. He was upset, still crying—it took him hours to calm down, and both of us were so stressed that nursing was difficult.

During the first night, the nurses began to give him a bottle of formula, and as a new mother I got the impression that I would have to supplement with formula; that I did not have enough milk to satisfy him.

So began months of a colicky baby who screamed every night from around 11 p.m. until 2 a.m.  There was nothing I could do to stop it—I tried everything I could think of, but in the end all I could do was hold him.

It was hard, that first birth.  I learned so much about how important it is, as a mother, to protect oneself and one’s child: to make sure one has a birth plan, a doctor one can really communicate with (my OB-GYN did not show up at the hospital for the birth, she sent her partner instead—a man I had never met and who seemed quite uninterested in me as a human being) and preferably a doula; to investigate the hospital and make sure it has birthing rooms; to stand firm about pain medications and cuts.

My second son was born under entirely different, polar opposite conditions.  No meds, gurneys or fetal monitors; a nurse-midwife and a doula in attendance; a birthing room I could walk around in comfortably while in advanced labor; giving birth squatting rather than flat on my back.  My second son came into the world very peacefully, nestled in my arms and immediately started to nurse.  He never screamed or cried, not until much later, when he was around 11 months old and got pneumonia, and then asthma…but that is another story.

My first child has taught me so much about how to be a mother.  I wish I had known more about it before he was born, so that he would not have had to go through some of the hardships caused by my ignorance.

He will forgive me, I know, because that’s what the unconditional reciprocal love between mother and child is all about.  It is unshakeable, unbreakable.  It is an elemental force that springs from that deep, uterine connection and runs forward, rich with emotion, through a lifetime.

 

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