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.
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“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.
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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??!!
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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.
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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?
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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.
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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.
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In the cardinal numbers 1-9, most people assume from the study of various forms of feng shui, numerology, divination or related subjects that everything begins with the number one. Specifically, when assigning a “beginning” point (if it is not an oxymoron to assign such a thing within an infinitely repeating loop) this assumption would be erroneous. Click here to see how the sequence began and don’t forget to click again to see where it goes.
Yes, it’s the number 3. That green energy of the East, the rising of the sun, the birthplace of civilization and ultimately all that is new, vital, source and origin. Three lines in basic Chinese symbolism suggest Heaven above, Earth below and “Man” in between.
Omne trium perfectum says the Latin (good things come in threes), a principle that implies that when three things occur together it is more significant or inherently amusing. Tic and Tac would surely be a lonely pair without Toe, as would Larry and Curly if Moe went solo. Whether seen in the religious trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost or what Albertus Magnus claimed “is in all things that signify natural phenomena,” three is a big deal. Lao Tsu said the triad produces all things; for Dante, it revealed the principle of Love. Rock, paper, scissors. Animal, vegetable, mineral. Acids, bases, salts. Three is everywhere in science, architecture, religion, philosophy, history, geometry, literature, fairy tales, music. And three as it occurs in the Chinese Book of Change’s eight basic trigrams is of particular interest to me.
Those three lines assembled in the East point of a compass are positioned to show a solid line at the base and two broken lines above, forming the Trigram “Thunder”
related to Elders – our parents, grandparents, teachers and all who came before us. This is what gives us life, breath, the essence of being in the world. And how exactly did that occur? Well, if you don’t know you might ask someone nearby — anyone older that 6 should be adequate. Our parents gave us life.
When we are able to accept this single fact, inhale this truth with every breath for as long as it takes to acknowledge this reality despite the myriad of other feelings we might carry around related to those two essential agents of Heaven and Earth who created that initial spark — the one that exploded from the meeting of sperm and egg into the body we inhabit — we would access that human quality referred to as gratitude.
Since I began counseling nearly 40 years ago, I’ve learned so much from many individuals with life threatening illness. Who would have ever thought that there was a two way street in the consultation process, that those facing their impermanence would share this deep wisdom with me. I’ve observed that the most common denominator among those who survived was their ability to face the challenge with an amazing spirit of grateful acceptance and self love.
To be clear, no patient I met ever jumped up from the chair when the doctor confirmed a malignant tumor. At the start, not one man told me how happy he was with the diagnosis of H.I.V. nor did any woman I counseled celebrate her new breast cancer. These are hardly normal first responses when learning the awful truth of a deadly disease growing inside. Yet somehow, over time, after allowing the very real anger, fear and grief to surface, those remarkable survivors could be heard to say “this was the best thing that ever happened to me – I had a chance to self-reflect, to look deeply at my priorities, to take stock of who I was in the world and what I really wanted from life.” In the simplest of terms, survivors settle for nothing less than a full court press with gratitude.
Starting with appreciation for life includes thanking our parents for the life we’ve been given. It’s not necessary to call or write them to embody this feeling, though doing so can be a powerful expression of love; however, I know of no better mantra with which to start the day. Expressing gratitude to our parents, still living or long passed, makes it easier to be grateful even in difficult times. Just allowing an awareness of gratitude for others to emerge within our minds – especially those who came before us to lead the way — can be life changing. I am truly so thankful to my ancestors, elders, mentors and teachers who have guided me, and to my parents who gave me this life.
This is one reason that many years ago we renamed our foundation Fortunate Blessings – acknowledging our Elders from the beginning of life while recognizing the truth that within every crisis there is an opportunity for personal transformation and gratitude.
Give it a try!
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I’ve just celebrated a birthday, and now move along in what I am referring to as the prime of life. Nudged by age and an infrequent alignment of the new year I enter — a prime number – I’ve an unusual opportunity to blog more often. During this year, I plan to post a short missive on my website — williamspear.com — a total of 72 times over the next 365 days.
