Occupied Graceland

Gates of GracelandImagine for a moment that you live at Graceland. You and Elvis had been close back in the day, and though you didn’t like to think of yourself as “one of His groupies”, you did spend a lot of time at His place. At some point He invited you and your family to come live there. It was a comfortable place to live and you made it home, appreciating Elvis as a singularly unique guy with an awesome pad. There were others there who made a big deal of it: fawning over Elvis, marveling at the hot brownies cooked fresh every night by his special order, growling like tigers in the Jungle Room for a laugh. They acted like they owned the place, but you just tried to ignore them and figured their 15 minutes would pass.

Years went by and Elvis’ career slowly declined. The house got more chaotic. Those of you who’d been there the longest stuck together, but the comings and goings of others started to wear thin on the collective patience. Everybody suddenly had an idea of how Graceland ought to be.

When He died, folks who’d never lived there and knew nothing about the place moved in and started bossing people around. It was like they’d been waiting for the opportunity. With the excuse that “Elvis would have wanted it this way”, they started to move things around, put the Lisa Maire under 24-hour guard “just in case”, and patrolled the area like they owned it. They started to favor some people living in the house over others (especially the fawning brownie-types), all the time invoking Elvis and “extenuating circumstances” as justifications for new rule after petty new rule. Limits on the number and type of house guests, a complex composting system, and a “chore wheel” all became daily realities. None of these things ever seemed to restrict the outsiders or their Favored residents. Some folks pushed back, longing for the good old days. The occasional fistfight broke out as tensions ran high. For some reason the outsiders, with the support of the favored residents, always won out.

Things took a drastic turn for the worse when one day the whole house was informed the favored residents, along with their powerful outsider backers, would be running everything but the pool room and the garden shed from here on out. The neighbors would clean the pool but you were on your own to pull together a fridge and bathe in the pool. You couldn’t be in the other rooms except with special permission, and anyone that was caught lingering in an unauthorized area would suffer consequences. You, your family and others not on the VIP list balked. What the hell? Hadn’t Elvis invited you just like all the others? Suddenly you started to recognize those Outsiders for who they really were: They were the same guys who’d ruined Elvis. The favored residents were just their newest objects of affection. The Outsiders were the ones who’d hooked Elvis on coke, who’d sold keychains with His likeness without giving Him a dime, who’d spread rumors about His life and death.

Once you saw the Outsiders for who they were, you were enraged. These guys were dragging Elvis’ good name through the mud and wrecking Graceland. You rejected their sovereignty and some of your family started getting a little out of hand. The Outsiders used the Favored residents as their eyes and ears in the house which made them the easiest targets. To spite this new conspiracy, your people burned up the precious “Lisa Marie”, all the mirrors leading up the main staircase were smashed, and someone pushed the white baby grand off the deck. This only made the favored residents more upset. They started to occupy more and more of the rooms, pushing more people into the pool room or out of the house entirely. They always had the support of the outsiders. They said things like “if you can’t use the house respectfully, you don’t deserve to live in it” or “did Elvis even invite you here in the first place?” or “A Hundred Years from Now, we’ll have A World of Our Own” You started to hate the Favoreds for being just like the Outsiders, only closer and smugger. Pretty soon, you and the others who’d lost favor resigned yourself to the hopelessness of the situation. You were outnumbered but especially outgunned. Your friends and neighbors that came to help out at first eventually drifted away, only to send you encouraging texts occasionally or Tweet on your behalf. You listened to Paul Simon sing about the good old days at Graceland and bided your time.

Years later, the neighborhood started to get fed up with all the trouble Graceland was causing and everyone decided you were going to do something about this bullshit. You were fed up with this tyranny and suddenly it seemed like the neighbors woke up and were ready to help out. (You knew some of the neighbors had skeletons in their closets, but who didn’t really?) In honor of Elvis’ memory, the sanctity of Graceland, and especially your lost freedom and bedrooms you plotted revenge. The neighbors started planning an attack from the outside and you did what you could to fill water balloons in the swimming pool. On the night before your big coordinated raid, the rest of the house preempted the attack and rained down savage brutality on you. The pool ran red.

