Monday, June 9, 2014

Life with the Lost Boys

I begin with a warning.  This writing pulsates with hostility for which I do not apologize.  I started with a desire to acknowledge the recent discussions of the ways in which women in 2014 are still harassed, disrespected, molested, raped, and generally brutalized. The #YesAllWomen movement has raised these issues powerfully and revealed what most women already know, but seldom descry so loudly – that this abuse of women remains widespread, constant and socially condoned.   The personal exploration this invited was one that has brought me to a place of long-held anger, and some of the things I have to say are not befitting of the socially-accepted “nice” girl image we women are taught to maintain.   In some places, you may feel that I am painting with too sweeping a stroke, making the reviled “broad generalization”.  That’s your prerogative. 

I remember the first time I became aware of the brutal male treatment of females. It was way back in Paxon Hollow Junior High School, a suburban school in Marple Township, Pennsylvania.  Every morning, the boys would line up at the entrance door and yell out their “grades” for the girls’ attractiveness as we entered.  They would also yell out why the girl got a “low” grade:  “Fat butt!”, “Moustache and body hair!”, “Flat chested!”  or “Falsies!”

None of the adults tried to put an end to this.  Not the teachers, not the vice-principal, not the principal.  No one suggested to these boys that such behavior was unacceptable. 

This caused more anxiety and humiliation than I could bear at age twelve,  because although I was gifted academically, and considered intellectually “advanced”, I was painfully shy and timid, and extremely introverted.  I walked the circumference of the school every single morning and entered through the gym doors in the back, which were always open because of the early-morning practice sessions of whatever sport was in season.  After this went on for a while, my gym teacher, Miss Kostenbader, pulled me aside one day to question me about it.  I told her the reason, and she was incensed.  She tried to make an issue of it, in order to put an end to it.  But Miss Kostenbader had no influence.  She was not a “gym-teacher-cutie”.  She was what one of the male gym teachers called a “She-Man Jock” – which was reason enough for her voice on this matter to be entirely ignored.  It showed me something more disturbing than the freedom of those boys to humiliate the girls on a daily basis.  It showed me that even adult women had no voice or power that wasn’t gifted to them by men, and only then if those men deemed the woman “worthy” by their own standards of measurement. 

Thinking about this episode in my young life, I then traced back the way this message -- about the importance of beauty and appeal -- existed much earlier.  Even when I was in elementary school, my parents were approached about how “cute” I was, and told that they should “model me” because there was lots of money to be had.  At our swim club in the summer I was badgered because I wouldn’t join the yearly “beauty contest”. 

My father didn’t understand my reticence, and asked  “Why? Are you afraid you won’t win?” 

It was beyond my ability to articulate at that time, and clearly beyond his ability to comprehend, that my refusal had something to do with my innate sense of dignity rather than a fear of failing to meet some external standard of beauty.

Women move through this atmosphere, enduring this message from cradle to coffin. And far too many men feel that it is their inalienable right to remind us of just how well or poorly we are doing adhering to their standards of attractiveness, or to their demands for our acquiescence to their attentions. 

#YesAllWomen has shown us that this is still widespread and sadly pervasive even in 2014. 

I married relatively young, but that didn’t stop the inappropriate attention of other men.  At first, I was stunned at how there was a continued kind of “tree pissing” activity that went on – how men at parties, even at family events, would place their hands on me, or stand too close, and how my husband either would, through body language, lay claim to me, or how he wouldn’t.  I began to realize that there was a kind of wolf-pack activity that went on in public situations….an alpha-male contest that took place constantly.  This went on even as we got older, and as my husband started practicing law.  At cocktail parties, bench bar conferences, other social/professional events, while he was still a young associate, some of the partners of his firm, or elders in the legal community, would behave inappropriately – putting their arm around me, or doing that thing that men do – sliding the palm of their hand all the way down a woman’s back while talking and acting as if they are doing nothing out of the ordinary.  I began to notice that my husband’s “claiming” behaviors altered, depending on how much more “senior” the lawyer who was groping me was.  I honestly don’t think that he was conscious of the way in which the alpha-male/wolf pack behavior was operating.  But I did take notice that his anger about the situation would sometimes, then, be aimed at me, as if I weren’t the one who had personally endured the disrespect, but I had somehow brought dishonor to him.  He began to be more controlling about what dress I wore, or how much makeup I was wearing.  Being in public, then, even as a married woman, didn’t guarantee protection or respect; in fact, it was fraught with the complications of the never-ending male territorial struggle that extends to a woman’s body as terrain.   

