Who else could have successfully braided memoir with a manifesto? Memoir calls for personal vulnerability. Manifesto asks for a strong, sometimes fierce, stand. Valerie gives us both as she carries us on a journey between the deeply personal and the political.
She takes us back to 9-11 when the aftermath of tragedy devolved into a hate-fest. I cringe reading of the enormity of violence done to Sikhs, Muslims, and BIPOC peoples as the number of hate crimes exploded. Heartbreaking.
At the same time, she writes with a mother’s love and threads a hope for change throughout the book.
She has done what great authors and filmmakers sometimes are able to pull off: allow me to feel the sorrow of the world and still find its joy, blend together pathos and possibility, marry fierce reality with an even fiercer commitment to change.
I read the book with kleenex at my side, crying my way through. Yet my tears feel, in a strange way, uplifting.
Reading her words, I feel cleansed.
I can’t do the book justice, but I can speak to how it moves me.
I cry because of what she and other Sikhs have witnessed or endured:
As a little brown girl, she was regularly harassed by white classmates.
Her best childhood friend told Valerie that she was doomed to hell if she didn’t take Christ as her savior.
She witnessed the explosion of hate crimes after 9-11 and documented many, while the press ignored the magnitude of the violence.
A family friend was killed in a post-9-11 hate-crime. She saw Sikh turbans become targets.
She was sexually molested by a family friend and traumatized, and thought she had to stay silent.
While working as a journalist, she suffered police violence and physical injury.
She was attacked by family members for wanting to marry a Muslim, not a Sikh.
Yet I also cry with joy because she found a way to live with hope. She:
Took courage from the phrase “See no stranger” spoken five centuries ago by Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith.
Continued to be guided by the Sikh values of truth and justice, and its commitment to defend all people’s in harm’s way.
Developed a band of close friends and fellow activists who stood with her.
Created a moving film documenting the hate crimes against Muslims and Sikhs.
Found professors at Stanford and Yale who saw who she was and valued her gifts.
Shaped her Yale Law experience into an opportunity to help communities protect their civil rights.
Fell in love with a beautiful man who helped her heal and became her husband.
Became a mom.
When I first learned about Valerie Kaur, I thought she was a superwoman: filmmaker, civil rights activist, religious studies scholar, lawyer, speaker, and mom. Now she feels more like a sister, a deeply human woman who faces down her dragons and learns to draw from the wise woman inside of her.
Many of her metaphors for change are female. She references the birthing process, which can be acutely painful and risky, but which women endure in order to give birth to something beautiful.
Are we, as a culture, she asks, moving through a difficult labor to give birth to a new world?
She coaches us: Breathe. Push.
As I melt into her words, I feel inspired to:
Fill in the many gaps in my knowledge of marginalized peoples and understandings of different faiths.
Be a witness for the disenfranchised and stand up to hate.
Examine my white privilege and cultural blinders.
Encourage others to tell their stories, particularly those whose stories have been silenced or not shared.
In a world full of hate, war, and violent insurrection, the word warrior, as in the Sikh sense of the warrior-sage, may be difficult to use. But wasn’t John Lewis a gentle warrior for civil rights?
Our inner warrior can help us speak out for truth, intervene against racist comments, stand up for the marginalized and children, and address the inner demons that would have us hurt another.
Valerie understands that raging against social injustice can be a part of how we love.
We can be loving warriors, truth-telling, just, and compassionate through these difficult times.
As we approach Valentine’s Day, let’s dump the sappy cards. Enjoy the chocolate (I’m still a sucker for the darkest dark chocolate), and make a commitment to fierce love, love that breaks your heart, love that finds the courage to hope.
Love that says, “It doesn’t have to be this way, but there is a way.”
“Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limits, wonder is the act that returns us to love,”
Here’s to that love on V day.
And now, for Valerie Kaur speaking at the 2019 Bioneers conference.
Estonian choral group. Creative commons license. By Ave Maria Mõistlik
In Estonia, people sing. An Estonian woman I heard speak in an online singing class talked about Laulupidu, Estonia’s choral song festival. Begun in 1869, it now draws 100,000 participants, including 30,000 singers.
Wikimedia commons. Estonian Song Celebration. Photo by ToBreatheAsOne
Then, she added that the country liberated itself from Soviet rule through their “Singing Revolution.”
A singing revolution?
I needed to learn more. I knew shamefully little about Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea less than a third the size of Washington State. The country was the site of some of the worst horrors of the twentieth century, losing 25% of its population during WWII. In 1939 Stalin and Hitler created the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which “gave” Estonia, then an independent democracy, to Stalin, whose forces occupied the country. In 1941 Hitler broke the pact and Germany brutally occupied the country throughout WWII. After the War, Stalin convinced the Allies that he would set up free elections in Estonia, with the Soviets given authority for the country. That promise was quickly broken. The country became part of the Soviet Union.
