Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August, 2011: Tastes of Sunshine

Over 200 people attended this years` Hiroshima Day commemorative event In Portland Oregon, which featured Kathy Kelly as a featured speaker (seated in the foreground of this photo), Dan Handelman (local activist on camera upper right), and flags flying from the U.S. Veterans for Peace (that drew over 300 people to their conference the week before). This was one of many opportunities this summer to enjoy a taste of sunshine, both physically in warm temperatures and emotionally in the inspiration we give to one another.

The sunshine Kathy brings to her audiences does inspire both reflection and action. With a humility that is transparent, she speaks of experiences she has had over the years that include working in a meat packing plant as a youth and growing up with a catholic mother who immigrated in poverty from Ireland, working as a religion instructor in a parochial school and inspired by friends in Chicago to engage in a protest against nuclear weapons that gave her one year imprisonment in a maximum security prison, and then working as a peace activist breaking U.S. sanctions policies while traveling illegally to Iraq (throughout the 1990s) and to Palestine, Afganistan, and Pakistan many times since the World Trade Center bombing of 2001. Inspired by others, including Mohandas Gandhi and Dorothy Day, Kathy wages her own war on terror in tandem with others associated with Voices for Creative Nonviolence and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. With over 60 arrests now in her record and a long history military tax resistance, it is clear she cares far more about living in conscience than winning prizes. She inspires by practicing radical nonviolence, not primarily talking about it.

Kathy shared a Chicago apartment with Kristine, my wife, during our courtship nearly 30 years ago. Not at all famous then, she was still full of sunshine with a sense of humor than warms the heart. As she stayed in our home during part of her recent visit to Portland, we enjoyed a potluck event where laughter came easily. No one could match her story about how, a few years ago, she was arrested while getting off an airplane in New York City: ``There I was, about 100 lbs light after fasting for something or another, and I see this gang of police coming at me with their dogs! Me, little old me! It seems that I had 5 outstanding warrants for my arrest in New York State. It had been a busy year… Anyway, there I was, shaking a little in front of all the passengers from my plane who were watching the spectacle of another arrest. And it happened. I had lost too much weight in the fast. My skirt simply fell to my feet. So there I was, hands locked behind my back and unable to pull up my skirt!`` At that point I had to interject: ``So Kathy, was that your arrest for indecent exposure?`` That comment may have at least doubled the already side-splitting laughter.

Sunshine. We can bring sunshine into each other`s lives. We all taste it from time to time, and it is very sweet!

Dan Handelman (in the featured photograph filing the Hiroshima event) is another person who inspires more people than he likely realizes. Taking care to usually be out of the limelight himself, he shines behind the scenes, organizing planning meetings, getting demonstration permits, distributing information a tables, taking time to supervise volunteers… Coming from a Jewish cultural background, he is among the most vocal at insuring Muslim speakers at anti-war events. Reflecting outrage at each new death caused by lethal police use of force, he leads a group called Portland Copwatch which has earned the respect of local politicians who would (no doubt) prefer to ignore it but cannot. With a wry smile Dan also is full of stories that include traveling to Iraq with Kathy Kelly to distribute toys and medical supplies – and having his film taken by the U.S. Government (only to be returned to him later under court order).

It was primarily Dan and I who set up a speaking engagement for Kathy at Portland Community College (where we were able to secure a nice auditorium and parking free of charge). Those attending included several students enrolled in my summer classes, and a few other faculty and staff that were challenged to reflect not only about what Kathy shared, but also by the presence of a large number of other war tax resisters and other local activists. Many tastes of sunshine for all, and over $800 raised by voluntary contributions for Kathy`s work as well as (half) for funding a group planning more public demonstrations for Portland in September and October. So it is, when summertime ends, the sunshine will continue!

Course grades for my two summer classes were due yesterday, and the deadline was met. Today I will complete my Fall Term syllabi. Tomorrow the day is set aside for me to pick my year`s worth of blueberries (about 100 lbs.), and a former student at PCC (Tom Worth) will move into the house to stay for a week or two). The day after that, our friend Stany and Shanty arrive from India to begin their adventures in the U.S.! Our household has been preparing for their visit for weeks and all are excited. Although my back has been in pain for the last two nights (due to me being too cheap to hire someone else to shampoo our rugs), even that pain reminds me of how much I look forward to seeing these two wonderful people who showed us so much kindness while we were in India last year.

