Friday, December 12, 2014


"Every aspect of our lives is, in a sense, 
a vote for the kind of world we want to live in." 
Frances Lappe Moore

For Laura M.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she is struggling with and looking for help in how to balance passion and doubt, privilege and responsibility with regards to how to be a good activist, a good human, a person who is doing that mythical, unreachable quantity of “enough” to make the world a more just place.

Especially in the face of all that seems freshly wrong with the world—climate change and human rights violations being chief concerns—there is a constant worry and pressure to continually rise ever higher, deeper, wider to all such challenges.

And, if we succumb to the doubts, the crippling overwhelming grief that we are not and never will be enough—just one lone beating heart and set of bones against all the troubles and sorrows and crimes we would stop with our bodies and breath if only we could…well, we’ll lose it all for certain.

I once had the incredible opportunity to sit down to breakfast, one on one, with the environmental-feminism-faith-everything writer Terry Tempest Williams. We talked about my nascent writing, about what I want to do. A cavalry of words came out—that I want to write about the stench of an outhouse in a Kenyan slum, about the tremor of a man’s handshake after Hurricane Katrina, about the incandescent rays of sunset on the mountain flowers, about all the other ways I long to write people in love with the world I love so that they’ll join in its salvage. And then there were no more good words and I choked out amongst hot tears that “I just worry it will never be enough.”

Terry Tempest Williams reached across the table, grabbed my elbow, and with a few tears of her own, reassured me that: “it will never be enough. But you have to do it, anyway.”

It is the best advice I’ve ever had.

What “enough” looks like for each person, trying to be good and better in this ravaged and beautiful world, is varied. There is no right answer, there is no end point when we can safely wash out hands and say that it is enough.

When I was in Kenya, in its slums and suburbs and villages and goat-dung huts, I was uncomfortably aware of the color of my skin for the first time. (I’m from New Hampshire; it’s a very white state.) Knowing the horrors that people who look like me had visited upon the people who looked like the Maasai-Samburu women or the beggar boys in the Nairobi streets, I wanted to rip my own pale skin off and be invisible. I did not want the prickling awareness of my privilege, because I did not know how to use that as a tool against the unjust system that creates and exacerbates these ridiculous gulfs between humans.

I am still not sure, but I’m done wringing my hands and wondering about how to tear off my skin and live without my pigmented privilege. I cannot, so wishing and dithering is a waste of precious time and energy. What I can do is keep that fire of awareness in my heart, treat all people with kindness and respect and equality, and speak up for the rights and privileges of other humans. 

This works until I find myself looking at a black student at school and wondering how the hell we live in a world were someone who looks like him could be easily shot in some parts of the country, while his white classmate would be allowed to buy Skittles unquestioned. Or why the people who look like me could mostly afford to get out of Hurricane Katrina’s path, and the black people drowned in their attics. 

No matter how well and equally and kindly I treat anyone, the world is a lot scarier than I can fix alone.

We are none of us in any of these fights alone. Dark times will find us all, but there are more and growing numbers of people who want the world kindly different than it is. We have each other, seen and unseen. We are at sea amid a movement of empathy, and part of that is the ability to receive, as well as to give. Let yourself recognize and take in the efforts and energies of others. None of us are the messiah.

My friend also asked for companionship, for help, in balancing the different sorts of activism she is compelled to be part of. How do we split and divide to the passions of our hearts—hearts that leap from our chests at suggestion of violence and injustice—while remaining united and committed to each cause? If I am a passionate Environmentalist, how can I also have the energy and time to be a good Feminist, a voice for Civil Rights, and all the rest of the unpleasant panoply of injustices that need strong voices and bodies?

Add in that one still needs to meet at least a modicum of Maslow’s Hierarchy, and there are not enough hours in the day, months in a year, years in a life to be “enough.”

As an Environmentalist, I think constantly about reducing my consumption, paring down my possessions so that I live with only what I truly need and what brings me joy. And I do this for my own freedom and peace of mind in unhooking from the cultural drip of consumptive crimes committed out of feeling insufficient, rather than trying to match some ideal of the carbon foot-printless Environmental activist. I’ve known smugly posturing minimalists and activists who put the political before the personal, and there was a whiff of selfish disingenuousness about the whole show. I know people with the clod-hopping carbon footprints of Paul Bunyan who have among the kindest and most ethical ways of being in the world that I am fortunate enough to witness. And I know many people in between, merrily striving forward. One of my two brilliant sisters is fond of saying she likes having her loved possessions because: “it means I plan on sticking around this world for a while.” With Environmentalism, I believe in finding the personal enough that comes from honesty, and manifests itself humbly. Enough is saying no to a pipeline, to a cavalcade of iDevices, enough is planting a garden, enough is getting arrested, enough is not getting arrested, enough is refusing to support public radio stations that accept National Gas Money, enough is shopping at thrift stores, enough is installing solar panels, enough is writing this. Enough is never enough, but it is always a personally necessary act that makes your soul clean and happy.

With Feminism, I stick pretty close to the same idea for fighting racism—treat everybody with the same dignity and respect, and have the self-respect as a lady, to call the patriarchy out when it rears its ugly head. Which is quite frequently. For example, yesterday, a co-worker was talking about how uncomfortable her breast pump is—as this is a very female-gender specific field of science research and product design, I suspect it hasn’t received the merit, attention, or funding it deserves. Peel back a little more, and the repercussions of painful breast pumps are that it is harder for women to nurse at work, so it is harder for mothers to return to work while nursing, so it is harder for women to stay in their jobs—accruing financial resources and workplace experience and intellectual satisfaction—and have kids, which so far, is both cheaper and easier for women to do than men or test tubes. This biological v. individual balance seems like it’s hard enough to reconcile, without a paucity of science on the simple matter of a breast pump.

Which project, really, has more benefit for human—not just man—kind?

In my head and heart, all these sorts of injustice in the world that need to be combated by passionate activists of all stripes are braided together. The root of it all—environmental degradation, violent racism, classism/economic abuse, and misogyny—is a combination of unequal power dynamics and limited global resources. Whoever controls the resources has the power.

Going off the map by respecting everyone equally rather than kowtowing to the powerful, by minimizing your own resources to lessen anyone’s power over you and your reliance on an unjust economy, by speaking about the (sometimes unconscious) abuses by the powerful, by using personal passion and talents as tools for revolution and happiness, by recognizing the efforts of others instead of constantly striving to be the lone superhero, is as good a collection of ways to combat doubt and indecision and apathy in these Good Fights as I know. I hope and trust they’re enough, because it’s what I have to do anyway. And there is no other way I can or would rather be.

