A Community Parable

There was once a family that set out to find a home. This was to be a complicated journey, because the adults in this family came from unusual families and knew they wanted unusual things for their home. To make things more complicated, they had children, they came from different cultures, and they got along best in situations similar to where they met: high stakes, life or death kind of situations. While reminiscing wistfully on fixing a flat tire on a dark country road, their jack buried under camping gear and a forest fire raging nearby, they bickered about loading the dishwasher.  One thing that these parents clearly agreed on was that they wanted their home to include more people, a kind of chosen family, to share common memories like the ones they’d built over their years of community experiences. 

With the family on al-Haram al-Sharif, November 2019

The family began their journey at a time of great change, where many other people were also interested in exploring different ways of creating homes and finding chosen families. Almost 10 years into the new millennium, the world had forgotten it’s pre-millennial fears of nuclear apocalypse and technological collapse, choosing infinity wars and uninterrupted technological connectivity instead. Doomsday predictions were now less finite and it seemed like many things that couldn’t get worse kept getting so. Many people were burnt out or cast out and many, literally or figuratively, were on the move for something better.

As the family started out, it took them some time to decide where to go. There were two large and beautiful houses, one belonging to each of the parents’ families, that tempted them.  They tried living in both.They also tried living with other people in communities: one with many different families, more private space and more organization and another where they were the only family with very little private space and organization. They didn’t find an existing home that was just what they had in mind, so in the end they decided to move back to one of the large and beautiful houses and start something different. 

Along the road, the family met a group of people that introduced themselves as the “Doves.”  The Doves were activists,  people who had dedicated some important parts of their lives to building peace in the world. They felt ready now to settle down and make sense of all of what they had experienced.  The Doves were enthusiastic, optimistic, and committed to making the world a better place. They wore T-shirts with clever things written on them and helped the family feel connected to the wider world with all its beauty and suffering.  The first thing the family and the Doves agreed to was to call themselves “the Hoopoes” after a bird they all considered important and symbolic to their journey together. 

In the Conference of the Birds, an epic Persian poem, the Hoopoe leads a group of birds on a search for God.  He encourages and unifies and eventually reveals an important key in the search for the nature of God among his bird companions. The Doves were used to creating new names and platforms together, even if they were skeptical about God, and so they happily took on the name Hoopoe and created a digital shared drive (open-sourced, of course) for sharing their collective work. They were not used to compromising on their ideals and were so used to struggling for what they wanted they seemed to forget exactly what it was they were struggling for. Over the years of journeying together with the family it became clear that, as a group, Hoopoe liked the idea of living together and creating a chosen family perhaps more than the reality of the daily commitments, logistics and responsibilities of creating a home all together. After some time, the family and the group formally known as the Doves parted ways, with the Doves renaming themselves The New Hoopoes and creating a new shared drive. 

In the Quran, a surah tells of how King Solomon called on all his birds and the Hoopoe did not arrive on time.  Upon arriving late, the Hoopoe brought an important message to the King who was skeptical of his excuse for being late and also his message.  It was almost 20 years after the new millennium now, and by this time it seemed as if all hope of finding common cause had disappeared.  Noone seemed to trust any message or messenger anymore, and so while messages of certain doom seemed to buzz everywhere, no one could agree on exactly and certainly how this doom would take place. Solomon eventually sent the Hoopoe back out with a new message to test his integrity. The New Hoopoes set out on their own as well.

Some time later and after growing further, the family met a new group who introduced themselves as Mehter, a name meaning “Mother” in a now-lost Indo-European language.  Similar to relearning a Indo-European language, Mehter wanted to go back to the roots of our current ways of life, getting to the real “nut” of the meaning of life (while speaking in a way they were convinced was original yet timeless). Mehter sometimes got lost in the details of their explorations and the affirmations they received from their devoted followers. They were committed to making their unconscious processes conscious to reawakening a sense of common good because they felt society had lost its way. In John 2:15, Jesus comes to the Temple and finds it full of money changers and others desecrating the sacredness of the space. Knowing that the root meaning of the house of worship has been defiled, he pauses, braids a whip, and drives the money changers from the temple. How long he pauses the passage does not say, but Mehter found this first pause to braid very important.

