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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Nothing and Everything


"To know that I am nothing, that is wisdom; to know that I am everything, that is love and in between these two life moves.”

This proverb from my African proverb calendar has been rolling around in my head for days now.  It’s been rolling around as I have been reading Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, a book I read years ago and just finished reading again in preparation for Christian Peacemaker Team training. 

I mentioned the proverb to a friend who asked how I’d interpret it.  I think I said something like this:

“Well, to say that we are nothing is recognition that we are a very small … tiny … miniscule piece of this world, a tiny fraction of all that is.  To say that we are everything is to recognize God within us, to know that we, like everyone and everything else, were created by God, and, as such, have God, Love, the only thing that truly matters, within us.  Love connects us to everyone and everything else and makes us a part of everything.  When we recognize our interconnectedness, we see that we are simultaneously nothing and everything.”  Knowing we are nothing, we do not view ourselves as more important than anyone else.  Knowing we are everything, we nonetheless know that we are important. It is knowledge that requires a delicate balance between humility and ego.  If we stray too far from the middle point, our self-confidence ends up in one unhealthy extreme or another. 

I think nearly half of the Walter Wink book is now highlighted in blue.  I’m sure I’ll quote from it more than once in the coming days.  Let me start here: 

“We are alienated from God, each other, nature, and our own souls, and cannot find the way back by ourselves.” 

Our alienation, when we fail to notice our interconnectedness, causes us to move towards nothingness, but not the nothingness of wisdom where we understand that our smallness is part of a larger whole, but rather a nothingness of disconnection, of isolation.  When we feel alienated, we may need to be invited back, led back, pulled back towards everything.  This process takes time and happens over and over again.  It involves many steps forwards and backwards over the course of our lives.  When we are able to move closer to God, to each other, to nature, to our own souls, we move towards our everything nature, to the midpoint. 

I know I have a long way to go, but I think about where I was a year ago and where I am now and I’m sure I’m moving in the right direction. 

One year ago, I was spending my final days in India with friends who had invited me to a family wedding.  Prior to being with them in India, I only knew them from the confines of their restaurant (Taj Palace, for those who live in Louisville) and occasional encounters at international festivals.  In India, I was not only invited to the wedding, but was welcomed into their home and treated with as much care and love as any member of their family.  This kind of welcome is overwhelming.  It is humbling.  It is heart-breaking in its beauty.  When I say heart-breaking, I mean it not in a sad way, but in a Grinch-heart-swelling-with-love sort of way.  I wouldn't call myself a Grinch, but I wasn't always sure how to accept the generosity that was freely offered to me.  I didn’t know very many people at the wedding and didn’t speak the primary language I heard, so I sometimes retreated into the "safety" of aloneness, which really only led me to loneliness, to self-alienation, to foolish nothingness.  My actions did not stop my hosts from continuing to draw me out, to invite me into their lives.  I was invited to several neighbor/relatives’ houses, despite language barriers.  During my days with the family, I didn’t know all the customs and rituals and when invited to join in, I’m certain that I sometimes responded American-ly rather than Indian-ly, possibly appearing rude, though rudeness was the opposite of my intent.  

Even with my foibles, I was treated as an honored guest.  Thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes.  My acquaintances-turned-friends-turned-family did their best to invite me from self-limiting nothingness into their freely offered everything-ness.


And then there was Christmas Eve this year.  For as long as I've been alive, my extended family has spent Christmas Eve evening together at my parents’ house.  During my life, our family has grown considerably, the amount of chaos has ebbed and flowed, depending on the number of young children running around, and our gift-giving rituals have changed.  Of all the Christmas Eves I can remember, this year’s was my favorite.  I have spent many a Christmas Eve feeling shy and unconfident among my own family, without the excuses that I had in India of language barriers or knowing no one.  Like in India, my feelings had nothing to do with the way anyone treated me.  My family has been more than good to me. 

Last night I was in a very different place (not just physically) from last year and  Christmas Eves past - I did not feel like an insignificant nothing.  I was confident of the everything, of the Love, within, not just me, but everyone present.  I knew that I was a small part of something much larger, most immediately, my family.  My mom invited me to say the blessing before we ate, which was a great honor.  Squeezing all 38 of us into the dining room, holding hands for a few quiet moments, we made our bond as family tangible. 

Several years ago, we stopped exchanging presents on Christmas Eve, so the evening became simply a time to enjoy each other’s company.  Last night I felt engaged and connected to everyone I got to spend time with.  To my aunt who announced her recent Scrabble winning streak against me (I need to up my game J). To two of my uncles who told me they appreciated reading my blog to get “the other side of the story.” One also told me about his health struggles and victories (quitting smoking!); the other shared stories of when he was young and loved to check out books from the library about explorers.   I enjoyed the company of my cousins who asked about the next steps on my path. I was also happy to hear some of their stories: recent or upcoming moves, business ventures, new jobs, and a story about taking care of the neighbor’s 70-pound turtle.  I loved spending a few moments with my nephews, and niece, and my cousins’ children, as we watched videos from the Santa-tracker.  It was wonderful to sit next to my grandma, the 94-year-old matriarch of the family, who has a special prayer she says for me every day when I am traveling.  She has said it so often that she has it memorized. 

And, beautifully, I felt an equal connection to those I didn't get a chance to be with.  The heart-swelling continues.


And so life moves. 

