Metta’s Opinion

Yoga Day 2018: For Peace

Today is the fourth International Day of Yoga—June 21 was proclaimed as such by the United Nations in 2014. As noted on the UN site about this day, the purpose is to “raise awareness about the benefits of practicing yoga.” The 2018 theme is “Yoga for Peace.” Who would argue for less peace in the world (that’d be nuts!)? I sure wouldn’t. Yet I think this phrase deserves some critical discussion. (more…)

An inspiring commitment to nonviolence

Matthew Harman, a participant in our Certificate in Nonviolence Studies, has offered this beautiful pledge of commitment to the practice of nonviolence. What is yours? 

This image is from Stephanie Van Hook’s “Gandhi Searches for Truth.” 

 

All is one.

I continue to pledge my perpetually improving dedication to nonviolence, the most powerful force throughout the history of life. I continue to present violence as a problem to be solved rather than an authentic detriment to be rationalized. I emphasize the injustice embedded within systems of oppression rather than attack humans who support such systems consciously or subconsciously – including myself. I understand that humans are a diverse lifeform espousing innumerable perspectives, but that we are currently facing a limit barrier; the cycle of violence. As we continue to evolve spiritually and augment ourselves physically I continue my effort to share the timeless, albeit less well known, story of nonviolence.

To continue to be an example of nonviolence we must remain in the moment without forgetting our ancestors – across species – or ignoring future generations. To maintain respect across differences in experience, age, class, ethnicity, ability, planets, solar systems, galaxies. To empower through mutual dignity catalyzed via nonviolent action throughout our everyday activities. I also emphasize that nonviolent action can be as brief and transient as a smile or as deep and dedicated as lifetimes. No matter the course I always welcome nonviolence into my heart amidst processes and spaces that often seem bent on destruction.

Despite my studies, I do not know much nor will I, ever. I offer my presence to anyone who seeks to share or deepen our understanding of nonviolence as a form of cosmic, universal knowledge. Moreover, I continue to limit my exposure to the mass media while producing nonviolent, people-powered media alternatives, such as Peace and Nonviolence radio.

I am not a victim and continue to take full responsibility for my actions and encourage others to do the same through my public and private activities. I refrain from abusive thoughts, language, and deeds. I encourage movements to develop soberly but do not ignore or diminish those who rely on intoxicants because everyone is on their own path and some of the most influential nonviolent humans experienced lives of violent abuse before rededicating to the universal. I will make every attempt to redirect violent alternatives toward nonviolent actions without demand.

In our ongoing preparation for the struggle, I will continue to exercise daily in friendly competition with myself while encouraging others to use their bodies creatively.

In closing I forgive myself and others, knowing that every lifeform has the innate ability to transform.

A Yoga-Based Practice for Body, Mind & Spirit

This past Sunday, we wrapped with Week 3 of the 2018 Certificate in Nonviolence Studies course. Part of the week’s learning focus was observing our desires to do harm, for the purpose of eradicating these impulses.

Eradicating means to pull up by the roots. Desire is pretty intangible—it’s not like an object we can see or touch. So, how do we pull a desire to create harm up by its roots? Tenderly, with awareness and patience. (more…)

Memorial Day: A Reflection

I regard myself as a soldier, though as a soldier of peace. ~M.K. Gandhi~


We bow our heads in reverence to all those who have given their lives in witness to the truth, or had it taken from them in that effort; who upheld peace and justice in the face of persecution and oppression, often without any warrant of success for their effort but because they could do no differently; for those who have done all they could, often at great personal sacrifice, to keep the banner of human dignity aloft in times of turbulence and violence – like our own.

Many have also lost their lives in the mistaken belief that these very ends could be served by violence. Many entered upon military actions for more self-seeking reasons, or out of the mistaken belief that they had no choice. All these will be the ‘official’ recipients of today’s honor. We have no quarrel with their recognition, especially with those in the former group, but we do urgently propose that killing and its futility will go on and on until humanity recognizes, in holidays such as this one and in many other ways, that the sacrifice human beings have made for peace by the means appropriate to peace, namely nonviolence and not war, are of far greater benefit to humanity and they use such occasions and memorials not only as symbolic gestures, not only as tokens of admiration, but the jumping-off points of concrete actions for peace and justice – times of dedication to do whatever necessary so that, some day, killing is finally banished from our world.

