ANNA-RF: Beautiful Proofs of Mankind’s Similarity


Mid-Eastern new music, Israeli musicians play globally,

I first heard of ANNA-RF when a friend shared “Jump,” a playful video with lyrics that resound in our fractured world.

For all of us love is the flame
The fire that burns the hate
Helps us dream and create.
I can’t see the different between
And I know that the answer’s within.
Humanity is one big tribe
So why can’t we live side by side?


The very next video of theirs I clicked on was a stirringly beautiful rendition of a folk song from Azerbaijan.

Intrigued, I found out all I could about the group.

Musicians Roy Smila and Ofir J.Rock met in the small desert village of Shaharut, Israel back in 2011. They quickly forged a musical connection that evolved into the band ANNA-RF, which they named after an Arabic-Hebrew expression that means both “I know” and “I don’t know.” They play what they call electro-ethnic-reggae, although that term doesn’t stretch as far as their music which is highly versatile, in part thanks to collaboration with musicians from all over the world. Their compositions are original and often spontaneous, mixing new sounds with ancient traditions. Instruments they use include the kamancha, lafta, sazbush, flute, guitar, and didgeridoo.

A little rummaging around YouTube makes it obvious that visual art is an integral part of what they do. They create videos for each song, filming in mountains, deserts, and busy markets. They can be found dancing in desert rain

and playing Celtic reggae with musicians in Switzerland.

Last year the band added a new member, Or Rave. I reached out to them for an interview and they kindly made time to email me back from a concert date in London.


Despite our complicated political times, your lyrics are mostly celebratory. What message does your music convey?  

We find no truth in borders or other fictive ideas of separation. We enjoy the beauty of everyone and we find inspiration in every culture and every place. Our music is based on this point of view, therefore it is positive and open.


What’s your songwriting process like?

Our home and studio is in a tiny village in the desert. The emptiness of the desert is what inspires us to fill it with creation.

A song can start from anything. A line on the kamancha (the Persian violin), a riff on the guitar, a sentence someone throws to the air.

We also tour a lot and in our journeys we meet amazing people and artists who we collaborate with. In many cases that connection is an inspiration for a new song.


How does travel influence your music?

When you are traveling your life is highly dynamic and flexible. From that we get a variety of new points of view and inspiration. By traveling we meet a lot of amazing people and artists that influence us and broaden our horizons.


Tell us a little about collaborating with other musicians and who you’ve played with so far.

For us one of the most beautiful proofs of the similarity of mankind can be found in music. When you play with other musicians from around the globe you understand that all over this planet people get the same feeling from music and you can find similarity right in the musical scales.

We’ve played with:

  • Imamyar Hasanov, the great kamancha master from Azerbaijan
  • Yair Dalal, the well-known Oud master
  • The Turbans, the great Gypsy band from England
  • Farafi, beautiful African music from France and California
  • Daniel Waples, famous hang player from England
  • Davide Swarup, the hang and SPB pioneer from Italy
  • Tom Bertschy and Thom Freiburghaus, the medieval musicians from Switzerland

And many, many more amazing artists from all over this planet.


These videos are mostly filmed in evocative natural settings. What are some complications of filming in the sand, on a mountainside, or roadside?

In most of those beautiful locations there is no water or electricity there so we have to prepare in advance. We have to have food and water supply and to be very precise. We have to carry on our backs all the props and all the equipment.


Any interesting stories about mishaps in filming?

In the “Weeping Eyes” video we had to hike for nine hours to the location in the Himalayas. The energy that we spent there was way too much and we could not stay, so we had to climb down all the way back to our guesthouse. All of us were so worn out.



Can you tell us the story of how one song evolved?

Our last song is a collaboration with a great composer and musician called Eran Zamir. He came for a weekend of creation. A tradition we like to do on the first day—we played together and he played some of his own compositions and after a while we chose a line that all of us especially liked. With this line, Or the beat master added his own rhythm and we wrote the lyrics and created the structure of the song. Roy added a kamancha solo (that we connected to a guitar amp for the special sound of the over-drive) and Ofir recorded the vocals. On the next day we wrote the script and shot the video in the desert. The video is a result of our creative connection.



What are you listening to these days?

We listen to a lot of Azeric, Turkish, and Persian music as well reggae, pop and new electro and dubstep acts. We are inspired by many different styles and find beauty in all of them.


