Imperfect Serenity

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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.

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