Since traveling to Sri Lanka in 2004 following the tsunami, our foundation has sent trauma teams to Indonesia, Samoa, Japan, the Philippines and Nepal. We’ve worked with other international disaster groups for weeks at a time in remote mountain villages — sometimes with only a dozen residents — and played with thousands of children in makeshift relief camps in every corner of the world. Cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and superstorms all leave behind victims who must rebuild their homes and lives. As the refugee crisis worsened in Europe, and with the support of our donors, my son and I set off to train Red Cross workers near Zagreb who struggled to keep up with the increasing numbers of migrants headed for Western Europe.
This time, I have been away for about a week. As the plane touches down at the new Terminal 3 at Heathrow after a short trip visiting the refugee camp on the Croatian border, the frightened eyes of one resident there are still visible — burnt on the back of my tired eyelids.
I walked the long jetway into what seems like miles of cold marble leading to a checkpoint below the huge sign, “UK Border.” Here, I present my US Passport, answer the predictable “What is the purpose of your visit?” and “How long will you be in the UK?” and am quickly cleared to board the escalator down to retrieve my suitcase. I reflect on the fact that my US passport is a privilege easily taken for granted.
In my bag is only what I felt I’d need to visit both London and Croatia: a sturdy raincoat, a pair of good boots, three sweaters, as many shirts, a few pairs of jeans, a pair of dress slacks, underwear, socks, pajamas, toiletries, some wires and adaptors and something I rarely leave behind – a small temperature gauge. I find it difficult to sleep outside of about a ten-degree range, so it’s helpful to have an accurate reading. Over my shoulder, I carry a small case that holds some snacks, my computer, two pairs of eyeglasses and the book I am reading, “The Children of Katrina.”
About my age and roughly the same size, the man whose eyes remain in my consciousness probably left Syria many weeks before I left my home in Connecticut. Unlike him, I heard no bombs dropping near my home nor did I sense any imminent danger when I prepared to leave my home. While I saw the colors of changing leaves in the woods as I drove, he saw mostly burnt out buildings, piles of gray rubble, smoke still rising from the ruins of his corner market when he took flight. I bought groceries before I left and drove to JFK; he stuffed his small backpack with fruit and crackers, walked for days across a neighboring country and eventually climbed aboard a small rubber boat with a dozen others to float off to an unknown future. Only a mile from shore, the boat’s pilot jumped into the water to return to shore leaving everyone else to make the trip alone. Nearly 3,000 of his friends drowned this year including one three-year-old boy whose picture the world has seen and will never forget.
On dry land hours later, my alter ego began a long walk similar to the tens of thousands like him who have made this journey. If he was one of the lucky ones, he was handed a bag containing bread, water and maybe some figs or grapes along the way, gifts of any number of good Samaritans in Greece or Macedonia who cheered him on. Many hours aboard a bus, a train ride packed to the max and then another long bus ride brought him to the camp near the Serbian border, at Opacovac, Croatia where we met less than a week ago. I was dry, well fed and dressed in warm clothing. He was every opposite.
At Heathrow, once I retrieved my suitcase, I walked through the exit marked “EU Arrivals.” The doors at the other end just passed the inspection tables used by customs opened to shelves holding boxes of liquor, dozens of brands of perfume, jewelry, watches, chocolates and row upon row of gifts I could purchase without paying VAT. Welcome to the United Kingdom! I spotted the driver I’d asked to meet me and was soon on my way to my hotel in central London. I was in the back of a late model sedan.
Far from his home, my Syrian friend climbed down the stairs of the bus inside the fences of Opacovac where border police shuttled him into the UNHCR camp built to house 4,000. He was part of a group of 7,500; all led along a muddy path to sit on benches and processed. Neither he nor any of his group carried passports. He announced that he was seeking political asylum and wanted to go to Germany.
After a few hours sitting on wooden benches, he was taken to one of many tents where small cots had been stationed for him to stretch out and sleep.
