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LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL

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At the hotel where the San Miguel Writers Conference took place in February of 2017, I sat by the pool, and enjoyed talking to a friendly  older woman who, I soon found out, was Naomi Klein’s Mom.

It was a cool moment.

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve paid more attention to Naomi Klein  — not only because of her writing on climate change (she’s the author of  “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”), but because every time I heard her talk, I went away with a reason to hope.

I think she talked many of us back from the edge of despair during those difficult, post-election weeks.

I told her Mom, Bonnie Klein, that every time I listened to her daughter, I went away feeling better.

As we watched her four-year-old grandson playing in the water with his grandfather, I asked her about Naomi’s spiritual background, and enjoyed our dialogue about the left-leaning Judaism that  influenced her.

When her grandson came out of the pool, cranky, and needing a nap, we laughed about the joys of these golden years, which include sending kids back to the care of their nannies or parents when they get cranky.

I was happy that week, talking with the local people who were glad to help with the Spanish, dining with my friend who came with me to the conference, taking workshops, writing and sharing poetry, and listening to the addresses of the various writers (among them Mary Karr, Judy Collins, and the poet, Billy Collins) who encouraged us to put our stories into the world.

“There is a place in movements for people who know how to tell stories,” Naomi said.

20170216_103542“Your voice wants to make a sound in the world,” the poet, Judyth Hill, told us, “but remember to write about what you’re for, not only about what you’re against.”

Naomi agreed: “Make space for what you want, not only for what you’re resisting,” she said.

In the evenings, we listened to the music in the hotel lobby. There was a good piano player who played the Great American Songbook (Gershwin, and Cole Porter), and a guitar player who played and sang my favourite Mexican song, “Cucurrucucu Paloma.”

Music and art are well integrated into the culture of San Miguel de Allende, and this is part of what drew me to this beautiful, multi-cultural city.

One day my friend and I were shopping at a local organic market, and we were startled to see four men carrying a casket down the street, followed by several guitar and violin players, and about a hundred people.

It was a somber moment, and yet we could feel the sustaining power of the music that is so much a part of the culture, and the life of the Mexican people.

The colours are amazing, too: the green walls with white accents; the oranges and reds of the old buildings that line the narrow cobblestone streets; the roof top gardens where bright pink bougainvilleas topple down over the orange brick walls; and the indoor courtyards with white lilies and red hibiscus that surprise you inside of rustic doors.

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It was for the music and the art that I decided to move to San Miguel — but also for the economics: I learned I could live there cheaply, without a car, and the horrendous traffic of L.A..

It was bittersweet saying goodbye to the music students I had for so many years; still, something else called to me.

It was hard to explain.

“What? Why Mexico?” so many people asked me.

(Subtext: “Is she crazy?”)

During the weeks before I moved to Guadalupe, the neighbourhood where I live now, as I sold or gave away most of what I had, a line from a Jack Gilbert poem, “Tear it Down,” kept coming to mind. He wrote:

“…Love is not enough.
  We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time.”

We only have so many years on this earth. Will we spend them merely surviving, or will we take the risk, and answer the call to flourish? Will we live for security, or adventure? Will we follow the guidance of the indwelling spirit within us, that sense of inner knowing, or will we get caught up in what other people think we should do or say? Will we accept the status quo, or will we be like Naomi Klein and Judyth Hill, writers who call humanity to a different way of living?

20170401_134342There are problems in San Miguel, as there are problems in every city.

However, as I sit this morning at my favourite new hang, looking out the window at the colourful mural across the cobblestone street, and listening to the sweet melodies of a spanish guitar, I’m glad that I didn’t listen to the naysayers (including the naysayers within myself).

I am grateful for the poet who told me I should insist — but, shouldn’t we all insist? —  while there is still time.

 

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WHY I MARCHED (SINCE YOU ASKED)

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“When the sun came shining, then I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling,
A voice was chanting as the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.”

— “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie

I marched in the Women’s March in Los Angeles on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration, because it was the most patriotic thing I could think of doing in response to the election of Donald Trump.

Flag-waving and excessive displays of nationalism are not my thing. I feel, like millions of other people in the world, that this is a time for global cooperation, and creative alliances. It’s a time for a change of consciousness. It’s a time to see ourselves as brothers and sisters, as Jesus called us to do (and every other sane and thoughtful person who ever lived on this planet).