For the next fifty years, the Soviets controlled the county through oppression, terror, propaganda, and the prospect of forced labor or death for dissidents. Men, women, and children continued to be shipped to work in Siberia (where half died). The colorful culture of Estonia was being converted to Soviet-style gray.
The country’s spirit was almost broken. They had no guns, no military power.
Yet, they had the power of song.
The Song Festival continued. The Soviets saw it as a way to spread propaganda. At the festival in 1947, they required Soviet music to be sung, allowing only a few Estonian songs. But at that festival composer Gustav Ersenaks introduced his composition “Mu isamaa on minu arm,” (Land of My Fathers, Land that I love) using lyrics from a beloved national poem. As 25,000 people on stage sang this beautiful hymn-like homage to Estonia, it became a new national anthem.
The song gave hope. It reminded the Estonians of who they were.
Later the song was banned from the Festival. But in 1969, at the Festival’s close, the crowd of 100,000 started singing it spontaneously, despite Soviet orders to stop.
The Singing Revolution began. Young people carried singing into the streets.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev opened the door to freer speech with his Glasnost policies. In1988, 300,000 people showed up at the Song Festival grounds to sing together and hear messages of independence.
The Estonians didn’t win their freedom solely by singing. It took years of political strategy, rallies, perseverance, and raw courage. In 1992, as the Soviet Union fell apart, Estonia was recognized again as an independent nation. Today, it is a thriving member of the EU.
And the people keep singing.
Are you singing yet?
Singing has been the backbone of many social movements, like the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
Perhaps a revolution we need is to take back singing.
Unfortunately, every day, across North America, a chorus of people can be heard chanting, “I can’t sing,” a hymn they learned after some friend or teacher derided their voices. Singing is seen as an art reserved for the Three Tenors, rock stars, and Lady Gaga (whom I happen to love). Singing is for televised competitions with one dramatic winner and a lot of broken hearts. Singing is for the talented and the in-tune.
The funny thing is, when you sing a lot, no matter how you sound, you discover that you can sing.
I’ve been someone who wouldn’t sing alone in public because my voice becomes funky when scared. Yet that might be changing.
If I tried to sing in front of you, my voice might start out rough and warbly. But If I claimed my notes from the inside out, delighted in the experience of singing, felt the silence before the sound, and then enjoyed allowing tones to vibrate inside of my head, throat, and chest, my voice would become more sure.
Or maybe not. But does it really matter?
It’s time to reclaim our birthright. To all be artists, musicians, dancers, and creatives.
If you can talk, you can sing. If you can move, you can dance. These are not special gifts reserved for the few.
Why bother to sing?
Why bother you might say. “I do certain things well, and singing isn’t on the list.”
Fine, I’d reply, but then I’d challenge you to watch the remarkable documentary The Singing Revolution and watch the Estonian faces, lit up and inspired, singing in the middle of the worst times and circumstances. Feel the light in their eyes. Feel what happens when people make music together. Feel the power of hope.
Singing together created a force, it turned out, even stronger than guns.
I’d like to think that the revolutions we need now for social justice, racial equity, consciousness, and environmental healing could be won, or at least be fortified, by song.
Singing together, we can find connection with others, open our hearts, share our truths, and stimulate our hopes for the future.
A revolution is a tall order. But done with joy and love, (thank you activist Valerie Kaur), it might be possible.
Today, we can take a small step: Claim your note. Then, sing it with love, whether to your cat, in your church or to the world.
“Stories are like seeds. It pays to know what you want to harvest from your garden so you can plant the right seeds.” Mary Alive Arthur, story activist.
Inauguration Day felt like the true start of the new year. With so much commentary–I’ll let others address the politics. I celebrated the day with a rite of new beginnings.
I bought seeds.
Growing a garden, after all, has some parallels with growing a new culture.
I live on an island where the desire to grow things is infused into the local water systems. I overdosed during my first years. I planted and grew way too much and then felt overwhelmed at harvest time. I swore to remember that 1) I am my gardening staff of one; 2) There are only so many turnips a couple can eat at any one time; 3) Fellow islanders do not want my zucchinis. In fact, islanders have been known to duck and cover any time they see a neighbor approaching with anything green in August.
Still hope springs anew when the end of a bleak, bleak winter is in sight.
