Transitioning from Transition Times to The Spirit of Education: A Last/First Post
This is a transition post from Transition Times, my blog spanning the years 2011 – 2022, to my new Substack blog, The Spirit of Education.
In 2011, when I started Transition Times, it was out of a desperate need to find and communicate with what felt like the precious few others who were awake to the climate catastrophe and Sixth Great Extinction. Back then these topics were rarely reported in the mainstream media and no one I knew seemed to be aware of what I felt so keenly, happening all around me. Walking through forests that were growing more and more silent as the songbirds disappeared, I felt so alone in my terrible grief. I reached out the only way I knew how: through writing.
And I was amazed and delighted to find, almost instantly, a circle of people who shared my fear and sorrow, and were eager, like me, to try to avert the worst disasters—although we were clear-eyed about the reality that these huge Gaian changes were gaining steam year by year, and there was no going back to the placid pre-Industrial Age. Adapt and mitigate were the watchwords, even as we protested the hegemony of the fossil fuel industry at every opportunity and tried to encourage the nascent renewable energy infrastructure.
As I wrote my way through the decade, I wrote about the good things that happened: the joy of Obama winning a second term, the wonderful surprise of the Supreme Court affirmation of gay marriage, the gathering force of environmental organizations like Extinction Rebellion, and the emergence of passionate advocates like Greta Thunberg.
I wrote about my own ongoing explorations of spiritual ecology, sharing my encounters with favorite authors like Joanna Macy and Andreas Weber, and my growing affiliation with organizations like the Bioneers. I started Transition Times with the promise that no topic would be “too far out” in my quest to understand and find a way through the morass of our time; I explored everything from indigenous spirituality to quantum theory to solar engineering and the psychology of persuasion.
I also responded, often hotly, to current events—the endless parade of political nightmares and environmental tragedies. And as my form was the personal essay, I shared quite a bit about the ups and downs of my personal life too.
At times, I talked about how distressed and disillusioned I was becoming with the educational system, the machine in which I functioned as a low-level cog—that is to say, a college professor at a small liberal arts college. My college was founded as an experiment—the first residential early college in the US, for bright 16-year-olds—and it was not only my employer for many years, but also my alma mater. It had sparked the flourishing national Bard Early College Network and was part of the global Bard Open Society University Network, in which I was happy to teach students from all over the world. As colleges go, my college was among the best. And still…I could not shake the growing feeling that we were not serving our students well, and that it wasn’t the fault of our college, but a problem with the entire educational system, from kindergarten on up.
Everything I read in the conventional educational theory and praxis literature just seemed like tinkering around the edges of the machine, adding a little more oil here or a new contraption there, so that the existing machine could continue to pump out well-prepared workers to join the capitalist conveyer belt—the very conveyer belt that I knew was leading us all over the cliff of climate disaster environmental collapse.
Part of the problem in education is how siloed the different fields of study have become. Environmental issues are discussed in environmental studies classes, but totally ignored in other classes. As a humanities professor, I set out to do what I could to break down this unspoken wall. I had been teaching literature and human rights / social justice classes for a long time, but post-2011, I began to shift towards literature, both fiction and non-fiction, that foregrounded the environmental crisis and climate justice. My Women Write the Worldclass began to focus on books and other media by women leaders in the environmental movement, and my journalism classes abandoned the pretense of objectivity, morphing into communications classes on how to advocate for social and environmental justice in ways that encouraged people to become more active, rather than to despair and tune out.
In these years, I wrote and published a memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered, which set my personal life story against the larger backdrop of my time and place, and talked about how my early love for nature had been socialized out of me by my culture and education. The Ur story of that memoir turned out to be about how, at age 8 or so, I wrote a story about a wood nymph named Estrella who gathered a group of animals to try to save their forest, which was being logged. But my child self could not figure out how to stand up to the loggers, so I never finished the story. In writing my memoir, I realized that Estrella is still there, waiting for me to find a way to save her beloved forest. And I am still groping my way towards solutions…but my child’s eye instinct to gather a group together to tackle the problem still holds true. The problems we face now are far too great for any one person to solve alone.
