Sunday, November 30, 2008


When I was thinking of Katy in Zimbabwe - from my last post.  She was picking through a recently plowed field for corn kernels to take back to her grandson.  Without her, the child would surely perish.  She was going to share these precious grains with him even though she hadn't eaten in three days.  After writing that piece I was reminded of a song by Sade called "Pearls".  If you have not heard it... you should.  It is on an album called "Love Deluxe" from '92.  Old school, but oh so wonderful.  Smooth.  Silky.  Fine.  

I remember washing the dishes and listening to the words - really listening.  You know, sometimes when you get new music you listen first to the feel of it.  It isn't until after a while that you listen to the message.  Anyway, I was finally listening to the  message of this lovely song.  I stopped the chores I was doing and sat in front of the speakers with the liner notes in front of me, reading along as Sade sang.  I listened again with my eyes closed.  Crying.  It isn't just the lyrics.  It is her voice.  Hypnotic, powerful and, if you know Sade, smooth.

I hadn't heard this album in a while but after posting yesterday's piece I was drawn to it again.  Once again it made me cry.  Here are the lyrics.  If you get a chance to listen to it sometime, you should [click on one of the links above].  I can't guarantee that it will make you cry but it WILL make you feel something.  The hero in this song is Somalian.  She is scraping for pearls on the roadside and not in the freshly plowed field that Katy searched.  But they are both searching for pearls.  Pearls.  In Sade's song our hero is simply human, her actions and feelings universal.

there is a woman in somalia
scraping for pearls on the roadside
there's a force stronger than nature
keeps her will alive
this is how she's dying
she's dying to survive
don't know what she's made of
i would like to be that brave

she cries to the heaven above
there is a stone in my heart
she lives a life she didn't choose 
and it hurts like brand-new shoes

hurts like brand-new shoes

there is a woman in somalia
the sun gives her no mercy
the same sky we lay under
burns her to the bone
long as afternoon shadows
it's gonna take her to get home
each grain carefully wrapped up
pearls for her little girl


she cries to the heaven above
there is a stone in my heart
she lives in a world she didn't choose
and it hurts like brand-new shoes
hurts like brand-new shoes

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Giving Thanks

I was listening to NPR the other day. It was Tuesday morning, the day before our Thanksgiving holiday break. I was tooling along, planning the menu for the big meal, right? I was looking forward to the break. My folks were coming down, we were just all just going to take it easy. Play some music, share some story, laugh, eat a lot. Family. Fellowship. Thanksgiving.

Riding along, only half listening to the radio, there was a report from Zimbabwe. Political leaders fighting about power, the U.N. cut its food rations and they are predicting a terrible crisis.

Part of the story focused on one woman and her plight. Her name is Katy. She was searching through the dirt in a recently plowed field for single grains of corn. She hadn’t eaten for three days. Three days. She was 70 something, bending over in the blazing sun, looking for grains of corn to take back to her home and split with her grandson. Three days without food. The last thing she had eaten was a wild root. She was sick to her stomach, foraging for food for her grandson and herself, she said that all she could do was to put her faith in God.

This is one of those classic stories that make you look at the world differently. At least it did for me. You can hear that millions of people in southern Africa are at risk. That millions are hungry. And it does affect you, right? It is sad.

But sometimes it takes one person’s story to make a real difference in how you understand. Katy was literally giving her last strength to help her grandson survive. Looking at her face (on the NPR website) makes a different, far more powerful impression. Imagine Katy times millions. In that way we can go beyond simply large numbers to looking carefully at the tragedy of real people. People who have the same joys sorrows as us. Looking into the eyes of one person makes the larger picture clearer, more focused somehow.

So at this Thanksgiving time, let us really understand the tremendous blessings we have. We have been born into a world of food and creature comforts almost unparalleled in the big picture. As we go to bed with full stomachs each night, let us be mindful of those who are hungry. And as we eat our big holiday meals, let that food give us the strength to make the world a better place.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Til the Last Shot's Fired

Last weekend we caught up with some good old friends. We headed to a little venue in West Columbia. There we listened to Rob Crosby – who is a friend of our very good friend Dori. Rob was stellar. Folksy, country, approachable, real. His songs are the kind that touch me. It was just Rob and his guitar and an occasional chorus from the audience who knew and appreciated his songs. He peppered his banter with stories about his family, friends, old times, life and the writing process. I wouldn’t say exactly what his politics are since I don’t know him (I can guess though given what I know about his friends). However, he sings one song he wrote called Til The Last Shot’s Fired. It is a timeless, shameless anti-war song.

