A Frayed Knot: Picking Our Way Through The Need

So this piece of string walks into a bar. (Stop me if you’ve heard this.) Bartender growls, “Hey, you. We don’t serve your kind in here. Beat it.” Hurt and angry, the string heads home to her apartment. There she ties herself into complicated loops, and frizzes her ends till she’s nearly unrecognizable. Then she goes back into the bar and orders a beer.

“Hmmm,” says the bartender suspiciously. “Aren’t you that same piece of string I just threw outa here?”

“Oh, no,” the string says innocently, “I’m a frayed knot.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Not the best bar joke ever…but close!

This joke popped into my head recently after reading these lines from Kim Stafford’s book of post-election poems, The Flavor of Unity,

“By writing, thinking, and talking, clarify your vocation, so you can enter the fray without being frayed.”

Copyright 2017 Kim Stafford. Thanks, Kim!

During the Civil Rights Movement, and more recent movements who use nonviolent resistance, participants had to learn to conquer their fear–of prison, of violence, even of death. The most famous freedom song, We Shall Overcome, contains the lyric, “We are not afraid.” Not being currently on the front lines of any struggle, but instead struggling to choose among the many, many causes calling for support since Trump’s inauguration, being AFRAID is not my issue–but being FRAYED? Yes. ‘Fraid so.

My email box and Facebook feed fills daily with calls to contact my congressional reps about the environment, or health care, or immigration, or…you know. If you’re an American, you’re probably getting the same emails. Sign this. Send money to that. Attend this meeting. Join that march. There is too much need out there to do it all.

Which is why I’m very much looking forward to the online course I’ve signed up for with Quaker writer and teacher Eileen Flanagan, entitled, “We Were Made For This Moment.” The intro to her course reads, 

In this time of tumult, fear, and hatred, the world needs the gifts that you were born to share. You may not be sure where to use them. You may not know how to use them to greatest effect, or even if you can make a difference at all, but you know you need to do something to work for a more just and loving world. You are not alone! The purpose of this online course is to help you to meet this moment.

Finding one’s purpose, to me, means finding my path. This means, of course, choosing some paths NOT to take. It’s never easy; we all want to contribute, be supportive, “be there” for each other, or vulnerable people, or the planet. But when we try to be everywhere, we fray…and–mixed metaphor alert–we burn out.

I want to walk a path and stick to it. I look forward to some guided discernment. I also look forward to hearing how you might have dealt with this same issue. How do you keep yourself in the fray without fraying?

 

 

An Unexpected Gift: Music From The Supposedly Destitute

Last week when I came in to work at the bakery, a colleague handed me a note. “Someone left this for you.”

“This” turned out to be a New York Times article about a group of musicians, all refugees, in a camp called The Jungle in the Parisian outskirts known as Calais. “For Gretchen,” was all the note said–unsigned.

I read the article, titled “Musicians in a Refugee Camp in France Record ‘The Calais Sessions.'” I was so moved by the story, I immediately went to the musicians’ website to buy their album.

I listened to one song before buying, but honestly–I didn’t need to. The idea of people crawling out of evil and hatred and misery and death to come together to produce music–that ultimate expression of humanity–that’s all I needed to know. That, to me, IS music.

I imagine some of you might feel the same way. To read more, and/or to order your own CD or digital version of The Calais Sessions, click here.

And to the person who left me that article? Thank you. You rock.

God Willing, Everyone Should Be Able To Say “God Willling”

Have you heard the one about the university student thrown off a flight for saying “God willing”?

Sorry, this isn’t a joke and there isn’t a punch line. Unless you count this: our country is now so Islamophobic that saying “Insha’Allah” (God willing) in a private phone conversation can a) make one’s fellow passengers so nervous that they b) call the flight attendants who c) escort you from the plane for interrogation by the FBI.

This is what happened to 26 year-old Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, an Iraqi who had refugeed to the U.S., on a Southwest flight last week. According to Al Jazeera English,

Makhzoomi said he was excited after attending a conference that included a speech by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, so as soon as he got on the plane, he made the call to talk about him.

“I was speaking Arabic with him. Explaining the details about the event,” Makhzoomi told Al Jazeera. “All of a sudden a lady in front of me started staring at me and I got off the phone. My uncle told me to call him when I land and I said, ‘inshallah, inshallah, I will call you’.”

He told the Associated Press news agency that most of the conversation was mundane, covering subjects like who was there and what the food was like, but at one point he said someone had asked Ban about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.

A woman sitting nearby reported him to Southwest staff and he was escorted from the plane.

