Monday, December 29, 2008

The Winchester Ghosts

I used to travel to San Jose on a regular basis. On a couple of occasions I took some leisure time to sight see, stopping by the Winchester Mystery House. This house was the home of Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester. After his death and that of her daughter, Sarah moved West and began construction on this grand ol' Victorian home. Construction continued non-stop until her death 38 years later. What's peculiar about this house is that there are stair cases that go nowhere, doors on high floors that open to the outside (and no stairs to the ground), there are false cupboard doors, the number of stairs are mind numbing and that's just a few of the oddities. Why did Sarah continue to build in such a strange and seemingly haphazard way? She believed herself to be haunted by the thousands who had perished by the guns created and manufactured by the Winchester family. She was convinced that this was why her husband had died young and her daughter. She felt that the crazy array of rooms, stairs and doorways would keep the spirits occupied so they would leave her in peace.

Sarah has been on my mind today as I also feel haunted by the innocent souls liberated early from this life by bombs stamped with "Made in the USA". I think continually of the fields littered with the remains of our cluster bombs, water contaminated from our depleted uranium, not to mention the children born with dibilating deformities and cancers from the toxic waste we've left them. My Christmas season ended as US made bombs killed nearly 300 already demoralized citizens of Gaza. This added to the Iraqi and Afghani death tolls. Yes, America the beautiful is responsible, just as the Winchesters were, for countless deaths and endless suffering. Unfortunately there could be no house big enough or convoluted enough to satisfy all the wandering souls killed by US weapons of mass destruction. From our Atomic bombs in Japan to our bunker busters, my mind swoons at the astounding numbers of innocent victims. Over 90% of casualties of conflict today are civilians, not combatants, but even a combatant is a human being, just one that is willing to risk their own life for what they believe in.

My wish is that America, if we trully desire to be a nation under God, quit providing the means for sending so many His way. Let's stop being the arms dealer to the world. Let's instead build schools, hospitals, and utility centers. Let's drop food and medical supplies from our F16s. We have the potential to do so much good in the world - if only we could wake up from this horrible nightmare of empire. Maybe we are all haunted by the spirits and that's why we're afraid to wake up, stop shopping, watching football or whatever you do to stay disengaged from the world and start working for change. It's civilians that are dying, and guess what, you're one too. If we don't stand up for them now, who will stand up for us when our time comes. Tomorrow there are emergency protests all across America - be there. Let your voice be heard.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Beach Side Philosophy

I enjoyed an early morning stroll by the beach, enjoying the roar of the surf and the sounds of gulls begging the beachfront hotel guests for a bit of their breakfast. The coast of Oregon is not the warm and gentle experience of the Florida beaches but rather a brutal reminder of the cataclysmic beginnings of this land. Remnants of the previous ice age and volcanic activity litter the surf in the form of gigantic moss and barnacle covered rock formations. The waves crash against these formations sending spray and foam reaching high into the sky before raining back down into the chaotic eddy's dancing below. The trees perched perilously along the rugged features of this coast bend genuflect to the great mountain range behind them. There is an ageless battle between earth and sea that resonates deeply within my own soul. This place is about survival but also about death.

On return to my lodging, my eyes landed upon a dark lump in the distance, gulls and a couple smaller birds digging hungrily at it. As I neared I discovered the lump was a fallen comrade of the hordes, a dead pelican. Jagged red flesh exposed beneath matted gray feathers showed the place where the seabirds aided in the decomposition of their flying friend. He had lost his last battle against the sea, the very medium that had given him life and sustenance had taken it from him. Now he would be reclaimed to he bosom, his flesh continuing to soar great heights, reincarnated into the muscle and sinew of other birds.

