Bleeding Between the Lines: A Review of Ori Alon’s “Checkpoint Charlie”

by Mordechai Zalmen

When I was in college I saw a performance of Bretch’s Mother Courage and Her Children.    I remember my first reaction was disgust.  What the fuck is this nonsense about?  Why was the child named Swiss Cheese?  Why was Mother Courage so mean, yet so likable at the same time?   Is this what modern theater is, this absurdity?

But, as any budding Bretch fan experiences,  that initial repulsion eventually evolves into a nagging curiosity.   You begin to start churning out attempts at answers to those questions in your mind.  Perhaps naming a character Swiss Cheese is poking holes at the empty moral stance of “neutrality” on matters of warfare and injustice for which the Swiss are so famous?  Maybe Mother Courage is both repulsive and lovable because that’s the way real humans are, both repulsive and lovable?  Maybe the play is absurd because the war(s) which it is about are even more absurd than it?   

Soon, if you let yourself, you start to go back to the text of the play, or see another performance, or seek out more of Bretch’s work to confirm or inform or enlighten or test your internal responses to these questions.  You get over the repulsion and then you start to see the humor.  After you see the humor, you start to get the point.   War and militarism and violent domination are repulsive and absurd phenomenons of human cultures.   Any serious work of art about these topics must also be absurd and repulsive, at least initially.

I initially had the same reaction to my first encounters with Beacon-based artist Ori Alon’s postage stamp comics.  Hilter in a kippa saying the Shema (the most important Jewish prayer).   Blasphemy!   Stalin singing an R.E.M song in duet with other horrendous dictators.  What the fuck is this nonsense about?

But keep reading, as I did with the newest edition of these odd little postage stamp comics, Checkpoint Charlie, and Stalin starts answering some of your questions for you.   “At times I find Ori’s work to be very annoying, disrespectful, and righteous, especially when he forces me to have long discussions with Hitler.  However, I respect his right for free speech and I enjoy his humor, occasionally.”

So, then you start to laugh.  American astronauts land on the moon, look around and ask in fearful whisper, “Do you see any terrorists?”  You read a page long treatise on how Ori and his completely fake organization, the Center for Supportive Bureaucracy, struggled with how to deal with having once issued a friendly Forgiver’s License to a local congressman and then in a fit of rage revoked the congressman’s unasked for fake license, but then back-tracked after deciding that a fake organization doesn’t actually have the right to revoke someone else’s license to forgive.

You laugh at the absurdity of Ori’s fake bureaucracy, and the artist’s internal moralizing on the rightness or wrongness of his meaningless art piece, until you contrast it with the real behavior of the congressman at the center of this one part of the larger piece.

Purportedly liberal Congressman Maloney voted to deny entry to the Unites States for refugees from the horrors of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the larger Syrian War, in much the same way the United States initially denied Jews and other refugees entry to our soil when trying to escape the atrocities of the Nazi death camps at the early part of World War II.

http://gaycitynews.nyc/upstate-maloneys-egregious-refugee-vote/

Now is when you start to understand the point of this absurdist art.

What seems more repulsive now?

A satirical picture of Hitler asking to share a beer with us in a comic book, or the actual fact that in today’s Israel, right-wingers at a rally were easily tricked by Yes Man-like activists into carrying signs which translate into Hebrew the Nazi slogan “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (One People, One Nation, One Leader) because the slogan so clearly articulates the ideas of Netanyahu’s new Israel?

What’s more disgusting?

A picture of children with their faces whited out surrounded by confusing chatter from historical personalities like Martin Luther King and Joseph Stalin,  or the reality of a uniformed American soldier who was seven on September 11, 2001 telling seven year-olds in 2015 why the memory of 9/11 means the United States must continue to engage in what the pentagon has stated will be a war that takes “a generation or more”, while those of us who were adults on 9/11 stand by silently?

http://thehill.com/policy/defense/243896-us-envoy-isis-fight-may-last-generation-or-more

This is the truth that bleeds through the lines in Alon’s Checkpoint Charlie.

The title Checkpoint Charlie at first appears to be a reference to the ever famous American clown Charlie Chaplin, and it is in a way.   Alon, like Bretch, is a huge fan of Chaplin and his disarming humor.   Yet, then you turn the page your learn about the real Checkpoint Charlie… it is a place where an innocent man, a refugee from an oppressive society, was shot between the lines of two nation-states, and was left there to bleed to death between the lines, because everyone was too afraid to help or say something.

And this is where this art leaves us, bleeding between the lines of nation-states, those peculiar entities, in which all sensible people believe, which all purport to their citizens to exist as some sort of center for supportive bureaucracy.  This art exposes the repulsiveness, absurdity, and pain beneath human fear.

Fear is what killed Peter Fetcher (the man who was trying to escape East Germany through Checkpoint Charlie).

Fear is what Ori Alon seeks for us to first feel (in the repulsion), then laugh at (in the humor), and then understand (in the bleeding through the lines on the page).

This is a comic book about America (and Israel), from an Israeli-American artist who deeply loves the people of those two places, as he deeply loves humanity, and his desperate cry to help us see each other as people again, and end war and militarism, and their mutual progenitor, fear.

Fear is what is killing what was once great about the dream of America, even if the reality never existed.   Repulsion at the absurd, laughter at the insane, and finally understanding of the pain we are all experiencing, are what will allow us to actualize the fading dream of a world where all people respect each others’ irrevocable rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and forgiveness.

In his work, Ori Alon points out how the Trump presidential campaign completely misunderstood the point of Niel Young’s “Keep on Rocking in the Free World”.   In 2004, now Secretary of State John Kerry’s presidential campaign had a similar misuse of the title of Langston Hughes poem, Let America be America Again.

The real poem ends like this.   It’s meaning, like the meaning in Ori Alon’s playful comics, bleeds between the lines…

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

 

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Reimagining the Global War on Terror

For the entirety of my adult life, my country has been engaged in a Global War on Terror.