I was there in the winter of sixty-four
When we camped in the ice at Nashville’s door
Three hundred miles our trail had led
We barely had time to bury our dead
When the Yankees charged and the colors fell
Overton Hill was a living Hell
When we called retreat it was almost dark
I died with a grapeshot in my heart

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet Mother Mary I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired

In June of 1944
I waded in the blood at Omaha’s shore
Twenty one and scared to death
My heart pounding in my chest
I almost made the old sea wall
When my friends turned and saw me fall
I still smell the smoke and taste the mud
As I lay there dying from a loss of blood

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set my spirit free
Let me lay down my gun
Sweet Mother Mary I’m so tired
But I can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired

I’m in the fields of Vietnam
The mountains of Afghanistan
And I’m still waiting, hoping, praying
I did not die in vain

Say a prayer for peace
For every fallen son
Set our spirits free
Let us lay down our guns
Sweet Mother Mary we’re so tired
But we can’t come home
Til the last shot’s fired
Til the last shot’s fired

I saw a bumper sticker in Lexington a few weeks back. Perhaps you have seen it too. “Kill ‘em all. Let Allah sort them out.” 

Kill ‘em all.      All?      Under that was a sticker, which indicated that the truck’s owner is a former Marine. Is THAT patriotism? God, I hope not.

I think there are some who believe that if you are strongly anti-war that you are unpatriotic, un-American. I couldn’t disagree more. Is war patriotic? Is fighting and killing – American?! God, I hope not. To me, this is a VERY American song, a very patriotic song. Believing in a peaceful world and insisting on it as much as we can is patriotic – and Christian. What would Jesus think of collateral damage?

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Hat

I wrote this little piece last year when my third grade class was working on memoir.  

It was gray when I woke up; misty, foggy, cool – no, cold. Not a great day for the beach. It was chilly and gusty. The kind of day that made my ears ache when I went swimming. Michigan City, Indiana. 1968. I was 11 years old.

In early summer the downtown area was home to a bazaar, a fancy name for giant sidewalk/garage sale. All of the shops had racks and shelves of bargains outside. People were invited to bring their used clothing and household items and set up tables to sell their wares.

My mom was a bargain hunter. With seven children she had to be. My brothers and sisters decided to stay home that day. I’m sure they had better things to do. I wanted to go with my mom.

This was the kind of day my brothers and sisters loved to swim. There was a cold northwest wind blowing and the waves on the beach would be enormous, way over my head. I loved these days as well. There was danger involved in swimming these waves. They towered over you, threatening to squash you into the sand if you didn’t catch them just right. If you went out too far, the undertow could snatch you up and pull you out.

This latter danger was for people who didn’t grow up on the beach. Almost every day that the wind whipped up from the northwest during swimming season someone along the beach would be swept away. Chicago, Gary, Miller Beach, Porter Beach, the Indiana Dunes State Park, Beverly Shores, Michigan City. We would read about it in the paper, occasionally see a helicopter flying by on these days. When we did we knew someone had probably died. We pretty much knew what we were doing. We never ventured out far. Still there was the danger.

As for being smashed into the sand if we didn’t get on top of the waves we were body surfing, that happened all the time and we routinely walked back into the house with bad scrapes and sand rashes from this hazard. Those wounds were all right. Those scabs would become badges of bravery.

I got ear aches on these days. I could have worn ear plugs but that would be a sissy thing to do. So I chose to go with my mom to the sidewalk sale. With six brothers and sisters, I didn’t get much time alone with her anyway so this would be my chance.

The bazaar was very busy. Vendors, crowds of people, the smell of sausages and popcorn, laughing, bargaining, little kids clinging to their mothers’ dresses, occasional babies crying. Teenagers, parents, old people.

My mom let me wander around by myself for a while. There was a huge clock tower so, even though I didn’t have a watch, I could see to meet her at noon. I only had a quarter with me so I was just looking. I’ve always been intrigued by crowds, always been a people watcher even as a kid.

There was a table of old used clothes in front of St. Anne’s church. They were musty and wrinkled and piled on the tables not folded neatly or hung on racks as the clothes were in front of the stores. The poorer people were drawn to this area because the prices were so low. There seemed to be something for everybody. They were practically giving the clothes away.