If he was lucky, he’d be under shelter; if not, he’d be outside in pouring rain under a thin poncho issued to him when he entered the camp. Asked if he had any medical issues, he also had an opportunity to visit a Red Cross station where he could receive emergency care for blistered feet, a hacking cough or diarrhea. I learned later that many sought help most often for these three maladies. Plastic bottles of clean water were placed near the tents next to latrines where he and others could defecate. Most of the paths were covered with freshly placed gravel though some muddy patches remained. He received four pieces of bread stacked neatly on a napkin together with a tin of fish pâté and an apple. He may have left the camp the next day, boarding a bus to the Hungarian border to take another train through Slovenia to Austria; he might also have waited another three days before leaving the camp when Hungary closed their border the day after we met. I’ll never know.
* * *
No one we met in London denied the moral necessity of allowing Syrians and others who made this journey entry into the European Union; at the same time, no one had answers as to how to improve the situation. With colder weather and the snows of winter looming around the corner, this migration will most likely turn into an even more desperate humanitarian crisis.
A vocal right wing is calling for closed borders, and some immigrants are already being deported. Europe has quickly become a tinderbox, tense and volatile without leadership and consensus, burdened by struggling economies made worse by the demands of millions of refugees seeking opportunity. One German man told us about a small country village in Bavaria where 200 residents have lived peacefully for centuries. The government just settled 2,000 refugees there.
* * *
The ride into London presented me with the most extreme cognitive dissonance I’ve ever experienced. Every third car a six-figure purchase, the owners hurrying into restaurants and clubs where champagne and caviar overflow. Shop windows sparkle while the homeless panhandle between fur coats, diamonds and cashmere. Drunken rugby fans mix with art collectors considering million-dollar abstracts for their living rooms. Crowds of shoppers along Oxford Street seem oblivious to life outside the comfort zone of an illusory future, sobered no doubt for a few moments by the morning news.
Consumerism may be the most destructive degenerative sickness of our culture, and fashion, as Mark Twain remarked, the whore of time. Together, they take our attention away from poverty, wealth disparity and world hunger.
* * *
Refugees in Opacovac cannot adjust the temperature in those tents to help them sleep, and I cannot deny my life of privilege. Now, returning to the US, we all live amidst this unbelievable paradox of haves and have-nots. It will take all I’ve got to reach deep into my soul for the resilience, hope and optimism I had with me when I left home.
Truth be told, this trip ripped my heart out. For those of us at Second Response, there is not much more we can do but keep on keeping on.
May I, and all beings, be free from suffering.
On September 15th, Hungary’s construction of a 13-foot-high fence along its Serbian border forced refugees fleeing Syria to re-route through Croatia. On September 20th, the U.N. quickly established a refugee camp at Opatovac, Croatia with a capacity to temporarily shelter 5,000 refugees trying to get to Western Europe. The space required for that many cots would take up six football fields; however, more than 85,000 migrants have now entered Croatia since September 15th, when Hungary erected that fence and more are arriving every day. Try to visualize instead an area that would cover 100 football fields instead of just six — and that’s just for the area needed for the cots.
With Hungary’s border closed, tens of thousands of refugees are now corraled in a UNCHR (United Nations Commission on Human Rights) facility at the margins of Croatia — an already struggling Balkan nation of 4.2 million, swelling roads near its border as relief workers and government agencies attempt to improve the situation and journalists race to cover the story.
Yesterday’s constant rain inflicted misery all around. Aid workers handed out dry clothes and described their horror at seeing infants soaked to the skin through layer after layer of wet clothes. Refugees are sleeping out in the open, and temperatures are dropping.
For months now, I have listened with shock and a feeling of helplessness to the news of the plight of refugees from Syria flooding the European borders. This tragedy has a cause we won’t soon resolve, and although this crisis is merely a symptom of a senseless war, I am even more motivated to do something beyond reading the news while I wonder what will happen next. This crisis is already an unprecedented exodus and requires an “outside the box” intervention that can support everyone on the ground.
