Monday, April 17, 2017

Willing to Listen: Peacebuilding after the Berkeley Clash

Arriving at MLK Civic Center Park in Berkeley minutes after violent clashes are over and most folks have moved on, my first impression is silence. A war zone following the battle. A spacious green field surrounded in orange mesh. Signs of what was enclosing what is. What remains? Part shock, part anger, part confusion, part sorrow. Why am I here, the action seemingly over? Today, Holy Saturday, a day of vigil and of rest, falling this year on the Shabbat during Passover. The Song of Songs is chanted in synagogues worldwide, the story of Exodus retold, a story which also informs a movement, this park named for the vision of Dr. King. I hear him echoing that ancient refrain, "Free at last." I remember his legacy and that of the Free Speech movement. 

Feet and heart lead me forward. I see a lone sign sprawled out on a tree on my left, "Pro-USA, Proud. Strong. Unafraid in Berkeley." I walk past a huge wall on my right proclaiming, "Jesus Christ Superstar" and below this, "Do you think you're what they say you are?" Beside it, on the next wall, angry scrawls. Words popping out: fascism, anti-fascism (takes a while to make this one out as it is crossed out). After reading beside these, "Go Home" "No War. No Nazis." I step out into the street, stepping back long enough to get a wider view of the scene. What is being said here really, I wonder. Just then, I hear a young man shout, "hey." I cross the street and stand beside him and four other fellows, all anglo, white skin contrasting with the black T shirts, hoodies, and jeans. 
The fellow who called out to me is wearing a hipster wool cap. His forehead and nose reveal caked and drying blood, remains from a fist fight by the looks of it. He says in an impassioned voice, "So what do you make of that sign? What do you think of how they feel?" I look at him quizically, assessing why he is asking me this. I pause for a breath and say, "Raw heart, I feel pain, torment. How about you?" He sets in, "You know what's crossed out there? 'Anti-fascism. Fascism will come disguised as anti-fascism. I'm here to protect free speech, first amendment rights. 

He adds, "I came up here from LA." Mindful of a slogan ringing in my inner ear, "Hate speech is not free speech," I want to keep cool while aware of my own views and allegiances while not yet clear what is going on. I thought the Antifa would be wearing black. Is he alt right? white supremacist? What is his angle? I remember the urgency of wanting to understand and wanting to connect. I ask, "what do you see? how do you feel?" He says, "you think this is about Trump? Nah, let me ask you. If I say something and you don't like it, what do you do?" I say, "what?" He continues, "Three things you don't do. Three things not covered by the first amendment: 1. Shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, shouting, 2. "I'm gonna kill you," and,  3...." He clenches his hand into a fist. I tense up as he moves it in a quick sweeping arc towards his friend's face and holds still right there. "My fist stops at your face." His friend doesn't move. All that comes to me quickly is, "Yeah" then a pause and, "I'm noticing your face. That looks like it really hurts." He unclenches his fist, brushes his open hand by his nose and goes, "this, no big deal. Comes with the territory." "Well, just the same, I'm sorry it's happening." He says, "We have to fight for our rights." As I stand here, I am vigilant. Am I safe? Why are they still here? 

His friends are urging him on as he continues, "The first amendment...." and goes into what feels like something out of a class on constitutional law, except for the tone and what feels to be his hyper-vigilant body motion. 
As I'm attuning to that, I notice an overturned garbage can across the street. I hear him say, "Look, this is about fascism. See how anti-fascism was crossed out?" I say, "I see. I see pain, a whole lot of rage and pain. I see that here with you and it makes me sad, really sad." The tension in his face releases for a moment as he holds out a hand to shake mine. I reach out both my hands and hold his as our eyes meet. I nod my head, "yeah..." I say, "get home safe." He nods and each of them then shakes my hand. I turn and head into the park beside what looks to be a dried up fountain. I go from there to the tree with the big sign and move to the left looking closely at the ceramic tiles on the Peace Wall. 
I walk back to the fountain my eyes slightly downcast and notice two handmade signs, which read, "Radical Willing to Listen" and "A Lefty who Listens." I look up and see a man and woman, their weathered white faces showing an openness, a compassionate presence. I listen as they listen and occasionally respond to those needing to be heard.
Still, I wonder, why mostly white faces here? 

A young man with a full brown beard wearing a MAGA cap and pro Trump T shirt, his tattooed arms crossed, listens also and then laughs. I read his nervousness and talk with him as a few young white men and one older man sporting a worn western hat in the colors and design of an American flag, gather round. They are unsure where I stand. I introduce myself and say I'm wondering how they are doing. I say heard what is going on and came down to see if could help." I ask them why they came and why they are still here." One after another, each offers a different spin. 