One old man was wandering between the rows of tables. I’m not sure why I was drawn to him especially. He was one of so many. But I watched him carefully for the next few minutes. His clothes were very worn. Gray pants frayed at the cuffs and pockets. They were pleated pants. My mom would have called them trousers. Tired old jacket which could not have kept him warm on this chilly day. His fancy old dress shoes were terribly worn.  He needed a shave. His cheeks and throat were covered with short gray stubble.

He wore no hat and his head must have been cold. It was early summer, but that northwest wind… He was very bald and the gray fringe that surrounded his head was shaggy and blew in the cold gusty wind. He could have used a hat.

I wished that he had newer clothes. I wished he had a hat. In those few moments that our paths crossed I felt sad for him. I’m not sure why I remember him after all of this time, after all the years and distance; his windblown hair, his disheveled yet somehow classic clothes, his stubbly cheeks and the smile lines around his eyes. I don’t think I could pick him out of a lineup after all this time, but I remember the feel of him.

I wished he had a hat. It was chilly. His head, shiny on top, was blotchy from the cold. He must have been freezing with his threadbare jacket and his thin, worn pants.

As he walked down the long tables in what I thought of as the poor peoples’ section in front of the church, he would pick up one item then another. He would pick up a woman’s scarf, turn it over in his hands and, almost as if he were having a conversation with himself, would shake his head and return it to its place at the table.

Finally he came to an area on one table with hats. I was relieved. He needed one. There were stocking caps and baseball style caps, earmuffs and old fashioned felt hats like the one my dad wore to church. The old man stopped at these, meticulously searching through them for just the right one.

Why was I concerned about him finding the right hat? I had never seen him before, would probably never see him again. But I was mesmerized, silently urging him to find a comfortable hat to warm his bald head.

He picked up a gray felt hat with a wide brim. I think it’s called a fedora. He tried it on and it fit snugly. He sort of wiped his hand around the brim in an automatic gesture. I had seen people do that kind of thing in movies. They were rich people or gangsters.

The hat looked great on him. A lady at the end of the table was eying him suspiciously. She had a gray metal box in front of her – the money box. Perhaps she thought he would walk away with  the hat without paying for it. The old man didn’t look at her. I could tell that he was pleased with the hat. He had this dreamy faraway look in his eyes like he was remembering something from long ago. His fingers went around the brim again. He smiled a small stubbly smile, a satisfied smile, the smile of a younger man. It was the look of one who has found a jewel.

The money lady continued to glare at the little man. He reached up and took the hat off. There was a little piece of masking tape on the band inside the hat. A price tag. I couldn’t make it out but the man stared at it unbelieving. I could see his disappointment.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. All change. It surely wasn’t enough. I could tell by the look on his face. I wanted to buy it for him. I only had a quarter. It wouldn’t help much.

With a look of quiet disappointment and even embarrassment the old man put the hat back on the table - slowly, almost reverently. His shoulders drooped and he shuffled softly away. The money lady smirked.

All these years later I wonder why the image of the old man stays with me. Certainly I have witnessed sadder moments. On the news. In the papers. In books. So many tragic stories with greater magnitude. Why this man? So long ago and so far away.

Perhaps in a way this little story has served to make me aware of the small sufferings all around me. Perhaps this little memory reminds me of all the rich blessings in my own life. I am so blessed. I pray that I never take it for granted.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Food Not Bombs 2

This Sunday was golden. It was a late fall day, just past the color peak but still magnificent. More dark reds and browns than the yellows and oranges of last week, but still spectacular. Brilliant sunshine. Cool. Crisp. I headed to Food Not Bombs at Finley Park in downtown Columbia, SC. It is always a good feeling. I’ve written about it before. It is simple but important. A big group comes with a bunch of food to feed a much larger group of hungry people who show up. There is a core group of regulars, but also some different folks each week both on the serving and receiving ends.

Sparing the time on Sunday afternoon is not always easy. FNB usually comes between playing for the youth service at church (10:30 – 10:45) and practice for the same service next week (3:00 – 4:00). So I rush home, set the brew kettle (which doubles as a pasta pot) on high, cook up the meat and pasta, hustle downtown to be there around 1:00 with spaghetti. I don’t eat red meat, haven’t for years, but my son Devin proofs out the spaghetti for me. Today he said it was “magnificent”. He’s easy.

