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Weird moment this morning on the bus:  That peculiar Jew guy got on, and I made room for him to sit by me. Because – and here’s the weird part – I was thinking, “‘Cause he’s Jewish; he’s from my tribe. He’s like me.” Huh?

I am not Jewish.

He’s socially awkward, with a chafing, too-loud, high-pitched voice, saying, “Hi, hi, thank you, hello.” and bobbing his curly dark hair to everyone at 5:57 a.m. when all of us on the bus are actively trying to avoid acknowledging anyone else in the world exists because we aren’t quite ready to begin the day yet.

The bus was unusually crowded this morning. A rumpled group of groggy-eyed city commuters interspersed with the strangling reek of chain-smoking addicts heading for the methadone clinic. This funny guy gets on and I saw there were barely any seats left. He’s one of the usual riders, so I am used to seeing him get on, and I know he’s different. I worried that others who recognized him might be less likely to scoot over than me.

It came as a complete surprise to me when I realized that I was feeling responsible for this man; this stranger. I have never spoken to him, never even made eye contact, and yet I’ve always thought of him as Jewish, based on looks alone. I could be totally, completely wrong, but there it is. Perhaps you can forgive my stereotyping. And, well, I earned my degrees at Brandeis University, surrounded by Jews, and I love and admire my Jewish Brandeis friends, and think of them as “my people.” And, though no one explicitly invited me, I consider myself welcome in their group. And thus, if this weird guy on the bus is Jewish, then he is “my people” too. And that means I have to be his people. And scoot over to give him a place to sit.

He wandered to the back of the bus, then came back, and yes, sat next to me.

That is exactly what “Community” is all about. That is why humans are drawn together at an instinctual level. Because together we are a force to be reckoned with. In our communities we look out for each other; we give and then take.  The larger my community, the more people have got my back.

Together we are powerful. We do great things as groups, even though individually we can be pathetic and weak. That is how we are able to love the people in our family who drive us crazy. And, that is how we are able to work toward peaceful goals with people who are really different than we are: because we allowed ourselves to get close, to feel a bond, to see them as though they are like us.

I recalled a time, last September, a little over a year ago. We were the first to set up our tents in an unfamiliar campground and I was full of anxiety about being in this place with other campers sure to move in as the day progressed. I get nervous around too many people. Then, a Chinese family moved in smack on top of us, practically. We were two large groups and were assigned adjacent campsites. And, though in theory it was precisely what I had worried about, I was so relieved. My thought, strangely enough, was the one I described above, “Ahh, it’s ok. These are my people.”

I am not Chinese.

See, in my neighborhood in Montavilla, I am surrounded by Chinese. They are my neighbors, they are the kids who bounce basketballs on the side of the street, waiting as I slowly glide past in my car, they are the ones who tell me my cat is not lost, but in their back yard, and who take turns hogging the street parking with me.

How remarkably simple it is to feel like family with people who are so different. All one has to do is be around a stranger for awhile, and that stranger becomes my neighbor Perry, or his brother David. And from there, it’s not much of an extrapolation to believe that Perry and David probably exist in every country in the world. Why can’t the whole world experience this little delight, and realize how lovely it would be to think of strangers as “our people” rather than hold them in suspicion at an arm’s length?

please click image for source

I came across this classroom assignment I wrote in 2006 for an International Mediation course I was taking at Brandeis University. The first third of the paper is a tidy re-cap of the traumatic battle surrounding the discovery of a 9,300 year old human skeleton beside the Columbia River. The remainder is obviously student-speak designed to answer the many questions put to us by our professor, and designed to prove that we had read all the texts assigned.

Pursuing any current and relevant news, I found an article in the Tri-City Herald noting that ancient human remains were again found in the area. Startled, I read on to discover that the bones, estimated to be 300 to 350 years old, were handed over to the Tribes claiming them by the US Army Corps of Engineers. No fuss, no scandal, no lawsuits.

Painful as it is, the truth looks ugly. Scientists, arguably among the most intelligent of us, appear to be using only their empirical data in these two cases. Inciting war in the first, and granting peace in the second. They apparently have decided that Indians have the right to claim 300 year old remains but not 9000 year old remains. Yes, I see the difference on the surface. But ideologically, what is the difference? Why does one group get to draw the line, and where exactly is it drawn, and why?

