iPads over World Peace?

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Imagine Peace on Scallop ShellWhen 1,200 Brits were asked what they wanted most for Christmas, iPads trumped world peace almost 2-to-1.

Ok. It was right before the holidays. And the survey sponsor is the Consumers Electronics Association. But really?!?

Perhaps the delighted iPad owners never used their devices to read about another annual survey of 1,200 people –– this one by the Center for Preventive Action. Only instead of cool tablets or sports cars, this ranking includes Syrian unrest, China-India border clashes, Jordanian turmoil, and a deadly terrorist attack on the U.S.  As The Atlantic modestly observed, “the findings are alarming.”

Granted, the Preventive Priorities Survey asks experts to rank global conflicts that might pose the greatest threat to the U.S., so I shouldn’t dis the Brits for missing it. (Although I can’t imagine that our once-motherland is immune from these potential crises.)

Yet this isn’t about who chose an iPad over world peace. I have relatives who’d do the same thing. It is, however, a stunning reminder that coverage of Sudanese atrocities or videos of Ukrainian unrest register in our inundated brains sort of like a streamed episode of House of CardsWe bemoan the dark side of human nature. Then we move onto something else.

You know. Cancer. Floods. Job loss. Heck, even diaper dilemmas or doggie tales. The “story” doesn’t matter. Only when we are directly affected, only when it is our story, do we really care.

That’s why I love Peace Pilgrim. She knew this better than anyone –– that peace is an inside job. She spent 28 years walking across the U.S. with only the clothes on her back meeting people face-to-face, making peace personal. How? By talking about inner peace, by helping people let go of hate, anger and judgment in their own lives. Because, she knew, world peace will only happen when enough of us find inner peace.

So, maybe the CEA can learn from this when they plan their next survey. World peace is a tall order for someone simply jonesing for a little holiday happiness. But I bet if they pit iPads against inner peace, the outcome might be different. What do you think?

New moon magic

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moon sliverNew year, new moon, new beginnings! Whether you love left brain logic or right brain whimsy, it’s pretty cool to start 2014 with a new lunar phase!

Astronomically, this means the moon is closest to the sun; they share the same ecliptical longitude. I doubt if ancient Hebrews knew this geek speak when they began each month on the new moon, or if science was behind the purely lunar Islamic calendar. But the nearly invisible nighttime crescent continues to play a huge role in Hindu, Chinese and so many other cultures. People all over the world wait for the waning moon to disappear and re-emerge in its waxing cycle before launching projects, starting journeys, setting goals.

For astrologers – who see all things lunar as our subconscious, while solar reveals our ego – the new moon brings the two together. For one day a month, we can peek inside our inner dreams and pull them into being. Goethe must have been under the new moon influence when he wrote, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.”

That a new moon welcomes us into 2014 is certainly a sign of genius, power and magic. It urges us to think about what’s important, to bring it into action. Some people might be making resolutions. But me? I’m going to embrace tonight’s new moon and embark on a New Year filled with love, compassion, connection and peace.

What is your lunar intention?

Phases of the Moon

Prison and Peace

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cell in Alcatraz prisonJohn Grisham might spin a legal thriller like no tomorrow, but his New York Times opinion piece, “After Guantánamo, Another Injustice,” gave me more chills than any of his best-selling fiction.

It’s about a young Algerian caught in the post-9/11 frenzy for justice, who has spent 11 years at Guantánamo Bay. (Some of Grisham’s books, it turns out, are banned at Gitmo; the author wanted to meet one of the detainees who enjoys his writing.) He learned horrifying details of the inmate’s confinement, more startling because of the man’s apparent innocence.

“Nabil has not been the only ‘mistake’ in our war on terror,” writes Grisham. “Hundreds of other Arabs have been sent to Gitmo, chewed up by the system there, never charged and eventually transferred back to their home countries.” It is this return home that spurs the “injustice” headline: once there, these men are often homeless, destitute and ostracized – in other words, their lives are needlessly shattered by imprisonment.

