Lesson from Ashland

August 23, 2012
Ashland, Oregon

I see men’s judgements are
A parcel of their fortunes; and things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them.

William Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra

If Shakespeare were living in Ashland today, they’d elect him president of the Chamber of Commerce.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with its magnificent campus downtown that includes three theaters, gardens, courtyard, and an outdoor stage, is Ashland’s second largest employer. In addition there are dozens of thriving businesses – restaurants, shops and inns – that serve theatergoers. As a successful businessman himself, Shakespeare would no doubt enjoy a hearty laugh at being a lynchpin of this economy.

In our visit this year, Wendy and I have also been drawn to something else about Ashland – Lithia Park. We began with breakfast downtown, at an outdoor table near Ashland Creek, picked up a trail nearby, and wandered up into the forested hillside. In the whole experience – the combination of wild forest with gentle landscaping, trails along the brightly flowing stream, picnic benches, duck ponds, and wild deer – we can feel the artistry of John McLaren, the landscape architect of Golden Gate Park, who was commissioned to design Lithia.

We get to a lovely place of open meadows near the stream. Wendy lies on the grass in the sun; I sit at a picnic table to compose my blog. I say hi to a female police officer walking through the park, making sure that everyone’s okay.

I’m blown away by what this town of 20,000 has accomplished. What have they done right? Is there a lesson here for other communities?

As a point of comparison, I think about the town where I live, Half Moon Bay, CA. Both places were settled by Europeans in the mid-1800s and began as agricultural settlements, both cover about 6.5 square miles, both are blessed with beautiful natural environments. Ashland, population 20,000, has Southern Oregon University within its borders. Half Moon Bay, population 11,000, is close to Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, and several community colleges.

Half Moon Bay has a well-educated population with an average family income almost twice that of Ashland. Yet our amateur theater and other cultural events, and small parks, don’t come remotely close to what Ashland has. And the town is in financial trouble, downsizing everything, even eliminating the police department. (We now get police services from the county sheriff.) And the merchants on Main Street are struggling to hold on.

So what can communities like mine learn from Ashland? Sitting here at a picnic table in Lithia Park, answering this question seems beyond me. Is it about the politics, the tax structure, the local leadership? Is it about accidents of geography or history? Is it about establishing your own university? I don’t know.

Suddenly four deer show up, very close, out of nowhere. Wendy is sleeping and no other people are around. They look like a family: a mother, father, two young ones. I stay very still. They wander across the grassy field to a spot near some trees.

Wikipedia offers an interesting clue about the Shakespeare Festival and Lithia Park. They both trace their roots to the Chautauqua movement . It was an independent movement of both religious and secular people that brought culture and entertainment to people throughout rural America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Shakespeare Festival began as a facility built in 1893 to house Chautauqua events. And Lithia Park began when members of the Ladies Chautauqua Club formed the Women’s Civic Improvement Club, which petitioned the city council in 1908 for the establishment of a park in Ashland.

Maybe there’s a lesson in that. What would be the equivalent of Chautauqua today?

I set my camera on the picnic table and snap some pictures of the deer. Whatever I wind up saying on the blog, this will make a good picture.

Shalom Salaam — Part 2

August 20, 2012
Eugene, Oregon

20120822-063747.jpg

(Continued from Part 1.)

In a thick flourish of sign language, facial expressions, broad gestures, smiles, tears, occasional Arabic words and occasional strange sounding English ones, Hanin, who grew up as a deaf, religious Muslim girl in Cairo, Egypt, tells us the story of her life.

Hanin’s listeners and witnesses, besides Yitz and Shonna and Wendy and me, include two guests from Eugene, Judith and Chava. None of us can understand all the details of her story, but we all get the message. The great hardships she has had to overcome, and her enormous empathy for other deaf women in Egypt whose lives are so difficult. Her job with Egypt’s Education Ministry, focused on educating deaf children. And now, here in Eugene for this international conference, her praise for all God’s blessings, with joy, hope, gratitude, and love. Her determination to take the message of empowerment back to Egypt, and to make an even bigger difference to people there.