A tall and slender fellow sporting a baseball cap that says, "Ben Carson 2016" and a hipsterish beard says, "I'm Canadian and we don't have free speech. We have blasphemy laws. My wife is Indian and my kids were born here. I'm here because I want them to be able to say what they want." I look at him somewhat confused and repeat, "What they want? What do you want? What do you want to be able to say?" He stops and considers. Another young man jumps in, "Listen, I was here on March 4 and I saw what went down. I was punched. And you know what? You have the right to offend me. I have the right to offend you. Like Gay Pride. I've been to Gay Pride and it is about pride, yeah, and it offends a lot of people and you know what, it's part of how it goes. It is supposed to offend to draw attention to the cause and I'll tell you what else. I'm part of the Pink Pistols. Have you heard of that? I nod no. He says, "If you're gay, if you're LGBTQ, you can get a gun and defend yourself. That is your second amendment right." 

As he finishes, I notice a young man, African American, wearing a flashy red and black superhero-looking suit, with some kind of spiderman design, facial piercing studs, and a long narrow beard. He is looking at his IWatch and remarking about the latest Twitter feeds, and how "we pushed out the Antifa." I am markedly shaken, wondering what is really going on here. 

What is the cause? What are the stakes for these men? He says, "we just have to keep fighting for our rights." I ask him what he means by fighting and he hedges. Suddenly, the tall man with the flag hat who looks oddly out of place in this group, says, "you know what I'd like to see. You know what the problem is? You guys should invite three speakers and they don't speak for long, maybe 10min. You go to the other guys and tell them, invite them and invite them to invite their three speakers and everyone knows about it ahead of time. There are rules." I say, "sounds like you're wanting some kind of dialogue without all the violence." He nods yeah. 

The young men seem to hear the words but don't go there. Instead, they welcome in a young man who just enters the circle, his left forehead showing a fresh and bloodied gash recently stitched up and a smaller one on the top of his head as long straight black hair drapes down his upper back. He clearly is agitated as says, "hey" in greeting. He says just back from the ER.

I ask if he got anything for the pain. I ask how he's doing. He says, "hey, it's all part of it." I say, "It's hard to take all this in but it's good to talk with you. I'm with a group called, Mindful Peacebuilding." I give them the website address. They ask me what that is. I say, "mindfulness is paying attention in a way that shows how to speak and especially listen from the heart, open minded. And peacebuilding comes from that. Brick by brick we build a bridge, we plant a seed, we find a way to grow together, to care for each other. That is what we're doing now, I hope. Trying to understand what happened here today. Take good care and get home safe."

I walk over to another corner of this plaza where a young white woman with long straight brown hair and a crisp blouse and skirt is sitting beside a young man who appears to be Korean-American with blond-dyed hair and wearing some sparkly jewelry and shades. He's looking at his smartphone. I introduce myself and she goes into a lengthy exposition on how she had voted for Trump but now is disappointed in him. She tells me that used to be part of something like Antifa while growing up in Washington D.C. because was anti-globalization. She says she believes in free speech. Then she tells me about a methodist church in San Francisco that is planning to offer a moderated dialogue soon. I wonder what she means by free speech. I wonder again what is going on. I wonder what draws the young man sitting beside her. Even so, I also feel a need to move on. I say that the church's efforts sound well intentioned and let's see. I tell her about Mindful Peacebuilding. She thanks me.

Finally, I walk over to a gathering of two men and one woman, all white. Two are brother and sister, she with long straight blond hair and shades and he with a beard looking a bit hipster-ish. She tells me about the women's march and how good as it was, "it was very white." As she's speaking, as she assumes which "side" I'm on, clearly against "these fascists," as she speaks about a longing to diversify a movement of social change and what serves its best interest; I watch as her brother suddenly says, "I'm going over there to flirt with them, see how they like that." I say I'm concerned for his safety but he continues and walks away as she says, "I've learned to let go of trying to keep him from doing what he does." Just then, a young woman, Latina, who looks shaken, moves a bit closer. I get up and move towards her. She tells me, "I was here" when the violence began. She tells me, "yeah, I saw knives." She pauses, looking off into the distance. She says, "I've been waiting here until all the teens, the youth of color have gone. I want to make sure they don't get hassled." I say, "doesn't look like any one's still here." 