 

Foundations of Resistance- Reflection

FOLLOWERS of that great pioneer of nonviolent action, the late Gene Sharp, often speak of the “pillars of support:” no dictator can function without police, armies, bureaucracies to carry out their orders (I suppose today we’d have to add a “deep state”). It is much more effective to erode these pillars, rendering the autocrat ineffectual, than to focus on his person, leaving his power intact. Would it not then be, in the long run, even more effective to work on not just the pillars but the foundation? That’s why we were so pleased to see this comment by Lisa López and Eduardo Burger in this weeks “Minds of the Movement” from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict on a remarkable popular movement going on in Venezuela, organized with high creativity not in big meetings or social media but the “Labo” (laboratory) of a Caracas bookstore:

These actions have helped the Labo understand that if repression succeeds by treating people like mere objects, then it is critical to design actions where participants preserve their individuality and capability of interacting as human beings—not as mere numbers in a street action.

Shades of Mario Savio’s famous speech! And well said, because violence is dehumanization, pure and simple; and rehumanization is, pure and simple, the foundation of any long-term success against it. If we forget, in our movements, to treat each other as human beings we may succeed to dislodge a bad regime but will lack secure foundations for a better one.

True Generosity: A reflection

When I give someone a handout, they call me a Saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist. ~Archbishop Romero

Matt Harman, a student in Metta’s Certificate in Nonviolence Studies, has offered this reflection on generosity, inspired by the idea of “true and false generosity” as explained by Paulo Freire.

Bengali Woman at the Spinning Wheel – a photogravure by Martin Hurlimann

 

Gandhi often spoke of the dignity associated with self-sufficiency I understand Gandhi’s insistence on bread work as a way to avoid or break from cycles of false generosity. False generosity is a term used to describe the detrimental consequences of charity based upon unequal relations between life. This type of giving is a consequence and perpetuation of maintaining unequal relations between life. For example, in India during the satyagraha independence movement, Gandhi encouraged the people of colonial India to spin their own clothing as a form of self-reliance. In essence to avoid the tariff system which tended to favor the export of raw materials and the import of British textiles, an oppressive economic cycle.

True generosity is often described as the act of recognizing the mutual dignity inherent in all life then subsequently working to balance the ongoing, and evolving, empowerment of all life. In short, it is teaching someone to produce or acquire their own means of sustenance rather than handing it to them in the hope that they will one day become self-sufficient without the transformation of society as a whole.

Yet sometimes an individual experience can transform a seeming act of false generosity into an expression of true generosity – I call it love. For instance, I often distribute fresh food that would otherwise be thrown away to people who are hungry simply because I know how it feels to starve. It is as painful as it is transformative and anyone who has experienced prolonged starvation and lived rarely wishes it on another life. Living in an affluent country that produces and imports immense quantities of food, few of the people I give food to are starving in the sense of months, years, at times entire lifetimes with little to no food. But they have days and weeks without much to eat, and their choices are as limited as they are erratic.

From a macro perspective, my distribution of food may be perceived as false generosity because I am simply giving food without offering any program to get people on their own two feet. Moreover, the food I am giving out was produced via an unequal socio-economic order that literally helps create and perpetuate humans in need of basic necessities such as food and dignity.

My personal experience leads me to perceive this act of giving food as a form of taking the products of an unequal social order and redistributing them imperfectly, albeit as best as I can within the current limitations of context I exist within. In short an attempt at true generosity. Moreover, I do not give out the food through pity nor insistence on future returns via social debt. Instead, I treat them as I do all humans – as life with inalienable dignity.

With that said I would love to have something else to offer. Some form of empowerment that ultimately encourages humans to gain more control over their lives and the meaning they entail rather than simply calories and echoes of love.

This is something I must continue to work for.

 

Not just a billboard, a story

On my rare visits to LA, I am always impressed (negatively) by the blatant violence of the billboards advertising films and TV. This past weekend was no exception. Apparently, there are fashions in violence. A while back it was crime, then a particularly sick one: the dead – zombies slouching toward you every other street. Now it’s hulks. I pay as little attention as possible, so it took me a while to realize there was something odd about one I had just passed. While it looked like hulks from a Jurassic swamp or foreign planet, it was actual people: Navy Seals, to be precise. A recruitment poster. But the men – it even said something like “incredible men” as part of the advert – were so encrusted with weapons and armor, huddled in their trenches, they looked thoroughly un-human. What an allegory.

All this led me to reflect that in our critical struggle to install a new image of humanity – a new story – we must differentiate between what we might call an “official” story and an “operational” story. The official story, publicized over and over by psychologists and spiritual teachers, is that taking care what goes into our mind is critically important. But the story that prevails in the minds of so very many is that basically, we do not have a mind. Or there’s no need to worry about what goes into it, and circulates around within it, prompting its owner eventually to action.