Today was more special because my teaching buddy Tameka called the day before and asked when the serving began. I was excited. But what if I had talked it up too much? What if she didn’t see what I saw there? I was also pleased about her coming because she was bringing her beautiful daughter Alani. I think she’s 4. Alani’s a little shy but has given me some pretty easy hugs the last few times we have seen each other. There aren’t many little ones there and I knew she’d stick close to Mom.

When I arrived, Tameka and Alani weren't there. Maybe something else came up. I set down my pot next to two women with broccoli and chicken. They’re from South Korea. I see them every time I go. I hunkered down next to a couple guys playing chess. This one guy with a cane and stocking cap and dark glasses and gloves with the fingertips cut off brings his chess set nearly every week. He’s good too.

When it was time we all pulled on our plastic gloves and the line began to move. There was an extra pot of cheesy/tomatoey macaroni next to me and for a little while I was serving from both my pot and the mac.

Then I heard Tameka’s familiar voice from behind. Ira, who sort of runs the show (as much as anyone) introduced us. “This is Tameka. She’s here to serve.” Alani hugged my leg in greeting. Tameka put on plastic gloves and took over serving the macaroni. There were a lot of people serving today. We had to sort of stand sideways to all fit together. It feels good to share the physical warmth, being so close together, as well as the emotional warmth from the simple fellowship of FNB. Anyone who goes for a few times feels it.

At first Alani was at a bit of a loss. She was shy and clung to Tameka’s leg. Of course that made her even cuter and folks coming through the line would comment and ask her name. Shy silence was all they got. But she did bring some light that would not have been there otherwise. After a while Tameka and Alani were serving together. It was one of those simple but incredibly beautiful scenes that I cherish more and more these days. Alani was much too small to serve on her own. She stood well below the top of the pot. Tameka had her hand around Alani’s. Tameka’s strong adult hand guided the wooden serving spoon, holding the spoon with Alani, serving pasta to hungry people. Serving hungry people. Serving.

What a great mom. What a wonderful example of how a parent can show through her own actions, the way to live. What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Serving. What a marvelous way to spend a life.

When we said goodbye I had a different feeling than the usual one when we part ways at school every afternoon. I got to see this cool side of Tameka that I don’t get to see in the usual day to day. I am even gladder now to be her friend.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Friend

A friend of mine is leaving the area. He’s actually leaving this region. When he pulls into Portland, he’ll actually be about as far from here as he can be and still be in the continental US. His name is Alan and he is a colleague of my wife’s at USC. Her best friend there. I know that things just won’t be the same without him.

Years ago I taught some classes as an adjunct for USC at the main campus. It was Language Arts methods. I remember coming out of class and looking down the hall at the open door to his classroom. This when we were only acquaintances. He was seated on top of the wooden table that served as a desk. Legs crossed. He was wearing the (now legendary) red sweatshirt I had seen him in so many times. His hair on top was very thin but long and rakish on the back and sides. He had a definite non-professor look. And he was shouting. Not at the top of his lungs but with gusto. I don’t remember what he was yelling about but there was passion there.

I wondered. Do I ever shout in my little college class? I mean I care about the stuff I teach but do I ever really go out to the edge? Am I really passionate? I’ve got to get to know this guy, I thought.

And I did. When our boys were just shrimps we started hanging out. Not real regular but we didn’t want to let more than a few weeks go by without touching base. At first when he called and I answered the phone I assumed he was calling for Heidi. University business. But we would talk about politics or Africa or university folks we had in common or music and then we’d close up the conversation. He called to talk to me. He reached out to me. I am a man with few close friends. He was becoming one.

We’d go out to dinner with our little family and Alan. Often. When the guys were getting a little older and they knew what cussing was, we would debrief in the car on the way home. “He said @#$% four times,” Devin would say.

“Uh, uh,” Colin, our math-boy would reply. “That was *&%$. He said @#$% six times.” So, in his way, Alan helped to teach our boys to count.

Over the years he was there to watch our boys grow up. At dinner often we would talk politics. Colin, our politics lefty, would absorb, think, discuss, debate. As much as anyone outside of our little core family, Alan taught Colin about the world. Its complexities, gray areas. Right and wrong. Human rights.

Alan was there as our boys became adolescents and witnessed the necessary baggage that comes with that. If I ever whined about the occasional disrespect, defiance or over confidence (read: know-it-all-ness), Alan would respond with something like, “What do you think their job is now?” (read: get-over-it-it’s-normal). Alan has had a way of bringing clear perspective, an objective, caring, outside view of life. As much as anyone, he loved our boys unconditionally. If Devin or Colin wasn’t around when we caught up with him, he was genuinely disappointed.