According to CNN, after his questioning ordeal, Southwest gave Makhzoomi a refund, and he flew back home to Atlanta on Delta. Once recovered from the shock and humiliation, he contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Since then the story has taken off. But in all the articles I’ve read, the chief question seems to be, “Is keeping your mouth shut in public the new normal for Muslims?”

Insha’Allah, it is not. Because, insha’Allah, there is something we non-Muslims can do to register our refusal to play along with this new brand of racist xenophobia: we can start speaking Arabic ourselves.

My suggestion: every time you want to say, “hopefully,” or “I plan to,” every time you feel the urge to knock on wood, slip an “insha’Allah” in there. You don’t need to be Muslim, or Christian to say it…in fact, I don’t think you really need to be particularly religious at all. If what you really mean is, “I sure hope whatever powers out there that are larger than I am will heed my humble wish,” then–yeah. In my book, “insha’Allah” covers that pretty well.

Insha'Allah and the Creek Don't Rise...whichever

Insha’Allah and the Creek Don’t Rise…whichever

Might some Muslims argue with me about this? Probably. Some Christians too, I expect. But, insha’Allah, the more my suggestion gets put into use, the fewer Americans will be demonized by their fellow citizens.

A New Hope: No, Not Star Wars, The Real Thing

Yes, I did just see Star Wars VII. Yes, it was terrifically entertaining. But the world does NOT need another Star Wars blog post.

What it does need–what I need, in this era of heightened hate, is little stories of hope. I found this Al Jazeera story, “Muslims in Kenya Offer a Christmas Present to the World,” a few weeks ago, but even though it references Christmas, it’s the start of the new calendar that has me turning back to this story for a little renewal of spirit. In the words of authors Muhammed Fraser-Rahim and Beth Ellen Cole:

After a year marred by violence that has led some people to suppose that confrontation is inevitable among humanity’s religions, a busload of Muslims in northeast Kenya has given us all a gift beyond measure for Christmas and the New Year.

On December 21, when armed al-Shabab extremists halted a bus near the town of Mandera, they asked the Muslims on board to help separate out the Christian passengers for execution – a pattern of attack with which they have repeatedly traumatised Kenyans in recent years.

But the Muslim passengers threw a human shield around their Christian compatriots and told the attackers that they would have to kill the entire busload, Muslims and Christians alike. Muslim women took off their traditional headscarves and handed them to non-Muslims to wear for protection.

Normal, everyday people defying expectations to save each other. My kind of story.

The article goes on to mention other acts of defiant philanthropy which–big surprise–failed to make major headlines in the US:

We too often fail to notice the acts of courageous compassion just like that at Mandera. In February, more than 1,000 Muslims formed a human chain of protection around a synagogue in Norway to condemn an extremist’s attack on Jews.

Orthodox Jews in a London district recently formed street patrols in part to protect their Muslim neighbours from hate crimes.

There’s not a lot more to the story; the article is short. But it’s enough to get me through another day of candidates talking seriously about banning Muslims and calling each other losers and low-lifes.

Happy 2016. Here's to hope.

Happy 2016. Here’s to hope.

If you, too, find this story encouraging, please, pass it on. Might as well do what we can to counter-act all that crash-boom of violence out there…even the terrifically entertaining, Star Wars kind.

 

The All Blacks Haka and the Republican Debates: Is It Just Me…?

I’m not a rugby fan (unless you count the movie Invictus). But I am a huge New Zealand fan, and therefore, logically, I am a fan of the New Zealand All Blacks’ Haka.

Don’t know the Haka? Think war dance. Think Maori ritual. Think rhino pawing the ground before charging. Then watch this:

The team the Kiwis are threatening, their historical nemesis the South Africa Springboks–they look a little scared, don’t they? You can see that one guy swallowing. (I always wonder why the opposing team doesn’t just look away while they’re being “haka’d”, whistle a little tune, y’know, like, “dum de dum, I’m so bored…”)

But they don’t. They stand there and watch as if hypnotized. They can’t look away. Just like I can’t. Which reminds me of the U.S. presidential election. Specifically, the debates. More specifically, the Republican debates.

(Note: not saying I couldn’t use the Democrats as an example here, it’s just that this year, with the huge Republican field, and with Donald Trump, well…let’s just say that civility has gone out the window a bit faster, and with a slightly larger crash, than it has with the Democrats.)

