Monday, September 28, 2009

Monkey on My Back

Several people have asked me what that thing is on my shoulder in my profile photo. So I will now let the secret out: it's a monkey. The monkey and I were in the backyard of a tiny café in a Peruvian jungle town called Salvacion, where I was on an investigative assignment for the newspaper Indian Country Today.

I have never really considered monkeys my power animals, preferring the grace of birds or the sensual power of cats, or even the tricksterish freedom of the coyote, or the haunting midnight song of the wolf. But here I am in my profile photo with a monkey on my back.

What’s up with that?

“Monkey on my back” is an expression which apparently originated with heroin users, who have said they have to feed their addiction because if they don’t it feels like they have a monkey on their back.

So this little monkey in my photo is a public confession that I am an addict. Not to heroin—much too costly and messy. But to a number of other things. To writing, for instance, this endless stream of self-generated gibberish which sometimes brings me to extraordinary focus and clarity, and sometimes just gibbers. To exploration, to the unseen image or realization or friendship that lies just around the corner, the boat tied up on the dock and ready to sail, the doors of the next train sliding open, the rickety bus to the next jungle town. To…coffee with one t-spoon of sugar and some cream. To a really good novel that seduces me into its world. To paintings whose colors and textures rearrange the blood in my veins. To the news that I can’t get on CNN, and have to rummage around the internet to find. To intelligent conversation.

Well, I could go on, but you get the idea.

I am also addicted to spiritual books and teachings that talk a lot about the Monkey Mind, that chattering and addictive self that won’t let you just sit under the Boddhi tree and be peacefully enlightened. I offer you this Self-Portrait-with-Monkey as a public acknowledgement that I am no longer fighting my Monkey Mind. I have it, as you can see, on a very thin string. But it will probably always have something to say to me. So now I just listen. And eventually, when it’s had its say, it usually shuts up.

Finally, what I like about monkeys is that they remind me so much of our own species--they are like tiny rambunctious humans that throw our own silliness back in our face. So I proudly wear this monkey on my shoulder because I think most humans take themselves much too seriously, myself included.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Susan Atkins Dies: Memories of Charles Manson and His Girls

Susan Atkins, ex-Charles Manson follower and convicted murderer of Sharon Tate, died today. Her death brought me back to when I was fifteen years old and stared across the room at Charles Manson.

The room was a courtroom in Los Angeles, crowded with spectators who had stood in line for hours outside to witness a trial that shocked the nation. Tate, more than eight months pregnant, and several others, had been found stabbed to death, apparantly in a brutal crime spree by a cult of drug-addled young people.

The doors of the courtroom had just opened, and I was filing into my seat with two of my high school friends. I had long red hair down to my waist and was wearing a green 'granny dress', and knee high boots. My teenage friends also looked like hippies.

Just before I found my seat, I turned to look at Charles Manson, the defendant, and found him staring at me. I had seen his face plastered all over the newspapers in Los Angeles---the crazy wide eyed stare that left no doubt that he was capable of doing the things he had been accused of.

To my shock, I found that the face I was staring into was not the same face that I had seen in the newspapers. "Charlie" was smiling at the three of us, a big wide beaming smile that indicated he felt we had come as supporters and welcomed that. His face had no trace of the craziness of that other newspaper photo. His smile was infectious, luminous, charming, as he beamed it across the room at us.

And we smiled back. Why? Because we thought he was innocent, we thought he had been framed. The societal and generational divisions of that time were so deep that some of us who were in the 'counter culture' thought that anytime someone who was relatively young and looked like a hippie was arrested, he or she must have been framed.

Linda Kasabian, one of the Manson girls who had turned witness for the prosecution, was speaking.

I don't remember exactly what she said, but I remember looking across the room at her and again being struck by how 'normal' she looked, this soft-spoken, dark-haired,conservatively dressed young woman.

Out in the hallway on break, I met "Squeaky" Fromme, another Manson follower who went on to be convicted for the attempted assasination of Gerald Ford, and who was recently released from prison just a few weeks ago.