At first it seemed tragic, one bird devouring another. Yet it is the primordial way, recycling and balancing death with life. Tragedy is the human condition. As we pick the flesh from the bones of our own kind we destroy ourselves. The Israeli's kill their neighbors and rob them of their homes, refugee camps border too many war torn areas, men rape and mutilate women and children mercilessly for no cause they could put words to, internally displaced people roam the countrysides the world over. Iraq, once a proud nation, has been reduced to rubble due to the vanity of another, better armed and more brutal nation. All of our tears, our suffering will one day be washed away, set adrift in the seas or buried deeply beneath new earth. This pain that we gift each other with is empty and meaningless, for we are all doomed to the same fate. Would it not make more sense to comfort one another in our inevitable decay and death rather than to exacerbate our agony? Let's open our eyes and restore balance to our existence. This is the truth of nonviolence. This is my truth as I know it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The longest night

Alexa and I are snowed in this solstice. I drove over snowy hills to collect her from her Dad's earlier this evening. It reminded me of the last freak storm in Dec03/Jan04 as I tried to get to a store to get a pregnancy test to confirm my suspicions. Well I did and I was. Now here I sit with an amazingly beautiful and smart four year old girl sleeping next to me. I remember those first thoughts as my mind spun out various future scenarios around the growing life inside me. And yet none of them came even close to this exquisite moment. I tried to convince myself that I wasn't pregnant - I was 37 and more lesbian then straight - so how could that happen, oh yes, I know the answer. It was my last chance and I took it. I wonder where we will be when the next freak snow storm hits. Where ever it is I'm sure that moment will be even more exquisite than I can frame on the canvass of my imagination sitting here now.

There is a bleakness that comes with snow. Much of life's color is suddenly lost. The temperatures drop and a desire to hibernate overtakes the body. Yet there is a beauty in this ghostlike world that pulls me toward the door. I've been donning the snowshoes and taking brisk walks trying to capture my thoughts in photographs. At one point I put the camera into black and white mode just to intensify the harsh softness of this colorless world. We live in stark contrasts - at least until they melt back into one.

I recall another winter as a teenager in Ky. I had missed my monthly calling and fretted that I might be pregnant. My Mother had gotten pregnant as a teen. She painfully reminded me of the life she dreamed, lost in that ill fated moment in the back seat of some Kentucky boys car. My very existence brought suffering for her. At that moment I could imagine no fate worse than pregnancy. In fact, I embraced death as my only true option and friend. I could not simply eradicate my error with an abortion. If I must destroy my own flesh I would do it completely, joining my unborn in the next world. The snow fell and the world became my silent witness as I walked into the woods, contemplating ways of ending this misery. Laden with heavy thought I sat on a fallen tree and stared blindly into the white, tears cold against my cheeks. Movement caught my eye and I looked up to see that I was being watched. A hundred yards away a gray and white she-wolf watched my misery. Her coat full and warm against the cold. As her eyes set upon my own I felt my shame begin to crumble in defeat, wrestled down by an atavistic desire to live. A primitive will was shared, a strength and a love. My eyes drifted to the ground and when I looked up again for my companion she was gone. I walked to where I had seen this winter spirit, and discovered that no paw prints littered the snow. I wiped away tears as I found my way back home with sorrow transformed.

I was not pregnant after all. It turned out that the birth control pills I was taking were the wrong strength for me. And whether or not the magnificent wolf was of this world or just an image from my mind, it matters not for she still comes into focus in my moments of weakness, reminding me of my own inner strength. It would be 20 years before I would experience motherhood. From 17 to 37 and now, sitting in the dark, listening to my daughter's soft and rhythmic breathing at age 42. The stark contrasts of my own life, only nostalgia for a snowy night before the warming sun sets free all the colors, painting from the palette of each unfolding moment.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Thursday Night Adventure at Whitefeather

When: December 18th, following vegetarian meal which starts at 5:00pm

Where: Whitefeather House - 3315 North Russet Street - one mile west
of I-5 and one block north of North Lombard, behind Sterling Savings Bank, on bus line 75

Artwork by: Hillbilly Artist A Peace of Art a Day

Monday, December 8, 2008


A Prince about to be coronated as king, the future Buddha, determined to see what was beyond the gates of his estate He employed a chariot to show him around against the will of his father. On his journey he observed an old man, a very ill man and a corpse. Then he saw an ascetic whose face relayed contentment. As Siddartha contemplated the meaning of what he'd seen he came to realize that we all suffer or at least find life less than perfect, the first of the Noble Truths. The second Truth is that the cause is attachment. The good news can be found in the third and fourth, that we can end our suffering by following the Eightfold path.