Even as my Fulbright experience may have helped a few people during our travels, it is clear to me that I have learned much more than I have taught – and it is always amazing me at how much more I have to learn! It may be that Stany will feel something similar during his time as a Fulbright Scholar from India to the U.S.. One of only 25 so honored this year, he is the only one assigned to teach at a community college. For that college to be Portland Community College (PCC) has many folks excited as this year we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of an institution that has grown to serve over 80,000 students each year. Stany will be a big celebrity here – able to give a lot of people a taste of the sunshine that radiates from his gregarious personality!

Beginning in the first week of September, Stany and I will collaborate in providing weekly updates to our experiences together during the four months of his stay in the U.S.. He (and I through him) may gain more insights worthy of sharing. Not knowing what even that near future will hold, we both hope light may at least be shed by sharing. May those who read of these experiences also be warmed by a few tastes of sunshine!

P.S. The day after posting the entry above, our family received some startling sad news. This regards Peter, a friend of my son Shaman who had stayed in our home for over a week in July and had planned to return to be with us in September as he intended to relocate to Portland. Peter has left this life at the early age of 25. The cause of death is not yet clear. Our hearts go out to his parents in Los Angeles as well as to all those who feel the loss of his presence. May the light that shone in him continue to inspire us to live as well as we may with what time we have left. Soon enough each of us will join him. Peace be with you Peter. May the God that is both Truth and Love continue to both enlighten you and embrace your spirit.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

July, 2011: Greenhouse Growing

This greenhouse is haven to life on the south side of our family home in Portland. Fed by compost of the previous year and watered by rain runoff from the roof of both house and garage, six varieties of tomato plants grow eight feet to the ceiling to provide a six month harvest. The spinach is done, with peppers soon to come and a variety of herbs in constant supply. Oregon weather has been unseasonably cool, including no days yet beyond 90 degrees F. (32 C.). Inside this area temperatures could rise beyond 122 (50 C.) without the widows open! All that grows there would perish. With the windows open in summer, life flourishes.

As Fall and winter comes, windows are closed and the sunshine adds 20 degrees Farenheit to whatever the outside temperature may be. Frost never arrives. When the furnace must heat our home, exhaust is sent into the greenhouse to help warm it and the growing season is extended through December. After washing our dirty clothing, the vent from the dryer also finds its way here, providing moisture enough to nurture a natural process where new plants sprout by Spring to reveal the death of the old crop to be merely an illusion. Life finds a way to blossom again, windows are opened, and the bees return to pollinate. A new harvest begins.

Of course it required labor to build this structure and effort to maintain it. Completed almost entirely with recycled materials (the windows were once part of a college gymnasium), some creative thinking was needed to implement a plan that would reflect harmony with the home and work well in the outside environment. Through trial and error, we build, sometimes learn from our errors, and make use of what resources are available. At the end of the day, we sleep fairly well if we can say that we simply did our best. Not perfect. But as good an environment for life to grow as may be possible under circumstances quite beyond our control.

The most sobering event of this month for our family was the passing of the only son of my step sister Carrie. My nephew Brian Hutton died in his sleep of a heart condition just prior to his 28th birthday. The funeral came the day before my own birthday when I turned 62. The funeral and burial brought family and friends together in what was Brian`s last gift to us: a celebration of his short life that might inspire each of us to live more fully before we also are harvested. The windows of our hearts were opened by grief and yet life began to blossom again. I had not known before that Brian was homosexual, and yet was here pleased to grieve with his first and only partner. His friends revealed the abundance of his life, including a phrase he would exclaim in good humor whenever faced with an ironically odd or apparently sad situation: ``Happy Birthday!`` Brian has now transitioned to another realm of life that is in the future for us all. He will be remembered fondly and yet will always be missed. ``Happy Birthday`` Brian!