Donald Trump’s America First campaign, which, notes Susan Dunn, “echoes the name of a 1940s anti-Semitic national organization that wanted to appease Hitler,” makes me cringe.

Still, I marched — for our democratic values; to protect our hard-won rights, including reproductive rights and voting rights; and to show my solidarity with the most vulnerable among us.

In the beginning, the Women’s March on Washington was criticized for being a white woman’s march. It was heartening, therefore, to hear the speeches by Tamara Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour that morning, three women of color who were brought in by the original organizers (as Mallory explained in a Breakfast Club interview), to lead the historic March, when the numbers reached 100,000.

Before leaving to catch the train going to downtown LA that morning, I wrote Carmen Perez’s words in my notebook:

“Injury to one is injury to all. We are not helpless. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are who we need.”

It was a sunny day. It was the only sunny day, in fact, we’d had for weeks. For one day, in the middle of weeks of rain, the sun came out, as if to wink at us, to let us know that Mother Nature was on our side.

The Metro Station at Universal City, where I went to catch the train, was jammed, with hundreds of people waiting in line to get tickets. However, moments after arriving, I heard a Metro employee shouting, “It’s free now! You can all ride the train for free!”

We took the unexpected gift, and moved together through the green turnstiles, and down the stairs, where we waited on the platform for the train going to Pershing Square.

We crowded as many of us as we could into the Metro, packing ourselves in like bits of styrofoam in a giant cardboard box, until not one more would fit, and we let the doors close.

A mother with an infant in a stroller, a six-year-old daughter, and an eleven -year-old son, stood next to me.

She told me she was taking all of her children to the March because she wanted them to know that during a dark time, she stood up for herself and her rights, and for them. “This is big,” I told the girl, “you’ll be able to say, ‘I was there!'” and she grinned.

It was touching to see how supportive the boy was of his mother. When she told him they should get off at the stop before Pershing Square because of the crowds there, he insisted, “No! Let’s go to Pershing Square. That’s what you wanted to do.”

“This is an adventure!” he shouted.

He was my new hero.

I opted to get off at the 7th Street Station, and walk to Pershing Square. Although I was too late to meet up with friends, I enjoyed talking to people there, marching, and taking pictures of the signs.

There were many men at the March, and I met several fathers who brought their daughters. “They feel empowered,” one of them told me.

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It was a festive atmosphere. The signs were great fun.

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It was an historic moment, “likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history” reported The Washington Post.

In her article for the Nation, Joan Walsh noted that more bus tickets were sold for the Women’s March on Washington than for the inauguration.

According to recent estimates, as many as four-and-a-half million people marched in over 600 cities around the world. 700,00 to 1,000,000 marched in Washington.

People in Belgium, Ireland, and Antarctica made their presence known.

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Large numbers of the disabled community participated virtually.

On the train going home, I couldn’t help but notice the smiles on the faces,  the upbeat conversations, and how everyone’s mood, including my own, had brightened from a day of being together.

“So, you marched. What’s next?” a friend asked me the following day.

“I’m writing thank you postcards to the congressmen and women who are resisting Trump’s policies —  people like Maxine Waters, and John Lewis,” I told her, and sent her the link to the Women’s March list of 100 actions.

I’m also being more conscious about supporting efforts to link movements so that we’re not divided between white and black, and gay and straight. As Tamiki Mallory said, “we need to respect each others’ justices. We can march for reproductive rights, and for racial justice.”

Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, wrote in a recent op-ed piece that, in spite of her initial cynicism, she decided to  participate in the March. “Cynicism will not build a movement,” she wrote,  “collaboration will.”

On the evening of the March in LA, I was inspired as I listened to the speeches from the March on Washington, including a speech by Gloria Steinem, who is as amazing at eighty-two as she was at twenty-two.

“This is a day that will change us forever,” she said, “because we are together. Each of us individually and collectively will never be the same again. When we elect a possible President, we too often go home.

We’ve elected an impossible President. We’re never going home. We’re staying together, and we’re taking over…and we’re never turning back.” .

Most definitely, we are never turning back.

