SermonsIraqi Kurdistan

Treasure in Ferguson, Colombia, Palestine, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turtle Island

Note: I originally wrote this reflection for my blog, then adapted it for my organization’s CPTnet. I’m adapting it back again a little.

Since a St. Louis, Missouri prosecutor and Grand Jury have determined that Police Officer Darren Wilson killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown did not merit a trial, I have been busy tweeting #Ferguson on the Christian Peacemaker Team Twitter account. Those tweets have been getting a lot of retweets. We have no people working in Ferguson and I have asked myself why I am inundating the account.

I think it has to do with the disposability of human life, with the contempt shown to Michael Brown when the authorities left his body in the street for four and a half hours and did not bother interviewing key witnesses to the shooting for weeks (until there was a public outcry.) That contempt connected directly with our work in Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Palestine, with indigenous communities in North America, and with migrants in Europe. In all these cases, people in power have deemed the people we work with disposable.
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If you want to drive Colombian farmers off their land so that you can make big profits with palm oil plantations, it’s okay to assault them, to threaten to rape their nine-year old daughters, to kill their animals, to burn their homes, to use the instruments of the Colombian state illegally to evict their communities’ teachers. And of course, you can do much worse. The types of violent harassment cited above are just some issues the communities we work with have been dealing with recently.

In Iraqi-Kurdistan, our civil society partners have had to drop most of their work to focus on the some most disposable people in the world: refugees. And these refugees have included those from the Ezidi/Yazidi community, whose wives, sisters, and daughters are now in ISIS/DAESH brothels, women considered worthless except for sexual gratification.

And then there is the project CPT Europe participated in this summer, welcoming the refugees that Europe wishes would just disappear, and who, because of European policies, have drowned by the thousands in the Mediterranean, fleeing the violence in countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

In Palestine, for nineteen long years, we have watched the forces of military occupation say it is acceptable to arrest, jail and torture Palestinian men, women and children without due process, and destroy their homes if Israel wants their land for settlement expansion. It is acceptable for soldiers to shoot teargas at Palestinian children on their way to school and look on as settlers attack them.

In our work with Indigenous partners, we have watched again and again naked racism strip them of their sovereignty, strip their lands of their resources, and leave behind the toxic poisons of their industries. We have watched the Canadian government shrug as 1800 Indigenous women are reported murdered and missing.

So I think it’s all related—Mike Brown, VonDerrit Myers, Tamir Rice, Tina Fontaine, Loretta Saunders, Bella Laboucan-McLean, Marissa Alexander, Jalil Muntaqim, Leonard Peltier…People of color who lost their lives, livelihoods, and freedom because here in North America they were considered just as disposable as the people we work with in Colombia, Palestine, Lesvos, Turtle Island and Kurdistan.

The good news, of course, is that our Colombian, Indigenous, Palestinian, Kurdish, and refugee partners are revealing to the world that they are a treasure—as are the people of Ferguson. The season of Advent is upon us. Let us listen.

Good hashtags to follow #BlackLivesMatter #TheologyofFerguson #StayWokeAdvent. Good accounts: @FaithinFerguson, @BroderickGreer @MikeBrownCover. The #Ferguson hashtag has a lot of good information, but you will also find really racist tweets there.

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There are some forms of sadness more worth having than some forms of happiness.

A young mother shared in church on Sunday the pain her family was going through with their foster child at the moment: a pain coming from loneliness, frustration, anger and yes, love for this child that they welcomed into their home last year, and whom we have welcomed into our church.

It made me think of something I have found to be true in my life—that there are some forms of sadness more worth having than some forms of happiness.

Some people, Christians in particular, find this statement bizarre, or even a little offensive—as though I am romanticizing depression.  And I truly don’t mean that.  There was a time in my life when I did think depression was an essential part of my personality, because I had no memory of a time when I was not depressed.  Then I went to college, and found out what it was like to be happy.  I learned that much of my depression had its roots in external sources like family dynamics and the Findlay, OH public school system, and that I was more myself when I was not depressed.

