where DSL and meadow grass collide

Impressions of India, Nepal and Indonesia January 13, 2015

Impressions of India, Nepal and Indonesia

Caregiving is a stressful job, yet a fulfilling one. After caring for my father for two and a half years, while he struggled with cancer, I felt that I needed to get away from home after he died. Watching him go through such a difficult time helped me understand the fleeting nature of life in a way I had not understood before. I had moved back home in order to be available to help. For some time, I considered whether I would ever leave Virginia again. However, the prevailing political climate in Virginia, with its senseless attack on the rights of women, and several intractable, unchanging family situations (over which I had little influence) helped make the decision easier.


So I reoriented myself towards the West Coast again, where I had spent my best years. I visited Santa Cruz for a Buddhist retreat in January 2013, and contemplated becoming a nun at that time. Although it is not a decision to take lightly, the pressure just to “do something” with my life has now waned, thankfully. Despite the obvious benefit of caring for others, including the good that it does for society, it is not appropriately valued in American society. In fact, the role of caregivers is often blatantly denigrated and disregarded. Instead, in place of respect, we get an idealization of motherhood which is facile, unrealistic, and blind to the real life pressures of caregiving and the actual person being idealized. With the increasing conservatism now on display in American society, being idealized is actually preferable to being demonized, but neither of them are considered responses to the genuine challenges of motherhood and caregiving. When will American culture grow up? When will we stop giving respect to “lowest common denominator” behavior? We represent great ideals to many worldwide. How can we live up to those expectations?



Our hotels. Although the accommodations were somewhat different from what we expect here, including occasional power blackouts in and around Nepal, the hotels were comfortable and warm, with delicious buffets offered by friendly staff. Almost every place we stayed was surrounded by lawns with a wall around the perimeter, with gates that closed up in the evening. So even though we were immersed in local culture by day, at night we were safely tucked away in these secured “compounds”. At times, I wished to go out and see what was going on beyond the walls in the evening, but the rigorous schedule meant that we all needed our rest for the next day’s activities!


Tea stalls and samosa carts. One of my favorite parts of the day was when we would stop at a local tea stall or samosa cart in order to have a quick snack. The locals nearby would usually congregate, in order to take in the spectacle of a group of Westerners so far from home! Masala chai, offered in a small plastic cup, became my cherished throat soother, as I carried a respiratory infection in my chest for most of the time I was there. It wasn’t until I got back to the United States that I fully decongested from that. The samosas were fried in a pan right in front of us, usually an open air place on the side of the road.


The countryside. As we rode in the tour bus between historic sites, we were witness to miles and miles of the rural life in Uttar Pradesh. This was the most humbling part of the trip for me. We saw vibrant towns and villages, but also astounding poverty. People washing clothing in rivers and streams, open defecation in fields, disabled beggars on the side of the streets. This is not something to look down on, instead it was heart-wrenching to witness. It filled me with the desire to do something more than just prayers and pujas. I want to use my practical skills gained from a lifetime in the West to benefit those who deserve a better standard of living.


Delhi. My first impression of Delhi was the smog hanging in a cloud outside the Indira Gandhi International airport. I had never seen such a dense chemical cloud in the air before. There were crowds of men waiting outside to give people rides from the airport. Although my traveling companion immediately put on a mask, I did not, and subsequently became hoarse. It didn’t seem to affect the men outside as much. We spent one night there before moving on. We flew to Varanasi the next day, where we met up with the entire group. We spent a few days there recovering from jet lag, then set out on a tour bus for the trip to various pilgrimage sites.


I went with a tour group on a Buddhist pilgrimage, visiting the sites of the Buddha’s life. It was a month long trip, across Uttar Pradesh in Northern India, into Nepal to visit Kathmandu, then off to Yogyakarta, Indonesia to visit several ancient Hindu sites near Mt. Merapi. There were about 25 of us in the group, along with two Western Buddhist nuns and a Nepali tour guide. My fellow pilgrims hailed from New York, California, New Zealand, and South Africa.


Varanasi. I loved being in Varanasi, it was my first real taste of the vibrancy of India. I made a couple new friends there. We visited the ghats at night, taking a tuk-tuk bicycle cart there and back. The ride was exhilarating, the shops and throngs were a blur of activity. I remember seeing a full grown steer running alongside us, blending in with the car and bike traffic, as we made our way to the Ganges banks. Vendors everywhere hawked their wares. I made friends with a silk merchant when I left our hotel for awhile. He helped me pick out a Ganesha tapestry and gave me a scarf to cover my head when needed. His kindness towards me as a Western woman in a new place I will never forget. I loved Varanasi and would be willing to go back anytime.