The neighbors were routed, and when the dust settled 2 things had changed completely: First, the favored residents posted 24 hour lifeguards in the pool room. These guys watched everyone, bullied folks who ran or carried glass containers, and created “closed pool times” when only favored residents could swim. Reports were the garden shed was worse, but if anyone so much has put a foot outside the pool room they were kicked out, never to return. Those of you that had jobs were forced to leave them or scrape by running odd jobs for the lifeguard and cleaning bathrooms in the rest of the house. The second big change was that suddenly the number of Outsiders around the house taking an interest in Graceland increased tenfold. Now that the favored residents had shown they could kick ass, everyone took notice. Suddenly the sympathetic neighbors (such as they were) started to be replaced by others who talked like the old neighbors but clearly had other designs on Graceland. They were all shills on the take. Things looked especially bleak, and then it got worse.

Shortly after all this went down, the lifegaurd invited some of the Favoreds to occupy the pool. Many of these folks where some of the biggest jerks from before, the ones who’d acted like they were Elvis’ bosom buddies. They set up inflatable houses in the pool and would belt out horrible renditions of Elvis’ songs all night long. You and your family living in the pool room barely got any sleep anymore, which made it hard to keep your pitiful jobs and stay sane day to day. You shuffled around the pool edge, trying to hold onto whatever pieces of dignity and pride you had left. You had a hell of a time explaining this to your kids, but with no money left and the neighborhood going South, where we you gonna go?

One day when the pool occupiers got particularly belligerent, they started trying to convince you and your remaining family that Elvis’ lyrics justified all the misery you were being put through.
“Love me Tender?,” they said, “that’s about us. Hound dog? That’s about you.”
This pushed one of your kids over the edge, and during the night when the Floaters weren’t paying attention he poked a hole in an inflatable house and it sank. This really sent the Floaters, the whole rest of the house and the neighborhood into hysterics. Your kid was disappeared, never to return, and suddenly things got worse than you ever imagined. The lifegaurd started requiring IDs they could check at any time, the Favoreds put hoses into the pool to draw water out for a butterfly annex in the Jungle Room (with an environmentally friendly misting machine, you heard) and you all lost your measly jobs. More Favored Floaters came, some of whom were completely new to the house, and suddenly they had more rights than you did. A TV was installed in the pool room and it began to run stories day in and day out about the righteousness of the Saviors of Graceland (the Favoreds), pitted against the savage malcontents (you) who were backward and violent. Pundits discussed your inherent hatred of inflatable homes and medieval interpretations of Elvis’ music like you were somehow unable to speak for yourselves. Your preferred name for yourselves was largely ignored and you were just lumped in with “the Neighbors” on the news. You saw programs broadcast in languages you couldn’t even understand that were clearly spewing this same twisted propaganda. Had the whole world gone mad?

At various points as the years dragged on you had what you thought were small breakthroughs in the situation, a Pool Committee that could negotiate for towel drying contracts with the lifeguards or the Unilateral Garden Shed Withdrawl, but the cumulative effect of these “benevolent allowances” never lived up to the huge hope you placed in them. They inevitably were corrupted. Seasons changed, your kids grew up and they had kids, occasionally unwashed activist types who knew nothing about Elvis would show up to support your cause. You always welcomed them, hoping they’d tell the world you weren’t the animals the Favoreds made you out to be. You struggled to see how this impasse could ever be resolved, but you believed in the goodness of Graceland and your right to be there.

One day, this ad ran on the TV, talking about an amazing new project in Floaterville:

Imagine for a moment that you live in occupied Graceland. Would you take that job? Please share your thoughts #OccupiedGraceland

A much needed break

Palm Springs Evening

I had the very pleasant opportunity to spend the last 3 days in Palm Springs, California. The Education Department at the Tribe recently received a new grant, and the kickoff training for grantees was rescheduled from its usual place in DC to sunny SoCal. I must say I had some doubts about the whole thing, like whether I should go when my status as an employee is still unclear, but those doubts melted away in the desert heat. I bought a ticket for Federica to join me, and both of us really enjoyed the opportunity to hang out by the pool, see some good shows in the evening, and generally escape the daily grind for a few days. We came back last night to pouring rain. We’ll have to keep the memory of sunshine alive in our hearts. I think some of the planning and mental space we gave ourselves in Palm Springs will also have lasting positive effects.

