Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!

We live in a time when depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels—the so-called “opioid crisis” is really just a symptom of a deeper sickness eating away at the heart of our society. It’s especially disturbing—but understandable—to find high levels of anxiety and despair among the young.

This has been going on for a long time in certain communities—among the urban poor or on Native reservations, using drugs and alcohol to fight the despair is nothing new.

Now it’s spilling into the mainstream—white suburban kids are dying from overdoses, along with their fathers and mothers. This recent report from my home state of Massachusetts presents a chilling portrait of the scale of the problem.

AverageAnnualOpioidRelatedDeathRateper100,000People

While better treatment for addicts is certainly necessary, it’s crucial to address the the deeper roots of the problem: the physical and emotional pain that drives kids, men and women to seek out opioids, legal or illegal.

This is a much more complicated knot to try to untangle, but the basic outlines of the problem are clear.

  • We need a more vibrant, creative, exciting educational system, where kids look forward to going to school each day because it’s a chance to interact collaboratively with interesting people—teachers, other students, and community members of all ages—and learn life skills that can be immediately put into practice. Humans learn best by doing, not by rote memorization and regurgitation of abstract knowledge.
  • We need better nutrition: getting chemicals and excessive sugar out of our diet and returning to the whole, unprocessed foods that contribute naturally to our physical and mental health. We need to get connected with how our food is produced, and return to gardening and animal husbandry ourselves when possible. We need more time for eating and socializing around the table.
  • We need a basic social safety net for all, so that no one has to worry about becoming homeless if they get sick, or when they get old. Everyone has something to contribute to society, and people should always be able to find rewarding work in their communities that will allow them to live decently and with respect.
  • We need to create more time and space for fun, especially in outdoor activities, or in creative, collaborative culture-making. Despite all the social media, people are feeling isolated and alienated and even the comfort of talk therapy has been taken away by the insurance companies, which would much rather push those pills on us.

To those who would tell me we can’t afford it, I reply: what would happen if we stopped spending more than $600 billion a year (15% of 2016 GDP) on the military, while giving only 3% of GDP to education? What if those proportions were reversed, as they are in many other Western countries?

And yet even as I type these words, I know the politicians won’t be listening. They are too focused on treating the symptoms to pay attention to the causes.

This is as true for dealing with climate change as it is for dealing with the opioid crisis. Everyone is looking for quick fixes that will allow us to continue with business as usual, no matter how many casualties that business generates.

When confronted with an intractable problem, my mom used to say, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”

Lately the feeling of just being along for the ride—and a hurtling, scary, out-of-control ride at that—grows stronger day by day.

And of course, we can’t get off, not alive, anyway.

So how do we deal with having to sit in the back seat while the drivers take us down bumpy roads in the wrong direction at dangerous speeds?

My own response is to focus on what I do have control over.

  • I can weed my garden, spend more time outside.
  • I can eat healthy foods and cultivate mental clarity by cutting back on the distractions of social media and television.
  • I can try to contribute positively to my community—family, friends, the larger circles of positive creative people I care about.
  • I can review my life goals, and set some intentions for the coming years that, with focus and effort, I may be able to achieve.

Most of all, I can set my internal compass to LOVE and try to hold it steady there, no matter the jerks and lurches along the road.

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My new online course, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir, will be launching this fall. Through catalyzing writing prompts, I invite you to consider how you got where you are today, and to envision the future you want to create and live into. Join me!

Marching with Words into the Light of a New Era: Time to Rise!

My friend Barbara Newman described the staged reading she and I will be participating in on January 21 as a “march with words,” and this resonates with what I see so many of us doing these days as we rally together in our homes and community centers, our town halls and places of worship, and of course in the great 21st century town square, social media.

MEXICO - ZAPATISTAS ANNIVERSARYI am reminded of Subcomandante Marcos, who said “words are our weapons,” while fighting what appeared to be a hopelessly lopsided fight in the southern jungles of Mexico–Indians with rusty rifles and bandanas standing up to soldiers with helicopters and bombs. Marcos was one of the very first resistance fighters to use the power of the Internet as a way to sway the hearts and minds of ordinary onlookers, the world over, against local oppressors.

On the other side of the political spectrum, we see the man about to become the 45th president of the United States deploying the same tactics, his every tweet as powerful as any bombshell.

This is a dark time, and yet it’s also a time shot through with the light of the new age that is cracking open before us. Let us be candid and admit that while it would have been a symbolic victory for women to have Hillary Clinton sworn in as President today, her political bent was conservative, in the sense of maintaining the status quo.

What is familiar is comforting, we’re all children that way. Some of us are more adventurous than others. Some of us have nothing left to lose, and so we’re willing to place our bets on a total dark horse like Mr. Drumpf. If Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic candidate, he would probably have won for the same reason (barring major interference from Moscow).

But no use looking backward now. Let’s squint and look directly into the light of the future. Has there ever been a human revolution that has happened without struggle? Have people ever been willing to embrace radical change without having their backs pushed to whatever the wall of the moment might be?

Today in Washington DC a charlatan will take the oath of office as President of the United States. No, it’s not a reality TV show, it’s reality.