But it’s not only foreigners bearing the brunt of a justice system run amok. Take Edward Young, a Tennessee stay-at-home dad of four who’s serving 15 years without any chance of early release because of a mandatory sentence for possessing old shotgun shells. In another eye-opening essay, “Help They Neighbor and Go Straight to Prison,” columnist Nicholas D. Kristof says Young’s nightmare captures “all that is wrong with America’s criminal justice system.”

“We have invested in mass incarceration in ways that are crushingly expensive, break up families and are often simply cruel,” he continues. “With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

What’s even more insane? There’s growing evidence that prisons don’t really work. Yet Kristof says that doesn’t stop states like California from spending nearly $180,000 a year on each juvenile in detention, but less than $10,000 for each school student.

When I read these kinds of articles, two things happen. First, I’m awed by the power of writing to expose unfairness. Second, I think of Peace Pilgrim, who never stopped believing in the innate goodness of people. And instead of feeling paralyzed and hopeless, I am more determined to use my words to promote peace and justice, as well.

What re-ignites your flame of activism?

Very hungry caterpillars

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Monarch CaterpillarI’ve been raising monarchs for years. Or, rather, I’ve had the wondrous gift of watching a biological miracle.

All I do is look for teeny white eggs on the underside of my garden milkweed each summer, then put stems in a tank on my porch.

When they hatch, the caterpillars are scant threads, too small for me to see. I only know they’ve emerged by the pinprick holes in the milkweed, signs of their first meals.

But you know the rest of the story:  they eat and eat and eat, hundreds of times their weight each day, causing a swarth of destruction to their ecosystem, until they’re too bloated to continue – sort of like the restaurant patron in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Only, instead of taking one more bite and exploding, they hang themselves up, shed their skins and harden into a chrysalis.

But here’s the thing. Inside the green gem with its gold rim is an astounding action flick where enzymes digest the caterpillar’s tissue, leaving a rich formless goo. And little cells, called “imaginal disks,” start growing like crazy. Similar to embryonic cells, there are four imaginal disks that will become wings, others that will become legs, antennae, organs, everything a butterfly needs, all feeding on the nurturing soup around them. Then in less than two weeks, often as little as seven days, a beautiful monarch is ready to fly.

It’s a miracle of metamorphosis, and only happens in insects. You’ll never see anything like this in mammals, or any vertebrates for that matter.

Yet there’s something about the meaning of life and imaginal disks, maybe because of the name of the cells. But stay with me.

What if we’re truly like hungry caterpillars, eating, eating, eating, obliviously causing a swarth of weather extremes, terroristic conflicts, class disparities, species destruction or even just our own unhappiness?

For the first days inside the chrysalis, there’s a battle between the caterpillar’s immune system (fighting to save it) and the imaginal disks, which finally triumph. What if we have our own kind of imaginal disks trying to transform our world? (I know Peace Pilgrim was one of these magical morphers.) Maybe the frenzy in our world means we’re reaching the limits of our gorging and we’re poised for metamorphosis. Maybe it means that peace and beauty will prevail.

I didn’t make up this monarch metaphor but I certainly like it. As I watch my caterpillars get bigger every day, I can’t help but imagine. Or should I say imaginal…

Monarch Caterpillar Large

Hanging Caterpillar

Monarch Chrysalis

 

 

 

 

Caterpillar shedding skin

Monarch Chrysalis Clear

Butterfly Leaving Chrysalis

Freedom from our stories

Sean, 4, fishing on Rideau CanalSorry. It’s a trick headline. You might think I mean the power of tales to ignite independence, especially since we Americans are celebrating the Fourth.

But actually I’m obsessing a bit over the stories that keep us trapped.

It started with my youngest son Seán. For years, he was convinced that his big brother was a bully. He had elaborate recollections of how Ciarán – for no reason at all – tormented, wrestled, pinned and made him cry. The older he got, the more the memories magnified. Then this Mother’s Day, we watched some long-forgotten videos that their dad dug up and transferred onto DVDs.