Alan’s politics are simple. Human rights. He taught me that liberal and conservative labels don’t mean anything compared to that. Human dignity and worth are what is right. It is that simple. I am clearer when I look out at the world because of my friendship with Alan. I am able to look beyond my own limited scope.

Alan has a passion for Africa, which has rubbed off on me and enriched me deeply. He has done powerful work telling the stories of those oppressed under Apartheid in South Africa. He is friends with some of the best people there.

Heidi and my boys and I had the privilege of seeing Alan fall in love – for the first time. We watched him go from infatuation to passion to commitment. Joanie is so fortunate to be a part of his life. And, now that we know Joanie, we understand that he is blessed to be a part of hers. A few weeks ago we were among the few invited to their beautiful, intimate wedding at the beach. They asked Colin and Devin and me to play at their reception. It was such an honor. Such a milestone. One of the proudest moments of my life for me as a dad was watching Devin and Colin improvising together, making beautiful music to celebrate this new union. It will be forever etched in my mind.

It’s hard to know how to put the gratitude I feel for knowing and being friends with Alan into words.

He taught me to look up and out at the world, how important it is to have a opinion, how important it is to try to understand beyond the surface.

I guess the most important thing I am grateful for is simply the friendship of this good man. I am better for knowing Alan. We will still be in touch I am sure (although I am prone to not staying in touch with old friends – a terrible personality flaw). But it won’t be the same. In this day and age distance is really only theoretical but there was comfort in knowing that he lived only several miles away and not thousands, knowing that we would connect over dinner every few weeks, that we would certainly share some holiday time, music and good beer at The Hunter Gatherer occasionally.

I am glad for Joanie and Alan’s new beginning. What an adventure lies ahead. What a brave new start. I will selfishly miss Alan but I swear to keep in touch.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


My dad was a meticulous guy. When he went to work later in his career, the only part of his career that I remember, he always looked sharp. When I was a kid, he wore a hat to church. One of those sporty-but-gentlemanly things that Dick Van Dyke would have worn. He used an electric razor even when they were going out of style. He never let anything go to waste. I think he had every electric razor he ever owned in a sort of razor graveyard in one of his dresser drawers. He kept them for spare parts.

He had his own bathroom. We could have used it when he wasn’t around. I’m sure we did, but it really was his. There were three bathrooms in our ranch style house and one was definitely his. He was a rather typical dad when I was growing up. I don’t think he ever changed a diaper on my little brother Dan. That was normal for the times. He was the provider. He was a hard worker. He was pleased when we did well, stern when we needed it. We were a good Catholic family. I had six brothers and sisters. My dad was proud of us. He loved my mom and showed it. He was a really great guy. He rarely said it, but he loved us all.

Things were tight around our place. Seven kids and my folks started out with next to nothing. They were pregnant within a couple months of being married and less than a year after my sister Maureen was born, they had identical twins. Three kids in diapers in two years. My mom was a coupon clipper, a bargain hunter a sale shopper. She had to be. Nine mouths to feed.

My dad worked at Inland Steel Company in East Chicago, Indiana. He was a management guy, but he started out working in the mill itself. It was hot, hard work. It was work that he enjoyed. He moved into a sales rep job after some years (I think it said Technical Service Representative on his business card) and that was work that really agreed with him. He was a friendly guy. Great smile. Interesting conversationalist. Warm handshake. You WANTED to know him.

We had a wonderful life. Every family has its ups and downs. Maybe we had a few more than most, but looking back, it all worked out. Now my folks weren’t money geniuses by any means. They bought a house cheap in the 40’s and made $5,000 in a few years. Of course that was a lot of dough back then. And, of course they turned it into another nicer house. But they weren’t tycoons. They were thrifty. Our clothes were hand-me-downs, especially the younger kids. We wore our shoes until we wore them out or outgrew them. If we did, we passed them down the line. My mom sewed and knitted. She canned vegetables and cooked huge pots of pasta and stew so we could eat leftovers. We bought apples by the bushel. We were never hungry and we ate plenty and healthy. But it was clever and careful planning that allowed us to do so.

In December 1989 my dad was diagnosed with cancer. By the time they found it, it was too late and he only had about six weeks to live. He had only been retired for a short time. He was young. 64. He was very brave about the whole thing. I never saw him feel sorry for himself. Never saw him whine. That last bit of time was precious. He died around Christmas time. We were there to spend time with him, to see him off, to say goodbye. To say, “I Love you.” And, “I’m sorry for the crummy things I did when I was young.”