During the years when I was working from home, raising two children and running our household, I was also constantly fending off the attention of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, landscapers, roofers.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I write this, not as an indication that I was some sort of femme fatale who had a kind of irresistible allure to all men.  I write this to say that no matter what the conditions, no matter what the circumstance, women are not safe from the unwanted attentions of men, even in their own homes.  Even when they are the “boss” paying the invoice.   The term “entitlement” has entered our vocabulary, and has clarified my thoughts on this matter.  Why does a total stranger, called to a home by a woman in the midst of a plumbing crisis, a woman who is simultaneously dealing with two sick children, wearing old jeans and a t-shirt, no make-up and probably some mismatched pair of 1980-style slouch socks, feel that he has the right to be “flirtatious”, or to say inappropriate things like, “I bet when you dress up, you are really hot.” 

This is a business transaction, and I’m writing the check, you asshat.  So, fix my fucking plumbing, buddy, and get the hell out.

In other words, Know your place.

And no, I don’t mean “your place” in the patriarchal socio-economic hierarchy of money and status and power.  I mean know that you have no right to make personal comments or overtures of any kind to a woman you do not know.  Didn’t anyone teach you that you should respect a woman the way you would want your mother or sister or daughter respected?  Know your place.  That place is one of a stranger who should practice courtesy and respect and deference to another human being; it is what we should all practice in regard to each other.  There are levels of intimacy which have to be earned, and you haven’t made it through the first gate.  In fact, you are in the far distant field, so much an outsider that you are barely visible.  Know your place.

And yet, as women, we often don’t even register the inappropriate behavior; or, if we feel it, we don’t reveal our anger.  Instead we smile that perfunctory smile all women know.  We change the subject, as many times as is necessary, since most men don’t “get” that we are not willing to entertain the conversation they want to initiate.  We endure the unwanted, untoward, inappropriate.  We endure the public bullying.  That gauntlet we junior high school girls had to pass each morning at Paxon Hollow Junior High is exactly what we endure for the remainder of our lives, walking past a construction site, or any gathering of men – whether it’s at the office coffee maker or at a train station or bus stop.  The menace grows with the men who follow us, verbally harass us, try to paw at us, or threaten us with attack or rape. 

Some of the more radical feminists of the second wave claimed that all men are inherently rapists.  Ti-Grace Atkinson once wrote that marriage is nothing more than accepting a permanent relationship with your rapist.   I understand her point more and more as the years go on.  It’s not only about the physical act of rape.  It’s about our rape culture which sees everything you are, everything sacrosanct about your self, your being, as that which can and should be plundered.  It’s the way those in positions of dominance treat everything and everyone who comes within their reach.  It’s suggested that this is the permeation of capitalist values, or as some would now call it, neoliberalism, or free market fundamentalism.  Everything is commodity, everything is there to be pillaged.  It begins with the patriarchy, which has found its full flower in the vicious brutality of unchecked capitalism. 

It’s there, at the very earliest stages of our culture.  For instance, the Iliad begins with Achilles storming off the field of battle, not because of a dispute about a war that raged senselessly for ten years, but about Agamemnon’s claim of Briseus, the woman Achilles saw as his rightful war booty. 

Does this behavior, this objectification and commodification of women, have its roots in the earliest stages of the hetero-patriarchy, or as a friend of mine recently suggested, the kyriarchy (meaning a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission)?

If so, then we have to address the socio-cultural issues of these entrenched values of domination, oppression and submission in a larger sense in order to begin to successfully undo the treatment women in 2014 still endure.  We have to dismantle and rebuild our socio-economic systems entirely.  I’ll use the term hetero-kyriarchy here, to indicate that the issue is with straight men, largely, who see it not only as their right to abuse women, but also to abuse men whose sexual orientation is not the same as their own.  (That extends, sadly, to the male-identified women who absorb and imitate those values.  You know who they are.) 

