Thursday, December 20, 2012

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.

So that's my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody's ever made before. Don't freeze, don't stop, don't worry that it isn't good enough, or it isn't perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you're scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”
~Neil Gaiman

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paradox in tragedy: It isn't enough, and it is enough

I haven't been able yet to write, to process my thoughts on the horrific school shooting that ended the lives of 20 children and 6 teachers.  I haven't even dug deeply into blog posts, or sought out people who are my spiritual guides for some semblance of understanding or peace. Instead, I allowed myself to be overcome by grief whenever it arose, thinking of the children, of their terror, of each family and community and their great loss, of the first responders who will need PTSD counseling to deal with witnessing the aftermath.  I signed some petitions for better gun control and mental healthcare, and read some discussions of why our society might be prone to this particular type of violence.

Then, looking at a friend's computer, I saw the homepage for "On Being." A peaceful photo accompanied the segment title, "Presence in the Wild," and I knew I wanted to listen to the piece. 

Once I started, I realized both that it was a rebroadcast from 2008, and that it was uncannily timely, posted just one day before the massacre in Connecticut. Pushing pause, I looked at the site's blog, to discover editor Trent Gilliss's notes on choosing the broadcast to fill a gap.

“About a week ago, we had a gap in our schedule and I suggested rebroadcasting our interview with Kate Braestrup, a UU* chaplain who works with Maine’s game wardens on search-and-rescue missions and such events. She also lost a husband early in her life. For some, it seemed counter-intuitive to put a show on about death, loss, and grief during this festive time of year. But we know that the holidays can be a lonely time of despair, depression, and loss for many; I hoped our program could meet those people suffering in some minor way — and remind all of us of the gift of grace and happiness during this season.

“I never could’ve envisioned (nor wanted to) this horrifying scenario before us. And so I worried about the programming decision.

“Well, my beloved wife Shelley and I just finished listening to the production on MPR News (yes, believe it or not, on the radio). Kate Braestrup’s stories and insights on love, death, and loss are profound — and more relevant than I could have ever imagined. It’s wise people like her who are most needed during our country’s darkest hours and brightest holidays. Bella and I cried a little; we danced.

“This show doesn’t make sense of the tragedy in Connecticut; nothing can. But, Kate Braestrup offers a framing for how to think about love and tragedy, how we live forward. If you’re looking for something to listen to with your loved ones, listen to this show. And, if you do, please write me and share your thoughts. It would mean a lot to me: or @trentgilliss.

From "Presence in the Wild"
(17:50)  “I don’t look for God, or God’s work, in magic, or in tricks, or in saying, ‘this is what I want,’ and then I get it. I look for God’s work, always, in how people love each other, in just the acts of love that I see around me. [In her book, Here if You Need Me, Braestrup tells the story of a young woman who was abducted, raped, murdered and left in the woods.]

“So this event tested that, for me. In general, I don’t get involved with a lot of sexual predators and murderers. I’m much more likely to be dealing with accidents or people who have done something stupid, or got drunk and did something stupid, but they weren’t actively malicious. So, to look for where love was, in this situation, the very obvious place to look would be in the hearts and the hands of the guys did their best to find her, to make things right for her, and her family. With all the limitation in that … that they couldn’t, in fact, fix it. Actually, that they are willing to go and respond to these things when they can’t fix it, is actually, in some ways, the most beautiful thing I see. It’s one thing to get to be Superman, right, you swoop in, save the day, and it’s very satisfying when that happens. I love it, when they find the kid … and bring him out alive. But, what’s amazing to me is that these guys [police officers, game wardens] are willing to go … and do these things that are excruciatingly painful, and that don’t fix, or undo, the harm and the evil that they see.

"… Anna Love was the primary detective on the case … during the case, would pop into the Lieutenant’s office to pump breast milk for her baby, at home with her husband …. There are these paradoxes, that you can’t fix or make them fit together, you can’t shave away the edges so that they ‘match.’ You just have to let them sit there, as separate things. On one hand, you had this terrible event that was not right, was not just, was cruel on every level, harmful and hurtful and terrible. And on the other hand, you had all of these guys responding, all of these guys motivated by love. One of them named Anna Love, a breastfeeding mother. It’s not as if all of that fixes Christina’s death, it doesn’t. It’s just that they both exist in the same time, in the same space, which, I guess, it isn’t enough, and it is enough.”

Listen to the full broadcast here to hear more about the “resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”

*(Kate Braestrup's definition of Unitarian Universalism: "at its best is a way of looking at religious questions without requiring that the answer be found for everybody, without requiring that your answer be imposed on everybody else. There's a humble acceptance that I am not God. I am not the arbiter of these things, that the best I can be is a window through which the person that I'm with can get a glimpse of something, and I can only do that by being as completely loving to them as I can be, whoever they are and wherever they are.")

(Photo from On Being.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Magic of Cambria: Woodsy Hills, Rocky Beaches and Hippies on Banjos

"Perhaps we [contemplative monks] have a deep and legitimate need to know in our entire being what the day is like, to see it and feel it, to know how the sky is grey, paler in the south, with patches of blue in the southwest, with snow on the ground, the thermometer at 18, and a cold wind making your ears ache. I have a real need to know these things because I am myself part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place, and a day in which I have not shared truly in all this is no day at all."
~Thomas Merton, Journal 27.2.1963

After a stop in Pismo Beach to eat our weight in crabs, mussels and corn on the cob, we wound our way up the coast to Cambria, arriving in the early dark of late November.  We checked in with our new friends, staying in their guesthouse via AirBnB, and found our way to the  the overly heated and brilliantly bedazzled Cambria Lodge, decked out for Christmas in reds blues greens whites and retirees sipping hot toddies. Ignoring warnings by the locals at the lodge, we tried to find our way down the wooded hillside path to downtown Cambria, with the promise of an alehouse.  As awake and aware as strange, dark streets and cold air force you to be, we still had to ask a smart phone for help after it became clear that we had missed the route. The handy iPhone guided us to a steep slope, marked with wooden steps and often only branches, leading us down the hill into Cambria. 

We found the Cambria Ale House in the east village on Main Street packed with people.  The proprietor shifted a few people about, offering us space sharing a table with another man. We sat with our wine and beer and listened to a bearded man with a banjo call us to sing along with the words of Woody Guthrie.  So we swayed a bit and glanced around to make sure everyone else was singing too, and joined in, this land is your land, this land is my land ... and, true to the left-leaning California mind-set, the banished verse, "this land was stole from you by me." We raised our glasses in a bit of satire to the typical American Thanksgiving we'd all just celebrated. Families with visitors and grown children home for the holiday got drunk and laughed too loudly.  I may have found my Stars Hollow and the quirky characters I dream of in small-town life. (If you don't know that reference, we might as well not be friends.)

