Saturday, May 16, 2015


Previously published in Real Estate Magazine, Ft Bragg, Ca, November 2014

When Europeans first arrived in what is now the United States, Canada, Central and South America, the indigenous people they encountered were virtually disease-free because they lived in such profound balance with the natural world. Even more remarkable is the fact that at the time of first contact, what is now California supported the greatest possible variety, vitality and density of animals, fish, birds, plants and humans, all of them well-fed and thriving thanks to the skillful management of the indigenous people here, with the knowledge that was developed and passed down for over 10,000 years. 1

It’s easy to see, even now, the exquisite vibrancy of this beautiful place. One can only imagine streams so full of salmon that horses refused to cross; flocks of birds so thick they blocked the sun; and, of course, the towering, original redwood forests before they were clear-cut. I like to imagine our beautiful stretch of coastline in its pre-conquest state, everything humming and roaring, buzzing and singing in a complex, interwoven orchestra of natural sounds. How silent would the night be? How filled with sound the day, especially at dawn as the forests, meadows, dunes and wetlands were waking up? I try to imagine the depth of each unique soundscape and I feel sad that those of us alive today will likely never hear the music of an intact biosphere.

The Pomo, Yuki, Miwok, Wintun, and other native peoples inhabited this area for countless generations before white people arrived. Their original names for this area are beautiful and have special meaning. For example, Mussel Rock, between Westport and Ft. Bragg, was known as Lilem. It was a Coastal Yuki village used as a trading and gathering spot for tribes from all over California, from the Chumash in Santa Barbara to the Yurok in Humboldt. Katuli was above the Navarro; Bokeya was the territory stretching from the Navarro to Gualala, and Gualala is a Pomo word that means ‘where the waters flow down’. Big River was Bidapte; Icheche was on the lower Garcia River; Kibesillah is a Pomo word signifying ‘flat rock’ or ‘head of the valley’. 2 Notice how most of these names refer to a river, a watershed or a place and describe a practical, lived meaning. Fort Bragg, on the other hand, was established to keep order on the Indian Reservation built here, and was named after a confederate general. As I drive along I sometimes wonder what it would be like to use those original names, to see the names on signs alongside – or instead of – the names grafted on by outsiders who did not understand the complexities of living in balance here, and did not honor their predecessors by learning the local names. How beautiful it would be to see signs with the names of the original settlements in the area. How would it shape us to live with those names on a daily basis? Perhaps we would identify more deeply with the landscape. Surely our hearts would be nourished by the poetry of the words themselves.

The current system of surveying land, dividing it into a rectangular grid and selling off pieces of it, began with Thomas Jefferson after the Revolutionary War as means of selling what was considered uninhabited land in order to pay off the war debt and create a nation of yeoman farmers. While this grid simplifies certain transactions, it also creates the illusion that each piece is disconnected from the others around it and superimposes a mental image of land divided from water and from itself, rather than reinforcing the deep knowing of the ways the land is connected and part of the whole. The indigenous understanding of a unified, shared landscape that was life-sustaining and therefore the responsibility of all was superseded by the notion of individual land ownership. We have inherited the dilemmas that result from this shift in thinking.

And yet, one of the best things about living here is that so many people love this place deeply. Our shared appreciation helps us navigate our sometimes contentious local politics. Unfortunately, politicians don’t always follow the will of the people as the system intended. Now is the moment to rise above the influences of personal or corporate economic gain by aligning with a larger identity as citizens of the earth in order to ensure a viable, vibrant future for our grandchildrens’ grandchildren. One way to accomplish this is to expand the timeline within which we see ourselves from the human timeline of months to decades to one that is aligned with the pace of geologic transformation. This means learning to ‘think like a mountain’ or, in this case, like a watershed - centuries to millennia.

Like many of us, I wonder how best to contribute to a peaceful, close-knit community. As a parent, as a member of this community, and as a human being living in these times of deep ecological loss and uncertainty, I ask myself what role I might play in restoring a thriving ecosystem. What does it mean, then -- now and for the future -- to “belong to the land”?

Perhaps it is time to come full circle, to create a fresh way of seeing the land and understanding what we are looking at. With practice, we can learn to see the unifying patterns and discern the unique rhythms of this place, to appreciate the trees, wetlands, mountains, streams, dunes, and rivers as part of a larger weave of that which sustains us and deserves our care. By gathering together, sitting in Council, sharing local food, good company and even better stories, we can consider what it would mean to see ourselves as citizens of this watershed rather than as individual landowners or residents.
Each of us has lived the story of how we came to be here – even if we are just visiting for the weekend. My own journey of be-longing began many years ago on a trip to Africa, when I had the opportunity to camp in the bush and experience a deep silence I had not previously known. When I returned to Santa Barbara, where I lived at the time, I could not sleep in the ‘noise’ of my quiet suburban neighborhood. I even began to hear the electricity humming in the walls late at night, when the rest of the city had gone to sleep. And so began a quest for silence, or at least for a place where natural sounds rather than human-made sounds predominated.

The story of that trip is nested, in turn, within a larger story of my work in Liberia, West Africa (the recent epicenter of the deadly Ebola epidemic that is ultimately a result of human encroachment and destruction of healthy natural habitat.) When I slept in that African silence, I was traveling with a group of Liberian former child soldiers who, since 2006, have been part of the extended family of our peacebuilding non-profit organization, everyday gandhis (
Liberia was settled by freed slaves from America that were sent back to West Africa in the early 1820’s. They suffered greatly, even as they subjugated the indigenous people there, usurped the most fertile coastal lands and installed themselves as the ruling class, forcing people off their ancestral lands. As in so many places around the world, including here, unhealed trauma is passed from generation to generation. In Liberia’s case, this trauma was compounded by the cold war, machinations of the CIA and continuing resource extraction by multinational corporations with little regard for the environment or local people. In 1989 a civil war erupted that lasted until 2004. It was a war that became infamous for the widespread use of child soldiers, with over 20,000 children forcibly conscripted by both government and rebel troops into lives of violence. Many people today find a parallel in gang violence.