Usually, I tell people who are alarmed by statement about sadnesses worth having that everyone who has had children has experienced pain they would never have experienced, had they not had children.  Some parents, in particular have had children who experienced illnesses or other hardships they never anticipated when they felt the drive to become parents, but the vast majority of people think that having their children were worth that pain.

But I am usually thinking about the pain absorbed by people who have chosen to take risks, for the sake of love, that most people choose not to.  Like the people at my church who chose to become foster parents (and before that, worked as volunteers with undocumented migrants), I have chosen to take risks in my life that took me to sad places.  I have worked for a human rights organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams, since 1993, that currently has projects in Palestine, Iraqi-Kurdistan, Colombia and with Indigenous communities in North America.  Often it seems that every small triumph our partner communities experience arises out innumerable setbacks, failures, and humiliations.

By choosing to write novels, I also essentially chose a life of rejection.  I think my current depression is partially rooted in the fact that all three of my previous novels came from a very deep place of inspiration, were enthusiastically received by beta readers and then…the end.  So I am struggling with the question of why I was handed these novels—almost compelled to write them—so that maybe 20 people could appreciate them.  (I’m exaggerating a little, but am at a low place.)

Women and children of At-Tuwani  in the South Hebron Hills, Palestine remove roadblock to their village

Women and children of At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills, Palestine, remove roadblock to their village

So why live this sort of life?  Why put myself by choice among people who did not have the choice to live the life they did?  Because when ordinary people choose to struggle together to change their worlds, and when the world takes notice, and begins to reach out to them and stand with them and tell other people about what they are doing to claim their human rights and their dignity; and when the systems and powers that are oppressing and robbing those people finally have to stop telling their lies about them and back off; and when you have been a small part of standing with them and telling their story…there’s a deep, tired joy in all that makes you extraordinarily glad you got involved.

And once I get to a certain point in my novel where it stops becoming work, and characters take on a life of their own, and it’s hard to stop writing—that’s an adrenaline rush like no other.

So at times like these, when I feel everyone of my fifty-two years, and all the young writers on Twitter seem to understand how to navigate the publication and agenting system so much better than I do, and the war in Gaza and the ongoing depredations of ISIS, and tawdry reality of Ferguson, MO and the LAPD and Prime Minister Harper make me dread approaching the CPT Twitter account every morning, I remember and believe:

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On Gaza, Twitter, and Despair

Note: The following post originally appeared on the Jewish Pluralist website.  I have adapted it slightly to avoid confusion.

I manage the Twitter account for my human rights organization, and lately, I find I have to take a deep breath every time I check it.  Since we have a project in Palestine, our Twitter feed follows other accounts concerned with peace and human rights in Palestine/Israel and now, it’s all about the bombing in Gaza.  We also have a project in Iraqi Kurdistan; the team there is dealing with land confiscation by oil corporations and Syrian refugees.  (Remember them?) In Colombia, corrupt authorities have used riot police to evict a community we accompany.  The Supreme Court of Canada has just ruled that Ontario could open the land of our Anishinaabe partners to industrial logging.  But right now, Gaza trumps all on Twitter.

When a friend who runs The Jewish Pluralist website asked me if I had anything to contribute regarding the war in Gaza, I told her that I just could not find the words to write about the current situation.  Part of that may be due to my having entered another cycle of depression this spring, but I think mostly, having worked in the region since 1995, I just see no light at the end of this tunnel, and no light back from where I started, and how can I write in the dark?

