Monday, December 24, 2012

Dear Governor Cuomo: Won't you be an environmental Santa, too?

This morning I read Bill McKibben's article about the environmental Santa Claus, the Mayor of Seattle Mike McGinn, who has vowed to divest the city from fossil fuel investment.

What a lovely gift right before Christmas and New Year's!

I then received a holiday email letter from my very own Governor Cuomo.  Nothing personal, mind you, just the mass mailing to all New Yorkers.  

Still, how very nice to hear from him.

I took the opportunity to thank Governor Cuomo for thinking of me and all of us. 

So, call me greedy, but I also responded with my Christmas wish list (okay, I'm Jewish/Buddhist, and Santa doesn't come to my house, but I can dream, can't I?).  I'm not asking for gifts under the tree.  I'm asking for clean and safe air, water, food and products--free of toxic chemicals and radiation. I'm asking the Governor to fight climate change. I'm asking for a safe future for all children: a livable planet.  

Dear Governor Andrew Cuomo,

Thanks so much for your holiday letter.

You have an opportunity to do something really meaningful on this holiday.  Like the Mayor of Seattle, you can be an environmental Santa Claus, too.  Yes, you can help change the course of human and planetary history!  Yes, you can save us all!  

Here's my Christmas wish list.  Please:

1) Ban Fracking permanently in New York State.  Fracking pollutes, pollutes, pollutes--gas, chemicals, and uranium in our water.  No thanks!

2) Shut Down Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant (35 miles from NYC) before we have another Fukushima--this time, in a densely populated area of four million people.  Shut it down, please!

Divest all NY state funds from fossil fuel investment.  The ice caps are melting, the seas are rising, the weather is crazy.  Save NYC, NY State, and the world! 

Ban all assault weapons and hand guns in NY.  Gun control, now!

Support the Safe Chemicals Act and institute 'Safe Chemicals' legislation in NY.  Keep the toxins out of our products, air, water, and soil. Our bodies can't handle the burden of more poison.

Amen and thank you from all the children present and future. 

Yours truly,

Dr. Heidi Hutner

Feel free to copy my letter, or write your own.  If you live in a different state, adjust your letter as necessary to the needs of your location. Write to your own Governors and Mayors.  Their job is to protect, us, the citizens of the United States.  We have a right to clean and safe air, water, soil, products, and food.  Remind them!  Remind yourselves! Wouldn't it be nice to have a country full of environmental Santas protecting our safety and health? 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Violent America, or The Hunger Games

The Northeast has suffered a lot this fall.  First there was Sandy, now the Newtown slaughter.  Many died in Sandy, and many continue to suffer from the storm.

This past week, in Connecticut, 27 people died violent deaths.  Twenty of these folks were small children.  It's inconceivable on the one hand, and yet children and innocent people are murdered every day throughout the U.S. Over 10, 000 human beings are killed yearly with handguns.

There have been 61 incidents of mass murder since Columbine in 1999.

I agree with Michael Moore, that the violence is about more than weak gun laws or mental health issues--although clearly both are problematic and I'm all for instating rigid gun regulations, and improving our mental health system.

Like Moore, I think the problem has to do with our culture.  We live in a land of glorified violence and meanness.  Turn on the TV, go to a Hollywood film, play a few internet games, listen closely to our language, and watch how our children do or don't play.  And, let's not forget our investment in wars and violence worldwide; we, the great American protectors, do a lot of killing on this planet.  Notice how much we spend on our weapons--including thousands of nuclear missiles set on hair trigger alert, even though the cold war is over.  We spend far more on the military than on education, the environment, and feeding and caring for the hungry and poor--all put together.

We are a violent nation.

Our culture of violence lives deeply in each and every one of us, and that is why our streets --even in "good" surburban neighborhoods--are empty of children playing.  We are all afraid.

Because of this fear, children have had the play taken out of them and this contributes to the cycle of violence.  We keep them inside, and/or busy with structured activities, because we're afraid for them, and yet, ironically, our children watch hours and hours of violent images on their computers, smart phones, and TVs.  We all know the statistics of how many deaths, rapes, and murders kids see each week on their screens.

Of course, there are the children of less privilege.  Shootings are nothing new to the kids from poorer neighborhoods.  They can't go outside without getting shot, every day, every hour.

No wonder our kids bully each other mercilessly.  And, no wonder the violence keeps escalating.  It's what popular culture represents as normal and acceptable.  Fear and violence are fun(ny) and entertaining.

A few examples:

Check out the popular reality show Dance Moms.  The entire drama centers around mothers and their shared dance teacher screaming at each other.  They have near-physical fights over dance parts for the girls.  The little girls sit quietly and watch their elders battle it out.