I confess I had to laugh this week when Donald Trump told Fox News reporter, Bill O’Reilly, “California in many ways is out of control.”

As if that were a bad thing.

As if this were not a land that was made for you and me.

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Resist!

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VOCAL AND VISIBLE: FROM GUILT TO SOLIDARITY

 

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“The guilt remains, more deeply rooted, more securely lodged, than the oldest of old trees; and it can be unutterably exhausting to deal with people who, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one has not made. One does not have to make them. The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky.”

— James Baldwin
Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes 

Several months ago, I was asked to deliver the closing remarks at a Racial Justice Ministry event at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

Tim Wise, an anti-racist educator and author, spoke a few weeks earlier.

After his talk, the Racial Justice Ministry I work with decided to follow up with a screening of Tim Wise’s film, “White Like Me,” and afterwards, have a dialogue about white privilege.

White privilege, as Wise defines it, is as much a psychological matter as a material one.

In his essay, “explainingwhiteprivelege,” he writes:

“Whites have the luxury of not having to worry that our race is going to mark us negatively when looking for work, going to school, shopping, looking for a place to live, or driving for that matter: things that folks of color can’t take for granted.”

Privilege is obliviousness.

As I sat on my patio on a sunny day, thinking it would take no more than an hour to come up with some closing remarks, I saw it was taking longer.

Was I stuck in “white guilt?”

I definitely felt ashamed of what my people, white people, did to black people in this country — not only in the days of slavery, but in the days of Jim Crow.

There’s a book, “Without Sanctuary,” that includes images of postcards white people sent to their friends after lynchings. The postcards showed them posing next to the corpse, along with body parts they’d taken for souvenirs.

It wasn’t that long ago.

I have a history of activism; still, I felt baffled, impaled, as James Baldwin put it, like a butterfly on a pin, unable to move forward.

I’d faced the history of systemic racism in this country, and the ways I’d benefitted from it, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

Then I remembered Tim suggesting we study the history of the white allies who were active in the Civil Rights Movement.

He mentioned Anne Braden.

Anne Braden was a newspaper reporter who lived in the South, in Alabama, in the 50s and 60s.

She became involved in the Civil Rights Movement after covering the events at the Alabama Courthouse (which were horrific).

Initially, she joined the movement, not to help black people, but to help white people who, as a result of racism, and a belief in white supremacy, were turning themselves into monsters — her own father, included.

Besides writing about the movement, she and her husband, Carl Braden, went to jail numerous times on behalf of the cause. ANNE-BRADEN-SOUTHERN-PATRIOT                                     Anne Braden with Rosa Parks

In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King mentioned her as one of the few white people he could count on.

As I read Anne Braden’s story, I was struck by what she said about white guilt, and how unproductive it was:

“I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt…I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think everybody white that I know who’s gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in….Human beings have always been able to envision something better…All through history there’ve been people who’ve envisioned something better in the most dire of situations, and that’s what you want to be a part of.”

Anne Braden’s story spoke to everyone, white and black.

From that day on, I took Sincere Kirabo’s advice, dropped the white guilt, and focused on imagining a better church, a better community, and a different world to live in.

Now I could hear what people of color were actually asking of white people in the movement — not to feel guilty or ashamed, but to educate ourselves, speak up, and use our privilege for the good.

After the event, I talked to an African American friend who told me about a party she went to a few weeks earlier where she was the only person of color in attendance. When someone at the party said something derogatory against African Americans, she felt compelled to speak up.

“Why didn’t anyone else speak up?” she asked. “If you want to be an ally, you need to speak up.”

Nancy Fuosto, an Episcopalian priest, told a similar story at a Martin Luther King event I participated in last week. At a gathering where she was the only person of color, someone made a racist comment about Latinos.  “It hurt,” she said, “but I spoke up.”

We don’t have to go out and get all bloody to be allies in the movement for racial justice — we can speak up, and make a difference.

Anne Braden lost friends because of the work she did on behalf of racial justice. She and her husband, like many white allies at the time, became social pariahs in their own communities. However, she was mentioned in “Letters from the Birmingham Jail” as one of the few white people Martin Luther King could count on.

That’s something!