(image from

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fear of Flying

Recently, I annoyed myself and likely others, with an entirely accurate and extremely pompous statement that I wasn’t fully comfortable, environmentally, with the thought of flying across the country for a quick visit with friends. That’s a lot of carbon to spew into the atmosphere for my own brief pleasure and convenience. And the unthinking ease of it all, that one can flit around the globe in the span of a few hours and not be amazed—just peeved about the lack of snacks—bothers me. This nonchalance bothers me more, maybe, than the carbon molecules spewing out the jets, bonding together again, thickening the atmosphere until the glaciers melt, sea levels rise and seasons change unnaturally. It’s a tough call which sort of arrogance is more irksome.

I’m not particularly pleased that an aversion to air travel has come up as a sticking point in the patchwork of my ethics. For starters, it turns me into a sort of smug-greenier-than-thou killjoy when friends—people I dearly love and have not seen in far too long—begin to talk of reunions and trips and travel. Secondly, it leaves me with a false dichotomy, weighing my love for my people in distant places with the more esoteric love for the planet. Truly, only one of side of that equation loves me back a fiercely as I give, wraps arms around me, laughs with me, makes me feel like the world is both should and will be saved.

It’s not a fair fight—it’s comparing apples to giraffes, really. And it’s one that I try to not bring on myself. It’s not about if I care about my distant people or not or how much. That is immeasurable. This new hiccup comes from a deep disturbance in the unexamined means towards common ends.

Part of this disinclination to fly comes from the fact I earned Masters degree in the monetarily-unrewarding field of Environmental Writing just as the economy tanked. For the last five years, I have been unable to consider flying anywhere. Either I haven’t had to money to buy a plane ticket, or I haven’t been able—either scheduling or dollar-wise—to take enough time off from my cobbled part-time and seasonal jobs to go anywhere more than a few hours drive away. Perhaps my growing discomfort with air travel is just some gnawing form of Classist jealousy—because I haven’t been able to have X, I’ve hastily built myself some convenient moral high ground about X being foolish as a consolation, so my economically disadvantaged position is a choice, rather than a personal failure. “Oh air planes and organic caviar? They’re fine for silly things, but their richness really poisons the ambrosial purity of my rice, beans and bicycle…”

I hope that I’m not that insecure or priggishly sanctimonious, but it is a possibility.

Whatever, the reason, I’ve had a break from the mental conditioning that one can—and maybe should to be some semblance of an accomplished global citizen? —jet set around frequently. And now, five years grounded, it just seems strange to not think of such things, to just buy a ticket and get on a plane and be elsewhere a few hours later. What is the fuel efficiency of a 747, how much carbon, per passenger, does it emit per mile, where does the jet fuel come from, and what are the labor and environmental standards of where this fuel came from, and so on.

These are metric questions that can be easily answered with some Google searching. But they aren’t, to me, the really interesting ones. I’m interested in why we don’t ask those questions about almost anything that literally fuels our very convenient lives. It is the convenience that troubles me. That what was once a scientific miracle is now commonplace and dreaded as drudgery with people spinning around the world for brief business meetings and snappy international weekends and so on. It some how seems disrespectful of the beauty and complexity between places, between people, of the science and wonder and mechanics of flight itself, to erase all that distance so quickly. There was something about immigrants and pioneers, leaving home and making fully new roots far away that we’ve lost—because it is so easy to go from place to place, I wonder if we are always half-rooted between where we are and where we’ve been.

Yet, there are things I have seen on the other sides of the globe that have changed my understanding of how to be in this world more than I would have ever learned if I’d never left Grover’s Corners. I wouldn’t have the worldview I do without what I saw and did in New Zealand or Japan or Kenya or Denmark. I wouldn’t know myself half so well without the trips I took to Oregon or Montana or Mississippi or Colorado. I don’t begrudge the ethical, mental, emotional, aesthetic benefits of traveling, and there are times when I almost believe that the weight of carbon pollution from flights of fancy is nothing when compared to eyes and a heart opened to all of the possibility witnessed in a different place.

Almost. Because, really, how much of this wonderful world do we each need or want or deserve to see before becoming willing to alter our lives for its survival? Does recycling every week or owning a Prius or joining a CSA or only shopping at thrift stores and Patagonia mean that you “earn” the carbon points to flit off to Paris?

Of course not. Life doesn’t work like that. These are not simple trades and numerical balances. We live in pulsing ecosystems and webs, not algebraic equations or score cards. All I ask is that we begin to think before we act, to believe that the benefit of what we do—in all things, not just airports—is worth the cost. That we do not act casually and callously, that we stop the dangerous cultural habit of being inured to wonder. That we slow down and make choices, rather than be carried on the air currents as if we had no agency in the matter.

And I don’t have an answer or a firm line that I hold. I may fly to Montana to see my friends, I’ll certainly fly to visit my faraway sister at some point, and there are beautiful places I would love to be in, to touch and smell and be alive in. Here is what it comes down to, for me: Fossil fuel is—basically—pressurized, refined extractions of previous life on this planet. It is absolutely crazy to think that we’re all driving and flying around on the carbonic memories of dinosaurs and primordial slime.

But we are. And that is entirely mind-boggling, and more than a little sacred. 

If I believe that what I am doing in a car, in an airplane, unwrapping a plastic package, is somehow respectful of and furthering the legacy of these lives that have gone before, then I’m okay with it all. It is an imperfect solution, and I am not in anyway consistently pleased with my own abilities to follow through with this ideal. Being aware and hopeful though, this is  the only start I know how to make.

(And I’m not a total Greench. I support people who can and choose to, respectfully and humbly, get on airplanes flying to their loved ones for the winter holidays. It is cold and it is dark and we hunger to be around people we love and who love us. I think that dinosaurs would be okay with some seasonal migrations for love.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Justice and White Privilege

Lying in the street last night as part of the #Indict America Davis Square March in Somerville, I thought of other times when I have laid down among strangers. When I went to summer camp and we laid down on the tops of mountains to look at the stars. When I was initiated into the rugby team my freshman year of college and all the new players were told to lie down on the floor of the town’s dive bar while the other players dumped beer on us, (even at the time, I found this asinine and quit the team shortly thereafter.) When I’ve taken wilderness medical courses and role-played being a patient for other students to practice their rescue skills on.

Last night was somehow a constellation of all three—a scrying look for light and beauty, communal initiation, and imitating a victim in hopes of learning how to solve a problem.  

It is unconscionable to me that we live in a country, a world, where one person can cause the death of another human and face no consequences from the alleged justice system. Regardless of any self-defense, stand-your-ground, castle-doctrine, line-of-duty legalese, I can’t wrap my heart around abdicating responsibility for ending someone else’s life. Add in the entrenched racism that makes some white cops feel particularly justified in using force against black citizens, and all my injustice alarms go off. These latest events—Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, most notably—where unarmed people are killed by police are beyond my comprehension.