Your videos tend to include repeat props like a stuffed monkey and a variety of hats, and repeat themes like hitchhiking. What’s up with that?

The symbols are there for any person to see them as they will.


Fans can buy ANNA-RF music here


This interview originally appeared in First Day Press.

We Have Room


refugee children, host border children, welcome the stranger, angels unaware,

All images thanks to wikimedia commons.

There may be no more powerful image in art, no more important message in scripture, than open arms. Welcoming the stranger is a basis of civilization, especially if that stranger is a refugee and always if that stranger is a child.

“You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Christianity, Deuteronomy 10: 19

“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137

“When the Holy One loves a man, He sends him a present in the shape of a poor man, so that he should perform some good deed to him, through the merit of which he may draw a cord of grace.” Judaism. Zohar, Genesis 104a

“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1

“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”  Islam. Quran 4:36

“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu

“See to it that whoever enters your house obtains something to eat, however little you may have. Such food will be a source of death to you if you withhold it.” Native American religions. A Winnebago Father’s Precepts

“`0 Ke aloha Ke Kuleana o kahi malihini. Love is the host in strange lands.”  Hawaiian saying

Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose. Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor. Taoism. Tract of the Quiet Way


child 2

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Whether scripture or statue inscription, we all know it’s easier to state our principles than adhere to them. I’m as weak as the next person in actually living up to what I believe.

I’ve vowed to keep politics out of this site, so I won’t be talking about lies fostered by divisive media or shockingly cruel attitudes toward refugees of any age. I’ll only say that it takes an extraordinary act of love to scrape together the coyote fees to send one’s child away in hopes of a safe haven. It takes inestimable courage for that child to walk through deserts, ride the tops of trains, and face down thieves along the way in hopes of real freedom.

My husband and I did some soul-searching. We talked to our kids. And we decided we cannot stand by while refugee children turn themselves in at the border only to be treated like criminals. We have room to host refugee children.

We applied to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. We were told placements might be for a few months or they might be permanent. So we re-imagined our lives. Now that our kids are college students and young adults we thought we were done raising children, but we can go back to homemade popsicles and toys on the floor and books read aloud. We have our own problems with unemployment and a not-remotely-profitable small farm, but what we have can always stretch. There’s a place in our home and our hearts.

That doesn’t mean we have a greeting card view of this. These children will be traumatized, experience culture shock, and face learning a new language. We’ll have plenty of adapting to do as well.

Lately before falling asleep, I look ahead to rows of family pictures stretching into the future. Those pictures seem to hold two dark-haired faces newly dear to me, and eventually, more of their relatives joining them and becoming part of our extended family, on for generations, with babies in arms growing to stand tall, my husband and me fading into old age and beyond. It’s a good vision.

Right now it looks like that vision won’t come true. I just got an email from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It said, in part, 

After exploring the nationwide LIRS foster care program network, I am sorry to share with you that LIRS does not have a foster care program in the geographic area that you are located. If at a future time an opportunity arises, we will reach out to you at that time.

I wrote back, asking if there was some way I could help set up a program in our area. Apparently the only option is applying for a grant through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which I admit is probably past me. So now I’m applying to other agencies.

I only mention our quest in hopes that someone out there may qualify even if we don’t. Here are resources to investigate.

Office of Refugee Resettlement

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bethany Refugee Care

Texas Interfaith Center
refugees, host border children,


Angry Stranger’s Gift

angry stranger, gift of impatience, tolerance, soul moment,

Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.

Hijab Games & Pink Shirt Days

bystander effect, stand up for others, hijab soccer, pink shirt day, anti-bullying,

“Whenever one person stands up and says, “Wait a minute, this is wrong,” it helps other people do the same.”  Gloria Steinem

A high school soccer referee barred Samah Aidah from her March 12th game because she wore a hijab, even though the association that governs soccer internationally had already lifted rules preventing players from wearing head covers.

Samah’s teammates responded. At their next game, every single girl wore a hijab in playful solidarity with her.

bystander effect,

Samah Aidah and her teammates smiling together at Overland High School in Denver, Colorado

These girls took action rather than letting oppression go without comment. Whether they knew it or not, they followed a basic principle of nonviolence— that problems are most easily reversed at the early stages. If ignored, issues can become progressively more difficult to stop as they spiral to ever more intense levels. That’s the case whether we’re talking about so-called non-physical forms of violence such as humiliation, harassment, and prejudice. It’s also the case with physical forms of violence, from domestic abuse to war.