Weather in Olympia

Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

Reflections for staying open this week: Watching salmon return to spawn
I had the opportunity to hear Ben Pink Dandelion speak last weekend at North Seattle Friends Church. His topic was early Friends in the context of Christian theology. One of the points I particularly came away with was not exactly new, but somehow it hit me differently.

While most Christian theology is based on creating a church to wait for end times, Quakers built their church on the premise end times were upon us. With unmitigated, universal access to God through internal revelation, the only thing standing in our way from salvation was our will. Other Churches built a complex series of rituals, expectations and doctrine required for believers to “hold out” on evil, but Quakers really seemed to think if we overcame our will anyone could be saved. Right away and forever. In the question and answer period, someone asked Ben about his own personal spiritual journey, “had he ‘come up through the flaming sword’?” In his answer, he shared that he had had mystical experiences but (and I paraphrase) he said he had not had the kind of unequivocal experience that kept him completely dedicated to his spiritual path. Compared to early Friend’s absolute certainty, he felt doubts at times.

The Screwtape Letters reinforced for me that obvious blunders or questioning one’s faith may not really be what evil is all about. If we are offered salvation in the here and now, is it making the occasional mistake that condemns us or does slow, grinding indifference consume our hope of ever finding inward salvation? The fear of making any mistake could be amplified if Jesus is waiting right around the corner, for sure. But Lewis mentions in my edition’s introduction that he imagines a tedious, bureaucratic and ultimately hollow hell rather than a spectacularly gruesome inferno. Wouldn’t the path to a place like that look tedious, detached? Throughout the book, his protagonist dwells on the subtle deviations overlooked by his underling on a quest for total corruption. Is it a waiting Christ we should worry about, or a demon on our back? How common is total corruption really? Like Ben described, isn’t it more typical to trip up here and there? How do we really find the unshakable certainty early Friends said they had and, if we cannot, how do we pick ourselves up rather than succumb to the status quo?

It’s my opinion neither early Friends nor any really faithful person can have unshakable faith. When Friends got around to writing their journals late in life, they had the benefit of hindsight to cast their missteps in the context of deeper spiritual wrestling. They kept coming back for more. If we are to take evil seriously, as Lewis suggests, we cannot think of it as an obvious corrupter but instead as a series of subtle justifications that divert us from our common purpose. It is a slowly built cynicism. If we can keep ourselves open, committed, eyes on the prize, I sense we have a good chance of escaping some demonic dinner plate.

Another reflection: Mt. Rainier’s shadow on the morning sky

Just when you thought you couldn’t add another thing….

I tied a wish to this wishing tree, next to the 12,000 year old neolithic shrine of Gobeklitepe near Urfa.
A few months back, as our wedding plans were in full swing, I was feeling overwhelmed. I’ve been learning to share about these things at Quaker meeting, living into the honest exchange I hope to build in community. After I shared, a Friend came up to me and said “when you feel like you’ve got too much going on, take on just one more thing to push yourself over the tipping point. I’ve found it helps me put everything back into perspective.” I shrugged off the advice, not really knowing what to make of it at the time.

But as my wedding thank you notes still sat waiting and the grant project at my work drew to a close in a flurry last week, I got a surprise offer: How would I like to go to Southern Turkey to accept an award on behalf of the Rachel Corrie Foundation, my former employer? I sprang at the opportunity and quickly understood the earlier advice.

