Poets, Writers & Inspiration

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Quick: name the current Poet Laureate of the United States. Stumped? Read on.

Poets & Writers, one of my all-time favorite magazines, websites, databases and causes, threw a two-day event in San Francisco recently under the theme, Inspiration. It took place on the scenic grounds of historic San Francisco Art Institute. What’s not to love about all of this? I signed up at the first invitation.

(For one thing, if you’re hanging out at the Art Institute you can snatch any spare moment to gaze at the WPA mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City by Diego Rivera. So you could think of this as poetry/literature/art immersion.)

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The event featured a list of favorite poets & writers: Jane Hirshfield, Benjamin Percy (way more favorite after hearing his lively, entertaining talk,) Susan Orlean, Ishmael Reed and Jonathan Franzen to name a few. But for sheer inspiration, it would be hard to beat the Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Hererra.

Born in California to Mexican migrant farm workers shortly after the end of World War II, Hererra is far more than an award-winning poet and Laureate. He has produced short stories, children’s books, essays, young adult novels – 21 books total in the last decade, according to his Wikipedia page. After growing up in trailers and tents following the harvests, he picked up a BA, MA, MFA and – last June from Oregon State University – an honorary Doctorate. By his own account he also has “a PhD in window-shopping,” from his childhood days of being “always on the outside looking in.”

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Hererra’s poems are not the casual, uplifting sort that poetry lightweights such as yours truly generally favor, but they have a marvelous power. One, for instance In Search of an Umbrella in NYC, starts with the line

You were having a stroke – i

did not grasp what was going on . . .

 

and ends with

 

i was a man
running for cover from the waters
i could not lift your suffering
it was too late the current pulled
i was floating away (i noticed it)
you
were rising

Imagine being able to write things like that.

But it is Hererra the unpretentious man who was worth the price of admission for the entire event. Billed as the keynote speaker, he didn’t as much “keynote speak” as ramble through thoughts and reminiscences. Amidst today’s talk about wall-building, immigrant-excluding and rights-removing, listening to the Poet Laureate was more than refreshing. It was, in a word:

Inspiration.

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Immigrants, Refugees, Human Beings

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“It would just be like my life ending,” he said. He was an attractive 20-something with piercing black eyes and a neatly trimmed beard. “I was a Dreamer,” he added, “but now I just have nightmares. I’ve lived here since I was 8. I did really well in high school and am halfway through college. But I could be sent back to a country I hardly know, to a very dangerous situation. I’m afraid for my whole family.”

His name is Antonio, and he is an undocumented immigrant. He is one of at least 11 million people in the U.S. today who go to bed with the fear they might wake up to their worst nightmare, deportation. It’s a fear that will be multiplied many times over with installation of an administration that came to power with more than a little help from ripples of xenophobia.

Immigrants. Refugees. Migrants. Humans.

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Worldwide, well over sixty-five million people have been forced to flee their homes, with one source reporting that 24 people were displaced from their homes every day in 2015. By now, most of us have an overload of images in our heads – Syrian children fleeing war-torn cities, terrified people clinging to the sides of capsized boats, acres of tent cities housing human beings facing an unknown future.

Some hope for the hordes of migrants and refugees in Europe lies in the countries and organizations – UNICEF, Save the Children, other nonprofits – that provide shelter in the form of “temporary” camps. The people there, many of whom spend years of their lives simply existing, at least receive food and minimal care. But it’s hard not to consider how little the U.S. is doing (and how much less we’re likely to do in the coming years)

Among the organizations working to ease the burdens of undocumented immigrants on our own soil is the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. Senior Program Director Rev. Deborah Lee was speaking of her group’s work at the interfaith event where Antonio told his own story.

“What is our unique role, as religious communities, and how can we put it into practice?” Lee asked. “Does our faith require us to provide sanctuary for those who feel threatened?”

The IMHI maintains the answer to that latter question is a loud Yes. “There is a growing need for faith communities to be a part of the (sanctuary) map,” she says, “which already includes college campuses and cities around the country – responding to God’s law of offering protection to the vulnerable.”

