“The renewable energy we need most is people power!”
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
AN EARLY SIGN of spring’s renewing power is the rise of common violets, pushing heart-shaped green leaves through even the thickest thatch of winter-mottled lawns and fields. And just in time for spring, Quaker writer and activist sends us all Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope.
This is a book about time and travel—and much like The Wizard of Oz, which we just wrote about recently, Eileen’s memoir carries us around the world yet brings us inevitably home again with a renewed love for our own back yard. She carries us through time, as well, greeting us in the opening pages at age 50, then looping us back through the decades to her days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. As we travel with her through the times and places that represent milestones in her life—she is inviting us as readers to reflect on the many twists and turns in our own lives.
You’ll walk away from this book less afraid of the future—and you may find yourself swept up in Eileen’s enthusiasm for rediscovering and renewing her life’s vocation in the second half of her life.
Mid-way through the book, she quotes Sue Monk Kidd’s description of this process: “When change-winds swirl through our lives, especially at midlife, they often call us to undertake a new passage of the spiritual journey: that of confronting the lost and counterfeit places within us and releasing our deeper, innermost self—our true self.”
That’s the hope that will rise through the winter-mottled thatch of your own life as you enjoy this new memoir.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH EILEEN FLANAGAN
DAVID: Let’s say I was introducing you at one of your public appearances. How should I describe you?
DAVID: Quaker first?
EILEEN: My hope is to reach a broader audience but I’ve decided “Quaker” is such an important part of my identity that I want to include it.
DAVID: Your website describes Quakers this way:
Quakers (also known as Friends) often speak of “that of God in everyone” to sum up the idea that each of us is connected to the Divine Spirit and can feel its guidance in our lives directly, without the need of a priest or minister. Quakers have also long held that faith should be expressed in the way we live, not just our words.
I think that’s a helpful description and it positions Quakers, or Friends, among religious groups in America as a very welcoming spiritual community—something lots of Americans are searching these days.
EILEEN: When I talk about being Quaker, I often joke that we’re not Amish because that’s a common misconception.
DAVID: I’m chuckling as you say that, because that’s a telling detail late in your new book. When you’re getting ready to take part in this big protest with Robert Kennedy Jr., the actress Darryl Hannah and the activists Julian Bond and Bill McKibben—you remember to put on mascara. Why? You tell your colleague it’s so they’ll know you’re not Amish.
EILEEN: When people hear the word “Quaker,” they think we’re associated with some bygone day. A lot of people think of the Amish.
To me the exciting thing about Quakerism is that we believe God’s guidance is continuously revealed. And, I think it is a very contemporary faith.
What’s really core about Quakerism? The direct relationship with the divine and that we experience that and test God’s guidance in community. In many religious traditions, if you feel you’re hearing some guidance from God, then you check that guidance with church leaders or with the Bible. In Quaker tradition, the community is really the check and balance with our religious experience.
‘THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING THE MANY’
DAVID: That’s a central theme in this new memoir—community. Again and again, you emphasize that, even though you have experienced a few shining moments with celebrities, this effort of raising awareness and changing our lives is really about—to borrow your phrase—“ordinary people” working in communities.
Here’s a passage I like from late in the book. You’re describing what you discovered in this long, reflective journey you’ve taken:
From Africa, to Appalachia, to Alberta, and right around the world, there were ordinary people stepping up to defend the future. Like the crowd that encircled the White House that February day, we were pouring forth—past the view of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken at the 1963 March on Washington, past the White House gate where Alice Paul had stood for women’s rights, past the wrought iron fence where I had stood a few days before. We were the many, emboldened by the realization we were not alone, and we were moving forward with hope.
And I have to say about that passage: That truth you were glimpsing is powerful stuff. And it’s not a foregone conclusion for most people. Just read James Gustave Speth’s Bridge at the End of the World to see how he prioritizes the most serious questions about the Earth’s future. One of the biggest questions Speth raises is: Do human beings care enough about the planet to act as a global community?
Your book is a resounding message: Yes, ordinary people can act in concert, if we recognize and act on that possibility.
One of the people who makes this point in your book is the famous activist and teacher George Lakey who says: “We need to have the experience of being the many.” George is a friend and mentor to peacemaker Daniel Buttry, who created the Interfaith Peacemakers project. I know you work regularly with George, Eileen, and I was so pleased to see him in this book.
EILEEN: George is a very strong proponent of the idea of focused, long-term campaigns. You pick a target and then you work on a long-term strategy for your campaign. That’s different than the kind of activism in which people decide to go to one big event a year and then go home.
So, a national march was happening and I said, “Let’s go to the march as a group.” Then I wondered: But, is this the sort of thing we should do? Are we tired of going to marches on the Mall? And, George got behind the idea.
