You belong on the earth

I doubt there has ever been a time in history when more people in more varied walks of life have been labeled and told they are unwanted or don't belong. 

I know many people are hurting deeply right now for reasons of life and death, separation from family and elimination of basic freedom. It can feel like other groups who have merely been mocked, degraded or threatened are not in the same boat and that they do not understand the gravity of the situation. 

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

Creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

We don't all understand every part. We don't all know what it is to stand in one another's shoes. But we do have more in common than we have misunderstandings. 

Your experiences are real and you are not alone. 

And yet it has become unfashionable to have a group identity. We love individuals and we don't like being pigeon-holed. We may be part of one culture, ethnicity, faith, group or class but we are rarely "typical"  of that label and we simultaneously belong to others.

Our media culture idolizes the person who refuses to associate with a group. We have also become educated enough to know that each identity is unique.

I love non-conformity as much as the next person, but too much exceptionalism has its costs. Now when so many of us are truly threatened, we spend precious energy arguing among ourselves and debating who has a greater right to outrage.  We disagree about trivial things or the specific solutions to our problems and thus we don't address immediate threats together. 

At least that's how it has gone down in the past.

Right now there are many groups forming and fluctuating. Membership in both the KKK and the ACLU have skyrocketed. Lines are being drawn and often they are based on an ideology or a particular identity. I personally support the ACLU and other organizations like Greenpeace, the NAACP and Doctors Without Borders. But the point isn't exactly which groups I want to support (as long as it isn't a racist, terrorist or otherwise harmful group)..

We also need broader places where all those who have common interests can belong. 

It isn't so much the strength in numbers that I want. We need a sense of common cause and solidarity. True belonging comes not from the accident of your birth, culture or label, but rather from your choices, values and convictions.

It is time to set down the most basic tenants of what we belong to, the lines which we won't cross and which enclose all of us. This must be at once broad enough for all and clear enough to mean something.

Here are some ideas of where we belong:: 

  • We are open to all races, religions, ability types, sexual orientations, nationalities, ages and appearances.
  • We recognize the right of people to express their identity and culture, to have a voice in public and a connection to their land and people.
  • We know that power entails responsibility.
  • We speak up when we or others are prejudicially attacked or stereotyped.
  • We are concerned about ecological issues and we respect the earth which we depend on for our lives.
  • We take whatever action is feasible and effective in our personal situations to protect the earth, water, air, other species and one another.
  • We recognize that facts exist and can be documented, while context can consist of many facts.
  • We believe that people have a right to true information and that money and incorporation should not accord greater rights to any individual or group. 
  • We insist that the resources of the earth are held in common and must not be exploited for the profit of a few.
  • We believe each person has the right to freedom that does not harm or restrict others.
  • We strive to be kind and welcoming toward newcomers and to work out differences respectfully.
creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

creative Commons image by Matt Drobnik

There will necessarily be some who haven't explored all of these issues in-depth. But we should be able to agree on the basic values of inclusion and protection of that which sustains our lives.

Still there will be some who choose to reject these values. I have been part of many ecological or earth-based groups and some of them do not hold the same values of openness toward people of different paths and backgrounds that I demand. On the other hand, there are also many groups that are concerned with social justice but don't take the immediate crisis of climate change seriously.

:Environmental concern and the love of diversity are deal breakers for me--two things I simply cannot do without.

Don't get me wrong. Groups can specialize. Not every parenting group must be focused on environmental issues as well as parenting. But I can't feel truly loyal to a group that openly expresses their disregard for environmental concerns, anymore than I can feel welcome in a group with borderline racist statements, no matter how good they are on something else. These are life and death issues that can't be compromised. 

I have no problem with the fact that Facebook groups connected to Black Lives Matter are unlikely to be regularly posting about climate change. Many groups accept these values but focus on one particular need.

I don't demand that environmental groups spend time and attention on anti-racism stuff. However, I could not very well put my loyalty in a multicultural group that irrelevantly professed disdain for tree-huggers and climate scientists, anymore than I can feel comfortable in an earth-centered group that occasionally throws up closet racist posts.

This isn't to say that I will only join groups that agree with all of my opinions. Far from it.