She was blonde, tiny and pixiesh, with an open face and an earnest expression. She definitely could have been 'the girl next door'.

Except for the red X etched in her forehead, a protest emblem that all the Manson girls had put there as a symbol of solidarity for Charlie.

"Of course Charlie is innocent," she said. "How could they possibly be doing this to him?"

I was fifteen, raised on super-hero comic books and good-and-evil Westerns. Murderers weren't supposed to look like this, not like smiling charmers and sweet-faced girls next door. In the comic books and movies, you can always tell who the murderers are by their slimey aura and the evil they emanated.

Murderers were not Us. They were Them.

The Charles Manson trial shocked me out of that presumption. These kids looked exactly like me and my friends, and that was horrifying.

Despite all the talk of being 'framed', I sensed somehow that they had done the things they were accused of doing.

Later, after I became a criminal investigator and investigated many a murder trial, I learned how easy it is for a sociopath or psychopath to put on a convincing front. But I also learned how easy it is for a seemingly 'normal' person to slip in a matter of minutes from innocent to murderer--an instant of rage, a drug-filled evening, a descent into individual or group madness that in which you are convinced in absolute self-righteousness that 'the other' deserves to die.

"She deserves to die a horrible death, after all she's done," said a part of me when I saw Susan Atkins dying on the news. This was probably the part that knows what it's like to survive the murder of someone you love.

But another part of me, the part that I prefer to breathe into, saw that her attorney James Whitehouse had married this creature who did the unspeakable, this "sociopath." I watched him coaching her as she recited the Lord's Prayer and I saw the palpable love that passed between the two of them on her death bed.

And I was happy for her, that no matter what she's done, she was able to die next to someone who loved her.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Zelaya's Return Creates Pivotal Moment for Democracy in the Americas

reposted from Yes

As returning president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya remains holed up in the Brazilian embassy and the man who deposed him, Roberto Micheletti, maintains a cordon of state police around the embassy and a state of siege throughout the country, leaders at the UN are calling for his reinstatement in a moment that may prove pivotal for democracy in the Americas.

Zelaya's opponents on the right have criticized him with a familiar refrain: he is a left-wing dictator intent on dragging his country into socialism. But the people who elected him, a majority of Hondurans, have supported him as a new kind of president, with a consultative style of governance that engages previously marginalized people, including women, workers, farmers, and indigenous communities.

These were the people who, upon hearing the news that Zelaya had returned, left their homes at dawn and streamed into the city from the countryside by the thousands, filling the streets of Tegucigalpa with dancing and celebration.

Micheletti frantically tried to stem the tide of celebrants, first calling reports of Zelaya's presence in Honduras "media terrorism,” then sending the state police to beat and arrest the demonstrators. A piercing alarm filled the streets, said eyewitness Andres Conteris, director of the Program on the Americas for Nonviolence International. Three hundred people were arrested, and three killed, according to reports by Telesur. This morning Micheletti cut off electricity to the Brazilian embassy.

"I have come to engage in dialogue," Zelaya told the Columbian news station Radio W. "We don't want to live in war, we don't want dictators."

Arriving at the beginning of the UN meeting was a bold and astute move for Zelaya, throwing into sharp relief the contrast between his peaceful efforts to regain his presidency through the UN with Micheletti's brutal tactics in suppressing Honduran citizens.

But for those who danced in the streets on Monday morning, it was not so much Zelaya the politician they were celebrating as Zelaya the symbol. Like Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, he had responded to the groundswell of marginalized people that has swept across Honduras and the rest of Latin America in the past decade, a clamor for change and inclusion from those who have been most damaged by the neoliberal economic policies that have run rampant throughout the Americas for many years. This groundswell has transcended traditional political boundaries, including not just farmers, workers, the poor, and indigenous, but also, according to activists within Honduras, an increasing number of people from the middle class .