(My 21st birthday and the first time I legally drank a beer was September 3, 2001.  President Bush proclaimed that the Global War on Terror started after the USA was attacked on September 11, 2001, a week later.   I am now 35 and a father of two.  Since entering adulthood, over 14 years ago, I’ve experienced exactly one week of peacetime.)

The shame of all this is that it is an actual war, not an metaphorical one.  There are plenty of metaphorical wars with grandiose names, like Linden Johnson’s “War on Poverty” or the biomedical community’s “War on Cancer”. Why isn’t this Global War on Terror one of them?

I am not a fan of military analogies for benevolent human endeavors, but just imagine for a minute how different the world would be if instead of a real Global War on Terror, we were engaged in an allegorical one.   I want to imagine a “Global War on Terror” in which there is a focused, concentrated worldwide campaign to help our fellow human beings cope with this troubling emotion, terror, and the ill affects it can have on our relationships and wellbeing.

Imagine that our country’s response to 9/11 was not an actual war, but instead a massive effort to help heal the deeply engrained fear and horror among every person, young and old, rich or poor, living anywhere in the world, who ever experienced any form of emotional trauma.

The allegorical “Global War on Terror” would not be fought with multiple deployments of ground troops and reserve forces, drone bombings, torture of people imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and CIA-black sites, extra-judical assassinations of other country’s heads of state and American citizens, mass surveillance of the entire global population,  nor the 35-year imprisonment or exile of military whistle-blowers.  That method has proven to be a very ineffective means of decreasing the global human experience of terror.

Instead, the allegorical war would be fought with an army of social workers, psychotherapists, physicians, nurses, and other healers spread throughout the world to  identify, contain, and treat clinically diagnosable PTSD, addiction, and mental illness in each and every person who has ever experienced trauma or a horrific life event.    It would involve the mass deployment of clowns, storytellers, musicians, and performers to schools, daycare centers, hospitals, and retirement communities to spread joy meant to counteract the everyday fears and nightmares that too often are experienced by children and adults alike.   It would necessitate a massive campaign where all the citizens of the world were asked to do their part and build playgrounds, make art, share tea with friends, visit each other when they are sick, have picnics, potlucks and sing-a-longs, look under children’s beds for monsters, and look into lover’s hearts for fears.

In an allegorical “Global War on Terror” the main weapon would be joy.   Novelists, poets, philosophers, singers, librarians, artisans, lovers, teachers, fathers, mothers, grandparents, good neighbors, and simple smiling human beings would be the decorated foot soldiers in this great and noble campaign.  Badges, medallions, stripes, stars and “battle pay” would be offered to everyone who lent a helping hand to someone in need, or help ease for even a moment someone else’s loneliness.  A congressional Medal of Honor would be awarded to a person who attended the funeral of someone they barely knew, but went to offer comfort and participate in one of many co-centric circles of healing around the recently bereaved.

The most value asset in a society focused on ending human terror would be children, and the entire civilization would shift to focus on their needs, ensuring that no childhood left irreparable emotional scars in its adult.  Maternity and parental leave would be indefinite, and each parent would have a village worth of support to help keep their children safe and curious and joyful.  Jobs that were stressful would be eliminated.   Debts that were unpayable would simply be canceled.    Relationships that were toxic would be worked on until it everyone agreed it made more sense to end them.  Things like hunger, preventable illness, poor sanitation, lack of housing, healthcare, or education, and violence (especially violence) would be understood to be entirely unacceptable, for they all inevitably lead to someone experiencing terror.  In such a campaign, we would of course put all our blood and treasure toward eliminating these root causes of terror.

In an allegorical Global War on Terror, it is only logical that all effort would be made to eliminate any cause and tool of mass violence.  Guns, bombs, weaponized drones, tanks, warships, and of course nuclear weapons would be all dismantled and their production strictly prohibited.   Entire industries would flourish that found new creative ways to put the raw materials of these past instruments of terror to good use.    Perhaps blacksmiths and artisans would craft violins and sculptures and shovels and plowshares from these rusting tools of terror.

In a few generations, children would laugh at the unbelievable fairy tales and ghost stories old people like you and me would tell about the things human beings used to do to each other.   This sort of thing would as forgotten as the language spoken in the Garden of Eden.

Boy, what a world that would be.

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Wearing My Great-Grandfather’s Tefillin

Originally posted July, 2014

by Mordechai Zalman

There is a scene in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, written about the experience of living in Nazi-occupied France, where the main character, a doctor, is talking to a priest, moments after they both watch a child die and are helpless to do anything to stop it.  The priest, representing organized religion, insists that they must love the God of their shared faith unconditionally despite what they just witnessed.  The doctor responds, “No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”

An Israeli human rights organization has been banned from airing a radio ad in that country, because it lists the names of the 150 children killed in Gaza over the last few weeks.   How did we get to this place?  Why, as a Jew, has my modern conception of ethnic identity become so wrapped up in defending the dehumanizing behavior of a nation-state?   How have we, followers of prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, come so far from their visions for our people?   Why do we no longer see ourselves as a People who pursue a time when nation will no longer raise up sword against nation and young people will no longer learn the ways of war?  How have we become so confused?

Confounding this crisis of identity and faith for me, is the recent death of a great teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.  Although I never met him, he inspired a community of spiritual seekers and spread teachings that have helped me personally to understand what I mean when I think of myself as Jewish in the modern world.   One of his lessons, that seems important right now, is that being Jewish isn’t a noun, it’s a verb.  We need to practice the deep universal truths found within a religion and a cultural history, not simply fly its flag.   Is there something in the blessing that is this man’s life and teachings that can serve as a guidepost for my crisis of identity in the face of such perplexing horror?

zss-celebratory-prayer

When I reflect on my own spiritual journey of self-discovery, I am very much like a character in a Camus novel, facing the existentialist crisis of modernity.  I was raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father on Long Island in the 1980s.   When the other children at school would ask me which religion I was, I would say “both” (in that suburban school nearly everyone was either Christian or Jewish).   Notice that the children asked me which religion I was, as if the tradition of spiritual practices and beliefs I inherited from my parents was some sort of existential part of my essential being like being a human being rather than a giraffe or a polar bear or an asteroid.   They were not thinking of religion as something I needed to do, like being a soccer player or a guitarist or a citizen.   Had the children asked which religion I practiced, in other words which religion I was doing, the truthful answer would have been I practiced secularism, although I wouldn’t have had the insight at the time.   

