Watching the World Cup in Castel Volturno

This is an unpublished post edited from a first draft I wrote in 2010 while living in Italy during the World Cup.  I’ve been reflecting a lot on the situation of immigrants here, especially as Europe experiences deep economic crisis and Italian xenophobia is ever-present and particular poignant for me as a privileged outsider.  We are currently hosting an intern from Burkina Faso at the moment at the farm, and his occasional comments about the challenge of living here, as well as the strange position I’ve been thrust into as his kind of supervisor, really reminds me of this experience a few years back:

Though I couldn’t be considered a real soccer (sports) fan in any respect, I’ve always really enjoyed the World Cup.  Teams from all over the world, different playing styles, strange loyalties.  I’m into it, and at least the last three tournaments have punctuated interesting moments in my life, times when I’ve been involved in crazy situations on the brink of entering new ones.  I sense this might be another and when I’m far away from home I feel at least 6 times more patriotic.

We all know about Italians and football, though I’ve been hanging out around a crowd who don’t really care much for it.  They care enough to disparage the US and its poor sporting reputation, but as the former champions eliminated in the first round I got the last laugh on that one this time.

I got to watch us sputter and go out on Saturday night surrounded by 200 Ghanians [Ghana eliminated the US 2-1 in overtime].  Now, to be fair, I don’t know if every man was from Ghana.[my privilege speaking again] I certainly did not identify myself as a US fan hoping to get a feel from the crowd.  Fede and I were visiting a town in the South of Italy, near Naples, called Castel Volturno.  Mention its name (or better yet, your travel plans there) to most Italians and you will get  post-Katrina New Orleans tooth sucking reactions.  It’s considered a lawless, Mafia-controlled toxic waste dump full of illegal immigrants.  Many immigrants come to the semi-apocalyptic resort town because of its reputation for extra-governmental legal systems, empty houses built as tax shelters and the like.  One could consider this either a draw or the result of being turned away at every other turn.

While we were there before the game, I spoke with some of the guys who described their three day trips from Libya across the sea to Sicily, only to be picked up and sent to camps called CPTs.  They’re held at the camps for various lengths of time until they’re just dumped, without any legal status, into the Italian wilds.  That’s how it’s been described to me.  Even for those not living in Castel Volturno, life as black or Arab immigrant seems very tough here.  Right in Federica’s valley near Forli there are a huge number of immigrants working low-wage jobs at the local chicken factory.  Even though this seems like a country paradise to me with white skin and easy legal status, most immigrants are clearly very marginalized and isolated here.  No halal butchers posting their wares.  No visible immigrant support center. (I found it by accident while making a visit to the local provincial offices.  One part time, and very kind, Italian women works there.)

As the World Cup game wound down and the US was clearly not going to win, the crowd started to slowly disperse. Night fell and the parking lot with a projector screen set up in it became more empty every time I looked around.  By the time the game was over, the subdued celebrations were only obvious for a few minutes before folks left entirely.   I was struck by how I might have reacted as a fair weather fan if we’d won.

Italian TV

After several visits to Italy and confirmation that I have not said anything about this before, I must comment briefly on the absurdity of Italian TV.  In order to be a truly informed anthropologist I should have watched more TV in the States before arriving in Italy but in a certain way, without comparison, I am shocked all the more by what I see here.

One of the things that is always interesting is to watch how folks outside the US view tragedies at home.  The recent marathon tragedy is an example.  Just like in 2001, (and for some reason the many horrible events that have taken place in the US while I’ve been abroad), media here assumes that whoever carries out a violent act against the US will inevitably meet a quick and violent end.  It’s a forgone conclusion, and so there is little hysteria about manhunts, fair trials, ethnicities of perpetrators, etc. which is a big story for crimes here. (It’s very interesting when the two worlds collide, like in the case of the girl from Seattle acquitted but by Italian popular opinion guilty of killing her roommate.) It’s not to say these stories don’t get a lot of airtime, but it seems like an unspoken understanding the US has lots of enemies  but there’s always a bloody end for anyone who does us wrong.  It’s an interesting perspective, and one I imagine we lose as folks cry out for blood after terrible tragedies.  I don’t condone the violence of terrorists or the State or State terrorism, but what can we expect to gain from this cycle of violence?

On a completely different other side of things is being slightly horrified by “entertainment TV”.  In Italy there is the universally recognized role of the velina, or sidekick showgirl, who dances between commercial breaks and makes seductive passes at the show hosts but never speaks.  They are particularly famous on one show a news parody program that aims to humiliate various personalities in the news, and apparently women try out across Italy to become the following season’s velina.   I knew I was living in a truly bizzare media driven world when I watched these women pole dance to Macklemore’s single “Thrift Shop” the other day. I can remember the first time I heard “My Oh My” on Live from I-5 hosted by DJ Luvva J as he made a shout out to a young MC who’d graduated from Evergreen.  The crazy juxtapositions are everywhere:  Show hosts here often hawk all type of products during the commercial breaks of their very same show, yet even so it was pretty wild to watch the host of a “Who wants to be a millionaire?”-style show ask a question about porn star celebrity weddings just seconds before cutting to a commercial break where he pitches a new child car seat.

A Californian Vision

It reached 80 degrees in Cazadero on the ranch!
It reached 80 degrees in Cazadero on the ranch!
Federica and Lila with burning wings on Ocean Beach, San Francisco
Federica and Lila with burning wings on Ocean Beach, San Francisco

I reconciled myself to having a different attitude about California about 5 years ago, when I drove my newly purchased 1982 Yamaha Vision to San Francisco from Olympia. At the time, my attitude about California was that it seemed shallow and consumer-driven. Contempt prior to investigation.  It was an interesting period for me, right about the era I began this blog in preparation for a trip to Palestine and my heart warmed a little in the sunshine and landscape I saw.  I was struggling on a personal level, trying to figure out my life purpose, and the motorcycle was “witness” to that period in ways I’m still only just understanding.

