Friday, November 18, 2011

Occupy your life!

There are protest signs hanging and leaning all over the Occupy San Francisco camp. The most striking is a huge banner hanging from a line strung between two lamp-posts that claims: “This is a living example of a better system.” This ambitious and hopeful message appeals to the Utopian in me. Despite my hopes, Occupy SF is not Utopia. On the other hand, it is naive to expect it to be a perfect society.

The people at the Occupy camp are there to call attention to our collective short-comings. The most obvious of these, and the reason we are occupying Wall Street and San Francisco’s financial district, is the obscene expansion of wealth and political power in the hands of the richest 1% over the past 30 years. Among the revolutionary elements of the Occupy Movement is its General Assembly which features distributed leadership, whereby all members of the community are intended to have equal say, a consensus process which forms community by making group decisions without winners and losers, and the “People’s Mic” which encourages the community to listen closely and repeat each other’s words. These are the hallmarks of an attempt to change the way we relate to power and to those we live and struggle alongside. At the General Assembly I attended at Occupy SF, all people were given equal access to the floor - no one was marginalized for being angry, or inarticulate, or for believing we are all preparing to fly off in a galactic spaceship of love. Where else do we find governance this inclusive?

The occupiers come to the movement with symptoms of our society's untreated illnesses: poverty, hunger, addiction, greed, impatience, authoritarianism, and physical and mental illness. In the few hours I have spent at Occupy SF, I have seen examples of some of the behaviors I like least to see in my community: people arguing, fighting over resources, accusing each other of wrong-doing, making violent threats, and using methods to police each other’s behavior that too closely mimic the authoritarian structures we are talking about changing. I have grown accustomed to this type of behavior in my everyday life, but experiencing it among the people I see holding the hope to change society can be disheartening.

But the banner rings true - “this is a living example of a better system.” Despite the frustrations, and our own and each other’s weaknesses, the Occupiers say, “I am working with you to make a better world and I will work to improve myself, and support you in your growth, as we figure out what this means.” This can be hard and lengthy work. I am grateful no one has defined a goal or finish line for the movement, because to make a change merely to the political or economic structure would leave this deeper work undone. When we change the way we relate to each other, wealth, and power, those structures will adapt to our new relationships. If the changes are only new laws and new leaders, the old relationships will find a way to recreate the themselves in the new environment. True revolution is a change within the people who make up society, not a shift in the hands who hold the tools of oppression.

What this calls upon all of us to do is to go out into the streets and begin to make the society we long to see.  Anyone who is in the bottom 99% income bracket, or sympathetic to their needs, has a right (perhaps a responsibility?) to guide a movement who claims to speak for them. We can go to our local Occupy camp and its marches to ensure our voices are represented when Occupiers speak for the 99%. Also, we can go into our local community and meet with our neighbors, have discussions, make decisions together about what we want our community and our world to look like, and take steps to bring it into being. The example the Occupy Movement is setting calls on us to stay committed to our community and its members; to leave our homes; to live life instead of consuming it in the prepackaged form it is offered to us in, or watching it flicker by on a screen. It is time to Occupy Your Life!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Twenty Dollars

We were sitting on the steps of the First Unitarian Universalist Church reading to each other as we waited for the church to close so we could lay out our cardboard, when someone leaving the Gay Men's Chorus' rehearsal handed us a $20 bill. "Share it - equally" he said, and walked away. I reached for the bill, wanting to secure the funds to ride BART across the bay so I could attend the first meeting about a dream-theater project I wanted to join. Having the bill in hand would make this easier, I thought.

The next day, as I walked with the $20, it started to weigh in my pocket. What if someone asked me for money? Now I had some, and would have to decide if their need trumped ours. Did holding the bill then make me responsible for breaking it so we could each take our part, or leading the group in a decision-making process about how we should spend it as a group (would that mean I'd end up losing my BART money?)?

After carrying the money for a day, I was grateful to be able to toss it onto an altar of the Abundance of the Streets we built in the center of our reflection circle. As I did, I stated that I hoped to use my portion to help pay for my BART ticket. Suddenly, my fellow retreatants reached into their pockets and produced two BART tickets (one with enough fare to get me to Berkeley) and a few dollars, which they handed me. Now, I had all I needed!

By the time we gathered again, someone had broken the $20, and each of us took our $2.50 share. I now had my BART tickets, plus over $5.00 - I felt rich! Maybe I'd buy a burrito on my way to the meeting. (mmmm.....burrito....) But Melissa brought a friend to the circle who, after a few jokes and magic tricks, told us he needed $18 more to reach his weekly $30 goal to supplement his government check. I handed him my $5.00 and said good-bye to my imaginary burrito. The man walked away smiling, with $8 more in his pocket, after a few others chipped in. I ate a free cup of Food Not Bombs, and went to my meeting full and happy.

The next day, I wrote this poem, inspired in part:

I dance lighter with empty pockets
And when they're full
I have no room for more
I suppose I could stuff them
With dollars, pennies, important notes
Things I find on the path
Like cigarette butts
Each item I carry with me
Carries the stories of those who carried it
Why should I trap the stories
In over-stuffed pockets?
Why would I want to make myself lumpy?
When I could just share the stories
Share the objects that carry them
Thus weaving a net of stories
Each carrier a knot
Each item a strand
Like a $20 bill
Earned through hard work
Withdrawn from a Wall Street bank
Placed in a new credit union account
Before being handed by a gay singer
On the steps of a church
To a flock of Fools
Sleeping like they were homeless
Before breaking it at a farmers' market
So it can be passed around
And given to a beggar.