It was an amazing experience, accepting an award on behalf of an organization that means a lot to me. I worked very hard for the Foundation, and sometimes it was challenging from Olympia to feel the wider impact of our global mission. Going all the way to Sanliurfa, Turkey, to accept an International Abraham Meetings “Goodness” award, had a big impact on me regardless of its larger purpose for the organization. For one, Turkey is very close to my heart and even in the few short days I was there I got to see old friends, speak a language that I still love to learn, and eat amazing food. I also had a fascinating experience as I learned about the award the Foundation was receiving, part of a clear effort within Turkey to raise up the history and heritage of Abrahamic faith traditions from an Eastern perspective. Thirdly, and probably most importantly in some ways, I reoriented my perspective on what I am doing now and the responsibility of the blessings all around me.

In the afterglow of my wedding, as I enjoy a great job and live a comfortable life, I’ve really felt blessed. I’ve been thankful every day for all the blessings I have. But I had not reminded myself about the responsibility I have because of these blessings. My blessings are only as meaningful as the way I share them, like my lesson from Quaker meeting. As I spoke with my good friends in Turkey about their fears of an impending war with Syria, of destroyed homes and refugee situations that were “at least a little better than Iraq”, I remembered that I could take on one more thing. I take my blessings with me no matter what I do, but carrying them and sharing them where I am led takes one more bit of effort. I believe that effort is worth it.

Independent Life Skills

View out onto Hood Canal this weekend.
I have been working for the Squaxin Island Tribe for 5 months now on a Federal grant project helping teens transition to adulthood. I am hoping that my job will continue after the grant period ends this week, but even if it does not I am very grateful for what I have learned here. I was honored this weekend to join a 2 day training on the Hood Canal for some of the young adults I work with here. The participants are really not that much younger than myself, and were receiving a training about how to teach independent life skills to their peers and younger youth of the tribe. I sometimes wish that I had had the opportunity to learn about how to make a budget or work on a team or live in a healthy way from people other than my parents. I was very lucky to learn a lot from my folks but the reinforcement of community sharing, of standards passed down from generation to generation was more gleaned than spelled out for me. Several of the folks participating this weekend spoke of hard life experiences and a wish for connection to their traditional culture. The stories that the trainers shared, the discussion of how native people historically lived and flourished here, helped all of us remember the context were we live. Though I am sharing more as a witness than I participant, I feel very lucky to be here and be invited to join these young people on a few steps of their journey into adulthood. I guess I’m still trying to figure out that path myself.

Book Review: “Goatwalking” by Jim Corbett

I will admit that the title and cover of “Goatwalking” drew me in.  I had only a vague memory of the term “sanctuary” that kept me reading the jacket.  I was truly fascinated when I picked up the book and read in earnest. 

Jim Corbett’s narrative style appeals to me: he waxes philosophical with just the right mixture of fantastic imagery (he loves Quixote) and cowboy anecdotes.  He doesn’t jump right into his work with the Sanctuary movement, for which he is (in)famous, till late in the book.   “Goatwalking” is really a series of essays and excerpts from his journals, woven into a rationale for returning to nomadic lifestyles as a gateway to gospel order. Jim talks about his evolution as a goatherder learning to reconnect with his faith and surroundings, complete with fascinating information about goatherding and how following flocks is communing with our Biblical ancestors.  Many intellectuals could have left it there, but he jumps then into talking about how his herding through the Southwestern deserts eventually helped him build an underground railroad for central American refugees as they sought asylum in the US. As I look back on my reading, it’s almost a intellectual leap to link these ideas but the logic flowed naturally as I read. 

I can tell from his work that Jim was a Friend and a truly dedicated man. He saw way open to build an interfaith movement to exploit loopholes in US immigration law as US sponsored death squads were displacing thousands of people in El Salvador and Nicaragua.  Goats fade in prominence as he describes the huge amount of organizing he did in border communities in the 1980’s, building networks of supportive churches, handing out literature, and eventually standing trial for his work.  “Goatwalking” was published in the early 90’s, as his trial had wrapped up and he clear was reflecting on the fruits of his work.  He died in 2001, I was disappointed to learn.