Or, I wonder, do the roots of this behavior go even deeper than a socio-economic system?  Is it possible, with the patriarchal cultures that gained dominance through their wars, their weapons, that the primordial roots of male behavior were given free rein?  In other words, is it possible that this is inherent nature, encoded somehow in the hetero-male dna?

If that is the case, then we have to acknowledge something even more dire.  We can no longer allow the heterosexual male a place in the halls of power -- not in the legislature, or in the gleaming towers of finance, or in the rooms where war and peace are measured and weighed, or in the palaces of commerce.  If the primordial hunger of the hetero-male is for domination, oppression and submission, then they can’t be trusted to share governance over a society of peace, shared prosperity, social good, high culture.  Consider this.  We see evidence of what I’m saying in the ways in which women’s bodies are treated as male territory by (primarily male) lawmakers and judges, even sometimes by doctors themselves. We see a rampant disrespect for the earth, for all forms of life by corporations run by these men – a rape of our environment and of nature.  We see the actions of the plundering culture in the behaviors of Wall Street, again largely run by this same sort of men.  It exists in the domination practiced through imperialism and colonization, through these endless, devastating wars.

I can hear the yowls of protest even as I type this.  The cry of “not all men are like this” rings through the air.  I know; yes, that’s true.  But far too many are like this. So even though there are “good guys” out there (I even know a few), I suggest that these “good guys” in a patriarchal/kyriarchal/capitalist world are as weak, powerless and without effect as the liberals and progressives of both genders are in our current society.  Without clear identity, sinking into the shadows, lacking a powerful narrative or plan, you guys may as well not exist at all for all the good you do to redeem your gender or help the rest of us save our world.

So, what is to be done?  I admit:  my personal response to these issues has been somewhat unusual.  I’ve entirely withdrawn.  This year marks the tenth anniversary of the night that I decided to go solitary, and to, essentially, marry myself.  I even performed a private ceremony.  It was sometime around the Summer Solstice of 2004.

Yes, I have been happily man-free for nearly ten years.  Women have been doing this for centuries.  In the Middle Ages, aristocratic women would retire to abbeys after their children had grown, to live out their years in peace.  Eleanor of Aquitaine did it; in fact, many of the Plantagenet women did it.  And can you blame them, given the brutality of the Plantagenet men?

It wasn’t as if I didn’t try to find a healthy and positive relationship.  When my marriage ended, I attempted to date, even had two “long-term” relationships which I ultimately ended.  But it hasn’t been until this decade of my life, where I have chosen to be a renunciate of the so-called “romantic relationship”, that I feel as though I belong fully and completely to myself.  During this time, I’ve shepherded both my beloved children into their successful adulthood years.  I’ve completed an additional graduate degree.  I’ve taught Humanities courses to thousands of undergraduate students.  I’ve grown my arts organization (Hidden River Arts) so that it now includes live arts events, cultural outreach programs, workshops, classes, tutorials, and an independent small press.  I’ve written and published a collection of short stories. I’ve completed the first of a trilogy of historical novels and “roughed out” the other two parts. I’ve written a contemporary novel, and am half-way through completion of a suspense novel and another novel of historical fiction. I’ve started a second collection of short stories. I’ve revised two full-length plays and written a new one; I’ve written three short plays.  And yes, they’ve all been performed.  I’ve written two short screenplays which have become short films.   I’ve been working on a documentary and companion book, both of which should be finished within the next few months. I’ve traveled the country giving lectures, readings, screenings, conducting interviews.  I’ve formed wonderful, creative, productive, joyful friendships with truly magnificent people.  I’ve moved from the suburbs back into the city, where I’m enjoying the vibrancy, the energy, the opportunities of the arts, culture and society.  Life is very good. 

