Thursday, September 26, 2013

Not all Fun and Kumbaya

I was privileged the other night to attend a dialogue with the Thandeka and Nontombi Tutu -  social rights activists, daughters of Desmond Tutu, and all around amazing women.    The dialogue - questions from the moderator and then opened to the public - centered around the experiences of apartheid, reconciliation, AIDS/HIV and how best to to an advocate and activist for social equality and healing.    These are some of the questions and answers as best I remember them.

Q:  How do you get your hands around problems as big as racial and gender inequality?

A:  People so often prescribe what others should do to solve a problem.    They point fingers and blame.  The first step in dealing with a problem is breaking it down into smaller bits and then finding something you can do about it.    Unless you stop suffering from a superiority complex, you will not be in a true relationship with the people you need to be working with.

Q:  Do you think we continue to rehash old solutions without looking to new ideas to solve these problems.

A:  Not necessarily.   There are often easy small solutions to parts of larger problems.  For example,  educating South African children is difficult  because they have no desks.  Writing and doing their lessons on their laps is very difficult.  We have started a program called TutuDesks which give a child a portable desk top, they own.  They bring it back and forth from home to school and therefore feel some ownership and investment in their education.   It is a small solution that is proving very effective both in their educational success and self esteem.

Q:  What do you feel is the biggest problem in the continuing spread of HIV/AIDS?

A:  We have a lot of educational resources.  There are posters and brochures and condoms everywhere.  People know what they are supposed to do.  But there is a huge gap between knowledge and actual behavior.  Not unlike religion - people know what they are supposed to do.  But the execution is difficult.  

Q:  How do you think we can heal the divide between races?

A:  For healing to happen, compassion starts with ourselves.   We have to sit in spaces with people we don’t trust. To listen to stories and perspectives of people we think are liars. To be among those who make us the most uncomfortable.   We have to see in the other person, gang, or school, church or not church, that they are hurting as much as we are. I  have to be willing to listen to people I don’t agree with, to have my feelings hurt in order for our community to heal. To put my comfort zone on the back burner for awhile.

Q:  How can we help whole communities heal, those affected by institutional and historical trauma?

A:   Allow them to address their trauma and validate that experience. My dad said it was important to validate and hear in their own words. Validate the fact that the trauma occurred.  That was the point of the reconciliation hearings after apartheid.   People were allowed to voice the wrongs that had been done to them.  That has not happened for people of color in America . . . or the Native Americans.

It’s also important to have everyone at the table, but it’s not likely. So let’s start the conversation and we can always reach out further.  Somebody is going to say something that makes us angry,or sounds stupid.  I will tell you it’s not all fun and kumbaya. It’s work.

And then a man came to the microphone, very angry and agitated,  and explained that he had driven 3 hours just to be able to ask this question.    Unfortunately his accent was so thick that I had trouble understanding his exact question, but it was something like this:

Q:  There was a man (I couldn’t discern the name)  who unleashed a virus on South Africa.  It was basically a weapon of mass destruction.  And yet this man is still walking the streets today.  He killed thousands, yet he is free.  How do you explain or condone that?

A:  That was the agreement through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - if people told confessed what they had done, and were truthful, they received amnesty for their deeds.   Not everyone liked what happened, but that was the agreement.  it was part of the healing process.


Lately I have been very discouraged by things I see on the internet.    I really don’t care what side of an issue you are on - could we at least be civil?    And stop reducing people to stereotypes and calling them names?     Just today I saw things like:

Those Republican crazies

It may also be that O’bozo (O’Bama) has completely overplayed his hand

Besides I was getting pretty sick of "wing nut", "tea bagger", "dumb" and "stupid" comments from your side.

The yahoos on the school board

His brains are in his gonads.

And it goes on and on.  

I have worked in public service my whole adult life and one thing I do know - you don’t get anywhere calling people names.   You merely mark yourself as another obstacle. Like that old saying - if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.   If you are calling people names, you have now become part of  the problem.  

The history of human rights movements is filled with people who respected every person at the table.  They took the time to listen to their opponents and to try to understand the other side.  Can you imagine Dr. King or Nelson Mandela calling white folks crazy?  Or wingnuts? Or stupid?  Would that have advanced their vision?

If the Tutus could have endured apartheid and still not called one white person an ugly name, even a man who murdered thousands, I think the rest of us should be able to control ourselves too.    I feel like we are all in our own trenches, lobbing stones at anyone in a different trench - just because they are in the different trench.  No one wants to take the time or make the effort to understand why the other is in their trench.  

