Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, July 17, 2009

New Blog Home

After months of people telling me I should just ditch iWeb, I finally accepted what I could not change—the limitations of iWeb—and plucked up the courage to change what I could change—my website program. While I was making radical changes, I decided to finally put my blog and my site in the same spot. Please visit and sign up for my new RSS feed. Over there you’ll find a few thoughts on the whole racist swim club controversy. While you’re at it, feel free to poke around the site, offer feedback, or write up something for the new Your Story feature, if you feel moved.

Thanks for sticking with me!


Friday, July 10, 2009

Carbon Counting

Before last week’s FGC Gathering, one of the scheduled plenary speakers, Shane Claiborne, challenged the planners to offset the carbon that would be released into the atmosphere as a result of his travel to the event. As many of you know, some people purchase carbon offsets to support initiatives aimed at reducing global warming and to reduce their guilt at contributing to it. So, for example, if you go on a cruise, you can visit Cool Pass to assess the damage and buy what some people call an “indulgence.” Shane’s travel wasn’t offset that way, however. Instead participants in the Gathering were asked to look at their own lifestyles and see if there were ways they could pledge to reduce their carbon footprint in the coming year. Members of Quaker Earthcare Witness hung out in front of the dining hall at lunch and dinner hearing people’s pledges and calculating how much impact they would make, and then putting up yellow sticky notes to show how much we were covering. By the end of the week, the offsets covered all the speakers and Gathering staff, and I believe we made a small dent in the carbon released as a result of 1,300 Quakers from all over traveling to Blacksburg, Virginia. I wish I had taken a picture of all the sticky notes pressed together, demonstrating an impact none of us would have felt acting alone.

I debated through the week what I should pledge. The first time I approached the carbon reduction table, Hollister Knowlton said, “It will be harder for you because you already do a lot,” an assessment I believe was overly kind. It’s true that we own a Prius, live in a small house that’s well insulated, shop at a food co-op, and don’t make our children shower as often as other parents. “You don’t fly that much, which is huge,” pointed out Hollister, though I can’t help wondering if that is because of our virtue or our finances. I suspect that if we could afford it, we might be buying indulgences for fancy vacations, too. I never got around to calculating my carbon footprint this trip, but last time I did it was better than the average American and quite a bit worse than the rest of the world. (See Carbon Footprint by Country.) 

The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t think of ways to reduce my carbon footprint. The problem was thinking of promises I knew I could keep. I thought of giving up chocolate. I already try to buy Fair Trade, but my previous attempts to give up chocolate completely have been deliciously unsuccessful, despite the heartburn it sometimes given me. I thought of giving up all processed or fast food, which would also be good for our health, but the problem is that we usually buy those foods when we are on the road and have hungry kids. I want to make an effort to plan ahead better with healthy snacks for such occasions, but could I really promise that when we drove from Philadelphia to Wisconsin at Thanksgiving that we wouldn’t still stop at Burger King? Likewise, could I promise that I wouldn’t drive over the speed limit on such trips? No, I couldn’t.

The Prius has made me more conscious of my lead foot—I can see that my husband gets better mileage than I do—so I thought about ways I could work on that, without promising more than I could deliver. I suspect that part of the reason my husband gets better mileage is that he doesn’t gun it out of the red lights like I do. (But I’m the one who drives the kids to camp, doctor appointments, and the orthodontist, the defensive part of me protests, and it’s not my fault we’re always running late!) So I’ve been trying to drive more slowly in the city, especially being aware of the quick acceleration habit. It’s been going well, though we have been slightly late to camp most days this week. The other pledge was to turn our hot water heater down below 120. I figured that one would be easy—but I remember it every time I take a shower, though I haven’t managed to remember when I’m in the basement yet. (Not in the house right now, or I’d go do it right now so I could post with a clear conscious.) 

It makes me wonder how the honor system is going for everyone else. Somehow I think going public with my story may help me feel accountable, as I felt a weight of accountability watching Hollister put my sticky note up on the board. We need community see our collective impact. We also need community to support one another in making changes because it doesn't look like the G8 is going to solve this problem for us any time soon.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Bonnie Tinker, Still Opening Hearts

Bonnie Tinker is still teaching that Love Makes a Family, the name of the organization she founded. The mortician who cared for her body in Virginia was moved—both by her condition after being crushed by a trash truck and by the love in the room as he met with her family and a few friends around the death certificate. He collected the usual information—birthday, name of parents, etc.—and then came to the simple, loaded question: “Marital status?” There was a pause among her loved ones. Someone mentioned that she’d had a wedding. Then everyone said firmly, “Married”—which she had been for thirty-two years. The mortician nodded and checked the box. “Spouse’s name,” he asked, using the gender-neutral noun, a gesture appreciated by those present. “Sara Graham,” they answered, and he wrote the name with a nod. It was a simple thing, just writing the truth, but the state of Virginia doesn’t recognize Bonnie and Sara’s marriage, so the mortician’s act was subversive, possibly illegal, and as one observer said, “healing.”

This morning as Friends said goodbye on the last day of the FGC Gathering, they passed this story around the cafeteria, eyes brimming up as they speculated on whether the mortician had ever recognized a same-sex marriage before and whether the truth would really make it onto the printed, official death certificate. They remarked that it seemed significant that Bonnie’s ministry of opening hearts to such families was continuing. “Social change from the grave,” said one Friend.

I suppose it’s the best any of us can hope for, that our ministry continues in some way after we’re gone. Bonnie Tinker sought to open hearts with and to love. The fact that she continues to do so in death seems particularly poignant.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Remembering Bonnie Tinker

I’ve spent the week at Friends General Conference Gathering, leading a workshop on The Wisdom to Know the Difference and connecting with friends from around the country, some of whom I only see at this annual gathering. One such friend, Bonnie Tinker, was killed yesterday at the conference when her bike was run over by a dump truck. The news was delivered to the assembled community in the most sensitive way possible last night, though it forestalled what would have been the question and answer period for Hollister Knowlton’s plenary on changing our lifestyles in order to save the planet. As one of the people who had been sitting on the stage to support Hollister, I found myself after the announcement in a circle of people who were both supporting Hollister and remembering Bonnie, backing up our chairs every few minutes to allow someone else into the circle. Friends described Bonnie’s tireless work for the program Love Makes a Family, which educated people about and advocated for families with gay and lesbian parents. Since that work often brought her into confrontation with people who didn’t share her perspective on the issue, Bonnie’s other passion was teaching people how to communicate across differences in a loving and compassionate way, while still being true to their convictions. Her workshop on this topic will be meeting without her this morning, though it was clear from the workshop participant who joined our circle last night that her teaching has already had a profound impact.

What struck me as we sat around the circle were the connections between Bonnie’s ministry and Hollister’s. Although Hollister has been traveling around the country challenging people to reduce their carbon footprint—telling us, like the prophets of old, that we must change our ways or risk destruction—she somehow manages to deliver this message with love and compassion for those of us who are still driving our cars more than we need, eating more processed food than is good for us or the planet, and burying the knowledge that we could do better but just don’t want to. This work of speaking passionately about issues out of love was a big part of what Bonnie’s life was about, I believe. Perhaps using the skills she taught people, on whatever issues move us, is one way we can honor Bonnie.

The other connection that struck me last night was the clarity about what’s important. When people were remembering Bonnie, no one said, “What a beautiful house she had,” or “What fine clothes.” They remembered her spirit, her dedication, her passion—things that don’t add to one’s carbon footprint. As I try to figure out how to wrap up a workshop on the Serenity Prayer, I’m left with the thought that in addition to grief, the loss of a friend can give us clarity about our priorities and our purpose.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Abundance and Scarcity

Once a year, my friend Melissa Haertsch gets me to write a poem for a poetry/visual art collaboration she organizes. This year's theme is water, and here is this year's result:

Abundance and Scarcity

Lake Seneca is full,
like the septic tank,
so we wash with dribbles
and flush sparingly

while neighbors spray
the suburban carpet
that has replaced wetlands
outside Milwaukee.

Hindus worship the sacred
Ganges polluted by Coke,
as villagers protest
their thirst.