Kristine and I continue to follow news from the Middle East. People throughout Syria, Palestine, the Gulf, and North Africa continue their efforts to open windows and build environments to benefit their lives. Our friend Kathy Kelly was among some 600 activists associated with 10 boats who sought to sail from Greece to Gaza in opposition to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Detained by Greek authorities, under pressure from Israel and the U.S., the ``Freedom Flotilla`` to Gaza gained many days of international publicity which revealed the inhumane conditions under which 1.5 million people live under military siege. Mazin Qumsiyeh, who had provided us a tour of areas near Bethlehem being demolished by Israeli bulldozers last year at this time, was arrested by the Israeli military last week (and later released) for taking photos while witnessing the destruction of an olive orchard (including some trees over 2,000 years old). Hopefully such sacrifices will be appreciated, over time, as the struggle for justice goes on.

To, learn from our errors and those of others more people need to share their stories. An emotional evening of storytelling attended by 40 people in Portland last week included eight who had spent time in Palestine during recent years. For my story/contribution I described an event I neglected to write about last July: On a very hot day, Kris and I had enjoyed a fine lunch at the Wi`am Center for Conflict Resolution in Bethlehem where a bag full of left-over falafels and pit bread was given to us – and had just finished being herded through the security maze at the Israeli Military Checkpoint into Jerusalem. Finished with our ordeal, we witnessed a Muslim family on the Jerusalem side being denied re-entry into Bethlehem where they lived. Papers for the husband and wife and daughter were in order, but the Israeli soldier in charge was not satisfied with the permit for their baby. The wife and young daughter were near tears and the husband was close to shouting at the soldier ``But we only want to go home! We were allowed into to Jerusalem to see our children`s grandparents, but now you will not let us return home?!`` Definitely shouting in response, the heavily armed soldier replied ``Shall I call security? I am the one in charge here! Do you want to be arrested?!``

I wondered what would Gandhi do in a situation like this and then walked back to the soldier whose face was flushed with anger. ``Excuse me``, I said, ``but would you like my falafels?`` Making a joke about my somewhat oversized midsection, I patted my stomach and observed how wonderful these falafels were and how I really did not need them. The soldier at first was surprised, then looked confused, and then smiled while quietly saying ``No, thank you.`` I then turned to the mother and daughter who were sitting on the cement floor and asked them if they were hungry. The mother shook her head, but the daughter nodded vigorously a ``Yes``. Both the husband and wife (and, I think, the soldier) chuckled at this and I gave her my bag of falafel. Satisfied that I had, at least, disrupted the escalating conflict, I walked to where Kris was waiting and then turned for a last look as we walked away. It appeared like the soldier might allow the family to pass….

From my point of view, I am not much of a peace activist. There was little risk to me at that military checkpoint. The greater risk is that, little by little, we lose our humanity my not getting involved at all. This month and accurate accounting of my overt peace activism would include attending three meetings in four weeks (one to help prepare a fundraising mailing, another to provide input into planning a few future events, and the third to listen to others experiences while telling my 5 minute falafel; story. Together with a few emails, his totals maybe 10 hours of activity in 31 days = about 20 minutes per day on average = less time than I spend reading a newspaper each morning! Put that way, I really am not much of a role model revolutionary!

By way I defending me from the attacks waged by my over critical self, much of this month has been either devoted to my half-time summer teaching responsibilities or performing tasks around the house (as we enjoy other guests and prepare for our friends Stany and Shanty to arrive later in August from India). I also am doing my best to feel unapologetic about simply taking time for relaxing bicycle rides, watching an occasional movie (like the last of Harry Potter) or sports (Women`s World Cup Soccer), as well as making sure the greenhouse is minimally cared for. Ah yes, remember the greenhouse?

For my more frantic colleagues who share my desire to build a better world, let us remind ourselves of the words of St. Francis of Assisi when he was asked what he would do if he knew the world would end tomorrow(maybe the entire world, or maybe just our personal time to leave this body behind and leave this reality). He said ``I would cultivate my garden.``

In writing this months` entry, I am cultivating a few thoughts for consideration. Let us take care of our greenhouse, whatever that metaphor may mean to you. Let us take at least some time to tell others how much we care about them, and to act in small ways to show we mean it. Yes, and let us enjoy this life while it is granted to us, for tomorrow is really not much in our hands.