Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A writer confronting these tumultuous times

As you can see from the date of my last post, I've had a little trouble finding the inner space to write about writing as I, like so many culture workers these days, grapple with the tumult of our cultural moment. I am not surprised by it. I've been writing and speaking of "The Great Unraveling," as some call it, for quite a while now. But to see it actually unfold...and so fast...

The great Buddhist scholar and deep ecologist, Joanna Macy, speaks of this decisive moment when how we humans choose to proceed has existential consequences unlike any we have faced before as a species. That is not a comfortable place to find ourselves. And this decisive moment comes just as the culture of this nation in which I live has gone into steep decline. Even if our former paradigm of constitutional order based on capitalist western democracy was still dominant, we would have (and have had) grave cultural challenges in addressing this time of crisis, but even that paradigm itself is now unraveling.

Photo: Margaret Swedish
Culturally, less and less is holding us together. For a social justice oriented baby-boomer who has spent her life in the work for human, political, and civil rights, I can attest that this was not what we hoped for, not what we foresaw through those eras of anti-war work, civil rights advocacy, advances in voting rights, women's rights, LGBT rights, labor rights, and our ability during the Central America solidarity movement to blunt some of the most repressive aspects of US foreign policy in the region.

But we see now what reaction can do - especially when funded by billionaires and millionaires with their immense resources to manipulate messaging and buy many of the very forms of media (TV, newspapers, talk radio stations, etc.) that once communicated those movements out into the culture.

And of course debate is raging about the ways in which social media have become a means of distorting facts and reality until we actually have a discourse on what is called a "post-truth" culture.

Post-truth? There is such a thing? Actually, let's just call it what it is: propaganda and bias vented out into the world as if it is the same thing as news, facts, and reality.

So what is a writer to do?

Writers work with words. And if there is one thing we know, it's that words matter. Each word or phrase shapes a story, a line of poetry, an essay. We choose them carefully for a reason. There is intent behind them. We re-read and re-edit over and over again to "get it right," the meaning or the clarity that we are going for. Sometimes it is not the thing itself but the metaphor that opens the lens through which we are hoping to get people to "see" what we see. If the vision is not true, it won't work.

Photo: Margaret Swedish
The lenses offered to us right now in the political culture simply do not work because they do not show us the "real" world. But they are giving a fantasy world to many people looking for glimmers of past hopes and ruined dreams, of what life was once like inside one's own tribe before the demographic shifts underway worldwide began to encroach on those tribal identities. It seems easier to retreat into what once felt sure and secure, and there are plenty of "post-truth" sources of propaganda and manipulative media trying to reassure the fearful and anxious that they can restore that old myth of unchanging certainty within the confines of former tribal identities.

In other words, those "sources" are lying to them - to them, to us, to the unraveling culture. Seems to me one role of the writer is to be clear about what we mean. This nation's people are being lied to. This is not new, it's just different now, has a different feel, because the lies are an essential aspect of the unraveling. When we cannot agree that we are approaching parts-per-million of carbon in the atmosphere that will create climate chaos and the end of "civilization" as we have known it, even though the facts say so, we no longer have a common language, common fact-based truths, facts upon which we can base our decisions on how to proceed.

So, I got a bit stuck over the autumn months. I had clear intention to finish the book I've been working on for a couple of years that grew out of my trip along the Athabasca River in Alberta from the Rocky Mountains to the tar sands industrial region, what I sometimes call my "ecological lamentation," a probing of the deep meaning behind what the fossil fuel industry is doing to the planet's ecosystems, a story enhanced by the work I have done since - workshops and presentations on the ecological crisis and its cultural and spiritual meaning, on pipelines and environmental ruin and where in the world new communities are rising up to reject these things.

Credit: David Goldtooth
But as I was finishing the manuscript, in May the forests around the tar sands burst into flames - result of years of drought and record heat - and the city of Ft. McMurray, the economic center of the industry, also burst into flames and a third of the city was destroyed. And then, over the summer, the Standing Rock #NoDAPL movement emerged, changing the story again. And then the election, and the story changed yet again. Well, I knew I couldn't end at the ending I had written. The book needed at the very least an afterword. There was something more that needed to be said about this moment at which we have arrived, when, for example, ExxonMobil rises to political power as the next step in its corporate power grab, which does not bode well for our future.

I am finally ready to write that. And knowing this, I am finally ready to submit it somewhere. We'll see what happens in 2017. Meanwhile, I do have a couple of things that appeared in Wisconsin pubs this fall. Stoneboat Literary Journal out of Sheboygan published one of my poems, entitled "Pratt Pond," which I was able to read in their public launch here in Milwaukee, and "Creative Wisconsin," the new literary journal from the Wisconsin Writers Association, published a little essay of mine in their debut issue, entitled, "Reflection from the Last Dark of Night."

Hopefully a couple of looming submission deadlines will get me hunkered down these weeks of January with my journals and at my computer with the internet turned OFF! There is so much going on inside for all of us that part of the challenge is just to settle down and allow the words to come. Even if they come out scattered in a thousand directions, there will be plenty to pull in, to wrestle with, about which to find some truth.

Thanks for reading. My biggest and most important intention as the number on the calendar changes is to just get back to writing, and more writing (also, for my work, more speaking and workshopping and connecting with creative grassroots communities), and to connect more regularly with the community of writers in this area because we all keep saying how crucial that is to keep our sanity, to stay rooted, and to support one another.

For the New Year - Margaret Swedish


  1. Thank you for writing. Thank you for sharing your value set, for enlightening us on how our world is working, and what you have learned about people and cultures. I look forward to your provocative words.

  2. And thanks back to you. May we all find our way as we move into a new year. It ain't gonna be easy.