A net like this could catch the world!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reaching Heights

As we sat in reflection this morning, as we do twice a day on the Street Retreat, two images came out strongly. One was the flat Civic Center Plaza we sat in, mirrored by the large flat building facades surrounding it. They invoked thoughts of oppression or a depression-like emotional flatness in some retreatants. The other image was of a ladder, six stories up on a building, with a construction worker balanced on the top rung (the one that says “do not step here”). This invoked a sense of instability and fear in the retreatant who noticed it - a feeling I resonate with, while also imagining the sometimes precarious places we must put ourselves in to reach high points in our lives.
Where do we find those high points, and what do we risk in search of them?
Sometimes, time on the streets feels flat - barely more than one long wait in line: for each meal, for a shelter bed, for a shower, for a medical appointment, for the city to wind down enough to allow me to lay down my cardboard and go to bed, for the time to get off the streets to come. What does it mean to spend your days (not just for a week-long stretch like this one) going to meals which are good enough, but almost never exciting? Or to spend your time surviving, not feeling like you are truly living? As I write this, I recognize this is not a manner of existence exclusive to those living on the streets, but may have been an epidemic in our society over the past decades...
What does it take for us to feel most alive?
I recall two experiences as I imagine the construction worker on the ladder high above the city streets. One was at Burning Man, riding around the huge flat expanse know as “The Playa,” and seeing a huge ladder - seemingly 100ft - reaching up to the empty sky. My first reaction to this sight was “I should climb it.” This was quickly followed by a fear felt in the soles of my feet as I imagined myself halfway up the ladder sweating and shaking once my long-held fear of heights kicked in. My response to this fear of fear was to return to the camp which served as my home at Burning Man.
The other experience was scaling the side of my parents’ home - clinging only to pipes and electrical conduit - to install parts of the haunted house we were building there at the time. The fear of heights evaporated under those conditions, and I felt free and alive! It seems like the fear is not so much about the strength of what supports me, but maybe more about what I feel I’m working towards. Or how I sense my purpose.
While on the streets this year, I have not felt much flatness. For the most part I have been able to see this Retreat as a process of personal development and a deepening understanding of the resources available on the streets of San Francisco. I'm grateful to be able to see my time as purposeful, and hope that can be true for all as they walk their paths.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sitting Reflection

I started my Street Retreat with walking - first to my favorite soup kitchen -  Martin de Porres’ - and then out 16th St. to the Bay. I stopped for a nap on a bench in front of a building boasting “Corporate Headquarters,” in hopes of attracting a renter looking for such a property. I can’t help but think, in the face of vacant buildings, of who among those without shelter could be occupying such space?

I continued along the Embarcadero past the baseball stadium, hosting a Cal football game this day, and on to the Occupy San Francisco camp. It was impressive in its size, and less obtrusive than I had imagined - not in the large expanse I think of when I hear “Justin Herman Plaza,” but rather a space to the south I have never seen get real use. I was surprised to find myself a bit put off by my first encounter: I saw a handful of occupiers and thought “they are more hard-core than me” - they reminded me of the transient youth I associate with Haight Street (perhaps just a by-product of time spent camping in an urban environment?).

I quickly caught up with the “Bank Transfer Day” march, clearly led by the Occupy Movement, as they travelled from Chase to Wells Fargo to Bank of America. The crowd was instructed to sit in front of each as they listened to speakers relating the institution’s particular sins as they “foreclosed” on the banks. I felt some frustration with the leaders’ clear cooperation with the police, who shepherded us from bank to bank while keeping some traffic lanes open on the streets we walked. I believe part of what our protest movements need is a recognition of the power of the people, who will care for the police and treat them civilly, but not look for government approval for our actions.

I left the protest at the Bank of America to join my fellow retreatants in reflection. We sat in a circle outside the Asian Art Museum across from City Hall and shared our stories. As we sat, a police truck - the kind used to confiscate goods from people on the streets - pulled up and an officer got out. He turned to us and said “you can’t sit down there,” as he climbed the stairs to issue citations to two men huddled in the museum’s doorway to escape the rain.

I had forgotten that it is illegal to sit on the sidewalk in San Francisco before 11pm. This left me questioning my apparent privilege, as someone issued a warning without the documentation that could lead to a later citation under the new “Sit Lie” law. It also gave me a new respect for a civil disobedience I had not noticed in the sitting bank protesters, and raised questions about the lack of enforcement in that context, too....

What holds us separate, what keeps us separate? What still connects us?     

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Occupying the Streets

There is a magic that happens in being there.

This is something I’ve learned in spending time on the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin with the Faithful Fools, and streets throughout the country over the past ten years. I learn about the place I’m in with the intimacy of posters on telephone poles, smells wafting from restaurants and alleys, and street corner rants. Taking the time to really be with a place gives me the time to really be with myself, too. I get to learn to read my own internal signs (what makes me uncomfortable, fearful, curious, full of joy?), to know my own smells, and to hear my own rants (what do I care about, right now?). It also calls attention to the peoples’ needs, society’s failings, and the beauty that persists through it all.

This morning I went out into the streets, where I will stay for the next seven days. I left with my ID, library card, a couple books, a sleeping bag, and (hopefully) enough clothes to keep me warm and dry as the weather turns toward San Francisco’s winter this week. I also leave with a cold, triggering questions about how people with no place of their own get healthy. Will I be able to get into a shelter if I need? Where do I go when the warm library (where I sit writing this) closes? Can I find warm drinks? How do I deal with the consequences of staying hydrated when public bathrooms are scarce? How would all this feel if I didn’t know I will have a warm home and bed to return to next Saturday night?