Between nothing and everything,

alienation and connection,

foolishness and wisdom,

fear and love.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Call

"This is the ultimate power of the Call: It's a summons to the world to devote itself to God ... If you put your life in my hands, he suggests, you will be rewarded ... In God's beckoning, the sacrifice is known, even the reward is known, but the route, the location, even the deliverer of the message are unknown. To be a descendant of Abraham is to live in that gap - to glance back at your native land, to peer ahead to your nameless destination, and to wonder, Do I have the courage to make the leap?"
                                                                                                       - Bruce Feiler, Abraham

Do I have the courage to make the leap?

More specifically:

I've been invited to be a part of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) training in preparation for working with the organization over the next three years.  In a few weeks I will go to Chicago for a month of CPT training, but will I graduate from training?  Will  learn what I need to learn? Am I cut out for the hard, sometimes dangerous, often stressful, work of oppression-challenging and peace-making that CPT does? Am I as ready as I say I am to put my whole body where my mouth is, to put my whole self into God's hands? Am I ready to work in Colombia, Iraq, or Palestine as an advocate for justice?

My answer is I don't know.  I think of the times I have allowed fear to guide me, the times I've run from God's open hands, not trusting that they would hold me with care.  There have been many such times.  Too many.  Times when I looked into the eyes of someone who is hurting, knowing that I was capable of alleviating some small part of their pain, and turned away.  Times when I listened to someone say hateful and hurtful things and, rather than challenging them, was silent.  Times when I have simply been too lazy to bother reaching out, speaking out, acting on the values I profess to hold, even when I am capable of doing so.

Who's to say that I won't run again?  Who's to say that the invitation to personal comfort won't tempt me more than the sometimes difficult path of personal integrity, of justice, towards a peace that seems impossible?

I write here, in part, so that I won't run away, so that I hold myself accountable in a public way.  As a result, I know the warmth of God's hands through your love and support, whether I feel the physical gesture when I see you or the embrace of your words.  Writing keeps me more faithful to the Call, more steady as I walk through and towards the unknown, towards the place where I will not only be invited to walk ahead, but to leap.

Do I have the courage to make the leap?


Monday, December 17, 2012

Thinking and Knowing

One of the reasons I love teaching is that sometimes students have amazing insights that they associate with me.  It is true that at times I say things that "click" with students, that flip a switch that brings a little more light to their understanding.  Other times I'm given undeserved credit for a student's evolution of thinking. Those are the times that I learn more from students than I teach, yet somehow I get credit for bringing them to new wisdom. That happened recently.

A couple weeks ago, I had the great privilege to talk to middle-schoolers at St. Leonard School abut my experiences in India.    My goals for the presentation were not only to teach students about India, but also to help them see how much they have in comparison to others in the world, to foster a sense of gratitude and sharing, and to empower them to step beyond their comfort zone towards the "other," whoever that may be.   To make these goals clear, I issued four challenges at the end of my presentation:  1) to make a gratitude list, 2) to get rid of things they no longer use and give them away, 3) to add something to their Christmas list that didn't benefit them (such as a donation to OxfamHeifer International, or a local charity), and 4) to step outside of their comfort zone by talking to someone they don't know or trying something new.  Perhaps I could have challenged them further, but I thought the above might be a good start.

Yesterday I had the equally great privilege of reading letters they wrote me as a follow-up to my presentation. In reading the letters, I see that between my talk and teacher follow-up, students did pick up on my intended messages. Certainly, many were intrigued by India itself, by the differences they saw between my students there and their own lives here.  Some told me how they had responded to the challenges I issued.  One gave away two garbage bags of clothes.  Another talked to someone new.  Some simply said that they wanted to follow through on the challenges.

And then I read the last letter, written by a seventh grader.  When I write above about undeserved credit, I'm referring to her letter.  Perhaps something I said triggered her thinking process, but she took what I said further than anything I communicated (a teacher's greatest hope).

I'd like to share her words, because they offer a wisdom worth repeating.

Dear Miss Cory, 

Thank you for coming to our school and teaching us about your trip to India. I really enjoyed the stories you had to share.  Thank you. 

I learned that you can make a huge difference in someone's life, or even a large impact on the world. I also learned what other kids my age have to go through each day. It made me think outside of my own life and about someone else's. 

When I first walked in, I remembered thinking: What could one person do to impact the world? But I walked out knowing what I could do to change the world for better, not for the worse. I also realized the difference between thinking and knowing. Thinking leads to knowing, but the difference between the two is phenominal. Thinking leads to doubting yourself and your abilities, where knowing is realizing your abilities and using them to change the world.  Finally, my question to you is: If one person can make a difference in someone's life, what can we all do together? 

Sincerely, 
Hanna
St. Leonard student

How can we help each other take our doubt-full (but necessary) thinking to the empowerment of knowing?  What can we do together when we know and trust our abilities, know and trust the abilities of others, and know we can use them to change the world?  The world of possibilities grows...


Friday, December 14, 2012

Incarnation


Ten months ago today from Nablus, Palestine, I wrote about heaviness in my heart. That day it was because of the destruction of a community center and the arrests of young children in the Silwan community of Jerusalem, as well as the arrest of one of my students in Nablus.

Today, my heart is again heavy, as I’m sure yours is, because of the death of 20 children and 7 adults (6 victims and the shooter) at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

My heart is heavy because this is the third major mass shooting we’ve heard about in the US this year.  My heart is heavy because the number of those killed in the mass shootings is a small number compared to the 12,000 or more people killed every year in US due to gun violence. Many of those single killings we never hear about in the news.   