Since 2006, peacebuilders from everyday gandhis have been working with several former child soldiers in Liberia. These young men were forcibly conscripted when they were 11, 12 and 13 years old. They were drugged and starved and forced to commit atrocities. When we met them in December of 2006, they were emaciated, deeply traumatized, and drunk or high most of the time. Their healing journey has been remarkable in that they have dedicated themselves not only to their own healing but to becoming peacemakers in their community. They call themselves the Future Guardians of Peace, a new identity that frees them from the confinements of the either-or labels of victim and perpetrator. As a result of their war experiences, they have a deep commitment to peace and healing. Now, Lassana and Varlee, two of the original ‘Future Guardians of Peace’ are studying at colleges here in the US, with the unshakeable intention of returning home to contribute to the healing of their beloved Liberia. These two young men visit me often here in Mendocino. Some of you reading this article may have met them or might meet them soon. In fact, last winter they were here on the coast. During that visit, the loss of their childhood was particularly poignant when we went to a friend’s house on New Year’s Day. Her grandson was there playing with his new Lego set. Lassana and Varlee were mesmerized! It was their first experience ever playing with toys. My friend told me later, that as we were leaving with goodbyes and kisses at the front door, Lassana gave her a warm hug and said, “I have never just sat and played a game like that. I have never even thought of sitting like that and playing a game.” She said it drove home the home of the heartbreaking loss of their childhood more than anything else she had heard – and guess what they got for their next birthdays: Lego sets!

There is much talk these days of the ‘global village’. But what does this actually mean, in terms of our understanding here in the US? One of the most beautiful experiences of life in Africa is the experience of community. As in Nature, each individual and each group is part of an extended kin-net. Our friend, Sawo, a former member of the everyday gandhis staff in Liberia, once tried to explain some of these kinship relationships to me: Sawo’s tribe, the Lorma, is considered to be an ‘uncle’ to the Mandingo tribe. Thus, Sawo is an uncle to Mamedi, a Mandingo man on the everyday gandhis team. But Mamedi is older than Sawo, thus he is Sawo’s father and Sawo is therefore also Mamedi’s son. Since Mamedi and Sawo are both ‘leopard taboo’ (ie Leopard is their totem animal, another relationship with particular protocol and responsibilities), they are also brothers. And, because the Mandingo and the Lorma fought against each other during the civil war, they were at one time enemies. Last but not least, there are religious affiliations: Sawo is Christian and traditional/animist, Mamedi is Muslim. Just between these two men, then, there are at least five distinct, overlapping relationships. I wonder how many words they have in their language for relationships. My Zapotec friends once told me they have over 150 distinct words for various family relationships. Sawo and Mamedi may have that beat. In the larger community, there are also additional layers of relationship within initiatory spiritual societies, clans, chiefdoms, quarters, districts, counties, business associations and intermarriages. Thus in Liberia individual identity is subsumed by a collective and complex ‘we’, which explains, in part, why the war as well as the peace process - and now the Ebola epidemic, could spread so fast. Add to this the historical and post-war trauma of the people and of the land itself, the trees, soils, water and animals that have been fought over and now violated by mining and timber concessions (not unlike our beloved Mendocino) and we begin to see that, rather than only being ‘me’, we are all, literally, part of the larger ‘We’ – including the fact that every human being on Earth is descended from common African ancestral DNA.

We are the ‘we’ who bask in these delicious, alarmingly warm autumn days. (I am barefoot and the rhododendrons are blooming!). We are the ‘we’ who are thankful for rain even as the drought persists. We are the ‘we’ who gaze at the sea that reaches all the way to melting ice. Perhaps We have native roots, or We are immigrants or children of immigrants, fleeing violence or seeking a better life. We are the ‘we’ whose forebears came to this land and could not see its fullness nor the complexity and expertise of the people who were already here. The ‘We’ whose forebears bought and sold slaves and sent them to colonize the descendants of their distant relatives in their original homeland. The ‘We’ who buy redwood and drive cars. The ‘We’ who have come here seeking respite, seeking healing, seeking to create change.

There is a Zen saying: If you ask the right question you don’t need an answer. If we ask the right questions, if we inhabit the questions as the central organizing principle of our lives, we will know how to live. As this year draws to a close, we have an opportunity to take certain questions to heart that will guide and sustain us into the New Year - and beyond.

Who are We - to ourselves and to each other?

How do We express our love for this place, and for the Earth as a whole?

What does it mean to belong to a watershed?

1 Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson; Blackfoot Physics, F. David Peat; 1491, Charles C. Mann

Monday, May 11, 2015


When you are grieving, sweep the porch.
Sweep the walk.
Shake the mat.

Flick chips of bark.
Sweep sand.
Gather gravel (from the driveway, where there are no cars now, except yours).

Sweeping slows time.

See what has gathered at your feet:
flower petals, leaves, seeds, husks,
and one black feather.

These will make a good nest for your sorrow.

See each item as it was in life
and as it is now. A curved rind
of snail shell rocks to its edge.

Backlit striations catch the sun
just so
as the empty spiral tilts toward the light.
The hermit crab of your heart
tries it on for size
and it fits.

(Oh!) such shelter under this smooth arc,
safe in its miniscule lee,
waiting for rain.

