Today I just wanted to share a sort of audio-journal meditation on the beauty of the friendships formed over the past year among a group of some close community members affected by struggles we have experienced over the past year together seeing students in our community mistreated.
I remember loving Sinead O’Connor as a teenager. She is a beautiful soul. She cut her hair extremely short in order to reduce her attractiveness so people wouldn’t look at her as another pretty face. But it didn’t work. She was so pretty, cutting her hair didn’t change things.
She sacrificed her career – screaming in the loudest most unmistakable language about religious indifference, corruption and silencing in the face of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church. She did this by tearing up a picture of the Pope on national television while singing a protest song about the abuses of the church. People were outraged and offended. The measure she took was drastic and the public’s response was proportional. She epitomized Bahá’u’lláh’s words in the tablet of Ahmad: “be thou as a flame of fire to My enemies and a river of life eternal to My loved ones.”
The first thing that happened was she was vilified and lost her career. Saturday night live (the venue she chose for her notorious protest) showcased an actor threatening to beat Sinead who was herself an abuse survivor. The second thing that happened- is that after many years, the world realized that she was right and that the suffering of victims was continuing while the world ignored it. She was the first to stand up for abused children all over the Catholic world, before it was popular or even permissible to do so. She spoke up at a time when her actions really cost her something. But this made it easier for others to find their voice and to get help.
She named and shamed. She broke ranks. She broke rules. She broke hearts. People saw it as a mean-spirited attack against the church. She said the things no-one was prepared to hear – the problem the world had was, she was speaking the truth.
I want to encourage you to listen to a song she wrote which is like an unbelievably simple and heart-rending chant in which she says thank you for hearing me. It’s a song about the importance of listening to people, to your friends, to strangers, to victims. Hear them out – don’t silence them – don’t talk over them. Don’t reframe their experience for them. Give a down-trodden person your attention and let your heart be taken.
- Thank you for hearing me, by Sinead O’Connor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXyGEw8lHG8
This is from my dream journal several months ago.
“Firstly yesterday 2020.08.09 I had a brief nap during which time I dreamed I was heading towards the office area at Townshend with a pallet knife that opens out like a pocket knife. [The school director] looked at it with alarm because it looked like a violent tool to him – superficially resembling a pocket knife as I opened it up. [the residential director] was behind him and appeared frightened and kind of hiding behind him.
I explained that the knife was not the cutting kind but was for paintings and that the painting we all were making had some old, dry paint and some dirt that needed scraping off and also that the pallet knife I had was also to be used as a brush in order to apply new paint and repair the image. In other words I wasn’t harming the image – I was actually coming to repair and clean it. He seemed skeptical but before anything further happened I awoke. There was the sense though that I was going to continue towards the office area.”
This dream really reflects the two different approaches concerning what harms or helps the school - especially it's reputation. The efforts I made were to towards creating a space where victims could have a voice and be visible. My primary concern was for the students, not for the school's reputation- however I felt (as I expressed in the dream) that the only way to protect the school's reputation was to "cut the crap" (the old, corrosion and paint- maybe symbolic of harmful BS) off of the image we are creating together as a community so that a new, healing and truthful image could be produced. Unfortunately this was viewed as harmful to the schools reputation and seen as a threat to the school.
This scene happened on my last day at Townshend. A student and I said good-bye to a bird that perished by flying into a window of the boy’s dorm. The memory for me represents a beautiful good-bye to this student, to the student community as well as to this beautiful bird. This memory carries a lot of cherished emotions and sadness. I finished drawing it this morning and offer it to honor and to morn. At the same time – I sense these beautiful friendships will continue and grow in wonderful ways. In a way then- we are only saying “see you later” and what has died is something about the heart of the school – not the community. I feel like it’s the best community in the world. Of course it’s not literally OK to say that but just – that’s the feeling for me.
[from my gardening journal, June 14, 2004]
“.. Interesting that tree leaves- particularly those from maples make excellent compost on their own. I read that when planting a sapling you want to use poor quality soil. This causes the roots to burrow deep in order to find what they need which serves two purposes. Firstly, it permits their root systems to grow deep which will secure them in storms. Secondly, it permits them to provide their ecological benefits- namely to find mineral wealth deep beneath where it is buried beyond the reach of lesser flora, convert it into organic material, and then deposit this in the form of leaves to mingle with the topsoil. The tree then is as a grandfather to all lower vegetation. It spends it’s lifetime harvesting wealth from deep, deep within the earth, pulling it up into its leaves, and then shedding this wealth on the ground to renew burned, scorched and depleted earth. Eventually we see grass and flowers growing out of this natural compost. Without recourse to fertilizers, herbicides, or any other enhancement, we see nature producing the likes of the great planes- the most beautiful and large lawn we know of.