I am angry at those who say guns aren’t the problem, that guns don’t kill people, that people kill people.  The US has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.  It may be true that not all homicides in the US involve guns, but 60% of them do.  Sixty percent of the people killing people here happen to do so with guns.  It may be true that other countries have a higher per capita incidence of gun violence than the US, but most (maybe all) of those countries are in the developing world, not the developed world.  What does that say? I am angry that some people insist that more guns are the means to decrease violence. 

I am more committed to my own pledge of nonviolence and the peace-making I hope to do with Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Today, shortly before I heard about the shooting, I was working in my garden, noticing the plants that have died back for winter but whose new springtime growth is already evident.  I thought my blog post would be about the cycle of life and death, about resurrection, about how, somehow, life finds a way to push through destruction and death. 

It’s a hard day to see that truth.  But I will cling to it.  I will cling to the belief that even as families grieve, there is a Life-force working that will help them heal, a Life-force embodied in the presence of their friends and family, a Life-force embodied by strangers praying for them.  Like Fred Rogers, I will cling to the belief in the helpers in the world:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”
I will cling to the belief that there are more helpers than evil-doers, that goodness is stronger than evil.  I will cling to the belief that, with time, hope emerges from heartbreak.  I will cling to the belief in the ultimate Incarnation of Good, of Justice, of Peace, the very one Christians wait for during this time of Advent. I will seek the Incarnation in the world around me. Believing that I am a part of the Body of Christ, I will seek to be one small part of the living Incarnation.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Distracted

"Have you been writing like crazy?"  A friend asked me this a few days ago.

Um, no.

I've been distracted lately.  By many good things.

In less than a month, I'll be in Chicago, a few days into a month of Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) training.  The training is preparation for work as a human rights monitor and accompanier in Palestine, Iraq, or Colombia.  At this point, I do not know where I'll end up working, when I'll leave, or how long I'll be in one of those places.  I trust that when I need to know, I'll know.

Between now and the time I leave for Chicago, I have a long to-do list.  I'm back to fund-raising for CPT.  I've been making more card sets and have branched out into home-made Christmas cards.  The Christmas card-making began one day when I was feeling glum and needed something to lift my spirit.  Amazing how cutting and pasting, making something new, can do that.  The cards have been fun to make and have gone over well where I've sold them.

I have a writing workshop and a retreat to write.  I also plan to write and promote several talks and other workshops for schools, churches, and other communities.  Writing these brings new and unexpected challenges - the best kind, ones that will stretch me and, if done well, will stretch others to do better and be better.  I had the great privilege to give a talk to middle schoolers about India a few days ago.  I hope to do more such talks.  Thinking about and planning these talks, workshops, and retreats get me back into education-mode.  Educating is in my bones.

My "home" study.  I am gathering answers, testimonies, stories, poems, about what home means to different people.  If you're interested in thinking about "home," click on the link above.  I'd love to know your thoughts. As I think about the idea more, I realize the vastness of its potential.  What does "home" mean to someone who's homeless? An immigrant? A refugee? A soldier? I can't wait to find out.

Then there's Christmas. I decorated my house over the last few days.  It feels particularly festive to do so this year, because last year, Advent and Christmas both passed without much fanfare.  I spent Christmas Day with Sikh friends in India, as wedding preparations and festivities happened around me.  The only indications of Christmas were the molasses crinkle cookies my mom sent to me (thanks, Mom!) and a phone call with my family.

All of the above have occupied me and distracted me from writing.  And then...

In less than 3 months, I turn 40. Seeing the number as I type and realizing it'll soon attach itself to me is a little strange.  However, 39 has been good to me, 38 too, so I'll try to keep moving in whatever direction I'm supposed to move and trust that, even if it's not all OK, it'll all be OK.  The notion of turning 40 doesn't distract me in the same way that the above activities do, but it does give me pause.

The milestone invites me to consider the worth of what I'm doing these days.  Am I using my time in a way that honors me, my gifts, other people? I hope so.  I'm trying.  Are the things distracting me from writing, which I call one of my primary goals right now, worth my time?

As I think about that question, the answer seems to be yes.  It is worth my time to engage in creative expression.  The process nourishes my soul and the products feed the spirits of others.  It is worth my time to use my love for education - whether the head-learning or heart-learning varieties - to try to plant seeds of the same in others.  If we're learning, we're growing.  I hope to encourage growth in myself and others as long as I'm alive.  It is worth my time to think about "home."  It is a vitally important notion that shapes who we are and how we live and I hope my exploration will naturally take me back to my stated goal of writing. It is worth it to celebrate this time, to live in the Advent season of waiting, of expectation, of hope, to feel what these mean in my own life that is pregnant with possibilities both known and unknown.

And so I realize: maybe the distractions aren't distractions at all.  Maybe they're the real stuff I need to be paying attention to.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Fragments and Gold


A few weeks ago I watched a movie called “Dark Shadows.”  I wasn’t a fan of the movie, in general, but one image in it has stuck with me.  Near the end of the movie, amidst a scene of devastating wreckage, we watch one character break down. 

Her brokenness takes an obvious and visible form.  Her exterior gets dented, like a hard-boiled egg when it’s hit against a surface.  Her body literally cracks, over and over again, until she is hard to recognize as the beauty she once was. As she is shattered, her body somehow, mostly, stays together, but small pieces of her fall off, leaving empty spaces. 