When people don’t intervene, assuming others will step in, they become bystanders who “permit” violence to happen. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. This is called “diffusion of responsibility.” If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person, that person is more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.

Social scientists who study intervention in violent situations know that when others object or actively get involved their efforts tend to slow or stop the violence. Dr. Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule, reports in The Roots of Evil that genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Nazis in Germany started with prejudicial statement and small acts of repression. Oppressors test the response, only escalating to greater atrocities once they determine that bystanders will allow to them continue. It requires the willingness of uninvolved people to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Such actions empower the victim and reduce the power of the aggressor.

We tend to believe that we’ll have the moral courage to speak up and help when someone is suffering. But when something happens we usually have only an instant to respond, either we listen to our doubts and turn away or step outside our comfort zone to intervene. What makes it more likely that we will help?

1. A sense of commonality with people who are unlike us is important, letting us see beyond “us versus them” and prompting us to act with empathy.

2. Past experience reacting positively in a crisis leads people to do so in the future. In that case, the girls wearing the hijab to support their teammate not only made the current situation better but also primed themselves to act compassionately next time it’s necessary.

3. People who feel freer to defy the norms and who are able to think for themselves are more likely to help. Pluralistic ignorance (going along with the crowd) dampens a person’s compassionate response.

That’s why learning about nonviolence is so important, because it gives us a background on which to base our actions.  For examples of individual bystanders who stepped up to make a difference, check out the heartening real-life examples in this piece:

How To Get Involved When It’s None of Your Business

And let’s enjoy another example of young people choosing to go beyond being bystanders.

A few years ago a new freshman arrived at a Nova Scotia high school on the first day back to class. He was wearing a pink shirt. Several students mocked him and threatened to beat him up.  No one intervened. But two senior boys heard about it and decided to respond. They bought dozens of pink shirts at a discount store, emailing their friends to let them know they’d be handing them out the next day. The news spread and hundreds of students showed up the next morning already wearing pink shirts.  The bullying stopped and now Pink Shirt Days are held yearly in many schools to spread awareness about bullying.




Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times by Zoe Weil

Keeping the Peace: Practicing Cooperation and Conflict Resolution with Preschoolers by Susanne Wichert 

The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to HighSchool–How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle by Barbara Coloroso

Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth about the Pre-Teen Years by Carl Pickhardt

Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner

Calm and Compassionate Children: A Handbook by Susan Dermond

books for kids

Bystander Power: Now with Anti-Bullying Action  by Phyllis Kaufman Goodstein

Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig

My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig

Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy by Bob Sornson

Speak Up and Get Along!: Learn the Mighty Might, Thought Chop, and More Tools to Make Friends, Stop Teasing, and Feel Good About Yourself by Scott Cooper

other resources

Erase Bullying videos

Stop Bullying site



Vagus Overusers Anonymous


vagus nerve peace, vagus nerve calm, vagus nerve relaxation, sigh for relaxation,


There I go again, sighing. Most of the time I don’t know I’m doing it but thanks to my family I’m aware that I emit plenty of audible exhales.

My grandmother was a chronic sigher.  Each time she sat down, air rushed out of her mouth. It just seemed like an intrinsic part of her mechanism. A decade or two later my mother became a sigher as well. I should have realized the same fate would eventually strike me. I persist in thinking it’s a phase. Surely the women in my line sighed for the same reasons everyone else does—blowing off stress, expressing relief, giving in to exhaustion. Maybe they just had more than their fair share of sigh-worthy burdens.

There are good body-based reasons to sigh. When we’re stressed or fatigued our breathing is less variable. That’s not healthy. Our lungs, like the rest of our bodies, operate best dynamically. Our respiratory function becomes less efficient if we breathe in one state too long. A deep sigh resets breathing, loosening the lung’s air sacs and providing a feeling of relief.

More importantly, a deep sigh also stimulates the vagus nerve. We know all about the flight-or-flight response, which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. In that state our stress hormones are turned way up. We’re jittery, impulsive, and cued to react to stress. When we are relaxed, the opposite system, the parasympathetic nervous system is active. The vagus nerve is a primary stimulator of this feel-good nervous system, operating via the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter promotes relaxation and a feeling of well-being. That’s why good deep breaths are linked to the stress-quelling results found with the Relaxation Response as well as more traditional meditation. Acetylcholine also has to do with learning, memory, even reduced inflammation. So stimulating your vagus nerve is great for brain AND body.

