Purposeful Memoir as a Tool for Earth Activists

Recently I presented a slide lecture called “Navigating Climate Change in Uncertain Times: Cultivating Personal and Political Resilience for a Thriving Future.” But as often happens, I had to come up with the title months before I actually sat down to write the lecture, and in the interim my understanding of what I wanted to say shifted.

If I had to write the title now, it would be more like this: “Aligning the Personal, Political and Planetary Through Purposeful Memoir: Exploring the Past to Understand the Present and Envision the Thriving Future We Yearn For.”

It’s too wordy, but so far I have been unable to simplify these big ideas into a more succinct wording.

Truly, what I’m after is something big here, something potentially transformative on a grand scale.

And yet it starts very simply, very close to home: sitting down, preferably with others, to explore one’s own life experience and how it has been shaped and impacted, whether we’ve realized it along the way or not, by the political and planetary landscape of our time and place.

In the lecture, I used my own life experience as an example, exploring the years between 1962, my birth year, and 2011, the year I woke up to climate change and the Sixth Great Extinction—which, not coincidentally, was also the year that I started writing Transition Times.

The political events of those 50 years in America include several wars, from Vietnam to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; the Civil Rights and feminist movements; the stealing of the election by Bush Jr. in 2000; and the complicated ups and downs of Congressional politics in relation to the environment.

The planetary events are perhaps less familiar, especially to those who, like me before 2011, were not paying much attention to the planetary backdrop against which we foregrounded our lives.

But put together, decade by decade, that “backdrop” loomed large. Each decade since the 1960s, the population of the Earth’s most successful invasive species, Homo sapiens, has increased by one billion people. We went from 3 billion or so when I was born, to 7 billion in the early 21stcentury, and we’re on track to reach 8 billion by 2020.

Data from the EPA and NASA show the steady rise in global atmospheric carbon over these decades, accompanied by rising air and sea temperatures and melting polar ice.

And in these decades since the first American endangered species list was created in 1967, hundreds of species have been added to the list of those threatened by extinction. It turns out that 1994, the year I earned my Ph.D., was the worst single year on the list, with 129 species added. Of course, I wasn’t paying attention at the time.

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Source: World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/08/endangered-species-wait-an-average-of-12-years-to-get-on-the-list

The power of aligning the personal, political and planetary through purposeful memoir is precisely that it focuses our attention in a new way.

It’s not just for those who want to write a full-fledged memoir. It’s also a valuable tool for anyone who is ready to understand their lives as part of the broader story of the relationship between human society and our planet.

It’s a way of understanding more deeply how we got to our present crisis moment on the planet, individually and as a society; a way of taking stock of the past and present in order to gird ourselves for the challenging work ahead.

Too often, people take up activism only in the political realm. They go out to fight politically for the planet without having done the deep inner work of understanding who they are, where they come from and how they were socialized and educated by their family and culture.

This inner work of purposeful memoir can be difficult because almost everyone alive today will have to confront their own complicity in the steady destruction of the global ecosystem—the swift and inexorable erosion, over the past 50-plus years, of the health and wellbeing of all life on the planet, including of course ourselves, human beings.

What-I-Forgot-Cover-draft-NEW-smAs I worked on my own memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, I went through all the classic stages of grief as I realized the full extent of the loss that has unfolded during my lifetime.

Allowing ourselves to feel the grief is important, as Joanna Macy has been telling us for a long time; and we can channel the anger that arises from the tragic, relentless loss of life into a powerful force for Earth activism.

When we gather together to write and share how our personal stories have intertwined with the political and planetary happenings of our time and place, we are strengthening ourselves as a collective force for positive transformation of self, society and world.

We are, as I put it in my memoir, “doing hope together.”

Emily Dickinson famously described hope as:

“the thing with feathers –
that perches in the soul –
and sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”

As we navigate through our perilous moment of climate change, political disruption and environmental destruction, we can use purposeful memoir as a way of tuning into to our own inner resilience while listening for the never-ending song of hope that pulses through all life on Earth.

