Thanksgiving 2018: Giving Thanks for Kindred Spirits, Here at the Edge of the Climate Disruption Cliff

This year Thanksgiving has fallen on the coldest day of the season here in New England. Sunny but frigid, the streets are quiet as everyone huddles at home around fires and heaters. It’s a reminder of how human beings living in the north have always needed fire to warm us, whether that fire comes from trees recently alive or those ancient fossilized carbons known as coal, gas and oil.

Today I am giving thanks for being warm. I am giving thanks for having a loving family with whom to spend this holiday, laughing and talking over a delicious feast.

I am giving thanks and even as I do so, I am feeling guilty for the abundance I enjoy, and thinking about the suffering of others that I contribute to just in the simple fact of heating my house or driving my car to my parents’ home.

I’m feeling so uncomfortable about Thanksgiving this year that it’s been very hard to begin writing my annual Thanksgiving post for Transition Times.

I’m feeling guilty about my own enjoyment in the face of others’ suffering (and not just human others, but animals and all life on Earth are in my compassionate thoughts today).

I’m feeling guilty as I realize that the obliviousness of myself and others to our collective impact on the Earth—so clearly on display in the American tradition of Thanksgiving—has brought us to the cliff of climate disruption, upon which we perch today.

Many people I know are not fully awake to the danger of our moment. They’re still going about their lives as though the next few decades will unfold as they always have in our lifetimes: with some personal change and political turbulence playing out against the predictable stability of our ever-giving environment.

This is the premise that continues to fuel our debt- and growth-based capitalist economy. We borrow against the future, expecting growth and appreciation to continue to carry us along.

How_many_earths_2018_large-768x1261Intellectually many of us know that humans have now outstripped the carrying capacity of the Earth—Thanksgiving occurs nearly four months into overshoot territory, where we humans have officially consumed more than the planet has to give. We are eating our principal now.

We know this…and yet we continue to eat, burn fossil fuels and buy goods that take more resources to make than the Earth has to give. And every one of these actions takes human civilization inexorably closer to the edge of that cliff….

This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for the luxury of being able to sit in a warm house on a cold day, contemplating the end of the world as I have always known it. If the IPCC scientists are right, this is a luxury I may not have much longer.

Worldwrights copyThis Thanksgiving, I give thanks for all those who are awake and working to back-peddle us away from the edge of the climate disruption cliff—brilliant thinkers and social influencers like Stephen Harrod Buhner, Charles Eisenstein, Mary Lyons, Joanna Macy, Bill McKibben, George Monbiot, Daniel Pinchbeck, Nina Simons, Rebecca Solnit, Starhawk, Daniel Christian Wahl, Andreas Weber, Terry Tempest Williams and many more, whose ideas enliven and inspire me as I work on my Worldwrights book about leaders for social and environmental justice who have used writing to right the world, and written purposeful memoirs about their own journeys.

Sometimes, as I go about my work of publishing, editing, author coaching and teaching, not to mention my own writing, I wonder if this is the best use I could be making of the precious time we have left. Is there something more important I should be doing to help wake people up to the danger, and turn this gigantic ship of corporate capitalist doom around?

I keep coming back to how critical it is that we communicate with each other, building resilient communities through sharing our hopes, dreams and visions.

That is what my work of purposeful memoir is about: looking back in order to better understand how we’ve arrived at the present moment (as individuals, as societies and as the world civilization known as the Anthropocene), with the ultimate visionary goal of aligning our personal values with our political and planetary presence in order to create the thriving future we all want to live into.

And doing all this together with others. Purposeful memoir is not only a path to individual awareness, it’s also a profoundly valuable community-building technique.

I give thanks for this work that is mine to do, and for the community of kindred spirits who offer strength, courage and wisdom for our collective journey into the future.

I give thanks for you, reader—welcome to the table! Together we can, and we must, change the world.

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

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!

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