How often will I write? It’s kind of a crazy idea – but I thought to myself why not write on those number of days AFTER my birthday that are themselves Prime Numbers. So today, my first offering is aptly titled “(2)” because it is 2 days after my birthday. I’ll post “(3)” tomorrow because 3 is a prime number, two days later I’ll post “(5)”, another two days later, “(7)” – then “(11)”, “(13)”, “(17)”, “(19)”, “(23)”, “(29)”, “(31)”, “(37)”, etc. Those are all prime numbers – as is 359 days after my birthday, nearly a full year from today in the prime of life.
What will I say? That’s anyone’s guess, but those who know me probably expect some arrogant pontification or pedantic posturing. If I’m careful, I’ll let them down and offer something of value, a personal story or memory that might inspire, or maybe what I write will bring a smile – respite from the grim news that seems to fill the airwaves and front pages. Honestly, I’ve planned nothing more than this public announcement of commitment. It’s more a promise to myself to start writing again.
So watch this space – spread the news or share this first communiqué if you’d like, and 72 times in the year ahead, for better or worse, please allow me the pleasure of your minds, hearts and, if you feel so moved, feedback. I assure you I won’t go postal (though it could be tempting) but will occasionally be political, avoiding sarcasm and cynicism (often read as offensive). Words matter and they can indeed cause pain or worse, despite the sticks and stones adage.
My intention, in the less than 500 words I plan to piece together each time, is simple: to share my own perspective in a way that is respectful, kind and honest. If what I write and share offends in any way, I apologize here and now in advance, for that in no way is something I would ever wish to do. I am a devoted student of life and the irony that has proven itself more than a few times – “your enemy is your best friend.”
And if only one person reads what I share, I’ll happily accept that it’s a pretty good start to a new conversation. After all, I’ve always maintained that there is only one of us here.
All of us “one.”
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Soon after he became popular, the American humorist James Thurber found himself in front of an elderly socialite at a dinner party who asked, “Don’t you think things are getting worse?” Thurber quickly replied, “I don’t care about ‘things’, Madam, I care about people.”
Right now, after the perfect storm known as Hurricane Sandy, Thurber’s words couldn’t be more resonant. One after another, residents of shoreline communities devastated by Sandy’s unprecedented impact are sharing this same sentiment. The loss of ‘things’ hurts a lot, whether homes, personal property or a lifetime of treasures, photographs and memories that vanished in the tides or were irrevocably damaged. Yet hundreds of these same victims of our most recent climate disaster utter deeply held truths we all share — declaring, “we lost everything we owned, but things don’t matter – we have our families, our friends, our dreams, and for this we are thankful.”
The Emergency Phase of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy will soon draw to a close. With power restored, survivors of this monumental catastrophe will soon be fed, clothed and housed — reconnected to life’s most basic needs. FEMA officials, insurance agents, community organizations, religious groups and neighborhood coalitions are collaborating with thousands of volunteers from all over the world to provide the ‘things’ necessary for survival. Food, water, blankets, clothing, diapers, toiletries, books, toys and virtually every material essential imaginable are all arriving daily, being collected and efficiently distributed, assuring a return to the “illusion of safety” within which we all continue to live.
Most onlookers assume that what comes next is rebuilding homes, schools and businesses; indeed, the debris, refuse, sand and waste is already being cleared — inviting opportunities for reconstruction of local schools, reopening businesses and revitalizing neighborhoods. But another step precedes the Reconstruction Phase of a disaster like this, and its importance should not be underestimated. What needs to happen must focus on the extraordinary resilience of children and safe ways to rekindle their boundless joy and natural playfulness.