In two weeks, Second Response will have an opportunity to directly reach some of our nameless brothers and sisters who are now living through this horrific trauma – but to do so we need support. With it, my eldest son Jonah and I will first be conducting a PLAYshop training at the International Macrobiotic Convention in Zagreb attended by delegates from all over Europe. Following that, we expect the Croatian Ministry of Social Policy and Youth to help us get to Opatovac on October 14th and 15th where we can offer our support to the refugees — especially the children – and train the UNICEF staff, Croatian Red Cross responders, and other volunteers on site in our PLAYshop trauma protocol — the same, effective work we have done in Nepal, the Philippines, Japan, Samoa and Indonesia. Gaea Logan, our partner from the International Center for Mental Health and Human Rights – herself experienced in traumatology following decades of similar work particularly with Tibetan refugees — will join our efforts.
To get on the ground in Opatovac, Second Response needs to quickly raise $12,000 to cover costs of air and ground travel, simple meals & accommodations for our instructors, plus medical supplies, printing, translation costs and other necessities. We are experts in this labor of love and are dedicated to do everything we can to relieve suffering and reduce the traumatic stress impacting children. Without such simple yet effective psychosocial interventions, history suggests as many as 10-12% of children will suffer the lifetime consequences of P.T.S.D. Our work can reduce those occurrences and help to restore calm and stability to both overworked caregivers and thousands of refugees.
Please consider ways you might support our efforts with a donation or other resources.
We are grateful for any amount and inspired by your trust and partnership in our shared vision to help children around the world facing traumatic events. Now more than ever, we are especially thankful for financial support that will enable us to provide relief in the urgent situation in Croatia.
Not long ago, as is their practice, pharmaceutical companies in the USA conducted a series of experiments. One of particular note involved the behavior and speed of mice in a maze. Once a baseline was established, subjects were exposed to mild electric shocks immediately before entering. Following the shock, most of the mice exhibited difficulties achieving the goal; some slowed down, others shivered, convulsed, defecated, or became disoriented, and some even went catatonic before finally proceeding. A few, unlike before the shock, never made it to the end at all.
A week later, the mice were run through the maze a third time, but this time, after the mice were shocked, they were given a small amount of an opioid similar to oxycodone before being placed in the maze. As before, their total travel time was recorded as well as any unusual behaviors. These mice did considerably better than in the second case with only a few mice even struggling to finish; however, the average time to completion decreased.
The manufacturers of the opioid were particularly interested to note that while the mice given the drugs moved more slowly through the course, they did make it to the end with a significant reduction in observable neurological disturbance.
* * *
Some of my friends cannot understand why I often arrive at my office at 6:30 in the morning and often remain there for 12 hours. One of the reasons is that I have a recurring nightmare. In real life, only last week, Purdu Pharma – a drug manufacturer implicated in reports correlating the introduction of opioids to a 435% increase in heroin addiction – announced the availability of a new form of the drug oxycontin, a time release variant of the pain killer Oxycodone, specifically designed for use by children. This synthetic form of the opiate heroin is already being marketed for use by children with cancer who are experiencing extreme pain. Not surprisingly, however, doctors have also prescribed drugs of this nature for use in treating or preventing serious traumatic pathologies in children.
What we have been doing for the past two years at Second Response sometimes feels like a race against the clock, against pharmaceutical companies and doctors who are waiting in the wings to treat children’s traumatic stress with mind numbing drugs. As a former drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor, this possibility, together with society’s collective desire for magic bullet treatments for every malady, is actually my personal nightmare.
While we promote our training protocols as an alternative to this misguided practice, I can still imagine thousands of children being given drugs to help them deal with the traumas of disaster, or after being displaced by earthquakes or floods, under the banner of palliative care. Children impacted by stress, distress and trauma do not suddenly develop a new biologically based chemical imbalance that requires the use of drugs like serotonin uptake inhibitors, opioids, or anything else manufactured by big pharma. While some may consider this widespread distribution of remedies an acceptable solution for a massive problem, why not explore every possible intervention without using those that have well documented, long term side effects that carry the potential to develop chemical dependencies?
If we act compassionately and with haste, children’s futures need not be one in which medications of this type play any role at all. Despite increasing incidence of traumatic stress, it is still quite possible to teach strategies for self regulation, mindfulness and programs that include play as ways to mitigate stress effectively and put kids back on a road to joy and fun instead of leading them down a path to addiction and a lifetime of dependency.
You don’t know me.