Not ready to sigh just yet?

Well, Dacher Keltner, psychology professor and Director of the Greater Good Science Center says that the vagus nerve is responsible for much more. Biggies like empathy and who we are as a species. In his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life* he explains that the vagus nerve,

…resides in the chest and, when activated, produces a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.  The vagus nerve…originates in the top of the spinal cord and then winds its way through the body…, connecting up to facial muscle tissue, muscles that are involved in vocalization, the heart, the lungs, the kidneys and liver, and the digestive organs. In a series of controversial papers, physiological psychologist Steve Porges has made the case that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion, the body’s caretaking organ.

…Porges notes that the vagus nerve innervates the muscle groups of communicative systems involved in caretaking – the facial musculature and vocal apparatus. In our research, for example, we have found that people systematically sigh – little quarter-second, breathy expressions of concern and understanding – when listening to another person describe an experience of suffering. The sigh is a primordial exhalation, calming the sigher’s flight/flight physiology, and a trigger of comfort and trust, our study found, in the speaker. When we sigh in soothing fashion, or reassure others in distress with our concerned gaze or oblique eyebrows, the vagus nerve is doing its work, stimulating the muscles of the throat, mouth, face, and tongue to emit soothing displays of concern and reassurance.

Second, the vagus nerve is the primary brake on our heart rate.  Without activation of the vagus nerve, your heart would fire on average at about 115 beats per minute, instead of the more typical 72 beats per minute. The vagus nerve helps slow the heart rate down. When we are angry or fearful, our heart races, literally jumping five to ten beats per minute, distributing blood to various muscle groups, preparing the body for fight or flight. The vagus nerve does the opposite, reducing our heart rate to a more peaceful pace, enhancing the likelihood of gentle contact in close proximity with others.

Third, the vagus nerve is directly connected to rich networks of oxytocin receptors, those neuropeptides intimately involved in the experience of trust and love. As the vagus nerve fires, stimulating affiliative vocalizations and calmer cardiovascular physiology, presumably it triggers the release of oxytocin, sending signals of warmth, trust, and devotion throughout the brain and body, and ultimately, to other people.

Finally, the vagus nerve is unique to mammals…as caretaking began to define a new class of species – mammals – a region of the nervous system, the vagus nerve, emerged evolutionarily to help support this new category of behavior.

I’m sticking with what the body knows. I’ll be activating my vagus nerve, feeling calm and relaxed. Vagus Overusers Anonymous here I come. sigh

*Portions quoted from pages 228-230 of Keltner’s wonderful book. Read the whole thing!


Thanksgiving: A Holiday To Prevent War

A Peaceful Thanksgiving

Kids draw bright crayoned versions pictures of the “first” Thanksgiving, although chances are they don’t depict the original celebrants eating venison and eel, or engaging in shooting demonstrations. It’s certainly not an event the Wampanoag would have recognized. The Thanksgiving holidays we celebrate today center around family and togetherness. That’s due to one woman, Sarah Josepha Hale (who incidentally was the author of the poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” later put to music).

Before Hale’s campaign to create a national holiday, Thanksgiving was held at different times in different jurisdictions on any date between October and January. Or not at all. And in the South the holiday was largely unknown.

Thanksgiving origins, Thanksgiving peace,

Sarah Josepha Hale, 1831, by James Reid Lambdin

But Hale was editor of the most widely circulated magazine of the time, Godey’s Lady’s Book. This publication, largely aimed at women, published influential poetry, art, and fiction, and under Hale, advocated for women’s educational attainment. Beginning in 1846, Hale used this platform to push for a national day of gratitude. She hoped such a holiday would help to unify the North and South, even prevent a Civil War. Violating the magazine’s policy against politics, she wrote editorials year after year asking the nation’s leaders to declare the last Thursday in November a national holiday–Thanksgiving Day.

In an editorial published November 1857 she wrote:

Consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and, if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories set down together to the “feast of fat things” and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all the world. Then the last Thursday in November will soon become the day of AMERICAN THANKSGIVING throughout the world.

She also steered public sentiment by promoting Thanksgiving recipes (including roast turkey and pumpkin pie), poems, stories, and drawings of families gathered at the Thanksgiving table. She wrote hundreds of letters to governors, presidents, and secretaries of state as part of her campaign.