We played Scrabble with two new friends and even though we weren't keeping score, I think I won.  When we were too worn out to walk back up the path up the hill that had morphed into a mountain, we were told to call the local car service, a man named Ron who owns a van, who gave us a ride for 10 dollars. Entering "The Pub" guesthouse, we stoked the fire in the wood stove before falling asleep under a warm down comforter.  Wood-beamed and rustic with all the amenities:  tea, books, and a flat-screen TV with multiple copies of The Matrix, the guesthouse is like glamping (glamor-camping) in a quiet neighborhood. The patio is filled with succulents, potted plants, climbing vines and friendly dogs. After breakfast at Linn's and an olallieberry & cream muffin for the gluten-eater, we wandered the village, stopping in stores, declining a mid-morning glass of wine offered by a German with a thick accent who had a lovely tasting bar behind his clothing store.

We drove a few miles north to San Simeon, past zebras grazing on Hearst's hillside, and watched kayakers pull out into the bright blue ocean water.  We walked through a grove of eucalyptus trees, accidentally stumbling upon private property, cows, and what may have been a sleeping bull.  We ate over-sized salads and burgers and tasted delicious wine at the Sebastian Store, while watching a seagull train her baby to beg.  Clearly unable to leave, we found another spot to stay along the coast of Cambria, where I collected green and red and mottled rocks that the tide gurgled to shore.

Writing it, it sounds too perfect, too magical.  And maybe, if I lived my dream and moved there, it would lose some of the glow. But I think, like Merton, it makes me pay attention.  Too often I don't engage with the person making my coffee, or get a little lost in a town, or ask someone their favorite spot to visit.  Too often I'm not part of the weather.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Styled: What I learned from watching my mother

My mom and I joke that we share a brain, often thinking and saying aloud the same things at the same time. On my last visit home, in the height of cold & flu season, I learned that she knows she is sick when music no longer makes her dream of dancing; I choreograph ice-skating and stage numbers in my head. We have a (twisted) sense of humor in common, as well as a love for subdued style. Sorting through boxes of family photos, I remember her long a-line skirts in early 80s reddish-brown corduroy,  her calf-high heeled black boots that zipped up the back, her lack of jewelry expect for pieces from her mother that held special meaning. 

We would sit at the donut shop by the Payless Drugstore in a strip mall in Eugene, and I would rummage through my mom’s shoulder bag. She’d keep talking or listening to her friend Donna, a woman I remember having a big, toothy smile and straight blonde hair, while mom leaned down to help me find what I was looking for – a little pot of burgandy-tinged lip gloss. Watching the women out of the corner of my eye, I’d unscrew the clear plastic lid and dip a pinky into the gooey sticky gloss, then pretend that I was looking soulfully into a hand mirror to carefully apply the gloss. It meant grown-up glamour. I’d daintily smack my lips together as I’d seen women do, and grin at my mom.  I was four, and this was our girl-time.  My older sister was at school, and I had mom and Donna all to myself.

Looking back, I learned that it didn't matter what you were wearing, how your hair was styled, or whether your lips shone like a glossy magazine photo. What mattered was sharing life, time, and conversation with friends.  That cheap coffee and donuts could be transformed into a communion of sorts, with coloring books and bananas for a little girl who was soaking it all in.

Mom and Christina feeding ducks, mom and her nephew Jeff, and me in a sundress sewn by my mom.

Friday, November 09, 2012

I Got All My Sisters With Me: Girls' Weekend Fall 2012

"I have a family — two, really. Well, three if you think about it. There are my siblings, and there are my children, but I also have an extended family. The people who stayed. The people who became more than friends; the people who open the door when I knock. That's what it all boils down to. The people who have to open the door, not because they always want to but because they do." ~Diane Keaton, Then Again

I met Jen, Wendi and Jodi in college almost 20 years ago, at a teeny-tiny campus set inside cinder-block buildings in the big cement sprawl that is Orange County, California. I am still paying over $30,000 in student loan debt for these dear friends, and it is worth every bit.

We get together at least once a year for our girls' weekend. They each have at least two children, a couple of whom are still babies or toddlers. I had a cat that I had to give to my mom because I couldn't handle the commitment. They have amazing husbands who love that they take the weekend away from the kids, knowing it recharges their souls that are sometimes raggedy-beat-down from being a mommy. I've collected stories of dating lore that will make you run for the nunnery. They're still very active in church, each walking her own journey of faith and love and generosity. I read Anne Lamott and wish I had more of her faith and less of my anger. But I'm getting there, a there that is my own path as well, a mix of traditions and what I've learned along the way.

Because of all this, not despite it, our friendships are deeper than ever. Even if we cringe on the inside at something someone says or has done, we love each other where we are, who we are. This is family for me, being that free.

We rent a house or "borrow" one when I'm house-sitting. We talk til two in the morning over a hunk of Humboldt Fog goat cheese and one bottle of wine ... for me, one shared between the moms. We make a pact not to discuss anything important until all four of us are together. We talk about projects and passions and how we can help each other forward. We have been known to cry, usually in domino fashion. We go where the spirit of the weekend leads us, and where people won't judge that we haven't showered and want breakfast at 1pm. We go thrifting, we walk to coffee, we go to the movies.

We normally take more photos, but maybe this year we didn't need to. Maybe it's that we didn't get out of our PJs too often, or do our makeup. Maybe we don't need to document the time, though the years have started to blur, and it's good to see proof of when we were, where we were. Maybe we're more comfortable in knowing that we will see each other again, although the death of a friend's dad last week sparked conversation of how precious and brief life is, and how important our time is together.

So, we take photos of coffee that was meticulously made by baristas in lab coats, and fun finds that tell the world of our soda obsessions. And then we hug, get in cars and on planes and promise to email more, to call more, to connect more. Knowing that life with kids and husbands and jobs and boyfriends gets busy. Knowing that even if our only e-mails are simply to set our next weekend in motion, we'll be able to start in just where we all are.

Thankful for friends who are family, who will open that door, not because they always want to but because they do.

Jodi's latte of joy at Portola Coffee Lab

Jen's find at Heirlooms & Hardware
Last year's weekend brunch at the beloved King's Road in West Hollywood, with the beloved server, John. 2011

Monday, October 29, 2012

Living Car-Free in L.A.: Strangers on the Street

Black & White Los Angeles, originally uploaded by olasis.
Working from home these days, I'm feeling a little lost. I need to be out and about, talking to strangers, observing them on the bus, to see the stories that constantly surround us. Los Angeles can be such a sprawl; community seems hard to create and the unknown is overwhelming, but walking and taking the bus, I'm constantly surprised at the level of care people give each other.

This morning, I jog-walked my usual route around the neighborhood, getting dirt and stones in my shoes from the rocky path up Sunset. I paused as usual, just past a bus stop, to shake the debris out of my shoe. A teeny-tiny woman with dark, curly hair approached me. She looked in her late 50s, and was clutching a crumpled piece of notebook paper.

Gesturing to the bus sign, she spoke a string of Spanish, from which I heard "El dos," the number two bus. She asked me how to get to a street I didn't recognize, via the siete sesenta y uno.

I was so excited to recognize numbers from high school Spanish (Gracias, Señor Leavell), I forgot where the 761 stops. The woman and I exchanged a few minutes of that brain-beating conversation where neither one understands the other, so you keep repeating the same facts, when an angel of the Metro pulled up in her big Orange bus.

I popped my head in and, in the middle of explaining the three things I knew about the woman and where she needed to go, the driver waved me aside and told the woman to get on board. "I'll take her to the 761," she assured me.