They’re calling each other names on Twitter. They’re using words like “dummy” and “low-energy guy” (code for unmanly). Now, to you this might not seem parallel to the foot-stomping, chest-slapping, “I’m coming for you with my war club” violence of the haka, but…think about it. Isn’t the maturity level about the same? How about the overall effect on the viewer’s emotions? Or, conversely, how about the effect on rational discussion focused on solving problems?

Right?

I keep thinking about the mesmerizing quality of the haka, its compelling force. And I wonder: what if, prior to one of our national political conventions in 2016, some group performed a haka threatening, say, poverty? “We’re comin for ya, poverty! We’re gonna raise that minimum wage!” Or global conflict? “Aaargh!! We’re going to take in more refugees and stop secretly torturing political prisoners!”

Ehh–it’d never work. Might as well have a bake sale to fund the air force, like those old bumper stickers said. Meanwhile, I’ll watch the haka when it comes on, and the debates, and afterwards I’ll go take a shower and engage in rational conversation with someone.

What do you think? Does raw, animal aggression play any kind of role in our politics? Is there an upside to our political hakas?

Farewell to August, the Nuclear Month: A Brush With Death I Never Knew I Had

I’m a child of the Cold War, but I never realized just how true this was until I read an opinion piece in Al Jazeera America which argues that the real nuclear threat does not come from Iran or North Korea, but from the two original nuclear powers. Yup–Russia and good ol’ us. 

Despite radical cuts to our mutual arsenals, we superpowers still stand guard over a combined 14,600 nuclear warheads, signed, sealed, and ready to deliver. And even though those nukes are far from the headlines, they’re also far from rusting in peace. The article mentions one very close call that came as recently as 1995, well after the communist state had crumbled:

In January 1995, a global nuclear war almost started by mistake. Russian military officials mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missile. Boris Yeltsin’s senior military officials told him that Russia was under attack and that he had to launch hundreds of nuclear-tipped missiles at America. He became the first Russian president to ever have the “nuclear suitcase” opened in front of him. But Yeltsin trusted U.S. officials, and he was confident that there was no hidden crisis that might prompt a surprise attack by the U.S. With just a few minutes to decide, Yelstin concluded that his radars were in error. The suitcase was closed. 

But the close call that chilled me the most was an incident I had never even heard of, that struck–LITERALLY–very, very close to home:

In 1961, a B-52 carrying two armed weapons broke apart over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Two bombs dropped from the bomb bay. One bomb’s parachute deployed and carried it safely to the ground. The other fell all the way down. All of the weapon’s safety mechanisms failed, save one. A single low-voltage switch, the technical equivalent of a light switch, prevented a hydrogen bomb from destroying a good portion of North Carolina.

Goldsboro is 80 miles from the farm where I grew up. If that “light switch” had failed, even if a nuclear blast had not resulted, at the very least a lethal dose of nuclear contamination would have been released into the air and carried all over the state, including my parents’ farm. In 1961. The year I was born.

Courtesy Wikipedia

Courtesy Wikipedia

Here’s some more detail of the event, provided by Wikipedia:

The second bomb plunged into a muddy field at around 700 miles per hour (310 m/s) and disintegrated without detonation of its conventional explosives. The tail was discovered about 20 feet (6.1 m) below ground. Pieces of the bomb were recovered.[12][page needed] According to nuclear weapons historian Chuck Hansen, the bomb was partially armed when it left the aircraft though an unclosed high-voltage switch had prevented it from fully arming.[8] In 2013, ReVelle recalled the moment the second bomb’s switch was found. “Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, ‘Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘Not great. It’s on arm.’”[13]

I know the Cold War, and the ongoing danger of nuclear proliferation, isn’t all about me. Except that it is. It is about me. And you. And you. All of us. Whether ground zero or “only” downwind, every human being is a potential victim of any kind of nuclear accident or misdeed.

So, as Congress prepares to debate the nuclear deal with Iran, my prayer will be more general. August 6 and August 9 still haunt me with images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear weapons still haunt us all. I pray that those in power continue to do everything in their power to keep those weapons safe, while finding ways to keep future farm girls, and everyone else, from being haunted.

Siege Gardens in Syria: The Ultimate Expression of Gardens as Hope

The new shoots of spring are an ancient metaphor of life and renewal, from the earliest human literature. Spring equals hope. Even the word, “spring,” connotes energy and forward movement.

What gardener doesn’t feel the joy of new produce, fresh from the earth? Or what eater, for that matter? Even now, when I’m not currently gardening (although I am enjoying the garden my son planted, my “grandgarden,”), I feel that rush of excitement. “Ooh! Baby greens!”

Now imagine what that means in wartime. In the middle of a besieged city. Last week I read this story in Al Jazeera online, and I knew I had to share it. 

The Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk, according to the Al Jazeera story by Annia Ciezadlo, was established in 1957 as a refugee camp for displaced Palestinians, taking on a sad permanence as the Palestinian non-homeland issue calcified. But with the “Arab Spring” of 2011, Yarmouk stepped into a horrible new role:

When the rebellion against Assad began, in March 2011, displaced Syrians flooded into Yarmouk. Opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army began to clash with local pro-regime militias. On Dec. 16, 2012, the government sent Mig fighter jets to bomb a mosque, a hospital and four schools where displaced people had sought shelter.

From then on, the siege tightened every day. The government checkpoints in and out of Yarmouk would close for four days, then five, then six. Soldiers would confiscate any amount of food over a kilo. They would open bags of bread and count the pieces to make sure there were no more than 10.

Here’s what Yarmouk looked like, thanks to Assad’s fighter jets:

(Courtesy AFP/Getty Images)

(Courtesy AFP/Getty Images)

Into this desperate situation stepped the gardeners. According to the story, rooftop siege gardens were planted gradually, secretly, and communally. I’ll let Annia Ciezadlo tell it in her words:

“You can say that this was something psychological,” says Osama Jafra, the alias of an organizer for the Jafra Foundation, a community development group that started several of Yarmouk’s large communal gardens.

About six months into the siege, around the end of June 2013, a neighbor hailed Jafra on the street. Since Jafra worked for a charity group, the man asked, could he get him money to buy seeds?

“Why?” Jafra asked.

“Come. I’ll show you,” the man replied.

He took Jafra to one of the schools that warplanes had bombed six months earlier. In the abandoned courtyard, a playground was alive with flowers and greenery. With seeds, they could transform it into a vegetable garden.

Jafra made a deal with his neighbor: I’ll get you $50 for seeds if you agree to share them. The next day, Jafra recruited staffers and volunteers to cleaned up the camp to cultivate the abandoned play area. Neighbors saw what they were doing and began to help. Even children pitched in. They finished in four hours.

“When the people and the children started to work with us, everybody was so happy,” says Jafra. They planted dandelions, parsley, tomatoes, eggplants and lentils. They called it the Palestine Garden.

And so a transformation began among the urban inhabitants of Yarmouk. They discovered the secrets of farming, like the best time to water the garden — at night, so the precious water would not evaporate. They learned how certain plants, like fava beans, can renew exhausted soil. They found seeds and farming skills among the rural farmers who had fled to Yarmouk when drought and later war engulfed the Syrian countryside.

This story of hope and redemption has a terrible dark side.

In besieged Yarmouk, gardening is a matter of life or death. In June 2014, a government shell killed three men just outside one of the neighborhood gardens. At least two people have been shot and killed by snipers while foraging for wild greens. And anyone providing food, water or medical care is especially at risk of being assassinated, kidnapped by armed groups or disappeared by the government. In the first three months of 2015, as fighters from ISIL and Jahbat Al-Nusra were infiltrating the camp and preparing to take over, at least 10 nonviolent activists were killed.

That’s right. In Syria, gardening can get you killed. And yet…people garden.

(Courtesy Lens Young Yeidani, Al Jazeera)

(Courtesy Lens Young Yeidani, Al Jazeera)

I cannot think of a more powerful emblem of hope. Stories of war usually make me feel helpless, and this one no less so. I wish I could send these people some seeds, or money for equipment–anything to ease their task. But at the same time, reading this, I feel something more: gratitude and awe for these folks in Yarmouk, fighting a dictator one lettuce at a time.

“Make Perfume, Not War”: Heavenly-Scented Social Reponsibility

How can you resist a tagline like that? As soon as I learned of The 7 Virtues Perfume Company, I knew I had to promote it. And I don’t even wear perfume!

I could dive right in and tell you about this inspiring Canadian company. But why don’t I let the 7 Virtues folks say it themselves? This is straight from their website:

Vision

Leave a better footprint on this planet than we found.

Values

  • We value the dignity and empowerment of others through jobs.
  • Jobs give others dignity and empowerment. We believe as a social enterprise we can use our buying power to support farmers and their families in nations rebuilding.
  • We do this by purchasing natural essential oils. We wish to ignite a cavalry of business to come and buy from suppliers in nations rebuilding.
  • When farmers can buy books and shoes for their children in a safe environment we will help reverse issues of poverty and war.
  • We believe in fragrances that are good for your skin. They are vegan, phthalate free, and paraben free. Good for the world. Good for your skin.