These are the people who elected Zelaya, and these are the people Zelaya was responding to when he organized a survey to find out how many Hondurans wanted to create a new constitution—one not based on the outdated class systems of the old Latin America, but inclusive of all people.

If Zelaya is a symbol of the new, Micheletti, with his gun-toting state police and his ties to the School of the Americas, represents a fading ghost of Latin America's past—a past haunted by violence, by fear, by death and disappearances.

The fear of change that exists in Honduras, in Latin America, and indeed in our own country, will not go away overnight. Battles will continue to be fought, waves of paranoia and resistance will sweep over us as we attempt to move forward to a more just and inclusive society.

The potential return of democracy to a tiny Central American country is more than just a blip on the historical radar. It is a moment we should pay attention to, because it mirrors back to us our own collective vacillation between fear and hope, between change by autocracy and gunfire on one side, and change by the democratic process on the other.

Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States, told a UN press conference on Tuesday night that the presence of the elected president in the Honduran capital was an opportunity to achieve a peaceful resolution to the stand-off in this Central American country.

This morning, President Lula of Brazil called for a special meeting of the UN Security Council, which will force the United States to take a more active role in the crisis.

Micheletti may have replaced the government, but he has not been able to erase the popular sentiment that elected Zelaya in the first place.

Zelaya, Andres Contreris tells us, is prepared for "a long and belabored stay" in the Brazilian embassy.

Change, it seems, will not easily be evicted from the Americas.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

L'Shana Tova

(photo: Lisa Gale Garrigues)

This month I am celebrating and honoring Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days. Traditionally these are days of repentance and correction, of looking within, making amends, letting go, and moving on.

Last month I honored the Pacha Mama, with an Andean ritual to the earth.

We are blessed to be living in a time and culture with so many ways to honor the sacredness of our lives and environment.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Van Jones, the A-Word, and the C-Word

Van Jones, The A-Word, and the C-Word.

So Van Jones, Obama's Green Jobs man, has resigned because some Republicans got their undies in a bunch about some of the things he's done. Most of the media reports about the resignation have focused on these two things:

1) He signed a petition asking for investigation into how much the Bush administration knew beforehand about the 911 attacks.

2)He called the Republicans assholes and was videotaped doing it.

I'm not even going to talk about #1 Since when is it 'un-American' to try and find out the truth? The way I learned it growing up in the American school system, it's un-American to NOT try and find out the truth, even if that truth has to do with your own government.

Let's move on to #2. He called the Republicans assholes and was videotaped doing it.

The A-word came out of Van Jones' mouth in response to a question from an audience member about why the Democrats couldn't get bills passed with so many of them in office but the Republicans have always been able to push forward their agenda with far fewer people.

"Because the Republicans are assholes," he said, adding, "as a political science term."

I do not see Van Jones' use of the word 'asshole' here as an insult to Republicans, but rather a backhanded compliment. From what I understand, he was saying they are willing to be tough where the democrats are more prone to slide into divisive wimpdom.

Um. Yep.

Guess it has to do with George Lakoff's Republicans= Strict Father, Dems=Nurturing Mother model of political rhetoric, but as usual the Republicans are playing a meaner game of hardball than the Dems, who in the current administration seem more intent on conciliation than on sticking with the agenda of change they were elected for.

And here's something I still don't get:
Folks like Rush Limbaugh and Tom Sullivan can make on- the- air references comparing the president of the United States to Hitler, a mass murderer of 6 million people, and that's okay. But Mr. Jones compares Republicans to a humble but crucial bodily part, and he suddenly has to resign.

I've never figured out why we humans are more ashamed of our bodily parts than we are of our mass murderers. But that's a whole 'nother rant.

I'll try to stick to Mr. Jones here.

He followed his A-word comment up by saying "And those of us who are not Barack Obama need to start being a little more uppity."

In other words, the Democrats need to learn something from the Republicans: start acting more like assholes, get a little uppity.

Well we all see where Van Jones' uppitydom got him. Right out of the Obama administration. Which makes Obama right now look like the opposite of uppity.