While the family did not know this Mehter group like they’d known the Doves, they decided that their interest in deeper exploration, getting at the root of life, and pausing before activating was a fair trade to eating only nuts.  Once again, this Mehter group was also quite excited about creating names and platforms and so it also changed its name to “Sea Change.” In Matthew 14, Jesus again takes a moment to himself after John the Baptist is killed and he responds to the needs of a great crowd with just a few fishes and some bread.  He sends his disciples out on a boat before him and tells them that he will join them later as he goes off by himself.  As a storm buffets the disciples out on the water, Jesus leaves his meditation to come to them, calms their fears and shows them that they too can walk on water.  Unlike the disciples, Sea Change seemed to be convinced of creating miracles, but this push and pull between “time of reflection” and “time of action” left them unavailable for community. They spoke a great deal of taking time to discern, but were increasingly drawn by external demands on their time and attention.  At this time a great sickness came across the world, and the Sea Change, who were very focused on health, became very focused on this sickness. They were particularly focused on people who were focused on the illness, believing that everyone was focusing too much on the illness.  In this year of great storms and sickness, while frothing up all kinds of ideas and enthusiasm in a great tide of excitement, Sea Change eventually blew away like foam after a winter storm. Perhaps they paused to braid too long or perhaps they were called out to sea to save their followers?

The family was beginning to tire of this.  Would they ever find a home?  Were people who said they wanted to create a home together actually trustworthy?  They couldn’t tell. They were frustrated and didn’t agree about whether the situation was life or death enough to start working well together between themselves. Now a pandemic demonstrated the interconnected but fragile serious nature of the situation, but there was not a clear, single path forward.  The parents fell back onto things that felt most comfortable for them, which unfortunately, because they were very different, were almost opposite things:  one worked very very hard on the house, doing anything she could to make it work and stay financially afloat.  The other kept looking for other opportunities outside the house because he felt his energies at home were often not enough.  They found themselves with a few people around them who had blown in and stayed as the others blew away.

And so the family began again, working on creating a home again with these new people.  In the meantime, their children grew bigger and went back to school, despite the sickness. The home they were making was also a place for guests, and surprisingly so many people were looking to escape the sickness that people kept asking to come stay even as other guests had to change plans.The group that stayed this time, the group that did not have a name, were willing to accept the name of the family’s house as their starting point.  Unlike the Doves or the Mehter, this new group was raw, less sure of its name or platforms but willing to try.

The family was blessed to have learned some lessons by this point about creating their extended family home: first, the experience with the Doves/Hoopoe taught them that it was important to be honest with themselves and what they really wanted. Second, the experience with Mehter/Sea Change taught them the importance of being vulnerable, taking risks based on our best understanding without expecting accolades or complete certainty.  Finally, everything they’d experienced had taught them to be prepared to be mistaken. This is where they began to build a new home, a new community together.  It was an end in some ways, the end of another round of dreams, another year, another strategy, but at the same time another beginning.  

My Grandfathers, My Privilege

The woman arrived late for Quaker worship and quickly rose, prefacing her message with: “I can assure you this is spirit led….” She spoke at length about white privilege, systematic injustice, the civil rights movement, the death of Micheal Brown and her recent visit to Ferguson. I didn’t catch the whole message because a Friend needed an urgent ride home and when I came back she was still speaking.

As I returned, I watched her through the half-light doors of the meeting, catching snippets of “reparations” and “brutality” and “mass incarceration” through the cracked doors, waiting to reenter without disturbing worship. Folks shifted in their seats and many were already disturbed.  Eventually a Friend stood and asked that the speaker allow for some silence to consider her message.  She broke into song, spoke a practiced “don’t silence me” line and sat.  I returned to my seat and mulled what I’d only half heard.  I was bugged by the break in norms, but sometimes we can use a shaking up in meeting. I agreed with parts of her message, but the delivery was rambling. At the end of meeting she confirmed “her mission,” spoke briefly with supporters and was gone.

Missing most of the actual message, my churning emotions about policing, racism and my own privilege lead to my grandfathers:

My dad’s dad was in the New Jersey State Patrol.  He’d retired by the time I came around, but his official patrolman’s portrait used to hang in the garage “to scare the rats away.” I’m certain my Pop-Pop felt what MC Killer Mike said about his father: “Being a cop must be hard. My dad was one, and never wanted any of his children to follow in his footsteps.” I knew he was sent Newark in 1967 during the riot there, but that topic was as off limits as discussion of the South Pacific beaches he’d crossed as a Marine.  Near the end of his life, I asked him if he’d ever shot anyone.  He avoided the question. I think of the words Killer Mike adds: “The police have the power of life and death in their decisions — they need to know that Americans hold them to a higher standard than these examples, of American men laying lifeless like deer.” I think of my own standards as his grandson: how can I evaluate his service, knowing so little but also fearing to know more?  Perhaps for some people it’s enough to know he served in uniform, especially as a white man, but I still want to find a lesson there.

