26 - 207I’m doing a lot of contemplating on the concepts of power. Not the kind you get when you plug-in the device you’re reading this on, but the kind human beings wield upon the world and in our own lives. Decisions, actions, our preconceptions, our assumptions, our ideas and the sources of our inspiration can be weighted and leaden with fear, guilt and hate, or not. We all “get” that on a gut level, but I don’t think much of the world really understands what the “not” part of that sentence really means. I don’t think I always know what it means either for that matter.

I was reading today about the power of compassionate action means. There’s a passage in a book called “The Sufi Book of Life: 99 Pathways of the Heart for the Modern Dervish” by Neil Douglas-Klotz that I keep coming back to. On pages 192-3, Douglas-Klotz shares a couple of stories, one old and one modern and personal about taking compassionate action. In both stories the actions taken are not always understood, but what’s crucial in the mind of Douglas-Klotz is that what moves us to embody sacred power should never been colored by our own assumptions that we know what is best, or to be a hero or to make the world work in our own image of “right,” but rather embodied power and compassionate action, must be selfless. The action, when inspired by genuine compassion includes the natural understanding that comes with true wisdom.

I have been studying this passage for years now. I am not sure I have ever fully comprehended it. The clearest moment I have felt myself acting from anything approaching inspired compassion was at a park one day years ago now. There was a group of teens there clumped together, shouting. I was trying to carry on a conversation while walking with a friend, so I was trying to ignore them. As I drew closer, I realized they were having an argument and that a seagull’s squawking was in the middle of it. I turned to look. I saw some of the boys in the group hitting and kicking the bird while it stood stunned on the ground, not seeing any way out of the sea of legs around it. Its eyes were a bit glazed with terror. Before I realized what I was doing, I walked toward the group of shouting teens, my eyes on that poor bird. When I got close, The teens turned to see me and I parted the crowd without even looking at them. I quietly asked them, “What are you doing to that bird?” There was no judgment in my voice, just the rhetorical question behind it. I kept walking toward the bird, and began murmuring to it, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” The teens moved out of our way and some of the group began to chastise the offenders again. Apparently that was what the shouting had been about. Some wanted the abusers to stop hurting the bird, others thought it was funny. No one was laughing about the bird’s distress by the time the bird and I began walking together through the center of the group. Out of the corner of my eye, one of the boys looked ashamed at himself for hurting the bird, but I ignored all of them. I had eyes only for the bird. It was so distressed and my heart was right there with it, trying to help it get away. It back away from me, watching me and finally we were out of the crowd of legs and feet. When it realized it was safe finally, its eyes cleared of fear and it really saw me. We looked at each other for a long moment before it flew away. I saw its relief, its gratitude and its recognition of me as it’s helper. I watched it fly off, feeling I had a friend. Then I remembered the friend I’d wandered away from and realized that the teens had moved away, still bickering. No one had bothered me for interrupting their fun. I suppose they could have, but there was something about the power of my compassion. It didn’t feel like only mine. It felt like something outside myself moved my body and everything around me got with the program, so to speak. It was a moment I go back to as a measure for my actions in recent years.

Since 9/11 and the world and American politics that have followed, I’ve been pissed off. Not so much at what has happened when terrorists act or when politicians or citizens act   hatefully. I mostly feel a keening sorrow about the stupidity and vengeance that keeps leading us to a far darker future than I can readily accept. No, my anger seems consistently reserved for how we as a society are responding together about moments like 9/11 or the shootings of black men by police or….

The bottom line is we aren’t responding with any sort of inspired or wise compassion. We are lashing out. At best, we begin shouting unforgivable things into already wounded ears. At worst, we kill. We want our way, we want others to stop, we want it to be better, but we don’t want to change anything inside ourselves, we just want others to do what we want right this minute or damn them all to hell.

As for me, I mostly I just feel overwhelmed, if I’m honest. My life is so very often consumed with the hurdles of my health and poverty, there’s just so little energy left over for compassionate action in the world. Nevertheless, I feel an urgent sense of responsibility to act for the benefit of my children and grandchildren. I want the people I love to inherit the world I have experienced, but in a better version. I know that my concept of that is deeply personal and that I can’t have it all my way. I’m fairly sure I don’t want to be left in charge of all the details of making that happen anyway, but I feel an instinct rise in me when I read the news or when I look at my Facebook feed. My gut scrolls along with my finger…nope, nope, nope again, and nope yet again. Most days I never read a word that tells me anyone’s actions are moved by a divine spark of wise compassion. Mostly it is hubris of the worst kind in action, inspired by bigotry, dunk on supposed-power, fear and hate. I can hear my own blithering too. I sputter about 45, or about this or that “idiot” in charge and it’s just fouling me with anger and hatred. It’s doing me no good. Yet I can’t help but feel so angry and powerless.

I don’t know how we “get it.”

For me, that’s the real question of the day. The rest is just the details. Granted those details will result in consequences that might be as harsh has nuclear war, and a ruined ecology, such that we can’t survive as a species, but they are details that we can’t change at all until we understand how to embody inspired, wise compassion and let it guide our actions.

Compassion isn’t about making someone feel better for now. It’s about the kind of justice and peace that comes of not hating each other or feeling entitled to anything that you’d grab out of someone else’s hands just so you can be better than them or so that you don’t have to suffer in some way. Inspired compassion has vision that is colorless, lawless, race-less, genderless, and not the least religious or bound by government, family ties,…

I know what “it” is instinctively, but I don’t know how to impart it to others really. I think that Prot said it best in “KPax” when he said that “every being in the universe knows right from wrong.” I agree with Prot. We are equal. We are all connected. We have something to learn from each other. We have the capacity to love each other without having to define it or confine anyone else to what we find acceptable for ourselves. We just have to do it. It is really just that simple. Really.


Uncle Ted

bounty imageAt some point during grammar school (attended at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth NH) I learned about the first Thanksgiving. I learned that pilgrims arrived starving in the very late fall. They were met with welcome, generosity and kindness. They were given a feast and help to survive the winter. I thought that was an admirable action.

Right after this lesson, I was taught that the second fall feast these pilgrims shared with the indigenous population went very differently. I learned that distrust arose between European settlers and indigenous people in the interim year. The settlers, whose habits were to lay claim, own and defend their “property” with violence were suspicious. Native people were confused and angry with the pilgrims’ behavior. There were scuffles and people died. Still, when  the settlers invited them to a reciprocal feast, the indigenous people attended in hopes of working through disagreements. The indigenous people who attended were ambushed and killed. This was what I was taught—that Europeans took and were violent in the face of kindness. I was taught this in the military school system. I learned an honest version of European behavior and these lessons came at Thanksgiving time with the admonition that Thanksgiving ought to mean what indigenous people taught white Europeans to begin with—that generosity is a crucial principle to live by. I took away the idea that Thanksgiving is not a European concept, but an indigenous one. We Europeans used that kindness horribly once upon a time, but the sharing of feasts in gratitude and friendship cannot be tarnished by anyone’s wrongdoing. It is a quintessential human activity that keeps us seeing others as friends, neighbors and chosen family. It can be the difference between life and death. It was for the pilgrims and it is just as crucial a concept today in these times of ISIS and other human cruelty.

Many years later, in my forties, I met Uncle Ted Andrews, a Tuscarora sachem chief of the Turtle Clan. When I was introduced to this delightful man, he was one among nearly a hundred people I’d been met in a short few days, all of them amazing, bright spirits each. Overwhelmed, I smiled and said hello and listened to him joking with one of his oldest friends during lunch. Afterward, I got up and got busy helping put luncheon away and lost track of him until he spoke that night around the fire. When he spoke, his speech took on a lilting, poetic pattern and suddenly, I felt my heart and mind in direct, loving communion with his. He spoke slowly of various humble creatures of the earth and all they give to our lives each day, just by being exactly as they are, doing just what comes naturally. He thanked them with all his being for what they gave to his life. Then he taught that gratitude has power, the most perfect, most tremendous human power. Uncle Ted believed that this essential power is able to heal everything and everyone…perfectly. Here again, was another indigenous instruction about what Thanksgiving means. I cannot find words for how that changed me.