So it has become part of my personal crusade - to ask people to stop calling others ugly, derogatory names. Surely we do not have to curse at each other to make a point that we don’t agree on an issue. Every single person deserves respect, no matter what their religion or politics or sins.  

I know quite a few people who fancy themselves huge advocates for equality yet all they do is post opposing positions on their FaceBook page and then participate in a public verbal stoning of the author (who is unaware of the conversation) while congratulating themselves that they got 98 people to "like" it. That's advocacy?   We can do better. I think if we are to move forward at all, we must do better.

The Tutu sisters are champions of dignity for all.   I would like to think that I can be a champion too. There are people I do not understand, there are political things happening that make my head spin, there are people who seem to have malicious intent,  there are people who do not practice what they preach.   It is hard to understand these folks or why they think as they do. But I think it is imperative they we do.   We need to bridge the gap between knowing what to do and execution.  We need to get out of our comfort zones.  We need to stop blaming everyone else for the world’s problems and start rolling up our sleeves.  There so much to do.

“ It’s not all fun and kumbaya. It’s work.”

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Full of Grace

1.  When the weatherman says “tomorrow will be even more spectacular than today.”   And today was already pretty damned spectacular.

2.  Being able to take a couple of impromptu days off, sling on the pack, head into the mountains and sleep under the Harvest Moon.  

3.  People who graciously accept heartfelt apologies.

4.  When friends call and change our annual get together at The Cheesecake Factory to a seafood restaurant because they are both on diets, and then we all order cheesecake and tiramisu for dessert.

5. Celebrating life.

Friday, September 20, 2013


I met Yodi my freshman year of college.  She was a year ahead of me and we met in a Women’s Studies class. (of course)    We became friends, and then more.  Yodi taught me the wonders and joys of Sapphic love.      Looking back, I realize how fortunate I was to have her as my first woman lover.   She was gentle and patient, but passionate and loud and fun.

She left school after that year to pursue a different education and career in New York City.   Our lives went in different directions and we slowly lost touch with each other.

Then, a few years ago, I received an email from her at work.  She had tracked me down (even though I don’t do FaceBook!)  and we re-connected as if nothing had changed.  Well, of course not the intimate parts. We were now both in committed relationships.  But the friendship picked up as if we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of days rather than a couple decades.

At that time I was going to Sloane-Kettering in NYC every other month for breast pre-cancer issues.  Yodi would always arrange to meet me, we would have lunch at some little hole in the wall restaurant she had discovered and then go to some bizarre show - queer erotic art or some counter culture something.  She enjoyed people who lived large and at the fringe. Those outings always made the medical part of the day worthwhile.   We were like school girls walking around the city, arm in arm, giggling and sharing private jokes.   Yodi was the friend who got me tickets to see Cate Blanchett in “A Streetcar Named Desire”   a few years ago. (Yes, I was in the same room as Cate, breathing the same air. *swoon*)  How do you ever thank a friend for such a gift?   

Soon after, Yodi had a life changing experience and decided to go back to her spiritual roots and sensibilities to live on a kibbutz in Israel.   There were, of course, lots of hugs and a tearful goodbye, and a promise to go visit her as soon as I could.  

Two years ago I planned a trip, but was sidelined with breast cancer.   Last year I planned another trip but was deterred by a second cancer surgery and radiation treatments.   This past March I made reservations, again,  and sent out an appeal to the universe that my health would hold up.    

Then Yodi wrote to say she had been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer.    Crap.

As my vacation date got closer, the Syrian war got bigger.  Travel advisories became more onerous and Yodi’s health became more precarious.  When I finally boarded a flight I had a heavy heart.  Not only were there now serious threats of war in the region, but between March and August, her health had declined significantly.  Gone were the plans for sightseeing tours and exploring all  the weird and wonderful nooks and crannies of very gay Tel Aviv.   The trip, I knew,  was now a farewell tour.

Her friend Julia picked me up at the airport and we made the drive out to the desert where her small, agrarian kibbutz was located.   I barely recognized my friend.  The effects of chemo and the fluid retention had changed her.   She had lost her hair and her girlish figure, but she did not lose her sense of humor or her sarcastic wit.   Best of all, she was part of a family on this small kibbutz. Everyone obviously loved her as much as I did, and she was well cared for.   I was much relieved.