Harry Potter, everyone's favorite kid movie, is jam-packed with violence and edge- of-your-seat fear.

What about that other recent favorite --The Hunger Games--where children brutally and elaborately murder each other and only one--the most cleverly violent of all, survives?

I'm not just blaming Hollywood or the media, though.  I'm blaming all of us.

Maybe now, since Newtown and the murder of such young innocents, we'll wake up and work for effective change--legally and ideologically.  Obama and Congress, as well as all American citizens, must not ignore this issue anymore.  There's too much visible blood on everyone's hands.

Senator Richard Blumenthal says this is a "transformative moment."

President Obama says, "this violence must end" and, today, he pledges action.

As Van Jones points out regarding the climate crisis, change has to come from the top (politics and the legal system), the bottom (grassroots activism) and the inside (what I like to think of as the internal heart of our culture). The same goes for our crisis of violence.  We need our politicians to protect us from the weapons with gun laws and the elimination of imperialistic war-mongering.  We need activists to push for this change to happen.  And, the citizens of this nation need a change of attitude: from violence, hostility and anger, to tolerance, peace and love.  This might sound radical.  It is.

In the 1960s, a movement rose up, a movement of peace that drew on the work of Gandhi.  Peaceniks marched to end the Viet Nam war and advocated on behalf of widespread non-violence.  At the end of the war, they fought to eliminate nuclear weapons.  Peaceniks united with the Civil Rights movement to end racial violence as well.  They practiced non-violent methods of protest--if the police attacked them, they went limp.  Remember the famous photograph of the protester putting a flower in the nozzle of a weapon?

Their motto was: "Teach Peace."

They promoted love, tolerance, and understanding.  They said we must talk to each other, lay down our weapons, and learn effective and peaceful communication skills.

Parents stopped buying their children toy weapons.  They wanted to eliminate the idea of violence as acceptable even in play.

These folks stopped the Viet Nam War.  They helped to get rid of the Jim Crow and other racially discriminatory laws.

Isn't it about time we listened to their wisdom?

It's time to talk peace education in our schools, religious institutions and in our homes. It's time to rebuild our towns, cities, and nation, and re-envision what a truly "peaceful and sustainable community" might look like.

A terrific new student-lead peace project is the Teach Peace Initiative.  Get your kids, families, and schools involved in this one!

As David Roberts eloquently says in his piece at Grist about the Newtown massacre, we need to develop personal and cultural "empathy."  We must recognize that the children who were murdered in Newtown are "all of our children."

Ultimately, only when we hold each child on this earth in our hearts will deep and effective peaceful change arise.   In my mind, this also includes the ignored underprivileged children who are violated, raped, and killed every day across the globe.

If all children are all of our children, how can we think of building and selling weapons?  How can we start and fight wars?  How can we allow the poisoning and degradation of the biosphere?

So, as we bury and mourn the loss of these sweet innocents in Newtown, we must make our goal the widespread cultural development of compassion, empathy, and love-- and, finally, peace.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Leaf blowers

Next door: there are six men with leaf blowers. 

They have been blowing for two hours.   There were no leaves when they started.  There are no leaves when they are done.  They blew the all the leaves away several weeks ago after Sandy.  

Yet every week the men come and blow anyway.

I suppose they need the dollars to feed their families back home, but they're polluting the air and it is so loud.   

I want to cry for the earth, but I have no [more] tears.

I want to scream, but I don't.

The grass they walk on is new. 

A month ago the men pulled up the old grass and rolled out at a bright green carpet in its place and poured toxic liquid on top so it would be yet brighter.

Now I won't grow vegetables next summer, as the chemicals from next door will seep into my garden. 

What is to be done in America? 

We've lost our minds.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Disaster in Coney Island-Help is Needed Now

In the wake of writing my own Sandy story yesterday, I came upon a friend of a friend,  Eric Moed, and his work in Coney Island, post Hurricane.  What he speaks of echos the words of my students about elderly facilities they work at, and the town of Island Park, near Long Beach, which as been abandoned post Sandy.

This is an environmental justice story:  The poor, the elderly, the underprivileged, and the racially discriminated against are the hardest hit by such climate change disasters.  It is horrifying how our government turns a blind eye on the neediest.

They are receiving NO aid, food, or services.  NOTHING.

Bodies are piling up.

Occupy Sandy has come to the rescue, but they need our help, too.   Please share the following story far and wide.  The Occupy Sandy movement exhibits the very positive side of environmental and human rights activism:  love and caring.