When you and I break, our cracks are not usually so easy to see.  The physical breaks may be evident because, as in the case of my recent broken foot, we wrap and protect them until they are healed. The emotional breaks, the psychological breaks, the spiritual breaks are harder to detect.  And yet they are there.

We dent.  We crack.  Somehow we mostly stay together, but we may lose pieces of ourselves and find holes where we used to be whole.

I realized a few days ago that in the last year, I’ve been living that scene of destruction in reverse.

I knew I was battered up when I left for India.  I knew I was dented and cracked and missing pieces.  

I didn’t know that some of those pieces had made their way across the world.  Perhaps it was the wind that picked up those fragments of me and carried them to far-off places.  Carried them to India – to a convent where I learned the joy of doing dishes (a task I’ve never much liked) communally and to small villages where the glee of a simple game like catch with children who had no toys soaked into me.

Maybe blustery gusts took pieces of me to Palestine – to a house where I learned the comfort of living with others who shared my thirst for justice and to learning centers where the generosity of my students reminded me that I, too, have much to offer.

Perhaps a gentle breeze brought fragments of me to Italy – to a square filled with thousands of devoted where I learned the power of praying together and to a small town where the spirit of St. Francis saturated my soul. 

And maybe some air current swept parts of me to Spain and the Netherlands – to homes of friends and family where I learned that time and space don’t necessarily weaken relationships and to parks where the intricate patterns of mosaics and flowers nourished my being.  

Or maybe it was God.

I had the immense pleasure not long ago of seeing Peter Mayer in concert. He told a story and sang a song about Japanese bowls.  In the late 15th century, Japanese artisans began the practice of repairing broken bowls using gold to fill the cracks between fragments.  The craftsmen didn’t try to hide the breaks.  Instead they enhanced each fracture with precious metal, highlighting the wear and tear the bowl had lived.  The artists used gold to make each crack, and, as a result, each bowl, more beautiful.  These bowls came to be valued more than the unbroken ones.

Like I didn’t know that pieces of me had scattered in the world, I didn’t know that my loved ones at home had also collected pieces of me, ones I didn’t even know were missing, and safely guarded them until I returned. I didn’t know that my friends and family waited until I was ready to receive their loving care before they gently coated each crack with gold and put my fragments back into place.  As I reflect now, I see, with each piece newly set, the beauty of my brokenness, the dignity of a life risked and lived, the value of allowing others to put me back together. 

I see that the custodians of my brokenness not only filled my empty spaces, but also sealed them with the precious coating of the love of God.

Without India, without Palestine, without Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, home, without many people holding me and putting me back together, I would still look like the completely shattered character from “Dark Shadows.” Because of those places and those people, I look like a Japanese bowl.

Last night I was at the final event of Louisville’s Merton Institute for Contemplative Living and heard a panel of speakers share their ideas about living a contemplative life.  Many of them emphasized the importance of community, of recognizing our interconnectness with those we know and those we don’t know. 

Only a few hours before his death, Thomas Merton said

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.

When we recognize our interdependence, we see that we need others to gather our missing pieces and they need us to do the same.  When we know that we are all part of one another, we realize that guarding those pieces with tender care ultimately leads to our own mending.  When we grasp that we are involved in one another, we understand that each of us is responsible for using our own store of precious bonding material to carefully and gently put the fragments we’ve collected back into place.

When we do all this, we, each of us, becomes a Japanese artisan, a custodian of brokenness, a bearer of blessing.  We invite God into brokenness and allow God’s grace to transform brokenness into the splendor of God’s shining love.

   

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gaza, #2

This may be as scattered as my swirls post from about a week ago.

I am still troubled by what is happening in Gaza.

I am still troubled by mainstream media news coverage.  I am troubled that they didn't report that the Hamas leader Israel targeted and killed last week was working to forge a permanent truce between Hamas and Israel.  Yes, Ahmed Jabari was a Hamas leader and yes, he was not always a proponent of peaceful measures, but at the time he was killed, he was in the process of negotiating peace between Hamas and Israel, not in some hypothetical and distant-future way.  He had received a draft of a permanent truce agreement only hours before he was assassinated.  How did mainstream media miss that detail?

I am troubled by Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian missiles.  I am troubled that I've only heard the number of rockets launched from Gaza, but haven't heard the number of Israeli missiles.  This troubles me because one of the arguments I read in comments after news articles goes something like this: "We shouldn't focus on the huge difference in number of Israeli deaths and Palestinian deaths. That is not important. We should focus on the number of missiles being launched.  Current number have been launched from Gaza."  In those comments, not one person has said how many missiles have been fired by Israel.  Is that number not significant to the argument?

I am troubled by the 130+ Palestinian deaths and the 5 Israeli deaths.  I'm not sure if the death of a protester in the West Bank is included in the Palestinian death toll.  I am troubled that one protester has died and others have been beaten, harassed, and/or arrested.  I am troubled by other injuries incurred on all sides during the current violence.

I am troubled by hateful comments I've seen about both Muslims and Jews from readers responding to news articles. The comments aren't about specific people (not that those are better), but general comments aimed at the millions who fall into each category, the kind of comments that show both ignorance and intolerance.

And yet, I am also hopeful.

In the face of it all, I have to see hope.  Someone has to hold onto hope, or there will be none.  So I choose to see a larger vision than the one that makes me want to scream and cry.