We all sit around the dining room table with our food contributions in the middle, spread out before us as a sumptuous feast. Earlier today, Hanin went shopping at a local natural food store for spices. She didn’t know how to describe what she wanted and couldn’t understand the labels, so what she did was, she opened up every bin and smelled them all. When she got back to Yitz and Shonna’s kitchen, she took a couple of eggplants, her newly purchased spices, and made baba ghanoush, which is sitting in a bowl on the table. We hold hands, bless the food, laugh and talk all at once, pass the dishes around. Hanin’s baba ghanoush is amazing, the best any of us have ever tasted.

As dinner progresses, the conversation between Yitz and Hanin gets too complex for either to understand the other. Not to be deterred, Yitz pulls out his laptop, fires up Google Translate, types in his question to Hanin in English, and there underneath is the same question in Arabic. Hanin laughs and claps her hands. I fire up Google Translate on my iPad with an Arabic keyboard on the screen, so she can answer. Soon we’re passing the devices around the table. Words are flying a-mile-a-minute, with everyone talking and typing at once.

Wendy has a question. She’s a nurse practioner who works in the neurology clinic at Kaiser in Hayward, California. Recently she saw a patient, a devout Muslim woman, who was suffering from severe migraine headaches. It was Ramadan. Fasting on Ramadan (or any other time) can trigger migraines, so medically it is not advised. Wendy discussed this with her patient.

“The Koran permits me to break the Ramadan fast for medical reasons,” the woman had said, “but then I will have to make it up later.”

How can this be? Wendy thought to herself. Is Islam really that harsh that it will require this woman, eventually, to suffer excruciating pain? She typed in this question onto my iPad, waited for the Arabic translation, and passed it to Hanin.

Hanin looked at the Arabic sentence, then at Wendy, then around at all of us. She set the iPad down on the table and laughed. “No, no, no!” she said, very clearly. “Allah is merciful!” In gestures and sounds, she told us the following: Allah does not want this woman to suffer. If she cannot fast on Ramadan, then what she must to is to feed the poor and hungry instead.

I honestly don’t remember if the rest of us of us broke into applause, but that was certainly the mood. Wendy’s excited. “Hanin, you’ve answered another question for me. I not only treat migraines in others; I also get them myself. For years I haven’t been able to do a complete fast on Yom Kippur, so I’ve done a juice fast, but that never feels complete. Now I know what to do.” I don’t know if Hanin understands all the words, but she smiles and reaches out to Wendy.

“It’s the same thing that Isaiah says!” says Yitz. “Is this not the fast that I have chosen?… To award your bread to the poor.”

At this point we’re all beyond words. “Maybe it’s time to say Birchat HaMazon,” I say to Yitz. The traditional thanksgiving blessing after the meal. Yitz nods and is about to start the blessing.

Suddenly Hanin reaches up, as if extending her hands to the heavens. Then she circles her arms around the table. “All one!” she says. We all do the same. All one, all one.

Yitz smiles. “Now that’s a good blessing.”

Shalom Salaam — Part 1

August 20, 2012
Eugene, Oregon

20120822-063747.jpg

The great Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman of Breslev told a story of Seven Beggars, each of whom appears to have a disability, such as blindness or deafness. It turns out that they actually see and hear much better than the rest of us.

Shonna Husbands-Hankin calls on my cell phone as Wendy and I are driving south from Portland. She and her husband Rabbi Yitzhak would like us to join them, together with some other guests, for dinner. We’ve been hoping to have the chance to spend time with them while we’re in Eugene, so we’re delighted.

“That’s wonderful!” I say. “What can we bring? Some wine?”

“We have a house guest, Hanin, a Muslim woman from Egypt, so we’re not having wine,” she says. “Can you bring something else? And by the way, she’s deaf, doesn’t understand English, and is here on a conference. I’ll explain later.”

Six hours later Wendy and I show up at their doorstep with blueberries, blackberries, radish sprouts and kale salad. We hug Yitz and Shonna. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other. Yitz is Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel here, and has long been a leader in interfaith work. He’s also a student of my teacher Reb Shlomo. Shonna is a well-known Jewish artist.

They introduce us to Hanin. She’s here on a conference sponsored by Mobility International USA . MIUSA’s mission is to empower people with disabilities to achieve their human rights through international exchange and international development. Their vision is a world in which the human rights, citizenship, contribution and potential of all people with disabilities are respected and celebrated.

