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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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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.

 

STANDING WITH MUSLIMS

My first piano students were relatives of Anwar El Sadat, the Egyptian President who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 for his participation in the Camp David meetings with Menachem Begin that resulted in a peace treaty with Israel.

I’d never met people who practiced Islam before; however, over the years I grew used to the sound of the device in Mona’s and Mohammed’s  home that reminded them to pray, and the preparations they made each year for Ramadan that included periods of fasting.

The children’s mother, Mona, was a beautiful woman, slender and petite, with thick, dark hair and dark eyes that shone with the light of tenderness and  kindness.

Her children took more after their tall father, Mohammed  (the nephew of Anwar Sadat), but they were also good looking and bright.

Once, during a piano lesson, I asked young Mohammed about the sound I heard coming from the device that, I realized later, was there to remind them to stop and pray, but he didn’t want to talk about it, and so I stopped asking questions.

Mostly we laughed and joked, and played music.

I never talked to the children’s parents about anything other than music and their children’s lessons until after 9/11.

The week after that horrible tragedy, while friends in New Jersey were smelling the stench of death in the air, Mona invited me to stay for lunch after the children’s piano lessons were over, and I accepted. As she set the sandwiches, oranges, and lemonade on a table on the patio in their backyard, I sensed that something was pressing on her. Her smile had disappeared behind a cloud of worry.

The first thing she said when we sat down to lunch that day was, “My religion is a religion of peace.”

Listening to her talk about her faith and the Muslim community she was a part of, I had no reason to doubt her. For years, I’d experienced the peace and tranquility of her home, where there was never a hint of fanaticism.

I’d enjoyed meeting Anwar El Sadat’s sister, a journalist, when she came to visit, and the brief talk we had about her travels and writing.

Besides, I’ve long felt that extremists within Christianity are as dangerous as extremists within Islam, and I’ve often been in the position of having to defend my faith against those who associate it with violence and destruction.

Some Christians, like some Muslims, have no qualms about using violence and terrorism to promote their religious beliefs or ideologies.

After all, after 9/11, George Bush announced that God told him to invade Iraq. For many of us, this was morally repugnant.

As I listened to her talk,  I realized how similar our views were about religion as an instrument of peace and justice.

I left that day feeling that we were sisters, and felt closer to her than I do to many Christians.

My own spirituality deepened and broadened as a result of our talk, and I look back in gratitude for the risk she took in opening up to me.

I think of her so often — her graciousness and beauty — as I listen to the ugly things that are said about Muslims.

After the Paris attacks, a Facebook friend announced that anyone with Muslim friends should de-friend him immediately.

Politicians are making efforts to keep Syrian refugees, who had nothing to do with the Paris attacks, out of our country, because of assumptions that all Muslims are dangerous.

Donald Trump, the Republican forerunner, said that Muslims should be required to wear arm bands, similar, many have noted, to those the Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. More recently he’s proposed that all Muslims be banned from entering the country.

“We have no choice,” Trump said, “we must be vigilant!”

A few days ago, I spoke with a friend who worked for many years for Church World Service, an organization that helps refugees. He told me that the vetting for refugees is already tough.

“Many people think it’s too tough,” he said. “Refugees already have to wait for several years before they can be relocated, and now there’s talk of making them wait an additional year.”

Obviously, that will be too late for many of them.

My friend said, “if we won’t take in refugees, then I think we should take down the Statue of Liberty, put it on a battleship, and return it to France.”

At least we won’t be hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another.

And yet in the midst of all this vitriol there are touching expressions of love, too.

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I’d like to think that this hospitality, at core, is who we are.

I do agree with Trump about one thing: we must be vigilant.

We must be vigilant against the bigotry and hate that Trump spews. We must be vigilant about the way he uses fear to manipulate his supporters. We must be vigilant to sort out truth from lies.

“Yes, security was a legitimate concern then, as it is now,” wrote Nichol Kristof in the New York Times, reminding his readers of our refusal to admit Jews into the country in the 40s, “but security must be leavened with common sense and a bit of heart.

To seek to help desperate refugees in a secure way is not naïveté. It’s not sentimentality. It’s humanity.”

