Thursday, February 25, 2010

Let it Begin with Me

Peace.  Let peace begin with me.
We sing it in our churches.
We say it at our gatherings of like-minded friends.
We put the bumper stickers on our cars, the magnets on our refrigerators, and the symbol on our clothing.

All we are saying, after all, is give peace a chance.  In Palestine.  In Iraq.  In Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Uganda, the Ivory Coast.  And, please Dear Creator of All that Breathes...let it begin with me. 

Ah, but who really knows where to begin?  Peace is so unwieldy and the world is so messy.  What does a well-resourced private citizen living in the middle of a gun loving, cowboy-minded, peacenik-disparaging state do?   Vote and call it a day?   Send an occasional letter to a congressperson?  Weep over war stats?

Mother Teresa said this:  Peace begins with a smile.

So I'd like to share a mission of peace my friend Jane has just returned from.  In Peru.  She went for business, but hooked up with an unlikely peace organization before she left - World Hoop Day.  The mission of World Hoop Day is this: to bring dance, exercise and toy hoops to under-privileged children living in extreme poverty and the underdeveloped neighborhoods of our world.

Hula hoops for peace?  It seems a bit ludicrous, I agree.  A month ago, when Jane asked a group of us to help her make the hoops she would be taking to Peru, we all signed up. But, I confess, I secretly scoffed.  Hula hoops?  Really?  Children of the world need food and shelter and education.  Not hula hoops.

But as Jane posted photos this week of her hula hoop distribution in one of Peru's poorest villages, I became a believer in the power of simple joy.  Take a look.

No, it's not a treaty signing or a cease fire or a water well or a school.  It's a box full of $10 hula hoops in one small village in Peru.

And a community full of smiles. 

Let there be peace on earth. It begins when we believe we have joy worth sharing.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Who Are These People?

Apparently one of them shopped for groceries in my neighborhood.  And lived in a big suburban house like mine.  And played in a band like many of my friends do.  And flew his own plane like lots of people my age wish they could do.  It does not take much imagination to conjure up Joe Stack, the upper-middle class American who seems to have intentionally flown a Piper Cherokee into an office building five miles from my house yesterday morning.

  Joseph  Stack

 In addition to killing himself, it appears he killed one other person.  Another neighbor who lives in another nearby suburb who apparently enjoyed his work, loved his large family, and rode to the office with his wife every morning.

 Vernon Hunter

So, there was no need to research the annual GDP, or the literacy rate, or the availability of water in a poverty riddled nation to try to understand the angst of the Austin Suicide Bomber.  He could not have been more like one of us.  If I'd written his character into a ficticious story, I'm betting many readers of the tale would have told me the character just wasn't believable.  And, really, he wasn't.

He had the wife, the family, the house, the plane, the education, the independence, and the opportunity that frames the American Dream.  But he also had an important bolt missing from his brain - the one that holds back the kind of rationale that advances the theory:  "Nothing changes unless there is a body count."

The change Joe Stack believed required a body count was tax reform. I'm not sure where to turn for information that would help me understand Joe Stack - a man from my neighborhood and my income bracket with my unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But Joe Stack is not the only unbelievable character in this story. 

Meet Tyler Britten of Texas.

 Tyler Britten
According to the New York Daily News, Tyler was quick to join a "Joe Stack Fan Club" on Facebook yesterday afternoon, a few hours before Facebook removed it. Tyler reportedly posted this comment at the site:  "His sacrifice was for all of us." 

Throw on Emily Waters of Louisville, Kentucky who wrote: Finally an American man took a stand against our tyrannical government that no longer follows the Constitution.

Stir in Greg Lenihan of San Diego who tweeted: "Joe Stack, you are a true American Hero and we need more of you to make a stand."

Who ARE these people?

My friend Jane sent me an email last night, puzzling over that very question.  I liked her conclusion: "Can you say Taliban?" 


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Remember You Are Dust

It's that awkward day of the year...