Secularism has much to offer the world; the powerful truths about physical reality that can be learned through modern scientific reasoning is the most obvious.  Yet, for individual humans looking for meaning in life, secularism is often an unsatisfying spiritual practice.  It doesn’t offer much in the way of giving life deep meaning.   People tend to respond to this existential crisis of identity in two ways.  The first response is to sample pieces of different cultures in superficial and confused ways, like the way I used to try on yoga and Tibetain Buddhist mediatation in college to feel “deep” and meet women.   This is cosmopolitanism at its worst.  It pays lip service to respecting diversity, but doesn’t allow for a comprehensive understanding and deep spiritual connection to a shared history. Most human beings for most of human history, except us moderns, have been able to find solace from the perplexing scheme of things that makes an individual human life through a complete worldview afforded them by their deep cultural roots.

The other way that we humans respond to modernity is much more frightening.   We take a single word that we think identifies who we are— German, Muslim, Jew, American– and then defend our definition of that word with a venomous rage. This is nationalism and religious fundamentalism.   The American Jew blasting angry posts all over Facebook defending the murder of hundreds of civilians by the nation-state of Israel and insulting anyone who questions it, is in this category.  I know, because in the winter of 2001, I was this person.

To give you some context, on September 11, 2001, my father was in the lobby of the World Trade Center on his way to work on the 101st Floor.    He survived, but 175 people he worked with everyday did not, including his best friend and colleague.   For my family, the winter following this day was the darkest period of our lives.  I, in my last year of college, became lost in a void of despair.   As a practicing secularist in a foxhole, I had no relationship with any being beyond the shallow world of yoga-as-dating-gimmick that I was living within.  Now, that thin veil over nihilism had been scattered in a cloud of pure fear.   I literally found myself praying to an idol, a Fireman’s Memorial statue, because I had no other relationship to an authentic spirituality that could explain why so many firemen died that day trying to save thousands of people like my father and his best friend.

New York State Fallen Firefighters Memorial

To escape this existential terror, I started over the next few months to make sense of the world by waving a flag. I became a nationalist for America.  Like a good citizen, I did as I was told and I went shopping.  I bought a Fender Stratocaster with a red, white and blue guitar strap, and a Ford Mustang, both as badges of the then newly fashionable Americana.  Nationalism infected me, for I needed anything that resembled meaningfulness to make sense of my meaningless reality.  But nationalism is a torturous plague to be infected with.

I remember cheering as I watched on live television the US military bombing places in Afghanistan that winter, places I didn’t realize at the time were targets like a boys’ school, an old age home, several small villages, and residential neighborhoods (source).  I was cheering for the death of children.   One day, I flipped over a table of literature questioning American intervention in Afghanistan and Israeli behavior in Palestine that some peaceful members of the Muslim Students Association had set up in the college commons.   “3000 dead!  3000 dead!”  I screamed.   The real killers had died in the 9/11 attack too, so instead these fellow students were to blame for my terror.  Why not?  My country, leaders of the civilized world, had just declared war on this emotion.

Gradually, I started over many years to shed this dead skin of racist nationalism.  Spending time in nature and running triathlons and avoiding politics of any kind helped.  But it was the love and guidance of my living father, a survivor of 9/11, that was lifesaving.  When I told my father, a veteran of the Vietnam Era, that I had called an Army recruiter so I could help the cause in Afghanistan, he told me that with my gift with science, if I really wanted to make a difference in the world than I should learn to heal people rather than kill them.

Five years later, I had taken his advice and was going to medical school. At this time, I was living in a place, where stored in boxes, were the collected belongings of my long deceased Jewish great-grandfather.  The stories I most often heard about him were about how he helped sponsor dozens of relatives to come over from Europe to escape Nazi oppression.   One day, rummaging through some old things in the apartment, I came across my great-grandfather’s tefillin.  This artifact of my ancestry, a tool my great-grandfather used every morning to help him bind his heart and hand to the G-d of his great-grandfathers, was strange and magical.  I put it on.  Those of you who have never had a mystic experience will not understand this.  I was alone, but a voice whispered in my ear.   Soon, I had joined a religious community informed by the teachings of Reb Zalman.    I began to study the words once spoken by Moses, Ezekiel, and Isaiah that people like my great-grandfather have preserved for me and my children.   Reading Isaiah, I found myself crying over the vicious person I had been during those dark days in 2001.

Had I been living with my father’s side of the family, and had found my grandmother’s rosary instead, I would be telling you this same story as a practicing Catholic who had joined a community influenced by Father Thomas Berry.   But this was a Jewish home so G-d spoke to me in Hebrew.

I was able to catch nourishing food for my soul, only when I stopped trying to be “somebody” and instead tried just to be myself.   What Reb Zalman realized is that true spiritual nourishment can only come we are living our true selves authentically and deeply.   That authenticity includes an ancestral history, as well as a lived experience that borrows and learns from others in an integral way.   This means I have an ancestral and cultural identity, but I don’t hold onto a strict definition of that identity so tightly to ignore all the beautiful things I have to learn from those with a different history. The thing Reb Zalman, and Thomas Berry, and other universalist spiritual teachers like them have realized, is that when you live authentically with yourself and your ancestry, and lovingly appreciate others for who they are, you begin to realize that there is far more to who you really are than the words you use to describe yourself.  The beauty that you admire or detest in the Other, that which you falsely imitate or shun, all comes from the same Source.