Here are Eric Moed's chilling words:

I just graduated architecture school at Pratt Institute and go involved with Occupy Sandy when the hurricane hit. To be clear: I had absolutely nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street, nor did I even care for them too much. However Occupy Sandy has utilized the positive and successful aspects of OWS such as crowd-sourcing, press, and zero hierarchy/quick mobilization of people in line with one principal: to provide immediate and responsible mutual aid. Mutual aid differs from charity as it consists of community building- to help communities organize to help themselves.

I have been out in the Coney Island Housing Complexes (located at 2828 Neptune Avenue, Southern Coney Island) for a week now. Seven 18 hour work days with NO FEMA, NO Red Cross, No NYCHA, No NYC representatives.

There are ZERO agencies out in the Coney Island Housing, Odwire Gardens Housing or Surfside Houing right now. NO FEMA, NO RED CROSS, NO NYC HOUSING, NO AUTHORITIES WHATSOEVER. The FEMA tent is a 20 minute walk away. The Red Cross has BARELY been there [they sometimes send one truck for 15-20 buildings once or twice a day].

The only presence of bigger foundations/organizations is in the 'sexier' part of Coney Island, near the Cyclone, Nathans Famous and the Boardwalk- a 20+ minute walk from the NYCHA Housing Complexes.

Within the buildings there are:
There are elderly people stuck on the top floors in pitch-black conditions with NO FOOD AND WATER. Families with no food to feed their children. Mothers with no baby formula or wipes. Diabetics and asthmatics with no medicine. THERE HAS BEEN NO POWER, HEAT OR WATER FOR TWO WEEKS. Next to no one has flashlights and/or batteries.

My small crew of volunteers PERSONALLY gave out these goods to the above people in need and encouraged them with what little info and energy we had. We saw the issues first hand.

I am a coordinator for People's Relief- a group of normal citizens who saw a need and filled it. We are not Occupy Sandy but have been consistently working directly with them- using their amazing and organized resources.

More importantly People's Relief works DIRECTLY with the Presidents of the Coney Island Houses and the Odwire Houses. Today we used the community rooms in multiple buildings a relief sites- distribution for all necessities like food, water, batteries, baby supplies, feminine products ect. We expect to do this in more buildings.

All of the supermarkets and bodegas within a 15 minute walk of the above Housing have been flooded or looted. THERE IS NOWHERE NEAR THEM TO BUY FOOD.

We've seen the most traumatic things you can imagine: There are bodies being pulled out of buildings. Children sleeping on filthy flood-damaged floors. Resident's heating their homes using their stoves and poisoning themselves. Elderly people with no one to talk to living alone on an entire floor: nowhere to even defecate, let alone eat.

The staten Island Borough President said shortly after the storm: "The government is there to do for people what they cannot do for themselves." We pay our taxes- so WHERE ARE THEY?

Lastly, to state the severity of the absolute oversight of these tens-of-thousands of residents: An elderly woman said to me the other day- "Help! Are you from the Red Cross?"

I responded: "No, I'm from New York."


To get involved and help out, go to  for the latest information!  Your time and donations are deeply needed and appreciated.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Diary

Hurricane Sandy Diary

Day 1.  I'm scared. The house is really dark. The phone no longer works. We light candles and I have a solar lamp if we need it.  This is the second storm like this in a year. It's my daughter and me. I'm texting my friends and family in California and they give me the news. I worry about the nuclear power plants along the east coast.  Will their generators hold out? What about flooding?  All through the night, the wind rages and we have no idea what's happening, where the storm is now. I hear more crashing outside. Earlier, I was saying my last words to my cousin in Brooklyn on the phone, and  there was a loud buzzing sound and a huge flash of light; that's when the power went out. A tree fell across a power line and the sky lit up.  No fire as far as I can tell from my windows. More texts from friends about Oyster Creek and Indian Point. My friend Stephen texts me from California and says it's the widest storm in history and we are at the center.  I imagine a white swirl covering us.  I wish there were more people in this house.  How many days will we be without power?  It could be a long time. Last time, it was 12 days.  What if it's longer?  How cold will we be?  I filled my car with gas today and the gas station was so busy I backed into something and broke my tail light.  We can leave, maybe, if we need to?  Where would we go? How far can one tank of gas take us? Long Island makes me feel claustrophobic. I hate when they close the bridges. I feel so stuck here.