Seventeen years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation that Thanksgiving Day be celebrated as a national holiday. This day, which many of this country’s original inhabitants consider a national day of mourning, is also a day established to promote peace and goodwill. Never underestimate the power of an idea, pushed by a pen and persuasive pumpkin pie recipes.

Global Village Construction Set

It’s possible to plant 50 trees in one afternoon.

To press 5,000 bricks from the dirt beneath your feet in one day.

To build an affordable tractor in six days.

It’s possible thanks to the members of Open Source Ecology (OSE). They aren’t armchair visionaries. These engineers, farmers, and developers are dedicated to making communities sustainable and self-reliant. They’re taking on scarcity and inequality with open source enthusiasm

OSE got its start when Marcin Jakubowski’s tractor broke.  Well, lets back up a little. After Jakubowski earned a PhD in the physics of fusion energy, he bought a farm in Missouri where he grew fruit trees and raised goats. One day his tractor broke. He didn’t have the hands-on experience to fix it himself. But he hauled out some can-do attitude along with his welder and torch. He realized a tractor is simply a box with wheels, each powered by hydraulic motors.  So he bolted together square steel tubing to make one from scratch. It worked.

This inspired him to look beyond pricey, commercially made machines. He began to come up with versions that were hardy, low cost, and constructed out of locally sourced or repurposed materials. His posted designs generated lots of enthusiasm and input. Participants began showing up to help build prototyles on project days, becoming OSE collaborators.

The idea evolved. They considered what it takes to build independent, sustainable communities that support farming, construction, small manufacturing,  and power generation. They came up with a list of the 50 machines most important for modern life including a hay baler, bakery oven, laser cutter, drill press, solar concentrator, and truck.  Low cost, industrial strength, DIY versions of these machines became known as the Global Village Construction Set.  The motors, parts, and other fittings of these machines are designed to be interchangeable. All the 3D designs, schematics, and instructional videos are posted on the OSE Wiki.

On average, constructing these machines costs about eight times less than comparable machines made by industrial manufacturers. As Jakubowski explained in his recent TED talk, “Our goal is a repository of published design so clear, so complete, that a single burned DVD is effectively a civilization starter kit. ..The implications are significant: a greater distribution of the means of production, environmentally sound supply chains, and a newly relevant DIY Maker culture can hope to transcend artificial scarcity.”

So often hope seems abstract.  This is tangible hope, made of steel. It puts independence and equality in reach for people in both the developed and developing world.  Welding never seemed so inspiring.

Newcomers To God’s Country

move to country bad idea, angry rural neighbors, rural life hilarity, rural living problems, religion as a weapon, angry Christians,

We left behind gangs and sexual predators when we moved to the country. After city living, settling our family on a small farm seemed like coming to the Promised Land. Even the weather was welcoming as we made more and more repairs to the house we could barely afford. No matter. We hiked through the woods and crouched by the pond, watching frogs, fish, and goggle-eyed insects with a sense of gratitude that felt as solid as a good decision.

Then we got to know our neighbors.

Though we’d moved less than an hour away it seemed we’d crossed an unmarked border. Lovely pastoral stillness was regularly broken by target shooting, 4-wheelers careening around pastures, and barking from what sounded like a dog breeding operation. Some neighbors chose to burn garbage rather than pay the requisite fee for trash pickup, which explained the toxic stench of burnt plastic hanging in the air. And we quickly learned that some neighbors didn’t talk to other neighbors due to longstanding feuds. Allegedly these conflicts had escalated to bodily harm, lawsuits, and the biggest threat — eternal damnation.

That was the most overtly foreign to us, religion right out front as a beacon or bludgeon. Religious paraphernalia was evident everywhere on bumper stickers, yard signs, and lapel pins. “Where do you go to church?” was often a question people asked upon meeting us.

Realizing the only correct answer would be the exact denomination of the questioner, I gave vague relies. If pressed I said truthfully that we headed back north each Sunday to go to our old church before spending the afternoon visiting relatives. Then I quickly changed the subject. This conversational maneuver seemed to leave my new neighbors unsure of whether to save my soul or shun me. Left in the dreaded middle ground, many of them parted with helpful advice about sins I should take care to avoid.

“Don’t vote for the library levy, because you know the library is an agent of Satan. It has that Internet thing.”

“Don’t celebrate Halloween. That pleases the devil’s minions.”