640px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise

We have all evolved from the same set of proteins and nucleic acids floating in ancient Earth’s deep waters.   People are meant to live in an ecosystem with trees and birds and water and soil and stars and a family, all of which share a common ancestry.   We don’t have much exposure to this truth in modern life.   Instead, we mostly walk alone lost in a strange sort of cultural zoo or museum, where all the beautiful traditions of our human ecosystem, the languages, the religions, the history, the people, are locked away in degrading boxes, separate from each other and unable to express their true selves.  Being a patriot to the ideas for civil society promoted by American founding father Thomas Paine is not expressed best by cheering for red, white and blue stripes in a soccer stadium or on a battlefield.    Short clips on CNN of masked men with machine guns standing before green and black flags emblazoned with Arabic script does not capture the full depth and breath of everything offered to humanity by the world’s largest religion, Islam.   I did not really understand what it meant to be a Jew until I dusted off a forgotten artifact in my dead great-grandfather’s basement and used it, rather than keep it in a box.

Some of us respond to modern life’s cultural isolation from deep reality by distracting ourselves with consumerism and apathy.  Others of us will become violent nationalists or fundamentalists.  The silence of the first choice enables the horrors of the second.  We perplexed moderns are in need of some wisdom from our elders now. A great modern elder of the Jewish faith, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, relates a story of the late Reb Zalman that may be helpful for us.   A group of students were sitting around the table with the Rebbe listening to him teach.   Suddenly, he stops and tells everyone, including himself, to stand up and move over one chair to the left.   Someone else is now sitting in the Rebbe’s chair.   Reb Zalman turns to this person and says, “Look inside for the Rebbe-spark within you — and teach from there.”   Perhaps those of us who refuse to accept a scheme of things in which children are put to torture, need to now take our turns in the Rebbe’s chair and share the spark of love and life that doing Judaism or doing Islam or doing Secular Humanism deeply, with love, can teach us.   There are guides for the perplexed, if we are willing to listen.

On the question of peacemaking and how we should relate to each other in the midst of war and horror, I will simply leave you with another quote from Camus’ The Plague. “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency.”

Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

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Caring for Eagle Feathers

By Michael R. O’Brien, MD

When I turn on the TV or open a newspaper these days, it seems everyone has much to say about Veterans Affairs.   Everyone, except the veterans themselves and the doctors, nurses and others who care for them at VA.   Paul Krugman of the New York Times has hypothesized that there is a political motivation behind all this. He observes , “The system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs is not like the rest of American health care. It is, if you like, an island of socialized medicine, a miniature version of Britain’s National Health Service, in a privatized sea. And until the scandal broke, all indications were that it worked very well, providing high-quality care at low cost…and it’s still true that Veterans Affairs provides excellent care, at low cost.” I frankly don’t know much about the details of the scandal, but I do know a little bit about caring for veterans at the VA as a young doctor.

Like nearly every doctor who has trained in an American medical school and has done residency here, I have spent much of my early career learning medicine by caring for veterans at the VA.   Like Dr. Dena Rifkin, a VA internist who recently wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine about the patients she cares for, whom she inscribes on a hidden list in her heart, I too leave residency with very fond memories of working with veterans.   I’d like to share with you a story about caring for one of these fine people.

Image

The drive out to visit Rita is beautiful.   Driving through the vibrant countryside of Genesee County, NY we see rolling fields of soybeans, grazing grasslands, and luscious old growth forest. Thick pungent green trees reach high into the heavens, with birds of every color and species darting low and high between them. Not too far from here, you can see through a telescope set up at the Iroquois Wildlife Center, the fortress like nest of a family of some of New York State’s last wild bald eagles. As we drive, a woodchuck pops his head out of a hole in a ravine near the little road and quickly disappears again.   We pass a sign, written in English and Onödowága, that says “Entering the Tonawanda Seneca Nation”. As soon as we enter the reservation, I notice that in this place, the beauty of the world created by the Great Mystery, is matched only by the poverty of the world created by mankind.

I am accompanying, Sandy Chenelly, Nurse Practitioner for Veteran Affairs’ Home Based Primary Care program in Western New York.  We are to visit Rita, a seventy year-old veteran of the US Navy and member of the Seneca Nation, who is homebound here due to her near blindness from cataracts, unsteadiness on her feet, multiple chronic medical problems, and the remoteness of her house. The Rez is littered with excessively loud colored signs advertising tax-free cigarettes and gasoline to the white neighbors who like the low prices. Behind the signs, gas stations, and smokeshops are a scattering of dilapidated old trailers and small housing units falling apart under the extreme poverty of America’s First Nations.   Yet, among nearly every sign, cigarette ad, crumbling doorpost of a double-wide, and dashboard of a rusting car, is a proud drawing of a bald eagle. In fact, there is no place I have ever seen this many images of the bald eagle other than, well, the VA.

To get to Rita’s trailer home, we pull off the single lane country road onto the grass in front of a red ranch house with boarded up windows and flaking paint, drive past it, turn around a grove of trees, and park in an unmowed field where a tiny tin-roofed trailer with no running water sits in the middle of the forest.   Right now in the summer, with the red-breasted grosbeaks chirping on the birdfeeder outside her door, it’s a stunning environment. Just a few months ago, though, this place was surrounded in over a foot of snow for the entirety of the Buffalo winter. (Winters in the rural areas surrounding Buffalo, NY are actually worse than those in the infamously snowy city).  Rita is happy to see us as she creaks open the door, her little dog, Tino, yipping away.   Right atop Tino’s cage rests a blue “Veteran-US Navy” baseball cap, with a two pins: a purple one depicting the Hiawatha Belt, and a silver one of an eagle feather.

I notice there are eagle feathers all over Rita’s tiny home. Some are hanging from a giant dreamcatcher in the corner, some on the walls, and even one over the edge her framed Law Degree from the University at Buffalo. “The eagle feather is sacred to my people,” she says, her tremulous hand guiding my view of the description given by her tremulous voice. “Of all creatures, the eagle flies closest to the heavens.”  When a Seneca receives an eagle feather, traditionally she takes good care of it and displays it proudly. It is considered disrespectful to hide the feather away in a drawer or a closet.

Mature_White_Eagle_Feather_by_SkyeTrinity

Without missing a beat, Sandy and Rita pick up the conversation where they left off at the last visit three months ago, like old friends.   They easily slide from discussing the warm weather, to her problems with extreme incontinence, her self-image after her radical mastectomy for breast cancer two years ago, and the chest pain that comes when she does light housework which is relieved by nitroglycerin tablets.   Today, after months of denial, Rita finally agrees to let Sandy schedule a cardiac stress test for her. She trusts Sandy. She didn’t trust the doctor in a non-VA emergency department who suggested the stress test the first time this happened.