The first Noble Truth says that "Life is dukka". Often this is translated as suffering, but closer fit would be unsatisfying or imperfect. Few of us will deny that there is dukka. This dissatisfaction comes from the impermanence of EVERYTHING in this existence. Impermanence is not the flaw, it is the reality. Our attempts to make permanent that which cannot be permanent brings us suffering and unhappiness. It is our thinking that is flawed or at least deluded with regard to reality. All of us will experience illness, aging and ultimately death. We all hope that we won't suffer any illness more threatening than the common cold, nor that we will have to endure too much pain as we age and we always imagine sitting back when we've done all we can in this life and quietly releasing into death. This life is rare so to attach to this scenario can only lead to more dukka. Attachment is two-fold as I think of it. There is clinging or grasping after pleasurable things and thoughts while avoiding those that are not. The middle way is to avoid both and just reside in the moment as it is.

There is a Buddhist practice of meditating on death. The premise being that since death is inevitable a few rehearsals might be in order to help us get it right. It's also a reminder not to identify too strongly with the body. Often in my meditations I visualize myself a sitting corpse or sometimes a skeleton. I remind myself that this body and mind are only dirt and will eventually decay and fail me. Rather than a morbid focus I find this practice very liberating. It relaxes me. It reminds me to relish the itch on my nose, for it will pass with or without my scratching it. The painful veins in my legs may one day provide pathways for grubs as they aid in my decomposition. The pinched nerve in my neck, the nerve damage down my left side that causes an endless itching sensation - all these will fade away, becoming mulch for a new harvest of life. And then I look at my body in a new light. It is chemistry and electricity. It is the most complex measuring tool for my analytical experiments in space and time. Who the observer of these experiments is I'm not entirely sure. But then that is why I'm still just practicing and not yet a Buddha.

Thought does not come out of a vacuum and so it is true of this contemplation of the impermanence of life. There were two occasions recently that brought my mind to focus on this topic. First was my friend Seda's post on Dysphoria ( and all the comments that it generated. No one, especially in our consumerist society, will be completely happy with their body image. But for the transgendered this experience is amplified. It reminded me of how my body image has changed throughout my life. Remembering times when I was thin, ribs prominently defined beneath my skin, and yet I continued to diet and exercise to match some unobtainable picture in my mind. My best friend in high school suffered anorexia to the point that her reproductive system was compromised and she ultimately ended up in the hospital being fed intravenously to save her life. I'm relieved to say I'm way beyond that now. With my shaved head and chemical free face, I feel quite at ease with my body and all it's imperfections, flaws, scars, and now wrinkles. The signs of aging are asserting themselves each morning as I look in the mirror or try to make out the number on my cell phone display when someone calls. I could use modern technology, surgery, makeup and such to try to fit the ideal look for the aging adult (or worse, hold on to some youthful ideal I never achieved in the first place), but I think I already learned that lesson as a young woman. I'm proud of the wrinkles, because they're primarily from smiling. I'm proud of the stretch marks because they remind me of the warmth of pregnancy and that amazing and most intense experience called birth. Each scar holds a memory of a frightened young girl who tried something just a little beyond her capability, but she didn't let it stop her from trying it again later. And some scars were self inflicted, which remind me of how far I've travelled both in this external world as well as inside this host. My time with the body is so brief, so now I take good care of her in the hopes that she will allow me some more experiments in this space and time constrained world. I have great compassion for my body and my mind - they've been through a lot and managed to do way better than just survive.