Her organization, Lee explains, hopes to enlist one (or more) “sanctuary congregations” in cities across the U.S. where someone facing final deportation orders can find protection. There are also migrant families arriving in the San Francisco Bay area, Lee says, “who are seeking protection from deportation and applying for asylum, but who are without official refugee status and resettlement services.” For these, IMHI seeks congregations that can provide either support or hospitality housing.

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The idea of sixty-five million+ people forced to flee their homes looks like a tragedy too big to consider. But listening to Deborah Lee talk about how every human being is sacred, or having coffee with Antonio, puts a face on possibility.

Farewell to a Not-All-Bad Year

2016

Farewell to 2016? People all over the globe are saying good riddance.

There are those of us in the U.S. who believe that climate change is real, that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving and the vast majority of Mexicans are neither rapists nor murderers, that women deserve better than to be denied rights and casually groped. Even those who believe otherwise admit reason and decency suffered some killer blows in the past year.

Poor 2016. Throw in global goings-on with the Brexit vote and the tragedies in Syria, Venezuela and too many troubled spots to mention, and it would seem there’s not a lot good to be said for the year. But it actually wasn’t all bad.

For openers, there are the things that didn’t happen: Nobody let loose a nuclear missile that would have begun the destruction of the planet. The Mosul Dam didn’t fail. Northern California didn’t have the devastating earthquake for which it is overdue. Even the luxury tower set to zoom up and block this writer’s 7th-floor balcony view of the far-off San Bruno mountains didn’t materialize. (OK, we know it’s coming. New York developer has the right to build to 240 feet, but so far the city says he can’t have an exemption to go 200+ feet higher.) So from the frivolous – which a 7th floor view certainly is – to the horror scenario, 2016 could surely have been worse.

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And as for the good news? Glancing back over the posts on this site over the old year is one way to find a lot of it. A random few:

Mutual support and understanding among different religions was alive and well in 2016, as it will continue to be in the new year – at least in much of the U.S. Several times I wrote about events sponsored in San Francisco by the S.F. Interfaith Council, such as the Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast – at which an overflow crowd representing people of all faith communities reaffirmed their commitment to human rights, social justice and world peace before launching into a rousing chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Philanthropy is alive and well too. In May, a 3-year-old friend of ours decided to open his piggy bank and give the money ($32.60) to his two favorite charities: the local library and the hospital where he and his baby-sister-to-be were born. His philanthropy spurred several matching gifts. Who says you have to be a zillionaire to be a philanthropist and do good in the world?

More than once I wrote about one of my real life heroes, Dr. Willie Parker, an African American physician determined to keep abortion access available to those who are denied reproductive healthcare: most often poor women of color. Nothing will slow down Willie Parker.

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And speaking of heroes, In January I was fortunate to be part of a collaborative celebration of Martin Luther King Day, with a predominately white church and its predominantly black partner church, affirming King’s message that only light can drive out darkness, and only love can drive out hate. It’s only a small effort in one small part of the globe, but as members of the two communities work (and play and sing) together, light shines on racial injustice.

There have been other optimistic highlights, such as the Internet Archive celebrating its 20th anniversary. The IA is a mind-bending, increasingly successful effort to make All Knowledge Available to All, for free. Impossible? Believe. Another blog highlighted another impressive physician, Dr. Angelo Volandes, who was touring the country last year with his new book The Conversation. Volandes is on a campaign to end aggressive, unnecessary, unwanted and often cruel end-of-life treatment. What happens in emergency rooms and intensive care units during the last few days of life for millions of Americans is an expensive disgrace; Volandes’ efforts will help change that.

In August I was caught in the middle of Delta’s computer meltdown, and spent some interesting hours trying to get from Atlanta to San Francisco. What was worth writing about were the many acts of kindness among airport crowds. They reminded me of flying from San Francisco to Portland OR several days after 9/11, when it seemed everyone in America wanted only to be kind to everyone else.

That spirit is still here, somewhere; we just need to recover it after a bruising year.

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Talking Your Way into a Better Death

Angelo Volandes
Angelo Volandes

“If you do something to my body that I do not want,” says physician/author Angelo Volandes, “it is assault and battery. But if I do the same thing to you in (a medical situation,) it is standard of care.”