As I started jogging downhill, the bus pulled away and passed me, the little older lady standing directly behind the driver, clutching the rail with one hand and her written directions in the other.  I feel like I left her in good hands, but wish I could have done more. Like learned Spanish.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Recommended Reading: Mink River

"...and their thoughts were various and intricate beyond understanding, being composed of yearning and content and joy and despair in unequal measures, but each one, male and female alike, young and old, walked with an elevated spirit, and was memorious of the old nun, who had a laugh like the peal of a bell, and was unfailingly tender with everyone, and cut her own hair, and twirled a lock of her hair with her right hand while she wrote with her left, and sang exuberantly, and never buttoned the top button of her coat, and never lost her temper with her students, and loved to watch storms at sea, and carried her worn wooden prayer beads everywhere, and knocked on doors with both hands at once, and wore only red hats, and gave away books after she read them, and wept sometimes for no reason she knew, and loved to walk along the beach, and ended each walk along the beach by staring longingly out to sea, and was fond of saying to Moses, as she undid her coat after a walk and hung up her hat and set the teapot going on the stove, Our paths are in the mighty waters, Moses, and so are holy and hidden."
~MINK River, by Brian Doyle.

I highly recommend the read, thanks to my kindred-story-loving-spirit Judy for introducing me to the lives of the inhabitants of Neawanaka. From the back cover: "In a distinctive and lyrical voice, Doyle tells the town, in all its humanness and oddity and beauty. There are love affairs and almost-love-affairs, brawls and boats, Irish immigrants and Salish stories, mud and laughter. There's a Department of Public Works that gives haircuts and counts insects, a policeman addicted to Puccini, beer and berries, and a philosophizing crow [Moses]. Readers will close the book more than a little sad to leave the village of Neawanaka, on the wet coast of Oregon..."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Halloween: Something Sexist (Yet Healthy!) This Way Comes

While brainstorming the ridiculousness of slutty Halloween costumes (has sexy Muppet Babies been done?  Is sexy Romney family too soon?) one of our clan came across the sexy hamburger.  As Bitch Media's Kelsey Wallace noted:  "a problem: sexist costumes, as anyone who's been advised to dress like a total slut for Halloween is well aware. Don't get me wrong, I fully condone Halloween hotness for people of all genders, but when the women's sexy hamburger getup (which is sold out, btw) involves a formfitting bandeau and miniskirt and the men's version involves, well, a giant foam hamburger, something sexist this way comes."

The piece goes on to show some options of reverse sexism (Michael Phelps in a form-fitting watermelon dress, anyone?). 

In honor of making the absurd sexy, our resident costume designer, Kari Cassellius designed some inspiration costumes for our group, including one clearly for men.  Behold, the Chipotlegasmic Burrito, the Amsterdam Red Light Beer with Foam Afloat, the Sexy Spaghetti & Meatballs, Skanky Pizza and Slutty Sushi.

Other ideas have been the Sexy Vegan, a Hella-Hot-Dog, and, inspired by the recent rise in love of greens, I may go as Sleazy Kale.  Trick or Vegetable, people.

(Follow Kari's costuming on Facebook.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Combat Terrifying Statistics: Take Action for Peace in Congo

In the eastern province of North Kivu alone, some 5,000 Congolese women have been raped this year.

"'The number of rapes has risen dramatically: we have registered around 5,000 women raped since the start of the year in North Kivu. It's very dramatic.' said Justin Paluku, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, the provincial capital.  Renewed instability has engulfed the region since a group of soldiers mutinied from the army in April and began battling their former colleagues and sowing terror in the east."  © ANP/AFP

Such statistics can be overwhelming, but imagine your mother, sister or daughter attacked in such a way.  Then take action on behalf of these women. Call or e-mail Secretary Clinton to leave a message that the world is watching, and wants PEACE IN CONGO. Call the main line or send an e-mail, and in your own words, ask that action be taken.

Support the women and children of eastern Kivu through education. Through Action Kivu, you can start a monthly donation of just $8, and send a girl to secondary school, including her uniform, copy books, pencils and slates.

When actor and activist Robin Wright visited eastern Congo with the Enough Project, many women called upon her to remind Secretary Hillary Clinton of her commitment to women's rights and safety.

According to the Center for American Progress, "The Obama Administration and Secretary Clinton specifically have made advancing the status of women and girls a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, recognizing that until women around the world are accorded their full rights and afforded the opportunities to participate fully in the lives of their societies, global progress and global prosperity will have its own glass ceiling." ~Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues

Watch the video and along with Robin Wright, meet the women of eastern Congo, then answer them, protect them and partner with them: call Secretary Clinton's office. The main switchboard for the U.S. Department of State is 202-647-4000.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Am No One You Know: Visiting Marilyn Monroe's Grave in Westwood

I took a walk to the cemetery today, hidden in Westwood behind Wilshire highrises, visited by tourists who look at their Los Angeles guide books to walk them through the graves of the famous.  I overheard a Scot telling his mum that Natalie Wood was buried here too. Oh is she now, she replied in her heavy, gorgeous accent, photographing the grave of Don Knotts.

I came to see Marilyn Monroe's grave — not even a grave, but a headstone in the wall of the mausoleum.  My roommate had told me about this small cemetery, where so many stars are buried (Monroe, Wood, Knotts, Truman Capote, Donna Reed, Jack Lemmon, Dean Martin, the list goes on).  I was seeking out silence, tired of the pounding of workers fixing apartments at our complex, the sound of moving vans and garbage trucks.  But, though small, the cemetery was not a place of peace for me.  Surrounded by highrises off Wilshire and homes to the south, it felt too open to the neighborhood.  It didn't feel designed.  Cared for. There were orange cones on the grass next to graves and tourists flattening the overgrown grass.

I'm fascinated by Monroe, but was more fascinated by the headstones of people I don't know.  What is the story of someone whose eternal (earthly) resting place designates her as a "sister."  Who was this couple who chose a German phrase, "Wir Haben Uns Geliebt" stating for eternity, "We have loved."  How did Madeleine and Fred Arnold, from New Jersey and Tennessee, respectively, come to meet, fall in love, and live together to be buried in Los Angeles?

These stories are unknown, while Marilyn Monroe's has been recounted, rewritten and filmed many times over.  But it made me wonder if we will ever know someone like her.  Which makes her even more mysterious: that she was one of us. 

"and now I perceived an individual in the aisle pulling down books from shelves, peering at them, clearly absorbed by what she read, a woman nearly my height (I was tall for a girl, in 1956) in a man's navy coat to her ankles and with sleeves past her wrists, a man's beige fedora hat on her head ... and most of her hair hidden by the hat except for a six-inch blond plait at the nape of her neck; and she wore black trousers tucked into what appeared to be salt-stained cowboy boots.  Someone we knew? ... A girl-poet like ourselves?  ... the blond woman turned, taking down another book from the shelf (e. e. cummings' Tulips and Chimneys —always I would remember that title!) and I saw that she was Marilyn Monroe.

"Marilyn Monroe. In the Strand. Just like us. And she seemed to be alone.

