Archive for the ‘justice’ Category

While waiting in the cattle call line to board a Southwest  flight from Oakland CA to Albuquerque, I struck up a conversation with the stranger standing next to me. I learned that he was a physicist working at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories and now on his way to Los Alamos Labs… the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

At that moment I remembered Albert Einstein who said,

The most important question you can ever ask is if the world is a friendly place?”

This fellow seems friendly enough, I thought.  Here’s a chance to ask him about his big question…Referencing Einstein, I asked if he had one big question, or if there was something developing in physics that he was most excited to be learning about.

Just then the line  began to quickly move towards the boarding jetway.  Time was running out.

With what seemed almost like a conspiratorial whisper and a wink and backward look, he answered,

Time Travel!  It’s real.  It ‘s possible.”   And then…. he was gone.

Time Travel!  I first started thinking about In the early 60‘s watching the Rocky and Bullwinkle  cartoon episodes that featured Mr. Peabody, Sherman and the Waybac Machine.  imgres

From time to time since, I’ve speculated about where I would set the dial on a Waybac machine should I be so fortunate to have the opportunity to take a spin.   What period if history would I most want to witness or participate in?. 

Last week, I found myself having multiple ‘flashbacks’ while visiting a marvelous exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum, called Voices of the Counter Culture in the Southwest.”

Among the assembled treasures, were blotter acid pages, a tipi, geodesic dome, a classic perfectly restored  VW van, and the original manuscript for Ram Dass’ classic book of the era, Be Here Now.

BE       HERE     NOW.

29254At that moment, I had an epiphany to pair with the flashback.

If time travel IS possible, the most difficult period of time to travel to… the most exotic and unfamiliar time and place, is the present.  And of course, on the improbable chance that you ever make it there, the signs are posted… no loitering and no lingering. 

But linger and loiter in the past we can and do. Here is a ridiculously trivial example to make a larger point.

I’’ll be going to a neighborhood mayoral candidate forum later this afternoon.  Last night while sipping on a glass of wine I remembered an incident many years back with one of my neighbors.  He has a fairly good size back yard vineyard and a number of years ago put out a request at harvest time… there was a thin window to pick the grapes at their best. Neighbors were invited to help out, with the promise of a bottle of wine at the end of the day.  It was a wonderful day of hard work and good company, with the backdrop  the Sandia Mountains rising to 12,000 feet,  through crystal clear blue skies, made all the better by the anticipation of bringing home a bottle of a previous year’s vintage… I’d enjoy that wine and have the added satisfaction of knowing that I couldn’t possible me more of a  wine locavore than that!  The work done, I presented myself for my reward.  And received it… a bottle of Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck!   Have I let go of that deception, that betrayal, that bait and switch all those years ago?  Apparently not!  Last night, lost for a moment in memory, I drank sour grapes and missed the opportunity to enjoy the far better wine I was drinking in the moment.imgres-2

Here is a story that gets to the  bone and marrow of the matter.  I’ve excerpted it from Mo Yan’s acceptence speech in 2012 for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“My most painful memory involved going out in the collective’s field with Mother to glean ears of wheat. The gleaners scattered when they spotted the watchman. But Mother, who had bound feet, could not run; she was caught and slapped so hard by the watchman, a hulk of a man, that she fell to the ground. The watchman confiscated the wheat we’d gleaned and walked off whistling. As she sat on the ground, her lip bleeding, Mother wore a look of hopelessness I’ll never forget. Years later, when I encountered the watchman, now a gray-haired old man, in the marketplace, Mother had to stop me from going up to avenge her.images.jpg/

“Son,” she said evenly, “the man who hit me and this man are not the same person.”

Consider this parable from Paul Reps classic collection, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

The Muddy Road

“Tanzan and Eido were once traveling together down a muddy road.  A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a ben, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl” said Tanzan at once.  Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple.  Then he could no longer restrain himself.  “ We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely one.  it is dangerous.  Why did you do that?”

“ I left the girl there,” said Tanzan.  “ Are you still carrying her?”imgres-1

I have to be honest with myself and admit that barely a day goes by when I

don’t find some some traces of old muddy roads on my time traveling boots.

From small grudges, to estranged friends and relatives, on to seething century old  animosities between people and nations; the road towards healing, towards peace, towards our better natures and possibilities is littered by the seldom discarded anchors of the past.  Burdened and blinded by these obstacles which include by the way, our  often worn thin ideas, it becomes impossible to really take stock of the moment, and respond in a way that makes it more rather than less likely that we’ll achieve what really matters most to us.  To love and be loved in return.  To know that all our children, and they are all our children will be safe and healthy and provided for on a healthy planet.