In time the homeless heart
extends itself again
beyond the shell’s chipped ridges.

it flows over uneven terrain:

here sharp,
here pocked,
here smooth;

feelers waving
in the soft, inexplicable air.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Quote: Martin Prechtel

“Only those who take their chances with life and live integrally without a big safety net have known the kind of deep felt loss and grief that end up being able to praise the best. They are the poets driven by life’s grief. Those are the ones by whom we most need to be blessed, because their ability to praise is a form of contagious wealth in and of itself; their blessings are powerful beyond some simple liturgical metaphor. Their magic is ratified by a diploma in the trials of reality as negotiated by the bravery that is love on a daily basis.”
- Martín Prechtel, The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise, 2015,
North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca

Monday, May 4, 2015


“Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories
and therefore remembering is no less than 

- Katie Cannon (in The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD)

In January1999, I attended a peacebuilding course at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was a fish out of water –a Jewish mediator come to learn about conflict transformation from a group of innovative, intrepid churchgoers. Harrisonburg is a small town studded with contrasts. To get there, one flies into Washington, DC and drives south and west through famous Civil War battlefields. Once there, it is common to pull up at a stoplight alongside a horse and buggy driven by Mennonites in top hats and tails, long dresses and lace caps. The folks that run the Conflict Transformation Program there are modern pacifists with a history of volunteering in disaster relief and what they call ‘accompaniment’ in places around the world where there is great suffering. After WWII, they decided that there must be something they could do before disaster struck. Pro-active peacebuilding was born.

My roommate Jean, and her husband had been missionaries in what was then called the Congo. We both arrived late at night, weary from our long journeys, I from New Mexico she from Minnesota. Explaining that she wanted to take a bath, Jean stepped into our shared bathroom to run the water. I remember how the steam billowed up into the cold night air, and the thrumming of the water as it poured into the old porcelain tub. The bathroom was accessed from a tiny, low-ceilinged hallway that linked our two bedrooms. Across from the bathroom door was a cubby with a black plastic dial phone, where I sat waiting for a call from my boyfriend. I felt awkward and trapped, intrigued in spite of myself as Jean stood in the doorway, steam rising behind her, and began to speak. Her husband was a church elder whose job included receiving war-weary local church dignitaries and listening to their stories. Sometimes Jean served tea or sat quietly nearby. I remember the adrenalin surge of my dislike of missionaries (still have it, but softer now) and my impatience with her gentle equanimity. Perhaps I sensed something ominous taking shape. Too late, the story was pouring out of her, so I listened.

Most afternoons, she and her husband would sit outside in the shade with their Congolese church guests, at a low formica table with broken chairs. One by one the men told their stories and began to weep. As they spoke, their tears became so copious they flooded the tabletop. Tears sheeted into their laps and poured onto the ground. As her husband leaned in to listen, Jean would wipe the table and wring out the towel. When Jean finished the story she shrugged. We may have hugged, I don’t remember. I sat, stunned, as she went into the bathroom, turned off the faucet, and closed the door.

During the next several years, I returned frequently to Eastern Mennonite for their Summer Peacebuilding Institute, where grassroots peacebuilders from more than fifty countries gather to teach and learn the art of building peace: In South Africa, Mennonite peacebuilders worked behind the scenes to build ‘human safety nets’ because they anticipated – correctly – that the fragile negotiations between Mandela and de Klerk would likely fall apart. In the US, peacebuilders from EMU helped sensitize both prosecution and defense lawyers in high-profile capital cases so that victims and their families were not re-traumatized. Liberian peacebuilder S. G. Doe explained his work with child soldiers and warlords in the civil war that was still raging when I met him. He told me, “We must deliberately move into the field and lavish love on those incapable of loving.” I realized that, as I slept, someone on the other side of the world was awake and working for peace.
In late 1999, as a result of meeting some of these extraordinary ordinary people, I founded the non-profit everyday gandhis1 in hopes of making their stories more widely known. Five years later, I found myself in Liberia, in the wake of the civil war that had just ended there. I was soon to learn that even the best ideas born of the human mind benefit from collaboration with unseen sources. On the eve of that trip I dreamed that the dead from the war were asking to be properly buried and mourned.

I am standing with two colleagues on the banks of an underground river. On the landing where we stand, near the water, I see three small suitcases that become three coffins that turn into three wooden boats. On the other side of the river is a burning tower, like the Tower card in the Tarot. In front of the tower is a Liberian friend whose name is Roosevelt. He stands quietly, holding a shaft of gray light. Ours eyes meet. He says, “Everything is ready.”

A few months later, I dreamed again:

I am on the battlefield of Gallipoli, walking through heavy artillery fire. I seem to be in a parallel reality. Bombs explode around me, clumps of earth and gore are bursting at my feet. Bullets whiz past, zinging right next to my ears. I walk, safe from injury, witnessing everything in slow motion. As I watch, a circle of women appears. One by one, they step onto the battlefield. Each of them claims a fallen soldier - a husband, a brother, a son tenderly kneeling by the corpse, lifting him into her arms, caressing his face as she weeps. Each of them is singing her lament. A beautiful, terrible keening rises up, columns of wailing and grief.

These dreams and others led to everyday gandhis hosting Liberia’s first post-war traditional Mourning Feast. During a Mourning Feast, the extended family and community of a deceased person gather to resolve their differences and put any lingering conflicts to rest with the dead, who are then sent ‘across the river’ with drumming and dancing, taking the community’s conflicts with them. The ceremony concludes with a communal feast during which the act of eating from the common bowl is an oath of reconciliation. (I found out two years later that local dreamers had dreamed that the dead had told them: We, the Dead, have come together. We are united. It is time for you, the living, to do the same.)