So, there I was, lying in the street with a few hundred other people, at busy intersections, at rush hour, in Cambriville. It made as much, if not more sense, than anything else to do in response to violent injustice. I arrived in Davis Square a little after five, and when I got there, people were already laying in the street. It felt odd and melodramatic to walk past the ring of embarrassed looking spectators with cameras out and police with conflicted faces and neon vests and lie down with the edge of the marchers. But it felt a more dishonest type of strange to stand on the sidelines and watch people put their bodies in service to the common sense and outrage at the racism so violently entrenched and codified into our country’s system of law and order. Once I was present, it would have been false to not lie down and join in.

Four and a half minutes of a “die-in” is a long time to lie in silence on your back on the December pavement, breathing in and out and gratefully aware to be breathing at all, while you try to not kick anyone in the head, while you listen to parents sooth their fussing babies. I’ve lain on my back to see snowflakes fall, to watch meteor showers, in corpse pose in yoga classes, and there was something similarly meditative in this particular action. In taking a moment of stillness, the vast connectivity of the world seems more apparent. Lying on the street by choice and lying on the street by racism and violent…there but for the grade of skin tone go I.

I had told several friends about this protest, but none were able to make it. People have other commitments, other priorities, and most were cringingly aware of their white privilege in apologizing for being unable to come. Me, I have no babies to run home from work to care for, my work is remarkably untaxing on my life—I am never required to stay late, and I had no other plans for this Friday night. I have a life that leaves me with the rare freedom to frequently be where I want, when I want. Which, yesterday, happened to be marching and lying down and standing up and simply being in solidarity with the other people who make their passion for justice manifest in the world. It is as good a way as many spend my hours.

It is the phrase “white privilege” that stuck with me, as I watched helicopter lights through the fog, circling the very peaceable events of the rally. It is a privilege to know—almost certainly—that if I am ever arrested, it will be at a time and place of my choosing, likely for a very intentional and deeply personal act of some sort of civil disobedience. I have never been stopped on any street, I have asked directions of police officers, smiled at them, thanked them, joked with them, several have pet my dog, and almost all my police interactions could have been out of a white children’s book.

Until the Trayvon Martin shooting, I was unaware that black kids are frequently given not just an uncomfortable and terrible sex-talk by their parents but also a “how to behave around cops” talk. What I know and what I have learned, am learning, about how deep the gulf is between white and black is partly a mark of privilege, but more a mark of my deep ignorance. I think of myself as being just another human for justice, and beyond black or white, but the truth is that I am white in a world that is unfair in my favor and that fact plays a part in how I am and can choose to be in this world.

That I am unafraid of law-keepers is something I have never thought to be aware of, grateful for, and now I am furious that others cannot feel the same. Injustice gives me a screaming migraine, the shame of my ignorance makes me nauseous, and I am deeply aware that one white liberal lady’s response to racism should merit no time on anyone’s watch. How I feel is immaterial: the criminal patterns that such ignorant, unquestioned privilege perpetuates are the point.

One of the chants going around last night was “If you shoot us down, we will shut it down.” It was hard to hear, and hard to tell, but I got the slight sense that white people were frequently saying “if you shoot them down, we will shut it down” and black people were frequently saying “if you shoot us down, we will shut it down.”

A small difference, and one I hope was a trick of acoustics and the imperfection of call and response while marching through traffic.

But I don’t know. With the phrase “white privilege” I always try to think of it as responsibility the ability to choose, rather than merely an insulating tier or flip response. Saying white privilege doesn't assuage or laugh away the guilt or responsibility to use this absurd power for the good of everyone, whatever color. I worry that myself and the other white liberals who mostly think of ourselves as standing up, speaking and marching and breathing for those who cannot, that there is still a dichotomy between “us” and “them,” that white American liberalism regarding race is another weird twist of the paternalistic/Colonial “white man’s burden.” It’s like the tricky line that male Feminists walk—wanting to support women’s rights as human rights, but not wanting to fall into the traditional, protective role of being louder, more powerful or more often heard than women themselves. I go to some marches and rallies and vigils because movements need followers even more than they need leaders. Part of the phrase “white privilege” implies that white people hold more of the cards, that we’re naturally at the top and have the choice and responsibility to act justly and wisely to care for the downtrodden “others.”

If that’s the case, we white privileged people are doing a terrible job and shouldn’t be allowed to run anything.

Because, it can’t be us or them anymore, in any regard—black or white, citizens or cops, men or women, rich or poor. Lying there, listening to the silence of a shut down street, and thinking of the snowflakes and stars and emergency survival skills and yogic breathing and the beautiful brown toddler sitting with her mothers behind me, it did all bleed into one big world. All we have is each other, just humans.

And how we choose to act towards and for and with and around each other is, actually, a matter of life and death. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


“If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.”—Kahlil Gibran, On Friendship

If we're going to get wound up and frightened and furious about the challenges of saving the planet, we must also allow ourselves the relief and joy of victory when we overcome those same challenges.

I am writing this in tears. For a change, in the “caring about the world” sphere, these are out of delight and relief and some sort of shock that hopes and dreams can become reality and re-shape the world. The Senate rejected, 41 to 59, the bill that would have allowed the Keystone XL Pipeline.

For anyone who ever thinks that one vote doesn’t matter, think again. 40 to 60, and it would be a different flavor of tears this evening. God bless Senator Angus King of Maine.

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been the Voldemoric face of climate horror for so long. It has been the cause to rally around, the concrete effort which environmental acts, actions, and movements have been built. Its name is appropriate—it has become a keystone, a lynchpin, a symbol that seemed to decide if the grassroots and common sense would prevail, or the world would fall apart.

And now, the particulars of this one threat against the world we love and know and want is gone. One lovely thing about being so emotionally invested is that, after sobbing with relief, I have to take wonderful, calming deep breaths and feel the knots in my muscles relax, feel myself free from a weight I’d been carrying so long and so deep I’d forgotten.

It is cheerily difficult to take a full deep breath when you are grinning and crying at the same time.

I know that there is a lot of work still to be done—that this particular bill only covered a short stretch of the entire pipeline, that dirty oil is still being drilled and refined and piped all over the world in all manner of nasty ways, and all of the thousand other ways in which the world is a complex mess in dire need of passionate acts of hope on every scale imaginable. There are politics to reviews, maps to assess, the reality of the existing pipelines and infrastructure to reckon with, and so on.

We can start on that tomorrow.

