Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D. is a professor of comparative at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, focusing on global women’s literature, spiritual ecology and social and environmental activism through the arts. She will lead a workshop on purposeful memoir at this year\’s WriteAngles conference next Saturday. She has written the following account about her writing.
Since the 1960s, it’s been common knowledge that the personal is political – meaning, what happens in our personal lives is shaped by the larger social politics of our society, and our choices as individuals can in turn affect the political landscape.
When I woke up to the climate crisis, the environmental crisis and the Sixth Great Extinction, round about 2011, it became clear to me that a third “P” was needed: the personal is political and is also planetary.
We live our lives enmeshed not only in a social landscape, but also in a physical landscape, and how we live our individual lives affects the well-being not only of other humans, but also of all the myriad interconnected living beings on Earth.
It was a big wake-up call, to understand that all the effort I’d been putting towards human rights and social justice would be moot if our climate was wrecked, our food chains destroyed and our Earth poisoned, looted and denuded of life.
In 2011, I had already been working on my memoir for three years. It was a memoir, I thought, about growing up with privilege, and about having my eyes opened as a young adult to the suffering of others. It was about awakening to the importance of being an ally to those with less social power.
Once I became aware of the environmental crisis, I understood that there was a whole huge realm of suffering that was even more dire, and more in need of solidarity and alliance.
Who would speak for the truly voiceless in our human-dominated planet – the birds and the bees, the whales, and the coral reefs, the trees and other plants that make the oxygen we all need to survive?
My memoir shifted as I began working to understand how it had happened that I, such a “nature girl” as a child, had been socialized into forgetting all about this essential dimension of our lives. I realized that the way the planetary had receded into the background in my own life was replicated a billionfold in the lives of most people on Earth.
Working on my memoir helped me to see that what we need, as individuals and as a global society, is to bring the personal, political and planetary into alignment – meaning, we have to understand how our personal choices are shaped by and affect both the social and environmental landscapes in which we live.
This profound interconnection is expressed by the Buddhist concept of “inter-being.” We “inter-are” with everything else on the planet. The Western attitude of individualism, separatism and exceptionalism is an illusion bred by the arrogant thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment, which was in fact the beginning of a 500-year period of gathering darkness, leading us to the crisis moment we face today.
No matter what you think your memoir is about, we have all, inescapably, been part of the political and planetary patterns of our lifetimes. I was born in 1962, the year Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and just before the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X. I was too young to understand the tumult around me in my early years, and yet these political and planetary happenings shaped who I would become.
Purposeful memoir that aligns the personal, political and planetary is not only concerned with the past, but also with the present as a springboard to the future. We take stock of our life histories, as individuals and as members of various Earth communities, in order to envision how we can take what we’ve learned, share it with others through our writing, and move into the next stage of our lives with the explicit goal of, as I put it in my memoir, “doing hope with others”: thriving on the personal, political and planetary levels.
This kind of memoir is a slow, deep, grounded form of activism, and I believe it’s just as important as marching and shouting and signing petitions. The more of us who take the time to do the deep work of understanding our own life histories and how our individual lives have intertwined with the larger human and non-human communities on the planet, the stronger we will stand as Gaian warriors who fight for Life.
At this year’s WriteAngles conference, I’ll be leading a workshop in purposeful memoir that will invite participants to align the personal, political and planetary in their own life experiences, beginning with childhood and adolescence. How have our lives have been shaped by the families, communities and places we have lived? How can we use purposeful memoir as a springboard to launch us more intentionally into the thriving future we yearn for?