Lumbini. Lumbini was the first place we stayed in Nepal. The population is less dense there, so the streets were more manageable by one’s self on foot. The level of street begging decreased as well, for which the women in the group were particularly grateful. You can only have so many Buddha statues shoved in your face by well-meaning, yet slightly too aggressive salesmen, until you start ignoring people just in order to get down the street. In Nepal, we felt like we could breathe again, after that onslaught.


Remember, these pilgrimage sites are visited by hundreds of groups each year, and they all come through within the same time period, from January to March. So these vendors get geared up early on in order to sell to the incoming tourists. Some of them make all of their money for the year during pilgrimage season. I was cautioned not to give money in some circumstances. It was hard to resist the natural impulse to help out.


Kathmandu. Kathmandu was by far my favorite place that we visited. I would go there again in a heartbeat, and would consider living there for part of the year as well. With a population of over one million, it has the excitement of a major metropolis along with the ingrained culture of thousands of years of pilgrimage and commerce. Kathmandu was young, vibrant, upbeat, and hopeful.


I visited Children of the Universe while we were there. It is an orphanage for Tibetan and Nepali refugees from the surrounding region. I met Tsering Gyalpo there, he was born in a Tibetan refugee camp and now runs the orphanage, which is home to over 30 kids. He seemed so mature for his age. I agreed to sponsor one child named Purnima who I am still helping with a monthly donation.


Swayambunath in Kathmandu was the most holy place for me on our tour. The stupas there, high on a hill above Kathmandu, just seemed to emanate peace. The mood was hushed, yet relaxed. The ever-present sales people offered their goods from various stoops and shops. There were paintings for sale, along with a shop full of antique relics. We sat on the ground and did our practice right there in the square. I tried my best to maintain good meditation posture for the locals’ sake. When one woman showed curiosity in what we were doing, I underlined the words with my finger as we recited them, so she could follow along. She seemed to want to make sure we were doing things properly, and came away fairly impressed, it seemed.


Yogyakarta. What I remember most about Yogyakarta was the scooters. There were packs of them at each stoplight, usually out ahead of the car traffic. The riders were mainly in their twenties, although occasionally one would see a whole family riding on a bike. The sea of riders, many with Muslim headscarves on along with their riding gear, were an impressive lot. I was surprised to see many young men riding in short sleeves and sandals, seemingly oblivious to the danger surrounding them.

We rented scooters after the retreat for an afternoon, and I can vouch that there were some fairly large tour buses on the road! It was so fun to do after being on a rigorous tour schedule. We mostly took the back roads, taking a tour of the countryside surrounding Borobudur. I became quite enthusiastic about scooters after that. Maybe I will buy one someday!

It was great to get to experience a moderate Muslim country such as Indonesia. The school groups who were touring Borobudur with us seemed genuinely curious about us. They wanted us to stop and take photos with them. I think people around the world are realizing that we have much more in common than our governments would like us to think. People are pretty much the same wherever you go. Some good, some bad, some extreme, some moderate.


Return to the US. Coming back to America, one of the first things I appreciated was the cleaner air and water. The sky was so blue outside the plane! I stopped drinking bottled water, which was required in areas with poor sanitation, and no longer needed to reflexively apply hand sanitizer like mad. I was also glad that I could dress the way I wanted back in the States without worrying about offending anyone. I had covered my head in some places in India, particularly in the more remote Muslim regions near the Nepali border, and so it was a relief to not have to worry about the changing local customs for a change. Although I hate to admit it, I also missed having food that I was more accustomed to at home, including French fries!

The time difference between Indonesia and California meant that my schedule was off for the first few weeks. I would have the urge to nap at random until my body fully adjusted again. What was harder to bear was coming back to an overwhelming sense of depression and cynicism in the populace. People just seemed less happy in America. I tried to avoid it as long as I could, but once I moved into a new housing situation, I too became bogged down with the general sense of malaise. It was as if my trip was something to be jealous of, not to be celebrated. No one seemed to take seriously my actual interest in the teachings, and what we had considered a pilgrimage was seen as a luxury vacation by some. I guess that’s just the way it is.