We are like that monkey, hand stuck, clutching a banana in the bottle with a narrow neck.  Trapped by what we won’t let go of,  even to save our individual and collective skins. images-3

Here’s a thought experiment.  Suppose that banana that our monkey minds are clutching is an idea, and suppose that idea, is that the world is a dangerous and unfriendly place and always will be as evidenced by our personal and collective ‘historical record’ Let’s return to the rest of the Einstein quote now.

“For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.

 If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.

 But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”

As part of understanding that universe, we need to understand our minds and hearts work.  We need to understand how we thwart ourselves by holding on to the past when it no longer serves. 

I’ll close with one more passage, this from Joan Halifax in her remarkable book Being with Dying.

“Some years ago, walking across the Himalayas, I realized I would never make it over those mountains unless I let go of everything extra.  That meant I had to lighten up m mind as well as my overloaded day pack.  It all came down to one simple sentence:   Nothing extra!   Just as these two legs carried me across mountains those same words carry me through complicated days.  They always remind me to let go.  The also remind me of the weightlessness and ease of a whole and dedicated heart.”

I see it’s about time to head to that neighborhood meeting.  Now, all I have to do is remember…  Nothing extra… and….

“The man who hit me and this man are not the same person.”

“ Mr. Peabody, please set the dial the Waybac Machine to Be Here Now.”

May peace prevail on earth, and sooner rather than later.  


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Recent events which seem to me to be heightening a national zeitgeist of fear of the “other” have prodded me to republish this post from 2014.  I was back in Alaska earlier this month and ran into an elder from Kake Alaska- the scene of both the personal and folkloric tales that follow.  I’ll write about that encounter in another post, but for now please consider ways in which we can break bread together and build bridges instead of walls.

As we enter this particular Thanksgiving day, with the unfortunate pall of not just smoke but, mistrust, fear, anger and racial tension sparked by the events in Ferguson Missouri, I remember the time that I first experienced myself as a stranger in a strange land, a very obvious young, unexperienced, 20 year old white kid in the Tlingit Native community of Kake Alaska.(1970)

I want to share two stories from that time.  One, my own, which is how I cam to be there, and how I was treated.  And the other, a Tlingit folktale that I heard told many years after I’d left, and then found even many years latter in written form. This story has guided since it ‘found me’  but I have resisted telling it in deference to sensitivities about cultural appropriation.  But my personal connection to this story feels so strong, and now that I have seen numerous retellings in print and on the internet, my feeling is that this story is screaming to be told at a time like this, a time when we simply cannot remain as strangers to each other.
Off on an adventure, I’d landed in Petersburg Alaska in the early spring, totally broke and desperate for a job, any job.  In a small cafe, a Vista volunteer working in Kake, suggested that I take a boat to this island community and try a get a job as a deck hand on a fishing boat since the Halibut season was not far off.  The conversation was overheard by some of the locals who exhorted me mostly as follows…”Don’t do it kid.  Those natives will throw you overboard and you’ll be food for the sand fleas.”  They truly were trying to dissuade me.  I don’t know if it was providence, stubbornness, curiosity, or simply my desperate financial straights, but an hour later I was on my way to Kake.

Here’s how I was greeted.  After being introduced by that Vista volunteer to one of the prominent families in the village, I was offered a place to sleep on one of the village fishing boats and a place at the table to eat with the family every day for several weeks until the fishing season started.  Some inquiries were made and when fishing commenced, I had a job. I was the greenhorn and I mean true greenhorn on a halibut boat where the next youngest member of the crew was 80 years old. No doubt I was somewhat of a curiosity , but the point is that as an outsider, I was welcomed and embraced, and this proved to be just the first of many years of my experience of native hospitality.  Had I listened to the bigots, and yes, that’s what they were,  and not ventured to the village, my life might have proven to have been very different.
Now the folktale.  It’s important to remember that I did not encounter this tale, from this village until years after I left.

The Man Who Entertained the Bears

A man of the Raven clan living had grown very old.  His friends were gone, passed away and he felt sad to think that he was left alone. He began to think about how he might leave that lonely place or even end his own life.  He thought that he might paddle away to another village, but then said to himself, ” I will be a stranger there and if  the people there see that I am alone, they may think that I have run away from my own village,  or been banished for some disgraceful thing.

It then occurred to him to go to the bears and let the bears kill him. The village was at the mouth of a large salmon creek and there found a bear trail and lay down right in the middle of it.

“ Let the bears find me here at eat me,” he decided.

Soon after, as he lay there, he heard the sounds of twigs and bushes breaking and saw a large number of grizzly bears coming toward him.  The largest bear was in the lead,  a huge old Silvertip- the tips of his hairs were white as that old mans hair.  Suddenly the man imagined the sound of his own bones breaking and thought that perhaps being eaten by the bears was not such a good idea.

Very quickly now the bears were close upon him. He jumped up. The  Silvertip stoop so that they were facing each other.  The hair on the man’s next stood up.  The fur on Silvertip’s neck stood up.

