by Len Lear
At the age of 49, a 16-year member of Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, Eileen Flanagan, had an agonizing feeling that she wasn’t living up to her potential — or her youthful ideals. A former Peace Corps volunteer who had once loved the simplicity of living in a mud hut in Botswana, southern Africa, she now had too many e-mails in her inbox and a basement full of stuff she didn’t need.
Increasingly worried about her children’s future on a warming planet, she felt unable to make a difference — until she joined a band of singing Quaker activists who helped her find her voice and her power. To chronicle her mid-life spiritual crisis (and even a brief stay in jail after handcuffing herself to a White House gate on Feb. 13, 2013), Flanagan has written her third book, “Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness and Hope” (She Writes Press, March 3, 2015).
The book, which will be blasted off at a launch party March 17, 7 p.m., at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting, 20 E. Mermaid Lane, has already received rave reviews from environmental activists. For example, Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, has written, “If you’ve ever felt despair about the state of the world or wondered, ‘What can I do?’ I recommend reading ‘Renewable.’ Eileen Flanagan’s insightful memoir shows a deep understanding of complex global problems while showing us how one person can change her life while working to change the world we all share.”
According to Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org, a website that chronicles climate change-related activism, “Simple, beautiful and nourishing, this book ‘Renewal’ is a necessary reminder that the renewable energy we need most is people power.”
Flanagan, 52, grew up in Bala Cynwyd in a one-bedroom apartment over the Bala Movie Theatre. She has lived in East Falls for the last 16 years. (She would only identify her husband as “Tom” and declined to mention the names of their two children.) A brilliant student, she earned a B.A. in Comparative Area Studies and Economics at Duke University in 1984 and an M.A. in African Studies from Yale University in 1989.
“My senior year of college, I had a real struggle over what I wanted to do with my life,” Flanagan said in an interview last week. “Being the first generation to go to college, I wondered if I should go to work on Wall Street and make a lot of money to help my parents, but the process of interviewing with New York firms made me realize I didn’t fit in there.
“I felt much more myself interviewing for the Peace Corps and another international teaching job. The Peace Corps assigned me to Botswana in southern Africa for one and a half years. I started grad school several months after getting home from Africa. At that point, I thought about being an academic but realized that while I liked writing and teaching, I preferred writing for a general audience rather than academic writing, which seemed aimed at such a small audience.”
While in Botswana from 1984 to 1986, Flanagan taught southern African history and English at the equivalent of junior high in a village. She also lived in a village in a mud hut and learned to speak the local language, Setswana, “pretty well for a white girl from the Philadelphia burbs.”
The Peace Corps had a profound effect on the rest of Eileen’s life, which is explained in the new book. “Living in a village without electricity or running water taught me how little I needed to be happy,” she said. “In my village, it was normal to knock on a neighbor’s door to borrow an egg when you were cooking, but that had not been normal in my Bala Cynwyd upbringing. Coming home, I realized how much harder I had to work in this culture to find and built community.
“I think that Peace Corps experience was part of what led me to start attending Quaker worship in my late 20s. Then, as I started learning about the effect that climate change was having in Africa, having a personal connection to people in Botswana who were telling me about the changes they could see in the weather made me feel I had to do something about it.”
Knowing her own Irish ancestors had survived famine, Eileen returned alone to southern Africa, where scorching heat was already withering maize crops. Inspired by the people she met there, she came home ready to handcuff herself to the White House fence to challenge what she sees as corporate greed fueling climate change. She emphasizes in her book that one person can help to change the world.
In addition to the kudos already mentioned, “Renewable” has received endorsement quotes from Mary Robinson, U.N. Special Envoy on Climate Change and former President of Ireland, among others. A previous book, “The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change — and When to Let Go,” was endorsed by the Dalai Lama and won the Silver Nautilus Book Award.
Flanagan also writes for a wide range of national publications and speaks at conferences, colleges and religious gatherings and is a leader of the Earth Quaker Action Team. For more information, visit eileenflanagan.com. More information about the launch party on March 17 at 215-247-3553.