Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope
Eileen Flanagan (Botswana 1984-86)
She Writes Press
$16.95 (paperback), $9.95 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Julie R. Dargis (Morocco 1984-87)
When Eileen Flanagan arrived in Botswana in 1984, “the same year that Apple introduced the Macintosh and Daryl Hannah starred in Splash with Tom Hanks,” global warming had yet to hit the global scene. Yet, that same year, as I arrived to my Peace Corps site in the south of Morocco, the population had been experiencing a severe drought. So much so, when the rains finally came with abandon, my students rejoiced for days. Twenty-five years later, as a result of global warming, Flanagan would be reporting similar news from her village in Botswana.
Flanagan had entered the village of Bobonong atop a dusty road, rattling past round huts of mud and dung in a rusted-out Ford pickup truck. When she returned to Botswana, just shy of the age of 50, she glided past new developments in a car she had rented at the airport. Just as the dirt roads she had once traveled as a Volunteer had been paved, global warming also had been transformed as it widened into a global Climate Change movement. And Flanagan had taken up the torch.
An accomplished spiritual writer, Flanagan garnered a Silver Nautilus Book Award along with an endorsement from the Dalai Lama for The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change-and When to Let Go [Thacher/Penguin 2009]. Renewable delves into the larger, global consciousness that supports her adopted Quaker life and beliefs. Structurally, the beginning and ending chapters are a beautifully woven quilt. Poverty and hopefulness from her experiences in the village of Bobonong is threaded alongside poverty and hopelessness of her Irish ancestors during the potato famine. The joy derived from a simple life ties the two populations together. Both groups influenced by an outside colonial power, Flanagan draws ongoing parallels from the heart of humanity throughout the book, debunking the north/south divide.
The middle chapters depict the period of Flanagan’s life before she embraced activism. As she searched for a deeper meaning in her life, her writing took a back seat. She organized fundraisers and other activities as an active room-mother at her children’s school. And although she had renounced her Irish Catholic upbringing before becoming a Quaker, like so many of us who were raised Catholic, she was slower to renounce the Catholic guilt. When her family moved into a larger house, the new space afforded her two teenagers with privacy. Her husband got a man-cave. And even though she finally had a quiet place of her own so that she could restart her writing career, she continued to be overcome with the waxing nostalgia that the simplicity of a hut had earlier provided. For years after moving into a larger house, she lamented the opulence that the additional rooms reflected back to her.
The struggle of her middle years spanned nearly three decades of guilt over not living more simply. Following her move into the larger house, she writes —
I imagined myself at a Quaker meeting. As I sat on a simple wooden bench, the other members sat silently in meditative prayer around me. I felt my heart pound and I was stirred to speak. I then imagined myself rising and saying to no one in particular: “Girl, you’ve got to put that burden down!
The first time Flanagan came face-to-face with civil disobedience she was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) while singing “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” Earlier that day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, as she quietly looked on, Earth Quakers had used police tape to set up a “crime scene” around the PNC Bank exhibit. The Quakers, many of whom had accounts with PNC, were protesting the bank’s financing of mountaintop coal removal. That day, she found her voice. Her commitment to climate change deepened, and she later joined EQAT, and became an active member of the EQAT board.
For all her seriousness, Flanagan could also be self-effacing, causing me to laugh out loud as she recounted a subsequent, high profile experience with civil disobedience. A key organizer of EQAT’s participation in the Keystone XL oil pipeline protest at the White House in 2013, Flanagan protested alongside Daryl Hannah, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Bill McKibben of 350.org by tying themselves to the WH gate with zip ties. As she tells it, she stood quietly beside Daryl Hannah, munching on a Cliff bar, awaiting her turn for arrest. As the police pulled back Daryl Hannah’s hands and cuffed them behind her back, a photographer for the New York Times memorialized Flanagan on film. She had wanted to have a snack before her plastic handcuffs were clipped and she was booked, as it was likely that she could be detained with her hands behind her back in metal handcuffs for hours. The bar had been provided to her by one of the Earth Quaker organizers. For a number of days prior to the protest, she had also participated with fellow Quakers in a communal fast.
Throughout Renewable, Flanagan builds upon her commitment to climate change issues, using her keen journalistic skills to submit articles and blogs to strategic publications to further bolster her activism activities. Her roots in the Peace Corps had provided a unique understanding of the economic and environmental issues affecting Southern Africa. On her return trip to Botswana, reflecting on the effects of climate change on vulnerable communities, her take on the situation is based on a deep respect for the culture of the local farmers.
I thought of climate change deniers at home who claimed that global warming was a liberal fiction invented to justify big government, and wondered how they’d explain it to this old African farmer, who was clearly reading the land, not The New York Times.
Flanagan had joined the Keystone XL oil pipeline protest after her return to the U.S. from Botswana. And, as the centuries old wisdom of the farmer that she had interviewed had been overshadowed by the New York Times, the infamous photo where she had been featured also had no mention of her back-story. Instead, it was Daryl Hannah who had been the lead.
Reviewer Julie R. Dargis, author of Pit Stop in the Paris of Africa, is a writer and energy healer based in Carlsbad, California.