I have long had an instinctive pull towards creating communities. During the Transition Times years, I founded and led the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, dedicated to creating more spaces for women writers to strengthen their voices as they connected with each other and with audiences. I co-founded and led a small press, Green Fire Press, dedicated to publishing “books that make the world better.” More recently I co-founded an online community for writers, Birth Your Truest Story, also dedicated to encouraging writers of all ages and many walks of life to tap deeply into their creativity and express what is in their hearts.
In my individual and community work, I realized how important it is to “align the personal, political and planetary,” by which I mean to understand more deeply how one’s own life story is conditioned and shaped by one’s time and place. I coined the term “purposeful memoir” to refer to memoirs that share life stories in the hope of benefiting others, as I had done in my own memoir.
In my latest book, Purposeful Memoir as a Quest for a Thriving Future, I share the stories of purposeful memoirists who have changed the world for the better—I call them “worldwrights,” taking off on the word “playwrights”: playwrights write plays, worldwrights write to right the world. Among the worldwrights I discuss are Joy Harjo, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, John Perkins, Terry Tempest Williams and many more. In this book, I share my “alchemical” approach to purposeful memoir, “saluting the positive and transmuting the negative” in one’s life story. Through a series of writing prompts (I call them “catalysts”), I send the reader on eight “Quests” for positive qualities that we need to cultivate in order to co-create the thriving future I still believe is possible for humans on Earth.
All through these years, I have been dedicated to exploring spiritual, esoteric and mystical traditions, and how traditional and contemporary metaphysical wisdom intersects with cutting edge quantum theory. An instinctive “nature mystic” myself, I was raised without religious training, and that granted me freedom to follow my own curiosity wherever it led me. Knowing that the Abrahamic religions had cut humans off from nature, paving the way for the exploitation and destruction that spawned the current climate and biodiversity crisis, I focused my explorations on other spiritual traditions: Buddhism, shamanism from many cultures, channeling and direct transmission, transpersonal psychology and psychedelic means of opening portals into higher consciousness.
In a way it feels like I have taken myself through a whole new PhD curriculum in spiritual ecology over the past decade. In The Spirit of Education, I will be trying to synthesize and share what I’ve learned—a dissertation in blog posts, you might say. The Teachers who have impacted me most have been nonphysical, channeled or met on spiritual journeys by individual humans who had the honor of serving as the receivers and transmitters of their teachings. A key tenet, repeated over and over throughout the spiritual literature, is that all humans have this built-in capacity to receive wisdom from Source—we do it every night in our dreams, which function as a kind of Soul-level World Wide Web. But this capacity has not been cultivated in recent generations; these days we are losing the capacity to daydream, and even our nighttime sleep is being disrupted.
The modern educational system plays a major role in shutting down children’s innate creative abilities, turning us firmly away from the spiritual potential of “make-believe” as we are initiated into the secular materialism of “the real world.” We are educated to become producers and consumers of images and goods that feed the profit-driven growth machine of the capitalist system. Even though we know that human consumption has exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth, the machine roars on, and the educational system continues to initiate young people based on the driving visions of the 18th, 19th and 20thcentury Euro-American corporate capitalist masters, who imagined and then manifested a reality built on extraction, exploitation and the conversion of “raw materials” into money in the bank.
The dreams of corporate capitalist hegemony now rule our world. But they are not inevitable.
In The Spirit of Education, I will be exploring the constant interplay between spirit and matter that animates all life on Earth, drawing on the insights of quantum physics as well as spiritual inquiry in my search for guidance that will help us transition rapidly to a life-enhancing society. The focus of education must shift from “sustaining” the current civilization, which has been so harmful for so many, to reimagining and regenerating a new epoch on Earth. I call this new era the Gaiacene—the era in which we humans embrace our role as conscious stewards of life on Earth and channels of the creative power of the spiritual matrix that underlies everything.
Ultimately, my aim is quite practical: I seek knowledge and educational techniques that will give people of all ages, but especially our young people, the wisdom and skills they will need to cope with the challenges of the coming decades.
I welcome your thoughts and suggestions as I set out on this journey, and at every step along the way. The thriving future we yearn for is ours to co-create. What are we waiting for? Let’s go!
Photo by J. Browdy