I am hopeful because Israel has not yet launched a ground invasion into Gaza.  Peace talks continue.

I am hopeful because some Palestinians, despite repercussions they may face, are protesting peacefully. So are Israeli activists in Israel. So are international solidarity groups, including groups like Students for Justice in Palestine right here in Louisville.

I am hopeful because my American friend who is living in Nablus, Palestine has chosen artistic expression as her way to release grief over what she is seeing and hearing.  I am hopeful because she is teaching creative writing and may just give her Palestinian students one more outlet for their pain.

My hope is fragile, but I will protect it in prayer and nurture it in love.  I ask you, too, to help me pray not that one side wins and another loses, but that all sides win, that all those involved in the conflict find refuge from the sparks - of violence, anger, hatred, and fear - that can only create more of the same.

So I ride on a see-saw of trouble and hope.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thoughts on Gaza...

I've been listening to news about Israeli air strikes on Gaza with sorrow and concern.  The last report I heard on the radio led with the fact that three Israelis were killed.  The report mentioned the 13 Palestinian deaths, two of which were deaths of children, much later, almost as an afterthought. A report I heard in the morning didn't discuss any Palestinian deaths except that of a Hamas leader.

Let me be clear before I continue that I don't condone violence. Period.  I think there are better ways of resolving conflict.  However, after doing some research, I can understand why some Palestinians in the Gaza Strip might be angry enough to use violence, the violence that Israel says is the reason for its current airstrikes.

Israel amped up its blockade of Gaza in 2007 when Hamas came to power.  The blockade means Israel tightly controls what goes into and out of the Gaza Strip.  The stated reason for the blockade is Israeli security, to prevent weapons and anything that might be used against Israel from getting into the area.  I get that reason.

What I cannot understand is how Israel justifies restricting food and other humanitarian aid to Gaza. In 2008 Israel drafted a report analyzing food needs of residents of the Gaza Strip, in which is stated that 106 lorryloads of food and other humanitarian supplies were needed daily for Gazans. However, according to Gisha, an Israeli human rights group against the Gaza blockade, an average of 67 lorryloads entered daily during that time, lower than Israel's projection of need, meaning that people's basic needs were not being met. Robert Turner, who works in Gaza for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, stated:

"We recognise that Israel has legitimate security concerns but we have said consistently that the blockade is collective punishment of the population. It's illegal under international law and we think it's counterproductive."

In addition, some of Israels' food restrictions seem random.  For example, cinnamon is allowed into the Gaza Strip. Coriander is not. The last time I checked, coriander was a spice, not anything that could be used against Israel.  Why isn't it allowed? Is it just another way (one of many I could cite) for Israel  to show who's got the power?

Though the blockade has eased minimally, conditions in Gaza continue to be difficult.  In August, the U.N. released a report stating that, if conditions in Gaza remain as they are now, by 2020 Gaza will not be livable.  According to U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator Maxwell Gaylard:

"Action needs to be taken right now on fundamental aspects of life: water sanitation, electricity, education, health and other aspects." 

I cannot imagine living in a place where my movement is restricted, my food consumption is restricted, my access to clean water, health care and electricity is restricted, and my educational opportunities are restricted. If my life were so severely limited, might I be more of a proponent of violence?  I don't know. I hope not, but I don't know.

I just looked at the news again.  The article I read says that 15 Palestinians are dead.  However, both the title and the first boldface line of the report highlight that "three Israelis [were] killed."

Are Israeli deaths more noteworthy because they are Israeli?  Because Israeli deaths are rarer than Palestinian deaths? Because Israeli lives are more important than Palestinian lives?  Does the placement of a government's money (to Israel) qualify whose lives are more important?

Personally, I grieve all the deaths and injuries. Every life is equally sacred.

I pray for an end to the violence.  I pray for my friends in Israel and Palestine.  I pray for peace, a peace that holds up Israelis and Palestinians as equal in life and death, a peace whose path I cannot envision, but nonetheless believe, through the grace of God and the work of people, someday, somehow, is possible.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Swirls, scribbles, and scratch-outs

Today is a day I wish I could just put swirls, scribbles, and scratch-outs on my blog.

Take 1: commentary on my African proverb of the day- "If you keep your head and heart going in the right direction, you won't have to worry about your feet."  I agree.  Sort of, but only sort of, because my head and heart don't also go in the same direction.  Not ready to write about that one.

commentary on my African proverb of the day- "If you keep your head and heart going in the right direction, you won't have to worry about your feet."

Take 2: commentary on a passage in Bruce Feiler's Abraham about following the Call.  I'm trying to follow the Call, but I've written about that before and I'm not sure I have new insights formed well enough to add anything useful to what I've already written.

commentary on a passage in Bruce Feiler's Abraham about following the Call.

My mind is going from head vs. heart vs. feet to how it relates to my Call to my wonderful day subbing in music classes to news about more bombings in Gaza to Syria and Turkey and Iraq and Iran, what I saw and heard when I was in Kurdistan and what will happen if violence escalates there to what was my plane crash dream about? Swirls and scribbles and scratch-outs.

Should I even be writing on a day like today when I can't seem to focus on any one thing long enough to write a post?  Maybe not, but in the interest of fostering discipline, I am writing.  Maybe it's OK to have a stream of consciousness post every once in awhile.  Today would be it.  