Days 2, 3, 4. It's very cold here. Colder and colder and quiet. Nobody comes by except one friend. He inspects the house and says we are safe.  We walk around the outside.  It's such a mess.  Debris everywhere.  The air smells weird and damp.  The house smells damp.  We take cold showers.  It's too cold to wash our hair. We drive to a nearby store and see a hair salon that says "Hot water. free hair washing." The man washes our hair. The warm water on my head feels so wonderful.  I'm tired of cold food. We read under the covers.  My fireplace is useless.  It doesn't make real heat--not enough to make a difference.  I don't want to use the gas in my car so we stay home and the roads are covered with trees and wires.  No sign of LIPA. New York officials seem to have abandoned the suburbs. I miss hot coffee.

Day 5.  I dreamt last night about my three birds—a cockatiel, and two parrots-creatures from other lands, displaced and domesticated to live in cages in artificially constructed human-made environments. 

Two of these birds died over the past two years. In my dream, we are in my garage. The birdcage and the garage door are open. It's a dangerous combination. Only one bird (the living one), a bright yellow cockatiel, perches in an open cage. I fear he will fly out and away--into the cold and die.  Just then, my daughter runs past and opens and runs through a door that leads into the house. The cockatiel (still living) flies after my daughter and into safety. Relief. I turn back to the cage and see the other two birds who, in ‘waking life’, are dead. They perch on top of the open cage. They don’t fly away. Elated, I call out to my ex-husband: “They are here, they are here.” I go to the parrots—one bright green, and the other orange and yellow like the sun, and carry them back into the house, into safety.

Things are as they used to be. Before Sandy. Way before Sandy. 

I wake up in the very early morning confused. Where am I? We are not home, my ex-husband is not with us, and the two birds I just carried into safety are dead. 

It's five days post-Sandy.

Yes, as of last night, since we first moved to our friends' house (their electricity was restored, and ours was not), we have a warm place to stay.

I am grateful for the kindness of friends and warm place to sleep, but the world still feels scary and unpredictable.

We hear and see horror stories about homes, people, and cars washed away; about fires, floods, and trees falling and crushing houses, cars, and human beings.  Houses around mine have been crushed.  Down the block from my house, there is a river where there used to be a road.  Electrical wires dangle everywhere. Supermarket shelves are empty.  Gas is scarce and there are long lines and sometimes guns.  Communication is so difficult and information hard to gather if you don't have power.  We communicate via text and charge the phone in the car. Support from the outside world is not there. There are deaths and suffering. Travel is dangerous and impossible in many locations. Getting off Long Island is treacherous. The weather grows colder by the day, and a Nor’easter is on its way. Schools are closed. There is no sign of when things will return to normal. Nobody knows. 

Life imitates art. Life imitates scientific predictions.  We’ve been warned for years. 

This isn’t just one fluke hurricane.  It’s called climate change. I heard Heidi Cullen speak at my university less than a year ago about the wild weather patterns and tragedies to come. She said every other year. This is two years in a row.  I show the films Earth 2100 and Everything's Cool in my classroom, and teach books like Into the Forest, Year of the Flood, and Parable of the Sower.   

I feel like I'm inside the pages of these books.

They say everything changes. Everything.  Now the weather is changing. It's eerie. The air feels strange. I cannot find words to describe it.  Perhaps we'll need new words for weird weather, just the way the Eskimos have many words for snow.  Will they lose these words when the snow vanishes?  These thoughts make me sad.

In Buddhism they talk about “impermanence.”  Nothing lasts forever, everything changes moment to moment, and it is our attachment to things remaining the same, or operating as we think they should, that makes us unhappy. It’s how we deal with change, or loss, that defines our experience of life. Clinging to a particular outcome results in  “attachment.”  Attachment results in all kinds of problems and pain. By contrast, if we expect and accept change and loss—- “impermanence”-- we can be happy, peaceful, calm. 

This includes death, divorce, pets flying away or being devoured by predators.

It includes climate change.  How do I accept this?  How?

I find it difficult to accept what is happening to our earth. The sight of huge and majestic fallen trees makes me weep. These creatures are upended everywhere. Wild black birds come to perch on them, visiting their dying friends.  

Thoreau said the church bells should toll when a tree is cut down.  I hear many bells in my head and heart right now.

We are an island in mourning.


Day 6. We are still at our friends' house.  No news.  It's cold outside.  No sign of any trucks cutting down the fallen trees that block the roads, no fixing of fallen power lines.  Are they coming?  When?  Today we spent hours at a little cafe nearby where there was internet.  Small tables were packed with laptops and coffee cups.  There is nowhere to go.  I don't want to use up our tank of gas.  I don't know if we can fill up the car again once we do.  I hate gas. I hate what it's done to the planet, but here we are in the suburbs with no other viable way to get around. Buying food is a problem. The store near our friend's house has no food.  Trader Joe's, where I normally shop, is too far and I don't want to burn extra gas, and everyone says stay close.  My students on campus have electricity and internet.  I have not been teaching. I cannot get to campus without burning gas and there are no classes. I live an hour away. 