..."Here was the surprise: this woman was/was not Marilyn Monroe. For this woman was an individual wholly absorbed in her selecting, leafing through, pausing to read books. You could see that this individual was a reader. One of those who reads. With concentration, with passion. With her very soul. And it was poetry she was reading, her lips pursed, silently shaping the words. Absent-mindedly she wiped her nose on the edge of her hand, so intent was she on what she was reading. For when you truly read poetry, poetry reads you.

..."We were stunned to see that this woman looked very little like the glamorous 'Marilyn Monroe.' That figure was a garish blond showgirl, a Hollywood 'sexpot' of no interest to intellectuals (we thought, we who knew nothing of the secret romance between Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller); this figure more resembled us (almost) than she resembled her Hollywood image.

..."But you, gripping my wrist, had another, more subtle thought.
'She thinks she's like us.'

"You meant: a human being, anonymous. Female, like us. Amid the ordinary unspectacular customers (predominantly male) of the Strand.

"And that was the sadness in it, Marilyn Monroe's wish. To be like us." For it was impossible, of course."

~From "Three Girls," in I Am No One You Know
 Joyce Carol Oates

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Being Bewildered: Silence, Zen, Words, Burning Man

It was my first experience of Burning Man, surrounded by the sounds of over 50,000 people. Bands played atop buses, competing with the house music a few camps over. A constant rattle|buzz| hum of generators provides the background soundtrack, and the rather rude camp across the road boasts a boy who uses his megaphone to share his snarky commentary with passersby, simultaneously hoping they'll stop for a drink and further abuse inside his bar. A city of noise, fire, and spectacle rises in the desert, a space that is usually surrounded in silence. Dust storms that blow free, unnoticed for 300 odd days a year, suddenly disrupt, slowing down the days.

In the midst of this, I found community and oftentimes shared silence within my camp.  A few other book-people and I would take refuge beneath the shade of the make-shift kitchen tent, protected from the wind by one wall of tarp, open on three sides to the desert dust, tents and RVs.  Drowning out the drum beats and passing chatter of burners on their bikes, I delved into Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence.  Maitland, a woman known for her witty discourse over dinners, an intellectual writer who discovered socialism, feminism, friendship and Christianity at Oxford in the 60s, chose to embrace a life of relative silence in the Scottish highlands, and writes eloquently about that life. 

Describing her experience within a Zen monastery, Maitland writes, “Zen silence is an oppositional silence. You are silent in order to escape from the self, and the dualisms of the world, to ‘protest’ against the veils of illusion and transcend them. Zen philosophy, and zazen (the Zen method of meditation) as the practical working out of that philosophy, sees all differentiations of the world as delusion. As [Douglas] Hofstadter explains it:

‘At the core of dualism are words – just plain words. The use of words is inherently dualistic, since each word represents, quite obviously, a conceptual category. Therefore a major part of Zen is the fight against reliance on words.’ -from Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

“The famously confusing Zen Koans are meant to confuse. Being bewildered allows the mind to operate non-logically* and getting outside logical systems allows you to make the leap to enlightenment. Zen is profoundly anti-dualist … it urges people to stop categorising – there is no I/thou; no here/there; no differentiation, no categorisation; no autonomous self – there is only Buddha-nature and all the rest is illusion. Words create categories.” (A Book of Silence)

Gasp. As a writer who often spends long, drawn out minutes, eyes unfocused, cast up and to the right, where it seems my words reside, I wait for the perfect one to float forward from the recesses of memory. To find enlightenment, I have to let go of words? The word “logical,”* Maitland reminds us, derives from the Greek logos, which means “word.” “Logical thinking means thinking amenable to the conscious processes of language.”

Going to Burning Man was part of my life's work to let go judgment, to observe others and what makes them tick, to live more in the grey.  To accept a state of amused bewilderment that might lead me to greater understanding of life.  And while burners hugged me hello and welcomed me "home" to the playa, I don't think I'll go back. And while art, sculpture, the communal offering of morning coffee and bacon, and the moonrise above the desert mountains spoke volumes to me in silence, I cling tightly to words, and wish desperately to find Buddha-nature in them.

Speaking of, does the term “Buddha-nature” spark a trigger for you, either negative or positive? Sit with that feeling, explore what story you were told that created such a reaction. “Buddha” is just another word, used to categorize, meaning “awakened one.” If it is troublesome for you, and you understand being awake, aware, and present as “God,” substitute “God-nature.” If “God” is troublesome for you and invites visions of an angry white man, choose your own term for that awakened state.

Growing up in a Christian community, “Buddha” was the equivalent of danger. The road to heaven was narrow, and eastern thought was a gateway philosophy – to HELL. Odd, since Christianity began in the Middle East. Thankfully, I was raised in a smaller circle of influence by my mother, father, and Madeleine L'engle (via bookland), who all encouraged me to explore and question. Once I began exploring eastern philosophy with an open mind / heart, Christian texts made SO much more sense, mostly as metaphor. (I recommend A New Earth; Eckhart Tolle helped me understand the connectivity, to let go of the differentiation I was taught.)

But words are how we communicate. So, surrounding the silence that you choose, space and time carved out to practice zazen (derived, Maitland writes, from the Japanese words for ‘sitting’ and ‘absorption’) there are moments of connectivity through words. Burners who share their experiences of freedom in the giving society of the playa. Poems that pry open your small, busy thoughts to a greater understanding of the world. Stories that embrace you and walk you into a different world. Koans that tease you out of your set way of thinking.

What is the way? asked a curious monk.
It is right before your eyes, said the master.
Why do I not see it for myself?
Because you are thinking of yourself.
What about you? Do you see it?
So long as you see double, saying “I don’t” and “you do,” and so on,
your eyes are clouded, said the master.
When there is neither “I” nor “You,” can one see it?
When there is neither “I” nor “You,” who is the one that wants to see it?
(from Gödel, Escher, Bach)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

In this world

This morning, I took a break from the news of attacks on embassies, teachers' strikes and new monkeys discovered, to read these two poems:


By Naomi Shihab Nye

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.


by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

If the Buddha Dated... Or Went to Congo

I’m working through the book “If the Buddha Dated,” by CharlotteKasl, for therapy.  Its pitch is that it’s a handbook for finding love on a spiritual path.  Not just romantic love, but all love, to let go of all that might be blocking one from loving authentically, loving others, and loving oneself.  I say “working” through it, as I’m taking my time, journalling about what strikes me, and meditating on the questions it raises, to better understand my journey.

Except this morning.  As I began to journal in response to the chapter, “Stay Loyal to Your Journey,” I was distracted by my own deadline to write a blog post for ActionKivu, about the unfolding of Ernata’s story.  My Action Kivu partner Cate and I met Ernata when we visited Congo in January of 2012, and her generous spirit, smile and heart-wrenching story left a lasting impression on us.  Reading her update, about how her training through the Sewing Workshop has changed her life, her marriage, and her outlook on the future, I was in tears once again.  It felt selfish to take an hour to meditate on my own issues, to identify where I disconnect from my own essence, where I have been conditioned and taught to please others in order to be noticed and to be loved. 

But. That meditation time is essential to my well-being, to sharing love with others, and being a genuine presence in this world.  What frustrates me is not the ego it would represent to take that time to delve into my own life, as it is actually doing the work to disconnect from that ego, but the fact that women like Ernata don’t have the luxury of time to reflect and observe.  Constantly worried and working for each day’s survival, the space to allow imagination to run free, to create, is most often denied these women and children. 