The view from space
reveals undivided blue,
expansive but salty—
the cause of future wars.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


I was gearing up to write a post about how I haven’t figured out the purpose of Twitter, except we were scrambling to go to the Finger Lakes, where I don’t have regular Internet access. I was going to question the usefulness of hearing when someone I don’t know has gotten up or brushed her teeth. I was going to muse about whether I should be one of those authors who offers preachy advice or simply quotes others’ advice (which somehow feels less preachy). I was going to, but in the days I’ve been without Internet Twitter has become part of the Iranian uprising, and I don’t know what to do other than keep pressing the “refresh” button on the Iran discussion. In the few minutes it’s taken me to type these three and a half sentences, there have been 1028 new posts to the Iran conversation on Twitter. Twitter itself has become a subject for CNN coverage.  The pictures of soldiers confronting protesters reminds me of South Africa, but this dynamic of people in Tennessee and Iceland commenting and sending words of support instantaneously, and people in Iran sending news updates and commentary, it’s just amazing. I’m not sure where it is all going, and I’m still not sure what kind of tweets I want to offer, but it’s not nearly as boring as I feared a week ago.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Rural Ruminations

In Philadelphia, I count as a nature lover. I identify poison ivy for my friends and compost every banana peel. I’ve planted a garden in our postage-stamp-sized lot and occasionally walk in the Wissahickon. But for the past two days we’ve been visiting a friend in Northeastern, Pennsylvania who is making me feel like a total city chick. In addition to two children and a writing business, my friend has 20 something laying hens, a few roosters, a swarm of chicks, three sheep, two dogs, two cats, and a turkey that she purchased to share some kind of immunity with the chickens. (How that happens, I have no idea.) The property around her house includes woods, field, an old orchard, fox, bear, and all kinds of critters, not to mention a great diversity of birds. During our visit, she has casually used more than one farming term that I’ve needed explained. As I sat on a beautiful sheep fleece this morning, she mentioned that she tanned it herself (despite being a vegetarian who doesn’t eat any of her animals and keeps the sheep for fun). “Well, I wasn’t going to throw this beautiful fleece away,” she explained. “And I certainly wasn’t going to FedEx it in an icepack to some Amish guy in Lancaster County to tan it”—which is precisely what I would do if I were ever in possession of a dead sheep and clever enough to think of that.

It’s not just the beauty of this place that’s got me thinking. It’s the intimacy with a particular natural place. This morning we had fresh laid eggs and pancakes with maple syrup made by a man who joined us for breakfast. As we finished one container of maple syrup and began a new one that tasted like the hot toddy I had last night, conversation turned to how the syrup tastes different depending on the particular trees tapped and the weather that season. It reminded me of an NPR story I once heard about how farmers in Ireland know which grazing hills produce the best butter. In Philadelphia, our butter and syrup always taste the same, and I suspect we are poorer for it.

I really have no desire to tan a sheep or tap maple trees, but if I was in danger of romanticizing the rural life, the recent news of extremist violence keeps popping to mind, reminding me that there are hate groups in this area. A good friend, walking with his wife in another part of rural Pennsylvania, recently had the word “nigger” screamed at him, twice, by a young woman in a pickup truck. I remember that story and my friend—who speaks at least five languages and understands culture and world events as well as anyone I know—and I remember why I live in the city. Although I occasionally fantasize about moving back to this area, or one like it, I would miss too much the richness of a diverse culture. I would miss the friends who might not feel safe or welcome around here. I would miss knowing that my kids are growing up with friends of many religions and hues and different types of family structures. Still, when we get home, I’m going to miss the fresh eggs and the view from the porch, not to mention the good people we love who do live here.

My fantasy is to bring these worlds together—to keep our city neighbors, but have a view with less concrete and more green. Maybe there’s a place to live where we could have both, but I haven’t found it yet.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Friendly Request

I’ve been working on my website lately, trying to give it more content, and I realized I could use some input. For example, I am going to post a page of frequently asked questions about Quakerism, and while I know what some of them are, it would be fun to hear your FAQs (whether you are a Quaker or not). I also have a page of Resources for working against racism which I haven’t developed yet. I’d love to hear the books, movies, and websites most helpful to people doing racial healing work. Finally, I’m trying to figure out how to make my Serenity Prayer page show up in a Google search for the prayer, so I’d especially welcome feedback on the Serenity Prayer page or links to it (should it ever seem appropriate on your own blogs or sites).

Coming from a branch of Quakerism not known for its evangelism, the thought of intentionally trying to reach people is a bit…awkward, but I feel it is something I’m called to do. I’m still trying to figure out the way of doing it that feels in keeping with my values. Offering information that people might find useful seems like something that feels rightly ordered and is also valued by the search engines.

(P.S. Please post suggestions on the blog, unless you have a reason not to be public in them.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cleaning for Company

Not long ago we were expecting company, and my husband cleaned the bathroom. Just before the guests arrived I spotted the mop still standing in the bathtub and thought with some irritation, “The reason we clean before company comes is so they’ll think we have a clean house all the time. If you leave the mop out, it’s a big tip off that we only cleaned just now for them.” My next thought was that I’m a much shallower person than I let on.

I’m remembering this today because we have company coming for the second weekend in a row, which means that on this Friday afternoon I have a choice: Blog, for the first time in a week, or make the house just a little cleaner. Obviously I’ve chosen to write, but not without a little anxiety. I find myself wondering what degree of cleaning for company is really motivated out of a desire to create a comfortable atmosphere for our guests vs. the ego’s desire to be seen as having the perfect home. I know it’s a mixture, but the thought about the exposed mop revealed that my motivation is perhaps driven more by ego than true hospitality.

Then there is the internalized sexism that makes me feel that any dust on the piano will reflect poorly on me, a concern my husband clearly doesn’t share. He does share in the housework (and cleaned the bathroom again last night), but he doesn’t share in the psychic burden of seeing what’s undone. I’m sure he doesn’t even realize there is dust on the piano, and even if he did, he wouldn’t think of taking off from work to dust, though I did take some work time today to vacuum and took several hours last week to prepare before my in-laws arrived. Part of it is that I’m the person with the flexible work schedule and the one who chose to be home when the kids get home from school. Part of it is that Saturday is our usual cleaning day, but when we have company we’re likely to be off doing other things, so it’s a matter of doing the routine cleaning early, as much as doing something extra. And part of it really is about being considerate. We don’t have a guest room, so our guest (a Catholic priest) will be staying in our master bedroom while Tom and I try out our new sofabed. Making sure there aren’t bras and tampons lying all over the place lands in the category of basic courtesy.

The struggle for me is knowing where basic courtesy ends and obsessive, perfectionist internalized sexism begins. I think I’m getting better at realizing that I can’t do everything, and if I spend my life worrying what other people will think of me, I won’t have time to do the things I truly feel called to do. And I am clear about being called to write.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Yesterday, for the first time, I attended graduation at University of the Arts, where I have taught part-time for the past nine years. I got big hugs from the students I threatened to fail not that long ago, when their papers were perilously late. I watched a few receive diplomas for whom I know it was a particularly difficult journey, like one who had to leave as a freshman six years ago because of money and another whose mother died during finals a few weeks ago. I was sitting next to a good friend, which made it less embarrassing during the many moments I got teary.

University President Sean Buffington gave a speech on the importance of “nerve” for artists and human beings generally that spoke to my condition as a writer. The main commencement address was delivered by Tony award-winning playwright James Lapine, who wrote a play for the occasion, a two-act conversation between Senator Diane Feinstein and her imaginary son on his decision to attend University of the Arts, rather than Princeton or Stanford. It was funny, politically astute, and I suspect more memorable than the address by Katherine Graham at my own commencement.

On the whole, I left the graduation with a spring in my step, not so much as the graduate pictured on the middle of Broad Street, but still feeling inspired to greater nerve and creativity.

