Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Powerful Play

(from, and while I have questions about exploring other worlds when we aren't treating this one and all the life on it with respect, it is still a beautiful picture.)

Sometimes, like today, when the sun is shining and I have yet to hear any truly horrible news for the day, it begins to seem that we are going to win. We, to me, are the loose collective of people working across all continents and disciplines to make the world a better and cleaner and more just place for all living things. Some of us are working in offices, filing papers and lawsuits against unjust entities and laws. Some of us are artists, stretching the materials of this world into shapes and sounds and stories that make other believe in our wildest imaginings of better. Some are teachers, are builders and farmers and activists and researchers and scientists and mentors and all the wide range of hues that it takes to sustain and build this necessary revolution that we hope and hunger and act for.

Too often when we speak of doing enough, of doing all that we can, there is a thread of guilt weaving it all together, that more must be done on both the individual level and the global level. Somehow, between dire news reports and a culture of multi-tasking absurdity, there is a pervasive sense that we must each be passionately able and willing to chain ourselves to a coal mine, participate in the somewhat damaged political system we could still salvage, march in the streets for racial justice, procure food from local sources that do no harm, see the world, maintain loving and supportive relationships, remain financially solvent and constantly informed on the issues of the world, and keep the carbon footprint of a sparrow. Trying to balance all of those pieces will make a person crazy. I regularly worry that I am not hitting the right balance between all the things I try to and would love to do. And I know that I am not the only one who feels stymied in resisting, in being part of a revolution, in living the life I believe possible.

My real worry is this: that some bright day I’ll wake up and the world will be better, that the need and chance to resist and revolt and rebuild will have passed, a new era dawned, and the further shore will have been reached and I will have not done what I most wanted to. That Walt Whitman’s powerful play will have gone on and I will have not contributed my verse. It is not the contribution itself that matters as much, I think, as the personal act of contributing to this amorphous revolution for a better way of life on Earth for the planet and all people. The revolution will happen without me, of course, but out of love and celebration for all that is at stake, I do not want to let my verse go unsung.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Mary Oliver’s question of what I plan to do with my one wild and precious life. Again, I know I am not alone in this—my life is full of brilliant people trying to find the best home for their gifts and love of the world and to live the lives we want and believe in. Sometimes it seems like there is a divide in how we each live—that one can either live change on a large or small scale. In the large scale are the standard-bearers and martyrs and the public figures who we all follow, who’s words and example drive a great deal of inspiration and change. They act and speak for causes that live deep in the hearts of many, and become the names and faces of change and resistance and revolution.

And then there are the people who cannot attend marches because they have to tend their loved ones, who cannot afford to get arrested for civil disobedience because of the responsibilities they bear to others. Or the people who are beautifully suited for the rigors of research, or who delight in the arcane details of law and policy and find ways to weave justice back into our world’s systems. Or people who shun the spotlight but can grow anything on a patch of land. Or who repair bicycles or run thrift stores or wait tables in the cafés where revolutionaries plot their deeds. Or people who are able to shift out of the structures and shoulds of the mainstream world and go off the grid.

There are so many right answers of how to live. Our verses, and we all have them, come in as many tunes and lengths as we like. The important thing is to listen, hard and close, for your own. I believe that we all know, intuitively, the difference between what is right, authentic, and true, and what is not. Perhaps delivering your verse—in whatever form—to the world will make a splash, perhaps everyone will stop and see the fury and love behind your contribution, and this will be the pivot that turns the world in that direction. More likely, the world will absorb your verse as gently as a rising tide. It will matter most to yourself what you said or did, what the action clarified in your soul, and what truths you now know as well as your bones.

The reasons that we are winning, will win, are because more and more people of the seven billion of us are contributing our verses. The play becomes more powerful, and goes on in a different direction than had no one lived in faith and action of a better world. The world needs your verse exactly as desperately, as sweetly, as you hunger to contribute it—whatever form it takes.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