I remember, in our group photo with the 2012 graduating class of the Mumosho Sewing Workshop, one woman’s hands in my hair, feeling the physical difference between us, while Ernata’s fingers gripped mine tightly.  She had just shared her story with us, and our shared emotion broke down any of those physical differences. Her story resonates with me as a sister, worried for women who are not allowed to find their voice and share their truth.  

In honor of Ernata, please read her stories (links below), and pay attention.  Pay attention to the Congo, read the latest on the conflict from Human Rights Watch let the world know we are watching and we demand change, and peace.  Pay attention to whatever is holding you back from loving in a pure and real way, outside the ego, and outside self.  Ernata is my touchstone for remembering to honor myself, wherever I am on my journey, and to support and honor others, wherever they are.  

Hope from Mumosho Sewing Workshop: Ernata's story

Eranta's Story Unfolds: Sewing Grads & School Uniforms

Ernata, January 2012. Photo by Cate Haight

Friday, September 07, 2012

Find Beetle Balance: Lessons from a Wayward June Bug

When I was a little girl, I spent hours outside, butter knife at the ready to flip over a stranded beetle, little legs waving fruitlessly in the air. Oddly enough, the neighbor kids didn’t want to join my beetle saving games, so I had a lot of time in quiet, to think, to wonder how the beetle ended up on its back, where it would head now that I rescued it, if it had a beetle baby or beetle daddy waiting for it. My very own secret life of beetles.

I still love quiet and solitude, the only time my imagination frees itself, to allow wooly thoughts to tumble over each other and untangle into ideas. Half of the writing process, for me, is spent in my thoughts, my fingers idle at the keyboard, thoughts that come while taking a walk, which never fails to inspire me. I leave my butter knife behind these days, but wonder if I shouldn’t be on the lookout for beetles again.

I was in the middle of writing about balance after a particularly shaky day trying tree pose. Placing the flat of my right foot against my left inner thigh, twisting open my right hip, swaying slightly as I find my balance on my left foot, leading up into my leg, my muscles tensing and responding to my mind. Only then do I remember that it’s okay to breathe. Letting go a held breath, I relax a bit into the pose – and consider what it means to find balance in my life.

It’s so out of balance, this world. After a bad experience on a mini-bus of death along a muddy cliff’s edge in rainy season Congo, my Action Kivu partner and good friend Cate and I were ready and willing to rent a 4x4 for all future excursions around the region. You see, our friend and guide told us, this is how we must travel. We know, we told him, but we are not prepared for this. We are not prepared to die.

 Our lives in the western world of paved roads, seatbelts and stoplights have conditioned us towards safety. But why should only developed nations have that right? Why is the world so out of balance, that the mini-bus of terror is the only option for so many, whose lives are just as meaningful, whose bodies are just as deserving of seatbelts, who too simply want to return safely from the market with a loaf of baked bread for their kids. It’s out of balance that kids here in the U.S. are going to bed hungry, when we have so much wealth.

Writing this, a June Bug buzzes by my open window – landing with an electric clicking sound on the sill, making its way along the screen. Its unpredictability makes me jump, and as gorgeously green and blue as it is, it is a bug. I note that the space between the screen and the open window is too small for it to get in to my bedroom, despite its valiant efforts to do so. It walks the length of the screen, four of its legs feeling the underside of the screen, peeking into my domain. It seems so determined to find a way in, I wonder if I’m supposed to pay more attention to it. Though I joke that my animal totem is likely a possum, I’ve always appreciated the idea of a spirit animal, guides from nature who remind us of what we need, now.

From (admittedly NOT a resoundingly legitimate-sounding site) I learned that the “June Bug/Beetle will show how to balance and remain grounded.”

Maybe I should try tree pose again… “His wisdom teaches to navigate what is hidden in the sub/unconscious realms. Pay attention to nocturnal activities: dream time, journeys, and moments of waking, along with meditational impressions. Expect emotions to come to the surface as well as being emotionally tested in order to clean and clear the way for new and better things. …Pay attention to synchronicities. ... June Bug/Beetle demonstrates a higher intuition connection and a keen sense of discernment in all areas. He will show how to dig for answers to reveal the truths you need. … His medicine represents opportunities to recycle, reinvent and repurpose what you have, know, think and act. This self-reinvention may include participating in larger groups to expand knowledge and awareness. … Be ready. In the last two to three years, have you been inspired to do something, have unfinished projects or endeavors that have been delayed? He will show how to progress forward as it is time to emerge.”

June Bug (JB) buzzes suddenly, magically having made its way into my room, clicking against my window. I grab my spider cup (a clear glass I keep on hand to rescue wayward spiders), gently cover JB, careful of its delicate legs, and slide one of our Action Kivu postcards under it (they’re the perfect size for bug rescues). June Bug is immediately on her back, and I flashback to my childhood sidewalk patrols, and tip the cup so she can walk upright. Releasing her out our front door, she flies away, her noisy buzz reminding me to pay attention, to finish those unfinished projects, to find balance in my life to better balance this wacky world, and to carry my metaphorical bread knife, looking for ways to help others get back on their feet, to fly.

Tree Pose, originally uploaded by estimatd.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Spirits of the Playa: Temple (In)Visible

"In our noise-obsessed culture it is very easy to forget just how many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent —gravity, electricity, light, tides, the unseen and unheard spinning of the whole cosmos." ~Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence

The interior of the temple is a ways from the Esplanade, the party strand of Burning Man where the alcohol and bumping beats are served non-stop.  Far out on the desert Playa, outside the walls of the temple courtyard, art-cars thrum with music and activity, bikes pedal by at that slow pace the desert sand demands, and people meet and share lives.  But stepping inside the temple, there is a different thrum, of energy, the only sound from people shifting onto their knees, adjusting their crossed legs, of Sharpie markers scribbling words onto the wood of the temple walls or the pads of paper provided.

The shared sorrow of the hundreds gathered beneath the intricate wood carvings is visible in photos, memorials brought to honor those lost over the year, in the words scribbled everywhere, people saying goodbye, celebrating, letting go.  All of this will burn on Sunday, the final night of Burning Man, when they torch this temple.  The energy is heavy and palpable, as one by one, people let go of what they're holding too tightly. 

I pick out a blue Sharpie and take a piece of paper from the pad left on the bench, sit on a step, close my eyes, and allow the words I need to write to take shape in my mind, in my body.  The tears I was warned would come flow freely, but it's okay, because even though some people are taking photos, most are sitting in silence, tears streaming down their faces. I write my words, fold the paper carefully in half, and slide it, tight into a space where it won't blow away.  My friend holds me, unaware of what I'm trying, daily, to let go.

I walk outside, worried my ride back to the camping area will leave without me.  The dragonfly art-car is still parked, its music playing low, a few of my fellow travelers chatting about the Burn, about the high number of newbies like myself who are still learning the lingo: "How's your burn?" refers to your state of being this week, not the inevitable sun damage from life in the desert.

Temple taken over as white-out begins.