But it’s also reality that millions of Americans are energized and activated as never before, as a direct result of the crazy events of 2016. We are “tuned in, turned on, tapped in,” to use the favorite saying of a certain psychic I know.

That same psychic often reminds us that sometimes it takes a strong dose of WHAT WE DON’T WANT to jar us into an appreciation and understanding of WHAT WE DO WANT.

You can see that happening in the outpouring of love for the departing Obamas, in our entreaties to them to stay engaged in public life.

DEM 2016 ConventionBoth Barack and Michelle Obama are powerful orators. So is Bernie Sanders. We will need the power of their words more than ever in the bleak months ahead. We will need words to keep our spirits high, to remind us of the stakes and why we must fight for what we value, even putting our bodies on the line if need be.

It is surely no accident that in the very week that saw a parade of military-industrial complex billionaires coming to Washington hoping to ride Trump’s wave into political power, we got word from the scientists that 2016 was officially the hottest year on Earth since record-keeping began in the 19th century. It topped 2014 and 2015, which were also the hottest years ever in their time.

When I align the personal, political, and planetary in this moment, I see an amazing crystallization taking place. The Earth herself rumbles and roars her discontent and imbalance; political systems that have held for centuries crack and fall apart; and in so many human psyches a deep sense of uneasiness registers, an intuitive sense that something is not right.

Change is not just coming…it’s here. We are living, day by day, through extraordinary times.

I call on all of us to rise and meet the light of change with a strong spine and a resolute spirit.

We cannot go back, we can only go forward. There is a huge opportunity now to go forward into a more perfect union—not just among Americans, but among all peoples on Earth, and to reimagine our role as humans to become the caretakers of our planet, rather than its pirate plunderer-destroyers.

As we cry out against what we don’t want, let’s also use our words to envision and describe the contours of what we stand for.

Peace. Harmony. Generosity. Love.

How would each of these ideals look to you, brought down to the level of your community, your family, your life?

Look boldly into the light of this new era we’re entering, and use your words and your actions to make it so.

amazing-sunset

Nova Scotia sunset, 2016

Hillary Clinton: Holding the Center in These Complex Transition Times, So We Can Do the Essential Work of Creating a Better World

Like most Bernie Sanders supporters, it was hard for me to watch Hillary Rodham Clinton take the stage on Thursday night to accept the nomination of the Democratic Party, while Bernie sat in the crowd looking on, unable to conceal his exhaustion and dejection.

As Bernie said, there is a winner and a loser to every contest, and he lost this time. But it is impossible to escape the feeling that he could very well have won, if the Democratic establishment had not undermined him at every step, aided and abetted by the establishment media.

What would this election season have looked like, if we had two outliers, Donald and Bernie, duking it out?

We’ll never know, because this time around the center held—the center represented by the centrist Hillary Clinton.

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As Bernie has been saying, it’s clear that his revolution has pushed Hillary to the left. We heard it in her acceptance speech, where she said loud and clear that she stands for free public education for kids from families making $120,000 or less. She said, somewhat less clearly, that she stands for “a living wage,” and for student loan relief. We know that she believes in universal health care. She said over and over again that she will work tirelessly to create more good jobs in America…with “clean energy jobs” a phrase repeated more than once in the speech.

I took away two important impressions from her remarkable convention performance last week.

One, she did a brilliant job at pitching herself as a leader. While she does not have the oratorical gifts of Barack or Michelle Obama, she looked more comfortable on the stage than I’ve ever seen her, and she spoke with a believable conviction about her ideas and vision for the country. She looked fierce and glad and on fire to sweep away that cracked glass ceiling once and for all, and hallelujah for that!

Two, it was clear from her speech that this is a leader who can learn, grow and change. While she has principles and commitments that have never wavered—women’s rights are human rights, for example, or all children deserve quality education and health care—she is also capable of shifting her ideas as she learns more about a given issue. This has earned her a reputation of “shiftiness,” but I am coming to see that as unfair. We want a leader who listens, thinks for herself and lets her opinions evolve.

For example, her stance on the invasion of Iraq, or the TPP treaty: initially she supported both these moves, and now she understands that we were led into Iraq on false premises, and that the TPP is not going to improve the lives of ordinary people—certainly not in the US, and maybe not anywhere in the world.

Seeing her position on these issues evolve over time gives me hope that she will also be the kind of leader who, as Bill McKibben wrote in a recent email to supporters, we can “pressure” to move towards the left of the center space she holds.

Like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton is striving to represent “all Americans,” and let’s admit that that category includes the frackers and the assault weapons enthusiasts as well as the environmentalists and the peaceniks. For a leader, holding the center ground in the midst of such fractious, strong-willed constituencies can be exhausting, especially as you are doomed to fully please no one.

But this is the kind of leader a big, complex democracy like America needs. Someone who can sit calmly in the center of the storm and keep the ship of state moving forward, as President Obama has done despite the obnoxious Republican obstructionism in Congress.