I came from a small village where grainy bread, kneaded by the leathery hands of my grandfather, was made fresh every day, sold to farmers and school children who packed it into their satchels on their way to face the world. My grandmother stayed at home most of the time, her mind still sharp as she sat in a wooden chair knitting, humming and praying that the end would come soon.
My father drove a truck, making just enough to feed his small family, my Mom, brother, and me. But he knew we had to leave — there seemed to be little choice. With each new day, there was more reason to escape, to walk and ride and walk again to the edge, an exit point from this despair and an entry to another world.
You don’t really know me, but I matter, because I am the son of a mother who weeps at night in fear that she will lose me, that my future is in her weak hands that barely have the strength to hold my frail body. Like your son and daughter, your cousin or neighbor, I want to be strong and brave, but I am scared because of what I see and hear.
My uncle says we will go soon, we will leave at night when I am asleep, and he will carry me in his arms. My aunt will take food and water so I should not worry. Be brave, he says, we will all be OK. Our journey may be hard at first, but there will be many friends along the way who will go with us, so we won’t be alone. We have hope.
No, you don’t really know me, but I am your past. I am the Irish son of your great grandfather who nearly starved to death eating only potatoes. We came to live in Boston. I’m the Columbian nephew of your housepainter who was almost taken by the drug lords. He rents an apartment in Atlanta. Do you remember the nice Korean bank manager in Seattle who helped you with your car loan? I am her aunt who worked eighty hours a week at the corner market to put her through business school. I am the old friend of the kosher butcher whose parents escaped the Nazis in Poland and came to the Lower East Side to work in the sweatshops, who saved enough money to open that deli where you bought Matzoh for Passover this year.
How about that cop who wrote you that speeding ticket a few years ago on I-80? Guess what — he was the godson of the parish priest who arrived after war broke out in Bosnia, who heard that you had a statue with an inscription that said “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”
That’s why he came and worked so hard to make sure his divine progeny could realize his dream of helping others. I am the great uncle of your college professor who left Kenya when he was still in the belly of my mother while she slaved on your plantation.
No, you think you don’t know me, but I am your past and your future, your brother and sister. I am the rest of those words from that statue, the one in your New York harbor that talks about the wretched refuse coming to your teeming shore. I am a homeless, tempest-tossed foreigner — a child caught in a world gone mad.
And I am no different than you, my skin wrapped around my beating heart — pleading for mercy and loving-kindness and waiting for this long night to end.
“Behaving justly is more important than rituals.”
I certainly cannot claim to know that much about the minor prophets in the Bible although for reasons I cannot fathom, we did name each of our three sons after one of them. Perhaps it was a way to honor our ancestors, to quietly imbue in our offspring some ancient teaching that we’ve all but forgotten. We liked the sound of their names – that much was clear – and there was an ease that seemed to emerge shortly after their births that felt right. I don’t recall dwelling on any deeper meaning behind their names nor did we intend to place any burden on them related to any symbolism.
* * *
Amos was not one of the names we chose, but it might have been on the list if we’d spent any time looking into this remarkable, seemingly ordinary man who spent much time among the sycamore trees amidst what he saw was an increasing imbalance in every day Jewish life.
It was Amos who talked about the importance of behavior in society over the significance of religious rites or ritual. In the 8th century B.C., when the Middle East was in turmoil, and the right to occupy land was at the heart of conflict, it was Amos who dared to suggest that God might not always be on Israel’s side.
Amos was not prophesying in the sense we think of predicting the future but rather speaking from the perspective of a moral high ground, insisting that God’s top priority was caring for the vulnerable of society. In particular, he pointed to suffering that was the consequence of other people’s greed — insisting that what was most important was a just world. Amos reminded his country that it was never wrong to be on the side of the oppressed and that this was far more important than ones beliefs or religious rites in practice. What mattered was behavior and action.
* * *
Listening to Pope Francis’ message, I’m amazed that the teachings of the Catholic church have begun to inspire legions of people as they question the role of consumerism on suffering, our impact on the environment through wasteful actions and attention to profit, and compassion for those different than ourselves. The Pope minces no words when he calls capitalism in the developed world “an economy that kills.” Many devout Christians take issue with the Pontiff’s commentary on climate change (“he’s not a scientist”) but he is unrelenting when he asks “Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?”