But we couldn’t remain anonymous for long. Our children ventured down the street to scout out playmates. They were back quickly. Apparently the neighborhood children posed a quiz before agreeing to make friends with newcomers. When our children were confused by the “born again” question they weren’t allowed to stay.

Soon after, I was invited to a neighbor’s house for a visit. While ranging around her kitchen swatting flies and yelling at her children, this woman crisply explained why those who didn’t ascribe to her exact version of Christianity were destined for hell. With joyous fervor she started listing houses on the street by the sins of the occupants, from her next door neighbor (“She’s a Catholic, you know, one of those so-called Christians.”) to the woman who lived at the end of the street (“Don’t talk to her, she uses a hyphenated name. Probably a feminist.”) 

That did it. I said something about seeing the light in each person. She swiveled her full attention in my direction, fly swatter in hand, and asked me where I went to church. No middle ground left, I told her that I belonged to a Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

She was shocked. “Oh, you people believe anything goes,” she gasped.

“Not intolerance,” I said.

She kicked me out of her house.

It seemed that my admission branded me, and not in the correct tattoo-for-Christ way. Word spread quickly. A man who lived a few doors down called soon after. When I answered the phone he asked to speak to my husband.

“Let your wife know she shouldn’t be hiking in the woods,” he said before adding gruffly, “I target shoot there and I don’t look first.”

I hoped school presented better possibilities.

Our children were assigned to two different rural elementary schools, miles apart. I picked our kindergartner up every day at lunchtime. Other parents also waited in the school hallway. It was immediately apparent that there were two factions leaning against opposite walls. This presented a difficult choice. If I spoke to the woman with frosted lipstick and tight shirt who stood on the less populated side, the woman with the heavy necklace and shag haircut on the other side would glare at me. And vice versa.

Frosted Lipstick talked to me more often. She told me about her well-muscled prayer partner and how she felt called to meet with him alone even though this made her husband jealous. She told me that Jesus gave her too many challenges. She told me I would be cuter if I wore lipstick.

Shag Haircut was more interesting, or maybe I just enjoyed her sardonic commentary. One day Shag Haircut told me what was behind the hallway glaring. A group of mothers were trying to remove Frosted Lipstick from membership in the school’s parent/teacher organization over a dispute concerning craft supplies. Ribbon and scissors worth something like $36 had not been returned. Shag Haircut and her cohorts considered Frosted Lipstick a thief.

I made what I hoped were reasonable suggestions. No luck. I’ve taught conflict resolution for years but peace didn’t seem to be any match for the entertainment value of scandal. A few weeks later the superintendent acted. Weary of the dispute, he threatened to eliminate the entire parent/teacher organization. Both sides of the hallway were deliciously shocked.

Frantically, Frosted Lipstick asked me to baby-sit after kindergarten so she could meet with him and solve the problem. I was relieved that she seemed to be taking my advice about talking the problem out. I agreed, but explained that I needed to pick up my third-grader at the other school by three-thirty for a dentist appointment.

I assumed that she would drop off her kindergartner to play with my child. I was wrong. She appeared at my door with three additional boys. When she saw my surprise she said, “Everyone knows I operate a home daycare business.”

Everyone but the newcomer.

She went back to her minivan and returned with a woman she called Grandma. This woman was not her relative. Frosted Lipstick was branching out in the daycare business and had taken in an elderly confused person who needed supervision. Frosted Lipstick left quickly after I reminded her I needed to leave at three sharp. I made additional places at the table and invited these guests to lunch.

It became apparent that the boys were not accustomed to eating while sitting or eating without throwing food. They also used God’s name in vain frequently, an ironic tendency for five-year-olds normally in the care of a woman who talked so much about her prayer life. Quickly I gave up the silly idea of showing them how to make sandwich shapes with cookies cutters and simply tried to impose order. It wasn’t working well. Grandma wouldn’t sit. She smelled as if she might have damp undergarments but her waistband was fastened with some kind of dementia-proof catch. I couldn’t figure the thing out.

The afternoon deteriorated rapidly. My five-year-old normally enjoyed eating while I read to him, then he played Legos after lunch, but these boys were only amused by diversions such as hitting each other and slamming themselves into furniture. Grandma sidled along the walls with her hands up touching everything as if she read a form of Braille expressed in window frames and light switches. At one point she escaped through the locked front door. Like hostages, my son and I exchanged repeated sympathy glances at each other as the home invasion dragged on.