Hanin is a woman of medium height, shining eyes and a radient, child-like impulsive smile, wearing a traditional Muslim head scarf. I smile and say “Salaam alaikum!” I don’t attempt to shake her hand because I assume that religious Muslim women, like their Orthodox Jewish counterparts, are not supposed to touch men. So I’m surprised when she reaches out with both hands to take mine. Then she lets go, gestures with both hands up toward heaven, and widens her gesture to include everyone in the room. I’m even more surprised when she, a deaf person who doesn’t understand English, speaks. The sound is strange, high-pitched, other worldly. The words are hard for me to distinguish. But the meaning is unmistakable. “The peace from God is for everyone.”

Hanin is one of 27 women from countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South America whom MIUSA has selected and paid for to come to Eugene. At home these women are typically from cultures where even in the best of circumstances, their freedom of movement, and freedom to make their own choices in life, are quite limited. With the added family shame of a disability, they and tens of thousands of their peers are typically kept behind closed doors, isolated from the rest of the world, silent, invisible. Here in Eugene, they are walking and wheel-chairing through the streets, riding on public buses, visiting the University and interacting with faculty and students, visiting the forests, even doing ropes courses.

As a supporter of the program, Yitz has facilitated other women to also stay with families from the temple. For Hanin and her fellow Muslim women from the Middle East, this is the first time any of them have any contact with a Jewish person. All they know about Jews is what they have been told at home. So they’ve have been blown away, to the point of being somewhat disoriented, by the kindness and warmth of their hosts. And their hosts have been blown away by the courage and idealism of these women.

(To be continued.)

Time Zones

20120818-132238.jpg

August 18, 2012
Cape Perpetua, Oregon.

We live simultaneously in parallel universes. Each has its own time zone. Sometimes shifting between them isn’t easy.

The sun is just rising. I’m trying to pack up and leave after a week of living in coastal forests, but something is pulling me back. My mind is confused. My hands are thick and clumsy as they try to take apart the tent poles. My heart is aching.

I hear the tumbling of the stream singing just beyond the trees in front of me. How come I haven’t been listening to this music? I let go of the tent and wander over to the stream. A melody without begining or end, touching on eternity. (Sound of the stream.)

The leaves of the tall trees on the bank reflect the early morning sun. Back at the camp site a big crow stands stands on a picnic table, crowing expectantly in anticipation of food scraps that will soon be his.

Biological time. No way to measure it. Body rhythms, getting food, eating it, eliminating it, sleep, wakefulness, movement, rest. Interaction of the web of life within itself and with everything that surrounds it, movements of sun and moon and stars and wind and water. Huge, subtle, fluid, beyond measurement. I taste it here in the forest. Something in me doesn’t want to leave.

I have to get in the car and drive four hours so I can be at Portland International Airport to pick up Wendy when her flight arrives. This requires a time zone shift — to commercial time. That’s where we spend most of our days, measured by our clocks and aps: airports, business, schools, government, entertainment, dinner dates — it’s how we get things done and coordinate with each other in the present state of human civilization. It’s the zone where we experience the ordinary stress, anxiety, pressure, hopes and fears in our lives.

Then there’s a third parallel universe — soul time. Infinite, boundless. Always available. I know how to get there, and so do you. For me, it’s where I go naturally when I’m in the forest.

I go back to the tent and the camping stuff and get everything packed up. Without functioning well in commercial time, I wouldn’t to be here in the forest, or have a car, or food, or a marriage, or friends. Without biological time, I’d be divorced from the web of life. Without soul time, there would be no real purpose to any of it.

I check out the clock on my iPhone and start up the car. I plan to be at the airport an hour early, plenty of time to deal with any contingencies and greet Wendy when she arrives.

Sheriff

August 16, 2012
Cape Perpetua, OR

20120816-170255.jpg

When I got back to my campsite at Cape Perpetua, Oregon last night, there was a sheriff’s car with flashing lights. The sheriff with his flashlight out was wondering around the campsite, looking at my stuff. “Who are you?” he said. I just looked at him.

