Evolution in the Time of Contagion

I could not imagine a more ruthless way to reset the human condition – on every level – than a pandemic.   We’re in collective shock at the refashioning of our way of life. We’ve had to adapt to new protocols for touching, congregating, cleaning, debt payment, shopping, helping, isolation.

Nature has sent us all to our rooms (literally) to ruminate about what we have done – or not done –  for our world. All of us together have a unique opportunity to re-think EVERYTHING. To EVOLVE.relax_w

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) notes improvements in air quality in China and Italy, because so few vehicles are on the road and in the skies. The pattern may repeat in the wake of country lockdowns. But, the WMO emphasizes, these improvements do not get us off the hook for committed action on climate change.

The Secretary General of UN called for a global cease fire, a halt to nine major wars, seventeen minor wars, and nineteen “skirmishes” that afflict millions of people.  Could we help peace hold indefinitely, even when supply lines become stable again? Could the weapons economy be redirected into the health of our children and planning for future pandemics?

Will we learn to follow intelligent rules for civic behavior in crisis situations, knowing that each of us has a responsibility to all of us.

Can we think again and deeply about reining in our consumer ways, not gobbling up resources but spreading our wealth to those that suffer intractable poverty?

Will corporations extend their current crisis-inspired largesse to ongoing funding that solves pressing problems in their communities?

Will communities of faith shelter and serve the homeless where governments have not – until everyone has a home?

Can we empty prisons with a better solutions?

The pandemic is the most dramatic  ‘pause’ we have ever confronted. Will we use the time to make hard-learned lessons stick? Will we inject new energy into tattered dreams of a peaceful prosperous future for everyone?

Many of us now have the time to re-imagine our world as a place inhabited with grace, intelligence, and compassion.

That ought to become a new definition of heroism.


Trouble Ahead – My New Book


Amazing, the response I’m getting to my new book Trouble Ahead: Dangerous Mission with Desperate People.

One colleague said he picked it up and never stopped reading. I do like to tell a good story.

This book was one of the most demanding writing projects I’ve done. I’m proud of all I’ve accomplished in my many missions in Africa, with the tools I could marshal at the time. Of Particular note is the wonderful vibrancy of Baraka Women’s Center, the first Center WCI created in Nairobi, Kenya, and worth every trip it required.

Read my book! 25% of sales support the important work of Women’s Centers International. And please review on my book site.  Every good word helps!

Hella West Oakland

Every morning when if bike or drive to work – about a two-mile distance – I’m struck by the shift of energy between my neighborhood and where I work.

My neighborhood is mostly apartments, with single-family houses here and there. I’m noticing  a weird uptick in crime in the area, everything from police-involved homicides to smash-and-grab among the vehicles that line every street. The task of finding a parking space within a one-block radius of home diminishes exponentially as afternoon becomes night. At various times, often at the end of the month, sidewalks sprout all the unwanted sofas, chairs and futons of my neighbors. Occasionally, some moron tags the furniture, rendering it useless because the tag is not even remotely artistic.

On my street, are a halfway house for formerly incarcerated and a home for mentally handicapped adults. Lots of dogs walk their owners in the morning. We do duck-duck-goose for parking every month on the second and fourth Mondays and Tuesdays  when street cleaning is done one surfaces in a dramatic state of decay. Between potholes and railroad spurs, it’s gotten dangerous to ride a bike (not even counting the unpredictability of motorists).

Things randomly go bang and boom in the night. In the wee hours,I hear trains howling in the distance. A family of blonde raccoons lives on the garage roof in a mini-jungle of ivy. My neighbors sometimes argue loudly, one verbally abuses her mother, the couple across the driveway takes showers together (leaving the frosted chest-high window open), and sometime a very creepy missing person case or suicide occurs. I do not feel threatened. I’m observant during my movements outside, and have rehearsed my response to various human calamities. An interesting use of mental energy.

I ride down Vernon St to its dead-end at 27th St, the corner home of the Whole Foods evil empire. Site of a security guard’s recent bloody assault on a young black man. Never heard the whole story… altercation…escalation…bloody-photo ‘journalism’ but I hope the dude has the presence of mind and sufficient grounds to sue the bloody bastards.

Middle-school kids from a private school lay siege to the 7-11 at Harrison (across the street from Whole Foods). Buying junk food, talking trash.

On past the Broadway Auto Row Dealerships, where the street sign has been altered to read ‘Bro Way.’ Past the Humanist Church that’s felt the wrath of neighbors – hence the City – for hosting loud events that don’t end till 11 or so.

At San Pablo, I begin viewing of the ass-end of Oakland. A check-cashing store with an old Cadillac always parked in the lot; a miserable little Asian meat market, its public phone reduced to depositary for garbage. A few blocks south, drug dealers and prostitutes own this street. Four blocks north is the scariest corner of W Oakland: St Andrew’s Plaza, one of Oakland’s smallest parks, and much-debated home of a group of drug-addled or traumatized homeless persons. DoNut Shop on the corner. St. Mary’s Center for the elderly (among other services) across the street. Not much else.

27th St vanishes at Market. The City settled with calling it 26th St. A grocery on the corner run by Middle-Easterners or Pakistanis features a big hand-painted sign for “Fried Chicken.” The kids from McClymonds High School hang here after school, packed together smoking weed, loudly calling each other ‘nigger’ or ‘bitch.’ Eating junk food, throwing the wrappers in the street.