It’s easy to hear it on these beautiful days of spring renewal. It’s what sets the leaves unfurling and the flowers turning their faces to the sun. It’s what animates the birds to build their nests and the bees to gather pollen to make their honey season after season.

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Photo J. Browdy 2018

As we work through purposeful memoir to align the personal, political and planetary, we can clearly see the preciousness and the fragility of life on Earth, and we come to understand our own potential to be stewards for the planet, and active guardians of other species.

We tap into the strong current of hope and life that constantly encircles this planet and begin to cultivate the deep awareness and resilience to become a beacon for others, each of us a little light in the vast global shift towards, as Charles Eisenstein puts it, “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

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Terry Tempest Williams

At a recent climate change panel discussion in Albany NY, purposeful memoirist Terry Tempest Williams talked poetically about our responsibility to the generations still to come.

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying we will see beyond our own time and act accordingly,” she said.

Purposeful memoir can help us locate ourselves as a strong link in the chain between past and future, understanding our individual lives as part of the broader political and planetary landscape of our time and place.

Doing hope together, we can engage in the joyful, sacred task of building bridges, plank by plank, into the thriving future we yearn for—not just for ourselves and other human beings, but for all life on Earth.

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Photo J. Browdy 2017

After a Bloody Valentine’s Day, A Meditation on the Human Heart

Many times before in human history violence and mayhem have prevailed, people have wailed and groaned with fear and pain as anger and hatred have roiled society. We’re in such a time now, of personal and political suffering, compounded by the planetary environmental imbalance that threatens, tsunami-like, to blow us all away.

Literally and figuratively, this is a bleak, frightening time to be alive, and everyone I know is feeling the weight of everything that is going wrong. The daily news of mass shootings, civil wars, refugee crises, xenophobia and hatred writ large and small—not to mention the extinctions, polluted landscapes and waterways, and continued unbridled greed of the captains of the industries that are destroying our individual and ecological health—well, it’s overwhelming.

It’s been a while since I posted on Transition Times, and overwhelm is part of the reason I’ve been quiet lately. Another reason is because I try to resist being purely reactionary in my TT writing. Lately the outrages and calamities have come so fast and furious that if I tried to keep up, I’d spend all my time denouncing the bad guys and bewailing the latest tragedy. That’s not how I want to spend my precious time, or yours.

Sages like Margaret Wheatley are counseling now that we try to move beyond hope and despair, to the realm of what she calls “faith.” I think she means that when we take the longer view, and give up our fear of change, we can rest assured that no matter how things unfold in the short term, in the long run everything will be OK.

Well, in the long run you and I will be dead, and there is a release in that, no matter what you believe about the afterlife or rebirth. In the long run, our Mother Earth will regenerate and new, marvelous life will flourish here on the planet, the DNA spiraling on as it did when some of the dinosaurs became our present-day birds.

So in that sense, yes, eventually all will be well. But that still doesn’t absolve us of responsibility now, in our own time, to do what we can to alleviate suffering and cultivate individual and ecological health, harmony and balance.

One thing I can do is try not to be a mirror for the violence I abhor. It doesn’t mean I’m putting my head in the sand, it just means that, as with the ancient Buddhist practice of tong-len­, I can try to breathe it in and transmute it, in my own being, to compassion that I breathe out.

For example, with the most recent horrific school shooting, in Parkland, Florida, I feel the suffering like a rain of fire. The suffering of the victims, and also the suffering of the shooter, alone in the world, evidently left to his own violent, mentally disturbed devices. Now he will spend the rest of his life in prison, and that will be no real atonement for the innocent lives he snuffed out.

I breathe in the horror of that scenario, and although my first thought is of gun control, and rage that the politicians who could make things better continue to sit on their hands and mouth sanctimonious prayers—I try to breathe through that too, and think about how all of us are caught in webs of fear, greed and power-lust not of our own making, unhealthy systems that hold most of us fast, no matter how we try to struggle free.

It’s the systems that need changing, but change always starts with the personal and radiates outward. The question is always, how can I touch the heart of another human being and melt its hardness with compassion and love?