The end came very fast for him. He had been sore and his appetite had been off for a while. He had lost weight, but he was still him, Jack O’Keefe. With the ruddy Irish face and pale blue eyes and beautiful brown hair with just a touch of gray. His friends were envious of that hair. Once later I wrote in a song, “When I look at my hands, I see my father’s hands, and in the mirror, my father’s eyes.” And it’s true. And I’m lucky for it.

During that Christmas when my dad was dying, he wanted to make sure that my mom was going to be all set. He wanted to assure her that she wouldn’t be short on money. They invited their accountant and neighborhood friend Tom Roberts over to go over their assets and the stuff they kept in the safe. They had a modest stock portfolio, some t-bills, a deed to some land in Kentucky, my dad’s retirement account, the house, a little of this, a little of that. Honestly, during that conversation with Tom Roberts, it was clear that money-wise, they were well off. Quite well off. I don’t think that it ever really occurred to them just how their saving and scrimping paid off. When Tom had added things up and included their house, which was already paid for, they had it made. Rather, my mom had it made because my dad was not going to be around much longer.

That was one of the moments when it really hit my mom. My dad was not going to be around for very much longer. But they had taken care of each other all of their adult lives. They had raised seven kids, had a bunch of grandchildren. My mom was going to be OK. I could see relief in my dad’s tired eyes. Calm. I witnessed pure panic in my mom. She fought back tears, unsuccessfully. Neither Dan nor I would let our feelings show at that time. It would just have made things harder for Jack. This was really happening. My dad was dying. There was nothing any of us could do about it.

When the business meeting was over, Tom and my mom and brother Dan headed upstairs. My mom was broken. Her life and love were changing forever. Dan and I were sadder than we had ever been. Tom, our business friend was satisfied, I think. He had brought some peace of mind to my dad. There were about ten stairs up to the living room. My dad was walking with great care. He was using crutches as the cancer was dissolving the bones in his hips. I walked behind him, wondering if he would be able to make the stairs. He’d only had crutches for a few days. As it turned out, he would only need them for a few more.

I walked behind him, arms ready to catch him in case he tipped back or slipped. The others were already up. My dad had carefully, painfully managed to climb three or four steps when he stopped. I wondered if he would be able to finish climbing up. Maybe he stopped because he needed help. He turned around slowly. I backed down and he gingerly started back down the stairs.

“You OK?”

“Yeah, just a second.” He continued down the stairs and slowly crossed the large room to the other side. It took a lot of effort. He was dangerously unsteady on those crutches. Then he flipped off the light switch. That was it. He just wanted to turn off the light. To save that little bit of energy. Those few cents. He crossed the room again and paused at the foot of the stairs. “Oh, boy,” he said a little nervously. “Here goes.”

He made it up the stairs that night.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Judge Not Your Brother

One of the coolest thing about being a teacher of little kids is sharing my favorite music with my best friends ( as well as my favorite books, poems, etc.). In some ways it's selfish but how could I NOT share some of these? I was given a great folk compilation CD by a parent of a first grader last year who was to become one of my students. That worked out well, didn't it? I haven't shared this tune with the kids this year yet. I'll get there. I had never heard of Eric Bibb at the time. It's simple but brilliant.

Judge Not Your Brother (lyrics by Eric Bibb)

Passed a young man on the street dressed in rags couldn’t

have been more than 25
Lying on the sidewalk in a sleeping bag and a sign that read:
Your kindness keeps me alive
I remember I stopped and turned around couldn’t hold my tongue saying something about that sign bothers me
So I asked him, “Why’s a guy like you healthy, white and young living off working folk’s charity?” He said,

Judge not your brother
Walk a mile in his shoes
You see he’s doing the best that he can do
Like me and you

My mouth fell open wide shocked by the truth
The look in his eyes was wise and sad
He said, “Brother, I was born a rich man’s son, but I gave it all away, every last dollar I ever had”.
He wanted to know how it felt to be humbled by disdain, pity and indignation.
He asked me if I’d read the book Black Like Me. He said it was his inspiration.

Judge not your brother
Walk a mile in his shoes
You see he’s doing the best that he can do
Like me and you

Just when we think we know what’s really going on
Life serves us a surprise
A lesson to learn again and again
‘Cause we’ve all been victimized by prejudice and lies

Judge not your brother
Walk a mile in his shoes
You see he’s doing the best that he can do
Judge not your brother
Walk a mile in his shoes
You see he’s doing the best that he can do
Like me and you.