We're leaving on Saturday, before the temple is torched. It stands now over my shoulder, graceful and strong, holding so much within its walls. I wonder what it will look like on fire, and how that would affect my sense of saying goodbye to the pieces I've left inside. As I'm thinking about the spirit of the burn, differentiating this place of solemnity and honor from the party mentality of the streets of the camp, the roller disco where we skated to 70s hits, the hula-hoop camps serving sweet-pink-strong drinks, one of the dreaded dust-storms rises, slowly whiting out my view of the Temple.

Sound is limited to a radius of five-foot conversations, the present moment is clearly all we have, and all that I just experienced is gone. Waiting out the white-out could take hours, and our car decides to slowly make its way back toward camp.  We board beneath a dragonfly wing, climbing a ladder to the top of the car, to roll through the white dust, hoping we're heading the right way.

Burners on their bikes appear out of the dust in shadowy slow-motion, follow our wake for a moment, and then disappear once more, ghosts of the Playa.

I look back at where the Temple should be, knowing that I won't see it again, and say a silent thank you, for taking what I needed to let go.

Top of Temple in white-out.

Robin Wright on Meeting Amani and the Women of Mumosho

"The women from the Action Kivu sewing center also came out to meet us and asked that we carry their message of triumph and hope back to the U.S."

Read more from Robin Wright and JD Stier about meeting Amani and the women of Mumosho's Sewing Workshop via The Huffington Post here: Congolese Women Stitching a Community Back Together.

Robin Wright, photo courtesy the Enough Project
And if  you've yet to meet Amani via Enough Project's video series, I am Congo - watch now, and spread the message of hope!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Walking in L.A. - Wouldn't Change a Thing

It's the people who you meet when you're walking down the street — reason #173 that I love being car-free. If I were encased in a car, I would not hear the girl in front of me singing.  Badly.  I would not have the time to observe her stilted downhill stride, her perfectly bobbed black hair bouncing in time with her short steps. Then to look further, to see the girl just ahead of the crooner, holding tightly to the arm of a bigger boy to find her balance, her feet twist inward, their backpacks swing in unison with their awkward steps.

The crooner's singing grows louder as I quickly gain ground on the group and glimpse of her round face, her mouth open in a perfect circle as she sings, a CD player in her left hand. Her chunky headphones drown out the sound of my steps, the jarring noise of construction workers repairing potholes, the song of birds, the sound of her own voice.

She belts out Demi Lovato and Joe Jonas's "Wouldn't Change a Thing," holding out that last note on "thiiiiiinnng" like a cat that's losing a fight and crying for backup. It is bad. The construction workers hear it over their angry-sounding machines and stop working to identify the sound. She is awful, too loud and terribly off-key, and beautiful, she doesn't care. She sings like no one is listening.

Anne Lamott quotes Michael Pritchard when she writes that people with Down syndrome are God's spies  — perhaps here to see how we're living, how we're loving each other, and I think, to remind us to dance like no one is watching, to sing like no one is listening.  Because in the long run, who cares what two construction workers and a woman running to catch her bus think of your song?  As Demi, Joe Jonas, and my friend for my morning commute sing to us:

"We're perfectly imperfect
But I wouldn't change a thing, no."

Tam tam dance, originally uploaded by Victor Vargas.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Yoga Lesson - Living in the Uncertainty

With my week's pass to Equinox firmly in hand, I march into morning yoga class, holding tightly to my mat and my resolution to become one with my body, to quiet my monkey mind, to be present.

If only Andrew, our yoga guide for the hour, knew the nutjob he was dealing with, barely hearing him over my ongoing mantra of being not good enough to do crow pose (seriously.  WHEN will I get crow pose?) as he adjusts my hip for a more open Warrior Two. But as the hour passes, I become more aware of the safe space, reminded to rest in child's pose, especially necessary when we're working hard. I watch the athletic giant in the front of the room, an inflexible man who never gives up, modify every pose. I may even learn to let go my perfectionism and instead be inspired by the lithe, strong woman easily flipping into a headstand. In downward dog, I obey Andrew and swing my leg behind me, opening my hip to the window that is filled with that sunlight that only shows itself at 7:30 in the morning.

As we hold our hands in prayer position at our heart center, we bow, and honor the teacher within, who guides us through difficult positions on the mat, and in life. We accept living in uncertainty.  There is so much uncertainty in life: I'm attempting to find more funding for Action Kivu projects, including a full-time salary for myself.  I have no idea if that will work.  I'm leaving for my first experience of that desert life of spirituality and house music, Burning Man. Other than dust in my eyes and fairy wings on my back, I have no idea what to expect. But that may just be what it's all about.  Living in the mystery, breathing deeply into acceptance, honoring the work our bodies do, and opening ourselves to the morning sunlight. 

(Photo from SoaringSpiritYogaStudio)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Quilts, Kids, Congo and You: Enter to win gorgeous giveaways and empower the women and children of Congo

Ernata's smile is contagious and frequent, even in this corner of eastern Congo, where women have few rights, domestic violence is present in a majority of marriages, and rape is used as a weapon of war. Despite her circumstances, Ernata finds reason for hope in her newly-acquired sewing skills and her brand new sewing kit. For only $175 USD, the sewing kit includes a pedal-powered Singer machine (crucial for a land lacking consistent electricity), scissors, fabric, oil, and the means to start her own small business, to fulfill her dream to provide for herself and her family.

This sewing kit was one of 60 given to recent graduates of the sewing workshops in Mumosho and Bukavu, DRC, provided by generous supporters of Action Kivu, through a fundraiser on Handmade By Alissa. Alissa Haight-Carlton is hosting the giveaway once again, and it's not just for sisters who sew! Whether you're crafty or can't stitch an inch, there's something for everyone: a gorgeous tote, bundles of fabric, and various completed quilts, perfect for a wedding or baby shower gift.

Donate $100 and you are in the running to win a finished quilt by Elizabeth Hartman from her book, the Practical Guide to Patchwork. This gorgeous quilt is a large lap quilt at 68″ x 68.″

Donate $35 and be in the running to win this vibrant, fun baby quilt by Heather Jones. This quilt measures 35″ x 35.″

Action Kivu's sewing workshop has already started new classes in Mumosho and Bukavu, focusing on the exquisite skill of embroidery, which is in high demand in Congo.  Click here to read about the recent sewing workshop graduation made possible by our generous donors. As we gear up for fall, the graduates of the sewing workshop will sew new uniforms for the vulnerable and orphaned children Action Kivu sends to school.

We're excited to share more photos and stories, but we rely on your support to make this a reality. $175.00 USD purchases a sewing kit for a woman to start her own business. Just $10 per month pays the school fees for a girl to attend high school with a new uniform, supplies and book bag.  Help us reach our goal!

Visit Handmade by Alissa before midnight Monday, August 20, 2012, (Pacific Time) to see more of the giveaways, and know that your donations are tax deductible, and 100% goes directly to the work on the ground.

Watch the Enough Project's video, and meet Amani Matabaro, Action Kivu's Congo liaison, founder of Actions pour le Bien être de la Femme et de l'Enfant au Kivu (ABFEK), and the person who makes all this possible.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Practically Perfect...