However an e-mail I read from Noa Baum—an Israeli woman who does a poignant and educational one-woman show about Jewish and Palestinian experiences of the 1948 and 1967 wars—got me thinking.  She writes, “As despair sees it, anyone who still hopes, who still believes in the possibility of peace, is at best naïve, or a deluded dreamer…”

She made me realize my despair is formed from different stuff.  It grows from love—love of Palestinians and Israelis I have worked with, celebrated with, grieved with.  People who were dreamers at one time and who have for decades, under craven political leadership, seen their work treated like trash.  My despair is based on the knowledge that I have almost no power to facilitate peace or human rights in the region.  I can only witness, document, and at a micro-level, provide accompaniment for individuals, families, and small communities nonviolently resisting the occupation.  Any real change is in the hands of Palestinians and Israelis working at a grassroots level, and people at the roots have been trampled until they are bloody.

I had chosen not to share graphic images of dead and mutilated childrenGazaGirlTear coming across the Twitter Feed.  But one picture this week dug its claws into me and would not let go, so after some internal debate, I did post it on our account.  It shows a little girl in profile, gray eye open in death, with a tear slipping from its corner. Jehan Alfarra (@palinoia), who tweeted the picture from Gaza wrote, “Shedding her final tear, she leaves us.”

And I think, that tear could drown the world.

But we’re still here.

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The Selfish Writer, #Pitchwars, #Pitchmas, and Yes My Novel is Not the Center of the Universe

Most people, if asked to describe me, would not choose “selfish” as one of their first adjectives.  Working for a human rights organization gives one an altruistic sheen, not always deserved, or not completely anyway.  Most human rights workers, honest ones, will readily come up with a list of less altruistic reasons they do the work they do.  They thought it sounded it like an interesting thing to do for a few years before their “real” careers began; they had friends doing the work; they like to travel;  human rights workers are hilarious and often fun to be around (it’s true!)

And then there are the human rights people who are working out “issues” that I won’t go into here.

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Hajji Hussein (with child on lap) was a political prisoner for whom CPT’s Iraqi Kurdistan team advocated. He was freed right after an Urgent Action e-mail Campaign we sent out on CPTnet. And right after #Pitchwars. Yes. Hajji Hussein’s freedom was really more important. Really.

I’m writing this entry because I’ve been really conscious over the last couple weeks of how my attention has NOT been focused on the needs of the people my organization serves, nor on the people near and dear to me.  Pretty much, all I have been able to think about is getting my novel noticed by an agent.

It all started with the #Pitchwars contest.  The premise of the contest is that “mentors”—agented authors, agents’ assistants or other people who have connections in the literary world, read the query letters and the first five pages of the novel that the authors are submitting to the contest and choose one author and two alternates to mentor.  Then they read the entire manuscript and help the author sharpen both the manuscript and query for submission to an agent.

I got a mentor interested in my submission based on our shared interest in Joss Whedon, although she was upfront about it being outside her genre, and I began obsessively following the #Pitchwars Twitterfeed to watch her and the other three agents to whom I submitted discussing the entries.  Now, I was getting ready to leave the country for another two-month assignment with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT); I needed to get my three substitute editors situated to take over CPTnet while I was gone; CPT was doing its end of the year fundraising push.  I was very conscious that my mind needed to focus on other things.

I think it was at the meeting of my church’s Pastoral Ministry committee when we were discussing the needs of people in my church that I felt the most selfish.  The other three people on the committee were discussing these needs–some of them pretty dire–and I realized I hadn’t really been giving them any thought, because I so very, very passionately want my novel–The Price We Paid, formerly Shea–to be published.  And this #Pitchwars contest had given me hope that a little mentoring might get me there.

With a little distance now, I know it was a good experience.  I am still surprised by how approachable the mentors were to unpublished authors with questions and how much time they put into their responses to the people they chose not to mentor.  I think I realized later that the contest was not for literary fiction, and hence, not the best venue for my novel.  I don’t mean that in a snobbish sense, but in the sense that the mentors who were critiquing adult fiction had a background in commercial and genre fiction.  The mentors who commented said I should look for agents who represented literary fiction.

