Ezra’s house

Guilford College students in Italy
We passed out olive branches for folks to take home with them.

We hosted a group of students from Guilford College at the farm last month. The group is studying a semester abroad in Northern Italy, in the castle Ezra Pound once lived in.  Pound was an American ex-pat poet and critic of US capitalism who supported Italy’s fascist regime during WWII. His Cantos, some written while in US captivity during the occupation of Italy at the end of the war, still inspire a new generation of neofascists today. I don’t think the students knew much about the history of their host family or even the war as it played out in Italy (neither did I before moving here), but their visit put him squarely in my mind.

We connected with the students because an old friend from when I lived in the anarchist community in Greensboro served as the faculty representative this year for the program. It was amazing to see Mark again after all these years, and as we showed the group around we talked a little about the history of our farm. After lunch we were joined by a group of our friends who live in La Casa della Pace (the House of Peace), a project of Italian former “peace corps” volunteers who live together in intentional community to continue the work they did building bridges abroad at home.  Their project is similar in many ways to what we hope the farm becomes, a inspiration toward our future.  One aspect of La Casa della Pace‘s work is hosting asylum seekers, so they brought 2 fellows from Pakistan along who stay with them these days.

An intercultural wood crewEverybody worked at hauling wood and planting starts in the afternoon to break the ice, then after dinner we had a discussion about living in community, the immigration situation in Italy, and how we make the transition from institutional structures (like college or a peace corps experience) to life after.  What does one do when one finishes a powerful experience abroad but that program comes to an end?  How do you keep “that spark” you feel while fully immersed in a program when its expiration date comes around?  What can we do when the Italian immigration system, built to accept a few thousand immigrants, receives over a hundred thousand in one year?

I think about Ezra, who left the US disillusioned by capitalism and Marxism and truly hellbent on finding a new way. It seems to me he was looking for new community of support when he left the US.  One could say he “fell in with the wrong crowd” as his intellectual pioneering was conveniently appropriated by the politics of the Axis powers. But supposedly he began writing some of his most inspired work on sheets of toilet paper  while locked in a US prison cage toward the end of the war, once again alone the isolated. This was a part of the war I didn’t know much about and it challenged my sense that Ezra was just the worst kind of “Americans abroad” stereotype.  He is said to have had a mental breakdown in the cage, for very understandable reasons, and this inhumane treatment by his own countrymen, “liberating” his adopted country, left an indelible mark.  Reinforcing his sense of the US’ moral corruption and his own extremist view that fascism would lead to new world order, he would return to Italy after being released from a mental institution in the States to live out his later life in the castle.

In these days of rising right wing rhetoric and renewed extremism, I think about what leads people to support fascism.  I think about the barber in the village here who casually mentioned while cutting my hair a few months back that “the gas chambers” were the only way to straighten out politics.  (I am currently using a boycott of his shop as an excuse for my disheveled appearance) We’ve seen fascism veiled in anti-immigrant rhetoric come close to tearing apart the European Union and the United States, and perhaps I think this is a good wake up call.  It’s clear that people are fed up with institutional structures as they exist right now, but we no longer know how to commit directly to one another and many want the iron fist of “The State” (not The Union) to step in and save us. We long for our castles.

In the course of our conversation with the students, someone suggested that if Ezra’s relatives were committed to starting a new chapter in the history of their family’s relationship to fascism, they could take in refugees at the castle.  What message might that send, versus hosting students from a country their ancestor forsake?

Sure enough, I’ve just gotten word that as the returned from our visit they introduced their hosts to  Every Campus a Refuge, a project started at Guilford that encourages academic campuses to open some part of their space to refugees transitioning into permanent housing.  It makes so much sense.  Colleges or even study abroad housing are set up with dorms, cafeterias and built-in opportunities to meet other people.  It’s a new take on an institutional structure we take for granted as static or inflexible, and it’s a beautiful alternative to building walls or turning inward when we reach unfamiliar territory.

Is voting like going to church for you?

Obama first won the presidency at a critical moment in my political development. I didn’t consider myself a Christian anarchist yet, but I was worried all the hope and attention pinned on voting for this one secular leader was bound to disappoint. There was so much optimism then and I just didn’t feel it. I knew folks would vote for him and then sit back on their hands waiting for him to make miracles. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mom talking about what it meant to have a black president and her telling me how it was incredibly meaningful, wrapped up in history, political movements, and where we were as a country. “Besides,” she said “you simply cannot argue that McCain would have made life easier for poor people in the way Obama simply cannot ignore doing.”  I was not so sure.

Here we are 8 years later in the midst of an even crazier, longer and strangely familiar election cycle. Where will this one end?  Are you hopeful?

I’ve been watching the US election for the last 9 months from abroad, and it’s sobering to see how important such a complete farce is to the whole rest of the world.  The impact of who we elect as President of the United States has unquestionably far reaching impact globally, and from this far away I’m just reminded of how petty and superficial the whole process really is for many Americans. It frequently feels like we’re trying to pacify our guilty consciences by throwing change into a panhandler’s hat.  I’m not saying it doesn’t make any different to the panhandler, but frequently we’re motivated by fleeting fears that never materialize into tangible actions to actually end poverty.  We’re not voting with our feet.

At the same time I am really missing my religious community back in the states.  As a Quaker, my faith community is the equivalent of the “United States Pirate Party” in the sense we’d never get elected running on our own platform (anymore).  Many of us are pretty involved in the current political system though by voting, advocating and even serving in office.  I would say on average we’re more politically involved than the majority of the US electorate.  As a faith tradition we emphasize living your faith every day, and for some people this means advocating for political leadership that supports values we discern to be important (even if they’re endorsed by Henry Kissinger )

Now that I’m living in Italy I’ve been attending Mass more regularly because that’s the most available spiritual community here.  I really do enjoy it in many ways, though I will never feel completely at home there.  The local priest has roped us into helping out with several projects around the parish, and in some ways helping our community outside of “church time” actually feels like a closer expression of my faith than sitting in Mass.

All this has me thinking about how much we think about voting or “going to Church”, sometimes even lying about it, when really what’s most important is how we actually live our lives.  Do you really feel satisfied once you’ve filled in your ballot or got up from your pew that you’ve really accomplished something?  I don’t. At best, I frequently feel like I’ve thrown some change in a hat.  In some ways, voting or even spiritual services feel so “imperfect” in their expressions of conviction that I feel that much more obligated to go out and actually do something.

I really appreciated this episode of “On the Media” (one of my new favorite podcasts) that explored third party candidates and the idea of “spoilers” in the general election recently.  One of the main takeaways for me among the differing opinions is that voting is really one thing that we do, among many, as an expression of our civic and moral belief. I still plan to vote and keep attending Catholic Church for the time being, but I’m really not pinning any hope there.  On the one hand I know if I don’t vote (if my overseas ballot is counted anyway) or go to Church I could still feel like I was involved and living my faith, but I’d also just miss out on a collect experience that is important far beyond me and my life. Doesn’t that sound like practicing a living faith or being an involved community member?

 

 

 

 

3 Graces

We just left the Woodard Lane Cohousing Community to come to Italy. As we moved in, others who’d moved out told us their take on who’s attracted to Cohousing communities: First, there are the extroverts, the folks who would love to live communally under all kinds of circumstances. Perhaps these are the folks that thrive in communes, hostels, barracks, etc. They might happily live under a ping pong table so long as someone else was involved. Secondly, there are the introverts, the folks who love community under certain conditions. Perhaps these are the folks who enjoy their private space but also enjoy a structured environment to discuss the merits of turf (at length) with people they’re not related to. Who does that leave? Extroverted golfers?

As an unapologetic member of the first category, I particularly enjoyed the dinners our cook teams prepared each week, not just to eat but also to throw my weight around a bit. Known fact: bantering about religion, politics, or community gossip helps prep vegetables efficiently. Subjective Observation: Heated discussions about the role of colonialism and the rise of Wahhabism (Jim: look it up!) occasionally yields mixed culinary results but certainly keeps things lively!

With everything cooked and ready to eat, we gathered in a circle and shared some kind of blessing, reflection, poem or hokey pokey before digging in. Upon arriving at WLCH, my sociological analysis is that members of the second camp had unduly influenced a version of a popular grace I remember growing up. It went:

Thank you for this food,
This food, this glorious glorious food,
And the animals,
And the vegetables,
And the minerals,(!)
Who made it possible.

MINERALS! It’s PEOPLE! PEOPLE who made it possible. Suddenly grace was reduced to a guessing game! I mean, sure, some folks are pretty into crystals and the like but when did a mineral ever harvest your lettuce?! Or berate you about Wahhabism? In a rather uncouth manner I began to loudly sing my version each time we did that grace and attempt to pull more people into my camp. Most sung it way they’d always done.

thiscollectivelife5
This is a comic I made while living collectively in North Carolina. I’d say the same concept applies to lemon bars left in the common house.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from (watching other people in) community, it’s that you rarely influence people over the long term by force and your best bet is being a good example. Folks set an incredibly kind and loving example for us in cohousing, and we’ll always remember it fondly.

By request, I was asked to record some of the other graces I learned growing up in Waldorf schools and here are 3. I’m sure my versions are slightly more bombastic and overbearing than those you’ll find on Rudolf Steiner’s Greatest Hits, but take them and share them in memory of me.

Unrelated events in North Carolina?

Evan at GuilfordIn as many weeks, two events in North Carolina that seem completely unrelated hit me hard.  The first began on Tuesday, February 3rd when this article about Guilford College came through my feed.  What I read both thrilled and disappointed me.  First, I was thrilled to learn that Steven Salaita, a man I know only through his tweets, had been invited to speak at my college.  I particularly appreciate how Steven draws succinct parallels between the history of colonialism in this country and the present reality of colonialism in the Middle East. He does so with poise and poignancy, and it has cost him a job.  Secondly, I was disappointed to hear that his talk had been moved across campus to avoid a building named for a wealthy donor who took offense to his views. The news source is not known for journalistic nuance, but I knew that the story was larger than this one event.

In my last year of college at Guilford, a school known for its peace-loving Quaker heritage, three Palestinians were jumped and viciously attacked on campus by members of the football team.  Tensions had been high everywhere then, with the Iraq War going badly and a color-coded threat system the only thing we had to show for September 11th.  Since August 2006, we’d seen several months of tense altercations and verbal threats by American students directed particularly at two Palestinian students.  Except for some slaps on the wrist, these events received little public administration recognition before the attack in January 2007. I’d worked with one of the Palestinian guys in September to write his version of an earlier altercation where he’d ended up insulted and pushed, and these are his words:

“Before [the attacker] came to us, [we] were discussing what had happened off campus and how a lot of ignorant people call us “Terrorists” and call me “Osama Bin Laden”, just because of my name and where I come from. Calling me a terrorist is an assault on my dignity, my hopes, and everything that I have worked for in order to build peace here in the United States..”

On the night of January 20th, a group of football players attacked the two Palestinian Guilford students and their visiting guest with chains and brass knuckles, hurling anti-Arab, Islamophobic slurs.  We knew at least the visitor was hospitalized with serious injuries but once again, college administration was mum and treated the incident like any other weekend-brawl. My friends were “hardly innocent victims” and the alleged perpetrators, who carried out their attack in the middle of residence hall surrounded by witnesses, deserved “due process.”  I was a member of the Guilford Judicial Board, a body working with the administration to air student grievances in sensitive judicial cases, but the Board was informed we would not hear this case (just as we had not heard any others that year). Students organized forums and vigils. The athletic department, long at odds with the naive Quaker peaceniks on campus, refused to address the issue of violence or Islamophobia on the football team.  While the school issued private judicial decisions in the case (which resulted in both victims and perpetrators leaving campus) the local DA dropped all charges, students graduated and the college moved on.  I mentioned it the college President before his retirement last year and he was as dismissive then as he’d ever been about “the Bryan incident”, as it came to be known.

Guilford appointed a new president this academic year and by all reports she’s a great person.  Since I figured she might be more open to hearing my two cents on the college’s legacy surrounding Islamophobia than her predecessor, I wrote her a letter the day of Steven’s talk telling her about “the incident” and contextualizing her recent decision.  Within just a few days, she sent back a very thoughtful and sensitive response, consistent with the prevailing Quaker attitude, that all campus voices needed to be respected and that she aimed to address the discomforts of both donors and some students by moving the talk.  I responded reiterating my key point was not the feelings of any given student or donor today but rather the legacy of Islamophobia that had never been addressed in the 8 years since a hate crime took place on campus.  On February 6th I wrote:

I witnessed a lack of public administrative response to an unprecedented hate crime exacerbate a (perhaps temporary) climate of fear on campus, but more importantly give a public impression Guilford ignores Islamophobia and the dignity of Palestinian students…I wrote to you after reading once again about the perception my college disrespects Palestinian voices in a nationally-distributed article.

I haven’t heard back.  Just a few days later, three Muslim students were killed at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Now, the University of North Carolina is absolutely a different school.  The students in question were Palestinian-Americans, allegedly killed by a neighbor, not another student. (note: in an earlier version of this post I was not aware the students, often referred to as “of Syrian and Jordanian descent” were actually American citizens originally of Palestinian descent via Jordan and Syria.) Rather than never explaining motivations for the violence in 2007, the authorities attempt now to explain the killing of these students by saying the alleged killer is either insane, a lone wolf, or is double parked.  Isn’t that just code for saying there are no lessons to be learned from this tragedy?  I’m not suggesting that we necessarily could stop anyone from killing anyone, but I’ve watched willful ignorance on the part of administrators at a institution of higher learning leave an open wound fester. Tensions are high again now, with the Levant wracked again with violence of our own creation and vitriol as bad as it’s ever been.  Today one can even tweet hate.   Schools could be a place where understanding and restorative justice are modeled, not just marketed.   I watched this lesson missed once, and I fear it will be missed again.

As I sit typing, my wife is studying again beside me for her college classes.  I see her work and I remember just how much a college or university demands of their students.  Being a student of a particular school, even if you have a losing football team, inevitably shapes a student’s identity in addition to giving them an education.  A student doesn’t just spend time in class but also in meetings, talks, eating in the dining hall, with friends, defining one’s identity around an institution every day for years.  Don’t schools then have a mission to care for and protect all their students then?  Perhaps this is just because I went to a religious school, but setting aside the obvious failures of the State in this regard, don’t colleges and universities have an obligation to address not only their student’s comforts and intellectual environment, but also their values? Are these event so very different and how can we stop them from happening again?

My Grandfathers, My Privilege

The woman arrived late for worship and quickly rose, prefacing her message with: “I can assure you this is spirit led….” She spoke at length about white privilege, systematic injustice, the civil rights movement, the death of Micheal Brown and her recent visit to Ferguson. I didn’t catch the whole message because a Friend needed an urgent ride home and when I came back she was still speaking.

I watched her through the half-light doors of the meeting, catching snippets of “reparations” and “brutality” and “mass incarceration” through the cracked doors, waiting to return without disturbing worship. Clearly as folks shifted in their seats many were already disturbed.  Eventually a Friend stood and asked that the speaker allow for some silence to consider her message.  She broke into song, spoke a practiced “don’t silence me” line and sat.  I returned to my seat and mulled what I’d only half heard.  I was bugged by the break in norms, but sometimes we can use a shaking up in meeting. I agreed with parts of her message, but the delivery was rambling. At the end of meeting she confirmed “her mission”, spoke briefly with supporters and was gone.

Missing most of the actual message, my churning emotions about policing, racism and my own privilege lead to my grandfathers:

My dad’s dad was in the New Jersey State Patrol.  He’d retired by the time I came around, but his official patrolman’s portrait used to hang in the garage “to scare the rats away.” I’m certain my Pop-pop felt what MC Killer Mike recently described about his father: “Being a cop must be hard. My dad was one, and never wanted any of his children to follow in his footsteps.” I knew he deployed to Newark in 1967 during the riot there, but that topic was as off limits as discussion of the South Pacific beaches he’d crossed as a Marine.  Near the end of his life, I asked him if he’d ever shot anyone.  He avoided the question. I think of the words Killer Mike adds: “The police have the power of life and death in their decisions — they need to know that Americans hold them to a higher standard than these examples, of American men laying lifeless like deer.” I think of my own standards as his grandson: how can I evaluate his service, knowing so little but also fearing to know more?  Perhaps for some people it’s enough to know he served in uniform, especially as a white man, but I still want to find a lesson there.

My mom’s dad Jack was the Quaker, the one who’d gone to Europe in the war and came back resolved to change

Me and my brother with Grandpa Jack, 1987

things. While I’ve heard a little more about his military experiences, everything after was meant to transform that violence.  He’d moved my mom and her siblings to a majority-black school district in the 70’s to sensitize them to the importance of race relations. The most vivid images of this experience have come from his kids though, and they describe getting beaten up by black classmates and fear. He’d done American Friends Service Committee work camps around the country rebuilding poor neighborhoods. At Thanksgiving this year I found a picture of him at one of those work camps.  He’s dressed in a shabby work outfit handing a bemused looking older black woman a glass of milk on a plate. I guess.  It looks even more staged than the state patrol portrait, and gives little sense of reparations or restorative justice. What is his lesson of transformation?

I ask myself:  Didn’t all three of these people believe they were being of service?  Their methods differed, but it seems to me the self-styled prophet, the white man and his burden, and the tight-lipped officer all wanted to make things better.  What I wonder is whether their service could have been better served in a broader community, a beloved community. If you bring a message to worship meant to change things, can you really expect anything if you leave right away?  If you followed orders you regret, can you heal or be accountable without telling anyone what happened?  If you wanted to transform pain and violence, can you succeed without accountability to those you “serve”?

Adoration and Authority

I spent a few days this last week in the Alps with members of my wife Federica’s Catholic community, the Pope John XXIII Association (APGXXIII), on a spiritual retreat.  We stayed in a beautiful hotel built for disabled teens by the community founder, Don Oreste Benzi, who called Catholics to serve the poor and marginalized as a basis of their spiritual discipline.  I’ve had a few other experiences with “the Community” in my various visits here (one described here) and even Italian Quakers, but this was my first real opportunity for corporate intercultural, interreligious dialogue in this place I may one day call home.  (Of course I’ve also only just reached a capacity in Italian to make this possible. Even now, a fail-safe uncomprehending but interested smile helps fill in the inevitable lulls. )

The format of this retreat was the first thing to strike me as different.  I was blessed to attend my first New Year’s Silent Retreat hosted by Pacific Northwest Quarterly Meeting this January, and I suppose I had expected a similar approach here.  When Quakers talk about silence, we really mean silent.  This spiritual retreat last week, called a “desert”, was decidedly more “reflective.”  While Federica assures me there are more silent “desert” experiences organized by the APGXXIII community, I found the stereotypical boisterous Catholic milieu natural considering the communal, Mediterranean sensitivities of the faithful here. An interesting exception is the rite of  “Adoration”, in which gathered worshippers pray or sit silently in somewhat improvisational fashion before the consecrated host.  The Eucharist is truly the manifest Christ as the focus of Adoration, in much the same way we Friends seek and occasionally transmogrify Him invisibly in worship.   For someone unused to Catholicism’s highly organized worship, good-natured arguments on the liturgical calendar, and tactile sensibilities, Adoration made me feel suddenly at home and also strangely uneasy. Whenever someone sang or vocalized a prayer during Adoration, I’d think “Ok now, HERE’S where we get back into the program,”  or as silent seconds turned to minutes I’d ask myself “Can I really settle in now?”

A nightlong vigil before the host offered me the opportunity to pray in complete silence, before the Christ both within and without, unconcerned with possible interruptions.  Somehow this felt sheltered, contrived.  It made me think of the folks at meeting who rush to turn off the coffee pot if someone accidentally tries to turn it on before worship.  Isn’t Christ always present and available to us, regardless of outward distractions?

Another fascinating exercise at this desert where discussions by the priest on aspects of this year’s community theme of “obedience.”  This is definitely a term we Friends struggle with, as do the fairly radical members of this community.  Obedience is considered not just obedience to outward authorities within the Church, but obedience to the needs of the poor, the Jesus’ call to action, to individual leadings and vocation.   I did find the discussion on obedience to outward authority one of the most interesting, especially as the key thing Friends chose to renounce when we went our separate way.  The priest spoke about how we are called to challenge our authorities within the faith, fervently and clearly, but that once a decision has been made by those above us in the Church we are bound to respect and abide by it.  We could be surprised or even confused by the result.  He used the example of how when St. Francis was inspired to form a new order, he began to put the pieces in place but quickly went to Rome to ask for the Pope’s blessing.  Apparently there is a famous Italian film in which St. Francis is depicted approaching the Pope at the time, known as corrupt and dripping in gold and jewels.  The gathered priests and cardinals turn up their noses at the ragged, dirty monk as he approaches the throne.  Though he had prepared a lengthy appeal to ask for the Pope’s approval to form this new order, upon approaching His Holiness he threw all caution to the wind and ad-libbed a passionate but humble request to re-imagine the Church’s calling.  The rest is history, though the key part of this story for the gathered community members was the Divine inspiration that moved the apparent monolith of Church Authority.  I mused to myself:  What if we Quakers tried to make another visit to the Vatican, to see if our approach to things could be recognized by St. Francis’ namesake?

Watching the World Cup in Castel Volturno

This is an unpublished post edited from a first draft I wrote in 2010 while living in Italy during the World Cup.  I’ve been reflecting a lot on the situation of immigrants here, especially as Europe experiences deep economic crisis and Italian xenophobia is ever-present and particular poignant for me as a privileged outsider.  We are currently hosting an intern from Burkina Faso at the moment at the farm, and his occasional comments about the challenge of living here, as well as the strange position I’ve been thrust into as his kind of supervisor, really reminds me of this experience a few years back:

Though I couldn’t be considered a real soccer (sports) fan in any respect, I’ve always really enjoyed the World Cup.  Teams from all over the world, different playing styles, strange loyalties.  I’m into it, and at least the last three tournaments have punctuated interesting moments in my life, times when I’ve been involved in crazy situations on the brink of entering new ones.  I sense this might be another and when I’m far away from home I feel at least 6 times more patriotic.

We all know about Italians and football, though I’ve been hanging out around a crowd who don’t really care much for it.  They care enough to disparage the US and its poor sporting reputation, but as the former champions eliminated in the first round I got the last laugh on that one this time.

I got to watch us sputter and go out on Saturday night surrounded by 200 Ghanians [Ghana eliminated the US 2-1 in overtime].  Now, to be fair, I don’t know if every man was from Ghana.[my privilege speaking again] I certainly did not identify myself as a US fan hoping to get a feel from the crowd.  Fede and I were visiting a town in the South of Italy, near Naples, called Castel Volturno.  Mention its name (or better yet, your travel plans there) to most Italians and you will get  post-Katrina New Orleans tooth sucking reactions.  It’s considered a lawless, Mafia-controlled toxic waste dump full of illegal immigrants.  Many immigrants come to the semi-apocalyptic resort town because of its reputation for extra-governmental legal systems, empty houses built as tax shelters and the like.  One could consider this either a draw or the result of being turned away at every other turn.

While we were there before the game, I spoke with some of the guys who described their three day trips from Libya across the sea to Sicily, only to be picked up and sent to camps called CPTs.  They’re held at the camps for various lengths of time until they’re just dumped, without any legal status, into the Italian wilds.  That’s how it’s been described to me.  Even for those not living in Castel Volturno, life as black or Arab immigrant seems very tough here.  Right in Federica’s valley near Forli there are a huge number of immigrants working low-wage jobs at the local chicken factory.  Even though this seems like a country paradise to me with white skin and easy legal status, most immigrants are clearly very marginalized and isolated here.  No halal butchers posting their wares.  No visible immigrant support center. (I found it by accident while making a visit to the local provincial offices.  One part time, and very kind, Italian women works there.)

As the World Cup game wound down and the US was clearly not going to win, the crowd started to slowly disperse. Night fell and the parking lot with a projector screen set up in it became more empty every time I looked around.  By the time the game was over, the subdued celebrations were only obvious for a few minutes before folks left entirely.   I was struck by how I might have reacted as a fair weather fan if we’d won.

Italian TV

After several visits to Italy and confirmation that I have not said anything about this before, I must comment briefly on the absurdity of Italian TV.  In order to be a truly informed anthropologist I should have watched more TV in the States before arriving in Italy but in a certain way, without comparison, I am shocked all the more by what I see here.

One of the things that is always interesting is to watch how folks outside the US view tragedies at home.  The recent marathon tragedy is an example.  Just like in 2001, (and for some reason the many horrible events that have taken place in the US while I’ve been abroad), media here assumes that whoever carries out a violent act against the US will inevitably meet a quick and violent end.  It’s a forgone conclusion, and so there is little hysteria about manhunts, fair trials, ethnicities of perpetrators, etc. which is a big story for crimes here. (It’s very interesting when the two worlds collide, like in the case of the girl from Seattle acquitted but by Italian popular opinion guilty of killing her roommate.) It’s not to say these stories don’t get a lot of airtime, but it seems like an unspoken understanding the US has lots of enemies  but there’s always a bloody end for anyone who does us wrong.  It’s an interesting perspective, and one I imagine we lose as folks cry out for blood after terrible tragedies.  I don’t condone the violence of terrorists or the State or State terrorism, but what can we expect to gain from this cycle of violence?

On a completely different other side of things is being slightly horrified by “entertainment TV”.  In Italy there is the universally recognized role of the velina, or sidekick showgirl, who dances between commercial breaks and makes seductive passes at the show hosts but never speaks.  They are particularly famous on one show a news parody program that aims to humiliate various personalities in the news, and apparently women try out across Italy to become the following season’s velina.   I knew I was living in a truly bizzare media driven world when I watched these women pole dance to Macklemore’s single “Thrift Shop” the other day. I can remember the first time I heard “My Oh My” on Live from I-5 hosted by DJ Luvva J as he made a shout out to a young MC who’d graduated from Evergreen.  The crazy juxtapositions are everywhere:  Show hosts here often hawk all type of products during the commercial breaks of their very same show, yet even so it was pretty wild to watch the host of a “Who wants to be a millionaire?”-style show ask a question about porn star celebrity weddings just seconds before cutting to a commercial break where he pitches a new child car seat.

A Californian Vision

It reached 80 degrees in Cazadero on the ranch!
It reached 80 degrees in Cazadero on the ranch!
Federica and Lila with burning wings on Ocean Beach, San Francisco
Federica and Lila with burning wings on Ocean Beach, San Francisco

I reconciled myself to having a different attitude about California about 5 years ago, when I drove my newly purchased 1982 Yamaha Vision to San Francisco from Olympia. At the time, my attitude about California was that it seemed shallow and consumer-driven. Contempt prior to investigation.  It was an interesting period for me, right about the era I began this blog in preparation for a trip to Palestine and my heart warmed a little in the sunshine and landscape I saw.  I was struggling on a personal level, trying to figure out my life purpose, and the motorcycle was “witness” to that period in ways I’m still only just understanding.

I sold the Vision as I reached the Bay to an old friend living in the hills of Western Sonoma County. My friend Frank was looking for just that kind of motorcycle, and at the time I didn’t feel so attached or appreciative of it.  Almost 5 years later, he passed away unexpectedly recently and at his memorial his family suggested I come back to pick up the bike. He was such a kind man, and his love of mechanics (especially marginal ones) meant a lot to me as I thought about him and that vehicle.  As Federica and I prepare to travel to Italy for 5 months and my job wound down, we had some time to make a visit.  I didn’t know what condition the motorcycle was now in, but regardless our main interest was taking a kind of honeymoon and visiting our many friends (grieving, recently moved, old and new) down there.  If all went well, we’d motor home on the bike along Highway 1 as our return trip.

3 lambs were born in the week we stayed in Sonoma County, these one's are minutes old.
3 lambs were born in the week we stayed in Sonoma County, these one’s are minutes old.

We have spent the last two weeks wandering San Francisco’s Mission district full of murals and encroaching gentrification, burning a new friend’s artwork on the beach with her for a film project, traveling into the hills to live entirely off the grid, catching rides all over backcountry roads, and connecting with the restorative power of community.  We have not been riding a motorcycle. While Persephone, as I now remember I called her, may one day ride again, at the moment she will bask (languish?) a bit longer in the warm Californian sun.  She now holds a more complete story of origin and a myth for me, as a point of reference in the last 5 formative years of my life.   We did a little ceremony at the ranch to appreciate the tools in our lives for the service they provide us, and I reflected on how a tool can serve a purpose we didn’t plan for it at all.  Persephone now carries a little bit of Frank for me and she’s fired inspiration and driven me places without even starting to leave the driveway.

 

My Meeting’s Listserve

My meeting has listserve.  Aside from the obvious lack of intimacy using this kind of communication (more on that later), I’ve been reflecting recently about how or whether listserves serve Quaker process.  For many years, Olympia Monthly Meeting has had a practice of going around the room after worship to introduce ourselves, to allow for “afterthoughts”, or to share announcements “pertinent to the life of the meeting”.  This last category is very broad, and can really say a lot about us as a community.   I sense when we are more or less on the same page as a community when I hear these announcements and gauge reactions, just like how a rich worship may spill into more afterthoughts as spirit moving among us stirs our collective pot. After worship we rise, drink weak coffee and follow up with those who shared things that touched us.

Enter the listserve.  What gets posted on the listserve for the 166 hours we’re not at meeting may or may not have much to do with things that are even mentioned during announcements.  From the privacy of our homes or phones, we post event invitations (progressive, social-justicey or bird-on-it as a rule), ride requests and offers, budget updates, draft business meeting minutes, poetry, prayer requests, product promotions, final logistics for Quaker events already posted in the newsletter.  Sometimes, like when a member is sick and the community comes to their aid during the week, message threads begin that provide helpful updates or instructions and respond to everyone’s concern for that person. Other times threads begin unintentionally when a general request or even a specific personal appeal is replied to en mass to the whole list. It is maddening to include your email address in a mass request very clearly requesting individual RSVPs only to get a crazy avalanche of dozens of cross-posted replies and running commentary irrelevant to 90% of the viewers in response. Many times folks will defend a unilateral decision about something in meeting by saying “well, I posted it to the listeserve” (though obviously not everyone is on there and for clear reasons many have no interest in joining) Typically if something very serious or unexpected occurs, like a death in the community,  somehow we know that it’s better to set up a phone tree to let folks know.

In anthropology  it is commonly understood that most rules are learned when they are broken.  Unspoken boundaries certainly exist on the listserve, but as far as I know we have never made any attempt to establish real guidelines.  “Great!” you say “isn’t that truly uninhibited continuing revelation at work?” Besides the obvious inconveniences, I’m not so sure. Last year when some nitty gritty exchanges regarding an open conflict in the meeting were mistakenly posted to the whole list, the fallout was intense. The sender was publicly admonished for their mistake in meeting (to the shocked surprise of a whole segment of the community not on the list), they apologized for saying something they never would have said  if they’d known it would be shared publicly ( “I would have of course not doffed my hat to Thee privately”), and our take away was that this Friend had blown it.  This individual shouldered disproportionate responsibility and we missed an opportunity for growth as a community because of the two Golden Rules of Quaker Club: #1 There are no rules in Quaker Club. #2 You do not talk about Quaker Club. We recently hosted a Friend come to talk about Eldering who challenged these rules of (liberal) Quakerism in his own words.  “How we can we hold people accountable as a community if we are not clear about our boundaries or rules?” He pushed us and we DO have rules and boundaries.  We emperil ourselves more seriously if we not only deny we have rules but also tacitly discourage discussions that seem to question “they way we do things.”  This is of course not a new discussion for the online convergent Friends community.

I think the listserve was created with the best of intentions, but as a tool in practice it invariably reflects some of our biggest blind spots. I would also challenge the digital Quaker community to consider this as an extension of a bigger discussion about elective use of technology within Quaker meetings.  We must also ask ourselves:  What might come of more and more of our communication taking place in this sterile, impersonal format, especially considering hangups that exist already in our bricks and mortar community?  Occasionally I suspect folks post things to the list just to provoke a response out of their community that sits silently for much of its time together.  Unencumbered by the expectation to share with Holy inspiration, we cast our thoughts into the Olympia Monthly Meeting corner of the vast digital abyss, hoping  our request for feedback on meeting minutes provokes an invite to a butter churning workshop.