Of course, we can never really know how another feels - this is part of what it means to be separate people. Fortunately, we can get closer to them, and sometimes something important comes across in those moments. This is part of the magic of the Occupy Movement started on Wall Street and now present in cities throughout the U.S. and the world, including San Francisco: by choosing to be close to the centers of financial and political power, the Occupiers create a space for understanding. With so many in our country and the world struggling to afford housing, good food, and health care, we can no longer afford for those who have plenty to pretend they aren’t a part of it.

We go into the streets to make our struggles visible. Some have no other place to go, some would say they are there by choice, and some would say they are compelled to be there. It is a symptom of society’s sickness. I am here to learn about that sickness, and to engage in the healing process. I will spend my next seven days and nights among those most beaten down by a system that has become too efficient at making a few people rich, and among those putting their bodies on the line to call attention to the sickness and engage in a process of healing our power relationships. I will be one of the thousands occupying the streets.

I invite you to join me: in the streets at your local Occupy location, in reflection on where you fit into this story of sickness and healing, in spirit by taking a moment each day to think of us on the streets, or to meet with the eight of us on Street Retreat this week at 10:15 in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza or 5 pm at UN Plaza, where we’ll be daily.
Thanks for your time and compassion.

Monday, March 21, 2011

La Bomba

Attempting to repair the old pump
As mentioned earlier, I was considering purchasing a new pump to ease the process of gathering water for the Casa Misionera. I considered who might come to stay here after me, and that they might not have the physical stamina for all of the lifting and pouring involved in collecting water in half-gallon increments and transferring them to larger buckets to carry across the room to pour into the storage barrel. I also thought of the sleep I would save if I could fill a week's worth of water in one night, and how I (or whoever is living here) wouldn't have to listen for water every night anymore. I also had in mind that I would be able to share my newly bountiful resource. 

So we went and bought a reconditioned used pump at Mercado Oriental for about $30.

The first night after I installed the pump we were very low on water and – what a blessing! – it came that night. I was able to refill the barrel and all of the gallon jugs we use in the kitchen in less than an hour. It seemed incredible! I decided I could then sleep the next couple of nights, as when the water came, I got plenty of it.

After two nights' sleep, I heard the water coming, and got up to set up the hose and plug in the pump. Before I got into the hallway, I heard the sounds of my neighbor Gladys running her pump. The day before, my Spanish teacher had complained to me about her neighbor's pump overpowering and stopping the flow in her pump – I didn't want to subject either of our pumps to such a battle, so I went back to sleep.

The next night I awoke to the sound of water again in the middle of the night – this time it was my neighbor on the other side. Their faucet is just enough higher than mine that they don't get water as often as I do, so they end up buying water from big tanker trucks that come around from time to time (Maybe people call for them? I don't know) – for about twenty-five cents per container of any size. It didn't take long to decide I was not going to turn on my pump and effectively suck the water right out of their pipes.

By the time I was able to put the pump to use again, my water cache was low, but again I was able to refill it before the water cut off, and in time to get a couple of more hours of sleep. This became a repeating pattern – I would start to think about getting up to get water, would get up a few nights in a row to find either no water or a neighbor filling their barrels, and then, just before starting to worry in earnest about having enough water, I would get up and be able to fill all the containers.
Neighbors sharing banana bread

Another pattern that developed was being regularly asked for water by a couple of my neighbors. It is clear that we all have different access to water here, based on geography, house design, money to invest in a pump, and who-knows-what other factors, obscured by the walls and doors that surround our lives. I am just glad I have enough to share.

I have been thinking lately about what it means to be a steward of resources – not the “owner,” but rather the community member who currently has the responsibility for decisions around that resource's use. We live in a system set up to organize the use of our limited resources – water, food, fossil fuel, fresh air, money – but I'm not sure how far that constrains my relationship to these resources. 

How does the idea of stewardship affect my actions to gather, store, and expend resources? Can I include the rest of the world in my budget decisions? What does it mean to open myself to the possibility of someone else having a voice in how I use my home, my time, or the money in my pocket?

Is the reason I have more water than my neighbors "I deserve it"? What does it mean if it isn't?

Monday, February 21, 2011

El Techo (The Roof)

In 1991, the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls Minnesota came into a neighborhood that had sprouted on land claimed by the revolutionary government a few years earlier and dreamed a house into being. It would be a home for up to four Sisters, a community resource, and a refuge for their neighbors from the stresses and difficulties of their daily lives. After a few years serving other purposes, that house has returned to its role as a place for the community, a place to house those who come to work alongside the community, and a refuge, as the Casa Misionera. As we have spent time and money restoring the house, I would look around at my neighbor's houses, some of which are grander and finer than this one, and some of which still have dirt floors (easier to clean than ours!). And when I ask myself “is it okay to have [fresh paint, new cookware, new plastic chairs], when some of my neighbors don't?” The answer that comes back is: “as long as these are resources to share.”
Roof of the Casa Misionera

With the intent of sharing their home as a place to escape Managua's sometimes oppressive heat, the women who dreamed up what is now the Casa Misionera chose to break from the far more common corrugated metal roof, and used insulating panels instead. Now, 20 years later, the report from the previous occupants is that the roof is “like a colander,” and needs replacing before the rainy season. To that end, I am inviting you to participate in Giving Change today by helping keep the Casa Misionera a refuge from the heat and rain.