I also got good ideas for sharpening my query.  For example, I think I’m going to have to cut out the Hosea and Gomer reference from all future queries, which hurts a little, since Hosea’s love life was the epiphany that led to the novel.  But in my last conversation with Jim Loney, who is taking over CPTnet part of the time when I’m gone, he told me he had forgotten the connection the novel had with the biblical story, and he’s one of the novel’s strongest advocates.

Right before I left, I did a 35 word pitch for the novel in #Pitchmas, knowing I’d be in Hebron when the “Winners” were announced (75 pitches get posted on a blog.  Agents pick from among the pitches.)  Usually, when I’m on assignment, the work has a way of engaging most of my attention, so I’m hoping the Twitter feed won’t take up as much of my time (our Hebron apartment has spotty internet, anyway.)

Years ago, when I got a fellowship to workshop my first novel manuscript with Lee K. Abbott, based on the first chapter I submitted, he asked if I had completed the novel.  Upon learning I had, he said the good news was that most aspiring writers never do that.  The bad news was that I would probably have to write five before I got published.  And I do have the beginnings of a fourth beginning to inkle about in my brain.

But I am not finished with The Price We Paid.  Apart from all the ignoble reasons I want it published, I believe in it; I believe it has a life and that I am supposed to advocate for that life.  I just wish I were a better promoter.

UPDATE: My Twitter Pitch ( “A” stands for “Adult”) was not chosen for the 75  “Pitchmas” pitches: “A/ Literary Dystopian Iz cheats on his wife but also helps her bring down corrupt religious regime that rules U.S. during 2065-2089 #Pitchmas”  Again, I’m not sure literary novels lend themselves to Twitter-length pitches.

 

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You won’t know where I’m going till I get there

I will soon be leaving for a field assignment with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). For those of you who don’t know me well, I work most of the year for CPT from my home in Rochester, NY, editing releases from workers staffing our projects in Iraqi Kurdistan, Colombia, North American Indigenous communities, etc.
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At least once a year, however, I spend some time in the field, so I am alerting my blog readers that I will soon be shifting my writing into a more political mode (maybe I should say “even more political.”)

Those of you who know me well know why I am not going to go into great detail here about the whens, wheres, whys and hows of my travel. I will post more of an explanation for those of you who don’t once I get to my destination. Those of you given to prayer—I would appreciate prayers for an open and loving heart should I encounter people on my journey who don’t want me to get to where I’m going.

I will have my traveling companion Markie with me, who will probably post some of his adventures on Facebook. He has encouraged to wear this lucky unicorn necklace. I am hoping it makes me look inoffensive.

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Twitter 1.5 (or so)

Haven’t blogged because, as usual, I’m entering seven months worth of bank statements into Quicken instead of having set up a time on the calendar to do it monthly. I’ve also spent about six hours in the last couple weeks with Jim Loney getting his feedback on my novel, which I wrote about in my last blog entry, and there’s been a trip to Boston and the garden, so actually, no, I don’t feel guilty about not blogging.

But I thought I’d note here that I’m getting better at Twitter, and it’s not twitter-confusion2through the account I started because sources told me it’s mandatory for authors, especially self-published authors to have one. It’s through my work with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), which, to save time, I’ll call a human rights organization.

I edit the releases that come in from our field projects in Iraqi Kurdistan, Colombia, Palestine and with Indigenous communities in North America. Our interim director, who formerly was our Outreach Director and guided our communications, suggested that I could start reposting our releases, which automatically appear on our Twitter account, with hash tags.

I was enjoying finding ways of drawing in audiences to our work that might not think to follow it. For example, a lot of environmentalists and animal rights activists are concerned about how palm oil corporations are decimating old growth forests and killing orangutans. I thought they might also be interested in how the corporation Aportes San Isidro was attacking the community of subsistence farmers, Las Pavas in Colombia, in an effort to drive them off their land, so I used the hashtags #PalmOil and #PalmOilKills for our Colombia team releases. For our work with the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick who was resisting the SWN corporation doing seismic testing on their traditional lands, I knew the #fracking hashtag would draw in the wider anti-fracking crowd and the #IdleNoMore hashtag would group the resistance of the Elsipogtog nation with a much wider Indigenous resistance movement across North America.