The day Christians show up in their places of worship to be marked with a smudge of a cross and reminded: "You are dust, and to the dust you shall return." The ashes on the forehead symbolize penance and contrition. It's the beginning of the season of Lent.

I have a 23-year old on my mind this Ash Wednesday evening.  An army specialist from Austin, Texas named Bobby Pagan.  Bobby was killed in action over the weekend in Afghanistan.  He was on foot patrol, when a suicide bomber drove up on a motorcycle and exploded an IED that killed him. 

Bobby Pagan is returning to dust.  Just like that.

In a flag-draped coffin.

Two weeks before he was scheduled to come home and be married.

So today, every time I've seen the smudgey reminder that I am dust, the penitent spirit in me has whispered, "Does your lifestyle require these wars?"

I have decided to give up complacency for Lent.

To seek peace and pursue it.

Before one more 23-year old becomes dust...


Friday, February 12, 2010

A Rose by Another Name?

Roses at my neighborhood high-priced organic market were $1.24 each today.  A bargain, I suppose - but you had to commit to 24 roses at that price - $29.99.  In our generally depressed economy, I'm guessing no one will miss the extravagance that is an armful of roses at the door this Valentine's Day.  

Please don't.

Especially if you live in Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia, anything red or heart shaped or rose-related is against the law this week.  A red rose, if you can score one in the underground network of risk-taking florists, is $8.  For one rose.  But the truth is, you probably can't get one.  Not a pair of red socks or boxers with hearts on them either.  Or candy hearts with catchy messages like:  BE MINE or THE ONE or YOU'RE HOT stamped on them.   The religious police in Saudi Arabia - the Mutawwa - have been ordering anything red or heart-shaped off retailer's shelves for the last couple of weeks.

Valentine's Day is against the law in Saudi Arabia...
which is a country ruled by a king...
who adheres to the constitution...
which is the Qur'an...
the holy book of Islam.

Saudi Arabia, you might say, is a Muslim nation. 

And because Valentine's Day has a vaguely defined connection to one of three canonized saints from the Catholic tradition - well, you can probably see the problem.  It's just not cool to give a Christian saint a nod of honor, even if it is the patron saint of love.

So...don't go looking for chocolates in heart shaped boxes in Saudi Arabia.

Or a movie theater.
Or a live music venue.
Or men and women chatting in public.
Or women driving cars. Or riding bicycles. Or showing their knees.

None of that is allowed either.

Really - for the love of roses - who's in favor of a church state? 


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Life in Marjah

Can you imagine it for a minute?

You may not be rich - the average annual income in Marjah is $800.  But you likely have access to the indigenous culture and basic amenities and social structure that is present in any mid-sized town - one the size of, say, Berkeley, California or Albany, New York or Gary, Indiana.  Perhaps you run a small clothing business, or work in a cafe, or teach in a school.  The soil is rich in your area of Afghanistan, so there is a good chance you know some cotton farmers.

You probably are also very familiar with the annual blooming season of this crop:

A couple of weeks ago, you might have picked up what you thought was litter in the street, only to discover it was a leaflet intentionally dropped by NATO to warn you, and your friendly neighborhood Taliban gang, of imminent attack.  If you aren't among the 1% of the population that made it out of town before yesterday, you are likely locked down in your house today, and are whispering prayers that begin with Sam'i Allahu liman hamidah (God hears those who call upon him).

And you are hoping God is listening.

Hundreds of US Marines, Afghan military forces, and other armed members of the International Security Assistance Forces have set up camp on the perimeter of your town, and are promising a showdown with the 2,000 Taliban members who have decided to put up a fight to prove who's boss in Afghanistan.   People say it will be the biggest battle in the country since the US showed up to rout terrorism in your homeland eight years ago.  

And you, my friend in Marjah, have a seat on the front line.

