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Archive for the ‘The Big Stuff’ Category

I rarely crack open a Bible these days; it seems that the older I get, the fuzzier my theology becomes. But there was a long period during which I read from that tome every. single. day. I memorized big chunks, which I used to feel self-righteous and eviscerate anyone who didn’t share my rather literal perspective. While there’s virtually no chapter-and-verse reciting I can do anymore, the pieces that do continue to float around in my brain concern Jesus’ compassion and his focus on serving those on the margins: the poor, the sick, the “sinners.” (You know, the 47%.)

So when I read this article from today’s New York Times, which explains that a fundamentalist evangelical organization is encouraging parents to keep their kids home from school on “Mix it Up at Lunch Day” on October 30th (designed to encourage kids to spend time with a peer they don’t normally interact with, to promote tolerance and diversity and combat bullying) because it “promotes the homosexual lifestyle”, the first images in my head were of Jesus: hanging out with the Samaritan woman at the well, talking Zaccheus out of his tree, healing the centurion’s servant with a word. Demonstrating his love for people, singling out those who society had labeled as “other” for whatever arbitrary and indefensible reason. This is one of the ways I strive to emulate him.

And while I fall short often and repeatedly, I’m grateful that I’m surrounded by top-flight folk who are better than me at this. Some of the best I know are David, Mark, Willow and Karen. I am regularly in awe of each of them as they demonstrate empathy and generosity, and continually see the best in everyone. They are some of the significant manifestations of God in my life.

My heart is heavy thinking about kids being kept at home on October 30th. All I can do is hope that God crosses their paths (and those of their parents) with people like these tremendous friends of mine. Everyone should be so blessed.

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Untitled

There was nothing unusual about the day. January in Seattle: grey, drizzly, chill-you-to-the bone. The customary wind whipped my umbrella in all directions as I made the short walk from my office to the bank on First and Pine.

I was in typical midday mode, when hunger dictates that I be as efficient as possible running errands, getting in and out of the bank/post office/Bartell with a minimum of fuss. It was a bank day, which brought special annoyances, since the tellers were uber-chatty and the lingering-too-close security guard had a Davy Crockett-esque toupee.

Check deposited, I set off for my next destination: lunch. Setting as brusque a pace as my short little legs would allow, I mulled the internal debate of “falafel versus sushi” once again. As I stepped onto the wet sidewalk, I brushed by a man in a navy wool skull cap and puffy jacket. We caught one another’s eye, and he launched in.

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m trying to get enough money for a bus ticket to go home.” He looked directly at me as he made the inevitable ask. “Can you spare some change?”

“Hang on a second,” I said as I began to root around in my simultaneously annoying and beloved satchel. I knew I didn’t have any bills, but there were bound to be coins in here somewhere.

A woman brushed by us and as our eyes met, it took her a moment to replace the look of disapproval with the standard Seattle “I-couldn’t-care-less” expression. Perhaps she was a tourist.

I’ve had many a debate with people – including myself – about giving money to people on the street. But the author Ann Lamott silenced my internal quandary with a scene in one of her novels, the title of which I’ve long forgotten:

When the narrator, a 1970s tween, sees her mom give a dollar to the town drunk, she protests. “Mom! You know he’s going to use that money to buy alcohol!”

Her mom’s response? “Honey, when Jesus healed the blind man, he didn’t ask him what he was going to be looking at.”*

While I groped around in my bag for my coin purse, coming up with and discarding chapstick, matches, an old almond, I groped around in my mind for an attempt at small talk. “Where’s home?” I asked.

“What’s that?” said the man, and something in his voice made me look up from my baggage wasteland.

“I said, where’s home? Where are you trying to get back to?”

The man hesitated for a second, then, looking right at me again, broke out into a huge grin. “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies” he declared.

Fair enough, I thought, as I fished out the coins and poured them into his outstretched hand.

Our transaction finished, I smiled and said goodbye and he smiled and said God bless and asked me if I wanted to get coffee, and I said no thanks and I started off again, thinking about what had just happened.

Clearly, this man wasn’t trying to get home. I wondered where home was. Was there someone worried about him? Would it make it easier for them to know that in that moment, someone had responded to his need in a small way?

Ooh boy, that made me think about my dad. He reappeared for the final year of his life, and amidst the ferrying to multiple medical appointments and filling out mountains of paperwork, I didn’t have much to give him in the way of smiles. Resentment was manifest physically in the rigidity of my neck and shoulders as we sat in countless waiting rooms.