I’m not saying that this is every woman’s best choice, but it has certainly been a good choice for me.  I’m an artist, a writer, an educator, an activist. And this is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to be those things without any pushback from some guy telling me that I’m not giving him enough time or energy.  It’s been my experience that the men with whom I enter into long-term relationships all have the same things in common: a genuine alpha-male profile with entrenched narcissism and self-absorption, and a side order of dictatorial tendencies.  They are charming and romantic and exciting, until they don’t get their way.  Then they became bullies and wardens.  Their needs were more important than mine.  Their schedule more important than mine.  Their work certainly more important than mine. Their bank accounts were bigger, which was offered as proof of all those other assertions. 

I wondered: was I just attracted to the wrong sort of man? The alpha-male of the neoliberal capitalist world is hardly the most enlightened choice. Maybe the fault was with me.  But, I don’t think so. I scanned back over the other men I had dated after my divorce.

They were Peter Pan’s Lost Boys.  All of them. 

There was the one who brought his ten-year-old son on our dates, and talked about how his “other girlfriends” couldn’t stand the fact that his ex-wife lived in a cottage on his property, and vacationed with him.  Another who ripped my blouse and whipped out his penis at the end of our “date”, and said, “Wouldn’t it feel good if you sucked this?”  A third who showed up for a dinner date dressed in the sweaty t-shirt and shorts he wore when he mowed the lawn, who proceeded to get stinking drunk as he told me how much he couldn’t stand shiksas like his ex-wife and was happy to finally be dating a Jewish woman – completely oblivious to the fact that I was raised as an Episcopalian. 

There were those who wanted a harem of women in competition with each other over that golden male attention.  Those who thought buying a woman a cup of coffee entitled them to sex.  Those who assessed your weight and age, out loud, despite the fact that they were paunchy, slovenly and at least a decade older than you.  Or, on the other hand, those who wanted to immediately plan a life together.  (Sometimes during the initial exchange of emails.)  Those who assessed the size and status of your home, the value of your job, even the model of your car.

Not a worthy man among them, in my opinion.  So, okay.  I’ll admit that my idea of a worthy man these days is Liam Neeson, as Rob Roy.  Unless you’re exceptionally good at fighting with medieval weaponry and look hot in a kilt, that’s hard to live up to.  But these guys? It doesn’t matter how old they are.  Far too many are pathetic cases of arrested development, stuck in some adolescent stage where navel-gazing, self-importance, tantrums and frat boy behavior seem perfectly acceptable to them.  In fact, they are damned happy with themselves. 

These Lost Boys try to wow you with their income, their professional position, their new Mercedes (or their Harley and its straight pipes), their ability to bench press some ridiculous amount of weight, their summer share in Antigua.    They never wake up to the fact that acquisition is not the same as achievement. That material success is not the same as maturity.  That wealth is not the same as wisdom.  In fact, it’s been my experience that these things are actual deterrents to real growth.

Pull the lens back further and you realize:  These men don’t know their place because they don’t know themselves.  They mistake all the things our culture has told them give them privilege, their heterosexual male-ness, their assets and acquisitions,  for the stuff of real value. Yes, this is a culture that provides men with far too much entitlement; but it is also a culture which has denied them a working knowledge of their souls.  It is that combination which is truly deadly.

So, even when they aren’t following you down the street, cat-calling, or groping you in an elevator, or saying “Smile, honey!” as you walk down your block, the Lost Boys are behaving like boy-savages, ravaging our society. They veer from one pursuit to another, never satiated or satisfied, never recognizing limits, or understanding that there is a soul’s hunger beneath the faux-hunger created by Madison Avenue or Wall Street.  A growing need for ever-more high-risk behaviors characterizes the “dominant” men of our culture; and our culture rewards their actions by protecting them from the ruinous consequences of their behavior, “externalizing” the cost of it onto those less powerful. On a personal level,  it's been my experience that, when you attempt to enter into actual relationship with men who operate within this value system, their callous risks and endless demands threaten to overwhelm your life.   

For years, I’ve been convinced that the karmic reason so many marriages of my generation failed was so that a whole generation of second wave feminist- enlightened women could raise their sons free of the daily Lost Boy influence.  But I wonder, now that our sons are young adults:  have we succeeded?   I hope that we have, but remain unconvinced.