My apologies if I lost you, because this stuff is so central to my core that I find it hard to express to someone else. But let me try: Indians claim that ancient human remains in North America are their ancestors because their oral traditions (i.e. their religions) tell them so. Scientists track ancestry through DNA samples, and many believe that there are multiple lineages that populated North America. Thus, any kinship ties could only be proven through meticulous scientific study.

The fact that no ownership war began over the 300 year old remains says to me that scientists are willing to agree on kinship ties in that case. But NOT because they respect Indian religious traditions, but because it happens to be in line with their own religion of science. This stuff makes me furious. 1) If your scientific point is that DNA is required, then why not battle with equal ferocity over the 300 year old remains? 2) Why do the scientists get to set the terms? 3) If 9000 years old is clearly not an ancestor, and 300 years is clearly an ancestor, can we please have the exact year that delineates? (ok, yes, that was sarcasm)

Multiple parties were (and are still) passionate about those particular human remains called both Ancient One and Kennewick Man. Opinions vary on how they should or should not be handled, stored, examined, discussed, or buried. Millions of dollars and millions of hours were spent to make a decision on whether American Indians who claimed ancestral ties had the right to dispose of the human remains as the Tribes saw fit; or, whether anthropologists should be allowed to study the remains for the benefit of adding to our human knowledge base of early versions of our species.

My take was that, had the situation been handled properly, there may have been a way to satisfy some of the needs of both of these parties (as well as the needs of other parties also involved, to include the US Army Corps of Engineers and the intriguing Asatru Folk Assembly).

Again I fear that this is evidence that minority parties rarely get respect or validation. It is depressing and heartbreaking, not to mention frustrating when groups of stereotypically “intelligent” people such as scientists are the ones furthering ignorance, discrimination, and destructive hegemony.

On the optimistic side… there is a chance that I just witnessed an evolution of another kind. Can it be that we have learned lessons over here in the Pacific Northwest, and applied them successfully?

My blog tagline infers that I am using the blog as a medium to come clean about my path through life; that I fearlessly embrace truths. My latest post about visiting a pumpkin farm had nothing vital in it, except perhaps the photography, which shows that I have a spark of life still in me – shown through the lens – despite my watered down words.

Simultaneously, I randomly received over 200 views yesterday, within 5 minutes of my post. It’s a record for exposure in my somewhat recent adoption of WordPress in March of 2010. Match great exposure with a lame post, and I am feeling rather guilty about it all. It’s time to try harder to address my world as it is. And to be honest, there is nothing watered down about anyone’s daily life. Mine included.

This past weekend, pumpkin patch included, I have had two mothers looming large on the radar of my life. Since the end of July, the mother of my boyfriend, Mark, has been living with us. And my mother was recently here for a visit.

I haven’t posted about Rene – the “mother-in-law” – because I haven’t had the courage to put all my feelings into words. It has been very difficult to have her in my home. We have survived over two months together, which is an accomplishment. I remain unsure of my ability to sanely reach June 2011 – her proposed move-out date. And it’s ME we’re talking about; I get along with everyone. Well… almost everyone.

Let me introduce her here, and maybe I will find a way to spiritually explore my own growth through our shared experience at a later date. For now, I’ll say that Rene came heartily into my life on July 6, 2010, when Mark forwarded an email to me, which asked if she could move in with us. Rene, practically a lifelong Boston resident, was under the impression that she was welcome in her sister’s home in northern New York. She sold her home for around a half-million profit, and called up her sister to let her know she would soon be on her way. Sister said she was not welcome.

Hurt, Rene called brother who lives in a suburb of Boston, who had also offered his hospitality at one point. Brother also rescinded his offer. Feeling wounded and rejected, Rene contacted her son, Mark, with very little time left to evacuate her home, which had already sold. Our hearts went out to her, and there is nothing to say to a family member who needs you but, “Of course you are welcome here!” Two weeks later, she moved in.