Whenever I feel uncomfortable speaking out against racism, it helps me to remember that it’s far more uncomfortable to have to live with racism on a daily basis. And if I speak up, next time someone else might do the same, and then another.

I believe our cause is noble, and I can let go of any temporary discomfort I feel, because the cause is right.

I also feel, like Anne Braden, that the struggle for racial justice is related to my own humanity, and integrity.

At Martin Luther King said, “All /human beings/ are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

As I move away from guilt, and toward solidarity, I discover that the actions I take on behalf of the most vulnerable among us are liberatory for me, as well.

It’s wonderful, and a joyous thing, to work with people who, in spite of dark times, and dire circumstances, and unspeakable crimes, have the ability to imagine a different world.

As Anne Braden reminded us, we may not see the fruits of our actions, but “that’s what you  want to be a part of.”

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THOUGHTS ABOUT HOPE ON CHRISTMAS EVE

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 “…Even a map cannot show you
 the way back to a place
 that no longer exists.”

Sandra M. Castillo,  “Christmas, 1970″

Last night, in LA, the rain came down hard.

I heard it for a long time, as I was having trouble sleeping, being worried about — well, everything.

It’s hard not to look back on the holidays, and remember happier times.

I feel the loss of my father, who died in July.
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I was used to the routine: decorating a small tree for his room; and making my way up the coast with a plate of oatmeal cookies I’d made from my grandmother’s recipe for the aides and nurses who took care of him.

Now, there is emptiness.

Emptiness is not a bad thing, but there’s so much pressure this time of the year to fill it up — to react like the jazz musician who hasn’t learned that silence is part of the music, that it’s okay to let space go by, that listening is half of the art.

Lisa Marion, a writer friend, suggests getting rid of the Holiday shoulds. I don’t want to go to the parties, or decorate this year, but I need not feel guilty, if I read her correctly.

Possibly some of us need advent, the time of  waiting, before the baby bursts into the world. We could wait until Christmas actually starts, on December 25, and celebrate the 12 days afterwards, she suggests.

This makes sense; there is something comforting about living by the liturgical year, the rhythms of grief and joy.

The only thing I’m sure I want to do is attend the midnight service at All Saints Church to hear the music, be with friends, and hear our new Rector, Mike Kinman, preach. He has a gift, and always manages to be both comforting and motivating at the same time. He has a bit of the holy madness, the sense of urgency, that characterized the prophets of old.

I was trying to explain to someone this week why many of us, especially people of color, Muslims, and women, feel vulnerable right now, and why we need space to grieve.

“Then go and have a good cry. Go to the crying room. Here is your Wambulance. What a waste of a life,” he said.

“You don’t think segments of our population are vulnerable?” I asked. “And whose life are you saying is a waste? Mine? Are you saying my life is a waste?” I asked.

If my life is a waste, then what did he think about Jesus, who spent his life loving and caring for the poor, the marginalized, hated Samaritans, social outcasts, and vulnerable women?

As I listened to the downpour last night, I finally gave up worrying, and “had a talk with God,” as Stevie Wonder put it.

In the morning, equilibrium returned, and a sense of clarity.

As I watched the gray sky turning to blue again, and the evergreens standing tall and open to air and the morning light, I realized something:

Christmas isn’t about what we’ve done in the past, it’s about what God is leading us to do now, for the future.

It’s about standing with the marginalized.

After all, It was to the marginalized, the shepherds living in the fields, that the message of hope first came.

The shepherds, as Drew Hart reminds us, were marginalized, not only by  Rome (along with the rest of Israel), but, due to their low social status, they were marginalized by their own people.

And yet the good news of God’s revolution came to them.

The life-affirming message of “peace on earth and goodwill to all” came not to those with the most, but to those with the least.

As I ponder this, I notice that a red-throated hummingbird with tiny, flashing red wings has landed in the bare branches of a nearby tree. He looks like a shiny little Christmas ornament. He has filled up the emptiness with his dazzling beauty.

allans_hummingbird“We can feel sick at heart—we would be fools not to—but despair is not an option,” writes Robert Kuttner.

This – at least right now — is Christmas enough for me. 

 

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REMEMBERING ELIE WIESEL AND MICHAEL HERR

 

ElieWiesel speaks at the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. (© Diana Walker/TIME Inc.)