Although we went to some “exotic locales”, I can assure you it was not a resort style trip, although we were delighted with the pleasant hosts we had and the food was wonderful in itself. The idea that I was told by my landlord in California, of all people, is that I wasn’t being “Buddhist enough” in my actions. People in America often mistake “being Buddhist” with someone being completely pliable and agreeable. We think of Buddhists as happy, smiling, and compliant. In my experience, that is not the case. We have a very simplistic view of the religious beliefs from other parts of the world. It would suit us well in the long run to reform that view. Christianity is just one religion among many which are influential worldwide. I hope to continue to learn more about other cultures.


Why do people in America seem to have no confidence left our country? I was so glad when Narendra Modi came over to visit, including his “rock star” appearance at Madison Square Garden. Finally, the emerging world started coming into plain view for the developed world. The United States aligning with India makes good sense. If all of our software jobs have already gone over there, why shouldn’t we take the next step, and become administrators of the transition from West to East? At least, we need to be able to acknowledge that American businessmen have moved most of our manufacturing industries overseas. It has already happened.


Obviously, not everyone can be an ambassador for the developing world, introducing them to what the West has to offer. But for those of us who are lucky enough, we *can* make a difference, by transforming ourselves into “bridges to the future” for our peers in other countries. Even those who do not choose to travel outside the United States can support our new allies by donating to causes which support the developing world. We are leaders by example as we move into a new century. We can contribute by striving to show the world the best of the democratic ideal.


“A rising tide lifts all boats.” That’s what we are looking for to create a sustainable, non-violent world: a concerted effort to bring all human lives up to a decent living standard, including access to clean water and sanitation. Did you know that more people now have a cell phone than a toilet in the world? This is a situation which cannot stand. We must do better than that. It is possible. We just need to demonstrate the collective willpower.


K-Pop Psychology:

What I admire the most about Asian culture is its optimism and reserve. Growing up in the rural South, there were polite topics and impolite ones. This changed once I moved to San Francisco, where any topic was up for discussion. Although intellectually exciting, this could also often lead to uncomfortable situations in which someone would make more and more outrageous statements, just for the sake of “winning the argument”. Competition gone awry in some cases. I’m all for freedom of speech, but people also need to learn there are consequences for what you say and do.


The optimism of the younger generation in Asia was wonderful to be around. You can really feel a strong sense of hope for the future there. Countries which previously were mostly rural, such as South Korea, are rapidly developing into modern economic powerhouses. There is a rush to be a part of it which is balanced by the traditional cultural practices. The East will express itself differently than the West, a phenomenon for which I am grateful. They have a stronger sense of oneness with nature, even in an urban setting. They are also less effusive in public. One of the most memorable impressions of Americans which I had upon my return is that we are overly cloying and sentimental in public. We also love to exaggerate and brag. Maybe this is due to the devotional nature of Christianity, in which we are supposed to profess our “undying love’ for Jesus. It could also be rooted in the ideal of courtly love, which was created in order to serve the ruling classes. Since I grew up in a more conservative area of the US, I appreciate having the chance to learn more about the Asian perspective.


What I will never forget about India, Nepal, and Indonesia is the sense of decorum, especially in India, where *every single* village that we drove through had a Shiva, Ganesha, or Krishna temple right at the edge of town, guarding the villagers and beseeching the newcomers. Also, many of the religious sites comfortably hosted a blend of Hindu and Buddhist gods in the same temple. In Nepal in particular, they seem to make no distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism. I loved that. There just isn’t any equivalent in American culture for a thousand-year old living tradition rooted in the native geography and people, except for that of the Native Americans. The European traditions which we brought with us were transplanted onto colonized soil. We are still newcomers here.


I enjoyed the lack of sensationalism, the way that people were obviously skilled in what they did, and yet seemed stoically humble about their situations. The sense of human dignity was strong: people were not yet completely guided by greed there, selling out by using the lowest common denominator to make a buck. That’s what worries me about the development of China, South Korea, and other Southeast Asian countries – the import of materialism and rampant development into ancient cultures which can certainly modernize their own way, without becoming exactly like Western countries. We don’t need to clone the United States.


People prided themselves on being low-key there, in a similar fashion to California, but with a major difference – they weren’t “marketing” or “branding” themselves, they really were mellow, stoic and humble. The culture there supported such openness. I think a big difference is that most of the places I visited still had strong neighborhoods and a sense of community, unlike much of the rapidly developed urban sprawl in the United States. People are alienated and distrustful of each other in America, and it is ruining our country. No one socializes much outside of their immediate families in many areas. The status-driven ethos which emerged during the 1980’s means that people are forced into excessive competition, not creating community. It’s unhealthy for our children’s future.