Please consider giving $10 – not much more than pocket change for some of us – right now online. If everyone who has visited this blog does, we will raise $3000 to cover the roof and prepare the house to connect to a sewage line, due to come to the neighborhood this year, right away. If you can give $25, you will be paying for one of the 12 foot panels that make up the bulk of the roof, $100 will keep a bedroom dry, $1000 will cover the kitchen/ dining room that serves as the heart of the Casa.

New roofing panel
Whether you can give or not, I also would ask that you share this request with anyone you know who might be able to help with the roof, or would be interested in our work.

Thank you again for your ongoing support – in all of it's forms!

Again, you can donate online by clicking here – include the word “techo” in the description.

Or you can send a check made out to “Faithful Fools” with “techo” in the memo to:
Faithful Fools
234 Hyde St.
San Francisco, CA

With the rainy season not far off, we are hoping to finish the roof project by the end of March, so please take action as soon as you can.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


One of the things I looked forward to in coming to live alone in Managua was having an independence that I don't get when I'm here on Retreat with the Faithful Fools. I wouldn't have a group's schedule to keep, and most importantly, I would be able to go out alone. When we are here on Retreat, we stay with families who feed us, house us, help us do laundry and expose us to other aspects of how people live here, and show us around the community and the city. It is a wonderful kind of intimacy, being an adult living as someone's child and in their care. There are few people in the world I feel closer to than the three families I have lived with in Managua, though it was only for two weeks at a time. But it has always been a struggle to accept that I couldn't just go out and walk around on my own.

A typical Nicaraguan dinner - Gallo Pinto, Platanos, y Queso
I love to walk – it is one of the main ways I will get to know a place – and because I often walk long and fast, I usually walk alone. In Managua, our families feel a responsibility to care for us, and to keep us safe, and the danger of being robbed is real. Many of our friends here have been robbed, sometimes by people they know in the neighborhood, sometimes at knife-point. It is understandable why our friends are concerned about our safety, especially in light of our unfamiliarity with the area and with the language, and because people often associate gringos with money – which is probably justified. (One year, of the ten of us on Retreat, you were likely to find as many as eight carrying cameras worth at least a month's salary to our neighbors.) It is one thing to have your friend who is visiting get robbed, and another to have it happen to the “child” under your care.

With my growing familiarity with the neighborhood, and with the caretaker dynamic (mostly) out of the way, I figured I could go out wherever I pleased, limited only by my lack of knowledge of the countless unnamed streets and my willingness to get lost in them. After all, as I said to some Nicas the first time I came here, it is my job to walk on “dangerous” streets.

Curry Fried Rice - an improvisation
In my first week here, I was busy running errands to get the house set up and myself settled, and always had someone to show me the way, and sometimes to translate. I also figured it would be good to work on my Spanish more, in case I needed to talk my way out of trouble. So I didn't leave the neighborhood alone. In my second week, while visiting a friend in the neighborhood, she told me how “people were talking” about the gringo walking alone in the neighborhood (I would walk to houses I knew close by), and then told a story of someone being robbed down the street at 7a.m.! I had been relying on the morning being a safer time (I've found most “dangerous” neighborhoods are quieter in the early morning). I then had another friend explain, at length, that I would be safe as long as I was walking with someone, but as soon as I was alone, people would notice me as a target. I took these warnings to heart. In my third week, I would wake up many mornings imagining myself heading off to the market early in the day – slipping out and back before my friends could worry about me, and hopefully before any potential robber could figure out what I was doing. I needed to go to the market – there were so many ingredients I had run out of, and the errands I was running never seemed to fit with grocery shopping. I never managed my early morning escape, and I kept figuring out how to get by with a little improvisation, and the wares available at the pulperia next door and from the vendedores selling produce from horse carts and pick-up trucks passing through the streets.
Vending cart makes its way down my street
Finally, almost three weeks to the day after my arrival, I had no rice, no beans, no cheese – all that was in my refrigerator was a carrot and some onions. I thought about just waiting – I was going to the market to buy more paint the next day, maybe this time I could pick up groceries as well. I certainly could make it through one night and one morning without eating – I have before – but I knew it wouldn't be pleasant. So I grabbed my bag, and my dictionary, and headed down to the corner at Via Flor, the next barrio (actually a colonia, name for a fancier neighborhood) where we go to catch the bus. It is about a mile walk, and the entrance to the barrio is considered one of the hot-spots for being robbed.

As I walked, I felt free, and a part of the neighborhood. I stopped and kicked a soccer ball with a kid I know on the way back. I also thought about how this little bit of hunger I felt was the final motivation to get me past my reservations and fears of leaving the neighborhood alone. What kind of motivation is real hunger, the kind that sits in your stomach for days or weeks on end? Is that what causes the robbery here in the streets, or on any streets? We spend so much hiring police and security guards and border patrol, and building walls and iron grates for our windows and doors, and making weapons that hurt and kill all the more efficiently and frighteningly. We also know the strength of the human spirit – our ability to overcome obstacles – the only stories more common in the news are tales of crime and violence. Is it reasonable at all to think that all the walls and guards and guns that we can imagine can stop a person driven by a deep hunger with no prospect of it subsiding? What other kinds of hunger drive us, and to what ends?

I want to live in a world without bars, where I am not separated from my fellow humans by guards and police and armies, where human touch comes from a hand or a kiss, not carried by the point of the knife or a bullet. Is such a world possible if we feed each others' hunger? Can we afford it? Are we willing to give up the illusion we call “security,” if that's what it takes to have it?