Hillary Clinton has the advantage of being deeply steeped in Congressional politics, as well as gubernatorial politics and international politics—as she reminded us in her convention speech, she is no stranger to public life. Almost twelve years as the wife of the Governor of Arkansas, eight years as First Lady of the United States (and not the kind of first lady who just bakes cookies and chooses china patterns); eight years as Senator of New York; and four years as Secretary of State.

As President Obama said in his own super-moving convention speech, there has never been a candidate as well-prepared as Hillary Rodham Clinton to assume the presidency of the United States.

I believe that she will be an effective leader who will be able to get things done in Congress. It is up to us, her constituents, to let her know loud and clear how we want her to represent us.

That is where the Bernie revolution must get back into gear. We can’t sulk on the sidelines and refuse to vote! Now more than ever we must engage relentlessly with the powers that be, rejoicing in successes (like pushing Wasserman Schultz out of the party leadership) and continuing to let the Democratic Party know that if it wants our votes, it has to walk the walk of its democratic principles.

Hillary is right, “we are stronger together.” The Democratic Convention (unlike the RNC) showed an inspiring range of people coming together—people of all ethnicities and religions, all kinds of people standing together under that big tent to participate in steering our country into safer waters.

I was so glad to hear Hillary say clearly that she intends to work through policy to ensure that the rich, including Wall Street and corporations, start standing with the vast majority of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. Clearly, she has heard Bernie Sanders and his millions of supporters. We will need to hold her to her promises.

Hillary Clinton is a transitional figure between the old guard represented by her husband, among many others, and the new millennial wave represented, someone bizarrely, by that old white guy (and Jewish Democratic Socialist), Bernie Sanders.

We are in the midst of a seismic cultural shift, not just in America but in the world. The era of the global free trade cowboy is coming to an end. The globe has become too small and the Internet connections too penetrating to allow violations of human and environmental rights to be perpetrated with impunity. The TPP is a last gasp of this old regime (and why Obama has been supporting it is beyond me, it’s a serious flaw that I hope he will come to regret).

We are moving into a time when the local truly does become the global; when each of us sitting in our homes is aware of how intricately we are connected, all across the world. Next step, to fully mine these connections for the potential they hold to mobilize each of us to stand up for what we believe in, and join hands with others who share our vision of social and environmental justice, irrespective of archaic artificial boundaries like nationality, ethnicity or religion.

No single leader can do this for us. We need to make it happen ourselves, where we live—and this means in our local, physical communities as well as in our virtual communities online.

The Republicans are mobilizing on their side, and they’ve got a leader they deserve.

In Hillary Clinton, we have a leader who will hold the center for us as we do the essential work of social change, transitioning our global human civilization from a “dominate, exploit and destroy” mentality to a “nurture, connect and prosper” mentality.

Is it an accident that our transitional leader happens to be a woman? I think not.

 

 

#LifeMatters: On Die-Ins as a Path to Social Change

Die-in at NYU Bobst Library, December 2014

Die-in at NYU Bobst Library, December 2014

There’s something weird and macabre about the current spate of “die-ins” occurring across the country.

The logic seems to be that we register our very live protest by pretending to be dead, and blocking normal business as usual in the process.

The message: you must stop killing us and people we care about!

This season’s die-ins have mostly taken place in the name of racial justice.

I’d like to see the struggle broadened to include species justice as well.

Imagine if we protested on behalf of the coral reefs, the migrating birds and butterflies, and the small-animal roadkill?

Imagine if we staged die-ins on behalf of the sea turtles and the whales and the polar bears?

What about the tortured factory-farm animals and lab animals and the forest creatures whose habitats are being destroyed daily?

Imagine if we didn’t relent, but kept dying and dying and dying, swooning over and over again in public places until those in power were compelled to pay attention?

One thing is for sure, the powers that be in our uber-capitalist society want us alive and kicking, doing what’s expected of us as productive citizens: to keep consuming at a steadily increasing rate of purchase.

Buy, buy buy! Don’t worry about tomorrow, think about consuming today!

This is the constantly trumpeted message of countless advertising campaigns, and it’s the general ethos of American society, which admires those who can indulge in consumer wish-fulfillment, and disdains those who choose a different, less self-indulgent path.

Die-in for racial justice at Harvard Medical School, December 2014

Die-in for racial justice at Harvard Medical School, December 2014

Whether we choose to physically represent the “death” of our consumer selves, or to simply make a personal decision to refrain from participating in the excessive spending that is pushed on us from Black Friday through Christmas Eve…it is time to recognize our own power as consumers.

We can choose to support or starve the fossil fuel monster. We can decide to keep the factory farms humming or to put our purchasing power behind local farms where animals are allowed to live happier lives. Or even to go further, and eliminate meat consumption altogether!

In this age of Congressional gridlock and the stranglehold of big money on politics, we ordinary little guys must remember that we do have power if we come together to wield it.

One person staging a “die-in” is just a weirdo who can easily be removed.

A hundred or a thousand people refusing to go along with business as usual is something different: it’s a social movement, a force for social change.

The first step toward social change is awareness. I thank the die-in protestors for leading the way in raising our awareness and stopping the mad rush of business-as-usual.