Reading the #YesAllWomen stories, seeing the way that campus rape is rampant (and oh so protected), hearing the stories of my female students, watching how women are still portrayed in movies, tv shows, talk shows, commercials, print ads – I’m feeling as though my generation of women may have failed. 

Or, perhaps “failed” is too strong a word.  Obviously, it takes many generations of effort to change a deeply entrenched acculturated “reality”.  We’re talking about something older than the works of Homer, for God’s sake.  We’ll continue to work toward goals of equality, of respect and courtesy, of safety. But, if #YesAllWomen is any indication, we're not going to be so polite about asking for those things.  Really pissed off, determined women are rising around the world, not only to push back against the physical brutalities we endure at the hands of men, but to fight against the corporatization of our larger lives, against the pervasive war-mongering that ruins our economies, our cities, our children’s safety. In other words, we fight against the wide-spread suffering caused by the hetero-kyriarchy in the broadest sense.  There are signs of progress.  But we have a long, long way to go; we can’t stop now. Neither should we worry about modulating our tone.  The generations of frustrated, angry women who are out of all patience – from grandmothers to middle school girls -  have to come together to demand more sovereignty over themselves and their lives, to refuse to endure these miserable conditions for one more moment.  Whether it is the continued brutality of a hetero-kyriarchal culture, or a more deeply ingrained core hetero-male behavior, we need to see this Lost Boy behavior and the culture that encourages it for every horrible thing it is, identify everywhere it is, and continue to shine a harsh light, exposing it in all its many forms until we can overcome its pervasive existence.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

To All the Fatherless Women on Father's Day

You know who you are.  Those of us who begin to feel a deep kind of sadness surface as Father's Day approaches, who realize that the sadness is always there, deep within, every day of our lives. 

He can be alive somewhere, or he can be gone, but he was never really there.  At least not for you.  You were invisible.  Or disappointing.  Or simply too unimportant.  He's the reason, the therapists tell you, that your relationships with men are largely and often completely fucked.  Why you chase the unavailable man, or the man who judges and shames you, the one who disregards you, and tells you it's all your fault. 

He's the reason you find it hard to trust anyone, or believe in yourself.  He's the reason you are too easily swayed by external judgments about your beauty, your intellect, your worthiness.  He's the reason you have Superwoman syndrome and a drive to be perfect, coupled with the crippling fear of your own deep and abiding imperfection. 

There are millions of us, you know.  In fact, despite all those "Happy Father's Day, Daddy" messages that clog social media,  the women who had loving, supportive, proud fathers are in the minority.  We are an army of wounded women - carrying the fatherless wound into our adult lives.  It doesn't matter how old you are, either.  Inside of you there is a deeply wounded, mournful little girl who needs to be acknowledged and loved. 

And since the reality is that your father will never heal the wound he left you with, it falls to you, yourself to begin a process of healing so that you don't expect anyone else to be responsible for fixing that gaping hole in your psyche. 

There is writing about this, of course, since there is writing about every subject.  H. Norman Wright's book, Healing the Father Wound is one.  The book talks about "father-shaped holes" and different unhealthy ways in which fatherless girls respond to their wounding.  Some become promiscuous, confusing sex with love; others go in the opposite direction and become asexual, never able to trust intimacy.  There is the superwoman syndrome -- always pushing yourself to have the 4.0 GPA, or the most billable hours, or the most perfect body - and sometimes ALL of those things and more.  There is anger management difficulty, and boundary issues, on-going depression, the wreckage of failed relationships.  A full review of the book can be read here:  Healing the Father Wound

Other books include Pamela Thomas's Book Fatherless Daughters: Turning Power to Forgiveness. 
To tell you the truth, the sentiment leaves me cold.  I like the idea of drawing our own power from the terrible wounding of childhood; I do not like the idea of forgiveness.  To hell with forgiveness. 
Jonetta Rose Barras provides a racial focus, talking about the black woman's struggle with fatherlessness in  Whatever Happened to Daddy's Little Girl  A review of Barras's book can be read here.

So, it's probably a good idea to check out the advice available.  Become aware of those fairly typical behaviors found in the fatherless daughter.  Work to heal them, and to correct any behaviors that can be causing you further harm.   Get help if you need it.  You are worthy of being happy, whatever that takes. 