(Apologies to the photographer, whom I can’t credit because they weren’t credited on the UArts site.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Election Day in Philadelphia

I have to confess that I haven't followed today's elections very carefully, so for those readers registered to vote in Philadelphia, I am going to post the following e-mail from friend, well-informed citizen, and member of my meeting, Thomas Taylor:

The polling places are open but empty! Please make sure you get out and vote today: races like District Attorney and Controller will have MAJOR impact on the way our city is run and for whose benefit. Low turnout primaries benefit the tired old Democratic party machine; we can do better than that.

If you have time, you might be interested in reviewing this chart which aggregates the endorsements of verious progressive organizations, newspapers and the Bar Associations:

Also, here are some quick-hit personal recommendations:

District Attorney: Seth Williams. He is a transformational leader, who would greatly change the way the DA system works, including putting prosecutors out into the neighborhoods, and turning away from jail sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

City Controller: Brett Mandel. I don't agree with his outlook on taxation policy, but this is not a policy setting position. As a watchdog over the financial dealings of the many branches of city government, I believe he will do an excellent job.

Superior Court: Anne Lazarus and John Younge.

Common Pleas Judge: Angeles Roca, Dan Anders, Joyce Eubanks, Diane Thompson and Sharon Williams-Losier.

Municipal Court: Dawn Segal, Charles Hayden and Christine Adair.

Please feel free, indeed encouraged, to pass this along.

Thomas Taylor

Thanks, Thomas!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Identity Theft

Marshall Massey (author of the Earth Witness blog) posted on Facebook this morning a reference to Matthew 18: 23-35, a passage about forgiveness in the face of being owed money. Interesting timing since I am trying to sort out my feelings about an unsettling experience yesterday.

I had an appointment with my podiatrist, whose office building gives a discount for the valet parking lot next door. I gave my key to the valet, entered the building, stopped at the bathroom (relevant because it means I was in the building for longer than a minute), and then sat down to wait to be called. I decided to get my health insurance card out while I waited and discovered that my wallet was not in my backpack. Thinking I must have left it in the car, I went back to the parking attendant at the little booth, but they couldn’t find my key, which was my first indication that something was amiss. Another valet helped me look for my car, in which I found the first valet sitting in the driver’s seat with my wallet open on his lap, a credit card in his hand, as well as a piece of paper on which he had written my name, credit card number, expiration date, and security code. When I opened the door and confronted him, he claimed he had found the wallet on the floor and was just going to turn it in. He handed me the wallet and upon my insistence, the paper with my credit information on it (a dry cleaning receipt that had been in the door pocket). I took my wallet and paper and went back into the office, where I discovered that $20 was missing. I came back out and confronted the valet again, to more denials. He tried to make it sound like I was just a suspicious person who was falsely accusing him. Not getting any satisfaction, I went back to the doctor’s office because I didn’t want to miss an appointment that usually takes months to get. I had another appointment after that on the other side of town, which is why I had driven in the first place, so I kept on my original schedule. It didn’t really occur to me to call the police, though almost everyone I’ve spoken to since has said I should have. I should have asked to talk to a manager, too, but that didn’t really occur to me either, especially after a different valet came inside to speak to me. He asked me what had happened and shook his head sympathetically when he saw the paper with my credit card information written on it. He offered me two phone numbers, his and their manager’s, though he also asked to copy the paper with my credit information on it, something I found odd. When I got home I called the police and two officers came by the house to take a report, so at least there is a record of this incident if I have any credit problems in the future. I also notified both my credit card companies and am trying to figure out whom at the Podiatry hospital I should notify.

Although I’ve done the practical things I can to protect my credit, I still feel unsettled this morning. I find myself being mistrustful, double checking that I’ve locked the car door, wondering if the guy who gave me the phone numbers and asked to copy the paper was really trying to be helpful or was somehow “in on it,” and giving me the phone number of someone who wouldn’t really do anything, so I would drop it. I find myself wondering if I should have called the police right away, not so I would get my $20 back, but so this guy wouldn’t do the same thing to someone else–which is where I find myself getting confused about the concept of forgiveness. In the Matthew 18 story, both the men who owed money begged for forgiveness, and the message is clear: we should forgive. But owing money is different than theft, and this guy never asked for forgiveness. What if someone denies wrongdoing and might do the wrong again if unstopped? What is the loving response to a person who denies doing something we witnessed firsthand? I think forgiving in my heart is still appropriate, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get the guy fired, too. I can’t help recalling that some money went missing from my car two years ago–just after my last visit to the podiatrist–and I remember pushing out of my mind my suspicion of the valets, not wanting to falsely accuse them. The memory of that incident makes me wonder if there is systematic theft going on here, which only feeds my mistrust of the man who gave me the phone numbers.

I think of myself as a trusting person. I’m finding the (temporary) loss of that self-identity to be much more disturbing than the loss of $20, though the prospect of the other kind of identity theft is unsettling, too.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Breathe, Laugh

Last night I attended the book launch for Friends Council on Education’s new publication, Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning. I went partly as a university teacher, partly as a parent and former school committee member at a Friends school, and partly to support members of my meeting–Irene McHenry, the book’s editor as well as one of the contributors, and Christie Duncan-Tessmer, a contributing author­. Unlike most book launches, the evening was designed to be experiential. Most of the contributors who spoke directed us in the kinds of exercises teachers might use to introduce mindfulness to their students (or calm themselves down when necessary), such as closing one’s eyes and observing one’s thoughts or following one’s breath. For one exercise, each of us received a gold post-it with four pairs of words: in–out, deep–slow, calm–ease, and here–now. We were directed to use these words along with our breath, thinking “deep” on the inhale, for example, and “slow” on the exhale.

The mindfulness refresher came in handy last night, as both of my kids were having trouble falling asleep. I directed them to follow their breath, and that seemed to help. This morning when we jumped in the car (running late, as usual), they saw the post-it stuck to my dashboard and asked what it meant. I explained how mindfulness was about paying attention to what is happening right now, not worrying about what is going to happen, and how paying attention to one’s breath can help us do that.

“Do you have to use those words?” asked my ten-year-old son.

“No, you can use any words that work for you,” I responded.

Then from the backseat I heard him chant, “Dog–chicken, human-cannibal.”

So, now in addition to a practice to calm me down whenever we’re running late, I have something to think of that will always make me laugh, which is one of the best ways of being present I know.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


I once asked a Harry Potter enthusiast in my Quaker meeting what she liked so much about the series. “The magic,” she replied, as she cleaned up the stacks of dishes in the meeting kitchen. I understand. I’ve often wished I could wave a wand like Mrs. Weasley and have the pots scrub themselves. I’ve been thinking about magic’s appeal lately as my son has gotten into card tricks and making coins disappear. Being asked to pick a card at 6:30 on a Saturday morning does not always endear me to the magical arts, but then I see the glint in my son’s eyes when he pulls off a trick, and we can’t figure out how he did it. There’s something about doing the impossible that has always fascinated us humans.

Last night we took the magic enthusiast to a show at Grasso’s Magic Theatre as a belated birthday present. It’s a tiny, quaint theatre down by the Philadelphia waterfront, in what used to be the fresh produce district. Using his experience as a contractor, the owner, Joe Grasso, converted the old bricks into “Philadelphia's first and only full-time performance venue for magic and the variety arts,” with Houdini posters framed on the walls and trick cards for sale in a glass case next to the Junior Mints. Four different magicians performed to an audience of no more than twenty-five, which meant that a third of us got dragged up to the stage as accomplices at some point or another. We saw birds appear out of scarves, coins change color and shape before our eyes, and a ripped up fifty-dollar bill appear restored inside a grapefruit. I looked over every once in a while to see birthday boy’s eyes widen with a smile.

I confess I winced as one guy ate fire and then appeared to cut off a fifteen-year-old audience member’s hand, even though I knew the trick must be safe. There was that speck of belief that the illusion might be real, which is probably the key to the whole enterprise. We want to believe that it’s possible to pull money out of a grapefruit or play quidditch on a broomstick. We want to believe there are magic trains that go to magic places, which may be why, according to the Wikipedia entry for King’s Cross Station in London, “The Platform 9¾ sign occasionally causes congestion as tourists and Harry Potter fans stop to photograph it or try to push the rest of the luggage trolley through the wall.”