Die-In at the COP 20 climate talks in Lima, Peru, December 2014

Die-In at the COP 20 climate talks in Lima, Peru, December 2014

I’m no Grinch; I’m going to be buying presents for my children and celebrating the holidays with friends and family.

But as I do, I will be trying to limit my participation in practices and policies I know to be harmful.

#LifeMatters. Yes, it does.

Late Night Thoughts on Love, Loss and the Urgent Need for Action

I had a rough night last night. I went to bed thinking about the April 15 “Blood Moon” lunar eclipse; unfortunately we could not see it here in the Northeast, but we certainly could feel the extra-intense full moon energy these past few days.

At some point in the wee hours I woke up to strong winds battering the house, and peering out the window I could see that our long-awaited springtime had been overrun by Old Man Winter again. Driving snow, accumulating steadily on the ground.

Shit. Yet another manifestation of the new normal of our wrecked climate.

After that I tossed and turned and couldn’t fall back asleep. Eventually, bored with my own churning thoughts, I fired up my tablet and started reading The New York Times in bed. Bad move. The first article that caught my attention was about how hazardous materials, particularly heavy crude and gas from the Bakken Fields in North Dakota, are being sent by rail to ports in the Northeast in exponentially increasing quantities, with virtually no regulatory oversight.

The map below shows the rail lines from North Dakota to the Hudson River, where tankers take the oil up to the refinery at St. John, New Brunswick, on the magnificent Bay of Fundy.

I live just two blocks from a train line, and I see the tanker cars that rumble past twice a day.

The tracks go right through downtown Pittsfield, the largest town in Berkshire County, and they go through many of our most lovely wilderness areas too.

But compared to cities like Albany, where schools are apparently sited right along the railroad tracks, or Philadelphia, which narrowly averted a major hazmat rail accident just recently, we have it good here in the Berkshires.

The point is, we are kidding ourselves if we think that nasty crude oil spills and explosions only happen somewhere else, like Ecuador or Nigeria.

We are kidding ourselves if we try to imagine ourselves as innocent bystanders in the nightmare of industrial devastation of our land, waters and air, and the destruction of our planet’s biospheric life support systems.

If Humans Are So Smart, Why Are We Destroying Our Home?

Surface of Mars

Surface of Mars

Surfing around the web bleakly in the middle of the night, I found myself reading articles speculating about how the dead, dry planet Mars lost its ability to support life.

The most likely scientific guess right now seems to be a catastrophic asteroid hit that changed the climate. Somehow the magnetic field of the planet was damaged, which allowed its atmosphere to literally blow away into space.

On Earth, our undoing will be the result of our own relentless industriousness and intelligence.

Human beings are so smart, we figured out how to split atoms and make atomic explosions! Too bad we haven’t got a clue what to do about the residual radiation and radioactive waste—waste with a half-life measured in the billions of years.

We’re so smart, we figured out how to harness the carbon energy buried deep in the ground in the form of coal, gas and oil. We even figured out how to turn oil into a different kind of substance that’s virtually indestructible—plastic! We just somehow overlooked the fact that we might quickly bury ourselves in plastic garbage, and choke ourselves in exhaust fumes.

We’re the smartest species on Earth. But like the Grinch, it appears that we have one fatal flaw—our hearts are many sizes too small for our outsized minds.

If we were guided by heart energy—that is, LOVE—in the application of our amazing technological abilities, what a very different world it would be.

It’s Time For Those With Loving Hearts to Speak in Many Tongues, Translating Love into Action

If future beings ever look back, shaking their heads at the demise of Homo sapiens on Earth and wondering how this once lush green and blue planet turned dead and brown, I wonder if they will be aware of the anguish of some of us living through these bitter transition times.

Will they know that some of us tossed and turned through the night, seeking futilely for a chink in the armor of the corporate stranglehold on our planet? Will they see that many of us, in these end times, tried to stand up for our values; tried to put into action the love we feel for the living creatures that share our beautiful Earth?

Always, it comes back to the question that keeps me up at night. What can we do to make a difference, now while there’s still time?

For a wordsmith like me, the obvious answer seems to be to learn to speak more tongues.

Since the corporations who are so bound and determined to keep fracking and mining and bulldozing their way to Kingdom Come only understand the language of quarterly profit and loss, this is the way we must speak to them.

The almighty priests of the Bottom Line and their henchmen the politicians could care less about emotional blather of love and respect for life and leaving a livable planet for future generations. So let’s speak to them in terms of losses.

The insurance company guys understand already how irreversible climate change will lead to losses on a Biblical scale. The fossil fuel magnates must also be made to understand that they are driving us all down a rapid road to ruin—and no gates will be high enough to keep the floods, fires and starving displaced populations out. We’re all in this together—rich and poor alike will go down with our sinking Mothership Earth.

To the church-going folks, we can speak the language of moral commitment and social responsibility. This weekend is a holy time in the Jewish and Christian calendars. When we’re thinking about the Resurrection and the miracle of Passover, let’s remember how these ancient holidays celebrate LIFE. For those who are religious, how can you claim to follow the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus and allow the destruction of our planet to proceed unopposed?