The farmer’s market and “Farm-to-Table” movement in the US, which considers the sourcing of our food, is an important step, along with the push to know our neighbors, form “Take Back The Night” groups, and so on. What America needs to do is stop feeling sorry for itself, take a hint from developing countries, get on the clue train, and learn how to smile at strangers again. The beaming looks from many of the people we visited were not fake: they were genuinely glad to host us, as we were bringing them revenue for that season. The sense of “gross national happiness” matters in places like Nepal and Bhutan much more so than here, where we tend to focus only on the Gross Domestic Product, or “bottom line”. How can we get back to what is most important in life?

The millennial generation, with the buoyant optimism of youth, is attempting to shake things up with flash mobs and heart hand symbols, Youtube memes and the like. How do we translate that enthusiasm in order to have an influence on the currently prevailing Baby Boomer generation, which has clamped down on issuing credit with an iron fist? Where are the hippies now? Have they all become Yuppies?


How do we encourage Generation X, whose members are now reaching middle age, to persevere in a social climate which does not reward them, but punish them, for wanting to prosper? We cannot blame all of the excesses of the previous generation on those who were children when these changes began. Kissinger and Nixon started to put in place changes which we are now just seeing, with their reliance on racial strife as a way to “divide and conquer”. It will take my lifetime to rid our government of the corrosive influence of Richard Nixon, Dick Cheney and George Bush. Let’s get started clearing out the officials who are not following their mandates.


I don’t have a solution for our society, but a prescription – be kind to one another, let someone in front of you in traffic, give someone the benefit of the doubt, try to trust more, try to avoid conspiracy thinking. America is still important, just like Europe is still important, Africa is important, and Southeast Asia is important. When putting together a jigsaw puzzle, all of the pieces are needed to make a complete picture.


Due to the nuclear arsenals of the United States and other countries, we will remain a world player, even as our country adapts to globalization. Just as we took the reins of world power from Britain after World War II, inevitably we will hand over our role as global economic powerhouse to China by within the next hundred years. The decisions which set that change in motion were made long before Generation X could vote. Do we fight that inevitability, or embrace it? The way we respond as a group will determine the success of future generations.


The environmental stresses we all face globally will force nations to begin cooperating on a level previously unseen. Let’s learn to be better global team players, in order to ensure health and happiness for future generations.




Culture War, Class Warfare, or Ecological Crisis? December 5, 2011

Filed under: nonviolence,occupy,peace,social justice — clovernode @ 5:34 am

When I arrived at VCU in Richmond in 1989, I remember seeing an art installation for the Tiananmen Square protestors on the lawn of the student commons.  It featured a replica of “The Goddess of Democracy,” which had been built by Chinese art students in Tiananmen Square, before the sculpture was destroyed and many protestors were massacred by the Chinese army in early June.



The installation featured hundreds of small placards with Chinese characters sketched on them in red paint.  These placards were meant to represent each of the protestors killed that day.  A moving tribute.

How did this affect me at the time?  I felt the proper sense of outrage, and was proud to be in a new, exciting place where political statements like this were made.  Moving to Richmond, Virginia from small-town Southwestern Virginia was a liberating and eye-opening experience, as I’m sure this rite of passage has been for countless others.  I went on to do what most college kids do: try to get good grades, meet new people, and learn more about life away from home.  But this novel display of solidarity has stuck with me over the years: it is still one of first images that come to mind when I think about those heady days so long ago now.



Back then, when the World Wide Web was still in its formative stages, how connected did I really feel with those protestors?  I remember watching footage of the infamous “Tank Man,” and being shocked at how heartless the Chinese government seemed to be.  However, back then, we Americans still enjoyed a comforting if false sense of distance from international events such as these.  China seemed to be a world away from us.  The Soviet Union had just fallen, and pro-capitalists were gloating over the fall of communism as a viable system.  Most people my age were busy preparing to launch their careers into an early-90’s recession economy.  Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it?

So although I felt for the lives lost, and found the wanton brutality repugnant, I didn’t see how what had happened there really affected me here in America.  That has changed now.  Thank you, VCU Art Department, for creating a lasting image in my mind of what it means to stand up with creativity and courage against a brutal regime.

In 2011, we don’t need much prompting to see how much has changed in our country.  The largesse of the 60’s and 70’s has dried up, and we are starting to see through the capitalist façade.  After the dot com bust, I noticed that our country seems to have recessions every ten years or so.  This recent deep recession should just be called what it is: the second Great Depression.

