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Building Peace on Blue Mountain

I’ve just spent a week in Paradise. Okay, technically is was Costa Rica and my paradise was created by a genuinely loving but also savvy retreat center. I was fed fresh picked fruit, gently steered away from news and conventional entertainment, and encouraged to walk through lovely gardens and reflect. It worked and I did.

I also knew I was in a paradise created for those with the cash and support system to allow them to go on this sort of retreat. The idea of having people less fortunate than I conspire to create an idyllic week for me would normally give me at least some first world heartburn, but it didn’t. Here’s why.

I’m lucky enough to know more about this place and the people who run it. Human beings simply don’t come more compassionate. Employees are rewarded and respected and most have become family even if they didn’t start out that way. The degree of affection they have for each other is well beyond what any staff could be coached to fake.

The center, known as La Montaña Azul, is dedicated to sustaining the local environment. Located along the Talari River southeast of San Jose, the retreat has allocated 95% of its land (116 acres) as a natural sanctuary to protect the river and its flora and fauna. In addition, its proceeds support the local schools, help maintain the roads, and allow the center to provide free classes for the community. It’s hard to argue that you are doing harm by forking over your hard earned vacation dollars to this oasis of love.

IMG_5816This visit was my fourth one. I come here to study qigong, an ancient Chinese form of moving meditation that emphasizes energy flow and has helped both my writing and my wholeness as a human being over the last five years. I’m a different person without qigong, and not nearly as pleasant a one.

At this particular visit, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the center has taken on a new cause. They wish to bring about world peace. One might argue they’ve been slowly working at that all along, but this new approach is rather specific.

They have joined forces with an international group known as Peacebuilders. This amazing organization is striving to use restorative practices like meditation to keep young people out of the criminal justice system, to assist those of all ages in prisons and to further social justice. Though it has a presence in many countries, Peacebuilders is based out of Toronto and most active in Canada, where the organization began.

In Costa Rica, efforts are concentrated on the prison system. Inmates with sentences of forty or more years are trained in meditation, voluntarily spending hours a day in the program. The results are amazing. Recently, several such prisoners were certified to instruct others, as the program grows.

La Montaña Azul’s involvement began when the diminutive older woman who is manager and part owner of the retreat center walked, without guards, into a locked room filled with some of Costa Rica’s most hardened criminals. She laughs as she confesses she thought the guards were coming in behind her. The prisoners listened to her offer of an alternative, and today the retreat center provides instructors, resources and funds for the program. Guests at the retreat are asked to provide funds also.

You know we all did. After a week in Paradise, world peace seems like a totally reasonable goal. I hope the feeling will last.

 

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2018 in peace, travel

 

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This Is Not a Garden: Thoughts on Ecology and Immigration

I’m taking a series of gardening classes and this first one is about ecology. My brain is out of practice at paying attention to an instructor for three hours, and it’s already decided this first session is not what I came for. I’m consumed with figuring out how to grow more than three tomatoes a year and I can’t see how learning about ecosystems is going to help. My mind tries to wander off into some other odd territory.

To stay focused, I dutifully draw my own version of this triangle the instructor is discussing, explaining what kinds of plants will thrive in what sort of situation. As I finish, something clicks. Not about plants, but about humans.

Yes, I get how the adaptable plants win in a harsh environment. Witness the dessert cactus, the marshy sea grass and the northern lichens.

In places of havoc and tragedy, where death is frequent and unpredictable, I can see how plants that put most of their energy into procreation survive as a species. Ferns, ground covers like clover, and the common dandelion persist amid fires and flood.

I’ve labeled the top of my triangle “lucky plants” but these are not the instructor’s words. The top triangle is a well kept garden, given plenty of water, sunshine and fertile soil. The instructor says if you remove human care, the plants will not all stay in their neat rows in the proportions the humans have selected. Some will thrive and some will dwindle, and which does what is determined by how aggressive the plant is. Yes, in a place where life is easy, over time the more aggressive plants win.

I think humans have some sense of this and, to our detriment, some of us have taken to applying this philosophy to our politics. Allow me to explain with a diagram.

True, we have our own societies which have adapted to harsher climates around the world. The dessert, the far north and the Australian Outback all present challenges. When the situation is extreme enough, human populations face little competition for their niche.

Yes, historically, populations at the mercy of ongoing wars, and of natural disasters like frequent floods, wide-spread disease or famine, have tended to have more offspring, in hopes of having some survive.

It’s at the top of the triangle where I think we run into trouble.

First, I don’t think we begin to understand how the plant kingdom is interconnected and really works. So, this particular view of ecology may not be fair or accurate as far as plants are concerned. But even if it was ….

…. we’re not plants. We lack the gift of the plant kingdom, to obtain all we need from the sun and the soil. In return for having to devour other life to stay alive, we get mobility. With that comes the chance to rapidly alter our locations and to shape our environment.