Then my interim director told me that a more media-savvy CPTer told him that I shouldn’t just repost titles with different hashtags; I needed to repost something a little different with each link to the team’s release. And once I knew that, it began to get fun.

For example:

#SOUTHHEBRONHILLS URGENT ACTION: Ask U.S. Secretary of State Kerry to heed Israeli jurists’ and writers’… http://dlvr.it/3lY9G7
https://twitter.com/cpt_intnl/status/363733579156557824

could become

#JohnKerry’s probably not listening to the right Israelis. Ask him to listen to these jurists: http://dlvr.it/3lY9G7

#JONESBOROUGH,TN: Activism, War, and the #MilitaryIndustrialComplex http://dlvr.it/3kWTxb #DepletedUranium #Aerojet

could become

Why are those working against #DepletedUranium in #Jonesborough TN area having tires slashed? http://dlvr.it/3kWTxb

#ALKHALILHEBRON REFLECTION: A better than usual Friday (8 August 2013) http://dlvr.it/3nkg6N

could become

“#TGIF” said no Christian Peacemaker Team member in #Hebron EVER. http://dlvr.it/3nkg6N #AlKhalil #IsraeliOccupation

When I first started on Twitter, I was told that I should put out at least four tweets a day and following each other was one way independent authors could support each other. I began to notice that my twitter feed was deluged with tweets by some of these authors, including one of my self-publishing “mentors.”

Here’s the thing. I have an eye condition that makes reading normal size fonts painful. I have to zoom everything to 300 percent on computer, so I will never follow twitter on a cellphone. And on an average page I only see about 12 tweets at a time; so if someone is touting their novel over and over, or zealously retweeting “tips” as they’ve been told to do, it really clutters up my feed.

Neil Gaiman wrote about this Twitter phenomenon in the last Poets and Writers (crude language alert):

I do it because I like it and it’s fun. And the fact that I like it and it’s fun communicates itself…People who are interested are going to sign up and stick around and follow me because I’m obviously enjoying it. If you are not enjoying it, for God’s sake don’t do it. There is nothing worse—sadder, more bleak, and more pitiful—than somebody who signs on, follows a hundred people, then sends out fifty to sixty tweets saying, “please read my book.” It’s like a sad little mouse, peeping in the corner… If you want to do it, you join. Talk to people. Talk to your friends. Talk to famous people. Talk with anybody you’d like. Twitter is completely democratic. If you’re a dick, people will notice you are a dick. If you’re nice, people will notice you’re nice. If you’re funny and smart, people will respond to the funny smartness. And if you want to get something read: Establish, be there first, and then say to people who are interested and like you, “By the way I’ve got a book coming out,” and people will go, “Oh, we’ll go and check it out then.

So I’ve started to unfollow the people who hog my feed. I tend to keep the ones who make me smile. I’m interested in literary agents of course, but I drop the ones who reject me unless their tweets make me smile.

I thought that once I started unfollowing, my follower-ship would also drop steeply, but it hasn’t. I currently stand at 318 followers. I am following 857 people/ entities. I figure that means I am a good listener—or whatever the word for tweet receptor is, tweetor? To be a good listener has a better connotation than to be a good follower, right?

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End of Sabbatical and a new writer friend

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Today is the last day of my sabbatical from Christian Peacemaker Teams, which began June 1, 2012. I ran a search on Google images for “sabbatical” and most of them involved beaches.

Mine didn’t.