Elie Wiesel speaks at the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. (© Diana Walker/TIME Inc.)

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Michael Herr, journalist, photograph by Pierre-Olivier Deschampes 

“…it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”
— Michael Herr

We lost two great writers this year — Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and author of Night, and journalist Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, a critically-acclaimed book he wrote about the Vietnam War.

Michael Herr chose to cover the war in Vietnam, and Elie Wiesel had no choice but to be at Auschwitz — but both bore witness (to paraphrase Herr) to the death spaces and the life they found inside.

I met Elie Wiesel In the 1980s, when I was involved in the Sanctuary Movement. For several years, my church worked with some activist Dominican Nuns who lived at a nearby convent in San Rafael, California. Together, we housed and protected refugees from El Salvador who’d come to the United States to escape right wing death squads in their country.

Elie Weisel spoke at a Sanctuary conference in Northern California where I’d been asked to lead a workshop. I remember how touched I felt when some Native American Indians who lived nearby found out about our work, and sent a shell, and some herbs to burn, to prepare the room for dialogue.

After the conference, I talked to Elie Wiesel about the work we were doing with refugees.

Someone once said Elie Wiesel looked like Lazarus. It was true, with his thick, unruly hair, and the intensity of the darkness in his eyes. He was the most concerned, and serious person I’d ever met. My father got a kick out of me describing him, for years, as the man without bullshit.

What I remember most from Elie Wiesel’s talk was his warning against indifference, which he regarded as far worse than hatred.

“The opposite of love is not hate,” he said, “it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not  ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.”

In his talk, Wiesel said the worst thing about being in Auschwitz was living with the feeling that no one cared (the title of his novel, Night, was originally The Silence of the World).

Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate in a few weeks, said the same thing about silence:

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Michael Herr died at age 76, on June 23, 2016, a few days before Elie Wiesel died, on July 2, 2016. Coincidentally, Herr died on the day I started to read Dispatches, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Like Wiesel, who wrote about the love and tenderness he found in Auschwitz — the prisoner who gave away his only crust of bread to save his father’s life —  Herr wrote about the love he found in the midst of war:

“…Well,  good luck, the Vietnam verbal tic, even Ocean Eyes, the third-tour Lurp, had remembered to at least say it to me that night before he went on the job…Usually it was only an uninhabited passage of dead language, sometimes it came out five times in a sentence, like punctuation, often it was spoken flat side up to telegraph the belief that there wasn’t any way out; tough shit, sin loi, smack it, good luck. Sometimes, though, it was said with such feeling and tenderness that it could crack your mask, that much love where there was so much war.”

Michael Herr spent his life post-Dispatches in London, where he avoided the spotlight. There he met Stanley Kubrick, and wrote the screenplay for Kubrick’s film about Vietnam,  Full Metal Jacket.”

He also co-wrote Francis Ford Copallas’ “Apocalypse Now,” which Roger Ebert called “one of the key films of the century.”

As 2016 draws to a close, I’m grateful for the witness of these two men, and for their life-affirming messages, though they saw the worst of humanity. I’m grateful for their reminder to speak up. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” Wiesel said, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  I’m grateful that in writing about the mystery of evil, they did not fail to write about the mystery of the good.

 

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PRAYERS FOR RESISTANCE

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These are the  comments I made at our COLORS (Racial Justice Ministry) open house on Sunday, November 20, 2016, on the first year anniversary of my involvement in COLORS at All Saints Church in Pasadena:

About a year ago, I went to the exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. One of the exhibits in particular fascinated me, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. The exhibit was about the different resistance movements that existed in the first century, around the time of the Jesus movement.

There were many resistance movements in the first century that were against what  Jesus scholars Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan call “the domination system of the Roman Empire.” However, according  to the exhibit, all of these movements, with the exception of the Jesus movement, were exclusionary. The  Jesus movement was the only resistance movement that welcomed everyone. (Martin Luther King noted that Christianity was a blend of many myths and influences, but what was unique in it was the social element.)

I’ve been thinking about this in light of my experience this last year working with the COLORS ministry.