Maybe the message today is to let the thoughts evolve at their own pace the way a child's scribbles and swirls develop into recognizable figures over time or maybe the message is to forgive myself for the scratch-outs because everyone has scratch-out moments, days, weeks, even years. Maybe I'll also forgive myself for all the run-on sentences - they look the way my mind feels today.

Sometimes what we need is a chance to get the scribbles, swirls, and scratch-outs out of our system, so that next time we can take a clean piece of paper, re-focus, and start over. Here's hoping for a better next time. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Help me, God


















Help me, God
to be a force of love -

to love better the ones who love me,

to listen to the ones who insult me
and try to understand
                where the loathing come from,

                and react with love
somehow,
nonetheless,

and not turn my back,
and not give up
on them,

to listen to my words,
to look at my actions,
and try to make them
hopeful, peaceful, challenging, loving,

                       light,

to work for good
even when I am
afraid, tired, sad, angry,

to wish the best for all people,
                even for those who don’t wish the best for me.


when i love, i am most like You.


when i give in to
hopelessness, violence, ease, hatred, indifference,
fear, exhaustion, sorrow, rage,

when i throw them at people, maybe even myself,
and don’t hand them to You  
 
                                                                                                i stray.

Help me to see 
always
that i live in You,
Your creation,
that i am Your creation,
surrounded by others,
every other
person,
tree,
bird,
dog,
also Your creation,

to trust that
he is
she is
we are
capable
of reflecting You
sometimes
even if not
all times.

Patience
with us
with her
with him.

Help me, God
to be a force of Love -




Thursday, November 8, 2012

Jackhammers


Sitting in a coffee shop a few days ago, I was transported back to January 2009 when I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.  Even more specifically, I was transported to the Children’s Memorial. 

The Children’s Memorial was made in an underground cavern.  Its purpose is to remember the 1.5 million Jewish children who were killed during the Holocaust.

I entered the memorial from a bright sunny day.  Inside the memorial is dark.  As I descended into the space, I reached for the guardrail since the darkness I entered blinded me momentarily.  I began to hear the names, ages, and countries of origin of the children killed.  As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that I was not entering a hall of pure darkness.  Instead I began to see lights – the flame of candles (maybe only one candle?), coming from the center of the memorial, reflected in mirrors and mirrors and mirrors around the center.  With the candlelight reflected, I could see well enough not to stumble.  I thought of the saying “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”  I heard more names, ages, and countries.  

Then I heard another sound.  It sounded like machine guns.  Set against the solemn speaking of names, all I could think of was the death of the children, maybe through the violence of guns, maybe through the slow breakdown of body and spirit by starvation and debilitating work, maybe through gas chambers.  The machine gun sounds didn’t stop.  I had to get out. 

I hurried outside, sickened at the thought of children dying, blinded now by sunlight rather than the darkness, only to realize that the machine guns I heard were jackhammers. The sound wasn't part of the memorial, a fact I didn't realize until I was outside. 

As I reflected upon this, a more recent memory struck me.  As sound bombs and tear gas went off during the Open Shuhada street protests I witnessed in Hebron in February, I kept thinking about my favorite fireworks, the ones that produce only a flash of light and loud boom.  The sound was similar to the sound bombs I was hearing.  I knew my favorite firework would no longer bring me joy, but rather the memory of how sound can be used to scare and intimidate people.  

I thought of the notices I receive about alternative activities during Thunder Over Louisville.  Thunder Over Louisville is the largest display of fireworks in the US, and a spectacle that includes a pre-fireworks air show that highlights the prowess of various military planes.  The alternative activities happen away from the river front show.  They are designed to promote community- and peace-building.  Organizers recognize that some people, particularly immigrants and refugees, may have experiences of military planes that are not as benign as an air show, people who, upon hearing and seeing military planes, might be transported to terror-inducing memories, rather than awe and wonder at the “coolness” of the planes.

A few days ago I heard jackhammers  as construction went on outside of the coffee shop.  Because of my experience at Yad Vashem, I could only think of machine guns, sound bombs, military planes and the myriad ways we have come up with to intimidate, hurt, and kill people.  I had to get out. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

did you find yourself?

did you find yourself?
she asked me

Yes.

i found myself

in the young barefoot beggar staring at me,
eyes wide, deep brown
and the next one,
ragged clothes,
and another,
dirty face

in the naked man sitting on the street,
in the sick woman with no energy for her children,
in the chubby boy who was the butt of jokes

in the teen whose father was killed,
in the one who struggled to learn english,
in the woman restricted by culture

in the sorrow of the one who misses his wife,
in the awareness of the one who doesn’t follow her gut,
in the frustration of the one who hates her limitations,
in the longing of the one who seeks love.

if i were born
in another time
and place
i could be them,
live in their bodies,
live their
hunger
thirst
desires
joys

but

i was born
when i was born
where i was born
and have my own
hungerthirstdesirejoy.


and yet

recognize

myself

now

in them.

i don’t live in their bodies
but they live in me -

in my cells,
my blood,
my bones,
the skin i wear -

do you see them?
they are me.
i am them.

do you feel them?
are they you?
are you them?

do you find yourself
when you look into
the eyes
of another?


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dona Nobis Pacem

Grant us peace.

The contentment that began on a rainy day a couple of days has continued to permeate my body beyond the point of saturation. It's spilling out of me.

This morning I went to mass at my parish.  Besides friends and family, weekly mass at St. William Church in Louisville, KY is one of the things I miss most when I am away from Louisville.  The people of St. William are my friends and family, in both the literal and figurative sense. That place is home, even when my house doesn't feel like home.  