Excited about what he taught me, I spoke of it later. One of his students shared with me a tiny booklet called “The Thanksgiving Address.” It is a poetic and short written representative version of the Tuscarora ritual by that name in which all the creatures local to the homes of the Tuscarora tribe are thanked. I understand it takes six hours to complete this ritual, which Uncle Ted performed regularly for his people. That he spoke a small bit of the ritual there that day, with European people present, was a great gift. After listening to Uncle Ted, I am sure it is the most powerful ritual I could ever witness. I wish I’d had the chance to listen and see him perform the “Address” in full, but alas Uncle Ted passed away during the winter after I met him. Nevertheless, I carry what he shared in my heart.

Many people, even indigenous people, complain of the Thanksgiving holiday, saying that it is not right. I do not share their viewpoint. I think it is exactly what we need. It helps us to remember the principles of generosity, which is the substance of what indigenous people taught. We, the people of this planet, need to share a feast with others, and to take genuinely thankful actions. We need to embrace all that gratitude which Uncle Ted spoke so passionately about and spent his life in reverence to.  The intimate experience of gratitude helps us to connect with the goodness in the world and in ourselves. In a world full of hatred, cruelty and fear, that’s what we need the most, I say. More than that, we need to remember the second fall feast of thanksgiving, because it teaches us of what not to do. That second shared feast, and all its betrayal and violence, would be forgotten if we neglected to hold Thanksgiving and that would indeed be a tragic betrayal of the indigenous people of North America. I intentionally remember and honor all this feast means. I especially try to remember the Tuscarora people, who teach of the healing, magical power of gratitude. It is the only holiday of the year that I find crucial to hold for many reasons, not the least of which is to honor Uncle Ted’s memory. Nyeah-weh Uncle…

Noise Article

Taxes, Humans and Birds Effected by Noise

Addison and Chittendon Counties, Vt– Tax payers fund buy-outs in South Burlington due to air port noise. Studies show noise pollution causes hearing impairment, especially in children. Ornithologists, who study birds, report that “acoustic masking” may be a selective force shaping bird populations world wide.

Vermont may be quiet compared to other states, but we don’t escape noise pollution

According to the Children’s Hearing Institute, sounds of greater than 110 decibels or louder poses risk of permanent hearing loss and prolonged exposure to sounds constantly at or over 85 decibels can cause gradual hearing loss. To put this into perspective, a vacuum cleaner approaches unsafe exposure at 70 decibels. While most places are quiet in Vermont most of the time, traffic and airports are bringing complaints from residents.

Studies show human physiology responds to loud or constant noise with a stress response. The human body isn’t supposed to constantly be in that state. Chronic stress response has consequences, which may include increased cholesterol, lowered immune response, high blood pressure, even insomnia.

Arline Bronzaft, a former professor at Lehman College, City University of New York, conducted a study at a school located next to elevated train tracks. “When we compared reading scores, the students on the noisy side of the building were one year behind the students on the quieter side. After rubber pads were placed on the tracks and acoustic ceiling tiles were installed in the school, the gap in reading scores vanished.” Bronzaft is also chairperson of the Noise Committee of the Council on the Environment of New York City. The NYC tax payers took care of the expense for acoustic tiles, but it’s money which might have been spent on badly needed class resources.

According to an NPR story, in South Burlington, the Dumont Street neighborhood is emptying as the airport buys up properties purchased with FAA tax dollars. Vermont has yet to face noise like NYC tax payers, but we’re seeing indirect expense already in decreased home market values in areas like South Burlington. Also, noise pollution can create anger responses. Police across America respond routinely to disputes over loud sounds like stereos and barking dogs. Those disputes can become aggressive and even violent and pose a hidden cost to tax payers. Vermont police do see disturbance calls, though most do not become violent.

An article written to satisfy a Journalism course assignment