I sold the Vision as I reached the Bay to an old friend living in the hills of Western Sonoma County. My friend Frank was looking for just that kind of motorcycle, and at the time I didn’t feel so attached or appreciative of it.  Almost 5 years later, he passed away unexpectedly recently and at his memorial his family suggested I come back to pick up the bike. He was such a kind man, and his love of mechanics (especially marginal ones) meant a lot to me as I thought about him and that vehicle.  As Federica and I prepare to travel to Italy for 5 months and my job wound down, we had some time to make a visit.  I didn’t know what condition the motorcycle was now in, but regardless our main interest was taking a kind of honeymoon and visiting our many friends (grieving, recently moved, old and new) down there.  If all went well, we’d motor home on the bike along Highway 1 as our return trip.

3 lambs were born in the week we stayed in Sonoma County, these one's are minutes old.
3 lambs were born in the week we stayed in Sonoma County, these one’s are minutes old.

We have spent the last two weeks wandering San Francisco’s Mission district full of murals and encroaching gentrification, burning a new friend’s artwork on the beach with her for a film project, traveling into the hills to live entirely off the grid, catching rides all over backcountry roads, and connecting with the restorative power of community.  We have not been riding a motorcycle. While Persephone, as I now remember I called her, may one day ride again, at the moment she will bask (languish?) a bit longer in the warm Californian sun.  She now holds a more complete story of origin and a myth for me, as a point of reference in the last 5 formative years of my life.   We did a little ceremony at the ranch to appreciate the tools in our lives for the service they provide us, and I reflected on how a tool can serve a purpose we didn’t plan for it at all.  Persephone now carries a little bit of Frank for me and she’s fired inspiration and driven me places without even starting to leave the driveway.


My Meeting’s Listserve

My meeting has listserve.  Aside from the obvious lack of intimacy using this kind of communication (more on that later), I’ve been reflecting recently about how or whether listserves serve Quaker process.  For many years, Olympia Monthly Meeting has had a practice of going around the room after worship to introduce ourselves, to allow for “afterthoughts”, or to share announcements “pertinent to the life of the meeting”.  This last category is very broad, and can really say a lot about us as a community.   I sense when we are more or less on the same page as a community when I hear these announcements and gauge reactions, just like how a rich worship may spill into more afterthoughts as spirit moving among us stirs our collective pot. After worship we rise, drink weak coffee and follow up with those who shared things that touched us.

Enter the listserve.  What gets posted on the listserve for the 166 hours we’re not at meeting may or may not have much to do with things that are even mentioned during announcements.  From the privacy of our homes or phones, we post event invitations (progressive, social-justicey or bird-on-it as a rule), ride requests and offers, budget updates, draft business meeting minutes, poetry, prayer requests, product promotions, final logistics for Quaker events already posted in the newsletter.  Sometimes, like when a member is sick and the community comes to their aid during the week, message threads begin that provide helpful updates or instructions and respond to everyone’s concern for that person. Other times threads begin unintentionally when a general request or even a specific personal appeal is replied to en mass to the whole list. It is maddening to include your email address in a mass request very clearly requesting individual RSVPs only to get a crazy avalanche of dozens of cross-posted replies and running commentary irrelevant to 90% of the viewers in response. Many times folks will defend a unilateral decision about something in meeting by saying “well, I posted it to the listeserve” (though obviously not everyone is on there and for clear reasons many have no interest in joining) Typically if something very serious or unexpected occurs, like a death in the community,  somehow we know that it’s better to set up a phone tree to let folks know.

In anthropology  it is commonly understood that most rules are learned when they are broken.  Unspoken boundaries certainly exist on the listserve, but as far as I know we have never made any attempt to establish real guidelines.  “Great!” you say “isn’t that truly uninhibited continuing revelation at work?” Besides the obvious inconveniences, I’m not so sure. Last year when some nitty gritty exchanges regarding an open conflict in the meeting were mistakenly posted to the whole list, the fallout was intense. The sender was publicly admonished for their mistake in meeting (to the shocked surprise of a whole segment of the community not on the list), they apologized for saying something they never would have said  if they’d known it would be shared publicly ( “I would have of course not doffed my hat to Thee privately”), and our take away was that this Friend had blown it.  This individual shouldered disproportionate responsibility and we missed an opportunity for growth as a community because of the two Golden Rules of Quaker Club: #1 There are no rules in Quaker Club. #2 You do not talk about Quaker Club. We recently hosted a Friend come to talk about Eldering who challenged these rules of (liberal) Quakerism in his own words.  “How we can we hold people accountable as a community if we are not clear about our boundaries or rules?” He pushed us and we DO have rules and boundaries.  We emperil ourselves more seriously if we not only deny we have rules but also tacitly discourage discussions that seem to question “they way we do things.”  This is of course not a new discussion for the online convergent Friends community.

I think the listserve was created with the best of intentions, but as a tool in practice it invariably reflects some of our biggest blind spots. I would also challenge the digital Quaker community to consider this as an extension of a bigger discussion about elective use of technology within Quaker meetings.  We must also ask ourselves:  What might come of more and more of our communication taking place in this sterile, impersonal format, especially considering hangups that exist already in our bricks and mortar community?  Occasionally I suspect folks post things to the list just to provoke a response out of their community that sits silently for much of its time together.  Unencumbered by the expectation to share with Holy inspiration, we cast our thoughts into the Olympia Monthly Meeting corner of the vast digital abyss, hoping  our request for feedback on meeting minutes provokes an invite to a butter churning workshop.

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