The 7 Virtues Beauty Inc. is a Canadian company based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We believe we must flex our buying power to empower families in countries
that are rebuilding. Our made in Canada fragrance collection is created with essential oils from nations that are rebuilding including Haiti, Afghanistan and
the Middle East.

"Alphonsine is able to support her family harvesting patchouli in Rwanda" says the caption from this 7 Virtues photo

“Alphonsine is able to support her family harvesting patchouli in Rwanda” says the caption from this 7 Virtues photo

“Meeting our farmers in Rwanda and being welcomed into homes they built with their income from harvesting patchouli showed us the direct benefits of harnessing our buying power in the beauty industry for positive change. I could hear the birds singing loudly in the fields, a sign that the farm is organic, which makes our work even more impactful for our customers.”

Barb Stegemann, Founder, The 7 Virtues

I’ve read through the website and read several news stories about this company, and I can’t find a single thing to feel cynical about. If you do the same, and manage to find something to feel cynical about, do me the favor of keeping it to yourself, won’t you? Me, I plan to enjoy the knowledge that one small portion of an industry I normally snort at–cosmetics–is finding a way to make life better in some of our planet’s neediest places. And I’m ordering a couple of blend boxes (including “Noble Rose of Afghanistan” and Vetiver of Haiti”) for gifts.

This 7 Virtues photo's caption reads, "Female Afghan farmer at harvest time"

This 7 Virtues photo’s caption reads, “Female Afghan farmer at harvest time”

 

Perfume for Peace, rather than for more money in the pocket of Chanel, Inc? Makes scents to me. (Sorry–couldn’t resist.) Read about 7 Virtues and tell me what you think, ok?

R.I.P. Dean Smith: Why You Will Love Reading About This Man Even If You Don’t Care Beans About Basketball

I’ll start with the Litany of Impressive Facts, for those of you who don’t follow men’s college basketball. 36 seasons at Carolina. 11 Final Four appearances. Two national championships. 96% graduation rate. Coaching Hall of Fame. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Mate and I are Tarheels, so I’d be lying if I said those facts weren’t a large part of why we admired Coach Smith. And we have a lot of company

Basketball fans in general can thank Coach Smith for the 35-second clock, which was developed in response to his game-slowing Four Corners defense. But they can also thank Coach for that gesture players make after scoring, pointing to the player who passed them the ball to share the glory.  Coach Smith started that tradition, along with starting all seniors (including non-scholarship walk-ons) at their last home game, and having the entire bench stand up when a starter comes out.

That’s not basketball–that’s kindness, honor, decency. And fans of a certain kind of decency will appreciate that Coach Smith never, ever cursed, and did not allow his players to use foul language in his presence either.

We loved Coach Smith’s obvious love and care for his players. Michael Jordan said, 

Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach – he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it.”

Other former UNC players–a galaxy of NBA stars, but non-scholarship players as well–are now chiming in with stories of how Coach Smith helped them negotiate the world as they left Carolina, how Coach remembered their mom’s name and asked about her, how Coach would call to check on them if they’d sustained an injury. The man cared.

(Ellen Ozier, Reuters)

(Ellen Ozier, Reuters)

But here’s why I think anyone–not just basketball fans–should want to know about this man. Dean Smith never let his role as a highly-paid, political figure (don’t tell me Div. I basketball coaches aren’t political figures!) keep him from following his conscience. He participated in desegregating restaurants in the early 1960s. In 1966 he was the first coach to offer an African American  player a scholarship at UNC, when white players and fans were still spitting on Black players. He protested, with his church, not only the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation, but the death penalty. He even took his players to visit Death Row inmates in Raleigh. In later years, through his church, he supported gay rights.

Remember: we are talking about a MEN’S BASKETBALL COACH. In the SOUTH.

So, you can see why there are many reasons we truly loved Dean Smith. Now here’s one for you to add your admiration.NPR quotes sports writer John Feinstein, a Duke alum who was working on a book about Coach Smith, in the most telling example of Smith’s character:

To me, his legacy is summed up in something that happened that I was involved in peripherally, years and years ago when I first learned about his involvement in desegregating the restaurants in Chapel Hill. And I asked him about it ’cause it was his minister who told me the story.

And he said, I wish Reverend Seymour hadn’t told you that. And I said, Dean, why? Why would you want that? You should be proud of being involved in something like that. And he looked at me, and he said, John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.

I’m going to repeat that last part, just to let it reverberate: “You should never be proud of the doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”

Now aren’t you glad you took the time to read about this man? Rest in Peace, Coach–and thank you.