Rene was recently forced to leave her career as a Boston headhunter, and to seek a new source of income. She has chosen medical billing. For whatever reason makes sense in Rene’s mind, she believes that while she is going to school, she needs to conserve money, and that requires selling her home and moving in with relatives. The training course she is taking here in Oregon runs from August through May. Rene said she plans to move back to Boston and start all over when she receives her certificate. I intend to check in here on the blog at some future point to chronicle some of the agony we have both endured as a result of her move. Oh, and please don’t forget the agony of Mark, who is between the two of us!

My own mother has come to think of our Portland home as her personal sanctuary. She visits a couple of times a year, and relishes the opportunity to have someone else make the plans, cook the meals, clean and manage the estate business. In other words, she is an extremely hard-working woman who runs an amazing piece of property from a cabin on an isolated mountaintop in northern Idaho. Her husband runs his own business that uses up all his time and energy, so he isn’t much help at home. My mom comes here with the eagerness and pleasure of looking forward to a spa vacation.

She has also suffered with the arrival of Rene. The upstairs bedroom across the hall from my daughter was christened “Gramy’s Room” years ago. Mom brought her own bed, pillows, linens, spare clothes and shoes. She brought a lamp and a rug and a number of little things to make it her place. Thus, when she came for a visit she didn’t need to bring much but her lovely self.

That very room was chosen for Rene. We thought that she and my daughter could share the upstairs bathroom (how convenient to have a bathroom right next to her room, we thought). No sense in bringing a third person into the small downstairs bathroom, right? We considered that after having lived alone in a huge house in Boston, that suddenly sharing a home with a young family – teenager included – it would be a shock to her. We chose the room farthest away from the noise of the family in order to help to ease her transition. To our surprise, she rejected everything in the room. After we hauled everything out – bed included! – she refurnished it entirely from Ikea (gah!). And, she refuses to use the upstairs bathroom and tromps down the stairs every morning to use our bathroom. And as for having her own space, as we imagined might be important to her, that is also tossed out the window. Rene is not happy unless playing a prominent role in whatever room or conversation is the current place of action. We tease (not to her face!) that she follows us like a puppy, so that we are never out of her sight.

Also unexpectedly, my mother sees Rene’s rejection of her sanctuary as rejection of her. Further, my mother sees the disassembly of her lovingly created bedroom vacation spot, a trauma in itself. Still, our home is what my mother needs to rejuvenate her tired bones, so she came for a visit last week. We put her in our bedroom, and Mark and I moved to the remaining spare room (thank the gods we have such a big house!).

Enter more mother drama. My mom has recently been overtaken by health problems that are currently running her life. This is a difficult adjustment for not only her, but for everyone who knows her, because she has always prided herself on being ferociously healthy. She was even a member of the Christian Science faith years ago, and subscribed to the belief that no human doctor or human-created medicine was acceptable for her family. She scorns most people’s health complaints, and has very little patience for listening to what others must endure.

Part of her extraordinary health is because she eats the healthiest of food, because she plants, sows, cans and prepares it all herself. And also because she is a physical powerhouse, considering her age (61) and tiny frame (she weighs 108 pounds). On any given day she will chainsaw trees on the property for firewood, butcher chickens, chop wood, or mow the grass. She built the chicken house, built an 8-foot deer fence to protect her garden, and built the woodshed. Their plumbing isn’t standard, since they are on a mountaintop and they haven’t installed a pump strong enough to propel the water up to the house, so she drives the water truck to their well at the bottom of the mountain, fills the tank, then drives back to the top to fill the cistern. She has huge gardens of vegetables and flowers and trees and shrubs (because she is in love with the rural English countryside and is ever trying to build one on her mountain). With no plumbing, she hand-carries buckets of water to all the greenery to keep it flourishing. All this, ALL THIS WORK she does by herself, alone on the mountain, since her husband is gone most of every day at work.

She is lonely up there. Especially during the winter when 6 feet of snow and subzero temperatures keep her trapped in the cabin. She has four kids and they have all scattered across the Pacific Northwest. Her husband’s kids are local, but all lead busy lives and do not visit. Her local lady friends occasionally visit, but not often enough to fill her days. She joins Bible studies and visits her favourite bookstore, and makes an event out of Monday, Laundrymat Day (no washer or dryer at the cabin), but it is not enough to fill her. A couple of years ago, she began to have inexplicable problems with breathing.