George said, “We’re doing our work on our own, so it’s important to connect with others doing this kind of work.”
I hope readers understand this combination. It’s not just glorifying national marches. I’m writing about this combination of doing very focused work and then also deciding to be with other people doing focused work. When you do that, you realize that your own work is part of a growing movement—a global movement—and that helps us not to get stuck in despair about whatever we’re facing in our own work.
SEEING OUR WORLD THROUGH OTHERS’ EYES
DAVID: One of the central messages of this book is: Age doesn’t matter. We can renew our vocation at any age and find good work, even close to home. The first sentence of your book identifies you as a woman who had reached the age of 50, at that point. This book really is both a summing up of the first half of your life—and a look ahead toward the good work you’re hoping to do in your life’s second half.
EILEEN: My experience is as a woman who put child-rearing first. Timing in life can be different for women and men, in general. A lot of men go full throttle in their careers from their 20s through their 40s and then their 50s is a time when they want to step back. I made choices in my life as a woman to put parenting first and, in those years, I wrote part time, in the cracks of my day. I chose to spend time with my children in the schools, with my congregation and I hit the age at which this book opens. I realized that I wanted to do more work in the world.
For some people, mid-life is a time when we want to let go of external work. For me, it was the opposite. I felt there was something I was meant to do in this world that I hadn’t done yet.
DAVID: Part of that decision, for you, involved travel. Your book encourages people to get out and about—to move around our planet.
EILEEN: It’s not the distance you travel that’s important. What’s most important is experiencing other cultures, and you don’t necessarily have to travel very far to do that. Within a five-mile radius of almost any American city, you can find cultures that you’ve never experienced.
I am a great advocate of travel, but it’s not just the miles you travel that are important. You could travel all the way to Botswana and go on safari there—yet you might never actually experience the lives of the people who live there. We need to see our world from the perspectives of other people who live here on this planet with us.
‘INSPIRED TO TAKE ACTION TOGETHER’
DAVID: Give me an example of a cultural difference you’ve seen that could help us here in America?
EILEEN: One example is the way we think about community. I grew up in the suburbs in an apartment, where we didn’t think about our neighbors in the way people in Botswana think about community. Let’s say you’re cooking dinner in a suburban home and you realize you don’t have an onion you need to finish what you’re making. Most Americans would drive to a store and buy an onion. In Botswana, neighbors walk next door and ask if they can have an onion.
Lots of church people here in the U.S. are willing to share when they know someone is in need. But, we find it hard to ask for help.
DAVID: And you connect this kind of idea with your goals of simplifying life in general—and helping to combat climate change, right?
EILEEN: The connection I make is that, if we’re going to strengthen our communities by living more simply, then we have to find out what we truly need in our neighborhoods. Do we all have to go out and buy every gadget that’s ever been invented for taking care of our homes? Could neighbors share a lawn mower, for example?
This will become more important in the years ahead if we are going to survive climate change. We’re going to see more severe storms. In a hurricane, it becomes very important to know your neighbors and to depend on each other.
I had to go far away to see that value of community sharing in action, but you don’t have to travel that far to rediscover it. Sharing really is a core human value and we find it running through all kinds of cultures around the world. It’s just that in the suburban America of the late 20th century, the place I grew up, that value had been diminished in a lot of ways.
DAVID: So, what’s your hope for readers of this book. What do you hope they’ll experience?
EILEEN: I have two hopes that reflect the two themes of the book. One is that I want to encourage people to live their own purpose to the fullest. I’m telling people: Don’t wait. Whatever it is you want to do—do it now. Use the gifts you have in service to others.
Secondly, I would love to see people doing more on climate change, after reading this book. A growing number of people of faith are already thinking about this. And, in this book, I’m telling readers: I found that I couldn’t do this all by myself. I would love to see more people of faith inspired to take action together.
Care to read more?
VISIT HER ONLINE HOME—You’ll find lots of resources at EileenFlanagan.com, the author’s online home. That includes an “Epilogue” post she wrote shortly after we completed this interview. If you buy her memoir, you’ll want to read that Epilogue after you’ve finished her book. It contains some additional “good news” about her efforts. You can also find out about her public appearances across the U.S.
READ HER EARLIER BOOK—Eileen’s earlier award-winning book The Wisdom to Know the Difference was endorsed by the Dalai Lama. In 2009, ReadTheSpirit interviewed Eileen about that book. You also might want to explore her Amazon author page, where you’ll also find recent updates.
GET INVOLVED—Climate change is a central concern in Eileen’s work. One of the best places to learn about her work on climate change is this 2013 story she wrote for The Christian Century. (Of course, there’s much more about this issue in her new memoir and on her website, as well.)