My daughter doesn't want to stay at our friends' house anymore. She wants her privacy. We're sleeping in the living room.  She's bored. They keep the heat up very high and it's too hot.  I say I prefer hot to cold, and she says she doesn't mind the cold. The bird, the cockatiel, would die in our home.

I like making dinner with our hosts and talking at night together.  It's quiet. There are no cars on the streets.

Day 7. Still at our friends' house. We don't want to waste gas, but I drive home to see if there have been any changes. Maybe the lights are on? Maybe the phones work. I miss my bed. Everything is the same. A tree remains crashed into my neighbor's house.  Other fallen trees have not been moved. The river down the street has drained.  I text my cousin in the city.  He says lower Manhattan is terribly flooded.  This still feels like science fiction. 

Day 8. Still at our friends' house.  My daughter is antsy to go home. My friends are very generous and allow my daughter to invite another teenager to sleep over. 

For me, the destruction of the planet, our human disconnection from the natural world, feel linked to my familial and human communal dis/connections.

Some days I feel okay with being a single mom and an orphan--a two-person family, mother and child. Some days, I am at peace with going it on my own. Other days—in the middle of a wild hurricane, for example, when the wind is howling, and the trees crash all around me--the worst fears erupt in my mind. In those moments, I long for an imaginary muscular dude, like my Dad, to save the day. A guy with an ax and good survival skills.  I imagine a big family sitting around the fire together, preparing for the storm and caring for one another. 

I miss my Dad. Or, some guy who is capable like my Dad was.  He was the old generation boy scout type. He fixed things. I was a girl scout. I learned nothing useful except how to sell cookies door to door. Oh, I did learn to sew an apron and a headscarf.  Sewing won't help me much now.

What kind of ecofeminist does this make me? Wanting a fix-it guy to save me?  Shouldn't I be happy wielding my ax alone? I don't actually have an ax. That's a metaphor.

I feel pathetic. I would not survive very long if/when the lights stay off, and this may happen permanently, and it certainly will happen like this more and more. Maybe the day will come when nothing gets turned back on? I'd better learn some skills fast and get myself into a sustainable community.  Right now we're sitting ducks. Waiting for someone to save us. There is no someone.

That community thing. Utopia. That's how I feel on this cold dark night as I write this--wondering what's going on in the world and how can I get off this island without running out of gas before I get someplace safe? Someplace safe?  Where would that be?

It’s a fantasy.  Maybe I’d want to run from my community members after living with them in close quarters after a year. I lived in a hippie artist co-op in Soho in the 1980s. There were fights. One co-op member deliberately set the building on fire. 

Sometimes it does work, though.  Look at Findhorn.  Look at the many sustainable communities springing up around the world.  I lived in such a community as a child in North Carolina. I spent time in a kibbutz.  I loved them both.

We really do need each other.  I realize it with Sandy now more than ever.  

If people were truly connected, how could we poison ourselves and the earth?  How could we doubt global warming and not do something about it?

How could we leave each other to die?


Day 10. After the Nor-Easter. I drive to the university to teach my classes.

We sit in a circle and I ask my students how they survived the storm. Their faces tell the story.  They look years older than they did a week ago--at our last meeting before the storm.

"It's not over," says Claire. "And what bothers me is that most students and people just care about themselves. Is my light on? Do I have gas in my car? Do I have to wait on a long line?"

One student, Melanie, tells a long story about several incomprehensible events.  Her grandfather, who uses an oxygen tank, was told by LIPA not to worry, they'd get him power within a few hours. But they didn't and he almost died.  Two houses belonging to her family members blew up- exploded.  A huge boat washed up in front of her house (that is not on water).  Neighborhoods have been destroyed and will never be visible again--they were washed away forever.  

Another student, Kimberly, tells of her job in a nursing home that lost power and was still unheated as of yesterday.  During this time, five elderly residents died.  Perhaps it was from the cold--Kimberly couldn't say for sure.  But she thought it was likely. "The saddest thing," she says, "is seeing these freezing and confused old people, bumping along the walls in the dark."

Anna, a chemistry student from Long Beach, who usually approaches things with much calm, opened her mouth to speak and burst into violent sobs. She had no words to share, but wrote to me the next day and sent photographs.  