As in most traditional/indigenous cultures, in Liberia it is well understood that if it weren’t for our ancestors, we wouldn’t be alive today. Therefore it is our pleasure and our obligation to honor them. But, since the war that consumed the country from 1989-2004, over 250,000 bodies were left scattered helter-skelter across the land. These rites had not been performed and the deaths had not been grieved, leaving the country in the lingering paralysis of unhealed trauma and unexpressed grief along with the anguish of failing to honor their dead.

Our’ Mourning Feast was peacefully attended by more than 5,000 people. And it catalyzed the community to continue with many, smaller feasts – for children, women, healers, the land, the forests, the animals, the birds and the water. One man, a traditional herbalist who cannot read or write and has never traveled beyond Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, dreamed that a goat was to be sacrificed at a particular stream in a particular village so that the blessings of peace (carried by the blood of the animal as it mixed with the water) would flow to Europe and the United States. After the ceremony, I was able to trace the stream on a map – barely a trickle at the site of the offering—and saw that, indeed, it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

In Liberia, as in much of Africa, animal sacrifices reflect a deep and conscious covenant with the natural world – not unlike the spiritual partnership of traditional hunters, in which the animals ‘agree’ to give their lives to feed the human community in exchange for mutual respect and devotion. In Liberia, the blood of the animal that is offered is understood to be a potent conduit for human prayers to reach the Other World (similar to the rising smoke of sacred herbs in Native America such as sage and tobacco). Suffering in the human realm is understood as evidence of imbalance in the unseen world. Therefore, the ritual work that restores balance in and with the Other World is the foundation for peace in this one. Throughout Africa, the peacemaking process is a time when apologies are offered and accepted. It is considered a serious affront to the community and to the spirits to refuse a sincere apology because this perpetuates a state of imbalance.

These activities engender an exchange of respect and humility, creating tangible results in daily life, as can be seen in the way the Mourning Feasts inspired the community and released pent-up grief. More importantly, these rites create a dialogue with the Other World and among human beings in ways that acknowledge and engage with Nature and the spirit realm as the primary nexus of those relationships, seen and unseen, that establish peace through heartfelt exchange and mutual accountability.

Nature responds. Often, Nature initiates the communication, through dreaming and synchronicities – inexplicable coincidences too numerous to be attributed to mere chance, too timely to ignore, and cohering into a clear message or discernable pattern. It is our responsibility to learn how to pay attention and how to interpret the signs. Master General, a rebel commander who considers himself to be a traditional man and is also an Imam and a Pentecostal preacher, told us that, according to traditional understanding, elephants are considered to be a sign that peace is coming. Three months prior to the ceasefire that finally ended Liberia’s civil war, Master General and his troops were on their way to attack Monrovia. In the forest, he saw a mother elephant and her calf. “I knew that God had spoken,” he told us. “No more war in Liberia!” He commanded his men to lay down their arms on the spot, and decreed that anyone using a weapon from that moment forward would face a firing squad.

How many men were with you that day?” we wanted to know. “How many men laid down their guns because of the elephants?”

Master General thought for a moment. “Thirty-six thousand.”2

By following the dreams and listening to the community, a huge wave of creative energy and local wisdom was unleashed and successfully acted upon in ways that laid the groundwork for growth and development in the ‘tangible’ realm. One unexpected result was the profound and life-changing training that my colleagues and I have received over the years. It is intriguing to consider that Nature and the Other World seem to have undertaken (ha) the radical project of seeding change where it is arguably most needed: among westerners. This is accomplished, in part, by recruiting the least likely among us into experiences that broach no doubt whatever as to the luminous agency of the spirit world. Go to any bookstore and you will find shelves of books filled with the stories of unwitting westerners who have stumbled into sacred indigenous teachings.

Last week, I met a man who will soon come to a circle being offered by my community here in the U.S. to speak the stories that haunt him from his time as a volunteer fireman – the water-swollen corpses he has pulled from rivers and ocean, the charred remains trapped in burned-out buildings, the mangled bodies of young drivers in wrecked cars. He is bursting to tell his stories into the container of the circle. He has had nowhere to put them. His sense of isolation has pushed him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. His first question about the people in our circle: Do they do any drumming? It turns out that neuroscientists are discovering what the Ancients knew, what Indigenous people have always known, and what our broken hearts tell us if we will listen: that storytelling, theater, collective ceremony, rhythmic sound and movement heal trauma. This knowing is instinctive, primal.3

At one time, our interactions with the natural world were also instinctive and primal. In the world of animal tracking, there is something known as ‘baseline gait’. It is the relaxed, unhurried movement of a contented animal moving through its environment, looking, listening, gathering the information it needs to thrive. This gait is visible in its tracks. But we humans, with our unrelenting electronic assaults on our nervous systems and the chemical assaults on our physical bodies; our shoes and our concrete; our computers and our planes and our cars, have lost our baseline gait. Our brains compensate by taking a zillion snapshots of the world around us, frantically cobbling together a partial but distorted composite picture of reality in a desperate one attempt to inform us of where we are, what is going on and what we must respond to. From this fragmented hodge-podge, we make our decisions and plans. To this scramble we add trauma and unmetabolized grief. Perhaps this scramble is trauma and unmetabolized grief.

Proper grieving is one of the key indigenous technologies that open the doors between the worlds. The willingness to grieve engenders an emptying that creates space to listen and to hear. Grief, the dictionary tells us, is: “Deep sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress, heartache, heartbreak, agony, torment, affliction, suffering, woe, desolation, dejection, and despair.” It’s odd that we have so many words for something we tend to so little. Strange, too, that the word loss is not included, for grief is fundamentally about the loss of someone or something we love. Untended grief is cumulative, immobilizing. Traumatic. And what, exactly, is trauma? The dictionary says it’s, “A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” I would add: that permanently alters our lives for the worse, such that the world we once knew, and ourselves within it, become unrecognizable. It is this rupture of meaning that makes trauma so potent.