From here on, random piles of garbage appear like a plague of pustules. The small neglected MyClymonds Mini-Park, consumes a corner lot across from a complex of Section 8 housing. The climbing equipment is faded and worn, the grass always a bit ragged.

Down another block,  a new private school for ages 4-8. Clean and neat as you please, but of hideous architecture, like an unholy mating of shipping container and airport terminal. Golden-Gate-Bridge red with bright yellow trim. Fortunately, the happy noise of children playing escapes the metal gates.

WCI’s office and Oakland Women’s Center is a block-and-a-half away. Katy-corner across the street is a mental health clinic. Occasional site of raving and arguments. People off their meds.

Furry Beetle
Beetle on the block by the office

Directly across the street to the south is the Coast Sausage Company, a massive derelict two-story building that’s been abandoned for years. Seems the City decided to sue the owner. He came and removed truckloads of construction debris, garbage, household effluvia – and several squatting homeless people. Every Monday, I’m eager to see who’s winning – the taggers or the owner. Dozens of coats of paint have been applied during their ongoing match: red brick paint vs. tacky graffiti. This week, several new trash heaps restore the site to its former ingloriousness.

The women calling and coming to the Oakland Women’s Center present an incredible array of problems, histories and personal foibles. Takes me a while to make sense of it all. Never dull.

Meanwhile, the Baraka Center saga would be the stuff of telenovelas if it were not so drenched in the mean-spiritedness of one person. He released another tirade today with the subject line “Grow Up Racist Pig.” I skim but turn away from his vitriol. One of the great mysteries of relationships draws from the dark side of humans – when, not if, it will emerge – and will it destroy all that the good side has wrought?

Some insights about race and poverty. Posting here soon.

The Possibilities in Disappointment

 Sometimes I get disappointed. I feel it slither inside me when people don’t return phone calls or emails, leaving me to wonder how much energy can it take to type ‘Yes, got it’ or ‘No. Too busy” and hit ‘send’? I figure you make time for what’s important. It’s disappointing to be reminded in this small way of my unimportance.

I’m disappointed  (baffled!) when WCI’s donors don’t respond after news of successes or, more distressingly, after urgent requests for help to keep the good news coming.

I find it disappointing when people don’t bother to do their work guided by a standard of excellence. Life is short. Why piss away an opportunity to shine?

A recent disappointment provoked this train of thought. Last year, I’d submitted an essay for inclusion in an anthology by a women’s network purportedly dedicated to “leaving no woman behind.” The essay got accepted and I got a release to sign. I questioned why the writers (all women) had to sign away every right to their work without any compensation. I was informed that the last anthology made no money and this one likely would fare no better.  I could sign the release or be removed. So I signed.

At the recent book debut party, I discovered that my essay had not been included. Not a word of this from the editors. The readers at the event had not  been given even a complimentary copy – the minimum professional courtesy in publishing. And by way of introduction, the editor declared the previous book has been “well received” and a “bestseller.”

I care less about publication than about the business of ‘handling’ writers. It matters that we be treated with a modicum of respect accorded to other useful human efforts. Are women writers so undervalued as to feel flattered when their words end up a book without any compensation beyond “having our voices heard?”  Banks don’t honor that currency.

Perhaps I’m obstinately naïve, but I take it harder when dissed by women, from whom I expect at least a nod of consideration as sisters in a common struggle. Of course the dangerous word here is expect. Who am I to expect? Life is full of obligations pulling us from all sides.

Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) offers a way to triumph over disappointment. I paraphrase:

Take your life’s situation AS IF it had been your intention – not literally, but AS IF it had been your intention. With that, you evoke the participation of your will to look for the possibilities in your situation.

So, I move on. I forgive real or imagined slights. I keep on my path, mined as it is with distractions and rejections. I’ve got enough allies to keep me fueled. And surely more will show up. There’s grace and serendipity in a life lived with intention to explore possibilities – without expectations.

On the Fire Escape

A universe of fascinating little activities reveals itself when I take a sanity break on the fire escape of my building.

 For months, a couple of stuffed animals – some sort of doll and a monkey-type thing – lay abandoned on the roof of the garage. Mysteriously, they would change positions, move about to another spot. One day, the doll disappeared. Then the monkey-thing ended up splayed on the driveway. I threw it back up on the roof, curious to see where it’d end up next. He was quiescent for a couple of days, then I noticed just his feet sticking out from the mound of ivy that had invaded part of the roof. Then the feet disappeared. I imagine them both disemboweled of their stuffing by some curious rodent. I kinda miss ‘em.

 Another afternoon, two birds alighted on the neighbor’s telephone wire, resting a few inches apart. Slowly they slid toward each other, turning their beaks, almost touching, as if sharing a secret. Do birds have secrets? There were no other creatures close enough to hear. They, or a couple like them, resumed the position yesterday.

 A calico cat massages her back on the pea gravel covering the garage roof. I spoke to her gently once, asking her if she was enjoying herself. She peered at me, and I distinctly heard a soft “yes.” I’m not so crazy (yet) to assume the cats have found voice (though I might have missed this development in the avalanche of information each day.) I did, however, find it reassuring that my otherwise uncommunicative neighbors had found sweet voice via their feline.

 The squirrels maraud through my potted plants to bury acorns. A brazen raccoon (is there any other kind in the city?) conducts regular night pillages of the local garbage cans. Wandering young men rummage in the recycle bins at dawn, crushing their aluminum booty, that peculiar metallic noise precluding any further sleep. I’ve thought to ask them to make their rounds a bit later, but …

It’s endless summer here in Oakland. We need rain bad. Rationing on the near horizon.