After 9/11, the Enron scandal, ten years of global warfare, bank bailouts, the deregulation and swindling on Wall Street, and the travesty of a politicized Supreme Court, it’s hard to recognize what we have become.  The ridiculous inquiry into Bill Clinton’s private life paved the way for the current penchant for “reality shows,” trials-of-the-century, and the general exploitation of human emotions for entertainment purposes.  When is our country going to grow into something more than an adolescent gang of hoodlums snickering at Super Bowl half-time nip slips?



Now I understand how my mother felt as she watched the 60’s generation come of age.  She shared their politics, but was born twenty years earlier than your average hippie.  Occupy Wall Street (and beyond) is the first political movement in my lifetime that I feel compelled to take part in.  I have seen the ups-and-downs of our modern job market and societal mores, and so instinctively, I know I have to create my own reality, my own working environment, my own value system.  The tired old Vietnam-era, “uptight squares vs. wild hippies” framing of our country as a cultural battleground must stop.  We are bigger and better than that.

We are looking at the first generation of college-age young adults who may never have the opportunities that their parents did.  Training our youth to think critically isn’t going to work out so well when the target is our own crumbling society.  The concentration of wealth in the hands of a small minority has happened a few times before in history, and the result is usually the same: revolt and revolution.  When is America going to drop its puritanical obsession with everyone’s sex lives, and start to see the crisis for what it is: the majority class of workers against the minority class of corporate investors?

This past year had some record-breaking weather, including a tsunami which devastated Japan, which led to the world’s worst nuclear disaster.  This should be a wake-up call to many, but instead, perhaps due to overwhelm, we giggle at the latest case of sexual indiscretions.  How long will America be able to keep this up?  What if a nuclear winter were to occur, and we all became sterile?  There wouldn’t be many left after a generation to publish the tabloids.

As more and more draconian laws are passed, to placate a fearful yet fading worldview, let’s take the inspiration of the Arab Spring and American Autumn into 2012, and remember that people power will always triumph over the fickle few.  Why don’t we forget about 1960’s-era debates – it’s time for Gen Y *and* Gen X to come into their own.  We can’t live in the shadow of the Baby Boomers forever.  Let’s start framing this in modern terms: a struggle not only for the welfare of the little guy, but for the sustainability of our ecology and planet.  Peace.  Solidarity.  No nukes in any hands.  Occupy peace of mind.



False Dichotomies November 29, 2011

Filed under: Buddhism,conflict resolution,social justice,twitter — clovernode @ 4:10 am


This is a response to the following post:

Although I don’t have time to get into an extended debate with the author, due to personal priorities, I feel that this
post merits a response.

It seems that some Buddhists would like to dwell in a rarefied atmosphere of "pure" Buddhism, which is untouched by
"mundane" concerns.  The idealization of any belief system to this extent is unrealistic and misguided, in my opinion.
To imagine that any religion has developed separately from the social and political concerns of the surrounding culture
of its time is simply glorifying ideas for the sake of ideas.  This is a misunderstanding of what the Buddha taught,
in my opinion. I believe that western Buddhism and the separation of church and state can co-exist, however.

It’s unlikely that one could live long in the West without having to come to terms with our heavily materialistic
culture.  In a monastic environment, a monk or nun may be able to claim that they are “removed from society” in terms
of keeping stricter vows and not charging money for teachings.  However, even monks and nuns are still taking part in
samsara, due to having to eat, drink, eliminate waste, and so on. In my understanding of the term, renunciation does not
mean throwing away our bodies, it means accepting the reality of our bodies, yet not clinging to either our body, other
material things, or even clinging to an expected outcome of our practice.

Unfortunately, it seems that those who would prefer to see Buddhism as “pure” or removed from the world rely on a false
dichotomy of "sacred vs profane" in order to disagree with other Buddhists’ involvement in politics, personal
discussions, or even common social courtesies.  Different interpretations of Buddhism really boil down to different
points of view.  How can any ordinary practitioner claim to have an exclusive understanding of what the Buddha meant?
This attitude may be possible to sustain in a monastic environment, within a forum of debate.  Even there, more
experienced teachers would judge the outcome of these debates.  I think household practitioners (which includes most
Western Buddhists) would benefit from realizing that they themselves make choices in living everyday which are
ambiguous at best.

For example, how do you reconcile your Buddhist beliefs with roadkill that you see on the highway?  What is the correct
Buddhist response to running over an animal on your way to work?  Have you considered that simply driving a car
automatically includes you in a culture of killing and maiming?  What would be the appropriate Buddhist remedy for

My point is that everyone interprets and acts on their Buddhist beliefs differently.  To say that being a “socially
engaged” Buddhist is a less accurate interpretation than being a “purist” or “fundamentalist” Buddhist is simply
another opinion or interpretation of what the Buddha meant.