Strangest of all is the widespread, homophobic reaction to his acceptance of same sex love, demonstrating an unusual willingness to open his heart in discussions of so many matters in contemporary society. Though he encourages his bishops to “avoid political and ideological trends”, Pope Francis seems unable to resist posing for selfies with kids before offering commentary on climate change in his weekly Mass.
Now he’s proclaimed that bishops of the church may hear confessions from women who’ve undergone abortions – “to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.” Yes, confession is indeed a “ritual”, yet Francis has put forward a deeply meaningful practice for believers who previously felt forever outcast from the moral teachings of their chosen religion. Maybe that can be counted as the Pope acting in a way that is “behaving justly” and embraces the oppressed.
* * *
Both the prophet Amos and Pope Francis came from humble beginnings – one, an ordinary shepherd and farmer, the other a janitor and bar bouncer. Both began early in their lives to question the standard religious, political and power establishment of their time. While many politicians and priests blindly praise those in power and accept the status quo of the system – justifying the ways of the ruling class – both Amos and Francis were sharply critical of the system itself mostly due to what they saw as its moral bankruptcy.
Maybe these are early signs of grass roots revolutions – demands for social justice so prevalent today as we seek to defend the oppressed and reexamine the gross inequity of our world. To me, it all comes down to the place where activism meets compassion for all sentient beings, discovering how we each behave as individuals and collectively and if we will indeed chose to care for the needs of the oppressed through the actions we take.
Contrasts in everyday life continue to amaze.
When the news of mass migration of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children escaping war in the Middle East makes me weep, along comes Walmart announcing their earlier-than-usual holiday sale of Christmas toys and a swell layaway plan to make sure your kids get the latest Star Wars saber and plastic Yoda. Futility and Frivolity.
The stock market suffers six straight days of loses, wiping trillions from the balance sheets; the next week, following two days of the biggest gains on record, the market recovers and the losses are history. People who sold in panic at the beginning of the week are licking their wounds while those who saw the drop as an opportunity to buy gloat. Panic and Patience.
Record low temperatures and massive snowfalls this winter will no doubt help us forget the hottest month on record worldwide (this past July) as we witness climate change and extreme weather. While drought and wildfires are great concerns in the West, flooding and rainfalls create havoc in Florida as two hurricanes bear down on the East coast. Collapse and Creation.
Our teachers have predicted the great polarization of society in this decade and the evidence is emerging. Mindless buffoonery on the political landscapes as a response to society’s ills balance the deep mistrust of the status quo and heirs apparent in the mainstream. Corporations acting as individuals bundle fortunes they pass to lobbyists who craftily spin the news into a dizzying denial of facts. Thirty minutes of the evening news is actually 16 minutes of advertisements for drugs you’re urged to insist your doctor prescribe.
Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day and 50,000 are homeless on any given night. One out of every 20 individuals living in New York City is living with a serious mental illness and half of them have never sought treatment. 35% of Americans are obese (that’s 78.6 million people) and as many as 30 million people have diabetes.
Americans spend $50Billion annually on their pets and $120Billion on fast food — and how about this: $11 TRILLION on shopping! That does not include $1Billion on teeth whiteners, $35 Billion on gambling, $17 Billion on video games or $40Billion on lawn care. Meanwhile, each citizen living in Malawi, Burundi, Central African Republic, Niger and Liberia will earn less than $1 each day this year. Most of them won’t live past 50. The “Haves” and the “Have-Nots.”
You might think life expectancy is high in the US but in reality we are 34th on the list – virtually every country in Europe is ahead.
What contrasts do you find most astounding? Aren’t the extremes amazing??!!
Despite it’s exclusion from the special club inhabited only by primes, for this post, 2080 is a pretty interesting number. You might think I’m talking about the year 2080 – 65 years away – but in the words of the great Jack Handy, from SNL’s deep thoughts, you’d be wrong. 2080 refers to something entirely different than that.