I ask if she is planning to go home. She says with a weary sigh, "I tried but I can't. I'm still so angry." I meet her gaze and nod my head, "yeah." We talk, mostly I listen, and then I introduce her to the man and woman nearby. As I do, I see in the distance two of the men from the group I was talking with on the other side of the plaza approaching. It is the fellow with the western hat and a younger man, who had been standing silently beside me. As they approach, I reach into my bag and say, "I have something to show you all." I tell them about being a new Empowering Clerk with the Center for Supportive Bureaucracy. They all look curious. I say, let's stay in touch so I can issue you all one of these and pull out a Joy Permit. They smile. The flag-hat fellow reads the fine print and laughs. Then, I show them the "Adults Must be Accompanied by Inner Child" poster. 
The formerly silent fellow laughs and says, "yes! We need that. Thanks so much. What you say inspires me." I reply, "what we're doing now is so important. Let's stay in touch." We exchange contact info. We speak of the possibility of hosting some way of engaging folks in this park in coming days. I share a confidence in playfulness as a way of reaching out with courage. "As we are doing right now," I say. And then something remarkable happens. One by one, we hug each other. Even in the midst of embrace, I still am not sure what is happening but I feel a warmth and a quality of joy I cannot quite name. Still, I feel raw. I feel shaken. I feel mildly nauseous and at the same time, open to a flurry of emotion including sorrow and longing. 

I walk away from the park and head to Asha Teahouse nearby for a matcha latte and refuge, space to breathe into all of this. About an hour later, I return to the park, walking on its outskirts. Most everyone has left. I move past skateboarders and look back from a distance. The orange mesh surrounding the grass is now gone. A sign says, "!Attention!" noting that the Farmers Market is closed today while adding, "please support our vendors next Saturday." I cross the street and taking my time, move slowly the remaining blocks to my car. Driving away, I notice that the world seems to be moving a bit slower, a bit brighter with a quality of vibrancy that cannot be attributed to caffeine alone. It is a quickening of a seed watered and slowly but surely growing.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pray for Our People

I am deeply moved as listen to voicemail of the first caller to ChaplainsOnHand from NYC in distress over what he describes as the, "outcome and resolutions in the Justice dept. over our race, our young, our men being shot and slain... My spirit is troubled." He goes on to use the word, "unanswered" and then "no real solution." I stop the recording to breathe in and attune to what is real, what did he mean by an answer?

I still can hear the haunting echo from the streets of NYC as protesters chant, "I can't breathe."

I breathe into that troubled space in my body and repeat the words, "open, open, open" and sense some spaciousness and feel this man close, feel my friend Jeff Thompson, who has served as Community Outreach liason for the NYPD and also is a dad and student of Thich Nhat Hahn. I breathe with them.

I remember a phrase in the intro to his book, "Keeping the Peace: Mindfulness and Public Service" where police officer Sheri Maples speaks of the imperative of transforming training to include mindful peacebuilding so can be a peace officer.

I feel that responsibility uniting us as feel them close. Then, I press "play" and hear this man, my brother now, say slowly and solidly, "If you could pray for our people, for our departments. May God bless you and make His face to shine upon you and give you peace."In that moment, I feel all of us holding hands breathing that blessing alive.

#ferguson2nyc #ICantBreathe #‎opensourcechaplaincy‬ ‪#‎peacebmindful‬

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Girls Day

I step into the small spa gift shop at The Claremont. I am here for an imagination vacation, something inspired by my mom. When my older sisters and I were kids and broke, she fearlessly led us to fancy hotels in Manhattan for lobby and restroom tours. I would marvel at the beauty and vibrancy of these magical spaces. To this day, a women's restroom (powder room, as one used to say) done in style is a thing of wonder.

As I step in, the only other woman in the shop smiles. It's clear she works here. I notice her feet positioned at a well articulated angle to each other. I smile and say, "if don't me asking, do you dance?" Her eyes widen and she pauses then replies, "no..." like there is more she needs to say. I add, "it's just that your feet are in a perfect third position." 

She looks with a layered curiosity towards me. "Ballet," I say. "I studied it as a kid. Your upright posture, your feet... You stand like a dancer." She smiles. As I come closer, am seeing tears in her eyes. She says, "my father said he would teach me to dance. I was six years old." I hear her accent. Sounds familiar with a softness and simultaneous achingly quivering quality. Vietnamese.

She tells me, "my father taught me to ride a bicycle. He told me I could do it. He walked quickly beside me and let one hand go then the other. I just pedaled so fast and..." She smiles, thousands of miles away right here. I nod my head up and down with a slow and steady pace. 

She turns away then back towards me, "What you said... My father gave me chocolate for the first time, told me, "here eat this. It is the best food. I loved it." I told her mine did too. She asks if I am visiting. I tell her I live nearby and came for my birthday to see the beauty. She wishes me happy birthday. I add with delight, "today is also Girls Day in Japan, a day celebrating little girls."