He never seemed to notice, though, and as his mind got hazier, he recited a handful of stories time and again as we waited. One came to mind as I turned mechanically into the falafel restaurant on Pine Street. The one about the girl at the Wendy’s drive thru, who would always call my dad “honey” and give him a large French fry – even though he’d ordered a small. This story annoyed me each time he told it: his implication that the twenty-something clerk in the window was attracted to him.

As I returned to the office with my falafel, hummus and pita, it occurred to me to be thankful for the Wendy’s woman. Maybe this is how it’s meant to work. She helped my dad, and I helped the guy in the Navy skullcap, who might have a resentful daughter out there, grateful for a proxy who can respond with compassion.

*Sentiment: Ann Lamott. Butchered paraphrase: me.

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Be involved….

Stephen Lewis is one of my heroes. He’s intelligent, articulate, provocative, and passionate, plus he’s a Canadian, and I’m a bit of a Canuckaphile. Also, he’s a feminist. When I heard him speak in 2008, he said that when his kids were growing up, he and his wife told them that the only thing they must be in life was feminists. One of them ended up marrying Naomi Klein.

Today he gave the commencement speech at Dartmouth College. I loved it, and I wanted to share it with you. If you want to check out Stephen’s work, go to www.aidsfreeworld.org.

As you heard, I served as the UN envoy on AIDS in Africa from 2001 to 2006. The nadir of that tenure was 2003. It’s impossible to convey the depths of despair and anguish that consumed the high-prevalence countries of Africa.

The spectre of death and the reality of death were omnipresent, from the graveyards to the village huts to the hospital wards. There were times when entire countries felt like a charnel house, a virtual cemetery. I remember one particularly awful episode: I was visiting the paediatric ward of the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia, with the superintendant, moving from cot to cot, each cot filled with five or six tiny infants, bodies strangled by a combination of malnutrition and what was undoubtedly the AIDS virus.

I had been in the ward for five minutes when an agonizing cry filled the room and reverberated wall to wall like some ghastly other-worldly shriek. I remember convulsively swiveling round to see what in God’s name was happening, and there in the corner of the room was a young mother, on her knees by one of the cots, weeping inconsolably as the nurse came in with a white sheet and took the babe away.

What lives with me to this day was that it happened every ten minutes I was in the ward: a wail, a nurse, a sheet, a little morsel of a death.

I remember thinking to myself: has the world gone mad? How is this possible in the first decade of the 21st century? But of course, not only was it possible, but it was happening to huge percentages … 5, 10, 20, 30, 35 per cent of the population between fifteen and forty-nine years of age, of whole countries, and in the decisive majority, to the women of those countries.

What was so appalling was the fact that by 2003, we had anti-retroviral drugs available; to be specific, three drugs in one pill to be taken twice a day. It was called triple-combination therapy. It kept people alive. So powerful and effective were the drugs that they were said to cause the Lazarus effect … people at death’s door suddenly underwent a startling metamorphosis: they got better, they looked after their family, they survived!

But for some reason, the world was paralyzed in its response. It might have been racism, it might have been geography, it might have been indifference; whatever it was the treatment did not roll out, even though, by then, there were generic drug equivalents emerging that made treatment financially possible.

Millions of lives were lost, unnecessarily; millions were put at risk, unnecessarily.

And then something astonishing happened. It came in mortal form: it was called Jim Kim.

Alright, this is where it gets embarrassing, but I refuse to be cowed by circumstance. On December 1st, 2003, the World Health Organization — WHO — launched a campaign against AIDS called “3 by 5”. The objective was to put three million people into treatment by the end of 2005. The idea, months in gestation — startling, inspired, brilliant, came full-blown from the brow of Jim Kim … which, when I think of it, may explain his permanently furrowed forehead.

There’s no beating around the bush here. Jim Kim became the Director of HIV/AIDS at WHO. He had a tremendously supportive Director-General and the two of them together drove things forward. I was flush in the middle of being the Envoy; I watched it close-up, and I can say, unequivocally, that it was the absolute turning-point in the struggle to subdue the pandemic.

But it wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t easy for the most ridiculous and distressing of reasons: one of the singular truths about the United Nations, rarely known by the outside world, is the degree of jealousy and competitiveness among the agencies. And the sorry truth about “3 by 5” is that some in the UN world of AIDS were incensed by Jim Kim’s initiative, were incensed that he’d taken the lead, were incensed that it gave WHO all kinds of kudos and profile, were incensed that they were left in the murky backwater of the also-rans. They couldn’t sabotage things directly — after all there is a limit to vile human behaviour — but they sure as the devil weren’t going to help it succeed.