If not addressed, trauma hitchhikes from generation to generation, our constant companion, co-author of our lives. It will have its say, invited or not, whether or not we choose to hear its message. As a case in point Liberia was founded in the 1820s by freed slaves sent to colonize the land from which their forebears had been torn. The civil war there, similar to wars elsewhere, may have been the inevitable implosion of multi-generational trauma stemming from slavery, abduction, displacement, repression, colonization and exploitation.

Trauma is stored in our bodies and in specific parts of our brains.4 In response to trauma, our bodies try to protect us. We become numb in that part of our brain that allows us to feel, to think clearly, to put things in perspective, to make life-enhancing choices. Everything bends to the will of trauma. It is as unmistakable and as uncompromising as, say, a pedophile, a torturer, or a terrorist with a bomb. Chances are, the people driven to these extremes are, themselves, victims of severe trauma and so the cycle continues and escalates.

In addition to the assaults on our bodies and our nervous systems, the renaming or misnaming of what we know to be true makes us crazy. Whether we call it ‘spin,’ or marketing or rewritten history, the result is the same. Our felt experience is the cornerstone of identity and meaning; when we are told that what happened didn’t happen, that we aren’t who we know ourselves to be, that our voices do not count – that corporations are people – our sense of reality crumbles. Remember that, in addition to stealing and renaming the land that was kin, one of the key strategies in the genocide of indigenous North American culture was to forcibly remove children from their families and send them to residential schools where they were given western names and forbidden to speak their own languages.

Like each of us as individuals, collective global culture arises from the history that formed it. The sedimentary layers of ancestral anguish have been sealed and fossilized, but are clearly visible when we drill down or when a disaster exposes a cross-section of its layers. Like us, it seeks to cope as individuals and families do, repressing painful memories, self-medicating, lashing out at the slightest provocation or seeking to ‘soldier through’ by focusing on routine or revenge. Perhaps the collective trauma we are carrying dates from the ascendancy of the church and feudal kings (likely already traumatized themselves) and their desire to amass ‘power over’ rather than ‘power with’, pointedly expressed in unrelenting attacks on nature, women and indigenous ways.

Who’s to say how much heartbreak or trauma will push a person to violence, or a culture to collective madness? It could be as straightforward, as complex, as insidious as the ‘christening’ of unimaginably large tracts of ancient indigenous home terrain with names that bear no relation to those by which these places were originally known - names that expressed an intimacy, a depth of relationship unimaginable to those who imposed the labels. Dehumanization is a potent provocation. To be abused, ‘othered’, or ignored is to become invisible, non-existent, debatable. We are chopped down, becoming the trees that silently fall in the forest.

My Pakistani friend Hassan is a profound peacebuilder. I met him at Eastern Mennonite, too. It was his practice to go to remote villages where tribal violence had broken out. He would camp at the edge of a field, fly a white flag, and invite farmers and warlords alike (sometimes they were one and the same) to come tell their stories. He once told me, ‘Violence, too, is a form of communication.’ It is the communication of last resort.

As with what cannot be spoken, what we cannot hear matters a great deal, and not only in the human realm, where the silence of exclusion is already overwhelming. “There is an information densityof between one and ten million bits per half hour of whale song – which is the approximate amount of information contained in Homer’s Odyssey. In other words, whales are communicating each half hour the same amount of information as that in an entire book that would take us hours or days to read.”5 (And, because of their size, and the fact that they traverse the ocean from surface to depths and along their epic migrations, whales distribute vital nutrients across vast liquid expanses. In recent years, the ever-increasing traffic of container ships and super tankers is killing whales at alarming rates.) The cacophony of modern life is devastating animals whose mating calls and echolocation signals cannot be heard above the human din, interrupting vital life-sustaining systems, and depriving us of essential, encyclopedic realms of magic and connection. We find ourselves living a new and terrifying creation story whose divine authorship has been supplanted by machines. The trauma of separation from which we suffer globally is not God’s banishment. It is our man-made exile from the Garden of the Earth in all her resplendent, thriving, complexity. Grief is the key that unlocks the gate to reveal the path that leads us home. Home is our place within the entirety of Life.

We are disconnected from our bodies, encased in our cars and offices and cities of cement. Like rats in a cage, we exercise on our treadmills and stationary bicycles; we spend our days in mindless, repetitive motion on assembly lines, or frantically buying and selling and making deals in offices high above the ground. At the opposite extreme are those trapped in the backbreaking labor of subsistence or drowning in the floods of displacement. In mechanized cultures, we sit and stare at our numbing screens, connected primarily by social media (friends: really? tweets: really?). As a society we are doing exactly what a traumatized individual does: engage in superficial, promiscuous false connection or edit, isolate and shut down until we snap.

It seems that the sheer volume of heartache pouring in has caused it to stop pouring out. The escalation of atrocities made possible by the sudden, depersonalized, mechanical efficiency of modern warfare has replaced the undeniable reality of hand-to-hand combat and its strangely personal code of honor. Colonization, the slave trade, the holocaust, the nuclear bombs, the killing fields, the genocides, the clear cutting, species extinction and now the impending collapse of the global ecosystem have reshaped our shared landscape and our responses to it. We are at sea in a toxic soup and trauma is at the helm.