Shortly before I left for Turkey/Albania/Iraq, I began singing with the ensemble during mass.  I have been a member of St. William for 7 years, but rarely did I sing with the ensemble, at least in front of a microphone.  I always sang loudly from my seat.

Prior to joining St. William, I had attended mass in Spanish at various parishes and had sung with their choirs.  Focusing on the music distanced me from the goings-on of mass.  Because I worried about what I had to sing next and if I knew it well enough, and if everyone else knew it well enough, I did not listen to readings or the homily with the attention they deserve. When I joined St. William, I wanted to immerse myself in mass without the responsibility of singing in front of a microphone. The same year I joined St. William, I started teaching at Trinity.  That year and the several that followed were ones of great growth and change, but they lacked the musical nourishment I had gotten from singing with a group.  It took a few years before I got back into any formal singing - as a cantor and co-leader of Trinity's liturgy band.  Rehearsing and singing with the group rejuvenated my soul.   It was hard to leave the group.

Thankfully, my time with the Sisters of Charity in Nazareth in India was full of song.  Most evenings during prayer, we sang.  Spirit-filling.  However, the months that followed - in Palestine, with the exception of my frequent visits to St. Anne's church in Jerusalem, and as I worked my way back west - were mostly devoid of singing. When I returned to Louisville from my 8 1/2 month sojourn, my musical reserve needed a fill-up.

Midway through the summer, St. Williams' music director asked me to sing one Sunday.  Yes! Then he asked me again.  I told him I only wanted to substitute occasionally.  But after singing with the group a few times, I realized that I wanted  to get up earlier every Sunday, so I could be among those making beautiful harmonies from the front of the church, not from a seat.

This morning I was eager to join the ensemble and, for the first time since I joined (because I previously declined all invitations), I sang a verse on my own.  During rehearsal prior to mass, I could feel the music streaming from my soul, from the glorious flood within.  Hours later, even though I'm no longer singing, it's an outpouring I continue to feel.

Sometime during today's mass I remembered another time, just a few weeks ago, when music flowed freely at a most unexpected time, with a hoped-for, but unexpected result.

Our Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) delegation pulled into a gas station.  We'd been on the road all day.  It was dark.  Already at the station were several vehicles that were clearly transporting someone(s) important.  If memory serves me well, there was a police vehicle accompanying the black vehicles.  Standing guard at the gas station were several men, serious faces, feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart, hands folded in front of them, earpieces with cords disappearing under their suits.  When we pulled in in our dusty white 20-passenger van, the men moved closer to us, one man in front of the van, another to our side, no doubt, to make sure we'd be no threat to whomever they were protecting.

We looked out at them.  They looked in at us.

"Let's do something!" a delegate suggested.

I don't remember who suggested we sing.  I suggested we sing the Dona Nobis Pacem.

So we began.  Without ever having sung it together before, those who knew began to sing and somehow the harmonies worked themselves out.  A cascade of women's voices complemented by the rich low tones of the male delegate. Dona Nobis Pacem. Grant us peace.

The guards began to smile.  They may have even laughed.  We continued to sing loudly, ourselves laughing with the joy of a successful endeavor to change the atmosphere we'd entered.  Even serious security guards are not impermeable.

One of CPT's main works is to spread awareness of the on-the-ground happenings of the places they work - to tell the stories that rarely, if ever, make the mainstream news.  Our last day in Iraq, we hosted a press conference in which we shared all we had seen and heard during our days in Iraqi Kurdistan.  As suggested by a local CPT partner, we ended our press conference with a song.

Dona Nobis Pacem.

May God's peace pour out from us in song. (Click on the links to hear a trio or choral version of the canon.)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Contentment

If you were in Louisville and you looked out the window or went outside yesterday, you’d probably classify the day as a dreary one. Rainy and chilly. There are times when such days bring me down. Yesterday I reveled in the day.  

Four days before, I arrived home after four weeks of traveling - to Turkey, Albania, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Richmond, Virginia. Between sleep deprivation and many experiences to process, it took me a few days just to get my head screwed on right. It clicked back into place on my third day home.

My fourth day was yesterday. I had tentative plans to meet a friend in the afternoon, but no other fixed plans.  I finally went through all the mail that had piled up while I was away.  I went to my parents’ house and finished uploading trip photos. I cleaned out an email account that I never use. I had a long Skype chat with a friend that helped me put some things into perspective. I went grocery shopping and picked up a couple of DVDs.  My few times out in the rain gave me a chance to try out the new rain jacket I’d bought right before my trip.  I haven’t had a rain jacket- ever.  It was blissful to arrive home dry and warm! 

I expected to hear from my friend shortly after I got to my house.  However, I never heard from her and didn’t have a phone number to call her or an Internet connection with which to contact her.  Though I want to see her, I was perfectly alright with the change in plans.  I cuddled up on my couch and listened to the rain outside.

It was the first full evening I’d spent at home since late September before I left. I lit a pumpkin bread-scented candle.  My cats nestled in with me on the couch.  I watched my DVDs. I finished reading The Happiness Project, and considered all the reasons I have to be grateful, one of which was the cozy evening in my home. 

Life felt good.    