To the ordinary folks who are just trying to keep their own lives on track, we must speak in a very pragmatic voice. It’s time to begin to pull together as communities and insist on re-localizing energy production (solar, wind, geothermal) and agricultural production in order to build resilience at the state and town level.

It’s time to insist on regulations that will put the safety of people and environmental ecosystems above the profit margins of corporations, and if the federal government won’t do it, the states and towns must step up.

Lying awake at night worrying and mourning is a poor use of my energy. I want to spend whatever time we have left raising my voice to motivate all of us who care to work tirelessly and passionately on behalf of the voiceless: the trees and the bees, the birds and the whales, the frogs, elephants and farm animals, and especially on behalf of the human children as yet unborn, who may never be born—or may be born into a nightmarish, unlivable world gone mad.

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014--western Massachusetts

Bulbs contending with snow and temperatures in the 20s on April 16, 2014–western Massachusetts

21st Century Leadership: On Overcoming Fear and Negativity to Work for a Livable Future

This week, coming off the exhilarating high of the 2014 Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, I started teaching a brand-new class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, “Leadership and Public Speaking for Social and Environmental Justice.”

We spent the first day just working with the concept of Leadership—thinking about great leaders and what qualities they possessed that helped them achieve their goals and bring so many others along with them.

And then we thought about what might hold us back from stepping into our own potential as leaders.

The number one obstacle to becoming a great leader, at least from the perspective of the dozen or so students in the room that day, is FEAR.

They quickly generated a long list of very specific paralyzing fears, and as each fear was voiced, the nodding and comments in the room made it clear that it was widely shared.

I certainly recognized many of my own fears on their list, which I will append at the bottom of this post, along with our list of the qualities necessary for great leadership.

A big part of my motivation for offering this class is simply to help students face and learn to work with their fears and insecurities, rather than doing what I did at their age, which was to allow my fears to push me back onto the sidelines, an observer rather than someone who felt empowered to be out in front leading others.

It’s been a long journey for me to learn that, as Frances Moore Lappé and Jeffrey Perkins put it in their excellent little book You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear, “Fear is pure energy. It’s a signal. It might mean stop. It could mean go.”

Frances Moore Lappe

Frances Moore Lappe

I remember when I invited Frances Moore Lappé to speak at Simon’s Rock a few years ago, she began her talk acknowledging that being up alone on the stage, in the spotlight, made her nervous. But, she said, she has learned to recognize that fluttery, jittery feeling as a sign that she is doing something important, something that matters—and to let the nerves (what some might call the adrenaline rush) work for her rather than against her.

As someone who for many years was overcome with stage fright every time I had to speak in front of an audience, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

JBH 2014 Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

JBH 2014
Photo by Christina Rahr Lane

It wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that the multitudinous fears I had been carrying around with me all those years began to melt away, and I can’t say I know for sure what did it, other than forcing myself, over and over again, to get up there in front of audiences and DO IT ANYWAY, because I knew that a) the work I was being called to do was important, and not just for myself; b) if I didn’t speak about the issues I wanted to focus on in that particular time and place, no one else would; and c) there was absolutely no good rational reason for me to be afraid of speaking to the audiences I was addressing.

Clearly, one necessary ingredient of leadership is a willingness to walk with the fears, risking encounters with whatever devils those fears represent.

We’re out of time: climate change demands extraordinary leadership, now

If I am propelled now into doing all I can to catalyze leadership in my community, whether in the classroom or through the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, it is because I know that we no longer have the luxury of time to stand silently on the sidelines observing, as I did for a good part of my life.

There is simply too much at stake now, and things are happening too fast.

There are some signs that the American political and intellectual establishment is finally shaking off its lethargy and beginning to at least recognize that yes, Houston, we’ve got a problem.

The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report pulled no punches in documenting and describing just how dire our immediate global future looks, thanks to human-induced climate change. And for a change, this “old news” was immediately carried on the front page of The New York Times, which has been ignoring and downplaying the climate change issue for years—and strongly echoed by its editorial page as well.

melting-polar-ice-caps

Yes, it’s true—climate change is real, it’s already happening, and there is no telling where it will lead us. If governments immediately start to act with furious speed and concentration, there is a chance we could backpedal our way into a precarious new normal, keeping our climate about as it is now.

If this kind of leadership is not shown, then all bets are off for the future—and we’re not talking about a hundred years from now, we’re talking about the future we and our children and grandchildren will be living through in the coming decades.

In short, we are living through extraordinary times, times that demand extraordinary leadership. And not just from politicians and heads of state, but from each and every one of us.

As global citizens with a stake in our future, each one of us is now being called to turn off the TV, get up off the couch, step out of the shadows, and SHOW UP to do whatever we can do, to offer our skills and talents to the greater good.

For some that will mean showing up at the 350.org climate change rally in Washington DC this month, demanding that our Congress and President represent the interests of we the people, not just the fossil fuel industry.

Teachers like me can start to offer students the tools and skills they will need to become the 21st century leaders humanity needs—leaders who see the big picture, respond empathetically to the plight not just of humans but of all living beings on the planet, and have the resolve, drive and courage to stand up and lead the way towards implementing the solutions that already exist, and innovating the solutions that have not yet been imagined.

