The Weekly Owl

God’s Teachers
Jewish tradition teaches that in every generation the world is sustained by 36 hidden righteous people. They may look ordinary, but they’re not. No one knows who they are. When humanity makes choices that threaten to destroy the world, God says, “Because of the compassion which these 36 have shown my creatures, I too will show compassion.” And the world continues for one more generation.

I was taking my regular afternoon walk to the harbor and passed by one of my favorite places: a clump of bushes near Sam’s Chowder House restaurant. A colony of feral cats lives there. It seems that every few months there are new kittens; they look so vulnerable as they blink out at the big, busy world teaming with gophers and moles, boats, cars, dogs and people. I fall in love with them every day.

I continued walking and soon ran into a woman I’ll call Bonnie. She has short straight hair, a big smile, and is about a decade younger than I am. Bonnie’s husband died a couple of years ago, and she is still adjusting to life on her own.

“Have you fed the kitties?” I asked.

“Not yet,” she said, laughing. I walked with her over to her car. In the back of the hatchback, neatly organized in boxes, were many stacks of canned cat food, dozens of them, of several varieties. I watched as she gathered her materials for the day’s feeding: cans, paper plates, plastic spoons, plastic garbage bag.

“How are they doing?” I said.

“Two more disappeared yesterday.”

“Disappeared? Where to?”

Bonnie shrugged in exasperation. “Oh, I don’t know!” She told me she had spotted the mean lady who sometimes walks by with her two big dogs, unleashes them – watching while they run up, chase away the cats, and eat their food – and laughs.

“Amazing,” I said, shaking my head. “How could anyone want to torment these poor little creatures?”

“I know.” Bonnie sighed. For a moment we both stood in silence. What can you say?

Bonnie’s been feeding these cats every day for years. Three times a year she brings down people from the Humane Society to spay and neuter the kittens in order to try to control the feral cat population. But somehow, more always show up. And there are rumors that every once in a while a rough looking guy in a pickup truck drives up late at night, puts some cats in boxes, and no one ever sees them again. And when Bonnie comes the next day and all the cats gather for their food, looking up at her and wagging their tails, she notices who’s missing, silently mourns the loss of her kitties, and feeds the ones who are still there.

I looked out over the harbor where a flock of seagulls was flying. A few years ago those of us who live here witnessed a shocking sight: seagulls stumbling around in great distress with empty beer cans shackled around their necks. The poor birds were so tormented. When an occasional well-meaning person would approach a bird to try to rescue it, the bird, if unable to fly, would run in panic. Eventually people who care, working with organizations like WildRescue and International Bird Rescue, began showing up to rescue them. A reward was put up for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators, and the crime stopped.

Why? Who? How dangerous to be a defenseless stray kitten or seagull living close to humans. And how equally dangerous in so many places in the world today, this morning, to be a defenseless woman or child. They all become magnets, and mirrors, for the unfathomable darkness that can dwell within the human heart.

I asked Bonnie how her cats at home are doing. “Oh they’re fine,” she said, beaming. “Another one showed up today, a little orange one. How could I say no? So I took him in too!”

“How many kitties do you have?” I asked.

She laughed and shook her head. “Too many!”

I said goodbye and continued on my way. If the darkness within us is mysterious, is not the light that dwells in our hearts even more so? Where does it come from? And how many more people like Bonnie are there out there, everywhere, ordinary people, usually unnoticed by the world, acting in their own ways to make a difference, with no other motive than pure compassion? And hopefully, hopefully, teaching God to save this world of ours for one more generation.

That’s when the idea hit me: maybe on the OWL web site, we can start telling their stories.

The Weekly OWL


It rolled up the street in El Granada, lights flashing, quiet, slow, deliberate in the 3:00 AM darkness. I was there outside my house in sweats, Sperry Topsiders with no socks, and a small flashlight. I waved it and the fire engine pulled over. Three young guys in fire outfits, much more cheerful and awake than I was, jumped out.

“I told the dispatcher we have two theories,” I said, “either a big natural gas leak, or the strongest skunk we’ve ever smelled.” The guys laughed.

“Whew, this is strong!” one of them said as Wendy and I showed them around the house. Another guy was holding up a meter in various directions.

As I watched them I thought about the old, retired firefighter I had met on the subway last time I was in New York. He and his son had been 9/11 first responders. Do you remember what it was like back then, over 11 years ago? Like so many Americans that day I got the message loud and clear: no matter how big the oceans are that separate us, like it or not, we’re all connected.

“There’s no carbon in the air, so it must be a skunk,” announced the guy with the meter. His buddies, having sniffed everywhere, agreed.

“So how do I get rid of it?” I asked as I walked them back to the fire engine.

One of them laughed and shrugged. “We don’t do skunks; that’s your job!”

The next morning, after an hour and a half on the Internet and the phone, I found myself talking to a young guy I’ll call Tom, in San Francisco. He sounded very knowledgeable.

“I’ve smelled lots of skunks, but never anything this strong,” I said. “It’s still making my eyes water!”

“Yep,” said Tom, “this is a special odor, and it’s got to go a long distance.”
He proceeded to explain details about skunk behavior. “It’s their mating season. You’ve probably got a female looking for a warm, cozy place to have her litter. What you smelled is the special odor she puts out to attract males.” We made an appointment for him to come that afternoon.

I returned to my computer and scanned the day’s headlines. Everywhere you look, examples of human society coming unraveled: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Greece, Mexico, Egypt, Mali. Here in the U.S., there’s the Mexican border, there’s Puerto Rico, there’s the political gridlock that blocks any solutions to our most pressing problems. There are so many people who are slipping into poverty, while neighborhoods and whole regions of chronic despair fester and multiply.