Despite the chaos around me I was cheered by the knowledge that a greater good was being served — the conflict was being talked out at the superintendent’s office. In fact I was beginning to feel a sense of peace about the whole ordeal. Three o’clock was approaching. Frosted Lipstick would ring the doorbell and then I’d be free to retrieve my third grader. By now my son had retreated completely from the boys, who were bouncing around in a frenzy like ping pong balls. I couldn’t imagine the inner clamor their behavior was expressing. I also felt a generous amount of sorrow for Grandma, left here with strangers when she’d already lost so much.

Three o’clock got closer and closer. Frosted Lips still didn’t arrive. My smug sense of peace was evaporating. A few minutes after three, she called. Her tone was casual. She said she couldn’t get to my house but had made other arrangements. I was to drop off the kids and Grandma at the school’s aftercare program, she knew everyone there.

I had no time to sputter about my older son who would be waiting for me in the more distant school office. I loaded the boys and Grandma in the van, checked seat belts, and turned onto the road. In moments the boys had taken off their seat belts and were beginning to crawl over the seats. That did it. I pulled over, trucks hurtling past, and told the boys to get their seat belts on using the slow dispassionate voice that my own children know indicates true rage. As I merged back into traffic I realized my vindictive thoughts were an indicator of how far I had to go before calling myself a pacifist.

In moments I was hurrying across the school parking lot holding many hands at once. We crammed into the tiny school office. I stood at the counter assuring the secretary that arrangements had been made for the boys to stay in the aftercare program. She seemed entirely unaware of such arrangements. Then I uttered Frosted Lipstick’s name. The school secretary’s face slackened into disgust. I leaned over the counter, trying to hear her response but the boys were arguing and shoving the hard-backed chairs back and forth on the linoleum. Grandma was running her hands along the corporate-sponsored posters on the walls. Clearly none of us wanted to be in this office but my own child was waiting miles away and I needed to assert some control over the situation. A chair tipped over, one boy slapped another.

I turned to the boys, hissing furiously over the din, “Stop it right now or I’ll tie you to those chairs!” Unfortunately just at that moment the principal came through the door with what appeared to be a new family. Upon seeing her, the boys stopped their noise immediately. Sudden silence turned my threat into a broadcast. Grandma strolled right into the principal, her upraised hands roaming across the guests’ bodies, along the door hinge, and onto the next wall. I’d been in the township less than two months and now was heard threatening to use restraints on a poor confused woman and three disorderly little boys.

The secretary said there was no protocol for leaving the boys without parental consent slips, and of course the elderly woman whose name I didn’t know could not stay. Trying to keep from hyperventilating, I asked the secretary to call the other school about my child, now surely left in the office. She tried. She told me no one was answering and her tone assured everyone in the room that I was indeed a bad mother.

I did what I had to do. I subdued my hysteria, gathered my charges, and walked down the hall to the aftercare program. Both women there said they knew the boys and the Grandma, as most people in the township seem to know everyone else. I informed them that Frosted Lipstick had told me to leave them for just a few minutes till she got back.

“Even the old lady?” asked one of the aides.

I nodded, wishing I had never stopped in the school office.

“Okay,” said the other aide. The first woman looked skeptical, but the moment the word “okay” left the mouth of a human being able to watch these four I took my son’s hand and ran from the building—past a janitor, several parents, and a blur of faces in the school office. I wondered if I abandonment charges were possible.

We pulled out of the parking lot and almost immediately found ourselves behind a line of traffic on the way to the other school. Cars, vans, trucks, and at the front, a school bus. It takes a single school bus to clog a rural road for miles. Worse, directly in front of us was a tractor pulling a manure spreader. Dark clumps fell onto the road and the heavy odor drifted in through our closed windows.

That drawn-out stinky scene wasn’t the final act of our little drama. Nor was it the sight of my third grader waiting for me in front of his school building, his face confident but his backpack sagging. No, it was the phone call from Frosted Lipstick later that evening. At the sound of her voice I was confident I would hear that the day’s calamities had been for a good cause.

“So did you resolve your differences?” I asked her.

“I went there to serve them with papers,” she said. “I’m suing the superintendent, the school, and the officers of the parent/teacher organization. God told me to seek vengeance.”

Originally published by Penduline Press, issue 4

Peace Meeting Disrupted By Vegetation Attack

bad behavior at restaurant, eating fail, FML meeting, peace meeting screw-up, gagging in front of people,


I once worked for a peace organization headed by a man I regard as close to sainthood. I have no saintly aspirations of my own, but when I was anywhere near John I wanted to live up to his example or, at least behave myself.