Our media likes to bombard us daily with all the bad news on the planet: wars and random violence, natural disasters, corruption and greed, unemployment and health crises, environmental degradation…the list goes on and on. The cumulative effect of this constant negative litany is a feeling of hopelessness, despair, powerlessness and paralysis—the antithesis of what is needed for energetic, forward-looking, positive leadership.

Simply becoming aware of the extent to which your daily absorption of bad news depresses your spirit is a step on the road to switching the channel, metaphorically speaking, and beginning to focus on what can be done to make things better.

This is not pie-in-the-sky rainbow thinking, this is about doing what is necessary to ensure a livable future. One of the most important qualities of good leaders, my students and I agreed, is positive thinking and a can-do spirit.

If there was ever a time these qualities were needed, it is now—and in each and every one of us.

 

NOTES FROM Leaderhip & Public Speaking class, Day One

Great leaders are:

Charismatic / magnetic

Trustworthy

Change agents

Have something to say that resonates with others

Have a unique/original/relatable idea

Tenacious

Resilient

Creative

Empathetic/loving/caring

Passionate

Fearlessness/being able to embrace your fears

Engaging

Good organizers of people

Able to motivate & energize people

Good collaborators

Good at building teams; good team captains

Good at delegating

Synergizers

Convincing & persuasive

Unswayed by negative feedback & challenges

Self-confident

Able to overcome adversity

Able to share vulnerabilities

Focused/single-minded

Evangelical

Able to attract other strong people

Able to withstand criticism; thick-skinned

Good models: “be the change you want to see”

Articulate

Able to communicate with different groups of people & in different forms of media

Chameleons–able to get along with different kinds of people

Diligent/hardworking

Initiative-takers

Visionary innovators

Able to be humble and stay strategically under the radar

Good at self-promotion

Have good decision-making skills; decisiveness

Understanding of sacrifice/self-sacrifice

Generous

Assertive; firm but not attacking—“real power doesn’t need to attack”

Clear on what they want; clear goals

Intuitive

Considerate

Have common sense

Have a strong moral compass

Have a sense of justice

Want to be of service to the greater good

Want to build merit

Cautious when necessary/ not impulsive

Thoughtful

Resistant to corruption

 

JBH rainbow treeWhat holds us back from becoming leaders?

Fear

Fear of responsibility

Fear of judgment

Fear of failure

Shyness

Fear of being seen/heard

Fear of not being seen/heard

Fear of letting people down

Fear of being replaceable

Fear of fulfilling certain negative stereotypes (“Ban Bossy”)

Fear of being perceived as manly (if you’re a woman)

Fear of not being “man enough” (if you’re a man)

Fear of not being feminine enough

Fear of not being a good role model

Fear of having the minority opinion (saying something unpopular, not being able to

convince people)

Fear of being part of a marginalized group & expecting not to be heard/respected

Fear of leaving someone behind / a voice behind / not hearing other issues (ranking & hierarchy)

Fear of neglecting other issues

Fear of not being taken seriously

Fear of being too passionate

Fear of creating conflict

Fear of wading into controversy

Fear of taking a stand

Fear of changing your opinion/selling out for success

Fear of losing your authenticity

Fear of being politically incorrect

Fear of being perceived incompetent

Fear of not having what it takes

Fear of not being ready / not knowing what your “issue” is

Fear of being seen

 

Negative Qualities that may hold us back

Closemindedness

Righteousness

Malleability

Empathy—taking things too personally

Numbness/alienation

Staying under the radar

Aggression

Defensiveness

Being gullible, believing what you hear, not being discerning

 

What Systemic/Structural Circumstances Hold Us Back?

Acting to save others instead of trying to achieve your own goals/authentic mission

Youth

Education

Social upbringing

Poverty

Not having access to audience—tools to connect

Race/class/gender/sexuality/etc—social categories

Location (geographic)

Language

Filial piety—not wanting to go against expectations & will of family & society

Influence of media on self-esteem

 

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.

It’s Up to Us Now: Carrying on the Work of Pete Seeger

Unknown-1When I heard the news that Pete Seeger had died, my first thought was “oh no!” and my second thought was “now there goes a man who lived a good life.”

At 94, he had accomplished so much and lived so fully.  Even during his final months and weeks on the planet, he was still playing concerts to packed houses and inspiring people everywhere with his unwavering dedication to using music as a means of raising awareness and fomenting social change.

The New York Times obituary quotes him as saying in 2009 (the year he sang at President Obama’s Inauguration): “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Pete’s gift was for making music and getting others to sing along with him, and he used it not for fame, fortune or glory, but for the good of those who most needed him.

Whether he was singing in support of the Civil Rights Movement or the anti-war movement, singing for freedom against the red-baiting of the McCarthy era, singing against apartheid or singing for the environmental movement, he was always out in front leading the charge and showing others what true courage and conviction looked like—in a joyous register.