And when Father's Day comes around, celebrate yourself instead.  Celebrate your strength, your beauty, your unique abilities.  Realize that your father's imperfections and inabilities, your father's failures are in your past, and don't have to define anything about you or your life now. 
Then, resolve to make that true. 

We are an army of wounded women, but we are also survivors.  We might carry our wounds like shrapnel, but we can move through these experiences and gain a lot of strength and wisdom.  Shift your perspective away from what you didn't get, try seeing how your own strengths developed to make you unique and strong.  Be proud of the strength that rose up within you as a guide; be compassionate about the frailties you carry as you work to heal them.   As for gratitude or forgiveness for the father who created the wound -- no way.  I'm not grateful that my father was too much of a narcissist to care for anyone beside himself.  I don't forgive his cruelty or coldness, his judgmental perfectionism, his emotional absence.  Fathers like this don't deserve anything but condemnation and shame, not just on Father's Day, but every day of their lives. 


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Buying Nothing

My life provides me the opportunity to do many things.  I write.  I direct.  I sing.  I run an arts organization, Hidden River Arts, which I founded.  And I teach.  Often, I teach undergraduates; and in a few of my classes, there are discussions, readings, videos and film viewing about the consumerism and out of control capitalism of our culture.  I show them videos about Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's nephew, who used his uncle's theories of the human unconscious to manipulate and control mass behavior in two particular areas - shifting America from a needs-based to a wants-based society, and maintaining a level of fear in Americans about the ever-growing external threat - from communists, from terrorists, every age has its own boogey-man --  that creates consent for the kinds of extensive war-mongering our military is now addicted to. 

We discuss the possibility of a no-money culture.  We discuss conscious and controlled buying habits.  We discuss the dangerous situation with our agri-business dominated food supply and the need to be ever-vigilant in the way we approach our food realities. 

We watch The Story of Stuff and discuss the chain of production Annie Leonard illustrates.  We watch The Story of Bottled Water and discuss the way in which we are manipulated, the ways in which a product like "water" can be sold by creating 1) fear of the free water and 2) a status item out of bottled water.  I see my students becoming painfully aware of a new level of responsibility in their decisions and actions. 

With all that, when I suggest that they try living without buying anything, most of them look at me as if I'm out of my mind.  There are necessities, of course, that have to be purchased -- food, personal care items, etc.  But the reality is that the majority of what is purchased in the U.S. ends up as trash almost immediately and simply IS NOT NEEDED.  Why should we buy new furniture, which is made shoddily, and which we often are required to build ourselves, when we can buy used furniture in thrift stores, used furniture stores, etc?  Why should we buy new kitchenware when thrift stores and flea markets offer more than enough?  Why should we buy clothes new - most of which are made in sweat shops under horrifying conditions by girls who are elementary school age -- which enrich companies practicing labor abuse, environmental ruination, consumer disrespect? 

Buy nothing new.  I've followed that model now for nearly five years.  I didn't realize that there was a movement where people took a pledge about their refusal to purchase new items.  I just stopped buying things unless they were absolutely necessary; and when they were items I could find used, that's what I did.  In Philadelphia, where I live, there is a thrift store, Philly AIDS Thrift, where the items are wonderful and the money goes to medical research and community support for AIDS victims.  I have purchased clothes, kitchen and cookware, glassware, books, furniture -- all really high-quality stuff, for low cost and a good cause. 

The most recent factory fire that kills hundreds of abused workers raises a cry to boycott the companies whose clothing is made in that factory - but why not take it farther and simply boycott buying altogether?  These companies have no interest in human rights, in anything but their financial bottom line.  So, they'll get their PR people feverishly working, make some cosmetic changes and express dismay, apologize....maybe throw some money at a memorial for the burned dead girls, and people will feel as though they've accomplished something - made these companies ashamed of themselves.  It's laughable.  Stop shopping.  Period. 