John and I met at an eco-conscious lunch spot to discuss a new project. There I drank coffee stronger than I’d ever tasted in a mug larger than I’d ever seen. Too late I remembered that caffeine gives me the jitters.

A third person joined us for the meeting. John was effusive in his praise for my accomplishments as he introduced me to this older gentleman.  Way too effusive. It’s hard to live up to such superlatives, especially while trying to keep one’s hands from caffeine-related jitters.

The men ordered soup and sandwiches. I quickly ordered the first salad listed and turned my attention back to the meeting. When my meal arrived I was alarmed. Dark, unfamiliar vegetation loomed over the plate. The leaves looked quite a bit like invasive weeds. I dug in bravely, hoping that once I’d gotten some nourishment the coffee shakes would wear off.

My tablemates had charming manners. They took small bites, wiped their mouths carefully, and added wonderful insights to the conversation only after swallowing. In the meantime I discovered the giant plants on my plate couldn’t be cut in pieces with ordinary tableware. Instead I had to bend them in half with my fork and hope that dressing didn’t dribble on the table, my clothes, or chin as I drove each bite resolutely into my mouth. To cope, I listened intently and kept my comments to a minimum.

Just as I was inserting a neatly folded plant leaf in my mouth John addressed a question to me. A serious, lengthy reply sort of question. I was in trouble. Not because I had no response. No, because the process of shoveling in a huge bent leaf took longer than a sip of soup or bite of sandwich ever could.

Worse yet, the leaf was larger than my coffee-addled brain anticipated. As it headed toward my lips it seemed to grow. Because the food was already partway in my mouth it was too late to throw the whole action in reverse. So I shoved the rest of it in, afraid that I looked like one of those mulching machines grinding a tree branch.

A conversational pause developed around the table as my lunch companions politely waited for me to answer. I hurried, hoping after a few quick chewing motions I’d be able to respond.

No such luck. As I pulled the fork out of my mouth the unexpected happened.

That hulking leaf unfolded. Like an angry vegetable on a rampage it sprung fully open and leaped to the back of my throat, instantly triggering a gag reflex.

There was nothing I could do.  Reflexes do not respect politeness nor honor the presence of a saint. My eyes widened in horror as my mouth involuntarily flung open. The entire lettuce leaf emerged at top speed from my gaping maw right onto the plate.  Gag related tears sprung to my eyes and gag related saliva hovered with great drool potential on my lower lip.

It is a testament to the training of those involved in the peace movement that my companions didn’t bolt from the table.  They didn’t even blink.

John looked at me kindly. As if his wording had caused me some discomfort, he said without a hint of irony, “Let me rephrase the question.”

Making Beauty From Bombs

melt bombs into jewelry, fund peace through gifts, cluster bombs into gifts,

Every time I hear of armed conflict taking place somewhere on this blue green planet I want it to reverse. If these intractable conflicts could somehow go back to the starting point, back to the earliest signs of difficulty, they could more easily be resolved instead of leading to destruction, refugees fleeing a ruined homeland, and death. That’s what the non-violence principle of de-escalation clearly shows.

Although our world is indeed more peaceful we humans are still learning hard lessons from the tragedy of war and military aggression.

These lessons are particularly poignant when we look at people who manage to transmute horror into beauty.  That’s the case with Project Peacebomb.

Between 1964 and 1973 the U.S. secretly bombed Laos. The equivalent of one B 52 bomb load showered on this thickly forested country every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Thirty percent of the bombs dropped did not detonate, continuing to injure and kill people today.

In 1975 a Laotian man traveled back over the mountains toward home. He collected shrapnel and melted it in an earthen kiln, then cast it in hand-sculpted molds to make spoons to earn a little money. Eventually he taught the craft to his son. Today, ten families supplement their farming income by repurposing the shrapnel that still scars their homeland.

Now the spoon makers are collaborating with sustainable development groups to make ornaments and jewelry from bombs.  Each bracelet purchased helps support artisan families while also helping to fund the clearance of unexploded ordnance fromLaos.

The simple beauty of this jewelry, creation wrought from destruction, reminds me of a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, where the novel’s character sees American bombers in WW II flying in reverse.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over Francea few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground., to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

peace ornament

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