Leadership in the End Times: Feminine Rising

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

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2”

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

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

Does this sound familiar?

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Margaret J. Wheatley

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

Here is Wheatley summarizing Glubb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nina Simons addresses the Bioneers 2017.

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

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Clare Dubois at the Bioneers 2017.

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

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Nina Simons awakening women leaders. 

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

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

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Joanna Macy, wise elder at the Bioneers 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

As We Dance the Spiral Dance of Life, Death and Rebirth, We Build Bridges to the Future Every Step of the Way; What Future Do You Choose?

We’re now going into the darkest time of the year, the time when many cultural traditions contend that the veils between the living and the dead grow thinnest, most penetrable.

In San Francisco tonight, Starhawk and her Reclaiming coven will be dancing a grand spiral dance with thousands of people, all united under this banner: “2014 Intention: With the help of ancestors, descendants, and the great powers of nature, we weave magic and action to save our home! A ritual to honor our beloved dead and dance the spiral of rebirth.”

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Having participated in one of Starhawk’s circle dances, focused on raising energy through the power of collective intention, I can begin to imagine what a spiral dance on this scale will accomplish.

We Americans too often ignore the significance of energetics in our lives.

We imagine that it doesn’t matter that we spend more and more of our time bathed in low-level radiation from all our electronic devices, from computers to cell phones to electric meters and on.

We don’t pay attention to the way we are similarly taking in steady doses of negative information day after day, from Ebola and cancer to corruption, violence and poverty.

In these dark days of the year, at least in my gloomy northern corner of the world, I can feel my own energy levels sinking, my will to rise and dance on behalf of my ancestors, descendants and Nature wavering.

Morning clouds over Stockbridge Bowl. Photo J. Browdy, 2014

Morning clouds over Stockbridge Bowl. Photo J. Browdy, 2014

So I give myself pep talks. I remind myself that the dark days of the year are among the most powerful times for focusing inward and setting new intentions for what will be accomplished with the return of the light.

I get out the photos of my grandparents and my children and remind myself that I must be a strong link on the hereditary chain that stretches back untold generations, if my descendants are to have the good fortune of enjoying the kind of safe, happy, fulfilled lives on Earth that I have had.

Fannie Ashe Browdy and Philip Browdy, my paternal grandparents, around the time of their marriage.

Fannie Ashe Browdy and Philip Browdy, my paternal grandparents, around the time of their marriage.

I remember that I came to this lifetime full of the rising sap of positive energy, loving nothing more than to rise early to watch the dawn, and stay up late to look for shooting stars.

Rooted like the trees that shelter and inspire me

Rooted like the trees that shelter and inspire me

Like the great old trees I love, I have rooted myself deeply in the glacial rocks and rich soil of my life, and now have a wide network of students, friends, colleagues and relatives that I help to nourish with my ideas and initiatives.

And I am not only connected to human friends and relatives, but also to the intricately woven biosphere, with which I interact on a cellular level with every breath I take, every ray of sunshine I absorb, every drop of water I drink.

We are all dancing a great spiral dance together on this planet, weaving our intentions and our gifts into the actions that will build a bridge into our collective future.

Every step we take matters. Will we work day by day towards aligning our love for the planet with our individual actions?

For example, will we invest in fossil fuels or solar panels this year? Will we support local farmers, or buy packaged food that’s trucked in from far away? Will we take a break from eating fish to allow the wild fish stocks to recover? Will we lend our political and financial support to those working to make the human relationship to the planet life-enhancing, rather than destructive?

Reminding ourselves that literally or metaphorically speaking, our ancestors and descendants are relying on us to do the best we can to keep the chain of life strong and unbroken into the future, can help us to make decisions that are forward-looking and mature.

My maternal grandmother, Mildred Louis Rubenstein, with my younger son, Eric

My maternal grandmother, Mildred Louis Rubenstein, with my younger son, Eric

The dance we weave today and every day is about much more than just our own individual lives. We can be and do much more than we imagine, if we resist the downward pressures of negative thinking, and keep the channels of positive energy open to the cosmic flow.

Remember that the Earth and the Cosmos are one and the same, and we humans are just another manifestation of that endlessly circulating energy.  Photo J. Browdy 2014

Remember that the Earth and the Cosmos are one and the same, and we humans are just another manifestation of that endlessly circulating energy. Photo J. Browdy 2014

With Starhawk: Dreaming the Dark and the Light

The night I returned home from an intense weekend workshop at Rowe with Starhawk, I had a disturbing dream.

A little girl, dressed in a pink jumper, was crying that she was lost, she had to find her father. So I took her by the hand and we started looking for her father in an urban landscape—first on the street, then in an apartment hallway with many doors. I said to her, do you remember what the floor of your home looked like? Was it wooden? Black and white tile? We stopped at several doors but they weren’t the right one. Then we came to the one with the blue-green patterned tiles, and her father was in the doorway.