One evening with “The Territorial Seed Catalogue” from Oregon and I’m smitten with seed-lust. How can you resist descriptions like:
“Cantarix [lettuce] produces beautiful billowing globes of glossy, maroon-colored, oak leaf foliage that fades to a lime-green center. Maturing to about 7 inches wide and 4 inches tall, the plants provide a plentiful supply of sweet, supple leaves for continuous harvest.”
I’m in. My list lengthens. To give myself a balancing dose of reality, I add to my must-remember list:
My husband, while open to the force of nature called “kale,” will not eat it every night.
Finding a hoof print in the garden never augurs well.
One visit by one deer can devastate half the garden.
My horse likes peas. She will stick her long neck into the pea patch, risking a small electric shock. She doesn’t know how to pick, so her solution is to chomp shoots and pull out vines.
Half-eaten pea vines will not rise again.
Tomatoes, in the Northwest, ripen in October, after the rains have turned them to mush.
Digging is a family activity. My dogs follow my lead and continue to dig after I’ve planted.
I am slightly allergic to garlic, and the crop I planted last fall will sustain me for the next decade.
The robins put out a “Situation Alert” in June devoted to raspberries. With the announcement of the first delicious berry, birds from across the county flock to our property.
Harvesting, although fun, takes time. Perhaps “I like apples” wasn’t enough to justify 1200 pounds of apples each year.
As you sow, so shall you weed.
Weeding is a cosmic event that is never, ever done.
Hope and reality
As I work through the catalog, the dance between reality and hope continues, as it will with the new presidential administration.
In the spirit of the new President who invited us to step up, I offer a few garden insights:
Changing the culture is like developing soil. It takes time. Rather than just dumping fertilizer on a bed (which I’ve done), it’s better to play the long haul and cultivate an environment where the good stuff can grow.
Compost is golden, which is helpful when you’ve been left with a lot of shit.
Not all seeds will germinate.
It will never turn out completely according to plan. (The deer who crashed our fence.) Expect mistakes. (Why did I grow perpetually self-seeding fennel?)
The best soil conditioner ever is love.
My kale made it through the winter, and so will we.
In the spirit of new beginnings, I dare you to resist this:
Last Saturday, as elections results were finally announced. I celebrated. Relaxed. Cried. Then I looked up and knew, “It ain’t over yet.”
I thought back to my time competing my horse at cross-country events. I’d gallop my horse across fields, charge through water, jump over ditches (or so I hoped), and face thick stone walls. It was sometimes scary, but do you know what the most dangerous part of an event was?
The trip home.
At the end of a show, whether I was happy or sad with our results, I’d relax and let down. Then, I’d pack up my gear, put the horse in the trailer, and drive a one-ton pick-up and 20-foot trailer back to the barn over heavily-trafficked, fast-moving highways.
Fortunately, at that time I could drink the toxic brew called Diet Coke, which I treated as my post-show drug. When I started nodding off in the late afternoon August heat, I’d swing truck and trailer into a gas station, and buy a sixteen-ounce bottle that would jolt me awake and leave me jangling (not recommended). I couldn’t afford to be groggy.
After a couple of hours of driving, I’d reach the barn and the final trial began: parking. I’d be so tired, but I couldn’t let down. After my first show, I forgot to unlatch the trailer from the truck and ended up trying to jack a 1200 pound horse trailer, still attached to the back of a 6000 pound truck, into the air. I learned how easy it is to make mistakes in those last minutes.
The negotiator’s mistake
I once took a leadership seminar with Julian Gresser, author of Piloting Through Chaos, a brilliant man who had negotiated extensively with the Japanese. He had seen too many US executives fail in their negotiations with their Japanese counterparts. The Americans declared success too soon, thinking they’d reached a deal. The Japanese kept going, understanding that the game was still in play, and eventually won the negotiation.
It’s not over until it’s really over. As we’re seeing with the US elections.
The news continues
On Saturday morning, I relaxed.
On Tuesday morning, my husband greeted me with, “I want you to read what’s been happening since Election Day.”
“Please,” I begged. “Not until after my tea and meditation.” I knew the news wasn’t good.
I wanted to stay informed without having to put back on the armor of anxiety I’d been carrying for so long.
I need to practice calm vigilance. With stressed vigilance, I work myself into a frenzy tracking on the crazy-bad stuff that’s still happening. With too much calm, I can check out and fail to notice the dangers (although I may periodically need breaks from the fray to keep my energy going).
Calm vigilance is about keeping the mind alert in a body that stays relaxed, especially when dealing with a disturbing or dangerous situation. Calm vigilance is the kind of presence many first responders have. Calm vigilance is the stuff of expert martial artists.