In 1975, I was living in a small house at the end of a dead end street in Arlington, Virginia. I worked nearby as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor in a half-way house for incorrigible teenagers. Thirty semi-incarcerated kids (the door was always open) had been arrested after committing minor crimes (joy riding, shoplifting, small-time breaking and entering thefts, etc.) and were given a choice to go to juvenile lockup or enter this program for a year. Naturally, most of them chose the latter and remained confined to a small residential building across from the county courthouse where they attended school classes and group therapy. The program was meant to redirect their lives to help them stay out of trouble.
Toward the end of the summer, the three women with whom I shared my home announced their plans to leave at the end of August. Two of the women who were leaving had just graduated from nursing school and had taken jobs elsewhere while the third had decided to move in with her boyfriend. This left my two male housemates and me with three empty rooms to fill in our six-bedroom farmhouse.
At about the same time, a young musician straight out of college had just accepted a job as the music director of Living Stage, an improvisational theater company in residence at the Arena Stage in D.C. and begun a search for a place to live in the area. She answered a classified ad in the Washington Post describing the vacancy: three women needed to share a house with three men (each would have her own bedroom), quiet neighborhood, “mostly vegetarian”. We were macrobiotic but that wasn’t going to be easily understood by most applicants. The rent was something like $45/month; it was 1975, after all, and that was the market rate.
* * *
The hazy sky flickered with light on that late Saturday afternoon. It was quite humid and although only an occasional crackle of static accompanied the abrupt heat lightning, there were thunderstorms in the distance. Sitting with an old college friend in the back yard, I heard a car pull into the driveway and, just as I called out instructions to come around back, in walked the woman who answered the ad – the one who moved into the house a few days later while I was on overnight duty at my job. I wouldn’t see her again until the following weekend as our work schedules kept us apart.
When she came to dinner the following Friday evening, she’d already accepted my invitation to go see a Kennedy Center performance of Hal Holbrook in his extraordinary role as Mark Twain. As we left for the theater, she was surprised to learn that others weren’t joining the outing and soon realized she was about to go for a night out – her first date — with her new housemate.
After the performance, we went to a small club in Georgetown where we watched a belly dancer perform. She was shocked as I lit up a cigar – one of maybe four I’d every smoked in my entire life, before or since. What I was thinking, I’ll never know.
The fare was Middle Eastern, so we ordered some hummus to share and soon afterwards, we walked down M Street where we sat outside a small café and ordered strawberry shortcake. We chatted about the show and nothing in particular, and exchanged small talk about music, work and life. The wind was picking up and it looked like rain, so we found our way back to her car and drove across Key Bridge to Arlington and the shelter of our shared farmhouse.
Once inside and out of what had now become stronger wind and sharp claps of thunder, I put Keith Jarrett’s “Koln Concert” album on the turntable and we stretched out on the big living room couch, carefully positioning ourselves at each end with our feet toward the middle. Jarrett’s soft piano set a quiet tone at first and we soon began to exchange simultaneous foot massages. As the pace of the music quickened, so did the intensity of the wind outside as a storm closed in. Jarrett became more passionate in his playing and before too long, my housemate and I were side by side, my arm wrapped around her waist. When I finally kissed her for the very first time, lightning struck the house and the power went off. The music slowed to a halt and we both burst out laughing.
That was 2080 weeks ago, 2085 Saturdays ago, August 23, 1975. Forty years later, our lives are still full of music and laughter and an occasional lightning strike.
It’s probably not on your calendar, but today is World Humanitarian Day. Many of the people who have inspired me most in my life are those I’d want to be sure to celebrate on this occasion – each influencing my own life’s path in different ways.
Only a month after turning 12, I moved with my mother and sister to start a new life in Atlanta, Georgia. That region of the country in the early 60’s was a strange place to grow up, and Atlanta seemed like ground zero for the Deep South. Pickrick Restaurant owner Lester Maddox, who would later become the state’s Governor, chased blacks from his restaurant with pick axe handles, which he distributed to his customers. The white police force did little to stop the bloodshed.
Were it not for the clear voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose passionate activism focused on abolishing racial segregation in America, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 may never have been passed. Upon King’s death, then Governor Maddox denied the slain civil rights leader the honor of lying in state in the Georgia state capitol. He left office only two years later with an astounding 84% favorable rating setting the stage for decades of racial division in the state. There was little doubt how being raised in Atlanta impacted my commitment to constantly examine my own racist attitudes, the importance of equal rights and a devotion to social justice.