Anna has this to say: "Long Beach has been getting a fair amount of press, not like New York City, but they are in the news. The bigger story, I think, comes from Island Park.  Island Park is a barrier island right next to Long Beach. It is a smaller community made up mostly of very poor people. Long Beach has gotten a lot of aid. Island Park got hit just as bad, has even more infrastructure damage, still has no power AND the people are socioeconomically disadvantaged so they don't even have the resources to help themselves. My mom is a public school teacher in Island Park, and apparently the situation there is really really bad right now."

Claire, who works as an RA in the dorms, says the stories she's hearing from students about their families are horrifying.

My students understand something is very wrong. 

They understand we are at war. It's a battle humans are waging against themselves and all living creatures.  It's a class war. It's an environmental war.


Day 11.   I am back home.  We have power as of three days ago, but 160,000 households in Long Island still don't have electricity and it's getting colder.  As soon as we return home, we take in another family, and my house serves as a warming and dinner station for a second. 

I take a walk this afternoon with my friend, Bette. She's a German biologist. Bette can build a house, grow an impressive organic garden, or run a full-scale experiment in a world class biology laboratory.

Bette and her family just got their power back. She has one disabled child. Her house was blocked for days by large trees that crashed across her front yard and driveway. The family couldn't go anywhere by vehicle, but they could walk.  

The house across the street from Bette's caught on fire from its generator. 

Like the rest of us, she's in distress. 

We run into men on the street with "National Grid" on their white helmets and big white trucks. The trucks and men look like life-size toy figures that little boys like to play with. 

Bette rails at the men. She tells them about a street near her filled with several old and disabled people: "No one has been by to turn on their power or check on them. When I call LIPA, they don't answer. When I call the town, they tell me to tell the old folks to call LIPA. How can the old or sick folks call anyone when the phones are not working? The lines are down! Cell phones don't work either.  It's insane. Those people are going to die in there." 

There appears to have been no governmental planning, no foresight. 

Right now it's the survival of the fittest, and I'm not exaggerating.

Day 12. Tomorrow, I'll visit my neighbor, Micky, who came home, last Thursday, to a cold and dark house after her double mastectomy. 

I go to my meditation class.  Paul, who is sick with cancer and in chemotherapy treatment, sobs through the whole session.  After, he apologizes. "I just can't take the cold," he says."My body can't take it. My apartment is so cold." I feel so bad for him.  He says he's moving to his sister's tonight and she has heat. "I'm sorry for crying," he says.

It's so complicated and confusing. There is climate change and climate denial, pollution and cancer and over-consumption. There are not nearly enough (or any, in some cases) governmental environmental regulations or disaster relief precautions in place.  Communities and families are socially disconnected, and there is a lack of every-day and basic survival skills-- all the things our grandparents used to know how to do, that could get us through a power outage, we've forgotten.

I need to learn canning, heat making, basic repairs, electrical wiring, farming.  I can't do anything. I'm an idiot. I can't take care of my daughter, not really.  Like so many, I'm reliant on a system that is no longer reliable.  I need skills.   

Something is wrong with the way I/we live.

Day 13-15. Back to work. We have heat and lights.  Will I remember this?  The sense of confusion?  Will others remember?  The air still feels weird.  Are the molecules screaming out to me?  I met a mother who fled, as I was about to do, and she got stuck in New Jersey, without gas, on the side of the road in the dark of the night with three boys.   

This is America. This is suburbia.  What's going to happen?  We are not prepared.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Women and Power at Omega Institute

A few weeks ago I attended the Women and Power Conference at Omega Institute, in Rhinebeck, New York.

It's becoming a habit, for me, to go back, year after year.   I love seeing old friends, meeting new ones, listening to inspirational talks and fantastic music, and moving my body to new rhythms.  For me, it's timely.  As a college professor, Women and Power coincides with the beginning of the school year.

What could be better than joining with women from all over the world, to share and learn more about women's global rights both in international political contexts and within the personal?  That's Women and Power's special gift--making the 'political' personally meaningful.

The line up of presenters included Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega; Sally Field, actress and humanitarian; Majora Carter, environmental justice activist; Eve Ensler, feminist activist and playwright; Isabelle Allende, writer; Chung Hyun-Kyung, Ecofeminist Buddhist and Christian Nun; Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parent; Bell Hooks, feminist writer and activist; and Gail Straub, women's and human rights activist, among many others.


Stories flowed and so did tears.  Women reached out to listen and hold each other and learn.

BRIDGES.  We learned of programs worldwide lead by women to build bridges, cross borders, and end prejudice and violence.

ARTS.  Women artists, writers, and musicians made a sacred space of and for creativity. Women drummed, cheered, danced and sang.

EMPOWERMENT.   Tales were told by NGO and GRASSROOTS organizers and business women of the good work they are doing worldwide.