Today I’m wondering how this fascination relates to faith and the way we live in the real world. I scoffed at the Harry Potter critics who claimed the book was unchristian. The whole lesson (it seemed to me) was that love conquers hate and that giving up your life for your friends is more powerful than violence. In fact, I could argue that the Harry Potter series was more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus than the Narnia series (which also included magic), but that would be a long digression. More to the point, for me, is to wonder why so many of us secretly long for unusual powers and what we would do with them if we had them. It’s easy to understand why a ten-year-old boy would enjoy tricking his parents or why a busy mother would want the dishes to wash themselves, but I think there is something deeper. In short, I wonder if we human beings are so far from fulfilling our potential that on some level we sense we are meant for something more. Perhaps this is why The Secret has stayed near the top of the bestseller list for over a hundred weeks. Do we want to believe we are Gods or do we simply want to be as powerful as we could be if we tapped into our best selves? I'm not sure, but last night as we left the little theatre and walked out onto streets littered with broken glass, it occurred to me that there is magic walking on a spring night with my family, and I shouldn't let that escape my eye.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Best Mom Ever"

Some of you got a kick out of my ice cream cake update on Facebook, so here’s the full confession (Last year's cake pictured):

My son only wanted two things for his birthday: a DSi and an ice cream cake shaped like an M&M. We decided we didn’t want to buy the DSi ($169 electronic devise, though he is allowed to save up for it himself). He was a good sport. Still, that made the ice cream cake seem pretty important, so I was feeling like a mighty lousy mother when I left that till the last minute and then couldn’t find the kind of M&M shaped cake we got last year. I rushed home from the supermarket empty-handed to meet the school bus, brought both the kids to my daughter’s orthodontist appointment, and then to a different supermarket in the hope that they would have the M&M cake. They didn’t. Birthday boy was still being a good sport, so when he picked an ice cream cake a little bigger than we needed for a family of four, I relented, even though I secretly harbored doubts about whether there was room in the freezer since we never ate all the ice cream guests brought for Easter.

Indeed, there wasn’t enough room in the freezer, so after dinner the cake got shoved into the fridge, on top of the box of left-over pizza. I had intended to dig out some freezer space once everyone got settled with their homework, an intention I remembered the next morning when I opened the fridge and found a huge puddle of melted ice cream weighing down the pizza box, “Happy Birthday” still legible. There was a moment when I thought the birthday boy might melt, too, but his sister helped save the day. When I told them that this was a special morning because I was going to let them eat ice cream for breakfast, my daughter grabbed a spoon and started scooping the mess into her mouth with great enthusiasm and smiles. Soon birthday boy realized this was funny, and our family huddled with spoons around the soggy pizza box.

There’s a special pleasure that comes from making lemonade out of lemons, and not just because of the sugar, though I’m sure that helped cheer up my kids. Later that day, I told the story to a friend who declared, “You’re the best mom ever!” Hardly. But every once in awhile I get a glimpse of our family giggling around the pizza box, and I think we’re all doing OK—four people trying to love each other and make the best of life’s little puddles.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Today's paper has this piece which fits nicely with yesterday's post.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Our Tomorrow

In honor of tax day, I want to be a contrarian. I want to speak in defense of taxes. No, I’m not thrilled that our money helped bail out AIG, but so far today I’ve seen three public complaints against taxes—one from people on the left and two from people on the right—using April 15 to raise questions about government spending they don’t like. Fair enough. There’s plenty I don’t like, too. But I think in the past decade or so conservatives have succeeded in making “taxes” a dirty word, as if the whole idea of people investing in the common good via our government was just a big scam.

A few things recently have reminded me of the importance of investing in the common good. One was the film “When the Levees Broke,” which I recently rewatched. Although the colossal failure of government regarding Katrina (except for the Coast Guard) might make people cynical about government, to me the film was a reminder that there are things we need our government to provide, such as adequate levees, which the Army Corps of Engineers clearly failed to do. There are things people cannot provide for themselves, like well-maintained highways, fair courts, and emergency relief.

This morning Quaker educator Joan Countryman (whom I interviewed for my book The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change-and When to Let Go) had a “This I Believe” essay on NPR. Best known for her work as Interim Director of Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls, Joan talked about the importance of education and shared how when she was interviewing prospective students for Oprah’s school one South African girl described an education as “my tomorrow.” Education could just as accurately be described as “our tomorrow,” and it’s not one of the things we can count on families to provide for their own children. Although I am well educated myself, I am completely unqualified to teach my daughter science, her favorite subject. To give her the potential to cure a disease someday, I need a trained science teacher to open that door for her. In fact, we all need good teachers, at some time or another—not only the people who taught me and those who teach my children, but those who maybe now are teaching the people who might take care of me someday should I land in a hospital. Most people get their teachers in public school, so investing in public schools seems to me to be a clear case of investing in the public good.

Could our money be invested more wisely? Sure. But when doing my taxes this year, I was glad to see that most of our money was going to the city and the state, where human needs are most likely to be met. I don't mind paying those taxes. It's an investment in our tomorrow.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


My son will be ten in a few days. As if to drive the point home, he has been listening to Metallica and wearing black nail polish. His sister meanwhile has been teaching me to play poker, which only goes to reinforce the fact that we are in a new phase of family life. I thought about that last weekend as I dug up the flagstones in our tiny back yard and found traces of sand from a long discarded sandbox.

Our yard has had several transformations in the ten and a half years we have lived here. When we first moved in, it was very shady, over-run with ivy of all sorts, and contained a few small animal carcasses, confirming my suspicion that no one had gardened there for years, though the random tulip that popped up in the spring bore witness to the fact that someone once had. Pregnant with my son, I ripped up the weeds and molded the first few feet of land I’ve ever owned into a tidy little shade garden, full of hosta, fern, and bleeding hearts. The shade grass I planted never took, and the turtle sandbox we put in the corner didn’t get used as much as we expected, though my son insisted we keep until it was full of mud and bugs. When the sandbox was finally hosed out and given away, I decided to built a patio and used the remaining sand to level the flagstones. It was back breaking work, I remember, which I did myself because we couldn’t afford to hire someone who knew what they were doing. I also collected as many of the flagstones as possible from a distant friend who bought her property with a random pile of stone strewn on the edge. The stones weighed down the Ford, possibly contributing to its premature demise during my son’s last year of nursery school. I was very proud of that patio, even though it wasn’t quite even, and the stones didn’t match.

Our yard is testament to the fact that nothing stays the same. We got new neighbors a few years back who trimmed their overgrown Mulberry enough so the front of the yard was suddenly sunny. (In the trimming process, a branch fell in our yard, and a few of our flagstones got broken.) That corresponded with the closing of our community garden, so we rescued some raspberries and asparagus and planted them where the striped hosta had been. Last summer the same Mulberry fell across our yard on a clear day, landing on what is now a small forest of raspberry shrubs and reminding me how unpredictable life is. Our partly shady garden was now full sun, so in the fall, I gave away most of the remaining shade plants, which are now popping up in other people’s yards. We never ate on the patio as much as I had hoped, and I’m sure we won’t in the sun, so I’m ripping up the stones—with my son’s help—to finally plant some tomatoes and basil. In the course of digging, I’ve come across the sand, the already decomposing roots of the Mulberry, and the small bone of an animal that most likely died before we arrived. My son likes the digging and is proud that he can lift the flagstone. Both he and the garden remind me that life is constantly changing, even if I don’t see the changes as dramatically in myself. I put my shovel to my little piece of land, but it’s an illusion that I control it. My garden, like my son, has a life of its own, and it’s a wonder to watch it unfold.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Daring Books

I have two brand new books to plug. The first is Who's Your Mama?: The Unsung Voices of Women and Mothers As the press release describes, it is a book of “Narratives by a racially and economically diverse group of women, who broaden the traditional notion of motherhood in the United States by discussing their unique experiences and perspectives.” It focuses on topics not usually covered in typical motherhood books, like adoption by a gay couple, raising biracial children, and even the decision to remain childless. It is edited by Yvonne Bynoe, with a foreword by Rebecca Walker (Alice Walker’s daughter) and includes essays by a wide range of women, including my friend Lori Tharps and me. My essay is about how facing my mother’s racism made me look more closely at what my own children were learning about race. I felt compelled to write this essay and was happy that it found a home in this collection, though its publication raises conflicted feelings. I’m hoping it will help other parents think about and discuss how they teach their children about race.