Volandes thinks this last is a bad idea. He is on a campaign to change the way American doctors and patients, and indeed the country at large, understand what is done to American bodies at life’s end. He spoke of this campaign, and his new book The Conversation that outlines it, at a recent Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco. When he’s not taking time out to promote the book and the campaign, Volandes practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. He is Co-Founder and President of Advance Care Planning Decisions, a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving patients’ quality of care.

“Ninety percent of people want to die at home,” Volandes says; “most die in hospitals. There is a misalignment between the type of medical care they want and what they get.” About this unwanted care? “If you’re in the hospital and get unwanted care you never bargained for, I still get paid for it.”

After watching too many patients endure end-of-life treatments he was sure they would not have chosen, Volandes started an unusual practice: taking every one of his patients to visit the intensive care unit, and some to visit the dialysis unit. Once they gained a better understanding of what some of the aggressive treatments – CPR, breathing machines, etc – actually looked like, the patients almost always moved away from “Do everything” to comfort care as their choice.

The basic change Volandes believes is needed begins with a conversation between physician and patient. Those conversations do happen, and there is now Medicare reimbursement, but few physicians find them easy, and few patients know how to inaugurate them or what to say. “Never did a senior physician have to certify that I could talk to a patient,” Volandes says. “The patient needs to know ‘What are the questions I need to ask? What are my options?’ Life’s final chapter needs to be written – but the problem is, I’m writing it (instead of the patient.)”

This writer has been advocating for individuals to write their own final chapters for over two decades. With others writing those chapters instead, the costs are monumental and unnecessary – and millions of Americans die after undergoing painful indignities they would never have chosen. Physician aid-in-dying – approved by a majority of doctors and 7 in 10 Americans and now legal in five states – is one key piece of the puzzle. But the elephant-size puzzle piece is how to get every one of us to make known, well before those “end-of-life” days arrive, what medical care we do or do not want.

Volandes’ conversations could put that piece in place. Every person alive who takes time for the conversation (and for writing it all down) will likely die a better death.

 

 

Making All Knowledge Available to All? For Free? Believe It

Universal Access to All Knowledge. In other words, let’s gather up and digitize everything on the internet, and offer it to everyone on the planet. For free. Every book in every library, every website, movie – oh, and throw in music: vinyl records, CDs. In as many languages as possible.

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Some people were doubtful this could be done. But then, they probably didn’t know Brewster Kahle. Kahle, according to his Wikipedia page, is an American computer engineer, Internet entrepreneur and internet activist. And perhaps foremost, he is an advocate of universal access to all knowledge – to which end he founded the Internet Archive in 1996.

The Archive, consisting of a few billion items – it could be a few trillion by this writing – is now a non-profit library recognized by the Library of Congress. If you’re a human being with a digital device you can access anything within its collections. These are grouped within recognizable categories like ‘Old Time Radio,’ ‘Iraq War’ or ‘Television,’ and enigmatic other categories like ‘Electric Sheep’ and ‘Netlabels.’

This writer, whose left brain is minuscule, was only dimly aware of the Archive, despite the fact that some years ago it purchased, for its headquarters, a former Christian Science Church building in San Francisco which I pass every few days. But when Kahle’s wife Mary Austin, co-founder of San Francisco Center for the Book and someone (decidedly right/left brained) I am proud to call a friend, insisted I attend the 20th anniversary celebration not long ago, it seemed time to peek into it all.

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A few hundred friends and supporters turned out for the celebration, stopping by the taco truck at the front steps and going from there to stations offering demonstrations of archived music and video games, planetary digitizations, scanners that put books onto digital shelves in a matter of moments. Many of the Archive employees who work from areas around the globe – this writer talked at length with a sharp young lady from Toronto – were on hand to help explain things, and enjoy the reunion. The Wayback Machine (more than 279 billion web pages saved over time) was a crowd favorite, as was the Live Music archive (6,991 collections: rock, blues, classics, big band . . .) Some of those last were comprehensible to this reporter; other areas where the beeps and blinks of giant servers and assorted machines were connecting us all to the digital universe – well, what can I say?archive-scanner

But I have my library card! Open Library: We lend e-books worldwide for free. You can get one for yourself. Open Library has over a million ebook titles.