International Women's Day: On Prom-Posals and A Time for Outrage

For my recent birthday, some dear friends gave me a t-shirt celebrating Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. As you can see, it is fire-engine red and amazing.
I wore it the morning after my birthday to clean up the minor wreckage of a good dinner party. This sartorial choice wasn’t a statement open to some post-umpteenth-wave of Feminism ironic interpretation along the lines of, "we’re now so evolved as society in terms of gender equality and identity, a lady such as myself can freely choose to do the duties of a repressed housewife, even while wearing the garb of revolutionary propaganda." That is silly bullshit that I hope you read in a funny snooty parody voice. 
I was thus garbed because I wanted to wear my new shirt, the kitchen was littered with dirty dishes and I don’t much like living in filth, and it was my mess to clean up.
I find even the ghost of an idea that we’re in a post-Feminist society absurd.
We aren’t.
As an example of how I fear we’re backsliding as Feminists in important and emotional ways, working at the high school, I keep overhearing clusters of boys worrying about how to pull off a good “prom-posal,” which is apparently now a thing. I hear girls giggling about how they hope they’ll be asked. One boy is making a daily series of riddles and clues for his date—presumably him actually asking her to prom is the treasure. Another is planning to buy red roses for everyone in his math class, have them one by one present the roses to his girlfriend—also in math class—and then he would come in last and give her a white rose and ask her to prom.
Prom is not my issue here—if teenagers want to get gussied up and dance and canoodle and have healthy consensual sex lives, more power to them. Similarly, I am 100% on board with Romancealthough I’m guessing that these kids haven’t learned yet that Romance is not really rose petals and pink hearts and proms, but someone bringing you Gatorade in the middle of the night when you have a violent stomach flu, or waiting up for your bus until dawn, or putting tennis balls on your walker and salt on the icy steps, or any of the other millions of ways that people demonstrate their actual, practical, messy love for each other.
In fairness, I didn’t go to my high school prom and so have no frame of reference on this allegedly all-important aspect of high school life in America. Aside from being painfully—almost snobbishlyshy, I had a track meet the next day and, while I was a lackadaisical athlete, that was a simple excuse to avoid what I at seventeen suspected would be a lot of fuss over nothing. The school dances that I had attended always ended up with me in the bathroom with one upset friend or another, dealing with some mismatch of expectations and reality. No matter how many teen-age rom-coms I watched, I suspected that real prom wouldn’t be much different than past dances, and having my mum make me a beautiful dress just to hang out in a fancier bathroom somehow didn’t appeal.
So, really, I’m not one to talk about proms per se. But, my issue with the prom-posal situation is that is seems both horribly stressful and indicative of trends that cauterize teenage girls as passive Princesses in need of asking, with the expectation that they will be asked and in a certain way, or they are not correct. Flipping that, this script for life requires that teenage boys are the actors, the one who gets to make the choice of what lady to ask, who pick the cast and create the lines. Ladies should just sit around and wait with absurd culturally engrained expectations to be asked to the dance, to life. Dudes should steel up against any fears of rejection, but remain emotionally open and Romantic, and pick a lady by doing something traditional but unique, memorable but not super weird. To culturally pressurize these traditional gender roles at young and emotionally fragile ages seems cruel and, therefore, against the Feminist agenda I believe in.
At the same time, I am mentoring a trio of high school students in a Feminism seminar this spring. We are compiling a list of readings and videos and music to study and explore. We’ve got Emmaline Pankhurst and Ida B. Wells and bell hooks and Betty Friedan and Wonder Woman and videos of 100 years of beauty in Black-American, White-American, and Iranian culture and more all set up and ready to go.
These students already know so much more than I did at their age about Feminist history and literature. On the other hand, I grew up with red and yellow and blue Legos and no Disney princesses. They are at once reading Angela Davis, and expecting rose petaled prom-posals.
Their emotional dichotomy seems different and somewhat more dire, to me, than cleaning the kitchen while wearing my Betty Friedan t-shirt. Or the common challenge of hating the Patriarchy and loving men.
If we read and know these things, but do not articulate them through our lives, does it matter?
Stéphane Hessel was part of the French Resistance in WWII and spent his long life working to resist various threats to human life and dignity. In his small and effective book, Indignez-Vous!: A Time for Outrage, he wrote about how, when he was young and resisting Nazis, it was almost easy because the enemy was so clear cut. Now, with globalization, instant communications, climate change, mass-marketing, and all the rest, the outrage is still easy, but knowing where to direct one’s indignation and action is more nebulous.
Last summer, someone asked me if I could give some examples of sexism and gender inequality still happening in this world. Similar to and as a part of Hessel’s nebulous enemies to be resisted, I feel that sexism is so subliminally and systemically omnipresent that it took me a minute to catch my breath and form words.
Sexism is everywhere and Feminism needs everyone—women, men, and those who have yet to make up their minds, as Lola says in Kinky Boots.
How we respond to this need depends on how we each get up every morning, what we put on and how we are in the world, what we ask for and what we expect from each other every day. Never mind International Women’s Day, it’s always Human Day.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Wildness and Place, Gypsies and Homebodies

“With environmental writing,” I explained to someone recently, “if you’re not writing about climate change and pollution, you’re writing about the importance of Place.”