The second book I want to plug is by my friend, Miriam Peskowitz: The Double-Daring Book for Girls Those of you with daughters probably already know about the Daring books. This new version is even more focused on the fun activities kids enjoy, without the nostalgia of the first book. Although I know girls will enjoy having these daring activities explained for them, most of the activities would be just as interesting to boys. For example, I was a “consultant” on the car camping section, which is certainly gender neutral, though another friend gave tips for peeing in the woods that may not be necessary for boys. My daughter loves these books for the ideas they give her. In addition to that, I love to see my friend (who is trained as a feminist religious scholar) raising the standard of popular culture.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Troubles and Hopes

The New York Times brought me to tears this morning, which doesn’t happen very often. I haven’t even been skimming it lately, to tell the truth. Aside from being busy, I haven’t felt the need to read one more article on AIG. But the murder of three police officers in two different incidents at the hands of an IRA faction sent me to the Times and this opinion piece by David Park, which describes how people in Northern Ireland reacted to the possibility of resumed violence:
Across towns and cities people of all traditions assembled to protest in dignified but powerful silence. There was a constant reiteration that what had been achieved could not now be lost, that a peace process, for all its problems, could not be usurped and subverted by the gun.
Park goes on to describe the united condemnation of politicians who a decade or two ago were sworn enemies.

When I visited Belfast in 1982, British soldiers patrolled the Falls, the Catholic neighborhood that was lined with pro-IRA graffiti and sentiment. You could feel the tension—the fear of the young soldiers and the fear and resentment of the few people on the streets. I had gone with a friend from my study abroad program in Dublin, another American of Irish Catholic ancestry. We both had a prurient desire to see “the Troubles” ourselves. We walked up the Falls Road, past the soldiers and the graffiti until we reached a place where we could cut over to Shankill, the Protestant neighborhood that ran parallel to the Falls. Shankill was noticeably more affluent and less tense, despite the cross streets that ended in barbed wire, guarding the no man’s land that separated them from the Falls. When the British army moved into Northern Ireland in 1969 it was supposedly to protect the Catholics from the Protestants, but by 1982, it seemed to be the other way around. The Falls was under siege. I have no trouble understanding why people wouldn’t want to go back.

I met a young man from Belfast a few years ago who thought I was crazy to have taken this walk before he was born, but I never felt unsafe. In fact, I never felt so conspicuously American, gaping at the signs of conflict with my friend as we walked up and down the troubled hill. It was my first experience of being in a place of violent conflict (unless you count West Philadelphia), and there was something moving about being there. A year later I wrote my honor’s thesis comparing the genesis of the IRA with that of the PLO. I’m sure someone could write a thesis today on why the peace process in Northern Ireland has worked better than the one in the Middle East, but what I want to write today is a celebration of the apparent triumph of sanity. I want to celebrate people like John and Diana Lampen, British Quakers who worked for peace in Northern Ireland for many years, and the folks who run the Ulster Project, a program that brings Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland (Ulster) to stay in the United States, where it is easier for them to build relationships than it would be back home. In fact, the young man from Belfast whom I met was staying with good friends who live in Milwaukee. The host teenager, Andrew Pauly, made a video commemorating the experience.

Rewatching Andrew’s video, I’m stuck by the simple importance of building relationships. Young people who would have never met at home—because they went to different schools and lived on different sides of what are now called “peace lines”—got a chance to bond and begin a new history. I can’t help but suspect that some of them were in the crowd at the peace rally last week.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


It’s been so long since I’ve blogged, it’s hard to know where to start. I could write about my spiritual journey with the snow days—one more lesson in accepting the things I cannot change—or the great time I had in New York a few weeks ago to watch my friend Stephanie Smallwood get a prestigious award for her book, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. I could write about Lent and how I’m trying to make it meaningful as a Quaker married to a Catholic, which is kind of related to the snow issue since both remind me that I still need practice letting go of my own desires. But the most powerful reminder I’ve had lately about how much I have to learn about sacrifice has come through a series of emails about a woman who is today ending her 21-day hunger strike to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.

I visited Zimbabwe twice when I was in the Peace Corps in Botswana in the mid-eighties. At that time, it was the hope of the region. I bought my butter from Zimbabwe to support that country’s developing democracy. And now the people in this rich land are literally starving because of the rule of Robert Mugabe, who last week threw himself a $250,000 birthday bash. Although his electoral rival Morgan Tsangari has finally been appointed as Prime Minister, conditions in the country remain bleak. The New York Times reports that some human rights activists are being released from the torture-filled prisons, but not all. The world really does need to pay attention to this because although there are many brave people in Zimbabwe, they need support to take their country back.

So far, many of the most vocal allies have been South Africans, like Nomboniso Gasa, chair of South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality and the woman who is ending her water-only hunger strike today (pictured above at the end of her fast). She has been using her fast days to raise awareness of the situation in general, but especially the plight of women, who face the added threat of sexual violence. Before coming to New York this week, she made a video about the conditions faced by Zimbabwe’s many refugees. Nomboniso took over the fast from my friend Kumi Naidoo, the head of CIVICUS, and is passing the relay on to Dumisa Ntsebeza, the third South African in the chain.

You don’t have to fast for 21 days to support the cause. Some are volunteering for short stints. The Save Zimbabwe Now web site implores:
Join the fast and express your solidarity with the estimated five million Zimbabweans who are starving because of the greed, corruption and incompetence of the repressive Zanu-PF regime. The fast represents a wealth of solidarity and commitment from across the globe that policy makers and leaders of Southern Africa will not be able to ignore.

The Save Zimbabwe Now Campaign is driven by a broad collaboration of organisations and movements and has formal support from a wide range of groupings including the South African Council of Churches, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition the Khulumani Support Group, COSATU, the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum, social movements from across the region, youth and student formations, CIVICUS, ACTION for Conflict Transformation and the National Constitutional Assembly in South Africa. Popular support for the campaign is growing daily as the situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate.

And so we come back to Lent and the practice I need at letting go and sacrifice. My first response to this is that I couldn’t possibly fast because I’m way too busy—and then I remember that Kumi is way busier than I am. I feel lightheaded if I don’t get a mid-morning snack, and then I remember the fact that people in Zimbabwe often go days without food. We will be attending an inter-faith Lenten supper this evening, but the big sacrifice there is that we will only get bread and soup for supper, an amazing array of soups that are hearty and delicious, based on past years. (And I don't have to cook or pay, so really it's a total win for me.) I feel humble just thinking about the commitment of these activists and challenged to think about participating—maybe for a day next week, when I’m on spring break. In the meanwhile, I can help to spread awareness, which is one of the fast’s objectives.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fit for Freedom

When I was in my twenties, looking for a spiritual home, one of the things that attracted me to the Religious Society of Friends was its history of peace and social justice work. Quakers advocated the abolition of slavery, worked on the Underground Railroad, and supported women’s right to vote. Coming from secular activists circles, Quakers seemed to have the perfect balance of inner peace and concern about the world. That was about eighteen years ago. Since then I’ve realized that we are just as human as everyone else, which is probably not a shock to anyone who has spent much time in a Quaker meeting. Still, some Friends seem to be shocked by the premise of a new release from Quaker Books, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice. The book by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye argues that we have many myths about ourselves when it comes to our track record on issues concerning race. As the book's web site states, “While there were Friends committed to ending enslavement and post-enslavement injustices, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship reveals that racism has been as insidious, complex, and pervasive among Friends as it has been generally among people of European descent.”