We live in a time of hard-heartedness. Callousness and indifference reign, nowhere more evident than in the U.S. government.

listening for Gaia copyBut I won’t let them harden me. I will continue to cup my hands around the fragile flame of loving-kindness that burns indomitably at my core.

We human beings are born loving. Every infant turns its head blindly towards its mother, searching for love and comfort. Our entire ecosystem runs on the pure positive energy of the Sun, which shines its love down on all equally, warming the seeds and nourishing the plants without which we humans could not live a moment.

Yes, the circle of life includes pain and suffering. Predators have to eat, but when the system is in harmony, death feeds life.

tree heart copyRight now Western civilization is in a death-frenzy that is not life-giving. Let us admit that to ourselves, and imagine the many ways that we could seize the opportunity now in front of us to transition to a healthier system.

It all starts with the human heart. In the wake of this bloody Valentine’s Day, I want to use my heart to send love out into the world, and meditate deeply on what I have to give that is positive and life-affirming.

That is the only way we can be the change we want to see in the world.

Will the Real Hillary (Rodham, Clinton) Please Stand Up?

Today’s New York Times features an article by Amy Chozick about the fading away of Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the wake of her electoral college (though not popular) defeat to a known sexual predator.

The article regrets the fact that Mrs. Clinton, after so many decades of leading the way for women in politics, has now been forced to the sidelines. “On issues of sexual assault, Mrs. Clinton has remained mostly muted, her hands tied as liberals rethink how President Bill Clinton’s accusers were dismissed and shamed in the 1990s. Even the #StillWithHer crowd seems to agree that the #MeToo movement cannot feature Mrs. Clinton.”

And therein lies the rub for Mrs. Clinton.

To fully step into her power as a feminist leader, she has to account for her hubby. This is where the personal meets the political and things get complicated.

Chozick asks whether Mrs. Clinton should “be held responsible for the badly behaving men around her.” The answer is no, we are only responsible for our own behavior.

But her behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal was not okay. For years she determinedly looked the other way as Bill had his trysts. This was known when they were on the campaign trail in the 1990s, and the Lewinsky affair revealed just how deeply entrenched Bill’s proclivity to sexual predation had become.

All through that scandal, Hillary stood by her man.

Pres. Clinton Denies Lewinsky Affair

Even after they left the White House, when she could have divorced him without any political blowback, she continued to stand by her man.

We don’t know if he continued his sexually loose ways after retirement. I for one don’t care, as long as the encounters were consensual. Let him eat cake. Let her eat cake too, for that matter! I’m not one to argue sententiously for the sanctity of marriage.

But if Hillary wants to be an icon for women, she should help us understand what was in her mind as she stood by Bill, even knowing that he was getting young Monica to jack him off in the Oval Office.

I wish Hillary would write a real memoir digging into the full complexity of the calculus for women seeking power and success in a world still so overwhelmingly patriarchal.

frida-dvdSalma Hayek’s brilliant essay, revealing how she had to demean herself to Harvey Weinstein in order to achieve her creative masterpiece Frida, opens a lurid window into the contortions required of ambitious, talented women in this man’s world. Whether they are seeking success in science, religion, education, politics, the arts, or business, as feminists have been documenting for years, there is no level playing field for women.

These days, feminist critique is finally coming out of women’s studies classrooms and journals and into the mainstream. The whole nation saw the glass ceiling in action in all its glory, holding fast against the first woman who actually might have been POTUS.

At the very least, when all is said and done, Hillary deserves a good biography of her life, maybe a dramatic bio-pic made by someone who gets it, like Salma Hayek.

We need to understand what pressures women like her to put up with “bad behavior from those around her” in the quest to achieve higher goals.

We need to understand why she has stuck by Bill all these years. Hollywood celebrities get to marry and divorce with abandon, but not politicians, particularly women politicians. Why not? Why do we insist that women stand by their men, no matter what? Other countries are relaxing this standard—look at France, or Chile.

We will never know if Hillary would have been a stronger, better candidate had she divorced Bill after their shabby reign in the White House ended. All these years, she stuck by her man. Maybe she loves him. Maybe he’s changed with age and become a good companion for her.