To fail to see the connection between the imagery in our minds today and the appalling violence we are going through is a disease so deep that one really wonders what it will take to cure it. Conditioned as we are to “like” excitement, no matter of what kind – conditioned to mistake chaotic disturbance with “fun,” peace remains far from our mental horizon, our cities, the world.

Of course, the glorification of war in that billboard and so many like it is destructive; but beneath that lies the glorification of violence and its attendant dehumanization.

I remain convinced that nonviolence will be the way to both complete the new story – which must come to rest on the question of human nature – and operate even on the “operational” level in our minds that’s beyond the reach of reason. Reason we must provide, but we must engage nonviolent action to back up that reason, to, as Gandhi put it, “move the heart also.”

Such, as I see it, is our challenge. Any ideas how to implement it? I’m all ears.

Q&A: Author Patty Somlo

Author Patty Somlo at Copperfield’s Books in Santa Rosa, CA. Photo courtesy of Patty Somlo.

Where do art and literature fit in the broader picture of peace and justice? That’s a question I’ve been fascinated with since 2009, when I served as Co-Founding Editor for a small book publisher. Part of my work involved reviewing manuscripts, contracting authors, and directing the design process. That’s how I first met the author Patty Somlo—by signing on her short story collection, From Here to There and Other Stories.

Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Patty elsewhere, including here. Through my former Metta Center role as Editor & Creative Director of Nonviolence magazine, I selected a couple of Patty’s stories for publication, because they reflected the organization’s mission to advance a higher image of the human, not to mention a greater sense of justice and dignity.

In Patty’s latest collection, Hairway to Heaven Stories, faith and spirituality play a key role. The 15 stories present a microcosm of many US neighborhoods in cities where people of different races, ethnicities, class and sexual orientation live in close proximity to one another, with neighbors being both strangers and friends.

Hairway to Heaven was recently published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a black-owned press committed “to practice literary equality and to embrace work that is informed by the social, political and cultural vigor of our times.”

So what do you think: Where do art and literature fit in the broader picture of peace and justice? Read on for Patty’s take.

What’s the inspiration behind this collection of short stories?

Hairway to Heaven Stories is a linked short story collection set in what had been a predominantly African American neighborhood that is now in the process of gentrification. The initial inspiration for the book was my desire to write about gentrification and the pricing out of low and moderate-income residents from many American cities. One morning, I heard a story on National Public Radio about a traditionally African American neighborhood in Washington, D.C. that was undergoing gentrification. A community leader who was interviewed said that many longtime residents of the neighborhood could no longer afford to live there. I was saddened by this news. I knew the neighborhood, because I had spent time there many years ago, observing classes at Malcolm X Elementary School, while finishing my bachelor’s degree in Art Education.

I had also experienced the effects of rising rents on a more personal level. In San Francisco, where I had lived for 20 years, and where my husband was born and started elementary school, rents and real estate prices started soaring in the 1990s with the dot-com boom, and then just kept on climbing. People were being evicted all the time, including low-income elderly, from homes they had lived in for decades. Once evicted, there were no places in the city these people could afford. Like many moderate-income renters in San Francisco, I worried that my husband Richard and I would be next. Finally, in 2000, when we wanted to move out of our noisy flat, we couldn’t afford anything in the Bay Area. So, we were forced to leave California.

I grew up in a military family that moved every year or two and continued to move around a lot as an adult. Home for me has been an elusive concept, so home and place have prominent roles in my work. I was attracted to the idea of a linked collection that centered on people living in the same neighborhood, with the neighborhood almost serving as another character. In several different cities, I lived in African American neighborhoods that had started to gentrify. These neighborhoods were usually more diverse than the rest of the city, which made them interesting places to live. When I considered writing this book, a time of so much division in this country, and misunderstandings about what it means to be an American, I realized that these neighborhoods represent what I view as the real America. A desire to portray the America I know was also part of my interest in writing this book.

The neighborhood in “Hairway to Heaven” is a fictionalized area set around Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Portland, Oregon. There is such a neighborhood, North Portland, and I did use elements of the real neighborhood in my book. But I also used aspects of neighborhoods I had lived in, including my Southeast Portland neighborhood, as well as making things up.

When my husband and I could no longer afford to live in San Francisco, we moved to a Portland neighborhood in the process of change. At one time, the neighborhood had been quite rough, with lots of crack houses. When we moved there, people were buying the rundown Victorians and bungalows and fixing them up. But there were still problems that carried over from the old neighborhood, ones that are common in urban America, including way too many homeless people living on the streets, petty crime and drug dealing.