Earlier this week I had the chance to ask Vanessa and Donna about their experiences writing this book, which will hopefully spark much discussion among Friends and beyond. I’m very excited to present my second podcast, which you can listen to by clicking here. (If you have trouble playing it, please leave me a comment here so I know.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Podcast Experiment

The good news is that I have gotten the edits back from my editor, so the book is really moving along. The bad news is that it is the second week of a semester where I am teaching two classes, and there seem to be an unusually high number of extra-curricular engagements this month, not to mention days when the kids are off from school. (I, for one, am hoping it doesn't snow too much.) So in the interest of trying to stay calm, I am going to take a break from blogging for a few weeks, but not before I announce my very first podcast! I interviewed two of the nine Philadelphia Friends who traveled to India in November. Please click over here to listen to our conversation and to subscribe to future podcasts, if you like that sort of thing. (While you are there, feel free to offer feedback on my newly designed website, which I’m still polishing. I'd also love feedback on the podcast itself.)

Podcasting is an experiment for me. I am going to do at least one more—an interview with the authors of Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice, which is being launched next week in Philadelphia. I’m enthused about that book’s potential to spur a wider conversation among Friends about race, so I’m hoping people will check that interview out when it is posted in a few weeks. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for the site feed so you will receive a notice when I post here again.

Peace out, as they say.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


It's the first week of the semester at University of the Arts, which is why I haven't gotten around to blogging. I have about three different projects in the works (including a podcast interview of Quakers who visited India in the fall which will hopefully be posted next week), so it was a bit of a transition to find some shoes that weren't sneakers and dig out the train schedule to make the trek downtown. This semester I am teaching two classes back-to-back, Race at the End of the Twentieth Century and The Age of Apartheid. I've taught the South Africa class three times before and feel pretty confident about the material. The race class was very challenging when I premiered it last spring, but it's hard to know how much of the challenge was the fact that it was a new class and how much was the nature of the subject. So I've been bracing myself for the beginning of the semester a bit, knowing that it could be the thing that pushes my juggling act from a nice steady juggle into the frantic act of a woman with too many balls in the air.

The good news is that it felt great to be back in the classroom. It didn’t hurt that the first day of class was inauguration day. My race class started at 10, so after taking attendance I wanted to show them something that would put this election in historical context. After looking at a few videos, I settled on a clip from the Eyes on the Prize series, episode 5, Mississippi 1964: Is This America? None of the students had ever heard of Medgar Evers, the civil rights advocate who was gunned down in front of his home for encouraging blacks to vote, or the bus loads of Northern college students who went to the South to register voters. The clip we watched included the disappearance of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the three young men whose murders were the basis for the (inaccurate) film Mississippi Burning. After watching the clip, one of the black students said, “I’m from the South, and I didn’t know anything about this.” After explaining that Barack Obama’s election would not have been possible without the campaign for voting rights forty-four years ago, we put on’s live broadcast. I could feel the excitement of the crowd on the big screen.

Aside from the long-awaited shift in our foreign policy, the thing I’m feeling good about is the level of interest and enthusiasm among the students for the subjects I’m teaching. As we did a more in depth round of introductions on Friday, many students and in both classes mentioned that they realized there were things they didn’t learn in high school, whether about the Civil Rights Movement or about African history, and they were hungry for this information, particularly but not only the black students. It was a validation of my teaching that erased the ambivalence I was feeling about giving up my writing time. At the end of the Apartheid class on Friday, where we talked about human origins, one young black woman said to me on her way out the door, “I’ve never, ever in my whole life, in all my years of school, heard a teacher say, ‘We all came from Africa originally.’ Thank you. That made my day.”

And she made mine.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Activist Identity

I had a bit of an identity crisis last week. Twice in a row I dismissed an invitation to attend a demonstration, first a counter-demonstration to a group with a web site called “God Hates Fags,” which I will not promote by linking to them, though I have point out that the same people have other web sites called “God Hates America” and “God Hates the World.” (There’s a world map, and you can click on any highlighted country to learn why they think God hates it.) The second counter-demonstration was to the “We Stand with Israel Rally,” which I suspect is a much bigger group than the world-haters. In both cases I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for demonstrating, which made me wonder if it is accurate to keep “activist” as part of my self-description or even what that terms means.

In the case of the first counter-demonstration, which was at a city high school early in the morning, I suspected that the group mobilizing over the Internet was going to give the world-haters (who call themselves a church) more attention than they deserved. If a few extremists show up with signs, it is not news worthy, but I could imagine an organized counter-demonstration getting the whole thing on television. On the other hand, if I were a gay or lesbian student or teacher entering the school that morning, I would be heartened to see the counter-protesters. Hate shouldn’t go unanswered; I just don’t want it advertised. In any case, I couldn’t make that demonstration because I was getting my own kids to school, though it appears my concerns were unfounded. The only reference I could find in Google News was an article in a student paper that described a few homophobes and a larger (but seemingly not enormous) counter-protest that I was glad to hear originated with an alumnus who said that his goal was not to change the minds of the protesters, but to support the students and staff who would have to look at their signs.

The second counter-demonstration was harder to delete because I could have actually fit it into my schedule, though I felt myself resisting. Although it was billed as a counter-demonstration to the group of Israel supporters, it was really a protest against the brutal bombing of Gaza, which is certainly deserving of protest. Like the gay students, if I were a Palestinian I would want to know that people in the world were standing up for me, and this one seemed destined to make it on the news. But there was something about the protest/counter-protest model that just left me feeling empty. I mentioned my dilemma to my husband who said, “I think the best thing you do [in terms of social change] is your writing.” Certainly my writing would have suffered if I had taken the morning to go downtown, but I didn’t mind losing some writing time to work on the Obama campaign or for some racial healing work I spent time on recently. I found myself thinking of a comment made when some of the contributors to The Secret were on Oprah ages ago. Longtime followers of this blog will remember that I have some issues with The Secret, even though I think there is a seed of truth in it. The piece that stuck with me from the Oprah show was when one author said that he would never go to an anti-war march, but he’d be happy to go to a peace march. He asserted that we attract what we focus on, and if we focus on war, we will only have more of it. Although I think this is simplistic, there is something in it that is ringing true.

When I think of the activist events I want to attend, what comes to mind is the annual Interfaith Peace Walk, a wonderful gathering of people from diverse racial, class, and religious backgrounds spending a spring day walking from one congregation to another in a mix of silence, song, and solidarity. That event always has such a positive vibe, and it draws a range of people that most anti-war demonstrations don’t. It also draws connections between violence in our own communities and violence in the world, as opposed to just reacting to the crisis of the day. That’s the other piece I’m trying to think about: it is necessary to stop the immediate violence in Gaza, but the bigger challenge is to build the trust and mutual acceptance necessary to create any kind of lasting peace in the Middle East. I don’t see how standing against the Israel supporters will do that, though one could argue that real reconciliation will never come until Americans stand up to Israel. Still, that seems simplistic, too. Combatants for Peace come to mind as a model of positive peace work, though one that is for people in the region, not US tax-payers like me.

There are many good people grappling with the question of how to promote peace right now in Philadelphia. Although I am not part of the week-long program, I do feel drawn to the intergenerational and interfaith day planned for Saturday, which is also making the connection between peace on our streets and peace in the world. If any readers are participating in the week, I hope you’ll feel free to tell us about it here or post a link.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Social Networking

Meredith Broussard has a funny piece on the Huffington Post this week about why she hasn’t joined Facebook, but I’m here to tell the redeeming Facebook story of the week:

Twenty-two years ago, when I was leaving the Botswana village where I served in the Peace Corps (pictured right), my best friend and neighbor Mmadithapelo told me, “Eileen, I love you, but you are never going to hear from me. I am a terrible correspondent.” It was good she warned me. Although we did exchange letters every few years, I wasn’t disturbed by her long silences, at least not until the letter she sent several years ago that mentioned some vague “troubles.” By then Botswana had the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world, and although the country has done much to combat the disease since then, life expectancy has still plummeted. When my next several letters went unanswered, I assumed the worst and wondered often about Mmadithapelo’s two children, who are a little older than mine.

So along comes Facebook, which has replaced computer solitaire as my favorite time-waster. On a whim I searched for Mmadithapelo and instead found five people with her last name, two of whom identified themselves as being from Botswana, one from the village where I lived. This by itself was amazing, considering that in the eighties my village had no reliable phone service, no paved road, and no electricity (except for a few generators at the clinic, the chief’s house, etc.). I wrote to the two Batswana, unsure of the etiquette of asking if they knew my friend, especially since it seemed likely they were related to her. When I didn’t hear back right away, I assumed the worst again.