With that introduction, here are my specific responses to parts of your post.  Although I respect your right to
interpret the Buddha’s teachings differently, it doesn’t necessarily follow that your claims in this post are backed by
Buddhist thought.  I’m comfortable with the same being said of my thoughts.

Starting with the title: “How Counterfeit Cultural Diversity and Social Justice are the Antithesis of Buddhist
Teachings.”  How do you know this to be true?  Have you had a dialogue with those who hold different viewpoints from
yourself?  Are you claiming that you are the only authority on Buddhist teachings?

First sentence: “It may be nice to think or to say that through Buddhist teachings, one will or must come to the
conclusion that social justice or forced cultural diversity is the end result of the Buddha’s teachings.” Kyle, who is
forcing you to accept anything?

I don’t agree with you that a person who identifies as Buddhist who also happens to value cultural diversity and/or
fights for social justice is a racist.  This claim is illogical at best.  Where is your proof of this claim?  How can
you possibly know the motives and thoughts of others without asking them?

I think that western Buddhism is a work in progress.  To claim otherwise is like taking a snapshot of a river, pointing
to it, and saying, “This is the river.”  The visible expression of “eastern” thought in “western” countries is still in
flux and ever-changing.  To say that western Buddhists are racist because American interest in Buddhism started in
mostly white western academic circles is uncharitable at best.  That’s like saying, “some humans are cavemen” because
evidence of early human existence is often found in caves.

Additional quotes from the linked post:

"the West continues to trap and confine itself in terms of a Buddhist path, based on nothing more than a superficial
and horribly unhealthy marriage of radicalism, powered by white elitism and basic Buddhist teachings…" I disagree.
Where is your evidence for this claim?

"…that there resides an overwhelming feeling this marriage of social justice and Buddhism is the only true and correct
path…" Who is forcing you to accept their interpretation of Buddhism?  Can you honestly say that you have had an actual
dialogue with someone who has said that?

"…marginalizing and disregarding the middle of the road, lower to middle class moderate folks…"  Again, who have you
talked to who is making this claim?  Can you provide concrete examples?

"The West needs to stop defining what being a Buddhist is…” Do you realize that you are a part of this amorphous entity
you call “the West,” and that you yourself are attempting to define Buddhism here for other Westerners?

"…how we can get others interested in exploring Buddhism in all its forms…"  I strongly disagree. My understanding is
that as Buddhists, we are not supposed to proselytize.  So therefore, unless someone asks, I tend to not discuss my
beliefs.  To be anxious about spreading a belief system to others, and taking that on as a moral obligation is usually
thought of as becoming a missionary. Proselytizing and missionary work is usually a Christian imperative, in my

"…where is room at the inn for the rest of us?"  Again, who is excluding you?

Thanks for the dialogue.  I’m glad I’m able to agree to disagree.


MLK Day: What do you plan on doing? January 8, 2009

Martin Luther King Memorial Fountain in Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fountain in Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco

In case you didn’t know already, Martin Luther King Day falls on January 19th this year, right before the inauguration. President-elect Obama has called on American citizens to celebrate MLK’s legacy by devoting a day to community service. The incoming administration has even created a new website to help organize the volunteer events: – Renew America Together

I’m currently scheduled to work that day, but luckily, the large cable network corporation that I work for (which will go unnamed so I can speak candidly in the future) has a policy for community service days – we get two paid days per year to volunteer for non-profit causes. So I’m arranging the day off, and as long as the company approves it, I’ll be helping pack discount food packages for the SHARE program in Pulaski, Virginia.

Have you decided how you will contribute that day? If you have to work, no matter what, you could consider doing your job out of a spirit of service, for example. That’s what I plan to do if I’m not approved for the community day for some reason. I talk to dozens of people around the country each evening, so it’s easy to consider my everyday contacts as mini-service opportunities.

Even though I work in a retail field, which is relatively crass compared to the usual idea of selfless service, a lot of times, I find what people seem to be looking for when they call in is a kind word, or having someone show a respectful attitude toward them. The item they are purchasing is one thing, but the interaction that I have with them often leaves them in a better state of mind than when they called in. This is the intangible, priceless value of human kindness and acceptance.