The home visit is like nothing I’ve seen before in my eight years of training through the US health care system. There is something beautiful about the comprehensive physical exam Sandy performs in Rita’s kitchen.  Rita mentions that she gets that funny chest pain when she tries to climb up a chair and put a screw in the wall above the window to hang up her new blinds, but she has no one to do it for her.   I spend two minutes putting the screw in the wall.   I may have just saved the US taxpayer several thousand dollars by preventing an admission for a heart attack.

She thanks us and offers us something to drink. I imagine this is what medicine was like when my grandmother talks about the family doctor coming to exam my infant mother in Brooklyn in the 1950s.   But it’s not just nostalgia for Norman Rockwell-style medicine that makes this home visit so valuable.   The VA and others have published multiple studies demonstrating that not only is this style of practicing extremely cost-effective, it also dramatically improves patient lives in everything from reducing unnecessary hospitalizations to standardized measures of quality of life.

“Before the VA home care program, it was hit or miss for me,” Rita explains. “I never knew who I was gonna see. I just saw doctors here and there, no body seemed to be talking to each other. Indian Health Services was ok, but they couldn’t do everything. And the private hospitals?   It was a mess. When I got breast cancer, I was going to Rochester every six weeks, Indian Health Services couldn’t pay for it. The paperwork was overwhelming, I didn’t know who to turn to. Then I got in touch with the VA. Since Sandy and the nurses started coming to see me it is completely different. I know if I need something they are just a phone call away. I know someone is looking out for me.”

This work is only possible in a comprehensive health care system like the VA. The VA system, as Mr. Krugman alluded to, is very different than the rest of US healthcare.  Yet it is in this sort of system where data-driven programs, like home-based primary care, can most easily be tried out and proven to work.   Private sector medicine struggles to serve people like Rita. The deplorable outcomes statistics for health in our country demonstrate this, especially for our nation’s most vulnerable and isolated people.  The most common arguments against a more just healthcare system, usually devolve to the argument of “why should I pay for someone who isn’t taking care of themselves?” The champions of austerity budgets and free markets often paint those who utilize social services as “freeloaders” and “takers”.

Rita is anything but a freeloader.   She carries the blood of a people who protected these beautiful forests for thousands of years and built the continent’s first democracy, the Iroquois Confederacy.   She served in the US Navy during the Vietnam Era.  She practiced housing advocacy law for over ten years, helping keep people who would have otherwise been on the streets in their homes. People like Rita are the eagle feathers of America.   Their wisdom, their experience, and their time spent soaring close to the heavens have built the society we inherit. Now, due to old age and disease and historical injustice, these feathers have fallen to the ground.   We receive them into our hands as a gift.   We must care for them.  It is disrespectful to hide them away in a drawer or a closet.

1914_Panoramic_View_of_Iroquois

Disclosure: Dr. O’Brien is a RWJ Foundation Clinical Scholars Fellow at Yale University, a program funded in part by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and he will spend part of this time as a teaching attending on the wards at the VA West Haven.   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Dr. O’Brien, and do not represent the views of the Department of Veteran Affairs, Yale University, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The name of the patient discussed has been changed to protect her privacy.

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A Training Ground for The World That’s Possible

by Mordechai Zalman

At a Jewish environmental summer camp, where kids have no access to cell phones or the internet, grow and make much of their own food, spend time building sweat lodges from materials found in the forest, milk goats, use their own legs to power a blender on an electricity generating bicycle, and refrain from talking about each others physical appearance positive, negative or neutral, founders Viv and Yoni have found the perfect balance.   The balance they are achieving is exactly the balance Mark and Paul Engler call for in their recent article on the website Waging Nonviolence, “Should we fight the system or be the change?”. In the article, the Englers brothers call for a paradigm shift between the two extremes that have pulled apart people who yearn for justice and a better world since the days of Moses. Do we work to change the system that we see as corrupted from within and risk corrupting ourselves? Or do we isolate ourselves from that cruel society and live “pure” lives without worrying about our affect on the greater whole? Can we do both?   Viv and Yoni, founders of Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, NY, show us that yes, in fact, we can have our truth and eat it too.

I should have been able to guess they would.  The family I was born into, who live in the suburbs, and don’t take the the elitist stances of opposition that I do towards the icons of consumerist culture like SUVs and McMasions and corporate television, affectionately call the group of friends that includes Viv And Yoni, the “Jewish Hippies”.   At Bekah and my wedding four years ago, the Jewish Hippie unique approach to living was a central part of what made our wedding transformational for so many of our guests. Through our ecstatic dancing, singing, guitar playing, fiddling, drumming, and parading along with long flowing robes of pink and yellow and teal, we not only created an oasis of deeply connected living, but also drew our more normative culture engrossed relatives into tasting the other world of our Eco-Hasid subculture.  These relatives were not converted, but many expressed that after the experience they would bring something back to their real lives.

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Yesterday, on TV screens in Dunkin Donuts and shopping malls and homes across the continent, Good Morning America on ABC made the radical suggestion that we all should consider focusing more on who we are as people, than on our outer appearances.   I’m not being sarcastic here.   For a television show that features two thin, blond young women with two perfectly manicured men in expensive suits, sitting behind a glass table that allows the camera to always get a perfect shot of the women’s exposed long legs, as they gab on about generally superficial topics, all between ads for make-up and clothes and diet soda, to seriously suggest that appearances aren’t all that matter, is revolutionary. Watch the segment here.