An hour earlier, as I was standing high on the hillside above the Pacific, watching a glorious sunset, I got out my cellphone to call Wendy. The signal was weak and we could barely hear each other. “Are you okay?” she said. Then the signal cut out.

“Mr. Coopersmith by any chance?” the sheriff prompted. Then I understood. Wendy — who gets very nervous about me when I go off on my solo camping trips, had called out the posse!

Anyway, we sorted it out. He was very nice and said he was glad he could come over. Then he left. Wendy, I said to myself, shaking my head. Do you really have to do this?

Today I was chatting with the couple in the next campsite. They’re in their late 50s and travel by motorcycle. He’s big, overweight, and she’s tiny. Both have tatoos and dress like typical hard core bikers.They were curious about what was going on last night. Then the camp host wandered over. She was curious too. It was the evening’s big event at the campground and everyone was talking about it. Was the occupant of Tent Site #8 some kind of fugitive ax murderer? I sighed and told them the story.

The biker rolls his eyes.

“You know, he’s got a heart condition.” the biker woman confides about her husband. “And he’s not getting any younger. Sometimes when he goes off on one of his rides, I wonder if he’s okay.”

“We’ve got great law enforcement coverage here,” chimes in the camp host. “When we need ’em, they come!”

I share with all of them my story about the law enforcement vacuum in Southern Oregon. When I stayed with my friends Bob and Rochelle* down there, they told me about it. It seems that years of refusal by voters to provide the tax base needed had finally resulted in the inevitable — closing police and sheriff’s offices in rural areas. “When you dial 911, nothing happens,” I say.

The biker looks startled. “Really?” he says.

“Really,” I say. “My friends down there say local people are buying more guns to try to protect themselves.”

He stands there in his leather and chains and tatoos, his eyes open wide. “That’s scary!” he says. We all nod.

“Well, the scariest thing we have around here are crows,” says the campground host. “Big ones — not scared of anything! Watch out or they’ll get into your food.”

The biker woman, with a tatooed serpent peering out on her shoulder, looks at me again. “Isn’t it wonderful that your wife called the sheriff!” she said. “You should feel good, knowing someone’s looking out for you!”

The campground host loudly agrees. “You’re very lucky!” she says.

I think about that. Maybe this is blog material.

(* Not their real names.)

Imagine if for Five Minutes You were God

August 14, 2012
On a hillside along the Oregon Coastal Trail, overlooking the highway and ocean.

20120815-133913.jpg

Imagine if for just five minutes you could be God. You could be anywhere you want, everywhere you want, all at the same time.

You could drive any car You wanted, wherever You wanted, just by getting inside the person behind the wheel. You could leave the driving to the person and kick back and relax while the scenery of Your creation rolled by. The person, unconscious that You were there, would of course have his own agenda — passing the slow poke ahead, looking for a place to stop for lunch, wondering if they have wifi so he can catch up on his email — but none of that would be a concern of Yours. You could just enjoy the view.

At the same time, You could get inside a wildflower up on the hillside above and watch grass and tree branches dancing in the wind, sea gulls circling overhead, white-cap ocean wavelets drifting serenely toward shore, cars speeding by like scurrying ants on the highway below. You could feel Your world from inside someone who stays in the same place for 10 days, and then is gone.

If you were God, You could notice the instant, the one where the person and the flower, so different yet so connected, could see each other. (For You of course, the optics would not be a problem.) Of all the possible thrills on Your travels through creation, imagine this one: in that one instant, looking, seeing, recognizing, reuniting with, You.

A Rough Start

20120813-013000.jpg

Friday, August 10, 2012

I had the first inkling that this trip wouldn’t go as planned when I was three hours late getting started.

So I consulted Google Maps on my iPad. With the vast information it can assemble about everyplace I’m going, together with it’s GPS function, Google Maps has become my main travel tool. I rarely bring paper maps anymore. And with my car charger to keep the iPad charged, I can use it as much as I want, even when I’m on the road camping. And I’ve been looking forward to using my iPad for my favorite activity when I’m alone in nature and my thoughts are open and expansive: blogging. That way I can put my insights into words, and also be connected to others even while I’m alone.