Obviously, there are going to be things that you have to buy.  Sometimes you have to buy a dress for a wedding, and need to go find something new.  You may never be able to find pants that fit, and have to buy them from a store. one pair of pants.  Two. 
Buy that dress but no other.  Then, wear what you buy over and over again.  We've been brainwashed to think that this is an embarrassing way to present yourself.  I don't agree.   Try wearing the same dress to a few weddings.  The people who notice will be fewer than you imagine, and what are the values of those people?  Do you care about them? 

Anyway.  The point here is that I try to plant this non-consumerist idea in the minds of my young adult students.  I'm gratified when I see it start to take root.  Usually the signs of the shift come within the semester -- papers they write about shopping more carefully for their food, refusing to buy processed food.  Or their conversations about tracking where their electronic goods are coming from.  One of my students helped form a group who demanded, and got, a promise from the university that they would no longer purchase their college clothing lines from companies guilty of using sweatshop labor.

Whether that promise will be kept is now their concern; they are ready to act as watchdogs.  This student is a business major, and weathered a lot of hostility from her professors for what she was doing.  But her goal in business now is quite different -- she wants to study sustainable business models, worker-owned business models -- and knows that this is not the value system being presented by her business school.  It may very well cause her to change schools, or to find appropriate business mentors to guide her in her quest for better practices.  There is something about this student which makes me believe she will succeed.

For myself, I continue on, refining ways to avoid consumer practice.  My thrift-shop clothes, my flea market kitchenware, my  natural cleaning products - baking soda, white vinegar, Dr. Bronner's pure vegetable soap.  Next will be experiments with hand-made face creams and perfumes.  This has gone beyond a decision, or an experiment.  It's become a way of life that provides more satisfaction and peace. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Last night was Twelfth Night, the beginning of the celebration that marks the ending of the Christmas season, or the end of the Yule/Solstice celebrations.  Some traditions say that for each of the "12 days of Christmas" there is an omen, and that each day's omen offers a message for the 12 coming months of the new year.  By the time we reach Twelfth Night, those omens have been received, we tuck them away for reflection as the months pass, and we prepare for the work of this new year that will unfold before us.  

In Pre-Christian ceremony, Twelfth Night, or Wassail, is the night when we re-dedicate ourselves to our calling.  We all know what that calling is -- even those of us who proclaim to be clueless.  We know, at our most quiet and internal moments, what voice calls to us, what dream beckons.  Twelfth Night is the night to declare your dedication to that calling.  
There is feasting involved -- Fish, and greens and potatoes and apples and King's Cake. 

So, each Twelfth Night, you ask yourself -- what is calling me?  To what must I re-dedicate my energies? When we make this rededication a ceremony, a prayer, it carries a lot more power than a "to do" list.  It sanctifies the calling, and calls the power of the universe to your declaration.  Light a few candles.  Burn some incense.  Play some music that empowers your prayer.  Just do it, and you'll experience for yourself the difference in the energy you experience.  

Twelfth Day is known as Epiphany on the Christian calendar.  It is the day that Mary presents her child at the Temple.  I see this story as metaphor -- the "mother" within us, which has labored to bring forth even the slightest inspiration, nurses and cares for this new light for 12 days, and then presents it to the altar, to the All That Is.  Still vulnerable, still in its infancy, still in need of nurture, protection and love, this new light must be presented to the Universe because the kind of blessing needed for this light to survive, grow and thrive can't be found in the limited power of the human.  It's the day we expose the dreams which are the most filled with light and potential, ask that they be sanctified, that we be sanctified as we nurture and care for the dreams that have called to us, have been born through us into the world and now must grow and mature.  

What this holiday reminds me is that our dreams are holy.  We conceive through a holy spirit (some call it inspiration, or intuition) that enters and lives within us - sometimes against our own will, despite our fears and refusals.  Mystics in all traditions know this - that inspiration comes to us, comes through us, but has a much greater source -- it is not born OF us, but through us.  