Eden Village’s now famous “no body talk” rule, is actually not a rule at all. There is no punishment for disobeying. It is merely an intention that is set for campers and staff at the beginning of each camp session to refrain from the dominant cultural norm of talking about a person’s appearance before anything else, and instead shift the way we interact with each other to focus on deeper aspects our humanity, such as how we treat each other, our creativity, and our connectedness to the Earth. All of this is just one of many tools they use to help children who will inherit a globally warmed planet to find more loving ways to relate to each other, the Earth, and themselves.   The beautiful thing is that Viv and Yoni have come off the commune and have inserted their unique community’s experiments with truth right into the center of the globalized consumerist lion’s den. Viv explains Eden Village Camp on ABC, subsidiary of Disney Inc., this way. “It’s not a retreat from the real world but a training ground for stepping more powerfully back into the real world.”

David Graeber calls revolution “a transformation of political common sense” in his book The Democracy Project.  “In the wake of a revolution, ideas that had been considered veritably lunatic fringe quickly become the accepted currency for debate.”   When the irony of Good Morning America, our nation’s morning prayer to consumerism, questioning one of its foundational principles, that people must buy things to make themselves look acceptable to others, is no longer obvious, the revolution is already won.    One of my favorite rallying cries at Occupy was “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.”   Yesterday, communal living, non-violent, organic farming, tree-sitting, renewal Jew environmentalist, breastfeeding mother Vivian Lehrer got on television, in front of the mothers of every middle school girl in America, just as they are putting on their make-up, and pointed out the common sense that young women have more to offer our world than what they look like.   An unquenchable spark has been lit.  This is how we change the world; By building training grounds for stepping more powerfully back into the dominant culture and turning radical ideas into common sense, as Viv and Yoni have done at Eden Village. Let’s all build them in our children’s schools, our workplaces, our homes, our churches, our food coops, our credit unions, our farmer’s markets, our backyard gardens, our public squares and our public discourse. If we can do that, we truly are unstoppable.

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My Speech from the Buffalo Vigil for Environmental Justice

I gave the following speech Feb. 3, 2014 at Front Park, in front of the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, NY during the “Buffalo Vigil for Environmental Justice”, the local version of the Nationwide Vigil against the Keystone XL Pipeline.  http://nokxl.org

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Thank you for coming to the Buffalo Vigil for Environmental Justice.

My name is Michael O’Brien.  I’m a local pediatrician, a member of board of directors of Clean Air Coalition of WNY, and a volunteer for the Sierra Club and 350.org.   But more important than those titles; I am a son, a husband, a brother, a father of a young son, a friend, a neighbor, and a human being. 

As a human being, I breathe the same air into my lungs as you do, and that air makes a voice, as it does for you.   I drink the same water as you do, and that water makes the same tears, for joy and for sadness, as it does for you.  I live under the same embrace of our great Earth’s global climate that you do, that gives us seasons and harvests and celebrations, as it does for you.   

Environmental Justice is the simple recognition of these truths.  It is the simple recognition that a child waking up tomorrow morning here on the West Side of Buffalo should be able to take that same first breath of fresh, clean air that a child in Lewiston does.   That a pregnant mother in Kalamazoo, Michigan or Mayflower, AL or Charleston, WV can drink the same clean water as one in the wealthy suburbs of Washington, DC.     Environmental Justice simply states that a baby born to the Athabasca first nation peoples near Lake Chipewaan in northern Alberta or a child born to a working class family in Townawanda, NY should have the same low risk of developing cancer or a birth defect as any other child on this great Green Earth!   Environmental Justice simply states that if you live surrounded by oil refineries in the Manchester Neighborhood of Houston, TX or under the flames of fracking wells in Dimmock, PA or under the shadow of this Bridge right here on the West Side of Buffalo you have inherited the same God-given green Earth as the rest of us, and you should be able to enjoy her waters and her winds and her soils as a healthy and free human being.         

We stand here tonight, to light a candle to let all the children in those places, and others like them, know that they have not forgotten. We will NOT allow their homes to be made sacrifice zones.   We will not have them placed in harms way for the profit of the fossil fuel industry and its Wall St backers.  No! We will be idle no more.

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There will be no Keystone XL Pipeline.  There will be no TPP.  There will be no Peace Bridge Expansion, without our voice!   For we, the People, the 99 percent!, we will not stand by and let some greedy overgrown adolescents in pinstripe suits, in their blind and suicidal lust for power, destroy this world that we love.

For it is Love that brings us here tonight!  And we understand that the light of Love can drown out all the darkness of fear.   For you see, the reason we will win, is that our movement is an worldwide awaking of love, and their entire enterprise, with all its money, and machines, and corrupted politicians, and lawyers, and lobbyists, and militarized police forces, is a house of cards, built on fear.  One spark of light, one breathe of Truth, and the entire empire comes crumbling down.  No one works for the oil industry or becomes a corrupted politician or beats up non-violet protestors out of love, they operate only out of fear.  Fear of not looking tough, fear of losing face, fear of losing their job,  or losing the next election, or a half percentage point on their stock in the next quarter.  Fear of losing money.   You see that makes them weak, and our lack of fear makes us strong.

For we are out here on a cold night in February, along with nearly 5000 others in over 200 cities around this continent out of love.   Sure, we fear for the future of our children, we fear having to go to the emergency room when our four-year has an asthma attack, or that our siblings will get cancer, or that our climate will be unsustainable, but those are reasonable fears.  Underlying those fears is always love.  And it is that Love that brings us out here tonight.   Love for each other, Love for this earth, Love for our G-d or the Great Mystery or whatever you want to call it.  For we all fear only God and Love all the Earth because we remember.  We remember being awed by a sunset over Lake Erie there, or the majestic silence of a hike through a snow covered winter woods, or the sacred scent of the soil on our hands in the springtime.   This is the source of Love.    And that Love, that small candle glowing bright in the darkness, that is a power no amount of money or lobbyists or corruption can defeat.    

You see, my friends, as dark as this moment may seem for our movement, we must remember that what started the moment we lit these candles tonight, is that we have already won.    Our job now is to simply get as many people as possible to act on that memory.   We need only to wake up that awe for the wind that gives us breathe and then gives us voice, to remember the taste of the water that makes our tears, for sorrow and for joy, We need only listen to the soil that grows our food to help our bodies raise our fists, and stand for justice, for each other, for Love!

Song, “Stand” by Amy Carol Webb:

I will stand with you, Will you stand with me?