We spent a week reminiscing about college days, friends and family, religion, the situation in Syria, how cancer sucks and death.   There is something I admire about people of deep faith, and that profound sense of calm and acceptance about their own mortality.   She had loved her life and now she was ready to go.

I spent a week with her.  Trying to make her comfortable and to let her know how very much I loved her, how much I appreciated everything she had done for me and the world she had opened for me.  I got to take a couple of tours of the kibbutz which was amazing, and took a quick side trip to Old Jerusalem to wander the ancient streets for a while.   Mostly though I tried to soak up every bit of Yodi’s wit and wisdom before I had to leave.  I wanted to make sure she was etched on my brain and my heart forever.

And then I had to say goodbye.

This past Wednesday night I got a call telling me she had died, peacefully.  Yodi.  The friend who introduced me to loving women.  The friend who exposed me to a wonderfully weird perspective of the queer world.  The friend who held my hand while doctors stuck long needles in my breasts.  The friend who waited for me the very first time I went to the cemetery to see Daphne and allowed me to weep inconsolably in her arms.   The friend whose laugh could fill an arena.  The friend who got me tickets to be in the same space as Cate Blanchett.   The friend who shared her Seders and prayers with me and allowed me to be part of her faith and her family.    The friend who taught me most about atonement and forgiveness.  The friend who just showed me how to graciously accept the inevitable passage.

I remember once asking my mother what the worst thing about aging was.  And her answer was “watching your friends die.”    I feel like I am now coming into that phase of life.  Most of my friend’s parents have passed and we are now the next generation.  It’s a very odd place to be - I still feel like I’m in my thirties, yet my body is telling me otherwise.   My body chemistry has revealed that I have a very high probability for a cancer recurrence. I have already lost friends to disease and drugs and drunk drivers.   

If I am to take the lessons from these people who lived wonderfully happy lives it is this -  always choose love, enjoy the little things in life, give back, always help others, practice gratitude, always face in the direction you want to go, apologize when you're wrong, forgive others even when it is hard, especially when it is hard, be kind, give even more, don’t let the asshats get you down, laugh loud and often, and go in peace.    

Not a bad gift of collected wisdom to live by.   

Today I am honoring Yodi’s wishes to mourn but not despair.   And to always celebrate life  . . . especially the weird and bizarre.  


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Full of Grace

1. Date nights return.  This week - a picnic in the park.  

2. A weekend with no daughters, no boyfriends, no babies, no obligations, no place we had to be.   It felt exactly what a weekend should be.

3. Survived giving the dog a bath which is always a battle of wills.

4. Weekend project - cleaning out the shed.  Disturbed a nest of bees.  Got stung 7 times.  Very thankful not to be allergic and grateful for Benadryl.

5. Blueberry muffin bread.   I’m not sure what was better - the bread or how great it made the house smell.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Shall I go on?

The world is a mess.  Violence is everywhere.   Our education system is drowning, AIDS is spreading, children are starving, women are brutally raped, government is de-funding social service programs,  the elderly are uncared for, the sick can't get insurance, chemical weapons are being used on innocent people, women and children endure horrible domestic violence, prisons are overcrowded, churches are failing, there are wars in Africa, India and the Middle East, children are sold into sex trades, people are homeless, millions are refugees, the mentally ill are swept under the rug.

Shall I go on?

My mother always told me “you can’t save everyone, but you can always help at least one.”  

She worked in a soup kitchen for as long as I can remember.  She recognized the importance of feeding hungry people.  But she became frustrated that it was just a stopgap measure.  And so she founded  an organization called Family Aid which targeted one person - usually a woman with children who had just escaped from an abusive situation.  All resources were focused on providing first a safe place to live (usually our house temporarily) and basic necessities.  Then the woman was placed in a job (usually in my mother’s church)  where she learned office skills.  Child care was donated along with counseling.  And with the support of a community and financial help from Family Aid, the woman eventually got up on her own feet.    This organization had grown so much that at the time of my mother’s death, it had a Board of Directors and a very healthy endowment and helped dozens of families a year go from despair to hope.  And they then turned to help the next person to help.  So many of these women came to my mom’s memorial service and shook my hand and said “thank you.” I had no idea how many lives my mother touched.

Shall I go on?  Although I try to carry on her legacy, I will never be who my mother was.  But I do try.

I had a friend who suffered from depression which was made worse by the daily barrage of headlines and Facebook re-posts.  She would constantly subject herself to every tidbit of bad news and ugly politics and feel totally impotent in the face of it all.  What can one person possibly do?