I have an abundance of opinions. I still love Star Trek after all these years, my favorite pizza involves lots of really hot peppers and seared garlic, I think J. K. Rowling is a damned good writer but the seventh book had some issues, And I think dish rags should be changed about every three days.

Those are opinions. And I don't expect members of a group I'm in to agree with them. And that extends to more relevant opinions too. I have my views on economic systems, health care and electoral processes. But these are things we can work out. What level of gun regulation we should have is debatable. I can and have had informative discussions with people who disagree on things like that. 

Therein lies the distinction perhaps. I don't think there is room to casually debate whether or not we'll believe in science and facts or whether we will accept all people of every religion and color. Those who agree on these things need a place to belong where we can learn from the rest of our differences without being constantly bogged down by an inability to agree on ground rules.

That is why I have founded a group called Belonging on the Earth. It is small and not diverse enough as of yet. I hope you will join and find it a welcoming community. Currently the group is starting on Facebook. You can join it here. I am the administrator for now and I can ensure that it is a safe and respectful place. This is a group for those who agree on fundamental values but may not agree on many other things. As the group grows other administrators will be added who can help to foster the openness of the group.

Not everyone is into Facebook and eventually there will be other ways to belong to this community. If you can't join the Facebook group, I encourage yo to join my hearth-side email circles below and keep in touch through the comments on this webpage.

You belong on the earth. Your experiences are real and you are not alone.

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

Stand with those under attack: A simple gift you can give for free

There are a lot of messages out there at this time of year aimed at getting you to give to good causes. And many of those causes really do help people--ensuring that hungry people eat, refugees receive shelter and sick people get care. 

It is very gratifying to have enough to give materially. But maybe you are not one of the people who can. Or if you do give materially, you may want to give in other ways as well.

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Fdecomite of Flickr.com

Right at the moment, many people are feeling that the future is bleak. There is sorrow at every turn and a looming sense of potential disaster. It is easy to become pessimistic and resort to hunkering down in our own homes, hoping the storm will pass us by.

I've been feeling that way myself and fighting for inspiration in my writing. It's humbling that the answer came to me from my younger brother.  And he probably has no idea he proposed something so actionable. 

Here's how it happened. My brother said he was going to write a letter to the local newspaper. I'd heard him saying how concerned he is about the rise in vocal racism and the apathy of many others to respond. He used to be quite idealistic and recent events had brought him nearly to tears. He's also living out in a rural area that voted nearly 70 percent for Trump, so what options did he have?

I thought I knew what to expect of his letter to a local paper. He's diplomatic, but still I thought he would try to talk some sense into his neighbors one way or another.

He did a bit but he also put something else in his letter: "I invite immigrants into this community. I will protect you physically and emotionally... People of color, people who look different, act different, are different are welcome here in this valley."

I've heard many people say they want to stand by immigrants, people of color or Muslims. And that's nice and all. But mostly we are saying these things in our bubble, whether it's on Facebook or among friends. 

We're not only not persuading anyone not to be racist, we aren't even telling the people in need of support about this. But my brother hit on a good idea, a new spin on writing letters to local newspapers. Don't write to persuade people who probably won't listen to an opposing view. Don't write to officials who aren't going to change their policies.

Instead write your letters to the people who are now living with the greatest uncertainty and fear. Address them directly.

Think of Christian refugees from Syria celebrating their first Christmas in the United States while being harassed for being Arabs. Imagine a Muslim child learning to read English opening up the local paper for homework and finding your letter. Then write with that audience in mind.

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Creative Commons image by the Oregon Department of Transportation

Tell your friends and imagine a flood of such letters. 

I welcome you. I stand by you. I am a friend. I want to have people of color, people speaking different languages, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Pagans. Hindus, people of varied gender identities and people of all shapes, sizes and talents in my community. We would miss out, if you were not here. We would be poorer and our town would lack its interest and sparkle. I want you here and I will say it openly. I won't be silent if there is hate speech or hateful policies. I am sorry for these terrifying times. I, for one, stand with you. 

There are a great many of us who agree with these statements, but we mostly say them to each other. Let's say them to the people who feel excluded and attacked. Let's start a campaign of letters to our communities, rather than to officials. 