You might also want to support this ambitious undertaking and its latest safeguard project: creating a copy of Internet Archive’s digital collections in another country. Kahle and friends are building the Internet Archive of Canada “because lots of copies keeps stuff.” In other words, one more assurance of universal access to all knowledge. Free. And private. Internet Archive does not accept ads (which could track your behavior) or collect your IP address.archive-planets

Fact-check it out.

Prayer, Peace & Song to Start the Day

world-peaceOK, this is San Francisco: love and peace reign. But it’s also Thanksgiving: gratitude and community. Celebrations of love, peace, gratitude and community are taking place not just on the left coast but across the country, as we begin to exhale after a bitterly troubled few months. Exhalation in community can be a great way to start the day.

“Hope,” said one speaker at the recent Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer Breakfast, “is right there where it’s always been, between faith and love.” There was plenty of all three. Some 385 early-risers were gathered for the event, sponsored by the San Francisco Interfaith Council and billed as “The Soul of the City: Faith and Social Justice in San Francisco.”

Marsha Attie
Marsha Attie

It all began with the sounding of a Buddhist Ceremonial In Kin Bell – a successful attempt to bring a little quietude into the amiable masses – followed by Pacifica Institute’s Fatih Ferdi Ates’ recitation of the Muslim Call to Prayer, in a voice that certainly reaches to the heavens. Brahma Kumaris Sr. Sukanya Belsare read the interfaith statement of the sponsoring SFIC, which is read at all board meetings and events and says, in effect, “Whatever your faith or faith tradition, it’s okay. We’re here to learn, and understand.”

Led by Cantor Marsha Attie of Congregation Emanu-El, the crowd then launched into a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Throughout the two-hour scrambled-eggs-&-mixed-fruit breakfast there were songs, honors, laughs and commentaries. Not to mention prayers in virtually every known faith tradition. A few highlights are encapsulated below:

SFIC Executive Director Michael Pappas: “The interfaith community will always stand for human rights, social justice and equality for all.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (to a standing ovation): “San Francisco will remain a sanctuary city.”

Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer
Kat Taylor & Tom Steyer

Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of California, introducing event honorees Kat Taylor and Tom Steyer to the audience and audience to the honorees (loosely paraphrased): “Bringing the mind effectively into the heart to do good works can result in reverence, compassion, forgiveness and courage.” Andrus then did a warm-up exercise, reciting a litany of actions such as feeding the hungry, protecting the oppressed and helping the poor, to an enthusiastic audience response of “We’re Still In!”

Honoree Tom Steyer, Founder and President, NextGen Climate (and major donor to progressive political causes – San Francisco is still San Francisco): “Troubled times give everyone a chance to lead a meaningful life. (A) challenge is to embrace our full humanity. The. U.S. didn’t start with full humanity for everyone.” Steyer then deferred to the co-honoree, his wife Kat Taylor, Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Beneficial State Bank and a ferocious advocate for changing the food and banking systems for good through business models and philanthropy.

Mark Leno
Mark Leno

Honoree Taylor: “You knew I would sing” – launching into the Christian hymn standard “Here I Am, Lord,” with several hundred of the guests joining in.

Presented a proclamation by SFIC Board Chair G. L. Hodge – who said he relished the opportunity, since the recipient was famous for issuing proclamations himself, termed-out California State Senator Mark Leno: “I recognize this frame, from something I sent earlier. But I always say, ‘Reuse, Recycle, Re-elect.’”

Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, after leading the crowd in reciting “The Prayer of St. Francis”: “Ministering to God’s creation is an act of worship. We must affirm the dignity and worth of every person, and we all have to be instruments of God’s peace.”

 

 

 

On Being a Blessing

There was an invisible pall hanging over the banquet hall.

An annual feel-good celebration of a cherished cause, the room was filled with friends and supporters of the San Francisco Free Clinic. The Clinic offers medical care for the uninsured; the pall had to do with the new President-Elect’s pledge to increase the ranks of those uninsured by unknown millions by immediately repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act.

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For 23 years, SFFC supporters have filled the same banquet hall. The annual event, initiated by the late San Francisco investor/philanthropist Warren Hellman and his wife Chris, generates the entire budget for SFFC’s operation. Not coincidentally, the San Francisco Free Clinic was founded 23 years ago by the Hellmans’ daughter and son-in-law, Tricia and Richard Gibbs, two young physicians who decided to throw over the prospects of their lucrative medical practices in favor of starting a free clinic for the growing ranks of uninsured in need of quality medical care.