As soon as I saw him I was afraid…he seemed like a devil, a mean, cruel man, although he smiled (leered, more like) as he came forward in the doorway to receive her. And she went to him, whimpering. There were people gathered in the apartment behind him, all dressed creepily in black, watching something on a screen in a darkened room. He thanked me for bringing her back, and I turned away, with a sick feeling, thinking she was going to be hurt or punished for “running away.”

As I turned away I heard her whimpering turn to full-out crying, a terrible keening sound, and I felt paralyzed—what should I do? Should I call Child Protective Services? Clearly this little child needed my help, but I was afraid that if I called the police or other authorities, the “father” would know who called and would come after me.

So I did what any dreamer does when paralyzed by fear—I woke up.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this dream, especially as it seems to be a kind of psychological bridge between Starhawk’s remarkable rituals honoring Mother Earth, and my own upcoming writing workshop on “purposeful memoir,” which uses the elements as a way to frame and explore parts of one’s life journey.

I feel sure that I was both the small child in the dream, and the adult who was trying to help her find her way “home.” The problem was that “home” was a dangerous, confusing, love-and-hate kind of place, ruled over by a “father” who was punitive, frightening and loving in a controlling kind of way. The adults sitting in the dark background passively watching the screen are human society writ large, especially our Western, technology-obsessed society. The little child with her bright pink outfit and fearful, wanting-to-trust eyes, stood out here as a wholly other kind of being, but one which would, in the pinching hands of her “father,” be formed and molded into just another one of these pale, eerie, zombified adults.

We talked a lot last weekend about how frightening it is that we Westernized humans have become so very disconnected from the natural world. As Starhawk gathered us in circles to ritually salute the four elements and the four directions (Earth/North, Fire/South, Water/West, Air/East), as well as the Center/Spirit, it seemed like a dream of an older way of being that I dimly remembered, from a time before I had taken my seat among all the other adults sitting before screens in darkened rooms.

After the last circle

After the last circle

We listened to the birds singing and the wind blowing through the new spring leaves; marveled at how the veins of the leaves mirrored the veins in our own bodies and the bigger veins of river waters on the body of the Earth; and let our combined voices, chanting around a sparking fire in praise of the elemental unity of all Life, blur together into a wordless ringing sound that cast our intention to be of service to Mother Earth high up into the starry sky.

Following Starhawk along a labyrinth made of stones lined with vivid purple violets, I thought about my desire to help others explore their own lives in elemental terms, looking back at where we’ve come from in order to see more clearly who we are and who we wish to become. In writing my own memoir, the elemental structure emerged organically from the trajectory of my life: Earth the childhood ground of my being; Water the stream of culture I’d been sucked into as an adolescent and young adult; Fire the years of adulthood, being tested on many fronts; and Air running through it all as reflections from my current perch, back on the Earth of middle age, trying to recover my grounding in order to move more intentionally into the next stage of my life.

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

My dream, in which I was both the crying little girl who felt compelled to find her way back “home” and the concerned adult who could see just how damaging and hostile that “home” was, seems to represent my awareness these past few years of how destructive our American “home culture” is to the sweet, sensitive Earth-centered children who are born into this harsh, techno-dominated world and cleave to it with innocent fidelity.

We are instinctively loyal to our families and our birth cultures, even when on some level we are aware that they are not always healthy for us. And the adult “me” in my dream, anguished about handing over the child to this destructive “father” figure, was like any bystander in a negative scenario, desperately choosing to remain silent out of fear of retribution, fear of bringing the hostility down on myself.

In my memoir workshop next week, I want to guide others to explore how thinking about our lives in elemental terms can help us make sense of our past, and give us a firm footing from which to overcome our conditioning and our fears and take the full measure of our life’s purpose.

Three generations

Three generations

We all came into this life wide-eyed and open-hearted, looking for love and warmth. It’s fascinating to explore what happens as we are received by our families and our home cultures, and swept along into the fast-moving currents of life, heading towards the fires of adulthood.

But what really matters is what comes next. What will we do with our one precious life, as Mary Oliver put it so poignantly? Can we step back from our loyalties and conditioning and figure out what it is we care about enough to stand up for and give our lives to?

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk has moved in the past decade or so from a focus on a largely metaphorical, feminine-inflected Earth-based spirituality to a much more grounded practice in permaculture, “a multi-disciplinary art form, drawing from the physical sciences, architecture, nutrition, the healing arts, traditional ecological knowledge, and spirituality. The ethical underpinnings that guide permaculture are simple yet powerful: take care of earth, take care of the people, and share the surplus.”

