Imperfect Serenity

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Thursday, November 30, 2006


We’re a few years behind the curve, but my children and I have gotten hooked by the Harry Potter series. We read a bit every night before bed, an exercise that I believe is good for family togetherness as well as vocabularies, though as we move through the series, I’m beginning to wonder how much violence and “snogging” (as Ginny calls kissing in book six) is appropriate for a seven- and nine-year-old. Compared to much of what’s in our culture, it’s pretty tame. Still, it raises the continual questions about how to draw our family’s boundaries. My children have already heard from friends that Sirius gets killed in book five and Dumbledore in book six. Is there any reason not to let them enjoy good writing when they already know what happens?

I’ve started reading ahead, partly to preview the material, but mostly because I’m enjoying the stories so much myself. I’m now in the middle of book six (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), while the children are still on book five. Maybe I’m just looking for redeeming messages, but I’m heartened to find that this novel focuses on Harry and Dumbledore trying to understand their nemesis, Voldemort—also known as “The Dark Lord” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” They are learning about the family dysfunction that made Voldemort turn out so badly, information that Dumbledore says will help Harry to survive. As J.K. Rowling is finishing the last manuscript in the series, I am imagining my own ending to this epic struggle of good vs. evil. I remember that in the third Star Wars movie (which people under thirty call the sixth Star Wars film) Darth Vader is brought back to his own goodness by Luke, rather than killed by him (though he does still get killed). After so many galactic battles, I was heartened that goodness won the day, rather than firepower. Is such an ending possible for Voldemort?

This line of thought was partly prompted by my brother-in-law, whom we visited in Wisconsin over Thanksgiving. He said one of his five big questions about life is “Can good conquer evil?” I suppose my answer is that it can, but it doesn’t always, which leads to a whole set of other questions about what conditions help goodness to flourish. My mind wanders through Iraq, to the Palestinian and Israeli ex-combatants I wrote about not long ago, to the South African Truth and Reconciliation process, and eventually back to my own children. What will help good flourish in them: being protected from stories where violence is used to fight evil, or lying in bed together, talking about those stories?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


I’m on my way to the airport, like millions of other Americans, so this won’t be one of those coherent essay-like blog posts that takes a theme through a series of points and ends neatly with some clever reference to the introduction. Instead this will be a few random queries by a Thanksgiving traveler.

First: Megan, Luke and Tom actually flew two days ago, and I had the weird experience of seeing them off at the airport. One of the weirdest parts was having to explain to Megan why she shouldn’t bring her four tubes of lip gloss in her carry on bag. I really couldn’t explain why lip gloss was a public safety hazard, and the woman at airport security didn’t explain it either when she discovered that Megan forgot the lip gloss in her pocket and sent us back through security to get a zip lock bag, which apparently would protect the public from the dangerous aspects of a nine-year-old’s lip gloss. Like most Americans, Megan didn’t ask too many questions, which made it easier for me and, I now realize, our government.

The incident reminded me of a statement our Quaker meeting wrote after 9/11. There was a line in the draft—I can’t remember if it made it into the final version—that said something like, “Our only real security is the good will of others.” This was reinforced again yesterday when my South Africa class watched a video on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and discussed the book A Human Being Died that Night. Both showed that everything the apartheid government did to “crack down on terrorism” backfired, causing more people to join the ANC and causing the liberation organizations to take up increasingly violent tactics. The proponents of the TRC explained that breaking the cycle of violence and reconciling were the only ways to prevent future violence.

Interestingly, I also read this week the story of May1970 when the Black Panther Party called on activists throughout the United States to come to New Haven, home of Yale University, to protest the trials there of some of their members. These were the turbulent days of the anti-war movement with provocative leaders like Abbie Hoffman, who vowed that marchers would burn down Yale. The threat didn’t seem idle since a month earlier, there had been a march at Harvard that went bad when marchers found the Harvard gates locked and vented their frustration, causing 214 hospitalizations and $100,000 worth of property damage. The President of Yale, Kingman Brewster, decided not to repeat Harvard’s mistake. When the protesters came, he declared, Yale would not only keep its gates open; the university would coordinate their sleeping arrangements and serve them granola. Moreover, Brewster met ahead of time with student leaders to ensure a peaceful protest. The strategy worked. Although state troopers and Marines had been brought in by the state to quell the anticipated violence, the protests went relatively smoothly with the only vandalism caused by a fringe group of out-of-town provocateurs whom Brewster suspected of being “dirty tricks” operative of the Nixon administration.

And then I came to the news story of today: six American Muslim leaders who were on their way home from a conference on tolerance were kicked off a plane for praying in Arabic. This goes beyond the silliness of the lip gloss and reaches the level of real stupidity. What do we really think is more dangerous: a nine-year-old’s lip gloss or the alienation of Muslim Americans? What do we need more: plastic bags, or civil liberties?

That’s all for now. I really have to run for my train. Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


After my doctor’s appointment this morning, I had a while to wait for the next train, so I stopped into the farmer’s market at Reading Terminal. It was nice to get there before lunch, before crowds of downtown workers lined up at stalls selling every kind of food, from Malaysian curry and cheese steaks to turkey shaped chocolates and beet juice shakes. I went in for bananas and wandered around a bit before heading toward the train station across the street. Then, out on the sidewalk, I met Helen.