In one hilarious segment, six-year-old Ciarán is playing with Seán, then three. Out of the blue, Seán sucker punches his brother, pulls him down onto the carpet and jumps on top of him. Ciarán is momentarily stunned, then giggles. He stands, helps his little brother up and leans in to hug him. Just as quickly, Seán barrels forward to head-butt his target again. And when Ciarán rises a second time and decides to run away, the ever-tactical Seán slides in front so his brother trips over him and crashes onto the floor once more.

I don’t know whether I got a bigger kick out of watching the footage, or watching Seán, who was so shocked he uttered, “Wow, I’ve had it wrong all this time.”

But it also got me thinking. Of course Ciarán snuck in his share of knocks over the years, but certainly not enough to do what it did to Seán’s psyche. Yet we all – as individuals, tribes, nations – have these ingrained narratives.

My sons Ciaran &  Sean

Some, indeed, can launch liberty, link generations and kindle love. But many fuel resentments and perpetuate conflict. And that’s why I think we need freedom from our stories.

So, here’s to sifting through our tales – personal and global – and releasing the ones that keep us locked in. That’s real independence, and peace.

Peace Village Nirvana

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Foot bridge at Peace VillageGetting lost on a muddy hike for hours… No cell phone service for days… Food so full of beans that it raised the sheets at night (if you get my drift.)

Hmmmm, not your idea of the perfect get-away?

Well I’m here to tell you: it was an amazing weekend and I hope everyone gets a chance to spend time at Peace Village.  (No kidding, there really is such a place.)

It’s a center in New York’s Catskill Mountains built on the conviction that world peace starts with inner peace. Of course it sounds familiar – it’s the same message Peace Pilgrim spread as she walked across the U.S. seven times.

I learned of Peace Village from my friend, Susan, who backpacked with me through South America decades ago. We lost touch until recently, but that’s a whole other story. When we met at the retreat a couple of weekends ago, we couldn’t wait to scamper past a labyrinth, around a pond and into the 300 acres of woods. Before we knew it, we were sloshing through trails flooded by days of torrential rain and climbing over downed trees, but, like old times, we didn’t care. We were determined to do a long loop that would take us back to the main building.

Thing is, after an hour or so of following what seemed to be the right, albeit soggy, trail markers, we realized we kept passing the same tree, like Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore in one of A. A. Milne’s tales. To make matters worse, Susan is recovering from a knee replacement and I’m not as balanced crossing rocky streams as I used to be.

But here’s where the magic of Peace Village came in, and it has to do with thoughts.

In sessions the night before and that morning, the teachers talked a lot about how our mind dictates who we are. It’s nothing new in the “thoughts ‘r us” camp (i.e., “Whether you believe you can or can’t, you’re always right.”) But the Peace Village twist is that when we give ourselves time, even 10 seconds, to withdraw like a turtle into a shell of quiet, we remember who we really are: beings of love. Then we can respond to situations in a centered, peaceful way rather than a reactive burst.

So, there we were, lost in the the woods, leaning towards buggy, cranky and tired, without any cell phone service to cheat and look on Google maps. But we turned toward each other, took a long breath, and laughed.

Obviously we made it out, although we never did finish the loop. We spent the rest of the weekend soaking in the spirit of the place. OK, we also cracked up at the abundance of flatulence caused by the delicious vegetarian fare. But the real movement was in our hearts.

It’s amazing what a few days of good food, electronic embargo and mindfulness can do. Here’s a toast – of silence – to Peace Village!

Lessons in letting go

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Pine cone peace sign at Peace Pilgrim's grave.You think I’d know by now – even when everything goes “wrong,” Peace Pilgrim still prevails!

It happened again last week with my Author Talk & Film at Wall Library. The original date got changed twice, their slide show hook-up didn’t work with my Mac, and the wrong documentary was played.