My Aunt Maxcia called me yesterday morning as the sun was rising (2021.03.16). She read this one part from Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh (emphasis mine): “O Thou Whose remembrance is the delight of the souls of all them that yearn after Thee, Whose name is the exultation of the hearts of all who are wholly devoted to Thy will, Whose praise is cherished by such as have drawn nigh unto Thy court, Whose face is the ardent desire of all them that have recognized Thy truth, Whose trial is the healer of the sicknesses of them who have embraced Thy Cause, Whose calamity is the highest aspiration of such as are rid of all attachment to any one but Thyself!”
This all reminds me of how when we suffer and go through things, – like the tree that had bad soil and was forced to dig deeper – we are given far stronger roots when we are forced to mature in a deep way through that hardship- don’t you feel that? I think of how Abraham Lincoln was so depressed as a young man that he was always thinking of killing himself. But then when he started to work towards liberating the slaves in the South – the tone of his letters changed. He was no-longer unhappy. I feel like his extreme sensitivity and difficulty when he was young gave him tremendous compassion and courage as he grew older. I figure it was because he knew what suffering felt like and wouldn’t sit on his hands.
I see some of that nature in some of these young people at Townshend. I admire them so much already for the qualities they posses and am excited by what wonderous forces for justice and goodness they are likely to become as they soar out into the world. They already are this way! Brave and articulate. We may remember perhaps – that sometimes an affliction or an injustice is something that in a deep way establishes the course of our life and destiny in beautiful ways. Doesn’t mean at all that when injustice happens- that it’s OK – it’s not- but the struggle may also really strengthen who we are one day.
One morning as I came down stairs and was getting my routine, I found myself talking with the cat- an orange tabby named Bill. I don’t remember about what – you know – stuff you talk to your cat about which could be absolutely anything. Whatever it was – I started to realize something. He was sitting at attention, rapt as he gazed dauntless into my eyes with lips as silent, as serene as granite. His predator ears – tiny, stereo satellite dishes tilted to me; his body directed forward in respectful repose, his eyes bright, wide, glistening. I was Socrates in the agora. I was Buddha on the mount, I was – the center of his universe at that moment.
What I said didn’t matter. There were no todo items in it, no potential criticisms for him to digest or fend off, no ideas for him to dismiss, argue against or wait to the completion of so that he could insert his own. He was listening without a concern for himself. After all, he didn’t understand the content of my speech. He was listening to my voice. Looking into my face. Taking in my presence – and giving me every morsel of his own.
I felt warm and soft. I thought – I’d like to learn how to do that for others. This is really something to learn from him. This caused me to stop speaking at which- he waited in stillness until he was completely sure I was finished. Then was heard, the gentlest purr and a soft “meow”, and he walks up to me gently and moves to my ankle for a rub. It’s a certain kind of listening. People say that cats are indifferent and self-absorbed. That is true many times – but when it is your turn, they are available in every sinew of their little beings – in those moments they show a listening power which, over the course of over a million years of evolution has been honed while listening to the beating of the hearts of field-mice beneath blankets of foliage or snow.
And they give those wonderful ears to you, with their softness, their affection and their beautiful gaze. I thought – I’d like to learn from them. I am still not a good listener most times. Every once in a while I notice I am able to find and to stay with “the cat within”, and become perfectly still and present in the midst of another’s softly beating heart.
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
~Mathew 5, KJV
(I wrote this poem for my beautiful sister Jenny: loving mother, courageous abuse survivor, and BFF)
I have a handful of words for you
Few, and potent
Let me unfold them before you:
“Sister, daughter, wife” and “mother”
That which every parched heart longs to hear
These names are the rain in our sky
Are they sweet and soft in every language?
In Spring, at their behest are bright berries brought to light
In the east as in the west?
Are they venerated as much as they should be?
As they are charitable, are they also spared by God or man much trouble, pain, sorrow or fear from burden?
Are they the sweetest, softest words to whisper?