Right now, though, is the time to savor a victory, to enjoy a tide of hope and enthusiasm flowing back in, replenishing the fear and sourness that ebbs out through so much of this hard work of bettering the world. We goddamn did it. Against the long odds of fossil fuel industry money leaking into government and terrible economic conditions, our common sense, passion, hope and vocal, popular opposition have won. 

I am going to just enjoy being stunned for a few more hours.

There is still so much to be done. And, given what an impossible seeming dragon has just been slain through the coordinated or coincidental efforts of so many, I believe that we can bring about more and greater changes.

Because we already are.

A thousand thanks, a raised glass, a wrung out hankie, and a mighty embrace to everyone who has worked against Keystone, and for the better world we are living into.

(Polar bear was originally drawn for a traditional and depressing Earth Day type t-shirt contest. It seems much happier to be used it here. Huzzah!)

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Necessity of Gypsies

I am reading a beautiful book: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I picked it up after judging it extremely favorably by the cover, pictured above.

So far, under the covers of those starlit tents, a troupe of gypsy-performers wander through the deserted landscape of a world collapsed after an eerily credible flu pandemic sweeps through and decimates the global population, rendering human life on Earth Third World/Medieval in a matter of weeks. These gypsies act out Shakespeare and play classical music in the shanty towns of other survivors.

Mandel’s wasteland is a thorough and believable—most of the population is gone, the internet is gone, plumbing is gone, electricity is gone, gas is gone. People come to a hands-on, survivalist, practical way of being in the world that I find more refreshing than frightening. The modern infrastructure we rely on without thinking is impossible. Bandits wander around in horse-drawn cars, candles and fire are the only light, new communities spring up, some with strange beliefs bred of fear and desperation and post-traumatic relief at surviving, some with good governance and productive order, and some, the marauding actor-musician types, with the powerful, Star Trek infused belief that “survival is insufficient.”

I’m drawn, as ever, to the creative and passionate people outside the margins.

Because we need more of us out there—pulling back from the brink, waking up and rethinking how the world operates. The status quo is unacceptable.

A friend and I were talking the other day about Hurricane Katrina. She was reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial, about the ethical and bureaucratic horror that was New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center during the storm. Doctors and nurses had their hands tied by legalities as they tried to save what lives they could in conditions that no one, ever, should need to be prepared for. My friend explodes with fury that the state of the medical complex is such in our country that, at the worse of times, good and trained medical professionals are impotent to act on their skills and instincts.

We were talking on the same day that the House of Representatives was voting on the Keystone XL Pipeline. One of my high school students had come to the library to talk to me about that vote, saying how she had just done a research project on the election in Louisiana this year, and how the Keystone Pipeline played a huge role, because of the jobs that such a project might bring to the region. Without saying so explicitly—as I am supposed to demonstrate appropriate vocabulary with teenagers, even when it seems nothing but the profane will suffice—we agreed that this was a truly fucked up state of affairs.

This pattern of life is killing us. We are the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. We all know this.

Almost everywhere I seem to look, the culturally entrenched patterns and infrastructure are destructive and crumbling, yet we continue to live within their frameworks and priorities. Scratch surface of the economy, the environment, the educational system, the emotional well-being of the population, politics, and a whole lot of rotten jerry-rigged systems, full of Catch-22s and evil contradictions emerge. A storm is coming, and doctors mix euthanasia cocktails for patients, because this is—in the moment and with the protocols on hand—some iteration of “best practices.” In this same state, ravaged by a carbon emissions exacerbated hurricane almost a decade ago and flooded with oil from a leak in an off shore well five years ago, elected officials—who, I believe have a mandated responsibility to protect and advocate for the safety of their constituents—invite, woo and welcome the same beast in again in order to create jobs. Jobs that will allow, demand, to continue participation in the same culture, the same system, the same economy built on debt, of the carrot always being just out of the horse’s reach, so that we become depressed, live within the toxic thought that we are neither—nor will we ever have or be—enough.

Is it any wonder that I adore gypsies who rise up as society collapses?

Though, as I think about why, it is not the freedom of the road that draws me to them. For all my wandering, I crave a home-place and roots far too much to join a pioneer caravan or circus train. I am lit on fire, though, by the idea of being part of a fluid community that lives outside the bounds of expectation. Perhaps it is all smoke and mirrors and fortune-teller lies, but living with a hint more imagination of what could be makes the reality of what is more expansive.

I can think of nothing better than being united with others who act and believe in this mode of being, roaming together through the world, sprinkling bits of magic and imagination in our wake, bucking trends of normal and living out the reality that something else is possible.

We need more and louder and happier gypsies, I think. People who simply refuse to drink the poisonous Kool-Aid of normal.

And, we’re around, hiding in plain view as mild-mannered librarians, for example.

It would be easier, sweeter, if we were all within sight of each other. If we traveled literally together, if we caravanned by day, set up our tents at night together, performed magic and plays and told fortunes together in the same towns. I love the thought of waking up every day and going to sleep every night in the camp and company of people who share a common allergy for normal and a common delight for imagination and possibility, of being a rooted in a place with a gypsy heartbeat.

It would be lovely, and it is magical when you stumble across a lost or new member of the tribe we do have. Mostly, though, we are scattered, each laboring solo in the hope that someone else is out there, doing the complimentary work necessary to keep the rebel troupe’s spirit alive, well, and fomenting.

They are. I am. You are. We are. Remembering that, repeating it like a mantra, a magic spell helps cut the loneliness, the doubt, the sneaking suspicion that we are each the only one trying to do this, the great beautiful thing of magic and hope and labor and love that we are doing.

What we’re doing—all the wonderful artists and teachers and builders and growers and doers and explorers and poets and assorted rebels who I count among my tribe of gypsies—is all part of the same great magic trick we are struggling to make real, and it would be a lot easier and a lot more reassuring if we could hold hands over the rough patches more often. We are trying to save the world—from any and all of the myriad of ways in which it is, at present, totally fucked up.

This is a tall order. By the metrics of normal, it seems impossible, statistically unlikely, and politically/economically disadvantageous that we can do this, all or any of it.

But, on the other hand, what is easily possible, statistically likely, and good for politics and the economy is precisely what is constantly threatening to destroy everything I hold dear and ethically sensible.

In that light, joining the intangible tribe of imaginative and practical gypsies makes more sense than anything else I can fathom.

Who’s in? 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Congress is Voting on Keystone Today

The trouble with using a radio as your alarm clock is that you come swimming up out of dreamland to stern newscasters announcing “The House will vote late today on the Keystone XL Pipeline.”

I will say this: it woke me up.