Monday, February 7, 2011


Every morning I get up at about 6 or 6:30 (unless I am still up from getting water) and sweep the sidewalk in front of the Casa Misionera. If I wait much later than this, the wind picks up, and blows the dust I'm sweeping all over me and anyone else who happens to be walking down the street at the time. It is a great ritual – it gives me a bit of structure to my days, allows me to focus my energy on making a welcoming path for good things to come to the house, and allows me to participate in my neighbors' morning rituals. Men, women and children come to the pulperia next door to buy things to start their day; some head off to work on foot, bicycle, or the occasional car; sometimes someone is washing a car, or tuning one up to make it through the day – there is a 30 year-old red Datsun called “Rapidito” that seems to need daily tuning to do its job, which seems to be taking people up the hill from the bus stop a half-mile away. I get to say “Buenas dias” to everyone as they pass, and it doesn't take long for looks of surprise to turn to smiles – one small baby insists on waving to me the entire time he's passing in his grandmother's arms.

I have three practical goals as I commence sweeping my steps and sidewalk: to sweep up and return any stray rocks to the garden, to remove a layer of the fine dust (“polvo”) that settles on everything, and to pick up the trash left there over night. The trash is mostly wrappers from chips and candy, with the occasional cigarette butt or soda bottle - a friend once pointed out that most trash littering the environment comes from things that aren't so good for our bodies, either. Apparently, Gladys had tried keeping a trashcan in front of her store to help minimize the litter, but someone decided they needed the bin more than the community did, and took it.

One particular day, as I was out sweeping, I was joined by several others doing similar sweeping. It was garbage day, and people were scooping trash into their trash bags in anticipation of the day's collection. I noticed a neighbor across the street sweeping the cobbled street, as well as his sidewalk, and was reminded of a thought that had been gently nagging at me since I began my practice of sweeping errant dust, pebbles, and lollipop sticks into the gutter. At home in San Francisco, we have street cleaning day twice a month, where a big truck comes down the street with rotating brushes that sweep the gutters pretty cleanly out of the gutter and into the back of the truck. This makes the gutter a reasonable place to sweep leaves, trash, or anything else you want off of the sidewalk. As I continued this practice in Managua, I wondered “who, if anyone, would clean out the gutter?”

Flor de mi jardin
Unlike on my neighbor's side of the street, my gutter was wet with running water, making a slush of mud, pebbles, and trash. I decided to go ahead and let my outdoor broom and only dustpan get muddy, and sweep up the gutter. I filled the trash-bag with about ten pounds of the slush.

As I surveyed my thoroughly clean garden, steps, sidewalk, and street, I filled with a bit of pride, and was able to visualize the whole street clean of muck, trash and leaves. I thought of how nice it would be to live on a street like that, anywhere. More important, I thought about how my neighbor, with his own simple act of caring for the streets, which we all use, and all contribute to dirtying, inspired me to do the same. 

This is how I most like to be influenced, and how I hope to influence others, by simply doing what I feel is right in caring for myself, my friends and family, my community, and the world.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Putting the Agua in Managua

Doing laundry
I have figured out how to take a shower with less than one gallon of water: It starts with a bucket of water and a small plastic bowl.  I scoop water out of the bucket and pour it over my hair.  I then rub the water that has dripped and splashed down off my hair over as much of my upper body as I can.  I take another small scoop and get the rest of my arms and torso wet.  Then comes the shampoo and soap – it helps to use liquid soap – which I lather into my hair and upper body.  The next scoop of water rinses off the soap, and trickles down over the rest of my body, helped by my hands to get the spots gravity didn't find.  More soap as needed, and then rinse the lower body, and you're done!  If you wash in a wide bucket, you can then use that water to flush the toilet.
Agua Bastante: one night's collection.
In the first ten days of living in the Casa Misionera, my house got water five nights – one of which I slept through – after a six day stretch with no water.  The Casa, like most houses in the neighborhood, has indoor plumbing, but water in Managua comes on sporadically.  It tends to arrive here sometime between 2 and 5 in the morning, although just a block further downhill, it will come closer to 10 PM.  We all have storage vessels – tanks, barrels, buckets, and bottles – to keep what we need for the day, or in some cases the week.  The Casa has one 50 gallon barrel, two five gallon buckets with lids, five large open buckets that hold about 20 gallons in total, and twelve one-gallon jugs.  I figure I can go up to about three weeks, without having to skip showers or washing clothes, if needed.  Of course, as a gringo, it is not recommended that I drink this water, so I buy five gallon jugs of drinking water from the pulpuria next door every few days.  Rather than see it as an inconvenience, I love this relationship with water!  Clean water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in our global industrial society, thanks to the spread of factories and air pollution, increased urban use, and destruction of our natural ecosystems.  I want to be conscious of my water use, and to minimize it while I keep in mind that my behavior, wherever I am, affects others' access to clean water.  That's harder to do when I pay pennies for water that flows whenever I turn a knob.
The utility sink
The first night that I woke in time to catch the water, I heard the sound of splashing next door, as well as the hum of my neighbor's pump.  Pumps have become more popular in the neighborhood, as the municipal system offers just a trickle of water most days, and it takes far less time to fill your containers with the pump.  Of course, this means that those without pumps get less water than they would otherwise while you are pumping.  That first night with water I ran excitedly from my bed and turned on the tap, only to find that Gladys' pumping meant that I got none.  I went back to bed, and lay awake until the pump turned off, when I tried again.  I managed to collect about eight gallons before the water cut out again – more than enough for me for one day.  The next night, the water came on again, at about 4:30, and I was able to collect another eight gallons.  Gladys didn't need to pump, as she had collected enough the night before.  Finally, after about a week, the water came on at about 2:30 in force, and I filled every container in the house and I was able to turn the tap off for the first time, at about 4 AM.  You can imagine what this does to one's sleep schedule, and of course we go to bed with one ear open to listen for the water.
Catching water
It turns out that the Casa Misionera also has a pump, and a tank on the roof, which would allow us to use the plumbing whenever it is full.  At first I wasn't a fan of the pump, as I felt like using it would deprive my less-privileged neighbors of water, as Gladys' pump had done me that first night.  However, seeing how getting a full water collection allows one to skip nights of collecting, I felt a little better about it.  I also I imagine sharing water with my neighbors in need – sharing is one of my favorite ways to build relationships and goodwill in community.  Our pump, though, was broken.  The previous inhabitants of the house, who bought the pump in the first place, had left the pump on long enough when there was no water that it overheated and stopped working.  I had offers from two friends to help fix it: Fernando, who has been without work since returning to be with his family after a year working in Costa Rica, and Jerry, a young man who maintains his family's pump.  Another thing I love about Nicaragua is the common practice of do-it-yourself repairs.  Fernando removed the pump from the plumbing and put a provisional pipe in its place, and helped me get started taking the pump apart, and then Jerry came and had a look at it, finished taking it apart, and gave the final verdict: the copper wires were burned through – the only thing this pump was good for was recycling.  We gave the pump to some kids, who will get 40 cordoba per pound for the copper, and maybe a little for the rest of the pump.
Fernando installed a temporary fix
Bomba no sirve
My aspirations of working faucets dashed, I get to continue my ultra low-use practices.  Now the question is whether to invest in a new pump, or keep collecting water in half-gallon increments out of the backyard faucet?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution: US Democracy and Nicaragua