I'm tempted here to join Van Jones himself and some of my liberal friends who are saying the Democrats need to stop being so compromising with the Republicans and stand up for some of the things we elected them for, even if it means being a little more 'uppity', a little more like, uh, the A-word.

Very tempted. I would like, for instance, to have seen the Obama administration stand up for Van Jones, who dared to link 'social justice 'issues with green solutions, like keeping ex-cons out of prison by getting them jobs in wind and solar power.

I would definitely like Obama to stand up for public health insurance, despite the massive rattle of empty teacups that has occurred at his town hall meetings.

I also understand that Obama was elected on a platform of 'uniting the country' after the divisiveness of the Bush years. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and not call him a 'sell-out' or any of those other things he is getting branded with on the left. I'll allow that his willingness to compromise with people I may not agree with could stem from his desire to extend the Kumbaya Moment we all had back in January, when Democrats and Republicans alike were willing to give the man a chance, because, well, he was Making History and he wasn't George Bush.

I like that Obama is willing to listen to people I don't agree with. I really do.

I like ,for instance, the way Obama handled the confrontation between the white policeman James Crowley and the black professor Henry Gates. Have them both sit down and have a couple of beers together, get them to talk about it. You sit on this side and drink your brand of beer and I'll sit on this side and drink mine and we'll both learn how to talk to each other while drinking two different brands of beer.

Obama should have done the same with Glen Beck and Van Jones. Have them both sit down together and drink their different brands of beers and have a conversation. Only do it on national TV in a civilized manner so we can both see for ourselves what each of these guys has to say for themselves and to each other.

Instead,by accepting Van Jones' resignation, he effectively let Glen Beck come roaring in like the town drunk and spill his own brand of beer all over Jones, Obama, and a good many of the rest of us.

One of the big scary skeletons that Glen Beck brought shaking and rattling out of Van Jones closet and aired on Fox TV was that Jones had been a member of a communist/anarchist "revolutionary"group called STORM, a group that says in their own manifesto that they believe in change through the democratic process and makes no mention of throwing molotov cocktails or blowing up buildings.

In other countries of the world, ( backwater places like France and Sweden) the Socialists, the Communists and the Greens can sit down with representatives of the other political parties, just like Henry Gates and James Crowley sat down together, and make a government together.

Okay, it's not always so civilized but at least they are having the conversation.

But not here. Publicly accusing someone of EVER having been a Communist or Socialist is still tantamount to waving a national sex offender registry list around with that person's name on it.

Horrors! Those same "Communists" who were getting outed from so many closets in the 1950's have apparantly found their way into Obama's cabinet. Thank god for those brave men like Glen Beck in their white sheets,er I mean white hats, er well, white something.

Glen Beck has already promised the witch hunt won't stop with Van Jones,whom he called "the first stop" on his crusade to "examine" the members of Obama's advisory team.

In one Fox News segment , Glen Beck and two female analysts talk about the 'wacky' people in the Obama administration, Van Jones being one of the wackiest. This is, curiously, the same kind of epithet that was hurled against Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor as they lobbied to get some of the things done that we now take for granted, like
social security, unemployment insurance. Eleanor, in fact, received particular abuse from folks who told her she should 'stay home and knit' instead of publicly speaking out.

I wondered, as I watched these two female policy analysts vent their views on Glen Beck's show, where they themselves would be if a few wacky people hadn't pushed the unpopular views that women have a place in the public arena in addition to the home.

But these are fearful times. And in fearful times, it is easy to fall backwards, into divisive bogeyman words of the past, like "Communist" and "Hitler" instead of facing an uncertain future and together looking for solutions which will move this country forward.

We needed Van Jones, precisely because he was willing to reinvent himself and his political idealogy for a new era and talk about "green" solutions that will move us forwards, not backwards to an era of witch-hunts and hysteria.

Mr. President, I don't agree with you on this one.

But I'm still hoping.