In her Earth Activist Trainings, she seeks to help us reimagine a new kind of culture, one in which nature and human society are seamlessly intertwined. “EAT is practical earth healing with a magical base of ritual and nature awareness, teaching you to integrate mind and heart, with lots of hands-on practice and plenty of time to laugh,” she says on her website.

We need to create a new kind of culture that will comfort and nourish both the caring adult and the crying child in my dream. Our culture has to be supported by a sustainable relationship to our Mother Earth, a relationship in which we give back as much as we take, in an endlessly regenerative circle of life.

mossy rockAs I look ahead purposefully in my life, I hope that the adult I want to become would not leave the innocent child I was in the treacherous hands of a culture that has forgotten how to love. If I could replay that dream, I would guide that small, pink-clad child away from her malevolent “father” and his techno-obsessed tribe. I would take her away from that urban landscape, out into the warm green gloom of the forest, where we would sit together on a mossy rock and listen to the wind in the leaves and the birds in the sky. Together we would look up to see Starhawk approaching along the path, roots sprouting from her feet and branches from the top of her head.

We would sing together, in the words of poet Kristin Knowles, with whom I shared the Starhawk weekend:

Our mother,

in art and nature,

passionate burns thy flame.

Thy strength is one

with moon and sun

on Earth as up in the heavens.

Teach us the way to lightly tread

And relieve us our distress as

we receive those who would prefer our silence.

And lead us not into frustration

but deliver us from ill will.

For thine is the freedom, power and glory,

her story,

now and forever.

Blessed be.

Which Side Are You On?

imagesFor the past few nights I have been putting myself to sleep by reading an advance copy of my friend Jan Krause Greene’s new novel, I Call Myself Earth Girl.

It’s not exactly a feel-good bedtime story, dealing as it does with rape, environmental disaster, death and bereavement.

But it’s also about empathy and love, between family members and also on a worldwide scale.

In Greene’s vision, the Earth and its denizens can be saved from catastrophe by mindful attention to what really matters: affirming life, both our own and that of the unborn generations to come.

Not since Starhawk’s 1994 masterpiece The Fifth Sacred Thing have I come across a book that so clearly matches my own waking nightmare of the terrible times that await us in the future, if we do not succeed in changing our ways now.

Let’s face it: it is possible that the kind of violence afflicting resource-starved places like Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia will become the norm in much more of the world, as climate instability creates food shortages and accelerates the pace of natural disasters beyond our capacity to recover.

America is a tinderbox just waiting to go off.  Imagine what would happen if suddenly it was not possible to go down to the supermarket and get your week’s worth of groceries?

Such a scenario is more or less unthinkable to people like me, who have grown up cradled by the richest breadbasket in the world.

We are only beginning to realize the costs that have come with our cornucopia: the destruction of the virgin prairies in the Midwest, the poisoning of the earth, water and air with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; the grotesque factory farms of livestock and fish; the genetic alteration of seeds; the destruction of local farming by the huge predatory monster of American-style factory farms.

We have grown fat on these practices.  And now it’s time for us to accept responsibility for the outcomes of our heedlessness.

Those of us alive today have the privilege, and the responsibility, of presiding over what could very well be the end times for human civilization.

It’s somewhat analogous to the end times of specific human cultures, like the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Ottomans, the great Chinese dynasties….except that this time, we’re not just talking about the end of a single culture, we’re talking about the demise of humanity as a species.

It is possible to imagine, as Jan Krause Greene did, that our lush green planet could turn brown from environmental disaster, provoking a culture of armed militias surviving by means of ruthless violence—with women, as always, at the bottom of the heap.

Tornado bearing down on Moore, OK; May 21, 2013

Tornado bearing down on Moore, OK; May 21, 2013

It is already happening—just not yet here, in the gated community we call America.

Can we wake up in time to forestall total, worldwide environmental melt-down?

In the past week we had a deadly two-mile-wide tornado in Oklahoma, and the Russian science station in the Arctic Circle had to be evacuated because the ice was melting at an unprecedented rate.

Here in New England we are expecting temperatures in the 30s Farenheit this weekend—way below normal for what should be the start of the growing season.

What’s next?

We don’t know.  But I take heart from local initiatives like the rehabilitation of the long-dormant Great Barrington Fairgrounds into a vibrant community-supported agriculture site.

We are going to have to re-localize agriculture if we want to survive the shocks of the 21st century.  We need to re-imagine not just agriculture, but community along with it.

As I Call Myself Earth Girl shows well, the antidote to violence and fear is love and empathy.

We still have a choice. Which way will you turn?  Which side are you on?  How far will you go to protect the planet and the generations to come?

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