Although I have my days, where it’s not so easy to be pleasant, and I always thought of community service as something more lofty and noble, just being kind to the people you interact with each day can create “ripples” which help to promote kindness and decency in general. The people you impress with your generosity may go home and be more fair to those around them, and so on. It’s easy to be cynical and think, people are essentially self-motivated, and will greedily snatch up your kindness, with no awareness or regard in return. And trust me, that does happen. There’s no explaining the needless hostility of mankind (which includes women).

But the ones you do affect are what counts. If you’re not up for that, just try being gentler with your self that day. Give yourself a break or the benefit of the doubt for a change, and see what happens. After studying Buddhist teachings formally and informally for several years, the big takeaway I had from my studies was that you have to be gentle and kind with yourself first, before you can help others. Happy MLK day!


Five good causes January 1, 2009

Filed under: social justice,volunteering,worthy causes — clovernode @ 10:03 pm
Tags: , ,


After volunteering for the Obama campaign for over a year, one of the things I felt once he was confirmed as the new President-elect was a heightened sense of social responsibility. This was surprising to me, as I expected a sense of relief after the volunteering was over, but if we take Obama’s public service message seriously, he’s asking for bit more than just our votes.

The entire eight years of the George W. Bush era has coincided with a series of upheavals in my personal life, leaving me little time to consider effecting social change. Having weathered the last recession as a part of the dot-com industry, I was laid off three times within five years, and moved home just as the airports became de facto terrorist screening facilities. With draconian policies such as warrantless wiretapping and torture being endorsed by the outgoing administration, it was all too easy to see our American society and ideals as crumbling and beyond repair. It seemed, why bother?

Now that President-elect Obama has called on us to take a more active part in creating the government and world we would like to see, with the rallying cry of Yes We Can, I feel a direct connection being made to the hopefulness and idealism of the Kennedy and King era, when compelling and principled leaders led people to believe they really could change the world. This is heartening for someone who came of age during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush adminstrations, and who looks back to Carter as the last “scandal-free” Democrat in office. So, no more excuses!

With Obama’s clarion call in mind, here are some causes I find important, that I hope to become more involved with in the coming year. Please take the time to check them out.



The recent coal ash spill from the TVA/Kingston Fossil Plant on December 22nd in Harriman, TN, which released decades’ worth of toxic byproducts such as arsenic and lead from sludge into the Emory and Clinch Rivers, is yet another example of why we need to move beyond the absurd idea of “clean coal” and put much more research and work into environmentally safer renewable sources of energy. The 1.7 million cubic yards of fly ash released into rivers and backyards is thirty times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. The only upside to this environmental disaster is that it may finally provoke the EPA, under an Obama adminstration, to regulate coal fly ash as hazardous waste material.

At the Appalachian Voices website, I Love Mountains, which is dedicated to fighting against the coal industry profiting from environmental degradation, you can write to President-elect Obama, asking him to address the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining in the first 100 days of his administration. You can also enter your zip code to see how you may be connected to mountaintop removal (a quick perusal using 24380 shows that Appalachian Power operates six plants directly connected to mountaintop removal on our local grid; the closest is Glen Lyn in Giles County).



I originally heard about the Southern Poverty Law Center from my mother, who donated to them regularly and received their Teaching Tolerance materials in the mail. As a woman from Ohio (with a career! gasp) who moved to Virginia in the mid-sixties, she was well aware of the backwards mentality that still lingered in southwestern Virginia, which was suspicious of “Yankees” and generally anyone “not from around here”. I can now see her interest in the group as a way of coping with the isolation she herself felt.

You would think these hate groups would start to realize that hate doesn’t pay. Morris Dees and the SPLC recently won a $2.5 million dollar verdict against the Imperial Klans of America, for an attack on a US citizen of Panamanian descent named Jordan Gruver at the Meade County Fair in Brandenburg, KY in July 2006. He was left with a broken jaw and arm and has permanent injuries as a result. The group of Klansmen who initated the unprovoked assault mistook him for a Mexican immigrant and used racial slurs during the attack.

The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors hate groups around the nation, provides materials for teaching tolerance in schools, and represents victims of hate crimes in court cases. They have been carrying on this important work for over 27 years, and now take on more relevance than ever, as we see a backlash of hatred directed at minorities following the election of our first African-American President. Concerned about this happening in a “post-racial” America?