SPIRITUALITY.  A wide variety of religious/spiritual practices formed a nurturing circle for the weekend.  Movement, yoga, breath work, meditation, prayer and drumming fed the spirit.

Some highlights:

The powerful speech by Eve Ensler about her cancer story, the need for speaking the truth (getting past the "Cassandra" myth) and about her incredible movement, One Billion Rising, set to end violence against women worldwide on February 14, 2013--V DAY. You can read her talk here.

Eve's rousing call to end rape and violence against women concluded with joyful drumming/music and five hundred women dancing.

A joyful moment happened when Chung Hyun-Kyung, Ecofeminist and Christian/Buddhist Nun- during her inspiring speech about the need to unite our world religions- bubbled up with laughter and exclaimed, "I'm having a group orgasm!"

Also to be noted and commended: Omega walks the walk.  Many scholarships are given to women from all over the world to attend.  Two years ago I brought four students on scholarship to Women and Power.  Lo and behold, I ran into one of these gorgeous young women, Saajida Stacker, now pregnant, with her little nephew and female cousin.  They came on their own to Omega, on scholarship.  I felt the blessings of passing the torch, to the babe in the womb, to the inner city little boy who played basketball while his mom and aunt participated in the conference.

Oh, yes, and there was fun:  yoga in the morning and afternoon, walks in the woods, and rowing on Omega's clear lake.  

At the Saturday evening gala celebration we listened to Isabelle Allende and Eve Ensler talk about how they move past the silences of female repression in their lives and work, and how they express the "female experience" in literature.

The evening closed with live award-winning music and dancing.

On the final day, we heard from Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, speak about the power and meaning of women's rights over their bodies.  Richard's words were poignant for me as an American woman, particularly during this presidential election period.  After listening--all weekend--to the stories about violence against women worldwide, and the dangers posed to women and girls in so many places on this planet, Richards reminded us that here, in the U.S., it really matters whom we vote for when it comes to women's health and human rights.

The thread of silence, violence, and oppression ran throughout the weekend--yet this was countered with inspiring stories of actions of and for healing, communication, reconciliation, and empowerment.

I left with a deep sense of gratitude and respect for all that women do across the globe to make radical change, and deep gratitude for the Omega's Women's Institute for bringing us together to learn of such remarkable work.

Will I come back again next year?  Oh yes.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sandra Steingraber's Living Downstream

This Saturday, October 20, 2012, at 2:00 p.m. in New York City, Living Downstream, the film based on Sandra Steingraber's stunning book of the same name--will have it's premiere in New York City at  Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.  It will have its broadcast premiere in November on Outside Television.

Living Downstream follows in the tradition of Rachel Carson's groundbreaking, Silent Spring (1962).   Indeed, Steingraber has been dubbed by many as a modern-day "Rachel Carson."

Living Downstream, first published in 1997, fell into my hands about ten years ago, only a few years after my own cancer diagnosis and loss of both parents to cancer.  At that time I suspected that the cancer in my life and all around me had something to do with our poisoned environment.  Steingraber's book answered my questions about the connections between pollution and cancer and opened up a new world of understanding. 

Living Downstream ultimately lead me down a new path both personally and professionally.  Steingraber inspired my transformation from an English professor of the British Eighteenth-Century, to an Ecofeminist writer, activist, professor, and mother. 

Now, I show the film Living Downstream, and teach Steingraber's work every semester in my college courses. Not only is the research groundbreaking and impeccable, but her beautiful prose narrative makes otherwise tedious data accessible to lay people.  By bringing in her personal story of cancer into the mix, Steingraber turns scientific facts about pollution and disease into something everyone can relate to. 

Recently, I spoke to Steingraber and I asked her what she most wanted to accomplish in the film and book.

She said she wanted to achieve two things.

First, Sandra explained,  "I wanted to tell the story of  how chemical pollutants are playing an under-represented role in the story of cancer."

Second, Sandra said, "I wanted to show how the 'happy' story of even a long-term cancer survivor like me, is not necessarily a story of triumphalism.  Cancer is not a gift. It’s a massive waste of time.  It triggers post-traumatic stress syndrome." 

In Living Downstream, the book, Sandra goes back and forth between scientific data linking toxics to cancer, and her own personal cancer story.  The film tends to focus mostly on the personal, so for those less interested in scientific data, the film is a bit easier to get into.  The film is visually beautiful, too, and it takes the viewer into the daily life of the biologist and cancer survivor.  We see where Steingraber grew up in Illinois, we see Steingraber in her home in upstate New York, we see her cooking and eating with her family, putting her children on the school bus, talking to her husband, and running.  It's an intimate portrayal.