Shortly after I returned to Olympia about 5 years ago, ICE had been raiding local communities to arrest immigrants and anti-war veterans were being harassed for their military resistance in protests.  In that context, a coalition of local groups joined up to draft a proposal for the Olympia City Council, designating Olympia a “Sanctuary City” for immigrants and war resisters regardless of their legal status with the US government.  A lot of work went into planning the proposal, which we knew would largely be symbolic but that we hoped would pave the way for some cross-movement building.  The day that we hoped to hand in the proposal, organizers held a rally and march downtown that was meant to raise up the issue.  During the march, some folks took it upon themselves to throw bricks through bank windows which is what made the paper.  Before long, the sanctuary proposal was completely discredited and in short order so was the City council (for other reasons)

This experience came back to me as I read Jim’s book, thinking about how much work it takes to organize communities and movements.  And not all work is speaking truth to the authorities, because sometimes they’re caught up in their own red tape.  Sometime the work is within, nourishing oneself on goat’s milk (which apparently is enough to keep you alive in the desert) and spiritual discipline.  I’m sorry that I never got to meet Jim Corbett in person, but I’m curious to learn more about the movement he helped build

 

So much for the afterglow…

After such a huge buildup of anticipation this year, for 3 weddings, for new jobs and exciting work opportunities, for sharing the excitement of Fede’s graduation and green card, i’m feeling a little letdown now that it’s all over. I’ve felt so hugely supported by my community of friends and family, it’s a little sad to be on the other side of a huge shower of love.

And then this morning a judge in Israel absolved the state and the IDF of any wrongdoing in the death of Rachel Corrie. I simply can’t help but think of how many people who I know, including my wife, who have put themselves on the line and been luckier than Rachel. Rachel did the right thing as many before her any many after her will do, and she was and still is surrounded by loving community. But today I have been reminded what I already know: the state has no interest in protecting those who seek justice. The state is a cold and ultimately heartless thing, unable to hold itself accountable. As the media falls all over itself to cover party conventions and presidential theatrics, who asks the agents of the state, the gatekeepers and handshakers, what they would do to protect the dignity and human rights of the people? It is our consciences that make us free, but how willing will we be to put that conscience on a shelf, “compromise for the greater good?”

I honor those who follow their dreams and stand up for the right thing, who organize and surround themselves with a true community of accountability.

Book Review: Testament of Devotion

Testament of Devotion, a collection of essays and writings by Thomas Kelly, was one of those books I was supposed to be closely reading in college in my Quaker spirituality course. The class took up readings in chronological order from the beginning of Quakerism. I was overwhelmed by the rhetoric of George Fox, underwhelmed by John Woolman’s play-by-play self flagellation and generally lost in Friend’s writings over the last 300 years by the time we got to Thomas Kelly somewhere near the end. Where was the relevance to Quakerism now? Sure, George Fox ran around organizing Quakerism and building the meeting structure still practiced today, but his writing was strident and vindictive. John Woolman seemed like the ultimate self-righteous wet blanket, worrying about every step he took and dwelling for pages and pages on painfully mundane decisions. Haven’t we seen enough of this? Was this really what Quakerism has always been about?

I was hungry for action and heroes at that point in my life. I wanted cure-all solutions, charismatic leadership. Quakerism was fading into obscurity and we needed answers. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant to be a leader, but I was sure it involved some amount of fast, sensuous Light trippin’: “critical, acid, sharper than a two edged sword” as Thomas Kelly says (I notice now, almost 10 years later). Now that I read Thomas Kelly again I’m struck that despite his earnestness which lost me the first time around, he’s clearly the kind of guy whose bliss was infectious. He may use the word “lo”, but “the sense of Presence!” is woven into every part of what he’s saying. He’s sharing his mystical amazement and salvation. He LOVED the Light, man. Like my brother.