Go ahead and make it specific. Write to foreign students or immigrants or women who have undergone an abortion or people with visible and invisible disabilities or the quiet people of non-Christian faiths who repeat "Merry Christmas" cheerily without ever hearing their own holidays mentioned. 

You will touch someone deeply, almost certainly make someone's day or week. And if enough of us do it, you will also open the hearts of others who may need to look beyond their personal experience to believe in good people of every kind. It doesn't matter if you are also personally one of the people affected by the uncertainty. There is still someone out there who will be glad to hear you stand with them.

A holiday letter seems like an overly simple thing to give. But under some circumstances it can be a great gift.

And thank you for reading my writing this year. I wish you comfort, simple joy and shared love in this season.

Surviving the new reality

Rain drums on the roof as I write. I am on enforced rest. Doctor's orders. I could cry for joy over the rest, except that the eye surgeon has forbidden me to express intense emotions. 

But you get the idea. I don't feel sick but I'm supposed to stay inside, keep warm, not work much and be at peace. I know, I wish I could spread it around a little too.

The only downside of this is a feeling of vulnerability that comes with the isolation.  I hesitate to venture out much, even on-line. I am a bit breakable and the world has suddenly become doubly harsh.

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

I saw a post from an old work colleague about attacks against people of color in the US. I wrote in a quick reply of support and bittersweet humor. And instead of solidarity, my old office-mate lashed out at me, labeling me an "sheltered white expat." 

I instantly had the urge to fight back. I'm not one who takes things lying down or turns the other cheek. Sure, I'm white and I know better than many white people what privileges and protections that entails. I am highly aware when I meet police officers that I am wearing the backpack of white privilege--then and many other times. I also know that when any country is in the grip of fear that there is an understandable anger toward emigres--those who left, no matter how good their reasons. 

On the other hand, I'm also a person with a significant physical disability. I'm up against the wall in this too. My children are not white and they are newly naturalized citizens. Will we ever be able to go back to visit my home and family again? That is not an idle question in these post-election days. We are also in a country (the Czech Republic) that Donald Trump has pledged to put a military base in. We are isolated for the moment, but far from off the hook. 

Still, I bit my lip and said none of that. I know well the furious emotions raging in my colleague's post. I replied only to express more simple and direct support for her. I told her I am an ally and I understand her words. She and another friend continued to express anger and rejection toward me. There was no reconciliation. 

I am worried.

I'm saddened to lose a connection to someone I enjoy simply due to these terrible times. But I am even more worried by what this negative interaction among allies means for our people--the people of our country, citizens and non-citizens, all cultures and all backgrounds. We're stuck in this together, after all. 

My home county in Oregon reportedly voted 67 percent for Trump. There are people I call friends who did and likely even a few only moderately distant relatives. And if I cannot meet a friend who agrees with me in support and solidarity, if we are so divided that I am the enemy even when I am not across the political divide, how... oh gods, how will we live with those who really do hate and choose a hateful leader? 

Let's take a moment to forget that Trump even exists. 

Sigh. Now doesn't that feel better? 

But wait a minute. There's a problem. We've made Trump disappear but we haven't made the many people who vehemently support him disappear. Sure, we can say they are a minority, as few as 20 percent of the nation and not even most of the voters. But they are enough and we have to live with them, Trump or no Trump.

I have always felt this because of where I grew up, far from the cosmopolitan and high-thinking coasts. I love visiting Portland, Seattle, New York or Francisco for precisely this reason. Our bubble of acceptance and freedom feels so good. 

But we forget that this is not all of the nation at our peril. We ignore rage at our peril. We belittle politically incorrect antagonism at our peril. We've seen that now.

I know it is hard to think about surviving the next four years. But we will... most of us at least. And here is how I propose to do it:

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

  • If there is a registry for Muslims, get on it. I'll be a Muslim on paper.  If we're all on the list, the list will have no teeth.
  • Talk to Trump supporters. Really talk and listen. Listen to what motivates them, what they are upset about. Share your thoughts with respect and without contempt.  They are people and most people are susceptible to change, even if slow change.
  • Promote facts, everywhere, over and over again. The media will not help, so we have to do it. Talk about facts, post them, remember them, make lists. Don't let up about climate change.
  • Explain white privilege, primarily if you're white. Explain it again and again and again until you're sick of it and then explain it to more people. There is no way we're as sick of explaining it as Black, Hispanic and Native American people are.
  • Talk to the person no one is talking to at a gathering. Invite the disabled colleague or classmate to whatever. Connect. 
  • Make your circle bigger. Whatever it is you can give easily, put it in. Got a neighbor with younger kids who could use some of your nicer used clothes? Got extra veggies from the garden? Got wood or materials or whatever? Buy less, trade more, reuse more. Gain your security from community.
  • Take care of your own basic needs with as little resources as possible. Reduce plastics and fossil fuels in whatever ways you can. And remember you'll do more and better if you're rested, healthy and fed. Don't wait to be taken care of. Stand strong, think ahead, link arms.

My hope is with you. 

Overwhelmed? There's one choice we always end up making

I walk my kids to preschool in the pouring rain. It’s about a mile and a half and it wouldn’t be so bad except the main road through town and the buildings on either side of it are a couple of hundred years old. This means that massive regional traffic is now being squeezed through a single-lane road that was originally meant for nothing more than the occasional farmer’s handcart. To get around this bottleneck my kids and I would have to walk an extra couple of miles.

A deluge of mud and water sprays across a narrow sidewalk from the wheels of a passing bus. Creative Commons image by Matt Biddulp.

A deluge of mud and water sprays across a narrow sidewalk from the wheels of a passing bus. Creative Commons image by Matt Biddulp.

The sidewalks are often no wider than a sheet of printer paper (and sometimes they’re entirely non-existent). Add in overloaded drainage systems and the fact that most of the inhabitants of the hilly country around our town drive large vehicles and live lifestyles in which walking is considered eccentric (and voluntary).

All told, it isn’t very pleasant to get to the preschool or to the medical center on the other side of town. 

An endless stream of cars roars by, pushing and then exceeding the speed limit even though there isn’t much space between them. Each one in turn sends a wave of dirty, oily water spraying across my legs and across the torsos of the children. Each driver would have to look in their rear view mirror to see the spray of water they have personally hit us with. But they can all see the car in front of them squirting the sludge on us.

If they looked... if they thought at all, they would know that their car is going to do it too. They don't think or they don't care. Hard to say which.

We come to a tiny cramped parking lot for three vehicles in front of a shop. I go in front, keeping my children behind me as I carefully make my way around their bumpers, just inches from the zipping, roaring traffic. Sure enough one of the parked cars jolts into motion without warning just as I step behind it. The driver was probably trying to get into a tiny break in the traffic on the main road. He slams on his brakes and I jump backward but his bumper still comes in contact with my leg. I make my way toward the front of his car, to get around in the gap he has now left there. (Yes, he turns out to be a man.) We exchange angry words.

“People shouldn’t walk out in this. It’s ridiculous!” He looks frazzled and he is obviously not thinking about the fact that I’m carrying a white cane. If I want to get to work, get to a doctor or get my kids to school, I have to walk. 

We continue down the tiny sidewalk--walking the gauntlet of deafening noise, noxious fumes and greasy spray—with the very real possibility of sudden death only inches away.
I’m juggling a white cane and an umbrella against the pouring rain, but my small daughter takes my hand anyway and when the sidewalk broadens enough that we can walk side by side, she asks, “Mama, why are people so mean?”

A woman holds an umbrella to try to block a gush of muddy water showering her from a passing car. Creative Commons image by Brett Jordan. 

A woman holds an umbrella to try to block a gush of muddy water showering her from a passing car. Creative Commons image by Brett Jordan. 

I’m already having enough trouble with my emotions and I clench my teeth, unable to answer without saying something hateful that a child shouldn’t hear. 

But right then the car coming toward us on the road slows remarkably. The driver doesn’t slam on the brakes, but simply slows to a more reasonable speed. There is nothing else around except us in the narrow road and the street is open and empty in front of the car. The frustrated drivers in the cars behind the slow one crowd up on the bumper, but that one vehicle goes past us without spraying dirty water. I can only tell it’s silver. I can’t see anyone behind the windshield or even the make of the car. 

But it gives me the chance I need. “They aren’t all mean,” I tell my daughter, while I reach back to make sure my five-year-old son is still right behind us. “Did you see that car slow down?”