We’ve got these terrific brains that get us in all sorts of trouble, but also allow us to improve our landscape and increase our resources. We can think our way into trouble, but we can also think our way out of it.

We have hearts. I don’t mean in the literal sense, though those are great, too. We have empathy and compassion and somewhere deep inside a sense of the way we are all interconnected. In our souls, we don’t want a life of ease at the expense of having others suffer. We aren’t oak trees crowding out the pines or killing off the grass. We can pretend otherwise, but a healthy human feels sadness at another’s loss.

We need to understand that we don’t live in a garden and we don’t have to beat others off with a stick lest they try crowd us out of it. We need to build our policies based on the philosophy of being entirely capable of working with others to make the our environment better and safer for all. With the sense and compassion that are our birthright as a species, we could have a planet in which we all thrive. So put those sticks away.

Class is ending and I gather up my notes and doodles. No, nothing in today’s class is going to help me grow more tomatoes. However, I think I might have a great idea for my blog.

 

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2018 in being better, oneness, peace

 

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It’s About What You Believe

kind2I learned to love Kurt Vonnegut decades ago, based on reading only six of his earliest and most famous works. Much later, I tried to read Breakfast of Champions and couldn’t get through it. I never even tried his later novels. He’d changed. I’d changed. Or maybe, I’d just gotten from him the one message that I most needed to hear.

For all that I loved his cynicism and his humor, this one quote was it. The words have stuck with me through decades of living.

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

That’s right. All that wit and imagination of his, and this was my main take-away. I wouldn’t blame you if you thought that was disrespectful, although I think Mr. Vonnegut wouldn’t have minded a bit.

I’m attempting to summarize what I do believe in and it’s been an interesting exercise. Am I dying soon? Planing to run for public office? No, neither. I just really liked the movie “Wonder Woman” and it got me thinking.

What do I believe in so strongly that I want it to shape my behavior?

At this point, you might be concerned that too much of my personal philosophy comes from science fiction, but I’ll argue back. Stories of a speculative nature throw out a lot of societal constraints found in other frameworks, making it a fine realm in which to develop one’s code of ethics. It is absolutely where I have developed mine.

And I have the fictional Eliot Rosewater to thank for my most central belief. If I can’t be anything else, I want to be kind.

 

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2017 in being better, other authors

 

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Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door

I knew when I began my first book that my main character would develop a telepathic link with a woman who lived far away. It didn’t realize that my love for places that are difficult for me to get to would continue on into the remaining five books in the collection, with each book each containing events occurring in a remote part of a different continent. But that is how they turned out.

Two things about far away places appeal to me. One is how different they are. The other is how similar they are. I think I like the second fact even better.

The modern and independent young Nigerian woman I write about in x0 has a run in with her village’s older practitioners of traditional medicine, known as dibias. In order to make her conflict as realistic as I could, I researched the history of traditional medicine in her Igbo culture, and enjoyed what I learned. It did not surprise me that mixed in with the sorts of superstitions that plague humans everywhere, was both wisdom and centuries old knowledge of ways to heal the human body.

I tried to include the point of view of the dibias, and to accord them respect, even while my character was in conflict with them. And yes, I loved learning about the ways of others that were so different than my own.

But I never forgot how half of my story ended up taking place in Nigeria in the first place.

It’s a country I have yet to visit, which makes it an odd setting for a beginning novelist. But I began the book right after taking a new job in the Houston office of a Nigerian company. They were cramped on office space, and several of us were crowded into a large workroom. Most of my co-workers were young Nigerian scientists and engineers and over the ensuing months I became seeped in their conversions, their food, and their memories of home.

Did I hear about things that were exotic to my ears? Occasionally, and some of those are in the book. But far more often what I heard were things like this as they made their phone calls home.

“Yes, mom, I am eating well. I know. Vegetables.”

“Of course I miss you, dear. It’s just that last night you caught me still at work, trying to get something done. I had a big presentation today.”

“You’ve got to pass chemistry. Email me the your review sheet your professor gave you. We’ll go over it together. Tell mom not to worry. I’ll help you.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the sound of humanity, from my home town and from every one else’s home town in every far away place in the world.

You see, we have our differences, and I think that they are fascinating. But then we have our common ways of showing care and concern for those we love. And I think that commonality is even more amazing. That is why I watch with dismay as the United States turns more towards nationalist politics and embraces a fear of the rest of the world.

I no longer live in Houston. Today, I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I was interested to find the John Denver Song “Take me Home Country Roads,” being performed by Playing for Change. I’m a big fan of this multimedia music project that “seeks to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music.”