“I  am here,” said the man,  summoning his courage,  “to invite you to a feast.” I have come to invite you to a feast tomorrow, but, if you are going to kill me,  I am willing to die. I am alone. I have lost all of friends,  my children, and my wife.”

At this, Silvertip grunted, turned about and led the other bills back up the trail.

“I think they have accepted my invitation,” the man thought.

When he got home he began to prepare for the feast. He cleaned and made his house a welcoming place,  then he told the  other people in the village about his encounter with the bears and invited them all to the feast.

“You have done a very foolish and dangerous thing,” they replied.  The bears are our enemies. We will not come!”

For the feast, the man prepared dishes that the bears would enjoy, salmon,  berries, and more.  The next morning he saw the bears coming from the mouth of the creek. The other villagers saw them too, peeking from their doors but afraid to come out. But he stood still to receive them. brought them into the house and gave them seats, placing Silvertip in the middle of the house and the rest around him.

The feast began with large trays of cranberries preserved in grease.  Then tray after tray of salmon and other foods were passed from bear to bear.  When they they were finished, Silvertip rose on his hind legs and began to address the man  for quite some time. Then he turned and led the other bears out towards the forest.  As each bear left, it licked the paint with which that the man had adorned his arms and chest with.

The next day, the smallest of the  bear came back, but it seemed to the man to be in almost human form and spoke to him in  his own Tlingit language.

“I was once a human being. I was a young baby, lost in the forest.  The bears adopted me, protected me, and taught me their ways. Now I am mostly a bear, but I still remember my childhood language.  Silvertip asked me if you understood what he said to you at the feast yesterday?”

The man replied, “I felt that he was thanking me, but no, I did not understand everything.”

“He was telling you,” the bear man said, “that he is in the same condition as you. He too has lived long and has lost all of his friends. Many are the ways in which we are the same.  He had heard of you before he saw you. He told you to think of him when you are mourning for your lost ones. or when you are lonely.”  And with that the bear man returned to the forest and his companions.

(Here’s a link to the original English version of the story.

http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/nw/tmt/tmt088.htmI’ve shortened and adapted it slightly but trust that the intent and spirit of the story has been conveyed.  Again, this is offered humbly and with thanks to those who have told and may continue to tell the story in and around Kake.  Please know that my time there was a turning point in my life, a time when I began to see and understand my place in the world in a much broader way,  way that opened up a whole new way of seeing, thinking and relating)

This story was narrated to Swanton by a man named Kasank, who added this commentary to the tale.

“From this we learn,” said Kasank, that when when we give a feast, no matter if a person may be an enemy, it is good to invite him to the meal and become friends just as this man did with the bears.”
This story began working on me as soon as I heard it.  I was early into my storytelling career and discovering that for me, storytelling was not so much about performance as it was about encounter and being together with people in an authentic and convivial way.  It lead me to work with my wife and storytelling partner Liz and a great group of friends to create community events we have come to call F.E.A.S.T!  Families Eating and Storytelling Together.  The intent has always been to bring people together – people of different ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds for a shared meal, and shared stories.

Food and stories are what I’d call the universal solvent of  differences and mistrust.  Break bread with each other, share stories- true stories, stretched stories, hard stories, folktales, jokes, jests, stories of fools stories of wise ones, love stories, reconciliation stories… and we find out, like the man and Silvertip, how beyond the knotty differences, just how much we have in common.

Finally for now, I’d just like to add, that it’s not just about sitting down with an adversary or an enemy.  Families have their daily, and sometimes drawn out stresses, arguments, and grudges.  We can start on Thanksgiving day of course, but any day, any meal can be a time to be together, eat together, and make peace with ourselves and each other.  And that would truly be a grace and a blessing.

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In a previous post (Stop the War) I wrote about the practice of Nevermind, the rare ability to let go of a strongly held position,  which for me is epitomized by Liz’s classic retort “in that case, I disagree with my previous statement!”
Staying with the motif, today I offer this story from the Well of the World.
Two men came to the village rabbi with a dispute.  What was the dispute about?  The details have long been forgotten, but this much of the story remains.  First one of the villagers made his case, explaining the ‘facts’ in great detail. The rabbi wrinkled his brow, stroked his beard, thought hard and replied, “ You’re absolutely right!”

Then it was the other man’s turn.  He came forward made his case, refuted his adversary point by point, then anxiously awaited the rabbi’s judgement.  Again, there was the furrowed brow, again whiskers were tugged, and a judgement was rendered. “You’re absolutely right!” said the rabbi.

It so happened that on that day, the rabbi’s wife was listening to the whole affair from the next room.   “Rabbi, what kind of justice is this?   These men argue two sides of the question, their positions are completely opposed.  They can’t both be right.”   Again the rabbi retreated into deep thought.  “Aha!” he exclaimed. “You’re absolutely right!

Was the rabbi a fool, a charlatan or a wise man?   You’re absolutely right!

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