Roommate and I went to see Mary Poppins, the musical, at the Ahmanson last night.  We went with his friend and her two fairy-tale children, who watched with dropped jaws as Bert danced about the proscenium, and Mary flew into the audience on her umbrella.
There were many differences from the 1964 film; some fun (an expanded Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious number), some disturbing (the lack of a story arc for Mother/Mrs. Banks, and the deletion of the Sister Suffragette song, plus a scene where the toys come to life and there's a life-sized clown — during which I relaxed my eyes and blurred my vision as if I were staring at a poster with a hidden image).  There was a new song, to which the perfectionist in me wanted to throw over my seatmates and dance on to the stage:  "I'm practically perrrrrfect, in every way," Mary Poppins articulated as she pulled lamps and clocks from her magic bag.

My therapist, however, begs to differ. Upon finishing my first visit today with my new — advisor/listener/counselor — and answering such yes|no questions such as "do you identify with: perfectionism? a sense of responsibility?" she advised I read The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. I proudly announced, "Done!" That's how practically perfect I aim to be. I'd already read the perfectionism book before it was even suggested.

"The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself." ~Anna Quindlen

Apparently, Mary and I still have a lot of work to do.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Painting Over Perfection

This is my first painting. My first acrylic painting; if I'm honest, I have to admit to the terrible, embarrassing watercolor I painted in my 20s, trying desperately to perfect the art and medium in a mere two classes. My father is an artist, and was teaching a class during the time I was living at home with my parents in Oregon, having once again upended my life in Los Angeles. Once again, I was a 20-something, back in my old bedroom, where the contents of my closet, 35mm cameras, high school yearbooks, and one well-loved and worn teddy bear reminded me that I was stuck in time, back under my parents' roof.

When my friend Jamie invited me to an art class for beginners last week, I made a pact with her, and myself, that I would leave my perfectionism at home. I warned my roommate that I would likely come home with something that looked like a paint-by-numbers done by a five year old, and I was perfectly happy with that.  I was inwardly terrified of what our subject would be, that it would turn into a psych ward in my head if the teacher told us to paint our dreams or our fears, and I'd be paralyzed and paint a cartoon puppy, or create something so dark and twisted I wouldn't be allowed back. 

We arrived on a Friday night at 6:30 and took seats in Ann Bridges' lovely studio, the top floor of an old art deco building on Wilshire, in Koreatown. As the late afternoon sun filled the studio, Ann taught us about light and color, squirting acrylic paints onto our palettes, and showing us how to create shadow hues by adding the contrasting color to the pure primary color.  I felt relaxed already; Ann was exactly whom I'd hoped for in an art teacher, a bit scattered as she flit between her four students, giving individual lessons and critiques, her curly hair coming out of its tie, her casual clothes a bit spattered with paint. She was encouraging but direct, funny and open, and played a good mix of music in the background.

Directing us toward a still life, she had us "interpret" the greens of the background, the red of the apple, the turquoise of the cup. As I outlined the shapes and shadows, mixed colors and made mistakes, I felt free to make mistakes and cover up them up, which I think is why I like painting with acrylics.  There really are no mistakes, just choices to tweak and change, a lesson I need to translate into my life now, and looking back at my mid-20s. Making choices to live abroad, to go broke spending my meager savings on an experience, then have to move home and work a dreaded job as a server, with aching feet and hair that smelled of a deep fryer, none of those were mistakes. As a dear counselor advised me, as a writer, I rewrite stories constantly. It's critical to allow myself to the freedom to rewrite my own story.

Working on the shade and highlight of the apple to give it depth, I found more and more peace in the process, freedom to make changes, to work within what I had already created, to be proud of the outcome, even if it wasn't "perfect."

"Painting is a faith, and it imposes the duty to disregard public opinion." ~Vincent van Gogh

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Auntie R Chronicles: Halifax with Henry

I cried saying goodbye to Henry, after almost a week of close community with my wee 10-week-old nephew and his parents (also known as my sister and brother-in-law), sharing a Halifax apartment, simply being present for all his emotions and expressions. Henry’s daddy making our meals, walks to the neighborhood coffee joints, navigating a city without signs. (Seriously, Nova Scotia, what’s wrong with identifying streets and on-ramps?)

Landing at the Halifax Airport, the toddler in the aisle in front of me pressed her face against the airplane window, eyeing the miles and miles (or kilometers, this is Canada, after all) of trees, the stunning spring-green landscape dotted with the dark blue of lakes and rivers. "Is this outer-space?" she asked her mother, who replied, laughing, "No love, this is Nova Scotia."

 We drove many a kilometer about the province, visiting for our father’s wedding, wending our way to historic cities. We pushed the stroller through the colorful streets of Lunenburg, found gluten-free goodies and a friendly mid-wife in the small town of Mahone Bay, saw beautiful boats and peaceful nooks tucked into the lakes and bays. Not only am I seeing the world with fresh eyes as I explore it with a baby’s sense of wonder, but I’m seeing my sister and brother-in-law in a new light — the glow of parenthood, the care and tenderness they give to Henry, careful to meet his needs and anticipate and prevent any discomfort. The delight they show, sleep-deprived and drooled upon, from his squawks and gurgles, the books they read and forums they follow to better understand his developmental stages.

 Walking to the local café for our morning coffee, Henry's dad (R) and I see a man cross the street. I’m not sure if he is homeless, but overly-thin, hunched and harried, he does not look well. Spending time with Henry, watching the love and joy that naturally bubbles up in his presence, I’m reminded that each and every person was once a helpless infant who depended on adults to care for her, to meet her needs. R reflected on that heightened perspective he has as a new father, hoping that others were equally treated with that tenderness, the protective sense he has about his son.

If we could only see each other in that light more often, perhaps it would be easier to live in community, meeting each other’s needs, respecting different points of view, creating that true compassion which, as Pema Chödrön writes, "does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves, but from realizing our kinship with all beings."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Unexpected Lessons on an Escalator - Asking for Help

Jackson's mom holds his younger brother's hand and grows ever-smaller as she glides down the escalator, looking back at her son with expectation and encouragement. At the bottom of the short escalator, she calls back, "Come on! You can do it!" A seven-year-old in camo pants and an Indiana Jones hat, Jackson is terrified and frozen, his eyes glued to the constant new step that appears under his little blue Croc sandals. At the top of the down escalator, little Jackson draws a small crowd as we wait for him to jump on the moving stairs so we can board our plane to Charlottetown, P.E.I.

"Do you want to hold my hand?" a young 20-something woman offers, standing patiently behind the little man. Gripping the rail and tilting back his head, he looked at her with round eyes from under the wide brim of his hat and says quietly, but clearly, "I need help."  He grips the girl's hand and bravely, together, they step onto the moving stairs.

At the bottom, he carefully hops off, watching the steps disappear into the floor. "You made it!" his mother exclaimed. "Yes," Jackson says solemnly. "That girl saved my life."

How often do we need to admit, "I need help," to reach out and take the proffered hand of a friend, or a stranger? And, as Jackson shows us, to recognize the family, friends and strangers who help save us as we navigate the trickier times in life.