But you know what? The room was still packed, I winged my way through what would have been my Power Point, and even though the film didn’t feature The Dalai Lama and Maya Angelou as promised, everybody loved the original documentary from Friends of Peace Pilgrim.  One woman told me afterwards she was more inspired than she had ever been in her life. So, really, none of the “mistakes” mattered. (Although I still urge anyone with an hour to watch  the beautiful Peace Pilgrim: An American Sagereplete with His Holiness and others who love Peace.)

It goes to show, once again, that everything works out the way it is supposed to. Just ask my friend, Neil Scheck, a fellow author and long-time pacifist (although you’d never know it by the gruesome death in his hilarious upcoming book Blue Balls: The Adventure Begins – click here for a sneak preview.)

He was so inspired after reading Peace Pilgrim: walking her talk against hate that he decided to walk to my library presentation –  four miles away.

“It seemed like the thing to do,” he told me later.

Once he got there and learned the library postponed the talk because the room was needed for primary elections, he decided to take the long way home and enjoy a wooded bike trail part of the way.

“I kept thinking that I should have some peace-making adventure, break up a fight or talk about pacifism or something, but without the attention-catching ‘tunic’ I just said hi to the few people I passed and had a very peaceful contemplative walk,” he said.

“I did pick up a coffee cup and two beer cans and carried them for a couple miles before I reached a garbage can, so that was something anyway,” he recalled, adding, “The home stretch was a little tiring.  But I kept telling myself that Peace Pilgrim would cover this much ground before breakfast. It really was a great walk!”

See, you never know what wonderful things “mess-ups” will inspire!

Peace (Pilgrim) in the Heights

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Letter from Spring Lake Heights 6th Grader

The sneakers always get them!

Sure, the 28 years without money (or anything else) is amazing. And hearing about someone older than their parents walking alone across the country is pretty startling.

But, it’s the old blue tennis shoes that really bring Peace Pilgrim’s story home to kids. And when I pulled the sneaks out recently at Spring Lake Heights School, the students (and their teachers) quickly leaned in to hear more.  After all, it’s the details in writing – and life – that are important, and what says more than holes in the toes, rips near the heel and cracked rubber soles?

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the shoes, along with her navy blue PEACE PILGRIM tunic. I got chills. And I’m blessed that the Friends of Peace Pilgrim have entrusted me with these treasures to share in my talks. I still get goosebumps every time I show them. They open a door to how Peace was given everything she needed as she spread her message of peace one step at a time – in shoes that were purposely one size too big and that usually lasted for 1,500 miles!

So it’s little wonder that many of the fabulous thank you letters I got from Mrs. O’Leary’s sixth grade class mention the footwear (like the excerpt above). But they also sparkle with so many other gems, like these:

“You picked a truly great person to write about… I hope I grow up to have the same attitude as the Peace Pilgrim.”

“When we went into social studies, all of us were telling Mr. Preston about [Peace Pilgrim] as if we were one big voice.” 

“You have inspired me to follow my dreams, just like the Peace Pilgrim.”

“Peace is very hard to come by, as Peace Pilgrim tried to emphasize, we need more peace. War is just killing.”

Peace Pilgrim's Blue Canvas Sneakers

I know life is busy, even crazy sometimes. So of course students’ enthusiasm might turn to other things after I leave, and their motivation might get shelved along with their copy of Peace Pilgrim: walking her talk against hate

But I’m thrilled to plant the seeds wherever I can. Who knows what a peek at these old canvas sneakers might inspire!

(Click here for a flyer describing available Author Talks/Presentations.)

Top of the food chain

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Food Chain photoJackie races out of the woods, breathing hard, eyes darting left and right. The sound of snapping twigs sends the 12-year-old sprinting forward, determined to survive.

No, it’s not a video game or dystopian plot. Jackie is a real New Jersey sixth grader, and she’s one of busloads of school kids who come to Kateri Environmental Center to play Predator-Prey Simulation Tag. In acres of fields, forest and streams, they must find food, water and shelter to stay alive – as animals. That’s right, animals.