It was King who really got my attention in Albany, Georgia where I went to summer camp, and later through the marches in Birmingham, Alabama. King’s first book “Stride Toward Freedom” is still the authoritative work on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the seeds of civil rights from a non-violent humanitarian who pulled back the cover on poverty in rural Alabama. We can remember him at least twice every year if we include today with January 18th, his birthday and a national holiday.
* * *
I always thought of Daniel Ransohoff, a community-planning professor at the University of Cincinnati who changed my life when he asked me what I was doing in college, as a true humanitarian, too. While most college freshman fell asleep during his required course on the history of poverty in Ohio, I was front row and center as this amazing, little known and exceedingly humble teacher shared his many photographs of inner city and rural farmland workers. I could have never imagined what life was like for those who lived only a stones throw away from my college dorm. Danny personified service to others, intellectual curiosity, passionate listening and secular teachings that sparked me to make a difference in the world. I remember him today with deep affection.
* * *
After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa was asked by a reporter what single thing each of us might do to bring peace to the world. “Go home and love your family,” she declared. Stories of her unconditional love and caring for those in need are legendary, reflecting what too few people I’ve met actually do to carry out the true moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Mother Teresa was always too busy to worry about who’d win the next election or quarrel over interpretations of the Gospel. She walked her talk and inspires me to keep a low profile and just “do the work.”
* * *
Nelson Mandela introduced me to the man who tortured him in prison. I had the rare privilege of meeting Mandela in 1995 when Long Walk to Freedom was released in Johannesburg. The unequaled Master of Forgiveness, Madiba also reminds all of us that the struggles begin inside us and when we overcome them, we’ll be even more empowered to change the world. He was an unstoppable champion of human rights who inspired millions to take to the streets to demand social justice. I am one of his greatest admirers and was blessed to be in his presence.
* * *
Finally, I would also count Jane Goodall and Sylvia Rivera as great humanitarians to be remembered today. My guess is that most people will recognize only the first name for her groundbreaking compassionate work with primates, our closest living relatives.
Dr. Goodall champions the spirit of compassion for all sentient beings and reminds us all that animals can teach us about love and life if we’d just slow down and listen with respect. She also works tirelessly to end world hunger.
And finally, the least known name on my list is Sylvia Rivera whose activism for the homeless and her empathetic assessment of gender perspectives following the outbreak of HIV infections in the early 1980’s brought a much needed focus to the poor and working class in urban environments who have since become even more marginalized worldwide.
Reflecting with gratitude, who inspired you to make a difference and even more importantly, are you living a life worth remembering?
Nearly 90º Fahrenheit and stiflingly humid, we get a another reminder of climate change as summer nears its end.
It’s interesting that so many people work to adjust the environment they find themselves in so they can be more comfortable rather than change themselves to be with the environment they’re in. I suppose “Be Here Now” is not always easy when extremes of weather create massive ice storms, years of drought, monsoon rains or scorching temperatures. I confess — I am one of the lucky ones – sitting now in an air conditioned café to create this post.
The Long Emergency, James Kunstler’s manifesto on the coming catastrophic changes, suggests that as far as the USA is concerned, I’ve chosen a good place to live. Certainly the different types of extreme natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, droughts, etc.) already emerging in North America are statistically less common in New England than in any other region. That didn’t seem so true when our small town was visited by an F-5 tornado 25 years ago, or massive flooding and snow storms caused by Super Storm Sandy created a major disaster in the Northeast states. Our own backyard was ground zero.
But who among really take action steps to reduce the impact of global warming? Environmentalist David Suzuki mused, “We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing where they’re going to sit.” Now we hear a new cast of characters on the campaign trail share their own perspectives. But the rhetoric of nearly all politicians, scripted mostly by corporate lobbyists, does little to slow down the car let alone turn it around. Recycling or riding a bike seems fruitless when economies on the other side of the globe erode the ozone faster than our own coal burning plants only hundreds of miles away from home.
And anyway, who’s got time to protest when the next episodes of Downton Abbey loom so soon in our future?