I wanted to write my novel Shea, which for biblically-interested people is a retelling of the Hosea-Gomer narrative with the gender roles reversed, and a fascist theocratic government running the U.S. instead of a theocratic government that had adopted elements of Canaanite fertility religions running ancient Israel. For those not interested in the biblical aspect, it is the memoir of Islam Goldberg-Jones, written from prison, telling of how he, his wife Hoshea “Shea” Weber, their family and comrades brought down the Christian Republic that ruled the United States from 2065-2087. He also writes about how he betrayed Shea with three increasingly heartbreaking affairs (which is the parallel of Gomer having three children—although to be fair to her only one was officially by another man.) Mission accomplished.
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I wanted to get Because the Angels formatted as an E-book. Mission accomplished.
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I wanted to get a website set up. Mission accomplished.
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I learned how to use Twitter. I have NOT learned how to spend only fifteen minutes a day on Twitter.

What I didn’t get done
I wanted to help a friend who was a dissident in Iran under the Shah and Khomeini regimes write her memoir. The process turned out to be too painful for her so we had to let it go.

I did not finish filing all the papers in the boxes in the hall upstairs, but I have made good progress in throwing out things that don’t need to be filed anymore.

I still have a room full of my mother’s stuff that needs to be listed on Ebay.

I did not work on my Arabic language study AT ALL.

I did not do a retreat with my spiritual director.

So what have I learned? I’ve been on a cycle over the years where I would become overwhelmed with CPT work, get depressed because I didn’t have time to write the novel that was in me, and then had to leave CPT to do it. I need to figure out a way to take depression out of that equation. And that probably means that I need to actually assign times for CPT work, time for housework, and time for writing work. And within the CPT work, I need to assign time for filing, time for e-mail, and time for Arabic language study, or they won’t get done.

So am I happy to be going back? Not sure. I’m not great with transitions. But having spent a year saying that I do human rights work without actually having done any, it will be nice now to be saying it for real. And I will enjoy interacting with my colleagues again and following what’s going on in Iraqi Kurdistan, Colombia, Palestine, and the Indigenous communities we work with. And I’m pretty sure the idea for my next novel will come to me while I am working, as all the others have.

But oh the conference calls; I have not missed the conference calls at all, or the personality conflicts that arise because we tend to attract intensely committed people, and when you get all that intensity in the same room, well, sometimes people of goodwill can be very hard on each other.

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I’ve had the good fortune, at the end of my sabbatical, to find a writer friend with whom I can exchange manuscripts for critique. The writer’s group I wanted to get together at the beginning of the sabbatical fell through. I met Sara Selznick through She Writes, a forum for women writers—one of the sabbatical indulgences I’m afraid I will have to put aside when I start work again tomorrow. We had applied for the same fellowship and received identical, “you’re very talented and we hope you apply again, but no” rejections. After we exchanged applications, we became a two-woman writer’s critique group. You will find a description of her writing project The Color of Safety on her blog Three Kinds of Pie.

When I edit colleagues writing for CPTnet, I am doing more than one role. My main role is to make sure they provide a voice to our local partners and communicate the realities of their work effectively. But it is also my job to encourage them to become better writers. Their work in the field is the vital part of what we do. Our writer/editor relationship is a vehicle to enhance that work; the writing is not an end in itself. So I generally DO pull punches. I am not blunt about the deficits in their writing (although some of my colleagues may disagree.)

For my novel, Shea, I don’t want someone trying to tiptoe around my feelings. I need people to say, “This doesn’t work for me.”; “I don’t understand what you’re saying here.” “I hate this character.” My regular manuscript readers, who know me personally, tell me when something bothers them, but they usually will pull punches. Other writers won’t. I may choose not to change something based on a critique (one writer friend and I have what we call the Jane Austen—William Faulkner spectrum, with his taste leaning heavily toward the latter), but I want to hear it. I will consider it. And I find it liberating to dispense the critiques as well. I suppose I should check in with Sara to see whether she’s as happy with the arrangement as I have been, because I’ve been more on the dispensing end. But let me just say this: her novel is more than 200,000 words long and I was never bored.

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