And at every opportunity, behind the scenes, sotto voce, they forecast failure. But nothing daunted Dr. Kim and his colleagues. They persevered regardless the rage and rivalry.

Well, in mathematical terms, “3 by 5” did fail. We didn’t make the three million. But in human terms, it was a magnificent success: what “3 by 5” did was to unleash a rollout of treatment that became irreversible. Thus it is that today there are nearly five million people in treatment, primarily in the developing world, overwhelmingly in Africa. Your University President contributed significantly to keeping those people alive

Can I tell you something privately, never to be revealed to the outside world? I love Jim Kim. I’m not for a moment self-conscious in saying it.

Now I readily concede that not everyone is going to be a Jim Kim. But I would insist that it’s possible for everyone to make a contribution to improving the human condition.

You are graduating from one of the most esteemed universities on the planet. Whatever the discipline, whatever the profession you embrace, it is possible, over the years, to better this often fetid world. You don’t have to devote your life to it — no one is asking for some saintly transformation — I am only asking for a sense of being a global citizen, of caring about the injustice in this world, and doing something, however modest, to end it.

In Washington this past week, just completed, there was a conference called “Women Deliver”, attracting the participation of over three thousand concerned advocates and activists from every corner of the globe. The conference addressed, head-on, all those issues that so compromise the lives millions of women lead, whether international sexual trafficking, or female genital mutilation, or honour killings, or child brides, or the absence of inheritance rights and property rights, or the lack of economic autonomy, or dismal political representation, or maternal mortality, or intimate partner violence, or marital rape, or the spreading contagion of savage rape and sexual violence in situations of armed conflict, like the Congo, and the crazed lust for political power, like Zimbabwe.

It’s impossible, in the face of all of this, not to realize that the most important struggle in the world is the struggle for gender equality. You can’t continue to marginalize half the world’s population and expect to approximate social justice.

This isn’t to suggest that everyone has to pick up the cudgels of engagement and join some organization devoted exclusively to human rights for women, although that would be a worthy pursuit. But it does mean that in your personal and professional lives, above all the lives of young men, whether played out in the family, the community or the workplace, respect for women and a recognition of equality become the benchmarks of civilized behaviour.

It carries a message. It ripples inexorably outwards. It’s also a part of global citizenship.

Next month in my country, Canada, we’re hosting both the G8 and the G20. Undoubtedly, they will devote a major chunk of debate to the international financial crisis. The agenda also calls for significant attention to maternal and child health, attention to the ghastly reality of between three hundred and four hundred thousand women dying every year in pregnancy and child birth, and the heartbreaking statistic of nearly eight million children dying every year under the age of five from wholly preventable diseases.

Added to this, if we’re lucky, will be an intense exchange over the catastrophic decline in funding for HIV/AIDS, dismembering the legacy of “3 by 5”, and threatening the survival of nine million additional people living with AIDS who need treatment now. Today. This very moment.

Again, I’m not asking that you hurl yourselves into the fray … that you up and join a non-governmental organization and take yourself off to Africa, although it’s a worthy consideration. I ask only that you talk about these issues, care about these issues, perhaps contribute financially to the solution of these issues. Global citizenship is not some rigid construct or dialectic: it takes many forms.

The same argument applies, I believe, to the summit of world leaders to be held at the United Nations in New York in September. They will be discussing progress on the Millennium Development Goals; eight goals to be reached by 2015, the most central of which is to confront the poverty of the developing world … the staggering fact that 1.4 billion people live on less than a dollar and a quarter a day.

And the same argument further applies, I believe, to the meeting in November this year in Mexico City, when the nations of the world will gather to address, yet again, the apocalyptic implications of climate change.

But in a vein similar to what I’ve said before, I don’t ask that you become climatologists. I don’t ask that you become resident environmentalists, although that would be quite wonderful. I don’t ask that you do post-graduate studies in wind turbines, solar energy, biomass or any other renewable energy alternatives. I ask only that you take this incredible education that you’ve amassed, and analyze and engage and reflect and dispute and embrace, but above all be involved in shaping a more secure, just and decent world.

Global issues; global citizenship. There’s nothing more noble than the quest for social justice and equality. As of today, you can choose to launch yourself onto that path.

I salute you. I congratulate you. Thank you for this honour.

Global citizenship is something I aspire to. Feel free to hold me accountable. That’s what we’re here for.