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Hillary and Bill in 2016

The bedroom does influence the boardroom, for women as well as men. Hillary Clinton is someone who could tell us just how much this is so. But she’d have to take the risk of standing on her own two feet, as Hillary Rodham, Clinton be damned.

Transitions at Transition Times

I am aware that I have not been posting very frequently on Transition Times, and there is a simple explanation for that: I have shifted my writing energy into my weekly column, Edge Wise, published on Thursdays at The Berkshire Edge.

I started Edge Wise thinking of it as a way of holding the publishing door open for other women who might like to get their voices and visions into virtual print. But more often than not, it’s me who’s holding the fort there, turning out weekly commentary on issues of social and environmental justice, of local, national, and international import.

If you are interested, you can take a look at the archives, going back about a year now to when I started Edge Wise. The inaugural column explained the name, including a personal anecdote about how, as a soft-spoken woman in various social contexts, I have often found it hard to get a word in edgewise.

Recent columns I think my Transition Times readers may especially appreciate include:

 I will continue to post on Transition Times, as I know we’re still very much in the thick of the transitions that started me off here back in 2011. The first four years of Transition Times charted the journey of my awakening to the seriousness of the political and planetary challenges that face us today; you, my readers, helped me understand how important it is to align the personal, political and planetary as we seek to become creative leaders in our rapidly transforming social and environmental landscape.

I have been putting theory into practice in a number of ways:

  • BFWW-sq-logo-WEBthrough the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, an annual conference and a series of year-round events nourishing and showcasing the voices and visions of women of all ages;
  • through Green Fire Press, which offers high-quality publishing services for writers seeking an alternative to both traditional publishing and self-publishing, including the new anthology Writing Fire: Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words;
  • through the new Butterfly Effect Leadership Program for teen girls and young women, which encourages young women to step into their potential as creative leaders in ways that can change themselves and their communities—and ultimately, the world—for the better;
  • through the new Women’s Collaborative for Creativity and Leadership, which is the umbrella non-profit organization for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and The Butterfly Effect, with a mission of offering multiple entry points into an inspiring vision of a stronger role for women in leading the way towards a sustainable and harmonious future for us all;
  • and through my teaching and the many workshops and talks I have been giving connected to all these endeavors, including two coming up this month, Gaia Calling and the Rookwood Writing Retreat on Memoir.

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I am also working on several book projects that I will be bringing to fruition in the coming year:

  • what-i-forgot-cover-WEBWhat I Forgot and Why I Remembered: A Purposeful Memoir of Personal and Planetary Transformation, my own story of how I lost and regained my deep and essential connection with the Earth, and why that matters for me and for every caring human on the planet today;
  • a companion book, The Elemental Journey: An Inspirational Guide to Purposeful Memoir, which will offer signposts along the road for those interested in embarking on a similar journey through their own life histories;
  • The Butterfly Effect: A Guide to Stepping into the Creative Leadership Our World Needs Now;
  • and several editing projects, including an anthology, Strong Shoulders: The Loves and Labors of Women, for which the Call for Proposals is still open.

Yes, I am busy trying to walk the walk as well as talk the talk of social transformation, seeking out and finding collaborators as I go, because building community is such a strong part of what I know we need to be doing in these transition times, as we move together along this part of the journey, where life—personal, political and planetary—seems to be constantly speeding up.

10153293_552008379784_8650399992315417237_nThis is a time when we need to come together, not only in the amazing virtual spaces of the Internet, but also physically, in our home communities. We need to create opportunities and spaces for deep reflection and sharing, so that we can build strong networks of kindred spirits and webs of support to carry us through what may very well be some turbulent times ahead.

As always, I invite you to come along with me on the journey through these transition times. As the old prophecy said, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and the time of the lone wolf is over. We must put hope into action collaboratively, with the goal of emerging stronger, clearer and more confident in our shared desire to create bridges to the future we want for ourselves and for those who will come after us.

Are you with me? Let’s go!

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