“Hey, Honey, could you buy me a sandwich?” she called. I glanced at my watch and saw I had plenty of time before my train. No excuse there. My other excuse, that I don’t like to give people cash, was also gone. Because there’s a lot of addiction in my own family, I’m wary of giving money to people on the street, but some time ago I decided I would try to buy food for anyone who asked, providing I had the time and the cash myself. So, I headed back into Reading Terminal with the woman, who introduced herself as Helen. “That’s my mother’s name,” I said, as I introduced myself.

Finding a simple sandwich turned out to be more difficult than I expected, as we passed samosas and stir fry, which were clearly not what Helen had in mind. “Chicken would be good,” she said hopefully amid her repeated thanks. Some lunch places weren’t serving yet, but the woman at the cheese steak booth said they were. “Do you have chicken?” I asked. She nodded and pointed me toward the “Order Here” sign where a white man about thirty-years-old was standing.

He glanced at Helen and then looked at me to take my order. “We’re together,” I explained, gesturing to Helen to say what she wanted.
“You’re not allowed in here,” he said to her curtly. “We’re supposed to call security,” he said to me.
“We’re getting food,” I said. “There’s no reason to call security.” He insisted people were not allowed to ask for food in the market, though I explained that Helen and I had started talking outside.

I’m not sure how the man sized up Helen so quickly as someone who had asked me for food. Was it just her brown skin, or the difference in our race and class and his assumption that we didn’t belong together? Helen wasn’t that badly dressed. She didn’t appear to be drunk or deranged, though there was something deprecating in her manner that distinguished her from the stylish women in dreadlocks who also frequent the Reading Terminal. Whatever it was that marked her as homeless, the man at the counter had dismissed her in less than a second, and now he was annoyed with me. He simply refused to wait on her.

“Well, I’d like some chicken, to go please,” I said simply. He muttered something about this causing trouble, but took my money with a disgusted look. Helen said she hoped he had a good day anyway, and I put the 50 cents change deliberately in his tip jar. Then we moved to the “Pick Up” sign, united for a moment in the decision to resist meanness with courtesy.

She thanked me again while we waited and said repeatedly that she hoped I had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and a safe trip when I mentioned we were going to my husband’s family in Wisconsin. I asked what she would do on Thanksgiving, and she said, “Nothing. Nowhere to go,” though when I mentioned it, she added that she would be getting a Thanksgiving meal at a church this Saturday. We said goodbye out on the sidewalk, Helen holding her package of chicken. She asked me for a hug, and I felt good about myself and Helen as we hugged goodbye and I headed for the trains. I felt good for a full five seconds, until a man on the sidewalk asked for food as I passed without pausing.

On the train, I opened my book The Spirituality of Imperfection and read, “Seeing first one’s own defects and shortcomings is Humility; the fruit of that vision is Tolerance.” I realized it was only my own arrogance that made me feel superior to the man behind the counter. I am connected to him as surely as I am to Helen and the man I didn't feed.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


My hope in Democracy is restored, and not just because my candidate won, though that certainly helps. Today I’m feeling hopeful because Owen voted yesterday.

As I’ve mentioned here, I’ve been volunteering with Philadelphians Against Santorum, going door-to-door in my neighborhood, talking to new voters, young voters, and those who don’t always vote. Most of the people I spoke with on Sunday had already chosen Bob Casey, though some of them referred to him as “the other guy.” The most memorable encounter, however, was with a young man named Owen who told me, when I asked for him by name, “Oh, my parents are the ones for that.” I assured Owen that he was the one on my list and added, “No offense, but you look old enough to vote.” Owen admitted that he was but said lamely, “I’m not really the kind of person who votes.”

I can’t remember what I said next, but I know I resisted the temptation to ask him what kind of person didn’t care about the world enough to haul his butt down to the church for five minutes once every two years. Instead I said something about how important this election was and mentioned that Rick Santorum thought we should consider attacking Iran. I handed him a sheet comparing the candidates and moved on.

Last night we had a few volunteers in our precinct going door-to-door again, reminding people to vote. It seemed pointless after awhile. Most people were either not home or had already voted. But it was all worth it for the story that came back from Owen’s house. When a canvasser knocked on the door asking for Owen, his mother reported that he had already voted, for Bob Casey. “Someone came and talked to him the other day, and it made quite an impression on him,” she said.

Obviously it’s not just about Owen. What makes me hopeful is that in an era of expensive nasty ads and expensive computer models to target voters, the old fashion conversation between neighbors still makes a difference. I feel hopeful because we had more volunteers in our neighborhood last night than we knew what to do with. I feel hopeful because we had 66% turnout in our precinct, much higher than previous midterm elections. I also feel hopeful because so many of my neighbors smiled and said hello as I sat at the polls, while the Republican and Democratic poll watchers chatted amicably, sharing pizza and Halloween candy. And of course I feel hopeful because the great rightward swing in American politics seems to have begun its journey back to the center.
This morning I almost wore my “Barak Obama for President” t-shirt, but I decided to save that for next week.

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