We will be the change that we long to see.

In the name of Love, in the name of Peace.

Will you stand, will you stand with me?    

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We are stronger than money! A Case Study: The People’s Rebellion against Fracking

The county where I live, Erie County, NY, has just banned fracking on public lands and the import and disposal of fracking waste water.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a basically when a corporation takes millions of gallons of clean drinking water, pollutes it on purpose, pumps that poisonous slop deep into the ground under our aquifers (from which we drink) and into deeply buried beds of radiation, sucks all this now radioactive slop back up,  and then finds improvised cities like our neighbor, Niagara Falls, NY to take the waste and pour into their municipal drinking water systems and spray onto their roadways in the winter.  All this so a few oil and gas executives can buy an extra car or yacht somewhere from profits off the speculative commodities market this sort of extreme natural gas extraction creates .   The Hunger Games are real, my friends, and we are the districts.

Fortunately, there is a brave and growing resistance to this nightmare turned reality.  And I am proud to say the people of Buffalo, NY and Erie County are part of the movement slowly turning the odds ever more slightly in our favor.

The history of resistance to hydrofracking in New York State is an inspiring and storied one.   Amazingly, it is also one with mostly wins for the people and the ecosystem, so far.  I haven’t the space to summarize it here, but basically, we have maintained a de facto moratorium on permits for new horizontal hydraulic fracturing wells since 2010.  This despite the many millions of dollars spent by the oil and gas industry on lobbying, propaganda (including the infiltration of our public University system), and spying on journalist and activists,  we have successfully held off fracking in this State for almost 3 years.     When, Gov. Cuomo tried to sneak a set of faulty regulations to allowing fracking past the people last year over Christmas, we fought back and won, forcing the Governor to let the proposed regulations expire and continue the moratorium despite his best efforts.

The question is, why against all odds, have an improbable network of individuals been able to hold off the corporate exploitation of our state for so long?   It may be useful to realize that in many ways, our diverse network, is so effective in no small part because our methods mimic the natural systems of the ecology we are trying to protect.  Like the way the microcrobes in the soil interact with the roots of the great trees interacts with the global winds that pass through the Southern Tier’s forests, we are functioning at different levels of organization.   Little old ladies in small rural towns are convincing their local town board to pass local bans,  famous actors and singers are organizing state wide campaigns, graduates of Occupy Wall St are blockading new natural gas pipelines in the West Side of Manhattan, and academics in Buffalo are forcing the closure of industry-funded propaganda institutes sneaking their way into our State University.  And like the ecosystem, money is not the driving force behind action.

The last example deserves some expanding.   I have some personal experience with that movement within the movement (disclosure: I was a member of the all volunteer, informally organized UBCLEAR coalition that formed to oppose the UB Shale Resource and Society Institute),  but more importantly the University at Buffalo experience illustrates how our moneyed opponents can’t possibly comprehend any human motivation other than money itself.   This is the essential flaw of the prevailing dogma, neoliberalism, that dominates our corporate-controlled culture and the strategies of the coporations.   Love, family, passion, caring, protection, justice, and truth– these are all ideals that completely escape the elites’ and their puppets’ understanding of human behavior.   This is their greatest weakness, and our greatest strength.  It explains why in a recent report from Global Risks, a corporate consulting firm, they admit that the oil and gas industry has “repeatedly been caught off guard by the sophistication, speed, and influence of anti-fracking activists.”

Last year when UB Law student Rob Galbraith heard that the UB Shale Research and Society Institute had published a so-called “peer reviewed” paper, he read it.  And by reading it critically, as any good student of science and reason ought to, he discovered that the paper’s major conclusion, that fracking under new regulations in Pennsylvania led to fewer environmental violations than before the new regulations, was in fact false.  The data provided in the body of the paper actually proved this.  (He also discovered that the paper was not in fact peer reviewed at all, large portions of it were plagiarized from industry position papers and that there were significant undisclosed conflicts of interest in the authors).    Yet the institute’s co-director, Robert Jacobi, a scientist, was asked about the instituted preported goal of providing “the unvarnished truth” about hydraulic fracturing on NPR’s innovative trail, this was his response:

“Maybe not truth. There’s never real truth, right? It’s all biased by somebody’s view of things.”

That these words can be seriously spoken by a scientist– that there is no real truth—, a highly decorated tenured scientist at a public University, demonstrates how deeply the destructive neoliberal mindset has infiltrated every layer of our society.  As expanded upon in Chris Hedge’s The Death of the Liberal Class and alluded to in David Graeber’s The Democracy Project,  since everything in this culture has to do with money, which in academia is described as “funding”, too many academics, like Dr. Jacobi, have sold-out the very soul of their professions to obtain funding which, in the age of austerity, most easily comes from corporations.   Corporations exist only to make money, nothing else is even comprehensible to their structures.   Therefore, if a scientist wishes to get corporate funding, even for an institute housed in a public university, he too must adapt the blind faith in money above all else.   If there is never any real truth, as scientist Dr. Jacobi states, then you might as well get paid nicely to tell lies.  He proves this point when asked by NPR why he skipped the standard of practice in the scientific community of seeking true peer review through publication in an academic journal, and instead just pushed paper out into the hands of corporate lobbyists and government regulators with the university seal on it.

“Every research institute does it now. It’s a way to get one leg up on the competition, and therefore get a leg up on the granting cycle or wherever the money is coming from.”

Fortunately for humanity, most human beings , even those who work in neoliberal institutions like American universities, don’t actually believe this.  I would guess it is a relatively small minority who actually believe this garbage, maybe about 1% of the human population.   The other 99% of us just hadn’t discovered the means to get our message out, until now.   This may be one reason why the message of the Occupy movement, which can basically be summed up as money is not everything, and people matter, caught fire.  And it explains why the anti-fracking movement is winning in New York.