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Amna Sur (warning: this includes graphic photos)

Even when you've been there, it's hard to imagine the reality of some places. A reality lived rather than visited.  This was my experience in the Amna Sur Museum.

outside of one of the prison buildings
The Amna Sur Museum used to be one of Saddam Hussein's prisons, where overcrowded cells, stench, filth, darkness, rape, and torture were the status quo. Located in Suleimani,Iraqi Kurdistan, the prison housed (though housed seems too benign a word) mostly Kurds.  In 1991 the Kurdish Peshmerga attacked and liberated the prison.  Today, the buildings stand as a museum with blankets and bowls of prisoners on some prison cell floors, graffiti and nail holes still on/in the walls, statues depicting forms of torture that took place there, and photographs of Kurdish flight and the effects of a chemical attack on the city of Halabja.  The museum is a stark reminder of what Iraqi Kurds have lived, and died, through.  

one of the few small
entries of light
For me, the museum called to mind visiting the Dachau concentration camp, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, the sites of the killings of the six Jesuits and two women and of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador.  How is it that even with these memorials, these reminders of what can happen when we relinquish some of our humanity, people continue to destroy? I don't have an answer.  

My hope is that not  forgetting, not hiding, not looking away will help us not to repeat.  My hope is that seeing these places doesn't send us to a place of vengeful anger, but rather merciful and transformative compassion, to a place where the words "Never again" occupy not just our minds, but our souls. 

And so I share with you some of my photos, with the ardent desire that you will find hope springing from sorrow, life emerging from death, and a love for humanity and all creation that is stronger than the hate for what we do to each other.

one of the first sculptures seen when entering the prison building; the lack of
focus seemed appropriate, given the jarring nature of the scene






one of the women's cells  















































Watching him standing, unmoving, hand on the shoulder, as if he could feel the warmth emanating from a body and see a soul through the eyes.  He stood a long time and I nearly as long observing him.  When the boy moved, his hand remained on the man (clearly this was more than a statue for the boy) until he was too far to touch him.  What was the boy thinking?  Who was this man for him?































Photos of the aftermath of the chemical bombing of the city of Halabja


family that took refuge in a cave and survived the Halabja attack
Hall of Mirrors: each fragment represents someone who died;
each light represents a village destroyed
         




















































To learn more about the Amna Sur Museum, click here.



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Trying to Start

In the absence of knowing where to start, sometimes you just have to start.  This is what I am trying to do.

I'm trying to synthesize the last 4 weeks:

Breaking my foot.

Losing my passport.

Getting a new passport 2 hours before my flight to Turkey.

Spending a weekend in Albania visiting a friend with whom a friendship began 6 months ago over a day and a half in Italy.

Listening to a Syrian street vendor spew his anxieties and then wonder aloud, "Why am I telling you all this?"

Hearing from Turkish friends about the arrests and imprisonment of Turkish activists and journalists.

Forging new friendships while traveling on a Christian Peacemaker Team delegation in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Spending 12 intense days with those new friends.

Going through checkpoints and checkpoints and checkpoints in Iraq.

Breathing in clean, crisp air high in the mountains.

Drinking tea with strangers.

Observing Iranian and Turkish military bases within striking distance of Iraqi villages.

Seeing remnants of rockets along the side of the road and signs with warnings about unexploded land mines.

Drinking tea with acquaintances.

Hearing the grief of parents who lost their children during demonstrations.

Seeing prison cells where men were tortured and photos of victims of chemical warfare during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Drinking tea with friends.

Having to say good-bye to my fellow delegates and CPT team members.

Arriving home and leaving 10 hours later.

Meeting writers - aspiring, published, famous - and wondering where my own writing will take me.

Missing flights.

Coming home again.


Wondering when I'll be able to write the stories that came to reside in my being over 4 short weeks.


The stories are still swirling within, not ready to be caught and confined by the limitations of my words.  Fragments are the best I can offer.  Pieces that may begin to form an outline of the puzzle I stepped into, one that feels beyond my ability to complete right now.  God grant me patience as I wait for the pieces to settle into place.





Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Play of Light and Darkness

Maybe it's jetlag, but I don't think so.  Even when I haven't been traveling, I sometimes wake early in the morning, in the darkness, long before my body is actually ready, with thoughts that want to be known in my consciousness rather than through the mist of my dreams.

Consciousness in the darkness.  Maybe that's what I've been striving for all along.  Maybe that's why I'm attracted to places that could be labeled "darkness" - El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Palestine, and most recently, Iraqi Kurdistan.  I want to be aware.  I want my eyes opened. I want to understand darkness, so that I better appreciate light.

I don't want only to appreciate light.  I want to be light.  I want to amplify the light of others.

Even in my desire to expand the light, I know the darkness must be.

And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness." Genesis 1: 3-4

God did not eliminate darkness.  God added light.  If God didn't remove darkness, I won't either.  I will strive to add light.  I will revel in the glory of light and darkness coexisting, living in tension, with ebbs and flows of dominance, creating beauty that could not be, if the world were all light or all darkness.

Maybe that very contrast is why I go where I go.  While others may think of Iraqi Kurdistan as all darkness, I see the light shining through.  The light of the families who open their home to strangers. The light of children playing and laughing, even through their sorrow and confusion over the bombing of their villages.  The light of peacekeepers who place flowers in the gun barrels of security forces surrounding demonstrators. The light of the mullah who calls for a "jihad of peace," even when his words put him in danger.

Maybe that very contrast is why we love sunrises and sunsets.  Light and darkness playing together, creating a beauty impossible if each did not exist.

sunset in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan