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Van Crashes Into Our Yard

So it’s Friday night and we’re driving home from Northern Virginia. It’s an ordinary night in most ways. Like any other Friday night after we’ve dropped the kids off for a visit with their father. We didn’t go straight home; instead, we stuck around in Northern Virginia for a few hours afterwards. Picked up a few riders for Uber. Paid for our gas I suppose. And stopped at a casual but brilliant restaurant in Vienna that served up light shrimp tacos with a panache and brilliance that delighted me. The tacos only cost $4 apiece, and that made me happy too.

A little later, we’re driving on Route 66, heading westward. We’re at about exit 43, right between Manassas and Centreville for those of you who are familiar with what exit corresponds with what neighborhood in the I-66 corridor. I’m a little sleepy. It’s about 10:30 and it’s been a long day. With an almost absent-minded glance, I checked Facebook messages. I spotted a text from my neighbor Jen, who lives three houses down from me. It’s somewhat unusual to hear from Jen this late at night. I thought to myself, Hope she’s okay.

Then I click over and read her message.

“El, you need to come outside right now!”

“Um, I can’t, I’m 45 minutes away from home.”

“Okay, there’s a van crashed in your yard.

“Come again?” Now I was reading aloud from my spot in the passenger seat. “There’s a van crashed in my yard?”

“Yes, it flipped a few times and it’s stuck in the side yard.”

“Have you called the cops, the ambulance?”

I almost didn’t need to ask this question. Jen is an Air Force mechanic. Our other neighbor Scott is some sort of officer, I believe in the Air Force. And in general, these are mountain people, and they’re accustomed to emergency situations. Still I asked. And she replied:

“Yes, been called.”

“Okay, is the driver okay? Is the house okay? What about our cars?”

“He’s okay, he’s bloodied, concussed but walked from scene. Obviously had been drinking, didn’t want us to call cops.”

I smiled to myself. Thinking, Jen called the cops anyway, as she damn well should have. Whether the fellow was drunk or not, he needed medical assistance. Then I go back to reading her messages, which are brief and calm.

“The van is in the side yard. The only thing damaged possibly is your septic tank. Car’s okay. House is okay.”

“Okay, I’ll be home in 37 minutes, eta is 11:15.”

We made it home at 11:10 by taking the back road, which is called Massanutten. It’s a poorly-maintained private road that leads into our development. It isn’t paved and it experiences frequent rock slides, but when it’s passable it saves five minutes off our commute. And our Jeep can handle pretty much anything it throws at us. Fortunately that night the Massanutten’s tricks did not include any broken walls or rocks piles.

At 11:09, We pulled up to a light show. There was a fire truck, an ambulance and a red tow truck parked on the side of the gravel road that overlooks our side yard. After I ran inside to grab warmer gear, I made a quick assessment: there was in fact a van situated in the middle of our side yard. This was a fact in evidence, undeniable, incontrovertible. An avoidable fact—and a problem, I thought to myself. There was no more avoiding it than there’s avoiding a death that involves someone you care about—and again, I gave thanks that I already had some sort of warning. The note from Jen reduced the shock of seeing it.

It’s hard to explain the emotion you feel when a van’s sitting in your yard: fear, confusion, astonishment, or simply that feeling you get when you’re given a puzzle in elementary school and asked to identify an object that’s out of place. A van in the yard is not quite as inopposite as, say, a dolphin swimming in your living room—but it nonetheless makes a jarring appearance. An interesting one as well. You’re driven to figure out how and why it got there.

After I pulled on a hat and warm gloves, I climbed up the driveway and looked for Jen. She was dressed in extreme weather gear and was standing beside her husband Rob as well as three of our other neighbors: Missy and Scott, who live next door to us, and A.J., who owns the house three or four yards down from where the van driver lives as a renter. Everyone started talking at once, just about the same time the tow truck driver asked if I was the homeowner, and the fire truck gunned its engine and drove to the end of the street looking for a place to turn around, and the ambulance wheeled into a driveway and executed a sharp U-Turn.

Jen explained the accident scene to me. “Here’s where he started to slide, then he over-corrected, and he rolled down to the right, hit the septic tank, then rolled in the other direction.” She pointed to a spot on the road, which is gravel with dirt shoulders, and then used her hands to demonstrate the route the van took.

“And he’s been picked up by the ambulance, you say he’s okay?”

“He’ll be okay,” A.J. volunteered.

Someone there added, “Said he’d only had a few drinks.”

“Don’t know how he walked exactly, he didn’t want me to call an ambulance, but he was bleeding, obviously concussed,” Jen said.

“Yeah, Scott had to pull him out, he was bleeding, couldn’t get out without help,” Rob said. He was holding a cigar, and as we watched the scene, which was never the same from moment to moment, we talked about his recent motorcycle accident, and how he was recovering from it. A few months back, he crashed his bike up right good and he’s gotten back on the horse, so to speak, and has ridden again, but he’s still struggling with possibly permanent damage to his neck.

Meanwhile, my husband stood beside me, and we watched and chatted and waited for the tow truck to make its first go at pulling the van out. Since it was dark out, it was hard to get a good visual of the van. As far as I could tell, it was a busted up ancient nondescript gray or light blue van, but A.J. later explained that the driver had just bought it a little while back to help with his moving business. Later I would identify it as a four or five year old Honda Odyssey, which is a top-of-the-line minivan, but from the top of our ravine, it just looked battered and old.

A.J. kept talking about the renter. I picked up bits and pieces that I needed. Like: “He was saying the other day that he took out an extended warranty on it, I know he loved that thing.”

Good, I thought, then he’s insured.

At this point, a scraggly-haired young man approached me. He was with Henderson Towing. Had a bright yellow jacket atop a burly frame. In fact, I’ve never met a tow truck driver who didn’t look somewhat like this guy: tough, brawny, fast-talking, competent. “You’re the homeowner?”

“I am.”

“I’m thinking of pulling it out from the bottom, otherwise we’ll have to pull it up over all those rocks.” The tow guy gestured to our yard, which is covered with scores of massive boulders and too many trees to count. One day, my husband and I tried to count the trees, but we got bored and quit at 100. So there’s a lot of trees, and there’s even more rocks, peppered throughout our acre of land. There’s so many rocks, in fact, that the prior owners built three rows of almost English or Irish-style rock walls in the main yard, and the bottom of these serves as a sort of retaining wall. To protect the house from, you know, vans that crash into the yard.

“So you’d have to come down the driveway?” My husband had his hands in his pockets, as did I. Unlike me, he was not shivering from the cold mountain air. At this point, it was about 20 degrees.

“Yeah,” I added, “If you do, that’s fine, do we need to move any of our trucks?” I was referring to our two SUVs, a Ford Expedition and a Jeep Commander.

“Yeah, I want to go down your driveway, nope, don’t have to move anything,” said the tow truck driver.

“Okay,” I said.

Our neighbors were still talking, except for Jen, who went inside because the driver was safely departed and she had to get some rest.

My husband and I walked down the hill and stood at the bottom of our driveway between the Jeep and the Ford.

What we ended up watching was something like a circus, or roller derby absent the bang-ups. Despite his confidence and ability, when the tow guy pulled his 550 into the yard and tried to go uphill, he hit icy patches on the grass. He begin to scissor sideways and down, and all of this was noisy, because he kept gunning his diesel and the tires were screaming and the engine was growling and he was hollering I think through it all . . . and that’s when he came to a resting position about five feet from the ravine that waits at the bottom of our back yard. I don’t know what it waits for, other than sleds that run too fast or SUVs that slide out of control down the icy driveway; all I know is that the ravine’s almost the sum of all my physical crashing fears.

The tow truck driver then got even busier. He winched his 550 to a tree, and called down one of his assistants to help back the truck out of the yard, using the winch to guide it, until they could turn it around and drive it back to the top of our hill. That took about fifteen minutes. We watched and tried not to smile. Not mean smiles. We were rooting for the tow guy. But the whole thing was damn near as exciting as watching a roller derby. Meanwhile, the young man, the tow guy, he talked with me a little. Said he was 30, lived pretty close, up one on of the other mountains, and he had a wife and three kids, all of them under six. Then he said he was calling his boss. “We need Big Bird,” he said, and explained, “Big Bird has a 650.”

“I like its name,” I said. “Big Bird.”

“Uh huh.”

“But you might need a helicopter,” I said, and I giggled.

He shook his head grimly and climbed up the driveway.

It wasn’t over yet. I had to talk to the police officer. He was slim, had a pencil-thin mustache, and he had a kind way about him. He got my name and number and gave me the case report. Told me everything would work out okay, and I told him I was grateful he was out here in the cold, taking care of our mess.

“It’s my job,” he said.

“Nonetheless I’m grateful you’re here to do it,” I said.

Some time passed. We were still waiting for Big Bird, which pulled up after another half-hour. I was running out of words, so was my husband. The other neighbors were still talking, especially A.J. and Rob. Missy was her usual sweet self. She was the one who helped me when I got locked out my first night here, but that’s another story. And Scott was quietly sweet. Amid all this, the temperature was dropping.

My husband and I went inside to warm up for a few minutes, and that’s when we heard a lot more noise.

“Hmmm, wanna go see?” I stood up sleepily from the sofa. It was almost one a.m.

My husband shook his head and chuckled. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

So we pulled on coats and hats and gloves and climbed back up the hill. At this point, there were two cables attached to the front of the minivan, anchored to two of the tow trucks. And slowly, almost glacially, the minivan was getting dragged up the hill backwards. It was noisy, and the lead tow truck driver got into the minivan to try to steer it so that it didn’t come up over the largest rock in its path. He even took his jacket off, and was sweating. A lot of things fell off the minivan on its final journey up our side yard. The front bumper tore completely off, and at one point the side door looked like it might fall off, but two of the Henderson guys managed to manually slide it shut.

The minivan pivoted towards our house once it reached the apex of the hill. That’s when I got a good look at it. Saw that all eight of its airbags had deployed, and all four sides of it had taken a beating.

“Rolled at least once,” the officer said.

“Won’t be driving ever again, that’s for sure,” Rob or A.J. said.

“Yep, totaled,” I said.

The Henderson guys got the van up on one of their lifts. And that’s when we said goodnight to everyone. We didn’t stand at the top of our hill and watch the trucks drive away. Instead, we waved goodnight, hiked down our driveway one last time, and stumbled into bed. It was 1:30, and all I could think was how long a night it was for the responders, the police officer, the EMTs, the tow truck guys, my neighbors who helped the driver, and how grateful I was that there were good, reliable people who took care of oddities like vans that end up crashed in your side yard.




When Red Tape Blocks Neighbors from Helping the Homeless

The community I live in, Front Royal, Virginia, has a large problem with homelessness. And with the record cold temperatures we’ve been facing over the past few weeks, the non-profits who work the problem of homelessness as well as several local churches met on Thursday to discuss a simple solution to a horrific problem: how do we get the 75-100 homeless citizens of Front Royal out of the freezing temperatures during the night. As reported by the Royal Examiner,

The first Thermal Shelter meeting was held Thursday evening, Jan. 11 at New Hope Bible Church, to discuss the serious need for a temporary thermal shelter in Warren County.

The Royal Examiner’s take was that the Thermal Shelter meeting had a strong turnout, and the Mayor of Front Royal, Hollis Tharpe, “was in attendance and was able to help answer a variety of questions.” In addition, the Royal Examiner emphasized several positive results. For one thing, the community united to address a serious problem. In addition, the meeting successfully accomplished something: several churches in attendance volunteered to hold week-long thermal shelters from 7 PM to 7 AM, starting immediately.

The Gazebo, where in good weather homeless try to find shelter
Photo Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

The article (which did a great job quickly summarizing the specifics of what occurred that evening) did not mention an additional positive aspect of the meeting. Pastor Marc Roberson of Riverton United Methodist Church spoke about the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter (WATTS). As one of the founders of WATTS, Pastor Marc knows how to run a Thermal Shelter. Pastor Marc went over the practicalities, the resources and volunteers needed for conducting Thermal Shelters. He also discussed how to train volunteers and how to set up a strong structure that would ensure that the Thermal Shelters ran smoothly. Pastor Marc also explained that churches should figure out how to integrate housing the homeless with safely running activities that involve children and teenagers—which again is a concern that churches must and can resolve. For example, churches can ensure that the homeless guests arrive an hour after all activities end and leave an hour before morning activities commence in the mornings. WATTS, for the record, is now well funded, with paid workers, but it started off as a volunteer organization organized in a time of great need.

Kathy Leonard (l), Vicki Davies, Michelle Smeltzer, Pam Williams and Roni Evans.
Photo Credit: Jen Avery

Nonetheless, none of this can legally happen right now, which leads me to express my take on this first meeting. First, I’m grateful to the news organizations that covered the meeting, particularly Jen Avery from the Royal Examiner. Naturally, I’m grateful to the folks from the churches and non-profits that came and volunteered their time and support to help solve a public emergency.

Moreover, I’m grateful to the organizers of the event: Pastor Bobby Stepp of New Hope Bible Church; Kathy Leonard, Homeless Liaison for Front Royal and facilitator of the evening; Vicki Davies of St. Luke Clinic, Michelle Smeltzer, with House of Hope and the Department of Social Services; Pam Williams, from The Potter’s House; and Roni Evans. Every single organizer there realized that as a community we must do something, and now, to get our brothers and sisters, off the streets.

After all, people die in the cold, and as Pastor Bobby Stepp said in his opening prayer when he quoted from the Bible:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:35-40.

All or almost all of the attendees present, no matter their religious affiliation, agree that a community should help shelter the homeless. The eight or more churches who volunteered their time and resources follow the axiomatic principle that being a good citizen means you do not allow your neighbors to freeze in the cold. We have neighbors who are freezing tonight. There’s just no way around this truth.

Hollis Tharpe, Town Mayor
Photo Credit: Jen Avery

Unfortunately, as the meeting progressed, truth and emergent need ran into a massive roadblock: bureaucratic red tape. Mayor Tharpe explained that before a church could legally host a Thermal Shelter, it would have to go through a sixty to ninety day process that would include no less than four town hall meetings as well as a visit from a Fire Safety Inspector. The tone in the room changed dramatically after Mayor Tharpe spoke. He in fact, did not speak of red tape; in fact, he said that “he would move the process along as fast as he could.” And when asked for comment afterward, Mayor Tharpe said that he didn’t understand why a permit was needed in the first place and he would check on the situation and the legal stance of the town on Tuesday. “I’m on the little guy’s side.” In truth, Mayor Tharpe hardly comes across as an obstructionist to the cause of homelessness. Nonetheless, the issue of bureaucratic red tape changed the tone of the meeting.

Indeed, an air of civil disobedience arose. It was palpable and it was alive. I was part of this wave of people who muttered, “This will not do,” which was quickly followed by several suggestions. “We can hold a slumber party,” exclaimed one church leader. “Or a lock-in,” cried another church leader or church goer. “Or we can build an underground resistance movement and ask forgiveness not permission,” murmured a member of one of the non-profits in attendance.

Stevi Robinson, the Chair for Fundraising from Warren County’s Habitat for Humanity, who was in attendance at the meeting along with Vice President Kim Taylor Jones stated afterwards:

A 2007 Habitat for Humanity construction site in the United States
Photo Credit: Joe Mabel, Wikipedia

There are many hurdles to overcome in addressing the rising homelessness crisis in Front Royal/Warren County. While it was wonderful to see such a great outpouring of community support last Thursday, the need is still outweighing the current response. There is much work to do still, and I encourage everyone that attended last weeks meeting to bring a friend or neighbor to the next meeting.

My grandmother Hazel used to always say, “never look someone in the face and not see your own.”  Anyone of us given the right circumstances could end up homeless. We as a community have the ability to help everyone have a healthy experience at life. We need to stop turning a blind eye to the tragic living conditions that currently exist for some of our community members.

If the Town and County can’t be motivated by the human factor, Studies show that communities that take a housing first approach enjoy roughly $1.78 return for every $1 spent on such programs. (University of New Mexico ISR). The time to act is now.

The non-profit I serve on as secretary, ROTH of FR (Roof Over Their Heads) has a simple mission statement:

ROTH of Front Royal aims to end homelessness in Warren County, VA by providing housing and supportive services to members in our community through non-judgmental and non-discriminatory assistance.

Five of us from ROTH sat in the front row, and we observed the frustration on the faces of facilitators like Vicki Davis of St. Luke Community Clinic. She has nurses lined up to volunteer their care to homeless men and women who need medical treatment—and could receive it while finding a safe and warm place to sleep at a Thermal Shelter. And now Vicki is being told that her nurses may as well stay home. I haven’t spoken to Vicki, but I can speak on behalf of ROTH. We must help get the homeless off the street when the temperatures drop into the teens. Over the past year, our 501(c)(3) has helped at least one hundred homeless or almost homeless citizens of Front Royal and the surrounding areas in Warren County, but one homeless citizen suffering in sub-freezing temperatures is one too many.

And while I will not quote any of the church leaders in attendance, I am certain that a church should not be told it cannot follow its guiding principles, but should bow to the insanity of a bureaucratic process that will ensure one and only one thing: the homeless will freeze tonight and tomorrow night, until all the formalities and senseless legalities are followed by a legion of would be angels.

There must and should be a better way. And something tells me, based on a question asked of Mayor Tharpe, that if we proceed with this Thermal Shelter idea without going through a 90-day approval process, we will not be thrown in prison for fulfilling our civic and/or religious duty. There is a time to help. And that time is now.

 




My First Friend on the Mountain

Some people can walk up to other people and with the childlike confidence or perhaps innocence make a new friend. Like when we were in elementary school and landed on the ground after jumping down from the monkey bars. We see another kid, they smile at us, or we smile at them, and one of us says, “Hi, I’m so and so, will you be my friend?” Or you’re seated at a table of four in third grade and the boy next to you writes you a note: “Hey, wanna be friends?” Honestly, it never really happened this easily for me, even when I was in first grade, but I’ve seen other kids do it. And as an adult, I’ve watched with genuine astonishment, with something akin to envy but closer to respect, as other adults make friends with social grace and ease.

When I moved up to the mountain, I was in a brand new absolutely alien spot. The mountain was new; I was as new to it as the roaming packs of deer were to me. I was unprepared for stinkbugs and ladybird swarms; I didn’t know the difference between a copperhead and an eastern rat snake. I also wasn’t used to the new me: single mom, on my own with three kids—getting a fresh start, no less, all alone and knowing no one on my mountain.

For the first month or six weeks or so, I continued not knowing anyone. On my walks alone or with the kids, I would wave to everyone, and almost everyone would wave back. I chatted with a groundskeeper one day. He rented a home on the bottom of the mountain and performed maintenance work. He was friendly but we only talked for a few minutes. I ran into some other folks on one of my walks. I liked their dogs, and we talked about how cute their dogs were for a few minutes. But that was it. I had my kids, and I had my friends who lived far away.

Sometimes I was all alone on the weekends, but usually at least my daughter would be at home with me. On the rare weekends when all three kids went on their biweekly visits with their father, I would kinda lose my mind. The mountainside with its cliffs and its dense fogs sometimes seemed alive, but aloof and unfriendly. At those times, I would text or call my best friend and I’d whine. It would go something like this:

“OMG, I’m lonely, I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve written 3,000 words, I’ve gone for a hike, no this time I didn’t get lost, now I’ve made dinner and I don’t know what else to do.”

“You need to meet people.”

“Meet people?”

“Yeah, go introduce yourself to someone or join a charity or something.”

“Ugh.”

“El, you like charities.”

“I know.”

“What about the coffee shop?”

“Guess I could bring my laptop and hide behind it while I drink a latte,” I mused.

“No. Don’t bring your laptop and hide.”

“Ugh, why can’t you move next door?”

“From across the country?” Her voice was edged with disbelief.

“Yes, it’s a really good idea.”

“You need people near you, someone you can play cards with.”

“But I’d have to meet them first.”

“Yes, if you want to play cards with someone you need to meet them first.”

“I know.”

“Or you could pay attention to the opposite sex, you know, think about dating,” she said.

“Argh.”

“Well, yes. Now go out and meet someone, I gotta go.”

I never did muster out to meet anyone. But one weekend, after living in our chalet for about six weeks, I was out for a walk with Ben. He was jumping from the edge of the ravine to the road, searching for rocks, all bundled up in his blue jacket against the cold of an October morning. And a voice with an eastern European accent called out to me, “Hi, good morning, how are you?”

I looked around until I spotted the curly blonde-haired owner of the voice. She was standing in the driveway of a barnhouse style cabin, with a view of the mountains behind her and a stack of firewood that was at least six or seven feet tall. She was middle-aged and a youthful fifty. Her cheeks were rosy; her eyes, wide set. She stood about five-five and her entire countenance spoke of health and the outdoors. With sparkling blue eyes, she could have walked out of a Susi Chapstick commercial. She’d have been one of the tour guides or the skiing instructors.

I swiveled around and took her in, and I couldn’t help smiling. “Hello there,” I said.

“Saw you walking the other day, you have such beautiful children.” She smiled at Ben, whose dirt-encrusted jeans bore rips in both knees.

“Thank you.” I smiled and tried not to look silly. “We’re living in Singh’s chalet for a few months until we can get something more permanent. My name’s El, it’s nice to meet you.”

She walked towards me with her hand out. “I’m Katya.”

After we shook hands, I smiled again.

Katya smiled back.

“I think I saw you too, have you been here long?”

“Ten years.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I moved up here after my divorce.” Then Katya began to talk, and I forgot about feeling shy or silly. I just listened for several minutes as she relayed her story. She still loves her husband very much. They were, in fact, soulmates, or something close to that. They sailed around the world together. Had a “beautiful” daughter. Had a “beautiful life” together, which all began when she was living in her native country Russia and “Will” was visiting from America. Katya hardly spoke English; Will, broken Russian. Yet they fell in love, and in time, Katya married Will and they lived happily ever after. Until they got divorced.

Katya skipped over the exact reasons for why she split with Will. She went on to say that they got along “beautifully,” and then she told me that she started in Front Royal with almost nothing to her name. But she had guts and smarts, not to mention a degree in finance. She opened her own consulting company, and with days left before a loan payment came due, she landed her first client. From there, Katya said with a cheerful smile, her business took off, and ever since, she has managed money for what sounded like a wide range of clients.

I took all this in. I listened and was intrigued, charmed and warmed by Katya’s story. Ben hopped in and out of our conversation, and then Katya said, “Would you like to come in and see my home?”

I said, “Sure, I’d love to, come on, Ben, we’re going to see Ms. Katya’s home,” and we followed her down the walkway, up the steps, and into a gorgeous, tidy, wonderful mountain home. She showed us all around, from the top floor to the bottom, and the whole time, we kept talking. Ben kept hopping in and out of the conversation, and two years later, Katya would laugh and remind me about how “Ben rolled around upside down on the floor.”

Katya and I talked about Russian and America; easy choices and not so easy ones; energy and the law of attraction; life and death; birth and rebirth; friends and soulmates; the end and the beginning; the before and the after. I didn’t inveigh on God too much, for we weren’t going to meet there, not exactly, just as we would never meet in the same place on all matters spiritual—and yet, we met, and somewhere in that meeting was this sense of solace that a good conversation brings.

Katya was my first friend on the mountain. She remains my friend to this day. And she is also singlehandedly responsible for finding me the home I now own—but that’s another story. For another day.

How about you? Is it easy for you to make friends? And do you have friends you can walk and talk with, or do you find friendship over long distances or online?




Ladybug Invasion

When I was a little girl, I was girly about ladybugs. I loved them. I loved in particular the idea of taking a VW Bug and decorating it like a real-life, breathing, belching personification of all things ladybug. I loved them so much, I wrote stories about the little Ladybug I’d own someday. Thank goodness those stories were long since lost, but my ladybug fascination would one day come back to haunt me.

It all started one hot October afternoon. I was sitting there minding my own business, or minding my kids’ business, or minding my characters’ business, and I feel this sharp, this violent and brutal attack, to my forearm. I’m thinking a wasp has gotten in through the screen, so I look down like I’m gonna slap this thing, and I freeze. It’s a sweet little red and black thing. And it’s biting me.

By BTDenyer – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15706449

Now, a word about these red and black . . . things. I did some research on them and it turns out they cause all sorts of outraged argumentation among entomologists. I of course am no entomologist (though I did take a course on Entomology in undergrad, but that was only because it didn’t require a lab and I wanted an easy A; it was not, as it turns out, an easy A but that’s another matter—suffice to say I have a weak fortitude for all things insect-related). Anyway, a ladybug is not really a bug—it’s a beetle. And it’s actually a ladybird. As an entomologist from the University of Florida explains it if not clearly, at least in a way that will amuse all but the most dour of readers:

Ladybird is a name that has been used in England for more than 600 years for the European beetle Coccinella septempunctata. As knowledge about insects increased, the name became extended to all its relatives, members of the beetle family Coccinellidae. Of course these insects are not birds, but butterflies are not flies, nor are dragonflies, stoneflies, mayflies, and fireflies, which all are true common names in folklore, not invented names. The lady for whom they were named was “the Virgin Mary”, and common names in other European languages have the same association (the German name Marienkafer translates to “Marybeetle” or ladybeetle). Prose and poetry mention ladybird, perhaps the most familiar in English being the children’s rhyme: Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children all gone…

Okay, so honestly, I reread it three times and I didn’t understand that either. See, I got stuck on the song:

Ladybird, ladybird (BUG damnit), fly away home,

your house is on fire, your children are all gone.

After years of bewilderment, I understand what this song really means. The little beasts are taking over your home. They’re biting you so hard your arm burns! RUN!

Seriously, I now know that the Ladybug is really a ladybird, but the ladybird is neither a real bug nor a bird so much as a beetle. And it can be a good or bad visitor. Good ladybugs eat harmful pests like aphids (those are the critters that destroy rosebushes). Bad ladybirds swarm into your home, eat your food, and bite you. They’re like flying sharks with fangs. In fact, according to the University of Florida’s entomology page, some ladybirds knock out plant pests, or pests who kill plants, but some ladybirds are themselves pests.

Ladybird eating an aphid U.S. Public Domain, image by Scott Bauer

The latter invaded my home, beginning on that hot October afternoon. They came two by two and then two hundred by two hundred, and they wouldn’t sit still or stop hopping and flying from one light to the other in our overrun Chalet. I didn’t know anyone up on the mountain yet, so I didn’t realize our situation was a common one for Shenandoah dwellers. I thought at first the ladybirds were just welcoming us to our new home. Until, that is, I counted more than one hundred of them circling our dining room table like airplanes flying the pattern awaiting a spot to land.

When the cute killers passed from hapless messengers bearing good tidings to home invaders with teeth, I reassessed my position. I was like a general surveying the battlefield. And thus I became a killer. As usual, the boys launched into action and joined the assault. We became killers, but we never defeated the enemy.

To my shock, Madeline joined the ladybird team, and like the Virgin Mary after which they were named, she protected them from harm. As she later explained with a smile, “We all know my room was the bug emporium, so they gathered there and kept me company. One would land on my fingers and I would kiss her and tell her about my day. Others would sit on my windowsill, waiting for their turn to visit.”

Two years later, I would ask her about the ladybirds. “How did you go from terrified of all insects to befriending these Coccinellidae?”

“Aw that’s a great word, do you think it will be on the SATs?”

“No.” I laughed. “You’ll be seeing words like bellicose and consternation. Which would be a good description of your ladybirds.”

Madeline gasped. “No, no,” she said. “That’s a calumny. A better word for my lady friends would be innocuous, mellifluous, peripatetic or resplendent.

“Gah, that’s hyperbolic, at best they’re Flibbertigibbets. In truth, they cause an imbroglio, an absolute effrontery to household harmony.”

“Mom, you launched an all-out dragoon, you forced the boys to join in your brouhaha—”

“—A dragoon?”

“Yes, the word means to compel into compliance, often with violent measures—”

“—Did not!”

“And the results were draconian, did you know that word comes from Draco, a politician from Athens whose codified laws were notorious for their severity, such as death for minor offenses?”

“I need to talk to your history teacher.”

“And tell him what exactly?”

“Oh, well, I’ll tell him you went from being a cold-blooded killer to being an ignominious protector of pests.”

“Oh,” she said, “Well if you do that, remember to make a good comparison.”

“Like what? I know you created a list of the worst lady killers, ha did you like my pun?”

“No, but go on.”

Public Domain in the U.S. Original painting “The Apparition,” by Gustave Moreau 1876

“Oh, well, give me a name from your list of female baddies I can compare you too before you became Florence Nightingale.”

Madeline’s eyes gleamed. “Perfect one is the lady who ordered the . . . what was her name?”

“Uh, I see where’s you’re going with it, nope that’s not appropriate really.”

Madeline looked up from her notebook and frowned. “Yeah you’re right, but in a way it’s perfect, like you ordered the death of all stinkbugs and all other flying insects—”

“—What else you got?”

“The lady who washed herself in the blood of the children she killed?”

“Ew,” I said. “And what’s more, you wouldn’t touch a dead bug, nor would you even view their dead carcasses, you just pleaded for their death.”

“Hmm, true.”

“Yeah,” I said, “And it wouldn’t be appropriate to bring up the woman who ordered John the Baptist’s death.”

“No, probably not.”

“It’s actually downright offensive, he was, after all, my favorite prophet, well, after Jesus,” I added.

“And Elijah, you love him too, uh, what was the name of the one who ordered Herod to kill—”

“—Herodias’ daughter Salome they were horrid, we need someone else.”

“Okay.” Madeline shut her notebook and grabbed her backpack. “I gotta go, I can look for other alternatives after school, but I think you deserve the comparison to the serial killers. After all, you killed my friends.” And with that, she got the last word.

In the end, there was no true end to the ladybird invasion. In time, I gave in and stopped trying to kill them. They never bit me again, and I didn’t really hate them. In fact, I grew rather proud of them, so much so that when my parents came to visit, I introduced them to my ladybird swarm. “See, they like us, aren’t they kinda cute?”

“Very nice, sweetie,” my mom said.

“Yeah, we don’t usually have quite so many as we have today, but it’s hot. Goes above eighty, we get over a hundred.” I scanned the main living area. There were well over a hundred red and bug ladybirds crawling around and circling the light fixture. “But when it cools off, numbers will go down, especially on cool nights.”

My dad looked up from his newspaper. “I think you’re getting used to mountain living.” As always, he was laconic in his remarks.

“Yes,” Mom beamed. “Crab cakes will be ready soon, sweetie.”

 

 

 




Front Royal: Why I Moved West

Two years ago and two months, I moved with my three children to Front Royal, Virginia. For you Jersey natives who go by exits, that’s exit 13 off Route 66, which runs from DC all the way to its end point thirteen miles west of Front Royal. If you’re looking at a map, this is also where I-66 intersects with I-81 North and South. I-81 also has a story of its own: it runs from its northern terminus at the tip of New York, just shy of the Canadian border, to its southern end point in Dandridge Tennessee. As Wikipedia explains, “Interstate 81 largely traces the paths created down the length of the Appalachian Mountains by migrating animals, American Indians, and early settlers. It also follows a major corridor for troop movements during the Civil War.”

I could have settled anywhere in Virginia, but something deep inside me told me to head due west. I picked Front Royal as our new home when my marriage was coming to a grinding end. That last year, when things got hairy at our home in Northern Virginia, my kids and I (especially the corner kids) would leave for an adventure. Sometimes we headed south to Fountainhead Park for a hike along the Occoquan River, but usually we went west. Like early settlers, we were searching for something akin to freedom, and when we went west, we took an exit that read: I-66 West—Front Royal. It might sound too simple, but I basically chose a new home based on a feeling it gave me when I drove in its direction.

While driving west, I felt safe inside. The kids and I would journey through Front Royal until we arrived at the northern tip of the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. We’d drive along the twisting road called “Skyline Drive,” where the speed limit is 35, until we reached a good hiking spot. By the way, as an aside, Skyline Drive was built during the Depression, when the government initiated a working program called the Civilian Conservation Corps to put the unemployed to work. The CCC was a beautiful project in the sense that it gave the men working under it a means to maintain their own homes and families.

Anyway, we’d drive to the northern entrance of Skyline drive and stop at the gate to speak with a ranger. I bought an Interagency Annual pass for $80 that allows you to visit more than 2,000 federal parks an unlimited number of times over the year. We use the heck out of our Annual Pass(es). Anyway, I’d talk to the ranger for a couple minutes, and then we’d head north on Skyline Drive. I’ve always been a fast-lane kind of driver, but driving fast and driving on Skyline Drive don’t mesh. It’s one of those inconsistencies that life throws at you to teach you a lesson. In my case, the lesson is patience. Once we were inside the park, we’d drive at an impossibly slow speed because of the trailers and out-of-towners who meander along as if every drive were a Sunday drive.

You can hike almost anywhere you want in the Shenandoahs, but we have found some special spots. Our favorite hike back then was at mile 19.4, where several trails extend out on Hogback Mountain. As Hiking Upwards states, “The Hogback Mountain hike, with its spectacular views west towards the Massanutten ranges, is located in an area of the SNP that has several beautiful hikes including Piney Branch and Little Devil Stairs. With just over 1,200ft of vertical gain and 7.5 miles, this is a pleasant moderate day hike.”

If you wanted to look up the trail names (which include the beautifully titled “Little Devils Stair Trail”) you can go here. The parking lot for Hogback is full in the summer and fall, but pretty deserted in November and through the winter. Once you park, you can choose a direction or route. Instead of following a loop, I always go on down and backs because I have the tendency to get lost. Growing up, my children accepted my version of getting lost. I’d giggle and say, “we’re taking a ‘longcut’ kids.” That works great when you’re driving your SUV, but it’s not so great when your “childers” have to hike your longcut.

So I go with the safest way of hiking for me: a down and back. This term simply refers to a hike where you go aways and then turn and come back the other way. Hogback isn’t easy, but it’s deceptive, because you go down a big hill for an hour and you’re happy. Then you turn around and realize, “Oh man, we’re going uphill until we reach the car.” Or if you turn the phrase around you come up with: “we won’t reach the car unless we make it back up that hill.”

Back up the Hill

As we walked and talked down then back up Hogback, we’d plan for our future. I need to take a longcut right now around a hard subject. My divorce.

I’ve been almost spectral-quiet about the divorce. And I’ll probably remain that way. Like a lot of women who went through the sort of thing I did, I am still scared of getting in trouble. I also don’t think it’s fair to use my platform to say whatever I want to say about my ex-husband. This goes at odds with my usual way of speaking, which is to be honest and straightforward, and to speak about the most personal matters without fear. So I’ve been paralyzed a bit, at least on this blog, for over two years now. Yet I feel like I’ve worked it out in my writing. My characters are free to tell my story, sort of, but it’s fictional there and it feels safe. And I’ve finally came to a place where I realize my need to speak freely is more important than my need to speak freely about every aspect of my life, and that one aspect I need to keep private for my family’s sake is the saga of my divorce.

So (I hope) that’s all I’ll ever say directly about why I left.

All of that is a long aside, and I want to end on a happy note.

It’s been almost three years now, and these visits to Hogback took me to a place where I felt safe enough to figure out my next steps. It’s also where I found my new home—off exit 13, in the small town of Front Royal. In the upcoming days, I’m going to write about how we settled here. There will be stories about stinkbugs and ladybugs, mice invasions and mouse family holocausts. I’ll talk about adapting to a smaller, more modest lifestyle in a place where ironically enough the distance between my neighbors is much larger than it used to be. And I’ll talk about how people help one another feel at home in my new home: Front Royal.

Please grab a chair and make yourselves at home. With me. In my new home that’s far, far away from the old hell I used to write about when this blog was titled, “Running from Hell with El.” Because now, I’m walking Home, and I’m walking there with friends and family always at my side.

We all need a place we call home, and now, that place for us is Front Royal.




Intolerance and Modern Spirituality: Interfaith Outreach

Intolerance is the single greatest problem I think we face in religion. Intolerance rears its head when Christians preach that Jesus is the only way Home, and anyone whose follows a different path is condemned to hell. Intolerance rears up and screams its hateful hue and cry when secular Muslims misuse the words of Muhammad to preach violent jihad. Intolerance spreads like a cancer when fundamentalists of any cloth or wearing any frock picket and protest in denial of an individual s right to experience love when their sexual choices come in rainbow coloration.

Intolerance itself can be defined in the following manner:

  1. Lack of tolerance; unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect opinions or beliefs contrary to one’s own.
  2. Unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect persons of a different social group, especially members of a minority group.[1]

Intolerance’s playgrounds, ironically enough, are vast and diverse, for intolerance is bred in any petri dish that separates humanity on religious, political, geographical, social, artistic, or historical grounds. The cause of intolerance is difficult to locate, because so many modalities of incoherence feed into it. Yet an evolution in the genus of intolerance can be found if one starts with identity, adds in the three sisters, fear, ignorance and irrationality, peppers in a false sense of separation or otherness, and ignores the divine spark that fuels individual human existence.

Where otherness blooms, hatred spreads. Combating this growth is akin to preventing the spread of invasive bamboo in a mid-American back yard. You can rip each instance of it out, but if you do not dig a canal around the bamboo, or dig an entrenchment before the bamboo reaches across your land, it will shoot across any other plant or bush or grass or flower in its path. In other words, it’s much easier to attack bamboo before it takes root than to pull up each weed as it appears. Bamboo, like intolerance, must be met at the outer gate, before it takes hold of the yard.

The key to fighting intolerance is prevention. It must be fought before the roots that feed it find home in your heart, or in the hearts of those surrounding you. The keys to overcoming intolerance, fortunately, are as varied as the causes of it are varied. After all, the antidote to an unwillingness to tolerate others lies in love and acceptance. The answer lies in unity.

How, though, do we sow unity? One of the best engines for achieving social change lies in our religious institutions. At first glance though, hope for using religion to instill such unity seems like a task brimming with difficulty. Each week, I talk to people about religion in America, and all too often, people express anger and disillusionment towards the church they were raised in, or deny God altogether. Raised by fear-based and shame-engendering teachings, Americans either embrace pulpits that brandish the weapons of disunity and intolerance, or they reject religion altogether. They call themselves spiritual, not religious, and many good souls (far too many good souls) give up on church altogether.

In some ways, I was one of those souls, except instead of rejecting religion, I started the difficult process of trying to form my own ministry. No matter how disappointed I’ve gotten with the actual practices of churches, I still like the concept of church. I have seen the importance and utility of combining with others to fuel social justice and to synergize interfaith growth and dialogue via the sort of collective action that occurs within the walls of a worship center.

Yet when I looked around, I saw nothing that seemed to match my own beliefs. Interfaith ministries, as far as I could tell, did not exist. So I figured I would build one, but I discovered early in the process that there is a tremendous difference between serving others and doing the structural work of church building. The mere process of starting a non-profit requires cutting a swath through an endless sea of paperwork and red tape, and the actuality of creating a sacred space for worship services includes outreach, salesmanship and organizational vigor. I found that I was somewhat grinding my gears.

chalice_2011_cropped

Photo Credit: http://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/chalice_2011_cropped.jpg

That’s when I discovered the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church. One day, I was researching the dogma of the trinity. I realized that the opposite of trinity was unity, and I began to read more carefully about the Unitarian tradition. For some reason, I clicked on UU instead of Unitarian when I got to the search page on Google. That’s when I came to the main UU website.

I had to keep rereading what appeared there, because it was so unique and yet so familiar. Indeed, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I first read the seven Principles that guide UU practice, which focused on the worth of each individual, acceptance and compassion, the goal of community peace, and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.[2] This, I said to myself, is exactly what I believe. And these principles, if applied by individuals when supported by a strong religious institution, would result in the propagation of love, unity and tolerance.

And it was about that time that I read a sermon that had been shared at a UU congregation. In the sermon, the preacher (a woman!) weaved Rumi and Buddha into a discourse on a problem of some sort . . . ironically I don’t even remember what the problem was—which is to say the problem itself seemed almost irrelevant. What impressed me was how the preacher tried to solve the problem, which was by searching for truth across cultural boundaries and within multiple sacred traditions. All I knew at that moment was that I had found a place where I could comfortably serve and contribute.

After all, it was Rumi that gave me the motto for my own religious approach:

Not Christian or Jew or

Muslim, not Hindu,

Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.

rumi_religionNot any religion

or cultural system. I am

not from the east

or the west, not

out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not

natural or ethereal, not

composed of elements at all.

I belong to the beloved,

have seen the two

worlds as one and

that one

call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner,

only that breath breathing

human being.

No matter where I serve, THIS is what I will teach. Because it captures the essence of what human institutions, particularly religious ones, should exalt: the oneness of humanity. We are not other. We are not different. We all bear a spark of the divine. And if we can teach one another to see this divinity in one another, we can all walk one another Home.

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/intolerance.

[2] http://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles.




Shame is Not a Good Teacher

Shame is one of the worst emotions we can teach our children to feel. It’s difficult to wade through spirituality without finding shame, though. We see the hint of it, the strong suggestion of it, throughout Christian schooling as well as throughout the Bible. We see it in the story of David and Bathsheba, for example. We also see it embedded in the teachings of Paul in the New Testament. Far too many preachers and ministers take these stories or these scriptures and use the stories to make us feel terrible, and this isn’t a proper or the best use of the Bible.

The great Christian writer and teacher, C.S. Lewis, wrote about this in a 1952 letter. He wrote:

“It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.” Letter November 8th 1952

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7049156

By Scan of photograph by Arthur Strong, 1947 Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7049156

We need more love-based, gentle teachings like those espoused by C.S. Lewis. We need to guide our children to the best path without using the weapons of shame and fear as our artillery against their spirit. When we focus on sinning and the blood of Jesus, we often cause pain and suffering in the exact people we’re trying to help. Basically, we are taught to feel shame when we “sin,” and then we are taught that Jesus died for or sins, and that in turn makes us feel even more ashamed for the mistakes we make as young men and women. Instead of feeling relieved, we feel sad and ashamed, and we carry that sadness and shame out of church into our daily lives. But aside from pain, what does feeling shame really give us?

It’s true that Jesus was crucified. It’s true that David made a big mistake by sleeping with Bathsheba. It’s also true we all make mistakes, both as children and as adults. Taking responsibility for our errors, for the hurts we cause others, can help us make better decisions in the future. But shame mires us in pain—and when we heap the death of Jesus on top of this pain, we end up suffering.

When we hold the image of a suffering man on the cross in our minds while we think about our actions, we end up replaying all our mistakes in a dread-inducing atmosphere. We get mired in sacrificial blood so to speak, rather than moving on to the real task of becoming the best people we can be. Carrying the cross is really not our job, but in effect that’s what we do when we obsess over concepts like sinning and sacrifice.

If we hold onto our mistakes and to the notion that every mistake we’ve made dirties us, we create a sort of hell on earth for ourselves. When we fear dying because we are afraid of what we will face after death because of the mistakes we make when we’re down here in our human shells, we end up afraid of living; we end up afraid of life. Priests and preachers should help guide us, but too many of them use fear as their cudgel.

For example, my children once attended a traditional Methodist church without me. And the kids listened to a lecture from the minister about how your sins down here on earth caused you to suffer judgment back Home. The minister gave a sermon in which he asked the members of the congregation to picture a stack of index cards laid out on a table. Imagine that you’ve died and have gone Home. You go up and even before you visit with your family and your friends, you go before a board or a council and you undergo a life review—all of which is accurate. We do go before a board and go over the good and the bad decisions we made throughout our lifetime, but in reality, the focus is much more positive than negative.

But the minister wanted the focus to be about sinning, so he said, “Jesus is waiting for you, and he will point out all your sins, and then he will show you all the same cards, but with blood smeared all over them. HIS blood. See, he gave up his blood so that all the awful things you do on earth won’t keep you from getting to heaven, but if you don’t atone now, you will have to explain yourselves to Jesus.”

When my kids told me this part of the sermon, I exclaimed, “No! This is fear-based, shame-engendering nonsense. Sure you’re not supposed to hurt others while you’re down here. You’re not allowed to rape or murder, you shouldn’t steal or tell lies to hurt others . . . but no one is waiting for you with blood-crusted index cards. The teaching back Home is much more positive. The aim isn’t to scare you or make you miserable; the goal is to emphasize areas where you did well, where you helped and served others, and to teach you places where you could have done better—all with the intent of helping you learn to do better, to become the best souls you can become.”

My children were a little confused, so we talked about it some more. They asked me what sort of mistakes could result in your getting punished after death, and of course I mentioned that killing, raping or sexually abusing others could get you punished, and as soon as I said that, my eldest asked about sex. About whether having sex could get you in trouble.

I shook my head and said, “Sex is not something to fear. Overall, it’s a positive and lovely thing that brings us joy, particularly when we experience it with someone we’re in love with and who we respect. We live in physical bodies. When religion emphasizes fear of our physicality, of what it causes us to do or to be or to enjoy, this is not good for us. Our bodies are built for certain things, and among those is sexual pleasure. It’s part of our human nature.”

the_kiss

By own photo of the sculpture of Rodin – own photo in the Rodin Museum, Paris, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4145510

“So should priests not be celibate?” My daughter asked.

I shrugged. “Celibacy has been touted as a virtuous accomplishment. In fact, it can also be a perversion of nature. Even though we are animals, and sex is one of the single most important instincts nature has given us, and perhaps the strongest of all of our instincts. It’s impossible to be human without embracing our sexuality, and true happiness and contentment are the rewards of a strong, loving relationship; this includes a sexual relationship.”

“So are you saying we shouldn’t be celibate? That it’s wrong for us to be deprived of sex? I thought you also taught that it’s okay to fast sometimes, Mom,” she said.

“Sometimes it’s good to fast, yeah,” I agreed. “But that’s not the point of celibacy. The point of celibacy is to find purity through deprivation, and fasting is another type of deprivation, but it reminds us that we are able to overcome our instincts, at least for a little while. No one can exist forever without eating, and I don’t know that it’s good to try to exist without satisfying our physical needs.”

“Might make it easier,” my son chipped in, “ Not to have to eat. Then you wouldn’t have to cook, and we wouldn’t be led by our donkey souls into eating so much junk food.”

I chuckled and nodded. “Well, that brings up an interesting point. Hunger is easy for us to understand. When people are starving, their morals quickly evaporate, and they take to stealing, fighting, and rioting to get food. Our bodies tell our brains that we’re in trouble, that we’ll die if we don’t get food soon, and the primitive part of our brains turn loose our most primitive emotions.”

“So are you saying we go crazy if we try not to have sex once we’re adults?” My daughter was trying not to smile.

“Not exactly, no. Maybe celibacy is fine for some people, I dunno. But in general, sex is perhaps our strongest instinct, because it represents how we express our love physically. We need to be able to express our love. We really need it, at least once we’re grown up and mature enough to handle all the emotions that come with it. So sexuality is a very strong instinct, and it’s tied into love. The way it’s taught though is like it’s a bad instinct. Sex is perhaps our strongest instinct, and yet it is to be ignored, restrained from or used as a weapon against us?”

How have you been taught about sexuality?

How would you teach your children differently?


David by Michelangelo; Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna (Own Source, Wikipedia)

David by Michelangelo; Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna (Own Source, Wikipedia).

When I say that we should use gentle, love-based teachings to guide our children and help them make good choices about their sexuality, I’m not saying anything goes. I don’t think we should teach our kids to simply do whatever they wish to do. We should teach our kids to value their bodies. We should teach our kids how to say no, either to other kids, or to adults who don’t respect proper boundaries. We should teach our children how to stay safe, and how to respect the safety and well-being of others.

Indeed, we have a duty to teach our sons in particular that “No” means “No,” and that a women’s body is hers alone to assert control and dominion over. We should teach our children that experiencing sexuality without love and commitment is something that will often leave them feeling empty and unfulfilled. We should teach them that sex is an adult act with adult consequences, such as pregnancy and disease. And we should help guide our children on a path that emphasizes discernment and the other side of free will: consequences.

Everything we do, after all, has consequences. But making the best choices occurs when we are unafraid and not laden with shame or dread. We should accept ourselves as well as seek responsibility for our actions, but we should not fear judgment or carry our mistakes as burdens. We should not feel ashamed, because shame is not a kind or a good teacher.




As Black Deaths Pile Up, Peace Matters

It’s International Peace Day, but our nation is riven by dissent. A football player kneels during the National Anthem to protest police brutality, and he’s accused of being unpatriotic (and worse). Two more black men die at the hands of police (in Tulsa and Charlotte), and a city erupts into peaceful and then violent protest. Sadly, I open the newspaper or scroll through my newsfeed and the first thing that I think about is, I wonder if anymore blacks have been shot today?250px-peace_sign-svg

As far as the football player kneeling during the National Anthem, I would remind others that this is by its very essence a peaceful and orderly form of protest. If Colin Kaepernick feels like the National Anthem does not adequately represent him as a black man, then perhaps it’s up to us to listen to how this could be so. Did you know, for example, that the third verse of the National Anthem refers to terrorizing hirelings and slaves?

No refuge could save the hireling and slave’

From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that the British freed more than six thousand slaves during the War of 1812, and then allowed these freed slaves to fight against their former captors (and the country that allowed this bondage). I didn’t know it either, and I was an honors history major and a lawyer.

In fact, I always wept during the Anthem when I attended ballgames—because I was proud of the home of the free and the brave. I didn’t know that the verses left unsung referred to defeating slaves in battle . . . and that’s of course the nature of history. It’s told by the victors. I think we all can accept that as great as this country is, the United States is (rightfully) ashamed of its slave-owning and trading heritage.

After knowing this fact, am I still proud to be an American? Of course I am. I know our nation isn’t perfect, but the ideals we embrace in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation and The Two Americas—are beautiful ones. Equality, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the enfranchisement of individual rights, tolerance, public welfare, freedom of conscience—these ideals are ALL beautiful.

By Daniel Hartwig - Derivative of file:Colin Kaepernick and Kyle Williams warm up.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29243682

By Daniel Hartwig – Derivative of file:Colin Kaepernick and Kyle Williams warm up.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29243682

But I’m white. I’m privileged. I am privileged simply by dint of my ivory skin. If you question whether white privilege exists, then ask yourself this: why do we try to find a reason for why all black men are shot, while we search equally hard to justify why a white man had sex with an unwilling female? Why, in other words, is it easier, less frightening, less dangerous to be white than it is to be black in America?

I ask these questions in honor of International Peace Day. Until we understand why blacks are throwing rocks and water bottles at police officers in Charlotte, until we try to comprehend why so many blacks are being shot by white police officers, we will not have peace in our country. Peace exists only when those who are assigned the duty of serving and protecting us can set aside skin color when deciding who is worthy of protecting as opposed to who represents a threat to public order.

When Colin Kaepernick first kneeled, I wasn’t sure how I felt about his gesture. I recognize American greatness, and I love my country. Why can’t we stand in respect during a song that extols our country’s greatness, I mused. Standing quietly never hurt anyone. On the other hand, the act of kneeling was itself peaceful. It posed no threat to public order or the peace. It was an act of not even civil but social disobedience . . . and as such, don’t our very highest values protect a man’s right to speak up or fail to speak when his conscience demands otherwise?

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in 1519, was he following social norms? I highly doubt it. He was rebelling against an established religious and political order because he thought it was corrupt. Priests, after all, were selling salvation for money. And when Martin Luther King led marches on the South, was he obeying the established political and social order? Of course not. He saw that there were two Americas; one white and privileged; the other, black, impoverished and oppressed. These two great Martins spoke out against the Establishment of their times.

Kaepernick speaks out against the killing of blacks by police officers, and he gets crucified by many for his outspoken assault on America. My question is: how is it not patriotic to speak out in favor of the sanctity of black lives, unless we as a country do not believe those lives really matter? Doesn’t it come down to whether we value the lives of all our citizens, including black lives, enough? If whites were suddenly the minority and whites were being killed at the rate blacks were being killed, wouldn’t white men and women feel attacked, appalled, and even embittered?

I really think that’s the issue at hand. Black lives for some reason don’t seem as precious as white lives. A black dies in the inner city? “Oh well, it’s just black on black crime,” we shrug. Or a black man is shot during a routine traffic stop? He must have done something wrong. He probably talked back to the cop, or maybe he had several outstanding tickets, or maybe he owned a gun, or perhaps he didn’t follow voice commands quickly or suppliantly enough. He MUST have done something to provoke the officer.

As one of my friends said, “Mothers worry for their black sons when he walks out the door to walk four blocks to his friend’s home not because he may get hit by a car or there might be rain but will he come home in a body bag at the hand of an officer of the law? A mother makes her black son call home every hour, on the hour, just to make sure he’s not in trouble. A black boy’s mother must think differently than a white boy’s mother. She must worry about the police, and whether they will hurt her son.”

As a white mother of white sons, I don’t have to worry that my son might be harassed by the police. I also don’t have to worry about getting pulled over. In fact, I’m famously lucky and well-treated by officers of the law. Every time I get pulled over, I receive a smile (sometimes many smiles) and assistance with my trunk and little stickers for my kids and directions to wherever I’m going. I cannot imagine what would happen if I were black. I know I wouldn’t get treated as well. And I know it would weigh on me. How about you? Would you feel angry or frightened if you were pulled over for an expired tag? Or if you were on your way home from work after a twelve hour day? Or if it was the fifth time you’d been pulled over that year—each time for nothing or next to nothing?

And yet as a black citizen, you must be perfect. A white can talk back to a cop, but blacks are taught to be on perfect behavior and hope for the best. This is wrong.

Photo by Tulsa Police

Photo by Tulsa Police

Our system says that we’re all created equal. And our officers of the peace are supposed to serve and protect all lives with the same ardor—and yet blacks are too often treated as more of a potential threat to safety than whites. In fact, the average black views the police as more a threat to his or her safety than he views the police as a source of safety. Again, this is wrong.

There’s been a disconnect in how our police officers are being trained. They’re taught to stay alive and make it home to their families, after all, and they are taught to distinguish between those in need and those who are a threat. The threat matrix police officers use is supposed to be color blind. Police officers are not supposed to treat blacks more suspiciously than they treat whites, but in general I think they do. At some point in the training process, police officers are either being taught to distinguish people based on color, or they’re not being trained to resist the urge to check skin color first, everything else, second.

That’s a bold statement, you might be thinking. But the black deaths keep piling up. The officers in Tulsa are now under investigation by the Department of Justice for the shooting of Terence Crutcher on Friday, September 16, 2016. The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte involves conflicting reports by police and by family members of the deceased, and there is no available video footage to review. So I feel unable to analyze this shooting effectively. But the black deaths pile up, and as a peace advocate, I must ask why, and all I’m left with is that at least some if not most of these shootings could have and should have been avoided.

What’s the solution? Peaceful protests, like that of Colin Kaepernick, are a good starting place. Writing opinion pieces may help. Trying to understand the plight of blacks in America should most certainly help us better comprehend the problems involving law enforcement in this country. Reform of police training should also be undertaken immediately, and I would hope that federal and state governments would involve black leaders and civil rights leaders in this process.

If cops are killing blacks disproportionately and without justification, then people are dying unnecessarily. No one should be allowed to die unnecessarily. And it’s our duty as American citizens to make sure that all Americans receive equal treatment under the law, and at the hands of those who enforce that law. May peace and freedom reign—for all of us.




Call Off the Fracking Dogs: Dakota Access Pipeline

I’ve been studying fracking with an open mind. Unfortunately, the more I read, the more disturbed I’m becoming. The true story here seems one of corporate irresponsibility, poor governmental oversight, inadequate regulation, and short-sighted deals made by often desperate individual landowners, who deal with greedy corporate behemoths. The land and our nation’s water accordingly suffers from our mistakes, and this weighs on my heart.

I began to read about fracking a few days before the Dakota Access pipeline exploded into the public’s attention. I was in the library with my children, and after helping Ben pick out a few books, I drifted into the non-fiction section. And I saw two books on fracking. One was pro; the other, con. I like to get both sides of an issue. It probably comes from my days practicing law. One of the enduring lessons of law school is that there is always (or almost always) a majority decision and a dissenting view, and sometimes the dissenting view eventually becomes the new standard after time passes and the law shifts.

The book in favor of fracking, The Fracking Truth by Chris Faulkner, was written by a man who claims that “no oil company owns fracking_faulknerhim or pays him to flog a point of view.” Faulkner, however, does hold an incredibly large stake in the successful outcome of the legal challenges posed to fracking, for he owns Breitling Energy Corporation (formerly Brietling Oil & Gas Company). I didn’t dismiss Faulkner’s point of view merely because he holds a personal stake in fracking; I did find, however, that Faulkner’s writing and analysis to be subpar.

Faulkner rightly points out the advantages of fracking: it takes advantage of new drilling techniques that allow us to access natural gas from American land cheaply. And if we can secure and use American natural gas, we can “reduce our oil import dependency, notably from volatile regions or nations antagonistic to America’s interests.” See Preface vii. Additionally, relying on natural gas could reduce our reliance on coal, which is a major source of pollution and greenhouse gases.

The problem with Faulkner is that he writes like a cheerleader, and sells fracking with bright shiny graphs and photographs, but fails to analyze the risks of hydraulic, horizontal drilling. He also does not discuss the risks to the water supply posed by fracking. He merely shows the rosiest picture possible, replete with pretty pie charts showing the wealth and cheap energy that fracking could provide.

The other book I read, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale by Tom Wilber is a completely different affair. Wilber is a reporter who worked on the fracking story in Pennsylvania and New York for several years. And it is much more difficult to tell if Wilber is pro or con fracking. He tells the story of fracking by patiently relating the stories of landowners, community activists (usually reluctant ones who are also landowners affected by fracking), lawyers, regulators, landmen who negotiate for the gas companies, the academics who advise the gas companies, and politicians who in most cases side with the gas companies.

Wilber takes us into the lives of people who live in Dimock, Pennsylvania, a small town in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. We meet land-rich but often desperate families, who negotiate with landsmen representing Cabot Oil and Gas Company over coffee tables and inside meager home sites that sit atop one of the largest shale formations (the Marcellus Shale formation) inside the United States. We meet families facing foreclosures, mounting health care bills, and the promise of a better life—if only they sign on the dotted line. And many families do sign. They sign leases with Cabot and almost every family sees the lease agreement as the sign of better days to come.

Little do they know that each well requires 900 to 1300 truck deliveries, or that the fracking process itself requires the use of about six swimming pool’s worth of water mixed with chemicals for each well. These chemicals are often poisonous . . . and yet the companies are not required to disclose the chemicals they are using. Because the companies won’t list the chemicals, water treatment plants began to decline to take those six swimming pools’ worth of water. And over time, the chemical-laden water was often left to sit in rotting storage tanks on the land for months at a stretch. wilber_fracking

How is this even possible? And what happens when a storage tank leaks, or a poorly-lined well leaches into the water aquifer beneath or above the shale?

Too often, the first answer is—nothing.

Little did the landowners know that wells are exempted from the EPA’s Safe Water Drinking Act’s provisions that establish minimum regulations for state Underground Injection Control Programs (or “fracking”). In fact, well operators need not comply with any federal regulations regarding safe water drinking under what has been deemed the “Halliburton Exemption,” which exists to this day. In other words, regulation of fracking is largely left up to the states, and most state regulators, including Pennsylvania, are undermanned.

What does this mean for the people of Dimock? It means that once Cabot started drilling on the residents’ land and those wells or storage tanks leaked, all of a sudden, a family went from drinking perfectly pure and safe water to having to wash laundry in bottled water. Can you imagine taking a load of laundry out of your dryer and finding it ruined? Can you imagine flipping on your tap water, only to pour brown sludge into a glass?

I can hardly comprehend it myself.

And here’s where the story becomes plain frustrating. Several water wells, all within a short distance of a gas well, go bad. Cabot says it’s not their fault, but if a resident hollers enough, they decide to make some water deliveries. Maybe they ship over some bottled water, or in some cases, they deliver water buffaloes to the beleaguered landowners.

Water buffaloes freeze in the winter (requiring exterior heating, which costs a lot of money) and they garner lots of bacteria in the summer—becoming undrinkable and worse. Still, the drilling continues. And the landowners drink cruddy water, or they have to use bottled water for all their household needs, including laundry.

As time passes, residents spot leaks from the water storage tanks, and Cabot promises to study it but does not rectify it. More residents find that their formerly pristine water is going bad, or the fish in their ponds are sick or dying. Cabot disclaims responsibility, and the regulators do nothing.

Finally, Norma’s well explodes (by this point in the book, Norma feels like family), and great damage is done to the property. In fact, four nearby homes are completely out of water after the New Years’ Day explosion. The residents thought at this point that the drilling would stop or that immediate and significant improvements would be made to ensure safer drilling operations. Explosive levels of methane are found in at least a dozen wells.

But instead of ordering a stop to the drilling or requiring strict enforcement actions, the state regulators cautioned that any enforcement action had to be weighed against the industry’s response, and that much of the enforcement was determined through negotiation. After all, if you come down too hard on the gas companies, said the regulator, the industry may stop voluntarily reporting safety violations. And apparently safety inspections rely almost entirely on industry reports.

I saw this, by the way, when I worked as a lawyer in the energy and financial markets. Anytime regulators wanted to fix something that had gone wrong in the field, they contacted the company and asked for information. The company would then be given a chance to voluntarily provide information and enter into an agreement to fix whatever they had done wrong—and it’s safe to say that such negotiations can drag on for years. The same is true of course for the townspeople of Dimock. While they waited for the industry to report its manifold safety violations, the damage to the land and to the water supply from hydraulic drilling continued.