A practice to try
Here’s a practice I use in order to help my body not constrict when I hear tough news.
Step one: I imagine a delightful, relaxing situation. Maybe I’m on a tropical beach, sitting on a mountain top, or walking in the woods. I chose an image that helps me smile and relax. As I sit with the image, I put a hand on my heart and one on my belly to feel my body’s response.
Usually, I sense an easy relaxation and a gently moving diaphragm.
Step two: I imagine a tension-provoking situation. Nothing too stressful to start. (I have to work up to the Supreme Court.) I can practice with “doing my taxes” or “going to the dentist.” As I picture this tension-provoking image, I feel my belly tighten and my breath become shallow.
Step three: I alternate between the two states, noticing the differences they elicit in my body.
Step four: I try to keep a relaxed feeling when I think about the stressful one.
My goal is to stay alert to what’s happening without tightening–not easy for me.
Over the past year, many of us have been learning to chill in challenging times, developing our toolboxes with skills like breathing, laughing, being in nature, (and dog kisses!).
I don’t trust the world’s circumstances to change and be the source of my calm.
I want to keep finding the joy and staying relaxed, without letting down my guard so much that I ignore the shenanigans that are happening.
The drama is likely to kick up again. (It already has.)
Remember, you need to stay calm. Renewed. Relaxed.
Maybe over was just a fantasy. The same forces that existed before the elections, some dating back hundreds of years, continue.
My friend John Perkins once gave me a wake-up phrase that I treasure. John, an African-American change-maker, said (and I paraphrase due to rusty memory), “To think that change has to happen fast [or in our time frame] is a sign of white entitlement. Our people have been working for change for over one hundred and fifty years. We’re in it for the long haul.”
(Sorry, John, for any butchering; the idea is so compelling.)
Over the past couple of years, I’ve felt a deep hunger stirring within me, a longing for values of goodness and for truths that run deeper than any presidential cycle.
If thoughts have forms and carry energy, I want to boost those that feed my sense of what is uplifting and good about being human.
As the educator/philosopher Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf School movement, wrote:
To Wonder at Beauty
To wonder at beauty, Stand guard over truth, Look up to the noble, Resolve on the good. This leadeth us truly To purpose in living, To right in our doing, To peace in our feeling, To light in our thinking. And teaches us trust, In the working of God, In all that there is, In the width of the world, In the depth of the soul.
Use your own word for God, if you like, and then dig for that place of trust.
Tracking on our inner nobility doesn’t mean ignoring the mean, heinous, and injust. Steiner’s verse asks us to go deeper within ourselves to find and amplify that place where nobility lives.
In my experience, most people, in their deepest gut, long for love, connection, and a sense of truth, beauty, and goodness. Yet that sense can become obscured by the chatter of life, an obsession with the chaos around us.
“The only solution to the problem is to go deeper.” Gourasana (spiritual teacher)
If ever there was a time to go deeper, it’s now.
Before and after
It would have been nice to think the US election would solve our current catastrophes and healed the wounds left by hundreds of years of collective trauma that surface daily as racism, genderism, classism, ageism, etc.
These wounds wouldn’t be wiped out by one election.
Before the elections, I needed to seek inner guidance, connect to the people and forces that inspired me, and pray for truth, beauty, justice, and goodness to prevail.
After the elections, I need to seek inner guidance, connect to the people and forces that inspire me, and pray for truth, beauty, justice, and goodness to prevail.
I know my body’s constitution. I need to stay away from the news for a while. Do what works for you.
But as we proceed in a time of clamor and cacophony, please spend time with beauty. It gives me strength, calms my soul, and helps me care for others.
I will draw, paint, listen to music, and feed my soul in nature. I’ll write about creativity. I’ll connect with friends. I’ll pray for the country’s highest good.
What will you do that will feed you, your dreams, and the country?
(Please drink water..)
Thank you, John Perkins. Yes, I’m in it for the long haul.
Are you on countdown this week? I keep ticking away days as if life is being divided into BE (before elections) and AE.
I know this is historically myopic.
The crow, the hawk, and the falcon are not counting down. They will keep flying regardless. As their kin have done for centuries.
As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in The Book of Hours:
“I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.”
This week, instead of bringing more thoughts to you, I offer a poem instead.
This one comes from the Irish poet and Nobel prize winner, Seamus Heaney and was published în The Cure at Troy in 1991, to honor Nelson Mandela. (Heaney’s book was based on Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, which, truthfully, I haven’t read.)
It speaks to today.
From The Cure at Troy (I added the bolding.)
Human beings suffer
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope On this side of the grave… But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change On the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore Is reachable from here. Believe in miracles And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.