We understand, unlike the so-called “Center-Left” of establishment Democrats like Cuomo and Obama, that there are valid human motivations more powerful than the lust for money.   We could have, as a movement, made the legitimate argument that the fracking boom is actually bad for the long term economic prospects of the country and is a bad financial investment for our people.  That would be a true argument, but it is a weak one, because it upholds the central delusion of the culture elitists try to shove down our throats through the mainstream media , that “money is the only metric that matters”.     Instead we have chosen to take this central tenet of neoliberalism head on, and use its weakness against the moneyed interests.  We could have chosen “Fracking is a bad investment” as our slogan, instead we choose “You can’t drink money!”.

And this is our greatest strength.  We are motivated by things other than money.  We are motivated by the desire to protect our children, the desire to drink clean water, the desire to live in a sustainable climate, the desire to see social justice spread to all communities and the abolition of sacrifice zones,  and  the desire to understand and speak truth, as we saw in the UBuffalo case.  None of these have anything to do with money.   Our greatest strength, is the corporate interests’ greatest weakness.   They can’t even understand motivations other than money.  Therefore, to them, our behavior, our speed, and our effectiveness are completely unpredictable and therefore beyond their control.   So despite all the money they are using to fight us, including the spying capacity of the surveillance-industrial complex and the co-opation of law enforcement for brutal suppression, we, in New York State, are still winning.   This is in no small part because the source of our power, all these diverse human motivations, all come from a common source: love.  And that is a power no amount of money can defeat.  

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Love is Greater than Fear

a poem, by Mordechai Zalmen

Lovers give things away.
The fearful hoard.
Lovers speak and sing and listen and write.
The fearful silence.
Lovers trust, teach and forgive.
The fearful punish, accuse and survey. 

Lovers are unashamed to stand naked before each other, scars exposed.                
The fearful hide away any minor imperfection.
Lovers believe, knowing Truth will speak to everyone, eventually,                                        in Her own way, in Her own time.
The fearful pretend to know and preach their lies                                                                      upon those whose they think won’t listen. 

Lovers create.
The fearful destroy.
Lovers stand still in the face of adversity.
The fearful cower and kick and fuss.
Lovers can imagine the possible, and acknowledge and celebrate the real.
The fearful fear the possible, and hide and cover up the real. 

Lovers give birth to us all, run our lives and our hearts.
The fearful fear us all, run our governments and our money.
Love is greater than fear. 

The lover is brave.
The lover can tolerate the undisciplined child
and teach him new ways to bring his dimmed light to life and society.
The fearful shut down entire cities with tanks and guns and paramilitary storm troopers when a teenager misbehaves badly.

The fearful think they run this world.
The lovers know they don’t.
But lovers know this epidemic of fear, could very well destroy it. 

So we lovers are writing love songs, hosting banners on buildings,                                 climbing trees and locking ourselves inside pipelines,                                                     declaring our love for each other and the Great Mother of us all,                                      creating the other world that is possible.
We lovers laugh.
We lovers live.
We lovers get arrested disrupting the system of fear and destruction.
We lovers occupy our public spaces,                                                                                  in celebration, sharing meals and song and literature and decision-making.
Love is greater than fear. 

Lovers sacrifice, and realize their dreams.
The fearful hide, and realize their fears.
Will you be brave and be a lover with me?

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Listening to Very Old Trees and Planting Their Acorns: Introduction to the Great Red Oak Press

There is a 300 year old Sycamore Tree on Franklin St, here in Buffalo, on a small sliver of  land tucked between a paved street and a sidewalk, in front of an ordinary house, next to a usually empty parking lot.   Buffalo was first settled by Europeans as a French colonial outpost nearly 50 years after this tree sprouted from the ground.  In a city park, there is a red oak tree that is felt to be even older.  These trees are passed by, daily, by us human denizens of this city, without even a passing glance away from smart phone screens.  Yet, they are the oldest living creatures around us.  They have been here since a time when only the occasional Seneca would hike the endless forest to drink of sacred water in Buffalo Creek and no white man had yet been west of the Hudson.  All the petty trivialities of  the history of European settler’s conquest and civilization building have been patiently abided by these majestically noble and silent beings.   For over 300 years, every Fall their leaves have blanketed the ground beneath them and every Spring new leaves and branches and acorns sprout again.

The Great Red Oak Press hopes to be a place where we can stop and listen to what these wise beings may have to say.   For these trees speak a language we modern humans have forgotten how to speak.  Yet it is, as our birth right, our primary language.  The late philosopher Thomas Berry wrote, beneath a Great Red Oak, that: “The natural world itself is our primary language as it is our primary scripture, our primary awakening to the mysteries of existence. We might well put all our written scriptures on the shelf for twenty years until we learn what we are being told by unmediated experience of the world about us.”

And thus the Great Red Oak Press will speak of our current world, with an ear towards greater truths.  We will listen for and record as best our human ears can do, truths that we modern people do not always share amongst ourselves, at least not via the corporate media and conventional American life.    We will share the cries for justice we hear in the voice of the Earth, as a corporate system created by the greed of a small minority of human beings rapes Her of her ability to give life to all these ancient creatures, including us.   We will share the calls for justice among our human brethren, hungry and tired and overworked, in this same system of greed that tramples one human life in the pursuit of enriching another.    We will share stories of how the knowledge, the access and sharing of information and data, and the hoarding of that knowledge by this same system of avarice, keeps us scared, timid, uninformed and confused.   The Great Red Oak Press seeks to share these stories on justice– about places where it is hidden and broken, and about new ways we are living it.   We will call out when our sacred trees are cut down, and at the same time, we will spread their acorns of wisdom to build another world that is possible.    Ecological Justice, Social Justice, and Information Justice are the three broad themes, the limbs of our Great Red Oak Press.   The roots are in the Earth, the wisdom of abundance She shares with us all if we only listen and speak to one another about Her.   Most of what we share here will be written in the editorial style of a newspaper, but we will also have space for poetry, literature and song.    We hope to recruit a wide diversity of writers to share their unique experiences climbing these three limbs of the Great Red Oak Press.   Our voices may be different, but the root sound is the same.

Listen now to the older trees around you.  Take one of these sage’s acorns into your palm and plant that seed here.  Soon we will grow a new civilization, one where the Earth is again respected as the Great Mother and we children live among each other and her other children as sisters and brothers.

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