Left to Tell

In previous posts I have mentioned going to Rwanda in the summer of 2007. At that time I had immersed myself in the history and culture of the people. I had read Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza - twice. I have a blog of my travel notebook called White Boy In Rwanda that chronincles my journey, both the pysical trip and the spiritual journey. Below is one of the last posts of the White Boy blog. It is a reflection piece and in it I quote from Immaculee's amazing book. Her message is all about forgiveness. I will return to that blog from time to time with excerpts. Often my journey to Rwanda comes echoing back to me. Sometimes I will see the face of a beautiful African American child and it reminds me of a child there. Sometimes, when issues of forgiveness come up I think, my God, if Rwandan's like Immaculee can forgive all that has happened to them and still look ahead, what can't I forgive? Sometimes it will be a song, the voice of a fellow traveller or an email. I am now reading Immaculee's new book, Led By Faith. I can't fairly evaluate it. I love everything she could ever write because I love her and her message of love, hope and forgiveness. If you have read Left to Tell or White Boy before this will be familiar to you. But sometimes it helps to be reminded...

If you have read much of this notebook/blog, you have read about Immaculee Ilibagiza. Her book, Left to Tell is one of the most important books I have ever read and has influenced my spiritual walk immensely. If you don’t know, Immaculee survived the genocide by hiding out in a tiny bathroom for 91 days with seven other women in hunger and silence. For all of this time Immaculee and her friends were waiting to die. They waited quietly as the killers searched for them just outside the bathroom door. Immaculee heard her name called out by the very men responsible for deaths of her beloved family members. She survived this horrific ordeal through prayer. She prayed her rosary and spoke to God in ways that I will probably never truly comprehend.

She and the others in the bathroom narrowly escaped death many times but she did escape. She did survive. Her parents, two of her brothers and all of the Tutsis in her village were brutally killed. Immaculee survived. She went to the prison where the killer of her mother and dear brother Damascene was held…

As burgomaster, Semana was a powerful politician in charge of arresting and detaining the killers who had terrorized our area. He’d interrogated hundreds of Interahamwe (extremist Hutu) and knew better than anyone which killers had murdered whom.

And he knew why I’d come to see him. “Do you want to meet the leader of the gang that killed your mother and Damascene?”“Yes, sir, I do.”

I watched through Semana’s office window as he crossed a courtyard to the prison cell and then returned, shoving a disheveled, limping old man in front of him. I jumped up with a start as they approached, recognizing the man instantly. His name was Felicien, and he was a successful Hutu businessman whose children I’d played with in primary school. He’d been a tall, handsome man who always wore expensive suits and had impeccable manners. I shivered remembering that it had been his voice I’d head calling out my name when the killers searched for me at the pastor’s. Felicien had hunted me.

Semana pushed Felicien into the office, and he stumbled onto his knees. When he looked up from the floor and saw that I was the one waiting for him, the color drained from his face. He quickly shifted his gaze and stared at the floor.“Stand up, killer!” Semana shouted. “Stand up and explain to this girl why you murdered her mother and butchered her brother. Get up I said! Get up and tell her!” Semana screamed even louder, but the battered man remained hunched and kneeling, too embarrassed to stand and face me.

His dirty clothing hung from his emaciated frame in tatters. His skin was sallow, bruised and broken; and his eyes were filmed and crusted. His once handsome face was hidden beneath a filthy, matted beard; and his bare feet were covered in open, running sores.

I wept at the sight of his suffering. Felicien had let the devil enter his heart and the evil had ruined his life like a cancer in his soul. He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret. I was overwhelmed with pity for the man.

“He looted your parents’ home and robbed your family’s plantation, Immacculee. We found your dad’s farm machinery at his house, didn’t we?” Semana yelled at Felicien. “After he killed Rose and Damascene, he kept looking for you… He wanted you dead so he could take over your property. Didn’t you, pig?” Semana shouted again.

I flinched letting out an involuntary gasp. Semana looked at me stunned by my reaction and confused by the tears streaming down my face. He grabbed Felicien by the shirt collar and hauled him to his feet. “What do you have to say to her? What do you have to say to Immaculee?”

Felicien was sobbing. I could feel his shame. He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met. I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say.

“I forgive you.”

