21 Questions for 2020: #17

17. What can we learn from the shining example of Joanna Macy, bodhisattva for the Earth?

It was Joanna Macy’s 91st birthday on May 2, 2020. Ever gracious and generous, she came by Zoom to a gathering organized for her new book, A Wild Love for the World, itself a festschrift chorus of many voices from around the world who have taken up The Work That Reconnects and spread its transformative practices far and wide. 

When asked about the significance of bringing out this book in this moment, Joanna spoke (and I am paraphrasing from my notes here) about the root meaning of the word apocalypse, which is unveiling, revelation

COVID-19, she said, has unveiled the fact that western society is based on greed, prejudice and inequality. In the harsh light of the pandemic, we see the rotten foundations of our society—and we are better able to envision the better society that we could create. 

We also see, Joanna added, that there is more goodwill among people than we could have imagined. We might almost call this the Karuna-virus, she said, because of how it opens our heart-minds to compassion. 

In Joanna’s teaching that there is a revelation in the apocalypse of this moment, I am reminded of the deeper meaning of another Greek word, crisis: it refers to a critical decision point, and was first used in the context of illness. When a patient is in crisis, life-or-death decisions must be made, and depending on these there will be recovery, or there will be decline and death.

Such is the moment we are living through, with the patient being human civilization, as it currently exists on Earth.

I am not vainglorious enough to imagine that human beings could irrevocably harm Earth. As John Perkins mentioned in a recent Touching the Jaguar  presentation, we are just fleas on the back of our great Mother Earth. If we get irksome enough, she will shake us off. The coronavirus is one of the many rebalancing tools in her medicine bag; climate change is another. 

The Earth has persisted through the eons with countless species rising and falling, and there have already been many human civilizations that have risen, flourished, and collapsed for various reasons. We who live now have emerged from the rich compost of our ancestors’ successes–and failures.

In order to live with equanimity but also efficacy in this apocalyptic moment of crisis, we have to simultaneously maintain the serenity that comes with knowing that in “deep time,” as Joanna Macy puts it, all will be well; while also realizing that we bear responsibility for making life-and-death decisions that will affect not only ourselves but also future generations of humans and all the more-than-humans who call this planet home. 


To close her birthday celebration, Joanna read from Rainer Maria Rilke’s 9th Duino Elegy, which she translated with Anita Barrows. This brief stanza expresses the grief and hope of a mortal being who exults in life even while painfully aware of what a “brief candle” it is (Shakespeare, “Macbeth”). 

Earth, isn’t this what you want? To arise in us, invisible?
Is it not your dream, to enter us so wholly
there’s nothing left outside us to see?
What, if not transformation,
is your deepest purpose? Earth, my love,
I want that too. Believe me,
no more of your springtimes are needed
to win me over – even one flower
is more than enough. Before I was named
I belonged to you. I seek no other law
but yours, and know I can trust
the death you will bring.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, from In Praise of Mortality, trans. and edited by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was brought to tears while listening to this poem recited by a 91-year-old woman who has made such contributions to the world and touched the heart-minds of so many. 

Dear Joanna Macy, I know you will go with graceful acceptance back to the bosom of the Earth when you are called, but we will miss you so! 

As an elder, Joanna models for us how to live in our present moment of crisis: as vigorously and fully as possible, and yet also with the awareness that all things must pass, that transformation is Earth’s deepest purpose. 

Looking around at the Gaian web of life, “seeing with new and ancient eyes,” we know that every atom of our being has been through countless transformations in the billions of years that our planet has served as an alembic vessel for physical manifestation. 

Ashes to dust and arise again…our Mother Earth is a ceaseless regenerator, and she knows no grief, as for her, death is just transformation. 

Only humans and a few other animals and birds grieve our lost loved ones. That is our distinction: we love, we grow attached, and we grieve. 

Joanna has always encouraged us to dig down into our grief, seeing it as a source of the loving-kindness that we need to be fully engaged with Life. 

As so many environmental activists have come to realize, we will only act to save what we love. Joanna’s book is so well titled: we need “a wild love for the world” now.

Our passion to restore our Mother Earth to health must come from our heart-mind, from our intellectual and emotional awareness that the health and well-being of each one of us depends on the health and well-being of the whole. That is what it means to be part of the Gaian system we call Earth. 


“Earth, my love…before I was named I belonged to you.”

In this apocalyptic moment of crisis, as the transformative processes of Earth are accelerating and we are crossing the lines of multiple tipping points, I steady myself in the calm rhythms of the planet and the cosmos: the greening of Spring, the busy activity of the nesting birds, the majestic progression of the Sun, the Moon, and the other planets and stars that wheel overhead day and night. 

Earth, my love, I came from you and to you I will return when my time comes. In the interval, may my life be of service to you.

May my heart-mind show me how best to serve, and may my brief presence, in this incarnation now, be a dancing paean to your shining beauty and your mighty powers of alchemy. Namaste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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