“That was a nice one,” my daughter says.

“That’s right. We get to choose if we’re kind or cruel,” I tell my kids.

Your Choice

When a kid grows up with any sort of significant disadvantage, she'll necessarily have some limits on her choices in life. But this is one thing my kids get to choose, even if they don't have all the privileges bestowed by wealth or white skin. One day they will be adults in this hectic, crazy-making world and they'll get to choose to be thoughtful about their actions and words... or not. They'll get to drive and slow down when they see someone trapped between a gutter of water and a wall... or not. They'll get to carefully avoid racially loaded language, ablelist metaphors and national slurs... or not. These are all part of the choice to be mindful of our impact in the world (or not). 

Here is a truth. I actually don’t think all the people rushing by and drenching us want to be cruel. I know how hectic and pressured their lives are—bait-and-switch professional jobs, kids who have to be all-stars in order to even be considered for the college track high schools, rising prices, bills to pay, health troubles of their own. There is virtually no one who doesn’t have to struggle. 

And to have the presence of mind to slow down in order to avoid drenching someone at a narrow spot in the road? It isn’t easy. 

Another thing. White people don't want to be cruel when we accidentally assume the one person at the meeting with brown skin must be the maid or when we let racist rhetoric slide in our professional, social or religious circles and pass it off as "a difference of opinion." Most white people today, if they stop to think, know better. But thinking... taking action in a group like the driver who made sure several other cars slowed down and didn't splash us... takes mindfulness and focus. And it is damned hard to focus with what's going on around us--in life and in the media. 

Presence of mind is key though. It isn’t enough to want to be a benevolent. We must also cut through the chaos and focus enough to see where we may unwittingly do genuine harm. Being mindful of our impact both on other people and on the environment (and thus on future generations) is no small thing. But it is what differentiates kindness from cruelty and often defines self-respect.

A Mindfulness List

Some of us like to make lists and lists can help us to remember, not just to buy bread, but also to remember the things we are aware of sometimes but need to be mindful of all the time. Mindfulness lists might include changing habits of speech that have become offensive in society, doing less harm in our consumption, moving and relating in ways that don't hurt others and so forth and anything else where you've thought "I didn't mean to hurt anyone by doing that but I did."

Here are a few examples of the things I want to remember to be mindful of myself—despite how overwhelmed or frazzled I might be with my many hats and roles in life. This is my personal list--not the most important things in the world. Many things that are important I am already am mindful of. That's why I don't have avoiding racially stereotyped language or recycling on this list. Those were on my list twenty years ago and now I'm constantly mindful of them. Here's my current list:

  • Say hello to and thank people in low-status jobs, such as cleaners and catering staff.
  • Whenever possible buy from companies that pay their employees a living wage no matter what country they work in. 
  • If I want to ask a person of color to speak on their ethnic group, make sure I've asked them to speak on an area of professional, academic or other expertise unrelated to their ethnic group in the past.
  • If I'm around when someone makes a dismissive or belittling comment about a disadvantaged group or uses derogatory language (even if they don’t mean anything by it), I  want to be someone who speaks up. Educate gently at first, then firmly if necessary. 
  • Speak to children, foreigners and people with developmental disabilities in a normal voice. Take a smidgen of extra time to make sure you’ve understood them. 
  • When attending a racially diverse meeting, make sure someone of a background different from my own has been heard from before speaking up for a second time. 
  • Notice when I accidentally judge and jump to conclusions about another. Stop and reconsider. Weigh the known facts and toss out assumptions and statistical probabilities, when it comes to another person.
  • Don’t swat honey bees or bumble bees, use a rag to swipe them back outdoors. (I know that one sounds trivial by comparison but in the scheme of things, who knows. It's my current environmental awareness goal and it's hard because of my vision impairment and moderate bee allergies.)

What's on your mindfulness list?

We won’t be perfect. Life can be crazy and we're often trying to do things more long-range than these as well. These are just acts of mindfulness, not anything that will change the world. We also want to do serious work for positive change. 

Maybe that is the most important thing I wish to remember. 

  • Expect that everyone you meet is probably pretty frazzled and usually for reasons beyond their control. Cut people some slack.

Keep trying to be the sort of person you respect.