Even the relatively peaceful and prosperous community where I live hasn’t been spared. There are still abandoned houses, like the little house with a wonderful ocean view on the corner of my block, which became a home for raccoons and rats. Recently a guy with a pickup truck has been showing up to haul away debris. Maybe someone has finally bought the place.

I get back to work, trying to ignore the skunk smell. I’m winding down 15 years of operating the HR Forums, and moving forward with One World Lights. This new change feels like stepping outside of a comfortable, gated community of mostly privileged people, and into a much bigger and much more diverse neighborhood: chaotic, unpredictable, noisy, often dangerous. Sometimes I feel scared at the audacity of what I’m undertaking. But there are so many caring, loving, strong, committed people all over the world, each doing what they can to make a difference, so many role models, so much inspiration. I push against the fear by telling myself: maybe I can make a difference too.

At 6 PM Tom showed up with his van and his assistant –I’ll call her Rebecca – and his little white dog. They were both young; she’s in her 20s. Wendy had just returned from work. We invited them in. Armed with his gas mask, floodlight, gloves and iPhone, Tom descended into the dark crawl space under the house.

When he emerged 10 minutes later, the four of us sat around the dining room table over coffee. “The good news,” Tom said, “is that I didn’t see any skunks.”

“That’s great!” I said.

“Wait,” he said, “take a look at this.” He passed around his iPhone. “Your insulation down there is completely torn up. And see those piles on the ground, everywhere? Raccoon feces.”


“Yeah! They’ve been down there for a while.” Then he showed us another picture, a dead raccoon. “What I think, is he was old and weak, and came here for a nice warm, dry place to die. There weren’t any maggots, so he’s just been there a day or two. You’re lucky. If he stayed like that a few more days, the smell would be horrible, way worse than the skunk smell, and it would take much longer to get rid of it. “

“What about the skunk?”

“It looks like she saw the dead raccoon sometime last night, got startled, sprayed a really big spray, and left.”

Wendy & I made eye contact. I can see that she’s sad about the dead raccoon. We had thought the raccoon problem was confined to the house on the corner. But here they were, also under our house the whole time. That was sobering. “That skunk alerted us to the raccoons,” Wendy said. “She did us a big favor.”

The four of us talked about the details of what would come next: cleaning up, sealing off, and deodorizing the crawl space under the house.

I was curious about these two young people, who seemed to be about the ages of my two kids. They live near SF State University, in two separate apartments. Tom has been doing rodent and small animal removal for 14 years. Rebecca just graduated from SF State with a BA in media production. What struck me as she described her college experience is how scary it had been for her to walk to classes. Students, and particularly young women, are frequently assaulted, robbed, and worse. There are campus police, but there just don’t seem to be enough. And they both said that their neighborhood has been getting worse. Violence, gangs, shootings, lots of police everywhere – it’s all become depressingly routine.

Tom’s ambition is to grow his business to the point where he can afford to move out of the neighborhood. He’d like to live in a safe, affluent community on the Peninsula. Rebecca agreed. He feels optimistic that he can do it.

“I love this work,” he said. “I understand skunks and rats and raccoons. And when I clear people’s houses, they’re really grateful. That’s satisfying.”

I thought back to my days in the ‘60s as a student at SF State. It was a time of flower-power and love-ins, of the spiritual revolution and visions of a better future. The issue of day-to-day safety never entered anyone’s mind. The difference between my student experience and Rebecca’s makes me sad. What happened? Is there an infestation of social unraveling that has now spread to this part of San Francisco, just like the raccoons from the corner house migrated to ours? If so, why, and how do we turn it around? Isn’t that what One World Lights is all about? I hope that my determination and optimism will remain as strong as Tom’s.

Wendy and I watched as Tom and Rebecca walked back out to the van. “Are you guys really just business colleagues?” I said. They looked at each other and giggled.

The Weekly OWL

OWL on VoiceAmerica Radio
OWL Global Citizen Kay Sandberg has been co-hosting a radio show this month on VoiceAmerica Internet Radio, called “Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life.” She and the show’s host Kate Ebner interview people they select as visionary leaders. Kay herself was previously featured discussing her organization Global Force for Healing.

This week it was my turn, for an hour of Kay and Kate asking me about One World Lights, and how my life led me to the vision of this community. You can hear the entire interview on their web site at:

VoiceAmerica Internet Radio

If you’d prefer to listen in shorter segments, I’ve edited the show into four parts:

VoiceAmerica Interview Part 1
My story; how I came to do the work I’m doing today: Right Livelihood Workshops, the HR Forums, One World Lights. My experience of the spiritual revolution through the House of Love & Prayer and Meeting of the Ways. The power of circles.

VoiceAmerica Interview Part 2
A moment of discovery among Silicon Valley human resource leaders when “the circle was the teacher.” The role of “inn keeper” in designing and convening circles. How that applies to OWL. Example of best practices for bringing people together in circles. Relationship with local, face-to-face OWL circles, with the global, Internet based OWL community.

VoiceAmerica Interview Part 3
Biggest challenge for me in making the transition to OWL. How we can support each other as leaders in working through these kinds of challenges. The Silicon Valley experience of seeing big things happen quickly from humble beginnings. The importance of something simple and practical at the core of a big idea. Who has inspired me. Example of a partnership between a visionary corporation and a visionary social enterprise. The OWL vision.

VoiceAmerica Interview Part 4
The OWL vision in terms of numbers. How people can get involved. What does it means to be part of the spiritual revolution? What is spirit? Starting a wisdom circle.