I’ve already emailed my Congressional Representatives, and have the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, sweaty palms, and phantom bruises from kicking myself for not doing enough to voice my opposition to this and to add my heart and body to the masses who also disagree that filthily inefficient fossil fuels should be dredged out of Canada and sent through an enormous—many jointed and prone to leaks—pipeline to the Gulf Coast.

That sick feeling though, that may be the same as locking the barn door after the horses run wild. Worry alone, fear alone, is not enough to stop anything bad from happening. We must act, now and always.

Just yesterday, I was feeling so sunny about all things climate related. Granted, the U.S.-China Climate Agreement leaves a lot to be desired, but for the heads of two of the most climatically egregious countries to agree that a) there is a problem and b) the biggest offenders must bear commensurate responsibility for the solutions WAS A HUGE STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION.

As was the Environment Action Club and Sustainability Group meeting I sat through at work yesterday. Students and faculty sat down together and collaborated on plans and campaigns to educate the school community—thoroughly and immediately—on what climate change is and the crystal clear need for action. I have been part of this conversation in many different capacities—student, staff member, citizen, fist-pounding would-be revolutionary at the kitchen table, writer alone in the early morning trying to type the logic of my heart into the world, etc.—and this was a rare meeting where I felt that there was momentum for positive change.

Much as I loved hearing about the U.S.-China Agreement, it was the meeting of high school students and teachers coming together out of hope and urgency that buoyed me up. Hopes become reality through interdisciplinary, intergenerational, flexible, collaborative solutions, born into the world out of personal knowledge and a sense of moral urgency. This willingness to articulate such hopes, fears, and morals and the courage to be our best selves, is what is going to save the world. 

I don’t know, at this point, how to do more than worry about the Keystone decision. I’ll spend the day constantly refreshing websites, re-emailing my Congressional representatives, and all the other motions that seem as rotely fraught with hope as any other ritual of faith.

If you read this in time, please do the same. Even if you think the government is broken beyond repair, even if you doubt that your name on an email petition will change your Congressperson’s vote, if you are opposed to continuing the cycle dangerous consumption and reliance on a toxic substance, have the active hope to put down your name in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.

It will matter to you what you do today.

And, I believe that is true, every day, regardless of what Congress decides about this particular pipeline. The Keystone Pipeline is not the be all and end all of the climate challenge. If—as I am determined to believe possible—Congress votes it down, then I am sorry to say that the glaciers will still be melting, the seas rising, storms increasing, and the landscapes and systems we know more dearly than our own skin changing. What happens today is important for the climate, as is what happens tomorrow, next week, and with every act and action of our being.

This can be daunting. This can feel like the weight of the world, the responsibility for every particle of carbon rests on your little body. Knowing differently, I still spend too much time crushed under that absurdity.

It’s better if you can flip that a little, to find the subversive joy in taking responsibility for what matters to you, to speak up and to listen, to act out and in and with all the others who are yoked by love and hope to this wonderful world. This is how we work against fossil fuel companies, against power companies, against the filthy money buying our government representatives, against ignorantly recalcitrant school administrations, etc.

Better, this is how we work for what matters. Whatever else that means to you today—use cloth grocery bags, go vegetarian, don’t flush when you pee, unplug from the world after dark, ride your bike, praye, make all holiday presents by hand, bake your own bread, donate money to environmental causes, enjoy the first snow of the year, run for the wild freedom of the hills, research solar panels or corporate malfeasance, tell someone you love them, go to the farmers’ market, buck trends, do anything and everything that calibrates the actions of your body with your belief in how the world can be better—please make your opposition to Keystone known, loudly and clearly and through whatever means seem effective, non-violent, and squared with the very ethics that lead you to know that such a pipeline is wrong.

We’re all in this together, which is how we’re going to win, and how we are already.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Fifth of November

(I haven't block-printed my own Guy Fawkes mask yet. This is from

A quick history:

On November 5, 1605 a Catholic man named Guy Fawkes was found installing kegs of gun powder in the basement of British Parliament. Along with several others involved in the Gunpowder Plot, Fawkes wanted to abolish the (astoundingly un-protest friendly) Protestant government, who were quite repressive towards England’s Catholics and other religious minorities. Fawkes was arrested, tortured, gave up his collaborators, and was executed for treason.

Since then, burning the effigy of Guy Fawkes has been a British tradition on November the 5th.

One is, poetically, admonished to “remember remember” this date.

Between March and May of 1982, graphic novelist Alan Moore and artists David Lloyd and Tony Ware created the book V for Vendetta. The character V wears a full Guy Fawkes costume and works to overthrow a repressive regime set in a nebulous but not too distant future Britain.

With the help of the 2005 movie of V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes has evolved from a violent religious zealot whose defeated treason was the cause of celebration to a sort of folk hero, a Masked Man of the People, who’s attempt to overthrow a regime he found unconscionable is more quickly remembered. The wider the gap between the powerful and the populace, the 1% and the 99% grows, the more I applaud this shift. The Guy Fawkes mask is the signature attire of the anti-corporate hactivist group Anonymous. They are marching in London tonight, not to burn Guy effigies, but to draw attention to a variety of social ills.

I love this. Ever since a friend first introduced me to V for Vendetta, via the movie, a few years ago, I’ve been not obsessed but sweetly delighted to think of ways to revolt against repression and oppression on the Fifth of November, (and really, any other day of the year.)

The key here, I think, is to look most deeply at the sources of our current oppressions. It was easy for Fawkes—his world wasn’t much bigger than England and there was a clear King and Parliament enforcing a world order that excluded him. Blowing that power structure up was a clear solution to the problem he faced. We live in a much more tentacled and nebulous world these days. And much as I love the cannons firing off in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, I’ve personally seen enough injured and traumatized people to be a fierce pacifist—no violence, even for a revolution of goodness. Especially then.

But, back to the source problem. People feel hemmed in, stuck, powerless, aspirationally impotent and all other manner of truly soul-sucking forms of oppression in too many quadrants of life and the challenges of the world. We run into “no” more often than “yes” and often in an unpleasant, lazy passive-aggressive sort of way—from workplace politics to ameliorating global ills from a glaring lack of universal human rights to rampant climate change.

The source of most of the troubles, as I understand it, is usually the person making the most money off the status quo. In our current world, money equals freedom and power, and those with those  hoard it like a small pack of feral Scrooges with all the—literal—resources of the world at their disposal to maintain their treasures.

It’s disgusting, the difference between the haves and the have-nots. The discrepancies between high and low wage earners in the corporate world, the money that fossil fuel companies make as they sell us gas at the cost of our planet, what poverty and success look like in different parts of the world, and so on.