In many southern states, the powers that be are rolling back women's rights and reproductive freedoms and educational funding.  New restrictive voter ID laws and less voting machines in certain districts are going to make it difficult for some people to vote in their own best interests.   How can they possibly change the system?  

My mother’s answer to them would be “go help one person to vote.”   Provide child care, provide food, provide whatever is necessary when these people have to wait hours to vote. Help one person and you can help change their world.  

There is very disturbing news coming out of Syria.  Videos of innocents children suffering horribly under the effect of chemical weapons.  And I think every parent looks at those images and thinks “that could be my child.”    Another blogger asked the question “what should we do?”

I am sure I could go insane thinking about the terror these people are facing.  In fact, I really cannot allow myself to think about it too much.  I know that short of trying to put loving, healing and peaceful energy out into the universe, I can do nothing to shape the course to political events in the Middle East.   However, Robert Kennedy wrote this:

“Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world's ills, misery, ignorance, and violence.  Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.”

I can do nothing to help those caught in the crossfire in Syria.  But I can help someone who has managed to escape.  There are over two million refugees now living in difficult, crowded and inadequate conditions far from their homes.  They have lost everything.  I had made a suggestion on that blog that if you are so inclined, UNICEF, along with other agencies are providing food and shelter for these refugees, as best they can.  

Shall I go on?

I could go on for days about the atrocities happening in this world and right in our own neighborhoods.  They have been happening since the beginning of time. It is easy to become depressed with the enormity of it all.  

Shall I go on?

Of course I shall.  Because the only way  to do something about EVERYTHING  is to do something about ONE thing.   

Robert Kennedy again:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Go out and help one other person.  Just one.   You never know how those tiny ripples of hope will impact the lives of others and possibly the world.  

“You can’t save everyone, but you can always help at least one.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Full of Grace

1.  My body finally starting to catch up to its current time zone.    I usually have a hard time with just Daylight Savings Time.  Traveling back and forth across 5 time zones has truly wrecked me.

2.  My daughters, and their boyfriends, home for a family wedding.  Both Martha and I come from very small families.   It is such a delight for us to watch our families grow through weddings and babies.   And watching my girls interact with babies is giving me a preview of chapters to come.   So happy.

3.  Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine.   The Universe just continues to give me gifts.

4.  Out in the woods and found these, even after the first frost

It reminds me of the quote from the Color Purple -  'I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.' I notice it. Thank you.

5.  The way small things move me in big ways.

Friday, September 6, 2013


When I began my career after college, I worked for a small, aging, industrial city that had just lost its biggest employer.   Poverty and crime levels were rising, the city’s infrastructure was decaying, and I was part of a young and eager team wanting to change the world.    It was a great experience where I got to knock on doors and sit around kitchen tables and listen to folks’ problems and what they wanted and needed to build a better life.  We worked very hard on economic development and neighborhood improvements and community building.    Being a very poor tenant myself I knew that people wanted pride and dignity in their homes and lives and  I was blessed for several years to work for a Mayor who believed that when you provide people with quality, they respect it.  It was tremendously satisfying knowing that my work directly helped people who were struggling and that their homes became safer, their neighborhoods more stable and their employment opportunities grew.  

After the assault I no longer felt safe in that city.  I was still the main caretaker of my dear friend and mentor who, less than a year later, died of cancer.  A soon as she passed, I began to look for a new job.  At that point I didn't care what or where - I just needed to get out of that city with all it’s triggers and horrific memories.  

A friend’s daughter sent me a help wanted clipping from the newspaper where she lived -  a town looking for a planner.  I called,  interviewed, and was offered the job as I walked back to my car after the interview.  I said yes in the parking lot, knowing nothing about the Town or the area or what was expected of me.  I really didn’t care.  I just wanted to move away from the nightmares and people who knew what had happened to me - treating me with either pity or disdain.  I desperately needed a new start.

Culture shock set in quickly.  I had always lived in metropolitan settings.  Now I was in a town with about 40% suburban development and the rest was rural and farmland.   I quickly had to shift from tenant rights and code enforcement and to golf courses and septic fields.   The school district was rated one of the highest in the area which attracted wealthy people who could afford the half million dollar homes that were being constructed as fast as approvals could be received.