Go to the Southern Poverty Law Center website, and add your name to the Stand Strong Against Hate map. Also, you can search there for hate groups in your area, and read a list of hate incidents by state. Finally, a special Teaching Tolerance package has been created for educators, to help deal with racially-charged incidents and discussion in schools – RESPONDING TO OBAMA: America at the Extremes



After seeing the effects that depression can have on families, and personally dealing with depressive episodes for several years, I’m convinced that we need to come together to rebuild our mental health system from the ground up. The Republicans’ refusal to acknowledge or deal with the problem of mental illness in our country, starting way back with Ronald Reagan, has led to a sad situation in which we all take for granted the latest news of some deranged person “going off” and often taking many other lives, along with their own. With the recession/depression looming, it’s unlikely the money will be available soon for an overhaul of our existing system, which is tragically underfunded and could be cut back even more. The good news is that there is a national non-profit organization which helps facilitate peer-to-peer support – a side benefit is that the drug companies aren’t lobbying these peer groups to sell their overpriced medications.

From the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website:

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) is the leading patient-directed national organization focusing on the most prevalent mental illnesses. The organization fosters an environment of understanding about the impact and management of these life-threatening illnesses by providing up-to-date, scientifically-based tools and information written in language the general public can understand. DBSA supports research to promote more timely diagnosis, develop more effective and tolerable treatments and discover a cure. The organization works to ensure that people living with mood disorders are treated equitably. DBSA was founded in 1985.

DBSA is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization that answers more than 3,000 calls per month on our toll-free information and referral line and receives over seven million hits per month on our website. Each month we distribute nearly 20,000 educational materials free of charge to anyone requesting information about mood disorders. DBSA reaches nearly five million people through our educational materials and programs, exhibit materials and media activities. In 2006, DBSA received more than 1.5 billion media impressions.



Last year, I loaned $100 to Malofou Lomiga in Samoa, to help fund her handicrafts business. She is gradually repaying the loan. I have never met her or even written to her, but the San Francisco based micro-lending organization Kiva allowed us to make contact. From the About page:

Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.

Kiva is the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs in the developing world.

The people you see on Kiva’s site are real individuals in need of funding – not marketing material. When you browse entrepreneurs’ profiles on the site, choose someone to lend to, and then make a loan, you are helping a real person make great strides towards economic independence and improve life for themselves, their family, and their community. Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you can receive email journal updates and track repayments. Then, when you get your loan money back, you can relend to someone else in need.

Kiva partners with existing expert microfinance institutions. In doing so, we gain access to outstanding entrepreneurs from impoverished communities world-wide. Our partners are experts in choosing qualified entrepreneurs. That said, they are usually short on funds. Through Kiva, our partners upload their entrepreneur profiles directly to the site so you can lend to them. When you do, not only do you get a unique experience connecting to a specific entrepreneur on the other side of the planet, but our microfinance partners can do more of what they do, more efficiently.

Other worthy international projects include funding fuel-efficient stoves for women in the Congo, and purchasing mosquito nets to send to countries in Africa to prevent malaria.



The Olympics held in China this past year highlighted the ongoing struggle in Tibet for freedom. From the Students For a Free Tibet website:

The turning point of Tibet’s history came in 1949, when the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) first crossed into Tibet. After defeating the small Tibetan army and occupying half the country, the Chinese government imposed the so-called “17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” on the Tibetan government in May 1951. Because it was signed under duress, the agreement lacked validity under international law. The presence of 40,000 troops in Tibet, the threat of an immediate occupation of Lhasa, and the prospect of the total obliteration of the Tibetan state left Tibetans little choice.

As the resistance to the Chinese occupation escalated, particularly in Eastern Tibet, the Chinese repression, which included the destruction of religious buildings and the imprisonment of monks and other community leaders, increased dramatically. By 1959, popular uprising culminated in massive demonstrations in Lhasa. By the time China crushed the uprising, 87,000 Tibetans were dead in the Lhasa region alone, and the Dalai Lama had fled to India, where he now leads the Tibetan Government-in-exile, headquartered in Dharamsala. In 1963, the Dalai Lama promulgated a constitution for a democratic Tibet. It has been successfully implemented, to the extent possible, by the Government-in-exile.

Meanwhile, in Tibet religious persecution, consistent violations of human rights, and the wholesale destruction of religious and historic buildings by the occupying authorities have not succeeded in destroying the spirit of the Tibetan people to resist the destruction of their national identity. 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives, (over one-sixth of the population) as a result of the Chinese occupation. But the new generation of Tibetans seems just as determined to regain the country’s independence as the older generation was.

Since our country’s economy is now so closely tied with China’s, due to our heavy import of their manufactured goods, I think it’s important to note that their society is not nearly as free as ours, and they have chosen to impose that oppression onto neighboring countries. Here’s a list of ways you can support the Tibetan Government-in-exile, and you can donate to Students for a Free Tibet here.