On the Sunday after the election, I felt traumatized. However, after hearing Mike Kinman’s powerful and comforting sermon, and attending a COLORS meeting afterwards,  it occurred to me that possibly the greatest gift God has given to us is each other.

Jesus didn’t divide us. He didn’t leave instructions on who should be left out. He didn’t make anyone register before dinner.

I believe our strength is in each other. Our strength is in our diversity.

On my first year anniversary with COLORS, I am most grateful for this ministry, and will keep this gratitude in my heart as we move forward in the days ahead.

A PRAYER FOR RESISTANCE 

Gracious God,

We thank you for your liberating presence here.

We thank you for the gift of this community, for Mike Kinman, and Eric Law, and the leadership of COLORS. 

Empower us in the days head to take bold and liberating actions on your behalf. 

If there is anyone here who is discouraged, may we bring them to hopefulness. 

If there is anyone here who is traumatized or afraid, let them know they are safe with us, and always welcome. 

You have shown us that beyond the cross, the lynching tree, the internment camp, the man-made walls, the unspeakable cruelties so many of us have suffered, there is nothing that can separate us from your love.

Keep us mindful of your will for us so that, ending divisions here, we might be a true witness of the spirit and teachings of Christ, who extended a radical welcome to everyone, and taught us that we are all precious in your sight.

 Guide us in the days ahead so that our attitudes and actions will be aligned with your divine will. Empower us to resist all forces that would divide us, oppress us, or deprive us of the freedom we need to grow and flourish. 

Keep our hearts cheerful, confident that you are with us, as you promised, even unto the end of the age. 

Amen.

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A trio of anti-racist speakers  who shared their life challenges and wisdom at a COLORS open house in 2015: Regina Moses, the first black female school principal in Pasadena; Shizzi Akazaki, who survived life in a Japanese internment camp; and Lydia Lopez, who worked with Cesar Chavez and continues to fight for the rights of Latinos.

I love you all. You are beautiful.

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A SMALL WORLD MOMENT


We’re gathered around a large table in Marty Coleman’s backyard.

Marty Coleman, a long-time peace and justice activist at All Saints Church, now in her 80s, offered to let us use her backyard for our Racial Justice Ministry (COLORS) retreat. 

It’s early morning, the sky is overcast, and there’s a chill in the air.  But, after a  string of hot days, no one’s complaining. 

It’s been five weeks since my father died, and the first time life feels back to normal. 

It’s peaceful here in Marty’s backyard, and I’m grateful to be sitting here around this table with people I’ve come to love and admire this last year. 

We were instructed to come prepared to share our personal goals for the year, and when it’s my turn, I talk about my goal to educate through writing and storytelling. 

Claudia Owens Shields, one of the African American members of COLORS, a  psychologist who specializes in healing race- related trauma, is the next person to share. 

She says that her goal is to understand how segregation happens in the church. 

“Martin Luther King said that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America,” she says. “How does this happen? I want to find out.”

It’s an intriguing question. I  watched the video of Martin Luther King talking about this a week ago — when I was preparing to deliver my father’s eulogy. 

 

When we’re on our lunch break, Claudia approaches me. 

“What are you writing?” she asks. 

I tell her I’ve been working on a memoir about race in America for a couple of years. “Both of my parents were antiracists. My father integrated a church in Chicago in the 50s, and I’m telling that story,” I say.

“Where did you live in Chicago?” she asks.

“On the South Side,” I tell her. 

“At what intersection?” 

“82nd and Rhodes.”  

“I lived at 96th and Langley.”

“Oh, wow, my Grandmother lived on Langley!” I say.

It’s a small world moment. 

It turns out that Claudia went to the church, Crerar Memorial Presbyterian Church, where my dad was pastor. And not only that — she knew Lois Fluss, one of my Mom’s closest friends. Lois was the adult I was closest to as a child. 

Lois brought us Beaman Gum and other items when we were sick. 

She and her husband, unlike my teatotaling parents, were unapologetic about their love for martinis, and “martini,” thanks to Lois, was one of the first words my sister learned to say.

Lois was one of the few white people who stayed in the neighborhood when the “restricted covenants” that kept African Americans out of the neighborhood were no longer enforceable, and the familiar “white flight” followed. 

Claudia told me, “I once asked Lois, ’Are you white?’ She said she was blue and green or something.” 