My brother is also a good Quaker, and he occasionally tries to impress on me the dire state of Quakerism in way that pushes my John Woolman button (hand-dyed, locally sourced). But then I step away and I remember that he also loves the hell out of obscure Brazilian music, lobsters and making Quakerism more cool for young people (among other things). How can I forget that? Because I’m still caught up on some of my old notions of leadership. I’m slowly learning that people who make genuinely horizontal Way in community are first really genuinely themselves. Sometimes that means you appreciate them occasionally from a distance and don’t want to hang out with them, like Fox or Woolman. But my brother and Thomas Kelly, they are certainly not “sobersides Quakers who seem to live on a diet of spiritual persimmons”. They are those rare kind of people who are truly dedicated and unobtrusively, appealingly, fired up.While I may not always hear what they have to say the first time, when I get it I’ll follow their bliss.

Procession of the Species 2012

Procession of the Species 2012

A fitting return to updates.  Somewhere I heard that well over 3/4 of all personal blogs are not updated regularly. I helped build the float that the kids are sitting on, repurposed from several parts of greenery, unwanted mushrooms, and decorations in Earthbound productions studio. I had a great time, a beautiful bookend to my first stint with TOGETHER!  

 

Book Review: No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam

I’ve shared everyone’s joy as revolutions roll across North Africa into the Middle East, catching breathless reports and live feeds all hours of the night and day.  I have certainly been excited for the people of Egypt and Tunisia, shaking off brutal governments buttressed by US and other Western support.  I find myself quietly rooting for the protesters in Bahrain when circling a roundabout or grit my teeth as I pull into a gas station with reports of more dead in Yemen on the radio. One thing that seems lacking in Al Jazeera’s play-by-play approach is analysis of what might be next. Now what?

I’ve had “No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam” by Genevieve Abdo on my shelf for a few years and my burning questions urged me to pick it up.  Published over 10 years ago from many years of research Abdo conducted in the mid-late 90’s, it explores the grassroots Islamist movement building in Egypt for decades.  As a Westerner, I know the average perception of political Islam is, as Abdo describes, ” a bearded man with a Kalashnikov.”  In extensive interviews and field research with common people, religious leaders, political officials and intellectuals across Egypt, Abdo meets the faces of political Islam in Egypt and sets them apart from terrorist movements or proponents of what she  calls “ideological societies” such as Iran.  Though the work is a few years old, when I think of what comes after Tahrir Square I am struck by her descriptions of how Islamists have built populist support in professional syndicates, offered social services for the underemployed middle class, and tapped dissatisfaction with a corrupt Western-backed government among all walks of life in Egyptian society.

Abdo explores the roots of Islamist identity as she meets key figures in the complex relationship between the state and religion.  She visits institutions like universities, the judicial system, and the prominent Al-Azhar religious school in Cairo.  She devotes chapters to how Islamist students shrewdly built support in student unions, winning hearts with buses separated by sex to deal with overcrowding on public transportation, or in professional syndicates historically organized as fronts for the state.  I was struck to be reminded Egypt has only had three presidents since it’s independence in 1952:  a socialist pan-Arab nationalist, an ambivilant “believer President”, and a iron-fisted Western puppet.  In her telling, none of these governments have truly “reached the people” and now each in turn have lost power in disgrace or assassination.  While extremism has been a common current since the 70’s, she believes that it will never be the guiding force in Egyptian society.

Despite being banned for decades as “radicals,” the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, are Egypt’s most established opposition group.  They represent a moderate Islamism familiar to a Turk perhaps but not the average American.  Abdo’s meetings with the Brotherhood strike me as very reminiscent of Turkey’s Ak Party: pro-“Modernity”(read: capitalism), socially conservative, and with just enough Islamic ideology thrown in to raise the hackles of any secularist.  Abdo’s tone fluctuates between triumphant and/or aloof as she describes a unique political movement that preaches moderation and piety but also advocates for female genital “circumcision” and censorship.

I know that the protests in Tahrir were largely organized by young, hep activists fed up with the Mubarak regime.  Now that those activist have met their goal, however, it seems likely the Islamist movement that has been building in Egypt will offer a welcome return to order and unity as the country looks to the future.  My experience in the Middle East is that it there is a pervasive value of order and social cohesion that we here in the West cannot fully understand.  Today that order and unity is provided by a transitional military government, but I am with Abdo in predicting a more religiously driven Egyptian society.  This book has expanded my understanding of what that would look like.