When we face our demons together, they begin to shrink and transform. In time, they can become our allies, and we theirs. American teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Lama Tsultrim Allione has revived the ancient Dance of Chöd, originally pioneered by an eleventh-century Buddhist teacher – a woman named Machig Labdrön. 6 In this practice, we invite our demons to take physical form. We enter into dialogue with them, eventually changing places with them, and asking them what they want from us. We listen until we have heard them fully. Then we dissolve ourselves to become the exact food they crave. We melt into the nectar that feeds them most deeply, and they feast until they are sated. When this happens, they often transform from a demon into an ally. It is an ancient practice, so powerful that in earlier times even epidemics could be stopped when monks agreed to feed the community’s demons in this way, so that the energetic patterns that gave rise to the illness – ie, that forced it into a corner from which it could only snarl and attack – were addressed with kindness and generosity.

I often wonder what would happen if we could spark a global campaign of apology, of taking responsibility for and grieving the outcomes of our earlier decisions and those of our predecessors - likely made from that reactive, traumatized state that seeks self-protection or self-medication above all else. Who would we become as we gazed into each other’s eyes and atoned, together, for the world we have made, for what we have done and undone? I am reminded of the dream that came to a dear friend, a single phrase: Not enough tears.

American author, teacher and peacemaker, the late Fran Peavey, traveled the world, sitting on public benches with a sign that read, American willing to listen.7 When did we stop listening? Are we willing to listen now? If so, perhaps we will hear the sounds of our ancestors weeping, and recognize that weeping as our own. Perhaps we will hear the weeping of Creation herself.
Trauma is suspicious of love and impervious to reason. It refuses to negotiate. It has been cheated before and so it is wary and slow to trust. But if we begin to dance, to sway our bodies and tap our feet, it will dance with us. When we are moving together, trust will grow. The rusty hinges of the heart creak open. Memory returns. At this late hour, as the Ebola of greed devours us, I believe that all of it – all of it—is traceable to the reservoir of trauma and unexpressed grief pooling beneath us. When reference points (both internal and external) disappear, what can bring us back into meaning’s embrace? Because trauma can render individual meaning unreliable, meaning that is communally embodied and expressed is required. Because grieving is pro-active, it lifts us out of the immobilizing torpor of trauma. If we truly want to change the world, we must tend to our grief and, literally, return to our senses. These are the modern, ancient tools of radical transformation. Let it rip, Brothers and Sisters! The elephants will come. Balance will be restored. Love will flourish. Do we have the courage to grieve deeply enough to unwind trauma’s spiral?

My friend and colleague, Bill Saa, lost his brother Raymond during the Liberian civil war. Raymond was tortured to death - his body hacked away piece by piece until he died. He was then buried in a shallow roadside grave. For several years, Bill worked to learn the circumstances of Raymond’s death, to locate the makeshift grave, and to find Raymond’s killer. When he had found the grave, Bill met with the local elders of the nearby village, then gathered friends and family, including people from the community, to help unearth the body so that they could bring Raymond back to the family compound, bury him there and hold the requisite Mourning Feast. Though the grave was a shallow one, the exhumation stalled. They were unable to pull the remains from the ground. A local elder recognized the problem. He cut a branch from a nearby tree and offered it to the earth in exchange for Raymond’s bones. Speaking to the earth, he explained that the people understood that after so many years, the earth did not wish to relinquish her son, but that the people wished to return the body to his human mother and father so they could bury him properly in the family compound. The elder then offered the branch in exchange for Raymond’s remains. When the prayers were complete and a libation offered the body came free. The following day, they arrived at the family compound with Raymond’s bones and shreds of clothing. A great, deafening cry rose up from the waiting crowd, a chaos of shrieking and shouting and anguished wailing that lasted far into the night.

Meanwhile, another brother, Nat, plotted to kill the murderer. A few of us from the US happened to be in Liberia when Nat dreamed that he had found Raymond’s executioner and was on his way to kill him. In the dream, Bill put his arm on Nat’s shoulder and told him, “Please don’t do it.” Nat vehemently affirmed his plan. But later that day, he had a change of heart. He joyfully phoned everyone in the family to tell them the news that he now wished to join Bill in forgiving Raymond’s killer. A few weeks later, Nat and Bill met with the killer and told him, “You deprived us of our brother and our parents’ son. Therefore you must take his place in the family.” From shared grief compassion is born. Deep grieving makes room for miracles.

Last night a friend told me a story of a poisonous plant he found growing in a pot, in the corner of a room, in a home he was renting. The plant had been left behind by previous tenants. (He left it, too, when he moved out.) One day as he sat meditating, he felt his attention being repeatedly pulled to the plant. At last he turned to face it, and began to listen. He heard the plant say, “That’s better. Now we can have a conversation.”

What would you like to tell me?” asked my friend.

The plant said, “You humans are so very, very sensitive. Your bodies are designed so that you can feel and hear and sense so many tiny, exquisite things. But your ways of living now have caused your receptors to become congested. You can no longer feel these things, or hear or sense them. You have lost this capacity that is your birthright, and so you have lost yourselves.”

What can we do to open ourselves again?” asked the man.

Grieve,” said the plant.

It happened that someone had lent my friend an elephant tooth. He spent the next three days sitting with the plant, cleaning that tooth, and weeping.

1; name suggested by Bill Goldberg in conversations at Eastern Mennonite University

2 Elephants also mourn their dead. They have specific burial rites and can remember the exact location of their loved ones’ remains. Dolphins, chimps, dogs, sea lions, geese and many other animals mourn as well.

3 The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, MD, Viking, 2014

4 The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, MD, Viking, 2014

5 Stephen Harrod Buhner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Into the Dreaming of Earth, Bear & Co., 2014

6 Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict, Tsultrim Allione; Little, Brown & Co., 2008

7 Fran Peavey, Heart Politics, Black Rose Books, 1985

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Quote: Robert Bringhurst

The mind is old snow, new snow, brooding rain.
The mind is lichen crust and stone.