I confess, I am among those who assumed it was symptomatic of a mental disorder. She felt exceptionally tired, she said, and her throat felt as though it would close up, and her lungs felt pneumonia-like and dysfunctional. The key element was the fright she felt when she had difficulty breathing, and she knew that one of these days her throat would close up completely and she would suffocate to death. The thought of death by suffocation was, rightfully so, terrifying to her. And yes, if you have any experience with the life cycles of mental disorders, you will know that it created a whole new problem of panic attacks when she thought of the possibility of her throat closing up and killing her.

The symptoms continued and after a dozen doctor visits and complicated tests, no one could ever diagnose anything. Every pill she tried was worthless, and she refused to take any pills designed to improve mental health. She was furious with everyone who suggested it was “all in her head.” After months and months of research and frequent meetings with girlfriends, Mom decided she had candida. I looked it up and yes, there is such a disease, and it’s as hard to pin down as it would seem. A yeast imbalance in the body which makes a person tired and makes it hard for them to breathe, among a multitude of other seemingly unrelated symptoms. I started giving her more genuine support. She gave up desserts and wine and antibiotics, and after another six months, the candida was apparently under control-ish.

Then, a year ago, she developed some kind of hyperactive heart beat problem. Again – yes I know I am such a bad daughter – I can’t help but suspect it is symptomatic of mental health problems. Again, doctors are unable to diagnose anything, but they did prescribe some pills that help. They told my mother not to take more than 8 pills a day. She, stubbornly, cuts them with a paring knife, and takes 1/4 of a pill. Sometimes that dose twice a day.

This time the secondary panic attacks based on fear of death are over the top. I am so worried for her. Her heart beats hard sometimes, and she can’t always tell why. It beats hard and irregular, and in my mother’s mind it is the first step toward a dysfunctional heart that is going to beat harder and faster till it blows up and kills her. She lives in perpetual fear of being able to detect her own heartbeat. This strikes mainly in the evenings, and the terror of lying there in the dark, feeling her heart beat strong in her chest, is the most frightening experience my mother can imagine. Once while she was here, she came into my bedroom and sat on the bed next to me in the middle of the night, because being beside someone was much more reassuring than being alone with impending death-by-heart-explosion.

The next morning, she thanked me for not rushing her to the hospital. “I didn’t want to go to a strange hospital with a doctor who didn’t know me, and in a town I don’t know. The hospital stay would have been so awful,” she confided. So I realized, yes, this is deadly real to her. It had never, never occurred to me that night to seek a doctor’s counsel. In her terror that night, she had pulled my hand to her chest, “Feel it!” she squeaked. And yes, I felt her heartbeat. It was strong, like she had just hiked from the bottom of her mountain to the top.

“Does it hurt?” I asked her once, months ago.

“Oh, no. No pain at all.”

“Is it different than when your heart beats hard after you work strenuously?”

“No, no. It’s just like that. It’s the same as when I chop wood, or run a long distance.”

“Then why is it so frightening?” I want to know. I really want to understand her.

“Oh, sissy. I don’t know. It’s terrifying. I can’t help it. I am just…. Terrified.”

And it occurs to me that I need to learn how to love a new mother, and to give her what she needs from me. Please forgive my presumption, but I wonder if this is what it’s like to love a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Those heroes who must find a deep soulful place of unconditional love and say something to their loved one with kindness and reassurance, such as, “My name is Crystal. I am your daughter.” Or in my case, “Moma, of course your heart is beating hard, but you will be fine tonight. Let me sleep in your room too, so I can be there the moment you need me, ok?”

I often say I am grateful for the variety of personalities in my family. All families are filled with such different people brought together by blood as well as legal documents. We can’t choose who they are, and if we let them, they will teach us so much. So that is why we are blessed to have families: because we have no choice but to love them more and wrap our arms around them and pull them close. And when we do that, we become beautiful and strong.

Mom and me

Ever since I decided to study mediation years ago, I have been on alert for signs of when people are in conflict because of misunderstandings. That’s my favourite part of conflict resolution: when people find out that some of their conflict is due to failure to understand what the other side is saying, and then working through that part once the parties realize they weren’t so divided as they thought they were.