There are mines in your streets and the Taliban's improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are scattered everywhere.  They say a new and bigger IED has been made.  You have heard people call it the Omar, and they say it cannot be detected by US mine scans.   You have no idea how much damage the Omar might do. Now or later. 

You have heard the Taliban is ready to fight to the death to deny Afghan government control of this area.

Machine gun fire began two days ago - just after the sound of helicopters filled the air.  Your children are afraid.  Your old people are angry.  You are confused.

The Taliban lives in your province because it is a center of financial resource for the organization. Ten-percent of the world's opium is produced here - helped along, in part, by irrigation systems built by the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.  The drug trade is rife with corruption and fear, but it is lucrative.  As long as the Taliban is allowed to make its profit - there is peace and a measure of prosperity.

Today, the reality that the Taliban has made some fierce enemies has come to your backyard.   Those enemies have sworn to put an end to "business as usual."   NATO's top dog in the area has said this:
"People need to be under no illusion -- this operation is going to succeed, we are going to bring Afghan government sovereignty to this area." - Mark Sedwill
And so, when you look outside, to check on the neighbor who has no wood to build a fire on this cold, windy, and overcast day, perhaps you are distracted by this:

And you go back to your prayers. 

For peace.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Quiet Revolution

I have steeped myself in short stories this week...part of the fun of an annual contest I enter, as much for the access it affords to the works of a multitude of creative writers as for the wacky assignments, deadlines and potential contest winnings.  It seems important to be reminded, at least annually, of the spectacular brilliance out there in the world of made up stories.  I have read some doozies this week.

One of the stories that's lingered in my head is an historical fiction piece called Records on Ribs.  If you're my age and from Russia - you probably know exactly what the story is about.  If you're my age and from Texas - you may be thinking it's a story about a barbecue cook-off, like I did.

In fact, it's a well-crafted tale about the lengths Russians went to to listen to the music of The Beatles in the 1960s and '70s - including recording boot-legged copies of Beatles records onto discarded x-ray films and distributing the copies through underground networks.  Records on ribs - get it? 

It's all true

It seems The Beatles' place in Soviet history is as catalysts for an erosion of authority in Russia that ultimately destroyed communism.  Beatle music was, in the words of a Russian doctor still living in Minsk today, "A quiet revolution in our brains. We had it in our hearts."

Russia's Communist Party leader, Nikita Khrushchev, did not approve of The Beatles' music. "It is not far from saxaphones to switch blades," he warned the Russian people.

But the people knew better. They had it in their hearts.  And thus began a quiet revolution in their brains.

The Beatles' music changed the way an entire generation of Russian people dressed, coiffed, spoke, and regarded their government. The music produced a cultural revolution that, ultimately, destroyed the hold of the status quo east of the Iron Wall. 

They had it in their hearts...and so the revolution began quietly in their brains. 

I am savoring this notion that people are changed by what they ponder their hearts and know in their brains.  It is giving me great comfort during this week of "health care waffling," and "don't ask, don't tell testifying," and "war making worries in yet another Middle Eastern country"...

Just as the people of Russia knew the music they wanted to listen to was not leading to their demise, I want to believe people in the United States know in their hearts that a President who wants to save lives by increasing America's access to health care is not driving the country toward Marxism

Just as Soviet Beatles fans of the '60s knew the style of their hair and the collar on their jacket did not make them "capitalist criminals," I want to believe we the people of 2010 America know the sexual preference of a soldier in the US military is absolutely immaterial to the evaluation of that person's ability to serve the country.

And, just as Russians watched with a sense of daring and excitement as western culture seeped through the cracks in the wall of what had always been...I cling to hope that citizens of the USA are willing to fearlessly embrace a new kind of peacemaking in the world - one that gives life, not death

What really happens when we listen to our hearts and use our brains? 

The writer of Records on Ribs inspired me with this beautiful sentence about her Russian characters:   

Our government is changed because its children heard the music.
Find your groove, America.  Listen to the music of your heart.  Let the quiet revolution begin in your brain.