Prayer

Gather up
In the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved,
The desperate, the tired,
All the scum
Of our weary city
Gather up
In the arms of your pity.
Gather up
In the arms of your love—
Those who expect
No love from above.

1000 Voices Speak for Compassion: On Self-Compassion

ON SELF-COMPASSION

“Taking good care of yourself means the people in your life receive the best of you rather than what is left of you.”
— Lucille Zimmerman 

“When will you have a little pity for
every soft thing
that walks through the world,
yourself included?”
— Mary Oliver 

My father is a dream. At 94, he has some memory loss, but he’s still sharp. I love our visits and our talks, and I love him.

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However, after driving back and from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles for several months — in part, to cover for a sibling who was ill — I needed a break.

Anyone who has  been a caretaker knows the importance of self-love.

It may be a cliche, but it’s true: if you can’t love yourself, you’re not going to be much good for anyone else.

It’s hard to do, especially for women, because we’re so used to putting ourselves second and third, but there are times when we need to put ourselves and our own needs first.

The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, often talks about the importance of practicing self-compassion and lovingkindness towards ourselves, even when we’re not feeling our best. “The more we’re able to feel tenderness towards ourselves,” she writes, “the more easily it flows to others.”

I’ve never been good at putting myself first. Often I feel guilty when I do it. But when my sibling was better, and he and my father were back in communication, it seemed a good time to try it.

I worked on my business.

I dove into my work.

On Easter Sunday morning I was editing, and on a roll, and — as Mary Karr once said — when that happens “you don’t get up from the gambling table.” So I did something out of character: I called and told my father I’d have to miss the service, but I’d come up afterwards for lunch.

Truth be told, I don’t like chapel. Besides, every time I’ve gone with my father, he’s complained he can’t hear a thing that’s being said.

When I arrived in his room, I apologized for being late, and told him we’d have our own service.

“Wherever two or three are gathered together,” I said, and he liked it.

We sat by a water fountain outside the common dining room on the beautiful grounds where he lives, and chatted with the people who came by. We listened to our favorite versions of “Over the Rainbow,” and I played him a recording of “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” a song I’d been listening to all week for comfort.

We talked about a friend of ours we missed.

At lunch, we enjoyed talking politics.

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My father is one of the few Democrats where he lives, and always appreciates our talks.

I stayed until late, hoping to avoid the traffic on the way home, which turned out to be horrendous, even at 10 p.m.

I’d had that month off, though — that time of self-care — and I felt refreshed enough to handle it.

I’d planned on waiting a couple of weeks before going up again, but the following Monday I got a call from my brother, who told me my father was upset because I hadn’t shown up that morning to take him to  chapel.

“I told him it was Monday,” my brother said, “and I finally convinced him, but he wants someone to take him to chapel. Will you go?”

“I don’t like chapel,” I said, “but sure, I’ll go.”

Lately I’ve been thinking about those pigeons in the Loren Eisley essay, “The Brown Moths,” who keep returning to the site of the abandoned El in Philadelphia, even after it’s been replaced by a subway, and it’s no longer the river of food it used to be for generations of pigeons.

When they hear a familiar sound — some construction workers who are breaking up the stanchions — they return again, bravely flying through the sparks and the noise of the jackhammers, waiting patiently by the peanut vending machine, and listening for the jingling of change.

I wonder if we, too, are what Eisley calls “a curious instance of the memory of living things for a way of life or a locality that has long been cherished.”

Or else it’s the ritual, alone, that’s comforting for my father now.

After chapel, we sat outside in the sun by the fish pond and talked.

I read to him from a book about race relations on the south side of Chicago, where he integrated a church in the 1950s, when he was a pastor.

I was just a child then, and had no idea what was going on just a few blocks away from where we lived — the burning of the homes of black people by angry mobs of white supremacists who didn’t want black people to move into our neighborhood.

He took a nap, and afterwards asked me what the sermon was about that morning.

When I told him, he said, “I have a hard time believing that.”

“I have a hard time believing it, too,” I said.

When I left that night, I promised we’d go again sometime.

“Only when it works out,” he said.

“ Okay, it’s a deal,” I said, and like a pigeon, I flew off. I flew home.