I can’t help but notice that much of the nationalist movement that concerns me so is being driven by people who live on country roads, just as I do. But a lot of the world lives on country roads, and drives home on them each day to those we care about. We all have that, and so much more, in common.

Enjoy this video of musicians from Japan to Brazil  as they sing “take me home country roads.”

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away Place, Caring About Far Away Places, As Far Away Places Edge Closer  and The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places.)

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2017 in empathy, music for peace, Nigeria

 

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Happy International Day of Peace, Lahcen and Najet

The Airbnb site says my hosts at the Riad speak English, French and Spanish along with the local Arabic, but it only takes a few minutes for me to realize that the claim regarding English has been exaggerated. Lahcen, the helpful house manager who greets me, probably does know several hundred words of English, compared to my several dozen words of French and two of Arabic, but his ability to answer my questions is limited. Najet, the cook and custodian who assists him, speaks some French and no English at all. Soon the three of us are communicating with gestures, key phrases and facial expressions, and it’s not going as poorly as you might think.

img_3275Still jet lagged, I get a slow start the next morning and Najet is anxious to begin cleaning my room. I am sitting in the public area getting organized for my day when she gestures to her cleaning equipment and my quarters and gives me a questioning look. I nod my consent. She pauses.

“No douche?” she asks clearly and politely. I’m sure that my eyes widen before I remember that douche is the French word for shower. “No douche aujourd’hui,” I declare, thinking that sometimes even a few words in a common language can make all the difference in the world.

When I return that evening, there are lots of things that I want to ask Lahcen. Is Najet his wife? A relative? Is he from Marrakesh? Is this his full-time job? What does he think of tourists, of Americans? But every time I start talking he nods and smiles and looks confused, which is exactly what I do when I can’t understand someone.

img_3290The next day he volunteers some information. “I love Hollywood,” he tells me. “I love your movies, but I watch them in French.” He shrugs, a little embarrassed. “In English I can’t tell what they say.” And I get that I’m like one of those movies to him. He thinks that he ought to understand me but I talk fast and use idioms and shortcuts and make no sense to him at all.

“I wish my French was half as good as your English,” I reply and I mean it.  I think he understands me for once because he gives me a genuine smile back.

“I think that all of your country should learn Arabic. In school,” he adds. I’m sure my eyes widen at the idea. “And we should all learn English here. In school.” He looks at me hard for signs of comprehension. “If we could understand each other, then we would get along.”

img_3284I get where he is going with this and I have to admit that I like it a lot. I appears that my gracious host is a kindred spirit of mine, someone hoping to bridge the gap between cultures, filling it with empathy and a compassion born of recognizing our common humanity. I lack the vocabulary and the inclination to argue with him about the practicality of his plan, so I just say “I hope it happens.”

When I settle my bill, ready to move on to my next destination, I leave him and Najet a generous tip. He takes my luggage to the cab and speaks to the man in rapid Arabic. I realize that he is using part of my tip to pay my cab fare, which I also notice is a only small fraction of what the cab drivers have been charging me. I appreciate his gesture.

I remember my last encounter with people with whom I could not speak. A few months ago a couple in Portugal named Alberto and Maria helped my husband and I rescue our rental car when it became stuck on a dirt road. A few days later, when I discovered it was “International Day of Peace,” I wrote a post about them, and about how the wordless experience was so intense that Maria and I hugged each other afterwards with tears in our eyes.

img_3304I have enough cultural sensitivity to realize that a hug would be inappropriate with Lahcen, especially in such a public place. But I am equally grateful to him and Najet and I wish them both joy and peace, even if I do not know how to tell him so. I can only nod my thanks to him as we part, two souls seeking the same harmony in a fragmented world.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see  That’s Why you Make the Trip, I see ghosts , It’s an angry world in some places and My Way on my other blogs.)

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2016 in empathy, peace

 

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Do less harm

Is a course of action better if it results in less harm? Most people would say yes, at least until they are confronted with the reality of the choices made by those who struggle to improve the world without making it perfectly right.

What am I talking about here? Well, drug addiction and educating women in Afghanistan and preventing pedophiles from molesting children and female genital mutilation and pretty much everything else I’d rather not discuss or think about. It turns out that there is a lot of icky stuff in the world, and it’s hard to make it any of it go away.

Enter the British news magazine “The Economist.” It shows up every week, and recently I read about the plight of Aziz Amir, an Afghan cardiologist trying to raise funds for an all-female university in Kabul. Dr. Amir particularly wants to offer medical training to women in a world where many females will risk death rather than visit a male practitioner. He knows that some families who would never allow their daughters to attend a coeducational college might relent and allow them to attend his university. But foreigners are reluctant to support gender-segregated education.

life lessons1I agree with the foreigners. I believe that by studying and working together, young males and females learn to respect each other as human beings. But I also agree with Dr. Amir. He is trying hard to make the world better, in a way that will work. My high-minded ideals matter little in a situation in which many girls will be denied any schooling and many women will not have access to any medical care. The issue seems to me to be about whether I am going to look at this through my own eyes, or through the eyes of the girls of Afghanistan.