An activist in Cairo takes subversive action.
In light of the amazing show of power by the people of Egypt, following on those in Tunisia, I am posting this sermon I gave at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. 
Delivered March 2, 2008

Communal spider web.
Spiders can be divided into two simple categories: solitary spiders, which are the ones we are most familiar with – spinning small webs in the corners of our homes and gardens; and social spiders, who combine their efforts to spin large webs in order to catch clouds of flying insects which are shared among members of the web-weaving group.
One hot day last August, a worker in a state park was mowing a trail when he came upon a huge canopy of spider webs suspended from the branches of trees lining the path.  The web was constructed of layers of sheets tens of feet across.  It buzzed with the noise of millions of mosquitoes dying on its sticky strands.  The web stretched over 200 meters.  It was over one hundred times larger than the typical work of social spiders.  Entomologists discovered that this collaborative project was the work of no fewer than twenty five species of spiders – the bulk of the weaving having been done by species normally considered to be solitary.  Another anomaly was that this web was constructed within two months, while other collaborative webs of this size have typically been established over a period of years.  It was as if hundreds of spiders woke up one day and decided to set aside their differences and their solitary tendencies and build this monumental project so as to feed their whole community – no matter what species they were.
What is our potential as humans to shift from working independently to meet our own needs, to transcending perceived differences in order to work for the greater good of the community?

The ghosts of revolution haunt the streets of Leon, Nicaragua.  There are murals and statues commemorating armed struggle and its heroes and martyrs throughout the city.
The Cathedral in Leon
On my second Retreat to Nicaragua with the Faithful Fools this past January, I was in Leon to get a taste of its history, to enrich the context of my experiences in that country's largest city, Managua, and the small farming village, San Diego, where we split the bulk of our two weeks in Nicaragua.
In a plaza across the street from Leon's old catholic cathedral, I was studying a huge mural when a woman approached and began explaining the painted symbols in Spanish simple enough that I could just barely understand.  The story the mural told began with Mayan artifacts eroding in the sand – evidence of the first civilization known to have claimed the land we were standing on.  Next were the helmet and long rifle of the Spanish conquistadors, who defeated the Mayans and claimed the country in 1524, and proceeded to establish the power of the Catholic Church.  Footprints in the sand represented the next 300 years, arriving at a document signed by William Walker, a North American mercenary, backed by U.S. Business interests, who invaded Nicaragua in 1854 and  declared himself president in 1856.  Though he only ruled for a year, Walker's presence in the mural represented decades of U.S. Military invasion and political influence culminating in the election of Anastasio Somoza in 1936.  Somoza and his family governed for over forty years; on the wall, a painted length of barbed wire half buried in the sand represented land the Somozas' had acquired for personal gain during their rule.  Across the wire were the tools of the Sandinista Revolution, which overthrew the Somoza regime on July 19, 1979, and beyond that a scene showing the Sandinistas turning in their weapons to go into the countryside to teach the people to read - in what was a truly impressive literacy campaign.  The final piece of the mural depicted children with a kite – my self-assigned tour guide said it represented the possibility of the future.
Mozaic in Leon depicting revolutionaries
It is was a beautiful mural, and though I have a hard time countenancing the violence, a beautiful story of a people reclaiming their resources – including their labor – for their own benefit after centuries of being exploited for the benefit of imperial powers.  My guide, who introduced herself as Maria Elena, was clearly proud of what her people had done, and wanted to share that dream with me, so I could help spread it to my people.  Which I suppose I am doing right now.
As Maria Elena and I sat down, I was feeling proud of being a part of this great story by being there in Nicaragua and having it told to me by someone who so obviously felt connected to it. 
Soon my Spanish began to reveal its limits as she tried to explain something I wasn't fully comprehending.  I was pretty sure she was describing how poor she was.  She then pulled out a packet of postcards, including some with striking photos from the revolution, and tried to sell them to me.  She also pulled out notes from other tourists recommending that I, or whoever she might be talking to, hire her as a tour guide.  My pride began to subside, my head came out of the clouds that held dreams of revolution, and I felt myself returning to a capitalist reality I have, for years, longed to escape.
The layers of irony were too thick for me to fully comprehend as I purchased five of her revolutionary postcards for a dollar apiece, and made a point to tell her that where I come from I can get postcards for less.