Spend some time today thinking about what those callings within you ARE, and dedicating yourself to nurturing them.  Say a little prayer -- do a little ceremony -- it doesn't matter which tradition.  What matters is that you realize just how powerful and magical those callings ARE, and how they illuminate the path to the most significant life you can lead, that which you are called to be.  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Gratitude AND Attitude

Those who know me know that, in addition to being a writer, playwright and educator, I founded an arts organization (Hidden River Arts) which has grown over the last ten years to include yearly fiction and drama competitions, an independent small press, an art gallery and arts outreach programs, including live events.  I am also an activist, with a passion for issues related to education.  It is in this role that I have struggled the most, often finding myself in despair over the terrible state of our public education in the U.S., the growing corporatization of education, through the corporate colonization of American higher education, and the push toward for-profit charter schools in K-12 education.  I despair of the deception, the greed, the cruelty I see in positions of power all around me.

Today, a dear friend, Lee Colston who is an extremely talented playwright and actor, and who is no stranger himself to the challenges and struggles of pursuing a vision, posted a Facebook comment about the fact that as humans, we tend to focus on the negative rather than being grateful for the positive.  

He's right, of course.  

But, it got me thinking -- how can we do both in the most powerful and effective way?  
The "Attitude of Gratitude" philosophy that is spoken of with a lot of "positive thought" gurus, including high profile people like Oprah Winfrey or Will Smith,  is a very valuable practice.  Being grateful and appreciative of the blessings that come our way is crucial in keeping a positive, grounded attitude about our lives.  But here's what I'm thinking:  Rather than "attitude of gratitude" being the phrase -- why not change it to "gratitude AND attitude"?  

If we could remain grateful and mindful of the blessings of our own personal lives -- for me that includes the health and well-being of my beloved children, the ways in which I've been blessed over the years to touch the lives of thousands of students, creative success, wonderful friends and colleagues, great artistic experiences, wonderful spiritual growth and blessing -- that would go a long way toward grounding us, strengthening us as individuals.  We could walk in the energy of appreciation and wonder, conscious of the many gifts we've been given.  

But, that doesn't round out the larger aspects of our time on earth.  Gratitude for our individual blessings is one half of our world. "Attitude" -- and by that I mean the chin out, steely-eyed ferocious determination to remain active and involved in the effort to make the world a better place for all -- is also essential.  We may never get to "perfect" --  but we've got to try.  We can't allow our gratitude and appreciation of our own blessings to create a kind of self-absorbed complacency -- or even a self-absorbed focus of great individual striving or effort -- that eclipses the needs of the world.  The groundedness we gain by acknowledging our blessings provides a strong rooted quality in us, as individuals, from which we can reach -- branch out -- toward activism on behalf of others.  For me, that means remaining active in issues of arts, education, and of social and economic injustice.  This has been hard, because of the frustration and set-backs, because of how quickly I begin to think in language of negativity - of "fights" and "conflicts" and "us or them" righteousness.  That, I realize, requires an "attitude" adjustment.  "Fight" and "conflict" are words of struggle.  Of course there IS struggle when we try to change the world.  But if the vocabulary we use shifts just a bit, it makes an enormous difference.  "Activism" means being active, taking an active role, in social issues.  It means playing a part in the human march toward a better life.  It means bringing our own sense of blessing to the table, of wanting to share what we know of being blessed.  It means thinking of what we do in the larger context -- of it being part of the much larger human drama that we will never fully understand.  

It brings me to a film I re-watched just the other day, It's a Wonderful Life  The Jimmy Stewart character, George Bailey, is not aware of his own blessings, and of the way in which his actions blessed so many others.  He grows so frustrated with the difficulties and struggles of life, against the powers of greed in our world, that he feels his life is worth nothing, his efforts have been worth nothing.  In this terrific old Frank Capra film, the character is lucky enough to have a guardian angel show up to point out just how much of a walking miracle he is, the wonder his life has been.   The angel, Clarence, is able to say, "You've really had a wonderful life, George," as he shows him proof after proof.  

Since we don't live in a Frank Capra film, each of us has to summon up our own "angel" from within.  We have to go through the movie of our own life, and count up the many blessings and wonders of our existence.  But then, like George Bailey, we have to run back to our own Bedford Falls - whatever that is for each of us - with a sense of joy at the efforts we are about to resume, shouting in celebration a greeting to our opponents, addressing with laughter the obstacles that await.  

Gratitude AND Attitude.  A recipe for a wonderful life.