Life is too short. There are no one way tickets. The second event that started this internal and now external dialog happened Friday night. I was participating in a teleconference for Nonviolent Peaceforce, when I noticed an email from the Unitarian Universalist Peace Action Committee. I assumed it would be about our upcoming meeting. It was, but it also added that a dear friend of so many of us was in recovery from surgery. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and surgery proceeded almost immediately. As soon as she is strong enough chemotherapy will begin in an attempt to kill off the 10% of the tumor that was inoperable. Four years ago her life partner died of this same cancer. My friend has given so much of herself to so many both here in the Portland community and abroad in places like Cuba, Budapest, etc. Now she is surrounded by a large network of friends who are giving their love, time and care, and hoping it will float her through this terrible experience. It's one thing to contemplate our own frailty and imminent death, but when it is a loved one the lesson can be so much harder. We must accept our helplessness while at the same time watching for every opportunity to give care and compassion. We have to maintain our strength and energy so that we can share it when theirs wanes. This is what we do. Humans are made to care for one another. Compassion is our natural state if only we'll let it be. Never deny an opportunity to help another and you will experience the contentment Buddha saw in the face of the ascetic. And when the day arrives when your own body begins to fail, you'll find yourself carried by the love and compassion of others, bringing you full circle.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Cheap Socks - something to kill for?

I have a friend that participates, with her sisters, each year in the insane "black Friday" shopping fever. I asked her if there were really any deals good enough to get up at dark-thirty in the morning and go stand outside a mega-store filled with cheap Chinese made crap on a day when we should be sleeping in, revelling in our previous days feelings of gratefulness for healthy families, loving homes and full bellies. She told me she did it for the socks. Apparently Wal-Mart puts out a bin filled with socks that are dirt cheap, for which normally civilized women will do battle. They're not the nice warm home-spun woolies needed for the damp world of Portland that we share - no these are just cheap, white athletic socks that her kids will end up wearing for the coming year. So when I heard that a temp employee of Wal-Mart in Long Island NY was trampled to death by the early morning shoppers, while he attempted to open the doors and let them in, I had to wonder when America had decided that cheap socks were more valuable than human life.

As someone who shuns these stores anyway for their terrible impact on local businesses, I struggle to understand why stuff, cheap or not, can have so much power over the American mind. Are we simply controlled by the advertising community? Maybe since I've quit watching TV I'm less susceptible to this disease. I can't even listen to the radio, as soon as a song finishes and a blaring ad begins I have to turn it off. But even I have my reckless spending days where I feel a desire to buy, buy, buy. One of those days will come before Christmas and I'll visit Fred Meyers and find some fun learning toys for my daughter. Or.... maybe this year I'll skip Freddy's, since it's no longer a local NW company, and instead I'll visit the more expensive woman owned toy shop down the street from my home. I don't spend much money at Christmas anyway but what I do spend should support the woman that has made this store her life's journey rather than adding to the coffers of some large corporation in some far off distant land. I'll keep Christmas local this year.

If you find yourself filling a cart in one of those mega-crap-stores this Christmas, please ask yourself who you're really helping in this season of giving. The number of wrapped gifts under the tree is not a sign of success or happiness. Are your children better off because they have the latest Wii games or Dora pogo stick? Jesus, Mohammad, and Gandhi all taught that less is more, that people are what matter, not things. This Christmas light a candle for Jdimytai Damour, the 34 year old Wal-Mart employee and recognize how far America has strayed from the real meaning of this season. As a new year rolls around we might all want to consider this resolution - I will not become an animal with the insatiable appetite for cheap socks, and I refuse to harm my fellow humans in the pursuit of a bargain, keeping in mind that the human suffering caused by our spending habits is not always as obvious as a trampled person on the floor. And turn off the TV and radio - it really helps.