Then one morning, as I sat with my laptop at my favorite spot at my favorite Philadelphia coffee shop, I got a friendly email from a young woman on the other side of the world. When I asked about Mmadithapelo, the young woman responded immediately: “She’s my auntie. She stays in Orapa.” Within minutes we had exchanged several messages where I impressed her by remembering a little Setswana (the language), and she promised to get me my friend’s contact info. The exchange pretty much made my week, partly because I am so happy at the prospect of connecting with this particular friend, and partly because it is exciting to link this important phase of my life to all the other phases that normally seem so removed from it.

For me, the amazing thing about Facebook is the linking of the many disparate pieces of the crazy puzzle that has been my life so far. A scroll down my Friends list reminds me of childhood, high school, college, graduate school, Pendle Hill, my kids’ nursery school and grade school, my Quaker community, my Philadelphia writing community, my blogging community, and now my time in the Peace Corps. Not even at my wedding have so many parts of my life been represented in one place. As Meredith points out, there are boundary issues to this social networking stuff (I have a few ex-boyfriends and ex-students on my friends list, which is kind of funny.), but on the whole I’m glad to see the faces of people I care about lined up together, even if they don’t know each other, though it turns out that in many cases they do. I like feeling connected to community. It’s one of the things I learned to value in my village in Botswana.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Move the Center

I still have my Obama sign on the lawn, but not for long. On January 20 I become the loyal opposition. Although I worked for his election and celebrated his victory, I’ve always known that Obama does not share all of my beliefs or priorities. Even more significant, he’s a politician, and successful politicians know how to compromise to get things done. As a watcher of politics, I’ve been impressed with the way he is orchestrating his transition to power, though as a watcher of issues I am aware of the reasons many activists are already disappointed. A few days ago I received an email petition from organic food advocates angry about Obama’s appointment of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. And then there was the ear-full I got at a New Year’s brunch about Evangelical minister Rick Warren doing the invocation at the inauguration. Warren has a record of homophobia, and gay and lesbian advocates understandably feel betrayed. I heard myself responding, “Obama is smart to govern from the center; it’s just our job to move the center.” So this morning I’m wondering what I meant by that.

By coincidence (if you believe in such things), my husband just sent me a New Yorker article with this picture of author Naomi Klein wearing a “move the center” button, which I swear I didn’t even know existed (photo by Platon). The article is long—I confess I skimmed the pages about Klein’s Marxist grandparents—but makes some interesting points. Round about page 7 Klein talks about her concerns about Obama disappointing a generation that has just now become idealist, though it is clear she doesn’t necessarily approve of idealism anyway. Her main point seems to be that in a crisis there is an opportunity for a political shift. Often the right has taken advantage of such moments, but this time the crisis in world capitalism gives people on the left an ideal opportunity to point out the current system’s failings.

For me, the current moment seems an ideal opportunity to point out the intersection of four issues I care about: economic exploitation, environmental degradation, war, and the spiritual poverty of a culture than elevates consumption of material goods to such a degree. The fact that the recession is doing more to slow climate change than any government policy implemented thus far should give us pause. Can we re-imagine our measures of prosperity so that getting back to consuming much more than we need is not our goal? Can the inter-connectedness of our economies help us appreciate that we are interconnected in other ways, as well, so that we not only don’t need other countries’ oil, but we wouldn’t consider going to war to secure it? These changes would go further than just creating “green jobs,” though I am all for those. But green jobs and windmills that just make next Christmas all about the malls again will be a missed opportunity. Sure it would be nice if Obama articulated a profoundly different vision for our country, but frankly, I’m not expecting it. Such a profound cultural shift will have to rise from the bottom up. It’s ordinary people who create the new normal, and we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Stress Free

Yesterday in my Christmas stocking I found a note from my nine-year-old son promising “a stress free day” as a gift to be redeemed sometime in the coming year. I was really enjoying this promise until my twelve-year-old woke up and proceeded to explain to her brother that “a stress free day” was really more than he could promise. There might be things that happen during my day that he really had no control over. In fact, she pointed out, he hardly had control over himself, let alone my state of mind. All he could really promise was that for one day he would try not to stress me out, which was frankly all I was expecting. (Does this girl know The Wisdom to Know the Difference or what?)

I’m glad my daughter has figured out that we can’t be responsible for someone else’s feelings. It’s a hard lesson and one I am remembering myself this morning as the nine-year-old is questioning if the gifts he got (which were exactly what he asked for) were really what he wanted. I’m remembering Tamar Chansky’s book Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking and the importance of helping children learn resiliency by working out their own issues instead of rushing in to solve them. (“Is it too late to return that game?” I fleetingly ask myself.) Rationally I know that in the long run learning that no game can make him happy will help my son more than returning the one that seems a bit too hard this morning, but the temptation to fix the immediate challenge is still there. It might be different if I thought there was something wrong with the game. The problem, I think, is that the game is different from what my son expected, so shifting his expectations would solve the problem more easily than returning the game, though that doesn’t seem easy to him—or to most of us, I dare say. As the Buddhists point out, letting go of our preconceived notions can take a lifetime, or several.

It reminds me that letting go of expectations is something I still have to work on, too. I have many expectations for 2009, I realize, which might be unfair to that poor little year. I should unwrap the future with an open mind, ready to accept whatever gifts come from it. That attitude would probably help me to live closer to “stress free” every day, so my children don’t think that my stress is their fault or something they can fix. It would also help me to give them a better example, which is probably the best gift I can give them in the end.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Media Distortions

A theme of this blog has been learning to live with less anxiety, so I just have to plug a new article by my friend Meredith Broussard on The Huffington Post about the exaggeration in the media of food allergy deaths. Last time Meredith wrote about this, she got hundreds of irate letters from parents accusing her of wanting to hurt their children, which makes me wonder why we get so invested in our fears. She isn't saying that allergies are not important or that we shouldn't protect our kids. (She is an allergy sufferer and the parent of a very cute toddler, just for the record.) She just wants us to have accurate data and a little perspective. Funny that this is so hard to come by. This morning I brought my daughter to her allergist and asked about an NPR story on asthma drugs that cause more deaths than they prevent. The doctor refrained from rolling his eyes and sighing deeply, but I could tell that was only because he has good social skills. He patiently explained that the media keeps quoting a very flawed study that came out four years ago and presenting it as if it is new news. "They were comparing extremely sick people who weren't taking medicine regularly with patients who were less sick and better managed," he explained. "We need the government to fund a study with better methods before we really know. I don't know why the media keeps stirring this up."

Well, of course, fear gets ratings, even on NPR, I suppose. That's why I'm cutting back on my news consumption again since every other story seems to be about fear: the fears of auto workers, the fears of Miami millionaires and the charities they support, the fears of Indians and Pakistanis... You get the picture. Not that these fears are not real. Of course, they are. It's just a little perspective that's lacking. And speaking of that, there was a story on TV this morning (I can't resist watching when I'm at the gym) on having a "Green Christmas." It featured a guy whose entire house and front lawn were covered with Christmas lights in various shapes and colors. Last year his display cost him about $3,000 dollars in electricity. So how is he becoming "green" this year? He switched to wind energy, which the reporter pointed out could boost his bill to $4,000. Now, I think it is great that network television is finally promoting wind energy, but would it be too much to ask the reporter to point out that other green possibilities include buying LED lights or cutting back on the amount of lights used? During the commercial break there was a message from PECO (our local energy company which now supplies higher priced wind energy). It wished us "a safe, happy, and energy conscious holiday," which really made me laugh. (Maybe it was "energy efficient," not sure.) The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if PECO makes a greater profit off wind and is influencing the news room, the way Meredith alleges that the funders of the allergy studies make money off of selling Epi-pens. Of course, now I could be accused of promoting fear and paranoia myself. I want to be a savvy media consumer, but I don't want to live in fear of media conspiracies. It's always a balance.