And it seems this is where revolutions often end up.  Movements start with the intent to redistribute wealth and power to those who had little of either and, time and time again, find themselves, once again, with people desperately lacking in what they need to survive.
It is important, of course, when looking at the Nicaraguan Revolution, to consider the role the US government played in its failure.  As those who were paying attention in the early 1980's, or later in the Oliver North trial, know, the CIA trained and financed the Contras, a counterrevolutionary army, to fight the Sandinista government. 
Sandinistas and some Nicaraguan scholars insist this war was responsible for the failure of the Revolution.  It certainly was a major factor in the 1990 election which removed the Sandinistas from power.

I believe change is possible.  So I am inclined not to reject revolution as a form doomed to failure, but to try to understand where it goes wrong, and how it can be made effective.  I find hope in the story of the spiders, who changed their way of being and working together, to the benefit of the community.  And as often happens with a good idea, this way of working spread.  Within two months of the discovery of the giant web, six more  were constructed in the region.

Nicaraguan Faithful Fools on Retreat

The first time I went on Retreat in Nicaragua, my host family asked me to rise early to eat breakfast with my host father, Fernando.  The first morning, I rose in the dark, wiped the sleep from my eyes, and sat down at the table with Fernando while his wife Daisy prepared the meal.  I really knew I was welcome, but with almost no Spanish at my disposal sitting with this friendly stranger felt awkward.  I just smiled, trying to say “sorry I don't understand” and “thank you for having me here” with just the shape of my face.  After it became clear I wasn't going to get anything he was trying to say, Fernando and I just sat and looked at one another, laughed a bit about our awkward situation, looked around the room a bit, and looked at each other again with friendly, hopeless smiles. 
Daisy soon rescued us by coming out of the kitchen with bowls of rice with something on top.  I say “something” because I wasn't sure what it was.  It looked suspiciously like chicken in a tomato sauce, but it couldn't be chicken.  I have been a vegetarian for over fifteen years, and those of us coming on the trip had talked several times about my diet, and how it would be no problem because of how much rice and beans our hosts eat.  I was sure Carmen, who organized the trip, had told my family that I didn't eat meat.
I was sure until I took my first bite.
I finished the bowl of chicken and rice, mindful I was making a first impression, and not wanting it to be “ungrateful gringo.”  Actually I didn't quite finish the bowl – I remembered Carmen saying that our hosts would take a clean plate as a signal that they hadn't provided enough food, and I wanted it to be clear that I didn't need any more chicken than they had already served me.

The only country in the western hemisphere with a lower per-capita income than Nicaragua is Haiti.  We ask the families that host the Faithful Fools in the barrio in Managua and in San Diego, the farming community we stay in, to feed us as they do themselves.  This has often meant, for me, eating less food than I am used to here at home.

It is pretty obvious that I'm not in need of a weight loss program.  In fact, this year before I left for Nicaragua a few friends mentioned that they thought I might have been losing weight – I got on the plane hoping not to accelerate this possible trend.

My host mother in the barrio this year was Lijia.  She lives with her two sons Roger and Erikson and her daughter Anna, as well as Anna's three boys, eight year-old Gustavo, Marlon, seven, and Minor, age 4.  She supports her family by frying plantains in a huge pot over an open fire and selling them in the mercado, at sporting events, and on the street.  She had also been the head of a soy kitchen that was in the community for a while a few years earlier.  I had reason to expect I would eat well at Lijia's house.

I was not disappointed.  My first meal consisted of steamed vegetables, fresh cheese, a few of Lijia's famous plantain chips, and gallo pinto, a traditional Nicaraguan red beans and rice dish.  I ate it wholeheartedly, politely leaving a little bit of each item on the plate.  It was good, and I was full – mission accomplished!  Maybe I wasn't going to lose weight on this trip after all.

Then I noticed what the boys were eating.  It didn't look to me like the feast I felt like I had been served.  “Well”, I thought, “when I was their age I was a picky eater.  Maybe they just don't like all these foods.  And they're a lot smaller than me – maybe they wouldn't want to eat this much.”  I wanted to feel okay about having taken what I did while they had what looked to me like so little.
I started doubting my justifications.  “What if they eat so little because they're used to eating so little?  Maybe they'd be bigger if they ate more.”  I tried to excuse myself from responsibility for worrying about what the boys ate.  My job was to be the guest: to gratefully receive what I was given and to show my appreciation by eating it enthusiastically.  Maybe.