Image: File photo of Pete Seeger and his grandson Tao attending the We Are One - Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington

That upbeat, “we-shall-overcome” personality probably played a big role in Pete’s longetivity—research shows that people who think positively tend to live longer, happier lives than those who tend to see the glass half-empty.

When I saw Pete play, at one of his last concerts last fall, there was a joyous glow about him that lit up the whole stage, and those of us in the audience would have followed him anywhere.

Well, it’s up to us now.  Pete has moved on, and we are left to carry on his legacy—to keep singing his songs and working for the positive social change he believed in and created.

Unknown-2Pete was so deeply engaged with humanity during his lifetime that in death he will still stay lodged in our hearts.

His is the kind of soul that will rise into heaven showering sparks and spores of bright beckoning energy, encouraging us to carry his tune, to keep his good spirit alive.

Today I start a new semester of classes, and I am excited to be teaching two classes that will enable me to do just that: “Women Write the World” and “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice.”

Pete, I’ll be thinking of you with love and admiration as I go to greet my students this morning.  I hope a little of your sweet, positive, hardworking energy will carry us forward this year, and forever.

 

If you get there before I do

Comin’ for to carry me home

Tell all my friends I’m comin’ too

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot

Comin’ for to carry me home.

 

Dark Universe, Brightening

Socrates had it right long ago when he acknowledged that to the extent that he was wise, it was because he knew how much he did not know.

During my lifetime, the trend has been for homage to be paid to all the cocky, smart human beings who think they know everything.

The slicker and more self-confident the guy (and this is mostly about guys), the more rewards and adulation he gets.

Collectively, especially in the United States, arrogance has been the name of the game.  I think this collective hubris may have reached its apex with the splitting of the atom and the knowledge that he who controls atomic energy controls the world.

Or so we thought.

Climate change is ushering in a whole new, and much more humble era.

imageIt turns out that just because we can bulldoze forests and mountaintops, change the course of rivers, drill beneath the sea and through solid rock, and completely saturate the earth with satellite, drone and in-home surveillance devices, we are still just as vulnerable as we ever were to the simple, earthbound necessities of food and shelter.

As the big, climate-change-induced storms continue to roll in from the ocean, so frequently that they all begin to blur into an anguished nonstop disaster montage, a slow but steady sea-change in collective human consciousness is beginning to occur.

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013

We are beginning to recognize how much we still don’t know, and how dangerous our ignorance, combined with arrogance, is becoming.

There is no doubt now that we who are alive today, along with our children and grandchildren, are going to be living through a remarkable transition time as the planet we have destabilized and plundered during the past few hundred years of industrialization seeks to return to equilibrium.

We must acknowledge that human over-population has played a major role in this process of destabilization.  Our very success as a species is what is driving the current unfolding disaster.  By reducing our numbers through disease, drought, flooding and the competition for shrinking natural resources that leads to war, the planet is doing what it must to return to a steady state where the ecosystem as a whole can flourish.

It is sobering to live with this knowledge.

Perhaps it is my sadness at knowing that I am going to be living through (and dying in) a veritable Holocaust of earthly creatures, that has me searching outside the box of science and common knowledge for signs of hope.

IMG_4150 copyI was not raised with religion, but I have always been an instinctive spiritual animist, seeing the divine in the beauty of the natural world, and in my unbounded love for all the elements of our Earth—rock, water, air and all the myriad living beings that inhabit every strata of our planet.

I have also been open, since I was a child, to the possibility that there is more to our experience than meets the eye.  I have always been fascinated by the occult, shamanism, and science fiction involving time travel to other dimensions of space/time.

I don’t know if it is just because I am paying more attention, but lately I have been perceiving a definite uptick in collective awareness that the key to fixing what ails us in the physical world may lie not in better “hard science,” but in a deeper connection to knowledge that can only be accessed through a different kind of perception.

The doors to this under-tapped realm of wisdom are accessible to us through what has poetically been called “our mind’s eye.”

There have always been humans who have been explorers in this realm—Socrates was one, the Biblical sages and prophets were others, and modern esoteric explorers like Rudolf Steiner, Terrence McKenna, Mary Daly, Martin Prechtel, Starhawk and many more.

Terrence McKenna

Terrence McKenna

In the 1960s psychedelic drugs opened the doors for many people who were not at all prepared for the “trips” they encountered.

Now we seem to be coming around again to a period where, as conditions in the physical world deteriorate, more of us are seeking understanding and reassurance in the non-physical.

The more we know of how bad things are here in the physical realm, the more we want to know that “another world is possible.”  And the more we look, the more we find that indeed, there is much more to the universe than meets the eye.

Even scientists are beginning to align with the spiritists they previously disdained. In our age of quantum physics, the whole idea of a “spiritual dimension,” accessible through human consciousness, is becoming much less far-fetched to rational hard science types.

The new Hayden Planetarium show, “Dark Universe,” ends with a graphic that could be right out of “Twilight Zone,” showing that roughly three-quarters of the universe is composed of “dark energy,” a term invented to represent in language something we know enough to know we do not understand at all.