(Full proud disclosure, this writer and her husband have been supporters of the Free Clinic since its opening day.)

A highlight of the annual event has always been brief closing remarks from the host, and after Hellman’s death, this task fell to the Drs. Gibbs. This year, Richard Gibbs said a few words and then turned the podium over to his wife.piggy-bank-w-stethoscope

“One thing I have now learned,” she said, “is never to write a speech the day before an election.” She went on to explain how the Free Clinic has made incremental progress in its mission every year since its founding, and she had prepared remarks about that narrative with the expectation that this would continue. With the election of Donald Trump, though, comes the realization that the story of ongoing progress – Clinic staff not only provide care, they regularly guide clients into finding affordable insurance – will encounter a speedbump. Acknowledging that many in the room probably voted for Mr. Trump, and that politics would be inappropriate to the event, Gibbs said she still had wanted to find a way her remarks could be relative and upbeat.

So she turned to the story of Abraham. Gibbs is a serious student of the Torah, and would not have had to spend extra time on recalling that story. She noted that Abraham’s narrative was not incrementally always upward, but had its own speedbumps.be-a-blessing

“God told Abraham to be a blessing,” she said. “And I realize that’s what we can do. You are all a blessing to (the Free Clinic.) We can all go out and be a blessing.”

For election week in California, it was a reassuring thought.

 

Ben McBride on Peacemaking 101

Just when peace for violence-prone communities seems an impossible dream – along comes Ben McBride.

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McBride, who merges the zeal of a Baptist youth leader with the practicality of 15 years as an advocate for community peace and justice, believes that dream can become a reality. Not tomorrow – but soon enough to believe in it. One evidence of his belief is in the fact that some eight years ago he moved his family (a wife and three daughters) into an Oakland, CA neighborhood tough enough to have won the title of the “Kill Zone.” The idea was to understand firsthand the root causes of gun violence. They have occasionally had to leave town briefly when one group or another was exceptionally angry, but they’re still there.

And gun violence is actually down. This is in part due to McBride’s blatantly walking both sides of the street – as a civilian trainer for police, and a community activist for oppressed groups. The double life has its problems. As a central figure with a group that linked arms to stop traffic on the Bay Bridge one busy afternoon he drew the ire of both law enforcement agencies and his own father, whose career was in transportation. (McBride tells of committing a minor offense as a teenager and asking the responding officer to “take me to jail, just don’t take me to my father.” His father has mellowed after seeing his children reach law-abiding adulthood.) But when community organizers see him hired to work with police, they often consider it a betrayal. In reality, McBride walks both sides convinced that they can come together in the middle.

McBride spoke recently on “Crossing the Street: The Power of Peacemaking,” one of a series of programs on “Waging Peace” at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Much of the talk was concerned with what he terms “the theology of resistance” – as in resisting injustice.

Sawubona,” McBride said – having his audience repeat the word several times – “is the Zulu word for hello. The traditional reply is Sikhona.” The expanded meaning of the words is central to resisting injustice, he added. “Sawubona literally translates “I see you.” Sikhona means, “Because you see me, I am here.” The business of seeing “the other” with as few lenses, or filters, as possible goes to the heart of McBride’s peacemaking message.ben-mcbride-1

Peacemaking, he argues, requires “disrupting my point of view with ‘the other’s point of view. It  is about stepping into the middle of the tension.”

Opportunities to get groups like community protesters and law enforcement officers to meet in the middle of the tension without violence are few, and fraught. McBride has been called to places like Ferguson where tensions have long simmered – and already exploded. But his ability  to see the perspectives of opposing sides boosts his ability to defuse.

McBride’s lay audiences – this recent one consisted of 40 or so individuals of differing ages, ethnicities and views – rarely have an opportunity to fully inhabit either side of such tensions. But considering how to see “people closer to pain than we are” makes the middle of the street at least a less threatening place to stand. And having the husky, smiling McBride standing there too wouldn’t ever be a bad idea.

 

 

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