As much as it was interesting to learn new things, I quickly realized that I was not going to get much personal satisfaction from working for a bunch of rich people  who did a lot of complaining about the traffic and the smell of the 300 year old farm they had just built their mini-mansion next to.    (Which is not to say that this town does not have its share of poverty.  It certainly does.  But it tends to be isolated and therefore, unfortunately, not paid much attention)

Anyway, early on I aligned myself with the farming community.  I loved these people - hard workers, honest, didn’t tell everyone else how to live, great stewards of the land, and rarely complained.  (Unless, of course, government tried to mess with their land.)   And through them I developed a new sense of calling - to protect open space from development and preserve farmland and the environment.  

It was difficult at first in this development obsessed area.   When I first came here there were no open space set asides except for the existing town parks.  Developers were allowed to enclose beautiful streams in pipes, fill in the ravines and build over top of them.    Developers would name their subdivisions things like “Deer Run”  and all I could think of was yes,  run, deer, run.  Run as fast as you can away from here.

Once I decided that environmental protection would be my new focus, I set a goal of 2000 acres to preserve as permanent open space.   Some things were easy - writing new right- to- farm laws that gave greater protection to existing farmland.   Some were politically delicate and took years of lobbying like an automatic 10% set aside of green space or fees in lieu of to purchase more open space.   Some were just an educational thing like convincing developers that clustering their developments would save them tons on infrastructure costs.   I am proud to say that every piece of legislation I wrote eventually got passed into law.  Except one - I have been working for years to get a 1/2 cent tax on gasoline to fund an open space purchase program.   I came close to getting that one but then the economy tanked and I think I will have to let it go.

I have now worked here 25 years.   My open space inventory started out very slow and came together in dribs and drabs.  Mostly in subdivisions where a homeowner’s association would privately own the share the open space, and environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands and ravines.   Then, a few years ago, in cooperation with our farmers, we developed a farmland protection plan that allowed protected open space to be farmed.   This has been a huge boon that has generated small developments with large tracts of land forever open and  used for agricultural purposes.  It has also gone a long way in preserving the rural look and character of the western half of our town.  Anyway, I am pleased to say that when I returned from vacation, a new project had been filed that will put the protective open space inventory over 2500 acres.    I more than reached my goal.
I am now on the cusp of retirement.  I am blessed to have worked in a career of public service where I can see improvements in the natural and built environment that I am responsible for. ( I can also see my mistakes that will be around for a long, long while.  *sigh* )  Yet I am still feeling that tug of regret.  I have long struggled with the difference in my two jobs - one where I served mostly poor people, often personally and at a neighborhood level, to now serving a community of middle to upper class people who don’t need much except clear roadways to drive their Mercedes through.   Once I stabilized my life, I probably should have moved onto a more disadvantaged area.   Often times I feel that I sold out, that I could have, should have done so much more with social justice issues through urban planning.   It was always my passion.

The other side of the coin is that the older I get, the more people irritate me.  Not all people - just the whiners and complainers and the bigots and the hypocrites.  Perhaps I am better off working for all the other critters that share our planet.   Because in the end, I really I think we humans will pollute ourselves into extinction long before we solve the problems of poverty, racism, classism,or any other inequality.

Regrets?  I've had a few.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Full of Grace

I have just returned from visiting a dear friend in Israel.   It was a trip originally planned back in March when I had just come out of a scary health crisis and wanted to make sure I fulfilled a promise to my far flung friend.   As the date of my departure came closer, the travel advisories for the Middle East got more frequent and more serious. We wavered for a while, debating whether I should go.  But go I did.  

Today I am tired, jet lagged, and not particularly looking forward to the pile of backed up work I’m sure awaits me.   I hope to write more about this trip later, but right now, for this I am grateful -

1.  Enough valium to get claustrophobic me on an 11 hour flight.   

2.  To live in a place where I don’t have to own a gas mask (given to all residents but not travelers), or be awoken to the sounds of sirens.

3. To travel freely on public transportation and not worry about suicide bombers

4.  To be able to re-connect, to hug, to touch, to chat face-to face, with a friend who is so dear to me.

5.  To be home, safe and sound and to be able to sleep in Martha’s arms.  

It is one thing to sit and talk about possible attacks on Syria when you live on the other side of the world and the only real impact will be slightly higher gasoline prices.  It is quite another thing to live in a place where every decision has very, very, real consequences.   The amount of anxiety people in this region live with is enormous, yet they seem to take it all in stride.   The strength of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me.  I think I have much to learn from them.