One of the most dramatic moments in the film takes place when Steingraber makes her regular visit to the urologist's office for the dreaded "check up." This scene was not in the original version of Steingraber's book.  In the book, after several chapters of scientific information, Steingraber shifts to a description of the moment she was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age twenty in her doctor's office. 

Chanda Chevannes, the filmmaker, and Sandra Steingraber wanted to replicate this traumatic moment  in the film, which they obviously couldn't do in a documentary.  So, instead, they filmed Steingraber's visit to a urologist's office in the present--thirty three years after the original diagnosis.  

In this scene, Sandra undergoes a cytoscopic test.  As audience members, we witness, first hand, the fear and anxiety of the cancer patient--that feeling, Sandra describes as, "standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down into the abyss." 

"Certain scenes in the film and my life," Sandra explains, "like the sound of cystoscopic instruments being pieced together and laid in a tray, and the sounds of the KY jelly being  squirted out into an ultra-sound-- these are traumatic triggers" that bring back that first dramatic moment of the cancer diagnosis.  As Steingraber says, "you never stop being a cancer patient."

After I  show Living Downstream to my college classes, and the lights come up at the end of the film, there is the inevitable question.


"Why," students rightly ask, "are we producing such dangerous chemicals and poisoning our environment and bodies, and why isn't the government doing something to protect us?  If Rachel Carson made the point in 1962 that DDT causes cancer, why do we still produce thousands of such chemicals that end up in our food, water, toys, body products, clothing, furniture, and building materials--and, inevitably, in our bodies--all these years later?"  

These are the hard questions that Steingraber forces us to ask and face.

Today, several years after the making and writing of Living Downstream, Steingraber has become a leader against hydraulic fracking in her home of New York State.  She joins Josh Fox, filmmaker of Gasland, and Mark Ruffalo actor and activist, Julian Lennon and Yoko Ono, and thousands of others. 

"Fighting for the environment is our most urgent civil rights and justice issue today," Steingraber says. "Environmental rights are in the order of the women's right to vote in the early twentieth century, the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth, or the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth.  I like to believe that if I had been alive (and an adult) during those time periods, I would have fought for those causes as well."

Steingraber recently gave away her Theresa Heinz award for $100,000 to anti-fracking groups and she spends all of her non-parenting time stumping for the cause. She gave away this money while she hasn't had enough income to put aside money for her own children's college saving accounts.

"My children's college savings account," Steingraber says, is a  "safe and healthy earth. We're walking with targets on our backs right now in my little village in upstate New York, as the fracking trucks roll through in preparation to start the drilling." 

Steingraber says she can't be a "hepafilter" to protect her children and keep the poisons out of their home and bodies.

Perhaps not, but Steingraber can act with her pen, her heart, and her voice.  And she does.

-This piece is cross-posted on Ms. Blog and Tikkun.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Pace of a Long Distance Runner

I just read Ed Ayre's piece in Grist, What Runner's Teach Us About Sustainability, and I have to agree with him about the need for us to take a long distance runner's pace. 

Just yesterday I ran my first 10 K race--which is not long in the way Ed Ayres decribes, but still long and challenging for me (the quite hilly Cow Harbor Race in Northport, NY).  I found myself going slowly, not pushing things, and pacing myself.  I ended up with pretty good time in the end, but that wasn't the point.  There was quiet and a sense of community with my fellow runners and the folks in the town at large.  People came out with water for us; they cheered us on with songs and signs and hand slaps.  

For the rest of the day, my internal pace changed. I felt peaceful, moved slowly, "accomplished" and consumed less.  The day ended with a hike in a local park, where I looked at clouds and watched egret and Canada Geese fly in the sky. 

If as a culture we could slow down to the long distance runner's pace, that would be a good thing for the planet, and for us. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Another Birthday Poem

three o:clock
huge belly bursting
(dad parked the car while)
I pressed on my BIGNESS

I walked alone into a room of green
to a man afraid afraid of my BIGNESS
he said 'lay on your side'
& stuck a needle in my spine

I was not afraid but did not
see how you were to come out
any other way than 
with a knife

they strapped my arms
like Jesus
sliced open the skin
above my pubic bone
pushed & lifted you out
shot me full of pitocin to
stop my death
so much noise and business
blood flowed in liters
for a such a BIG birth

(dad said his prayer things
from the doorway)

they held you to
my face for  
a kiss I knew:

you were everything GOOD

(and would be very bald for a long time)

Now, taller than I
you still curl against me

Another birthday day
Another year
Another year of remembrance
Of the many deaths and the day
that began mine