A few get to be coveted predators, the fierce foxes, awesome owls or those voracious killers, ladybugs. Most become skunks, rabbits, sparrows, swallowtails, frogs or a host of other prey who have to give up their lives (symbolized by small pieces of ribbons) when they’re tagged. Lucky for them, there’s a “reincarnation station” so they still get to play. But whether they last as a chipmunk or return as a milkweed beetle, the anxious fauna have two choices: RUN or HIDE!

It’s only when they take a “human” lunch break that their heart rates return to normal and they stop tensing like bunnies in heightened alert. Nervous energy morphs into giggles as we ask about their survival strategies.

  • Who roamed together in groups (like ants or deer)?
  • Did anyone pretend to be dead already (like possum, which even lower their respiration and emit a decaying odor)?
  • How many entered into predator-prey partnerships (like tiny remora fish that clean sharks’ teeth)?
  • Which prey posed as a predator (like the Blue Moon Butterfly with large threatening “eyes” on its wings)  and vice verse (like a snapping turtle with its tongue looking like an innocent worm)?
  • Was anyone a scavenger (like vultures)?
  • Did any predators fight to the death, or did they shrug and go their separate ways?

There’s always a few students who initially think classmates cheated. But with each question, the kids realize their tactics, the entire game in fact, pretty much reflects life in the wild. As they sit in a cool, comfortable carriage house munching on lunches packed from home, the youngsters really get what it means to be at the top of the food chain – and they leave with more respect for all living things, including each other.

I’ve helped lead Predator-Prey at Kateri for years and always love being part of the fun, the faux fear and the final aha! moments.

After a particularly great day last week with a super group of kids, I listened to the news on my drive home. And it suddenly hit me. I wish the game was a requirement for Congress, for factions fighting in Syria, for feuding foes anywhere around the globe who need a reminder that even the lowest ranks on the food chain don’t engage in pointless bickering, arbitrary warfare and senseless genocide.

Maybe a rousing game of Predator-Prey Simulation Tag would inspire them to act like the caring, thoughtful, ingenious and blessed human species we are meant to be. (And, no, you don’t get to make some of them slugs or cockroaches.)

Freedom is blowin’ in the wind

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OldGloryI’m not sure why Socrates and Bob Dylan are orbiting together through my brain cells this Memorial Day. But there they are, chasing around like kids at the cool new beach playground in my small shore town.

The bright slides and swings are guarded by a pirate ship (aaaargh!!!!) where I expect legions of clever Jack Sparrows will hold prisoners this summer. And here’s where my synapses change course.

You see, Socrates said we’re all prisoners in one way or another, trapped in our own realities. Abstract stuff, for sure, but true. How can we not be consumed by what impacts our lives – a superstorm, a tornado, a child deployed to Afghanistan?  The philosopher said it takes only a turn of our metaphorical heads to glimpse a different light. In other words, the path out of confinement is paved with questions.

Dylan, the other great muse meandering in my mind, got that. The questions in his 1962 folk anthem rocked protest rallies and sing-alongs for 50 years. Maybe it’s no coincidence that his birthday kicked off Memorial Day weekend this year. Or that he told us the answer is “blowin’ in the wind.”   

At every blustery ceremony in New Jersey this weekend, the beautiful stars and stripes  are dancing with abandon. Yes, the answer is really blowin’ in the wind. Our flag is our symbol of freedom, of spirit, of hope.

Statue of Liberty

As he placed flowers on a World War II monument in my community this morning, one local veteran reminded us that “all gave some; some gave all.”

I am deeply grateful to them, just as I am grateful to live in a land where we can ask questionswe can disagree. And where he have the freedom to celebrate Dylan’s 72nd birthday and post-Sandy pirate ships all in one wonderful Memorial Day weekend! Hope yours is the start of a joyful, loving summer season.