A few pages later I was drawn into an article about Stop it Now, a group dedicated to reducing the sexual molestation of children. This practical group runs a hotline for pedophiles, and has been criticized for being “offender friendly”. In fact, the group is trying to understand what can be done to prevent pedophiles from acting on their desires, and getting such information requires talking to potential offenders with compassion, and trying to offer them realistic ways of coping. Other similar groups face related challenges by offering confidentiality to those seeking help.

Of course I agree with those who never, ever want the identity of a child molester to be kept hidden. And yet I understand those who point out that if you take that approach, you have effectively decided not to offer assistance to those seeking ways to behave better. Do you really want to do that?

The issue here seems to me to be about whether I am even capable of looking at the world through the eyes of a potential child molester. Am I?

How about seeing the world through the eyes of parents who would insist on mutilating their own baby daughter’s genitals? I can think of few actions I personally consider more despicable, and yet I have come to learn that these parents accept this religious procedure as necessary to their daughter’s upright moral behavior in later life. Luckily, even a tiny symbolic prick with a knife often will suffice for the parents, but a modern doctor willing to perform such a ceremony is understandably condemned. Unable to find a doctor, the parents then turn to non-medical religious personnel who insist on performing a far more horrific procedure.

It seems like what I am talking about here in every case is harm reduction. So I was surprised when a quick little search showed me that the term harm reduction, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition, is actually “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.” Those working in this field accept that “licit and illicit drug use is part of our world” and they choose to work to minimize its harmful effects.

wise and quietSo the term harm reduction is about practical ways to improve the lives of drug users? That sounds like, you know, once again looking at the problem through the eyes of the ones you are trying to help.

I’m starting to see a common theme. I can look into my own heart and try to make the world a better place. Or I can dare to experience the world through the heart of another human, one as imperfect as me, and allow myself and others to try improve their bad situation using compassion instead of my personal sense of how the world should be.

It’s that old empathy thing again. It just keeps on showing up everywhere, even in “The Economist.”

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2016 in empathy

 

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All the empathy in the world won’t help?

(1) I write fiction about telepaths and examine whether the increased empathy from knowing others thoughts could be a key to world peace. (2) I like Rachel Maddox a lot and occasionally watch her show.

driftI read Rachel Maddow’s new book “Drift” because of the second item, but was surprised when I discovered that her central thesis casts doubt on the whole theory of my book x0. If Ms. Maddox is correct, U.S. wars today are waged by our leaders not our people, and all the empathy in the world is not going to stop the fighting. She does a wonderful job of detailing how over the past fifty years the United States has moved from the World War II model of “a nation at war” to the current state of affairs in which our commander in chief uses executive powers and resources to keep conflicts going around the world with very little involvement from most of the citizens and very little consent from other branches of government.

I like how she sticks to the facts and interjects very little of her political bias. Rather, she places blame at the feet of every president, Republican and Democrat, and credits all of them with generally trying to do the right the thing while making matters worse. It’s very un-MSNBC, but all the more compelling.

Her one exception is Dick Cheney, to whom she dedicates the book. He pops in and out of the story over the course of four decades, continuing to push his personal agenda of making war ever easier for us. She never asks why, but begs him in the dedication to let her interview him. As far as I know, he never has.

Her careful weaving of the small decisions that lead to our current ability to wage ongoing wars with almost no emotional involvement could have made for very dry reading, but it doesn’t. In spite of the fact that she has no political axe to grind, her sense of humor shines through, as does her incredulous disbelief at some of the well-intended but just plain stupid decisions that were made along the way. You can almost hear her voice in your head as you read, and you have to smile in spite of how sad a story it is.

The end result, she points out, is that U.S. presidents now have the technological ability and the ridiculous authority to quietly conduct ongoing wars in any corner of the globe for as long as they wish. Yet, Ms. Maddow ends this book on a hopeful note. She argues persuasively that going to war should be hard, and should require the bulk of our people to wish harm upon another nation or at least be willing to hurt that nation significantly in order to stop its leaders.

growing bolder 4Powers that have been given over time, and even for good reason, can be taken away, she says. It won’t happen quickly, but she convinced me that we can make waging war the messy, inefficient, and difficult task it once was. We can make it painful again. If we do, we won’t be quite as good at it, but we will more far more incentivized to find other solutions.

Then, just maybe, superheroes gifted with telepathy could help guide the population towards more compassion and understanding. Okay, that could be bit of a stretch in the real world, but it might make for a fun read.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2016 in empathy, peace

 

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