(What I imagine the little man to be feeling -

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Meeting Henry: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Henry will never remember it, the first time we met. Asleep in a car seat still a bit too big for his five-week-old body, driving home from the Portland, Oregon airport. I offered my fingers and in his sleep his miniature, pink, wrinkled fingers gripped mine, my other hand shading his face, mottled with baby acne (cruel, cruel world), from the sun.  His hair, following the peaks of an old man's receding hairline, was slick against his brand new skull.

Riding the Los Angeles city bus home from work tonight, I sit next to an slender, elderly man, dressed in chocolate-brown slacks that just barely touch his loafers, a collared dress shirt in a softer, tan brown neatly pressed with an iron-crease down the arm, a gray sweater vest falling from his sloped, slender shoulders.  A simple gold wedding band, long worn, digs into the creases of his left ring finger. His hands, mottled with sun spots, clutch an elegantly carved wooden cane. His white hair follows the peaks of an old man's receding hairline.

He seems fragile, and I'm amazed he's on the bus by himself. I want to shield him from the glare of the sun, to balance him against the bus careening around corners and bumping over pot-holes. To ask him what his life has been.  When we do speak, I learn he is not confident in his English. In broken sentences and hand gestures, he tells me he has been here four years, and has has two daughters and a son in L.A. He is from Iran.  I wish I could ask him his brightest, fondest memories of Persia, his saddest, most difficult times, where he has traveled, whom he has met, known, and lost.

Looking at Henry's face, watching his little man mouth form "O"s, his face full of expressions as he dreams (surprise, shock, concern, severe disapproval), I want to tell him all the adventures he will have. I wonder where he will go, whom he will meet, what memories he will create. As his aunt, I cannot wait to introduce him to the joy of taking the bus, of walking slowly to notice the smallest creatures, of running til it feels like your lungs will burst, of road trips without maps, of taking the time to talk to strangers.

For now, I'm happy to stare at him as he sleeps and wonder what he's dreaming.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
~Mary Oliver

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Geena Davis on Adding Women to the Picture: Put It In the Script

At the Women's Network Funding conference, actor and activist Geena Davis gave the women gathered there a powerful metaphor to add women back into the picture of society, and to take conscious action to do so. After watching videos with her two-year-old daughter and realizing that females were represented at a rate of one to every three male characters, and often highly sexualized and stereotyped, she started the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. : I have learned first-hand the power of research," she told the conference. "And the fact that research, data, facts, dispel myths and rumors.”

“The fact is that women are seriously under-represented across all sectors of society," she continued. "For the most part, we’re not aware of the full extent. About two years ago, the White House Project released a benchmark report where they looked at 10 sectors of society, like academia, business, law, politics, media, sports, etc., to find the percentage of women in positions of authority. And the average, across the board, of all these important sectors of society, was 18%. With just little variations. How is that possible? Across all sectors of society, everything is stalled out at about 18%? But that number, is all around us, if you look for it. For example, the number of women in congress is 16%. 17% of movie narrators are women, and that’s also the percentage of women in the animator’s guild. My body fat is 17%. It’s strange, how often that comes up.”

“So why did the percentage of women in leadership stagnate at about 17 or 18 percent? Here’s another figure, the percentage of women in crowd scenes, in movies, is 17%. So could it be, that, if all the media that we are consuming, the entertainment media, has this huge imbalance, couldn’t it be, that that looks normal to us. That we cease to see it, we don’t recognize it, it looks normal. So that when there’s one or two women on a board, we have a couple of tenured professors, we have a couple female law partners, they feel done. It’s normal to us. We’re not seeing images of women and men sharing the sandbox equally. We’re not walking into situations and saying, hey this body of people is not half women, it looks weird. It doesn’t look weird, because that isn’t what we’ve ever been exposed to.”


This is the solution: Add women.

“Put it in the script,” Geena told us. Though it was a specific reference to the fact that quite often filmmakers aren’t aware of the status quo, and need to be told, in writing, how to set a scene. “A crowd gathers, 50 percent of whom are female.” Seems obvious, no? But it isn’t. “Put it in the script” can be a metaphor for all of us, whether we’re in media or education, agriculture or the arts. Remind people that women hold up Half the Sky, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn did with their book and subsequent multi-media movement by that title.

At Action Kivu, we're doing just that: sharing women's stories, bringing them out from behind the curtain of silence to share their visions for their communities. Training them in a marketable skill to start a business and provide for their children and families. The sewing workshops in Mumosho and Bukavu are graduating 60 women this month, who will stand out and add their voice to the unfolding story of the Congo. You can help "put it in the script;" we're still in need of funds to provide sewing machines for each of the graduates to start her own business!  Click here to learn more about what the $175 / sewing kit provides, and follow the link to donate. No donation is too small, and every dollar makes a difference.

“In medicine,” Geena said, “very often the cure comes from the same source as the disease, right? So the good news is, as powerful as media is, it can have a positive impact, it can actually create opportunities to overcome social and cultural barriers. For example, we know that if girls watch female characters in un-stereotyped activities, they are more likely to pursue non-traditional vocations. In other words, if they see it, they can be it.”

“The time for change is now. And the great thing is, that we have incredible agents of change, filling this room. All of us, all of us are powerful agents of change. And we embrace what Dr. Martin Luther King called the 'fierce urgency of now.' We cannot wait to see if real gender equality happens in the natural course of time because all the evidence shows us that it will not. The lives of too many girls are at stake, as the Nobel Prize winning economist Professor Amartya Sen tells us, at least two million girls die worldwide, every year, because of inequality and neglect. Girls are disappearing, not just as fictional characters, but in the cold light of day.”

“What we need, across all sectors of society, is to add women. Boys and girls need to see an abundance of female characters doing interesting and important things and in leadership positions in the media they consume. And we need more women behind the cameras. If there’s a woman producer, writer, director, the number of female characters on-screen goes up. We need more women in the realms of business, academia, law, the military. From the people reporting the news to the people making the news, we need to add women. And to the ranks of policy makers, corporate boards, justices, presidents and prime ministers, we need to add women, include women, encourage women, vote for women, and hire women.”

Read more of Geena Davis' speech at World Pulse.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Meet Amani Matabaro - Congo Community Leader. Footballer.

My friend Cate and I first met Amani Matabaro via e-mail, after our friend, Kevin Sites, recommended we connect with him to support his work with women and children in eastern Congo. Kevin had worked with Amani as a translator and fixer in eastern Congo in 2005, during one of the many times of conflict and war that have left Congo and its people traumatized. Kevin told us about Amani's gentle spirit with the stories of the women and his passion for peace and the rights of women and children.

Over the past two years working with Amani via Action Kivu, we've experienced just that in his work, the stories and photos he shares, and finally, in person on our visit to Congo in January 2012 and his visit to the U.S. in March. Now you can meet Amani, via this beautiful and powerful video introduction into his life and world, who is doing so much for peace and the rights of women and children in eastern Congo. Thanks to the Enough Project's Raise Hope for Congo for creating the series.

Action Kivu is 100% volunteer in the U.S.  Every dollar you donate goes directly to the work on the ground in Congo and is tax-deductible. Please consider a gift to the women today; the sewing workshops will graduate this month, and we need to provide sewing machines for the women to begin their own businesses. Visit to learn more!