Pebbles and sticks are the fountains of wisdom.

Go into the hills and remain there forever.
Wise as a snowflake that lives

for ten minutes, wise as a stone

that is young at three million years,
let the trees make your gestures,

the creeks and the gutters your prayers.

Pass the note of yourself to the river
to read to the hills. Let the wind and the leaves

speak your thoughts in their language.

Many or few: any number will do. This
is the worlds, and the world is one – either one –

and neither and both of your eyes.

And your face is its face. And the eyes in your face
are the eyes you have seen,

seeing you, in the faces of others.

- From Dogen, in The Book of Silences, by Robert Bringhurst, Selected Poems, Copper Canyon Press, 2011

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


A piece of bark given by a baobab tree sits on the altar. On it are the tracks and scrapings of beetles, worms and termites, the inscriptions of lives she once held. An elephant might have rubbed that piece of bark loose, or the tree might have lent it to the ground beneath her in the partnership of sheltering they have developed over time. In Africa, baobabs are known as ‘upside down trees’ because their branches look like gnarled roots. The elephants rub and rub against them until the trees get hollowed out. But this does not kill them. They simply regenerate from the inside out. Much of savannah life seeks refuge inside those hollow trees: birds, insects, foxes, bees, snakes and sometimes fugitives, usually poachers. Inside the hollow, the bark forms a rough skin with whorls and creases that look like the tips of elbows, or vulva, or turtle shells, each sculpted pattern a universe. In spring, the trees are festooned with huge, elongated fruits covered with circles that look like eyes looking at nothing, seeing everything.

Baobabs live for thousands of years. I want to know what they know, in the way they have come to know it. I want to see the elephant herds as the baobabs saw them, huge and unchallenged by farmers or tourists or hunters in helicopters.

Baobabs bring time with them. They are carriers of secrets known only to themselves. They look like they’re dancing or embracing as they reach their branches tenderly around the heat-shimmering air, or the icy stars, and make long-fingered perches for the moon when she grows weary and wants to sit awhile in the noisy night silence. She gathers the light of earth’s turning and pours it through the baobab’s branches, creating shadows like webs of veins as together they x-ray the night. Bats and leopards, hyenas and scorpions watch the show, a nocturnal audience whose clicks and coughs, grunts and screeches knit the world together.

This is a remnant of the original world and its perfect contradictions. This is Eden because it contains all the hair-brained experiments ever conducted by mad-scientist coyote Creator. It is an encyclopedia of love in all her forms. And it’s a great big, badass, who’s-your-daddy, walk-in closet big enough for death’s entire wardrobe.

I want to share breath with all the herds, especially the rhinos, with their impossible horns and their armored plates that belie the softness of their snouts, soft as a horse’s muzzle or a grandmother’s cheeks. I know this because I kissed one once, a rhino in Texas, of all places, as far from baobabs as one can get. He came to the edge of his enclosure and when I sang to him he leaned his face against the taut metal wire of the fence and fell asleep, his face rumpled against the fence post from the weight of his massive head, as he leaned forward bending one front leg, balanced like a dancer on the tip of his hoof. I moved my hands slowly toward him until his tender-skinned nose was cupped in my hands, and then I leaned in a little further until I could smell his grassy breath, sweet and dusty, breathing in as he breathed out, breathing out as he breathed in, until stacks of eons fell away, my lungs filled with the breath of his kin, all his ancestors all the way back through 65 million years, and I could smell the spaciousness of original time, smokeless and silent, as it gathered itself and fell forward.

Baobabs bring time with them. They are carriers of secrets known only to themselves. They look like they’re dancing or embracing as they reach their branches tenderly around the heat-shimmering air, or the icy stars, and make long-fingered perches for the moon when she grows weary and wants to sit awhile in the noisy night silence. She gathers the light of earth’s turning and pours it through the baobab’s branches creating shadows like webs of veins as together they x-ray the night. Bats and leopards, hyenas and scorpions watch the show, a nocturnal audience whose clicks and coughs, grunts and screeches knit the world together.

This is the original library, a source text written in fur and sand, claw and hide and dung, the library before Alexander, and before Alexandria. This is the archive that, if it burns, cannot be recovered. There has been a terrible accident and we have been struck in the head by greed that has erased all memory of where we came from, amnesia of the heart, and only the tender caress of the Beloved will awaken us. It is not for us to ask to be inscribed in the book of Life for one more year, but rather to beg that the Book of Life be inscribed in us again. Then we must read each page until the letters dance before us and we leap from our seats to join them.

There has been a terrible accident and we have been struck in the head by a greed that has erased all memory of where we came from, amnesia of the heart. Only the tender caress of the Beloved will awaken us. It is not for us to ask to be inscribed in the book of Life for one more year, but rather to beg that the Book of Life be inscribed in us once more. We must read each page until the letters dance before us and we leap from our seats to join them. This is the original library, a source text written in fur and sand, claw and hide and dung, the library before Alexander, and before Alexandria. This is the archive that, if it burns, cannot be recovered.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


We arrive in Liberia Monday, leave for Voinjama Tuesday. As usual we decide to go to the old man for a blessing before we set out. I don’t like to travel without seeing him first. We meet in the parking lot of the hotel at 5:30 am. The night guard has barely had time to unlock the gates and gives us a sleepy nod as we depart. We haven’t told the others where we’re going. We drive through town. Even at this hour the streets are filling with rickety cars and gleaming white UN Toyota trucks. We head down the steep hill of Ashmun street and pull over to meet Bill’s uncle, Mr. Bundor. Everyone calls him Mr. Bundor, even Bill. I never did learn his first name. With Mr. Bundor to direct us, we head into the rough slums below Water Street known as Westpoint. I think to myself, If this were Los Angeles or Miami or Panama City, it would be a forest of multi-million dollar condominium high rises. As it is, it’s a hodgepodge of muddy streets, open sewers, wood working shops, tea shacks, market stalls, hovels and the occasional evangelist mission outpost.