The Switzers’, for example, were out of water, and now they were relying on Cabot to make deliveries of substandard water via plastic water tanks.

“These are used for cattle, and we are not cattle.” –Victoria Switzer

In order for the residents of Dimock to receive help, they had to become, as they called it, accidental activists. Unfortunately, the existing federal and state laws provided scant protections to individual landowners who had the misfortune to sign lease agreements with Cabot. After all, Halliburton has ensured that producers of wells and those who inject water and other chemicals into the ground to extract oil and gas are EXEMPT from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

So where do we stand now, in North Dakota? Why is the largest Native American protest in recent history taking place on a reservation?

It’s because of the The Bakken pipeline.

Photo courtesy of http://yournewswire.com/peaceful-native-american-protesters-attacked-by-dogs-pepper-sprayed/

Photo courtesy of http://yournewswire.com/peaceful-native-american-protesters-attacked-by-dogs-pepper-sprayed/

What is the Bakken pipeline? It is a 1,134-mile long underground oil pipeline project that is using hydraulic fracking to extract crude oil and then ship it from the Bakken oil fields in Northwest North Dakota, through South Dakota, Iowa, to its endpoint in Patoka, Illinois. The Bakken pipeline is 48 % complete, and is expected to come online in January 2017.

Only two entities are stopping the completion of the pipeline at this point: a small group in Iowa, who won a reprieve from state regulators, and a mammouth band of Native American tribes, who are peacefully protesting on a North Dakota reservation and who are also pursuing legal action in D.C. Led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the opposition won a temporary work stoppage this week. According to the Associated Press,

“U.S. District Judge James Boasberg said Tuesday that work will temporarily stop between State Highway 1806 and 20 miles east of Lake Oahe, but that work will continue west of the highway because he believes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lacks jurisdiction on private land.”

The tribe sought the work stoppage after a weekend confrontation between protestors and construction workers over the alleged bulldozing of sacred sites near Lake Oahe. Meanwhile, work continues on the reservation, and protestors have continued to amass peacefully on the reservation. There have been a few reports of individuals tying themselves to heavy machinery, but no arrests have been made, and there have been no reports of violence by protestors.

The problem is that the company, Dakota Access Pipeline, has not exhibited the same restraint. In the following video clip, security guards hired by the oil company release attack dogs on protestors.

According to bystanders, more than six Native Americans (including one child) were bitten by the dogs, and more than thirty protestors were sprayed (presumably by company personnel) with pepper spray.

Think about this for a minute. Who do you trust to take care of our land and our water supply—Native Americans, who are raised

1024px-Sioux01

Standing Rock Indian Reservation By User:Nikater [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

to love the land and believe it has a spirit, or energy companies who would send attack dogs to quell peaceful protestors? These same energy companies, mind you, are out to protect a 3.8 billion dollar investment, and they have a fiduciary duty to to obtain the greatest return on their investments. They do not have a duty to protect our water or our land, and while these energy companies are treated as persons under the laws,  act like anything but human.

These are the people who are bringing us our crude oil. If corporations wish to be treated as persons, they need to start acting like them. They need to behave like good citizens. They need to treat the land better. They need to take more steps to safeguard our water supply.

But most of all, before they take any better safety measures to improve how they take gas and oil out of the land, they need to call off the dogs.

Literally.

Dear Dakota Access pipeline executives: CALL OFF THE DOGS.

Yours truly.

An actual U.S. citizen.




Don’t Pick Sides When You Pray

Yesterday I wrote about division. I wrote about the Blue Lives and Black Lives, and how both must matter. Both should be loved and supported, in prayer and in action.

I favor unity in all cases. I don’t think a sense of unity is created when we choose to pray for only police officers. We can support both the men in blue as well as the black men in hoodies, perhaps with a different set of prayers, but with loving intent all the same.

Here’s what I wrote yesterday . . .


 I saw a sign in a local church today:

Pray for the Men in Blue

And certainly I’ll pray for them. I’ll pray that they use discernment when they see black men in hoodies. I’ll pray that they receive the support and training they need when they try to sort out their threat matrix. I’ll pray that they enforce the peace with love and tolerance in their hearts. I’ll pray that they, as well as the black men in hoodies, make it home safe to their families tonight.

Of course I’ll pray. But I’ll pray my ass off for the black men in hoodies too. I’ll pray for all humanity as we try to forge a straight path in these dark days; I’ll pray that we walk with love and in the light no matter how difficult the two may be to grasp hold of and live with; I’ll pray for all sinners that they may live more like saints. Always, I’ll pray—for all of us.


Someone very close to me read this and asked me to clarify my thoughts on cops. “Don’t you think most cops are good?” he asked.Pray_meninblue

And of course I think most cops are good. Most cops wake up every morning and put on their blue or brown uniform and go out with the intention to “protect and serve.” Most cops have good intention throughout their day . . . and the same principle applies to most civilians. When a black student at a university, say a football player, grabs his collegiate sweats and takes a walk, he’s just trying to live his life. He doesn’t deserve to get stopped and frisked at gunpoint just because a black man (bearing a completely different physical description aside from skin color) in the same city has robbed a bank. Or when a black father gets into his car and drives through town to get an errand done, he’s just trying to take care of his family. He doesn’t deserve to be harassed and treated as if he’s a criminal during a routine traffic stop.

In other words, the vast majority of black Americans and the vast majority of cops begin their day, they don’t wish to hurt anyone. They are doing their jobs and living their lives. They are not looking to hurt the innocent or commit a crime.

But at times things go awry. The black American who shot the cops in Dallas was motivated not so much by a misguided desire to achieve reform, so much as hatred. What that man (and I won’t say his name because I think this encourages those who seek fame through their bad acts) did was wrong. It was evil.

We should all be motivated by love. Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

Hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law. Dhammapada 1:5.

Jesus said something similar:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12: 28-31.

No matter what we do for a living, we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves and we should be motivated by love rather than hatred.

When police officers go out in the field, or in the line of duty, they should not merely be looking to serve and protect. They should be looking to love, serve and protect. If love is at the fount of their service, then the police officers will be able to better see and understand the people they are serving. They will be motivated less by fear and more by a willingness to disregard triggers that lead to undisciplined and paranoid reactions to innocent black Americans.

I have watched videos of cops killing civilians, and in the worst of the videos, I’ve seen malfeasance and hateful intent, but with the help of a retired military cop, I have learned to watch these videos with greater discernment. For example, I have watched the killing of a Navajo woman by a cop in Winslow, Arizona (which is shared below).

As I watched the video, the retired military cop explained to me all the mistakes the frightened cop was making (that led to what was later ruled a justified shooting). “He’s too close to her right here. He’s not approaching her with sufficient distance, he’s not giving her clear voice commands. He’s escalating the situation. He should have waited for backup. He should not have laid a hand on her here, he should have used a baton, not his hands here . . . and now, he should not have pointed his gun in the same direction as his partner. He’s not controlling the situation . . . and now she’s got a weapon in her hand. He has no choice now. It’s kill or be killed, but all of this could’ve been avoided if he had approached the situation better,” explained the retired military cop. “Approach determines response,” he concluded. “And his approach was all wrong.”

I have also discussed the issue of cop training with a gun instructor. As this instructor explained to me, “Too few cops are training properly on the use of firearms. They are going to the shooting range, but they’re not training with live people, they’re not training on close combat, they’re not learning how to handle the very difficult scenarios that cops may or may not have to face. But when a difficult situation does arise, you must have trained on it in order to be able to handle it correctly,” the instructor said to me.

With all of those caveats in mind, when I pray for the men in blue, I pray that they get the training that they need to handle difficult situations. I also pray that they approach all civilians in a manner that is fair and just. I pray that cops treat a black child wearing a hoodie or a black dad driving in his SUV with the same love and protectiveness as the cops treat any white child or white dad.

When love informs how we see the world, we’re better able to see that every soul is precious. When love provides the filler for the fuzzy spaces within our hearts, we are better able to identify the innocent as not posing a threat. When love alone is what motivates us, we’re not as likely to think that someone is a threat to us just because their skin is darker than ours. Indeed, if we view all other humans as being our brothers and sisters, part of the same Body of Christ or as descendants from the same Maker (the Father), then we treat all the people we encounter as deserving of our love.

Division arises from a bad choice. We choose to see others as different, and as a threat to our way or to our identity or to our sense of comfort. Cops fall into the same bad habits as the rest of us do. We identify ourselves by our colors, whether they’re drawn on the uniforms of sports teams we follow or patched onto the sleeves of uniforms we don when we go to work or dabbed onto our very skin.

We choose our colors and we choose to think that one color makes us superior . . . and yet beneath the skin we wear, we are all the same color. Our souls all shine white, lit by a brilliant light. The lamp that is our soul looks the same as any one else’s soul, for it emerged from the same One Light that created us all.

I pray that we all remember that One Light guides us all. I pray that love wins, and love alone rules us all.

 




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