Some days I fantasize about what I‘ll be saying to my sons when I reach my seventies…..
“Hey guys, do you remember when everyone was so concerned about the weather, all those earthquakes and disasters, how incredibly hot those summers were, and how much snow we had each winter? And how about those days when society seemed so polarized between the haves and the have-nots! And do you all remember those nights when inner city streets were full of crowds protesting unchecked police brutality and the killing of so many young African Americans? Do you remember when politicians were not really representative of their constituencies but were all controlled by their donors? And all that talk about nuclear weapons — boy, I’m sure glad those days are over, right?”
But no – I cannot really expect to say anything of the kind. We are living in times of trouble — one could easily argue times that are as dangerous as any we’ve lived through — and so it is increasingly hard to just “Let It Be.” Though I’m not giving up, I do intend to do my part to be heard, to do what I can to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings, contributing where I can to make life a bit more livable while remaining open to change and the opinions of others who do no harm.
Challenges all, and I’m ready for them.
At about 3:45 this morning, I draped a small blanket over my shoulders and stepped outside to walk across my lawn and look up to the heavens. Two great horned owls exchanged calls as I settled into a lawn chair on the wet grass.
What got me out of bed so early was the annual spectacle known as the Perseid meteor showers that this year were unusually easy to observe due to the presence of only a small sliver of a nearly new moon. I’ve made a habit of this practice going back many years and 2015 turned out to be the big payoff.
Twenty feet from where I sat, a dear friend I hadn’t seen since 1975 was fast asleep. He’d come earlier in the week for a visit to rekindle a friendship that began in our freshman year of college. Changed almost beyond recognition, Michael was there that day almost exactly 40 years ago when I first met my wife, so with that distinction he’d earned a special place in my own expanding universe.
Within the first thirty minutes of star gazing, I was treated to the wonder-full sight of a dozen or more streaks of light that quickly melted any preexisting ideas of the boundaries of consciousness and reopened my imagination to that “final frontier.” Traveling at 30,000 – 40,000 miles per hour, these ancient rocks hurled through the Milky Way Galaxy and lit up much more than the pre-dawn sky. By the end of an hour, shortly before the light of dawn, I’d lost count somewhere around 40 sparklers.
* * * *
I am always amused by friends who, while claiming their “macrobiotic” view of the world gives them a superior perspective, seem to forget how utterly microscopic we all really are. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity coupled with short films like Charles and Ray Eames’ Power of Ten or the more recent “How Big is the Universe” remind me of a more accurate scale to consider each day. Teaching the “big view” can get a guy into trouble without some honest self-reflection.
Compared to mine, Michael’s world might seem smaller. On the way to the airport to drop him off for his plane ride home, I learned he’s never been to Europe, nor walked the streets of Hong Kong or strolled along the Cape of Good Hope as have I; in fact, he’d lived most of his life within a fairly small radius of territory in the Eastern US. I felt sad that he’d not seen the canals of Venice, the Swiss Alps or Stonehenge. For that matter, I was even more disappointed he’d missed a chance to witness the ruins of tsunami-ravaged villages along the coast of Japan near Fukushima, or met the incredibly resilient people of Samoa or Nepal after a devastating earthquake.
This doesn’t mean we both cannot make an equal difference in the world, but more to the point, can I get over my self-importance and run-away-ego when comparing notes? This old college friend has every bit the same potential within, his body composed of identical material, his mind no more limited. Indeed, we are all the same, macro or micro, part of this “life is but a dream” world.
How then can we find that inner light, that infinite place of luminous awareness that connects us through strands of particles undefined by self-imposed identities or imagined limitations? We may not need a meteor shower to gently shift our perspective. A hike with Michael up a mountain trail took us briefly to that bigger view, a tower overlooking the countryside near my home.
It’s good to change lenses when we can, cut new pathways and break away from routines that block our sense of place among the stars. If nothing else, it roused my inner muse and prose emerged.
Welcome to this evening’s contemplation
cool night air above a walkabout.
Questions posed with each new inhalation
calm surrender dispels every doubt.
Stroll along with memories emerging
which are really his, or mine, or ours?
Leave behind the perfect picture wanting;
we are little more than shooting stars.