The next day, Lijia specially made me some soy patties – sort of like miniature hamburgers - to eat with rice and some more delicious plantain chips.  She tried to feed them to the boys, but they wanted to stick to more familiar foods.  It seemed the boys were picky – maybe I didn't have to worry about how little they ate, after all.
Emboldened by that thought, my desire to be a grateful guest, and the pressure of my friends' concerns about my possible weight loss, I ate everything on my plate.  My Spanish, with the help of a dictionary, was good enough that I could just tell Lijia that I was full, and if she fed me a little more next time, that would be okay, too.

Then I noticed the pair of dogs that lived in the yard.  They kept the house safe at night – burglary is taken for granted in Managua – and unlike many neighbors' dogs, they kept quiet during the day.  Dog food is considered a luxury in Nicaragua; dogs are expected to forage in the garbage piles and eat scraps left from people's meals.  I was really struck by the dog's ribs, visibly pressing against their short-haired pelts.  Those dogs looked hungry, and the more I ate, the less they would eat.

I couldn't help but reflect on the messages that were floating through my head:  The message from my friends, who worried that I was looking skinnier – not that I was going hungry, or that I was genuinely unhealthy, but just that I looked that way.  The message I heard not just in my home, but in homes everywhere in the US: “clean your plate!”  A message I can't directly trace, but which I think pervades our culture, which says the way we show our gratitude for our blessings is to consume them wholly and wholeheartedly.

Let's sit with that one for a moment. 

I can certainly picture myself judging friends for being bashful about receiving gifts, or feeling awkward about how big their last raise was.  “It's okay, you deserve it,” I might tell them.
And isn't this value present in the policies of our current government:  that the US and its citizens are entitled to consume as much as we do because we can. 
If that means trade policies that take advantage of economically weaker nations - “it's okay, we deserve it.” 
If that means wars to secure oil resources - “it's okay, we deserve it.”

This sense of entitlement is familiar to us all.  And I believe most of us are generally aware of its negative consequences, and would like to do something about them.  We struggle to find a way to make a change which is meaningful.
But we are all a part of a system – social, economic, governmental, political – which supports us, some better, some worse, but which nonetheless supports us.  If this system were to undergo drastic change all at once, to become subject to revolution, let's say, many of us would experience what might feel like a disaster.  Lives would change, our access to resources would change.  We don't know what else might change, and that is scary.
Let me say that again:  For us, as a nation, a society, even just as a community, to make the kind of change that would feed the hungry dogs of the world and the hungry people, that would put a brake on wars over resources, that would preserve the environment – to make that kind of change is likely to involve changes that we don't feel we are ready for.  And that is scary.

I think many, if not all of us, yearn for that change, or at least see it as needed, but we are afraid of what we stand to lose.

The 1979 revolution in Nicaragua happened, in part, because so many of the people in that country had been treated so horribly by the Samozas and other people in power.  Most people could see that change for them was likely to be positive.  The reality is that many people gained a lot, but many others lost.  And much of what was gained was lost again.

Despite the broken promises made by so many revolutions – and we can all think of a few – I do still believe in change.  I used to be a revolutionary in the traditional sense – wanting the systems to be overturned, for power to change hands, so the powerless would become the powerful.  But we have seen time and again how the powerful, no matter what their roots are, tend to behave like the powerful.
As George Bernard Shaw said: “Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder.”

So there must be another way.  And I would say it is for us to revolve, to turn, inward and seek change.  Not to overturn systems, and hope that the people they hold will be able to hold on, but to change ourselves, and to trust that the systems will change around us.  As we reflect on the world, and on our own role in it, we are guided toward the changes we need to impact on us, in order to change the world.
And it takes courage, to face yourself. 
And it takes courage, to change yourself. 
And it takes courage, especially, to do the work of changing yourself when it is the world outside you want to change.
And fortunately, your courage has company.  You are in a room full of people who have come to change themselves.
Look around.  See them.
Smile at them.
Go ahead, wave at them.
These are your comrades, your companeros, in the revolution.  And really, they are not just here, they are everywhere.  They are out on the streets, in the parks, in our workplaces, hidden away in hospital rooms – you can find them if you look, and if you signal them.  Smile at them, wave at them, say a kind word, and they will signal back, because to be successful, we must encourage each other. 
We cannot do this work alone, we must be engaged in the work of the world.  The world, in all its pain and injustice is our mirror, our guide to where we need to turn to make a change in ourselves.

I would like to close with another story, and an invitation. 
This story was famously told by Carl Jung about Richard Wilhelm, translator of the Taoist I Ching:

“A rainmaker was asked to come make rain for a village that was experiencing a long and devastating drought.  Though others had tried, no other holy man had been successful, and the village was on the edge of starvation.  The first thing the rainmaker did was to ask to be given a hut, into which he secluded himself for four days and four nights until it began to snow.
Of course, Wilhelm wanted to know how he had done this.  The rainmaker told him that when he came into the village he had noticed that the villagers were out of harmony with Heaven and Earth.  He had spent the four days bringing himself into harmony, and once he did that, the snow came.”

I wanted to invite you all to join me in a Nicaraguan lunch this afternoon, but that would be dangerously close to communion, and Unitarians don't do communion, right?  Oh, except for the Transylvanians.  Well, a much more UU way to do it would be for us all to go have our own interpretation of a Nicaraguan meal.  But if you want to join me after the silent auction at my favorite Nicaraguan restaurant, just ask me where it is, and I'll see you there.

One more message of hope as we navigate a sometimes bleak political landscape in this country:  The spiders who spontaneously began to work together to weave the giant communal webs – they were all Texans!

May the fibers of connection we all weave together be strong!
There was an error in this gadget