My mom’s dad Jack was the Quaker, the one who’d gone to Europe in the war and came back resolved to changeMe and my brother with Grandpa Jack, 1987 things. While I’ve heard a little more about his military experiences, the message in our family was that everything after his return was meant to transform the violence.  He’d moved my mom and her siblings to a majority-black school district in the 70’s to sensitize them to the importance of race relations. The most vivid images of this experience have come from his kids stories though, and they describe getting beaten up by black classmates and fear. At least that’s what’s come across to me.  Somehow listening to their old vinyl of “Inner Visions” or hearing about their biracial foster daughter doesn’t really round out a picture of systematic change to me.  He’d also done American Friends Service Committee work camps around the country rebuilding poor neighborhoods. At Thanksgiving this year I found a picture of him at one of those work camps.  He’s dressed in a shabby work outfit handing a bemused looking older black woman a glass of milk on a plate. I guess.  It looks even more staged than my other grandfather’s State Patrol portrait, and gives little sense of reparations or restorative justice. What is his lesson of transformation?

I ask myself:  Didn’t all three of these people believe they were being of service?  Their methods differed, but it seems to me the self-styled agitator in meeting, the white man and his burden, and the tight-lipped officer all wanted to make things better.  What I wonder is whether their service could have been better put to use in a broader community, a beloved community. It seems like accountability was missing in all their examples, that accountability white folks are regularly reluctant to give up. If you bring a message to worship meant to change things, can you really expect anything if you leave right away?  If you followed orders you regret, can you heal or be accountable without telling anyone what happened?  If you wanted to transform pain and violence, can you succeed without accountability to those you “serve”?

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.


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.

New Life

The rosy tint is wearing a little.  As Federica and I drove to her Operation Dove Office this morning, across the freezing landscape of fruit trees and suburban traffic circles, we talked about how we’re feeling.  She’s struggling with her sense of responsibility for her work in Palestine, as well as the tug of her biological family’s farm plus the added stress of the Village family’s needs.  I’m struggling to form complete sentences and get a sense of natural beauty here and there.

And now I’m sick. We’re both sick.  It’s pretty clear in circumstances where we’re not 100% that our patience for fitting into the family system wears thin.  On the one hand, it’s really heartening to know that both she and I are on the same page about not feeling particularly “nesty”  On the other, we’re not exactly sure what else to do. We both don’t really have income.  In any event, in the next week or so we’re schedued to do some traveling.  Let’s see how that goes.

My Family members

Sergio-Father- Sorta gruff, straightforward type.  Does not like it when we speak Italian around him.  Valid point.  I know where he stands. Curious, playful side.  From  Venuto, the Venecian provence.

Elena-Mother- Motherly, a midwife for “troubled pregnancies” technically I think but spends a good deal of time at home. Curious but somewhat detached.  Clearly tired by parenting yet contained about it yet clearl tired.  Paradoxical.  Good english vocab and pronunciation.

Martina- Civil servant in our house.  19-20ish?  Quiet, does a lot of cleaning, cooking, ironing.  poor dear.

Anna-family’s oldest girl. 17 Outspoken but clearly not really an envelope pusher.

wow, it feels wierd to be “telling” on all of them.

Lazzaro-16-17ish  Slightly indoor kid, historical origins in India.  Has sweet looking motorcycle (50cc) and equally intimidating needling

Paola- 15-16ish.  Very 16yo girl.

Simone-14- Good guy, shy but with creative and theatrical side.  We do english lessons.

Mima-10- Foster child with Morrocan roots.  Sweet but a little out of place.  She’s given the shaft a lot by the teens.

Diego-3- little shit.  just a normal 3 yo.

Bruno-rat dog

A cheese by any other name

While I feel slightly guilty for considering a trip to Turkey old hat, I console myself in the adventure and curiosity I saw in Federica as she met it for the first time.  Once she left and I got over the swine flu 😉 I had an opportunity to reconnect with my family there in a way I have been missing.  Bickering over the morning olives, baking soda and vinegar rockets in the driveway, tea and cigarettes with Lütfiye, and even a rare bachelor night with Melih.

My girls are getting so big!
My girls are getting so big!

Lest I forget, we also had Mr.WW along too
Lest I forget, we also had Mr.WW along too

So as I left my now-familiar family, biological and non, behind in the Republic I was ready for a new adventure.  And it came, in the form of beautiful European countryside and a beautiful tour guide to match.  I’ll post more about it as I’m inspired, but here she is in meadow of alpine flowers near the Faggioli family’s little house in the Parco Nazionale Foreste Casentinesi….. yeah.  Fede in the Park

It even has a name (the house), Ca Mandrioli. Everything has a name; whether it appears to be much different than the cheese before it is insignificant.  Chances are good the name’s been around long before the US of A was a suppressed twinkle in a Puritan eye.   Hot.