“Sister, daughter, wife” and “mother”
In the tears of love and sorrow is hid the salt of the earth
In the sweat of her diligent labor and worry lay its savor
Therewith the children’s eyes were made
and with her coaxing, opened
and with her guidance, enlightened
and with her care, protected
and with her prayers, granted vision
and in her presence, brightened
A handful of notes the high larks warble:
“Sister, daughter, wife” and “mother”
I hear a lot of optimistic statements from the school these days. Supposedly, things are improving. Procedures and training that weren’t there before are in place now.
1: Here’s what I don’t see:
- The parents and victims had a very good, reasonable list of requests they made to the board (parent forum letter from Jan 8). None of them have been followed or even responded to. Maybe this would change. We aren’t holding our breath- which brings me to..
2: Here’s what I do see:
- Victims, parents, advocates, allies- are trying to leave, have left already or are in serious distress because they can’t leave. Of course- how can a person function in a community like that if you believe some of the victims? What about the people responsible for what is wrong with the school? Are they being held to account? Doesn’t look that way. It kind of feels like their authority is being consolidated and re-branded beautifully.
The school has therefor perhaps forever lost the opportunity to do right by its students because whatever they do now- it’s too late for the victims isn’t it? They have given up and left to fend for themselves. They don’t want to talk any more and who can blame them? But they have their community around them – it just may not include the school itself ever again. That opportunity was lost – that’s sort of what it looks like to me.
There was another serious allegation a few months ago and I feel the matter may be concluded soon with nothing learned and nothing accomplished and no real sense of safety or clarity established. Hopefully the school will say something about it to the parents, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they said nothing to us. Perhaps they CAN’T do much at this point – but that would only be because they thoroughly botched the handling of her allegation right from the beginning. The school may be handling things worse than before, but their rhetoric is ramped up a notch. So much for training and procedures. At least the first time, they had a little more trust from victims and therefor were able to get more information and to communicate a little more with the community.
Last night I was reading my “Group Work” book. It had me thinking – if the school had done things better to begin with things would be so different today. There would be the chance for healing as a community. People could speak openly about their grievances. There would be sharing circles and group work which would be so helpful in establishing trust and connection again.
The victim of the present allegation would also be much more forth-coming. She would have had reason to trust the school and the people who are responsible for student safety. I believe this victim and I know her, as I believe the other victims who I also spoke with. But the world wont know one way or another if the school is safe at this time (it isn’t).
There is good news though. The community of the victims and allies is safe to a certain extent at least from being groomed, abandoned, marginalized, ‘invisibled’, and maligned – because it established its solidarity and connectedness beyond the reach of the school’s censorship. We have each other, and in this community there is a level of trust, affection, safety and healing that can be hard to find elsewhere. It is a beautiful thing. We see each other and care for one-another. It is a victory and a joy and I feel some hope as I experience how we support each other spiritually, emotionally and even materially. Some of us still suffer terribly – but the suffering no-longer needs to happen in complete isolation, without any support or recognition.
The NSA [governing institution of Bahá’í’s in a respective nation] of the UK, states in its insightful and wonderful domestic abuse policy guide that “[community leadership] needs to create an environment which provides a safe space to talk for someone alleging abuse. The abused person needs to feel she can speak to anyone about what is happening to her without being accused of backbiting.”. We have among our friends created such an environment for victims. It is indeed a beautiful community- ad-hoc, and international – a diaspora of true friends.
I wrote this for my oldest and dearest friend Ryan Lehning when he moved to DC a long while ago. But I am dedicating this poem to the students of Townshend. The homing pigeon could mysteriously find her way home no-matter where you took her. The pigeon traditionally also wore a tag on its wing or ankle to identify it's owner. In this way, if injured or killed- even then the bird and her message might still find their way home.
When you wander, O my friend
Place to place, and end to end
As pigeons do- remember
The lands you leave behind.
As they do- return ever
With messages in tether
And clasped or stamped on wing or ankle,
Bear my rusting sign.
As I shall see you flying
Away I shall be smiling –
For you and I both know
We’ll meet again to tell
Of any news worth telling
At my second dwelling
When like a pigeon I
Fly home to you as well.
“Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work.”
– Dr. John Trainer
- a couple of days ago my wife read some response to parents and community which said something about “We should not allow ourselves to become distracted by problems and shortcomings we see in our community or in others.. “. It doesn’t sit well. The same day she encountered this quotation from John Trainer and it felt synchronistic for her. It was just what she needed to read.