Integration didn’t last. Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities in the United States — and the church is all African American, but for one white woman who stayed.

I feel lucky, though, for those few brief years when white people and black people worked together for the common good, and from a common faith. 

And I’m amazed that only a week after my father’s memorial service, we are here: two women from the same church, sitting around a common table, breaking bread together, working together to dismantle the racism and privilege that exists in our church and community. And stopping with the others at the table — black, white, and latino — to watch a scarab fly up and through the spaces between the leaves of the wisteria that covers the awning above us ——excited, if overwhelmed, by the work ahead of us.

 

 

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TAKING A STAND TO FLOURISH

 

Possibly a charismatic leader had a vision of another way of living.

Whatever happened, Teotihuacan, which is about 30 miles NE of Mexico City,  was one of the most peaceful civilizations the planet has known, a vast civilization that stretched  from modern day Arizona to Honduras, and lasted for almost a thousand years.

Due to the pyramids, which were constructed from about 1 AD to 350 AD, it became a sacred site and a ceremonial center that people from all over Mesoamerica visited, until the population grew to 200,000.

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Theotihuacan was a thriving metropolis with a diverse culture that was known for its harmonious co-existence, a civilization that glorified peace, and not war.

“Yes, there sacrifices, yes, there were wars,” says Columbia University Archeologist and Art Historian Esther Pasztory, “but that was not the heart of its ideology.”

Archeologists have yet to uncover any representation of an earthly king or royal tomb. Dr. Pasztory suggests in her book, Experiment in Living, that the people of Teotihuacan didn’t need a king because of the way they elevated the Goddess, who unified the diverse culture.

“Though I imagine that the leaders, those who thought up the combined ritual and political attraction of what was to be Teotihuacan, were definitely powerful humans, I see them as having integrated their ideas not by setting up one of themselves as a divine king but by elevating the Goddess to colossal proportions,” she writes.

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The image of the Water Goddess (the prototype for the Aztec Water Goddess, Chalchiuhtlicue) was dominant at the Temple, and both the Pyramid of the Sun, which included underground caves, and the Pyramid of the Moon were her domain.

At the Pyramid of the Moon, on the third day of our Flourish retreat, we scattered ancient seeds that Indians in San Miguel Allende gave to one of our retreat leaders, Val Jon Farris, reenacting a planting ritual that the Teotihuacans engaged in every year when the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) appeared over the cosmically–aligned Pyramid of the Moon.

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We walked up the narrow steps of the pyramid, zig-zag, the way our ancestors had walked.

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And stood at the top, looking out over the vast landscape that stretched for miles in all directions.

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There were green ponds, where the tiny frogs we’d seen along the trail had been born; bursts of yellow flowers that grew everywhere under the sun;  and a ribbon of rosy red that moved through the landscape like the tail of a kite in the wind.

What happened to Teotihuacan, no one knows. The civilization may have been destroyed by foreign invaders, but archeologists think it’s more likely that its destruction was due to an internal uprising. The pyramids may have become too popular, and crowded conditions in a place where there was no way to purify the water, caused health to decline.

Possibly, due to the wood-burning in the Temple, there was deforestation that caused a failure of crops, and this led to the destruction of the temple.

The collapse of Teotihuacan in 750 AD is a mystery, but it’s also a mystery that the civilization lasted for as long as it did (Dr. Pasztory notes in Experiment in Living that the United States is only 200 years old, and already people are talking of its decline).

After centuries of the oppression and denigration of women, witch burning, and efforts to make women second class citizens, it was humbling and empowering to be in a place where women once had power – not power over, but power to — the power to encourage, to plant, to give gifts of water, minerals, and wealth — the power to inspire a whole civilization to flourish.

Listening to the voices of the people of Teotihuacan, I hear them saying the same thing that the indigenous people at Standing Rock are saying —  that water is life; some things, and places, and moments are sacred; and there is a different way of living.

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All photographs, with the exception of the Goddess photograph, were taken by Beate Walden.

 

A Tribute to Rob Meurer

 

14484619_10209408058732713_6873369879369793826_nA friend, Rob Meurer, died last week in a tragic accident. He was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street in front of his house in Studio City.