I’ve been poor, albeit a highly educated New England/American version of poor. Even at this rarified level—dancing around the Federal poverty level for a single adult with no dependents—isn’t pleasant or poetic. There is a sucking in of pride and a recalibration of sense of self and dignity when trying to figure out if you qualify, fiscally and morally, for food stamps and other aid programs. To be over-qualified for jobs that do not notice your applications as you scrounge part-time seasonal, temporary, or service industry jobs where you get paid little and treated poorly, and field calls from student loan officers is a particular sort of humiliated frustration that I would wish on no one, and I know that my wishes do absolutely nothing to keep thousands of other out of this unhappy boat.

Either in poverty or without, there is a pervasive sense in our culture of neither being nor having enough. To me, whatever engenders this feeling of inadequacy is the source of much of our personal and global ills. Our rapacious appetites in pursuit of these goals are belittling our souls, making us run roughshod over human rights, our better natures, and also causing the violent destruction of global ecosystems. And, we’re not particularly happy living like this—we are busy, we are stressed, we refer to life as a rat race, and so on.

So, let’s stop living like this. Our culturally indoctrinated ideals of enough, success, and normal are causing great and oppressive unpleasantness. Easier than dismantling a government or a corporation—let’s hope on this side of the grave that we can continually re-affirm the difference between the two—is to divest ourselves, emotionally, from this economy, and to not play by the rules of expectations beyond our own.  The best I can suggest concretely is to follow Wendell Berry’s advice, here, and pretty much anywhere else you can find it.

Not to spoil the end of V for Vendetta, but there is a scene were a huge crowd of people wearing Guy Fawkes masks removes their masks and you see the sea of different, but united, faces present to effect a change in the oppressive systems that bind them in. I always grin and tear up at this part, because I believe that we are all revolutionaries, all hungry to live in and make a better world.

All we must do, then, is unmask and know ourselves as such. And remember there is strength in numbers—we are in this together and no one is alone.

(One of the more heart-twisting maskers revealed in the film V for Vendetta. Image from

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Strings and Pearls

The image of the best moments as beads or golden bubbles or pearls that stand out and float above the more ordinary times has been circling around my head for a while. I think of those as semi-detached fractals of time and space and people when everything that seems like love and light coalesces.
And then I think of those moments as beads along some rosary, remembrances to click through like prayers when the good fight gets tougher.
The phrase “more string than pearls,” always seems beautifully pregnant with disappointment, sort of stoically accepting, anticipating, the hard and gray times. The string, the mundane, is boring, but must be lived through, to get to the successful pearls of glory.
At the end of my summer on the farm, I got into a great conversation with some of our CSA members. They work at a different local prep school than I, and, as they picked up their vegetable share one week, we talked about the things we hope for with our students. We—the not-quite-hippies with the vested interest in local organic vegetables—all seemed to be similarly bound to work on waking our various students up to the possibilities and curiosities of the world. We all want to focus on helping them learn to ask questions, not to provide answers.
In a world that seems increasingly, terrifyingly, bent on spoon feeding identity and opinions to the masses, finding someone who is on the same page with struggling to put idealism into action is like meeting another pilgrim on a dark stretch of trail.
It was a lovely moment, a pearl, the kind where I find myself putting my hand on my heart a lot, grinning, and saying “Oh, me too!” It is a relief at not, in this, being alone.
Of course, we’re never alone in these struggles, but some days it certainly feels like we are each the sole outpost of sanity in a society that seems far too focused on defining people by their inadequacies, and offering consumer goods and services as the surest means to alleviate those failings, the surest path to success.
These same lovely people, emerging friends, sent me a copy of the writer John Elder’s Last Lecture before he retired from Middlebury College. The title of the talk is “Freeing Education from Success.” I love it—Thoreau and Mary Oliver and Darwin and the Japanese poet Basho all tied together in a conversation about how to be in the world. Elder talks—he seems too joyous for the sterner verb “lectures”—about the dangerous thread of our current culture that defines success for each of us, rather than us each drawing our own understanding of a full and good life out of ourselves. And the role that education plays in all of this misunderstanding of what success might look like. How we need to be wistful, because “if we long for something, it draws us into the world.”
Success, as described by Elder, is an active amalgam of wonder and compassion, curiosity and engagement, community and humility, wistfulness and awareness. Success begins to sound not like a pinnacle to be gained, not a prize at the end of the road at all, but like a well-woven way of being in the world. Success is how and where we are, not as much how and where we will be, or would like to be.
The pearls—the best times—will always stand out. No life can be so rich that the special moments do not pop with shimmering intensity. I painted a bunch of my best moments as beads on a string a while back. What I didn’t do, though, was pay attention to the string. That, now, I think is where attention is deserved. The string is the mundane, the daily. It is the how we are in the world, truly and frequently. Our success is in those ordinary times as much as our brilliant joys are in the memorable contained moments.
To have a well-lived and happy-though-not-perfect string connecting all the golden bubbles and pearls of our best times—I can’t think of a more successful way to be in the world. Living like this won’t ward of the darkness and the challenges—trouble, frustration, heart-break and fear will still and always come your way—but it does help to change the scale of success you seek and focus on the moment you are living in, rather than the nebulous one you live for.
Personally, I want to make the world an ever better place while enjoying and celebrating all the good that is already here—from mountains and oceans to eggplants and our human capacity for love. It is a grand and lofty goal. Sometimes, that bar seems awfully high—I don’t know how to measure if I am succeeding towards that end or no, and so I take in of the general insecurity of our culture and assume that if I am not a blazing success with my name in lights, several award winning books, and a million dollars in my bank account, I must be a failure.
Most days, though, I can look around at the life I live and see that, by the measure of success I know in my bones, I am already there and here—enjoying and celebrating and improving my and the slightly larger world, little by little.
I think about this when I bake bread, ride my bike, eat vegetables from the farm, meet fellow educational idealists, talk to kids about books, or write. I’m lucky to not be in a phase of struggling to find work and meaning in my life—I’ve been there and imagine I will be again—and here will always be a thousand insecurities and frustrations in life (student loans, dog vomit, emotional turmoil, etc.), but, when I stop to notice, that even the mundane fibers making up the string between the glorious pearls are fairly wonderful, this is so much more joy to be had.
What is more successful than that?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

One Morning in Maine

Last weekend, I ran away to the wild places and beloved people.

I first went, alone, to the coast of Maine, to the beach and geography of some of my earliest memories. This particular beach was where I learned what it is to fall in love with a place. In my experience, falling in love with a place is not so very different from falling in love with another person or finding a piece of your soul in words or art or music—it is as if your bloody muscle of a heart melts away and a space of light appears in your chest instead. The world comes in, the world goes out, alongside your breathing and while all may not be right in the world, for these ragged moments, all is right with you in the world. There is a tremendous sense of exhilarated belonging, of security and wild possibility.