As I mentioned in my last post, my mother is visiting for six days. This Spring Break visit went better than the last one we shared. Yesterday I lived through a perfect example of wanting the same outcome as the other party in a conflict, yet approaching it from such different perspectives that I began to suspect we were NOT aiming for the same goal.

Mom and I agreed quickly and easily to make tuna melt sandwiches on sourdough bread. We both went to the kitchen. She turned the stove on to heat the skillet, and I started on tuna. In the drawer where my black-handled can opener usually lives was a new one with red handles, thoughtfully matching the red kitchen appliances. Mom gleefully explained how the old can opener didn’t work right, so she bought a new one while I was at work the day before. “But I like the other can opener,” I said. “I’d like to use it.” Mom had thrown it in the trash.

I mixed up the tuna and moved on to the cheese. I had only begun slicing when Mom grabbed the bag of sourdough and began laying out bread slices right in my work space. I moved the block of cheese over a little so I could have some more room, and she gratefully slapped a couple more slices of bread down. So I picked up the cheese and moved to a different counter. “What are you doing?” She asked, dismayed. “The bread is here for you, to hold the cheese.”

I wasn’t ready for the bread, and she was stressing me out, so I sliced the cheese on the other counter. When I returned, she took the cheese slices from me and arranged them evenly across all the bread lying out. She looked up at me as though she was saying See how useful it is to have bread slices on the counter? She had also laid out home-canned jalapenos from my dad. Mmmmm. (Oooh, agreement! We both like the peppers.)

“Now you put the tuna over the cheese,” she explained in a ‘mom voice,’ teaching me how to do a simple task as though I was a kid again. I spread out the tuna on one slice, and then flipped the matching bread slice over the top.

“No!” she gasped. I had chosen the wrong slice. Sourdough loaves are unevenly shaped, so one needs to keep slices of the same size together. If I had placed them, my matching slices would have been side-by-side. Mom placed the matching slices above and below. Since there were four in a grid on the counter, I naturally assumed she had done it my way. She had not.

Not wanting to mess with her system, but clearly aware that I do it differently; I didn’t say anything to her. When I grill sandwiches on my own, I butter a slice, place in on the skillet, arrange all the stuff on it, butter the next slice and place it on top. Then I don’t get butter on my hands or butter on the counter, and all the guts don’t fall out while I transfer it from the counter to the pan.

She wanted me to do the cooking, because she isn’t used to my stove. But I was not sure how to progress. I stood, staring at the hot pan and the sandwiches on the counter, trying to think it through. Mom, equally irritated but equally kind, was not saying anything to me. We were stumped, each unable to move forward with our routine because we were at a place in grilling sandwiches we had never been at before. We had arrived by a new path, were at an unfamiliar stage, and the way forward was unclear.

“How do I butter the bread now that it’s already a sandwich?” I asked. “If I try it, all the stuff will spill out.” Turns out, I wasn’t supposed to put the top on the bread until I buttered it. She hadn’t stopped me because she assumed I was doing it my way and she didn’t want to interfere. Mom had no good suggestion for me, since I had already moved too far away from her system.

I don’t know how we got through the grilling. I literally do not recall what we did. By that time we were very confused and frustrated with each other. Writing this down and reading the description, it doesn’t seem like anything at all worth getting frustrated over. But we had such strong emotions, and molehills became mountains.

While we ate our sandwiches we laughed about it. “I could NOT figure out what you were doing!” she chuckled. “And I could not understand what you were doing!” I said. We raised glasses of wine and Mom chose the toast, “Celebrating our differences,” she said.


"Every wall falls eventually"

When the wall came down.

I was just talking with another Zaadzster who said he lived in Berlin till 2006. And it all came flooding back, you know? The WALL came down. I am sitting here crying as I type. Can you remember that? How incredible that was? I felt like it set the stage for nothing short of an incredible, astonishing time to be on planet earth.

OK, so I never did forget it. That day was monumental in shaping who I later became, and a girl doesn’t lightly forget that. But that’s what I thought of when asked this question from Q&R…

(images from Frederik Ramm)

simultaneously creating and destroying

Comment from the old blog:


I have posted A LOT of my experiences from back then (being born in East Germany myself) over here:

Check it out. 🙂

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