Google Maps said I could get to Humbold Redwoods State Park by 5:30, still plenty of time to set up the tent, make dinner, build a small campfire, enjoy a nice glass of wine, and have a relaxed first evening of my long awaited vacation.

I set off on Highway 1 north along the Pacific coast in a cheerful mood. Then reality hit me. Traffic. Tons of it. Through each county heading north, bumper to bumper creep: San Mateo, San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino. This was not the light hearted, speeding getaway, with the wind in my face and open country all around, that I had imagined.

What happened? The problem was a basic epistomological error: I was thinking about myself. It was all about what I wanted to accomplish, and the information immediately in front of me about how to get there. The error? Ignoring the larger system of which I’m a part. Mid-summer, lots of families taking off on Friday for a vacation or a weekend, 50% more vehicles in California than 30 years ago and almost no new roads for them to drive on.

I sat in traffic as the hours ticked by, watching the sun get lower in the sky. Then I discovered something that gave me a brand new flash of panic: the iPad car charger was dead. After pushing and pulling it as many ways as I could while manuvering through the stop and go traffic on the freeway, I was forced to accept the inevitable. I’d have to get around with very restricted use of my main travel tool, and to defer the blogging.

As the sun kept getting lower and the traffic barely budged, I was feeling bummed. Get a life, I said to myself, none of this is life and death!

Yeah, came the answer, but this isn’t the vacation I was looking forward to.

I struggled to set up the tent in the dark. After a half hour, I had to admit defeat, take it all apart, and start all over. I was so frazzled I kicked the camp lantern and broke it. So now I had to rely on my two tiny mini-flashlights for light, which made everything much harder. The second try with the tent was worse than the first. On the third, I lucked out.

By the time I was ready to set up dinner it was 10 PM. I was the last diner at the campsite. Everyone else was either asleep, or drinking and partying.

It was Friday night, time for welcoming and honoring the Sabbath with candles, wine, and a special meal. The total point of my leaving on Friday, usually my busiest work day, was to have a Sabbath of peaceful contemplation in the forest. I felt like a total failure at this.

Still, I pushed gamely forward. I managed the wine and candles. Dinner was simpler than planned: a can of tuna. Fortunately I was able to augment it with a few things I had picked up on the way: salad greens, grape tomatoes, blueberries, and a bar of Cadburry’s dark chocolate.

The wine tasted great and so, I had to admit to myself, did everything else. The dark chocolate and cabernet went especially well together. In fact, this was one of the tastiest meals I’d had in a long time! For the first time all day, I had to laugh.

Then I looked up and saw, dimly revealed in the light of the candles and my two mini-flashlights, the tall redwoods surrounding me. In all of my angst, I had forgotten to notice. They seemed like wise, silent, ancient holy beings, welcoming me among them. What a privilege; what a blessing! It hit me how deeply I’ve been wanting to be here, to sit with them. To slip out of the stressed out, driven, judgemental, endlessly busy mind that confines me every day. To re-experience the larger self, the one I know I really am, the one that is interconnected with them and with all the other beings on this planet.

As long as we have bodies, the busy mind, which the Kabbalists call “small mind,” will pull us around through the three ring circus of desire, fear and judgement. And as long as we are the larger, interconnected self, which the Kabbalists call “great mind,” we can stop and notice what’s going on, no matter what it is, and then say, “Okay. Who do I choose to be now?”

My heart was filled with gratitude. For the first time all day, I felt at peace.

Assisted Living

20120808-215902.jpg

Sometimes we learn the most important lessons from stuff that was right in front of us the whole time. That’s how it was for me today when we moved my friend Mike out of Ruby Plaza and into the Home for Aging Parents. Okay — none of these names, nor any of the other names I’ll be mentioning, are real. That’s so I can respect everyone’s privacy. But the friendship is real, and so is what I learned.

After we got Mike moved, I was sitting at a table in the early afternoon sun, on the garden patio at the Home, eating lunch with Barbara and Tom. They live in Arizona. Barbara is Mike’s sister. When they heard last week about his rapid decline, they hopped on a plane and came out to San Francisco to get him moved.