I do not know of anything more beautiful than this.

The world, including this beach, has changed since I was first in love with it. Walking along the sands, I noted the absence of soft, rolling dunes and the presence of sterner, sturdier rock walls. The summer homes and cottages, the steep piney hills beyond, the continuance of all these things depends on how much sand is or isn’t lost to the hungry tides.

The thought of losing this place, of the waters rising and rising and erasing something so dear to me from the map used to keep me awake at night. I don’t relish the thought now, either. And it is not that I have reconciled myself to the loss, or the threat of loss. I am not, nor will I ever be, at stoic peace with the sea changes and erratic weather and melting glaciers and roulette-wheeled seasons, and all the rest that climate change means. It is not, though, the climate change itself that keeps me awake at night. It is our responsibility for these horrors that keeps me hungry for people to band together with and live out solutions, rather than dithering in fear and mourning and denial.

But, never mind that. We all know what is at stake. We, each of us, carry something known or unknown in our hearts that is the seed of all fears and actions regarding how to save the world. I am constantly surprised and buoyed by what is stronger than these fears. To wit, even as my sometimes weary and mournful eyes looked at the changing coastline, the better parts of me were hyperaware of being in the right place, of feeling as in love with this little corner of the world as I have ever been.

The ocean was a dark dark blue, glinting with the red-gold light of the setting sun. Where the waves crested and crashed, the water became the misty bottled green of seaglass. Frumpy uncomfortable looking adolescent seagulls swooped around. The beeches and maples on the otherwise evergreen hills behind and the islands before me lit up like fires that will never be extinguished. Looking far out of the islands, scrubby deep red plants—blueberries and poison ivy and sedges and the same hardy plants I love from mountain summits—clung to the edges of the sun-bleached rocks. The wind was cold coming off the water, the sort of breeze that smells of frost, while also carrying the scent of woodfires in the surrounding cabins and cottages. My hands felt chapped in my mittens and my face was wind and sun and smile strained by the time I got back to the car.

I lingered too long, perhaps, although it didn’t feel like long enough. This is the thing about love, tearing yourself away feels impossible, even if you are cold and hungry and needing to find a place to camp. My plan had been to camp as close to the beach as possible, so I would fall asleep to the sound of the waves and wake up to the sunrise.

Much as I might try, my life is not consistently as poetic as I find sunlight on the water to be. I spent the night curled up in the back of my car, with my sea-damp dog, in the relative safety of the L.L.Bean parking lot in Freeport.

On the plus side, when I woke up at 3:45 with numb legs and a kinked shoulder, there was no possible thing to do but get back to the beach in time for sunrise.

I walked down to the mouth of the Kennebec in the pearly darkness that comes just before sunrise and hunkered down on a log of driftwood.

And slowly, there it came. The darkness faded like a healing bruise, the star-like light of the lighthouses grew less bright as the sky pinked and purpled and blued back to day. I could see dear tracks along the sand, see the birds as they flew around cawing in the dawn chorus. A black bird—a cormorant? a sparrow in silhouette?—flew up the river.

By the light of the rising sun and the riffles of the dawn wind, the current of the river was visible, rushing to the open sea. The bird, whatever it was, flew up the river. For a moment, I could see the opposite forces together, like retrograde motion or an Escher drawing. The water goes one way, the wings the other and it seems as if they cannot possibly exist together.

Yet, they do.

Now is a time to be schooled in such beautiful, active paradoxes. There is so much—too much—in the discussion and actions of climate change that is focused on what is lost, what will be lost. There is fear and mourning and grief and anger, and all of that is warranted. But, at the same time, the world is not dead yet, and often our fear at what may be builds a premature coffin around what is.

Along my most beloved shoreline, there are changes from what I knew. What matters more, though, is what has not changed. The way the sunlight hits the water at all hours, the eternal and always fresh crush and crash of the water, and the feeling of being always in love with the intangible here of this place.

We must immerse ourselves as often in the wildness and variety and love and beauty of the world as we do in fear and facts and figures of threats to and hard realities of this world. I believe, with the certainty of tidal sunrise and the clarity of mountain frost, that doing so is vital to the salvage and survival of all that really matters. Sure pure love drives purer and purer actions, stronger and wiser choices.

And, conveniently, such immersion is eternally, ecstatically joyful. What is truly, cleanly, lovingly good for the soul is also for the world.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Qualitative & Quantitative Sustianability

I was recently talking with some high school students about sustainability. Like a lot of schools and institutions, the school where I work has latched onto the enigmatic idea that they should be more sustainable.

This is as admirable a goal as I can contemplate. The challenge, however, comes in determining what that means, and how we can all go from the hopeful work on paper to the practices and routines of our lives.

In Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael the narrator leaves one of his first sessions with Ishmael—who is a sort of eco-historian philosophy tutor and life mentor, among other things—in a foul foul mood. The trouble is that Ishmael has given the narrator an assignment. If there is an assignment, then it stands to reason that there is a syllabus of some sort, which implies an ending that approaches, a linear goal that will be attained with due diligence and scholarly application to the task at hand.

The narrator fears the end of his course in saving the world. I understand that—the feeling of finally finding something, only to know it is limited is heartbreaking. On the bright side, the world will always need saving and celebrating, so our labors will always be needed.

What sticks with me now, thinking about Ishmael and the regret of a syllabus, is that we are so culturally locked into linear patterns towards a specific goal. With most institutional and formal efforts towards sustainability, we are still adhering to this formula. If School A, for example, has this number of solar panels, that number of students and faculty active in environmental causes, this percentage of bike commuters, and this amount of local food, then it can be pronounced “sustainable,” or at least more sustainable than School B, which doesn’t hit any of those tidy metrics. 

This is treating our aggressively unsustainable culture as a quantitative problem that can be solved by neat rows of records and logical measurements. I see the underpinnings of our crises as qualitative at heart, and so must the solutions be.

Underneath the checklists and initiatives, there is the eternal truth that we are responsible for the state of the world, and we are letting its beauty and power and potential down. There are none but our own skinny shoulders to fix this, no matter how many sustainability studies get funded, reports published, or awards handed out.

We know this. This is why everyone gets snippy and panicky about how much greener they are than others, or defensive when talking about carbon footprints, or why some people lie awake at night, knowing that they could do more for the state of the world. We can have a thousand marches, rallies, vigils, festivals, acts of disobedience, degrees, policies, and metrics of environmental and social success, but until we can reconcile what we each do and live into upon waking each morning, when we align the real and practical actions of our lives with our deepest knowledge and highest hopes, we will continue to live cruelly and always hungry for something.