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Haiti

My fuzzy theology doesn’t know what to do with this massive tragedy in Haiti, a country still reeling from four hurricanes in 2008 and suffering from poverty like few other places in the world. Of this, however, I’m certain: the least I can do is give.

If you feel the same way, consider Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, Partners in Health, Mercy Corps, The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders…. anything helps.

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I have the best community. It is, by far, the most valuable thing in my life. It’s how I experience God in this world.

And it’s a pretty disparate bunch of people – a conglomeration of my years as a fundamentalist, a college student, a theatre chick, a Catholic poseur (it’s better in Francais), a philanthropy wonk and an online dater, plus my family and book group and a high school friend or two. Collectively they’re really smart, really generous, really ha-larious people.

The guys are stunning: one bought me the very laptop on which I’m composing this post; one sings on Broadway, one tapped me to stage manage his fortieth birthday party, and one stage managed the gathering I had after my dad died. He helped me plan while lying flat on my living room floor, his back having gone out earlier that evening. They make me laugh, make beautiful music, hold me accountable, and live well in the world.

But these women….

I am blessed with a legion of women friends; they are the core of my life. It is going to take many, many posts to do them justice individually and collectively. Tonight, I’d like to start with one of the Jennifers (incidentally, a name that I would bestow on a daughter, since my life has been immeasureably enriched by Jenny, Jen, Jenny and Jen) – the one I’ve known longest.

“Spicy Jenny” (as I distinguish her from four others) has been on my mind a lot this week. We chatted a few days ago for the first time in awhile, and she asked me lots of good questions about my trip to Mexico City (more on that another day), which is typical – she’s terrific at asking after what’s going on in my life, and responding with great enthusiasm. It’s really gratifying to share news and stories with her.

After hearing my tales, she told me about the happenings in her life – in particular, a situation with a long-time friend who has cut her off. There’s a lump forming in my throat and a constriction in my chest even as I write this, thinking about this dear woman’s pain and confusion.

I believe to my core that even when a friendship is coming to an end – and it’s inevitable that some do in everyone’s life – no one deserves to be ignored or abandoned without explanation. Having lost close friends both this way and to unexpected death, I’m willing to say that the cold shoulder is the more devastating situation from which to recover. When it happened to me, it shook my self-confidence and made me second-guess all of my friendships. It was dreadful, one of the most difficult seasons of my life.

So it makes my stomach contract to think of it happening to this lovely woman. The irony is that if I were to pick one attribute of Jenny’s to emulate (there are many), it would be the way she cares for her friends. Jenny fiercely supports the people she loves – throwing parties, writing letters, listening well, and on and on. Jenny is a doula, which sums up the way she lives her life: as a mother to the mothers, a caretaker – the kind of woman that gets invited to the most personal experience in someone’s life – giving birth. I always feel well cared for and highly valued in her presence. She’s one of the significant ways that I experience God.

So I wish I could make it all better. I wish that her friend would snap out of it and call Jenny and apologize RIGHT NOW. But since my wand has not yet arrived, I’ll send my dear Jenny light and grace and peace, and strive to be more like her each day.

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It’s 12:20 AM on Friday morning and I have to be at work later so I SHOULD be in bed, but pooh on that, because I went to a Storm game tonight and when I came home I had to visit with Angie and eat chocolate cake and read my fave blogs and watch Glee. Soon, very soon, I will sleep.

But first, I have something to say.

I read an article in the NYer this week about Mr Isomething, the leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, whose likely to be the next PM. He was in the backseat of a car on the way to Stratford Shakespeare Festival (which the author had the cojones to call the far-and-away best classical company in North America, and my ignorance in this area means I don’t have a leg to stand on in dispute), and made the point that liberty and equality are not easily reconciled.

This got me thinking.

I love many people with whom I don’t agree about many things. Once upon a time I did agree, but no longer. These people, who have treated me so well for many, many years, esteem liberty above all other ideals. Me, I’ve got to go with equality.

American folklore pushes us one direction: “Give me liberty or give me death” is something I’ve known for as long as I can remember. Quotes about equality – I’ve got nothing. Except “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Conservatives embrace liberty as a God-given right, but I can’t see a way to true liberty without first pursuing equality. Whether or not legislation dictates what we can and cannot do, if my neighbor lacks food or shelter or healthcare, neither of us is free.

The American, declarative motto of “in God we trust” is perfectly adequate, a statement with which I agree. But I prefer the French motto: “liberty, equality, fraternity,” in which I see a lifelong pursuit: recognize that we’re one family, treat everyone well, ensuring that each is provided for, and liberty will come to all. This is how I want to live.

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