It could be that waking, embodied life is to human consciousness what the physical, hard-matter universe is to the cosmos as a whole.  Just a tiny fragment of a much larger, and potentially much more interesting, whole.

What if the reason every living thing on this planet sleeps (whether in the daytime or the nighttime) is in order to reconnect with the non-physical realm that spiritually sustains us?  We know that if we are deprived of sleep for any length of time, we go crazy and die.

What if “the dreams that come,” whether in sleep or in death, are just as valid a form of experience as the waking hours of our day, and our lives?

What would it mean to be able to think beyond the brief timelines of our individual lives, or even the eons of evolutionary cycles on the planet, and know that we are all part of a much grander cosmic dream?

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Photo source: American Museum of Natural History, Rose Space Center, Hayden Planetarium, “Dark Universe”

Thinking this way does not give me license to let go of my focus on making a difference here on earth, now in my lifetime.

In some ways this imperative becomes even stronger, as it was for Socrates, Steiner and so many other visionaries who were also powerful initiators and guides during their lifetimes.

During this winter solstice season of introspection and questioning, I have been reading and re-reading the writings of one such contemporary guide, the Sufi mystic and spiritual ecologist Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.  I leave you with a passage to ponder:

In the book of life we can see the energy patterns of creation, the rivers of light that flow between the worlds.  We can see how the individual relates to the whole and learn the secret ways to bring light into the world; we can understand the deeper purpose of the darkness and suffering in the world, of its seeming chaos.  And the attentive reader can glimpse another reality behind all of the moving images of life, a reality that is alive with another meaning in which our individual planet has a part to play in the magic of the galaxy.  Just as there are inner worlds, each deeper and more enduring, there are also different outer dimensions whose purposes are interrelated and yet different.  The inner and outer mirror each other in complex and beautiful ways, and in this mirroring there are also levels of meaning.  As we awaken from our sleep of separation, we can come alive in a multifaceted, multidimensional universe that expresses the infinite nature of the Beloved.

–Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Spiritual Power: How It Works

Let it be so.

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia.  Photo by Eric  B. Hernandez

Sunset on Cherry Hill Beach, Nova Scotia. Photo by Eric B. Hernandez

I have a dream: the 20th century visions of King and Obama and the “fierce urgency” of our time

mlkihaveadreamgogoFifty years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dreams with the American nation:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today!”

Today President Obama, himself the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, honored the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, telling us that because people in Dr. King’s generation marched for justice, “America changed. Because they marched, the civil rights law was passed. Because they marched, the voting rights law was signed. Because they marched, doors of opportunity and education swung open so their daughters and sons could finally imagine a life for themselves beyond washing somebody else’s laundry or shining somebody else’s shoes. Because they marched, city councils changed and state legislatures changed and Congress changed and, yes, eventually the White House changed.”

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But Obama’s dream remains too limited.  He is still dreaming a 20th century dream of middle class jobs and security: the longing for a society offering  “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures — conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”

Such a scenario assumes the stability of the real workers of our economy: the trees and plankton that supply our oxygen and the microorganisms that make our crops grow.  It takes for granted steady, predictable rains and moderate temperatures.

We can no longer make such assumptions, and President Obama is wrong to preach to the nation as though 20th century problems and concerns were still paramount today.

Yes, the problem of the color line still exists in 21st century America.  The unemployed still need jobs.  The racial disparity in prison populations is disgraceful.  But these are not the most pressing issues of our time.

President Obama lauded the young of the 1960s for being “unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better.”

He argued that “that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation.   We might not face the same dangers as 1963, but the fierce urgency of now remains.”

In fact, we face even greater dangers today than in 1963, and it was dishonest of our President not to allude to the much more serious problems now bearing down on us full force: the juggernaut of global climate change.

The wildfires burning in California this week are the among largest ever recorded in the United States.

The rate of species extinction is faster now than it ever has been in the history of human civilization.

The ice melting at the poles promises to release heat-trapping methane gas at rates not seen since prehistoric eras.

Human population is on track to reach 9 billion or more in this century, way beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth.

We don’t know where all this is leading, but surely we cannot expect positive outcomes from these dramatic planetary shifts.

These interconnected environmental issues are the great challenges of our time, and it is to them that President Obama should have alluded, if he was being honest with himself and with the American people.

Whether or not the Syrians used chemical weapons against their own people; whether or not African Americans get to the voting booth; whether or not the American middle class sinks into poverty…all this will not matter at all when accelerating climate change begins to bring food shortages even to the most cosseted Americans.

Here is what our President should have said today:

‘I have a dream that Americans will step into a leadership role in the great fight of our time, the transition to a sustainable, renewable-energy-based society.

‘I have a dream that people of all nations, all creeds and from every culture on Earth will embrace our common challenge of finding ways to mitigate human damage to the planet, and adapt to the changes that are rapidly coming our way.

‘I have a dream that men and women from all over the globe will stand together, knowing that divided we will fall, but united we have a chance to safely ride out the storms that face us.’

My own personal dream is that our political leaders will stop lying to us, and will summon us to step up to the great ethical and empirical challenge of our time: creating lifeboats on which our children and grandchildren may sail safely into a sustainable future.

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