With volunteers in Japan after a “Second Response” training
The Recovery Phase can bring disillusionment, when attention turns not to people’s ‘things’ but to their emotions, their inner landscapes severely impacted by the very real traumas of shock, loss, grief, fear, anger and worry. These potent, natural emotions will begin to become even more evident in the days and weeks ahead as survivors take stock of what has really happened, their lives forever changed as temperatures drop further and bands of volunteers retreat. The numbing effect of placing our attention on the outer world has a way of diminishing in the dark of winter. In the next sixty days, these same emotions will now be either safely released and externalized from the tissues of the body or repressed into the depths of despair, covered by artificial smiles and a dangerous denial.
When natural emotions are repressed over a period of just a few months, they become distorted, taking up residence in the physical body and manifesting later as classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Skin eruptions, breathing problems, digestive issues, heart palpitations and a wide range of emotional disturbances like sleep problems or irrational fears begin to emerge. Psychosomatic illnesses like these are most common in populations of children impacted by natural disasters when effective interventions are not instituted in the Recovery Phase. Studies have shown that 90-92% of children have natural coping mechanisms to readjust without incidence, but 8-10% of children will suffer long-term consequences.
While the larger agencies provide emergency provisions in the immediate aftermath, few groups provide emotional support beyond palliative approaches, quiet counseling and minimally expressive therapies that are primarily cognitive in nature. While these efforts do carry value, they often do not reach the invisible wounds of a disaster that have become more somatic, body-centered, and latent imbalances – ones that later become physically systemic, frequently causing the symptoms described above. These problems – and P.T.S.D. — are preventable.
The Fortunate Blessings Foundation “Second Response” Trauma Teams have been active throughout the world for nearly a decade. As part of our work following natural disasters, we have developed a simple, body-centered, and proven therapeutic approach with two specific goals: our first aim is to prevent and reduce children’s post-traumatic stress-related symptoms, depression, somatic complaints, functional impairment, separation fears and generalized anxiety; secondly, we build capacity on the ground so that future events can be met with similar, effective responses by local caregivers.
We see remarkable changes in children within very short periods of time. Our work with tsunami-traumatized children in Sri Lanka is a testament to our success. Our methods have been applied cross-culturally to American, Palestinian, Sri Lankan, Israeli, Thai, Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese students with equal success. PTSD, characterized by stress-related conditions such as asthma, skin problems, irritable bowel, nightmares, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, anxiety attacks, etc., has been significantly minimized in the groups with whom we’ve worked following our protocols.
It is our intention to train caregivers, social workers, teachers, parents, health ministries, mental and physical health personnel, and others in order to help children before PTSD sets in. We can teach and demonstrate our methodologies and pass on this expertise to local teachers, parents, and health professionals as we’ve done all over the world. What we do is very simple, completely non-confrontational and deeply respectful. Our “work” occurs to children as playful fun and games.
We will organize trainings in the tri-state area beginning in the second week of December and will conduct our “playshops” throughout the following 10 days. We are available to go wherever our efforts are welcome, including any and all affected areas to “play” directly with those impacted.
Depending on funding and availability of staff, each team has 2-6 experienced Ph.D. psychologists, social workers, youth counselors, or others with vast experience working with children affected by trauma, loss, grief, fear, torture, and natural disasters. We also travel with celebrities, artists and other local notables who can attract a wider audience through their own contacts and recognition. A training session typically lasts from 2-3 hours and can include up to 50 caregivers. Sessions with children can be between 1-2 hours, depending upon the number and their age. We can conduct smaller sessions with affected children as well as larger groups of 200 children at one time.
We are extremely good at what we do, facilitating a natural release of fears, grief, anger, and other emotions and effectively demonstrating to volunteers and lay people ways to understand the nature of PTSD. We can identify special cases and the needs of children who are severely dissociated and help to coordinate vital follow-up with local agencies and mental health professionals. Our methodologies are safe, highly effective interventions that most children love and eagerly embrace.
“Second Response” builds resilience, restores hope, and focuses on recovering the original ability of children – the boundless joy of life itself. We welcome inquiry, donations, support and collaboration.
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