We arrive at the old man’s place. He is sitting on his front porch, a narrow breezeway inches from the hubbub of the muddy street. The Old Man is a tiny elf of a man, with close-cropped white hair, barefoot and wearing a sleeveless white undershirt and gray shorts. He is all smiles. His wife is radiant, wrapped in a dazzling bright cotton print, her hair neatly braided close to her head; the littlest children, who are the only ones awake at this hour, are all scrubbed clean. Even the stained cement, plank benches and sooty walls look fresh and well kept. He greets us with hugs and vigorous handshakes.

We visit the Old Man each time we arrive before traveling up country to Voinjama. Each visit is different, but with a familiar edge: His exuberant greeting. The sensation of an electrical current of energy in his touch. The seriousness and sincerity of his prayers as they tumble out. Once we get to know him, he leads us into his bedroom. It is always the same: the spotlessly arrayed belongings in stacks at the foot of the bed, a shirt or two hanging on a nail in the wall; the muffled sounds of the chaotic street just outside, shrieks of children playing in the hallway; the fading cool of the morning air and the stillness of the heat gathering in the mosquito-filled air.

Once I arrived with several friends from the U.S., some of them healers in their own right. After the usual jubilant greeting, he lead us as always through the front room, across the pitch dark hallway and into his bedroom. After we squeezed next to him on the bed and along the sagging bench by the wall, he told us he had seen us coming in a dream a few days before, and showed us the two offering bowls he had already prepared. Two half calabashes the size of a small cereal bowl, filled with some kind of rising, fermenting dough, with coins embedded in it. Fragrant, warm, yeasty, a welcoming soft wheat-colored yellow, smooth and round and soft like pale flesh rising around the edges of the coins. This certainty of his that came through the dreams, the fact that he had already prepared the offerings and was simply waiting for us, takes me by surprise and I can’t hold back the tears. I am weeping as he prays for us and gives his blessing. We ask about two disturbing dreams and are told not to worry, we are safe. He reminds us also that he prays for us even when we’re not there, and he is in touch with other zos who are also constantly working on our behalf. It takes a village to raise a child and a circle of shamans to protect the peacemakers.

This time, I have an inkling that he won’t be there. I ignore it. We arrive and of course he is gone. He is at the hospital with one of his sons who is suddenly ill. He is to contact us when he returns and we plan to go later that day, but later his cell phone battery gives out in the middle of the call to Bill and we never do see him before heading up country. We depart for Voinjama in two cars. I am in one, Bill in the other. As Bill’s car heads out of town, two birds fly into their windshield and fall to the road. About an hour later a rooster crosses in front of our vehicle, close but seemingly safe, then inexplicably doubles back the way he came. No time to brake or swerve. We hit it squarely and learn later that it rides on our right front bumper for hours. This explains the astonished stares from people along the way. Why did the rooster cross the road? Bill and I sense that these seem to be offerings in lieu of a visit to the Old Man. We are grateful and amazed.

When we return to Monrovia two weeks later, we visit the Old Man again, on our last day before leaving for home. We arrive to find him lying on a bench across his front porch, feet up, dozing in the early morning bustle of the slum. He jumps up to greet us beaming with gleeful surprise. He asks us to wait for a moment while he slips inside. A few minutes later he beckons and we follow him into his bedroom. It reeks of mothballs and kerosene. I sit on the newly made bed next to him. The others are on the plank bench. Bill and he speak briefly, then the Old Man gets up and fishes out a battered little pot from under the stack of boxes and clothes at the foot of the bed under a teensy, barred, north-facing window. He scoops everything out of the little pot and pulls a string of cowry shells from the bottom, then walks over and puts his hands on my head. The prayers tumble out fervently as he strokes and smoothes my hair, holding my neck with one hand, rubbing the spirit shells quadrant by quadrant over and around every part of my head with the other hand, over and over as he speaks until, several minutes later, the prayers are complete. He spits lightly onto the crown of my head and smoothes the saliva over my hair and down my face. As he works I feel a powerful, quaking energy emanating from his hands. It flows down my shoulders and surrounds me like a body cloak, like a coat for my aura, and vibrates from inside my torso out to meet the energy flowing around me. My mind goes blank as I feel the shimmering buzz of blessing and protection.

I think of the morning two weeks ago when we had gone looking for the Old Man and he wasn’t there. We had invited our friend, Jim to come with us. Jim often works in Liberia and was visiting from the States at miraculously the same time as we were there. I so much wanted to share some of this magic with him, and he had enthusiastically agreed to join us, pulling himself out of bed before 6 in order to do so. I was embarrassed and disappointed that we hadn’t been able to produce the marvelous Old Man, that they would not meet him this trip, or perhaps ever. I was ashamed of tinge of self-aggrandizement that has probably jinxed the arrangement in the first place. Serves me right. I thank Jim for his patience and I apologize. He graciously shrugs it off, says he’s glad to have had the opportunity to drive around Monrovia early in the morning without traffic or noise. As we dropped him off at his hotel, I had said I was concerned about traveling without seeing the Old Man. Jim smiled and said in his soft Carolina drawl, “I’m not aware of any expiration date on blessings, are you?”