Truly, those darker options are branches on the same tree—they are the threats and the shadows that seek to erase and ravage the refuge of a right Place.

I used to say that nothing in this world compares to the alpine zone of the mountains of New Hampshire, that up there is my best Place. That, it seems, is not quite true. Whatever the wild and holy thing that lurks in the rocks and krummholtz and ridgelines and alpine plants is undeniably of that geography, but I’ve found fractals of that same sense of wonder and practical sublimity—a wonder that to me feels like my heart opens like a drawbridge to let the greatness of the world pour in and if joy grew feathers, I could swoop around like the ravens—in other quarters, too. I’ve come across that same magic at the ocean, in snowstorms, in being love, in farming, in both the laughter and silence of good friends.

When I go, like a hopeful gypsy, looking for Place, for my Place in the world to send out roots, what I am looking for is some configuration of all that wildness and wonder and love and community.

It is a hard thing to look for and I worry that either it cannot be found, or does not exist, or—most bittersweetly—my expectations have been raised to impossible heights because of the quality of what I have witnessed before.

But that is ridiculous.

When I have been away from the wilds for too long, I begin to think that however wonderful I believe the mountains or the sea or thunder and lightning or the sweetness of a friend or the look of Orion on a cold night to be, absence must have made my heart grow imaginative and too fond. Reality, I tell myself in these dim times, cannot compete with hope and memory. The mountains, they do not really do that to your breath. To watch an osprey dive into the ocean does not make your heart skip a beat, every time. People, even the oldest and dearest friends, change and the next meeting could be strained and awkward. And so on.

I sell myself short. Reality, nearly always, exceeds both expectation and memory. The relief and surprise at this truth is one of the sweetest things I know.

There is nothing I can ever write that will come close to the shivering thrill of being above treeline. No one, yet, has adequately portrayed the comforting, urgent wildness of the sea. And there are no right words for how the kindness of a friend changes the color of the sky. The reason that everyone, for better or worse, writes about love is that it is at once the most important and least describable thing in this world. Wildness—in the sense of being joyfully and fiercely immersed in love when surrounded by sublime aspects of life—is only another iteration of the puzzle and glue of love.

I have come as close as I know how to living immersed in natural wildness, and for all that I ache for and am the best version of myself in places where the stars are clear and the world yawns before me in ridgeline or forest or roiling sea, I recognize that—corporally, at least—it is impractical as a human-mammal craving food, shelter, love, purpose and community, to seek for my home Place in the wilderness.

Perhaps that sense of eternal but impermanent belonging is part of the allure of wild places.

Regardless, it does leave the actual question of practical geographic place to become home Place open to debate.

On that subject, I’ve read maybe too much Edward Abbey and Wendell Berry. They make for a confusing pair—I am tugged one way to be a gypsy wandering in search of moments of wildness and torn the other direction to come and be home already.

I know as well as I know the undeniable alpine zone that I am not alone in this tug-torn struggle.

What, then, I wonder makes the wanderers stop? The troupe of gypsies seems to shrink a little every year. I see people around me settle—in the best way—into good paid jobs or satisfying creative outlets or balancing a beloved partner’s yearnings with their own independence or raising beautiful babies, and so their wandering becomes more complicated, even if pieces of their heart still hunger for different wilds. Or, did they find their Place and all other necessary aspects to their life kaleidoscoped into roots, the sum of all the parts as rich and true as a newly discovered wilderness? Or did everyone just get tired from ripping up roots and setting them down in new soil every few months or years, just dipping in the toes and never committing to the downs as well as the ups?

I don’t know, but I want to know how to wander home to something still wild.

My Place, when I find it, I know will be a compromise and a balance off all the kinds of wildness I love and crave. I do not look for perfection—there is nowhere on earth where I can have the Presidential and Franconia Ridges, the Maine coastline, a New England hardwood forest, a farm with stonewalls, work that satisfies but does not sap my soul, and a town knotted full of people I love all within a few miles.

Now, I don’t know quite where to look, where the found is to my lost, where wild and home and love and Place will lead me or anyone else but experience makes me hopefully believe that the reality can be sweeter than even our wildest imaginings.