Monday, December 15, 2008


My daughter has introduced me to the soundtrack of Wicked, and I’m hooked. I haven’t seen the Broadway hit, but I like the challenging messages in the lyrics, starting with the implied questioning of the labels “wicked” and “good” applied to the two main characters. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Wicked is the story of the witches of OZ in their youth—long before Dorothy arrived on the scene. We learn that Glinda “the good witch of the North” cares about being popular more than being good. She is pretty and knows how to tell people what they want to hear. Her roommate Elphaba, in contrast, isn’t afraid to speak up for what she thinks is right, and she isn’t afraid to fly, something that is apparently frowned upon in Oz (as elsewhere). She sees the wizard for the sham he is long before Dorothy, and for speaking an inconvenient Truth to power she gets labeled “wicked.” The fact that she is green, and people in Oz are prejudiced against green witches (as elsewhere), only encourages the Ozians to believe the worst about her and ultimately to blame her for all their city’s problems. The fact that many of the songs are funny reminds me of the power of art to make us think and smile at the same time.

My husband pointed out that the lyrics were written by Stephen Schwartz, the composer for Godspell, which also presented spiritual teachings in a challenging way. In Wicked, shallow values are subtly critiqued in songs like “Popular” and “Dancing through Life,” which advises: “Why invite stress in? Stop studying strife and learn to live ‘the unexamined life.’” But the unexamined life has its problems, of course. Glinda gets everything she has always wanted and proclaims that she “couldn’t be happier,” except that she clearly isn’t. The wizard is acclaimed by Oz and can’t resist the unearned praise: “Where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true,” he explains. “We call it—‘history.’” Elphaba, the character who is true to her self is also the one who sees life most clearly, but there is no glib message that being true to your self leads to happiness any more than being conventional does. “Don’t wish. Don’t start. Wishing only wounds the heart,” Elphaba sings in a line that is either wisely Buddhist or depressingly pessimistic. I’m going with the Buddhist interpretation because it seems that much of the trouble that comes in the story comes from what Buddhists would call “attachment.” 

The part that seems most Quaker about the play is the implication that there is good and bad in everyone, so we shouldn’t write people off or make them scapegoats. Just listening to the soundtrack I noticed the word “good” jump out in phrases like, “I’ll make good,” “goodness knows,” and “thank goodness” which in their context subtly remind us to question what is really good. Near the end Glinda and Elphaba sing to each other, “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you I have been changed for good,” and we have the sense that the conflict between them really has made them better people. If any one who has actually seen the play wants to correct me, I am certainly open, but just based on the soundtrack, Wicked seems to offer the kind of message I’m glad to have my (almost) twelve-year-old listening to when so much other music encourages the unexamined life. And given the prohibitive price of Broadway tickets, it seems the producers are doing well by questioning good.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Recession Response

This morning on CNN I saw a clip of a Detroit church that had three SUVs up on the altar while the congregation prayed for the recovery of the auto industry. Another mega church called to the altar all the members who needed financial help, and then the congregation raised $50,000 on the spot to help them. I can’t quite imagine either of these things happening in my Quaker meeting. For one thing, if we put three SUVs in our meeting room there would be no room for the people, at least some of whom are praying for the demise of Sports Utility Vehicles anyway. As a congregation, we don’t collect that much more than $50,000 in an average year, and when we do help our members financially, it’s a quiet, confidential process. We do collect canned goods every month for the needy, but with the implied assumption that the needy are a few miles down Germantown Avenue and not among us. Still, the clips got me thinking about what our faith community’s response to the recession might be, or more to the point, what mine might be.

A writer friend whose work is about empowering people told me last week that rather than worrying about the recession, she was thinking of all that she has to offer people in tough economic times. It's a good question, so I’ve been wondering how my work might be “well used,” as Quakers sometimes put it. One of the central messages I try to convey in my writing and workshops is trust—trust in God and trust in one’s own ability to hear and follow God’s guidance. It seems a message especially needed now as people fortunate enough to have them frantically check their IRA balances, despite the fact that getting anxious about your retirement isn’t likely to help anything. News reports harp on job loses and low consumer spending, while people I know have been looking for work and pinching their pennies. It feels a bit smug to say, “Trust. All will be well”--especially to auto workers in Detroit--but it’s the message I’ve been given to share. Of course, trusting doesn’t mean that you sit back and wait for God to type your resume for you. The Wisdom to Know the Difference after all is about doing what you can and letting go of a the rest. A few people have asked me if I’m worried that no one will buy my book (which comes out next fall) because of the economy, but I have a sense that the opposite is true—that my message will be more needed in tough economic times, so I’m trying to practice what I preach.

Of course, it is easy to understand why people get anxious. Another CNN story this morning was about a town that is turning off its Christmas lights in response to the recession, but this reminds me of another message which Quakers have to offer—that old testimony of simplicity, which means many things to many people. To some it means old fashioned frugality, not buying more than you need or can afford, a message that does seem timely, or a bit overdue, to be frank. To some limiting consumption is connected to a concern that our earth cannot sustain the levels of consumption considered “healthy” for a capitalist economy. For these Friends, turning off the Christmas lights and retiring the SUV are signs of progress, not omens of impending disaster. Another take on simplicity is that it is primarily a spiritual practice. Simplifying your life means having your priorities in order—not wasting your time, money, or emotional energy on things that are not essential. It seems to me that all these views of simplicity could be helpful to the country now as we look at our spending priorities, as families and as a country.

And then there is compassion. After initially laughing at the SUVs on the altar, I was humbled to think about the lives of the people in that church and how much they depend on auto industry jobs. Transitioning to a greener economy will be painful for many people, and not necessarily the folks in my congregation, so we shouldn't be too smug about it. It would be nice to think that all our Quaker simplicity gives us more money to share with others, but since we do our charitable giving so discretely, it's hard to know. We also tend to avoid conversations about class and money, so we might not even know what need exists among us.

I want to try to remember to bring canned goods to the collection next month, for I’m sure they are truly needed. But I also want to think about what unique gifts I am called to share and how they might be used. After all, it is supposed to be the season of giving.

Monday, December 01, 2008


On the long drive to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving, I read a book that made the time pass quickly: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference). For those who don’t know Gladwell’s work, he is a journalist who takes a big idea and then illustrates it with interesting stories. In the case of Outliers, the idea is that our assumptions about successful people are all wrong. Instead of asking what they are like (how brilliant they are or how hard they worked), we should ask where they are from. No one makes it alone, Gladwell argues. The successful are often smart and hardworking, but they were also the recipients of opportunity, sometimes because of when and where they were born, sometimes because of the values they inherited from their families or an exceptional school. “It is impossible for a hockey player, or Bill Joy, or Robert Oppenheimer, or any other outlier for that matter, to look down from their lofty perch and say with truthfulness, ‘I did this, all by myself,’” he concludes.

I found the anecdotes fascinating, from the reason why so many Korean air planes have crashed to the reason why the smartest man in American couldn’t get through college. But one of the things I appreciated the most was Gladwell’s emphasis on meaningful work:
If I offered you a choice between being an architect for $75,000 a year and working in a tollbooth every day for the rest of your life for $100,000 a year, which would you take? I’m guessing the former, because there is complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work, and that’s worth more to most of us than money.
I’ve had a number of experiences recently that have affirmed my own decision to put meaning over profit in my career choices, though I wonder if Gladwell is right that most people would choose being an architect. I seem to know more than a few people who feel stuck in the equivalent of the tollbooth job, and once you have that six-figure income, it is hard to imagine how you could do with less. Harder still when the creative career you desire averages much less than $75,000 a year. Personally, I feel grateful that I lived at Pendle Hill during my transition from full-time job to writer. Not only did I have the support of a spiritual community that values following inner guidance, I had models of people living simply so they wouldn’t need the big salary. They provided a different picture of success, being able to support oneself with meaningful work, which seems to be Gladwell’s implied definition, despite his references to people like Bill Gates.

At its heart, Outliers poses a challenge that goes beyond our individual career decisions. Gladwell asks how many more people might be successful if we expanded opportunity by, say, making every school an excellent school. It’s a good question and makes one think about how we want to measure whether our country is a success.

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