On the days following his death, I tried, but failed, to post anything about Rob on Facebook. I felt too raw. Too tender. Too shocked. Or maybe it was because I knew I needed to make a more thoughtful tribute to this gifted musician and generous person who taught me so much about art, and the dedication it takes to live a creative life.

On the morning of the day Rob died, I read a meditation about the importance of finding that “indwelling spirit,” or sustaining force within us that can carry us through times of sudden change — when events happen so fast we don’t have the time to adjust, or integrate the changes into our lives. The message helped to steady me as I dealt with Rob’s death, and how fast it had come, and how shaken I was.

Rob was a terrific musician, and he blew us away with his music every other week at the Unitarian Church of Studio City, where we met over ten years ago.

Sometimes he sang the music he wrote with his long-time collaborator and friend, Christopher Cross (Rob played keys and synthesizer on the album that won Cross a grammy in 1979).

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Other times he sang Bob Dylan,  Joni Mitchell, and Peter, Paul and Mary songs — “River,” and “Stewball,” and  “With God On Our Side.”

He was brilliant, and funny, and constantly made us laugh.

The work he did with Beth’s, his wife’s, project, the Rising Star Children’s Musical Theater Troupe, was an inspiration all its own.

Every time I saw one of the productions, I went away thinking about how lucky the kids were to have someone so creative and knowledgeable to work with and learn from.

14433143_10154597776821289_1919633696169282078_n       This is Beth, Rob, and “Audrey” in “Little Shop of Horrors”

Rob and I stayed in touch mostly on Facebook this last year, although our paths happened to cross the day before he was killed.

We lived in the same neighborhood, we both liked to walk, and he was on his way to the store when I was walking home from Trader Joe’s with a bag of  groceries.

I congratulated him on the musical he’d written that was being performed in Chicago. He told me the audiences loved it, but the reviews were not good.

“Many plays and movies that don’t get good reviews, initially, go on to be successful,” I said. ” “I didn’t think you were supposed to read the reviews.”

“The producers read them,” he told me.

Oh, right, money, I thought.

In an interview with the Daily News, Chris Cross talked about what Rob said to him when a project they’d hoped would be a commercial success had not worked out the way they wanted it to. ”Rob often said we should keep going, ‘because that’s what we do,’” Cross said,  “His love of the craft was as deep as anyone I’ve ever known. He knew why he was here.”

My most enduring memory of Rob (besides him letting me use his car for several months when I moved to Studio City ten years ago — In L.A., who does that!? ) is of Rob singing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom Flashing” in church one 4th of July weekend.

“Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing, ” he sang.

It was the best cover of the song I’d ever heard. And it was so Rob, a Bernie Sanders supporter who was always rooting for the underdog, always standing against the forces — political or religious —  that would divide us.

Rob’s wife, Beth, asked us to light a candle on what would have been Rob’s 66th birthday last week.

As I lit the candle, I read a poem by Lisel Mueller I’d heard that day that  reminded me of Rob’s passing, and of what the meditation I’d read earlier said about change, and how change can empower us and help us to grow if we don’t resist it, if we take it in the right way.

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IN PASSING
by Lisel Mueller

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious

And I made a vow to keep going — to keep creating. Because that’s what Rob taught me. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re here for.

 

FOR DEVI LOCKWOOD

 

For Devi

I know the feeling
of floating down rivers
in inner tubes,
the feeling of rivers then
and rivers now—

We were always dancing
in the orange kitchen alongside women
who looked like light.

We lived on our own strength,
by our own kind rules,
caring for the whole of life,
standing alone in our wisdom,
always with a stream in sight.

Carolyn Studer, 2016

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photograph by Sabrina Walden, 2016

ABOUT THIS POEM/PHOTOGRAPH PAIRING:

Devi Lockwood is poet and environmental activist who is traveling around the world collecting stories about climate change and water. I wrote this poem after interviewing her and listening to some stories from her travels. Devi is writing blogs about her travels for the New York Times.  She’s on her way to Morroco.

Sabrina Walden is the daughter of my friend, photographer Beate Walden. Sabrina is a senior in High School in  Zug, Switzerland.  At the time she took this photograph, she was about 10.  It spoke to Beate of rivers and light.