One morning, I was on the 15 Belmont bus headed to work downtown. The bus always stopped a few blocks from my house to pick up and let off folks at the methadone clinic. I had become quite familiar with the men and women who went to the clinic, since I rode with them every day on the bus. They all knew one another and talked loudly, a great source of material for a writer. Suddenly, a story idea popped into my mind, about a substance abuser named Leticia, thinking that she saw Jesus on her last day of rehab. I quickly jotted it down in the little notebook I always carry and that grew into the title story, “Hairway to Heaven.”

“Outta Here,” a story in your book, ran in the Democracy Issue of Nonviolence (Summer/Fall 2016). That story features a character named DaVon Richards, a 14 year-old black boy with special needs. He’s fatally shot by a police officer, and we never learn of an investigation or anyone being held accountable. Were such omissions an intentional creative decision?

Yes. First of all, I felt we all knew how that would end, since the follow-up to shootings of unarmed black men nearly always have the same ending, with the officer not being charged. But the second reason is because I had a healing motivation for writing the story, which is why I wrote a somewhat more hopeful ending. When I started writing the story, I was, and still am, angry and sad about these killings of innocent black and brown men and youth and of feeling powerless to change it. Writing this was a way to grieve. It was also a way to reimagine a real-life tragedy and bring in some hope. While “Outta Here” is about a young African American boy shot holding a baseball bat the officer assumes is a weapon, I was moved to write this story following the 2013 killing of a thirteen-year-old Latino boy named Andy Lopez, by a Sonoma County deputy sheriff in the City of Santa Rosa, California, where I live now. Andy was holding a toy gun and the deputy said he thought it was a real gun.

In “Outta Here,” following the killing of DaVon Richards, money is raised for a baseball diamond in the neighborhood where the boy was killed. In my real-life inspiration, people in Andy Lopez’s neighborhood of Southwest Santa Rosa initially created a memorial park for him, near the site of his death. But they also fought for a real park, and their efforts succeeded. Two years ago, the county board of supervisors approved several million dollars more for the park, along with a name: Andy’s Unity Park. I recently read that construction has just been completed. It will be the first-ever park in Andy Lopez’s neighborhood.

A park, of course, doesn’t make up for a life. But it is a small step in addressing the needs of young people in neighborhoods that are so often neglected. It makes a statement about valuing people, and that was part of what I wanted to convey in my story.

Your stories tend to lean towards awareness and justice. Is there a relationship for you between entertainment and raising our levels of human consciousness? 

Yes and no. I don’t intentionally write fiction to raise consciousness. I’m mostly drawn to writing stories that reveal something about the human condition. I didn’t grow up in a close family, I don’t have children of my own, and as a military kid, I often felt like an outsider. I observed and listened to other people a lot, as a way to try and fit in when we moved to a new place. I’ve continued to do that as an adult, so observing people out in the world inspires my stories. These stories often involve the big issues of our time because they concern me – inequality, violence, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and immigration. My work often has a magical realist element to it, a type of fiction I fell in love with from reading Latin American and South Asian writers – and, of course, Charles Dickens! Magical realism can shine a spotlight on injustice. I’ve heard magical realism described as getting to the roots of reality, letting the reader see what can so often be hidden. Sometimes, this is done by making fun of reality.

For instance, in one of the stories in this collection, “Emergency Room,” a woman with a badly injured hand goes to the neighborhood emergency room for help. It turns out that the people she begins to meet there have been waiting for hours, some even an entire day, and no one has come out to help them. The story takes a real situation in the United States, that of often unaffordable and, therefore, inaccessible medical care, and exaggerates it a bit, to shine a light on the unfairness and absurdity of the system.

So, yes, I do think my stories can raise consciousness, and I, of course, hope they do.

In these times of “post-truth,” do you see a unique role for fiction to play in disseminating the truth?

Yes, definitely. Even many years ago when I worked as a journalist, I felt that the whole true story often wasn’t told by the media. In order to cut through the misinformation, I tried to interest readers in sometimes divisive issues by focusing on human stories. Fiction, even more than nonfiction, can help readers know and empathize with people they might otherwise not care about. Fiction works when whole, multidimensional characters are created, rather than stereotypes, and can help dispel stereotypes.

What about the link between art and peace—is there one for you as a writer?

Yes. Artists, writers and musicians have always been integral to movements for peace and justice, whether in the Civil Right movement, the anti-apartheid movement, or various anti-war movements. At this moment when we are seeing a renewed and energized effort to stop gun violence, I just saw a call for writing about individual responses to gun violence. Artists, writers and musicians nearly always are at the forefront of bending the arc a bit more toward peace and justice.


A former journalist, Patty Somlo has published three short story collections: From Here to There and Other Stories (Paraguas Books), The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Hairway to Heaven Stories. She has been a finalist in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, and National Indie Excellence Awards. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and one of her essays was selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014.