When Semana had Felicien dragged back to his cell he was furious with Immaculee…

“What was that about, Immaculee? That was the man that murdered your family. I brought him to you to question… to spit on if you wanted to. But you forgave him! How could you do that? Why did you forgive him?”

I answered him with the truth: “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.” (p. 202- 203)

Now when I am asked, “Where was God?” “How can you believe in a God who would let this happen?” I think of Immaculee and Richard and Bishop John and of all of Rwanda who survived to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. God is in the message of forgiveness held closely by the leaders of this wonderful nation and in the hearts of those who are unknown to the world. Where is God? God is in the heart and soul of Rwanda.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Not My Fault

In my second and third grade class we think about social justice.  It isn't something that is tested at the end of the year on high stakes tests.  It's just there.  It would be difficult to be a teacher and not think about the world critically with my kids.  How can one teach about culture, geography, government, history, current events, without considering human rights?  I don't think it's possible.  At least not if you try to be real.  Not if you try to teach well.  

This fall we have been fairly glued to the election coverage.  How could one teach social studies and not discuss this world changing event?  It's stimulating for everyone.  I feel so lucky to be there for their awakening.  I hasten to add that none of my students know who I will vote for (oh, they know I WILL vote).  I don't try to convince my students to think the way I think politically.  While they ask often who I will vote for, I don't tell.  But I think home conversations are started with the conversations in our room.  That is truly important.  Perhaps it is more important than some of the curriculum that is tested.

 Last year we looked at the life (and death) of Ann Frank.  The obvious question the children asked was, "How could the Nazis have done that?"  As a literature study, the little Ann Frank biography (not The Diary) was very successful.  Partly because we all became more critical careful, readers.  Partly because my class had their young eyes opened to this tragedy.  They were stunned.  They asked hard questions.  They became more awake.  I don't pretend to know the answers about how good people can do such bad things.  I said as much.  But we thought about it.  We explored.  We read this little book together, Not My Fault, and talked about it.  It has these simple pen and ink drawings of children talking to the reader.  A different kid on each page.  You never know what really happened in the story.  I guess it doesn't matter.  It is so simple - but at the same time - so complex.  Here is the text.

Not My Fault

It happened after class – It had nothing to do with me!

I didn’t see what happened,
So I didn’t know he was crying.

Even though I saw it, and know what happened,
It wasn’t my fault!

I was really scared, and there wasn’t any way to help,
So I just stood on the side and watched…

A lot of people were bullying him.
I couldn’t stop them all by myself.
You can’t blame me!

A lot of people hit him. Actually everybody hit him.
I hit him too, but only a few times…

I didn’t hit him first.
Someone else hit him first, so it wasn’t my fault.

So, was I wrong?
I always thought he was weird anyway.

The whole thing wasn’t strange at all.
If he gets picked on, maybe he should blame himself.

He was standing all alone, crying.

Guys shouldn’t be crybabies.

I know I should’ve gone and told the teacher,
But I was afraid!
Anyway, it had nothing to do with me.

He was just crying quietly, not saying anything.
Everyone acted like nothing happened…

He didn’t say anything,
So we just stood on the side watching.
He should have shouted for help!

I hit him too, but it doesn’t matter.
Everyone was hitting him, so you can’t blame me.

Does it have nothing to do with me?

- Leif Kristiansson -

I have said this before in my blog, children sometimes know at an intuitive level, so much more about truth  and what is right than many well-educated adults I know.  It's sad to think that the outlook and optimism children have at an early age can be changed, darkened, twisted as they grow.

Two weeks ago we heard tragic news about the death of a young man who used to attend our little school.  While I don't know the details of his death, he was shot.  He was in my son's class.  He was taught by my best friends.  He was a good kid.  He was 16, the same as our Devin.  He was funny, engaging, he laughed easily.  Somehow, in these last few years the circumstances of his life changed.  I hadn't seen him in a while.  He was killed.   Too young.  Such a waste.  It got very little coverage in the news.  The reporters, newspaper editors, the folks who make decisions about what goes on the TV news didn't know him.  If they did, they would have explored this tragedy more, made a lesson out of it somehow.  Helped us to see the value of this young man's life.  The terrible sadness in his death.  It's easy to say "It's Not My Fault" but he was our charge.  Could we have done more for him?  Could we have turned a tendency?  Let him to see a world  with more hope?  All I can do now is to help my students, my best friends, to see a hopeful world, a world where their beautiful voices do make a difference.