She lifts up her hand with a sudden vibrancy and and turns to get her purse. She pulls out a small wooden figure of a girl and offers it to me, "Happy birthday!" I thank her, "Oh, she is lovely." She continues with a measure of lightness, "My father would make birthday flan instead of cake. I loved it." My eyes widen as we both savor that imagined taste.

She reaches out and touches my hand as tears fill her eyes. "Sometimes I just don't know if I can go on for all the years I have been here." I breathe with her, then affirm softly, "He loved you." Tears spill out. We breathe. She continues, "One night, my father sat beside me. He said he had to go away. He told me, "when I come back, I will teach you to dance."

I feel my body shaking slightly like a tiny tremor is running between us. I focus on my belly and breath flowing there. I say, "what happened?" She says, "The war in my country..." I keep my gaze steady, meeting hers. "He never came home. Even now... And you... How did you know?" Tears spill out.

I open my hand wide, the one she is touching. I place the other hand on my heart and breathe with her. I sway side to side. I tell her how my dad had me step on his toes when I was little and that's how we danced.

I say, . "he wanted you to dance." She squeezes my open hand. I say, "you are not alone." We breathe like that, eye to eye and gently swaying, until I feel us both settling into an even cool rhythm. I ask if she has heard of Thich Nhat Hahn. I tell her about Mindful Peacebuilding. Her eyes sparkle through the tears as she recognizes the name as if a distant glimmer of hope. 

She corrects my pronunciation then tells me of her uncle and writes his name, saying he sent Thay (TNH) a poem, which Thay loved. She shows me her father's dogtag and photo, which she carries with her. I give her my lovinglive card. As we hug, I feel us gently swaying from side to side. A warmth and rhythm fill the whole space. I feel a release while gazing once more into her eyes. 

We sway slower and slower until the movement is imperceptibly subtle, as if these feet are beating in time with the whole space shifting. I cannot tell what or who is moving. My hands let go and I step back. I see her father in her eyes. I see Thay and my parents. I see myself. We are all smiling while crying with joy.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Unexpected Wonder

Walking through the door of a "Board and Care" (re-resourced home) facility, I see a podiatriast completing care for an elegantly while simply dressed Chinese-American woman in her late 90's. She smiles towards me and raises her eyebrows in shared recognition.

After he leaves, she calls out to the facility manager, "hey, he left his glasses and that bag." We laugh. She says matter of factly, "absent minded."

As we talk, she laughs and says, "I quipped with him that when I die, I will be the best groomed corpse!" This leads to her telling me, "I've lived a long life and am not as strong as I used to be. I sleep most of the time and now I dream. Memories from my childhood..." 

I say, "sometimes I wonder if life is like a dream." She smiles and says, "oh yes, because we wish for things but in a dream, things don't turn out as you expect." 

I see a bright sparkle in her eyes.

I ask, "knowing that, what's important now?" She says, "to live one day at a time." I ask, "and as you do that, what then?" "Oh," she says in a softer tone, "I am thankful."

Just then, I see a round cake with candles lit. Everyone is singing, "happy birthday to you..." The cake is for a fellow resident. 

We all stop and enjoy a piece of unexpected wonder.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

At Arm's Length

Admiring his parrot pal, this fellow says to me, "hey, you wanna hold him?" He sees surprise and cautious delight on my face. Without hesitation, he places the bird on my arm.

I hold him, indeed, at arm's length as that coined-phrase takes on viscerally clear new significance. The colorful creature open his mouth and lunges (or so it seems from my vantage point) at my face. I instinctively pull my head back. Just then, the fellow laughs and says as if congratulating me, "That's good! You pulled your head back and not your arm."

The feisty bird offers no commentary. He remains to all appearances contentedly silent. I wonder if he is smiling.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Red Rocks Legacy

"I like your Tshirt," I say as this fellow walks by with friends. "My friend designed it," he replies, and introduces me to the man and woman beside him. And so begins a delightful interchange and a brief dance by these red rocks beyond Las Vegas.

"It's my legacy... Love."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Shared Embrace

Visiting with a 90-something woman brightens today. As we talk, she shifts from grieving loss of identity cuz her body functioning is declining. What shows up is an amazing smile, tears in her eyes, as she recognizes that who she is comes down to whom she has embraced. 

When I get up to leave, she says, "I'm sorry I can't walk you to the door." I reply, "you're with me every step of the way right here," as I place my hand over my heart. I see the tears and her smile once more. "Thank you," she says softly. I feel the simple, full beauty of shared embrace.