This is not a sustainable way to be.

It is difficult, though, to know where and how to start, addressing the qualities that can be revised and corrected, learned and remembered in order to calm our scared and rapacious ways of life and bring something simpler, calmer, happier and more sustainable to life. There isn’t a syllabus, there isn’t a handbook, there is not a linear progression that gets us—all of us, even the recalcitrant people who haven’t had the courage or support or love to handle waking up, or taking a first step after coming to face the challenges of now—towards simpler, cleaner lives.

Now is where I ought to offer five to seven tidy points for sustainability. The truth is that I don’t know. Sustainability is a one-size fits all type deal with an easy answer. I do know about environmental systems—about the moving pieces, the complex relationships, the entirely sublime Rube Goldberg type system that is ecology. And I suspect that being a sustainable society looks something like that—an ever-evolving balance of incongruities.

This is a messier answer than most institutions are looking for in their search for sustainability. In that mess, in the fluidity and humble recognition for flexibility and revision, I believe that there is a greater framework to follow than any organized and linear metric. Certainly, we can use the quantitative research—upgrade solar panels, increase efficiency of transport systems, and all the other great changes that come from having good information. The key, though, is to use the science in service to the heart, not the other way round.

As a bonus, beyond linear and back to an ecological approach—there is no end to what we seek. The clear delight I find in word by word, step by step, friendship by friendship building towards a better, kinder world to be the greatest source of purpose and joy in my life. In a quantitative approach to sustainability, I would worry that this sense would fade once the goal is achieved—I would have to graduate from the course, as it were. With a qualitative approach, I know that this is the core and essence of sustainability, and it will never fade.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Revolting Reading!

Today, when I asked a group of middle school students why they thought books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian had been banned, one student said it was probably because “they tell the truth.”
I love my job. Especially during Banned Books Week.
My first interaction with the banning of books was through the baseball movie, “Field of Dreams.” Amy Madigan and Kevin Costner go to a school board meeting where the Iowa townspeople are, as Madigan’s character Annie says, “talking about banning books again! Really subversive books, like ‘The Wizard of Oz’... ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’...”
I always thought that those particular books were hyperbolic examples, but it turns out, both have been challenged and banned at various times. The Diary of a Young Girl was challenged earlier this year in Michigan because some parents found the unedited descriptions of a girl going through puberty to be “pornographic.” This irritates me to no end—the hushing up of the messy corporeal reality of being human, adding a strange level of shame towards the normal bodily development of a person, of a teenage girl who is remarkably reassuring in her honest addressing of the confusion of growing up.
Otto Frank didn’t want those parts of his daughter’s diary published and edited them out of the first editions of the diary. Also the bits about Anne’s rocky relationship with her mother were taken out. It seemed too personal to him. In that light, I lean towards censorship, towards a parent protecting the privacy of their child, the public image of someone who did not survive to tell us how she feels about her teenage scribbles being shared throughout the world. Barring her voice, respecting her father’s wishes seems respectful.
But, I don’t know, really. I like honesty, and I like privacy.
Questions like this is what I really savor about Banned Books Week. Not that we get to point and accuse and judge different groups who believe different things, but that we have a chance to examine the merits of a pushed envelope and to explore our own preferences and choices. I like that people have deep enough values that they’ll make something of a passionate ass of themselves to try to get Harry Potter or Julie of the Wolves banned, although I do wish that these same people could expand their worldview a tetch and see more good than harm in such works. The whole idea of banning and censorship gets into ethics, and what sort of world we want to live in, want to build. This conversation, under any cover, makes me as happy as a pig in shit (or a librarian in Banned Books Week.)
Let’s take Anne Frank. Her descriptions of going through puberty are (presumably) honest observations and explorations of the fact that her body is exploding and changing, even as her life remains hidden and static. The sticking point is how normal she is—that there is something eternal and companionable in her way of being. That is part of the power of the whole diary. We read her diary, visit her life, and try to extrapolate it out over six million to understand the human weight of persecution, of war, of living with fear, under a repressive regime.
It is the quintessential “there but for the grace of God go I” book.
Oh fuck. Now I’ve gone and mentioned God. That’s another touchy subject this time of year. Because if a book isn’t being banned for pornographic reasons, it’s usually somehow either too religious—like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books—or not religious enough—like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Or you get something really tricky like Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time that manages to—variously and allegedly—promote witchcraft, be too Christian, and also bother some religious conservatives with the sci-fi aspect. 
Goodness. What nasty books, putting ideas like kindness, questioning authority, and exploring the world into the minds of readers!
I don’t like to argue, but I love to question answers far more than answer questions. I like knowing why the books were challenged. One of the reasons that both Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye have been found questionable is because of their derogatory statements about and portrayals of women. Certainly, that evidence is there in both those books (and a lot of others.) But less so, I think, than the unsubtle misogyny in an average twenty minutes of television. Besides, what either of those books offer is worth far more—to me—than whatever offense they also give.
Life, as we all know, is messy and all the unknowns are hugely frightening. I suppose I understand the sort of fear and hunger to protect children from all the mess that drives people—mostly parents—to challenge books in school districts and public libraries. However, removing Anne Frank from seventh-grade curriculums will not stop puberty from happening to all those kids. Banning books that dance even lightly around homosexuality will not stop people from living “alternative lifestyles,” as the Merrimack, NH school district termed it when banning Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1996. Keeping Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Maya Angelou, Jean Craighead George, Alice Walker, and Sherman Alexie off bookshelves will not eradicate racism, sexual violence, or classism. Jay Asher and John Green do not cause or glamorize teenage suicide or substance abuse in their books—I think they just deal honesty with the realities of being a teenager, which is pretty fraught and shitty at times, and for many does involve death, sex, and illicit substances. Getting rid of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series will do nothing to curb the tide of elementary school potty humor.
Books are, like dreams, artifacts and articulations of our past and our present. They are not prophesies of the future. If, in reading Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, people are disturbed by the repressive violence of the Iranian Revolution, I believe the answer is to educate more, act on and work for peace, justice and freedom, not ban the book as the Chicago Public Schools did in 2013. We need to stop shooting these wordy messengers, and look at the lives we lead outside the pages.
We cannot pretend that the pieces of life we do not like and do not agree with are nonexistent. We will not change the world for the better by remaining still and silent, by banning books that make us ethically uncomfortable. Ask Anne Frank what happens when the world remains still and silent, when censorship is accepted and freedom of expression ignored. We change by learning to ask questions, to expand perspectives, to juggle truths. Nothing is as powerful as the truth.
And, in that, nothing is more subversive and revolutionary.