I came today, tearing away a few hours from an impossibly busy work schedule, to help them move his stuff and hang out a bit with Mike. He stared in amazement at the small army of people who materialized at the Plaza to pack his stuff and carry it out of the room, and finally, when only he was left, to lift him onto the gurney and roll him out the door. Then at the Home another small army showed up to reverse the process and get him moved in.

Mike lay rigid on the bed staring up at the ceiling while people swarmed around him, unpacking and hanging up clothes, labeling each of his possessions and listing it on the Resident Inventory List, checking out his dietary requirements, bringing in his meds, filling out endless forms.

I leaned over him and spoke softly close to his ear. “At least here it looks like you’ll get the kind of care you need now.”

He didn’t look away from the ceiling. “Care I need now … ” he repeated. “I’m not so sure I like this.”

Out on the patio, Barbara and Tom and I sat with our lunch, reflecting on the dramatic and unexpected course of events that had brought Mike to this point. There was the day about seven months ago, when his friend Lisa came to his apartment to help him get to a routine doctors appointment, and found him lying motionless, nearly dead, on the floor. And the long series of twists and turns, adventures and misadventures, which finally landed him here in this skilled nursing facility.

Mike is 70. He spent most of his years living alone in the same San Francisco apartment. His life has been simple and modest. But his kindness and wisdom have earned him many friends, myself included, who care about him, and have been visiting him regularly since he became incapacitated. And he’s also been wise with money, building up a significant retirement investment portfolio.

Barbara and Tom told me how time consuming it’s been for them these past six months, dealing with all of his possessions and all the financial, legal and business issues. Most challenging of all has been navigating the twisted tangle of American health care where everyone involved — doctor, specialist, nursing staff, physical therapist, social worker, administrative staff, Medicare, insurance representatives — everyone seems disconnected from, and at odds with, everyone else.

Mike is unfortunate to have a debilitating and irreversible illness. It’s a terrible situation. But he’s fortunate in two ways. First, he can afford the care he needs. And second, he has the people around him.

His sister and brother-in-law have devoted countless hours to managing his situation from where they live in Arizona. And there are 50+ friends on Mike’s visitors list, seeing him regularly, monitoring his care, making sure he’s treated well by the staff, making sure that Barbara and Tom are always up to date on how he’s doing — and best of all, making sure that his mind and heart stay engaged.

We live at a time of great uncertainty about the future of health care in America. Will the Affordable Care Act survive the next election? Even if it does, will there be enough to provide the care that we’ll all need when we get older – including the majority of Americans who don’t have the financial resources that Mike does? And if not, what happens?

This brings me back to where I started: what I learned today. The family and friends who’ve come together to support Mike – in the middle of a shocking, confusing, and scary situation – have made a huge difference, not only to him, but also to each other. And regardless of Mike’s financial situation, we all would have come together anyway.

At this point in my life, I’ve been preparing to start my next project: One World Lights. I hope to bring together a global network of local leaders which will encourage people in all kinds of places – in a world of so much uncertainty, where so much seems outside of our control – to come together in their own communities to make a difference for each other.

What I learned today is that, right here among my own friends, without my having given it much thought, this vision, which I believe holds an important key to a positive future for our planet, is already happening.

Maybe it’s already happening among you and your friends too.

In the Torah, after a visionary dream, Jacob wakes up and says, “Surely God is in this place and I, I didn’t know.” (Genesis 28:16)

That’s how I feel today. It’s a good feeling.

Community Circles — Part 1

My vision is for Global Citizens to support each other, and to support people in their own communities, through Community Circles.

Community Circles as I envision them are built on the practice of people sitting together in “sacred circle,” which I believe is hard wired into the evolutionary process of all human cultures. One well known and powerful example is the council process practiced among Native American peoples. Another — one with which I am most familiar through my own background — is Torah study practiced among the Jewish people.

There are two relevant teachings in Perkei Avot / Teachings of the Ancestors, also translated as Ethics of the Fathers. It was part of the Mishna, which was based on an oral tradition dating back to roughly 500 BCE, and set down in written form in 220 CE.

“Let your house be a meeting place for people of wisdom; sit in the dust of their feet;
and drink in their words.”
Pirkei Avot, 1:4

“Who is wise?
The one who learns from every person.”
Pirkei Avot, 4:1